Friday, December 30, 2016

Lust In Space. Passengers: A Review


PASSENGERS

A lot of criticism has been directed at Passengers, and I can see the where and why of that criticism.  The film itself is flawed, with some central questions skipped over.  That being said, it has some positives that barely eke out a slightly good time.

The spaceship Avalon is carrying 5,000 people to a new planet, Homestead II, where they will start again.  They are in suspended animation, asleep until four months before they arrive.  A space storm has awoken one of those passengers: working-class mechanic James Preston (Chris Pratt).  Jim is startled to awaken, and worse, finds that he's been awakened ninety years too early.  He will die before anyone else wakes, and this fills him with dread. 

What's he going to do for all those years?  He's got the run of the ship, so decides to use it as his own private playground.  That's a bit hard to do since he isn't a Gold Class member (even in deep space in the future, there is a One Percent).  Still, with a little ingenuity he can watch the movies he wants, drink to his heart's content (whisky, courtesy of the bartender robot named Arthur, played by Michael Sheen), and even walk around naked (giving us all a look at Chris Pratt's ass, which was described to me by the person who went to see Passengers as his 'luscious ass', though whether he was being sincere or facetious I don't know).

After a year of this, with 89 more to go, Jim is growing desperate, maybe a little insane.  He soon starts stalking the sleeping figure of Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), whom he reads about and becomes obsessed with.  She is a Gold Class member, a journalist who wants to write about her adventures on Homestead II.  Jim struggles with the idea of waking her up (yes, waking Sleeping Beauty, and that should knock points off for being too on the nose).  Arthur can't give him much advise, but he's always there, polishing his glass, to lend an ear.  After some struggle, he decides that The Monster should have a Mate.

Jim tells Aurora (seriously, AURORA) that she was suddenly awakened like he was, and she believes him.  The shock wears off, and soon they start seeing the positives in each other, eventually falling in love.

When you look like C-Pratt and J-Law, that's not hard to do.  Please, even I'D be tempted by either of them, but I digress.

Deciding to make the best of the situation, she soon starts writing about her time on Avalon in the hopes that it is read when the others awaken, and soon Aurora and Jim begin a passionate affair.  Just as Jim is about to present a ring to her (which I figure means marriage), Arthur tells Aurora about how Jim struggled to awake her, and she grows enraged at his deception and how he has essentially condemned her to an early death.

She breaks off the affair and a cold war erupts between the bitter Aurora and the guilt-ridden Jim.  They still have to share the Avalon, and it looks like they will live out their lives apart, until the ship starts having malfunctions.  Enter Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishbourne), the Chief Deck Officer who, unsurprisingly, has been awoken two years after Jim.

Seriously, the corporation that made this thing is pretty inept.

Gus, whose recovery is not going well, lives just long enough to give them information about the ship (and access to the bridge and medical facilities).  The Avalon begins to shut down, the damage from two years past finally getting at all the ship.  Jim decides he needs to save the ship (and everyone else on board).  It's now that Aurora sees that she was wrong in blaming Jim and urges him not to leave her, but he must do his duty. 

Will Jim and Aurora save the Avalon?  Will they survive?



Passengers, I thought, was really three movies in one.  The first part is a Robinson Crusoe/Omega Man type story, with Jim forced to live on his own without anyone with him, save a robot bartender.  The second is Lust In Space, a romance built on a lie, a terrible lie, but one that has no way of being remotely kind.  The third is your typical action film, where the hero and Aurora, our damsel in distress, must save themselves and the ship from ultimate calamity.

None of the three, mashed into one by director Morten Tyldum, is particularly good, though for different reasons.  Interstellar Omega Man isn't good because of Chris Pratt (whom I now call Flatt Pratt).  He's a likeable enough presence, and yes, pretty luscious, but when forced to act on his own, with no one to work with, he is always blank.  Chris Pratt, I continue to maintain, is a good action star, but he is not an actor.  He's certainly not a deep enough or good enough actor to carry a film with just himself.  I genuinely shudder to think if he ever tried something like a Give 'Em Hell, Harry! or any other one-man show that wasn't about him. When he isn't sharing a scene with Sheen (whom he could at least work with), Pratt looks dazed and confused, unable to express any genuine emotions (apart perhaps from insanity).

Lust in Space isn't good because first off, Aurora.  Just the name from Jon Spaihts' script is just so nakedly allegorical that it almost goads the audience to sneer at it.  A lot of variables have to work in order to make the Aurora/Jim story work.  What if Aurora didn't like Jim (hard to believe given that it IS Chris Pratt, but there must be someone who doesn't like him in a friend or erotic way)?  What if Aurora were a lesbian?  What if she were a snob?  What if she was too emotionally devastated to move on, or suicidal, or a psychopathic killer?

Moreover, while the ethical questions Passengers raises on the morality of Jim's actions are hinted at, they aren't fully addressed, thanks to Attack of the Meteors, the third film in Passengers.  Not only do we have a very, very convenient third character awakening (there for both information dump and provide much-needed tools to come along at the right moment) but also because it then becomes a regular action film.  Granted, this is where Pratt is best: the strong man who can save us all, but there is something slightly off about how Aurora (geez, how I HATE that name) pretty much forgives him after all that.

More surprising than Flatt Pratt is how dull J-Law is.  Her career hasn't been exactly going on full cylinders since her (to me, inexplicable) Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, and Passengers isn't convincing me that she is a solid actress.   She looks almost bored at times, not communicating someone who is supposed to be dissolute on her future or enthusiastic over much.  When one doesn't look too excited to be with Chris Pratt, one should question their acting skills...and their common sense.

Apparently, the now-retiring Sheen is the only one who does anything worth mentioning, and he played a robot.  Make that what you will.  Fishbourne wasn't there long enough to be anything other than Exposition.

A few times during Passengers, I kept wondering if reworking or tinkering with story would have made for a more interesting film.  Would it have been better to start with Aurora rather than Jim waking up (making his reveal/betrayal more shocking)?  Given that the trailer misleads us into thinking like she did, that the awakening was simultaneous, I wonder if we were deliberately deceived.  What if a group of people were awakened and there grew a struggle for power, a bit of Lord of the Flies From the Hearts of Space

I kept wondering why Jim didn't wake up others, or try for the crew.  Why did he focus on one particular person (making him a bit of a stalker)?

Despite this, I couldn't bring myself to hate Passengers.  It is quite beautiful to look at (and no, that isn't a Chris Pratt/Jennifer Lawrence comment), and it has a wonderful score by Thomas Newman.

No, Passengers isn't a particularly good film.  It has problems and issues that do appear papered over, and the third act appears to be there because no one could figure out what to do after the big reveal, so they had to throw in 'ship in peril' ironically enough to save the film.   Still, I was entertained, I didn't hate it, and for some free time one could do worse.     

DECISION: C+

Nerve: A Review




NERVE

Nerve is a frightening movie, frightening in that it is not too far removed from reality, or should I say, virtual reality.  While a lot of things in Nerve are extremely coincidental (and I mean a lot), the story moves well enough to give us a funhouse mirror reflection into the power and perverse nature of online activity and of how people can both manipulate and be manipulated by said forces.

Venus, better known as Vee (Emma Roberts) is a high school senior, who like most high schoolers today lives online.  She's thoroughly connected, but still a bit on the outside.  A talented photographer, she's been accepted to Cal Arts but feels pressured by finances to decline it, finding it safer and cheaper to stay on Staten Island.  Though her heart is in going, part of her fears the change and fears leaving her mother Nancy (Juliette Lewis).

Vee has a few friends, like her platonic male friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) and her more outgoing, daredevil-like Sydney (Emily Meade).  She's pretty outrageous, like when she mooned a football game as a cheerleader.  Like most teenagers, she chronicles her activities, but unlike most who just do it because they think people will enjoy such antics, Sydney has a financial/popularity reason for this.  She is part of a subculture online game called Nerve, where people are either Watchers or Players.  The Watchers pay to watch and give Players various challenges (or dares) to perform.  Players who successfully complete their task in the allotted time win money.  A mixture of challenges and viewers get the players to the Finals.

Sydney pushes Vee about being a real-life Watcher, always observing but never participating in life (such as Vee's fixation on the high school quarterback).  Against her better judgment and over the objections of Tommy, she signs up to be a Player on Nerve. 

Her first Dare is rather innocuous: kiss a stranger for five seconds. She finds said stranger, who happens to be reading her favorite book, By the Lighthouse.  This stranger, named Ian (Dave Franco), then has a surprise of his own: he starts singing Roy Orbison's You Got It to the entire restaurant.  It's no surprise that this impromptu number is recorded on cell phone.

