Sunday, April 22, 2018

7 Days in Entebbe: A Review (Review #1047)


The 1976 hijacking of Air France 139 and subsequent rescue of the passengers, mostly Israeli, by an elite squad of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) should make for an intense, gripping film.  7 Days in Entebbe is not it, though it gave it a good go.  Perhaps because the film was too wrapped up in doing all sorts of things: less-than-hostile terrorists, symbolic interpretive dance numbers, political maneuvering, more symbolic interpretive dance numbers, to keep a focus on things.

I do mean there is a lot of dancing in 7 Days in Entebbe to where one almost expected Pina Bausch to pop up on film or in the credits.

Motivated by a sense of justice for the Palestinian people, German "freedom fighters" Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike) and Wilifred Bose (Daniel Bruhl) take the Air France jet, aided by two Arabs after boarding in Athens when the Tel Aviv-to-Paris flight makes a fueling stop.  Air France 139 makes another fueling flight in Benghazi, Libya and then arrives at its new destination, Entebbe, Uganda, where eccentric Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada (Nonso Anozie) greets his new guests.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his Defense Minister, Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) are not in agreement over what to do.  Rabin senses that perhaps they should negotiate, but Peres is adamant that they should maintain longstanding Israeli policy not to negotiate.

Back in Entebbe, Bose is having qualms about the mission, especially when the Arabs separate the Jews from the Gentiles.  Both he and Kuhlmann are extremely worried about the optics of Germans working to exterminate Jews, the Holocaust a mere thirty years past.  Bose is having a harder time, especially after he finds one of the passengers is a Holocaust survivor.  They let some of the hostages go, but they still hold on to some.  Amin, for his part, wants to help the terrorists, but he also chides himself for not having listened to his mother in a dream he had, Mother Amin having told her son not to help them.

Eventually, Peres gets what he wants: a daring raid on Entebbe Airport to rescue the passengers.  This elite group has soldiers, among them one involved with a dancer.  As the final raid on Entebbe takes place, the dancer performs with her troupe, the Batshiva Dance Company, which is performing a spirited and intense number to the Jewish hymn Echad Mi Yodea.  The rescue takes place, Bose and Kuhlmann are killed as is one Israeli soldier, Yonatan Netenyahu (Angel Bonanni).

We learn what happens to some of the participants post-raid and that as of March 2018, the Israelis and Palestinians are not negotiating.

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It isn't the fact that director Jose Padilha was perhaps biting off more than he could chew by intercutting Echad Mi Yodea with the final raid to try and force the symbolism that weakens 7 Days in Entebbe.  It was not even the notion in Gregory Burke's screenplay that he was attempting to make the German hijackers sympathetic that weakens 7 Days in Entebbe.

It is the fact that Padilha and Burke failed to capitalize on a story that should be gripping by wandering off into things with nary an explanation or reason.  This story keeps getting botched no matter how many times it is told: two made-for-television films and an Israeli film, Operation Thunderbolt, are little remembered whatever their merits.  7 Days in Entebbe has the advantage of distance (the other Entebbe-related projects made within a year of the events to capitalize on their 'ripped-from-the-headlines' notoriety).

A major flaw in the film is how we are introduced to characters with absolutely no idea who they are.  Case in point: the IDF members.  I genuinely cannot remember the name of the dancer's boyfriend and I'm not sure a name was used.  Knowing that the brother of future Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu was the only IDF member killed in the rescue, I thought he was the young man.  No, Yonatan is his commander, who snaps at our youthful soldier and dies again without his name being mentioned, at least in my memory.

Image result for 7 days in entebbeBless the film for thinking I would know who Rabin and Peres were, but I kept struggling to remember which 'Yitzhak' was which (I momentary thought it could have been Yitzhak Shamir, don't ask how I know about Israeli Prime Ministers).  We meet a nun who asks the gregarious, slightly bonkers Amin to stay so that someone else can take her place, an offer that is kindly declined, but we never learn her name or what inspired this (was it a sudden decision? one that she contemplated?).

Same goes for a passenger the terrorists think is an Israeli spy despite his French citizenship, or the Holocaust survivor who is allowed to go to hospital, or the Israeli family with children who might be forced to separate in a horrifying repeating of how those sent to concentration camps were separated.

Again and again 7 Days in Entebbe could not focus on which of the many potential stories it could tell: the planning of the rescue, the plight of the passengers, the conflicted Germans.  It tried to tell all of them and ended up confusing things, especially since Echad Mi Yodea keeps getting in there.

The greatest focus is on Bruhl as Bose, and bless him for giving a good performance with a weak script.  Pike too did her best, even if we never sure if she was meant to be slightly cuckoo: a scene where she is on a payphone giving her informal testament is interrupted when she is told those payphones weren't operational.  Nonso Anozie had limited screentime as the more cuckoo Idi Amin, but in his too-brief scenes he shows the General's more eccentric and grandiose manners.

I am giving 7 Days in Entebbe a slight, very slight pass only because of how I saw the audience reaction: I heard tears, and because this is a story that needs to be remembered.  It is still not the definitive version of the events, but it will do for now.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: A Review

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Truth, I'm told, is sometimes stranger than fiction.  Just like few could have imagined the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh was a horror story, few could also have imagined the creation of Wonder Woman was an origin story filled with S&M and pretensions of intellectualism.  Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is at times quite beautiful, but it is also at times almost demented and choppy with 'characters' who come across as bordering on bonkers.

Using the framing device of an interrogation in 1945 by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), director of the Child Study Association of America, Professor William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) is being questioned about how his superhero Wonder Woman came to be, along with the suggestions of bondage and lesbianism can be interpreted.  Marston defends his creation and openly states that he sees Wonder Woman as a vehicle for propaganda, refusing to make apologies or excuses for the not-quite-subtle or overt sexual nature of the comics.

Marston started out in the film as a well-respected professor of psychology at Harvard's sister college Radcliffe while his equally if not superior wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) is continuously denied a Ph.D. from Harvard because she is a woman.  Into their lives comes Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate), who is extremely attractive. Our randy Professor Marston is instantly attracted to the pretty and engaged coed, and Mrs. Marston knows that.

Fortunately, their superior intelligence allows them some leeway into matters of the heart and groins, so Olive can serve as their lab assistant as they work to perfect a lie detector test.  It isn't long before libidos start going off all over the place, as Will gets a hard-on for Olive, while Olive gets her jollies from Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, for her part, is unsure about any attraction to her husband's new obsession, but eventually they all start falling into bed with each other.

Somehow, all this canoodling is met with a dim view at Radcliffe, and the threesome find themselves out in the cold, with Olive now knocked up, presumably by William, who also has children with his wife along with their shared mistress.  Things look dim, until William meets up with Charles Guyette (J.J. Feild), a suave Frenchman who has a sideline showcasing a little sadomasochism.  Our good professor is intrigued by the possibilities, and like the strong independent women they are, both Olive and Elizabeth quickly fall in line with all this kink.

Image result for professor marston and the wonder womenEventually, Marston comes up with 'Suprema the Wonder Woman' and pitches the idea to various comics, where it is picked up after simplifying things to just 'Wonder Woman'.  Unfortunately, a good neighbor accidentally walks in during a little menage a trois, causing a mini-scandal.  Olive is exiled for the sake of propriety, but after William discovers he is dying of cancer he engineers a reconciliation.

