Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Gotham: Damned If You Do...Review



GOTHAM: DAMNED IF YOU DO...

I think a better title for the Gotham Season Two premiere episode would be The Seduction of Jim Gordon, because Damned If You Do... shows us that our upright, almost irritatingly moralistic future Gotham City Police Commissioner is not above dealing with the Devil (or The Penguin) to get where he needs to go.  Damned If You Do... is a strong beginning for a series that seemed a bit unsure of its direction the last time.  We got a shocking amount of violence for a network show (the mind boggles at what Gotham would look like if it was on HBO or Netflix), a great intro for at least the first half of the season, and something we didn't get in Gotham's first season.

Tiny bits of humor.

It's been one month since a violent coup got rid of Dons Falcone and Maroni, as well as pretender to Gotham's underworld throne Fish Mooney.  Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is mostly firmly in command, with his able assassin Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan) mercilessly killing anyone his boss orders him to.  For all their hard work, Jim Gordon (Benjamin McKenzie) is reduced to street cop, and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) has quit the force to become a bartender (apparently, the only fallback for Irish cops).  Even his turn as a beat cop doesn't go well for Gordon, as a run-in with crazed 'supervillain' Zaardon the Soul Reaper (David Fierro), a clearly disturbed individual made more disturbed by a concoction given to him, attempts to wreak havoc on the good citizens of Gotham.  For his troubles, Gordon is fired by Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) over the objections of Captain Essen (Zabryna Guevara).  Only Gordon's relationship with Dr. Leslie "Lee" Thompkins (Monica Baccarin) gives Gordon the slightest glimmer of hope.

Gordon's ex, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) finds herself the most glamorous and upmarket inmate at Arkham Asylum, where she catches the eye of Richard Sionis aka The Mask (Todd Stashwick), last seen killing applicants Hunger Games/Fight Club-style in The Mask.  Also locked up is Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan), who killed his mother in The Blind Fortune Teller and who is a prime candidate as the future Joker.  At first disinterested, Barbara soon finds her upper-crust ways can help a girl out in these tough spots, so she forms an alliance with Sionis.  Good thing too, because when Zaardon is tossed in with Sionis, Jerome, Barbara, and three others, the poison that seeps out of Zaardon's body affects them, which is just what supervillains want.  This group is busted out by Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas), the adopted sister of pillar of Gotham society Theo Galavan (James Frain), who wants the group to form a team of super-criminals.  Sionis passes, and then is promptly executed. 

Meanwhile, young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and his guardian/valet Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) are trying to get into the locked room hidden within a secret cave at Wayne Manor.  Bruce is determined to open it, even if it means blowing up the door.  Alfred at first thinks the whole thing madness, but uses his military expertise to help young Master Bruce.  Inside, there is a message from Bruce's father, telling his son that "you can't have both happiness and the truth".  Bruce must now make a choice: live his life for himself, or pursue a calling if he so thinks he has one.


Gordon wants to fulfill his promise to Bruce to find out who killed the Waynes, and he wants back onto the force.  For that, he needs help, and calls on Penguin to ask a favor.  Penguin has no problem making Loeb disappear and reinstating Gordon, but he wants something in return.  Someone is refusing to pay a debt owed to Don Falcone under the excuse that because it was to Falcone, he owes nothing to the new King of Gotham.  Gordon at first won't be an enforcer, but desperate times push his hand.  Ogden Barker (Otto Sanchez) has no intention of giving one red cent to that "fruitcake leprechaun" Penguin, not even to Gordon ('Penguin's Bitch', as Barker calls Jim).  Gordon, ruthless to the core, gets the money and kills Barker in the process in self-defense.  Penguin, true to his word, puts the squeeze on Loeb to put Jim back on, an idea which Loeb finds revolting.  Victor has already dispensed with Loeb's guards in a shocking way for prime-time television, and Penguin has no problem having Victor kill the Commissioner, but a deal is struck.

Commissioner Loeb announces his retirement, with Captain Essen now the new Police Commissioner and James Gordon back to Detective.  It's here that Gordon and Thompkins learn that six inmates have escaped Arkham, and one of them is a certifiable crazy WASP broad.

Damned If You Do... has a great deal going for it.  The episode balanced two stories: Gordon's return to the Force and Bruce's discovery of what was behind the door.  This does mean that other characters do get a bit short-changed (I think Cory Michael Smith's Edward Nygma makes one appearance, as does Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle), but even in their smaller parts, both did quite well.  CMS was strong when he played essentially two characters: the more moral Edward and the more unhinged Edward (whom he sees in the mirror).  Right now, that's set-up for his story, but it's enough to leave the viewer interested.  Bicondova has presence even though she now appears to be nothing more than Penguin's pet ("It's like having a cat around," he says, and kudos to her for not breaking out in laughter at that).

Speaking of laughter, it is nice to see that Gotham has lightened up slightly.  When Bruce tells Alfred he's going to blow up the door, Alfred is aghast.  "I wanted to present it to you as a fait accompli", Master Bruce tells his valet.  A clearly shocked and agitated Alfred replies, "Don't you start speaking French to me!"  As I've always thought of Alfred as highly intelligent, I'm going to put this odd turn of phrase as reaction to shock.

More humor is created when Victor asks Penguin regarding Loeb, "Want me to kill him now?".  "No, make him a nice cheese toasty.  Yes, kill him now, please," is Penguin's glib reply, almost a frustrated tone as to the sheer idiocy of the question. 

It's interesting that Scolari's main claim to fame is in the comedies Bosom Buddies and Newhart, the former where he performed partially in drag and played second banana to future acting legend Tom Hanks.  I say it's interesting because Scolari gives a knockout performance: evil without being camp or over-the-top, bringing a smooth, cold menace to Commissioner Loeb until he's threatened by Penguin.  It's a really great performance, and it makes one think how terrible that Scolari didn't reach Hanks-like levels because he is just so good throughout his run on Gotham.  Almost a shame to see him go.


That high level of acting is what I find most appealing about Gotham.  Robin Lord Taylor still brings such cold-blooded menace to Penguin.  He's no longer the waddling buffoon of Burgess Meredith or the crazy Danny DeVito version (although both of those are excellent in and of themselves).  RLT is instead a criminal mastermind whose only passion is in maintaining his hold on power.  He seems almost sincere when dealing with Gordon, as if in a bizarre way Oswald does think of Jim as a friend.   Mazouz has a wonderful quality to him as Bruce Wayne, still struggling to find his place and purpose in a world filled with Penguins and moral ambiguity.

His best scene is also McKenzie's best, when Gordon comes to tell Bruce he's been fired from the GCPD.  When Gordon tells him he could get back on the force but that it wouldn't be the right way, Bruce has his own reasoning regarding Gordon's reluctance: he'd rather do wrong to others than violate his own narrow moral code, showing Gordon to be in his own way vain and self-centered.  "Sometimes the right way is the ugly way," Bruce tells the future Commissioner.

This scene is really very important in the Batman mythos.  We see the beginnings of the divide between the vigilante justice Batman uses and the firm upholding of the law that Commissioner Gordon uses.  The beginning of the schism between Bruce and Jim begins here, with Bruce starting to think that perhaps the ugly way is the right way, and Gordon not wanting to do that.