Ian too is a Player, and they've been brought together deliberately by Watchers.  To their surprise, they are paired as a team to continue doing more dares.  Vee's popularity begins to grow, and she soon starts getting more followers.  Sydney, an experienced Player, finds the news most irritating.  To outdo Vee and Ian, she agrees to do a dangerous Dare: walk across an alley on a suspended ladder.  She fails in her attempt and declares that she 'bails', thus dropping out of the game.

Ian and Vee soon start getting manipulated into doing more and more dangerous Dares (with Ian being manipulative himself, Vee the ultimate dupe). Vee follows through on Sydney's failed Dare, and unknown to her the increases in their bank account raises Nancy's concerns.  Tommy for his part discovers Ian's past: in Seattle, he and two other Players made it to the Finals, but one of those Players was killed when the Dare (to hang from a construction crane) plunged to his death.

As the film goes on, not only are the Dares growing more dangerous, but Vee herself inadvertently puts herself in danger when she attempts to tell a policeman about Nerve.  She has violated one of the three rules in Nerve: Snitches Get Stiches. She now must win the Final, or essentially be killed.  Tommy, who is a hacker and well-versed in 'the dark web', attempts frantically to save her, as does Ian, who says that he too is a prisoner of Nerve.  Only Ty (Colson Baker, better known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly), a more vicious Player, stands in their way.

It's a final showdown where Watchers get more vicious, calling for literal death and Prisoners (Vee, Ty, and Ian) all fight to stay alive before the morning's light.

In a certain way, Nerve appears to be a teen-centered version of The Game, a movie starring Michael Douglas and Sean Penn.  In that one, Penn's character gets his brother (Douglas) to participate in an elaborate game that takes place in the real world which creates havoc in his life.  I didn't like The Game, finding it all too improbable to be remotely believable.  Nerve, on the other hand, is more plausible (if not entirely believable) primarily because it does reflect a better sense of what today's teens are like.

They chronicle their lives for others to see, they are passive viewers of 'reality television', and on occasion have a shocking amorality to situations.  Not once in Nerve did the Watchers who were friends to Vee or Sydney ever attempt to stop them from doing the more dangerous Dares (such as walking several feet above ground on a ladder or driving a motorcycle blindfolded to sixty miles per hour).  Instead, they watched, perhaps entertained, but divorced from a sense that what they were watching was 'real'.

Using that interpretation, Nerve becomes a sharp, pointed commentary on Millennial narcissism and lack of morals/ethics.  It is the 'entertainment' factor to Watchers that motivates them, not the dangers or the morality of the situations they put Players in.  I found some of it genuinely frightening: not necessarily the stunts though they were intense (such as when Ty lays on subway tracks while a train rushes over him). I was frightened by the perverse enjoyment people took in seeing dangerous, criminal, and even murderous acts being committed and they not caring about any of it.

In a lot of ways, Nerve hits the nail on the head as to how teens are: how they equate worth with number of 'followers' (in real life, on Twitter, Instagram or maybe Facebook versus the Nerve game), how they are passive, almost gleeful in recording all sorts of things for others to watch, and how the bleeding of reality and fantasy become one, indistinguishable one from the other.

I may be giving Nerve more credit than it deserves, though I cannot say whether Jeanne Ryan's novel (which Jessica Sharzer adapted) was meant as commentary.  I just interpret it that way.

The performances were on the whole good.  Emma Roberts made for a fine Vee (short for Venus, I might add), that hesitancy and confusion mixed with the slow thrill of coming alive.  Franco continues to build on his successes as Ian, the dubious Player who is playing a game of his own.  Meade and Heizer did much better than their roles (the somewhat skanky but secretly insecure friend and the 'friend-zoned' male pal). Lewis had essentially little to do apart from look worried, but she did what she could with such a small part.



If Nerve has a flaw, it's within the story itself.  As is the case with a lot of films, a long number of things have to happen to make the story flow, even if it depends on a great number of coincidences and contrivances.  No doubt Ian was directed to bring To the Lighthouse with him when Vee was set up with her first dare, but what if she had found another stranger to kiss? What if she had bailed at that point (neither gaining or losing any money)?  What if Vee didn't have Tommy or Sydney (who does reconcile with her bestie by the time the film ends) helping her out?  What if Tommy wasn't a hacker?  What if Sydney had completed her dare or Vee hadn't?  What if Vee and Sydney hadn't fought?

What if...what if...what if...  Nerve, to be believable, or even plausible, relies on too many 'what ifs', to get going.  I'm not begrudging that fact, merely pointing out that things have to work out just right to make things actually work.  Maybe that's why The Game came to mind; like in Nerve, The Game relied on too many things going exactly right in order to work.  One slight change and everything would fall apart.

I didn't dislike Nerve.  I will fault it for being a bit clichéd with characters and with having a story that stretches believability.  However, I did find as a commentary on how 'reality' can be false, even dangerous, and on how people are too busy documenting their lives for others to live lives for themselves, Nerve has enough to recommend it.          

DECISION: C+

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Hidden Figures: A Review


HIDDEN FIGURES

It is time to acknowledge true heroes, or in this case, heroines, that for too long have been in the background.  Hidden Figures tells the story of the African-American women who were vital in the success of the NASA program in its early years, culminating with the successful launch and reentry of the late Colonel John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.  It is inspirational, no doubt about that.  While that might put people off, the fact that over the course of Hidden Figures we see the three main characters in public and private gives us a more balanced and interesting story than the mere 'our characters triumphed' story.

The film centers on three particular African-American women, and the central story within our triumvirate is that of Katherine Goble (later Johnson) (Taraji P. Henson).  Even as a child Katherine was passionate about numbers, a true mathematical genius but like many mathematical genius not the most socially adept person around.  With her spectacles and mostly meek manner, the widow and mother to three children at times finds standing up for herself hard.  She isn't weak, but she also isn't the most demanding of people.

Fortunately for Katherine, her two friends and fellow NASA colleagues have little to no problems in that department.  The de facto supervisor of the "Colored Computer Room", Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spenser), is an elegant, strong woman, frustrated that despite doing the work of a supervisor is persistently denied the title and pay of one, told that the "Colored" section at NASA (made up entirely of women) don't need one.  The third figure, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), is probably the most radical of the three.  She chafes under the limitations her race and gender place on her.  She knows she is capable of being an engineer, but meets constant impediments on two fronts.

The three friends have a passion for their work at NASA, and soon they each push/are pushed into different trajectories in both NASA and their private lives.  Katherine is assigned to be the 'computer' (the human to calculate the numbers) to Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), who has run through a variety of 'computers' and is not very approachable.  She finds a mixture of contempt and disinterest by the all-male, all-white mathematicians/engineers, in particular by Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who balks at the idea that anyone needs to look at his numbers. 

Dorothy keeps plugging away at being officially made a supervisor, even if her own supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), has no interest in pushing that.  In Mary's case, it is to be an engineer.  She finds encouragement from her friends and Mr. Zielinski (Olek Krupa), the head of her department who reminds her he is a Polish Jew whose family was killed in the Holocaust and like her, now is working to get a man into space.  She doesn't at first find encouragement from her own husband, Levi (Aldis Hodge), who pushes for more agitation and thinks school isn't the right venue.  Eventually, he sees the error of his ways and is on her side.

As for Katherine, she endures things at first with almost quiet resignation but as time grows she begins in her own quiet way pushing for change.  She endures the indignity of having to run half a mile to the nearest "colored" restroom since the one at her building has no such facilities, and quietly seethes when the others surreptitiously create a 'colored' coffee pot that is never plugged in.  It isn't until the unwitting Harrison chastises her for taking forty minutes to go to the restroom (and oblivious to how drenching wet she is due to having to run in a rainstorm) that her pent-up frustration explodes.  Harrison, a pragmatist more interested in beating the Russians than in race relations, strikes back by forcibly removing the 'colored' sign in the restroom and telling everyone within earshot, "Here, we're all one color".

Dorothy has been quietly and secretly working with the IBM brought in to replace her 'girls', and manages to get it running when the white male technicians cannot (though not without stiff opposition from of all places, the public library).  Once the machines take over, Dorothy has trained her group so well that NASA turns to them for help.

At last, all the forces align to get John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space.  Everyone, black and white, has worked hard to get this done, and things are looking well.  Glenn even insists he won't go into space until 'the girl' (Katherine) verifies the numbers and gives HER go-ahead.  Once up in space, it looks like a triumph, until Glenn gets a heat warning that forces him to return.  Everyone fears that he will be killed in reentry, but one word from 'the girl' will assure him to take that chance.  A rush to find Katherine, now surnamed Johnson having remarried Lt. Col. James Johnson (Mahershala Ali) puts her where no woman and no colored person has ever been: Mission Control.

The mission successful, the three women became not just pioneers but what they always should have been: highly respected figures within NASA, hidden no more.