After his death, the two women live together for the next 38 years, and their shared creation becomes an icon.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women may stick close to the reality of this unorthodox group, but it does one type of disservice to the Marstons and Olive Byrne.  It makes them all extremely unpleasant people: smug, generally unlikable and almost arrogant in their sense of moral and intellectual superiority.  Professor William Marston comes off the worst, especially when we go to the 'present' or near-present of his smoke-filled interrogation, which appears to be taking place in an abandoned building.

Every time he spouts off about how his creation is meant to inspire young boys to submit to strong women, how Wonder Woman is a vehicle to promote his own theories, how unapologetic he is by the overt shout-out to bondage in a medium targeted primarily at children, he comes across less as a pioneering 'woke' male feminist and more as a pompous ass/ass-freak.  The film, rather than making him the hero it wants us to see him as, turns him into someone who sees himself above 'morality'.

In an odd sense, William Moulton Marston seems a prototype of all people, Ayn Rand, who had similar ideas about sex: she having a long-term affair with a young man with the 'consent' of her husband.  Only difference is that Frank O'Connor, Miss Rand's long-suffering husband, didn't share in the hijinks.

Also odd is how the film made the women, in their own way, subservient to Marston.  Granted, this is I figure how they wanted it and lived their lives, but for every time Elizabeth raised any objections whether to his dalliances or how irrational it looked to outsiders, eventually she gave in.  "When are going to stop justifying the whims of your cock with science?" Elizabeth shouts at William when he has Olive literally tied up.  That is as far as she ever got to telling her kinky husband off, but soon enough Elizabeth found the joys of rope.

Again, I figure this is how the three of them lived their lives, but it is hard to accept that Elizabeth and Olive were the inspirations for our noble Amazon warrior princess when they seem to in real life submit to the sexual desires of the man who does them both.

It may be truth, but it does weaken them and make the case that far from being strong, they submitted to the whims of Marston's cock.

Image result for professor marston and the wonder womenAt times, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women was a little too on-the-nose visually.  When they finally gave in to their carnal passions it was not exactly a full menage a trois in that the three of them weren't going at it simultaneously, but as Olive and Elizabeth took turns on William and he would watch them in turn, writer/director Angela Robinson made it look sublime. When we see Olive clad in her Amazonian garb, the shout-out to the future Diana Prince again is a little too obvious.

I cannot find fault with the performances, if we are meant to think through Luke Evans that Marston was a slightly pompous sex freak or that Heathcote's Olive was a surprisingly weak woman.  Hall as Elizabeth, however, was slightly different.  She was allowed some range as the occasional voice of reason who did have a sense that their life together was not conventional versus Marston and Olive who appeared to think there was nothing even remotely strange in their collective goings-on.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is at times quite luscious, which I figure applies to Evans, Hall and Heathcote as well.  Perhaps a little more time on the actual creation of Wonder Woman and a little less on the sex-romps of this curious trio might have helped the film.  Despite everyone's best efforts, you leave the film thinking this group is shockingly self-absorbed in their sense of superiority sexually, mentally and morally and frankly a little nutty.

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William M. Marston: 1893-1947
Elizabeth Marston: 1893-1993
Olive Byrne: 1904-1990


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Suburbicon: A Review


Does anyone know what anyone behind Suburbicon was thinking?  Few films have been such a misfire, such a disaster and a major reason for Suburbicon being such a horror is that George Clooney, directing and cowriting with his longtime producing partner Grant Heslov with Joel and Ethan Coen, simply have no idea what kind of story they want to tell.

At least it looks that way given how many conflicting stories are jammed into this, then add that the tones are also wildly contradictory and you have a film that save for one brief shining moment collapses onto itself.

Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is your average upper-middle-class white patriarch in the community of Suburbicon, living with his paralyzed wife Rose and her twin sister Margaret (Julianne Moore) and Gardner and Rose's son Nicky (Noah Jupe).  One fateful night, robbers break into the Lodge home, tie up everyone and 'accidentally' kill Rose with an overdose of chloroform.

Despite being a mild-mannered individual, Gardner does not appear to be too broken up about his wife's death.  Even more surprising is Margaret's reaction: she dyes her hair to match Rose's and at one point Nicky, highly traumatized by the events, is stunned to find Gardner spanking Margaret with a ping-pong paddle in the basement with his own pants down.  Margaret, for her part, has turned into a bit of a bitch with Nicky, curtly dismissing his desire to leave Suburbicon.

Making all this all the more outlandish is when Gardner and Margaret are called in to identify the robbers in a lineup.  Gardner is upset that the police called his son into this, but Nicky manages to sneak in and is absolutely flabbergasted when both of them say the robbers are not there when they clearly are.

There's a reason for all this: the 'robbery' was all part of a plot by Gardner and Margaret to kill two birds with one stone: kill off Rose and get the insurance money so they could be together in Aruba.  The pesky question of Nicky is handled by planning to ship him off to military school.  Nicky, more alarmed than ever by the goings-on, calls his Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) for help. 

The 'robbers' come back: they are loan sharks coming for Gardner for the money he owes, which has not come in because the insurance company is dubious.  They send an investigator, Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac) to investigate.  He is open about his suspicions of foul play, sending Margaret into hysterics.  Bud comes back, asking for all the insurance money to keep him silent.  While he also brags about knowing the dangers he is in, that does not stop him from getting poisoned by Margaret, then whacked by Gardner.

The loan sharks decide they've waited enough and force the situation: one of them will kill Margaret and Nicky while the other will put the squeeze on Gardner, whom the police are starting to look on with suspicion.  Margaret poisons a sandwich and milk to kill Nicky, the boy who knows too much, but Nicky hides in his room, terrified.  She soon gives up and is killed by one of the loan sharks.  He comes up to try and kill a terrified Nicky, but Uncle Mitch manages to come, saving him but sacrificing himself in the process.  The other loan shark follows Gardner, who is dumping Bud's body, and is killed himself when he fails to see a speeding emergency truck collide into him.

Gardner comes to find so many dead bodies and a traumatized Nicky.  Calmly eating the prepared sandwich and milk (which I figure would have already gone sour after all those hours, but whatever), he tells his son he can either go along with his plan or have his father kill him.  Fortunately, the next morning Nicky walks out of the house, his father being the one who ends up dead with poisoning.

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If you notice in that summary, not once did I mention anything about the Meyers Family, the first African-American family in Suburbicon, whose presence eventually causes a riot while all this wild white privilege nonsense is going on in the house behind theirs.  Here is a primary reason why Suburbicon is such a disaster.  Somehow, Clooney decided to have two stories in the same film that never relate to each other.

A film could have been made of the Meyers facing overt bigotry in this all-white community.  A film could have been made about the duplicity of Gardner and Margaret.  You could even make a whole feature about Isaac's character, which would have proved far more interesting.   Suburbicon, it appears, decided to throw everything at it to see what stuck, and what stuck was nothing.

Clooney and Heslov rammed some kind of movie into what appears to be an early draft for a Coen Brothers dark comedy, and while the fact that I'm not a Coen Brothers fan of their own quirky worldview does not help, the two separate stories are so mismatched that there is not much if any case to have one intrude on the other.

At this point, I do wonder why Suburbicon thought people would enjoy seeing a comedy where a child is deeply traumatized, nearly killed and told by his own father that he would murder him.  It is rather ghastly that such a concept would be thought of as a delightful farce.

Image result for suburbiconThis is especially so given that Clooney seems hellbent on giving Suburbicon a faux-1950s veneer, with Alexandre Desplat's score giving off all the wrong clues about what it is meant to be. The opening music and 'commercial' for Suburbicon the community makes it come across as an almost too-cutesy comedy, while at other times it makes what should be dramatic moments appear as farce (the music at Margaret's killing seems oddly comical).

