Monday, November 30, 2015

The Librarians: And the Broken Staff Review



THE LIBRARIANS:
AND THE BROKEN STAFF

'Staff' has two meanings.  The first is a piece of wood that one uses for walking or as a scepter of sorts.  The second is the group of people working at a particular location.  I think both meanings apply to And the Broken Staff, the second part of the two-part season premiere of the second season of The Librarians. We have the main story involving the first meaning, and then we get how the second meaning applies, but as with all things Librarian-related, the second has a pretty strong and happy ending.

After Prospero (Richard Cox) and his associate Moriarty (David S. Lee) escape, main Librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) is none too pleased about the turn of events.  He also isn't particularly thrilled about having to hold a staff meeting with the other Librarians, but under pressure from the Guardian/girlfriend Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) does so.  Flynn deduces that Prospero is after his magic staff which will give him great power.  In The Tempest, Prospero breaks his staff as a way to reject his magic, but now he's no longer playing by the book...so to speak.  However, no one knows what happened to the pieces.  They don't seem to be part of the Library's collection, but Annex Librarian Jenkins (John Larroquette) lets it be known that ever since the Library was restored, some of the collection is unaccounted for...and the rooms seem to be in flux.

Well, Eve and Flynn go searching for clues regarding the staff while the other Librarians do their own research.  Only a slight hitch: Prospero and Moriarty have managed to break into the Library itself.  Soon, their nefarious scheme is revealed: Prospero no longer wants his old staff, he wants to make a new one out of the Tree of Knowledge, hidden within the Library's core.  Jenkins isn't about to stop them, what with Prospero freezing him in a case of ice and all.  Librarians Stone (Christian Kane) and Cassandra (Lindy Booth) want to overcome the security Jenkins had triggered, but master thief Jones (John Kim) tells them they simply can't break it.

Eventually they do, but to locate the heart of the Library requires teamwork and triangulation.  Flynn and Jones in the Antiquities Room, Stone and Baird in the Reading Room, and Jenkins and Cassandra in the Annex itself.  Prospero has a few tricks up his sleeve though: he leaves The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland to fight Stone and Baird, and in the Antiquities Room, Flynn and Jones face off against Frankenstein's monster.  They are able to defeat them and the race is on to stop Prospero and Moriarty from finding the Tree of Knowledge. 

Prospero is tricked about the destruction of the Tree of Knowledge and Flynn leaves to find more missing artifacts on his own, while the other Librarians begin to plan their next steps.

And the Broken Staff has some of the patented Librarians wit.  Eve at one point complains about the apparently inept security at the Library.  "This is the third time this place has been broken into since I started here," she hollers.  When Jones tries to fight Frankenstein's monster with a lighter, he is astonished that the creature does not flee in terror, but stands there with almost disdain.  "Frankenstein's monster is afraid of fire," Jones says.  "In the movie," Flynn corrects him, "not the book".  Jones looks back in surprise.  "You mean there's a difference?!"

I like how some parts were extremely clever.  Flynn reveals he tricked a Fictional with fiction by having him destroy a tree that was not the Tree of Knowledge.  The Tree of Knowledge, Flynn reveals, is not old, but a mere sapling, as Knowledge is young, always growing.  We also see that there is a curious homage to the Holmesian Canon. 


Eve threatens to throw Prospero's fob watch which holds Ariel over a cliff, reminding Moriarty that falling off cliffs wasn't exactly his strong suit.  Moriarty reminds her that Holmes was never the same after the events of The Final Problem, so much so that some scholars suggest it wasn't Holmes who returned from the Reichenbach Falls, but Moriarty claiming to be Holmes.  I confess to never having encountered this theory, but it is a nice touch and fascinating bit of speculative fiction.

What I found perhaps slightly disappointing was that Vanessa Vander Pluym's Queen of Hearts proved a bit of an anticlimactic villainess, really doing nothing but shouting "Off with their heads!".  It wasn't a complete waste given that it gave Romijn and Kane a chance for action/comedy, but I think she could have been written better. 

I also thought the giving up of the fob watch was a bit too easy.  Rather than have a real battle (or battle of wits), Moriarty just basically says 'let me have the watch or Prospero will do something terrible to me' and she agrees.  Still, the fact that Lee is proving to be such a charming antagonist (both cultured and dangerous) makes his Moriarty a delight (and I might add, a damn sight better than Andrew Scott's hysterical and camp take on Moriarty on Sherlock, whose popularity thoroughly escapes me).

There is an awful lot of comedy here, which is a real treat.  Seeing Kane, Booth, and Kim all working together so well when they rush off to an actual public library to retrieve the one book all libraries have (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare) shows they've got their individual characters down pat.  Seeing them have to pay to get the only copy of the book the library has from a little girl was a highlight of the episode (as was when Frankenstein's monster finds he can find love online). 
"This is how Librarians solve problems: with our minds and our hearts," Flynn tells Jones and Frankenstein's monster as he hugs it out with the big beast.  And the Broken Staff continues The Librarians mix of wit and whimsy, unapologetically family-friendly entertainment that is fun and clever.  All the actors (regular cast and guest stars) know to take this seriously but are also aware this isn't suppose to be serious.  The Librarians is a fantasy show, and by embracing its premise, it ends up being a fantastic show.



8/10

Next Episode: And What Lies Beneath the Stones

Saturday, November 28, 2015

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang: A Review


I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG

We don't have chain gangs anymore, and I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.  I think on how Cool Hand Luke was also about a chain gang, but not as dour or brutal as I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  The title might sound sensationalistic, but the film is not.  An intense story of a victim of circumstance, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the best examples of how to make a 'message' picture without being preachy, a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity...with a little sex in it.

James Allen (Paul Muni) comes home from the war dreaming of being an engineer.  Instead, he finds his hero's welcome consists of going back to the routine of a desk job that he doesn't like.  Despite the misgivings of his mother (Louise Carter) and preacher brother (Hale Hamilton), James strikes out on his own.  However, workers are cheap and work hard to come by, even one for someone as enthusiastic as James.  He falls on hard times and turns into a hobo.

One night, he meets up with a fellow tramp who offers to buy him a hamburger.  To James' shock, the other man holds up the joint, forcing James to be his accomplice at gunpoint. Unfortunately, the police wander into the hamburger joint right at that time, killing the other bum and catching James when he tried to flee.  James was sentenced to a certain number of years in this Southern chain gang (the film never specifies which state he was in).


This place is a living hell, where men are whipped for minor infractions, the days begin at 4:20 a.m., the prisoners demeaned, degraded, and humiliated.  The food is barely fit for human consumption, and the only way to leave is either work out or die out.  James eventually hatches an escape plan, and manages to pull it off in dramatic form. 

However, he can't stay on the lam forever, and he goes to an old ex-inmate friend for help.  James eventually goes to Chicago, where with a new name, Allen James, he rises in construction from a mere laborer at $4/day (or what I make at my job...just a joke) to an Assistant Supervisor at $14/day.  He finds not just respectability, but a purpose, and begins a relationship with his landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell).  Marie has found out about his past and threatens to expose him unless he marries her, so he reluctantly goes along with it.

His job is his only happiness, until he meets Helen (Helen Vinson), a girl who claims "I'm free, white, and 21".  They fall in love, and while Helen knows he's married, she doesn't know about his chain gang work.  James begs Marie for a divorce, but she won't hear of it, seeing him as her meal ticket.  He won't stand for it and tries to call her bluff, but she wasn't bluffing: she called the police on him. 

The case becomes a public scandal, with Illinois refusing to turn James Allen over to the Southern authorities (despite being in jail).  James has contributed to the betterment of Chicago, engineering some great bridge projects, and they see him as a productive member of society.  The Southern officials tell them that if he volunteers to return and serve a token 90-day sentence, on the chain gang (a clerk position they say), the governor will grant a full pardon.  James wants to clear the whole business and start a life with Helen, so he agrees.