 

Hidden Figures is a pun: 'hidden figures' relating to mathematical terms, and the women profiled in the film were 'hidden figures', vital figures in the space race but whose roles were not well-known due to being both women and African-American.  Their distinct personalities compliment each other.  Dorothy is the most tactful, keeping her composure whenever she meets obstacles but knowing where and how to push for change that will benefit those under her care.  Mary is more demanding of her rights, letting people know exactly what she thinks, why it's wrong, and using the courts to get what is hers by right.  Katherine just does her work and goes along with how things are, until she reaches her own breaking point and slowly, firmly, starts blending Mary and Dorothy's methods. 

Taraji P. Henson is one of our finest actresses.  It is astonishing that the person who is the generally meek but kind and loving Katherine is also the fierce, tempestuous, and Lady Macbeth-like Cookie on Empire (for the record, while I've never seen the show, I'm #TeamCookie).  Katherine doesn't necessarily put her head down, but she also isn't the type to stand up for herself (and I think this would be the same if she were white or even a man).  Henson's finest moment is when Harrison dresses her down for taking so long to go to the restroom.

All that quiet rage within her, Harrison's blindness to how she's drenched, Stafford's hostility, and everyone else's lack of interest in her as a person or her skills finally breaks out and in a strong and powerful moment Katherine lets out her fury at the indignity she has to endure.  It isn't just having to run in a skirt and high heels (all NASA regulation) just to use the restroom (and even throwing in mention of pearls, the only jewelry apart from wedding rings females are allowed to wear but that she cannot because as both a woman and a 'colored' person her pay would never allow her to buy).  It is the indignity of having a 'colored' coffee pot that she can't use because there's never anything there.

It is not a full-on fury that we see.  It's controlled but still passionate, a person who has had it. It does what it was meant to: shame them all into action.

It might be cliché, but it is one of those 'stand up and cheer' moments.  I wouldn't be surprised if audiences burst into applause at this, Henson doing so well throughout.  This was her big moment, but Henson was also so good in every scene, whether it's quietly standing up for herself, or whenever she makes the complicated mathematical terms easy, or when she's just herself with her friends/coworkers, laughing and breaking a bit out of her shell.

The romance with Johnson is also beautifully played, but it helps that her dance partner is Ali, giving a great performance of a strong but gentle man, who finds Katherine attractive but who also has to be taught a thing or two about how women can do for and by themselves.

Monae, I understand, is a singer (I'm not well-versed in popular music to keep up with things).  I was highly impressed with her performance and would have figured she has always been an actress (from what I understand, she is starting her film career).  Her Mary Jackson was composed, elegant, strong: a model for women of all color.  She wasn't afraid to speak her mind and express herself with grace.  As she presents her case as to why she, a colored woman, should be allowed to take courses at an all-white (and predominantly male) school, she doesn't shrink but maintains her composure throughout. 

Monae also shows a bit of a witty side when she finally does arrive at the school (to the shock of her white male classmates).  She's first told the class would be hard for women, to which she replies it would be hard for a man too.  Somewhat sarcastically pointing out there was no 'colored' section in the room, she asks if she should sit in the back or just find any available seat.  With that, she sits in the front of the class, and in a class by herself.

Spencer gives Dorothy a mix of elegance and tact, who knows the limits and pushes at them, slowly, but pushes nonetheless.  Her best moment is when she wanders to the white section of the public library for a technical book not available in the 'colored' section.  The white librarian informs her that she should go back to the colored section, but Dorothy, ever respectful but firmly, says she couldn't find what she was looking for there.  After being harshly ejected from the public library, Dorothy, along with her children, take the bus (the back, of course), and she pulls out the book she wanted out of her purse.  When her son asks her if she stole it, she points out that she pays taxes, so she can't steal what she owns.

Throughout Hidden Figures, what makes it a really powerful and moving film is that we get to know the women as individuals, strong, with families, elegance, and intelligence.  When we see them mistreated or shamed in any way, the reaction is strong.  I admit, when I saw that a 'colored' coffeepot had been brought, complete with the word "Colored" on it, I got mad.  No, mad doesn't cover it: I was furious.  The injustice, the horrible, petty injustice of segregation hits you hard, and you know that this is not just wrong but immoral.

Hidden Figures gives us how these particular women reacted to such indignities: by putting their noses to the grindstone and outworking everyone around them.  They had two burdens: being black, and being women.  When they weren't demeaned or ignored because of their race, they were demeaned or ignored because of their gender.  Even their menfolk sometimes got it wrong, but they kept their heads high.

Lest anyone think that Hidden Figures is all serious or somber, the film had wonderful moments of happiness, even humor.  The interplay between Henson, Monae, and Spencer was fun (such as when the three women shared some laughs), and there were moments of tenderness and sincerity (Johnson's marriage proposal was exceptionally moving).

Of the two songs in Hidden Figures, for me the stronger was Runnin, which we hear when Katherine is running to the restroom.  The lyrics and music keep to the style of the times and make subtle mention of the stories and situation the characters are in.  Pharrell Williams creates a singularly excellent number, and the closing song, I See A Victory, is equally brilliant, bringing a little gospel to this most triumphant story (no surprise, given the song was co-written by gospel music legend Kirk Franklin).

Everything about Hidden Figures works.  It's educational without being preachy, letting us admire and respect these women without makes this a dry history lesson.  It's a celebration of intellect, of courage, of defying limitations through the mind.  For me, it's a real American story: the story of extraordinary American achievements (the space race) brought to us by real American heroes...and heroines, regardless of color. 

I can't put it any other way.  I simply LOVED Hidden Figures.  It's a movie that makes you cheer, makes you proud, sometimes makes you mad, but uplifts your spirit.  It's a film that celebrates courage, praises the strength of intellect, and shows that the most powerful weapons against bigotry of any persuasion are the mind and the heart.

Perhaps there will be better films in 2016, but right now I'd name Hidden Figures not just the best film of 2016, but my favorite film of 2016, a film I am a devoted champion of.

Thank you, ladies.  A job well done.

Katherine Johnson: Born 1918

Dorothy Vaughn: 1910-2008


Mary Jackson: 1921-2005



DECISION: A+

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Manchester By the Sea: A Review


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

Manchester By the Sea doesn't pull its punches in its portrait of a grief stricken man forced into some semblance of life.  It is sparse, it is heartbreaking, and yet uplifting as well.  It is a finely crafted portrait of sorrow and a form of redemption.

Told in non-linear fashion, where we jump to before and after Manchester By the Sea actually starts, we begin with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck); he is a plumber/handyman in Boston, removed from the world and disinterested in it.  This is a result of a personal tragedy that in various flashbacks is revealed.  I won't reveal what it is, suffice it to say the reveals to Lee's life prior to where his life is now gives us who he was and why he is the way he is now.

He would be happy (or at least not be displeased, since Lee is never happy) if he never went back to his hometown, but he must.  His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died, his congenital heart failure finally taking him.  Lee takes this as he takes anything in his life: matter-of-factly, but with no great grief (all the grief, indeed all emotion, having been sucked out of his life years earlier).  Lee now must inform his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).

Patrick is sixteen, on the hockey team, in a band, and has two girlfriends: Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), his official girlfriend, and Silvie (Kara Hayward) the girl he sleeps with (again, all this is revealed in bits and pieces).  Patrick has also been communicating secretly through email with his mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), whom Lee remembers as being a hopeless lush, horrible person, and the only person whom he can muster the slightest variance of anger towards.

Lee is shocked to find that Joe has made him Patrick's guardian.  As one sees in flashbacks to that one heartbreaking tragedy in Lee's life that so decimated him, he believes he is not guardian material.  However, he can't find a way out of it, and the prospect of staying in Manchester with all its awful memories and his infamy is unbearable.  After a while, Lee decides it's best to move away from his memories and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), who has remarried and is pregnant.

Patrick does not want to move, sell his father's boat, or do anything that would break his life.  Lee does not want to live in Manchester and wants to take his nephew to Boston (technically Quincy, but I'm not the best arbiter of Massachusetts geography).  Over the winter Lee is forced to live in Manchester (the weather being too cold to allow for Joe's burial), Lee and Patrick attempt to live life at various moments of grief and pain, and in the end, there is a solution to their dilemma, though perhaps not one that audiences might expect.

It's difficult to give a strong description of Manchester By the Sea plot-wise because to reveal the center of Lee's emotional agony would be to reveal too much.  However, writer/director Kenneth Lonerman made a wise decision to present Lee in medias res, where we see the hard, detached yet forlorn figure he is in the present, and draw us, bit by bit, into his past, where we see him as a regular, blue-collar guy, who liked his beer and his friends, who was happy with his family, his wife, and his children.  As we float back where we see glimpses of Lee's life pre-tragedy, we can understand why he shut himself off, why his life went off the rails, and why he may not come fully back.

