Saturday, March 31, 2018

Winchester (2018): A Review (Review #1036)

WINCHESTER

I've heard of the Winchester Mystery House, on how the proprietress of said mansion, Sarah Winchester, is said to have built it to keep the ghosts at bay who might seek out revenge for their deaths at the hands of the Winchester rifle.  Regardless of the veracity of said legends, they persists.  Winchester attempts to meld those stories into a more traditional horror film that still tries to be contemporary in its frights and gruesome visuals, but it ends up being an unintended comedy.

Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a man with a troubled past who has a weakness for women and a drug addiction, has been asked by the directors of the Winchester Repeating Company to evaluate the mental health of its majority stockholder, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren).  Sarah, the widow of the Winchester founder, has had a continuous construction crew in her California home for years, working nonstop day & night, only to either tear down parts of the house later or bolt empty rooms up.

Price sees that there are only two other residents at the Winchester Mystery House: Sarah's niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and Sarah's son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Shay). Already spooky things are going on, as Henry has started sleepwalking, and in his state either threatening other people or at one point jumping off a ledge, with only Price seeing this bit and racing to catch him.

Mrs. Winchester believes that the spirits of those killed by her company's product are coming after her, and in her madness there is method: the rooms keep the spirits locked in until they accept her remorse, wherein they can be free and the rooms torn down.  She, apart from that, is of sound mind and body.  Price, however, has an otherworldly connection: he 'died' when his wife shot him, but managed to return from the beyond.  Despite his own brush with death, he is a skeptic.

However, he sees malevolent spirits jump around him, and sees Sarah apparently possessed by a spirit, furiously drawing out a room that she has quickly built.  The room is vaguely familiar to Sarah, and soon we know why.  One of her 'servants' is really Corporal Ben Block (Eamon Farren), a Confederate who lost two brothers in the Civil War thanks to the Winchester's superior power over the Confederate weapons.  Blaming Winchester for their deaths, he storms into the Winchester headquarters to kill them all, only to end up getting killed himself at the showroom when police storm in.

Now, the spirit of Corporal Block has come from the beyond to unleash his vengeance, preying on young Henry as part of his supernatural plot.  It takes a battle to defeat him, and to both bring peace to the Blocks and the Winchesters.  Having seen all this, Dr. Price himself finds peace with his own past, abandons drugs, and gives Sarah a clean bill of health.

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I think the big problem with Winchester is that it exists.  That might be a bit harsh, but everything about Winchester is so bungled that rather than be scary, it ends up being funny.  The fact that Peter & Michael Spierig (The Spierig Brothers as they are billed) are so sincere in their efforts to make everything 'scary' only makes things more hilarious.

The servants are all so overly creepy in their looks and mannerisms that any real sense of tension and danger is gone.  They constantly throw in those 'jump scares' where some monster pops out at you that again, you aren't scared.  Rather, you are amused.

Even the family is so overtly 'scary' that you just have to chuckle at it all.  No amount of 'jump scares' and overly moody music can save Winchester from being so silly as to be almost a spoof of horror films.  Part of me thinks that Winchester would have been better if it had intentionally set out to mock some of the horror conventions rather than try so desperately to use them in the way they did.

Bless Mirren and Clarke for trying to take all this seriously, but in their performances, you get the sense that even they knew that Winchester was an unintended spoof and at a certain point gave up.  Mirren hopefully had a lot of fun playing the eccentric Sarah, because if this was a sincere performance, Mirren went off the rails.  She was at times almost silly as the spooked Sarah, her efforts to 'calm' the spirits playing like farce.  Clarke, I think, wanted to play this seriously, and the Spierig Brothers screenplay written with Tom Vaughn, attempted to give him a backstory with his drug problem and haunted past (no pun intended).  However, the film had a hard time making him the skeptic when he kept finding himself facing off against monsters and creepy servants left right and center.

It takes a particular skill of badness to get good actors into looking like fools, so the Spierig Brothers have that.

What is genuinely sad is that the story of Sarah Winchester and/or the Winchester Funhouse make for fascinating subject material without all the hocus-pocus hokum Winchester threw at it.  By drowning a potentially good story with second-rate, cliched supernatural overtones more suited to Insidious or Annabelle-type films, what could have been a good time turned into a comical misadventure of supernatural proportions.

Winchester the Movie, you're bringing me down...


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Circa 1840-1922

DECISION: D+

Monday, March 26, 2018

Rebel in the Rye: A Review


REBEL IN THE RYE

I read The Catcher in the Rye, the major work by J.D. Salinger, and was not overly impressed.  It's a brilliant, well-written book, but it was not for me because I am well past my angst years.  Truth be told, I don't think I had any actual angst years. 

Salinger, our lovable cantankerous recluse, refused to ever sell the film rights to The Catcher in the Rye and spent his decades post-Catcher refusing interviews and writing but not publishing.  We had to wait seven years after his death to get a biopic, Rebel in the Rye.  Salinger, I'm told, loved movies.  He certainly would not have loved Rebel in the Rye save for being played by the extremely handsome Nicholas Hoult.

In 1939, Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) yearns to be a writer of note.  He certainly does not yearn to be a 'bacon king' and follow in his father Sol's (Victor Garber) footsteps in business.  Jerome has his eyes on a pretty young thing named Oona O'Neil (Zoey Deutch), daughter of legendary playwright Eugene.  He manages to squire her around town, but he also is a bit hesitant to succumb to her charms.

He manages to get into Columbia University, where he finds a mentor in Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), a writing instructor who also edits Story Magazine.  Our cocky, cocksure Jerome keeps pushing to be published and arrive, while Whit keeps shaping him to write with his own authentic voice.

One short story particularly impresses Whit: A Slight Rebellion Off Madison, as does the main character, one Holden Caulfield, whom Whit pushes Jerome to write a whole novel for. 

Then comes The War, and Jerome goes off to Britain to fight.  Here, two major events in Jerome's life occur: he learns that Oona has not waited for him but married Charlie Chaplin, and he participates in both D-Day and the liberation of concentration camps.

Jerome returns, emotionally battered and with a new wife he quickly disposes of.  He also continues to write, but finds himself struggling.  It is only through meeting a Buddhist guru that Salinger starts finding another way, and he punches out The Catcher in the Rye.

He finds the idea of publishing and the press/public attention to his work very bothersome.  He becomes more metaphysical, marries again and soon starts withdrawing from everyone and everything.  He breaks off relationships left right and center and eventually turns total recluse.

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I find that Rebel in the Rye is hardly rebellious.  In fact, writer/director Danny Strong's film is quite standard in telling this part of Salinger's life story.  We get the standard 'he finds bits that will eventually find his way into his Opus' details.  There's the opening scene, where Salinger complains about the 'flits and phonies' he meets at a club.  There's when after getting beat up by robbers, he finds himself in front of a carousel, watching the children in delight. 

We get those words of wisdom from the mentors, ranging from Whit's advise of "imagine a book that you want to read, and then write it" to Salinger's guru own metaphysical insights. 

We see lots of scenes of him writing out at his typewriter or on his notebook, with his loving mother cheering him on while his disapproving father and sister don't.

In many ways, Rebel in the Rye is quite square.

Not that there is much wrong with that, as I believe that it is hip to be square. It is just that Salinger still remains highly opaque, physically there but emotionally or spiritually absent.  A lot of Rebel in the Rye felt rushed, where we were hitting a few highlights on our way to this inevitable masterpiece of American literature.  The love story between O'Neill and Salinger was underdeveloped to where when he reads that she married Chaplin, there is no impact on the viewer. 

