Monday, June 26, 2017

The Space Between Us: A Review (Review #921)


I tried reading Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land but found it a bit dull, so I never finished it.  The ghost of Valentine Smith, however, haunts The Space Between Us, a film about the first boy born on Mars and his return to Earth.  I figure The Space Between Us would make no claim to being on the same level as Heinlein's work, seeing it is an angle on the teen romance novel currently in vogue.  Whatever good ideas there might be in The Space Between Us get lost in the effort to please a teen market by saddling it with clichés and a plot twist both predictable and idiotic.

Sarah Elliot (Janet Montgomery) leads a group of astronauts to Mars, the first group to permanently live there.  A joint effort of NASA and Genesis Enterprises, the CEO of Genesis, Nathaniel Shepherd (Gary Oldman) is thrilled to see his colony, called East Texas, come to life.  Something else will be coming to life too, as everyone save the press discovers that Sarah is pregnant, a result of her 'irresponsibility'.  Dr. Tom Chen (BD Wong) pushes to have her brought back and avoid scandal, but Nathaniel feels this could be the start of a whole new era of scientific research: the first boy born on Mars.  Sarah's baby is born shortly after arriving, but she dies in childbirth.

Nathaniel, devastated by this, withdraws from society, and her child, named Gardner (Asa Butterfield) has essentially been raised by Kendra (Carla Gugino), another astronaut.  Gardner is a genius of sorts: able to create an almost-sentient robot and break into East Texas' security system.  He does this to find more information about his mother, and among her effects is a video of her with a handsome man on the beach.  Now, Gardner years to find his father.

He also would like to see a girl he's been communicating online back on Earth, someone he knows as Tulsa (Britt Robertson).  She's an angry girl, a foster child whose had a long line of awful parents generally disinterested in her.  Kendra pushes to have Gardner go to Earth, which despite misgivings, is done.

Gardner and a returned Nathaniel find that Earth's gravity is going to affect Gardner: his thin bone density and heart will struggle on Earth.  Nevertheless, Gardner is determined to meet Tulsa, so off he goes to Colorado.  He's being pursued by Nathaniel and Kendra, but he and Tulsa manage to stay one step ahead of them.

The street-smart Tulsa has no problem stealing to get her and Gardner where they need to go, first to a shaman in New Mexico who married his parents, then to Las Vegas so he could 'see the world', and finally to northern California, where a little detective work has shown them the house in Gardner's video.  In that time the innocent, straightforward Gardner breaks through Tulsa's various defenses and returns his love, complete with a romantic encounter in the New Mexico desert.

However, gravity is a source of gravity for Gardner, who becomes ill and is forced to hospital.  Tulsa breaks him free to get to California, and Nathaniel has deduced this is where they are headed.  Once there, Gardner confronts the man in the video (Colin Egglesfield), who makes a shocking revelation: Sarah wasn't his wife, she was his sister.

Gardner is dying, and while found in time by Nathaniel and Kendra he still has to be raced to the very edges of Earth's atmosphere if he is to live.  Eventually, Gardner is returned to Mars with his father joining him, Tulsa is taken in by the childless Kendra, and Tulsa trains to go to the Red Planet.

As I said, it's hard not to think that screenwriter Allan Loeb (who created the story with Stewart Schill and Richard Barton Lewis) weren't cribbing in some way the Heinlein masterpiece.  Both The Space Between Us and Stranger in a Strange Land have a boy born and raised in Mars, who have to be kept in quarantine when he arrives, have women involved in their escapes, encounter esoteric religions, appear total innocents and create love.  It also is surprising that The Space Between Us isn't based on a young adult novel because it has many hallmarks of one: boy and girl kept apart by something extraordinary, one innocent, one world weary, both of whom are running away from the adults who think know better but don't.

There would be some great ideas in The Space Between Us if the film bothered to explore them.   Instead, it decided to become essentially a road movie with a quest, one that leads to a conclusion that attempted to be a shocking twist but which proved hopelessly predictable, almost insultingly so.

Despite Egglesfield being exceptionally pretty and Butterfield with his exceptional eyes, you pretty much knew at a certain point that he was not going to turn out to be the father.  You also pretty much almost from the beginning knew who Gardner's father was, and the fact The Space Between Us went with the predictable instead of the sensible shows it wasn't trying hard.

You also had a very wild inconsistency when it came to Gardner.  No person has changed in being more quickly than Gardner Elliot did between Mars and Earth.  On Mars, he was this super-bright being: able to create robots, hack into systems, knowing how to be around adults.  Once he landed on Earth, he became almost an idiot: taking statements literally, being completely honest to the point of indiscreet, unaware of how people behaved, totally clueless when it came to human interaction.

The best way to see how The Space Between Us shifted Gardner's manner is when you compare his interaction with Kendra versus his first time in Tulsa's school.  On Mars, he had no problem being secretive, deceitful, and able to lie like any teenager.  In Tulsa's class, he was honest to a fault, unaware of things like sarcasm, and kind of bumbling.  The film wants to have things both ways: have Gardner be a genius who can hack into a sophisticated Martian system and build a robot but too dumb to do a Google search.

The shift from being the brightest boy on Mars to the dumbest boy on Earth is too unbelievable, and it makes Gardner less an innocent and more an unreal character, despite Butterfield's best efforts.

It also makes one wonder who was minding the store.  How was it that no one in East Texas knew Gardner was communicating with someone on Earth?  How was it that Gardner's existence was kept such a massive secret for sixteen years with no one ever spilling the beans?  You had hundreds of people in East Texas, and some who left in his lifetime (a plot point involves the film Wings of Desire, later remade in America as City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, which a 'German scientist' left when he came to Earth).

Up to a point, The Space Between Us wants us to think of it as a spiritual heir to Wings of Desire (the 'angel' falling to Earth to experience all pleasures of the flesh and be with the one he's loved whom he's seen in 'Heaven'), but I think that's again, trying too hard.

