Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Selena: Twenty Years And Still We Grieve

1971-1995


Twenty years ago today, Selena Quintanilla Perez, better known simply as Selena, the Queen of Tejano music, was murdered by the president of her fan club over financial irregularities she discovered.  She was only 23. 

It was a terrible tragedy for Hispanics who knew her music well, myself included.  I remember a news scroll making the announcement, and I was shocked.  How could Selena be dead?  Who would kill her or want to kill her?  She never harmed anyone.  She was, by all accounts, a very nice young woman, eager to start a family and expand into the English-language market.  She was generous, appreciative of her fans, and despite her sexy wardrobe, known as a wholesome, positive role model for young girls.

Her death shocked the community, and not even Howard Stern could overpower her.  He mocked her murder and the reaction by among other things, putting the sound effect of bullets over her music.  The outrage was so great and so loud that the self-proclaimed King of All Media was forced to apologize on-air, and even did so in Spanish.  In El Paso, a local radio station had recently started carrying The Howard Stern Show at the time, with the tagline, "Howard Stern All Morning, Modern Rock All Day".

That station, or any EP station as far as I know, no longer carries Howard Stern. 

There is something that should be remembered about Selena.  She truly was 'one of us'.  Despite what most non-Hispanic Americans might think, the majority of Hispanic actors on Spanish-speaking television look more like Brad Pitt than George Lopez.  They tend to be fair-skinned with light-colored eyes; look up telenovelas soap stars like William Levy (which is his real name), Araceli Arambula, and/or Sebastian Rulli if you don't believe me.  Selena didn't fit that description and she didn't try to alter her appearance to fit some mold. 

She also was 'one of us' in that Spanish wasn't her first language.  She not only spoke English with greater fluency than she did Spanish (which she had to learn phonetically), she also disliked Mexican music in the beginning.  Her great musical idol was Donna Summer, not Vicente Fernandez (appropriate for a girl growing up in an English-dominated world during the disco era).  In that respect, she is really like many second and third-generation Hispanics who aren't as proficient in Spanish as people may think they are (or should be).

I think her death is a terrible tragedy because she really had still so much to give.  She was finally about to break through to English-language radio, with her song Dreaming of You released posthumously.  While Jennifer Lopez was certainly the greatest beneficiary of Selena's legacy (becoming a star thanks to the biopic Selena), one can only wonder what would have happened if she had lived.

Would she and J-Lo fight it out for dominance, or maybe have collaborated and done a duet?  Would J-Lo have achieved so much if she hadn't had the opportunity to play Selena onscreen (and for the record, despite being Puerto Rican, Lopez did a fantastic job as the Mexican-American Selena).  Would she have served as mentor and/or worked with someone named after her (Selena Gomez)?  Would she have pursued acting (she had a tiny part as a singer in Don Juan de Marco, but from what I understand she saw this as the first step towards a Hollywood career)?  There was so much she could have done, and her murderess took all that from her, over a paltry amount of money.

It has been twenty years.  She would have been in her early forties, perhaps with children, and a successful bilingual career, flowing easily between Spanish and English and perhaps embraced by both.  As it stands, she remains tragically young, untouched by a changing world.

Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety.

Siempre Selena...



      

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cinderella (2015): A Review


CINDERELLA (2015)

The thing about Cinderella is that it knows what it is: a pure visual confection, appealing to those who know the story best from the Disney animated feature that Cinderella freely draws from.  There's a reason for that: this Cinderella is a live-action adaptation of that Disney movie, perhaps a bit more expanded than its predecessor but an adaptation nonetheless.  I think that Cinderella, fully aware of what it is, didn't bother to be an update, a retelling, or anything other than a squarely traditional, visually sumptuous picture.  As a result, it is very good.

Ella (Lily James) has a pretty happy life.  She is loved by her mother (Hayley Atwell), who tells her to 'have courage and be kind', but Mrs. Tremaine soon dies.  Her father (Ben Chaplin), soon remarries, and the new Mrs. Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) comes, accompanied by her two daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera).  Mr. Tremaine, a wealthy merchant, goes off for business, and he too dies.  The Lady Tremaine is displeased that she is now a widow twice over, and slowly pushes Ella to be the sole servant in her own home.  Her stepsisters mock her, dubbing her Cinderella (from the cinders that cover her face).

She has no one to confide in but her mice friends and her horse.  She rides and meets someone who tells her he is Kit, an apprentice on a hunt, but who is really the Prince (Richard Madden).  Unaware of who he really is, she is the first person to treat him as a person and not as royalty.  The King (Shakespeare denier Derek Jacobi) wants his son to get married to a princess quickly, as he is dying.  The Prince wants to marry for love, but nonetheless the King orders a ball to find a bride.  The Prince, however, gets his father to invite the kingdom's nobility and aristocracy as well as foreign princesses to the ball.

As such, the Tremaine's daughters can attend, and Lady Tremaine is determined to marry one of them off to the future monarch.  That is, except for Cinderella, who is forbidden to go, royal edict or no royal edict.  Cinderella is heartbroken, but she gets unexpected help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who uses her rather ditzy style of magic to help Cinderella attend the ball. 


At the ball, Cinderella discovers that the apprentice Kit, whom she fancied, is the Prince; the poor farmer's daughter Kit (his father's nickname for him) is the same girl who has dazzled the entire Court.  However, she must flee at the stroke of midnight, in her rush leaving her glass slipper. 

Kit soon becomes King, and begins his search for his Queen.  The Lady Tremaine discovers the other glass slipper and when Cinderella rejects a deal to make her the power behind the throne, the Lady Tremaine smashes the glass slipper.  She then strikes a deal with the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard), who wants the new King to marry a true royal princess.  The King, however, will not be denied.  With his own glass slipper, he orders all the maidens to slip it on.  Obviously, it fits none, and when they arrive at the Tremaine estate, the sisters are fitted and found unfit.  Cinderella, locked in the tower, attracts the attention of the soldiers by her singing, but both the Grand Duke and Lady Tremaine push to leave.  However, one of the soldiers stops them. It is the King in disguise, who insists on having all the women try the slipper.  The shoe literally fits, and they marry (the Lady Tremaine, her daughters, and the Duke we are told, leave the kingdom, never to return). 

And they lived happily ever after, the Fairy Godmother tells us.

Again, Cinderella breaks no new ground.  It isn't attempting to update the traditional story or have a new spin on the tale.  It is determined to stick to as traditional a narrative as possible, and bless director Sir Kenneth Branagh for being firm in his vision to make this a visual feast while sticking with total tradition. 

We get all the traditional motifs of the Cinderella story: the wicked stepmother, the mean stepsisters, the charming and beautiful Prince, the sweet Cinderella.  About the only big change is making the Fairy Godmother a batty, slightly bonkers figure.  Then again, since it IS Helena Bonham Carter...

The real brilliance in Cinderella is that it knows exactly what it is: a pretty film where everyone is asked to play their roles with no real introspection.  James proves to be a pretty but simple Cinderella, all sweetness and loveliness but not much of a spine to stand up for herself or against her stepmother.  Blanchett is vamping it up as the wicked Lady Tremaine, devouring the scenery but doing it with a wicked sense of wit.  Madden is pretty as the Prince, and I don't think much is asked of him apart from that.  Bonham Carter is the comic relief, daffy, scatterbrained, with a 'bibbidy-bobbidy-boo' thrown in once or twice for good measure.

It's a sign of the professionalism within the production that Bonham Carter and Branagh, who had an affair that broke up Branagh's marriage to Emma Thompson, worked together well (he directing, she starring). 

I think that everyone pretty much understands that Cinderella is suppose to be pretty-looking, straightforward, traditional.  The highlight is the costuming, which is big, colorful, beautiful. 

I found Cinderella to be pretty, enjoyable, sumptuous, and on the whole entertaining.  Its greatest strength is its total sincerity, its complete lack of cynicism or irony.  It knows what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything else.  It's an unapologetic family film, where good triumphs over evil, where we see two pretty people fall in love, and which is a lovely confection for the eyes.

Go into Cinderella with that in mind, and you'll find it is a wish fulfilled.  Go into Cinderella in any other mood, and your heart will grow cold.         

DECISION: B-

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge: A Review




INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE

The title Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is really a pun.  The phrase 'introducing so-and-so' is used when someone is going to make their debut (and I suspect, is expected to make a big splash).  However, it also works in that Dandridge is perhaps not as well-remembered as she should be and thus, the film has to 'introduce' her to us.

In what turned out to be a curious bit of casting history, Halle Berry, who would go on to be the first African-American woman to win a Best Actress Academy Award, plays Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.   Berry herself would win an Emmy Award for her performance as Dandridge, one of five Emmy Awards Introducing Dorothy Dandridge would win out of its nine nominations.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge plays like many Hollywood biopics: a story filled with triumph, tragedy, and an untimely death.  Now add the extra layer of racism, and we get a fascinating, if not completely perfect, rendering of Dandridge's life.

