Friday, January 27, 2017

Our Miss Ellie. The Eleanor Roosevelt Story: A Review


THE ELEANOR ROOSEVELT STORY

Eleanor Roosevelt is not a beautiful woman, except perhaps in spirit.  The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, made three years after the former First Lady's death, is a very positive portrayal, with some fascinating insights into her life.  It isn't quite so positive and besotted with its subject that it could be mistaken for a Democratic Party infomercial, but it isn't by any means a critical or even balanced portrait either; it has a major disadvantage of having been made so close to her death, when so much information was yet to be revealed about both her own private agony and her private life.  However, as a primer on the longest-serving First Lady, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story might be a good entrance point.

The film, written and partially narrated by poet Archibald MacLeish, goes from her early, unhappy, very traumatized childhood, but in those almost frightening years where she lost the father that adored her and the mother who dismissed her, dubbing her awkward daughter "Granny" we find the seeds of her social activism.  In her youth, Eleanor's only refuge was the French-language school her Grandmother Hall sent her to (Mrs. Hall probably unaware that it was a hotbed of ultra-liberalism). Part of Eleanor's social activism stemmed from her noblesse oblige, the world outside her Gilded Age social circle horrifying and angering her.

We go to her whirlwind courtship by her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Franklin and Eleanor were in love, but there two difficulties: Franklin's formidable mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and the political ambitions of Frank.  Those ambitions are close to derailing when he's struck down with something (I don't think the word 'polio' was mentioned), but for once, Eleanor stands up for herself and pushes back when Sara wants her precious little boy to retire and retreat to Hyde Park to be the invalid he is.

Now, her activism grows, though it has the unintended result of making her First Lady, a role she doesn't want.  However, it is a chance for her to affect change, positive change in her view, and she carries on.  Upon the death of the President, she believes that, in her own words, 'the story is over'.

It isn't: her nation, indeed the world still need of her, and she carries on, making the world a better place.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story may be a loving, almost fawning film tribute to the former First Lady, but I think that was the whole point of it.  The film is meant to be a celebration of Roosevelt, to note not just her accomplishments but that old 'triumph of the human spirit' so many people enjoy seeing.

The documentary does have some fascinating information regarding Roosevelt.  For example, it is absolutely astonishing to discover (courtesy of Roosevelt's cousin Mrs. Francis Cole, who adds narration along with journalist Eric Sevareid and some voice-over from Roosevelt herself), that Eleanor did not know how to read at age 12!  The fact that she became a highly literate woman who wrote a newspaper column, My Day, starting from almost when she became the First Lady to almost her death is more remarkable given that information.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story also gives us a clue as to how Roosevelt might think today.  She and then Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman got into a very public spat over whether public money should be used to fund Catholic schools (she was firmly opposed, like the good liberal she was, she opposed what could be called school vouchers).  The film does say that she supported 'the right to think and to differ', a claim that I find dubious only because I've found very few people on the Left or Right who truly tolerate those with different political views.

We even are allowed a lighter side to Mrs. Roosevelt.  There's a clip of comedian Jack Benny cracking wise with the First Lady.  He asks for a quarter to donate to charity, to which she remarks she has a dollar and if he could give her change.  The comic, who had a running gag of being notoriously cheap, said he didn't have any change with him, but would gladly send it to her...if she stayed in one place (a reference to her peripatetic lifestyle of constant motion).

Another joke, however, now is both dated, even slightly racist, and has the punch-line cut out.  As she travels the South Pacific to meet the troops, she tells the story of a poor Marine who never had the chance to shoot 'a Jap' (her word).  Told to go out and shout, "To Hell with Hirohito" in order to draw a 'Jap' out, he returns all the more depressed.  When asked why, he says he did as he was told, only to find the 'Jap' issue a rejoinder, "To Hell with Roosevelt"!

First, I figure she used 'Jap' to ingratiate herself to the men (the film makes note that she opposed the internment of Japanese Americans, a decision made by her husband and declared Constitutional by the Supreme Court at the time).  However, today such terms would be met with outrage.  Second, the actual punch-line.  The reason the Marine gave as to why he couldn't shoot the 'Jap' was, "I couldn't shoot a fellow Republican!"

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, being made so soon after her death, either doesn't know or flat-out doesn't mention if it did know some darker and more controversial elements of Mrs. Roosevelt's life.  It would be decades before stories of a lesbian affair with her confidante, Lorena Hickok (better known as 'Hick') would come out (no pun intended).  The surviving letters between them indicates a great passion between them, and Hickok was openly gay (or as openly gay as one could be at the time).  However, there's been no definitive proof that their relationship was ever sexual or that Mrs. Roosevelt herself was either gay or bisexual.

Nothing wrong with being gay or bisexual, but my argument is that we don't know whether Eleanor ever had a mistress herself.  She did associate with lesbians, many of whom had leadership positions or great influence within the Democratic Party (read Eleanor & Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn for this interesting story).  What was known then, or at least secretly discussed, was Franklin's main mistress, the beautiful Lucy Mercer, later Mrs. Rutherford.

It was Mrs. Rutherford who was with President Roosevelt when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia (Eleanor was in Washington).  The Eleanor Roosevelt Story does not mention, or even hint at, the fact that it was the discovery of Franklin's infidelity that crushed her almost to desperation or that it was the impetus for her to form an independent life.  Essentially, their married life was over the moment Mrs. Roosevelt read those love letters between Franklin & Lucy; they were together, but the marriage was essentially dead.

Reputations, it appears, had to be maintained, even after death, and The Eleanor Roosevelt Story was part and parcel of keeping up appearances.

There's an introduction to the film by then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.  It's pleasant enough, though I found very little emotion behind Mrs. Clinton's 'touching' tribute.  Mrs. Roosevelt beat Mrs. Clinton in being the first First Lady to testify before Congress, something even now to be rare.  That is something I was unaware of.

The Eleanor Roosevelt Story is a good way to give people an overview of this interesting figure, albeit a bit flowery and reverent. Still, we can see how events both public and private shaped her, her worldview, and her actions.  Sympathetic, almost but not quite to a fault, The Eleanor Roosevelt Story is a good but not great film about a good but not great woman (I favor former First Lady Dolley Madison myself).

"What one has to do usually can be done".  Words of Wisdom indeed.

1884-1962


DECISION: B+

Lion: A Review


LION

Is it the journey, or the destination?  Lion, a film based on a true story, goes for the tear ducts, and it is hard not to react emotionally to the story it tells throughout.  I don't know whether that was the ultimate aim of Lion, merely the end result.  Lion is a very moving film, though at times a bit too quiet for its story.

In 1986 India, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in poverty but happily with his mother and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate).  Saroo does what he can to help and looks up to Guddu.  One night, Guddu goes to the train station where he will look for ways to make some money.  The empty station lulls Saroo to sleep, and while Guddu tries to get his little brother to do some work (though Guddu didn't want to bring him in the first place), he tells Saroo to stay put. 

Needless to say, Saroo doesn't.  After waking, he looks for Guddu, and his search takes him to a train temporarily stationed there.  He falls asleep again, and to his horror he finds the train is moving at a fast pace away from everyone and everything he knows.  Eventually the decommissioned train ends up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where this country child is lost, a bit scared, and having difficulty with the language barrier (most Calcuttans speaking Bengali, while Saroo speaks only Hindi).  Calcutta is no place for any child unattended: the police round up orphans (Saroo managing to outrun them), and those who appear friendly are really agents for child sex slaves (Saroo's spidey-sense urging him to flee them too).  Eventually, a man at a café observes Saroo imitating him from the outside, and being able to speak both Hindi and Bengali, takes him to the police.



