Sunday, March 31, 2019

Crash (2005): A Review (Review #1200)

CRASH (2005)

Crash has not fared well with many film enthusiasts, perennially finding itself listed as among the worst Best Picture winners of all time. Some are especially harsh on Crash given the films it beat out, but that conversation is for another time. Here, I look at the film independent of its status as a Best Picture winner.

Having seen Crash for the first time since its release, a good distance of fifteen years, I find myself asking, 'How did Crash end up even getting nominated for Best Picture, let alone win'?

Crash could do with a Venn Diagram to sort out all the connections our characters have despite some of them not actually meeting. We have a myriad of stories connecting all these disparate characters so I'll do my best to sort them all out.

Los Angeles Detective Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) and his partner in more ways than one Ria (Jennifer Esposito) are at a crime scene where a body has been found. Their car was also hit from behind by an accented Asian woman whom over the course of the film we find is named Kim Lee (Alexis Rhee). Ms. Lee hurls racist comments at the Hispanic Detective Ria, who in turn openly mocks Lee's accent. We then shift to 'yesterday'.

Racist L.A. cop Officer Ryan (Matt Dillion) and his rookie partner Hanson (Ryan Phillipe) pull over Cameron (Terrance Howard) and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton). Despite Cameron being a successful television director, he is still 'driving while black', so he's an open target. Worse, Ryan gropes Christine during his 'investigation'. Ryan also has issues with his ill father and is openly hostile that the black health insurance administrator Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine) won't help.

Over at another part of town, philosophical Black Power carjacker Anthony (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and his more happy-go-lucky partner in crime Peter (Larenz Tate) have pulled off their latest carjacking after Anthony goes on a verbal tear about how 'white people are terrified of two young black men because they are two young black men'. They unwittingly carjacked the L.A. District Attorney Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Jean (Sandra Bullock). Back at home, Jean goes into more racist hysteria, demanding that the locks be changed a second time become she's convinced the Latino 'gang member' locksmith will make copies so his 'homies' will break in.

Image result for crash 2004Said Latino locksmith Daniel (Michael Peña), who loves his daughter, has another client who is just as paranoid as Jean. That would be Farhad (Shaun Taub), an Iranian shopkeeper who berates Daniel for telling him he needs a new door rather than a new lock. Farhad keeps going on about he needs to 'fix the lock' and is either unable or unwilling to understand the lock itself is not the problem. Needless to say, his shop is broken into, with terms like 'rag head' sprayed inside for good measure. Now Farhad, unbeknownst to his more Americanized daughter Dorri (Bahar Soomekh), spends the rest of Crash hunting Daniel down with his new gun to avenge Daniel's supposed ineptness.

But wait, there's more!

In the course of this day, we find all sorts of goings-on. Graham finds that what appears an open-and-shut case about yet another 'racist' cop killing a black undercover officer may not be so open-and-shut but is pressed by the D.A.'s office to go along with the official story to get D.A. Rick good publicity. Jean has a fall and finds that the only person who is willing and able to help is her Hispanic housekeeper. Anthony and Peter accidentally run over someone they keep calling a 'Chinaman' whom they leave at a hospital due to Peter's intense pressure. They also attempt another carjacking, this time hitting Cameron. This causes two problems: Anthony, who takes pride in never attacking 'his people', now is willing to break that rule but now the mild-mannered Cameron finally breaks down and strikes back.

It's only through the intervention of Hanson, who is part of the squad that chases the vehicle, that Cameron can walk away. He might have run if he knew that Hanson's now-former partner Ryan has saved Christine from a car crash that nearly killed her, leaving both Ryan and Christine confused. Hanson ends up giving Peter a ride but kills him in a racially-motivated panic. Farhad nearly kills Daniel but unbeknownst to him Dorri had given her father blanks. Dorri is also a doctor who does the examination of Peter, whom we discover is not only the victim from the beginning but is also Graham's brother. The 'Chinaman', who is really Choi Jin Gui (Greg Joung Paik) ends up being Kim Lee's husband, and she was rushing to find him when she crashed into Graham and Ria.

Couple of more twists: Choi, we find, is really a human smuggler, the van he was about to get into when Anthony and Peter ran him down full of Cambodians. Anthony opts to take the van and release the Cambodians in Chinatown rather than sell them, and as he leaves, there's another fender-bender involving an Asian man and a black woman who starts hurling insults. That black woman is Shaniqua Johnson.

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It's amazing how in attempting to give a Crash plot summary and be as brief as possible I end up sounding ridiculously excessive. It's just that Crash has so many stories running through it that attempting to give all the stories a summation takes an awful long time. I figure that writer/director Paul Haggis thought he was saying something profound about not just the interconnection of all people but of how racism is everywhere. However, what I found was that Crash was far too convenient in all those interconnections and so over-the-top in its portrayal of racism that it ends up cartoonish and at times hilarious.

Haggis' background is in television, which makes me think that Crash was somehow close to a television series jammed into a feature. We have all these stories floating about with characters that share a sometimes tenuous connection that sometimes just don't work. I think it is because almost all the characters do not resemble real people with their contradictions and at times even semblance of reason.

Take Bullock's Jean for example. It's one thing to assume that Daniel with his tattoos, shaved head and swarthy looks is a gang member. It's another to be shouting it to where you think she wants him to hear her rant. There's no sense to such things. If she and Rick had had this conversation in their bedroom perhaps it would have made sense, but her ranting and raving about her paranoia practically to his face seems more hilarious than real.

I found Bullock's whole performance comical and could never take her serious. Pretty much everyone in Crash seemed to be less acting and more standing in and saying things, never bothering with subtlety or realism. The only actual performance was Dillon, but he had the benefit of having something of a backstory that puts his racism in some kind of context. There's no reason for racism, let alone excuse for it, but Crash gave Dillon's character via a monologue with Devine a story that details how he got to his state.

Image result for crash 2004Everyone else though just was racist because the script told them to be. Worse, some of the performances showed no emotion. Esposito for example seems unnaturally calm given that a) she was hit from behind and b) a crazed woman is hurling racist insults at her. Even her mocking of Lee's accent by wisecracking about her 'blake' (meaning 'brake') seems shockingly calm, odd given that as a police officer she would have endured worse.

Crash has virtually no pleasant people: even the Asian couple who could have had a nice moment end up being human traffickers. Here I'm going to digress to ask one of those pesky questions on logic. I've been criticized for focusing on details in films, such as when I was berated for not declaring Get Out a turning point in cinema because I focused on why there were candles in the operating room. However, I could not help wondering about those Cambodians being smuggled.

How did Anthony fail to notice that there was a group of people in the van? Could he not smell them given that essentially they had been left in a van all day?

If I understand Crash, Anthony and Peter carjacked the Cabots in the previous evening and then Anthony returned to the van after his second carjacking (that of Cameron) failed spectacularly. That in itself is bizarre given that despite taking Anthony's gun away from him Cameron never mentioned in his meltdown that there was another man in his car who had threatened him. However, after Anthony and Peter are separated when the Cameron carjacking flops, Anthony is forced to take a bus and then spots the van from the night previous. Remembering the keys were left at the door, he takes the van.

Am I to understand that a van with keys in the door was never looked at by anyone in the neighborhood, or that a group of people would meekly wait all day inside the van without food or water and never shout for help? This seems something that would happen only because the plot wants to give in a last-minute twist, not any sense of reality.

Haggis hammers the racism over and over again, the message more important than the delivery; he also loves to transition from one story to another via visual cues such as one door closing in one story and opening to another. There is a cacophony of stories bouncing around to where all appear to be short-changed.

Crash seems less a cohesive whole than a set of vignettes on race and on how every person is racist, with no sense of compassion or kindness or even sense. Its message is clear: every person is one bump from turning into a genocidal terrorist.

Crash is heavy-handed, almost condescending in its idea of how pervasive racism is. It spins so many stories that it soon tangles itself in odd knots (after her dramatic crash, Christine is pretty much forgotten to where I forgot she was in the movie, let alone that she had survived a car explosion). Far too convenient and pleased with itself on its pseudo-insight, with bad performances save for Matt Dillon, Crash has aged poorly; it would probably be forgotten if not for its Best Picture win, and in hindsight one wonders how that happened.


