Thursday, December 31, 2015

Henry Gamble's Birthday Party: A Review


 
HENRY GAMBLE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY

A few years back I attended a Lutheran church affiliated with the Missouri Synod.  For those not in the know, the Missouri Synod is perhaps the most conservative of Lutherans.  No 'common ground' with Catholicism in this church.  Now, as in any church, there were certain families that were among 'the elite', a small group that were prominent within the church second only to the pastor's family.  This particular family, the H Family, had three boys, the oldest being P.  P. was by all measures an active and committed Christian.  He was very involved in church matters (youth group leader, able to quote Scripture, active in outreach and church productions, joining in at things like See You at the Pole, various mission trips), and was seen as a very strong believer.

It was also assumed, almost taken for granted, among both other youth group members and those not in the elite circles that P. was Gay with a capital G.  He has a high voice with a particular lilt in its inflection.  He had many girl-friends but no known 'girlfriend'. He has a passion for fashion.  He LOVES Taylor Swift (so much so that he is unashamed to admit he was almost in tears when he saw this generation's George Gershwin live in concert).  He has a Mozart-like giggle. He is very expressive with his hands, and he appears to have an apparent fondness for antique shopping.  Oh, and did I mention he moved to San Francisco?  I'll discount his endless selfies, Instagram account and oversharing on social media as mere reflections of his generation's general narcissism than an sign of his alleged sexual preferences. 

Now, that P. might be gay (and to be perfectly honest, I think everyone in our mutual circle pretty much believes him to be gay) was something not talked about out loud by anyone, but the whispers were very strong.  Sometimes they could be downright cynical.  When a group of his Youth Group friends learned P. might have found someone to be involved with romantically, one commented, "What's his name?", and another gasped, "To a GIRL?!"  P.'s sexual orientation (or perceived one anyway) was seen as just part of who he was, and as far as I know no one has ever asked him directly or found any evidence that P. is indeed homosexual (no Grindr accounts or witnesses to any excessively bromantic moments).  It may be that it is all a matter of perception, that because P. doesn't fit into a specified 'masculine' mold, people make wrong conclusions about him.

Or he just could be gay, with everyone knowing but no one ever commenting.

This ridiculously lengthy intro sets up why Henry Gamble's Birthday Party is something I think is quite realistic.  I know the world writer/director Steven Cone created in the film intimately.  As someone who is openly Christian but with many gay friends and family, I can vouch for the general accuracy of Henry Gamble's Birthday Party regarding the variety of evangelicals.  I also think the film's characters are pretty grounded in reality and the film itself is even generally respectful towards Christians. 

Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is turning 17, and there's going to be a pool party at his house.  Henry's father, Bob (Pat Healy) is a pastor at a megachurch, which would make Henry's barely hidden homosexuality a bit of a conundrum.  Henry's mother, Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), is loving, but is oddly distracted by something, and it isn't the return of their daughter Autumn (Nina Ganet) from her Christian university.

Henry's best friend Gabe (Joe Keery) is very heterosexual, a bit sarcastic, and eager to taste the pleasures of the flesh with a young woman.  Henry, however, appears to want to taste those forbidden pleasures with Gabe, or with Logan (Daniel Kiri), another Youth Group member who is as openly gay as one can get without openly stating it.  More of Henry's friends, both Christian and secular, arrive, each at various points in their spiritual journeys (or lack thereof).  As this is a PK's birthday party (Preacher's Kid), it's no surprise that church leaders also come.  We've got the Youth Minister Keith (Travis Knight) and his newly-pregnant wife Candice (Kelly O'Sullivan), and Rose Matthews (Meg Thalken), the beloved former pastor's widow and her very troubled son Ricky (Patrick Andrews).

The kids all are having fun while the adults struggle with their choice in music, in bathing costumes, and with their differing views on other matters.  Henry's secular friends pretty much tell Henry that they know he's gay.  As the evening continues, the joy of the birthday party itself masks the various private lives of our characters as secrets are revealed (though not to all) and people's views come into conflict with their realities.

As I said, I know this world well.  Just about every aspect of Henry Gamble's Birthday Party as it pertains to how Christians behave rings true.  I feel I can speak with certain authority about both how Christians behave with each other and on their various views on homosexuality (contrary to popular belief, Christians are not in lockstep on all topics, let alone this one).  I have been friends with PKs, been to their birthday/pool parties (though never a birthday pool party, and certainly no party that lasted an entire day), and seen things that one wouldn't expect among a group of young evangelicals.

The opening of the film at first I thought was a bit strange: Henry and Gabe together in bed, shirtless, talking about the size of their penises and ending up masturbating together.  I thought this 'pillow talk' was a bit curious, but then remembered when I saw a PK and his best friend skinny dip in the pool together and...you guessed it, compare the size, strength and girth of their erections while in the pool.  I did think that very bizarre, but both are heterosexual, which made it all the more odd.

What made HGBP so interesting in terms of its subject matter is that the film is actually pretty respectful of the characters' views and their faith.  This isn't going to be shown at any Youth Camp by any stretch, and I'm sure the Kendrick Brothers would be shocked by it.  However, HGBP didn't paint the Christians (young or old) as narrow-minded bigots or ignorant buffoons.  Instead, it portrayed them as people, who struggle less with desires of all persuasions than with acting on them.  These evangelicals aren't murderous book-burners, but genuine in their aspirations, fears, and belief systems.

More often than not evangelical Christians are right to complain in how they and their faith is treated in non-Christian films.  I keep an eye out for the negative stereotypes of evangelicals in film, and while HGBP isn't completely accurate (all but one of the PKs I know were virgins on their wedding nights), the film is pretty close to the reality of that subculture.  The Christians I know are not in favor of same-sex marriage, but they also have never rejected someone because he/she has slept with people of the same gender.  In fact, up to a point the secular friends (one of whom tells Henry she's a lesbian) come across as the more hostile towards the evangelicals than they are towards them (though both groups do self-segregate).  They are dismissive of the concept of a 'Christian university' and pelt Autumn with questions about evolution vs. creation, failing to see that a birthday party isn't the proper venue for such things.

A particular scene I remember is when one of the youth, Jon (Jack Ball), goes to Pastor Keith and talks to him about how, from what he'd observed at the party, we could be losing an entire generation to sexual confusion.  Jon's concern doesn't come from a place of hate, but a place of love.  He is not stupid or narrow-minded or intolerant.  He is a sincere follower of Christ, and his views are shaped by his relationship with Jesus.  Near the end, when Gabe does lose his virginity, he keeps asking God for forgiveness.  I think this does reflect the struggle between living out the Christian life the kids want to and the intense pressure to join in to what 'the world' offers.


In terms of performances, I think there isn't a bad one.  Doman is making his film debut with HGBP, and he makes Henry into a gentle person, who does love God but also finds his attractions harder to mask with in the end, the suggestion that he isn't going to do so anymore; his curious response to a girl coming into his room to make out and ask if he'd like to date her ("Can I get back to you?") implies that maybe he is going to follow his desires rather than attempt to 'pass' for straight.

As a side note, I could argue as a Christian that Henry, by inviting Logan to sleep over, was inviting temptation and was planning to sin. Henry knew Logan was attracted to him as he was attracted to Logan, so asking Logan to sleep in the same bed with him would be going against Scripture's admonishing to 'flee from sexual immorality'.  Sermon over.

Doman made Henry a very sympathetic character, someone who wants to do the right thing, live up to the principles of his family and not let them down, but who also finds his sexual yearnings harder to keep hidden. The one aspect I wasn't sure of was whether Doman was directed to play Henry as slightly effeminate to where one wonders why Gabe or anyone else didn't whisper about Henry's preferences (like with P.H.).