You can cut them some slack given it is meant as a 'dark comedy' but why then try to have drama over the Meyers, who barely register as characters, in something that is meant to be more wittily ironic?

Moore plays the faux-Stepford Wife-type Margaret as perpetually simpering when I would have advised a touch of the femme fatale, and Damon never makes the case for whether he is a nebbish stuck in a lousy set of decisions or a criminal mastermind because he plays both the same way. Jupe, at his young age, manages to out-act them, his large eyes and frightened manner making Nicky a survivor in this nightmare.

Isaac is the bright spot apart from Jupe as the shady insurance agent, full of snark and smarts.  However, the screenplay again undercuts him: how he could not see the obvious attempt to kill him despite his claims of being able to spot such things is bizarre.  It also makes one wonder why, if he has indeed done this before, no one else has tried to do him in.  Furthermore, why didn't Gardner and Margaret say that the thugs were in the lineup?  It would have gotten rid of them, unless they feared they would squeal, which they could deny, but I think plot is something Suburbicon did not care for.

The comedy does not work.  The drama does not work.  Nothing works in Suburbicon.


Monday, April 16, 2018

The Olympic Games in Paris 1924: A Review

Image result for paris 1924 olympics criterionTHE OLYMPIC GAMES IN PARIS 1924

There were no Olympics in 1916 due to World War I.  It appears that there is no film of the 1920 Antwerp Summer Olympics, as we skip over them entirely to go to the 1924 Paris Summer Olympic Games.  The Olympic Games in Paris 1924 themselves were still a bit of a jumble, but strides were taking place to make it the Olympic Games we all know, if not love. The film of those Games is notable for among other things being the culminating event of the film Chariots of Fire, but while other events are interesting, The Olympic Games in Paris 1924 is shockingly short on information for a film that runs nearly three hours.

The chronicle of the VIII Olympiad covers a wide variety of events, with swimming, racing and athletic events receiving dominant coverage.  We do get some other events, some that might be surprising to present-day viewers.  For example, the slack-rope event is essentially rope-climbing, so to see something that has been the bane of many middle-school students be an Olympic event might prove either puzzling or amusing.

Some aspects of the VIII Olympiad are quite interesting in terms of history.  Johnny Weissmuller, who would later achieve greater fame as Tarzan in a series of successful films, made a literal splash, where we see him briefly as a master of the swimming pool.  We also see some footage of British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, whose stories were later immortalized in Chariots of Fire.

Other aspects show the time and place where these Olympics took place.  During the marathon, we see the runners stop briefly to get water to drink or splash themselves with, but it wouldn't be a French race without some of the marathoners having a touch of wine to wash down their thirst.  We also see that the female participants in the various events like swimming or tennis were routinely billed as 'Miss' or 'Mrs.' while their male counterparts were more often than not given their full names.

Image result for olympic games 1924 harold abrahamsGoing along with the casual sexism, the titles show a surprising, even shocking amount of racism in them.  As part of the Opening Ceremonies, we are treated with one title card that reads "The athletes, the flowers of their race, showed the finest exemples (sic) of courage".  When an African-American wins in the long-jump, the title card reads, "The Negro Hubbard the winner".

That would be DeHart Hubbard, the first African-American to win a gold medal.

Leaving aside the casual sexism and racism of the times, director Jean de Rovera appeared to not know English or know anyone who did.  Some of the spelling errors in the title cards were at times bizarre.  There's the aforementioned 'exemples' and another time there is a mention of 'reggards' for the swimming; then there is when the film chronicles a rather lengthy demonstration of the 'danish' gymnastic team.  This looks more like a series of exercise routines, and it has the added curious aspect of looking vaguely homoerotic, with all those well-built shirtless men flexing and flying about.

Other aspects of The Olympic Games in Paris 1924, however, show that people have not changed.  During the football-rugby gold medal match between the United States and France, we see an American fan in the throes of excited cheering.  The U.S. demolished France 17-3, and it also makes one wonder 'Americans played rugby'?

The events themselves were at times hit-and-miss.  A highlight is the football/soccer game between the gold-winning Uruguayan team and a shockingly inept Swiss team.  We see that the Swiss goalie did nothing but stand there, letting the ball go in.  This is a sharp contrast to the Uruguayan goalie, who was a fierce defender and constantly batted the ball away from the net, oftentimes over the net.

After they shock by winning, we see the victorious and thrilled Uruguayans at the photo call.  The thrill of victory is clearly making them giddy and a bit cheeky, as they fool around with each other while posing.

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The Olympic Games in Paris 1924, more than previous Olympic films, uses slow-motion photography to excellent use.  We see this at various events such as the steeplechase, the equestrian events, tennis, rugby and soccer.  The use of the slow-motion at some of these events makes things not only clearer but at times more beautiful.  The pole-vault jump by (Lee) Barnes is a true thing of beauty and a metaphoric leap in filmmaking and sports coverage.

There has been some use of slow-motion, but I cannot remember it being as strong or as beautiful as in this film.  The use of it, for example, not only showed the beauty but the danger of the riding event.

Sadly, The Olympic Games in Paris 1924 has some major drawbacks.  First, de Rovera has a great deal of footage of the 'danish' gymnastic team but very little of Abrahams and Liddell, which would ultimately prove of greater historic importance.  It also holds a rather sad footnote.  The fencing competition is shown briefly at the Velodrome d'Hiver, where a mere 18 years later French Jews would be rounded up there before being deported to their deaths.  The conditions at the Velodrome d'Hiver before they were sent off to die were appalling in and of themselves, and to know that this place to celebrate French pride would later become a source of French shame is saddening.

Granted, de Rovera can hardly be blamed for the Velodrome Roundup or for not being aware that Abrahams, Liddell and Weissmuller were to achieve greater fame past 1924.  However, for a film that chronicled the Games, perhaps in retrospect more time at the athletic racing and less time at the 'danish' gymnastics might have helped.

One thing that did not help was Donald Sosin's score.  He seems absolutely determined to keep within the times by using a piano-dominated score.  He's done this repeatedly with all his Olympic film scores, and while more often than not it works, here, it was not as good.  Sosin at the gymnastic coverage either was influenced or straight-up lifted Eric Satie because the music was very Satie-like.  Sosin used some percussion at the marathon to great effect, and I do wonder why he opted not to have more of that.

He also missed a great opportunity at the tandem bicycle coverage.  Why he did not lift a little Daisy Bell (On A Bicycle Built for Two) as the two riders were off is a puzzle given that it would have been a perfect opportunity to have a little fun with things. 

The Olympic Games in Paris 1924 is probably best for hardcore Olympic enthusiasts as there is not much here that would really excite the more casual viewer.  The big important historic moments get unintentionally shortchanged and at almost three hours it can be a bit punishing if rope-climbing and tennis from a spectator's point-of-view is not your thing.

There are some beautiful moments in the film thanks to the great use of slow-motion, and in some events you will find yourself as caught up as the American fan at rugby was.  However, by and large the film is good for historic reasons but not for a quiet viewing at home.

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Next Olympic Film: St. Moritz 1928: The White Stadium

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Fear Strikes Out: A Review


To celebrate Opening Day, I've started a new tradition: a review of a baseball-related movie.  This year, we're looking at Fear Strikes Out, the biopic of Boston Red Sox Jim Piersall.  Fear Strikes Out can sometimes slip into a bit of a farce, but it mostly stays level thanks to two strong performances.

