Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Two Popes: A Review

THE TWO POPES

Their Holinesses Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are at polar ends of the theological spectrum. Judging from The Two Popes, it is clear that the production favors one side, so much so that it is less an exploration of these two different men at a crossroads of Catholic Church history and more a case for the canonization of one, the demonization of the other.

Essentially a two-man show (unsurprisingly), The Two Popes chronicles the election of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) to succeed the late Pope John Paul II. Now as Pope Benedict XVI, he faces a wealth of issues within and without the Holy See.

There is a most reluctant member of the College of Cardinals waiting in the wings: Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). He's the antithesis of Benedict: while His Holiness is chilly, intellectual and aloof, Jorge is a soccer-loving man of the people. He also loved in the carnal sense, as The Two Popes give us extended flashbacks to his youth in Buenos Aires, where as a young Bergoglio (Juan Minujin) he came close to marrying Esther (Maria Ucedo) before God intervened.

Bergoglio, who came close to being elected instead of Ratzinger, wants to retire, but Benedict has a surprise for him: he won't accept Bergoglio's retirement because it is Benedict who wants to quit! As these two old men talk and discuss the impact of Benedict contemplating resigning the Papacy, Bergoglio must confront his own past during the Argentinian so-called "Dirty War". Bergoglio tried to keep a balance between working with the military dictatorship and his calling to the Faith, but was not successful at it. These two lions in winter absolve each other of their sins: Bergoglio of his ineffective dealings with dictators, Benedict of knowingly keeping sexually abusive priests in positions of influence.

At last, Benedict retires and now-Pope Francis comes forth to bring his (or maybe His) Divine Light to the world.

The Two Popes' Review | Hollywood ReporterAs I am not Catholic I have no stake or interest in the theological struggles within Catholicism. I judge a film based on what is presented, but in this case, I do wonder whether Anthony McCarten's screenplay (adapting his play The Pope) ever even tried to be evenhanded. The Two Popes is so clearly & nakedly besotted and passionately in love with Bergoglio and his liberal theology that it turns almost pornographic in its idolatry of Francis.

We see this from the beginning, where Bergoglio's almost excessive humility beggars belief. Despite having been elected Pontifex Maximus, successor to St. Peter, God's Representative on Earth, Pope Francis still insists on trying to book his own flight. I can believe that a man can be humble enough to decline elaborate garb upon being made Head of the Catholic Church. I'm not quite prepared to think said Head of the Catholic Church is so thoroughly clueless and guileless that he was not aware the Holy Father had a summer residence.

Yet The Two Popes continues this worship of Pope Francis and his worldview: his passion for eliminating income inequality and saving the environment. The film celebrates this Francis: a simple man of the people who is devoted to both St. Lorenzo and the St. Lorenzo soccer team, who cheerily whistles Dancing Queen before entering the Conclave.

The Two Popes review - a thrilling, delicate balance of drama and ...
As a side note, the Francis who has made clear there will be no support for female ordination, abortion or same-sex marriages in a Catholic Church is not so much as even hinted at.

It is a stark contrast to The Two Popes portrayal of Ratzinger, a man thoroughly unaware of who Abba is and appears to think Dancing Queen is a hymn about the Virgin Mary. We see Bergoglio cheering on Argentina during soccer matches, while Benedict comments he does not get the appeal of soccer at all. His Holiness prefers to watch Kommisar Rex, a German show about a crime-solving dog. We see Pope Benedict playing the piano and noting he played in the same studio as The Beatles. When Bergoglio mentions Eleanor Rigby in response, Benedict remarks he does not know who she is. If one judged Benedict and Francis on the film alone, one would leave with the impression that while Bergoglio is a fun-loving, tango-dancing yet almost insanely humble to almost pure figure, Benedict is suffering from dementia at best, downright bonkers at worst.

The Two Popes thinks it is showing an equal exploration of two men of the same faith whose theology led them to radically different conclusions, but the deck is so clearly stacked in Bergoglio's favor one would be forgiven in thinking he, not McCarten, wrote the screenplay. Even in their theological debates, which should be a true battle of wits, the script never gave Benedict anything close to even a semi-coherent answer to Bergoglio's sympathetic and rational brand of liberation theology.

Netflix's The Two Popes review: The Godd coupleCompassionate Marxism, perhaps? Communism with a Catholic Face?

Again, what either Benedict or Francis believe is the Church's own business. It is the film's refusal to give one side even a modicum of a chance that I find troubling.

Another aspect I found a problem was the extended Buenos Aires sequences (as a side note, the fact that Ratzinger himself lived through a dictatorship as a child during the Nazi era is given the most cursory and obscure of mentions). Bergoglio can only shake his head when a fellow Argentine football fan calls Benedict "a Nazi", but does not bother to defend Benedict, a sharp contrast to how The Two Popes works to bring nuance to Bergoglio's troubled relationship with the Argentinian military dictatorship to where it veers dangerously close to being an apologia for Francis.

Yet I digress.

The extended flashbacks drown the film to near tedium, though through no fault of the actors. Instead, director Fernando Meirelles indulges in long black-and-white sequences and in scenes that might have run shorter or included in dialogue. These scenes bloat the film to a little over two hours and frankly made it feel even longer. The shaky-cam that aims for an intruder-style method also pushes the film down. It becomes an irritant more than anything.

The Two Popes to be fair is well-acted. Pryce and Hopkins play the parts exactly as written: humble, loving Francis and tottering Benedict. They do bring a few moments of levity when the script allows them a chance to play these men as actual humans: neither the saintly Bergoglio or clueless Ratzinger. It's in those moments of shared humanity when we see Pryce and Hopkins really excel. Minujin as the younger Bergoglio does well too, his mix of compassion and doubt and fear blending well. It is a pity though that Minujin's version was given more attention than perhaps he should have been.

The Two Popes struck me as unfair to Benedict XVI and too sympathetic to Francis. What could have been an exploration of these two men, united and divided by faith, instead was Francis-worship gone bonkers. In his efforts at humanity, Benedict remarks on his quip, "A German joke. It doesn't have to be funny". Perhaps, but The Two Popes was not as funny or insightful as it thinks either.

The Two Popes: 'Vatican buddy movie' is Hollywood fiction, say ...
Pope Francis: Born 1936
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Born 1927


DECISION: D+

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Who Will Write Our History: A Review

Who Will Write Our History” Screening – Women In FilmWHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY

History, it is said, is written by the victors. Who Will Write Our History, the documentary/feature film, reminds us that memories of the past are not one-sided. The story chronicled in Who Will Write Our History, based on historian Samuel Kassow's book, is an important, necessary and heartbreaking one. Its only genuine limitation as told in Who Will Write Our History is on its struggle to balance documentary with docudrama.

As the Nazi regime swarmed into Poland, a group of Jewish historians, intellectuals, writers and even a rabbi, led by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, knew that they were witnessing an important moment in time. They also knew that if the Jewish people were wiped out of existence and memory, only the official Nazi history would remain, a false narrative that would wipe out the Jewish people in more ways than one. If the Nazis were defeated, would people outside Poland or the Warsaw Ghetto really believe the horrors inflicted upon the population?

Ringelblum spearheaded the written histories of the community in a clandestine operation that was to become the Oyneg Shabes Archives (Oyneg Shabes translating as "Joys of the Sabbath"). Here, the various chroniclers would not just record the atrocities the Nazis committed, but also their own memories, histories, reflections and daily life under Occupation. Everything was saved: official announcements, artwork, photographs, literature, all that spoke of both what was occurring and the creativity around them.

Finally, the Nazis decided to start expelling Jews from the ghetto they created and later destroyed Warsaw after crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With no time left and to save the history they had worked to preserve, Ringelblum and others with the Oyneg Shabes Archives hid them in three places. Out of the sixty-odd contributors, only three lived to see the end of the war. The survivors helped in the rediscovery of the Archives, preserving their history for future generations.

