Thursday, February 28, 2019

Caged (1950): A Review (Review #1185)


I cannot say whether Caged is the first 'women-in-prison' film, but it seems to have set the standard for so many of this genre. You have the innocent prisoner, the sadist (and potentially lesbian) matron, well-meaning but ineffective wardens, and various women of ill repute. Caged, despite its somewhat lurid setting, is also a message movie about the need for prison reform.

Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is now in prison, convicted of being an accessory to armed robbery when her husband held up a bank. She is more than likely innocent of the crime but far more innocent in all other ways, finding herself constantly terrified in this new world. She is also both a widow and pregnant.

The warden, Mrs. Benton (Agnes Moorehead) is kind and wants to be Marie's friend, but she cannot help her when Marie is under Matron Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), a massive woman who is from the "If you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you" school of prison matrons.

Over time Marie sees all sorts of ugliness even from "Free Side". A fellow prisoner commits suicide. Marie's mother won't take in her grandchild, forcing Marie to cede control of her son to the state. When the parole board rejects her, she totally loses it.

Now becoming harder, Marie finds herself an unwitting pawn between two Queen Bees, Kitty (Betty Garde) and Elvira (Lee Patrick), each attempting to get her to join their criminal gang once she's 'flopped' back to "Free Side". There's a riot that brings a terrible retribution to Marie, but which now fully transforms her into a cold criminal. She agrees to go with the surviving Queen Bee after the lesser one, driven mad by Harper's cruelty, kills her, if that Queen Bee can smooth over the parole hearing.

True to her word she does, and Marie, now a bitter, cynical woman, goes off with the criminal crew. When asked what to do with Marie's file, Benton sadly says to keep it active, stating "She'll be back".

Image result for caged 1950Curiously, Caged is not as tawdry as the 'women-in-prison' stereotype. We do have elements of some 'shocking' situations. After Marie loses her baby to the state, Kitty subtly suggests that it might do her good to join her enterprise to ensure a smooth parole board hearing. Kitty also suggests that if she doesn't and Marie has to stay in Corridor B longer, she may end up indulging in the pleasures of the flesh wherever available.

"In prison too long, you don't think of guys. You get out of the habit", Kitty coolly tells our still innocent Marie. That's probably as overt a "we're all lesbians here" line you'll hear in this 1950's film, but it's still pretty overt.

Caged, to its credit via John Cromwell's directing, gives us a mix of quasi-documentary and drama feel. The former comes from how Marie is processed in, down to the mug shot. The latter is seen with things like a montage of bells ringing constantly to note the shifting of activities, driving Marie to the brink. The suicide is shocking, as is Matron Harper's killing, even if the latter is expected.

Other moments, like the prison riot and Marie's shaving, are also emotionally involving.

Caged might have the alternate title Baroness Behind Bars, for it seems a bit odd to see the elegant Eleanor Parker in this situation. However, to her credit Parker gives a fine performance. She has to play Marie as essentially three different people: the innocent, the embittered woman and the hard-hearted criminal. She shifts beautifully from "Marie Allen" to "Allen, Marie" to "93850", even if her perpetually naive figure at times becomes more frustrating to take. However, when she goes hysterical when her mother won't take her child and especially when she goes bonkers at the parole hearing, it is quite riveting.

Parker also knows to play things still, such as when she returns from solitary with shockingly short hair. As our Joan of Arc of Corridor B comes back, even the other hardened inmates look on in disbelief.

Image result for caged 1950Emerson, who like Parker received a nomination for her performance, is a giant of a woman with no redeeming qualities. She literally towers over the others, but in her vindictiveness, her cruelty, her greed and arrogance, Emerson's Matron Harper is a vile figure. She is the opposite of Moorehead's Benton, who is sympathetic but aware of Harper's manner. Unlike Harper though, Benton has no friends in high places. Moorehead plays Benton as caring and determined to bring about changes but almost powerless to do so.

Caged's message of how prison cruelty transforms innocent women into criminals is subtle but effective. We also have some very fifties motifs: only in this decade could you have a pregnant woman light up a cigarette and smoke so nonchalantly. We do have in Caged some good performances, a story that flows rather smoothly and advocacy about the importance of prison reform.

Not bad given Caged may have begun a genre not known for social advocacy.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Review


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the second film I ever stopped watching before it ended. The first film? Freddy Got Fingered, hardly good company. Just as with the Tom Green film, I had be talked into seeing The Ballad of Buster Scruggs again, this time via an online vote versus my late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. forcing me to. Perhaps it might have been a bridge too far for me to expect to love the film. I have never been a Coen-Head and find them a most acquired taste.

Divided into six short films ranging from 11 to 37 minutes give or take, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs adapts two stories with the others being written by Joel and Ethan Coen. They are as follows:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Near Algodones
Meal Ticket
All Gold Canyon (from a Jack London story)
The Girl Who Got Rattled (from a Stewart Edward White story)
The Mortal Remains

The following is a breakdown of each story along with its length.

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (18 minutes)

Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a perky singing cowboy and deadly killer. Speaking to us directly, he offers his wit and wisdom while riding across the West. The jolly outlaw kills almost always in self-defense and in surprisingly clever ways. Yet as he observes, there's always someone coming up who wants to make a name for himself by taking down the top down. Scruggs finds this true when he himself is killed in a shootout with The Kid (Willie Watson) who also can carry a tune.

Buster's spirit rises to that saloon in the sky, complete with harp, singing his lament When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.

Near Algodones (11 minutes)

While not credited as such, Near Algodones bears a similarity to or at least inspiration from An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

A bank robber (James Franco) finds his holdup fouled up by a pan-wearing banker (Stephen Root). Captured, the robber is about to be hanged when Indians kill off the hanging party. They don't bother with him, instead literally leaving him hanging. A cowpoke (Jesse Luken) comes upon him, rescues him, and offers him a job as a drover.

The robber's bad luck continues however, as the drover is really a rustler. The robber is now tried and convicted of rustling and set to be hanged again. Just before the black hood is placed on his head, the robber spots a pretty girl and admires her before he is executed.

Meal Ticket (19 minutes)

While not credited as such, Meal Ticket bears a similarity to or at least inspiration from The Elephant Man.

A traveling impresario (Liam Neeson) travels the West with 'Professor Harrison the Wingless Thrush' (Harry Melling), an armless/legless young man who recites poetry, Shakespeare and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for entertainment. As they travel the Impresario notes that the act is drawing dwindling numbers and fewer profits.

After going into town for a little female companionship (which the Impresario does not let Professor Harrison partake of), the Impresario notes that the townsfolk flock to a literal chicken who can apparently do math. He buys the chicken and begins travelling with both, much to Professor Harrison's puzzlement. The Impresario stops near a bridge, drops a large rock to judge distance and depth, and then is seen travelling with just the chicken.

All Gold Canyon (21 minutes)

An old prospector (Tom Waits) scours a beautiful valley for gold, digging small trenches to see if anything literally pans out. Eventually he finds "Mr. Pocket", a healthy gold strike which delights him. Just then, he realizes that a Young Man (Sam Dillon) is behind him. The Young Man shoots the Old Prospector in the back.

