Monday, May 31, 2021

Hamlet/Horatio: A Review (Review #1490)

 

HAMLET/HORATIO

Hamlet/Horatio opts to try something new with its version of Shakespeare's great tragedy. Some elements may scandalize purists, but with exceptional performances from the cast Hamlet/Horatio becomes a mesmerizing visual and artistic work.

While sticking close to the source material, Hamlet/Horatio's concept has it that Horatio (Themo Melikidze) is making a biopic of his dear friend Hamlet (Andrew Burdette). Hamlet is tormented by the death of his father (T.J. Mannix) and quick marriage of his mother Gertrude (Anna Maria Cianlucci) to her brother-in-law Claudius (Michael Elian). Struggling to honor his father's plea for vengeance with his own sense of right and wrong, it not only drives him to despair but his love interest Ophelia (Phage Nolte) to madness.

Horatio stays ever-loyal to the Melancholy Prince of Denmark, but soon things come to a head when Hamlet's actions lead to the deaths of both Ophelia and her father Polonius (Joe Menino). Polonius' son Laertes (Wayne Stephens) now swears revenge, an act that Claudius is only too happy to help with. It is a consuming tragedy, with only Horatio left to tell the tale.

I think Hamlet/Horatio may be a bit too artsy for some due to its concept of Horatio acting as a director, complete with staging. However, once the viewer focuses on the actual story and acting Hamlet/Horatio becomes a rich experience. 

At the brilliance of Hamlet/Horatio is the double-act of Burdette and Melikidze as Hamlet and Horatio respectively. Andrew Burdette is starting out his acting career, but already one sees exceptional promise in his performance. His is one of the best Hamlets I have seen on both stage or screen.

He is youthful enough to convince you that he is a conflicted teenager, and blessed with extraordinary looks. Beyond the superficial though, Burdette's Hamlet makes the character come alive, as a real person who thinks these tormented thoughts. Unlike far too many versions of Hamlet and Hamlet, Burdette makes Shakespeare's verse sound authentic versus theatrical.

When, for example, he tells Horatio the line "There are more things in Heaven or Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy", Burdette has it sound almost like he's adlibbing, shaping the thoughts in his mind and speaking them as Hamlet, not as dialogue. Far too often, actors take these lines and force the recitation, attempting to make them sound grand and glorious.

Burdette, aided by director Paul Warner, speaks them naturally, with no embellishment. It's not only a refreshing to see and hear an actor perform Shakespeare with naturalism versus theatricality. It is also a credit to the actor to make Hamlet's torment, doubt and conflict real. Throughout Hamlet/Horatio, Andrew Burdette never rages or devours the scenery. Instead, he brings a humanity to the role, a calmness that makes his tragedy all the more sad. A case in point is the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene. Many actors, even good ones, go all-in on the crazy (real or faked) as they torment Ophelia. Burdette, conversely, is eerily calm, albeit clearly conflicted.

If one is put off by the concept of Hamlet as almost a student film by Horatio, another director would be wise to allow Burdette to play Hamlet in a more straightforward production, where he would be instantly successful if he taps into the same manner.

He is matched beat for beat by Melikidze, whose Horatio is the loyal friend and perhaps something more. Hamlet/Horatio has a bath steam-room scene where Hamlet is clearly hitting on his BFF. Melikidze's performance makes clear he understands Hamlet's none-too-subtle overtures, but he takes no position on the subject. Melikidze does not reciprocate but does not demure, showing less a conflict and more confusion over what Hamlet means to him.

I think more people might be scandalized that Horatio makes the "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy a duet, with him reciting some of the lines alongside Hamlet in what is a dream sequence. I do not remember ever seeing a Hamlet where Horatio joins Hamlet in his doubts, but Hamlet/Horatio makes it work. It's a credit to screenwriter David Vando (who also has a small role as the Cinematographer on Horatio's film) that it does work without being showy or ridiculous.

As a side note, the real cinematographer, Hernan Toro, does exceptional work again with a limited budget. While some sequences are more stage-bound, other sequences such as the graveyard scene and Hamlet's dream sequence are atmospheric and visually splendid.

This element of Hamlet and Horatio being more than friends may be new, but hardly scandalous compared to what I took to be the suggestion of incest between Ophelia and Laertes. Intentional or not, I saw Laertes as being both too fond of his sister and him slightly jealous over Hamlet's attention to her. 

