Monday, September 16, 2019

Brian Banks: A Review

BRIAN BANKS

I don't follow football, so I am unfamiliar with the Brian Banks story. Brian Banks tells his story of wrongful incarceration and efforts to clear his name while attempting an NFL comeback at an age when most players contemplate retirement. Brian Banks, while in many ways a standard 'inspirational' biopic with so many of its trappings, at least knows this and does not fail in its aim to be audience-pleasing. It also takes time to be instructive on the many important issues Brian Banks tackles.

No pun intended.

Told in slightly non-linear fashion, Brian Banks chronicles our title character (Aldis Hodge), a decent young man whose dreams of gridiron glory were deferred due to a false accusation of rape when he was in high school. He was advised to take a plea rather than go to trial with the idea he'd get some probation but ended up sentenced to six years in prison, four years on probation and a lifetime as a registered sex offender.

This endlessly hampers his ability to get a job, but he has the loving support of his mother Leomia (Sherri Shepherd). Brian has already been rejected by the California Innocence Project when he was in prison, but now time is running out. His probation is coming to an end, and Brian is determined to clear his name before he essentially has a lifetime sentence: physically free but hampered by being a sex offender. Brian's stubbornness on the issue along with his surprisingly adept handling of a writ of habeas corpus impresses Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear), head of the CIP who somewhat reluctantly agrees to help.

Armed with nothing but truth, along with some revelations by his original accuser Kennisha Rice (Xosha Roquemore) and his new love interest Karina (Melanie Liburd), Brian and Justin fight to clear his name, culminating with justice finally being served.

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Brian Banks is a combination of a feel-good  and topical film. The audience I saw it with, small as it was, reacted strongly to it: I heard cheers and applause at its climatic ending. As such, I think director Tom Shaydac and screenwriter Doug Atchison accomplished what they set out to do: tell Banks' story in a way that general audiences would embrace.

It is not hard to embrace Brian Banks when almost the whole cast works so well. Hodge is an absolute winner as Brian Banks. He makes Banks into a good man caught in an unfair world. From when he quietly mourns his inability to find employment to his frustration when his parole officer (Dorian Missick) keeps making his life difficult by being so by-the-book, Hodge wins us over.

He is equally complimented by Shepherd as his mother, forever loving and supportive. It may be a one-note character but Shepherd is so endearing as this strong yet vulnerable woman that when she talks about the pain of seeing your son in prison for something he didn't do, it moves you deeply. Primarily known for comic roles, Shepherd is an untapped talent as a dramatic actress and someone who should work more.

Also earning high praise is Liburd as Karina, the personal trainer and aspiring grad student who falls for Brian. Karina is not a one-note supportive type but a strong individual with her own haunted past. Brian Banks was smart in allowing for a complicated subject such as sexual assault & accusations of it to each have a moment.

While clearly Banks was falsely accused, Karina tells her own story of actual sexual assault and the school's inaction. As such, both sides have their moment: the dangers of false accusations and the dangers of real sexual assaults not being believed.

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I would argue that Kinnear was probably the weakest as this crusading attorney. To his credit it was not a showy performance as the temptation to play righteous fury is there. There was a quiet manner to Kinnear's performance, but I don't think he was particularly strong. It was serviceable, and I can't fault him for that.

In many respects Brian Banks is a better set of ideas for a film than a film itself. It touches on important topics: sexual assault and false allegations of such, the higher incarceration rates for African-American men, the expediency of plea deals versus the true search for truth and justice, the stigma against formerly incarcerated men forcing them to a secondary sentence. Brian Banks touches on them but doesn't stick to one. I would argue its impossible to stay with one as the story spreads over all of them.

It also has elements that seem slightly far-fetched and moments that veer close to parody. Morgan Freeman has a cameo as Mr. Johnson, a teacher at the prison Banks is in who serves as a de facto mentor to Banks. Literally and metaphorically seeing the light while Brian is in solitary is probably a touch much. However, I didn't think badly of these elements as I thought the film was being open about such elements.

Brian Banks, film and story, is one that I think should be better-known. Dealing with important subjects and with strong and sympathetic performances, Brian Banks simultaneously entertains and informs. It tells an important story with wide implications on the justice system, and while perhaps a touch maudlin it tells its story effectively to appeal to all audiences.

Born 1985


DECISION: B-

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Gillette's "We Believe: The Best Men Can Be" Ad. Some Thoughts.

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While shaving this morning the Gillette We Believe: The Best Men Can Be ad came to mind.

Having seen the ad again, part of me genuinely thinks that Gillette meant well. Up to a point there is a good message about 'men holding other men accountable', something that churches routinely do with their Men's Groups.

HOWEVER, Gillette came across as smug, arrogant and worse, insulting to their customers by suggesting that they, Gillette consumers, were this collection of boorish, mansplaining, violent & bullying sexual harassers. One wonders why the company opted to portray their customers in such a surprisingly negative light and expect there to be a sales increase and/or customer satisfaction.

It's an oft-told story in advertising and filmmaking: We think you are horrible people...now buy our product or see our film/television show.

Moreover, one wonders why Gillette decided it was their place to tell men how to be. Do companies routinely go about instructing their customers how to live and behave? Is this a trend I have missed?

The backlash was strong both in terms of anger and financial losses to the tune of $8 billion. That's $8,000,000,000.  Some outlets appear to suggest that the We Believe ad had little to nothing to do with its loss, citing a declining market share and competition from other brands.