Lee functions, but he does not live, in the present.  Lee lives, but he does not function, in the past.  Those two elements are what push and pull Lee, and we see how he got where he got.

This is all captured in Casey Affleck's brilliant performance.  A side note: I've held that with the Affleck Brothers, Casey is the better actor and Ben is the better director.  When one tries to do the opposite of where their gifts and talents are (Ben acting, Casey directing), the results are weak to say the least.  Yet I digress.

Affleck balances that joie de vivre with pre-tragedy Lee and the submerged shell of a man he is post-tragedy.  His best scene is when he is interrogated: the matter-of-fact manner building to an unbearable guilt over his actions, the mix of agony, shock, and despair all washing over him, it tears at you.  All his reactions in that scene are believable because Lee is a believable character, the type of person you would work with and know: not perfect, but not evil either.

Throughout Manchester By the Sea, Affleck keeps Lee as an authentic man.  The film doesn't give him a big moment of epiphany, where he becomes a new/better man and overcomes all.  At the end of the film, Lee is pretty much the same person he was when we first met him, but given a slight sense of hope. In Affleck's performance and in Lonerman's script, the character, indeed all the characters, stay true to themselves.

Two other extraordinary performances are those of Williams and relative newcomer Hedges.  Williams' Randi, like Affleck's Lee, is a regular person: loving but coarse, who must build herself up as well.  Though her part is small (relegated mostly to the flashbacks), she has one moment in the present where she runs into Lee and they share an honest conversation, revealing that despite her new child she too has not fully healed, that perhaps she never fully will, and that she still loves Lee.  This particular scene together similarly tears at you, and it's a credit to Williams as an actress that she makes it a wonderful and sad moment without making it dramatic or overblown, but natural.

Credit also to Lonerman's direction.

As Patrick, Hedges, like everyone in the film, is flawed but real: laughing with his friends, attempting to deflower the more religiously-oriented Sandy, processing his desire to hold onto what he has of his life before Joe's death but also reacting to things as they come at him in unexpected ways (meat falling out of the freezer sends Patrick into a bit of a panic attack, having him think of his father Joe in a freezer while waiting to be buried).

These are real people, not characters or types.  They are flawed, they are sometimes infuriating, something painfully sympathetic.  These are people, as played by the actors and written/directed by Lonerman, whom you could know, and that is a major reason why Manchester By the Sea works.  Their very ordinary lives, their mistakes, regrets, slight joys and gallows humor gives them an authenticity and relate ability that gives them life.

At first, the first flashback threw me off, and I imagine it might throw others off too.  While the Elise storyline shows why Lee, as tightly wound-up and dissolved a person he is, might have disdain for her, Patrick's meeting with her and her fiancée (Matthew Broderick) barely touches on Elise's own apparent redemption via religion.

I will give it a little leeway in that perhaps Elise was meant to be that important, and thus we can gloss over her own crisis of confidence with Patrick at a very awkward lunch.  Still, that part felt a bit out of place to me.

That might be the film's only really overwhelming flaw.  Another might be that at over two hours, it might be a bit punishing to some viewers. 

As a portrait of grief and vague hope, of a man who exists but who may not fully bring himself back from among the dead he's buried, Manchester By the Sea is a beautiful and haunting portrait.  A strong script and strong performances hold it as a really impactful, intelligent film.

Part of me worries that with the descriptions and the plot, people might think Manchester By the Sea is all-misery with no hope whatsoever.  That isn't true: there is hope for these characters, and while you may leave a bit sad, you won't leave with a sense of despair and angst.  You will leave at peace, a little heartbroken for them, but not without a sense that the Chandlers and those around them can indeed find a way back.  

DECISION: B+

Monday, December 26, 2016

Bates Motel Season Four: An Overview



BATES MOTEL: THE COMPLETE FOURTH SEASON

We are coming close to the end of Bates Motel, the Psycho prequel.  In the four years the show has been on, it's built on strength to strength, creating how Norman Bates will become the murderous figure he will become.

In the ten episodes of Season Four, it maintains a strong average of 8 (well, 7.9, but why quibble).  It's a pretty strong level of quality, due to many factors.

The first factor is in the acting.  The double-act of Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates continues to astonish.  Farmiga makes Norma what she is: a woman who is well-meaning but who also keeps making things worse for herself.  She didn't mean to shape her son into someone who is an extension of herself, but she did.  She didn't mean to cause problems, but she also fails when she does try for good intentions.  Norma is either willfully blind to the danger Norman is or genuinely does not see it.  Either way, this inability to deal rationally with her Achilles heel has damned her to a shocking end.

Farmiga has softened the view of Mother Bates from what most of us who have seen Psycho or any of its sequels (especially Part IV, subtitled The Beginning).  Instead of a horrible person who abused and tortured her son, Farmiga's Norma Bates was a rational woman who had been herself tortured, from the rapes she endured from her own brother Caleb (resulting in her other son, Dylan) to her second husband, Sam Bates. 

Farmiga, I think, was always best when she was playing vulnerable, wounded, a woman on edge fighting to stay ahead and sane in a world that constantly pushed her down.  Granted, Norma herself made ghastly mistakes (she at times did put Norman in difficult positions, such as occasionally slipping into bed with him when he was technically an adult), but behind her at times stupid actions lay the heart of a good woman. 

She was matched by Highmore, who broke free from that troubled young man into being a thoroughly reprehensible person.  At times, he was clearly insane (such as when he close to losing control with his new stepfather).  Other times, Norman was just horrible: when he confronted his mother about her new marriage to Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Alex Romero.

Highmore no longer made Norman a sympathetic figure.  He was selfish, arrogant, self-centered.  If anything, it was Norman who clung on to Norma rather than the other way around.  The season marked that evolution in his cruelty, and again, it makes one wonder why the Television Academy chose to ignore him and Farmiga.

Carbonell was equally complex as Sheriff Romero, someone who was a good man but also not above committing murders and hiding his own past sins.  Max Thieriot had some wonderful moments as Dylan, the only sane person in the whole series.

I've drifted to not mention another aspect of what made Season Four so successful: the scripts.  By and large Season Four kept building things slowly but to some shocking conclusions.  It was not perfect: poor Olivia Cooke as Emma Decody sometimes was shifted off, and the murder of Audrey Decody hopefully won't be forgotten.

Still, Season Four of Bates Motel was chilling, tragic, and leads up to its final season, one where we know where it will end: with Marion Crane taking her last shower.  Pop singer Rihanna will guest star in the role originated by the late Janet Leigh.  I'm not particularly sold on this casting, though RiRi was one of the better parts of the abysmal Battleship.  Will it be similar to the film or will they try for something else?

Season Four is another success for this Psycho-prequel, and while it's sad to see it go, the show was a great success.  At least it knows when to quit while it's ahead.

  

Next Episode: 

Bates Motel: Norman Review



BATES MOTEL: NORMAN

We kill that which we love most.

Norman, the season finale for Bates Motel's fourth season, probably would never match Forever.  However, Norman builds up the upcoming (and final) Bates Motel season.

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) is dead.  Whether her son, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) fully realizes it or not is questionable.  In his mind, he appears to think that Norma is merely faking her death to have some peace.  Every time he's called to handle funeral arrangements, he isn't strictly detached from things as he is not quite sure if they are actually happening.

One person who is more than aware of what's going on is Norma's widower, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).  He knows that it was a murder-suicide, but not like the police think it was (with Norma being the murderess).  Norman's smugness and self-righteousness about his mother knows no bounds, and Romero, already enraged and hurt at Norma's death, is determined to prove that Norman committed murder.

Romero needs to grieve, and does so by placing the ring Norma took off back on her finger at the morgue.  Norman's total hostility to Romero, however, will not grant Norma any peace.  When he is given a rare moment to see his mother before her body is prepared for the casket, he angrily removes the ring. 

At the funeral, to which he is the only mourner (he insisting Romero stay away and not informing his half-brother Dylan or his uncle Caleb), Romero and Norman have a final confrontation, where Romero punches him.  Norman, who I figure is divorced from reality concerning Norma, goes to the cemetery and digs her up.  He seems genuinely confused as to why she isn't waking up.  Nevertheless, he takes her home.

He grows more frustrated that she isn't responding to his calls to move or react, and even gluing her eyes open doesn't help with this Weekend at Norma's type behavior.  An unexpected visitor comes in the form of Chick (Ryan Hurst), who comes to offer condolences and who sees Norma's body but says nothing, other than a vague suggestion that Norman accept things as they are.

Norman about to commit suicide himself, is stopped by the sound of a piano playing I'll Be Home for Christmas.  He wanders downstairs, where he sees the room festively decorated and Norma Bates, alive and well and happy.  Now they can be together, alone at last.  Romero, for his part, is about to go to kill him when he's stopped by the DEA and arrested for perjury in their continuing investigation into Bob Paris' activities.


