Thursday, December 31, 2020

One Night in Miami...A Review (Review #1447)

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI...

One Night in Miami... puts together four prominent African-American men, each at a particular point in their lives. While a fictional story and not quite able to escape its stage roots, One Night in Miami... still holds the viewers attention as these four men struggle, argue and laugh with their roles in American life and their community.

After brief scenes of each man facing situations that shape or shake their worldview, we go to February 25, 1964. Here, young boxing talent Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) meets up with his spiritual mentor, Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The Brother Minister has convinced Cassius to join the controversial religious sect and announce it after Clay's fight with Sonny Liston.

Also coming to the fight is Cassius' friend and Malcolm's frenemy singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) while their mutual friend, NFL superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) will be giving boxing commentary. After Clay wins the match he gets Brown and Cooke to join him and the Brother Minister at their hotel.

Here, over the course of the night, the four men get into various discussions over their roles in the growing Civil Rights Movement, with Malcolm X and Cooke being the most divided. The former insists Cooke use his skills to advocate for action and not perform what he thinks of as soft, light music for majority-white audiences; the latter insists it is only through primarily economic freedom that will bring about advancement to the race. As each man attempts to explain himself and balance the joy of life, they each in the end make separate decisions that will impact their lives and careers.

One Night in Miami... is a speculative film in placing these four distinct legends together on this important night. However, it is more likely that in Kemp Powell's adaptation of his own play, they served as avatars for the state of African-Americans and the paths open to them to take in claiming their full rights. The two dominant figures here are Malcolm X and Sam Cooke, who often come into conflict over how best to move the African-American community forward.

I would argue that given the dominance of both Ben-Adir and Odom, Jr. in One Night in Miami... at times Goree and Hodge get lost as the Brother Minister and Mr. Soul battle it out. It would not be surprising to see Ben-Adir and Odom, Jr. receive recognition for their performances as both are exceptional. Despite being submitted for Supporting, I would argue it is Odom, Jr. who is the clear standout of the two.

It is more than just capturing Cooke's ease and confidence but you also see someone at times eager to please, at times filled with barely concealed rage. His final scene as he premieres A Change Is Gonna Come on The Tonight Show is chilling. It is enhanced by editor Tariq Anwar, who mixes his performance with hints of the futures of Malcolm X, Mohammad Ali and Jim Brown (the sole surviving figure as of this writing). Ben-Adir at times sounds more like former President Barack Obama than Malcolm X in his cadence, but he has excellent moments too, such as when recounting how Cooke managed to hold an audience in the palm of his hand just by his voice.


Goree had some of Ali's inflections too, but curiously, neither he or the Brother Minister had that swagger or fire in One Night in Miami..., almost as if director Regina King had them be surprisingly restrained, muted. Of particular note is when the then-Cassius Clay wins: Goree doesn't have that mixture of swagger and delight in his declarations of being both "the greatest" and being "so pretty". Still, on the whole King proved herself an able director, leading her cast to fully formed performances.

She even had a few moments of comedy thanks to Christian Magby's eager Nation of Islam member Jamaal, who was simply too much of a fanboy to keep to strict NOI routines.

One Night in Miami... also has a wonderful closing song, Speak Now, that sounds like the perfect companion piece to Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come, one of the Greatest Songs of the Twentieth Century.

The film can't quite escape its stage roots in that certain scenes do play as if performed on stage, particularly whenever our quartet is together in Malcolm X's hotel room. Despite this, One Night in Miami... is a well-crafted film with strong performances that tells a fascinating "what-if" story. It's a story that is both of its time and ours.

Sam Cooke: 1931-1964
Malcolm X: 1925-1965
Mohammad Ali: 1942-2016
Jim Brown: Born 1936    

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Dick Johnson Is Dead: A Review


DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

The old saying goes "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard". I think Dick Johnson is Dead wants us to believe that dying can have a bit of humor, albeit a dark one. This film, part documentary, part fantasy, delves into the lighter side of mortality while also touching on both its inevitability and its emotional toll.

Psychiatrist C. Richard Johnson's documentary filmmaker daughter Kirsten chronicles her father slowly succumbing to his Alzheimer's in a most unique way. She convinces her affable father to participate in going through a series of staged deaths as well as imagining what Heaven will be like. Dr. Johnson, who is a Seventh-Day Adventist, happily goes along with scenes where younger versions of himself and his late wife Catherine Jo dance (apparently with a slightly disapproving Jesus watching). 

The Heavenly and death recreations at times amuse, at times puzzle Dr. Johnson, though his faux-funeral seems to delight the man. His growing dementia however forces changes to his life however. He retires from his psychiatric practice and move from his Seattle home to his daughter's apartment. It's mostly all jolly and lighthearted until June 23, 2019, when we get not one but two twists involving cardiac arrests and funerals. To say more would be too much but let's just say we get some resurrections along the way.

Dick Johnson is Dead is a film that looks at more than just the inevitable decline and death of a parent. It is a love letter between father and daughter, where the genial Dick goes along with whatever Kirsten asks of him in a cheerful manner. Whether it's having Christ heal a toe deformity he's been embarrassed over or let her stage him bleeding to death on the New York City streets, Dick seems almost delighted with it all.

One senses his pride in his daughter, if perhaps a bit of puzzlement at times. He seems cheerfully but momentarily worried about that bleeding scene, thinking that perhaps they will be using real blood or even his own as part of the stunt. It takes a bit to explain that it is fake blood. While he laughs at it all, this leads to a few issues in the film.

Dick Johnson had been suffering from dementia for some time: Kirsten in voiceover tells us he had been double-booking patients and once drove through a construction site at high speed unaware, arriving home with four flat tires. Later on the film, we hear her conversations with him, where she calmly tells him that he had gotten up very early and mistook the living room for his office, thinking he was going to see a patient. 

As such, exactly how fully aware Dr. Johnson was of the goings-on in Dick Johnson is Dead, as well as whether he was in full control to give consent, is unclear. Kirsten Johnson herself remarks to a new nurse that she doesn't want to go beyond what her father would find comfortable, so she is aware that there is a risk of taking things too far. However, from the looks of it, it looks like Dr. Johnson is going along with all the wackiness to make her happy.

Another issue, and a larger one for me, was the set of twists built around June 23, 2019, which is shortly after Dr. Johnson's 86th birthday celebration. It looks one way but turns out another, which would give audiences a surprise but for me looks slightly manipulative and even twisted.

For full disclosure, it may be that because I lost my mother this year, sights of ambulances and funerals hit too close to home now. That we get twists for the Johnsons that are impossible for me perhaps puts an edge to my mix of discomfort to even anger at it all. 

One, however, can see what Kirsten Johnson is going for in Dick Johnson is Dead. She is attempting to reconcile her own reactions to her beloved father's inevitable descent into something both manageable and even humorous. In doing so, she is attempting to speak for all of us who face our parents fading away either through physical or mental separation. It's a noble sentiment, done with some dark humor and genuine affection for the almost perpetually jolly Dr. Johnson. 

You sense that Dr. Johnson is a nice, pleasant, jolly fellow, but also one who is aware of what is to come (his late wife having suffered with Alzheimer's too). At one particularly poignant moment, he tells his daughter that he is more like a little brother to her now, forever tagging along and causing trouble. "I'm your little brother, who is demented," he tells her, and it's hard not to be moved by their dual recognition of the fate that awaits them.