The Young Man does not realize that despite being hit, The Old Prospector is not dead. When the former jumps in to take the gold, the latter jumps him and shoots him straight in the head. The Old Prospector goes to the river to clean, realizes that while wounded no vital organs were hit, and buries the Young Man in the same gold ditch, taking "Mr. Pocket" with him.

The Gal Who Got Rattled (37 minutes)

Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan) is travelling to Oregon with her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) with the vague promise of a marriage proposal. Gilbert dies en route of cholera, leaving Alice in quite a lurch. Apparently, Gilbert promised their driver Matt (Ethan Dubin) $400 with half on arriving at Fort Laramie. This is not only a rather high sum for the Oregon Trail but cannot be verified as Gilbert is dead. Making things worse, their money was more than likely buried with Gilbert.

Into this comes Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck), a quiet man serving as guide/protection. He has grown fond of Alice and proposes to her, adding that he personally will take on her debt. Alice, smitten with him too, agrees.

However, none of that is to be. While re-encountering Gilbert's dog, President Pierce, she wanders off. Mr. Arthur (Granger Hines), the older guide, finds himself and Alice in the Indians' sight. He gives the frightened Alice a gun and tells her that she must kill herself if she hears him kill himself rather than be taken prisoner. Mr. Arthur does manage to eventually defeat the raiding party, but discovers Alice mistook his last shot for his last shot and shoots herself. Sadly, Mr. Arthur now must find Billy Knapp.

The Mortal Remains (20 minutes)

A stagecoach has five passengers. There's a trapper (Chelsie Ross), Mrs. Betjeman, a Lady (Tyne Daly), Rene a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Clarence an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) and an Englishman (Jonjo O'Neal). The English & Irishman are taking a corpse with them on top of the stagecoach.

The trapper, the Lady and the Frenchman have various discussions about how people are alike and/or different, and at one point the Lady appears to have a panic attack. Rene asks the Coachman to stop but finds that the Coachman cannot stop. The English & Irishman reveal they are 'reapers', which the trapper understands as 'bounty hunters'.

Never overtly stated, it is understood that the English & Irishman literally are 'reapers', and have brought their fellow travelers to their literal final destination. The trapper, the Lady and the Frenchman all are reluctant to enter, but enter they do.

Image result for the ballad of buster scruggsOur anthology film, I should warn people, is not for casual viewing. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be very trying if one goes in to see a straightforward film, even if the opening is clear about how it 'took' its tales from a book. The first time I tried watching, I quit at the end of Meal Ticket, though to be fair the concept of someone murdering a person unable to defend himself was enough to get me to switch the thing off.

If one goes into The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for mere entertainment, I imagine that they won't stick to the end.

If The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a theme running through each of its stories, it is Death. Each story has a main character die, almost all through violence. Some deaths are self-inflicted, some are due to their own actions, some are through no fault of their own, but Death walks the film.

Despite my better judgment I will rank the stories thus:

The Mortal Remains
The Gal Who Got Rattled
Meal Ticket
All Gold Canyon
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Near Algodones

I favor The Mortal Remains because this was for me the most visually arresting of the stories, the most allegorical and witty right down to the pun in the title. The Gal Who Got Rattled was almost sweet in the interplay between Kazan's Alice and Heck's Knapp, making her end sad, almost unfair. Meal Ticket, apart from the shock that Professor Harrison was once Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, was also allegorical if a bit snobbish. To my mind it suggests that the Coens were mocking audiences who don't care for their work, that their 'art' will never be as popular as 'mindless entertainment'.

We see this in how the population, first enthused with Professor Harrison's eloquent delivery of grand verse, eventually turned their wild enthusiasm for a chicken who could allegedly count. We've heard of such things like Clever Hans, a horse who could allegedly do math. With Meal Ticket, I think the Coens were basically saying 'high art' like Shakespeare (or perhaps, say The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) will be rejected over counting chickens (or say, something like Bohemian Rhapsody or The Greatest Showman).

All Gold Canyon has to my mind the beautiful cinematography of all the segments (though all of them are quite lovely) but I have never accepted the idea that once shot a person could survive that long and make it out alive. Granted, my view is colored by memories of Sicario: Day of The Soldado, so there's that.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs itself I found too cutesy, self-aware and self-amused to my liking. I especially hated the 'amusing' songs, though I have grown to slightly appreciate When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for WingsNear Algodones was far too reminiscent of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge for me to completely enjoy.

As a side note, 'algodones' in Spanish is the plural for 'cotton'.

As I look back on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I find that it will try some people's patience. It tried mine. I'm sure Coen-Heads will love it as they love everything they do except perhaps for The Hudsucker Proxy. Personally, I can appreciate what the Coen Brothers are going for while not fully embracing it.


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Gotham: Ace Chemicals Review

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Ace Chemicals started out badly, with things that had me literally roll my eyes at. Around the halfway point, however, things took a sudden and more positive turn, where things became interesting and even elevated a series that I had pretty much all but given up hope for.

Jeremiah Valeska (Cameron Monaghan), our "not-Joker" is planning some deranged plan involving Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz): recreating the day & night his parents Thomas and Martha Wayne were killed. By doing so, Jeremiah is convinced they will somehow be joined.

Never mind that we are echoing the 1989 Batman movie, but let's move on.

Bruce now is forced to go through this charade, nearly costing the life of Alfred (Sean Pertwee) and in a surprisingly good twist, Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Dr. Leslie 'Lee' Thompkins (Morena Baccarin), whose use is an unexpected bonus thanks to Jeremiah's henchman Jarvis Tetch, the Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel). However, we get a twist in the tale thanks to Bruce's frenemy Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who was there that fateful night, something Jeremiah could not have possibly known. Things end in a fateful last battle at Ace Chemicals, where Jeremiah may be last.

Yeah, right.

Selina getting a second chance to set things right ends her association with Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), who alongside his own frenemy Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) work to get out of Gotham, more so since reunification has been ruined thanks to Jeremiah's schemes. They find an unlikely partner in Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), who reluctantly puts off killing her sworn enemy Penguin for the sake of her unborn baby.

Image result for gotham ace chemicalsAce Chemicals starts off weak, with 'Not-Joker's' plan involving the Wayne's deaths being already a bit curious. He wasn't trying so much to drive Bruce mad as he was putting up two people to die in Thomas and Martha Wayne's place, a scheme already kind of bonkers even for him.

As a side note, while I admit not being familiar with Batman lore, the idea that Thomas and Martha Wayne took young Bruce to see the silent 1920 film The Mark of Zorro seems a bit odd, let alone that even as a 12-year-old Bruce would become frightened of it. I can see where Zorro would influence the future Batman, and that The Mark of Zorro was the film on that fateful night. Still, it does seem a bit odd to me even if it is canon.

I confess that by now I have grown tired of both the fan-dance Gotham does as to whether Jeremiah is The Joker and of Monaghan's take on the character. I think both stem from how Gotham won't just say "Jeremiah IS The Joker". If he isn't, he's the most overtly-camp character in a show that has done its best to be deadly serious.

