Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Other Side of the Wind: A Review (Review #1162)


The Other Side of the Wind was a legendary 'lost film', the uncompleted 'comeback' for Orson Welles, a man simultaneously admired and abused by Hollywood. After his death in 1985, it looked like The Other Side of the Wind would never be seen. The legend around the incomplete film grew with its various twists and turns (Lawsuits! Embezzlement! The Shah of Iran?!)  I doubt anyone expected Netflix, seen by some as a plague on cinema, would be the one to finally provide the resources needed to have The Other Side of the Wind finally released, long after most of the participants have died.

With The Other Side of the Wind finally released, I am of two minds on it. For those who love cinema, we can see elements of Welles' genius and of his bitterness and anger towards the film industry. However, for the casual film-goer, it will probably prove confusing and frustrating.

J.J. 'Jake' Hannaford (John Huston), a legendary film director, is celebrating his 70th birthday and working on his new film, The Other Side of the Wind, which is his response to the avant-garde overtaking cinema. He is trying to get finances to complete the film and the birthday party is an informal viewing party/fundraiser.

Image result for the other side of the windThere are a wide variety of cineastes and film students who have come to the party to record him, a precursor to YouTube and Instagram. At the head of his unofficial court is Hannaford's successful protégé Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a master of mimicry. Hannaford has his regular crew which has been with him for years. He also has critics, in particular Julie Rich (Susan Strasberg), who has no love for Hannaford.

She also suspects that Hannaford, despite his macho persona may be a closeted homosexual who has fixations on his newest actor. That new find is "John Dale" (Bob Random), a beautiful young man whom he rescued from a suicide attempt while vacationing in Mexico. John Dale and a woman known only as "The Actress" (Oja Kodar) are the leads in this film-within-a-film, where they are mute and in various stages of undress (she almost wholly nude).

As the party goes on, and the power cuts out to stop people from seeing the unfinished film, the guests get drunker and nastier. A drive-in is quickly found to finish seeing the film, but Hannaford finds that his protege will not rescue him financially or creatively, and with all that he takes a swing at Rich for all but calling him a homosexual. He manages to get home, where he sees John Dale, whom he discovered had faked his suicide attempt to get his attention and is a professional actor. Hannaford invites him into the car he intended to give him as a gift after filming wrapped, but Dale silently declines.

As we know from the beginning that Jack died in an auto accident on his 70th birthday, we know where the story ends.

Image result for the other side of the windWhen seeing The Other Side of the Wind, a viewer has to keep some things in the back of his/her mind. Essentially, this is still an 'incomplete' film in that Welles, for a variety of reasons, never formally finished it. One should also keep in mind that because of all the troubles he had, particularly in finding finance, he shot The Other Side of the Wind in a variety of forms: black-and-white to color, high-speed film to traditional film stock, shifting wildly between them. Bogdanovich's opening narration explains in essence how this came to be (the pseudo-documentary culled from a wide group filming on their own individual cameras of varying abilities).

As it stands, the wild shifts in style flowed surprisingly well to where you soon forgot how things went from one to the other. Apart from the film-within-a-film footage (which was all the same) the movie's rapid shifts, sometimes within the same scene, weren't so jarring as to take one of the film.

As you watch The Other Side of the Wind, you gain a greater respect for the type of gonzo filmmaking Welles was creating, even if one is never sure this is exactly how Welles would have wanted the film presented. As he is not here to tell us if this is his definitive version (outside of a seance), one works with what one actually has.

The Other Side of the Wind has some truly hypnotic sequences, almost all of them involving the film-within-the-film. A love scene between 'the Actress' and 'John Dale' is particularly visually arresting. The final sequence where Kodar is walking in the desert, nude (she is almost always nude) and essentially deflating a giant penis is also very avant-garde.

However, one person's 'hypnotic' could be another's 'sleep-inducing', and I fear that The Other Side of the Wind is not 'commercial'. In many ways, The Other Side of the Wind may leave people puzzled by those rapid cuts and rather opaque film-within-the-film. I understand and respect that, and wonder if a more 'orthodox' manner would have worked if Welles had ever been given the option to create under more ideal circumstances.

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Still, we see in The Other Side of the Wind how much Orson Welles was personally respected. You have a variety of actors who had worked for him before in small parts, such as Paul Stewart (who worked with him on Citizen Kane), Edmond O'Brien and Mercedes McCambridge. It's a credit to Welles that despite the hodgepodge the film is, he got them to act in a way that seems to make things cohesive.

There are other performances were also quite well-done. Bogdanovich plays Otterlake as an eager 'apostle' but one aware he has left the master behind. Norman Foster is tragic as Billy, Jake's worshipful aide who falls off the wagon in spectacular fashion. It is hard to judge John Huston's performance (Huston being the only other director apart from Welles to have a successful acting career, at least to my knowledge). He seems to be playing a version of himself: the 'director-as-god' type who slowly descends as the boozy night continues. Kodar, who was Welles' longtime mistress, has an enigmatic quality though she never speaks and is curiously referred to as "an Indian" despite Kodar being in reality Croatian.

The Other Side of the Wind has been released, and I find that it is a flawed but fascinating piece of art. Be forewarned: the rapid-fire editing and at times opaque plot (particularly of the fictional The Other Side of the Wind) may end up frustrating people who just want to be entertained. It does not make it a bad film or those who find it all rather odd dumb people. It is, as I said, a flawed but fascinating film, making one wonder about how Welles could have and should have done more work.

In his love-hate relationship with Hollywood, which had a love-hate relationship with Orson Welles, The Other Side of the Wind is both swan song and poison pen letter, his simultaneous send-up of New Hollywood and plea to be let in.


Ben Is Back: A Review


Ben is Back wants to be a searing drama on an important issue. It does not quite hit that level, sometimes slipping into what I like to think of as an unhinged Hallmark Hall of Fame special. It is saved by one performance, a reminder that Julia Roberts still has so much more to offer than a million-watt smile.

It is Christmas Eve, and the Burns Family is getting ready for the holidays. Holly Burns (Roberts) shepherds her three children: teen Ivy (Kathryn Newton) and elementary school Lacey (Mia Fowler) and Liam (Jakari Fraser) through a church pageant (despite being agnostic/atheists). There's food and presents...and then there's Ben (Lucas Hedges).

Ben is back, and while Holly and the two youngest are thrilled, neither Ivy or her stepfather Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are. Neal is especially dubious of Ben given his troubled history of drug addiction.

Ben insists that his sponsor suggested he was ready to visit, but Neal and Ivy do not agree. Holly does not want to see their point of view, but eventually a deal is struck: Holly sticks with Ben at all times and gives him a drug test and he can stay.

Image result for ben is backThe rest of Ben is Back surrounds his dark night of the soul on a most exhausting Christmas Eve. A visit to the mall (begging the question why anyone would go shopping on Christmas Eve, but whatever) triggers him and gives Holly a chance to verbally abuse Ben's old (and senile) doctor for prescribing medication that got him hooked.

An NA meeting where he meets a pretty young girl whom he doesn't recognize until she tells him he was her old dealer.

A Christmas pageant that leaves him in tears, especially after seeing the mother of Maggie, the girl he sold drugs to leading to her overdose.

A dog-napping where Holly and Ben search for whoever stole Ponce from them in retribution for Ben being back.

As we plunge further into this Yuletide nightmare, Holly learns that Ben would turn tricks for his history teacher in exchange for drugs and that Maggie's dad is still enraged with him; we also meet his former friend Spencer (David Zaldivar) now going by 'Spider'. Spider, still an addict, knows that their old deal Clayton (Michael Esper) had something to do with the dog-napping.

Ben tricks Holly into going to Clayton alone, where he's pressed to do one last drug run. Holly keeps frantically searching, evading Neal's constant calls. Eventually, Ben does the job, gets Ponce back and almost overdoses himself, rescued in time by Holly.

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As I think on Ben is Back, I wonder if writer/director Peter Hedges (coincidentally or not Lucas' father) was perhaps throwing in way too much (not that the 'shopping on Christmas Eve for clothes when I figure Ben would have some clothing in his house' bit isn't a bit curious already). The film is filled with wild coincidences and chance meetings that would make Charles Dickens blush, albeit perhaps with envy.

