Sunday, January 31, 2016

Braveheart (1995): A Review (Review #785)


My Sweet Laird...

I know nothing of Scottish history, and Braveheart will in no way enlighten anyone on the subject.  Braveheart is built around a historical figure (Sir William Wallace) but in most other respects it's a far cry from an actual biopic.  My thinking though, is that it isn't meant to be a strict biography of the Scotsman who fought to keep Scotland out of a unified British kingdom.  Rather, it's about a more universal struggle for freedom, with Wallace as a symbol of that struggle to maintain a people's unique identity over tyrannical conquerors. 

Braveheart has now a major disadvantage: it was the epic vision of Mel Gibson, who has proven himself to be, eh, a little oddball, in the ensuing twenty years.  Long before his "sugar tits" drunken tirades, long before he expressed in unhinged, hyperventilating terms his desire to strangle his mistress/baby mama, and long before he declared Jews responsible for all the wars of the world (I presume, including the one chronicled in Braveheart), Gibson was a respected actor and director, a little manic but harmless.   Now, he is forever tainted by his own darkness, the charming goofball turned anti-Semitic nut, one likely to go postal at the mention of Anne Frank.  Is it fair to praise the greatness of a man's work while condemning the man himself for his vile acts (in the same way we can laud The Cosby Show while being appalled at the accusations against Bill Cosby)?  I think yes, but as well-shaped as Braveheart is, the film itself reveals other aspects of Gibson's worldview that are disturbing: his love for gratuitous violence and his barely hidden homophobia bubbling up in a film that celebrates the notions of freedom from tyranny. 

What to make of it now, when the film stands in the shadow of its creator's own disarray?

Young William Wallace grows up a Highlander of modest means despite his family's reputation and respect among his community.  The Wallaces want to live in peace and freedom, but William sees the evil of the British when he finds his father and brother murdered when lured to a 'peace conference'.  His uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) takes him in, reinforcing his late brother's belief that 'it's our wits that make us men, not fighting'.   He gets educated and grows up, returning to his ancestral home years later.

Now an adult, William Wallace (Gibson) finds his beloved Scotland still under British rule, with the monarch who killed his family, Edward I better known as Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) still on the English throne.  Longshanks is displeased at his effete son Edward (Peter Hanly) but does believe that his daughter-in-law Princess Isabel of France (Sophie Marceau) is better in so many ways (and I suspect Longshanks would like a Prima Nocte with her).  The issue of letting the lords of the manor have the 'first night' with a new bride is one of many issues causing consternation in Scotland, the English essentially raping virgin Scottish brides on their wedding nights.  This is the reason Wallace marries the great love of his life, Murron (Catherine McCormack) in secret. 

Wallace wants nothing more than peace and Murron, but the world will not allow him this.  English soldiers harass his secret bride and while she proves herself a true Scotswoman she is executed most brutally.  In fury and vengeance, Wallace becomes a one-man army, an avenging angel soon joined by others into a full-scale revolt against English rule.

Wallace's victory at Stirling over the English piques the interest of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), a contender for the Scottish throne.  He too wants a free Scotland, but his father is happy to compromise with the English if it will ensure the throne for his son.  Longshanks goes to crush the rebellion, sending Isabel ahead in order to bribe Wallace, but this is for naught.   At the Battle of Falkirk, Wallace is betrayed by his fellow Scots and Robert, who was pushed into siding with the English by his ambitious father, manages to send Wallace out of danger, though the Bruce is wracked with guilt over his actions.  Wallace continues his mad war, and has a fling with Isabel, who coolly informs her hateful father-in-law that the child she carries is not from his gay son, but from Wallace himself.

Both Robert the Bruce and Sir William Wallace are betrayed when Robert sets up a meeting with Wallace only to find it was used to capture the Scottish rogue.  Wallace is condemned for high treason and is to be hung, drawn, and quartered.  Wallace, defiant to the end, will not call out for mercy to spare his life, screaming a fierce "FREEDOM!" as he is killed.  In the end, Robert the Bruce, free from his father's punishing force, decides he will not pledge loyalty to the new English king, but will fight for Scotland's freedom at Bannockburn.

As I said, Braveheart is one of these historic films that doesn't bother itself with historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good dramatic moment.  So what that Princess Isabel was all of three years old when she was supposed to have had her affair with Wallace!  So what if Prince Edward was probably at most a healthy bisexual who sired children with women other than the Queen while keeping male company! Never mind that whole 'the kilts are all wrong' business.  Braveheart isn't and frankly I don't think ever was about historical accuracy.  It was about a message: the message of a people being free from occupation by a tyrannical ruler.  In that respect, Braveheart's leaps of accuracy are essentially irrelevant.

If however, we focus on Braveheart's message, then it becomes a rousing spectacle.  In fact, as much as I loath Gibson the man for his vile views, as a director he did a simply smashing job.  Almost every element came into sharp focus, and I can see why so many people then and now love the film.  Almost everything about Braveheart is brilliant.

Let's start with John Toll's superb and beautiful cinematography, which captures the beauty of the Scottish Highlands along with the more seamy aspects (the hangings, the bloodiness).  Sometimes Wallace has dreams that are extraordinarily filmed, and when he begins to avenge Murron's death he comes almost as a ghost-like figure, an avenging angel about to execute swift and brutal justice.

The James Horner score is also quite beautiful (a rarity with the late Horner, whom I was not a fan of).  Horner mixes Scottish and classical music in a lovely fashion, and the mixing of Scottish and English music at the Battle of Stirling underscores (no pun intended) the oncoming conflict between the two warring peoples. 

Another excellent aspect to Braveheart is that it might be the last film (at least in my memory) to display its epic battle scenes clearly and without it being confusing.  No quick cuts to make things blurry or hard to follow.  Instead, Gibson put the battle sequences together in a coherent manner where we can understand who is who and what is what.

Gibson as a director also proved adept in drawing strong performances out of everyone.  Of particular note for me is Macfayden as the conflicted Robert the Bruce.  He captures that mixture of morality and ambition, the struggle between being his own man and being pushed and controlled by his father.  Marceau is good as the Princess (though I couldn't quite get over the robes).  Though her role was smaller, McCormack is equal to the task of the noble and strong Murron, the equal to Wallace.  In the lead role, Gibson excels at bringing the determined nature of Wallace, the quiet nature of a man who would rather farm than fight but who is forced into a fight for freedom. 

He even managed a good joke at his expense.  When Wallace first appears before the troops to give his "They Can Take Our Lives..." speech (the Scottish version of St. Crispin's Day), one of the Scotsmen drily comments "Can't be Wallace.  Not tall enough," a wry quip on the 5'9" Gibson.

As great as Braveheart is, and as epic as it is, there were things about the film that disturbed me.  Gibson appears fixated on being as brutal when it comes to the violence as possible. Gibson seems to push the bounds in terms of depicting the horrors of human torture, sometimes to the point of vulgarity.  Of particular note is when Wallace (a bit Christ-like) is being executed.  It seems a bit much in terms of the visuals, to where I openly wondered about historical accuracy being one thing, but 'torture porn' being another.  The violence, or rather the fetish Gibson has about displaying it to such a level, bothered me.  I figure violence has to be part of Braveheart, but at times Gibson appears to show it only to display some sort of delight in it. 

I also have never been a fan of voice-overs, though in fairness they weren't overly done.  I also wonder whether the film really did have to be close to three hours long.

Apart from those issues (particularly the violence), Braveheart more than lives up to its reputation for being an epic.  It's not history by any means, but it is rousing, which is something that would make any Scotsman proud.