We even get a very curious turn of phrase from Jeremiah to Bruce. "I offered for you to be my best friend! But I've realized if we can't be friends, then we can be connected in other ways", Jeremiah taunts Bruce with. Oddly, rather than coming across as menacing, this line comes across as if Jeremiah is propositioning Bruce.

It is once we get past the setting up of Jeremiah's plans that Ace Chemicals really takes off. We have through Bicondova's excellent performance Selina's struggle between enacting revenge on Penguin for Tabitha's killing and saving Bruce. She is also particularly good when working with Taylor's Penguin, the tension between them when she comes close to killing him highly intense.

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We have through Mazouz's excellent performance Bruce's clever rescue of Alfred and the deep feelings our teen hero has. If Bruce was 12 when his parents were killed, Gotham then would put his age as of Ace Chemicals at around 17 to 18.

We even have a touch of comedy when Pengy calls out to Bonkers Babs, "Who's the lucky father?" and off-camera we hear her shout "Shut up!". I do find it a bit of a stretch that Bonkers Babs would hold back from killing Penguin even if she is pregnant, but we can't quite kill off Pengy can we.

Once Ace Chemicals gets to Bruce and Alfred escaping the bombed-out Wayne Manor, the episode jumps in quality. It made me enjoy Gotham, which I haven't for some time. Perhaps Gotham will end well rather than stumble through its end.


Next Episode: Nothing's Shocking

Monday, February 25, 2019

91st Academy Awards: A Review

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The 91st Annual Academy Awards were mired in controversy and scandal even before the first envelope was opened. It's as if The Academy had turned things over to Mister Magoo, forever obliviously stumbling from one disaster to another.

There was the creation of a new category (later reversed or at least held back): 'Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film', a nebulous category met with derision and confusion as to what exactly 'popular film' meant.

There was the decision (later reversed) to have popular comedian Kevin Hart host, leaving the show hostless for the first time in 30 years.

There was the decision (later reversed) of having only two of the five Best Original Song nominees performed. The two songs that were going to be performed 'coincidentally' were from the only big-names nominated: Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga. In a more laughable turn, Lamar declined in the end to perform the nominated All the Stars from Black Panther at the ceremony.

There was the decision (later reversed) of cutting four categories from being presented live and instead be presented during commercial breaks: Best Cinematography, Film Editing, Live-Action Short Film and Makeup & Hairstyling.

As if all that weren't enough, you had Film Twitter in a rage over certain Best Picture nominees (Green Book celebrates white privilege! Bohemian Rhapsody was made by a pedophile and didn't have wild gay sex scenes and Rami Malek lip-synced!). Throw in an open field where no front-runner went into the awards and not one, not two but three 'Greatest Films Ever Made' were nominated (Black Panther, A Star Is Born 4.0 and Roma) and we have the makings of one of the wildest Academy Awards in memory.

Now that is all over with, and the 91st Annual Academy Awards are in the history books. I'll look over some genuine surprises, attempt to explain to the best of my abilities a few things, and go over what was a much better show than I was expecting.

First, the winners.

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Best Picture: Green Book
Best Actor: Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)
Best Actress: Olivia Colman (The Favourite)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Green Book)
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk)
Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón (Roma)
Best Original Screenplay: Green Book
Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Best Cinematography: Roma
Best Foreign-Language Film: Roma (Mexico)
Best Documentary Feature: Free Solo
Best Documentary Short Subject: Period. End of Sentence
Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Animated Short Film: Bao
Best Live-Action Short Film: Skin
Best Production Design: Black Panther
Best Costume Design: Black Panther
Best Original Score: Black Panther
Best Original Song: Shallow (A Star Is Born)
Best Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Sound Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Makeup & Hairstyling: Vice
Best Visual Effects: First Man

Each Best Picture nominee won at least one Oscar. Bohemian Rhapsody was the big winner with four Oscars, followed by Green Book, Roma and Black Panther with three each. This seems to go against what #FilmTwitter expected, which was a Roma onslaught. Film Twitter was especially enraged with Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, but more on that later.

For me, the big surprise was the strength of Black Panther and weakness of The Favourite. The former went into Oscar night with seven nominations, the latter with ten, tying with Roma for the most nods (albeit with two Supporting Actress nominations versus Roma's one). Each of Black Panther's win is perfectly merited, but two of them came at The Favourite's expense.

As the show went on The Favourite kept losing. Some categories it was expected to lose (Cinematography, Director) but others it was seen as the favorite (Original Screenplay, Costume Design, Production Design) and those it had a strong chance at (Film Editing) kept going to other films. By the time it got to Best Actress, The Favourite looked to be on the verge of being totally shut out.

Even the reviled Vice had an Oscar.  Fortunately for The Favourite, it got a last-minute save via Colman's somewhat surprising win.

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In the acting categories, we had three of the four expected winners go as thought. Mahershala Ali and Rami Malek both survived loud Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody backlashes respectively. Ali was the stronger of the two: he had been steamrolling through awards seasons, even the fiercest Green Book hater acknowledged he was the best part of the film, and a very last-minute surge for Richard E. Grant came far too late to change the outcome.

Malek was weaker, the initial praise for his Freddy Mercury turning into passionate hatred. The backlash ran from the absurd (He Lip-Synced!) to the serious (he willingly worked with alleged child molester Bryan Singer). I'm surprised Malek wasn't accused of procuring boys for Singer himself. Fortunately, Malek himself is generally liked, his non-lip syncing performance was mostly well-regarded, and he didn't make a major faux pas regarding Singer.

It also helped that he was in a biopic: counting this year, seven of the past ten Best Actor winners have gone to those playing real-life figures, and you have to go back to 2007 to find a slate of nominees where none of them were in a biopic. Finally, Malek had a divided field. Bale was his strongest competitor, but Vice had more haters than Bohemian Rhapsody. Cooper's chances died after like his A Star is Born costar Lady Gaga he lost at the Golden Globes, and he never won Best Actor for the film anywhere else. Dafoe was an also-ran, and it's historically difficult to nearly impossible for an actor to win on a film's sole nomination.

More on that later too.

Regina King managed to hang on long enough to win Supporting Actress. She had been the weakest front-runner, having failed to get a Screen Actors Guild or BAFTA nomination, almost always a death-knell for an Oscar. She faced a growing swell of support for The Favourite's Rachel Weisz too, who had received nominations from both, winning the latter. However, fortune and fate were on King's side. Almost always when you have two performers nominated in the same film, they tend to cancel each other out. King's performance, like King herself, were also well-liked.

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Then came Best Actress. Lady Gaga had been the prohibitive front-runner. I don't know why: she was essentially playing a version of herself, but that's neither here nor there. Once she lost in an upset to Glenn Close at the Golden Globes however, Gaga's chances collapsed. Apart from tying with Close at another award, Gaga's chances shifted more to her forte in songwriting, where Shallow became her only chance. I think it's a lousy song and not even the best from A Star is Born, preferring Always Remember Us This Way, but again neither here nor there.