Damned If You Do... also has great turns from Richards and Monaghan as the future criminals in what promises to be a major story arc for the first half of the season.  Richards' Barbara has pretty much been reviled for her whiny WASPy manners, but now her craziness is her defining characteristic: her opportunism, her obsession to get back (with or at) Jim.  Richards' Babs now makes for a more interesting creature than the blank nutjob we saw for most of Season One.

Whether Jerome IS the future Joker or not remains to be seen (Gotham is teasing us endlessly about the prospect), but Monaghan is playing Jerome's evil to the hilt.  It is drawing heavily on Heath Ledger's version, but it will be interesting to see if Monaghan makes Jerome his own.  Frain, of the cancelled-too-soon The Cape and from The Tudors (where he played another master villain, Thomas Cromwell), gives us an interesting glimpse of the evil lurking within Theo.   Obviously, we're not going to get much information now, but we get just enough to keep us interesting.


Curiously, this episode is so far the only one within memory to have a touch of sunshine appear in our perpetually gloomy, cloudy, city.  It also features the dismembered head of one of Loeb's security detail, Victor holding up the head and even opening the mouth as if he were talking.  I was shocked at the graphic nature of this moment, and it reminded me of why I don't consider Gotham particularly family-friendly, the Batman connection notwithstanding.  I'm sure pay stations would have been more graphic, but the ISIS-like moment was a bit jarring given the already-general mayhem the show deals with.

I also wonder whether the term "fruitcake" could imply or was meant to imply not just that Barker considered Penguin crazy, but a jab by Barker about Penguin's potential sexual preferences.  Penguin has had no interest in women apart from his mother, certainly no sexual interest that has been shown on screen.  Granted, he's never shown sexual interest in anyone, so whether Penguin is gay is speculation (and irrelevant as well).  Gordon has shown sexual interest in women, so has Edward Nygma and Bruce Wayne (despite their virginities), and Bullock most certainly has.  Penguin, however, has never shown any sexual interest one way or another.  Last season, he even made a comment to his mother Gertrude that no 'painted lady' could lure him away because he doesn't even date.  I found the use of the term 'fruitcake' curious to say the least, saying perhaps more than what was meant to be said. The fact that RLT is openly gay makes the use of "fruitcake" more curious.      

I just wonder why the term 'fruitcake' was used when 'nutjob', 'cuckoo bird', or 'wackadoodle' among others would have conveyed the same meaning without suggesting something else.  That is, unless that something else (that Penguin is gay) was the intended suggestion.

Still, Damned If You Do... gives us what a good opening episode should give: a reintroduction to the characters, introductions to new ones, and the beginnings of what hopefully will be a solid story that will develop instead of the rush of villains we had last season.

Well, I'll be...

9/10

Next Episode: Knock, Knock

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Wind: A Review


THE WIND

By the time The Wind rolled around (no pun intended), silent films were on their final days.  The Jazz Singer, though technically speaking a part-talkie, so shook Hollywood that all the studios began rushing towards making all-talkies, all the time.  As a result, many silent films were either reconverted to sound, but more troubling, thought as waste, unworthy of preserving.  There are many reasons why we have very few silent films still around.  Part of it is due to the film stock of the time, which was extremely flammable.  Part of it was because few studios (MGM being the rare exception) cared to keep copies of what was no longer acceptable.  Therefore, silent films, now passe, were thought of as having no value.  Mores the pity, since silent films, at least the ones we have today, have extraordinary art and beauty to them.

Now we come to The Wind.  We now see that Hollywood was short-sighted regarding the power of silent films in their mad rush to throw everything without sound out the window.  The Wind may perhaps not be the last great silent film made, but it is no doubt one of the last great silent films made.

Letty (Lillian Gish) comes from Virginia to the dusty Texas west (by my guess, West Texas).  She is going to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) and his family, and on the way there she meets up with Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love).  He's oozing charm but the naïve, innocent Letty takes no notice.  On the wind-swept ranch, the pretty Letty incurs the jealousy of Cora (Dorothy Cumming), Beverly's wife.  Letty also attracts the attention of two suitors: the comical Sourdough (William Orlamond) and the rough but tender Lige (Lars Hanson).  She is pretty smitten with Roddy, but when Cora pushes her to go with him...or else, Letty discovers Roddy's married.  Heartbroken, Letty wonders where she'll stay with the bitter Cora insisting she leave their home.  She tells Letty she's got to accept the marriage proposal of either Sourdough or Lige.  She opts for Lige.

Lige is first thrilled to have Letty, but she makes it clear she doesn't love him.  Hurt and angry, Lige tells her he'll save enough money to send her away.  However, there's the issue with the Northern, a particularly strong windstorm that is wreaking havoc across the countryside.  Letty is left alone for some time while Lige and the other men of the area attempt to herd the horses, but to their home comes an ill man.  It turns out it's Roddy.  Roddy, still as oily as ever, takes advantage of the situation (it is implied, but never overtly stated, that Roddy rapes Letty).  This, and the fierceness of the dust storm, are driving Letty insane.  Her mind already weak, when Roddy urges and threatens to take her away she kills him.  This final act seem to completely push Letty over the edge.  She buries him in the dust, but soon sees his body being uncovered.

Or does she?  Is it in her mind?  There is no way to be sure, given how the circumstances have pushed Letty's mind to disintegrate.  At the end though, Lige comes back, coolly tells her that the sand covers a multitude of sins, and Letty embraces the wind she fears...and Lige, whom she realizes she does love.


I know that Gish always hated the forced happy ending.  In the original novel and screenplay, Letty, so driven by madness, wanders into the fierce windstorm, disappearing into the tormenting winds forever.  In fact, that was the original ending to The Wind, but the MGM executives objected to it, feeling the downbeat ending wouldn't go over with audiences.  Over the objections of both Gish and director Victor Seastrom, they reshot the ending to make the ending more upbeat and hopeful.

Personally, I don't see anything wrong with the happy ending, apart from perhaps a sense that it was a bit overdone, as if no one believed in it.  Apart from that I don't think the ending we have to The Wind ruins the picture (although perhaps if The Wind had kept its original ending, it would have been more powerful than it already is).

Lillian Gish proves one thing: Sunset Boulevard was right--they didn't need voices; they had FACES.  The Wind is one of Gish's greatest performances (and I think, one of the greatest performances ever in silent film). Gish shows us in her performance what a truly great actress she was, for she communicates so much with just her face, particularly with her eyes, her beautiful, wide, expressive eyes.

Gish's performance in The Wind as Letty descends into madness is the equal to Vivien Leigh's Blanche Dubois' slow mental crumbling in A Streetcar Named Desire.   I have no problem putting the sinking of Letty's mind up there with Ophelia's mad scene from Hamlet.  Everything is told in her eyes and her body movement.  There isn't a moment when Gish is 'overacting' or giving the stereotypical broad and overblown performance attributed to silent film.

Even in her insanity, Gish is actually more subtle than most people playing crazy in today's films.  I think Gish's performance showing insanity in The Wind is better than that of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.   I think that has to do with the fact that Gish expresses it with her eyes, not in a 'wild-eyed' style but in a 'I'm no longer sure of what I see before me' style.  It makes Letty's madness more frightening, and Gish's performance simply more astonishing and brilliant. 



