Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Summer Under the Stars 2019: An Introduction




Once again I am throwing myself into the Turner Classic Movies Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.

For those not familiar with either Summer Under the Stars or the SUTS Blogathon, each August on Turner Classic Movies the network has twenty-four hours of films focusing on one particular actor/actress. Some are internationally known, while others are pretty much forgotten by today's audiences. Kristen Lopez, who runs Journeys in Classic Film, invites people to submit articles centered on that day's player in a blogathon.

There is usually for Summer Under the Stars one or two minority performers, at least one silent film star, at least one foreign-language star and a few living performers.

I am surprised at the number of living performers this year: five of the thirty-one players are still with us as of this writing: Rita Moreno, Liv Ullmann, Shirley MacLaine, Dustin Hoffman and Kirk Douglas. Moreno fills in the traditional Hispanic player, Lena Horne fills in the traditional African-American player, Ullmann is our foreign star and Buster Keaton is the silent film player.

In the obscure actors/actresses we have Brian Donlevy and Leila Hyams, though I would argue other names that I do know may qualify as 'obscure': Paul Lukas, Walter Brennan, June Allyson and Susan Hayward among them. That is the great thing about Summer Under the Stars: it gives lesser-known actors their own moment in the sun.

This year I set out to do something I have never done before: review a film or television appearance from every featured player. As part of that plan, I sought out films that I had never seen, since I believe part of SUTS' plan is to get people to see films they have not seen or heard from before.  As such, here are the films in chronological order:

August 1: Henry Fonda: Advise and Consent
August 2: Ruth Hussey: Hill Number One*
August 3: Marlon Brando: One-Eyed Jacks
August 4: Shirley Temple: That Hagen Girl**
August 5: Melvyn Douglas: A Woman's Face**
August 6: Lena Horne: The Wiz
August 7: James Stewart: Anatomy of a Murder** +
August 8: Ava Gardner: The Sentinel
August 9: Red Skelton: Bathing Beauty**
August 10: Rita Moreno: The Golden Girls: Empty Nests*
August 11: Humphrey Bogart: Sabrina***
August 12: Ann Sothern: A Letter to Three Wives**
August 13: Brian Donlevy: Beau Geste** +
August 14: Liv Ullmann: Autumn Sonata**
August 15: Rod Steiger: Marty*
August 16: Irene Dunne: Love Affair**
August 17: Errol Flynn: The Adventures of Errol Flynn*
August 18: Audrey Hepburn: They All Laughed
August 19: Buster Keaton: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
August 20: Dorothy McGuire: Trial**
August 21: Joel McCrae: These Three
August 22: Leila Hyams: Island of Lost Souls**
August 23: Fred Astaire: Easter Parade**
August 24: Shirley MacLaine: The Children's Hour***
August 25: Dustin Hoffman: John and Mary
August 26: Mary Astor: Fiesta
August 27: Walter Brennan: Three Godfathers**
August 28: June Allyson: Executive Suite**
August 29: Paul Lukas: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
August 30: Susan Hayward: The Conqueror
August 31: Kirk Douglas: The Broken Mirror (A Novella) ^

In other years, I have contributed a few articles, but this is the first and probably last year where I will write one for every player. It's a hard endeavor, but I welcome the challenge.

* Ruth Hussey, Rita Moreno and Rod Steiger will have reviews of television work. Flynn will have a television documentary reviewed.

** The reviewed film will be shown as part of the Summer Under the Stars tribute to that particular player.

*** These films will be shown during SUTS but as part of another SUTS featured player. Coincidentally, both will be shown August 18 for Audrey Hepburn.

+ These films will also be shown for the Plaza Classic Film Festival.

^ A book written by Kirk Douglas will be reviewed.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Plaza Classic Film Festival 2019: An Introduction


Image result for plaza classic film festival 2019

Once again I plunge into the Plaza Classic Film Festival with a pretty full slate of films that I plan to watch. As in the past two years, I plan to see films I have not seen before to expand my cinematic knowledge. It's always good to revisit past films that I love, but I am shifting my thinking to now look at films that I have not experienced.

There is at least one film that I plan to see without reviewing. A couple of friends want me to see Major League, and I have always wanted to see it. If I ever were to review it, it would be for my annual Opening Day Film where I review a baseball-related film.