Perhaps because I buried my parent this year I was not as amused as others were in Dick Johnson is Dead. I wasn't the only one: one of Dr. Johnson's best friends is seen openly weeping after giving a faux-eulogy despite knowing Dick Johnson is not dead. The thought of this separation, this loss, even in play, was too much for him. Dick Johnson is Dead may not be for everyone, perhaps finding the reenactments far too cutesy and moving away from documentary into fantasy. However, it is a loving portrait of father and daughters, of their love for each other and a way to accept death on their own terms.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Welcome to Chechnya: A Review (Review #1445)

WELCOME TO CHECHNYA

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities (LGBTQ) have faced many trials and tribulations throughout history, but Welcome to Chechnya is a strong reminder that in some parts of the world, said trials and tribulations continue. Going beyond the standards of most documentaries by employing modern technology, we simultaneously see the most revealing and hidden portrait of true homophobia.

Welcome to Chechnya chronicles the work of the Russian LGBT Network that helps persecuted Chechens who face arrest, torture and death who are unmasked for their sexual orientation as well as the gay refugees fleeing persecution. From safe houses to tense-filled escapes, the film does not shy away from the difficulties LGBTQ men and women face in this Muslim-majority state.

Chechnya's erratic leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is essentially given a free hand by Russian President Vladimir Putin to do as he sees fit so long as he does not go against Moscow. While it is more than likely Putin himself is homophobic, Kadyrov's homophobia goes to extreme levels. Harassment is the mildest form of punishment for anyone suspected of being homosexual. The jails are filled with people tortured and sexually assaulted for their sexual orientation; one particularly chilling albeit brief section is footage of police raping a suspected gay man, mocking him. Another video cuts off before a lesbian has her head crushed by a large stone by a male family member.

Welcome to Chechnya features interviews with those who work at the Russian LGBT Network as well as with the sexual refugees, but instead of blurring their faces it uses modern technology to essentially give them new faces and voices to superimpose over their actual visages. The technology works remarkably well: rarely does the viewer suspect that these might not be real faces if not for a slight haze at times. It is only when the man known as "Grisha" is finally revealed as Maxim Lapunov that we see how well the technology works. In a digital unmasking, we see him transformed from the man we've seen into what he actually looks like. 

It's a surprising, almost amazing moment, as the viewer had probably accepted that "Grisha" looked in real life as he does in Welcome to Chechnya. The moment in director David France's documentary is handled well: no dramatic music or elaborate moment. Instead, it's almost a quiet moment, reflecting Lapunov's fear and hesitancy in telling his story.

As a side note, while its use in Welcome to Chechnya is for the good, the ability to alter faces so well may be a worrisome ability if used for nefarious acts, but that is a conversation for another time.

Lapunov is a courageous man, willing to speak out against such a violent government. He is also unique in that he is not ethnically Chechen but Russian. As such, his revelations had the negative effect of putting his family in danger too, but also allows him to pursue a form of justice in the Russian courts versus facing certain dismissal in Chechnya. It is disheartening though not surprising to see Lapunov's Russian case be equally and quickly dismissed.

Welcome to Chechnya does an excellent job balancing the refugee stories along with how the situation came to be so dire. There are many disturbing moments, such a suicide attempt at the safe house where it has to be handled in-house. There's also the distressing news of "Anya", who fled rather than submit to her uncle's sexual demands in exchange for his silence. Late in the film we see she has herself run away from her safe house due to the stress of forced enclosure.

Other moments are chilling and bizarre. Kadyrov, when asked about popular Chechen pop singer Zelim Bakaev's disappearance due to his suspected homosexuality, first stumbles over Bakaev's name as if unaware who he is, then laughs when remarking how the world was lecturing and threatening him about the still-unsolved disappearance. Bakaev, a man so handsome even the lesbians appear to find him attractive, is perhaps the most high-profile case of the Chechen gay purge, but the other victims who speak out in the film are understandably depressed but also puzzled.

One remarks his experiences with Chechens was quite positive, finding them very kind people, making their equally rampant homophobia slightly irrational. I say "slightly" due to the the idea that a mix of culture, tradition and strongman Kadyrov all have played a hand in this persecution. 

Some moments play out almost like an action film despite being true, such as Grisha and Anya's flight to undisclosed European countries. Knowing that Anya and Bakaev's fates are unknown ends the film on a grim note despite the positive of Maxim and his family (including his partner) being able to escape. His story, and the possibility of marriage and a peaceful life, is about the only real moment of hope in Welcome to Chechnya.

Lapunov's press conference perhaps best sums up the documentary. "I ask for one thing only: the triumph of justice", he says. He knows he may never return to his homeland, that his plans for a career as an events planner are now torn asunder, and that he may have to start afresh in another country with all the difficulties and stress that places on him, his family and his romantic relationship. However, by speaking out, Lapunov knows that he has a right to life. It is a quiet act of defiance in a society that allows acts of violence to go unpunished, if not actively encouraging them.

Welcome to Chechnya is a strong film about a subject that should not be ignored. This is especially true for the American LGBTQ community, and not just as a reminder of the dangers others in their community face in other countries. At a time when "deadnaming" (the act of using the previous name of a transgender person) is called "an act of violence", it is important to remember what real acts of violence against LGBT people are. While using a former name or pronoun may be dumb, it nowhere compares to being physically assaulted or killed, a fate all LGBTQ Americans face if they ever went openly to Chechnya.  

DECISION: B+

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Wonder Woman 1984: A Review


 WONDER WOMAN 1984

In 2017, I was wildly impressed with Wonder Woman. I was so impressed I named it the Best Film of the Year. I thrilled to its mix of action, fantasy, adventure and romance. After a few unfortunate delays due to the COVID pandemic/panic, we have at last the sequel Wonder Woman 1984

It won't make my Ten Best, though perhaps I'm too charitable to place it among the Ten Worst.

It is 1984 and Diana Prince aka Woman Woman (Gal Gadot) is still pining for her long-lost love Steve Trevor. Now working at the Smithsonian, she moonlights as a crimefighter. One of those crimes at a mall jewelry store leads to the discovery of an object with a Latin inscription. New gemologist Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) is tasked to catalog the stolen cache.

That object has the power to grant whoever holds it their great wish. Unbeknownst to them, Barbara and Diana make wishes in a somewhat insincere manner: Barbara to be like Diana, and we find out later, Diana to be reunited with Steve (Chris Pine). However, also aware of the object is fraudulent oil tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). He wishes to literally be the object, able to grant wishes but at a cost to whomever makes the wish.

As Maxwell now finds himself gaining more power, Diana starts losing hers due to the wish carrying that secret cost. The only way to return things to normal is to renounce the wish, but no one wants to despite the growing chaos. It's "the Monkey Paw effect" as Steve points out. It is up to Diana/Wonder Woman to take that first step, and then to fight against Maxwell and Barbara (now transformed into Cheetah) to stop the ultimate destruction.

It's a curious thing that twice in my notes, I referred to Wonder Woman 1984 as having "Superman III vibes". By that I mean that things look a bit cartoonish, interested more in laughs than straightforward storytelling. There just seemed to be no enthusiasm for anything and about anything.

It is a poor sign for me that at what is meant to be a climatic battle I was fighting to stay awake. 

