Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Honeyland: A Review (Review #1376)


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.       


Monday, March 30, 2020

Cleopatra (1912): A Review (Review #1375)


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.


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.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Force Majeure: A Review


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.


Friday, March 27, 2020

Every Sunday: A Review


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.


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.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Suffragette: A Review (Review #1370)


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.


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.


Monday, March 23, 2020

The Invisible Man (1933): A Review


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.   


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Valiant (2019): A Review

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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...


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Anna Karenina (1935): A Review

Image result for anna karenina 1935ANNA KARENINA (1935)

It is rare when an actress gets to recreate a film role she is already famous for, but then there were few stars like Greta Garbo. Anna Karenina is a remake of her silent film, Love, only this time it stays true to both the time Leo Tolstoy's novel is set and its bleak ending. Sumptuous and mostly well-acted, Anna Karenina is a feast visually and quite moving.

Count Vronsky (Fredric March) meets and quickly falls in love with the beautiful Anna Karenina (Garbo), wife of government official Alexei Karenin (Basil Rathbone) and mother to Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew). Soon, Anna falls in love with Vronsky, but their scandalous relationship causes even normally blase Czarist Russia to be horrified. At a terrible sacrifice to Anna, she runs off with Vronsky to Italy, sacrificing her marriage and her son.

Soon, however, both Anna and Vronsky yearn to return to Mother Russia but for different reasons. Anna wants desperately to see her son again. Vronsky does not care one bit about Sergei, but he does care to jump back into military service with an impending war. They make their return and attempt to go back into Russian high society but find they cannot break through. Eventually, Vronsky seems to forget about Anna in his hunt for wartime glory, even starting to entertain Princess Sorokina (Mary Forbes). As Karenin has not just forbidden Anna to see Sergei again but made sure she never does, Anna finds life hopeless.

Anna Karenina commits suicide by throwing herself onto a moving train, leaving Vronsky with pangs of regret for his rejection.

If anything, Anna Karenina is LAVISH with all caps. This is a very lush film visually, never skimping on the elegance to decadence of Imperial Russia to where it's only missing a few Faberge eggs. The film never lets up on being as opulent as possible, starting with a very lavish dinner for Vronsky's fellow soldiers.

Only in the MGM Dream Factory could bar hopping be so posh.

It also presents the title character with equal elegance: Garbo emerging from train steam as almost a literal goddess, so rapturously beautiful to make Vronsky stop cold and stare in disbelief.

Director Clarence Brown draws good to great performances out of his cast, and yet sometimes it feels as if Garbo is doing the heavy lifting for almost all her castmates. It's a strange thing that while Fredric March gave a "good" performance, it was simultaneously too studied. The best way to explain is it's that it he "acted" the part of the lovestruck Vronsky but could never truly display the passion he had for Anna. There didn't seem to be mad, passionate ardor from him. It was a bit technical: correct but not genuine, as if March was acting but aware that it was acting.

Rathbone at first appeared to be so sneering that one would feel Anna should have left Karenin sooner. However, near the midpoint, as he attempts to warn his wife about how gossip is starting to spread about her and Vronsky, Rathbone allows a bit of hesitancy, hurt and even vulnerability, afraid of losing Anna. He also attempts to keep his mix of hurt and rage in check when lying to Sergei that his mother was dead. Perhaps to Karenin, she was, but you sensed he genuinely did not want to hurt his son. Freddie Bartholomew at first too seemed a bit whiny, but by his tearful goodbye it was hard not to be moved.

The last scene between Sergei, Karenin and Anna is brilliant. You have a tearful Sergei, pleading with his mother not to leave, Anna's distress over knowing what she is sacrificing, and Karenin's need for honor. The blending of all these elements makes for fascinating viewing.

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Anna Karenina also does a brilliant job in such things as foreshadowing and having the subplots mirror the main story. Early on, we see (or at least hear) a poor train worker crushed to death by the train when Anna arrives. This horrifies Anna, but for those who know the story, it foretells her own tragic fate.