This is the planned schedule for the 2019 Plaza Classic Film Festival in alphabetical order.

Anatomy of a Murder*
Beau Geste*
Mary Poppins
Now or Never: A Tony Romo Story
Plaza Days 1: Battle of the Century, A Trip to the Moon, Crazy Like a Fox
Plaza Days 2: Hog Wild and a selection of Looney Tunes cartoons
The Promised Land
Space Camp**
Tommy
The Virgin Suicides

It is surprisingly slim pickings this year but this year I have decided to review a film a day for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Also, there were not enough films this year that really grabbed my attention.

Under no circumstances will I sit through La La Land again. I'm puzzled as to why the PCFF would select that to close the festival. My confusion is compounded by the fact that they have as a theme One Giant Leap: films to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. I figure this would have been the perfect place to showcase First Man as the closing film.

Yes, First Man came out last year, but La La Land is only two years old. Moreover, the push to make La La Land this wonderful, delightful, brilliant film/musical is one I will not accept. It is not a good musical, it is not a good film and I won't be party to such a fraud.

We do have a couple of documentaries, recent ones too: The Promised Land and Now or Never are from 2018 and 2019 respectively. With regards to Mary Poppins, I know I have seen it once but have no real memory of it, probably due to my intense dislike for Dick Van Dyke.

I do not know why he annoys me so. I put it down to his big, toothy grin and horrendous Cockney accent.

I plan to review them as the festival goes on and as always, I look forward to making some great discoveries.

* Anatomy of a Murder and Beau Geste will also be featured for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.
** Space Camp is questionable as it comes right after Beau Geste and the latter may not end by the time the former starts.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Godfather (1972): A Review (Review #1237)

Image result for the godfather dvdTHE GODFATHER (1972)

I know people who are obsessed with The Godfather, who can quote every line and know the family ties of the Corleone family better than their own family tree. The Godfather is an epic: a story of family and loyalty and the darkness that lurks beneath them.

Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is the powerful head of a Mafia crime organization, one that holds immense power and sway over government officials, judges and underworld activities. Vito's heir apparent is his oldest son Santino, better known as Sonny (James Caan). Sonny is hot-tempered and easily antagonized, unlike Vito's consigliere (lawyer/adviser) Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Vito's informally adopted son, who is calm and methodical.

Vito's second-oldest son Fredo (John Cazale) is generally ineffective and weak, his youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) is kept out of the 'family business' and has returned from World War II as a war hero. Michael returns from the war in time for his sister Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), bringing along his very WASP girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton).  After the wedding and addressing a subplot where Hagen puts the squeeze on film producer Jack Woltz (John Marley) to cast Vito's godson, crooner Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a war film, we get to the main plot.

Vito is offered a chance to break into the narcotics business by Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) in exchange for financing and protection. Vito sees drugs as the downfall of the Mafia and politely declines, but Sonny lets it slip he would be interested. Vito is angered that Sonny would share his opinions with others outside the family but Sollozzo sees an opportunity.

Related imageHe puts a hit on Vito to get Sonny to be the new Don so they can do business, but he only ends up igniting a mob war, one that gets Michael fully immersed in the family business when he kills both Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden), Sollozzo's corrupt right-hand man.

Sent into exile for his protection, Michael goes to his roots in Corleone, Sicily where he woos and marries Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). The war however, goes on, ultimately claiming both Sonny and Apollonia.

Vito, seeing how things have devolved and mostly recovered from his assassination attempt, meets with the heads of the Five Families to formally end the war. He now goes into semi-retirement, putting Michael as the de facto head. Michael, deciding to become legitimate, goes to Las Vegas to make their casino partner Mo Greene (Alex Rocco) an offer he can't refuse. Greene is incensed and thinks he can push Michael around the way he does Fredo, but he's in for a surprise.

Vito's last piece of advise is that after his own death a traitor within the Corleone family will plot to kill Michael at the bidding of whoever was behind Vito's assassination attempt, as they see Sollozzo as part of a larger plan. Michael has decided to settle all family business, once and for all, in a brutal bloodbath that will make them the undisputed masters of the underworld, though with a terrible price both personal and moral.