One major issue is length: the film is over two-and-a-half hours long, and director Patty Jenkins (cowriting with Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan) should have cut out well over half to a full hour out of this. The opening Themyscira sequence is a punishing 11 minutes long and add the mall jewelry store robbery and we're close to half hour into this story without anything actually happening. There's this sluggishness, this drag throughout Wonder Woman 1984 that makes things feel even longer. 

It takes over half an hour for Diana, Barbara and Maxwell to share the screen, and close to an hour before Steve shows up. How he turns up is where we go for some unnecessary comedy bits about 80s fashions and the wonders of the post-World War I world Steve never lived to see. Inserting Steve Trevor into Wonder Woman 1984 by the most oddball of ways seems so irrelevant to anything.

About the only really remarkable thing is Chris Pine's lack of vanity of allowing his greying hair to be seen.

I can't say anything particularly good about any of the performances. Gadot looks bored and blank, reciting her lines with apparently no enthusiasm. Wiig was surprisingly restrained as Barbara, the nebbish who now has powers. Perhaps that was to counter Pascal, whose manic manner seemed at times bordering on farce. I'll cut him some slack only because Maxwell was saddled with a "motive" for his evil: keeping his son Alistair (Lucian Perez). Why water down the villain by trying to show his softer side? 

That is such a cliché, and not a particularly good one or good use of it here.

Moments that want to play into being magical, such as Diana turning the stolen airplane invisible or flying (whether through an Independence Day fireworks show or on her own as apparently Wonder Woman can practically fly a la Superman) looked less magical and more dull. 

As a film set in the mid-1980s, you can trust that Wonder Woman 1984 would have some shoutouts to those wacky times: bad Reagan impersonators, the clothes, even a cameo mid-credits that seemed almost irritating versus fun. It didn't add anything other than slight nostalgia porn, but it didn't make the film any better.

I think I might have hit on the big issue with Wonder Woman 1984: it wasn't fun. It wasn't anything really. There's no real story here. Everyone looks pretty bored. You wait for something to happen. There's no enthusiasm, no sense of adventure or joy here. 

Wonder Woman 1984 isn't terrible. It just isn't anything. 

DECISION: D+

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Assistant: A Review

THE ASSISTANT

While America continues with its "racial reckoning", there is another kind of "reckoning" that has grown a bit more quiet: the #MeToo Movement. The fallout over accusations of sexual harassment, abuse and assault that brought down many a Hollywood figure has quieted down. However, not even the most "woke" of men were spared. Comedian Louis C.K., FOX News head Roger Ailes, Today host Matt Lauer, Nerdist founder Chris Hardwick, now-former Senator Al Franken, Metropolitan Opera musical director James Levine down to "America's Dad" Bill Cosby were among many who found themselves tarnished, accused and even criminally charged for their past actions. 

None however fell farther, further, faster or harder than Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein. Once one of the most powerful and feared figures in the entertainment industry, Weinstein was feted, worshiped and adored by such figures as Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Meryl Streep, who famously referred to him as "God".

Then came the cascade of accusers against Weinstein, and the man who bullied his way to Oscar glory found himself eventually locked up for his crimes, ignored by those powerful figures in film and politics that once curried favor with him and danced to his tune.

While The Assistant is not a literal detailing of Weinstein's brutality and crimes, it is a portrait of how someone so powerful can get away with it for so long. A steady and devastating portrait of the burden of silence and complicity of others, The Assistant may be a bit slow for some viewers but it is definitely worth the visit.

Jane (Julia Garner) is an assistant to "the Chairman", the head of a production company. She comes in before dawn to start out on her series of mundane activities, with her male counterparts coming in at their regularly scheduled time. As the day progresses, Jane keeps at her job but slowly sees that the Chairman is up to nefarious work behind closed doors.

It is clear everyone at the office is aware of the Chairman's shady affairs but are silent for their own reasons be it a belief that it's not their concern, that their jobs depend on their silence or even that they see nothing wrong with things. Jane, for example, overhears a group of executives come into the Chairman's office and advise one of them to "not sit on the sofa", chuckling along the way.

Jane opts to report her fears for Sienna (Kristine Froseth), a naïve Idaho girl the Chairman has brought with a promise of a job. The HR head Wilcock (Matthew Macfayden) seems pleasant enough but pretty much makes clear these charges will wreck her future, as well as that the Chairman's reputation precedes him. Jane opts to keep her silence, but knows that this may be a deal with the devil.

The Assistant is a surprisingly brief film (under 90 minutes) but in that time writer/director Kitty Green gives us the troubled day for the aspiring producer. Green's greatness in The Assistant is that the production company office workers are not portrayed as evil or even uncaring.

Instead, what it could be is that they are frightened, aware that speaking up and speaking out will cost them. Intimidated by this figure we never see, the culture that protects him is evident in small ways and small scenes.

After the Chairman learns of Jane's thwarted efforts, she is forced to write a letter of apology to him. Her two male coworkers (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini, giving excellent performances in their small roles) walk over to help her craft this email. It's clear that they all know what kind of person the Chairman is and are sadly used to his ways, knowing what will please him. In turns devastating and sad, we see that creeping element of fear and resignation register with them.

The Assistant is a clear showcase for Garner as Jane. She is the central focus of the film, and she gives a quiet, restrained yet exceptional performance. Her scene with Wilcock is a highlight. With no dramatics or exaggerated camera work, we see how she hesitant she is to speak up, and see how she is quietly pushed down. Yet here, we see Jane's rage, not expressed with shouts or angry looks, but with tense resignation, the conflict coming at her. 

Julia Garner gives one of the best performances of the year, one that is more intense by her quietness. 

In his single scene Macfayden too excels as the quiet, pleasant but equally resigned Human Resources head. He doesn't make Wilcock evil or even unpleasant. He seems willing to listen, to help, but he also quietly makes clear that Jane is essentially on her own. Not once does he become antagonistic or defensive. Instead, it's his quiet demeanor that makes his encouragement of her silence all the more devastating. When he tells her at the end she need not worry because "you're not his type", it's a painful moment of realization for the audience. No matter how pleasant, quiet, even good Wilcock is, he ultimately will fail in his responsibilities.

Wilcock, as good a man as he may be, is not there to protect the staff. He's there to protect the Chairman. Perhaps he does this with a misguided view that the company is not worth one person, but it's still a moment of sadness than of anger. 

The Assistant is a spare, quiet film, and despite its brief running time perhaps some audiences would like more drama and big moments. I also think that at times the audio made things hard to hear, so that too may be an issue.

They are slight issues however, as The Assistant is a small film on a large, necessary and important topic. It is true that, to misquote a phrase, for evil to triumph good men (and women) must do nothing. When it comes to sexual harassment and assault, silence is not golden.

DECISION: B- 

Friday, December 25, 2020

Roots: The Gift. The Television Special

Roots: The Gift (1988) - Rotten Tomatoes
ROOTS: THE GIFT

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Christmas , where I review a Christmas-themed film for the holidays. For this year's Christmas-themed film, I will look at a television special whose connection to Christmas is tenuous at best.

The idea of a Roots "Christmas Special" seems downright bonkers. The epic miniseries detailing the "peculiar institution" of slavery through the experience of four generations of an enslaved family does not appear to open itself to the happy warmth of the holiday season. Roots: The Gift is not about how Kunta Kinte met Santa Claus. It aims to be a story of the genesis of the Underground Railroad, but if you have seen or are aware of Roots, this spinoff undercuts a bit of what has come before.

