Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Tolkien: A Review


It should not surprise anyone that after the wild success of The Lord of the Rings and its various spin-offs and franchises, the creator of Middle-Earth would get his own biopic. Tolkien, the biopic of this epic series' creator, sadly is more interested in doing shout-outs to Tolkien's work than in diving into the man himself.

With the overarching story of his time in the trenches of World War I, Tolkien hops between the horrors of the war and his early life and college years. We spend some time in his childhood before he and his brother became orphans, then when they became boarders while the Tolkien brothers go school.

Here Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) meets some of the most important people in his life. There is Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), a quietly passionate woman with whom Ronald falls madly in love. There is a hitch though: Edith is not Catholic, which for Tolkien's legal guardian Father Francis (Colm Meaney) is a bridge too far.

Then there are three fellow students who like 'Tollers', have a passion for art, language and literature. There's the Headmaster's son, Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson), who loves to paint. There's the composer Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney) and poet Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle). They form their own 'dead poets' society' and even the separation between two going to Oxford and two going to Cambridge does not separate them.

Tolkien has given up Edith to both their regrets, but true love cannot be denied. Neither can Tolkien's gift for language, where he eventually finds himself under the mentorship of Professor Wright (Derek Jacobi). Then comes the First World War, where not everyone will survive.

Tolkien ends with Ronald and Edith united at last, and the beginning of a cute children's story that was to change fantasy literature forever.

Image result for tolkien movieTolkien can best be described as 'respectable', which is a terrible thing to be when covering what I imagine was a more complicated and complex life and work as that of the subject. There is a stateliness that makes the film sluggish, boring and even a bit confusing.

We are led to think that the 'tea club' Tolkien and the others formed brought about great works and inspiration, but we never really see them connect with each other in a way that shows they prodded the others' work. This is not The Inklings: Junior Chapter. This 'fellowship' talked a lot about their love of language and art but they as individuals never stood out. I more often than not forgot who was whom.

A major part of Tolkien involves J.R.R. Tolkien searching the trenches for Geoffrey, but nothing in Tolkien suggested Geoffrey was particularly closer to Tolkien than the others. As such, why would he search for Geoffrey than for Christopher or Robert? Even more curious was that, intentional or not, there is a vague suggestion that Geoffrey, despite the surprisingly chaste manner they have towards college girls, is in love with Tollers: a longing glance, a touch of the arm.

You can see the film again and again trying for something and failing every time. You see this in the faux-fellowship. You see this in what is meant to be a romantic lunch between Tolkien and Edith. Despite everyone's best efforts, it comes across as stilted, forced and unreal.

It's curious that Tolkien is a weak movie with good acting, or at least as good an acting as David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford's script and Dome Karukoski's directing allows. Hoult has a wonderfully expressive manner and works his best to make Tolkien a complicated character. You can see him try again and again against weak material. Collins similarly attempted to make Edith more strong and less the girl who lovingly looks at her man.

Credit should also be given to the young actors playing the junior versions of Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman (Harry Gilby, Adam Bregman, Albie Marber and Ty Tennant respectively). It's not their fault they were essentially asked to do Dead Poets Society: British Edition. Fortunately, none of them are old enough to have seen it when it came out so they may not have had the callbacks Tolkien saddled them with.

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Speaking of callbacks, Tolkien seems set on bringing up his work to us. The younger actors probably weren't around when The Lord of the Rings trilogy first began, but Tolkien never lost an opportunity to remind us of the films and/or books. This is done primarily during the World War I scenes, which Tolkien for reasons of its own jumped back-and-forth to. We see hints of Mordor as the trenches (I think at one point complete with an Eye of Sauron). We see dragons/flamethrowers, cavalries similar to the Riders of Rohan to where one would think Aragorn would pop up to inspire them to charge at the Germans.

The fact that Tolkien's batman is named 'Sam' does not help matters.

Even Thomas Newman's score seemed dead-set on echoing Howard Shore's massive Lord of the Rings score.

Perhaps the oddest element in Tolkien was how it never touched on one of the most important elements of his life: his faith. Tolkien was a devout Catholic with his views shaping every element of his life and works. We could have seen internal struggles between his Catholicism and his love for Edith, but that was portrayed more as a petty inconvenience in Tolkien than a genuine crisis of conscience. Why Tolkien opted to downplay one of the defining forces in Tolkien's life we may never learn.

Tolkien was respectable but very hodgepodge in manner. Jumbled, listless, and a bit hollow, it may make for mild diversion but it is not the biopic that this literary figure merits.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Gotham: The Beginning...Review

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The Beginning..., the Gotham series finale, had an extremely difficult task to accomplish.

It had to wrap up all our stories and character arcs.
It had to set up what we know as the Batman mythos versus the Bruce Wayne evolution.
It had to make sense.

The Beginning...mostly accomplished all this, not an easy task given the brevity of this season. Some things were not good, but fortunately the good outweighed the bad.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) has left Gotham and traveled to what appears to be Tibet.

We jump to ten years later. Commissioner Gordon (Ben McKenzie) is about to retire just as his frenemy Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is about to be released from prison. Pengy's other frenemy, Edward Nygma aka The Riddler (Cory Michael Smith) is in Arkham Asylum, where his only real treat is in taking shots at a catatonic Jeremiah Valeska (Cameron Monaghan). Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is now apparently both sane and a redhead as well as a good mother to her and Gordon's daughter Barbara Lee Gordon. Selina Kyle (Lili Simmons) is a cat-woman burglar.

Each in their way is waiting for Bruce Wayne to return and open the new Wayne Tower. However, it looks like there is mischief and murder. An elaborate plot where Pengy and Riddler are unwitting pawns is unleashed, a plot where Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) is also a patsy and that may cause the downfall of Gotham itself. Only a very strange figure dressed as a bat may stop this mad plot from someone who may not be as out-of-it as he appears.

At long last, with some help from Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) and Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), Gordon may not yet retire as he contemplates 'a friend': he that is to be known as "Batman".

Image result for gotham the beginningPart of me understands the pressure Gotham was under to wrap everything up, so I'm cutting them some slack. There is also the issue of having so many villains to deal with, and on the whole I think The Beginning...did a pretty good job with the four main ones.

As a side note, how I wish my favorite, Mr. Freeze, had come back, but one can't have everything can one.

My issue is less with the flash-forward than it is with the overall plot. Somehow, echoing Dumb and Dumberer and Galaxy Quest is not a good twist. On this show, it always stops on "one".

Even at the end of The Beginning..., we could not get them to admit that Jeremiah is The Joker. I don't think we heard them use the name 'The Joker' in The Beginning..., and this fan-dance about Jeremiah's eventual identity was one of Gotham's low points.

It kept teasing viewers about the Clown Prince of Crime, first with Jerome and then with Jeremiah, never saying his name. It was pretty clear where that plot line was going. I'll give Monaghan credit in that he was strong as the menacing, monstrous "whoever he was".

It was nice to see the double-act of Taylor and Smith together one last time, where they managed to get moments of humor into things. They are the other Dynamic Duo.

To my mind, Taylor should be considered the best Penguin on screen and Smith the second-best after Frank Gorshin's take on the character. The Beginning..., while giving us at long-last a monocle-wearing pudgy Pengy, kept to Taylor's version of a needy, mommy-obsessed and troubled man with a flare for the dramatic.

