Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Journey of Natty Gann: A Review (Review #1389) The Journey of Natty Gann: Meredith Salenger, John ...


The Journey of Natty Gann is thought of as as "kid's movie", but after seeing it I find such an impression inaccurate. The main character is a teenager, but The Journey of Natty Gann is a deep and moving film, bathed in nostalgia and with very strong performances.

Natalie Sue "Natty" Gann (Meredith Salenger) lives with her widowed father Sol (Ray Wise) in 1935 Chicago. The nation is still in the grips of the Great Depression and work is hard to come by. Sol's fortune turns when he is finally offered a job, but it's in Washington State and he has to take it right then and there. After some thought, he takes it but is unable to reach her with the news.

She stays in Chicago briefly but after one too many struggles with hotel owner Connie (Lainie Kazan) and the threat of being labeled an "abandoned child" Natty flees to find her father. As she tramps across the country she encounters a variety of men and women, most unhelpful but some kind. She also encounters a large wolf whom she helped rescue from a dogfight who in turn slowly befriends her.

Sol, through a series of events, believes his daughter dead, causing him to take more dangerous work at the lumberyard. An oblivious Natty then reencounters another hobo, Harry (John Cusack). Joining forces, Natty, Harry and Wolf head west, each in search of something (for him a job, for her her dad). Will either or both find what they seek?

The Journey of Natty Gann Blu-ray Release Date July 17, 2018 ...The Journey of Natty Gann is to its immense credit nostalgic without being romantic. Jeanne Rosenberg's screenplay by no means makes the Depression a warm and happy place. This is a world filled with desperate men; of particular note is a brief but powerful moment when Natty sees her friend's family being evicted. This is a stark reminder that the Great Depression more than lived up to its name.

However, this is also a world where Natty's strength and determination are her only weapons, which she yields to great effect. Every obstacle that comes at and to her she manages to overcome not through great intelligence or physical prowess but with a quiet and steady determination.

Director Jeremy Kagan got some great performances out of his cast, some of them in surprisingly small roles. I would put Kazan's Connie as the weakest in that it seems a stretch to see her as the evil woman pushing Natty out (especially after doing a fan-dance of sorts earlier). However, it's to Kazan's credit that she did not come across as cartoonish. We also see Scatman Crothers in a brief but strong role as Sherman, a peddler who offers words of warning to Natty about her plans.

It is perhaps hard to remember when John Cusack was the bright young man of cinema given that his career has seen more than its fair share of ups and down. However, The Journey of Natty Gann is a reminder of how good Cusack can be. His Harry, while not as large a role as perhaps the advertising might lead one to believe, was also quite moving as he shifted from the crabby, sarcastic tramp to one who found a kindred spirit in "the girl". He has a wonderful moment when he remembers his late father's final moments that is quiet but effective.

Ray Wise is equally strong as Sol, potential agitator who makes a great sacrifice for his daughter. Best known as Laura Palmer's father on Twin Peaks, Wise makes Sol a deeply caring man, one bereft and hollow, making the final scene all the more moving.

The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)It is the title performance, however, that leaves the greatest impression. Salenger is deeply moving and endearing as Natty. She is the epitome of the "plucky kid", but she also has a gentleness and vulnerability in her Natty that makes you root for her on her journey. The struggles Natty faces are many: imprisonment in an orphanage, a brief attempted molestation, and constant dangers. However, Salenger is so enrapturing as Natty, and it takes a great deal of talent to act against a wolf and make it look almost natural.

It's interesting that in many The Journey of Natty Gann performances the best moments are the quiet ones, such as Wise's silent staring at all the unemployed men milling about as he comes close to turning down the logging job or Salenger's interactions with Wolf. I think James Horner's equally nostalgic score helps: not overwhelming the scenes but keeping things within a softness and nostalgic universe.

The Journey of Natty Gann is indeed the type of film Walt Disney would have made, minus a few swear words and scenes that might be a bit intense for really young viewers. Its reputation as some kind of saccharine bit of fluff is unwarranted. With strong performances, a moving story of familial love and an excellent score, this is a journey you won't regret taking. 


Saturday, April 25, 2020

Kisses for My President: A Review


To say there isn't a certain cringe factor when thinking of Kisses for My President is disingenuous. At a time when we've had as of this writing two female Vice Presidential nominees (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin), one Presidential nominee (Hillary Clinton, albeit she became the nominee in part thanks to her time as First Lady) and several serious female candidates waiting in the wings (Elizabeth Warren, Nikki Haley), the idea that a comedy could be built around the "silly" notion of a female President and a "male First Lady" seems downright obscene.

And as a side note, this doesn't take into account the idea that we could have a male President and a male First Lady in the Pete and Chasten Buttigieg mode.  Yet, I digress.

While today Kisses for My President may be seen as "problematic", at heart it means no harm and you can find some laughs and promise in the premise.