The film desperately pushes for 'emotionally devastating' and it does not quite get there. I put it to a variety of factors: the endless coincidences that pop up reminders of Ben's troubled past, the almost cliched manner of the parents and their joint children, the wild 'one last score' story, the predictability of how Holly was going to be tricked.

There is also another element: Lucas Hedges. It was by sheer coincidence that I saw Ben is Back immediately after Boy Erased, so I got a Lucas Hedges double feature. I think I've seen enough of Hedges fils as 'troubled young man', and moreover this was the first time in his short but respectable career where I did not believe Lucas. There was an artifice, a mannered and almost 'actory' take on the role. I could see him acting.

Part of it is with the limitations on the part (troubled young addict). However, part of it is Lucas. There is something wrong when you agree with a character saying "I'm not worth it". Ben is just bringing chaos wherever he goes.

However, the film's saving grace is Julia Roberts. We do get that "Julia Roberts Smile" early in the film, but for the rest of the movie we see her pull out the dramatic work as Holly, blinded by love. Whether it's in her telling off the doctor slipping into dementia for causing the problem or frantically searching for her firstborn or even having to ask for help from Maggie's mom, Roberts excels past this domestic drama riddled with cliches.

She so dominates the film that we pretty much forget everyone else, though to be fair Peter does too, giving the rest of the Burns family little to do.

Ben is Back in terms of story is nothing unique to the issue of drug addiction. It even loses its way a bit when we have to make Ben a mule to get Ponce back. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Julia Roberts, proving yet again that she's more than just a 'Pretty Woman'.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Boy Erased: A Review


I went into Boy Erased, the film adaptation of Garrard Conley's memoir, with some trepidation. Was this going to be another 'Christian-bashing' film where Christians showed their true colors in their intolerance, bigotry and general phobias? There was some nuance in this story to its credit. However, while Boy Erased has some good performances and an interesting story to tell, it is done in by some bad cinematic choices.

Boy Erased is of  'Jared Eamons' (Lucas Hedges), a young man who is the son of Pastor/car dealership owner Marshall (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Told in a mix of flashback and present-day settings, Jared is 'outed' after a college classmate, Henry (Joe Alwyn) calls Jared's parents pretending to be a counselor informing them of their son's 'deviant' behavior.

Henry does not mention that he essentially raped Jared, but nonetheless Jared does admit sexual attraction to other men. With that in mind, the devout couple put the squeeze on Jared to leave school and go to a 'gay conversation' program called Love in Action.

Love in Action's teen/young adult program is called Refuge, run by Victor Sykes (director/screenwriter Joel Edgerton). To be blunt, Refuge is a crypto-fascist organization: akin to a prison where these young men and a few women are psychologically and in some cases physically tortured. I figure this is a way to 'get the gay' out of them, but the program (full of spelling errors in their outline, much to Jared's amusement/contempt) is quite horrifying.

Image result for boy erasedOf particular note is Cameron (Britton Sear), a large football player who is at one point beaten by his own parents and sister at Victor's command. Cameron has transgressed somehow (the nature of his transgression, like most of Boy Erased, is rather opaque). Earlier, he is told that God will never love him the way he is.

I pause here to say that such words are totally unbiblical. God loves all no matter who or what we are, though that love should not be confused with having a blank check. Romans 6:15 makes clear that just because we are under Grace does not mean we can sin (however that is defined by individuals/churches). Yet I digress.

Eventually Jared has had enough and has a bit of a breakdown, doing what none of the other Refuge participants have done: force his way out. Nancy comes to her own peace with things. "I love God, I love my son. And that's that", she says. Marshall is a harder nut to crack.

Moving on four years later, Jared is in New York where he is embraced and about to publish his article on his experiences with 'gay conversation therapy'. He goes back to Arkansas one last time, where his father still struggles with things. "I'm gay and I'm your son and neither of those will change," he tells Marshall. Jared drives off, leaving the door open for Marshall to come through if he chooses.

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I imagine Boy Erased will be seen by how one sees such things as homosexuality and faith, two things that seem to be irreconcilable. I would argue that they are not; there are groups such as Your Other Brothers and individuals who either do not see a conflict between being a devout follower/believer of Christ and their same-sex attraction. However, I am not one to question how others feel or think on such things nor tell one how he/she should feel/think on such things.

Yet again I digress.

On a purely technical level Boy Erased has some major issues. The chief issue is Eduard Grau's cinematography. Few films have been so visually opaque that it makes things almost impossible to see. Again and again the look is so dark that one can hardly see anything. One such moment is when Jared is raped.

There is no other way around it. Jared may be sexually attracted to Henry, but in this scene he keeps saying no and his muffled screams of terror make it clear he is not willing to have sex in that way with Henry. Here, such darkness might work, but when Jared comes out to his parents the visuals are so dark one can't see things. Since Edgerton does this repeatedly, the rape being so dark was not a directorial choice. It was how the film as a whole was.

Another weak choice was to keep Jared as pretty much more an observer than a participant. As much as this was his story (Garrard Conley's name being changed to Jared Eamons), it isn't until near the end that Jared takes more of a central role. We have all these stories that frankly were more interesting and would have been nice to have seen. Cameron's story in particular was more involving and ultimately tragic (we learn he committed suicide).

There's the inauthentic Gary (YouTube personality Troye Sivan), who has not changed his desires but tells them what they want to hear to survive. There's Jon (Xavier Dolan), who seems devoted to Refuge to the point he'd rather salute than shake hands with a man.

It makes one almost wish Boy Erased had focused on their stories, and especially not hopped back and forth between Jared's time at Love in Action (a most ironic name given how monstrous they were) and prior.

Performance-wise I think well of Hedges, though with this, Ben is Back, Manchester By the Sea and Lady Bird, he is cornering the market on 'troubled young men'. Hope he does a comedy soon (and Lady Bird doesn't count as he too played a 'troubled young man' who at one point cries). Kidman too did well, though her at-times breathy delivery was curious. I will say that her 'big scene' as she storms to rescue Jared is very effective. Crowe was acceptable but nothing revealing.

Boy Erased has some good performances but it is too dark visually, with a lead character that was more observer than central to the goings-on. Moreover, again while this is Garrard Conley's story, this is not how many Christians that I know (even gay Christians married to same-sex partners) think or behave. Perhaps it is because of people like Conley, who have spoken out about their own horrifying (and unbiblical) experiences, that we can have that 'conversation' between two groups that seem openly hostile to each other.

Boy Erased is an interesting story that could have been more.

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Garrard Conley

Friday, December 28, 2018

Second Act: A Review


There are few positives about Second Act. J-Lo looks amazing for 49. Vanessa Hudgens is very pretty.

Other than that, I think Second Act is pretty much forgettable, done in by a lousy story that is clueless about what it wants to be or do.

Maya (Jennifer Lopez) has been an assistant at a Costco-like store for seven years and is dismayed to find that she is being passed over for a promotion, again, because she does not have a degree (Maya's highest education level is a GED). At her 40th birthday party thrown by her wacky BFF Joan (Leah Remini), she wishes that 'street smarts were as good as book smarts'.

Enter Dilly (Dalton Harrod), who promptly creates a fake résumé for "Maria de la Vargas", Maya's legal name. He makes her a Harvard graduate and Peace Corps volunteer. Maya is shocked, until her résumé attracts the attention of Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams), head of a major conglomerate. "Maria's" work as a consultant attracts his attention, thinking it's just what his company needs to revitalize their skin-care line.

Image result for second act movieMaria now has to bluff her way into creating a whole new line using purely organic material. She has to face off against Clarke's adopted daughter Zoe (Hudgens), who takes an instant dislike for Maria.

Did I mention that Maria's reluctance to have children with her longtime boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventigmilia) has to do with the fact she gave up a daughter for adoption when she was 17, something she never mentioned to the child-loving Trey?

You know where this is going, right?

Maria not only has to work to both thwart and bond with Zoe, but also thwart the machinations of Rob (Freddie Stroma), who constantly attempts to show Maria is a fraud. Maria's only allies are her wacky personal assistant Ariana (Charlyne Yi) and wacky scientist Chase (Alan Aisenberg), who do their best to help her navigate this strange new world.