At the end of the 90 days, he is denied parole or a pardon, told it would be for a year.  When the year's up, he's told his parole/pardon request have been suspended...indefinitely.  It looks like the state is determined that he serve out his full ten year sentence as punishment for speaking out publicly against their chain gang system.  Enraged at this betrayal, he makes another daring escape and eludes authorities again.

One night, about a year after his second great escape, Helen is shocked to find him there.  "It was all going to be so different," she cries.  "It IS different.  They MADE it different," he replies in anger. As he is forced to return to the darkness, Helen asks if he'll write or if he needs any money.  "But you must need money.  How do you live?" she cries out in agony.

"I STEAL!" he responds in the darkness, and then hurried footsteps are heard.


I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a devastating picture, and I think it is one of the best examples of using sound in early talking pictures (in 1932, sound was a mere five years old).  Director Mervin Le Roy for example, has absolute silence when James is underneath water in a swamp, breathing through a reed, then jumps to sound when we see above water, the hounds and guards searching him out there.

Le Roy also created great visuals to go along with sound, such as when we see the sledgehammers being used to hammer away the months on a calendar while their banging continues. 

That gripping final scene is one of the great endings in film: James, now totally ruined and turned into the criminal he became rather than the honorable man that he'd been due to the pettiness of other men, slipping into physical and metaphorical darkness.  His chilling final line, "I STEAL!" says it all.  He now has been reduced to a criminal, forced into it by the same system that was built allegedly to rehabilitate the criminal (only of course he was never a criminal to begin with, just someone at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person).

What is fascinating about I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang now is how daring it was, and not just with regards to its portrayal of the chain gang system and advocacy against it.  In those aspects, we don't get gruesome imageries, but just enough to repel us (such as the whipping James gets when he says an off comment about how the guards are treating someone else getting whipped). 

What I am talking about is in regards to sex.  Again, nothing is overt, but how the film dealt with sex shows how filmmakers of the 'Golden Age' were able to squeak things past censors while trusting the audience to figure things out for ourselves.  When we get to the hideout, we meet Linda (Noel Francis), James' ex-inmate pal's moll.  She offers James a drink, which he declines.  However, he can't help looking at her in her slinky outfit, and she coolly comes over and sits next to him, telling him that he knows what he's thinking, and that it's OK.  He's among friends...before we fade to black.

We think they had sex, but whether the censors realized the suggestion was strongly implied I cannot say.  Same goes for Marie, for we figure with her brazenly flirtatious nature she was passing him a bit of nookie with the monthly rent.

I think in terms of performances, Paul Muni did some of his best work here.  It's curious (and I think, slightly sad) that his Tony from the original Scarface isn't as well-remembered by the younger set as is Al Pacino's version.  In Scarface, Muni was an unapologetic criminal.  Here, he was a good man who had some bad turns, and while we cheer for his escape and enjoy his evolution to a productive member of society, we also see how eventually James was worn down by forces outside his control. 

There is an evolution from war hero to hardened criminal, and a dangerous one at that (what is to prevent him from killing), and Muni was powerful and heartbreaking and intense.  Muni did an extraordinary job as James Allen, even putting in a bit of humor to things. 

While on the lam, he gets a shave.  To his surprise, a policeman comes in but fails to recognize him.  "How was it?  Close enough?" the barber asks.  Muni, trying to avoid tell-tale signs to be seen by the cop, answers, "Plenty", the double meaning of 'a close shave' obvious.

Vinson as Helen is also well-acted, if brief.  I would say that at times Farrell as Marie was a bit wild and overdoing things, but given the character's nature, it is something one can accept as realistic (at least when it comes to her).

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a brilliant film, well-directed and acted , moving briskly while keeping the energy going.   Good thing we don't have chain gangs, and I think it was due in no small part for this expose of the brutality of the system.  It's a message picture perhaps, but the message is so well-delivered we can see the film as either a straight narrative or an advocacy picture.  Modern filmmakers take note: THIS is how a message gets delivered.   

DECISION: A+

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Crowd: A Review


THE CROWD

The Crowd was considered too downbeat for MGM, which is why the studio did not push for it to win the Academy Award for "Unique and Artistic Production", a now-defunct category that could be said was an artsier version of Best Picture (Sunrise having won, rightly so I think).  MGM wanted lighter fare, things that cheered people up, and in a sense, the studio was right: The Crowd failed at the box office. Despite this, The Crowd now rightly has been placed among the pantheon of great American films, certainly great silent films.

John Sims seems destined for extraordinary things, straight from his birth on July 4, 1900.  His father instills in him a sense of destiny, but Mr. Sims dies when John is 12.  At 21, John (James Murray) sets out for New York City, determined to accomplish great things.  He starts working at an office, one of many (his number is 137), and one night, rather than go to study as he planned, he's talked into going on a double-date with his coworker Bert (Bert Roach).  John's date is Mary (Eleanor Boardman), and he is instantly smitten.  So smitten is he that he proposes marriage on their first date, and Eleanor agrees.  After the wedding, Bert gives them two years, tops.

When they've returned from their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, John continues to dream big, but Mary's mother and two brothers don't think much of him or his lofty goals.  John can be arrogant and thoughtless, but also loving and kind, especially when Mary gives birth to two children: a boy and a girl.  John continues to search out for his ship to finally come in, and while Mary loves him, she at times grows agitated that he dreams while she sees Bert actually moving up in the insurance company.  However, things do turn for the Sims' when John wins a tagline contest: $500.  He buys gifts for everyone and calls for the kids to come back home.  However, his daughter is hit by a truck driver when she rushes off, and she dies.

So devastated is John that he can no longer concentrate, and he quits his job the day before the company picnic, not telling Mary until they are on the company ferry.  She stands by him as he goes from job to job, but finds things harder to bear.  Eventually, she has had enough of his dreaming and in frustration slaps him.  John goes walking with Junior, and comes close to committing suicide, but can't go through with it.  Junior comes up to him and tells him he wants to be just like him.  This unquestioning love from his son pulls John together enough for him to take any job he can get, going so far as to get a job as a juggling clown to attract attention for a company.

John goes home with Junior, thrilled by this bit of good news, when he comes across Mary and her brothers.  She tells him she's leaving him, and while he understands, he asks if he can take Junior to a show that he'd bought tickets for: three tickets in fact.  Mary cannot leave the man she loves, and The Crowd ends with the three of them, enjoying the show, a tiny group among a mass.



When I finished The Crowd, I did not get the sense that there was any 'downbeat' ending.  Yes, there were extremely downbeat moments (the death of the little girl, John's near-suicide), but I thought the film ended if not on an upbeat note (an alternate ending where the Sims had suddenly won the lottery was laughed off the screen by preview audiences), at least a hopeful one.  In this complex final scene, John, Mary, and Junior are enjoying the show when Mary gets sight of the playbill.  In its pages is "Slight of Hand: The Magic Cleaner", the tagline John had created and won $500 for.  She points this out to him, and he in turn points it out to the man next to him, who is also enjoying the show.  As the camera pulls away, we see that they are laughing with everyone else, finding some joy within the despair they live in.

For me, this doesn't indicate a somber, sad ending.  On the contrary: it says to me that there is still hope for the Sims, for them to rally back, for them to eventually find joy in their lives, even if John and Mary will never end up as President and First Lady.  If anything, I finished The Crowd not with a sense of despair, but with a sense of hope.