Her performance is helped immeasurably by Seastrom's visual style.  When she is slipping into lunacy, we see both the world spinning and rocking, the out-of-control world Letty has entered.  The blending of her descent with the idea of the Northern storm as this ghost horse stamping into the world is simply astonishing. 

Gish so dominates The Wind that most everyone is blown away (pun most definitely intended).  Cumming was quite strong as the bitchy Cora, and Hanson too as the devoted but hurt Lige.  Orlamond was a bit of the comic relief, and Seastrom directed his moments so well without being overtly silly (such as when Sourdough slyly takes the bottle away from the injured Roddy without anyone else noticing). Love was appropriately sleazy as Roddy, forever dusting himself off as if to metaphorically remove the dirt from his soul (dirt that would eventually cover his corpse).

Finally, Carl Davis' original score to The Wind is equally brilliant, lending both the gentle and dramatic parts of the film greater power.

The Wind is a film that actors should study to see how to play insane without being so wild and out-of-control (with Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire being the sound equivalent).  Breathtaking visually, with an absolutely stunning performance from Lillian Gish, The Wind is a most fitting swan song to silent films.  It's a shame that silent films died out as they did when they did.  Judging by The Wind, it looked like people were really getting right, until audiences demanded films that had voices too.  Fortunately, Lillian Gish had a very good voice, but when you are blessed with a face such as hers...

  

DECISION: A+   

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Oscar That Got Away

Grace Kelly:
Best Actress for
The Country Girl

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1954

For the 27th Academy Awards, we have a total shut-out to perhaps one of the greatest films on Hollywood ever made.  Following in the footsteps of Sunset Boulevard, the musical version of A Star is Born burned out at the Oscars, losing all six of its nominations.  The sad story of how the film was butchered by being reedited to where the eventual released version became incomprehensible, the mess Warner Brothers made of its own production, and the shameful way Judy Garland was treated on Oscar night (by both the NBC crew and the Academy) makes the whole ceremony all the more sadder to contemplate.

It looks like there were a lot of upsets at this year's Academy Awards, the people expected to win going down and seeing others who weren't expected to win going up to collect their Oscars.  It does keep things interesting, but it doesn't make them rational.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1954 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



The High and the Mighty: The High and the Mighty
The Man That Got Away: A Star is Born
Hold My Hand: Susan Slept Here
Three Coins in the Fountain: Three Coins in the Fountain
Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep: White Christmas

Now, this isn't to say I think Three Coins in the Fountain is a BAD song.  Unlike either The High and the Mighty or Hold My Hand, Three Coins in the Fountain is still remembered, if not as well as other winners.  Having said that, when I compare the sweet, very 1950s-sounding Three Coins in the Fountain to its main rival, there really is no comparison.  In this case, while the song itself is not bad, it was the wrong song to win.  The losing song is still remembered, still powerful, still amazing.

Thus, my choice:



From A Star is Born, The Man That Got Away, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

Judy Garland was I think one of if not the best at selling a song, at making it as rich or powerful or tender or moving as humanly possible.  The Man That Got Away is a torch song deluxe, starting slowly then building to a fierce intensity.  Who HASN'T felt this way (and for the guys, there's The Gal That Got Away).   Despite me being a guy, I think the female version is better.  Still, I'll let you decide.


With apologies to Sinatra, I think Bobby Darin's version is better.

Still, despite my great love for The Man That Got Away, if it were up to me, I would not have chosen it when there was another song from a film that year that I think does surpass it.  My nominees with my winner...



A Whale of a Tale: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Magnificent Obsession: Magnificent Obsession
The Man That Got Away: A Star is Born
Three Coins in the Fountain: Three Coins in the Fountain
Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep: White Christmas

As much as I think The Man That Got Away is one of THE great songs of film, my heart and choice for the Best Song of 1954 is A Whale of a Tale from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Music and lyrics by Norman Gible and Al Hoffman.  It's a cute, whimsical little number, a bit of levity in a rather serious action/adventure feature.

That, and the fact that I really, really like it.

BEST DIRECTOR

Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window
Elia Kazan: On the Waterfront
George Seaton: The Country Girl
William Wellman: The High and the Mighty
Billy Wilder: Sabrina

For the longest time I had my beloved Alfred Hitchcock as the winner.  Certainly Rear Window is a brilliant film, and he was a brilliant director, and Rear Window is one of his greatest films.  For me, it's still a fierce competition between Hitchcock and Elia Kazan, but after having seen it again recently, I can't help think that in terms of performances, Kazan did something extraordinary with an extraordinary cast (Brando, Saint, Malden, Cobb, Steiger...what a collection of brilliant actors).  After some struggle, I opted to go with the Academy's choice.  It wasn't an easy decision, but Kazan got my vote based on the performances he got out of his cast.

Richard Fleisher: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
George Cukor: A Star is Born
Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window
Elia Kazan: On the Waterfront
Douglas Sirk: Magnificent Obsession

However, when I think about the scope of the filmmaking, and in terms of the individual performances, I don't understand why George Cukor, one of the best and most respected directors in Hollywood, was not even nominated for A Star is Born.  Perhaps it was because, like Sunset Boulevard, it hit too close to home.  Perhaps it was because Warner Brothers so butchered the film that what the public saw was nowhere near Cukor's masterfully crafted vision (there is still hope, however vague, for a full restoration).  However, look at the performances from Garland, from Mason, from Carson, from Bickford, from Noonan, and you think...Cukor was a damn fine director.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Nina Foch: Executive Suite
Katy Jurado: Broken Lance
Eva Marie Saint: On the Waterfront
Jan Sterling: The High and the Mighty
Claire Trevor: The High and the Mighty

If anyone can make the case for Nina Foch taking the Oscar, please do so.

Once again, we see two actresses from the same film cancelling each other out.  I think it's a pretty safe bet that if you find yourself competing with your costars, it's pretty much over.  Rare is the moment when an actor/actress from a film beats out his/her costar.  It's happened a few times, but the general rule of thumb is that more often than not, they both lose. 

Having said that, I think the Academy made the right choice with Saint's debut as the victim's sister determined to find the truth.  We forget that On the Waterfront 'introduced' Eva Marie Saint, but she gave a brilliant performance.  I find nothing wrong with the choice.



Rosemary Clooney: White Christmas
Katy Jurado: Broken Lance
Thelma Ritter: Rear Window
Eva Marie Saint: On the Waterfront
Vera-Ellen: White Christmas

So what if I put two costars in competition myself?  What's sauce for the goose...

