Monday, November 20, 2017

Class Dismissed And Then Some. Thoughts on Class Series One

Class, the Doctor Who spinoff that was meant to attract more young adults into the so-called Whoniverse, flopped.

Flopped big time.

Despite its Doctor Who tie-in (with The Doctor himself making an appearance in the premiere), Class was dismissed in more ways than one.  Why did Class, despite its pedigree and appeal to the YA audience, fail to catch on?

I think the reason can be summed up by a line said by Katherine Kelly as Miss Quill to one character coming up to see his boyfriend:

"Alien invasion or teen angst?"

I take it that other supernatural shows, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Teen Wolf, were able to balance the otherworldly with the teen drama.  They, however, had advantages Class didn't.  First, they weren't trying to tie themselves to another show and its nearly half-century mythology. 

These other shows had their own mythologies, their own universes.  They weren't inhibited by trying to tie themselves to a long-standing one.  Class hasn't exactly hindered by Doctor Who, but by being part of that world, it already had some limitations.

My immediate view is that Class never built a case for being.  You can ride Doctor Who's coattails for so long before you have to stand on your own, and Class never gave viewers a reason to keep coming back.  Imagine if it didn't have the Doctor Who background.  Imagine if there was no Doctor Who, that we came upon these five kids and their mysterious teacher for the first time in For Tonight We Might Die.   Would they be interesting enough to follow and care about?

Audiences en masse said, 'No'.  The characters were boring, essentially tropes: alien prince, jock, sweet girl, brainiac, and 'gay Polish immigrant'.  That last one, Matteusz, was probably the worst of the characters, not because he was gay, but because he was only gay.  He never was actually part of any of the alien fighting.  He served no purpose save being the main character's sexmate.

Matteusz never interacted with any of the characters if the main character, his lover, was not also interacting with them.  In short, he was there to verify the main character's agenda...err, sexual orientation. 

Matteusz provided the teen angst, the main character Charlie provided the alien invasion.

Second, they had longer time periods to tell their stories versus Class' need to squeeze in so much in eight hours.  If you have a limited time frame, you are hampered by trying to put in sometimes competing ideas into one, making things unbalanced.  It's that 'alien invasion or teen angst' again.  Patrick Ness, the creator and writer of all Class episodes, might have done well to maybe have at least one or two episodes where we focused on the characters versus an 'alien-invasion-of-the- week'.  That could have made that element of the stories flow, and we could have had a pause on things.

The entire Ram/April storyline felt so rushed: they slept together after knowing each other a month.  I don't think they had that many conversations prior to their first kiss, and them becoming lovers feels even more rushed.  At least with Matteusz and Charlie, they had a little bit of a build-up (and I do mean little: they had apparently one date before Matty comes rushing into Charlie's bed and declares undying love).  Ram declaring undying love to April (whom he deflowered) near the end of Series Only after a.) his previous girlfriend Rachel was killed and b.) after him telling her earlier that he wasn't going to say he loved her because as he says, 'we've known each other for a month' really solidifies how rushed and unbelievable the Ram/April romance was.

It's a bit of a wild turn: one hour Ram is having sex with April, a couple of hours later he's telling her he wasn't going to tell her he loved her.  It should be noted that, if we go by the timeline in Classthey had sex and fought the Shadow Kin King in the same day.

How's THAT for rushed?

Maybe, just maybe, if a previous episode had them on a date or at least talking into the wee night, their love story could have been established or hinted at.  Here, it was thrown in almost as if for balance: having featured a homosexual love scene, you needed a heterosexual love scene for equal time.

Speaking of romance, another thing that has gnawed at me about Class is the lead character's sex life.  A big to-do has been made about the fact that Charlie is homosexual, complete with boyfriend.  This was done, I imagine, to show the progress that has occurred in society where we are supposed to not even shrug our shoulders at a same-sex couple.  The fact that Charlie is alien is also important when it comes to his sexual desires, to show how to suggest that there might be anything strange about such desires would be a truly 'alien' concept, and that an extraterrestrial, free of such bigotry, would do as we are supposed to: love whomever he/she loves as an individual, not as a gender/sex.

Though I did not finish it, I think lack of sexual inhibitions was better-explored in Stranger in a Strange Land.

All well and good, but if you are going to have a character have a sexual orientation that is not held by the majority of people (in the U.S., the gay population is at most 6%) for no other reason than to showcase a same-sex relationship, then I think we run into a few problems.

We circle back to Matteusz, Bonnie Prince Charlie's sexmate.  Did we ever see Matteusz as an individual, as someone not defined by his sexuality?  I don't think so; everything about his character was related to him being gay: his parents throwing him out, his surprisingly explicit deflowering of Charlie (at least I assume Charlie hadn't had some good ol' same-sex Rhodian humping), his connection to all the other characters in Class

Tanya, April, Ram, Charlie and Miss Quill all had scenes where they talked to another character one-to-one, sometimes with each other (Tanya and April or Ram), sometimes one-to-one with a guest character, (Ram and a cafeteria lady, April and her parents or Quill with the Headmistress Dorothea).

Matteusz, conversely, never had one moment, one scene, let alone a conversation, that did not involve Charlie in some way.  Sometimes it had Charlie in the scene with others, others with him and Charlie alone, but never in all of Class did Matteusz interact with anyone on his own for his own reasons. Charlie was Matteusz's whole raison d'etre.  

He too, is an 'alien': a Pole who is now living in a country not his own, where English is another language.  So much could have been explored regarding Matteusz: how in some ways, Charlie and Matteusz are similar, but Ness and Class were not interested in that.

They were only interested in Matteusz the same way Charlie was: for his body.

Matteusz is the worst kind of character, one that should be studies by future scripting students in the class 'Don't Let This Happen to You'.  He is a variation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a character whose sole purpose is defined by how in this case he serves the main character.  Everything about Matteusz is about Charlie.  Matteusz has no independent existence.

You could argue that Class would or could have explored that in a Series Two.  My reply would be: why not explore it in a Series One?

Now, another reason why I think Class failed was that it was focused on the wrong character.  Charlie Smith, our Rhodian Prince, was a badly-created character.  He was wildly inconsistent: unaware of basic human behavior (except for sex, where his skills would put most Pornhub videos to shame), he is meant to be almost a wide-eyed innocent (unless it's in the bedroom, where he's quite the master...or is it submissive).  When it comes to Miss Quill, he is far from naïve.  In fact, he's an obnoxious, arrogant prick.

He belittled.  He abused.  He 'commanded' someone in no position to fight back.  He would take any opportunity to pull rank, which was bad enough.  However, given that she was doing all this against her will only made him a bigger monster than the aliens finding their way through cracks in time and space at Coal Hill Academy.  When anyone dared suggest he was being cruel, like Tanya did, he curtly dismissed her objections.

We again have a wild inconsistency with the characters.  Is Charlie an innocent, unaware of what 'folk dancing' is and taking things literally, or is he an arrogant Prince forcing his slave (whom he would not recognize as one) to doing she didn't want to without taking her feelings into consideration?

Charlie was the main character, but he, like just about every character, was boring.  There was only one worth anything:  Miss Quill.  I think this is for two reasons.  One: she had a fascinating backstory: she saw herself as a freedom fighter stuck serving our Boy Prince on a backwater, then forced again to watch over a group of hot young teens.  Quill had conflict, she had moments of genuine emotion.  She had a motive in working with the Governors: to free herself of Bonnie Prince Charlie. 

She also was played by the only person on Class who gave a genuine performance.  In fairness, Sophie Hopkins' April was on occasion pretty strong, her backstory of her family torment played well (and with the title song from the finale, The Lost, not a bad singer) but the rest of the young adult cast ranged from inadequate to downright awful.  Fady Elsayed's Ram was at times cringe-inducing, his inability to express any emotion shocking.  Sometimes it was hilarious: his reaction to seeing his father killed should cause giggles, same thing when he sees the cafeteria lady eaten up by a dragon.

