Thursday, March 30, 2017

Southside With You: A Review (Review #900)


The concern with a film like Southside With You, the story of the first date between future President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama (formerly Robinson) is that it will go beyond hagiography into downright sanctification.  One might imagine that at a certain point in the film, the sky will open up, heavenly choirs will sing, a dove will descend on Barry, and we will hear an Orson Welles-type voice call out, "This is My Son, in whom I am well-pleased!" 

It will end with Obama being taken up into Heaven, where Jesus Christ will bow down and worship the One True God.

You know, how Hollywood sees the former President. 

To its credit Southside With You doesn't go full-on worshipful (though the midsection does have touches of idolatry). It isn't terrible or grand, but passable, with some charm and good performances.

Taking place over one long day, lawyer Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) prepares for the arrival at her house of one Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers), a summer associate at the upmarket law firm where she is technically his supervisor.  She insists it's not a date, something that Barack pushes their time into being.  Ostensibly going to a community meeting, Michelle is surprised and a little irritated when the habitually late Barack tells her that this meeting won't be for a few hours.

He plans to take her to an African-American art exhibit...just to wander in.  While Michelle is none too pleased with this development, she goes along with it, as well as wandering through a park (I suspect Grant Park) before going to the community meeting (where Michelle is mistaken for Barack's newest girl and is dazzled by his speaking) and ending with some beer and a movie, Do the Right Thing (which she is eager to see).

As a side note, Do the Right Thing isn't my idea of a date movie, but there you go.

At the end of the day, Michelle is enchanted enough with Barack to consider this be possibly be a 'date' and perhaps for a second one.

The question one should ask about Southside With You is simple: if their names were, say Terrence Smith and Kristen Jones, would we care enough to follow this, The Longest Date?  If the film is based on the actual first date, it was a very long date...lasting essentially from around midday to midnight.  Would our two young lovers-to-be interesting enough for us to care whether or not they go out again?

My answer is, not really.  Part of it comes from the fact that Michelle came across as a bit of a whiner, protesting too much about how this isn't a 'date'.  Part of it comes from the idea of a 'date' involving having the woman listen to this man give an impassioned speech that shows his greatness.  I think on how Obama, even then, had a way with turning phrases into something almost inspiring. 

At the community meeting, Obama says to encourage the people that they should turn the 'no' to 'on', as in 'carry on'.  "They say 'no', we say 'carry on'", he intones, and you think that despite being a mere intern essentially, Barack Obama is dreaming of when he can say things like 'there's no Blue America or Red America, only the United States of America'. 

And here is where I have a slight beef with Southside With You.  Writer/director Richard Tanne has perhaps too much love for his subject that ironically keeps our two young lovebirds a bit at a distance, as if we should marvel at them rather than fully embrace them as just two young people starting out a remarkable and beautiful romance.

We see this in how Obama is bathed in soft light when giving his speech and how Michelle's views on our lanky, chain-smoking cocky kid evolves into perhaps not love but slightly worshipful admiration.  Early, Tanne had a better scene where we could see Barack falling in love with Michelle when she is taken up by a little girl to do some impromptu dancing.

We didn't need great theatrics to show that Barack went from finding Michelle pretty to finding her a potential life-mate.  We know that Barack liked Michelle, so we don't need much to show his growing enthusiasm for her (though curiously, his slight deceit to get her to attend the meeting and somewhat pushy nature show that he might have been a bit of a harasser, not respecting her 'no').  What we needed was for the strong, confident woman Michelle Robison is to emerge, and that scene of her looking at her well-spoken subordinate was, to my mind, the wrong kind of lovey-dovey eyeing.

As Southside With You is about the Obamas, we get to hear a lot about their families: Barack's absent father and essentially missing mother versus the strong family that the Robinsons were (we learn that, curiously the Robinsons never watched Good Times, preferring the more square Brady Bunch, and what this says about how the Robinsons saw the world is left up to the viewer).  It might have been a nice counterpoint: the distance that Obama's parent had from him versus the closeness that Michelle's family had.

Instead, we got nice talk from them about how Barack should forgive his 'incomplete' father (though curiously, no mention of how the future President's beloved grandmother, Toots, who helped raise him, was, in his own words, 'a typical white woman' afraid of black men). 

In that respect, Southside With You is a little on the deification side.  Despite the slight adulation, when Barack and Michelle meet 'a typical white man', their boss Avery (Tom McElroy), we get a slight dig at the future President.  Avery wonders about Spike Lee's actions in Do the Right Thing, and Barack gives an explanation that appeals to Avery.  Once out of earshot, he gives a different answer to Michelle, which shows that Obama was different with people based on how he thinks they would react. 

On the other hand, you had wonderful performances from our two leads, particularly Sumpter as the smart, elegant, but somewhat brittle Michelle.  Sumpter bears a closer resemblance to a young Michelle than Sawyers does to Barack, but they both are charming and likeable as the future First Couple.  Sumpter in particular carries herself with an air of confidence and perhaps with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, while Sawyers portrayal shows a slightly more charming, eager young man who has flaws (he attempts to hide his smoking) but who also finds that with a bit of charm and determination, he can make this woman his own.

It's a bit unfortunate that Southside With You could not avoid being a bit worshipful towards Barack and Michelle Obama.  It's due to that sense of adulation towards its subject that I'm marking it slightly down.  All the pity, since we got good performances and an interesting story to work with.  Again, the somewhat adoring manner the film treats its subjects leaves them just slightly a little off, as if they were like the paintings and sculptures at the Afrocentric art exhibit: something to admire and respect but also study and learn from rather than enjoy for their own unique beauty.

Ultimately, the question that I have about Southside With You (would we care about them if they were not destined for history) is answered with that slight, 'not really'.  They're a nice couple, pleasant enough, but not particularly interesting.  Maybe a movie about their evolving romance rather than their first date would have made them more human and less divine.     


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Around the World in 80 Days (1956): A Review


Cantinflas' World Tour...

If anything, producer Mike Todd thought BIG!  Around the World in 80 Days was his first, and sadly his last, motion picture, a loud, unapologetically BIG (perhaps even gaudy) film, big and gaudy even in an era of lavish spectacles.  The fact that it won Best Picture is both good and bad.

Good in that it won't be forgotten.
Bad in that it won't be forgiven.

Derided as one of the worst Best Picture choices (especially given that year's competition: the Texas epic Giant, the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments, and the musical epic The King and I), Around the World in 80 Days is the type where one can miss the forest for the trees.  A charming, light film that has fun with itself, it is still a bit long and unapologetically shallow.

Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is the proper British Victorian gentleman: proper, formal, stiff, and with extra bonus of being obsessed with punctuality.  He goes beyond just being on time but to being exactly on time.  It goes beyond exact time: he insists that his toast be a specific temperature.  This fastidiousness exasperates almost everyone, but now the members of his stuffy club, The Reform Club, think he's gone mad.  He makes a wager with various members that he can travel around the world in 80 days and decides to leave that night.  It's a surprising start for his newest valet, Passpartout (Mexican comic genius Cantinflas).

Coincidentally, Fogg's flight takes place at the same time that a recent robbery of the Bank of England has taken place, and it doesn't help matters that no one knows anything about Phileas Fogg or how he came to have such vast amounts of money.

Well, Fogg and Passepartout begin their journey.  In due course, they hit, either together or apart due to the circumstances: France, Spain, Suez, India, Japan, and the United States.  While in Suez, a surprising threat comes in the form of Inspector Fix (Robert Newton), a detective alerted to Fogg possibly being the Bank of England master thief.  He befriends Passpartout and sticks with Fogg across nearly all his journey save for part of the journey in India, where he misses the highlight of Fogg's mad tour.  It is in India where Fogg and Company save the beautiful Princess Auoda (Shirley MacLaine) from being burned alive on her late husband's pyre. 

Along the way Fogg, Passepartout, and later Aouda and Fix with them, have a variety of adventures, from participating in bullfights to escaping redskins to rescues from a Japanese circus.  It's all done in a mad race to get to The Reform Club in time, with a hitch that when arriving on British soil at last, Fix arrests Fogg.  The bet seems lost, until the pompous Fogg, at last finding love with the beautiful Indian princess, realizes thanks to Passpartout that as he went around the world in 80 days, he crossed the International Date Line and accidentally gained a day.  It's one last mad race to get to the Club.

Around the World in 80 Days is charming and delightful, and unapologetic about its lavishness, its frothiness, and its total jolly nature.  It's a credit to producer Mike Todd that he kept the whole thing from completely falling apart under its massive weight, and I think this is done by keeping things deliberately light.