Circa 1270-1305


1996 Best Picture Winner: The English Patient

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Revenant: A Review


Revenant means "a person who returns" or "a person who returns as a spirit, a ghost" (courtesy of  It is a fitting title for The Revenant, this dark tale of survival and revenge, though I think a better title would be Leonardo DiCaprio's Naked Oscar Plea Number 8047. No more illustrious biopics (The Aviator) or toying with exotic accents (Blood Diamonds).  Having failed to win with these usually-Oscar proof roads to victory, this time, he's taking a page from Eddie Redmayne by suffering for his Oscar.  The Revenant is by now means a bad movie, but it is an unnecessarily long movie, and one that I find hard to fully embrace.

Out in the West, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is the guide to a group of fur trappers who have been ambushed by a group of Native Americans.  The natives believe this party is holding the chief's daughter prisoner, though in reality they are not connected with the real abductors.  Having fled on a boat with a smaller group, Glass, his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and the others float down the river until Glass convinces them they are sitting ducks if they stay on the boat. Over the very loud objections of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), they abandon the boat and the furs and go across the mountains to safety at Fort Kiowa.

While scouting alone, Glass is mauled by a grizzly defending her young (the infamous 'bear rape' scene).  His wounds are many, and he is barely clinging to life.  The others discover him after he fires one shot, and again over the objections of Fitzgerald, who thinks Glass should be put out of their misery, their leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson), insists they carry Glass.  After a while though, Glass becomes too much of a burden, and Henry tries to follow Fitzgerald's advice.  Finding he can't kill a man still alive, he instead asks for volunteers to stay with Glass while the others attempt to reach the fort, to rescue them later.  Hawk stays with his father, as does Jim Bridger (Will Pouter) and, in a surprise, Fitzgerald.

Naturally, this is a bad decision, as Fitzgerald appears convinced (or convinces himself) that Glass wants to die.  As Fitzgerald attempts to smother him Hawk comes upon him, and Fitzgerald kills him.  He then tells a surprised Bridger that he's seen natives and they must flee, forcing them to bury Glass alive (albeit barely), with Hawk perhaps lost (Bridger unaware he's dead).

An enraged Glass wills himself to live, and slowly, very...very...slowly, he heals to where he is functioning, avoiding the wrathful natives still on his trail in his quest to revenge his son.  He finds help with another native who like Glass has had his family killed.  He advises him that 'revenge is for the Creator', not man.  Unfortunately, the native is lynched by a group of French trappers while Glass is asleep, neither aware of the other.  Glass finds that a native woman is being held prisoner and in a cross of revenge for his friend and a need for a horse he kills two of them and runs off with a horse, freeing the woman (who is the chief's daughter) in the process.

Soon Fitzgerald's lies come back to haunt him as Henry and Bridger put the various pieces together, culminating in Glass' reemergence.  Fitzgerald attempts to flee to Texas, stealing the fort's money in the process, and Henry and Glass join to hunt him down.  Not all of them survive, and Glass finds that revenge truly does belong to the Creator.

Another Oscar, Another Lecture...
As I said, The Revenant is not a bad film. The score is quite impressive.  It is also beautifully photographed by director Alejandro G. Inarritu's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.  I will concede that.  However, that might be part of the problem.

At two-and-a-half hours one wonders why we had to be treated to seemingly endless shots of the mountains, the rivers, the snow.  Especially the snow, piles and piles of snow.  One person next to me started softly singing "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" when we go for yet another snow-falling sequence.  Personally, I thought it bordered on parody.  There should or could have been something Inarritu could have cut or trimmed to make it a tighter, shorter story apart from all the transitions. 

Could not one of those dream/vision sequences where Glass sees his Native American wife floating through the air or some rather dreamy walk through a burned-out village or a surprisingly violent ambush have been cut or trimmed?  Did we really need all those mountain flyovers?

Moreover, part of the story was a bit perplexing.  Why did the Native American chief think these trappers had his daughter?  As far as I remember no one ever acknowledged they were hunting the wrong people.  Maybe I missed it while attempting to stay awake, which I did, though The Revenant does try one's patience in that department.

In terms of performances, I think in retrospect Hardy got the better of Leo.  DiCaprio's was the more showy of the two: all intense suffering (physical and emotional, but particularly physical).  Hardy though had an equally difficult task: to make Fitzgerald someone who could bully all those around him while still showing a touch of subservience. I am still not completely convinced Tom Hardy is an actor.  I wish I could pinpoint it, but I can't (though I imagine if I met Hardy and said so, he'd pick me up and toss me across the room Inception-style for so much as saying 'hello').  Always scowling our boy Tom is.  However, The Revenant does give him a chance to show his usual gruff and angry manner.

Oh, how I'd love to see a movie where Tom Hardy gets a pie thrown in his face.

DiCaprio has been getting raves for his performance, and while I do think DiCaprio is a better actor than his detractors say, I am a bit of a loss to understand why this particular performance is his best.  He is very physical in it, but he seems to also be especially dour in this, managing to out-dour the perpetually grumpy Hardy.  Maybe it's just me, but this is a rare moment when I can see DiCaprio ACT rather than BE.  I believed him to be Howard Hughes, I believed him to be Jordan Belfort.  Here, I saw only Leonardo DiCaprio.  Worse, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio saying, "this is absolute hell, but it's worth it because I'm finally going to get the Oscar I've so long wanted and show I am an ACTOR among actors, not just the pretty boy in Titanic". 

In short, I had a hard time seeing Glass as human.  I also thought he was pretty dumb to a.) wander out there alone and b.) try to shoot the bear when it had left him alone the first time.  Sure, he was injured by the bear, but the second go-around made things worse.

And for the record there was no 'bear rape'.  Granted, a couple of the shots did make it look like the bear was entering him from behind, but there was no actual 'bear rape', so let's put that out of the way right here, right now.

I cannot say The Revenant was a bad movie.  It looks and sounds great, has some good performances in it.  In terms of a film, it's perfectly functional.  I can say that I was not moved by The Revenant.  It's not a film I'd watch again or that I think I benefited from by watching at all.  Serviceable though dour, The Revenant is not bad.

No pun intended, but in truth, The Revenant left me cold. 


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is Oscar Afraid of the Dark?

On an episode of Designing Women, the character of Suzanne Sugarbaker acquired dark makeup to attempt to look more like The Supremes for a benefit concert.  The other characters were aghast at the idea of essentially donning blackface.  Suzanne was unfazed and insisted white women wearing dark makeup was in no way racist, commenting that Dustin Hoffman would wear dark makeup if he were playing Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Suzanne!" her older (liberal) sister Julia snapped.  "Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a BLACK actor".  

"Well I think THAT'S racist," was her bizarre response.  "It should go to the best actor, and that could be Dustin Hoffman". 

Essentially, both have a point (though George Sanders in All About Eve would correctly add, 'an idiotic point').  Yes, Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a black actor, in the same way any historic figure should be played by the correct ethnicity. The only exception I would say is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in his Hamilton: The Musical.  However, a musical (or any theatrical show) is less bound by reality than a film, so we could get away with that kind of casting.

As a side note, I fully support Miranda recreating his role on television or film...he and the show are simply too good to not let him do it, and again, a musical film is less bound by reality from the get-go.  Granted, I've never read The Federalist Papers, but I don't think Hamilton and Jefferson rapped their views to President Washington.

Warner Baxter as a Mexican in
In Old Arizona (1929)

However, Hollywood has a rather horrid record in casting.  The film industry constantly struggles to cast minorities in what should essentially be color-blind casting. 