I give credit to Butterfield for trying to work with this material, showing he's better than the script.  Gardner's longing for family, his desire to live and perhaps to die: Butterfield really wants to make a good performance out of what he has to read, and he does good in something as weak as this. Robertson, who despite playing a teenager is actually almost 30 (27 to Butterfield's mere 20) similarly had little to work with: almost always shouting and stomping to get the 'angry teen' bit down, but being given little time to show the softer side of the improbably-named Tulsa.

Oldman and Gugino too did well given what they had, though Oldman at times came close to overdoing it.

Finally, I have a comment about the whole pregnancy issue.  When they learn of Sarah's pregnancy, she is criticized by Chen and Nathaniel for her 'irresponsibility', and I object strongly to that.  It wasn't 'her' irresponsibility, but 'their' irresponsibility.  Both of them knew or should have known that unprotected sex prior to launch could lead to pregnancy, and the idea of putting this solely on Sarah is to my mind almost chauvinistic.  It wasn't 'her' fault she got pregnant.  Moreover, I don't see why news of this would have been so scandalous: she was technically married by a shaman so Gardner wouldn't have been illegitimate, though whether said marriage would be recognized is up for debate.

Nevertheless, the idea that 'she' and only 'she' was 'irresponsible' struck me as unfair on so many levels.

The Space Between Us could have been more, but what it is, is a mixture of other things we've seen before: the runaway story, the teen love story, the 'stranger in a strange land' story, none of which added up to something good.  Sad to see that good ideas were sunk by teen soap-opera tropes and twists we saw coming.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The Beales of Grey Gardens: A Review (Review #920)


It's not often that documentaries become cult films and inspire passion among a group of devotees, let alone inspire musicals and a television movie. Grey Gardens, however, is no ordinary documentary.  This cinema verité look inside the demimonde of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, aunt and first cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with all its eccentricities and opulent poverty, shocked many when it was released.

It also delighted many, seeing in "Big" and "Little" Edie both fashion mavens and upper-class rebels, living their lives their way free from societal and class expectations. They were seen as wise, delightful women who were unashamed to be themselves.  Thirty years after Grey Gardens, the Maysles Brothers, who made the original, cull their archives for The Beales of Grey Gardens, the follow-up to their portrait of women in the twilight of faded glory.

Whether it is a tribute to them or another round of shameful and shameless exploitation of them is up to the viewer.

We get more of the eccentric lives of the Beales: Miss Beale, better known as "Little Edie" continues to sing and dance for the camera while Mrs. Beale, also known as "Big Edie" recites poetry and appears to flirt with the handyman, Joe Torre, who behaves as though a lot of this is perfectly normal.  Little Edie also gives us her take on politics, astrology and the Catholic Church, and we get a visit from Lois Wright, whom Little Edie first refers to as East Hampton's 'psalmist' until Lois corrects her, saying she's a 'palmist'.

Psalmist, palmist, potato, potato...

The elder and younger Beale continue to squabble in their squalor.  At one point there's a small fire caused by an overheated run-down pipe setting the dry wood aflame, which causes Little to be in virtual panic and thankful that the Maysles Brothers are there.  In this small fire, we see a brief glimpse of a surprisingly agile Mrs. Beale, who manages to scurry rather quickly for a hunched-over 79-year-old who appears to barely ever leave the second floor of her decaying mansion.

We even see that Little Edie does actually leave Grey Gardens at least once when we see her briefly attend Mass.  We end our second visit to this netherworld with Big Edie singing a song and Little giving a fashion show of sorts, a montage of her various outfits to entertain us with.

The Beales of Grey Gardens appears to make a firmer case for the insanity of at least Miss Beale, whom we see for the first time coming out singing You Ought to Be in Pictures and apparently flirting with the Maysles (David more than Albert).  It also makes the case that either she was shamelessly milking Grey Gardens to get her the fame she was so, in her mind, wrongfully denied, even if it meant appearing in a film that showed how dilapidated her home and wardrobe were (this is the first time I really noticed how ratty and worn down her fur coat was: the sleeve in desperate need of mending).

Besides flirting with the Maysles, she one occasion mugs for the camera, fully aware that her reactions are being caught on camera for all the world to see.  Maybe one of those people would be her famous cousin, whom she apparently wasn't fond of.  When Lois brought a magazine, Edie looks it over with her magnifying glass.  "Not another article on Jackie!", she fumes as she gives the cover the once-over before tossing it.

Mrs. Beale, for her part, has her own oddball behavior: forever hinting at romance with Jerry, occasionally joining in on her daughter's sing-alongs and encouraging them.  However, she actually appears to be slightly more rational, chastising Little Edie for trying to put out the fire with "Jacqueline's $300 blankets".  She also seems more aware of things, such as how her niece's husband "Mr. Onassis" paid for them to keep the house after it was raided by the health department.

I do say 'slightly', in that Mrs. Beale seemed more than comfortable lying in bed or out on her balcony, surrounded by cats, old newspapers, and general filth.

The Beales of Grey Gardens does give us more insight into these very bizarre women.  Little Edie, for example, explains that she wants her story told but not on film, saying that no one can or should play her (although after her death, there was a television movie with Drew Barrymore playing Little Edie, a curious turn given that one of the Maysles suggested Ethel Barrymore could play Mrs. Beale).  We also see some of the haughtiness and envy of Little Edie: she dismisses talk that she's schizophrenic by stating that "NO Beale is schizophrenic" and that only people with no convictions are.  Her general disdain at more stories on Jackie also show she had an envious streak.

This film is more Little Edie-focused, giving her a chance to really strut her stuff.  The sight of her going out to Mass is probably the most shocking moment in The Beales of Grey Gardens only because it shows that they were capable of leaving their twilight-infested ramshackle of an estate and do things that most people could do.  In short, they were capable of functioning.

Perhaps that is the lesson of The Beales of Grey Gardens: that they were capable of functioning, of living within society but for their own reasons refused, choosing to be the younger and older versions of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, locked away in their home in squalor but having no interest in repairing things physical or mental. 