The rest of the cast is on the whole equal to the task. Cianciulli's Gertrude is an innocent, loving towards her son and husband yet terrified of both. Elian's Claudius has moments of strong villainy but also a humorous moment when the monarch is clearly bored by the play-within-the-play. 

Some scenes may be a bit too artsy, such as when The Ghost appears and reappears digitally, or when Hamlet is caked in whiteface, lost in his thoughts. Other moments, such as when the Player King and his Troupe perform, is exaggerated and distracting. There's also the film's curious decision to punctuate Polonius' idiocy with sound effects, which I thought were unnecessary.

Hamlet/Horatio still has a few kinks to work out in terms of music, and the concept of Horatio being a film director that is making a quasi-Hamlet biopic may be a bit off-putting. However, Hamlet/Horatio has more positives than negatives, Andrew Burdette's performance at the very top of them, one of the best I've seen this year. Exceptional performances elevate Hamlet/Horatio from artsy film to strong albeit abridged Shakespearean adaptation.    

DECISION: B+ 

Friday, May 28, 2021

Gun Crazy: A Review

 

GUN CRAZY

Gun Crazy is a short film in terms of running time, and clearly limited by its budget. However, far from bringing the film down those elements enhance Gun Crazy, making it an exceptional example of economic filmmaking at its most brilliant.

Despite his fascination and expertise with guns, Bart Tare is at heart a good man haunted by his youthful shooting of a baby chick. After a stint in reform school and the Army, Bart returns to his hometown and looks ready to start a quiet life.

That is, until he meets professional carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). The alluring vixen is impressed when Bart manages to outshoot her, while he's impressed with Annie. Even though she knows she is 'bad', they try to make an honest and happy life together. Eventually, the money runs out, but while Bart wants to settle down Annie wants wealth. 

As such, she pushes him into a life of crime, and they turn to bank robbery, creating a crime spree culminating in Annie violating one of his rules on gun violence and a fiery end for our star-crossed gun-toting lovers.



Gun Crazy is an absolutely brilliant example of how one can craft art while on a shoestring budget. Of particular note is a long one-take sequence involving their first major bank heist. Taking a POV from the backseat of their car, we see Bart and Annie interact as they search for the perfect place to park. We don't go inside the bank while Bart robs it, but instead stay with Annie as a policeman comes up.

To distract him, she leaps from the car and makes conversation. The audience can see and hear them, but we stay in the back, building up the tension of the sequence.

This one-take sequence predates Orson Welles' similar albeit more elaborate one-take opening from Touch of Evil, but director John Lewis shows he is able to hold his own. Lewis builds up great tension in other scenes, such as the initial shooting contest between Annie and Bart, where they fire at each other. 

Visually, Gun Crazy dazzles, and it's extraordinary that with a small budget the production could look so inspired. From Annie's first appearance as she looks down towards Bart to the climatic swamp scene, Gun Crazy manages to display exceptional sequences.

The economy Gun Crazy has does not limit but actually enhances the film, using clever elements such as audio distortion when young Bart drowns out the Judge's words or a montage of the couple's declining financial status.


Performance-wise, Gun Crazy is equally exceptional.  In an honest world, both Dall and Cummins would have been Oscar nominees at least for their performances. Dall makes Bart into the most reluctant criminal, a man so enthralled with his femme fatale that he'd dive up everything for her. The horror when he learns Annie's killed, the inability to leave her, his weakness at her, all builds up to an exceptional and heartbreaking performance.

Cummins should equally be recognized as the malevolent Annie. As the woman who leads her man wrong, Cummins makes one shiver at her greed and general unrepentant manner. I say "general unrepentant" because Cummins does not make Annie into a thoroughly evil person. You do get a small glimmer that she at least wanted to try and change for the better. When they rush to marry after being fired from the carnival, she confesses that she isn't any good, but she will try. It's almost as she knows it's impossible for her, yet her love for Bart would make her give it an effort.

It's extraordinary that Gun Crazy also has a score from Victor Young, always brilliant, that balances the danger and menace with a sense of 

The simplicity of economy forced the makers of Gun Crazy to be creative, and the end results are one of the great examples of film noir. 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Gaslight (1944): A Review

 


GASLIGHT

The term "gaslighting" (to try and manipulate someone into believing something that isn't true) is a dominant one today, yet few remember the origins of the term come from a Golden Era film. Gaslight is a well-acted albeit long film about the manipulation and ultimate revenge of the manipulated.

