Thursday, January 31, 2019

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975): A Review (Review #1177)


Can a film have simultaneously a sad and happy ending? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is both a comedy and drama, with its story of individualism versus rigid conformity still relevant even if the film itself is a bit dated.

In Oregon a mental institution is run by Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), an iron hand in a velvet glove. The institute is efficient, calm, orderly but soulless.

Enter Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a habitual criminal undergoing evaluation for possible mental illness. McMurphy is nowhere near insane: he just does as he pleases. He is delighted to be at the 'funny farm', at least initially. He has greater freedoms than in prison and more importantly does not have to work.

Unfortunately for McMurphy, he finds that Nurse Ratched does not suffer whom she considers fools gladly. Using whatever powers she has, Ratched is displeased by how McMurphy disrupts her orderly ward and the influence he has over the various troubled men. McMurphy wants things his way all the time, but he cannot get his way all the time. It soon becomes a battle of wills between them.

Image result for one flew over the cuckoo's nestCaught in their private power struggle are the various patients, from the stuttering innocent Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) to the man-child Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) and the pompous Harding (William Redfield). Their various group therapy sessions are where their cold war battles take place, with McMurphy's disruptions and Ratched's petty power grabs being a to-and-fro series.

Also observing this is Chief (Will Sampson), a giant of a man whose nickname comes from his Native American heritage. He is believed to be a deaf-mute when in reality, over the course of the film, we see that is able to hear, talk and think quite clearly.

McMurphy is doubly horrified both by the fact that he is one of the few who finds himself permanently committed and that most of the patients are there voluntarily and can leave anytime they want. After a fight McMurphy is subjected to shock therapy, but still his defiance holds. It is only after a raucous party McMurphy throws is discovered that things come to a brutal and tragic ending for Billy, McMurphy, and up to a point Ratched, but not without the reward to Chief (real name Bromden), who is finally free.

Related imageOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest should have as its theme a line used by the various doctors to describe McMurphy. "He's not crazy but he's dangerous". That is the key to seeing the message behind the surface story: that the rebellious McMurphy is a danger to the order of things, coldly and efficiently run at the institution.

The power struggle between Ratched and McMurphy is I figure symbolic of that between authority and individualism, between having control over places and people and being able to do as you wish. Director Milos Forman and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman do extremely well in being clear about the story working on two levels without being blatant.

Take Nurse Ratched for example. With her cold demeanor and hairstyle that makes her look as if she has horns we see in her the tyranny of both conformity and stability. She herself is not overtly evil but far worse. She is indifferent, unaware or uninterested that stability leads to staleness. Her rigidity on all matters is so great that when positive aspects to McMurphy's involvement do take place she simply does not care. She does not care that the formerly mute and disengaged Chief participated in a vote. She certainly does not care or even notice that Billy stopped stuttering, him if not cured at least much better off.

For her, Billy defied her and her order, so she uses the weapons at her disposal to drive Billy into total submission: his fear of his mother. It is at this point where the audience reacts with total hatred towards Nurse Ratched and where she becomes truly evil. We know she is responsible for Billy's horrifying end to where McMurphy's violent reaction seems almost justified and worthy of praise.

Louise Fletcher's performance is absolutely brilliant: rarely raising her voice, she displays Ratched's malevolence in her demeanor and the coldness of her eyes. She is matched by Nicholson, for whom McMurphy seems tailor-made as our rascal rebel. We see McMurphy's evolution from lackadaisical schemer to one who has a genuine, if perhaps misguided heart. It's in little moments, such as when he hesitates to leave at the end to know what happened to Billy, and his genuine rage when he sees the end of that poor young man.

Dourif too has an innocence to his Billy, a young man who would have benefited less from his therapy than by positive reinforcement. The film also has many actors who would become big names such as Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd who also did fine work.

Perhaps the fishing expedition now seems a bit curious, not just in why it's taking place but in how there is no retribution to such a flagrant act of disobedience.

As allegory and as a straightforward narrative One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest works extremely well. Perhaps a bit dated in style, that minor issue is lessened by its strong performances and story.

It is never madness to wish to be free.


1976 Best Picture: Rocky

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Gotham: Penguin, Our Hero Review

Image result for penguin our hero

I've long argued that there are few things as amusing as seeing Gotham's Penguin go raging to his full fury. Penguin, Our Hero shows that our favorite villain has not lost his power to be fun when he's bonkers. We also get to see our favorite couple showcase themselves to their very best.

Our Pengy (Robin Lord Taylor) is now a full-blown megalomaniac tyrant. He wakes up every morning to his own choir dressed in Mao-type rags singing his special anthem Penguin, Our Hero. While his loyal aide Mr. Penn (Andrew Sellon) attempts to let Mr. Cobblepot know of the growing discontent within Penguin's dictatorship, the only thing Pengy cares about is himself and his bulldog Edward.

One imagines Pengy is drawing lessons from Hitler, who had a similar passion for dogs that did not extend towards people.

To his horror and anger, members of various biker gangs have joined forces to bring Penguin down, blaming him for various hits on their membership. Penguin, for once, is innocent, but he has no qualms about torturing the bikers who dared ruin his breakfast.

It isn't long until the discontent in Cobblepot's kingdom spreads to where Mr. Penn, the Gertrude Kapelput Memorial Choir and even Edward flee to Haven, the one safe area of Gotham run by Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie). Penguin gets the Lo Boyz, Undead and Street Demons to raid Haven and take back what's his. Pengy ends up getting played himself, and now finds he must join forces with Gordon to save himself.

Image result for penguin our heroIn the subplot, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) and Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) go to the 'Dark Zone' of Gotham to seek out the elusive Jeremiah Valeska. Bruce wants to capture him and bring him to trial, but Selina just wants to kill him. While Bruce uses stealth, Selina believes in the direct approach.

The direct approach is to participate in the Satanic Rites of Valeska, headed by his High Priestess Ecco (Francesca Root-Dodson), who dons garish makeup and uses the term "puddin'". These wicked rites involve supplicants playing Russian roulette with each other. Selina cannot bring herself to shoot someone in the head and manages to survive.

The fight between Selina and Ecco is interrupted by Bruce, who is determined to save Selina from her darker impulses. She, however, will not be denied and handcuffs Bruce as she pursues Ecco, and hopefully Jeremiah.

Penguin, Our Hero has a lot going on and its to its credit that it balances both plots quite well without feeling one is shortchanged.  The bulk of the episode is devoted to Pengy's story, and once again Robin Lord Taylor proves himself to be one of if not the best elements of a well-cast show like Gotham.

Image result for penguin our heroIn his total narcissism, in his fury, even in his hints of genuine human feeling, RLT never hit a wrong note. He is comical when he descends the stairs to his own Hail to the Chief in his undergarments. He is frightening in his rage and fury and ease in killing. He is even emotional at certain points.

Taylor's shock and fury when learning that his court has fled betrays a touch of genuine hurt, especially after the heavily-accented maid tells him she heard Edward left of his own free will. As he cradles a dying Mr. Penn, he shows almost a sincere heartbreak, more so when he hears Mr. Penn's last words, an apologetic "Everyone hated you". It's as if, like all tyrants, they mistake fear for affection.

We also see just how well Mazouz and Bicondova are, more so when they work together. Mazouz's performance of the moral Bruce has a great counterpoint to Bicondova's performance of the less moral Selina. We see that she is not evil but she is also not letting things get in her way, even if what gets in her way is someone she has affection for.