The film blends the Anna/Vronsky affair with that of two other love stories: Anna's brother Stiva (Reginald Owen) and his own wandering eye to the distress of Stiva's wife Dolly (Phoebe Foster) and the blossoming romance of Kitty (Maureen O'Sullivan) to Levin (Gyles Isham, the only actor whom I thought overdid his performance). It is Anna who helps reconcile Stiva and Dolly, but in the end Stiva lectures his sister on her own lack of discretion. For her part, Dolly sees Anna as free, but Garbo's silent performance shows that she is anything but.

It also makes clear, without having to say so, that Stiva's indiscretions are merely physical and thus, forgivable to Russian society, while Anna's indiscretions are emotional and thus, unforgivable. The fact that Stiva is a man and Anna a woman probably play a role too.

Anna Karenina stays to the original ending versus Love's optional happy ending, but again it is a credit to Brown and screenwriters Clemens Dane and Salka Viertel that her suicide was clear without being brutal. With Herbert Slothart's score and Brown's visuals, we see and understand enough to know the desperate state Anna was in. The concluding coda where Vronsky speaks of his regrets is fine but felt a bit attached.

On the whole, with Greta Garbo's excellent performance (with only Basil Rathbone coming close to matching her) and some impressive visuals, this Anna Karenina truly stands as both a lavish film for the eyes and a moving tale of romance for the heart.


Friday, March 20, 2020

Doctor Sleep: A Review and Reflection (Review #1365)

Image result for doctor sleepDOCTOR SLEEP

I have long argued that one of the reasons Doctor Sleep bombed at the box office was due to the title. While it is the same title as that of Stephen King's The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep sounds...boring. It almost seems to taunt its audience with the word "Sleep" in the title, as if by watching it you would nod off. Somehow, the name Doctor Sleep sounds less horror and more almost cutesy comedy.

It is far from cutesy.

In a sense, I feel it might be unfair to review Doctor Sleep given I did not finish it, watching only an hour of this two-and-a-half hour film. However, the reason I stopped watching is an important reason as to why I not only stopped the film, but decided to write on it. I will write up to where I stopped then offer my reasons for both stopping Doctor Sleep and why I think it is perhaps not just the worst thing I have seen but the most grotesque.

Jumping from events in The Shining in 1980 to 2011 and eight years later, Doctor Sleep's first hour has three separate stories that you know will eventually blend but take an exceptionally long time to so much as come into contact. The main story that I saw revolves around Danny or Dan Torrence (Ewan McGregor). He still has "the shining", his powerful psychic abilities. He is a drunk with a mess of a life until he moves to New Hampshire, joins AA and works as an orderly at a hospice, where his ability to ease people into death earns him his nickname.

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The secondary story revolves around The True Knot, a coven that feeds off those who have "the shining", primarily children. Led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), they welcome a new member to their coven: Andi (Emily Aylin Lind), who has the power to convince others to do what she wants by hypnotic suggestion. As part of their feeding, they abduct and kill Bradley Trevor (Jacob Tremblay), whose ritualistic slaying is witnessed by the third part of this sprawling story: Abra (Dakota Hickman), a girl whose shining power is beyond anything anyone has seen.

She makes psychic contact with Dan, letting him know that "Baseball Boy" has been killed.

It's at this point that I stopped watching.

If I were to focus just on what I had seen, Doctor Sleep had a myriad of problems before we got to that one aspect that so literally sickened me that I could not watch anymore. Writer/director Mike Flanagan, to be fair, was in a nearly impossible situation. He was adapting a sequel to a novel whose story most people know primarily from the 1977 Stanley Kubrick film than from the books themselves. Thus, he is relying on people not just knowing but recalling intimate details from a 42-year-old film. For those who have never seen or heard of The Shining or who do not have knowledge of every metaphorical nook and cranny of the Overlook Hotel, Doctor Sleep is going to be very muddled at the very least. At worst, the extensive mythology is going to be downright incomprehensible. 

Image result for doctor sleepA lot of Doctor Sleep essentially expects viewers to know All About Overlook, and even if someone had seen The Shining they may not have revisited it so recently that they would know what was going on. Some aspects of The Shining have entered the collective cinematic memory, but are viewers genuinely going to recall so much that the audience connection is guaranteed? I saw The Shining many years ago, and while I can recall bits and pieces I cannot say I know enough to know every shout-out Doctor Sleep throws at me.