After her aunt is brutally murdered, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) goes to train as an opera diva like Aunt Alice. However, while her career doesn't take she herself is, by suave pianist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer). A whirlwind romance and marriage brings them back to the murder house, which Paula had inherited.

Soon, Paula appears to be slipping into insanity. Items begin disappearing with Paula unaware that "she" had taken them. There are footsteps only she can hear, and gaslights dimming with no apparent reason that only she can see. There's evil at work, but what or who can be behind it? Into this case comes Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), a detective and fan of Paula's aunt who suspects Gregory is not whom he says he is. As Paula's mind starts disintegrating, it will take all her strength to find out if and who is gaslighting her.

Gaslight is held up by the strong central performance of Ingrid Bergman. She easily transitions from the young woman in love to that of the terrified figure, shivering at the idea that she might be going mad. 

The brilliance of Bergman's performance is that the growing fear and anxiety is played without her becoming fully hysterical. Instead, the struggle between what she knows and what she is being manipulated into believing is played as a woman torn in two. You never see her really going bonkers. In fact, there's a certain restraint in her manner, one where Paula's growing fears fights against her knowledge of her genuine sanity.

It's only at the end, when she gets her revenge, that we see Bergman unleashed, and again it isn't a theatrical performance. Instead, it's the performance of a character who now has full command, enacting her own justice on her tormentor.

Boyer at times seemed a bit theatrical, his French accent making things more so. Of particular note is when he reacts when Paula finds a note from "Sergius Bauer", a gentleman caller of Aunt Alice. It seems clear he is villainous, and I wonder if director George Cukor opted not to make the mystery less obvious. Then again, the adaptation of Gas Light probably wanted us aware that Anton was manipulating her for his wicked intentions. 

Angela Lansbury earned an Oscar nomination for this, her screen debut, and it is well-warranted. As the tawdry new maid Nancy, Lansbury's performance made one wonder whether she too was in on the act. That balance between sleazy and innocent is well-handled by Lansbury. Dame May Whitty was the comic relief as the nosy neighbor, but while she was kept to a minimum at least it didn't come across as silly.

My issue would be with Cotten, who seems slightly miscast as the investigator. I didn't think it a horrible performance but it seemed a bit stiff, like he was in the theater rather than a film. There was a slight artificiality to it that didn't quite convince me he wasn't "acting".

One excellent element in Gaslight is Bronislau Kaper's score, which gave Gaslight the extra element of Gothic horror. Joseph Ruttenberg's cinematography and the use of shadows also gave the film a sense of the macabre.  

As well-acted as Gaslight is, the beginning did seem very "acted", and the film seemed very long. While minor details they did drag the film down a bit.

Despite this, the impact Gaslight continues to have has not abated. The ability to manipulate people into believing something false is true is a common one. Gaslight may not be as well-known by those more familiar with the term than the film. However, the film is worth watching in particular for Ingrid Bergman's exceptional performance.   

DECISION: B+

Friday, May 21, 2021

Warm Springs: The Television Movie

 

WARM SPRINGS

It is said that one has to walk before one can run. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took perhaps a too literal view of this expression after his polio diagnosis robbed him of the ability to walk. Warm Springs is a respectful, respectable portrait of how his convalescence freed him and his wife from their own restrains to shape them into the dynamic figures they needed to become.

Dilettante Franklin Roosevelt (Kenneth Branagh) aspires to high office, an aspiration nearly derailed by his extramarital affair with his wife's social secretary. While Franklin's wife Eleanor (Cynthia Nixon) can accept a divorce, Franklin's powerful mother Sara (Jane Alexander) makes clear no divorce is possible. Franklin's political handyman Louis Howe (David Paymer) also sees the scandal of divorce as the end of FDR's political career, something he knows would be disastrous for the world.

The strains on the marriage due to Franklin's infidelity go out the window when Franklin is struck with infantile paralysis, better known as polio. Franklin slips into his own great depression, sensing his life is over. Desperate to regain the ability to walk, he hears about a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia that is supposed to have restorative waters. Here, he starts gaining hope that he may walk again while seeing the suffering of others, including the proprietor, Tom Loyless (Tim Blake Nelson). 