Keery was winning as the outgoing Gabe, and the adults were also quite excellent.  I really thought in her small role, Thalken did a wonderful job as the widow who likes a little sip but who is committed to her troubled son.  Healy and Laidlaw as Henry's parents were excellent: their troubled marriage playing out as natural instead of exaggerated to the secrets going on all around him.

Of particular note is the original score and especially the soundtrack.  I think the music was well used in the film, and I for one would love to get the soundtrack.

I do question some aspects of Henry Gamble's Birthday Party.  In the film, Logan brushes up against Henry, which causes Henry to softly snap "Stop it".  It suggests that Logan and Henry had had some kind of physical intimacy, but at the end Henry asks Logan if he'd like to kiss him.  It was a little unclear to me whether Logan brushing up against Henry was a sign of previous interactions or a subtle come-on by Logan that Henry didn't want.  If someone's arm had brushed up against mine, I would have brushed it off as an accident, but that's just me.

Since all this took place in one day, it's not a surprise that we had Ricky's meltdown come to a dramatic conclusion at the most inopportune time.  It's not exactly a distraction but it was something I was waiting for.  Cone could also have been a little more subtle with what he was saying.  At one point, the nubile Youth Pastor's wife dives into the pool.  Cone has the camera then pan down to the Pastor's crotch.  I think a suggestive glance and good editing could have made the suggestion of lusting in his heart better without making it obvious. 

As a side note, I think all the Pastors I've known would have looked on this more with contempt than with desire, going to her husband later to question her decision to appear in such skimpy attire as potentially enticing the youth he's in charge of.  This is why I don't think the portrayal of the Christians is entirely accurate.

Still, Cone deserves a lot of credit for balancing the various stories without overshadowing the main one of Henry's navigating his desires with his faith.  Cone also deserves credit for keeping things grounded in reality (no big revelations to shock EVERYONE save Ricky's actions) and for not going for the easy route of trashing the evangelical characters.  Instead, he gave even those who were harder in terms of their views a context for how they felt the way they did, giving all of them a humanity too often not given in both secular and Christian films.  Henry Gamble's Birthday Party is an excellent film given its tight running time and scope of a single day.  It is good to see tolerance expanded on-screen to gays, to Christians, and to gay Christians. 
     
DECISION: B+     

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Pajama Party: A Review


PAJAMA PARTY

Once, teenagers in film were seen as fun-loving, goofy, but essentially harmless (even if they did come from outer space).  A slew of Beach movies in the 1960s popularized (or at least promoted) a particular lifestyle: a carefree one centered around the beach, dancing, girls, and joyful frivolity.  Pajama Party is an odd entry in this series in that there are new characters and an odd scenario (even for them).  However, while not a great or perhaps even good film, Pajama Party is at least in on the joke which makes it tolerable.

Go-Go (Tommy Kirk) is the advance man in the planned invasion from Mars.  He is obviously a bit of a moron (coming to Earth dressed as a hotel doorman under the idea that this is what typical teenagers wear), and he hits upon Aunt Wendy (Else Lanchester), herself highly eccentric and daffy.  She sees nothing odd about Go-Go coming from Mars, though she seems to be dismissive of this idea as just another teenage eccentricity.  Calling him George, she has him stay with her.  Aunt Wendy is kind of a den mother to the group of California teens, her home and unsuccessful dress shop a haven for the beach crowd.  Her big lunk of a nephew, Big Lunk (Jody McCrae), is too focused on volleyball to think about his newest girlfriend, Connie (Annette Funicello).  Aunt Wendy thinks George would be perfect for her, and she's right: both of them fall in love with each other.

Aunt Wendy is in danger though.  She is a very wealthy widow and her neighbor is determined to steal the fortune she keeps in the house and not in a bank.  That neighbor is J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White), who has two inept henchmen, Fleegle (Ben Lessy) and the Indian Chief Rotten Eagle (Buster Keaton, yes, THAT Buster Keaton).  Also aiding them is the Swedish bombshell Helga (Bobbi Shaw) who can only say, "Ja, ja".  She will entice Big Lunk to reveal the whereabouts of his aunt's fortune, but Big Lunk is such a moron he tells her Aunt Wendy never tells him due to the idea that he's a moron.  With that, J. Sinister Hulk decides that getting Aunt Wendy out of the house to chaperone a pajama party at his will give his crew a chance to break in and rob her blind.  Fortunately for Aunt Wendy, the henchmen prove especially inept, among their other idiocies having the Rats Gang, headed by Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) come to the party as their idea of 'clean-cut all-American youth).  With help from George, the gang's defeated, the robbery foiled, and everybody's happy (Big Lunk and Helga get together, as do George and Connie).



Pajama Party might have been retitled Plan 10 from Outer Space, given how oddball the premise was.  However, I think both participant and viewer went into Pajama Party with the understanding that it was meant as nothing more than a lark, a mild and amusing diversion not to be taken seriously.  We know this because more than once the fourth wall is broken, the characters looking and/or directly addressing the audience to essentially join in the fun. 

As I've said, I never condemn a movie for meeting its goals (no matter how low they are) and as such, I find Pajama Party an extremely light affair.  Now, this doesn't mean that I found it particularly good as a film.  It is dumb, it is silly, it is broad.  However, even within the overall silliness of it all there were some really good moments.

Whether you think it amusing or sad to see Buster Keaton essentially reduced to this, his first Beach film, depends on your idea of whether you think he is an artist or he needed to eat (and sadly, drink).  However, Keaton is responsible for one of the best and funniest moments in Pajama Party, giving us a slight taste of his true comedic genius.  He is in Aunt Wendy's dress shop when a perfume vendor sprays him.  He 'returns the favor' by spraying her, and from there, the battle is on between them to see who can spray more at the other, down to getting larger bottles.  This bit would work in a silent film, and in fact there is no dialogue between them.  I don't know whether this came from a previous Keaton film or whether he himself came up with it (I suspect he did), but it's about the only time I did burst out laughing.

The performances were appropriately broad save for Funicello, who to her credit is the only one playing it straight.  As Connie is the most sensible of everyone in Pajama Party, it makes perfect sense.  She I think was the model teenager in the early 1960s: pretty, wholesome, with an almost innocent sex appeal to where boys found her attractive and their parents found her agreeable.  She works well with Kirk, who is also appealing as George. 

Kirk played the part with a wide-eyed wonder to everything that gives George a pleasant demeanor despite being a 'villain' (he IS there to invade and conquer us after all).  It's a shame that both homophobia (Kirk was dropped by Disney when they learned about his homosexuality, thus his reason for going to American International Pictures) and his own irresponsibility (drug use) wrecked his career.  However, we don't see any issues on-screen, particularly when Kirk and Funicello duet on There Has to Be a Reason, a nice song that shows both have nice if not great voices.

The adults played their parts appropriately.  It is a bit odd to see Lanchester so shameless camp it up but she did get into the spirit of things.  A cameo by Dorothy Lamour at the dress shop allows her to shimmy with the best of them, and Keaton (even with his pidgin English) is amusing.  "Me red man with yellow streak.  Real name Chief Chicken Feather", he tells them when they're in danger of getting caught.  Throughout the film Keaton, with a feather in his trademark pork pie hat, keeps things amusing.

On the whole Pajama Party is an odd fit in the Beach Party films in that regulars Don Rickles and Frankie Avalon aren't a big part of it (though the latter has a cameo that is pretty obvious) and there are only a couple of scenes that are actually on the beach itself.  It's a silly film, but intentionally so, one that is fully aware of its own silliness.  Any film where a beautiful girl can have no reason apart from dancing (and being so good at it that she causes candles to melt and miniature volcanos to explode just by her movements) knows what its doing. 