Its difficulty in balancing the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep plus The Shining film already hampers Doctor Sleep the film. Add to that the thoroughly glacial pacing. Twelve minutes of post-Shining Danny and you still wonder not so much what is going on but where it is going and if it is ever going anywhere. At least in the first hour I saw I didn't connect with Danny/Dan. McGregor had nothing to do but look sad. Even worse, the True Knot coven did not look menacing save for that one part that appalled me. For the most part, they shifted from bored to almost spoof, in particular Ferguson's Rose the Hat, who seemed so camp to me. The True Knot was unintentionally hilarious in their faux-seriousness.

Throw into the mix the very dull Abra story which for that first hour was all but forgotten. No matter how hard they tried, I could not find spoons on the ceiling scary.

If you think on it, the first hour of Doctor Sleep covers nearly thirty years, and felt fifty times longer.

Then we come to the one part that so disgusted me that I just stopped the film and decided I would not watch any more.

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It is when The True Knot abducts and kills Bradley Trevor, age 12, the "baseball boy" to Abra. Yes, Doctor Sleep does have as part of its opening the killing of another child, Violet (Violet McGraw), but in that part the killing is more implied. With Brad, the killing is far more graphic and overt.

Here is the set-up: in Iowa, the True Knot senses that there is someone with the shining, and one of them scouts a Little League-like baseball game where he overhears that Brad always gets a hit, as if he knows what's coming (the suggestion that he knows because he can read the pitcher's mind). He is abducted by persuasion when Andi essentially hypnotizes him, but by the time he is taken to his execution the hypnosis has worn off.

Brad, in between hitting and sobbing to his abductors, screams and begs for his life, swearing he won't tell. Brad is then tied up on the ground as the coven hovers over him. Again, as he screams, cries and pleads, he sobs whether he will feel pain. "Yes", Rose the Hat almost coos before starting to stab him. Brad's screams of pain and terror, the blood-splattered face and chest, the torture he is put through is enjoyed by the True Knot as they breathe in his screams that escape. This entire sequence is not perhaps on par with a snuff film, but it was far too much for me as a viewer.

I do not, cannot and will not watch child killing, even fictional, for entertainment.

I don't think it was accidental that Brad is killed in his baseball uniform. A boy in a baseball uniform, from Iowa, is as close to an American archetype as one has. It suggests childhood innocence, and perhaps this is what they were aiming for. However, it is a bridge too far for me.

It is my choice to stop watching something that brings me no pleasure. I already was finding Doctor Sleep boring (showing that the film's title was already accurate). However, seeing a child tied up and murdered, even in what is a supernatural story, is for me too grotesque to continue watching a film that has that.

I have seen bad films before, some that have disgusted me on a high level, such as The Fanatic. I have seen bad film whose badness comes from their ineptness without a sense of maliciousness, such as Phil. As bad as The Fanatic and Phil were, and as distasteful as I found the former, at least those committing their horrors were adults and there was enough separation between viewer and film to not make it downright monstrous. With Doctor Sleep, there was none of that, at least for me.

There are certainly cinematic ways to make clear Brad was murdered without resorting to seeing little boys tied up and stabbed while sobbing for their lives. There was simply no need to be as graphic as Doctor Sleep opted to be. You can imply things, and sometimes the implications are more horrible and effective than visually spelling it out. There was little left to the imagination with Brad's murder in Doctor Sleep, and why would I continue watching something that brings me no joy, no entertainment, nothing but a sickening feeling?

As a side note, the graphic nature of the violence is what equally appalled me about Rambo: Last Blood. I know there will be some violence, which I can accept given that it is adults doing terrible things to other adults. However, the violence in Last Blood was so visual I was sickened and have refused to review it as it would require me to see it again, which I do not want to ever do.

I am sure there will be those reading this who will tell me to lighten up, that it's only a movie, that the actors and production crew genuinely care for children and that Tremblay was both fine with it all and is perfectly well-adjusted. After all, he got through Room quite well, a film that I gave high marks to. Am I not hypocritical for praising Room but condemning Doctor Sleep?

Obviously I don't think so: I don't remember Room being graphic, and certainly not to how Doctor Sleep was. I can say only how Brad's murder affected me as a viewer: it was too much, it was unnecessary to see, and ultimately it nauseated me to such a point that I not only left the room but decided not to complete Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep already was looking bad before we got kidnapping and child killings into the mix. I like to think I have a strong enough constitution to sit through just about anything. I could not after watching a child murdered. I think for as long as I may live, Doctor Sleep will be one of my biggest regrets.