In turn, the police put Saroo in an orphanage that isn't too terrible, and with the wheel of fortune spinning, Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple: John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman).  Saroo takes all this in stride, his first flight, his first television, his first plush toy (a koala), down to having a new brother a few years later, Mantosh, who unlike Saroo is deeply troubled.

Moving on decades later, and Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) has grown up to want to pursue two things: a career in the hotel industry, and Lucy (Rooney Mara), the pretty American student studying in his international program.  One thing Saroo doesn't want is Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who is highly troubled to say the least.  Saroo goes to an informal get-together with others in the hotel management program, which has a good number of Indians (though by this time, Saroo is more Australian than Indian).  However, the scent of an Indian delicacy awakens deep memories of his brother and his very early years back in India.

Thus begins Saroo's search for his mother and brother, with only the vaguest memories of his lost hometown and family.  Even the 'new invention' of Google Earth isn't helpful, and Saroo wants to keep his search secret from the Brieleys, but eventually all things are revealed, with Sue in particular not opposing Saroo's search.  It is an arduous process: with India being so large and his memories so faint.

All that being said, Saroo, through work and a bit of luck, does, despite all the odds against him, find his hometown (which he had mispronounced as a child, thus explaining why he couldn't go back then).  Google Earth did indeed help, and now, as a stranger in his own homeland, he goes to India to find his roots, with the results being, well, that I cannot say.  I can only report that it is both happy and sad.

We also learn that Saroo had mispronounced his own name too.  He is not Saroo.  He is Sheru, which means, "Lion".


Lion has the benefit of being a 'based-on-a-true-story' film.  As such, even if it took some liberties with Brierley's story, we can forgive it because it has a note of joy to it.  I won't lie: I was emotionally moved by Lion.  It's hard not to be, with this Indian version of Roots, or rather Roots: The Next Generations.

It's curious that the follow-up to the epic television miniseries about an African-American family came to mind while watching Lion, but I think it is because like at the end of The Next Generations, Alex Haley goes to an African village where he finds his long-lost ancestor, Kunta Kinte, mentioned as having been lost and now, his descendant has returned to the land of his distant past.  Similarly, after being lost for decades, Saroo (as opposed to a child of his) has finally come home.

In terms of performances, we find some really strong ones from the main cast.  I read somewhere, in what I figure is a snarky comment, that Dev Patel is condemned to play the adult version of traumatized Indian children (a callback to his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire).  I don't know whether the lack of parts for Patel is due to him being an Indian with a British accent or not.  I can say that I thought him better here than in Slumdog Millionaire, for here he manages to be more proactive and less reactive, less shocked looking and more pensive, more anxious or angry.

I'm not saying it's a great performance or that Patel in particular is a great actor, merely that I thought he did better and has been going from strength to strength.

Kidman has stopped the slide into irrelevance with an equally strong performance, her scene where she tells Saroo why she chose to adopt despite being able to bear children (removing Saroo's misconceptions, no pun intended) is quiet, moving.  It's a good reminder that Kidman can act, if given the right role and the right director.

The real star and scene-stealer is Sunny Pawar as the younger Saroo.  He's enchanting, a loveable little urchin whom you grow to love.  Sweet, natural, and endearing, Pawar also can communicate Saroo's suspicions on those who appear to want to help, and in little moments, like when the Indian child advocate is showing him and other adoptees how to use utensils and their English-language terms, or when he comes into the Brierley home, Pawar all but melts your heart.

Lion is a beautiful looking film with a wonderful score (from cinematographer Grieg Fraser and Volker Bertelmann & Dustin O'Halloran respectively).  However, what criticisms Lion gets is the pacing.  It takes its time in getting somewhere, anywhere.  It is a very quiet film, sometimes too quiet, where one can wait a while before something happens.  Oddly, even in arguments, whether it's Saroo and Lucy or Saroo and Mantosh, there seems to be a generally hushed tone.  It isn't as extreme as Silence, but it pushes the slow and steady nature of the film.

The Lion doesn't roar, but purrs.

Lion moves one emotionally, and while at times a slow, quiet film (with unintentionally funny moments: the audience burst out laughing when they heard Google Earth referred to as a 'new invention', though it would have been when the events were taking place), it works in what it wants to do. A fascinating story, almost unbelievable and yet true, with a moving ending, it's a film that will touch hearts, especially those who have children.

I once was lost, but now am found...

Born 1981


DECISION: B+

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Rising Sun Rejects The Only Son. Silence (2016): A Review


SILENCE

I find that there is a great difference between doubt and disbelief.  Doubt, to me, means 'I cannot believe something in my mind, yet I will accept it as Truth'.  Disbelief, to me, means 'I cannot believe something in my mind, and I will not accept it as Truth'.  Silence does not answer whether our protagonist had Doubt or Disbelief.  As a meditation on faith and its perils, it is another Martin Scorsese masterwork.  As a film, it will try both men's souls and their patience.

Two Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) have received news that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has committed apostasy in Japan.  Ferreira has been one of the few remaining missionaries in the Land of the Rising Sun, a nation whose leadership (the Tokugawa shogunate) fiercely hostile to the Gospel.  Any Japanese who is found to be a follower of The Way is tortured unless he or she renounces The Faith.  The most visible example of that is by stepping on an image of Christ or Mary, Mother of Christ.

Ferreira, it has been reported, has renounced the Faith.  Against the advise and judgment of their superior, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), Rodrigues and Garupe go to Japan, in secret, to find Ferreira and discover the truth.

The journey to Nippon is hard, with the two Jesuits finding a most unreliable guide: Kichiro (Yosuke Kobusuka), who may or may not be an alcoholic, and who may or may not be a Christian.  The local peasants and fishermen, all secret Christians, welcome the two Catholic priests, eager for the Sacraments so long denied them.  Rodrigues and Garupe find themselves both guests and prisoners, for they cannot go openly in a nation hostile to not just Christianity but Westerners as well.

Eventually, they are discovered, but not before Garupe and Rodrigues agree to split up to continue their search.  Every time there is some kind of betrayal of the priests to the Japanese, Kichiro is at the center of it.  Every time though, Kichiro tearfully begs confession of Rodrigues and the absolution it gives.



Once Rodrigues comes into Japanese hands, he must match wits and stave off The Old Samurai, whom he discovers is the Governor of the Province, Inoue (Issei Ogata), who pushes for Rodrigues to renounce his own faith, which Inoue insists cannot flower in 'the swamp of Japan'.  Rodrigues holds firm, though he wonders how God could let those who are so devoted to Him suffer so cruelly without recourse.

Inoue has Rodrigues see other Japanese Christians tortured, even though they have apostatized, and to his horror, Garupe is with them.  Garupe has held firm, but the Christians will be killed precisely because Garupe refuses to denounce his God (the only way the others can be saved).  Garupe drowns trying to save one, and Rodrigues is heartbroken, angry, bitter, but he still will not give in. Eventually, Inoue arranges for Rodrigues and Ferreira to meet.  Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has indeed rejected the Christian God, turned to the wisdom of Buddhism, and confirms that Christianity cannot fit into Japanese culture.  Not only does he push Rodrigues to renounce Christ, but he also tells him that the faith of the peasants is a false one, for to them, the Western Christ is still a mystery to them.

Rodrigues is brought to witness a cruel torture of captured Japanese Christians, and in desperation, urges them to apostatize.  Ferreira tells him they already have, several times over.  Inoue wants RODRIGUES to apostatize, to renounce his faith to save them.  Ferreira adds that for Rodrigues to keep his faith at the cost of others life is the true apostasy, and that it is vanity to compare his own suffering with that of Jesus Christ.  Rodrigues, at long last, apostatizes.