It's light thanks to the intelligent performances from the four principals.  Niven was shockingly ignored for his performance, which is a shame given that he makes Fogg a funny figure in his excessive strictness, punctuality, and fussiness while simultaneously not making him look like a fool or like a loon.  Part of me figures that Niven being left out of the Best Actor race is not surprising: you had already some strong nominees from Giant, Lust for Life, Richard III and the winner (Yul Brynner for The King & I) but then some that didn't, like Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion, and John Wayne in The Searchers, the Academy was rather spoiled for choice.

Still, Niven was delightfully unflappable as Fogg, the epitome of the British gentleman, never once playing things deliberately for laughs or winking to the audience.  The fact he played Fogg straight made things all the more amusing, and it is one of my favorite David Niven performances.

We now turn to someone else shockingly (or perhaps not shockingly) left off the Best Supporting Actor race: the Mexican comedic genius Mario Moreno, better known by his stage name, Cantinflas (and for the record, it's pronounced "Kahn-TEEN-flaws", not "CANT-in-flaas" as both the late Robert Osborne and not-late Ben Mankiewicz insist).  Perhaps he was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor because he was essentially a costar in the film, or because in Latin America, the film was billed as a Cantinflas vehicle.

It should be remembered that Cantinflas, while generally unknown in the United States, was a gigantic star just about everywhere else.  No less than Charlie Chaplin declared Cantinflas to be the greatest living comic (as a side note, it might be good to watch the biopic Cantinflas to get an idea of both who he was and about how he came to be in Around the World in 80 Days).  Cantinflas had resisted all American offers, but Todd wheeled and dealed to get him into the film, and one suspects that part of that deal involved essentially tailoring the film in part for Cantinflas.

This explains why despite the French name the character of Passpartout sticks close to the typical Cantinflas look.  It might also explain the Segway into Spain (which is not part of the novel and extends the film's running time even more).  Cantinflas was a master bullfighter, and the film showcases his comic abilities, with the Spanish setting allowing him to speak in that dexterous manner that was his trademark.  As a result, Cantinflas the character could be considered the star of Around the World in 80 Days, at least outside English-speaking countries.

Yet I've digress.

Cantinflas handles the comic and language extremely well as is delightful as Passpartout, giving English-speaking viewers a glimpse of what made him truly a comedic genius.

Newton, in his final role, brought a working-class manner to his Fix, a bit of Cockney confidence with a mix of dogged determination.  He also did very well with the comedy, particularly whenever he finds his plans foiled by luck (Fogg's good luck, Fix's bad).

In an early role, MacLaine stretches believability as an Indian, but we forgive this ethnically erroneous casting due to her performance: sweet, kind, elegant and lovely, MacLaine's Aouda is a wonderful element.

Around the World in 80 Days is known for introducing the 'cameo' role: brief appearances by famous people in essentially bit parts, sometimes not even saying anything.  The 'cameo' roles range from the silent (a quick glimpse of Frank Sinatra) to those with few lines (Joe E. Brown probably had at most five lines) to slightly more relevant roles (Marlene Dietrich attempting to entice Phileas Fogg) and those who had small but substantial roles (Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the General helping Fogg in India).  There are some wonderful moments with these cameos too: seeing Red Skelton and Cantinflas work together is a treat with their physical comedy. 

It does become a nice game seeing who pops in and out of the film, but some of the cameos will simply go over today's audiences.  A big star in France and elsewhere back in the day (my Mexican-born mother recognized him), people today may miss Fernandel's appearance as a Parisian coachman simply due to not knowing who he was.  Some of these stars were well-known in 1956, but today they might not draw the delightful gasps they did back then.

One of them is at the very beginning, showing how the film is a product of its time as well as how long it is.  Edward R. Murrow, the journalist best remembered among other things for helping bring down Senator Joe McCarthy, appears to introduce Around the World in 80 Days, or rather introduce Jules Verne and the Georges Melies silent film A Trip to the Moon.  It might be all very interesting, but today, I figure many would simply have no idea who Murrow was, who Melies was, or why we were watching a silent film in a smaller version (the ratio aspect shrunk to fit with how Melies had it). 

It's six and a half minutes long, and one wonders whether this could have been cut out entirely (especially with Murrow intoning such pompous lines as "Speed is good, but only when wisdom leads the way").  Same goes for the Spain sequence, which is in total almost twenty minutes long.  Even if we kept some of it to showcase Cantinflas' genius (such as the nearly ten minute bullfight), what justification was there, storywise or any other wise, with a flamenco dance that lasts about five minutes. 

There's a lot of bloat in Around the World in 80 Days which today might frustrate a viewer (and I imagine, draw deriders' ire).  Cameos could have been cut, scenes could have been cut or trimmed, so there is a legitimate argument in that the film is far too long.

One argument that not even the most passionate hater has been able to make is a slur on Victor Young's beautiful score.  In turns lush and romantic, light and comic, Young's score, particularly its theme, is one of the loveliest, most charming, and beautiful written for film (one I'd rank with the likes of Doctor Zhivago, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Vertigo).   Young won his only Oscar for his score, a sad victory in that out of 22 nominations, his only win came posthumously.

Perhaps if it hadn't been so fortunate (or unfortunate) to be declared better than The Ten Commandments or Giant we might think better of Around the World in 80 Days.  Its win says something about the Academy as a whole: either it can be easily dazzled or easily bribed.  While charming and fun, Around the World in 80 Days is also excessively long, dated, and a bit clunky now.  Still, it's hard to argue against such things as some of the performances, its glee, and Victor Young's beautiful score.

Nope, not Best Picture worthy, but a nice big film nonetheless.


1957 Best Picture: The Bridge on the River Kwai 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Bates Motel: Dreams Die First Review


As we come to the end of the sad, strange journey of Norman Bates, a man destroyed by love of Mother, we get another deranged Bates Motel episode involving sexual decadence, realization of insanity, and another person about to be destroyed by love.  Dreams Die First gives us a great debut and more wild turns.

Secrets are all being revealed here.  In the subplot, Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), half-brother/uncle to Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), finally tells his wife Emma (Olivia Cooke) the truth about 'Norma's' earring.  Emma thinks Dylan has kept it as a way to keep his mother Norma close to him.  However, after internal struggle, he reveals that it isn't Norma's earring.  It's that of Emma's mother, and that he is highly concerned about her fate.  Emma is upset by all this, but while doing some bored online checking she finds that Norma is dead, something neither she or Dylan were aware of.

Norman, for his part, is concerned when 'Mother' is nowhere to be found.  He does find a matchbook for the White Horse Bar and calls asking if Norma was there.  To his surprise (and that of the viewer), he's told that Norma was there, and that she left her car there, having been too drunk last night to drive it.  While going to get the car, he finally reveals to Madeleine Loomis (Isabelle McNally) what he knows about Sam (Austin Nichols) and his mistress. Madeleine is facing her own problems: not just the potential that Sam is having an affair, but that Norman kept this from her.

For his part, Sam is having financial trouble, and the only person he confides this to is his mistress, Marion Crane (special guest star Rihanna).  Marion wants to help Sam, but it isn't as if she has thousands of dollars just lying around.  As it so happens, some money does fall into her lap, and in a spur of the moment decision, she takes it instead of depositing it and rushes to her love.  Sam cannot take her phone call, but no matter: Madeleine confronts him about whoever was calling.  Marion, for her part, with the rain coming down, stops at the Bates Motel.

Poor timing, as Norman, with some unwitting help from his former psychiatrist, Dr. Edwards (Damion Gupta) finally puts everything together, and both conclusions fill him with horror.  First, he realizes that he sometimes sees Mother when she isn't there, which helps him realize that Norma really is dead.  Second, he finds that the bar 'Norma' has been going to, picking up guys from, and getting drunk really a gay bar. 

Norman, in his total disassociate state, has been going to the White Horse Bar in full drag, calling himself 'Norma', and having sex with other men, not realizing that while everyone sees 'Norma' as at most a transvestite if not full-on transgender, Norman truly believes he is 'Norma'.  It isn't until an attractive man (Michael Doonan), with whom 'Norma' had sex with the night before, tries it again with Norman (who is aware that he is Norman, not Norma) that Norman realizes just how far he's separated the two identities.

Only on a show as bonkers as Bates Motel would the idea of someone in full drag not realizing that he is having gay sex be considered tame, almost rational.  However, right from the beginning, when the bartender tells Norman that 'Norma' was there would we have some logical conclusions.  I wrote in my notes for Dreams Die First that to explain 'Norma' appearing at the bar, we had one of two solutions.

