Saturday, September 30, 2017

No Time For Sergeants (1958): A Review (Review #949)


It's a most fascinating turn of events when it comes to No Time For Sergeants.  The television play adaptation was hilarious, and proved so successful that it was expanded to a full Broadway production.  That production, in turn, was made into a feature film, with Andy Griffith doing his third turn as our sweet-natured country bumpkin (having performed it in the television and Broadway play).

Something got lost between small to large screen.  No Time for Sergeants, the film version, was not as funny as the television adaptation and perhaps not as funny as the play.  It tried, but I don't think I laughed once.

Following the same plot as the television play, William Stockdale (Griffith) is a country boy from the backwoods of Georgia.  His Pa (William Fawcett) had been hiding his draft board notices, leading the Air Force to think he was a draft dodger.  Finally getting him to the training camp, Stockdale runs afoul of hotshot ROTC cadet Irving Blanchard (Murray Hamilton) but befriends fellow cadet Ben Whitledge (Nick Adams).

They all meet Sgt. King (Myron McCormick), who just wants an easy life with the draftees before they head on out.  Stockdale, however, will not make life easy.  He doesn't mean to cause harm, but his honesty and overenthusiasm for things inevitably get King in trouble.  When King makes him 'Permanent Latrine Orderly' to get Stockdale out of the way, Stockdale takes it as a great compliment and honor.  He cleans the latrines so well he proudly tells Whitledge he rubbed the words 'Hot' and 'Cold' off the faucets.

Whitledge dreams of going into the infantry versus being an 'Airman', but he finds that he too is affected by the actions of our good-natured rube.  King is cajoled into getting Stockdale to take the battery of tests to move him on out, which Stockdale manages to pass despite his oddball manner.  In one spectacular fiasco, Blanchard and King try to get Stockdale drunk, only to end up drunk themselves while Stockdale, Rasputin-like, manages to keep drinking without it affecting him.  This ends up in King losing his stripes.

Finally, Stockdale manages to get into the Air Force, with Whitledge turning out as a frenemy and King managing to become a general's aide.  King's incompetence and impatience has the crew that has Stockdale and Whitledge fly off without a radio controller, which leads them to fly directly into the path of a nuclear bomb test.  The end result is the plane catching fire, and Stockdale uses his parachute to launch himself and Whitledge out of it.

The Air Force, thinking they died, gives them posthumous medals, and all are horrified to find them back on the base.  To hush up a potentially embarrassing  situation, they are moved to infantry after all, which delights Whitledge (even getting a medal at Stockdale's insistence).  At long last, the Air Force is free of their accidental insanity.

Perhaps I can grant that in this case, familiarity breeds contempt.  Having seen the television play, I was familiar with No Time for Sergeants' story and saw where it was expanded (though I don't know whether the expanded parts were in the Broadway production too).  I think what happened was that because, unlike live theater or television, you can't have audience reaction in a film, the story suffers from having to wait for lines to hit the audience.  The film becomes slightly unreal and turns what was once naturally funny into farce.

I was puzzled by director Mervin LeRoy's decision to have Griffith break the fourth wall a few times when he also used voice-over.  The fourth wall breaking was a throwback to the television special and perhaps the play, but it seemed slightly out of place when we had voice-over and when we didn't.  It's as if LeRoy simply couldn't make up his mind which way he wanted No Time for Sergeants adapted, so he chose all of them.

The scenes that worked well live didn't seem to work well on screen, as if trying to keep to the original and expand the scenarios even more.  The series of bits where Stockdale goes through the battery of tests didn't make me laugh, and my theory is that the spontaneity was gone.  It looked a bit too rehearsed, too practiced.

It's not as if they were terrible: the bit with Don Knotts as the dexterity examiner showed the spark that would later bring the two together on the legendary Andy Griffith Show.  However, on the whole all the situations that were funny just kept falling flat.

There was one exception: the first scene where Will finds himself going with the draft board man.  It showed a nice, gentle side to Will and showed Griffith could do more than be the country rube.

Griffith by now knew the part backwards and forwards, and he kept to the sweet man Will Stockdale was, though by now he was looking a bit old to be this naive country boy (he was 32 at the time).  Perhaps because No Time for Sergeants was made after his fiery dramatic turn in A Face in the Crowd, Griffith here didn't seem as naive and sweet as he did when he did the television production, but now I'm getting ahead of myself.

Griffith was good, but somehow he came across in this version of No Time for Sergeants as less naive and more a total idiot.

It's interesting that McCormick too was recreating his Broadway role as the much flustered King, and here, he didn't seem like the much-bamboozled and put-upon sergeant.  Instead, he seemed almost slightly detached, more resigned to anything Stockdale or Whitledge did than horrified or frustrated by how it affected him.  It almost seemed as if he were expecting them to do something idiotic versus being genuinely shocked and appalled that his efforts to get them out ended up blowing up in his face.

It seemed that whenever Stockdale inadvertently humiliated or got King into trouble, it felt forced too.

A real astonishment is seeing Nick Adams, known for more tough-guy roles, as the meek Whitledge. It does show a range to his abilities as an actor, even though he came across as hopelessly whiny to where he is nearly unsympathetic.  One almost wishes he had been blown up by a nuclear bomb whenever he cries and moans about how he'll be court martialled or executed.

No Time for Sergeants felt extremely long, and I think it might have done good to have cut down on certain things, such as the time spent prior to getting to the base.  This is the first time I've questioned the idea of letting the Broadway cast recreate their roles for the film version (in the case of Andy Griffith doubly so, for while he was good in the film he again, looked a bit old for the role).

Not as funny as I'd hoped, No Time for Sergeants is still a work that might benefit from another version.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Quiet Passion: A Review (Review #948)


I'm Nobody!/Who are you?/Are you--Nobody--too?

So wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most famous poems.  Our reclusive spinster would probably be askance to know of A Quiet Passion, which dramatizes her life.  If we go by the poem, she would highly object to being a "Somebody".  A Quiet Passion certainly lives up to the title: the characters are very passionate, but also very quiet.  I think it is a film that will divide people: some will be impressed by the performances and the story of our perhaps bonkers poetess, others will find the hushed tones, slow pacing and deliberately mannered acting impossible to bear.

From my perspective, I found A Quiet Passion to not be your run-of-the-mill biopic and on the whole much better than perhaps it is.

After a brief time at Mt. Holyoke College, where our Emily (Emma Bell) openly states she will not be pushed to be 'saved', her family: Father (Keith Carradine), brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright) and sister Vinnie (Rose Williams) comes to bring her back to Amherst, Massachusetts, after a brief visit to Aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badlands).

Once back within the confines of the Dickinson home, we see that they are a loving, highly intellectual but eccentric family.  Emily (Cynthia Nixon) continues to be a nonconformist in matters of faith: she does not deny God, but insists that He is not confined within a church.  She gains permission from Father to write he poems in the wee hours and even gets him to use his influence with the local paper to see about getting a few published.

Most of our poetess' time is spent in witty repartee with her friend Vrylling Buffum (Catherine Bailey), who is as opinionated and caustic as Emily.  Time goes on: Emily continues to live out her questioning of God, supporting women's rights and abolition and not being afraid of speaking her mind, at least within the Dickinson home.  Austin (Duncan Duff) marries and has a child, while Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) continues cheerfully on with her single and chaste life.

If Emily had ventured out more, she would probably have been as outspoken in public as she was in private.  As it stands though, she doesn't.  Whether she is content to remain in seclusion or has slipped into a questionable mental state one doesn't know, but she does start wearing white after Father's death, sometimes not coming down the stairs and not speaking directly to people downstairs.

Eventually, Death kindly stopped for Emily, after paying Mrs. Dickinson (Joanna Bacon) a call, and maybe even metaphorically.

I think many, many people will find A Quiet Passion more an endurance test than an insightful character study.  I confess to finding it at times hard to stay awake while watching it, though in fairness to the film I was watching A Quiet Passion past my regular sleep time and had been up since 5:30 a.m.  The pacing is at times extremely slow (though not without its rewards: the transition from the younger to the older Dickinsons was made in a particularly ingenious way).

However, there are scenes that seem to drift and/or go nowhere.  Sometimes that stillness makes sense.  When Emily and Vinnie host Reverend Wadsworth (Eric Loren), the object of much affection by both Dickinson sisters...along with Mrs. Wadsworth (Simone Milsdochter), the unease and discomfort of this tea party is natural.  This is enhanced by Mrs. Wadsworth's insistence on not drinking tea or even lemonade, telling them that water will be the approved drink, with the suggestion that whatever the Reverend's wants, his greatest allowed indulgence is hot water.