Now both Rodrigues and Ferreira, adopting Japanese names, customs, and even wives (all inherited from dead vassals of Inoue), work to keep Christian symbols and ideas out of Japan by examining everything that comes from the Dutch in Nagasaki (the only port where Westerners are permitted).  Kichiro himself becomes Rodrigues' servant, and it is found years later that he had a Christian symbol on him.  He is quickly sent away, with Rodrigues apparently not caring.

Upon Rodrigues' own death, even his body is carefully watched for any signs that he kept true to his apostasy.  Only a brief visit from his wife to his body is permitted.  As we see him buried in the Buddhist manner, his body burned, we look to see in his hands, a tiny crucifix, one the authorities never managed to find.
  
I don't think anyone of faith, regardless of what faith he/she has, hasn't had a 'dark night of the soul', a time when they struggled over whether what they believed was true or not.  Silence, to its credit, looks at the cost faith has on both an individual and those that the individual comes into contact with. 

In this Apocalypse of The Faith Now, our two figures (or primarily Rodrigues) go in search of our mad Kurtz, only to find, like our mad Colonel, that he has become something other than what he started out as, someone who has 'gone native' and left the bounds of Western views to embrace the wisdom of the East.

I just wish that Scorsese had not done what I find rather ridiculous whenever someone has 'deep thoughts'.  It is this idea of 'whispering'.  Garfield's dialogues, even monologues, almost always consist of whispering, or at least speaking softly.  It doesn't matter whether it is internal or external: there is a very hushed, muted verbal nature to Silence, and that displeases me because it signals that the film does not trust me to understand. 

The good Padre whispers his doubts of God's existence as He does not answer the prayers of His Japanese flock.  He is disturbed by God's Silence.  He is irritated by the idea that Kichiro can keep coming to him for absolution whenever he sins (he let his family burn alive to save himself when they refused to renounce Jesus, and helped the Japanese find Rodrigues for his own three hundred pieces of silver...though I'm sure any symbolism was purely coincidental).

When Rodrigues finally and tearfully apostatizes, we find that it is dawning, and in the distance, we can hear a rooster crow.  I'm sure that moment was coincidental too.



Perhaps it's the Protestant in me, but I think one has to be of a Catholic view (which Scorsese was brought up in) to hold some of the ideas of Silence.  A Protestant would not put much stake in iconography (after all, Martin Luther and John Calvin were particularly appalled by images and knowing them would have delighted in stomping over pictures of Mary).  Yet I digress.

I find it hopelessly irritating whenever we have endless moments of whispering.  It, to me, is too much artifice to drive home a point I can just as easily get without whispers, careless or otherwise.

Let us move on to the performances.  Alas, Andrew Garfield, how I am souring on you.  I cannot say I was a fan of Garfield (with the possible exception of The Social Network, maybe Never Let Me Go).  I have avoided Hacksaw Ridge for many reasons, one of them being I cannot believe Garfield's Southern accent.  Silence shows he can't handle a Portuguese one either (and more to the point, do we really need for him or Driver to have one).  Neeson didn't bother to have one, which makes the Irishman the most authentic Portuguese person there.  It doesn't help that Garfield's accent comes and goes.  Driver kept his, which wasn't the greatest but at least he wasn't on screen that long to make it sound stranger than it already did.

The best performance, however, is that of Ogata as the shrewd governor, one who pushes in manners cruel and kind.  His frustration at the young priest's stubbornness is at times almost hilarious (at one point, he appears to almost literally deflate at the verbal sparring between the two when he can't get Rodrigues to see reason).

Silence is visually splendid, with very little to no score to back it up (and which makes the whispering all the more noticeable).  Nothing can take away from the passion Scorsese had with the film, his technical craftsmanship in it. I could even see little callbacks to Kurosawa films like RAN. However, Silence felt a bit remote, removed, aloof, distant.  It is a very slow-moving film.  This isn't a slam, but I suspect there will be people who will find the pace very frustrating.

Again, this isn't a slam on Silence.  It is a warning. It is a very visually splendid film, one that takes its time getting from one point to another.  Even some of the questions it asks aren't answered (such as whether Kichijiro was really a Christian or just kept wavering between faith and folly).  I think we were meant to answer those questions ourselves, whether Rodrigues' faith was truly worn down, whether he did repent and return to Christ, whether he ever truly left, or whether he held on to objects rather than the actual Truth behind the objects.

I respect Silence.  It asks deep questions on and of faith, of the morality of holding to ideals if it means others will perish for them (as Inoue snidely tells Rodrigues, "The price for your glory is their suffering").  It questions whether the faith of people is real or imagined.   It is a visually arresting film.

However, people who go into Silence should steady themselves through a film that might prove very slow for them, sometimes a bit overdone with symbolism, and with a lot of whispering.  They might also find some not-terrible but not-great performances and shaky accents (though again, to be fair, I'm not an Andrew Garfield fan, so that might make me slightly prejudiced).

While watching, I was reminded that 'to live is Christ, to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21).  I cannot say whether those claiming the name of Christ in Tokugawa-Era Japan were true martyrs or not.  However, I find that I cannot fully embrace Silence.

DECISION: B+

Friday, January 20, 2017

A New Day Has Come: On How The Doris Day Show Transformed Her Image



THE BEST OF THE DORIS DAY SHOW

It's a sad tragedy that Doris Day had such lousy taste in men.  One of her four husbands was violently abusive towards her.  The worst one, however, didn't physically assault her, but in his own way did her great harm.

Martin Melcher, Husband Number 3, was the longest of her marriages.  However, when he died, to misquote The Temptations, the only thing he left her was alone.  He had not only squandered her fortune, but in order to recoup it he signed her to a television series...without telling her.  Already shocked over being a widow, she now was virtually dead-broke and forced into working on a project she had no control or say over. 

Thus began The Doris Day Show

Despite this rather shady beginning, The Doris Day Show began a slow but steady change for Day that I think reflects how she actually went past her own screen image as the Eternal Virgin and shifted into someone closer to her own self: a smart, independent woman with as sharp a mind to match her shockingly underrated body.

The Best of The Doris Day Show features seven episodes from all five seasons.  They are as follows:

Season One: The Friend
Season Two: Married For a Day and Doris Strikes Out
Season Three: Doris Finds An Apartment and Tony Bennett is Eating Here
Season Four: Doris and the Doctor
Season Five: It's a Dog's Life



The Doris Day Show revolves around Doris Martin, a widow with two children, Billy and Toby.  She's moved into the Mill Valley to live with her father, Buck, on his farm.  Season Two builds on this, as Doris now commutes between the farm and San Francisco, where she is a secretary at Today's World Magazine.  Season Three has her moving to San Francisco full-time, still a secretary but with friends and an independent life.  Seasons Four and Five now has her essentially as a single woman, with her two children gone sans explanation.  She's also shifted from mere secretary to full-time reporter at Today's World.  She also now has romance, a very risqué romance for our Eternal Virgin.   

The plots are as follows:

The Friend: Doris Martin agrees to use her family in a milk company campaign in exchange for free milk for the school.  The company wants their wholesome family picture to feature girls, even though Doris has no daughters.  She tells her children to bring two of their friends, and they do.  Things get interesting when one of those little girls turns out to be black.

Married For a Day: Doris' boss, Michael Nicholson (McLean Stevenson), attempts to escape the clutches of a man-trap that has caused him nothing but trouble.  Hilarity ensues when circumstances get him and his secretary to try and pass themselves off as Husband and Wife.

Doris Strikes Out: Doris finds herself landing a date with hot French movie star Claude LeMaire (Jacques Bergerac), but has to try and squeeze that in between caring for Buck (who has thrown his back) and the boys' baseball game (where she's roped into being an umpire).