King Vidor, the legendary director, showed why he is a legendary director with this film.  In terms of technique, The Crowd is an extraordinary achievement.  There's the extraordinary sequence where we go from the massive New York City streets (The Crowd was shot primarily on location) to a particular building, then panning up to a particular window, then to go into a mass set filled with hundreds of men at desks, moving until we get to Number 137.  Even now, such a shot would be remarkable, but given that this was all done either in-camera or with models, the transitions are beyond extraordinary. 

Vidor uses symbolism to great effect, particularly whenever he draws emphasis on how John is really one of "the crowd", a single figure lost among thousands, no greater than anyone else.  The special effects of when John and Mary's daughter is run down may be weak by today's standards, but we can see how Vidor was working hard to create real innovation.

We also see how powerful he was when it came to getting performances out of his actors (especially his then-wife Boardman).  She was sympathetic as the loyal wife who loves the man even when he drives her to despair.   It's a very gentle and tender performance, and a real one too when she finds a beach picnic brings out her frustrations at raising three kids (her son, her daughter, and her husband, who is happily playing his ukulele while she struggles to keep the food warm).

James Murray, an unknown when cast, makes John a curious mix of dreamer and fool, someone who is at times likable but arrogant, thoughtless but loving, despondent but hopeful.  It is a well-rounded and powerful performance, and I think one of the best of the silent era (even if at the scene when his daughter dies, it does become a bit theatrical in the silent film clichéd version).  However, when he is weakly asking firefighters rushing to a fire to keep quiet for his little girl, or when he sees his son still looks up to him, Murray breaks your heart.

Tragically, James Murray in real life became John Sims, only without the hopeful ending.  The Crowd was his only major role (though he did get some work in other films), and a few years after his triumph he became an alcoholic, eventually turning to panhandling on the very streets where he had filmed his great triumph.  In 1936, at age 35, he was found floating in the Hudson River, and no one knows whether it was accidental or suicide.  It is a tragic end to someone with great potential, and serves to underscore the reality of The Crowd's theme of the ordinary man being brought low due to his inability to fulfill his own lofty dreams.  The fact that James Murray too thought he was destined for great things and that he was only a year younger than his character who faced a similar fate makes all this all the more tragic.

I would say about the only real flaw I found in The Crowd was when we had a long scene on the train on their wedding night, which I though was a bit too long and comical and taking up too much time.  However, that is really a minor point that doesn't take away the brilliance of the film. 

The Crowd, I think doesn't make the case that the ordinary man is a failure if he remains ordinary.  I think it says that sometimes one isn't destined for 'greatness' as the world sees it.  There is greatness in humility, in being a caring husband and father, in being a good friend, in being yourself.  It is good to have ambition, but it is better to have a good life. 

DECISION: A+

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I Wouldn't Cut A Frame From It: Greed Review


GREED

In a certain manner, Greed was bound to fail.  The idea that anyone would sit through an eight or nine-hour film, even one as astonishingly brilliant as Greed, is insane.  It's a pity that director Erich von Stroheim isn't around today, for I think he would have found the limited series concept of television to have been more up his street: allowing him to tell his epic story in pieces where at the end it could be put together today.  Greed a lost film in that the original-length cut of it is lost, probably forever.  There was a four-hour reconstruction with stills, but at the moment we have a three-hour version that is probably as close as we will get to seeing what von Stroheim wanted.

Even in this 'short' version, Greed remains of the greatest silent films and among the Great Films in All Cinema, its visual impact and story of the corrupted nature of man still powerful and relevant today. 

Based on the novel McTeague (which I suspect is pretty much forgotten save for Greed), the film is about John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a gentle man with a violent nature when aroused to anger.  He begins as a miner, but after seeing how successful and respected a visiting dentist is, Mother McTeague (Tempe Pigott) persuades her son and the dentist to take him on as an apprentice.  While Doctor "Painless" Potter is a quack, he is successful enough to get McTeague set up as a successful dentist in his own right.

Enters Trina Semple (Zasu Pitts), the beautiful girlfriend of his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt).  For the first time in his life McTeague is aroused by a woman, but he is also conflicted by the fact that she's with his bestie.  Marcus graciously steps aside for McTeague, and Trina finds herself courted by the dentist.  Eventually, they marry, and it is on their way to a celebratory dinner after the wedding that Trina and McTeague get a shock.  Trina had bought a lottery ticket when she first went to the dentist's office, and now they are astonished to discover she has won $5,000!


This sudden fortune is a true misfortune for the McTeagues.  Marcus becomes bitter and angry at the thought that if he had stuck with Trina, he would have had that $5,000 he believes are rightly his.  Trina becomes obsessed with saving every penny to where she will not spend one cent of that $5,000 (and apparently won't put in the back).  She polishes all the gold coins lovingly, treasures them, nurses them like a mother.  McTeague at first isn't interested in all that: he's just generally happy to have Trina with him and a flourishing practice at something he loves. 

However, before Marcus leaves to strike out on his own in the desert, he informs the state dental board that McTeague is not registered or licensed.  They promptly send a 'cease-and-desist' letter, devastating him and enraging Trina.  At this point, maybe breaking out that $5,000 might be a good idea, but Trina won't part with one bit of it.  They are reduced to poverty, McTeague finding work hard to come by, and Trina becoming a toy whittler and even scrubwoman rather than use a single bit of her $5,000.  Soon, she pushed McTeague past his breaking point when she refuses his request for a nickel to use public transportation despite his protests that he might get caught in the rain.  Insisting a good walk will do him good and that it won't rain, she sends him immediately to look for more work less than an hour after coming home when he got fired.

It does happen that it does rain, and from there things go downhill fast.  He leaves her and she goes to being the scrubwoman, but on Christmas he finds her at the school.  He demands she give him her $5,000, but she in a mix of terror and defiance will not.  In his rage he murders her and takes the money, fleeing to Death Valley.  Marcus, out in the desert, learns of Trina's murder and McTeague's flight, and he goes after him, convinced he has that $5,000 he wants.  In his mad search for McTeague, his horse dies and he runs out of water.  However, he does catch up with McTeague, but by now both of them are at least 100 miles from the nearest water source, and while McTeague manages to kill Marcus, in the fight between them Marcus had handcuffed McTeague.  With the gold intact but with no water, food, shelter, and condemned to die, McTeague sets his pet bird free, perhaps with the hope that it will find happiness...


The power of Greed, even in its 'disheveled' form, is still there, and for those watching it for the first time, we can marvel at the strengths of von Stroheim as a director.  He is a brilliant director in terms of drawing astonishing performances out of his cast.  I am particularly struck by Zasu Pitts, who is best remembered now as a comedienne.  Her performance shows that she should rank with other great silent film actresses like Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, or at least perhaps would be if she had done more dramas.  Pitts goes from this sweet, innocent woman (so innocent that she becomes terrified by the wedding night) into this cold, hard, greedy woman consumed with passion for her gold and ends as this tragic victim of her own mania.  It is such a totally immersed performance that one marvels how and why she wasn't given more dramas, even when she managed to transition to sound well.

In a small gesture, in an angry glance, in a terror-filled face, Pitts goes through all the emotions and has us feeling them to, from warmth to near-hatred for what Trina has become and turned McTeague to. 

Gowland's McTeague is not as strong as Pitts, but he still manages to convey the duality of McTeague: at times gentle and innocent, at times fury-fueled and murderous.  We see that early in the film, when he gently takes a bird with a broken wing from the ground and begins to tend to it.  When another miner brusquely knocks the bird out of McTeague's hands, McTeague responds by lifting that miner and tossing him down into the river.  Again and again Gowland is asked to make us sympathize and be repelled by McTeague, and he does it so well that it ends up being a strong performance.

I think Hersholt, with a certain validity, can be accused of giving a performance that can be considered stereotypical for silent films (broad and over-acted).  However, in some of his better moments, the happy-go-lucky nature of Marcus makes that slow shift to a man consumed by his own greed all the more effective.