The framing device is of Dorothy Dandridge engaged in a long overnight call to her friend and ex-sister-in-law Geri (Tamara Taylor).  Dorothy remembers all her life as she makes a collage of photos of that has gone before. 

There was the physical abuse and terror she faced from Auntie (LaTonya Richardson).  Auntie was the 'personal friend' of Ruby Dandridge (Loretta Devine), the mother of Dorothy and her sister Vivian (Cynda Williams).  It's not directly stated, but one guesses that Auntie and Ruby (who worked in Hollywood in primarily maid parts) were longtime partners.  Dorothy catches the eye of legendary dancer Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatunde), one half of the brilliant Nicholas Brothers dance duo.  She and Harold marry (and she enters marriage a virgin), but Auntie's violent assault to see if Dorothy really was a virgin traumatized her, making sex more a chore than a pleasure.

Harold proves to be a bad figure, as he went golfing while Dorothy waited for him at home when she went into labor.  Over Dorothy's objections, she was taken to the hospital, where she gives birth to her only child, a daughter she names Harolyn, whom they call Lynn.  Lynn is diagnosed as mentally retarded (to use the terminology of the day), who will remain mentally at four for the rest of her life.  Dorothy is devastated by the diagnosis and she tries to be with Lynn as much as possible, but work (and a divorce from Harold) make it impossible.

Dorothy catches the ear of Earl Mills (Brent Spiner), a music producer who was tricked into listening to her unofficial audition at a party.  Mills is intrigued, but Dorothy is determined to have a Hollywood career.  That career leads her to take on roles like a jungle Queen in a Tarzan movie (where her questions about logic are dismissed in favor of her showing more skin).  She agrees to hit the club circuit to raise her profile (and get some income).


She has to push against rather ugly racism, but her charm, talent, and beauty win even the most hostile of audiences.  Dorothy, however, continues to push for a film career, and a new opportunity has come up.  An all-Negro (again, the term of the day) musical based on the opera Carmen.  Carmen Jones' legendary director, Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) thinks Dandridge is too soft and lady-like to be his sultry seductress.  However, a quick wardrobe change and appearance in Preminger's office takes that idea off his head.  Even before filming begins, they become lovers, with Preminger serving as her mentor on the set and in the bedroom.

Dandridge is a sensation as Carmen Jones, and all her work gets her where she wants to go: to the Academy Awards as the first black woman to receive a Best Actress nomination.  She not only attends the ceremony (and is seated among the elite rather than the back of the room like Hattie McDaniel, the first black Academy Award winner), she gets to present an award, another barrier broken as she becomes the first black female presenter.

Obviously, she didn't win (even if she had had weak competition I doubt America would be ready for a black female Oscar winner), and worse, Preminger started giving her bad advice.  20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck (William Atherton) wants to build her up to be the first real minority sex symbol by casting her in non-black roles (an Italian, a Mexican, and an Asian) in order to build her profile.  She agrees to star in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I as Tuptim, a slave to serve as a concubine for the King of Siam.  Preminger tells her she, an Academy Award nominee, should not go back to playing slaves.  Despite Miller's frantic pleas, Dandridge reneges on her promise, damaging her career and inadvertently passing a chance to be in a successful and artistically creative project.

Her career in clubs isn't too hot either.  She still objects to being hidden away in penthouse suites, forbidden to cross the casino floor or use the backstage restroom.  She's even told that should she decide to swim in the casino's pool, it would have to be cleaned.  Dandridge will not be denied, and she dares to put her foot in the water.  As she finishes her set, she and Mills find the swimming pool has been drained and is being scrubbed, just because she put her FOOT in the water.

A short-lived marriage to hotel owner Jack Denison (D.B. Sweeney), an abusive man who bilked her out of her fortune, temporarily puts her down, as does an unhappy reunion with Preminger on the film of Porgy & Bess (Preminger having abandoned her prior) and having to give up her parental rights to Lynn due to inability to maintain her hospital bills.  Miller, however, comes to the rescue.  He gets her to get off the pills and booze and puts her up in a spa.  Here, she regains her health and gets better news: club dates and foreign-film projects are opening up.  It looks like Dorothy Dandridge is making a comeback.

Sadly, she injures herself when tripping over weights, fracturing her ankle.  We go back to the beginning, where she ends her call and hears from Mills, who is coming to pick her up for New York and a booking engagement.  She decides to bathe before leaving, but when she doesn't respond to his calls, a frantic Miller bursts in.  He finds Dorothy Dandridge dead: on the bathroom door, nude.  It is unclear exactly how she died: the investigators on the scene speculate that she may have died from a rare embolism (bits of bone that floated into her blood stream and blocked blood flow to her brain), or it was a suicide (a note previously written by Dandridge having been discovered). 

Dorothy Dandridge was only 42.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is an excellent film.  It has high production value and is an extremely well-acted production.  In regards to the former, the recreations of events like Dandridge's Oscar presentation and Carmen Jones look authentic all around.  Comparing the two you see that Introducing Dorothy Dandridge took great care in replicating the moments to where they match them remarkably well. 

Berry is simply brilliant as Dandridge, whether in channeling her anger at being mistreated by the racists or in her coquettish nature with men.  The anger and the heartbreak Dandridge has (in particular with regards to her daughter) are moving.  We celebrate Dandridge's defiance when she dips her toes in the water.  However, when we see that the casino has kept their word to clean it out, Berry doesn't speak, doesn't emote, but shows a quiet pain and reflection on what she has to endure.

Berry also has a great moment when she re-auditions for Preminger, using her feminine wiles to show she is no sweet girl, but a sultry sex goddess who could lure men to their doom.  She has to play Dandridge playing Carmen, a hard feat that Berry does well.  Berry may not be the greatest of actresses today, but when given good direction (courtesy of Martha Coolidge) and a good script (courtesy of Scott Abbott and future uber-producer Shonda Rhimes), Berry can be quite capable of giving an effective performance.

Her two primary costars, Spiner and Brandauer, are also excellent as the nervous but loyal Mills (who has carried a torch for our torch singer too lately revealed) and the arrogant but brilliant Preminger (whom we figure would not leave his wife for anyone, even Dandridge).  Coolidge uses silences to convey emotions, to let us know what is going on.  Seeing Preminger walk away while Dandridge is performing on stage says so much without having to say anything vocally.

Other characters, like Williams' hot-and-cold sister Vivian and Devine's Mother Ruby do get a bit short-changed, popping in and out with little rhyme or reason.  Sometimes certain events, like Dandridge's relationship with Lynn, do get short-shifted and are rushed.  The entire Denison marriage was done almost as an afterthought, with Sweeney being a small part of what perhaps could have been a more important role.

Still, on the whole Introducing Dorothy Dandridge did exactly that: serve as an introduction to a pioneer.  Dorothy Dandridge broke down walls for African-American women in entertainment.  She was beautiful in any hue and by any standard, and as Mills points out to her, by taking some of the degradation she is making it slightly easier for the next woman.  She took the blows so that others, like Berry, would not.  Her legacy should not be forgotten, even if it is also tainted with pills, booze, and lousy decisions (Dandridge's rejection of the role of Tuptim, a part played in the film by another minority trailblazer, Puerto Rican legend Rita Moreno, was a terrible mistake).  We feel a sense of optimism when she begins her recovery and her comeback, only to mourn when we find her in the same sad situation another screen beauty ended up in.  Like Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge was found nude when dead, her corpse left exposed while the investigators looked her over.

Dorothy Dandridge's importance in African-American history, particularly with regards to film, should not be forgotten or ignored.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge does much to keep her legacy alive. 

A well-acted, well-written, well-directed biopic (albeit a bit rushed), we are very pleased to be Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.


1922-1965


8/10

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Norma Bates Goes Clubbing


 
BATES MOTEL: THE ARCANUM CLUB

We've got creepy neighbors.  We've got orgies.  We've got yet another disappearance with Norman Bates somehow connected.

Why knew life in Oregon was so flat-out weird?  Bates Motel's newest episode, The Arcanum Club, makes the cheerful oddballs of Portlandia look like Walton's Mountain.  Compared to the loonyness of White Pine Bay, Twin Peaks looks like Newberry. 

