Monday, October 30, 2017

Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992. A Review (Review #961)


Violence breeds fear. Fear breeds response.  Response breeds resentment.  Resentment breeds violence.

This came to me while watching Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, the excellent and gripping documentary covering a tumultuous decade in the City of Angels, one that went from the high of the 1984 Olympic Games to the low of the riots after the Rodney King verdict.

The film refers to them as the 'Uprising', but I've never used that term.  However, given Let It Fall does, I may on occasion refer to the events as an 'uprising'.

The film begins by covering the Los Angeles Police Department's methods on subduing suspects: the Chokehold. This action led to the death of James Mincey, Jr., though sadly, the truth really is in black or white, as Mincey's black then-girlfriend and Mincey's white retired cop remember the exact details but with different interpretations.

Things do not get better when we learn of the killing of Karen Toshima, an up-and-coming Japanese-American caught in the crossfire of gang warfare in an affluent area.  Hearing from Toshima's brother Kevin tears at you, but her death also lead to an increase in police crackdowns, some with shockingly sadistic and destructive aftereffects.

The seeds were getting planted, and growing more dangerous.  The Foothill Incident, the name which LAPD Chief for Life Daryl Gates gave the Rodney King beating, was aggravated by the killing of Latasha Harlins at the hands of Korean store-clerk Soon Ja Du, who received five years probation but no jail time for her act.  The video footage of Harlins' killing is shocking: the quick fall and smoke almost despairing.

An already angry African-American community, having seen so many acts by police gone mad, seeing Harlins killed and with no one punished for it, was set to see justice with the four police officers tried for the King beating.  The trial was moved to the less racially diverse Ventura County (prosecutor Terry White suspecting that it was done to make the drive more convenient for the judge).  The jurors were people who were NRA members and with family connections to law enforcement, which to White meant could be trouble.

Even the judge seemed astonished when the predominantly white jury returned not guilty verdicts for the four police officers on April 29, 1992, and, Let If Fall argues, the ensuing decade (or decades) of police actions boiled over into all-out fury.  Violence, murder, looting, and arson broke out, with innocents finding themselves targeted based on the victims not being black.  Among those were the Korean-American community, listening to any and all rumors on Korean-language radio.  The Korean and African-American communities, already on edge after the Du/Harlins trial, now were in literal war: Korean shop-owners firing back with their own weapons.

Five days to get the city under control, we see the people who had been interviewed were not just random citizens, but the mothers, father, brothers, sisters, friends, and officers directly involved, and despite the quarter-century, the wounds perhaps have not healed, just covered.

Let It Fall leaves one emotionally wiped out after viewing, and not just because the film runs 144 minutes long.  Director John Ridley makes his case, slowly and methodically: each incident, each situation, tragic on its own, put together made the King Riots inevitable.  The interviews are fascinating in many ways apart from getting each individual's perspective.

We see Ms. Georgina Williams, mother to Damian 'Football' Williams and Mark Jackson, the former one of Reginald Denny's attackers.  Eloquent, elegant, and sincere, Ms. Williams remarks that Mr. Mincey's death reminded her of Emmett Till's killing.  She also remarked that if she had been there on April 29th, her son would not have gone out to attack Mr. Denny.

We also learn that Henry King, one of the jurors in the trial of the four officers, despite his fair skin and blue eyes, is part African-American.  A DNA test, he tells us, shows he is biologically 29% black, and that his father was by his estimation 2/3 African-American, something King knew from the get-go.  Despite his heritage, and the fact that he chose to identify now as black, he still holds that the jury's verdict was correct.  He couldn't find them guilty of something that was not a crime.

If there is a villain in Let It Fall, it is former Police Chief Gates, who was at the most generous tone-deaf to how the LAPD was perceived and how it acted, monstrously indifferent and arrogant at the worst.  A member of the military brought in to restore order recounts that when he first met with Gates, the Police Chief looked him straight in the eye, leaned into him and told him he wasn't needed or wanted.

This as Los Angeles was erupting into mass looting, shootings, burning buildings and total chaos.

Not even the mention from Gates via archival footage that his son had relapsed into drug addiction as the riots were unfolding is enough to humanize someone too far gone to have his reputation restored.

That is, except to certain officers interviewed in Let It Fall, who still think Gates was not a bad person.  Not all the retired officers think Gates' methods were good: they comment on how the fierce enforcement leading to officers trashing homes and not sending officers in to the epicenter of the riots was reprehensible.

What is in turns fascinating and sad is that all these years the views of those involved have not altered their views on the same events.  King still thinks they made the right decision in the King verdict.  Officers at times appear dismissive (the arresting officer in the Mincey case remarks that Mincey's then-girlfriend was 'supposedly (pregnant) with his baby', as if this detail is unimportant).  Rioters too hold on to an idea that the chaos was not without justification: Henry 'Kiki' Watson, one of the so-called LA 4, (the men who attacked Reginald Denny), angrily comments the only black men America will accept are homosexuals and transients, which strikes me as a highly odd statement.

The archival footage is, again, fascinating and heartbreaking, everything from the shooting of Ms. Toshima to then-Mayor Tom Bradley suggesting rioters stay home and watch The Cosby Show as his city is collapsing.  This verifies another interviewee's comments about the Mayor being a 'distinguished man, but not one in charge'.  The burning buildings, the dead bodies, the killing of Harlins all shock you, but they should shock you.  The riots/uprisings should shock you, and so should how it all came about.

Let It Fall is a document of a true American tragedy, one that culminates with the Rodney King riots but whose seeds were planted long before April 29, 1992.  With no narrator to impart his/her wisdom, Let It Fall lets those directly impacted by the mounting chaos speak their stories, and we learn just how tragic it all has been.  Black, white, one got out unscathed, no one got to be the pure victim or perpetrator. It leaves one with a heavy heart, overwhelmed by the needless tragedy of it all: the lives lost, the lives ruined, the antagonism and fear still holding so many.

In a time of growing racial strife, from Ferguson to Charlottesville,  Let It Fall is a voice from the past warning us about how things may be if we do not learn from it.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Class Episode Two: The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo Review


Matteusz, the gay Polish immigrant, was not in Episode Two of Class, The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo apart from a blink-and-you'll-miss-it background shot.  This, I think is important into understanding why Class flopped with viewers despite lavish critical praise IF my theory about Matteusz's raison d'être proves correct.   That remains to be seen, but if I'm proven right (that Matteusz is there to be nothing more than the lead character's sexmate), then Class went about things the wrong way.  Still, I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo, apart from a shockingly unoriginal title, is a slight improvement over For Tonight We Might Die.  It does its best to focus more on drama than on sci-fi or horror, and it teases a series-long mystery.  It's a pity however, that the acting was uneven, that it still struggles with how much gore to put in, and that it copies its precursor Doctor Who's penchant for quick, even silly, resolutions.

Ram Singh (Fady Elsayed) is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on by the killing of his girlfriend at Prom.  Add to that his mechanical leg, which he is still getting used to.  His artificial leg all but kills his football/soccer skills, irritating Coach Dawson (Ben Peel) and worrying his father Varun (Aaron Neil).  Coach Dawson is not someone anyone can come to: he tells Ram he isn't a counselor and demotes him to second team, later telling him there is no 'third team'.

Coach Dawson, however, has a secret.  It involves his massive dragon tattoo, one that can move around his body at will.

The assistant coach has disappeared, and later a cleaning lady with an accent is devoured alive in front of Ram, the only witness.  For a moment, I had hoped the cleaning lady was related to Matteusz, accents and all, but nope.  Ram believes he is going slowly insane, and worse, he's deliberately cut himself off from Bonnie Prince Charlie (Greg Austin) and April (Sophie Hopkins).  He hasn't cut himself off totally from Vivian (Tanya Adeola), but he 'doesn't want to talk about it'.

Meanwhile, Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) has worries of her own.  Mr. Armitage (Nigel Betts) informs her she is going to be monitored by someone from The Governors, which she finds a great irritant.  The Inspector, "Paul Smith" (Jamie Reid-Quarrel) gives her bad marks, but Quill is convinced there is something off about him.