Von Stroheim was also a great director visually.  He tells us so much with his visual style instead of spelling it out for us, trusting the audience to figure things out.  Von Stroheim uses all sorts of symbolism that highlights the story.  There is now Marcus shifts visually into a cat who looks with hunger at the two golden canaries, obviously symbols of Trina and John.  The cat is there, waiting to pounce on them. 

As a side note, the canaries, along with certain other symbols (the dentist's tooth symbol, the wedding ring, and the coins) are all color-tinted in the black-and-white film, pointing out the promise and peril of the gold in the characters' lives.

One of the best and most brilliant shots is at the wedding, where von Stroheim manages to show the wedding ceremony in the foreground while in the background passes a funeral procession.  The score also intercuts brilliantly between Felix Mendelsohn's Wedding March and Fredric Chopin's Funeral March, underscoring the fact that this wedding will lead to several funerals.  The final moments in Death Valley, with blood splattered on the golden coins that have led to the ruin of three lives, also serves as symbolism to the tragedy we have seen.

We also see how brilliantly von Stroheim uses symbolism with the wedding photograph of John and Trina.  We see it shift from beautifully framed above their beds, to eventually discarded, torn in half (symbolically separating McTeague and Trina) and unframed (like an old poster), to tossed in the trash, to serving as part of McTeague's wanted poster.  Here, we see through the wedding picture how the McTeagues have come undone.

Von Stroheim's use of focus, of symbolism, of location shooting, and intercutting between real and symbols (such as when Marcus sees an ocean taking the place of people at the pier, symbolizing his overwhelmed emotions of losing either his girl or his friend) are as revolutionary as something from The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, or Citizen Kane (even if Greed preceded the last two). 

Any virtue taken to extremes can become a sin.  Trina's virtue of saving was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of greed.  Marcus' virtue of giving something up for a greater good was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of jealousy.  McTeague's virtue of kindness was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of wrath.  Erich von Stroheim's virtue of creating a thoroughly faithful adaptation and of something brilliant was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of arrogance, creating a feature-length film of unmanageable length.  The studio's virtue of wanting a commercial film was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of ignorance, tearing apart a brilliant piece of art.

Despite all that, what we do have, this version of Greed, still astounds one with its brilliance, with its insight into the darkness of man, and should rightly rank among the greatest films ever made, up there with Citizen Kane, with Vertigo, with Metropolis, with Sunrise, and with Seven Samurai.  Whether the complete, massive eight-hour cut of Greed will ever be found is unknown (I think the answer is no).   Mercifully, title cards help pull a silent film together and can cover things lost now, and more merciful, this version of Greed, the one we have now, is enough. 

No need to be greedy.

DECISION: A+

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

War Room: A Review



WAR ROOM

Despite my growing albeit flawed Christianity, I am an 'art before theology' film critic.  I look at a film first, not the message behind it (even if I agree with it).  I have been pretty critical of the Kendrick Brothers, Alex and Stephen, in their ouvre of faith-centered cinema.  I have found at least two of the five films they have made to be pretty bad in terms of cinema (Courageous and Facing the Giants). I have not having seen Flywheel and I thought Fireproof was 'competent' (though I should see it again just to be sure).  Alex Kendrick's two other features where his work was just in front of the camera (The Lost Medallion and Mom's Night Out) at least weren't ruined by his amateurish acting.  Maybe ruined by other things, but not at least by him. 

We now come to the Kendrick Brothers' fifth film, War Room.  This is the Kendrick Brothers' most polished, most accomplished, most competent film, a massive leap in terms of both their own work and Christian independent filmmaking.  It's by no means perfect.  However, it's a testament to what can happen when writers/director get out of their own way, not make themselves the center of attention, move minorities up-front and center, and acknowledge(albeit in a small way) that there is such a thing as sin.  That may be the biggest miracle in War Room.

Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer), a successful real estate dealer, has a beautiful daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts), but her marriage is not.  Her husband, pharmaceutical representative Tony (T.C. Stallings) is a man of the world: one for wealth, status, being Number One, and not ashamed to flirt madly with Veronica Drake (Tenae Downing), a woman he just met while making his latest sale.  In fact, the fact that Tony is married comes as a bit of a twist in the story.

Elizabeth finds she is growing resentful and angry at her husband, and Danielle is the one made to suffer, for her parents give her things but know nothing about her life.  Into her life comes Miss Clara Williams (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who is in need of selling her large home.  Elizabeth's problems are clearly visible, and Miss Clara asks the younger woman to come over to not just discuss business but also her problems.  These problems can be solved through prayer, particularly through a 'war room', a quiet area where Miss Clara can pray and seek wisdom from God.

Elizabeth tries her hand at a 'war room', at first with very limited results.  As she grows closer to Miss Clara and grows in her relationship with Christ, things do start turning around for her.  Not so much with Tony, who still is the cock-of-the-walk until his inflated numbers are discovered and he is fired.  With his world crashing, he sees that Elizabeth is not bitter or angry, and Danielle seems to be happier.  At last Tony has his own 'come-to-Jesus' moment, and he too becomes a Christian.

Being a Christian doesn't resolve your problems.  Sometimes it compounds them (don't I know it).  Tony has been secretly keeping extra samples as an informal cushion in case of financial calamity, and now he has a terrible choice to make: live by his principles and return them (even if it means potential prison time) or keep quiet and if not sell them, at least not disclose their existence.  In the end, his newly-found faith convinces him he has to return them, which shocks Coleman Young (writer/director Alex Kendrick), the company head.  The Jordans pray hard about what will happen and are at peace with whatever fate they are handed.  Coleman comes and tells them that he sees the sincerity in Tony and agrees not to press charges. 

Things end pretty well for the Jordan family.  Tony, Elizabeth, and Danielle grow closer, and Tony manages to bounce back on his feet with a job at the community center which, together with Elizabeth's income, will keep them from having to shift wildly in their lifestyles.  Speaking of feet, the running gag about how Elizabeth's feet make others gag gets a humorous resolution, and Miss Clara sells her house and moves in with her son, who happens to be the City Manager.  Together, the Jordans in their war room now have a battle plan, and Miss Clara prays for a new woman to come to serve as mentor.


For me, someone who has been highly critical of the Kendrick Brothers collected work, War Room is shocking for many reasons.  Chief among them is that War Room is actually good.  I didn't sense that they were attempting to give us a sermon or treat the fact that there is such a thing as sin as something unnatural or even relevant to a Christian's life.  The curious thing about the Kendrick Brothers is that while they are making Christian-themed/centered films, they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the existence of sin in their films, let alone entertain the idea that Christians themselves commit sin or are even aware of it.  The Kendricks always go out of their way to imagine a world that exists in a parallel universe, where only unsaved people fell from grace.  Their Christians do not swear, do not have premarital/extramarital sex, drink, use drugs, or if their films are to be believed, even realize such things exist.

That is a far cry from the Christians I know, who not only do that but sometimes even divorce.  In short, the Christians I know struggle between their flesh and their spirit.  The Kendricks version of a Christian has little struggle, let alone such errors of judgment as getting divorced while still going to church, or having a beer, or having real flaws that make them similar, but not exactly like, their unsaved friends and family. 

I think their thoroughly unrealistic worldview, one that has the real fallen nature of man as being something 'out there' and removed from their characters, is what always made me wary of looking at their films as good.  War Room changes that because for the first time that I can remember, a married man is sexually tempted and comes close to committing adultery (something that would NEVER happen if Alex Kendrick were the lead...and allow me to be a little mean in saying that the LAST thing we need to see is Alex Kendrick in a love scene with anyone.  Yes, I'm a Christian, but I can be sarcastic and cynical too...in short, a sinner saved by grace and not by my own works).  Tony's lecherous nature and his willingness to sleep with Veronica are handled realistically, which shows to me that the Kendrick Brothers are finally growing up. 

