Monday, July 15, 2019

Ma (2019): A Review

MA

Ma is an interesting film: neither as frightening as the premise could make it nor as campy as the final product ended as. I was entertained and could even get a small vicarious thrill on this lurid story of revenge. It might not be a good movie but I cannot hold its almost wild nuttiness against it.

New girl Maggie (Diana Silvers) is attempting to fit in to her mom Erica's (Juliette Lewis) old hometown, where both have returned after Erica's marriage fell apart. As Erica works as a cocktail waitress, Maggie soon integrates into a clique headed by Haley (McKaley Miller) and her boyfriend Chaz (Gianni Paolo). Maggie and another member of this clique, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) are clearly smitten with each other.

In an effort to get beer, they eventually find an adult: Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a veterinary assistant to Dr. Brooks (Allison Janney). Soon Sue Ann, who asks that the kids call her 'Ma' starts integrating herself in their lives, offering her basement for parties and even getting down with her bad self among them.

If one thinks the sight of a middle-aged woman partying with teens old enough to be her children is odd, you soon learn that there's a reason for it. Sue Ann happened to have attended high school with Andy's father Ben (Luke Evans), Ben's new girlfriend Mercedes (Missi Pyle) and Erica. The tangled web of the past soon starts affecting the next generation as Ma slowly loses grip on reality and enacts her vengeance for Ben's humiliation of Sue Ann back in the day. Things end in a fiery finale full of blood and gore and death.

Image result for ma movieMa is not without some merits. As I mentioned there is a bit of a thrill seeing people bullied in high school enact sometimes murderous revenge on those who did them wrong. Whatever the morality of it, Mercedes' fate seems almost justified given what a horrible person she was then and remained as at the time she met her grisly end.

I do not remember being bullied in high school and never had as horrible a situation as that which Sue Ann went through. However, some of my high school memories were less than pleasant, and there is an odd sense of catharsis in seeing someone strike back at unredeemed tormentors who have never and would never apologize for their cruelty.

It's a credit to Spencer that she took the premise seriously and even made Sue Ann rather sympathetic while also loading up on the psycho. It's a very good performance of a needy woman who already had issues prior to her fateful encounter, but whom you see early on was slowly building to take advantage of teenagers to enact her wicked vengeance on their parents, the sins of the fathers coming upon their sons.

Spencer is the best in Ma, which is a shame given that the other adults did not quite match her. They weren't bad: Evans and Lewis did well but as their roles were smaller they were a bit diminished. Lewis probably fared worse as Erica's waitressing seemed to take time away from the larger story. She was however strong with Silvers' Maggie, a very low-rent version of Gilmore Girls where the mother-daughter dynamic was more besties than parental-child.

Janney, I suspect, was there as a favor for either screenwriter Scotty Landes or director Tate Taylor, a cameo more than anything else.

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If we have bad performances, they come from the younger, hotter cast. Fogelmanis was the best of the lot, his Andy coming across as genuinely nice and kind, nowhere near Ben's son. Andy, it should be remembered, was the one who did not drink (or at least drink much). The rest of them were pretty bad acting-wise: Silvers, Paolo and Miller were so blank and almost cartoonish in their roles. I can cut them some slack in that Ma at times played like parody and that their characters were nowhere near deep. However, they all gave Twilight-level performances.

The young cast was essentially there to look hot, with Paolo at one point forced to show off his whole body to display how hot he was. To show how dumb these kids are, after this incident one would have figured Sue Ann was cray-cray, but it took a while for only Maggie to realize how dangerous Ma was. Even Andy, more rational than the rest, was clueless.

Ma is neither campy enough or scary enough to be a full-on hoot or a fright fest. I enjoyed it but know it isn't particularly good or that it could not have been more and/or better. Still, a little Ma goes a long way. 

DECISION: C+

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chicago (2002): A Review



CHICAGO (2002)

Despite being an adaptation of a 1970's Broadway musical, Chicago was still pretty prescient then and still prescient now about the intersection of crime and fame, the celebrating of infamy, even evil if wrapped in an attractive enough box. The film version of the Kander & Ebb musical keeps that hard, bitter edge while keeping that Razzle Dazzle, even if I was not altogether pleased by some of the end results.

Vixen Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) dreams of a showbiz career despite lack of any talent apart from the performances she gives between the sheets. One fateful night, she pops Fred (Dominic West), a furniture salesman she's been cheating on who promised her an entry to the stage. Her schmuck of a husband Amos (John C. Reilly) at first was willing to be the fall guy until he eventually figures out he's been simultaneously screwed and not screwed.

Now potentially facing the death penalty, Roxie gets wise to the advise prison matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) offers: get lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Flynn, however, not only charges a lot but is currently occupied with a more famous murderess: Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who doesn't take kindly to this interloper stealing her spotlight. Flynn however does take Roxie's case and has a brilliant strategy: painting Roxie into an innocent lured by jazz & liquor.

Kelly now tries to make an ally of Roxie but no dice. More duplicity comes around as the trial comes, and while both Roxie and Velma get off they find their careers stalled, Chicago moving on to newer, prettier scandals. What are a couple of unrepentant killers to do? Do a double-act of course, and the Merry Murderesses Roxie Hart & Velma Kelly find that Nowadays you can have it all: fame, fortune and a not guilty verdict.

Image result for chicago 2002 razzle dazzleChicago is all rotten at its core and unapologetic about the darkness behind all the bright lights and flashy production numbers. This is not damning with faint praise. Far from it: it's a perfectly straightforward compliment given that is how Chicago was crafted: a cynical celebration of the lurid and sleazy world the Jazz Age was. It is meant to use its vibrant colors and great songs to display a very cold world.

It did it brilliantly for the most part.

From my understanding the original production of Chicago was more in the style of a review than a straightforward musical and the film version keeps to that with generally good results. The musical numbers are in the style of Roxie's imagination versus the more traditional manner where the characters sing and dance their thoughts and feelings. Only the opening and closing numbers All That Jazz and Nowadays stem from something more realistic in that they are presented as actual staged numbers. 

As the rest of the songs are in Roxie's mind, I still after a second viewing find that I'm of two minds on them. The staging of the numbers are impressive: lavish and reflective of their revue roots, but also a bit jarring when director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon try to integrate them into the non-musical parts. To me, the best musical numbers are the ones that don't have interruptions with the non-musical sections.

Take Roxie, where our title heroine celebrates her impending fame. It's brilliantly staged despite it being the simplest number in terms of lavishness. The sparkling costume Roxie wears and the cacophony of mirrors perfectly capture Roxie's narcissism, but from what I can remember we didn't get moments where we shifted from the musical productions.

Image result for chicago 2002This can't be said for something like Cell Block Tango, where each girl signs her story but then gets to 'act' certain sections too. This 'song-and-speech' manner in retrospect did not work quite as well as I think it did before because I kept getting taken out of the musical numbers. We see the various women sing/recite about their crimes, then shift to the prison where they are talking about their crimes, then back again to the production number.

More often than not, I kept thinking that even with that 'musical numbers in Roxie's imagination' structure Chicago had to make it more 'sensible' for people to be singing and dancing, perhaps it would have been better to have kept the numbers intact versus cutting in. Sometimes it worked, such as with We Both Reached for the Gun where we had only one or two cuts. Other times, like with Razzle Dazzle, the dialogue seemed like needless interruptions.