Ultimately, Maya is triumphant on all fronts.

Image result for second act movieSecond Act is so wildly disorganized, with characters doing things that are both highly irrational and hopelessly predictable. For example, Maya's first manager Mr. Weiskopf (Larry Miller) goes out of his way to belittle her when she dares to suggest she, with more experience, would be a better manager than Arthur (Dan Bucatinsky doing an Ed Helms from The Office impersonation).

When we next see him, it's at the company Christmas party, where I think he was brought in by Rob to unmask her (Justin Zackman and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas' screenplay never makes how Weiskopf ended up at the party clear). I lean towards the 'Rob brought him' theory because as Rob and Maya are dancing, he all but pushes her to Weiskopf, I figure expecting him to back Rob up on his 'she's a fake'.

Again, for reasons both unclear and generally nonsensical, Weiskopf claims to have no idea who Maya is. Is he trying to protect her? Does he genuinely not recognize her? Is he as bonkers as the acrophobic Ariana or the cat-loving Chase?

Maya's clearly inept manner in business seems to both confuse and convince everyone of her business acumen. Already this seems wildly strange, but so is why Maya was hired.

Did Anderson know Maya was Zoe's birth mother before hiring her or was he unaware of the connection until after she was hired? Second Act seems to want to have it both ways, and worse, once the three of them know who is whom he lets Maya stay on, somehow hoodwinked into thinking Zoe's birth mother really did end up going to Harvard and Wharton.

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Perhaps if Second Act had stayed with just the 'finding long-lost daughter' story, we could have had something. Instead, we get this 'create this miracle product' competition that then becomes the focus. The ping-pong style of the film soon becomes boring.

I confess by the end of Second Act that I was falling asleep.

I think J-Lo was making an effort, and bless her for that, but I think even she knew the film was junk. Remini seemed to try and compensate for her cliched role of 'wacky yet truth-telling bestie' by all but screaming her lines. The story thread of her own potty mouth and efforts to reform it made her more annoying.

Also, can we have a moratorium on 'children cursing as source of hilarity'? It isn't funny no matter how many times filmmakers try it.

Maya's 'wacky best friends' trying to help is very sitcom-like. Ventimiglia's only contributions to Second Act is to show his character chewed gum as a defining trait. 

For the longest time I tried to remember who Hudgens was as she looked familiar but her name constantly escaping me until the credits. She is pretty and did much better than most of her older peers. It is also not a good thing when you wonder if a film centered around Zoe and Maya or worse, around Ariana and Chase and their bizarre flirtations, would have been better.

Second Act is a farce but not in a good way. It wants to be hilarious and heartfelt but ended up as neither. Everyone, audience included, deserves better. I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that there are no second acts in American lives. Would that those involved in this film taken him at his word.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Widows: A Review


Widows is an adaptation of a 1983 BBC miniseries. Updated and changed to Chicago, the film failed at the box office despite lavish praise and positive coverage. I think its failure is due more to false marketing: sold as an action/heist film, Widows is a sprawling story or stories that soon start dragging to a climax that isn't.

Widows tells the story of three wives to a criminal gang. There's posh Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), married to Harry (Liam Neeson). There's more gritty Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), involved with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). We have Polish Alitzia or Alice (Elizabeth Debecki), who stays with abusive Florek (Jon Bernthal). Finally there's Amanda (Carrie Coon), who is with Jimmy (Coburn Goss).

The men are in a criminal gang, master thieves who steal vast fortunes. What the wives know and how much they know is up for debate, as the film seems to make them somewhat aware of shady dealings but not much into detail. The latest heist goes wrong and the men are killed.

Enter Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). He's running for Alderman of the 18th Ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), scion of the current Alderman Tom (Robert Duvall). Thanks to some redistricting the Ward is now a predominantly black area, giving the white Mulligans their first real challenge to their longtime political dominance. Jamal's money was the one stolen, and now he puts the squeeze on the Widow Rawlings to come up with $2 million by the end of the month or else.

That 'else' comes in the form of Jamal's brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), a cold-blooded murderer with no conscience. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, Veronica finds help thanks to Henry's notebook, which has his plans for his final unmade heist. That heist will net them $5 million, more than enough to cover the debt and have some left over.

Image result for widows movieVeronica decides to recruit two of the other widows, with Amanda initially not making contact and then kept out due to being a new mother. The other widows, with nothing to lose, reluctantly agree.

Alice soon whores herself out with pressure from her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver), and finds a good man in David (Lucas Haas), who soon wants her to be exclusive. Linda finds the pressure of being a mother and criminal hard, but finds help with Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a babysitter whom they recruit to be the driver after the original driver, Veronica's chauffeur Bash (Garrett Dillahunt) is killed by Jatemme and his crew.

The film then gives us a wild twist involving Henry, more planning and the heist, which while not without a few hiccups ends well for our widows (though not so well for Jatemme). The women split up, and things turn out relatively well: Linda gets her bridal/quinceañera shop back, Alice finds respectability and a new life, and Veronica takes her money to fund a library with the caveat that it be named after her son Marcus, victim of a police shooting.

Widows, as I stated, I think was sold as a female empowerment film where women take on a criminal heist. If it was indeed marketed as a straightforward action film, a grittier Ocean's 8, it failed.

It failed for a variety of reasons. For one, the myriad of stories spun all over the place. The most developed story was that of Alice, longing for love and respectability but struggling to accept the terms David presented her: part 'be my mistress' part 'you're only my mistress'. The women never became cohesive as a unit, more of a mishmash of types.

It failed because the variety of stories it was telling similarly didn't seem to fit into a cohesive whole. You had the 'political corruption' story and the 'women fighting back' story. I know both were for one overall story but somehow it felt I was watching two films spliced together that were more concurrent than united.

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It failed because some of the performances were comically bad. At the top of the list is Kaluuya as Jatemme, who was meant to be threatening and menacing but to be honest went overboard as the 'evil' bit. At times I was laughing when he was supposed to be 'menacing'. Same goes for both Duvall and Farrell who either chewed up the scenery in the 'we're all racists' bit or the 'I'm not sure whether I'm really evil or just burdened by family legacy' bit respectively.

It failed because the twists are sometimes laughable. I'm not mentioning the big twist involving Neeson, but the heist being almost foiled by Jamette throwing a monkey wrench into it had me laughing.

Finally, it failed because cowriter/director Steve McQueen (cowritten by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn) sometimes lays things thick with symbolism. Marcus, Veronica and Henry's son, is shot by police in front of Obama posters.  The shooting seems rather out of place to the story already, but having this racially-motivated shooting in front of posters for the first black President seems to indulge itself with irony.

As a side note, this is the second straight film I've seen where a young black man is shot by white police officers after The Hate U Give. It was just a wild coincidence, I figure.

Worse, I found Widows boring. I figure McQueen was going for a very sparse, quiet film. There are many scenes that are either silent or hushed (save for when Duvall or Farrell are screaming up a storm). However, for a film that is supposed to culminate in a big heist, the heist itself is rather dull. Truth be told I was losing interest by the midpoint and no interest in seeing how it all played out.

I get the sense that many praised and continue to praise Widows for something that I didn't see. That is their right. I am exercising my right to not like a film I found slow, dull and pretty much uninteresting.


Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Hate U Give: A Review


I am mixed about The Hate U Give, the adaptation of Angie Thomas' young adult novel of race and social justice. I find there are some good performances and I'm the type to think well of people. However, I also found it very preachy, at times cartoonish and in a word, hateful itself.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a young African-American girl growing up in Garden Heights, a lower-middle-class area of Los Angeles. Her father Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is a former member of the King Lord gang, deeply committed to the Black Panther doctrine, but a loving albeit slightly crusty man. Her mother Lisa (Regina Hall) is a nursing assistant and deeply committed to raising Starr, her half-brother Seven (Lamar Johnson) and full brother Sekani (T.J. Wright).

Starr lives a double life. In Garden Heights, she is Starr 1.0, Starr from the block. At her elite prep school of Williamson, she is Starr 2.0: a girl as far from the 'ghetto' as possible. This seems a bit odd since all her white classmates seem determined to make fools out of themselves by trying to 'act black'. That includes her white boyfriend Chris (K.J. Apa), who thinks that being a bad DJ Khaled with his mixtapes makes him a brother.

