Monday, October 31, 2016

The Politics of: Spartacus

Spartacus, apart from being a rousing epic, is also important in that it was the first film where a blacklisted writer was openly given credit for his work.   Between 1947 and 1960, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was persona non grata in Hollywood, unable to find legitimate work and forced to either use pseudonyms or 'fronts' (people who claimed credit for his work with his consent) to make a living as a writer.

During this time, Trumbo technically won two Academy Awards for which he could not openly take credit at the time: for the films Roman Holiday and The Brave One.  Circumstances being the way they were Trumbo had to wait until 1975 to receive his Oscar for The Brave One, and had died by the time he was officially recognized with a posthumous Oscar for Roman Holiday.

Now, the blacklist is a particularly nefarious era in Hollywood history.  Writers, directors, and actors who either had been members of the Communist Party or accused of being members saw their careers severely damaged if not ruined when the studios opted to not hire them or flat-out fire them.  Some managed to survive direct evidence of Communist Party actions.  Lucille Ball had once registered as a Communist to humor her grandfather, a Socialist.  This came back to temporarily haunt her during the Red Scare of the 1950s, but thanks to the support of I Love Lucy sponsor Phillip Morris, the strong goodwill she'd built up with the public and the I Love Lucy fans, and the fact that her husband/costar, Desi Arnaz, was himself a refugee from Communist Cuba saved her and her career.

Others were not so lucky.  Phillip Loeb, who was a star of the popular television series The Goldbergs, was let go when rumors of Communist affiliation became attached to him, leading to his suicide five years later.

With Spartacus now being the first time one of the Hollywood Ten was openly credited, we are now free to speculate about whether Trumbo's politics and/or situation seeped into the epic production. 

This is all speculation on my part, and it is a bit of an exercise in perception.  With the exception of star Kirk Douglas (who is two months away from turning 100), and John Gavin (who played Julius Caesar) no one involved with Spartacus is around to tell us what exactly their motivations were, or the interpretations thereof.

Therefore, let's have some fun with our first The Politics Of...article, and let's go over The Politics Of...Spartacus.

Spartacus is a tale of the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, in this case slaves rebelling against their Roman masters. Perhaps this is a reason why the Howard Fast novel upon which Spartacus was based on was so popular in America Communist circles.  The historical figure of Spartacus himself appears to have been a great inspiration for Communists in general (see "Spartacus League" during World War I).  It isn't that much of a stretch to imagine a film based on this figure would have similarly leftward views.

The film Spartacus has what could be interpreted as liberal, even dare we say, "Communist" beliefs.  Let's start with how the rich and poor mingled in ancient Rome.  The idle rich, who did not work but who had all the wealth and power, made sport of watching the poor and enslaved fight it out to the death.  Yes, this is historic, but Spartacus gives us a very interesting moment when Laurence Olivier's Crassus watches Spartacus in the gladiatorial arena.

Woody Strode's Draba, the black man Spartacus has to fight, will not kill him despite the calls for him to do so.  Instead, he throws his trident at them and rushes their seats.  Only Crassus stays in his seat, and coldly slits Draba's throat.  It suggests a ruthlessness to Crassus, our antagonist, one who politically speaking represents a tyrannical order, one where dissent must be suppressed.

Crassus, perhaps could be argued, was the reactionary symbol, one that held itself as the arbiter of what was good, what was "Roman" (read, "American").  Crassus holds Rome to be his birthright, something he was bequeathed and something he and only he can (or should) control. He and only he can 'clean up Rome', or to use another term, "Make Rome Great Again".

Over and over, Crassus describes Rome as something to worship, to admire, and most importantly, to rule.  One guess as to whom he thinks should rule it.

Certainly not the plebian Gracchus (Charles Laughton).  This 'man of the people' is Crassus' fiercest opponent, as wily a politician as Crassus has come across.  Curiously, the fact that Gracchus, liberal that he is, never calls for an end to slavery perhaps suggests that both Republicans and Democrats, debating forever, don't want a real, radical change.  Instead, they only differ as to who should have power: the wealthy elites or the man on the streets, but both never suggest that the oppression of 'non-Romans' is wrong in and of itself, let alone in the equality of all man and the 'slaves' right to be free.

Spartacus, in his call for universal freedom, is a threat to both of them, more to Crassus' elitism than Gracchus', but should slaves be free, Gracchus would lose his unofficial harem of all-female slaves, and he isn't about to let that happen.  The slave revolt, like the proletariat uprisings, are nothing more than tools of the political class, more interesting in fighting each other than fighting the good fight.

In the early days of the slave revolt, I was reminded of the French and Russian Revolutions: the sacking, the looting, the unorganized and chaotic nature of the poor overthrowing the wealthy.  It is Spartacus who organizes the slave army, and in his call to unite or die, where they would free every slave they find, I could almost hear him say, "You have nothing to lose but your chains".

In Spartacus' army, we have a literal march of the people, rising in rebellion against rebellion and oppression.  I figure images such as this would appeal to a left-wing person, but let's go a little deeper.

It is when we get near the end, as Crassus and Spartacus address their own groups.  Crassus is determined to destroy the rebellion, and to do so, he must become dictator and punish his opponents.  Spartacus, lit in almost divine light as he delivers his own "Sermon on the Mount", tells them he will willingly die, a free man among brothers, not like his oppressors who grow fat from food they didn't work for and surrounded by slaves.

If we extend this analogy, Spartacus, leader of 'the people', will die among his 'brothers' (dare we say, comrades'), and not with those parasites who live off the workers they hold down.

In all of this, I haven't quite convinced myself that Spartacus is an overtly political film, one that slips liberal or Communist propaganda in it.  I DO think it does have commentary on the blacklist.

There IS one moment that can be said to be quite overt politically, though more on what had gone on recently versus some Stalinist shenanigans.  It's the famous "I'm Spartacus!" moment.  Once Spartacus' army is destroyed, Crassus tells the captured slaves that they can avoid the cruel death of crucifixion if they identify the body or living person of Spartacus.  Spartacus begins to rise when Antoninus rises and shouts, "I'M SPARTACUS!" to a shocked Spartacus.  Soon others rise and call out, "I'M SPARTACUS!" until every man shouts that they are Spartacus, shocking and infuriating Crassus.

All these men had a chance to 'name names', but they stood firm and defied the powers that be.  They wouldn't betray one of their own, even at the cost of their lives.  Instead, by declaring they were ALL Spartacus, they made it clear they were standing as one.  An attack on one was an attack on all.  Most importantly, they would not name names, and the parallel between "I'M Spartacus!" and how Trumbo would not give up his friends and comrades up to the oppressors.

If Trumbo had any message, it wasn't a political one but a commentary on his forced exile.  We see this allegory between real-life politic and Spartacus also near the end, when Crassus hauls Gracchus to a secret meeting at the Senate.  Crassus informs his hated rival that already 'traitors' are being arrested and lists of the disloyal being compiled. 

Enemies lists, arrests without trials for 'betraying' the State?  Sounds very much like 'un-American Activities' to me. 

Again, I figure people can read some left-wing, even Communist views in Spartacus.  I personally hold that if there are any, they weren't so overt that I caught them, and in fairness I really don't care.  I think that Spartacus was not one that had many politics in it as such (though I could see how one could interpret such things).  Instead, I think Spartacus is more about how Dalton Trumbo worked out his fury at Hollywood's treatment of him, the combination of cowardice and hypocrisy with regards to the blacklist.  If Spartacus is allegory, it's more about the Hollywood blacklist than it is about Communist propaganda.

I still think Spartacus can be enjoyed as a rousing spectacle.  It isn't by far the greatest film made on the subject, but it is still a smart, well-crafted film, a credit to everyone involved.

While this last part isn't about any political messages or undertones in Spartacus, overt or covert, it is about another matter no less controversial: the homoeroticism snipped from the theatrical release that was restored decades later, a scene that even now, in an era where same-sex marriage has been made legal, is shockingly daring and risqué.