For as long as he has been alive, Jimmy Piersall (Anthony Perkins) has wanted to play baseball.  At least, that's the perceived idea.  In reality, Jimmy is pretty much pushed and cajoled by his father, John (Karl Malden), a man who had Major League aspirations of his own but never found a chance to try to get into the Majors.

Very quickly he is able to get into the Red Sox's minor league team, but John is adamant: he has to be in the minors one year, otherwise his career is over.  Sadly, Jim is in the minors two years, with his disappointed and disapproving father bearing down.

"There's fifteen games to go and I'm batting third in the league," Jim tells his father when he comes up to see Jim in his first year.
"Well, that isn't first," is John's reply.

The only bright spot in Jim's life is Mary (Norma Moore), a nurse he met at spring training whom he quickly falls in love with.  Impulsively they get married even if his career is not the greatest, but unexpected news arrive: the Red Sox want him on the team, but as an infielder.  Jim, who has played in the outfield all his career, simply does not know if he can change and soon starts showing signs of a mental breakdown.

That break finally comes one game after scoring a home run.  Rather than be happy that he hit a home run in the majors, he comes completely undone, trying to jump over the safety net and even threatening his fellow Red Sox with a bat until police subdue him.

It's off to the loony bin for Jim Piersall, with his career all but dead.  It takes the kind and patient Dr. Brown (Adam Williams) to slowly help Jim return from his mental collapse, using baseball as a way to reach the nearly catatonic Piersall.  It also means that Papa John has to stay away from his son, for his unrelenting pressure has been at the core of Jim's mental health issues.

Finally, Jim is able to slowly come back, and Fear Strikes Out ends with him about to return to Fenway Park, to return to the game he loves.

I would say that the best performance in Fear Strikes Out isn't from Perkins, whom I'll get to later.  Instead, the best performance comes from Malden as the unintentionally cruel father.  Malden makes John's casual way of insulting, belittling and demeaning his son at every turn so natural.

There's the aforementioned 'Well it's not first' line, which he delivers not as a rebuke or in scorn but as a calm statement of fact.  He makes it sound if not quite jolly, at least not overtly cruel.

There are a few moments when Malden does come across as cruel or uncaring, but for most of Fear Strikes Out, he comes across as more clueless: the stage father unaware that his advice/encouragement/fact-stating is actually nothing more than bullying dressed up as either kindness or honesty.

That's what makes Jim's final rejection of his father more powerful than if John had just been an ass to be an ass.  John had sneaked into Jim's hospital room to 'reach' Jim, so the shocked look on John's face when Jim orders him to go makes the scene more impactful.  That's no surprise given that though Ted Berkman and Raphael Blau's adaptation of Piersall's memoir, John uses 'we' a great deal when discussing his son's career.

Perkins is someone who will forever be haunted by one role, brilliant though it was.  In Fear Strikes Out, even though it was made four years before his most legendary role, we can see little shades of the future in his performance.  Of particular note is his 'mad scene', when he goes bonkers on the baseball field.  His physicality at being so unhinged could be a mirror image of when he is restrained in that other movie.

At times though, Perkins came across as less mentally troubled and more morose.  When a despondent Mary comes to see him, Jim looks more angry than confused.  When trying to bring more drama in his final confrontation with his father, it was a bit more dramatic than perhaps it should have been.  Moore was appropriately supportive as Mary.

Elmer Bernstein's score is curious: at the beginning it seems so overdone but at other points it is well-crafted.  Sometimes the music makes the scene more than the performances: in turns ominous, optimistic, even a bit bonkers, sometimes in the same scene (such as when Jimmy attempts a phantom version of being an infielder, making him look a bit crazed before his total meltdown.

On the whole, however, Fear Strikes Out is an interesting journey into one man's mental breakdown due to the pressures from his overbearing father.  You sometimes wonder about the baseball game (the film has the Red Sox always playing against the Chicago Cubs), but with good performances from Perkins and especially Karl Malden, it is worth a watch.


2016 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out


Monday, April 9, 2018

The Greatest Showman: A Review (Review #1042)


Give 'em the old, razzle-dazzle, razzle-dazzle them...

The Greatest Showman is a bit of a throwback to musicals of yesteryear, with big lavish musical numbers that are generally upbeat and spectacular.  I cannot think of any original number that was slow or meditative because the only times we had any sense of sadness was when the songs were slower.  A bit thin on plot and not much info on its subject, it's still a big show befitting the grandiose ideas it strives for.

Phineas Taylor Barnum is the poor son of a tailor, one so poor he cannot afford shoes for his son.  One of his clients is the wealthy Hallet family, and young Finn soon falls for their daughter, Charity.  The Hallets have charity for none, and certainly no Charity for Finn, even sending her off to boarding school to get away from this peasant.  Love, however, will not be denied, and even after he becomes an orphan and is forced to fend for himself, helped along by society outcasts.  Eventually, however, he makes a small fortune and takes Charity as wife.

All this is covered in one song.

Charity (Michelle Williams) gives birth to two daughters, but P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) still dreams of the fantastic and of providing wealth and comfort for his family.  With a lot of flim-flam, he secures a loan to exhibit his oddities in a 'museum', but people don't want to come for waxworks.  "Bring something that's alive," his daughters suggest, and with that, he scours the city for those 'unique' people.  Barnum does find the outcasts, including a midget he proclaims "General Tom Thumb" (Sam Humphrey) and Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded lady with an angelic voice.  Also among his troupe is the acrobatic brother and sister W.D. Wheeler (Yadhya Abdul-Mateen II) and Anne (Zendaya), who are black.

Image result for the greatest showmanEver the optimist Barnum puts on lavish shows which the public loves, though the elites still look down their noses at his collection of 'freaks', with many ruffians calling they be expelled.  Barnum, however, finds an unlikely junior partner: Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), scion to a wealthy family and playwright bored with his bourgeois life.  Phillip reluctantly is persuaded to be a silent partner and also finds himself drawn to the beautiful Anne, though interracial romances are still taboo. 

A Royal Command Appearance before Queen Victoria sends the troupe to London, but it also sends Barnum down the road to nakedly craving respectability.  He finds that in Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), an opera diva whom Barnum has not only never heard of, but has never heard.  Taking a huge gamble, he books Lind to come to America, dubbing her 'The Swedish Nightingale' and hoping he does not flop.  She does not disappoint, taking America by storm.  He is now culturally besotted with Lind, though there is no romantic aspirations from his part.  Barnum is so invested in Lind that he pushes his oddities away, fearing how black and bearded ladies will impact his new-found poshness.

Leaving the running of the Circus to Carlyle, who still struggles between love and society, Barnum books Lind on an American tour.  Lind finds herself with aspirations to be if not the second Mrs. Barnum at least his mistress, but he stumbles in his rejection of anything more than a professional relationship.  Lind cancels the tour in a pique, and this is the first of Barnum's travails.

He finds himself virtually bankrupt, his Museum burns down, and Charity, outraged by the publicity of an alleged romance and his pushing away of everyone, leaves him.  Barnum, seeing the error of his ways, restores himself to both his families, and out springs The Barnum Circus.  Barnum leaves the Circus to Carlyle, who at last has surrendered his heart to Anne come what may, to devote himself to his family.

Image result for the greatest showmanIf you come to The Greatest Showman to learn about P.T. Barnum, good luck.  While it is 'based on' his life, we don't really learn that much about him.  He a bit of Ed Wood in that he is almost always upbeat, with disasters only slowing him down a touch.  He also has an insane drive to be the top dog at everything, especially showing up his father-in-law, whom he publicly humiliates in front of Lind at her debut.