That, I believe, is disingenuous. It is likely that the We Believe ad in and of itself did not cause Gillette such losses. However, if an ad exists to increase sales, We Believe did not do that. I don't think it was meant to do that. Instead, it was meant to impart us with Gillette's moral wisdom. One would hope fathers would teach their sons and daughters how to be genuine men, not corporations.

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Add to that how the We Believe ad left a very negative impression with its targeted audience. The impression left is that all men would harass women, belittle them and terrorize children; add to that the idea that fathers not only condone such acts but almost encourage them on a regular basis. The dads grilling away say 'Boys will be boys' in a unison monotone, suggesting not only indifference but dismissiveness from men. Also note that it is the woman, not the man, who comforts a bullied child.

What message is Gillette sending, particularly to its customers? It's one thing to say 'Men Can Do Better'. It's another when you seem to say 'Men Are the Worst'.

Gillette's ad, in short, basically implies that all men are toxic and that only via Gillette's website (and perhaps their product) they can go from demonic monsters to semi-rational beings. We Believe, whatever the merits of its intended goals, came across as almost virulently hostile towards men.

Most men I imagine, even men sympathetic to Gillette's suggestion that all men are bullies chasing down kids and seconds away from hassling a woman until a more woke man comes along to set them right, did not take kindly to the company's messaging. The ad felt and came across as antagonistic towards its customers.

I don't begrudge Gillette's hopes for better men. I do think their method of all but attacking its customer base was a bad one. They may have the accolades and applause but they also earned enmity and hostility from men who have been loyal customers and did/have done nothing to deserve being trashed like this.

Pointing out flaws in society is not a bad thing. Suggesting your customers are essentially evil and 'toxic' is a bad thing.

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Despite what Gillette and its parent company Proctor & Gamble say, I think many surprisingly decent men did opt for other products in response to being told what horrible people they are. As it is Gillette's right to put out ads like We Believe, it is the consumer's right to reject the company's characterization of said consumer and turn to other brands that don't think badly of them.

It is not toxic men who left Gillette. It is men tired of being accused of being toxic with no evidence to support that accusation who left.

We will be seeing things like this in the future from other companies determined to put virtue-signaling over market shares. I hope things settle down to where a company like Gillette tells me about their product rather than telling me what a horrible man I am in general.

I may have grown up without a father, but I don't need Gillette to instruct me on how to be a man.

As for myself, I too opted to no longer use Gillette products after I finish out their shaving creme that I already have. We Believe was not the sole reason: I find their blades far too expensive when Harry's is cheaper and to my mind better. To be honest I was leaning towards ending my relationship with Gillette prior to We Believe. It was not the final nail in the coffin. It just came along and I decided I could do without them for something more effective and less expensive.

I wasn't angry or horrified by We Believe. I was however, irritated by it. Surprisingly, I was as irritated by We Believe as I usually am after using a Gillette razor.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Breathe: A Review

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BREATHE

Any actor with a modicum of artistic (and Academy Award) aspirations will invariably be drawn to 'inspirational' biopics. If the character has a disability, all the better. Gives one a chance to show his range by showing his limitations, or rather showing how skilled he is by not using his whole body.

Eddie Redmayne is the worst of this lot for he was actually rewarded for his monstrous performance in and campaigning for The Theory of Everything. However, his shameless Oscar-bait and more brazen Oscar campaigning inspired many an actor to give 'Redmayning' a go in his efforts at Oscar immortality. A case can be made that Matthew McConaughey did succeed in Redmayning his way to an Oscar via Dallas Buyers Club. For the most part though, the streets are littered with failed efforts to build on Redmayne's Machiavellian cinematic career.

Then again, we're still waiting to see if Tom Holland will also try a little Redmayning by eventually playing Louis Braille in something with a faux-inspiring title like The Sight of Touch or something equally awful.

Jake Gyllenhaal tried to Redmayne his way to an Oscar via Stronger. Benedict Cumberbatch tried to Redmayne his way to an Oscar via The Imitation Game. Granted, homosexuality is not a disability but the film played up Alan Turing's potential Asperger's as said disability.

Scattered among the dashed hopes for lofty praise and statuettes is Andrew Garfield in Breathe.

All three failed to win Oscars for their films, with only Cumberbatch managing a nomination, but bless them for trying.

As a side note, it's interesting that these 'respected thespians' are now working in franchises post-Oscar glory, with only Redmayne himself not shilling in comic-book films, but I digress.

Image result for breathe 2017Breathe plays like a parody of these 'inspiration' biopics, parody made worse by the fact that everyone involved is so totally sincere.

Robin Cavendish (Garfield) and Diana (Claire Foy) quickly fall in love, marry, and move to Kenya where Diana finds she's pregnant. Robin, however, contracts polio, nearly dies and is condemned to a few months of immobility before death.

Diana will not accept this diagnosis nor Robin having to live out what little life he has in a hospital. Insisting on taking him to their new home and son Jonathan, they build as idyllic a life as possible. Robin also pushes his friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) to build a chair that will give the ventilator-bound Robin something akin to mobility. With his portable breathing machine, Robin now lives his life working to bring his device to those forced into iron lungs until his years of ventilator use has corroded his lungs to where he may end up drowning in his own blood.

With that, he decides that his time is up, throws a farewell party and elects to die, Diana and the teen Jonathan at his side.

For a film titled Breathe, the whole thing is surprisingly airless, drowning in its good and noble intentions. Jonathan Cavendish produced Breathe, and one can have a great deal of fun speculating exactly whether Breathe was a tribute to his parents or a way to work out any psychological issues he had about them.