The first is the wrong number/person theory, where it's another Norma they were talking about and it was mere coincidence.  The second was that Norman would go in full drag.  It didn't strike me until when Norman went into the bar, one with a certain style of techno music and few if any women that I figured he had indeed been going into the bar in full drag. 

It would make sense: a man in drag would look out of place at a straight bar.  It would only be at a gay bar where a man could appear dressed as a woman and even claim to be a woman and not raise eyebrows.  It must have been a shock to our straight/straight-laced, slightly puritanical Norman to have found not only was he a regular at a gay bar, but that the denizens recognized him sans drag.  The fact he had sex with other men while in deep blackouts where he thought he was a woman makes it all the more wild.

Highmore again gives it his all as Norman Bates and gives another great performance.  There's not just the realization that he's gone bisexual, but when he fesses up to Madeleine about Sam's indiscretions.  His hesitancy, his reluctance to speak on something he knows will hurt adds pathos to his performance.  We even get to see the dark side when he speaks to Sheriff Green (Brooke Smith).  There's a haughtiness, a defensiveness, a hostility that is barely masked.  It's an all-around strong performance.

We have also something I was not expecting: a strong performance by Rihanna.  Our beloved Ri-Ri is more a pop star/diva with few credits: apart from Battleship, she hasn't done much acting (though I thought she was one of the better aspects of Battleship). Rihanna got the fear and hesitancy of Marion's, the love she had for Sam versus her sense of morality (with the former winning out, much to her tragedy).  Ri-Ri was able to hold her own against professions, and one thinks she'll really do well against someone like Highmore, who has been acting practically all of Rihanna's life.

Though their roles were smaller, both Thieriot and Cooke did excellent in their quiet dramatic drama as Dylan and Emma, who love each other but also do foolish things to try and stop the other from being hurt.

I think it helps that they were aided by their Bates Motel costar, Nestor Carbonell, who directed the episode.  He at least has directed before, so he isn't just taking a stab at making an episode (no pun intended).  We also find that Dreams Die First is sticking close though not slavishly faithful to Psycho: as in the film, Marion steals money for her lover Sam, but Sam is married, not divorced.  It's enough to honor the original without stomping on it. 

With strong performances all around (and an impressive turn by pop diva Rihanna, a Bates Motel fan who got to show that she can be a competent actress), along with some really insane turns (Norman's visions of 'Norma's' sexual dalliance with the man who knew he was performing oral sex on a man) gives us a mixture of the insane and the brilliant.  These are things Bates Motel both aspires to and achieves.


Next Episode: Marion 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Feud: Mommie Dearest Review


When you have an episode of Feud: Bette and Joan titled Mommie Dearest, one might think they are going to take another jab at Joan Crawford's notorious (but unproven) charges of vicious child abuse.  No.  They are playing you.  Instead, Mommie Dearest is primarily about Bette Davis' role as mother to her biological daughter B.D. Hyman (then Merrill), her own fraught relationship, as well as the effects Davis and Crawford's mothers had on them as adults.  We even have how one became a 'mother' of sorts to one of the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? costars, and we have the best episode of Feud yet: a tragedy of broken people brilliantly acted.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? continues filming, but Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) is concerned over the influence B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is having over Crawford's twin daughters, who despite being teenagers are dressed like little children.  B.D.'s mother, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) is beginning to be concerned that B.D. may indeed be a bit directionless, so she reluctantly gives in to her director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to cast B.D. in a role in the film.

It proves to be a poor decision, for the highly professional Davis sees that B.D. is not an actress.  This is the first of some bad decisions from Davis.  She attempts to keep a working relationship with Crawford and invites her rival to drinks (which she knows the alcoholic Crawford won't turn down).  They end up talking about their mothers and their philosophies on motherhood.  Crawford's admission that she lost her virginity at 12 to her stepfather, and that Crawford did it willingly, shocks even the generally unflappable Davis, who didn't lose her virginity until her wedding night. Further, the hatred and emotional/physical abuse Crawford suffered at the hands of her mother is a sharp contrast to the loving and close bond Davis had with her own mother, who has recently died.

This conversation and opening up between them might have been a rapprochement between them, but that doesn't last long.  Davis is enraged when she reads that Crawford has fed to Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) that Davis has decided to put herself up for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Baby Jane (one guess who is going for Lead).  They fight in front of the crew over the chances for Oscar, which shocks Aldrich, who points out the film isn't even finished.

Crawford is becoming more difficult with her drinking and obsession with looking her best, down to padding her bra when doing the ending beach scene.  Warner Brothers head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) finds the whole scene appalling.  "It's like Camille in reverse!" he snaps, complaining that Crawford keeps looking better despite the fact her character is supposedly dying.  While Crawford has gained the crew's favor with her kind manner towards them, Davis, for her part, has bonded with her costar, Victor Buono (Dominic Burgess).  The openly gay Buono fits into Davis' unencouraged fascination with homosexuals ("All the queens love me", she tells a delighted Buono, and even does an imitation of her female impersonators to please him).

Davis is better with Buono than with B.D., whom she doesn't have the heart to tell is awful.  Davis goes to bat for Buono, down to bailing him out when he's arrested in a raid on a gay theater where he's been 'auditioning' a young man.  Crawford is frankly too busy struggling with being alone (the twins having gone off to camp) to notice anything beside herself, and at last, after a lot of physical struggle where both costars physically hurt the other whenever they can, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is completed.

Mommie Dearest brilliantly plays with all variations of 'mother'.  We have, despite the title, very little of Crawford's relationship with her oldest daughter, Christina, the author of the notorious best-seller that has permanently ruined Crawford's reputation.  She's mentioned only in one scene, where Crawford insists she won't send her daughter flowers or a card congratulating her on Christina's opening night.  However, we see the complex nature of Crawford's emotional world when shortly after, she does indeed sign her card, closing with 'Mommie Dearest'.  It's both a clever joke and an indication that Joan Crawford was more complex emotionally on this aspect of her life.

With Lange's performance and Tim Minear's script, we see how damaged Crawford was when it came to the issue of mothers: both as a daughter and a mother.  This episode was Lange's best performance so far; from the scene at the bar where she talks about how fraught her relationship with her own mother was, how much she hated her and would gravitate towards anyone who showed her a modicum of love, to the intense fear of being alone, Lange both shocks and breaks your heart as Crawford.

Sarandon too gives a brilliant performance, especially since she is more central to Mommie Dearest than Lange's character.  Davis' own fears and pain about her children come to the forefront.  Of particular note is when Davis calls the hospital where her own adopted daughter Margo is.  The mentally challenged girl cannot keep attention to Davis on the phone, and Davis' mixture of regret and pain at not being able to help her are played so well.

Both Lange and Davis work well together whenever they are raving at each other, which makes perhaps one flaw in Mommie Dearest more evident.  There is a montage of their filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that leaves something to be desires.  We see how Davis took advantage of a scene to kick Crawford in the head (whether this was an 'accident' or deliberate is a bit unclear, but we get strong hints she did it on purpose).  It makes Crawford's revenge (adding weights to her when Davis has to drag her off after ruining various takes by laughing as a result of being 'ticklish') both understandable and sadly not as well-drawn as could have been.

According to stories, Crawford's dead weight caused her to fall on top of Davis, who suffered from a bad back.  Davis had to go to a hospital for two days as a result of her injury, and one would think a whole or major part of a Feud episode could have been focused on the acts of violence the two rivals took on each other.  Sadly, it was reduced to a montage.

Yet I digress, for we have in Mommie Dearest one of the best-written and acted episodes of this short series.  We see the evolution of Davis' view of Buono, who at first horrified and appalled her (when told he was a Shakespearean actor despite having no major work outside San Diego, she snaps "I'm sure his Falstaff is the talk of Tijuana!"), turn to admiration (when Aldrich tells her she likes him, she retorts, "I like talent!") and even a bit of genuine affection (her "WHAT A DUMP!" line and her bailing him out of a shocking situation).

Burgess does well as Buono, and we even get a little history lesson when we see Buono hanging out at a gay theater, forgetting that once these types of establishments not only allowed for illicit hookups between men but that they ran the constant risk of being raided, with their patrons arrested and thus publicly outed and humiliated to a less tolerant world.

Credit also goes to Shipka, who 'acts' badly and also shows she too wishes for her mother's approval.