Vivian Oparah's Tanya too was unable to do much.  When Tanya's dead father suddenly appears, Tanya appears more irritated than shocked or moved, as if Dead Daddy was an annoyance to endure rather than a chance to resolve any issues she had with his sudden passing.

Our lovers Greg Austin and Jordan Renzo as Charlie and Matteusz were forgettable, and in a curious twist Austin, who was only 24 when he played Bonnie Prince Charlie, looked twice that age even though he was comparatively the same age of anyone save Kelly, and she was playing an adult.

A show built around Kelly as Miss Quill would have been fantastic: her acting ability and storyline would have been fascinating to explore.  Sadly though, she was not the focus of Class.  That belonged to a group of actors who are pretty but perhaps might not have the experience to do much with poorly-written parts. 

Weak stories with weaker villains (the Shadow Kin proved hopelessly boring and clichéd), uninteresting characters (I truly cannot find a worse character than Matteusz), bad acting (Elsayed should look back in anger at what Class did to him), and nothing that would draw viewers back for more adventures with our British/Polish Scooby-Doo gang all led to Class' collapse.

No great loss to see that Class got a failing grade. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo: A Review


"And what is Aleppo?", former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson infamously asked on MSNBC's Morning Joe.  The former New Mexico governor and marijuana enthusiast was clearly befuddled by the question about what to do regarding 'Aleppo', and had to have Aleppo explained to him.

Khaled Omar Harrah would know what 'Aleppo' is.  The primary subject in Last Men in Aleppo, his story, along with that of his fellow Syrian Civil Defence, better known as White Helmets, who go towards the bombed-out areas of his besieged city to rescue any survivors.  Last Men in Aleppo is their story.

Khaled, along with other White Helmets like Mahmoud and his brother Ahmad, live their lives the best they can inside this damned and probably doomed city.  They endure the daily bombings from Russian planes, the lack of medicine, but within the horrors of war: the dead babies, the constant knowledge that death is possible by sunset, they continue.

The White Helmets relish every small victory: any person found alive, a visit to a playground with their children where for a brief respite, the greatest concern is the loss of a balloon, even a wedding where for a few minutes the men can dance before getting a call to rush to another devastated building.  In the midst of all this death, with Bashar Assad still firmly in power and the Syrian people slowly strangled, the last men in Aleppo continue to protest, defiant to the bitter end.

The end is quite bitter for Khaled, for on August 11, 2016, he is killed in the city he loved and did not leave by one of those bombs, his friend Nagieb trapped alive with him in his last two hours.  Khaled is buried at night, one less man in Aleppo.

Last Men in Aleppo at times seems almost a bit too thought out, something that even Mahmoud touches on.  He is brought to visit the home of one of the children he has rescued, offered coffee while the child asks, 'How did you get us out?'  After leaving, Mahmoud expresses his discomfort at it all.  "It felt like were there to show off," he says, clearly ill at ease. 

I think I need to be as detailed as I can when I say 'too thought out'.  I am not saying by any means that anything in Last Men in Aleppo is somehow staged, rehearsed or fake.  I am, however, wondering if almost all the conversations that the men had really did revolve around the conversations seen.  I could never shake the idea that the White Helmets knew their story would be seen by the uncaring outside world and thus, would circle back to the same topics. 

That was not necessary, as the evil of Assad and his protector Vladimir Putin comes loud and clear every time we see a dead baby pulled from the rubble.  Images like these are not shied away from, nor should they.  The horror and barbarism of the Syrian Revolution (I will not call it a 'civil war', for the whole reason for the uprising was the fall of the Assad regime, which the men in Aleppo continue to call for) should be seen, should be felt, should be something we should not look away from.

The film is hard to watch, especially whenever the White Helmets rush towards the newest bombing, the panic, horror, and chaos of the situation brought vividly by director Firas Fayyad.  They were wise to put in little moments of the semblance of normalcy, such as when Khaled put in new fish in a fountain freshly baptized with water.

We also don't see them as supermen.  While we know that the White Helmets were civilians with regular jobs prior to the Revolution (Khaled a painter and designer, Mahmoud a student), we also see that they are men with doubts and fears.  Khaled at an anti-Assad rally approaches a human smuggler and talks about how he might want to send his family to safety in Turkey, which the smuggler says is now nearly impossible.  Later on though, Khaled tells Mahmoud that his family will not leave because he will not leave his beloved Aleppo.

In their hearts, every White Helmet knows that they are almost doomed to die.  "The siege is our destiny," Mahmoud ruefully remarks.  They, however, even with their fear, their anxieties for their families: Khaled's wife and two daughters, Mahmoud for his brother, continue.

It is almost as if we know by the end that Khaled will not live to see a free Syria.  We last see him alive, looking at a phone message from his daughter, then see Nagieb in shock and Khaled on the slab, being washed.  To see the man most featured in Last Men in Aleppo dead should hit us the most, the acknowledgment that these men are no more, while the world did nothing.

I'm convinced that history will damn us for doing nothing in Syria.  Last Men in Aleppo is the dead speaking to us, their testimony to a collective indifference.  The film gives us no solutions, just a chronicle of a city in its last days, and the men who knew it and knew they were not going to get out alive, but stayed.


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Edith + Eddie: A Review


It's just all such a shame.  It's a shame that documentary and live-action short films are not seen by the general public (though endless commercials about breast implants and used cars are shown before the trailers).  It's also a terrible shame that not only is the story of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, the subjects of Edith + Eddie might not be seen, but that such a sad and unnecessary tragedy befell them.  Edith + Eddie, in its short 30 minute running time, tells us so much about love, loss, and the abuse seniors endure psychological and physical.

Edith Hill is 96 years old.  Eddie Harrison is 95.  Edith is African-American.  Eddie is Caucasian (the only time this is touched on is when Eddie says it's not the color of the skin but the heart that matters).  They met ten years prior and according to Eddie, it was love at first sight.  They married at their advanced age and by all appearances doted on each other: dancing at bars, worshipping in church, fixing their false teeth.

Don't laugh: love has been built on stranger things.

Edith and Eddie are living out their final time together in Edith's home which she paid for even after the death of her second husband, cared for by her daughter Rebecca.  Rebecca was more than content to let these lovebirds stay as long as they lived there, but her sister Patricia (who is briefly seen and never heard from) wants Edith to leave both the house and Eddie and move to Florida.

What Edith, who is suffering from mild dementia, wants, along with what Eddie, Edith's husband wants, is immaterial.  It's so immaterial that Patricia (whom Eddie curiously calls 'Pam') gets the courts to appoint a guardian/conservator named Jessica Nielsen, who has never met or dealt with Edith.

It's believed that Patricia wants Edith out of the house and Eddie out of her mother's life so that she can sell the house and not be 'robbed of her inheritance'.  Miss Edith does not want to move or leave Eddie, especially since Miss Edith insists that Patricia's husband abused her physically when she last was with them. However, one rainy night, in come Patricia and Jessica Nielsen, the latter most disinterested in what either Miss Edith or Eddie had to say.  Ms. Nielsen refused to even entertain the idea that Miss Edith had any rights to herself, that Eddie was important, or in Miss Edith's stories about Pat's husband; as the rain got stronger, they shuffled Miss Edith off to the airport.

Not missing the flight was of greater concern than what Mr. and Mrs. Harrison thought.

One week after his wife was forcibly removed from her home, her husband could not reach her.  Two weeks after his wife was forcibly removed from her home, her husband waits all day outside their house for her...and collapses.

Despite the prayers of their pastor, Eddie Harrison died, never having seen his wife again.

As far as we know, Miss Edith was not informed of her husband's passing, though Jessica Nielsen as guardian/conservator has custody over Mr. Harrison's remains.

