Thursday, March 31, 2016

Woodlawn: A Review


WOODLAWN

Woodlawn is an inspirational story and is unapologetic about it.  Mixing sports and faith, Woodlawn tells an interesting story that holds our attention, even if it runs perhaps longer than it should and sometimes skips over things that would have been interesting to see.

Birmingham, Alabama, 1973.  After years of bitter struggle, the public schools in this fiercely divided city are finally being desegregated.  This, of course, does not sit well with some citizens, but Coach Tandy Gerelds (Nic Bishop) is going to do his best to get a football team together.  This is not going to be easy for two reasons: one, the white and black players are not finding the sudden togetherness easy, and two, the team isn't all that good.  I'd say the two go together, but Tandy is having a hard of it.  A mysterious lay preacher named Hank Erwin (Sean Astin) comes and asks to speak to the players.  Coach Tandy is thoroughly disinterested in some kind of witnessing, especially since it IS a public school.  However, in desperation, he throws a metaphorical Hail Mary to see if Hank can do something, ANYTHING, to get this group together.

One talk is all it took, as Tandy and his assistant coach Jerry (Kevin Sizemore) watch nearly the whole football team surrender their lives to Christ.  Here they are, these tough jocks, black and white, finding unity in Jesus.  First among to rise is Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille), who has great skill but who is also afraid of getting hit (which makes Tandy reluctant to use him).  Tony's parents (Sherri Shepherd and Lance Nichols) instantly see Tony's absence on the field as motivated by race.  With a mix of exasperation and desperation, he puts Tony on, and the results are amazing.

Touchdown Tony is born.

Tony's leadership with the Woodlawn High Football team on and off the field slowly works on others.  There's Johnnie (Joy Brunson), the girl he has fallen for who rejects integration and who is living with an abusive father.  There is also Coach Tandy, who eventually follows his team's example, asks forgiveness from Tony's congregation, and asks to be baptized, he too now surrendering his life to Christ.

The team starts doing remarkably well, and is also showing Birmingham that the races can unite.  Still, the idea that Tony Nathan could play at Alabama seems far out of reach, particularly with Governor George Wallace still in command.  The Nathan family has not forgotten his 'segregation today, tomorrow, and forever' pledge, nor his determination to block entrance to black students.  When Tony is named co-Player of the Year, he refuses to be photographed with Wallace, and Coach Tandy stands by his player rather than push his 'Negro' student to toe the line.

The team does not win the championship, but the attention brings a legendary figure to call on the Nathan home.  It's none other than Crimson Tide icon Paul "Bear" Bryant (Jon Voight).  He tells the elder Nathans that he doesn't have black players or white players, just football players.  He does acknowledge that 'Bama doesn't have as many black players as they should, but now is the time.  Tony is the player to do it, and Coach Bear wants to win.

Around town, the Woodlawn High Team earns respect and scorn for their integration and their Christianity.  Their chief rivals, Banks High, has a quarterback that is Tony's equal on the field, Jeff Rutledge (Richard Kohnke), and a coach, Shorty (C. Thomas Howell), who is so dismissive of Woodlawn and their evangelical zeal...that he converts the very next season.  Joining forces for camp, the team, the players, and the coaches soon start letting their faith transform everything and everyone around them.   At the end of Woodlawn, Coach Tandy is found narrating the whole story...to a prospective insurance customer, as he has left coaching.  Getting a call from Nathan after the Sugar Bowl, he urges his old coach to return, which we find out he does.



Woodlawn has its problems.  For example, I found Howell's Coach Shorty so overly cartoonish in his hatred of Christianity that it makes his eventual conversion come across as a plot device rather than a sincere change of heart.  We are told by Shorty about his conversion, and there is a definite change in Shorty's manner, but I think it would have enhanced the film if we'd seen that change.  I also wonder why Woodlawn opted to not show more interaction between the Woodlawn High players, how and why the differences in race melted under their shared faith in Christ. 

We get little hints of it when Tony confronts a rival for Johnnie's affections who is more militant.  He calls Tony 'a cracker plaything' or something to that effect, and we see Tony with a white teammate, but we never see how Tony or his teammate/friend deal with hatred from both sides.  I wonder whether the Erwin Brothers at times forgot about these little bits of stories that might have made for an interesting element in film.

We don't get the lives of the Woodlawn High team, which I think was a missed opportunity.

That being said, there were more positives than negatives.  I hope Woodlawn serves as a calling card for Caleb Castille, for he was absolutely wonderful as Tony Nathan.  Castille brought a mixture of naïve and quiet strength to the part, his hesitancy about approaching Johnnie mixed with a determination to rise above expectations.  A particularly strong moment is when he firmly but respectfully refuses to serve as a prop for George Wallace.  Castille shows a young man's courage in resisting pressure mixed with fear of questioning authority figures.  The scene where the Nathan family is stunned to find Bear Bryant waiting at their doorstep was a great showcase for Castille and both Shepherd and Nichols.

I think Caleb Castille has a strong future in film, if he gets the right parts.

Equally strong was Nic Bishop as Coach Tandy.  The evolution of the character to where he ends up embracing Christianity (and all the positive aspects of it) was brought in fine form by Bishop (who was at times better than the script). While his part was small, Voight made an impressive Bear Bryant to where one would love to see him in a full-scale biopic or television miniseries. 

It was also good to see Sean Astin as Hank the lay preacher.  While the script, again, did not give him a great deal to work with, his scenes were always effective in making Hank a man of passion and conviction and wisdom for the his faith and the players.

That's probably Woodlawn's weakest point: the script.  Sometimes it felt as if we were getting bits and pieces that didn't quite fit together, and at times we wonder whether the film was longer than its two-hour running time. 

Ultimately, Woodlawn had a purpose: to share an inspirational story of how faith can shape people into greater people.  It was well-made, with some good performances, some wonderful football sequences, not without its flaws but on the whole a well-crafted feature.

Born 1956


DECISION: B-

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Rebel, Rebel, Your Wig is a Mess: Sons of Liberty Review



SONS OF LIBERTY

History, Henry Ford once said, is bunk.  I think that pretty much can sum up the former History Channel's programming (a network trying so hard to be 'hip' it now goes by just "History").  Tiring of endless Nazi-related documentaries (let's face it, thanks to the History Channel, I've spent more nights with Hitler than Eva Braun), they opted for original programming. 

Vikings, their big breakout television series (or as I like to think of it, their effort to cash in on Game of Thrones sex and violence with a veneer of history), at least has the benefit of being completely original (as in, it is fictional save for the fact that Vikings did exist).  They also have invested heavily in reality shows that have a relationship with history (sometimes tenuously so). 

Pawn Stars and American Pickers touch on actual history via the objects they examine. Now, I love American Pickers myself (Mike Wolfe is fast becoming a personal hero) and his and Frank Fritz's love for the past is obvious.  However, I have yet to understand the truly educational aspects to Counting Cars or Swamp People, let alone how it serves in educating people about 'history'.

I won't even touch Ancient Aliens...

Now we come to Sons of Liberty, History's second foray into original programming that is based on real-life historic figures (after Hatfields & McCoys). Figuring that some of the Founding Fathers were too dry for our Millennials, the good folks at History decided they needed to be 'sexed up', making them action stars rather than dull intellectuals insisting they had a right to their own lives from a tyrannical regime.

