Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Homerun Girls: A League of Their Own Review



A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

A League of Their Own has done some many remarkable things.  First and foremost, it has ensured that a small part of baseball history is never forgotten.  Second, it captures the spirit of both its time setting and the time of its release.  Third, the film hits all the emotional marks, making this a film about baseball, about gender roles, and a film about people in their humor and heartbreak.

World War II is taking all the Major League Baseball greats.  Fearing that America's pastime might slip into obscurity or worse, fold entirely, owners seize on an original idea: let women play professional baseball (at least until the men return)!  Scout Ernie Capadino (Jon Lovitz) is sent to find the talent to form the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL for short).  He is highly interested in Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis), a catcher he spots in Oregon.  Dottie isn't interested in playing professional anything, satisfied in her life and waiting for her husband to come back from the war.  Her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty) on the other hand, yearns to get out of the farm and wants desperately to join.  After some arm-twisting on Kit's part, Dottie reluctantly agrees to the tryouts.  On their way, they pick up a phenomenal player, Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), whom Ernie at first does not want to get because of her unattractiveness but who is forced to when both Dottie and Kit refuse to go without her.

At the tryouts, they encounter several other women of various social backgrounds, from a Southern belle and a (secretly) illiterate player to a couple of brash Nuw Yawkers, "All the Way" Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and her bosom buddy, bouncer Doris Murphy (Rosie O'Donnell).  I'll leave it up to you to figure out why her nickname is "All the Way" (here's a hint: I don't think it was her homerun skills, though I'm sure she managed to round the bases and was an expert in Grand Slams).  Dottie isn't intimated by them and they find themselves members of the Rockford Peaches.

Heading up the team is crusty, boozed-up, washed-up manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a former Cubs legend who is disdainful of both the idea of 'girls' playing professional baseball and of his career not what it was once before.  However, as time goes on, he starts seeing the genuine talent of the players, who show their skill, start bonding, and respecting each other.  Dottie and Kit, however, are starting to struggle with each other, one attempting to dominate and the other chafing to be free.  Kit is shifted to a rival team, and as things work out, they face each other in the championship.

In the end, the sisters do reconcile and now, going back to the beginning (as the film is an extended flashback), the various surviving players reunite at the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is having a special exhibition on the AAGPBL.  Dottie sees a display for Dugan and pauses, the impact of all she's lived through hitting her.  Still, this is a happy time despite the loss of others who shared the journey, for it is a reunion, and the real-life players take to the field one more time.



I'm pretty sure until A League of Their Own premiered, few people, even baseball aficionados, were aware of the short history of female professional baseball.  It was a pretty much forgotten story, until director Penny Marshall with screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (with the story by Kim Wilson and Kelly Candaele) brought what could have been a stuffy history lesson or a lecturing 'women are equal to men' scenario and put things together remarkably well.

The first is that the film makes its case for the equality of women without making us feel as if we are being force-fed the idea.  Instead, A League of Their Own made the wise choice of having us invest in the characters as individuals, particularly when we see the women playing ball so well.  It also reminds us of how women at the time were perceived when we get a sequence of the 'girls' having to undergo charm school.  With the dichotomy of seeing them as both women and as professional baseball players, the film keeps the balance where one aspect doesn't overshadow the other.

As I said, the film gives us a wide variety of personalities to work with, and as such, we see them as these complex people, who work at sports but who have extra burdens.  It is simply impossible not to have all the appropriate reactions: whether it's the comedy of the famous "There's no crying in baseball!" line or the tragedy of one of the players finding out her husband has been killed in action. 

In terms of performances, I think A League of Their Own is a showcase of veritable talent.  Geena Davis, to my mind, has simply never been better as the strong, assertive, no-nonsense Dottie.  Hanks owns every scene and always manages to make each scene he's in exactly as how it's suppose to be without overdoing it (be it the comic or dramatic side).  Even Madonna, who has had a hit-and-miss career in film (from the heights of Desperately Seeking Susan or Evita to the dredge of Body of Evidence or Swept Away) makes Mae into a brassy, tough, but also loveable and endearing girl who loves to dance and have a good time (a bit naughty but never horrid). 

I will confess one thing about A League of Their Own that I am not sure about.  Did Dottie really literally 'drop the ball' or not?

I found myself at the end of A League of Their Own totally enraptured by its story, so much so that I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears at the end.  Thanks to A League of Their Own, the expression "you throw like a girl" can serve as a compliment.

DECISION: A-

Monday, May 30, 2016

Parting the Red Salt: Salt of the Earth Review


SALT OF THE EARTH

I am open about my sociopolitical views.  I'm center-right and in most respects socially conservative.  Therefore, Salt of the Earth, a film that was made by and funded by Communists (or fellow travelers) might not be up my street.  However, it is also about the plight of Hispanics being mistreated, and as a Hispanic, I am attune to how my ancestors are portrayed on film.  Salt of the Earth is in some ways pretty accurate on some of the more unfortunate aspects of Hispanic culture, and it is a passion project for its worldview.  Sometimes it goes a bit overboard in how the proletariat will rise up against the evil company, but on the whole Salt of the Earth is a fascinating portrait of a particular idea/ideology.

Zinctown, New Mexico.  The Mexican-American miners of the Delaware Zinc Company are poorly paid and poorly treated.  We turn to the Quintero family: husband Ramon (Juan Chacon) and his pregnant wife, Esperanza (Rosauro Revueltas, one of the few professional actors in the production).  They are dirt poor, even for miners, particularly because the Mexican miners get paid less than their Anglo counterparts.  This does not sit well with Ramon, and neither does the payment system in the U.S.  "This installment plan, it's the curse of the working man," he declares in terms I know my parents always used when discussing finances.

Anyway, Ramon and his fellow Mexican miners opt to strike for better pay, and while they have sympathetic white supporters the vast majority of other miners aren't keen on the idea.  In particular, the Sheriff (Will Geer, better known as the Beloved Grandpa Walton on The Waltons) is fine if them Messicans stay in their place (a bit like Donald Tramp...er, Trump).  The union itself is having some difficulty, as this is considered 'men's work', and the men, particularly Juan, finds the idea of women picketing...or worse, VOTING, appalling.

However, because the men might lose their jobs if they do picket, the women take the initiative and form the picket line, taking advantage that they are not workers and thus, technically, are within the law.  The crisis grows until the company, which runs the town and the Sheriff, has the women all arrested.  Esperanza, who has had a political/social awakening, has joined the picketers, taking her baby with her.  The company is not afraid to play hardball, down to trying to run the women over.  In jail, the loud protests of the women for milk for their children among other demands so overwhelms the Sheriff he has no choice to give in.

Eventually, the women earn the right to vote in the union, but the company, enraged by the Quinteros actions, force them out of the company home.  However, they will not be denied, and in the end, triumph over the evils of capitalism.

It has always been my policy to give positive reviews to films that I think are well-made, even if I disagree with their views, and negative reviews to films that I think are poorly-made, even if I agree with their views.  As such, I give Salt of the Earth a very positive review because, given the low budget and few professional actors, it is a finely-crafted film.

Of particular note, and something I think Salt of the Earth has not been given as much credit as it should, is in how accurate it is regarding the machismo and blatant sexism of the Mexican-American males back then (and up to a certain point, still now).  Hispanic men can be more sexist than their Anglo counterparts, and their sexism goes beyond thinking that women should not do 'men's work', or even vote.  Salt of the Earth is clear about how the men felt free to make decisions that impacted the women without so much as consulting them.  It also shows that the sexism and the belittling the menfolk have against their sisters (Juan is a sexist pig, no way around it) held a pretty strong hold for years afterward.  In the Chicano movement of the 1970s, Mexican-American women faced the same difficulties their mothers in the 1950s did, the men stubbornly insisting a woman's place was in the kitchen and as support staff (Dolores Huante be damned). 