The Robin and Diana in Breathe are simply not human. There is never a sense of conflict or sometimes emotions apart from 'joy' and 'triumph'. It takes an hour for Diana to show even a slight sliver of anger or fear about Robin's condition, but for the rest of Breathe she is the doggedly cheerful, loyal wife, forever standing by her man.

As a side note, the Oscar campaign for Breathe slotted Foy for Supporting Actress consideration. How could anyone think hers was a supporting role given she was clearly a co-lead and was probably on screen for the same time or slightly longer than 'Lead Actor' Garfield? Her character was supportive to an almost saintly manner, but Foy was clearly a Leading Actress.

Image result for breathe 2017Foy's performance really gave Diana nothing of substance apart from looking on adoringly and with nary a complaint at Garfield, though I confess laughing out loud when she was given the grim news of Robin's polio. Her face was hilarious, expressing more irritation than devastation.

I also laughed heartily at Garfield's performance. It consisted mostly of grins, but at one point where the film wants us to be terrified that his life was in danger, Garfield's face and clicking elicited howls of laughter from me. I kept telling myself 'I shouldn't laugh! I shouldn't laugh!', and I was certainly not laughing at a disabled man's potential death but in how Breathe portrayed it. Garfield had no real emotion in Breathe, nothing to make Robin a genuine person or even personality.

He, Foy and everyone on screen really was so blank in Breathe, forever suggesting these were people but never coming across as people. It's a poor sign when Diana Rigg in a cameo showed more of a character than the leads. You had the prissy and racist lead doctor Entwhistle (Jonathan Hyde) forever complaining, stomping about and saying how "You'll be DEAD in six weeks!" Entwhistle's racism was directed at the Indian Dr. Khan (Amit Shah), as close to comic relief as Breathe gets with his slightly befuddled doctor.

In short, Breathe had character types, but not flesh-and-blood characters.

William Nicholson's screenplay was simultaneously slavishly worshipful and accidentally hilarious, and perhaps that is where Breathe's greatest issue lays (though it has other problems). The film is simply far too worshipful towards its subjects. Robin and Diana have no flaws, and the film romanticizes them to the point where one almost wants to mock them.

When the Cavendishes go to Spain, I actually was hoping the stranger giving Diana's brother Bloggs (Tom Hollander) a ride to get a to a phone would end up murdering him.

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I was also hoping General Franco would pop up too. Certainly would have livened up the film. That the film ends up having a fiesta amid all this makes it look faker even if perhaps this actually happened and wasn't artistic license.

Nicholson's script was also shockingly cliched. When we see the toddler Jonathan playing with his dog near Robin's bed, who here didn't expect said puppy to literally pull the plug? When, while driving in Spain, Diana asks Bloggs to plug in the ventilator, who here didn't expect said ventilator to blow a fuse? Not only does it not come as a surprise that these things happen, the film all but screams that we should wait for said things to happen.

Breathe has other odd choices. While Nitin Sawhney's score is at times appropriately lush, other times it seems wildly out of step with the scene. For example, when Bloggs has to get to the phone after accidentally blowing Robin's fuse, the music seems curiously cute and light for what should be a very serious moment. It's almost comedy music. That Lee Marvin's version of Wand'rin Star plays when Robin rides for the first time in the front seat or Robin twice enters a large gathering to Verdi's Triumphal March from Aida playing only punctuates the oddness of it all.

Andy Serkis in his directorial debut I think really wanted to make an inspirational and lush film. He got the latter part right but the former was floundering. The subject alone is not enough to make the film inspirational or moving. It should be a fascinating topic, but Breathe was so hung up on making Robin and Diana Cavendish this oh-so-perfect and loyal and 'courageous' couple that they and their circle end up rather dull and distant.

Breathe is a film more interested in being pretty than in being good. To its credit it is very pretty looking, as are Garfield and Foy. If the film had ended with the creation of the basic rudimentary portable breathing machine and spent more time introducing Robin and Diana, then we might have had a film.

Instead, what Breathe ended up as was either a case for canonization of Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish or worse, a spoof of so many 'inspirational' biopics. Either way, it's a poor way to chronicle this story.

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1930-1994

DECISION: F

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. A Review (Review #1280)

Image result for the lord of the rings the two towersTHE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS

Editor's Note: This review is of the theatrical version.

The Two Towers occupies a curious space in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as the midsection of this massive epic series. Neither beginning or end, The Two Towers has to serve as a bridge between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King. The questions become whether it stands on its own and whether it holds as said bridge while also working as a film independent of them. On the whole, The Two Towers holds up well, though it does give in at times to both some ill-placed comedy and a loss of focus.

Essentially picking up from The Fellowship of the Ring's ending, The Two Towers has two stories. The main story is of hobbits Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) continuing their journey to Mt. Doom in the forbidding world of Mordor to destroy The One Ring. That destruction would ensure the Dark Lord Sauron would be defeated and not destroy all Middle-Earth.

Frodo and Sam are lost, but an unlikely ally comes in the form of Gollum (Andy Serkis), the One Ring's former possessor who is himself possessed by his 'Precious'. He knows the way into Mordor, but Sam does not trust him. Gollum's motivations are as conflicted as the creature himself, for he struggles between seeing 'Master' Frodo as a friend and as his enemy keeping him from his 'Precious'. On their journey, they are captured by Faramir (David Wenham), who takes them to Gondor to gain his father's approval. Faramir happens to be brother to Boromir, killed in The Fellowship of the Ring, but unlike Boromir, Faramir has the strength of character to eventually let Frodo, Sam and Gollum continue on to Mordor, where Gollum may be more foe than friend.