I confess to being excited for Sons of Liberty when I first saw the trailers, being a fan of history myself.  After a few minutes I switched off the miniseries once I saw Sam Adams leaping about the Boston rooftops and being all scruffy anti-hero like some sort of Colonial Spider-Man.  During an Independence Day marathon, I saw more of Sons of Liberty, but not the whole thing.  With that, I opted to watch all five hours of it. 

This is what I can say about Sons of Liberty that would be positive.  It has some great performances and good action.  However, I have never seen a network that claims to be ABOUT history try so hard to create an alternate history.  In truth, while at times entertaining, any connection between Sons of Liberty and actual history is purely coincidental.


In the three episodes: A Dangerous Game, The Uprising, and Independence, we get to know our leads.  Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) is a scruffy ne'er-do-well, barely one step ahead of the law.  A bit of a rabble-rouser and hothead, he is the antithesis of his cousin, John Adams (Henry Thomas), a dispassionate lawyer who is constantly worried about something, be it Cousin Sam or something else. 

The British governor of Massachusetts Colony is finding Sam Adams an irritant, so he turns to foppish businessman John Hancock (Rafe Spall) to see if he can use his considerable influence to get Sam and his gang under control (that whole 'storming of the Governor's Mansion' thing not exactly helpful).  The dandy Hancock and the ruffian Adams strike a deal: in return for Hancock paying all of Adams' debts (including those of the people Adams, as a royal tax collector, never bothered or wanted to collect), Adams would keep the mob under control.  The Governor is, oddly, furious at this and decides to strike back at Hancock by cutting the sweetheart deal the Hancock family had (lower to no import taxes).

A stunned Hancock then goes to Sam Adams for help, and it's agreed that they will get into smuggling: Hancock gets the cash, Adams gets to undercut anti-Loyalist businesses.  However, the thing eventually gets exposed and a child is killed.  The growing crisis grows to both the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party.

So enraged are the British at these hijinks that they send General Thomas Gage (Marton Csokas) to quell these obnoxious colonials who don't know their place.  He brings his very luscious American-born wife Margaret (Emily Berrington).  She is not keen on her husband, but someone DOES catch her eye.  It's hunky Patriot Dr. John Warren (Ryan Eggold).  Soon, they begin a passionate affair, and she even helps the Rebellion by sending advance notice of Gage's march to Lexington and Concord to arrest Sam Adams and Hancock, with Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) leading the race.

There are Continental Congresses to get through, with Sam Adams constantly bristling at the inaction.  It takes a little work from the wily sex-hound Benjamin Franklin (Dean Norris) to get the Second Continental Congress to act, and with General George Washington (Jason O'Mara) now leading the Continental Army, the American colonies take their first step to being The American Nation...   


Sons of Liberty has some fine performances but in terms of actual history, it is so wildly out-of-touch that the Founding Fathers would sue for libel if they could see what they've done to their reputations.  Let's concentrate on the first aspect to start with.

In terms of actual acting performances, the clear winner is Spall as John Hancock.  He makes Hancock into this dandy essentially dragged into revolution due to his own financial interests.  Despite the perhaps unsavory aspect to that, the idea that it was less a call for liberty but a call to keep up his lavish lifestyle that motivated this Founding Father, Spall's Hancock is almost endearing in his constant hesitancy.  His foppish nature and slightly bumbling manner are a standout, and if not the comic relief at least a little bit of lightness to the more gruff and hard-core action Patriots.

It's at times almost hilarious when we see the dandy Hancock and the ruffian Sam Adams working together.  While not intentional, the Odd Couple theme popped into my head when they were forced to live together before the 'shot heard 'round the world'.  I don't think it was meant to be comical, my mind couldn't help wander into what a sitcom starring Sam & John would look like.

Csokas was in need of a mustache to twirl as the almost cartoonishly villainous General Gage, so fully aware of his wife's infidelity that he almost uses Bunker Hill as a way to get rid of his love rival. 

I feel for Thomas, who as John Adams really had little to do but worry about something or other.  It's clear that in Sons of Liberty the flashier (and hotter) Adams was the main draw.  This miniseries is probably Ben Barnes' best performance...insofar as it is Ben Barnes' ONLY decent one.  He was all gruff-and-guts and willing to fight (which apparently none of the others were).  His Samuel Adams was an ACTION star, a brooding soul with a permanent stubble.  Who knew?

Perhaps that is ONE of the many reasons Sons of Liberty fails.  It has little to no interest in actual history, for if we go by this series, Ben Franklin was too busy getting it on with 'women of ill repute' to bother with such things as creating free libraries or scientific study.

That little thing about John Adams defending the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre?  SO unimportant it need not be mentioned or covered.

Oh, yes, the whole Boston Tea Party being some sort of Gangs of Boston spectacular to where one starts looking for Bill the Butcher?  Well, it makes for better drama.  Why were the colonials getting their knickerbockers in a twist about the tea onboard some ships?  Do we REALLY have to bother with pesky details when we've got a fight scene to think of?

Worse, it fails to even hit on things that would rationalize the drive for independence.  It may be one thing to never mention the Committees of Correspondence, but it is another to never mention how things began to grow so out-of-hand.  How can any miniseries about the American Revolution fail to mention that the Stamp Act or Tea Act or Intolerable Acts were driving the wedge between Crown and Colony?  As far as I can make out from the miniseries, the American Revolution was brought about by street gangs looking for a fight and a bunch of smugglers who didn't want to pay taxes.



It's as if the people behind Sons of Liberty thought the whole enterprise was more about creating a believable video game than about dramatizing history.  Now, I'm not such a historic purist that I need EVERY little detail correct (having a little sexy-time between Mrs. Gage and Dr. Warren doesn't horrify me...much), but taking these men of intellect and turning them into beer-swilling hoods save for the persnickety Hancock (there are an awful lot of pubs in Boston apparently) looks downright deceitful, as if Sons of Liberty didn't trust its audience to both educate and entertain.

Worse was Sons of Liberty's decision to be rather graphic with the violence.  At the Battle of Bunker Hill we saw a revolutionary's head literally blown off with a cannonball, which jolts the viewer into some shock.  I seriously wonder whether Sons of Liberty went too far in the gamification of the early days of the American Revolution.

It decided it made for better television if they were The Founding Bros than Founding Fathers. In the words of Young Mr. Grace, History expect the whole thing would be too boring.  Therefore, a lot of action is to be had.   

Of course, the series does have other recompenses. The actual action and battle scenes are well-crafted and move well (though I sometimes would have pulled back on the slow-motion).  The scene where Hancock takes a pistol to save Revere and Sam Adams is beautifully shot. 

Sadly though, these are few and far between.  For those who care and love history, Sons of Liberty plays close to parody.  It will be liked by those who like action, don't question or care about historic accuracy, and maybe elicit some sense of patriotism.  I can't fault it for that.  I CAN fault it for not trusting history to be exciting, or to take these truly dramatic moments and highly intelligent figures and reduce them to so many tropes.     

Ultimately, Sons of Liberty plays like a particularly sauced-up episode of Drunk History, with one difference.

Drunk History episode around the Sons of Liberty would be more accurate in terms of actual history than History's own Sons of Liberty.   