Sometimes though the stillness is enough to drive a viewer into slumber.  An early scene where the Dickinsons along with Aunt Elizabeth are attending the opera feels so awfully long and tedious (something that at times could describe opera itself).

The performances in A Quiet Passion will also divide viewers.  I found them with one exception to be very stilted and mannered.  Whenever Brylin and Emily are matching wits, I saw that the words felt forced, as if they were not speaking in character but almost in verse.

In other movies I would have found this off-putting.  Here, however, I could never shake the sense that it was all deliberate, that it was the intent of writer/director Terence Davies that everyone should speak as if they were at a poetry recital.  Perhaps this is why I was forgiving of the mannered delivery, perhaps more than I should have been.

I mentioned one exception, and that is Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson herself, our Belle of Amherst.  Nixon makes Emily not into the great American poetess 'who went crazy as a loon' to quote Lisa Simpson.  Instead, Nixon's Emily is witty, sharp, sharp-tongued, even funny.  When the prissy Mrs. Wadsworth comments disdainfully on the Bronte sisters that Emily so loves, asking why they can't be more wholesome, Emily replies, 'if they wanted to be wholesome, they'd take up crochet'.

Nixon's delivery is one of the best I've seen: in equal parts innocent and knowing, casually dismissive of Mrs. Wadsworth without being overt about it.  She could be quite sharp, as when she discovers Austin in a compromising position with another man's wife.  Shocked at their behavior, Emily looks them both and says with strength and deeply repressed anger in her voice, "Mrs. Loomis, the exit is to your left".

I think 'repressed anger' is a good way to describe Nixon's portrayal of our wordsmith, because she too is kept to not really speaking loudly in A Quiet Passion.  Nixon is as much part of Davies' more hushed direction as any of the other actors, but you can see and hear the sharpness of her words when angry, the lightness of her manner when amused, even the fear when she seeks out approval.

Nixon's Emily Dickinson is bright, aware of the limitations due to her gender but not limited enough to 'know her place'.  She is not perfect: at one point Father tells her to apologize for snapping at three people who work for the Dickinson family, him telling her 'they are not servants, they are employees'. However, she is also longing for an outlet to her ideas, for a chance to transcend her world, to question both the limits of her time and whatever limits 'God' placed upon her.

Emily is asked about Hell, and what she thinks of it.  Her response is very Jane Eyre-like: Avoid it if I can, endure it if I must.  The conviction Nixon gives this bit of witty wisdom is in turns defiant and brilliant.

A second standout is Ehle as Vinnie, who was the Sun to Nixon's moon, the brightness to Emily's gloom.  The love Vinnie had for her sister comes through strongly and beautifully.

I can see how many people would find A Quiet Passion a chore as difficult as attending a poetry reading.  It is slow, the acting appears at times mannered to almost comedic levels, and it is slow. It does not give one great insight into Dickinson as a poetess or her writing.  However, with some surprisingly beautiful moments (a metaphorical 'gentleman caller' that to my mind brought back her poem Because I Could Not Stop for Death) and a quiet and passionate performance by Cynthia Nixon, it is just enough, just enough to get a passing.

Emily Dickinson will always be obscure to us.  A Quiet Passion does not inspire but it does slightly illuminate.



Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming. A Review


Out of all the Marvel characters, I think I am closest to Spider-Man.  I was and am not a comic book reader, but our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has had a special place in my heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third variation on Spidey that we have had.  Before I saw the film, I thought Tobey Maguire's version was the best and Andrew Garfield's the worst.

How would Tom Holland, the second British actor but the one closest to Peter Parker's actual age, fare in our Battle of the Arachnids?

He was great.  It's almost everything else about Spider-Man: Homecoming that was lacking.

Peter Parker (Holland) is attempting to balance his high-school life with dreams of being an Avenger. He's still on a metaphoric high after his actions in Captain America: Civil War (which like any good Millennial, he recorded).  However, his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has not called on him since then.  Peter wiles away the hours doing good works around his neighborhood, constantly contacting Stark's right-hand man, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and getting nothing for his troubles.

He also has little to show for his school either.  His obsession over the 'Stark Internship' keeps him from doing all sorts of other activities.  He even has to drop out of the Academic Decathlon, much to the delight of his nemesis, Flash (Tony Revolori), the general disinterest of Michelle (Zendaya), the consternation of his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and then there's Liz (Laurie Harrier), the beautiful and bright girl Pete has his eye on.

One fateful night, Ned discovers Peter's secret, and like all good nerds, immediately goes all fanboy on him.  It gets to where, overhearing how Liz has a crush on Spidey, Ned blurts out that Peter knows him.

I'm genuinely amazed Ned didn't just flat-out say Peter WAS Spider-Man.

While Ned's minor revelation causes Peter some problems, it does give him an accidental chance to do more crimefighting.  Already having come across criminals using alien technology to commit crimes, Peter manages to stumble into a weapons sale.  He is nearly done in by Ned's over-enthusiasm at Liz's party which Peter had to ditch and saved by a convenient Stark.

Upon finding that the weapons lair is in Maryland, guess who is back on the Aca-Dec Team in time to go to Washington, D.C.?  Here's a hint: Flash ain't happy being made First Alternate.

In D.C., Peter, thanks in part to the nifty new suit Stark gave him, complete with voice-activation Pete names 'Karen' (Jennifer Connelly) attempts to take down the bad guys.  That only leads him to miss the Aca-Dec and save the team trapped in the Washington Monument.  He manages to survive that, but makes a mess out of a planned capture of the villain on the Staten Island Ferry.

Oh, yes...the villain, have I not mentioned him?  It's Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a regular working-class guy who eight years prior after the events in The Avengers got accidentally screwed over by Stark.  He managed to get hold of alien technology back then and has been living off the profits of its weaponized uses since.

After bungling that, Spidey is essentially put on time-out, where Peter learns to be simple and a regular fifteen-year-old.  He also has the courage to ask Liz out to Homecoming, and she surprisingly (to him) says yes.  At Homecoming, he gets the ultimate surprise regarding Liz and Adrian, and then has a final battle to stop Adrian from getting his hands on more alien technology.

Redeemed, Stark welcomes him back, but Petey opts to stay on the ground, for now, though as a parting gift, he gets a new Spider-Man suit...much to the shock of Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).

I figure that the best way to summarize Spider-Man: Homecoming is in the ending credits scene where Captain America (Chris Evans) essentially mocks those who stayed behind. Every so often during Homecoming, Cap talks to bored students via 'cheesy' videos about all sorts of things: health, detention, and such. At the end, he talks about how patience is sometimes rewarded, sometimes not, then asks how many more of these videos he has to do.

The filmmakers were obviously laughing at whoever opted to stay around to the very end of the credits, which I did against my better judgment.

There's witty and then there's lazy, and Homecoming fell somewhere in the middle though more on the lazy side.  I get that a lot of people loved the film, but for me, I was left slightly numb by how uninteresting a lot of it is.

I think a lot of what I disliked about Homecoming was in how much time it took to get to whatever the main story was.  This, and many other faults in it, are the result of having six people credited with the screenplay (though I suspect there were more hands involved).  It should not take six people, including director Jon Watts, to write something like Homecoming, which isn't an origins story. There really couldn't be an origins film since Civil War pretty much got his story rolling.

There was a lot that could have been trimmed or cut, starting from his long intro to give us a highlight reel of the battle in Civil War, down to the few scenes Tomei was allowed to be part of, or Liz's birthday party or Peter's early do-gooding that seemed to go on and on.  Parker, temporarily trapped in the Department of Damage Control warehouse, spends what he thinks is hours discussing with his handy-dandy Karen everything from his love for Liz to why Stark doesn't make him a full Avenger.  The 'joke' comes in in that he has been in there for just fifteen minutes.

I'm sure they all thought it was funny, but to me it was symbolic of how Homecoming took a long time getting nowhere.

Almost every time they went for laughs, I more likely groaned.  The fan-service of the iconic kissing scene from the first Spider-Man had audiences laughing, but more out of contempt than genuine humor.  His voice change with his 'enhanced interrogation techniques' also fell flat because they weren't necessary; in fact, I thought them too distracting.

The deus ex machina of something (usually Stark) coming in to literally swoop in to save Spidey was also a bit hard to take.  I found Batalon's Ned much harder to take, as he quickly went from 'funny nerd' to 'annoying idiot' in seconds. He went beyond parody to where I would have been thrilled if the building had fallen on him and his hat.