Image result for the lord of the rings the two towersThe other story involves the continuing search for two other hobbits: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) search for them, encountering Orcs and The Rohirrim, fabled Riders of Rohan sent into exile by their king. In their search, they encounter the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), now restored to life as Gandalf the White. The search ended with Merry and Pippin accounted for, they all now press on first to save Theoden (King of Rohan) from the power of Saruman (Christopher Lee), then to fight off Saruman's army at the stronghold of Helm's Deep.

Merry and Pippin, having encountered Gandalf previously, find themselves with Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), a wise Ent (a sentient tree), who with his brother Ents does not appear interested in joining this war until he sees what Saruman has done to his fellow trees. Enraged, he lays siege to Isengard (one of the two towers).

Unbeknownst to both groups of hobbits, the Men at Helm's Deep, now joined by Elves in a last-ditch alliance, fight on. The only Elf that Aragorn thinks of is Arwen (Liv Tyler), the love of his mortal life who reluctantly agrees to join her fellow elves in exile at the urging of her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This causes a bit of a complication for Theoden's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), who has developed feelings for Aragorn. However, this Shieldmaiden of Rohan is conflicted both by her emotions and her efforts to save her people.


That's a lot of story for one film, yet the curious thing is that for all the Sturm und Drang in The Two Towers, story-wise we really don't move far. Frodo and Sam are closer to Mordor but not yet within it. The other members now move on to more pressing matters but are essentially in a prelude to the final confrontation with their enemy. Moreover, The Two Towers has a major issue: simultaneous stories.

It's interesting that Frodo and Sam disappear in a 35-minute gap, that gap filled by the Battle at Helm's Deep. That there is a gap of that length for ostensibly the main character isn't the problem. It's that when he does return one is almost surprised to remember he was there to start with. I found that a lot of The Two Towers has this jumping about that mostly works well but that also has us forget characters and situations until they come back.

Probably the worst was the transition between when Sam and Frodo avoid capture at Mordor's Black Gate and Merry and Pippin travelling with Treebeard. That jump jolted me, but at times The Two Towers seemed a bit unwieldy in trying to balance so much. For example, all of Arwen's scenes, though beautiful and tragic, did not seem to really fit well within the story. It wasn't wildly out-of-place but seemed a bit of a tangent.

Image result for the lord of the rings the two towersAdd to that that this is the first time I thought things did not look authentic. The dream/love scene between Aragorn and Arwen looked like a stage. A couple of the visual effects looked inauthentic. Then there was seeing Legolas essentially skateboard down a flight of stairs during the Battle. I figure viewers chuckled at that at the time but now, nearly twenty years on, it looked a bit too humorous.

I could have done without this little bit of levity as well as Gimli being the 'comic relief'. Again, it's not that comic relief couldn't work or even that Gimli could not be a funny character. It's just that too often Gimli's height was used as a source of comedy and it felt a bit forced for me.

I also think The Two Towers was far too fond of 'cliffhanger' moments when perhaps cutting them or changing them about could have worked better. At least twice did Legolas think a character was dead when he wasn't, and you can only suggest something so many times before people start questioning whether said character really is dead.

As a side note, I wondered if I was the only one who thought The Black Gates of Mordor looked like The Wicked Witch's Castle from The Wizard of Oz, down to its marching army all but singing "oh-WEE-oh, E-O-UM!"

To be fair The Two Towers has more positives than negatives. It introduced the entire Norse-like world of Rohan well, from its politics to its characters. Composer Howard Shore introduced a new theme for Rohan and what is exceptional about it is that while it's the same melody it can be both triumphant and tragic. When fully orchestrated the Rohan music can be stirring, but when left to a lowly violin it is deeply sad.

It also was a fantastic showcase for Gollum, this poor, sad creature so brilliantly performed. Serkis makes Gollum a creature of deep tragedy and sympathy, a fully realized and complex character. In turns frightened and frightening, Serkis' work is a credit to both his skills and Peter Jackson's directing.

It's a much better and stronger performance than Wenham's Faramir, who was almost blank to boring. Otto was strong as Eowyn, and Bernard Hill's Theoden too was strong in a wider performance: from the weak and defeated old man to a more vigorous (albeit slightly pompous) warrior king. I won't fault Rhys-Davies for making Gimli into a bit of a joke but I do wonder why he voiced Treebeard as well.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a very good film that sadly suffers from a bit too much weight and from being that bridge. It is not that it does not work but I would say that some things might have been better left off or reworked.

DECISION: B+

Monday, September 9, 2019

Agatha: A Review

AGATHA

For all the mysteries Dame Agatha Christie wrote about, there was one she never touched on: her own. The truth about Christie's eleven-day disappearance has never been solved, and the only witness took her secret to the grave. Regardless of how close or far the film was to the truth, Agatha, released three years after her death, would certainly have not pleased the very private Lady Mallowan.

Agatha is fanciful and steeped in the feel of a Christie mystery. It may not be historically accurate and in its own opening clear: "What follows is an imaginary solution to an authentic mystery".

Agatha Christie (Vanessa Redgrave) is a shy woman who has found reluctant success with her mystery novels, especially her most recent book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Visiting American journalist Wally Stanton (Dustin Hoffman) is intrigued by Christie, particularly the dichotomy of her timidity to her writing ability, but Mrs. Christie is not about to give interviews.

Especially now when she hears what she has dreaded from her husband, Colonel Archie Christie (Timothy Dalton): he wants a divorce to marry his secretary and mistress, Nancy Neele (Celia Gregory). Agatha is devastated and shocked, aware of Miss Neele's existence but somehow hoping she and Archie won't split up. Right after Archie leaves for the country to be with Miss Neele, Agatha packs a bag, leaves two letters for Archie and her secretary/friend Miss Fisher (Carolyn Pickles), and drives off.