I found that after one of their two fight sequences with Dark Zone thugs, Mazouz's black costume could clearly make him Batman with just the cowl missing. He keeps Bruce as someone who uses stillness, stealth and methodical intellect to achieve his goals. His only emotional weak spot is Selina, whom he cares about. Bicondova makes Selina's genuine morality mixed with her rage a fascinating experience to watch.

In short, we can completely see Mazouz as Batman and Bicondova as Catwoman.

If there were elements in Penguin, Our Hero that might not work well was the unnecessary addition of Bonkers Babs into the mix as she played almost no role and worse was sidelined by the Haven bombing at the end. We also saw yet another person blown up, though to be fair it was not as visible as other times.

The fact that Gotham has had more than one person blown up is highly troubling.

On the whole though Penguin, Our Hero is a strong episode with a triumvirate of excellent performances by Taylor, Mazouz and Bicondova. As we get closer to the finale of this final season, these three performers in particular are setting a high bar for those following in these roles.

Oh Penguin, Our Hero/He Knows No Fear-O/He Brings us Joy and Cheer-O/Oh Penguin, Our King...


Next Episode: Ruin

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A Woman's Face (1938): A Review (Review #1172)

Image result for a woman's face 1938I imagine that A Woman's Face is one of those "See Ingrid Bergman As You've Never Seen Her Before!" films. It is a departure from her usual elegant and/or heroine roles as this villainous master criminal. What is interesting about A Woman's Face is that she up to a point cannot rely on her looks but on what was always there: her talent.

Even if she doesn't hold on to that particular 'face' for long.

Anna Holm (Bergman) is a wicked woman, the brains behind a blackmailing racket. She has cause to be angry with the world: a facial disfigurement made her an easy target for abuse, causing the world to reject her.

Through circumstances that involve her newest blackmailed couple, she receives plastic surgery and now has a beautiful face. Now masquerading as 'Miss Paulsson', she ends up as governess to Lars-Erik (Goran Bernhart), a child who is heir to a fortune.

Over time, 'Miss Paulsson' starts softening towards humanity, the genuine love of Lars-Erik and his family showing her a kinder side of people. She also is falling for Lars-Erik's uncle Harald (Gunnar Sjoberg), who is equally smitten. However, there is the wicked Torsen Barring (Georg Ryderberg). He too is Lars-Erik's uncle, but unlike the affable and relatively well-off Harald he is facing financial trouble. He is also next in line to the Barring fortune should anything happen to Lars-Erik.

Torsen realizes who 'Miss Paulsson' really is because he had hired her gang before and because of a telltale reaction to try and cover her face whenever her actual name is mentioned. Torsen bullies Anna to either help him kill Lars-Erik or at least stay quiet. Eventually, during a birthday sleigh ride, Uncle Torsen tries to kill his nephew. Anna pleads with Harald to chase after them, tearfully confessing all.

While Lars-Erik and Harald survive, Anna finds her guilt overwhelms her and takes refuge with the kindly plastic surgeon. Despite Harald's pleas to return, she decides to go to China and be a governess for an American couple there, starting her new life in a new world.

Image result for a woman's face 1938A Woman's Face may be the most challenging role in Ingrid Bergman's pre-American career. It circumvents our ideas of what an 'Ingrid Bergman' type is. She is the glamorous beauty or initially a sympathetic figure but an evil woman. Brutal, unfeeling, heartless, Bergman has the challenge of making us care about Anna's evolution as well as make it believable.

It is to Bergman's incredible talent, along with director Gustaf Molander, that her spiritual transformation was very realistic. In other hands we might have had a big scene or deliberate plays for tears. Bergman and Molander however, opted to show this gradually and with subtlety. After Lars-Erik gives his governess a kiss, we see how troubled Anna is, how unaccustomed she is to genuine warmth. Her fear and terror and guilt as she pushes Harald on to save Lars-Erik is also so well-played.

We even gets those 'unconscious' reactions of her attempting to cover her face even after the successful surgery, brilliant touches that lend texture to her performance.

It is not as though we don't get a background into how she turned out this way: in a moving monologue we learn her troubled criminal parents eventually led to a fire where they died and she was burned. It might also be that the play may be a bit too hard on the idea that the physical and spiritual reflected each other, but I think the audience can be trusted to know that her physical appearance was a reaction to versus a cause of her emotional hardness.

We had good performances from the rest of the cast, and even a bit of levity in the wordplay between the elderly Consul Berring, Lars-Erik's grandfather, and the longtime maid who was willing to tell him exactly what she thought. The criminal gang might have gotten away with it but even they had some amusing moments.

Molander should also be credited with having a very good chase scene across the ice, building on the tension even though the filmed background was obvious.

The ending, while not a happy ending at least is satisfactory. It didn't have the lovers reconcile but it does make Anna's transformation complete: from a cold woman to one willing to sacrifice her own happiness to bring happiness to others.

It's only real drawback is that it takes a while for the story to get rolling. I confess to dropping off for a bit between the blackmail and the encounter with the plastic surgeon. Once we get to the transformation into 'Miss Paulsson', the film picks up steam.

Apart from that though A Woman's Face shows us that there was a deeper and greater talent within Ingrid Bergman, something that is always appreciated.

One last thing: the closing credits to say "The End" in Swedish are written S-L-U-T. It might come as a shock to see "SLUT" in bold letters, but be forewarned it is not a commentary on Anna or Ingrid.


Monday, January 28, 2019

The English Patient (1996): A Review


A Roll In the Sand...

I was never a big fan of Seinfeld,  but I can empathize with Elaine's reaction to The English Patient. The first time I saw it, I too was desperate for it to end. However, with the passage of time I have forgotten all about The English Patient. To be truthful, I think many people have forgotten about The English Patient. Now it is time to revisit the film and see whether my near-total lack of memory is warranted.

I found that my original impression was right: The English Patient pushes itself into being a sweeping love story but at nearly three hours felt like an endless drive through the Sahara with no end in sight.

The film cuts from the 'present-day' (the final days of World War II) and just before the Second World War began. In the 'present-day' we have Hana (Juliette Binoche), a French-Canadian nurse who seems to bring death to everyone she loves. With them is a mysterious disfigured man who barely  survived getting shot down known as 'the English patient' even though his actual nationality is unknown.

Transporting him and others through Italy, Hana decides the best thing to do is to leave the other troops, with permission, and take herself and her patient to an abandoned monastery. Over time, she learns 'the English patient's' story, as do two other men who find themselves at the monastery: Kip (Naveem Andrews), a Sikh bomb diffuse expert and David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who is connected to 'the English patient'.

Image result for the english patientWe flow from the 'present-day' to the past, where we slowly get the English patient's story. For starters, he isn't actually English. He's Hungarian: Count Lazlo Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), an explorer and adventurer searching for the Cave of Swimmers in the North African desert. He and his colleagues are low on funds, but find resources with the Cliftons: Geoffrey (Colin Firth) and his wife Katharine (Kristin Scott Thomas). Eventually, Almásy and Katharine begin a passionate sexual affair, one she eventually breaks off.

However, this kind of true desire can never truly be broken, though our lovers find the road hard, what with the war and Geoffrey attempting to kill them all getting in the way. We learn that in order to get back to Katharine, Almásy gives the Germans detailed maps of Cairo, which leads to the unintended discovery of Caravaggio as a Canadian spy (code name Moose) and his subsequent torture.

Kip and Hana's own very brief affair ends when his best friend is killed by a booby-trap on V-E Day, and Count Almásy is granted his wish for euthanasia by Hana. She and Caravaggio now leave Italy for Canada, with her carrying his beloved copy of Herodotus' Histories, which also contains his memories of Katharine.