Close's surprise win for The Wife at the Golden Globes catapulted her to front-runner, and soon she was seen as the prohibited winner. Close was also riding a wave of support with the 'overdue' narrative. This was her seventh nomination without a win, making her the most nominated non-winning female performer, one above another of this year's nominees, Amy Adams.

Soon, the 'overdue' and 'inevitable' narratives combined for Close. My guess is that even she came to believe it was 'her turn', her lavish golden gown almost emblematic of the Oscar she would be holding, sweeping in to accept dramatically and royally.

However, the experts either willingly ignored or overlooked certain key elements that should have signaled a Colman win. As I have pointed out, it is historically difficult for a film or an actor to win on a film's sole nomination. The last time an actor did that was in 2007 when Forrest Whitaker managed it for The Last King of Scotland, ironically beating out eight-time nominee Peter O'Toole for Venus, which was that film's only nomination. Then again, Whitaker was playing a real-life figure (Idi Amin), a factor playing in his favor.

It has happened with others: Jeremy Irons, Michael Douglas, Cliff Robertson, Jose Ferrer, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates all won without their films receiving any other nominations that I know of. However, almost all of them had the benefit of being in either hit films (Wall Street, Misery) or in at least films more people had at least heard of (Reversal of Fortune, Monster). Outside Los Angeles or New York, did The Wife actually play anywhere else?

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Traditionally, acting winners come from films with multiple nominations. Colman came from The Favourite, which had the most nominations at 10. That should have been a warning to those trumpeting the 'inevitable/overdue' narrative.

Second, Colman's BAFTA win over Close should have set off alarm bells in Close's camp and the Gold Derby crowd. Counting this year, BAFTA and Oscar Best Actress has matched eight times in ten years. If Close had won there, it would have been a done deal. However, she lost to Colman, and not just because of the performance itself.

Colman may be generally unknown among American audiences, but she is well-known to British audiences. She is personally well-liked and respected, even loved by her peers. I think many voting for Best Actress among the joint BAFTA/AMPAS members voted for someone they had worked with, admired and liked personally. That was not Glenn Close. She might be respected among the BAFTA/AMPAS joint membership, but Colman is the one most of them know, have worked with, and like personally.

In a sense, Best Actress was a bit of a Lifetime Achievement Award, but it was not for Glenn Close.

It was for Olivia Colman.

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As for Best Picture, longtime readers should know I had no dog in the hunt. Apart from a seething hatred for A Star is Born 4.0 and a growing disdain for Roma, I would have been either happy or at least unperturbed with any of the others. I admit for pulling for The Favourite, but the Film Twitter reaction to Green Book is wildly out of proportion to downright bonkers. 

They genuinely hate it, hate it with a burning passion that I cannot comprehend. I think it has something to do with their wokeness. They see in Green Book some regressive political message involving 'white saviors' and how the film to their mind suggests that "racism is over". Film Twitter would have preferred something more 'woke' or 'artsy', and what could be more woke/artsy than a foreign-language black-and-white film about oppressed minorities?

To my mind, I'm genuinely surprised that these same good woke people don't see that their beloved Roma is more regressive than their despised Green Book. Roma is essentially an idealized and romanticized 'mammy' story: this poor, loyal native domestic forever depending on the noblesse oblige of her 'owners'.

A truly progressive film to my mind would have had Miss Cleo take steps to rise above being the family servant. She could have decided to raise her child on her own. She could have worked to get more education, even availing herself of the vast family library. She could have been more assertive, saving up her money to set herself up either at her own home or perhaps for business. She could have become her own woman, transforming herself to someone more than just 'the help'.

Roma never let Miss Cleo do that. Instead, she was the willing domestic forever dependent on her employers for financial and even emotional support. They sheltered her, they fed her, they were going to provide for her baby, they took her on their vacations (though, I might add, she went with them to work, not to enjoy her own day at the beach). She was not their literal slave, but she was never pushed or prodded by the family to see herself as an individual, and she never pushed or prodded herself either. They were perfectly happy to have her stay on as their domestic, the Mammy to the children.

At least the Wheatley family allowed Phillis an education which allowed her to become America's first black poetess. The Roma family never offered her anything close to that.

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Green Book, for all its alleged regressiveness, was nowhere on the level as Roma, the Mexican version of The Help. Doña Sofia and her family were on a certain level Miss Cleo's own 'white saviors', especially given that Miss Cleo remained the same from beginning to end. Her character did not evolve, starting out as a meek woman and ending as a meek woman.

The family, for all its kindness, never saw Miss Cleo as an equal let alone their equal. They certainly were never going to for example teach her to drive for her own benefit despite being in a position to do so. When was Miss Cleo ever shown to be taking any steps towards independence? From my perspective, Roma idealizes the bond between servant and master, making any criticism of Gone With the Wind sound bizarre if it comes from those who look to Roma as woke cinema.

Granted, none of the Mexican women I know would have tolerated all that Miss Cleo quietly, almost cheerfully took. If a Fermin had knocked up any of my Mexican relatives, they would have knocked him in the balls karate or no karate, not meekly and quietly accepted his rejection. That may color my view of things, but there it is.

In Green Book, we saw an evolution of the two main characters. Film Twitter and their woke allies want to make the film emblematic of race relations as a whole. I never saw it that way, though I'd be happy to revisit the film and see if I missed something the first time.

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I saw it as a story of individuals: one a racist, one bound by class. Nick, the racist individual, saw how wrong he was in his racist views and grew as a person. Dr. Shirley, the class-bound individual, saw how his manner and intellectual superiority put him apart from others and grew as a person.

It may not be literal truth, but I don't expect truth from a feature film. To my mind, the Dr. Shirleys took the blows they did to allow the Ron Stallworths to be who they became. Spike Lee, angry about Green Book's win, may not see it that way and perhaps he is correct. I would love to hear his perspective and perhaps I might change my mind.

Roma for its part faced several obstacles to winning Best Picture; it was Netflix, which many Academy members still resist to downright hate. It was foreign-language, which again made it unlikely to win essentially two Best Pictures. A film simultaneously nominated for Foreign-Language and Best Picture wins the former not the latter. It also was painfully slow, with reports that some Academy members soon grew bored waiting for something to happen.

Green Book, for its faults, at least moved.

The show survived not having a host. I think it's actually a plus. The Queen opening, while not out of left field, wasn't super-fantastic. OK, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper were fine.

For myself though, I don't see Green Book winning as a scandal or a tragedy. For all its artistry, I'd sooner watch Green Book than Roma. I'd also sooner watch Green Book than Birdman or The Shape of Water. I would not put Green Book on the same level as Casablanca, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia but I would put it far above things like Gentleman's Agreement or Cavalcade.

Those two also won Best Picture, and when was the last time you saw them?

Sunday, February 24, 2019

First Reformed: A Review


Existentialist and environmental crises combine in First Reformed, a film that mixes Ingmar Bergman spiritual isolation with Earth-bound troubles, but not without a very faint touch of hope.

With a lot of voiceover from our main character, First Reformed is of Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), minister at the Dutch Reformed Church which is celebrating its 250th anniversary. First Reformed has a minuscule congregation as is more a tourist attraction as an Underground Railroad stop. It is essentially a branch of the megachurch Abundant Life, headed by Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, here billed as Cedric Kyles).