Even the resolution that keeps Tony from schtupping Veronica is handled well (Elizabeth prayed for him--the Christian response, and Tony got food poisoning that killed the romantic mood--the 'rational' response).  The fact that they were willing to treat sin as something real that affects people is a step in the right direction (and it might even lead one to wonder if they would be willing to let a Christian character stumble).


Another major aspect of War Room that makes this the best Kendrick Brothers film is that they finally acknowledged the existence of African-Americans as people, not supporting players who might need rescuing from the good white people.  I still remember cringing at Facing the Giants, which had only one black character who was this short of calling Alex Kendrick's character 'Massa'.  In all their other films, African-Americans were either supporting players or virtually non-existent, keeping with their rather curious worldview of a predominantly white world (I still also fume whenever I consider how the Hispanic character in Courageous was asked by Kendrick's character if he 'had permission' to work, something I'm sure he wouldn't have contemplated, let alone dared ask a black or white character).  The Kendricks have been tone-deaf at the very least to how they see minorities.  With War Room, we see something sorely lacking in films/television in general: a successful black family who are also relatable to non-African-Americans.  It's as if the Kendrick Brothers finally entered Obama's America. 

I find it a wonderful turn that Alex and Stephen decided to switch from their original plans to have a white family at the center and create a world where African-Americans are equal, where they have homes, businesses, make mistakes, and find redemption. 

I think that in short, they finally recognize that the world is more complex and diverse than their usual cinematic universe of upper-class Anglos who have a token 'black' friend and who carry that burden of being wise and empowering to all poor minorities that cross their paths.  In their recognition of sin, of human frailties, and of racial diversity, War Room is a landmark in the Kendrick Brothers film work.

And for the record, Danielle does have a token white friend, so in that sense that too is an improvement.

There are a few things still a bit off.  An unnecessary hold-up is made more bizarre by Miss Clara's declarations to the would-be robber that she overpowers him in Jesus' name.  I still don't know whether the robber left them unharmed because Miss Clara had genuine faith or because he thought she was a nutter.  The screenplay also doesn't make clear if Veronica was aware that Tony was married or not.   In terms of actual acting, I don't think Shirer or Stallings will be submitting their names For Your Consideration (though as a side note, the scene between Shirer and Pitts where Danielle asks her mother if she knows anything about her life now was moving), and Abercrombie was veering close to comical at times, though given she was playing much older than she actually is, I should commend her performance on the whole. 

While Miss Clara I figure is somewhere in her 70s, Miss Abercrombie is probably somewhere in her 40s, maybe 50s, as even IMDB doesn't have her age listed.

As a director, Alex Kendrick still has some difficultly drawing full emotions from his cast and making them be completely real people instead of 'actors playing roles'.  However, he was wise in giving himself a very small part rather than being the focus.  Maybe he finally realized that he either just can't act or doesn't have the training to be the lead (his gray hair and balding head are also tacit acknowledgements that Kendrick is getting older, and perhaps better as a filmmaker).  Paul Mills' score was appropriate when it needed to be (swelling when Elizabeth commits to Christ, light when there was need for humor).

As a side note, one of the actors who played a cop in Courageous, Ben Davies, plays a cop in War Room.   It would have been a clever in-joke if he were playing the same character, tying the Kendrick Cinematic Universe together.  Alas, it might be too much to hope for, but one can hope.  Still, I digress.

War Room has many positives that outweigh its negatives.  It is diverse, it has an interesting story with believable characters, it has logic mixed with faith, and it looks and feels like a genuine movie instead of the filmed sermons I'm used to from the Kendricks (in Courageous, the film ended with a sermon...still shake my head at that).  I was thoroughly impressed with War Room, and hope that the lessons in filmmaking that Alex and Stephen Kendrick learned from it are good ones.

Chief among them: this is how you make not just a Christian film, but a good film.        

DECISION: B-

Monday, November 23, 2015

Pan (2015): A Review



PAN

You can't force whimsy. 

You just can't force people to find things magical no matter how much money or effects you throw at them.  You can't force whimsy, but Pan did its absolute best to try and convince everyone how wonderful, how magical, how fantastical it all is.  Billed as a family film about the origins of The Boy Who Never Grew Up, Pan ends up being almost a horror film about the shameless overproduction of visuals at the expense of just about everything and a cautionary tale of what happens when you craft a film to try and force-feed audiences instead of giving them something worth their time.

London: The Blitz.  12-year-old orphan Peter (Levi Miller) is in a place that makes the orphanage from Oliver! look like Willy Wonka's factory.  The nuns are cruel beyond measure, down to hoarding food for themselves.  Peter is also troubled by the disappearances of other orphans, but he can't make sense out of it.  That is, until we learn that the nuns are in cahoots with pirates with flying ships that kidnap the children.  In their latest raid, among those taken is Peter.

Once in Neverland (where for reasons the script never makes clear, the ship and new arrivals are greeted to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit), they find that they are all at the mercy of Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  He uses the children as miners to locate pixium, the rare material that usually comes from pixies but which Blackbeard hunted to near or total extinction.  Pixium keeps him looking young, so obviously the idea of an old Wolverine is unspeakable.

One day on the job and Peter manages to find some...and promptly accused of trying to steal it.  Blackbeard has only one punishment for this: he has to walk the plank and fall to his death to The Ramone's Blitzkrieg Bop (again, for reasons no one knows).  Surprising all, Peter manages to fly!  This alarms Blackbeard, as he knows of a prophesy involving a flying boy. 

At this point, it's a bit muddled exactly what the prophesy says, since I understood to mean that the flying boy was the product of a fairy prince and a mortal woman, but for most of Pan his mother is a fairy and his father I think was also fairy...I think.

Well, Peter makes his escape, with a little help from another miner, an adventurous fellow named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund).  They make their daring escape and as much as Hook wants out of all this, Peter is adamant about finding the truth of his mother.  This means searching for the Fairy Kingdom, which I think is protected by the Indians, among them the Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren, but that's neither here nor there).  Blackbeard goes after them because he wants to kill the boy who is prophesied to kill him, and it helps that Blackbeard already killed Pan's mother. 

They do find the Fairy Kingdom, James Hook and Tiger Lily join Peter in doing battle with Blackbeard, and Peter at last has full confidence in his ability to fly by leading the fairies to do battle.  We end with now-Captain Hook going back to get the other orphans to join Peter as the Lost Boys.

Pan just is a disaster, though through no fault of its lead.  Levi Miller, who is making his film debut with this production, and it is such a shame that he landed in this turkey.  He does a remarkable job as the wide-eyed Peter who rises to become the hero he is 'destined' to be.  He has the hallmarks of a good young actor, conveying rage, hurt, sadness, fear, and wonder with total conviction.

Everyone else though is off on another world, with each other lead apparently in another movie of their own imagination.  Hedlund, I figure, might be having fun with Pan serving as a nearly two-hour audition tape for the Han Solo prequel.   He was off doing a Harrison Ford impersonation, switching from Han Solo to Indiana Jones and either wildly overacting or deciding it wasn't worth the time even trying to make anything regarding Pan rational. 

The fact that we got 'children forced to work in mines' and a ship's captain who comes in to help the hero at the last moment as parts of Jason Fuch's jumbled and chaotic script does not help in the Indiana Jones/Han Solo comparisons.               



Nothing, however, can prepare you for the clearly insane...thing that Jackman was doing.  Was it some avant-garde theatrical style?  Was it him thinking, "oh, it's for children, so I can go so over-the-top they can see my performance all the way to the second star on the right"?  Was it a cash-grab?