A film like Edith + Eddie makes your blood boil at the injustice of it all: the greed of family members and the cruelty of those who are convinced they are better suited to decide what is best for someone without so much as asking the person affected.  From what I saw, Edith and Eddie were a sweet little old couple who genuinely loved each other and were doing no one any harm.

They should not have been separated, and the separation was not only unnecessary, but especially cruel and vindictive towards two people in the finality of their lives. 

There's no way around it: Jessica Nielsen comes across as a real bitch, and that is not a term I use loosely.  We don't see her interact with either Edith or Eddie but we do hear the audio, and from the audio she is curt, almost arrogant in her manor with both of them.  "You'll have devils under your bed," Eddie thunders at her as Nielsen pushes single-mindedly to remove his wife from him (or thunders as much as a 95-year-old man can).  The couple kept their dignity in that neither begged or cried, but Nielsen would not hear Miss Edith's insistence that she did not want to go.

Moreover, Nielsen showed herself exceptionally condescending towards two people she had not met or apparently talked to until she forcibly separated a couple just married.  She told them to consider the separation 'a vacation' while they sort out what didn't need sorting out.

I'll be blunt: I would have let Miss Edith and Mr. Eddie stay together, so long as someone was willing to care for them, which Rebecca and her family was, as was their church.  I'd also say that Patricia was not interested in anything but money, though why she thought or could think a 95-year-old man could possibly 'steal' anything from her boggles the imagination.

I'll be more blunt: I have seen older people being taken advantage of even after death.  I've known families who were so warped with greed that they pushed to have their parents buried in pauper's fields despite being able to afford a decent funeral because they simply did not want to spend money, even if split among the various relatives it would have been very little.

In short, we've all known a situation like that of Edith + Eddie.

It's this unvarnished portrait by director/editor/producer Laura Checkoway of two old people in love, torn apart physically for no reason except the idea that 'others know better' that makes Edith + Eddie such a terrible tragedy.

It is true: Miss Edith was suffering from mild dementia, but she was cared for and cared about deeply, most especially by her husband, who essentially died of a broken heart.

It's curious that the state (through Jessica Nielsen) and Patricia fought so hard to separate Edith and Eddie, using Miss Edith's mild dementia as the reason, while two women who looked and behaved far more irrationally were not only allowed to stay in their thoroughly run-down home but celebrated for their pretty bonkers behavior.  I'm talking about another Edith & Edie: Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter and namesake, better known as Big & Little Edie from the infamous Grey Gardens.  The Beales were frankly better candidates for the looney bin than either Miss Edith or Mr. Eddie.

Then again, both Edith Beale mere et fille were rich, while Miss Hill and Mr. Harrison were not.  Wonder if that had anything to do with things.  

I'm thankful I'm a Christian for many reasons.  One of them is that, since I believe in an afterlife, I'm convinced that Eddie will be reunited with Miss Edith, and that Patricia or Jessica Nielsen will not be able to separate them when both reunite in the presence of God (though I pray both repent and beg their forgiveness). Yet I digress.

Edith + Eddie is a love story, a tragedy, a call to action to bring the issue of senior abuse and neglect to greater attention.  Even with her mild dementia, Miss Edith was sharper than Patricia or Jessica Nielsen.  "Love is one of the best things," she told her husband.  "Love everybody, treat everybody right".  She may not have been in the best of health, but it was Patricia and Jessica Nielsen who had dementia of the heart.

Truly, what harm could there have been to let two near-centenarians live out what time they had together, in peace, before they were called home? 


Class Episode Eight: The Lost Review


We end Series Only of Class with the perhaps appropriately named The Lost.  It suffers from a lot of what doomed Class already: a lot of rushing through stories that could and probably should have taken longer, some unintentionally hilarious moments and despite its claims to the contrary, no real desire to meet up against next term.

Six days after the events of Detained/The Metaphysical Engine, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) is still visibly pregnant. This leads to our first unintentionally hilarious moment, our gay Polish immigrant Matteusz (Jordan Renzo) asking how that could be possible.  The sarcastic in me wonders whether, perhaps being gay, Matty does not understand how pregnancies work.  Yet I digress.

We see the Scooby-Doo gang still is split, with April (Sophie Hopkins) singing a new folk song, The Lost (about the only highlight in what proved an almost embarrassing episode).  April senses Corakinus again, and her on/off-boyfriend Ram (Fady Elsayed) knows our Shadow Kin is back...because he ran his scimitar through Ram's dad, Varun (Aaron Neil) right in front of him.

And all that was before the opening credits.

More murder and mayhem are in store, as a devastated Ram goes to April for comfort and help after seeing Daddy killed.  Charlie and Matteusz (seriously, has there been a single scene in all of Class where Matty interacted with anyone else without Charlie being present?) continue to say dumb nothings to each other: "No promises except one.  I promise to love you today.  And tomorrow I make this promise again", Matty coos to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The teen angst has to give way to the alien invasion, for Corakinus is at it again, killing Vivian Adeola (Natasha Gordon), right in front of her daughter Tanya (Vivian Oparah).  This is second unintentionally hilarious moment: the actual killing of Vivian.

As Mother Dearest attempts to comfort her daughter over the loss of her friends, Tanya is having none of it.  "Things will get better," Mother Dearest begins.  "You'll get older...", with Tanya whispering "Are you sure of that?" and Mother Dearest ignoring her.  "If there's one thing I KNOW...!!" she continued until a shadow scimitar runs right through her.  It almost sounds as if she's saying "NO!!" as well as "KNOW!!", but the whole sequence is just flat-out hilarious. 

I'm not a sadist, but I was laughing my head off at this moment, constantly rewinding it to see this laughter-inducing moment again and again.  I think it's because Gordon's voice goes up 500 octaves when she's interrupted midsentence, and on perhaps the worst word to stab someone on.  The wild back-thrust she has adds more hilarity to it all.

What is it about a show that almost delights in killing parents off, and does so in a way that makes people laugh out loud?

Now that Tanya is an orphan and unless her brothers are of legal age will force the state to become Tanya's legal guardian, she does what anyone whose mother was run through by the Shadow Kin would do: race over to Miss Quill to train in martial arts.

Corakinus finally makes an appearance, holding April's mother hostage.  He can't kill her because of the powers she got earlier as a result of his connection to April (I think), but by this time, Mattlie finally stop making googly-eyes at each other long enough to try and help the others.  Charlie (Greg Austin) is holding an alien gun, but Prince that he is, can't actually shoot it.  Worse, Corakinus has infected him to where if Charlie kills Corakinus, he kills himself.

As April explains, "He's put a shadow on your heart", which is unintentionally hilarious moment number three. 

Speaking of numbers, Corakinus tells them that Matteusz is Number 5 (was writer/creator Patrick Ness inspired by the young adult series I Am Number Four?), as Numbers One and Two were already done in.  If it were up to me, Matteusz would have gone straight to Number One, but again I digress.

It's by now that Tanya, Miss Quill, and later on Ram and I think even April by the end all push Bonnie Prince Charlie to use the Cabinet of Souls and eliminate the Shadow Kin, who are slowly entering Earth through tiny cracks in time and space.  Charlie, being a.) moralistic and b.) more concerned about what his boyfriend thinks than on saving humanity, continues to refuse.  Instead, he and Matteusz (because Matty insists on being at Charlie's side at all times) go to the Headmistress, Dorothea Ames (Pooky Quesnel).  Dorothea insists that the Governors are academics, interested in research to gather knowledge for "The Arrival".  They, she tells our lovers, manage time.

As is the case throughout all Class, Charlie generally proves inept at things.  It's up to Quill to save Numbers 3 and 4: Tanya's brothers, though it's hard to say if they were of legal age (doubtful since they're also going to Coal Hill Academy), and/or whether or not they are twins (having both of them wear shirts that are similar shades of orange does not help matters). 