Roots: The Gift, made eleven years after Roots captivated the nation is set seven years after the infamous and heartbreaking moment when African slave Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) is finally whipped into submission to accept his literal slave name of "Toby".

Spotsylvania County, Virginia, December 1775. Both Toby/Kunta and Fiddler (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are owned by Dr. William Reynolds (Jerry Hardin), whose been invited to a Christmas party at the nearby plantation of Edmund Parker, Sr. (John McMartin) and his wife Amelia (Michael Learned). While happy to take Fiddler so as to provide entertainment, the doctor reluctantly takes Toby to be the coachman.

Once there the Parker plantation finds itself awash with all kinds of visitors welcome and not. Edmund Parker, Jr. (Shaun Cassidy) has arrived from Harvard. Also here is Mr. Cletus Moyer (Avery Brooks), a whose appearance and status as a free man of color stuns Kunta. Despite being a free man of color he is still black, and is captured by Hattie Carraway (Kate Mulgrew) the rare female bounty hunter.

The Gift 1988 - YouTubeCletus has been aiding runaway slaves and as such is a wanted man. Hattie cares only for money, the rightness or wrongness of slavery irrelevant to her. Kunta and Fiddler learn that Cletus was about to help more runaways when taken and asks Kunta to take his place. He's eager to and get freedom for himself, but Fiddler is more reluctant. They do go to meet Cletus' contact of "Ciris", who turns out to be a surprising figure but agree to help the runaways with the chance of them joining the party.

A slave rebellion terrifies the whites and even longtime loyal slaves like Mammy May (Fran Bennett) and house slave Marcellus (Tim Russ) are treated not as "family" but as that appalling word by their masters. Despite the dangers, Kunta and Fiddler help the runaways after Moyer and two runaway slaves are lynched.

Will Kunta and Fiddler lead the small group, including a pregnant woman about to give birth, to freedom? Will they themselves be free?

I think the answer to the last question will be easy to answer if you again know anything about Roots. That takes away from any tension or suspense in Roots: The Gift since we already know what will happen. D.M. Eyre, Jr.'s screenplay also does not really bother setting up "Ciris" true identity and it should be pretty obvious who "Ciris" is. It's almost to where one wonders how long it would take to get anyone to figure it out.
Roots: The Gift - Screen Captures

Roots: The Gift also has some pretty bad performances, as if everyone involved was either thrilled to be part of the Roots storyline or aware that they were "acting". I was surprised that Brooks' Cletus was excessively dramatic as Cletus Moyer from the get-go, posing and using his rich voice to sound rather grand even when saying sometimes banal things. Learned and McMartin were also somewhat theatrical, sometimes to unfortunate effects. The scene where Edmund, Sr. slaps the subservient Marcellus should have been shocking. As played by McMartin, it comes across close to silly.

Cassidy, to be sure, was quite beautiful as the progressive Edmund, Jr., but he was not exactly a complex character, the white voice of reason in this evil world. I think by now both Burton and Gossett, Jr. knew their roles so well that they seemed to more coast through it, a shadow of their excellent work in Roots. Curiously, the best performance came from Mulgrew. She was evil incarnate from the get-go, but at least she had a more complex figure to play than some of the cardboard characters in Roots: The Gift. She was a bit of a feminist albeit a twisted one: a woman who had no love for the slaveholding aristocracy and certainly knew that her options were limited as a woman.   

The special has a hard time balancing the horror and inhumanity of slavery with the logic of the plot. Take for example when little Arabella Parker (Brandy Brown) uses Kunta as a camel for a Christmas pageant (down to pulling monstrously hard on his reins). When he's reached the end of his patience with this dual indignity he stands up literally and figuratively to everyone there and mentions that he is not a camel. Despite some addled protests from Arabella's mother, Kunta seems to be in command.

More surprising, he tells Arabella that his name is "Kunta Kinte" and everyone around him behaves as though a slave calmly but firmly reprimanding a little white girl is perfectly normal. All I could think was that they were very understanding white folks, letting a slave talk back to them with no word of complaint versus slapping loyal slaves who were actually helping them withstand the oncoming rebellion.

Roots: The Gift feels like a lost episode than a genuine addition to the Roots story. One can appreciate the message that "the gift" on this Christmas Eve is freedom, a most worthy gift. However, since we know Fiddler and Kunta Kinte/Toby will not be free, it does make it less than what it could have been to where it might have worked better if Kunta's descendants had met the Underground Railroad.

5/10

2019: Last Christmas
2018: Christmas With the Kranks
2017 (Christmas Day): The Man Who Invented Christmas 
2017 (Christmas Eve): Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
2016: Batman Returns
2015: A Madea Christmas
2014: Prancer
2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)
2012: Arthur Christmas

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Prom: A Review


THE PROM

During the "Golden Age" of Broadway musicals the inevitable film version would arrive on film screens even if it took time to get there. My Fair Lady took eight years from its theater to film debut, The Sound of Music took six years, and West Side Story a mere four. 

As a side note, Cats took 37 years. Make of that what you will.

The Prom has them all beat, taking only two years between its stage and screen premieres. Out of that season's Broadway offerings, why The Prom was the one ultimately greenlit for a cinematic treatment will be one of life's great mysteries. To be fair, 2018's theatrical offerings were pretty scarce as Broadway thrilled audiences with musicals built around the song catalogs of Cher, The Go-Go's and The Temptations along with musical adaptations of Pretty Woman, Beetlejuice, Tootsie and King Kong (?!?). The Prom is an absolute nightmare: loud, garish, self-righteous, and so wildly misguided it does the impossible and make you almost root for the "bad guys".

After their latest musical Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical flops, Broadway diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and flamboyant Broadway divo Barry Glickman (James Corden) want to find themselves a cause to up their cred. With help from former TV star/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), the erstwhile Franklin & Eleanor find a cause.

Emma from Indiana (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to go to her Prom wearing a tuxedo and with her secret girlfriend. Rather than let that happen, PTA President Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) pushes to cancel Prom altogether, much to the distress of James Madison High School principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key). Mrs. Greene does not want Emma corrupting the youth, especially her daughter Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). Thus sweep in our fabulous Broadway stars to the backwards backwoods of "Indiana", where among such horrors they must endure for their good cause are hotels that don't have spas or doctors on call and a strange eatery called "Apples & Bees". 

Emma would sooner not be their cause du jour but cause du jour she is, igniting a series of events that lead to TWO proms: one for her, one for everyone else. After this debacle our illustrious stars get together to help Emma and her secret girlfriend (one guess as to who that could be), but sometimes a lesbian has to do what a lesbian has to do. With that, all things work out and everyone can Wear Your Crown (the only song written specifically for the film). 

Unlike Mr. Hawkins, I cannot afford to take yearly trips to NYC to see the latest Broadway musicals, but if The Prom is the best American musicals can do these days, the artform is on life support if not actually dead. The Prom has ghastly musical numbers that boggle the imagination, so unimaginative and derivative that in some case I think composers Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin could be sued for plagiarism. Almost all the songs are too "Broadway" (big and bombastic) or veer towards generic pop tunes.

Why bother with the deepness of Ol' Man River, the tenderness and hope of Edelweiss or dark cynicism of Cabaret when you can have the frantic, frenetic pop-friendly Barry Is Going to Prom?