Apart from that, the Barnum in The Greatest Showman is a bit of a mystery.  We would never have guessed he was involved in politics or that despite his own predilection for pulling fast ones on the public, he was a crusader against frauds (he thought it was acceptable to be fraudulent so long as the public knew they were being hoodwinked).

If you don't learn much if anything about Barnum, you learn less about anyone else around him.  General Tom Thumb (real name Charles Stratton) would make a fascinating biopic on his own.  He was a highly talented actor, singer and dancer who became a respected celebrity, even once being received by President Lincoln.  That, however, is not the idea of The Greatest Showman, for all the people around Barnum have no existence outside of him.  Apart from the Carlyle/Anne subplot, everyone else pretty much seems to be waiting around for their big number.

Of particular amusement is with his daughters.  My mother made a most fascinating observation: that despite the film spanning several years, neither Caroline or Helen Barnum aged.  "He should have put them in his show: The Girls Who Never Age", she quipped. 

Details, details.

However, to quibble on such details would be to miss the point of The Greatest Showman.  This is not a biopic.  Instead, it is an excuse to have big, lavish musical numbers.  We start the film with one: The Greatest Show, as big a musical number as has been seen outside of Moulin Rouge!, and I have to admire some elements to Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's songs.

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The entirety of Finn and Charity's romance is covered in one number, A Million Dreams, making this story thread remarkably economical.  Every song seems to demand it be a showstopper, from the Jackman/Efron duet The Other Side to the Zafron/Zendaya duet Rewrite the Stars.

I guess maybe they could find their own City of Stars, but I digress.

Even Lind's opera debut has to be a big empowering number, Never Enough being perhaps a strange song to sing for a non-pop diva. The best-known number is This Is Me, as big an colorful a song that again fits into the idea that everyone needs a big boost to move forward and be yourself. 

Let your freak flag fly, Bearded Lady.

I thought the songs were great and entertaining, which is what The Greatest Showman strives for.  Whether they were similar in that they were almost all big, bold and always striving to reach the rafters is up to the viewer. 

I think of other musical films, which had those big numbers but also more contemplative moments: for every The Night They Invented Champagne there was an I Remember It Well, for every The Sound of Music there was an Edelweiss, for every America there was a Maria, for every Everything's Coming Up Roses there is a Small World.  Even something more contemporary, like Hairspray, had at least one slow, contemplative number: I Know Where I've Been, to counter against the relentless uptempo numbers like You Can't Stop the Beat or The Nicest Kids in Town.   

The Greatest Showman has no such restraints, as even the 'slowest' number, Never Enough, is less contemplative and more power ballad.  Even if I were to concede that the love ballad Rewrite the Stars or Tightrope were the 'slow' numbers, the production itself is so big that it mutes the sense of romance for spectacle.  I think that many numbers were directed in that frenetic music video-type manner by Michael Gracey, who directed music videos.  I note the frenetic style in The Other Side where the choreography was surrendered to how much the audience could be 'dazzled'.

I suspect Fred Astaire would not approve at the camera flying all about.

Performance-wise, I thought Jackman did what he could in the non-singing moments given Jenny Bick and Bill Condon's screenplay did nothing with his Barnum save make him the ultimate 'get-up-and-go' type, who really is never fully dressed without a smile.  When he does his musical moments, it's clear Jackman is at heart a song-and-dance man, pouring himself with glee into his role.  The dramatic lift is carried by Williams, who similarly did wonders with her Charity, the ultimate in 'supportive wife' role.  Efron, to my mind, had a deeper voice than the one I remember, and he knows how to handle musical numbers. 

I cannot say that his dramatic performance was strong, and the same goes for Zendaya, whom I'm still not sure who she is, but they made a lovely couple.

The Greatest Showman is not interested in giving us a portrait of P.T. Barnum, or even a Wikipedia-type look.  It just wants to dazzle us with big musical numbers and a message of optimism and accepting yourself.  It's a good message, couched in big, slightly over-the-top numbers.  It's a good time to be had by all, and I imagine that our dear Mr. Barnum would approve.



Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ready Player One: A Review


I have not read this novel, Ready Player One, so as always I cannot say how close or far the film version stays to the original.  I imagine as close to its creator's wishes, given the author of said novel, Ernest Cline, adapted the screenplay with Zak Penn.  Ready Player One is a clear love letter to all of Cline's pop culture/nerd passions: video games, science-fiction films, anime.

Here's my difficulty: I am not as enamored of those things as Cline is, so for me, Ready Player One was at times almost a tragedy than a celebration.

It is 2045, Columbus, Ohio.  The world is a dystopian nightmare, and the majority of the population finds life so miserable that the only way out is through The OASIS, a virtual reality universe where you can be anything.  Among the denizens of this universe is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who goes by the name and avatar Parzival.

We learn though that The OASIS is not just an escape for humanity, the soma to those in this virtual universe.  Eccentric OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died, leaving his fortune and control of The OASIS to whomever can find three keys within this alternate universe.  However, the clues are so opaque as to make all the 'pop culture scholars' continuously struggle to solve the puzzles; since his death there has been only one portal discovered, where the various participants in The OASIS constantly race to get through the first challenge.

Parzival, along with his friend Aech (which I confess to thinking of as 'H'), follow the race, which is expensive in virtual currency, but constantly get thwarted by King Kong.  Even the 'beautiful' avatar of Art3mis cannot get through.  Parzival, however, is totally obsessed with Halliday, and having studied his archives soon stumbles onto a clue, something Halliday said.

With that, Parzival finds a safe passage to the first key: by going under the streets rather than on them.  Soon, he shares that with Art3mis, with whom Parzival/Wade has grown infatuated with, then with his BFF Aech, who then shares the secret with two of his buddies: Sho and Daito.

This group, the High Five, finally placing on the scoreboard attracts the attention of the evil Innovative Online Industries Corporation.  IOI head Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has thrown everything at The OASIS to win the game and Halliday's fortune, but now has to play catch-up.  Sorrento does have a few tricks up his sleeve: not only greater resources but a henchman, I-Rok (T.J. Miller), an expert killer in the virtual world.  He could be good at his job, but Sorrento constantly gets in his way.

Now the High Five continue to pour over Halliday's archives, where the snooty Curator, a robotic-looking being, guides them and makes occasionally snippy comments.  The second key lies within a game meant to resemble The Shining, which again they found through a clue in Halliday's memory bank.  Again Sorrento and IOI play catch-up, and more drastic action has to be taken.  By now Wade's true identity is discovered thanks to his besotted nature towards Art3mis.  He whispers his real name, something verboten in The Oasis, and I-Rok overhears it.  Art3mis manages to rescue him from Sorrento's hitmen, and we learn she is Samantha (Olivia Cooke), whose father died as a result of his massive debt to IOI.

The third and final key is in Planet Doom, but IOI has gotten there first, and I-Rok uses a spell to block anyone else from entering.  It is now up to the real-life versions of Aech (Lena Waithe): real name 'Helen', Sho (Philip Zhao): real name Zhou (who is also only 11 years old), and Daito (Win Morisaki): real name Toshiro, from both rescuing Samantha and stopping Sorrento from winning the game.

It means a major battle where the other gamers lead a revolution against IOI, and we get a couple of more twists and turns until Parzival/Wade wins.

Image result for ready player oneI was left a little cold by Ready Player One, not because it was a bad film but because I do not have this overwhelming love of all things nerd/pop that those involved in Ready Player One have.  It isn't as if I don't appreciate or find some of the thousands of shout-outs amusing or good, though I do wonder if those raised on Playstations and XBoxes will get the 'Holy Hand Grenade' or even 'Zemekis Cube' references.