Annika Johnson, recent Bates Motel guest, has disappeared.  Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) becomes alarmed and angry that despite the declarations of her son Norman (Freddie Highmore), he was the last person to see Annika alive.  Norma has Norman take her to the last place Annika went, but that turns out to be a false lead.  With a little help from Emma (Olivia Cooke), Norma discovers that this party girl had an invitation to a place called the Arcanum Club.  Norma attempts to go there as Annika, but she does not know the password and is told to leave.  Undaunted, she sneaks in where she gets a big surprise: in a remote cabin away from the main building, she witnesses an orgy being observed by a mysterious figure.  She is spotted though by an old friend, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who urges her to leave.  Norma wonders what Romero, who recently left the motel himself, is doing in a place like this.  He tells her he is there merely to 'press the flesh', but is not there for any tawdry business.   Norma tells him about Annika and urges him to investigate.  As she leaves, she comes across the Lee Berman Memorial Bypass, close to completion.  In a rage she drives her car to the sign and knocks it down before returning home.

Norman and Emma have gone out on their first real date, where Norman wishes he were Peter Pan and suggests Emma could be his Wendy.  Wendy and Peter, Emma reminds him, didn't have sex.  This sex talk is interesting, as Norman asks Emma if she had sex with Gunner (Keenan Tracy) and she says yes.  He asks if she feels bad afterwards, but she says she feels naughty, not guilty. 

Gunner has his own issues.  He's hooked up with Caleb (Kenny Johnson), a ne'er-do-well and the father/uncle of Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), Norma's other son.  Dylan reluctantly lets Caleb stay in the cabin where Dylan is planting the legal pot.  However, they have a creepy neighbor, Chick (Ryan Hurst), who is bound to give them trouble.  Oh, and a woman's naked corpse is found floating in the water.

Despite Bates Motel's best efforts to be fair to everyone, you can't get away from the fact that Vera Farmiga is simply the best thing on the show.  She does so much within the hour, going through all sorts of emotions.  When Norma learns through Emma that Norman did go with Annika despite Norman telling her a few minutes prior that he hadn't seen her, her face expresses so much.  There's anger veering to fury, but there's also fear and alarm, panic at what she thinks her precious son is capable of.  The range of emotions is what we see, and just for that, Farmiga deserves another shot at winning a well-deserved Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy. 

Throughout The Arcanum Club, Farmiga does so much.  She's comic when she arrives, disheveled after smashing through the sign.  She's raging in fury when she sees the embodiment of what will kill off her business.  She's almost prudish when she witnesses the goings-on of the elite.  She's tender and almost heartbroken when Romero leaves.

Speaking of, while I know there are many #Normero fans out there, I for one wouldn't be too thrilled to hook Norma and Sheriff Romero up.  After all, I want both of them to live.

The Arcanum Club has unintended moments of comedy.  Intentional or not, when Romero tells Norma that he's there "pressing the flesh", it is a bit of a double-entendre given what we've just caught a glimpse of.  In an almost innocent and slightly jealous fashion, Norma asks "Then why are you here?"  Romero replies, "I'm not here for that," referring to the orgy. 

Too bad.  Kind of wish he were.  He lives like a virtual monk, and if anyone needs a release in this town...

Earlier, Norma yells at her son, "I don't know why, but unhinged women seem drawn to you," complete with hand gestures.  Part of me wanted to say, "YOU should know, lady who wants her eighteen-year-old son still sleeping with her..." A mixture of possessiveness and genuine concern is expressed in the scene between them.  Norma is both frustrated and fearful, and finds no recourse or easy solution.  The fact that Norman thinks Annika is a 'nice girl' should be setting alarm bells like crazy.  The fact that at one point he refers to Annika in the past tense should raise more.

Highmore and Cooke are working so well on-screen as Norman and Emma.  One almost feels for Norman who is making a stab at a normal relationship (no pun intended).  We still see that for Norman, sex and violence go hand in hand, an erotic attraction being tied in to brutality.  The fact he pulled away from Emma in their kiss shows that at some level he a.) knows about his impulses and b.) genuinely cares for Emma, whom he doesn't want to harm.

The one thing that I think isn't working is the subplot with Dylan and Caleb.  This time it isn't Thieriot, who has grown on me as both an actor and a character.  We see that he really is a very kind young man who is beaten up way too much by everyone all around.  We see that Caleb is actually a better father to Gunner than he is to Dylan.  Granted, Caleb didn't rape Gunner's mother or conceive his own nephew as well, but still, I feel so much for Dylan.

It's the 'creepy neighbor' business that doesn't excite me, because I wonder where this particular story is going.  That, and the 'creepy neighbor' is a little too obviously creepy.

Another thing I wondered about was when Norma crashes the party.  How exactly did she manage to climb over the wall in an evening dress without doing anything to it?  Furthermore, weren't there any guards roaming the place to keep intruders out?

Finally, in the credits a supervising producer is listed as Steve Kornacki.  They don't mean the MSNBC host, do they? 

Minus those bits The Arcanum Club continues to showcase some simply extraordinary acting (in particular by Farmiga).  We get the sense that Annika is pretty much done for, and that no matter what Norma may want, she knows in her heart that Norman Bates is dangerous.  Let's face it, this is the third death he's been involved with in some way.  Eventually, everyone's going to have to wake up.




8/10

Next Episode: Persuasion

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Legend of Lizzie Borden: A Review


THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN

It's one of the most infamous crimes in American history: the brutal murders of Abby and Andrew Borden.  The woman accused: Lizzie Andrew Borden, spinster.

Lizzie Borden has become a byword for 'psycho', a woman whom the popular culture has convicted of murdering her father and stepmother despite being acquitted for the crimes in a court of law.  That's what we should remember: in the eyes of the law, Lizzie Borden did not kill her parents.  However, for all intents and purposes, Lizzie Borden is forever remembered as a murderess, a cold-blooded creature whose nursery rhyme is a perverse tribute. 

Borden has entered into infamy, an American figure of diabolical evil. She's been the subject of songs, plays, and even, perhaps bizarrely, a ballet (Fall River Legend, choreographed by the legendary Agnes de Mille).  No surprise that a television movie was made as well. Premiering in 1975,  The Legend of Lizzie Borden uses her tale to tell of a family in chaos, and while it presents a plausible way Borden might have done it, there's no way to prove the telefilm's theory now, nearly a hundred and twenty-five years after the infamous murders. 

The film starts by saying that this story is 'based largely on fact', and it is built on historic records, for the Borden murder case was one of the first major trials given wild publicity through various press accounts of varying credibility.  It was the sensation of the time, a true cause celebre.  Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery) welcomes a neighbor into her home with some chilling words, "Papa has been murdered.  Won't you come in?"  Whether it is shock or cool acceptance we don't know, but there is a gruesome crime scene.  The Borden patriarch, Andrew (Fritz Weaver) has been hacked to death.  There are police and a lot of nosy people milling about, but when the family maid, Bridget (Fionnula Flanagan) refuses to go upstairs, a neighbor who goes with her makes a more grisly discovery.  Abby Borden (Helen Craig) is dead too, hacked to death as she was making up the beds.  This is a double shock to everyone.

Into this chaotic scene comes Lizzie's sister Emma (Katherine Helmond).   She asks her sister one question, "Did you kill Father?"  Lizzie says, "No, I did not".  However, that's not the end of it.  In the inquest, the prosecutor Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) is quite aggressive towards the Spinster Borden.  Arrogant, bullying, and condescending, Hosea leaps on all the inconsistencies and evasions Lizzie gives.  As a result, she is found 'probably guilty' of murdering her parents, and held for trial.


The trial becomes a media sensation: Patricide Spinster Murderess!  Some, however, rally to Borden's defense, seeing this as persecution because she's a woman.  The trial soon becomes a battle between the arrogant (and rather clumsy) Knowlton and the shrewd defense attorney, former Massachusetts governor George Robinson (Don Porter).  Knowlton, thoroughly convinced that Borden is a murderess hiding behind her skirts, keeps making mistake after mistake.  He makes mistakes in how he handles the witnesses, even friendly ones.  Knowlton badgers them, bullies them, and is generally arrogant with how he treats everyone who hints at seeing things contrary to his own vision.

Robinson, for his part, is more courtly to everyone.  Moreover, he uses his wits to get at the hot-tempered and self-righteous Knowlton.  Robinson gets the medical examiner to testify that Lizzie Borden was on prescribed morphine when she appeared at the inquest (thus somewhat out of it, so out of it that she might contradict herself and not be aware of it).  He also takes advantage of a tactical mistake Knowlton made. 

In an effort to shock the jury and get them to see things his way, he shows the court Mr. Borden's skull and uses the ax found at the Borden home to prove that was the murder weapon.  This he did after the forensic examiner from Harvard kept insisting that the blood found on the weapon was animal, not human (concurring with Borden's account of her father having killed pigeons with an ax, much to her horror).  When he fits the ax into the skull, the shock causes Lizzie to faint in front of the jury.

We do learn other things during the trial, thanks to Lizzie's flashbacks, which show her struggles with Abby and Andrew over money, Abby's insistence on Andrew changing his will, and how the death of Lizzie's biological mother affected her.  In the extended sequence, just as the jury is about to rule, Lizzie has either a flashback or a vision of the murders.  We see that Lizzie killed both Abby and Andrew while nude, which made the washing off of blood easy.  Whether this was real or an expression of Lizzie's drugged fantasy the film does not establish.