Related imageThe English Patient pushes to be 'sweeping' and 'epic', a swooning romance that by Hour One I was thinking was one of the most unconscionably boring films I've sat through. I can see why so many thought it was so romantic and lush: there are echoes of Out of Africa in The English Patient, right down to a flight sequence filled with lush, romantic music (this time by Gabriel Yared versus John Barry).

Like Out of Africa, it has a romantic love triangle. Like Out of Africa, it has an 'exotic' setting with the very wealthy beautiful people forever declaring their love. Like Out of Africa, it is needlessly, almost tortuously long.

Try as it might, I could not get swept up in the forced sweep of these two almost insufferable pair of horny Europeans. I never thought Almásy and Katharine had this deep, passionate yearning love. I thought they were just hot for each other. Perhaps understandably hot: Fiennes and Thomas are beautiful-looking people, rendered more so by John Seales' cinematography. However, I think there's a difference between love and desire, between the emotion of love and the satisfaction of sex.

The English Patient, I think, imagines they are both the same, much to its detriment.

As the film ebbs and flows from past and present, you wonder why writer/director Anthony Minghella didn't just either concentrate on one or not spend so much time with our pair of lovers. I cannot shake the idea that the Hana/Kip romance was short-shifted: this poor nurse who feels cursed almost losing her lover to the strangest of circumstances only to end up losing him to the strangest of circumstances.

Image result for the english patient church scene
This is especially true given that Hana and Kip had the most romantic moment in The English Patient, and it didn't even involve sex. For all the 'sweeping' nature of endless desert sequences and frolics in bathtubs, the most beautiful and romantic moment in The English Patient is of Kip taking Hana to an abandoned church, then swinging her up via pulleys to show her the beautiful frescoes. The joy and delight of these two people, who if memory serves correct had not yet consummated their relationship, along with Yared's music, spoke much more about love than Almásy and Katharine's endless declarations of it.

Out of all the performances, Binoche is the only one I had any feeling for. As a side note, I am puzzled how she was a 'Supporting' actress given that the film seems to be more about her than Katharine. Binoche's Hana is a rarity in film: a strong yet vulnerable woman, strong in that she is able to take care of herself, vulnerable in that she fears that in loving there will be literal death for whomever she loves. This holds her back a bit, but she still is willing to love.

Dafoe was also good as Moose (because a Canadian spy can't have any other code name), though I was not convinced he would be so quick to forgive Almásy's actions just because our Hungarian count was enthralled with some dame. Here he was, this Avenging Angel chasing down everyone connected with him losing his thumbs, and now that he has the last man responsible however tenuously, he ends up helping carrying him around in the rain to celebrate the Axis defeat?

Fiennes and Thomas had nothing more to do than look longingly at each other and declare love over and over again. I thought they gave lousy performances, both having this rarified and stilted manner to their eternal pronouncements of love eternal. For better or worse, Thomas was the one we ended up seeing nude often, though in retrospect one can only speculate whether Harvey Weinstein's involvement had anything to do with it.

Simultaneously slow and rushed (slow in running time, rushed in romance), I think time has not been kind to The English Patient. It's one of those films people feel almost obligated to think highly of but not one they would watch unless they had to.


1997 Best Picture Winner: Titanic

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Vice: A Review


We are now about ten years removed from the Presidency of George W. Bush and yet Hollywood cannot seem to let go of the past. Vice, the biopic of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest in the long chain of dramas that slip into farce when tackling a subject the filmmaker despises (The Reagans, W., The Iron Lady). Partisanship aside, Vice is too haphazard in its efforts to meet its goal: make me hate Cheney the way writer/director Adam McKay hates Cheney.

Hopscotching from past and present with voiceover narration from Kurt (Jesse Plemons), whose connection to Cheney is eventually revealed, we see the slow, calculated rise of Richard Cheney (Christian Bale) from drunken ne'er-do-well in Wyoming to Congressional aide, to White House Chief of Staff, Wyoming's lone Congressman, Secretary of Defense and ultimately Vice President under President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).

Cheney had a mentor in Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) and was aided in his ruthless rise to power by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). Domestically, Cheney is proud of his daughters and has a soft spot for his youngest Mary (Allison Pill), to where even her lesbianism is not an issue or impediment to his love.

Cheney works hard to acquire more power than anyone in history for himself, using it for his own purposes. He may not have an emotional heart, but he ends up with a new physical heart thanks to Kurt. He is not only our narrator and guide through Vice, but he is also the man who had the heart Cheney now has implanted in his body, which former veteran Kurt is not too keen on.

Image result for vice movieVice has more negatives than positives, primarily in its structure and tone. McKay clearly thinks a lot of Vice is either funny or infuriating or even a mix of the two. It's a pity he pretty much fails in all aspects.

I figure his to let Carrell's Rumsfeld be "Michael Scott Does Washington" or Rockwell's Dubya be a tired rehash of Vice producer Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live impersonation would have them rolling in the aisles. Instead, it all came off as bad, angry farce more fit for a Netroots Nation Variety Show than either a straightforward film or a comedy. It's all very self-satisfied and a little smug, but that might be forgiven if it were actually either funny or insightful.

Therein lies one issue with Vice: we've seen it all before, in particular Rockwell's spoof of George W. Bush. It's far too easy to continue with the 'Bush is a Moron' shtick. It requires a shorthand that makes the contradictory "George W. Bush is The New Hitler" seem strange. One wonders how one can be simultaneously a moron and a murderous mastermind. It wasn't a performance. It was caricature, something that can also apply to Carrell.

Bale's Cheney is a spot-on impersonation, his quiet vocal tones and inflections working perfectly to where it's surprising he never seems to raise his voice even when he's angry or coming as close as he ever will to justifying his wicked, wicked ways via a direct talk to the audience. As someone as secretive as Cheney is, I figure we'll never get to the man behind the myth. Despite the film's best efforts, one almost likes this Cheney, in particular for how his love for his daughter is not impaired or hindered by her lesbianism. It's surprisingly progressive.

Yet as much praise as Bale has been getting, I cannot shake the idea that it is more for technique than for insight. Yes, Bale looks and sounds a great deal like Dick Cheney, but as to Cheney the man, he is not quite there.

As much praise as Amy Adams is getting for her Lynne Cheney, I can't get behind it. Adams is a tremendous talent, but her Lady MacCheney act felt a little too easy, the idea of the more pushy Second Lady plotting to gain power making one question what she saw in the drunken lout.

Image result for vice movieHere is where Vice also flounders. The 'Lady MacCheney' quips is not there for my own amusement. At one point, Vice has Lynne and Dick reciting their plot in Shakespearean tones right after the surprisingly smug screenplay via voiceover tells us we can't just create a Shakespearean-like soliloquy about whether Cheney would accept the Vice Presidential nomination.

We get strange efforts to play things more as comedy that should be embarrassing, such as when the camera freezes on Dubya with food hanging on his mouth or faux closing credits. There's the lecturing about how most of us are too busy being entertained to care about the 'unitary executive theory'. There's the comparison to Galacticus, the 'unnecessary censoring' at Cheney's secretive energy commission meeting and the Sideshow Bob-type music when Cheney enters a room.

Perhaps the strangest turn is when the film touches on Lynne's mother's death. Besides the shock of it played badly by Adams, we get the vague suggestion that Lynne's mother was murdered by Lynne's father. What this has to do with the evil Antonin Scalia plotting decades before he was a Supreme Court Justice to enhance Cheney's Cardinal Richelieu routine one never knows, and McKay leaves it dangling there.