Image result for the godfather
The Godfather has achieved a mythic status, particularly from mob aficionados who look upon the world of the Corleone Family as something if not necessarily to emulate at least to admire. Unlike other gangster films such as the original Scarface, Angels with Dirty Faces or White Heat, this group is elegant, charming and wealthy. There's nothing overtly sordid or tawdry in their world apart from infidelity and spousal abuse, two things that sadly plague non-mobsters.

I think it is fair to say that The Godfather somewhat romanticizes a very brutal world where killing and other nefarious criminal enterprises take place, but the film is more than that.

It is an extraordinary piece of work artistically, a highly intelligent adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel. It is also a rich tale of family and loyalty, of how your roots both shape and sometimes bind.

On the artistic side, director Francis Ford Coppola crafts such a visually rich film where the symbolism and foreshadowing pop out. Right from the beginning at the wedding we see the juxtaposition: the brightness, joy and frivolity of the wedding countered by the darkness of the various requests the guests make of Vito. This is shown especially by Gordon Willis' cinematography: the wedding bathed in sunshine, Vito's office in almost satanic darkness.

Image result for the godfatherAt the famous 'leave the gun, take the cannoli' scene, note where Coppola sets the scene. Out in the distance you see the Statue of Liberty from behind, metaphorically turning her back on these immigrants and their sordid acts.

Before Corleone assassin Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) gets killed (or whacked as the Mob term goes), you see the glass windows have a fish design, foreshadowing that soon Luca Brasi 'sleeps with the fishes'.

Coppola uses foreshadowing often. When Michael tells Kay the story of how his father helped family friend Fontane through violence, he tells her calmly "That's my family, Kay. That's not me". We can see that despite himself, Michael (the only Corleone child with a thoroughly American name versus his siblings' names of Santino and Fredo, with Connie probably being short for Constanzia) will end up as perhaps the biggest part of both 'families'. After Michael tells his father in the hospital, "I'm with you now", the double meaning of that line is clear.

As a side note, it's interesting that among themselves the Corleone siblings go by more "American" nicknames like Sonny, Freddy and Connie (Mike or Mickey being Michael's nicknames), reflecting again their own desire to be more integrated versus their parents who still hold fast to their Italian roots. Michael, if one notices, struggles with Italian, speaking it slowly, sometimes struggling with the language, again reflecting his more integrated life.

That theme of 'the sins of the fathers coming upon the sons' is reflected in Vito and Michael's final conversation, where Vito speaks of his aspirations for his sons (an old school man, he'd never consider having Connie as head of the family). He recognizes Sonny was not fit to lead due to his short temper, his unofficial son Tom Hagen was not Sicilian, and Fredo was intellectually and spiritually weak. Michael, he hoped, would have achieved greatness separate as perhaps "Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone", but there just wasn't enough time.

The tragedy of their collective failure dooms both men to this life of supporting their family at a high price.

Image result for the godfatherIn the climatic purging of the Five Families, the intercuts between the holiness of the baptism and the brutality of the various killings, punctured by the organ music that ties them both, reflects Michael's loss of his soul so extraordinarily well. He can claim to renounce Satan, but we now that the one least involved in the family business has given himself fully to Satan under the guise of said family.

Coppola deserves major credit for drawing simply perfect performances out of his entire cast. Brando displayed his old powers as Vito, a man who rarely broke emotionally and remained calm and mannered even when angered. Only twice does he break out: when he slaps and berates Fontane for crying and when he turns to the undertaker Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) to prepare Sonny's body and make him presentable given the ferocity of his killing.

"Look how they massacred my boy," the old Don almost wails, the old man as close to breaking as he ever has.

Brando's performance, much imitated and spoofed now with that soft, raspy voice and jowls, is really one of extraordinary skill. He is compelling, where he dominates every scene he is in.

Pacino also does extraordinary work as Michael, the man slowly corrupted by loyalty to his family. His performance is equal to Brando's in showing how Michael came to slowly, coldly and fully embrace the darkness. You see how Michael went from that war hero chasing after his WASP dreamgirl to the man who does not flinch from having his brother-in-law killed.

Caan, despite not being Italian, is ferocious as Sonny, the 'shoot-first-ask-questions-later-if-at-all' temporary Don who let his emotions overtake his reason. Hagen counters him brilliantly as Hagen, the cool, rational member who thinks things out rather than storm in the way Sonny does.