As it stands, I can't understand why one of Thelma Ritter's many Oscar nominations (a total of six, with all six being losses) wasn't for Rear Window.  As the cynical physical therapist who finds herself wrapped up in a suspected murder investigation, she brought her trademark wit to the proceedings.  Anyone who can call Grace Kelly's character Miss Fremont, "Miss Freemoney", without letting on she is making a pun, deserves special recognition.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Lee J. Cobb: On the Waterfront
Karl Malden: On the Waterfront
Edmund O'Brien: The Barefoot Contessa
Rod Steiger: On the Waterfront
Tom Tully: The Caine Mutiny

With THREE nominees from the same film, is it any wonder the now-forgotten O'Brien won in the now-forgotten Barefoot Contessa?  When was the last time YOU reflected on how good either were?  With each of the three actors from On the Waterfront being just so good, really, how can one pick?  I flipped around a lot between the three of them, and ultimately went for Charlie, the older brother torn between his brother and his 'brothers'.  My reasoning was this: Malden's priest was all good, Cobb's Johnny Friendly was all bad, but Charlie was stuck in the middle.  It was the inner conflict that attracted me to pick Steiger.



Jack Carson: A Star is Born
Lee J. Cobb: On the Waterfront
Karl Malden: On the Waterfront
James Mason: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Rod Steiger: On the Waterfront

Mason had a banner year in 1954.  He was brilliant as the washed-up Norman Maine in A Star is Born, but even more amazing as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  He was urbane, intelligent, raging, and insane...sometimes all at the same time.  You both empathized with Nemo and were horrified by him, yet understood his fury.  He was enigmatic and compelling, and I think one of Mason's best performances.  

BEST ACTRESS



Dorothy Dandridge: Carmen Jones
Judy Garland: A Star is Born
Grace Kelly: The Country Girl
Audrey Hepburn: Sabrina
Jane Wyman: Magnificent Obsession

First, the fact that Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American woman to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination is something to note and respect.  Of course she wasn't going to win, and if she thought she was, then she was naïve at best.

I wrote earlier about the shabby treatment Judy Garland received on Oscar night, but it sadly extends beyond her surprising loss.  Garland had gone for broke as Vicki Lester in A Star is Born, showing she could handle both the big musical numbers and the intimate dramatic moments.  She was the odds-on favorite to win, but in comes the elegant Philadelphia beauty to sweep Oscar into her elegant handbag.

Grace Kelly's performance in The Country Girl perhaps is good, but I think that compared to Garland, it's not remembered in the slightest.  The Country Girl itself is pretty much forgotten, while A Star is Born is still held as one of the best films from Cukor and Garland.  Kelly did what a lot of actresses do to get Oscars: play against type.  The cool blonde, epitome of Alfred Hitchcock's erotic fixations on cool blondes, played the mousy, put-upon wife of a drunk.  I haven't been overwhelmed by the clips of her I've seen, but again, they're clips, not the whole film.

Garland was such an odds-on favorite to win that a camera crew was set up in her hospital room to record her reaction when she won, having recently given birth to her son Joseph Luft.  All wired and ready to go, when William Holden announced Kelly as the winner, the crew immediately began packing up the equipment, leaving a devastated Garland doubly humiliated.

Perhaps the miniseries Me and My Shadows: Life With Judy Garland was a bit harsh in declaring Kelly a nymphomaniac ("only when you can get her to slow down", Garland added) and in their summation that Kelly "can't act", but it seems accurate about how the NBC crew treated Garland when her spectacular bid for a comeback failed spectacularly.  It also might have put the finger on why she lost: as her confidant Roger Edens told her, she'd burned too many bridges.      

Dorothy Dandridge: Carmen Jones
Judy Garland: A Star is Born
Grace Kelly: Rear Window
Audrey Hepburn: Sabrina
Jane Wyman: Magnificent Obsession

Despite Edens and Garland's disparaging assertions that Kelly was a talentless slut who slept her way to the top and to an Oscar, I think she did an excellent job staying true-to-form in Rear Window.  That being said, Garland still gave the best performance of the year, and her loss will rank among the worst decisions the Academy has made (right up there with Crappie Redmayne's robotic Stephen Hawking.  What, you thought I WOULDN'T take at least one jab at him?)

BEST ACTOR



Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront
Humphrey Bogart: The Caine Mutiny
Bing Crosby: The Country Girl
James Mason: A Star is Born
Dan O'Herlihy: Robinson Crusoe

You'd think this would be an easy call, wouldn't you?  Brando redefined screen acting, and On the Waterfront is one of his singularly greatest performances.  Yet, I confess that for the longest time, I had Mason take it for his decent but highly flawed and tragic Norman Maine, the matinee idol who cannot face the end of his career.  I also see Bogart giving Brando a run for his money, and even Crosby as the washed-up drunk singer having a go at it.

Good year for washed-up drunks, wasn't it? 

Nevertheless, I went with what I think is a brilliant performance, which leaves just one question:

Dan O'Herlihy?



Marlon Brando: On the Waterfront
Humphrey Bogart: The Caine Mutiny
Rock Hudson: Magnificent Obsession
James Mason: A Star is Born
James Stewart: Rear Window

That question has to be asked when you consider that James Stewart was left off the list.  I don't think Stewart was nominated for any of the films he did for Hitchcock, which makes one wonder what the Academy had against The Master of Suspense.  Stewart had to act within a very limited space.  He couldn't wander around, and it is through his eyes, his face, that he communicates his growing obsession with what goes on behind closed doors. 

Really, it is one of his landmark performances, and to think the Academy didn't recognize it while leaping praise on Crappie Redmayne?

BEST PICTURE




On the Waterfront
The Caine Mutiny
The Country Girl
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Three Coins in the Fountain

For me, out of the nominees, there really is no contest.  On the Waterfront continues to be one of the Great Films, while the others are if not strictly forgotten not as well-remembered.  OK, so The Country Girl is pretty much forgotten, and people may not remember Three Coins in the Fountain was a film and not a song.  I can imagine the uproar if Seven Brides for Seven Brothers had ended up winning.  I for the life of me don't understand why it was nominated in the first place.  Maybe the Academy felt that there should be at least one musical nominated every year (sometimes with disastrous results...*cough*Oliver!*cough*).  I think the power of On the Waterfront cannot be denied, and the Academy actually chose correctly out of the films it nominated for Best Picture.



20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
On the Waterfront
Magnificent Obsession
Rear Window
A Star is Born

That of course, doesn't mean there's room for improvement.  The brilliance of On the Waterfront cannot be denied.  Note that out of the actual nominees, it is the only one I think still worthy of consideration (seriously, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?).   That being said, I'd be happy with any on my list winning, but for me, out of all of them, one really pushes its way to the top.  My beloved Hitchcock was overlooked so many times, and frankly, so were his films. 

As such, I make Rear Window my Best Film of 1956.

Next Time, the 1955 Academy Awards.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Avengers: A Second Look



Thanks again to James the Movie Reviewer (my Number One Fan by default, given he's my only fan) for the suggestion.

Alas, poor Joss Whedon...

When I looked at the films of 2012, The Avengers was not in my Top Ten Films of the Year.

The Avengers was not in my Top Twenty Films of the Year.

The Avengers was in my Top Twenty-Five Films of the Year...at Number Twenty-Four.

In a year that gave us Argo, The Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Sessions, could I really put The Avengers above any of them, let alone ALL of them?

The curious thing about The Avengers is that I was quite enthusiastic about it.  I thought it was a very good movie, but I also thought it was rather long and perhaps too self-referential.  One thing I didn't think The Avengers was was the Citizen Kane of comic book adaptations, the greatest comic book film of all time.  I still think Superman: The Movie holds that distinction.