I think people who are fans of the Beales might find the extra singing, dancing, and fashion show from Little Edie highly entertaining, but what I saw was a life ruined by free will.  Two lives really, as both Mrs. and Miss Beale chose to be garbage-surrounded recluses, shut off from the world and apparently with no intervention from Mrs. Beale's sons or other relatives.  Then again, they could only do so much for people who wanted to live like this, and not be ashamed to let the world see them in these conditions.

Some of the footage is interesting, but I had a hard time staying awake through a second round of this garish freak show.  I found Grey Gardens to be a sorry spectacle, well-made but gaudy.  The Beales of Grey Gardens is a second go-round on this freak fest, slightly less shocking, less amusing, but in its way, perhaps more exploitive. 

Whether exploitive from the Maysles or the Beales no one can ever truly know.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Wonder Woman: A Review


The DC Extended Universe has had a bad, but oh so bad run.  You've had Man of Steel kick it off with a dull, somber tale.  Suicide Squad reveled in its gruesomeness, and the less said about Yawn of Justice the better. 

It is therefore almost shocking that Wonder Woman, the fourth stab to get DC to come close to its archrival Marvel, finally gets it right.  Suffice to say the reason is that Wonder Woman did something none of the other DC Extended Universe films did: it was fun, it balanced action, comedy, romance, drama and fantasy well, and it gave us someone we actually care about.

On Themyscira, a hidden island full of Amazons, there is one child: a girl named Diana.  She yearns to train to be a warrior like her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother, Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen) is strongly opposed to it.  Eventually, as Diana (Gal Gadot) grows, Hyppolita concedes.  Diana proves herself to be good but one who needs much to learn, especially with a great secret that the other Amazons keep from her.

The Amazons were tasked by Zeus before the fall of the gods to be defenders of his creation, Man, which has been corrupted by Ares, God of War, who has hated Man from the beginning.  Ares has disappeared, but the Amazons believe he will return to seek his final vengeance.  Just as Diana is about to discover her true strength as a warrior princess, enter one Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).  His plane manages to get past the protective shield of Themyscira and crash onto the water.  Diana rescues him, only to find that the German military has been following him and has invaded the island.  The Amazons defend their home, but their spears are no match to bullets.

The Amazons learn from Trevor that the world is engulfed in war, and Diana believes it is the work of Ares.  She insists on going with Trevor to find Ares, and Trevor is eager to go along with her oddball ideas if it gets him back to deliver the chemical weapons plans he stole as a spy.  Diana now goes to London but finds no help in finding Ares.  Trevor, still dubious but aware of her powers, decides to take her on an unsanctioned mission to take out General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his own version of Chemical Ali, Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya).  Going with them are other soldiers of fortune Trevor knows: con artist Sameer (Said Taghmaoui), Scottish marksman Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Native American smuggler The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).  They get secret help from Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), who is working to negotiate an armistice.

Diana is shocked by how monstrous war is, and is more determined to bring Ares down.  There is love, there is loss, and there is a shocking revelation to Diana about how man is.  Ares does reveal himself, and tempts her to join him against Man.  However, realizing the sacrifices other Men have made, she decides to fight Ares to the bitter end.

It is all bookended by Diana, now at the Louvre, receiving a faded photo of herself and her crew from Bruce Wayne.

Wonder Woman works for a variety of reasons, all blended and balanced perfectly by director Patty Jenkins.  One of them is that the film takes the premise seriously without being either somber or silly.  The nearly two-and-a-half hour running time did concern me, but what I found was that the story was so rich that it pretty much kept flowing rather smoothly. 

We got properly introduced to Diana, with a beautiful animated sequence explaining the backstory of the Amazons, so that by the time she went out of Paradise Island we could understand her reactions and emotions.  She was a stranger in a strange land, but one that was highly intelligent and with a genuine heart.

Diana's intelligence, however, did not make her aloof, and an extended comic sequence of her trying out the fashions of World War I for women did not diminish her or make her look like an imbecile.  It was light and funny, but it was because we were laughing with her, not at her.  Her puzzlement as to both how women could possibly fight in the clothes of the time or why women weren't at the front were the reactions of someone who came from a whole other society, but while the film was making its own wry commentary on how society struggled to open venues for women, the character herself never got on a soapbox to lecture the unenlightened men.

She let her actions speak for herself, chafing under the misogyny and sexism she encountered but also motivated by a genuine sadness and concern for civilians suffering through war.

Here is where we get another element that makes Wonder Woman such a great success: the cast.  Gal Gadot was a rare bright spot from Yawn of Justice, and Wonder Woman is the promise of that film fulfilled.  She makes Diana a fully-formed figure: naïve without being dim, innocent without being clueless, sincere without being idealistic.  She is able to talk openly about speculation on 'the pleasures of the flesh' while simultaneously wondering why Trevor wouldn't want to sleep next to her.  Gadot makes Diana/Wonder Woman someone without filters or subterfuge, but she also makes her a genuinely caring person, eager to learn more but not afraid to go after evil where she sees it.

Pine now ventures from one franchise (Star Trek) to another, and he fits the bill for the action hero with some smarts.  His Steve Trevor is not unafraid, but one who faces that fear and does what needs to be done.  Appropriately romantic, nervous, agitated, frustrated and in awe of Diana, Pine does extremely well communicating both his wonder and his confusion about who this woman and her ideas are.

In smaller roles, Nielsen and Wright give us the mixture of grace and strength at the heart of Amazon society, one who prepares for war and one who years for the peace they've long held.  Taghmaoui, Bremner, and Brave Rock, although with smaller roles as well, balance the humor, despair, resignation, and joint action of Pine and Gadot.

The special effects work within the story, though the final battle seemed to be a bit overblown.  At times the slow-motion of battles was a bit fatiguing, I'd say effective if a bit excessive.   One can forgive Huston's a-touch bombastic Teutonic villain, complete with accent.

