Monday, February 29, 2016

88th Academy Awards: A Review

Legend to Legend

Like the 2016 GOP Presidential campaign, the 88th Academy Awards was one wild and unpredictable ride.  They had good moments (Mark Rylance), bad moments (Leo), and ugly moments (Sam Smith), fitting in a year where Ennio Morricone won his first competitive Oscar...at age 87.

First, a quick recap of our winners.

Mad Max: Fury Road (6)
The Revenant (3)
Spotlight (2)
Room (1)
The Danish Girl (1)
The Hateful Eight (1)
The Big Short (1)
Bridge of Spies (1)
SPECTRE (1)
Ex Machina (1)
Inside Out (1)

Mad Max: Fury Road took more Oscars than all other films, all in technical fields.  The Revenant took three, all in major categories.  Spotlight took two, both in major categories.

If you look at the list, you see that the Oscars refused to play by the regular rules.  Usually, the film with the most nominations wins Best Picture.  The Revenant with 12 was the frontrunner, but didn't win Best Picture  The film that wins the most Oscars tends to win Best Picture. Mad Max: Fury Road won 6 out of 10 nominations, but didn't Best Picture. The Best Picture winner scored the lowest number of Oscars in recent memory, barely edging out all the other non-multiple winners.  Not since 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth's improbable (and still shocking) Best Picture win has a Best Picture winner been so poorly rewarded with just two Oscars (its other win being Original Story). 

Usually, Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing go hand in hand, but this year, each category went with a separate winner.  Again, unpredictable was this year.

Now, the breakdown:

Best Picture: Spotlight
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Best Actress: Brie Larson (Room)
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (The Revenant)
Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Best Visual Effects: Ex Machina
Best Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Original Score: The Hateful Eight
Best Original Song: Writing's on the Wall (SPECTRE)
Best Makeup & Hairstyling: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Best Cinematography: The Revenant
Best Animated Feature: Inside Out
Best Animated Short Film: Bear Story
Best Documentary Feature: Amy
Best Documentary Short Subject: A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (Hungary)
Best Live Action Short Film: Stutterer



Let's talk briefly about some of the upsets. I think at the top of that list is Mark Rylance's win for Bridge of Spies.  I think the audience was genuinely shocked when his name was announced, not even those that voted for him expecting him to actually win.  Most predictions pegged Sylvester Stallone as the winner for his turn in Creed, with both Christian Bale and Mark Ruffalo being the dark horses.  Rylance's name I don't think was even considered, one of those 'it's just an honor being nominated' type of thing. 

However, the Supporting Actor category is one where genuine upsets have the best chance of taking place.  Three years ago, most oddsmakers had Tommy Lee Jones all but certain to win for Lincoln, only to find Christoph Waltz coming from behind with his win for Django Unchained.  Also, Best Supporting Actor is no longer the de facto Lifetime Achievement Award it might have been once (just ask Burt Reynolds). 

Rylance was the highlight of Bridge of Spies, and even its detractors never said anything bad about his performance.  Yet I don't think anyone, not even Rylance, expected him to best Rocky.  Sadly, Stallone joins Al Pacino and Cate Blanchett as being the only people nominated for earning nominations for playing the same role in two different films...and losing both times.  Worse for Sly, unlike the other two (and Bing Crosby, the first to be nominated for playing the same role in two different films), he has yet to actually win for any.

I think the bigger shock was Ex Machina's win for Visual Effects.  I think most people expected either the bombast of Mad Max: Fury Road or the spectacle of Star Wars: The Force Awakens to win.  As I've yet to see Ex Machina I cannot say whether it was a worthy win, but I do think that a film where the visual effects served the story rather than drown it shows a positive sign in the Academy.



Now comes the bad.  As expected Leonardo DiCaprio won for The Revenant (or as I call it, Leo's Most Recent Naked Oscar Plea...and in this case, literally 'naked').  I think his win is bad for these reasons.  First, he didn't win for this specific role.  He won because too many people, both inside and outside The Academy thought he was 'overdue', in essence turning this into a de facto Lifetime Achievement Award (odd given he's only 41).  This idea that it was 'his turn', not his breathing and endless suffering in The Revenant, is what got him the Oscar.  Again, I haven't seen all his competition (though I will immediately dismiss Eddie Redmayne in anything), but this idea that DiCaprio should have won because it was time for him to win for something, ANYTHING, is unfair.  He's given better performances in other films (The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator), and the idea that one should get Oscars because he/she has been overlooked too many times in the past is like giving someone a promotion because he/she has been passed over for one many times...even if there are better candidates.

Second, it was bad because it gave DiCaprio another opportunity to lecture the world about his pet cause...global warming/climate change.  Somehow, DiCaprio has it in his head that he's some sort of environmental expert, and that we are all beholden to him for wisdom and insight into such matters.  Given his penchant for large luxury boats and private planes which both use up large amounts of fuel and leave a much larger carbon footprint than I do, one wonders why he cannot see the disconnect between his words and his actions.  My fellow critic Christian Toto holds that this is hypocrisy.  I think it is merely disconnect: DiCaprio holding a view that rationalizes his own lifestyle going against his tenets with the idea that its the message that is important, not the messenger.

The political messages came in loud and clear with Adam McKay and Charles Randolph's Adapted Screenplay for The Big Short.  With their calls to break up the big banks and not allow the political process to be used by 'millionaires and billionaires', it was a millimeter short of asking everyone there to #FeelTheBern.

As a side note, I'd like to point out that the man who made Step Brothers has an Oscar, while the men who made Vertigo, Magnificent Obsession, Sunrise, Red River, The Blue Angel, and Metropolis never got one.  Just a thought there.  



Now we get to the ugly, and I do mean UGLY!  I really don't have an argument against any of the winners (well, I didn't think Inarritu was the Best Director, but I'm not going to go to war over it).  That is, except for one category...

Let's take a look at the Best Original Song winner.  The songwriters brag about how the song was written in 20 minutes, and the track was recorded in one take.  With that, Writing's On the Wall from SPECTRE beat out the OTHER song from That Porn Movie and three songs few people had heard of.  OK, so maybe it was a weak field where the BIG song ends up winning (something that would probably not have happened if Love Me Like You Do from Fifty Shades of Grey, not Earned It, had been the nominee).   However, I have not heard anyone make the claim that Writing's On the Wall is a.) a great song or b.) even a good Bond Song.  On the contrary, Writing's On the Wall is thought of as one of the worst Bond Songs to come down the pike in a long time.

Yet there he was, rocking back and forth as if he were holding on to the microphone stand for dear life, not hitting the high notes he wrote for himself.  Compare Smith's recreation of a building undergoing an earthquake to The Weeknd's confident performance of Earned It and Lady Gaga's masterful performance of 'Til It Happens to You.  Despite how his performance was a shambles and the song dreadful, there he is, joining Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, and Stephen Sondheim.

SURPRISE!
I'M NOT GAY ANYMORE!
Oh, yes, Stephen Sondheim.  He won an Oscar for Best Original Song (Sooner or Later from Dick Tracy) in 1990 (two years before Smith was born), and if memory serves correct...he's openly gay.  And so is Elton John (Best Original Song: Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King) in 1994 (when Smith was 2 years old).  Oh, and then there was Howard Ashman (Best Original Song: Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast from Beauty & The Beast) in 1989 and 1991 respectively (both before Smith was born) and Melissa Etheridge (Best Original Song: I Need to Wake Up from An Inconvenient Truth) in 2006 (Smith at age 14, old enough to know his sexual preference but apparently unaware who Etheridge is or that she is openly gay herself). 

OK, so I'll grant that Smith, not the brightest bulb, misunderstood Sir Ian McKellen's observation that no openly gay man had won an ACTING Oscar and mistook that for no openly gay man having won ANY Oscar (a point of contention Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black took umbrage at...as well as Smith allegedly hitting on Black's lover, diver Tom Daley).   However, Smith decided that his win was a historic point, a turning point in history equaling, perhaps even greater than the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages in the United States.  Therefore, he was going to dedicate his win to the LGBT community.

I'm sure ISIS will stop throwing gays off buildings now that the sensitive singer of Stay With Me has a gold statue.  I'm sure no kid will get thrown out of his/her house now that Sam Smith was given a prize for writing a song in 20 minutes.