Part of me wants to giggle at the idea that Vera Farmiga had the easiest and hardest performance in Norman as a corpse.  She had to remain still and not have reactions, even as her eyes are gruesomely held open and give her a freakish, possessed visage.  It was easy in that she didn't have any lines to remember (apart from the end) and didn't have to react to anything.

It was hard in that she had to be convincing as a dead person, 'awakening' only once to a not-surprised Norman.  Farmiga, even when literally playing dead, is brilliant.

Highmore had to carry most of Norman himself, which makes the title all the more fitting.  He continues to make Norman Bates into a fascinating, disturbed figure, believable in his arrogance, smugness, and inability to come to terms with Norma's death.  He is so convincing in the way Norman doesn't really get that Norma is dead.  Part of his understands that, but part of him continues to believe it's some sort of rouse to keep others away.  That mix of panic and denial that has pushed his mind beyond repair is fascinating to watch, and it's a brilliant performance.

It's really a three-person show (and one of them plays dead), and in the third person, we have Carbonell as Romero.  His grief and anger mix well within the agonized and angry Romero, and the last-minute surprise of his arrest leaves us with just the right tease for Season Five.

Thieriot, who has one scene, is also effective as the torn Dylan, who wants to have some reconciliation with Norma and is unaware that she is dead (Norman not bothering to tell him).  The fact we know she is and he doesn't makes it all the more heartbreaking, and Thieriot brings that sincerity of someone who wants to do good and won't have the chance to do so.

There were a couple of things that brought it down.  Is it now a tradition to end every season of Bates Motel with a song?  The ending was a bit similar to Season Three, where Be My Baby ended the season if memory serves correct.  I also would not have minded if Chick were killed off (the only time where I was all but screaming PLEASE KILL CHICK!). 

Part of me doesn't think Norman would really kill himself, as narcissists generally have too high an opinion of themselves to actually commit suicide.  Part of me however, imagines that he was stopped not by morality but by his own world of imagination where Norma was alive.  I also wonder if the 'suicide note' was a bit too convenient for both Norman and Romero's stories.

Finally, I wonder if the Wilcox & Son Funeral Home family will come back.  The interplay between the father, the son, and the daughter looks oddly like a good spinoff.

Norman is a tragedy, a brilliantly made one, where despite himself a small sliver of one is almost sympathetic to Norman Bates.  It will be fascinating to see how Season Five goes.

9/10

Season Four Overview

Bates Motel: Forever Review



BATES MOTEL: FOREVER

At last, at long last, one of the biggest moments in Bates Motel (apart from a killing in a shower) has come about.  Norma Bates, the centerpiece of Bates Motel and the entire twisted Bates Family story, victim, victimizer, this singularly tragic woman, has finally shuffled off the mortal coil.  The exact nature of her death, the exact nature of her relationship to her son/namesake Norman Bates, all that is at an end.  We now know, if Bates Motel is to be believed, that she was not a monster, not a clinging, possessive woman.  She was, rather, a woman willfully blind, unaware of the damage she was doing, loving deeply but not well.

Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is terrified of his stepson, Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), with reason.  Norman had threatened him with an ax.  Romero wants Norman sent back to Pineview or another mental institution, clearly concerned for the lives of everyone, including his wife, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga).  Norma, for her part, stubbornly refuses to do that, insisting with regards to her and her son, "We are two parts of the same person".

Never a truer word...

In desperation, Romero goes to Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), Norma's other son and Norman's half-brother/uncle.  Romero tells Dylan that he needs two signatures from family to get Norman recommitted, and since Norma won't do it.  Dylan asks Romero to let him speak to his mother, and that doesn't go well either.  Dylan confronts her about the earring he found in Norma's coat, the one that belonged to Emma's now-missing mother Audrey.  Norma, despite all that she's been presented with, stubbornly refuses to see that Norman is simply not well.  Moreover, she's mad about both Dylan and Romero for planning this.

Romero has his own issues, as his former lover Rebecca Hamilton (Jamie Ray Newman) attempts to entrap him, in the most inept way possible.  Romero immediately sees through this and tells the DEA to go do things to themselves.

Norma writes a brief note to Romero telling him it's over, putting the ring he gave her back in the envelope along with her note. Norman and Norma, still in their heat-deprived home, are convinced that they should be together forever, and Norman plans out a great future for them: moving to Oahu and living together, apart from all these 'crazies'.  As Norma starts to dream away, Norman starts casually and coolly starts to close off all the vents after he turns on the broken heater.  The gas starts spreading throughout the house, and he snuggles up to his mother.

Romero comes in, wanting to patch things up.  Upon entering, he senses something is wrong.  Rushing up to her room, he drags both of them out and smashes windows in a desperate attempt to save their lives.  Norman does manage to wake up, but Norma has drifted off into a beautiful sleep, forever...

Forever is the most gut-wrenching episode in Bates Motel, certainly in Season Four if not the entire series (sadly coming to an end next season).  It's also the flat-out creepiest, filmed beautifully and frighteningly.  To the strains of Mr. Sandman by Nan Vernon, we see Norman calmly closing off all the vents to ensure a murder-suicide where mother and son will be united in perpetuity, and it would have succeeded if not for Romero. 

Filmed in cool blue, with a cold, expressionless face by Freddie Highmore, the mix of colors, performances, and the song makes it the most frightening and tragic sequences in Bates Motel history. 

We see the joy and hope in Norma Bates' face as she slips into a lovely dreamworld where she dies in happiness, but still dies in a cruel way.  All the elements of Norma's final moments make this sequence cruelly beautiful, but also deeply sad and intensely creepy, the tension and horror of it all coming at you unabated (no pun intended).

In terms of performances, as much as I have never quite warmed up to Dylan as a character, Forever is I think Max Theiriot's finest hour in Bates Motel, where he gives his best performance.  Who'd think the ex-drug kingpin would be the most sane, rational, normal, and kind person in White Pine Bay?

His fear and concern and genuine love for Norman and Norma, mixed with his frustration and anger at Norma's refusal to do anything, builds to a tragic crescendo.  His scene with the equally fantastic Carbonell as they discuss putting Norman away is an exercise of realistic tension between two people who know the danger but cannot pull enough strength to stop it.

Farmiga, the only person nominated for an Emmy for her performance in Bates Motel (and frankly who was robbed and who should have been nominated consistently for her fantastic work) has her final turn as the living Norma, and she does what she always does: be fantastic.  From her mix of delusional and defensive and denial to the genuine sincerity in her love for her troubled son and her last moments of joy at the thought of starting over, Farmiga infuriates you and breaks your heart.

Highmore too, again, always excellent as Norman Bates, who now is so far off the deep end nothing short of institutionalization can save him (and others). 

Forever, is short, I think probably the best Bates Motel episode, of both the season and maybe the entire series.  I might have said that already, but everything about it: the acting, the cinematography, the story, works so well that it brings the tragedy of the Bates family behind it to life.

We now know that there was no actual incest between Norma Bates and Norman Bates.  We now that Norman was not in his right mind when he killed his own mother.  We also know that, contrary to my memory of Psycho, his mother and stepfather weren't murdered together. 

Norma Bates' reputation has been restored, and we see that she, rather than the clinging, grotesque woman who would never let go of her son, is instead a tragic woman, blinded by love for her son. 

IN MEMORIAM



10/10

Next Episode: Norman

Bates Motel: Unfaithful Review



BATES MOTEL: UNFAITHFUL

As we come closer to the shocking conclusion of Bates Motel Season Four, Unfaithful brings us that growing sense of danger, of horror, of Norman Bates' inevitable fate. 

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore, who also wrote the episode), is not accepting the various 'changes' that have gone on since his time in Pineview.  Of particular disdain is the marriage of his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), and Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).  The passive-aggressive nature of Norman knows no bounds, everything from making snide remarks about the large-screen television and spaghetti Westerns that Romero likes to Norman's flat-out demand to Romero that he should divorce his mother.

Romero is excessively patient with Norma, but this situation is growing impatient, even angry, at how she insists on not telling Norman that their marriage is not a marriage of convenience.  Things come to a head at what should be a nice family event: picking a Christmas tree with Dylan (Max Thieriot) and his love, Emma (Olivia Cooke).  Norma confronts her namesake over him going behind her back to tell Romero that he should divorce her, and he for his part responds by throwing up.

As Dylan and Emma start planning their lives together, Norma attempts to try to reconcile Romero and Norman by having them all three share a meal.  However, Norman still is overtly hostile, insisting he can get a job to pay for his insurance and thus, pay for his own treatments.  Romero and Norma finally stand up to him, telling him that they are in love and won't divorce.