It all comes to a head at the assembly area, where Quill and Tanya are fighting furiously to stop the invasion.  Corakinus' pledge that the Earth will be spared if she comes with him is a lie: he plans to kill everyone.  Ram returns to join the fight when he sees the shadows are going after people, and at long last, Charlie uses the Cabinet of Souls that Tanya & Quill brought to defeat the Shadow Kin.

To his intense disappointment, Charlie finds that he is not the hero of legend, for the Rhodian souls have not returned to take forms again.  Dorothea is a terrible disappointment and will not see "The Arrival" and is killed by...a Weeping Angel!

April appears dead, but to everyone's surprise, Corakinus rises, speaking in April's voice and asking why is everyone looking at her like that.

I guess this means that April and Ram may find Coitus Corakinus a bit difficult.

As always, The Lost shows that Class made a terrible, terrible mistake by making Charlie the main character because Katherine Kelly so dominated the show as Miss Quill.  She was the only actress and only character worth our time and interest.  Her pregnancy makes things quite curious in that if her children live up to the Quill manner of being, they will literally eat her.

Maybe if that's the case, we were lucky not to get a Series Two.

Whether attempting to be tender, almost motherly to the devastated Tanya or delighting in the idea of smacking Bonnie Prince Charlie around (There's some Princes I'd really like to start punching," she tells Tanya when they plan to force Charlie to use the Cabinet of Souls), or stating the obvious (when Corakinus bemoans his defeat of him by Quill when she saved Tanya's brothers by telling her, "You will die," she replies, "All of us die, genius"), Kelly as Quill has been nothing short of brilliant. 

Why she ended up playing second fiddle to this motley group of models defies belief.

I simply cannot understand how any of the young adult cast-members save Hopkins can have careers if they don't get more acting training.  Elsayed is especially ghastly whenever he tries for any kind of emotion: whether it's him trying to show devastating grief ("What do I SAY?!", he asks April in how to explain his dad's death to him mom, whom we've never seen) or anger at any of them for not attempting to fight (as a side note, did anyone bother trying to get in touch with UNIT or maybe even Torchwood?). He's even bad at trying to declare his undying love for April, whom he told not that long ago he wasn't in love with (despite taking her virginity) because he'd known her for only a month.  Now we're supposed to believe he loves her passionately?

Oparah too showed she has limited range: her tears at seeing her mother sliced were unconvincing.

The Lost also vindicated by view that Matteusz served no purpose in Class apart from being Charlie's top.  Throughout all of Class he never did anything outside of Charlie (no pun intended), and Renzo either was directed to make Matteusz incredibly dim or that was how the character was meant to be. 

Dim was also how Austin's Charlie was.  He kept to that 'alien who does not understand things' bit by looking confused when April gives him a comforting hug (even Quill caught on to that particular human need faster, and she has no genuine love in her).  He comes across as weak and almost self-righteous in his stubborn refusal to use the Cabinet, and worse, it looks like he didn't want to use it...because it would make his boyfriend cry.

Something that The Lost perhaps might not have thought out well is that now, Charlie is pretty useless.  The Governors' sole reason for their interest is that he had this one-time-only Doomsday Device.  Well, now it's used, and if there had been Class Series Two, what cards could an exiled Prince with no guard and no weapon use?  Further, why would the Weeping Angels even care?

It was such a waste that the Governors didn't end up being a group of renegade Time Lords.  At least that would have been a genuine shocking twist ending.  However, given that the Weeping Angels were created by Class executive producer Steven Moffat, it was decided to use something to please Moffat's ego (and give him copyright compensation).  I see no other reason to have the Weeping Angels be the big baddies in the end.

The Lost lived up to its name.  Bad acting save for Kelly and Hopkins, a rushed, even chaotic story where it looked desperate to end one set of stories and tease others that will never come outside fanfic, many hilarious moments all made The Lost something to not remember. 

It would have been better if the villains turned out to be not the Weeping Angels but The least they'd make us forget we ever saw any of Class.


Next: Class: An Overview

Friday, November 17, 2017

Boys For Sale 2017 (Bai-Bai Boizu): A Review


It reads like something from a gay porn video: a straight man who can be enticed to have sex with a man and under his own version of 'gay conversion therapy'.  'Gay for pay', the idea of heterosexual men having sex with homosexual men in exchange for money however, is not the exclusive domain of adult videos.  It is reality in the far East, specifically Japan.  Boys for Sale (Bai-Bai Boizu in Japanese) reveals a great deal about this demimonde that is both open and secret, simultaneously overt and opaque.  It reveals that hard financial times can make young men do just about anything to anyone with the yen.  It also reveals a universal truth: despite what pornography may show, the business of buying and selling sex can be a sad and lonely one, where the trade of physical pleasure may pay well but carries a high cost.

We learn through interviews with the 'boys', along with some of the club owners where the 'boys' are essentially rented out and others who have observed this world about Shinjuku 2-chome, the gay area of Tokyo. The term 'boys' is a wild misnomer, for most of the interviewees are between 19 to 26, with a 30-year-old and maybe a 17-year-old being the outliers, what would be known as 'twinks' in the gay subculture.  Japanese culture, prior to the opening to the West, was surprisingly more open and tolerant of homosexuality.  Now, with centuries of homogenization and conformity being the norm, anything that deviates from that norm, including homosexuality, is frowned upon.  Curiously enough, the Anti-Prostitution Law, which caused more shifts in Japanese society when it came to its views on sex, makes no mention of same-sex relationships and technically, men paying for sex with other men is not illegal.

These boys or 'urisen' talk about their experiences with homosexual encounters, some of them quite surprising.  More than a few tell the interviewers that they've had sex with men in their 80s.  As is the case with many 'escorts', the reason they fell into this business was financial.  Some, affected by the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami, others by large debts, opted to make money through letting other men, mostly closeted or who as one 'urisen' but it, 'are married men bored with their wives', use them.

As we hear and see more from them, the tales that emerge become at times bizarre, at times almost humorous.  Not only do we learn that there are 80-year-old Japanese men still getting it on with 19-year-old boys, but that some of these men are into curious sexual turns: everything from your cursory S&M to defecating on them.  The lengths they go to so as to protect their identities are quite surprising: most not only wear masks but also have their eyes pixelated.  Only a couple appear sans masks, and one of those uses a false name.  There is still a great deal of shame at the art of hustling.

Moreover, there is tragedy and even danger in these stories. One talks about how essentially he was raped the first time he engaged in same-sex activity.  Another, the 18-year-old, was unsure about what an STD was or how one got one.  The ignorance about sexually transmitted diseases is almost shocking, but does explain why AIDS is growing in Japan versus in other industrialized countries where it is either shrinking or holding steady.  The owners of the Japanese versions of gay bars are little to no help.  One particularly blunt owner insists that the urisen go through training, which is contradicted by an actual urisen who says he was basically thrown into the deep end the first time.

Boys for Sale has several accompanying illustrations, some graphic, about the kinds of things they have to go through. 

The film takes a cold, dispassionate view of the boys to men trade, one that has more dangerous than they seem to realize.  A former urisen-turned-bar owner says quite clearly that he's straight and that it was hard to get hard at first.  "Making money will get you hard," he remarks, acknowledging that in the end, these acts are not love or even lust but purely financial.  If there was another way to earn a living than turning tricks, it appears that not even the actual gay men would be in 'the profession'. They are not there against their will, but they are not there because they choose to be either. They are there because they need to live.

Boys for Sale makes clear that this is not some form of titillation or fun for them.  None of them are happy hookers.  Some of the urisen may actually derive some physical pleasure from their activities (even some of the straight ones), but for the most part their trade is one that keeps to the tradition of the female prostitutes that once held court in Shinjuku 2-chome.  We're told that the area was once where females plied the sex trade until the Tokyo Olympics when the city decided that such an open area would not look good.  The ladies of the night were driven out, but the seedy reputation remained, allowing another disparaged group (gays) to go there without worry to their own reputations.