4/10

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oscar: Say It Soft And It's Almost Like Praying

Rita Moreno:
Best Supporting Actress for
West Side Story

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1961

We go to the 34th Academy Awards with some history-making moments.  West Side Story becomes the first film to win Best Director with two directors (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins).  Rita Moreno becomes the first Hispanic to win an Oscar and Sophia Loren becomes the first actor/actress to win for a foreign-language performance.  West Side Story's ten Oscar wins out of eleven nominations (losing Best Adapted Screenplay...sadly costing legendary screenwriter Ernest Lehman a competitive Oscar and a chance to tie Ben-Hur's eleven wins) puts it second in total Oscar haul.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1961 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG




Bachelor in Paradise: Bachelor in Paradise
Moon River: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Love Theme From El Cid (The Falcon and the Dove): El Cid
Pocketful of Miracles: Pocketful of Miracles
Town Without Pity: Town Without Pity

This is a no-brainer.  Moon River is one of the most haunting, most beautiful songs ever written for film (sorry, Writing's On the Wall).  The longing to that 'special place' is something we all can relate to.  I'm one of the few people who never got the appeal of Breakfast at Tiffany's, finding the story a bit off (and that's without Mickey Rooney's Asian apparition).  Having said that, I have nothing but praise for Moon River, an iconic song that will outlive us all.   About the only song from this list is the title theme to Town Without Pity, the closest the Academy got to 'rock' or dare I say...contemporary music.

Moon River: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Lover Come Back: Lover Come Back
Let's Get Together: The Parent Trap
Cruella DeVil: One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Town Without Pity: Town Without Pity

With apologies to Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, but The Falcon and the Dove is not one of those songs that will outlive them (though El Cid is indeed a great film).  I truly cannot comprehend how something as, well, grandiose, as The Love Theme From El Cid could get nominated (then again, we ARE talking about The Academy).  Interestingly enough, Cruella DeVil is the only song from One Hundred and One Dalmatians that I remember (and if memory serves correct, the only one written for the film, a rarity in an animated Disney feature).  Oh, yes, there could have been better nominees, but still, who can argue that Moon River was not worthy of the win?

BEST DIRECTOR

Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita
Stanley Kramer: Judgment at Nuremberg
Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise: West Side Story
Robert Rossen: The Hustler
J. Lee Thompson: The Guns of Navarone

Federico Fellini was someone I was not particularly fond of the first time I saw his films.  I thought he was bonkers.  As time passed and grew in maturity and appreciation, I found Fellini, at least in his early years, to be a true artistic genius.  I've never shaken the idea that over time he grew rather self-indulgent in his Fellini-esque features, but that is for the future.  La Dolce Vita is a pretty rational film, and we can see how he is about to emerge to the cinematic forefront with a film that is beyond description.

Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita
John Huston: The Misfits
Stanley Kramer: Judgment at Nuremberg
Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise: West Side Story
Robert Rossen: The Hustler

I really don't have an argument against Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins getting the Oscar for West Side Story.  It is a brilliant film.  HOWEVER, the leads were perhaps...miscast?  And let's face it, neither Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood are the ones people left the theater talking about.  We DO still talk about Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Fay Bainter: The Children's Hour
Judy Garland: Judgment at Nuremberg
Lotte Lenya: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
Una Merkel: Summer and Smoke
Rita Moreno: West Side Story

Let me say that I have never been fond of Moreno's big musical number in West Side StoryAmerica just bothers me, particularly as a Hispanic.  I don't see myself separated from dominant American culture the way the Puerto Ricans apparently do.  I also singularly detest the "OLE!" America ends with.  Having said all that, Moreno gave a full and extraordinary performance as Anita.  She could sing, she could dance (boy, could she dance) and she could act.  I know the temptation to see her as some sort of Latin Spitfire is there, but I saw a woman who enjoyed her man but was also brave enough to stand up for herself.  Despite the strong work from Garland, her main competition, Rita Moreno IS the clear choice.

Fay Bainter: The Children's Hour
Marlene Dietrich: Judgment at Nuremberg
Judy Garland: Judgment at Nuremberg
Lotte Lenya: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
Rita Moreno: West Side Story

I simply cannot argue against Moreno.  About the only question I would have is why Marlene Dietrich was not nominated for Judgment at Nuremberg.   

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



George Chakiris: West Side Story
Montgomery Clift: Judgment at Nuremberg
Peter Falk: Pocketful of Miracles
Jackie Gleason: The Hustler
George C. Scott: The Hustler

Well, is it me, or did the Greek-descended Chakiris have, well, a touch TOO much greasepaint as Bernardo?  That has always been a bit of a sticking point for me: when people try to look 'Hispanic' by slapping on so much paint they end up looking almost garish.  I can't fault his performance or dancing (both of which are good) but on this occasion, I'm going to go for Gleason's turn as Minnesota Fats, the man who could give The Hustler a run for his money.  That means Montgomery Clift's 'comeback' won't get him what he did deserve.

Jean-Paul Belmondo: Two Women
George Chakiris: West Side Story
Montgomery Clift: Judgment at Nuremberg
Jackie Gleason: The Hustler
Richard Widmark: Judgment at Nuremberg

Again, at the moment, Fats is in.

BEST ACTRESS
 

Audrey Hepburn: Breakfast at Tiffany's
Piper Laurie: The Hustler
Sophia Loren: Two Women
Geraldine Page: Summer and Smoke
Natalie Wood: Splendor in the Grass

Again, what IS this hold Breakfast at Tiffany's has over people?  I saw it once and found the whole thing, well, almost boring.  I never got the passion people have for it.  I can say though that Sophia Loren proved beyond any doubt that she WAS an actress, and a formidable one too.  As the loving mother attempting to shield her daughter from the horrors of war in Two Women, Loren is astonishing.  Is Sophia Loren beautiful?  No doubt.  However, she did what all good actresses do: draw on her experiences (for Loren, the struggles to survive as an Italian during World War II) and give a performance that when seen, just about tears your heart out. 

Loren made history as the first actor/actress to win an Oscar for a non-English performance, a feat that would remain unmatched by a leading actress for 46 years and by any actor for 13.

Piper Laurie: The Hustler
Vivien Leigh: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
Sophia Loren: Two Women
Marilyn Monroe: The Misfits
Natalie Wood: Splendor in the Grass

Mamma Mia, but did Loren astonish and give a simply fantastic and heartbreaking performance.  I simply cannot find one better so far.

BEST ACTOR



Charles Boyer: Fanny
Paul Newman: The Hustler
Maximilian Schell: Judgment at Nuremberg
Spencer Tracy: Judgment at Nuremberg
Stuart Whitman: The Mark

Fanny, Fanny, Fanny.  Why does Charles Boyer and Fanny make me giggle?

In a rare moment, two actors nominated for the same film did NOT cancel each other out.  The German actor Maximilian Schell managed to outdo the stalwart American Spencer Tracy in Judgment at Nuremberg.  Truth be told, this is the first time I remember someone managing to win an Oscar against a costar since Hattie McDaniel beat Olivia De Havilland for Gone With the Wind 23 years earlier (though I may be wrong).  More often than not when two actors/actresses are nominated for the same film, they tend to cancel each other out. 

Having said all that, I still think that "Fast Eddie" Felson was robbed.  Curiously enough, Paul Newman would get a second chance with the same character in The Color of Money, the only film for which he won the Oscar. I did not include him when I mentioned other actors/actresses nominated for playing the same characters in two different films (a list that includes Bing Crosby, Cate Blanchett, Al Pacino, and Sylvester Stallone).  I regret the error.

Whether Newman won the next time as a sort of apology or not for losing the first time I cannot say. 

I can say that The Hustler is I think better regarded than The Color of Money.



Warren Beatty: Splendor in the Grass
Paul Newman: The Hustler
Fred MacMurray: The Absent-Minded Professor
Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita
Maximilian Schell: Judgment at Nuremberg

We have to have a few surprises every now and again, don't we? 