Same when Salinger breaks off his relationship with Whit.  From the film, this split comes from Whit's inability to get an anthology published.  Salinger thinks it was deliberate, Whit insists he fought hard and simply could not do it.  I'm thinking it was somewhere in between, but Rebel in the Rye isn't convincing for either version.  It also does not show how Salinger was becoming either more eccentric or more arrogant, such as in his refusal to have the manuscript published for others to read.

This led to a good moment in the film, when the publisher went up to our crabby literary genius and asked if he wanted a publisher or a printer, for if he wanted the latter, he could go and do that himself.  It's the only time where someone stood up to Salinger, and the only time Salinger gave in to someone else.

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Perhaps apart from being too handsome to be a realistic Jerome David Salinger, Hoult was one of the positives in Rebel in the Rye.  He's become an extremely reliable actor who can elevate the material, at least as much as he can.  I cannot fault Hoult for not making Salinger into someone I could either relate to or understand, or in those awful voiceovers that are the bane of my cinematic experiences.  Spacey, in perhaps one of his final films before his shocking downfall, shows us his talent, making Whit's evolution from the cynical mentor to desperate supplicant a strong performance.

If there is a great flaw in Rebel in the Rye, it is that so many other important figures, such as O'Neill or Claire Douglas (Lucy Boynton), his second wife, pop in and out so quickly you don't get what the connection was between them.

As an insight into this most mysterious and crabby of literary giants, Rebel in the Rye does not give us much.  It is not a bad film, with respectable performances and a great fondness of jazz music.  I could never accuse Rebel in the Rye of being a phony, because it was not very sincere to begin with.

1919-2010
   
DECISION: C-

Sunday, March 25, 2018

I Can Only Imagine: A Review



I CAN ONLY IMAGINE

I am not a MercyMe fan, and I can understand why I Can Only Imagine, their first major hit song that was so popular it even found its way out of Contemporary Christian radio into country and pop stations, might have suffered from over-saturation.  This song has become a mainstay in many Christian worship and funeral services since its 2001 debut.  The film I Can Only Imagine chronicles not the actual writing of the song, which according to its songwriter Bart Millard took ten minutes, but Millard's life story and all the events that inspired the creation of perhaps the most recognized faith-based song outside Amazing Grace.

Bart Millard has a love of music, mostly as an escape from his parents' very troubled marriage.  As a child, he cannot please his drunk, abusive father Arthur (Dennis Quaid).  His mother takes him to a youth camp, where he re-encounters Shannon, who is a Christian and unbeknownst to him, has a major crush on him.  After he comes back, however, he has a nasty surprise: his mother has left and leaves him with Arthur.

Arthur was a major football star, and this is how an older Bart (J. Michael Finley) tries to win his father's love and approval.  Bad advise about 'never being brought down', however, causes Bart a career-ending injury.  He has no choice but to live out a version of Glee: the football jock forced into the glee club for his extracurricular course.

Bart adjusts to being the sound guy, but his glee teacher finds him singing along to one of his many cassettes, oblivious that anyone is actually hearing him.  To his shock and horror, Bart finds himself as Curly in a production of Oklahoma!, and to his bigger shock, he's actually good.  Even his beloved 'Memaw' (Cloris Leachman) cannot believe that is her Bart singing.

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Arthur isn't won over, nor does he tell anyone the truth of his health issues.  Bart grows closer to Shannon and to faith but he is still an angry young man.  Arthur slams a plate at Bart's head before he goes to church to sing, and this is the last straw for him.  Bart is having a great crisis, for he not only has ended his relationship with Arthur but with Shannon, after she not-so-subtly suggests in front of Bart that "someone" needs prayer.

As soon as graduation comes, he flees his Texas roots to Oklahoma City, where eventually he begins his pursuit of a music career with a group of musicians.  Bart and his bandmates, calling themselves 'MercyMe' after one of his Memaw's favorite sayings, hustle to get the attention of the record industry.  Eventually they do find a producer, Scott Brickell (Trace Adkins), who sees something there but who also tells them they are not ready.

Despite his own misgivings, Brickell rides along with them, and manages to get a showcase for them in Nashville.  Bart forces his way to the post-concert meeting, where he's told again he isn't good enough.  The memories of Arthur's dismissive words come back to Bart.  Brickell urges him to 'stop running from the pain' and settle things with his father.  Bart goes back, and finds a more humane Arthur.  Despite Arthur's efforts to make peace and ask forgiveness, even admitting he has found faith and is attempting to make sense of Scripture, Bart will not yield and maintains his anger.

It is only when he learns that Arthur has terminal pancreatic cancer that Bart relents and starts mending his relationship.  They have a brief time together before Arthur dies, and at the funeral, Memaw gives him words of wisdom, telling him to imagine all the things Arthur now sees.

After returning to MercyMe, Bart still struggles with his own emotions: about Arthur, about what happened, about his failed attempts to reconcile with Shannon.  He looks over an old journal from his first youth camp, and finds the word 'Imagine' and the phrase 'I can only imagine' over and over.  Taking this as a sign, he writes his new song.

The song gets the attention of one of Bart's inspirations, Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) through her friend Michael W. Smith (Jake B. Miller), both major Christian music icons.  Grant needs a 'comeback' song, and thinks I Can Only Imagine would be perfect for her new album and tour.  She plans to debut it at her first concert and has already recorded it.  However, she finds she cannot perform it, and asks Bart, who is in the audience, to sing it instead.  All his emotion pours out to a thunderous reception.  Shannon, who was at that show, reconciles with Bart, and Grant gives the song back to MercyMe.

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In some ways, I Can Only Imagine is a bit fast and loose with facts.  For example, it isn't until the end that we discover Bart had a brother. Other aspects, such as his relationship with his mother, are pretty much rushed through.  However, I think Alex Cramer, Brent McCorkle and codirector Jon Erwin (who directed with his brother Andrew) were not aiming for a strict chronological story.

Instead, they were focused on Bart's own story, and one of the many pluses of I Can Only Imagine is that Bart Millard's story is one that many people outside of their faith or faith itself can relate to.  The issues of abuse, emotional and sometimes physical pain, redemption and forgiveness are issues that do not impact only those with a faith system.  It's a pretty universal story, as there probably has not been a person who has not had issues with their parents.

It's also a pretty human emotion to struggle with death and what comes after.  Millard's faith leads him to believe in an afterlife, and the song, when heard, expresses that peace that surpasses all understanding.  It speaks about hope for those who have passed on and for those who remain.

I find that I Can Only Imagine, more than most Christian-themed films, is not afraid to show Christians in a bad light.  Bart Millard is a deeply flawed and human individual.  Some of his flaws are for comic effect: the shock of his Oklahoma! casting causes him to fall over as he's trying to balance himself on his wheelchair's wheels.  Other times, though, his reaction to things is surprisingly human.  He remains angry at his father, even after Arthur struggles to make amends.  Bart yells, he snaps at people, he pushes Shannon away.

The image I Can Only Imagine creates of Bart Millard is not that of a saint, but as a man who even while acknowledging and feeling Christ within him also at times lets his human nature get in the way of being that new creation.  As Christians, we should forgive when someone asks forgiveness from us.  As sinners, we can hold onto our hurts and angers despite our faith.