Doris Finds An Apartment: Doris does as advertised, finding an apartment, over an Italian restaurant.  Hilarity ensues when on her moving day an impromptu party breaks out, leaving her landlords, already struggling with the idea of children and dogs, none too pleased.

Tony Bennett is Eating Here: Doris lands an interview with guest star Tony Bennett.  Signore Benedetto just wants a nice Italian dinner at a nice, quiet, Italian restaurant in the town he made famous with his theme, I Left My Heart in San Francisco.  Needless to say, the Italian owners of the restaurant at Doris' apartment are thrilled to have him there.  Perhaps too thrilled...

Doris and The Doctor: Doris endures the hypochondria of her editor Cy until luscious Dr. Peter Lawrence (guest star Peter Lawford) comes swinging her way.  She's instantly smitten, but cheapskate Cy, so angry at his low bill, pushes Doris to write an 'expose' on doctor bills as payback.

It's A Dog's Life: Doris finds a stray dog and saves him from the pound, but the new landlord of her apartment, Mr. Jarvis (Billy De Wolfe), is dead-set against having any pets.  It takes all her wit to get the cranky, cantankerous Mr. Jarvis to find the beauty in Man's Best Friend.



Out of all seven, I think The Friend and Tony Bennett is Eating Here are the best, the latter mostly because we get a chance to hear Tony Bennett and Doris Day duet on I Left My Heart in San Francisco, one of the truly Great Songs of the 20th Century.  Their duet is simply glorious.  The Friend tackles a very serious subject with gentle humor (though perhaps as a sign of the times, race being the objection to including Patty in the picture was never overtly mentioned, the only time coming when Doris confronts the milk company head saying all people drink milk, regardless of age, sex, or color).

Given that Season One was meant as a more idyllic, pastoral image of the world and of Day by extension, for The Doris Day Show to have a conversation of race is even more remarkable.  The succeeding seasons tended to be standard sitcom fare, almost broadly so.  To have a serious subject like racism, especially against young children, be the focus of a sitcom episode even now is noteworthy.  To do it from someone with the image that Doris Day has is downright revolutionary.

As a side note, I think Day's views on race were reflected in The Friend: despite what James Baldwin thought of her, I think Day was much more progressive on race relations than she got credit for.

As I stated earlier, if you look at the opening for each season, you see how Day's image slowly shifted from the traditional image of Day to something more liberated.  Season One took her where most people think of Day: sweet, sexless and simultaneously motherly.  As a widow, she is locked away from sensual desires.  In the opening credits, we see Denver Pyle (her father) very pensive, almost lost in thought.

To my mind, I think it shows how society thought a woman needed man's protection.  If she did not have a husband, who better than her father (especially true when said woman is a mother herself)?  Scenes of walking in the meadows, with stories about farm life, locked Day away from the sin of the city.

We move to Season Two, and now, like unmarried women in the present, now moves between two worlds: the country and the city (and what a city to go to: San Francisco, the most openly gay-friendly city on Earth).  It's curious that we no longer see her as dependent on men, and that in the credits she seems happy and free in the city.  She laughs, she thrives, and even does a little dance after jumping off the cable cars.

Like many women then and now, Day's Martin still tries to balance her home and work life.  She still isn't equal to men: her job is a secretary, a traditionally female job, but now steps are made to make her a woman in charge.

Season Three continues her evolution.  Gone from the confines of the country (and in a sense, from the protection of her father), she now fully embraces the city.  We still have the trappings of family life, but now Day/Martin is coming into her own.



When we get to Seasons Four and Five, we have a new woman.  Gone are the kids, and instead of nice walks in the country, we have walks down a runway, where Day showcases elaborate gowns, hairstyles, and even in Season Five, her derriere (the shot frozen to showcase her figure).  Day/Martin, now Miss instead of Mrs. or a widow, even gets some sexy-time with Dr. Lawrence, showing that should she have wanted to, Doris Day could have indeed played Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (a role she was offered but turned down for being vulgar). 

In these last two seasons, she is no longer just a secretary.  She's a reporter, someone who is paid to give her views and do hard investigative work.

If you think of it, Doris Day was doing an early version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, only with Day a more sensual figure than Mary Richards.  Her dates didn't go disastrously wrong.  Instead, she had a very flirtatious and sexually desirable connection with Dr. Lawrence.

Doris Day was a very sensual woman with an incredible body, and unlike all her other screen appearances wasn't ashamed or embarrassed to express interest in sex.  Obviously, there was never going to be a scene of Doris Martin and Peter Lawrence in bed together, but now she was having relationships with men on equal terms, or even on her own, a far cry from the widow in the country being watched over by Daddy Buck.

The Doris Day Show wasn't just escapist television.  It was an unintended chronicle of Doris Day's liberation.  She wasn't going to be stuck out in the country as only a daughter or mother.  She was going into the world, living her life and tasting the pleasures of freedom and of the flesh. 

She was also a survivor, someone who needed to work not just for money but to have a sense of purpose.  Doris Martin's career on The Doris Day Show went from mere secretary (someone who could be cowed into pretending to be her boss' wife) to reporter (someone who could be quite aggressive towards her own boss).  With her first boss, she did as she was told with some complaint but no real recourse.  With her last boss, she told him where to get off with no fear about the end results going her way.



It's fascinating, if you think on it, how Doris Day image evolved during the five years of her eponymous television program.  She starts out as a widow with two children, needing a man to protect her, then starts taking steps to grow.  She goes into the city, gets a job, but still isn't strong enough to put her boss in his place.  By the end of the show, Doris Martin is a strong woman, able to confront any man who dares get in her way.  She also now is free to express sexual desires, though at a cost (her two sons were never seen or heard from again after Season Three). 

Did they go to boarding school?  Did they move with their grandfather Buck?  Did she kill them?  The world will never know.

The Doris Day Show wasn't perfect.  In Doris and The Doctor, Day is given a gauzy filter that appears to be an effort to make her look younger, a filter that is unintentionally hilarious..  The Palluccis, the owners of the apartment/restaurant, are broad Italian stereotypes.  Mr. Jarvis is, shall we say, a little too San Fran for television. 

The biggest laugh I got was when in Season Three, Doris Martin was told that the apartment was available for $140 per month. 

Even now, a small studio apartment at $140 per month is fantasy, but in the early 1970s to have a two-floor apartment, in San Francisco of all places, for $140 is nonsense.

The Best of The Doris Day Show gives us a glimpse into what could be a good television series.  It wasn't revolutionary or unique, but comfortable and well worth some time for nonthreatening viewing.  It also gives us a good exploration into how Doris Day's screen image evolved.  She starts as a widow on a farm.  She ends as a single girl not afraid of a little Sex in the City.

If we had started her out where she ends up, The Doris Day Show could have been better remembered, a real precursor to or even a hybrid of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex and The City, maybe even a little Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City thrown in for good measure.  That may be doubtful: Doris Day never had a real interest in going far from her image (with few exceptions, most notably The Man Who Knew Too Much, she rarely ventured away from musicals or comedies), and she had some cultural conservatism to her (hence, her declining to do The Graduate, sing more contemporary songs despite her own love of Motown or perform in Las Vegas despite many offers).

In her own way though, Doris Day was ahead of her time. She showed that she was more than just her screen image, and that she could have done more had she chosen.  It's a fascinating 'what-if', and The Doris Day Show gives us a little glimpse into how things could have been different had Doris Day wanted them to have been.

Never sell out Doris Day.  She was always more than what she appeared to be.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Moonlight: A Review


MOONLIGHT

Moonlight is a portrait of a man who grows into both what society expects him to become and a man who comes into his own apart from expectations.  Openly cinematic in terms of its visuals, it is a carefully paced film, hypnotic, sometimes painful but always sincere in its telling of how one man came to be.

