Sunday, December 31, 2017

God In His Mercy Lend Him Grace. Fidel Gomez, Jr.: A Remembrance

1972-2017
Before this year officially ends, I need to pause briefly to reflect on one of the greatest personal losses I have had.  It is a blow that, four months later, I still feel very deeply.

My pastor has a saying: you are only a phone call from having your whole world turned upside down.  The Men's Ministry leader also has a saying: we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

Both of these are so true.  We wake up, have breakfast, if we're fortunate go to work, have lunch, continue working, and go back home before going to bed.  We make plans, sometimes short-term, sometimes long.  We believe ourselves assured tomorrow, especially when we are young and youngish.

We don't expect to be in that accident.  We don't expect to keel over clutching our chests.  We don't expect to stop breathing.  We live out our lives, not conscious of the fact that this day may be our last.  I think that is as it should be, otherwise we'd be in a perpetual state of fear.  Death is something that will come to us all, but it is not something we should dwell on.

Sometimes however, Death forces us to look at it.

On August 11, 2017, one of my closest friends, Fidel Gomez, Jr., died suddenly.

Just about every detail of Fidel's death is simply far too tragic and/or gruesome to share, and I know that he would not like much said and written about his life either. I have to balance paying tribute to him with respecting his right to rest in peace.

I think though, there are some things I can get away with with his approval.

I can share he never liked 'Fidel', because of well, you know.  Whenever we would get coffee, which was almost all the time and one of the bedrocks of our friendship, he would always give his name as 'Gomez'.  I can share that when we had coffee, we would spend hours and hours talking about anything and everything: our jobs, our families, our desires for relationships, Joy Division and Morrissey (whom we saw once together, with a 'Morrissey Birthday Party' being the rare time we'd hit a club).  It was an intimate relationship, as intimate as a relationship between two men can be without any sexual or romantic connotations.

Fidel and I met in college, if memory serves correct in the Radio/TV/Film Scripting class.  He was older than me and had been at UTEP before I got there, but graduated after me.  I guess he was what you'd call a 'permanent student'.  We bonded slowly over our mutual shyness and passion for films.  After he did graduate, we stayed friends before he disappeared, not returning or making contact for years.

It was only by the sheerest of coincidences that we reunited.  In 2014 I was going to Charleston and stopped at the Barnes & Noble to kill some time before going to the airport.  As I was leaving, I see Fidel sitting at a table.  I was thrilled to see him again, and I think he was happy too (Fidel didn't get thrilled by nature).  I tell him I'm about to leave but that I would call him when I got back.  When I came back, we picked up where we left off.

Neither of us could have thought we'd have just three years left, though I'm thankful they were three years of laughter, shock, deep conversations and contempt for bad films.

That was one of the things that held us together: we loved movies.  He got me to love Herzog and Fellini, and I got him to love Welles and Hitchcock.  We talked about Ebert & Roeper like some people talk about Game of Thrones.  We would go to the movies whenever time allowed, from the Alamo Drafthouse to the second-run theaters, always taking turns paying.

In fact, it took me a long time to even think about going back to the Alamo after his death.  It was always such a special place for us, almost 'our place', and I simply couldn't bear to go there alone, especially knowing he wasn't ever going to meet me there with a "Hello, Richard".

For reasons known only to him, he called me 'Richard'.  My friends call me 'Rick', my family calls me 'Richie', my parents call me 'Ricardo'.  He was the only person to call me 'Richard', and I never felt the need to have him call me anything else.

For me, however, our friendship was more than movies, though that was a big part of it.

I was able to open up with Fidel in a way I haven't with anyone.  He was more than my friend.  He was my confidant, the person I could talk about almost anything with.  I shared things with him I never shared with anyone, things that he did take to the grave.  I cannot say the feeling was mutual, but I had full trust that deeply embarrassing moments, private thoughts, and deep dark secrets and hopes were things I could share with him.

In a lot of ways, I think we were similar: both aspired to write, both knew the frustrations of not finding good work (though to be fair, I was blessed with a great job and he, sadly, wasn't), both marveled at how some people in Hollywood had careers when neither of us saw any discernible talent.

I know Fidel ultimately never fully opened up to me the way I did to him, though I too kept at least some things private.  I only wish I could have told him just how much he meant to me, how much I appreciated him and his friendship.  I wish I could have told him how special he was, how he always sold himself short, how many people genuinely cared for him.

I wish I could have...

I wish...

I miss him.  I just miss him.

I miss being able to share inside jokes, being able to have laughs about the people we knew and their idiosyncrasies. I am going to miss those little things: his frustration at having to pay for a 3-D screening of Gods of Egypt because he didn't check the screening times, his admitting I was right about CHIPS, his teasing me about how excited I was for Green Lantern, his imitation of me using a deep voice to talk about "the Criterion Collection" or how we in mock-tones would describe a film as "the most important film of this, or ANY generation".

The little things.

I also miss not being able to show him the original Murder on the Orient Express so that he could compare it with the remake.  I miss how we never got the chance to see Spider-Man: Homecoming together, a film he was completely opposed to seeing, even after I offered to pay.  After his death, I went to see it, alone.  There was simply nothing holding me back, but I watched it with a twinge of sadness, knowing full well that this was the first of many movies I would not be able to share with him.

He loved Blade Runner and I figure was looking forward to seeing Blade Runner 2049.  It tears at me that he never got the chance.  It tears at me that on August 11, the very day he officially died, I sent him a text asking if he was going to be able to go see Xanadu with me the next day at the Plaza Classic Film Festival as he had said he might, his work permitting.

I would never have imagined as I looked around, waiting to see if he would show up, that his remains were being carried out of his apartment.  I never thought as I was watching Xanadu, that my friend was never going to be there.

There hasn't been a week since his death where he doesn't comes to my memory, especially since I drive past the cemetery he is buried at whenever I go to work.  I think I can share that he would be both displeased and not surprised that he, who never learned to speak Spanish despite his name, would end up being buried less than five miles from the U.S./Mexico border.  I can hear his voice, again in mock-tone, imitating me in saying, "We are not amused".

His sister called me from his phone a week after his death to tell me he died.  That night, I had an uneasy sleep, and in the fits of sleep I managed, I had at least one short dream.

We were walking together when he made a sudden sharp right turn.  A barrier like a train crossing gate fell between us, and a figure suddenly stood alongside him.  This figure shook his finger, making it clear I could not come across, while Fidel just waved goodbye as they walked away.  I like to think that was his way of saying farewell, one last look before going.

After his death, I found that for how special he was to me, I had only one picture of us together.  It was taken when we went to a UTEP football game as a promotion.  I'm so glad I have it and treasure it, where it is displayed prominently.

To be honest, I haven't had the courage to see the DVD he lent me: a trio of war films that I never got around to.  Odd that the DVD now has a more special meaning: the last and only tangible thing I have left of him.

I feel his loss greatly, and perhaps I will as long as I am allowed to live by the Grace of God.  However, his death made me think about my own life, what I thought, where I was, how I was.  I am learning to appreciate each day I'm given, the friends I have (though few as close as he was to me).  I've learned to try new things, to break out of my routine and my shell.  I can't say that I'm starting an adventurous life, but I am learning to be less bound, both in what I try and in letting others define who I am. 

I know I have a limited life, and I don't want to leave it unexplored.

I figure that if Fidel read this tribute, he'd say it was too long, a bit sentimental, and using one of his favorite critiques of my writing, 'pretentious'.  Well, now let me end by coming round full circle, back to a memory of Charleston that came to me when I touched Fidel's casket and had the full impact of this great personal loss hit me hard.

One of the places I visited in Charleston after unexpectedly reuniting with Fidel was a plantation, Drayton Hall.  There, a descendant of the plantation slaves crafted an arch to the entrance of the slave cemetery.  On it are these words, "Leave 'Em Rest". I think that is as good a thought when it comes to Fidel now as can be given.