This to my mind is especially true when we get what should be solo numbers such as When You're Good to Mama, All I Care About is Love and Mister Cellophane (the numbers for Mama Morton, Billy Flynn and Amos respectively). Cutting between Latifah belting out what she'll do for you and Amos bemoaning his neglected self to scenes of others talking seemed out of place.

Compound that with the actual staging of the numbers. There is nothing wrong with the Kander & Ebb score: Chicago is filled with brilliant songs including the one they wrote for the film, I Move On. My issue is in the manner they were shot. Take again All That Jazz, a signature song in the score.

The editing was frenetic, sometimes chaotic, and for me it didn't allow for us to fully appreciate the dancing and staging of the number. Pretty much all the numbers save perhaps Roxie, We Both Reached for the Gun and Razzle Dazzle had this same type of cutting to where I think a little less would have been good. However, in the latter two they were meant to be grand, so I cut them some slack.

I think many people were surprised to see Zellweger, Gere and Zeta-Jones in Chicago as none of them were known to be musical performers. However, I think they all did excellent work (and it's surprising Gere was not nominated for Best Actor while Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, Latifah and Reilly were nominated for Actress, Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor, with only Zeta-Jones winning).

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Zellweger was cold and even a little loopy as Roxie, a mix of unrepentant and a little clueless. Zeta-Jones more than matched her as Velma, shallow but shrewd. Gere wasstrong as the cynical, manipulative Flynn.

And those are their non-singing and dancing performances, though I thought Gere's voice was a bit high.

Latifah and Reilly too did well, though I think they were better in the singing part than the acting part. It's a pity Christine Baranski was underused as Mary Sunshine, though she came off as too jaded to be this gullible crusader who believes the very best in people.

Chicago was a good film, with great songs, strong performances and big, splashy numbers. I think some of the musical numbers were short-changed to make it seem more 'realistic' but on the whole I find that All That Jazz was worth it.

DECISION: B-

2003 Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu): A Review

Image result for the world of apu criterionAPUR SANSAR (THE WORLD OF APU)

Having encountered Apu as a child and as a young man in Pather Panchali and Aparajito, we conclude The Apu Trilogy with Apur Sansar (The World of Apu). This final chapter shows that a film can be simultaneously intimate and epic, universal and distinctly Indian. In short, it is a sad and beautiful ending to perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Apologies to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and The Godfather fans.

Our young protagonist Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) is living a curious life in Calcutta: striving to be a writer, always struggling financially but on the whole content, almost youthfully arrogant in his freedom. His best friend Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee) invites Apu to his cousin's wedding in the country. With no pressing engagements, Apu accepts.

On the day of the wedding the bridegroom is obviously mentally ill and the bride's mother insists that the wedding be called off. However, there is a problem with this: according to the family's beliefs, if the bride does not marry at the appointed time she will be condemned to never marry. To avoid this fate, a new groom has to be found immediately, and there is only one suitable man readily available.

Apu naturally balks at this notion, but he is moved by the family's plight and most reluctantly agrees to marry Aparna (Sharmila Tagore). If he can barely support himself, how can he support a wife, especially one used to wealth and comfort? To his surprise, Aparna is more than resourceful. She is also loyal and loving, and soon it becomes a genuine love-match.

Tragedy strikes however when Aparna dies in childbirth. Apu is despondent and begins to wander the country, abandoning their child and committing his novel to the four winds. Five years later Pulu finds Apu working in the mines and begs him to take up his responsibilities to Kajal (Alok Chakravarty), who has grown wild. Apu does go and finds connecting with him as his father impossible. Instead, Apu tells Kajal that he is his friend and the two go off together.

Related imageThe World of Apu does what the previous Apu films did: move the viewer emotionally, hitting us with a tale of life both tragic and beautiful. Its influence is still felt today: those who saw My Family/Mi Familia would recognize the final third of the film as directly taken from The World of Apu (albeit with certain elements more in line with My Family's narrative). It speaks to writer/director Satyajit Ray's work that the situations and circumstances can easily transcend language and cultures.

The World of Apu succeeds in large part because the elements of the common human condition are there: life, love and loss, the pain of separation and joy of reunion. Ray crafts a very moving film that hits the viewer hard.

It is a credit also to the performances, particularly Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore as Apu and Aparna respectively. Chatterjee makes Apu into a likable figure: young, generally carefree but painfully shy around women but who finds happiness in an unexpected romance. He is also able to break your heart: the scene where, in his unfathomable grief he takes his novel and releases them to the wind will leave one in tears.

His final reunion with Kajal too will move the viewer, from Kajal's sad question of "Do fathers wear pigtails?" when an old man reprimands him for not having his father there to how Apu joyfully takes his 'friend' away with him.

Tagore too in her gentleness and acceptance makes Aparna a lovely woman.

We can see that with The World of Apu Ray is now a fully confident and elegant craftsman. The film continues to benefit from excellent directing and the music of Ravi Shankar, who contributed to all three films.

We close The World of Apu and The Apu Trilogy with a note of hope despite the sadness and tragedies that our protagonist has lived through. It is a beautiful film and one that stays with you and as with the previous films, makes one appreciate the blessings and beauty of this world.

DECISION: A+

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Phil (2019): A Review

Image result for phil 2019 moviePHIL (AKA THE PHILOSOPHY OF PHIL)

As of this writing I have reviewed only thirteen 2019 films (I didn't go see The Curse of La Llorona for any other reason apart from cheap-to-tawdry entertainment). Having said that, I feel confident that Phil (or as the title actually reads, The Philosophy of Phil) will earn its place as one of if not the Worst Film of 2019. This is the kind of project where one feels genuinely sorry for everyone involved.

I'd bet even the catering company regrets their involvement with Phil.

Depressed divorced dentist Phil McGuire (Greg Kinnear in his directorial debut) wonders why he has such a miserable life while others have it all together. This is compounded by a new patient, Michael Fisk (Bradley Whitford), who has a happy marriage and an unexpected success with a book on Socrates.

Phil decides to do the rational thing and stalk Michael to find the key to eternal joy, but he happens to stalk him on the day Michael goes into the woods to hang himself. Phil is so shocked at finding Michael's body that he flees the scene, only later realizing he took Michael's shoes in his panic. Now more puzzled, Phil decides he needs to find out why this seemingly successful and happy man ended it all.

For that, Phil ends up mistaken by Michael's widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer) for a long-lost Greek friend, 'Spyros Papalapalapulu' (that's as close to a phonetic spelling of a name that everyone in Phil struggles with, especially Phil himself). As 'Spyros', Phil hoodwinks Alicia into finishing the family bathroom, which is the perfect disguise for his 'undercover' work. This does mean neglecting his dental patients, leaving his poor office manager Rahel (April Cameron) to try and sort out the ensuing chaos.

'Spyros' keeps digging to find 'the truth'. Could Michael have had a secret cancer diagnosis? Could Sam (Taylor Schilling), a pretty colleague of Michael's, have been his mistress who ended up pregnant? Phil keeps up this 'Spyros' rouse despite his brother Malcolm (Jay Duplass) telling him he's gone off the deep end.

The jig is finally up thanks to actual detective work by Detective Welling (Luke Wilson). Eventually though, Alicia moves on and Phil, after a second albeit accidental suicide attempt, creates a stronger bond with his own daughter Molly (Megan Charpentier).

Image result for phil 2019 moviePhil is a disaster. A total absolute disaster, a horror of a film that is more sad than cringe-inducing, though it is that. It's a comedy that is not funny and a drama that is not serious.