Review: 'Who Will Write Our History' Is A Tale Of Survival : NPRWho Will Write Our History is a deeply moving film, a clear reminder that wars are fought on many fronts. Dr. Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archives were forward-thinking in the awareness that in times of war, civilians are also impacted. While there is logic in noting down the deaths, cruelty and barbarity of the occupying Nazi regime, perhaps some not involved would ask why playbills announcing concerts, drawing or a chronicle of one man's day would be of any use.

Who Will Write Our History makes the case that the individual's own experience is history, that there was still life within the walls of the Ghetto. We got history from the perspective of those living through it. More importantly, the Oyneg Shabes Archive contributors knew that witnesses would fade but the written word endures. These objects, these collected memories, would speak to the future as well as the present. They would deny and denounce the lies the Nazi regime spread. They would also bear witness that behind every word was an individual, a living person who was being wiped out of existence and time.

Who Will Write Our History - Trailer - YouTube
The film envelops you in its grim tale, one of shame, of horror, of tragedy. Some of the information we learn is shocking, such as that the conditions within the Ghetto were so dire that a loaf of bread costs the equivalent of $60 today, and that the soup kitchen may have done more harm than good due to its lack of resources. Listening to the chronicle of one man's day, we see just how wicked man can be towards his fellow man.

The main flaw, if I can call it that, in Who Will Write Our History is that at times it seems more interested in being a feature film about the Oyneg Shabes Archives and less a documentary film on the Oyneg Shabes Archives. It is not a surprise that there are reenactments, but at times Who Will Write Our History gets bogged down by its desire to be bigger than a straightforward documentary. Take the chronicle of one man's day sequence. Here, the documentary goes past reenactments to being almost a short film of this particular story than about the Archives themselves. Director Roberta Grossman veers dangerously close to forgetting Who Will Write Our History is a documentary with reenactments and not a feature film with some archival footage. 

While this does not take away from the important story Who Will Write Our History tells, it does weaken the film due to an almost schizophrenic point as to what it is or wants to be: documentary or feature.

"Let the witness be our writing", Rachel Auerbach, one of the survivors and about the only woman in Oyneg Shabes wrote. Who Will Write Our History is a powerful reminder that there are many ways to resist, and that the pen can be just as powerful as the sword.

DECISION: B+

Monday, April 6, 2020

Endings, Beginnings: A Review


ENDINGS, BEGINNINGS

Modern romance is so perplexing, so puzzling. There's love, lust, sex and emotional entanglements, sometimes all at once. Endings, Beginnings looks at one woman at the top of a love triangle in one tumultuous year. While a bit too artsy for my tastes, Endings, Beginnings has a central performance from one of our finest actresses that makes it worth a viewer's time.

As 2018 rolls into 2019, artist Daphne (Shailene Woodley) is at major crossroads. She's just ended her longtime relationship with her boyfriend Adrian, has left her job unexpectedly (the reasons emerging through the course of the film) and is living in her sister Billie's (Lindsay Sloan) pool-house (which may be causing more strain in Billie's marriage). Daphne manages to find limited employment at her friend Ingrid's (Kyra Sedgwick) art shop and struggles in the relationship with her mother (Wendie Malick).

At Billie's New Year's Party, Daphne meets two wildly different men. There's Frank (Sebastian Stan), a very casual and cool customer. Then there's Jack (Jamie Dornan), a softer, more intellectual figure. She is drawn to both and both are drawn to her: Frank being the "suffer buddy" and Jack the sensible, sensitive shoulder. Daphne struggles between them, the struggle harder when she learns they are friends. As far as I can make out, she starts a romance with Jack and an affair with Frank: with the former there is sex and love, with the latter sex and excitement.
Reality eventually hits Daphne when she finds herself pregnant. She does not know who the father is, having had sex with each of them on consecutive nights. After some thought and words of wisdom from Ingrid about how she will have someone to love her despite Jack and Frank, she opts to keep her baby.

Jack is distraught at the news of her tryst, and Frank eventually reappears with a new girl and dubious about the responsibilities of fatherhood. However, Daphne will carry on as she has grown as an adult: finding peace with her mother, support from her also-pregnant sister and the hope that she can be the mother she knows she can be.

Under normal circumstances, one would be aghast at the idea that Daphne would have sex with two different men on back-to-back nights, her bouncing about raising eyebrows. It is to director/co-writer Drake Doremus (writing with Jardine Libaire) that this does not come across as tawdry but as a mix of desire and confusion. In a certain way, Daphne's choice is as old as time itself: the struggle between the free-spirited man (Frank) and the sensible, sensitive one (Jack).

I suppose it complicates matters when a woman has to choose between Christian Grey and the Winter Soldier, but I digress.

Endings, Beginnings paints a very sympathetic portrait of Daphne, who genuinely cannot decide between someone who offers her passion & excitement and someone who offers her stability & devotion. Granted, from the looks of it they both offered great sex and maybe I'm being flippant here but good sex can make even bad relationships hard to break.

What really elevates Endings, Beginnings is the central performance of Shailene Woodley as Daphne. Apart from the unfortunate Divergent franchise that floundered and withered few filmmakers have been able to capitalize on Woodley's extraordinary talent. Doremus has, focusing on her extremely expressive face. It is extraordinary how Woodley can convey so much with just a quick facial change, the myriad of emotions her character goes through with just an expression or forced smile. Woodley makes Daphne a full-formed figure: one who cares for her niece, makes awful mistakes, learns to accept and forgive others and herself, and most importantly grows up.

I've never thought much of Dornan or Stan as actors and Endings, Beginnings does not shift my view much in that department. Dornan's limitations are that he would struggle with an American accent and is remarkably expressionless. He's very handsome, true, but Dornan is not a particularly good actor. Endings, Beginnings probably is his best work because it uses his weaknesses (Irish accent, almost monotone manner) as strengths to play Jack. Stan's too-cool-for-school Frank was not a hard role to play but to his credit he too did a serviceable job.

It was the women who fared best. Along with Woodley you had small but strong performances by Maleck and Sedgwick as the mother and mentor respectively. It's a wonder why Maleck is not given more dramatic parts to play and why Sedwick just isn't a bigger star than her talent would inspire.

Endings, Beginnings has some issues for me. There were too many shots of people in profile and a lot of times when people would sit quietly while their dialogue was running. Other times we would get flashbacks that took a while to piece together. I put this down to the artsy nature of the film which again doesn't go over well with me personally. I also thought the sex scenes went a bit further than I would have thought necessary. However, with an interesting story and an exceptional central performance from Shailene Woodley, on the whole I found Endings, Beginnings worth seeing.


DECISION: B-

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Kingmaker: A Review

THE KINGMAKER

"Perception is real, and the truth is not," observes former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker, a documentary about her life and career. While that statement is true, it probably is not in the way Madame Marcos thinks. In turns hilarious and horrifying, The Kingmaker is a combination The Tigress in Winter and Lady Macbeth's Revenge.

Director Lauren Greenfield has unfettered access to Mrs. Marcos, who at then-85 is still a striking-looking though heavyset woman with her jet-black perfectly coiffed hair, elegant gowns and sensible though surprisingly not extravagant shoes. She talks freely about her life and as she remembers things; in her world all she really wanted to do was be a mother to her nation. Freely handing out cash to anyone who asks, her benevolence extends to giving her family to the Filipino people. Her only son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. has the goal of being Vice President (in the Philippines, President and Vice President are elected separately), and her daughters, nephews and grandchildren are also government officials.

Mrs. Marcos benevolence included being a de facto roving ambassador for peace, able to charm such figures as Chairman Mao (whom she claims not only kissed her hand but credited her personally with starting to end the Cold War). She also found such figures as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein quite generous and kind, perplexed as to how anyone would think them bad figures.