From playing Mama Said There's Be Days Like This in a montage to showing how both Crawford and Davis were products of their childhood, from the performances to the verbal catfight between them (down to Davis insisting she was robbed in 1950 thanks to her All About Eve costar, 'that bitch' Anne Baxter, and Crawford's retorts that Davis both demeaned Judy Holliday and it was Gloria Swanson who was robbed that year), Mommie Dearest had it all.  There was a great script in turns insightful and witty, brilliant acting all around, and some bits of strong comedy and drama.

Mothers and Daughters...

Daughters and Mothers...


Next Episode: More, Or Less

Monday, March 20, 2017

Britney Ever After: The Television Movie


Brit-Brit Done Cray-Cray...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Britney Spears is not going to build a Kennedy Center Honors-worthy career.   She's a pop star, whose music is disposable, some of it entertaining, but not something that will last.  Currently enjoying a comeback of sorts as she is in residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Spears has more important things to think about than such trifles as Britney Ever After, a television biopic that appears to barely know its own subject. 

Using a 2008 documentary about her as a framing device, Britney Ever After chronicles the rise, fall, and return of our pop princess.  A fresh-faced youngster who mixed innocence with allure, Britney Spears (Natasha Bassett) gets a great break when she's chosen to be the opening act to N*Sync, the hottest boy band around (hottest in more than one sense).  It isn't long before she reconnects with the breakout star of N*Sync, Justin Timberlake (Nathan Keyes).  They begin a clandestine romance, but their careers get in the way.

This leads to a very bad breakup between Brit-Brit and JT, and Britney Ever After has our pop diva essentially never getting over the end of their romance.  While JT went on to major solo success (culminating in a recent Oscar nomination for Best Original Song), Spears has essentially gone through a long parade of eccentric and unhealthy behavior (and is almost always thinking about what 'he' is thinking about her).

There's a quickie marriage to a childhood friend, Jason Alexander (Kelly McCabe), a descent into partying and self-indulgence (which curiously did not involve illegal narcotics), another marriage to shameless backup dancer/party boy Kevin Federline (Clayton Chitty) and the control of a hanger-on, Sam Lufti (Benjamin Arce).

Lufti's control is total, not quite Svengali but close to it, while Spears' parents James and Lynne Spears (Matthew Harrison and Nicole Oliver) can only watch helplessly as their little girl essentially goes bonkers.  The nadir of Brit-Brit done cray-cray is her shaving her head before attacking the incessant paparazzi with an umbrella (and that was following a disastrous MTV Video Music Awards performance).

Eventually, she is admitted to a mental health institution where, still concerned over what JT thinks, she pulls herself together to revive her career, with her long-suffering manager Larry Rudolph (Peter Benson) by her side (with a slight break when she fired him).

Britney Ever After is bad, and it knows it (or at least should know it).  Everything about it is misguided: when it tries to be dramatic, it ends up being funny, when it tries to be funny, it looks amateurish.

A lot of blame should land, not at the actors (who I figured tried to do what they could with what they were given), but with the production team.  They weren't able to get the rights to Spears' catalog, so we miss out on a lot of things.  The cheap quality of the production emphasizes who bad and inept Britney Ever After is, even for Lifetime.

Take her infamous VMA performance where she was the opening act debuting her single Gimme More.  The most Britney Ever After could do was the opening dialogue, and because they didn't have the rights to Gimme More, they couldn't even add the "It's Britney bitch" line.

The recreated performance in Britney Ever After is obviously cheap and doesn't look anywhere near the disastrous reality (Entertainment Weekly featured Spears' performance on the cover with the headline Oh, The Horror!).  Moreover, it can't even get the basics right.  In the VMAs, Spears is clearly without anything on her head.  In Britney Ever After, she wears a cap.

Granted, these are little details, but when something can be verified so easily, the least that the production team could do is try to be as authentic as possible.  Here, they failed almost as bad as Spears' sleepwalking, mumbling fiasco.

It's already quite bad when we face a whole slew of errors, but the film is loaded with terrible performances.  I'll grant that Bassett bears something of a similarity to Spears (particularly the wide eyes) but when she is at her most bonkers at a photo shoot, she doesn't look like she's either totally spaced out or being a diva.  The performance is unsteady, as if no one knew what kind of person Spears was: a clueless child, a self-centered pop star, a complete psycho.  Her efforts to play crazy were not horrible, but one moment played to such a horrifyingly bad effect that everything after came across as ludicrous.

After her breakup with JT, she finds him with another girl at a club.  In order to settle things once and for all, they essentially have a dance-off.  Seeing her slink and slither while he goes for a little pop-and-lock (down to taking his hoodie off to show off his wife-beater shirt.  The whole thing is pretty bonkers and comical, the fact that Britney Ever After wants it to be a serious moment making things more hilarious.

Bassett gave a bad performance, but it was probably better than just about everyone else's save Benson.  Chitty looks nothing like Timberlake (apart from JT's awful frosted and curled locks).  He looks far too old to be a convincing teen pop star, and his dialogue and swagger make him look more annoying than interesting.

We can skip over how none of the other backup singers for Timberlake (formerly known as N*Sync) look like any of the real-life figures (since they had little to do, just like N*Sync in real life).  You kind of figured out which one was Lance Bass merely because he didn't look like the vague versions of J.C., Chris, or Joey Fat-One (and I don't remember the one meant to be Bass actually saying anything).

James Spears was all one-note (crabby and drunk) and Lynne was all worry, worry, worry.  We get characters who pop in and one without knowing who any of them actually are (the hanger-on who went with Spears to a fashion shoot where Spears was completely out of it was some random person), and while we have characters credited as "Paris Hilton" or "Jamie Foxx", I sure don't remember who or what they were.

As for Federline, he pops in and out so quickly I think no more than ten minutes if that was spent on this toxic relationship.

Even whatever glee you could get when you see Spears at her worst is not there.  Her total meltdown is not shown, but like a lot of Britney Ever After, hinted at.  Plot points or situations (such as a potential sex tape entre JT & Brit-Brit) is dropped almost as quickly as it's mentioned.

There is no point to Britney Ever After, except perhaps to note that her whole life has been an effort to get Justin Timberlake's attention.  Even that infamous kiss between Spears and Madonna at another VMA was done to get a reaction out of him (I think he was not amused).   It gives you no insight into who Spears is or why her rise, fall, and comeback is something even her fans should care about.  It's a typically bad Lifetime production, and while perhaps one can enjoy it in a 'so bad it's good' style, it really isn't anything worth anyone's time or interest.

With regards to Britney Spears, we should heed the advise and "Leave Britney Alone".


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Feud: The Other Woman Review


One of my colleagues, Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film, made a witty but truthful tweet about The Other Woman, the second episode of Feud: Bette and Joan.

"This episode of Feud should have been called "Every woman wanted to screw Robert Aldrich". Oh, Ryan Murphy..."

We do seem to have a lot of women going after our schlubby journeyman director on this episode, but The Other Woman isn't about a mistress.  It certainly isn't Feud creator Ryan Murphy working out his own sexual fantasies.  It's about how insecurity and manipulation drove an unnecessary wedge between two women who looked like they were about to bury the hatchet.  It lends a bit of tragedy to Feud, making us wonder what would have happened if they had been allowed to use their talents, rather than their bitterness, to create.

Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) finds a fan in a starlet (Kenzie Dalton) about to make her debut on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  However, when the starlet makes the fatal mistake of saying that an autograph is for 'her grandmother' who has loved Crawford 'since she was a kid', it's enough to irk Crawford's vanity and insecurity about her director, Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina).  She convinces her costar/rival Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) that the starlet has to go.

Go she does, much to the delight of Crawford and Davis, who now are actually pretty chummy.  Aldrich feels emasculated before the crew and rest of cast, determined to not let these two rule his film.  Unwittingly eager to help is Warner Brothers head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) who wants Aldrich to play one off the other to make their hatred burn up the screen.  Aldrich is a bit conflicted, especially when Aldrich's long-suffering wife makes it clear that manipulating them is a cruel act, especially when they're getting along.

Aldrich's conflict ends quickly, when he feeds a false blind item to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), claiming Davis said Crawford uses falsies.  The blind item both horrifies and enrages Crawford to where she interrupts a take of Davis' performance and threatens to drop out.  Davis denies she said anything but thinks Crawford is going overboard in her Lady Innocent routine.  To get back at Davis, Crawford deliberately says spiteful things about Davis to Hopper's rival, Louella Parsons. 