The blame for what should be titled The Fiasco of Phil lies with three people. At the bottom of the list is composer Rolfe Kent. His score is so wildly out-of-tune with the scenes (pun intended). The music is shockingly cutesy for the scenes of Phil breaking and entering, rummaging through dead men's things to delve into something that is frankly none of his business. Over and over the score does not rise about second-rate sitcom music and just does not fit any of its scenes.

Rolfe, however, was working with substandard material, and here is where the second-largest share of blame goes to screenwriter Stephen Mazur. Not once in his screenplay did any of the characters seem even remotely real or rational. Mazur's idea of laughs comes from having Phil learn "Go to hell, asshole masturbater", in Greek. 

All the characters are either insane or stupid. Phil is genuinely bonkers in his stalking of the Fisk family, let alone abandoning his dental practice on this oddball whim. Alicia is just stupid and/or crazy to believe 'Spyros' is who he is, let alone let a total stranger work on her house. Then you have Michael's father Bing (Robert Forster) who claims to know 'Spyros' but who genuinely has no idea that this 'Spyros' is a fake.

Was he actually fooled or was Bing genuinely if not equally nuts?

Even Detective Welling seems stupid. Poorly acted by Wilson, whose sole acting choice is to narrow or widen his eyebrows, we have what I think is a major plot-hole. Welling mentions that Michael's shoes were not found near his body, but after he arrests Phil we are also expected to believe that Welling never actually searched Phil's home because right under his bed are Michael's shoes, which hid a suicide note.

They arrest Phil but don't find Michael's shoes? What, did they not search Phil's home? Did they not notice a large board that Malcolm openly tells his brother looks like something a serial killer would set up?

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He, however, was working for someone who has to take the most blame, and that is Kinnear himself. Watching Phil, I could possibly see Steve Carrell play the title role, having played a similar type in Little Miss Sunshine which coincidentally costarred Kinnear. I could see Kinnear playing the Malcolm role, attempting to shake his brother into some kind of sanity. However, it was a terrible, terrible mistake for Kinnear to play Phil.

Not only would he not convince anyone he was remotely Greek (his mention of a half-Greek grandfather making a Hellenic connection extremely tenuous) but too much time is wasted on the 'wackiness' of Phil/Spyros remodeling the Fisk bathroom. Kinnear has no visual style and after watching all the performances save perhaps Duplass one senses that Kinnear's directing consisted of telling the actors in a nice, soft voice, "OK, go" and left them to figure out how to deliver their lines, accepting any take and just telling the editor in what order they should go.

Duplass barely escapes with at most an adequate performance as he was about the only rational person in Phil. To be fair Cameron, despite a squeaky voice, was the best as the put-upon and besieged Rahel to where I would have preferred a film centering around either or both of them rather than the morose and probably insane Phil.

As a side note, the remodeling eventually turns disastrous both pre-and-post completion: as Alicia is sobbing about finding 'Spyros'' true identity while in the shower, the whole thing starts collapsing on her. Tiles soon start breaking off the walls and the shower head starts ratting and I think almost falls on her. Perhaps this is indicative of how bad Phil was: what should or would normally be a serious and sad moment is trashed by inept comedy.

I like Greg Kinnear ever since he hosted Talk Soup. He has a pleasant manner and talent. It's good to see he wants to branch out to working behind the camera. However, Phil is a dreadful calling card: unfunny, illogical, poorly acted. It is pretty much insulting to the audience.

At a certain point when he realizes just how far things have gone, Phil says, "This has got to end". Would that he have said the same about Phil itself.

DECISION: F-

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Aparajito (The Unvanquished): A Review

Image result for pather panchali criterion


APARAJITO 
(THE UNVANQUISHED)

We return to the world of Apu with Aparajito, the second of what would become The Apu Trilogy. Aparajito, like Pater Panchali, delves into the universality of human experience while staying true to its Indian roots. It's a film that moves one deeply.

It is 1920 Benares (now Varanasi). Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) is living with his father Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and mother Sarbojaya Ray (Karuna Bannerjee). They are poor but relatively happy. Tragedy strikes however when Harihar dies unexpectedly, and despite the offer of living with nice employers Sarbojaya opts to go back with Apu to the rural world and stay with an uncle.

Apu begins his training to be a priest as has been the way in his family for generations, but he thirsts to go to school. Eventually his mother gives way and Apu thrives in his world of knowledge, so much so he is selected for a scholarship to study in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Sarbojaya is not thrilled with this but again she helps Apu as much as she can, despite his disinterest and thoughtlessness towards her.

As he grows intellectually, Apu (Smaran Ghosal) grows distant from Sarbojaya, rarely visiting or writing. She pines for him and grows ill, but a mixture of her love and his adaptation to city life keep the truth from both. Apu finally returns to learn that his mother has died, and while heartbroken and remorseful, he rejects the idea of staying in the countryside and returns to Calcutta.

Image result for aparajitoI am, to be frank, slightly puzzled by the title of The Unvanquished because both Apu and Sarbojaya are in many ways vanquished. Sarbojaya dies, Apu oftentimes takes her for granted. However, I think The Unvanquished comes from the fact that Apu did not give in to despair and opt to return to what was expected of him.

He is 'unvanquished' because he did not become a priest or return to rural Bengal. Instead, he forged his own path, especially now that he is essentially an orphan. Granted he is a young man when his mother dies, but he is now alone, having lost his sister, father and mother within his eighteen years.

Director Satyajit Ray, who again writes and directs this adaptation of the novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito, not only returns to this simple story of an examined life but also creates a film that like Pater Panchali gets into the truth about life no matter where, when or who it is about.

It is the way of life that children leave their parents to start their own lives. It is the way of life that parents struggle with this truth. It is the way of life that children can be thoughtless about the separations, or that children oftentimes learn more than what their parents know.

Ray demonstrates these truths in simple ways. We see the teen Apu forever clinging in fascination to the globe his headmaster gave him, forever spinning it and marveling at the world he sets out to metaphorically explore. To Sarbojaya, what the globe is or what it represents are unimportant: her world is her son and where she lives. All other things are not worth her time or interest, but like a good mother she makes the effort to share in her child's joy.

However, as he essentially forgets her, she fades, alone, bereft, lost.

Image result for aparajitoRay gives us beautiful moments of tenderness and truth. While I did not cry as much in Aparajito as I did in Pather Panchali, I did get misty-eyed seeing Sarbojaya put on a brave face as Apu focuses solely on leaving for the metaphorical new world of Calcutta. There is that beautiful blending of his joy and her mixture of joy and sorrow that not only breaks your heart but that remind the viewer of how these events happen in all lives.

That universality is one of the reasons why Aparajito works so well: we can relate to the Ray family as they live out their ordinary lives. These are not monumental events in world history, no turning points starting in the Bengali Year 1327. Instead, these are lives that are not that much different from any others save for the time and place.

Aparajito is a universal story in that ordinary way, where children leave and parents die, where there is joy and regret in the decisions made and not made.

Aparajito is to my mind visually stronger than what came before. Ray is not afraid of subtle symbolism, such as having birds suddenly take flight at the moment of Harihar's death or Apu's fixation on his globe to where he travels with it almost everywhere.

We also still have Ravi Shankar's beautiful score and Subrata Mitra's cinematography, which captured the various worlds of Apu so beautifully. Most importantly, we have Ray's excellent direction both with the story and performers.