Eventually, Ram tells Vivian what he is going through with his visions of dragons, and they begin investigating.  Vivian urges Ram to get the others to help, but he won't hear of it.  On her own initiative, Vivian gets Charlie and April to investigate, and that leads to poor Mr. Armitage being the next one swallowed up by the dragon.

Miss Quill is not happy about being dragged into these Scooby-Doo type hijinks, but she really doesn't have a choice.  Ram soon starts opening up more with Vivian about his traumas, and she shares her own issues with death by talking about her late father, who died of a stroke.

It isn't until Charlie whips up a drawing of the dragon that Ram puts two and two together, realizing that this is tied to Coach Dawson's massive dragon tattoo.  Confronting him and seeing him walking around with what's left of Mr. Armitage, Dawson admits that the dragon is real.  He was a weak man physically, not respected by students, until the dragon became lodged in him through the tear in time and space that Coal Hill has.  Its mate came after but found it couldn't harm Dawson without harming his mate.  Dawson grew physically strong thanks to the dragon, but both dragons need human blood to live, hence the killings.

In an impassioned speech Ram tells the free dragon to kill him, then to take Coach Dawson through the tear in time and space to keep his mate, which the free dragon does.  While everyone else now has faced their first monster, Miss Quill is still puzzling over "Paul Smith", whom she finds is a robot.

In the good department is that The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo is focused primarily on one character: Ram.  It gives Elsayed a chance to be dramatic and show his range.

In the bad department, Elsayed doesn't have much range.

It isn't that he was awful throughout: at times he showed great promise when attempting to deal with Ram's PTSD.  It's that Elsayed was as unbalanced as his leg.  When showing the struggles he had in handling a lot of violence, he was good.  When confronting the dragon and Coach Dawson, he was stiff and unconvincing.

Elsayed's performance in The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo is something to behold, but not for the right reasons.  It's as if he tried to go for deep agonizing drama, went up so far, then decided the silliness of dragons was just too much to try and make believable.

Much better was Kelly as Miss Quill, who is fast becoming the actual star of Class.  One wonders why she was not the focus of the show.  Her acerbic manner is balanced with a droll sense of comedy.  When she confronts "Paul Smith" about what he wants, he writes in large letters, "You".  Mistaking this for a come-on, she lunges at Smith with wild erotic passion, commenting how she is literally trapped.  After seeing he is a robot when she pushed him towards the dragon to devour, she mentions this to the group.  They do not react, causing her to quip that no one cares that she just kissed a robot.

Kelly makes Miss Quill into a funny figure, but not one of mockery.  She balances Patrick Ness' quips with a sense of anger.  No character could get away with launching a stapler at a man in front of the class after raging at him then switch to an impromptu make-out session with equal ease.  No other character can get away with saying that she first thought "Paul Smith" was "an evil designer of casual coats and gifts" while making it sound natural versus idiotic or deliberately funny.

Curiously, despite being only a year older than Elsayed, Greg Austin looked considerably older and far too old to be a high school student (even if he was only 24 at the time).  Perhaps it is because Class seems stubbornly set on making Charlie this naive figure unaware of human interactions, except of course when it comes to gay sex, which Charlie seems extremely adept at for an extra-terrestrial.  When trying to talk to Ram, Ram replies 'Say it just once more,' and our 'innocent' does exactly that, then is puzzled as to why Ram knocks his books down.

Charlie later asks April "What's folk dancing?" when she tells him and Vivian that she plays the violin at those events.  Quickly pulling up a video as Vivian and April discuss Ram's claims that there be dragons, he doesn't quite interrupt them but does ask "Why are they all in a circle?"

Class is already getting itself into strange situations, and I don't mean supernatural ones.  Charlie is meant to be unaware of basic human knowledge or behavior, but when it comes to sex, he's a master of human agility. This inconsistency, if not addressed, is going to make Charlie into a very curious character.

Hopkins is kind of just there, and while Adeola is better as Vivian, her character is coming across as rather unlikable. As Ram commiserates on the cleaning lady, saying she was "just sneaking a fag" when she was killed (and no, that wasn't a Charlie/Matteusz joke), Vivian starts lecturing him about how as an athlete he shouldn't smoke.  Whether this was Ness' efforts for comedy or not, it didn't sound or look realistic.

I wonder about the gore-factor in The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.  It is not excessively graphic a la Gotham, but it is at times a bit too much.  Granted, as an adult I might not have the tolerance for graphic violence that teens do, but I do wonder whether they can be more restrained.

As a side note, Austin, Hopkins and Adeola were hilarious when facing off with the dragon in Mr. Armitage's office.

Finally, the resolution was terrible.  Essentially, just talking to the dragon, which does speak English, was enough.  It was bad enough that Ram couldn't connect Coach Dawson to the killings even after seeing him near the sights of the disappearances, but this Doctor Who-type resolution was just lazy.

The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo had its moments: the efforts to address the PTSD Ram was suffering, Miss Quill's quips, setting up for a larger story.  However, it wasn't the breakout Class needed to be to push it into a strong spin-off worthy of its own merits away from Doctor Who.

One more thing regarding The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo.  Kevin Williams, the boy Miss Quill essentially killed and who is marked 'missing', was not mentioned in this episode.  Let's see if his case is ever brought up again, because you know...Mr. and Mrs. Williams might wonder about their little boy.


Next Episode: Nightvisiting

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Class Episode One: For Tonight We Might Die Review


Doctor Who has attempted several spin-offs: K-9 & Company, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and now Class.  So far none of them save Torchwood have had much success in Britain, let alone outside.  Will Class be able to branch off into its own expanded universe?  Judging by the premiere episode, For Tonight We Might Die, Class will end up being dismissed in more ways than one.

Jumping into things right away, a student has disappeared from Coal Hill Academy.  We then thrust into our cast.  There's Charlie (Greg Austin), who claims to be from Sheffield but seems a bit clueless about things.  There's Ram (Fady Elsayed), the cocky football (aka soccer) star.  There's April (Sophie Hawkins), the 'nice' girl who can't get anyone to help her with setting up for Prom (which, given the dialogue, is an American import into the British education system, though being neither British or a high school student, I can't verify independently).  There's Vivian (Tanya Adeola), the highly intelligent and, to use a term I'm still puzzled by, 'woke' student who skipped a few grades.  There's Matteusz (Jordan Renzo), Polish immigrant who is also openly gay despite very conservative parents.

This will be important.

All of them are in the class of Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly) an acid-tongued teacher who delivers quips/character exposition with an angry tone. Sample lines: on April "the answer to the question, 'are spinsters born or made'?", on Ram "one who hears silent applause every time he walks into a room".  She doesn't say this to herself.  She says this to the entire class.

The disappearance of our student is eventually tied in to Charlie and Miss Quill, who are living together.  No, it's nothing like that, no "Lolita"-type scenario (which in my view would have livened things up, but I digress).  The student's death is connected to the shadows, shadows which begin pursuing the other students save Matteusz, shadows which are connected Charlie & Miss Quill.

After April is attacked while decorating for Prom (which she speculates could come from the word 'Promise' or 'Promenade'), we learn the truth about Charlie.  He is actually an alien, and a Prince to boot.  He is the last of his kind: a Rhodian who was pursued by the Shadow Kin.  Miss Quill too is an alien from the same planet, a Quill.  Here is where things get a bit murky.

Prince Charlie insists that Quill is a terrorist who sought out to destroy the Rhodians.  Quill insists she was a freedom fighter battling the domineering Rhodians.  One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, I suppose.  In what Quill calls slavery and Charlie calls punishment, Quill is forced to be Charlie's bodyguard.  At a most opportune time since the Shadow King Corakinus (voiced by Paul Mark Davis) has tracked them down to Coal Hill (hence all the attacks).  It was only through the intervention of The Doctor (Peter Capaldi in a guest spot) that saved them, leaving them the last of their kind.