I have been told that Homecoming was not going to be just a comic book film but a variation on a John Hughes teenage-centered film.  I didn't find that it was a particularly good fit because, as in Homecoming, one would always interrupt the other.  As a side note, despite the fact that Peter Parker essentially went missing during the Academic Decathlon, nothing really came of it (something that makes me wonder exactly who was minding the store).  Their Aca-Dec coach seemed perfectly happy to take the kids to a celebratory tour of the Washington Monument versus, perhaps calling the police.

Parker, far from being expelled from school, is merely put in detention.  No one wonders where he went in Washington, or from Liz's party for that matter.  If you introduce something, why then pull back again and again?

When it comes to Holland, he was spot-on.  At 20, he is the youngest actor to play Peter Parker, and he is not just believable as a 15-year-old high school student from Queens (especially compared to the then almost 30-year-old Garfield when he took his first turn).  Holland brings the insecurity of Peter, the desire to be an Avenger and in essence, to be something greater than, if not for a radioactive bug, he might have ended as.  In his eagerness, in his clumsiness, in his growing maturity, Holland makes a great Peter Parker and Spider-Man.

I've always said that Tobey Maguire was a better Spider-Man than Peter Parker, and Andrew Garfield was a better Peter Parker than Spider-Man.  I think Tom Holland is the first to balance both characters.

In regards to the rest of the younger castmembers, we might have a case of too much of a good thing. On the plus side, Homecoming has done great work in opening up roles for minorities.  We have a smorgasbord of diversity among the players: Filipino, Guatemalan, and at least three African or African-American performers with at least one character being biracial.  On the minus, I could not shake the idea that the filmmakers were determined to make every casting decision for the high school parts strictly on representation.  At times it looked like Peter was the only white male at the school, unless you count the Hasidic Jew briefly seen in the background.

I support representation and opening up roles that don't strictly call for a specific race/ethnicity.  I do think that perhaps Homecoming might have gone overboard, particularly if it meant tying Liz with Adrian in a 'shocking' twist that is more for 'drama' than for anything else.

Batalon, as I might have mentioned earlier, proved thoroughly annoying as Ned, down to his cell phone profile, though that might be due to the part rather than him.  Revolori wasn't my idea of a major threat, which Flash always was, more whiner than real-life bully.  Zendaya is famous for something, I'm not sure what, but her Michelle or 'MJ' as she told us didn't add anything more than constant sarcasm.  Harrier was good as Liz, but sadly wasn't given all that much to do.

As a side note, any film that does not make good us of Garcelle Beauvais and relegates her to one scene (technically two but if memory serves correct she was silent in the second) should be publicly horsewhipped.  Same goes for the bad misuse of Tomei, who apparently was there simply as eye-candy to every guy and Ned that came her way.  Yes, she's the hottest Aunt May in history, but it's sad when you could have cut her out of the movie completely and not have her absence affect the film.

Keaton was a bit wild as Adrian/Vulture, his motives taking a page from a mobster movie.  Downey, Jr. and Favreau were there I think just to tie things to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while not slumming they didn't look particularly engaged.

Part of me doesn't blame them, as Homecoming is more strictly the kids' domain.

Watts would be well-advised to rethink his visual style, as the climatic battle between Vulture and Spidey was jumbled and hard to follow visually.  You had the requisite action sequences, and while the Washington Monument one was strong and the Staten Island Ferry one wasn't terrible, I wasn't thrilled by either.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an odd fit: part teen dramedy, part comedy, part action, part action-comedy, part drama, with none of them working in tandem.  It is a film by committee, one where a checklist was given to those involved and they were told to put in everything on it without real regard to how it worked or if it worked at all.  Apart from Tom Holland, I didn't find anything in Spider-Man: Homecoming that was thrilling, funny, intense, romantic or sometimes even logical.

Holland is growing in my mind as the best to interpret the character.  However, he needs better material if he wants to make full Avenger.

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Thor: Ragnarok


Monday, September 25, 2017

Gotham: Pax Penguina Review


What is fascinating about Pax Penguina, the first episode of Gotham Season Four, is that our characters in this Batman adaptation have in essence, fully embraced their personas in one way or another.  We do have a touch of deja vu with another 'mad formula wreaking havoc', but with some good performances, lots of hinting about the future for these characters, and a surprisingly low violence level (though maybe a bit too much on another front), Pax Penguina is a good strong start to this season.

Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) has retaken control of the criminal underground. He's also added a totally new innovation: a license of misconduct.  In exchange for a cut of the loot, Penguin will allow certain criminal to commit crimes without worry of arrest from the Gotham City Police Department.  Even more brazen, Penguin is in cahoots with the new Mayor and Police Commissioner to give them a thin cut as well in exchange for the GCPD playing nice.

Everyone does play nice, except for one detective who has an unbending sense of justice: Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  He won't bend, even if his partner/acting Captain Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) asks him to, and even if crime in Gotham City is down by over 50%.

The drop in crime might also be related to a new player: Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz).  He has been scouring the city at night, looking to take out anyone who is committing crimes.  He too is both puzzled and displeased at this License of Misconduct.

Pengy, for his part, is thrilled, and much too concerned over the opening of his Iceberg Lounge club to care, or even pay much notice to Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas) or her newest protege, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  He does, however, note that there is a renegade group of criminals who is not playing ball with him, insisting on doing their own thing.

Gordon, noting that this gang does not have a Licence, can pursue them to his heart's content.  That leads him and Bullock back to an old frenemy, Jonathan Crane (Charlie Tahan), last seen in Season One.  The rogue gang is after the Crane's fear formula to use against Penguin, and they need the terrified and unstable Jonathan to get it.

As it turns out, all the agendas collide at the Iceberg Lounge opening.  Bruce and Penguin face off (and surprisingly, Bruce is taller), Gordon hoodwinks both Penguin and the rogue gang into facing off, Tabitha and Selina appear to be seeking out licences while Bruce and Selina continue their odd dance d'amour, and Penguin, with help from his newest henchman, Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan) come well within getting rid of these meddlesome hoods.  It's only the frustration of Pengy's girl Friday Ivy Pepper (Maggie Geha) that brings things crashing down.

The gang manages to spray Pengy with the fear formula, and he sees in terror what he fears the most: his old frenemy Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) returning.  The gang members that manage to escape get a surprise of their own, as Jonathan has completely disappeared, the figure of The Scarecrow having completely taken over.

One aspect of Pax Penguina that I did enjoy was the surprising lack of on-camera violence, something that Gotham has at times gotten carried away with.  One aspect of Pax Penguina that I did not enjoy was the visuals of what terrified people the most.  To be fair, it was not as graphic as it could have been, but at the bank robbery I think the visuals for the terrified people would be a bit too intense for children and tweens.  Parents should be wary of allowing anyone younger than 16 to watch Gotham.

I think another part that I could do without is a sense of repetition.  Last season, we had the Tetch virus, and now, it looks like the Fear Formula of the Cranes is going to have a part in the goings-on.   We just got through a long story about chemicals doing evil things to people.  Can we see that again?

However, a lot of good things are in Pax Penguina.  We get great nods to the future relationship between future Batman and future Commissioner Gordon: Bruce appearing and disappearing out of nowhere to help Gordon with an investigation, Gordon being smart but Bruce giving him that one little detail the detective didn't see.  We also see that work between Bruce and Selina continuing, one able to match the other.

It allows for a little bit of humor to sneak in; as Bruce and Selina talk while walking on the ledge, Alfred comes upon them.  "Honestly, you two.  Why couldn't you go to the cinema like normal teenagers," he asks them.

A big part of Pax Penguina's success is with the performances, and a large chunk of credit goes to Robin Lord Taylor as our beloved Pengy.  Not only has he now fully embraced the Penguin persona (he himself calls this new era in Gotham the 'Pax Penguina'), but he delights in being so wicked and unapologetic about it.  Taylor has consistently managed to be evil without being camp, and any actor/actress who wants to see how to play a villain without being over-the-top would be well-informed to see a clip reel of his Penguin.

The cinematography also helps: when he is detailing his plans for the rogue gang, his performance and the visuals make Penguin look almost demonic.  When Penguin sees what he fears the most, it gives Penguin a shocking vulnerability, the terror really hitting him.

It does also lead to an amusing headline in the Gotham Gazette when detailing his meltdown at the Iceberg Lounge: Penguin or Chicken?