2006 Best Picture Winner: The Departed

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dumbo (2019): A Review


The Walt Disney Company is diving into its 'vault' to remake its catalog in a naked cash-grab that might be embarrassing if not for the fondness many hold for their films. So far, we've seen remakes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty via Maleficent and The Jungle Book. Now we have Dumbo, with live-action remakes of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid waiting in the wings.

I enjoyed the Cinderella and Jungle Book remakes. I liked Maleficent well-enough. Dumbo is another creature altogether, a strange adaptation where I am almost willing to praise it if only for the fact that director Tim Burton essentially took Disney's money and used it to bash the very company counting on him to give it more money.

In 1919, World War I veteran and former horse-riding master Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has finally returned to the Medici Brothers Circus and his children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). Holt finds that he is now a widower and the children find he lost his arm. While Mancini Brothers owner/ringmaster Max (Danny DeVito) is fond of Holt, he cannot find a place for a one-armed former trick-horse rider in his circus. He does squeeze him in taking care of the elephants, especially one about to give birth. A baby elephant, Max figures, will attract patrons to his struggling circus.

Unfortunately, the new elephant, Jumbo Jr., is born with freakishly long ears. Max is appalled, Holt attempts to be kind, and the children discover thanks to Milly's more scientific mind that Jumbo Jr., now nicknamed 'Dumbo', can fly if he snorts a feather through his truck. Separated from his mother after she rampages to protect her child, Dumbo (and Holt) is put into the clown act where Dumbo takes to flight.

News spreads quickly, catching the attention of theme park impresario V.A. Vandervere (Michael Keaton). Vandervere talks Mancini into bringing his troupe to his Coney Island theme park, Dreamland by making Mancini a partner and promising jobs for everyone. Dumbo is quickly corralled into being the star attraction, only now he must join Colette (Eva Green), a trapeze artist/Vandervere's mistress. Their debut is a disaster when Dumbo realizes his mother is in another part of Dreamland. Vandervere breaks all his promises and plans to kill Dumbo's mother, but the troupe with Colette's help engineer a plan to save Dumbo and his mother and bring down Vandervere.

The revamped Mancini Brothers Circus now is animal-free, Holt and Colette are now firmly involved and Dumbo & Mother are in the Asian jungle, free from all humans.

Image result for dumbo 2019One might imagine that despite the somewhat cutesy reputation Dumbo has that a remake would be right up Burton's street. It is centered around circus folk and has a protagonist with a unique feature not only an Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. What Dumbo lacks however, is a reason for being. It is surprising that the main character is essentially superfluous to the film. Dumbo himself is pretty much irrelevant to Dumbo. You could have had any other eccentric character take his place and the film would have been the same.

It might even have been better.

Dumbo looks sad most of the time, but apart from a feather fetish he does not have much to him that makes one care all that much about him. I think this is because Ehren Kruger's screenplay is more interested in our human characters and their morose lives to give our pachyderm much thought. When Dumbo takes flight for the first time for example, it should be his personal triumph against all those who mocked him and mistreated him. Instead, you feel pretty much nothing.

Even worse, what should be the conclusion for Dumbo ends up being just the end of the second act, and this is where Dumbo goes off the rails. Dumbo is openly subversive, if that makes any sense. Burton and Kruger openly ridicule the Walt Disney Company, and I cannot believe that the high-ups would be so dense as to miss how the film insults them. Dumbo's position is in how Dreamland (read Disneyland/Walt Disney World) is essentially the antagonist. Dreamland is pretty much mocking the theme resort: my mother commented while watching that Dreamland was really EPCOT, down to a 'Wonders of Science' Pavilion. Vandervere, this impresario who tells Max that it's more economical to bring the audiences to the show rather than vice-versa, is as close to a bashing of Walt Disney as I've seen in a long time.

I figure it delighted Burton and Kruger that they got a chance to trash the very company that financed the film, but it's as overt as I have seen. They even managed to throw in a good 'animals should not be entertaining humans and should live only in nature' message for good measure.

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There is also something wildly wrong with the performances. Parker seems to be doing her best Wednesday Addams impersonation, making Milly less the bright scientifically-minded girl and more a creepy, almost ghoulish monotone-speaking figure. I was waiting for her to call her brother 'Pugsly'. Farrell goes all-in on some Texan-Oklahoman accent that he mostly hangs on to, but he too appears monotone, though to be fair he didn't have much to work with. Green seems to be keeping up with him in looking almost bored throughout Dumbo.

It seems that Dumbo has two types of performances. There's the Parker/Farrell/Green performances: somewhat bored and emotionalless. Then there's the Hobbins/DeVito/Keaton performances: wildly over-the-top with the latter having some oddball accent that gives Farrell and Green a good run for the money as to who could sound the silliest.

There are shout-outs to the original, particularly the songs. Max likes to hum and sing snippets of Casey Junior, one of the circus folk sings part of Baby Mine and Pink Elephants on Parade (or at least elements of it) can be heard when Dumbo's Dreamland opening show begins via a lavish bubble making number. Granted, When I See An Elephant Fly could never be performed now given how the original veered towards blackface, but even that gets a nod. However, the songs, like the main character, seem almost an afterthought, included almost because they are contractually obligated to be there.

Dumbo is not a nostalgia trip for those who remember the animated original (the lack of Timothy Mouse was especially disappointing to me). It is grossly unfair to compare the original and remake, though for me the sweetness and positive message the original Dumbo had is lost here. Instead, we get a critique of glitzy theme parks and using animals in circuses and worse, a film that has no real reason for being. I found sadly that in the end this Dumbo is as unnecessary as the main character was to the film itself.


Saturday, March 23, 2019

The White Stadium: A Review


The White Stadium, the film of the 1928 Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, was "perceived lost" until 2011, when it was reconstructed from various Austrian, German, Russian and Swiss sources. The reconstructed film is a massive leap in the art of Olympic films, a mixture of athleticism and romanticism that is both artistic and informative. The White Stadium is a harbinger of both the artistry of German cinema and the rise of Nazi Cinema best captured in a future Olympic film: Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia.

The White Stadium begins with various scenes of St. Moritz before "The Big Day". It takes almost a full half-hour before we get to the Parade of Nations, but those 26 minutes are not wasted. Far from it, as The White Stadium is almost a tone poem of the beautiful Swiss winter, capturing amazingly poetic moments that look almost like paintings. We see people arriving on trains and a 'Children's Olympics' consisting of a delightful snowball fight.

Then comes "The Big Day" and a more standard chronicling of the Games with various events ranging from ice hockey, figure skating and curling to now-forgotten or discarded events such as horse ice racing (racing horses on the ice) to skijoring, a most dangerous horse sport best described as racing horses while the jockey holds on for dear life behind it via a large piece of cloth. The White Stadium ends with an "Ice Festival of Professional Skaters", akin to an Ice Capades show complete with acrobatics and elaborate costumes.

Image result for skijoring 1928The White Stadium was directed by Arnold Fanck, best remembered for his 'mountain films' such as The Holy Mountain, The White Hell of Pitz Palu and S.O.S. Eisberg. These 'mountain films', where it is 'man against nature' were quite popular in Germany, with many of them focusing on the harsh yet beautiful winters. As such, The White Stadium was right up Fanck's street, and he brought a rare artistry to the documentary sports film.

This is best captured in the long opening to The White Stadium. The imagery is breathtaking, enhanced by the brilliant restoration work that so spectacular that it looks virtually brand new. There is a visual poetry to The White Mountain, and not just of the magnificent visual images of the wintry vistas.

The text is also extraordinarily poetic. "Steam rises from the lakes in the cold of the wintry morning," we are told just as we see these majestic images. "And every twig sparkles with the enchanting crystals of hoar frost". I do not know what 'hoar frost' is, but if we go by the visuals, it is almost divinely inspired images of Paradise.

The White Stadium also features some wildly inventive visuals and editing. When we see the trains arriving at St. Moritz, the visuals show us almost a kaleidoscope of trains all coming simultaneously, visually suggesting the mass numbers of people coming to the Winter Games. We also see when 'townspeople become athletes', a series of montages of 'ordinary' people changing from their civilian to athletic gear, even the children which lends a soft, comedic touch.