DECISION: C+

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

We'll Cross That Oscar When We Get There

Red Buttons
Best Supporting Actor for
Sayonara

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1957

The Academy Awards officially hit the big 3-0, and for their 30th, they decided to look back on wars past and present fought in the East.  Sayonara and The Bridge on the River Kwai found themselves fighting for both Best Picture and Best Director.  Normally, those two categories go together, but this was the first time there was an exact match in terms of nominations.  The Bridge on the River Kwai would also be a victim of Cold War fears, with its actual screenwriters unable to take credit (or their Oscars) for their screenplay due to being blacklisted.  The original novel's author, Pierre Boulle, would be given the prize, despite his inability to speak English.

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 1957 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG




An Affair to Remember: An Affair to Remember
April Love: April Love
All the Way: The Joker is Wild
Tammy: Tammy and the Bachelor
Wild is the Wind: Wild is the Wind

The Original Song category has an odd fixation for Wind, doesn't it?  Last year, we got Written on the Wind, and this year we got Wild is the Wind.  We got a thing for "Wild" too, as we got both WILD is the Wind and this year's winner, All the Way from The Joker is WILD.  A requirement for my picking the winner is whether the song has stood the test of time, and All the Way became one of many Frank Sinatra standards.  Given the pretty weak competition, I think this is the right choice of the nominees, but I'm submitting one that wasn't nominated (though given how backwards the music branch can be at times, I can see why).



An Affair to Remember: An Affair to Remember
April Love: April Love
All the Way: The Joker is Wild
Jailhouse Rock: Jailhouse Rock
Tammy: Tammy and the Bachelor

From Jailhouse Rock, Jailhouse Rock, music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

There's something really odd about the idea that the hardest song nominated was April Love (Pat Boone being the most contemporary of the singers from those performing the nominees).  It won't be the last time iconic songs get skipped over in favor of the most square choices.  Each of the nominees was a love song attempting to top each other in its romanticism.  It would have been so nice to have a real rock song to jolt the stodgy music branch awake.  The nominees presented are quite nice, but listening to them I thought them all rather bland and safe.  Jailhouse Rock is neither.  Also, unlike all the other nominees save All the Way, people still listen to Jailhouse Rock.

BEST DIRECTOR

David Lean: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Joshua Logan: Sayonara
Sidney Lumet: 12 Angry Men
Mark Robson: Peyton Place
Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution

Let me start out by saying I love The Bridge on the River Kwai and recognize its breathtaking brilliance. Lean is a master of epic and I can see why he won.  However, after having seen 12 Angry Men, I was astonished that Lumet was the anti-Lean in terms of storytelling.  12 Angry Men, unlike the massive Bridge on the River Kwai, is a very small film (only two settings: the court room and the jury room).  However, Lumet kept our interest with these twelve disparate men, brought together by that long-maligned institution: the jury. Each performance is simply brilliant, and if we judge a film based on the acting alone, I think Lumet topped Lean out.

Elia Kazan: A Face in the Crowd
Stanley Kubrick: Paths of Glory
David Lean: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Sidney Lumet: 12 Angry Men
Alexander Mackendrick: Sweet Smell of Success

I think there might have been better choices than Peyton Place (though I have a special fondness for it because my mother still refers to a place filled with scandal as "a real Peyton Place").  I imagine that for the 1950s, Peyton Place was downright scandalous, but let's just say it isn't as well-remembered now (except, perhaps, by my mother).   I still think that nothing really tops Lumet's brilliant film and directing.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Carolyn Jones: The Bachelor Party
Elsa Lanchester: Witness for the Prosecution
Hope Lange: Peyton Place
Miyoshi Umeki: Sayonara
Diane Varsi: Peyton Place

My choice really has nothing to do with a great love for Jones, but more a process of elimination.  Varsi and Lange cancel each other out (which happens more often than not when two people from the same film get nominated in the same category).  I've seen Lanchester and found her uninteresting as the Comic Overbearing Nurse.  That leaves us with two people left: Umeki's demure Japanese bride and Jones' good-time girl.  Is it me, or was Umeki awarded for conforming to traditional Western views of Japanese women as this gentle blossoms?  I'd say it's not exactly a buyer's market with this slate.




Carolyn Jones: The Bachelor Party
Elsa Lanchester: Witness for the Prosecution
Hope Lange: Peyton Place
Jayne Mansfield: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Maureen O'Hara: The Wings of Eagles

We really are desperate to put Lanchester back in.  OK, it wasn't horrible, but I still don't quite get the love (though maybe a rewatch will change my mind).  However, I am giving it to Mansfield merely because at least she was smart enough to be in on the joke and was fully aware that her vain sexpot Rita Marlowe was a big joke.  I found it a light and fun performance, the blending of fiction and fact sometimes eerie.  Still, Mansfield if nothing else keeps your attention.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Red Buttons: Sayonara
Vittorio De Sica: A Farewell to Arms
Sessue Hayakawa: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Arthur Kennedy: Peyton Place
Russ Tamblyn: Peyton Place

Wow: Russ Tamblyn is an Oscar nominee?  Who'd have thought?  Oh, look, two actors from the same film knock each other out; there's a surprise.  No wonder Peyton Place went 0-for-9 come Oscar time.

Now, that leaves us three people left.  Nothing against De Sica, but I think he's better remembered as director than actor.  Now we have two Japanese-connected performances: one who married one, and the other who was one.  Red Buttons.  Let's remember that.

Red Buttons has more Oscars than Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Deborah Kerr combined (not counting Honorary Oscars).  Maybe it was as good a performance as the Academy thought it was, and here is again another case of a comedian getting rewarded for dramatic work.  However, I'm sticking for now with my choice from the nominees, Hayakawa as the conflicted POW commandant who finds himself allied with the crazed British colonel in building that bridge.



Lee J. Cobb: 12 Angry Men
Sessue Hayakawa: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Burt Lancaster: Sweet Smell of Success
Adolphe Menjou: Paths of Glory
Tyrone Power: Witness for the Prosecution

It's quite extraordinary that while Peyton Place received five acting nominations, 12 Angry Men did not receive a single one.  This is more astonishing when you see just how powerful the performances in 12 Angry Men were, versus the perhaps more tawdry and mannered ones from Peyton Place.  You've got a master class of actors giving astonishing performances in this courtroom drama, and at the top of my list are two: Henry Fonda as Juror Number 8, and Lee J. Cobb as Juror Number 3.  The rage within Number 3, the stubbornness, yet the underlying vulnerability makes this one of Cobb's best performances, and certainly one of his most iconic ones.

Sorry Red, but I'll never think of you as anything other than one of the few to survive The Poseidon Adventure.

BEST ACTRESS



Deborah Kerr: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
Anna Magnani: Wild is the Wind
Elizabeth Taylor: Raintree County
Lana Turner: Peyton Place
Joanne Woodward: The Three Faces of Eve

Well, here's another case of someone winning an Oscar for playing ill (in this case, mentally ill, with multiple personalities).  I guess it gave Woodward a chance to play three different characters. In a year marked with very curious choices (ah, Liz...really thought you were going to out Gone With the Wind Vivien Leigh), I think the Academy probably gave the Oscar to one of the few who gave a real performance.  Still, despite the fact that I think Turner's nomination is a bit oddball, I'm much too enamored of Lana Turner to deny her this Oscar.  My mind is telling me no, but my body, my body...



Lauren Bacall: Designing Woman
Marlene Dietrich: Witness for the Prosecution
Deborah Kerr: An Affair to Remember
Guilietta Masina: Nights of Cabiria
Patricia Neal: A Face in the Crowd

I obviously am not going to go to bat for my choice.   In fact, I have a whole new slate of nominees, and while Kerr is on both, it's for different films.  Now, while I had earlier chosen Masina, I switched to Dietrich, then switched to Bacall (who received exactly one nomination in the whole of her career).  The reason I ultimately opted for Bacall was that she was doing a comedy while dealing at the same time with the eventual death of her great love, Humphrey Bogart.  In the morning, she attends to her cancer-ridden husband, and the afternoon, she has to play things for laughs.  To do that and do it successfully takes a lot of talent and a great deal of personal courage.