Image result for gotham the beginningSeriously Pengy, why take Gordon to the docks?

We even get callbacks to the past, as when Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) finds himself abducted and strapped to a bomb again. Even he seems incredulous at this repeat, and the whole thing was badly handled in my view.

As a side note, seriously...why would Gotham citizens vote Mayor James back in again?

As much as McKenzie did well here, I wish he had kept the mustache throughout the whole episode. That was just baiting the audience. We can take a stab as to how Bonkers Babs got her mind back. Morena Baccarin as Lee Thompkins had very little to do unfortunately.

There were other elements I wasn't keen on. I was troubled by having the Arkham guard have his blood splash over a family picture. That just bothered me, a reminder of how sadistic things can get. That was nothing compared to holding Barbara Gordon over a tub of toxic waste. Even the suggestion of torturing children is way too far for me.

Finally, I know they were going for a big reveal to close out the show, which to be fair to them was what they promised when Gotham premiered. However, I think they went a bit overboard constantly teasing this 'where's Bruce?' bit, though again to be fair they were in a bit of a jam.

I will give credit to Simmons, who filled in as the adult Catwoman. She strongly resembles Camren Bicondova and her scene with an unseen Bruce Wayne/Batman worked quite well. Credit too for Mazouz who had to perform only with his voice.

Gotham's cinematography, always one of the best aspects of the show, similarly too worked well.

The Beginning... is a good though not great way to end Gotham. A bit rushed to where perhaps a two-hour finale might have done some good, on the whole it did a good enough job to finish a series that got a bit lost but eventually found its way from its dark knight of the soul.


Next: Gotham: The Complete Fifth Season

Monday, May 13, 2019

Doris Day: A Personal Remembrance

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In her first public appearance in twenty years for Turner Classic Movies' Private Screenings, Betty Hutton reflected on her life and work. "My private life has been hell, really hell. But my professional life was so wonderful because the audiences understood I was working from my heart".

The same could be said about Doris Day, who died today, a month after celebrating her 97th birthday.

Her first out of four husbands was so violently abusive he nearly killed her and their yet-unborn son. Her third husband, the only one she was widowed by, left her virtually penniless and had secretly signed her for a television series without her knowledge or input. Her only son Terry Melcher preceded her in death in 2004. One of her closest friends and the costar most identified with her, Rock Hudson, became the first major face of AIDS at a time when the disease was virtually unknown.

Despite all these blows and setbacks, like the sunny persona she had onscreen, Doris Day persevered and eventually came back stronger than before. I once made a case that The Doris Day Show demonstrated that despite being held up as 'the eternal virgin' so mocked by Rizzo in Grease, Day was more than capable of playing smart, independent women and could have adapted to the times.

She had the talent. Of Day's singing there has never been a doubt. Sentimental Journey, her first big hit, captured the mood of a nation coming to the end of the Second World War, nostalgia with hope for the future. Que Sera, Sera from The Man Who Knew Too Much is the song most identified with her, and it makes sense. While it sounds like a lullaby, Que Sera, Sera is full of wisdom about life, accepting and embracing the only constant in life: change.

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I am puzzled as to why Day was dismissed as an actress, even by herself. She was a natural in musicals and comedies. Day had a nice, pleasant manner starting from her debut in Romance on the High Seas, which gave her another excellent song, It's Magic. She was the kid sister we could love and relate to in On Moonlight Bay and its sequel By the Light of the Silvery Moon. She could be the fiery Calamity Jane in the eponymous film.

There was a light of wholesome sexiness in her films, where she could be highly attractive but still keep the wolves at bay. We see this best in two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson: Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back (the third, Send Me No Flowers, had them as a married couple versus adversaries). 

However, in the few dramatic ventures she agreed to, she could more than hold her own as a legitimate and exceptional actress. See her performance as Ruth Etting in the biopic Love Me or Leave Me. She goes toe-to-toe with James Cagney as this songstress with a violent husband and struggles to be someone. One could say Love Me or Leave Me is closer to Day's own life than Calamity Jane.

See her performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much. For me, one of her best moments there is when she discovers her son has been kidnapped just as she is slipping under the sedative her husband (James Stewart) gave her. The fear, anguish and confusion swirling within and around her is a terrifying and heartbreaking moment.

There's also Midnight Lace as the terrorized woman someone is trying to kill, again letting the confusion and chaos of her situation compel you to see how she survives and sympathizing with her plight.

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Doris Day was wonderful in all those musical and comedies. A personal favorite is The Glass-Bottom Boat where she's mistaken for a Soviet spy. I saw it as a child and was howling with laughter, though I'm not sure I got all the jokes. I did fall in love with her in On Moonlight Bay, and who wouldn't? Not only was she pretty...she played baseball! What more can a man ask from a woman?

However, as wonderful as she was in the comedies and musicals, her range as a dramatic actress was never fully tapped, and I think that was by her own design.

The thing was she was fine with her squeaky-clean persona no matter how square it might have seemed. She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (even if I think she would have been sensational in the role). She turned down offers to perform in Las Vegas or record more updated music such as the Motown she was fond of. Outside a few television specials and Doris Day's Best Friends, I think she just decided there were more important things in life than fame and a film/television career.

In particular, her long work for animals. Doris Day's Best Friends wasn't a chat show where she talked to her famous friends. Instead, it was about her real best friends: the animals whose welfare she devoted the rest of her life to.

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Day had retired from the public eye for decades, not exactly a recluse but no longer involved in the entertainment industry or its trappings. Her last film was in 1968, her final television series, Doris Day's Best Friends, was in 1986. Her last major public appearance was in 1989 when she accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. She consistently turned down offers of an American Film Institute and Kennedy Center Honors as well as, I understand, an Honorary Academy Award (though that one I cannot be certain of).

And yet here we are, reflecting on an extraordinary life, one filled with heartache and tragedy but also with a lot of laughs, joys and a song in our hearts. I don't think Doris Day would want us to remember the tumult that came in those 97 years: abusive husbands, near-bankruptcy, ups-and-downs in her career, tragic deaths of family and friends.

I also don't think she would care to have too much focus on her film and television career, even if perhaps she might begrudgingly accept that is what we most likely will remember her for. I think she would be happy to know she made so many people, myself included, so very happy with her work.

I think she would have been proud of her songbook and that some of her songs are now standards that may be duplicated but never equaled: Sentimental Journey, It's MagicSecret Love from Calamity Jane, Que Sera, Sera, I'll Never Stop Loving You from Love Me or Leave Me.

If anything, I think her work with animals is what I think Doris Day would want to be best remembered.

For myself, I think she should be remembered for all that, for being an extraordinary singer, an actress of incredible range, and a woman who loved all creatures great and small.

For all intents and purposes, Doris Day was never a prisoner of her image. She was herself, and we thank her so very much.

We'll never stop loving her.


Sunday, May 5, 2019

A Night to Remember (1958): A Review

Image result for a night to remember 1958A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A Night to Remember has been praised as the most accurate film of the Titanic sinking up to that point. Stripping away almost all the melodrama to focus on the final hours of the doomed ocean-liner, A Night to Remember still leaves an emotional impact and leaves one devastated at the true horror of that fateful night.