Though his role was smaller, Cazale was excellent as Fredo, the most sensitive of the Corleone brothers. He shows this at the attempted assassination of his father: first he bungles trying to pull his pistol out then starts weeping over his father, screaming "PAPA!". This more than anything captures Fredo's inept but gentle nature. Keaton too as Kay, the long-suffering and ultimately betrayed woman and Shire as the tormented sister are also quite excellent.

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The film also has the benefit of Nino Rota's iconic score, which brings in the tragedy and romance of the story so well.

The Godfather even has at least one moment of humor. When Woltz is raging to Tom Hagen about how he wants to destroy Johnny Fontane's career, he says it's because Fontane had an affair with one of Woltz's proteges. "She was beautiful! She was young! She was innocent! She was the greatest piece of ass I've ever had and I've had'em all over the world!" Far be it for me to know the ways of the world, but how someone can simultaneously be "innocent" and "the greatest piece of ass (one has) ever had" I don't know.

As a side note, if as Godfather fans maintain Johnny Fontane is based on Frank Sinatra and his alleged Mob connections, then we can speculate that the "war film" Fontane is desperate to be in would be the equivalent to From Here to Eternity. Fontane tells the Don that the character he wants to play "is a guy like me, I wouldn't even have to act". In From Here to Eternity, the character Sinatra plays is pretty much like Sinatra: a skinny, scrappy Italian kid.

Moreover, in real life Sinatra was in a downward slide in his career, much like Fontane was in The Godfather. Both the real Sinatra and his alleged doppelganger Fontane knew 'the war picture' would put them back on top.

Sinatra at the time was also in a tempestuous relationship with movie star Ava Gardner. Could she have been 'the greatest piece of ass' a Woltz-like figure ever had? That's doubtful, as Gardner's career was riding high when she was with Sinatra, but she did lobby hard to get Sinatra cast in From Here to Eternity, with the end result that Sinatra did revive his career and win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for the film.

I'm in now way saying Fontane was Sinatra or that he got the role in From Here to Eternity via Mob ties and a horse's head. People can make that connection if they wish, that is all.

I think part of the appeal to The Godfather is that a viewer can relate to the Corleones because we all have family issues in the same way they do: the love for your parents and siblings, the struggle between keeping to our heritage and integrating into the more dominant American culture, the aspirations for our children which can also be terrible burdens for them.

We all know the burden of family and conversely the call to stay loyal to the family. I don't think one person doesn't relate to Michael's warning to Fredo when he sides with Mo Greene: "Fredo, you're my brother and I love you, but don't ever take sides against the family again". I doubt one person hasn't felt a sense of betrayal when a family member sides against the family.

In its way, The Godfather is very relatable to the viewer: that pull-push between the individual and our family ties.

The Godfather, this tale of love, loyalty and loss, enraptures viewers, perhaps a bit too much in presenting these criminals as elegant people. However, underneath the criminality of the Corleones we see a story of family, tradition and the high cost of them all. Expertly written, acted and directed, The Godfather truly is a triumph of cinema.


Image result for the godfather oranges
One final note on The Godfather, and it relates to the myth of the orange. I don't know how the orange became this harbinger of death and I'll take Coppola's claim that it was a coincidence that oranges were mere props that found their way at certain points. However, for those who enjoy juicing their orange myths, they can be found all over The Godfather if one wants to look for them:

Tessio (Abe Vigoda) handles an orange at Connie's wedding (he gets whacked at the end).
Woltz's dinner table has oranges when he declines Don Vito's request to put Fontane in his movie (his horse gets whacked and Woltz wakes up with its head on his bed)
Vito buys oranges right before he's shot (he almost gets whacked)
Carlo wears a bright orange suit when Sonny beats him up for beating his sister (Carlo gets whacked)
The restaurant where Sollozzo and McCluskey get whacked is bathed in orange neon light
Sonny passes a billboard for oranges as he races to rescue Connie (Sonny gets whacked)
There are oranges at the unofficial Board Meeting of the Five Families (the heads of which get whacked)
Vito stuffs orange slices into his mouth before dying in his garden

Curiously, there are no known oranges seen when Apollonia bites the dust, but there it is.