BEST ACTOR



Marlon Brando: Sayonara
Anthony Franciosa: A Hatful of Rain
Alec Guinness: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Charles Laughton: Witness for the Prosecution
Anthony Quinn: Wild is the Wind

Was Colonel Nicholson insane or courageous or stubborn or blind or a combination? This is one of the most brilliant performances of Guinness' career, a man who begins with one goal and then becomes so fixated on another that he loses sight of the big picture. It's interesting that the transition to what got him locked up in the first place (his refusal to work due to his being a commanding officer) by the end was disregarded by him when he ordered his officers to help build the bridge that would help the enemy.  He became so obsessed with perfection that he ends up as a collaborator if not a full-on traitor.  "What have I done?" is his own condemnation of his folly, and a rebuke to the madness of war.



Tony Curtis: Sweet Smell of Success
Henry Fonda: 12 Angry Men
Cary Grant: An Affair to Remember
Andy Griffith: A Face in the Crowd
Alec Guinness: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Oh, I'm not saying that Guinness isn't brilliant in Bridge on the River Kwai.  It's just that when I think of just how good Tony Curtis was in Sweet Smell of Success, and how his amoral, sleazy press agent should have put to rest the idea that Curtis could not act, I cannot help still being haunted by Curtis' performance.  I think all the names on this slate gave brilliant performances, and I would be thrilled with any of them winning.  However, I think Tony Curtis as the most reprehensible of men who isn't bothered by his lack of morals deserves the prize.

BEST PICTURE




12 Angry Men
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Peyton Place
Sayonara
Witness for the Prosecution

My goodness what a dilemma.  I love Bridge on the River Kwai and see why it won.  However, as much as I love it my heart still tells me that the equally brilliant 12 Angry Men was the Best Picture of 1957 out of the nominated lists.  It has top-notch performances by every cast member, a real sense of suspense and tension, an epic feel despite its very small scale, and it has stood the test of time. 

It really is just about impossible to make a firm decision as to which should have won between them given how brilliant both were (sorry, Peyton Place).  Maybe when I rewatch Bridge on the River Kwai I'll change my mind again, but for now, I select 12 Angry Men as my choice for the Best Picture of 1957.




12 Angry Men
The Bridge on the River Kwai
A Face in the Crowd
Paths of Glory
Sweet Smell of Success
 
Again, it's a good thing to be spoiled for choice.  I continue struggling among my choices, but I think that Sweet Smell of Success is actually quite prescient about the corrupting force of the media and of the power of publicity in our common market of ideas.  From the inexplicable interest in the Kardashian family to the rise of demagogues like The Donald, Sweet Smell of Success lays out the ugly side to covering the rich, powerful, and famous.  It doesn't shrink from the sleaze of it all.

With that, I select Sweet Smell of Success as the Best Picture of 1957.

Next Time: The 1958 Academy Awards

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Librarians: And the Point of Salvation Review



THE LIBRARIANS: AND THE POINT
OF SALVATION

I think people really don't appreciate just how hard it is to act a story where we find the characters having to repeat things.  This is why Groundhog Day really is one of the great films, because they have to not just act, but make each time we see them repeat the same thing look like it is perfectly natural.  With And the Point of Salvation, we get this kind of scenario, where we're going over the same event time and again.  This Librarians episode though does give us a logic behind the magic (take a lesson, Doctor Who), and gives us a chance to see another character take center stage, complete with great character growth.

DARPA has gotten its hands on Atlantean technology in the form of a rock which they are using on their machines.  Very quickly though, their computer system behinds to malfunction.  The Librarians Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), along with their Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn), go there to retrieve the stone.

However, they face the DARPA crew which have turned into what Jones calls "Rage People", and even after battling them and getting through to locate where the Atlantean rock is, Jones' thieving skills fail him, causing Stone to shout "Some Master Thief", and they apparently get killed.

It's then when things take a strange turn.  We find ourselves back to the beginning of when they stepped into DARPA, only none of them save Jones remembers they've been there before.  When Jones comments on the fact, the others think he's joking.  Over time though, as they keep facing the same situation again and again does Jones (who is not affected because he was the first one into the room) realize they are in a time loop.

Due to this, Jones is able to recreate what has gone on before, is aware of the traps they've faced and can correct his mistakes to get further ahead (like massive do-overs).  However, whenever any of them die, they have to start all over again, with only Jones able to remember.  Sometimes, Jones does take advantage of the fact that if any of them die, they really won't 'die' (such as when he allows Stone to step onto a trap that zaps him due to Stone's constant complaining about Jones' skills).

For the most part though, seeing the other die and die again is starting to take its toll.  Being trapped and seeing the other's deaths finally makes him vent by trying to smash some items, but by doing so, he sees them turned into other things.  Jones then realizes they aren't in a time loop, but in a video game (which makes sense since one of the DARPA scientists had been playing one on his machine before the general came in for an inspection, which he had to hurriedly hide).  Once he realizes this, Jones (who plays video games constantly in his off-hours), can maneuver over much faster. 

However, he realizes that he still needs the other's help with things he doesn't understand, like engineering (where Stone comes in), physics (where Cassandra comes in), and fighting (paging Colonel Baird).  Even then, they still die, and eventually Jones has had enough.  He tells them that he cannot watch them die anymore.  "I'm not your friend, but you're all my friends," he tells them, and as such he is determined to save them once and for all.  Eventually, armed with all his knowledge, he guides them to the end, where while Jones gets them to the end of the game, he himself does not make it, causing a Fatal System Error when he (as the player) dies.  The others now go and rescue him, saving the DARPA crew in the process.  None of the DARPA crew remember anything, and neither does Jones, who cannot believe that he'd even care about any of them.

However, at the end we're not quite sure whether he actually does not remember.  For his part Jenkins (John Larroquette), who has summoned a fairy to get information about Prospero, learns when Prospero will strike...and that's now.  Unbeknown to any of them, a powerful spell has affected them, the results of which we will see later.

And the Point of Salvation, like other Librarian episodes of late, appears to have a double meaning.  It relates to both 'the point of salvation' where the Librarians go back to where they started in this real-life video game.  It can also relate to Jones' 'salvation' from his own selfishness and egoism.  As he is cursed to relive the same events again and again, Jones begins to see that despite himself, he does care about these people he's with.  At first, he thinks he does not need either their abilities or them as individuals.  Time though, shows him that seeing them die, even though he knows they'll come back, is painful.  It reveals to Jones that their lives matter to him. 

It also reveals that they work best as a team.  Jones realizes this when he keeps locking them up in a room at the beginning of 'the game' late into the episode.  Whenever he gets stumped, he takes one of them with him to tutor him on what he does not know. Jones even begins to respect them both for what they know and especially for who they are as people.  He comments to Baird when they are about to cross the Rage People that even though she's told him the story of who the bravest men are (those who see the danger and go ahead anyway), he feels honored that she'd make the parallel.   It's a sign of growth, which makes the ambiguity of whether he actually did learn to value them frustrating to me.  I wanted so desperately to have that confirmation, that Jones has matured.  Maybe they wanted us to imagine it for ourselves, or wanted Jones to remain pretty much as he was.  I don't know.  I think though, that is what pushes the episode down a bit for me.

As And the Point of Salvation appears to be a Jones-centered episode (which would thrill the egocentric Jones), John Kim really shows us what he can do.  He is still Ezekiel Jones, master thief and raging egomaniac, but we do see over the episode a chance for him to develop the character into someone more caring and thoughtful.  As strong as his development was (and this is Kim's best hour on The Librarians), I think he actually had the easier part.  Jones was the only one to remember, and as such could change his performance whenever the scenario started again.  It was the others who had to repeat themselves, to act exactly the same way every time they entered.  This has to take extraordinary skills, to make us believe that they really are unaware that they are repeating themselves.  The fact that they did it so well is a credit to Kane, Booth, and Romijn as actors and director Jonathan Frakes, who keeps things going quickly and as grounded as any Librarians episode can be.  Kane's constant put-down to Jones ("SOME MASTER THIEF") for me were a highlight, to see how he'd manage to work that in.