Lizzie Borden, having been found not guilty, goes home in an upbeat mood.  Emma has beaten her to their home.  She looks Lizzie in the eye and says she'll ask it once more, then never mention it again.  "Did you kill Father?"  This time Lizzie does not answer, and as the camera spins round her, we learn that the sisters died nine days apart and that the Borden murder case was never solved.



The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a really good Gothic horror film where all the elements come together so splendidly.  The first and most important element I believe is Elizabeth Montgomery's performance (which earned her an Emmy Award nomination).  Going as far away from Samantha Stephens of Bewitched,  Montgomery made Lizzie into a total human being.  She made Borden sympathetic as she endured the horror of prison and accusations of murder.  She then turned it around when we saw the less sympathetic aspects of Borden: her shoplifting (something so common the local merchants always added extra to the bill, which Andrew quietly paid), her somewhat haughty demeanor to Emma.

When it comes to the actual murders, Montgomery reveals more than just her body.  She gives Borden this rage that is unleashed on both Andrew and Abby, a flinging fury that can no longer be contained.   Much has been made of the fact that Montgomery appeared nude (though this being network television, most of this is left to the imagination, perhaps a quick glimpse of nipple at the most).  That, however, should not take away from Montgomery's brilliant performance in The Legend of Lizzie Borden.  In turns whacked-out, malicious, tragic, and cold, Montgomery really reaches high in her performance.

As a side note, Hayden Rorke, better known for his work in I Dream of Jeannie, has a small part as a newspaper reporter.  Thus we are treated to a joint appearance by Samantha Stephens and Dr. Bellows. 

Helmond, best known as the vampish Mona Robison in Who's the Boss, is also excellent as the put-upon older sister.  She is the only one who is innocent in this maelstrom, a woman who loves her sister but also fears her and fears for her.   In one critical moment though, we get through William Bast's screenplay a suggestion, however slight, that Emma gave tacit approval for Lizzie to perhaps do her vile deed.  After Lizzie tells her that she'd rather see Abby dead than have the will changed, Emma quietly says she will be leaving on a short trip to a nearby town the next day.  Nothing overt, but the suggestion lies there.


This is the other brilliant aspect of The Legend of Lizzie Borden.  The screenplay leaves much to the imagination.  In fact, the entire scenario of Lizzie murdering people while nude is done in a way that never states directly whether this is how it was done or whether this is how Lizzie imagined it could have happened.  We get a lot of conjecture but nothing solid.

We also get to see the trial (which I think is accurate in terms of history), and see how in some ways, things have not changed.  The trial of Lizzie Borden reminded me so much of the trial of O.J. Simpson.  In both, the identity of the accused was used in their favor (her gender, his race).  In both, the prosecutor(s) came off as aggressive, hostile, even vindictive.  In both, the high-priced legal defense came across as more pleasant and shrewder.  In both, the prosecution badly bungled evidence it thought would make their case (with Borden, the father's skull, with Simpson, the infamous 'black glove').  In both, they were found not guilty...but have been seen as such ever since.

At one point, Hosea makes a dismissive remark to his wife when she suggests that perhaps 'hiding behind her skirt' was the only thing Borden could do.  "Next thing you know, you'll want the vote".  Apart from being a sexist pig, Knowlton continuously lets his own zeal block his case, and we see that Borden didn't so much win than Knowlton lost.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden is also enhanced by the somewhat creepy score which keeps to the Victorian Era with a tinny-piano but also includes a rather off-kilter children's choir that enhances the mood of vague unease.  The editing also enhanced the film, especially when we see the disastrous skull demonstration (billed as The Trump Card, each new segment having a distinct title) and when we 'witness' the actual murders.  The askew angles, photography, music (or in the second murder, near-total silence save for the ticking of a clock) all create a creepy weirdness that is fascinating and terrifying.

Did Lizzie Borden really "take an ax and give her mother forty whacks"?  Legally, the answer is no.  Realistically, the answer is no one can answer beyond a reasonable doubt.  The infamy of the Borden murders will forever taint Lizzie Borden's memory, innocent or guilty.  The Legend of Lizzie Borden, while nowhere near the definitive or final answer to one of the most infamous American crimes, is still a fascinating watch that still holds up nearly forty years after its broadcast thanks to some fine directing (by Paul Wendkost) and a brilliant performance by Elizabeth Montgomery, who never lets us know whether it was real or all in her mind.

1860-1927


9/10

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Spider-Man 2: A Second Look



Thanks to James the Movie Reviewer (as we lovingly call him, Our Only Reader) for the recommendation.

Ah, Spider-Man 2

Few films have left me with a contradictory, conflicting view at each viewing as Spider-Man 2.  There are some films that I love every time I watch them (Casablanca, It's A Wonderful Life, Singin' in the Rain, Citadel, Hugo, The Spectacular Now, Jane Eyre).  There are films I loath every time I see them (The Hangover Part II, Spider-Man 3, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman Returns).

Then there is Spider-Man 2.

The first time I saw it, I completely loved it.  I thought it good but not as great as Spider-Man (which I consider one of the greatest comic-book adaptations ever).  I did, however, go through an emotional roller-coaster that took me days to recover from.  It was good enough to make me super-hyped about Spider-Man 3.

The second time I saw it, I completely hated it.  Doc Ock as a good guy?  A lot of plot slamming into each other?  I wondered whether my enthusiasm for the character clouded my view of the film.

The third time I saw it for a Spider-Man retrospective, both my enthusiasm and my disdain were tempered to where I thought it a good but not great film.  That is why I gave it a barely passing grade of C+, which is good but not great. 

Now comes the fourth time I enter the second chapter of the adventures of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Would I see it as the classic I first thought it?  Would I rediscover the reasons for my antagonism?  Would I still struggle to think it worth elevating to a higher level, sink it even lower, or perhaps still remain ambivalent on it? 

Well...



What I see now, I see not with the eyes of a Spidey fan, but with the eyes of an analytical film reviewer, one who isn't going to let emotion sway his views.  With Spider-Man 2, I saw far too much comedy, particularly in the first 2/3rds of the film, that I felt took too much away and took up too much time.  It's as if Sam Raimi was just afraid to make a serious comic-book film and wanted to show how 'fun' everything is.  We started with a long and I think unfunny bit with Peter Parker attempting to deliver pizzas the distance of 42 blocks in 7 & 1/2 minutes.  I says to myself, 'that can't be done'.  I says to myself, 'him coming in through the closet at the end is stretching this out'. I says to myself, 'I'm not laughing'.   

Again and again sometimes really good moments brought down by a stab at comedy that I think took away from things.

A plot point (which kept popping in and out) was how Spider-Man kept losing his powers, almost always at the worst possible moments.  This led to two moments that I thought were wasted opportunities.  The first is when Spidey is forced to take the elevator.  The whole thing could have been cut without affecting the story.  Spider-Man could have taken the stairs.  He could have changed into Peter's clothes to avoid such an embarrassing moment.  But NOOOO.... It had to be there because we all wanted a laugh.  Maybe I laughed the first time.  I haven't since.

The second and worse moment for me was when Peter gets his confidence and some of his powers.  He leaps from the building and yells, "I'm BACK!"  I was so happy at that moment: my Spidey WAS back.  Wouldn't you know it: he comes crashing down to Earth, and ends with him clutching his back and saying, "My Back!" 

I don't know.  I guess people find this funny.  I didn't.



There were parts that I did find funny that I don't think were meant to be.  When Doc Ock takes poor Aunt May, the entire battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus had me laughing for all the wrong reasons.  One thing I didn't think worked was when we had a heavily-accented Asian woman singing the Spider-Man theme song.  Leaving apart that it wasn't funny, it struck me as almost racist; the heavily-accented Mr. Ditkovich, who listened to klezmer music (which is Jewish folk music), didn't sit well with me either.  It was dangerously close to being anti-Semitic. 

There were also other aspects besides the heavy reliance on comedy that made me cold towards Spider-Man 2.  Raimi, maker of The Evil Dead films (the first I think involving a tree raping a woman if memory serves correct), I think went back to his roots when Doc Ock first unleashed his fury on the medical team operating on him.  I thought the whole thing looked like a horror film.  I was surprised a bit at how Raimi used the trappings of a horror film in a film geared towards comic-book fans (some of whom are children).