As she continues with her reminiscences, such as how just before fleeing she had to put "diamonds in diapers" (really her grandchild's diaper bag), we also see her working to help Bongbong return the Philippines to the Golden Age...that age being the Marcos' extended rule, one sadly being remembered by the next generation with the same rose-tinted lenses the Marcoses use. However, The Kingmaker also interviews the various victims of the Marcos regime, who would disagree with Madame's assertion that "beauty is the extravagance of love".

Film: CCP to Bring Back “The Kingmaker” by Award-Winning Filmmaker ...Victims tells their own memories, which differ sharply from Mrs. Marcos. There's another political dynasty: the family of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the Marcos political rival killed when he returned. There are various Filipinos who were tortured during the Martial Law period. The most curious are the residents of Calauit Island, who had first been expelled by the Marcos regime to create an animal sanctuary and who returned when the regime fell. They now endure the surviving giraffes and zebras, who serve as an informal emblem of the Marcos Era: inbred, unhealthy and making wrack and ruin for the community.

While Bongbong fell short of winning the Vice Presidential race, the election of President Rodrigo Dutarte bodes well for the ambitious unofficial Filipino monarchy. Duterte got help from the Marcoses, and coincidentally President Dutarte allowed Ferdinand Marcos' burial in the Heroes Cemetery, a longtime wish for the family.

Will the now-90 year old Madame return to Malacanang Palace? Only time and her indomitable yet shady will can tell. 

Film Scene - THE KINGMAKER
It is a curious thing that while many documentaries and history books focus on the male dictators, few look at the women behind them. The Kingmaker makes a powerful case that behind her extravagance and 3,000 pairs of shoes Madame Marcos is a formidable, shrewd political creature, selfish and self-centered, interested less in being "Mother of the Nation" and more "Mother of a Dynasty". Her only real equivalent would be another famous or infamous First Lady: Argentina's Eva Peron, who like Imelda gained power outside her husband, President/Dictator Juan. The Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker has outdone Evita in terms of power, and corruption, and greed, ambition and evil.

At least Evita had no children.

The Kingmaker reminds me of General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait in its cinema verite portrait of a megalomaniac who come across as both buffoonish and malevolent. We see a woman who is comical in her sometimes bizarre actions. One particularly oddball moment is when we go to her pool, where large photographs of various world leaders she's worked with are set up. Picking up one from Russia, she inadvertently causes the others behind it to tumble and crash. Despite the fallen pictures and audible glass-shattering, Madame Marcos continues on, undisturbed to perhaps unaware of what exactly she's done. Greenfield shows the poor servant having to clean up the mess his mistress made, another unintentionally symbolic moment.

She's an unreliable narrator': Lauren Greenfield on her Imelda ...Late in the film, there's a Freudian slip when she gives an informal press conference about her family's political ambitions. "I was only eight years old when I became orphan," she starts, "and when you lose your money...your mother, you lose everything". Who among us hasn't confused "money" with "mother"?

It is clear that Mrs. Marcos at best remembers things the way she wants to remember them versus remembering the way it actually was. "Before, during my time, there were no beggars," Mrs. Marcos states with a straight face (or at least what I think is a straight face, the camera focused on the beggars than on her). "I had a place for them," she immediately follows, the sinister suggestions of such a statement lost on Madame.

Over and over, The Kingmaker portrays a woman who was and is clearly a powerful force, from her devotion to the Lenin-like mummified corpse of "Marcos" (she always refers to her husband by his surname) to her disappointment that at 50, her son Bongbong is still not President when "Marcos" was at 47. Greenfield, however, does not merely make Imelda Marcos the figure of ridicule she already has become thanks to her almost boorish tastes. Instead, we see her slowly evolve from a figure of fun to a dark figure, a Lady Macbeth with a more lavish wardrobe.

Other interviews counter Imelda's own memories. Sometimes some are surprisingly tawdry, such as a secret recording of President Marcos' tryst with one of his many mistresses, an American model with the curious name of Dovie Beams. Hearing the President sharing intimate moments with his mistress and coo "I will kiss you" while they giggle raises eyebrows, though the statement from a government official's widow that Imelda used the tape as blackmail to further her own ravenous greed would not.

The various victims counteract her tales of a benevolent ruling family; this is one of the most gripping and heartbreaking segments in The Kingmaker, as interviewee after interviewee recounts his or her survival from physical torture and sexual molestation, a counterweight against the grandiose nature of the Marcos family. Even the lone and underfunded gamekeeper states clearly that contrary to Imelda's claims she never visited Calauit Island after her return from exile.

The Kingmaker stuns you with the sights of adoring Marcos supporters, the lavish celebrations of the Marcos dynastic plans and on how Imelda Marcos in particular is either manipulative and crafty or delusional if not downright bonkers.

Weird, amusing and alarming, The Kingmaker shows that when it comes to Imelda Marcos, the shoes of a potential dictatoress definitely fit.

DECISION: A-

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life. A Review

Amazon.com: Watch Every Act of Life | Prime Video
TERRENCE MCNALLY: EVERY ACT OF LIFE

As of this writing, over 46,000 people have died from the coronavirus or Covid-19. Among those is playwright Terrence McNally. The documentary Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life (also known as Every Act of Life) covers his life, career and activism. While it is a good primer for one looking to learn more about McNally, it is geared more for those who already know who he is.

 McNally always wanted to be a writer, but did not know what kind of writer. Leaving his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas for Columbia University and the bright lights of New York City, here he could indulge not just his artistic aspirations but his homosexual desires. He found himself the lover to playwright Edward Albee and tutor to John Steinbeck's sons. With such a wealth of inspiration, it is not long before he starts writing for the theater.

While his first play And Things That Go Bump in the Night bombs big time, he soon starts crafting plays specifically for favorite actors such as James Coco and Doris Roberts. Still his talent clashes with his drinking, until Angela Lansbury steps in. Giving up the booze, he finds his first real success with Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.  He continues to write, primarily but not exclusively on gay themes, and expands his repertoire to musicals such as The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Full Monty. He also finds peace and love: the former through Indian theology and the latter through his eventual life partner Tom Kirdahy.

The death of one of his past lovers, actor Robert Drivas, from AIDS spurs greater activism against the disease. As he comes to the closing of his life, he can reflect on his life and works both theatrical and personal.

Every Act of Life' Review | Hollywood ReporterAgain, while Every Act of Life makes for a good overview of McNally's theatrical output, those not acquainted with his work will find little to make them explore said output. Take for the example the controversy over Corpus Christi, a play late in his career that recasts Jesus Christ as a gay man. There was scandal and outrage over this, but Every Act of Life barely touches on it. As far as I remember I don't think McNally was even asked about the controversy surrounding Corpus Christi, let alone as to why he opted to take a figure many hold to be God in human form and play with the sexuality of said figure.

Was it done to mock Christ or Christianity? Was it done to be allegory? Was there any motive or motivation? Every Act of Life does not answer that.

Every Act of Life also does not give non-McNally acquainted people a reason to flock to his plays. What exactly makes Andre's Mother so important? Same for Frankie and Johnnie? The latter is surprising given that it revolves around a heterosexual romance, apparently a rare play where homosexuality or the gay life was not involved. Most of his plays, if Every Act of Life is understood, is about the gay world, which is fine but are the plays actually good?

Global Peace Film Festival opens with bio-doc Every Act of Life ...
Tyne Daly, another McNally acolyte, reads a monologue from his play A Perfect Ganesh (I'm assuming as the Hindu god Ganesha) and to be perfectly frank it sounds like gibberish. The monologue goes on about how "I" is the ant in the picnic basket and the hand that squashes it. I heard it and asked myself, "What kind of rubbish is this?"

I was, however, intrigued by The Rink, his first collaboration with composer John Kander and Kander's usual partner Fred Ebb. A musical about a mother and daughter running a skating rink starring Chita Rivera and LIZA!? 