IF it weren't for the ambiguity of whether Jones really did or did not remember (and for me, robbing a character of a chance to develop), And the Point of Salvation would have ranked higher.  However, it is still a fun episode, driven by its own logic and with really strong performances by the cast and especially John Kim, this was another standout episode for a series that is fun, unapologetically family-friendly, and did I mention fun?


 
8/10

Next Episode: And the Happily Ever Afters

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hell to Eternity: A Review



HELL TO ETERNITY

There is something both interesting and amusing about Hell to Eternity, the biopic about an American war hero.  The interesting part is that the film does not shy away from the immorality of the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, a subject not touched in 1960 and still not as well known today as it should be.  The amusing part is that the main character, a short Hispanic boy from East Los Angeles, is played by Jeffrey Hunter.  Hell to Eternity gives us perhaps the most bizarre 'whitewashing' of a lead character in film history (though I figure with the real-life figure's blessing).  If one forgets the oddball casting, some questionable acting, and the perhaps excessive length, Hell to Eternity can be quite entertaining.

Guy Gabaldon is a troubled kid: fighting with others and unbeknown to everyone, living alone (his mother dying in a hospital, his father gone).  His only friends are Japanese-Americans, which makes him a target for bullies.  After a fight, Kaz Une (George Shibata), a coach, sees the wounded boy behind the tough exterior and takes him to his home.  Guy finds refuge among this Japanese-American family, and bonds with Mama-san (Tsuru Aoki Hayakawa).  Mama-san speaks little English, Guy no Japanese, but slowly both learn to learn the other's languages.  Guy learns to love especially Mama-san and after his own mother's death is adopted by the family, to where he has no problem calling the males in the family his brothers.

Then comes December 7, 1941.  Guy and his brother's girlfriend are getting breakfast after church when they hear about the bombing, and instantly the anti-Japanese fervor sweeps them all up.  The Unes are sent to Camp Manzanar, while Guy, because he is not ethnically Japanese*, is not.  He wanders around, aimless, having been rejected for service due to a punctured eardrum.  When he visits Mama-san, the struggle he has about using his Japanese language skills and potentially kill people he's come to identify with comes to an end.  Mama-san tells him it's up to the new generation to clean up the older generation's 'mess', and with that, he pushes his way into the Marines.



Once in camp, Guy is still a bit of a rebel, but slowly earns the respect and even friendship of his sergeant, Hanzen (David Janssen).  He also bonds with Corporal Lewis (Vic Damone), an easy-going fellow with an eye for the ladies (though whether his experience matches his eye is dubious).  First, off to Hawaii, where there are some amorous adventures (and even quite a daring striptease by Sheila, a non-sober reporter played by Patricia Owens).  Then it is off to Saipan, where brutal hand-to-hand fighting is the least of the Marines' ordeals.  Both Lewis and Hanzen are killed, the latter unleashing a rage within Guy that makes him dangerous to all sides.

Eventually, Gabby's Japanese skills come in handy several times.  He gets civilians to come out of their caves, but is also powerless to stop the suicides the natives are committing in terror over what the Americans will allegedly do to them.  When Guy witnesses an old woman and child about to jump, for a moment he sees Mama-san and his brother George take their place, and his broken when he sees them jump to their deaths.  He decides to undergo a dangerous mission: to stop General Matsui (Sessue Hayakawa, who was married to Tsuru Aoki) from leading his dying, starved, and desperate troops, on one last death assault on the Americans.  Guy captures Matsui, who in turn is ordered to tell his men to surrender.  He does so, but commits seppuku rather than fully surrender.  The Pied Piper of Saipan, as Guy Gabaldon was dubbed, brings in the entire army and civilians who with them to camp.


I'd say there are about three things wrong with Hell to Eternity.  First, at two-hours-eleven minutes, it is rather long, especially given that a great deal of time was spent in Hawaii, where it involved Guy, Hanzen, and Lewis picking up broads and seeing them perform stripteases.  It added nothing to the plot and seemed to come from another film altogether.  More bizarrely, I don't think Sheila was ever mentioned again.  It also made our three leads seem rather sleazy (save for Damone's Lewis, who came across as more unlucky-in-love than a horndog).  Two, some of the acting was on the weak side, and again we go back to Hawaii.  When the three shake down a cab driver they've hoodwinked into getting them whisky, everyone, especially the professionals, look like amateurs. 

Three, and it's a big one, is the casting of Jeffrey Hunter.  First, he is too old to play someone who is supposed to be eighteen when he joins the Marines (looking every bit his thirty-four years).  Even that might be forgiven if not for the fact that Guy Gabaldon, in real-life, was Mexican-American.  Hunter in no way looks or sounds like a Hispanic from East Los Angeles, and I figure that the makers of Hell to Eternity would never have considered casting an actual Hispanic actor to play a Hispanic.  Moreover, the film seems to go out of its way to hide any suggestion of Gabaldon's true ethnicity (apart from the casting of blonde, blue-eyed Hunter as the brunette, brown-eyed Gabaldon).  I personally don't find the nickname "Gabby" for Gabaldon to be wrong or unrealistic.   It's the pronouncing of Gabaldon's name that seems to stretch believability.

The normal pronunciation of "Gabaldon", even if Americanized from the Spanish "Gab-ahl-DOUGHN", would probably be "GAB-ahl-done".  In the film though, we get the rather odd-sounding "Gah-BALL-dun", which sounds like a strange mixing of the English and Spanish pronunciations that doesn't work on either level.  Now, it isn't as though I don't get why for Hell to Eternity they opted for Hunter (and Gabaldon, to his credit, harbored no ill will, naming one of his sons Jeffrey).  However, since the film's debut I think this decision now looks highly bizarre, even bigoted.  Perhaps in a remake (which I hope they eventually get around to), the filmmakers will get the casting right.



Still, this isn't to say that Hunter gave a terrible performance throughout.  Once we got to Saipan, the horror and fury within Gabaldon (no matter how you pronounce it) was clear: the fury of seeing his friends killed along with Gabaldon's conflict about killing those who looked like the people he loved.

Hell to Eternity is also amazing in how open it is about another kind of bigotry: that against the Japanese and Japanese-Americans.  George Takei (billed as George Takai), who would later go on to great fame as Mr. Sulu on Star Trek was himself interned during the war, plays Guy's brother George.  (In an irony, Hunter was originally cast as Captain Pike in the unaired pilot for Star Trek, but opted against appearing in a second pilot, thus preventing a Hunter/Takei reunion and costing Hunter a chance to appear in an iconic television series.  As a result, Takei, who played second fiddle to Hunter in Hell to Eternity, would become more famous than his costar Hunter).

The film portrays the Unes as decent, kind, law-abiding and patriotic citizens, people who gave the "all-American" Guy the only real home he'd ever known and the love he so desperately needed.  We feel great sadness and strong anger at how these kind people are treated so shamefully by their own government, and Hell to Eternity I think is one of the few films that openly addresses this and portrays the Asian characters as decent (a rarity even today...I'm talking to you, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor).

I wouldn't call this move brave, but given that the interment of American citizens for no reason other than their ancestry is still not well-remembered, you have to give credit to Hell to Eternity for being open about this (and about Gabaldon's genuine anger about it).  Granted, the true conditions of the internment camps aren't shown, but that it was mentioned at all and that the Japanese were portrayed positively is a giant step in the right direction. 