If HE or ANYONE can explain why Smells Like Teen Spirit or Blitzkrieg Bop had to be sung in Neverland (or how they came to be known at least thirty years before they debuted) or why Blackbeard was even here to provide a rather dull antagonist, please feel free to drop a note.

Mara was, well, I'm not sure what she was...apart from not being Native American.

There were more problems than just the performances save Miller (and that's saying an awful lot).  As I stated, there was no story, origin or otherwise.  Sometimes, at least at the parts I was conscious in (since I did nod off...it's almost impossible not to at Pan), one wasn't sure what was not so much going on but why anyone would care.  So, Blackbeard killed Peter's mother, so he knew who Peter was...yet he didn't bother to, like, kill him when he arrived (too busy doing a drag queen impersonation and singing along to Nirvana I guess). 

Everything was so frenetic, so rushed, so convoluted, so chaotic, so tossed wither-and-yon that it soon overwhelms you in a bad way.  You don't care what is going on because you don't care what happens to those people, that is, if you can actually follow what is going on if you're still awake.  Pan drowns in its visuals, which sometimes are pretty (the Mermaid Lagoon sequence being nice), but when it actually has nods to the future (Hook quickly pulls his hands out of the water when told they are infected with alligators), it won't take advantage of what could be a good set-up.

Would it have killed Pan to come up with the story of how Hook got his hook? 

Pan could have been something good.  Pan, with a little more thought and a lot less special effects (and another director, for Joe Wright's forte seems to be more elegant, Merchant Ivory-style productions than fantasy...and I was not a fan of his action film Hanna) could have created something wonderful.  As it is, what we end up with is just a horror: in equal measures boring and rushed, confused and idiotic, dull and overblown.  

There is nothing in Pan to recommend except for Levi Miller.  I hope no one holds this against him.  Hugh Jackman on the other hook...

    

DECISION: F

Sunday, November 22, 2015

London After Midnight: A Review



LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT

Reviewing London After Midnight is in some ways, a very sad affair.  London After Midnight is a lost film, the last known copy having burned in a fire in 1967.  In fact, so much of London After Midnight is lost that as of now, not only is there no known copy of the film in existence, there is only one known POSTER for the film known to exist, having sold at auction for a record $478,000 (the highest price paid for a poster as of today). 

And no, I wasn't the winning bidder, sorry. 

We do have, however, a reconstruction of London After Midnight created by Turner Classic Movies from still photos of the film which has been released on DVD.  Until a copy can be found (which is theoretically possible), this reconstructed version is as close as we may ever come to seeing what the film actually looked like.  Judging the reconstruction, London After Midnight isn't a bad picture, certainly elevated by Lon Chaney's dual performance.  However, as an overall story is a bit second-rate, even bizarre.

Wealthy Londoner Roger Balfour is found dead.  Inspector Burke (Chaney) rules it a suicide, complete with note.  However, he isn't convinced, and neither is Sir Roger's neighbor, Sir James Hamlin (Henry Walthall) is not convinced his neighbor did himself in.  Five years pass, and now new mysterious things are going on. A sinister-looking being, along with a shadowy female, are now leasing the Balfour estate.  Could they be vampires?

Sir James isn't sure, so he calls in Inspector Burke again to find out who and/or what they are.  Sir James has been the guardian of Lucille (Marceline Day), Roger's daughter.  Also living with him is his nephew, Arthur Hibbs (Conrad Nagel).  Lucy and Arthur have fallen in love, but Burke suspects Arthur may be the trigger man in Roger's death.  These beings frighten the servants, but Burke appears to set up a trap to find not just who these new beings are, but what actually happened to Roger Balfour.  We get a few twists and turns to unmask the real criminals, and find out the truth of what goes on in London After Midnight.



In terms of Chaney's legendary make-up work, London After Midnight is another highpoint in his career.  It is appropriately creepy, with some of the tricks of the trade being revealed.  I understand that because Chaney plays two parts (Inspector Burke and The Man With the Beaver Hat), he shows on-screen how he created the make-up tricks for the film.  In the stills, we can see the clips Chaney used to give his eyes that sunken look.

Given the stills, I think Chaney gave a pretty good performance in the dual roles, his Inspector Burke a man of authority, wisdom, and wary suspicion.  Day had nothing much to do but be very pretty (which she was), and the same can be said for Nagel.  Walthall worked well as the duplicitous Sir James, who ends up being the true villain of the film.

However, a lot of London After Midnight both as a film and in the reconstruction is a bit muddled.  If Sir James managed to get away with things, why would he recall Inspector Burke to investigate?  Wouldn't it have been better to ignore the 'vampire' next door (now that's a good title, don't you think)?  Further, we really didn't get a sense that the Man in the Beaver Hat was a vampire.  It's not a good thing that you have to be told what we should see (even in the still pictures the reconstruction used).

Further, a lot of the story seems a bit confusing.  We discover at the end that the Bat Girl was really Lunette, the Flying Woman Theater troupe member.  What exactly her role in the investigation is confused, as is who/how they got a Roger Balfour impersonator to fool the killers.  Also, did we really have to have as part of the Tod Browning-directed/written film the idea that 'the butler did it'?  There's an element of hypnotism that helps unmask the killer, but it does seem to take up time with Arthur.

Now, it may be because what London After Midnight is as of today is a series of still photographs put together to make up the film, and something may have gotten lost in translation so to speak.  However, some things were a little confusing, even in this short version.

It would be good if London After Midnight were rediscovered somewhere intact.  Again, theoretically possible, but I think it won't happen.  I think Chaney elevates the material and he was one of the great silent film actors.  His Man With the Beaver Hat has become iconic, a remarkable fate given there are no known surviving prints of the film he originated in. 

Ultimately, I think London After Midnight is more for people interested in silent films, particularly silent horror or lost films than regular film viewers.  Despite its short length in its reconstruction version I found it a bit slow and a bit confusing.  I admit to nodding off from time to time.  Still, bless Turner Classic Movies for giving us a reconstruction of London After Midnight, an interesting, and sadly lost, film.

Here's to having the vampire rise again.       



DECISION: B-

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gotham: By Fire Review


GOTHAM: BY FIRE

Burn, Baby, Burn could have been the name for By Fire, Episode Six to Season Two of Gotham.  Firefly makes a return appearance, while her future is still up in the air.  We also get more worrisome news regarding Gertrude Kapelput, some shocking twists and some really good acting.

Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) now has his minion Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) inside the coven of the Galavans: Theo (James Frain), his sister Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) and their girl Friday, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards).  Butch is there to find Gertrude Kapelput, but despite having lost his hand, the Galavans have a few tricks up their own sleeves.  Butch stumbles back to Penguin, informing him he knows where Gertrude is and they have to move now.

In other news, Bridgit Pike (Michelle Veintimilla) regrets what happened to the Gotham City Police Officer and wants to escape.  Her friend, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) helps her the only way she knows how: by robbing a sex slave auction with Bridgit in her fireproof outfit.  They take the money to get Bridgit out of Gotham, but Bridgit is kidnapped by her brothers before she manages to make the bus out of town. This unleashes Bridgit's fury, and she immolates both of them and slips into crime for crime's sake.  Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) recognizes Selina and puts two and two together (at least in this case).  He and the Strike Force attempt to take Bridgit in, but in mutual panic one cop fires and she accidentally sets herself on fire.  Selina is hurt and angry that her friend was dead and blames Gordon.  However, Bridgit is not dead, but has been secretly spirited away to Indian Hill, a division of Wayne Enterprises.

Finally, things are starting to look up for Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and his first romance, GCPD Records Officer Kristen Kringle (Chelsea Spack).  They even go to bed together (Ed: Virgin No More).  It isn't until Ed reveals that he did indeed kill Kringle's last boyfriend Officer Dougherty that Kristen freaks out.  For some reason, she doesn't seem pleased that Ed is a murderer.  In his panic, Ed accidentally strangles Kristen, leaving him in shock and devastation.