My view is that Spider-Man 2 was so sprawling that it seemed to grow for no real reason.  I disliked how heavy-handed the movie was with the Mary Jane/Peter relationship (not to mention the fiancée that served no real purpose apart from giving a conflict that I didn't think was there).  I disliked Danny Elfman's score, which was also heavy-handed (did we really need a big choir when Otto Octavius' machine first appears?  It's not like we don't get that it's dangerous).  I found Kirsten Dunst a bit weak and pathetic.  I found James Franco a bit whiny and not good at all (I think he wasn't acting so much as just reciting the words with little conviction).  I disliked that the conflict within Peter Parker was so drawn-out. 

As for Octavius, I agree with my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead): turning him into a sympathetic character wasn't a good idea.  Granted, I appreciate that Spider-Man 2 was going for something different, but I think there could have been a better way to show that he wasn't in control of himself.  Sometimes he was oh so evil.  Sometimes he was oh so nice. 


It wasn't until Octavius and Harry join forces that I felt the film picked up, and from that point onwards I was interested.  Up to then, only the scene where Peter confesses to Aunt May about how Uncle Ben died was a standout.  In that scene, I did feel emotion, I did see Rosemary Harris and Tobey Maguire act and Sam Raimi direct.   Once we got to when we had a real antagonist and a real protagonist then we got a movie.  Before that, it was a long stretch.

As a side note, how exactly did Peter talk Harry into letting him go?  A simple punch would have been enough, but Spider-Man 2 never answered how, after capturing Spider-Man, Harry Osborn didn't do anything with him?

Once we had the battle on the elevated train, we had a movie that picked up steam (no pun intended). From that point onwards, I actually cared about what was happening.  The movie actually came alive.  However, almost everything prior to that felt long, tired, unfunny, and boring.

Now that I've seen Spider-Man 2 for the fourth time, I can say that yes, it is better than either Amazing Spider-Man film (and I'm not sad to see Andrew Garfield go, though I still hold out hope that Dylan O'Brien, and not Logan Lerman, will be the new Spidey, not another British guy).  I think Spider-Man 2 is not in the same league as Spider-Man, but is infinitely better than Spider-Man 3

However, I also think Spider-Man 2 is too long, too reliant on comedy, and doesn't pick up until the last third of the movie.  If it weren't for that, the film would have failed completely.  It's lucky I thought the last third was good, otherwise, I would have been one of the few negative reviews.

As a result, I see no reason to alter my original score.

Sorry, Pete.  My Spidey-sense says you're barely OK.



ORIGINAL DECISION: C+

REEVALUATED DECISION: C+

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Seventh Son: A Review


SEVENTH SON

It's interesting that when Seventh Son arrives on DVD, it can quite rationally mention that it has two Academy Award winners (Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore).  As we all know, even Academy Award winners have to eat, because there really is nothing to show that Seventh Son is worth their talents, let along even the extras who were in this monster of a disaster.  In turns boring and stupid, Seventh Son might now be the nadir of young adult fantasy adaptations, making something like Twilight or Beautiful Creatures read like Jane Eyre or Gone With the Wind.

Come to think of it, if the film is like the original source material, who was dumb enough to publish Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice (the first in a series from which Seventh Son is based on).  I can see why the original title didn't work for all sorts of reasons, but Seventh Son isn't the most original title either.  If only the title to this piece of sleep-inducing crap were the least of Seventh Son's problems...

Master Gregory (Bridges), a warrior against the supernatural, has trapped the malevolent Queen of the Witches, Mother Malkin (Moore).  He thinks its for time and eternity, but of course not.  She escapes and makes quick use of both Master Gregory and his apprentice, Billy (Kit Harington, who decided he needed more dragons outside Game of Thrones).  With Billy dead at her hands, Master Gregory needs a new apprentice, and it can't be any old boy.  He needs the seventh son of the seventh son.  After short order, he finds one in Thomas Ward (TBA), who has strange visions that leave him temporarily unconscious.  His mother, Mam (Olivia Williams) gives him an amulet that will protect him, and with not much work Master Gregory and Thomas go for him to be trained.

As things go, Thomas has only a week to master what it took Billy ten years to, because the Blood Egg, a once-in-a-century event, is happening soon.  When the Blood Egg is full, Mother Malkin will be able to take control with help from her minions.  Among those are her sister, Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue), and Lizzie's daughter, Alice (Alicia Vikander).  Alice is a bit like Hermione Granger (half-witch, half-human), and while she is sent to spy on Tom and Gregory, Tom rescues her from being burned as a witch.

They also fall in love.

In any case, it's now a race to defeat Mother Malkin (whom we discover had a romance with Master Gregory but who killed his wife in anger) and Alice constantly changing sides.  Thomas is able to rise to the challenge, sort-of kill the Witch Queen (who promises to come back and haunt them) and has to stay put in a cave while Master Gregory goes off somewhere.

In between fighting my own battle to stay awake and trying to figure out why everyone involved made the decisions they made I realized that nothing, but nothing could have saved Seventh Son.  Everything about it is so wrong, so dumb, so bizarre, so incompetent, that not even someone like pre-Hobbit Peter Jackson could have put this into anything coherent, let alone worthy of our time. 

Let's start with the performances, the most obvious place to start.  As I kept watching Seventh Son (despite the film's determination to put me to sleep), I kept wondering about Thomas.  He looked familiar but at the same time looked like someone I hadn't seen before, some unknown having the misfortune of trying to break out with the broken-down franchise starter.  Once we got to the credits, I finally figured out what I had been missing.

Thomas Ward is played by Ben Barnes. 

Barnes seems absolutely determined to prove critics right: he's nothing but an extremely pretty and youthful-looking face with absolutely no business attempting to pass himself off as an actor.  It's sometimes hard to say whether Barnes or Channing Tatum is the less talented of people who use their looks to get movie roles.  At least Channing Tatum has ONE discernable talent: taking his clothes off.

Barnes, as far as I know, doesn't know how to take his clothes off.  He certainly doesn't know how to act.  Ben Barnes has managed to shut down not one but TWO fantasy franchises (Delaney's The Wardstone Chronicles and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia...wow, TWO Chronicles Barnes has killed off).  

I might walk back that last statement about Barnes having no discernable talent.  He does have one.  He can convincingly look like a seventeen-year-old despite being 33.  Granted, he can't convincingly look or sound Latino (like when he tried in The Big Wedding), but he still looks like a man half his age.  More power to him in this department, but apart from that Ben Barnes keeps building a case against him as a legitimate thespian with every film he's in.

Then we have Jeff Bridges.  Jeff Bridges, who has let his Oscar all but wreck his career.  He seems absolutely determined to mumble his way through every post-Crazy Heart project.  With the exception of True Grit (where he did mumble, but at least he had the excuse he was playing drunk), Bridges hasn't made a good movie since (TRON:Legacy, R.I.P.D., and now this).  Seventh Son is the worst of Bridges: mumbling, apparently unaware of anything going on around him, and to top it off, speaking in a bizarre pseudo-British accent that never settled on what it was suppose to sound like.  Even that wasn't as bad as the fact that he looked like he couldn't move his chin, which made his dialogue at time unintelligible.  Seriously, I didn't understand what he was saying to where I thought subtitles would have helped.

Come to me, Oscar...

Finally, there's Moore.  I think she was about the only one that got the idea that Seventh Son wasn't just beneath her talents, it was beneath her as a human being.  Barnes tried to act (always a bad choice for him), Bridges couldn't decide whether the material was serious or not (thus whether he was in on the joke or not is still in doubt), but Moore decided that she was just not going to take any of it seriously.  She was just there to make some money (and I'm sure underpaid as well), so she just went along with things and decided it really wasn't worth trying,

As far as the others, from a 'why is he here?' Djimon Hounsou to a perpetually sad Harrington (oh Kit, you always look sad...be it here, in Pompeii, or Game of Thrones.  Why is thou so troubled?), everyone looked pretty much embarrassed to be here.

The performances were a contributing factor, but not the only one.  Charles Leavitt and Stephen Knight's screenplay (with screen story by Matt Greenberg) was such a rushed and chaotic affair.  We kind of just raced through things, never stopping to establish why anyone did anything or worked towards anything.  Worse, at times it was repetitive (twice Master Gregory and Thomas raced to the edge of a cliff) and jumbled (we clearly see a raft at the bottom of the first cliff, and when they manage to jump and get to it, the poor boatsman just watches before promptly being thrown off by the monster chasing after them, never to be heard or seen from again). 

It's not as if the three don't have talent.  Maybe there were too many cooks, or maybe they were under so much pressure to build a franchise they failed to put anything that would make it worth our while to watch more Seventh Son films (which I think is pretty much a dead idea). 

Helming all this is Russian director Sergei Bodrov, making his English-language debut.  Whether something was lost in translation I don't know.  I do know that this is beneath the talents of the cast (save Barnes, who shows little to no actual talent), or the crew (amazing how legendary art director and three-time Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti and two-time Oscar winning special effects master John Dykstra could fail so spectacularly). 