Now Davis is the one enraged, and secretly hit at a vulnerable point (her age).  This is heightened when she sees her daughter B.D. Hyman (Kiernan Shipka) flirting with the crew.  Crawford, for her part, attempts to seduce Aldrich and fails, and if she knew that Davis has managed to schtup Aldrich it probably would have sent her into fits.  Crawford, however, is too busy playing Hopper, using her 'love' of the Hollywood community to bash the more aloof Davis, going so far as to not publish the fact that Crawford tells her she's $2 million in debt.

The Other Woman gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, if not buddy-buddies, at least able to see that they weren't the monsters the other imagined.  As they observe the poor starlet walking away with her box, they see that united they are stronger.  They even manage to giggle like girlfriends as they walk away, delighted that they have done something beneficial.

It's a curious thing that The Other Woman shows a lot of 'women walking away with their boxes', for as we go into flashbacks about the rising and falling careers of Crawford and Davis, we see how their respective studios (MGM and Warners) pushed them out due to their insistence on better roles (much to the irritation of their bosses who hated the idea that women could order them). 

It's at this point that a strong argument could be made that Feud: Bette and Joan is not just about the notorious war between these two divas of the 'Golden Age of Hollywood'.  It's also about the film industry which essentially hasn't changed since their time: how men are still the power either as the director or the executive, and how women of a certain age find their careers either stalling or falling when the next pretty young thing comes along.

Here are two talented women, Academy Award winners, respected by their peers, struggling to find work because they are no longer young and sexually desirable.  Where Crawford and Davis were when they made What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? will in twenty years be where Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone will find themselves.  Their male peers, say an Eddie Redmayne or Avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling, won't be facing the same sexism/ageism that Lawrence and Stone will.  Feud: Bette and Joan shows that the more things change...

Granted, this may be reading more into things than is intended, but it is a subject worthy of consideration.

The Other Woman shows that Davis and Crawford should have been allies, maybe even friends, because despite their own sense of importance (Davis, considering herself the actual actress, Crawford seeing herself as always a star) they were so terribly alike.  They saw the power they had when they joined forces (a bit of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'), but how they were manipulated by a mixture of male ego and their own insecurities.

I still am having a hard time accepting Lange as Crawford.  It's not that she doesn't look like Crawford (the make-up department does wonders for her in that respect).  It's just that I find Lange's Crawford voice so unlike my memories of what the actual Crawford sounded like.  Lange sounds rather soft, almost whispery.  However, her performance continues to be top-notch: Crawford's ego, vanity, and insecurity coming across so well.

Sarandon looks and sounds more like Davis (though the voice isn't exact either, she gets Davis' take-no-prisoners speaking).  She too does wonders, not just when playing Davis but when playing Baby Jane. 

Davis is just brilliant as the viper Hedda Hopper: with her notorious hats and faux-respectability, Davis brings out just how spiteful and vicious Hopper could be.  She is the one who wants more than anyone (even Aldrich or Warner) to see these two battle-axes go at it for her own self-interest, but Davis also shows how easily a little tear and appeals to Hopper's sense of 'the industry' can be manipulated.

As sad it might be, it's the men who are dominating Bette and Joan.  Molina is almost surely Emmy-bound for his performance as Aldrich: in his own way insecure, narcissistic, determined to do the right thing and constantly failing.   Tucci is sleazy as Jack Warner, and in his one scene, Dominic Burgess brings a touch of comedy as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? costar Victor Buono.

Davis mistakes him for the catering crew and is horrified when she sees he will play her 'love interest'; with a mixture of innocence and knowing he tells her he's sure she wasn't expecting someone so fat and homosexual as he warfs down a donut.

For once, Bette Davis is left speechless.

Again, I don't quite get the framing device of the 1978 Academy Award interviews, though I'm willing to cut them some slack for a good payoff.  We do see how 'Golden Age' stars are not keen on modern Hollywood: as Joan Blondell, Kathy Bates takes a swipe at Coming Home (that Vietnam War thing, she calls it).  It doesn't help that Catherine Zeta-Jones neither looks or sounds like Olivia de Havilland (or that Feud hasn't announced as of yet they will feature her own notorious war with her sister, the late Joan Fontaine).

Still, The Other Woman builds up our story while serving as allegory to the status of women and men in this whacked-out industry known as Hollywood.  No La La Land frivolity here: it's all an ugly business of beautiful people.


Next Episode: Mommie Dearest

Friday, March 17, 2017

Bates Motel: Hidden Review


Generally, I'm wary whenever a star of a television show directs an episode of said show.  More often than not, he or she puts greater focus on the visuals than on the performances or story.  This was the case when Mark-Paul Gosselaar directed an episode of the abysmal Franklin & Bash, a show that was OK and then descended into a horror that I danced when I heard it was cancelled.  Hidden wasn't horrible, but parts of it stretched credibility and director Max Thieriot (who did not appear as his character of Dylan Massett) did care about visuals a tad much.

Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) finds himself beset by problems both good and bad.  He wants to do the right thing and tell the police about the accident that killed his uncle Caleb.  However, both Chick (Ryan Hurst), who ran him down, and Mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) are adamant Caleb be done away with.  Reluctantly, Norman agrees to let Chick take care of it, which involves him giving Caleb a Viking funeral.

Norman then has to stop Chick from moving in and trying to get rid of the car of the man sent to kill him.  His delusions of Mother are more pronounced, pushing him further into complete hysteria.  Finally, there's his growing attraction to Madeleine Loomis (Isabelle McNally).  Not only has Norman given her Mother's clothes (which fit her like a glove), but their attraction to each other grows.  She invites Norman to her house for dinner (Sam being away again) and they kiss.  As the kissing gets more intense, Norman has a vision of Mother and of Madeleine lying dead, her throat slashed.  In a panic, he flees to his house, where he finds himself truly alone.

In the other story, former Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell) is still fleeing from the law and determined to get to Norman, despite the massive pellet gunshot wound he has.  He manages to live long enough to find a payphone and call for an ambulance, and while the EMT go into an apartment complex or hotel, he goes in, steals what he needs to do his own healing, and then moves on.

That is one aspect of Hidden that made me wonder whether Bates Motel had gone a bit off.  Here's Romero, having been shot once, bleeding profusely, and he still is able to walk for miles and miles and have strength and clarity of mind to hatch this plan to give himself treatment before reaching the home of a friend who can shelter him.

Something about that struck me as a bit far-fetched, which is something given the overall cuckoo-nature of Bates Motel.

Then we have these scenes and moments where I figure Thieriot wanted to show the visual flair he could bring (and as a side note, given that both Nestor Carbonell and Freddie Highmore are also set to direct a couple of episodes, with Highmore having penned his second one, I wonder whether given it's the last season the producers opted to let their cast have free range).

We have the Viking funeral, beautiful looking, yes, but somehow a bit bonkers.  I'm a bit torn on that scene: one on hand, it is logical to burn Caleb's body and Chick has his own dramatic flair that makes him a bit crazy too.  On the other, it is excessively elaborate and brought to mind "See a Viking Funeral!" from the spoof trailer to History of the World Part II.   Part of me wanted to chuckle at this scene (beautiful though it was).  The vision of a dead Madeleine and the final shot where Norman rushes into his house, a single blue light dominating as he walks towards us, again I felt were there to draw attention to itself.

I was also uninterested in the long, long scene where Norman and "Norma" went to find the car of their intended assassin only to opt to not move it.  It felt long and unnecessary, going on to where I was losing interest in watching.  Truth be told, my mind and eyes were beginning to drift off as Hidden continued, wondering how Romero could keep himself going and whether Chick should have thrown in some chanting as Caleb went up in smoke.

Still, I'm not going to dismiss some good moments we got in the episode.  The scene in Chick's run-down trailer where he and Norman have a conversation was quite good, with both Hurst and Highmore working well to make it a sad moment and giving strong performances.  McNally is also a highlight in her brief moments, her hesitancy mixed with her desires giving her much to work with.  Brooke Smith, making her debut as the new Sheriff, Jane Green, did extremely well as the Sheriff who is slowly investigating why Jim Brockwell (the thwarted assassin) had the Bates Motel address before jumping bail. 

You sense she doesn't suspect on the surface that something is wildly amiss but that she is starting to poke around because police work is dumb...until it isn't.  Yet given how Highmore seemed to overplay the worry any questions regarding Brockwell or Romero cause him, one wonders if Green isn't at least a bit curious as to what's up with him.

Hidden to me felt a bit like filler, something to take up our time before we get to the main event: Rihanna's guest turn as Marion Crane.  It looks like before Ri-Ri hits the showers, we've got to hit a slight bump.  Again, not horrible, but for once, I was willing to look away during a Bates Motel episode.