I'm just going to pick The Big Bang Theory as example, though as someone who has seen a few episodes I am speculating a bit.  With the exception of Kunal Nayyar's Raj, all the leads are white.  Nothing wrong with that, but what about the characters in particular demands that they be played by white actors exclusively?  Could Sheldon or Leonard or Penny possibly be played by a black actor/actress?  None of the actors were famous when the show debuted, so we cannot fall back on the 'there are no black stars to draw wide audiences' line. 

Come to think on it, has there been a Hispanic character on Big Bang Theory that was part of a major storyline versus a mere guest appearance?  Am I to understand that there is no such thing as a Hispanic nerd?  There are no Latinos who are passionate about quantum physics, no Mexican-Americans who are well-versed in Doctor Who lore?

On the last one, I guess I might be the only one in existence then...

In short, nothing prevented the producers of The Big Bang Theory from selecting a wider pool of actors.  It was their chose to cast an almost-all white cast, to cast primarily white guest actors for roles major or minor.  Therefore, it was their choice to make The Big Bang Theory a show with virtually no African-American or Hispanic representation.

Going back to the past, I look at Friends.  What prevented any of the denizens of Central Perk from being black or Hispanic or Asian?  Perhaps Ross and Monica Geller (granted, the number of black or Hispanic or Asian Jews is extremely small), but even that could have been altered.  Again, none of the Friends cast were 'names' when the show debuted (maybe Courtney Cox...maybe).  Could you have cast a black person as Chandler, or a Hispanic as Phoebe without affecting storylines (unless of course, television scriptwriters do not see Latinas as particularly ditzy). 

Again and again I cannot understand why scripted television shows set in contemporary times cannot have truly color-blind casting.  There is a difference between Empire (where ethnicity is an important factor, and for the record, though I've never watched the show I am Team Cookie) and say, Elementary (where it isn't).

I find it curious that there was more outrage in the casting of an Asian woman in the role of Dr. Watson on this adaptation of a fictional character than there was in the casting of Jennifer Connelly as a Hispanic in A Beautiful Mind (Alicia Nash being from El Salvador, a pesky detail the film made no mention of). 

Charlton Heston as a Mexican in
Touch of Evil (1954)

We extend this curious inability in color-blind casting to films.  Again, if we're talking about a historic piece like Carol or a book adaptation like Brooklyn, it would not make sense to cast say Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead.  Despite Miss Mbatha-Raw's tremendous talent, the idea that a black woman could move easily through society in the 1950s is idiotic (or that Mbatha-Raw could possibly pass for Irish). 

I think we all should acknowledge that Dustin Hoffman could never play Martin Luther King.

However, I'm not talking about historic films or biopics.  I'm talking about films where race and ethnicity is irrelevant to the character.  We can look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a good example.  Finn's race is irrelevant.  Poe's ethnicity is irrelevant.  Kylo Ren's racial background is irrelevant.  I think John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver could have been cast as any of the three parts and, minus their actual acting, it would not have affected the film as a whole. 

Would it have mattered one bit if say, Edgar Ramirez and not Chris Pratt was the lead in Jurassic World?  Could Mbatha-Raw or Zoe Saldana not be as good as Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World as well?  Was there anything specifically necessary for white actors to play the leads in this massive movie?  I'm not saying that Pratt and Howard were miscast or should not have played the parts, or that Ramirez and/or Mbatha-Raw or Saldana should have been cast.

I AM saying that, as far as I know, nothing precluded a Ramirez or Saldana from taking the Pratt and Howard roles.  Nothing overtly required that the main characters be white.  They could have been anyone really.  However, again it was the film industry: the casting directors, the producers, the screenwriters, the director, and everyone else connected with Jurassic World that made the decision that the two leads would be played by white actors.

Here again, we can reject the 'we need big names, and there aren't many if any big name black or Hispanic actors' line of reasoning.  Jurassic World was going to be a hit no matter what.  It could have had rubber dinosaurs where you saw the strings being pulled and it still would have made a billion dollars opening weekend. 

I'm An Indian Too...

What was the reasoning, the rationale, to not cast or perhaps even consider black or Hispanic actors for parts in Jurassic World, or 45 Years, or Trainwreck (though I can't bear the idea that Bill Hader, a true comedic genius, wouldn't be in the film), or Spy, or Aloha?

As a side note, we had a film where the 'native Hawaiian' was played by Emma Stone.  Yes, it was made clear she was only a quarter Hawaiian (and more insanely, a quarter CHINESE), but Emma Stone is as quarter Hawaiian as Saoirse Ronan.  Zoe Saldana is more believable as a quarter Hawaiian than Emma Stone.  No slam on Stone herself, but Cameron Crowe wildly miscalculated that casting choice.

If Hollywood cannot be trusted with casting someone who is a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian, why would we think they'd do better in casting someone who actually IS a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian?

Aloha bombed at the box office, and so did Pan (rightfully so).  Yet here we have the casting of a white actress (Rooney Mara) to play the Native American Princess Tiger Lily.  Leaving aside how awful Pan as a film was, what was the rationale to not cast an actual Native American actress in the role?  Why specifically was there a need to cast Mara?  She is not a big name (and with Hugh Jackman in the film and the subject matter itself, that should have been enough to draw audiences).

I do not think it is overt racism that causes these situations where a.) non-white actors are apparently not even considered for roles that are color-blind or b.) white actors are apparently cast in non-Anglo parts.  I think it's just ignorance and a fear that with a non-white lead, a film or television show won't do as well as it would with a white lead.  There's no rational reason for said fear, and no proof that a film or television show with color-blind casting cannot be embraced.

The Fast & Furious franchise has a multi-ethnic cast, and it's been a huge money-maker, appealing across all racial/ethnic lines (and as a side note, the same with religious-based films like War Room, which was seen by whites, Hispanics, and blacks despite being a primarily African-American cast).  None of the leads were big names when the first one was made.  Why can't a similar approach be used for non-action films?

This fear and failure to cast minorities in color-blind parts we know is not new.  We've seen it before, but you'd think that given how many in Hollywood campaigned for a black President, you'd think they of all people would jump at the chance to cast minorities in roles.  However, they are not in any rush.

I've also been cast as the
Ayatollah Khomeini

They not only fail to consider minority actors for color-blind parts, but have no problem casting white actors in non-white roles.  A good (or bad) example was Jake Gyllenhaal as the title role in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  OK, it's based on a video game, so we don't have to be too specific in a live-action version.  However, really: the Swedish-descended Gyllenhaal as a Persian?  It was bad enough when Sir Alec Guinness played an Indian in A Passage to India (which was in 1984, really not that long ago).  However, Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian in 2010? 

Again, bad enough when white actor Tab Hunter can play Mexican Guy Gabaldon in Hell to Eternity, but at least THAT film cast actual Japanese actors as Japanese characters...and it was in 1960! 

All this leads me to the newest controversy about #OscarsSoWhite.  Out of 20 acting nominees for the 88th Academy Awards, all 20 were white.  This has led to sharp criticism and accusations of racism on the part of the Academy. 

Here's my view.

Looking over the films nominated, most are period films where the casting of a non-white actor would be off.  How could you have a black actor in The Revenant?  Where would Hispanics pop in in Bridge of Spies

Diane Houston:
the only African-American Oscar nominee 
for films of 1995
And herein lies part of the problem.  The nominated films almost all would have a hard time having minority actors in them.  It isn't so much that black/Hispanic actors are ignored (though they are).  It isn't so much that Hollywood won't cast them in parts where race/ethnicity is irrelevant (thought they don't).  It's that black/Hispanic actors aren't in these 'prestige' films the Academy oh so loves. 

Really think you could make Idris Elba into The Danish Girl?