We get brief scenes of three separate family groups: a titled man and wife, a newlywed middle-class pair and a trio of Irish immigrants. We also see the pre-voyage preparations of Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) we go straight to the night of Sunday, April 14, 1912.

The Titanic has run against an iceberg, having accidentally ignored the warnings of another ship, the Californian, about the ice. The Californian has stopped due to the ice but there is no telegraph operator to hear Titanic's distress signal. A ship further away, the Carpathia, does hear it but at four hours away it will not get there in time as Titanic has at most two hours.

On board, Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) and ship designer Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) know two things the passengers and crew do not: there are not enough lifeboats for everyone on board and that help will come too late if at all. Slowly the passengers are loaded onto the lifeboats, with class still coming into things.

Image result for a night to remember 1958The first class passengers almost in unison become irritated by what they see as unnecessary fuss. The middle class passengers are concerned. The steerage passengers are kept locked in until the first and second class passengers get onto the boards. Some first and second class passengers refuse to get on lifeboats for a variety of reasons from not wanting to leave their husbands to just wanting to bother.

While others keep gambling and reading, eventually the severity of the crisis becomes clear and as Titanic goes down to its watery grave the panic and chaos grows.

The Carpathia finally arrives to note that there are only 705 survivors both passengers and crew, with 1500 dead in one of the worst maritime disasters. In a postscript we learn that due to Titanic, all ships now are required to have a radio operator on duty 24/7, there must be enough lifeboats for every passenger and a maritime ice warning system was created.

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A Night to Remember is powerfully effective due to it moving away from the melodrama the setting presents and focusing instead of the events themselves. There are moments of drama and/or romance to be sure. There is a brief scene of a male passenger going into a female passenger's cabin. There is the steerage romance between steerage passenger James Farrell (Patrick McAlliney) and a Polish girl. However, the latter is there to give us characters to focus on as later Farrell and the men he was travelling with help the Polish girl and her mother escape to a lifeboat.

People at this time were almost fifty years removed from the Titanic sinking, so while many survivors had already perished and those who remembered it were fewer, there were still enough people familiar with the story alive to fill in blanks. For most of A Night to Remember, few names were used. For example, Margaret "Molly" Brown (Tucker Maguire) was never mentioned by name but the brassy nouveau-riche American woman was clearly her. The Chairman (Frank Lawton) forever disbelieving and interfering with the crew was also the notorious J. Bruce Ismay.

Curiously, Ismay almost comes across as good man...almost, his act of saving himself less a cowardly effort to save himself than one of being allowed to board to see the ship he kept insisting was unsinkable take thousands to a watery grave.

Roy Baker's directing was quite calm, letting things flow smoothly and as realistically as possible. There were not big dramatic moments but several small dramatic ones. The scene where Mrs. Ida Straus declines to board a lifeboat preferring to end her days with her beloved husband Isidor is brief but quiet and moving.

A Night to Remember may look familiar to those who have seen the better-known Titanic, especially with Andrews looking shell-shocked in the first-class smoking room and offering advice on surviving to the young lovers. A Night to Remember, more interested in the fatal night and with almost a documentary-like feel (complete with a mix of archival footage and clips from the notorious Nazi film Titanic) is quiet, graceful, moving, impactful and informative on this great tragedy.


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Pygmalion (1938): A Review


George Bernard Shaw did not think of Pygmalion as a romance as I understand it. In fact, he thought the idea that his male and female leads would end up together a thoroughly silly idea. As with many things involving Bernard Shaw, I disagree with our playwright. this adaptation of Pygmalion is quite witty, almost wholly well-acted and surprisingly brief.

Haughty linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) makes a wager with a fellow language enthusiast, Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can turn Covent Garden Cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) into a virtual duchess. Intrigued, Eliza takes him at his word and offers to pay for elocution lessons so she can work at a flower shop.

Higgins plunges into this with the joy of a child making mud pies, but he is quite brutal to Eliza, constantly berating her skills and keeping her up all hours to perfect her diction and manner. A trial run at Higgins' mother's house is a disaster: Eliza's words are polished but still reveal her lack of education. She however has entranced young Freddy Hill (David Tree). More lessons ensue, exhausting and taxing Eliza until her triumph at an embassy ball.

Her triumph is short-lived however, as Higgins makes clear he really does not think much of her. She makes the decision to leave him, shocking the arrogant man. Could he have fallen for his own creation? He seems quite sad at the thought she might not return (though he'd never admit it). She does come back, but on what terms for both we can only speculate.

Image result for pygmalion 1938Pygmalion does a remarkable job of keeping things brisk. This is due in no small part to the pacing by its co-directors. From the dramatic moments of Eliza's despair to the comedy bit involving Freddy taking Higgins' hat things move quite well. Exactly how much credit should go to Anthony Asquith or Howard himself is unclear, though for my part I will give it to Asquith because of Howard's performance.

I understand Higgins is meant to be a brute and thoroughly unsympathetic, but at times Howard was to my mind wildly over-the-top in his reactions. It was as if Howard decided Pygmalion was more farce than comedy. His wild gestures made it hard for me to take him seriously.

Hiller on the other hand was thoroughly delightful as Eliza, this squashed cabbage leaf turned elegant lady. Her transformation is a mix of innocent, even naivete and quiet strength. She plays comedy quite well, such as at the tea party where she elegantly replies to Freddy's request to take a walk in the park with "A walk? Not bloody likely. I'm going in a taxi". It is both Eliza's thorough lack of understanding about what she said and how she said it that sells the comedy.

When it comes to the more dramatic moments, Hiller is equally adept, and she does not even need Shaw's brilliant verbiage to play it. When she goes back to Covent Garden as the more refined version of herself, she observes that world in which she no longer has a place in. It's a beautifully played moment.

Image result for pygmalion 1938The other performers were quite good. Tree was appropriately sappy and insipid as Freddy, forever besotted by the enchanting Eliza. Sunderland's Pickering was proper and polite, and Marie Lohr as Mrs. Higgins played things in a quietly exasperated manner. Surprisingly, while Wilfrid Lawson's Alfred Doolittle had decent moments he was only in two scenes and could easily have been cut from the film, as could Leueen MacGrath's Clara, Freddy's sister.

The pacing is also helped by the series of montages for both the elocution and etiquette lessons. These were done by David Lean, who would become one of the Great Directors himself.

No commentary on Pygmalion would be complete without commenting on its screenplay by Shaw himself with W.P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis and Ian Dalrymple. There is a wit mixed with cynicism that pervades in the film. Commenting on a rival linguistics expert at the embassy ball, Higgins remarks "He can learn any language in a fortnight. Knows dozens of them--the sure mark of a fool".

Pygmalion is opaque on the future of Eliza and Henry. The ending works despite Shaw's dislike for it because it is ambiguous. It suggest a happy ending but it does not openly declare one. There is a wealth of possibilities that allow for us to think what we will.

Will they find love with each other? Will they part and if they do will it be as friends or rivals?

Will we ever really learn what actually in the end happens to our fair lady?

Not bloody likely.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Isn't It Romantic (2019): A Review


No. It's not. It's awful. It's the worst movie I've seen this year and almost a sure-fire entry in the Worst of 2019.  Isn't It Romantic attempts to give us a female empowerment film by mocking the romantic comedy conventions. However, it is not as clever or intelligent as it thinks it is, its main character is not someone you root for and there is just a nasty undertone to it all.