As Franklin becomes more sympathetic to the plight of others, Eleanor comes into her own as a speaker in an effort to keep Franklin's name alive in Democratic Party circles. A rapprochement is achieved between Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, and while Franklin never walks on his own power, his illness brings him closer to the suffering others both disabled and not endure, ultimately preparing him to face two of the greatest challenges of the Twentieth Century.

Warm Springs is a respectful, respectable film on the turning point of the future President's life. It does slip into being a bit of hagiography when we see how worshipful the other Warm Springs guests see their "Doc". All these people come to not just see whether the warm waters in Warm Springs but to shake FDR's hand. He inspires them, changes their lives, and such moments do seem to be gilding the lily.

We also get a smorgasbord of characters that rarely get any major play. There's the "ethnic" Italian from the Bronx Jake Perini (Andrew Davoli) to provide a "working class" voice, and a romance between a former ballet dancer and a Warm Springs attendant. They just kind of flow in and out as needed, making them slightly superfluous. The same goes for the almost blink-and-you-miss-it liaison entre Franklin and Lucy Mercer (Melissa Ponzio). 

However, Margaret Nagle's screenplay does have major positives. There's an acknowledgement over why Roosevelt opted to keep the degree of his disability secret or at least downplayed. While this seems more like a present-day discussion than one that would have taken place in 1928, at least it gives a voice over the difficulties a disabled politician would face at the time. 

Warm Springs also has strong performances from our leads. Branagh's best performance comes not when he's playing the brash, grinning Happy Warrior but when expressing fear and anger over his disability. Near the end, he tearfully admits that he wanted to walk not just for himself but for Eleanor, and one senses that it's his way of asking forgiveness for his indiscretion. 

Nixon did not bother to capture Eleanor's distinct high-pitched voice but I think it allows for a performance rather than an impersonation. She shows Eleanor's growing strength of confidence and conviction while still struggling with their married life. It was a casting coup to have Alexander play the domineering Sara Roosevelt as she had previously played Eleanor in the miniseries Eleanor & Franklin and its sequel Eleanor & Franklin: The White House Years. While a much smaller role, Alexander made her presence known.

Also in a smaller but no less important role is Kathy Bates as Miss Mahoney, a physical therapist who also becomes something of an emotional therapist to FDR. She holds your attention when she refuses to wallow with FDR in his misery, reminding him she 

Warm Springs does not delve into the personal sides of Eleanor and Franklin as one might expect. On the whole though, it is a well-acted and at times moving portrait of a man embracing his disability to rise to greatness.


7/10

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Alibi Ike: A Review

 

ALIBI IKE

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic/panic robbed us of a Minor League Baseball season. Despite this and a delayed and abbreviated Major League Baseball season, we kept to the annual Opening Day Film Review. Now with the pandemic/panic on its own deathbed, it's time to look back to the early days of baseball in film with this year's Opening Day Film: Alibi Ike.

Francis X. Farrell (Joe E. Brown) is a baseball phenom, a two-way player who is primarily a pitcher but can also hit homeruns with the greatest of ease. Francis' talent is not in question. It's his inability to be truthful on matters large or small that drives everyone insane. His inability to be straight with anyone earns him the nickname "Alibi Ike" as he is always coming up with an alibi to either evade the question or offer as an oddball explanation.

It's to the point where Farrell, perhaps naively, accepts his name as "Ike". There is only one person who believes him and won't call him either "Alibi Ike" or "Ike". It's pretty Dolly (Olivia de Havilland), sister-in-law to the Chicago Cubs manager Cap (William Frawley). She's fallen head over heels for "Francis" and believes behind his penchant for wacky excuses is a good, honest man. 

Farrell is not mean and his habitual lies are never malevolent, but in a case of the boy who cried wolf he now finds himself in a jam. Mobsters have put the squeeze on Farrell to throw the World Series, which he balks at. However, when he makes up a wild excuse to make it appear he isn't in love with Dolly, she overhears him and dumps him on the spot. Depressed, he costs the Cubs the first game, which makes the mobsters think he's on the take. 

Farrell isn't though, but his reputation precedes him. Only Cap's wife Bess (Ruth Donnelly) knows what's going on. Now working to trap the mobsters, he finds that they're on to him, leading to wild abductions, wacky escapes and a mad rush to get to the game before the Cubs lose the World Series.