In Shinjuku 2-chome, there is a temple where prostitute's corpses were left to rot, as if they were nothing. One observer remarks, 'it's such a sad place', and it looks like things have come full circle.  There is a certain sadness in these stories, stories of men who find that their only asset is their asses.  These are not the memoirs of gay geisha (especially since geisha are nowhere near required to have sex, let alone expected to for money).  They are stories of young men, some gay, some straight, some bisexual, who through various routes find themselves in situations they would not want to be in.

It is perhaps understandable given that they can get $5 for 30 minutes of drinking with a potential pickup.

Not only is Boys for Sale a look inside a private, secret world, but it is also a documentary that makes the viewer ask questions about whether legalized prostitution would make things better, the emotional toll on those paid to indulge others in the pleasures of the flesh, on the idea of being sexually out affects a society, and especially on the dangers of STDs in Japan.  A potentially growing health crisis in the Land of the Rising Sun will not only affect that nation, but may impact other nations.

There is great sadness in this variation of 'the floating world', and director/editor Itako brings it to light.  The illustrations and animation reveal things impossible to photograph.  One thing that is curious is that Itako never talked to any of the clients.  It would have been interesting to see things from the other perspective, though perhaps the Tale of the Urisen was what Itako was more interested in.

"This is a business where men pay to have sex with men.  It's not something we can talk about publicly," a bar owner explains.  Boys for Sale does, and perhaps there should be a more open discussion about the issues involved in Boys for Sale: the economic and social reasons behind this trade, the growing lack of knowledge that unprotected sex poses for this generation.  One of the urisen may think that he is 'making men's dreams come true', but those dreams may end up becoming nightmares.   


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sunrise at Campobello: A Review


Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the longest-serving President in history, a record 13 years in office.  Sunrise at Campobello, the story of his polio and return to public life, feels just as long.  It should not be a surprise that Sunrise at Campobello is so laudatory towards FDR as to go beyond reverential to almost worshipful.  The fact that FDR's widow, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was still very much alive and is thanked for her assistance, all but guarantees that Sunrise at Campobello is not going to be a deep exploration into the foibles of our 32nd President.  If not for some good performances, Sunrise at Campobello would almost be dismissed as something brought to you by the Democratic National Committee.

In 1921, patrician Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) is enjoying his summer retreat, Campobello (Beautiful Field in Italian), with his wife, Eleanor (Greer Garson) and their five children.  It's here that Franklin's usual swim does not give him his usual energy, though insisting on staying in his wet clothes does not help.

Things go from bad to worse when Franklin collapses, then finds he cannot walk or move.  Coming to Campobello is FDR's political guru Louis Howe (Hume Cronyn) and later on, the strong-willed Mrs. Sara Roosevelt, FDR's Mommie Dearest (Ann Shoemaker).

The diagnosis is grim: infantile paralysis, better known as polio.  Everyone, from Eleanor to Sara to FDR's loyal girl Friday Missy LeHand (Jean Hagen) think his political aspirations are finished.  Sara is especially gratified by this idea, as she has never thought politics was a worthy profession, especially for her little boy.  It's only Howe who won't give up the idea of a political future for our figure.

In the years from his diagnosis to his return to public life when he nominates New York Governor Al Smith (Alan Bunce) for President in 1928, Sunrise at Campobello chronicles the struggles for Franklin, the increasing role for Eleanor, and his ultimate comeback.

Dore Schary, adapting his Tony Award-winning play, apparently loved his own work so much he opted to not cut.  Either that, or Sunrise at Campobello the play must be an awfully long evening of theater, as the nearly two and a half-hour running time for the film felt far longer.

Without getting too much into things, this crucial part of the evolution of FDR was covered much better in the miniseries Eleanor & Franklin, where we saw the wily politician at his most vulnerable: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  In that version of the Roosevelt's story, FDR was flawed, sometimes angry, sometimes even bitter, working his way past his ego and frustrations while masking things behind that grin.

With Sunrise at Campobello, too much time was taken up showing FDR as this almost God-like figure that one wonders how someone so great could have had anyone opposing him.  I could not shake off the idea that this is how Stalin would have been portrayed in Soviet films prior to his death and denunciation. It was extremely laudatory, deeply reverential to where it plays almost as farce.

Much of this comes from Schary's script, which gives FDR no faults.  We don't see him as angry, or hurt, or afraid.  The closest comes when he admits to Eleanor, "It's a hard way to learn humility, but I've been learning, by crawling".  Even when he snaps at his daughter Anna (Zina Bethune) about her dropping some books, it is soon quickly forgiven on both sides.

The other characters are also given a bit of a bum rush.  Eleanor's evolution into being the activist/busybody she grew into (depending on your point of view) was not explored.  The children, while on the whole good, were there at times almost as decorative pieces, adding little except domestic bliss.

The fortunate thing is that Sunrise at Campobello has quite good performances in it that save it from being a total snoozefest.  Ralph Bellamy was celebrated for playing President Franklin Roosevelt, and here he recreates his Tony Award-winning performance, a performance he would recreate decades later in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance miniserieses.   I confess that at first I didn't 'hear' FDR's distinctive patrician voice (as a side note, I thought Edward Herrmann sounded more like FDR in Eleanor & Franklin, but I digress).  By the end of it, however, I accepted Bellamy's portrayal of the future President as good not great.

Much better was Garson as Eleanor, who did capture Miss Ellie's distinctive voice and speech patterns.  To be fair, Garson had the real Eleanor present to study.  Garson is probably too glamorous to play our dowdy, lanky Miss Ellie, but she did a first-rate job.  She was allowed some growth, particularly when she breaks down in tears while reading a children's story to her youngest.

It was the supporting characters who were the standouts.  Cronyn was an excellent Louis Howe, the blunt, wheezing political operator who brooked no opposition and saw in FDR a savior for America.  Shoemaker too was elegantly haughty as Sara Roosevelt, one who was used to getting her way.  It's a pity that the material did not play more to the real struggle: between Mama Sara and Our Miss Ellie over Franklin's soul.

It also could have done more to show the struggles of the dysfunctional Roosevelt family versus the cheerful facade.  That would have given better roles to people like Bethune (who made Anna almost a screaming, spoiled brat) and a surprisingly good turn from Tim Considine as James, their oldest.  Considine, best known for his work on The Mickey Mouse Club serials Spin and Marty and The Hardy Boys, showed he had great promise as the loyal son.  Hagen had a lesser role as the loyal Missy LeHand, but she showed LeHand to be thoroughly professional.

It would have been nice if Franz Waxman's score weren't so dominating as well.

Sunrise at Campobello touches on what should be a turning point in the life of one of the great President.  Sadly, it plays like his political career is more for therapy than for anything else. On the whole, Sunrise at Campobello is too busy being noble to be good.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Gotham: Stop Hitting Yourself Review


Stop Hitting Yourself took a break from the cuckoo nature of the Professor Pyg story to give us an episode that managed to make the Edward Nygma/Solomon Grundy story worth our time.  It was another excessively gruesome and graphic Gotham,  but with more positives than negatives it does wonders.

Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) may not have his full mental powers back, but his hatred and bitterness towards his former friend The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) has found a new outlet.  In the fight club he's now part of as a promoter, Nygma does a send-up of Pengy where he ridicules the criminal King of Gotham in a WWE-style get-up and act before bringing out his meal-ticket, Solomon Grundy (Drew Powell).  Grundy is able to defeat all comers, and his signature move is to rip off the arms of his opponents and use it to beat the opponent to death (hence, 'stop hitting yourself').  Nygma is too gleefully joyful to care if Pengy ever finds out, despite the warnings of Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) that Penguin is extremely touchy about anyone mocking him.