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a somewhat successful architect who suffers from low self-esteem. At the heart of her issues is how she was taught since childhood that romantic comedies like Pretty Women built up a false world and that as a heavyset woman she would never find that kind of love.

Proudly feminist, Natalie trashes rom-coms and is barely tolerant of her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) watching them. Natalie's very platonic male friend Josh (Andy Devine) keeps inviting her to things like karaoke but she keeps turning him down.

It isn't until she hits her head after escaping a mugger that she finds herself, to her horror and anger, in a PG-13 romantic comedy. All the men want her, the world is very colorful, she has an outlandishly large apartment filled with fantastic clothes and she has an outrageously stereotypical gay best friend, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) to offer advise between finger snaps.

The outrageously handsome and wealthy Australian named Blake (Liam Hemsworth) is besotted with Natalie. She convinces herself that 'the spell' will be broken once he tells her 'I love you', but that doesn't work. She then thinks that she must follow the conventions of romantic comedies to escape this psycho world, which involves voiceovers, slow motion running and stopping My Best Friend's Wedding: that being Andy's wedding to 'yoga ambassador' Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).

In the end, she discovers 'the greatest love of all' and that despite her manner and looks she is worthy of love in all its forms.

Image result for isn't it romanticThere is a difference between spoofing romantic comedies and trashing them. Isn't It Romantic thinks its going for the former when it is actually doing the latter. Even that could be embraced as there are many awful rom-coms that do send a bad message. Films like Made of Honor and The Ugly Truth in particular spring to mind. Their message is an element in modern romantic comedies that pretty much appall me: the idea that an intelligent woman with her own career would willingly become romantically involved and even fall in love with a loutish man who treats her shabbily.

Curiously though, Isn't It Romantic does not take on deeper elements of some of the negative aspects of romantic comedies. Instead, it merely tackles the surface elements: the characters, the look, the scenarios. Even in execution Isn't It Romantic is nowhere near as clever or insightful as it thinks it is. The 'getting knocked unconscious' is itself a cliche. Shockingly, it was much better done in I Feel Pretty, another film that wants to play with conventions to give a 'positive' message and that also doesn't land its mark.

To be fair though, I Feel Pretty had some qualities that made it tolerable. Isn't It Romantic has none.

I wonder about the Hemsworth Brothers Liam and Chris. I personally find them both very attractive people with extremely limited acting abilities. Fine: you cast either as Hamlet or Willy Loman and see how far you get. They also seem to have a penchant for being in faux female empowerment films that end in musical numbers: Chris with the all-female Ghostbusters, Liam with Isn't It Romantic. Coincidentally or not, both brothers opted to resort to their native Australian accents in their respective films. I figure to make it less taxing on whatever passes for their acting abilities.

It's not so much that Liam cannot act (though I do think that) so much as there is no character to act out: both his dismissive or besotted manner towards Natalie has no basis. Moreover, the plot point that he was really 'evil' may be another romantic comedy cliche but that too has no basis for being.

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This is, to my memory, the first Rebel Wilson film I have seen. Her Natalie is surprisingly unlikable to start with, making her anti-romantic comedy case with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Despite having a career her frumpy wardrobe and at times dismissive manner make Natalie someone you don't care about. I know Isn't It Romantic is about her evolution but given she either lets others walk over her or has contempt for others one wonders why people would want to be around her.

I found that it was not her appearance that alienated me but her manner. It also may have to do with her performance itself, where she is so overtly going for the 'I'm making a female empowerment' style that it comes across more as speech-making than anything remotely resembling a human.

Chopra too was far too broad even for a romantic comedy to be believed.

Devine had the benefit of essentially playing the same character in both universes, so he came across as an actual human. Curiously, that's a romantic comedy convention Isn't It Romantic didn't bother to alter: the average guy who actually likes the female lead for herself, something else the film shares with I Feel Pretty, Sweet Home Alabama and perhaps among better films to use this trope The Devil Wears Prada and In A World... all of which did the characters and scenarios better. As Jones is playing a parody of a parody, I can roll with how awful it is.

Isn't It Romantic is neither romantic or funny. It also isn't intelligent, which it thinks it is. There are many things to critique about romantic comedies and they are ripe for spoofing. Isn't It Romantic never settled on either. It also failed to entertain, which is deadly no matter what genre.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

F For Fake: A Review

Image result for f for fake criterionF FOR FAKE

Deceit. Sleight of hand. Fraud. To a certain point, people enjoy being fooled if they know ahead of time that there are tricks up one's sleeves. F For Fake is not so much a documentary about fraud but a meditation on deception in a myriad of forms. It's a fascinating portrait of professional shysters, not least of which is director Orson Welles.

F for Fake is ostensibly about infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer Clifford Irving with Welles serving as guide, narrator and commentator on a story simply too outlandish to be plausible. Welles tells us that for at least the first hour everything he tells us will be absolutely true.

Truth here however is wilder than fiction in this cascading story of liars and the liars who lie about liars. Elmyr's forgeries were well-known to where he became a celebrity for his fakes, able to not just imitate the styles of painters like Picasso and Modigliani but fool the experts and even the painters themselves. Irving's Elmyr biography, Fake!, chronicles his story, but it looks like Irving picked up a few tricks of his from the legendary bon vivant forger.

Irving himself later claimed to be collaborating with famously reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes on his autobiography. He produced letters purportedly from Hughes, which were authenticated by experts. It wasn't until Howard Hughes himself, via a telephone press conference denied meeting or even knowing Irving, let alone working with him, that the jig was up.

Image result for f for fakeMixing in the footage of these deceptions upon deceptions is Welles' views on the nature and truth of 'art' and of receiving credit. He meditates on Chartres Cathedral, noting its architect is unknown. He mentions his own career starting in Ireland where he hoodwinked a theater company to letting him act by claiming to be 'a big American stage star' and his own act of fraud with his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.

"That's how it got started. Began at the top, and have been working my way down ever since," he says.

F for Fake ends with the story of Oja Kodar, a beauty who so bewitched Pablo Picasso that he did what he'd never done with any other of his muses: surrender the twenty-one paintings he'd done of her to Kodar. When Picasso learns that a small art museum is hosting an exhibition of 'new Picassos' he's enraged and confronts Kodar, only to learn that the paintings are her grandfather's forgeries. In confronting her grandfather, he discovers an unrepentant old man who delights in his deception.

That delight extends to Welles himself, who informs us that the hour of truth has passed and he's created the entire Picasso/Kodar story.

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I think of F for Fake as an amusement park ride where we know it's not real but go along with it for the enjoyment of fantasy. You should go into it knowing that you are going to be fooled, that things are not as they are presented. As such, F for Fake more than lives up to its title.

This is a film where you must simultaneously accept and reject the truth of what is presented because the show show is About Fakes (which is the title Welles presents us in the credits). Everything is a fake: Elmyr's paintings, Irving's Hughes biography, the Picasso/Kodar story. What is to say that Welles' own stories of Irish sojourns or the claim that Citizen Kane was originally going to be about Howard Hughes before switching to William Randolph Hearst are true?

Most viewers take narrators, particularly in documentaries, as oracles of truth. Welles shows that this may not be truth but a selective truth.