Films where you have majority-black or Hispanic actors (say, War Room or McFarland, USA) tend to be ignored by the Academy because they aren't 'prestige' films or 'Academy Award material'.  The Academy favors such rubbish as The Theory of Everything, so they aren't going to rush out to honor Straight Outta Compton.

The Academy's failure to recognize minorities is nothing new.  Twenty years ago, there was an uproar over the fact that there was exactly ONE African-American nominee: Diane Houston for Tuesday Morning Ride, a Best Live-Action Short Film nominee.  She lost, to Christine Lahti and her film, Lieberman in Love.

How soon they forget...

The problem is not #OscarsSoWhite.  The problem is Hollywood's continuing inability or unwillingness to get past race and ethnicity when it comes to casting parts.  Hollywood stubbornly won't cast minority actors in parts that don't specifically need white actors.  Is it overt racism or merely ignorance, an effect of living in a bubble? 

I think it's a mix.

There are thousands upon thousands of actors in Hollywood, all vying for a chance.  It isn't an easy life, to be an actor.  You face rejection, you face months of unemployment or underemployment, and you face the constant call-backs, and that doesn't even mean that the show you're lucky enough to be cast in will get picked up, or that the film you're in will be released (or that you won't be edited out).

For a minority actor, it is much harder, because you have to face all that, and carry the extra burden that many productions simply won't consider you because they cannot possibly imagine that a Hispanic nerd or a black paleontologist could realistically exist.     

Ben Affleck as a Mexican in
Argo (2012)
Until such a time as Hollywood recognizes that actors can and do come in all shades, that blacks and Hispanics aren't all a monolithic group, and that unless the part specifically calls for a particular racial/ethnic actor someone who isn't white CAN play a particular role, you will continue to see The Academy Awards merely reflect the state of race in Hollywood, not create it.

Until such a time that Hollywood looks at itself and admits the problem isn't the Oscars, but themselves, you will see no difference between casting an Anglo as a Mexican in 1929...or in 1954...or in 2012.

Some things, apparently, never change.        

Monday, January 25, 2016

Marty (1955): A Review

MARTY (1955)

The Butcher, The Teacher, The City As Matchmaker...

In the world of 1950s cinema, Marty must have stood out like a big lunk among the glamorous images audiences were used to seeing.  There are no beautiful-looking people or sets in Marty, In fact, it was distinctly, almost proudly, working-class.  Marty also is a very brief film (at 94 minutes, it holds the record for the shortest film to win Best Picture).  I would argue that its brilliance in its simplicity and gentleness and humanity, all characteristics that it shares with its title character.  Marty is a simply wonderful film, one that even now, 61 years after its release, people can still relate to.  It might not be as well-remembered as some of its other Best Picture winners, but it should not be forgotten.

The story is very simple: Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is an unmarried 34-year-old Bronx butcher, the last of his brothers and sisters who still has not gotten married.  He lives at home with his mother Teresa (Esther Minciotti), who openly despairs whether her son will ever marry.  Marty too quietly despairs, aware that his social awkwardness and frumpy looks don't win girls over.  He's had his heart broken many times and at this point seems settled to live as a reluctant lifelong bachelor. As far as his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) is concerned, they both could live the bachelor life (though in truth, Angie isn't much of a player either). 

Prodded by his mother, Marty reluctantly goes to the Stardust Ballroom, where singles meet and mingle.  He really doesn't expect much of anything there, but then things take an interesting turn.  Coincidentally, a double date also goes to the Stardust, among them plain-looking teacher Clara (Betsy Blair).  Her date is eager to dump the frumpy Clara and tries to pawn her off on Marty, but he is appalled at the idea of standing a girl up.  Sadly, Clara is left behind for a better-looking woman, and worse, she realizes it.  Clara is devastated at this latest rejection, but Marty finds her and soon they make a connection themselves.

Marty and Clair leave the Stardust (leaving Angie there) and spend the night in glorious conversation, talking and laughing and falling in love.  Marty and Clara finally find someone who cares about them, and both appear happy, with Marty agreeing to call her the next day after Mass for a proper date.

However, soon Mama Piletti starts wondering whether it's a good idea for Marty to find someone to hopefully marry, especially given the situation with her sister Katerina (Augusta Ciolli).  She has become a source of tension between her son Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) to where they ask their aunt to take Katerina in.  Katerina warns Teresa that if her single son marries, the same can happen to her.  Furthermore, Marty's friends, all single themselves, soon start pushing Marty to also let Clara go.  He gives in and doesn't call in the afternoon when he promised.

That night, as Marty is with his friends trying to figure out what to do that night, and Clara is at home with her parents, silently crying, Marty realizes that he is about to lose someone that he genuinely cares about and who cares about him.  He rushes to the phone booth and tells Angie off. 

"You don't like her, my mother don't like her, she's a dog and I'm a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I'm gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees and I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad!" 

Marty ends with him on the phone to Clara.

While it isn't shown, leaving things ambiguous, I have a sense she did agree to see him, and these two plain, kind people lived happily ever after.

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his television play for the film version, expanding the original story for a feature-length run.  Chayefsky was a simply brilliant writer and Marty shows what talent he had.  The dialogue is so real and natural.  My favorite is when Mama Piletti tries to get her son to go 'put on the blue suit' and go to the Stardust, where in her words, there are lots of 'tomatoes' for him.  It's clear that with her Italian accent and curious use of a slang term she picked up, she has no idea how bizarre the term 'tomato' sounds to her son's generation.  Marty finds the use hilarious, but we also see that in their argument over whether he'll go to the Stardust or not, Marty is a very hurt and lonely man, aware of his own shortcomings and how he doesn't meet the standards other men have.

This is a beautiful scene because of its realism and how it plays out.  This scene is something that I'm sure has happened in many homes, where a lonely man is pushed to do something he fears will cause him more heartache but does so anyway to please someone else.

Marty also has some fine performances.  Borgnine until now was usually cast as the heavy (of particular note was his role as the murderous Fatso in From Here to Eternity).  Here he plays against type as the kind, gentle, schlumpy Marty, and he's wonderful in the part, simply perfect.  Just in his non-vocal moments, when he closes his eyes and tightens his face, we see Marty's fears, hopes and disappointments at being rejected yet again and the quiet despair of a good man who cannot find love.  Marty's goodness, kindness, and sensitivity underneath his rough exterior come through.

The same goes for Blair's Clara.  Blair makes Clara a gentle and sincere woman, not as confident as she could be given she is a teacher (and as such, more educated than the butcher).  They have such wonderful chemistry on screen, and again I circle back to Chayefsky's script.  When Marty compliments Clara by telling her, "You're not such a dog as you think you are," it doesn't come across as an insult because a.) that's how he talks, and b.) he calls himself a dog as well.  He obviously meant it as a compliment in his own bumbling and endearing way.

Honestly, if by the end of Marty you don't fall in love with Marty and Clara, there's flat-out something wrong with you.  Credit should go to both Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann, who brought out the best in everyone.

The subplot of the Italian sisters and of Marty's decision whether or not to buy the butcher shop from his retiring boss were quite well-integrated into the film, never coming across as add-ons or distractions.

Today, and certainly in the 1950s, films tended to focus on the glamorous life and the beautiful people.  Simple, short tales of honest, kind working-class people are few and far-between.  As such, Marty, both then and now, is a bit of an anomaly. If you look at the films in the 1950s that won Best Picture, they tended to be either big epics (Ben-Hur, The Bridge on the River Kwai) or lavish productions (Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth) or about the upper echelons of society (All About Eve, Around the World in 80 Days).  With the exception of On the Waterfront, critically praised films weren't about the working-class, and On the Waterfront is a searing drama about morality. Marty, on the other hand, was a small romantic film about two ordinary people falling in love.  Even today, in a market dominated by sequels, prequels, and comic book adaptations, massive action films and lowbrow comedy tend to be the ones being made.  Sweet and unapologetically gentle films like Marty aren't either in high demand or much seen.