We certainly went through a lot of events within By Fire, but what was incredible is that within all that, each story managed to have its moment.  Each story: Bridgit, Nygma, and Cobblepot, all flowed individually without crashing into the others.  Each of them also had simply fantastic performances throughout.

For me, the Bridgit/Selina storyline was the most heartbreaking and best-acted.  Bicondova and Veintimilla are simply perfect in their scenes together.  I was so moved by these two lost kids trying to survive in the dark world of Gotham.  We see that Cat is actually a good person who does bad things.  She is loyal and protective towards Bridgit, and does what she can to help her friend.  Veintimilla also impresses as the meek Bridgit, and when she finally hits her breaking point it is chilling.

The fact that Firefly survived (I figure to eventually face off against the future Batman) was a smart move, and I do hope she makes a return appearance.

Equally excellent were CMS and Spack as the doomed lovers.  While I would have liked to have seen an actual love scene between Nygma and Kringle (the virgin at least deserves to have his moment of glory shown), in all other respects the fact that Nygma ends up killing his darling is, like Bridgit's storyline, heartbreaking.  Credit to both CMS and Spack for playing their relationship so well to its tragic conclusion.

About the only real flaw regarding the three stories involves the Penguin story.  Part of the problem for me is the idea that Gertrude, a total innocent in all this, will pay a high price (even at this point I figure she's a goner).  Part of it also involves the conclusion: I am not convinced that Butch is somehow setting Penguin up for a trap.  Already in By Fire we see that Galavan had all along known that Butch was not a real 'team player', so a lot of the 'shock' is gone when a lot of what is going on and will be going on with this story looks pretty obvious.  Before the end of the episode I wrote in my notes, "I think it's a trap for Penguin", and I stand by that conviction.

We did little glimpses of how Galavan is still playing young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and his training with Alfred (Sean Pertwee), and while it's good to see them pop up it neither added or take away from the overall episode.

Apart from the obvious nature of the Penguin story, By Fire has hit another highpoint in Gotham's second season with great acting and a story pushing us towards what I hope will be a shocking (but logical) conclusion. 

Butch is not a handy man while
the Congressman hangs around...


9/10

Next Episode: Mommy's Little Monster

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ant-Man: A Review


ANT-MAN

I am officially chastened and humbled. 

I never read comic books as a child, or a teen, or a college student.  The first comic book I read was The Blue Beetle, and that was only because it was set in my hometown of El Paso.  Therefore, the sage of Ant-Man pretty much escaped my notice.  When I heard that Marvel was going to make a movie about this miniscule hero of the Marvel Universe, my reaction was laughter. 

Now, having seen the movie, I realize that I should not make a snap judgment about a film merely because I find the premise an oddball one.  Ant-Man is the best Marvel film this year (sorry, Age of Ultron).  Ant-Man, for me, was everything the bloated, overblown, self-important Age of Ultron was not: a story that works independent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can also compliment that whole universe, fun, funny, balancing the humor with action, believable visual effects, strong action pieces, believable and likable characters, and more important, a strong sense of logic.  Honest to goodness logic.

Or at least enough logic to rationalize the idea of a man shrinking to the size of an ant.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently-released robber (or burglar, since robbery involves threats, which he didn't in his crime) who is trying to go straight.  Not an easy task given his criminal record.  He also has the added difficulty of a forced separation from his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whom he loves.  There's no love between Scott and his ex-wife's fiancée, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale).  Scott cannot afford child support, which is his only flaw as a father (since both father and daughter truly love each other).  Scott is talked into a heist by his bumbling buddy Luis (Michael Pena), who tells him via a long chain of people of a vault of a rich old guy who is on vacation the whole week.

Scott uses his athleticism and intellect to break into the vault, but is astonished to find nothing more than what looks like an old motorcycle suit.  He takes it anyway, and secretly tries it on.  To Scott's total shock, he not only hears a voice but is shrunk to the size of an ant, making a desperate run for his life.  He finds that he has been monitored by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who not only designed the suit but also allowed the break-in to test Scott's skills.  Hank offers him a chance to train to stop Pym's former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from discovering this technology that Cross will use to weaponize.  Aiding Pym is his bitter daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who thinks she can do it himself.

Cross has been working furiously to crack Pym's formula, and is slowly going mad in his efforts.  With him now on the cusp of having a breakthrough, it will take the concerted efforts of Pym, Hope, Scott, and Scott's criminal crew of Luis, Dave (Tip "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Datsmalchian) to stop Cross, now as Yellowjacket, able to shrink himself, from wreaking havoc.


Just how much better was Ant-Man to Age of Ultron?  It at least had the decency to have mid and post-credit scenes, which Age of Ultron didn't.  I got burned in more ways than one at Age of Ultron's failure to close with a scene, so much so that I walked out of Ant-Man pretty soon as the closing credit's began.  Hence, I had to read about the two scenes online.  To me at least, this shows that Ant-Man welcomes me into the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead of leaving me out of things. 

Another positive aspect to Ant-Man are the performances.  Paul Rudd doesn't automatically come up when thinking of 'action' star, but the odd thing about Rudd is that while he's best known for being the quick-witted comic lead he has always been capable of being a more serious actor.  His Scott Lang balances being fully aware of the oddity of it all with a desire to protect his daughter (leading to one of the film's best action scenes taking place in her bedroom).  Lilly I think was appropriate icy as Hope, and I think Ant-Man did an interesting job in counterpointing Lang's desire to be with his daughter to Pym's desire to be his own daughter. 

Douglas never plays down being part of this universe, but plays it seriously.  In fact, the fact that just about everyone plays it seriously is what elevates Ant-Man to a higher level.  Again, thinking on Age of Ultron, Hawkeye made mention that a lot of the situations the characters are in is a bit ludicrous.  In Ant-Man, all this is played as if this is real, which is what makes it more successful.



Curiously, the only one who doesn't play it straight is Pena, but that is a plus.  His Luis is a delight with his upbeat, dim personality.  I can't say I related to his endearing but slightly dimwitted criminal (the San Quentin version of Rose Nylund), but I do know people who speak exactly like Luis do (going into long explanations to how the came upon information by linking every link in sometimes excessive detail, complete with the vocal inflections).  In another world, Pena would be mentioned in Best Supporting Actor talk for his humorous turn in Ant-Man.  It's doubtful, but Pena really came into his own and one hopes that this cholo with a heart but not much of a brain makes a return appearance in another Marvel film.

The visual effects are so well-done that the incredible idea of two tiny figures in costumes fighting it out on a Thomas the Tank train set becomes exciting rather than laughable. The tie-ins with the overall Marvel universe with Anthony Mackie's Falcon at least weren't forced but flowed into the story and worked.  In short, Ant-Man could be a film independent on its own and as part of the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe, which makes it a rare film that doesn't play like either a trailer or a sequel.

About the only things I really didn't think greatly on were Christophe Beck's score and maybe Stoll's mad scientist Darren Cross.  He did just pop in and out and oddly didn't play a large part in all this.  I can't say it was terrible, but I wasn't overwhelmed.

As it stands, Ant-Man was fun, funny, action-oriented, and a good time.  I was surprised that the whole thing worked and held up remarkably well.  On the whole, Ant-Man is really a fantastic film that works on nearly every level.

Ant-Man may be small, but it is mighty.         

DECISION: B+   

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Prayers For Paris


My memories of Paris are warm and happy.  Last night's barbarism won't change my memories of the City of Lights.

My prayers and deepest condolences to all those killed or injured in the various attacks.

Keep the Parisians in your prayers.

"The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay. No matter how they change her, I'll remember her that way..."