Mazouz has really taken command of his Bruce Wayne, still learning how to be that vigilante and working to control himself, using his mind and body to take down his opponents large and small.  Bicondova too continues to go from triumph to triumph as Selina, her fighting skills still strong but with room for improvement.  It makes their evolution into Batman and Catwoman both believable and highly entertaining.

Carrigan, who at times gets lost in the shuffle as Victor Zsasz, manages to be both menacing and oddly amusing.  Sadly, Geha has little to do except bring chaos to Pengy's party, but hopefully she will be better used in future episodes.  You don't make Ivy Pepper or Poison Ivy older just to leave her lost in the wilderness.

Guest star Tahan does not have much to do except look frightened as Jonathan Crane, but given that he was not the main focus of Pax Penguina one cuts him some slack.  Sadly, it

Pax Penguina does what it needs to do: set up things for the upcoming episodes, if not whole season. With strong performances, always excellent cinematography and surprisingly tame moments, it is a good way to begin our latest plunge into this city's heart of darkness.


Next Episode: The Fear Reaper

Sunday, September 24, 2017

This Is Not Us: Thoughts on 2017 Emmy Awards

I start out my thoughts on last week's 2017 Emmy Awards with an apology.

I apologize to Meryl Streep.

I opted to skip the Emmys and instead attend Game Five of the Pacific Coast League baseball championship between my hometown El Paso Chihuahuas and the Memphis Redbirds.  Memphis, like The Handmaid's Tale, won, alas.

I understand you won too, Ms. Streep, for Outstanding Narrator for the documentary Five Came Back.  My most heartfelt congratulations.

As I opted to go to a sporting event rather than watch these prestigious awards, I must have revealed myself to be a rube, one of those great unwashed who know nothing of culture, of art, of refinement. 

Never mind that I have a Master's Degree in Library Science. 
Never mind that I am an actual librarian. 
Never mind that I am a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 
Never mind that I travelled from El Paso to San Antonio to see Loreena McKennitt in concert. 
Never mind that one of the music stations I have from Sirius XM is Sirius on Broadway.
Never mind that I know who Dame Joan Sutherland and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa are and can almost tell them apart voice-wise.
Never mind that I have finished reading Lolita and am starting to read A Room With a View.

As I made the decision to attend a sporting event, which I'm told, is not 'the arts', over watching a television special where awards of merit to quality television were presented, I have shown myself as an uneducated, virtually illiterate man of low cultural knowledge and/or aspirations.  In short, the fact that I would rather have the autographs of Hunter Renfroe and Christian Villanueva over those of Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe reveals what an unworthy individual I am.

I beg your forgiveness and hope that my attendance at Beautiful: The Carole King Musical three days later proved appropriate atonement for my sins.

Even if I hadn't had Game Five of the PCL Championship, I would have skipped the Emmys and not because I would have watched any football games, something of even lower quality which I'd be stuck watching forever if not for Streep or Amy Adams or Avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling. To be honest I prefer baseball over football except for the Super Bowl.

Simply put, out of the Outstanding Comedy Series nominees (Atlanta, black-ish, Master of None, Modern Family, Silicon Valley, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Veep) and Outstanding Drama Series (Better Call Saul, House of Cards, Stranger Things, The Crown, The Handmaid's Tale, This is Us, and Westworld), I have seen precisely...none.

I don't have Netflix, Hulu or HBO subscriptions and I don't watch a lot of network programming.

In fact, looking over the programs that I do watch or did watch on a regular basis that are still on the air, I can name but a few: The Americans, Doctor Who, Elementary, and Gotham.  Out of those shows, Doctor Who and Gotham are the only ones that I am still up to date with, having missed two seasons of The Americans and about three for Elementary.

Truth be told, I'm pretty satisfied with reruns of The Golden Girls, Designing Women, or Empty Nest and documentaries on National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild (I probably watched Wild Scotland and Wild New Zealand, whose narrators Ewan McGregor and Sam Neill lost out to Streep).  I'm also more likely to watch something on Turner Classic Movies and, sad to say, MLB Network (I always end up watching either Casablanca or The Sandlot whenever they are played on one of them). I'm also a big fan of Autopsy on Reelz, Flea Market Flip on HGTV, and Mysteries at the Museum on Travel Channel. 

As a side note, poor Ewan...three time Emmy loser.  Couldn't Meryl give him one of hers?

I don't watch commentary shows like Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Real Time with Bill Maher, Late Night with Seth Meyers, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel Live or Saturday Night Live.  All these show save Real Time may insist they are 'comedy' or 'variety' shows, but this is a case of 'they doth protest too much'.  Real Time is pretty much upfront about what it is: a political commentary show with a left-wing viewpoint.

All the others still insist they are not, evidence notwithstanding.  In case anyone wonders, I rely on clips to make my assessment on these shows, along with an occasional sighting as I channel-surf.

All these programs now have essentially one purpose: to push a particular agenda.  You can't have Emmy winner Kate McKinnon sing a mournful Hallelujah as Hillary Clinton and not think she was singing more for McKinnon (and the SNL cast/crew) than 'in character'.

For better or worse, all these shows served as de facto campaign ads for Mrs. Clinton/Democratic Party and against now-President Donald Trump, and the Emmy Awards were a chance for all of them to vent their anger, their frustration, their disappointment one more time.

Let me now put some things out in the open.

I will not say that the winners were not deserving.  If I get a chance to see them, I might think well of them.

I will not say 'stars' or anyone working in the entertainment industry should not make their sociopolitical positions public, bearing in mind that not everyone will agree with them nor should everyone agree with them.  Debate is wonderful.

I will not say said 'stars' or anyone working in the entertainment industry should not use their programs to promote their ideology, again bearing in mind that not everyone will agree with them or watch said programs.

I will not say that I might not even disagree with whatever 'stars' say on certain topics of the day.

This is what I will say.

This year's Emmy Awards' low interest (one of the lowest-rated presentations in its history) was a result of two aspects.  The first is that most viewers are simply not familiar with or interested in the nominated shows.  More people watch Sunday Night Football (18.5 million viewers) airing at the same time than have ever seen or heard of The Handmaid's Tale or Master of None (neither of which have their actual number of viewers available).  Hulu as of this year has 32 million subscribers, but even by the most generous standards it is highly unlikely if not unrealistic to think 32 million people watched The Handmaid' Tale.

For all we know, Elisabeth Moss and Aziz Ansari may be metaphorically playing to an empty house. Why care over something you don't know about?

Meryl Streep may bemoan this as a sign of the End of Western Civilization but for those who actually watch/attend a Green Bay Packers/Atlanta Falcons game over watching/attending the Emmy Awards, at least they have a vested interest in who plays, who wins, who loses, as oddball or loopy as that may be to Streep or even to me.

Do people really care that much if Alexander Skarsgard beats out Alfred Molina?

If we go by the top ten-rated shows on network television, we find that football, that 'thing' we'd be forever condemned to watch if not for Dev Patel, makes up five out of the Top Ten and Four out of the Top Five most-watched programming events.  Sunday Night Football is the most watched program in America, with Thursday Night Football on NBC and CBS not far behind. The only non-sports program in the top five is NCIS (which has yet to win an Emmy in any category, let alone be nominated for Outstanding Drama Series).

In short, more Americans would prefer watching Aaron Rodgers win than Ann Dowd win.  It's not slam on Dowd.  It's just how things stand.

This Is Us, the highest-watched show to be up for major Emmy consideration, is at fifteen.  One can imagine where Transparent is in terms of viewership or interest among those who can name the entire offense and defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  It does not make one ignorant, stupid, uncultured or bigoted to have a greater interest in one over the other.  It just means that for better or worse, more people would rather watch one over the other.

Ratings-wise, football, that lowly entertainment of the hoi polloi, that modern American equivalent to gladiatorial contests, dominates the screen and more surprising, it isn't just NFL games that get more viewership than Last Week Tonight.  College football inspires more passion than John Oliver.

I'm not a football fan, though I will watch an occasional game live or on television.  I have no interest in who wins or loses, but I am not going to sit in judgment over those who think the win-loss spread of a Pac-12 match is something that requires great analysis.  That leads me to what I think is the second reason for low ratings/interest in this year's Emmy Awards.

The second is that there is a growing disconnect between Hollywood and its audience.  Various Emmy winners and host Stephen Colbert made constant references to President Trump, none of them positive or supportive.

That is their right.