Whatever was buried with him should remain so.  There is so much I can share, but I know he wouldn't like it.  I'm not sure he'd like these reflections, but I want to share them because he was so very special to me.  I thought him fun and funny, smart, flawed, private, but a good, good friend, one I thought would be with me for years and years.

Goodnight and goodbye, my dear friend.

This is my tribute to my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., someone I loved and will remember for as long as I have life & memory.

I leave you, my dear friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., rest.



IN MEMORIAM  

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Kennedy Center Honors 2017: A Review



Forty years ago, at the inaugural Kennedy Center Honors, the five artists feted were an opera diva, one of the premiere songwriters of Broadway, a master choreographer, one of the greatest pianists of all time, and probably the greatest dancer in film history.

For this year, the Kennedy Center honored one ballet dancer, two pop music songwriters, a television writer/producer who uses his programs to further his own political agenda, and a rapper.

If anyone can make the case for LL Cool J being in the same league as an Arthur Rubenstein, Fred Astaire, Marian Anderson, Count Basie, Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis, Jr., Maria Tallchief, Ella Fitzgerald, or Cary Grant, I'm more than happy to listen.

Before we continue, I think it's important to note that I have championed both Gloria Estefan and Lionel Richie being Kennedy Center Honorees.  However, Ladies Love Cool James?

In the past few years, I have objected to the shifting of the Kennedy Center Honors from fine/'high' arts: ballet, theater, music, film, and television towards more 'pop' culture: rock/pop music (including whole groups) and talk show hosts.  It's been a bit of a slippery slide, going from Richard Rodgers and Leonard Bernstein to Led Zeppelin and Sting.  Now, I love Zeppelin, Sting and The Eagles, but I wouldn't put them in the same category with Lerner & Loewe or John Williams.

The 2017 Kennedy Center Honors was despite some controversy and a big push to attract more viewers via LL Cool J, both a remarkably stale affair and a bad example of how not to make a case for certain honorees, though not without some standout moments.



In order, Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear, LL Cool J, Carmen de Lavallade, and Lionel Richie were celebrated for their lifetime work (despite the fact that the youngest-ever Honoree, James Todd Smith, aka LL Cool J, is 49, which respectfully does not exactly fit into 'lifetime').  Various performers introduced a bit of a biographical sketch of the particular artist and there were tributes via musical performances or monologues by other well-and-not-so-well-known individuals.

For most of the special, the first three were done a great disservice by their presentations.  Things started off badly when Eva Longoria saluted Estefan in a dress that showed an immense amount of cleavage.  While the music was good, it is curious that in the musical performance segment, the production decided to perform two songs Estefan did cover versions of (Turn the Beat Around and Everlasting Love) rather than her own compositions (Coming Out of the Dark would have been a great moment, but if memory serves correct, not played).  The title song from her Spanish-language album Mi Tierra was, and performed badly.

I've not heard of Becky G, but I though her singing was terrible, and her wardrobe looked like she was honoring Selena more than Gloria.  Further, the Kennedy Center Honors didn't properly acknowledge that the performance was connected to her jukebox musical: On Your Feet!  For all the audience knew, they were just doing a medley of her greatest hits (and covers), not seeing people who were doing a Broadway show.  This is even stranger considering that two past Honorees: Billy Joel and Carole King, also had jukebox musicals but in their salutes, they had greater recognition (King had her whole salute bookended by Beautiful: The Carole King Musical).


In what might be the night's most unintentionally hilarious moment, Queen Latifah's salute to LL Cool J stated, "Tonight, we honor LL for his contributions to our culture, that began with him banging on the garbage can on the corner of Farmers Boulevard".  Somewhere in that statement, there's a metaphor.

The clip reel did not make the case as to why LL Cool J is that important in terms of overall culture or impact on it, and his 'contributions to our culture' are apparently that he's well-built, a good husband and father, the films Toys and Any Given Sunday, and his long-running stint on NCIS: Los Angeles

Despite the constant urging of the DJ and rap performers, apparently only Anthony Anderson stood to celebrate weak renditions of Mama Said Knock You Out, the only song I actually recognized.  If the clip reel is to be believed, that song was about knocking out drugs and teenage pregnancy, not dissing on other rappers and proclaiming LL's own return (I can't call it a comeback).  I love Busta Rhymes, but I don't think his gravelly voice was the best to belt out Mama Said Knock You Out.

I do wonder why MC Lyte could not be persuaded to perform I Need Love or Around the Way Girl or Doin' It. My guess is that at least the first two are from a male perspective, but nothing says she could not take ownership of them.


The presentation of Norman Lear, the oldest-ever Kennedy Center Honoree, sandwiched between Estefan and J, was perhaps the worst, but not because the presentation itself was bad or because he isn't worthy of recognition.  As a digression, I confess to having seen only one of Lear's programs: The Jeffersons.  The only other Lear program I heard about as a child was One Day at a Time, but that was only because my mother referred to it as 'the show where the mother has an affair with the plumber'.  Whether Ann and Schneider ever did have a fling I leave to any fan-fiction (something I don't think existed at the time).

The presentation was bad because a good part of it wasn't devoted to his actual television work, but to his creation of People for the American Way, his left-wing advocacy group.  Was Lear being honored for his body of work on television or for his political activism?  This isn't like when Danny Kaye was honored for his UNICEF work.  To focus so much on Lear's PFAW to me is as ghastly as taking up time to salute Charlton Heston's NRA advocacy (which I don't think they did when he was honored).

Lear had already introduced politics into what should have been a nonpartisan event, but more on that later.


 
This year, despite the high-voltage names in the honoree box, the only ones that managed to make a case as to why they should be honored were Richie and, somewhat ironically, de Lavallade.  I say 'somewhat ironically' because previous Honoree Meryl Streep admitted that few know who de Lavallade is. 

The prima ballerina's tribute included a performance of Wade In the Water, choreographed by the late and legendary Alvin Ailey, and a performance by another prima ballerina, Misty Copeland, who respectfully acknowledged that as an African-American, she stood on de Lavallade's shoulders.  These were beautiful and brilliant renditions of dance and showed how de Lavallade matters.

With Richie, we saw the scope of his songwriting and all the influences he has drawn from.  That is what makes the criticism of the performances so strange to me.  On 'the Twitter' many bashed the fact that country singer Luke Bryan performed two numbers: Penny Lover and Sail On.  I suspect that what those complaining about were saying that a 'country' (read 'white') singer should not perform music from an R&B (read 'black') singer/songwriter.



You can criticize Bryan for a lot of things with regards to his own music or his singing, but to criticize him for performing two Richie covers is idiotic.  Lady is a Richie song performed by country legend Kenny Rogers (who I think merits a Kennedy Center Honor of his own), and Stuck on You is a pretty solid country song.  Furthermore, Bryan's generation embraces all types of music.  One of Bryan's biggest hits, That's My Kind of Night, has him all but rapping himself and talks about listening to 'a little Conway, a little T-Pain', a mixtape I doubt either Conway Twitty or T-Pain would enjoy.  Maybe That's My Kind of Night is an awful song, and maybe Bryan epitomizes the worst of 'bro-country', but to say Bryan 'shouldn't' sing Lionel Richie is to me irrational to the point of foolish. 

Finally, on the political front, much was made of the fact that neither President Donald Trump or First Lady Melania attended, the first time either the President or First Lady skipped the event.  This was done in response to Lear, then later de Lavallade and potentially Richie, boycotting the traditional White House presentation.  This, to me, was a bad decision, showing that some performers cannot get over their disagreements. 

Barbra Streisand attended despite being presented to former President George W. Bush.
Charlton Heston attended despite being presented to former President Bill Clinton.

All four rose above their personal grievances and politics to recognize the artistry and the Presidency.  Granted, Trump is not my idea of a President, but he is the President, and it's time we got over that (and I say this as a charter member of Never Trump).