Thompkins proves prescient, as news of Nygma's spoofing of our Criminal Overlord gets to him and he is predictably enraged at being made a laughingstock.  He manages to get The Vixens: Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) and Barbara Kean, aka Bonkers Babs (Erin Richards) to go down to Cherry's club and grab Nygma.  Easy pickings, right?

Wrong, oh so wrong, for Tabitha instantly recognizes Butch and Barbara is too distracted by Lee to care.  It's up to our Little Miss Kitten to get Nygma, who for once is left surprised.  As insurance, Pengy sends Firefly (Camila Perez) to get Nygma and kill the Vixens if they don't bring Nygma back to him in time.  Butch/Solomon struggles to save his bestie, and Selina offers a solution: the Narrow Code, a fight to the death.

Tabitha goes in and Solomon still struggles to remember her.  It's in the fight that all hell breaks loose: Firefly crashes just as Babs grabs Nygma, but she's disabled by Lee.  Cherry (Marina Benedict) had tipped Penguin off about Nygma, and Bonkers Babs kills her, inadvertently making Lee the new leader of the fight club.

For all their trouble, Nygma is still out there.

Sofia Falcone (Crystal Reed) for her part is playing both sides.  She is currying favor with Pengy, even offering him advise on how he needs to find an outside hobby.  He finds one in one of the orphans, Martin (Christopher Converoy), a mute with psychopathic tendencies.  Pengy serves as an unofficial mentor to Martin in the art of enemy destruction, though Penguin cannot bring himself to say he's a friend to anyone.

With regards to Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie), she pulls strings to get Gordon to be the new Captain of the GCPD, which he does not want as that would mean replacing his bestie, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).  Sofia insists that Bullock is weak and has to go, something that proves accurate as Bullock's too guilt-laden to attend a ceremony for other officers.  Seeing the corruption, both financial and moral, of his friend, Gordon becomes the captain, much to Bullock's anger.

Stop Hitting Yourself has a surprisingly wry sense of humor.  Selina finds the idea of Nygma spoofing Penguin funny, being the only person to laugh about it in Pengy's face.

Few things are as entertaining as Taylor's Penguin ranting and raving, even if he has no problem stabbing someone else for daring to join in.  It's a credit to Taylor that lines that sound funny and probably were aimed to be come across as genuine thoughts rather than oddball dialogue.  Whether it's in training Martin (and his new hairstyle making him look almost demonic) or in his reactions to being ridiculed, RLT continues to be one of Gotham's greatest assets.

At one point as he confides with Sofia, Penguin says, "No one appreciates how hard it is to be a crime lord".  That's a pretty funny line, but Taylor delivers it so beautifully that it sounds like the firm statement of a total yet insecure egoist.

Reed matches him with her reply, "I did actually spend my childhood being raised by one".

I don't think there was a bad performance in Stop Hitting Yourself, merely ones that stood out more.  There was Taylor, and then there were McKenzie and especially Logue.  We get both Gordon's reluctance to betray his friend and Bullock's intense and overwhelming guilt.  Their final scene together is just spot-on in terms of acting.

While the women were equally good, I was taken a bit by surprise with the risqué outfits that both Baccarin and Richards wore as Thompkins and Babs wore.  "Sexy and self-righteous," Babs quips to her ex's ex.  Those outfits were more barely-fits.

Smith's takedown of Penguin is one where you feel the intense anger and hatred behind it, the rage pouring out against his former friend, whom he calls a 'stupid, lame bird brain'.  Even hulky-like Powell's Solomon got better moments because we saw he wasn't just this stumbling, bumbling fool but someone who was starting to remember.

Stop Hitting Yourself would have rated higher if not for the graphic violence.  The tearing out of the arms was for me too graphic and bloody, almost sadistic.  I felt very uncomfortable with the sight of it, as well as the idea of it.

Still, we had great performances and stories that are moving forward.  That almost makes up for seeing a man's arm ripped off and then getting beat to death with it.  Almost, but not quite.


Next Episode: Let Them Eat Pie

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Class Episode Seven: The Metaphysical Engine Review


The Metaphysical Engine, Or What Quill Did is a companion piece to Detained as both stories take place simultaneously.   Here, we see what might have been: a Quill-centered episode that managed to actually be worth the time to watch.  The Metaphysical Engine, however, played like something we should have had and will never get: a highlight reel of Quill: The Series.  That is both a good and bad thing, as we also get a cliffhanger that seems a bit outrageous, even if in a sense it is not a stretch.

Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) is now going to do her best to get the Arn, the creature inside her head that controls her free will and binds her in service to Charlie.  She has been promised this by Dorothea Ames (Pooky Quesnel), the new Headmistress at Coal Hill, working for the still unknown 'Governors'.  To perform the surgery is Ballon (Chiké Okonkwo), a shapeshifter imprisoned by the Governors.  They will release him if he can perform the surgery.

With that, the three of them travel all over the place in a madcap race.  To get to their destinations, they use a metaphysical engine.  This tiny device will take them to places that theoretically do not exist, but that can exist if they are believed to exist.  That is how they are able to go to the 'Arn Heaven', where they can collect one to study, to the Ballon version of Hell, to get blood from their Devil to allow him to shapeshift, and to 'Quill Heaven', where the Ballon kills their newly-born Goddess.

No worries: as Dorothea explains as these places theoretically exist, the Quill Goddess can be reborn.  Ballon manages to perform the surgery and the Arn is out of her head.  There is a large scar across her face, but that's a small price to pay for Quill's freedom.  Soldier to soldier, they make love.

It's now that they discover they are not at Coal Hill as they thought.  Instead, they are actually inside the Cabinet of Souls, where Dorothea has one last trick up her sleeve.  There is enough energy to transport one of them, so they must fight to the death.

Did writer Patrick Ness just watch Spartacus when he wrote this?  Just a thought.

Obviously, we know who will win, and Quill returns to Coal Hill, where she saves Charlie's life but whom now mocks the Prince with the fact that she has her free will back...and there are going to be some changes.  One of them is her, as Quill is now pregnant.

It just seems such a tragedy that with one episode to go, we wasted so much time on the kids when Class should have focused around Katherine Kelly and her character, Miss Quill.  She was a fascinating character: in turns sarcastic and blunt but also one driven by revenge and a desire to be free.  She endured the slings and arrows of Matteusz's bottom, and she did it with a mix of quips and action.

In other episodes, she showed that despite being the warrior queen, Quill was also one with deep emotions that she couldn't or wouldn't accept.  The hurt of seeing her people destroyed, the long-suffering of being forced to care for someone she loathed (and have it lorded over her): Quill was an all-around fantastic creation.  The Metaphysical Engine allows Kelly a full range of emotion.

She's still the sarcastic, even brutally honest creature she's always been, but she is also a woman who has found love.  I think that having her and Ballon become lovers is a wild stretch, but she did need some release.

Kelly is simply pitch-perfect as Quill.  From the opening quips (when asked by Dorothea, 'Is that what you're wearing?', Quill doesn't miss a beat by replying, 'Is that what you are?') to her moments of rage ("Where are we?  Who is this Little Lord Growls-A-Lot and why are we all so bothered that he killed a kitten?" she screams when they are unbeknownst to her in 'Arn Heaven') to her acceptance of things ("What good is a soldier without a scar?" she replies when told of her facial post-surgery look).  There isn't a single moment when I did not care about Quill or her Wild Ride.

One last quip: when Quill thinks she's returned to Coal Hill, she calls it "my own personal Hell".

Quensel brought a curious bit of humor as Dorothea, a bit of a bumbler who is still trying out the Metaphysical Engine (she explains she's been through various simulations, but that this is the first time actually operating it).  In her Indiana Jones-like ensemble, Quensel makes Dorothea amusing, even endearing.