DECISION: A+

1976 Best Picture: The Sting

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dark Phoenix: A Review



DARK PHOENIX

Dark Phoenix is akin to an athlete, long past his/her prime, attempting to mount one last hurrah. It evokes more a sense of sympathy and sorrow watching what was once a great franchise descend to such a sorry state. While nowhere near as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand or perhaps Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix is more of a slog than a horror where you can see just about everyone counting down to the end of their contractual obligations.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is forever haunted by how she inadvertently caused the deaths of her parents back in 1975. She has lived at the special school her guardian Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) founded for those once called 'mutants', beings with special powers. Jean, however, has used her powers for good, especially now as she joins a mission in space to rescue stranded astronauts.

Also going up are Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), her on/off-again boyfriend Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and three younger X-Men: Kurt/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McGee), Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Jean's boyfriend Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). The mission goes well but Jean is caught in what appears as a massive space storm, affecting her powers.

Back on Earth, she finds herself still emotionally and physically tormented, more so when she discovers that her father is still alive and not dead like Charles mind-planted in her that he was. She, now as Phoenix, goes on some kind of rampage, a pawn in the scheme of Vuk (Jessica Chastain), leader of otherworldly beings who will use Jean to take over the world.

Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is also roped into the proceedings, culminating in an informal battle between Charles and Erik's mutants over Jean, then united to save her from Vuk and her minions.

Image result for dark phoenixI don't think I or anyone else can figure out the loopy logic of the X-Men franchise, particularly in terms of character ages. If we went by the films, Magneto would be somewhere in his 60s when the events of Dark Phoenix take place, but he looks pretty much like he did when First Class took place.

I'm not so hung up on details to not understand that Michael Fassbender is not going to massively age in eight years, but at a certain point, again if you follow the series, it does start looking rather implausible to downright ridiculous to see these characters not age even though the films keep moving things about a decade a film. Yet I digress.

Dark Phoenix flounders because everyone looks and acts rather bored, as if they would rather be anywhere but here and are just going through the motions. Lawrence is the worst offender in this department, clearly showing she thinks that not only is this a waste of her time but far beneath her. Even when spouting off some proto-feminist declarations about how Charles should change the name to "X-Women" given how women keep saving them, there is a rote manner to her delivery.

Few people look as bored as Mystique does when she dies. I think she agreed to be in the film with the understanding Mystique would be killed to ensure she would never have to come back. Fassbender at least has the excuse that Magneto was totally irrelevant to the plot so he could coast through this for the paycheck. Lawrence, however, has no excuse, and her appearance shows off her total contempt for all this.

To be fair however everyone looked just so disinterested in the proceedings. Some, like Sheridan and Smit-McGee, attempted to compensate by either speaking fast or widening their eyes. Others, like Chastain, went the opposite route and decided monotone speaking and blank stares would do.

Image result for dark phoenixTurner was pretty much disastrous as our lead. I assume she can act, but Dark Phoenix gives no evidence that she can. Whether it's showing her love for Cyclops, her sense of betrayal by Xavier, her oddball request from Magneto for mentorship, facing off against Vuk or regret at having killed Mystique not once did Turner's voice or expression change.

The fault cannot rest on the actors alone. No matter how talented a cast (and to be fair McAvoy, Fassbender, Hoult and Sheridan are strong actors), the fault lies squarely at writer/director Simon Kinberg. There was not one moment in Dark Phoenix that was exciting or interesting, not one scene that evoked any emotion other than boredom, not one character I cared about.

In short, Dark Phoenix is surprisingly boring. There is no way around it: Dark Phoenix is boring. Everything about it is boring: the story, the performances, the action sequences, the characters.

This is a sorry way to end this version of the X-Men universe. I still hold that X-Men and X2: X-Men United are among the best comic-book based films made. I've also warmed to X-Men: First Class and have positive memories of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Now the X-Men will soon find themselves part of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera, also known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

At this point, just like everyone involved with Dark Phoenix, I'm beyond caring.   

DECISION: D-

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Last Emperor (1987): A Review (Review #1235)

Image result for the last emperor criterionTHE LAST EMPEROR

Pu Yi, the subject of the biopic The Last Emperor, is pretty much a pretty forgotten figure in history, a footnote in that vast expanse of Chinese civilization. His biopic too has suffered a similar fate: despite sweeping the Academy Awards by winning all nine of its nominations, few people remember it. That is a terrible shame, for The Last Emperor is more than a history lesson on an obscure figure, but a story of a man caught in history's maelstrom, majestic but powerless, forever doomed to be a puppet.