With the exceptions of de Lavallade and Richie, the Kennedy Center Honors did not make the case as to why these five individuals were worthy or recognition (LL Cool J the most dubious selection).  Given how the Kennedy Center did not honor Maureen O'Hara or Peter O'Toole when they were alive, or Olivia de Havilland who is 101, it all seems so strange.

The fact that this was the lowest-rated Kennedy Center Honors in the twenty years they've kept records does not make this any easier.

Perhaps it's time to focus more on Emanuel Ax, Bernadette Peters and or Betty White than on Run DMC.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Librarians: And the Silver Screen Review



THE LIBRARIANS: AND THE 
SILVER SCREEN

Ah, one can't be a good old night at the movies.  Who doesn't love getting lost in brilliant stories, or stories that evoke something within you?  With And the Silver Screen, we take that 'getting lost in a film' bit to a whole new level.  This Librarians episode is a great love letter to the power and wonder of 'classic' films, good and bad, with a pretty easy-to-figure plot but one that works so well you don't mind knowing where you're headed.

Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) and her paramour, Librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle, who wrote the episode), are having a rare night off just for themselves (their relationship seems to be a running thread this season, as this is the second episode to feature them apart from the other Librarians to concentrate on 'me-time').  Baird, a big-time classic film fan (the type who probably dreams of being a guest host on Turner Classic Films) takes Flynn to a film festival retrospective featuring the directing of one James Desmond Wheeler.

While watching the film noir The Found, The Lost and The Looking, Flynn and Baird are suddenly thrust into the film itself (a touch of The Purple Rose of Cairo).  This shocks the audience and leaves Jade Wells (Gloria Reuben), who opened up the art-house movie palace after restoration, a bit perturbed to say the least.

The other Librarians: Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) and Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) are worried that 'Mom and Dad' haven't returned from 'date night' in over twenty-four hours, so they go to the theater and are stunned to see them inside the screen, ranting and desperate to get out. Soon, Eve and Flynn hit on the idea that to get out, they have to recreate the film to its conclusion.  Eve, who's seen the film many times, guides him to be 'Mac Doyle', roguish private eye as she becomes 'Kitty Dupree', his Girl Friday.


In an effort to get Flynn and Baird out of the screen, Jenkins (John Larroquette) works with Jade to find the magic object that got them in, while the other Librarians decide to jump in and rescue them out of The Found, The Lost and The Looking.

Only problem is that Jade's theater holds three screens, and they end up in the Western musical Chaps in Chaps by mistake.  Now they have to get out of that film first before helping Flynn and Baird.

As 'Kitty Dupree' and 'Mac Doyle', it's up to them to recreate their film, even if it means Flynn will have to undergo the traditional punch-ups his hardboiled gumshoe endures.  However, to their surprise, after they finish the film...they end up right back at the beginning.

The other Librarians manage to get out of Chaps in Chaps but end up in Brain Robbers From Planet Alpha Xenon Six, a Z-picture if ever there was one. Fortunately, Cassandra has seen this film, so she knows where the plot goes.  Unfortunately, she forgot some parts, so they do run the risk of getting vaporized.

Jenkins and Wells discover the typewriter where her father, James Desmond Wheeler, wrote all the scripts (the one object tying the films together).  They also discover that The Found, The Lost and The Looking was changed from the original ending, hence the failure to 'finish' the film correctly.  The original script was written by an 'E. Darnell', but where is the original ending and who is E. Darnell?

All is resolved when 'Kitty' and 'Mac' solve the actual mystery behind the noir fa├žade, and it helps that the other Librarians finally managed to get into the right film.  Jade Wells also finds 'E. Darnell', 'E' being for Eleanor (Margaret Avery), her father's former assistant.  Jade had grown to appreciate her 'adopted' father's work later in life, but now finds that Eleanor was not just her 'adopted' father's own Girl Friday, but her natural mother...and Wheeler was indeed her natural father.  A whole rouse had been created to cover up a potential scandal, and Eleanor wrote the noir film in the hopes of having the real story eventually discovered while using symbolism to hint at her meaning.


And the Silver Screen shows that Wyle is very familiar with particular tropes of film genres.  I could say that The Found, The Lost and The Looking is an exaggerated imagining of a film noir, but a lot of And the Silver Screen is played for gentle laughs than straight-up parody of these types of films. 

Wyle digs deep into Hollywood history, and while these are only guesses they did come to mind while watching.

The name 'Jade Wells' could be an echo of Rebecca Welles, Orson Welles' only daughter.

The director's name, 'James Desmond Wheeler', reminded me of another film director, William Desmond Taylor, a silent film director whose murder, among the first Hollywood scandals, remains unsolved to this day.

Jade being 'adopted' by her actual parent is probably calling back to Loretta Young.  Clark Gable got Young pregnant, though whether through a consensual affair or a rape remains unclear.  Young, who was unmarried, could not possibly have an out-of-wedlock child in the 1930s.  Young was also a devout Catholic, so an abortion was out of the question.  An elaborate plan to have the child, a daughter, secretly, then come around and 'adopt' her was used. 

Brain Robbers From Planet Alpha Xenon Six is an overt spoof of various bad science-fiction films, in particular Plan 9 From Outer Space, which had originally been titled Grave Robbers From Outer Space.

In terms of performances, guest stars Reuben and Avery did a great job as the flustered movie-house owner and mysterious figure respectively, and even though you knew that they'd be connected you went along with it.  Wyle and Romijn worked well together, playing up the traditional roles of the detective and shrewd aide.  "Women did the sleuthing, men did the punching," Baird tells Flynn as to why she gets to investigate while he gets  punched.  I'm not sure about that, given most women in noir films were femme fatales or dolls, but again, you roll with it.

Wyle put in some nice touches of humor, billing them in the noir take-off as 'Dr. Julius Erving III (aka, basketball great 'Dr. J') and 'Lady Gaga Van Damme.  Didn't know Flynn was a big basketball fan.

It also gave Kane a chance to show off his singing when he and the other Librarians are in the Chaps in Chaps segment.  Kane has a second career as a singer, so I'm figuring the singing of the cowboy ballad was his.  He has quite a nice, strong voice.

In regards to the resolution, it did appear a bit fast and predictable, but that's about the only thing I can fault the episode in.  A nice homage and love letter to films of yesteryear, And the Silver Screen was another nice, light  romp.  Granted, I don't think film noir, Westerns, or science-fiction were that campy, but if you want better examples, I suggest TCM over TNT.

9/10

Next Episode: And the Bleeding Crown

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A Review



STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

There are going to be spoilers here, so skip down to the end for the final decision.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, seems to have split people all over.  Most of my fellow critics worship it almost as The Second Coming.  Some fans, on the other hand, don't want it to be Canon to the epic Star Wars mythos.  The most obvious example of this divide is on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews from critics, 52% negative ratings from 'average' people. 

For myself, I'm splitting it down the middle: not the monstrosity some of the rabid hardcore Star Wars fans bemoan it as, not the unimpeachable Citizen Kane of Star Wars my brethren insist it is.

Picking up from pretty much where Star Wars: The Remix left off,  The Last Jedi has about three stories going on.  There's the story of Rey (Daisy Ridley) a young girl infused with great power from The Force for reasons still unknown who has found Master Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  She goes to him to help the "not Rebellion" (The Resistance) do battle with the "not Empire" (The First Order), especially against their "not Darth Vader" (Kylo Ren, also known as 'Emo Vader').  Luke believes the Jedi should now die out, but he shows her a few things about the Jedi and The Force, albeit reluctantly as she goes through her own "not Dagobah" (Ahch-To).  Something in The Force allows both Rey and Emo Vader (Adam Driver) to have communications with each other in what I like to call 'Force Skype', down to where they manage to meet despite being in wholly other words.

The connection between Emo Vader, formerly Luke's nephew Ben Solo, and how they came to be at odds has a Rashomon feel, as the stories about his turning to the Dark Side don't quite gel.  Having the Jedi temple set ablaze echoes Revenge of the Sith, but why quibble?