I think his declarations of greatness both artistically and morally feed into the millenials general narcissism, this sense that they know all and are better than all.  Look, kid, let me put the writing on the wall:

Your.
Song.
Stinks.

I don't care you got an Oscar for it.  Sweet Leilani won Best Original Song.  It Goes Like It Goes won Best Original Song. In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening won Best Original Song.  I defy you to sing them without looking them up, let alone from what films they came from (Waikiki Wedding, Norma Rae, and Here Comes the Groom respectively). 



I blame Adele.  Ever since all my fellow critics went into orgasms over Skyfall, they'll let any old piece of crap win.  Here were all these critics saying how Skyfall was THE GREATEST SONG WRITTEN IN THE HISTORY OF ALL MANKIND, greater than Over the Rainbow, greater than Amazing Grace, greater than Goldfinger or Nobody Does It Better.  

I love Adele, but Skyfall was junk.  Its lyrics were inane ("So overdue I owed them".  Bet George & Ira Gershwin wish they could write such music).  It's also pretty much forgotten now.  People still remember Goldfinger and Nobody Does It Better and even A View to A Kill, but Skyfall?  Same with Writing's On the Wall.

I warned that Skyfall was terrible and that it won only because people LOVE Adele.  I similarly warned that Writing's On the Wall was even worse...and it went on to win.  Only this time, at least my fellow critics woke up and said it was terrible.  Wasn't enough to stop the crazy train from overtaking the Oscars.

At least the music department got SOMETHING right with Morricone's win.  At last the Legend gets a real Oscar.  So what if he doesn't speak English?  Seeing the dignified old man receive his well-deserved Oscar warmed my heart.  His elegant speech making special thanks to John Williams (the last great American film composer as far as I can tell) was beautiful and takes the sting out of DiCaprio's illegitimate win and Smith's horror.

That, and seeing Eddie Redmayne go down in flames. 

At least I have those.

Well, let's hope we get better songs next year, and movies as good as we got this year.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Big Short: A Review



THE BIG SHORT

It's been nearly eight years since the economy all but collapsed.  The Big Short, a film about how things got so far and about those who saw it (and made a tidy profit themselves off it), I found a little too smug for its own good.  It was a good movie, but something about it put me off of it for almost the whole running time.

Four different groups (with only two working in tandem) foresee that the housing market, once a rock-solid investment, is going to go under thanks to a near-total collusion between banks, credit ratings agencies, Wall Street in general, and the federal government.  First to see this is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who has a glass eye, loves heavy metal, and walks around his firm wearing t-shirts and occasionally shoes.  He takes his investors money to bet against the mortgage companies he foresees will collapse due to their excessively generous loans which they know cannot be paid back.  The banks, seeing him as a nut, eagerly take his money, confident they won't have to pay back.

Enter Jared Vennett (avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling), a trader who hears of Burry's mad idea...and realizes it's accurate.  He too wants in, and follows Burry's lead.  In this, he accidentally contacts the firm of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry man who finds everything about the economy and life in general to be immoral.  Baum sees for himself that the market cannot sustain the weight when he and his team travel to Miami to look into one particular bad set of mortgages.  They are all generally appalled that loans are handed out to people who clearly cannot afford them (two lenders bragging about how they target immigrants, and five loans given to strippers).  The thing is going to collapse, and Baum decides to go in on this if only to show how rotten the whole thing is.

Last is eager Colorado newbie traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who discover this scheme by accident.  They get their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get the money to put chips in the game.

Each of them starts playing a long game, convinced that by 2007 things will begin to fall apart.  Baum in particular is appalled at the greed, ineptness, and general thievery of the whole affair, culminating in the groups all coming to Las Vegas for a convention where people think the good times will keep on rolling, but finding instead the beginning of the end.  It isn't until Rickert points out to his two protégés, too enthusiastic about their killings, that what will happen is that the American economy will completely collapse, leading to other people's lost jobs, lost homes, even perhaps lost lives.

The collapse comes a little later than expected, thanks to the collusion of the credit ratings agencies who essentially sell out, giving AAA ratings to lumped-together mortgages that are really worthless.  When the collapse finally comes, Burry, Baum, and Geller/Shipley reap in fortunes (Vennett as well), but only Vennett remains unfazed by it all.  The others struggle with the fact that they know their fortune came from the misery of people who were robbed by Wall Street and that worse, those who did this got away with it.  Baum in particular does not want to profit but to serve as a prophet, refusing to sell until the very end, when he knows it's all over.



What kept me from being as enthusiastic about The Big Short as my fellow critics is director/co-writer Adam McKay's various decisions about the filming style.  McKay has characters break the fourth wall (avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling in particular, but there were others).  McKay has avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling introduce us to 'guest stars' to explain complicated financial concepts.  For example, to explain subprime mortgages and all the nonsense that goes with it, we turn to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath drinking champagne.  To explain synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), we go to Dr. Richard Thaler (father of behavioral finance)...and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. 

Somehow, these two decisions put me off The Big Short.  There just seemed to me to be something smug about all this, as if to tell the audience 'look, we know you are generally stupid, so we will make things easier for you by introducing people you know in overtly ridiculous situations to dumb it down for you'.  Obviously, people will only understand subprime if you get a hot woman in a bubble bath to explain it to you.  There is no other way to make it palatable. 

Perhaps I found this manner smug, condescending, even a bit cruel because the financial crisis is not a subject to laugh at for me.  Let me rephrase that: you can make a comedy out of the horrors of the meltdown, but can you be so blatant about it with things like Robbie in bubbles?  If they had been done sparingly, perhaps.  Three times...maybe not so much.

That was to me already weak, but McKay's decision to go for some sort of faux-documentary only made The Big Short look like an unhinged episode of The Office.  There is an obvious effort to make this look 'authentic', and that is attempted by moving the focus and by adding videos and clips that are hit and miss.  Playing Crazy while we hear of the fleecing of immigrants is a bit obvious, but the worse is when Baum finally opens up about his brother's suicide (which has haunted him for some time).  The audio gets drowned by music, and I simply don't understand why McKay went this route.

I think of all the education that I missed...
There was one moment of cleverness that I did admire (intentional or not).  That was in Melissa Leo's sole scene as Georgia, the Standard & Poor's ratings agency agent who is both metaphorically and literally almost blind to the oncoming storm. 

As we were getting a strange balance of comedy with drama the performances went in one direction: one-note.  They were well-hit notes (Bale as bonkers, Carell as angry, avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling as sleazy).  It doesn't take away that we rarely really got a good look at a whole person, just a series of figures that needed to be a particular type.

It isn't until near the end, when we see the collapse, that we shift tone to what I think I would like to have seen: a more straightforward drama, one that didn't need silly side notes like a bubble-bathing Robbie or a teen pop star explaining economics.  The horrors of the meltdown come into sharp focus, but at the same time, given how this group had little to no problem making money out of what they knew would be the misery of others, I can't fully embrace their turns of conscience.

In fact, that appears to be my difficulty with The Big Short.  I can't fully embrace it. Its efforts to be amusing make me wonder whether the tone fit the story.  I could never shake the sense of a certain smugness, a certain sense of superiority over the viewer the film seems to have.  Is it a good film?  Yes.  Is it one I would come back to?  No.      

DECISION: B-

Monday, February 22, 2016

Supergirl: Human For A Day Review



SUPERGIRL: HUMAN FOR A DAY

What a difference an episode makes!  Human For a Day might be the best Supergirl episode yet, especially after the disappointing Red Faced.  I normally find these 'crisis' episodes to be almost laughable (perhaps the fact that all I can picture is a strange version of the Charlton Heston/Ava Gardner film Earthquake, which my mother insists was remade as San Andreas).  However, a combination of a solid story with pitch-perfect performances from the regular and guest cast elevated Human For A Day into an absolutely top-notch episode that lifted Supergirl to greater heights.

Kara Danvers aka Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) is flabbergasted to see that she is bleeding.  In short, she is now without superpowers.  This is a result of using all that energy against Red Tomato, and this happens to Kryptonians on Earth whenever they face an especially powerful foe.  James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), friend to Superman, tells Kara that the Man of Steel calls it the 'solar flare'.  Even though Kara is assured that her powers should return in a few days, she is also fully aware that it has been more than the necessary time for them to have done so. 