Dangling is an apt term given how fixated the film is on Cheney's fishing. Pity he couldn't name the film Angler (Cheney's Secret Service codename and the title of a biography).

In retrospect, the Kurt-as-narrator/organ donor bit might be stranger than the "Lynne Cheney's father 'may have' murdered Lynne Cheney's mother" bit. Why McKay went this route I can't fathom a guess.

Vice has no sympathy for its devil. It's too scattershot and slightly smug to be insightful or clever, two things it wants to be. Vice has no grip on its subject.

Born 1941


Saturday, January 26, 2019

Roma (2018): A Review


Roma is a pretty languid film, moving slowly as we cover a year in the life of a Native maid to a wealthy Mexican family. It isn't a bad film by any stretch, but it is coming close to being perhaps the most overrated film of 2018.

Roma covers a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitzia Aparito), maid to a wealthy Mexico City family in the Roma neighborhood.

As a side note, if you've heard that the family is 'middle-class', I can tell you it ain't. I know of no middle-class family that can afford a housekeeper, a cook and a chauffeur with the house this family had, but I digress.

Cleo is an indigenous Mexican woman, whose only friend is her fellow domestic/indigenous Mexican Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia). During the course of the year, Miss Cleo meets and is romanced by Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a big martial arts enthusiast. Miss Cleo gets pregnant and is abandoned by Fermin.

Image result for roma movieDespite her condition her employer Miss Sofia (Marina de Tavira) stands by her. Sofia has her own issues which play out in Roma: her own marriage to Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) is collapsing, leaving her to care for their four kids and with only Sofia's own mother to stand with her.

As the year continues, Miss Sofia and Miss Cleo go with the children to the children's cousins hacienda for Christmas and New Year's, where they get hints of the social discontent from the common people to the elites. Miss Cleo and Sofia's mother also see the Corpus Christi Massacre while shopping for a crib. More shocking is that Fermin, who by now has told Miss Cleo not to contact him again lest she wants her and the baby dead, is a paramilitary member who was party to killing a protester who fled to the store for shelter.

The shock causes her to go into early labor and she loses her daughter. As Roma comes to an end, Miss Sofia takes the kids on a 'vacation', but really a way for Antonio to get his things, which she tells the kids of their impending divorce. Miss Cleo tearfully admits she did not want her baby.

At the end of the film, now with us in 1971, Miss Cleo returns to her duties and Miss Sofia has a new start.

Image result for roma movieRoma is a well-crafted film in that writer/director/cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron keeps things thoroughly grounded. He is especially fond of keeping things at eye level, with the camera moving slowly, almost always from center to right and back again.

I imagine he also was deliberate in evoking his childhood memories with his black-and-white cinematography and at least one shout-out to himself (the clip of the science-fiction film Marooned an echo of his own Gravity).

As a side note, Gravity is known around my house as "two hours of Sandra Bullock crashing into things". The authoress of that quote is my mother, who like Cuaron is Mexican. She has yet to be impressed with his oeuvre, Roma included.

As I think of it, Roma and Gravity have something else in common: the near-lack of action. This year of unfortunate events is slow, perhaps deliberate but not something earth-shattering. That is how it might be, but I was not completely won over to this story of knocked-up maids and their sad employers.

It might be that Miss Cleo was a bit too passive. When Fermin tells her to essentially get lost, he throws in some karate moves and shouts, which make things unintentionally hilarious. Not that seeing him use a shower rod while doing more martial arts full-frontally nude wasn't already hilarious (Mom was howling with laughter at that, which I don't think was the intent).

If I were Miss Cleo, I'd have whacked Fermin in his extensive balls. I know a few Mexican women, and none of them are anywhere as docile as Miss Cleo or even Miss Sofia. They wouldn't get drunk and bemoan how 'women are always left alone'. They'd get drunk and slam their car onto their husband's mistresses.

One thing's for sure: Miss Sofia and/or Miss Cleo ain't no Maria Felix. La Doña wouldn't have taken one bit of crap they took. La India Maria wouldn't have taken one bit of crap they took either, but now I wildly digress.

Image result for roma movie
Roma, I suspect also, has a good deal of symbolism rattling around itself. There's the house, which is spotless on the public/first floor but a mess in the upstairs/family quarters. There's the film Miss Cleo and Fermin are watching when she tells him she's pregnant, where we see a crashing plane. The juxtaposition of a happy wedding after Miss Sofia tells the kids of the breakup with them seeing the celebration is a bit too on-the-nose for my taste. The large car forever struggling to fit into its small driveway, (and even once where Miss Sofia, illogically, jams herself into two large trucks on the street), until she gets a new, smaller car, symbolic of her smaller but more manageable life.

I'll confess not understanding the symbolism (if any) of having some guy dressed as El Cucuy singing some oddball song after the peasants burn part of the hacienda's field on New Year's Eve, but to each his own.

Finally, Roma seems to borrow from early Fellini, such as in the traffic jam that holds up Miss Cleo getting to the hospital or the village where Fermin is at, complete with a campaign rally involving a human cannonball. I saw elements of 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita and I Vitelloni, but again that might just be me.

Give credit where it's due: Aparicio gave a strong performance for being a non-professional as Miss Cleo, the embodiment of a long-suffering native domestic. I would say Miss Cleo is a bit too passive (an earth tremor scene causes her to have no reaction) and she did a lot of staring out, but on the whole when asked to show some emotion she did a very competent job. One also sees Roma as a very nice-looking film with Cuaron keeping things extremely simple.

To me, ultimately, Roma felt like Mexico's answer to The Help: minority maids and the white women who love them. Roma may have been named for the Mexico City neighborhood it is set in, but after seeing it, a better title might have been Diary of a Sad Housekeeper.


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Othello (1952): A Review

Image result for othello orson wellesOTHELLO (1952)

Author's Note: this review is for the 1952 European release, not the 1955 recut version.

When it comes to the Orson Welles adaptation of Othello, there are two tragedies. The first is the actual story itself: a tale of jealousy, madness and murder most foul. The second is in how Welles essentially had to stumble his way through production, with numerous starts and stops in the filming. One, however, would mostly not notice all the oddities and jumbled nature of Othello. The film itself, though rather short, has some extremely inventive visuals, proving that necessity really is the mother of invention.

We open Othello with a funeral and a man chased and caged, so we already know there will be death and retribution. We then go in a more straightforward manner of Shakespeare's tale.

Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir) has a burning hatred for his Moorish general Othello (Welles) for being passed over as second-in-command for Cassio (Michael Laurence). Iago's frenemy Roderigo (Robert Coote) dislikes Othello for 'stealing' the beautiful Desdemona (Suzanne Clotier) from him. Her father Brabantio (Hilton Edwards) is displeased too, but is resigned to her 'disobedience'.

Sent to Cyprus to stop the Turks, Othello has a victory, but Iago starts his elaborate plot to bring down both Cassio and Othello. His plot involves disgracing Cassio, then getting him to try and have Desdemona plead for his case. The interactions between Desdemona and Cassio are then used by Iago to plant seeds of doubt in Othello about her fidelity, and soon Othello becomes ensnared by that 'green-eyed monster'.

Convinced now that Desdemona is Cassio's mistress, with a damning evidence of Desdemona's handkerchief as proof, Othello's rage grows murderous and tragic. With so much death and horror, Othello ends where we began.