Quill has a rather vicious little streak to her: the gun she uses to fight the Shadow Kin ends up killing the user as well (hence, the missing student).  Charlie steps in to save April from a similar fate, but somehow her heart and Corakinus' are now joined.  Into all this comes that frightful experience: a night at the other BBC Proms.

Charlie can't understand why Matteusz's parents would be unhappy with their son going out with another boy, and Ram's dad is more concerned he not missed football practice than on his going out with a non-Sikh girl.  April's handicapped mother just wants her to have a good time, while Vivian's mother relents in letting her little girl go to Prom.

As if all this isn't enough to make these kids a bit flummoxed, the Shadow Kin come and attack.  They kill Ram's girlfriend and chop his leg off.  The Doctor comes in to save them all, though despite having lost his leg below the knee Ram manages to knock Corakinus' back through the tear in space.  Now the Doctor tasks these kids, along with a very unhappy Miss Quill, to protect Coal Hill from alien attacks.  We also learn that the Cabinet of Souls, a central part of Rhodian religion that Charlie managed to take with him in their flight from Rhodia, is not empty as he claimed.

It is indeed filled with the spirits of all the dead Rhodians, and he, Quill, and Corakinus know it can also be a weapon.

As I look back on For Tonight We Might Die, I do wonder if Class had any real idea of who would be the target audience.  Ostensibly made for teens, I'm not sure Class, based on this first episode, really knew who or what it wanted.

The graphic violence is too intense for children.  The characters are too removed from adults to have them relate.  As for teens, well, it's a mix of the two.

One issue is that writer Patrick Ness opted to do a rush job in introducing everyone.  There really is no buildup to any of the mysteries (while I haven't seen any of the other episodes yet, I'm venturing a guess that the missing student, Kevin Williams, is never going to be brought up again.  I might be wrong, but given he was just the 'trigger' to get things rolling, I'm not holding my breath).

Ness is writing things that don't appear real, and he at times makes things worse by attempting to be so politically correct.

Early on, Vivian and April are having a conversation about going to Prom when Charlie walks by.  April remarks she's going to ask Charlie to Prom, and here Vivian says that they've 'failed the Bechdel Test'. For those not in the know, the Bechdel test is whenever two women have a conversation that isn't about a man.  April's response is genuine puzzlement over what Vivian is talking about, and in this case, "I'm With Her".

I don't understand why Ness opted to have this bit of dialogue in For Tonight We Might Die.  It feels so forced, so blatant in trying to fit in an agenda where none was needed.  Not that having Charlie casually state to April he was going to ask Matteusz to Prom without wondering whether this might look odd to anyone.

One can applaud the hope to make a same-sex romance nothing out-of-the-ordinary, and I figure that was the goal.  However, it does make things with Charlie complicated in more ways than one. First, it provides a wild inconsistency to him: to be hopelessly puzzled by humans in one moment, extremely shrewd in dealing with aliens in another.  Second, it does make future succession to the Rhodian throne a bit of a question mark, but that's for another time.

There's a lot of confused characters here.  Sometimes they are reasonably intelligent, sometimes shockingly stupid.  Matteusz, for example, has no problem kissing a boy he hardly knows (and just making Charlie same-sex oriented to have a gay leading character without having any buildup to it seems more rushed than anything).  However, when he sees the Shadow Kin stomping towards the dance floor, he asks April, "Did you hire a band?", our young Pole obviously confused by seeing walking shadows.

Walking that's a name for a band.

The idea of inclusion and tolerance that Class wants to promote with Charlie, our lead, being gay (or at least a male romantically attracted to another male) is undercut by Vivian's character, who says some rather ugly things.  When April says she likes Downton Abbey, Vivian remarks of course she would like a show that has "a bunch of white people being nice to each other".  When she's talking to Ram via Skype, Vivian comments on how nice it is talking to someone away from 'white people', or something to that effect.

I was pretty shocked to find that Vivian, our 'intelligent' character, could express rather bigoted comments and be allowed to get away with it.  Ram never said anything like that.  Matteusz, with his immigrant background and non-British accent compared to Vivian's very British accent, never said anything like that either.  I'm perplexed as to why Vivian was allowed to be in essence, such a bigot, or at least someone with a chip on her shoulder.

The tonal confusion in For Tonight We Might Die continues when we see the aftereffects of the Shadow Kin's attack on Vivian.  After all that commotion, Vivian's immigrant mother (the accent gave it away), looks at the scene and zeroes in on the laptop with Ram's frightened face on it.  "You are talking to a BOY?!", she comments in a tone that elicits more laughter than anything else, as if the fact Vivian's room is in shambles is irrelevant to the fact that Vivian has been talking to someone of the opposite sex.

The killing of Ram's girlfriend happens so quickly that it too elicited more giggles than horror, though the blood splattering on his face helped enhance the horror.  As Ram managed to defeat Coriakus, I kept wondering how he managed to a.) stand on one leg and b.) not bleed to death.

Capaldi's appearance is meant to tie Class to the overall Doctor Who universe, but here, it was just a deus ex machina to get these kids out of danger (and to give Ram a mechanical leg).  It also does lead into the question, 'why would The Doctor task teenagers with fighting aliens?'

Well, Capaldi's appearance does also serve another purpose: to allow the cast to say 'Who?' when he appears, because if there's something we haven't heard on Doctor Who is someone saying 'Who?' when referring to The Doctor.

In terms of performances, I think the standout is Kelly as Miss Quill.  She seems to be the only one who is interesting: her acerbic, angry Quill can get away with being sarcastic, unpleasant, even murderous.  Kelly, however, manages to be almost sympathetic in that she was motivated not by greed or revenge but her own sense of justice (the question of who was right or wrong in the Quill/Rhodian war seems one never to be answered).

Austin handled his role as the conveniently confused, conveniently not Charlie well (though I don't buy this 'I'm a Prince' bit, no regal manner to our Charlie).  Elsayed does what he can with Ram, a character who is defined only by a cockiness that seems a bit of a put-up job.

For Tonight We Might Die might have been a good addition to the Doctor Who universe, the so-called Whoniverse, but it's starting off badly.  Rushing through things to get the ball rolling, tonal shifts from horror to almost comedy, and a villain that appears almost a parody of a Doctor Who monster, For Tonight We Might Die shows the British still don't have the whole 'Prom' thing down yet.

At one point, a random girl asks when April is desperately trying to get people out by taking the microphone and yelling at them, "Do they do this in American proms?"  To answer your question, 'no'.  American Proms usually go like this...


Next Episode: The Coach With the Dragon Tattoo

Monday, October 23, 2017

Shadow of A Doubt: A Review (Review #960)


Small-town America is usually shown in one of two ways: an idyllic center of warmth or the heart of darkness.  It usually depends on the writers and director's worldview.  Shadow of a Doubt balances those two aspects by making the actual denizens of small-town America good people, but the prodigals returning to it are the sources of darkness.

In nice, quiet Santa Rosa, California, a family is looking forward to the return of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten).  Particularly excited in his niece and namesake, Charlie (Teresa Wright).  She has always been fond of her Uncle Charlie, and Uncle Charlie does seem to have a sweet spot for her.

A note: since the central characters have the same name, I'll add 'Uncle' when referring to the man, and just 'Charlie' when discussing the woman.

However, things are not all that they appear to be.  Little details soon suggest that with dear Uncle Charlie, something wicked this way comes.  Little things, like him tearing up the newspaper of his brother-in-law Joseph (Henry Travers) to hide a seemingly innocuous story.  Little things, like Uncle Charlie feeling tense when Charlie keeps humming a waltz that she can't quite place until she figures it out: The Merry Widow Waltz.  Little things, like Uncle Charlie's refusal to have his photograph taken as part of a national survey.

There are good reasons for this, as the film progresses, and that Charlie discovers.  That 'survey' was really an excuse for two detectives to go inside the Newton house.  One of the detectives, Jack Graham, tells Charlie that Uncle Charlie Oakley may be 'the Merry Widow Killer', a man who marries older widows and then murders them, taking their money with him.  Charlie does not want to believe her beloved Uncle Charlie may be a murderer, but as time goes by, the 'little things' start adding up and Charlie becomes convinced Uncle Charlie is indeed a serial killer.