Alibi Ike is a nice, sweet comedy where it's clear we shouldn't be taking any of this seriously. At the time, no one save diehard Cubs fans ever expected them to get to the World Series. That alone I imagine might make Alibi Ike funny to begin with, though it took another 81 years for the Cubs to break the Curse, but I digress. 

It's already a wild stretch when you see the classy de Havilland make googly-eyes at Joe E. Brown, but that's part of the fun of the film. Brown's Francis/Ike is not a bad man, but instead almost innocent. He's probably aware of the chaos he unleashes but there isn't an arrogant manner to him. Instead, Francis has a cockiness mixed with a strange habit of making up more and more outlandish excuse for anything.

He tells Cap for example the reason why he was late for Spring Training after literally crashing his car onto the field. If Francis is to be believed, he didn't get there because his calendar was wrong! After failing to strike out a player, an enraged Cap storms onto the mount demanding an explanation. He easily could have struck him out, Ike tells him, but Cap had squeezed his hand so hard that Cap had accidentally injured Ike!

These kinds of whacked-out fibs may be mere covers for Francis, but Brown makes it plausible to think Ike can get away with such nuttiness.

Frawley is a standout as the very patient but exasperated Cap. He is a master of handling quips, his irascible manner lending to the comedy. However, in a couple of scenes Frawley is more than capable of playing straight drama, such as his recognition of Ike's love depression and quiet encouragement.


De Havilland, technically making her film debut in Alibi Ike (the more posh production of A Midsummer Night's Dream released after this film which also costarred Brown) seems slightly out of place. The ever classy de Havilland seems a bit lost amid all the hijinks of Alibi Ike and seems slightly forced whenever having to declare mad love for Francis. Early on, she makes clear that she's not buying any of this. However, she does show some believability in her anger when breaking up with him, so we can put her acting to being early in her career when she was still getting the hang of screen acting.

Alibi Ike also has some great sight gags, such as when Francis' jalopy starts up after getting hit by his own baseball hit. His daring escape where he ends up chasing a non-moving car is also hilarious.  

Alibi Ike is a nice pleasant little film with Joe E. Brown in fine form as the sweet but maddening Francis. However, it doesn't answer the question, "If the Cubs are the home team, why are they playing at night?" 

2017 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out
2018 Opening Day Film: Fear Strikes Out
2019 Opening Day Film: Ladies' Day
2020 Opening Day Film: Mr. 3000

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

ABBA: The Movie. A Review

 

ABBA: THE MOVIE

Few musical acts can rightly be called "supergroups", but Swedish pop group ABBA certainly can take up that name. At their height, ABBA was the musical group, charting hit after hit. It is no surprise that a feature film was built around them. ABBA: The Movie is a mix of concert film and fictional narrative. It may not be original, but few will complain when enjoying the ABBA catalog.

Australian country music DJ Ashley (Robert Hughes) is given a hurried assignment: interview ABBA and broadcast the interview as an informal closing to their 1977 Australian tour. Contrary to what the music station manager (Bruce Barry) thinks, interviewing ABBA won't be easy. Worse is that the manager doesn't just want a mere interview, he wants ABBA to reveal their collective souls.

Poor Ashley, who has no knowledge of who these Swedes are, is forced to travel Australia in search of the elusive interview, a task made harder by his press pass constantly failing to arrive at whatever town they are at. He does get interviews with various ABBA fans, and a few ABBA haters, as he struggles to land them for a chat. Just as when all hope is lost, a fortuitous elevator ride allows Ashley a chance to take flight like an Eagle before our pop foursome return to Scandinavia.

ABBA: The Movie is really just an excuse to glory in ABBA: The Group. It's rather oddball to imagine a novice like Ashley thrown into scoring a personal one-to-four interview with the biggest pop group in the world with nary a minute's notice. In fact, the interest in Ashley's story is so small that once we get the miracle of ABBA TALKS! the film as a whole loses steam. As such, him racing to make the deadline, frantically cutting the interview and sound clips in the racing taxi is rather boring.

However, even what passes as plot in ABBA: The Movie had to have a conclusion. 

Instead, ABBA: The Movie is a blending of promotion and presentation. For the most part, we learn that Australians find ABBA appealing mostly because they are "nice and clean", a more wholesome group and sound to the blood-and-thunder music of say a Led Zeppelin. 