Othello has a visual style that belies its cobbled together financing. Despite the limited resources we have some excellent moments where we don't notice the economic limitations. Welles has many moments where we do not see the actors deliver their lines, but instead we see the backs of them. It actually lends an air of mystery and suspense, giving the viewer a sense that there is greater torment or fury we can imagine.

A shot that Welles uses where we see him reflected in a mirror as Iago fills his mind with false evidence is meant for subtext about how Othello is now a reflection of himself, of his dividing mind before he becomes filled with murderous jealousy. It may be cliched, but it is effective.

Welles captures that sense of doom and tragedy and foreboding right at the beginning. It comes not just from the fact that we Othello and Desdemona's bodies carried for burial, but in Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's music. The music is dark, heavy, with a Gregorian chant style that pulsates with menace, even horror. Welles has several shots askew, again subliminally signaling the chaotic nature of this Moorish tragedy.

The economic nature of Othello works even when it deviates from the literal text or setting. The attack on Cassio and subsequent killing of Roderigo takes place in a Turkish bath, which is not from Shakespeare's text. It was set in a Turkish bath because the costumes were not ready and a logical place for men to be lightly clothed was needed to have the scene. Here, it works: the steam lending a greater menacing air.

In short, visually speaking Othello uses what resources it has at its disposal to lend the story a darker, heavier manner.

I cannot say I was particularly overwhelmed by the performances. As much as I like Othello I have never shaken the idea that Desdemona is a weak character, a blank almost dim woman. Clotier's performance does not enhance that idea. Even her final line, "Kill me tomorrow! Let me live tonight!" seems said less in the frantic, terrified manner I think of it in and more as a passive statement.

Welles similarly seems more theatrical and not in a good way. He seems surprisingly controlled in his rages. It's hard to mess up Iago, and MacLiammóir is appropriately cold and villainous as our false friend. One can believe his duplicity can deceive so many.

Othello is a visually arresting film, though sometimes the economical manner of it is obvious (a few times it looked like a still photograph was used rather than straight film). I think though that the lack of financing helped lend the film a more frantic quality, matching the Moor's growing desperation and rage. Perhaps it is not the best adaptation, and I leave it to you if Welles in dark makeup is a hurdle (though to be fair, it seems less outlandish than Laurence Olivier's version). It may also not be strictly true to the text.

On the whole, however, the visuals more than make up for any of its flaws, making Othello a truly sumptuous and tragic spectacle.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

91st Academy Award Nominations: Some Thoughts

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This year's Academy Awards is one of the wildest ones that I can remember. Films seen as de facto winners are now looking like also-rans (looking at you, A Star Is Born 4.0). Films seen as all but dead are now in the thick of things (ditto, Bohemian Rhapsody).

I'm not going to offer predictions, as I'm pretty lousy on them.  I will offer just some thoughts from my lowly vantage point.


Film Twitter is in a rage over Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody being in this category for a variety of reasons ('the white savior narrative strikes again!' 'There was no Freddy Mercury gay orgy scene!'). Guess what? The Academy ain't listening to you. The members were pleased enough with them to put them in their slate, each with five nominations.

I find it interesting that they are in because for all the hoopla over the 'younger and more diverse' Academy membership, they could not sway more members to get beyond a feel-good movie in the Driving Miss Daisy mode or a wildly popular film/standard biopic. The young Turks probably pushed Black Panther into the mix, but the hype surrounding this film seems the real reason it became the first comic book-based film nominated for Best Picture.

Sorry, but The Dark Knight was better and more worthy of recognition.

Roma and The Favourite lead the pack with ten nominations each, including some genuine surprises. I don't think anyone expected Roma's Marina de Tavira to be in Supporting Actress as she hasn't appeared anywhere. While Film Twitter is giddy at the thought of Roma being the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, I draw attention to something few if any people are talking about.

The Favourite got nominations for Picture, Director, Film Editing and Cinematography. None of the other Best Picture nominees got into all those categories.

While in the past decade the Editing Oscar has matched Best Picture only three times (Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker and Argo), only once has a Best Picture winner not been nominated at all (Birdman). In Cinematography, the match-ups are weaker (2/10 for Birdman and Slumdog Millionaire). However, the eventual Best Picture winner was nominated 5/10. Best Director and Best Picture have matched 6/10 times in the past decade, and only once was the Best Picture winner director not nominated (Argo).

I'm not predicting The Favourite will pull off one of the most shocking upsets in history and will win Best Picture. I am saying that we are too quick to ignore/dismiss it.


Again, Film Twitter is atwitter over Toni Collette not getting in, but she was always an unlikely nominee given the Academy's disdain for horror. There wasn't much of a surprise for Leading Actress as Roma's Yalitza Aparicio was probable though not certain. She and Lady Gaga, however, are highly unlikely to win.

Gaga, the (inexplicably to me) frontrunner, collapsed when Glenn Close won at the Golden Globes. She's been riding high ever since. This is Close's seventh nomination and many sense she's 'overdue' for a win. Olivia Colman is her strongest competitor, but it would be more shocking if Close were left out in the cold again.

The 'overdue' narrative could also propel the surprise nomination for Willem Dafoe for At Eternity's Gate. He, like The Favourite, is being ignored, I think too quickly. I said he was the dark horse in the race, and now that he's in he may become the 'spoiler'.

When it comes to Best Actor, what do I tell people? "BIOPIC! BIOPIC! BIOPIC!". Seven out of ten Best Actor winners this decade have won for playing real-life people. This year looks to be no exception, with Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Viggo Mortensen as Frank Vallelonga and Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddy Mercury in the running.

Bale and Malek have been drawing the most attention, but we have some wild cards. Dafoe, like Close, is seen as 'overdue'. He lost last year. He is well-respected. And he is in a biopic.

I could see both 'overdue' actors winning. Far too soon to say but nowhere near outside the realm of possible.


Again, de Tavira's nomination is as close to a stunner as I can remember. Some pushed First Man's Claire Foy as a potential nominee, but I never saw it. Amy Adams is currently 0 for 6 in wins, and I think she'll go empty-handed again, not unless an 'overdue' narrative can be made for someone barely in her forties. It's rare for two people nominated from the same film to win, weakening Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone from The Favourite.

That leaves If Beale Street Could Talk's Regina King, one of the film's three (!) nominations. The award circuit has played fast-and-loose with King, sometimes rewarding her, sometimes not even nominating her. This is hers to lose.

The big surprises for me were for Supporting Actor. The Vice love is pretty much astonishing: eight nominations, tying it with A Star is Born 4.0. Even those who liked Vice, albeit small in number, thought Sam Rockwell's George W. Bush was either too small a performance or too much of a caricature better suited for a Saturday Night Live skit. It's a nomination few appear to understand, let alone rally around.

Sam Elliot gets his first nomination for A Star is Born 4.0, but I think this is more a de facto lifetime achievement nod than anything else. Despite the strong Green Book pushback, most of its detractors thought well of Mahershala Ali's performance. Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s Richard E. Grant might give him some competition, BlacKkKlansman's Adam Driver less so. However, I think Green Book will have at least one Oscar, so haters get ready.


First Man's failure at a Best Original Score is for me one of the two most shocking omissions. It can take comfort that in its four nominations, it will likely win three (Visual Effects and both Sound categories). I'm not big on any of the Original Score nominees, but I'd like If Beale Street Could Talk to win.

Both Won't You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers not getting Best Documentary nods is the other most shocking omission. I do not get the love for Free Solo at all and hope anything beats it.