Manchuria 1950. A group of Chinese war criminals arrive to be imprisoned and/or reeducated by the Chinese Communists. Among them is Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi (John Lone). He, however, is no ordinary collaborator. He is the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, still recognized by others. The Last Emperor goes back and forth between his imprisonment and interrogation by fierce The Interrogator (Ric Young) and the more moderate Prison Governor (Ying Ruocheng), as "Prisoner 981" remembers his life.

Peking 1908: little Pu Yi is snatched from his own palace and swept into the Forbidden City, where the three-year-old is placed on the throne. His every whim is catered save one: the desire to go home. His only real friend is his wet-nurse Ar Mo (Jade Go), though later he is joined by his younger brother Pu Chieh. A monarch in name only, he floats in an unreal world: lavish, elaborate but empty.

In comes a new tutor, Reginald Fleming Johnston or R.J. (Peter O'Toole), who brings a window into His Majesty's life. Despite this and a marriage to two women (an Empress and a Secondary Consort), Pu Yi's life is still summarized essentially to two phrases: "I do not understand" and "Open the door", the latter being the one command that is never granted.

Finally forced out of the Forbidden City in 1924, he is taken in by the Japanese in more ways than one. While his secondary consort Weng Hsui (Wu Jun Mai) leaves him, "Henry Pu Yi" and the Empress "Elizabeth" Wan Yung (Joan Chen) continue their dance with the Japanese, in particular with the mysterious Mr. Amakasu (Ryuishi Sakamoto). Wan Yung also falls under the spell of Pu Yi's cousin Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han), a spy and Japanese collaboratrix against her own Chinese people.

Pu Yi accepts the throne of the puppet state of Manchukuo but tragedy strikes all, in particular Wan Yung. Captured by the Russians, the former emperor is eventually sent back to the Chinese, where he takes the blame for everything, even things he was not involved in. Eventually, after 'rehabilitation', Pu Yi is released and lives as a gardener, where he dares to confront the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution when he sees his former Prison Governor held for mockery.

Pu Yi makes one last visit to the Forbidden City, where he metaphorically disappears from history, dying in 1967.

Image result for the last emperorThe Last Emperor has a very traditional but well-structured series of flashbacks and forwards, where one moment or question triggers a memory. As the film goes on, it never falters in either feeling long or in having the time shifts interrupt or collide. We flow from 1950 Manchuria to 1908 Peking so smoothly, and it's a credit to the editing that these events flow so well.

It's also a credit to screenwriters Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci (who also directed) that Pu Yi's life is chronicled in such a way that we can follow the story and even get hints about the themes in The Last Emperor. During his early childhood, Ar Mo tells Pu Yi a story that ends "and when the tree fell, the monkeys were scattered", foreshadowing how when he (the tree) fell, his court and in particular the army of eunuchs (the monkeys) were scattered. Later on, as he remembers when he expelled the eunuchs, he says, "The Forbidden City had become a theater without an audience, so why did the actors remain on the stage? It was only to steal the scenery piece by piece".

Pu Yi's entire life was a puppet theater where he was the puppet, never the master. Even the one time he tried to be the puppeteer with his collaboration he found himself directed by the villainous Mr. Amakasu and Eastern Jewel, the Empress' frenemy and opium supplier.

I would say the themes in The Last Emperor are those two repeated phrases: "I do not understand" and "Open the door". Pu Yi was perpetually caught in circumstances he did not or could not comprehend, from his enthronement to his inability to leave the Forbidden City after he abdicated to his eventual lack of comprehension about his true powerlessness. He was a very tragic figure, some of it not of his own making but some of his.

The powerlessness of those who seem all-powerful is captured in the repeated refrain of "open the door". Pu Yi demands this often but he is not obeyed either out of tradition or contempt. Moreover, the one time the request is granted it is in prison where he has no choice. If one thinks about it, Pu Yi was always in some kind of prison.