Even if they did, I'm taking a guess they won't get the nod to the original War of the Worlds.  Perhaps that would be a good demarcation line: those who do get it versus those who think the Tom Cruise version, also directed by Steven Spielberg, is the only version of H.G. Wells' novel.  After all, there are some people totally unaware that the Marky Mark Planet of the Apes is a remake/re-imagining of some old forgotten film.

While many find thrills with all the shout-outs, homages and nods to various films, television shows, video games and even songs in Ready Player One, which starts out with Van Halen's Jump and has the climatic battle serenaded by Twisted Sister's We're Not Gonna Take It, both very curious choices for 2045 in my view, I found the world of Ready Player One close to a horror film.

This is a world where people are so drugged out on virtual reality that they let the world go to waste. This is a world where such things as 'pop culture scholars' can pour over the minutia of The Breakfast Club, Animal House and Mindcraft and those in avatars can spout this off quickly but apparently can't throw in a Shakespeare or Alice in Wonderland or Bible quote (which, per my old English teacher is where the vast majority of quotes come from).

Even when you do get more 'obscure' references, such as whenever Parzival says that Halliday's lost love Kira is his 'Rosebud', it does not quite ring true: I'm not convinced that many of those gamers, cosplayers and sci-fi fans that get shout-outs have seen or heard of Citizen Kane.

Image result for ready player one
Again, Ready Player One is meant to be a catalog of all of Cline's loves, and those who share those great loves.  I just do not happen to be one of them; even when I get the visual call-outs, and even when the film overtly yells them at me, like when Parzival 'dresses' as Michael Jackson from the Thriller video, it does get a little too on-the-nose for my liking.

For me, story is paramount (no pun intended), and Ready Player One struck me as rather unoriginal.  A bit of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory mixed with It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or even Million Dollar Mystery and TRON, with a hint of the original Star Wars trilogy, I still fail to understand how Ready Player One is this praised.

Then again, any film that uses New Order's Blue Monday gets points in my book.

We also get bad, cliched moments such as when the 'Zemekis Cube' reverses time 60 seconds, using an old trope to get characters out of trouble (example: Doctor Who's timey-wimey) and underdeveloped characters/stories (quite convenient that Wade's aunt and abusive boyfriend can get killed off, since we got two scenes with them, they can be easy collateral).  Of course, the villain would be so dumb as to not only write his password down, but leave it where someone can easily read it off.  We even get lousy lines: "She's hacking your heart to get into your head" has to be one for the books, as if Wade's aunt yelling, "Go to your room, Rick!" to her abusive boyfriend isn't already funny enough.

Acting-wise, we got some good things.  Rylance was doing an Andy Warhol meets Willy Wonka with his Halliday, the eccentric creator of The OASIS in his way-out wig and soft, meek voice.  Sheridan does wonders as Wade/Parzival and continues to show himself as a young actor to watch, even if I did not think he had much to work with.  For the longest time I kept wondering where I knew Cooke from once she revealed herself, and it wasn't until I saw her name that I realized she was Emma Decody in Bates Motel (aka 'the only sane character on the show).

There were also some bad things: Mendolsohn was in need of a mustache to twirl as the evil Sorrento and I could have done without Miller's 'humor' as I-Rok, constantly going on about his neck problems and trying to out-quip Deadpool.   I have nothing good or bad to say about Waithe, Zhao or Morisaki, though I did wonder if having the Asian character 'meditate' until he was ready to do battle was necessary.

And personally, I would have preferred he become an Evangelion over a Gundam, but we can't have it all can we?

Ready Player One is saved by beautiful visuals because if not for that, I would have rated it lower.  This is really a film that is worth renting, but its colors and odes to pop culture would look better on the big screen.  It is really into pop/nerd culture, but for me, while I like it, I am not so enamored with it that I have to know what school makes up the John Hughes universe.


Friday, April 6, 2018

Marshall (2017): A Review


If no one has said it, I will: Chadwick Boseman continues to be one of our finest actors, someone that I think will rank among the best of his generation if he continues to pick quality work and Hollywood manages to use his skills well.  He also has been the default 'Biopic of Great African-American Men Star': from Jackie Robinson to James Brown and now Thurgood Marshall, Boseman seems in danger of doing nothing but biopics.  If not for Black Panther, Boseman's agent would have to grab a copy of 'Who's Who in American History' to find his/her client's next project.

As a side note, I would be thrilled if he played Frederick Douglass, a man whose life story cries out desperately for a film.

Marshall does what many smart biopics do: focus on one part of a person's life to tell that person's story, and it is a shame that the film got lost in the late-year release shuffle, for it is a well-acted film that plays out like a real-life To Kill a Mockingbird.  Minus a few stabs at focusing on elements outside the main story, Marshall tells its story well.

NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (Boseman) travels the country representing African-Americans who are being tried for crimes due to their race.  His latest case is that of Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), a black chauffeur accused of raping Mrs. Strubing (Kate Hudson), his white employer's wife.  The charges against Spell shock the tony Bridgeport, Connecticut community, with rich white people firing their servants in a panic that the 'Negroes' will soon start committing wild acts of violence and vandalism.

Marshall insists that he and the NAACP represent only innocent people, so he asks Spell if he raped Mrs. Strubing, and he denies this.  Being from out-of-state, Marshall cannot try the case himself without a sponsor.  Enter civil attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a nebbish attorney who does not want to get involved in this.  It's his brother Irwin that essentially pushes him into representing Spell.  Worse, not only has Friedman never tried a criminal case, his forte being insurance claims, but the judge in the trial (James Cromwell) reluctantly agrees to allow Marshall to be an attorney but forbids him from speaking, making Friedman the de facto lead attorney.

The prosecution is headed up by Loren Willis (Dan Stevens), whose WASP patrician/Aryan manner are on full display, his political ambitions set sky-high.  The trial begins, and soon Marshall and Friedman start getting harassed and assaulted, not just for defending Spell, but for being black and Jewish respectively.  As the trial takes twists and turns, Marshall on many occasions has to serve as virtual puppet-master to an increasingly resentful Friedman, until a throwaway comment by a woman leads Marshall to see the obvious: Mrs. Strubing was not raped.

It was consensual sex, meaning both Mrs. Strubing and Joseph Spell lied. This is very explosive in the 1930s, even in New England, but it is the truth.  In the end, with the jury about to deliver a verdict, Marshall is sent off on another case, forcing Friedman to give the closing remarks, even if Marshall dictated them.

To the surprise of everyone, the jury delivers a not guilty verdict, and eventually Thurgood Marshall goes on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Image result for marshall movieMarshall is more courtroom drama about the Spell case than an actual biopic on Thurgood Marshall, and even if the case is highly reminiscent of certain elements of To Kill a Mockingbird, the case itself proves quite fascinating.  I note the similarity to the Harper Lee book only in that in both, a black man is accused of raping a white woman.  At one point, Marshall himself asks, "Did you rape Eleanor Strubing?", and I momentarily though he was going to ask if he'd raped Mayella Ewell.

It's fascinating how history and fiction seem to collide, especially in how director Reginald Hudlin would show via black-and-white scenes the various scenarios: the rape, the consensual intercourse.  In many ways, Marshall plays like a detective story, as our intelligent title character and his more dimwitted associate work to solve this mystery. 

It's a credit to Hudlin and cowriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff that most of the focus was on the Spell case.  The film's only real major setbacks where whenever we wandered into Marshall or Friedman's private lives.  We see the Marshalls struggle to have children and the Friedmans fearing for relatives in Europe as the Nazi menace grows, but while there was nothing wrong with these moments they seemed to come from a previous draft that are given to us and then forgotten.