Told in three acts, Moonlight is the story of Chiron.

Act I: Little is of Chiron in his elementary school years, a victim of constant bullying who flees his tormentors and finds temporary refuge in an abandoned apartment.  Coming across him is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug kingpin who sees in Chiron someone in desperate need of love and a father figure.  Juan takes Chiron first to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae) for some food, a bed, and a bit of emotional support, then to Chiron's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).  This is the only time Paula is shown in a good place, a loving, hardworking woman who worries about her son but who is also a bit inattentive.

The bullying continues, and Juan does his best to mentor Chiron (who is nicknamed Little), taking him to the beach for swimming and life lessons.  Little's only real friend is Kevin, who is more popular and self-assured.  Paula, for her part, slips into drugs, and Juan finds himself her supplier.  Little finds genuine love only with Juan and Teresa, despite their business.  Juan doesn't lie when he's asked if he's a drug dealer, and Little also asks him what a 'f****t' is.  He's told that's something said to gay people to hurt them.  Little looks up at Juan and asks if he, Little, is one.  Juan tells him no, that he might be gay, but not that.

Act II: Chiron finds Chiron now a teen, still bullied, and with Paula more involved in drugs and not ashamed to give herself to men for money/drugs.  Kevin is a pretty popular fellow, and still Chiron's only friend.  Chiron is still bullied, but the bullying goes beyond the taunts of the past into growing physical violence and mocking of his mother.  Juan has passed on, but Teresa is still there, offering the only bit of genuine love Chiron has ever had.

Kevin, who has nicknamed Chiron 'Black', loves the ladies but he also is the only other person who cares about Chiron.  He may care more than even he may understand, for one night on the beach, as they sit together and smoke some marijuana, Kevin and Chiron kiss, and Kevin gives Chiron a remarkably tender handjob (Chiron's first sexual experience).

The bullying gets worse, with Kevin egged on by Chiron's main bully, Terrell, to beat Chiron up as part of some game.  Kevin is extremely conflicted, but he keeps swinging at his friend, where Chiron refuses to go down and end it.  No matter, as Terrell and his friends start kicking him mercilessly while a horrified Kevin looks on. 

The next day, with Paula still in her own stupor, Chiron goes to class, picks up a chair, and slams it into Terrell.  Chiron is arrested and as he's led to the squad car, Kevin passes by, the two exchanges glances.

Act III: Black has Chiron now the complete opposite of who he was before going up the river.  He's extremely buff, and he has turned into another Juan.  Like his only father-figure, he sells drugs, but he isn't hard or lacking compassion.  He leads a solitary life, so he's surprised to get a call from Kevin.  Now living in Miami, he finds Chiron's number through mutual friends and invites him to come from Atlanta to visit.  He also asks Chiron to forgive him for his acts and gives him some information about himself: Kevin too having served some time in jail and now a cook.

Chiron is confused and conflicted about his own feelings for everyone.  Paula is now at a treatment center, and she begs her son's forgiveness, telling him she did love him despite everything.  Chiron and his mother do find peace between them, and now he goes to Miami.  Kevin is surprised at Chiron's build and his life as a minor drug lord.  Chiron seems a bit closed up, showing little to no emotion, even when Kevin shows him a picture of his son, Kevin, Jr., the product of a fling.

Chiron goes to Kevin's apartment, and here he lets a tiny crack appear.  He softly tells Kevin that he's never been with anyone sexually after their one moment together.  Kevin cradles Chiron, and we end with a vision of young Chiron, at the beach, bathed in blue.

Moonlight is a heartbreaking film, a portrait of a young black man's evolution into if not a survivor someone who is slowly finding peace in a world that has constantly pushed him down.  From Little to Chiron to Black, our protagonist has come from a place of deep hurt and abandonment, responding to both the few people who have shown him any love and those who have shown him nothing but cruelty.

In the case of Paula, it's both.

Director Barry Jenkins, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, brings a tenderness and visually arresting style to the film.  Many scenes are subtle and soft, not given to big dramatic moments.  Take for example Chiron and Kevin's encounter.  Without being overt or graphic, the emotional passion that they have in that moment is handled deftly, softly, the waves, the kisses, and Chiron's soft moans the only sounds heard.  We understand what's going on, but we see only Chiron's hand digging into the sand as the physical response to his first moment of sexual intimacy.  This scene is actually more about emotional intimacy, of this young man finding an outlet to a physical love he's never had.

As a side note, I don't think people should get hung up on whether Kevin is himself gay or bisexual or even heterosexual but who just happens to love Chiron.  It's more than likely that Chiron himself is gay (the morning after his phone call with Kevin, Chiron wakes up to find he had a wet dream), but Moonlight is only part of a young black man's sexual awakening (in this case, towards another man).  Moonlight is also about one young black man's search for true love: physical and emotional.   

The emotional love he craves comes from people who might not be thought of as 'good': a drug dealer and his girlfriend, yet Juan and Teresa are the only ones who treat Little/Chiron with genuine affection, seeing the hurt, sad, lonely boy when so many others see an awkward, weak, perhaps effeminate figure.  This search goes to his very core: even as a large, muscular man who has built a strong criminal base and can have any woman (or even man) he wants or can afford to rent/buy, he has never given himself physically or emotionally to anyone. 

His soft, tender confession, almost cry for love, to Kevin is not a call for sex, but love, hoping to have if not physical intimacy to recreate what they shared once, at least the emotional intimacy Chiron still connects with Kevin.   Sex and love are two different things. 

Moonlight wraps you in quickly, a bit like a dream.  Jenkins accomplishes this with the cinematography (courtesy of James Laxton) and Nicholas Britell's score.  It evokes a somewhat otherworldly feel, something grounded in reality and yet a bit distant from the world we know it.


Of particular note is when Juan takes Little to learn to swim.  The music slips you into a bit of a trance, where one can almost feel the liberation for Little and even perhaps for Juan, who has found someone he can mold into a better man regardless of whether this boy may or may not be gay.

Mahershala Ali's performance is quiet and strong, gentle and moving as the father-figure with the great flaw of being a good man making money off the misery of others.  His heartbreak when Little walks away after he admits to selling drugs, and the pain he must feel over knowing that he in part is causing Little's home life to be so bad, is heartbreaking.  It's a small part (he dies after Act I), but he leaves a powerful impact.

With this and Hidden Figures, Janelle Monae is two-for-two in terms of shaping a wonderful performance.  I know nothing of her singing (apart from an appearance in a Pepsi commercial), but Monae has a fantastic career as an actress with 2016 being a remarkable year for her.  Harris, a criminally underused actress, brings sympathy in what could be standard 'drug-addicted-mother' role.  Her last scene has no big dramatic moment, no grand epiphany. 

Instead, like many of the performances in Moonlight, it is very soft, sad, moving, and quiet.  Moonlight is a very quiet film, one that relies on the story, enhanced greatly by its cinematography and score, to elevate it into a moving tale of one man's growth, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.

Moonlight, at its core, is about one man, beaten down, whom people have shaped into who he has become, for good or ill.  It is about his thirst for love, finding it in unexpected places, and at the end, coming to a semblance of peace within himself.  

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2016: Some Odds And Bitter Ends



Having dispensed with both the Best and Worst of 2016 So Far, I now tackled a few other bits that I need to get off my chest.

This list consists of Four Categories which don't fit within a Best Of/Worst Of List.  However, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on them anyway.

DISHONORABLE MENTION




Despite the many times I hear about the comedic genius of Melissa McCarthy, I keep finding evidence against this assertion.  Exhibit One is The Boss, a film that she co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone (who also directed the film). It's such an ugly film, with a lot of elements that make for lazy writing: our lead character isn't evil, just in need of a hug. 