Monday, March 16, 2020

Love (1927): A Review

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After the wild success of Flesh and the Devil, MGM re-teamed Greta Garbo and John Gilbert for the film Love, based on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The final product may not be faithful to the novel but with excellent performances and a lush, romantic style the end result is actually quite pleasing.

Updating the setting to Imperial Russia just before the fall of the Romanovs, Love follows the affair between the dashing ladies-man Captain Count Vronsky (Gilbert) and the very married Anna Karenina (Garbo). Anna has a son, Serezha (Phillipe de Lacy), whom she adores, and a husband, Senator Karenin (Brandon Hurst), whom she doesn't. It's not hatred but passionless. Despite her misgivings she finds the dashing Vronsky, who is passionate for her, irresistable.

This affair does not seem to bother Vronsky's battalion head, Grand Duke Michael (George Fawcett) too much, but when the affair becomes exposed during a steeplechase it becomes a scandal. Anna and Vronsky run off to Italy to be with each other, but it isn't long until Anna desperately misses her son. Vronsky at first cannot abide the idea that anyone or anything should stand between them, but realizing her motherly needs, he relents and they return to Russia.

Karenin makes clear she can never see Serezha again, and Anna is equally troubled when she learns Vronsky will be formally expelled from the military because of the scandal. At an audience with the Grand Duke, she willingly gives Vronsky up in exchange for allowing him to stay in the military. Here, we have two endings: one for the general American market and one for the primarily international one.

The American ending has her leaving, then reuniting three years later when Serezha is in military school and Karenin is dead. The international ending stays with the original novel's ending of Anna throwing herself in front of a train after leaving Vronsky.

Image result for love 1927Truth be told, I prefer the American ending, and from the print I saw which was recorded before a live audience, the viewers there preferred it too. Love showed the "happy" ending first, and the audio recorded loud cheers and applause as our lovers reunited. Perhaps purists and "sophisticated" audiences would have held the film stick with the original Tolstoy ending, but I think the "happy" ending worked primarily because of Garbo and Gilbert.

As a side note, given we've already changed Anna Karenina by updating it to a more contemporary setting, we left that "pure" adaptation some time back, so we shouldn't quibble about whether women throw themselves in front of trains or not.

Their performances were so good that we came to care about them and their doomed love affair. It helps that both of them were exceptionally beautiful people. If it hadn't been invented yet, the term "smoldering" would have had to be created for Gilbert. He has this magnetic screen presence, especially when he looks longingly at Garbo. When she finally reveals her face, Garbo looks so luminous it is as if she had been molded by divine hands and presented by the gods as a gift to humanity.

Putting aside their physical beauties, Gilbert and Garbo carried their roles with near perfection. Only once did there seem to be a bit of overacting, and that was from Garbo at the steeplechase. Her reactions as Vronsky endangered himself and revealing the ardor of her illicit passions probably come across as over-dramatic. However, part of me thinks that Anna was meant to be over-the-top here.

Image result for love 1927For the rest of Love, however, she is understated, graceful, elegant, beautiful and heartbreaking. She has wonderful moments with her son, showing a tender, soft side. Apart from the steeplechase scene, Garbo's performance is so strong that one can see not only why she was so magnetic but that she was among the finest silent film actresses of her day.

Gilbert too more than held his own, whether in his arrogance or ardor for Anna. When he has a close-up, it does almost look like he is making love to the camera. Together they seem the embodiment of passion, and it is clear why their teaming worked so well.

In smaller roles, Fawcett was slightly but appropriately comic as the Grand Duke, while Hurst was equally appropriate as the cold, cockold Karenin.

Director Edmund Goulding not only drew great performances out of his cast but also added strong elements of foreshadowing. In one scene, Anna cheerfully tells Serezha that the holy Easter light will not go out but if it does, it will mean bad fortune. As she opens the door the gust of wind does blow the holy light out, and she turns to see Vronsky standing before her. 

For this print, Arnold Brostoff's score was excellent, climaxing in the "happy" ending so well that it enhances the beauty of that moment. It matches Love in its beauty and lushness.