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It's a major credit to the film in finding Finley to play Millard.  A Broadway performer making his film debut, Finley makes Bart into a very relatable person: pleasant, enthusiastic, troubled, hurt, capable of causing hurt, angry, regretful and even a bit shy.  This is an excellent debut for the actor, who keeps Millard grounded in reality, neither setting him up to be a metaphorical voice of God or a cold, hard cynic.  The Bart Millard that Finley creates is that of an average man, feeling his way across life with a faith that he sometimes fails to live up to but which also gives him hope.

Quaid may have been a bit of a scenery-chewer as Arthur at times, but in his later scenes, where he is a reformed man, he does display Arthur's struggle with this new man he is attempting to be.  Quaid brings out that struggle, that unsteadiness in a man who is seeking out redemption and forgiveness to beings he does not know and that he's a bit afraid of: Christ and Bart.

It is nice to see Leachman, even if her role is small, and Adkins is carving out a nice side career as an actor, even if he too had a small role.  Madeline Carroll as the long-suffering Shannon did a good job, though the film sometimes forgot she was in there too.  As this was Bart's story, the formation of MercyMe or their transition from rock to a softer sound did get left a bit off, but again, this is not the MercyMe Story, or even the story of I Can Only Imagine the song.

Instead, it's the story of this one man, Bart Millard, who went through very painful early years and came out of it inspired, through his faith in Jesus Christ, to create something that has brought comfort to thousands upon thousands. 

Scripture tells us that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.  It was sad and painful and tragic what Bart Millard endured, but out of that came a modern-day hymn about a joyful future past death.  I Can Only Imagine the film touches the viewer as deeply as the song.

This is The Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Born 1972

DECISION: B+

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Gotham: Reunion Review

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GOTHAM: REUNION

How crazy is a Gotham episode where Selina Kyle, future Catwoman, is the most moral and rational of our characters?  Reunion does a great job using its title to mean so many things, both for good or for ill, and it is exceptionally well-acted with some genuine twists. 

It also has that graphic violence that still troubles me to no end.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has finally come to the realization that his indulging of the flesh has not healed his soul.  He asks his loyal manservant, Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) to return to Wayne Manor and him, but Alfred refuses until he gets a sign that Bruce really has changed.  Moreover, he still thinks Bruce has not embraced all the qualities of who he really is, both the light and the dark.

Ivy Pepper (Peyton List) is plotting her newest murder spree, targeting all those who have done her wrong.  Her efforts to kill former Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) fail when he is not at his bar, but then she gets an unexpected bonus when, using her hypnotic powers, gets Bullock to 'reunite' with his former partner, Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and lure him into a trap.  Her efforts to kill two birds with one stone: have Harvey kill Gordon then kill himself, go awry when Gordon uses his intelligence to outwit them both.

Sofia Falcone (Crystal Reed) is now plotting to take over all of Gotham, but there is still one area not  under her control: The Narrows.  She 'reunites' with her former sister-in-law, Leslie 'Lee' Thompkins (Morena Baccarin), the unofficial Queen of the Narrows.  She pushes Lee to force The Narrows to pay 30% on all activities, which Lee knows will break The Narrows.  Lee tries to convince Sofia that it would be better to leave The Narrows alone by offering information on Gordon, but Sofia scoffs at this.  She uses Lee's own men against her, as well as bringing back the former Narrows boss Sampson (Stu 'Large' Riley) to do Lee bodily harm.

As she is technically family, Sofia will only smash one of Lee's hands.
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Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) continues to struggle against being 'reunited' with his alter ego, The Riddler.  It's a losing battle as the decency of Nygma continues to face off against The Riddler's malevolence.  It gets to a crisis point where Nygma decides to commit suicide rather than let The Riddler take over. 

However, another alternative comes his way, and Nygma volunteers to commit himself to Arkham.  As he figures he has won over his darkest impulses, he gets a nasty surprise.

Waiting for him is his thwarted love, Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor).  Pengy reveals that the letter he sent to Nygma was not really for Nygma, but for the one whose name he would not speak.  Now, however, Penguin speaks it, and speaks it with pride...The Riddler.  It was all part of his plan to break his enemy, and in turn get his help in breaking him out of Arkham.

Edward Nygma finally collapses, and The Riddler has taken over.

Ivy's plans for revenge culminate at the Wayne Foundation Annual Dinner, where she plans to kill everyone with her poisonous shrubs.  Bruce has already left but sees the chaos of the event and the GCPD storming the place.  After saving Alfred, his loyal manservant tells him he has found his destiny.  A disguised Bruce defeats one of Ivy's henchmen, and avoid capture by Gordon after the latter shoots him, the bulletproof vest saving his life. 

Ivy escapes but finds Selina (Camren Bicondova) at her place.  Selina is determined to stop her murderous frenemy, and it becomes a duel to the near-death, with both of them coming close to killing the other.  Ivy warns Selina to stay out of her way, and withdraws her killer claws.  This frees Ivy from the knife-point Selina has, though the Lazarus Water is now all gone.

Related imageAlfred returns to Wayne Manor, reunited with Bruce and it feels so good.

Reunion manages to balance all its spinning stories quite well: Ivy, Edward, Bruce, without shortchanging the others. There is never a sense that one story is the main story that overwhelms the others, though I figure Ivy is the dominant story as it is her plan to commit mass murder that drives a lot of the action.

As a side note, if I were a Gothamite I would seriously avoid the Wayne Foundation Annual Dinner.  It seems that every year some crazed super-villain attempts to kill everyone there.  I'd just send the check next time.

Director Annabelle K. Frost not only balances all the stories well in Peter Blake's script, but draws great performances out of this extremely talented cast.  The early scenes between Mazouz and Pertwee are especially strong and moving, their interplay so well-done. Bicondova too excels as Selina, whether facing off against Ivy or summarily dismissing Bruce, who is in search of someone to talk her.  Her mixture of toughness and morality makes this version of the future Catwoman exceptional, and true to the idea that Catwoman is more anti-heroine than straight-up villain.

CMS really does exceptional work in essentially a dual role, showcasing the gentility of Edward and the coldness of The Riddler. Granted, given the tortured relationship between Nygma and Cobblepot, I was not sure whether they'd kill or kiss each other, but Smith really has done exceptional work.  Even in his one scene, RLT shows simply what a find he was as The Penguin, coming across as both almost childlike and extremely dangerous.

I find that Logue, despite looking quite awful: overweight, in need of a haircut, still makes Harvey into someone you like, and his pairing with McKenzie's Gordon continues to work.  List's Ivy still vamps it up, but in a good way, and in smaller roles Baccarin and Reed maintain truth in their character's basic decency and evil respectively.

All the qualities in Reunion, however, cannot make me forget what I consider a gruesome moment when Sofia smashes Lee's hand.  By Gotham standards, this was pretty tame, especially since unlike past episodes, we did not see the nature of Ivy's killings.  However, what we saw was quite enough.

Given all the wild and actually logical twists, the strong acting, and the evolution of the characters heroes and villains, Reunion was an exceptional episode.  I am knocking a point for what I considered a bit too graphic a moment, but on the whole, this season of Gotham has been its best.

9/10

Next Episode: The Sinking Ship, The Grand Applause

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Knife Skills: A Review


KNIFE SKILLS

The transitions from prison to civilian life is hard, especially when it comes to employment.  There is a prejudice against those with criminal pasts in terms of employment, which makes it hard for people who are attempting to transition into mainstream society.  That in turn can lead them to commit crimes again, where they return to prison.  Knife Skills looks at the issue of ex-convicts from a unique vantage point: from that of a business that deliberately sought them out.