Meanwhile, hotshot pilot "not Han Solo" (Poe Dameron) keeps disobeying orders from Princess now General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her final role) and while he does get results, he also has no problem with getting many others killed to meet them.  Everyone is alarmed when the "not Empire" manages to follow them into hyperspace, where they begin destroying the "not Rebellion" with ease.  Alarmed at this, and with Leia having semi-magically survived the bridge getting a direct hit by floating back from space onto another ship, eventually they realize they need to disable a tracker that is on board the "not Empire" ship.

Now we get into Story Three: reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and low-level mechanic/Finn fangirl Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) need to find a codebreaker to disable the tracker.  Travelling to Canto Bight and their casino, they find the codebreaker they are looking for, but plot reasons make them join with another codebreaker, DJ (Benicio del Toro).  He does help them, but there's a 'shocking' twist.

More shocking twists are when Emo Vader brings Rey to "not Emperor" Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who taunts Rey.  With Snoke dead at one of their hands (guess who),  Emo Vader takes command and with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), takes the final battle to the "not Rebellion" to the actual Rebel stronghold of Crait, where Emo Vader and Luke Skywalker have another, final confrontation.  Rey saves the day, channeling her great Force powers to provide an escape to the "not Rebellion", and the "not Rebellion" continues.

Has anyone ever noticed how few people actually finish Jedi training?  Luke didn't, Rey didn't, those kids at the Jedi temples they're always burning down don't, not sure about Anakin.  Sometimes it's a puzzle as to why they even bother.

What is so impressive about The Last Jedi is how unimpressive it is.  For all the Sturm und Drang it belts out, there's remarkably little here.  Writer/director Rian Johnson is certainly well-impressed with himself, but at times The Last Jedi, like another beloved sci-fi franchise (Doctor Who) seems more interested in being meta than in being timeless or from 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'.


There's the opening scene where Poe taunts Hux by continuously saying he's 'on hold' for the General, making snide remarks about asking if anyone there has seen him.  "You know, pasty skin," Poe ridicules at one point, while the increasingly campy Hux keeps replying that it is him.

The audience laughed, which I figure they were trained to do, but I couldn't help think this is something that would have appeared in Spaceballs, not Star Wars.  Do people really 'hold' in outer space (or drop bombs rather than fire them)?  These incessant calls for comedy and quips (I think I heard at least twice 'need a lift?' whenever someone was stranded and another ship came in) are a bit too 'now'.  Having Yoda tell Skywalker with regards to the sacred Jedi texts, "Page-turners they were not", again sounds a bit too much like Johnson wanted something only for contemporary audiences.  Who is to know whether these terms will still be in use fifty years from now.

As a side note, I am a total loss to understand how the ten seconds of silence when we have a suicide run could so confuse people as to require advanced notification that there will be no sound.  Are modern audiences that out of tune with filmmaking techniques?

The story is also ridiculously and needlessly long.  The search for this 'master codebreaker' led not to the one they sought but to DJ, whom they found by mere chance.  It seemed to be a thorough waste of a bloated 2 hour 30 minute running time.  Why not just search for DJ in the first place?

What were the odds Rose and Finn would get thrown into the same cell as he?  For that to happen, the First Order would have had to have planned for things that they might have been able to predict (they land in a particular spot, they be captured, they know what they were looking for).

I think a lot of The Last Jedi depends on things going in a certain way when there is no guarantee that they should go in a certain way.



Unless Johnson wanted us not to take Hux seriously as a villain, there was no reason to have him behave as he did: all camp theatrics.  Gleeson is probably the worse one in The Last Jedi, though probably not because he set out to play a spoof of a Star Wars villain.  He was missing a mustache to twirl, but he was as menacing as goat cheese.  Del Toro wasn't too far behind as DJ, adding a stutter for no real reason, though I suspect it was for 'representation'.

After all, this new series has made much of how multicultural the galaxy is: female lead, more women, more minorities.  Why not one with a speech impediment?  One scene with Isaac, Boyega and Tran stood out not because it was particularly good, but because I can almost see people checking off boxes.

Fisher did not have much to do except look pensive, but I put that more to the script than to her abilities.

As a side note, I'm still puzzled about that 'Leia Floating in Space and Living to Tell the Tale' bit.

Tran seemed almost like a fangirl who found herself in all this craziness, but again I put it to the script than to her.  For what her role was (the chipper and downtrodden Rose), she did well.  Boyega did well too, though as with Tran and a purple-haired Laura Dern, nothing spectacular.

I think the two standouts are Ridley and Driver, their scenes working rather well when they're on Force Skype (though I'm surprised Rey is so prudish when Emo Vader is seen topless, her insistence of putting something on sounding rather peculiar).  Again, it's the script that fails them and pretty much fails everyone. 

There was no reason for The Last Jedi to be as long as it was.  The entire casino scene (which is the one that I think upset conservatives the most), could have been cut out entirely, as if the "not Rebellion" didn't buy arms either.  What, were they donated?  Does the Resistance manufacture them themselves?

As someone who is not vested in the entire Star Wars universe, The Last Jedi is neither this epic my fellow critics tell me it is nor this blasphemy fanboys tell me it is.  It's OK, longer than it should be, with a bit too much fan-service and teasing (Emo Vader taunting Rey about who her parents were teases audiences while still not giving answers).

At least I can agree with Snoke on one thing: Kylo Ren is no Vader, just a child in a mask.

He didn't know it was a trap...


DECISION: C+

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Librarians: And the Christmas Thief Review



THE LIBRARIANS: AND 
THE CHRISTMAS THIEF

Having met Santa Claus in the first season, it's now time to meet his evil brother, and it isn't Fred Claus.  And the Christmas Thief is, unsurprisingly, focused on our Master Thief, Ezekiel Jones (John Kim).  It's a perfect holiday concoction: light, frothy, no interest in taking itself seriously, with a nice message about the importance of family.

Librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle, who directed the episode) along with his sweetheart/Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) and a very reluctant and unwilling Jenkins (John Larroquette) are going on a vacation with Santa and all his elves to a beach resort.  While the parents are away, they tell the kids, Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) and Ezekiel to not use Santa's sleigh for any joyriding.

Needless to say, Jake is desperate to go for a spin, but the cheerful Cassandra aka the responsible sister, isn't about to let him.  Jones for his part just wants out of the festivities and cheerful demeanor (as well as the 'ugly' sweaters Cassandra made for him and Stone, both of which call out to their personalities and both of which horrify them.

To get away, he uses the magic door to visit his mother Lenore (Gia Garides) and his sisters Charity, Honor, and Mercy, all of whom must be ironically named as they posses none of those qualities.  Far from it: all of them are trained thieves, celebrating Thanks-taking, the polar opposite of Thanksgiving, where they gift their mother with things they've stolen and offer it to the Saint of Thieves*.


Zeke is a bit of a disappointment to Lenore: he hasn't stolen his gift and they all still snicker about when he brought them some egg (they having no idea who Faberge was).  To prove his worth, he spirits his mother to the Library, a big no-no in so many ways.  It isn't long till she uses the magic globe that controls the transporting room to have a stealing orgy.  With no door to go through, they have to use Santa's sleigh to Jake's delight and Cassandra's horror.

The globe has a malfunction and at the worst time: Lenore has gone overboard and stolen Vermeer's The Concert, a painting that has yet to be recovered.  She didn't steal it from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum back in 1990.  She stole it from the Thieves Bank itself, run by the Saint of Thieves.

The Librarians get her to return it, but now they are trapped by the Saint of Thieves himself (Steven Weber).  Worse, the Saint now has Santa's sleigh, and with it he can enact revenge against his brother.  "No Sleigh, No Christmas, No Santa," he reasons.  It looks like it's all over, but like kids who find themselves over their heads, they call Grandpa for help.