The film's title is no accident: to capitalize on the duo's massive popularity, the posters were meant to read "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in 'Love'", the double meaning obvious. The story goes that the original title had been Heat, but the idea that people would read "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in 'Heat'" made the studio rethink that accidental pun. Love, to my mind, works best with that happy ending, a beautiful culmination of a sadly not-well-remembered screen duo that was truly luminous and passionate.

In the end, it really is so easy to fall in Love.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Invisible Man (2020): A Review


This ain't your father's or grandfather's Invisible Man. The newest adaptation of the H.G. Wells' novel works on nearly all levels but does not quite land the ending.

Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) flees her abusive boyfriend, millionaire optics engineer Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in the middle of the night. Sheltered by family friend, Detective James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), Cecilia is terrified of leaving the house, convinced Adrian will find and recapture her. Her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), however, brings good news: Adrian has committed suicide.

Adrian's brother Tom (Michael Dorman) gives Cecilia surprising news too: Adrian has left her $5 million in his will provided she commits no crimes or is found mentally unstable. Slowly Cecilia begins to rebuild her life, bonding with James' daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) and seeking out employment as the architect she trained as.

It isn't long though before strange things begin happening around and to her. She begins to believe Adrian is not only still alive but has made himself invisible, literally ghosting her in a master plot of revenge for leaving him. While she knows he is still there, no one else believes her. Cecilia finds herself in a series of insane situations: Sydney "sees" her slap her around, witnesses "see" her murder Emily, and in the asylum Emily's locked in for the murder, she discovers she's pregnant.

Cecilia knows Adrian has discovered a way to make himself invisible, but she is trapped. With only her own wits, she takes matters into her own hands to reveal "the invisible man", with twists and turns to a bloody ending.

Image result for the invisible man 2020The Invisible Man does just about everything right. First, it does what I have long suggested: not be a franchise starter. Instead of being essentially a set-up for other films, in this case Universal's now-dead Dark Universe, The Invisible Man concentrates on the individual story itself. Freed from any sense of world-building, it is allowed to be its own entity. As such, we can concentrate on one story: Cecilia's.

This is the second thing The Invisible Man did right: give us a sympathetic heroine who was also strong in the end. A lot of the film has to be carried by Elisabeth Moss, especially given that she essentially has to "act" with no one around her. Moss gives one of the best performances of the year: Cecilia's fears coupled with her growing realization of the dangers she's in and determination to do Adrian in makes for absolutely riveting viewing.

The Invisible Man does not make Cecilia either all-powerful or eternally weak. In an insane situation, Moss makes her plight believable, the hallmark of great acting. She has to run through a gamut of emotions: her agoraphobia, her vulnerabilities, her comprehension, her rage. Moss never hits a wrong note in her performance.

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She is also helped by almost universally excellent performances from the other castmembers. Hodge is sensible and strong as James, the cop who wants to believe her but also knows there is no such thing as invisible men. Reid's Sydney comes across as a real teenager: sarcastic but also caring. Dorman's Tom is creepy enough to give one pause as to how much Adrian can control him, even from beyond the grave.

Dyer is mostly good, particularly her final scene down to its shocking conclusion, though I felt she was weak when she told Cecilia off after "receiving" a nasty email. It felt false to me. Jackson-Cohen is a very handsome man and leaves a strong impression as the abusive Adrian even if his role is very limited. We don't see him much at the beginning and the only real scene he has is at the end, with its own "shocking" conclusion.

Director Whannell is the third element in The Invisible Man that works well. Apart from directing his cast to almost all fine performances and crafting a script that is both logical and appropriately tense, he had a very strong visual style. Whannell built up a great deal of tension and suspense with very little. The opening scene for example uses both silences and sudden noises effectively and realistically. He also uses Benjamin Wallfisch's score and the visual effects to serve the story without drawing attention to themselves.

The only major flaw that I found in The Invisible Man is the ending. The "twist" is not unexpected. Far from it: I had guessed it long before we got the big reveal. It is after that though that things got a bit if not confusing a bit perplexing. Whether it should have ended at the reveal or tweaked it a bit to have the dead stay dead is a good question. It also does not exactly explain how things came about the way we saw them, nor does it genuinely justify the also not-surprising finale.