We do get bits of information about McNally's private life (who would have figured he'd have a genuine love affair with a woman, fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein) and the actors interviewed for Every Act of Life clearly have a great deal of affection and respect for him. It's no surprise: from Nathan Lane and Christine Baranski to F. Murray Abraham, Rita Moreno and Patrick Wilson, McNally had a knack for writing plays specifically for them.

Other parts though are a bit opaque. "Until I went to India I had always experienced life as the conflict between regret for the past and and sort of a dread of the future". I figure that means he found inner peace in Hinduism, but that is not explored or even brought up again.

You do leave Every Act of Life liking McNally, who comes across as slightly self-effacing and pleasant, passionate, creative and loyal. It's a credit to him as a playwright that his loyalty was returned tenfold. However, unless you know a bit about him prior to the film, you will feel you missed at least a couple of scenes form his Every Act of Life.     

DECISION: C+

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Honeyland: A Review

HONEYLAND

Honeyland made history at the Academy Awards as the first film to be nominated for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film (formerly Best Foreign-Language Film). While it lost both categories to American Factory and Parasite respectively, Honeyland is a deep, rich if perhaps languid film. It is an extraordinary, exceptional film that is true-to-life and curiously symbolic of man's struggle balancing himself to the delicacy of the natural world.

Co-directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stevanov, Honeyland at first appears to be a chronicle of Haditze Muratova, a Turkish woman living in North Macedonia with her mother Nazife. Haditze scrapes out a living by raising wild honeybees and selling the honey in far-off Skopje. It's far from a glamorous life but Haditze appears content, even with her at times difficult elderly mother.

Then comes another Turkish family, the Sams, with their cattle and boisterous children. Setting up camp near her home, Haditze at first, albeit a bit reluctantly, welcomes the company, even bonding with some of the children. The Sam family patriarch Hussein takes an interest in the beekeeping business as another money-making venture to feed his large family. Haditze offers her advise and experience, chief among them to take just half of the honey and leave the other half for the bees.

Whether out of greed, need or good old-fashioned machismo Hussein ignores her advice and opts to go full-production, dragging his sons into his impromptu business. Only one of his sons, tween Gazme, seems to openly disagree with his father (sometimes vulgarly) and sides with Haditze. For his troubles, Gazme gets constantly berated by his father, forever threatened with not getting food and a few whacks.

At first, Hussein's ideas seem to bear fruit with larger production and more profits, but inevitably Haditze's warnings prove correct. The honey is quickly depleted, and his bees soon start going after hers, killing them. Her efforts to find new breeding grounds for the surviving bees is for naught as Hussein goes after them too to keep the dwindling money flowing, causing more damage. Ultimately, the bees are gone, the cattle is decimated, and while the Sams are free to leave they in turn left nothing but desolation for Haditze, who endures her own painful losses but still carries on into an uncertain future.

The Complicated, Triumphant Woman at the Heart of the Film ...There are many elements to make make Honeyland such an exceptional film. First, there is no commentary or voiceovers or interviews: what we see is what is presented, as if we were literal bees observing the strange interactions of these humans. This "you-are-there" style allows us to see how, slowly, something that was beneficial to man and beast ended up being destroyed.

Second, there is a fantastic structure to Honeyland. It's almost as if the film is more cinematic than true documentary: you have a heroine (Haditze), something of a villain or dare I say parasite (Hussein Sam and the Sam family), the youth who under better guidance would have followed Haditze's respectful way with nature (Gazme) and the wrack and ruin left by others on those who had a good thing going. It may not be pure allegory in that it happened, but we can see how Honeyland makes its quiet case for how thoughtlessness and arrogance can destroy that which should not have.

Third, Honeyland, again in a quiet manner, serves as a case study in how man could live in harmony with nature but his inability to think or learn from the wisdom of elders make a mess of things. Haditze took only what she needed and knew the bees needed for themselves to produce. She willingly shared her wisdom with Hussein, but either out of a need to feed his large family or out of a need to make a fortune he thought he knew better. Worse, he proved inept at all elements of beekeeping and made life miserable for everyone around him. He dragged his children into things they were not able to do, wrecked Haditze's business, and stubbornly refused to admit error.

Honeyland [2019]: 'Sundance' Review – An Exceptional and ...
When she berates him for not having heard her warning to let the bees keep half of the honey and causing his bees to go after hers, he insists the reason her bees died were not a result of his actions but of something else, such as the weather. You sense that the filmmakers were saying more than what was being shown: that we are too quick to destroy what was mutually beneficial to humanity and the animal kingdom for the temporary reward of money.

Visually, Honeyland is arresting in the sometimes perilous sights of Haditze climbing high into the mountains to get her bees. There is also surprising relate ability to Haditze or even Hussein in their lives: the struggles to care for the elderly and the children respectively. From Nazife's declaration to her daughter "I'm not dying. I'm just making your life a misery" to Gazme's surprisingly sharp tongue and Hussein's insistence that he did no harm, we see the common humanity to people whose lives are so radically different.

Honeyland, I found, was a tragedy, a sad but necessary document that breaks your heart and reaches your mind. Apart from a somewhat slow pace in the beginning that makes one wonder if this is going anywhere until it does, Honeyland is a fascinating and important story from which to learn from.       

DECISION: B+

Monday, March 30, 2020

Cleopatra (1912): A Review


CLEOPATRA (1912)

The lurid tale of Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian pharaoh, with stories of decadent sex and true love, has attracted storytellers for centuries. Shakespeare and Shaw have tackled our exotic temptress, and cinema has found her mix of eroticism and romance irresistible. At least five biopics on our serpent of the Nile have been made. There's the famous 1917 lost film of Cleopatra starring the original Vamp, Theda Bara. There's the celebrated 1934 Cecil B. DeMille epic with Claudette Colbert as our seductive monarch. Then there's the notorious Elizabeth Taylor-starring 1963 Cleopatra, a film so massive and scandalous that it nearly brought down Twentieth Century-Fox and caused Taylor to be condemned by the Vatican as "an erotic vagrant".

Before all those, however, was a sadly now-forgotten film treatment, the very first Cleopatra biopic and a major step forward in cinema. The 1912 Cleopatra still holds up, with some strong acting and visuals that still have some impressive elements.

Less a feature film and more a series of tableaux and title cards that propel the story forward, this Cleopatra is essentially a love triangle between Cleopatra (producer Helen Gardner), a devoted and lovestruck fisherman/slave Pharon (billed as "Mr. Howard") and Roman general Marc Antony ("Mr. Sindelar). First loving Pharon, Cleopatra gives him ten days of passion before he must die, but at the last minute her handmaiden Iras (Miss Sindelar) saves him. For the rest of the film, Pharon observes and more than once saves Cleopatra as she is wooed by, loses and regains Marc Antony, culminating in him sneaking into her tomb disguised as a priest to give her the asps hidden in the fruit basket.

Cleopatra (1912) - YouTubeHelen Gardner is a pioneer in cinema: she not only starred in and produced Cleopatra, but also cast her own acting company and even did her own lavish costumes for her character. Her performance was a blend of the theatrical and the natural. At times she and the rest of the cast had that almost-pantomime manner, with a lot of arm thrusting to suggest emotions run amok.

Other times though, Gardner seemed subdued and contemplative. It's a credit to her as an actress that she did not come across as over-the-top, something that can't quite be said for the rest of the cast.

Again, to be fair this style of acting was the norm at the dawn of cinema, so we should look at it with less contemporary eyes. The performances were on the whole solid and respectable, but clearly Gardner was the best of the group.