One curious bit was when Marshall and his wife 'Buster' (Keesha Sharp) are at a nightclub with Thurgood's frenemy Langston Hughes and whom I figure is his male lover. Then as if to add more confusion to the mix, in comes in Zora Neale Hurston, who seems quite flirtatious with Langston.  Marshall seems to have a dislike for Hughes, but whether its one based on a disdain for Hughes' poetry or what he considers inaction at home to fight injustice but racing off to Europe to fight injustice the film does not answer.

Again, something that pops in and out with nary a comment, which I think stretched the film longer than it should have been.

Here, we see why Chadwick Boseman simply needs to do more films, television and theatrical appearances.  With a firm, clipped manner of speech, Boseman makes this Thurgood Marshall a shrewd, cool customer, unafraid and one step ahead of everyone.  He is smooth, clever, courageous and even amusing, an embodiment of Marcus Miller's jazz-inspired score.

It was a wonderful performance and another hit for Boseman in his collection of fine performances.

Gad was not quite up there, though I think the somewhat stereotypical take on Friedman as a reluctant nebbish hamstrung by his ineptness and insecurity did not help.  He had only one good moment where he could show he was more than what he was seen as when he fought against anti-Semites who assaulted him.  Apart from that though, it would have been nice to show Friedman as growing in confidence and conviction.

Marshall also showed us what good performers Hudson and Stevens are, the latter as the potential victim or not-quite-villain, the latter as our posh entitled patrician.  Credit especially goes to Stevens for adopting posh American tones.

Marshall was a strong film about a fascinating case with a fascinating lead figure.  Criminally overlooked, it hopefully will get more recognition for giving a pioneer more than his due.   



Thursday, April 5, 2018

Goodbye Christopher Robin: A Review


Who knew the creation of one of the most beloved of children's stories was a horror film?  Goodbye Christopher Robin is a curious film: part story of how Winnie-the-Pooh came to be, part how awful the Milne family dynamic was.  It is well-acted, beautifully photographed, but still almost sadistic in its portrayal of how something so adored and cherished could have emerged from something so monstrous.

After experiencing the horrors of the First World War, popular writer and humorist Alan Milne (Domnhall Gleeson) finds it hard to readjust to the witty delightful plays that made him the toast of the West End.  His wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie) is no help: she pretty much thinks Alan, whom everyone calls 'Blue' should basically shake off his undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Even the bright lights of the stage set him on edge, having him flash back to the horrors of the Western Front.

In an effort to revive his mind and soul, he buys a cottage in Ashdown Forest, Sussex, much to the unhappiness of Daphne, far from the bright lights and cocktail society of London.  This real-life Green Acres has a surprise however when Daphne gives birth to a boy, much to her horror and apparent disgust.

The boy, Christopher Robin Milne (Will Tilston) is starved for love, his parents finding things easier if little 'Billy Moon' as he is called is left in the care of Olive (Kelly Macdonald), the nanny whom Billy calls 'Nou'.  Blue continues to work on his magnum opus condemning war and avoiding Billy as much as possible.  Daphne for her part shows signs of humanity by giving Billy toys, but apart from that she has no real interest.

Image result for goodbye christopher robinOne day, Daphne goes back to London, frustrated at having said 'goodbye, city life'.  Nou also has to leave to care for her dying mother, and poor Blue has to try to live with Billy.  This is at first a struggle for Blue, but soon he finds himself warming to Billy Moon and vice versa.  It appears a genuine relationship is forming, and Blue is fascinated by Billy Moon's fantasy world of his bear.

Soon, inspiration strikes and Blue notes all the various stories his son creates for his beloved teddy bear's adventures.  He enlists his fellow veteran and illustrator friend to come down, and soon we get the beginnings of Winnie-the-Pooh.

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories become an absolute smash hit, but here is where the horror begins in earnest.  Mr. and Mrs. Milne, especially Mrs. Milne, are thrilled with the fame and fortune Winnie-the-Pooh brings them, but there's a hitch.  As Blue used 'Christopher Robin' in his stories, the public soon starts confusing the character 'Christopher Robin' with the real Christopher Robin Milne, who never uses that name or is called that by anyone in the family, always referred to as 'Billy Moon'.

The mixing of fact and fantasy reaches a nadir when Mr. and Mrs. Milne go to America on a book tour.  After embarrassing herself  by stating to the press that one of the places she'd like to go to is 'a speakeasy' which are technically illegal, Mr. Milne calls Billy to wish him a Happy Birthday.  Only thing is, he ends the conversation by saying, "Good night, Christopher Robin", which confuses Billy Moon.  Blue has never called him 'Christopher Robin'.

Billy Moon is unaware that Blue was calling him in a live radio broadcast, the call essentially a publicity stunt.

More horrors await Billy Moon when he is taken to a department store.  Whether he is aware that 'Tea with the Real Christopher Robin' was the prize for a contest is unclear, but Billy is not thrilled to find himself made a public spectacle for these stories that he is growing to hate.  Nou for her part, does her best to shield Billy Moon from all this, but eventually she finds a man to love and this 'betrayal' is reported by Billy to Daphne, who now acts imperiously towards Olive, in modern terms, trying to 'slut-shame' her.

Nou resigns and tells them both that they are behaving badly by Billy.  Only Blue seems to start realizing how horrible the exploitation of his son has been and how it has grown out of hand.  He gives his son a promise never to write another Pooh story and sends him away from the glare of publicity and to a boarding school.

It looks like things might work out well, but alas, the schoolmates taunt and mock Billy, chanting 'Nobody cares, nobody cares, if Christopher Robin falls down the stairs', pushing him down and around for years.

Now comes the Second World War, and after failing the medical exam the bitter and angry Christopher (Alex Lawther) pushes Blue to pull strings to get him to join.  At one point, he is presumed dead, only to turn up days later, less angry but still unhappy.  We learn at the end that he never took a cent from the stories his father created.

Image result for goodbye christopher robinIn many ways, Goodbye Christopher Robin feels like a freak show.  How else to respond when we see rather distant adults using their only child to enrich themselves?

It's enough to make you turn away from Pooh Corner, knowing that so much misery came as a result of the stories.

I do not know if this was director Simon Curtis' intention, especially given that more often than not in Goodbye Christopher Robin we get soft glowing bucolic scenes and lush music suggesting that this story will be more uplifting and heartwarming than the one we actually got.

Sometimes Curtis, along with cowriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughn got too clever with things.  The opening sequence was rather peculiar: after getting the suggestion that Christopher Robin might be dead, we jump into Alan's horrifying war experience and then as he storms out from the trenches he literally forces his way into an elegant ball.

It makes one wonder whether some of what we saw was fantasy or not.

Moreover, I wonder if they could not have made things simpler for themselves if they had chosen to either frame the story around Billy Moon's missing-in-action status or a straight chronological order.  Instead, Goodbye Christopher Robin appears to want it both ways: to show us Blue's war horrors but not Billy Moon's. 

Maybe if we see the growing relationship between Blue and Billy Moon while still showing us how Blue's PTSD was still tearing at him, then show how either by design or accident, Blue and Daphne exploited Billy Moon.