Leslie Harrison McCloud has been elected President of the United States, but the hitch is that "Leslie" is a woman (Polly Bergen). This leaves her husband Thad (Fred MacMurray) a bit at a loss as to what to do. He isn't able or perhaps willing to be the househusband to their children, teenager Gloria (Anna Capri) or tween son Peter (Ronnie Dapo). Thad isn't going to do the teas or social events either, or at least isn't comfortable with the idea. With President Leslie too busy for him, he's adrift.

He is finally given something to do: escort Latin American dictator Rodrigo Valdez, Jr. (Eli Wallach) around town. Valdez wants more "aid" but President McCloud won't hear of it, even under pressure from her former rival Senator Walsh (Edward Andrews). As can be expected, Thad's efforts at foreign affairs is disastrous, culminating in a brawl involving the film's version of the Tidal Basin Bombshell.

Kisses For My President - Clip - YouTubeThere are also domestic affairs to think on, in the shape of temptress and President McCloud's frenemy Doris (Arlene Dahl). This designing woman knew both McClouds when they were in college, and she makes clear to a clueless Thad she's like to serve under his administration. Doris entices Thad with a lucrative job offer, giving him a purpose other than being an aimless Male First Lady.

Will he succumb? Will President McCloud manage being both President and mother to two out-of-control children? Will the McClouds survive the nation and vice versa?

One of Claude Binyon and Robert Kane's screenplay is that it has so many subplots going on that it can't keep track of them all, at least in a cohesive way. You have Walsh's machinations, Doris' intentions and Valdez's manipulations, and Kisses for My President seems to be a poorly edited series of events that never tie them together.

Even worse, Kisses for My President forgets that it already has a good story already there: Thad McCloud's efforts at being First Lady (oddly, while he and others refer to Thad as "First Lady", no one ever thought of using "First Gentleman" or "First Man"). We get a scene where Thad visits the First Lady's office and meets his social and personal secretaries, but we never see or hear from them again. A whole film could have been built around Thad's bumbling but perhaps eventually successful turn as a trailblazer in his own right.

Kisses For My President (1964) — The Movie Database (TMDb)
The few bits where he tries to be the male Jacqueline Kennedy or Mamie Eisenhower are about the only real funny bits in Kisses for My President. There's a brief sight gag where after seeing a painting of Mrs. William Howard Taft he takes a second glace and is taken aback to see his portrait instead, wearing Mrs. Taft's large hat. The funniest part is when he attempts to do his own televised White House Tour (obviously inspired by Mrs. Kennedy's successful efforts). The highly nervous President's husband had already taken four tranquilizers before given two upper and liquor to calm him down. Totally inebriated and essentially out-of-it, Thad makes a right mess of it.

"The East Room is the scene of many sappy and holemn events," he half-giggles, completely unaware the script called for "happy and solemn" events. The sequence, unfortunately very brief, had an I Love Lucy-like quality, showing MacMurray as a strong comic actor. A whole film could have been built around finding a male attempting to do the traditionally feminine tasks of a First Lady, but Kisses for My President instead veered all over the place.

The Valdez subplot was probably the worst. I have no idea why Eli Wallach was the go-to guy for Hispanic characters, but his performance is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Granted, he went all-in and even managed a clever quip: when trying to pick up a woman at a bar, he's asked if he had an invitation. "She walks like an invitation," he replies, a surprisingly noir-like line. However, he added nothing except a stereotype.

The Doris subplot was better, and Dahl gave it her all as the siren enticing our hapless Male First Lady. Her scenes with MacMurray were amusing in her open efforts at seduction and his sometimes awareness of said attempts. The Walsh subplot could have pretty much been forgotten.

As mentioned, MacMurray was in strong form as our emasculated First Gentleman, and Bergen did well as the more level-headed President. Performance-wise I think we can extend some grace given it is a comedy and not meant to be serious, but the film as a whole is too long for the stories it is telling.

Kisses for My President may not be in any way "progressive", but it may be instructive in how gender roles were perceived in 1964, curiously a Presidential election year. It in its way does tackle the subject of essentially the struggles of fitting into roles when things are reversed, and the temptation of a man to begin an affair if he feels neglected. As frothy and silly as Kisses for My President is, as a film itself the negatives slightly overwhelm the positives and potentials for them.


Friday, April 24, 2020

The Sound of the Wind: A Review

The Sound of The Wind (2020) - IMDbTHE SOUND OF THE WIND

Can you think well of a film and yet be puzzled by it? The Sound of the Wind is a great concept for a feature film and has a strong central performance that makes it worth watching. However, I really did end up confused more than I should have been at the end.

Lucio (Christian Gnecco Quintero) went to buy diapers for his daughter Luna. However, while shopping for them he is certain he is being followed. Lucio flees from his pursuers, unable to go to Luna and Vanessa (Stefanie Rons, mostly in voiceover save for the final scene). As he goes further and further away physically and mentally, Lucio obtains a bag of money, encounters ranch hand Chris (Dwayne Tarver) and flees into the mountains after a near-fatal encounter.

