Monday, January 25, 2021

Variety Lights: A Review (Review #1453)


Variety Lights may not have the usual visual flourishes people associate with Federico Fellini, but little peeks of how he will move from Italian Neorealism to Felliniesque peer out from this charming albeit slightly sad story of the shadows that form in the glitz of showbiz. 

An unsuccessful travelling vaudeville troupe is finishing up their run in a small Italian village. One audience member, however, is enthralled with the show. Liliana (Carla Del Poggio) sees them as a chance to become a star and forces herself onto the troupe. The troupe's leader Checco Dal Monte (Peppino De Fillipo), once a major star now all but forgotten, soon becomes besotted by the pretty young thing. Less besotted are the other troupe members, in particular Checco's loyal lover Melina Amour (Guiletta Masina). 

Liliana does have some talent as a dancer, but what she really has is great beauty. She soon becomes the troupe's main draw with her mix of legs and face. A randy theater-loving lawyer invites the troupe to a lavish party, but Checco's jealousy causes him to break up a potential liaison and gets them all thrown out. Melina sees that Checco's obsession with Liliana has made him forget her and essentially the troupe.

Deciding to strike out on his own with his muse, Checco's efforts to cull old friends flops, with Liliana able to charm his old set to a career of her own onto bigger shows, albeit in small parts. This despite his own efforts to form a troupe of his own. Some time later, Liliana's bit part on a major stage, perhaps inadvertently, attracts more male eyes away from the aging female star. Checco finds himself back with his old troupe, where a chance encounter sees them literally depart in opposite directions. Despite his failure with Liliana, Checco spots another pretty young thing on the train, and his eyes soon light up, Melina again unaware.

Variety Lights is surprisingly gentle with the characters, almost loving. Checco is not portrayed as lecherous and I'd say not even pathetic in his barely concealed desires for Liliana. Instead, he comes across as a man brought low by fading fame who sees in Liliana a second chance at youth and regeneration. De Filipo makes Checco a mix of the arrogant and the tragic, a wonderful performance of someone trying to live on whatever past glory he had, with a curious sense of optimism about his future despite it long passing him by. 

Similarly, Del Poggio does not make Liliana into a vixen or coquette, or for that matter a scheming seductress using Checco to move forward. Far from it: she at times seems wide-eyed and if not innocent at least naïve about how the jolly nature of the show does not carry over into the backstage drama. A schemer would, for example, deliberately push herself to the center of attention and use her sex appeal to get her way. Liliana, conversely, is horrified when her costume shows her legs to the group of eager men. Even when it's made part of the show and the main attraction, she still shows a great deal of discomfort at the goings-on. 

A nice surprise is Masina as Melina, the loyal lover. She is a fascinating character: one who simultaneously regrets and enjoys her life in entertainment. Unlike the other troupe members she has plans for her retirement (she's saved money for a deli she wants to open with Checco). She stays with Checco and the troupe out of love and loyalty to both. Melina is the balance between Checco's dreams of reviving past glories and Liliana's dreams of future glories. 

Masina gives a beautiful performance in Variety Lights. She's surprisingly sexy as Melina, but we also see her genuine heartbreak when she observes Checco ignoring her pleas to help her lift the troupe's elderly manager, her lover lost in concentration with the younger, prettier Liliana.

Variety Lights is deftly directed by Fellini and Alberto Lattuada. Granted, it's hard to know exactly what the balance was in the directing, but I think we see elements of Fellini in certain scenes. There's a brief running gag of the troupe members being caught off-guard by a water drip just before they take to the stage, and a dance club scene where club-goers have to dance like people riding animals (the women on top of the men). There's also a moment when Checco walks away from Liliana's apartment to the sound of applause, an ironic comment on his failures.

Variety Lights is a love letter to those who travel from town to town to entertain people. Behind the jolliness of Luci del Varietà, the closing troupe number, there is actually quite a lot of sadness behind those glittering costumes and stage magic. Variety Lights is still within Italian neorealism in how it keeps things grounded and even a touch sad, but it also has bits of the more elaborate and surrealist work that Federico Fellini would eventually master. 


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Young Catherine: The Television Miniseries


Perhaps apart from British monarchs Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria, few female monarchs have been the subject of as many cinematic and television treatments as Czarina Catherine II. The rise of an obscure German princess to Czarina of All The Russias is a fascinating true-life story, with elements of decadent imperial romps among the Enlightened despot's many political and military accomplishments. Young Catherine is another chronicle of our lusty ruler, and on the whole it is quite a good miniseries with strong performances by an international group of actors.

Young Princess Sophie (Julia Ormond) from the obscure German principality of Anhalt-Zerbst is brought to Russia as a prospective bride for Grand Duke Peter (Reece Dinsdale), heir to the Russian throne. Peter's mercurial aunt, Empress Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave) is charmed by Sophie, but not pleased that Sophie will not convert to the Russian Orthodox faith. Advised by both British Ambassador Sir Charles Williams (Christopher Plummer) and the Archimandrite Todorsky (John Shrapnel), the now-rechristened Catherine not only embraces Orthodoxy but Russia itself: its language, its culture and its people.

This displeases both Elizabeth's bitter rival the German Emperor Frederick the Great (Maximillian Schell) and Russian Count Voronstov (Franco Nero) for different reasons. Frederick wants the future Empress to be his puppet, while Vorontsov wants to be the power behind both Elizabeth and Peter's throne, seeing the Grand Duchess as both an annoyance and impediment to his own power. Despite being married for two years Peter is more interested in his toy and real soldiers than in the beautiful Grand Duchess. Complicating things is that to Elizabeth's shock she finds that Catherine is still a virgin.