Agatha Christie has vanished without a trace.

Image result for agatha 1979The disappearance of this celebrated mystery writer becomes front-page news, causing all sorts of wild speculation. Was she murdered? Has she gone bonkers? Where could she have gone?

In a haze, Agatha Christie goes to a Harrogate resort and checks in as 'Teresa Neele'. During her stay she makes friends with Evelyn Crawley (Helen Morse), who takes her to spa treatments. Stanton comes upon Christie and unlike others immediately recognizes her. Using a fake name himself of Curtis Schatz, Jr., he too befriends her and attempts to romance her too.

However, 'Teresa Neele' may or may not be in her right mind. She may also be playing a much more sinister and dangerous game against Nancy Neele, one that only Stanton can stop. In the end though, Agatha Christie is finally found, with Wally Stanton putting away his story of how he found her and Agatha and Archie Christie divorcing for him to marry Miss Neele.

In its favor Agatha has a certain style that echoes a Christie mystery: the steam rising from trains, the literally shocking moment that has a surprise, a little bit of romance and a somewhat despicable main suspect. I can't fault Agatha for having a certain style and for being entertaining, even if it is a thorough work of fiction.

No mention is made of the fact that Mrs. Christie was still reeling from her mother's death at the time her husband dumped her for another woman. Agatha Christie, already overwhelmed by this tragedy and dealing with her mother's estate, had to endure a more devastating blow. That is enough to drive an already depressed person into a near-total mental break.

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Instead, Agatha creates a lot of things to 'spice up' its story, an odd decision given that the disappearance is already enough to make for an interesting film. One aspect in that is to suggest Christie was apparently simultaneously bonkers and coldly calculating when it came to the other Miss Neele. We keep wondering whether Christie was genuinely sane or not.

Perhaps the most outlandish suggestion Agatha has is this supposed romance between Christie and Stanton/Schatz. To the film's credit there was no lurid love scene and only the tamest of kisses, but somehow the idea that these two had any romantic feelings seems absurd.

As a side note, Agatha almost emphasizes the half-foot difference between Hoffman and Redgrave to inadvertently comic results. The film has Christie tower over Stanton, making their dance highly curious to say the least.

The love theme for the film, Close Enough for Love, is a good song divorced from the film but does not seem to actually fit the movie. It fits the mood of Agatha: a bit mysterious and haunting, but seems out-of-place for two people who never showed they were attracted to each other, let alone in love.

Vanessa Redgrave gave a fine performance as Agatha Christie, a woman driven to wits end, struggling with so much in her haze. She's all nervousness and confusion mixed with some hesitancy and even a touch of frivolity. Hoffman seems a bit one-note as the arrogant Stanton and not once did I believe these two could be remotely in love. It's a pity that Dalton was reduced to a bit of a pantomime villain in his Archie, all barking and stomping about. He's a much finer actor than that.

I think one of Agatha's flaws is how things and characters seem to come and go. Evelyn Crawley is introduced and pretty much forgotten once she gets Christie to the spa. Same for Foster (Paul Brooke), Stanton's field man and fellow journalist covering the Christie search. Once they stop searching his character is never seen again.

Agatha has potential and her story should be revisited. I would recommend cutting out any suggestion of romance and focus instead on her activities in this sojourn of the mind. Near the end of Agatha, Stanton tells Christie that she was 'very silly but very clever'. That seems a good way to sum up Agatha itself.

1890-1976

DECISION: C+

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Music Room (Jalsaghar): A Review

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THE MUSIC ROOM (JALSAGHAR)

The Music Room, Satyajit Ray's portrait of a man whose time has long past him, is a haunting and beautiful film. It is like the best of Ray simultaneously universal and distinctly Indian.

Lord Roy (Chhabi Biswas) is now a shadow of his former self, still a major landowner but living in opulent poverty, his once-stately palace in wrack and ruin. Lord Roy, however, still holds a semblance of dignity despite his poverty both material and familial. Hearing music from his nouveau riche neighbor sends his memory back...

...back to when he was wealthier, with a wife and young son. Lord Roy, not a bad man, continues to hold to a stubborn view of the world where his status should grant him much. In a bizarre effort to "keep up with the Gangulis" (the moneylenders living nearby), he opts to hock his wife's jewels to throw a lavish celebration for entertainment in his equally lavish music room. Continuing his rivalry with the gauche Mahim Ganguli (Gangapada Bose), his entertaining unwittingly causes a major tragedy in his life.

Image result for the music room 1958Now a haunted man with very little to hold him, Lord Roy wanders about his dilapidated palace, no goals, no future. It isn't until he's visited by Ganguli, who invites him to another celebration where he will have the most expensive dancer/singer, that Lord Roy rises for one last hurrah. The 300 rupees that he has left, which should be dedicated to the gods, is going to find another use. While his servant Ananta (Kali Sarkar) is delighted that the music room will be reopened, Lord Roy's steward (Tulsi Lahari) is appalled.

With the celebration completed and Lord Roy showing up the boorish Ganguli one last time, Lord Roy sees that while dawn is breaking, it is really the sunset of his reign.

The Music Room is a portrait of a dying world where the new replaces the old, but the old will not go gentle into that good night. Ray manages to portray the clashes between the old, refined world of Lord Roy and the modern, coarser world of Ganguli in exceptionally subtle ways. For example, as this broken old nobleman looks upon both his elephant and what remains of his land in his elegant but ragged coat, we see a Ganguli and Co. truck pass by him. The symbolism of it all strikes you: the wealth Ganguli has built for himself cutting through the former world of this Zamindar (landowner).