The 'snails and oysters' scene, cut from the original Spartacus, up to a point suggests that Trumbo either thought audiences more sophisticated than they were given credit and/or that censors more stupid than he gave them credit.  The overtones of homosexuality were as overt as one could make them without actually saying the term "homosexual".  Olivier's Crassus asks virile, nubile slave-boy Antoninus if he eats oysters (read, 'vagina').  "When I have them, Master," is his reply. 

He then asks the supple young man if he eats snails (read, 'penises'). "No, Master," is his worried reply.  Crassus then asks Antoninus a most curious question: if he considers the eating of oysters moral and the eating of snails immoral.  Eating food has no morality (apart from cannibalism).  Eating, if used as a euphemism for 'sex', however, can come under the umbrella of morals.

Right there, it is clear to anyone, even those Trumbo apparently thinks are not as clever or bright as he is, that Crassus is now offering Antoninus an offer he cannot refuse: sexual favors which the slave is in no position to reject.

As it stands, Crassus' view is that eating oyster or snails is a matter of taste, not appetite, and as such not a question of morals.  Therefore, since Crassus tells Antoninus that his tastes include oysters...and snails, Crassus makes it very clear (even to dumb 1950s censors) that Crassus wants to 'indulge in the pleasures of the flesh' with Antoninus.   

Let's interpret this.

One: Trumbo, in his own way, had contempt for those looking over his work if he thought something THIS overt would fool anyone.  We can say that perhaps he knew he couldn't get it past them and decided to include it anyway, but in this case, the fact that it was cut shows that the censors weren't the rubes Trumbo might have thought they were.  They may not have caught on to everything, but they could see some overtones.

Ultimately, I think people can enjoy Spartacus politics or no politics, whatever the political persuasions of the viewer.

The Hollywood blacklist era was ugly, and I think the temptation to put things into simple 'good guys and bad guys' mode.  Trumbo=Good, Wayne=Bad.  However, something Dalton Trumbo himself said before his death I think puts things in the correct perspective.

"The blacklist was a time of evil, no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.  Looking back on this time, it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none.  There were only victims". 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Light Between Oceans: A Review (Review #857)


I've not read The Light Between Oceans, so yet again I cannot say whether the film version is better or worse than the book.  I however hope that the book is better, and imagine it is so.   The Light Between Oceans is so overt in it desperate efforts to be 'sweeping' and 'romantic' that it borders on parody, all but whispering "give me an Oscar"...even if two of the stars already have them. 

Whispering is a good way to describe The Light Between Oceans.  There's a lot of whispering in the film, so much so that they should have included subtitles.  This is the type of movie that declares its intentions of being 'lush', 'romantic', even 'touching', but only ends up frustrating someone who wants some sense of actual human emotion.

Emotionally stunted World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) accepts what at first is a temporary assignment as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Island in western Australia.  While on the mainland, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander).  She openly asks him to marry her and take her to Janus, but he declines.  He does agree to correspond with her.  Quickly, romance grows, and they marry.

At first, the Sherbournes love Janus and each other, but tragedy strikes twice when Isabel miscarries both her babies.  She soon starts having emotional difficulties coping with life, and Tom in his quiet way attempts to keep her on an even keel.  Fate takes an unexpected turn when a rowboat washes upon Janus.  Inside is a dead man...and a crying baby.

Take a guess what happens next.  I'll wait...

In a shocking twist, Isabel urges Tom to not mention the dead man & baby to his superiors and pass the baby off as their own.   Tom doesn't want to at first, but Isabel is in such a state, and he loves her so isn't long before he sends message that Isabel had a premature birth, and that they now have a daughter whom they name Lucy.

Lucy is brought up by a happy Isabel and a loving but internally conflicted Tom.  Back on the mainland Isabel's family is delighted that their daughter has both happiness and a child.  At Lucy's baptism Tom wanders to the graveyard to encounter a mysterious figure mourning at a grave.  He quickly finds that this woman, Hannah (Rachel Weisz) is mourning her German-born husband and daughter Grace...lost at sea.

Obviously, Tom finds that Hannah is Lucy's real mother, so now he's in a quandary.  He loves Lucy (sorry, couldn't resist) and Isabel, but he cannot bear the guilt of knowing that Hannah has no closure.  He secretly sends message to Hannah telling her that her daughter is alive and well.  This of course sends Hannah into a frenzy to find her beloved Grace, getting help from her formerly estranged father, Septimus (Brian Brown).

Tom, Isabel, and Lucy come back to the mainland to celebrate the Janus Island Lighthouse's 40th Anniversary, and there Tom & Isabel meet Hannah face-to-face. Hannah reveals that if she had a daughter, she'd be Lucy's age.  She also reveals how she lost her husband and daughter.  While Tom has always known, Isabel puts two-and-two together.  Despite his guilt, Isabel insists that things are best left as they are.

Needless to say, Tom doesn't feel that way.  He sends a rattle that came with Lucy, one that is recognized by one of Tom's coworkers, who promptly turns him in for the reward money Septimus announces.  Tom is arrested for murder, suspected of having killed Hannah's husband.  Lucy is torn from Isabel's arms and delivered to Hannah, who doesn't seem to quite understand why this child won't answer to Grace and wants nothing to do with her.

Curious that.

Eventually, before he is sent to trial and execution, Isabel (who has refused to speak to him) rushes to his side and confesses that she was the brains of the operation.  Hannah, moved by their story, says she will ask for clemency for them. 

Many years pass, and Lucy Grace Rutherford seeks out a retired Tom.  She reveals she is the girl in the boat, and he reveals Isabel died in the interim, but leaves a letter for her.  Lucy Grace also comes with her own son, whom Tom takes on as his unofficial grandson.

Part of my issue with The Light Between Oceans is how overt it is in its desire, its need, its call, to be 'romantic'.  The cinematography is in an almost permanent gauze that screams out how the images are suppose to sweep us into a story that hammers at us with its pleas to be seen as epic and grand.

It's not so much a case of gilding the lily as it is drowning said lily with excessive attention.

I suppose the cinematography had to do some screaming because the actors in The Light Between Oceans were told to essentially murmur their lines by screenwriter/director Derek Cianfrance.  So much soft speaking between Fassbender and Vikander several scenes play like parodies of those old Obsession Perfume commercials. For those of you not old enough to remember this series of ads that soon became sources of mockery...

If you can imagine a whole movie where everyone, even sailors and police officers, speak in this breathy, soft voice, then you know how people spoke in The Light Between Oceans

Actually, I think the people in the Obsession commercials spoke louder than those in The Light Between Oceans.  Even in moments where people would probably be shouting or screaming (such as when Isabel and Tom argue about what to do with the foundling or during the storm when Isabel is having her miscarriage and rushes to Tom in the lighthouse), everyone has this very 'poetic' soft voice that is practically parody.  One wonders if they shot the film inside a library.

Sadly, the soft tones of the actors doesn't help make much of a contrived plot.

I have a big problem with how Tom just happened upon Hannah and knew that Lucy was connected to her.  What if they hadn't come upon her and discovered the truth at the Lighthouse Anniversary?  Vikander played that part well, the conflicting emotions coming across her face.  That, however, was her only good scene, as she was so sotto voce that she came across as if not completely dim certainly someone who never was a real person.

No, I'm walking that back, when Lucy was ripped from her arms, she did a good job too.  Not in the Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice way but not bad either.

Fassbender was surprisingly one-note, all pensive looks and loving looks, depending on the scene.  Weisz looked as if she was in another movie altogether, as her character never made a case as to why she would have been better than the Sherbournes.

Actually, throughout the whole film we never got a real sense of how Tom was so torn by his secret.  I think many people probably would have sided with Isabel and thought Tom was an idiot for tearing Lucy from Isabel's arms to turn over to someone we hardly knew.  As was pointed out to me, Hannah had come to a form of peace with what she thought was her loss, so the revealing of the truth didn't free her.  It made her more miserable. 

It made Isabel borderline psychotic.

It didn't alleviate Tom's guilt.

What a lousy story when you think of it.

What was wrong with having Lucy discover the truth long when she was an adult and could decide whether to contact her real family or not?  What was the point of tearing apart this loving family if Tom never came across as someone wracked with guilt over Hannah? 