Edwin's is a new, posh French restaurant in posh Cleveland.  With only six weeks to go before opening, restaurateur Brandon Chrostowski gathers a group of formerly incarcerated men and women to fill out the staff, everything from cooks to servers to sommeliers. This is already a pretty daunting task, but it is more daunting when you consider that none of the Edwin's employees have any background in fine dining, let alone know the differences in cheeses. 

Guided by master French chef Gilbert and sous-chef Gerry, the former complete with French accent, the various men and women at Edwin's must learn the variety and nuances of French cuisine while doing their best to stay within the training program.  We meet a variety of staff, such as Alan, who had served four years for drug trafficking, Marley, who has had a heroin addiction, and Daudi, who once had served ten years for aggravated robbery and now finds himself studying the vast variety of cheeses.

As a side note, if Edwin's were in Green Bay and not Cleveland, there would be a good Cheesehead joke somewhere in all this.

What makes this program all the more interesting is that Brandon is no mere do-gooder.  He himself has had trouble with the law, with a record for drug possession and evading arrest.  As someone who has been there himself, he knows the pressures his staff is under.

Edwin's opens, and there are a few bumpy moments, but for the most part it looks like the restaurant and the staff are a success.  There are, unfortunately, bad moments: Marley finds herself arrested again, drunk and passed out in public, and another trainee, Dorian, has a dispute with Brandon over a humidifier that causes him to leave the program.

Both, however, eventually return.  We learn that every year, 650,000 prisoners are released, with the rhetorical question hanging as to what happens after they go out into 'The World'.


We see in Knife Skills that these men and women are not their pasts.  Instead, we see a valuable lesson reinforced: that by trusting people to do their job, even after they make mistakes in their professional and/or private lives, they may still rise to the occasion and prove a greater worth.

Image result for knife skills movieEdwin's program is not purely altruistic.  It is there to make a profit, and if you cannot cut it, you yourself are cut.  It does not coddle you in any way, as you have to know your information. 

What I think people should get from Knife Skills is that people who are trusted in turn will trust themselves.  The men and women are taking the opportunity given to them and the ones profiled take it.  They show themselves to be skilled and intelligent, learning this rather strange new world and going into it with some trepidation but coming out of it with confidence.

Of note is Alan, one of the men featured who waxes rhapsodic about how his mother loved all those cooking shows like Julia Child, and who showed her children the arts and art appreciation.  It is not her fault that Alan made a poor decision, but we see this good man working to improve himself and in a sense, make his mother proud.

We also see that Brandon himself is not without his own flaws and demons.  He can be prickly and even insecure, confessing at the end that when he puts on his suit and tie at Edwin's, he feels confident and secure, but outside he still is troubled.  His message to his newborn son at the end has him struggling with his emotions, and he breaks down in tears at one point, the emotions within overwhelming him.

Knife Skills is a fascinating look at not only what goes into making it in the hard-and-fast world of fine dining, but of the people involved who seek redemption and a second, even third chance.

DECISION: B+

Men Don't Whisper and Call Your Father: Short Film Reviews

This will be reviews for two short films, both directed by Jordan Firstman: Men Don't Whisper and Call Your Father.

The first is Men Don't Whisper, which is 22 minutes.
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Even among gay men, there appears to be an expectation of what a 'real man' is or isn't.  Men Don't Whisper, the short film, touches in a wry way these expectations about 'masculinity', leading to rather odd circumstances.

It's a sales conference seminar where Reese (cowriter Charles Rogers) and his business/life partner Peyton (Firstman) find themselves embarrassed by Dr. Jocelyn Verdoon (Cheri Oteri).  Dr. Verdoon encourages her mostly female audience to 'sell like men', and is shocked to find both Reese and Peyton hesitate when asked what they want.  Verdoon insists that men know instantly what they want and go and get it, so Reese and Peyton's hesitancy puzzles her.

Reese asks Peyton if he think Reese is 'masculine', and soon it becomes an informal competition between our males as to which of them is.  Reese insists his one heterosexual tryst in high school puts him as the more masculine, while Peyton turns to his more successful sales record.

There is only one way to settle this: they have to sleep with women.  Fortunately, there are two women who are hot to trot for our attractive duo: the clinically depressed and sunburned Beth (Bridey Elliott) and her more aggressive BFF Dominique (Clare McNulty).  Despite Reese and Peyton's more gentle manner and vacation pictures of hot Greek guys from their vacation in Mykonos, the women agree to have sex with the men.

Both men, however, are starting to question their decision to 'go straight'.  Reese finds himself with Dominique, while Peyton is paired with Beth, still struggling with the fact her soon-to-be-ex-husband killed someone in a hit-and-run.  The boys struggle to find sexual interest, more than once running into the bathroom together to encourage each other emotionally and physically.

Their efforts at heterosexuality flop big time for as hard as they try, they simply cannot.  It's Beth who states the obvious, then lectures the both of them for being misogynists.  "Just because you're gay doesn't mean you're not misogynists," she tells them, with both declaring they will report them to Human Resources.  Our boys, defeated, return to their hotel room, accidentally finding Dr. Verdoon in a compromising position with a man they had seen earlier powdering his face at the bar and dismissed as less masculine than either of them.

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Men Don't Whisper made me wonder whether Reese and Peyton really were misogynists, and the more I think on it, they probably are.  Even as they were not attracted sexually to Beth or Dominique, they were going to use them as both sex objects and as 'notches on their belt' in the same way heterosexual men would.  This hoped-for tryst was nothing more than a metaphorical penis-measuring contest between this gay couple, and Men Don't Whisper plays well with this curious concept.

Firstman gets good performances out of his cast, and any film that uses Oteri in such a wild way as the hyper and hyper-assertive seminar leader gets points.  We get a great contrast between the more sexually aggressive and somewhat clueless Dominique, who does not think anything is off when Reese tells her he loves her shoes, and the more dubious Beth, who questions why there are so many pictures of shirtless men on Peyton's phone.  We also get good visuals, in particular when our very confident 'heteros' stride back to the girls, ready for a romp they both know they have no desire for in any way.
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First and Rogers also give us nice subtle moments that reveal character, such as Peyton scrolling through his phone at liking various photos of attractive men while assuring his partner that he is indeed masculine.

Men Don't Whisper is a short that could be expanded more, especially if it gives Oteri another chance to really go wild and showcase her talent.  I was a bit lost as to who was whom between Reese and Peyton, as they don't use their names until later.  I had to see it twice to notice their name tags.  I also think the bit where they had to go back to the hostess' desk to be seated and served at the bar even though the bar was practically empty was a bit odd.

However, on the whole Men Don't Whisper was a nice, brief tale of two gay men trying to live up to some ideal of what 'a man' is, only to come out looking foolish.

DECISION: B-

The second review is for Call Your Father, running 20 minutes.

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Call Your Father is a smart comedy on the pitfalls of generational romance which has moments of oddball humor and moments of actual human emotion, a well-crafted dramedy.

Greg (Craig Chester) is a fifty-year-old gay man who is on a daylong date with Josh (Firstman), who is 24.  This date takes very curious turns, where the different worldviews between a Boomer and a Millennial keep crashing into each other.