Seventh Son should not be seen by those who love the Last Apprentice series (which I now recognize).   It shouldn't be seen by those interested in the Last Apprentice series. It should not be seen by anyone really.

Ben Barnes, you have so much to answer for...



DECISION: F

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Bollywood and Tollywood Recommendations: A Fifth Anniversary Retrospective



Thanks to Ram Aditya G., Rick's Café Texan's only Indian reader, for the suggestions.

Well, since we are in March and in Spring Break, I've decided to tackle some unfinished business too long delayed.

Almost six months ago I was asked to look over what I was told were better examples of Bollywood and Tollywood musical numbers.  School pushed these things aside, but a nagging sense of good old Protestant guilt got me to take a little break during this my last school break to do so.

Now, out of the three suggestions for a Bollywood number by composer Sneha Khanwalkar, only one allowed me to actually listen to it without doing a YouTube search for Khanwalkar.  The message was they were not available in my country.  That was Superchor (Jugni Hasdi Ve Hasdi).  I thought it was an interesting song, and certainly contemporary as I heard a little rap mixed in.  Unfortunately, there were no visuals to accompany it, so a lot was lost in translation.

For a non-Indian like me, the visuals sometimes help figure out what is going on.  Granted, some numbers, like Tu Meri from Bang Bang (which I did see but haven't reviewed) might not really explain anything, but at least I knew what came before so I wasn't completely lost. 

In any case, I did a bit of searching for Khanawalkar, and I hope I got it right.  The few songs I heard, such as Kaala Rey from Gangs of Wasseypur, seem more avant-garde than I would think would go in a traditional Bollywood film.  I was taught that Bollywood films were more traditional, more conservative, and certainly Kaala Rey is neither.  It feels contemporary, not pop but close to experimental in the song. 

Not that I Can't Hold It Any Longer from what was described as the 'cult Bollywood film' Love Sex Aur Dhoka made things any more family-friendly.  While it takes place at a bachelor party, and remarkably tame for what I imagine a bachelor party to be (given my limited experiences with them, as they were all with very Christian men), I can't imagine this song would find its way to a more standard Bollywood production.  Another little song from Love Sex Aur Dhoka, (it lasts about a minute, which in itself is flouting convention), Mohabbat Bollywood Style, seems to almost ridicule the conventions, mocking just how grandiose the musical numbers can be.



The last song I heard, Tanki Hai Hum from Hard Kaur, seems to be almost a celebration of hedonism, boozing it up to your heart's fill.  It's surprising that this would fall within the confines of my idea of Bollywood as being more wholesome and dare I say, virginal.  They're not bad songs by any stretch, but a bit surprising to my little old Western mind.  They seem to push the envelope and are more adventurous than something like Tu Meri.  I can't imagine Krissh singing about downing Bacardi and tequila. 

The other links worked a little better.  The Tollywood composer Devi Sri Prasad's first number, Thakadimithom from Aarya, was upbeat and if not lavish at least energetic (which I think is more Tollywood than Bollywood).  I can't explain it precisely: as if Tollywood numbers don't have to be so gigantic and splashy than their Mumbai counterparts. 

Compare Aamchi Mumbai from The Businessman to God Allah Aur Bhagwan from Krrish 3.  The latter is big, colorful, extravagant.  The former is not colorful, relying instead on smaller number of dancers, all in sync, complimenting the main performer.  As God Allah Aur Bhagwan is bright and positive, Aamchi Mumbai is rather dark and cynical.  Bollywood numbers are big, brassy, bold.  Tollywood numbers are smaller, with a fondness for having the viewer look through things, where smaller choreography is better than the large-scale number of dancers a Bollywood number would ask for.   

The second link, a jukebox collection of numbers from Julayi, appears to confirm some of my ideas.  Here, we see that the numbers are not gigantic, and they have a strong sense of place.  They don't flit off into fantasy worlds (mostly).  Rather, they take place on the street or in working-class settings.  They don't go for big.

I also noticed that costuming is not a big deal in Tollywood films.  Most of the time, the leads wear regular, almost street clothes, the type one would see kids wearing at malls.  They don't have a big lavish colorful style in the wardrobe (most of the time, for I'm sure on occasion they do break out something lavish).  For the most part, however, there seems to be an everyday quality to the clothes worn in Tollywood production numbers. 

I liked the Devi Sri Prasad numbers, and I think I'm getting a sense of Tollywood songs.  He doesn't push convention like Khanwalkar, though he certainly does put a contemporary, harder, rock/techno stamp on it. 

With that, I thank Ram for his suggestions.  I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and look forward to seeing more Bollywood/Tollywood films, if and when the come to the EP.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Curling Up With a Good Bates



 
BATES MOTEL: A DEATH IN
THE FAMILY

We are back to the happy hijinks of our favorite future serial killer.   A Death in the Family, Bates Motel's opening episode, ramps up the freak factor between Norma Bates and her little boy Norman, while giving us slow bits of the even stranger relationship between Norma's son/nephew Dylan and Dylan's father/uncle, Caleb.

There's something to be said about a family dynamic even weirder than Norma and Norman Bates.

Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot) has left the drug trade, and apparently wants a peaceful life raising legal marijuana.  He also wants his younger half-brother Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) to be on his own.  That includes not sleeping with their mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga).  Dylan is disturbed to find the two of them sharing a bed, especially since Norman is eighteen years old.   Norma has her own set of problems.  She's just learned that her mother, Francine Calhoun, has died.  For all she cares, Norma wants nothing to do with her late mother.

Norma also probably wouldn't want anything to do with her brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson), who is also Dylan's father.  Caleb appears to want a connection with Dylan, and he does finally admit that he knows he's Dylan's dad, but for some reason Dylan doesn't want anything to do with Caleb, constantly pushing him to leave. 

Norma's other son is also causing difficulties.  He doesn't want to go back to school (something to do with the much-missed and very luscious Miss Watson).  It gets to the point where Norma has to physically force Norman out of the car in front of the school.  Things don't get easier when Miss Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy) appears to him, still sweet, and still as luscious as ever...despite that gash in her throat that's bleeding all over Normie.  He flees, and Norma decides that the best thing for him is to stay home and be homeschooled.  She also promotes him to hotel manager and gives what I would call mixed signals.  One night, she tells him he should sleep in his own bed (which makes him mad).  The next night, after she tells both her sons about her mother, she asks Norman to make an exception and keep her company (which makes him happy).

Of Course, this doesn't make him as happy as when he spies on hotel guest Annika (Tracey Spiridakos) taking a shower.  It was all accidental, but it doesn't make it any less erotic for our local boy.  For once Norma is rational, telling him that kind of thing isn't normal...not like, sleeping with your mother is, but why split hairs?  His conflict between desire for this hooker (she all but says she is) and the eternally long-suffering Emma (Olivia Cooke) is very difficult.  Norman finally says he and Emma should date (Nemma Fans Rejoice).  However, as soon as some hot number walks his way, Norman is happy to go with the Happy Hooker, leaving Emma alone. 

Geez, Norman, you're such an idiot...apart from that whole serial killer thing.

Emma leaves sad...again, and Norman comes back, with an odd look on his face, driving Annika's car...without her in it.

If there is anything that keeps Bates Motel from going all bonkers, it's Farmiga.  Again and again I see why Bates Motel is a wonderful prequel to Psycho (and not just the nods to the film).  Farmiga's performance in A Death in the Family is exactly like all her other performances in all three seasons of Bates Motel.

BRILLIANT.  SIMPLY BRILLIANT.

How every episode she makes Norma both sympathetic and monstrous (sometimes simultaneously) is an acting feat that still leaves one breathless.  Farmiga shows the genuine frustration she has at her sometimes strong-willed son (truth be told, I would have done exactly as she did and dragged my son out of the car if he kept refusing to).  When she asks Norman to get out of bed, you can see she is almost reluctant to do so, but aware that perhaps Dylan is right.  Once she gets us on her side, she pulls it out from under us by basically manipulating her son to meet her needs of keeping her company. 

We see the conflicted, complex, contradictory figure of Mother Bates when she gets Norman to stay with her and when she talks to Dylan about her mother's blue ribbon, the only memory she has of her mother being happy.  There's a genuine sadness mixed with regret that makes Farmiga's Norma Bates not the image we had of her pre-Psycho, as this controlling harpy.  Instead, her Norma Bates is a woman who truly wants good but who also is unaware of how selfish she can be, how damaging she is in her deep, possessive love for her namesake son.  She understands that spying on beautiful naked girls is wrong, but she also genuinely doesn't get why anyone would think her sharing her bed with her nearly twenty-year-old son would be so odd.

She is, unwittingly, creating a world where they are the only ones in it, and this can only bring tragedy for everyone concerned.  It's almost heartbreaking to watch a good woman doing bad things without meaning to.  It's also why Farmiga should basically win the Best Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy (apologies to Claire Danes, but I think Farmiga plays crazy a lot better than you).