The solution is simplicity itself: Jenkins arrives after having helped Stone and Cassandra repair the teleporting globe and presents the Saint of Thieves with the title to the sleigh...as a gift.  As the Saint of Thieves cannot accept anything freely given, he loses the sleigh and turns into what Jenkins calls 'a petulant little boy'.  Jenkins promises never to mention this whole affair to Flynn and Eve as his Christmas gift, and thankful to get away from Santa's awful EDM party.

With the 'parents' none the wiser, the Librarians return to celebrate Christmas with 'family', while Ezekiel gets a gift he longs for: his mother's love and her reformation.


And the Christmas Thief is as I said: cute, rapid, and what we'd call 'a romp'.  It has some funny moments (Stone's reaction to being almost kissed in gratitude by Jones), and funny bits (Jones' unfamiliarity with the reindeer, asking how they could take the sleigh without 'Comet, Cancer, Flasher, Nixon').

It also has a nice shout-out to the formerly great Doctor Who (which The Librarians draws heavy inspiration from).  "Our shed is bigger on the inside," she proclaims to her son when they go inside, echoing a familiar refrain whenever someone else enters the TARDIS.

The performances reflect the lighthearted manner to And the Christmas Thief.  Weber camps it up for all its worth as the Saint of Thieves without being too broad.  The moments when he speaks in a 'demonic' voice alter his character to being almost a frightening one, but for the most part Weber plays things in a wry manner.   Guest star Garides was strong as the tacky, dismissive Lenore, who doesn't understand her son until she spends time seeing how he works.  The transformation is wonderful to see.

The main cast, or in this case Kane, Booth and Kim all worked well in their separate roles.  Kane showed off a rarely-seen side of his character: his childlike enthusiasm for things.  Stone's delight at Santa's sleigh having a candy-cane key and glee at driving it around shows a lighter side to the character.  Booth's Cassandra lends a touch of wickedness when she taunts the three sisters with a little 'Boo' after she pretends to be a Ghost of Christmas.

Kim was a little more unbalanced: good when dealing with the Thieves at the Thief's Bank (itself a wildly clever idea), not so good when trying to show his hurt as being a black sheep to his sisters.    However, when with Garides explaining his change, he does well.  "When you've got a lot, you share," he tells a disbelieving Lenore.  Words to live by.

In many ways, And the Christmas Thief reminds me of a family sitcom: the 'parents' (slightly dotty Father Flynn, stronger and smarter Mother Eve) are off on vacation, leaving the 'kids' (the older brother Jacob eager to try the family wheels, the responsible middle sister Cassandra trying to get the boys to be responsible, the youngest Ezekiel just wanting attention and affection).  It takes crusty Grandpa (Jenkins) to sort it all out. 

A nice pleasant romp, And the Christmas Thief has a breezy story and performances to match that make it all so delightful.



*There appears to be an actual 'Saint of Thieves', who goes unnamed in And the Christmas Thief.  St. Dismas is the name given to the "Good Thief" who was crucified with Jesus Christ on Calvary, the one who begged The Lord to remember him when He ascended Heaven only to have Him tell the thief that he too would be in Paradise.  All that would have been a bit too theological. 

Curiously, St. Nicholas, the historic figure behind Santa Claus, is in a way the Patron Saint of Thieves...reformed thieves, that is.

8/10

Next Episode: And the Silver Screen

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas: A Review



THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Every year, I write a review of a Christmas-related film for the holiday.  This year, I have opted for two reviews: one on Christmas Eve, one on Christmas Day.  This is motivated by the fact that Christmas-related films are released around this time, and rather than separate a regular review from the Annual Christmas film review, why not have the best of both?

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the first Christmas-related film I've reviewed that is also a biopic, as it is the story of Charles Dickens' artistic crisis as he attempts to get back into the public's good graces with A Christmas Carol.  What is now a perennial holiday event, done countless times on film, television and radio started out as Dickens' comeback.  The Man Who Invented Christmas never makes the case for its lofty title (especially given that Jesus Christ probably 'invented Christmas', but why quibble).  It's an unbalanced affair, drawing on other films and story ideas while failing to tell a potentially good story.

It has been a year and four months since Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has come from a wildly successful American tour (where he was greeted with wild cheers and the playing of Yankee Doodle Dandy, never mind that George M. Cohan hadn't actually written the song until 1904, a good sixty two years after Dickens' tour, but again, why quibble).  His last three books after Oliver Twist have all flopped, leaving Dickens in dire financial straits, not that his spending has slowed down any.

He not only has the financial burden of keeping up appearances, his growing family, and household staff, but he also is sending money to his parents.  However, it isn't charity or love that motivates Dickens: it's a desire to keep his irresponsible father John (Jonathan Pryce) out of Charlie's luxurious hair.  John, for reasons of his own, has no problem selling his son's autograph to make more money, and the appearance of him and Charlie's mother at their house for Christmas isn't particularly welcome.

Charles is desperate for money and for a hit book, and with only his agent Foster (Justin Edwards) by his side, Charles has to endure many indignities, including Charles' frenemy William Makepeace Thackeray (Miles Jupp).  Talk about Vanity Fair.



Overhearing a new Irish maid, Tara (Anna Murphy) tell the Dickens children ghost stories soon starts Charles' creativity flowing.  A new story, a short novel comes to him.  It is to be titled Humbug: A Miser's Lament.  Little bits come to him: an overheard conversation, an accidental visit to a solitary funeral, the sight of street urchin hiding under coats.  We see a brief visit from Charles' sister, who has a sickly little son who needs a crutch or his father's broad shoulders to move about.

Soon, the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) emerges in all his irascibility and selfishness and greed.  It isn't long before other characters from Humbug: A Miser's Lament start popping up, and at certain points even mocking Dickens.  If the indignity of Mrs. Fezziwigg laughing at him isn't enough, Charlie still has to deal with his father's irresponsibility, Charles' own haunted memories of his time working at Warren's Boot factory gluing labels as a child, and the pressures of getting this Christmas book out by Christmas.

Eventually, after coming to terms with his own haunted past, he can give Scrooge that bit of redemption and hope, and finish the newly-retitled A Christmas Carol, which is published on December 19, 1943 and is an instant hit.


I have not read Les Standiford's nonfiction work on Dickens and his creation of A Christmas Carol, but the film adaptation of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Susan Coyne makes it look like a very offbeat comedy.  As such, I figure that Standiford's book must be a laugh-riot and not a serious tome on the creative process of an author who is on the low end of his career.

Coyne, intentional or not, has crafted a variation of things we've already seen before.  As I watched The Man Who Invented Christmas, and did my best to stay awake through it, I could not help flashing back to Shakespeare in LoveThe Man Who Invented Christmas is at the very least 'inspired' by that film in terms of structure: a well-regarded writer facing a writing crisis comes up with a new idea and an awful title to go along with it.  In Shakespeare in Love, our dear Will was embarking on Romeo & Ethel, The Pirate's Daughter.  In The Man Who Invented Christmas, our dear Charlie was embarking on Humbug: A Miser's Lament.

Both films also have our author pick up bits of dialogue and scenes that would find their way into the future and classic Romeo & Juliet and A Christmas Carol respectively.

They even end with hints of more works drawn from real-life.  In Shakespeare in Love, it is Queen Elizabeth I's command for something lighter for Twelfth Night.  In The Man Who Invented Christmas, a cop who tried to arrest Charlie only to not when he saw who he was introduced himself as "Copperfield". 

At that point, I wanted to all but strangle almost everyone involved in this work.  Copperfield?



As of Coyne and director Bharat Nalluri weren't satisfied to do a variation of Shakespeare in Love in all but name, they went one further and appeared to draw bits from Six Characters in Search of an Author, as the various characters wait around for Charlie to get back to them, at one point I think even going on strike until he sorts things out.  Now, a film where we follow Scrooge and Tiny Tim as they wait out their resolution would have been good.  A film that dealt more with how Dickens came up with his ideas and changed them would have been good.  A film that had him interact more with his characters might have been good.