I'm sure some are wondering...The Absent-Minded Professor? SERIOUSLY?  Well, here's my thinking.   First, it shows MacMurray's extraordinary range that the year prior, he was so convincing as the sleazy boss with the mistress in The Apartment and now, here he is as innocence personified.  Second, it is a memorable performance, one that certainly is better recalled than Fanny.  Third, well, I just like the idea of a comedy, particularly one as fluffy as The Absent-Minded Professor, winning.

BEST PICTURE



Fanny
The Guns of Navarone
The Hustler
Judgment at Nuremberg
West Side Story

There's that Fanny again!  Odd how Fanny can really be perhaps the squarest of choices for something as stodgy as the Oscars.

IF we go by the nominated films, I think The Academy chose wisely (no pun intended).  Unlike other musicals to win Best Picture (I'm looking at YOU, Gigi...and YOU, An American in Paris, and YOU, Oliver!), I have yet to hear ANYONE say that West Side Story was not anything short of brilliant.  You have Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins...it's like having genius upon genius upon genius collaborating in adapting Shakespeare to today.  West Side Story is the most honored musical in history, and I doubt any musical film will be able to match it (sorry Chicago, despite having Chita Rivera cameo in it, her work in ANOTHER musical was better).

As such, I select West Side Story as the Best Picture of 1961...out of the nominated films.



La Dolce Vita
The Guns of Navarone
The Hustler
Judgment at Nuremberg
West Side Story

Still, as brilliant as West Side Story is, and it is brilliant (America notwithstanding), I still hold that "the sweet life" is as brilliant as any film.  As such, this tale of decadence and lostness among the glitterati of Rome will not be denied by me.

Therefore, I name La Dolce Vita as the Best Film of 1961.

Next Time, The 1962 Academy Awards.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

What Being A Christian Means To and For Me



I don't talk about my life on this blog, but it IS my blog.  I ask that on this Resurrection Sunday, I be allowed a little indulgence and share my thoughts on what being a Christian means to and for me.

I've been going to various churches, on and off, for about ten years, but it is only in the past two years that I have made a faith in Jesus Christ a much more important part of my life.  It goes beyond praying more, reading my Bible almost every day (on my days off, sometimes I get too lazy), and attending Services (even though all those are important and aspects that Christ has changed within me).  It is daily surrendering to Christ, to accepting the truth that I am a sinner and that Jesus did die on the cross to bring about my salvation.  It is about a daily transformation to a better person than who I was then and who I am now.

I think about how many people think that Christians are judgmental.  No doubt some are, but I can only speak for myself.  Growing as a Christian has made me LESS judgmental, not more.  It has made me more aware that I am not better than anyone else, that I am never to think others less or greater than me.  My faith in Christ has made me aware that we truly are all created equal, that every man and woman is worthy of respect and love regardless of who they are, where they are at, what they believe, or what they look like.

When I go to Service and see a man or woman covered in tattoos, I no longer think that they are somehow inferior to me, or dumb, or criminal, or of a lower status simply due to their markings.  I see them as my brothers and sisters, men and women as flawed as me, saved by the same faith and covered by the same redeeming Blood as me.  I see them for what they are: loved by God and created by Him.  As such, I am able to see beyond the exterior and see the individual, with their flaws and virtues.  I am free to see that person as a specific individual, who dreams, who loves, sometimes hates, and who is also working out their faith, but with the joy of Christ within them. 

We are able to embrace each other, forgetting all differences in thinking, in appearance, in past experiences.  My faith allows me to unite with all (Christian and/or non), accept all for who they are, and know that my calling is not to judge them, but to love them. 

The same goes for people who wear different clothing or have piercings all over or who have anything about them different than how I would have it be.  I find that the words of Scripture in Galatians 3:28 are true: we ARE all one in Christ Jesus.  As such, as Pope Francis said regarding homosexuals, "Who am I to judge?"

I judge no one, especially for having the same sins and flaws that I have.  I pass no judgment or condemnation on anyone, for I too am a sinful man: proud, sometimes dumb in speech or thought, prone to the same vices as you, but with a new heart and mindset thanks to the grace of God.



In the past I would judge people based on appearances, on actions, on my own sense of moral superiority.  It is to my shame that at times I fell into the temptation of holding myself better than others for whatever reason.  That temptation is still there, whenever I see someone wearing ill-fitting clothes, someone who frustrates me by not following directions or making mistakes that to me are foolish.  When such temptations come my way, I pray the Holy Spirit remind me gently that I am equally flawed.  Just as I might become flustered, even angry at someone for not comprehending my directions, I also have to remember I have run red lights accidently, I have said hurtful things (intentionally or not), I have caused problems for others.

Just I wish not to be judge, I do no judge.  That is one thing Christ has done for me: I now judge people less and love people more.  The Christianity I embrace shows me that everyone is worthy of love because everyone is loved by God.  As God loves me, who am I not to love those He loves?

In the spirit of truth, I tell you I still don't like tattoos or piercings.  However, I have learned through the love of Christ, that it is not my place to think of myself as greater or somehow above one who has them.

This goes also to anyone who is gay, or non-Christian, or anti-Christian, or different in any way, or who just does not like me for just being me.  It is not my place to judge them.  It is my place to love them and respect them as equally loved by God.  It is my place to treat them with respect and honor, to serve when and where I can, and to accept everyone for who they are (yes, sometimes not easy, but I'm sure it can't be any easier for those doing the same for me). 

For anyone who has felt judged by my brothers and sisters, I can only ask for forgiveness for them and ask that he/she remember the people who judge are as flawed as we all are.  I also ask that if anyone judges another in Jesus' name for being somehow not 'good enough', that the Spirit remind them gently that Christians are not perfect, just redeemed.

I like that saying.



I figure, as I write this, that more than a few people will think or say to themselves, 'well, I'm not a Christian and I NEVER thought I was better than others.  I KNOW we are all equal'.  I feel stumped because I don't consider it a competition over who is better: someone like me (who accepts that I was flawed prior to surrendering to Christ and who accepts that I am flawed after surrendering to Christ) and someone who has not judged others in the sum total of his/her life.

I can speak only for myself.  Because of Christ and what He is to me, I am no longer judgmental or harsh or critical of others for being or thinking differently than me.  Do I still get angry?  Yes.  Do I still say, do, or think the wrong things?  More times than I care to admit.  However, for myself, my growing faith in Christ has made me less harsh, more loving, more forgiving.  I have grown to accept others for all their flaws, faults, and failings (including my own).  When once I was content to live for myself, being merely concerned for others but not giving others much thought, I find myself embracing the words of Romans 12:15-21: I rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, live in peace with all, not be proud, and overcome evil with good.  

Being a Christian, to me, means in short to love all, do good, never do anything to hurt someone, care for all, serve others and not think of any kind of reward for serving (save perhaps to use serving as an act of worship/love), and not look down on anyone.  It is not easy at times because we are all at times think the world will be better if people did as we think they should.  Pride is one of the greatest sins, one that I am sadly too aware of. 

Perhaps that is why God made me short: too keep me humble.  If I were tall, I might be thoroughly insufferable.

I know that non-Christians think Christians are judgmental, and as I've said, I'm sure some are, these brothers and sisters forgetting that grace extends to all and to extend grace to all.  I can only ask those who think all Christians are harsh and judgmental to remember...nobody's perfect.