Salt of the Earth is a very well-made film if you don't mind accepting that to a point, it is propaganda.  Skillfully made propaganda in the same way Triumph of the Will is a skillfully-made propaganda, but propaganda nonetheless.  This film has the involvement of many left-wing people, all of whom had been blacklisted during the McCarthy Era by Hollywood. (Geer, Revueltas, director Herbert Bibermen, screenwriter Michael Wilson, who had been one of the infamous Hollywood Ten).  Salt of the Earth shows what can happen when a group of like-minded individuals are given free rein without any sense of censorship.  The people behind the film were craftsmen, but they also could not help going at times overboard in their depictions of 'good' versus 'evil'.

That line about installment plans being 'the curse of the working man' sounds rather forced, and the final image of Esperanza (there must be a reason the main female character's name is "Hope") is almost divine in how she (and by extension, the workers) are shown.  Even in some of the professional acting things are a bit overboard.  Revueltas at times seems like she was the amateur of the group, and while it's clear Chacon isn't an actor it's hard to be too harsh.  I do compliment Geer for not going overboard in making the Sheriff into a totally cartoonishly evil character, and shows that perhaps one needed professionals. 

Still, on the whole Salt of the Earth is a strong film and a fine example of how to use film to further a sociopolitical viewpoint.



As a side note, the screening of Salt of the Earth I attended at the Plaza Classic Film Festival had brief conversations with the descendants of the original miners after the film.  One of them, Elisa Sanchez, a daughter of a miner, pointed out that Local 890's Women's Auxiliary had been formed in 1948 and so was organized prior to the events of the film.  Ernestian Kirker, who I think was Ms. Sanchez's cousin, confirmed that children did march in the picket line and made an eloquent statement.  "I'm the legacy of what they did.  It's my story.  It's my people".

There was another person there, whom I know from work who is also related to the miners, whether by blood or marriage I don't know.  I can say on a personal level she is rather unpleasant to work with and she would make the mining company proud in her attitude and behavior towards the people who work under her.  She shall remain anonymous.

We did also learn that there was a 'tiny amount' of Communist funding for the film, though my memory is vague on whether the funding came from the American Communist Party itself or from Communists themselves.  I also note that someone had mentioned that Michael Wilson did not receive credit for Lawrence of Arabia as a result of being blacklisted.  There is still dispute about Wilson's role in the Lawrence script.  He had written a script but director David Lean opted to essentially throw it out and bring in playwright Robert Bolt to rework the screenplay. 

The speaker I think might have had another David Lean film in mind, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which Wilson and another blacklisted writer, Carl Foreman, wrote.  The year of Bridge on the River Kwai's release, the screenplay was credited to the novel's author, Pierre Boulle, even though Boulle spoke no English, let alone wrote in English.

Therefore, I think Salt of the Earth is an excellent film, an interesting study in film as agitprop, and a historic film on the gender/civil rights of a hereto unrecognized community. 

DECISION: B+

Sunday, May 29, 2016

WASP Crime Wave: Bottle Rocket Review



BOTTLE ROCKET

I've always found Wes Anderson a heavily acquired taste.  Sometimes I find him enchanting in his deliberate quirkiness (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel), sometimes I find him excruciatingly self-indulgent and cutesy (The Royal Tennenbaums).  Love him or hate him (until recently I was in the latter), Anderson can be called an 'auteur'.  Bottle Rocket, his first full-length feature film, doesn't have all the Andersonian motifs (the camera does go other directions besides left to right...exclusively) and I figure he tried to ground it in some form of reality.  I found Bottle Rocket good, not great, but at least not as incessantly cloying as some of his other features that rely too heavily on the cutesy. 

Dignan (Owen Wilson) picks up his friend Anthony (Luke Wilson) from the mental hospital Anthony checked himself in (I believe it was due to a bad breakup).  However, it is clear that Dignan is the one who should have been locked away in the looney bin, since he clearly has delusions of greatness regarding his '75-year-plan' for a life of crime.  Dignan fancies himself a future master criminal, though clearly inept in all aspects of it.  Despite what should have been his own common sense, Anthony goes along with Dignan's schemes (I guess it gives Dignan something to do and aspire to).

Dingan recruits perhaps the worst crime crew in human history, consisting of him, Anthony, and their friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) to be the getaway driver.  I think him being the only person who has a car helps in that.  They do pull off a bookstore robbery, though Anthony and Bob find Dingan's rather grand plan excessively complex to the point of idiocy.  Now 'on the lam', they 'hide out' at a second-rate motel, where a pretty young Latina housekeeper, Inez (Lumi Cavazos) catches Anthony's eye.  Soon, a romance ensues, despite the language barrier (because in East Texan Anderson's worldview, Hispanics are incapable of speaking English).



Now it's on to their biggest heist yet, sponsored by Dignan's criminal hero, Mr. Henry (James Caan).  However, by this time Anthony and Dignan have broken ties, with Dignan continuing his life of crime and Anthony doing his best to be on the straight and narrow.  However, Dingan gets Anthony to help in this big heist, which goes surprisingly wrong (I think of Mr. Henry's crew gets shot) and Dignan manages to get himself arrested.  To add to the overall idiocy of these three WASPs, we find that Mr. Henry stole from the Mapplethorpe house while these imbeciles were pulling off their great heist.  With Dignan in jail, Anthony and Bob go see him, and find that up to a point, Dignan is still Dignan, possibly planning an elaborate escape plan...or not.

Well, like a lot of Anderson's C.V., Bottle Rocket is going to be an acquired taste.  I'm slowly reconciling myself to the Andersonian worldview of cutesy, quirky, offbeat, WASPy characters living in their own universe barely resembling anything I could comprehend.  I figure that our worldviews clash because he's from East Texas, while I'm from West Texas...two universes divided by the same state.

What I see in Bottle Rocket was that Anderson hadn't given in to his total immersion into the self-awareness of the quirky.  Instead, he handled the characters as realistically as they could be, given how dumb and delusional they were.  He actually managed to move the camera from left to right and even did cross-editing. 

It's also interesting that fellow Texans the Owen Brothers were also just starting out, but were essentially playing the types of characters they would continue to do so in their careers: Owen the offbeat, slightly dim type, Luke the more rational and responsible one.  One wonders whether they are playing themselves, but I don't know them to make such a broad characterization.

What I can say is that one marvels how Anthony could go along with Dingan's ideas.  As a side note, I figure Bottle Rocket is a portrait of WASP criminal delusions, for who names their child Dignan?  I also note, with disdain, the idea that the only Hispanic in the film serves both as 'the love interest' and has to be English-deficient.  Would it have killed Anderson to not go down this stereotypical route?

However, I can't say that I didn't enjoy Bottle Rocket (seeing Anderson go in other directions instead of his standard left-to-right stop-and-go manner helped).  It was amusing, with a nice twist at the end, and characters whom we do care about (it's hard not to like Owen Wilson's dimwitted, delusional Dignan).  Give Anderson credit for getting great performances out of the Wilson Brothers and Caan as the strong but much cleverer Mr. Henry.

I do remember leaving the screening of Bottle Rocket with a slightly higher opinion of Wes Anderson, though I still think he has a very particular, peculiar worldview that I don't share and sometimes find annoying.  The Wilsons were great and it told its offbeat story with genuine affection for this group of oddballs.