To solve that problem enters hunky Count Gregory Orlov (Mark Frankel), who has yearned for the Grand Duchess on first sight when escorting her to Russia way back when. The lovers conceive a child, fool everyone into thinking it is Peter's, and as soon as Grand Duke Paul is born, Catherine is all but forgotten. A group forms around her though, aware of both her keen intelligence and the dangers the Prussian-loving, bonkers Grand Duke Peter would present when he became Czar. Once this comes about, things move quickly in the power play between Czar and Czarina. Catherine soon wins to take the throne as Catherine II, Czarina of All the Russias.

Young Catherine follows one of the two most popular routes when dramatizing the life of our randy royal: showing her life up to when she succeeds in her coup d'etat. Other Catherine-related projects such as The Scarlet Empress and The Rise of Catherine the Great similarly start with her youth and end with her crowning. Young Catherine works well because of the performances, all of which are quite good.

Ormond is beautiful and strong as Catherine, managing to convey her naïveté with a growing shrewdness and daring. At times, Ormond's beauty makes her almost heavenly: a moment where Peter and his loutish friends crash the bridal bed frames her dark hair against her porcelain face is almost breathtaking. Behind her beauty though Ormond brings Catherine's growing spine of steel, her courage and willingness to play dangerous games successfully.

Of particular note is when Empress Elizabeth finds her niece-in-law has ordered the Imperial Guard to remain in St. Petersburg rather than to the Prussian front. Accused of treason, Catherine manages to win Elizabeth to her side by convincing the dying monarch that her motive was to protect Elizabeth and Paul from Peter, who is open about siding with his great hero Frederick. Ormond brings a mixture of trepidation and strength in this scene, revealing a strong actress.

The supporting cast is equally adept. Redgrave is having a ball as Elizabeth, pious and imperious, one moment caring and motherly, the next tyrannical and frightening. Redgrave shifts easily from banishing Catherine's mother from Court for spying for Frederick to in the same scene tendering caring for the now-orphan Catherine. In her piety and rages Redgrave makes Elizabeth such an interesting figure one almost wishes there had been Old Elizabeth, prequel to Young Catherine.

Only in her death scene do we see Redgrave falter, the moment looking comically bad to where I did burst out laughing at her sudden expiration. 

Nero and Schnell might have been a bit hammy as Vorontsov and Frederick respectively but they have some leeway as both were plotting and scheming to gain power. Plummer was not called upon much except be the wise mentor to Catherine, but he did well in his scenes with Ormond (curiously the only major player he worked with). A real standout was Dinsdale as future Czar Peter III. Dinsdale made him into a wicked child with the sadistic streak of a grown man. Before Peter is struck with smallpox he comes across as merely childlike and a bit of an idiot. However, as time goes by we see Peter as genuinely crazy, something that grows once we see his physical deterioration post-smallpox.   

Peter is not just petulant but dangerous, a Russian monarch who openly hates Russia. In turns stupid, infantile and monstrous, Dinsdale gave the best performance outside Ormond.

Frankel didn't have a great deal to do in Young Catherine except be the figurative and literal stud. Yes, he too was beautiful, but it doesn't take away from a good performance as the not-obscure object of desire. Curiously though, Young Catherine did not indulge in eroticism, no sex scenes human or equine. It was surprisingly chaste, always suggesting but showing our lovers only once in bed together and even then almost exclusively covered.

Young Catherine also has some strong and clever dialogue. As Catherine fights for her life during one of Vorontsov's machinations, Elizabeth orders Catherine's chief lady-in-waiting/BFF Princess Dashkova (Laurie Holden) to bring food and a stove to her bedchamber. "Surely you don't imagine..." Dashkova begins.

"I imagine nothing. I suspect everything," the shrewd Empress replies casually and calmly. 

When Elizabeth orders Catherine's conversion, the Archimandrite suggests a softer touch is needed. "She might be led. She will never be driven," he tells his monarch. Catherine is surprised Sir Charles still speaks to her while Court ignores her as Peter struggles to live, but the wily tutor simply replies, "I'm a foreigner and an old man. I can afford the luxury of true friendship".

Young Catherine is sumptuous enough for a television miniseries, not opulent but respectable. The music also enhances some of the scenes, suggesting intrigue or romance when needed.

Young Catherine is not the definitive tale of this titan of Imperial Russia, but it's entertaining and with good acting that keeps your attention. 


Catherine II Feature Films & Specials

The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934)

The Scarlet Empress (1934)

Catherine the Great (1995)

Catherine the Great (2019)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Promising Young Woman: A Review


There are no good men left in the world of Promising Young Woman. They are all potential-to-probable rapists or at the very least facilitators to sexual crimes. Promising Young Woman is a very dark film, one where hope, redemption and forgiveness are all but impossible. As such, the praise it has received is simply mystifying to me.

Cassandra Thompson (Carey Mulligan) is a self-appointed avenging angel against sexual assault: weekly going to bars to get picked up by "nice guys" who do not shrink from taking advantage of her seemingly drunken state. The twist is that she isn't drunk but perfectly sober, and once she drops her rouse she berates them before moving on to the next guy.

Move on herself, however, she can't, as she is dead inside thanks to the sexual assault her friend Nina suffered while both were at medical school, an assault that led to Nina's death and her dropping out. Still living at home with no real career plans, things come to a head when Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate who is now a pediatric surgeon comes to the coffee shop she works at. Shy, bumbling and slightly hesitant, he asks Cass out. She agrees to go but still finds herself angry that he suggests early on to go to his place (despite him immediately apologizing for being too forward).

Cass' relationship with Ryan soon starts a chain reaction where the ghosts of Nina's assault come back to her stronger. She forms a plot to strike back at those who enabled Al Monroe (Christopher Lowell) to get away with Nina's rape. It means confronting her frenemy Madison (Alison Brie), Al's former lawyer Mr. Green (Alfred Molina) and even Ryan himself. Cass forces Ryan to reveal where Al's bachelor party will be, where Cass will enact her expertly, almost outlandishly clever, revenge.