Costume Design has a weakness for royalty. While this might not exclude the Royal House of Wakanda, I think it will gravitate more for the reign of Queen Elizabeth I than Queen Anne, and Mary Queen of Scots I think has a stronger chance to take Makeup too.

Despite my disdain for A Star Is Born 4.0 I suspect Shallow will win Best Original Song, not because I think it's the best song but because the others are worse. The Place Where Lost Things Go is probably the best of the others, but not a hill I'd die on.

The Incredibles 2 looked like the de facto winner, until a certain friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in various forms swung by, and now like A Star Is Born 4.0 what was once a certain winner looks all but dead. Unlike that overrated remake, I'm strongly rooting for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

If A Beale Street Could Talk looks to take Adapted Screenplay as a way to reward a film shamefully overlooked, and Original will be a coin-flip between The Favourite and Roma as all the others are mired in separate controversies.

It will be shocking if The Favourite leaves empty-handed with ten nominations, one short of a record (The Color Purple and The Turning Point losing all eleven nods) but even more surprisingly it may lose all. A Star Is Born 4.0 has one real chance, and if it somehow loses Original Song it will have gone from A Star Is Born to A Star Is Dead.

As a side note, I hope someone will write on how A Star Is Born 4.0 collapsed from 'inevitable sweep' to almost nothing.

I think this year we may have some films lose all their nominations (Bohemian Rhapsody, Mary Poppins Returns, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, maybe even Vice).

Now, on to the actual awards, which I'm sure will prove more raucous than years past.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Band of Angels: A Review


There should be something almost tawdry about Band of Angels. It's got a lot of melodrama rolling around the moonlight and magnolias of the Antebellum South. There's forbidden love, war, twists. Somehow, Band of Angels does not fully embrace its own trashiness, forever aiming like our heroine for respectability and failing at it.

Amantha 'Manty' Starr (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner in 1853. As a young girl, she's puzzled as to why her mother is buried not in the family plot but in the Starrwood Plantation gardens.

Sent away to Cincinnati for her education, where she is romanced by abolitionist preacher Seth Parton (Rex Reason, which is truly one of the great screen names) but has to rush home after learning her father is extremely ill. Arriving back in Starrwood just in time for Daddy's funeral, she gets a double dose of shock. Not only is her father dead, but she discovers that she is a 'Negress', her mother being a slave.

At this point the film does not make clear whether Amantha's mother was black or able to 'pass' for white, or whether her mother was aware of her status, or why her father chose not to keep this liaison secret given all the other slaves seemed to know Miss Manty's true heritage.

Nevertheless, as someone who is part-black and legally a slave, Manty is carted off with the other slaves to pay her father's debts. She is almost ravished by the evil Mr. Calloway (Ray Teal), the slave trader who has designs on our fair maiden, but she almost escapes via suicide.

Related imageIn New Orleans, she is auctioned off, with her still insisting she is white and appalled at how she is being treated. The buyer is Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), who purchases her for reasons unknown, placing a $1,000 opening bid to stop others manhandling her. Manty is puzzled by Hamish, rebuffing his company but eventually succumbing to his charms despite her 'tainted' blood.

Her ardor is so great she rushes to join in at his plantation rather than go onto Cincinnati as he had arranged. Her status is still unclear: it seems just about everyone knows she's 'colored' but she is not treated or thought of as a slave.

One person who is not pleased is Rau-Ru (Sydney Poitier), whom Hamish has educated and treated almost as a son. Despite Hamish's personal kindness Rau-Ru remains bitter and angry, as he sees that Hamish's kindness puts him in greater bondage, not being free legally but not being totally free within Hamish's world.

At last, the Civil War erupts, and Rau-Ru is forced to flee when he strikes a white man who is accosting Amantha, still screaming about 'being white'. He eventually joins the Union forces, while Hamish, revealing his secret past as a slave importer, helps Amantha go back to New Orleans, where she still 'passes' for white.

She catches the eye of Lieutenant Ethan Sears (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), but is discovered at a ball by Seth, now a Captain. Seth is still extremely moralistic in his manner, and knows Manty's secret. However, in a moment of passion, he attempts to have his way with this 'Negress', shocking Manty and himself.

She flees to find Hamish, who has been found by Rau-Ru. Rau-Ru also discovers his own past tied to Hamish, and in the end helps his former master and his mistress escape.

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Again, one would think Band of Angels has some pretty wild goings-on, with miscegenation being the smallest part of this steamy story of the Old South. However, director Raoul Walsh seemed more interested in making a grand epic than a pulp film the Robert Penn Warren adaptation all but cried out for.

Many have compared Band of Angels, fairly or not, to Gone With the Wind. There is no comparison there, and not just because Gone With the Wind is simply a much-better film. Whatever Scarlett O'Hara's faults, she wasn't as weak as Manty.

I've never believed in the idea of 'white privilege', but if I did, Manty would be the poster child for it. Few people have behaved almost hysterically at the mere suggestion that they are anything other than 'white' as Amantha Starr. I could cut her a little slack in that she had to endure both the loss of her father and loss of identity on the same day, the double blows being a lot for anyone.

However, for the rest of Band of Angels she seems unwilling to ever admit to her true heritage despite being repeated reminded that she is a 'Negress'. Anytime anyone ever mentions or points out that she is biracial, she keeps going off about it not being true.

As a side note, one of the more creepy aspects of Band of Angels now is that the film wants you to feel sympathy for her when she is on the auction block because she is 'white'. If her heritage were more 'obvious', would anyone give Manty greater consideration? Would the fact that a woman, regardless of race, was being sold, be shocking enough without throwing in the fact that she has porcelain skin and green eyes?

Image result for band of angels movieIn terms of performances we see Clark Gable give not so much a bad performance but more one that is coasting. He seems to be slipping into what a Clark Gable parody would be, all poses and stern expressions. Yvonne DeCarlo should have been better, and sometimes she showed a more human side to Manty, such as her shock and horror at Hamish's slaver past. However, her stab at a Southern accent seemed to come and go, and there was too much staring out with worshipful eyes.

Tommie Moore as Dolly, the 'Prissy'-type slave, was simply dreadful, all wild overacting and nonsensical sayings. Counteract that with Carolle Drake's Michelle, Hamish's slave/former mistress, whose elegant manner and French would have made her a more interesting character. Same for Reason as the single-minded Seth, full of high morals and righteous fury but who still has lustful desires which almost overwhelmed him one time.

Sydney Poitier is interesting here in that this is rare film of his, at least to my knowledge, where he plays a slave. His performance kept that distinct Poitier dignity, the rage within the cool exterior of Rau-Ru bubbling but never giving in to hysterics and overblown manners. Even as a slave he is imposing, almost frightening in his contempt for Hamish and Amantha, forever denying her true identity.

One of Band of Angels' strengths is Max Steiner's score (himself a Gone With the Wind veteran). It brims with fire and fury, keeping things from tipping over completely into pulpy farce.

Band of Angels is not terrible but it isn't very good either. It does not explore Manty's ability to cross the color line, and worse, makes her surprisingly unsympathetic to the plight of her people, masking herself in white privilege. Not once in my memory does she question the morality of slavery even after discovering she is part-Negro. Despite being black (though the film never makes clear how many 'drops' of black she is), Manty has a false air of superiority to her which makes her almost a villain when she should be someone we care about.