The pastor at the church I go to has a wonderful saying: "Come as you are.  Just don't stay that way".  The church I know welcomes all and loves all in the same way Christ welcomes all and loves all. 

That is why I, for one, do not judge regardless of who you are or what you do, and I'm so thankful for that.

This didn't turn out quite like I would have liked, but I hope my simple message came through: as a Christian, I do not judge, I do not condemn, I do not hold contempt, and pray never to do so. 

I am flawed but forgiven.  

In this world, so overwhelmed with hatreds, with hopelessness, with despairs, with man killing man for no other reason than he/she is 'not one of us',  I hope to light a candle, however small, rather than add to the darkness threatening to devour us all. 

Thank you for reading, and pray for those Christians being persecuted, driven out, and killed for their faith. 

Have a Blessed Easter.



      

Friday, March 25, 2016

Victor Frankenstein: A Review



VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN

I firmly believe that James McAvoy is among our best actors working today.  I am an unapologetic McAvoyeur. That being the case, I think that we can look upon Victor Frankenstein as a rare off moment, one of those crazy ideas that didn't pan out.  Victor Frankenstein was not aware whether it was a comedy, an action film, a horror film, an homage to one of those genres, or maybe something entirely new.  In any case, in the long annals of McAvoy's career (stage and screen), Victor Frankenstein will be either forgotten or seen as an oddity, and we can all have a good laugh about it long after he gets his Oscar (competitive or Honorary, hopefully both).

Despite being the title character, Victor Frankenstein is not the main focus of Victor Frankenstein.  THAT position goes to the unnamed humpback circus clown/fool rescued by Victor from circumstances that make The Elephant Man look like Gigi.  With a new name and some quick surgery from medical student Victor (his hunch being really a very large abscess), he now is known as Igor (Daniel Radcliffe)...what else?  Victor sees in Igor a kindred soul and sharp medical mind, in particular when both worked together to save Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay), the circus acrobat Igor carries a torch for.

Frankenstein is working on some mad scientist experiment involving bringing life to the dead, believing that death, like life, can be a temporary state.  Igor is less enthusiastic but he also sees the possibility in all this.  They work together and sometimes apart whenever Igor is romancing Lorelei (she having left the circus to become the public mistress of a Count who, in her terms, 'prefers the company of men'). 

Frankenstein and Igor show off their newest creation to a very uninterested group, but among those who witness the success (and disastrously out-of-control failure) of the experiment is Victor's frenemy Finnegan (Freddie Fox, who in both looks and temperament bears a striking similarity to Donald Trump shill and faux-conservative Milo Yiannopoulos). Finnegan, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Victorian Britain, offers to fund Frankenstein's experiments no matter what.  He is willing to help Victor and Igor escape the dogged pursuit of Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott), a detective/religious nut (as if there were any other kind), one who suspects Frankenstein of doing The Devil's Work (and as a side note, Turpin is a Catholic, unless Anglicans have rosaries as well). 

Turpin is convinced Frankenstein is about to meddle in the Lord's domain by creating life, but he can't get anyone at Scotland Yard to see things his way (even after he loses a hand to Victor when they make their escape).  He and Igor are equally determined to stop Victor from conducting his mad scientist experiment, though for different reasons. Ultimately Victor reveals his reasons for attempting to recreate life and as can be expected, things don't go so well.


I like to think Victor Frankenstein (and Victor Frankenstein) meant well; that's the optimist in me.  The main problem is that Victor Frankenstein has no idea of where it wants to go or what it wants to be.

Is it a comedy?  I doubt that's what they were going for, but it's hard to imagine it isn't when Paul McGuigan directs McAvoy to play Victor like some crazy person, and I don't mean 'crazy' like a genius crazy.  I mean like a shouty, sometimes manic figure who apparently does not realize you don't discuss brain color on a double date.

Is it an action film? It has the trappings of it (particularly at the end when the Monster emerges).  However, by this time the audience has no actual investment in whether Victor's mad science project works or not.  The whole "I let my brother die" business feels like an effort to make one sympathize with Victor when it should be his own mad quest to prevent death do that.

Is it a drama or worse, a romance?  Well, those things come and go as they please, as do some characters.  A lot of Max Landis' script doesn't make sense.  We get introduced to people as if we've known them all our lives but they just popped up (unless they appeared when I felt drowsy while watching, which is possible).  For example, Finnegan looked at first like he was just one of few who showed up to Victor's presentation, but then we find they are frenemies.  As far as I know, this was the FIRST time we met Finnegan, so we're all a bit puzzled as to how things came about.

Worse is Charles Dance's cameo as Frankenstein, Sr.  Daddy says it has been three years since he and Igor have seen each other, but this was the first time WE saw Mr. Frankenstein, so...Unless there was a time lapse going on that went unnoticed or unnoted.  Having McAvoy shout, "Get off his heart" when Daddy Dearest comes to sneer at his son does not help matters.

Whole storylines and plot points are introduced and then dropped at a whim.  So Lorelei becomes an un-kept mistress to a gay baron?  That's nice, but we never hear from the Baron again, so why bother bringing that up?  So Turpin's wife died?  That's not-so-nice, but that's not what motivates his suspicions of Frankenstein.  Why bring that up? 

In short, the script is a shambles, and no one can do much with a lousy script.

In terms of performances I can't say McAvoy was horrible.  He's never horrible.  He just was not directed to make Victor someone to care for or laugh at.  Radcliffe should consider not going for parts that ask him to play sympathetic anti-heroes (I still remember Horns).  Asking us to imagine a love scene with a former hunchback does not help either.

And for the record, I still hate voice-over in film.

Having never been a fan of Scott in Sherlock, his dour detective was not someone I cared about either.  When your mind wanders off to thinking that maybe if Turpin had been a more sympathetic figure who objected to Frankenstein's work out of genuine worry about Man interfering in God's realm rather than just a sniveling prick we could have had something.

Victor Frankenstein brought to mind other Victorian-era fantasy films.  Unfortunately they were Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  I expect Victor Frankenstein will get a lot of airplay in late-night cable/satellite where it can be mercifully ignored.

At least Victor Frankenstein did answer one question: in case anyone was curious, James McAvoy is taller than Daniel Radcliffe.      

DECISION: D+

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gotham: This Ball of Mud and Meanness Review

 

 
GOTHAM: THIS BALL OF
MUD AND MEANNESS

Gotham has been criticized, fairly I think, for sometimes forgetting all about Bruce.  The future Batman at times seems to be missing from a show that will ultimately lead to Batman's rise (which I understand will be the final shot of the last episode, whenever that will be).  This Ball of Mud and Meanness is primarily a Bruce Wayne-centered story, and I think gives us a wonderful 'what-if' scenario, as in 'what if Gotham were more about Bruce than about the future Commissioner Gordon?' Up to a point, I can see why Gotham went the way it did: shows were pre-teens are committing violent crimes isn't going to be a huge draw, and in fairness the show's versions of Penguin and Riddler are fantastic. 

However, with This Ball of Mud and Meanness, we got a little bit of an idea of what a show focused around Bruce's journey would have been, and moreover, a chance for the young actor playing Bruce Wayne to show why he is doing a simply fantastic job as Young Master Bruce.

Having knowledge of his parents' killer, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) decides he and his valet Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) will go search for Matches Malone (Michael Bowen).  Alfred, however, is unaware that Bruce has decided he, not Alfred, will kill Matches, going so far as to get a gun from his frenemy Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  Alfred has to literally fight to get Matches' info from another criminal nicknamed 'Cupcake' (Jamar Greene), and while he's recuperating Bruce decides to go on his own.  This so alarms him he calls on Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) to find him.