Toller is keeping a journal for a year, one where he pours out his despair. That despair is nothing compared to that of Michael (Phillip Ettinger). Michael's wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a First Reformed member, asks Toller to counsel her husband who is in the midst of intense emotional turmoil due to climate change. Michael does not want their baby to be born in a world that is about to go into ruin.

Toller has his own issues: his son was killed in the Iraq War (costing him his marriage) and he may have cancer despite being only 46. His spiritual emptiness causes Toller to reject the advances of Abundant Life choir-mistress Esther (Victoria Hill), whom he might have once had a post-divorce tryst.

Eventually, Michael's despair for the planet causes him to commit suicide. Toller slowly adopts Michael's environmental despair, his fears mixed with anger that industrialist Balq (Michael Gaston) is a major Abundant Life/First Reformed benefactor. Toller may have an out, courtesy of the suicide vest Michael had created before his suicide. With the reconsecration ceremony having the Governor and other state and local officials, along with Jeffers and Balq in attendance, will Toller embrace his form of martyrdom?

Image result for first reformedFirst Reformed, to be fair, is not how Christians I know actually are, particularly the spiritual leaders. As I heard Toller and Jeffers give messages from the pulpit, there was just such an emptiness, a hollowness that I wondered why even the most passive of believers would think this person was attuned to God. With Toller I could understand, but Jeffers too had no sense of the hope of Christ either from his recorded messages or in conversation with Toller.

Then again, writer/director Paul Schrader may not have been particularly interested in delving into the hopeful aspects of Christianity. His story is that of a man in deep spiritual crisis, one who has fully surrendered to despair and the emptiness of the Silence of God.

Schrader does a fantastic job in keeping things simple and grounded through almost all of First Reformed. There is a silent, almost meditative manner in the film, with a sparse score and only one metaphysical moment that calls out to something otherworldly. Granted, this particular scene between Mary and Toller may either astound the viewer or make said viewer burst out laughing depending on his/her tolerance for visualizing mystical moments. For me, it was a mixture.

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First Reformed has a wealth of strong performances. Ethan Hawke has a face that is youthful but weathered, a man who yearns to have spiritual peace but who finds a Nothing when he calls out into the Great Beyond. His slow slide from merely going through the motions of faith to adopting his ideas of Gaea martyr is a brilliant performance. Hawke makes Toller's growing despair and quiet anger chilling and sad. One questions whether he has grown mad or insane, overwhelmed with an emptiness that his faith exacerbates versus consoles.

Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer too show a greater ability than either have been given credit for. For the former, her Mary is a quiet woman who has her own desperation but unlike the men carries both a metaphorical and literal hope within her. She believes in both Toller and Michael's worlds, knowing the flaws but still keeping on. For the latter, Kyles keeps things simple and direct, working in his way to help Toller through his dark century of the soul.

"You are always in The Garden," he tells Toller, adding that even Christ was not perpetually in despair and agony but in hope and joy. If people think of Kyles as merely a comedian, as just 'Cedric the Entertainer', I advise them to look at First Reformed to see a deeper and stronger actor that he's been credited as.

First Reformed might end on a curious note that is ambiguous, maybe even a bit pat, but it has so much going for it, is told with no real flashes and a very simple and direct manner. Strong performances and story elevate First Reformed (no pun intended).


Saturday, February 23, 2019

Gotham: 13 Stitches Review

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As Gotham closes in on its end, I feel a lessening of interest. Perhaps it is due to turns I don't believe. Perhaps it is due to some of the performances. I would put it as a mixture of the two.

War makes for strange bedfellows in the metaphorical and literal sense as Captain Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) finds himself allied with Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) along with Gordon't regular allies Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk), Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Bruce's valet Alfred (Sean Pertwee).

They must prove to the outside world that Eduardo Dorrence (Shane West) along with his mainland handler, Secretary Walker (Jaime Murray) were responsible for the Haven attack as a pretext for total extermination of Gotham. Eduardo, however, has a few tricks up his own sleeve, the ace being Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin), whom he's been holding in case Ed goes rouge.

Eduardo looks like he's done for after a brutal battle with Gordon, but Walker walks in afterwards, giving him a face mask to keep this bane of our existence alive. If Gordon knew this, he'd be concerned, but he has other issues to think on, like how Barbara is pregnant with his child.

In our subplot, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) becomes unlikely allies with Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) to get revenge on the perky master thief known as Magpie (Sarah Schenkkan), who dared steal from Pengy. They also start planning to escape Gotham via the tunnel Jerome Valeska (Cameron Monaghan) was working on, little knowing our "not-Joker" has plans of his own.

Image result for gotham 13 stitchesI wish I could like 13 Stitches, but I found a lot of it beyond plausible, even for Gotham. Of particular note was Eduardo. West to me is not convincing as our future Bane, having nothing to recommend him for 'villain' except his efforts to out-growl McKenzie. He's as intimidating as a wet rag.

As if that weren't enough, I found it laughable that after falling on a spike Eduardo still managed to survive long enough for Walker to walk in. That thing should have killed him instantly.

The whole fight between Gordon and Eduardo was awful, and not just because McKenzie, like many actors doing directing turns, seemed more interested in visual flares than anything else. It was also that there was simply too much monologing in 13 Stitches. It looked like Eduardo and Gordon wanted to talk each other to death.

Then again, Pengy wasn't averse to doing a lot of talking down to Magpie too.

There were some good things in 13 Stitches, particularly with Mazouz as action star, taking down villains on the roof while trying to complete his part of Gordon's plan. Bicondova and Taylor proved an interesting double-act, rattling of lines and even quips well. Selina's description of Magpie as someone who looks like "a goth chicken" was very funny. Smith and Richards had some amusing moments when Ed's chip is removed, particularly Smith's ability to rattle off nonsense dialogue with ease.

The interplay between Smith and Donal Logue as Detective Harvey Bullock on the issue of the pallid beach mouse was clever, amusing and even tense, which also worked in the episode's favor.

What really pushes 13 Stitches down is the violence, an issue that has plagued Gotham and which I have called the show out on several times. The killing of Eduardo's crew along with Eduardo's not-so-ultimate end were far too graphic.

13 Stitches is kind of a boring episode despite the various calls for action. Excessively graphic but not without some merits, I was displeased by almost all of it.


Next Episode: Ace Chemicals

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Scream Blacula Scream: A Review


It's vampires vs. voodoo in Scream Blacula Scream, the sequel to the blaxploitation horror film of the black undead. A bit of a rush job but not without some merits, Scream Blacula Scream is a lesser work nonetheless.

A power struggle breaks out after the death of a Los Angeles voodoo queen between her biological son Willis (Richard Lawson) and her adopted daughter Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier). Willis goes to 'The Ragman' (Bernie Hamilton) for help, and he gives Willis the bones of a powerful figure whom he says can help. That figure, summoned by Willis' voodoo power is Mamuwalde (William Marshall), also known as Blacula.