Still, it's one of those 'not-a-bad-way-to-spend-an-afternoon' type films, one you see and forget.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Nocturnal Animals: A Review (Review #1166)


Nocturnal Animals is the second film by couturier Tom Ford, and it expands on the motifs he brought to his debut film, A Single Man. I did not like A Single Man apart from Colin Firth. With Nocturnal Animals, I don't even have a good performance to elevate my enjoyment, just a hollow, pretentious piece of self-important rubbish that within four minutes in I regretted watching.

The film is essentially split into two sections that mix and mingle. The main story is on Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a not-successful artist and museum owner. Her second marriage to financier Hutton (Armie Hammer) is eroding due to his infidelities which Hutton deludes himself into thinking Susan knows nothing about. She now spends the weekend alone, and at this time receives a galley of her first ex-husband Edward Sheffield's (Jake Gyllenhaal) newest novel, Nocturnal Animals. The novel is overtly symbolic, starting with the title, which was his nickname for her.

As she reads Nocturnal Animals, she can see elements of their life together creeping in through his prose on his remarkably dark and dour story of rape and revenge.

Related imageThe second story is Nocturnal Animals the novel itself. A combination of Straw Dogs and Deliverance, it's the story of meek math teacher Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), driving through West Texas with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber). They come across a group of yahoos who force them off the road and mercilessly harass them.

The leader of this redneck gang is Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who with his two other hoods eventually abduct Laura and India away from Tony, who is forced to drive his own car out into the desert. Eventually, he manages to survive, but the whereabouts of Laura and India are unknown.

Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) eventually gives Tony the bad news: Laura and India have been raped and murdered, and he has to identify the bodies found lying ever-so-artfully on a red couch, their matching red hair serving as de facto shrouds.

Did I mention Susan and her daughter Samantha Morrow are also redheads?

Eventually, the literal dying detective and our meek math teacher do track down Ray Marcus and enact their own brand of Texas justice, but at a high price for them all.

As for Susan, she is emotionally devastated by the novel and the memories of her past it sparks. She asks via email to see her ex, and he messages her back. However, she is stood up, and our story ends.

Related imageNocturnal Animals is a film that drowns in its own artistic aspirations and pretensions, a film so obsessed with being 'art' it slowly, methodically shifts into parody. From its opening title sequence featuring fat naked women wearing majorette hats and pompoms complete with slow yet grandiose music by Abel Korzenioski to its use of colors, everything in Nocturnal Animals smacks of deliberate artifice.

Nocturnal Animals is one of those films where I get what they are going for: some grand 'eloquent' statement drenched in visual luxury, but the "LOOK AT ME, I'M ART!" makes Nocturnal Animals ironically less artsy and more insufferable.

Perhaps it is because Ford also adapted the Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan as well as directed it that he made a decision that kept me at a greater distance. As I knew the Tony story was a novel, I was never invested in his plight and tragedy. I separated that part of the film from my mind, so the 'tragedy' of the rapes and murders did not hit me at all because I knew it was fiction.

It may also have been that Ford seemed dead-set on making the most artsy-looking rape and corpses in film history. Of particular note is when we find the bodies of India and Laura, so stylized and artistically posed that it looks almost obscene. He then echoes that exact pose for Samantha's daughter and her own nude male lover when Samantha calls her, the impact of reading the rape of the redheaded girl so jolting to her (even if it wasn't jolting to me).

Ford's obsession to create visual moments throughout both stories became an irritant.

I genuinely am puzzled as to why Nocturnal Animals was so lavishly praised. I figured this film is right up Jake Gyllenhaal's street, for it allows him to play two characters even if the majority of the film he's Tony. I give him credit in that his appearance looked different when he was Edward (all nice and shiny and beautiful) and when he was Tony (all haggard and forlorn), though his 'Texan' accent as Edward was laughable.

Part of me senses that Gyllenhaall has been doing everything but sleep his way to a second Oscar nomination: the artsy film (Nocturnal Animals), the psychological thriller (Nightcrawler), the inspirational sports film/physical transformation role (Southpaw), the 'inspirational biopic' (Stronger). Each Oscar-bait role has flopped either financially or in getting him in the running, so perhaps this is why he's opted for a comic book movie at this point in his career (Spider-Man: Far From Home). Yet I digress.

It was a good performance, but I still sensed it was a performance. Adams was worse only insofar as there was a deliberate artifice to it all, as she did nothing but look somber, almost always in black. Taylor-Johnson went all over-the-top as our crazed redneck. He had competition from the usually-reliable Laura Linney as Susan's rich bitch mother.

Shannon was the best of the lot as our stoic version of Tommy Lee Jones' character in No Country for Old Men.

Nocturnal Animals, early on in the 'book' section, had me shout "CRASH! CRASH!" before our redneck rampage even began. If I had been Susan, I'd have found Edward and thrown the tawdry story in his ever-so-pretty face.



Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Gotham: Trespassers Review

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It's a case of 'which witch is which' on Gotham this week with Trespassers, an episode that probably I would mark down as a bit lackluster if not for some of the performances.

The main story involves Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) rescuing child slaves in the Temple of Doom-like area controlled by the gang called The Soothsayers, as intimidating a gang name as can be found.

As a side note, The Soothsayers sounds like an awesome band name.

To pull off his Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome routine, he needs the vehicles held by his former fiancee, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), still bitter about losing her BFF Tabitha and angry at Jim for letting Tabitha's killer Penguin escape. She somewhat reluctantly agrees to let him have the vehicles, but she'll need something in exchange: taking Pengy down. Whether he agrees or not is a bit unclear to me.

Gordon and his Man Friday Detective Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) do find the kids, but wouldn't you know it, the Soothsayers and their leader, Sykes (Alex Morf) won't let them go easily. Moreover, a couple of kids are stranded, and Gordon, Bullock and Gabriel (Will Meyers), about the only teen slave, must essentially fight their way to the safety of their "Green Zone". That entails a side trip to a spooky house occupied by a Miss Havisham-type and her creepy child ward.

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Wrong Wil Myers
Eventually, with low ammunition, Sykes has a Mexican standoff with another gang for Gordon, who has a bounty on him from Pengy. Bonkers Babs shows up to save them all but still needing her help repaid.

We then get two subplots. The larger of the subplots involves Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) searching out 'The Witch' who could help his friend Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova). That witch turns out to be Ivy (Peyton List), Selina's frenemy who still harbors bitterness against her. Her power over plants has killed many men in this chaotic city, and she begs Bruce for help.

Naturally, she is still duplicitous towards her captors, but in exchange for being left alone in her wicked garden she gives Bruce a seed that she says will cure Selina. He gives it to Selina, who after a fearful start does appear to recover, only unbeknownst to him this has affected her in some way, giving her cat-like eyes.

The second and much smaller plot revolves around Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and his continuing struggle to stop sleepwalking. He thinks he's starting to recover when he happens to find a Tank in the Tub, a biker named Tank (David Kallaway) whom Edward kidnapped. Ed has no idea how that all went down, but things don't improve when Ed and Tank discover the rest of the biker gang has been killed, perhaps at Penguin's orders.

Image result for gotham trespassersSomehow, Trespassers seemed to be a pastiche of other stories, with the main story a bit dull. I think it is because by now, I've grown immune to caring about the 'little children in need of rescuing' trope, made worse by the fact that even before the big shootout I knew there'd be one or two children 'accidentally' left behind.

Granted, I was not expecting the 'haunted house' aspect, but this Escape From Gotham City act I figured had to have some kind of complication pop up. It could not be a simple smash-and-grab for the children, could it.