One performance that did impress me was Damone, who brought lightness to his Lewis and at who performed his death scene quite well.  He used the character's trademark snapping of his fingers to let them know where he was, and when his fingers stopped snapping, we knew the end.  It is actually quite sad.  Director Phil Karlson, though probably limited due to budget, also had good ideas (Guy's vision of Mama-san and George's suicide, while on the cheap side, was as well-rendered as the money would allow).  I also thought well of Aoki Hayakawa's Mama-san (her only sound film performance, she having gained fame for her work in silent films and having come out of retirement for Hell to Eternity).  Her genuine warmth and love for Gabaldon comes through, and we see that for her, Gabby is one of her boys (the feeling is mutual and subtly shown, with Mama-san's picture prominently displayed on Gabaldon's desk at his apartment, him feeling no shame in being associated with Japanese-Americans).

Hell to Eternity has those flaws of length and bizarre casting (no way will I believe that Jeffrey Hunter could be Mexican-American).  However, the fact that the Japanese characters were treated with respect, some real moments of sadness at the horrors of war, and Gabaldon's conflicts about who he really was, the film more than makes up for its flaws.

And in the end, Jeffrey Hunter as a Mexican-American (even if that fact is never mentioned on-screen) seems more rational than when Charlton Heston was cast as a Mexican in Touch of Evil...and more rational than Ben Affleck casting himself as the Mexican-American Tony Mendez in Argo.

Some things never change, I guess.      

Jeffrey Hunter (left): 1926-1969
Guy Gabaldon (right): 1926-2006


DECISION: B-

*Given that Gabaldon was of Mexican descent, it seems unlikely he would have been sent to a Japanese/Japanese-American internment camp, though Hell to Eternity makes no mention whatsoever of Gabaldon's actual ethnic origin. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars: The Remix. A Review of The Force Awakens


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

Author's Note: This review will be filled to the brim with spoilers.  This will be your only warning. You read at your own discretion. 

It's a safe bet that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the most anticipated film of the year.  The fans were lining up three and a half hours early to see it in IMAX, some in their outfits.  Now, I think I'm a bit too old to be walking around in public in Jedi garb with my lightsaber at my side (and I also think people dressed in pajamas and taking selfies inside the theater is also idiotic, but that's neither here nor there). I didn't line up three and a half hours early (and see no need to).  About half and hour was the most I waited, altogether a reasonable time.  Yet I digress.

The Force Awakens is a good film, but like J.J. Abrams' last effort (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan Remake), I couldn't shake off the feeling that I was essentially watching a 'greatest Star Wars hits' mashup, something less original and more retread of what I've seen before.  There's nothing wrong that per se, but still, I sensed some disturbance in The Force.  Perhaps this is what those fans in their Wookie wardrobe waited three hours (in some cases, more than three days) to experience.  For my part, it takes more than fan service to make me think something is good. 

As this is my second time watching The Force Awakens, I found that while my position has actually softened with regards to the fact that the film is really a retread of the Original Trilogy, my ranking has gone down.  I didn't think The Force Awakens is terrible.  I just didn't think it was as brilliant as all those dazzled by its IMAX 3-D glory thought it was either. 

It's been 30 years since the events of the last chronological Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi.  Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, has disappeared.  The search for him is on, with two groups in pursuit: the "NOT Empire" First Order, and the "NOT Rebellion" Resistance.  The First Order is headed by the "NOT Emperor" Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei...I mean, Snoke (Andy Serkis), who has his own "NOT Darth Vader" Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his own "NOT Grand Moff Tarkin", General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Meanwhile, on "NOT Tatooine" Jakku, "NOT Luke Skywalker" Rey (Daisy Ridley) is eking out a life as a scavenger when she comes upon "NOT R2-D2" BB-8.  BB-8 contains important information about Luke's whereabouts, information both the "NOT Empire" First Order and the "NOT Rebellion" Resistance need.  "NOT Darth Vader" kills the villagers and "NOT Rebellion" hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured.  "NOT Darth Vader" extracts the information by using The Dark Side, and the chase for the "NOT R2-D2" is on.

Stormtrooper FN2187 finds a conscience, and helps Poe escape.  Poe gives the Stormtrooper the new name of Finn (John Boyega) and while Finn would rather flee as far from the "NOT Empire" as possible, Poe needs to get "NOT R2-D2" back which has the message for Obi-Wan Kenobi...I mean, the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker.  Finn crashes on "NOT Tatooine" and finds "NOT Luke Skywalker" who w/Finn escapes on the Millennium Falcon (left to rot in a junkyard).  Finding the Falcon is none other than Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  Han has gone back to smuggling, and mourning the loss of Luke and of Han and Princess Leia's son, Ben.


Han takes them first to "NOT Yoda" Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o), the owner of "NOT Mos Eisley's Cantina".  Here, Rey discovers Luke's lightsaber, which calls to her for reasons she knows not.  As for what "NOT Yoda" is doing with Luke's lightsaber, by her own admission, is a good question...for another time.  "NOT Darth Vader" captures "NOT Luke Skywalker", leaving "NOT R2-D2" since he believes she can lead them to the map the bot has.

"NOT Darth Vader" realizes that "NOT Luke Skywalker" is strong with the Force, though untrained.  Despite no training, she is easily able to use Jedi mind tricks to work at escaping the spaceship, which the "NOT Rebellion" discovers is "NOT Death Star" Starkiller Base, which can harness the power of a sun to destroy other planets.  Even Admiral Ackbar is SHOCKED!  Finn agrees to help the "NOT Rebellion" break into the "NOT Death Star" and destroy it, though his real motive is to rescue "NOT Luke Skywalker".

Han and "NOT Darth Vader" meet, and "NOT Darth Vader" kills his father.  "NOT Darth Vader" is now in pursuit of "NOT Luke Skywalker" and Finn, the former who wields Luke's lightsaber with remarkable agility.  Eventually, Poe leads the fighters into destroying the "NOT Death Star" (though both "NOT Darth Vader" and "NOT Grand Moff Tarkin" manage to escape), and while Princess/General Leia mourns for her husband and son, she sends "NOT Luke Skywalker" to where the map leads, and that is to the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who silently stares at the person I figure is his daughter.


Contrary to any impression I may have left, I am not opposed to remakes.  I'm not particularly fond of them, but sometimes remakes can be good, provided you have intelligent people behind them.  The Charlton Heston versions of Ben-Hur AND The Ten Commandments are remakes, something people tend to forget.  The problem is that The Force Awakens essentially is a MadLibs version of at least the first original Star Wars films (and I've heard a few people say it takes bits and pieces from the prequels too).

About the only thing left was for someone to come around wearing a slave-girl outfit (though fortunately, Carrie Fisher was spared that indignity...and us that horror).  It's a terrible thing to say, but say it I will: Carrie Fisher looks more haggard than her mother Debbie Reynolds, and I figure the audience thought so too.  At the second screening I went to, there was more applause for when C3-P0 appeared than when Princess Leia showed up (the biggest applause reserved for Han Solo).

Perhaps this is one thing that The Force Awakens has no interest in.  I suspect it expects you to know who everyone is, so for those uninitiated the appearance of this old man would mean nothing (though in fairness I think you could put that together really quickly). If you walk into The Force Awakens completely unaware, a lot will get lost.  This leads me to ask if The Force Awakens was meant as pure fan service, a fan-fiction brought to the big screen rather than a legitimate effort to expand the galaxy far, far away.

When I first heard there would be more Star Wars films, I asked 'why?' (and was the only one to do so apparently).  The Empire was defeated, Anakin was redeemed, what more was there to say?  Given The Force Awakens, not very much. 

I think it is clear now that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams (who co-wrote the script with Laurence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt) is a great mimic, but is not one for originality.  I've already commented that in his films, he's copied from Wrath of Khan and from directors Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille, which is within his right to do so.   However, what is the point of watching what one has seen before (especially when there was such a great opportunity to create something truly original).