Next Episode: Dreams Die First

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Family Plot: A Review


For the longest time, I had theorized that after The Birds, the output Alfred Hitchcock made was not good.  This is due to my dislike of Marnie and both the limited reputations of Topaz, Torn Curtain, Frenzy, and Family Plot as well as how they are not as well-remembered as Psycho, Vertigo, or The Birds.  Now, having seen Family Plot, I find that I was wrong.  While Family Plot isn't as well-remembered or known as some of Hitch's classics, and isn't on par with his work in the 50s and 60s, it is a good film: a nice comic caper with a mix of action and comedy.

Madame Blanche (Barbara Harris) is a sham medium who hoodwinks various wealthy women into thinking she can contact their relatives from The Great Beyond.  In one faux-séance, she hits the motherload.  Elderly Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) reveals that her late sister had an illegitimate child that Julia gave away and now she wants to find her long-lost nephew to make him her heir.  She's willing to pay Madame Blanche $10,000.

Blanche Tyler and her boyfriend, actor/cabbie George (Bruce Dern) now begin their investigation to find the Rainbird heir with the few scraps of information they have.  Masquerading as an attorney, George starts digging, finding that this child, Edward Shoebridge, apparently died in a fire with his adoptive parents.

I say apparently because as George keeps going, we find that Edward faked his death.  This is where we get into our second story.  Edward now goes by Arthur Adamson (William Devane) and Arthur/Edward is a master criminal: abducting wealthy people and demanding large diamonds as payments.  Aided by Fran (Karen Black), the racket has been highly successful. 

Blanche and George have inadvertently stumbled onto Arthur's criminal world, and his friend who helped burn up his parents, Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is terrified they are investigating their past, not Arthur's future.  He attempts to kill them and ends up dying himself.  Blanche and George are thoroughly puzzled as to why anyone would want to kill them, especially since they are desperate to give Edward GOOD news.

Fran and Arthur have abducted an archbishop, and Blanche who has finally tracked down Edward, stumbles into them when they're about to go and get the ransom.  Now, with Blanche's life in danger, it's up to an unsuspecting George to save them.  Things end well: our criminals are caught, Blanche appears to have a real psychic moment leading to finding the diamonds (hidden in plain sight in a chandelier) and while George goes to call the police, Blanche sits at the stairs...and gives us the audience a wink.

Family Plot has a light atmosphere to it, which isn't in the normal Hitchcock canon, nor generally in that of screenwriter Ernest Lehman.  There's no overt or graphic violence (a departure from both the general 1970s filmmaking and from something like Frenzy) and the crimes of theft and kidnapping don't have graphic violence in them.  The most intense moment that I can remember is when Blanche and George find themselves racing down a winding road with the brakes taken out.

This moment, despite the obvious rear-screen projection, was actually quite tense, a credit to Hitchcock's still-impressive ability to put people in danger.  However, even this moment was given a bit of a comedic spin by Harris' hysterics: her flaying about, holding onto George, even almost strangling him as she pulls on his tie as she flies about the car.

This was intention, and a lot of Family Plot was in a more breezy, light-hearted manner than something as dark and intense as say, Vertigo.  I was surprised at how delightful Family Plot was and enjoyed the humor and the lessening of violence and stakes.

So much credit goes to Barbara Harris for her turn as the slightly wacky, slightly campy but almost naïve Blanche.  She never depended on the kindness of strangers, but on her own wits to get her ahead.  Credit her for giving a strong performance whenever she goes into a 'trance' at her séances: the way her voice rises to a willowy, sing-sing manner as she communes with "Harry", and the darkening of her voice when "Harry" speaks.  Her body movements, particularly when in a 'trance' are almost manically balletic, and add considerably to the comic overtones of Family Plot.

Dern also does well, though he isn't comedic but more straightforward.  He does have some comic manner to him, looking a bit befuddled when he tries to match wits with Blanche, but Dern handles the action moments (particularly the runaway car) with more seriousness, a strong counterbalance to Harris' broad manner.

Karen Black, I don't think, has gotten enough credit for her contributions to Family Plot.  If people remember the film, it's mostly due to Harris' comic manner (and I'd argue, rightly so).  However, Black gave a strong dramatic performance as the more conflicted Fran, who delights in the kidnappings and ransoms but is more hesitant at being part of murder.  She could just as easily have been the center of the film, for she was a very good character to see the story through.  Black did a fantastic job.

Devane was so obviously the charming villain, and while it wasn't a big performance it was a nice one: oily and calm, he could be quietly menacing when needed.

Hitchcock, even in his infirmity and advanced age (he directed Family Plot at age 77 and this would be his final film) still could command great moments.  There was the ransom pickup early in the film (where the two stories first meet when George almost runs Fran down).  Fran never says a single word throughout the long scene, but still pulls off a great and clever ransom payment.

As a side note, it is surprising to Cheers fans to see Coach himself (Nicholas Colasanto) in a small role as a kidnapping victim and Mona from Who's the Boss (Katherine Helmond) as Mrs. Maloney. 

The last, but certainly not least, positive element in Family Plot is the score, the only Hitchcock film to have the music of John Williams.  Williams, a true genius, creates this somewhat eerie score, with otherworldly vocals whenever Madame Blanche works her magic but also tense when needed.  Williams is certainly more than Bernard Herrmann's equal and Family Plot is another in Williams' brilliant canon.

About the only real fault I can find in Family Plot is when Blanche and George have an open-air argument.  It looked fake, it was far too convenient for them to reveal major plot points out in the open, and I'd argue that Fran and Arthur/Edward were too far away in their car to hear them so clearly.  I figure it was done for the audience's benefit (to show that our villains had identified our heroes) but the whole scene just didn't work.

Minus that, Family Plot is perhaps not among Alfred Hitchcock's great films like The Man Who Knew Too Much or North By Northwest, but it's a fun, breezy, lighthearted caper that I wouldn't object to being remade.

Remaking Family Plot is certainly a damn sight better than the idea of remaking or rebooting The Matrix.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

'Z': A Review


Greek Tragedy...

In some ways, Z is a dark comedy, a sense of comic insanity within a virtual horror story of political machinations and a fearful government pulling out all the stops to stop one man and his ideas.  In its fury, its dark sense of humor, Z doesn't hold back (the film opens with a straightforward message: Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental.  It is intentional).  It's a cry of anger, mixed with a sense of the absurd and tragic on how truth doesn't always win.

In an unnamed nation (though presumably Greece), the military leaders want to get rid of 'intellectual mildew' as much as they want to get rid of actual mildew.  The intellectual mildew is headed by a Doctor who is a legislative Deputy (Yves Montand) who insists he is not on the Left or Right (but it's a case of he doth protest too much, for he is firmly Left).  The Deputy wants nuclear disarmament and to get out of all foreign entanglements, but his efforts to hold a rally keep getting thwarted by the military (they pull the hall, push other halls to not book his group).  Eventually, they relent to give the guise of a democracy and give them a much smaller hall.

If there's one thing the military doesn't want, it's a prominent pacifist making trouble for them, even if he is a Member of Parliament.

The Deputy gives his speech after getting attacked by professional thugs.  It's a quiet, thoughtful speech but one that is not accepted for various reasons.  There's the professional mob, hired by the military to cause trouble.  All the officials are at a Bolshoi Ballet touring company performance, and what press is there is harassed to photograph the elegance at the Bolshoi rather than the coarseness of the meeting. 

The Deputy walks out into a tense situation with his aides, and spots one of the high government officials.  Going to him, 'out of nowhere' a truck comes that whacks the Deputy on the head.  From here, chaos erupts: the police does nothing, the aides find hindrances to get the Deputy to hospital, and there doesn't seem to be an interest in getting either the Deputy to safety or seeing whoever did this punished.

As far as the government is concerned, it was the act of a drunk driver...and they're sticking to it.

Enter the Judge of Inquiry (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is examining the case.  He's nonpartisan, interested only in the Truth.  He would go along with the official story, if the doctors had confirmed it.  Finding that they reject the 'drunk driver' excuse because the Deputy died as a result to a blunt force on his dead that came from above it, the Judge of Inquiry pushes on, digging further into it.  The military does its best to make their version pass itself off as The Truth, but the Judge continues finding errors, inconsistencies, and pesky witnesses who either tell the truth or are clumsy in their lies.