Okonkwo gets slightly short-shifted as Ballon, the surgeon/love interest, but he also manages his moments well, particularly the more touching ones.  As Quill snaps that she does not want pity, he tells her "I do not offer you pity.  I offer you a shared sorrow."

Pity we knew he wasn't going to make it out of The Cabinet of Souls.

The idea of the metaphysical engine itself is a brilliant one, and Ness should be congratulated for coming up with something that allows for an ethereal world to be made concrete.

The Metaphysical Engine should rate higher.  It is certainly the best Class episode, and unless The Lost ends up being a masterpiece I doubt any will be better than The Metaphysical Engine.  The episode gets points knocked down, however, because a lot of it has to be rushed and chaotic because Class is attempting to squeeze in so much in such a brief running time.  Essentially, The Metaphysical Engine is trying to fit in a whole season/series worth of story into one episode, making things zip by so quickly we can't get a full baring on things.

I think it would have been interesting if Class had spread this story out over several episodes, having brief moments where Quill, Ballon and Dorothea travel to each location for her ultimate aim.  It would have allowed for the Quill/Ballon relationship to grow over time.  It would have given us a mystery: would Quill manage to break free from Bonnie Prince Charlie?  It would also have allowed viewers a chance to be ahead of the characters and know that Quill had a secret agenda.

I also think that the actual surgery is rather graphic both for the target audience and in general.  I was surprised at the gruesome nature of having her eye essentially removed, and think they should have pulled back and/or reedited the sequence.

The Metaphysical Engine does end on a pretty outlandish note when we see Quill is pregnant.  OK, so time inside the Cabinet of Souls runs differently than on Earth or another world, but this seems a bit of a stretch and there just to provide a shocking conclusion.

Still, The Metaphysical Engine is the best Class episode.  It reinforces my view that the series should have been centered around Katherine Kelly and her Miss Quill, and if this had been a highlight reel versus just a mere episode, it still would have been better than almost all of Class (or Doctor Who for that matter).


Next Episode: The Lost

Class Episode Six: Detained Review


We've confirmed the sad truth about Class, the young-adult Doctor Who spinoff, with its sixth episode, Detained.

Class is pretty bad.

No, I'm going to walk that back.

Class is just plain bad.

Detained is the first Class episode fully focused on our teen characters (all played by people who run from 19 to 25).  Apart from the beginning and a very intriguing end, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) does not appear in Detained.  As such, you would think that having a teen-focused episode on a teen-focused show would be the breakout Class so desperately needed.

It wasn't.  Instead, it was a reminder that the characters are uninteresting, the situations dull, the actors generally weak, and that in some ways, Class is almost a spoof, worthy more of mockery than fandom.

Miss Quill is using what little power she has over Bonnie Prince Charlie (Greg Austin) by putting him in detention.  As it so happens, everyone he knows is also in detention: Ram (Fady Elsayed), April (Sophie Hopkins), Tanya (Vivian Oparah), and Charlie's sexmate, Matteusz (Jordan Renzo).  She locks them all inside for detention while she attends 'other matters'.  Charlie, who is claustrophobic (something no one knew until now), begins panicking, but just as they manage to get the locked door open an asteroid crashes right through, causing them to be taken out of time and space.

Don't you just hate it when that happens?

As our Scooby-Doo gang begin investigating, things are traced to the asteroid (technically, the meteor as Ram, constantly dismissed as a dumb footballer, reminds them).  Matty picks it up in order to throw it out, but then something strange happens: he starts talking about the time he came out to his Grandmama back in Poland.

He also confesses that he is afraid of Charlie.

L'e scandal!

Detained pretty much follows this pattern: each of them picks up the Asteroid (Meteor) of Truth to a.) find out more about their situation and b.) offer up some memory and confession.  Tanya picks it up to find out more, learning that they are in a prison and that the rock contains a prisoner.  She also tells the others that they don't consider her a real friend because she is so much younger than them.

Ram picks it up and confesses his love for April, and that he knows she does not love him as much as he loves her.  April picks it up and admits Ram's thinking is true.

The Meteor of Truth not only compels them to tell the truth, but it also increases their aggression.  They are at each other's throats, constantly fighting and fighting to remain sane.  They find that they have been taken out of time and space, so in some respects they are not in danger.  However, they will be trapped there forever, so in some respects they are very much in danger.

Charlie starts confessing before picking up the rock, telling them how afraid he is of both losing Matteusz and hating him for holding him back from his desires for revenge, and how he does not have any friends apart from them and on his guilt about his lost world.  Now, with Meteor of Truth in hand, the rock has found someone guiltier than he in the rock and the rock is freed.  However, the rock still needs a prisoner, and that's Charlie.

Charlie is saved at the last minute by Quill, who now sports a scar on her left eye, longer hair and a gun.  How can this be if she's been gone only forty-five minutes and cannot fire a weapon?

Quill has news for Bonnie Prince Charlie: the creature that was inside Quill's head is now gone, so she is free.  Things are going to change.

Detained has received much critical acclaim, with some calling it the best Class episode.  I want to believe those who say that are being sincere.

I just don't believe them.  I can't believe them, because I saw Detained, and far from being the best Class episode, I thought it was the worst Class episode.

It's as if writer/creator Patrick Ness was throwing in the towel, showing us everything that is wrong with Class in one sitting.  If I didn't know better, I'd say Ness is pretty contemptuous of everything Class-related after watching Detained.

The whole episode is built on coincidence: that the Meteor of Truth would hit this precise spot at this precise time.  IF, say the Governors with whom Quill is working with orchestrated this, or if Quill herself had a hand in any of this, then it would have worked better.  Having this incident happen in the way it did when it did seems way too much of a stretch.

Detained showed the four students tasked by The Doctor from Doctor Who to be shockingly, embarrassingly stupid.

We already know Matteusz is stupid ("Do you often see your parents after sex?" from Nightvisiting). We already know Matteusz's bottom is stupid (he thought Tanya said that Ram and the Shadow Kin were having sex in Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart). What we hadn't counted on was on how Ness took time to show everyone else is stupid too.

Granted, they were snapping at each other due to the Meteor of Truth (as a side note, that would be a great name for a band), but why did April snap at Ram for a perfectly good observation. Charlie tells them, "I've got friends," to their inquiry about whom he would call in an emergency.  Ram replies, "Besides us?", which leads April to try and hush him.  Why?  Ram's correct: Charlie has no friends, no one he can be intimate with, unless you count his sexmate, but that's another kind of intimacy.

Most of their barbs, however, showed the lot of them to be imbeciles.

When the room is rattled, Ram asks, 'What was that?' Matteusz responds with 'An earthquake?', leading Ram to reply, 'In London?!'
After they are swept out of time and space, Charlie looks into the void and asks 'Is detention always like this?'
When Matteusz is remembering when he was a child in Poland, coming out to Grandmama, he says, 'I'm in Poland', to which Ram replies, 'This is what Poland looks like?'
After Matteusz tries to comfort a panicking and upset Charlie, Matty begins telling him about a character from books he read to help his English, books given to him by his religious mother: the Narnia stories.  "Narnia?", Charlie asks.  "Is that in Canada?"

No wonder at one point, when she holds the Meteor of Truth, Tanya explodes at Charlie.  "Ask about what?" he says, and she snaps. "About the rock, Alien Boy! God, you keep saying how you're this PRINCE but all you do is stand around, asking stupid questions and getting obvious things wrong!".

That was pretty much my description of Charlie.  That and that he's a bottom.  Pretty much that's all there is to Charlie as a character.  When Charlie tells them, "You think I'm this Pampered Prince?" I replied, YES, YES, A THOUSAND TIMES YES!

Ram too tells the world what the world thinks of Matteusz.  "Who are you anyway?  Why you always hanging around with us?!"