It is no surprise that future yet controversial cinematic legend Leni Riefenstahl took her cues from her mentor Fanck. The celebration of the country, the editing to create mood such as the montage of the 'Children's Olympics' down to the old people 'looking on' at the antics to the celebration of the body beautiful that Riefenstahl would use in her own films all appear in The White Stadium

Image result for the white stadium 1928Interestingly enough, Riefenstahl herself appears in The White Stadium in a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' moment when Leni 'waves' at an unidentified winner. Another future legend appears in the film in an extended sequence. Sonja Henie, an ice skating champion who later achieved Hollywood fame in films that almost always featured an ice skating sequence, is showcased. The White Stadium not only displays Henie's skating skills but a charming personality that signaled her film career as the ice skating version of other athletes turned movie stars like swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams.

Fanck's cinematic skills are evident throughout The White Stadium visually and in adding drama and psychological elements. In the speed-skating sequences for example, he not only uses slow-motion to showcase the race but cuts to a stopwatch to add an element of suspense to the various races. This is enhanced by the musical score written specifically for the 2015 restoration by Frido ter Beek with additional instrumentation by Yamila Bavio.

In terms of the Criterion Olympic Film series, this too is an improvement over the previous films that featured Donald Sosin's musical work. While Sosin's music is mostly good, it was almost thoroughly piano-dominated, making it at times monotonous. Ter Beek also used piano, but there was more woodwind and percussion instruments used, such as a baritone saxophone and what sounds like cowbell to imitate the 'tick-tock' of the stopwatch.

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There are a few very amusing moments, such as when the poor Austrian nameplate holder almost loses his balance at the blustery Parade of Nations that opens the Winter Games or when we see the hockey players for the various nations carry their sticks like rifles. The focus on curling does not make it any more sensible to those not aware of why brooms are such an important part of the event, and one of the curlers looks a bit like Dr. Strangelove. One is surprised at how so many events were outdoors: the ice skating, horse racing and hockey matches were all in the open. In fact, I don't think one event in The White Stadium took place inside an actual arena.

We do also see that Fanck played a little fast-and-loose with crowd scenes, sometimes reusing the same footage for different events. We also are treated to a surprising moment when a Teutonic couple wearing almost nothing are skiing and contemplating their surroundings. This curious display of 'Aryan' male and female, with the latter topless, suggests that the glorification of the "physical ideal" was already present before the rise of the Nazi Party that took it to much more dangerous extremes.

However, The White Stadium is on the whole a marvel film. With images that appear to have inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel and a mix of artistic and athletic expression, The White Stadium is a leap forward in Olympic coverage.


Next Olympic Film: Amsterdam, 1928: The IX Olympiad in Amsterdam

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Pumpkin Pie Wars: A Hallmark Television Movie Review

Image result for pumpkin pie warsPUMPKIN PIE WARS

Pumpkin Pie Wars may be my last sojourn into the world of Hallmark Channel original films. Just as with Dater's Handbook, I would not have bothered with this film either save for the fact that one of its stars is Eric Aragon. I am not an Eric Aragon fan. I am, however, an Aragon, and as such, I feel almost obligated to check out what Cousin Eric* is up to.

Therefore, Pumpkin Pie Wars.

Pumpkin Pie Wars has what I worry is a Hallmark Channel movie trend: inconsistencies in the plot that drive me crazy. It is not particularly well-acted but I suppose rather harmless if one gave it no thought.

Former BFFs Faye McArthy (Michelle Scarabelli) and Lydia Harper (Jennifer-Juniper Angeli) had a massive falling out at the 32nd Emeryville Harvest Festival when Faye learned that Lydia was going to open up a bakery solo rather than jointly. As much as Lydia protested that her father would not have given her the money unless it was a solo project, Faye refused to listen. Her only consolation was in winning the Annual Pumpkin Pie contest.

Ten years later and the blood-feud continues between Faye's Sweet Factory Bakery and Lydia's Fuller Street Bakery. Each envies the other: Lydia envies Faye's superior skills, Faye envies Lydia's financial success and her three consecutive pumpkin pie wins thanks to Lydia's son Sam (Cousin Eric), a former quarterback-turned-Cordon Bleu-trained chef. Faye's daughter Casey (Julie Gonzalo) has no baking skills whatsoever but is a mistress of numbers, working feverishly to keep the Sweet Factory afloat.

An accident forces Faye to drop out of the Pumpkin Pie contest, which could mean financial ruin if she loses again and the publicity from the show Pie Heaven goes again to her hated rival. Casey is the only one who can jump in. Sam has his own problems, as Lydia constantly squashes his hopes to expand Fuller Street to a full-service restaurant. 

What Casey needs is an instructor to guide her to the art of baking. What Sam needs is a financial presentation to win Lydia over. Looks like we have a recipe for romance.

Image result for pumpkin pie warsAs they secretly help each other, they fall in love, a Romeo & Juliet among the pie crust. Eventually though, everything comes out, much to Faye and Lydia's displeasure. However, they are forced to join forces against a surprise frenemy: Betty Lund (Dolores Drake), one of the few people who has managed to maintain friendships with both of them.

Betty, a nine-time also-ran against Lydia and Faye, seizes her chance amidst the McArthy/Harper entanglements essentially by cheating. Now it's up to Sam and Casey to metaphorically and literally get together to save their respective dreams: Casey the bakery, Sam his restaurant.

Pumpkin Pie Wars had an element in it that is a personal pet peeve. I have been accused, not without cause, of becoming fixated on details, the most notorious example being Get Out, when I kept asking why there were candles in the operating room. It was a pesky detail that simply would not let go.

In Pumpkin Pie Wars, we have a similar situation. Sam at one point tells his mother that he did not train at the Cordon Bleu IN LONDON (emphasis his) to make pastries for the rest of his life. Later when Casey compliments him on his skills/gives an info dump, she remarks how he was the former star quarterback who went to culinary school in France (emphasis mine). He does not correct her or even appear to notice she said France when he earlier said London.

London, to my knowledge, is not in France.

Yes, help me but I'm picky about things like this. It's just that to me such inconsistencies suggest that no one was really paying attention to things. Granted it seems like a bizarre thing to fixate on, but it just seems so odd. We had a similar situation with Dater's Notebook, when the main character says her two love interests 'passed each other in the hallway' when we clearly saw they actually interacted in front of her, albeit briefly.

Does Hallmark not bother with a continuity editor, or is it that I shouldn't care about such details?

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Pumpkin Pie Wars at its heart has a nice story but wants to put in some last-minute drama with Betty. It was obvious she was casing the joint for information about Casey's pie recipe and deceptively pumping Lydia for the same on Sam's. It was really the only way to have both Sam and Casey win as very late in the film Pumpkin Pie Wars threw in a Sophie's Choice scenario: Casey's winning would save the bakery, Sam's winning would save his restaurant dream.

With the story boxing itself in, why not turn to the only figure who could serve as antagonist for both: the perennial loser Betty. Even more bizarrely, for all the talk of Pie Heaven, we never actually saw a Pie Heaven host or camera crew involved. If Pumpkin Pie Wars had a Pie Heaven host interview Casey or Sam or any of the McArthy or Harper members we could have felt those stakes go higher.

Then again, such a scenario would have required to give Casey's lawyer sister a name. Rhonda Dent is billed as 'Alisa McArthy', but I don't remember her name being used once. As a side note, and again I know Pumpkin Pie Wars is meant as fluffy, light entertainment, 'Alisa' has a daughter, but unless she kept her maiden name Alisa's potential story may prove more scandalous than her younger sister gallivanting about town with her family's hot rival.

Image result for pumpkin pie warsTruth be told, the secret friendship of their father Reggie McArthy (Peter Graham-Gaudreau) and Max Harper (David Allan Pierson) would have proved more interesting than either the Faye/Lydia feud or the Casey/Sam romance. In fairness though, Max was off the screen for so long I sometimes thought Lydia was a widow, especially since Reggie had more to do.

I was not impressed with Pumpkin Pie Wars acting. Gonzalo is the best of the lot: she made Casey a relatively bright figure who played Casey's culinary ineptness for the proper laughs. Cousin Eric is handsome but he seemed surprisingly relaxed in every scene, as if he thought the whole project was too hilarious to even bother finding a character to play. He played Sam as pretty calm, saying his lines in the same way: slightly disengaged but amused.