A witness comes forward tying a particular person to the Deputy's murder (which the Judge insists on calling 'an incident').  He's a simple coffin varnisher, who has no interest in politics, only football.  This witness finds his life almost ended in 'an accident', and while the military lets him know life could be better if he sees things their way he opts for the truth.  Over time, the Judge pushes forward until he has enough evidence that the Deputy was murdered (a turning point in Z is when the Judge without realizing it uses the term 'murder' over 'incident').  Both helping and hindering the Judge is a reporter (Jacques Perrin), who at times is interested in exposing the truth, and others to benefit himself.

The Judge hauls the high-ranking military officials one by one, until he reaches the very top.  To each one's moral outrage the Judge is the same: asking for their name and occupation to start the interview, and ending with charging them with murder.  The Reporter goes on air to report the epilogue: various witnesses died through suicides and accidents (one killed himself by throwing himself into a pool after tying himself up in a chair), the Deputy's various associates meeting either death or exile, and the Judge loses his job.  The various opposition parties join forces and are poised to win a major victory...when the military steps in and takes power.

Among the things the new junta ban are miniskirts, long hair, Russian-style toasts, both modern and pop music (including The Beatles), new math, and the letter Z (which stands for "He Lives" in ancient Greek).

If my French is correct, among other things listed but not read in voice-over that the government banned was the learning of both Russian and Bulgarian and writing that Socrates was a homosexual.

Z does not skimp on a wry, sardonic humor. Near the end of Z, there's a wicked mockery of the military when each military officer involved walks to the Judge's office.  As Mikis Theodorakis' score goes an almost comical take on the pomposity and faux-outrage of the generals, director Costa-Gavras focuses on both the medals and the press reaction to them.

The medals appear to grow and grow with each military official, as if they were trying to outdo the previous one with their own sense of power.  The press seems to grow more and more timid when they go in, but when the generals are escorted out through a back door (to try and avoid the press), each general attempts to open a side door, growing more frustrated when they find it locked.  At the end, when the main general finds himself caught in the back by the eager press, our main Journalist taunts him by asking if he feels victimized like Alfred Dreyfus (the Jewish officer whose wrongful conviction of espionage caused a major French scandal which I think still tears the nation).  An outraged General shouts, "DREYFUS WAS GUILTY!", revealing how French Z is despite the Greek setting.

Costa-Gavras gives us little details that say much without having to spell things out.  For example, we know that one of the actual assassins (members of a secret organization propped up by the military calling itself the Christian Royalist Organization against Communism or CROC), looks with lust on a young boy looking out at the protest from his balcony.  All we need is the assassin's shifting eyes and his fellow conspirators wry remark "It's the same story, isn't it?" to let us know what's up.  Later on, that assassin finds the boy playing a pinball machine, and slowly but surely his hand manages to touch the boy's hand.

The scenes with the varnisher are also amusing, his efforts to get the truth out constantly interrupted by his mother or his sister, and their interfamily squabbles making things hard for almost everyone.

There are moments of harsh comedy and witty lines (one of the Leftists tells the Deputy to blame the Americans because you always blame the Americans, even if they had nothing to do with it), but don't let that fool you.  Z is also an angry film, outraged at the lengths one group will go to in order to stop someone they see as a threat, including murder and conspiracy.

Theodorakis' score is in turns fast-paced but angry, almost urgent, signaling the intensity and danger of the situation.  Costa-Gavras keeps things flowing pretty well, filling the movie with a strong sense of outrage at how the military holds the opposition as something 'unhealthy' (more than once are there references to a scientific bent, such as when the assassins compare themselves to antibodies).

The large role goes to Trintignant as the Judge, keeping a stern, almost cold manner in his investigation.  He is neither pro-Deputy or pro-military, seeing his duty only to the Truth.  Montand was elegant and stoic as the Deputy, noble without being insufferable.  Sadly, Irene Papas (the only actual Greek in Z) had little to do as the Deputy's widow.  We got hints that their marriage was on the rocks (more than likely due to the Deputy having a mistress), but that was never explored.

To her credit, Papas' last scene showcased her abilities: as one of the Deputy's aides tells her the generals had been arrested and the opposition parties had joined, he is thrilled to think a peaceful revolution is upon them.  Papas stares out at the sea, perhaps wisely understanding that for all his enthusiasm, there will be no revolution.  She, the widow, is wiser to the world than the idealist.

Z is a spiritual cousin to The Battle of Algiers.  While less documentary-like than Battle of Algiers, Z chronicles an act of political oppression and its aftermath.  It uses film for agitprop, and mixes action and comedy with a purpose and outrage.  The language barrier at times can cause confusion (particularly since two of the professional thugs/conspirators are named Yago and Vago), but on the whole, Z shows how to mix absurd with anger. 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Love & Friendship: A Review


Love & Friendship is based on Lady Susan, a little-known work by Jane Austen.  There was a time, not too long ago, where Austen was the most in-demand dead writer around: Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice (film and television adaptation), Emma, even Clueless (a modern retelling of Emma) were all the rage.  The mad rush has died down a bit, but Whit Stillman brings this small work to life in a charming, light, amusing portrait of our anti-heroine: clever, manipulative, whom we shouldn't like but end up as bewitched as nearly every man who comes past her.

Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) has gone to 'visit' her in-laws at a most opportune time.  The recent widow has 'opted' to leave another estate after certain rumors of a dalliance with the devilishly handsome Lord Manwaring (Lochlan O'Mearain).  While at her in-laws estate of Churchill, her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) and Catherine's brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) are wary of the notorious flirt's reputation, but it isn't long before Susan has worked her charms on Reginald, convincing him that she is a wronged woman. 

Complicating matters is Lady Susan's daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), whom Mother doesn't care much for but is obligated to take care of in some way.  Frederica has run away from her expensive boarding school and thus expelled, requiring her to come to Churchill too.  This might be good, as Lady Susan is determined to marry Frederica off to the wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), even if he is a total idiot (when he arrives at Churchill, he tells the astonished family he had a hard time finding it because he was looking for a church on a hill, not an estate).

Frederica has no interest in Sir Martin despite his wealth, which to Lady Susan is downright scandalous.  In her various machinations she has help from her American co-conspirator Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who stays loyal to Lady Susan despite the objections of Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), who constantly threatens to send her back to Connecticut should she keep working with the duplicitous Lady Susan.

Reginald has fallen in love with Lady Susan despite all objection and sense, but in the various scheming Lady Susan has pretty much gotten herself into knots that leave him confused.  No matter, for despite how glum thinks look, Lady Susan's wit, charm, and shrewd mind always help her land on her feet (even if she has to get on her back to do so).  With a little advise from Alicia, Lady Susan herself marries Sir James, which works out well for everyone.  This frees up Reginald and Frederica (whom the DeCorcey's are genuinely fond of) to marry each other.  Happiest of all is Sir James himself, who informs Alicia that he is doubly happy: not only has he a new best friend in Lord Manwaring (who has been staying with him since his own marriage broke up), but is going to be a father himself...the new Lady Martin having told her new husband she got pregnant a week after the wedding.

Will wonders never cease...

Love & Friendship is a light comedy, aided by so many factors.  The first is the performances of the cast, one of the best around.  Given how often Beckinsale is in such awful junk as Pearl Harbor or those Underworld movies one could be forgiven for thinking she either can't act or is just a second-tier star.  Love & Friendship pretty much should silence any who think she can't deliver a fine performance as a legitimate actress.  She was wonderfully droll as Lady Susan, a woman who lived by her wits and wasn't afraid of saying or thinking rather self-centered or snobbish things.  She was wickedly honest about her situation of essentially living through the charity of others and working to fix that, but also not afraid to pursue her own wants.

She even, in a bizarre way, had a nobility to her.  Though she doesn't care much for her daughter, her motives to provide a good future for Frederica were a result of her own precarious situation and a desire not to see her daughter go through that too...even if it meant shunting her off to a total nitwit.  Every time it seems Lady Susan is about to be undone, she manages to pull herself out of the fire, and it's a credit to Beckinsale that her Lady Susan doesn't come across as evil but almost endearing in her self-centeredness and shrewd ability to work a room.  Who else could get away with so much and have us like her for it?

Every actor did a spot-on job, even those who have smaller roles, such as Conor MacNeill as The Young Curate.  He has essentially one scene, where he responds to Frederica how she should follow the Fourth Commandment.  A bit puzzled, he wonders about how one should ask about keeping the Sabbath, then tells her it's the Roman tradition to make 'honor thy father and mother' the Fourth Commandment, which he (I presume, an Anglican) knows as the Fifth.  He then gives a long, perhaps rambling dissertation on it that is a light, amusing moment.