Aparajito centers on that eternal push-pull between parent and child, between the love one has for the other while at times not thinking what is best for them. This is another film that makes one want to contact his/her parents and/or children to let them know how much one means to the other. It is very rare when a sequel equals the original let alone surpasses it.

While I would say Pather Panchali is 'better than' Aparajito, both are so equally brilliant in terms of cinema and in terms of that common human experience that it is absurd to use the phrase 'better than'. Best to say both work as a continuation of The Story of Apu and as films independent of each other.

DECISION: A+

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Beautiful Mind (2001): A Review


A BEAUTIFUL MIND

I am told that A Beautiful Mind, the biopic of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, is an inspirational story. I suppose it is, or at least as inspiration a film as has been made about an alleged antisemitic and alleged bisexual who fathered a child out-of-wedlock and divorced his El Salvadoran wife before remarrying her after winning the Nobel Prize.

Perhaps all that will be included in an Extended Edition.

It is one thing to change facts in any biopic for dramatic purposes. That is par for the course. What is more disturbing about A Beautiful Mind is how the film is almost wholly fiction or at least goes out of its way to leave a deliberately false impression for the sake of said dramatic purposes.

Brilliant but eccentric and socially inept Princeton University math student John Nash (Russell Crowe) is desperate to find something to make him stand out. He has a tenuous relationship with his fellow math students Sol (Adam Goldberg), Bender (Anthony Rapp) and his ultimate frenemy, Martin Hansen (Josh Lucas). Only his roommate Charles Herman (Paul Bettany) seems able to both tolerate and help him.

Eventually he does come up with something, an economic theory that upends Adam Smith's view of the competitive market. This allows him to work for Wheeler Labs, where he takes Sol and Bender. As part of the deal however, Nash has to teach at MIT, where he encounters the intelligent and beautiful Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). She pursues him and fall in love.

Someone else pursues Nash: William Parcher (Ed Harris), a Department of Defense black ops agent. He tells Nash the Soviets have implanted codes in various newspapers and magazines about an upcoming nuclear bombing inside the U.S. and recruits Nash to be his code-breaker. All this, however, is hush-hush.

Image result for a beautiful mindIt's well over an hour into our two-hour running time that we find the actual truth: John Nash is bonkers. That is wildly unfair: we actually find that Nash suffers from paranoid schizophrenia which had gone undiagnosed for decades. Charles, Parcher and Charles' niece Marcee (Vivien Cardone) were never real.

Alicia now has to work with her husband's mental illness, with help from Dr. Rosen (Christopher Plummer) who was the first to find Nash's problems. Nash for his part struggles bouncing between what is real and what is not, slipping into his Parcher paranoia until he accepts the situation.

Eventually he starts crawling out of his delusions by ignoring them altogether. He also turns to his frenemy Hansen, now the head of Princeton's mathematics department. At first just auditing classes and allowed to set up informal shop at the university library, Nash soon starts giving actual classes and ultimately wins the Nobel Prize in Economics, where he gives a moving speech honoring his devoted (and long-suffering) wife Alicia and finding it is good to have a beautiful mind but better to have a beautiful heart.

I remember when I saw A Beautiful Mind in theaters and the feeling I had then about it is the same feeling I have now about it. There was something that just did not sit well with me about the 'twist' in the film. A Beautiful Mind felt then and still feels now very deceptive and misleading, as if director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (adapting Sylvia Nasar's Nash biography) were dead-set on pulling a fast one on audiences.

I look at how the DVD back cover describes the plot. "A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe in an astonishing performance as brilliant mathematician John Nash, on the brink of international acclaim when he becomes entangled in a mysterious conspiracy. Now, only his devoted wife (Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly) can help him in this powerful story of courage, passion and triumph".

A Beautiful Mind is none of those things. The plot description isn't even accurate, or at least suggests the story is about Nash's "work" for the Pentagon when said "work" is clearly in his affected mind. Worse, the film not only won't give us any hints that much of the story is really Nash's delusions but insists on keeping up the false front even past when Nash is locked up in an asylum.

Image result for a beautiful mindYou get the sense Howard and especially Goldsman wanted to keep the deception going. I keep feeling cheated and lied to even though I know their intention is to give us the world through Nash's eyes. To be fair, they play things in a plausible way yet I wonder if all that was necessary.

Would it not serve the film and audiences better if we got some hints that things were not as they appeared to be versus being hit with 'a shocking twist' a bit past the midpoint?

A Beautiful Mind also flat-out lies or shades the truth beyond making Nash's mental health crisis deliberately opaque. It goes beyond the obvious misdirection about the story. As mentioned A Beautiful Mind deliberately leaves a false impression of Nash. Who would have thought Alicia Nash was from El Salvador? Would we think Nash's story was triumphant if we had learned that he abandoned a child and the child's mother, or that contrary to the film's suggestion Alicia and John divorced long before he won the Nobel Prize?

Even if his arrest for indecent exposure as part of a sting in a public restroom or his alleged antisemitic writings were done in the grips of his mental instability, why insist on presenting an illusion to demonstrate an illusion?

I don't mind being deceived if it's made clear I'm being deceived. I mind greatly being misled with not just half-truths but deliberate omissions to paint a false portrait.

A Beautiful Mind does not make a case as to why Sol or Bender would happily go along with Nash given the times they interact with him is primarily to ridicule him. The idea that Nash and Hansen are friends is as delusional as Nash's friendship with the fictitious Charles. I'd say the idea of Nash and Hansen being friends is more delusional than Nash and Charles' faux-friendship.

I think almost all the performances were flat and/or one-note. This is the case with Rapp, Goldberg and Lucas, though to be fair to them their characters were similarly flat and/or one-note. Harris too played what seems a stock character: the tough secret and shadowy agent. Again to be fair given he was an illusion one shouldn't expect a great deal of backstory to Parcher.

I think Bettany and Plummer gave the best performances because they seemed like real people even if the former was not real. Despite the praise she received up to a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, I found Connelly a bit breathy as Alicia (who has been whitewashed in more ways than one). She looked on admiringly or distraught at her husband but that's it.

Crowe was strong but struggled with whatever effort he made at a West Virginia accent, which was mercifully dropped. Without meaning to sound harsh he did look a bit old to be a college student in the beginning (he was 37 at the time). Once again to be fair so did Rapp, Goldberg and Lucas, but why quibble?

Even the film's defenders find it hard to defend A Beautiful Mind's ghastly makeup, though James Horner's score did capture the complex world of math.

A Beautiful Mind is fiction with a thin veneer of fact. That, along with the film's stubbornness in leading us down a false road with no hint about the truth still irks me. Perhaps a fuller, more open version where we see some warts might have made it better.


Image result for a beautiful mind
John Nash: 1928-2015
Alicia Nash: 1933-2015

DECISION: D+

2002 Best Picture Winner: Chicago

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Driving Miss Daisy (1989): A Review

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

In the span of thirty years few Best Picture winners have proved so divisive as Driving Miss Daisy, though the controversy has little to nothing to do with the film on a technical level. Instead, it is the subject matter that causes so much ire, so much so that when Green Book won Best Picture the specter of Driving Miss Daisy came to haunt the latter. Both films revolve around chauffeurs and their paying passengers with only the races reversed and one pair being the same sex versus Miss Daisy's male-female perspective.

Looking back on Driving Miss Daisy, like the title character the film has aged poorly; however, one can find a surprising critique of concepts that had not been conceived of when the film charmed audiences: white privilege and liberal hypocrisy.