Zazz is more than just a horrifying Bob Fosse rip-off that should make Kander & Ebb seek out legal representation. It has the gall to rhyme "bossy" with "Fosse" (a rhyme you could see coming from miles away). I figure Zazz was meant as an "homage" to Fosse, but everything about it was so cringe-inducing that I think director Ryan Murphy should have cut the number out altogether rather than try to out-Fosse Fosse.

Another number that I think should have been removed from this bloated freakshow is We Look to You, the love song/tribute Hawkins sings to Dee Dee. There's something so tonally deaf when it comes to We Look to You (and no, that's not a dig at Key's singing, which I was neither here nor there about). We Look to You is a vain tribute to the importance of actors and entertainers, how they bring joy into our humdrum lives and unite us all by letting us forget our troubles while they entertain us.

Not since Lina Lamont uttered such vapid and pompous thoughts in Singin' in the Rain have actors expressed such inflated opinions of themselves. Moreover, given how this quacking quartet came to Indiana to lecture & enlighten all these yahoos the message of We Look to You is frankly hypocritical. As a side note, given how today so many actors see themselves as "activists" they are doing more to divide people than unite them, but there it is. 


Some musical moments are downright satanic. When Dee Dee literally bursts onto an unsuspecting PTA meeting with It's Not About Me, I literally (and yes, I do mean literally) covered my eyes with both hands, horrified at how monstrously over-the-top it all was. When Dee Dee attempts to reconcile with Principal Hawkins by belting out The Lady's Improving, I again literally wrote in my notes STOP! STOP! STOP! (in all caps).

The Lady's Improving, I think, is instructive of where The Prom went wrong. In the film, Dee Dee sing the favorite song of Principal Hawkins (apparently the only straight black Broadway showtunes fan in America) from the fictitious musical Swallow the Moon: The Lady's Improving. Dee Dee and Hawkins know The Lady's Improving is from a musical, but for reasons known only to Murphy and screenwriters Bob Martin and Beguelin they have a group of teen boys who are waiting outside his office suddenly join in the dancing.

Murphy wants to have it both ways: keep the over-the-top manner of a Broadway musical and a more restrained manner of a film musical. The two never blend and soon things stop making sense. On a stage, it's acceptable to have Dee Dee appear in a showstopping number. On the screen, it looks unhinged because Murphy wants us to believe it's simultaneously real and fake. 

The Lady's Improving could have worked if the entire Swallow the Moon backstory had been removed and it had been allowed to be an expression of Dee Dee's evolution. Instead, by structuring it as he did (and as I figure how the original stage production had it), the end result looks almost desperate. 

The Prom, I figure or hope, wants us to see Dee Dee, Barry, Angie and Trent as the heroes, but they ended up looking so smug, clueless, self-important and self-righteous the film almost goad the audience to turn against them. It's one thing to spoof the pretentiousness of entertainers. It's another to make them loathsome, oozing contempt for those who don't think like they do. They are beyond clueless about "flyover country". They are downright hateful towards it. It makes no sense that Barry for example despite being from Ohio is unaware of what "Kmart" is. 

Their efforts to bring tolerance to these hicks is filled with venom. Our Broadway babies are appalled and puzzled at what a monster truck rally is, and Trent's self-penned The Acceptance Song is overtly condescending to the audience it's meant to convince. Again, this can work on stage where things can be outlandish; as presented in the film however I can understand why the audience booed and wanted the frankly more entertaining monster truck show rally to resume. 

I would have booed...and I'm on their side! The Acceptance Song plays like a right-wing parody of what showbiz elitists would sing. I can't say that was the intent, but that was the end result. 

In all this I haven't touched on the performances. They were almost all universally bad. I have never believed that only openly gay actors should play gay characters, but James Corden is making me rethink that. James Corden's entire career is an absolutely mystifying mystery to me: he is devoid of any actual talent be it singing, acting, dancing, comedy or any other form of entertainment. He camps it up to the Nth degree finding the mincing does all the talking. Given how the openly gay Broadway veteran Rannells is the closest thing to a sane person in this quartet (which is saying a lot), one wonders why he didn't play Barry. He was the best of the lot, though his big number Love Thy Neighbor comes across as smug and overblown.

I figure Streep was meant to be over-the-top as the Diva of All Divas, but I think her reviews for Eleanor! would be closer to how she was. She gave it her best effort, but you don't win people over by telling reporters how there needed to be a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt because as she puts it "nobody had ever heard of her" and thus her story needed to be told. It's too obvious, too forced, this vapidness.

The two thwarted lovers of Pellman and DeBose were the standouts, with their numbers both individually and together working best. I think that has to do with the fact that they were restrained and sincere, not insane and smug.

The Prom is also hampered by loud and garish production design and a never-ending story, one that drags once you hit the half-hour mark, with another hour and a half to go.

I despair for Broadway if The Prom is what is being presented as quality musical work. It's a pity that neither Swallow the Moon or Eleanor! exist in real life. They sound like better shows than The Prom.      

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Review

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, whatever its merits, would earn a place in film history as the final film in the much-too-brief career of Chadwick Boseman. Fortunately, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has excellent merits: a fine if still somewhat stage-bound adaptation that is both of its time and contemporary.

"Mother of the Blues" chanteuse Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is booked for a recording session during her tour. She knows it will earn her money and exposure, but she also knows that as a black woman, she has to be shrewd about exercising what little power she has over both the white record executives and her band.

The band is at a crossroads. While her trumpeter Cutler (Colman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman) and bassist Slow Drag (Michael Potts) know that what Ma says goes, talented but arrogant trumpeter Levee (Boseman) is more than willing to push people's buttons. He isn't afraid to try and upstage Ma, a cardinal sin.

As the band waits for the diva, they talk, laugh and argue about their lives and work. As Ma makes the nervous recording engineers and executives wait, she too explains herself. Recording session finally done, Ma Rainey and Levee go their separate ways, with tragic and unexpected results for the latter.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is part of the late playwright August Wilson's "Century Cycle", chronicling the African-American experience in ten plays: one for each decade. Here in the 1920s, we see current issues brought to life: issues of power struggles between executives and artists, the exploitation of black performers by white management, the desires for advancement being frustrated. The play probably did not foresee the chaotic world the film version would see, but Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is well-balanced in being both a story of its time and almost allegory of the world now.

We see great performances throughout, in particular from Boseman and Davis. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, despite the title's suggestion, is not about Ma Rainey herself. This is more Levee's story, and Boseman gives an exceptional performance. Levee's outwardly arrogant and cocky manner disguises deep hurts and fears, and Boseman plays Levee on a wide range of levels. The shifts from braggadocio to tormented, even blasphemous is strong and impactful. His monologues about his mother's attack will stay with the viewer after the film is over. It is a haunting, deep performance, more so given that Boseman was literally dying while making the film.

Davis too is excellent as Ma Rainey, communicating so much with just a look, a glance or a body movement. She makes Ma a woman aware that she has little power but knowledgeable in how to use what power she has. Ma Rainey is a diva, but one who fought hard to get what she has and who will brook no opposition be it from Levee or the record company. 