Josh constantly tries to get Greg to drink, even after Greg tells him more than once that he is sober (so I'm assuming he is a recovering alcoholic).  Josh texts while Greg waits, then muses that all of Greg's friends must have died of AIDS while waxing rhapsodic on his own friend's suicide.  He gets Greg involved in a theft of a Rihanna mug, with a very embarrassed Greg unsure why Josh did that, or exactly who Rihanna is.  Greg is temporarily stranded in the city until Josh surprises him and invites him to his place.

There, Greg is still slightly puzzled by Josh, but the sexual attraction is too great and they have sex.  Greg asks Josh if he has a condom, and while Josh replies that he does not and implies he does not need one, Greg's lust overtakes his caution and they indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.  It's only after Josh appears to threaten suicide by hanging that Greg finally has had enough of this rather mercurial yet intensely attractive fellow and leaves.  However, in his car, while swearing he won't get involved with Josh, he still hesitates, the push-pull between a paternal and erotic love making him doubt.

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Call Your Father, whose title comes from something that the older Greg yells at Josh, seems to have a lot of fun mocking the younger generation.  As portrayed by Firstman, Josh is self-centered, prone to saying oddball things, and showing very little discernment.  He also appears needy and irrational.

However, Greg is no saint either.  He endures Josh's behavior primarily out of self-interest, and despite having seen first-hand the ravages of AIDS, which sadly many Millennials think is both a thing of the past and something that won't touch them, he lets his erotic desire for Josh trump the rational caution of using a condom.

Firstman should be congratulated on having some wonderful visual moments in Call Your Father, particularly the beautiful lighting when Greg and Josh consummate their relationship.  He also draws a wonderful performance from Chester as the much put-upon Greg, who seems sensible but who also cannot argue against Josh's rather torturous logic about how texting while on a date is 'acceptable' because Greg never told him to stop and thus, accepted the behavior.

Firstman also does a good job as Josh, making him mostly a comic character who makes even the most ghastly statements and actions almost endearing in his clueless nature.  His monologue about Greg's friends all dying because of AIDS is both cringe-inducing and amusing in its insensitivity.  Even when rationalizing strange moments, such as when he tells Greg, "I stole because you're boring," we see Josh as more thoughtless than deliberately mean.

I am not sure if Call Your Father is a bit of a spoof of a May-December relationship or an exploration of the differences between the generations when it comes to romance.  It is, however, a good short film, even if I wonder about a date that goes as long as this one.  Then again, I was not sure if this was a first date or not.

Nevertheless, Call Your Father and Men Don't Whisper show Jordan Firstman to be a young filmmaker on the make, with these proving strong calling cards.

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Letter To A Young Critic: Advice To Future Reviewers/Critics


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So you want to be a critic?

Well, there's your first mistake.

Do Not Be A Critic.

I am not a critic.  I am a reviewer.

To me, 'critic' has a negative connotation.  It suggests I look for things to dislike and that I go in with a hostile attitude.  Someone who writes about film should never go into a movie thinking it is going to be bad.  He or she should be optimistic and hold that a good time will be had by all.

Reviewer, to my mind, is a better term for someone who wants to discuss film and/or television programs. In my view, a reviewer will watch something and say what he/she thinks works and does not work in a film or television program because of X,Y, Z.

That 'X,Y, Z', by the way, should go beyond the words 'cool', 'awesome', and 'crap'.  You can use them in your reviews, but they cannot sum up your reviews.

If you want to use the word 'critic' to describe someone who watches films and then writes/talks about them, go ahead.  I can't put myself in a lofty position to sneer at the term 'critic' given I am a proud member of the Online Film Critics Society.

What I am driving at in using the term 'reviewer' over 'critic' is that you go in with an open mind, something that we should do in all aspects of life and not just when the theater lights dim.

I have been reviewing films for ten years next March. I have seen some astonishing films made before, during and after 2009, and some that still haunt my nightmares.  As someone who has been around for almost a decade, I think I can offer some words of wisdom to future generations of reviewers who want to spread the word about this most extraordinary of art forms. 
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1.) Study, Study, Study

If you think film history started with Star Wars, you should not be a reviewer.  If you think The Breakfast Club is a 'classic' not because it has stood the test of time or has something emotionally moving in it, has great performances and/or a deft script but because you think it's old, you should not be a reviewer.

A reviewer has to have an education in film.  Otherwise you are just a fanboy/girl with a lot of time to spare.  In an ideal world, you take college courses about film; at the University of Texas-El Paso where I graduated, I took such courses as Radio/TV/Film Scripting and Introduction to the Art of Motion Picture.  I was already someone who loved movies, but these courses and others deepened both my love of film and my understanding of it.

However, I understand that some people either cannot afford college or don't have those types of courses available.  If that's the case, then you do your own independent study.  Form your own film groups. Watch documentaries and read books on film. There are a few books that I think would be an inexpensive education on film.

My first recommondations are The Great Movies series of books by Roger Ebert, the dean of film criticism.  In these books, Ebert not only gives you a list of films he considers to be 'the best' but more importantly the 'why'.  Again, his 'whys' are better than just 'because I liked it', which is a terrible way to endorse a film outside of a film you know is bad but enjoy anyway.

I don't think you need to explore the nuances of the thread count of Kim Novak's grey suit in Vertigo or count the number of yellow bricks in The Wizard of Oz to explain why it is a great film.  However, a basic understanding of both film history and analysis is vital to be a good film reviewer.

Also, I would recommend listening in to Ebert's commentary tracks on films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, where he both informs you about them and also sees them as a fan himself.  Listening in on commentary tracks can be quite enlightening no matter who does the speaking.

Other books I would recommend are the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die and those by Leonard Maltin, who in my view makes a better film historian than film reviewer (his film review show, Hot Ticket, was not very good in my view). 

These books don't all have to be serious: I learned quite a bit from my one-sided nemesis Richard Roeper's Ten Sure Signs a Movie Character is Doomed and Other Surprising Movie Lists.  As a librarian, I am pleased to remind you that they can be found in public libraries.

Finally, as most people now have cable or satellite providers, one of the best places to learn about film is on Turner Classic Movies.  I was fortunate to have spent many hours listening to the late Robert Osborne introduce films from the 'Golden Age of Cinema', and just by watching these films you learn so much.  It is as informal and entertaining a film course as one can find.

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2.) Explore All Types of Films

I know what the reaction will be when I ask people if they'd like to see a three-and-a-half hour, black-and-white, Japanese-language film: shock, horror, terror.  The idea of all that, I am sure, will prove more disheartening than inspiring.  If you want to be a film reviewer, however, you cannot just run away to the safety of the newest Marvel film just because the concept of a three-and-a-half hour, black-and-white, Japanese-language film makes your eyes roll and you declare such a thing the height of boredom.

Far from it, says I.  That three-and-a-half hour, black-and-white, Japanese-language film is to my mind one of the greatest films ever made: Seven Samurai.  I grant that such a description of Seven Samurai, though technically accurate, makes the idea of it all daunting, but I have never heard anyone who has seen it come away with anything but amazement at its brilliance.

Too many young or novice reviewers reject what they don't like without bothering to actually explore the films they say they don't like.  When I have talked to people, their reasons for rejecting certain genres astonish me.

They won't watch musicals because 'it's unrealistic for people to just start singing and dancing'.  They won't watch silent films because 'they have no sound'.  They won't watch foreign-language films because 'they can't be reading and watching at the same time'.  They won't watch black-and-white films because 'there's no color'.

Above all else, they won't watch any of these because 'they are boring'.