That, however, reinforces the idea that those in entertainment have a contempt for those whom they insist pay them, either in terms of attention or business.  It reinforces the woeful comment Hillary Clinton made about those who weren't with Her as being part of a 'basket of deplorables'.  It reinforces the idea that people like Oliver and Donald Glover and Alec Baldwin and Julia Louis-Dreyfus think those who don't watch their shows or don't agree with them are somehow 'lesser people' if people at all.

There is something hectoring, lecturing, pompous, arrogant about people in lavish wardrobe, dripping with jewels, with chauffeurs and large paychecks telling those who make less than the cost of some of those outfits and jewels that they essentially are dumb people for not agreeing with them, for not seeing things the way the presenters and winners do, for wasting their time and money on MMA when they could be using that time and money listening to the wisdom of Elisabeth Moss.

As a side note, it does look a bit curious that The Handmaid's Tale and Moss in particular would think they are saying something grand about female oppression in a fictional dictatorial Christian theocracy they insist is a parallel to a Trump-era America when ISIS is beheading women and tossing gays off buildings. Moss' religion of Scientology isn't known to think highly of dissent in general and their record on gay rights is sketchy, so maybe there seems to be a slight disconnect there, but I digress.

I would like it explained how say Kate McKinnon can essentially tell people, 'you are dumb to vote against the person I wanted to be President, you are sexist, homophobic and pay to watch me perform'.

The Emmy Awards appear to be the latest event in a series of curious decisions by those in the entertainment industry.

There was Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes which I'm sure she doesn't think was condescending or even appeared to be so despite telling people that without Amy Adams or Dev Patel we'd be 'stuck' watching nothing but football or Mixed Martial Arts, helpfully adding that the latter was not 'the arts', in case I ever confused Conor McGregor with Maria Tallchief.

There was the endless parade of performers cheering on Mrs. Clinton in the run-up to the election: the Katy Perry, Beyoncé/Jay-Z concerts that were meant to draw millions to her side.  I'd have no problem going to see Perry or Lady Gaga perform...and then vote for Evan McMullin.

There was Stranger Things actor David K. Harbour's speech at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where he all but threatened violence against those who were not of his same viewpoint.

There was the Women's March where Ashley Judd went on an almost unhinged rant about being a Nasty Woman and Madonna waxing rhapsodic about 'blowing up the White House'.

There was the endless parade of performers who threatened to move to Canada or Spain should Trump win (Amy Schumer did the latter).  I think Cher threatened to move to Jupiter.

As of today, no star who said he/she would leave the country should there be a President Trump has yet to take up permanent residence in Montreal or Madrid.

As another side note, it seems a bit strange to me to think that people would be influenced to vote for anyone based on whether or not Miley Cyrus would continue living in the United States.

I, again, am not saying that people like Jimmy Kimmel remain quiet when it comes to politics.  I am saying that perhaps they could find better venues than their eponymous shows or awards unless they stated right from the get-go 'Jimmy Kimmel Live is not going to be an entertainment show.  It's going to be a tool to promote my personal political agenda and I'll throw in some jokes in'.

Like it or not, these kinds of acts are not helpful.  I would argue they are hurtful and are doing more harm than good.  James Cagney was a strong liberal.  James Stewart was a strong conservative.  Yet I don't think Cagney or Stewart went on such diatribes as today's performers do on a regular basis.  They didn't hide their politics, but they didn't think that their position made them either experts on everything or take on an almost antagonistic and hostile view of audiences who didn't hold them.

I know many liberals who love Stewart and conservatives who love Cagney.  We don't think about who they voted for or what they believed. We focus on the pleasure they brought us, not on their stand on the Vietnam War or on welfare reform. Same goes for right-winger Ginger Rogers and left-winger Henry Fonda.

Johnny Carson is still the gold standard for hosts in part because no one really knew where he stood politically.

He mocked both sides with equal aplomb, but Carson never took sides so openly as Kimmel or Oliver, let alone insist to audiences that his views were the right views and those who didn't agree were wrong at best, almost murderous at worst.

There is a time to act and a time to protest.  They need not be the same time.

2017's box office is the worst in over a decade.  A large part of it is due to the dearth of good movies. A smaller part may be because people are turned off by how politicized Hollywood is now.  I am not a subscriber to that theory, but I'm not ruling it out.

Even football, which Streep appears to hold such contempt for, is seeing ratings and attendance drop. Again, there are many factors to the decline: high ticket prices, uninteresting matchups with poor playing, excessive commercial breaks.

However, the current trend of NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem as a protest being in part a cause of the decline cannot be dismissed out of hand.  Again, we have a situation where professional sports players are apparently lecturing their fans.  I figure there are fans who disagree with whatever the players are protesting and don't agree with them.  I figure there are fans who agree with them but don't think a game is an appropriate venue to stage those protests.

That is their right to protest.  It is also the audience's right to ignore them or remove their viewership.

If stars want to protest, they should.  If football players want to protest, they should.  Stars, football players, or anyone else who makes a living in entertaining others should not then turn around and complain when their protests turns people away and those people refuse to hand over their time and/or money to them.

I don't watch Betty White to have her tell me whom I should vote for.  I don't watch Rocky Gale for that reason either.

There is nothing wrong with entertainers being social activists.  There is also nothing wrong with viewers deciding they would rather do something else than listen to them.

Forgive us our sins, Meryl Streep.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Doctor's Dilemma: A Review


I can't say that George Bernard Shaw is forgotten, but it seems that a lot of his work isn't as well-known as perhaps it should be to the general public.  Apart from Pygmalion and the musical version, My Fair Lady, I don't think most people would be able to name another Shaw play.  I think it is high time for a cinematic Shaw revival, even if something like The Doctor's Dilemma may have a hard time with the current trend to 'update' stories set in the past.

Actually, on that point, I think I may be wrong.  The Doctor's Dilemma may actually be one of the better choices for an update, especially since something like Mrs. Warren's Profession might not be so scandalous given how open current society is on the matter of selling sex.  I've no way of knowing whether this version of The Doctor's Dilemma sticks close to the original as I have not seen a formal stage production of the play, but I suspect it is true to how the work is.  The Doctor's Dilemma, while a bit stuffy now, has moments of wit, humor, and heart that all but call for a remake.

Colenso Ridgeon (John Robinson) has just been knighted for finding a cure for consumption (tuberculosis).  He receives various colleagues with delight, but there is one person he does not wish to see: Jennifer Dubedat (Leslie Caron), the wife/model of a dying artist, Louis (Dirk Bogarde).  Despite his insistence Mrs. Dubedat will not be denied, even offering a bribe to the housekeeper to let her see him.  Reluctantly, Sir Colenso relents.

He insists that his revolutionary treatment is very limited and he can help only a certain number of people.  However, he finds Mrs. Dubedat extremely attractive and charming, and he finds Louis' work exceptional.  Such a talent should be saved, and Sir Colenso agrees to squeeze him in to the treatments, though he has to pass a morals test with Sir Colenso and his three colleagues.

At the dinner party Louis manages to charm all of them: Sir Colenso, the surgeon Dr. Walpole (Alistair Sim), the specialist Sir Ralph Bloomfield-Bonington (Robert Morley), and the retired doctor Sir Patrick Cullen (Felix Aylmer).  They all agree Louis Dubedot is a genius and that he should be saved.  They also see Louis is a scoundrel: he cheats them all out of money and we find that the housemaid is in fact, the real Mrs. Dubedat, with Jennifer unaware that she is committing bigamy.

However, things get complicated when a colleague of Sir Colenso, Dr. Blenkinsop (Michael Gwynn) reveals he too has a touch of the consumption.  Dr. Blekinsop is not only a colleague and friend, but a much-needed doctor who unlike the others is not a quack.

Hence, the doctor's dilemma: whether to save his friend the good doctor or the talentless but moralless artist.  Things are more complicated when we find that the bachelor Sir Colenso has fallen in love with Jennifer.  Will he let lust cloud his judgment?  Will he allow for genius such as Louis' to go the way of all flesh or will he work to save a much more moral figure who will be unknown to history?

One of the curiosities in The Doctor's Dilemma is that it starts out with a bit of voice-over by Sir Patrick but after a while that goes by the wayside.  It's good voice-over in that it allows us to see Sir Patrick as one with a jaded eye towards his profession, which he see as populated by a lot of quacks who have either little interest in actual health or are just plain stupid.