Every performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is excellent: Domingo as the more devout Cutler, Potts as the go-along-to-get-along Slow Drag, Turman as the ultimately tragic Toledo. In equally small roles, Dusan Brown as Ma's stuttering nephew Sylvester, Taylor Paige as Ma's girl Dussie Mae and Jeremy Shamos' put-upon manager Irving have excellent moments.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is also blessed with excellent production design in forms of its art direction, costuming and score. Director George C. Wolfe blends all the elements to make a strong, entertaining and insightful film.

Here however is where I have a couple of points that keep Ma Rainey's Black Bottom from being an outright masterpiece. First is that while Ruben Santiago-Hudson's adaptation works on the whole well, it still sounds like a play. Early on we can see that this originated as a theatrical piece because the film plays as a theatrical piece. Rather than fully open up Wilson's work Ma Rainey's Black Bottom feels closer to the Disney+ presentation of Hamilton than say Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire

Davis' prior venture in August Wilson adaptations Fences had a similar issue where the stage trappings were evident. While Wolfe directed the actors well, the staging still came across as staging, with actors giving monologues in the form of a stage presentation. One could even sense when a stage production would let actors off and on the stage. Try as it might it couldn't shake off its theatrical roots.

Another issue is with Davis, not her acting but her screen-time. She's being promoted as a Leading Actress when her she isn't on screen much. She's certainly on screen less time than Boseman, and for me she is clearly a Supporting character, not a lead. A minor issue perhaps, but still one given how a potential awards campaign is being launched for her.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is perhaps too stage-bound to be a fully-realized feature film, but with excellent performances and production it is well worth the time.  

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Half Brothers: A Review (Review #1440)

HALF BROTHERS

Anyone going into something as trivial as Half Brothers expecting deep meaning or insight into either family dynamics or current events is asking far too much of it. Half Brothers is meant as thin entertainment, drawing on old plots and stock characters to acceptable results; despite that I think people will be if not charmed by it at least more tolerant of it  than the title characters are to each other.

Renato Murgia (Luis Gerardo Méndez) last saw his father Flavio (Juan Pablo Espinoza) when Flavio went to the United States illegally to work. That was twenty-six years ago, and while Renato has become a successful aerial magnet he is still resentful and bitter. His fiancée Pamela (Pia Watson) urges him to see his father in Chicago after Flavio's second wife contacts him. She is convinced resolving his daddy issues will bring him peace and make him a good stepfather to her son Emilio (Mike A. Salazar), who is creepily obsessed with slasher films. 

More irritated than interested, he goes for what he thinks will be a quick trip to a country and its citizens that he hates and has nothing but contempt for. It is here that he has encounters a boorish American whom the uptight Renato soon finds to his horror is his half-brother Asher (Connor Del Rio). After Flavio's death Renato is pushed by Pamela to complete his father's dying request to follow a set of clues that will answer all his questions. 

The only negative is that he has to go with Asher, as goofy a goofball as Renato has encountered. This road trip brings the wacky Asher and super-serious Renato into a series of events that involve more clues, rednecks, undocumented Mexicans in cages and a pet goat (not in that order). Hilarity and heartwarming ensue.

Half Brothers is by no means intelligent or even balanced. Both Asher and Renato are rather unpleasant people whom others would find close to intolerable. The former seems so whacked out it is extraordinary that he isn't on drugs, the latter so intolerant that he veers dangerously close to being more murderous than his future stepson.

As a side note, the efforts at comedy by having Emilio dress up as serial killers from Jason to Hannibal Lecter were not funny but creepy. This was one of the many stabs at comedy Jason Schuman and Emilio Cisneros' screenplay tried that ended up having the opposite effect (no pun intended). 

Half Brothers at times decided, primarily through Flavio's story but also with Renato, to try and inject more serious issues about illegal immigration that were forced and heavy-handed, as if the film wanted to disguise things with the hijinks of the Murgia Brothers. It took one out of the film and felt contrived. Not that the entire cross-country trip helps matters.

Then there are moments that literally come out of nowhere. Why exactly Asher opted to take a side trip to a goat farm and steal a goat is never explained. It makes for "wacky" but not for logic. Flavio's new American life is also hit-and-miss (when and why he opted to be "Frank" not "Flavio" but kept "Murgia" seems equally odd), and the method of revealing all to his sons felt almost cruel.

Logic is not Half Brother's strong suit. Does Asher speak or understand Spanish? Sometimes it sounds like he doesn't (mispronouncing Jalisco as "Jah-Lisco" because as he puts it, "there's no H"). Later on however, he is able to not only understand Renato's phone conversation with Pamela where he calls him crazy but repeat it verbatim (albeit with a strong American accent).


Still, at the back of one's mind one has to remember that Half Brothers is not meant to be more than disposable entertainment and to its credit there are some funny moments. A running gag about Americans constantly bringing up zip-lining as the defining Mexican trait is funny, as is a scene where for once Renato gets spoken down to by an airline worker unimpressed with his own nastiness.

And yes, "Renatito" the goat is cute.

I think both Méndez and Del Rio knew the parts they were playing and played them correctly. Méndez played the frustration well as did Del Rio with his near-nuttiness. They were able to rise above the script to sell those few moments of warmth between two disparate people bound by blood. A better script could have played their Odd Couple manner better, and director Luke Greenfield might have done better in asking them to tone it down a bit. On the whole though, both did well given that Renato and Asher were meant to be exaggerated. 

As I think on Half Brothers, this is not a bright film, a logical film or even a particularly funny film. However, it is passable if forgettable, and it knows it is not great. It does have the benefit of a few surprisingly tender moments about the failures of fathers and sons to live up to expectations. Those moments actually did move me. Half Brothers is a simple movie that will entertain if one does not think long on or hard on it. 

DECISION: C+

Herself: A Review


HERSELF

In Herself, we have the potential for an inspirational story of female empowerment with the potential for a surprisingly good dramedy. Somehow, there's a lot of potential in Herself but that potential, already teetering, fell apart just at the end.

Sandra (cowriter Clare Dunne) finally escapes her abusive husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) with their two daughters. Despite having two jobs she cannot afford a home of her own home or even a decent apartment in high-cost Dublin. In a mix of inspired and desperate move, Sandra comes up with the idea to build herself a small home.

With the help of various people her dreams of a tiny house figuratively and literally rise. There's Peggy (Harriet Walter), one of her employers who lends her the land and money. Next comes surly Aido (Conleth Hill), a construction supervisor who knows Gary and what a beast he is. Along with the mother of her daughters' friend and the squatter friends of another coworker, Sandra soon starts building. 

However, a series of unfortunate events lead Sandra to face off against Gary in court for custody, which itself leads to a fiery conclusion.

Herself trips itself up in various ways. It seems it wants to simultaneously be quite serious and inspirational. These are not mutually exclusive, but somehow the elements between slight whimsy and tense drama don't gel as well as they could.

For example, all the people helping Sandra are given the most cursory attributes (one has Down Syndrome, one appears jolly, one is Cameroonian) but the film asks us to accept that they have bonded over the shared project when they don't seem to have much connection even when working together, let alone outside. 

It just seems all too convenient, too easy to round up this group, almost as if they came straight from Central Casting to resolve many of her issues.

It also cannot resist adding touches of drama that can be seen from miles away. What, for example, were the odds that her older daughter Emma (Ruby Rose O'Hara) would get into a scrape that would later be used against Sandra? The final surprise, however, is perhaps the worst, as if Dunne, her cowriter Malcolm Campbell and director Phyllida Lloyd could not or would not give Sandra a happy ending. It just seems almost cruel.