They miss out on the joy of Singin' in the Rain, the emotional power of Sunrise, the intensity of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, or the passion of Casablanca.  Each of these films is brilliant, and I think a future film reviewer who will not go out of his/her comfort zone has no business telling others about movies.

I remember, back when there were such things as VHS and Blockbuster Video, that I, with some trepidation, rented Casablanca.  I knew of The Legend, but had always been a bit wary of it.  However, I decided it was time to take the bull by the horns and finally see what the big deal is all about.

I went into it with an open heart and open mind, and by the end, I too fell under its spell. I took a chance and was rewarded greatly.

If you want to be a film reviewer, not only do you have to learn about film pre-Star Wars, but also be willing to explore all those genres that you say you don't like.  You don't have to love those films after seeing them, though I have yet to find anyone who didn't love Singin' in the Rain after seeing it.  You do have to explore all types of films.  You have to experience them.  You also have to state what it was about them that you think failed to make them worthy of others seeing them.

You may be surprised to discover you end up loving what you thought you knew you hated.

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3.) Accept Films For What They Are

The worst thing a reviewer can be is closed-minded.

This touches on what I said previously about exploring different genres.  I find that some critics have an antipathy for films that they would not see for their own entertainment.  That perhaps is why many action films get negative reviews.  That may also be why so many people think film critics are snobs.

To be fair, some of them are, but there is such a thing as reverse snobbery.  I find that those who won't watch other types of films because they do not like that type of film, say a romantic comedy, can be just as snooty and elitist as those who won't watch anything that is based on a comic book.

Here is my advise: accept that not everything is meant to be either a Werner Herzog exploration into the dark recesses of the human soul or a fast-moving explosion-a-minute thrill ride.

I judge a movie based only on whether it accomplishes what it set out to do, not on whether it is my preference as a viewer.  I do not watch many horror films, but if I think one succeeds at what it aims at, like Insidious, I praise it.

I can look at something like a Fast & Furious film and give it a positive review.  I go to a Fast & Furious film to see hot cars, cool people and wild action. I don't go to a Fast & Furious film to delve into Dominic Torreto's existential crisis.

That is why I can say The Hangover is a brilliant film.  I don't mean to say it is on the same level as a Metropolis.  I mean to say that The Hangover had one goal: to make me laugh, and I did, very much, very hard. I don't think it should play on Turner Classic Movies, but I found it absolutely hilarious and make no apologies for giving it an A score.  I'd rather watch The Hangover than I would The Theory of Everything, which many found posh but which I found more pish-posh.

I'd sooner watch Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift than I would The Shape of Water.  I would never automatically dismiss or praise one over the other merely because I preferred one genre over the other.  I gave both a chance and found I thought one accomplished its mission, one did not.

To you, future reviewers, make your cases, but know that sometimes a movie can be deep or it can be frothy, and there is nothing wrong with either so long as it worked and you ended up enjoying it.

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4.) Be Open About Your Worldviews

When you write your movie reviews, there is no reason for any pretense about who you are and how you see the world, for that will affect how you receive a particular film. You should work to be as objective as you can, but you have a particular worldview that informs how you see things, including films. As such, you should at the very least state openly that you come at your reviews from a particular angle.

Take someone I admire and respect for example: Christian Toto.  He is open about his political conservatism and that informs his take on films.  Toto does not bill his site as 'The Right Take On Entertainment' for nothing.  I have long admired his writings on film and culture, even if I don't always share or agree with them.  However, he does not hide the fact that his worldview shapes how he sees things.

There has been a growth in reviews from particular perspectives: women, minorities, LGBT, religious, political.  I welcome all these and encourage them.  I do not think of myself as a 'Hispanic' film reviewer, but my ethnicity does make me more attune to when I see negative Hispanic images or a Hispanic story.  Being Hispanic does influence how I see certain things even if, for me, it is not the dominant force, and if I think my ethnicity shapes my impressions on a film I state it openly.

I am also a Christian, though a deeply flawed one.  As such, I think I can bring a different perspective to a Christian-themed film than someone who is hostile to faith in general, Christianity in particular.  That does not mean I will give a Christian film a pass just because I agree with it, for I am an 'art before theology' reviewer.  I have been highly critical of the Kendrick Brothers, Christian filmmakers, when I think they have done a ghastly job.

However, I think many reviewers will give a negative review to a Christian film because it is a Christian film, especially if they have issues or hostility towards Christians.  If you oppose Christianity and will not watch a Christian film with an open mind, then it is better to not see the film at all. If you have an issue with Christians or Christianity, or with any particular sociopolitical bent a film takes, you should be upfront about it when giving your review.  Pretending you are without prejudice when you are taints your reviews.

That is why I can watch a Mormon-themed film like Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration or Meet the Mormons and consider them well-made propaganda films.  Conversely, I can look at Mormon-themed films like The Best Two Years, The Saratov Approach or The R.M. and think well of them, even if I have to have things explained to me.  I am not Mormon, so I have no vested interest in exaggeratedly praising or panning these films.  I look at them objectively, asking not just whether they worked in terms of acting, story and visuals but also did they accomplish what they set out to do.

I am distressed to see some giving A Wrinkle in Time a pass merely because of who made it and who stars in it. If you are going to review a film, review it honestly.  If you review something outside the film itself and think it relevant to the film itself, include that in your review and be open about it.

At the very least, inform your readers of any biases pro or con when you discuss a film, otherwise you are doing them and yourself a disservice.

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5.) Be Passionate And Dispassionate

It is not that hard to be both passionate and dispassionate when it comes to film reviewing/criticism.

Be Passionate when it comes to film.  You must have a love for film, but one that is for film of all types and genres, not just the ones you like the most.  You must have a genuine respect for how films are made and put together, admiring and respecting the work of screenwriters, cinematographers, set designers, costumers and editors and not just the performers.

You have to see what someone making a short film is trying to do in that brief time, what a documentary is trying to communicate.  You have to be thrilled with movies beyond your own personal interests.

Be Dispassionate, however, when it comes to those making the film, especially those in front of the camera.  If one wishes to be a good reviewer/critic, you have to look at something objectively, not as a fan.  It would be false for me to say that one's own fandom does not creep into reviews from time to time.  However, if that is the case, I would recommend you see the film twice: first time as a fan, second time as a true analytical critic, not a fanboy/girl.

You can champion films, filmmakers and performers, but state that openly and let people know that informs, in part, your review.  Pretending objectivity when there is none is unfair in my view.

Above all else, never mistake familiarity with professionalism.  I am at a loss to understand 'reviewers' who become giddy when meeting actors.  They are not your friends.  I find there is a difference between doing a meet-and-greet with actors and covering them professionally, and this difference must be maintained.  If you go and meet someone as a fan, be open and honest about it, but work hard to not let it color your view on that person's latest project.

For example, I met Nichelle Nichols and paid to have a picture with her.  I went there as a fan at a fan event.  I would never ask for a selfie or autograph of Ms. Nichols if I were interviewing her.

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I find critics/reviewers who are too chummy with their subjects to be quite dubious.  I do not trust them because they cannot divorce themselves from being fans and are not, in my view, objective analysts.  This is probably why I am suspicious of The Nerdist as a review site.  The nexus between Chris Hardwick and his employees with the production companies they ostensibly cover is so tight that The Nerdist is probably more a promotional arm than an independent review site.