I suppose director Anthony Asquith dropped that bit thanks to Anatole de Grunwald's adaptation of Shaw's play.  It is clear by both the performances and the script that the doctors, in particular Walpole and Bloomfield-Bonington were idiots.  It is good to see Sim and Morley play such pompous fools, and they do it so well. Morley in particular seems adept at playing thick-headed individuals to where he made a career out of it.  In his efforts to sound intelligent with his talk of various blood materials his idiocy comes completely through.

Sim, best remembered as Scrooge in one of the many A Christmas Carol versions, shows, makes most of his tottering surgeon who thinks everything can be cured through removing this, that and t'other.  

It's interesting that it is Robinson that comes across as a bit of a stiff, with little hint of any erotic passion for Jennifer.  He is both rather dramatic as Ridgeon and as someone who is just there.  He didn't strike me as particularly strong.

It took a while to recognize Dirk Bogarde as the amoral Louis, and to be honest, I don't think he was as good as he could have been as Louis the Loser.  It's almost as if he and Asquith wanted some audience sympathy for the devil when making him totally sleazy save for Jennifer might have done a bit more.  I thought Bogarde a touch theatrical.

Caron too was a touch overly dramatic but I think Jennifer was meant to be slightly overdone, her near-total worship of Louis to where she's blinded to his true nature a major part of her character. Still, Caron did show a strong nature at the end when she coldly rejects Sir Colenso for not having cured her husband.  It shows a tough, unforgiving manner to her, understandable given the circumstances.

The screen adaptation is particularly strong, though at times the film cannot fully escape its theatrical roots.  The movie, however, shows how slowly, steadily, Louis twists the doctors' morality against them, to where what Sir Colenso said earlier in regards to Louis makes some sense.

"It's easier to replace a dead man than a good picture".

Joseph Kosma's score at times is a bit overdramatic, punctuating moments of intensity when they need not be punctuated, and sometimes the sets and costumes are a bit more stage-bound than perhaps would have been good.  It might also have been good to have seen some of the good work Dr. Blenkinsop did and the artwork that so impressed the various doctors.

On the whole, however, The Doctor's Dilemma is not a bad way to spend some time with Shaw.  It is a story that works quite well today, whether it is set in Edwardian England or the present-day, as new technologies and human trials continue leaving doctors and scientists with various ethical questions, some that might even involve the heart.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

American Assassin: A Review


There are certain things I must say first before I give an honest view of American Assassin, the first film adaptation of  the late Vince Flynn's MITCH RAPP series of spy thrillers.  First, I don't like MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, who sadly died at the young age of 47 of prostate cancer.  Having read both American Assassin and Act of Treason, I found MITCH RAPP to be one of the coldest, most uninteresting characters committed to paper.  He has nothing to him: no real passions, no real joys, nothing that would mark him as remotely human.

That has always been my issue with MITCH RAPP as written by Flynn, an author I do respect for creating well-paced stories with good, solid twists in them.  MITCH RAPP was always an aloof figure, terribly inhuman.  The film adaptation of American Assassin does not humanize him, but even with own issues with the character, he deserved better than this misfire.

In case you were wondering, I type it as MITCH RAPP because he is such a staccato character: short-tempered, blunt, generally monosyllabic down to his name.  I'll retire that for the plot summary.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) has just proposed to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on the sunny coast of Spain when terrorists storm the beach and start killing people, including Katrina.  18 months after the attack, Rapp is a dissolute young man with a lot of anger issues.  He beats people with far too much strength at his MMA classes, he throws knives at his apartment at pictures of the terrorists who killed his beloved, and somehow, despite being pretty much bonkers he manages to convince those same terrorists that he is a willing member of their jihad.

Exactly how this guy manages to infiltrate their online cell while being able to type in Arabic the film does not answer (and yes, it is possible he knew Arabic prior to that fateful sojourn in Spain, but it is stretching things to think so).

Anyway, he manages to get to Libya where he meets up with that cell, but before he is offed the Americans come to spoil his carefully laid out plans.  After his capture, he is taken to Deputy CIA Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who sees in Rapp a potential recruit to do secret anti-terrorism operations.  Thus she sends him for training (or in Rapp's case, a refresher course) to Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a weather-worn ex-Marine whose job it is to train these secret soldiers.

Hurley dislikes Rapp from the word 'go', but he also sees the promise within, if only Rapp would stop treating everything as a prelude to enacting revenge.  Kennedy then throws Hurley, Rapp, and Victor (Scott Atkins) another of Hurley's trainees, into their mission: to recover weapons-grade plutonium apparently sought out by Iranians bent on Israel's destruction.

It's off to Istanbul, where with the aid of Annika (Shiva Negar), an agent for the U.S., they are to get the plutonium.  However, the mysterious figure known as 'Ghost' is on to them, killing Victor as he makes his getaway when making the sale.  Rapp, as is his want, disobeys orders to pursue the Turk involved in this nefarious scheme.  It leads to Rapp managing to climb five floors from the outside, kill the Turk's mistress and guard before killing the Turk.

Hurley is incensed, but Kennedy points out Rapp did get a laptop that gives them information which sweeps them to Rome.  There, we find that Ghost is going to make the sale, but first needs a physicist to help with the weapon.  It's also here that we find Annika is really a double agent...and the niece of Hurley's Iranian counterpart, who himself is assassinated.

It's now a race to get to Ghost and stop him from selling the weapon, but as it turns out, 'Ghost' (Taylor Kitsch) has an agenda of his own.  It's once again up to Mitch Rapp to stop Ghost and save the world, or at least in this case, the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

Perhaps my dislike or rather disappointment with American Assassin is that in this case, I did read the Vince Flynn novel before the movie was made.  As such, I don't understand two aspects of the adaptation.  One, why did the producers find it necessary to have four people adapt the novel?  Two and more important, why did the producers make so many changes to American Assassin as to render it almost unfaithful to both the spirit and the letter of Flynn's origin story to MITCH RAPP (the novel having been written long after Flynn introduced the character)?

In the original novel, MITCH RAPP was a bright Syracuse University student with great athletic skills in lacrosse whose fiancee was murdered in the Pan Am 103 bombing.  As such, he was exceptionally bright, physically strong, and highly motivated by both emotion and patriotism.  As a side note, this might be the only time that I can remember MITCH RAPP having any kind of emotion, but I digress.

The novel also has MITCH RAPP ending his first mission not in Rome, but in the Middle East (Lebanon if memory serves correct, though I won't vouch for that).  He was taking out terrorists, and they weren't Americans, let alone Americans with revenge motivations against Hurley.

In short, I think the changes made to American Assassin from book to screen were so great as to water down the film and make it less than what it could have been if they had stuck closer to the novel.  I figure only those who read the novel would notice; however, in attempting to make it more 'accessible' to those who didn't/hadn't read the novel it took out what made the original a strong thriller.

By making a lot of cliched choices (the 'revenge' motive, using 'Ghost' as an alias when that was the term Hurley used to describe agents killed or captured in the line of duty, throwing in a beautiful femme fatale when MITCH RAPP apparently has little to no desires for pleasures of the flesh or even friendship), it ironically stripped American Assassin from its base and turned it into a substandard action film.

I can't generally fault the casting, though I confess that Adkins, who is killed off quickly and whose name I learned only after he was killed, fit my idea of what MITCH RAPP would look like, more than the muscular but thin O'Brien.  I always pictured MITCH RAPP as square-jawed, muscular, with crisp hair...a bit like Vince Flynn  himself.  Dylan O'Brien, with his facial hair and unkempt hair, was not whom I imagined whenever I read either of the MITCH RAPP books.

It isn't as if O'Brien gave a bad performance.  He's a talented actor who can handle action (The Maze Runner series) though even for an origin film he still looks a bit too young.  Whatever his merits as an actor, the script does him no favors as this version of MITCH RAPP has him come across as genuinely nuts versus the cold straight-shooter who takes nothing from no one and does what he thinks needs doing.

As a side note, that aspect of both American Assassin and the MITCH RAPP series never sat right with me.  Again and again MITCH RAPP would disobey orders and do something that would anger his superiors only to get no reprimand because his actions, as legally dubious or unauthorized were, inevitably gave results.

A major sin is in how it misuses or underuses several actors.  If your film has the benefit of someone like David Suchet, why relegate him to a few scenes?  Same goes for Lathan, who like Suchet appears to have been directed by Michael Cuesta to do little more than look worried or snap at someone.