The loss of her powers could not have come at an absolutely worse time, as National City is struck by a massive earthquake, one that causes Kara to break her arm (something she has never experienced, along with the cold that sends her home sick for the first time since she started at CatCo).  The earthquake would be the perfect time for Supergirl to sweep in and help, but she is still recovering and in no position to help.  Furthermore, her not-quite-nemesis Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli), who is busy handing out water and supplies while insisting to whoever can still see and hear him that things are as worse as they can get, is fully aware that Supergirl is in no condition to help.  Not that he is waiting around for her or the government to help (suggesting to my mind that Maxwell Lord is a Republican, but that's just speculation).  I think Lord even refers to Supergirl as a 'heroine for the welfare state' (or heroin for the welfare state, a counter to the opium of the masses that religion is suppose to be in Marxist ideology). 


Meanwhile, back at CatCo, Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) wants the power returned, like RIGHT NOW.  For that, she needs Witt...or Wick...or that guy who seems to know a lot about technology.  That would be "Winn" (Jeremy Jordan), the IT guy.  He manages, despite his nervousness at both the situation and the general terror Cat is, to manage to get a live feed from her office to broadcast a counter-message to Maxwell Lord's barrage of negativity.  Cat offers a message of hope, one telling the citizens of National City that Supergirl WILL return, but that they themselves are capable of doing superhuman deeds if they join together.

Kara is devastated after not being able to save someone.  However, James tells her that "no hero can save everyone...but a real hero never stops trying".  That would apply to a heroine too.  Despite herself, Kara dons the Supergirl outfit to stop a robbery in progress.  If the gunman fires, the bullets will not bounce off her, but she is willing to take that risk and hopes no one calls her bluff.  Hiding her broken arm, she attempts to talk the gunman out of doing his crime, and after a few tense moments, manages to do so.  James has been snapping photos of this, and they manage to make it back to CatCo to print them.

In the midst of this crisis, Winn FINALLY stands up for himself and makes it clear he isn't going to be eating his heart out while Kara continues pursuing James.  Winn is visibly upset when he catches them hugging, but still tells them that Supergirl can get her powers back by a Kryptonian version of an adrenaline rush.  She gets that when they attempt to save people trapped above them, and James begins to fall in the elevator shaft.  With her powers and confidence restored, Supergirl sweeps into National City, leaving a very flustered Maxwell to watch.

All that would be enough, but we get a subplot with Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), still suspicious of her boss, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood).  The earthquake knocked out power at the DEO temporarily, but enough to allow Jemm (Charles Halford), a powerful alien able to control minds, to escape.  His efforts to release the other prisoners makes up the bulk of that subplot, and we end with the revelation that Hank Henshaw is really J'onn J'onzz, better known as The Martian Manhunter, who took on Henshaw's appearance after Alex's father sacrificed himself to save him from the real Henshaw, who was bent on killing him.

It is really very strange that the subplot of Alex and Henshaw is almost an afterthought given just how much material there was with Kara and her own struggles. The revelation of The Martian Manhunter would be enough to make any episode stand out.  However, for me, Human For A Day was really about Kara and her realization that she does have powers, even when she doesn't have superpowers.  The whole episode isn't just about how Kara has no superpowers and is 'human for a day', but that she in a sense has been granted her wish to be like everyone else and is 'human for a day'.  She finds that her identity as Supergirl cannot be stripped from her identity as Kara.  She is both Kara and Supergirl, and she should embrace that, even if it means certain sacrifices.

Oh, Melissa Benoist.  I think we all can say you are the absolutely BEST actress to play this Supergirl.  Girls rightly will look up to your interpretation, because you not only make the Girl of Steel into a strong character, but you also make Kara a wonderful person: bright, optimistic, and in her own way, as strong as a Kryptonian.  You embody in Supergirl the truth of what James said: heroes (or heroines) aren't made because of their powers, but out of their ability to keep trying.

We also got a great performance out of Flockhart, who has surprisingly managed to balance the humor of Cat with a more serious persona lurking beneath the bitchy exterior.  Her dismissive nature towards Winn (whom she genuinely cannot remember his name) is deadpan comedy as she keeps getting his name wrong.  However, her speech about how we can be heroes...if just for one day (RIP, David Bowie) gives Cat more depth than we guessed she was capable of way back in the pilot.  Jordan too was great as Winn, covering the humor his character has with genuine anger and hurt at how too often he is tossed aside for the hunkier Olsen.  I was proud to see him stand up for himself. 

We got great performance out of Facinelli, who provided the yang to Kara and Cat's yin.  He didn't come across as evil, but in his own way rational and even angry at how people look to outsiders for strength and comfort when they should be looking at themselves (or perhaps, at him).  Even the mostly wishy-washy Brooks/Olsen had a strong moment when he rallies Kara.

All this in the midst of the Martian Manhunter revelation and the hunt in the DEO?  The dual speeches of Cat and Supergirl about hope and not giving in to despair were not just wonderful in their own right, but well-edited to make a cohesive whole.

I enjoyed Human For A Day.  It felt epic and grand and intimate too.  All the elements balanced together, and even the reintroduction of Supergirl's evil Aunt Astra did not diminish the entire thing.  Everything just worked well, and Human For A Day shows what can happen when we allow the Girl of Steel to rise.   

9/10

Next Episode: Hostile Takeover

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Supergirl: Red Faced Review



SUPERGIRL: RED FACED

As we have, for the moment, skipped How Does She Do It?, we move on to Red Faced, a Supergirl episode that left me almost despairing at how the series is going.  If it weren't for Melissa Benoist's still magnificent turn as The Girl of Steel, I would have ranked Red Faced lower than I already did.  SHE made the episode.  SHE was worth watching.  Everything else was kind of blah.

Kara Danvers/Supergirl (Benoist) is having major anger-management issues.  She finds that trying to balance both lives, and the issues that come with those, are making her more short-tempered, down to in a shocking moment, actually snapping back at her boss, uber-bitch Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart).  Oddly, Cat is actually not insulted when Kara tells her off.  Instead, she takes her to a bar where Cat get sloshed and tells Kara that she has to 'find the anger behind the anger'.

Kara and her alter ego has a lot to be angry over.  Supergirl has been corralled into doing the military's business by testing Red Tornado, the new military machine created by 'mad scientist' T.O. Morrow (both played by Iddo Goldberg).

As a side note, through the episode I kept inadvertently referring to him as "Red Tomato".  Take that as you will.

Neither Supergirl or DEO officers Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) or Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) want Supergirl involved in this, but the blustery General Sam Lane (Glenn Morshower) has a Presidential order, and if they object, they can take it up with her (hard to NOT see that as a Hillary Clinton for President plug, but let's leave it at that).  Also involved in these war games is his daughter, Major Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan Tatum), who just happens to be the girlfriend of Kara's crush James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks).  Talk about anger issues.  Well, Supergirl IS able to defeat Red Tomato, but he gets huffy and runs off.  Adding insult to injury, General Lane is angry at Supergirl and blames her for essentially doing what she was asked to do.  Granted, she was highly angry when she did it, but there it is.  Morrow is dismissed for HIS incompetence.

Running around is Maxwell Lord (Peter Facinelli), who continues to see Supergirl as a menace and plays hot and cold with Alex about helping track down Red Tomato.  No worries, as he appears to have become sentient and is going on a rampage (which by the way, is spoiling the dinner between James, Lucy, and General Pandemonium).  We learn that Red Tomato is actually not sentient, but being controlled by Morrow, who is out to finish his job with his machine.  However, Henshaw makes the announcement that Red Tomato was actually created to destroy Kryptonians, the General still suspicious of Supergirl's more famous cousin.

At the end of all this mayhem, with Supergirl using all her powers to defeat Red Tomato with help from the DEO, she finds that for the first time in her life, Kara is bleeding and pervious to pain...


Frankly, I'm not buying just about anything in Red Faced.   Lucy Lane, a Major?!  Since when did THIS pop up?  I don't think we got any indication that she was involved with the military, and while I never served I was unaware that the Army allowed General's daughters to be so involved in Daddy Projects.  It also makes me wonder how she never let on to this development all the time she was with James.

Maybe it's me, but I really cannot see Lois Lane being the General's daughter, but again, I'm not well-versed in Superman lore.