As a side note, DJ Khaled is actually of Arab descent, but why quibble.

Starr 1.0 and Starr 2.0 can't seem to keep a steady balance between Garden Heights and Williamson. Things come to a head one fateful night when Starr sees Khalil (Algee Smith), her old friend who played at Harry Potter and gave her her first kiss. Khalil is beautiful inside and out, but the party they're at is interrupted by gun shots. They flee together and after some talk Officer Macintosh pulls them over.

Image result for the hate u giveTypically, Khalil as a young black man is harassed by this white cop. Starr was already given 'The Talk' on how as a black person she is to behave with the police. Khalil didn't have it, because when reaching in to get a hairbrush the cop with Badge Number 115 shoots him. He also handcuffs Starr, preventing her from holding Khalil as he dies.

Khalil's shooting causes an outcry in the community, but Starr is now caught in the maelstrom. She is literally the "Starr witness" in this case, and she has several pulls at her. Her Williamson friends mostly either take the cop's side or opt to skip school in 'protest' (just an excuse to get out). She also has to worry about King (Anthony Mackie), the local gang leader who worries that Starr will reveal that Khalil sold drugs for him.

As a side note, I would figure all the white students in this elite California school would be a bit more 'woke' and sincere in their 'wokeness'. Also, until The Hate U Give, I had never heard the term 'code-switching', let alone know what it meant. However, at least the 'Code Switch' section of NPR has context.

Lisa worries about her daughter's safety, and Starr's moral outrage at how Khalil is made to be a villain and Officer Macintosh a hero or at least a victim. Starr must decide whether or not to out herself as the witness, and despite all the trouble it will cause her, eventually she reveals herself.

This brings only trouble to her from all sides and puts others in danger, including Seven, who is related to King. Things come to a climax when as always, the grand jury did not indict 115 (Starr never calls the officer by name, only by number). Riots erupt, and Starr finally finds her voice to speak out against injustice.

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The Hate U Give comes from Tupac Shakur's definition of THUG LIFE: The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone. The film comes from a place of fierce passion, which I cannot fault it for. What troubles me is that it is so overt in its messaging that it soon becomes less film and more lecture.

The film paints all the white characters in unpleasant lights. Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), ostensibly Starr's best friend despite there being no visual or social connection, says a series of ghastly comments or is so overtly nasty that one wonders why anyone, let alone Starr, would like her. I cannot pass the comment Hailey made to Starr in basketball practice that Starr should catch the ball "like if it was fried chicken", even if Hailey says it was because they had fried chicken for lunch that day.

Hailey's comments about how "cops lives matter" and how Khalil should not have gotten the hairbrush are meant to portray those who side with "115" as either bigots or ignorant. Somehow, Starr pulling Hailey's hairbrush from her backpack and terrorizing her with it was meant to be empowering but came across to me as bullying.

From Starr's Instagram comparing Emmett Till to Eric Gardner to how only Chris belatedly became something of a 'white ally', The Hate U Give seemed fine being hateful itself.

Related imageI think it's a shame given that the film had many positives. You had absolutely wonderful performances from people like Regina Hall as the protective and strong mother and Hornsby as the equally protective and strong father. I would have liked seeing a film about them, about the difficultly of raising children in this environment and of the struggle between the two worlds Starr felt compelled to give separate fronts to.

I was also impressed by Stenberg as someone who was better than the material. Starr's need to be two different people was something I did not understand given how I thought she was pretty pleasant both in Garden Heights and Williamson, but when she loses her friend it is genuinely moving.  Even though his role is small, I thought well of Algee Smith as Khalil, a young man with both smooth and pleasant manners.

However, I was unimpressed with other performances, primarily due to their one-dimensional characters. The worst of the lot is Anthony Mackie, a fine actor who has nothing to do but glower at people as our stereotypical villain. Mackie is too good an actor to have to play stereotypes. I was not impressed with Apa as Chris either.

I never understood what Starr saw in Chris or vice-versa. His efforts to 'be black' (along with apparently every white student at Williamson) were cringe inducing and came from an alternative universe.

I think it is hard for me to embrace a film where teenagers seem to talk about 'white privilege' more than something like whatever show or pop star they follow nowadays. The Hate U Give wants to tackle an important subject, but does it in a rather blunt manner that it soon becomes more lecture than actual film.


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Christmas With the Kranks: A Review


Welcome to the Annual Rick's Texan Reviews Christmas Special. For seven years I review a Christmas-themed movie to celebrate the festive Yuletide season. For this year, it's Christmas With the Kranks.

I confess to never having read a John Grisham novel. I do have vague memories of when Third Rock From the Sun spoofed the repetitiveness of his oeuvre.  Each of the Solomons mentioned how they were reading "a great John Grisham novel" about "a young Southern lawyer who fights an evil corporate giant". The joke was that while each book was a different title, they all had the same plot.

I figure that Grisham must have already locked down his fanbase by the time he wrote Skipping Christmas, on which Christmas With the Kranks was based on. Otherwise I imagine that if he had tried selling Skipping Christmas as his debut, it would have been dismissed for the SH-IT that it is. As I have not read Skipping Christmas, I cannot vouch for how faithful Christmas With the Kranks is to the original.

St. Nicholas help us if the film is like the book.

Luther and Nora Krank (Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis) sadly see their 23-year-old daughter Blair (Julie Gonzalo) fly off to Peru for a year to join the Peace Corps the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Luther is shocked when he makes his calculations of the family Christmas spending: $6,120. He decides that since Blair is no longer at home, he and Nora can 'skip Christmas' and take a Caribbean cruise costing on $3,000. Nora, who generally enjoys decorating and hosting a lavish Christmas Eve party, is reluctant but soon agrees.

Related imageBad idea, for as soon as their friends, neighbors and Luther's employees learn of this plan, they all essentially turn into Christmas fascists. Their neighbors, particularly Vic Frohmeyer (Dan Ackroyd) literally stage protests in front of the Kranks' home, demanding they put up lights and especially a Frosty the Snowman figure on their roof. "Nora Krank! We're here for Frosty!" he yells in front of their house with what looks like a mob about to lynch the Grinches.

The various shops and organizations they normally order from during the holidays all but berate them for not 'doing Christmas', and Nora's friends are appalled they won't be having their party.

Their 'protest' even makes the local newspaper!

Nora is buckling under the pressure: no surprise given that Frohmeyer at one point chases her down in her car. Luther gets the cold shoulder from employees, who make sarcastic remarks about getting 'cheap gifts' because he won't put in any. Luther, for his part, stubbornly holds to his Caribbean holiday.

Then they get an unexpected call from Blair. She's in Miami, with her new boyfriend/fiancee Enrique (Rene Lavan) (she states that Enrique has proposed but for the rest of the film she and everyone else calls him her 'boyfriend'). Blair is flying to Chicago to see her parents and show our Peruvian hunk 'a traditional Christmas'.

At this point, both before and after watching Christmas With the Kranks, I asked 'why could they not tell their 23-year-old daughter that they were not going to celebrate Christmas and decided to go on their own holiday'? I also asked, 'how does someone who joined the Peace Corps manage to wrangle leaving within a month of her assignment to fly up for Christmas?'

Oh, me and pesky logic.

Nora, pushing Luther, scrambles to put the house in Christmas order in less than two days. After a series of chaotic events that lead to Luther hanging precariously off the roof of his house, the whole neighborhood rushes to help the Kranks get their house to be a winter wonderland.

Because in this universe, 23-year-old children have to be placated.

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I laughed only once at Christmas With the Kranks. It was when Nora attempted to make Luther's skin paler after his pre-vacation tanning by applying far too much creme. He looked like he was auditioning for kabuki theater. That was funny.

Apart from that, Christmas With the Kranks is not so much misguided (though it is that) as it is nasty and unpleasant, trying to be jolly and even uplifting when it really is a cautionary tale of suburban fascism.

God help any non-Christian families who live on the appropriately-named Hemlock Street. Can you imagine if the Rothsteins or Singhs lived here? Would their neighbors subject them to harassment and intimidation to get them to decorate their house?