Blacula, however, enslaves Willis, the first of many he gets for his unholy court. Mamuwalde attends a party hosted by Lisa's boyfriend, Justin (Don Mitchell), a former cop and now academic and expert in African art. Mamuwalde, upon realizing Lisa is a voodoo priestess, seeks her help to end his curse. However, even in vampire form Willis still plots revenge on both Lisa and Blacula.

Justin, realizing the danger Blacula poses, gets his contacts at the LAPD to raid the mansion Blacula and his Court are in at the worst time. Lisa's rites are on the verge of curing Mamuwalde when the raid takes place. Blacula is enraged and goes on a rampage, ignoring Lisa's pleas to stop and try again. Eventually, when Blacula comes close to killing Justin Lisa uses her powers to stop Blacula's reign of terror, leaving things ambiguous.

Related imageScream Blacula Scream has potential but things seem to happen so quickly you may be left scratching your head wondering what is going on. Right from the start we have the power struggle between Willis and Lisa, which is all but forgotten by the time Blacula rises again. This might explain why 'The Ragman' appears only once and just pops up to bring the plot forward.

Moreover, 'The Ragman' looks like a black leprechaun, which should give people fits of laughter.

A great deal of Scream Blacula Scream plays almost as farce, more so now given that it is more entrenched in the 1970's than its predecessor. Today's audiences may marvel at the various threads and Afros all around, particularly Lawson's Willis who sports some way-out ensembles and a bouffant do that even James Brown would think was too outlandish.

There is another negative in that Scream Blacula Scream is more gory than my memory of Blacula, particularly during the police raid. Keep an eye out for Craig T. Nelson in an early role as one of the unfortunate cops slaughtered by the unholy coven.

The film does have a few pluses. Marshall continues to make Mamuwalde/Blacula a dignified character, commanding and imposing even in the most outlandish situation. We also get more pointed social commentary, such as when Blacula roams the Los Angeles night and encounters two pimps who threaten him for turning down one of their ladies. As these pimps harass him, Blacula dresses them down, telling them they've made a slave of their sister and imitate their masters.

Image result for scream blacula screamAs a side note, this streetwalker who attempts to solicit Mamuwalde is one of the most elegantly dressed hookers I have ever seen on film.

Scream Blacula Scream even sneaks in a moment of humor at Justin's party, where we see an old white couple who are the only ones not getting down with their bad selves.

Curiously, Grier to my mind gave a weak performance consisting mainly of looking worried. Even more bizarre, Grier's Lisa appears to have no reaction to seeing her best friend rise from her coffin when Lisa is keeping watch over it. Here is essentially a vampire beckoning her and Lisa doesn't react with horror or shock but with mild confusion.

Grier made a name for herself as the strong black woman in films like Coffy and Black Mama, White Mama, so one might have expected more of a battle of wills between the Dark Prince and the Voodoo Queen. Granted, the film has Lisa helping Mamuwalde, but I felt Lisa was too passive for most of the film.

Scream Blacula Scream does leave the door open for another film as Mamuwalde is not seen to die but is left in pain due to Lisa's attacking his voodoo doll. While we will never get Blacula's Revenge, Scream Blacula Scream is a lesser but not bad follow-up to Blacula.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Blacula: A Review


I don't think there has been a good a tagline for a film as there was for Blacula. "His Bite Was Outta Sight". Blacula was one in the series of blaxploitation films that brought horror into the genre. Blacula itself is both a time capsule of early 1970's society good and bad and a surprisingly camp-free take on the vampire mythos.

Transylvania 1780. African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) travel here to ask for help in ending the slave trade from Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay).

At this point one can question why anyone would go to Count Dracula for such a mission but let's roll with things.

Things go horribly wrong for our African royalty. Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, cursing him with the name 'Blacula' and locks him and Luva in a secret room for eternity.

Nearly two centuries later, a gay couple buy the furniture of Castle Dracula and bring it to Los Angeles. Little do they know they have unleashed Blacula to strike in their fair city. A series of grisly killings make police forensic doctor Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) suspect their is a serial killer loose. His superior officer, Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) thinks this is all crazy talk, more crazy when Dr. Thomas suspects it's the work of a vampire.

Image result for blaculaMamuwalde, however, has more than sucking blood on his mind. He spots Tina (McGee in a dual role), the sister of Dr. Thomas' fiancee Michelle (Denise Nicholas) who bears a striking similarity to his Luva. Convinced she is Luva reincarnated, he soon falls in love as does Tina with this mysterious black man in the cape.

Thomas and Peters, however, eventually realize that Thomas' hypothesis is right and an intense search for Blacula commences. They manage to evade his minions but cannot stop Tina from joining him. Eventually though, the climatic battle between them ends in Tina's death. In a mix of rage and despair, Blacula emerges into the light of the sun to end his curse.

Blacula now suffers from some thoroughly un-PC moments, in particular from the portrayal of the two gay characters who unwittingly unleash Blacula. Ted Harris and Rick Metzler as Bobby (the black gay decorator) and Billy (the white gay decorator) are stereotypes to the Nth degree, complete with the mincing. Using the terms 'fa****s' to describe them also might raise eyebrows. However, the times were different and the film should be judged by the standards of the times.

The film, however, is extremely inventive and entertaining in other aspects. Certain sequences from director William Crain show a remarkable style that builds up suspense and which are excellently filmed. Of particular note is when one of Blacula's victims, the sassy 'lady cabdriver' Juanita (Ketty Lester) attacks morgue attendant Sam (Elisha Cook, Jr.). The slow-motion and music makes Sam's killing very effective visually.

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Blacula also has some very cutting and funny lines about the state of race relations and police interactions in the African-American community. The undertaker for Bobby comments that the other victim was taken somewhere else. "We don't get a lot of whites," he remarks matter-of-factly. Thomas suggests that the disappearances and killings are not drawing police attention due to the victim's race and/or sexuality. At one point, two police officers tracking down vampire Bobby ask "How can you tell (it's Bobby)? They all look alike," though it's unclear if they meant that because Bobby is black or because he's gay.

Blacula also benefits from having very good actors in the film. Marshall's deep commanding voice and screen presence makes Mamuwalde less a villain than a tragic antihero, someone compelled to do evil but who can also be suave and charming. He should rank among the better Dracula actors in that he is both menacing and sympathetic, his end less a blow for justice and more a moving tragedy. Marshall's elegance and charisma can overcome the somewhat eccentric situation, down to hearing Dracula declare him "Blacula". Seeing 'the wrath of Blacula' after his beloved Tina/Luva dies is something to behold.

Rasulala is in top form as Dr. Thomas, the Van Helsing of this version, who has both the intelligence and courage to face this nefarious foe. He can keep even the most unintentionally hilarious situations from being over-the-top, such as when he digs up Billy and is attacked. That scene is both funny and slightly creepy. Pinsent, whom I remember best from Due South, also makes things believable.

The only weak performance is that of McGee as Luva/Tina. In both roles she is blank, though to be fair in both of them her character consisted of nothing but staring at Mamuwalde and declaring love.