Who knows...maybe I'll learn to stop worrying and love Wes Anderson.

DECISION: B-

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Beatles Go On: A Hard Day's Night Review



A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

Are The Beatles the greatest band in history?  Let's just say that John, Paul, George, and Ringo are...very, very good.  A Hard Day's Night, their feature film debut, is equal to their music: a brilliant, fun film that captures the charm of our four Liverpool lads and spoofs both the madness and mayhem that Beatlemania brought.  This was when The Beatles were fun and unabashedly so, before they went psychedelic, before the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, before John was shot and George was consumed with cancer.  Both as a light comedy and a document of its time, A Hard Day's Night is a film that even those who know nothing of music will think, "These guys could PLAY"!

Chronicling the lives of The Fab Four as they race to make a television appearance (whilst avoiding their crazed fans), the Beatles all try to keep their heads together all while keeping a wary eye on Paul's grandfather, John McCartney (Wilfrid Brambell), who is a 'clean old man'.  After the chaos of boarding the train, they find their time in their hotel a bit restrictive, but their manager does his best to keep them in line. 

Once they make it to the BBC Studios, Grandpa John talks Ringo, who is feeling left out of things, to wander about and find some freedom.  Needless to say, Ringo goes out...as the show gets ever closer!  Eventually, after an arrest of both Ringo and Grandpa John, all works out for the best as The Beatles entertain their fans with their songs, giving a respectful bow at the end.



I think A Hard Day's Night is simply a great way to introduce The Beatles to anyone who hasn't heard or heard of them.  I'm sure there must be someone out there.  We get the lads as I figure they probably were, for as far as I can tell, they were playing themselves (or at least, remarkable simulations of themselves).  Alun Owens' screenplay gives us such delightful moments of cheeky fun and bravado.  When facing against a hostile older gentleman on the train, he snaps at them, "I fought The War for the likes of you".  I think it was either Ringo or John who replied, "I bet you're sorry you won!" 

Another of the great and fun moments of A Hard Day's Night is when The Beatles endure a press conference.  Long before the term 'mockumentary' took hold, I figure director Richard Lester was creating it, as the boys go through the inanities of answering the same questions over and over again.  Ringo's cheeky replies ("I'm a mocker", when asked whether he is mod or a rocker) and Paul's repetitive answers all lend this sequence a light, breeze manner that runs throughout the film.

Of course, if you think about it, it is the music, the extraordinary music that is the real highlight of A Hard Day's Night.  I remember quite well when I went to the Plaza Classic Film Festival when A Hard Day's Night played, and Beatlemania was still in full swing.  The audience was happily singing along to the songs, and while I don't think anyone actually screamed like the fans in the concert scene (and even slightly muted they were still strong screams), everyone had a good time.

A Hard Day's Night captures the fun of being young, foolish, crazy, and in The Beatles' case, extremely, exceedingly talented.  A great soundtrack, with a fun a breezy manner, A Hard Day's Night is a delight from beginning to end.  She Loves You...and We Love You, Too.

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.



DECISION: A+

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Agnes of God: A Review


AGNES OF GOD

Agnes of God has many good qualities to it, well, to my mind, precisely two: Meg Tilly and Georges Delerue.  In other ways, it is a bit rushed and a bit muddled, but for myself I enjoyed it just enough to make it worth my time.

One night, in an isolated convent, a postulant is found bleeding.  The Mother Superior, Mother Miriam Ruth (Anne Bancroft), is shocked to see Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly) on the floor in such a shocking state.  Even more shocking is the dead baby in the wastebasket...apparently having been strangled with its umbilical cord.

What exactly happened on this night?  To investigate whether Sister Agnes is mentally fit to stand trial, the Quebec court enlists Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda).  The lapsed Catholic is still bitter about how the Church was towards her, her late sister, and the Church's attitudes towards her decisions (we learn when she visits her Alzheimer's afflicted mother that Martha has had both a divorce and an abortion).  Despite this, she agrees to investigate Sister Agnes' mental condition.

Dr. Livingston is shocked by the fact that Agnes has no memory of ever being pregnant, let alone giving birth.  Even more astonishing is her claim that she does not know how she became pregnant.  As far as Livingston can make out, Agnes has no knowledge of sex: both the mechanics and the pleasures of it.  It's as if Agnes conceived her child without her even knowing it.  Moreover, Sister Agnes is a woman who has visions and hears voices, one who is extremely devout in an unorthodox fashion.

Mother Miriam is no help to Dr. Livingston.  She is a woman of the world (having been married with children, and even grandchildren, before joining the order).  She is determined to keep Agnes an innocent, and is openly hostile to Livingston.  She also gives Livingston a surprising bit of information: Sister Agnes once had stigmata appear without cause. 

The time of conception has been pinpointed to a particular date, but we still do not know how Agnes, an innocent nun isolated from everyone save the other equally reclusive sisters, got pregnant.  Over Mother Miriam's objections, Dr. Livingston gets the court to order a hypnosis.  Here, we learn that she is indeed the mother, and that someone else knew she was pregnant.  Under a second hypnosis session, we discover that Agnes claims that on the night of another nun's death (a nun she was close to), she went through a secret passage that the late nun showed Agnes, and there, she met 'Michael', who in Agnes' mind could have been God Himself.

To everyone's shock, Agnes' stigmata returns, and Agnes claims that God knocked her up.  In her shock and anger, Agnes strangled the newborn (the pregnancy being known to Mother Miriam, who is also Agnes' aunt).  The court finds Agnes incompetent to stand trial and instead of a mental hospital is confined to the convent. 

Whoever actually fathered the child, be it human or divine, we will never know.


I think that perhaps this is one of Agnes of God's flaws: the mystery pops in and out to serve playwright John Pielmeier (adapting his own stage play) own musings on the possibility of miracles.  After all, if we believe Sister Agnes, then her child's conception was the work of the Divine...one she rejects.  Yet at the end, if we believe Dr. Livingston, she, this hardened atheist, now has room for doubt regarding her own lack of faith.

You have a mystery (who fathered Agnes' child and was this conception something Agnes sought or not) mixed in with the idea of a miracle (or not).  If you look at Agnes of God as a mystery, it isn't all that big of a mystery.  Agnes had the child, Agnes was in the room when the child was found dead.  It isn't hard to figure that Agnes murdered the child. 

The whole 'divine vs. human' debate Agnes of God would like to have doesn't quite come to fruition, or at least in how either Pielmeier or director Norman Jewison probably would have wanted.  However, the elements of Agnes of God that do work, work so well.   Those elements, as I mentioned in the beginning, are two.

The first is Meg Tilly's Oscar-nominated performance as the possibly deranged, possibly saintly Sister Agnes.  Tilly has an extremely difficult role: making Sister Agnes' intense faith something believable without making her seem downright bonkers.  Tilly kept that almost impossible balance between Agnes' innocence, almost sweetness and her more extreme reactions grounded without going all crazy.  Even in those scenes where she is some sort of mania (like when she is remembering her encounter that led to her pregnancy and the mass bleeding of her stigmata, Tilly never goes over the top or give in to the temptation to make Agnes a crazy person.  Instead, Tilly makes her a disturbed one, that mixture of naïve and ethereal into someone who could genuinely exist.

Bancroft, on the other hand, at times does go a bit hammy, her delivery deliberately too snappish and quick, with a bad tendency to make faces as a sign of her acting (her Oscar nomination notwithstanding).  Fonda, for her part, does great work with an underwritten part.  We get little hints of Dr. Livingston's life (the dementia-afflicted mother, her abandoning of her faith), but they don't go very far in exploring it. 