There is no solid proof of any of this, just 'little things': Uncle Charlie's almost hateful view of these widows that he openly expresses, the 'accidents' Charlie is having.  Even after another suspect is killed in Maine, Charlie is sure that her Uncle Charlie is a murderous, monstrous being.  Graham, with whom Charlie has fallen in love with and who returns the affection, is sadly out of town and cannot be reached.  Uncle Charlie has decided that it is time for him to go, but not before he 'accidentally' holds Charlie on the train as it speeds away.

A desperate battle to survive takes place, and even after justice has been met, the full story still remains hidden, that shadow of a doubt hanging over all things.

Shadow of a Doubt is brilliant in that so much of it really is done by inference.  We never see Uncle Charlie kill any of his widows (though at the end, it looks like he managed to rope one in).  We never hear an outright confession.  We never see Uncle Charlie actively try to do his niece in.  The film asks us to fill in the blanks, read between the lines, and it does it so brilliantly that slowly, bit by bit, we reach the same conclusions Charlie did.

Little hints, little details are dropped in, large enough for the audience to notice but not for the characters save Charlie.  It's a brilliant piece of film writing, and credit goes to three people (minimum): Thornton Wilder, author of the legendary play Our Town,  Sally Benson, authoress of the legendary Meet Me in St. Louis, and Alma Reville, director Alfred Hitchcock's wife who received a rare screen credit.

Hitchcock was wise to have Wilder and Benson co-write Shadow of a Doubt, for they knew intimately what made a 'small town': the people, the atmosphere, the structure.  This allows for the comic relief in the form of Travers and Hume Cronyn as Herb, the 'kooky' friend who always discuss the various ways to commit murder and are big crime fans.  Those bits relieve the tension of the main plot, but in one crucial moment add to it, underscoring Charlie's growing agony over what she know of Uncle Charlie.

The screenplay also plays at something sinister with Charlie and Uncle Charlie, unspoken and at times symbolic.  Charlie comments about how they could be almost twins, and how they are connected by more than name.  This is perversely picked up in a crucial scene between them, when Uncle Charlie tells her that they have the same blood coursing through their veins.

It's one thing to be almost open about showing Charlie and Uncle Charlie as a yin/yang type of relationship, but I found something almost incestuous about Charlie/Uncle Charlie.

Early on, Uncle Charlie gives Charlie a ring and puts it on her finger.  The ring has an engraving on it, the first clue to the Merry Widow Killer's identity, but the presentation of the ring, the slipping it on her finger, almost makes it look like Uncle Charlie has 'married' Charlie.

There is something dark and ugly underneath all the clean-cut wholesomeness of small-town America and in Shadow of a Doubt, something sinister that is just beyond. 

Hitchcock underscores great moments of tension, such as when bells ring as the lights slowly go out one by one in the library where Charlie has her fears confirmed, or when we see the camera move further away at every call Charlie makes to Graham, suggesting he is moving further from her (and from saving her).

I think Shadow of a Doubt has to be among Joseph Cotten's best performances, and sadly one that did not get the recognition it deserved then and deserves now.   He is equally charming and wicked, a man with no morality to him.  I'll walk that back a bit: he does have a form of morality: the survival of the fittest.  Uncle Charlie as portrayed by Cotten is a man who says, and probably feels, that he is right in killing all these women.  He makes a long statement about how useless these widows are, with all their money and doing nothing with it other than buying things they don't need.

As Cotten does this monologue, it almost plays like a bizarre justification or even confession, one only Charlie understands.  Uncle Charlie is so wicked in his amorality, but Cotten also lends him charm and outward pleasantness, which makes his true nature all the more grotesque.

Wright at times struck me as a little too star-struck with Uncle Charlie, and almost a bit naive.  However, given that is what the character was supposed to be, I cut her some slack.  Charlie grew to be more mature, more terrified, more wary of the man she once was passionate about.  It's the evolution of the character that makes this a strong Wright performance.

There were some things I didn't care for.  Nothing against Carey, but he never struck me as a romantic lead.  Furthermore, with Mrs. Miniver (for which Wright won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and The Best Years of Our Lives, I began to wonder if romantic subplots were required in all Teresa Wright films.  We never learned what happened to the widow Uncle Charlie had his eye on (whom we see briefly, waving to him on the same train).

That being said, Shadow of a Doubt becomes both a mystery and a tense cat-and-mouse game, ending in a tense battle to the death.  It's a great Alfred Hitchcock film, one that should be better remembered alongside his other masterworks.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Bachelors: A Review


The Bachelors, I'd argue, is a bit of a misnomer.  Yes, technically the Palet men are 'bachelors' in that they are both unmarried.  You can even say that 'bachelors' could tie in to their educations.  However, would Widower and Son have been a better title?

Yet I digress.

The Bachelors is a good film, respectable, though not groundbreaking from a lot of formulas that people have seen before.  That is a negative.  The Bachelors does have some excellent performances and one breakout performance that elevates it.

Bill Palet (J.K. Simmons) is a widower still in deep mourning for his wife.  One day, he tells his son Wes (Josh Wiggins) that it's time to move, so across the country they go, to California where a frenemy has a school where Bill can teach math and Wes can attend.  Wes is not thrilled to learn he has to take a sport, so out of his options he takes cross-country, and isn't adept at it.

Bill, and to a lesser extent Wes, live but are not alive, the grief still hanging over them.  Into their worlds come two women.  For Bill, it is Mademoiselle Carine (Julie Delpy), a French teacher whom he helps escape the persistent coach.  For Wes, it's Lacey Westman (Odeya Rush), a troubled girl who comes to his all-boys academy along with other girls to take some classes.  As it so happens, Wes is a master at French, and Lacey needs help to get her grades up.  Mademoiselle Carine appoints Wes to be Lacey's tutor, and Lacey, who has a reputation of being a dark, oddball-like figure, makes it clear nothing will happen.

Bill continues to struggle with his grief.  The various pills his therapist prescribes don't do much for him, and Wes continues to run and feel his way around the temperamental and self-destructive Lacey, whose parents are locked in open warfare.  There are moments when both rise, but even after Carine and Bill share an intimate night, Bill's grief overwhelms him.  What was only emotional now becomes physical, as he collapses and even goes through electroshock therapy to get him to live.

Wes, who has endured much, finally explodes in a torrent of rage and hurt at his catatonic father, and this is the catalyst for Bill to force his way out of his grief.  Lacey also finds true comfort, even love, with Wes, as does Carine, with the four of them finding hope and the joy of life.

As I said, a lot of The Bachelors has plot points and tropes that one has seen in other films.  You have the 'troubled' teen (which is the polar opposite of the Magical Pixie Dream Girl).  You have the Droll Comedic Lines where people speak to each other to the point of being more rude than blunt: Bill's frenemy Paul (Kevin Dunn) tells Bill to get a therapist so that, as the school's director, he looks like he cares about his staff.  You have Annabelle (Kitana Turnbull) the pixie little sister who is wiser than her elders.  You have 'witty banter' between characters.  You have 'quirky' situations: Lacey gets Wes a new passenger side seat for his car, not realizing that it's the driver's seat and thus, he's forced to install it with the seat facing the backseat.  You have the 'wacky' friends to Wes, social misfits whom he essentially has to accept or not have any friends.

Writer/director Kurt Voelker is not stretching new scenarios.  Every beat you expect to be hit is hit, and The Bachelors runs a well-crossed course.  That does not make it bad.  It doesn't even make it predictable.  It just makes it a bit standard.

With that said, The Bachelors is still worth seeing because Voelker got a top-notch cast to work with.  Standing above them all is Josh Wiggins as Wes.  Wiggins is more than able to hold his own against veterans like Delpy and Simmons, neither of them slouches in the acting department.  His Wes is a real, natural character.  He plays Wes as a normal teenager forced into tragedy and doing his best to live with it.  Wes isn't witty, or sarcastic, or full of quips.  What he is is a good kid, navigating loss and burdens that he has no control over.