Bruce finds his way to a punk club where the actions of The Maniax are celebrated in song and video.  Here, he sees Jeri (Lori Petty), the punk rock singer who wears make-up not unlike the future Joker and who knows Matches' exact address.  She is impressed with Bruce's manner and eventually gives him the address.  Gordon gets to Bruce and attempts to stop him, but Jeri belts out a song that causes the club-goers to grab Gordon. 

Eventually, Bruce finds Matches and finds not the monster of his visions, but a man who kills for money.  Bruce cannot bring himself to kill, which enrages Matches.  Bruce leaves the gun and leaves, and when Gordon gets there both hear a gunshot from Matches' apartment.  He has killed himself, and Bruce leaves a note for Alfred saying he's going to live on the streets with Selina for a time, to see how the other side lives and see if he can start combating the darkness by going into it.

In the other subplots, poor Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) is still being 'treated' by Dr. Hugo Strange (B.D. Wong) in an effort to make him more docile.  This includes a rather horrifying dream where one Oswald beats on Oswald's beloved mother Gertrude Kapelput (Carol Kane).  Eventually, Oswald is so docile and sweet that he is declared sane and released from Arkham Asylum, though Dr. Strange's plans go deeper for our waddling villain. 

Back at the GCPD, forensics officer Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) is becoming both concerned and irritated that Gordon is beginning to look into the disappearance of Ed's former girlfriend Kristen Kringle.  A mixture of fear and loathing come into Nygma's mind regarding "Jimbo", and he starts thinking of ways to outwit his frenemy.

It looks like Gotham has taken a massive leap with This Ball of Mud and Meanness, and the primary reason for that is David Mazouz's turn as Bruce Wayne.  Sometimes Mazouz doesn't appear on Gotham at all, but no one can complain that Bruce was left off this week.  In fact, this episode was built around him, and Mazouz gives a simply brilliant performance.  Far gone is the insecure little boy who lost his parents.  Instead, we get a young man who is conflicted: angry and vengeful, but also moral and determined to do good in a world that has become much darker.  Mazouz is so good in mixing Bruce's hesitancy with genuine fear, making Bruce's journey into the dark knight of his soul into one of almost redemption.

For so long Bruce has been haunted by being unable to stop his parents' killing, and now, in his search to find and bring vengeance on he that destroyed his ideal life, he finds that he can go only to the edge of the cliff but will not jump off it.  His final voice-over monologue is both a brilliant piece of writing and brilliant piece of acting.

"You can't kill murder.  You can't get revenge on evil.  You can only begin to fight such things by not doing them".  Here we hear the future Batman's creed, and we see the evolution of Bruce Wayne into becoming that Dark Knight.  Now, we CAN believe that this Bruce Wayne WILL become Batman.  This has to be David Mazouz's finest performance on Gotham.

 
Equally excellent is guest star Lori Petty as Jeri.  Jeri was obviously meant to evoke whatever version of The Joker that will emerge from Gotham, but she created a whole new persona devoid from the makeup.  Jeri embodied the worship of the dark side of man, her and the club's love for the murderous evil Jerome and the Maniax committed on full display with the songs they sing and the video of the GCPD massacre playing in the background.  Jeri mocks the upright but almost bullying Gordon and Petty makes the character seem believable in this crazy, dark world.  I'd have no problem having her return for another appearance.

I think Gotham is really one of the best-acted shows, with CMS making Nygma more menacing and the evolution of the future Riddler again, believable.  He even gets a slight crack at McKenzie's expense, referring to Gordon as "my little man" (denoting McKenzie's 5'8" stature to CMS' 6' 1/2".  The fact that I'm 5'8" myself should not discourage me either). 

Though his role was smaller than usual, we feel such empathy for RLT's Oswald, who seems almost like a lost little boy in the torment of Strange's wicked experiments.  That delight when he is given his papers declaring him sane is so endearing, though I question why The Penguin didn't get his umbrella when he walks out of Arkham in the rain.

Talk about lost opportunities.

Everyone got their moment, and we even got an anti-gun speech by Selina.  "Guns aren't for show, Bruce.  And they're not for protection.  They're for one thing," she tells Bruce when she gives him the gun.  We know what they are for: killing.  The question is whether Bruce will be able to kill. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Wong's cold take on Hugh Strange.  It's really a sharp performance, one that displays so much by the eerie calm he demonstrates throughout.  We know he's a villain by just how rational he is.  Matched he is by Tonya Pinkins' Mrs. Peabody, as cold an assistant in evil as we've seen.

As a side note, does anyone ever ask her where Sherman is?

This Ball of Mud and Meanness is the best-acted Gotham so far, and one that delves into the darkness that Bruce Wayne will encounter before emerging as The Dark Knight.  The fact that this was not a violent episode (Matches' suicide is remarkably restrained by Gotham standards) adds to my enjoyment.   

By far, Gotham is knocking it out of the park, and we now see how Young Master Bruce will eventually take on the cowl that is his destiny.

10/10

Next Episode: Mad Grey Dawn

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Affairs of Oscar

Elizabeth Taylor:
Best Actress for
Butterfield 8


TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1960

The 33rd Academy Awards might just have well been called Near-Death and Transfiguration.  A year earlier, Elizabeth Taylor was denounced and shunned for a scandal that today is still shocking: running off with her friend Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fischer less than a year after becoming a widow due to the death of Fischer's best friend, Mike Todd, in a plane crash. 

Following this shocking turn of events when The Black Widow stole the husband of America's Sweetheart, Taylor nearly died while in London filming the epic Cleopatra, and had to have emergency surgery as she was inches away from death.  Her ordeal and long recuperation somehow absolved her sin of 'erotic vagrancy' as the Vatican put it (though to be fair, that term was coined when she left Fischer for Richard Burton, her Cleopatra costar).  As a way of welcoming her back to the good graces of moral Hollywood, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as a wanton woman in Butterfield 8, a performance Taylor found to be one of if not her worst.  History has proven Taylor right: if the tawdry yet entertaining Butterfield 8 is remembered at all, it is precisely because she won for a singularly unspectacular performance in a role that veered toward parody of her private life.

It was clearly a sympathy vote.  Even Debbie Reynolds, the woman whose husband Taylor had stolen, said she voted for Taylor.  Taylor for her part made no secret of how she hated Butterfield 8 and was pushed into it to fulfill her MGM contract.   I personally don't hate Butterfield 8, finding it entertaining but aware that this was not a 'great performance'. 

No sympathy votes for The Alamo, a film that essentially bullied its way to the Oscars.  Representing a new low for campaigning, The Alamo, like its namesake, fell in spectacular fashion, winning just one of its seven nominations (for Sound).  More on the particular scandal of The Alamo later.

Adultery was on the mind of Oscar this year.  There was the false preacher done in, in part, by the pleasures of the flesh in Elmer Gantry.  There is Taylor winning her first Oscar for being a woman of ill repute (the dialogue has her shouting such classic lines as "Face it, Mama.  I was the slut of all time!").  And then there is the Best Picture winner: The Apartment, a romantic comedy about a man who lets his bosses use his flat for their own trysts.  The Apartment would also be the last black-and-white picture to win Best Picture for thirty-three years.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1960 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



The Green Leaves of Summer: The Alamo
The Facts of Life: The Facts of Life
The Second Time Around: High Time
Never on Sunday: Never on Sunday
Faraway Part of Town: Pepe

Here we have one of The Alamo's seven nominations, but I think it's a safe bet that The Green Leaves of Summer is not on your iPad.  Also forgotten is Mexican comedic genius Cantiflas' second (and mercifully last) effort into the English market with Pepe, a film my Mexican mother found a horror.