The other simply brilliant element is Georges Delerue's Oscar-nominated score.  Haunting and beautiful, it is an elegant and soothing counterpoint to the insanity that surrounds the Convent of the Little Sisters of Marie Magdalene. 

We also have Sven Nykvist's cinematography, capturing the beauty of the isolated convent and the intensity of the final hypnosis: the blending of the red and white frightening.

The mystery is never solved (I suspect that Agnes was raped...by a human, and in her state was unaware of what was going on save for the ecstasy she felt), and I think we are suppose to reach our own conclusions.  In that respect, we are left a bit frustrated, but in other aspects (Tilly and Delerue), Agnes of God is better than some of its parts.





DECISION: B-

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

It's A Jolly Holiday With Oscar

Lila Kedrova:
Best Supporting Actress for
Zorba the Greek
 
TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1964
 
The 37th Academy Awards boiled down to The War of The English Musicals. In one corner, the veddy proper British nanny Mary Poppins.  In the other corner, the Cockney sweetheart of My Fair LadyMary Poppins came in with 13 nominations, while My Fair Lady was hot on its heels with 12.

This war was made particularly vicious given the circumstances involving Julie Andrews.  Andrews had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway and it was perhaps assumed she would recreate her role in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady as her costar, Rex Harrison was going to do.  Warner Brothers, however, was not about to cast an unknown in the lead of their film.  Therefore, they passed Andrews over for a bonafide box office draw: Audrey Hepburn.  The fact that Hepburn did not sing was irrelevant to Jack Warner.  Hepburn desperately wanted to sing in the film, and there are surviving audio tracks of her actual voice singing Wouldn't It Be Loverly?.  HOWEVER, Jack Warner (again) thought he knew better...and had professional singer Marni Nixon come in a dub Hepburn.

This dubbing (and the openness about it) always rankled Hepburn, who felt humiliated by it all.  This was compounded by the fact that she was compared to Andrews (or worse, endured the suggestion that she had 'stolen' the part). 

Another movie mogul, Walt Disney, saw an opportunity in Warner's decision to not cast Andrews and scooped her up for his own musical film based on P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins books.  Travers was a nightmare to deal with (Mary Poppins' musical writer Robert Sherman, decades after the fact, referred to her bitterly as 'a witch', though you sensed he wanted to use a similar-sounding word for her).  However, the film itself was highly impressive, and come Oscar-time, Andrews received an Oscar for Mary Poppins...and Audrey Hepburn did NOT receive so much as a nomination for My Fair Lady.  Was it payback for Hepburn 'stealing' Andrews' role?  Was it blowback from the fact that Hepburn didn't sing while Andrews did?  It just added to the bad perception Hepburn was receiving, which given her illustrious career and extensive charitable work, was one of the few times she ran afoul of Hollywood and the public.

The war came to a dramatic conclusion the night of the ceremony.  My Fair Lady, in terms of actual wins, was the winner (8 wins out of 12 nominations).  Mary Poppins, despite being the most nominated, went home with a mere five.
 
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 1964 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



Chim Chim Cher-ee: Mary Poppins
Dear Heart: Dear Heart
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
My Kind of Town: Robin and the 7 Hoods
Where Love Has Gone: Where Love Has Gone

Can it be that with two exceptions, none of this year's nominees naturally roll off the tongue?  I find Chim Chim Cher-ee a perfectly delightful song...though I confess a near-blinding hatred of Dick Van Dyke.  Not as a person, but as a person.  I've seen Mary Poppins exactly once...precisely because of Van Dyke, with that damn grin and horrendous Cockney accent.  He drives me so crazy that I cannot bring myself to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show or even Diagnosis Murder BECAUSE of that damn goofy grin and incessantly cheerful demeanor.  There's one Golden Girls episode where he guest starred which I find an ordeal to sit through.  Still, as a song, Chim Chim Cher-ee has stood the test of time and in its way, the Sherman Brothers created a beautiful number.

However, my choice is different, and I choose another nominee.



From Robin and the 7 Hoods, My Kind of Town, music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics by Sammy Cahn. 

Robin and the 7 Hoods isn't well-remembered, but Ol' Blue Eyes ode to the Windy City certainly is.  It's become a standard and I think a better song than Chim Chim Cher-ee

HOWEVER, here in 1964, we have TWO much superior songs to Dear Heart and Where Love Has Gone.  Sorry. 



Goldfinger: Goldfinger
Feed the Birds: Mary Poppins
My Kind of Town: Robin and the Seven Hoods
Send Me No Flowers: Send Me No Flowers
Viva Las Vegas: Viva Las Vegas      

From Goldfinger, Goldfinger, music by John Barry, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.

Screw Adele.  Screw Sam Smith.  Goldfinger is THE Bond Song of ALL Bond Songs, not just the Greatest Bond Song of All Time but one of the Greatest Songs Ever Written for Film.  Goldfinger is the standard by which all other Bond Songs are measured to (even with those dreadful back-to-back Bond Themes of Skyfall and Writing's on the Wall, which will fade away within five years from memory.  Quick, how does the bridge to Skyfall go...no peeking).

I put it to the snobbishness of the Academy's music branch that something as contemporary and popular as Goldfinger was overlooked come nominating time in favor over the very square and safe Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte or Where Love Has Gone.  How else to explain not only no nomination for Goldfinger but for another now-classic, Viva Las Vegas

BEST DIRECTOR

George Cukor: My Fair Lady
Peter Glenville: Becket
Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove
Robert Stevenson: Mary Poppins
Michael Cacoyannis: Zorba the Greek

Thank Heavens for the Best Adapted Screenplay category.  Otherwise, Becket would have the record for the most losses in Oscar history and loses in all the categories it was nominated for.  Out of 12 nominations, Becket managed one win, which is a shame since it is a very good film about the conflict between Church and State (personified by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Henry II, former friends turned bitter enemies). 

I think even the most passionate Cukor lover would be hard-pressed to say My Fair Lady was his best film (though by no means a bad one).  Methinks his win here was more of a de facto Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, having been overlooked so many times before (four previous nominations dating from as far back as the 6th Academy Awards) and for films he wasn't nominated for (such as Dinner at Eight, The Women, Gaslight, A Star is Born, Camille, and/or Adam's Rib). 

This brought about the sad case of making Stanley Kubrick a perennial also-ran.  My Fair Lady is a nice, charming film, but Dr. Strangelove is iconic, a Cold War comedy about the end of the world.  History, I think, has decided that the young Turk Kubrick outdid the old master Cukor, but for the Academy, stodginess is the order of the day.

William Castle: Strait-Jacket
George Cukor: My Fair Lady
John Huston: The Night of the Iguana
Stanley Kubrick: Dr. Strangelove
Richard Lester: A Hard Day's Night

Certainly, innovation was not high on the Academy's list.  Otherwise, why leave out Lester's almost avant-garde directing for A Hard Day's Night?  It also wasn't going to reward someone like Castle, who was independent long before independent film was the in thing.   I really see nothing to alter my view that Kubrick was the best director for his wild comedy of terrors.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS




Gladys Cooper: My Fair Lady
Edith Evans: The Chalk Garden
Grayson Hall: The Night of the Iguana
Lila Kedrova: Zorba the Greek
Agnes Moorehead: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Well, at the moment I really can't find much to argue with when it comes to this category.  I just can't.