Wealthy white Jewish widow Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) had a small incident with her car: she got confused on the gears and ended up backing the car into her neighbor's backyard. Her son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd) decides it's time she have a driver, but Miss Daisy will have none of it.

Boolie nevertheless hires black driver Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman) to 'drive Miss Daisy'. Daisy's hostility is overt until finally she breaks down and very reluctantly takes to being driven. Soon she finds Hoke almost as indispensable as her maid/cook Idella (Esther Rolle). Miss Daisy is able to vent her irritation at the WASP aspirations of her daughter-in-law Florine (Patti Lupone) and travel to Mobile for her brother's 90th birthday.

Over time their relationship evolves from hostility to amiability as the South changes from a segregated society to a more diverse and inclusive one, though not without a few bumps on the metaphorical and literal road between Hoke and Daisy. Eventually, as Miss Daisy slips into dementia and is put in a home, Hoke visits 'Miss Daisy' one last time.

Image result for driving miss daisyMy mother loves Driving Miss Daisy, or as she calls it in her mangled English, Driving My Daisy. Why she keeps calling it that I can't guess at, but in a certain sense Mom's right in referring to it as Driving My Daisy. The film centers around Miss Daisy and Hoke in their give-and-take, particularly her evolution from hostility over the loss of her independence to embracing change on her terms versus his own views about being a man, particularly a black man.

The film is certainly Jessica Tandy's show and bless her for making Miss Daisy remotely likable given how nasty she is, particularly in the beginning towards Hoke who has done nothing wrong. Every time he attempts to do something to justify his salary, Miss Daisy comes storming in harder than Sherman stormed into Atlanta.

Miss Daisy is rude, mean, obnoxious, cantankerous and dismissive. And that's just with her only child!

She's far worse with Hoke, but Tandy makes Miss Daisy also into someone who could also be soft, even hurt. In her performance, Tandy shows that Miss Daisy is not snobbish but instead someone who still considers herself the poor Jewish girl from the wrong side of the tracks versus the wealthy widow she is now.

Freeman more than holds his own as Hoke. It might appear that he is close to being a 'magical Negro', someone who is there to enlighten the white character. However, Freeman makes Hoke someone who knows the societal limitations he faces but also knows how far he can be pushed. We see this when he coolly informs Daisy that as he nears 70 he is not about to tolerate being told when he can and cannot urinate, least of all by a woman who does not have the legal limitations he has.

In what could be a surprising turn, Aykroyd does a fantastic job in the drama as the much put-upon Boolie. He genuinely loves his mother but finds her exasperating, something just about every single son understands. It's a curious thing that despite how good Aykroyd is in Driving Miss Daisy he has not been given as many dramatic roles as his talent merits. In their brief screen-time both Rolle and Lupone give strong performances as the wise Idella and the shrewish Florine respectively.

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As I stated earlier, Driving Miss Daisy has not aged well, particularly when it comes to how race relations are portrayed. Alfred Uhry, adapting his own play, seems disinterested in emphasizing what should be Hoke's irritation at Miss Daisy's manner. It's a curious thing that Miss Daisy now comes across as either a dumb liberal or a hypocrite.

She says she's not prejudiced, and she may not be in terms of thinking she is superior to blacks. However, she also says that "they all take things" when she goes into a fit about Hoke  having taken a can of sardines. The film never stops to ask why she thinks "they" take things or who exactly "they" are: blacks in general, black men in particular or just Hoke. We can laugh at how Hoke not only admits to taking said can prior to it being brought up but also buying one to replace it, showing up Daisy. However, there is something distasteful about that "they all take things" line.

Moreover, at least twice we see that Miss Daisy is rather hypocritical in her manner. She is the type of person who can support change so long as said change does not affect or impact her personally. She may not be prejudiced, and is actually complimentary to Hoke as being 'the only real Christian' she knows versus Florine who pretends to be Christian to better integrate herself into the more dominant culture.

However, Miss Daisy never stops to consider that this man, whom she's grown to be fond of and who seems to genuinely like her for herself, should have the ability to urinate when he needs to. Instead, as she is desperate to get to her brother's in time, tells him flatly that he 'can hold it' for who knows how many miles. Her insensitive and brusque manner is surprising and surprisingly shocking.

Image result for dan aykroyd driving miss daisyEven worse is when she goes to a Martin Luther King dinner. She tells Hoke how she loves how things are changing, but earlier when Boolie suggests she invite Hoke to the King speech she balks, giving Hoke the vaguest hint of an invitation as he drives her to said dinner. Among her shockingly stupid defenses is the idea that Hoke can hear King speak 'anytime he wants'. When Hoke suggests that she was asinine to offer this invitation at the literal last minute she behaves as though she was the injured party. It's almost as if she expected to be thanked for her largess versus recognizing that she was wrong.

I don't think Uhry or director Bruce Beresford were making a commentary about how outwardly liberal whites could be just as prejudiced as the Klan that bombed her synagogue, a sin of omission versus commission. However, it would have been nice if they had explored that a bit deeper.

Her odd assumption that Hoke either goes to the church King preaches at or has some sort of connection to King personally just because both men are black demonstrates to me that Miss Daisy has a particular blind spot.

In short, Miss Daisy shows that she is open to change so long as things don't change for her. She believes in equality for all people, but Hoke should stay in his place. To be fair it may just be that Miss Daisy struggles to see Hoke as anything more than an employee and that her separation is more class/status-based than race-based. Still, something about this did not sit well with me.

Driving Miss Daisy curiously is not as charming as I once remembered it. I can see how well it does work, having seen audience reaction at a theatrical production a few years back. I don't think that the story romanticizes segregation in any way. The film is blessed with a nice style and strong performances from the whole cast, particularly by the triumvirate of Tandy, Freeman and Aykroyd. You do end up liking the characters, flaws and all. I think it is dated and slight, but nowhere near a paean to racism.

Neither as bad as its detractors say or as good as its defenders argue, Driving Miss Daisy is pleasant but flawed as people are.

DECISION: C+

1990 Best Picture Winner: Dances With Wolves

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Rocky (1976): A Review


ROCKY (1976)

On this Independence Day, it seems appropriate to look back at a film that reads as a love letter to America as we see our nation as: pugnacious, not too sophisticated but with grit and and a good heart and a fierce determination. Rocky still holds a place in many people's heart and it is easy to see why: it speaks to the idea of 'going the distance', a theme that hit hard in America's Bicentennial and which still holds sway now.

Rocky Balboa (writer Sylvester Stallone) is a low-rent boxer and hired muscle for local loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinelli). Rocky despite his boxing prowess is actually too gentle and kind to be ruthless with those whom Gazzo orders roughed up. Rocky has no prospects: about to turn thirty, his boxing career as 'The Italian Stallion' hasn't gone anywhere. Moreover, local gym owner/impresario Mickey (Burgess Meredith) throws Rock out of his gym.

Rock is thought by everyone he meets as a 'bum', one who won't go anywhere. This wounds him inside but he does not want to show it. His only concern is in winning the heart of painfully shy pet shop salesgirl Adrian (Talia Shire), who lives with her brother Paulie (Burt Young). Paulie and Rock know each other and with some pushing from the abusive and erratic Paulie a genuine romance blossoms between Adrian and Rocky.

Image result for rocky 1976It's here that a surprising bit of luck hits Balboa. Heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has a major fight scheduled on New Year's Day for a Bicentennial celebration but the scheduled fighter has to pull out. Desperate for a replacement, Creed decides to find an unknown Philadelphia fighter as a gimmick. Who better to fight on the two hundredth anniversary of America's founding than some boxer called 'The Italian Stallion'?