This isn't to say The Avengers was in any way terrible (though I still have a few hang-ups about it).  However, given just how beloved the film is, I was asked if perhaps I was underselling it a bit.  Perhaps it does deserve to be ranked with Superman or Batman or Spider-Man as among the best of all time, a true masterpiece.  I think the beef is not that I didn't like it (which I did).  It's that I didn't like it enough.  More than one person has told me how wrong I was to not rank it higher, to accept that in terms of comic-book films, The Avengers is among if not the greatest of all time.

I saw a bit of it while at the gym one day and was reminded how good The Avengers was.  However, that was just about a half-hour's worth of viewing and it was in the middle of the movie, not straight from the beginning.  Would reencountering it again after so many years remake my own thinking of the film?  Would I be able to sit through nearly two-and-a-half hours of explosions and characters whom I remembered with varying degrees of certainty?  Now, with me about to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I figured it would be fine time to revisit The Avengers and see if my views have changed.

Let us begin...



As I rewatched The Avengers, I first dismissed what had been a criticism of mine: people would get lost.  I figure if you hadn't taken the time to watch any of the Marvel films, you weren't going to be leaping at the chance to watch The Avengers.  In short, The Avengers expects you to have some knowledge of what came before.  For good or bad, you should know some of the characters by the time you get to The Avengers.

However, that brings me to something that I didn't think of the first time I saw it.  Again, for better or worse, people have pretty much forgotten The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton as the Hulk (and let's not even get into the Eric Bana/Ang Lee Hulk).  As such, if you'd skipped it, would having Mark Ruffalo's version essentially making a second debut be an issue?   I found it curious that in The Avengers, we basically were introduced to Bruce Banner/The Hulk without it being a big problem.  In fact, perhaps we could really skip The Incredible Hulk and consider The Avengers the debut of our Big Mean Green (a little UNT reference there).

That doesn't take away from the fact that The Avengers essentially serves as a full introduction to Hawkeye.  Apart from a cameo in Thor (one that threw me so off I asked the person next to me, 'What's Jeremy Renner doing in this?'), has he played a major role in the Marvel Universe?  Same goes for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow (and did we really have to see her for the first time being held hostage and slapped around?  I don't think Agent Carter would have stood for that!) 

Finally, let's get to the whole 'Loki taken prisoner' thing.  OK, by now this has become a cliché that it amazes me people still think its original.  When someone is being held prisoner in the middle of the film, we know they want to get captured to make a more spectacular exit. 

Skyfall, anyone?   



This doesn't take away from the brilliance of The Avengers.  A second viewing clearly shows that Joss Whedon did an incredible job balancing so much not just in terms of characters (giving everyone at least one moment) but also between action and even comedy.  The best scene in my view is when Loki is about to give another one of his grandiose monologues about his own greatness and the failure of the puny humans when the Hulk just grabs him by the legs and thrashes him around, leaving the Asgardian so stunned he can only whimper in total shock at the end. 

I also still feel the emotion when Agent Coulson (who has always been my favorite Marvel character) is stabbed.  I still hold Clark Gregg should have been a Best Supporting Actor nominee for the role.  Alas, people rarely get nods, let alone wins, for comic-book based films.  Curiously, the last time I can think of when a comic-book based film received major Oscar recognition was in 1931!  The film, Skippy, based on a comic strip, earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Jackie Cooper for Best Actor (making him, at age nine, the youngest Best Actor nominee in Academy history), and won Best Director.

When did the Academy turn so snobbish?

So, let's go over The Avengers.  Is a great film?  Yes.  Does it deserve great praise?  Yes.  HOWEVER, I still feel a little removed from it because I'm not as well-versed in Marvel lore as others.  Even after having watched all the Marvel movies (even The Incredible Hulk), I would have absolutely no idea who the villain popping up at the end would be.  Perhaps it doesn't matter that I know who he is or even if the Marvel fans know who he is.  It's just a teaser for something else.  Whether it is for something greater or not I cannot say.  I don't want to think of The Avengers or any other Marvel film as just a two-hour-plus trailer for something else. 

Ultimately, I can see myself giving The Avengers a more modified bump up, but not to the lofty heights of Superman or Spider-Man or Batman.  It actually is coming in fast & furious to join their ranks, and it really comes really close.  However, while the other ones were at least self-contained, The Avengers, being part of this grand epic, still is a bit separate for me.  At least, in retrospect, it IS better than Les Miserables.

So close, so close...

ORIGINAL DECISION: B-

REEVALUATED DECISION: B+

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chico

 


On September 12, 2015, the El Paso AAA Baseball Team's season ended with a 7-4 loss to Fresno.  With two wins already, the Fresno Grizzlies had topped the El Paso (Team) to play in the playoffs against the Round Rock Express, with the winner of that taking the Pacific Coast League Championship and playing in the Championship Game against the International League.

As a side note, I hope Round Rock wins, because since the Championship Game is being played in El Paso, Fresno would face a particularly hostile crowd.

As many of you know, I have an intense dislike of the name of the El Paso AAA Baseball Team.  It's so intense I refuse to say it or even write it.  Two years after the name was announced, I'm still displeased with it to that level.  When it was first announced I was so aghast I signed a petition to have the name changed.  I vowed not to buy anything with the team name on it and was hostile to the whole thing.  If I hadn't already bought my season tickets prior to the name's announcement, I probably would have boycotted the games altogether.

I know some people who have indeed done that and have yet to go because of the name.

However, I'm glad and proud to be a full-season ticket holder, for I have grown to love the game and the team.  The Name...well, no.  Still, this team has been a wonderful thing for The EP, and the haters have been proven wrong again and again.  I was never a hater, oh, maybe of the name, but not the team. Not by a long shot.

My best friend Gabe has kept track of the number of times I've said The Name.  He says that four times I've slipped and referred to them as the El Paso (Name).  I get an exemption from this when referring to their Twitter handle since I can't say @epbaseballteam, but @epchihuahuas.



As of today, I'm proud to say that I still haven't bought ANYTHING with the name.  Well, there was a travelling mug, but that couldn't be helped.  All my gear has either the Ball & Bones or the EP logo on it.  I have so many caps that my mother is hopelessly irritated with the number. 

However, now that we're two years in I must confess something.  I still don't like The Name.  I still won't wear anything with The Name on it.  However, I have grown fond of the mascot, Chico, and even weakened on the idea of having something with the dog on it.

Chico is a trip: fun, outrageous, and a perfect mascot.  He is frisky, he works great with crowds, and has a joie de vivre that can't be beat.  My one great regret is that in two years, I have never been able to have my picture taken with Chico.

I wish I could say that I had a firm, logical reason for liking Chico.  I don't.  I think it's just part of a good time at the baseball games, and that I have, in spades.

I complement the Baseball Team crew, from the front office and my account manager who has been nothing but helpful whenever I ask a question, to the ushers, the security, the EMT, the shop staff (who really should know me by now), and the concession stand workers.  I think it's clear that everyone there has been really top-notch in how they work with the public.  I think the vast majority of the people at Southwest University Park enjoy working there, enjoy being with people, and I have never had a problem whenever I go.