As a side note, Wonder Woman is reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger, with the difference that the former was a World War I-set film, the latter World War II. 

If I could quibble about things, it might be that some of the slow-motion was a bit too much and that Huston was a bit broad, as well as the mad scientist bit a bit cliché, but those are such minor quibbles that it seems almost petty.

Wonder Woman is successful because it took the premise seriously without mocking it or thinking it was smarter than the material.  It brought an epic feel to its story without letting the effects and visuals drown out the heart: a strong woman who fights the good fight.  It also takes its time to establish the characters rather than rushing through things to get to the action.  Finally, it doesn't bother trying to tie itself into a larger mythos (the opening and closing scenes being the only things to tie it in with the overall DC Extended Universe, and if you cut them out you could spin a whole franchise with Wonder Woman alone). 

With strong performances by the cast, especially Gadot in the title role, Wonder Woman is a fine example of a comic book adaptation done right.  I don't think since the original Superman has there been a comic book-based debut story that is just about perfect.  A mix of action, adventure, comedy, and romance all balancing themselves within the overall story, Wonder Woman shows that DC can make a good film.

Whether it can that from now on is another matter altogether.


Friday, June 16, 2017

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: A Review


It's a curious thing that The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is titled thus versus a more common Seven Percent.  It's also curious that this Sherlock Holmes film is less about the mystery itself than it is about the main character.  The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is more of a character study of Sherlock Holmes, this cold analytical thinking machine, and who better to be our guide into Holmes' subconscious than the father of modern psychiatry, Dr. Sigmund Freud himself?

Dr. John Watson (Robert Duvall) has been hurriedly summoned to 221 B Baker Street. His friend and former flatmate Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) appears to be having intense issues with regards to his cocaine addiction.  Holmes keeps going on about Professor Moriarty (Sir Laurence Olivier), whom he accuses of being a criminal mastermind. 

Moriarty pays an unexpected call on Dr. Watson.  He tells the doctor that he was the Holmes' former tutor and that Holmes' accusations are now playing havoc on his life, urging him to get Holmes help.  Watson is extremely distressed by all this, and decides on a radical solution: get Holmes treatment for his addiction.  In order to draw Holmes out of Baker Street, he creates with Holmes' brother Mycroft (Charles Grey) a ruse: getting him to follow the 'Napoleon of Crime' to the Continent, with the chase ending in Vienna.

Holmes, showing serious signs of addiction, falls into the trap, and is shocked to find he's been deceived.  Further, he isn't too pleased to find himself with Dr. Freud (Alan Arkin), but soon Freud begins hypnotizing Holmes and helping him through his withdrawal.  Holmes appears to be on the road to recovery when Freud receives an urgent call about a past patient he helped weed off her own cocaine addiction: famed actress Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave).

Freud is upset she appears to have relapsed, but Holmes deduces she was forced to take drugs again.  He further deduces she was kidnapped, and that she is still in danger.  Devereaux is part of a strange plot involving white slavery, an unwitting victim of the machinations of her lover, The Baron (Jeremy Kemp).  It's now up to Holmes, Watson, and Freud to save Devereaux, giving wild chase on trains.

As she has been saved, Freud makes one last request of Holmes: to hypnotize him one more time.  Under hypnosis, Freud and Watson learn a shocking truth from the Holmes Family past, one both agree should remain secret, so secret Freud induces Holmes to forget it altogether.  Holmes decides not to return to London but to take some rest, telling Watson to tell the readers anything he likes, even up to saying he was killed by the Professor. 

Holmes, aboard a ship on the Danube, is surprised to find a fellow passenger: Lola Devereaux.  She hopes they can journey together, and thus begins The Great Hiatus.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, adapted by Nicholas Meyer from his own novel, is an inventive and entertaining variation on The Canon.  The story is both serious and light.  We can tell it's meant as light entertainment with its opening: "In 1891 Sherlock Holmes was missing and presumed dead for three years.  This is the true story of that disappearance.  Only the facts have been made up".

In the serious vein, Holmes' cocaine addiction was a major part of the film, an aspect of Holmes' life that has rarely been touched on in film.  Jeremy Brett's Holmes made his cocaine addiction a major part of the adaptation of The Devil's Foot, and while Elementary has Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes be a heroin versus cocaine addict, he is always shown as a recovering drug addict, one who runs the danger of relapsing. 

Holmes' addiction, and in particular the almost psychedelic aspect of his withdrawal, is effective and well-filmed.  It's a serious subject addressed well, addressed seriously, and an important one too.  This isn't to say The Seven-Per-Cent Solution doesn't have moments of action or levity.  There's a brief scene with an Austrian cabby that is played for laughs. 

On the whole, however, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is less about the crime than it is about Sherlock Holmes.  The mystery itself isn't much of a mystery: the kidnapping of Lola and the reason behind it are solved very quickly.  I think the crime is less important because Holmes is attempting to solve it while still struggling with his withdrawal, with the bonus of seeing Ziggy in essence become both Holmes and Watson: a detective and The Great Detective's aide.

One of the great aspects of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is Williamson's portrayal of Holmes.  His portrayal is of a man, not a machine, a man with a great mind foundering under the chemical effects he has become enslaved to.  Holmes' paranoia, his fears, and his powerful methods of deduction are all brought greater power through Williamson's intelligent performance.  He even manages to bring light moments, such as whenever he is with his faithful Bassett hound, Toby.

It's a bit shocking to see Sherlock Holmes cry when under hypnosis as he reveals his greatest family secret, a scandal that would have brought shockwaves if it had been uncovered.  Here though, is what makes Nicol Williamson's performance so wonderful: he makes Sherlock Holmes human without stripping him of what made Holmes such an extraordinary figure.