Image result for blaculaBlacula is not just an entertaining horror film. It's also a film that is squarely of its time, from the dialogue and costumes to the nightclub scenes where the house band (The Hues Corporation) sings a set of good songs that are pure 70's nostalgia. Songs like What the World Knows and There He is Again (the latter serving a dual meaning of suggesting Blacula's arrival and an upbeat club number) fit into this world perfectly. Its score, similarly, is of its time: all R&B and funk.

The film is not perfect and has some odd gaps. After he is attacked, what exactly happened to Sam is never answered or explained. Did he turn into a vampire? Was he just flat-out killed? Was that hook for work or did it replace his hand?

Leaving some gaps in the story and its dated style, Blacula is a highly entertaining film that I think goes beyond its targeted audience and will be enjoyed by all who appreciate slightly offbeat films that take their premise seriously.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

BlacKkKlansman: A Review (Review #1180)


*Editor's Note: While the official title is BlacKkKlansman, for the rest of the review save the opening and closing I'm opting to write out 'Black Klansman'.

BlacKkKlansman is a surprisingly funny movie. Amid the politics and dark turns of this 'based-on-a-true-story', Black Klansman has some fun at the expense of wannabe terrorists who are more inept loons than serious threats. It does not make them any less dangerous, but it does show them to be fools, an apt and surprisingly kind description to those who hold to racial superiority.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has a wish that comes true: becoming a police officer. When he joins the Colorado Springs Police Department, he becomes the first black police officer in the department's history. Dissatisfied with being in Records though, he wants more.

After doing some undercover work at a Black Power rally where he meets the Black Student Union President Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), almost on a whim he calls the listed phone number of the local Ku Klux Klan. Using his real name, he convinces "The Organization" that he is a pure Aryan who wants to go after all minorities.

There is, however, the problem of actually meeting with "The Organization": Stallworth is black. To actually do the meetings, a white officer, Flip (Adam Driver) is pretty much roped in. This plan does have one hitch too: Flip's real name of Philip Zimmerman marks him as Jewish, though to use Ron's term Flip has been 'passing' for white versus Jewish.

Image result for blackkklansmanThe primary members of "The Organization" (as they never use the term 'The Klan') are Colorado Springs chapter president Walter (Ryan Eggold) and his second-in-command Felix (Jasper Paakkonen). Walter is the calmer, almost pleasant face while Felix is the hothead who is convinced "Ron Stallworth" is either Jewish or at least up to something. Walter, fortunately, has "Ron's" back, especially when the real Ron becomes unlikely friends via telephone to Grand Wizard/National President David Duke (Topher Grace).

The investigation and the subterfuge continues, especially when the CSPD suspects the Klan is planning some kind of terrorist act. The real Ron continues his own romantic relationship with Patrice, who is all about 'the struggle'. Things come to a head after "Ron", through Duke's personal intervention, is processed quickly into membership and we learn of the 'Organization's' plot against Patrice and her organization. The real Ron continues his delicate balancing act, and while the plot is foiled and Patrice struggles between fighting the systematic oppression of her people and her feelings for Ron, we see via Charlottesville that things have not changed.

Black Klansman is not subtle in how it connects the KKK with current politics. We see this in the faux-introduction in the film by "Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard" (Alec Baldwin), who gives a bizarre monologue about white supremacy. Lee along with his cowriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott have "Dr. Beauregard" use the term 'super-predators', which is the term then-First Lady Hillary Clinton used to describe young criminals but was seen as code-words for "young black men".

This is not the only shout-out to current-day events. At one point, the real Stallworth remarks that "America would never elect somebody like David Duke President of the United States". We have Duke refer to America's potential "to achieve it's...greatness again". Later on, Duke toasts the new members with "America First". We end the film with footage from the Charlottesville protests and President Trump's remarks about 'good people on both sides'.

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As a side note though, given how Virginia's current Governor has admitted to wearing blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson while denying he was either the man in blackface or in a KKK costume on his medical college yearbook's page, one wonders if perhaps Lee in the future will revisit his position that the GOP is essentially a branch of the KKK.

Lee's connection of how cinema promotes 'white supremacy' is equally skilled, from the idea that in the 1970's the KKK still screened The Birth of a Nation to excited white viewers up to how Gone With the Wind promoted a false reality of the South. I could argue that in the Gone With the Wind clip we see in Black Klansman, that is not Vivien Leigh's voice we hear, the dialogue heard is not part of that specific scene and the sight of the Confederate flag was meant as an ironic comment on the Confederacy's inevitable fall.

Lee is a master filmmaker and Black Klansman shows this in how he sets up scenes and directs his actors. We are appalled at the Klan gatherings and laugh at the collection of clowns the 'Organization' has. We can enjoy the club scene where the song Too Late to Turn Back Now both sets the mood and describes the Ron/Patrice storyline. We can feel the tension when the essentially unhinged Felix threatens Flip by getting him to try and admit he's Jewish and/or a cop.

We can even laugh when the real Stallworth, made to be Duke's police detail, ends up hugging both him and Walter at a photo op, a little throwback to when Sammy Davis, Jr. ends up giving a shocked and horrified Archie Bunker a peck on the cheek on All in the Family.

Black Klansman is a very well-acted film. Washington's Ron Stallworth remains pretty unflappable and balances the serious police work with a romantic side while also showing a nice, droll manner. Driver has excellent moments, such as when he contemplates the idea that he has been 'passing' despite not giving his Jewish identity any thought. Harrier hopefully will have more roles, for her Patrice was fascinating in her commitment to The Struggle and her feelings for Ron.

Eggold was a standout as Walter, whom I found the more dangerous due to his surprising rationality versus the more theatrical Paakkonen as the hair-trigger tempered Felix. In a small role, Harry Belafonte holds court as a witness to a friend's lynching recounting his horrifying tale to the black students.

BlacKkKlansman sometimes overreaches in its connections, but in terms of film, it is an interesting story with again surprising moments of humor mixed into the horror.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

2018 Documentary Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews

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This is the first year which I have seen all five Documentary Short Oscar nominees.  The nominated films are a collection of downright depressing stories with only one offering any sense of hope or joy. Ranging in time from a mere seven minutes to a lengthy forty, the Documentary Short Oscar nominees are almost all well-crafted with fascinating stories to tell but all but one leaving you in deep existential crisis.

They were presented in the following order:

Black Sheep: 27 minutes
End Game: 40 minutes
A Night at The Garden: 7 minutes
Lifeboat: 34 minutes
Period. End of Sentence: 26 minutes

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Consisting of an interview with the film's subject, Cornelius Walker, along with reenactments of his story, Black Sheep is Cornelius' strange and sad story. His family flees London after a child who like the Walkers was an African immigrant is murdered. Essex, however, is not a safe place: far from it. Cornelius encounters all sorts of racism from racial epithets to violence. To survive a community where he sees 'different shades of white', he soon starts attempting a literal physical transformation. It goes from dressing and sounding more like his white counterparts to ordering blue contacts and even skin bleaching.