That seems a terrible shame, and a greater shame that Marty is pretty much forgotten among its massive Best Picture companions like Gone With the Wind, Titanic, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, or The Godfather Parts I and II.  All those save Titanic are brilliant films, but they are massive, epic, while Marty is small, gentle and quiet.  Still, Marty is one of my favorite films because I can so relate to its simple story of ordinary people like us, versus the 'ordinary people' of Ordinary People.

Doris Day was right: Everybody Loves a Lover, and after seeing it, you'll love Marty too.


1956 Best Picture: Around the World in 80 Days

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Man For All Seasons (1988): The Television Movie


It is difficult to remake a film that is already quite extraordinary.  As A Man For All Seasons was a television movie and not theatrically released, I am not sure whether it technically counts as a remake to the 1966 film.  In any case, this version of the Robert Bolt play sticks closer to its theatrical roots than the film adaptation, and is effectively directed by someone people rarely think of as a director: its lead, Charlton Heston.  The 1988 television version of A Man For All Seasons should not suffer comparisons to the film, as both work in their own way and each is a expertly crafted production.

The film is very open about being like the play right from the get-go, with Roy Kinnear playing "The Common Man", who addresses the audience directly.  In keeping with the play, "The Common Man" is also seen as other characters (The Boatman, The Jury Foreman, and The Executioner).  For the most part though, "The Common Man" takes the role of Matthew, the 'loyal' servant in the More household.  Sir Thomas More (Heston), a devout Catholic, does his best to stay within the law but out of the growing crisis of The Great Question: the potential divorce of King Henry VIII (Martin Chamberlain) and Catherine of Aragon.  Catherine has been unable to produce a male heir, and Henry has his eyes on Mistress Anne Boleyn, but he cannot get a divorce from the Pope.  Henry's Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Sir John Gielgud) wants to get it, but More doesn't see the logic of it all.

After Wolsey's death, More becomes the new Lord Chancellor, but his problems only heap.  His struggle between serving his Monarch and serving his King grow, and poor Lady Alice (Vanessa Redgrave) is no help.  Neither is his future son-in-law Will Roper (John Hudson), who goes from Lutheran to Catholic, much to More's consternation.  The conflict between More's faith and his duty is not helped by the machinations of Thomas Cromwell (Benjamin Whitrow), who wants More out.  Aiding him is More's former protégé Richard Rich (Johnathan Hackett), who can find no help from More (who sees him unfit for a position at Court).  They conspire to bring bribery charges against More, but when More's friend The Duke of Norfolk (Richard Johnson), not the brightest of men, shows them how More is not corrupt by any stretch of the imagination, they shall have to get at him another way.

That other way is with a new Act of Parliament, which all loyal subjects must take.  That oath declares the marriage of Henry and Anne legitimate as well as any children.  More can live with that.  HOWEVER, the Act of Supremacy also declares that Henry is the Head of the Church of England, and that More cannot swear to.  However, since he never openly states his reason for not taking the oath, legally he cannot be charged with treason.  This legal tangle ultimately entangles More, who is brought to trial for treason and is convicted thanks to evidence provided by now-Sir Richard Rich, Attorney General for Wales.  More, knowing he is a dead man, finally speaks his mind, and loses his head.

Heston as a director I think has not been given enough credit.  Granted, he directed only three projects (A Man For All Seasons being the final one), but the telefilm shows that if he had chosen to, Heston could have developed into a most competent director.  The film flows quite steadily, interrupted only for commercial breaks which are indicated by when the screen turns black).  That aspect was out of Heston's control, but if you look at the performances (not counting Heston himself for the moment), we see that Heston could direct some of the other actors to give some of their best work.

At the top of the list for great performances is Vanessa Redgrave.  Now while it might appear downright bizarre to see the arch-conservative Heston and the equally arch-liberal Redgrave work together, the film itself shows not just that two people of wildly opposite social views can work together effectively (on-screen anyway), but that they did bring out the best in each other.  Redgrave is wonderful as the sharp-tongued Lady Alice, fluttering and fierce.  Their final scene together brings in that mix of haughtiness and deep love and rage and vulnerability that Lady Alice has for the man she loves but who exasperates her at times.

If I am to be honest, I think Redgrave (the only actor in this version of A Man For All Seasons to appear in the original, albeit in a cameo role as Anne Boleyn), is actually better than Wendy Hiller, who I thought was always too 'classy' for the more undereducated Lady Alice.  Though Hiller is wonderful in the part, I favor Redgrave's take.

I also thought that Whitrow was excellent as Cromwell, making him coolly duplicitous, carefully plotting his way to get at More with a (mostly) controlled rage.  Johnson (with whom Heston would work with again in the Sherlock Holmes television film The Crucifer of Blood) has great rapport with Heston as the friend who doesn't want any part of this.  However, I think the best performance is Kinnear in his multiple roles.  He brings humor to the show, and in one scene Matthew's profiting from his actual honesty to three different people is quite amusing.

Hudson as Roper and Hackett as Rich were also good, though not great.  They made on the whole a positive impression.  However, just as there are good performances, there are bad ones.

Chamberlain has ONE scene as Henry VIII, and I'll say this...he was quite energetic in his screaming at that one scene.  Also, while in a play age or race is not a factor, Chamberlain's youth versus Heston's lack thereof here looks a bit odd (especially if you look at the film's version of making them contemporaries).  Sadly, Adrienne Thomas' Meg is a virtual nonentity, coming across as flat and nowhere near the scholar she was. 

Finally, there is Charlton Heston himself.  As was true in The Crucifer of Blood, Heston either couldn't or wouldn't bother to try for a British accent.  As such, his distinctly American voice came through.  Again, this can be somewhat forgiven in that Heston as a director (with Bolt again adapting his own play) made a very conscious decision to make A Man For All Seasons more theatrical.  The opening firmly establishes that we are in a sense watching a filmed play.  Therefore, a lack of accent after a time does not become a large issue.  In the role, the moral courage of More does come through, and Heston delivers a solid, strong performance (though he will always stand in the shadow of Paul Scofield's version).

There were a couple of other points that might have worked better.  For example, while the scene at The Loyal Subject pub was strong between Whitrow and Hackett was good, perhaps Heston could have resisted the temptation to punctuate things with thunder.  I also for the life of me don't understand why Charlton Heston opted not to include Sir Thomas More's final words of "I die the King's good servant, but God's first" at the execution scene. 

Minus that though, this version of A Man For All Seasons is a well-acted and directed film, one that sticks closer to the play.  It is like watching a filmed play, but that is a complement in this case.  It moves well, has some really good work, particularly out of Heston, Redgrave, Kinnear and Whitrow.  It's a pity that Charlton Heston didn't direct more, but fortunately, just as Paul Scofield recreated his stage performance for the film, Heston did likewise, and we now have two good interpretations of this most noble man.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Man For All Seasons (1966): A Review


A Most Noble Man...

There have been many films made about noblemen.  A Man For All Seasons is, however, a film about a noble man, one who stood by his principles and convictions at the cost of his life.  Sir Thomas More would not bend, not even to his King, opting to pledge loyalty to the King of Kings rather than the King of England.  Pretty much forgotten now, A Man For All Seasons is still a brilliant film, deliberately paced, with solid performances from some of Britain's best actors, a period film that doesn't drown in excess but that focuses on the intellect.

Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), devout Catholic and shrewd lawyer, is a loyal member of the King's Council.  Nevertheless, he is the only Council member opposed to the idea of the crafty Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) on The Great Question: the potential divorce of King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) from his wife Catherine of Aragon (no relation) to marry the 'fertile' Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave in a cameo).  More cannot bring himself to agree to a persecution of the Church to bring about the desired results from Rome, and his 'moral squint' as Wolsey calls it, makes him Wolsey's enemy.

After Wolsey's death, More becomes Lord Chancellor, but this is a heavy burden, for King Henry is determined to get his divorce.  Torn between his conscience and his duty, More fears he cannot do his duty to both.  More has a new enemy: Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern), a passionate Protestant who also detests More' morality.  Cromwell finds an ally in the improbably named Richard Rich (John Hurt), a protégé of More who is denied a place at Court by More because More thinks it will corrupt Rich rather than ennoble him.  When Parliament passes the Act of Supremacy, declaring Henry head of the Church in England and the churchmen pledge loyalty to him and not the Pope (and also, it is understood, give him the divorce).  More resigns his Chancellorship but makes no comment on anything.  His wife, Lady Alice (Wendy Hiller) is not pleased by all this; their daughter Margaret (Susannah York), whom they call Meg and who against convention of the time is highly educated, stands by her father, as does her husband Will Roper (Corin Redgrave), who has come around to leaving Lutheranism (which More dislikes).

Still, Henry is determined to have the highly-respected and honest More on his side.  If More either spoke in favor of the new laws, or at least attended Henry's wedding to Mistress Anne, it would in essence place a seal of approval on everything.  More's stubbornness in holding to his principles only infuriates both King and Cromwell, with Rich now playing opportunist, abandoning More to go to Cromwell (who can get him a place at Court).  Rich also brings up dubious charges of bribery against More thanks to an odd series of circumstances involving a silver cup.  More knew it was a bribe but it was handed to him so quickly he could not return it.  Instead, he gave it to Rich and used it as an example of what could happen to a good man at Court, the power of corruption too strong for those who have no guiding set of principles.

A new act of Parliament demands that all loyal subjects take an oath on pain of high treason.  More asks Meg about the oath, seeing himself clear to being able to take it IF the words can clear his conscience.  The oath acknowledges the marriage of Henry and Anne (which he can support) but it also declares Henry the Head of the Church in England.  That More simply cannot do.  He will not take the Oath, and he is imprisoned but despite pressure from all sides, He Will Not Take The Oath.

Finally, More, physically exhausted from his imprisonment, is brought to trial, where Sir Richard Rich, now Attorney General for Wales, gives testimony saying that More did speak to him about the Act.  More sees that Rich has become thoroughly corrupted by power, just as he feared, and that Cromwell, proud and arrogant, is determined to have his head as retribution for defying him.  Before he is sentenced for treason, More finally speaks on what he has remained silent over.  He not only denounces the Act, but the marriage as well.  He is beheaded at the Tower of London, telling the crowd, "I die the King's good servant, but God's first".

We learn in voice-over what happened afterwards.  More's head was stuck in a pike at Traitor's Gate for a month, until Meg took it and kept it to her death.  Cromwell was beheaded five years later for high treason.  The Archbishop of Canterbury (who had joined in persecuting More) was burned at the stake.  The Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport), who had been More's friend but who had been pushed to join in denouncing More, was to have been beheaded for high treason but the King died of syphilis the night before.  Richard Rich became Chancellor of England...and died in his bed.

Robert Bolt, adapting his play to the screen, and gave us an excellent script of a man of conscience, who would rather die than supplant his principles.  Thomas More therefore, is a hero: a man who finds that his conscience and adheres to those ideals he holds dear are more important than life itself, and certainly more important that the temporal power and privileges a man could obtain.

A Man For All Seasons is an intellectual film because it deals with ideas: the ideas of true nobility, of moral courage, and of honor.  I hope I have not equated 'intellectual' with boring, because A Man For All Seasons does have intense human drama in it.  We see that More is no idealistic fool.  Far from it: More is fully aware of the human frailties and vanities that surround him.  When his son-in-law urges him to arrest Rich for being Cromwell's spy, he refuses, saying that he has broken no laws.  He's a bad man, Roper retorts.  "Well there's hardly a law against that," is More's reply. 

If there is one extraordinary thing in A Man For All Seasons, it is Paul Scofield's performance.  It is difficult to portray a man who is a literal saint (More having been canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935).  Scofield does not portray More as some ethereal, otherworldly figure.  He is a man who laughs, a man who uses his wits to say much by saying little or nothing.  When Wolsey asks if he knows where the King has been after they both see him arrive from a tryst with Mistress Anne, his "I, Your Grace?" is delivered in such a way as to suggest feigning ignorance and both know it.  

Scofield makes More that man of morals, the struggle between serving his Monarch and his King one that troubles him.  He is not a moral superman, one above sin.  Far from it: Scofield's More is not without flaw.  He just is a man of deep principle.  More, as portrayed by Scofield (recreating his stage role), is a wise man, one who is blunt but honest, who couches his words carefully, lawyerly, but who in the end has no defense against the evil and ambition of man.  It is a brilliant performance.

A Man For All Seasons is really an actor's showcase, for there isn't a bad performance throughout.  Susannah York's Meg is her father's daughter, highly intelligent, who has a mind of her own and who remains loyal to the father she loves.  Wendy Hiller is excellent as the wife who loves her husband but who struggles with his conscience.  Robert Shaw has too brief a role in the film as Henry VIII (he disappears after his wedding), but in his few scenes commands the screen as the hearty and arrogant King.  You see in the exchange between More and Henry the struggle the latter has over his friend's inability to give him what he so desperate wants.  You sense Henry too is torn: between fulfilling his dynastic ambitions and having More's respect. 

At the wedding, Henry spots someone who looks like More and rushes to him, the joy in his face at the thought that More has come (and come to join his side) diminished when he sees it isn't More (and that More, ever principled, would not give an inch).  The joy turns to anger, and we see how to Henry, this is war.

McKern plays the evil Cromwell brilliantly, filled with arrogance and a determination to bring his moral and intellectual superior down.  John Hurt, in one of his earliest film roles, shows the evolution of Rich from loyal More supporter to Cromwell's man.  Director Fred Zinnemman does this not only in how he guides the performances, but in subtle ways.  For example, Rich's evolution is shown by way of coats.  In the beginning, Rich tells More that he will buy a coat with the money he'll make from selling the bribe cup, and in the end, we see Rich resplendent in the coat of his office as Attorney General of Wales.

When Rich finishes perjuring himself and ensuring More's execution, More asks to see his medal of office.  Quoting Scripture, he tells his former protégé, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world...but for Wales?"

In other aspects Ted Moore's cinematography is beautiful, and while there isn't enough of it in my view, Georges Deleure's score is evocative of the times and has a mournful yet dignified quality reflective of the main character.  I LOVE the Opening Theme, and it's such a pity that Deleure wrote so little music for the film, but the score that we do get is extraordinary. 

I think there was too little of Robert Shaw in the film and perhaps the film is a bit slower than people might like.  However, with solid performances by everyone (particularly Paul Scofield) and with the intelligence behind it, A Man For All Seasons is a fitting tribute to a truly noble man, a hero for all times. 



1967 Best Picture: In the Heat of the Night

Monday, January 18, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road. A Review



The critical passion Mad Max: Fury Road has elicited is a bit puzzling to me.  It's not like I thought the praise the film isn't exactly warranted.  However, for me, I think it is more confusion over the idea that while this is a good action film, Mad Max: Fury Road is suppose to be some sort of turning point in cinema that some of my fellow critics appear to think.  I'm not prepared to go THAT far, but I will say that Fury Road is a very well-made film and a worthy member of the Mad Max franchise.