I know what The Light Between Oceans was going for.  The fact that it fails is more a result of Cianfrance's need to force the 'romance', the 'tragedy', the 'lushness' than letting them flow naturally.  Ultimately, it would not have surprised me if either Tom or Isabel said softly, "Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Lucy..."


Saturday, October 29, 2016

Gotham: New Day Rising Review


For some reason, Mojo Rising plays in my head when I think of New Day Rising, Episode Four of Season Three of GothamNew Day Rising is a bit of a misnomer in that I don't remember that ever really coming up.  We get a new day with Gotham's election, and we still have some intense moments of violence that still continue to trouble me.  However, so much goes right that a lot can be forgiven.

A lot, not everything.

Jarvis Tetch (Benedict Samuel), the man who is not officially known as The Mad Hatter, is determined to get at his sister, Alice (Naian Gonzalez Norvind).  She is at the Gotham City Police Department Headquarters, so obviously that place is the least-safe in all Gotham.  As can be expected by now, Jarvis uses wrestlers to lead a raid on the GCPD HQ and take Alice.

I would like to point out that this is at least the fourth time the GCPD HQ has been hit in an attack: there was the Maniax, the Electrocutioner, and former Mayor Theo Galavan's attack as deranged Azrael.  Seriously, there should be a moratorium on attacking the GCPD HQ...or at least for goodness sake hire some actual security there.  We can't keep going on like this!

Be that as it may, bounty hunter Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is determined to get her back to safety.  Easier said than done given that Gordon is still struggling against the hypnotic suggestion that Jarvis placed in his head: any ticking sound will get him to try and commit suicide.  He also has to deal with his lost relationship with Dr. Leslie "Lee" Thompkins (Morena Baccarin), who gives him some words of wisdom: "There's a difference between moving on and letting go".

For his part, with a little help from his (surprisingly honest) former GCPD partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and his former supervisor Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis), Gordon does manage to find where Jarvis is holding his sister.  The Mad Hatter, however, will not be denied: setting off a giant metronome to inspire another suicide attempt.  Gordon manages to break the hold and try to go after Jarvis.  In the melee, Jarvis attempts to hold on to Alice, but she falls and is impaled.  He manages to escape.

In our other subplots, Number 5, the doppelganger to Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz in a dual role) is going through the streets of Gotham with Bruce's frenemy, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  Selina is a bit puzzled by his behavior, but she has more important things to think of.  First, there's her search for Ivy, and second, there's the matter of the gambling den.  She went there knowing there'd be money on the Mayoral election, but she didn't expect to get caught.  The goons come close to breaking her fingers when "Bruce" shows up, and in a shocking display he manages to beat them both and help her escape.  It's after they take flight that Selina sees "Bruce's" scars and realizes it's not the real Bruce.  Eventually, he says he will leave, but not before giving her a farewell kiss.

This news visibly irritates the real Bruce Wayne when he and Alfred (Sean Pertwee) find him.  While Number 5 opts to make a life for himself somewhere, the mysterious group behind a lot of the machinations in Gotham find Number 5 and take him.

In all of this is the Mayoral campaign.  Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) wants an unfair fight: he is determined to win, and he gets help from his right-hand man, Butch (Drew Powell).  In the other corner is Pengy's bestie, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).  He is up to something himself, something that troubles Butch.  What Nygma is up to is taking back the bribes Penguin has been giving the officials.  An angry Butch and shocked Penguin have no problem threatening to waste Nygma, until the election results come in...and Oswald Cobblepot wins in a landslide!  Nygma's gamble paid off big-time, for Mayor Cobblepot has chosen Edward Nygma to be his Chief of Staff.

Butch can only watch in dismay as his boss has found someone else.

I am surprised that the election storyline ended so quickly.   It would have been fun to see Oswald and former Mayor Aubrey James duel it out in a debate, or see him campaigning more.  However, my sense is that Gotham wanted to get Mayor Cobblepot into office as soon as possible in order to move into more important business. 

I also was surprised that we didn't get much indication as to how Nygma read the public's response better than Pengy or Butch and his group.  It was a bold gamble by Nygma, for if he had been proven wrong and Penguin had lost the election, Penguin would not have shrunk from having Edward killed right then and there.

Interestingly, some storylines were ended, or at least put in the backburner (and that's not mentioning how Fish Mooney is still running around somewhere, with her mad scientist Hugo Strange, and both have yet to make a comeback).  The Number 5 story wasn't extended either, but he is not completely out of the picture just yet. 

Alice was also ended, and here is where I'm taking New Day Rising and Gotham to task.  Right from the beginning, when Jarvis takes the carnival from the hypnotized owner, we get some surprisingly gruesome bits of violence that trouble me.  Granted, we don't see Jarvis bashing the owner's head with a mallet in one of those strength games, but it gives us just enough to make it a bit horrid.

It was in Alice's death that I was again reminded how Gotham sometimes goes past what I think is acceptable network television fare.  We dwelt, almost lovingly, on her impaled figure, and for me, this is too much celebration of death.  That is already bad enough, but there is more than a strong suggestion of incest between Jarvis and Alice in the dialogue (though it's clear that Alice was an unwilling partner in what perhaps was a more intimate relationship between brother and sister).

All that combined would cause me to banish Gotham from the eyes of children, certainly anyone under 16.

I certainly would hope Gotham pulled the stops on some of their visuals, but I feel they aren't going to, so I will continue to be at times horrified. 

Still, when I look at New Day Rising in terms of aspects outside the violence, I find a very strong episode.  Mazouz is now proving any doubters as to his ability to be a young Bruce Wayne wrong.  He has to be both Wayne and Number 5, and whenever an actor plays a dual role (usually that of a twin or lookalike) actors can either be convincing or ridiculous.  Mazouz, with his voice and manner, does a great job convincing us that they are not one and the same. 

He is matched by Bicondova, who has become one of the best versions of Selina Kyle we have seen, certainly in the younger division.  I would have thought her cat-sense would have alerted her to the idea that the guy she was with was something else, but when she has to face the goons or when she realizes that he isn't Bruce, she gives a solid performance.

McKenzie, who sometimes I don't praise, does a fantastic job because he is given a deeper conflict as the man struggling with the loss of his love, which in turns make him vulnerable to thoughts of suicide through hypnosis.  RLT similarly continues to show the insecure child within his murderous Penguin, and this is the first time I can see the suggestion of what fans call "Nygmobblepot", the idea that Ed and Ozzie are meant to be 'friends with benefits'.

Exactly how far this scenario will go down the road I do not know, but I hope there's more thought to it than just to out Penguin as a gay mob boss.

For me, the best part of New Day Rising was in The Mad Hatter storyline.  This is the first time I sense that we get a Batman-type villain, down to their outlandish manner and trappings, while still grounding it in reality.  Jarvis goes to the wrestlers known as "The Terrible Tweeds" (an obvious tie-in with Alice in Wonderland's Tweedledee and Tweedledum), and the large metronome seems something a bit too large, even outlandish, to be believable, yet Gotham managed to balance the camp with the horror.

In many respects, New Day Rising is a strong step forward in Gotham, bringing the traditions of the larger-than-life Batman villain without being flat-out ridiculous.  We get strong performances from the cast (particularly Samuels as the Mad Hatter and Mazouz as Bruce Wayne/Number 5) and a good story.  Minus how quickly the election went, I think New Day Rising does a great job pushing Gotham into yet another strong season.  


Next Episode: Anything For You

Gotham: Look Into My Eyes Review


Gotham, for good or bad, does have a bit of a problem: how to get Batman villains without bringing Batman into the mix.  After all, the future Dark Knight is still a sixteen-year-old boy barely learning about the dark side of life.  So far, they've managed to make the introduction of some of the Batman villains believable while not overdoing things (think Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman).  We now get a new Batman villain: The Mad Hatter (although he is not called that, at least not yet).

Come to think of it, with the exception of The Penguin and Mr. Freeze (whom I hope will still return), the common names of our master criminals haven't been used, but I digress.

Look Into My Eyes is a strong introduction to our newest villain, while throwing in more mysteries and even not-so-wry political commentary.