Moreover, I cannot get over how the premise of Christmas With the Kranks is built around the idea that a 23-year-old bimbo has to be coddled to an almost infantile level. First, it's really outlandish that a Peace Corps volunteer would arrive at her assignment in late November and then get permission to leave within a month. Second, it's even more insulting that her parents simply could not tell her that they had made other plans, were leaving the country and could not change them at the last minute just to accommodate her childlike whims.

Did they never speak to Blair in that month to tell her, 'hey, we've decided since you're not here there's no reason for us to decorate the house and decided to take a holiday instead?'

If this is the kind of plotting John Grisham is proud of, how did he ever get to be the literary powerhouse he is (and I say this as one who liked The Firm and The Client).

Blair mentioned that she had met Enrique before while at Brown (a school she clearly does not have the intellectual prowess to have attended), so Luther and Nora should have already had experience living without her, albeit not at Christmas. Still, the entire Krank family is so categorically stupid one wonders why Enrique would want to join it (unless it is for the sex).

Image result for christmas with the kranksChristmas With the Kranks really pushes a false idea that the film is about 'community' and caring. Nora says as much when she thanks everyone for pulling together to 'save Christmas'. This is extremely psychotic given that less than 24 hours prior, this same 'loving community' was all but terrorizing her into faux-festive submission.

Director Joe Roth really went out of his way to make everyone give horrible performances. At the top of that list is Curtis, who was not acting so much as she was embarrassing herself. Curtis was trying much too hard to try and make Nora funny but ended up going for dummy. In her exaggerated hysteria and whimpering over every little thing Nora was so unpleasant I would advised Luther to divorce her immediately.

Allen, to his credit, at least made Luther somewhat rational. He at least looked like he was taking the premise and situations seriously as the besieged man. The script made one bad mistake in having be totally absolute about their 'Christmas boycott'. He wouldn't give in to Nora's request to give $600 to charity and their church before leaving, which I consider a reasonable request. Eventually he gave in, but why he was made to be so hostile was a misstep. Nora was a wimp and Luther a bully, two things they should not have been.

Ackroyd came across as a literal Christmas terrorist, and just about everyone in the neighborhood came across as insane. Having the cops escort Blair and Enrique is bad enough (as if them spelling it as "N. Reeky" didn't already do that). Having said cops take a burglar they caught with the to the Kranks Christmas bash is straight-up insulting to everyone.

John Debney's score made things worse. It was one of those 'look at how cutesy and whimsical everything is' types of scores, where the music tries to push the humor where there is none.

If one thinks on it, Christmas With the Kranks is really a celebration of conformity, an ode to the power of bullying. Essentially, Chris Columbus' screenplay (and Grisham's book) is saying, 'how dare Luther think of himself and his wife and put them first over group-think? Better to buy a tree they won't use, get personalized Christmas cards and throw a party they don't want to rather than make plans by themselves for themselves'.

That is not a true Christmas message, and Christmas With the Kranks is not a true Christmas movie.

2012: Arthur Christmas
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2014: Prancer
2015: A Madea Christmas
2016: Batman Returns
2017: The Man Who Invented Christmas


Monday, December 24, 2018

The Favourite: A Review (Review #1155)


Power plays, political machinations and ego stroking of weak leaders is nothing new. One merely needs to read the papers or watch television coverage to see that the world of The Favourite is not far removed from today. The decadence and madness of Queen Anne's Court is rendered in terms both hilarious and tragic, a regal All About Eve that wrecks all the lives it touches.

Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is essentially under the thumb of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). Sarah pushes Anne around figuratively and literally (Her Majesty uses a wheelchair on occasion). Anne counts on Sarah's friendship to see her through life, and Sarah is about the closest thing to an actual friend she has. Sarah makes no bones about how she uses her influence over Anne to be the the power behind the throne, continuously pushing Anne to continue the War of the Spanish Succession.

Opposing her at Court is Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the Leader of the Opposition Tory Party. He finds himself continuously flustered in his efforts to stop the war and the massive tax increases Sarah favors. As the Duchess is practically the monarch, with Anne essentially abdicating her authority to her, there is nothing he can do.

Into this comes Abigail (Emma Stone), the poor relation. She is Sarah's cousin who has fallen on hard times and comes to Court to find employment. Sarah, very dismissive and haughty, places her in the kitchen as a scullery maid. A fortuitous event occurs when Anne suffers an attack of gout. Abigail happens to know about herbs and secretly places her concoction on Anne, much to Sarah's displeasure.

Image result for the favouriteAbigail lets it be known she was the one who helped Her Majesty in her time of distress. Anne is taken by Abigail, and it does not help Sarah that she essentially thrusts her poor relation to Anne while she attends matters of state.

Harley sees in Abigail a useful ally to thwart the Malboroughs, but Abigail won't commit. She also wont' commit to the amorous advances of Baron Masham (Joe Alwyn), who would like an affair with her but nothing more. Abigail, however, knows that it would not be to her advantage to be merely Masham's mistress. If she were Lady Masham, however, that would be different. That, however, would be difficult as she has no rank or status.

Soon the two cousins vie for Queen Anne's favor, using whatever weapons are at their disposal. Abigail has stumbled upon a major secret: Anne and Sarah are lovers. With this bit of inside information Abigail sets out to seduce Anne. Sarah, finally realizing the duplicity of her cousin, dismisses her from Court, but Anne has now taken Abigail under her personal protection. As she is the Monarch, Sarah cannot overrule her.

Things come to a head when Abigail uses her status as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Anne to slip a little something into Sarah's tea. With Sarah out of the way, ending up in a brothel, Abigail gets what she wants: she becomes Anne's favorite and marries Masham, a marriage not of love but opportunity. Sarah now faces Lady Masham, not some maid, and her efforts to blackmail Anne backfire spectacularly.

In the end, Harley finds a friend close enough to Her Majesty to influence her to his way of thinking. Anne dismisses Sarah's loyal Prime Minister Lord Godolphin (James Smith) and appoints Harley to the post. She also declares no increase in property taxes and directs her new Prime Minister to sue for peace.

The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough's fall is complete with accusations of embezzlement, accusations Sarah cannot stop due to Lady Masham controlling the Queen's mail. She stops Sarah's missive asking for forgiveness, which Anne seemed ready to do. Abigail, however, is not victorious, as Anne, now more engaged in state matters, makes it clear she is in control and will not let Abigail go.

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The Favourite has been compared to All About Eve and there is a ring of truth in that. It isn't an exact parallel in that Eve did not have a rival for Margo's affection unless you count Thelma Ritter's Birdie. However, in the machinations Abigail used to eventually supplant her wealthy, haughtier cousin we can see how Abigail echoes Eve's apparently endearing manner for someone who ends up cold-blooded and calculating.

The film is divided into eight chapters: This Mud Stinks, I Do Fear Confusion and Accident, What An Outfit, A Minor Hitch, What If I Should Fall Asleep and Slip Under, Stop Infection, Leave That I Like It and I Dreampt I Stabbed You in the Eye. Each one quotes a line of dialogue from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, a fiery concoction of witty banter and sharp barbs subtle and not. Whether it's the way Abigail and Sarah threaten each other to Sarah's dismissive manner towards Harley (remarking that his mascara is running) down to Anne's startling declaration that she won't dismiss Abigail because "I like it when she puts her tongue inside me", the zingers come at us as fast as the tomatoes a group of decadent courtiers throw at a naked man for fun.

Queen Anne's court is so outlandish that seeing Lord Godolphin refuse to let go of his prize-winning racing duck for fear of its safety seems downright rational here.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos sets scenes so well, using subtext to tell the shift in power from Sarah to Abigail. We see this through Sandy Powell's costumes which show Abigail's ensemble becoming more elegant while Sarah's remain the same. We see this in how in one pheasant shooting Abigail falls, startled when Sarah aims squarely at her but fires a blank and later how Sarah is splashed with blood from one of Abigail's shots.

Lanthimos also uses period music to great effect, the strong organ sounds marking the shifts and warning of dangers.

Image result for the favouriteMuch as been commented on whether Colman, Weizs or Stone are Leading or Supporting roles. It is hard to say for certain given how each gives an exceptional performance. I'm going to say that Colman is the lead given that she is the one Abigail and Sarah are vying for.