I think she does well when she's given other people's material and other directors.  Writing herself and leaving it up to her husband to guide her lets her slip into bad tendencies, which gives us films where we see violence on children and straight men simulating oral sex as sources of comedy.

OK, the bra sequence was funny, but the rest, not good.

MOST OVERRATED FILM




Exhibit Two in our Melissa McCarthy may not be a comedic genius, and proof that my earlier assertion that she is better with other people writing and directing for her may be wrong. 2016 had a large number of remakes, almost all of them of certified classics, and Ghostbusters was another entry into this sad category.

For the longest time, Deadpool was in my Most Overrated Film, but Ghostbusters took the prize because too many of my fellow critics were willing to give a bad movie a pass merely because it 'advanced women in film'.  I have consistently maintained that Ghostbusters would not have been funny if the leads were all men.  It's just not funny overall.  However, too many critics pushed a film that strained to be funny because they had a separate agenda: they wanted a female-driven film to succeed.  No one should promote a film, particularly a bad film, because they want positive steps for women, or minorities, no matter how noble the intention.

Despite excessive praise for a film that was bad, the public at large rejected Ghostbusters, and the hoped-for franchise (another bane of my cinematic experience) has died a cruel death.  It could have been funny, it could have been good.  If, however, the motive to remake Ghostbusters was to promote equality, it only made things worse and gave ammunition to those who insist women can't open films. 

Just as it was a bad decision by Hillary Clinton to run a campaign built in part on 'It's Her Turn', it is a bad decision to tackle on a film like Ghostbusters if its more important to focus on gender equality than on actual comedy. 

MOST UNFAIRLY TRASHED FILM




I'm not going to say Gods of Egypt is a great film.  It isn't, but I don't get the vitriol it unleashed (in the same way I don't get the lavish praise Ghostbusters got).  I know many of my fellow critics hated it, and they have a right to.  However, I think a critic should judge a film not by some ideal of 'art' but by what it was trying to accomplish.  Gods of Egypt was pretty much junk food, but it knew it wasn't a Werner Herzog exploration into the dark recesses of the human soul. 

It's about gods of Egypt, a silly, frothy fantasy about warring deities.  I think that part of their hatred for Gods of Egypt was because the actors playing Egyptians were European (a Scotsman and a Dane as the two main deities, with Australian Geoffrey Rush as their father).  In the same way they praised Ghostbusters for being a step forward for women (the #ImWithHer of 2016 films), they detested the lack of multicultural casting of Gods of Egypt.  Now, I can agree that we do need more open casting to give minority and women performers a greater chance to work; however, let's remember...these are mythological creatures. 

These gods don't exist.  I don't think anyone, when it came down to it, really cared whether Set spoke with a Scottish brogue or not. There was some positive to all the brouhaha on the lack of diversity in casting: Chadwick Boseman, a really fantastic actor who is also African-American, was cast as one of the gods (Thoth).  It also opened up a serious conversation about diversity in film, something Hollywood still struggles a year off from #OscarsSoWhite.

Still, when I saw Gods of Egypt, I didn't care whether the gods were played by actual Egyptians or not.  I understood they were mythological characters.  Moreover, I was entertained by it all, as silly as it all was.  Maybe because of how silly it all was.  It was a romp, nothing more, nothing less.

The issue of diversity in casting is an important one, and one I have written and spoken about.  I fully support opening up roles for all women and minorities that don't call for specific races or genders (Meryl Streep, for example, could never play Indira Gandhi, and to use an old line from Designing Women, Dustin Hoffman could never play Martin Luther King, Jr.). 

However, while Gods of Egypt can be rightly trashed for a lot of reasons, to go after it because the mythological creatures weren't actually played by Egyptians is a bit much. 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT




It's the Curse of the Threequel striking again.  X-Men: The Last Stand was a horror, so much so that they were essentially forced to reboot the franchise with a younger cast, starting with X-Men: First Class.

Side note: X-Men: First Class is one of the few films where I reversed my original decision, going from C- to B-.

That won't happen with Apocalypse, a jumbled effort that retreads past X-Men films and is a copy of so many other comic book adaptations.  It brings nothing new or original to the table, and worse, squanders Oscar Isaac in mountains of makeup as the title character to where he might just as well done a voice-over and let someone else stand in for him.

Tired, run-down, with the veterans sleepwalking through their roles (and diminishing a group of up-and-comers who if the film had focused on would have given us a better film), I truly cannot see how future X-Men films could be worse.  I even can imagine a world with no more X-Men films.

BIGGEST SURPRISE




I as a rule dislike remakes.  I'm not opposed to them, merely dislike the idea that one can repeat the same thing and expect it to be better than the original.  When I learned that Disney was going to make a live-action version of its animated The Jungle Book, I thought they are sinking to the lowest level of lack of creativity. 

To a point I still worry: we are going to have live-action remakes of Beauty & The Beast, Mulan and The Little Mermaid, adding to those already made of Cinderella, Pete's Dragon and the semi-remake Maleficent (a take on Sleeping Beauty).

I'm still waiting for a remake of One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, but I sense I'll have to wait on that one.  Yet I digress.

The Jungle Book, far from being a retread, was something beautiful and original, expanding on Mowgli's story while keeping some of the trappings of the original (Bill Murray singing The Bare Necessities?  I'm SO there!).  Enchanting, beautiful, thrilling, and perfect for families, The Jungle Book is a rare example of a remake done right.

In a year that gave us remakes of such films as Ghostbusters and Ben-Hur, it was nice to see that someone knew better than to slavishly copy or try and outdo the original.  Instead, The Jungle Book was its own creation, acknowledging what came before without stomping on the original.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Worst of 2016: So Far



As the late Alan Thicke wrote, "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have The Facts of Life".

Having created my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far, now I turn to my Ten Worst Films to 2016. I fielded this list the same way I did my Ten Best: giving them a grade, then 'which would I rather'. 




Rules Don't Apply simply doesn't know what it is or wants to be.  Is it a love story between two people inadvertently brought together by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes?  It is a Howard Hughes biopic that Warren Beatty has dreamt of making?  Is it both?  Is it somewhere in between?  Sadly, the movie, despite good performances from Alden Enrenreich and Lily Collins, is a mess and bore, a hodgepodge of ideas thrown in with no sense of where to go.




Many people were touting I Saw the Light as Tom Hiddleston's chance for a Best Actor Oscar, but the end result was so bad it was shunted off to 2016 to die a quick death. Now, I think that a.) Hiddleston was pretty good as Hank Williams, Sr. and b.) this was a bid for him to get an Oscar nomination (a biopic being the best and easiest route for a man to get an Academy Award).  However, Loki couldn't overcome a bad script and some awful direction that made I Saw the Light a jumble, with one never sure where one was in relation to the story. Slow and dull are two things one can never say about Williams' life, yet somehow I Saw the Light turned his life story into a confused snooze-fest.




Twenty years too late, the sequel to Independence Day may symbolize all that is wrong with Hollywood today.  It's a textbook example of what not to do.  First, it wants to create a franchise on something that was not created to be one, taking all the goodwill Independence Day built and squandering it.  Second, it caters to the foreign market, particularly the Chinese market, by giving major parts to Chinese actors and making the Chinese as a people highly important to the story.  Third, it demolishes logic by bringing back a character from the original, even though the original strongly hinted that said character was dead. Fourth, it uses the same 'not-dead-anymore' character (obviously borrowing from the Steven Moffat School of Scriptwriting) to throw in a little political correctness by making said character gay.  There's nothing wrong with having a gay character, but Resurgence spun this out of thin air and worse, didn't even have the courage to go all in with it.  Fifth and finally, it has a naked call for a sequel that I doubt will come, making it look even sillier.  It's just a dreadful, dreadful film.