Wiggins' best scene is when as Wes he is having dinner with the zombie of a father Bill has turned into.  Finally, all the rage and hurt and even fear that he has about losing his father after having lost his mother explodes.  What is really wonderful and incredible about this scene is that it is so natural and true.  Wiggins does not make it a big, showy performance.  He builds to it, showing that Wes tries to control himself but cannot anymore.  He shows that he does love his father but cries out to him too, desperate for a parent to stay when one is gone physically and one gone mentally.

The most comparable performance to Wiggins is that of Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea, another young actor whose character has to find his way through grief, pain and loss with an adult who cannot give him the emotional support he needs.  Wiggins in The Bachelors has a strong calling card to a great career, one where his talent is barely being tapped.  He may join Hedges and the late and much-missed Anton Yelchin as a young actor who with good parts and good direction may have a long and successful film.

Josh Wiggins alone makes The Bachelors a worth watching film in a performance that should make people take notice.

Simmons is reliable as the widower Bill, one who moves through life but has stopped living in it.  Perhaps because he is consistently good it's hard to say anything bad about his performance, but it also is hard to say it is anything as strong as Wiggins' work.  Rush took a character that isn't anything new and did good work as well, overcoming the limitations of Lacey into a good performance.  Delpy, I think, was slightly underused, but she was luminous, elegant, and wise as Carine, an intelligent woman who sees so many people around her hurting and in her calm, gentle manner, helping them be better.

The Bachelors is respectable, nothing more, nothing less.  It covers ground that has been much-traveled in other films.  However, it has a fantastic performance by Josh Wiggins, a young actor whom Hollywood would be wise to nurture into a career to showcase his talent.  The film is a bit familiar, a bit cliched, but the acting in it does it wonders.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gotham: The Demon's Head Review


The Demon's Head is a first for Gotham in that its writer is the star of the show, Ben McKenzie.  He's already directed an episode, and now he wants to do more in the creative side of the show.  All well and good.  The Demon's Head has a lot going for it: some fine acting, nice moments of humor, and the always brilliant cinematography.

Therefore, why do I think it the worst Gotham episode so far (or at least the most despicable and repulsive)?

Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig) is still after the dagger that Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) bought.  He will not be denied.  Al Ghoul goes after the knife that Bruce has taken to Professor Niles Winthrop (Dakin Matthews) to find out more about it.  While Professor Winthrop isn't in on the whole matter, he starts looking at it, along with his grandson Alex (Benjamin Stockham).  They come across its terrible secret and connection to Ra's al Ghoul.  Just like that, al Ghoul shows up and kills the Professor in an effort to get the knife.  Alex, however, has disappeared, as has the knife.

Detective Jim Gordon (McKenzie), along with Bruce despite Gordon's insistence otherwise, begin searching for Alex.  Ra's also begins his search, getting his 'pet' Anubis, a crazed man who behaves like a dog.  Gordon knows his former fiancee, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) knows something, but she ain't tell.

Meanwhile, poor Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) is still trying to get back to his old Riddler ways.  He's having an awful time of it, trying to come up with various riddles to taunt his nemesis, Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  Nygma is reduced to hiring a pair of rappers to give Oswald his clues, but his riddles are unintelligible.  Cobblepot eventually gets Nygma to reveal himself, mocks and taunts his former thwarted love, but decides to not let Victor Fries aka Mr. Freeze (Nathan Darrow) freeze him.  Penguin figures seeing Nygma in his condition is punishment enough for him, and Penguin takes great delight that his rival cannot form a coherent persona...and tells him his riddles suck.

Penguin has another issue: the return of Sofia Falcone (Crystal Reed).  He's convinced she is here to retake power for the Falcone family, but she insists her goals are all legitimate.

These protests appear genuine, as she continuously insists that the capos who have been underground since Penguin took over not address her as "Dona".  However, Penguin used her as bait to draw the capos out, and has Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan) execute them.

It's here that we see she is her father's daughter: she tells Penguin that if it had been her father, he would have shown Sofia to 'publicly' support the new regime and gotten them over to his side instead of just offing them.  Slightly perturbed, he insists new rules for a new regime.

Sofia still has designs on Gordon, and he could use the distraction.  He and Bruce had finally found Alex, but so had Ra's and his minions.  Bruce manages to hold on to the knife, but it does mean that Ra's slits Alex's throat.

Bruce feels great guilt over that, but them's the breaks, I guess.

As I said, The Demon's Head has great acting, particularly near the end with RLT and CMS.  Seeing these two bitter rivals go at each other verbally is a great delight.  We see two strong actors at the top of their game, particularly for Taylor, who not only manages to face off against Nygma but also shows a wry deadpan humor when dealing with Nygma's rappers or Sofia's apparent timidity.

Carrigan too does great work in making Zsasz into a humorous character.  He's certainly a master assassin, but he almost makes Victor almost innocent and childlike in his manner.  Whether it's in his enjoyment of the rap, bobbing his head along to the beat...before suggesting the rappers be tortured, or how he confuses himself with Victor Fries, Zsasz is actually a very funny character.

As a side note, given how much I like Mr. Freeze and Darrow in the role, it's such a shame he was so underused.

Siddig does a great job as Ra's al Ghoul, and he's even given a chance to play a more 'civilized' figure when he tries to pass himself off as a 'Minister of Antiquities'. Mazouz continues to bring a great complexity to Wayne, whether it's in his pursuit of Ra's or the guilt he suffers over the fate of the Winthrops.  He is matched by Brockham, who brought a realistic portrayal to Alex.  He tells Bruce that he is 'weirdly cool', as apt a term for Master Bruce as can be found.

Before we get to the main reason I am voting down The Demon's Head, let's talk about some things that probably would have put this episode down.  I'm not sure if McKenzie thought the sight of the man-demon dog chasing a dinosaur bone straight out a window was meant to be funny or not, but it was slightly silly.

Then again, the sight of the man-demon dog was already less frightening and more laughable.

Gordon getting it on with Sofia also seems wildly silly.  Really, what does Gordon do to bring all these crazy broads to him?

At the library, Gordon manages to stop the hunters by pushing the shelves and make them collapse.  Apart from being clichéd, it is highly impractical.  Perhaps it's the librarian in me, but shelves are pretty much bolted to the floor nowadays, and I think have been for decades.  I know, I can't be too technical, but something about that just didn't sit right with me.

As odd, or even silly as the whole 'mad man/dog chasing a dinosaur bone' was, or the 'domino bookshelves' bit was, it was the killing of Alex that bothered me, even disgusted and revolted me to no end.  Already the killing of Professor Winthrop by Ra's was a bit graphic (though tame by Gotham standards).  However, it is Alex's killing that turned me off, so much so that I questioned whether to keep watching both The Demon's Head and/or Gotham.

I'm surprised that they didn't show a grown man slit a teen's throat.  This show has shown a man literally blown up.  It's sometimes been almost sadistic in its violence.  Therefore, why did they opt to not show a teenager getting slit across the throat?

Maybe, just maybe, it's because such things are really over the line, even on Gotham.  It would have been far too brutal, but that's what they did: kill a child.  Again, that just so bothers me.  I know it was done for a reason (to give Bruce Wayne a greater sense of guilt and responsibility), but this is the rare moment when maybe, they could have held back and had Alex merely injured.

They've brought back Alfred, Selina Kyle, Jerome Valeska, and Fish Mooney back from the dead.  Oswald has been presumed dead...twice.  Butch Gilzean was literally shot point-blank in the head (graphically so) and is going to make a return appearance.

Don't tell me that such things are 'logical' but not having Alex survive a throat slitting isn't.

This is clearly on McKenzie.  It was his artistic choice to have Alex killed.  I found it all too disturbing.

That, and Anubis.

The Demon's Head has some excellent moments to it, particularly the acting of Mazouz, Siddig, Taylor and Smith. However, that whole 'killing kids' thing was a major factor in saying that I would not want to watch this episode again.

Anubis falling to his (presumed) death by plunging to his death after chasing a dinosaur bone out a museum window didn't help.