Red Tomato a.) seems a weak villain and b.) is yet another 'freak-of-the-week' enemy that is dispensed with quickly (and I was a bit puzzled by whether Alex actually killed Morrow, let alone whether she shot him in the head).  It was a little blurry and confusing.

Further, the difficultly between Lucy, James, and General Pandemonium seemed like it came from another show altogether (Olsen: The Series).  Isn't this whole 'military man disapproves of his daughter's boyfriend' business something we've seen before, or again, it is me?  It doesn't help that Morshower played Sam Lane as the stereotypical military character: bossy, blustery, bullying. 

And I am STILL not sold on "Major Lucy Lane".

About the only real good things in Red Faced were some of the cast and the general theme of 'the rage within'.  Benoist is still the best thing about Supergirl: her dual role really going to a higher level.  It was shocking but empowering to see her finally tell Cat to stop being so mean to her, and even more empowering when we see her using a car for a punching bag, releasing the 'anger behind the anger'.  Flockhart still has that "Devil Wears Prada" manner to Cat Grant, but a.) that's how the character is written, and b.) Flockhart does allow the human side to slip through.  The interplay between Flockhart's Cat and Joan Juliet Buck's Katherine Grant, Mother from Hell, was amusing without being too outlandish.  Flockhart allows a very slight sense of hurt when her mother cancels a dinner to go slum it with Toni Morrison at the last minute. 


Another highlight is Jeremy Jordan as Winn Schott, who here is roped into helping the Danvers Sisters investigate the story of their father's disappearance & death.  His role is small this episode, but he makes the most of it. 

In fact, Jordan's performance makes it clear that Schott is not only truly in love with Kara, not Supergirl, but that he is the far better choice than the hunkier (and taller) Olsen.  It's almost a frustrating puzzle to understand why Kara continues to make googly-eyes at Olsen when Winn is on many levels better.  He, unlike James, is actually available and not ambivalent about his feelings for Kara.  Winn is also someone who would have no or little problem living with Kara/Supergirl.  In fact, he would be more encouraging and supportive to Supergirl's career as a superheroine than any other man.

Part of it I imagine would be a bit of fanboying, but most of it is because he actually is in love with her.  Therefore, Kara's constant inability to appreciate how good Winn would be for her is now more than frustrating.

This is especially true given how patient he is with Kara's near-obsession with James. Even Cat tells Kara point-blank that the whole office sees how Kara throws herself at James (and this despite James' on-again relationship with Lucy). I actually wrote in my notes "Choose Winn, Choose Winn". 

I am officially #TeamWinn.

I was not impressed by Red Tomato.  I was bored by the Lucy/Sam/James story.  I was intrigued by the Maxwell Lord aspect (we're getting a mystery with his parents, and while he is still a guest star my sense is that Facinelli is going to be more recurring than guest star).  Again, apart from Benoist (who excelled in the episode), I found a lot about Red Faced that I could easy leave.


6/10

Next Episode: Human For A Day

Friday, February 19, 2016

Separation of Church and Fifth Estate: Spotlight Review


SPOTLIGHT

They all knew. 

The scandal of child abuse by Catholic priests in the United States would not have come to light if not for a group of journalists determined to get at the truth.  Spotlight, the film based on the Boston Globe investigation of the Church's handling of pedophile priests, is sparse, direct, and straightforward.  It is a sharp film that does not sensationalize the issue and which gives an intelligent version of the events as they occurred.

The new Boston Globe editor, Marty Baron (Liev Shrieber) is not a native Bostonian or a Catholic, two things that make him stand out in a community where the Church is a powerful entity. He looks at what all the various departments are doing, and one story catches his eye: that of  a lawyer who says that Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Catholic Church, knew that disgraced priest Father John Geoghan was abusing children and did nothing about it.  Despite misgivings and a thinly veiled hostility to the outsider, Baron instructs the Spotlight team (the in-house investigative reporting team known to spend months on one story) to look into the case.  One Spotlight member, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) goes to that lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to see if he will cooperate, up to letting them interview survivors.  The Spotlight head, Walter Robinson, better known as Robby (Michael Keaton), along with Spotlight member Sasha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) work another angle, looking into how outside lawyers helped keep things hush-hush.  The final Spotlight member, Matt Carroll (Michael D'Arcy James), also investigates the case.

As the investigation goes on, the Spotlight team puts various pieces together.  The survivors tell their stories, and the head of a survivor's support group, Phil Saviano (Neil Huff) who had gone to the Globe years before but essentially dismissed as an angry man with an ax to grind, helps point them in the right direction.  Soon, Spotlight starts seeing a particularly ugly pattern: priest who were put on 'sick leave' or were 'unassigned' were actually the same ones being moved around or sent to 'treatment centers', and more perniciously, the same ones whom survivors named as abusers.  The Catholic Church, in order to protect itself, would hear reports of sexually abusive priests (who would go after boys and girls), tell the families this was just a 'bad apple' and rather than dismiss them or go to the police, simply take them out of circulation for a while and put them in another parish, where the perverts would strike again.  This shady shifting had been going on for decades, and not only did the Church know, but so did the police, the attorneys, and even the newspapers (the Globe publishing reports but not following up or making the connections).

After a lot of hurdles, reluctance to take on the Church, and September 11th drawing attention away from this story, the Spotlight team, with the approval of both Baron and editor Ben Bradee, Jr. (John Slattery), finally publish the first of a series of articles on the Catholic Church in Boston knowing about the pedophile priests and not only not doing anything about it, but being complicit in the cover-up and ongoing abuse.  The Globe expects massive pushback from the Catholic community in Boston, but instead is astonished to be flooded with calls to the Spotlight tip-line for those who have information on the case.



What makes Spotlight such a good film is director Tom McCarthy's decision to focus squarely on the story in a deliberately paced and unflashy manner.  Comparisons to All the President's Men are warranted, as both films do not delve into other matters outside the workplace.  You had little hints about the character's private lives: Sasha taking her Nana to church, ending that part with Nana asking for a glass of water while reading the Globe story, her granddaughter visibly nervous about her reaction, Rezendes' potentially failing marriage.  However, those things played on the sidelines and never interrupted the flow of the story. 

Also, there is not a big dramatic moment where everyone realizes everything.  Instead, the story builds on itself, each piece of the puzzle being put together and things starting to come to them piecemeal.  Even when they get shocking news (such as when Sasha finds one of the abusive priests, who bizarrely keeps repeating that he never got any pleasure out of it and that he never raped any boy because HE had been raped and 'knows the difference'), there is no big dramatic performance or overwhelming music to give us the emotional cues. 

As a side note, there is a score by Howard Shore, but this was piano-based, in keeping with the minimalist nature of the film, which was both a good score and a good decision by director/co-writer McCarthy (writing with Josh Singer).

McCarthy got great performances out of a great cast.  McAdams' Sasha is not a crusader, but a pound-paving reporter who sees her job and does it, while showing the appropriate compassion to one of the adult survivors (a man who as a boy knew he was gay and who was taken advantage of due to that by a priest).  Keaton is solid as Robbie, who realizes too late he too had a piece at least a decade earlier but did not do a folo. 

Another side note: one of the great things about Spotlight is that people can use in-house lingo like 'folo' (short for "follow-up") or "Lake Street" (a euphemism for the Catholic Church) without getting lost or not understanding what's being said.

Even Schriber, whom I'm seeing as the wooden actor my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who is very much alive), lets his usual stiff manner work on his behalf as the main editor who sees things more clearly as the outsider than the natives do.

Ruffalo is good though when he becomes insistent that they run the story sooner than Robbie or Bradlee want I thought that was a trifle too much.  I also thought the scene where we hear children sing Silent Night while they continue getting interviews and evidence was also a trifle much, a bit of gilding the lily. I get the connection between innocent children singing about silence and the birth of the Savior as this group digs into the sins of the Mother Church, but a little symbolism goes a long way.  Too much of it...not so much.

Spotlight is an incredibly sharp and intelligent film about the evils an entity can do, and about how the willing silence of the community kept it going.  It speaks to how diligence and dogged tenacity get the job done.  It is about how important the press and newspapers in particular still are.  The Fourth Estate continues to be a vital force, a necessary force, and Spotlight does it immense credit.

Yes, they all knew, but when truth was spoken, the truth set them free.