Another side note: Irene Kennedy knows about MITCH RAPP coming in contact with this terrorist cell, which the CIA has been unable to crack, down to monitoring him with hidden cameras at MITCH RAPP's apartment.  Apart from the wild idea that a civilian could do something the CIA with all its resources couldn't, why Kennedy would let such a loose cannon as MITCH RAPP continue to run roughshod over everything and everyone is never explained.  At least in the novel, she has been observing him while he was a student at Syracuse, which is more logical that the film.

Keaton is swallowing his scenes whole as Hurley, and poor Kitsch (who in another world might have been a better version of the young MITCH RAPP) is stuck doing his version of a low-rent James Bond villain (as if he were the younger American cousin to Christoph Waltz's Blofeld from SPECTRE).

There are good things in American Assassin that might have made it passable: a training sequence involving holograms in particular was a standout.  It's unfortunate though that so much of American Assassin was wasted on a variation of MITCH RAPP.  Rather than the cold, ruthless man with a mission, American Assassin served up a variation of Jason Bourne who is slightly if not totally bonkers and emotionally compromised at every turn.  In the novels, perhaps you can cheer on someone like MITCH RAPP, who gets the job done and never wavers from it even if reason or emotion would suggest otherwise.  In this film, it is harder to cheer on someone who lives up to what Hurley tells him, "You follow orders when it suits you," showing someone more arrogant and reckless than determined.

It is possible a series might be squeaked out by American Assassin, but it needs newer production standards and more faithfulness to the Flynn novels, or we might find this hoped-for franchised is all MITCH RAPP-ed up.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Work: A Review (Review #944)


The Work is an extraordinary film, forcing the viewer to question their ideas of who and what criminals are, what masculinity is, and the ideas of rehabilitation versus incarceration.  It does not shy away from the unsavory aspects of crime and punishment, as well as vulnerable men, something that even now is seen as an oxymoron. Co-directed by Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous,  The Work holds you, makes no statements about what the viewer should think about what the viewer sees, but it gives one pause to ask themselves questions about how they would react and be in similar circumstances.

The Inside Circle Foundation conducts group therapy sessions for convicted men. Twice a year the public is invited to join a four-day intensive group therapy session at Folsom State Prison (the one made famous by the Johnny Cash song).  The Work chronicles one such session, focusing on three men 'on the outside': Charles, a bartender, Chris, a museum associate, and Brian, a teacher's assistant. They go in to the prison where they are grouped with men serving time for various crimes from kidnapping to attempted murder.

The convicts agree to leave any and all gang politics and racial segregation outside the sessions.  This affords them a chance to work together in delving into their deepest, most personal issues.  Those on the outside also participate, informally joining with two prisoners they choose with whom they will share their feelings, hurts, and pain.  This smaller group will in turn join a slightly larger group with facilitators who will guide the convicts and free men to open up about all their emotional issues and scars.

During the four days of therapy, both the convicts and free men open up in unsparing, painful ways about their emotions, raw and uncensored.  We see convicts openly weep for their dead sisters and howl in pain about the absence of their fathers (a recurring theme for most if not all the men was either the total absence of their father or the failure of their fathers to be guides in some way).  Both the convicts and free men reveal their innermost emotions in terms that prove shocking and surprising.

After the four days of emotional soul-baring, the free men return to society, more aware of who they are, while those on the inside continue to heal.  The Work ends by noting that in the 17 years the Inside Circle Foundation has been running their program, over 40 convicts who have participated have been released.

Their recidivism rate?


The Work will shock those who have preconceived notions about men in general and convicts in specific.  The notion that someone like the Native American prisoner Dark Cloud, who openly talks about almost chopping a man in half, sobbing uncontrollably over leaving his mother for his father who was no good for him, leaves one almost in disbelief.

While he wants to be vulnerable (his words), at one point he lunges at Brian when he whispers that Dark Cloud is 'gentle' with only the other men holding him back saving Brian.  The inner struggle the convicts have and how they can be so open in a place where emotion is seen as weakness is perhaps startling but also courageous.

Again and we see how for many if not all the men, free and convicted, their fathers are a specter hanging over their lives.  Brian, who says that one of his issues is being quick to judge and has issues when it comes to perceived disrespect, shocks the viewer when he admits he wants to kill when he feels disrespected.  At a certain point, he too becomes so physical that at least seven of these hardened criminals have to hold him down to stop him from doing violence to others or himself.

And he's one of the ones on the outside.

Not that The Work is all somber and dour.  These men can have moments of levity.  After Brian is calmed, it's noted that he got a cut on his forehead.  Someone mentions that he can now tell people he got that injury in a prison fight at Folsom Prison, causing everyone, even Brian, to burst out into laughter. Those moments, however, are few, for The Work is as intense as the therapy sessions the viewer sees.

The rawness, the emotional impact of the film never wavers.

I think the power of The Work comes from the fact that again, it challenges many ideas.  For those who don't know anyone in prison, it is easy to dismiss them as unrepentant, uncaring, unfeeling individuals, even 'non-persons' who are either evil or stupid.  The Work forces the viewer to see that despite having been affiliated with the Bloods, the Crypts, the Aryan Nation, or even other racial prison gangs like The Skins (for Native Americans) or The Others (Pacific Islanders), these men are also sons, husbands, and fathers.  They are individuals with pasts, with hurts, with their own baggage that is doubled by the fact that some may never leave the prison except in a coffin.

As easy it is to dismiss convicts, some of whom committed shocking crimes, as 'out of sight, out of mind', we see that they are also wounded souls; we see them as individuals like you and me, who through their own actions and the actions of others ended up in a place that should be one of total despair, but where they found hope and perhaps emotional peace.

The Work also makes one question preconceived notions of masculinity.  Even in our more open society, men are still expected to be stoic, to not cry, to not show emotion, to keep things within. However, many men, especially fatherless men, have a great wound within them that society does not allow them to show.

The theme of fatherlessness appears over and over again, the specter of absent or disengaged fathers shaping so many of these men.  Near the end of The Work, one talks about doing this for 'the fatherless sons', mentioning how he was a fatherless son, his father was a fatherless son, his grandfather was a fatherless son, and his own son is growing up a fatherless son.  The cycle impacts all the men on the inside and out, and it is something that gives the viewer pause to think.

Over and over we see men sob and wail uncontrollably, their rage and hurt openly expressed.  Even Chris, who said on Day One that he wasn't going to cry or couldn't really relate to the men, ended up in tears when he forced himself to think on his own father.

Chris' father, unlike some of the others like Charles, didn't physically abandon him or failed to provide.  He might even have shown more love than some of the other men's fathers. However, Chris has been directional-less for many years, unsure about what to do with his life.  Near the end, he tells of how on many occasions as a child he wanted to help his father do something like fix the car.  His father would ask Chris for a tool of some kind, but Chris kept bringing the wrong one because he didn't know which one was which.  His dad, finally flustered, told him to just go inside with his mother and he would take care of it.

While to some this comment would be innocuous, to Chris it shaped in him the idea of a lack of worth, of rejection, of not being good.  The Work shows how the other men metaphorically block him from his 'father', who keeps telling Chris to go back into the house to his mother.  It's up to Chris to metaphorically 'break on through to the other side' and reach his father.

The Work hits one emotionally, and what is interesting is that while it does not walk away from the men's actions that brought them there, it does not dwell on them as 'criminals' but as men, wounded men.  It might be tempting to dismiss the work of the Inside Circle Foundation as a lot of New Age hippie-drippy nonsense, healing convicts with candles and a good cry.

As a side note, it does bring to mind a short-lived moment where men would go into the woods, beat drums and howl uncontrollably.  Most people mocked such behavior, but it does feed into the ideas of 'masculinity' that The Work challenges.  The film shows that both those on the inside and outside can  have emotional issues that incarceration does not heal, and which in the end does not help if and when they are released into a society that thinks little to nothing of them.

If one dismisses the work done in The Work, it shows that a certain mindset has set in, which is unfortunate.  Yes, the notion of one of the founders doing some kind of chant with a response, the lighting of candles, sharing various 'daddy issues' or playing a little Music From the Hearts of Space may look bizarre, even laughable.  However, the fact that the Inside Circle Foundation has had a 100% success rate in making the former convicts into members of society shows that perhaps a little group therapy goes a long way.

It would have been nice to have seen some of those who have left prison after they had done 'the work' (maybe a sequel?) and/or seen how Charles, Chris and Brian are doing or how the came to be part of the program.  However, those are minor points in an extraordinary film.

I admit I would be terrified to go into Folsom Prison, let alone pick two convicts to share my deepest emotional issues with (and that's considering I worked in a parole/probation violators center).  However, The Work, in a gripping and powerful way, brings a much-needed human face to those incarcerated.  It is perhaps strange, but also deeply moving, to see these men break down and admit vulnerability.