Drake was actually amusing as Betty, but not perhaps in the way intended. Her final scene of 'running in terror' after being exposed as a cheat is part unintentional comedy, part 'oh just let me off this as I walk away'. Again, I would have liked a film about her machinations given how incompetent she was as a baking spy who essentially cheated her way out of winning.

Pumpkin Pie Wars is not without some qualities. There are positive messages in it, everything from the Harper Family slogan of "Create something unique for yourself" to Casey's admonition to Sam that "Dreamers have ideas. Doers have plans". 

On the whole though, Pumpkin Pie Wars is pretty weak even for the very light entertainment it is intended as. There is virtually no actual acting aside from Gonzalo (sorry Cousin Eric), with pretty weak lead characters who are not as interesting as those surrounding them. Pumpkin Pie Wars definitely does not take the cake.


*Eric Aragon and I are not related. It's a joke.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Overboard: 1987 Vs. 2018

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OVERBOARD 1987 VS. 2018

Of the many films in existence, I would not have thought something as fluffy as Overboard would have received a remake, but a remake we got. The 2018 version keeps the basic structure of the 1987 original, down to keeping some of the exact same dialogue. The 2018 version also does a gender-swap with an ethnic twist.

Whether that helped or hurt the 2018 version remains to be seen.

In a nutshell, Overboard is the story of a wealthy (woman/man) who after having a job done on their yacht by a poor (man/woman), literally throws the poor person off the ship. Shortly after, the wealthy person her/himself falls off the yacht and suffers amnesia. The poor person, learning this, hoodwinks the wealthy person that they are the missing spouse. Hilarity and romance ensue.

2018 is not an exact copy of 1987 because it changes some key plot points. In 1987, Joanna Strayton (Goldie Hawn) was married to Grant (Edward Herrman), who promptly abandons Joanna in the psych ward to go off, as he puts it, 'whacking the donkey with painted ladies'. In 2018, Leonardo Montenegro (Eugenio Derbez) is a billionaire playboy (hence, no wife), who is abandoned in the psych ward by his sister Magdalena (Cecilia Suarez) so she, rather than the male heir, can run the company.

2018 also has a greater focus on the wealthy person's work life. In 1987, "Annie" was essentially a stay-at-home mom. In 2018, "Leo" was put to work on a construction site. While both were de facto slaves put in their positions to pay off their debt to their 'spouse', 2018 essentially gave the wealthy person double-duty: pulling a paycheck and doing domestic duties.

This leads to a reason why 1987 is better than 2018. As "Annie" is essentially secluded, no one has to ask questions and there's a lesser chance her true identity will be revealed. By keeping this in a tight-knit group, the duplicity can go unremarked. 2018 opted to put "Leo" among more people, thus running the risk of the deception being exposed. How no one: not his fellow day-laborers, the local community or even the wealthy people "Leo" was working for failed to recognize the son of the third-wealthiest man on Earth is a question that the film never answers.

It is within the realm of possibility that "Annie" could have remained hidden. It is beyond the realm of possibility that "Leo" could have remained hidden. Also, why did they not opt to change his name?

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2018 goes all-in on the gender-reversals. The gender-swap did not improve matters. Overboard 2018 may be remembered for a cinematic trend of its era. The 1980's were filled with various films where parents, usually fathers, switched bodies with their children, usually sons (Like Father, Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again!). Nowadays, we have remakes or films where its the genders that are swapped: the Ghostbusters reboot, What Men Want, Ocean's 8Doctor Who, a planned Splash remake with a merman, a planned Greatest American Hero remake with a Heroine, even a remake of Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast. That last one was one too many, the backlash so strong it died almost instantly. Overboard is there among them.

1987 was testosterone-driven: Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell) had four boys. 2018's Kate Sullivan (Anna Faris) had three daughters. The gender-swap is a stab at equality, but it leads to some very uncomfortable premises. A subplot in 2018 is Kate's fears of leaving her three daughters alone with their "father", a natural fear given "Leo" was a stranger to them. However, it does make one wonder why she would A) put her daughters in such 'danger' and B) why she would think a man bamboozled into thinking he was their "father" would commit unspeakable acts.

This fear does not exist in 1987. As "Annie's" interactions with the boys are purely on a motherly level, there's no suggestion at all that Dean would think she would be whacking their donkeys. Truth be told I didn't think 2018 would do so either, save for the fact that Kate keeps insisting her oldest teenage daughter stay at home rather than go to the local pool precisely because she is so afraid of what their "father" might do. This is brought up more than once, which ends up leaving a bizarre sense of indecency for what is supposed to be a romantic comedy.

Filmmakers today do not seem to understand that you just cannot change the gender of characters and get the exact same results. Men and women are different. As such, they would generally react differently to the same circumstances, not always but more often than not.

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2018 fails where 1987 for a variety of reasons. At the top of them is that 2018 is almost terrified to be even remotely nasty with its characters. Both Leonardo and Kate are essentially 'too nice' for the premise. 1987 set up the conflicting natures of Joanna and Dean: she was haughty, arrogant, condescending, snobbish and thoughtless. She did not so much go out of her way to be nasty as she was nasty to everyone. Her nasty manner is still evident when she's at the hospital, so much so that the long-suffering staff gives her a 'private room': the psychiatric ward.

As 1987 progresses, we see her slowly shifting into a nicer person who ends up embracing her 'old' life. She is adrift in this horrible world and much put-upon until one moment when she metaphorically strikes back. Once she stands up for herself, albeit in a mild way, she earns the respect of the others. That in turn allows for a balancing of power and for her to take command of her circumstances.

2018 on the other hand seems determined to make Leonardo into almost a pussycat. He's shown as cavorting with a bevy of beauties but that essentially is his only flaw. He is never overtly arrogant or vicious to his ship steward Colin (John Hannah) or to the Birthday Present crew. His reactions at the hospital are actually more sensible than 1987's: while her reactions are from the point of elitism and arrogance, his are more from frustration and confusion about not knowing who he was.

There's never a shifting of power because essentially he falls into line rather quickly. Moreover, Kate is almost too pleasant with "Leo". Unlike 1987, she never regales him with horror stories about his 'early' life. The worst thing 2018 does is make him sleep in a shed. 

2018, curious, did not make Kate the mild antagonist that 1987 was. Dean was the brains of the operation to where his best friend Billy (Michael Haggerty) was the one who told him Dean was bonkers for doing it before slowly going along with it. 2018 has the agency come from Kate's best friend Theresa (Eva Longoria). Kate essentially has to be pushed into this shady act.

By doing that, perhaps 2018 thought they were making her more sympathetic. What they ended up with was making her weaker. We can empathize with Dean because we have seen how nasty Joanna was to him, so we can see his plan as taking charge and getting revenge. We cannot empathize with Kate because it was not her idea. Also, again Leonardo was nowhere near as nasty to Kate as Joanna was with everyone.
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Another way 2018 goes wrong is in the love story. We get brief moments where Grant is shown as indulging himself away from his shrewish wife, making its case that Joanna, for all her faults, would be better off with Dean than with Grant. Whenever we see Grant "whacking the donkey with painted ladies", we see that he does not care for or about her, let alone love her. Dean, on the other hand, sees that "Annie" is becoming a better, kinder person who genuinely loves his kids and eventually him.

By making 2018 into a billionaire playboy, there is no actual antagonist for Kate to be going up against. There's no one to love Leo back on his yacht or his family, so the romance angle seems a bit askew. Far from taking Leonardo away from a bad situation, Kate seems to be helping Magdalena in her quest for control of the family business, albeit inadvertently.

This romantic angle also causes one of the biggest changes story-wise. In 1987, Dean thinks Joanna is giving up all her fortune for him only to learn the money is really hers, not Grant's. That gives us a nice twist and a genuinely happy ending: they both are in this out of true love. In 2018, a threat from his father makes Leonardo reconsider swimming back to the yacht. He does give up the family fortune, but then we get a second twist when we learn that the Birthday Present yacht was literally a birthday present and as such Leonardo's personal property. He gets a fortune anyway, and to me that strips 2018 of a sense of true sacrifice for love.