Next Episode: The Blade's Path

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Frenzy: A Review (Review #958)


As Alfred Hitchcock's career was winding down, the Master of Suspense seemed to be slipping.  Neither Topaz or Torn Curtain are held in high regard, though the merits from my perspective are yet to be seen.  We look now at Frenzy, his penultimate film.  While we have moments of Hitchcock brilliance, I found Frenzy to be rather distasteful, even vicious, and far more graphic than I've seen from Hitch.

There have been a series of murders by someone dubbed the Necktie Killer, based on the fact that the killer strangles women with a necktie before or during his attempted rape of them.  His latest victim has just washed up on the Thames, nude, with the necktie round her neck.

Enter into the picture one Richard Blainey (Jon Finch), a former RAF pilot who is down on his luck.  Just fired from his barman job by his cantankerous boss, he is searching for food, money and shelter.  He turns down an offer from his friend, Robert Rusk (Barry Foster), and hits up his ex-wife, Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), who runs a matchmaking agency.

They spend the night together, but nothing apart from a hidden 50 pounds from Brenda comes from it.  Coincidentally, Robert goes to Brenda's agency and again pushes for a woman to fit his 'peculiar needs'.  Brenda still gently but firmly tells him no.  This time, however, Robert won't be denied, at least the pleasure of Brenda's company.  Robert attempts to rape her, but he's impotent, but not impotent enough to strangle her, with his necktie.

Through a series of bad circumstances, it's Dick who is held as the prime and only suspect in the Necktie killings.  Things aren't helped when, despite hiding out at a former RAF mate's place, the newest victim is Dick's girlfriend, Babs Milligan (Anna Massey).  Robert is forced to go after Bab's body, which he hid in a potato sack, when he realizes that in the struggle, she grabbed his necktie pin and it is now lodged in her cold dead hand.

It looks like, despite his innocence, Dick will hang for his crimes, and Robert, who helped in capturing Dick, will get away with it.  Richard screams out at his sentencing that Robert Rusk is the real murderer, and swears to get him.  Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), who up to now was firm in his belief of Dick's guilt, begins to question whether he has 'the wrong man'.  He now begins investigating Rusk, all while suffering the horrors of his wife's adventurous cooking.

Dick manages to escape before his execution date, and eventually though independently, both arrive at Rusk's place, where another victim is found, and Rusk comes in with a giant trunk.  "Mr. Rusk, you're not wearing your tie," Oxford observes while Dick seethes.

There are moments of the old Hitchcock genius in Frenzy.  As Babs and Robert go up to his place, Babs confident that Robert will help, the camera pulls back and away from the scene in total silence for what seems agonizing minutes.  Without saying a word, without a drop of music, without anything really, we can imagine the horror of what is going to happen to poor Babs.  Another moment is at the trial, where the door blocks out the dialogue for most of it, with only little bits to let us know what the court has decided.

Those moments, however, are few and far between.  It's interesting that Hitchcock, if memory serves correct, was a champion of the "don't show" school, saying that what the audience can imagine is far more terrifying than what someone can put up on the screen.  It's interesting because in Frenzy, we get a surprisingly lurid and graphic set of scenes.  Brenda's murder is one of the most disturbing moments in a Hitchcock film, so awful in terms of brutality.  The sight of Robert ripping Brenda's dress and bra off to expose her breasts in closeup is already highly disturbing, but the actual strangulation and conclusion, with our victim's tongue sticking out after a particularly vicious killing, borders on the obscene and sadistic.

It's as if Hitchcock, now unbound by the Production Code, decided to wallow in 1970's grindhouse.  That, coupled with a bit of dialogue earlier, is just grotesque.  Earlier, two lawyers were discussing the crime, and a middle-aged barmaid, overhearing this, said that she heard he raped them before strangling them.  Looking her over, one of them quips, "Every cloud has a silver lining", and perhaps it's me, but I don't find jokes about raping a woman funny.

There's just a viciousness, an unpleasantness, a sadistic nature to that scene that so bothered me.  There is also another moment, when Robert has to break the hand of Babs to get at the pin.  The corpse is now nude, and as he tears at the bag, at a certain point he thrusts his head where Babs' crotch is.  Maybe Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer (adapting Arthur La Bern's Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square) thought showing necrophiliac oral sex was funny.  I thought it horrible.

Again and again, seeing people murdered in such gruesome ways, particularly people who are essentially defenseless, plays at me, and I find myself highly uncomfortable.

It's also interesting that while Hitchcock continues with his 'wrong man' motif, the wrong man here was not someone one cared about.  Dick lived up to his name: boorish, drunk, and unpleasant, it's a wonder why Oxford had second thoughts on him being the Necktie Killer.  It's also a wonder why a.) the police never found more victims after Dick's arrest, b.) could connect him to the other murders when they probably couldn't, and c.) why Oxford suddenly believed Dick's ramblings.

The performances weren't altogether good in my view either for the most part.  I found the acting a bit overly-dramatic and stale, particularly by Finch as the mean and petty Dick.  I thought Foster was better as the crazed Rusk, and both Leigh-Hunt and Massey were quite good as the poor victims.

I just hated to see them killed, and in Leigh-Hunt's case, in such a particularly ghoulish and graphic fashion.

I could have done without the comedy bits of McCowen and Vivien Merchant as Mrs. Oxford, though she was amusing in her desire for Avant-garde dining.

Frenzy tries for polish and for grindhouse, and I don't think it works on either.  Again, there are sequences that I think are brilliant (the silent moments when we know Babs is biting the dust), but on the whole, I think Frenzy shows why Alfred Hitchcock films post-The Birds aren't in high demand (though in at least one case, I think it should be). 


A Silent Voice: A Review


I've long argued that animation can tackle subjects beyond cute animals singing and dancing.  This ability to look at serious issues through moving drawings is something that only the Japanese appear to do.  A Silent Voice, based on a manga story, tackles really heavy issues: bullying, guilt, shame, responsibility.  While at two hours it might be a bit punishing for viewers, A Silent Voice (also known as The Shape of Voice) is a timely tale, told richly, deeply and sincerely.

Former big man on campus Shoya Ishida, now a teen, reflects on his elementary school days while contemplating suicide.  Back then, he ruled the roost with a collection of followers delighted by his hijinks.  Then came a new student, Shoko Nishimiya.  She is pretty, but she has a disability: she is deaf.  Ishida begins a campaign of bullying, even though Nishimiya proves herself to be a kind and welcoming person (following Japanese custom, the characters tend to refer to themselves by their last names).  Ishida routinely pulls out her hearing aids, once so violently they cause her ears to bleed.  He leads others in ostracizing her, which they do save for Sahara, who shows her kindness but won't stand up to the others.

Finally, it reaches a crisis point when the administration finally steps in.  The hearing aids Ishida routinely tosses or damages are expensive, and the results of his bullying force his mother to not only apologize for his actions but pay monetary compensation, money they can hardly afford to spend.  After being exposed, and finding no one to stand with him, Ishida, once the campus star, is ostracized himself, with Nishimiya moving to another school.

Now as teens, Ishida carries a lot of guilt over his actions, as well as shame and hurt for the end results: financial and emotional.  He feels the ostracism of others to where he can't look up at them, seeing literal 'X's over their faces.  At last, only one person, a short, fat student named Nagatsaku becomes his overly-eager friend when Ishida steps out of himself to keep Nagatsaku's bicycle from being stolen.

Nagatsaku adopts him as his BFF, and while Ishida isn't thrilled by this, at least he has someone.  He also has rediscovered Nishimiya's old notebook, which she used early on to write questions and answers on.  Having learned sign language in the ensuing years, he seeks out Nishimiya in order to make amends.

He does, which leads to his efforts to restore what he has destroyed.  It means dealing with Yuzuru, whom he and Nagatsaku first mistook for Nishimiya's boyfriend only to find out Yuzuru was Nishimiya's younger sister (I guess in anime, all things are plausible).  It also means helping Nishimiya reconnect with Sahara, as well as finding that some of the people Ishida either hurt or abandoned him still have their own issues when it comes to Ishida and Nishimiya.