DECISION: B+

2016 Best Picture: Moonlight

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Supergirl: How Does She Do It? Review



SUPERGIRL: HOW DOES SHE DO IT?

Author's Note: Due to the Supergirl schedule switch How Does She Do It?, which would have been the fourth episode, was broadcast fifth after Livewire, which would have followed it if things had stayed the same.  This confusion I think led to How Does She Do It? NOT being recorded on my DVR, the system thinking it was a repeat and as such skipping it.  I am working on finding a way to watch it without paying (as it is not available on the CBS website).  For the moment, there is no official review for How Does She Do It? and we will be moving on to the succeeding episode Red Faced.  I am posting this brief note which will be amended once the episode is actually seen.   RA: 2/18/16

Next Episode: Red Faced

Supergirl: Livewire Review



SUPERGIRL: LIVEWIRE

If the Thanksgiving-themed Supergirl episode Livewire confused you, believe me, it wasn't just you.  Blame ISIS.

When I caught up to this episode, I was a bit lost by some of the dialogue, especially since the DVR had another episode listed (How Does She Do It?), and Livewire did not match the story synopsis at all.  Furthermore, one of the characters discussed another character that, if we went by what we'd seen before, we hadn't met yet.  The reason for this confusion is simple: Livewire was substituted for How Does She Do It? after ISIS launched the Paris attacks.  Supergirl producers felt the plot of How Does She Do It? was too similar to the attacks to air so close to them, so a switch was made with How Does She Do It? airing later.  This in a certain way is understandable: Doctor Who did something similar with Robot of Sherwood, when a quick shot of someone's head getting cut off was itself cut after ISIS video of another of their beheadings was released.

Supergirl's decision to air another episode in place of How Does She Do It? I think was a bad one.  Continuity is so important on this show, and while Livewire doesn't wreck it, it does have the effect of making things slightly confusing.  I think it might have been better just to air a repeat or not aired anything at all, but the decision was theirs.  As for Livewire itself, we're still stuck in the 'freak-of-the-week' mode, but with some new character development and a mystery that will make things more interesting.

Kara Danvers aka Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) and her sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) are facing perhaps their greatest challenge ever: Thanksgiving with their mother, Eliza (guest star and original Supergirl Helen Slater).  Alex is very worried that she will get blamed for Kara's identity being revealed, while Kara just worries.  Kara also invites her platonic friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan) to join them for Thanksgiving dinner after learning he is going to be alone.  She would have invited the hunky James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), but he's going with his former ex Lucy Lane (Jenna Dewan Tatum).  So much for that idea.

Kara's good spirits are also tested by shock-jock Leslie Willis (Brit Morgan), a former protégé of Kara's boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) who is openly hostile to the 'adorkable' Supergirl.  Unbeknown to Kara, Cat has gone to Leslie and made it specifically clear she is not to criticize Supergirl on-air.  When Leslie refuses, Cat immediately demotes her to a helicopter traffic reporter until she learns her lesson.

As it happens, on her first flight Leslie's helicopter gets trapped in a thunderstorm.  Supergirl saves the pilot first and then goes for Leslie, but a thunderbolt strikes her as she is pulling Leslie, causing electricity to run through her body.  Leslie is in a coma, but when she awakes, she discovers she has new powers, powers she will use to enact a terrible revenge.


Thanksgiving dinner is like all Thanksgiving dinners: a disaster.  The Danvers fight over both Supergirl and Alex's work with the DEO, which Eliza was unaware of.  For better or worse, Kara gets called away to work by Cat, who finds her Internet all down.  It's down because Leslie, now calling herself Livewire, is attacking.  Attempting to kill Cat, Supergirl manages to intervene.  She even gets help from Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), DEO head masquerading as an FBI agent.  Supergirl and Cat join forces to draw Livewire out and capture her, which they do though not without a struggle.

Back now at home, Alex and Eliza reconcile and Eliza makes a shocking revelation: their father Jeremiah (guest star Dean Cain, one of our most recent Supermen from Lois & Clark) took Kara's place when DEO agents came to their home.  The agent seeking Kara?  A certain Hank Henshaw.  Now the girls want to know what is going on....


What more me made Livewire a good, almost great episode is Flockhart of all things.  In the past episodes, Cat Grant has veered towards to if not actually become a cartoonish character, the bitch whose sole purpose is to look down on all.  However, Livewire clearly gave us a whole new Cat.  She was still outwardly mean and dismissive, but we saw that she does have a heart, and a soft one at that (and a wounded one too). 

First, we see it in her lecture to Leslie that she does see Supergirl perhaps as a champion for women's equality, someone able, like her, to stand on equal terms with the boys.  She does not want her disparaged (or at least not let anyone else do the disparaging).  Second, we see it when she reluctantly goes to visit her former protégé in the hospital.  Out of Kara's earshot, Cat whispers words of encouragement, urging Leslie to come out of her coma.  Third and most important, we see it in her long scenes pre-and-post Livewire attack.  Cat expresses a loneliness, what with Carter with his father and her mother mercifully out of the way.  When she learns that Kara's parents died in a fire (well, technically true but...), we see Cat has actual genuine concern over this.

I find it incredible and wonderful that Livewire took the time to soften Cat Grant into someone actually human, her brusque manner a shield to guard herself against all.  It's clear her "Devil Wears Prada" persona is a bit of an act (I say bit because she still is somewhat unpleasant), but that she can be toned down.

I am glad that Slater and to a lesser degree Cain are allowed to be part of the Supergirl mythos rather than just clever in-jokes to cameo on the show.  We forget that we are seeing the original Supergirl and one of the recent Superman actors.  Instead, we see the characters, and Slater in particular does a wonderful job as the flawed mother.  Her scene with Leigh as Eliza and Alex reconcile, with Eliza telling her natural daughter that to her, she was her 'supergirl' is so moving and wonderful and well-acted by both.  Cain had a smaller role as we saw him only in flashbacks, but he was the strong father both girls needed.

Speaking of flashbacks, the scenes with the younger Alex and Kara were equally wonderful, giving us insight into the love & sibling rivalry both girls had.  We got a real family dynamic that works so well. 

With regards to the other performers, Jordan's take on Winn makes one wonder why Kara would make googly-eyes at James when Winn is obviously perfect for her. He is wonderful and funny and genuinely in love with Kara (not Supergirl), yet here she is, almost painfully oblivious to it.  In this bizarre love triangle, I'm firmly on #TeamWinn.  Morgan is having the time of her life vamping it up as Livewire, one of those deliciously evil characters.

Which is why I register mild disappointment that she was defeated so quickly.  I would have liked it if she had been defeated, but managed to escape.  It all seemed to rush so quickly, and I for one am getting tired of seeing pretty much the same thing: villain pops up, Supergirl fights him/her, gets knocked down, has rematch and wins. 

The fact episodes were switched did make one or two things confusing, particularly when Cat talks about 'Carter' (who we will find is her son).  Given we have yet to technically be introduced to Carter, it's hard to understand.  We can fill in things, but it still is a bit puzzling.

I'm knocking a point off merely because of the somewhat repetitive nature of the threats Supergirl has been facing.  However, with a new mystery coming at us and an especially impressive turn by Flockhart, Livewire continues to make Supergirl great television.


7/10

Next Episode: How Does She Do It?

Brooklyn: A Review



BROOKLYN

Who would figure that good, old-fashioned romances were still being made in Hollywood?  Brooklyn, based on the novel, could with some minor alterations have fit in perfectly in the same era where another New York-based love story (The Clock) took place.  Brooklyn, technically, takes a place approximately a decade after the Judy Garland/Robert Walker tearjerker, but it follows The Clock's method of making the city (or in this case, the borough) into the centerpiece of a true love story. The brilliance of Brooklyn is in its simplicity and universality, for whether native-born (as I and my father were) or immigrant (as my mother was) everyone can relate to someone starting over, finding love, and struggling between their roots and their wings.

Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), pronounced "Ellish", is an Irish girl with a generally unhappy future to look forward to in the Emerald Isle.  Working at a small shop run by the disagreeable Mrs. Kelly (Brid Brennan), she finds prospects dim.  However, there is hope in that she has been sponsored to work in America, New York specifically.  This upcoming journey however, fills her with more sadness than joy, as it means leaving her recently widowed mother (Jane Brennan) and sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who helped get her that sponsorship from the Catholic Church.  Despite the intense loneliness and sadness over leaving her loved ones and everything she knows, Eilis sails to the New World.