I'm not that familiar with the world of Mad Max, having seen only Mad Max and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  To be honest I enjoyed both films, but it's been a while since I saw Mad Max that I cannot tell you much about it.  I also thought Beyond Thunderdome was actually pretty good (and yes, I LIKE We Don't Need Another Hero and make no apologies for both it and Auntie Entity).  Fury Road is if nothing else, intensely action-packed, rarely letting up from the wild action (sometimes visually stunning) and one that gives people exactly what they want: intensity, far-out characters, and even a hint of hope in this dystopian nightmare.

The plot is pretty straightforward: the mysterious figure we know as Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is a drifter, striving to survive in the post-apocalyptic world and haunted by the deaths of his wife and child (the latter who comes to him in visions, which inevitably cause him to shield his eyes with his hand).  He is captured by the War Boys, a group of albino half-life beings who serve Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a brutal dictator of The Citadel, one of the few places on Earth that has water (which he controls).  He sends his loyal lieutenant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town for trade, along with her own men as escort.

Loyal lieutenant proves anything but, as Furiosa takes a detour from Fury Road with her men loyal to her.  Immortan Joe is enraged that Furiosa has turned traitor, and he begins a mad pursuit of her, incapable of understanding why she's gone rogue.  He brings the War Boys with him, and despite being in weak strength one of them, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) is determined to go for his moment of glory.  To aid in his recovery, he brings his universal blood bag...that being Max.

The pursuit is on for Furiosa, and in the ensuing chaos of the chase (and her escape into a violent storm), Max eventually comes upon them.  He's not interested in any of this, just in getting out and getting his car.  He discovers Furiosa has taken flight with Immortan Joe's brides, one of them pregnant.  They are making an escape to Furiosa's homeland, The Green Place, and she and Max make an uneasy alliance.  Nux, who has survived the brutal fight, finds them and at first becomes determined to win glory for himself and his Immortan Beloved, but soon realizes that he has failed in his mission.  Eventually he too joins them, only he has fallen in love with one of the brides.

Immortan Joe, however, will not be denied, and Furiosa finds that The Green Place has become a barren wasteland too when she finds her people, now all women.  These elders still carry among them seeds from when the world was still beautiful and dream of restoring the world to its once-lush origin, but where?  Max, despite himself, knows where there IS water and green pastures...back at Immortan Joe's stronghold.  With that, the disparate group now goes back to face Immortan Joe in an epic battle where there are great sacrifices, but in the end, a wounded Furiosa returns to The Citadel with Immortan Joe's corpse, and while she and the Brides now have triumphed, Max walks away from all this.

Essentially, Fury Road is a chase film where these two sides face off.  Like I said, the story is pretty straightforward, but credit should be given to director George Miller, who returns to the Mad Max universe he created with a powerful, madcap and unrelenting epic.  The action rarely lets up as this unhinged group of War Boys and their overlords carry on the mad chase for the Brides and Furiosa.

As a side note, is it just me, or is this a variation on the story of The Trojan War?

Fury Road is visually stunning, with breathtaking sights (the blue-bathed landscape of the formerly Green Place is among the most beautiful scenes in the film), and if anything else, Fury Road is a beautiful-looking film. 

As someone not immersed in the Mad Max universe, I think the greatness of Fury Road is that it has a language that is unique to itself without being so opaque that you don't understand it.  Clearly, the War Boys' dreams of reaching Valhalla makes it their definition of a war-gloried Heaven, but Nux's request to 'witness him' is understandable to mean to recognize his glorious death in battle.

As for these action sequences, they are thoroughly spectacular, leaving one almost exhausted by the intensity of the mad chase.  Fury Road is also not afraid to be brutal with the characters: seeing one of the Brides fall to her death is brutal, and graphic enough to show the horror of it without dwelling on its brutality.

In terms of performance I actually am going to dissent slightly when it comes to Tom Hardy.  Ever since The Dark Knight Rises I have never been able to embrace Hardy as a true actor.  Action star, probably (though a perennially surly one, I wonder if he's done a film where he's smiled in unabashed joy since), but actor...I'm still not quite convinced.  At times, I found the way he held up his hands to block the image of the child a bit hilarious, but for the most part Hardy does his taciturn persona to full effect.

Bless Hoult for pushing himself as an actor as the intense, unhinged Nux.  He made that transition from unquestioning warrior to compassionate figure believable and true. In a way, he went from half-life to full-life and I thought he did an excellent job.

However, for me the best performance was Theron as Imperator Furiosa, this woman who could no longer ignore the misery of the Brides.  She isn't nice because she cannot afford to be, but in her longing for The Green Place, the despair of having her Paradise Lost, and her fierceness and fierce determination to survive, Theron does an incredible job.

The pacing was almost breakneck, the score by Junkie XL fantastic, and John Seale's cinematography as I've mentioned simply astonishing.

Now, while Mad Max: Fury Road is a great film, the BEST PICTURE of 2015...a bridge too far for me.  I will say I will knock it down a bit because I really couldn't figure the purpose of The People Eater or when/how he joined forces with Immortan Joe, and sometimes I didn't know who was who.  That's a minor point really, but one nonetheless.

On the whole, Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that gives the fans of the franchise what it wants, and those of us who aren't as deep into this world won't be entirely lost and can appreciate the action and visuals.  If nothing else, Mad Max: Fury Road is an intense film that rarely lets up and has intelligence behind the action.    


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs: A Review (Review #780)


Lo, how the mighty have fallen. 

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, the sequel to the highly successful Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, should be studied by every person who thinks about making a sequel under the chapter "Don't Let This Happen to You".  'Bomb' is right, for Girl Bombs is a hideous film that smears the name of the good Dr. Goldfoot.  Even by the campy standards of its predecessor, Girl Bombs fails to deliver on every level, and you just feel sorry for everyone involved, even Fabian, who despite not being as successful as other 1960s teen heartthrobs like Bobby Darin or Frankie Avalon, was clearly so much better than the material.

The mad scientist Doctor Goldfoot (Vincent Price) is at it again, unleashing his batch of bikini-clad babes onto NATO military generals as part of a joint Goldfoot-Chinese plan to take over the world.  One of those NATO generals just happens to look like Goldfoot, a fortuitous coincidence he plans on taking advantage of.  Hot on his trail is Secret Intelligence Command agent Bill Dexter (Fabian), who is aware of Goldfoot's nefarious scheme.  Somehow in all this enter two Italian secret agents, Franco and Ciccio (played by Italy's answer to Laurel & Hardy, Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia).  For reasons no one appears to know or understand, Franco & Ciccio are also tracking Goldfoot, and they appear to join forces with Dexter to stop Goldfoot.

At this point, I don't think even the film or its director, Mario Bava, know what's going on, and the film just collapses into a pileup of sheer horror and cringe-inducing moments.

Watching Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs is a pretty sad affair.  If it had been shown to those at Guantanamo Bay, I would have constituted that as torture.  The reasons for why Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs failed are many, but they all add up to one indisputable fact: it's simply one of the worst films ever made.  We're talking Plan 9 From Outer Space/Battlefield Earth/Catwoman/The Hangover Part II bad. 

On second thought, I think I'd rather sit through ANY of those films rather than suffer the sheer monstrosity that is Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs

The first, biggest, and primary problem with the film is that it has no idea what it is.  What I mean by that is that essentially you have two versions of it.  There's this version, made for the American market, and then you have the Italian version, called Le Spie Vengono Dal Semifreddo (The Spies Who Came in From the Semicold, an obvious spoof of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in the same way Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs was I figure meant as a spoof of the Bond film Goldfinger).  As a result, at least the American version makes no sense (even in its own insanity). 