The Man Who Invented Christmas was none of those things.  Yes, sometimes they did touch on them (a scene where Tara insists Tiny Tim cannot die to a disbelieving Dickens was good), but for the most part I think the film thought it was a comedy.  Many moments were meant for laughs that were actually groan-inducing (such as Dickens trying to hide from Thackeray by hiding behind a newspaper with "CHARLES DICKENS" in super-bold print).  Adding to that, why exactly was Thackeray so gleeful at Dickens' 'Hard Times'?  Such aspects the film has no interest in building to.

Mychael Danna's score more often than not played with The Man Who Invented Christmas being a bad comedy, often making the music cutesy.  Dan Stevens' performance did not help matters: his Charles Dickens (which makes one sing 'There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead...') was a lot of mugging and exasperation.  I'll give him credit that when he did have some drama, such as when he confronts his genial but irresponsible and slightly tottering father, he did well.  However, more often than not Stevens made Dickens less a literary genius and more a slightly befuddled and irresponsible lucky man. 


When Dickens went to his solicitor, at one point after he asked for more money, I expected him to tell him, "Please sir, I want some more!"

Bless Christopher Plummer, who apparently decided he was in a different movie altogether and played it so.  His Scrooge was excellent: sinister, difficult, caustic, but in the end fearful, regretful, and on the verge of total panic.  Pryce too was far more interesting as John Dickens, charming and caring but irresponsible, than his forever flustered and rushed-about son.

I think a major flaw in The Man Who Invented Christmas is that because we already know the final story, there is no real suspense of what will happen.  The comedic take the film starts with then tries to shift to a more serious drama, and it fails to be either.  Stevens is directed to play a lot of things for laughs, so by the time he is more dramatic, a lot of the seriousness is lost.

It isn't as if there isn't a story to be made out of how Dickens came to create a story that is now ingrained in the Yuletide tradition.  However, The Man Who Invented Christmas ends up diminishing his genius: his creation of A Christmas Carol happening, not because he came up with the ideas and characters, but because he happened to overhear and see things that he just slipped into the story.  At times, the creative element is good but it's a bit too self-satisfied, as if they were playing a 'spot the reference' game.

Look: Charles' nephew has a crutch.
Look: some man tells Charlie, "Aren't there workhouses?"
Look: there's an old man named 'Marley'.
Look: a man struggles with a giant moneybox.

It becomes tiresome and worse, a terrible disappointment. 

The forces, internal and external, that shaped both Dickens and the creation of A Christmas Carol deserve a much better version than The Man Who Invented Christmas.

2012: Arthur Christmas
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2014: Prancer
2015: A Madea Christmas
2016: Batman Returns
2017 Part 1: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

1812-1870


DECISION: D+

Sex and the Single Doctor: Thoughts On The Thirteenth Doctor



So much to cover with Jodie Whittaker becoming the Thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who.  I have an unfortunate habit of going on and on about things, waxing poetic endlessly, using as many words as I can fit into an essay.  I'm going to break with that and force myself to be brief.

I tried.  I failed.  It's going to be long.

I oppose the casting of a woman as The Doctor because I think it is being done to promote an agenda, not to serve the narrative.

I oppose the casting of a woman as The Doctor because I think it serves no purpose apart from pleasing a loud group which has argued for this change for the thinnest of reasons.

I oppose the casting of a woman as The Doctor because I think it alters the very nature of the character.


#NotMyWhovian
 
If you got through that, I figure some of you might already have decided I'm a sexist.  It's easier to call those who disagree with this decision 'sexist' than to listen to any reasons we may present.  It's the Whovian version of 'and when did you stop beating your wife?', to build in the assumption of guilt with only your own views as evidence.

I know that Chris Hardwick at The Nerdist has decreed by fiat that I am 'not a real fan' for holding views contrary to his own on this subject. He's even metaphorically called me (and those who agree with on this) 'an asshole' for not being on board and having issues with this gender-bender.

This I find highly ironic given that Hardwick and The Nerdist in general go beyond ass-kissing to straight-up rimming people like Doctor Who showrunners/writers Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall or any other showrunner/production company they shamelessly shill for.

The main arguments against my views appear to be as follows: that I am against it because I don't want women to advance or cannot accept that Doctor Who has long established cross-gender/bigender Time Lords.  My opposition to the casting of a female therefore is built on animosity towards the feminine gender and run counter to a highly successful transition in the show's history.

Allow me then a chance to offer a different view.

And you are...

Opposing the casting of Whittaker, or any female, as The Doctor is not ipso facto sexism.

I would equally oppose the casting of a male to play the female Time Lords Romana or The Rani.  Granted, most Doctor Who fans whom Hardwick and Company cater to probably don't know who Romana and/or The Rani are.  At the Day of the Doctor screening I went to, all those who were dressed up in fezzes and bow ties had never heard of Romana, and Moffat has stated that bringing back the villainous Rani would be wasted on the fans.

"People always ask me, 'Do you want to bring back The Rani?'  No one knows who The Rani is.  They all know who the Master is, they know Daleks, they probably know who Davros is, but they don't know who the Rani is, so there's no point in bringing her back" (emphasis mine).

Then again, Moffat seems extremely contradictory when it comes to The Rani.  On one hand, he insists 'no one knows who the Rani is', and on the other, he says he tried to fool people into thinking that Missy or The Mistress, who was once known as The Master, was indeed The Rani.

Am I the only one who wonders why he wanted to fool people into thinking Missy was a character no one knew?



When it comes to this crossing genders, I think we need to step back a bit.

NuWho fans and their defenders insist the idea of Time Lords changing genders has been 'long established'.  Between 1963 and 1989, and even up to the 1996 television movie/backdoor pilot, the exact number of Time Lords who had regenerated from one gender to the other was zero.  Despite twenty-six years and various opportunities, no Time Lord ever changed gender.  It wasn't just The Doctor who could have regenerated into a woman in this time.  Other Time Lords could have done so, but none of them did.

As of today, I have yet to find a Classic Doctor Who episode or story that said Time Lords changed genders.  Some point to Romana's first regeneration as proof that they can change into more than just males and females.  However, a look at Destiny of the Daleks showed that even when she was 'trying on different bodies', she was always female.  The Rani herself, if memory serves correct, made a comment that at least she can choose her regeneration, which some fans took to mean that female Time Lords had greater control over their regenerations, something male Time Lords did not have.

As such, if Time Lords were always 'gender-fluid', how was it that female Time Lords like Romana or The Rani never regenerated to males, or other Time Lords like Borusa didn't regenerate into females?  Even faux-Time Lords like River Song never regenerated into opposite genders (all three of her appearances were female).

The idea that crossing genders has been 'long established' is valid only if by 'long established', you put your marker in 2011, when the subject was first mentioned.  In The Doctor's Wife, the Doctor mentions another Time Lord, the Corsair, who was a he, but on occasion, a she.  Seven years hardly makes for 'long established'.  At the time, I dismissed it as a throwaway line, but there was more to come.

There's the character of The Master, who returned in a female form, calling itself Missy, short for 'The Mistress'. That was in 2014, a mere three years ago.  Again, 'long established'.  The Master in the past had 'stolen' a body to keep on living through an unauthorized 'regeneration' in The Keeper of Trakken; as such, I took that 'Missy' was another 'stolen body' and nothing more.



The final 'long-established' point is when The General regenerated from an old white man to a not-so-old black woman in Hell Bent.  Apart from making misandristic statements ("My God, how do you cope with all that ego?" and how she was 'back to normal', suggesting being a man is 'abnormal'), The General's on-screen regeneration played no real part in his-Her personality.

In long, it has been only in revived Doctor Who were the idea of bigender Time Lords has come into being.  In each case: the Corsair, The Master/Mistress, and The General, I believe that all were done for one reason only: to clear the way for a female Doctor.

I believe this change, this kowtowing to a small group of loud fans/pseudo-fans who see sexism and injustice everywhere, is a terrible mistake.