In regards to the script, I'm calling crap on one particular point.  Here is Rey, a scavenger who has apparently spent her whole life on "NOT Tatooine", yet with no training whatsoever she is able to use Jedi mind tricks with the greatest of ease.  Furthermore, her climatic battle with Kylo Ren (while good) is equally bizarre: this scavenger so adept at using a lightsaber.  Ren at one point tells her she could benefit from a teacher, offering himself as her mentor (I figure for the Dark Side), but I actually laughed out loud at this.  Given show well she was doing on her own with someone who had been trained by Luke Skywalker himself before being seduced by the Dark Side, it didn't look like she needed a teacher.



The same goes for how adept Finn was at lightsaber battling.  Twice this low-level Stormtrooper used Luke Skywalker's lightsaber and used it with remarkably great skill, and I just said that is patently ridiculous.  Finn would not have lasted a minute battling Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel, but there he was, giving as good as he got. 

One of two things: either any Tom, Dick, or Finn can now use lightsabers, or Kylo Ren is just what Driver made him to be: a whiny emo kid with MAJOR Daddy and Granddaddy issues.  When Kylo smashes part of the spaceship with his lightsaber when learning Rey and BB-8 escape, it was reminiscent of Hayden Christensen's reaction in Attack of the Clones.  I'm surprised he didn't shout that it was all Obi-Wan's fault and that he was holding him back too.

The one thing Kylo Ren didn't learn regarding Granddad was that it takes more than a mask and black robes to make you menacing.  It takes being soulless, but Ren I thought was never a real menace.  I think Driver did as good a job as he could (though the constant unmasking was a bit much for me), but I couldn't help that maybe if Han had hugged him more all this could have been avoided.

Also, I thought all of Darth Vader had been burned on Endor in Return of the Jedi.  What, did someone dig him up for Kylo to be carrying around all these years?

Now, I think I should focus on the positive, and that is Ridley as Rey.  This is her film, and she did an absolutely fantastic job as this reluctant warrior, one who lives by her wits and is stronger than she's given credit for.  "Stop holding my hand," she shouts at Finn when they're making their escape, and it's nice to see that Star Wars can still give good roles to women.

The diversity program of The First Order also helps with Boyega's Finn, who evolved from the frightened, somewhat bumbling Stormtrooper to someone who could rise to be a warrior against his former comrades.  It's unfortunate that Isaac had a limited role as Poe, for he makes the most of his screen time, making the cocky but talented pilot into someone we do genuinely like.

John Williams, whom I see as the last Jedi of film composers, still delivers with a brilliant score, and while in terms of actual story I think little of Abrams I have to give credit where it's due: he did keep things flowing (save for when Solo and Company had to escape his pursuers and the monsters he was transporting, which could have been cut or trimmed from the bloated running time and added nothing to the story).   


As for Solo's death, well, to be frank I think people should have seen it coming.  Once he walked onto the bridge, I think we all knew he was a goner.  I think Ford has always wanted Han Solo killed off (I think that was his original wish in Empire Strikes Back) and now he is forever free of one of his most iconic characters. 

Well, there's always the Star Wars Holiday Special to remember him by...

I really can't say The Force Awakens is a terrible film.  It moves well, has some really great work by some of the cast (Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac, with Driver failing only because his character was so whiny).  Gleeson was the exception, going full-on crazy with his Nazi-like speech just before the "NOT Death Star" unleashes Hell.  I thought it was comical, as was "NOT The Emperor" looking like Voldemort's long-lost cousin.  The original cast was also pretty good: Ford bringing in the pathos of his failed relationship with Ben Solo, Fisher not as strong as General Leia. 

I can see why so many Star Wars fans like The Force Awakens.  After all, it's an amalgamation of all the past Star Wars films rolled into one.

However, as someone who, despite his large Obi-Wan collection, is not big into Star Wars as I was when I was six, I am not as easily bought off as others.

Finally, to those who insist that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is really this absolutely brilliant film, one that will leave you astonished in its ingenuity and originality, I have only this to say...

   

DECISION: C+

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Madea Christmas: A Review

A MADEA CHRISTMAS

Welcome to Rick's CafĂ© Texan's annual Christmas film review, where on the day we commemorate the Birth of Christ, we examine a Christmas-centered film.  This year, I've selected A Madea Christmas, starring Tyler Perry as the blunt, gun-toting wisdom-spouting black woman who tells it as it is.  In that same spirit, I will do the same with this review.

Good thing Tyler Perry is very, very rich.

A Madea Christmas has a Christmas setting, but apart from a minor subplot the film could have been set at any time.  In retrospect, it is not a good film (certainly not in the same league as one of his best Madea-centered films, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), but as mindless Yuletide fare, this isn't the worst you could choose.   

Madea (Perry) gets talked into working as a department store guide for Christmas by her friend/great-niece Eileen (Anna Marie Horsford), complete with a "Mrs. Claus" wardrobe.  No surprise: Madea fails spectacularly in her one day of work.  She ignores customers asking for assistance, takes personal calls while on the floor, and talks badly to just about anyone who comes her way.  She suggests to one customer that she is too fat for lingerie and leaves another in the middle of her inquiry to take her break.  No surprise that she's fired, but no matter: Madea expects to be paid for her hard work instantly.  When she isn't, she boldly goes to the register, takes out what she thinks she's owed, and takes a dress without paying as part of her 'salary' before storming out of the department store, horrifying everyone including Eileen.

Eileen, a hypochondriac, is upset that her daughter Lacey (Tiki Sumpter) isn't coming home to Atlanta from her teaching job at a small Alabama town for Christmas.  Madea suggests it's to get away from her overbearing mother, but Eileen won't believe that.  However, a chance to surprise her comes her way when Oliver (JR Lemon), an old boyfriend of Lacey's, is going to see her.  Lacey has asked for his help.  Her school is facing a financial crisis that might cancel the Christmas Jubilee celebration, and Oliver's PR firm is handling a mysterious client that needs good publicity.  This client is offering a $10,000 sponsorship in exchange for good publicity, and Lacey and the City Council eagerly accept.

Lacey doesn't want to come home for Christmas for another reason.  Eileen is displeased that Lacey lets her farmhand Conner (Eric Lively) live with her.  What she doesn't know is that Lacey and Conner are secretly married.  Oh, and did I mention Conner is white?


Falcons Touchdown is Good!


Lacey doesn't want to tell her mother, and the very gentle Conner goes along with this ruse.  However, Conner's parents Buddy and Kim Williams (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy) do know, and in fact are coming back to the family farm to visit for Christmas.  Lacey and Conner also have to deal with their own work issues.  For Lacey, that is helping Bailey (Noah Urrea), a poor farmer's son, overcome bullying and achieve more than the life his father Tanner (Chad Michael Murray) wants.  For Conner, that means working on a new corn that requires less water while being bullied by his old frenemy (the same Tanner).

Well, as can be expected, once Eileen, Madea, and Oliver come around slowly but surely things are revealed.  Madea, perceptive as ever, realizes Lacey and Conner are involved, but isn't aware they are married until Buddy sets her right.  Through implausible circumstances Eileen is convinced the sweet-natured Buddy and Kim are Ku Klux Klan members and is unbearably horrid with them.  Once the truth about Lacey and Conner comes out, Eileen is enraged and won't stay there.  More circumstances bring Eileen to save Tanner, who has gotten Lacey fired (thus getting rid of his son's favorite teacher) because she inadvertently got Sheldon Construction to a.) sponsor the festival which they want all references to Christ removed, down to changing the event from a "Christmas" to a "Holiday" Jubilee, and b.) built the dam that caused the drought for the farmers.  It's up to Madea and her brand of tough love to sort all this out.


What is curious about A Madea Christmas is how essentially unimportant the Christmas setting is to the overall story.  There is a little bit tacked on about a Christmas Jubilee in town about to be degraded to a mere "Holiday Jubilee" but on the whole A Madea Christmas has fewer laughs and less...charm than other Madea films because she is more wisecracking bystander than the dispenser of tough love.  Moreover, what was once charming, even amusing about Madea in other films has turned into a meanness and pettiness that is more cringe-inducing than laugh-inducing.