Shockingly, the Academy actually picked the best song with the title song in Never On Sunday, the first foreign-language song to win in this category.



Curiously, the lyrics to the original Greek-language Never on Sunday are radically different from the more popular English-language version.  The Americanized version is more humorous, almost cute in the flirtatious, while the Greek version is one almost of longing.  I can live with both versions, but my leaning is towards the original.

However, I'm picking another song that is equally iconic.



The Facts of Life: The Facts of Life
Any Way the Wind Blows: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Never on Sunday: Never on Sunday
Please Don't Eat the Daisies: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Where the Boys Are: Where the Boys Are

From Where the Boys Are, Where the Boys Are, music and lyrics by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield.

Has Neil Sedaka ever gotten the credit he deserves for being a great songwriter?  Where the Boys Are is a song that evokes the joys of innocent Spring Break frolics, despite that the film itself explores premarital sex just as we were coming out of the conservative Eisenhower Era.   It's that mix of innocent and experience that makes Where the Boys Are even better, and I think that while Never on Sunday is an excellent song, Where the Boys Are has stood the test of time a trifle more.    

BEST DIRECTOR

Jack Cardiff: Sons and Lovers
Jules Dassin: Never on Sunday
Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho
Billy Wilder: The Apartment
Fred Zinnemann: The Sundowners

I liked The Apartment just fine.  It flowed well and had that cynical Wilder touch.  However, I think that when it comes to cinema, Alfred Hitchcock is held in higher regard.  Moreover, while The Apartment isn't completely forgotten like other Best Picture winners, Psycho is the one that is still being studied, copied, and even reworked as a television series.  The film is a cultural touchstone and still ranks among the great films, so at this moment I have to say Sorry, Billy.

You're just not Wilder enough.

Jack Cardiff: Sons and Lovers
Alfred Hitchcock: Psycho
Stanley Kubrick: Spartacus
John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven
Billy Wilder: The Apartment

I have too much respect for Cardiff to take him off, and I think of some of the other great films from 1960, it makes one wonder why a.) other directors were ignored, and b.) how the director of The Alamo was left off.  Then you remember The Alamo was directed by John Wayne, and it makes sense.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Glynis Johns: The Sundowners
Shirley Jones: Elmer Gantry
Shirley Knight: The Dark At the Top of the Stairs
Janet Leigh: Psycho
Mary Ure: Sons and Lovers

I think Jones got the Oscar in no small part because it was one of those 'radical change' roles.  Jones was seen as an ingénue, a sweet, almost virginal figure.  Therefore, it must have come as a revelation to see her play a hooker.  Oscar has a weakness for hookers too.

However, my vote goes to Janet Leigh's turn as the tragic Marion Crane in Psycho.  I can say tragic because even if you've never seen Psycho, you know enough to know who gets a bad shower. We saw her play in part a woman done in by love.  We empathize with her actions, and feel for her throughout the film.  It's now an iconic performance.



Shirley Jones: Elmer Gantry
Janet Leigh: Psycho
Janis Paige: Please Don't Eat the Daisies
Joan Plowright: The Entertainer
Jean Simmons: Spartacus

I think each one of these actresses was never given her due.  However, if I had the chance, I would give the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to a comedic performance.  Janis Paige gave a wonderful turn as the starlet determined to get back at the snobbish critic who trashed her using a mix of wiles and genuine talent.  A scene that has stuck with me was when she met David Niven's character in a beatnik coffee-house.  She gave a very good, dramatic monologue...until Niven told her she was 'acting' and he could see through it.  However, even he conceded she almost had him.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Peter Falk: Murder, Inc.
Jack Kruschen: The Apartment
Sal Mineo: Exodus
Peter Ustinov: Spartacus
Chill Wills: The Alamo

Let us look upon the sad, sad case of Chill Wills.  Wills was a veteran actor who specialized in Westerns, and this was Wills first (and only) Oscar nomination.  Perhaps sensing that his time was either at hand or about to expire, Wills (or someone on his behalf) mounted an Oscar campaigned that would prove disastrous and backfire in a spectacular way.

Wills put out an ad saying that his Alamo costars were praying harder for him to win than the men IN the actual Alamo were praying to win against Santa Ana's troops.  This bizarre declaration so shocked director/costar/producer John Wayne (who had mounted a similarly aggressive campaign for The Alamo, not nearly as tasteless and as grandiose as Wills'...though it came close) that Wayne was forced to publicly apologize for Wills' frankly-insulting comparison and shameless campaigning (even by Oscar standards). 

Wills then decided that after his Oscar gaffe, he needed to make another one.  He took out another ad declaring that win, lose, or draw, the Academy members were all his 'Alamo cousins' and he loved them all.  In return, Groucho Marx, no stranger to stinging remarks, put his own ad.  "Dear Mr. Wills, I'm delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo".

That public put-down by the Master of Quips pretty much doomed Chill Wills' Oscar chances.  Not that it helped Mineo win, as the Academy went for Ustinov's seriocomic performance as the gladiator school head forced into the machinations of rival Roman Senators.  

In retrospect though, the shameless campaigning can reap results...just ask Eddie Redmayne.



Gene Kelly: Inherit the Wind
Charles Laughton: Spartacus
Fred MacMurray: The Apartment
Peter Ustinov: Spartacus
Alan Young: The Time Machine

At least THIS redhead can act!  Alan Young, who will forever be beloved as the voice of Scrooge McDuck, was one of the best parts of one of the great films: The Time Machine.  Having read The Time Machine, I still prefer the film version to the original novel.  As George's best friend Filby...and his son...young and old, Filby is the quiet conscience, the one of the group who does not immediately dismiss George's story or accept it quickly. 

In other matters, I am puzzled why MacMurray, again playing against type as the sleazy boss, was overlooked Oscar time.  The fact that MacMurray NEVER received an Oscar nomination is a blight on the Academy, not on MacMurray.

BEST ACTRESS



Greer Garson: Sunrise at Campobello
Deborah Kerr: The Sundowners
Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment
Melina Mercouri: Never on Sunday
Elizabeth Taylor: Butterfield 8

Another safe bet is that few people remember that Elizabeth Taylor's first Oscar was for the rather tawdry (but still oddly enjoyable, if in a camp way), Butterfield 8.  One can wonder whether she was playing a version of herself as the appropriately named Gloria Wandrous, or was playing the image of this 'slut of all time'.  Taylor got the Oscar (which even she later said she didn't merit) out of sympathy, and that cost other actresses a chance to win legitimately.  For my money, it is MacLaine's turn as the lovelorn elevator girl, the heart in a heartless company, that moved me the most.



Doris Day: Midnight Lace
Greer Garson: Sunrise at Campobello
Shirley MacLaine: The Apartment
Melina Mercouri: Never on Sunday
Elizabeth Taylor: Butterfield 8

I have a bit of love for camp, so I'm leaving Taylor in (even though logic should tell me to cut her out).  Doris Day, an actress who stubbornly has never been given the recognition she deserved, showed that she could handle drama extremely well in this psychological thriller.  As the wife being terrorized to the point of insanity, Day delivers a fantastic performance, showing she could do more than be the cheerful chanteuse.