It's a bit surprising to see Americans Duvall and Arkin play British and Austrian characters, complete with accents to match.  I don't think Duvall had a great deal to do in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, but here, he went against the stereotypical Nigel Bruce-type portrayal of Watson as the blubbering, bumbling idiot.  Instead, he was more the loyal friend, helping a man he loved and admired overcome his private demons.

Arkin was the bigger role, giving Freud a serious tone but showing the good doctor to be equally bright and strong as Holmes.  He also had the disadvantage of anti-Semitism used against him, especially against the bigoted upper classes embodied by the Baron.

Redgrave was all sighs and mannerisms as Lola, but as she was meant to be a grand dame of the stage, that I think was how the part was meant to be played.

A couple of nice surprises were Olivier as Moriarty, less criminal mastermind and more frightened, elderly man, and Grey as Mycroft, forever shrewd and discreet.  In an interesting turn of events, Grey would later reprise his role as Mycroft in the Granada Television adaptations of Canon with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock.  By no means meant to tie the events of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to anything on the series, it is a nice touch to see Grey recreate his role.

There are a lot of nods to Canon in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, mentions of past cases and an alternative explanation of The Great Hiatus that Holmesians I think will find delightful.  There's even a song written by none other than Stephen Sondheim sung in a brothel, The Madam's Song, better known today as I Don't Do Anything Twice

If there is anything to criticize is some events that appear almost silly: Holmes, Watson, and Freud about to be mowed down by stampeding royal horses, and some projection screen that is painfully obvious even then.  Finally, the refueling of the chasing train by tearing down the wooden car reminds one of Around the World in 80 Days, where a similar solution was found to keep the boat sailing.

Apart from these minor points and a mystery that wasn't all that mysterious, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution should be one that true Holmesians should know of.  There are moments of comedy (Freud bemoaning the goings-on of people 'murdering nuns in brothels') and more importantly, a case study of Sherlock Holmes, a man caught in the vice of a terrible condition, and his efforts through therapy to come out of it.  It's mix of seriousness and wit make it a winning combination.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rock Hudson: The Television Movie


Not A Gay Life...

It is quite extraordinary how much has changed between the time of movie star Rock Hudson's death in 1985 from AIDS, the Rock Hudson television biopic five years later, and today.

Where once homosexuality was a virtual death-knell to a film/television career, today there are many actors/performers who are open about their sexual orientation (from Lily Tomlin to The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons).  Where once the sight of two men in bed together was all but verboten on television, now we get to see it in almost graphic detail (as in Westworld).

In 1990, when Rock Hudson premiered, the mere suggestion of having two men in bed together was daring, almost scandalous.  Today, we get much more open depictions of gay sex on television and films.  While twenty-six years ago same-sex desires were not depicted on television or film, at least not without causing much controversy, today the concept of same-sex marriage is held as constitutional.

Yet while I digress, I think it's important to put some things in perspective before beginning the review for Rock Hudson.  In 1985 and 1990, AIDS and male homosexuality were still controversial, shocking, which is why Rock Hudson at times dances around both subjects or treats them with kid gloves. 

Rock Hudson (or The Rock Hudson Story) is bookended by the events after Hudson's death.  Roy Fitzgerald walks into the office of agent Henry Willson (Andrew Robinson) and says that he wants to be a movie star.  Roy can't act, can't walk, and knows it.  Willson, far from discouraging him, says that this should be no problem.  Roy didn't say he wanted to be an actor.

Rechristened Rock Hudson (Thomas Ian Griffith), Hudson makes the rounds of Hollywood parties, letting his height and physique speak for itself.  Willson gets Hudson a one-line role in a war film which requires him to say "Could you get a bigger blackboard?"  It takes him 38 takes to say that one light right.  Hudson, despite this inauspicious moment, is excited to show the film to his mother, Kay (Diane Ladd).  After seeing his bit part, she whispers to her son, 'Save your money'.

Rock is devastated, pouring his heart out to someone he met on set.  The shock is supposed to be that it is another man: Tim Murphy (Thom Matthews).  Tim and Rock move in together, which doesn't raise eyebrows but which alarms Willson, urging him to be more discreet.  Rock finds more discretion with Willson's new secretary, Phyllis Gates (Daphne Ashbrook).  Like all women, she is immediately besotted by the hunky Hudson, and from all appearances, so is he.

A romance develops between Gates and Hudson, and eventually a disheartened Tim leaves, saying that Hudson is too afraid of being who he really is.  While Hudson does appear genuine in his love for Phyllis, his same-sex desires are simply too great: he goes to gay bars and confesses to a shocked, SHOCKED Phyllis what is what.

A quiet divorce later, Hudson is now chafing under Willson's benevolent dictatorship.  He fires him and now lives a more open life, his new home a haven for decadence kept on the down-low.   He keeps up appearances though, with Kay either being none the wiser or quiet about her son's unique situation.  Still, the decline in his career and the fact that he is living a lie eat at him.

The direction he got during the filming of Seconds: he has a new face but is still the same hollow man he was, are a breaking point for him.  Smashing the window, Hudson all but has a meltdown, with the director forced to clear the set and cradle a crying Hudson.

The last part involves Hudson and his last lover, Marc Christian (William R. Moses): their meeting, his devotion to the aging star, and how he was kept in the dark about something Hudson knew but kept secret.  Rock Hudson had AIDS.

Hudson attempted secret treatment in Paris, but a guest spot on Dynasty cut the experimental treatments off.  After collapsing at his Paris hotel when attempting to return to them, and after a shocking appearance at a press conference for her old friend, Doris Day, the secret and Hudson were out.  Hudson dies of AIDS, and Christian sues the estate for putting him in danger.

It might now look tame, almost ridiculous, to see how homosexuality was expressed in Rock Hudson.  The subject was still so touchy and controversial that, like Hudson himself, things could not be openly shown.  Every time the mere suggestion of same-sex attraction was even hinted at, it involved the two men hugging each other.

Granted, they were tender hugs, but hugs nonetheless.  The fact that on each occasion, at least three by my count, they looked like they were going to lean in for a kiss only to end up just hugging makes it a bit of a tease.