Lucio's mental state is crumbling fast, but he also knows Luna is dependent on him. He comes to a fateful and perhaps fatal decision as to where his life will go: will Vanessa talk him into acknowledging his mental health issues or will he give in to it?

Here is where The Sound of the Wind seems to tie itself in knots. The film opens with what appears to be Lucio's decision, and one would think that the rest of the film would show us how he came to such a point. However, at the end of the film, we clearly have the complete opposite ending. Once The Sound of the Wind ended, I asked myself what if any of Lucio's journey was real? Was it meant to be all part of Lucio's delusions? Maybe Vanessa's delusions?

It had almost a Choose Your Own Adventure-type feel between the beginning and ending. Perhaps by the time we got to the end we had all but forgotten how The Sound of the Wind opened, or I'll grant maybe I missed something crucial between the opening and ending scene. However, I could not shake the idea that it got a little muddled.

The Sound of The Wind (2020)Then again, I feel I have to give The Sound of the Wind a little leeway in that writer/director Jared Douglas was chronicling a man slipping between his delusions and his struggles against them. As such, perhaps a lot of what Lucio saw was that of an unreliable narrator. We know he really wasn't being chased, but what about his encounter with Chris? What about the actual bag of money? It soon becomes a bit too opaque to figure out whether any of what Lucio lives through is real.

This does not take away some major positives in The Sound of the Wind. At the top of the list is Quintero's performance. He has a very hard task in that he has to carry the bulk of the film on his shoulders, oftentimes either acting alone or with just Rons' voice in the same way Tom Hardy did in Locke. Making his feature film debut, Quintero gives a strong, impressive performance as Lucio. The desperation and genuine fear of the imagined and real is expressed in his face, haunted eyes and trembling body. Whether arguing with himself or the shadows that come around him, Quintero gives a sympathetic, intense and a bit frightening performance of someone in the grips of a mental breakdown. It is a most impressive debut and a sign of a new talent. Hopefully The Sound of the Wind will serve as a good calling card for future roles (and one hopes for a chance for Quintero to do some comedy too).

While her role is mostly regulated to voiceover, Rons has an exception moment at the end when she attempts to explain to Lucio what is really going on. Granted at times she sounded a bit too hysterical, but that was how the part was played. Tarver's role, while small, was also impressive as the stranger trying to help the troubled young man.

The Sound of the Wind also has an excellent Julian Pollack score and Neeraj Jain cinematography, both enhancing Lucio's mental crisis.

I thought well of The Sound of the Wind, but the contradiction between the end and beginning of the film puzzled me. Still, on the whole, with an excellent central performance from Christian Gnecco Quintero, The Sound of the Wind works well if not flawlessly.


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Bright Road: A Review


Bright Road is a rarity on many levels. It is an MGM film that not only has an almost all African-American cast but one that has a positive portrayal of black life. A showcase for both Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (in his film debut) Bright Road is a sweet, charming, simple story that really ought to be better-known.

Idealistic first-year teacher Jane Reynolds (Dandridge) faces her fourth-grade class with some trepidation. While her class is filled with children, one catches her eye: C.T. Young (Philip Hepburn). C.T. has made a habit of repeating every grade and is seen by all his other teachers as a "backward child", but Miss Reynolds sees something else: hope.

C.T.'s classmate Tanya (Barbara Ann Sanders) is obviously sweet on C.T. and the feeling is mutual (though C.T. won't openly admit it). As the year goes on, C.T. does start improving, letting his natural kindness and curiosity come through. However, a tragedy hits C.T. hard, pushing him back. Mr. Williams (Belafonte), the principal, finds it hard to handle C.T. and it looks like C.T. will go back to old patterns, but a swarm of bees and his love for a particular caterpillar-turned-butterfly open him up once again as he gets back on a bright road.

Bright Road (1953) - Rotten TomatoesBright Road may be a low-budget film, but it's still an MGM film, so apart from the bee attack it does not look cheap by any means. Given how MGM really was more about lavish musicals and elegant settings, Bright Road seems almost an oddity in their catalog. However, the story itself is both universal and specific to the African-American experience.

Of particular note is when Miss Reynolds leads Sunday School (though I wondered how she led both regular and Sunday school, but I digress). C.T. asks a very direct and sadly painful question: if God created us in His image, and created both black and white, why did they not act as brothers? Bright Road cannot give a truthful answer, but through Miss Reynolds' voiceovers we get her doubts and fears about a natural question.

As a side note, Bright Road  manages to use voiceover quite well, even at the opening when we get a literal introduction of the three principal players from Dandridge.

Director Gerald Mayer got excellent performances from said three principals. Dorothy Dandridge is not only beautiful but also exceptional as Miss Reynolds, that fear and hesitation blending with her deep concern for C.T.  Granted, it is hard to ignore Dandridge's great beauty but she shows herself to be a strong actress with her performance, a deeply moving and respectful portrait of a caring individual.