There's a new hypnotist act in Gotham.  It's Jervis Tetch (Benedict Samuel), who thrills audiences with his powers of persuasion.  Even Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards) and mistress Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) are a bit frightened of him.  Jervis, for his part, uses his powers to provide for having the man he had hypnotized earlier kill his wife and himself.

Jervis, however, is in need of a good bounty hunter, someone like Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  Jervis is searching for his sister, Alice (Nainan Gonzalez Norvind).  She was part of Hugo Strange's lair of horror, and Jervis wants her found.  Alice, for her part, does not want to be found.  She knows she's dangerous: her blood being poisonous to anyone who comes in contact with.  Gordon eventually finds her, but she gives him the slip.  For his part, Jervis will not be denied.  He uses Gordon's vulnerabilities involving Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) to induce him into hypnosis, getting him to almost kill himself.

Only Alice's sudden appearance (and gun firing) jolts Gordon to safety.

Yes, Dr. Thompkins has found a new man, a doctor no less.  He's Mario (James Carpinello).  While it is clear that Mario is a good guy, it is unclear whether he uses his family name...Mario Falcone, son of Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman).

In the other subplots, the doppelganger to Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), whose only identity is of 514-A, has found shelter of sorts at Wayne Manor, much to the worry of Alfred (Sean Pertwee).  "Number 5" (Mazouz in a dual role) appears to be hesitant, confused, but he is also intrigued by Bruce's relationship with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  She's come to Bruce for help in searching for her friend Ivy.  Bruce, worried about "Number 5", declines to help.  "Number 5" decides to jump in, by impersonating Bruce and help her out.  She is a bit puzzled, but she goes along.

Our deal Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) has decided that Gotham needs him.  He goes to a press conference for Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) and declares his candidacy for Mayor of Gotham.

He even has a tagline: Make Gotham Safe Again.

The cleanness of the mayoral race is to be determined, given that both James and Cobblepot are not afraid to show a little muscle to get their way.  Cobblepot, however, has an ace up his sleeve.  No, not his right-hand henchman Butch (Drew Powell), but his new bestie, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).  Penguin has cajoled the Arkham Asylum director to declare Nygma sane and release him.  Penguin goes to pick Nygma up personally as is delighted to see his old friend once again.

Perhaps it is the Penguin for Mayor Campaign that should be one to watch, but more out of concern over where Gotham will go than for whether it is a good idea.  Those of us old enough to remember Batman Returns will have flashbacks, given that that version's Penguin also ran for mayor as a major part of the plot.  Those of us who shudder at this years Presidential election are aware of one candidate's slogan to "Make America Great Again".  As much as I thoroughly detest said candidate (I'm proudly #NeverTrump), the similarity bothers me, as if Gotham was taking sides.

If James' slogan was "I'm With Him", then maybe I wouldn't object.

Be that as it may, I do wonder where and how long the Cobblepot for Mayor storyline will go.  This remains to be seen, but truthfully, I'm not big on it. 

What I am big on is how Gotham is weaving two good stories in here.  The first one is the main one, with The Mad Hatter (down to having Alice in the mix).  Samuels is strong as Tetch, keeping his character creepy without going over-the-top.  So far, we are getting the pieces between Tetch, Alice, and Gordon together in a believable way.

Perhaps the best performance is from Mazouz as both Wayne and "Number 5".  Mazouz manages the alterations of his voice, his facial expressions, and the confusion he creates for Selina, intentional or not.  Is he villain?  Is he up to some nefarious acts?  Something if not wicked at least bizarre this way comes.

Bicondova is similarly excellent in her scenes with Mazouz.  When she comes to Bruce, Bicondova shows that rare hint of vulnerability that indicates that for all her exterior toughness, there is still a hurt person, fearing for her friend, angry at her on/off.

The twists in this wild mayoral campaign were good, and in this episode the only thing kind of weak is the Lee/Mario storyline.  Somehow, her love life doesn't seem that interesting.  Having a romance with someone she knows is connected with the Mob (even if Mario himself is a civilian...little Godfather reference there) seems downright nutty.

Still, with a strong story around a new villain (one that makes even a pair as crazy as Babs and Tabitha...Tabra? have second thoughts), we get something that keeps pushing Gotham into a stronger, more confident direction.



Next Episode: New Day Rising

Friday, October 28, 2016

Jason Bourne: A Review


A myth of sorts has been built around the reason for the failure of The Bourne Legacy.  So the story goes, the reason Legacy failed was because the character of Jason Bourne was not actually in The Bourne LegacyThe Bourne Legacy was attempting to build a franchise around a character without said character actually being there.  In a bit of course correction, Jason Bourne brings back original Bourne Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass in an effort to rebuild the old series and restore its own mythic story. 

Bless them for trying, but Jason Bourne proves the theory about The Bourne Legacy wrong: the character of Jason Bourne can be in a Bourne film...and still fail.

A plot recap is a bit tricky, given a.) how convoluted a lot of things were in the beginning, and b.) how Jason Bourne asks that you know or remember a lot of what happened in The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum.   I'll give it a try nonetheless.

Jason Bourne (Damon) is in the international version of Fight Club, brawling throughout Europe to make money/forget/remember what happened to him, having flashbacks every now and again.  The CIA would still like to grab him, but from what I see does not make it a top priority.  That is until Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) downloads more nefarious material from Langley, including information about Jason's father who may have had a deeper hand into Jason's assassin ways.

Talk about The Bourne Legacy!

CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is apoplectic about this breach, and wants both Bourne and Parsons terminated.  The CIA officer who both discovered the breech and is the tope expert on cyber-security, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) would rather get them captured, convinced that Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Enter Asset (Vincent Cassel), master assassin whom Dewey entrusts to finding and exterminating the meddlesome Bourne and Parsons.

In the chaos of a violent Greek protest, Asset manages to kill Parsons (as a side note, despite how she is not the star she was before, I figure Stiles is happy not to have to come back to any future Bourne films), but unsurprisingly fails to kill Bourne.  It's a globe-hopping tour as Bourne continues to attempt to discover the truth about his father, who was killed in Beirut, as well as expose another CIA operation, Iron Hand.

Dewey has also made a secret deal with Mark Zuckerberg-like social network billionaire Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed).  Kalloor is publicly all about Internet privacy, but privately has given Dewey access to his user's information in exchange for financial assistance in starting his company, Deep Dreams.  Kalloor wants out of his deal, going so far as to threaten to go public.  Those words are like waving a red flag at a bull, and Dewey now plots to get at Kalloor too.

Jason Bourne finds an unlikely ally in Lee (the new hoped-for series' Nicky Parsons), who also distrusts Dewey.  She has been given the go-ahead to try and take him in London, but Dewey secretly tells Asset to exterminate all those who get in his way of killing Bourne (except for the dupe Lee).  Despite his best efforts, Asset is unable to get at Bourne himself, and now Bourne meets with Lee personally, and she gives him information about Dewey's next plan, which will take place in Las Vegas.

It's off to Vegas to get at Dewey and bring him down.  Dewey has plotted to go all-Manchurian Candidate and have Kalloor assassinated while giving a talk at an Internet expo, with Dewey taking a bullet to make it look good.  The CIA becomes aware that Bourne has shown up, and that he has had some kind of help from the inside.  In a rage, Dewey orders Asset to assassinate Kalloor and Lee, but Bourne gets in the way.  Eventually, it is Lee who kills Dewey while saving Bourne, and Bourne then gives chase to Asset through the Vegas Strip for an ultimate showdown.

In the aftermath of all this, Lee rises higher, but Bourne still does not trust her.  He lets her know this by playing a recording he made of her secret conversation with the new CIA head, where she urges them to try to bring him back, and if that fails, to kill him.

I learned that Henry Cavill had a total of Forty-Three lines of dialogue in Batman vs. Superman: Yawn of Justice.  Some reports have Matt Damon outdoing this by stating he has a mere TWENTY-FIVE lines of dialogue in Jason Bourne.  If I go by the report in Vulture, that's erroneous: Damon has Forty-Five lines of dialogue, outdoing Cavill by a mere two.