It should be noted that in 1990, when Rock Hudson was shown, even the hugging was seen as controversial, almost scandalous.  I think it had to do with the fact that the hugs were as open as television or society could be with regards to sexual intimacy between two men.  The second hug, when Hudson is in the pool with an unnamed figure, was as lush as it could get.

Couple all this dancing around the sexual aspect with how rampant the love scenes were between Griffith and Ashbrook as Hudson and Gates.  If we went by Rock Hudson, we would have to conclude that for a gay man, Hudson certainly enjoyed sex with women.

In the performances, I think Griffith is the least Rock Hudson-looking or sounding person they could have cast.  He made Hudson someone who was almost child-like in his desire to please and get approval from others: his mother, his agent, his wife and his various lovers.  It isn't a great performance, but to be fair at times he was able to show the hurt, even frightened man at the end of his days, when he confesses to Marc that he feared that if he said the word 'gay', he would die, and in a sense, it did.

Incidentally, this was the only time I think that the word 'gay' was used in Rock Hudson.  Earlier, when a brokenhearted and angry Tim ended his relationship with the very closeted star, he used the word 'queer', but it was said so softly that it was hard to hear.

Ashbrook came across as a bit of simpleton with her Phyllis, starting from her first scene where she is clearly floored by the physical beauty of Hudson in Indian garb.  "You're gorgeous," she gushes unwittingly, and from there she is the devoted and loving wife of a man she did not know was gay.

There has been debate as to whether Gates knew the truth about Hudson.  Gates always maintained that Hudson's homosexuality was a complete surprise, while others insist she not only knew but was closeted herself.  Only those involved know the truth and they have left no undisputed proof one way or the other.  Rock Hudson, for its part, shows Gates in a positive light, a good woman shocked and devastated by her husband's same-sex inclinations.

Christian too is also shown as a very sweet, even dim fellow, someone who could genuinely believe that Hudson is dying of anorexia and has to stay in Paris to get non-FDA approved drugs for treating this disease.

The great flaw in Rock Hudson is the script.  It is simply too scared to touch on the homosexuality of Hudson, let alone how keeping the facade of the hunky macho All-American versus his secret desires played together or apart in his life.  It also leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as whether Kay knew or suspected her son was not straight.  How this court of gay men entered his life when he was so closeted is also something we can't guess at.  It doesn't get at who Hudson was, or why he was so compelling.

It was a bit of a rush job to get Rock Hudson on the screen, but for all the seriousness of the special, Rock Hudson gives us just a thin glimmer of the complex, contradictory life that was Hudson.  It is a nice time capsule of when the idea of same-sex relationships, be they loving commitments or one-night stands could vaguely be hinted at.

The Rock Hudson Story should be told and remembered, and perhaps one day he will get his due: both on the truth of his life and the body of work he left behind.  Until then, we have Rock Hudson and can hope for a better version.



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Grey Gardens: A Review


My mother's reviews are more succinct than mine will ever be. For Gravity, her review was simple: two hours of Sandra Bullock crashing into things.  For Grey Gardens, it was equally direct: those two old women were just crazy.  I would say that the subjects of Grey Gardens, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith, transcend eccentric.  The film is a cult film with passionate admirers of Little and Big Edie, but I found it anything but either amusing or inspiring.

Grey Gardens is the estate on which the-then 79-year-old Mrs. Beale and her 51-year-old daughter live together in opulent poverty (to use a phrase originated by my friend, Fidel Gomez, Jr.).  Once one of many tony estates in East Hampton, New York, to say that by the time Grey Gardens was made the home had fallen into disrepair is being kind.

The house was in near-total ruins: cats and raccoons have the run of the estate, grass, weeds and everything else have spread out unchecked over the gardens, garbage and animal feces everywhere (though to be fair, I'm not exactly sure if there wasn't human feces lying around the rooms either), the interior is crumbling to where by the end of the film we see what had started out as a small hole in the wall become a wall-long hole.  Grey Gardens was in such shambles that early in Grey Gardens, we see newspaper reports of the county health board going there and ordering the tenants to make repairs or face eviction and demolition.  We also see reports that their niece and cousin came up with $30,000 to just bring Grey Gardens up to code.

That benefactress was former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

That is one of the big draws to Grey Gardens: that these two former society doyennes were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie O herself.  Whether Mrs. Onassis came to their rescue out of genuine concern for her family or to avoid more embarrassing headlines Grey Gardens neither asks or tells.

We wander about the estate while the elder and junior Beale reminisce and wax rhapsodic about their pasts as well as argue with each other over things large and small, ranging from whether to let a cat urinate behind the unhung portrait of Mrs. Beale (the older lady having no problem with such actions by her pussies) to whether Mrs. Beale cost Miss Beale a Gentleman Caller by name of Eugene Tyszkiewcz, whom Little Edie insists Big Edie drove out of the house in fifteen minutes.

I imagine that Grey Gardens must have been in better shape, because if it had looked back in the day like it did when co-directors Albert and David Maysles shot this bit of cinema verité, he would have run out of the house screaming (assuming he would have been able to have gotten in through the wild brush and animals and crumbling infrastructure).

We see the two women living out their lives in ways that one wouldn't imagine those born into wealth and privilege would.  They cook corn on a stove in a bedroom they share. The younger Beale leaves bread for the raccoons that have taken up residence, first in the attic, then just about everywhere else. They take the sun on a terrace, where the elder Mrs. Beale's top is constantly in danger of coming off and showing off her breasts.

In one ghastly moment, as the hunched-over Mrs. Beale stoops while getting up, we do get a quick glimpse at her sagging and very wrinkled breasts before the camera quickly swings towards her daughter, about the only moment of restraint and taste the Maysles ever showed as these two women continued and continuously embarrassed themselves before the cameras.