Finding new digs at a home for single girls run by the stern but loving Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), Eilis is the only girl who is respectful, efficient, and not prone to scandal: in short, not Americanized.  However, she is not adjusting well to her new job at Bartocci's, the upmarket department store she is a salesgirl atE.  Her sadness and openly sad manner worries and despairs the management, and to help comes Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who was instrumental in helping Eilis come to America.  He helps her by enrolling her in a bookkeeping course to advance and inviting her to the Irish community center the Church runs.  The center hosts a Christmas party for other Irish immigrants, where a Gaelic song breaks her heart. 

The center also hosts dances, and soon Eilis starts adjusting to her new American life, though she still struggles.  At one of these dances, a new young man catches her eye as much as she has caught him.  Tony (Emory Cohen) is unlike the other boys at the Irish community center.  The fact that his name is Tony Fiorello should be a clue.  He's at least a second if not a third-generation Italian-American, a real Brooklyn guy from a big Italian family who is a plumber.  He likes Irish girls, and he likes Eilis.  Soon, they start courting, and I say courting because they are taking things very slow, with Tony being gentle about his approach.  They agree to movies on Wednesdays and dances on Saturday, and eventually he invites her to meet his very large family, down to his youngest brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo), who is the definition of 'precocious'.

They fall in love, and Eilis even manages to write to Rose with a more positive view.  She's no longer homesick, and she manages to enjoy Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field (being Italian and from Brooklyn, Tony OBVIOUSLY loves baseball & the Dodgers).  However, just as Eilis is adjusting to life and finding that perhaps she can bridge Ireland and America, she gets simply horrible news: Rose has died suddenly.  Before she goes to comfort her mother and pay her respects, she gives in to the pleasures of the flesh and agrees to marry Tony in secret.  She sails back home as Mrs. Eilis Fiorello (though no one back in Eire knows this, well, almost no one).

Now back in Ireland, she extends her stay to see her best friend married.  There, she is introduced to Jim Farrell (Domhall Gleeson), the Irish rugby player she vaguely knew before she left.  At first cold and dismissive (which puzzle the town), Eilis slowly starts to warm to Jim, who is not a rough-and-tumble jock but a shy, gentle man who is from a wealthy family.  They do see each other socially, but Eilis has given no indication of being unfaithful or even of being untrue to Tony (completely unaware).  Soon, she is volunteered to take over Rose's job, and despite herself finds she is slipping into a comfortable life in the Emerald Isle.  Eilis soon begins to wonder what she is to do.  She is ambivalent and unsure where her heart truly lies: Ireland or Brooklyn.  Where IS home?  It isn't until Mrs. Kelly returns, attempting to blackmail Eilis for reasons unknown that settles things for Eilis.  With some fear, she declares herself Mrs. Eilis Fiorello of Brooklyn, tells her mother the truth, and leaves for Tony...and home.



I think the best way to describe Brooklyn is that it is a love letter.  It is a love letter to America: the opportunity to begin and move forward despite your background.  It is a love letter to the immigrant experience: the struggles of leaving everything you know and slowly finding your place in the New World.  It is a love letter to romance: the joys of finding love despite the differences in background.  Brooklyn is about love in so many forms, of finding your place and being true to yourself.

What makes Brooklyn such a beautiful and remarkable film is, well, everything.  We start with the performances.  Saoirse Ronan is simply breathtaking and beautiful as Eilis, letting her eyes and face reveal so much.  When she hears the Gaelic song at Christmas, Ronan displays the longing and heartbreak of Eilis without having to say anything.  Same goes for her scenes at the shop: early on when she tries to be happy and cannot be, and later when she finds that love lifts all moods.  When she learns of Rose's death, your heart just breaks for Eilis. 

Ronan gives such a beautiful performance throughout that she makes us not just care about Eilis, but understand why she struggles with the decision of whether to go with Tony or Jim.  It never feels like she is quick to drop Tony or be cruel to Jim.  Instead, we see just how the pull of home and security can draw her away from the insecurity of Brooklyn.  We fall in love with her.

Same goes for both Cohen and Gleeson.  I was amazed at how well Gleeson played Jim, this gentle, good man who falls for Eilis.  I thought he was pretty exaggerated in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but here we get to see Gleeson as an actual actor, not a virtual cartoon.  We can see how Eilis could be drawn to him.  Cohen as the small, scrappy Italian-American came across as endearing and gentle but also a regular guy, one we can relate to.  He never pushes Eilis, and in his own way is hesitant about his romance.  The scenes between Cohen and Ronan are filled with great love and romance that just moves you.

Brooklyn also allows moments of comedy, courtesy of DiGiacomo's openly honest Frankie.  He's brash, outspoken, and delightful.  Director John Crowley balances the comedy and drama, and this is from allowing the story to carry things.

Perhaps the only real flaw I can find is that Rose's death is a bit confusing.  It took a while to figure out it was due to an undisclosed illness, but it came across perhaps as a suicide.  Further, when we saw Rose, we got no indication that Rose was in any way ill, at least that I noticed.  That is a small detail though, as Brooklyn is such a beautifully made film that it will make one fall in love: with America, with your roots (whatever they may be), with the one you're with or want to be with. 

I love Brooklyn: a lush romance that makes one joyful about the state of cinema.                  

DECISION: A-

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

All Unhappy Families Are Alike: Ordinary People Review



ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

Ordinary People is a curious film, curious in that in many respects, it is pretty, well, ordinary.  This family drama about death and guilt and emotion is by no means a great film, but it isn't a lousy one either.  It has at least two if not three excellent performances, but apart from that what I saw was if not a Lifetime Movie Channel production at least something that the Hallmark Hall of Fame could have done with equal respectability (if not with any swearing as Ordinary People has).  Ordinary People is a film that I think has lost some of the shock it might have had in 1980 (the biggest being the sweet image of Mary Tyler Moore as a cold, brittle mother), and again, it is so ordinary, so simple, that in retrospect it begs the question, "Why?"

It also doesn't help that they are hardly 'ordinary'.

The Jarrett Family is a cold little family, but with reason.  These WASPs have endured over the course of a few years the death of their oldest son, Buck, in a boating accident, and the attempted suicide of their younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton).  As far as Conrad's parents Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and Calvin (Donald Sutherland) are concerned, things should go as normally as they can.  Beth especially is firm on her belief that things are fine, no problems, Conrad's act more an odd eccentricity that should not be discussed.  Calvin for his part wants nothing BUT emotion, to get things out in the open.  Conrad, who after Buck's death and his suicide attempt has lost pretty much the passion for living (and for the swim team that no longer brings him joy) feels condemned to move on in a zombie-like state, living but not alive.

Into Conrad's life enter two people: a fellow student, Janine (Elizabeth McGovern) to whom Conrad is attracted to, and Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsh), the psychiatrist who is the most un-psychiatric psychiatrist ever.  The Jewish Berger must seem from another world to the WASP Jarrett clan, and soon the good doctor works to get Conrad to understand that Buck's death isn't his fault.


Of course, this doesn't help Beth at all.  It's clear she favored Buck (to where one suspects that if it had been Conrad and not Buck who died, she would have been fine with that).  Beth works to show a good front over all this: Buck's death, Conrad's troubles, attempting to be the perfect family.  Calvin is caught in the middle: trying to understand his son while keeping peace with his wife.  Beth is obviously angry at the world for her favorite son's death, and for Conrad's 'weakness'.  The two of them then begin a cold war: her frigidness and wound-up persona to his deep emotional turbulence. 

Eventually, things come to a head when Conrad is finally able to let go of the guilt over Buck's death, but now Calvin confronts Beth after they return from a trip to visit family in Houston.  Calvin wonders whether Beth truly loves him, or Conrad, or anyone.  She decides she needs to leave the family she's worked so hard to present as perfect, but in the privacy of her bedroom, the façade she had cracks just a tiny bit, a tear bursting out.  She leaves Chicago, with Calvin not loving her anymore, but Father and Son tell each other they do love each other, hugging it out long before the term was used.