Curiously, while 1987's Joanna gleefully threw herself off the yacht to go to Dean (apparently giving up her fortune), Leonardo was actually hesitant to give up his fortune for the woman he supposedly loved. It might be because, again, men and women do think differently in similar circumstances. It might also be because 2018 wanted to change that aspect of the story, but then the tacked-on 'happy ending' of the yacht being his personal property versus his father's seems unnatural.

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Also, it seems strange that 2018 opted not to have Leonardo change all that much. A point in 1987 is that Joanna had changed to be a more thoughtful, caring and compassionate person. She for example opted not to return to smoking after not having done so when she was "Annie". Leonardo, on the other hand, goes back to drinking after he recovers his memory when before, he had been convinced by Kate that he was an alcoholic. He even attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after a fight with Kate, a sign that Leonardo was becoming a better man.

They opted to cut this character development quickly. If 2018 had opted to keep him as sober, you would have seen his character become a man worthy of love and of loving. Instead, they went for a cheap laugh that didn't pay off.

I think finally on the romance angle, it helps that we the audience know that Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have been in a long-term relationship, almost an in-joke we can participate in. There was no connection between Faris and Derbez. They often looked as if they weren't even in the same scene together, and truth be told I found the scenes where they were apart funnier than those when they were together. The fact that Derbez is 15 years older than Faris does not help.

Overboard 1987 is a frothy little film with a good heart and message: love is what makes you wealthy.  Overboard 2018 is just a waste of time.

Normally in these Comparisons, I match the characters up to see who would come out on top, but here I'm not going to bother. In every element the 1987 Overboard trumps the 2018 Overboard. I don't say either is great cinema, but the 1987 version is more enjoyable because it basically is in on the joke. The 2018 version does not know any.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Daughters of the Dust: A Review


Daughters of the Dust is a poetic film, which might turn off those who are looking for a more straightforward narrative film. Its dreamlike quality is what elevates the film, though warning's fair: it may be too poetic for some.

A plot summary is a bit hard given that Daughters of the Dust has a nonlinear structure. Essentially, on Ibo Landing on the Sea Islands of the South in 1902, a gathering of the Peazant family takes place. The daughters and granddaughters of the formidable matriarch Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) gather, each with a decision to make. They can either remain on Ibo Landing and maintain the Gullah way of life or 'go North', essentially join the mainland and the culture they have been isolated from.

These women and their men have kept themselves free despite the Civil War having ended less than a generation ago thanks to their isolation, the Peazants descendants of those enslaved Africans who either washed upon the Sea Islands or escaped to its protection. Some of Nana Peazant's granddaughters and graddaughters-in-law have already lived on the mainland, but others have remained.

Nana Peazant is too tied to the traditions of her people to leave, but her descendants are not. There is  Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), the devout Christian who has brought photographer Mr. Snead (Tommy Redmond Hicks) to chronicle their gathering. There is Yellow Mary (Barbara O), an elegant woman of the world who comes with her lesbian lover Trula (Trula Hoosier). There is Haagar (Kaycee Moore), Nana's granddaughter-in-law who pushes to go up North. And then there's The Unborn Child (Kai-Lynn Warren), who speaks via voiceover. She speaks of her ancestors and descendants as the extended Peazant Family each make their decision about keeping to the old ways or going to the new.

Image result for daughters of the dustDaughters of the Dust is more a visual poem than a film, a movie that is more like a dream than a straightforward narrative. Writer/director Julie Dash gives us a meditation on a variety of themes: the connection between past, present and future, the struggle between holding on and moving forward and the everlasting link from one generation to the next.

This is best captured by the connection between Nana Peazant and 'the Unborn Child' carried by her granddaughter-in-law Eula (Alva Rogers), who may or may not be her actual great-grandchild due to Eula having been raped off-screen when she was off the island. Nana makes a declaration about herself and The Unborn Child (who does appear in visions from time to time, once startling Mr. Snead when taking a photo of the Peazant men).

"I am the Last of the Old, and the First of the New", referring to both of them. That interconnection between the generations is a powerful theme in Daughters of the Dust, the importance of keeping the legacy of the ancestors and the cost of their freedom both physical and personal. "Respect your elders. Respect your family. Respect your ancestors", Nana speaks in voiceover. To Nana and the film as a whole, 'the ancestor and the womb are one and the same'.

Daughters of the Dust also seems to cover the wide scope of the African-American experience through the various women. There's the 'progressive' modern thinker who has little patience for 'the old ways' or what she sees as superstition (Hagaar). There's the fervent and devout evangelical who loves her family and roots but struggles to balance the two (Viola). There's the woman who lives unapologetically to seek out her own freedom (Yellow Mary).

This is a female-centered film, as the men are almost always on the sidelines. There are men in the film, but they seem to be almost always outsiders ranging from the true outsider Mr. Snead to Bilal (Umar Abdurrahamn), the only practicing Muslim on Ibo Landing whom even Nana sees with suspicion.

Related imageDash has a visually evocative, meditative style in her film, with Arthur Jafa's cinematography creating that dreamlike quality. There is slow-motion and scenes that echo traditional images of baptisms and an almost mystical connection to the land and each other. John Barnes' score is also exceptional: a mix of the ancient and modern.

Dash also draws elegant performances out of her cast, all who speak with Gullah accents or in Gullah itself, the cadence of the speech also evoking this world. Day is fantastic as Nana Peazant, a woman tied to her past and working to save it for her descendants' future to keep their ancestors with them. Barbara-O, Rogers, Moore and Bruce are also excellent in their distinct roles, making each of their characters both an archetype and their own woman.

I will say that Daughters of the Dust may not be for all. The languid pace, visuals and accents may scare off people or test their patience. This is not a film to watch as pure entertainment. It makes one think but at times one may struggle understanding either the language or the style. It may be too mystical and poetic for some.

On the whole though, Daughters of the Dust is a film to be seen as one that celebrates and commemorates the past, present and future of the African-American experience and of African-American women in particular. Visually arresting and poetic, Daughters of the Dust is a great achievement.


Monday, March 18, 2019

Overboard (2018): A Review


It's a gender reversal with an ethnic twist for Overboard, the remake of the 1987 comedy. What the exact motivation for these changes I can guess at: a stab at gender equality and a play for the Hispanic/Spanish-speaking market.

Seems a shame that they went through all that trouble and didn't bother to make Overboard funny.

Nursing student and widow Kate Sullivan (Anna Faris) is struggling to make ends meet with two jobs: pizza delivery and maid services, while raising her three daughters. It's in the latter job where she meets Leonardo Montenegro (Eugenio Derbez), Mexican playboy and scion to the third wealthiest man on Earth. His boorish behavior shocks her, and after she refuses to serve him fruit, he not only refuses to pay her for services rendered but pushes her off his yacht.

Leonardo's sister Magdalena (Cecilia Suarez) is displeased that their dying father (Fernando Lujan) wants to give Leonardo control of the company just because he's the only male. While their other sister, frustrated cellist Sofia (Mariana Treviño) isn't thrilled either, she's willing to go along with it. Magdalena goes to Leonardo's yacht, Birthday Present, to try to get him to come home but he doesn't care.

It isn't long though before he falls off-ship and washes up in Elk Cove, Oregon, with amnesia. With prodding from her BFF Theresa (Eva Longoria), Kate goes to the hospital and convinces all that the mystery man is her husband, Leo Sullivan.

Yes, a swarthy, Mexican-accented man is surnamed 'Sullivan', with a vaguely logical cover story to make this remotely plausible.

Kate plans to use him as de facto slave labor to work off his debt so she can concentrate on her studies. Leo is put to work construction through Theresa's husband Bobby (Mel Rodriguez), where the crew laughs at 'Lady Hands' ineptness. Magdalena convinces everyone Leonardo was swallowed by sharks despite knowing he is alive so Papi can turn control over to her.

Over time, Leonardo soon starts integrating into "his old" life, down to reviving a passion for the Seattle Seahawks, even if the game has to be explained to him. However, the jig is up when Leonardo's yacht steward Colin (John Hannah) is sent a picture of Leonardo on the beach. With the deceptions uncovered and Leonardo's memory returned, both Leo and Kate must make fateful decisions.