In time, Nishimiya tells Ishida that she loves him, but Ishida fails to understand her words.  Still, their relationship ebbs and flows, culminating at a fireworks festival.  After an outing previously, Ishida essentially blames everyone, including and especially himself, for all that has happened, and tries to push his new friends away.  Nishimiya got it into her head that the world would be better without her and attempts suicide by jumping off her balcony after leaving the festival.  Ishida gets there in time to save her, but ends up falling himself when he lost his balance after pulling her to safety.

At the hospital, it is now Nishimiya's mother and sister who must beg forgiveness from Ishida's mother, and while Ishida does recover (even going to the bridge where they often met after having a dream involving Nishimiya), he still carries an awful guilt about things.  Finally, at the high school festival, he begins to finally hear himself, hearing all the voices of those around him: his friends, his enemies, and his fellow classmates.  No longer just hearing his own voice, he finds all the 'X's fall, and at last he is free of his guilt and shame, and can embrace life redeemed.

A Silent Voice, as I said, might feel a bit slow at its two-hour running time, particularly when there are scenes and characters that don't appear to fit neatly into the overall plot.  The idea that Yuzuru could be mistaken for a boy seems odd, and there is a subplot involving Nishimiya's Granny that seems unimportant.  However, we find that these little bits do matter, and more importantly, do move the viewer.

In A Silent Voice, the Granny character has a very limited role, but it is an important one: helping Yuzuru begin valuing herself.  When we see the family mourning her death, the image of Granny's smiling picture at the altar with the incense and her mourning daughter and granddaughters moved me intensely.  I should confess that the fact that I am still grieving myself over a friend's sudden death might have played a part in my emotional reaction to this, but given how well director Naoko Yamada crafted the adaptation, along with screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, these little bits have an emotional impact.

Same for Ishida's young niece Maria.  She is so adorable in her innocence and enthusiasm that you can't help loving her.  She may be unnecessary to the overall plot, but you wouldn't want to remove her either.

Yamada had several brilliant moments and allusions, such as putting literal 'X's on Ishida's classmates to emphasize how he perceived them.  It also stays true to human nature.  One of Nishimiya's former bullies, a girl named Ueno, is not redeemed or has a sudden realization.  She still feels little to no regret over her actions, believing that if not for Nishimiya things would have been better.  However, it rings true, particularly at the age the characters were, because sometimes teens and adults don't acknowledge wrongdoing.

It is Ishida's story, and it rings true because these are flawed characters.  A Silent Voice is really about Ishida's redemption, about his evolution from thoughtless to bullying to guilt-stricken and finally to forgiveness.  Forgiveness from Nishimiya for starters, but also forgiving himself, which sometimes can be the most difficult thing for anyone to do.

There are some beautiful moments visually as well in A Silent Voice.  The roller coaster ride is beautifully filmed, and Nishimiya's suicide attempt is really intense.  Previously, we see other characters observing the fireworks show from various positions, visually showing where they stand.  Subtle touches like these elevate A Silent Voice tremendously.

A Silent Voice is a film about the evils of bullying, but it drives its message without beating one down with it.  It is a subtle, beautiful film, and not just about bullying itself, an important topic today in this Facebook/Twitter/Instagram world where cyberbullying is now a fast-growing epidemic.  It is a film about the importance of kindness and forgiveness.  It is a film about the need for friends, flaws and all.  "Friendship lies somewhere beyond things like words and logic," Nagatsaku tells Ishida when the latter asks the former whether his friendship has value. 

A Silent Voice is a plea for tolerance, for mercy, kindness and ultimately forgiveness.  It speaks to the importance of human connections, of decency to all regardless of their differences, and about how guilt truly is a useless emotion. 

The Bible says that we are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength...and to love your neighbor as yourself.  If we all did that, irrespective of one's individual faith or lack thereof, this would truly be a better world.  It would be a world where all these silent voices would be heard, and loved.


Monday, October 16, 2017

Gotham: They Who Hide Behind Masks Review


Again, I go back to the idea that Gotham was not going to be a Batman origins show.  That caused, if memory serves correct, many a Batman fan to dislike the series, as if introducing villains old enough to be the Dark Knight's father wasn't bad enough.  From what I was able to see of They Who Hide Behind Masks, the latest Gotham episode, it looks like the idea that Gotham isn't going to cover the rise of our vigilante proved false.

Our young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is learning how to be a vigilante.  That means trying to pass himself off as an ordinary kid while doing reconnaissance work aboard a ship, and not doing a great job of it.  It also means earlier trying to stop a thief from stealing from another thief.  He's not doing a great job of that either, meaning his loyal manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee) has to bail him out.  Alfred also gives him some acting advise, and now Bruce, who at heart is a good kid, is slipping into the role of a cocky, obnoxious brat.

Part of the act involves being a jerk in outbidding Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) for a particular dagger which she has been tasked to get: The Dagger of King Balahsi.  Bonkers Babs first tried to get her protege Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) to steal it, but that didn't work.  Then she goes to her frenemy Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) to get it, but no dice: he is going to auction it off.  Wayne knows what Penguin doesn't and what Bonkers Babs is unclear of: that dagger is important to Ra's al Ghoul (Alexander Siddig), who was tasked to give it to his 'heir' after he is revived in 250 A.D. Arabia.

Obviously, Ra's has been searching for some time now.

Penguin has his own problems.  Someone has gotten his enemy Ed Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) out of his ice tomb, and he's none too pleased.  That someone ends up being a Riddler super-fan, who has an obsession for Riddler, whom she considers the greatest master-criminal of all.  As part of her effort at having rescued Nygma, she insists on being his sidekick, even having created an outfit worthy of a cosplayer and naming herself 'The Riddlette' (Ilana Becker), real name, Myrtle Jenkins (who if memory serves correct went to school with Nygma).

She, however, is puzzled and worried that perhaps being locked in ice has made him less than what he was.  Even the simplest riddles are hard for him: answering 'zebra with a hole' when asked 'what is black and white and read all over?' among his other too literal answers for the riddles.  Despite her worries, his body has recovered quite well.  His mind...well.

In all this, Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) goes to 'Miami' to get the help of Don Falcone (John Doman).

As a side note, wherever he went, even in sepia tones, looks nothing like 'Miami'.  I don't think the name of the place is given, but its look makes me think it's San Juan or Havana.  Yet I digress.

Don Falcone, a dying man, declines to help.  However, perhaps Gordon can get aid through a woman clearly interested in him: Mob Princess Sofia (Crystal Reed).  She even shows up in Gotham, and she has plans and designs of her own.

Things come to a head as Riddler still remains missing, Wayne awaits Ra's return, and Ra and Bonkers Babs start getting it on.

Part of my difficulty with reviewing They Who Hide Behind Masks is that my recording cut off when Sofia arrived, and whatever came afterwards was lost.  However, there was a great deal of good and not-so-good in the episode.

In the not-so-good part was the Sofia-Gordon bit.  Why, oh WHY is it that almost every woman we meet is instantly attracted to Gordon?  Babs, Lee, Valerie Vale, and now Sofia.  It's almost as if Gordon has some sort of sexual charm that bewitches any woman he meets.

Perhaps it's just me, and perhaps she will develop, but part of me isn't thrilled with the idea of seeing another 'Mafia Princess' try to use her allures to take power.  It's no slam on Reed, who is starting out quite well, but hopefully this storyline won't slip into farce.

There is also the curious case of The Cat and the Bat.  The brief scene between Bicondova and Mazouz was strong, but I find it hard to believe that, given how much Selina needs to impress Bonkers Babs, she would so quickly and willingly walk away from Wayne Manor.  The Selina I know would have tried to have fought Bruce for the Knife, so seeing her take a hike was a surprise.

In the 'good' part are the performances.  I don't think Anthony Carrigan and Victor Zsasz has gotten enough credit as he should get for being quite funny.  Zsasz is very menacing and dangerous: the master assassin who is now Penguin's aide-de-camp, but he can also be camp himself.  As RLT rants and rages about seeing Nygma out of his ice prison, it takes Carrigan's perfect delivery to add a punchline.  "I don't opens up the place," he says in observing the now-absent Riddler.  Something like this would surely enrage Penguin, but Carrigan makes it sound natural, almost innocent, and certainly devoid of any maliciousness.