Diane Baker: Strait-Jacket
Honor Blackman: Goldfinger
Ava Gardner: The Night of the Iguana
Lila Kedrova: Zorba the Greek
Agnes Moorehead: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

For some time I had put Blackman as my winner for her Pussy Galore.  However, my instincts kicked in and thought, maybe that while iconic, in terms of acting, maybe we ought to go with Kedrova, and thus I switched my vote at the last minute.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



John Gielgud: Becket
Stanley Holloway: My Fair Lady
Edmond O'Brien: Seven Days in May
Lee Tracy: The Best Man
Peter Ustinov: Topkapi

Ustinov is an interesting actor in my view.  Sometimes I think he's brilliant, sometimes I think he's just a bit on the campy side, hamming it up for all its worth and letting his distinctive voice and diction carry him (Luther is a good example, though in fairness he was already rather elderly at the time).  I suppose that when Ustinov was good, he was very, very good, so I'm going to put him here.



Alan Bates: Zorba the Greek
Gert Frobe: Goldfinger
Herbert Lom: A Shot in the Dark
George C. Scott: Dr. Strangelove
Peter Ustinov: Topkapi

That being said, what has become more iconic than Frobe's turn as probably the Greatest Bond Villain, Auric Goldfinger?  Perhaps the fact that he was dubbed might make people question this decision, but a.) he didn't dub his acting, and b.) the dubbing has never been an issue for me.  Frobe is almost always listed among the Great Bond Villains and with apologies to all the other nominees, he is the one we remember.

BEST ACTRESS



Julie Andrews: Mary Poppins
Anne Bancroft: The Pumpkin Eater
Sophia Loren: Marriage Italian Style
Debbie Reynolds: The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Kim Stanley: Séance on a Wet Afternoon

When Julie Andrews won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy for Mary Poppins, she made the somewhat cheeky comment (in her most gracious British accent) by saying she'd like to thank the man who made all this possible...Mr. Jack Warner.  As mentioned earlier, Jack Warner had infamously passed Andrews over to recreate her Broadway/West End role of Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady (while simultaneously bringing Rex Harrison to recreate his).  This allowed Andrews to make Mary Poppins.  Whether Andrews won because the members thought she gave the best performance or were striking back at Warner's idiocy I cannot say.   I will say that out of the five nominated performances, hers is the one that sticks out and is best remembered.



Julie Andrews: Mary Poppins
Joan Crawford: Strait-Jacket
Audrey Hepburn: My Fair Lady
Deborah Kerr: The Night of the Iguana
Kim Stanley: Séance on a Wet Afternoon

Say what you will about Crawford's parenting skills, when it came to her on-screen work, few people have been as committed to any project as she.  Even in her more outlandish roles, Crawford went all-in.  I have always enjoyed Strait-Jacket, and her performance as the ax murderess who is attempting to keep her sanity and protect her daughter despite a series of recent ax murders is one that is strong and confident.  Joan Crawford gave it her all and I think delivered the goods. 

BEST ACTOR



Richard Burton: Becket
Rex Harrison: My Fair Lady
Peter O'Toole: Becket
Anthony Quinn: Zorba the Greek
Peter Sellers: Dr. Strangelove

Once again we see two actors from the same film cancelling each other out.  There is a strange and sad irony that Burton and O'Toole should find themselves competing against each other since both of them would go on to be among Oscar's greatest losers (O'Toole being the most nominated actor without a win with eight nominations, Burton close behind with seven, but at least O'Toole got one of those Honorary ones as an apology).

I have never found Rex Harrison's work in My Fair Lady to be particularly spectacular.  He seemed to be playing himself.  Worse, while Hepburn was dragged through the coals for not singing, Harrison was rewarded for essentially the same thing.  He, unlike Hepburn, wasn't dubbed, and he, unlike Andrews, recreated his original stage role of Professor Henry Higgins (soon to be played, I'm sure, by that great American thespian, Channing Tatum).  However, Harrison was not a singer by any stretch, and Lerner & Lowe had to cater their songs to his non-singing voice by having him 'talk on pitch'.  If you watch My Fair Lady, you can see (or perhaps, hear) that he doesn't actually sing, but talks within a melody.

You see this versus Sellers, who plays three different characters: the title role of the mad German (read, Nazi) scientist, the ineffectual American President, and the flustered British officer attempting to stop General Jack D. Ripper from blowing up the world to protect his precious bodily fluids.  Interestingly, Sellers was to have played a fourth character, the crazed "King" Kong who drops the bomb while whooping it up (Sellers suffered an injury while shooting and the role went to Slim Pickens).  Each character was so well-performed it is a real acting feat. 

Again, the Academy went for safe.   

Richard Burton: Becket
Sean Connery: Goldfinger
Peter O'Toole: Becket
Anthony Quinn: Zorba the Greek
Peter Sellers: Dr. Strangelove

At the moment, I really don't see anyone topping Sellers, Rex Harrison least of all.  At least Rex Harrison wasn't nominated for Dr. Doolittle...talk about bizarre turns.

BEST PICTURE



Becket
Dr. Strangelove
Mary Poppins
My Fair Lady
Zorba the Greek

Well, the Academy shows that it sure loves its old-school musicals.  I'm pretty sure Dr. Strangelove, with its wild take on the Cold War and mutually assured destruction, probably shocked some of the older Academy members (some of whom, I suspect, are STILL voting).  As a result, they went for the squarest of square choices, the film adaptation of a highly successful and brilliant musical.  I figure that perhaps giving the Best Picture Oscar to Walt Disney, who holds the record for the most Oscar wins of anyone (22 wins), would have been too much for members who were loyal to their own studios. 

Still, while I like My Fair Lady, I think that when you match the films, Dr. Strangelove is by far the more original and extraordinary work of the two.

With that, I select Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as the Best Picture of 1964.



Becket
Dr. Strangelove
A Hard Day's Night
Mary Poppins
Zorba the Greek

Again, not a hard choice (though the equally innovate A Hard Day's Night is a tough act to follow).  With that, I keep Dr. Strangelove as the Best Picture of 1964.

Next Time, the 1965 Academy Awards.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Crimson Peak: A Review


CRIMSON PEAK

I think many people might have gone into Crimson Peak thinking it was some sort of horror film.  Instead, we got something closer to Gothic romance with ghosts in it, a bit of a supernatural-tinged Jane Eyre.  It's by no means bad, and it has mostly good performances.  It might a bit too grand for my tastes and a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism of things, but on the whole, I could live with it.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska aka The Great Love of My Life) lives in Baltimore with her long-widowed father, Carter (Jim Beaver).   Shortly after her mother's death when she was young, Edith saw her mother's specter, warning her to 'beware of Crimson Peak' (which I think is as vague a warning as the undead have given any fair maiden).

Edith is a frustrated authoress, a bit bookish and trying desperately to break into publishing like her heroine, Mary Shelley.  Her only champion apart from her father is her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), whose own hero is another eye-doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle.  Enter into Baltimore society Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet come to Baltimore for finances from Carter to fund Sir Thomas' invention to save his fortune.  Carter points out to Sir Thomas that he's gone to several places for finances, and has been turned down.  Baltimore will be no different.

However, Edith is drawn to the mysterious baronet, and he to her.  Only Sir Thomas' balmy sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) appears to be displeased by the potential for romance.  And romance there is, though Sir Thomas is not above getting paid off by Carter to break Edith's heart.  Fortunately for the thwarted lovers, Carter dies at his club just as Sir Thomas defies Carter to return for Edith.  It isn't long before Edith becomes Lady Sharpe.