Ray also does this by forever displaying the refined manners of Lord Roy with those of the unsophisticated Ganguli. In one concert, the latter clearly does not know what to do, and the boorishness of his manners to the elegant Roy demonstrate the contrasts of their worlds, one rising, one falling.

"I'm a self-made man. No pedigree", Ganguli tells Ananta as he waits to be granted an audience with Lord Roy. Ganguli has no shame in this, but in his way he sees that for all his wealth Ganguli is on a different level to the impoverished by elegant Roys.

Image result for the music room 1958The film also succeeds because of Biswas' performance. In many ways, Biswas echoes Orson Welles' performance in Citizen Kane. Like Charles Foster Kane, Lord Roy is lost in his own Xanadu, unaware of the world, haunted by tragedy.

When we first see him, he is alone, a forlorn figure who has to ask "What month is this?" He is a man lost in time now, but in the extended flashback we see him more active, still not as wealthy as he once was but with a spark of life.

Biswas and Ray do not make Lord Roy evil or heartless. He is essentially a decent man, but one with the fatal flaw of pride. When for example he agrees to let Ganguli ply his trade as a moneylender on his land, he sets out limits on what Ganguli can and cannot do such as ask for a high return rate. Lord Roy also loves his son deeply and in some ways is a child himself.

It was not with evil intents that he insists on summoning his wife and heir back for a lavish celebration despite an incoming storm. However, with Ray's masterful adaptation of a Bengali short story, we see the foreshadowing used to great effect, and once he sees the end results of his actions, your heart does break for Lord Roy.

The Music Room actually seems very sympathetic to Lord Roy, giving him something of a triumph at the end but also dooming him to be brought down by progress. The world of Lord Roy is fading, falling to a new class of elites, but his tragedy is in inability or refusal to adapt or change. 

As for the music, while some of Vilayat Khan's work is not to my liking, the final dance number is quite effective.

The Music Room is again a beautiful film, brilliantly acted and directed. One understands that push-and-pull between attempting to keep up appearances and knowing one has to bend to reality. A portrait of a world and a man in decline, The Music Room will not fail to move the viewer who explores it.

DECISION: A+

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Birth of a Nation (2016): A Review


THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)

The 1915 D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation is simultaneously a brilliant piece of cinema and a revolting piece of trash. A century-plus later, writer/director/actor Nate Parker takes the title to one of film's turning points almost as a response to the elevation of the Ku Klux Klan for his own The Birth of a Nation. Putting aside the controversies that engulfed both Parker and the film, dooming whatever Oscar hopes both had, this The Birth of a Nation would have failed on its own, a poor telling of what should have been a much more compelling story.

Since his birth young slave Nat Turner was almost preordained for greatness. Even his owner Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) sees it, going so far as to teach Nat to read (though he's allowed to read only one book, The Bible). 

However, Mrs. Turner's late husband declared Nat would be better suited to work as a field hand on the plantation, so off he goes. However, he is still endowed with great spiritual power to where he becomes the de facto preacher at the Turner plantation. His skills are so great that soon the white planters persuade Nat's owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to essentially 'rent' Nat to preach to their own slaves.

Of course, Nat's preaching has an ulterior motive: to keep the slaves in line and have them think it is God's Will they be good and happy slaves. Sam takes Nat to the various plantations and appears shocked at how awful some of the other plantation owners are with their human chattel, but when Nat dares to baptize a white man, Sam has no problem having Nat whipped.

Nat, who by now has had a long marriage to Cherry-Ann (Aja Naomi King) and a daughter, senses he is God's elect, a new Moses to set His people free from bondage. Gathering a small group of fellow Turner slaves, he awaits for a sign from God. It comes when we have a solar eclipse, and with that, he begins his slave revolt by first killing Samuel.

It's a short rebellion, one that costs Nat Turner his life at the gallows.

Image result for the birth of a nation 2016What is curious about The Birth of a Nation is how remarkably quiet it is. For a story that involves a revolt led by a powerful preacher who thought himself divinely appointed, the film is shockingly boring.

I think the fault lies squarely with Parker. He could have acted. He could have written. He could have directed. Somehow, he could not do all three. Parker's performance was rather weak. His Nat Turner is not a very compelling or charismatic figure. As played by Parker, this Nat Turner couldn't inspire a church raffle let alone a slave revolt. We are told Nat was a man of powerful oratory and an almost mystical connection to God, but it never shows up on screen.

There was a rather dull manner to Parker's Nat Turner, and somehow it seeped to almost every else's performance. I figure this is the result of Parker as director, for nearly the whole cast had a rather dull manner to them. Only King as Cherry-Ann had some spark to her, and The Birth of a Nation might have done well to focus on her versus her surprisingly dull husband.

In the secondary roles, Hammer was probably the worst. His Sam too was rather boring but there also seemed to be a sense that the film never decided whether he was a man of conscience or not. Sometimes he looked appalled and almost sympathetic to how other slaves were treated, defending Nat whenever he was attacked. Other times he seemed just as bad or even worse, such as when he had no problem having another slave's wife brought to keep a white visitor company.

Visually, The Birth of a Nation too suffered, with a lot of gray tones dominating save for when he paints the cotton fields as almost beautiful, which I find a bit bizarre. Parker seemed too interested in attempting to build up Nat Turner as this figure with almost mystical powers but apparently not bothering to show in any way how inspiring he was.