You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be both moved and impressed with Philip Hepburn's C.T. He comes across as a regular boy, one who isn't a troublemaker but who is also aware of the limitations others have placed on him. Hepburn makes C.T.'s growth so moving, and you would have to be simply inhuman not to be touched by C.T. and Tanya's budding romance. It is so well-acted by both Hepburn and Randolph that you instantly fall in love with them both.

Bright Road - Trailer (1953) - YouTubeThis film was Belafonte's film debut, and apart from a curiously placed musical number he did quite well as the tough but fair principal. To be fair though, he sings Suzanne so well that while the song itself is pointless to the overall Bright Road plot, you would not want it cut.

Bright Road is not a pure message picture apart from the message that children have interior lives and that one should not dismiss them so quickly. It is quite respectful towards teachers and students, who are not rebellious or cruel but curious, generally well-behaved and capable of genuine kindness.

If anything, Bright Road is a reminder of what talent was squandered due to the foolishness of racism. Dorothy Dandridge showed she was able to play roles of depth and be more than a glamour girl. It is a small but beautiful and gentle film, one where the overt symbolism of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly was not beaten over the head while still being aware of it. I was touched and moved by Bright Road and would recommend it to everyone, especially those who see teaching as an inspirational profession.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

Mary of Scotland: A Review (Review #1385)


Few doomed monarchs have been featured as often in drama as Mary, Queen of Scots. There have been plays, novels and operas written about our unmerry monarch and more than a few films. Mary of Scotland, whatever its merits, has earned an unfortunate place in film history as the film that caused Katharine Hepburn to be labeled "box office poison". A notorious flop when released and not among either Hepburn or director John Ford's fondest film memories, is Mary of Scotland a bad film or one made bad by reputation?

Queen Mary I (Hepburn) has returned from France as a widow to retake the Scottish throne which is hers by right. This alarms her cousin/rival Queen Elizabeth I (Florence Eldridge), who knows that Mary's claim to the English throne is stronger than her own.

Fortunately for Gloriana, Mary has her own set of problems among the unruly Scots. Mary of Scotland does not overtly mention it, but Mary has maintained her Catholicism while her subjects are fierce Presbyterians, followers of the near-fanatical John Knox (Moroni Olsen). Her illegitimate half-brother James, Lord Moray (Ian Keith) and the other Scottish lairds push Mary to do as she is told, but she wants to rule in her own name. Only two lairds are loyal to her: Huntly (Donald Crips) and the Earl of Bothwell (Fredric March).

Mary agrees to marry her cousin Lord Darnley (Douglas Walton) and they have a child, much to Elizabeth's distress. Elizabeth's own machinations appear to fall until Darnley's murder, creating a political crisis culminating in Bothwell and Mary's marriage, fortuitous for they are in love. The Scottish lairds and public, whipped in fury against "the Jezebel of France" by Knox, force Bothwell's exile and Mary's series of imprisonments until her beheading on order by Elizabeth once Mary reaches English soil.

Mary of Scotland (1936) - Rotten TomatoesMary of Scotland is interesting in terms of where Hepburn and director John Ford were in terms of their career. John Ford is one of the cinematic greats, but I think he quickly found that Mary of Scotland was not his kind of film, as Hepburn observed years later. There is a sluggishness, a boredom among the Highland theatrics and bagpipe parades.

The lavish sets and musical numbers, such as the Scots serenading their Queen until Knox comes to be the party-pooper are entertaining, though they also extend the film to a sleep-inducing two hours. There are also individual scenes and sequences that are close to brilliant.

Of particular note is when Mary realizes that far from granting her refuge Elizabeth has imprisoned her. The transition from light to dark within her comfortable jail is beautiful. The final scene where Elizabeth and Mary meet and have a verbal duel is a showcase for Hepburn and Eldridge (aka Mrs. Fredric March).

However, the sum total of Mary of Scotland is a theatrical bore. Dudley Nichols' adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's blank-verse play makes things sound if not odd too unrealistic. The things said and manner of saying them is so grandiose as to be laughable in its efforts at being dramatic and serious. Those same sets make Mary of Scotland look like a large theater versus a genuine location. They look great, but they also overwhelm everything and everyone. 

The script also leaves a lot of holes. You sense that a lot of things are missing and are pretty much left to fill in the blanks themselves. The lairds got their wish to marry Mary off with the virtually homosexual Darnley (as played by Walton he was such a dandy as to veer into a stereotype), but soon after the same lairds are plotting with him to kill her secretary/lute player David Rizzio (John Carradine) because maybe Mary's child may be his? Mary of Scotland rushes the Bothwell/Mary Stuart romance, and given that there is still fierce debate whether Mary married Bothwell out of true love or was forced into it (perhaps even raped), you still get a bit of a puzzle about the goings-on.

One of Mary of Scotland's oddities is whenever there are scenes at Holyrood Castle, Mary's main residence. They are so cavernous that you can literally hear the echoes of the actors as they thunder their dialogue. Perhaps that is a reason why Mary of Scotland is so theatrical. Nathaniel Shilkret's score blew more theatricality into the proceedings, so overblown and pushing the drama.