I can tell you that I figure the Vulture count is closer to the truth, as Damon has, from the time he first actually meets Lee in London to the final scene, exactly...TWENTY lines total.  Granted, I started counting pretty near the third act, but even by Bourne standards, this taciturn portrayal, like the film itself, veers dangerously towards parody.

As a side note, I can understand why Cavill was given as few lines as possible: reason being he cannot actually act so it was best to minimize the damage (though he'd make a great silent film star).  Damon, however, can act, so the fact that Greengrass, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Rouse, made Bourne into a very silent figure must have been a deliberate decision.

More so when you remember Damon is a producer of Jason Bourne.

As in The Bourne Legacy, the character of Jason Bourne appears to be a non-entity, a plot device to get things going.  So much time is spent on the battle between Dewey and Lee, on Asset's machinations/assassinations, and even on Dewey v. Kalloor that one wonders if THAT was the reason Jason Bourne stayed quiet for long stretches.

I haven't seen Ex Machina or The Danish Girl (for which Vikander won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the latter film unseen because Eddie Redmayne tried to "drag" his way to a second Oscar for himself after that shameless mechanical performance in The Theory of Nothing, but I digress).  I cannot therefore, say how good an actress Vikander is, but she must have been better in those than in Jason Bourne, for few CIA agents can come across as so dull and lifeless.

Actually, I can make some kind of judgment on Vikander, having seen (but not yet reviewed) The Light Between Oceans, and after seeing that, I begin to despair as to what kind of actress she is.  I also forgot she was in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but then again most of the world has forgotten that horror too, so I can't be blamed for finding her forgettable. 

Jones could do this kind of role in his sleep (and at times I suspect he was asleep).  As for Damon, well, he too did what was hard to imagine: make Jason Bourne a rather dull fellow.

There were a few good pieces in Jason Bourne.  The Athens riot sequence was a bright spot, and the closing sequence in Las Vegas, while at times wildly over-the-top, was also I thought a highlight.  Pity that Greengrass decided to double down on the chaotic shaky-cam and wildly gyrating camera that made things harder to follow (or harder than they already were given how the plot didn't help you sort things out for a while).

Jason Bourne, like Matt Damon, is starting to show his age.  Perhaps they think by making something that comes close to spoofing itself they will get more Bourne films.  Perhaps it is time to let this spy stay out in the cold.      


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Boo! A Madea Halloween: A Review


Having already tackled Christmas, our most famous African-American female (after First Lady Michelle Obama) has tackled the spooky holiday of Halloween.  As we await Madea's Hanukkah Hijinks, we get Boo! A Madea Halloween.   Truth be told, I'm a bit conflicted when it comes to this latest Tyler Perry production.  I did laugh, which I think was the point of a lot of this.  The laughs, however, didn't come strictly because it was actually funny.  It was more because it was so flat-out idiotic that it caused me to laugh.  A part of me thought that Perry was spoofing horror films (and the current fixation with crazed clowns). 

Another part of me was wondering whether he was trading in on old stereotypes and treating his characters as downright fools to where all that was missing was Stepin Fetchit to pop out and do a little dance.

Brian (Perry), a weak-as-toast and overprotective father, does not want his daughter Tiffany (Diamond White) to walk past the Upsilon Theta Fraternity House (better known by their Greek initials, YO).  Tiffany does not care what her weak-willed father wants, since she can walk all over him and does so with impunity.  Only her best friend, Preacher's Kid Aday (Liza Koshy) has any sense of doubt as to Tiffany's latest plan.

While walking down the YO house with two other tart-friends, Rain and Leah, the frat guys all invited them to their kick-ass Halloween party, the dimwitted guys unaware that they are all seventeen (and thus, underage).  Encouraged to wear something sexy for their costumes, Tiffany wants desperately to go, with Aday more reluctant.  Of course, there is the issue of getting past Brian.

Enter Madea (Perry again), who is with I assume her sister Bam (Cassie Davis).  Bam, who is delighted to have her 'prescription' for medicinal marijuana, is sitting outside her house passing out candy, much to Madea's displeasure.  Bam is actually doing a bait-and-switch on the tykes: appearing to put in candy but really reaching into the bags to grab some of THEIR candy.  One of the trick-or-treaters gets wise to this, which unleashes a barrage of insults by Madea (who knows perfectly well what's going on).  Brian calls Madea up to watch Tiffany and Aday for the night (Brian discovering Tiffany's schemes).

Madea goes only after promises of money, and Bam, along with Madea's brother/Brian's father Joe (Perry once again) and their friend Hattie (Cassie Davis) tagging along.  Tiffany gets wise to her father's scheme and tries to scare the old people by telling them that a "Mr. Wilson" committed murders in the house on Halloween and comes back to haunt the place...except the bedrooms. While they don't bite, they aren't as attentive as they should be and Tiffany & Aday sneak off.

Madea is many things, but a fool ain't one of them.   She quickly realizes they snuck off and goes to the frat house to get them back.  The dimwitted frat guys at first think Madea and her friends (Joe opting to stay home and smoke some weed) are in costume, but soon realize that these old people are for real.  The three women appear to start actually mixing into the remarkably dull Halloween party (even with Tyga in a cameo as himself) until Madea, irritated by their refusal to help, literally pulls the plug.  The frat guys promptly throw her out, which enrages Madea.  Taking the other women with her, she decides to call the po-po to tell them that underage girls are at the party. 

No need, as while Dino (Mike Tornabene) is with Aday, the good girl tells him she's seventeen, horrifying someone even as stupid as him.  He quickly runs to the YO President, Jonathan (Yousef Erakat), who is with Tiffany, and he too is shocked.  They all realize that having underage girls at their party will get them at the very least suspended from college, but making matters worse, the po-po have arrived and shut the party down.  Discovering that Madea and her group were behind this, they plot revenge.  Unbeknown to them, Aday, who's been hiding, overhears their plans.

The rest of the movie involves the frat guys pulling pranks to convince the old, scared black people that ghosts and clowns and zombies are after them, and of course it works.  It isn't until Madea runs to the church and 'accepts' Jesus Christ that the preacher comes out, along with the repentant Aday, who reveals all.  Now it's time for MADEA to get even and give both Tiffany and the frat guys a comeuppance they won't soon forget.  Tiffany also learns a valuable lesson on the importance of parental guidance and respect for her father.

It's an almost fascinating thing to see how Perry attempts to mix the broadest, silliest of comedy with a touch of moralizing.  On one hand, you have these excessive caricatures of people, young and old (are frat guys really that dumb? are old people really that dumb?).  On the other, you have a message that parents should not be their children's friends, but their parents.

It's amusing to see this group of seniors berate their child for not raising his own child the way they raised him.  Granted, this collection had no problem being wildly abusive (Joe, for example, recounts with glee how he threw Brian off a roof), but somewhere in all this mayhem, we get what we're supposed to understand is the 'message': good parenting has no substitute.

In the mix is a very bad sense, at least for me, that Perry may be mixing mirth with stereotypes.  The idea that these old black people were 'afraid of ghosts', and would be so gullible as to possibly imagine there were such things, complete with eyes bulging out and them screaming for the hills, somehow didn't sit right with me.  It troubled me that people were portrayed with such broad strokes.  Granted, a Madea film isn't known for its subtlety, but again, something about that just didn't feel right.

I also grant that a Madea film is not meant to be taken all that seriously (Diary of a Mad Black Woman being a rare exception), so I cut it some slack.  Certainly we see this with how the frat guys are.  Despite protests to the contrary, this party looks rather lame (and as for Tyga's cameo, all I could think of was how low is his career to be playing a FRAT PARTY.  Serves him right for not letting Sir Paul McCartney into his after-Grammy party).

If I look at it analytically, I don't think people go into a Madea film to see great acting.  There wasn't.  Of particular note were Erakat and Tornabene as Jonathan the YO President and his sidekick Dino.  I understand they are 'YouTube stars'.  I'm simply too old to accept the notion that there is such a thing as 'YouTube stars', so having no idea who they are (and truthfully, not caring) they were amateurish in whatever they can call 'acting'.  Tyler Perry alums (along with Perry) were broad, but that's what I figure they were meant to be. 