Image result for overboard 2018I think one of Overboard's greatest flaws is how toothless it all is. Everyone is surprisingly too nice for the goings-on despite how they should be either nasty (Leonardo) or duplicitous (Kate). The confrontation between Leonardo and Kate on the boat has no actual sense of hostility between either of them. Even as Leonardo boozes and carouses through the seven seas, he seems surprisingly restrained, almost sweet.

It's as if Overboard despite the gender-swap didn't want Leonardo to be emblematic of toxic masculinity and give him a sharper edge. Curiously, this makes it harder to both sympathize with Kate's scheme or see Leonardo as a reformed man given that his confinement seemed to just smooth him out more than transform him.

For a comedy, there was only one time when I laughed, and that was in an interaction between Leo and Bobby. There is humor in male bonding that touches on emotions between men, though I'm surprised that director and co-writer Rob Greenberg (with Bob Fisher and original Overboard scribe Leslie Dixon) didn't give the Seahawk fanatic Bobby and Leonardo a game to watch together.

It's almost sad that the funnier or at least amusing parts came from when Kate and Leonardo were separated versus when they were together. The scenes where Leonardo struggles to do construction in particular are more amusing than Kate's somewhat hysterical interactions with her daughters or her theater-obsessed mother Grace (Swoosie Kurtz) (hysterical in the crazy versus funny sense). Bobby's nephew, aspiring salsa singer Jason (Josh Segarra) has a particularly funny moment when he fools the wealthy couple they are building a pool for that he does not speak any English despite being the only man on Bobby's crew to speak Spanish and English flawlessly.

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Overboard also has very wild inconsistencies and leaps of logic that metaphorically sink the film. Bobby's construction crew are all Hispanic and save for Jason immigrants. As such, they in theory should know who Leonardo is even if they unlike Bobby are not part of the conspiracy. While Overboard attempts to find logic in his disappearance with the 'eaten by sharks' bit, one would imagine the disappearance of this billionaire playboy would make some kind of news, complete with pictures, but Elk Cove apparently does not have internet, satellite/cable television or anything above a local newsletter.

A running subplot is Kate's fears of leaving her daughters alone with the strange man she herself brought into her home, requiring her oldest daughter Emily (Hannah Nordberg) to babysit even when Leo is at home. Somehow, this makes no sense on any level: bringing a man she does not know into a home filled with underage girls and thinking that their 'father' was going to do something tawdry with them.

Overboard also has some pretty lousy performances from the leads. Derbez shows that he can be unfunny in two languages. I'd like to say that part of it may be due to the material, but I've seen his Mexican work and I didn't think he was funny there either. Faris' comedic charm also escapes me. She seems a human Kewpie doll, and her performance consisted of looking shocked at all times. Both of them acted as if all of this was the nonsense it was presented as and couldn't be bothered to even try make it real.

As a side note, we have a very bizarre situation with the premise. Leo, hoodwinked into thinking he was celebrating their anniversary, comments about it being fifteen years of marriage. Curiously, that is the age gap between Derbez and Faris (56 and 41 respectively). I would have thought that 32-year-old Segarra would have been more plausible as the billionaire playboy than the nearly 60-year-old Derbez. There's also the fact that Segarra is frankly better-looking than Derbez.

Almost everyone else was playing things broadly. Kurtz and Hannah were wasted, their characters pointless to anything here. Longoria had no purpose here other than plot device. Rodriguez and Segarra as the die-hard Seahawks fan and aspiring singer respectively were the best of the lot for they seemed to play actual people. It almost makes one wish that Overboard had dropped Faris and her storyline altogether to focus on how this dilettante eventually came to embrace the joys of working-class life and the NFL.

Again, would have been nice to have seen Leo and Bobby go to CenturyLink Field without their wives.

Overboard, sans original, would not be funny, let alone romantic. The many subtitled scenes make me think it was created to play in Latin American markets and a vehicle for Derbez more than for Faris. There's no point, there's no logic, there's no chemistry, there's no reason for anything with Overboard.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

Dater's Handbook: A Hallmark Television Movie Review

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I am not big on Hallmark Channel films. As such, I would not have bothered with something like Dater's Handbook save for the fact that Dater's Handbook is the final performance of one Meghan Markle, who left acting to pursue a career as Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Sussex.

This is the first time I have seen Markle act, as I never saw her television series Suits.  Markle is fine in Dater's Handbook. It's the rest of the movie that I am puzzled by.

Cassandra Brand (Markle) is a highly successful Denver marketing director. She is also unsuccessful in love, with her current boyfriend Peter (Matt Hamilton) being especially atrocious. The sports-loving bartending jock not only won't consider marriage, he won't even accompany Cass to her assistant's wedding!

As such, she goes alone and finds herself in Table 5, the children's table. This oddity is helped somewhat by the appearance of Robert Zappia (Kristoffer Polaha), who is also seated there. Robert and Cass strike up an instant connection, especially given that Robert is almost amused at Cass' odd habit of stealing bits of food off his plate.

It's at this point that Cass, prodded by her sister Nadia (Christine Chatelain), starts using The Dater's Handbook, a self-help book by "Dr. Susie" (Teryl Rothery). Dr. Susie's main advice is to find a man that is 'reliable, responsible and dependable,' three things Peter isn't. She breaks off with him and after reencountering Robert, starts going out with him.

She finds Robert fun, spontaneous and slightly goofy. Things seem to be going well until one of Cass' clients, George Kazminski (Jonathan Scarfe), asks her out. George fits The Dater's Handbook profile to a T: he takes her to art exhibits, chamber music concerts and French restaurants, all things Robert wouldn't.

Nadia favors George, while their mother Gloria (Lynda Boyd) prefers Robert. The checklist and The Dater's Handbook would go for George. However, which man will Cass choose?

Image result for dater's handbookIf you genuinely do not know whom Cass should end up with at the end then you have no discernment whatsoever. Dater's Handbook throws in a very bizarre 'twist' about whom she first chooses, then teases the audience for a bit by withholding that information until we see whom she invites to her nephew's birthday party. Given we have at least a half-hour before the end, we know both whom she initially chose and that it was the wrong choice.

Dater's Handbook is muddled by the fact that Robert is if you go by the actual Dater's Handbook a good choice. His flaw, if you can call it that, is that he is more laid back and casual in his manner, but he is nowhere near Peter in terms of boyfriend material. Robert is reliable, responsible and dependable; at each turn in the Robert/George debate, the former shows he is a remarkable catch.

He gets Cass a new iPod for her birthday after having accidentally broken hers. He charms the kids he finds himself seated with, quipping he'll order them a round of Shirley Temples on him. On the make-or-break date, he chastely sleeps over to make sure she's OK after accidental food poisoning. He shows up on time and even got Gloria REO Speedwagon tickets after learning that was her favorite band.

As a side note, one can question whether Robert pulled strings to get them since he is an official with Denver's Parks & Recreation Department and REO Speedwagon was performing for an invitation-only event, but like a lot in Dater's Handbook, that goes without much thought.

One is genuinely puzzled why Cass would think it was such a debate. One is also puzzled why George is drawing her into an emotional quandary. George's only real flaw, again if you can call it that, is that he is excessively serious. Dater's Handbook is almost insulting to men who enjoy culture, painting them as bores who are incapable of having a good time or a sense of humor. George is pleasant and polite, but rather stiff and formal. He smiles politely at Cass' jokes and goes along with her likes such as miniature golf but isn't into it.

Any man who wears both a tie and a sweater to miniature golf is not going to be a wild and crazy guy. To the film's credit he is not unpleasant when rebuffing Cass' attempt to pick at his plate, calming telling her that he brought enough dessert for everyone. However, this is a sign for Cass that he isn't for her, despite his pleasant-but-serious demeanor.

Her true love would not mind this quirk.

Image result for dater's handbookDater's Handbook also has some flat-out bizarre moments and leaps of logic that indicate the project was not well-organized. In one scene, George and Robert meet when both show up unannounced on her birthday to give her gifts (George with flowers, Robert with the iPod). They even shared a few words, though granted George left right before Robert brought out his gift. However, when discussing this Cass claims that they 'passed each other in the hallway' and didn't meet.