As I understand it, many who hold Promising Young Woman as one of the best films of the year find the ending difficult to accept. I figure it has to do with its plausibility, but that is how I felt throughout all of Promising Young Woman. Writer/director Emerald Fennell creates a story that to me seemed not so much contrived but illogical.

Would her drunk routine really work every week? What if another woman or group of women had stepped in? What if a bouncer or barkeep threw her out? What would Cass have done: shooed them away and say, "Hey, I'm trying to catch a potential rapist here?!" What if in one of her sojourns the men, rather than meekly hide behind the "but I'm a nice guy" bit, reacted violently? What if Al hadn't managed to initially escape Cass' initial revenge? 

Every element of Promising Young Woman seemed too pat, too sure that everything and everyone would go exactly to plan and on schedule. These people for the most part did not come across as real people but as robots, programmed to do certain things and behave in certain ways. None of it felt real to me. Maybe I'll walk my previous thought back and go with "contrived".

Moreover, Promising Young Woman asks us to if not cheer at least understand someone who doesn't blanch on hiring hitmen and luring teen girls to possible danger.

What I saw in Promising Young Woman was not a revenge thriller but a tragedy. What happened to Nina was monstrous, but Cass was not a Nemesis inflicting divine justice. Rather, she was a shell of a person, damaged but finding no way to deal with the immense trauma and survivor's guilt. She could have gotten therapy. She could have decided to switch from med to law school. She could have become a victims' advocate. 

Instead she puts her life in danger to lecture men about not taking drunk girls home with them. Bizarrely, even when she had clear-cut evidence of Al's crime she opted to both not release it and release it. Again, she could have sent the evidence in anonymously or by name, but instead concocted such an elaborate almost wild scheme that made me find her not heroic but almost repellant. 

The tone at times seems bizarre: Al's wedding is a very hippie-drippy affair, which seems so wildly out-of-place and character for those involved. Moreover, there doesn't seem to be a reason for the film to show her drunken act twice. Once perhaps to establish her motives, but twice? Add to that the fact that these verbal takedowns are not part of the main plot and you have scenes that lengthen the film.

This is a film that offers no quarter but also no forgiveness save for Green, who is so distraught by his life's work that he essentially hides from the world, forever waiting for that one individual to strike him down. Curiously, when Ryan asks forgiveness for being a witness to Nina's assault (and possibly laughing at the time about it) Cass does not grant what she gave Green. 

I was reminded of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people are invited to a remote island where one by one they are murdered. The murderer justifies the killings because all of the victims "got away" with their own murders but kills them by degrees of perceived guilt. The first victim is murdered because he had the least amount of moral responsibility, then so on until those whose crimes and guilt are the greatest endure the greatest strain. Same with Promising Young Woman: Green, like the old General who quietly accepts his guilt and awaits his killing, is too waiting for his reckoning, so he gets to live. The others will be punished, if not in this life in the next. 

Carey Mulligan has received great praise for her performance, and it is warranted up to a point. Sounding like the sarcastic Mara from the Progressive Insurance ads, Mulligan is technically adept at playing this hollowed-out woman, who had a brief moment where she could feel joy until the brutality of Nina's assault is brought back to her. She's to be commended for a good performance of someone who has died but doesn't know it. Credit to for Burnham also as the walking rom-com cliché of what I've seen described as "Hallmark Hot". 

Fennell also should get credit for her use of symbolism, such as early on when after another successful lecture/takedown Cass is seen eating a hot dog while "blood" (or rather ketchup) flows down her leg and arm. It's a little too overt for my tastes, but there it is. As a side note, it is curious that Promising Young Woman's only failed assault happened with a black man. It just kinds of stood out how among all the Anglos the only man who failed to take advantage of a supposedly drunk Cass was black, even if his failure to do so was through unusual circumstances.

Ultimately however, Promising Young Woman shows how Cass is trapped by her own desperate rage. It would have done her better to forgive, if not them at least herself. This is not to suggest that people like Al or those "good guys" who take advantage of women who cannot give consent should not receive punishment. Cass, however, was someone so consumed with hurt, anger and a need to punish that she destroyed herself. I found Cass not a heroine but a tragic figure, one whose life was destroyed with her own consent. I found Promising Young Woman anything but.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Sylvia Scarlett: A Review


Sylvia Scarlett has the dubious reputation of being one of the greatest flops in Katharine Hepburn's career, a film so disastrous it cemented her reputation as "box office poison". That Hepburn appeared through most of the film in drag did not help matters. It's curious that the teaming of Hepburn with Cary Grant continued after the critical and commercial disaster of Sylvia Scarlett, though their succeeding collaborations yielded better results. However, with the passing of time does Sylvia Scarlett really deserve its negative reputation? Is it worthy of being a cult film? 

After his French wife dies, gambling addict Henry Scarlett (Edmund Gwenn) opts to flee back to his native Britain to avoid arrest for stealing his employer's money. His daughter Sylvia (Hepburn) insists on going with him, dressing as a boy to avoid the police. Now as "Sylvester", they meet with scam artist Jimmy Monkley (Grant), who despite causing them trouble by snitching on Henry's smuggling efforts takes them on as apprentice thieves.

Henry and Sylvester prove inept at Jimmy's monkey business, so Jimmy decides to hit what he thinks is an easy mark: Maudie (Dennie Moore), a maid with theatrical aspirations. Jimmy's efforts to steal jewels from Maudie's employers fails thanks to Sylvester's decent heart, who can't bear her losing her job and possible arrest. Maudie loses her job anyway when the group decides to create a traveling entertainment troupe. 

Now as "The Pink Pierrots", they travel the countryside until an encounter with artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne). Soon, he and his Russian lady friend Lily (Natalie Paley) get involved with their lives. Maskings and unmaskings ensue, with death hitting around them until the now-out of drag Sylvia and Michael join forces, perhaps in a happy ending.