Somehow, one thinks that under other hands Herself would be close to either a heartwarming comedy or that empowerment film it wants to be. However, it seems set on being a bit dour while trying to be uplifting too, a strange mix that does not quite work. 

What does work is the central performance of Claire Dunne as Sandra. You see an actress who communicates much with a glance, a look of despair or exasperation. Her performance makes Sandra into not just a survivor but a striver. She has quiet moments where the despair comes through (such as when she laughs at her girls crashing into her on skates when she's clearly distraught at her situation), but on the whole Sandra has gumption. 

You admire and cheer for her when she somewhat desperately attempts to convince a bank to let her have a loan by pointing out her building her own home would save the Irish State money in the long run. Her best moments though are at the trial, when she first has something of a breakdown and then pulls herself together to question why no one asks about what Gary did to her but instead focus on whether she filled out a form correctly.

You end up liking and caring about Sandra's plight, which is why the end hit such a sour note with me.

The other performances also are strong. Anderson balances Gary's charms and seductive powers with his cruelty. Walter's Peggy O'Toole also balances a cantankerous manner with a sincere friend. In a smaller role, Sarah Kinlen manages touches of lightness as the eager social worker helping Sandra while later making her a serious character.

Herself is a film I would have liked more if not for the ending. I don't require happy endings all the time, but there seems to be something almost sadistic about the final moments. It simply did not sit well with me, and I think more than a few audience members who may think well of Sandra and Herself will find the end less empowering and more frustrating.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Time (2020): A Review

TIME

Time, the new Amazon documentary, has in its simple title such a wealth of meaning. Its actually running time is remarkably brief (a mere 81 minutes) but in Time we see the decades roll by, the lost time of one family and the refusal to give into its slow march.

Sibil Fox Richardson (who also goes by the metaphorical nom de guerre Fox Rich) and her high school sweetheart Robert Richardson had a tender love story. They married out of high school and had six sons while starting a business selling hip-hop merchandise in Shreveport, Louisiana. However, their Culture store started faltering and in a wildly misguided step they opted to rob a credit union. 

As the driver Sibil agreed to a plea bargain where she served a three year sentence, but Robert received a 60 year sentence for the crime. As such, they faced a lifetime separation. Sibil, however, would not accept what she and her family consider modern-day slavery. For the next twenty years she not only told her story but fought relentlessly to free her husband, all while maintaining a successful car dealership and raising their sons.

The boys grew up with just a cutout of Robert but were motivated by the situation to pursue careers in dentistry and political science. Eventually, Sibil's determined, sometimes frustrated work bore fruit as Robert is released and he can at last return home.

Time is an elegant film, mixing Mrs. Richardson's home videos with new footage by director Garrett Bradley so well that while one notices the difference it is irrelevant to the flow. Bradley was wise to keep the black-and-white tone of the home videos to his footage, allowing for an easier connection.

Time makes its case about the excessive nature of sentencing by focusing on one family's story and how a 60 years sentence was clearly excessive. The film has the viewer not only question whether the punishment fit the crime but on how it affects those left behind. The Richardson's twins Freedom and Justus grew up without a father, being born shortly after Robert's incarceration. It's a terrible punishment for a crime born out of desperation.

By no means does anyone justify or rationalize the credit union robbery, but Time makes its quiet case that Robert should have borne such a heavy punishment. In a sense, while Mrs. Richardson's sentence was shorter due to agreeing to a deal (which her husband did not), there doesn't seem to be a reason for the length of sentence. This is certainly true given how Mrs. Richardson went on to be a successful businesswoman, mother and fierce advocate.

There are scenes in Time that will move the viewer, particularly the ending when Robert is released, enhanced by Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery's elegant score. Seeing the family reunited, the great love between Robert and Sibil and the cardboard photo of Robert finally burned are all powerful and beautiful moments.

Perhaps we could have done without the suggestion that Robert and Sibil were engaging in sex while on the way back from the prison, but that might be just me.

Time is not quite an advocacy film though it makes a case that sentencing is far too excessive for people who are not threats to society. It is up to the viewer whether or not they agree with Mrs. Richardson's assertion that she is an "abolitionist" fighting modern-day slavery or as her mother observes, "It's almost like slavery times". 

These are understandable views, but whether harsh sentencing is motivated solely by racism and poverty is again up to the viewer. Time does not drown us in statistics however, instead keeping our eyes on the impact this has on this family as a stand-in for all the other stories not told. 

Still, Time makes a powerful, strong and yet quiet case that in so many cases the punishment does not fit the crime. While positive steps in criminal justice reform are taking place, Time, in its way, suggests so much more needs to be done. 

Perhaps what Robert Richardson says to his longtime love once finally home makes the case for Time. Using "Love" as an acronym, it is "Life's Only Valid Expression". 

DECISION: B+

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Painter and The Thief: A Review


THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF

In the annals of lost and stolen art, Barbora Kysilkova's two paintings ranks pretty low. Swan Song may not be listed alongside Vermeer's The Concert but it too briefly disappeared. Its eventual rediscovery is curiously just the coda to The Painter and The Thief, a tale that could be seen as either inspiring or insane depending on one's point of view. 

The Czech-born artist now living in Norway is distressed to find two of her paintings stolen from a gallery. The two thieves are quickly found but the paintings are not, and as such the Oslo Police call the case closed. Kysilkova approaches one of the thieves, a troubled man named Karl-Bertil Nordland, and asks "Why did you pick up those two paintings?" 

"Because they were beautiful," is his reply.

After serving his sentence Barbora not only befriends Karl-Bertil but paints him. The sight of him in oil literally moves him to tears. As the years go by their friendship continues through various ups and downs as both struggle with life: he with his self-destructive patterns and she with her economic issues. More twists and turns until a surprising revelation from Barbora leads to a more astonishing discovery.

The Painter and The Thief is probably the type of documentary that if presented as a screenplay would be dismissed as too bizarre, and perhaps with merit. Director Benjamin Ree not only has no narration and keeps out of things but structures The Painter and The Thief in a mix of cinema verité and thriller. We get both both Karl-Bertil and Barbora's perspective on the same events and flashbacks on what happened without the other person's knowledge, such as the last-minute twist involving Karl-Bertil's partner in crime that we all learn about because Ree did not so much as bring it up.

What we don't get is a clear-cut reason over why either Barbora or Karl-Bertil go along with this. Is she still hunting down her lost paintings only to find a strange friendship? Is he looking for redemption for his highly troubled life? What about Barbora's boyfriend Oystein, who appears early on only to disappear until nearly an hour later, when he and Karl-Bertil appear to finally meet? Then there's Karl-Bertil's new girlfriend after his old one dumped him for keeping his heroin habit.

As a side note, Karl-Bertil returns to prison, but the Norwegian prison he's in looks pretty nice, almost like a two-star hotel albeit with locked doors. 

It's almost as if those outside Barbora and Karl-Bertil have little involvement in their lives. Despite being under two hours it felt longer, but there are scenes that will surprise the viewer. Karl-Bertil's reaction on seeing himself in a painting is deeply moving.  

So much in The Painter and The Thief seems so bizarre, but it does not take away from the interesting portrait it paints of this odd couple (pun not intended). 