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It was bad enough that when he brings that group of slaves around a campfire to tell them how God was telling Nat to revolt, Parker's Nat looked more bored than fiery. The way that scene was shot however had me half-expected Nat Turner to say, "Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story 'The Birth of a Nation'".

The actual slave revolt was like much of the film itself: dry, boring, with whatever excitement such a story should have sucked out in some curious effort to be grand and epic. It is curious that the violence of both slavery and the slave revolt was somewhat played down, though to his credit Parker had a shocking moment of a slave force-fed by having said slave's teeth chiseled out. It was not overtly graphic but gave enough to leave a powerful after-effect.

Nat Turner should have made for a fascinating biopic. His story and that of his slave rebellion is one that should be better know. The Birth of a Nation however, does both of them wrong by being sluggish, with no sense that the Nat Turner on screen was a powerful man driven by visions from God to free His people. Hopefully, Nat Turner's story will get a better vehicle than this Birth of a Nation.

Nat Turner: 1800-1831

DECISION: D+

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Charulata (1964): A Review

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CHARULATA

After the success of The Apu Trilogy Indian director Satyajit Ray turned to a woman's point of view. Charulata, based on Indian writer & poet Rabindranath Tagore's story The Broken Nest, may be a bit slow for some. However, with some brilliant performances and insights into these characters' lives, Charulata is still an excellent film.

In Raj Era India, wealthy liberal newspaper publisher Bhupati (Shailen Mukherjee) loves his wife Charulata (Madhabi Mukherjee, no relation) but he is too involved with his work to give her much attention. She is forever looking out into the world with her opera glasses, and even the company of her sister-in-law Manda (Gitali Roy) offers no real company.

While Bhupati and Charulata's brother Umapada (Shyamal Ghoshal) continue working on The Sentinel (Bhupati publishing/editing, Umapada handling the cash), an unexpected visitor comes. It is Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee), Bhupati's cousin recently from university. He's a generally happy-go-lucky fellow but also a skilled writer and poet. Bhupati urges Amal to keep his 'Charu' company and perhaps encourage her to take up writing.

Amal awakens Charulata's fierce intellect and writing skills, but he also inadvertently awakens desires. She is fiercely conflicted on both the sensual and intellectual desires and rivalry she has for and against Amal, who is oblivious to her yearnings.

Soon however a series of events force everyone's hands. Umapada has absconded with The Sentinel's cash, and Amal realizes that he is both jealous of Charulata's superior skills and her emotional desires. He does not want to betray anyone, especially given Bhupati's ruin, and leaves. Charulata is devastated but keeps it together, even encouraging Bhupati to go on with The Sentinel. They come to a deal: the paper will cover politics in English, everything else (including her writings) in Bengali.

However, once they return from holiday they find a letter from Amal. Thinking she is out of sight, Charulata cries out to Amal, begging to know why he left. Bhupati spies this and is devastated. When he returns, they do take their hands, but in a series of freeze-frames it is a hesitant moment.


In many ways, Charulata reminds me of Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Both are about women who discover their intellectual and sexual awakenings, though there is no actual sex in the former. This is Indian cinema of course. Charulata is in many ways A Woman's Story, that of 'the fair sex' that finds itself starved for an intellectual and sensual stimulant that is stifled due to her gender.

Bhupati is not a cruel or even thoughtless man. Even with his liberalism, to a certain point he is oblivious to his wife's abilities and desires. Amal, tragically, openly inspired her intellectual awakening but accidentally inspired Charulata's physical yearnings that she had little thought of. The fact that it was all unintentional makes it all the more tragic.

Satyajit Ray's adaptation and direction is excellent. Madhabi Mukherjee's performance is one for the ages. With just a glance she can communicate Charulata's yearnings: her desire to create, her desire for children (and the method of acquiring them). As she swings while singing, the camera holds to her going back and forth, and we get a glimpse into her essence where she knows she can write as well if not better than Amal but who also hesitates.

Her character is best showcased whenever she looks through her opera glasses, symbolic of how far away she is from the world and artificially brings it closer to her. Mukherjee gives a simply brilliant performance that actresses would do well to study.

Image result for charulataChatterjee was also excellent as Amal, a decent man with writing skills who was the accidental obscure object of desire. Whether he is joyfully singing or realizes Charulata's true feelings he simply does wonders with his role. Shailen Mukherjee is equal as Bhupati, his scene of finding his wife crying over his cousin both heartbreaking and deeply moving.

Ray also wrote the music, which is quite beautiful as is his directing and screenplay. Here is where however I should pause to comment on something that might prove hard for viewers: pacing.

Charulata is about an hour and a half but it feels much, much longer. This is not a film to watch for a nice quiet afternoon. It can at times feel a bit of a slog to get through, so I can understand if people find it a bit boring given how it feels almost dragging at times.

However, I think that if one has patience with it, the viewer will be rewarded. Again, I can understand how the film might feel long, but if you do watch it, watch it when you are not attempting to relax.

Charulata has that one major impediment in that it feels much longer than it actually is. It can try one's patience, but if one enjoys tender stories of thwarted love and intellectual awakenings, coupled with brilliant performances, Charulata will be worth the effort.

DECISION: A-

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. A Review (Review #1275)

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Editor's Note: This review is of the theatrical version.

The Lord of the Rings is perhaps one of the Twentieth Century's most enduring literary epics, a sweeping tale of a fantasy world filled with extraordinary creatures. As such, a cinematic adaptation of this massive work would be daunting. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of a cinematic trilogy to J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, and to its credit it more than meets the challenge of creating this universe while keeping to the novel's themes of loyalty and courage despite great dangers and odds.