It isn't long also before things at the decrepit Sharpe home, Allerdale Hall, show themselves to be bonkers.  Edith feels trapped in the isolation of Allerdale Hall, and Thomas & Lucille are very clearly hiding a lot of somethings.  Dr. McMichael is also wary, discovering that Carter had put an investigator on the Sharpes and investigating Carter's death.  Despite what appears to be genuine romantic, even sexual, interest by Thomas to the virginal Edith, he still has not deflowered his bride.  Lucille, for her part, appears to permanently hover without actual levitation.

Edith is helping fund Thomas' machine that will bring out red clay from the earth around Allerdale Hall, and McMichael makes some shocking discoveries about the truth involving Carter and the Sharpes.  On a rare visit to town, Sir Thomas and Lady Sharpe are snowed in and forced to stay the night, where at last, they indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.  Lucille appears enraged at the mere thought that someone was intimate with her brother...wonder why.

Edith, who is slowly getting weaker, sees her dead mother again, along with other ghosts, and now Edith makes a shocking discovery of her own.  Allerdale Hall's nickname among the population is...CRIMSON PEAK!

McMichael goes to Crimson Peak to reveal what Edith has already put together...Sir Thomas has been married at least three times, with all three Lady Sharpes dying in ugly circumstances.  All three Lady Sharpes were also wealthy daughters who had no other relations and thus, would not be missed.  In what could have been the most shocking discovery of all, Lucille the older of the two has been carrying on a long-term affair with her brother Thomas, going so far as to murdering her mother for the crime (and spending time in the Victorian-era version of a psycho ward too).  Lucille tries to murder McMichael and tries to get Thomas to commit his first murder, but Thomas appears to have a change of heart and merely injuries the good doctor.  Lucille murders Thomas, had earlier tried to kill Edith, and finally meets her end at Edith's hand (with a little help from Thomas' ghost). 

In the end, the widow Lady Sharpe has written her book, called Crimson Peak.

I figure that Crimson Peak was director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro's homage to Gothic horror films.  Just the name "Cushing" for our heroine suggests Del Toro looked to Hammer Films for inspiration.  The Gothic settings, the deliberately ornate costumes, the dilapidated, isolated mansion (complete with a hole in the roof that allowed for gentle snow to cascade down), the weird siblings...it all adds up to a film that clearly wants people to pay attention to surroundings and be lost in the decaying splendor of it all.

Even the performances are I would argue deliberately stagey.  I point out that we a most fascinating circle of acting here.  We have an Australian (Wasikowska) playing an American, an American (Chastain) playing an Englishwoman, and an Englishman (Hunnam) playing an American.  Only Loki gets to play his native nationality.  Perhaps because the acting is, I hope, deliberately stagey and grandiose I will forgive the oddball nature and posing by Hiddleston and Chastain.  They were MEANT to be really, really weird...so I figure when you play incestuous siblings you can be a bit mannered.

Wasikowska, who I think is just one of our great young actresses today (dare I call her this generation's Meryl Streep?) played the part of the somewhat frightened Edith beautifully.  Oh yes...she played Jane Eyre in one of my favorite versions of the Bronte novel, so she's pretty adept at channeling harried maidens.  Hunnam really had little to do, but he was effective as the platonic friend who wants to be more than the platonic friend.

I personally found the story a bit clichéd, and moreover what was supposed to be shocking was rather predictable.  It's obvious that Thomas and Lucille were excessively close (put that up to the style of acting they performed) and sometimes things were just a bit too much to make things serious.  When Lucille stabs McMichael, the fireplace bursts into flames (which is way over the top). 

The talk Lucille and Edith have about butterflies and moths is again extremely overt, with the dark-clothed Lucille hovering over the bright-colored Edith like the dark moths over the bright butterflies, with the former devouring the latter.

When we discover Lucille and Thomas not quite in an intimate moment, the audience really should be expecting that (and when Lucille tells Edith that they ARE brother and sister, it isn't shocking, but actually boring).  Besides, the script (co-authored with Matthew Robbins) is a bit unfair.

How was Edith to know Allerdale Hall was Crimson Peak?  It isn't like she learned this until late into the film.  WE knew because...that's the name of the movie, but the characters?

Crimson Peak knows what it is: a variation of Jane Eyre with ghosts rather than with crazy wives locked in the attic.  Less horror film than off-kilter Gothic romance, the film is OK, but don't go in thinking it's a horror film.  If you accept it for what it is (even in its obvious nature), Crimson Peak is a way to pass a couple of hours.  Then again, I'll gladly spend a few hours with My Mia.

DECISION: C+

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Straight Outta Compton: A Review


STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

I am in no way a hip-hop expert.  Therefore, I cannot say how good or bad Straight Outta Compton is in regards to the accuracy of the N.W.A. story or their impact on music in general.  I can say thought that Straight Outta Compton is a fine film, in equal parts the telling of the rise of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees and the story of how friends became enemies and full circle.

Growing up in the tough streets of Compton, our five young men all had various talents and abilities.  O'Shea Jackson, better known as Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.) is the poet, a master lyricist who expresses the world he sees.  Andre Young (Corey Hawkins), who is better known as Dr. Dre,  is the genius producer, who loves the beats and can bring about any melody into shape.  Eric Wright is the money man with the nom de guerre of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), the money coming from less than honorable sources.  Dre and Cube know Eazy-E can finance them, but they also know he has skills on the rap mike too (even if the voice at times seems a bit high).

Soon, with DJ Yella and MC Ren, the group N.W.A. comes to life (for those NOT in the know, N.W.A. stands for N*****s With Attitude).  They rap about what they see, what their world is like, and it's not a pretty picture.  Still, their style becomes highly popular, so much so that producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) offers to produce them.

This is not an easy alliance, as Heller is white and N.W.A. is black, which means Heller isn't harassed by the police but the rap group is.  As a result of another ugly incident where the LAPD goes overboard, the song F*** the Police is recorded and released.  Police groups and the FBI are outraged by this, but the band (and its fans) find catharsis in its call of fury.


Soon, things start going wrong.  Heller and Eazy-E are forming an odd alliance and Ice Cube is not getting the respect or financial rewards he knows he is entitled to.  In fact, Heller wants him to apparently take less money (especially compared to Eazy).  Cube finds this whole 'Godfather' business unpleasant and decides to go solo.  This in turn infuriates the double-act of Eazy and Heller (who holds some sort of Svengali-like power over Eazy).  Soon, they both take to the mikes to trash each other.

Dre also grows suspicious about Heller, but Eazy won't quit him...so Dre goes his own way and forms Death Row Records, with the obviously above-board Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor).  Dre, for his part, finds Suge a bit too hard for his tastes (especially after Suge goes after Eazy). 

The divisions between the N.W.A. members soon start to dissolve after the Rodney King riots (where F*** the Police receives a revival and Bloods & Crypts form a unity pact against their mutual enemy...the LAPD).  Things also improve for Eazy when he finally fires Heller after discovering his duplicity, realizing his bandmates were true. As things start coming together for the various members both individually (Dre becomes THE producer of producers and mentor to such figures as Snoop Dogg and Tupac), Eazy-E takes a turn for the worse physically.  Eazy-E is shocked to discover he has AIDS.

Sorry, E, AIDS isn't just for gays.

Eazy-E's death brings N.W.A. to an end, but for Cube and Dre, things are only beginning.  Dre has gone on to mentor not just Snoop and Tupac, but such figures as Eminem, while Cube has carved a successful acting career.

Who knew that the guy behind those Are We There Yet? movies was once considered a hard-core gangsta?

Oh, and for DJ Yella and MC Ren, well, they were just there.