Director Charles L. Gaskill also filmed some quite impressive scenes. As I said, Cleopatra is really more a series of tableaux, where we have one shot that captures a particular scene and the actors all either act or stand still. However, we do see slow steps forward in terms of narrative and use of camera. I can remember only one set of close-ups, when we have a surprisingly inventive take on the Battle of Actium, but the cutting between Cleopatra's reactions on her "ship" and Antony's reactions on his "ship" shows that Gaskill and Gardner were slowly finding ways to tell a story differently than they would on the stage.

Another excellent moment is when Cleopatra presents herself to Marc Antony. First, her actual entrance, complete with veils, is still impressive. Second, we clearly see Pharon come too, but it is not made a big moment. In fact, it balances between subtle and obvious, a sign that again these filmmakers were learning.

Cleopatra (1912) | A Cinema HistoryCleopatra also benefits from the use of color in the film. The scenes at Cleopatra's court and Egypt in general are always tinted with various colors: red, blue and green. Curiously, those involving Antony or any of the Romans are almost always in regular black-and-white. To my mind, Gaskill and Gardner are suggesting a lavish, decadent and exotic world filled with blazing colors while that of the Roman Empire is mostly drab. Granted, this may be my own interpretation but for me it works.

Perhaps the weakest element of Cleopatra is the title card dialogue. There's something almost comic about the rather overblown text that appears. When Cleopatra makes her "indecent proposal" to our frisky fisherman, she "says" via the title card, "If I let you live--and love me--ten days, will you swear then to destroy yourself?" As she contemplates suicide to join her true love, Cleopatra states, "To lie in the silent grave by your dear side, Antony, is life! This wakefulness is a thousand deaths!"

Cleopatra is filled with such grandiose statements. No one gets away without an exclamation point to punctuate his/her dialogue in the 105 title cards. Even Pharon gets in on the act, when after taking an arrow meant for his Queen he declares, "I love the woman you love so well--that I'd give my life--for the man--she loves!"

Talk about over-the-top. I'm instantly reminded of the "I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!" bit from Singin' in the Rain.

If there is one thing that I might find fault with Cleopatra, oddly it is with a contemporary element. This version had a score by Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida. Sometimes their music was excellent: a blending of the foreign and familiar (the film opens with African-inspired music). Other times it seemed downright oddball. I think at one point I heard bagpipes (at the scene where Cleopatra appears to Marc Antony). More than once essentially specially-written pop songs were played. Perhaps I'm more traditional in my tastes of silent film music, and while I don't object to vocalizing, why am I hearing actual love songs?

On the whole though, this Cleopatra should not be forgotten. I think it is a sign that cinema was slowly shifting away from the theatrical and finding a more natural manner. Good acting and an engaging story makes the original Cleopatra a film that tells its own story well and shows how cinema started to become what it is now.

DECISION: B+

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Trouble Finds You: A Review

Watch TROUBLE FINDS YOU, The Intercept Short Documentary on ...TROUBLE FINDS YOU

There's an old Mexican saying that translated says "Tell me who you're with and I'll tell you who you are". The English equivalent would probably be "You are the company you keep", but the documentary short Trouble Finds You suggests that perhaps this is not the case. Trouble Finds You does not outrage you as much as it aims to, but it still makes you wonder whether justice has no mercy.

Trouble Finds You centers on Kraig Lewis, a 27-year-old black man who was one of 120 men arrested in a massive government sweep of rival gangs under RICO (Racketeer Influence and Corruption Act). Lewis plead guilty to participating in conspiracy to violating federal narcotics laws, one of the 115 defendants that had been indicted to accept please to avoid going to trial. He served 22 months in jail and his plans to graduate with a MBA were thwarted.

There's just one problem: he was not guilty to start. Rather, it was a case of his associates causing him trouble. Growing up, albeit reluctantly, in The Bronx, one of his childhood nicknames was "KayMurda", which the Feds took to be gang-affiliated. While he had once sold marijuana and carried a gun, Lewis was actually a responsible adult: going to college in posh Bridgeport, Connecticut, a father and with no criminal issues prior to the sweep. Federal prosecutors had tapped Lewis' best friend's phone, and their text messages were the basis for the conspiracy charges. There was no other evidence tying Lewis to any crimes: no drugs, guns or any other physical evidence. Even the evidence found against Lewis was tenuous at best: the text messages could be interpreted as either jokes or suggestions to purchase marijuana.

In the end though, Kraig Lewis is given a sentence of time served with some probation, allowing him if not a fresh start at least not returning him to prison.

Trouble Finds You shows a changed man of sorts. Lewis now seems more interested in pursuing a rap career versus that of law enforcement, which troubles his mother Shyrill Glenn. Despite the unfairness of it all, Lewis seems well-adjusted but one senses that perhaps something inside of him died. Director Stephanie Tangkilisan makes the case that we are not the company we keep.

Therein lies an issue. Lewis is not unaware of what some of his friends were up to. He just in his own words, had one foot in one world (the Bronx) and one foot in the other (Bridgeport). One keeps asking why he would continue with people who could put his career at risk. Sometimes our friends are not our friends.

While one may question why Kraig Lewis opted to continue associating with people he knew were into shady work, one still finds his incarceration a miscarriage of justice. Trouble Finds You makes a strong case that government overreach harms the innocent more than the guilty. It makes you think on many issues: presumption of guilt due to your race, your associates, your background as well as how plea deals oftentimes seem the only way out of a terrible situation even if you are not guilty of anything other than perhaps poor judgment.

DECISION: B-

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Force Majeure: A Review

FORCE MAJEURE

Into every marriage there will be found a few bumpy moments. Granted, not all of them will involve avalanches. Force Majeure looks at one seemingly happy family and finds that little things like life and death have a curious way of altering a relationship. Apart from its length Force Majeure is a strong, witty tale of a marriage in distress.

Swedish couple Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Edda (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are with their children Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren) in the Swiss Alps. It's a good way for the family to bond given how Tomas works too hard. Ski Day One of the five-day holiday went well.

Then came Ski Day Two.

A controlled avalanche at lunch appears to be anything but, causing panic among the hotel guests. Edda tries to both calm and protect the children. Tomas manages to flee the incoming chaos with only his cell phone, and from there comes all the trouble. Edda cannot comprehend why or how Tomas ran away in his ski boots, while Tomas insists it did not happen the way she tells it.

For the rest of the holiday, Edda and Tomas struggle through their own reactions and responses to this unfortunate incident. Edda is in turns distressed, unforgiving and passive aggressive. Tomas is in turns miffed, defensive and remorseful. Oddly, this incident and their reactions to and about it affect their friends Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his much-younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), who equally struggle with what it all means and how they would react.

Eventually, the last day is one where in the words of Tomas, "We made it". If only not for that little issue of inept bus drivers on the way back from the ski lodge.

Force Majeure' Director Ruben Ostlund on His New Film 'The Square ...
It's at the very end of Force Majeure where it lost me, not completely, but enough to want this thing to finally end. It is about two hours long, and part of me thought that there could have been some cutting out of it. The long dialogue between Mats and Fanny, the oddball clubbing Tomas found himself in, the bus hijinks. At times it felt as if writer/director Ruben Ostlund didn't know when to stop. It did feel as if there were moments when we lurched from one point to another.

Again, the entire bus back bit made me wonder why this was added.

Apart from that though Force Majeure was both entertaining and intelligent. Ostlund did a wise thing in not making the actual avalanche into this massive moment. In fact, there is almost a clinical, documentary-like take on it, without commentary as the storm is about to engulf everyone. Ostlund, for example, does not cut from one shot as the avalanche comes at them (and us) closer and larger. He does not shift this cold point of view, and moreover, does not take sides. He leaves it up to the viewer to draw his or her own judgments.

Force Majeure,' a Dark Swedish Comedy - The New York TimesForce Majeure is elevated with fine performances from our very tried couple. Both Kuhnke and Kongsli balance the drama with some moments of humor as Tomas and Edda respectively. Kunhke's best moments are the quiet ones, such as his stillness when he does see via his own cellphone video that he did run off. Afterwards, he has a scene where he crumbles and acknowledges his failings and it is a very moving piece of acting.