Subtlety isn't a Tyler Perry specialty. 

I'm not going to lie and say I didn't laugh.  There were moments of humor (Madea quoting from Oprah's speech in The Color Purple when going up into the attic, one of the frat guys calling Brian "Old Man River", though I'd question how that frat guy would know the reference), but it was a silly, almost idiotic funny.

A good time can be had at Boo! A Madea Halloween, if one goes into it acknowledging that we're not getting anything particularly great, clever, or original.   Minus the mocking of the current 'scary clown' business, this is not a good film.  It's not quite a romp, but not a horror.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Batman (1989): A Review (Review #855)


Batman came about at a most curious time.  If people thought of Batman at all, it was that of a campy television show, one that had made the Dark Knight into a figure of fun (the film version did not help dispel the idea that Batman was camp at best).  Also, comic book-based films had suffered a beating after the horrors of Superman III AND Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  As such, Batman was already facing a tough fight.  Through in the casting of Michael Keaton, an actor best known for comedies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, as the Dark Knight and many in the fanbase were prepared for a disaster.  And did I mention that the director of Batman was the same guy who made Beetlejuice?

However, Batman did what few thought possible: it created a brilliant adaptation that has stood the test of time, coupled with great performances and an iconic theme that I think is still held as THE Batman theme (even if most Batman fans have worshipped at the altar of newer adaptations).

There's a myth spreading about the criminals in Gotham City of a strange creature who targets wrongdoers, a large bat.  It doesn't take long to discover that there is such a creature, who when asked who he is, replies coldly, "I'm Batman".  Not believing or caring about the growing rumors is one Jack Napier, second-in-command to Gotham mobster Gus Grissom (Jack Palance).  Napier has been secretly involved with Grissom's mistress, Alicia (Jerri Hall), oddly the least dangerous and unhinged thing Napier is involved with.  Grissom sends Jack to eliminate evidence at a chemical factory, but Jack discovers that he's been set-up by Grissom to be killed by the corrupt police in his payroll.

Fortunately for him, Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), the rare honest cop, shows up to insist Napier be caught alive.  Unfortunately for him, so does Batman.  Napier's efforts at escape fail, and he falls into a vat of acid.  Everyone believes Napier is dead, but he's got a few tricks up his sleeve.  The first one is his new name to go with the disfigured face.  You can call him, "Joker" (Jack Nicholson).

The only person who is convinced that there is a six-foot-bat harassing Gotham's criminals is Gotham Gazette reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl).  Into this comes photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), best known for her glamorous images but who has earned praise for covering a violent political revolution.  She too is convinced there's a story here, and teams up with Knox.

It isn't long before both encounter millionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), and his loyal manservant, Alfred (Michael Gough).  Wayne takes an instant interest in does Joker, who now has unleashed his merry madness upon Gotham. A war now begins between the two, with Vale caught in the middle.

The mad Joker terrorizes Gotham with his own brand of chemical warfare, which does not please the Mayor of Gotham or the new, honest District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams).  The City is determined to have Gotham's Bicentennial, but ultimately give up for security reasons.

In sweeps Joker, who offers Gothamites a beautiful offer: he will throw a big party for Gotham, and throw out $20 million.  In exchange, he demands a duel with The Batman.

The war between Joker and Batman is intensified when Wayne discovers that Napier is responsible for the murder of Bruce's parents so long ago. 

At the Bicentennial Celebration, Joker taunts Batman, until Vale and Knox find that Joker is unleashing his Smylex poison gas and plans to kill everyone.  Batman sweeps in and is brought down by The Joker, who thinks he's killed his hated rival...and managed to capture the luscious Miss Vale to boot.  It's up to Gotham Cathedral for one last final confrontation between these two foes.

In the end, Batman is triumphant, and gives Gotham a gift should they need his help again: the Bat-Signal.

Batman has so much going for it, that with the passage of almost 30 (!) years, we forget just how good it is.   At the top of the list are the performances.

Keaton had a great deal to prove.  As stated, he was known primarily for comedy, so his casting was controversial to say the least.  However, Keaton did a fantastic job as both Bruce Wayne and Batman.  One of his best scenes was when he goes to Vale to admit his secret identity.  Keaton brings a mixture of lightness and hesitancy with some seriousness, bridging some if not humor at least levity from the somewhat oppressive nature of the Batman world.

His Batman is perfectly serious without being overwhelmingly dour.  His Bruce Wayne has a slight awkwardness that makes it plausible to imagine people haven't put two-and-two together.

Batman, however, has a total ace up its sleeve: Jack Nicholson as The Joker.  It is hard for Millennials and many people to imagine anyone other than Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, but for most GenXers, it's Nicholson who defined this brilliantly bonkers master-criminal.  Nicholson makes the Joker into a believable character, one who is dangerous but also outlandish, in keeping with how the character was before he became, in my view, too psychotic and murderous. 

Nicholson reminds me of how another serious and brilliant actor (Gene Hackman) made his own comic book villain (Lex Luthor) into someone who was both humorous and dangerous.  Their enormous talent has something to do with it.  Nicholson, not to get sidetracked, latches on to the unhinged danger of Joker while bringing his demonic humor to life.

I think that this is because Burton made this version of Gotham City into one that works within its world.  It is outlandish but it works within the generally fantasy world of Batman.  In other words, the world of Batman appears real but not too real where we cannot note the comic book trappings.  It is oppressive without being depressing and devoid of any sense of hope.  There wasn't much humor if any really (though a few bits were allowed, such as Batman's complaint after rescuing Vale that despite her claim, "You weigh more than 108"), but it wasn't overly dark and gloomy.

As a side note, at first I thought the 'death by beauty products' was silly, but having re-seen Batman, it does keep to how demented and outrageous the Joker was.

I can't fault Basinger for being a bit of a damsel-in-distress, and she was at times a bit blank.  Still, she did a respectable job.  Won't go after Wuhl either, but part of me thinks he could have been dropped and let Vale take a more commanding role.

Now, while many Batman fans objected to having Napier be the Wayne's killers, I don't think it's a dealbreaker.  I'd rather object to the sometimes silly moments (such as how dumb/egocentric Joker must be to believe Vale would so quickly find him desirable).  That bit would bother me only in that it is hard to believe a.) Wayne would not realize Jack was his parent's killer when first seeing him, and b.) no one in Gotham would know the Wayne Family tragedy.

Part of me also thinks Batman expect you to know a lot of the mythos already (the opening is a nod to Batman's origin story, so whether they were teasing us or not we cannot say).

Still, so much of the film works that what flaws it has pretty much can be ignored or forgiven.  Throw in Danny Elfman's iconic Batman theme and you have one of the best comic book-based films around.

Great performances, a plausible world, and Elfman's score combine to make Batman a standard to judge other comic book adaptations.  Dark without being overwhelming gloomy, Batman revived the comic book genre...a genre where we'd see the Batman franchise itself fall and rise.

That, however, is in the future. 


Next Batman Film: Batman Returns

Friday, October 21, 2016

Batman (1966): A Review

BATMAN (1966)

Batman has come a long way in these 75+ years.  Millennials know him as this dark, tormented figure, a man in eternal angst over his life and the misery of his Gotham City.  Gotham, the Batman prequel television series, expands on that dire world where the future Dark Knight will emerge.

It might therefore come as a genuine shock to remember that there was a time when Batman was anything but dark and gloomy.  In fact, Batman was the height of camp humor, a merry figure who was very tongue-in-cheek, whose villains were outlandish and unapologetically so.  The Batman television show ran for a mere three seasons, but during that time we had the first full-length Batman film.  Batman was very much in keeping with the pop/camp nature of the television series, a chance for the guest villains to have a major union of lunacy and humor that winks at the audience.

Something Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, or even David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne would not be aware of.

Four villains from the Rogue's Row of Gotham's master criminals have joined forced: The Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether).  Working together as "United Underworld", their goal is, to quote Riddler, "first Gotham City, and then THE WORLD!"  To do this, they have to get rid of the Dynamic Duo: Batman and Robin.