I have praise for the performances, especially young Tilson as Billy Moon, bringing a genuine child's wonder and misery to his sad and horrifying circumstances.  Gleeson did well as Blue, though the script never settled on whether he was deliberately or unintentionally exploiting his son for profit.  Robbie continues to be among our best actresses, able to make Daphne's maliciousness both matter-of-fact and unpleasant while still giving us a few glimpses of reality.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is in many ways a horror film: the cruelty of Blue and Daphne towards Billy Moon is sad and almost painful to watch, with nary a suggestion that Winnie-the-Pooh was anywhere near a warm and cuddly creation.  It works because of the performances and because we feel so horrible for what Billy Moon went through, but in its efforts to try and make it all slightly more palatable with a failed attempt at touching rapprochement it only underscores the horrors we've seen.

It would not surprise me if after watching Goodbye Christopher Robin, people burned down the Hundred Acre Wood. 

A.A. Milne: 1882-1956
C.R. Milne: 1920-1996


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

LBJ: A Review


There are essentially two types of Presidential biopics.  There are the ones that make the subject look divine and are quite worshipful: PT-109, Sunrise at Campobello, Southside With You, Wilson, Kennedy.  Then there are those that make the subject look downright bonkers and Satanic: The Reagans, Nixon, W.

The fact that the worshipful ones are almost always about Democratic Presidents and the Satanic ones are almost always about Republican Presidents I'm sure is just mere coincidence.  LBJ, the newest Presidential biopic, is about the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

He was a Democrat.

LBJ covers the time shortly before and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), where his frenemy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Woody Harrelson) tries to navigate uncertain waters.  On the one hand, he's got his real enemy, Attorney General/JFK's little brother Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David), who despises Johnson, I suspect because he is not liberal enough for the more elegant and glamorous Kennedys.  On the other, he's got fellow Southerner Senator Richard 'Dick' Russell (Richard Jenkins) of Georgia, who sees Johnson as too liberal, what with his support of race-mixing an all.

Before 1960, Johnson was the powerful Majority Leader in the Senate, able to make laws by the force of his will, and with a contentious relationship with his fellow Texan Senator, Ralph Yarborough (Bill Pullman).

Ah, when once Texas was a solidly blue state that would never elect Republicans and where Democrats ruled without question.  How times have changed...yet I digress.

Johnson equivocates on running for President in 1960, wanting to jump in but fearing he will lose and thus, lose the public's love for him.  Sure, whatever.  He also sees how pretty JFK looks on TV, and how Bobby despises him to no end.  He mounts a halfhearted campaign at the convention, but he, the 'work horse' still loses to the more beautiful 'show horse' Kennedy.  Despite this, RFK is aghast and furious that JFK would go to LBJ behind RFK's back to be VP.

So many initials.

Bobby does his best to freeze Johnson out, dumping some Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on him and having Under-Secretaries attend.  Johnson trudges on, and suspects that all this is being done to clear the path for Bobby to run in 1968 as the main Democratic candidate rather than the Vice President.

Then comes Dallas, and everything changes.  LBJ now finds himself the President, even if Bobby still refuses to recognize or behave any better with the new Commander-in-Chief.  The Kennedy Court plots to undermine Johnson, while Johnson, now full of vim and vigor, seizes the mantle of JFK to push the Civil Rights bill into law, with no compromises or negotiations with people like Russell, who feel betrayed that 'one of their own' would have them give the 'Negroes' rights.  LBJ, however, rises to the occasion to achieve greatness.

Image result for lbj movieWhile watching LBJ, I was reminded of a comment I heard about the making of another Presidential biopic.  20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck worshiped President Woodrow Wilson, so much so that he foisted a lengthy biopic of his boyhood hero on the public.  His biographer, when noting how Wilson was a flop, commented that there were many Presidents whose life stories would be fascinating. 

"But WILSON?!", he said, almost shocked that our most bookish, schoolmarm racist Commander-in-Chief would be considered the stuff of exciting cinema.

In the same vein, I ask, "Lyndon Johnson?!"

I suppose one can make a good film about Lyndon Johnson, but LBJ isn't.  The reasons for it are many.

LBJ is squarely in the 'worshipful' mode, a film that has no interest in exploring any dark aspects of this person's volcanic personality or bullying manner.  It literally makes Vietnam a footnote, mentioning it briefly at the end, and apparently only to note that he was the last sitting President not to run for reelection.

I am going to throw in a little political speculation here, but I imagine LBJ is a somewhat romantic take on Johnson because this is what liberals would like to remember Johnson for.  They would love to hold onto the vision of Johnson as the architect of The Great Society, where the government's sole purpose for being was to provide financially to and for all. 

If it means tearing down some of the Kennedy mystique to build up our somewhat-humble hero, so be it.  LBJ is the first film that I can remember where the Kennedys were shown in a bad light, at least when it came to matters outside the bedroom.  JFK was shown as vacillating, unsure about what to do or how far to push.  RFK was shown as perpetually angry, spiteful and hateful towards our subject, who from what I drew from LBJ just wanted to be loved.
Image result for lbj movie
Now, as a digression, I'd like to talk about one aspect of the performances that the actors could not help.  The real Johnson was a towering 6'4", who used his height to cajole others.  The real Bobby Kennedy was a mere 5'9", making him over a half foot shorter.  In LBJ, Johnson looks like he's barely an inch taller than Bobby Kennedy if that.  If IMDB is to be believed, Harrelson is 5'9 1/2" and Stahl-David is 5'10".  I personally doubt those are their actual heights but that's neither here nor there.

The height disparity between the actors and the real-life figures makes it less a war between the imposing Johnson and the smaller RFK and more like people equally matched.  While this adds to the perception LBJ wants to leave on the viewer of Johnson as a good man much put upon, it lessens the bitter war between them. 

Johnson, I figure, was meant to be highly sympathetic, but you never get the sense in LBJ that he was a force to be reckoned with. 

Woody Harrelson was miscast as Lyndon Johnson, and it was not due to his height.  Even though both of them are Texan, Harrelson neither looks or sounds like Johnson.  The looking part was not entirely Harrelson's fault: he was loaded with some really freakish makeup that gives J. Edgar a run for its money in awful.  The sound part, however, was: Harrelson's higher, softer tones can't convince people that he was this blustery, bullying figure.  Pullman's Senator Yarborough came across as less a 'man of principle' and more a dithering figure, one with a nice smile but nothing else to recommend him as anything close to a rival.

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lady Bird did well in a small part, even if she on occasion did look like she had wandered off a biopic of The Wicked Witch of the West instead of the First Lady.

Better performances were given by Jenkins as our sincerely racist Senator and especially Stahl-David as Bobby, the fiery id to JFK's ego, though Donovan neither looked or sounded like President Kennedy.

Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone made one bad choice after another, from the 'stirring' music with its soft trumpets to echo the greatness of LBJ to a long monologue where Johnson was calling for his staff to give his cook her rights.  That whole sequence screamed 'OSCAR CLIP!" and it is so naked a plea for award recognition that it borders of farce.

More than anything, LBJ is quite curious in how soft it is with the subject.  He is shown as almost meek, more needy of love than a powerful and power-craving individual.  He worries about whether his daughters love him and listens to Lady Bird's words soft and tender, which might have made the real LBJ burst out howling with laughter or enraged.  I'm sure he loved his wife and daughters, but this man had no problem being vulgar and uncaring, cheating on Lady Bird and using racial epithets.  Portraying LBJ as this almost endearing figure in this sympathetic portrait would not have been to his liking.

He probably would have enjoyed the scene where he mocks Bobby's Massachusetts accent at him, as well as being seen as the wiser, stronger and better leader than either Kennedy Brother.  Apart from that, LBJ is simply too laudatory to give a genuine insight into this most complex and contradictory figures.