I confess part of my enjoyment of F for Fake comes from my knowledge that Kodar was Welles' mistress and muse, so I knew the Kodar/Picasso story was a sham. However, knowing as such I could roll with the fantastical and outrageous story, especially given how well Welles and co-editors Marie-Sophie Dubus and Dominique Engerer put the film together. Wildly spinning from one oddity to another and yet more F for Fake goes all-around, but in a most delightful way.

As a side note, F for Fake does reveal truths about Welles: his erotic fixation on Kodar, which the film lavishes nude shots of her (as he did to a greater extent on The Other Side of the Wind), and his observation about his career's downward trajectory post-Citizen Kane. Even among professional charlatans the truth can emerge.

Image result for f for fakeWhile the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes story has been made into a film (The Hoax), curiously no film has been made of the fascinating and enigmatic Elmyr, who outdid Welles in the Art of Deception. Here we see him give glimpses of his story, along with some rather curious observations. On his living on the Spanish island of Ibiza he comments, "It's not a place for snobbish society. It's not London. It's not Paris. It's not Omaha".

How our fair Midwestern city became a hotbed for the elites is left unexplained.

Seeing the forger's biographer explain Elmyr's life while a monkey pecks at his hair lends a touch of the bizarre to an already bizarre story. The whole Elmyr/Irving stories seem to delight Welles to where his wild yarn of the temptation of Picasso by Kodar seems his own contribution to delightful yarns.

If anything, F for Fake has as an unmentioned subject the contempt for 'experts'. Experts were fooled by Elmyr's work. Experts were fooled by Irving's work. Experts essentially condemned Welles to live in Citizen Kane's shadow. "God's own gift to the faker", Welles remarks on experts.  The lesson of "don't be spooked by the experts" that Elmyr worked under apparently inspired Irving when he tried it with the Hughes 'autobiography'. Perhaps even the reclusive Hughes himself, Welles speculates, pulled off his own deception by forever hiding.

If you go into F for Fake expecting a straightforward narrative on a couple or maybe trio of conmen you might be disappointed. The wild stories of Elmyr's forgeries and Irving's fake autobiography are covered but not the central premise. As a side note, Welles' pronunciation of 'biography' as 'bee-ography' may throw viewers off. Instead, go into F for Fake knowing that the wool will be pulled over your eyes and enjoy the deceptions.

It's like that game Two Truths & A Lie. Here is my version:

I was on a Broadway stage.
I once got five bowling strikes in a row.
I built my own house.

Which version of the truth would you like?


Abe Lincoln in Illinois: A Review


Abe Lincoln in Illinois keeps to a more reverential tone that seems par for the course on any biopic of the 16th President. Here we see that the man before the legend pretty much becoming the legend. Abe Lincoln in Illinois gives us not just a Presidential portrait but a mirror to look at the times in which it was released.

Covering the years 1831 to 1861, Abe Lincoln in Illinois hits some highlights to young and middle-aged Abraham Lincoln (Raymond Massey). There's his short but interesting voyage down South to New Orleans to sell hogs, whose highlight is first meeting the beautiful Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard).  After New Orleans, he decides to settle in New Salem, that quiet town where Miss Ann lives.

He fights the town bully Jack Armstrong (Howard da Silva), earning not just Jack's respect but that of the town. Abe silently pines for Ann while she's engaged to another man. Eventually, Ann does turn to Abe, who despite his apparent ineptness has become Postmaster. She, however, dies just as his reluctant political career begins, leaving him heartbroken.

Image result for abe lincoln in illinoisAbe equivocates with his new love, Miss Mary Todd (Ruth Gordon) and finds a worthy opponent in Senator Stephen Douglas (Gene Lockhart). It seems that everyone but Abe believe him not just capable but necessary to be President. Mary Todd certainly thinks so, openly stating she will be the engine to push Abe into the White House. Also advocating is his law partner Billy Herndon (Alan Baxter), who berates Abe for wavering in his nation's call.

Eventually, Abe comes to his senses, especially after a well-fought Illinois Senate campaign where in a series of debates with Judge Douglas, Lincoln declares that 'a house divided cannot stand'. He is eventually selected by the Republican Party as a compromise candidate and wins the Presidency. Now he makes his own Illinois Farewell Address to his community before heading to Washington and his destiny as Commander-in-Chief.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois, adapted from the successful Broadway play, does much to put Honest Abe on a pedestal. Roy Webb's score is very worshipful and John Cromwell's direction also at times seems to border on the theatrical.

Of particular note is a short scene where we see the Harpers Ferry Raid. John Brown is cradling his dead son in almost a Pieta-like manner, and his own manner is rather grand given the chaos and death of the Raid. It is curious though that it was Robert E. Lee who led the raid against Brown's attempted slave revolt.

Image result for abe lincoln in illinoisAs a side note, none other than John Wilkes Booth witnessed Brown's execution. If memory serves correct, Booth said of Brown's final moments, "He was a brave old man", but I digress.

We do get scenes like these, where the 'importance' of moments and foreshadowing almost bludgeon us. Early on, Abe is sworn in as a vote-counter, and that moment is treated with odd reverence for something that was more casual in nature. It seems to telegraph that later on he will be sworn in as President, but it robs us a bit of the evolution of the man.

One thing that was not explored and I wish they had was Lincoln's journey down South. I think this journey began his evolution towards being anti-slavery, particularly seeing the slave auctions. It's unfortunate and a weakness in Abe Lincoln in Illinois that Lincoln's evolving views on the "Negro", while still not as advanced as we might have hoped, were more progressive than others.

In terms of performances I admit Massey did an excellent job as the lanky, seemingly rustic Abe. He showed that rare image of Lincoln as a spinner of yarns and witty comments versus the more popular conception of Lincoln as a dour, depressive individual. His 'aw-shucks' manner and folksy delivery make him a strong Lincoln.

Howard was a bit overly dramatic as Ann, perhaps the only real love of Abe's life, but her death scene is moving. I didn't like Gordon as Mary Todd, but I think this is more a response to how Mary Todd was. She seems too brittle this early on, having little sense of any coquettish or playful nature to balance out her more somber husband.

Lockhart did quite well as the shrewd Douglas, aware that Lincoln was no country rube but a formidable opponent. Both he and Massey had standout moments at their debates, bringing fire and fury as they battled it out. I might have seen a whole film just on those debates and can see why they are still reenacted more than a century later.

I think Abe Lincoln in Illinois says as much about when it was released as when it was set. The film was released in 1940, where we were coming close to entering another great war and the current President was also highly regarded to almost worshiped. As such, films that elevated the President would be in good standing order. I cannot say that Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a de facto celebration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it is not beyond the real of possibility.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a good primer to our most admired and beloved President (sorry Barry, sorry Donny). It does not delve much into his political evolution or even his private life (we get no proposal scene between Abraham and Mary Todd). However, with strong performances from Massey and Lockhart along with excellent cinematography by James Wong Howe, Abe Lincoln in Illinois is worth the time even if it does not capture the man in full.



Monday, April 22, 2019

Gotham: They Did What? Review

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As we end Gotham, They Did What? plays like a good mid-season finale mixed with a rush to finish everything before we get to the end. There were elements that were a bit hurried but on the whole They Did What? put in elements of human emotion and complexity within it.

Nyssa al Ghul (Jaime Murray) is enacting her final vengeance on Gotham, holding Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) and her new baby hostage. Nyssa' henchman Bane (Shane West) is leading the attack on the final pockets of resistance in Gotham, primarily the Gotham City Police Department Headquarters.

Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) find unexpected help from former mayor Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), who feels too strongly about his city to let it fall. More reluctant to join him is Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), but join them he does.

Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) do their part to stop Bane or at least slow him down enough to buy Gordon time. Nyssa's plot backfires with Bonkers Babs finishing her with Gordon's help. Bane for his part fails when the regular troopers refuse to fire on unarmed civilians and turn their weapons on him and his few loyal troops.

Bruce carries so much guilt over all that has happened and flies off after Gordon is finally appointed Commissioner, leaving Selina devastated. Barbara can now raise their daughter Barbara Lee Gordon, whom she names after "the three people she can count on": herself, Jim and Jim's wife, Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin). Penguin and Riddler, the original frenemies, decide to retake the city.

Image result for gotham they did whatIt may be unintentional but They Did What? has something of a theme involving pairs. There's Bruce and Selina. There's Nyssa and Bane. There's Barbara and Gordon. There's even Riddler and Penguin. Each pair brings out the best and/or worst in each other, and all but one seem to deserve the other.

The highlight for me has been what has been the highlight for me in previous Gotham episodes: the interplay between Bicondova's Selina and Mazouz's Bruce. Bat-Cat has been among the most solid of storylines, aided by their fine performances. Mazouz here to my mind seemed a bit removed from things, but I think that was closer to how the part was written than how he is an actor. In his guilt misplaced or not and in his desire to atone for said guilt Mazouz does excellent work.

Bicondova does him better as Selina, who has found her heart only to lose it to Bruce's quest for absolution. Whether assuring her unofficial boyfriend that "I will be here whenever you need me" or watching helplessly as Bruce flies off she excels.

The double-act of Smith and Taylor brings out the rage and humor of this wicked duo. Taylor is powerfully convincing as someone who finally has allowed his heart to put something above his own interests. Smith showed he too could show Riddler's moment of caring for his frenemy by lying about Penguin's eye injury. In their final interaction, when despite their own interests they cannot bring themselves to kill the other, there is a mix of menace and mirth.

Image result for gotham they did whatThey Did What? allows for brief moments of gallows and dark humor. When Penguin offers to help, Gordon remarks that he knew he was there before Pengy announced himself. Jim says he carries an odor, "part dandy, part snake".  When killing Nyssa, Bonkers Babs cracks that she and her father have a connection: 'a thing for this knife' (the dagger that killed them both).

Intentional or not, They Did What? made both Nyssa and Bane amusing given their repeated habit of monologuing. West was still to my mind not menacing but I'll say he took a good stab at it. Their continued speeches did become tiresome, but 

One issue I had was in the camera work, particularly in the many fight scenes where I got a bit lost. Add the monologuing and the perhaps too-quick and convenient answer to the problems they caused and I am dropping a few points to the episode.

However, what we have in They Did What? was a well-acted, well-written and fast-paced episode that will lead us to the Gotham series finale. It's almost a pity given how well the show has done that we're about to close this Nightwing Project.


Next Episode: The Beginning...

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Breakthrough (2019): A Review


I found Breakthrough to be a surprising step in the world of Christian cinema. Unlike past Christian films, Breakthrough was not about a spiritual conversion for any of the characters main or secondary. Unlike most more mainstream films with Christian characters, Breakthrough did not make the Christians out to be dangerous, stupid or hypocritical. Instead, Breakthrough did what few films both Christian and secular have done with characters of faith: portray them as actual people, ones with virtues and flaws, neither saintly or satanic.

It may come as a genuine surprise, but Christians are people too.

Based on a true story, Breakthrough is about the Smith family. John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) is a basketball-obsessed preteen who carries anger despite the love of his parents Joyce (Chrissy Metz) and Brian (Josh Lucas). John was adopted by the Smiths when they served on a Guatemalan mission. As such, he has a sense of being unwanted. This, coupled with the more traditional pulling away of all teens causes tension within the home.

Joyce has more tensions with their church's minister, Pastor Jason (Topher Grace). He is far too progressive for Joyce's taste with his funky hair, California manner, introducing rap into the praise and worship and drawing parallels between Christ and The Bachelor. He also bungles things by being clueless about her women's ministry, though John seems more receptive to Jason's modernizing (the rap in particular to his liking).

Over the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, John goes to stay with friends when all three fall through the ice. Two of the boys are rescued quickly, but John is under the cold waters for at least a quarter of an hour. While he is rescued, the prospects for John surviving are almost none. Joyce calls upon her faith to revive her only son, prayers that appear to be answered.

Over the next three days as John continues to fight, Joyce, Brian, Jason, the specialist Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert) and atheist EMT Tommy Shine (Mike Coulter), along with others in their circles pray, fight, forgive and accept things both temporal and eternal.

Image result for breakthrough movieBreakthrough has a quiet manner to it, thanks in large part to director Roxann Dawson and Grant Nieporte's adaptation of Joyce Smith's book. Where in other films certain moments such as John's last-minute basketball shot, his fall through the ice or Joyce's desperate cry to the Holy Spirit for essentially John's resurrection might have been big, Dawson keeps them low-key.

This makes those moments carry more impact or power because they don't call attention to themselves. John's fall through the ice, though expected, comes through quite quietly, no big dramatic music or shots of crackling ice. Similarly, when Joyce is at John's lifeless body, we get shots of the hospital staff hearing her cries of pain and calling out to God along with shots of her. This I think adds to the drama by allowing us to see how both the pain of losing a child and the genuine shock of his sudden revival affect others.

Breakthrough also does well by portraying our four main characters (Joyce, Brian, John and Jason) as decent but flawed. While one would expect Joyce to be shown as the best character, she is given negative qualities: she is judgmental, hard and harsh on her somewhat hippie-drippy pastor and at times tyrannical on those who don't hold to her faith be it the agnostic Dr. Garrett or Brian. She can lack compassion towards her husband's doubts and fears and resistant to Jason's sincere overtures.

John can be dismissive, Brian as mentioned doubtful. Sometimes though the flaws are played for laughs, such as when in a moment of enthusiasm Jason blurts out a "Hell Yeah!", startling Joyce before a sheepish Jason realizes what he said. Joyce too is allowed some moments of humor, such as when she accidentally reveals she was the 'anonymous' writer of a single-spaced two-page letter complaining about the rap in the worship.

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Breakthrough is held aloft by some good performances, particularly Metz as Joyce. Whether she is openly hostile to Jason or mournful with John or accepting of whatever God's will is, her tenacity mixed with vulnerability wins you over. Grace as Jason seems a little unsure of himself but he does a commendable job as the progressive pastor who wants to be a shepherd to his flock. Colter as the EMT who struggles between his atheism and his confusion and Ruiz as John, prickly but also soft-hearted, also do well. Haysbert excels as Dr. Garrett, professional physician who won't sugarcoat anything and sees John as an interesting case but whom he works to save.

It's a pity that Lucas is reduced apart from the beginning and end of the film as perpetually weepy, with only one moment where his struggles between faith and doubt come up.

I think Breakthrough's best quality is that it does not lock things away neatly. A subplot is introduced where others on the periphery of the story question why John survived and their loved ones did not. Some of his Christian school classmates can be mean-spirited and obnoxious (though another subplot involving John's frenemy is not deeply explored). Breakthrough cannot offer answers on these questions on why he lived while others died.