 
07.) Ben-Hur

In the future, people will wonder what possessed two studios (Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) to remake (or reimagine) the movie that has won more Academy Awards than any in film history (tied with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  Even that, perhaps could be forgiven if Ben-Hur were any good.  It isn't: a shambles of a movie, with motivation, character development, and acting all thrown away in favor of, well, I'm not sure in favor of what.  All the performances were low-level (making Morgan Freeman's decision to appear in it all the more puzzling).  The first remake is considered the apex of epic filmmaking, with even those who hate it acknowledging the brilliance of the chariot race.  This version, however, going up against a legendary production, doubled down on hinting at it, with their version a weak, rushed, CGI-overdone version that lacked the thrill of the Charlton Heston version.  Both the 1959 version and the original silent version will be remembered.  The Millennial version won't, not even by the faith-based audience the film so nakedly called out to.  I can't speak for my other Brothers and Sisters in Christ, but as an evangelical Christian myself, I can say this Ben-Hur sucked.




A better title for this one would be Yawn of Justice, as this effort to create the DC Extended Universe to match the Marvel Cinematic Universe went from bad to worse.  Featuring some awful performances (Henry Cavill alone is enough to sink any film) with the exception of Gad Gadot as Wonder Woman (who to be fair, has a fantastic theme), the film is a slow moving, dour, excessively long slog that takes itself too seriously.  Oh, and did I mention how awful the performances were? Cavill is gorgeous, but a plank on screen, Jesse Eisenberg makes a fool out of himself (and gives the same performance he gives in every film he's in), and I still don't think Ben Affleck is a good Batman.  The cameos for future Extended Universe figures were shoehorned in, and if we keep getting more films like Yawn of Justice, that Universe is going to implode.




A film many critics loved, you couldn't pay audiences to sit through The Lonely Island's spoof of Justin Bieber.  Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a Saturday Night Live skit expanded to feature length, and therein lies one of its problems.  Too smug for its own good, it asks audiences to be fully aware of pop culture as these guys are.  I barely recognized the TMZ spoofing, but to this day I still don't know who DJ Khaled actually is or what he actually does (apart from appearing in commercials as himself, which doesn't help). Popstar was rejected en masse by the public, getting pulled within two weeks from first-run theaters and one week in second-run theaters.  Popstar thinks its funny (and there are a few humorous moments in it, particularly the songs) but too much time is spent on juvenile thinking to make it really funny.  Andy Samberg is around my age, and he's far too old to keep acting like he's around Justin Bieber's age (physical or mental, which I suspect is actually younger). 



04.) Deadpool

Yes, I know many people loved Deadpool: its irreverence, its vulgarity, its self-awareness.  I speak only for myself, but those were all the things I disliked about Deadpool, and there were more.  I was appalled at the glee the film took in its graphic violence and cannot comprehend why so many parents took their children (some as young as Pre-K) to see it.  They, in my view, have no discernment or discretion.  I found it all too smug, too sleazy, too self-aware.  I know I'm firmly in the minority on this, but a film that I had as the Most Overrated for the longest time appalled me rather than appealed to me. 




Again, we have a film that wants to start a franchise that no one wanted. The Huntsman: Winter's War is a strange fit: part prequel to Snow White & The Huntsman, part sequel to the same film.  Chris Hemsworth has yet to convince me he's an actor (and in a side note, his brother Liam pops up in another of my Worst Films of 2016: Independence Day: Resurgence.  Coincidence?).  That is bad enough, but to drag Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain into this fiasco is even worse. There wasn't any need to make this film, save for a desperate effort to make money out of something and create a series so that studios wouldn't have to bother to make original films.




A film with a background like Free State of Jones should be an exciting tale of a little-known bit of history, one that should be relevant to today's America.  Instead, Free State of Jones is a slow, dull film, one that makes things worse by jumping back and forth between the 1860s and 1950s, so one never really sure which story is the actual story the film is trying to tell.  Serious to a fault, Free State of Jones fails on all levels, taking a fascinating bit of American history and drowning it with dullness.

And my Worst Film of 2016 So Far is...




It's one thing to make a sequel to a bad film.  It's another thing to learn nothing about what made the original bad and find new ways to be worse than the original. Johnny Depp's 'kooky' shtick has grown old and stale, and making The Mad Hatter the focus of the story is among the worst decisions Alice Through the Looking Glass made.  Why should we care about his journey, and why make The Red Queen a somewhat sympathetic figure (and the White Queen a bit of a villainess)?  Indulgent in its CGI, rushing through chaos in an effort to hide its shallowness, putting in a bit of timey-wimey (another lesson from the Moffat School of Scriptwriting), it has no charm, no joy, and no sense.

Next Time, a Few Odds and Ends.

The Best of 2016: So Far



It is now time to rank my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.  I always say 'so far' because when I write out my list, there is almost always some highly acclaimed film I didn't get around to seeing when I post this. 

I make no claim that these are the absolute Best Films of 2016.  They are only the Ten Best Films that I have seen.  Every year, I give a film a rating from A+ to F (sometimes even an F-, showing just how awful it is), and then list them to other films with similar ratings.  I then use the 'which would I rather watch' method to select which goes higher. 

Without further ado, my Ten Best Films of 2016 So Far.


10.) Race

Pretty much forgotten now, Race is a bit by-the-book when it comes to biopics that are also inspirational stories.  However, this biopic of Jesse Owens with focus on his triumph in the 1936 Berlin Games was a crowd-pleasing film.  It also had strong performances by Stephan James in the role of Owens (and I hope to see more of him in the future) and Carice van Houten, who managed to somewhat rehabilitate Leni Riefenstahl as a heroine versus the Nazi propagandist she is seen in some circles.



09.) Fences

While brought down a bit by the fact that it doesn't expand on the stage origins, Fences is help up again by really great performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.  If the film turned out to be the filmed version of the play, I'm not going to quibble when we have these performances on film forever to enjoy.




A better title for Manchester By the Sea might have been A Grief Observed, as this portrait of a man's emotional agony over a terrible and tragic loss manages to be truthful and honest.  It is a haunting film, one anchored by Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and relative newcomer Lucas Hedges in standout performances.




It's been a long time since a Star Wars film managed to be good.  The prequels were a collection of horrors, and The Force Awakens was nothing more than a remake of the original trilogy in all but name (Star Wars: The Remix, as I called it).  Rogue One is different: it manages to create its own story but keep it within the larger Star Wars universe. It has diversity in casting (a female lead, Hispanic and Asian actors all about), which is a plus, and moreover, it doesn't have many if any shout-outs to the Star Wars mythos.  No fan service here, which interestingly enough makes it a true love letter to those fans.



06.) Moonlight

A review of Moonlight is upcoming, but in brief, it is a hypnotic, dreamlike tale of a young black man's evolution to self-awareness and self-acceptance.  It is sometimes ugly, sometimes sad, sometimes tender, and sometimes all three at the same time.  A haunting tale of love, loss, regret and a form of redemption, Moonlight stays with you after you finish it.




Inevitably, there is a documentary in my Top Ten List, and this year, so far only one has cracked the list.  I Am Not Your Negro is relevant to today's very complex race issues: the dichotomy of Barack Obama's elevation to the Presidency versus Black Lives Matter.  With intellectual 'Negro' writer James Baldwin serving as our guide (with narration by an uncharacteristically soft-voiced Samuel L. Jackson), I Am Not Your Negro tells us that things still are askew, and they need to be rectified before things slip further out of control.