Mary of Scotland (1936)
The theatricality extends to the acting. Hepburn, curiously enough, is the only one who wasn't theatrical but instead was a zombie. She seemed more focused on spitting out the dialogue than on showing Mary's emotions. A low-light is in her trial: neither her verbal sparring with the kangaroo court judges or the discovery of Bothwell's death display a hint of emotion. Florence Eldridge out-acted Katharine Hepburn as the vain, plotting Elizabeth I, and in their one scene she triumphed over Hepburn.

As a side note, she pronounced Pontius Pilate as "Pon-TIE-Us" versus the more common "Pon-Tious". I don't know if this is due to Hepburn's clipped New England tones or the actual pronunciation, but it does sound curious.

Fredric March struggled valiantly but ultimately lost his battle with whatever Scottish accent he was trying out. He too was so emotionalless in Mary of Scotland it is almost laughable to think he was passionately in love with anyone. To be fair, I think he did as good a job as possible but this is not one of March's finest hours.

The best description of Mary of Scotland is it's as if a large museum exhibition suddenly came to life. It's long, dull and a bit bizarre at times (endless close-ups of Hepburn that bordered on obsessive).


Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Most Dangerous Game: A Review


What happens when the hunter becomes the hunted? The Most Dangerous Game is a brilliant, atmospheric thriller that moves quickly and does not let up on the tension of the story. While perhaps the acting may not be as good as it could have been, one quickly gets drawn into the film, making it a breathless adventure of mouse-and-cat.

Big game hunter Robert "Bob" Rainsford (Joel McCrae) has a theoretical conversation with other passengers on a yacht on hunting: why killing for sport as humans do is "civilized" while killing for survival as animals do is "savage". The yacht runs into a hidden reef, causing it to sink and Bob to be the only survivor.

He swims to a nearby island inhabited by exiled Russian Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who is an admirer of Rainsford's hunting books. Zaroff routinely rescues shipwrecked people on his remote island, and now not only hosts Rainsford but the brother and sister Trowbridges: Martin (Robert Armstrong) and Eve (Fay Wray). Zaroff tells Rainsford that he too is a big-game hunter but on his island, he's discovered "the most dangerous game".

To Eve's suspicions and Rainsford's horror, "the most dangerous game" is humans. Zaroff's hidden Trophy Room contains his human collection, poor Martin the newest one. Rainsford rejects Zaroff's offer to join this wicked game, so now he's the newest hunted. Eve joins him though Zaroff promises no harm to her as he does not hunt females. If Rainsford can survive to dawn, he will be freed, but no one has beaten Zaroff. Now the race is on to see who will last this brutal contest.

Why The Most Dangerous Game is this weekend's best streaming bet ...The Most Dangerous Game is a pun, "game" meaning both the object of the chase and the machinations of Zaroff. Co-directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack create an eerie mood through the film, which is filled with some breathtaking sequences.

Of particular note is the climatic chase into the foggy swamp, where many a hunted lost to the wicked Count. We get several different POV shots including those of Bob and Eve, which gives things a desperate immediacy that thrills and terrifies. Max Steiner's score also elevates the tension in this wild chase. The danger never lets up once Rainsford and Eve are let out in their harrowing day and night of doom.

The menacing mood of The Most Dangerous Game starts right at the beginning, with Steiner's score and with the opening of the large wooden door with its ominous doorknocker: a beast with an arrow cradling a woman. The film also subtly foreshadows Rainsford's dilemma with its opening conversation about whether Rainsford would switch places with the animals he stalks.

It also allows for some comedy among the madness with Armstrong's delightful turn as the increasingly inebriated Martin. While Eve suspects danger given that the two sailors rescued with them have disappeared after seeing Zaroff's Trophy Room, Martin is sloshed out of his mind but happily so. His comical interactions with the very serious Zaroff add that touch of humor to the film.

Perhaps the most surprising element in The Most Dangerous Game is that the film is remarkably short: a mere 63 minutes. In its brisk running time one can quickly get caught up in the story to where one doesn't notice how short the film is.
Why The Most Dangerous Game is this weekend's best streaming bet ...

One element in James Ashmore Creelman's adaptation of Richard Connell's short story is that while Zaroff is clearly insane, he is also brilliant. Every trap that the experienced Rainsford sets fails to capture him, making Zaroff something of a major threat.

I say "something of" because the one element in The Most Dangerous Game that I found a puzzle was the acting. I can overlook Banks' way-out-there almost campy take on Zaroff. He is playing a way-out-there almost campy villain so he could afford to be over-the-top. What I struggled with was the duo of McCrae and Wray. In fairness to Wray (who would go on to immortality when she reunited with Schoedrack and the film's producer Merian C. Cooper for King Kong), her role was nothing more than the "damsel in distress" with little to do. The role made her something of an idiot, forever screaming and being inept in her rather skimpy dress.

McCrae was another matter. He was one of the best and most underappreciated actors of his generation, but in The Most Dangerous Game there seemed to be something of an overdramatic nature to his performance, almost as if he wanted to match Banks and Wray in their overdramatic performances.