It would put too much of a burden on his young shoulders; however, the fact that issues of doubt and legalism even among believers are introduced in a Christian film, that the Christian characters are shown as flawed and the non-believing characters are shown as decent is a positive step in Christian cinema.

My experience has been that too many Christian films, particularly in the oeuvre of the Christiano and Kendrick Brothers, sin barely exists and doubt is virtually nonexistent. Non-believers either don't exist or are malevolent. Their films tend to be about conversions, usually the main character or the audience. In Breakthrough, the Christian characters have doubts and flaws, the non-Christian characters have virtues and positive qualities.

Breakthrough is indeed that: a breakthrough in how Christians are portrayed to both secular and believing audiences. It's a moving story that asks questions, trust audiences to come to their own answers and keeps our attention.

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Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Departed (2006): A Review


The Departed got director Martin Scorsese his long-sought Best Director Academy Award. Scorsese's remake of the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs keeps to some excellent moments, some wobbly Boston accents and a good though not great film.

Boston crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) grooms preteen Colin Sullivan to eventually become his mole inside the Boston State Police. Colin (Matt Damon) rises through the ranks and his information keeps Costello one step ahead, but there's a hitch. Another department stubbornly refuses to give Sullivan the name of the mole in Costello's organization who like Sullivan has worked his way up.

That mole is Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), himself a scion of a Boston crime family who wants to break away from his family's past. Under Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man Sergeant Dingam (Mark Wahlberg), Costigan uses the family name to work his way to Costello's side.

It soon becomes a game of Spy vs. Spy to find who is the rat. The subterfuges of Sullivan and Costigan isn't the only deception going on, as both of them become romantically involved with the same woman: psychiatrist Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga), though the former has a longer and deeper relationship to where she moves in.

As both groups start figuring out who is on the level, things start going haywire. Costello himself is unmasked as an FBI informant, which does not help his increasing paranoia. The investigations cost lives until both rats find their corresponding figure, leading to an orgy of death, deception and fierce retribution.

Image result for the departedNot having seen Internal Affairs, I cannot say how close or far The Departed is from the source material. I can say that The Departed kept that balance between the separate moles rather well until the climatic drug bust, with still at least half an hour to go. That perhaps is one of the film's weak points: it seems to go on much longer than it should. Granted, we needed to wrap up the story but some things felt a bit off.

The subplot with Madolyn seems not just absurd but unnecessary, at least the idea that she would end up sleeping with both rats. It's as if William Monaghan's screenplay wanted to make the parallels between Sullivan and Costigan be a bit too exact.

You also had a rather odd denouement where Madolyn discovers Sullivan's deception. Rather than turn the information to the police, she just locks the door after confronting Sullivan. Even more bizarre is the whole ending: Costigan's fellow officer was apparently contacted by him but he still struggles to accept Sullivan is the traitor. Add to that the end of both a second and never-hinted-at mole and Sullivan's own end and things just felt rather rushed.

As if the rat crawling on the ledge of Sullivan's posh apartment at the end of The Departed was not an exclamation point enough.

Other elements, such as Costigan's growing prescription pill addiction or Costello's FBI protection were dropped in but not made much of.

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Monaghan's script, however, did have some positives. Costello calls Sullivan 'Collie', subliminally pointing out that for all Sullivan's intelligence and the faux-paternal manner between them Costello considered him essentially his dog. The younger men are tasked to essentially become what their 'father' Costello wants them to be. As such, both deny their true natures (rotten for Sullivan, dutiful for Costigan).

The Departed is a film drenched in Catholicism, particularly in a sense of guilt that comes from betrayal. Both Sullivan and Costigan betray their fathers be it biological (Costigan's decision to be a cop versus a hood) or spiritual (Sullivan causing Queenan's death to take attention away from himself).

Scorsese has some excellent visual moments, such as Costigan's pursuit of Sullivan (though he cannot see Sullivan's face), Queenan's death, an attempted bust on Costello and the climatic drug bust that brings them all into conflict. He also gets strong performances out of his cast.

Damon and Wahlberg, both Massachusetts natives, handle the Boston accent best. I'm surprised that the latter was the one singled out for his performance given that playing a foul-mouthed hair-trigger tempered working-class Bostonian is not exactly a stretch for Wahlberg. As the false cop, Damon was better though by the end he seemed surprisingly dim and detached. DiCaprio was hampered primarily by his efforts to drum up a convincing Boston accent. I found his character a bit one-note but on the whole I think he did well.

As much as Nicholson may be criticized for being over-the-top as the arrogant and increasingly bonkers Costello, I thought well of his performance and thought he played the part as it was written. Farmiga was given a somewhat thankless job as the only female character of note who serves as little more than the bedmate to both men. The standouts were Ray Winstone as Mr. French, the ever-loyal second to Costello who brought menace even when calm and Sheen as the moral Queenan, the only untouched man in this sleazy business.

The Departed is a strong crime drama that keeps the audience within the loop to the game of cat-and-rat. I don't think it's Martin Scorsese's best film, but it is a good film if a bit too long in my view.


2007 Best Picture Winner: No Country For Old Men

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Shazam!: A Review (Review #1205)


I confess to having the vaguest knowledge of Shazam the character. The only reason I know the name itself is because of Gomer Pyle. Shazam!, the newest entry in the DC Extended Universe, took the criticism that the films were too serious and somber by going the opposite route and being almost a straight-up comedy.

Therein lies the problem.

1974, Upstate New York, Christmas. Thaddeus Sivana is driving up with his father (John Glover) and brother Sid when he's spirited away by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou). Thad might be worthy to carry on the wizard's legacy as a champion, but the wizard finds Thad's heart is not pure, so he sends him back. In his confusion and anger, Thad causes an accident that we eventually find leaves his father wheelchair-bound.

Move up to today, where teen foster kid Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is continuing his search for his birth mother. If it means repeatedly running away from good foster homes and stealing police cars, so be it. He is placed in yet another foster home run by former foster kids Rosa (Marta Milans) & Victor Vasquez (Cooper Andrews). Billy won't bond with the other foster kids: college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), tech guru Eugene (Ian Chen), quiet Pedro (Jovan Armand) and precocious Darla (Faithe Herman).

Image result for shazam movieThe closest bond he's made is with Freddy (Jack Dylan Glazer), superhero expert, but it's a tenuous one at that. Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) has found the wizard and taken greater powers of darkness, it's more imperative that the wizard find his champion to face Sivana. The wizard selects Billy, whom he gives great powers by calling out his name: Shazam.

Now as Shazam (Zachary Levi), he is still a kid inside and clueless at the superhero business. With help from his guru Freddy, Shazam stumbles into learning his powers. He also becomes a media sensation and raging egomaniac, causing havoc through his ineptness. Shazam also has to face off against the more experienced Sivana, ultimately learning not only how to be a superhero, but embrace his real family.

I ended up rooting for the villain in Shazam! more than the superhero, which is not a good sign. I think it's because if one thinks about how Henry Gayden's script sets things up, Thaddeus Sivana has a genuine case. He's swept up into this otherworldly universe, presented a chance to 'be somebody' versus the loser his father and brother (and I figure his classmates) tell him he is, and just because this kid comes close to falling to temptation this wizard too essentially tells him he is a loser too. To top that off, the trip ends up almost killing everyone and leaving his father disabled.