There has been much talk about the sexual politics of Sylvia Scarlett as a thinly-veiled gay story. While its director George Cukor was openly gay I think the suggestion of gay over/undertones in Sylvia Scarlett is giving it far too much credit. Sylvia Scarlett was first and foremost meant as a comedy, but early on the comedy is far too broad and forced.

A particularly bad point is when the trio first tries to con the public into thinking Sylvester was a stranded French boy, playing on their sympathy for money. Hepburn, Gwenn and Grant were so over-the-top in their exaggerated manner that it played as if none of them actually believed what was going on. Given their performances, it's a wonder the park audience couldn't see through them right away.

Sylvia Scarlett has some simply dreadful performances. Hepburn was awfully dramatic early on, acting with a Capital A. Gwenn equally embarrassed himself, going into the hysterical manner that while it did end up funny it was the wrong kind of funny. Perhaps one can cut him some slack given that Henry was an inconsistent character. In the first part of the film, he's meant to be a quivering idiot, but in the second part he's this insanely jealous spouse (he and Maudie inexplicably got married). 

To be fair, it's not technically inexplicable: I figure the Production Code would not allow an unmarried woman to travel with two men, but it still looks bizarre and irrational. Moreover, Henry's fits of jealous rage make it hard to believe Sylvia Scarlett is a comedy.

While Grant was better, he too was poorly directed, which is surprising given it's George Cukor. You could see the menace Grant would bring to future films such as in Notorious, but again he was asked to be exaggerated in his manner. Moreover, Jimmy Monkley was a pretty reprehensible figure right from the get-go, so there's no way audiences would care for/about him. Aherne was surprisingly fine when Sylvester showed up as Sylvia, almost amused that she was a pretty girl rather than a pretty boy.

Michael's line of "I know what it is that gives me a queer feeling when I look at you," can be read in so many ways, but I leave it to viewers to interpret that any way they wish.

Many if not all the situations in Sylvia Scarlett did not lend themselves to comedy. You had cruel conmen, murderously jealous husbands, near-suicidal women. Perhaps, on second thought, you could make a comedy with these elements, but Sylvia Scarlett couldn't do it. The actors attempted to either force the comedy or make the characters idiots.

Despite Maudie attempting to seduce her "stepson", Sylvester still defends her when she's accused of flirting or more with other men? Why does Jimmy run off with a potentially unconscious, potentially dead Lily? How did the Pink Pierrots start? Why did they start doing traveling shows when con jobs would probably be better? Why did Henry and Sylvester stay on with Jimmy? Why did Sylvia insist on keeping her drag act going? Why opt to reveal herself to Michael? 

I think Jimmy uncovered her secret while at the beach, but why did he go along with this gender-bending shtick? 

So much of Sylvia Scarlett seems to leap from one idea to another that it soon starts becoming a jumble.

I'll allow a little leeway in that at times I was nodding off, but it still doesn't seem to make much sense.

Sylvia Scarlett is now held in slightly better regard thanks to its sexual fluidity. I personally don't think that's what they had in mind but if people want to read that into things, more power to them. I just found that Sylvia Scarlett had a jumbled story and some pretty lousy performances from people who should have known better.   


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Flash Gordon Episode Five: Ascension Review



Ascension is a pun, but perhaps that is giving the fifth Flash Gordon episode far too much credit. Filled with hunky men it also has a bit of a jumbled almost illogical story.

As Flash Gordon (Eric Johnson) and his female friend Dale Arden (Gina Holden) continue struggling to have warrior princess Baylin (Karen Cliche) try to fit in on Earth, in another part of town a young skateboarder and his friends are out tagging. The young man, T.J. (Samuel Patrick Chu) has an odd obsession with spraying in the shape of a bird, specifically a hawk. He can't figure out why until he is literally abducted by winged men.

These winged men, who entered Earth through another time rift that Flash, Baylin and their associate Zarkov (Jody Racicot) traced, are known as Dactyls but soon earn the nickname "Hawkmen". However, why would their leader come to Earth, and specifically care about T.J.? The mystery is uncovered when Flash and Baylin travel through the rift back to Mongo, but it's still astonishing: T.J. is the son of the Dactyls' leader Vultan (Ty Olsson)!

Now as the Dactyls are grooming a most reluctant T.J. to take his place among them, they along with Flash and Baylin, must avoid the wrath of Ming's minions and his alluring daughter, Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft). Will T.J. really fly? Will Flash and Baylin return in time for Mrs. Gordon's dinner? And who is "Steven"?

Ascension is surprisingly more interested in showcasing the various muscular torsos of the Dactyls, Flash included. Whether this was intentional or not I cannot say, but a lot of Ascension seems a bit odd.

I get for example that as this is a more family-geared show, T.J.'s friend can't be particularly vulgar. However, "Freaking birdmen stole freaking T.J." just sounds bizarre no matter how you cut it. It's as if they wanted it both ways: having T.J.'s friend Joe Wylee (Giles Panton) utter vaguely course language while not having him actually curse. I can't help shake the idea that Joe could have phrased it a bit differently.

Moreover, Ascension makes no case as to why T.J.'s mother was his adoptive one (T.J. being spirited away in the same time rift that took Flash's father). Why exactly he had an obsession with hawks is not established either. Yes, he is a Dactyl, but how he sensed this no one knows. It all seems a little too pat, too convenient. 

I think Ascension is meant to be more about fathers and sons, which is a good thing. There's Vultan's efforts to both bond with T.J. and make him as himself in what I like to call T.J.'s "bird mitzvah". It should be a counter to Flash's continuing search for his own father. 

The episode does have some rather curious bits of dialogue, and bless the cast for saying them with as much believability as possible. "He believes in you. I believe in you.  Now you have to believe in you," Flash tells T.J. when he has to literally fly for his life. Somehow, that just sounds rather cornball.

I can cut some slack to the actors playing the Dactyls as a) most were there for their physique and b) they I figure were meant to sound grandiose to pompous. Chu did quite well though as T.J., thrown into a simply outlandish situation and reacting as well as anyone could. It makes his final scene back home quite moving.