04.) Jackie

Another case of A Grief Observed, Jackie covers the days immediately following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, where his widow, Jacqueline aka Jackie, struggles between her immense private grief and the duties of a widowed First Lady.  Natalie Portman gives a simply astonishing performance, getting not just the voice and mannerism of Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis), but also that of a woman eaten up by guilt, anger, rage, agony, and in the end, a semblance of peace.




As a general rule, I'm not big on remakes, but The Jungle Book is a case of a remake done right. Neither slavishly connected to the Disney film or rebelling against it, The Jungle Book uses CGI to enhance the story versus distract from it.  It's such an astonishing work that one takes on faith that they are real animals and a jungle and not computer creations.  It can be enjoyed with or without having seen the Disney version, and a welcome presence in any family viewing.





It is doubtful that the events in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 had an effect of ending Hillary Clinton's sixteen-year campaign to return to power in her own right as the first female President of the United States (and the first former First Lady to be elected President herself).  However, I don't think 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi would have been playing at the Javits Center the night she lost the election.  Derided by some as right-wing propaganda, beloved by others as a tribute to courage under fire, for me 13 Hours is open to all types of interpretation.  It's a surprise that Michael Bay toned down his overblown manner (though not eliminate it completely).  Tense, moving, and more nuanced than either detractor or supporter may think, it is a movie that left me impressed long after its release.

And my Number One Movie of 2016...




Yes, I can see where criticism of Hidden Figures is sensible.  A bit too on the nose with some dialogue, an unapologetic call to be 'inspirational'.  However, I simply loved the film.  I cheered these extraordinary women, got mad when they were put down, and saw a wonderful story acted so well.  Major props to Taraji P. Henson for showing her great range (who would believe this meek mathematical genius could be the same fierce, Lady Macbeth-type Cookie Lyons on Empire?).  Any film that chronicles an unknown story, that gives credit to people who long deserved it, and which celebrates both intellect and what makes America great is almost always going to win my heart.

It hit me emotionally, and with great performances and a fascinating story told well, Hidden Figures is my Best Film of 2016 So Far.

Next Time, my Ten Worst Films of 2016 So Far.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fences: A Review



FENCES

Fences is one part of a ten-part epic series of the late August Wilson's 'Pittsburgh Cycle' of plays chronicling the African-American experience through the century.  This is the film version of the play that is in the 1950s era in the Cycle, and 'filmed play' is the best description for Fences.  It isn't a bad thing to have a filmed version of a successful, acclaimed play, performed by two great actors who won Tony Awards for their versions of said play.

Still, filmed version of the play nonetheless it is, and that is what hinders Fences from being as good a film as it could be.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who also directed) was a major star in the Negro Leagues who had the potential to be a fantastic Major League player.  Unfortunately for him, 'coloreds' were not being drafted at his peak, and by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Maxson was 'too old' to be there.  As such, he eventually found himself working as a garbage man in Pittsburgh.  He managed to also go to prison for a spell prior to his baseball career, where he met his lifelong friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson).  He also has an adult son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a jazz musician who comes around asking for money.

The rigid Troy is reluctant to do so, insisting Lyons make his own way.  It's only the involvement of Troy's wife Rose (Viola Davis) that smooth's things out.  Troy and Rose's son, Cory (Jovan Adepo) has great football skills and is in line for a scholarship, but Troy insists Cory will not get far because of his race.  Rose pushes the idea that times are changing for African-Americans, but he won't hear it.

What he will hear is Cory working with him on the fence Troy wants to put up, something that has taken a great deal of time.  Troy is angered that Cory wants to play football and thinks it will get him a better life.  Troy is also a bit conflicted over his brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson).  Gabe suffered a head wound in the war, and the money he got for his injuries allowed Troy to buy the family house.  Gabe, who carries a horn around with him (Gabriel's Horn, I suppose), has moved out but is still troubled.

Over the course of Fences, Troy ruins Cory's chances for football and reveals to Rose that he is going to be a father.  The relationships between Troy and his wife and sons is strained to breaking point, and when Troy's baby-mama dies in childbirth, Rose reluctantly takes her husband's child in.  Lyons has found some success in music, Troy himself has even moved up from garbage collector to driver (the first black sanitation driver in the city), and Cory, bitter and angry, joins the Marines.

At the end, Cory returns for Troy's funeral, and Rose reprimands him for not wanting to join the family in mourning their very flawed but all-too-human man.  Raynell (Saniya Sidney), the daughter who knows nothing of all the chaos and believes Rose to be her actual mother, joins her essentially unknown brother on the porch, and the family (including Gabe who was temporarily released from the hospital Troy put him in much earlier), have an informal farewell to this sad and complex figure.

Again, the good and bad thing about Fences is that it is a filmed play.  There isn't much if any effort to get away from the trappings of a theatrical production, I'd argue down to the acting.  No, it isn't broad: Washington and Davis are far too professional for that, and they have a long experience with the characters.

Instead, Fences rarely if every goes out from a few locations: the Maxsom house is the primary setting for the film.  There is one scene at the hospital where Gabe is (which if memory serves was just Troy feeding his brother) and one at a bar (which I suspect might have been in the play).  Oh yes, there is also one in an alley where Rose confronts Troy, but apart from that, Fences never takes an opportunity to open up the production.

I think a major part of this is the fact that while August Wilson wrote the screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, he died in 2005.  In the ensuing decade-plus, no one could either readapt it without taking credit or go to Wilson to rework it.  There was no chance of expanding the scope of Fences, and we have a very limited presentation.

Now, I am not complaining about the locked-in manner of Fences.  On the whole, the film works.  It's just that it keeps things very confined and lends an air of theatricality to what should be a film.

Still, again, while this limits Fences the virtues of the film push it forward.  There isn't a bad performance in Fences save perhaps Williamson as the mentally disabled Gabe.  This is a part that should be handled delicately, and I imagine a difficult one to play without going overboard.  Williams doesn't quite manage it, and it looks like he's just recreating Bubba from Forrest Gump (a film I thoroughly detest).

Washington has had the benefit of having played Troy on stage before transferring to film, and his Troy is a fascinating creation (even though my sense is that James Earl Jones' original version was probably better).  Troy is a man you end up respecting and loathing in equal measure, one eaten up by anger and bitterness over how his baseball talents were kept down.  It makes his thinking rational, but it also makes him rigid, even hypocritical: preaching responsibility while fooling around on a good woman like Rose.

Davis is the real knockout in Fences: her Rose a long-suffering but loving woman, who cares about people and deserved much better.  Her scene when Troy tells her about his impending fatherhood is handled so well.  She brings the mix of disbelief, shock, anger, and pain in her face, her voice, her body.  Again, she has known this character for some time, and that I'm sure helped, but given Davis' talent I figure she would have done just as well if she came into it with no background to it.

Adepo and Hornsby also excelled as Troy's sons, with the former having a fantastic moment as he challenges the old man.  You think it's going to go one way, but it turns out another, and shows how good one actor can be when he's trying to keep up with the other.  Henderson brought a lot of joy and laughter to his Bono, but when he needs to be serious, he too matches Washington and Davis in terms of performance.

Again, it's a terrible shame August Wilson isn't here for a variety of reasons.  It might have been good to have let him have a chance to open up the film more (perhaps a scene at the school where Troy goes to destroy his son's chance at a future with football, or one where Rose goes to God to help the devout woman deal through all this).  Fences, as a filmed play is excellent.  Fences, as a film itself, is flawed, but well worth the visit.   With strong performances almost all around, Fences is a credit to Wilson and the actors (maybe not so much with Washington as director, not terrible but not truly sensational either).

Hopefully, we'll get more adaptations of Wilson's work to add to this strong though flawed film.

DECISION: B+