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Dissident: A Review

THE DISSIDENT

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi caused a major scandal and damaged the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS) as a reformer. The Dissident reveals shocking footage and extensive interviews with those directly affected by Khashoggi's murder, if at times meandering into virtual canonization of the subject.

Jamal Khashoggi was no wild-eyed radical but surprisingly a Saudi insider, one who curried favor with the Saudi government and was seen as if not an ally at least not a threat. It wasn't until Khashoggi began to openly criticize the Saudi royal family and MBS that he drew their ire. Living in exile, he continued his work at the Washington Post and served as mentor to younger Saudis such as YouTube host Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani. 

Khashoggi had also been forced to give up his family but had found love again with a much younger woman, Hatice Cenzig, who was similarly inspired by Khashoggi's activities. It was their engagement that gave the Saudis the excuse to murder him.

Required to go to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain the necessary paperwork, a group of Saudis were waiting inside to brutally murder and dismember him. These Saudis had close relations with MBS, and after Khashoggi's disappearance the tale of his murder spun into a chaotic mess. The hopes MBS had to be seen as a modern Islamic ruler went by the wayside (though in a post-script it appears he may be working his way towards rehabilitation). Despite the Turkish and U.N. investigations, the Saudis are the only ones to put anyone on trial, and even that was a dubious affair.

The Dissident makes for compelling viewing, with director Bryan Fogel laying out his case methodically. The film is aided by interviews from the Turkish investigators and in particular to access to their video recordings of their investigation inside the Saudi consulate along with transcripts of the recordings that took place the day of his murder inside the consulate itself. Seeing the footage is revelatory, as is hearing some astonishing details from the investigators. For example, we learn that the Consul General's home ordered 70 pounds of meat from a market, and that such a large quantity was needed so as to cover the smell of a burning corpse.

Some details seem so outlandish they play almost like a bizarre thriller. We learn of body doubles to try and fool people into thinking Khashoggi was still around. There's also among the hitmen a coroner who is an expert in dismembering corpses. It is when The Dissident focuses on the investigation and machinations inside Riyadh palaces that the film becomes intense and gripping.

It is when it starts "humanizing" Khashoggi or going into the younger dissidents that it becomes a bit sleep-inducing. We get a visit by Cenzig to Khashoggi's old apartment where she sits upon his chair and a long segment into their romance. Given the film is close to two hours one wonders whether this becomes at the least a distraction from the main story. At the most, it becomes almost worshipful of Khashoggi, and audiences don't need reminding that he was a human being to feel horror at his killing.

This might be a case of gilding the lily, especially given that when we get to this love story, it almost appears to come from another documentary altogether. The Dissident is not a place where any flaws Khashoggi might have had would play, but it also does have the unintended effect of making him almost too saintly. The brutality and horror of his killing should be enough without going on tangents about his love life.

His support to younger dissidents, while good, at times starts drifting into the dangers they face and less about the execution and botched cover-up. There's a lot of information to unpack, and again at almost two hours it can overwhelm viewers.

Perhaps the weakest or worst aspect of The Dissident is Adam Peters' score. Playing perpetually ominously throughout the film, it is almost going overboard with the "menace" of the entire operation. In this case, less would have been more, versus the thundering danger the music blares out. 

Still, these are minor objections to what is a shocking tale of assassination. The Dissent, while perhaps longer than it should be, is still a well-crafted tale that almost plays like a thriller, though sometimes to its detriment.   

DECISION: B-

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. A Review (Review #1435)

THE GODFATHER CODA: THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE

When The Godfather Part III premiered in 1990, both Godfather fans and the general public were indifferent to downright hostile. The film seemed a poor way to end the saga, a jumbled mess with a now-notorious performance and a general sense of boredom. Thirty years on, director Francis Ford Coppola was able to revisit his infamous flop and attempt to put it as close to how he would have preferred. The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone can do only so much given that Coppola was working with what he had. However, the changes show that The Godfather Part III could have been if not the equal to its predecessors at least an honorable effort.

The Godfather Coda stays with the plot of Godfather III in that Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is finalizing his plans to be completely legitimate but still can't break away from the mob life. In particular is the deal with shady Vatican Bank Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) for the Immobilare Corporation. In exchange for covering a $600 million shortfall at the Vatican Bank, Michael will get control of Immobiliare.

While Michael's son Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) wants no part of the family business and wants to pursue opera, Michael's illegitimate nephew Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia) does. He especially wants to take on Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna), whose taken over the Corleone territory but not doing a good job in Vincent's eyes. Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) wants Michael too, for carnal pleasures despite being first cousins.

As the Immobiliare deal moves along, both machinations within and without the Vatican threaten to eliminate Michael financially and physically. He must not only work to save his empire and let Vincent become the new Head of the Family but find absolution for his past sins. That absolution, if it comes at all, will be with a very heavy and personal price.

As I stated, Francis Ford Coppola could really do only so much. He had to work with the material he had, limiting his ultimate vision of what The Godfather Part III could have been. However, the work he did has altered, at least for me, how I see the concluding part of this saga. 

I think one of the positives in The Godfather Coda is its structure. The film now seems less convoluted and confusing. The "new opening" is with the backroom deals that Michael has with Gilroy, where in the original that takes place well within the story. Now, instead of appearing almost out of nowhere we see that The Godfather Coda will center around the Immobiliare scheme, giving the film a purpose versus just seeming to throw things at us and hoping audiences sort things out.

Another change was that Connie (Talia Shire) was less Lucrezia Borgia and more Connie Corleone. In The Godfather Part III, Connie seemed to take on a more active role in the plotting, becoming the de facto Godmother. Now, while still involved in the family business she is not the primary instigator. Gone is the scene where she tells Vincent to kill Zasa or plots to kill her own godfather Don Altobello (Eli Wallach). Again, it's difficult to near impossible to change her Machiavellian ways, but Godfather Coda cut down on that curious thread. 

There were other changes such as cutting down on Altobello and Michael, who seemed to be wastes of time to me. Other changes in sound (such as hearing slot machines when The Commission meets in Atlantic City) or dialogue (showing Vincent was orchestrating the mass executions of their enemies) gave the film in my view not just more structure but greater depth, comprehension and cohesion.

Perhaps the biggest change, at least that I can remember, is when Michael suffers his diabetic stroke. In The Godfather Part III, it was shorter and more direct. Here, it's not only longer but more tragic, at one point Michael calling out "Fredo!", an admission of his tremendous guilt over killing his own brother.

As for the "new ending", it was as good as Coppola could make without literally reshooting the sequence. Again, he had to work with what he had, and while perhaps it would be impossible to give Michael a proper send-off I think The Godfather Coda gave him a more respectable one that what he got in The Godfather Part III.

In terms of acting pretty much what was true then is true now: Sofia Coppola is terrible, Andy Garcia is great. 

The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone will probably be as close to what Francis Ford Coppola can get to making what he would have wanted as the end to The Godfather Saga. If I were recommending the saga to newcomers, I would recommend they watch The Godfather Coda rather than Godfather Part III, or at least see Coda first. I think they would find it if not a satisfying conclusion, at least a much better and coherent one. Only those who have not seen Godfather III will be able to fully judge how The Godfather Coda works or doesn't, but here we see a film, stripped from all the bad press and poor reputation, that could have been better than what we ultimately got. 

DECISION: B+