Kongsli for her part makes Edda into a woman who does love her husband but who also is perplexed by him, the sense of responsibility for the family falling hard on her. Whenever she recounts this incident, we can see the growing anger and numbness of it all but she never makes Edda into an unforgiving harpy. Instead, she too is flawed in her own way.

Force Majeure is a movie that has humor and heart, whether it's Tomas mistakenly thought of as "the best looking guy at the bar" or when he and Edda have their reconciliation on their distinct faults, flaws and failings. A bit too long for my taste, it still is worth the time to see how sometimes even the best of us fail in the most difficult of moments.

DECISION: C+

Friday, March 27, 2020

Every Sunday: A Review



EVERY SUNDAY

Every Sunday is curiously labeled "a tabloid musical", though I imagine the word "tabloid" did not mean then what it means now. Essentially an extended screen test for two of the best girl singers in film at that time, Every Sunday on its own is simple and pleasant but important historically.

Best friends Edna (Deanna Durbin) and Judy (Judy Garland) learn that Edna's grandfather (Jack Lindquist) will lose his job as an orchestra conductor due to poor attendance at his weekly park concerts. The girls make a deal with city council officials who will let Grandpa keep his job if attendance increases at his unofficially last concert. With that, Edna and Judy drum up interest but few people actually responded.

They then hit on a big idea: they will sing two separate songs as part of the concert. Edna's operatic aria is first, and her extraordinary vocal dexterity does bring people in. Aided by her father, Judy's number is the swinging The Americana, before joining in a duet of The Americana. Their distinct styles and brilliant vocalizing are a hit and Grandpa saves his job.

Image result for every sunday shortThe exact reason as to why Durbin's contract was allowed to lapse while Garland's was renewed is lost to history. All sorts of stories ranging from MGM head Louis B. Meyer advising the studio to "fire the fat one" to Meyer declaring both would stay but the studio receiving the order too late to get Durbin back from Universal abound. However, the end result is that Durbin did not stay at MGM and Garland did. Durbin did go on to have a strong career at Universal, essentially saving the studio from bankruptcy the same way Shirley Temple saved Twentieth Century-Fox.

Little girls did save the film industry, didn't they? Yet I digress.

As a short film, Every Sunday is sweet and simple. There isn't much room for character development, but judging by screenwriter Mauri Grashin's script he clearly favored the "Judy" character. She has a brief scene with her Pop (Richard Powell) while "Edna" has no real scenes that detail anything about her life. Moreover, apart from her exceptional operatic style "Edna" does not have a genuine character to play.

Add to that the fact that as far as I can remember, I don't even remember the name "Edna" being used at all.

In terms of acting it's the script that hampers Durbin. Her role is limited primarily to just singing, which she does with grace and elegance, quite poised for a fourteen year old. Garland, also fourteen, has the advantage here because she does have something of a character to play. In short, Every Sunday showcases that Garland can sing AND act, while it only shows that Durbin can sing. This isn't to say Durbin couldn't act, just that Every Sunday didn't allow her a chance to.

Image result for every sunday shortIn terms of singing, both are excellent in their different styles. Durbin could never scat the way Garland could, and Garland could never trill the way Durbin could. Their concluding duet has them counter each other: for every "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha" Durbin has, Garland has her "da-da-da-da-da". Durbin does have a beautiful voice. Garland for her part could swing like nobody's business, her joyful The Americana number fun and breezy.

While the eleven minute Every Sunday was really an excuse to essentially match up Durbin and Garland, I think director Felix E. Feist also favored Garland. She had more close-ups and seemed to be on camera more than Durbin. It's individual taste to think which one was "prettier", but Garland seems more at ease and relaxed than Durbin.

This may be due to their singing styles and choice of music. Garland's swinging The Americana is more relaxed than Durbin's elegant and more formal opera number. This allows for Garland to appear more joyful than Durbin, who has to be more refined.

It would have been a hard decision for me if I had been asked to pick which teen girl singer to choose. Both make excellent cases: Durbin's elegant voice and Garland's easy, breezy one. If push came to shove I would have chosen Garland due to seeing her act, something I did not see Durbin do (though again that was more the script than her).

In terms of the film itself Every Sunday is again on the whole uncomplicated, entertaining and highlighted with two extraordinary voices. Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland were exceptional talents who showed their prodigious talents in Every Sunday. Durbin decided to retire from the screen in 1949 age 27, withdrawing completely from the public and living in quiet seclusion with her family until her death in 2013 age 91. Garland went on to perform until her dying day in 1969 age 47.

For better or worse, Deanna Durbin is a faded name while Judy Garland is still remembered as a legend and icon. Perhaps this is what both would have wanted. However, we have Every Sunday, sweet, simple, and entertaining.

DECISION: B+

Thursday, March 26, 2020

I Am Somebody: A Review

Image result for i am somebody short filmI AM SOMEBODY

The documentary short I Am Somebody is a pure documentary. While certainly with a point of view, I Am Somebody does not have what many documentary/advocacy films have: a narrator guiding the audience to a preconceived conclusion or a manipulation of information to lead audiences. Instead, the on-the-ground nature of I Am Somebody showcases the intersection of race, gender and labor struggles.

 I Am Somebody chronicles the 1969 hospital workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina by black female workers at both the University Medical College and the County Hospital. They want to unionize and have representation to fight for equal pay with their white counterparts and be treated with dignity.

Their petition for a redress of grievances is ignored by the white and male power structure, but the black women will not stand by quietly. They picket, they protest, they get arrested. As the strike goes on, they pull in big names to their cause, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s widow Coretta Scott King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders Reverend Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. In the words of Mrs. King, they will no longer stand for "full time jobs for part-time pay".

Eventually, it is the power of the purse that pushes the College and County Hospital to the negotiating table. By doing a boycott of white businesses, the strikers put the squeeze on the economy. After 100 contentious days, the University Medical College agree to the Drug and Hospital Union Local 1199's terms, the County thirteen days later.

Image result for i am somebody short filmI Am Somebody was directed and edited by Madeline Anderson, a first for an African-American woman. She is an exceptional filmmaker in that she allows the workers to tell their own stories, sometimes literally. The film has several interviews with the women who tell about how the strike impacted their lives both professional and personal.

The film also shows the buildup of tension between the strikers and the police and even National Guard. We see surprising moments of violence, such as when a group of unarmed women are hauled into the police wagon. We also see some curious moments, such as when a police officer through a megaphone instructs that no babies are to be taken onto the police buses, sparing one protester who had brought her infant.

The film is clearly sympathetic to the strikers: the opening says that "The American Foundation on Nonviolence" presents I Am Somebody. There isn't an effort to interview anyone who had objected to the strike, the press conferences with officials up to then-Governor Robert E. McNair being the closest to it. I Am Somebody is not intended to be objective, but it is also not agitprop. It documents the events of this strike, making it a genuine documentary versus many of today's so-called documentaries which are political infomercials in all but name.

It is about the strike from the strikers point of view, and it is a fascinating portrait of the power that a group doubly discriminated against has when it pools its collective resources.

I Am Somebody is a moving and powerful testament to the call for human dignity. Near the end of the film there's a press conference that announces the settlement; a reporter asks one of the strike leaders, "Miss Simmons, what do you think the strike accomplished?" Without missing a beat, Miss Simmons replies, "Well, we gained recognition as human beings for one. We gained that recognition as human beings". That quest for recognition continues.

DECISION: A-

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Suffragette: A Review


SUFFRAGETTE

The United States celebrates this year the centennial of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. It's only sheer coincidence that I get around to seeing Suffragette, which is about the British women's voting movement. Suffragette was sadly overlooked in 2015, which may equally sadly reflect society and film's struggle to find a place for female-centered stories. With strong performances and an engaging story, Suffragette tells an important and necessary story with respect and intelligence.