In her brief time, Becker made Myrtle into almost a spoof of fangirls/boys, and the humor she brought to her 'Riddlette' was well-needed.  I've heard people want to cosplay as her, meaning they will make a costume of a character who in essence was created as a gentle mocking of the fans who cosplay as one-episode characters.  Would that count as meta?

It is really Mazouz who now has taken full center stage.  He pulls off the efforts to play someone so different from the real Bruce, and we can see that slowly, steadily, surely, he is slipping into his various roles.  Mazouz is turning out to be one of if not the best Bruce Wayne.  Credit too for Pertwee's Alfred, mentor to the young Master Bruce.

On the whole, They Who Hide Behind Masks is another strong episode, with a more focused Gotham charging into what looks like a major storyline: Bruce vs. Ra's al Ghoul.  Where our Mob Princess fits in remains to be seen.


Next Episode: The Demon's Head

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Haze: A Review


In light of recent deaths resulting from hazing, the actions potential members of a group are made to partake in as part of the group's rituals, a film like Haze seems more timely than ever.  This activity is nothing new, but it seems now that as more young men die as a result of them, greater attention is being given.  Haze is a strong film, albeit at times too eager to be symbolic and artistic when a simpler manner would have done much more.

Nick Forrest (Kirk Curran) is an eager freshman wanting to join the Psi Theta Epsilon fraternity.  Like many fraternities, this one is filled with nothing but booze and broads, in this case from the Delta sorority which they are connected to.  PTE has issues though: a few years back, another pledge, Zac Green, died as a result of excessive alcohol brought on due to the fraternity's pledging ritual.

Leading the charge against PTE and all other hazings is Pete (Mike Blejer), who happens to be Nick's brother.  Pete is making a documentary about fraternities and hazing, which does not sit well with either the PTE members or Nick, who just wants to join this elite group.

The pledges, almost all of them white save for Iranian-American Anoush (Raamin Samiyi), begin their rituals under the eye of Dennis Taylor (Jeremy O'Shea).  Taylor, the pledge minister, is anything but holy: his wolf-like manner is only the tip of the iceberg.  Things at first appear generally light-hearted, dumb but not insidious.  It's when the fraternity gets the pledges in 'Lineup' that thinks take on something of a psychological torture.

And that's before we get to Hell Week, one of the most apropos names.

Meanwhile, at Delta sorority, Nick's childhood friend Mimi (Kristin Rogers) is a pledge, though she is less enthusiastic, appearing more to do it to please Nick.  Not that Nick really thinks much of Mimi, as the freshman has eyes (and loins) only for Sophie (Sophia Medley), the senior who is the female Taylor, with the bonus of being Taylor's lover (girlfriend implies genuine love).

Pete and Nick continue to be estranged, and Nick is letting his passion for PTE cloud his judgment.  A one-night stand with Mimi makes him fail to see that Mimi is in love with him (he telling her, "I had fun last night" has to be among the biggest blow-offs in history).  It also does not prevent him from continuing his lustful desire for Sophie, which does lead to a very brief tryst with her with Taylor's encouragement.

As part of the rituals, the pledges inadvertently help the frat destroy Pete's documentary, down to holding him and his crew hostage.  In between the boozing and whoring where Mimi finds herself humiliated when a drunken sexual encounter is videotaped, the frat boy delighting in it, we get Hell Week.

The most torturous sequence in Haze commences, something out of a horror film.  This brutalization of the pledges concludes with the fraternity telling them they cannot leave the room they are willingly in...until they kill the frat's dog.  Needless to say, we get a horrifying result from that.

Nick by now sees that his young life is in shambles: about to fail out of school, his relationship with Mimi and Pete all but gone, and for what?  Things are made worse for him when he hears Zac's mother speak about her son, and we learn that Pete's animosity comes from his own secret: he was a pledge when Zac died and saw how it happened.  Nick and Pete patch things up, and Nick even manages to get hold of the camera Pete had secretly placed in the holding room PTE uses for Hell Week.  It looks like Nick is going to help bring down Psi Theta Epsilon.

Haze, however, ends on an ambiguous note.  Despite having punched Taylor in the throat at the end of Hell Week, Nick walks into the house to find that all the pledges were admitted...including Nick.

Animal House this is not.

Writer/director David Burkman gives Haze a strong visual experience.  The Hell Week sequence looks like something out of a horror film: the black-and-white cinematography, quick cuts, off-kilter shots and intense acting.  There was a frenzy in a lot of Haze, with what I take to be some nods to other films.

In the last party sequence (of which there are quite a few), Pete has managed to sneak in by wearing a mask and wig (whether his toga was a nod to the humorous take on frats in Animal House is left to the viewer).  He, however, is not immune from the decadence he sees, and finds himself drugged and aroused.  As the frat guys see who it is, they manage to get him outside.  With their masks and costumes, and him surrounded in his garb, it looked like Burkman was drawing inspiration from The Wicker Man's climatic and shocking conclusion.

Frenzy is a good way to describe Haze, and part of it comes from Burkman's decision to film it almost documentary-like, particularly with quick zooms.  That works well when we get Pete's footage, and when we see the psychological torture and abuse the pledges go through (the first Lineup where you see pledges being slapped, spit on, and the Iranian Anoush being forced to say 'I do not know how the bomb got into my luggage' with a faux-accent, is brutal), but when we are not in those moments, it becomes distracting more than jarring.

Haze also didn't answer a key question for me: why was Nick so eager to join?  We get video 'interviews' of the various candidates expressing things about 'brotherhood' and 'lifelong bonds', but for his specific motivation, I never felt I got what it/they were.  I also never quite figured why Pete never told his younger brother what he knew.  Nor for that matter I never understood why there wasn't a greater repercussion when the frat takes on actual criminal activities (holding Pete and his crew hostage), or why Pete never bothered to have backups for his footage.

As a side note, why didn't any of these guys think that whole event wasn't actually criminal?  Did they get to such a degree of group-think and submission that they didn't bother questioning it?

Finally, in the parallel to the ancient Greek story of Dionysus and Pentheus, spoken openly about late in the film by a professor, was a bit too on the nose by this point.  I think it might have worked better if we had used this myth in the beginning of Haze, given its obvious parallels. 

Burkman shows himself an able director of actors with Haze.  Curran has the ability to be innocent, almost sweet, and slightly cold and menacing as Nick.  He can go from someone eager to experience all the decadent, erotic pleasures the fraternity offers, to the ostracism he endures due to his brother's actions, to a coldness and sorrow when it comes to the unfortunate Mimi.

O'Shea brings a beautiful wickedness in his Taylor, someone whose external beauty hides a hideous, ugly soul.  I hope he plays in a comedy to show range, otherwise he'll be cast as villains for the rest of his career.  Blejer's Pete is also strong though the script makes him a bit opaque at times.  Roger played Mimi as generally meek but it was a good performance. Medley, though, had the smaller role of the semi-villainous Sophie, making it a bit hard to give a full judgment.

On the whole, however, the acting, particularly by Curran and O'Shea, showcase hopefully strong careers.

If Haze has flaws, it is the fact that at times it did get a bit too artistic for its own good (the strobe lighting as Pete comes close to being consumed at the Halloween frat party a bit much for example).  The overt shout-outs to Greek myths in a Greek tale too might have been a bit much.  Of particular concern was the over-use of zooms to give it a 'documentary' look that it could have toned down.

I put that up to the overenthusiastic writer/director spreading his wings.  David Burkman shows himself a capable, even strong director and writer who should try to get out of his own way.  Haze is an excellent calling card on a timely subject.  With strong performances and an almost ripped-from-the-headlines story, Haze is both allegory on what 'brotherhood' really means as well as a cautionary tale of excess. 

The ending, open-ended as it is, leaves it up to you which brothers Nick ultimately chose, and Haze now turns to you and asks, 'which would you choose'.