This is an issue, as looking at it now the acting seems to be a bit broad save for Armstrong, who would also reunite with Wray, Schoedrack and Cooper in King Kong for the serious role of producer Carl Denham. 

In retrospect this is a minor issue, for The Most Dangerous Game is a thrilling and incredibly well-crafted film that cries for a remake. Fast and exciting, The Most Dangerous Game is a most brilliant film.


Friday, April 17, 2020

The Politics Of: Superman IV

Image result for superman iv the quest for peace


Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is a lousy movie, period. I may have been a child when I saw Superman IV, but I knew it was a lousy movie even then. It looked cheap, the plot made no sense and there was no enthusiasm in it.

However, even as a child I sensed something a bit off about The Quest for Peace, a very curious sense that there was something rotten in the state of Denmark so to speak. I felt I was watching a lecture of some sort, a kind of lesson versus a Superman adventure story.

Now, with hindsight, I see that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a well-intentioned but wildly misguided film, one where its lead actor's political views got in the way of an already troubled film. Most of what doomed Superman IV was not Christopher Reeve's fault, but his eagerness to use Superman IV to promote his views on nuclear disarmament under the guise of "entertainment" certainly was.

This is not an analysis of Superman IV itself. Having seen it again, it's clear that it was a choppy, muddled affair. The film was conceived and made to be 134 minutes but for reasons still a bit confusing it had 45 minutes cut, losing a lot of plot and character development. Those 45 minutes might have made Superman IV better, but it would not have helped one of its big issues: its messaging.

Man of Steel': 'Superman IV' Mocked in Parody Trailer (Video ...
Superman star Christopher Reeve came up with the story along with Superman IV's credited screenwriters: Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Reeves wanted to do two things: answer the question, 'If Superman is all-powerful (almost God-like), why doesn't he fix our problems?' and to speak out against the nuclear arms race, a topical issue in 1987. As well-meaning as Reeve's intentions were, he apparently never stopped to think that people did not go see Superman films to have said questions answered, let alone to be told what to think about issues.

His dual goals immediately sets up two problems. First, by making a fictional character tackle real-world problems, you create a false solution. The Superman comic book writers faced a similar problem during World War II. With Superman on our side, we would have won the war quickly, but they opted not to have the Man of Steel win the war. Reeve's decision to use Superman IV to advocate for an impossible answer was in retrospect a poor one. It brings the real world and its troubles into what is meant to be fantasy. Once you do that, you destroy both the fantasy and the reality, leaving no one satisfied.

Superman is not God. Theoretically, God can solve all our problems quickly. However, in Judeo-Christian theology, God also gave us free will. He's not a micromanager or a Being whose sole purpose is to bail us out of our own idiocies. God can involves Himself in our personal lives. He could even interfere in humanity as a whole, but is that His reason for Being? People confuse God's omnipotence for eternal problem-solving, as if He is meant to cover our bills more than our sins.

People who look to God as a Being who should make life perfect for us have, in my own view, a very curious idea of who God is. I like to think of God as a Father: a loving Father, but one who gives us freedom. We've seen children grow rebellious and self-destructive even though they had good parents. In the same way, humanity is responsible for its own actions, including the miseries it inflicts on itself. It would be wrong to expect Mom and/or Dad to perpetually fix our lives for us, so if we were to see parents constantly rescuing their adult children and think it wrong on both sides, why do we see our Eternal Father differently?

Likewise, Superman cannot and should not fix the problems of our own devices. It's not Lex Luthor creating chaos: that's individual good against individual evil. Nuclear disarmament is a man-made problem, and as such we cannot and should not expect divine intervention.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace - Official® Trailer [HD] - YouTube
The second problem is that people, I have found, rarely go to movies to receive education. If there is something audiences almost universally reject is lectures disguised as entertainment. Unfortunately, many filmmakers hold that their work is meant to "persuade, inform and advocate" versus entertain. Granted, there are probably a few films that can do that without skimping on the artistic: All Quiet on the Western Front and Parasite come to mind. However, most of these cinematic lectures have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Superman IV is in the latter.

The United Nations scene is instructive in Reeve & Company's misguided ideas. Here, Superman declares that he unilaterally will rid the world of all nuclear weapons, with the nations cheering this on. Reeve and Company may think such an announcement would elate the world because that is how they see the world: one where the world agrees with them; I think such a move would actually horrify the world, particularly the adversaries who hold on to nuclear weapons for dear life (while they didn't have nuclear weapons at the time, I cannot imagine India and Pakistan going along with this idea with nary a complaint). Perhaps if Superman would have said he would broker world peace, then that might have worked. However, for Superman to take it upon himself to make such a decision and that the world would go along with it seems almost insulting.

Essentially, Reeve is advocating for Superman to be almost world dictator, a benevolent dictator but a dictator nonetheless.