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The Last Emperor showcases perhaps the best prison ever. It is the first Western film permitted to shoot inside the Forbidden City, and the film makes the most of the imperial palaces and grounds brilliantly captured by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. It is if nothing else a lavish-looking film. Storaro not only enriches the vastness and lavishness of the Forbidden City, but bathes certain moments in breathtakingly beautiful colors. For example during his exile, we see the occupied city of Tiensin in amazing blue that reflects both the night and the mood of sadness.

We also see the lavish and opulence of the Qing court and retinue in James Acheson's costumes and the set designs that blend so well with the majesty and power of the Forbidden City. The opulence and tragedy of Pu Yi's life was also so beautifully captured in the score written by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, Chinese composer Cong Su and Sakamoto, who did double-duty as the villainous and mysterious Mr. Amakasu.

As one sees The Last Emperor, it is astonishing now to think that despite its nine Oscar nominations/wins not one nomination went to any of the actors. I am simply amazed that such great performances so well-directed by Bertolucci were passed over.

Lone is in turns arrogant and tragic as Pu Yi, a man driven and repelled by power, desirous to take control but incapable of it. Lone plays Pu Yi as a haunted man, one who yearns for freedom but is also terrified of it.

Chen was beautiful and tragic as Wan Yung, an innocent corrupted by those around her into becoming a sad, pathetic and tragic figure. Her final scene where she returns to the palace as Manchukuo is about to fall is heartbreaking: totally bereft of mind, knowing her child was assassinated right after birth and destroyed by drug addiction, she can only stare at her husband, half-knowing half-unaware.

Han as the villainous Eastern Jewel, Dennis Dun as the loyal but long-suffering valet Big Li, Victor Wong as the honest and Cassandra-like High Tutor, and Ruocheng as the wise Prison Governor were also worthy of consideration.

Also high on the list for consideration should have been Peter O'Toole as Mr. Johnston. In turns compassionate and angry, one who could speak truths to His Majesty while also in his own way coddling Pu Yi's vague dreams for imperial restoration, O'Toole more than held his own. He even brings a touch of comedy when he finds himself unable to answer why he never got married himself.

The Last Emperor is a sweeping epic of a most inconsequential historic figure. Pu Yi did not impact humanity in any tangible way. Instead, he was just a cog in the wheel of time, a figure trapped by the machinations of those around him.

He did not shape history. He was instead a victim of it.

1906-1967

DECISION: A+


1988 Best Picture: Rain Man

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Schindler's List (1993): A Review


Image result for schindler's list poster

SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993)

There are probably fewer film subjects both difficult and in a way routine as the Holocaust. No narrative film, however well-crafted, can truly capture the horror, the evil of the Shoah. Even documentaries such as Night and Fog or Shoah can fully document the monstrosity of this most horrific barbarism. Schindler's List, the story of how one man saved over a thousand Jewish lives, comes as close as possible.

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is generally apolitical and interested only in making as large a fortune as possible while doing as little work as possible. Buying influence with Nazi officials in occupied Poland, he sees an opportunity to enrich himself, particularly with the plight of Krakow's Jewish population which has forced into a ghetto.

He surreptitiously gets Jewish financing and has account Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) run his enamelware factory. Schindler also gets help from black marketer Poldek Pfefferberg (Jonathan Sagalle), another Jew. Things couldn't be better for Schindler: a life filled with mountains of money, free labor, booze and broads despite being married to Emilie (Caroline Goodall). 

However, as the antisemitism takes on a more murderous form in the shape of Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), a Nazi commandant fully committed to the Final Solution, Schindler starts slowly evolving from apathetic Nazi to determined savior of 'his' Jewish slave labor. Continuing the bribes, Schindler now is committed to keep those in his factory alive while keeping his dance with Goth going.

Through his efforts, over a thousand souls were spared.

Image result for schindler's listSchindler's List is an intensely difficult film to see as it revolves around the worst act of man's capacity for evil against his fellow man. There are sequences that elicit powerful emotions within the viewer, and it would be all but impossible to not find oneself crying. For me it was the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, a set of horrors that chill when shown.

The entire sequence was brilliantly filmed. Director Steven Spielberg shot this in a jumbled and chaotic manner to underscore the madness of the liquidation. We jump from scenes within the ghetto of mass shootings and rounding up of people to Schindler's point-of-view above the ghetto. Here, as his newest mistress rides away we see that Oskar has focused on a little girl in a red coat, an innocent lost and unaware of just what satanic evil is taking place. It's at this moment when we see the slow change in him.