BEST ACTOR



Trevor Howard: Sons and Lovers
Burt Lancaster: Elmer Gantry
Jack Lemmon: The Apartment
Laurence Olivier: The Entertainer
Spencer Tracy: Inherit the Wind

I'm going to admit I have never warmed to Burt Lancaster.  Perhaps that is why I'm not big on his win for Elmer Gantry.  I'm much more fond of Laurence Olivier's wild change as the seedy Archie Rice in The Entertainer, as radical a departure for the classic Olivier as can be found.

That is the point of Archie Rice, isn't it?  The fact that he IS seedy, that it's so clear that he is seedy and sleazy but that there is also something sad and tragic about him.  Archie Rice WAS suppose to be grotesque, the humor of his second-rate act showing the pathetic nature of the man, one who could not equal his father's vaudeville heights or his daughter's respectability.



Jack Lemmon: The Apartment
Steve McQueen: The Magnificent Seven
Laurence Olivier: The Entertainer
Anthony Perkins: Psycho
Rod Taylor: The Time Machine

It is astonishing that given how iconic his performance has become, how it has influenced so many others and even inspired the television prequel Bates Motel, Anthony Perkins was NOT nominated for his performance in Psycho.  Let's face it: no matter how good Freddie Highmore is as Norman Bates in Bates Motel (and he IS extremely good), he knows that he is standing in the shadow of Perkins' turn.

The role was a blessing and a curse for Perkins.  Once held as another of the 'nice, clean-cut young men' of cinema, he was forever typecast as lunatics or at the least, highly troubled men.  Perkins eventually made peace with his most famous role, appearing in three Psycho sequels as Norman Bates.   For better or worse, Anthony Perkins in Psycho is an iconic performance in a brilliant film, one of the few screen monsters who didn't need a mask or twisted features to frighten.

BEST PICTURE



The Alamo
The Apartment
Elmer Gantry
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners

Now, granted, I am prejudiced about The Alamo given I'm a native Texan.  In fact, I don't know about other states, but in Texas, fourth or fifth graders are taught the state anthem (Texas, Our Texas) and we pledge allegiance to not just the American flag, but the Lone Star one too.  Given that, I'm bound to like The Alamo (even if I think it was one of the lesser choices among the films of 1960 to receive a Best Picture nomination).

In these times, studios and producers (like John Wayne) were willing to do everything short of actually giving out cash to get these nominations, and in the future, we'll see even worse nominees (and worse Best Picture winners).   Therefore, going after The Alamo seems a bit unfair, and to its credit the film is still popular with audiences. 

However, out of the five nominated films the clear champ is The Apartment, this story that mixes sleazy with sentiment about a man who lets his bosses use his place for immoral behavior. In the midst of that, our hero finds love with our heroine.  It's a love story...that involves extramarital sex.



The Apartment
The Magnificent Seven
Psycho
Spartacus
The Time Machine

Still, given just how many great films there were in 1960, The Alamo pushing its way to seven nominations (especially Best Picture) ranks as a particular low point in the Academy's storied history.  I think all the films I've submitted rank among some of the greatest, and out of the choices I'm switching my vote from The Time Machine (which is one of my personal favorites) to Psycho, a film that still holds the ability to shock.  It set the standard for 'suspense' and while at times unfairly lumped with witless slasher films, Psycho is still among the great films.

Therefore, I name Psycho the Best Picture of 1960.

Next Time, The 1961 Academy Awards.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Bates Motel: Goodnight, Mother Review



BATES MOTEL: GOODNIGHT, MOTHER

One of the strangest games of cat-and-mouse went on for this Bates Motel episode.  Goodnight, Mother, elevates the creepy factor to a higher level, with Mother Bates and Baby Bates both suspecting each other of murder.  The fact that in truth both are in a certain way right makes it all the more creepy.

Oh, yeah, and we get a little Dylemma.  Almost forgot about them.

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) is now completely convinced that his mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is a serial killer, 'her' newest victim being Audrey, mother of Emma Decody (Olivia Cooke).  He even has a rather horrifying vision of "Mother" stuffing Audrey in the basement freezer to find that Audrey was still alive and fighting furiously to force her way out.  As a result of his 'knowledge', he becomes extremely cold and brusque towards Norma, insisting to her that he knows all about her crimes.  Moreover, he knows she is trying to make others think he did it.

All this alarms and terrifies Norma, who I think is finally forced into the realization her son is insane.  She looks for Audrey's body in the massive pit that was suppose to be the Bates Motel pool, but try as she might, no body turns up.  Eventually, Norman's behavior becomes much more threatening: he holds a gun on her, is violent towards her, and in the end essentially holds her hostage at the house.  Terrified, she does manage to call Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell), begging for his help.

Unbeknown to her, Romero has taken some of the drug money he took from Bob Paris and used it to pay for Norman's stay at the Pineview Mental Hospital, but because Norman's eighteen Norman has to sign the consent forms.  He sends them to the hotel fax machine, but Norman gets to them first.  Eventually, Romero arrives at the hotel and rescues Norma, but it means taking Norman back to the County hospital.  Norma begs her son to sign the consent forms, though he has made it clear he does not want to go. Norma pleads with him that if he doesn't, he will go to an even worse place, and he in the end, signs them.

In the subplot, Emma gets her wings...I mean, lungs, and so far it looks like they are working, much to relief of Norman's half-brother, Dylan (Max Thieriot). 

It's a bit sad that the Dylemma subplot feels as if we go into almost soap-opera territory and feels a bit tacked-on.  I know that eventually Emma will return and that Dylan will probably figure into the overall craziness, but given how strong the main story was and how exception the performances of Highmore and Farmiga are, wandering back to the All Saints Hospital in Portland seems if not a waste of time a bit of a time filler.

And yes, the two main performances are what really push Goodnight, Mother into a fantastic episode, full of sheer-on Bates Motel insanity.  Highmore, who seems to be bizarrely forgotten come Emmy time (as Farmiga has been Bates Motel's only Emmy nomination) is brilliant in his cold, methodical manner to Norman;  the slow build to his fury and anger when 'confronting' Norma is chilling, as if he were inches from killing his own mother that he loves excessively.  The fact that Norman truly believes his own story makes it more chilling and frightening.

Farmiga has a harder task in Highmore's big scene, because she is only reacting to his crescendo of fury, but it is in her silence, her growing hurt and fear, and her genuine heartbreak in seeing the boy she loves essentially admit to being a serial killer that breaks your heart too.  You can see Norma fighting back the tears while also staring at her son in fear.

Carbonell, who doesn't interact with the Bates until the very end, is also strong.  Like a lot of things involving Romero, his motives are opaque.  Does he help Norma because he has fallen in love with her (his storyline involves telling her and everyone that he has agreed to marry her)?  Is he attempting to protect others from Norman's insanity?  We don't know what he is thinking, and Carbonell plays Romero as a somewhat weary man, a good man who does good things for reasons even he might not know.

I'm not going to be harsh on Thieriot because he was not given much to work with, but boy is that Dylemma story so far uninteresting (and him uninteresting too).  As for Cooke, well, again I'm giving her time to let her story grow because sometimes she's the best thing in Bates Motel, but don't try my patience.

Thanks to the double-act of Highmore and Farmiga, Goodnight, Mother is so far a great way to get Bates Motel Season Four off to another bonkers start.

9/10

Next Episode: 'Til Death Do You Part