Balboa at first thinks he will be merely Creed's sparring partner, but agrees to the fight. With only five weeks to train Balboa agrees to have Mickey as his manager despite their differences. Only one person in Creed's camp realizes that Balboa, unlike Creed, is taking this fight seriously. The night of the fight Creed is in for a rude shock when he realizes Rocky Balboa, this nobody, this bum, this galoot, is not going to go down easy. It soon becomes an actual fight, with one winning the match and one winning his true love.

People who watch and love Rocky focus on many aspects of the film. They focus on the uplifting story or the performances which are now so much part of Americana that they are easily parodied. They focus on the romance between Rocky and Adrian or on the thrilling theme Gonna Fly Now and its use in the training montage, which also are fodder for spoofs.

All that I think does contribute to Rocky's success and which I will touch on a bit later. However, after seeing Rocky again I think one aspect that is not as well-appreciated is a theme the movie has: the power of redemption and resurrection. Rocky begins with very triumphant music, a single theme from one trumpet echoed by another trumpet that almost declare the arrival of greatness. Bill Conti's score makes clear that Rocky Balboa is a champion even though he has nothing to show it.

However, our first sight is an image of Christ, the ultimate redeemer and one who triumphed over the greatest obstacle, a man born in ultimate power, disparaged and mocked who became King of Kings. He looks down on a fight at the Resurrection AC (Athletic Club). It's a blend of the divine and the common, the people worshiped and the people dismissed.

I cannot say whether Stallone's screenplay or director John G. Avildsen planned this out with that particular mindset. I certainly am not comparing Rocky Balboa with Jesus Christ. However, it would be too much of a coincidence for our hero to metaphorically be watched over by another poor man who rose in triumph.

Related imageThere is a strong theme of redemption and resurrection within Rocky, a sense that every character wants to go above where he/she is at and be more than what society has deemed them. Rocky wants to show he is not a bum. Adrian wants to be seen as worthy. Paulie and Mickey too want a shot at being more than what they are. Each of them, filled with frustrations and fears, now through Balboa find a chance for greatness.

As a side note, perhaps that is why the training montage, particularly with Gonna Fly Now playing, is so inspiring to so many people. I confess to being surprised at my own reaction: I did get misty-eyed as Rocky races through Philadelphia, birthplace of America, looking down on the city with joy, arms raised, knowing that his chance at redemption and personal if not spiritual resurrection is within his grasp.

Gonna Fly Now, which has remarkably few lyrics, echoes Rocky's themes of redemption and resurrection, starting from "Trying hard now" to "getting strong now" and ending with "gonna fly now"

I think that we react so emotionally with this sequence and with Rocky in general because of two things. Point One, we have gotten to know these characters so well, particularly Rocky and Adrian, that we care what happens to them. This is a credit to their performances. As much as Stallone may be derided now, perhaps with some reason, his Rocky performance was quite strong. He makes Rocky a man who is not just a goodhearted tough guy. He also shows us that there is this rage and hurt within him.

We see it after he seemingly turns Mickey down as a manager. As Mickey sadly walks away we hear and see Balboa express his buried pain at being seen as nothing, a loser, a nobody. That sense of despair and fear come at us with full force. Stallone also shows us Rocky as a quite gentle man, self-consciously aware of his educational limitations and even insecurity around a rather plain-looking woman. We end up loving him.

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Same goes for Shire's Adrian, who buries her own fears about not being worthy deep within herself. Once she finds that there's at least one person who loves her for her she blossoms, and that evolution makes for compelling viewing.

There really is not a bad performance in Rocky, with perhaps the exception of Thayer David's boxing promoter Jergens. He struck me as a little over-the-top. Meredith's Mickey was effective, particularly when he all but begs Balboa to be his manager. Young too was strong as Paulie, a man who in his own twisted way did care about his sister, but who was too internally loathing to show the good man buried within him.

I don't think Weathers has gotten enough credit for his Apollo Creed, outwardly an egomaniac but a man also driven by his own fears, a fear of losing his status. It's not a stretch to see why his name is that of a god.

Point Two, we identify with the characters in particular with Rocky Balboa. We see ourselves in Rocky, someone who wants his shot and when unexpectedly presented with it, determined to make the most of his moment.

I have long thought that Rocky is so beloved especially by Americans because it is essentially an American story: the idea that through hard work and determination we can achieve greatness even if that greatness is not financial or worldly. In many ways, Rocky Balboa is how Americans see themselves and the country: not sophisticated or graceful or articulate but kind, courageous, compassionate and determined to overcome the odds.

That it came in 1976 when the United States was celebrating two hundred years of existence but at a time when the nation was questioning itself after the twin traumas of Vietnam and Watergate served to enhance the film. Rocky was a reminder of what America is to many: a true land of opportunity whose people fight hard and have a good heart.

Rocky is more an emotional experience, one where the viewer gets caught up in this man's journey to the championship. I do wish they had spent more time on the actual fight and not told us there would be no rematch, but on the whole that is quibbling. Rocky still holds up because to misquote a quote wrongly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, "Rocky is great because Rocky is good". 

It's impossible not to love Rocky Balboa and Rocky.

DECISION: A-

1977 Best Picture Winner: Annie Hall

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road): A Review

Image result for pather panchali criterionPATHER PANCHALI

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road) is the debut film of both director Satyajit Ray and the main character, Apu. This first part of what would become The Apu Trilogy is one of the most beautiful films I have seen, perhaps not visually stunning but emotionally impactful that it stays with you long after you see it.

Pather Panchali covers the early years of little Apu (Subir Bandopadhyay, now Subir Banerjee). He is the second child of Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee) and Sarbojaya Ray (Karuna Bannerjee) and he lives with his older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta) and his elderly 'Auntie' Indir (Chunibala Devi), whom both are devoted to, especially Durga.

As a side note, despite their shared surnames none of the actors were related.

The family is quite poor, leading to much stress on Sarbojaya's part. She is frustrated by Auntie's habit of taking food without asking, which Sarbojaya in turn blames for Durga taking fruit that has fallen from a wealthier family's orchard (said orchard she maintains her more dreamer husband should have held onto). Harihar is a poor priest and keeps plugging away at being a writer and poet, but money is hard to come by.

As we see Apu and Durga grow up, they experience the joys of simple things like sweets and the train passing by, but also see the hardness of life. The neighbor insists Durga stole a necklace from her daughter, causing Sarbojaya to briefly throw her out of the house. She also throws Auntie out a couple of times, though the wily old lady manages to come back with little protest from Sarbojaya.

Harihar goes to find work and money away from their ancestral land, and in his absence Sarbojaya becomes more desperate and concerned. Apu and Durga experience the tragedy of loss and death, and then death comes for the innocent. Harihar finally returns but what joy he has is lost when he learns of Durga. With nothing to hold them to the only home they have known for at least three generations, the Rays go to the big city of Benares to seek out a new start.

Image result for pather panchaliPather Panchali has as its major drawback its length at a little over two hours. Such a long film may try viewers' patience, especially as Pather Panchali has a very small, simple plot. It's a very quiet film: there are no major twists apart from the discovery of the necklace and its focus is on simple people living out their lives in rural India. There is no talk of politics or the outside world, in fact no mention of anything remotely connected to the outside save for the train that so fascinates Apu and Durga.