I think that's perhaps one of Straight Outta Compton's flaws.  The story is so focused around the stories and personalities of Cube, Eazy, and Dre that the other two members of N.W.A. are pretty much there for decorative purposes.  Not that the struggles between the trio does not make for good drama (it certainly does), but one wonders what Yella and Ren were doing while all this was going on.

Another, I think fair, complaint is that Straight Outta Compton can be a bit of a whitewashing of N.W.A. itself.  The group lived very indulgent lives on the road, and whatever misogyny they had both as individuals or within their lyrics the film won't ever touch.  Straight Outta Compton may want to be a 'warts and all' portrayal of N.W.A., but to a certain degree, the film wasn't going to bite the hand that feeds it (since Cube, Dre, and Eazy's family all participated in the making, down to having Cube's son play his father).  If one takes a look at the film, women played virtually no part in their lives except as things for pleasure (apart from Dre and Cube's mothers).

Not having seen any of the Friday films, I had to have the "Bye, Felicia" bit explained...and I still don't quite get it.  I put that up to my WASP upbringing.

In terms of performances, however, Straight Outta Compton does an amazing job.  O'Shea Jackson, Jr. bears such a striking resemblance to his father that it does genuinely appear that a younger Ice Cube is taking the stage.  Putting aside the resemblance, Jackson, Jr. does an excellent job bringing the conflict of Cube with his other members and his struggles with Heller to life.  We see how Cube grew into his hatred for the police (the only real gang around here, as he wryly observes).

Is there an irony that the man who penned F*** the Police has now gained greater fame by playing policemen in comedies?

Hawkins and Mitchell were also excellent as Dre and Eazy-E respectively, with Mitchell in particular making Eazy a figure who thought himself clever but who had fallen under the spell of Heller which almost nothing would take away from.  Giamatti seems to have cornered the market on questionable, sleazy figures/managers (Cinderella Man being the exception, though there he was still a bit of the bundle of nerves Giamatti seems to play often), and the interplay between Giamatti and Mitchell made the film almost a tragedy in how blind Eazy was to Heller's duplicity.

Even in smaller roles, Lakieth Lee Stanfield and Marcc Rose as Snoop Dogg and Tupac respectively looked and sounded so like their counterparts Straight Outta Compton could almost be a documentary.   

The credit goes to director F. Gary Gray and Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff's screenplay (with a story by S. Leigh Savidge, Alan Wenkus, and Berloff), sadly the only Oscar nomination the film received.   Perhaps because we have so many figures to work with, and so many stories to follow, Straight Outta Compton can be a little unwieldy.  After all, MC Ren and DJ Yella were virtually cameos in the film, so much attention paid to the triumvirate of Eazy/Cube/Dre. 

Still, despite these flaws, as a film and a chronicle of this influential group (for good or bad, depending on where you stand on gangsta rap), Straight Outta Compton is a great achievement and worth seeing regardless of what you think of the music. 




DECISION: B+

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rather Questionable: Truth (2015) Review


TRUTH

Sometimes truth can be fiction.  Truth, the film based on a news scandal that cost veteran CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather his post, is a well-made, well-acted film, though whether it is a whitewashing and historic revision of what actually occurred is a subject of debate.  Truth proves that films are not documentaries (which themselves can be if not flat-out deceiving at least capable of being geared to reach a foregone conclusion).   How much truth there is in Truth, therefore, depends greatly on what you believe to be true.

CBS News producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) has done great work exposing the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, and now she has a hot tip for another potentially great story.  There are documents that purport to reveal that then-President George W. Bush, deep in his reelection bid, may have received preferential treatment whilst in the Texas Air National Guard.  They appear to show that the future President had been basically allowed to go AWOL and not finish his service in a unit filled with the scions of Texas' rich and powerful.  This has all the earmarks of a great investigative piece.

Unfortunately, Mapes discovers that the documents are not the genuine ones but photocopies, handed to her by Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach), who is ill, and who in turn received them in what appear to be very cloak-and-dagger circumstances.  Into this comes Mapes' mentor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford), who is eager about a story involving the past military experience of the President, especially since his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, has built his entire career on his own Vietnam War experiences (and those were being questioned at the time of the campaign).

This story is investigated, found to be accurate, but scheduling conflicts at CBS make it nearly impossible to fully vet everything.  They have to either get this story on the air in five days...or wait until perhaps after the election.  This is too great a story to have wait, and CBS' 60 Minutes II goes on air with it.



Once the news crew stops congratulating itself for a job well done, the real scandal begins.  Within hours of the 'Killian Documents' story broadcast, right-wing blogs begin to poke holes in the story.  Chief among the accusations is that the documents are forgeries, having been made recently and made to look like they were thirty-plus years old.  CBS, Mapes, and Rather all stood by their story, but soon other media outlets and partisans began finding that there was too much doubt as to whether the documents were genuine (in particular the fact that it was copies, not the originals said to have been burned, that were the documents establishing this story).  Mapes, Rather, and her two producing assistants, Lt. Col. Charles Rogers (Dennis Quaid) and Mike Smith (Topher Grace) kept insisting their story was accurate.

However, their competition and the organizations with vested interest continued to question the authenticity of the documents, finding evidence that perhaps they were forgeries (or at the very least, CBS had done a slapdash job of authentication to get a story on air prior to the election...with political motives perhaps at play).  The ensuing scandal brought about an investigation at "Black Rock" (the CBS Corporate headquarters).  It is here that Mary Mapes, a very harassed woman finding herself under siege on all fronts (even from her abusive father who denounces her as a left-wing harpy), is sacrificed to save CBS more embarrassment.  She loses her job, and Dan Rather is essentially forced out, his journalistic career brought to ruin.


It takes a particular type of film to call itself Truth when the story involves potential lies and deception.  It is not my place to decide whether the events in Truth are wholly accurate.  Director/writer James Vanderbilt based the film on Mapes' memoir on the whole affair: Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and the Privilege of Power.  As a result, we start from the perspective that Mapes is the heroine of the story and as such, Truth is already biased in favor of one side.  In short, Truth already starts with a handicap in that the story is going to be not a story about what actually happened, but about perhaps Mapes attempting to restore her reputation.

As a side note, I love the alliteration of Mapes' book. 

This desire to paint Mapes as a journalistic Joan of Arc takes its lowest point when she confronts the nefarious (and all-male) investigative commission.  Here, her accusers are asking if her 'liberalism', real or perceived, influenced her decision to air the Bush story.  I would say that this is a legitimate question, especially when there is a brief mention that Mapes helped facilitate contact between Burkett and the Kerry campaign.  Mapes takes umbrage at this suggestion, then confronts her accusers by asking if what they want to ask her is, "Am I now or have I ever been a liberal?"

It was at this moment that I felt Truth went overboard.  Clearly Mapes was attempting to equate her 'trial' with the House Un-American Activities Committee that would ask those it dragged, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"  I would argue that there is a marked difference between those who were persecuted for their former/current leftist views...and someone who appeared never to wonder whether she was rushing to broadcast a story that had not been as well-vetted as perhaps it should have. 

In the film, no one questions whether the Killian Documents story needed to air with such a brief timeframe to investigate every aspect, to make sure the whole thing was locked down.  It seems in retrospect almost amusing to see how the same press that went after the Bush Administration for rushing into war in Iraq with questionable evidence would then feel that they could rush into a news-story that would clearly have an effect on an election with questionable evidence.