At a time when prison and criminal justice reform is one of the few issues to find bipartisan support, The Work is an invaluable documentary to show that for too long we have focused on incarceration and not rehabilitation.  Prison was meant for both punishment and reflection, and for too long the focus has been on the former at the expense of the latter.  The Work demonstrates that we should look at both sides and forces us to see men in prison as something people often don't see them as: human. Those on the inside and outside need encouragement, and The Work may turn minds and hearts just as the program has done for those who participate in it.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Gotham: The Complete Third Season Review


At last it looks like the promise that Gotham made at the beginning, that we would not see Bruce Wayne become Batman until the series finale, is if not actually broken at least then slightly altered.  We may not see Wayne don the cowl of The Dark Knight, but for all intents and purposes he is deep into becoming Batman.

It does make one wonder why Gotham didn't just start out being Wayne-centered rather than Gordon-centered.  Making Gordon the central character does make it look a bit like we had to throw in the future villains of Penguin, Riddler, and Mr. Freeze, all of whom are old enough to be Wayne's father.  Even Poison Ivy needed a little more upgrade to be closer to Gordon's age than Bruce's age (and that's considering she started out younger than Wayne when we saw her first).

Some things Gotham simply couldn't do.  They couldn't make Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman and Batman's frenemy/love interest, older.  They couldn't make Jerome Valeska, the (more than likely) future Joker that much older.  Given that Joker and Batman are the primary villain/hero combination, they had to be something like contemporaries.

As a side note, I understand people are working on a Joker origins story.  Why bother, when Gotham has given him a strong one already?

As I take a last look at Season Three before Season Four begins, there are things to admire, things to criticize.  In the former, we have a tighter focus on storylines.  Especially in Season One, things, while good, seemed to be all over the place, with 'freak of the week' stories.  Now, we have a more steady stream where Point A leads to Point B and so on.  Sometimes those storylines do feel like they are dragging, but given there are twenty-two episodes to fill, we can cut them some slack.

Another positive is the performances.  Out of all the actors and actresses on Gotham, I think the best one is David Mazouz as Young Master Bruce.  Especially in Season One, when they were determined to get their Gordon-centered show, Mazouz and Wayne seemed like they were irrelevant.  Now, Mazouz has become a bigger, better player in the goings-on in Gotham (even if he has a strange habit of getting himself kidnapped: thrice at least, once by the Mad Monks of Galavan, once by Jerome, and once by the henchmen of Ra's al Ghoul).

More on that later.

Mazouz this season not only had to play Bruce Wayne, but his doppelganger.  In other hands, this could have come off as almost camp or parody, but Mazouz did such an incredible job, changing his voice and manner to where the whole thing is believable.  Mazouz started out with a weak child in Bruce, which is what he was: he saw his parents get blown away.  Now he makes Wayne a growing man: strong, determined to fight his path in life.

Mazouz is matched by Camren Bicondova as Selina Kyle.  Gone are the trappings of calling her 'Cat' or making obvious references to her future role as the conflicted, complex Catwoman.  She, like Mazouz, has given a deeper, more complex and nuanced portrayal.  We see the genuine hurt and sadness within, hidden by the tough exterior.

Whenever these two get together on screen, it becomes an acting dance, seeing two people work so well on screen.

They manage to outshine a good number of the adults, no small feat given that we now have the double-act of Cory Michael Smith and Robin Lord Taylor as Edward Nygma and Oswald Cobblepot respectively, better known by their nom de guerre The Riddler and The Penguin.  I know a few have not been pleased by making the Penguin gay and having him fall in love with the very heterosexual Riddler (to where Penguin had the Vertigo-like romance of Ed's killed).

Let me discuss that a bit.  I'm not such a puritan for Canon that I go all to pieces at the thought of a gay Penguin.  I do, however, think that if you are going to have a gay character, especially a major character, just to have a gay character, just to have 'representation', then that isn't a good reason to have that character be gay.

I've seen this on Doctor Who, where the Companion Bill Potts either mentioned she was a lesbian or her sexual orientation was referenced in 5 out of 12 episodes, and where the main character of The Doctor was changed from male to female 'because it's time we had a female Doctor'.  Representation to have representation gets you only so far.  A character's being eventually has to be more.  You have to have a full person, not just 'the gay person', the 'Asian' or 'Hispanic' person.  A person's sexuality and ethnicity is an important part of who they are, but it can't be all they are.

Nothing on Gotham suggested that Penguin, to quote Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, just 'went gay all of a sudden'.  He never had any romantic or sexual desires shown or mentioned on screen.  As such, he never can be accused of being 'outed' when he was never in or out: his sexual desires, if any, were never brought up.  If anyone could be gay, it could be him.

However, as much as people may celebrate this openness, with reason, we do draw from stereotypes in how Penguin is gay.  He was excessively attached to his mother, down to having her bathe him.  He could be violent, but he also could be extremely weak.  He also went gaga over someone who had never given him the time of day when, as the Master of the Criminal Underworld, there could have been a cacophony of young men to satisfy any sexual urges he never acknowledged openly or showed.

That's the curious thing about Pengy: we never did see him express or show any kind of sexual or romantic desires towards anyone, so now he suddenly loses his mind over someone he knows is totally straight (as far as I can tell, Nygma has never given a clue that he is anything other than straight, let alone bisexual).  If this was a way to make Penguin essentially come out, it seems to me a bit clumsy.  Why not introduce a character who could reciprocate Penguin's love or sexual desire?

It also isn't as if Gotham was starving for gay characters.  We have Barbara Kean and Tabitha Galavan. They form perhaps the strangest love triangle, with Tabby playing with both Bonkers Babs and the very heterosexual Butch Gilzean.  Is it me, or does our wicked pair have their own baggage: the stereotype of the crazed, criminal lesbian?

It's a bit hard to know exactly what Babs is sexually speaking.  In Season One she seemed content with Jim, down to being catatonic, although she had same-sex urges and cheated on Jim with another woman, Detective Montoya.  Once she's unleashed, she goes full lesbian with Tabitha, for as far as I remember she never did have any other relationships, unless you count taunting Jim and going so far as to abducting him for some unhinged white wedding.

I don't think Bonkers Babs was bisexual.  I think she was a lesbian who was obsessed with Jim Gordon, and one can be obsessed with someone without being sexually attracted to him.

To wrap up this side turn, despite their best and commendable efforts it looks a bit like Gotham is relying on stereotypes for their gay characters: for men, the mother-dominated, weak figures, for women, the crazed, criminal figures.  It will be interesting to see where and how things develop.

In the negative side, sometimes things on Gotham can be a bit repetitive.  There's the aforementioned 'Bruce gets abducted' bit.  Then there's the constant barrage of attacks at the Gotham City Police Headquarters.  The GCPD HQ has been attacked at least four times (the Maniax, the Electrocutioner, the Executioner, and the Mad Monks of Galavan).  You'd think the GCPD would learn by now that it is highly under-protected.

On a more serious note, one thing that continues to bother me, to trouble me, and to make me wary about Gotham is the extreme level of violence on the show.  We've seen stabbings, beheadings, people shot point blank, blood everywhere, people having their faces removed and then stapled back.  I understand there has to be some level of violence on a show like Gotham, that takes place in a world overrun with darkness and crime.

However, at times they go too far for my point of view.  Some of the beheadings, particularly a dock worker, to me was almost-ISIS like in both its graphic nature and delight in sadism.  Alice Tetch's death by being impaled was similarly gruesome.  Some of the violence, though perhaps not as graphic (such as when Kathryn gets stabbed in the hand and shortly after beheaded), is still highly disturbing to me.

Gotham sometimes goes overboard with how much it shows.  This has been a continuing problem, especially since when we saw a person literally explode.  I hope and urge Gotham to pull back from how it depicts the violence.  Sometimes less is more, and leaving things to the imagination works better versus showing us heads rolling or getting lopped off in really brutal ways.

Gotham Season Four has been highly successful in shaping the Batman mythos to new levels.  It has strong acting throughout, a lot of good stories going about, and its cinematography still remains among the very best on television.  I do strongly urge more restraint when it comes to how violence is shown, and would continue to advise parents that no one under 16 should watch Gotham, Batman or no Batman.

There's so much good within Gotham, but the graphic violence continues to be a source of trouble and worry.

Next Episode: Pax Penguina