Again, I can't fault Ordinary People for being well-made, well-acted, and well-directed.  Robert Redford expanded his abilities to guiding three extremely strong and powerful performances.  There is something brilliantly sad about Hutton's Conrad, the young man struggling with the mix of guilt and anger.  Hutton's angry young man is also a very deep and mournful one, one who is overwhelmed not just with survivor's guilt but with the sense (not without evidence) that his own mother genuinely does not love him.  Hutton gives us Conrad's anger and fear and growing sense of hope with his relationship with Jeannine.

The real standout of the film though it Moore as Beth.  This is Laura Petrie.  This is Mary Richards.  This is the girl who can turn the world on with her smile as we've never seen her before: as the cold and mostly heartless bitch.  I say mostly because Redford, in his directing, gives us little clues that Beth in her own way is a very broken woman.  In the film Conrad comes into the Buck's room to discover Beth there, and it is clear she is not happy about her other son coming in unannounced at what is obviously her private grieving.  By the end of the film, we do get the sense that Beth truly hates her own son: for the weakness of his suicide attempt (which she is sure her other son would not have done) and perhaps with the fact that that it was Buck and not Conrad who had died.  Maybe she blames Conrad for his death and has never verbalized it.  Maybe Buck's death has killed all love within her, a silent rage about the injustice of it all. 

What is brilliant about Moore's performance is that despite how awful she is, we see that Beth does attempt to be human.  She, however, is too bound up by appearances to do so, until the end, when we see the breakdown, ever so small, when she decides to leave.  It's more than Moore just breaking away from her sunny persona.  It's her showing what an amazing talent she is.

Yes, let me say Mary Tyler Moore more than merits a Kennedy Center Honor.  Sorry, Led Zeppelin.

Joining her as a strong KCH candidate is Donald Sutherland, who for reasons no one will be able to explain was the only major cast member NOT nominated for an Oscar in Ordinary People (for the record, as of today he has yet to receive an Oscar nomination...while Jonah Hill has two.  Think on that for a moment).  His Calvin is the confused, slightly flummoxed father and husband, attempting to understand these two different and warring sides and realizing that he cannot remain neutral.



Given how good all the performances were, why then am I as cold towards Ordinary People as the Jarretts are towards the world?  Perhaps it is because sometimes the symbolism is openly heavy-handed (such as when Beth insists that a broken family plate can be fixed when it clearly cannot, the very nature of her inability to fix her broken family so, SO clear).  Perhaps it is how talk-heavy the film is.  All these people ever want to do is TALK, and while I'm not opposed to talking for goodness' sake, sometimes people can bore others with all their talk of how they feel. 

I will admit that not being a particularly emotional person myself I am not the first to get all touchy-feely about things.

Perhaps it is how the story is really clichéd and melodramatic, going through all its predictable beats in an orderly fashion.  Not having read Guest's novel, I figure this story of WASP suffering is not one taught along with Huckleberry Finn or Murder on the Orient Express.  It was meant to be a tearjerker, but really: Bucky?  Conrad?  Somehow, despite the film's best efforts, I still was a little removed from the suffering of the Jarretts (especially since they themselves refused to acknowledge it save for Conrad).

Again, after seeing Ordinary People, the story itself is I think predictable and something a bit melodramatic, something you'd find in a Lifetime Movie (at least not one involving a 'woman in peril').  It's not a bad movie by any means.  It's well-acted, well-directed, and moves, a bit glacially at times but at least towards a conclusion.  However, in the pantheon of GREAT FILMS, its very plainness makes it nothing particularly special and...yes, ordinary.

BUCKY LIVES!
  

   

DECISION: C+

1981 Best Picture: Chariots of Fire

Monday, February 15, 2016

Julius Caesar (1970): A Review



JULIUS CAESAR (1970)

Yep, the poster has it right: Julius Caesar can rightly boast a stellar cast!  Think of it: Charlton Heston!  Jason Robards! John Gielgud!  Diana Rigg!  Robert Vaughn!  OK, maybe we're stretching things now, but one can't argue with the impressive collection of actors rounded up for this stab at Shakespeare (no pun intended).  As longtime readers know, I LOVE The Bard, so any adaptation (even contemporary ones like 10 Things I Hate About You) get my attention.  Julius Caesar has some impressive cinematic decisions, and one very bizarre performance (one of the reasons explaining as to why the film failed in its release).  I think time has been kinder to this Julius Caesar and that a major reevaluation should be taken.   Granted, I have not seen the 1953 version and suspect it is better, but I'm not judging the 1953 version.  I'm judging the 1970 version, and that version is pretty good (though not without one of its most infamous flaws).

The mighty Julius Caesar (Sir John Gielgud) has returned in triumph from the wars in Spain.  His loyal friend Marc Antony (Charlton Heston) urges the crown of a king, but Caesar will not take it.  However, Casca (Robert Vaughn), who witnessed this, informs Caesar's best friend Brutus (Jason Robards) and Caesar's enemy Cassius (Richard Johnson) that each time he seemed more and more reluctant to refuse it.  As far as Cassius is concerned, Caesar plans to be made King, an affront to the idea of the Roman Republic.  He soon gathers himself a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, but pushes for Brutus to join in.  Eventually, Brutus does so to save the Republic from tyranny.

Caesar meanwhile, will not listen to the warnings of his wife Calpurnia (Jill Bennett) nor the Soothsayer who calls out to Caesar to 'beware the Ides of March'.  At first, Calpurnia's dreams dissuade Caesar from going to the Senate, but he is persuaded back into going.  There, Great Caesar falls after a volley of stabs, with Brutus' being 'the most unkindest cut of all'. 

After the assassination, the conspirators do not hide.  In fact, they claim to have done it for the most noble of reasons.  Over Cassius' objections, Brutus allows Marc Antony to speak at Caesar's funeral, but cannot speak against them.  Brutus at first gets the crowd on the conspirators' side with his speech, but when Marc Antony takes his turn with his "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" monologue, the crowd becomes so enraged that they pursue the conspirators.  Now forced to flee, they attempt to make war, with Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar (Richard Chamberlain) joining forces. 

At war, Cassius 'betrays' the cause by taking bribes, and only Brutus maintains his morality of his actions.  All the conspirators are vanquished, but Brutus (being an honorable man) commits suicide by falling on his sword, and Marc Antony mourns the loss of this, "the noblest Roman of them all".

If anything sinks Julius Caesar from being as good as it could be, it is Jason Robards inexplicably bad performance as Brutus (whom I think the play is really about). As far as I read the play, it is Brutus' internal conflict between his personal love for Caesar and his beliefs about the evils of tyranny that should be the driving force.  With that, why was Robards allowed to give such a cold, unemotional performance?  He is exactly the same whether he is being drawn into the conspiracy or attempting to hide it from his wife Portia (Diana Rigg).  Brutus is more blank than conflicted, and given that Robards was an extremely good actor (one of a handful of people to win back-to-back Academy Awards, both for playing real people), it is breathtaking to see how bad, how wooden, how emotionally removed he is from everything.

There is simply no sense of passion of any kind in Brutus, and it is a failure of both Robards and director Stuart Burge that Robards was allowed to be so frightfully bad.  Jason Robards' performance in Julius Caesar should be watched if only in a 'Don't Let This Happen to You' type of study.



Fortunately, Burge managed to do other things right that offset the Robards bungle.  Julius Caesar I think should permanently put to rest the idea that Charlton Heston was in any way shape or form a bad actor or worse, someone who could not act.  Sure, Heston gave bad performances, but what actor has not?  It takes a great deal of skill to hold our attention for as long as Heston does with the "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech, and one is amazed at how well Heston holds the screen through a very long performance.  Antony's fury at seeing Caesar's corpse rises slowly, until he finds himself determined to 'cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war' is quite impressive.  Let's face it: Charlton Heston outacted Jason Robards.

There are also fine performances from Sir John Guilgud as the haughty but betrayed Caesar.  His farewell to his friend, "Et tu, Brute?" is heartbreaking.  I imagine that Richard Johnson and Charlton Heston became friends, for this is their third collaboration that I have seen (the TNT presentations of A Man For All Seasons and The Crucifer of Blood coming years later). His turn as Cassius is brutal and harsh and quite effective as the man consumed with anger.

I also have to give Burge credit in certain images that give Julius Caesar a better thought-out imagery than it has been given credit for.  The opening sequence where we look over the skeletons of those killed in the Roman civil war make it almost look like the dead are calling out "Hail, Caesar!" in an almost mocking or condemning tone, and Calpurnia's dreams were quite freaky.  Sometimes these images (like when Caesar's Ghost appears to Brutus by flickering candlelight) might be bit more hit-and-miss, but on the whole they work well.    