I've seen the EMT and ushers rush whenever a foul ball crashes onto someone, sometimes seriously.  I've joked with the security people.  I've joked with Andy Imfeld, the on-field announcer (not surprising since he has to pass my seat to get to the field).  I've enjoyed many of the promotions and themes of individual games, and find the Dizzy Bat Race a great highlight.



One thing, on a serious level, that I have to compliment the El Paso Baseball Team/Organization on, is on how much they do with/for the community.  Chico has been to my library at least twice, and there probably isn't a day that goes by where Chico or the El Paso Baseball Team/Organization doesn't do something community-related.  They go to schools, offer SUP for 'sleepovers', host both Faith & Family and Gay Pride nights.  I have to compliment and salute all the work the El Paso Baseball Team/Organization has done to be full-fledged members of The EP.  I think few organizations have worked as hard as they have to win the hearts and minds of their community, and to be an integral part of it.

They have succeeded beyond any measure.

The games have been thrilling.  Gabe calls them "the Comeback Canines", and many times it looks like the team is down but finds their second wind to rally to victory.  The fact that the first-round playoffs went to four rather than a sweep is a credit to the team's furious efforts to make a comeback (and yes, you CAN call it a comeback).

The players themselves have all been extremely approachable, pleasant, and good guys.  I've never heard anything bad about any of them, and I always end up saying "He's a real nice guy".  OK, there was that incident with Cody Decker, where he trashed Gone With the Wind and didn't take too kindly to me saying he was wrong.  I stand by my views: he's wrong, period.  However, apart from his lousy taste in movies I have nothing but praise for him.  I'd name a child after him, should I have one (and should my wife let me).  He, after eight years, finally gets to play for the San Diego Padres, and while there's no knowing if and/or when he may return, I wish him all the best.

But he's still wrong about Gone With the Wind

All the other players I've met (Ramiro Pena, Rocky Gale, Jake Goebberts, Chris Rearick, Rymer Liriano, among others), have been wonderful with the fans.  Yes, I have autographed cards from all of the ones named above, and even Decker.  Hey, he might be wrong, but he is good at what he does.  I even got a jersey, though perhaps one could question why I got Imfeld's jersey.  Let's just say when it comes to bidding, I get competitive really fast.

I don't know where any of them will end up in their careers, though I wish all of them the best.  For me though, they've earned a place here in The EP as people to know and respect.  Especially Liriano, who has the most unique walk-up song in baseball.  Just the first three vocal notes and the stadium gets excited.

I know, the name thing is still something I struggle with.  I won't change my view on that.  However, I am warming up to the dog.



Last year, I bought the El Paso jersey because it says "El Paso", and not The Name.  This year, I've been hinting relentlessly to Gabe about the red one: how it will make a great Christmas/birthday gift, with my name on it.  And NO...I don't want sparkly letters with it.

Just don't expect me to wear one with The Name on it.  There may be some bridges too far to cross.

Until Next Season...

#FearTheEars

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Oscar Is Eternal

William Holden
Best Actor for
Stalag 17

TUESDAY WITH OSCAR: 1953

For the 26th Academy Awards, the grandees at the Academy were determined to get it right.  It's been one year since the debacle of The Greatest Show on Earth's unexpected Oscar win for Best Picture over the more critically acclaimed High Noon or The Quiet Man, the odds-on favorites.   The shock Cecil B. DeMille's circus picture sent through the Hollywood establishment was still felt, and unlike the year previous, few people have found fault with the choices the Academy made...myself included.

Truth be told, I can't argue against this year's winners.  That doesn't necessarily mean I would have made the choices the Academy made, but the winners were by no means outlandish.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1953 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG




That's Amore from The Caddy
Secret Love from Calamity Jane
The Moon is Blue from The Moon is Blue
Sadie Thompson's Song from Miss Sadie Thompson
My Flaming Heart from Small Town Girl

I admit my love for Doris Day slightly colors my choice.   However, Secret Love is a beautiful love ballad and Day sings it so well, expressing the joy of discovering romance.  I think it comes as a surprise that That's Amore comes from a film, and it's about the only song that would challenge Secret Love for the win.  That having been said, Secret Love is a standard of Day's repertoire and one song that has certainly stood the test of time.

That's Amore from The Caddy
Secret Love from Calamity Jane
Reenlistment Blues from From Here to Eternity
The Moon is Blue from The Moon is Blue
Sadie Thompson's Song from Miss Sadie Thompson

I really don't see anything wrong with the choice, so I'm sticking with it.

BEST DIRECTOR

George Stevens: Shane
Charles Walters: Lily
Billy Wilder: Stalag 17
William Wyler: Roman Holiday
Fred Zinnemann: From Here to Eternity

I think that given that Zinnemann led his cast to a combined five Oscar nominations and got great performances out of people as varied as Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed, both breaking out of what people thought of them, you deserve all the acclaim you get. 

Samuel Fuller: Pickup on South Street
Alfred Hitchcock: I Confess
George Stevens: Shane
Billy Wilder: Stalag 17
Fred Zinnemann: From Here to Eternity

Oh, and did I mention that beach scene?  Or the fact that Zinnemann got Deborah Kerr to also play against type and do it so spectacularly?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Grace Kelly: Mogambo
Geraldine Page: Hondo
Marjorie Rambeau: Torch Song
Donna Reed: From Here to Eternity
Thelma Ritter: Pickup on South Street

Nothing says "tramp" like a slinky black number. 

From Here to Eternity was a radical departure for Donna Reed, who was known as the virginal ingénue.  Here, she plays a 'dance hall girl', but let's be honest: she was a hooker.  This wouldn't be the first time Oscar fixated on 'the world's oldest profession' for recognition.  Reed actually knocked two birds with one stone with her role.  First, she took one route to a win: play against type.  Two, she played the hooker.  Why Oscar likes its whores I can't say. 

However, give Reed credit: she gave a solid performance as the 'dance hall girl' who falls in love with the troubled rebel soldier on the eve of Pearl Harbor.  Her final scene where she begs him not to go back to his unit after having killed a man is heartbreaking...and one that wins Oscars.



Jean Arthur: Shane
Anne Baxter: I Confess
Jane Russell: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Donna Reed: From Here to Eternity
Thelma Ritter: Pickup on South Street

It's a shame that Jean Arthur is a name not remembered by many movie-going audiences today like that of her contemporaries Rosalind Russell or Irene Dunne.  She was I think a bit underrated as an actress, so perhaps that is why I would choose her for this, her final film role, to be my winner.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Eddie Albert: Roman Holiday
Brandon deWilde: Shane
Jack Palance: Shane
Frank Sinatra: From Here to Eternity
Robert Strauss: Stalag 17

People forget just how low Sinatra and his career were when he appeared in From Here to Eternity.  His records were flops, nobody wanted to hire him for anything.  He was considered a has-been, washed-up, dependent on the largess of his second wife Ava Gardner.  Zinnemann didn't want him in the film.  In fact, nobody wanted Sinatra.  That made him more determined to get the role of Angelo, the scrappy, skinny Italian kid with a rebel's heart to match Monty Clift's. 

I'm not going to dignify the idea, spread via The Godfather, that Sinatra (or Johnny Fontaine) used Mob connections to get the part in the war picture. 