You won't hear a peep of criticism from The Nerdist about for example Doctor Who, to where they tow the party line no matter what. It's one thing to think a Female Doctor is a good thing, and that is a subject worthy of debate.  To say, as Hardwick did, that if you don't agree to the change that you are both not a 'real' Doctor Who fan and/or an a**hole, or to agree with the Doctor Who production team that 'there was no backlash' when there clearly was one makes The Nerdist part of the machine.  I've talked about what I consider to be an insidious connection between The Nerdist and Doctor Who among other film/television productions, and still think it is a bad sign.

Just as I find shilling for productions unprofessional, I think the same of asking for selfies and autographs when a reviewer/critic is on a press junket or when they are there for professional duties. You are there as a dispassionate observer, not a fan.  At the most, I would ask for one picture of myself with the interviewee, and that is only to confirm there was an interview.  I would not wrap myself around them, hug them, gush over or at them.

Such things are silly and make you look foolish and unprofessional. You can do that on your own time, when you are there to enjoy them, not study their work.

You must maintain a professional separation.  Otherwise, you are not a reviewer.  You are a tool.

Here, I have given much advise to those who want to be film reviewers/critics.

Let me summarize all this, with the hope that you draw whatever wisdom you can from it.

Be Knowledgeable.
Be Adventurous.
Be Open.
Be Honest.
Be Objective.
Be Sincere.
Be Yourself.

Do that, and you will make a most excellent film/television reviewer/critic.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Librarians: The Conclusions


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It's sad to know that a good show was done in.

The Librarians has been cancelled.

Based off The Librarian TV films, The Librarians was about three disparate people, along with their Guardian, to collect and protect magical artifacts.  There was Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), a mathematical mastermind, Jacob Stone (Christian Kane), an art and history expert who 'masqueraded' as a oil roughneck, and Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), a master thief.  Their Guardian was Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn), a former NATO colonel who knew her way around a fight.

The current Librarian, Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) was ostensibly in charge but the Library, finding itself under major threat, removed itself from its original location.  Fortunately, the Library has an Annex, under the watch of Jenkins (John Larroquette), the cantankerous and fussy Caretaker.

Under the general supervision of Colonel Baird, these Librarians would be sent on various missions by The Clippings Book, where the clues would lead them to some magical artifact or entity which was either under threat or being misused, sometimes malevolently, sometimes not.  Over its four seasons, the Librarians fought against a figure revealed to be Lancelot, Shakespeare's Propero and his henchman Professor Moriarty, the Egyptian deity Apep, and a rogue Guardian, Nicole Noone.

What made The Librarians special in my view was that it was remarkably family-friendly fare.  There was danger, action/adventure, endless romantic bantering between Eve and Flynn, and a big helping of humor.  The Librarians was always a bit tongue-in-cheek, never taking itself seriously and more important, being remarkably clean.

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There was the off moment when something might be a bit visually intense or a foul word slipped through, but for the most part The Librarians was unapologetically frothy stuff.  Each week we would get these characters into some supernatural situation where they would have to use their various skills to resolve the situation.

The Librarians, both characters or plots, were never vicious or unfeeling.  Instead, if you look at the series, The Librarians was a very positive show.

It valued intelligence over brute force, using violence only when absolutely necessary in self-defense or defense of others.  You had people who genuinely loved knowledge but who also felt that society would not accept them for that.  Both Jacob and Cassandra in essence hid from the world, while Ezekiel misused his intelligence.  As was so ably put by a henchwoman, 'one doomed by her gift (Cassandra with her brain tumor), one who fled his gift (Jacob, who uses pseudonyms when writing well-researched papers on art and architecture), one who abuses it (Ezekiel, who would rather steal than help others with his gifts).

The Librarians created heroes and heroines who saw knowledge as tools for good and to defeat evil with, a rejection of violence and abuse.  They lived out the maxim, 'Knowledge is Power'.

It showed the importance of teamwork, where each character used his or her particular skill to help resolve the situation. They all brought something to the table, and united for a common purpose: to make the world a safer and better place, all without seeking credit. There were conflicts within the group, as one person would be either puzzled or frustrated by another, but I think that is remarkably realistic.  It would have been more unbelievable if everyone agreed all the time.

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In other ways, I think you could find that The Librarians was a 'family' show.  In essence, you had a family structure among the characters.  Flynn and Eve were the parents: the scatterbrained-but-caring dad, the strong, protective mother.  The Librarians reflected different personalities to their 'children': the tough but softhearted oldest brother, the perky upbeat kid sister, and the troublemaking but at heart loving baby brother.  Jenkins was our somewhat cranky Grandpa who grows to love his charges.

It was this sense of family, of the importance of each member that was one of The Librarians' strongest points.  No character ever felt truly superfluous.

Essentially, The Librarians was a sweet show that was full of whimsy, humor and adventure where people could identify with one or more of the characters and which found its strength in teamwork and knowledge.  It had a frothy, fun sense to it, and was pretty self-aware.

For my part, my favorite season was Season Two thanks to the figure I think was the best guest/recurring character: David S. Lee's Professor Moriarty.  How I wish he had been able to return, for his Moriarty was simultaneously funny and menacing, charming and amusing.  It will also mean that we won't get a return to the Gadget Gang, the motley group of cosplayers that was in essence a lighthearted spoofing of The Librarians fans.

Like all elements of The Librarians, this was a gentle ribbing of the fanbase than anything mean-spirited.

I can see why The Librarians was cancelled.  TNT wants to be more adult-oriented, and something as overtly cheerful, inoffensive and family-friendly as The Librarians wasn't going to be in line with those plans. Noah Wyle has a new job as well, so trying to balance out producing The Librarians along with guest spots and occasional writing and directing for it would be extremely hard. 

There is also the issue of a slight decline in quality.  The last two seasons two had some hiccups, particularly this season where there were some episodes that I flat-out did not like.

Still, it feels such a shame given how well the show created its own mythos.

I'll miss The Librarians, but I know that every time I see a beautiful building, I'll remember these wise words, "Architecture is just art we live in".

The tagline was true: Heroes Like These Are Overdue.
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Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (2018): A Review



A WRINKLE IN TIME

I am finding that, when reviewing films, more and more I get hung up on details.  For example, in Get Out, I became fixated on why there were candles inside an operating room.  In Tomb Raider, I became fixated on how a secret room hidden in a crypt for seven years could be so clean.  Now, with A Wrinkle in Time, I cannot get over the fact that Calvin does not have red hair.  I would say it's more sandy-brown than red, as I was expecting a fiery, bright, Conan O'Brien-type red hair.

Maybe I'm the only one who cares more about the color of Calvin's hair than I do about the color of Meg's skin, but having read A Wrinkle in Time, it was a detail that stuck with me.  A Wrinkle in Time tries, tries hard to be sweeping and magical, but it fails probably because it tries too hard.

Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is an angry middle school student, sullen and withdrawn ever since her beloved father Alex (Chris Pine) disappeared four years ago.  She loves her mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and especially her adopted brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), but she still feels the loss of Dr. Murry intensely.

On a dark and storm night, Charles Wallace astonishes his family by being in the company of a flighty figure calling herself Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon).  She insists Meg 'isn't ready', but Charles Wallace insists there's more to his sister than first meets the eye.  Later, on a walk Meg and her brother bump into Calvin (Levi Miller), who is clearly besotted with our Meg.  Charles Wallace then rushes into a house where we meet his other friend, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks only by using quotes from such legendary figures like Shakespeare and Outkast.

What, you don't think one without the other?

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What do you mean, 'Oprah has a large ego'?