As Norman Bates, a good kid slipping into dual identities, Highmore still does wonderful and sadly, overlooked work.  He see him take stabs at normalcy (no pun intended) but also see that his compulsion and illusions are slowly taking over and that almost nothing can stop them now. 

For me, the real revelation is Thieriot.  I had always thought Dylan to be the weak link in the series, and while I don't see that now I also see that he too is a tragic figure.  Thieriot brings a quiet sadness, a genuine despair, into his role.  Dylan finally wants something good, something simple, only to find his parents/uncle and aunt (the same here) screwing it up time and again.  I for one feel for Dylan Massett, who is desperate to stay afloat when so many waves not of his making keep swallowing him up whole.

We also got a nice subplot with Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero (he of the still amazing and breathtaking eyelashes).  He wants to keep the peace, even if it means going against all White Pine Bay and the illicit drug trade he's been keeping a wary eye on.  He is no wimp though, as two toughs found out the very hard way.  Carbonell is the Quiet Man, reflective, but also tough when needed.

If I find any fault in A Death in the Family, it is how poor Emma keeps getting the short end of the stick.  Keenan Tracey is back as Gunner, the pot-runner who deflowered Emma and whom I think is a better fit for her than the pretty-but-bonkers Norman.  Is she aware (or going to be aware) that Gunner's back?  I hope so, because she deserves so much better. 

A Death in the Family is a strong way to start Bates Motel's third season.  It gives us a mystery that may be the running thread for the season.  It gives us strong performances from the whole cast.  It gives us nods to the original (who didn't think the shower scene was both naked foreshadowing and well-placed?).  In short, we get a dark entrance into a world of danger, death, and obsession.

Good Family Fun.  At least Bates Family-style.

"Sex is sex," Annika tells an aroused Norman.  "We all need it".  That's right, Annika.  We all need sex, just like we all need breathing...


I'm sorry, Miss Watson...

8/10

Next Episode: The Arcanum Club

The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice Review



THE LIBRARIAN: CURSE OF
THE JUDAS CHALICE

In the third and final of The Librarian television films, I think we get probably the best Librarian movie yet.  By now everyone involved knows we have a fantastic/fantastical premise, where magic is real.  We also know the characters, which allow the actors to be broad or serious when necessary.  Curse of the Judas Chalice has a threat and a twist that is kind of expected, but it knows what it is: a good time, so one can't be too harsh on it.

Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) has been the Librarian, collector/keeper of magical objects of legend, for some time now, and a successful one at that.  His most recent acquisition is the Philosopher's Stone (take THAT, J.K. Rowling).  Of course, Flynn being Flynn, there were a couple of hiccups. First, he has to outbid a rival for the Ming-era vase that hides the Stone to the tune of a million pounds, which horrifies the ever-tightfisted Charlene (Jane Curtin).  Second, it costs Flynn his latest girlfriend, whom he had taken with him to London for a romantic holiday but whose Library duties get in the way. 

Back at the Library, Flynn has reached the end of his rope. He's missed his mother's 65th birthday, he has no private life, the work keeps growing (and not just because in the newly-discovered Large Collection Annex, which Flynn was not aware of that has such things as Noah's Ark and the Fountain of Youth), and his best friend is a SWORD! (Poor Excalibur).  At age 33, he is close to losing it.  Charlene and Senior Librarian Judson (Bob Newhart) tell him that Flynn might use up some vacation time.


Flynn's idea of a vacation is to stay home, but Charlene offers some advise: to have a vision and follow the dream. He then has a dream and vision of a beautiful woman beckoning him for help, and a stature of a soldier.  When he wakes and looks at the brochures of vacations, he sees his vision, and its off to let the good times roll in New Orleans.

When he arrives, he finds help from Andrew (Werner Richmond), a cabbie who knows all there is about the Big Easy (and who has many cousins in all sorts of businesses).  Andrew doesn't get why anyone, even one as wildly dressed as Flynn, would want to go to museums when in N'awlins, but he isn't going to worry about Mr. Professor Man's curious habits.

In a bar, he sees his vision come to life: a beautiful chanteuse whom Flynn tries to hit up.  She soon sweeps him into her world, and we learn that Simone (Stana Katic) is not a mere damsel in distress.  She has been guarding a key that in turn will lead them to the Judas Chalice, the cup made from the thirty pieces of silver paid to the first vampire, Judas Iscariot (go with me on this).  This cup can revive a long-sleeping vampire, and what better vampire than Dracula?

This is where we get the second story tied in: a Russian strongman wants to raise both Vlad the Impaler and the undead into an army that will RULE THE WORLD (Putin really is determined, isn't he?) and now Flynn, perhaps wittingly, perhaps not, must get the chalice first.  He must also deal with Simone, whom he has fallen in love with.  This relationship has a bit of a hang-up, as Simone herself is a vampire and wants revenge on the one who turned her.  Flynn must also try to rescue Professor Lazlo (Bruce Davison), whom the Russians are using as their reluctant guide.

That's a lot for him.  With a little help from both Simone, as well as Andrew and all his cousins (who curiously, are Asian and white), he does so, even if it means fighting the real Count Dracula (who could that be now...) and the loss of another love.  With the Judas Chalice now firmly in the Library's collection, and with Judson's past still a bit foggy, Flynn now embraces his work, but Judson tells him that Flynn and the Library will play a larger role in fighting evil...

Curiously, this last bit of foreshadowing is a long way coming, as Curse of the Judas Chalice premiered in 2008.  That means there is a six-year gap between this prophesy and the debut of The Librarians television show.  I couldn't tell you if in that interim there were plans being developed for the series, or perhaps a fourth movie, or just some vague opening for more adventures.  I can say that at least this allows a tie-in to The Librarians series without being forcing things too much.

Curse of the Judas Chalice follows The Librarian pattern well, and that's a positive thing here.  It does play with the convention a bit by not having Flynn go on a deliberate task but by having an effort to make it more accidental (though again, given Simone used her powers to visit the Librarian in a dream and Judson knowing more than he lets on suggests Flynn is being manipulated into the situation rather than it being mere happenstance).  However, Curse of the Judas Chalice knows itself well enough to live up to the New Orleans unofficial motto of Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez

Here is the key to both The Librarian movies and The Librarians television show: you mustn't take it seriously.  The franchise certainly doesn't, and we see this best captured when Flynn arrives in the Big Easy.  While other tourists come in sensible clothing, Flynn arrives in a bright white suit, red bow tie, and white Panama hat.  Wyle's still-youthful and expressive face (along with his wild but still appealing ensemble...I certainly would love to wear that) along with his great physical comedy reflect Flynn Carsen to be both a man and a boy simultaneously.  Flynn in his way is very innocent, despite being highly intelligent.  Simone at one point compliments him for giving the appearance of a hapless loser, unaware that he really is like that.

If something sells The Librarian movies, it's Wyle, who makes Flynn likeable and endearing and believable as a meek man of action.  Wyle lets Flynn be comic even in his frustration, but whether fighting a rival in a swordfight (and spouting techniques, reprimanding his opponent for damaging artwork, or being the instrument of damage himself), or facing off against Russian thugs, Wyle makes even the most outlandish things plausible.  It's a credit to him that he is able to bring the gentle humor in all things.

Katic is excellent as both the femme fatale and the damsel in distress.  Even when fighting off her vampire instincts, Katic is sympathetic (and yes, beautiful).  When she has her final scene, asking Flynn to stay with her while she watches a sunrise for the first time in centuries, there is a genuine sadness in the situation.  She has defeated Dracula (who turned her into a vampire), and is at peace.  Despite her love for Flynn, she knows her time has come to an end. 

Richmond I hope makes some kind of return appearance because he was a highlight of the comedy, his easy rapport with Wyle making for a great double-act.  The script was wonderful whenever we find another one of his cousins, fully aware that Cousin Earl being Asian or Cousin Horace being white was not at all curious to say the least. 

Newhart is an American treasure, and his Judson has a new level of mystery.  Could he be the mythical Yahuda, the first Librarian who fought in the Crusades?  Judson tells Flynn the idea that he is over a thousand years old is 'a little insulting', but given the extent of his powers (he can appear to Flynn in almost any shape and apparently able to teleport freely) does make things curious.  Curtin too is delightful in her horror at having to spend way too much on a Ming vase, but she is allowed to show a little vulnerability when she visits Flynn to advise a real vacation. 

There were probably a few things Curse of the Judas Chalice might have done slightly better.  The idea that Professor Lazlo wasn't who he said he was I think was pretty obvious from the get-go.   The entire 'Russians want to take over the world' plotline I think was dropped a bit early on.  Finally, we keep playing fast and loose with continuity.  In Curse of the Judas Chalice, Flynn states he's 33.  It's possible given that in Return to King Solomon's Mines he had celebrated his 32nd birthday, but I still argue he should have been closer to Wyle's real age of 37 at the time COTJC premiered.