Sinatra was so brilliant in the role, despite not being an 'actor'.  Maybe he was playing himself, but when that self is Frank Sinatra, that really is enough.

Also, note that again, we have two actors from the same film cancelling each other out.  Yes, people still remember, "SHANE!  SHANE, COME BACK!", but Sinatra is still The Man.

By the way, Shane is a really good book.

Eddie Albert: Roman Holiday
Brandon deWilde: Shane
Otto Preminger: Stalag 17
Jack Palance: Shane
Frank Sinatra: From Here to Eternity

With only one substitution, I'm going for The Chairman of the Board. 

BEST ACTRESS



Leslie Caron: Lily
Ava Gardner: Mogambo
Audrey Hepburn: Roman Holiday
Deborah Kerr: From Here to Eternity
Maggie McNamara: The Moon is Blue

Here's proof that sometimes playing against type won't necessarily get you the Oscar.

Deborah Kerr was seen at the time as the ultimate in sophisticated, cultured, urbane, and dignified women.  Therefore, to see her as this adulterous, manipulative, sexually starved officer's wife must have been a shock to the system.  Maybe TOO much of a shock, as the Academy went with the virginal Hepburn as the runaway princess rather than the hot-to-trot loose woman.

There's nothing wrong with Hepburn or her performance.  It was sweet, it was beautiful, it was elegant (like the lady herself).  However, as I match them up, I still think Kerr gave a better performance.  Switch them out and does one think Hepburn could have played the sex-hungry wife?  I don't think so.  Could Kerr play the innocent princess?  Well, maybe if she were younger...

Rita Hayworth: Miss Sadie Thompson
Audrey Hepburn: Roman Holiday
Deborah Kerr: From Here to Eternity
Marilyn Monroe: Niagara
Jean Peters: Pickup on South Street

I'm holding steady on Kerr, an actress who was apparently too good for the Academy, who overlooked her a record-setting six times before giving her a "Here You Go Before You Drop Dead" Honorary Oscar.

BEST ACTOR



Marlon Brando: Julius Caesar
Richard Burton: The Robe
Montgomery Clift: From Here to Eternity
William Holden: Stalag 17
Burt Lancaster: From Here to Eternity

Two points on this win.  First, again, note that we have two actors from the same film fighting it out (and I suspect, cancelling the other out). Two, while it might not be a case of a retroactive Oscar, perhaps Academy voters thought that a win for Holden here would make up for his loss three years earlier for Sunset Boulevard

Poor Holden.  Even at what should have been the apex of his career the Academy treated him shabbily.  Strict time restrictions forced him to utter a simple "Thank you" as the whole of his acceptance speech.  And to think, they let Greer Garson run on for five minutes and in the future, would allow Crappie Redmayne to congratulate his own sense of brilliance (thus fulfilling my obligatory "Trash Eddie Redmayne for His Shameful Oscar Win" reference).

Clift, I think, just made it look too easy.  He didn't look like he was playing far from himself: the troubled rebel without a cause.  How he got no Oscar in his career, while Eddie Redmayne...



Montgomery Clift: From Here to Eternity
William Holden: Stalag 17
Alan Ladd: Shane
Vincent Price: House of Wax
Richard Widmark: Pickup on South Street

Yes, I'm not a Burt Lancaster fan, at least not yet.  Hence his absence.  Still, it's amazing to me that despite the acclaim and brilliance of Shane, Shane himself was not nominated.

In real life, Alan Ladd was short (5'6", slightly shorter than my 5'8"), but he really towered over the film as the reluctant gunfighter who wants to escape his violent past only to see he can't.  Ladd was never given credit for being an actor, but if you see Shane, you see one of the great performances in the Western genre, up there with Duke and Clint. 

We all want Shane to come back.

BEST PICTURE



From Here to Eternity
Julius Caesar
The Robe
Roman Holiday
Shane

I don't have a major beef with the nominees (perhaps The Robe, but this was a time when Biblical epics were the rage).  I'm honestly surprised Shane was nominated.  It's not like the Academy to seek out good films on a regular basis (example, The Theory of Nothing).   For the moment, I think that if I were to see The Robe and Julius Caesar, I wouldn't change my view that the Academy, in a shocking upset, actually picked the right film.

From Here to Eternity
Roman Holiday
Shane
Stalag 17
The War of the Worlds

What can I say?  I'm a sucker for the Martians.  That being said, I still think From Here to Eternity is the Best Film of 1953.

Next Time, The 1954 Academy Awards. 



Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Opposite Sex: A Review




THE OPPOSITE SEX

What we have in The Opposite Sex is technically speaking, a remake of the 1939 film The Women, with one minor change...

MEN appear in it!

The entire premise of The Women was that there were no men on screen or even in voice-over.  Even the animals and books in the film were female.  The Opposite Sex, however, could not avoid having men be in the picture.  Essentially the same plot as The Women, The Opposite Sex allows for some musical numbers to slip in, and while sadly not in the league of The Women, The Opposite Sex is not a bad way to spend a dull afternoon.

Kay Hilliard (June Allyson), a retired singer better known as Kay Ashley, has been married for ten years to Stephen Hilliard (Leslie Nielsen), a Broadway producer.  As far as she's concerned, she couldn't be happier in retirement.  Unbeknown to her, Stephen has begun an affair with one of his showgirls, scheming vixen Crystal Allen (Joan Collins).  It isn't long till her Kay's frenemy Sylvia Fowler (Dolores Gray) 'helps' Kay discover the affair, but it isn't until Crystal throws it in her face that not only has she been seen Stephen, but even spent time with their daughter Debbie, that Kay strikes back.

Literally: the slap Allyson lays on Collins would have shocked even Alexis Carrington.  It was so hard that Collins' earring flew off her ear!

It's off to Reno on the Divorcee Express, where Kay meets among others, the Countess de Brion (Agnes Moorehead), wry wisecracking Gloria (Ann Miller), and to her surprise later on, Sylvia herself!  Sylvia is none-too-pleased to see that Gloria is about to be the new Mrs. Fowler.  She, however, has found new arms: that of hunky ranch-hand Buck Winston (Jeff Richards), who uses his Western charms and "Ma'am" deference to win the randy Sylvia.  Sadly, Stephen marries Crystal right after the divorce is final.

A year passes, and Crystal is making everyone's life miserable.  Kay has made a comeback, and has learned to let go.  Her Reno friends have been a great support, as has her steadfast ally Amanda Penrose (Ann Sheridan), a noted playwright.  Sylvia, so besotted with Buck she's determined to make him a country & Western singing star (down to funding his club act), is unaware that Crystal now has designs on Buck herself (though Sylvia knows Crystal is now fooling around on Stephen).  Kay discovers this herself, and plots her revenge on both Crystal and Sylvia by casually letting tidbits slip out at Buck's debut.  Crystal, thinking she's managed to pull another fast one, dumps Stephen, only to find Buck isn't the marrying kind, and Stephen and Kay reconcile.