Cliche continues to be the standout as Baylin, particularly whenever faced with a comic situation with Jill Teed's Mrs. Laura Gordon. From being unable to drink water from a bottle as others would to telling Mrs. Gordon that "we are not mating", Cliche does this with such a straight face that one would like to see a spin-off about Baylin struggling through this awful human world. As she knows him as "Flash", her question of "Who is Steven?" is hilarious in its delivery.

Ascension has some odd moments, particularly when dealing with Mongo royal intrigue, but as I think on it it is not horrible.  


Next Episode: Life Source

Monday, January 18, 2021

Brazil: A Review (Review #1450)


Author's Note: This review is for both the director-approved 142 minute version and the 94 minute "Love Conquers All" version.

Brazil, like many Terry Gilliam productions, faced many obstacles on its way to the public. Curiously, some of those struggles continued after filming concluded, with two rival versions fighting for dominance. Brazil, like Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, should be instructive on how studio interference can get in the way of true creativity. While probably not for everyone, Brazil is a sharp satire on the soul-crushing nature of bureaucracy and the tyranny of an unimaginative world. 

Ministry of Information bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is not exactly content with his life but he doesn't want change either. His only escape from the drudgery of his life and work is his dream life, where he sees himself as a winged fighter rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress. Sam, however, finds himself drawn into a most unfortunate set of circumstances.

The Ministry of Information's Information Retrieval Department, owning to a bizarre clerical error, has taken one Archibald Buttle, humble shoemaker, and not Archibald "Harry" Tuttle (Robert De Niro), renegade central heating repairman and suspected terrorist. This unfortunate mix-up is a deeply troubling one to Sam's incompetent boss Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), forever worrying he'll get the blame. Sam offers to take the extremely rare refund owed to Mrs. Buttle for the charges Mr. Buttle paid for the information retrieval he underwent. Having no information to actually retrieve, Mr. Buttle ended up dead.

When Sam takes the check to Mrs. Buttle, it is here that he spots the literal girl of his dreams. It is Jill Layton (Kim Greist), Mrs. Buttle's upstairs neighbor who has been fighting the inept bureaucracy to get the Buttles justice. Jill looks exactly like his dream girl, so he begins desperately to find out more about her. The only way to do this is by accepting a promotion to Information Retrieval his vain mother Ida (Katherine Helmond) has arranged. It'll mean working at something Sam doesn't like, but it sends him on a wild chase that brings him into both conflict and conformity to terrorists and the totalitarian regime alike. Ultimately, his fate is in the hands of his frenemy, master Information Retrieval specialist Jack Lint (Michael Palin).

The difficulty in reviewing Brazil is that in essence one is reviewing two distinct films. The "director's cut" is over half an hour longer than what is known as the "Love Conquers All" version. It's important to as briefly as possible go over why there are two versions. 

Director Terry Gilliam had his version cut by the studio distributing Brazil in the United States (Universal) due to concerns over both the film's commercial ability and Gilliam's downbeat ending. As a result, the Universal version ends on a more upbeat note, hence "Love Conquers All". 

The differing endings were not the only issue. The "Love Conquers All" version has a whole different structure and opening. Characters and scenes of an absurdist nature were cut or trimmed, with Sam's various dream sequences all but gone. As a result, the "Love Conquers All" version has the opposite intent of what Universal had in mind.

By shifting, changing and cutting things the studio ended up making Brazil more confusing rather than less. It's interesting that Universal did the same thing to the aforementioned Touch of Evil twenty-seven years early ending with the exact same result of making their cut more jumbled and almost incomprehensible. That however, is a discussion for another day.  

The "Love Conquers All" version does end with a more upbeat, hopeful note, but it doesn't quite ring true. In Universal's defense they did not do a terrible job, as one can see flashes of what the Gilliam-approved version had. However, a lot of it felt rushed bordering on chaotic, as if it was slapped together hurriedly.

The Gilliam version is richer, more absurdist but also more quietly menacing. The extended escape sequence is a blending of the possible with the dreamlike, where an audience member should be clued in that what we are seeing is not what is real. In particular it is when during Sam's escape he not only crashes the funeral of his mother's equally plastic-loving frenemy but manages to fall through her coffin. It's a surrealist moment that should reveal that it was all in Sam's mind.

The Gilliam version also through the dream sequences show that the real world is invading Sam's fantasy world, one where he is not the winged hero he imagines himself to be but highly vulnerable to the real world's horrors.

Brazil at least has an exceptional leading performance by Pryce. He is an Everyman, not particularly ambitious but not a revolutionary either. He makes Sam into someone who at heart wants to do well but who is also rather passive in his acceptance of tyranny until Jill sparks a slow sense of revolution. Palin too does excellent as Jack Lint, the cheerful, pleasant face that has no qualms about torturing and killing people. As he states to Sam when he reprimands Jack for taking the wrong man, HE, Jack, didn't kill the wrong man. He merely had the wrong man delivered to him. 

Lint is the face of all those who say "I was just following orders", which makes his outwardly pleasant demeanor and family life all the more terrifying.

Brazil also has a wildly comic turn from Helmond as the vain Ida, thoroughly disinterested in her son save for the prestige he can give her by moving up. Her outlandishness is what makes her so memorable. Greist as Jill and the Dream Girl plays two characters, but she does a fine job as the woman who is or is not a real revolutionary so much as a sensible person fighting against an uncaring, insular system.

There is an absurdist, surrealist quality to Brazil. It is clearly in an alternate universe, but in its costume and production design we see echoes of a fascist aesthetic: the massive Brutalist buildings, the fedoras and coats. It is a daring film, full of wild visuals that also speaks of the menace of a remote governing body that discourages individuality and personal freedom.

If it has a drawback, it is in its length. At over two-and-a-half hours, Brazil may eventually tire one out. Too much dark whimsy may be too much to bear for some viewers, who may find themselves either falling asleep or slowly losing patience. On that part at least I can see the studio's worry that Brazil may be too much for some audiences.