Is there anything wrong with a female Doctor?  Perhaps not.  Is there something wrong with a female Doctor if the reason it is done is 'because it's TIME we had a female Doctor'?  Most certainly yes.  This is going to take the show down a road from which it may not come back. 

Already this casting choice has split fans.  In 2014, a small majority of polled fans said they were opposed.  When Whitaker was cast, a slim majority said it was a good idea.  DoctorWhoTV, as pro-Moffat a group as you can find outside The Nerdist, at least was honest when it said that as late as 2013 a vast majority of those polled (87.1%) believed the 12th Doctor should be male.

I  don't believe there ever was such a mass push for a female Doctor.  It was only a small but loud group that demanded it for no other reason than to push a particular agenda.

Contrary to what Moffat, Hardwick, or anyone at the Doctor Who production office insists, this decision to make such a radical change has not been met with universal acclaim or with nary a hint of backlash.

It was met with much backlash and anger, with many Doctor Who fans flat-out saying they will no longer watch.  Hardwick calls them 'assholes' for not going along with it.  Others call them sexist, misogynists, and chauvinists.  The pro-Female Doctor group insists all the anti-Female Doctor group has is bigotry.  Yes, there were those who were out-and-out bigots (all those 'Nurse Who' cracks were dumb), but a vast majority of those opposed did so because we firmly hold that the change is being done not to move the story forward, but to make a sociopolitical statement.



NuWho, along with the sycophantic press & the fans who see injustice in a male playing a particular role, has convinced itself that casting a female in the role is a brilliant idea. They think it will equal great ratings, with all those fans who left more than made up by those who will hold Whitaker as the heroine their little girls need (since little girls have never heard of Sally Ride or Jane Goodall). They'll get the praise & the press that, in theory, will build to a long-running series.

However, as much as they may think that men & women are interchangable and that you'll get the exact same results with a woman as you would with a man, they are, in my view, tying themselves to a difficult position. By casting someone to demonstrate 'progressiveness', they now will be held to a standard where all future castings will be likewise judged. If Whitaker does not pan out, if she & Chibnall's showrunning fail to bring up ratings, the BBC cannot just dump Whitaker. Cries of 'sexism', 'toxic masculinity', and the like will be thrown at them. As such, they may have to ride out falling ratings for maybe one-three years to save face. 

Either that, or flat-out cancel the show to stop the financial bleeding. 

They will be bound to a showrunner and lead who instead of stemming the falling tide or bring the ratings up instead seemed to have accelerated the show's decline.  Firing Whitaker the way the BBC fired Colin Baker when he was blamed for falling ratings during his tenure as The Doctor is impossible.  If they tried to do push Whitaker out, those who pushed for a female in the role would scream, only this time there would be no other fans the show could rely on for help.  Those who left in disgust at what they saw as a stunt won't be talked back after being called 'bigots, sexists, idiots and fools' (and those were some of the nicer things said about them).



If the show managed to hold on to the hypothetical end of Whitaker's era assuming the show isn't flat-out cancelled during Her tenure, Her successor, however, cannot be anyone. The Social Justice Warriors, having tasted blood, will demand nothing more than 'correct' casting. More than likely the calls to have a minority actor/actress will grow, w/the same reason given ("it's TIME we had a black Doctor, an Indian Doctor, an openly Gay Doctor, an Arab Doctor, a Sikh Doctor..."). That is, if they allow for a male to get the role at all. Jumping about between genders seems to be a one-act trick: you can't keep doing it every time you need publicity.

Casting a male after a female may lead to calls of 'sexism', 'toxic masculinity', what have you.
 
If they opt to then go all in and cast a minority female (say a Thandie Newton or Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to have 'representation' (and a chance for the BBC to shield itself from accusations of 'sexism' and 'racism'), those who had originally rejected the idea of Whitaker's casting as being done for PC reasons may come to the conclusions the majority of us reached when Whitaker was announced: the casting was done for ulterior motives.

I have the utmost respect for Newton, Mbatha-Raw, or an Idris Elba or Alexander Siddig. They are all highly talented. However, they would be, in this theoretical casting, be given the role not for their talent, but to check off boxes. In a way, it undermines the very principle the BBC insists it has: to cast for the best actor regardless of sex or color.

By getting their way with Whitaker, they have put a litmus test on any future Doctor: do you fulfill a particular function in terms of 'representation'? I think few people would have had an issue with a minority male as The Doctor. It would not have changed Canon (Time Lords keeping w/in their gender). By selecting a woman to HAVE a woman, they have decided 'representation' was more important than anything else.



I don't know how it will go, but if it goes the way I think it will (the show petering out to an ignoble end), it will be Whitaker and those who said it was a bad decision who will get blamed. Those who came up with the idea, misguided as it was, were never in the wrong.  Those who pushed this idea likewise will never admit to being wrong.

Rather, the story will be that the problem wasn't that there was A woman cast as The Doctor, but that it was a PARTICULAR woman that was cast.  The line will be said that Whitaker was all wrong: that she got the job because she worked with Chibnall on Broadchurch, that she wasn't talented enough, etc. It will be a disservice to her if she is blamed for doing her job the best she could, even if perhaps the decision to cast a female to begin with was a mistake.

Hardwick will no doubt blame all those awful sexist/mysogynist/chauvinist men who left when they should have stayed.  He and many other 'woke' figures hold that the fans are almost obligated to stay with Doctor Who no matter how much they may grow to hate it.  I as a fan am not bound to stay and watch something I no longer care to watch.  I have quit Doctor Who before: after the horror of Love & Monsters, I refused to watch any more Doctor Who until the end of David Tennant's tenure.  Was I obligated to keep watching even after I felt the show went overboard?

By Hardwick's logic, Roseanne fans should have kept watching after the Conners became fabulously wealthy.  By Hardwick's logic, Happy Days fans should not have complained after Fonzie jumped the shark. 

Ultimately, for me the question isn't 'why can't they do it' because they could and did.  The question should be 'why should they do it', and the reasons the other side has presented have been very weak and not enough to convince me it was the right thing to do. 

"Because it's TIME" isn't an answer. 
"Because little girls need representation" isn't an answer.

The casting of Jodie Whitaker, irrespective of her talent as an actress, was done for what I believe were wrong reasons.  I think a lot of fans, who have stuck through a lot of bad episodes (Sleep No More) and a lot of really awful ideas (the Flying Cyber-Brigadier) finally had enough.  Whether the First Female Doctor is enough to bring new fans and hold whichever ones left I cannot say.

However, I don't fancy their chances, especially since it will be until 'late 2018' by the time Her tenure really begins.  That's well over six months between Her first few seconds and Her debut story.  Will all those women cheering this one hold on that long?  Former Doctor Who fans have held on for longer.  Now, it's not so sure.



At least she is bound to stay, so no matter what, Doctor Who will always have one viewer...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What Was Wrong With the Old Version? Miracle on 34th Street (1994): A Review


MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1994)

For this year's Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas Special, I'm going for two Christmas-themed movies: one on Christmas Eve, one on Christmas Day.  The Christmas Eve review is a Ghost from Christmas Films Past, the Christmas Day review is from a Ghost of Christmas Films Present.

In keeping with Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas Special, for this year's Christmas film review, I've chosen a film I've long avoided: the remake of Miracle on 34th Street.  A large part of my avoidance came from the fact that as far as I was concerned, there was simply no need to remake a film that is practically perfect as is.  What more could be told?  What improvements could be made with regards to the 1947 film? 

The late and much-missed Maureen O'Hara, who starred in the original Miracle on 34th Street, commented with pride that the film had been remade three times (two television adaptations and this film).  "Each one...flopped", she said with joy in her voice and a gleam in her Irish eyes, taking great delight in the fact that her version is the one most remembered and watched, the others pretty much forgotten.  Well, given it is Christmas, I opted to finally tackle what I had long not wanted to deal with. 