Why would Cass make up such nonsense since Nadia and Gloria knew Cass was seeing both men simultaneously?

As a side note, it's curious that Dater's Handbook has no issue with the thought that Cass is essentially deceiving both men and two-timing them, putting them up against each other in some oddball competition neither knows he is participating in.

Cass and Nadia also apparently have been keeping Nadia's husband Michael (Adam Greydon Reid) in the dark, for he almost spills the beans to George about him 'winning out' as the suitor, a comment George clearly does not understand. This is impossible as Michael is fully aware of Cass' predicament, but why would he inform one of the unwitting contestants of something he should have known about?

Dater's Handbook makes clear Cass is going to end up with Robert right from the get-go by presenting George as so formal and devoid of humor. The film spends so much time building Robert up as this fun-loving nice guy that for all of George's qualities (his wealth, intelligence and culture), he never stood a chance. It was as if he was basically created to try and introduce an element of conflict when there was no chance he was one.

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I am surprised no one ever came up with the term "Markle Sparkle" when talking about Markle. Dater's Handbook show her to be a competent actress, making good with the material that does not ask much from the performers. Give her credit: Markle put all her efforts to sell Cass' dilemma even though it isn't much of a dilemma to any right-thinking woman. She has some good dramatic moments, such as when breaking off with loutish Peter. Markle also has a good flair for comedy where if she had continued her career she might have made for a good screwball comedienne.

There is a scene where Cass accidentally eats wings with honey, which she is allergic too. Her panic and pratfalls lead up to Dater's Handbook's funniest moment, where through a series of bizarre circumstances it looks like poor Robert has actually stabbed Cass in the diner. I admit laughing at this moment.

There is also a funny moment when Nadia, Gloria and Michael see Cass' initial choice. Nadia squeals "George!", Gloria lets out a sad "George." and Michael has a matter-of-fact "George."

Polaha is equally competent as Robert, bringing a nice casual manner to the character. He has a breezy style that sells the character's goofy charms. Scarfe too played George well, pleasant but formal, not a bad man and even a good catch for the more sober-minded woman.

I did think Reid was a bit camp as Michael to where I wondered about the Michael/Nadia marriage. Brittany Wilson as Cass' assistant Dana and Drew Ray Tanner as Phil, their dimwitted employee, also had moments of comedy. Chatelain and Boyd were fine as the sister and mother, and Rothery's "Dr. Susie" (a spoof of Dr. Laura and Dr. Phil) seemed more eager to rattle her lines off and get off the screen as quickly as she could.

Dater's Handbook is not particularly good or clever. There are a couple of funny moments and is good for mild distracting entertainment. If it weren't for Markle it would be all but unwatchable. It isn't well-developed but harmless, earning its spot in history as the farewell performance by a woman who, contrary to what Lorde sang about, did indeed become Royal.


Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Wife: A Review (Review #1195)


It was not meant to be.

The Wife may be remembered as the film that earned Glenn Close her seventh Oscar nomination, giving her the dubious honor of being the most nominated actress yet to win an Oscar as of this writing. The Wife is a showcase for Close's extraordinary talent and deserves better than just being a footnote to her also-ran record.

Joan Castleman (Close) has been with her husband, celebrated author Joseph (Jonathan Pryce) for thirty-plus years. One night, a hoped-for call comes in: Joseph has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. While both are elated, Joan's elation is mixed with slowly-building regret and even anger.

As the Castlemans, along with their son David (Max Irons) go to Stockholm to accept the prize, they are also joined by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater). He, like David, has not had success as a writer. Nathanial wants to write Joseph's biography, which Joseph and Joan won't agree to, especially since both do not want Joseph's numerous affairs exposed.

That's not the only thing neither wants exposed. The Wife both in present-time and flashbacks to 1958 when writing student Joan Archer (Annie Stark) and her married professor Joseph Castleman (Harry Lloyd) met and had an affair slowly reveals that it was Joan, not Joseph, who wrote the novels. Bone suspects as much but cannot prove it, with Joan not giving an inch. She, however, grows to no longer be willing to go along with things, especially after Joseph comes close to yet another infidelity in Stockholm.

Things ultimately explode the night of the Nobel Prize ceremony, where David confronts his parents about Bone's contentions and Joseph's praising of Joan rub salt on the wound. Joan finally lets out her decades of frustration, and in their confrontation Joseph suffers a heart attack. Flying back to America, the Widow Castleman tells Nathanail if he publishes his suspicions, she will sue. She also tells David that she will tell all to him and his sister, who has just given birth.

Image result for the wife movieThe Wife answers a critical question that the viewer has: why would Joan start, continue and go along with this subterfuge for decades? It begins with a small but critical role for Elizabeth McGovern as Elaine Mozell, the rare female author from the college where Joseph teaches. Despite Joan's talent, 'a writer needs to be read', and Elaine points out that the publishers, the critics and reviewers, the editors and agents are all men. As such, Joan might get published but would be ignored by both the influence-makers and the general public.

This is also compounded by Joan's own conflicting emotions: guilt over the affair that cost Joseph's first marriage and separation from his other daughter, the desire to be read even if through a front, the manipulation from Joseph that he was a form of inspiration to her work and perhaps just the knowledge that once the deception started, they were tied to it.

The Wife does not reveal this instantly, but takes its time to build up to the surprise carefully in Jane Anderson's adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's novel. Once we know the truth, or at least begin suspecting it, we see how Joan starts taking stock of things. She sees that she took the avenues available to her, but that the end result has been a fraud to so many, not just the readers but her own children.

We have an upending of the traditional idea of 'the wife' as supportive and loyal to her husband and a rebuke to the 'behind every great man there is a great woman' notion. The personal and professional sacrifices Joan makes drives The Wife to being a strong portrait of a woman.

Close is absolutely brilliant in the film, communicating so much with a glance, a look, a change in her voice. In her calm denial of Bone's allegations, in her sympathetic support for David, and finally in her quiet yet strong rage at essentially being mocked (intentionally or not) by Joseph at his Nobel speech, Close is compelling, sympathetic, heartbreaking and in her own way triumphant.

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As much as The Wife is Close's show, director Bjorn L. Runge also got strong performances from the rest of his cast. Jonathan Pryce was excellent as Joseph, his mix of obliviousness and self-righteousness making Joseph into an almost sympathetic villain. He didn't play Joseph as a monster, but as a man of occasional decency who was too wrapped up in himself to accept the damage he did. Slater is a surprise in his small role as the sleazy biographer, more than holding his own against Close, with whom he spends the bulk of his screen-time. In his efforts to shake the truth out of her, Slater is a menace without being menacing.

Irons could have been the weak point, but he rises above the cliche of 'the angry son who couldn't measure up to his father'. The role would be the limiting thing for him because it is a cliche, but Irons has a strong moment in the end when confronting both his parents, the decades of frustration about  his stalled career and disconnection from his parents finally released.

It's a pity The Wife got only a limited run, for it's a film that should be widely seen. It's also a pity that Close lost again, for The Wife would have been a strong performance to win regardless of Close's dismal Oscar record.

This is not the place to say whether she should have won for The Wife or whether The Wife is her best performance ever. I have found that Glenn Close rarely if ever gives a bad performance.  This is the place to say that The Wife is a strong film, well-acted with a story perhaps more relevant today given the climate.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Overboard (1987): A Review


Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have had one of the longest non-marriages in film: 36 years together as of this writing. As such, any questionable issues regarding Overboard can be overlooked because we the audience know that they are a real-life couple. Overboard is a frothy film and should be seen as such.

Spoiled heiress Joanna Stayton (Hawn) along with her husband Grant (Edward Herrmann) have temporarily docked their yacht in Elk Cove, Oregon (which the haughty couple insist on calling 'Elk Snout'). She calls in working-class carpenter Dean Proffitt (Russell) to remake a closet and then in a huff refuses to pay because she is unsatisfied. She then compounds matters by literally throwing him and his tools off the yacht.

It isn't long before Joanna herself falls from the yacht, giving her amnesia. A nightmare to deal with in Elk Cove, she drives the local police and doctors crazy until her 'husband' comes for her. However, her 'husband' isn't Grant, who abandons her to escape her. Her 'husband' is Dean, claiming she is his wife, "Annie". Partly to get rid of her, the officials hand "Annie" over to Dean.