Colman's performance is in turns hilarious and heartbreaking. As Anne, she is childlike and childish, coddled and pampered. However, she is also abused, belittled and openly manipulated. Sarah's power is so great that she can tell the Queen she looks like a badger. Anne, who had up to that point been delighted in how she looked, becomes visibly deflated, like someone eager to show herself off only to be told how ugly she was.

Colman is comical but also moving as Queen Anne, a woman who may be moody and mercurial but who also has a deep need for friendship. As she recounts how her pet rabbits are almost substitutes for the seventeen children she lost we feel great empathy for her, the failure to have a child making her almost regress to childhood herself. As she eventually becomes a Queen, part of us can cheer that she moved away from the abusive Sarah while still distressing that Abigail can be just as harsh.

Weisz has had a stellar year with both Disobedience and The Favourite. As Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, her bluntness and coldness is startling. Yet we don't despise her thanks to Weisz's performance. We see Sarah as someone who believes her actions are motivated by a firm sense of being right. The fact that it benefits her personally is just a coincidence. Her haughty manner is almost a positive.

Stone holds her own and does a strong British accent (she is the only American in the main cast). Her Abigail does not come across as calculating from the start. Instead, she seems to have grown so as a survival mechanism, a way to get to a better position. Still, one wonders if there wasn't a bit of scheming early on, and that's a credit to Stone's performance. By the end we know she is, in her own words, capable of much unpleasantness. However, the question is did she turn out this way or was she always like this?

Sadly overlooked are Hough as Harley, forever in garish wigs and lavish makeup but as close to a noble figure in this bonkers Court. He seems genuinely interested in saving Britain from what he feels is an unnecessary war bankrupting the nation, but he too is not afraid to get in the mud of scheming. Alwyn has a smaller role as the perpetually sexually frustrated Masham, but he makes the most of his screen-time.

The Favourite is a comedy about a crazed monarch and the crazier Court. It's also a tragedy about a lonely woman and the false friends she has to accept if she wants any kind of companionship. It's a witty tale of scheming to gain a leader's favor and the power that comes with it.

In so many ways, the bonkers world of The Favourite is not so removed from today.

Anne, Queen of Great Britain:


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary Poppins Returns: A Review


My memories of Mary Poppins are vague as I saw it only once. The reason I saw it only once is because I simply cannot stand Dick Van Dyke. His toothy grin and wide eyes just get on my nerves to the point I have to flee whenever I see him. Dick Van Dyke makes a cameo appearance in Mary Poppins Returns, a sequel to a film made before most of the main cast was even born.

My memories of Mary Poppins, vague as they are, are not so dim as to not notice that Mary Poppins Returns veers dangerously close to being less a sequel and more a remake, determined to mimic the original to where it makes its follow-up film shockingly unoriginal.

Twenty years after the original events of Mary Poppins, the Banks children are now grown yet Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) still lives at 17 Cherry Lane. He's a recent widower with three children: Anabel (Pixie Davis), John (Nathaniel Saleh) and Georgie (Joel Dawson). George's sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) is a union labor activist and helps where she can.

Michael's big problem is that he is in danger of losing the family home as he is about to default on a loan despite working at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank as a part-time clerk. Michael's reminded he owns shares in the bank thanks to his late father, shares that will pay off the debt. His plot is spent trying to find said shares.

Image result for mary poppins returnsInto this major situation flies in Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt). She's going to care for the Banks children during this crisis. With some help from lamplighter Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Mary Poppins guides the children through many a magical adventure.

Among the journeys is a trip inside a china bowl where they meet an evil wolf and a visit to her cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep).

Eventually, the evil banker Wilkins (Colin Firth) is about to get his hands on the Banks home. A fortuitous turn of events has Michael find the shares and a race begins to get them before the stroke of midnight. After a couple of turns though all ends well, and with 'the door opened', Mary flies away.

It is my experience that sometimes films have what I called a 'forced frivolity'. This means that those involved are desperate to have you feel endless joy that it all but rams the false glee down your throat. Mary Poppins Returns is such a film.

It seems determined to be jolly and cheerful that it ends up looking very unnatural, like schoolchildren forced to put on silly costumes so that the adults can ooh and ah over them. Mary Poppins Returns wants to a 'jolly holiday' but to me it looked erratic, forced and worse, chaotic.

It is unfair to compare a sequel or an almost-remake to the original, but as has happened before, Mary Poppins Returns almost goads us into thinking of the 1964 film. The best case for how Mary Poppins Returns is almost a remake of Mary Poppins comes in its musical numbers.
Image result for mary poppins returns
It is not that the Marc Shaiman music and Shaiman/Scott Wittman lyrics come close to the Sherman Brothers' music. It's that in far too many occasions, Mary Poppins Returns has an equivalent musical number to Mary Poppins.

I figure a smart YouTube creator will make a video comparing a number from Returns that echos Mary Poppins, but here it mine:

1964: A Spoonful of Sugar/2018: Can You Imagine That?
1964: Jolly Holiday/2018: The Royal Daulton Music Hall 
1964: I Love to Laugh/2018: Turning Turtle
1964: Step In Time/2018: Trip A Little Light Fantastic
1964: Let's Go Fly A Kite/2018: Nowhere to Go But Up

Even more distressing is that Mary Poppins Returns has no real musical number that stands out except for the wrong reasons. A Cover is Not the Book for example has surprisingly racy lines for a children's film. Blunt as Mary is already a bit off-kilter, channeling a sugar-coated version of Sally Bowles, but she and Miranda sing the following lines in this ditty:
Lady Highest of Macaw
Brought all her treasures to a reef
Where she only wore a smile
Plus two feathers and a leaf

I confess to being a bit startled to hear lyrics about a practically naked woman sung as 'children's entertainment'. Not that in Can You Imagine That?, I did wonder how the Banks children would understand the reference to 'bathtub gin'.

Odd that while watching A Cover is Not the Book, the only thing I could think was that Blunt and Miranda were doing a candy-colored Cabaret. When you watch a family film and imagine that Lin-Manuel Miranda would make a good Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, I think you've got issues.

As a side note, given how Miranda had that little vibrato in his voice on many a final note, the comparison to Joel Grey is not too far off. 

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Willkomen, Bienvenue, Welcome,
Im Mary Poppins, Au Mary Poppins, To Mary Poppins!
I noted at least twice that particular musical numbers felt very Broadway. By that I mean they felt far too large and bombastic for film, as if I were watching footage for a future Disney stage musical like Frozen or The Lion King. From the film's overture/opening credits to splashy numbers like Trip A Little Light Fantastic, the musical numbers felts not just far too big for the film but relentlessly faux-cheery.

As for Trip A Little Light Fantastic, director/co-choreographer Rob Marshall decided it wasn't big enough. Hence, you needed a group of BMX stunt drivers. At a certain point I held up my hands and said, "STOP!".

Probably the worst numbers were A Conversation and Turning Turtle. The first because Whishaw is not a good singer and because it was trying to move me emotionally and failing as Michael has a 'conversation' with his late wife. The second because it was superfluous. The china bowl is made to be important but neither it or Streep and her character were necessary. Once the bowl is left to Topsy to fix, we never hear about it again.

I hope it isn't to set up a sequel.

About the only number that might be worth something is The Place Where Lost Things Go, a subtle way to help the children deal with the grief of their mother's death. Maybe because it was about the only slow song and one that didn't rely on big splashy dance routines.

There is one element plot-wise that I didn't follow. In the animated sequence the children see a wolf that they later identify as Wilkins. However, they hadn't met or seen Wilkins until after the number, not before. Therefore, how could they have made that connection? Also, why exactly did Wilkins want the house on Cherry Lane? He has no real motivation other than that the plot demanded both an antagonist and a 'threat'. That threat was resolved both too easily and too bizarrely (why would Michael use the shares in the way he did).

Related imageIn the performances I think Blunt made Mary Poppins her own, at least far removed from what Julie Andrews did.  Her Mary Poppins was much more posh but also more cheery than what I remember of Andrews. She did well vocally and was on the whole a delight.

Miranda certainly has stage presence as Jack. He is an ideal musical star and it is nice to see someone of his caliber on film. However, it's clear he too was Bert's apprentice given how bad Miranda's Cockney accent was. Dick Van Dyke's is still the worst, but Miranda sure gave him a run for his money.