Samuels is appropriately Austenesque as the lovelorn Reginald, intelligent but besotted.  Sevigny lends a wicked wit as Lady Susan's American accomplice, a strong partner to Beckinsale.  I truly can't think of a bad performance in Love & Friendship.

The best performance, however, was that of Bennett as Sir James.  From the moment he comes, explaining his difficulty over 'church/hill', he steals every scene he's in.  His delight at the new invention of 'peas' (which he claims to have never seen) and his puzzlement over the Twelve Commandments is comedy that's both broad and small.  It's broad in that it is so outrageous, but small in that Bennett isn't over-the-top with his delivery of it.  When told there are only Ten Commandments, he continues in his idiocy, wondering which two he could ignore.

Bennett has a gleeful, almost manic delight in Sir James' naiveté and cluelessness, making him less a figure of fun and more a man-child (the scene where he is dancing with others is a delight).  It's a delightfully balanced performance, and I think a credit to him and to Stillman as a director.

Stillman kept things going smoothly, showing that this was a comedy down to how our characters were introduced.  His adaptation of Lady Susan is full of wit, showing a dexterity with words that make our characters smart, or at least well-spoken (well, except for Sir James).

A final point I'd make is on Benjamin Esdraffo's score.  The music appears to be highly influenced by Handel, and I've no objection to the light, delightful score.

I think 'delightful' is the term I'd use for Love & Friendship.  I won't begrudge that it might feel a bit slow for some (a flaw in some costume pictures), but on the whole, with strong performances by the cast en masse (particularly by Beckinsale and Bennett, shamefully overlooked on Oscar time), a witty script by Whit Stillman, it is a nice film for a quiet Sunday afternoon.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Feud: Bette and Joan. Pilot Review


In the history of bitter rivalries, few match the lifelong grudge match between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  These two great stars (and strong actresses) hated each other with such venom it chills the soul to know that kind of hatred carried on well after one of them died.  In the new anthology series Feud, the first season is built around the antagonism between Davis and Crawford.  Perhaps people were expecting some awful, almost grotesque catfight between these two divas, something tawdry and vicious.  I expect there will be something to titillate audiences as our limited series continues.  However, in the pilot for Feud: Bette and Joan, what we see is a far more intelligent story about sexism, ageism, the dismissive nature of a cruel industry, and yes, a little bit of a parallel between the real and reel, between the Crawford-Davis war and that portrayed in their only film together (and basis for Feud): What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) is facing a very difficult time personally and professionally.  A recent widow, she finds herself in financial straits, and no good offers for a 'comeback' role that would put her back on top, or at least get much-needed money into her account.  With the aid of her helpful girl Friday, Mamacita (Jackie Hoffman), Crawford does find something that might just work.

To get things rolling, she needs two people.  The first is workman director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), whom she worked with on a previous film, Autumn Leaves.  Aldrich himself is facing a tough career slide: his newest project a floundering Biblical epic and with few prospects of his own.  He's intrigued with Crawford's suggestion, finding the project can be mostly self-financed.  He signs on board.

It now needs one more element, one that would cause shockwaves in Hollywood.  Crawford goes to none other than her greatest rival on and off the screen: Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).  Davis won't admit it, perhaps even to herself, but her career is also going nowhere.  Appearing on Broadway in The Night of the Iguana, this acting superstar finds herself playing second fiddle to an ingénue with nary the talent of Davis. 

At first Davis is dismissive of working with "Lucille" (using Crawford's real name), but she bends when a.) Aldrich calls her and b.) she admits that her career could use a lift.  Reluctantly, she reads What Ever Happen to Baby Jane?

Aldrich finds nothing but difficulties when it comes to making What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  The studios one by one turn him down, particularly because no one wants to make a film with a couple of old ladies or keep to Aldrich's vision.  Aldrich eventually pushes Warner Brothers mogul Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) into making the film, despite Warner's own hatred for Davis (and lack of fondness for Crawford). 

We end with the first day's shooting.  Crawford is the Lady Elegant: giving gifts to all the crew (with Mamacita whispering who is who) but attempting to hide a terrible insecurity about her actual abilities as an actress, especially compared to her more respected costar.  Davis, for her part, just wants to get through this and is finding Crawford's manner grating.  She however, is determined to stand out in this production, and creates an outlandish make-up and wardrobe for her Baby Jane Hudson character.  It will be a counterbalance to the sophistication of Crawford, and now both ladies find themselves in the unlikely position of having to both upstage the other while working together to make What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? a commercial and critical hit.

The war is on.

All this is told in flashbacks with reminiscences of people like Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates).

Bette and Joan is, in its way, not a new tale.  It's actually one we've seen before when it comes to Hollywood: the fight older actresses have to mount to keep their careers going, the thick-headedness and reluctance to try something different from film industry veterans, and the rampant sexism of those in power.  Warner, taking in a massage when meeting Aldrich, starts out by asking the director if either Crawford or Davis are "f***able".  That's how good old Jack measures box office appeal of women: by whether or not you'd screw them, not on their actual abilities.

Throughout Bette and Joan we see how these two veterans of the studio system constantly come up against obstacles.  Crawford not only has to endure the more open sexuality of someone like a Marilyn Monroe, but have her fading stardom thrown in her face by Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis in a delightfully vicious role).  She wants a mean quote from Crawford, whom she refers to as 'yesterday's It Girl' on 'today's It Girl' (meaning Monroe) or she'll write about how Crawford left the awards dinner drunk and belligerent.  Davis, for her part, must also see that she very much in the style of Margo Channing in All About Eve, only unlike Channing, Davis chose to keep her career.

Feud also shows that the career difficulties Crawford and Davis faced are things that actresses today still face.  As they are looking over books that might make for a good movie, Crawford comments that there are essentially three types of female parts: Ingénues, Mothers, and Gorgons (read, hags).  This is something that actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson, and Emma Stone (all recent Best Actress winners, and all under 30 when they won) should think on.

Jack Warner in a sense is very much alive: powerful studio bosses who see the worth of a woman onscreen based solely on them being objects of desire, easily disposable once they are no longer 'desirable'.  The struggles, personal and professional, of these two women who are much more similar than either would admit is nothing new.

Let's go over the performances.  Lange is a mainstay of writer/director/creator Ryan Murphy, appearing in all but one of his American Horror Story anthology series.  I wasn't quite convinced that Lange was Crawford, finding her voice oddly soft, almost whispery.  She certainly looked the part, and for a while I thought it wasn't going to work.  However, by the end Lange convinced me that she will be more Crawford a person than Faye Dunaway was in Mommie Dearest (which was, well, not quite human).

The brittleness, the insecurity, the desire for respect, the fears of being seen as lesser were all brought together through Lange's performance.

Sarandon matches her as Davis, getting her snappish, crabby, blunt persona.  She, thanks to the script, is also allowed moments of vulnerability, where she in private she knows that like Crawford, she faces a tough battle against growing older (and thus, less relevant).

Molina is the real standout of Feud: the most long-suffering man in Hollywood.  He has to battle against studios who don't want Crawford/Davis, or his ideas, or even him.  Add to that the fact that these two tigresses are slowly coming at him and it would be enough to drive any man bonkers.  Molina shows that mix of exasperation and frustration while trying to balance two demanding stars and a studio breathing down his neck.

As a side note, I heard it somewhere that when it came to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the director shouldn't have been Bob Aldrich, but Clyde Beatty...the world-famous lion tamer. 

As mentioned, Davis as the malicious Hopper was delightfully wicked, eagerly manipulating and pushing these two women for her own ends, and at her dinner the fact both were shrewd enough to play nice as a defense against Hopper was a showcase for all of them.

The aspects of Bette and Joan that I didn't particularly care for was the framing story of the interviews.  I can see why that was done: we need people not in the know to have some background, but something about it felt a bit forced, as if we didn't need that framing story at all.  Add to that the fact that Zeta-Jones never convinced me she was anything close to de Havilland (neither in look or sound). 

As a side note here, a Season Three of Feud should focus on Olivia de Havilland's lifelong rivalry with her sister, Joan Fontaine.  Season Two will center around the Prince of Wales and his late former wife, but the de Havilland/Fontaine war is ripe for dramatization. 

It's also a shame that two of our better and underused actors, Reed Diamond and Mark Valley, were given such small parts as the lovers of Crawford and Davis respectively. 

Still, Bette and Joan is a strong start to what looks to be another good anthology series from Murphy.  Here we have Joan Crawford: the great star who wants to be taken seriously as an actress, and Bette Davis, the serious actress who yearns to be a great star. 

Fasten your seat belts and bring us the ax.


Next Episode: The Other Woman