IN MEMORIAM

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Very Brief Hiatus



I'm in my last month of my last semester at the University of North Texas.  At the beginning of December, I will not only celebrate my XX birthday, but also my technical graduation from UNT with a Master's in Library Science.

In short, I will be a Librarian.

Yes, the show IS based on me. Why'd you ask?

As a result of this, I am determined to push on furiously to get as much schoolwork out of the way as possible. I want to close out all my assignments before Thanksgiving, or as many as I can. 

This means that as of right now, I'm going to pull back from blogging, at least for a while.  With any luck, I'll be able to get back to my reviews with a vengeance, and soon I hope.  I have quite a few backed up already, both here and at my Doctor Who review site, Gallifrey Exile.

I finished my major assignment (three essays, 1500 to 2500 words, with at least six or ten references within the decade, to be done in a week).  I have a slightly smaller assignment, one Storytelling program to conclude, and at least two modules to read lots of text on.  I want to devote myself to really doing that without worrying about this.

The good news is that once school FINALLY ends, I will be able to write more and more often.

So, until then, I'll hopefully see you very soon, with any luck, next week. 

Until then, God Bless. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Making a SPECTRE of Himself: Spectre Review



SPECTRE

I simply cannot help it. I cannot claim to be an 'analytical critic' like my bete noire Kyle Anderson (despite any hard evidence of him being either analytical or critical).  I claim only to be an honest one.   As such, I say Spectre, the newest James Bond film, is dull, long, predictable, boring, drowning in dourness, and at certain points downright idiotic.

James Bond 007 (Daniel Crab...I mean, Craig) is in Mexico City during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations tracking down an assassin.  This is without the authorization of M (Ralph Fiennes), who is under a great deal of pressure to keep the 00 Program going.  Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), the Joint Intelligence head, wants to merge MI5 and MI6 and dump the 00 Program (a particular fixation for the man Bond nicknames "C", a nickname that sticks with everyone).

Well, Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are essentially roped into putting their careers at risk to help Bond, whom M has ordered to stand down, by helping him track down the meaning of the cryptic message given Bond by the late M (Judi Dench).  She asks from beyond the grave for Bond to attend the funeral of the man she sent Bond to kill in the case of her own unhappy end (which came about in Skyfall).  At the funeral, he finds and screws his victim's widow, Lucia (Monica Bellucci).  She tells him her husband was part of a secret organization, which is having a meeting that night.


Bond manages to get in, where the mysterious head recognizes Bond and both escape each other.  M is worried that news from Rome about a car plunging into the Tiber is Bond, but Q (who had installed a tracker on 007) assures him Bond is not in Rome (in other words, he lied). C, however, is irritated when his Nine Eyes Program is voted down by the South African delegation, as all nations involved must make it unanimous.

Bond now searches for Mr. White, who has information on this shadowy group.  Mr. White is dying, but he tells Bond of his daughter, who knows something.  He finds her, now going by Dr. Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux).  At first, she wants nothing to do with Bond or her father, but when she's abducted Bond has to rescue her, especially from the henchman I had dubbed "Silvertips" (due to what looked like silver thumbnails) but who I found out is called Hinx (former pro wrestler Dave Bautista).  They go next to Tangiers to follow the cryptic clue of Mr. White, find papers, photos and maps that take them to some base in the desert (where on route they are attacked by Hinx and then get sexy time).

They finally come face-to-face with Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who actually knew Bond as a child.  Oberhauser's father had given little Jimmy skiing lessons after the death of the Bonds, and had asked Franz to see him as a little brother.  Franz, jealous of the attention, killed his father in an avalanche and faked his own death too.

He now goes by a new name: Ernst Stravo Blofeld!

Blofeld tells Bond he created Spectre, he had organized the misery in Bond's life, and that C worked for him.  Bond escapes, Swann is recaptured, and the loyal MI6 officers must help Bond to stop Blofeld/C from taking over all the world's security systems.

Guess Who?

It's a pity that the last James Bond film I actually liked was Casino Royale.  Everything after: Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, and now Spectre, have been exercises in disappointment.  At least Skyfall was at least pretty to look at.  Spectre doesn't even have that.  Skyfall has a pretty (though overrated) theme song.  Spectre doesn't even have that.

Spectre's theme, The Writing's On the Wall, is not awful.  It's pretty enough, and Sam Smith's falsetto expresses his usual "I'm lonely and in need of love" theme that he hits again and again.  However, how exactly it fits into a Bond film or the story (such as it is) of Spectre neither song or film say.  During the credit scenes, I could have sworn Bond was indulging with an octopus (my friend, Fidel Gomez, Jr., thinks it was the Bond Girl who was getting it on with the octopus).

Ultimately though, I can't picture The Writing's On the Wall being among the great Bond Themes. Nothing about it says "BOND".  Also, like with Skyfall, the lyrics are inept ("glass" and "past" are not rhymes.  Yes, I can see it took Smith and his cowriter Jimmy Napes 20 minutes to put this song together...and as much as I may think it would be nutty, I wouldn't put it past the Academy to throw a Best Original Song nomination to this bit of fluff.

They did it for Skyfall...

Dead Can Dance...

The fact that The Writing's On the Wall isn't great is the least of Spectre's problems.  Spectre is boring, just plain boring.  Craig is surprisingly willing to add bits of humor into his performance (though the overall comic elements, like the 'Elements" button for the new car ending up being music for 009's enjoyment seems so out of place in what is suppose to be a tense chase scene).  Apart from that, I can't believe Craig's Bond would find any interest in anything, nihilist to his hollow core.  Craig looked bored, even uncomfortable, trying for these bits of humor, and still can't convince me he as Bond would enjoy the company of any beautiful woman (the seduction of Lucia coming across as rote and Swann's as bizarre...seeing as it came right after he and Swann were nearly killed on the train by Hinx).

Scott is playing C as so obviously a villain I put down in my notes right after he appeared "Max=C is inside man for Spectre".  It was so obvious that C was involved in Spectre's plans that I was surprised no one thought of it sooner.  Waltz was camping it up as the monologue-spouting, pussy-petting, Nehru jacket-wearing "Not Blofeld".  Again, it was obvious Waltz was Blofeld.

What wasn't obvious but downright laughable was "Not Blofeld's" motivation.  He created the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion...because his Daddy bonded with the orphan Bond?!  Is that serious?  Are we to believe this massive criminal organization was birthed as a result of a pouty German boy's jealousy?  It's like saying The Joker became a criminal because his father liked Bruce Wayne more.

The whole "Dad Liked You Best, So I'm Going to Become A Criminal Mastermind Because You're So Obviously Going to Become a Secret Agent and I'm Going to Stalk You at Every Turn" story is so downright patently stupid that it's more amazing it took four men to come up with it (John Logan, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth).  I know they were trying to find a new and unique way to introduce one of THE Bond villains, but this is just such a silly and illogical plot. 

I kept wondering why James Bond couldn't apparently remember his 'big brother' or the father-figure who died in a skiing accident.  Guess Bond is less caring than I gave him credit for.

Seydoux is one of the most boring and bored Bond Girls in memory, a blank expression most of the time (the other times, mildly contemptuous of the proceedings).  She didn't do much in terms of plot apart from both managing to help Bond beat Hinx on what I took to be a literally empty train and get held prisoner.  Bautista was a non-entity as the mostly silent Hinx.

The best descriptions for Spectre are 'dour', 'rote', 'unenthusiastic' (apart from the opening scene in Mexico City every action piece was boring and lacked any sense of tension). Spectre doesn't know what it is: an homage to Bonds of the past?  A continuation of the other (mostly crappy) Craig-era Bond films? An odd mix of the two?  Mindless entertainment (with 'mindless' being the operative word)?  

The Writing's On the Wall all right...Spectre just flat-out stunk.               

DECISION: D-