Little Edie, for her part, is a fashion rebel.  Wearing head scarfs and even sweaters on her head (apparently to hide that she had no hair) and having no problem wearing blouses as skirts, Little Edie reads horoscope books with a magnifying glass and her weight scale with binoculars.

Very little to anything actually happens in the time; they see Jerry, the young repairman whom Little Edie calls 'The Marble Faun' (after the Nathaniel Hawthorne story). Mrs. Beale takes a rare walk downstairs for a birthday party, one with only two guests and a suggestion by Little Edie that they use newspapers to cover over the dirty dinner chair seats.  We get treated to singing by both Mrs. and Miss Beale as well as two or three dance routines by Little Edie, the last one closing out Grey Gardens and which looks like it was not done for the cameras (unlike the other two, where she played up to them).

One watches Grey Gardens with a mixture of horror and sadness as these women with apparently very tenuous grasps on reality go out of their way to look ridiculous.  I can imagine Mrs. Onassis, if she ever saw the film, looking on in sheer shock at seeing her relatives behaving not just so ostentatiously but downright reveling in their antics and the squalor to which they had become accustomed to.

Both Mrs. Beale and Miss Beale have no problem living in these conditions, seeing nothing really wrong with the house or in agreeing to be part of this freak show par excellence.  That is in essence what Grey Gardens is: a garish freak show where you wonder whether these two women were in their right mind, apparently either unaware or uninterested that people seeing them in these conditions might prove shocking or garish.

It's a fascinating, bizarre, even hypnotic freak show, but a freak show nonetheless.  Freak Show might be the strongest description for Grey Gardens, as we do end up watching a show about freaks: former upper-crust women who now live on crumbs (and feed them to wild animals they let have run of their house).  It's like watching a Tennessee Williams story come to life if he had written about Yankees rather than Southerners.  It almost makes Suddenly, Last Summer look like a romantic comedy.

Something about Grey Gardens just doesn't sit well with me.  Having seen it twice, I have never been able to shake the impression that the Maysles did exploit them, or at least egg on the women in their oddball behavior.  They never stopped them from embarrassing themselves for our amusement.

I felt embarrassed for them at the end of Grey Gardens, a little disconcerted at seeing them act and look so strange in their crumbling, dilapidated house, living out some sort of odd fantasy among the ruins.

You could sense Miss Beale's resentment at being there, at not having had that glorious stage career she thought she might have had or the lovers/husbands she might have had. You could also see Mrs. Beale's obliviousness to all that, and yet for whatever there was beneath or behind them they still held on to each other in this bizarre love.

The Maysles shot them as they were, but whether that was a good thing or not is up to the viewer. They never had either of them sit down for a formal interview in Grey Gardens.  Instead, we saw them eat, dance, sing, fight and do nothing to rectify their situation.  They might have liked how they lived, and people might like to see how the formerly glamorous, even beautiful Beale women were back in the day.

It doesn't take away that while that is how they were, the film shows them, intentionally or not, in as garish a light as possible.

I know many people find the two inspirational, even wise.  They do have some sharp observations and witty quips.  "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present," Little Edie says early on.  When it came to Little Edie's lack of marriage, Big Edie retorted in reference to her daughter's courting days in World War II, "France fell, but Edie didn't fall".

On the whole, however, there is something unpleasant about the whole venture, something tawdry and unseemly.  Do people enjoy Grey Gardens because they find the elder and younger Beale inspirational or ridiculous, Avant-garde or unhinged?

Grey Gardens is a fascinating, bizarre portrait of two women in a world of their own.  Still, my only feelings for them after it all was one of sadness, of horror, of pity, and embarrassment.  I couldn't fathom photographing anyone in such sordid conditions, unless it were to derive pleasure out of someone's misery, self-inflicted or not.  It is worth watching, if only to serve as a cautionary tale of how not to live and how not to appear in public.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Three Violent People: A Review (Review #916)


There are three leads in Three Violent People: Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, and Tom Tryon, but despite the title, only one was really violent.  Three Violent People is a B-Western, one that might have been better if not for some bad acting and a plot that was rushed and with unexplored elements.

Colt Saunders (Heston) is a Confederate captain returned to his native Texas to return to a life of normalcy.  He finds his home state overrun with carpetbaggers, eager to sweep in and take all the land of the rebels through high taxation.  Saunders has plenty of money and has yet to be touched by the encroachments of the carpetbaggers.

He has been touched by Lorna Hunter (Baxter), a former 'dance-hall girl' who uses her Southern charms to quickly, very quickly, win Saunders over.  She at first tried to just rob Saunders of his recent bank withdrawal, but thanks to a warning from her friend, Madam Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), Lorna decides not to run off with Saunders' money.  Inexplicably, Saunders falls quickly in love with Lorna and marries her.

He takes his new bride to the Bar S Ranch, where they meet the Saunders' loyal head vaquero, Innocencio Ortega (Gilbert Roland), and Colt's bitter one-armed brother, Beauregard, better known as Cinch (Tryon).  At this point, Three Violent People becomes a bit muddled in what exactly it is about.

There are two stories rattling about.  The first involves the carpetbaggers, who are taking property left right and center, with their eyes on the Bar S Ranch.  The other involves our three violent people: whether Lorna wants to hide her past from Colt and whether Cinch wants to keep the Bar S or sell it (and the hidden herd of horses) from under Colt's nose to get money and run off.  Things get complicated when one of the carpetbaggers recognizes Lorna from her 'dance hall days'.

The carpetbaggers think they can use Lorna's past against Colt, but Colt keeps a stiff upper lip.  He's still angry, and Lorna is shamed, but she's also pregnant.  A deal is struck: he'll give her the deed to the horses and she can sell them in exchange for the baby.  Cinch convinces Lorna to join him in cutting Colt out of things, but the plot fails.  Lorna stays at the Bar S until the baby's born.