Finally, in the Murry backyard, we encounter the greatest of the Mrs., Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), a massive figure towering over all.  They have tasked our three to find Dr. Murry, who has managed to travel through space and time through 'tesseracting', the ability to fold time where one can travel from one point in the universe to the other in an instant.

Here, our three children are swept in an intergalactic hopscotch, swiftly going from planet to planet to find Dr. Murry.  They also have to face against The IT, Bringer of Darkness that reaches to all corners of the universe, even Earth, where The IT unleashes all malice, hurt, and negativity on the planet.  They meet The Happy Medium (Zack Galifianakis), who helps them all tap into where Dr. Murry is at.  Finding that Dr. Murry is trapped by The IT on Camazotz, a planet of pure darkness where the Three Mrs. cannot go, at first the entities want to return to Earth and regroup.  Meg's power, however, takes them to Camazotz.

The Three Mrs. have no power there, but give the three of them gifts to fight The IT.  However, they must undergo a few troubling moments and be separated from time to time.  Once reunited, they encounter The Man With the Red Eyes (Michael Peña), a minion of The IT, who takes over Charles Wallace.   Charles Wallace in turn torments Meg and Calvin, but Meg manages to reunite and rescue her father.

It becomes a battle for Charles Wallace's soul as Meg fights The IT, and in the end, all's well that ends well.

Shakespeare, British.

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It's a sad thing when something that could have worked does not, and A Wrinkle in Time has many qualities that were undone by either a bad choice or altering Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel.

Let's look at the qualities first.  A Wrinkle in Time is blessed by some wonderful children actors, a trio that I think has done wonders and should have good careers ahead of them.

Reid does excellently as Meg.  She is an ideal actress to play the character, as Meg is supposed to be an ordinary girl, gifted with no special powers save her intelligence and courage.  Pity she didn't have the braces as she did in the book, but that's not a detail I got hung on.

Reid does an especially wonderful and moving job when working with an underused Pine, their reunion extremely moving and well-performed.

Miller, despite a lack of red hair, shows that his performance in Pan was no fluke. He proves quite gentle and sweetly smitten with our Meg, and while perhaps director Ava DeVernay might have directed him to be too soft-spoken it still was a good performance.

The real star was McCabe as young Charles Wallace.  He stole the show as our genius tyke, fully aware of things and taking everything in stride.  He even manages to be quite menacing when tormenting Meg under the control of The IT.

It's a pity then that the adults are the ones who fare badly.  Pine and more shamefully Mbatha-Raw were wildly underused, and in some cases directed badly (Mbatha-Raw's reaction to seeing this strange woman flittering around her living room makes it look as if she isn't too shocked to see such things).  Also underused was Peña as The Man With Red Eyes, or Red for short.


Image result for a wrinkle in time movieWitherspoon and Kaling were fine but nothing to show they were really these ethereal beings or wise figures.  As for Winfrey, it's almost comical to see her shown as this almost literal gigantic Goddess, though it probably reveals how to many, perhaps to Winfrey herself, Winfrey literally is a gigantic Goddess.

The flaws in A Wrinkle in Time unfortunately undo all the good, mostly due to Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell's adaptation.  Yes, many things had to be cut or altered to fit into its running time, but it tries too hard to be 'magical' when it ends up empty. Sometimes, the film, intentionally or not, echoes other films.  When the Three Mrs. were giving gifts, it looked as if they were cribbing from both Sleeping Beauty and Clash of the Titans.

The film's efforts to force magic kept flopping. Take Mrs. Who for example (as a side note, should I now start calling the 13th Doctor on Doctor Who 'Mrs. Who'?).  She speaks only with quotes from others, and to be otherworldly about it, but the film wants to somehow suggest that her quoting Chris Tucker is somehow on the same level as quoting Winston Churchill or The Buddha.

One figure not quoted is Jesus Christ, despite the original novel's heavy quotations from the Old and New Testament.  Mrs. Who at one point quotes a variation of 1 Corinthians 1:27 (He uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise), but I suppose in their efforts to not offend, Chris Tucker was found a suitable substitute to Christ.

A bigger flaw is that A Wrinkle in Time is made to be less about a cohesive journey and more planet-hopping, going from place to place with little to connect them. On Camazotz we go from a creepy cul-de-sac to a crowded beach to where one wonders the why and how of it all.  The cul-de-sac sequence was so obviously creepy you think Calvin has to be a total idiot to come close to being taken in by it, food or no food.  Worse, once Meg turns down the invitation for them, it's all forgotten. 

Charles Wallace's mind control just happened, and after a fierce storm overwhelmed Calvin and Meg, we see Charles Wallace dry and unhurt.  How he got over the massive mountain or survived the storm to arrive perfectly fine near them happened because...reasons.

The second flaw is DeVarnay's efforts to be so 'magical' that at times it comes across as unintentionally comical.  Take when they are in the first planet, Uriel. I know it's a Disney movie, but did the gossiping flowers really have to bring back memories of Alice in Wonderland?  Even worse, when Mrs. Whatsit 'changed clothes', her spinning around first made me think she was going to turn into Wonder Woman, then the end result made her look like a cross between the Sprite from Fantasia 2000 and a flying piece of lettuce.

Image result for a wrinkle in time movie
When the kids are riding around on The Flying Lettuce known as Mrs. Whatsit, I was waiting for them to burst out into You Can Fly!

Again and again, DuVernay wants us to think this is all wonderful and magical, and more often than not it fails.  When we meet Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who, the camerawork tries to make it all so amazing, but it falls flat despite the music.  When we meet Mrs. Which, that is a little more magical because it looks slightly ethereal.

It isn't that DuVernay is not a good director.  She's an extremely competent one who can create powerful and moving moments as she did in her shamefully overlooked Selma.  She got good performances out of young actors and had some genuinely powerful scenes like the father and child reunion. She also integrated songs into the film quite well, including a track, Flower of the Universe, by the legendary Sade.

At least A Wrinkle in Time has a strong shot at Original Song nominations.

I think, however, that maybe her focus was more on creating 'empowering' characters who would 'be warriors' than she was in making a more cohesive film.  Some of the visual effects were ghastly: a particularly bad moment is when we see Meg admiring the gossiping flowers where the green-screen was so obvious it was almost painful to watch.  Other times, you end up puzzled, such as when Charles Wallace refers to The IT as 'The Happy Sadist', or at least that's what I heard.

Finally, I'll touch very briefly on any controversy about the casting.  I've long-held that if a role does not specifically call for a particular race, ethnicity or gender, then by all means that role should be opened up.  I applaud A Wrinkle in Time for having a minority lead and minority actors in other roles, and if people want to take pleasure out of that and see that as a great moment in history, more power to them. 

Perhaps they went a bit overboard in the virtue-signaling: the "Women in Literature" displays, especially of Maya Angelou, and being at "James Baldwin Middle School" all being prominently displayed might have been a bit overdone.  However, Storm Reid proved an excellent casting choice and far better than her material.

As I said, I'm more upset that Calvin O'Keefe's hair wasn't red than whether Meg Murry's hair was frizzy or straight.

A Wrinkle in Time is not the adaptation the book deserves, though given the novel any adaptation would have been cumbersome.  There were great qualities in it, particularly Reid, Miller and McCabe.  I will say that no film should get a pass because of who makes it or who is in it.  A good film is a good film, a bad film is a bad film.

A Wrinkle in Time is not a terrible film, but it could have and should have been so much better. 

DECISION: C-