Yet my question would be what exactly should be removed? Director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray in his directorial debut takes this slow and methodical method to allow us to know these characters, and as such those with patience are richly rewarded. We are slowly woven into their lives, their struggles, hopes, joys, simplicity and heartbreak to where we can see either ourselves or our own families.

One of the great beauties of Pather Panchali is that despite the difference in time and culture the viewer can identify with the characters and their various situations: the inquisitive and playful Apu, the protective yet flawed Durga, the wily and slightly mischievous but wise Auntie, the harried and haunted Sarbojaya and the optimistic and hopeful dreamer Harihar. Pather Panchali is a story that is familiar to the human condition, centering on a family and situations both distinctly Indian and deeply universal.

It's a major credit to Ray as a director that his cast featured non-professional actors. Out of his main cast, Bandopadhyay had no acting experience and only Kanu Bannerjee had film experience. Karuna Bannerjee, Das Gupta and Devi had theatrical acting experience but no film work. They all give such wonderful performances, making the characters so relateable. We see Apu's discovery of the world, his innocence and joy in simple things. We can smile as Auntie delights in the secret deliveries of fruit Durga 'finds' for her. We can share Sarbojaya's anxieties about how to feed her family while her husband is away.

"I had dreams too...", she tells her husband softly, and here I think we see the genius of both Ray and Pather Panchali. Sarbojaya was once Durga, a generally happy child with her life ahead of her. She is also perhaps fated to become Auntie, an old hunched-over woman living off the kindness of extended family. In fact near the end a child sent by family to provide food for Sarbojaya in her grief calls her 'Auntie', suggesting that the wheel of time spins in a certain direction too.

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We can also mourn the two deaths in Pather Panchali, one not surprising, one unexpected but both sad and tragic. It is no surprise that the elderly Auntie dies, though her death seems very harsh given the circumstances that led to it. It is the other death that hits you much harder, much deeper. Ray does not make it a big moment, drenching it with music or having hysterics. It is the softness, the stillness of both the death and Sarbojaya's pained, frozen reaction that hits us harder.

I confess that when she finally broke down after Harihar gives her Durga's new sari, I had to pause the film for a few moments to collect myself. You would simply have to have a heart of stone not to find yourself shedding tears at this moment. I admit I cried at this moment, and I have no shame in that revelation.

Pather Panchali perhaps has a subtle way of informing the viewer about its theme of life moving forward both with happiness and sadness. We see this with Sarbojaya, but there's another part that caught my attention. Near the end of the film Apu is sent to find someone. He dresses before leaving, and then pauses to take one more item: an umbrella. Here, he echoes his father's similar pause to collect his umbrella earlier in the film when he set out on his journey. Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but I think Ray was suggesting that Apu was now becoming a man, leaving the boy behind.

This is a film that makes one go find his or her family and express their love for them. After seeing it, I went and hugged my mother tightly and lovingly. Granted, she was suspicious as to why I was suddenly so affectionate and thought I was up to something, but such is life.

Lest I forget, the film is blessed with a beautiful score from legendary sitar master Ravi Shankar, whose music brings delight and pain that matches the story.

The pain and loss the family endures is heartbreaking, yet Pather Panchali is not a tragedy. We have moments of lightness and joy, in short, about life and the human condition every person lives out. A beautiful portrait of humanity, albeit perhaps a bit slow for some, Pather Panchali is a portrait of how we all travel down on our own Little Road.

DECISION: A+

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): A Review

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs is technically a sequel in that it follows characters introduced in 1986's Manhunter, the adaptation of Robert Harris' first Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon. As much as The Silence of the Lambs is seen as a horror film or psychological thriller, after revisiting it I think the film is really a much deeper and richer commentary on women as both victims and heroines.

Novice FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is tasked by her superior Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) to try to convince or con a brilliant but dangerous psychologist/psychopath to help the FBI in profiling a serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill", who skins his victims.

Said psycho is Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), known as 'Hannibal the Cannibal' for having killed and eaten his victims. Currently imprisoned and controlled by inept prison psychiatrist Dr. Fredrick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter is so dangerous he is kept behind glass to avoid him touching anyone.

The ambitious Starling and the brilliant Lecter soon begin an intellectual pas de deux, one attempting to outwit the other to get what they want. For Lecter, it is to get away from Chilton, whom he detests. For Starling, it is a chance to get ahead in her career.

Things take on a greater urgency when "Buffalo Bill" (Ted Devine) has taken a new victim: Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). She fits Bill's targeted victims: female, overweight, young. She is also the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), bringing greater attention to the case. As Lecter continues to toy with everyone, Starling continues the investigation despite Lecter's false clues and wild goose chases, driven by her own haunted past to save Catherine.

Lecter has a few tricks up his sleeve, putting everyone at risk. As Starling's investigation comes to its shocking conclusion, she finds that Hannibal Lecter, now a fugitive, will keep away from her out of courtesy, but as for his nemesis Chilton...

Going back to The Silence of the Lambs, I think that I have found a new interpretation for this story above the surface story of two madmen tied together by one investigator. Rather, and again this is my own interpretation, I think The Silence of the Lambs is about Clarice Starling more than about the horrifying crimes.

I got from Jonathan Demme's film that Clarice was the 'lamb' and that her 'silence' was that of many a competent woman forced to watch herself among the various 'wolves' that surround them. Over and over through Demme's various close-ups and Ted Tally's screenplay we see how Clarice, this small woman, has to endure that nefarious male gaze.

That male gaze takes two forms. There's the gaze of desire which comes from the revolting, arrogant Chilton but also from some of her colleagues like FBI scientists Roden (Dan Butler) and Pilcher (Paul Lazar) and perhaps Crawford himself. As Pilcher talks to Starling, he clumsy asks her out.

"Are you hitting on me?", Clarice almost jokingly asks. Without missing a beat Pilcher says, "Yes". This metaphorical lamb, however, stays silent.

The other gaze is that of contempt, best shown when Crawford and Starling go to examine the body of another victim. Crawford tells the police chief that they cannot talk about certain aspects because essentially 'there's a lady present', and later on the various officers seem irritated when Clarice asks them to leave the autopsy room.

Image result for the silence of the lambsThe Silence of the Lambs, in my view, is a strong allegory about how women are victimized by men in ways large (murder, torture) and small (dismissed, harassed, ogled). I think we can see this at the very beginning of the film, where we see her running out of the very spooky, almost haunted woods. It's almost an archetype: the damsel in distress fleeing from the deep, dark forest. However, in this Gothic horror take on Little Red (or in her case, Grey) Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, the girl is seen overcoming all the obstacles.

Clarice is in her own way a lamb though a strong one, surrounded by wolves who would devour her with their eyes and with their bodies if they could; these hungry wolves range from the mentally ill prisoner Miggs (Stuart Rudin) who literally flings his cum at her, to 'Buffalo Bill' himself who would slaughter her. Chilton is the worst in that he has both desire and contempt for Starling, seeing her as both a sex object and an incessant irritant and intellectual inferior despite the evidence to the contrary.

Even Jack Crawford, who would appear to be a mentor, can be seen as both contemptuous of Starling and perhaps harboring some sexual desires.

It is never really overtly spoken, though Demme shows us how Clarice is often mistreated by the men she is around in various ways save perhaps one: Hannibal Lecter himself. Unlike just about every other man, he sees Clarice for her mind. He is rather courtly and polite, who sees in Clarice not as a thing but as a person.