To his surprise/horror, he slowly becomes accepted by these racists, down to even being with them when they harass other black men, then when using racist terms they say "We don't mean you, Corny, but them".  Cornelius tells us of how the anger of his life: his father's lack of attention and the corroding effects of his surroundings, eventually led him to attack someone who had done nothing to him, the guilt still with him. "I wanted love, so yeah, I made friends with monsters".

Black Sheep is one of those 'strange but true' stories that keeps things simple by giving us just Walker in close-up and reenactments. It makes one think that these racists have an amazing way of compartmentalizing things: here is the only black kid they know whom they've beaten up but whom they accept as 'one of their own'. It's the strangest form of acceptance I have come across, and it makes me wonder whether people accept others who are different physically if they seem to have the same mindset.

The one flaw in Black Sheep that I found was in the reenactments, which struck me as too artsy for me to consider it a pure documentary. At the end we see the real Cornelius and the actor playing him facing off in a field, and I find such touches a bit too poetic. It's a sad and bizarre story.


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End Game comes from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have made such documentaries as The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt (both of which have won Oscars for Documentary Features) as well as The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175. End Game, however, does not center around gay issues. Instead, End Game is about the end of life care.

The main story is about Mitra, a 45-year-old midwife and mother from Iran who is dying of cancer at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. She has her good days and her bad days, sometimes bright, awake and cheerful, sometimes barely conscious. Keeping watch over her are her husband and her mother. To them, 'hospice' means death with no hope. 'Palliative' care, however, which is "to live as well as possible as long as possible" seems a better option.

We also look on the Zen Hospice Guest Center, which is overseen by BJ Miller, M.D., who has one hand and artificial legs due to a teenage accident. At the Zen Hospice we meet some inbound and outbound patients. Pat, an African-American woman facing her own death through cancer, is the primary focus here.

We see in Mitra's story the agonizing decisions when there is literally no chance of survival, and of Dr. Miller's push to make death as accepted as life, less something to fear than something to if not make friends with at least get to know.

End Game is not a film to watch if you are struggling with the emotional impact of someone you love dying. It is painful, brutal and tragic. Seeing Mitra in happier days via the photos on her mother's phone, hearing her husband Hamid in Persian tell someone on the phone that his son asked "If Mommy dies, who will take care of me?" hits the viewer hard.

It's a question whether End Game can help people accept the reality of death, more so when the end comes coldly and slowly at us versus a sudden death. I don't know if the film was right in giving us glimpses of other patients we don't get to know when Mitra's story seemed the focus. I also leave it up to the viewer if End Game veers towards death porn, for that would depend on how comfortable a viewer is on seeing death so up-close. We don't see anyone actually die, but we do see families and individuals in deep physical and emotional pain.

End Game touches on an important subject, one many find very uncomfortable. Despite being close to an hour we barely touch on the subject of impending death, but End Game is an excellent feature on this most difficult subject.


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A Night at The Garden is the odd duck in this slate. Consisting entirely of archival footage with no narration or interviews, the film chronicles a "pro-American Rally" at New York City's Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939 of the German-American Bund, a Nazi-supporting group in the United States. We see the massive rally with its near-endless flags and Hitler Youth-type drum corps, a speech by Fritz Kunh, a brief disruption by protester Isadore Greenbaum, and the singing of the National Anthem.

My issues with A Night at The Garden are a few. The speaker tells his audience that they know who he is, even making jokes in his heavy German accent about how he supposedly had hoofs if you believed "the Jewish press". However, we do not know who he is. We don't know who the protester was that stormed the stage either. What drew all these 20,000 people to this rally?

These questions are left unanswered.

I also sense that A Night at The Garden is supposed to make me think there's a correlation between this Nazi rally and today's divisive politics.  I don't know if that was the intent but I could not shake that idea. I've never heard anyone call for a "Gentile-run United States", but if the film wanted me to think that this rally was a throwback to today, I was not sold.

There were, however, some very effective and creepy moments. We see shots of children excited over the on-stage kerfuffle, and the slow-motion agony at the protester being forced off the stage is chilling. A Night at The Garden is slight, not too informative but with some fascinating footage that hopefully will allow for a greater exploration on the topic.


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Lifeboat chronicles the work of Sea-Watch, a German nonprofit that monitors the Libyan coast for people fleeing across the Mediterranean from Africa to reach Europe. We see them finding groups of migrants/refugees, packed tightly in small crafts, some barely seaworthy.

We get interviews with individuals rescued, though curiously the two nationalities represented are from nations we usually do not hear of as part of this human wave: Cameroon and Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The stories from mostly women and one man are heartbreaking: of extortion, of being imprisoned in Libya, of seeing children being sold into slavery or worse. We also see children, tired and crying.

In this maelstrom of human misery is Captain Jon Castle (1950-2018), who offers his sad observations on the human condition and what he sees. "The mind is a tool but the heart is where your real thinking comes," he observes, adding that the further away we are from the situation, the easier it is to forget that each person rescued (3,200 in the three days Lifeboat covers) and each person washed up on the shores of Tripoli is an individual, a person no different than you or I.  "We could be those people, and in the end we have to remember, those are our fellows".

Lifeboat offers no narration. Instead, it allows the horrors the people fleeing to come at us. It offers no solution or explanation about the people's reasons to make this dangerous crossing. This is an important topic too, and Lifeboat does an excellent job giving us a primer on a most complex and tragic story.


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Period. End of Sentence, our final film, is the only one that has any sense of hope and optimism to it, a balm after all the tragedy the viewer has been hit with.

In rural India, menstruation is so taboo that it's not just women who either don't know or don't talk about it. Men too seem puzzled at to what exactly goes on: one group of men when asked say that menstruation is 'an illness that mostly affects girls'. Into this scenario comes a sanitary pad machine. With some training, the women are now able to make clean pads for themselves, allowing them greater mobility and a lessening of the stigma surrounding this biological act.

The women manufacture the sanitary pads into the open market under the name "Fly" and begin slowly but surely selling them both to shops and individuals. The funds will in turn allow one girl, Sneha, to essentially escape arranged marriage plans and let her follow her dream of being part of the Delhi Police.

Period. End of Sentence has an excellent pun to its title, but it also has a very positive and uplifting story that men and women can rally around. We see genuine struggles against the patriarchy and how the women are using their own initiative to make inroads for something that is vital to them. It's uplifting on two levels: showing women in business and showing women taking steps to change preconceived notions in their society about their place in said society. While perhaps the film sometimes forgot about Sneha, Period. End of Sentence is both informative and joyful.

As a side note, I do not understand why such things as menstruation are seen as things to giggle or be ashamed of. It's a perfectly biological process that is nothing to bring about shame or embarrassment.


For me, Period. End of Sentence is the best because it's the only one that gives me any sense of hope. There is strong quality in almost all the nominees, as each one does look at important topics in a concise manner.

I cannot offer predictions, but I can offer my ranking of them from Best to Worst (though 'worst' is a misnomer).

Period. End of Sentence.
End Game
Black Sheep
A Night at The Garden

Each Documentary Short Nominee is worth seeing if the chance arrives, though fair warning: if you are sad or depressed, skip them all save Period. End of Sentence. If you can manage some rather dour subjects, then see any of them.

Best of luck to them all on February 24.