Brazil perhaps may be too eccentric and long for some, and I wouldn't blame them if they ended up not liking it. However, the shorter "Love Conquers All" version may leave them equally confused in a shorter amount of time. My recommendation is to accept the Gilliam-approved version will be longer, more absurdist but better than its shorter twin.     


Director Approved Version: A-

Love Conquers All Version: C+

Flash Gordon Episode Four: Assassin Review


Assassin, the fourth Flash Gordon episode, was one I found entertaining even if at times it did turn on clichés.

Flash Gordon (Eric Johnson) has long wished for his father, Dr. Lawrence Gordon, would return after his disappearance thirteen years ago. It now appears that his wish has been granted, for Dr. Gordon (Bruce Dawson) has been spotted on camera. Flash and Dr. Gordon's assistant Zarkov (Jody Racicot) are thrilled, but Flash's female friend Dale Arden (Gina Holden) and otherworldly warrior Baylin (Karen Cliche) are more trepidatious.

Her fears are warranted, as Dr. Gordon appears to be killing his colleagues from his past work. There is evil at work, and now it's a race to find the being that appears to be Dr. Gordon, along with his potential targets, one of whom is Zarkov himself. 

Doppelgangers abound as more lives are at risk, all part of Ming's plot to control time-rifts, which these humans have stumbled on. It is a fight to both save themselves and exonerate Dr. Gordon from the suggestion that he's an assassin.

What surprised me about Assassin is Cliche as Baylin, who is turning into the best thing in the series. She manages a balance between comedy and action. Her interplay with Racicot's bumbling Zarkov shows a light side, but she is also able to handle the fight scenes with equal ability. It is also a chance for Johnson to show a more dramatic side.

This comes both in showing Flash's hopes for that longed-for reunion with his long-lost father, as well as for him to play two versions of "Flash": the real one and the doppelganger. 

This, however, is where we get a bit of a standard situation: which one is the real Flash, and the hard decision of which one to destroy. It isn't much of a drama when you know the doppelganger is going to get it. That, coupled with Baylin's ability to destroy a weapon by essentially belching it out of existence is also a bit off-putting, cutting away from the drama and seriousness of the episode.

However, there were other elements that surprised me about Assassin that I thought well of. There's the idea of the "Mind Tap", a literal brain drain to kill off Dr. Gordon's fellow scientists. Not as graphic as I thought it would be (though to be fair it has been a while since I saw the episode), at least I thought it worked well enough.

Assassin has the plus of letting the actors play more drama with a bit of comedy thrown in, one not overwhelming the other apart from the belch of death. 


Next Episode: Ascension

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Whatever Love Means: The Television Movie


When people think of great royal love stories, that of Their Royal Highnesses Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall surprisingly does not come to mind. Whatever Love Means makes a strong case that indeed theirs is a tale of deep, long-lasting romance that unlike the television movie has ended happily, at least for them.

Prince Charles (Laurence Fox) is a shy, hesitant, insecure man, forever longing for love but a bit uncomfortable in his own skin. It is around 1971 that Camilla Shand (Olivia Poulet) pretty boldly approaches the shy heir and does something no one else does: treat him like an ordinary man.

She soon becomes Charles' confidant, friend and lover. Theirs is a tender, frail love, but there are complications. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, the caddish Andrew Parker-Bowles (Simon Wilson), who routinely cheats on her and even had a dalliance with Charles' sister Anne (Alex Moen). Then there's the advise of Charles' beloved "Uncle Dickie", better known as Lord Louis Mountbatten (Richard Johnson). Lord Mountbatten urges Charles to play the field but that "once bedded, can't be wedded", ruling the brassy but caring Camilla out.

Once Charles goes to the Royal Navy, Camilla does not wait but marries Andrew. That cuts them off romantically and sexually, but neither can let go of their deep spiritual connection. He leans on her, she on him, and after Lord Mountbatten's assassination they do share a tryst. Camilla's one indiscretion doesn't match Andrew's rampant cheating however, and as his loyal friend Camilla offers to find Charles a bride. After some searching, she finds the perfect candidate in young, naïve, innocent and virginal Lady Diana Spencer (Michelle Duncan). It is Charles' wedding day, but we see Charles and Camilla looking at themselves in their mirrors, their loss immense.

Whatever Love Means takes its title from the response The Prince of Wales gave at the engagement interview, though it is a popular misquote. His actual statement was an added response when the reporter interjected "And I suppose in love" to their answer about why they were getting married. Lady Spencer replied "Of course!" and then His Royal Highness added "Whatever IN love means". Like "Luke, I am your father!", "Hello, Clarice" or "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?", Charles' off-the-cuff quip is not accurately remembered but has taken on a life of its own. Accurate or not, the quote and the telefilm reveal much about the then-thwarted romance.

Whatever Love Means is perhaps the most sympathetic view of the Charles & Camilla romance outside a Windsor Production. I can't say whether screenwriter William Humble had it in mind to portray the couple so sympathetically, but it is a nice change from the usual version of this story. In too many versions of the Charles and Camilla affair, he is portrayed as selfish to cruel, she as sexually voracious to malevolent and Diana as a saintly long-suffering victim. Here, Diana is barely a figure, on for probably ten to fifteen minutes at the end.

Instead, the focus is on the lovers, and for what many hold to be a torrid decades-long affair Whatever Love Means is surprisingly chaste. There is kissing, particularly a surprisingly passionate session in front of Andrew and other Parker-Bowles party guests, but there is no lurid sex scene and only the mildest hint that Camilla broke her marriage vows with Charles. 

It's easy to root for the lovers in Whatever Love Means given again how sympathetic they are. We see Charles forever bullied and berated by his father Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Peter Egan), Andrew as a boorish cad and Anne as somewhat rational and somewhat brittle. It is as if Charles and Camilla, instead of being selfish and uncaring, actually were quite sacrificing and caring, at least to and with each other. Whatever Love Means, by focusing on their own individual romance versus how it relates to Lady Diana, makes Charles and Camilla soul-mates. 