In some ways, ABBA: The Movie is remarkably insightful about itself. There is more than irony in director Lasse Hallstrom's use of them performing Money, Money, Money as we are shown the myriad of ABBA merchandise. Not that the group cares, for ABBA member Benny Andersson in the opening press conference says its only fair to pay high taxes if you're Swedish.

That Scandinavian socialism. 

We do learn a bit into ABBA's insight thanks to Anni-Frid Lyngstad's comments at the press conference that "It's boring to travel but it's fantastic to be on stage". As such, ABBA: The Movie does give us something of a glimpse into the band's hectic road life. Where else can one see Benny playing a traditional Swedish folk song on the accordion? 

That is, when the film does not have strange dream sequences where the band and the reporter share a picnic.

As Hughes is tasked to carry the bulk of the acting, mostly comedic, we don't see ABBA "act" apart from a scene in a hotel room where Benny asks for the definition of "kinky" and Agnetha Faltskog puzzled over the adulation of her posterior.

The highlights of ABBA: The Movie are clearly the performances captured for the film. It's a treasure trove of musical moments where The Name of the Game and Eagle are showcased to great use. These numbers almost seem like precursors to music videos. The film also has cute moments, like a ballet class singing Ring Ring in their own manner.

ABBA: The Movie is good entertainment even to non-ABBA fans, though the story is again an excuse to showcase the ABBA catalog. However, who can really complain when said catalog is just so good? To use an ABBA song, Thank You for The Music

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Caligula: A Review (Review #1485)

CALIGULA

Could it be possible that Malcom McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud all appeared together in a porn movie? Caligula became notorious upon release, mixing elaborate sets with hardcore sex scenes. It shouldn't surprise people that Caligula featured pornographic scenes as Penthouse Magazine publisher Bob Guccione produced the film. Now that forty years has passed it may be time to reexamine Caligula and see whether or not it is an unrecognized cinematic masterwork or a revolting piece of trash.

After the death of his great-uncle Tiberius (O'Toole), young Caligula (McDowell) becomes Emperor of the Roman Empire. It isn't long before he becomes more and more decadent, debauched and deranged. He quickly eliminates Macro (Guido Mannari), who killed Tiberius to allow Caligula to accede the Imperial Throne.

Despite maintaining an intense incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), Caligula takes as his wife Caesonia (Mirren), an Isis priestess and according to Drusilla "the most promiscuous woman in Rome". Caligula's blood and sex-lust knows no bounds, made worse when Drusilla dies. Now totally insane, Caligula scandalizes even blasé Rome when he turns the palace into a brothel with Senators' wives as its prostitutes. It is clear that Caligula must not just be dethroned but executed, and that his idiot uncle Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) would make for a better ruler.

I figure there is or will be an effort to reevaluate Caligula, but I would be astonished if it got far. Caligula is not erotic but gaudy, vulgar, trashy, awful, pointless. It is the most pretentious porn film ever made, and while it is up to the audience to decide if this is a quality or a fault in terms of film Caligula is a horror.

There are graphic depictions of every sexual act imaginable with the possible exception of bestiality (though there is a scene where Caligula is in bed with his horse). Leaving nothing to the imagination, we start with the crazed lasciviousness with a pseudo-romantic romp between a barely-dressed man and a barely-dressed woman cavorting to Aram Khachaturian's theme from his ballet Spartacus. It is horrifying to find this is a love scene between siblings. No matter how hard Caligula tried, it is difficult to make incest a romantic and lush enterprise. 

It isn't even the graphic scenes of everything from fellatio to fisting to even hints of necrophilia that makes Caligula tawdry and tasteless. It's the film's inability to restrain itself. Like many if not all pornographic films Caligula has a lot of sex but no plot to speak of. Caligula's crazed manner just comes about, and things hop from one point to another. Why for instance Macro felt such loyalty to Caligula is unclear, and Mannari's performance does not help. Like many of the Italian actors, he was dubbed, but Mannari's manner of acting by thrusting his head out looks comical.

At least they have the excuse of the language barrier, but the main cast has none of that. O'Toole's calls for his "little fishes" is hilarious, and one can only wonder what he too thought as he wandered around with all this graphic obscenity all around him. There's endless nudity from everyone save O'Toole and Gielgud, both of whom mercifully disappear forty-five minutes into the film. They are spared more humiliation, and one blesses Gielgud for keeping a straight face among the cacophony of naked men and women swimming around a diseased-looking O'Toole.