Furthermore, in some respects Mapes and Rather came off a bit bad in this.  They had a strong defensiveness bordering on arrogance when other outlets (legitimate and otherwise) began to question whether at best CBS had been duped, at worst was flat-out lying in its 60 Minutes II segment.  Mapes in particular appears to be infuriated that she would be questioned, let alone questioned by people who were her inferiors. 

Now, this isn't to say Truth is a bad film (Topher Grace notwithstanding).  Blanchett makes Mapes a flawed but ultimately strong woman, one who stands by her acts no matter what.  Redford makes Rather into the loyal friend (though at times he does come across as slightly unaware of things).  Pity for Quaid, whom I last remember as a Bush-like idiot President from American Dreamz (which I'm sure was not meant to be in any way/shape/form a dig at the former Commander-in-Chief).

I found Truth well-acted though a bit heavy-handed and one-sided.  A film that discussed the mad rush to get a story for ratings or a film about how financial considerations affect editorial content would make for a fascinating feature film.

Pity they made one already...called Network.   



DECISION: C+

Monday, May 16, 2016

Gotham: Into the Woods Review



GOTHAM: INTO THE WOODS

What is amazing about Into the Woods, the seventeenth Gotham episode of Season Two, is that it plays like a series finale even though it has five more episodes to go.   You end Into the Woods wondering how they can possibly top this brilliant episode that throws so much at you. You get shocking revelations, the end of the beginning of a future super-villain, the growth of the future Batman, and one wild storyline that manages to mix Cinderella with Medea...and Bonkers Babs is Back!

Kind of makes the upcoming return of Mr. Freeze almost anti-climatic (though given Nathan Darrow is playing our favorite frozen figure, that is practically impossible).  Into the Woods continues to smash all expectations and makes for a brilliant Gotham episode.

Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is still on the lam, determined to clear his name and find out who framed him for the murder of a fellow officer.  Little does he know that the man behind the frame-up is a secret frenemy: GCPD Forensics Officer Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).  Gordon is now essentially The Fugitive, though he still cannot help being the moral figure he is: saving a woman from a mugging though she isn't exactly thankful for the favor.

Eventually, he goes to Edward for help, but Ed's suspicious behavior (and Ed's ego about being oh so clever) give him away.  The tape that Gordon's partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) got from Internal Affairs through methods too horrible to describe confirm it is Nygma.  "I knew that you knew that I knew," Nygma tells him before shocking Gordon, Nygma planning the detective's demise.  Gordon, however, manages an effective escape.

To help entrap Nygma, Gordon turns to his old friends, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Bruce's valet, Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee).  He even gets another frenemy, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) to help in this dastardly scheme.  As can be expected, into the woods goes Ed, where he does the unthinkable...monologuing. 

In other stories, Bruce and Selina have been working together in petty crimes, though Bruce, too honest, more often than not gives the stolen money away (always keeping just enough for burgers).  He even sews Selina's coat, explaining that Alfred has shown him that sewing is an important skill for a bachelor.  Once he helps Gordon, and learns that Lucius Fox has repaired the computer in the "not" Bat-Cave, Wayne abandons the streets, angering Selina.


The other major storyline is that of poor Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor).  Mourning the death of his father, he is adrift.  His stepmother, Grace (Melinda Clarke) has no interest in Oswald, since Elijah Van Dahl never had a change the will and Oswald is illegitimate.  However, he IS Elijah's biological son and Grace fears he could make a play for the Van Dahl fortune, a clever enough lawyer being able to make a case to his rightful inheritance.  Fearing the sweet, naïve Oswald may finally wake up, Grace decides the best thing to do is to keep him on...as the family servant.

Grace and her children Sasha (Kaley Ronayne) and Charles (Justin Mark) delight in torturing Penguin-Ella, abusing him physically and emotionally.  The poor Oswald is at a loss about how to react, given all the evil has been taken out of him thanks to the weird experiments of Dr. Hugo Strange.  However, Oswald discovers that Grace murdered his beloved father when he accidentally comes across the poison, giving it to the dog to verify his suspicions.

At the next family meal, Oswald serves two types of pot roast to a disinterested Grace, who thinks both taste the same.  He assures her that one of them is more tender than the other.  Grace first notes something is slightly amiss when Oswald makes the sarcastic crack that the pot roast beats "my slut-mother's goulash" (the exact term Grace had used to describe both Penguin's food and his beloved mother).  She becomes more alarmed when Oswald confronts her about Elijah's murder, calling frantically for her children. A gleeful, vengeful, and enraged Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot then tells Grace that the second pot roast is more tender...because it is her daughter. 

Grace is horrified to learn that she has literally eaten her own children...and more horrified to see Penguin take out a knife and stab her to death.  The last we see of Penguin is of him, caked in blood, with the dead Grace still sitting at the other end, the two pot roasts of Charles and Sasha cooling at the table.

Now, Selina, Bruce, Edward, and Oswald now are firmly set on their paths as the future Catwoman, Batman, Riddler, and Penguin...and throw in Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) showing up at Gordon's door, released from Arkham and allegedly sane.

Who here thinks she actually IS sane?

My goodness but is Robin Lord Taylor BRILLIANT!  The entire arc of his character from the criminal mastermind to sweet innocent to now sadistic horror has been a purely fascinating, incredible, and astonishingly perfect performance.  RLT had to go through a whole range this hour: from the devastated son to the put-upon servant to the vengeful Fury out to avenge his father's death.  Into the Woods with Penguin's story draws from Greek mythology in both having him pursue the wicked until they meet their appropriate fate and in the horror of a parent literally eating the flesh of her own children.

Into the Woods doesn't have to tell us specifically that Charles and Sasha are now cooked, and maybe he lied to Grace as a form of psychological torture.  However, the mere suggestion that there was cannibalism going on is shocking enough.  Given how brutal they all were to Oswald, and how devastated he was to bury the father he barely knew after seeing his mother killed before his own eyes, it would not surprise me that this act drove Penguin so insane that he probably did kill his stepsiblings and cook them.

It is to RLT's extraordinary range that he, even as one who committed such a horrifying act, can make him almost sympathetic.  It isn't as if Grace, Sasha, and/or Charles didn't deserve a particularly brutal form of punishment for their own barbarism.  However, one is left astounded by this act.  One is also left astounded as to how RLT made all this believable, and the evolution of Penguin in general.



I also have to give credit to the other villain in tonight's episode.  CMS made the Riddler's revelation into a sharp and frightening one.  CMS is aided by Gotham's cinematography.  When he begins to pursue Gordon in the factory, the cinematography makes it look like Edward Nygma is emerging from Hell itself.  It's a frightening, apocalyptic vision that feeds off CMS' performance as the deranged yet oddly decent Nygma (when the GCPD sweep in to arrest Nygma in the woods, CMS has him run off in a non-criminal attempt, clumsy and inept, ending with him saying, "Oh, crud", when he falls on his face and is arrested. 

Credit also has to go to every performance.  Clarke has that 'bitch virtuosity' so well-honed in The O.C. as the wicked stepmother, Mazouz and Bicondova work well together in that double-act that is Batman and Catwoman, and Logue puts in the comic relief as Bullock, who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his good friend Jim...sleeping with a very large woman at the IA office to get the tape that will help find who set Gordon up.

About the only flaw in Into the Woods was the idea of turning at least part of the episode into Penguin-Ella.  I thought that part was a bit cliché and overdone, almost something to expect.  Minus that, however, Into the Woods astounds in the story and in the performances (particularly by Taylor and Smith as the Penguin and future Riddler).  Into the Woods was a knockout of an episode, and now the pressure is on to wrap up Gotham Season Two into another successful effort.

9/10

Next Episode: Pinewood