Unlike his mistress, he cannot turn away.

His evolution is complete when later on he sees the same girl, now dead, about to be incinerated. Schindler, by no means a good man, rallies to do the one good thing he is in position to: save lives.

As a side note, I held it together until the Liquidation, but it was when a little boy led Mrs. Dresner (Miri Fabian) and her daughter Danka (Anna Mucha), whom he seemed smitten with, to 'the good line'. To place such a monstrous burden on a child is beyond comprehension.

Image result for schindler's listThe Auschwitz sequence is terrifying, particularly because we the audience expect it to go one way only to have that upended. As the characters have already discussed what happens in other camps, they expect things to go a certain way too. As we go through this with them, we too are placed within the fear of agony and death. Even though they do live, we still get shown that for some, there was no way out.

We see Schindler's evolution in a brilliant performance from Neeson. He starts out as almost a wolf, calculating how to take his prey. As the film progresses, we see that he not a moral man if by moral we mean honest, fair and faithful. In certain ways he does not change: at one point he rescues Stern more out of necessity than altruism. However, bits and pieces of a genuinely moral man emerge in how Neeson plays Oskar. He maintains a perfectly straight face when presented with a one-armed old man at his factory, then anger at being put in what he sees as a dangerous position as some kind of savior. Once he learns that same old man had been shot, he echoes to the commanding officer Stern's words about that man being 'essential'.

In Neeson's performance, we see Oskar Schindler embrace his reluctance of morality without making him a saint. He is a deeply flawed figure but one who takes on his goodness at the end with almost a childish glee.

To counter him is Fiennes as the psychopathic Goeth, whose grasp on anything good is almost nonexistent. The only moment where one sees that there may actually be a soul is when he has a one-sided conversation with his Jewish maid Helen Hirsh (Embeth Davitz). Goeth seems to actually struggle with the idea that Helen is human, one he may be attracted to, only to end up reverting to his Nazi training. At one point in Steven Zaillian's adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel Goeth says "I want to grow old with her" almost offhandedly when Schindler negotiates who will be on his list. It's subtle but an insight into Goeth's very diseased and conflicted mind.

Kingsley too was excellent as Stern, a man both scared and courageous in working as much within the system as he could to save those around him. Davitz's Helen Hirsh also gives a strong performance of a woman doing her best to survive a volatile man.

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Schindler's List is also complimented by John Williams' haunting score, moving and elegant and tragic and uplifting, just like the film itself. Janusz Kaminski's black-and-white cinematography also works beautifully, more so when Spielberg uses a few bursts of color when candles are lit. The film opens and closes in color, taking us from a pre-Holocaust past to a post-Holocaust present. The candles still maintaining a brightness in the film are symbolic of the stubbornness of hope, light that will not be consumed by darkness.

Here perhaps I find my one major criticism on Schindler's List. It is at the end in the "I Could Have Saved More" scene. Having seen the film three times now I still cannot shake the belief that it was over-the-top: the acting, the scene, it all combined to if not completely take me out of a movie at least to remind me it was a movie. It does not take away from the power and importance of Schindler's List but it just felt as if they were gilding the lily.

However, minus that Schindler's List is more than an excellent film: well-crafted and well-acted. It is an important and necessary film, one that I wish were shown annually to truly keep to the slogan "Never Again".

Oskar Schindler was no saint and in many ways a failure and a fraud. Only once in his life did he demonstrate any morality, but would that we all have that ability at such an hour to demonstrate that kind of moral clarity.

1908-1974


DECISION: A+

1994 Best Picture: Forrest Gump

Monday, July 15, 2019

Ma (2019): A Review

MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: C+

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chicago (2002): A Review



CHICAGO (2002)

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

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

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

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

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

It did it brilliantly for the most part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: B-

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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Apur Sansar (The World of Apu): A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: A+

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Phil (2019): A Review (Review #1230)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: F-

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Aparajito (The Unvanquished): A Review

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APARAJITO 
(THE UNVANQUISHED)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: A+

Monday, July 8, 2019

A Beautiful Mind (2001): A Review


A BEAUTIFUL MIND

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

Perhaps all that will be included in an Extended Edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

DECISION: D+

2002 Best Picture Winner: Chicago