Whishaw seems far too meek to be a harried father and I think miscast. Mortimer had nothing much to do save prattle about unions and occasionally make googly-eyes as Jack (something else I hope we don't see in a sequel). Firth's character was just evil to be evil but of no interest.

Mary Poppins Returns is a disappointment. It's pleasant enough and I didn't dislike it. However, the songs are not really memorable: I am hard-pressed to remember how any of them go (save for lyrics about bathtub gin and women wearing nothing but two feathers and a leaf). There is no Chim-Chim-Cheree here.

The plot is weak. The musical numbers seem almost too large for the screen and better suited for a stage show at Disney World.

I'm glad Mary Poppins returned. I just wish she'd return to something better.


Saturday, December 22, 2018

Aquaman: A Review


For better or worse, a lot is riding on Aquaman, the newest entry in the DC Extended Universe. The DC Extended Universe has been pretty much a fiasco, every one of the films being awful save for Wonder Woman. It also does not help that Aquaman, again for better or worse, is seen as one of the more laughable superheroes, though I've always had a soft spot for our Atlantean prince.

Aquaman is in many ways a 'bad' film: unoriginal, excessively long and as my BFF Gabe pointed out completely cliched; despite this, I enjoyed watching it and won't apologize for my enjoyment.

Lonely lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison) finds a beautiful but injured woman on shore. She is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), Queen of Atlantis. Eventually they fall in love and produce a child before she is forced back to the depths of the sea.

Their child, Arthur (Jason Momoa) grows into a large, muscular but surly man, aware of his dual identity but not keen on it, especially since the Atlantians murdered his mother. He would rather not get involved in Atlantian politics, but his hand is forced by Mera (Amber Heard), an Atlantian princess who fears for both her people and the Surface people.

Arthur's half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is plotting war against the Surface, though both his reasons and his methods are a bit muddled. He fights either to rule sea and land or revenge for pollution, and he can't do it without getting five of the seven kingdoms of the sea to join him so he can be Ocean Master or something.

The only way for Arthur to stop this is by finding the legendary Trident of Atlan and claiming his right to the throne. The Trident will proclaim him the truth King of the Seas. However, not only is Orm plotting against him, but there's also Black Manta (Yahia Abdul-Mateen II), who has his own grudge against Arthur and sometimes works with Orm.

There is the search, helped by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Orm's vizer who also aids Arthur, and the search for the Trident goes to Sicily and the Sahara before ending in twists and turns leading to a climatic battle under the seas.

Image result for aquamanThat plot synopsis, as choppy and convoluted as it is, is probably more coherent than the actual film. Aquaman suffers from a total lack of originality. For reasons known only to the filmmakers, the plot (such as it is) borrows from the Arthurian legends (Arthur has to 'pull the trident from the corpse') and unfortunately from others like Tomb Raider: not surprising given it sometimes looked like a video game. I did ask at one point if the film should have been called Quest for the Lost Trident.

It also borrowed from both Black Panther and Ant-Man & The Wasp.

I imagine that the last two really were coincidental given Aquaman was already in production when the rival Marvel films were being made/released; however, it is astonishing that no one at DC thought that viewers weren't going to at least notice that certain plot points were similar.

Moreover, it is amazing how no one: not its screenwriters or director James Wan, saw how disjointed and convoluted Aquaman was. It has another similarity to another comic book-based film: Spider-Man 3. Just like in that one, Aquaman has simply too many stories and worse, two antagonists that seem to get in the way of each other. The film tries to make the Black Manta/Orm teaming work, but it would have been better to have cut Manta out altogether, or at least minimize him.

It soon starts getting to where one forgets one of the antagonists whenever the other pops up. The endless expositionary dialogue and flashbacks that seem almost jammed into various spots do not help. We get a lot of aquatic politics that are of no interest but are treated as major Machiavellian plots.

One aspect that most worked for the film is the visuals. If anything, Aquaman is lavish with its Atlantian universe, bathing the film in lush colors. However, by the time we get the massive battle between Orm's forces and the Kingdom of the Brine (the last underwater kingdom holding out against Orm's war), it becomes visual overload. It was almost painful to be bombarded with so much.

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I can report that the best performance was from Amber Heard, and if that doesn't raise alarm bells nothing will. I generally like Patrick Wilson and I figure that his Orm was deliberately over-the-top to where Wilson swallowed every scene whole with manic glee, as if he had been desperate to let out his inner camp. He was joined in the 'let's see how broad and silly' manner by Randall Park as Dr. Stephen Shin, the 'mad scientist' convinced that Atlantians are real.

Abdul-Mateen II was equally campy as Black Manta in perhaps what one can call a spoof of Black Panther's Killmonger. Kidman was breathy as this Queen. Dafoe just went along for the ride, trying his best to be a Yoda-like figure but looking a bit lost at sea.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I never thought Momoa was an actor (though I'd be curious to see what his Falstaff would look like). I will give him credit for at least rolling with things, not having to make Arthur Curry into anyone interesting save for his love for his father.

Aquaman, I think, is a response to criticism that the DC Extended Universe is glum, morose and dour. The film does make an effort to have laughs, even at its own expense. It isn't afraid of being deliberate in its stabs at humor, such an early scene where menacing toughs appear to threaten Arthur...only to end up asking for selfies.

There were some positives. Rupert Gregson-Williams' score was surprisingly elegant, particularly when it used electronic sounds. Granted, sometimes it tried to force the humor with 'cutesy' music but one can't have everything. It made good use of Depeche Mode's It's No Good but an awful remix of Toto's Africa thanks to Pitbull, screwing up a second film this year. Until it got too overblown, the visuals were pretty impressive.

Again, in many ways Aquaman is not a good film. However, I was entertained. It didn't reinvent the wheel but it serves as something separate from the bungled DC Extended Universe and not forcing it into a large mythos. No doubt Aquaman is not deep (no pun intended). It's too long, convoluted and campy.

Perhaps, however, that is why I didn't hate it: because in a sense it knew itself and didn't even try too hard. It knows it's all-wet.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

At Eternity's Gate: A Review


Few painters, at least in my memory, have been such fodder for biopics as our Vincent van Gogh. He is the epitome of the 'tortured artist'. He's been given the lavish biopic treatment in Lust for Life and now we're revisiting him in At Eternity's Gate. While the film is a little too artsy for my tastes, it has two excellent performances and some well-crafted visuals to make it worth seeing.

At Eternity's Gate covers the final years of Vincent van Gogh (Willem Dafoe). He continues to struggle with mental illness as well as with a growing sense of failure. His art is not selling or even drawing much attention. Vincent's ever-loving and loyal brother Theo (Rupert Friend) keeps trying to sell Vincent's work, but he is not as successful as his frenemy, Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).

Vincent finds himself hounded by schoolchildren, accused of all kinds of evil, and eventually in an asylum. He still continues to work, to try to find that peace and create nature in its reality, until his death. In the film, Vincent's death seems due to an accidental shooting by two teenagers, though whether it was a bungled robbery or just attempts at teasing gone wrong it does not make clear.

Vincent van Gogh dies, and his casket is surrounded by his art. We learn that nearly a century later, in 2016, a ledger containing various sketches had been rediscovered. He had instructed that the ledger be returned to Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Siegneur) but she never realized that it was more than a ledger.

Image result for at eternity's gateAt Eternity's Gate is my first encounter with director/co-writer Julian Schnabel, so perhaps the floating camera work and somewhat jumbled manner is par for the course. I think that people who might have thought it would be a more standard biopic might leave a bit if not frustrated a bit puzzled.

However, At Eternity's Gate I don't think was meant to encompass the entirety of van Gogh's life. I think it was more to set a mood, to reflect a more dare I say 'artistic' portrait of the artist as a declining man.

Schnabel sets this mood in the camera work, in the look of At Eternity's Gate, especially in how it echoes van Gogh's great love for yellow. It also does this by giving us many Point-Of-View shots from Vinnie's perspective, especially if he's in conversation with others or us via voiceover.