I don't know about you, but if that had happened to me I'd be pretty angry, bitter and resentful too.

Related imageShazam! has a tonal imbalance, particularly with its main character. Asher's Billy is morose, haunted, mournful. Levi's Shazam borders on blithering but gleeful idiot. I kept wondering if the transformation from one to the other could cause such a radical change in personality. Up to a point I could accept that Billy would be amazed at being a physical adult but still a young teen. However, Shazam is almost always jolly to where you wonder how he could continue to be constantly clueless.

Try as I might, I could not imagine the same Billy who methodically tracked down every potential birth mother could also be so manic and inept as a superhero. Even The Greatest American Hero's Ralph Hinkley was more competent when wearing his superhero suit.

I found the younger cast pretty much outdid their older doppelgangers. Asher was excellent as Billy, this lost boy who grows into a more embracing figure. His scenes brought Shazam!'s drama and some light moments too. Grazer too had a great knack for being the Seth Cohen to Asher's Ryan Atwood, the geeky fanboy who serves as Billy's guide to the world of superhero stuff. It's not a surprise then to have a little The O.C. vibe given the original Seth Cohen (Adam Brody) played the adult Freddy when they all speak "Shazam!". Fulton's Mary has some good dramatic moments and Choi is a delight as the technologically adept Eugene.

The standout though is Herman's Darla. I rarely say this when it comes to reviews, but she was adorable as the chipper and sweet little sister. When this multicultural family become superheroes themselves, Meagan Goode's adult Darla matched Herman's sweet and enthusiastic version without it being parody.

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As much as like Levi I quickly grew tired of his "look I'm a kid in an adult's body!" shtick. You can only grin and mug a performance for so long before you want to say, "Enough! We get it!". I figure that he played the part as written correctly, but Levi never convinced me he was Billy. He convinced me Shazam was a near-total idiot. Strong's run on villains continues and I found him limited by the screenplay, but at least he had motivation for his revenge.

I was surprised by one aspect in Shazam! that I don't think has been mentioned enough. For a movie targeted at family audiences and even with a PG-13 rating, I was surprised at the scenes of violence and gore. We have one woman disintegrating, Sivana throwing his brother out of a high-rise window, the Seven Deadly Sins almost graphically devouring an anonymous board meeting (we almost saw one of them bite a person's head off) and Shazam himself shot in the head at Freddy's encouragement. All this makes me wary to let young kids, at least younger than 13, see it despite the suggestion that Shazam! is a cuter comic book film.

Shazam! is a pastiche of other works: it seems to have nods to among other things Big, The O.C., and The Greatest American Hero. There are pluses with it: the themes of family, the positive portrayal of foster homes, the good use of a multicultural cast without it being overt or heavy-handed. However, Shazam! is very pleased with itself, and that soon starts to grate to where I wanted Sivana to win.

Finally, with all the calls to "Say My Name" and no one thought to bring up Destiny's Child?


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Christopher Columbus (1949): A Review


Long before our revisionist age, long before he was held personally responsible for everything from slavery, rape and genocide to white supremacy and climate change, Christopher Columbus was thought of as a good guy. We even took Columbus Day off. As such, Christopher Columbus can be almost a time capsule of when our Italian sailor was seen not the embodiment of all evil but as a noble even courageous figure. The film trades in some myths and is perhaps a bit too posh for the story it wants to tell. However, Fredric March can make just about anything worth the time.

Christopher Columbus (March) comes to Spain to attempt to court Her Majesty Queen Isabella (Florence Eldridge) to fund his expedition. He believes a faster and cheaper route to the East can be had if ships sailed west rather than around Africa or travel through Asia. He faces strong opposition at Court from Don Francisco (Francis L. Sullivan). Part of his objection comes from his refusal to see the world is as round as he is. Part of it comes from fearing that his family fortune will evaporate if a faster route is found.

Columbus waits while the Court hems & haws, but he gets an unexpected ally in the Widow Beatriz (Linden Travers), who has eyes for intelligent men. She has a plus in that she's Francisco's cousin, but a minus in that randy King Ferdinand (Francis Lister) has designs on our merry widow. Columbus also has another friend at Court, Diego (Derek Bond), a royal notary who pledges to sail with Columbus once he finally wins Her Majesty over to his side.

At long last, Columbus gets his three ships and sails towards the New World, but as the crews of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria keep sailing, it takes all of Columbus' wits and force to keep the crew from mutiny. Finally, he discovers his new world, but it's not all happiness at the end.

Related imageChristopher Columbus suffers from a curious tone of stuffiness and unearned poshness. Director David McDonald went overboard in making most of the acting very mannered and theatrical. Almost everyone at Court behaved as though they knew they were in some grand epic situation versus playing up Court intrigue.

This is not helped by some curious decisions McDonald and screenwriters Muriel & Sydney Box and Cyril Roberts made. Of particular note is in giving two characters the same name: both the merry widow and Diego's supportive cousin are named 'Beatriz'. Soon it becomes muddled trying to remember which Beatriz one is referring to. Christopher Columbus also forgets about Chris' son, introduced in the beginning and not only never mentioned again but almost erased altogether. At one point when Cousin Beatriz offers her views on marriage, Christopher comments that he as an explorer should not be tied down with a wife and child.

This is odd given he already has a child, which he doesn't seem to remember.

Giving two characters the same name is bad enough, but for the longest time Christopher Columbus resisted giving his antagonist a name at all. It's more than halfway through the film that the fat 'learned friend' with whom Columbus must battle against is given a name.

Finally, Christopher Columbus seems to be a whole slew of films put together. There's Columbus' efforts to win Court favor, the hints of interest with the Lady Beatriz of which Chris is mostly oblivious to and the actual voyage. It's a curious mishmash that ends up undercutting the others.

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Even then the ideas that Columbus knew there was a New World or was one of the few who knew the world was round was wildly inaccurate. Moreover, the willingness of the Native population to embrace these newcomers comes off as patronizing, as does the explorers' intentions of only seeking converts to Catholicism with a little gold-hunting on the side.

However, Christopher Columbus has some positives. At the top of the list is March, who makes Chris into a committed and passionate advocate for his 'crackpot' theories. He even makes Chris' obliviousness at Lady Beatriz's pursuit slightly amusing. It's only at the end when he faces Their Majesties one final time that he slips into a bit over-the-top manner. March's real-life wife Eldridge was elegant and appropriately posh as Her Majesty Queen Isabella, while Travers' Lady Beatriz was not quite the vixen or supporter she was tasked to play. Both veered towards the more theatrical manner but it's not a deal-breaker for me.

Bond's Diego seemed superfluous to the film and a bit over-the-top, while Sullivan's Don Francisco shifted from menacing to mirthful depending on what the script asked. The imbalance of the role lies more in the script than in his interpretation.

Christopher Columbus is not a particularly good film. Despite its short running time it felt like a slog and by the end one starts losing interest. However, Fredric March makes it worth the time. The film adds to the myth of Columbus versus the almost gleeful tearing-down of Chris' legacy popular today. A bit stage-bound but not without some merit, Christopher Columbus could have been better but if it's any good it's due to Fredric March's performance.

Circa 1451-1506