Lecter is manipulative and in his own way tortures Clarice by having her delve into her traumas, but he would do this with anyone regardless of gender. There is a very brief shot of him caressing Starling's hand with one finger, which suggests sexual desire, but I am not convinced Lecter ever wanted Clarice sexually.

The lion's share of fame in terms of performances has gone to Anthony Hopkins as Lecter. What makes him a truly frightening figure is in how Hopkins plays him: as a man fully in control, brilliant, contemptuous of everyone save perhaps Clarice. Even as he literally devours people he does not seem to lose control. I think that is what makes Hopkins' performance so brilliant. He plays Lecter as someone who is always five steps ahead, taking every opportunity presented and whose very calmness masks his murderous and evil ways.

His charming, courtly manner allows for us almost to cheer when he bids Clarice farewell via telephone. As we see a frightened Dr. Chilton arrive in the Bahamas, Lecter coolly informs her, "I do wish we could stay and chat longer, but I'm having an old friend for dinner," the double meaning a mixture of menace and mirth.

Hannibal Lecter, thanks to Hopkins' performance, has become a cult figure, the center of a cinematic universe with television shows and film sequels/prequels. Poor Brian Cox: whatever the qualities of his version of Lecter in Manhunter, is all for forgotten. However, it is to me a terrible disservice to focus so much on Hopkins and Lecter when The Silence of the Lambs has an equally brilliant performance.

Image result for the silence of the lambsJodie Foster, I think, has gone not fully appreciated for her performance in the way Anthony Hopkins has. Her performance is absolutely pitch-perfect. Foster's Clarice Starling is an authentic character. She is strong and competent but she is also vulnerable. She does not hide that she is a woman by attempting to be 'masculine' and she certainly would never think of being coquettish. Her gender is part of who she is.

However, she is someone who is capable of being hurt. A brief scene of her crying after leaving her first interview with Lecter, where she has endured having cum flung at her and crazed men screaming at her, shows that she is not above having emotions. She also has something that the male investigators do not have: empathy for the victims. Starling does not see these women as mere corpses or subjects in an investigation but instead she sees them as real people. 

The Silence of the Lambs does not have a bad performance in it, a credit to Demme as a director and the various actors in the film. Levine for good or ill is now seen as 'Buffalo Bill', his crazed 'drag act' never slipping into camp but a genuinely creepy being. Even small roles, such as Baker's fearful mother, Kasi Lemmons as Starling's fellow trainee Ardelia Mapp or Chris Isaak as the SWAT commander and even independent film legend Roger Corman in a cameo as the FBI director all have strong moments.

There are also other elements that contribute to the film's great success. Howard Shore, inexplicably not nominated for his score, creates music that is eerie and melancholy. Of particular note is when Clarice is remembering the trauma of her childhood. One can hear what sounds like the wind echoing that dark morning when her young life came apart. I think it was actually music, but it was so well-crafted that one senses the score elevated the scene. The use of the song Goodbye Horses also makes for frightening effect.

Craig McKay's editing is excellent, particularly when balancing the tension between a wrong raid, Catherine striking back against her captor and Clarice's imminent danger. Tak Fujimoto's cinematography works well in setting the eerie nature of the story, though I did question the set-up for when the police storm where Lecter is housed. It did strike me as slightly illogical that Lecter would take so much time with such an elaborate piece but that's being a bit nitpicky.

The Silence of the Lambs is a magnificent film: horror mixed with intelligent yet subtle commentary on gender roles and standout performances particularly from Foster and Hopkins. An extraordinary yet terrifying film, The Silence of the Lambs continues to hold a macabre fascination to this day.

DECISION: A+

1992 Best Picture Winner: Unforgiven

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Intruder (2019): A Review

THE INTRUDER

I am someone who judges a film based on what it aims for and not on some lofty sliding scale. As such, I can look on The Intruder was bemused pleasure, accepting that it is trash. Granted, it's poor trash, so much so that it would have benefited tremendously if it had embraced its trashiness rather than even try to be serious. However, as almost idiotic pieces of useless entertainment go I cannot find it in my heart to beat up on The Intruder much.

Successful entrepreneur Scott Russell (Michael Ealy) and his wife Annie (Meagan Good) are looking for a country home to escape San Francisco. They think they have found the perfect place in Napa Valley: a large home currently owned by Charlie Peck (Dennis Quaid). Both Charlie and his home have fallen on hard times ever since the death of his wife two years before.

After some negotiating the Russells buy the house, but Charlie seems never to actually leave. He keeps telling them he'll soon move in with his daughter in Florida but he keeps showing up. Charlie sometimes helps around the house: cutting the grass and setting up the Christmas lights. Scott is growing more alarmed at Charlie's intrusive nature but Annie keeps insisting he's just a nice man who is a little lonely and means well.

Charlie, however, does not mean well at all. Pathologically possessive about the house he soon becomes more fixated on Annie. Charlie's growing derangement puts the Russells and their friends in danger until reaching a brutal climax where not everyone will come out alive.

Image result for the intruder 2019As I said, The Intruder could have benefited tremendously from a little more camp given David Loughery's cliched screenplay. It is one of those films that depend on the characters being amazingly stupid, particularly poor Annie who is stubbornly foolish when it comes to Charlie's behavior.

No matter how often Charlie shows up unannounced or how often Scott's concerned are justified, Annie continues to insist that the very odd old white guy running around their home and popping up at all hours is harmless.

Bless Good for not breaking out into fits of laughter at Annie's inanity. One has to give her credit for trying to make her into even a remotely rational human being given the character as written is really, really dumb.

The Intruder loves to delve into standard thriller bits: the evil figure popping out of the shadow unseen by the others, random strangers offering important information that furthers the plot, the 'wacky' best friends who you know are there to be killed. The film to its credit makes said 'wacky' best friend Mike (Joseph Sikora) so unlikable that at least I was rooting for Charlie to get rid of him. Never was the term 'token white guy' so apropos to something as silly as The Intruder.

We even get suggestions that The Intruder borrows from other films: I could see bits that were reminiscent of Straw Dogs and The Shining, though why they went this route is unexplained.

Image result for the intruder 2019
The film almost delights in throwing things in that not only have little if anything to do with whatever the actual plot is but just as quickly forgets about them. There is a vague subplot about a tryst Scott had when he and Annie were engaged potentially repeating itself that just came and went. There is another about Charlie's daughter that similarly came and went. We are told that Scott has an aversion to guns, so we know what will happen in the end. Said 'wacky' best friend Mike, who no surprise is killed off (much to my delight) has a girlfriend we've seen, but no reason is given why she is apparently unconcerned that Mike has disappeared.

Perhaps she was just happy to be rid of Mike. It would have made things more interesting if Charlie had seduced Mike's girlfriend Rachel (Alvina August) or vice versa.

I really do think the cast and director Deon Taylor would have done better to have made The Intruder almost a spoof rather than even bother trying to make this serious. It appears Dennis Quaid opted to try and make Charlie into a camp figure with his obvious "I'm CREEPY!" performance. Ealy appears to underplay his role as almost a counterweight to Quaid's all-in bonkers manner.

Again, as I look at The Intruder, I could almost find myself enjoying it for its desperate efforts to try and be good. It isn't: the cliches and idiocy of just about everyone in the film pushes it down. The Intruder is mindless, hokey silliness but not quite fun enough for me to recommend unless it is to actively ridicule it.

DECISION: C-