I also wonder if it had to be children. Would Gordon be willing to not rescue slaves if they were adults? My thinking is he wouldn't, but I cannot shake the idea that children were used to try and create more sympathy for their plight, even if I would think the Soothsayers would find children to make poor slaves no matter how often they watched the Indiana Jones film.

It also does not help that the wheels keep spinning for Ed to do something but not actually moving far if any. I can see that this is building for something, but exactly for what I don't know.  The last-minute rescue by Bonkers Babs seems to be far too convenient even for Gotham.

In short, there was a lot I was not buying.

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What I did like in Trespassers were some of the performances, in particular Mazouz as Bruce Wayne. He has a steadiness to his characterization, where he can mask fear one moment and show caring vulnerability another. It depends on whom he is acting with. List's Ivy is very camp, though I figure that's how Poison Ivy is meant to be so I'm not going negative on her. With List, Mazouz is able to show strength with a touch of fear for his life. Bicondova and Mazouz have always worked well together in this danse macabre between the future Batman and Catwoman, and Mazouz displays his youthful concern.

It's nice to see Logue bring back some of Bullock's old sarcasm and dry wit, as when he remarks how he has to go explore the basement in the obviously creepy house by himself. Even his horror at seeing an Ed Gein-type basement with the added crematorium has a mix of fear and mirth, an obviously frightened Bullock still having some bit of humor.

It's too soon to know if Meyers will return as Gabriel, but I wouldn't mind seeing this teen slave return, and I do hope Benjamin Snyder as the creepy orphan pops back up too.

On the whole, Trespassers was not terrible only because it had strong performances from Mazouz, Bicondova and Logue. However, I found most of it to be a bit slow, predictable and a bit off.  Then again, it is another rebuilding episode, so perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh with it.


Next Episode: Penguin, Our Hero

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

They'll Love Me When I'm Dead: A Review

Image result for they'll love me when i'm deadTHEY'LL LOVE ME WHEN I'M DEAD

"They'll love me when I'm dead" Orson Welles would crack about his artistic reputation/legacy, a bitter comment showing that Welles saw he would be held in high esteem in the future, not the present when he could have used that regard to fund his film projects. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead is on the making-of The Other Side of the Wind, his long-gestating film released thirty-three years after Welles' death. It is also about the frustrations, trial and agonies of the creative process with the truth somewhere in the midst of the legend.

With Alan Cumming as narrator and occasional host coming across as a more urbane Rod Serling, They'll Love Me When I'm Dead goes into the production of The Other Side of Wind but also about Orson Welles himself. We get information about his life post-'curse', Citizen Kane, the film held as the greatest film ever made but which condemned well to an impossibly high standard. His American career faltered, then he goes into exile where he continues to cobble together films in Europe but still itching to return to the States.

It seems the fates are perpetually against him. Always in search of funds, the levels Welles sank to and found himself in boggle the imagination. Somehow, funds got tied up with the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran. His almost slavishly devoted cameraman, Gary Graver, was at times forced to work on projects both oddball and pornographic.

Image result for they'll love me when i'm deadGraver, a talented cinematographer who called up Welles out of the blue to volunteer for him, ends up a tragic figure. He loves Welles but is also driven to near-exhaustion by the starts and stops on The Other Side of the Wind, his comeback film/spoof of 'New Hollywood.

One person interviewed for They'll Love Me When I'm Dead remarks that Graver is the only man to have worked for both Orson Welles and Ed Wood, filming such things as One Million AC/DC, described as 'the world's first bisexual dinosaur movie'. Sadder still is when he uses the pseudonym Akdov Telmig (vodka gimlet spelled backwards, we're helpfully told) on a porno called 3 A.M.

In order to get Graver back to work, Orson Welles did the cutting for a lesbian shower sex scene in 3 A.M. to allow his cinematographer to finish.

Think on that: Orson Welles essentially worked on a porn film in order to get his own film made.

He also endured a humiliation at his American Film Institute tribute. He hoped by showing footage from The Other Side of the Wind at the AFI tribute, he could get investors. The result was nothing, a terrible blow to someone who may or may not have actually wanted to finish the film.

Add to that the end of 'New Hollywood' with the arrival of the blockbuster like Star Wars and Jaws, the Iranian Revolution and various lawsuits and Orson Welles ends up dead before he has a chance to complete his seemingly on-the-fly film.

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They'll Love Me When I'm Dead bills itself as 'based on a true story', and there's more than just a light mocking of documentary conventions there. Orson Welles loved magic, especially sleight-of-hand, and the truth is no know will really know what the truth about Welles was versus what he wanted us to think was the truth.

Questions like whether Welles genuinely did want to finish The Other Side of the Wind or whether the film was autobiographical have contradictory answers. Keith Baxter, who worked with Welles in Chimes at Midnight, is interviewed and he believes Welles never intended to finish the film. This is immediately contradicted by Welles' longtime companion, Oja Kodar, who mocks the idea.

Kodar is also heard in voiceover (I don't think she actually appears on camera) that Welles' protégé Peter Bogdanovich's comment about Welles saying "they'll love me when I'm dead" is true.

Credit should be given to the editing in the documentary in that, like The Other Side of the Wind, the cutting from the archival footage to the contemporary interviews (done in black-and-white) not only seamlessly flowed from one to the other but almost made it look like Welles himself was commenting on the various goings-on.

Director Morgan Neville let things flow and we learn some fascinating information. Rich Little was meant to play the role that Bogdanovich eventually was switched to, and while everyone agrees Little left the production before Welles finished with him, no one knows why he left. It could have been club appearances Little was contractually obligated to do as he says, or it could have been he found the production nuts, or even that Little was having a fling with Welles' secretary. Little himself says he never understood or learned why Welles opted to replace him rather than shoot around him.

Image result for they'll love me when i'm deadBogdanovich's then-companion Cybill Shepherd offers her own tales of when Welles became 'the man who came to dinner'. She remarks that Welles loved Fudgesicles and ate boxes of them, how he also ate lavishly and was never to be interrupted. This is cut with the infamous footage of a bombed-out Welles stumbling over his "Ah, the French...champagne" ad he sloshed through for Paul Masson.

The cutting of the Paul Masson outtakes with Shepherd's recollections make the story of The Other Side of the Wind all that more bizarre and sad. We also get footage of other 'lost' or incomplete Orson Welles films like The Deep, The Merchant of Venice and The Dreamers, tantalizing clips of an artist forever forced to be admired but not hired.

If there is a drawback in They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, it's that the various interviewees are a bit of a jumble. This is why I say I do not know if Oja Kodar appeared on camera, as there was no on-screen text saying who was who. Sometimes you knew who they were, but only if you knew beforehand (like Bogdanovich) or they mentioned it (as when Beatrice Welles talked about 'Dad').

The complex and contradictory nature of both Orson Welles and The Other Side of the Wind is something that will never be solved, let alone reconciled. How does one explain Welles writing two letters to his friend Peter Bogdanovich after making cutting remarks at his expense on The Tonight Show? One letter says Welles was horrified that his comments could have hurt his former protégé, the other says he essentially deserved it, and that Bogdanovich should choose which one he believed.

They'll Love Me When I'm Dead works in that one can see it before or after seeing The Other Side of the Wind, either as an introduction to the movie or an explanation into its convoluted result. They'll Love Me When I'm Dead is more than a chronicle of the making/unmaking of The Other Side of the Wind. It's about the making/unmaking of Orson Welles: genius, tyrant, charlatan, bon vivant.

Comedy, tragedy, cautionary tale, farce. It's all there, but is it all true?