Apart from that though The Invisible Man is an exceptional film, one that should please fans of the genre as well as those who may not usually be drawn to horror or science-fiction. I'll say: The Invisible Man should definitely be seen. 


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Just Mercy: A Review


Just Mercy has an important story to tell about racism, injustice and the continuing struggle to find equal justice under law. As such, why is the film so dry?

Idealistic young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) has found his calling to represent poor death row-convicted men and give them free legal representation with the hopes of exonerating those who are not guilty. Traveling down from posh Delaware to poor Alabama, Bryan stars his Equal Justice Initiative alongside Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), a native Southerner. While we find many in Just Mercy that require his help, a lot of time is spent with one client in particular: Walter "Johnny D." McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was railroaded into a guilty conviction with overt racism being the reason he is about to die.

Bryan investigates and finds that despite overwhelming evidence of Johnny D.'s innocence, he was convicted exclusively due to the testimony of Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), a white man who got a deal with the overtly racist sheriff for his own prison term. The new District Attorney, Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) is no help. Bryan fights on, culminating in a 60 Minutes story that forces attention on the case. Eventually, Johnny D. is set free.

Image result for just mercy movieAgain, Just Mercy should be a strong, fascinating film, but everything about it is so wrapped up in being "noble" that it simply forgets to be "good".  Even the title, "Just Mercy" sounds rather grand and noble.

One of the film's biggest issues is its length at two hours-plus, which simultaneously feels excessive and incredibly short. By that I mean that we get bits and pieces of other stories that feel tacked on. All these subplots may make for interesting reading if one picked up the real Stevenson's memoir, but on film they seem to be leftovers from an extended version we may never see.

Take for example the subplot of Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). As portrayed in Just Mercy, this troubled Vietnam veteran who was guilty of murder (albeit accidental when a bomb he planted killed someone), he comes across as less a genuine person and more almost a parody of Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. It borders on bonkers that director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (adapting Stevenson's memoir with Andrew Lanham) did not see that this subplot, down to the almost Tom Hanks-like officer, was pushing the believability of things to near-incoherence. 

That Richardson was a real person only makes this whole subplot all the more unfortunate in how it came across. That alone would have been terrible, but going into almost gleefully perverse detail on the actual implementation of the death penalty seems sadistic. Just Mercy was inches away from showing an actual execution, and despite being opposed to death penalty I don't support coming that close to showing it.

Image result for just mercy movieIt is as if Cretton and everyone in Just Mercy wanted to film the entirety of the book versus focus on one element in it, making the whole film feel stretched.

Another major issue in Just Mercy is that there were no performances. What I saw were stock characters played in such a one-note fashion that they ended up having no personalities. It takes an especially inept film to reduce the reliable and skilled Jordan to a single characteristic: righteousness. As played by Jordan, Bryan Stevenson is eternally noble, but he also is eternally dull. Apparently, he has no life, no joys, just a nobility that many saints never achieve.

We are expected to rely on stock characters to where they do not come across as real despite being based on real events. Every white person is so cartoonishly racist you think we'd wandered into a bonkers version of In the Heat of the Night, and even that film had the racist sheriff evolve. Here, the film starts with A.) the sheriff knowing Johnny D. personally and B.) the crime already committed and this cracker already knowing Johnny D. did it. Much later in the film we are told that Johnny D. had had a fling with a white woman, so that suggest the motive behind the racism, but because we are dropped off in medias res when Just Mercy begins it's less of a shock and more of a snooze. 

Again, while these may be real people or at least based on them, they come across as so insanely fictional I would forgive anyone who thought this was all fiction. Nelson's false witness Myers may be exactly as he was in real life, but he looks funny even when being serious. Larson's Southern accent is so awful you think her dialect coach was Anne Hathaway. Foxx's innocent surprisingly seems rather distant to where you almost don't feel a need to save him.

Noble intentions can get you only so far. Just Mercy has an excellent and necessary story that is lost in its nobility and failed Oscar aspirations. I know many people think highly of it: the theater I attended loved the film. It is not a bad film but it drowns in its saintly manner that despite being a true story it feels so hollow and empty. It's a terrible disservice to the work of the Equal Justice Initiative.