Our hopes that they do unite is enhanced by the lead performances. Fox doesn't exactly sound like Charles (he sounds more like someone trying a Benedict Cumberbatch impersonation) but he does quite well in getting the Prince's voice. Fox makes Charles a caring but insecure man, one who is shy and forever buttoned up. He finds in Camilla not just a sexmate but a caring woman, one who cares for him, Charles Windsor, not His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. He makes the scene where his second cousin Amanda (Laura Murphy) turn down his marriage proposal not overly dramatic but instead a moment of genuine heartbreak. He may not have been in love with Amanda but the rejection does feed his sense of unworth. 

I'd argue that Fox makes Charles frankly better-looking than the real thing, but he does go away from mimicry and ridicule to instead showing a hesitant man who longs for love. He doesn't make him a saint (Charles all but ignores a date to dance with Camilla) but by now we see that he is deeply in love with the only woman who gets him, so you do want them to be together. Fox also gives Charles something of an edge, such as nicknaming his brother-in-law Captain Mark Philips "Fog" because as he puts it "he's thick and wet". Even that doesn't come across as malicious.

Poulet makes the now-Duchess a woman who is gentle but fun, able to bring Charles out of his shell but not some rapacious sex fiend. Even that quote about "My great-grandmother was your great-great-grandfather's mistress, so how about it?" isn't said in a lurid play at seduction but almost as a lark. Camilla is portrayed as a shoulder to cry on, a caring, sympathetic woman who is more confidant than royal mistress. Funny, caring, bright despite her claims otherwise and forever loyal and loving to her "Fred", our "Gladys" seems his ideal match.

You feel for her when she sees Charles kissing Diana. Even though she engineered the match and knows it has to be so, the film does make clear Camilla's heart is breaking.

Well-acted and written, with strong production values, Whatever Love Means is one of the better royal love stories made for television, certainly a damn sight better than the syrupy Charles & Diana: A Royal Love Story or the slightly better The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana. It may be because the Charles and Diana story aimed for "fairy tale" while Whatever Love Means aimed for "tragic love story". The then-Princess of Wales has her own famous quote: "Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded". Whatever Love Means makes the case that it was Diana who essentially was the interloper to a real, royal romantic love story.

Charles, Prince of Wales: Born 1948
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall: Born 1947


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Coffy: A Review


Coffy is unique in the genre of blaxploitation cinema for a variety of reasons. First, the protagonist is a woman. Second, the female protagonist is a professional career woman. Third, it goes against the grain by not portraying drugs or crime in a glamorous light. Nearly fifty years since its release Coffy has aged a bit with its urban trappings but with a strong debut from its star Coffy is a pleasant surprise.

Flower Child Coffin, Coffy for short (Pam Grier) is a nurse who moonlights as an avenging angel. She kills the drug kingpin and pusher who got her eleven-year-old sister LuBelle (Karen Williams) hooked on heroin. Coffy feels great guilt about the killings, but she feels justified, especially given that her friend Officer Carter (William Elliot) won't break the law to enforce it.

While Coffy is fond of Carter, she is carrying on an affair with City Councilman Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), who is on tap for a potential Congressional seat. Coffy sets her eyes on another drug kingpin, known as King George (Robert DoQui), who is part of a ring that nearly killed Carter for not being on the take (and whose thugs assaulted her in the process). She becomes "Mystique", a Jamaican call-girl, to get close to King George.

Her plan though goes awry when her efforts to kill Arturo Vitroni (Allan Arbus), the major drug lord, fail. Vitroni mistakenly believes Coffy was sent by King George, leading to his death and putting her life in danger. Ultimately though, Vitroni and his allies should have known better than to mess with a strong black woman.

In certain ways, Coffy is quite amateurish. Some of the acting is rather stiff, including Pam Grier. However, one can cut Grier some slack as this was her first starring vehicle. The film is at times more interested in showcasing Grier's incredible body and bust than in giving her strong dialogue.

Coffy is unapologetic about its displays of women's bosoms. We get treated to quite a few topless moments, though I would argue few if any are gratuitous. Whether that includes a catfight where various women's breasts are exposed is questionable, but this sequence also includes a surprising moment involving Coffy's hair.

Director/writer Jack Hill made ample use of not just Grier's breasts but of her body: our introduction to Coffy shows a beautiful, alluring woman. However, Coffy also gave us moments of serious drama and a believable character: she is unafraid to use a shotgun on those causing misery, but she also feels guilt and struggles with whether her actions are right. A lot of that is forgotten once we get Coffy's ultimate betrayal and her revenge, but it's a credit to the film to include such elements. 

It's also a credit to Coffy that it had positive portrayals of police and nurses. Officer Carter and Coffy are the good guys, and the interplay between Grier and Elliot is sweet. Grier can turn up the heat whenever she's seducing someone as part of her revenge, and in Coffy one can see what makes Grier not just a compelling screen presence but also a heroine.

At times her acting was a bit forced, particularly when attempting more straightforward drama. However, credit where it is due: her "Mystique" sequence showed an ability to handle accents well enough. While Coffy was not her film debut it was a major step forward, and she makes the most of this fascinating vigilante: sexual yes, but also motivated by justice.

Coffy, as I stated, is surprising in that it does not glamorize or praise drug dealing or pimps (even if King George appears in a-now almost comical pimp outfit complete with strut). In the middle of the lesbian titillation and catfights we have a brief moment where Flower Child visits her recovering sister, followed by a debate between Coffy and Carter about whether her "metaphorical" actions are right. Coffy is far ahead of its time in showing drugs as dangerous versus adventurous. It is also ahead of its time by showcasing a strong female lead, willing to take action. 