Colt isn't happy about any of this, down to ordering Innocencio to not toast the birth of his son.  Innocencio, hurt and angry at the rejection, quits being head vaquero and says he'll take his sons with him.  Just when Innocencio, his sons, and Lorna are getting ready to be thrown out, the carpetbaggers come with Cinch having turned against his brother (who said he'd kill him if he set foot back at the ranch again.  A major shootout occurs, Cinch sacrifices himself for his brother, and Colt, realizing that Lorna does love him and their new son, forgives her and they reconcile.

Three Violent People was made after The Ten Commandments but released before it, as DeMille was deep in editing.  As such, it reunited Heston with Baxter and gave audiences a chance to see them as a romantic team.  It would have shown that they had little chemistry, at least in Three Violent People

A big part of the problem here is with Baxter: we can't tell through her performance whether she was ever in love with Colt or not.  She starts out as an obvious golddigger, with such a blatantly exaggerated Southern manner and drawl that you are genuinely wondering whether she was told to overact.  Even when she marries him, we never get a sense that she even likes him. 

Baxter throughout the film was either over or underacting, looking either obviously fake or disinterested.  In the beginning, she didn't seem to care whether Colt ever found out she was a good-time girl, but later on she tried to make it look like she was devastated or ashamed of her past.

Part of it is Baxter's performance, and part of it is the script, which never settled as to what to make of Lorna.  Perhaps if she hadn't started out as such an obvious hussy, or at least a hussy that wanted to put her past behind her, we could have had the inner conflict the film wanted us to see.

The script also has a big issue with the rush that Colt all but orders Lorna to marry him.  It looks like it was done in a day, two at most.  It makes Colt look like a lunatic or an idiot, or even both.  Maybe if she had been a mail-order bride, we could have had some logic to it, but it looked almost comical.

Tryon's Cinch was all rage but still ended up as slightly funny.  Heston, I think, tried to do what he could to bring life to such a stiff figure as Colt, but he couldn't make him into someone with some sense to him.

It's interesting that out of all the performances, it was the non-violent people who stood out best.  Roland was elegant and strong as the head vaquero, loyal to the Saunders family but not afraid to tell them what's what.  He brought lightness to Innocencio, whether he was berating his sons on their inability to properly introduce themselves to Mrs. Saunders or musing on the true nature of love.

When he was amusing, at least it was meant to be funny.

One is surprised to see Elaine Stritch in Three Violent People (and looking actually attractive) as the madam with a quick wit, but her few scenes showed she was again, shrewd and amusing. 

It's a shame that with two interesting characters as Innocencio and Ruby, we are stuck with Colt, Lorna, and Cinch.  I'd rather watch a film about Innocencio having to rescue these three gringos or Ruby and her clientele.

It is sad more than surprising that out of five sons, only one was actually Hispanic (Leo Castillo).  The others weren't, but two names struck out.  The first was Bobby Blake, better known as Robert Blake, future star of Baretta who was tried for murder.  The other is Jameel Farah, who later Americanized his name to Jamie Farr and became better known as Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H.

An Italian and a Lebanese playing Mexican characters?  Well, not as bad as when Heston would don brownface in Touch of Evil, I guess.

Three Violent People is pretty disposable ware, the type you could watch on late-night Western night and not think too much on it. Apart from Roland, Stritch, and the climatic shootout, it's not good, but some elements within it are good enough to warrant perhaps a remake with modifications.

Just a thought.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

2015: Some Odds and Bitter Ends

Recently, I've embarked on a project that I hope will be completed in two years.  I am going over every post I have written since March 1, 2009.  Right now, I'm in 2010, so I have some time to go.

It started out as just to verify that everything I'd written had an archived link, but it expanded to check if links still worked, correct spelling mistakes, and make changes I felt were necessary (category reorganization, noting years).  I found I was much too fond of capitalizing and ellipses, a sign of a maturing writing.

As I looked over my various posts, I was surprised that I did not write a brief note on 2015's hits and misses.  Not a Best or Worst of 2015, but a small section that covered areas I think should be.

I now rectify that.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I know many people were thrilled to see a new Star Wars film, one that told what happened after Return of the Jedi.  I was entertained by it, I won't lie.  My issue with The Force Awakens is that it was essentially a retread of the original trilogy.  It was a case of 'you've seen the first three, you've seen this one'.  I know people cheer that we have a female lead, all well and good.  I have no strong feelings about that one way or another.  I just found The Force Awakens to be warmed-over Star Wars, which people might like but I wanted something more than a repeat.


War Room

My sense is that War Room got some of its bad reviews because it was a Christian-film.  I think some others just thought it was a bad film, and I'm not going to argue with them on that.  However, given how the Kendrick Brothers have consistently bombed in their efforts to make a good Christian film, the fact they stumbled onto one should be celebrated.  War Room is a departure for them in that it centers around African-Americans when in the past, they would relegate them to almost being nonexistent.  That is bad enough, but when they set their films in Georgia, that just sounds downright bizarre.  For what it was, War Room was above what I've seen before.



In Goldmember, we get a shocking twist in that Dr. Evil and Austin Powers are brothers.  Spectre didn't go that far, but it teetered on the edge of parody when it is revealed that Blofeld, James Bond's arch-nemesis, was practically a brother to Bond, who conveniently doesn't remember this.  That should be nonsense, but too many critics went along with it, along with trying to tie in the previous Daniel Craig Era Bond films to Spectre with clumsy results, scene-chewing from Christoph Waltz as the comical villain, and one of the worst Bond Themes ever made.  The fact that Writing's on the Wall, written in twenty minutes and done in one take, went on to win Best Original Song just adds a sad note to a film that played like a 007 spoof.



I constantly marvel at how good the Marvel Cinematic Universe films are.  They've had a few bumps but on the whole this long-lasting series continues to surprise me.  I didn't think Guardians of the Galaxy would be good, but it turned out to be among my favorite MCU films.  Same goes for Ant-Man, a movie smart enough to laugh at itself without making itself a joke.  Both concepts, a bit out of the more traditional comic book-based film, does a great job in making things both realistic and fantastic.