The Caped Crusaders' alter egos, millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and his youthful ward Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) are at first unaware of this nefarious plot, but soon things come together.  It comes from the first step on the United Underworld's master plan: the abduction of Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny, in his final role) to use his newest invention, a Dehydrating Machine, which they will use for their own nefarious purposes.

Those involve kidnapping the members of the United World's Security Council, and they will also use it against Batman to try and kill him.  As can be expected, things don't go the super-criminals way, especially when they attempt to use the luscious Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to seduce Bruce Wayne as part of a plot to lure the Caped Crusader to rescue the millionaire philanthropist.

Well, after a battle the villains are captured, and a delicate operation takes place to attempt and restore the UW's members to their state.  The end results weren't exactly what everyone had in mind, but no matter...the Dynamic Duo sneaks off, ready for more adventures.

If anything, Batman is fully aware of its own lunacy and makes no apologies for it.  Right from the get-go Batman is going to be exactly like the television show: bonkers, self-aware, and tongue firmly in cheek as it spoofs itself.

We see this straight from the beginning, when Batman & Robin go in the Bat-copter to attempt to rescue the Commodore's ship.  To descend down to the ship, the ladder reads "Bat Ladder", then when an obviously fake shark starts pulling on Batman's leg, he calls to get the get Bat-Repellant, easily grouped by various aquatic animals.

One boggles at the idea that Batman and Robin prepare for any eventuality, no matter how random or insane, yet this is the world of Batman, gleefully silly and not afraid to embrace it.  Throughout the film, everyone camps it up, hams it up, and since everyone is in on the joke, no one has any cause to be offended or to take any of this seriously.

In many ways, Batman is a bit like an extended episode, but unlike the series, it has a few things that television would not let it get away it.  As the plot begins to unravel, Riddler yells at Catwoman, "Shut up, you feline floozy!", as harsh a comment as any I've heard from anyone from the television show. The flirtation between Bruce Wayne and Miss Kitka (as obvious a name on something that transcends self-awareness) is surprisingly daring and risqué.  Their efforts at détente would probably not go over well with television censors, with her invitation to come up to her penthouse for a little climax.

Of course, the fact that she offers to slip into something more comfortable while he finishes his cocoa shows just how overtly silly everything in Batman is (as if passing the Benedict Arnold Monument in Gotham Central Park wasn't a big-enough clue that here, everyone isn't just IN on the joke, they ARE the joke).

Speaking of jokes, Lorenzo Semple's screenplay manages to keep a pretty solid balance between our four supervillains, though I'd argue that if I had to choose, I'd say Meredith's Penguin was the ringleader.  If push came to shove I would say that Gorshin is the best version of the Riddler ever brought to screen (sorry, Carrey and Cory Michael Smith).  Each of our villains knew their characters, and if you've seen the show, they are pretty much the same.

We even got a bit of heart from Penguin, who tells his henchmen to be careful as they pour the sands of other henchmen as part of their bat-crazy scheme to take down the Caped Crusader.  "Be careful," we quacks.  "Every one of them has a mother".

The only new cast-member is Meriwether as Catwoman, and she does a wonderful job balancing the alluring Miss Kitka and the villainous Catwoman.  Let's face it: the term 'villains' doesn't quite fit our quartet of crooks, but they did a great job.

Same goes for West and Ward.  It's just a terrible disservice to West to have been typecast for doing a great job as the campy, way-out Caped Crusader.  Same goes for Ward's turn as the 'voice of the youth' (his line of saying "One thing I don't dig", lends things a delightfully retro fun).

Yes, one can argue about the logic of even something as overtly silly as Batman (the perpetually befuddled Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara reaching correct conclusions by the rather elaborate leaps of logic is a bit hard to swallow), but again, since we all had a good time with this, we need not worry about such matters.

One real highlight was the opening, where Nelson Riddle's jazz score balanced the various themes for our villains with a really jaunty and even thrilling musical sequence. 

Ultimately, Batman succeeds because it knows what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything else.  Everyone is having a lark sending up the excessive seriousness of it all, and while it will take perhaps a generation or two to make the Dark Knight less morose, maybe in the future people can take a page from Batman and lighten things up just a touch.


Next Batman Film: Batman (1989)

How Times Have Changed...

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hell or High Water: A Review


Hell or High Water brings to mind many other films, particularly No Country For Old Men.  It covers similar territory both geographically (both take place in West Texas) and themes (older law enforcement officer tracks down criminals).  Unlike No Country For Old Men, I actually liked Hell or High Water.  Sometimes things go a little awry, but on the whole the film works both as commentary on the financial woes of average people and a character study on its subjects.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is facing tough times on his West Texas ranch.  His recent divorce and the cost of caring for his recently-deceased mother has left him pretty much in debt, so much so that the Texas Midlands Bank may take it.  His brother, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) has come to help Toby, but that help involves robbing said bank with small denominations, stealing just enough to literally pay the bank with their own money in order to keep the ranch.  While Toby is a reluctant participant in this endeavor, he does go along with it, seeing it as the only way to raise the funds quickly.  He needs to hold onto the ranch so as to keep the oil rights to the Texas Tea that has recently been discovered there, which will help Toby's estranged sons gain a fortune. Tanner, for his part, just loves robbing banks, and is clearly in his element.

Into this mix comes Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), for whom this string of robberies will be his last case before finally retiring.  He's not looking forward to retiring, seeing it as almost a death sentence.  His half-Indian, half-Mexican partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) tolerates Hamilton's faux-bigotry, knowing that it is more irascibility and displeasure at leaving the Rangers than any real animosity that drives Hamilton's rather brusque manner and questionable comments.

Hamilton is a shrewd customer, aware of how his robbers think, and sees a pattern: small-town Texas Midland Banks and even gauges a motive (the correct one).  Putting his hunch on the line, he stakes out one of the few TMB that hasn't been hit, convinced his thieves will strike it next.

Unbeknown to the Rangers, the brothers have headed up to an Oklahoma casino for the dual purpose of laundering the stolen money and gain more through the gambling.  Toby is still a man wrestling with his conscience, but Tanner has little if any to worry himself over, down to having no problem having sex with the casino hotel's desk clerk while Toby is in the very next bed.

Back to Texas for one more hit, which will allow them to get enough money to pay the bank.  The brothers hit another TMB, though not the one Hamilton and Parker were at.  Hamilton was proven correct in his theory, just not in the location.  As they race towards the other town, the Howard Brothers come across a crowded bank...and some armed civilians.

This IS Texas, after all.

Tanner kills the guard and a patron, but as they escape they find themselves being chased by other townsfolk in their pickups, armed with their own guns.  Tanner pulls out an automatic weapon to chase them away, and the brothers split up, though Toby is wounded in the chaos (both physically and emotionally).  Tanner leads everyone away from Toby, and up in the mountains Tanner manages to shoot Alberto in the head from a far-off distance.  Marcus, both enraged and extremely upset at the death of his friend, decides to take matters into his own hands.  With the help of a local who knows the area, they go behind where Tanner has them at bay and, despite his age and shock, kills Tanner.

Toby manages to escape, head back to the casino, and manages to get the final amount, much to the bank's irritation. 

Some time later, Hamilton has retired, and despite what the Rangers investigated he is convinced Toby was in on it.  Toby and Marcus have a face-off when Marcus goes to Toby's ranch and puts out his theory.  Toby will neither confirm nor deny the charge, but there's nothing Marcus can do.  Ultimately, while the oil well's money goes to the sons (with the same bank as trustee), Marcus suggests that they might meet again, to settle unfinished business.

Perhaps at this juncture I should point out that I am from West Texas (El Paso to be precise).  As such, I know a bit of the people in Hell or High Water, what kind of people they are, and I can vouch for the general accuracy of how the people in this region were portrayed.  They were loyal, hard-working, and not ashamed or embarrassed to pack heat publicly.

As a side note, there have been people who, thanks to Open-Carry, walk around with guns, and I think even a rifle, inside the library.  So long as they keep them in their holster there is nothing that can be said, and while I personally am not a fan of open-carry (though I'm amenable on concealed), I can say that the final confrontation between the Howard Brothers and the bank customers is surprisingly plausible.