This isn't to say Coffy isn't afraid or vulnerable, but that's what makes her a believable heroine: she has moments of doubt, of vulnerability, of being menaced. She, however, faces them on not without fear but aware of them and knowing the stakes are too high for her to fail.

Coffy is a product of its time, particularly in the soundtrack. From the hip soul opening to some of its songs, it is clearly a blaxploitation film. While the opening song Coffy is the Color is good, I think modern audiences would find King George hilarious to almost spoof.

On the whole though, despite some amateurish acting and fight scenes (particularly when Coffy faces off against Harriet, a barely-concealed butch lesbian), Coffy has a strong positive message and a powerful screen presence from Pam Grier.  

Saturday, January 2, 2021

All My Life: A Review (Review #1448)


Sometimes, one sees a trailer and thinks "this is going to be so bad". Still, one goes in and thinks perhaps the trailer is what is bad but the movie itself could end up surprising you. I did not find such a thing with All My Life, a film that had its heart in the right place but was too choppy, rushed and surprisingly formulaic for a "true life" story.

Jennifer Carter (Jessica Rothe) is skipping along life when she spots Sol Chau (Harry Shum, Jr.) at a bar. She's with her two BFFs and he's with his two BFFs. While those other four are just there, Jennifer and Sol have not just a whirlwind romance but perhaps the greatest love story in the history of all humanity.

She kisses him on their first unofficial date: a jog through a park. They move in together. She encourages him to pursue his culinary gifts. He proposes through a flash mob to "their song": Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger.

Then he is diagnosed with liver cancer. At first things look fine after surgery but one day Jennifer sees he bought a puppy (which they said they would if they got bad news). With that, it's a rush to get married, with all their hipster friends and random strangers helping pay for their $20,000 dream wedding. However, death stops for no one, and their time is brief (we're told in a postscript that Sol died 128 days after the wedding). Nevertheless, Jennifer knows it's now or never as she and their friends go on to a new restaurant that will serve his myriad of dishes: Now or Never.

It is a terrible thing to say an "inspired by true events" movie can come across as hopeless fake, trite and almost insulting, yet here we have All My Life. I was reminded of another "doomed true-life love story" from this year: 2 Hearts. I don't know why 2020 brought us two separate "Young, seemingly healthy and incredibly beautiful man dies leaving the great love of his life alone" films, but there it is.

I might have been more forgiving of All My Life if it actually felt real. Again, it seems so wildly strange that All My Life felt fake despite Sol and Jennifer being real people. I put it down to Todd Rosenberg's screenplay, which is filled with awful dialogue that sounds, or attempts to sound, cutesy but comes across as cringey.

To try and motivate Sol to return to cooking, one of Jennifer's BFFs shouts "Yo Sol! Dust your apron off, bitch!" Sol attempts to explain to his apparent enemy at the kitchen where Sol whips up his brilliant dishes about his liver. Surprised to hear he had only part of it removed and that it's growing back, Sol says "The liver is like our one X-Men organ". Over and over the dialogue, the situations, the mannerisms of everyone feel so forced and fake, as if the film is unaware how humans actually speak or behave. 

Even that could be tolerated if any of these people were remotely interesting. My eyes started rolling when Sol attempts to impress Jennifer with his cool eyes and claims of wit. "Wit me!" Jennifer dares him, and I think, "Wit me!"? For a brief moment, I thought she was requesting Sol sing I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Everything in All My Life feels not quite sitcom-like but like a highlight reel for a television series season that you've not seen a complete episode of. So much of it felt rushed, as if we had to move on from one important moment to the next, with no chance for character or story development. We see a fellow cancer patient talk to them briefly, where Sol and Jennifer encourage him. The next time we see him is briefly as a wedding guest. All My Life has neither the interest or investment to make the bond between Sol and this random stranger real. I'm assuming he has a name, but I don't remember ever hearing it.

There's just a generic manner to All My Life, one where you almost expect various clichés to be ticked off: the cutesy couple's antics (They mirror their toothbrushing! They dance wildly to Hit Me With Your Best Shot!), the "big fight" (which curiously is the only time they appear to argue), the secret farewell video.

It's again so strange that despite this being a true story (to where we see footage of the real Solomon Chau and Jennifer Carter at their wedding) it simply does not feel real. Perhaps it was all the quips everyone was saying. Perhaps it was the flash mob proposal. Perhaps it was this odd veneer of optimism when our newlyweds splash around in a fountain. Perhaps it was how strangers all came together to offer all their services for free.

Yes, it may be all true, but as seen on screen it doesn't look real.

We get mention of Kyle (Kyle Allen) one of Sol's BFFs who has some kind of PTSD after his father died of cancer. Kyle himself mentions this when he arrives at the hospital at Sol's initial admittance. Dave (Jay Pharoah) also talks about Kyle's difficulty with seeing people with cancer, hence Kyle's initial decision to not attend the wedding.

How this actually relates to the story only Rosenberg and director Marc Meyers may know, but given that Kyle is almost a minor character the logical question is "why would the audience care?". It also makes one long for a film centered around Kyle or at least from Kyle's perspective. His PTSD struggles sound more interesting than Sol and Jennifer's story.

Acting-wise, I was not impressed with Shum, Jr. or Rothe. They seem pleasant enough and for a supposedly dying man Sol had a better body than almost every healthy man (one that the film showcased often). The other cast members aren't impactful enough to remember. Truth be told, I don't think I ever learned the characters' names, let alone bothered with their stories. It's an interesting thing when Mario Cantone comes across as the one trying for the most dramatic role as the wedding site coordinator.

All My Life does a disservice to the late Mr. Chau and his widow. Perhaps the respective families are pleased with the end results. I figure many audience members might be too. I found it all too cloying, insincere, forced, and sadly unbelievable, the worst thing for an "inspired by real events" film. The folk band playing Oasis seems more entertaining, and what can one say about a film where a Folk Oasis band sounds plausible.