Suffragette tells the story of the increasingly militant actions by women campaigning for their right to vote through the eyes of laundry worker Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan). She's a regular Cockney working-class woman, wife of Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and mother to George (Adam Michael Dodd). She doesn't have any opinion on the suffrage movement, though her friend and fellow laundry worker Violet (Anna-Marie Duff) is firmly a suffragette.

Slowly and reluctantly, almost accidentally, Maud finds herself getting drawn further and deeper into the movement. She gets caught up in a violent protest, then is roped into giving testimony before Parliament when Violet's domestic violence injuries are too shocking to be seen. Sonny is not pleased by this, but he isn't doing much about it one way or another either. Maud finds herself following the lead of their unofficial leader, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), who agitates for more and greater acts of violence (though making it clear no lives are ever to be taken).

Image result for suffragette movieThe women aid the fugitive suffragette Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep), while Maud has a foil in Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), who is determined to stop these women. The movement and her increasing devotion to it cost Maud dearly: her marriage, her son, her job, her freedom; the costs sometimes are brutal (being force-fed during a hunger strike), and sometimes tragic (Sonny gives up Michael for adoption with Maud having no say in the matter). Things ultimately lead to the Derby where they will make a protest before His Majesty King George V, and the fateful meeting between Emily Davison (Natalie Press) and the King's horse.

Suffragette ends with newsreel footage of Davison's funeral and text telling us of when women were fully granted voting rights in the United Kingdom...and of those nations that granted the same rights before and after British women.

The film was wise in having a fictional character be our entry into this world versus focusing on the real life figures such as Pankhurst or Davison (though both are worthy of biopics themselves). This is one of the elements that makes Suffragette work: we sympathize and empathize with Maud, the most reluctant and accidental of activists. She is a regular person, one who is devoted to her family but who also sees how awful the conditions she lives with and under are.

At times though, this focus on the working conditions of the era seem to make Suffragette less about the women's vote movement and The Jungle: Laundry Version. Of particular note is on how the film portrays the male overseer of the laundry: forever lecherous up to hitting if not downright raping the poor tween girls working there. It does show how Maud starts shifting from apolitical to militant but it also does make one wonder if Suffragette wants to shift away from one topic to another.

Image result for suffragette movieThe film also struggles with some of the male characters, particularly with Steed and Sonny. With the former, he shifted from hostile to somewhat (though probably insincerely) sympathetic to hostile to more (and probably genuinely) sympathetic. Somehow, I think it might have done better if Suffragette had stayed with making him appear sympathetic then show that shift thanks to the women's courage.

With regards to the latter, it seems director Sarah Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan were never sure if he was meant to be villain or not. Whishaw did not play him as a monster but he also did not play him as loving to Maud. I never fully sense he was a real person, though Whishaw gave it a good go.

Finally, I thought the sepia tones at times went overboard in setting a feel for the past.

However, all these are minor quibbles given how good overall Suffragette is. At the heart of the film's strength is Mulligan's performance. It's one of quiet grace and elegance, that of a woman who just wants a chance to live and have her own place in the sun. The scene where she speaks in the Parliament hearing is probably set up to be the Oscar-clip, but it still moves the viewer in her simplicity. Mulligan never misses the balance between Maud as activist and Maud as mother, her pain when she sees George having to leave and her fury at Sonny exceptionally moving.

Bonham Carter's Edith too excels as we see the physical toll the movement causes her. I would argue that Streep is essentially a cameo as she has one scene that might have been cut altogether, but she does a strong job in that cameo as Mrs. Pankhurst.

Image result for emily davison death
As for what exactly happened with regards Davison, Suffragette does not give a clear answer simply because there isn't one. It leans towards the idea that she merely wanted to place a "Votes for Women" ribbon on the King's horse versus the popular notion that she willingly threw herself in front of the horse. However, the film does not flat-out state that and Davison's cryptic last lines, "Never surrender. Never give up the fight," suggest that she might have indeed planned to be a martyr for the cause. In truth, we will never definitively know what happened that day, and it is wise that Suffragette does not offer a solution to this.

On the whole, Suffragette is a well-acted, well-told story that should be seen. With an excellent central performance by Carey Mulligan and a story that is both involving and moves quickly, Suffragette is a worthy and respectful cinematic treatment of an important social movement that is still impacting the world.

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Anna Karenina (1948): A Review

Image result for anna karenina 1948ANNA KARENINA (1948)

You can't keep a good Russian adulteress down.

The 1948 version of Count Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has another exceptional beauty to play our doomed heroine. Vivien Leigh had a remarkably small filmography, but among them is this adaptation that by now had been done twice over by Greta Garbo. This Anna Karenina is perhaps not on the level of either Love or 1935's Anna Karenina, but with some beautiful costumes and a strong performance by Leigh, it makes for good viewing.

The beautiful Anna Karenina (Leigh), wife of stodgy, aloof bureaucrat Karenin (Ralph Richardson) meets Count Vronsky (Kieron Moore), a dashing Imperial Russian officer who falls instantly in love with Anna. Despite a possible bride in Anna's friend, her brother's wife's sister Kitty (Sally Anne Howes), and the most eligible bachelor in Moscow, Vronsky is adamant about pursuing Mrs. Karenin.

Eventually, she gives in to the temptations of the flesh and begins an affair. Karenin eventually learns of it after she makes a spectacle of herself at the races when Vronsky is injured. He insists that Anna give up her lover for the sake of appearances and to keep their son Sergei. She cannot, and more scandal comes when she miscarries. Karenin grudgingly forgives her and Vronsky attempts suicide.

However, Anna is still too enthralled with Vronsky and runs off with him to Italy. It appears they will be happy, but he may be setting his eyes on an advantageous marriage and a desire to return to fighting for Mother Russia. Seeing that she has no son, no husband, and now no lover, Anna walks in front of a train to meet her tragic end.

Anna Karenina (1948)Vivien Leigh was one of the most skilled actresses of her generation, and it is to her credit that she mostly elevates this slow-paced to sometimes dull version. I say mostly because at times there seemed to be a great deal of posing in Anna Karenina, where the actors feel as if their delivery has to be a bit theatrical. Even Leigh falls into this trap on occasion, though there are times that she is quite moving.

Of particular note is her final scene, where she moves slowly towards her encounter with the train, the mix of melancholy and regret touching your heart.

Ralph Richardson too had a strong performance as Karenin. He is loaded with a stiff character, but he too has glimmers of a genuinely hurt man, incapable of being truly open. When he tells Anna if anyone has asked him if he can bear this situation, his voice cracks just a bit, showing a man forcing himself to keep it together when he yearns to fall apart.

It is Moore that is the problem. I suppose he's handsome but he is also so dull in Anna Karenina. He does not inspire passion or even the suggestion of passion, of a deep enthralling romance or erotic desire that would make a woman leave her family for him. There is no sense that he is genuinely in love with Anna or even interested in her as a friend, let alone a mistress. You do not feel the sparks, and Moore is weak with everyone he is on screen with.

Anna Karenina (1948) - Dublado - YouTube
Perhaps I am too harsh with the film, but the fault lies with director Julien Duvivier. For reasons I cannot fathom he does not have Anna and Vronsky kiss until an hour and fifteen minutes into Anna Karenina. They spend a great deal of time talking about love but they never seem to be in love. The film also suffers from an economic standpoint. The race consists of the spectators reacting to something, not the race itself. Even the ball seems to be closer to a fancy house party than a Czarist-era celebration.

This Anna Karenina is a bit weak, done in by Moore's stilted performance and a lack of funds. It feels longer than it should, almost to being a bit of a drag. However, with strong performances by Leigh and Richardson and quite nice costumes by Cecil Beaton and excellent cinematography, it is worth the time spent on.