I confess to not being a June Allyson fan.  I was reminded that Allyson did Depends Adult Diaper commercials, which I find oddly amusing.  I never got why exactly she was so popular, particularly as a singer, finding her voice rather rough and reminding me of a foghorn.  Actually, I think the same about her speaking voice too.  I also thought that she never was fully able to convince me that she was this changed woman, from the somewhat docile wronged woman to the clever and shrewd avenging angel.

This, if Joan Collins is to be believed, was her first 'bad girl' role, and I think she tried a bit too hard to be this smarmy bitch.  She wasn't going to be a pleasant person, but I don't think Collins was completely convincing at even faking being pleasant (her scene with Debbie oozes insincerity when perhaps a softer touch would have worked).

A lot of the women I think tried too hard to play up their respective roles.  Allyson I think did, and so did Collins, and so did Gray as the forked-tongue Sylvia (which made her catfight with Gloria not as funny or vicious as it could have been).  Granted, I LOVE a good catfight, so I'm not complaining too much.

One thing I just don't get about The Opposite Sex (well, there's a lot I don't get, but that's for another day) is why they opted to put in big musical numbers that don't really help the story.  Sure, we get moments that highlight Allyson's singing (if you want to call it that), but what was the point of the title number with Dick Shawn and Jim Backus.  Not only was it a bit irrelevant to the movie (though it was integrated as being for a big benefit the Hilliards were throwing), but if you thought about it, the number was simply too big to fit on a Broadway stage.

It IS surprising to see Nielsen, who in his later career was all about broad comedy, as the straight lead.  He did a pretty solid job at playing the at-times conflicted husband, though his disillusionment with Crystal wasn't, again, completely convincing.

The supporting players of Miller and Moorehead had a ball playing broad broads, and Richards was effective as the hunky, sleazy Buck (his aw-shucks persona notwithstanding).  There was one funny moment when Buck attempts to seduce Kay, and even though it's clear where it's going (she swims to safety, leaving him stranded on his canoe without a paddle), both played that rather well.

In fairness to Allyson, while she won't make my Favorite Actresses List, she did handle the dramatic moments well.

I found The Opposite Sex to be a bit confused about what it wanted to be.  The opening title cards (Manhattan Island--a body of land consisting of four million square males--completely surrounded by women) made it look like a broad comedy, and Sheridan's voice-over began the story.  However, that was dropped pretty quickly, leading one to wonder why it was introduced to begin with.

On the whole, while I like The Opposite Sex, I prefer The Women.

      

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Hobbit (1977): A Review


THE HOBBIT (1977)

For those of us who came before Peter Jackson's massive adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, the animated telefilm of The Hobbit was our introduction to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien.   I figure that future generations (including, perhaps, my own kids) will skip The Hobbit animated film and slip into Jackson's The Hobbit Trilogy as their source for all things Middle-Earth.  That is a real shame, as The Hobbit, while more a condensed version of Tolkien's novel than a solid adaptation, still holds up remarkably well.  It also mostly managed in about 80 minutes what three films could not accomplish in 6 hours and 14 minutes: tell Tolkien's brief story without going overboard.

Bilbo Baggins (Orson Bean) is a hobbit, not interested in adventures or in anything outside his beloved homeland of The Shire.  To his surprise, the wizard Gandalf (John Huston) comes to his hobbit-hole, bringing along a group of dwarves who are going to hire the shocked Bilbo to be their 'burglar'.  Leading the dwarves is their exiled king, Thorin Oakenshield (Hans Conried).  Now Bilbo must travel with the dwarves, with Gandalf popping in every so often, to the Lonely Mountain where the dwarves' kingdom and gold is held by the dragon Smaug (Richard Boone).  Bilbo, using a magic ring he "won" from the creature Gollum (Theodore), he enrages Smaug enough to have him leave the mountain and attack Lake-Town, a world of men.  Smaug is killed by Bard (John Stevenson), or Bard the Bowman.  Thorin and his dwarves will not share the treasure with either men or the elves, who under the rule of The Elvenking (Otto Preminger) come to claim part of it, even if it means a battle of Three Armies.  Bilbo, already chagrined to be finding himself in a battle at all, now sees it grow to Four Armies when goblins come to get at the treasure, creating an elven/dwarf/man alliance, then it builds to FIVE Armies when the eagles come to serve as an unofficial air force.  Thorin, mortally wounded, begs Bilbo's forgiveness, saying that it was Thorin, not Bilbo, who did not understand war.  Bilbo takes a small share of the treasure as payment for all his services, and keeps the ring in a glass jar, a reminder of the time this humble hobbit went off on The Greatest Adventure.



The Hobbit may be rightly criticized for leaving things out of its adaptation or in having Gandalf serve as a deus ex machina, bailing out the dwarves constantly whenever they fall into danger (which is often).  Actually, apart from when Bilbo uses the ring to hide from the woodland elves, I pretty much am sure Gandalf would magically pop in at the most opportune moment.

Actually, I could find that The Hobbit can be rightly criticized for having the Elves as rather ugly creatures versus the lush, beautiful, ethereal beings of Tolkien's imagination.  We won't even touch why The Elvenking has a German accent.

However, I found The Hobbit to be quite charming and effective in serving as a great way to introduce the opening chapter of Tolkien's expansive epic to a young audience.  The animation is quite effective and well-crafted, no doubt since it was created by the precursor to the legendary Japanese animation Studio Ghibli. 

Of particular note is the confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum, which in this animated version is quite good as they match wits to see who will survive.  Theodore's Gollum is reflective of the frog-like appearance to our poor Smeagol, all croaking and sinister.  It is I think the best performance of all in The Hobbit, despite its brevity.  The resignation, the madness, and the fury of Gollum is reflected in Theodore's rendition.

This is matched by Bean's take of Bilbo as a simple being who reluctantly finds himself in the midst of extraordinary events.  He never shifts from playing Bilbo as an ordinary hobbit, who sees no sense in fighting and watches the Battle of the Five Armies with a mixture of puzzlement and sadness.

Dwarves look different in my time...

The other voices I wasn't too keen on.  Huston's voice is so distinctive that it looks as if he didn't try to play Gandalf as anything other than John Huston reading the text.  Conried sounded a bit hysterical as Thorin (who by the way, was in no ways made to look 'hot').  Worse perhaps was the Teutonic tones of Preminger, making the already odd-looking Elvenking sound so bizarre.

A strong criticism could also be that the dwarves themselves had no real personalities.  I don't even think dwarves that did have something to say, like Bombur or Balin, were memorable.

As this was an animated version, we got something that I don't remember from the book: talking animals.  Yes, Smaug spoke, but does anyone else remember either the spiders or eagles speaking?  Again, it is curious that The Hobbit opted to make the Woodland Elves not the ethereal, almost magical beings I recall, but rather ugly drunks. 

Still, while the story is a bit truncated and we're allowed some curious puns (Gandalf, after hearing Bilbo's story of his escape from the goblins, comments "Your story rings true", hinting he knows about the ring), The Hobbit as a film is entertaining, brief, with great animation and a wonderful soundtrack.  I found it charming, sweet, simple...like Bilbo himself. 

This adaptation serves as a wonderful introduction to Tolkien's story.  It may not be the purest or even the best adaptation to The Hobbit, but I would rather watch this version than say, another that went way, WAY too long...

        

8/10