Watch Superman IV: The Quest for Peace | Prime Video
Worse, Reeve is now making Superman an advocate, a cipher for Reeve's own political viewpoints. He decided that Superman IV would be de facto propaganda, and I personally bristle at any non-fiction film that decides it will "teach" me anything, even when I agree with the filmmaker's worldview. It takes one side of an issue and decided that rather than persuade viewers that said side was right, it decided that said view was right by default.

If you make a film less to continue or find new stories but instead make it to further an agenda, it will almost automatically fail because you never allow the audience a chance to explore.

"Nobody wants war. I just want to keep the threat alive," Luthor tells Superman. I'm puzzled by this thinking: if the nations of the world really gave up nuclear weapons so quickly, why would they rearm themselves even faster?

In all of this, when we see Superman IV we have to admit that the main plot about saving the world by getting rid of all our bombs is one of its many problems. It has a problem that many of these thinly-veiled advocacy films have: trying to send its message across while trying to keep other story threads going. It almost forgets that Superman IV is about nuclear disarmament when it turns into a romantic comedy, and for long stretches we wonder where any of this is going.

I'm not pleased with how this turned out. I look at Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and think it is a lost opportunity. There were many, many elements that sank it to be among the worst films made. I do not think though that the main plot of nuclear disarmament has been given enough credit for its failure however. Superman IV decided that it would inform instead of entertain or even persuade. It decided to spend its limited resources being a lecture rather than a film.

When a film decides that it has a "higher calling", it dooms itself.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The King (2019): A Review


I'm always up for a good Shakespeare adaptation. Unfortunately, The King, a loose adaptation of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, is not a good adaptation. It thinks it is, but after watching The King, I could not find one thing I genuinely liked about it.

Young Prince Hal (Timothee Chalamet) is in the words of one of his many opponents, "a whoring fool". He also is, unfortunately, the Prince of Wales and heir to the English crown, held tenuously by his father King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn). Henry IV and the future Henry V would rather have the crown pass to Prince Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman) but that was not to be.

With Hal now King Henry V, his youth and inexperience make him prey for enemies internal and external. His only genuine friend is Sir John Falstaff (co-writer Joel Edgerton), a wise counselor and adviser to our unmerry monarch. His major external enemy is France, on whom he makes war after King Charles VI sends an assassin.

Henry V faces off against the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) at the Battle of Agincourt, where he makes the Dauphin look a fool. Also, Henry V wins. In exchange for peace Charles offers his daughter in marriage, but thanks to her Henry realizes there is another Court Fool: himself, and he makes quick work of the charlatans who got him into a needless war.

Timothée Chalamet bombs in weak Netflix biopic 'The King' | The ...The film may be titled The King, but for all intents and purposes it might as well have been titled Falstaff: The Untold Story given the prominent and surprisingly ennobling role our rotund knight had. I freely confess that I do not know the history plays as well as I should or could. However, as weak as my knowledge of the Henriad is, I do not remember Falstaff being the source of wisdom or of deep thoughts on war. In fact, what shifts the character from the wastrel Hal to the noble Henry is his very rejection of Falstaff and the past he represents, turning away from his former carousing buddy to accept his destiny as monarch.

In The King, this Hal/Henry would never tell Falstaff, "I know thee not, old man". On the contrary: Henry thinks of Falstaff as the embodiment of nobility and wisdom. Even more surprising, Falstaff IS the embodiment of nobility and wisdom. Again, while the Shakespeare history plays are not my forte, I don't remember Falstaff being this boring or Hal/Henry this wimpy.

Netflix drama The King reimagines Shakespeare's Henry plays with ...
This is the second Joel Edgerton script that I have seen after Boy Erased, where he also played a major character (Edgerton cowriting The King with director David Michot). Both times he has failed to win me over, but The King is even worse in that it takes a particularly great source material and butchers it. The King is a slog to sit through: boring, endless, lifeless, with no action, no motivation, a terrible sense of self-importance where everyone is "acting" versus "being".

It is a poor sign when your allegedly main character's greatest character development is signaled by a haircut: emo-like threads for Hal, short hair for Henry.

Worse, The King has some of the most ghastly performances of the year. There is not an ounce of life in any of the characters, almost everyone speaking in this faux-important whisper that almost suggests they weren't sure of their lines and tried to compensate by speaking them softly.

Chalamet is wildly miscast as Hal/Henry. He does not display either a wild and reckless life of debauchery or his evolution to the noble and powerful monarch he became. Instead, Chalamet seems like a little boy thrust into some kind of oddball epic trying to figure it out along the way. Chalamet is more willowy than imposing, and it beggars belief that this scrawny kid shifts into the muscular monarch (muscular in every meaning of the word).

Part of his failure is not Chalamet's fault; he was poorly directed by Michod, who made everyone "act" so serious. In fact, all the seriousness in The King drowns out any chance for drama or emotion. Part of his failure lies with co-writer Edgerton, who gave himself the plum role of Falstaff, now as Action Hero versus Drunken Buffoon. He too whispers, but in one of those "whispering = deep thoughts" acting styles that plagues many a faux-epic. Thomasin McKenzie as Henry's sister and Chapman as Prince Thomas are wasted in essentially cameos who might as well have been cut out altogether.