After a prologue explaining the history of The One Ring and how it came to a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), the film begins at Bilbo's 111th birthday. His nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the entire of The Shire is waiting for this event as well as the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), with whom Bilbo had an unseen adventure.

Bilbo's party is a wild success, culminating in his 'disappearing act' via the Ring, whose power he is unaware of. Gandalf fears it is The One Ring, and when he discovers that it is he urges a reluctant Frodo to journey to Rivendell, home of the powerful and ethereal Elves to see what can be done to destroy it. If it returned to its master, the Dark Lord Sauron, it would destroy all Middle-Earth.

Off Frodo goes with his gardener/friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), later joined by two other hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Sauron's minions are hunting Frodo down, putting all their lives in danger. Gandalf is temporarily held prisoner by his frenemy, Saruman (Christopher Lee), another wizard who has fallen under Sauron's power.

Image result for the lord of the rings the fellowship of the ringIn their journeys to both Rivendell and later Sauron's land of Mordor, where the One Ring can be destroyed by being cast into the fires of Mount Doom, the hobbits are joined by others to form 'the fellowship of the ring' created at a Rivendell council by Elrond (Hugo Weaving). There is Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom) and two humans, Boromir (Sean Bean) son of the Stewart of Gondor, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a wanderer who is the true heir to the Gondor throne and descent of Isildur, the man who defeated Sauron ages ago only to weaken at the thought of destroying the Ring.

Passing through several lands including that of the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the Fellowship falters before Gandalf falls at the mines of Moria. Boromir nearly kills Frodo to get at the Ring but pulls himself together long enough to save Merry and Pippin before he is killed by Sauron's minions. They take the two hobbits as instructed by Saruman, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas follow to rescue them, leaving Frodo and Sam to take the arduous journey to Mordor, quietly pursued by the Ring's former owner, the creature known as Gollum (Andy Serkis).

It's extraordinary that The Fellowship of the Ring has such a massive plot just in the first film, so much so that the theatrical release runs nearly three hours. However, it is to the credit of director Peter Jackson along with his co-screenwriters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh that the film rarely if ever lags. Jackson keeps the film flowing smoothly to where one does not notice how lengthy the film is.

For example, the first seven minutes serve as a de facto history lesson about the One Ring and the following half hour is devoted purely to the bucolic world of The Shire. This is a pretty substantial time taken up before getting to the main gist of The Fellowship of the Ring. However, the care that the film takes in setting up this world allows us to more than just see this fantastical world.

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It allows us to immerse ourselves fully in it, allows us to essentially be part of it. It also allows us to get to know these characters, and this is an element where Jackson really excelled. There is not a bad performance anywhere in Fellowship of the Ring. Each actor who plays an Elf is rather ethereal and mystical, punctuated by a slow and graceful speaking pattern. Liv Tyler as Arwen, Elvish princess and Aragorn's love interest, has a predominantly breathy delivery but here it makes sense. Even when in warrior princess mode her delivery is still in keeping with her Elvish roots.

Though their roles are smaller both Weaving and especially Blanchett are phenomenal. Galadriel comes across as a very mysterious figure: wise yet dangerous but ultimately helpful, not the feared Elf-Witch of terrible power Gimli imagines.

Lee is sensational too as Saruman, the wise and powerful wizard brought down by his own lust for power, matched by McKellen's more tender yet still fearsome Gandalf. Holm, while also in a smaller role, does wonderful as Bilbo: part bumbling innocent, part dangerous when tempted to keep The One Ring.

Bean's line about "one does not just walk into Mordor" may be the source of endless gifs but he too brings Boromir's basic decency mixed with the weakness of men into his performance. Mortensen's Aragorn has that mix of anger, fear and regret. Whether playing a fierce fighter or a tender lover with Arwen he does exceptionally well.

Image result for the lord of the rings the fellowship of the ringThe four hobbits are in a class by themselves. So much rests on Wood as Frodo, and with his large expressive eyes and quiet manner he makes Frodo this reluctant warrior, decent, honorable and appropriately scared. Astin more than matches him as Samwise, loyal friend. Their double-act of the upper-class Frodo and working-class Sam compliment each other.

So does the double act of Monaghan and Boyd as Merry and Pippin: the latter being the naive, somewhat dimwitted fellow and the former the straight man forever putting the oblivious fellow down.

The Fellowship of the Ring also has some simply brilliant work on all technical levels. The visual effects still hold up nearly twenty years later. The set and costume designs do create this magical world that feels authentic and lived-in despite the fantastical nature of Middle-Earth. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography captures all aspects of Middle-Earth: the lushness of The Shire, the darkness of Saruman's stronghold of Isengard and of Mordor, the mystical worlds of Rivendell and Galadriel's Lothlorien. Howard Shore's score is almost brilliant in showcasing the innocence of the Hobbit's world in the Shire to the ethereal Elvish lands and the dangers the travelers face.

While the closing song May It Be got the lion's share of attention, I would say that the other Enya contribution of AnĂ­ron is better: the love theme between Aragorn and Arwen enhancing a beautiful moment and complimenting Mortensen & Tyler's performance along with Lesnie's visuals.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a massive undertaking and breathtaking in scope. It also manages an excellent cliffhanger and keeps the themes of love, loyalty and perseverance against overwhelming odds. I confess I got emotional at the end as the fellowship breaks up but in particular Frodo and Sam hold on. Quibble if you must about things being left off but on the whole the film more than manages to capture Tolkien's universe as well as could be thought possible.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent way to begin this fantasy epic.

DECISION: A+