Norman is now fully enraged, angry that Norma has for all these years held onto him for his entire life and now is being cast off.  He vents his frustration by chopping wood, but when Romero comes to him to get him to have some sense, Norman Bates starts threatening Romero with the ax until he launches onto the side of the door, screaming, "I HATE YOU!  I HATE YOU!"

Someone has Mommy issues, I'd say.


Perhaps some of my unenthusiasm for most of Unfaithful comes from the fact that it wasn't a professional writer who penned the episode, but one of the actors.  I can't quite shake the idea that if Highmore were not playing Norman Bates, he wouldn't have been given such a plum assignment.  Even if it had been written by someone with more experience, I would have found fault with the repetitive nature of 'change'.  Everyone is going through 'change' of some kind: Norma's struggle with a new relationship, Emma's new lungs, Dylan's new life, Norman's new cuckoo-bananas mind.

The endless repetition of 'change' and about how much 'change' there was appears to be a bit of overboard.  One or two mentions of it, that's understandable.  The many times that it was mentioned, however, was becoming forced.

There's also the matter of Dylan and Emma.  Our beloved Dylemma had practically nothing to do in Unfaithful, and it's to the episode's discredit that they could have easily been eliminated without losing much.  The subplot of Rebecca Hamilton (Jaime Ray Newman), the former banker/Romero's lover picked up by the DEA before being able to flee to Indianapolis at least moved something forward, but Dylemma?

However, there were good things within Unfaithful.  Highmore's final meltdown is frightening and so well-acted.  Farmiga still continues to be the best thing in Bates Motel, her torn nature of balancing the fears for Norman and her own desires as a woman making for fascinating watching.  Her refusal to be honest and direct with her son are compounding the inevitable tragedy of it all.

As a person, you grow frustrated by how Norma, even after Romero essentially threatened to kill Romero, refuses to do anything.  I would have thought at that point, even I would have said Norman Bates needs to be locked up in a mental institution. 

He used an ax in a menacing and threatening manner, so angry that he was this close to losing all control and potentially murdering someone.

There was also a nice wink to the future, when we see Norman in a shawl at a rocking chair.  The coldness of the house is not just within the building, but within the heart of Norman Bates.

Unfaithful had some great moments thanks to Highmore (the comedy of him vomiting at the idea his mother actually wants to stay with Romero).  It isn't the best episode this season, but it moves the story forward to some really great, shocking moments leading to the season's finale.


6/10

Next Episode: Forever

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Batman Returns: A Review


BATMAN RETURNS

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas Special.  Every Christmas Day I review a Christmas-related film.  This year, I decided to take the opportunity of working through my Batman Retrospective and my annual Christmas film by reviewing Batman Returns.  It has a Christmas setting, which is good enough for me to make it this year's Christmas film. 

Therefore, Batman Returns is our Christmas Film for 2016. 

It is no surprise that after the financial and critical success of Batman there would lead to a sequel.  Batman was a tremendous success, down to winning an Oscar for the Art Direction (though its failure to receive Cinematography, Make-Up or Original Score nomination is puzzling).  Perhaps the thought was, 'if one villain was good, then two is better'.  Batman Returns has the Dark Knight facing off against two of the most famous of the Rogue's Row of the mythos: The Penguin and Catwoman.

It is Christmas season in Gotham City, but the sins of its past and present are going to visit our fair city.  From the past comes a strange being, long rumored to live in the sewers.  The Penguin-Man is said to lurk there, and we find that the rumors are true.  The Penguin (Danny DeVito), is a short, fat man with a beak-like nose and disfigured hands which look like flippers.  Penguin comes out thanks to an encounter with villainous tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  A 'carnival of crime' so to speak has attacked the Gotham City Tree-Lighting ceremony, and while Batman (Michael Keaton) was able to stop it, Shreck in the chaos was taken by Penguin.

They strike a nefarious deal: Shreck will help integrate Penguin into society and help locate his parents in exchange for Penguin's silence on Shreck's evil plans (including the death of Shreck's former business partner...whose hand Penguin finds in his sewers). 

One scheme Penguin isn't aware of involves Shreck's meek secretary, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer). She discovers Shreck's plan to manipulate his hoped-for power plant which he plans to use to take power out rather than in.  To stop this nobody, Shreck has no problem pushing Selina out a window to fall to her death.  However, she manages to survive, revived when a group of cats begins gnawing at her.  In her newly-empowered body, she has a total breakdown from her old meek self and fashions herself a new identity: Catwoman.

Penguin discovers his true identity (Oswald Cobblepot) and yearns for respectability, which he should be entitled to as a scion of one of Gotham's wealthy families.  Shreck wants Bruce Wayne's help with his power plant, but Wayne thinks it is a front.  Shreck is also astonished to find Selina, very much alive and kicking in more ways than one.  Wayne, for his part, finds Selina sexually intriguing, but she's non-committal.


Now Shreck devises a new scheme: join forces with Penguin to have our fowl-feathered friend become Mayor and split the city among them.  Penguin agrees, and then has a caller: Catwoman.  She finds that Batman will be a difficulty for both of them and suggests they join forces to defeat him by framing him for crimes. 

The plan is set in motion: frame Batman for the killing of the Ice Princess (a model that lights the Christmas Tree).  Catwoman thought they were going to use the Ice Princess for bait, not flat-out kill her, but Penguin won't be denied.  Penguin's overtures are rebuffed by Catwoman, who struggles with her attraction to Batman, and Penguin tries to kill her.  He forgot: a cat has nine lives.

Things come to a head when Penguin takes over the Batmobile, using it to try and create chaos while Batman cannot at first control it.  He does regain control, and even manages to record Penguin's anti-Gotham City comments, which he eagerly plays when Pengy has a press conference.

Enraged, Penguin abandons his efforts at respectability (and Shreck abandons him).  Penguin's first monstrous plan is to kill the first-born of Gotham's elite who are the Max-Querade Ball (Shreck's annual party).  As Selina and Bruce dance together at the ball, they realize who the other really is.  Before anything can be worked out, Penguin literally crashes the party and announces his King Herod-like plan. At first he plans to take Chip Shreck (Andrew Bryniarski), but is convinced to take Max instead.

Batman foils this scheme, and a more enraged Penguin opts for Plan B: unleash his army of penguins to launch rockets onto Gotham itself.  This too fails, and a final battle between Batman and Penguin takes place.  Catwoman, for her part, seeks revenge against Shreck, who genuinely is puzzled as to why Bruce Wayne is dressed like Batman.  "Because he IS Batman, you moron," the equally unmasked Kyle snaps.  A final battle between the three of them takes place now, with Selina disappearing and Shreck dead.

Wayne, still in mourning for his vixen, thinks he sees her, but perhaps it was not her.  In the end, as we see the Bat-Signal, and a feline figure watching it in the night. 


Batman Forever is certainly darker than Batman and miles away from the camp fun of Batman 1966. You have very suggestive dialogue (when seeing Catwoman in his bed, Penguin says, "Just the pussy I've been looking for", which I hope went over kids' heads.  In terms of the violence we do get a bit more than a film with a strong following with kids.

We see Penguin bite someone's nose off, one of the Red Triangle Gang members set on fire (the fact that said criminal was dressed like Satan not helping matters), and two women falling to their deaths.

That being said, I didn't find it as violent as I was lead to believe.  The violence I found tolerable, not grotesque.  In truth, I think it's not as violent as some other films.  Then again, this is not a film I would recommend for younger children, no matter how much they may love Batman.  Some scenes might be too hard for them (even though no baby is actually drowned in Batman Returns, the suggestion might be already frightening enough to cause them a few sleepless nights).

In terms of performances there's good and bad.  The good is the villainous duo of DeVito and Pfeiffer as Penguin and Catwoman.  DeVito relishes the role of evil, monstrous Penguin.  He manages to sneak in some quips that are appropriate to the character (in using a spinning umbrella on Shreck, the evil billionaire sarcastically remarks, "Is that suppose to hypnotize me?", to which Penguin snaps, "No, just give you a terrible headache".

DeVito gets the fact that Penguin is evil but has a certain panache to his villainy, one that fits into this world of masked heroes and deranged super-villains.  When is supposed to be dramatic and play for our sympathy, however, I felt he was a bit too dramatic, as if overplaying things.  I think it might have been deliberate, but it still comes across as going a bit overboard.

The sensation of Batman Forever is Pfeiffer as Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  Unlike DeVito but like Keaton, she has to play two to three roles: the meek Selina, the more empowered yet conflicted Selina, and the powerful anti-hero Catwoman.  She makes that evolution more than believable, being wicked when needed, but also torn between taking revenge and following her more compassionate side.  She struggles in her attraction to Batman as Catwoman, and in her attraction to Bruce Wayne as Selina Kyle.