"Annie" now finds herself in a nightmare with Dean and his four out-of-control sons. Dean intends to have her work off her debt and then tell her the truth, but as time goes on she eventually takes control of her circumstances and becomes the mother the Proffitt boys need and a stabilizing force to her 'husband'. Dean also warms to her and they fall in love.

Everyone is satisfied until Joanna's mother Edith (Katharine Helmond) forces Grant to produce her daughter. On seeing Grant, Joanna's memory fully returns, but true love both romantic and familial will not be denied.

Image result for overboard 1987Overboard is not meant to be taken seriously. What makes it work is the evolution of Joanna/Annie. She is so horrid to everyone in her obnoxious, self-absorbed manner that the audience sympathizes with Dean and understands why he did what he did. However, what Leslie Dixon's script does well is that it shows her evolution from antagonist to sympathetic character. As Joanna, she is monstrous. As Annie, she is metaphorically abused until she begins to be proactive and unwilling to take Dean or the boys' abuse. Once she takes charge of herself, our sympathies shift to see her succeed, as she has shown herself to be capable of kindness and genuine love.

This is sold through the performances, all of which understood that Overboard is not meant as an exploration of class or gender roles but as a romantic comedy and which were well-handled by Garry Marshall. Hawn essentially plays three characters: the rich-bitch Joanna, the put-upon but ultimately loving Annie, and the reformed Joanna. She balances the three through a surprisingly deep performance.

The rich-bitch Joanna is haughty without being cartoonish, Annie goes from shell-shocked and mistreated to growing into a strong yet supportive and loving woman, and Joanna 2.0 becomes a better person finding wealth does not make one better.

Russell too gives a strong performance as Dean. We empathize with our working-class man to where we pretty much forgive his deception. The audience might despair over how he himself goes overboard in his treatment of "Annie" but then we see a lovely moment where we see him realize he has gone too far and shifts to start treating her better.

It's when she gets poison oak after romping joyfully with the boys and later telling off the haughty principal. Up to that point Dean went out of his way to fill Annie with a succession of horror stories about her alleged past. However, when she asks for a memory from her past that isn't horrible, he concocts a sweet story about how she saved someone's life while working in a fast-food place and became the Employee of the Month as a result. The tenderness from him and the joy from her shows that they are starting to fall in love.

Image result for overboard 1987Overboard's unsung quality is the supporting cast starting with Herrmann, who was a smart enough actor to know Grant was essentially the comic foil. Whether in his remarkably PG-romps and sexcapades or how he rattled off hilarious lines without missing a beat, Herrmann played the posh twit with almost deranged glee.

Whether when calling Joanna everything from 'a hillbilly harlot' and a 'treasonous tramp' to his cavorting with a bevy of beauties, Herrmann made Grant into an over-the-top childish figure. Few people could confess to abandonment and adultery by stating "I was whacking the donkey with painted ladies" with a straight face and make both realistic to the character and outlandishly funny as the posh Edward Herrmann.

Roddy McDowell, who was an executive producer on Overboard, plays the stereotypical put-upon valet Andrew with a mix of resignation and wisdom. Helmond was the stereotypical grande dame but unlike Joanna was never deliberately cruel to others, making her more likable in her eccentricities and pampering.

The film also poked gentle fun at the alleged hicks of Elk Cove, from the slightly inept television husband-and-wife team to the harried doctor and police chief who endure the wrath of an amnesiac Joanna.

Overboard may be in the spirit of screwball comedies, but at times it does not showcase great wealth. The miniature golf course that Dean and his partner/partner-in-crime Billy Pratt (Michael Hagerty) create is shockingly cheap-looking. The story too may have some oddities, such as how both Grant and Dean were able to get away with their schemes for as long as they did, but again, this is not something the audience is asked to focus on.

Instead, Overboard asks us to focus on how these two mismatched people ultimately find love with each other once they remove the barriers that had hereto separated them. Overboard is a nice, harmless romp, one to be enjoyed as amusement and nothing more.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Gotham: The Trial of Jim Gordon Review

Image result for gotham the trial of jim gordon


As Gotham ends its run, we get a hint of what might have been and what it was in The Trial of Jim Gordon. This episode has two of its cast work behind the scenes: Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) wrote the episode, and Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) directed it.

For good and bad, it shows on both fronts.

Gordon has called a conference for the gangs to have a cease-fire to keep the water supplies up versus having a free-for-all with questionable water. The gangs appear to agree when a shot rings out. It hits Gordon. Despite Harvey Bullock's (Donal Logue) suspicions neither Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) who organized the conference, nor Bonkers Babs did the hit.

As Gordon slips in and out of consciousness, he imagines himself on trial for his continuing failure to bring peace to Gotham. He condemns himself and is about to be electrocuted (in other words willingly die) but the thoughts of his unborn child and Dr. Leslie 'Lee' Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) bring him back from the brink.

As to the actual shooter, that is Victor Zsasz (Anthony Carrigan), but he is under the spell of Poison Ivy (Peyton List). It's all part of her plan to stop reunification and return Gotham to its literal roots. For this, she has not only hypnotized Zsasz, but also Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), who in turn hypnotizes Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) as part of her nefarious plans. Only Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) can stop her now-enemy.

One Month Later, Gordon and Lee marry, displeasing Barbara but delighting Pengy.

Image result for gotham the trial of jim gordonThe Trial of Jim Gordon has certain positive elements, though they come more from what has been established than from the episode itself. At the heart of the good is the Bruce/Selina relationship. Mazouz and Bicondova have always worked well together in their Bat-Cat dance, and their 'date' was a nice respite from the horrors. The script gave them something to work with, especially in their fight while Bruce is under Ivy's spell.

The fight itself was a bit hard to follow, but the interplay between Mazouz and Bicondova was excellent. We even were allowed a little bit of comedy whenever we saw the men under Ivy's control. Mazouz did well here, making when he is released from her spell from a strong kick by Selina a touch anticlimactic.

Carrigan, however, is the standout as Victor Zsasz. He's never failed to be funny, but the 'hypnosis' element gives his sarcastic yet innocent comments more lightness, as if being in love makes him even more offbeat. As good as the Bruce/Selina fight was, I thought the Victor/Harvey fight was better.

Somehow, the Bruce/Selina subplot, down to a genuine kiss between them, overtakes the main plot. Gordon's trial is where The Trial of Jim Gordon flounders.  I would have thought that storywise, things would have worked better if Gordon were not just prosecutor but also judge. As such, he would literally be judging himself.

Perhaps the rush to complete Gotham blunted a good idea. A longer season could have allowed for more witnesses for the prosecution. We got a glimpse of Gordon's wake (which was the only scene that allowed Cory Michael Smith's Edward Nygma a chance to appear, where he tickled the ivories while Pengy belted out a tune), but I think Richards could not resist a little visual flair.

Image result for gotham the trial of jim gordonA lot of The Trial of Jim Gordon had what I see is an actor-turned-director motif: the 360-degree turn. I'm not sure why actors who direct episodes of the shows they are in love to have the camera make 360-degree turns, but we got that when Bullock brings Gordon to the station to try and save him.

I also think the story was a bit rushed, but again given the time pressure Gotham is on I'm cutting it some slack.

As good as some of the performances were, some were not that good. Baccarin was almost hilarious in her frantic fears and hysteria about Gordon. Richards didn't seem to have that much emotion, and even the usually reliable Taylor seemed to be almost coasting. In fairness, it was nice to see List vamp it up while still managing to be something of a threat.

As a side note, what is the budget for hair gel on Gotham? I note that Mazouz and Taylor seem to have very high, stiff hair in this episode. I'm just curious.

There is a lot of good in The Trial of Jim Gordon. A theme touched on but perhaps not explored deeply given the time limit was how both Bruce and Jim carry a lot of guilt and blame for how things are. We got some nice comedic moments from Carrigan in particular. The duet of David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova continues to be a highlight.

I can't shake the idea that I am being too generous with The Trial of Jim Gordon. I think it's because I know Gotham has only three episodes left in its run. It's a pity that a lot of time seemed to be wasted in those years.


Next Episode: I Am Bane