DECISION: B-

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Invisible Man (1933): A Review


THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Menace and mirth mix merrily in The Invisible Man, the adaptation of H.G. Wells' science-fiction work. With a standout vocal performance by Claude Rains in his American film debut, The Invisible Man may not be frightening but moves quickly with special effects that still stand up.

Scientist Jack Griffin (Rains) is literally wrapped up in his own work. He has discovered the method of invisibility and now works to find the antidote. Unfortunately, power has gone to his head, making Griffin insane. He disappears in more ways than one, and in his efforts to find a way to be visible again he gleefully terrorizes a small town.

Griffin's mentor, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) and his aide Kemp (William Harrigan) try to keep things under wraps, so to speak, but Cranley's daugther/Griffin's love interest Flora (Gloria Stuart) knows something is up. Griffin forces Kemp to be his henchman as he continues his mad crime spree, culminating in the murder of a policeman. Griffin now wants to sell his discovers in some bonkers idea of world domination. Fortunately for him, Kemp is too interested in looking out to himself to be trouble, ending up dead for his efforts. The manhunt continues until Griffin is finally brought down.

The Invisible Man (1933) - Images - IMDbThe Invisible Man has a surprisingly wicked sense of humor among the whacked-out situations. We get this right at the beginning when Griffin comes into the village inn on "a dark and stormy night". While director James Whale gives Rains an appropriately chilling and cinematic entrance, the pub denizens seem to find a lot of the situation more oddball than dangerous.

It helps when Una O'Connor as the innkeeper's wife is constantly screaming at the insanity going on around her.

In perhaps other films, Griffin's escape from the village would have instilled great terror as he strikes where he pleases, but in The Invisible Man, there's a surprising amount of humor. It's funny and bonkers as Griffin steals bicycles and knocks off people's hats, adding quips along the way.

The film is also enhanced by some great lines and line readings. "We face a terrible difficulty. He's mad and he's invisible," a policeman comments with a straight face. That is one of the elements that makes The Invisible Man so great: that it takes the premise seriously while still being able to throw in some humor into things.

It's a curious thing to see Kemp's murder can start out with Griffin almost gleefully telling him what he'll do then turn quite serious as his car goes down to a fiery conclusion.

The Invisible Man. 1933. Directed by James WhaleClaude Rains had a near-impossible task: act with just his voice to convey Griffin's insanity, megalomania and a touch of humanity. It's a credit to him as an actor that he could, though he starts off with the advantage of one of the greatest voices in cinema.

Still, Rains' performance is exceptional, able to blend menacing and mirthful, switching easily from declarations of love to Flora to proclaiming his lust for power in an almost hysterical manner to merrily singing ditties to terrified old women.

Stuart, for her part, had a harder role as the forever-anxious Flora. While it was good that the film started with their relationship already established, she had very little to do other than look anxious. Harrigan was the one I would have said was wildly overacting to where you want him done in. Travers was the calm voice of reason but again not a major part of the film.

The Invisible Man, however, does have exceptional special effects. Even after nearly ninety years seeing, or not seeing, the title character still leaves the viewer wondering how it was all done. These were craftsmen at the top of their game, the partial disappearance of Griffin showing a great skill in having the visual effects serve the story.

The Invisible Man is not overall frightening and is a surprisingly short film at a brisk seventy-one minutes. However, it has an amazing Claude Rains performance, astonishing visual effects and a wild sense of humor among the craziness. Yes, you do need to see it to believe it.   

DECISION: A+

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Valiant (2019): A Review

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VALIANT

Starting up a professional sports team is a daunting task, especially if that team is going straight to the major league level. Add to that, you're starting a major league in a city that has no major sporting history PLUS having that sports team be in a sport that is incongruous to the city it is in. It sounds like either a joke or a disaster waiting to happen. All that was encountered by the National Hockey League expansion team of the Vegas Golden Knights.  Everything about the Golden Knight's inaugural season would have been hard enough, but then the Golden Knights have the tragic burden of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting just as they are about to open for business.

Valiant, an NHL Original Productions Films documentary, chronicles both the rise of the Golden Knights and Las Vegas' own resurrection from tragedy, a city and a team finding strength in each other to share terrible grief and redeeming triumph.

Valiant begins with how businessman Bill Foley got the idea to have an NHL team in Las Vegas. No one gave his idea any chance of succeeding. The first Golden Knights players were castoffs from other teams, with only defense Deryk Engelland (who had made Las Vegas his home prior to his joining the team), winger James Neil and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury anything close to name players. Las Vegas, it was feared, would not be either able or willing to have actual residents support such an endeavor. It did not help that the preseason games, while well-attended, showed a team predicted to be dead last by the end of the season.

Image result for valiant documentaryDespite all naysayers, the Golden Knights were going to bring Las Vegas glitz to the NHL and were set to have their home opener on October 10, 2017. However, on October 1, 2017, the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival was attacked by a lone gunman firing from high above the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino. When it was all over, 58 people were murdered and a community was left devastated and traumatized.

Under these awful circumstances, the Golden Knights soon became beloved by the community both for their quiet work and for bringing a grit and determination to win for this, their home too. Soon, "Vegas Strong" became not just a mantra but a rallying cry, as this team made an improbable, almost miraculous rise to not just a winning record but to the Stanley Cup Finals, unheard of for a debuting expansion team. Through it all, the Golden Knights never forgot the Route 91 victims, culminating in their retiring of the Number 58 in honor of the 58 killed.

As the season progressed, the city embraced the Golden Knights with a fervor that became quasi-religious. It went beyond Golden Knights caps and jerseys or even flags and tattoos. When game tickets became too expensive, the free practice sessions, particularly the post-season practices, were the metaphorical hottest tickets in town. Ultimately, while their extraordinary run to the Stanley Cup saw them fall to the Washington Capitals, the Golden Knights were victorious, earning the eternal love of a city devastated by loss but united in hockey.

Image result for valiant documentaryOne does not usually think of Las Vegas as a city of second chances, but Valiant showed that it can be. It certainly was for the inaugural players, who were not deemed valuable enough by their former teams to protect from the expansion draft. While they were in a National Hockey League team, the experience of being drafted into said team was not a happy one.

It again did not help that the team as a whole was written off before they even hit their first preseason home game. The sports pundits were certain the Golden Knights would make literal spectacles of themselves, that they did not have the acumen or the genuine fan support to do much more than provide amusement. It's a wonder no one declared the inaugural Golden Knights to be an elevated Ice Capades in Las Vegas' gaudy style.

Valiant might have ended up a mere chronicle of an inaugural season with all its pitfalls and perils, but the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting altered it in ways no one could have imagined. We get a lot of behind-the-scenes footage along with interviews from players, Foley, then-General Manager George McPhee and the family of one of the shooting victims, Neysa Tonks.

Surprisingly, there were no or very few if any interviews with actual Inaugural Season Seat holders, at least that I can remember. This does make me think that Valiant has a hard time balancing that story about the Golden Knights first season than on their impact on the community coming together after the horror they endured. Valiant does blend those stories but at times it seems a bit more involved in chronicling their surprising record than on how they were both a balm and outlet for the traumatized community.

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We get a chronicle of the curious case of their succession of goalies getting injured than on getting more season seat holders or even regular Golden Knights fans to give their perspectives on such things. We hear from the players but not as much from the fans. Didn't any of them have any thoughts on how goalie after goalie kept getting injured? 

This, however, is a minor quibble, for on the whole Valiant is a strong, respectful film on a team, a city and the bond that ties them together and for (hopefully) always. 

As of this writing, the motives in the Las Vegas mass shooting have not been discovered. Perhaps it never will be. However, Valiant does not concern itself with the crime itself. Rather, it is a portrait of a community and a team that went from the depths of tragedy to the heights of victory.

Go Knights Indeed...

DECISION: B+