Christopher Walken was Christopher Walken, all curious cadences and solid acting.  His name was an obvious nod to Nosferatu actor Max Schreck (as a quick scene at the Masquerade Ball where we see a nod to the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, not overt but not subtle either). He was openly sleazy and wicked, and unapologetically so.

In the bad, however, was Keaton.  He hardly was bad in the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman: I still think he is exceptionally strong as the torn hero.  However, he seemed a bit diminished whenever he had to share the screen with DeVito or Pfeiffer, as if he were slipping into supporting rather than lead character.  He was just there, almost because he had to be there.  He didn't do that much investigating, he didn't pursue them specifically unless drawn out by them, and he kind of was just there when he needed to be.  There was a shift in attention from Batman to the villains, and this is something that should be noted.

A lot of Batman Returns is deliberately grand, almost epic-attempting.  The various sweeping shots (even of model sets), the music of Danny Elfman, and the various shout-outs to other stories (Penguin's origin story taking a cue from the Moses story in The Book of Exodus, the attempted 'slaughter of the innocents' from the Gospel of Matthew).  It's as if Batman Returns wants to call attention to itself, to its various images, to be iconic when maybe pulling back a bit might have worked better for it.

There's certainly an epic feel to Batman Returns, but it's not an epic.  It is a good movie, enhanced by the great performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito (in my view, no other actress playing Catwoman before or since has equaled her performance, and only Gotham's Robin Lord Taylor has topped DeVito, though they play different versions of Pengy).

Batman Returns is as good a sequel as the original Burton-Batman films were likely to get.  Not the greatest Batman film, or even the best Batman sequel.  However, it was well-acted, well-made, and well worth the time...which maybe can't be said for those that follow Batman Returns

DECISION: B+

Next Batman Film: Batman Forever

THE GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PASTS:

2015: A Madea Christmas
2014: Prancer
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2012: Arthur Christmas
2009: A Christmas Carol (2009)
White Christmas

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Special Snowflakes Find Baby, It's Cold Outside



I think it bears mentioning that I am a Gen Xer.  As such, I find Millennials a most curious lot.  One of their biggest traits, to my mind, is their unshakeable idea that they are always right.  ALWAYS.  They are never wrong.  The decades of bestowing Participation Trophies, of being rewarded for effort as opposed to actual merit, has convinced them of their moral and intellectual superiority over all their elders: from those cynical Gen Xers to those racist/sexist/homophobic Boomers.

Let's not even get on the horror that is the Greatest Generation (a misnomer to these kids, since everyone knows THEY are the Greatest, they being told their entire lives how great they are).

Those old people, the ones who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, they didn't realize that Baby, It's Cold Outside was an ode to rape.  They just weren't as enlightened as Millennials, who have to show the world at large the error of their ways.  Thus enter the real-life couple of Lydia Liza, 22, and Josiah Lomanski, 25. 

Our two lovebirds/songwriters share a mutual disdain for the original Baby, It's Cold Outside.  Says Liza, "It was meant to be playful, but all those lyrics just sit wrong with me---especially being from this generation (emphasis mine)". 

As they find that Baby, It's Cold Outside has developed in their view 'a creepy vibe', with undercurrents of date rape and a lack of consent from the female in this male-and-female duet, they've decided to 'improve' on the song by rewriting the lyrics to reflect a more respectful, enlightened view on the issue of male/female relationships. 

Their version of Baby, It's Cold Outside, they insist, emphasizes consent, where the woman saying she wants to leave is respected rather than the man pushing for her to stay.

I think that Liza and Lomanski are well-intentioned kids, sincere in their beliefs, like most of their fellow Millennials.  I also think they are so, so wrong in their interpretation and thinking and haven't a clear idea of what they are talking about.

Before we begin our jolly jaunt through our questioned song, a little history lesson.



Baby, It's Cold Outside, contrary to popular opinion, is not a Christmas song.  It has nothing to do with Christmas or the Christmas season.  The only reason it has been adopted as a Yuletide tune is because it's about 'staying out of a snowstorm'.  The song was written for the film Neptune's Daughter and in the film performed twice.  The first time it is a duet between Esther Williams (the first speaker, or the call) and Ricardo Montalban (the second, or the response).  The second time it is between Betty Garrett (the call) and Red Skelton (the response).  The film is a romantic comedy about mistaken identities and isn't meant to be taken seriously. 

Baby, It's Cold Outside went on to win the Best Original Song Oscar for 1949.

I present Version A, the song in question.  The first section is usually the female line, the second the male line.

I really can't stay/But Baby It's Cold Outside
I've got to go away/But baby, it's cold outside
This evening has been/Been hoping that you'd drop in
So very nice/I'll hold your hands they're just like ice

My mother will start to worry/Beautiful, what's your hurry?
My father will be pacing the floor/Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry/Beautiful, please don't hurry
Well, maybe just half a drink more/Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think/Baby, it's bad out there
Say what's in this drink?/No cabs to be had out there
I wish I knew how/Your eyes are like starlight now
To break this spell/I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell

I ought to say, 'No, no, no, sir'/Mind if I move in closer?
At least I'm gonna say that I tried/Where's the sense of hurting my pride?
I really can't stay/Baby don't hold doubt
(Together) Baby, It's Cold Outside

I simply must go/Baby, It's Cold Outside
The answer is no/Baby, it's cold outside
The welcome has been/How lucky that you dropped in
So nice and warm/Look out the window at the storm

My sister will be suspicious/Gosh your lips look delicious
My brother will be there at the door/Waves upon a tropical shore
My maiden aunt's mind is vicious/Gosh your lips look delicious
But maybe just a cigarette more/Never such a blizzard before

I got to get home/But baby, you'd freeze out there
Say lend me a coat/It's up to your knees up there
You've really been grand/I thrill when you touch my hand
But don't you see/How can you do this thing to me?

There's bound to be talk tomorrow/Think of my lifelong sorrow
At least there will be plenty implied/If you caught pneumonia and died
I really can't stay/Get over that old doubt
(Together) Baby, It's Cold
(Together) Baby, It's Cold Outside

 
In Version A, the song is a give and take where both sides are flirting with each other.  The man wants the woman to stay with him and the woman demurs, concerned over her reputation.  Every time she's about to go, she finds a reason to stay just a little longer (Well, maybe just.../But maybe just...). He keeps pointing out that the weather is bad and for 'her own good' she should stay, but she isn't convinced.  It isn't until the end, when both sing the last line together, that the song implies they will stay together, if not overtly the whole night at least for just a little more than might be deemed proper.

Now we go to the Millennial Version, or Version B.
Like in the original, the woman is singing the call and the man singing the response.



I really can't stay/Baby, I'm Fine With That
I've got to go away/Baby, I'm cool with that
This evening has been/Been hoping you'd get home safe
So very nice/I'm glad you had a real good time

My mother will start to worry/Call her so she knows that you're coming
And Father will be pacing the floor/Better get your car home
So really I better scurry/ (Spoken) Take your time
Should I use the front or back door?/Which one are you pulling towards more?

The neighbors might think/That you're a real nice girl
Say, what is this drink?/Pomegranate Le Croix
I wish I knew how/Maybe I'll help you out
To break this spell/I don't know what you're talking about

I ought to say 'No, no, no, sir'/You reserve the right to say no
At least I'm gonna say that I tried/You reserve the right to say no
I really can't stay/No you don't have to
(Woman alone) Ah but it's cold outside

I've got to get home/Do you know how to get there from here?
Say, where is my coat?/I'll go and grab it my dear
You've really been grand/We'll have to do this again
Yes, I agree/How 'bout the Cheesecake Factory?

We're bound to be talking tomorrow/Text me at your earliest convenience
At least I've been getting that vibe/Unless I catch pneumonia and die
I'll be on my way/Thanks for the great night
(Spoken) Bye! (Woman)
(Spoken) Bye! Drive safe, please. (Man)
(Spoken) Don't watch that episode of Breaking Bad without me. (Woman)
(Spoken) I won't.  I'll save it for you. (Man)



In Version B, the song is about two people, ostensibly a man and woman, who are ending what I figure is their date.  The woman is getting ready to leave, the man is happy to see her go and not only has no objection to ending their time together but encourages her to take great precautions as she leaves his place.  They agree to talk (or text, I figure it's the same thing to them) the next day and meet at the Cheesecake Factory, with the promise that they will get together later to watch an episode of Breaking Bad.

Before I begin my exploration of Version A vs. Version B, I would like to offer my view that watching an episode of a show about a meth crime lord who grows more dangerous/murderous with power doth not for a romantic night make, but then that's just me.

One of the big complaints that Liza and Lemanski have with regards to Version A is that it is very ambiguous.  "We started thinking of the open-ended questions the song has," she says.  "You never figure out if she gets to go home.  You never figure out if there was something in her drink."