I found that Maureen O'Hara's perceptions about at least this version were accurate: it IS a flop.  She had every right to stomp over every effort to improve on her film.  The 1994 Miracle on 34th Street, while not as dreadful as I'd feared, simply has no reason to exist.

An old man (Richard Attenborough, affectionately known as "Sir Dickie") wanders into the Cole's Thanksgiving Day Parade (Macy's I imagine wisely not wanting to be part of this, but I wonder: was Kohl's around at the time?).  We should note that this old man was mistaken for Santa Claus by a little boy, only to have the old man whisper to him, "I Am".  As he IS Santa Claus, Cole's director of special programming and events Dory Walker (Elizabeth Perkins) begs him to replace the loutish, boozed-up Santa.  He does so, and his success irritates Cole's rival, the Wal-Mart like Shopper's Express, headed by EVIL corporate head Victor Landbergh (Joss Ackland).  He wants Cole's in his empire (though we're not sure why) and a last-minute loan to Cole's saves it much to his irritation.

This Kriss Kringle is a HUGE success with EVERYONE loving him, so much so that he, to his puzzlement, gets in front of cameras and says, "Good Morning, America".  Kriss even sends people to other stores, which shocks everyone and leaves customers, oddly, more disgruntled than pleased.  Dory knows there is no such thing as Santa Claus, words of wisdom she's passed on to her daughter, Susan (Mara Wilson).  Susan, who is really, REALLY wise beyond her years, is constantly trying to get her mother together with next door neighbor Bryan Bedford (Dylan McDermott).  They do go out but Dory just doesn't want a relationship.

Susan is beginning to question whether Kriss is THE Santa Claus when jolly old Saint Nick is caught up in a scandal!  The disgruntled ex-Santa (who apparently hangs out at a Santa bar...I'm not kidding, a whole group of Santas were drinking in a bar) sets up Kriss by first antagonizing him at the Cole's Christmas display and then following him when he leaves, suggesting that he gets his jollies from touching children.

That's right folks: in this family film, the subject of pedophilia is made a main point. 

So angry does Kriss get that he whacks him with his cane.  Conveniently, two minions of Shopper's Express just happen to be there, along with a photographer.  The whole thing shocks the country (assuming the country generally cared about one department store Santa who really hadn't done all that much to merit the attention he got, but whatever).  The bad press (and worse photo) get him locked up with the potential to be sent away to a nuthouse, but Bryan, who happens to be a lawyer, decides to defend Kriss.  Dory for her part is furious that Cole's could so willingly feed Kriss to the lions.  Now, Bryan himself doesn't believe Kriss is Santa Claus and despite all the witnesses he can produce, cannot find a way to prove his case.

It takes Susan and a one-dollar bill to prove that Kriss Kringle IS THE Santa Claus.

In the end, Kriss is freed, Bryan and Dory are essentially hoodwinked into getting married right after Midnight Mass, and Susan gets what she's wanted: a home, a father, and a baby brother (the last one though will take some work and some time).

As I watched, two thoughts kept coming to me over and over again.  The first was that this Miracle on 34th Street was trying TOO hard to be sweet and cute and, more surprisingly, trying too hard to be smarter than the original (which is was not, not by a long shot).  The second was that it was essentially directionless, drifting, drifting, drifting, with no idea what it wanted to be.

In regards to the first part, we see this in how the characters are.  We know for example that Landbergh is EVIL because when we first see him, ominous music is playing, and he is alone in a gray office.  In regards to the second, what Landbergh's beef with Cole's is never appears to play a large part of the story.  In fact, for large chunks of it, we forget that Landbergh's machinations are suppose to relate to the goings-on.  We see him at the beginning, plotting...something, and at the end, when he's enraged that New York State has declared Kriss THE Santa Claus.

Why he ever cared is pretty much left to our own imagination.




This I imagine is due to SO MUCH TIME being wasted on the romance between Dory and Bryan, a romance that feels as artificial as the snow inside Cole's displays.  Perkins and especially McDermott are pretty to look at, but the characters never felt as if they'd do more than share pleasantries in an elevator, let alone get married.  It's as if writer John Hughes (yes, THAT John Hughes) decided Miracle on 34th Street was a romantic drama about neighbors than it was about whether or not Santa Claus is real.   Hughes couldn't allow the romance to build up gradually, but instead decided they were to be secretly in love with each other and just went with that.

Now, I know I'm going to get grief over this, but I did not like Mara Wilson in this.  Oh, she's cute enough and a competent child actress (and to her credit, she might be among the last child stars who followed Shirley Temple's example as opposed to a Lindsay Lohan), but I felt Susan came across as rather obnoxious, one whose wisdom came primarily from lecturing everyone about things rather than from a child's own unique perspective.  Wilson's Susan was someone I found unlikable, and a bit disengaged at times (her first scene where she videotapes a message to her mother coming across as slightly monotonous than cutesy).

Let me dive into how Sir Dickie was.  I found his efforts to be cutesy and giggly more forced than endearing.  Hughes' decision to have his Kriss Kringle talk about how The Easter Bunny winters in New Zealand or how he got good advise from the Tooth Fairy was a disastrous one.  IF we accept that Santa Claus is real (which is what Miracle on 34th Street wants us to think), we're now left with a few choices regarding Santa's 'friends'.  One: the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are also real.  Two: this man in bonkers.  Three: Santa is lying to us for his own amusement. 

Who here can accept One?  The film pushes against us accepting Two, and the way Sir Dickie is directed to deliver his lines (courtesy of Les Mayfield), Three is wrong.  So, what to make of Santa introducing E.B. and the Cavity Queen?  Perhaps Hughes' co-screenwriter, George Seaton, could have restrained him with these odd touches.  However, that would have been difficult, given that despite being credited as co-screenwriter to this version of his original Miracle on 34th Street, George Seaton had been dead for 15 years by the time cameras rolled.

Am I the only one who thinks giving screenwriting credit to a man who'd been DEAD for a decade-and-a-half before the film was made is just a trifle bizarre?

At a certain point, even I thought Kriss Kringle was insane, and that's the LAST thing you want an audience to think.

The resolution is both bizarre and slightly insulting to everyone concerned.  The judge is about to rule against Kringle when Susan asks to approach the bench.  She hands His Honor a Christmas card with a one-dollar bill inside.  My first thought was that she was going to try and bribe him, but the actual end result is far more ghastly. 

The motto of the United States, "In God We Trust", is circled.  From this, His Honor declares that because the federal government (in this case, the Treasury Department) can put its faith in something that has not been proven, the State of New York can equally put its faith in something that has not been proven as well.  Henceforth, Santa Claus is real, and Kriss Kringle is THE Santa Claus.

Somehow, I find this legal reasoning idiotic and a desperate way to get around the more logical conclusion the original came up with.  However, the underlying logic behind the ruling should astonish and infuriate all believers.

In other words, the message this movie gives is this: it's OK to believe Santa is real, because the U.S. government believes in imaginary beings too (like God).  Good message towards the Judeo-Christian audience you're targeting, telling them God is on the same level of reality as the Tooth Fairy.

I found this Miracle on 34th Street a little too cutesy and too deliberately sweet for its own good.  Everyone is playing to be whimsical, not real.  As much as I loath to compare the original with remakes, what made the original work was that there was always an element of doubt about the true identity of Kriss Kringle.  Even at the end, we were never totally, absolutely sure if he was THE Santa.  This one doesn't, forcing us to conclude that he IS Santa or that he IS insane.

Tooth Fairy.  Easter Bunny.  I wish John Hughes hadn't tried so hard to be clever.  He was much better than this woeful misfire. 

Maureen O'Hara was right...this IS a flop, and the best thing about the remake of Miracle on 34th Street is that in fifty years time, few will remember or watch it, while the original will always be THE version we'll always go back to.   

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PASTS

2016: Batman Returns
2015: A Madea Christmas
2014: Prancer
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2012: Arthur Christmas
2009: A Christmas Carol (2009)
White Christmas

DECISION: C-