Timothée Chalamet bombs in weak Netflix biopic 'The King' | The ...Faring worse, however, is Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France. Looking like Dracula's grandson and sporting a French accent that Monty Python would reject as too over-the-top, his Edward Cullen-Meets-Inspector Clouseau shtick confirms for me that Pattinson cannot act. I keep getting told he's his generation's Peter O'Toole, some titanic force of cinematic brilliance that transcends sparkling vampires. However, even he cannot claim pride in The King for his inevitable Honorary Oscar or Kennedy Center Honors tribute.

The King also is saddled with nearly indecipherable cinematography where you feel like calling for a flashlight to see what is going on and a score that thinks better of itself than it should be. It is absolutely astonishing that the Battle of Agincourt, which should be the climax of the film, looks almost boring.

As I think back on The King, I genuinely wonder why any of them decided that their version of the Henriad would be something people would want to watch over other versions. It has no action. It has no romance. It has no humor. It has no drama. It has no emotion. It has no character development. Apart from bad performances and a dull narrative, it has nothing.

May The King never reign.   


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Mr. 3000: A Review

MR. 3000

*While the Minor League Baseball season did not open on April 14 due to Coronavirus, I opted to keep to this date.

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews annual Opening Day film, where I review a baseball-related film to coincide with the Minor League Baseball Opening Day for the El Paso Chihuahuas. This year, I am looking at Mr. 3000, a pleasant if not particularly deep film.

Arrogant Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Stan Ross (Bernie Mac) has achieved a lofty achievement: 3,000 hits as a professional Major League player. However, while popular with fans everyone else that's near him hates him for his obnoxious manner and inability to be a true team player. So irritated is he with the negative press coverage and what he considers a losing team that he retires immediately after gaining his 3,000 hit.

Nine years later, Ross has parlayed his on-field success to a lucrative business empire, using his "Mr. 3,000" nickname for a variety of businesses, even a Chinese restaurant (Mr. 3,000 Woks). Normally, his record would be enough to ensure induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but the writers essentially hate him so much that Ross keeps coming up short (a more humorous version of the Curt Schilling situation).

Image result for mr. 3000 movieAfter his number is retired by the Brewers as a way to drum up ticket sales, it is discovered that "Mr. 3,000" is really "Mr. 2,997" due to a clerical error. Ross is humiliated while the press delights in pointing out how his tally went from 4 votes to 147 votes short. Determined to get his 3,000 record back, Ross talks his way into coming out of retirement at 47 to get those three hits.

The current Brewers players, in particular hotshot Rex "T-Rex" Pennebaker (Brian J. White) are dismissive of Ross, but Brewers executive Schriembri (Chris Noth) sees the chance for larger attendance to see both history and a return of a fan favorite. As Ross continues a quixotic pursuit of three hits, he not only starts to grow as a person but reignites a romance with ESPN reporter Maureen Simmons (Angela Bassett). In the end, Ross both gets and does not get what he wants, but becomes a true team player and genuine fan favorite.

Mr. 3,000 has as a major plus the late Bernie Mac, who died far too soon. He balances being so arrogant and nasty that you almost want him to fail with a genuinely insecure man who somehow needs validation. You start hating him, sometimes cringing at how awful he is with his teammates and even fans. As Mr. 3,000 continues though, we see that change into someone who knows more than his younger teammates, even softening and maturing.

Image result for mr. 3000 movieHe softens when we see him with Bassett, perhaps underused but still in top form, more than able to hold her own and make us believe someone as bright as Mo would fall again for Ross. He matures when he sees his older self in Pennebaker, who is just as cocky and egotistical as Ross was when he was "Ross the Boss".

This was probably Paul Sorvino's most enjoyable performance insofar as he had only one real moment of dialogue. He essentially just glared and glowered at Ross until the end, when he stood up for him when he was called out (and I think he was clearly in).

As I saw Mr. 3,000, I could see that it by no means great material. Eric Champanella, Keith Mitchell and Howard Michael Gould's screenplay follows predictable beats (the arrogant man brought down who is both reformed and redeemed), and flows surprisingly well. Some things were underdeveloped, such as his mentor role to a variety of players and the good-natured bickering between two players on a variety of topics.

The voice-over ending was not only "corny" but openly called "corny", wrapping up the story almost in a hurried manner despite a short running time.

However, Mr. 3,000 is a nice, generally sweet story that I found enjoyable.


2017 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out
2018 Opening Day Film: Fear Strikes Out
2019 Opening Day Film: Ladies' Day

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Two Popes: A Review


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


Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Who Will Write Our History: A Review (Review #1380)

Who Will Write Our History (2018) - IMDbWHO 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.


Monday, April 6, 2020

Endings, Beginnings: A Review


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.


Friday, April 3, 2020

The Kingmaker: A Review


"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. 

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.


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life. A Review (Review #1377) Watch Every Act of Life | Prime Video

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.