Well, let's touch on that.  I think Version A leaves it up to the listener to make his/her own mind as to how the night ended.  It's important to note that in Version A, they sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" together (the only part of the song where they duet, no pun intended).  Note also that the male/response is the one repeating that 'baby, it's cold outside', and the song on two occasions ends with them singing that phrase in unison.  In essence, She is agreeing with him that it is too cold/snowy to leave just yet and that She should stay a little bit longer (wonder if Liza and Lemanski will freak out over THAT song).

What exactly is wrong with there being a bit of mystery over whether she stayed or not, or how long she stayed?  Despite what Liza/Lemanski think (or appear to think) the Woman wasn't held prisoner in some secret lair or held against her will.  Consent does not have to be literal to be understood. It can be implied, understood, but I figure Millennials would find such things illogical: that one can draw inferences, even consent, without stating overtly, "I say yes".

Look at the two times in Baby, It's Cold Outside Version A where The Woman stops herself from leaving, of her own free will.  "Well, maybe just half a drink more," The Woman says right after saying she 'better scurry'.  "But maybe just a cigarette more," The Woman says the second time after listing how her family is waiting up for her.  Both times The Woman stops herself, finding an excuse to extend her time with The Man. In short, she gives consent, not necessarily to sleep with him, but to spend more time with The Man.

In Version A, when she says, "I ought to say, 'No, no, no, sir'", She wasn't making a declarative statement.  "Ought" is an important word in the lyric.  It is stating that society expects her, a single, unmarried woman, to decline an 'indecent proposal' of spending the night (have sex) with someone not her husband.  Throughout Version A, Her concern is her reputation and what might be said of Her, not Her personal safety.  She is concerned about what others might think (the neighbors, her maiden aunt, her siblings, her parents).  Nowhere is it understood that she fears rape or that The Man is going to rape Her. 

Perhaps the concept of 'hooking up' wasn't prevalent when Version A was written and thus, something got lost in translation.

As for the 'what's in this drink?', line, I will concede that to today's listener that line might sound questionable, but two things on that.  First, through the rest of Version A, she remains perfectly lucid throughout the song.  Yes, a Millennial might argue, but how do we know she didn't have effects of 'date-rape drugs' later?  For me to accept that premise, I have to accept that in Neptune's Daughter (again, where the song originated), that The Man slipped something.  There's no evidence of that, and as such, I reject facts not in evidence.

Second, the phrase "what's in this drink?" shouldn't be taken as a declaration of some roofie slipped in to force sex because Rohypnol wasn't even available until 1974.  From what I understand, this was a joke in the 1940s, as a way to rationalize questionable behavior.  Its original meaning has been lost, and now a new interpretation is given, one that was not originally intended. 

However, I can see why people would think that something was slipped in her drink, but I would argue that she probably didn't have enough to knock her out.  For all we know, one sip may have been enough to dissuade her from finishing it.  Still, maybe today it sounds wrong, but we should put ourselves in 1940s mindset, not 2010s. 



Looking at Version B, it reads like a parody of a date/one-night stand gone horribly, almost comically
wrong.  I put it to my reading of human nature, and you tell me if I'm wrong, but I know of no man, hetero or homosexual, who upon getting the person he's interested in romantically/sexually to spend time alone with him, would be 'fine' or 'cool' with her/him deciding to leave.  It's one thing to accept he won't get any nookie that night, and another to essentially say, "You don't want to even make out? OK, no worries".

To my ears, Version B is actually creepier than Version A.  The Man seems extremely, almost excessively concerned about The Woman.  He encourages Her to call her mother, to leave as soon as possible. He's even willing to grab her coat so she can make a faster exit. He comes across as too polite, as if trying to impress Her not with his sexual prowess or even looks, but with 'what a nice, almost neutered guy he is'.  It is to me a case of 'he doth protest too much'.

For her part, she seems almost desperate to leave.  She asks which door should She use to leave. "We're bound to be talking tomorrow," She says, but that sounds almost as if she's resigned to that fact rather than looking forward to doing that.  For His part, He suggests that She 'text him at (her) earliest convenience'.  He doesn't seem all that eager to hear from Her, leaving the time of contact to Her discretion.

Again, his excessive politeness to me comes across as being too overblown, as if he wants her to think he's a 'nice, very nice, almost pathologically nice' guy. He also comes across as excessively casual, almost disinterested.  She can contact him whenever She wants.  HE won't take any initiative in reaching out to Her.  He has no interest in putting up even a token protest to having Her spend more time with him.  It doesn't necessarily mean Her having sex with Him that evening, but few times have I had a good time where I actually wanted it to end.



When She says "I wish I knew how/to break this spell," He responds with "I don't know what you're talking about," and it is the creepiest moment in a song that is unintentionally funny in its sincerity.  His clenched teeth, his tense face, his hesitancy in saying that line, to me suggests that in His mind, She caught on to His nefarious plans, that He was found out and can't find a way to explain His actions.

I have a sense that in Version B, they are taking that 'spell' part literally.  I understand that one of the traits of Millennials is their inability to understand things like sarcasm or vocal inflections/body language to mean something other than what is literally being said, missing things like subtext or puns.  I know that whenever I see a Millennial and tap my wrists with my fingers, they are genuinely puzzled at my meaning.  They are unaware this means you are asking if they have the time, since most Millennials now rely on their cell phones and since they don't wear watches, don't understand the reference to wearing one. 

As such, when in Versions A and B, She is talking about 'breaking a spell', Millennials may not follow that the reference is rhetorical.  Just as Screaming Jay Hawkins didn't literally 'put a spell on (me)' or Muddy Waters didn't literally get 'his mojo working' to use to seduce me, there was no actual 'spell' or outside force, chemical or supernatural, to get Her to be with Him.

The spell was Love.

It's interesting that in Version B, it's The Man's lines that have been changed, not The Woman's.  For most of the first part, Her lines in Version B pretty much are the same in Version A.  It's just my own view on this point, but The Man is a bit of a wimp.  He's too docile in his actions and words, too weak, too eager to sound correct to Her. 

What is funny is how sincere Version B is.   What I get from Version B is that neither The Man or The Woman want to be with the other.  Her biggest decision is what door to use.  He practically rushes to get her coat so She can get out.  Despite the protests that Version B is an updated love song, I find no actual love or romance in it. 

I understand that Liza and Lemanski are trying to make a point about consent, about how a woman (or a man in Red Skelton's case) shouldn't be forced into a sexual relationship against her (or his, poor Red) will.  What Liza and Lemanski don't seem to understand is that their 'update/correction' sucks the subtle romance, the coy flirtation, out of Baby, It's Cold Outside.  Instead, it makes the song into a very unromantic number.

Think of it: She wants to leave, and He is happy to see her go.  He doesn't want to spend as much time as possible with Her.  He doesn't ask, "Are you sure?".  Instead, he's 'cool' with her leaving.  His comments about how She 'reserves the right to say no' strike me as a little condescending (and he says it twice).  She doesn't 'reserve' the right to say no...she HAS the right to say no.  If she had said "the answer is no" (like in Version A), his response makes sense.  However, She opts to say she 'ought' to say no.  Why would she 'ought' to say no?  There's no societal pressure for her to not sleep around.  After all, Millennials are the Hookup Generation, where sex really is like a handshake.

When she says "At least I'm gonna say that I tried," Version A implies she's going to try and save her reputation.  Version B implies that The (Gentle) Man assaulted her.

The fact that he says is twice, to me, sounds more like a resignation that he isn't getting any. 

Again, I know of no man of any sexual persuasion that is thrilled when he's told he's not getting any sex. 



There are many things I don't understand about Millennials or their worldview.  I don't understand  'safe spaces', trigger warnings, cultural appropriation, and therapy dogs, not to help them with any physical disabilities, but their emotional needs. I don't understand how they maintain that genetics dictate sexual orientation and/but feelings dictate sexual identity (I would figure genetics would dictate both).

I don't understand how this particular generation has no problem weakening the First Amendment if they consider certain speech 'offensive' to anyone.

I don't understand Millennials' penchant to chronicle every act they do on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter or their idea that the world is/should be endlessly fascinated with their narcissism.  I don't understand a generation that would rather take endless selfies at a baseball game rather than actually watch that baseball game.

I don't' understand a generation that can name every member of the extended Kardashian/Jenner clan but couldn't name a single Supreme Court Justice (and some who wouldn't know the difference between the Supreme Court or The Supremes...or even know who The Supremes are).

Finally, as well-meaning and sincere as Millennials (and Liza/Lemanski are), I don't understand why they think I or anyone else would have a different interpretation of a song like Baby, It's Cold Outside, one that didn't suggest that a rape had taken place.  I don't need them to 'reeducate me'. 

Millennials: the only generation that insists they can improve on everything and anyone without actually knowing anything. 

Please, Millennials.  Speaking as someone from Generation X, help me understand.