Why so much time was spent on the 'comic' exploits of Franco & Ciccio (whose 'comedy' obviously was untranslatable) is perhaps the worst decision the film made (one of many, many, MANY bad decisions).  They are not funny in any way, and every scene with them is just eye-rolling in how awful it all is.  I understand why they were featured (as a co-production, Franco & Ciccio were comedic superstars in Italy...which goes to explain why Italians could elect bunga-bunga loving Silvio Berlusconi to Prime Minister on more than one occasion).  At its lowest point, Franco & Ciccio pair up with Dexter to chase Goldfoot around an amusement park for no rational reason. 

I got the sense that they were told, 'have a scene at an amusement park and worry about the logic of it all later'. 

The cheap production shows through in bad sets and even worse dubbing to where one suspects even the American Fabian ended up dubbed by someone for whom English was a foreign language.  The dubbing is so obvious that it would actually have been cheaper and more logical to subtitle the whole thing.  In fact, for reasons known to no one, by the end we ended up dropping dubbing altogether, with the balloon chase in the style of a silent film. 

Maybe it was a cost-cutting decision.  Maybe it was the fact that by this point everyone knew there was no point in trying to make the dubbing look real when it never was to begin with.  Whatever the reason, it was just another low point in the whole fiasco of a film.

Is a-not a-OK...

Again, a lot of the technical flaws could have been forgiven if any of it had ended up being funny.  The fact that Italy's version of Martin & Lewis aren't (and I imagine they weren't funny in Italian either, which makes their popularity all the more incomprehensible) makes all their scenes all the more painful.  It's sad to see that the thoroughly moronic Dexter ends up the smartest person in the film. 

However, Fabian has absolutely nothing to work with and looks just as confused as everyone else (audience included).  Audiences would have been more confused by Price's opening voice-over narration detailing the events of the first film since the whole opening goes out of its way to hide the Avalon character altogether.  It's as if Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs is suggesting that Dexter was there all the time when anyone who saw Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine would have known this was not the case.  As we have no idea who Dexter was, we can't really make a connection.  Even worse, the film expects us to know who he is merely because he is a SIC man.

Price I think tried to make it work, but he looks embarrassed to be in this disaster, expressing no joy in the lunacy of it all.  The first film was camp and gleefully so, but the sequel was a shambles where motives, characters, and ideas were thoroughly disorganized and opaque.

Another in the 'worst decisions' the film made was in actually showing the generals biting it.  Granted, it was not graphic but if we go back to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, the whole  'killing' thing was merely suggested.  We saw other girls go to their various assignments but never saw what they actually did (or if they used those blade-programmed opera glasses to blind their love rivals).  In fact, we pretty much forgot about them, and this might have been a good bouncing-off point for the sequel, with the crazed Dr. Goldfoot and his henchman Igor following up on one of their rogue machines. 

Instead, we got this.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs should have been retitled Fabian...And a Bunch of Italians.
Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs is one of the Worst Films Ever Made. 





Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine: A Review


Sometimes you know exactly what you're going to get by the title alone, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine I think pretty much spells out what the film is: campy, goofy, fully aware of itself and unapologetic about it.  Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is neither clever or particularly hilarious.  However, it is perfectly aware of its own silliness, and the greatness of it is that everyone is in on the joke.  A bit dated, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is a nice slice of late 60s fun. 

Craig Gamble (Frankie Avalon) is the junior member of the Secret Intelligence Command, him getting the gig almost exclusively from the fact that he's the head field agent's nephew.  Uncle Donald (guest star Fred Clark) is highly displeased by his nephew, Agent 001/2, and is at his wits' end at how to deal with his girl-crazy employee.  Craig's penchant for beautiful girls brings him into contact with Diane (Susan Hart), a beautiful girl who immediately throws herself at Craig.  Craig might be puzzled, but he certainly isn't about to reject Diane's advances.

However, Diane is really a robot created by the mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot (Vincent Price), who uses his bevy of beauties to seduce wealthy men and then dispose of them, once they turn over power of attorney to them.  Thanks to the bungling of Goldfoot's assistant Igor (Jack Mullaney), Diane was sent to the wrong man.  Goldfoot immediately orders Diane to pursue the real target, wealthy and naïve young millionaire Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman).  Todd is immediately besotted with Diane, whose accent has shifted to a Southern belle-type.  They quickly marry but it appears the marriage itself is never consummated, upsetting the eager Todd.

Craig, who has tracked down Goldfoot's lair and discovered this nefarious scheme, he attempts to guard Armstrong, but the two dimwits fail to get things right.  Goldfoot, now aware of the clumsy Craig, attempts to get rid of both of them in his lair, but they still manage in their ineptness to escape and now the chase is on to stop each other.  This leads to a wild chase across San Francisco, where Goldfoot and Igor appear to die.  As Craig and Todd fly off for a vacation, they are stunned to find Diane has now gotten Uncle Donald in love with her, and with two very familiar-looking pilots in the cockpit...

It is rather extraordinary to realize that Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was directed by Norman Taurog, who still holds the record for being the youngest Best Director Oscar winner for Skippy, being a right old 32.  One should give him credit in that he kept things moving quickly, the zany nature of the whole thing flowing freely without a hint of self-consciousness.  One of the highlights of the film is the San Francisco chase, which is fun and fully aware of its own camp idiocy.

I think one of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine's best qualities is that everyone is aware that the whole thing is meant to be silly, so no one need bother with even trying to play this straight.  As such, we get to see Vincent Price at his most delightfully camp.  Going against type from his usual horror roles, Price smirks and strolls in full crazy mode, over-the-top and unapologetic about it.  He essentially spoofs his own persona (a nod to his role in The Pit & The Pendulum is obvious) and while this is a guess, I think he had a lark laughing at himself.

For me, another highlight is Mullaney as the inept assistant Igor.  He too was in on the joke, and in his mix of bumbling and almost innocence he created a delightful character.  He and Price made a great double-act: Price's constant irritation with Mullaney's utter idiocy.  When Igor somehow manages to pull one of the bikini babe's panties despite not aiming to do so, Price's retorts, "You have just reached the bottom," in such a dry, droll manner that the double entendre is obvious without raising censorship or eyebrows, expect in laughter.

Hickman and Avalon too play up the camp, over-the-top nature of the two dimwitted heroes.  When Craig approaches Todd, he tells him, "I'm a SIC man," which leads to Todd replying, "I'll say".  Hart did an excellent job in playing all the aspects of the robot: both the controlled machine and the calculating 'wife' to an apparently virginal Todd.  It's clear that Austin Powers' fembots were clearly inspired by the bikini machine created girls.

I understand Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was meant to be a musical in the same vein as other American International films like Beach Blanket Bingo and Pajama Party, but for whatever reason all the songs save the title number were cut from the musical.  While I don't find the loss of the songs a great loss, I think having musical moments (maybe even, if I understand it, Vincent Price himself doing a little song-and-dance) would have made the film even more amusing in its own insanity. 

That is really what makes Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine a really fun, unapologetically gleeful film. It is fully aware of itself.  It never tries to take itself seriously and knows the audience shouldn't either.  If you watch it in the manner it was made (as goofy, camp humor) you will enjoy the film tremendously.  Granted, its only flaw now is that certain cameos will be lost on the viewer if you aren't familiar with the Beach movies or late 60s tastes (a nod to Senor Wences might leave contemporary viewers scratching their heads).   Still, this spoof of James Bond films is a lot of fun, and with the chase scene in particular being both amusing and well-made.

It isn't high art, but it is fun...