What I find fascinating about Julius Caesar is that for me, it is about the power of speech as a tool of persuasion.  The battle between Brutus and Marc Antony boils down to which one can persuade the crowd to join them.  Julius Caesar to me is not about the moral conflict of Brutus or the historic accuracy of the play itself.  Instead, it is about how the mob, the common folk, can be ruled or manipulated by oratory.  As a side note, we see this now, with so many people flocking to support The Donald in his bid for the Presidency.  It is his 'tell it like it is' style that makes so many rally to his cause (whatever it might actually be).

This version of Julius Caesar may almost be brought down by Jason Robards' simply astonishingly bad performance, but if you forgive that, and decide to focus on Charlton Heston's powerful performance, along with the rest of the cast, this is a pretty good version of Shakespeare's work.   

DECISION: B-

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How The West Was Truly Won: Unforgiven Review




UNFORGIVEN (1992)

The first time I came across Unforgiven, I think both the subject and the length made me wary of it.  The violence, the darkness, of it all played in my memory, so much so that I could not remember if I had seen it when it was first released.  Well, the passage of time and the Best Picture retrospective have brought Unforgiven back into my life.  I think of what John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".  Unforgiven goes against Ford's maxim, and gives us a very unvarnished, unpleasant, ugly West.  Unforgiven is a dark, somber film, but one that is brilliant in the exploration of redemption (and lack thereof), of the struggle between justice and revenge, and how what we know of The West is built on myth, a myth perpetuated by those who themselves knew better.

Big Whiskey, Wyoming, 1881.  Delilah (Anna Thompson) a novice prostitute, starts laughing when one of the cowboys she's servicing undresses, revealing what she considers a particularly small penis.  Enraged, the cowboys slashes her face.  The main whore, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) is enraged that the brother owner, Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) is willing to take compensation for the assault rather than pursue actual punishment.  Dubois doesn't care for his whores, just for what he can get out of them.  For his part, "Little" Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), the local sheriff who insists no guns enter Big Whiskey, would rather keep the peace than get justice for the women.  Furious, the whores collect a bounty and offer it to anyone who will take the two cowboys involved in the assault.

Enter The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), a young cocky gunfighter who wants to make his mark.  He hears of the bounty and wants at it, but he needs help, and goes to legendary gunfighter William Munny (Clint Eastwood).  We learn earlier that Munny was a notorious murderer, but that he married a quiet woman who helped reform him, and he became a widower in 1878 with two young children.  The former bad man is now one filled with regret for his actions, and has sworn off violence and booze.  However, he is a failure as a farmer, and the bounty will provide for his children.  With that, he rides out to meet the Kid and insists on taking his old riding partner, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) on the job.

Back in Big Whiskey, Little Bill is too obsessed with building his house to care what the whores are up to, but he is aware of a new and unwelcome visitor.  English Bob (Richard Harris), 'legendary' British gunfighter has come to get at the reward too, accompanied by his biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek).  Beauchamp, writer of pulp Westerns, thinks English Bob will make a great subject for a book, giving the book and the subject the grandiose title of The Duke of Death, which Little Bill keeps referring to (accidentally or not) as The Duck of Death.  Little Bill knows English Bob and the truth behind The Duck's exploits (and it helps that he has to power to lock him up).  Little Bill throws English Bob out of Big Whiskey, but Beauchamp stays on, fascinated now by Little Bill's exploits, which are technically true but also rather unsavory.

Munny, Logan, and The Kid enter Big Whiskey, but Little Bill doesn't know who Munny is.  The three of them do manage to escape, but not before Munny gets beaten by Little Bill for having a gun in town despite his law.  While Munny recovers out of town, he learns about Delilah's life and how she did not deserve what she got.  The three of them do eventually manage to kill one of the cowboys, but now Logan and Munny find that this life of violence is no life for them.  Logan opts to get out, while Munny is honor-bound to complete the job.  He and The Kid do, but now The Kid finds the violence too much for him.  Despite all his bragging and boasting, he's never killed another person in his life and it takes just one kill to have him forever renounce violence.

Delilah has bad news for Munny: Logan, despite being the one who leaves, was captured, tortured, and killed by Little Bill.  Munny, enraged, goes into Big Whiskey for one last confrontation to avenge his old friend and get Logan buried, Little Bill using his corpse as a warning to those who would enter town.  There is a final confrontation between these two old gunslingers, and after Munny kills the unarmed Little Bill, he rides out, warning them all that if Logan isn't given an honorable burial and the women left alone, he will return to kill them all. 

We end Unforgiven as we began it, with Munny in profile, learning that his mother-in-law came years later to see where her daughter was buried but not finding Munny or the children there.  They moved on, to California, where Munny became a merchant, removed from his former life.

Unforgiven is a meditation on the act of killing, captured so well by Eastwood's "It's a Hell of a Thing, Killing a Man" monologue.  In a way, Eastwood's film is a declaration against the mythology of the Old West that he has been so closely associated with.  Beauchamp is both the promoter and follower of Old West tales with his stories of English Bob and Little Bill.  He isn't chronicling the Old West as it really was, but as how he would like it to have been: full of action and adventure and daring-do.  The Schofield Kid too is one who was taken in by the myths of the Old West.  He too only saw the action, the thrill, the adventure, but when it came down to doing the actual dirty work that the old men like Munny, Logan, even Little Bill did, he couldn't do it. 

Unforgiven strips the ideas we have of the Wild West and makes it into a story about how this violence cost people their lives and their souls.  It was not romantic or exciting.  It was dark and ugly and brutal.  It is a bit reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front.  Just as that film brought no honor to the brutal act of war, Unforgiven brings no honor or glory to the taming of the West.  In short, Unforgiven is not a romantic Western, and that is part of its brilliance.  We can dispense with Western clichés and instead see the story Eastwood is telling: how the world is not black-and-white, how the truth is more brutal than the fiction we accept.

Eastwood's directing is very sparse, very simple.  He doesn't complicate shots with a lot of cutting.  One moment that impressed me was when English Bob first comes to Big Whiskey.  Eastwood doesn't jump from one person to another.  Instead, he lets the camera move between them, giving us almost a 'you-are-there' style, as if we were moving back and forth between them all.

Eastwood also directed all his actors in an extraordinarily excellent way.  Hackman was brilliant as the blunt but brutal Sheriff, a mixture of evil and cold-eyed realism.  In his own way, Little Bill has his own dreams (that house he constantly works on), but his actions will deny him the house that is his great passion.  I am conflicted on Little Bill: he is direct about his ideas of justice and the law but he is also hard and cold.  Thompson is almost innocent as the injured hooker, and Woolvett is cockiness exemplified as The Kid.  We should know it is all an act, and both Woolvett's performance and Eastwood's directing of it shows that The Kid is really a front for a good man taken in by the myth.  Freeman lends dignity as Logan, who is just as weary of the bloodletting as Munny.

It is difficult to direct oneself, but Eastwood can do it.  His William Munny tries desperately to be the man his late wife made him into, but slowly he wears down to his old self.  Having seen the darkness he can so quickly slip into, he knows enough that so long as he is close to temptation, he will never break free.   

About the only real flaws in Unforgiven are the length and the English Bob storyline (the both tie into each other).   It's always nice to see Richard Harris in a Western, but if he was the entry for the Beauchamp character, it would have been easier to get him to see Little Bill or just come to Big Whiskey to do a story about the whores and get sucked into this world.  The entire English Bob story lengthens the film and it makes things feel longer than the two-hour plus running time.

Apart from that, Unforgiven is a beautiful film, a thoughtful meditation on the difference between myth and reality, on killing, on how justice doesn't always get it right.  As he lays wounded, Munny standing over him ready to kill him, Little Bill, in his fury, says he doesn't deserve this.  "Deserve has nothing to do with it," Munny replies before ending Little Bill's life.  Unforgiven, the last Western to win Best Picture (so far) is an elegy to the image of the West, a farewell to the ideas we all have about this period.  Eastwood didn't print the legend.  He did make a brilliant film.

DECISION: A+

1993 Best Picture Winner: Schindler's List