At Eternity's Gate has the blessing of Willem Dafoe as our creative genius. It's an interesting take on van Gogh: a quieter, more contemplative one than what could have been him ranting and raging all over the place (I'm looking at you, Kirk Douglas). Dafoe's van Gogh is one who wants to feel: the friendship with Gauguin, the bond with Theo, the truth that art can display.

Dafoe is gentle and quiet as van Gogh, a man haunted and hopeful. In other voices, van Gogh's comparing himself to Christ may have come off as either insane or egocentric. With Dafoe's performance, it comes across as almost rational. He does not claim divinity but makes his case that just like Jesus, van Gogh was also preparing for the future to receive him.

At Eternity's Gate is well-acted all around. Dafoe is the standout as befits playing the lead, but there is also strong work from Isaac as Gauguin, who comes across as a calm yet clear-eyed friend, and Friend as the loving and loyal Theo. Even in essentially cameo roles from Mads Mikkelsen as a priest, Mathieu Amarlic as Dr. Gachet and Vincent Perez as the asylum director, all of them do very strong work.

The film also has a moving score by Tatiana Lisovskaya, dominated by piano and violin that sometimes ends abruptly. I figure that reflects Vincent's mind but it almost seems wrong to have such beautiful music cut off so quickly at times.

At Eternity's Gate felt a little slower than its near two-hour running time, and again all that hushed speaking and free-flowing camerawork may prove frustrating. I admit again it was a touch too artsy for me. However, it has another standout performance by Willem Dafoe as this volatile and yet almost innocent artist, one who did impact the world after his death.



Monday, December 17, 2018

Chariots of Fire (1981): A Review (Review #1151)


I Have Fought the Good Fight.  I Have Finished the Race.  I Have Kept the Faith...

Chariots of Fire is primarily remembered for one thing: the much-parodied opening sequence of men racing on the beach with Vangelis' stirring theme music urging them on. It would be a terrible disservice if Chariots of Fire is remembered just for that, even if the score is quite iconic now. Chariots of Fire is a much deeper and more moving film of what could have been a mere footnote in history. It is a story of overcoming adversity and keeping true to yourself no matter the pressure. It may fudge some history, but with strong performances to strengthen it, you leave with great respect for the main characters who did great things for themselves and for greater glory.

Chariots of Fire revolves primarily around two men. The first is Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who is as British as they come save for two things: he is the son of an immigrant and he is Jewish. Forever with a chip on his shoulder, eager for a fight yet devoted to all things British (especially his beloved Gilbert & Sullivan), Abrahams feels he has to fight twice as hard to get what he wants.

What he wants is a gold medal in the upcoming Paris Olympics of 1924. He also wants to be the fastest man in Britain.  However, there is another man who has an equal if not better claim to that title.

It is Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), nicknamed 'the Flying Scotsman'. Born in China to missionary parents, Liddell is passionate about his Christian faith, using his running skills as a way to talk to others about Christ. His passion for running doesn't sit well with his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell), who thinks it is taking too much time away from faith and that Eric is being worshiped himself.

Image result for chariots of fireHarold checks out the competition and knows that Eric is formidable. He is more downhearted when, in their first head-to-head race, Abrahams loses. Harold is shocked and almost bereft. Not even the encouragement of his girlfriend, theater actress Sybil Gordon (Alice Krieg) can seem to lift him.

"If I can't win, I won't run," he almost tearfully declares.

"If you don't run, you can't win," she retorts.

Abrahams decides to go all-in, hiring professional coach Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm) to train him. While technically not illegal, a professional coach is frowned upon by the English elites who feel it is not 'pure amateur'. Abrahams by this point does not care.

Liddell for his part finds a crisis of his own. Both Abrahams and Liddell, along with Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers) and Abrahams best friend, the naive Aubrey Montague (Nicholas Farrell) will represent Britain in the Paris Games. To Liddell's horror, he learns that the qualifying heats for his race will be on a Sunday. As a devout Christian, he will not break the Sabbath. As a runner, he is near desperate to run.

After some personal struggle, Liddell makes his choice: he will not break the Sabbath. Not even pressure from the then-Prince of Wales (later the Duke of Windsor) will have him break. Fortunately, Lord Lindsay comes to the rescue, offering to swap races given Lindsay has already won a silver and is satisfied with that.

Now, the races truly begin. Will Liddell be able to muster the endurance for a race he normally would not run? Will Abrahams finally achieve his goal to win for himself and his people? Will either be able to stand up against the formidable American track team led by legendary athletes Charles Paddock (Dennis Christopher) and Jackson Scholz (Ben Davis)?

Chariots of Fire is known for the Oscar-winning score, particularly its opening theme that even those who have never seen the movie would instantly recognize. They would also know the scene it is connected to: a group of men on the beach running. That one scene and its music is so engraved into popular culture that it is ripe for spoofs and parodies, no less than in the 2012 London Olympics with Mr. Bean having a crack at it.

If the opening scene and music is the only thing one knows about Chariots of Fire, it is a terrible disservice to both the film and viewers as Chariots of Fire is more than either. It is a story about two men, each who faced great adversity and triumphed with grace and courage.

Both Abrahams and Liddell had their own personal struggles, which curiously were connected to their separate faiths. One was blocked from society because of his faith, one found himself blocked from his dream because of it. The film tackles the internal and external issues they faced.

For Abrahams, it was always a fierce determination to be the best, to not let the haughtiness and exclusivity of the WASP establishment stop him. For Liddell, it was to remain true to himself despite pressures by that same establishment to break the faith. Abrahams is an Englishman through and through yet is an alien. Liddell is a Scotsman but also an alien, his loyalty to his God marking him out as a fanatic.

Chariots of Fire in short is more than about racing. It's about being yourself whatever the cost may be. Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, different in so many ways, are also very similar. Their personal courage, their own brand of nobility, their obstinacy shaped them and made them truly heroic.

Related imageOur two leads, shamefully overlooked at the Academy Awards that gave the film four wins from seven nods, do absolutely fantastic work. While I would argue the focus is more on Abrahams than on Liddell, both had excellent moments and gave rich performances. Cross' Abrahams was a live-wire when roused to righteous fury, but he also brought a vulnerability with his scenes with Krieg as his love interest, the grand dame of the theater.

In his single-mindedness, in his arrogance, Cross makes Abrahams into almost an impenetrable fortress. However, when he is coming to his final race, his final chance for that glory he so desperately seeks, for that validation for himself and for the nation he embraces yet which does not fully embrace him, Cross shows the genuine fear and pain that Abrahams only now permits himself to show.

It is a marvelous and moving performance.

That easily describes Charleson, taken far too soon from us. As Liddell, Charleson makes his faith not a stumbling block or some crazed obsession, but a quiet, gentle light within. Some of his monologues, such as when he speaks in the rain to a group that has just seen him win a race or when trying to explain to his doubting sister that when he runs, he feels God's pleasure, are moments of quiet grace and elegance. You see his own obstinacy when refusing to run on the Sabbath, yet it is not arrogance but steely determination to honor his God.

Charleson makes Eric Liddell a modern-day Daniel, keeping the faith while within the lion's den. You leave the film admiring his courage to stand still for his principles. You leave the film admiring Harold Abrahams for his determination to get what he goes after.

The film also has smaller yet impressive work from Krieg as the loving, loyal yet strained Sybil, Havers and Farrell as the other runners (both of whom know Abrahams) and especially Holm as the cantankerous yet loving Sam, who sees something in Abrahams that is worth molding. Chariots of Fire also has essentially cameos from Sir John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson and Nigel Davenport.

While Christopher and Davis were the 'requisite American stars', they did well in their small roles, more Davis than Christopher since he had a larger role.

Chariots of Fire is a very moving and inspirational film about two extraordinary men. There are quibbles to be had: the film has a flashback within a flashback and the makeup work on Havers in the present-day scene was horrible. It might also stray far from actual history, but in this case I would say that these are minor details to a film that is more than just its brilliant music.

Eric Liddell is asked as he watches the race he would have been in and wanted to be in if he had regrets. "Regrets, yes. But no doubts". Would that we all live with such faith.

If we did, we too would see our strength renewed. We shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint...

Harold Abrahams: 1899-1978
Eric Liddell: 1902-1945


1982 Best Picture Winner: Gandhi