Ness pretty much is using dialogue to state the obvious about characters: Tanya is insecure and a racist (at one point, she dismisses April's efforts at comfort with 'White People!', a term that no one else would have gotten away with save Ram), April doesn't love Ram, Ram (allegedly) deeply loves April, Charlie is both clueless and imperious, Matteusz does nothing on Class except serve as Charlie's mistress.

I'll give Matteusz one good point though.  Tanya in another tirade when people dare question her leadership snaps at our gay Polak, "Sometimes action isn't pretty you big Polish giraffe".  An unamused Matty replies, "That isn't even a logical insult".  What could have been a good moment for him, finally, was undone when he defended his height and neck as being perfectly proportional.

That frightful dialogue might be forgiven if it were well-performed, but by golly were the actors on Class determined to show they couldn't do much.  Austin's 'panic attacks' were comical, so was Elsayed's indignations and disbeliefs, Hopkins' shock, Oparah's anger, and Renzo's, well, everything.

The one moment, one, that saves Detained from being an absolute disaster is a series of close-up shots of our cast.  It was an effective, even eerie visual moment: almost frightening and intense, well-filmed.

Other than that, Detained was a disaster.  It shows all the weakness of Class and none of the virtues, those being Kelly as Quill.  The cast was asked to carry an episode by itself.  It failed, failed spectacularly.

What a total waste of detention.


Next Episode: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did

Monday, November 13, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017): A Review


Agatha Christie is one of my favorite writers.  As a teen, I devoured her books: And Then There Were None is still the only novel I have read cover-to-cover in one sitting.  I am devoted to Joan Hickson's portrayal of Miss Marple (the definitive one in my book) and to David Suchet's version of Hercule Poirot.  Murder on the Orient Express was one of the books we had to read in middle school, making it among the easiest and most pleasurable of reading assignments.

With this second theatrical version of Christie's novel (there being two television specials as well), this version of Murder on the Orient Express worked well, was mostly smooth and elegant, but not without its curiosities and eccentricities...not unlike Poirot himself.

On holiday in Jerusalem, where he quickly solves a case at the Wailing Wall, Hercule Poirot (director Kenneth Branagh) is called to London on a case.  To get there quickly, he needs to board the Orient Express in Istanbul.  Quickly fitted in, he finds himself among a gathering of other passengers.  Among them is the mysterious and villainous Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp).  Ratchett tries to get Poirot to be his bodyguard, an offer the Belgian declines.

It's no surprise then when Ratchett is found murdered, an even number of stab wounds on him.  Poirot, who tells the other passengers that he is probably the greatest detective in the world, now has a chance to solve the crime, as the Orient Express was caught in an avalanche and slightly derailed.

At this point I'd like to offer that Hercule Poirot would never say he was 'probably' the greatest detective in the world.  He'd flat-out say he WAS the greatest detective in the world.  Yet I digress.

Who among the various people could have murdered Ratchett?  Was it his secretary, MacQueen (Josh Gad)?  What about his manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?  Was it the man-hungry widow, Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer)?  What about the famous Hungarian Count and/or Countess Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin and Lucy Boyton)?  Could it be the haughty Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) or her maid, Fraulein Hildegard Schmidt (Olivia Coleman)?  The seemingly meek Spanish missionary Pilar (Penelope Cruz) or the Hispanic businessman Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)?  The governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) or her secret paramour, Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.)?  Maybe even the conductor, Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari)?  Then there's the fascist-sympathizing Austrian, Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe)?

It's a who's who in this whodunit, with Poirot running into seemingly all possible suspects, and the murder tied to a long-ago case, the abduction and murder of little Daisy Armstrong, daughter of a famous pilot in echoes of the Lindbergh kidnapping case.  How does the Armstrong case tie into Ratchett's murder, and to each of the passengers?  With the case solved, Poirot is asked to help investigate a death on the Nile (a suggestion that there may be a sequel, and that sequel being an adaptation of Death on the Nile, thought that could not be the murder in the original since that one happened when Poirot was there, not prior to).

Far be it for me to spoil the mystery for those who haven't read the novel, but to its credit Murder on the Orient Express sticks close to the novel, at least in this particular point.  On others, it seems to be like the train itself: slightly derailed, if not quite deranged.

One thing that did surprise me is Branagh's decision to make Hercule Poirot almost a bit of an action star.  The setting does make it hard to feature scenes outside the train, and to Branagh's credit he opened it a bit by having one interview outside and another in an open train coach, culminating in this revealing the criminal as the suspects.  However, at one point there was a little bit of action injected that had our allegedly diminutive and older detective leaping about with gusto.  I was pretty astonished that this Poirot was such an action lead.

I was also slightly surprised that Branagh, along with screenwriter Michael Green, made Poirot and not the case the center of attention.  This undercuts a lot of the characters, who sometimes just seem to pop in and out.  The interviews of the Austrian Hardman, the Spaniard Pilar, and the American Marquez all were intercut, and it wasn't so much that you couldn't follow their various investigations so much as they were short-shifted given that others got more attention.  The dynamics between them gets lost, and at times you wonder who are these people.

Christie has been criticized for making the characters in her various novels one-dimensional, and there is validity in that criticism.  I'd answer, however, that we don't need long explorations of characters who are not going to appear again, so interior lives won't get much attention in her crime novels.  That being said, Murder on the Orient Express sometimes zips by the characters so quickly we don't get their connections to things, making it if not hard to solve the crime at least harder than it should be.

It should not be a surprise given how many first-rate actors there are in Murder on the Orient Express that we get some good performances.  It's here thought that we see how cutting off so much screentime for Branagh cost others a chance to show what they could do.  Much has been made (and mocked) of Branagh's luxurious mustache.  However, I think too much has been made on that mustache (though I would have thought that Poirot, vain that he was, would have dyed it).  I'd say that Kenneth Branagh is, at 5'9", is too tall to play Poirot, who is closer in height to Jose Altuve (Altuve is listed at 5'6", but I think he's closer to 5'4"). 

Branagh's Poirot is a good version: courtly, intelligent, a firm sense of justice, though I'd say he didn't make him as fussy as I'd imagine Poirot to be.  The Belgian accent (not French, we should note) works well and on the whole he gives a strong performance.

A nice surprise is Depp, who remembered he could act.  Who remembered he could act?  As the villainous Ratchett, he was sleazy without being over-the-top evil, adopting a rough manner to his character.

As I said, the nature of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes didn't allow for other actors, good actors, to do much (what kind of film gives Dench and Coleman essentially one quick scene together as the whole of their big moments).  Pfeiffer to me was the one that went slightly over-the-top, though I cut her some slack in that her character was slightly over-the-top.

One aspect to Murder on the Orient Express that was pleasantly surprising was the international nature of the multicultural cast.  You had black, Arab and Hispanic performers where the characters were once Caucasian.  Apart from Poirot's assertion that Dr. Arbuthnot had risen quite high for someone of his race (and this was not an insult, just an observation related to motives) and Hardman's quick request that he not be seated next to someone 'like him' (meaning Arbuthnot), race or ethnicity was not touched on.  I enjoy that the film allowed for non-traditional casting while acknowledging that fact in a non-intrusive way. 

It didn't work so well for Cruz (the original character was Swedish), but since she wasn't given as good a role as she could have had, it was a double-loss.

The main issue with Murder on the Orient Express is that the audience was not given the information it needed to solve the crime.  Those who had read the novel or seen the original film (such as myself) didn't need that much information, but for those who hadn't, I think it robbed them of a chance to do their own sleuthing.  One character, Bouc (Tom Bateman) ostensibly there to aid Poirot in his investigation, might just as well not even appeared.

Still, for its elegance (if nothing else, the film has a certain panache) and as mild diversion, Murder on the Orient Express is not a bad two hour's worth.