Again and again I come back to No Country For Old Men in that both films have the same setting and some of the same plot points (the old lawman pursuing the criminals).  There are major differences though, for example the old lawman in No Country For Old Men, as far as I remember, wasn't facing retirement, nor was the lawman in Hell or High Water as shocked by the crimes being committed as in No Country For Old Men

Director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan put in nods to the reason for the brothers' action whenever we see a driving montage.  The highways and byways of West Texas are littered with billboards offering loans and assistance for foreclosures, the literal signs of desperation in this area devastated by predatory lending and financial woes.

Sometimes these not-so-subtle acknowledgements of the financial crisis were a bit much, as if they were going slightly overboard with them, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis was a bit overt in the mood it was attempting to set (putting in appropriately sad and somber music at the beginning to tell us the 'tragic' nature of Hell or High Water). 

Those about are the only real criticisms I have against Hell or High Water, since just about everything about it was top-notch.  This has to be one of Chris Pine's best performances, showing the actor within the Captain Kirk and intense blue eyes he's better-known for.  I liked how Pine used his body to convey Toby's discomfort and unease with himself and his actions, that halting manner of a generally good, quiet man who goes to extreme methods to 'do right' for his children.  His scene with the waitress whom he gives a generous tip with his ill-gotten gains (and who has no desire to return the tip as she herself faces tough times and is sympathetic to the brother's actions, though it is until later she learns what they did) is a beautiful one.  Pine expresses his hesitancy with her, the genuine kindness of Toby, almost the shyness he has.  It is a beautiful performance.

It's also a perfect counterbalance to Foster's wild Tanner, the id to Toby's ego.  Foster has always been an incredible talent who has never had the real breakout/breakthrough his talents merited.  He had a disastrous turn in X-Men: The Last Stand as Angel, and while he gave great performances in Ain't Them Bodies Saints (where he played against type as a gentle man) and as Stanley Kowalski in the National Theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Foster has not had that big role, that one performance that made everyone look.  Hell or High Water has to be that breakout, because he dominates the screen every time he's there.  Sometimes just his voice does so, as when he disparages Mr. Pip in one of the film's rare moments of humor (another scene where Hamilton and Parker deal with a cantankerous waitress while waiting for the brothers is another). 

To me, it would be a downright scandal if Ben Foster does not get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Hell or High Water.  This type of role, that of the slightly unhinged man, isn't new territory for Foster.  It is, however, his best work so far in a career that should be moving forward.

As for Bridges, part of lack of enthusiasm for him comes from the fact that he seems to be doing a repeat of what we've seen in his recent films like Crazy Heart, True Grit, and Heaven help us, R.I.P.D. and Seventh Son.  Granted, his slightly bitter yet mournful Texas Ranger is his best performance in a while, and he does have great moments as he contemplates the criminals and his own impending end (particularly when he sets out to avenge his friend and take Tanner down), but Bridges has done this type of role before.

That isn't strictly a criticism of Bridges or his performance in Hell or High Water, just an acknowledgment that this isn't new territory for him.

Hell or High Water is simply an excellent film, one of the best of the year.  It is a bright light among the wreckage that 2016 has been.  A somber tale of despair in a remote part of the world, with fantastic performances by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, along with one of Jeff Bridges' best work in a while, Hell or High Water is an elegant elegy of two different men, united by blood and need.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gotham: Burn the Witch Review


Confound this awful election where we have to pick two lousy candidates.  Thanks to the first Presidential debate between Deplorable Donald and Corrupt Hillary, a good chunk of Burn the Witch, the second episode of Gotham, was lost.  What we did get was a good episode that like most of them, threw a lot at us and is starting the ball rolling.  How well it will pick up things (or in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith, drop them) remains to be seen.

Bounty hunter James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is looking for renegade/crazed criminal Fish Mooney (JPS), who in turn is looking for her mad scientist creator, Dr. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong).  In order to get him, she has to first find him, and there's someone who can help her out: her old friend, Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).  Bullock, who may be shady but is still an honest cop, won't help her willingly.  In order to help him out, she has to use her powers: touching someone makes them susceptible to her will.

With that, Bullock easily falls prey and leads her to the secret mansion where Strange is holed up.  Bullock, however, is no fool, and he 'drops' his badge in front of his car, a way of letting both Gordon and Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) know he's in danger.  Gordon convinces Barnes to take him and some men to the mansion, where they face a hostage crisis.

Complicating matters is Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  He's still enraged that Mooney is alive and is in full kill mode.  He starts haranguing local officials to take care of the 'monsters' that have escaped from Arkham Asylum, but he has one particular monster in mind.  Learning of the siege at the hideout, Penguin and his henchman Butch (Drew Powell) lead a mob determined to storm the compound and drag her out.  Barnes now faces both a hostage crisis and a potential riot simultaneously.

Gordon sneaks into the compound to rescue Harvey, but Mooney has her own low-rent X-Men to get him.  However, she is alarmed by the mob outside, and cuts a deal with Gordon: he'll let her take Strange with her and escape the way he came in in exchange for Harvey.  With that, she spirits the terrified mad scientist out for her to both cure her and create an army of mutants.  Somehow in all the chaos, Penguin is held as a hero.

In other Gotham news, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has finally been introduced to the mysterious organization behind various machinations.  Let's call them...The Court of Owls (though that is not the name given).  A deal is struck: in exchange for dropping the investigation of both his parents' murder and Indian Hill, the "Court" will leave Bruce and his associates unharmed.  This crushes Bruce, but it was the best he could do to keep Alfred (Sean Pertwee) safe.  Whether Wayne's doppelganger, who just showed up at Wayne Manor, is likewise held to safety remains to be seen.

As an apparent result of one of Mooney's henchmen's activities, the once-child Ivy Pepper has emerged as an older figure (Maggie Geha).  She has little idea of where she's at, but is appalled and angered at how the man who rescued her is tossing dying plants.

Gordon and his reluctant partner-in-crime solving, Valerie Vale (Jamie Chung) share a moment of passion, which is unfortunate since Dr. Leslie "Lee" Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) has returned to Gotham.

As I said, it's a bit difficult to give an accurate review to Burn the Witch since we lost some important parts of the episode, particularly the end.  However, what was seen showed that it was a good, solid episode lifted by some extremely good performances.

Of particular note is Mazouz, who is doing double duty as Bruce Wayne and his mysterious doppelganger.  As Wayne, Mazouz is growing more commanding in his presence, a far cry from the haunted and terrified boy from the Pilot.  He has grown more assured, this Bruce, and Mazouz's performance makes that idea that he will grow into The Dark Knight more believable.

Another strong performance was that of Erin Richards as the totally bonkers Barbara Kean.  Though she had just one scene it was still quite memorable, making her gleefully evil insanity a more dangerous edge.  I do wonder if her Babs is slipping into Harley Quinn-style cuckoo, but give Richards credit.  Where once she was the most reviled of characters, Bonkers Babs as I call her has now turned into a fan-favorite due to her mix of crazy and evil (and crazy evil).

Logue continues to bring the mix of sarcasm and honesty as Bullock, and seeing RLT go all pitchfork-and-brimstone raged fighter is a treat. 

I will criticize the somewhat low-rent Mooney Gang (their version of Quicksilver was not a good actor), and it remains to be seen whether Geha as the new, more sensual future Poison Ivy will be able to bring anything to the storyline.

(As a side note, I did not see her kill her benefactor, nor the literal burning of those Penguin's mob killed.  I'm not sure I would have approved, given how critical I've been about the sometimes shockingly graphic violence on Gotham.  I also question Penguin letting Fish live after some flattery, but there it is).

As for JPS, well, her Fish Mooney still divides the fanbase.  I'm neither a Moonie or a Fish-Hater.  I think that's because I always felt Fish was always a bit camp, always a bit broad, and Smith plays it as such.  So far reintroducing her hasn't harmed the show and it's being kept at a minimum, so I have little if anything to complain in that department.

Still, as things are developing on Gotham, on the whole Burn the Witch seems to be holding up a strong Season Three.


Next Episode: Look Into My Eyes