However, on the whole the entire Librarian franchise is meant to be a mix of action/adventure, fantasy, and comedy.  We can see this when we see Flynn's vision: as Simone beckons him, he is in bed...wearing a nightcap and nightshirt.   At one point one of the Russian thugs says, "How you going to think your way out of this, book boy?"

NEVER underestimate a Librarian...

         

8/10

Next Librarian Story: And the Crown of King Arthur/Sword in the Stone

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beauty and the Beast (1991): A Review


 
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

I remember Beauty and the Beast when it first came out.   It was at a critical time in animation, and in the fortunes of the Walt Disney Studios.  The vaunted Disney Renaissance was a hit-and-miss affair at this point.  The Little Mermaid was an unqualified success artistically and commercially, but the follow-up, The Rescuers Down Under, wasn't.  Beauty and the Beast would be make-or-break: would Disney really have a rebirth in its fortunes or was The Little Mermaid just a lucky break? 

The tales of the death of Disney as an animation force to be reckoned with were greatly exaggerated.  Beauty and the Beast is one of the highlights of animation, a beautiful and tender story that still has the power to move the viewer emotionally, with a brilliant score and songs that not only hold up after over two decades but still have extraordinary elegance, charm, humor, wit, and grace.

A long time ago, a vain and selfish Prince was cursed by an enchantress who asked for shelter at his castle disguised as an old woman, offering a rose for payment.  Her curse extended throughout the castle affecting both the Prince and the servants.  The enchantress gives the now-Beast two items: a magic mirror which allows him to see anything in the world, and the rose, which is enchanted.  He has ten years to find someone to love and who will love him before the last petal falls, otherwise everyone will be cursed forever.  The Beast, convinced no one will love him due to his hideous form, locks himself away within his castle, shutting himself off from the world.

Many years later, a father and daughter take root in a village.  Belle (Page O'Hara), daughter to inventor Maurice (Rex Everhart), loves her father, but she is different from all the other girls.  Bookish and intellectual, she longs for adventure and knowledge.  She wants to find her own Prince Charming, but she is content to be with her father and her beloved books. 

Belle certainly has no interest in the village hunk, the vain and brutish Gaston (Richard White), a master huntsman whom all the women love.  Gaston, for his part, has decided Belle will be his bride (her opinion on the matter being irrelevant).  Belle does her best to put Gaston off, but Gaston is determined to get at her.  Maurice goes off to another village to present his latest invention, a woodchopping machine, but gets lost in the forest.  He takes refuge at the Beast's castle, unaware of its history.  He is attended by the castle's staff: Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), a candelabra who has a bon vivant personality, Cogsworth (David Odgen Stiers), a stuffy clock, and Miss Potts (Angela Lansbury), a cheerful teapot.  However, an enraged Beast (Robbie Benson) locks Maurice.


When Philippe, Maurice's horse, returns in a panic to their home, Belle is alarmed.  Belle goes to the castle, and offers herself in exchange for her father.  The Beast's one condition: she must stay there forever, and Belle reluctantly agrees.  Maurice attempts to get the village to help mount a rescue, but no one believes.  However, Maurice's ramblings give Gaston something he rarely has: an idea.  If he gets Maurice locked up in an asylum, he will use his influence to release him...if Belle agrees to marry him.

Belle is heartbroken at this turn of events, but the servants know she could be the one to break the spell.  However, things are difficult given how Beast behaves: brutish, uncouth, and unpleasant.  However, with some coaxing and coaching from the servants, Beast's more gentle side emerges.  The real change occurs when Belle flees in terror after going to the West Wing, the one area of the castle forbidden to her.  An enraged Beast terrorizes her when she sees the mirror and dying rose, but he then rescues her from wolves. 

In time, they soon start seeing the other as good, even friends.  Beast shows himself to be a kind being, but after an enchanted night together Belle confesses she misses her father.  In an act of self-sacrifice, Beast allows her leave to go, giving her the magic mirror.  While he is sad to see her go, her happiness comes first in his mind.  She is happy to see her father again, explaining that Beast is different than how he and everyone might see him.  Belle is also surprised to see Chip (Bradley Michael Pierce), Mrs. Potts' son who is a teacup, who snuck into her bag.  However, something wicked this way comes in the form of Gaston and the head of the insane asylum.  She still refuses Gaston's marriage offer and presents the mirror to show Beast as a good being.  Gaston, enraged that Belle would prefer Beast over him, gets a mob to storm the castle.  The castle staff mounts a furious defense and defeat the mob, but Beast, too heartbroken to care, offers no defense when Gaston the hunter comes to hunt him down.  Beast rallies though, when he sees Belle has come back of her own free will to help him.  Gaston fatally injures Beast, but Gaston in turn falls into a deep abyss (presumably dying).  A heartbroken Belle tells Beast she loves him just as the final petal falls.  In a stunning turn of events, Beast is transformed to a human again, as are all the servants.

Both of them, seeing that true beauty lies within, marry and live happily ever after.


I freely admit that at the end of Beauty and the Beast, I shed a couple of tears.  I was intensely moved by the story (which itself moved rather quickly without being rushed). 

A gigantic part of Beauty and the Beast's success comes in Alan Menken's music and Howard Ashman's lyrics.  The musical score is brilliant: dark or light when necessary.  Almost all the songs are excellent and do what good musicals should do: either move the plot or explore character.  We have the big opening number, Belle, which describes how Belle is so unusual in her world because unlike the other villagers (particularly women), she loves books and the world of knowledge.  Another number, Gaston, sung in a joint first and third-person, shows the arrogant, narcissistic side to our figure, a vain, prideful man for whom intellect is an aberration rather than an accomplishment.

The big three numbers most remembered though are the ones nominated for Best Original Song.  There's the aforementioned Belle, and there the big showstopping number Be Our Guest, where Lumiere gives Belle a grand banquet.  Be Our Guest (which Disney still uses to promote its theme parks, particularly its hotels and restaurants), is as lavish a musical number as Disney has had in an animated feature, freely, openly, and nakedly drawing from the big Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s.  It builds and builds until it becomes this massive visual spectacle, one so grand even the stuffy Cogsworth gets caught up in its extravagance. 

As a side note, I'm nut sure Belle actually ate much if anything at this feast, but I can't argue with Be Our Guest's grand spectacle.  It's Disney by way of Ziegfeld.

As big and splashy as Be Our Guest is (and it certainly is unapologetically that), it is the third Oscar-nominated song (and eventual winner) that is the deepest and most beautiful of Beauty and the Beast's songs.  The title song is pure in its simplicity.


If you listen to Beauty and the Beast, you'll notice that it is a five-note melody, with the lyrics always fitting that five-note theme.  Even in the bridge, you have five notes, with the lyrics having five syllables.  Only in the beginning and end of the song do you have a sixth note, which is a downward note from the others.  However, the song's melody, soft and lush, evokes a tenderness, that of Belle and the Beast falling in love.

The fact that lyricist Howard Ashman was dying of AIDS as he wrote this beautiful love songs lends Beauty and the Beast an added poignancy and longing.  Ashman died before the film was released, and Beauty and the Beast is dedicated to his memory.  While Ashman was able to write songs for Aladdin, released later, Beauty and the Beast to my mind really is one of the most beautiful songs in the Disney songbook.

The only song that I think fell flat was Human Again, a song I did not remember, and with good reason.  It was not in the original film, but added in the Special Edition.  It was an OK song, but not one I thought was necessary or on the level of all the others.  I can see why it was cut from the original release and frankly it didn't add anything to the Special Edition.

In terms of performances Disney was wise to not cast 'big names' as either Belle or the Beast, as it allowed Page O'Hara and Robbie Benson to create characters that were believable and relatable.  There are names in the film, though Jerry Orbach is probably best known for Law & Order.  Still, his Maurice Chevalier-like Lumiere was delightful (especially when paired with the stuffy Stiers' Cogsworth).  Lansbury was wonderful as Mrs. Potts, a most understanding teapot of kindness.

Visually, the film is beautiful, a lush artwork to be appreciated time and time again.

Beauty and the Beast did something no other animated film had done: gotten even the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' attention.  It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture and remains the only traditional animated film to be so honored (both Up and Toy Story 3 being computer-animated).  Instead of giving it a special prize, the Academy recognized this to be a very special film.  Oh, the Oscars have made mistakes (Eddie Redmayne comes quickly to mind), but here, they were spot-on.

In short, Beauty and the Beast is a film that is a landmark achievement.  It is a 'tale as old as time', with songs 'as old as rhyme', which in this case mean they will live on forever.

DECISION: A+