Madea comes across as a nasty bitch more than a blunt but wise elder.  The way she is with the customers isn't funny, it's downright unpleasant.  If the customers had been nasty, short-tempered, or rude, having Madea respond in kind would have been funny.  However, the two people who dared bother Madea were quite pleasant and nice and rational.  Asking a guide for help in locating a watch is not an irrational request, but Madea behaves as though they have interrupted something more important (her calling for lottery tickets).  Madea then leaves them in midsentence while she storms off, screaming about her break and is oblivious to being called rude as she pushes her way towards the staff area.

It makes Madea someone you don't want to be around, and why Perry opted to do make his most famous character into a horrible figure in the opening I can't say.  It also doesn't help that Eileen is both unsympathetic and stupid.  She is perpetually nasty and rude to all the Williamses right to their face.  A bully in her own right, she is unconcerned that she took down a tree Kim planted as a memorial to her late father to make into a Christmas tree that no one in the household asked to have there.  Moreover, she doesn't even bother to remember Conner's name, let alone use it, referring to him as the farmhand (don't remember is she called him a field hand, but it wouldn't surprise me).

In other aspects, A Madea Christmas is badly structured.  We get a reason as to Eileen's hostility (her husband was killed by a white man on Christmas) only to have this sudden piece of information torn down immediately (Madea telling everyone Lacey's father wasn't dead when he disappeared but instead merely run off with a white woman).  Why didn't Perry introduce this element in the beginning?  If he had, we would have had at least an understanding over Eileen's hostility to the Williamses, which would have made some sense.  Instead, we get this 'shocking' information thrown at us real quickly, then get opposite information negating all this immediately after. 

It's just a mess.

The last-minute "have to save Christmas" subplot seems to come from another film altogether, and again and again circumstances and situations are rather implausible if not impossible.  Eileen's unwavering belief in the KKK membership of Buddy and Kim (who are actually quite happy with their daughter-in-law), Eileen coming across Tanner's overturned truck, Oliver's company having to keep their name and motives secret until after the contracts are signed (making this City Council more stupid than the one in El Paso...and that's saying quite a lot). 

Implausible upon implausible makes things worse than they already are.



Now, it isn't as if there aren't some funny moments.  Seeing the redneck styling of Larry the Cable Guy (whom I admit to liking) with the blunt chitlin' circuit comedy of Tyler Perry's Madea has some good moments (a plug for Prilosec OTC by Buddy is a nice in-joke, if a bit obvious).  A few moments (such as when Madea inadvertently crashes a KKK meeting or shouts out "I'm Gone With the Wind fabulous" in her department store tirade) are funny. 

It's a pity that even in parts where the comedy could work, Perry as director/writer chose to trim them.  The scene where Madea attempts to explain the Nativity story of the Virgin Mary...J. Blige and Joe....Mangianello ending with her tying up the little snobbish girl to a cross with Christmas lights had potential but no payoff.  Same for the KKK meeting.

In terms of performance, I think professionals like Najimy tried their best and came away the least scathed.  Urrea too as the kind, smart, and talented Bailey under a somewhat abusive father also was a highlight.  However, when Larry the Cable Guy can be seen as one of the better performances, you are in deep trouble.  Sumpter was almost always so blank and Lively came across less as a gentle, kind man, and more as a wimp.  Murray's one-note performance as the villain says it all, and even seeing Lisa Whelchel (Blair from The Facts of Life) as the school director didn't help make this an enjoyable romp. 

A Madea Christmas is a bit of a lump of coal for the holidays.  A few moments of actual humor came across almost by accident.  Terrible characters, terrible performances, and little connection to the holidays makes this a rather poor choice for a holiday feature.  Still, I can't say I hated it or that it is completely horrible.

It just isn't very good.

CHRISTMAS FILMS

Christmas 2012: Arthur Christmas
Christmas 2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
Christmas 2014: Prancer
Other Christmas-Themed Movies
A Christmas Carol (2009)
White Christmas

DECISION: D+ 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Librarians: And Their Christmas Carols



THE LIBRARIANS: AND THEIR CHRISTMAS CAROLS

I thought I'd have some fun this Christmas Eve and try to come up with the appropriate Christmas carol for each Librarians character.  This is just for my own amusement, but would love to hear whether you think they are good or maybe other carols would suit them best. 

We will go alphabetically.


EVE BAIRD

Now, Colonel Baird is tough, no-nonsense, pretty strict, and handy with a weapon. Full qualities for a Guardian.  However, what Eve really wants is peace, tranquility, a place away from violence.  She'd want a place of respite from all the violence she's seen, a place where there is calm. 

With that in mind, I think Colonel Eve Baird's Christmas carol would be...



Silent Night




FLYNN CARSEN

Flynn Carsen, our main Librarian, is brilliant but a bit wacky.  A man who lives more in his mind than in reality, he never quite fits in.  Flynn is a good man, loving, loyal, and devoted to his work, but a bit of a loner, a bit distant from those around him.  There is something in him that wants to fit in, but something in him too that keeps him separate from everyone else. 

Therefore, the Christmas carol best suited to Flynn Carsen is...


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer




CASSANDRA CILLIAN

Cassandra is a very sweet person, one who is quite innocent.  Cheerful, giving, and with an almost child-like enthusiasm for life, Cassandra hasn't got it in her to be mean towards anyone. The genuine kindness Cassandra has makes her want everyone to be happy.  If anyone is full of the Christmas spirit of love for all, and one who is thoroughly giving, it's our brilliant Cassandra.

With that in mind, Cassandra Cillian's Christmas carol would be...

 
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas




JENKINS

Jenkins is stuffy, conservative, and bound by tradition.  He isn't one who goes for the latest trends (though he's fully aware of them) and one who is not going to update things he doesn't see as needing to be updated.  Note that while he uses magic and has all this power around him, Jenkins' phone and television are decidedly ultra-old school.  Given his centuries of life, of being an actual Knight of the Round Table, one who is so ancient he might have actually known people who knew Jesus personally (after all, wasn't the Holy Grail brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea), I think Jenkins would go for something that reflects his long, long life.

As such, I think the perfect Jenkins Christmas carol would be...


The First Noel




EZEKIEL JONES

Ezekiel Jones is a remarkably immature man.  Shamelessly egocentric and materialistic (he is a master thief, after all), Jones is also a pretty stand-up guy when the chips are down.  He may not think of himself as friends to any of the other Librarians, but he does appreciate that they are his friends.  As such, he will be loyal to them.  However, he still enjoys the good things in life, and sees no need to change that part of his life.  Jones will always want those trinkets life can either throw his way...or ones he can pick up with his skills.

I think Ezekiel Jones' Christmas carol would be...



Santa Baby



JACOB STONE

If there is something Jacob Stone is passionate about, it's art and architecture.  Who would have thought "Architecture is art that we live in" would become a catchphrase?  Jacob is thoroughly enamored of painting, sculpture, and preservation.  He's the type who would find a trip to Taliesin or Taliesin West as an adventure.  While he appreciates the difference between Baroque and Rococo, at heart Jake is a country boy, more comfortable with having a beer and brisket than attending a swanky soiree with champagne.  Jake would be more into Loretta Lynn than Renee Fleming (though he'd find beauty in both). Jake is the perfect mix of down-home and cultured, a guy who would get equally excited at a football game and at an art exhibit.

Still, given his Western roots, the best Christmas carol for Jacob Stone would be...


 
Merry Christmas Strait to You

ALL HAIL KING GEORGE!

With that, our brief, lighthearted romp through the Best Christmas Carols for The Librarians characters ends.

Here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a most joyful holiday season!