Both of them at least acted and gave it the best effort to play all this seriously, but this has to be a low point for both. O'Toole's Tiberius, claiming to be a moralist among the parade of penises, masturbations and freaks around him, hopefully made him rethink the wisdom of being in Caligula. It must have been flat-out impossible for them not to see how Caligula's sets and grotesque figures took viewers' eyes off their acting. 

It's unfortunate, because there were hints of when McDowell could have made a good Caligula if not for his "Little Boots" dance and occasional fits of hamminess. Savoy's best performance was when playing a corpse, and one sometimes wonders if she herself was dubbed. Only Mirren spares herself total humiliation, but her gaudy costumes do not help.

Caligula's cavernous sets overwhelm everything, and while they are massive they also make clear this is a massive film set. The costumes too were too clean to be real, at least for those who wore costumes. It is one thing to portray Caligula's court as being debauched, unrestrained and illogical, one where naked women are literally washed with the newly-ejaculated sperm of well-endowed men. It is another where the Roman peasants wear phallus-shaped foam hats on the streets. 

There is no wit save for perhaps one line spoken as Caligula hosts his Imperial Brothel. The soldier  Chaerea (Paolo Bonacelli) in a dubbed voice says "Give him enough rope, perhaps..." and Caligula's alien-looking courtier Longinus (John Steiner) finishes "He'll hang us all!" 

Caligula is so wildly disjointed in terms of plot, but that almost serves as a positive to distract from the endless fixation on clitorises and penises in all shapes and forms, from the physical to the cakes of cocks parading all about. What must have the extras carrying naked women to have their vaginas drenched in lemon juice been thinking when given this task?

Truth be told, what must anyone have thought during the production of not "one of the most important films of this or any generation" but one of the worst films in human history? Caligula is so bad, so flat-out dirty, so seedy, I'd rather watch the positively restrained and sophisticated  The Hangover Part II instead.

DECISION: F

Monday, May 3, 2021

The High Note: A Review

THE HIGH NOTE

The COVID-19 pandemic not only cancelled musician tours but movies about musician tours. The High Note was one of the first victims of movie closures, seeing its debut disappear into video on demand. Longer than it should be thanks to a wild out-of-left field twist, The High Note is pleasant enough for a quiet evening's mild entertainment.

Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) has been toiling away as the personal assistant to music diva Grace Davis (Tracie Ellis Ross) for three years. Maggie, however, has a greater ambition: to be a producer, going so far as to secretly produce a track on Davis' live album. While she's on generally good terms with Grace, Maggie still won't push her to ask for a chance.

Grace has her own issues. Her long-term manager Jack (Ice Cube) is very protective of Davis' revenue, preferring she keep singing her old hits versus the risk of making a new album. His overprotective nature is so great he pushes for a Vegas residency, even though Grace enjoys touring and does not want to rest on her laurels.

To get actual experience, Maggie soon finds talented but hesitant singer/songwriter David Cliff, Jr. (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). To even Maggie's surprise, she's a good producer, but inevitably complications arise from both her side and main gig. These cause a rupture to Maggie's relationship to both Grace and David, along with secrets being discovered. Ultimately though, the music is the thing as all's well that ends well.

Flora Greeson's screenplay has two issues. First, it's rather cliché. The hesitant, put-upon assistant to a superstar is nothing new, and The High Note opted not to do anything original with the premise. It showed hints of going down new roads when we see quiet moments where Grace and Maggie share confidences, but for the most part Maggie seems simultaneously in awe and terrified of our diva. After three years of loyal service one would think Maggie would  have lost her hesitancy when alongside Grace. However, Johnson plays her as if she is barely three months into her employment.

The High Note also has not one but two "wacky" friends to Grace and Maggie: Gail (June Diane Raphael) and Katie (Zoe Chao) respectively. While Chao coasted through the "wacky" BFF role, Raphael's character totally perplexed me. There was no rhyme or reason for her to be there. She added nothing to the plot and many times her presence seemed so illogical. One wonders what she is doing there at all, let alone with such proximity to Grace.

Here's where the second problem comes in: a lot of it feels disjointed, as if cobbled together from various drafts and jammed together. How else to explain one wild twist that one never had any suggestion was plausible. The High Note does attempt to suggest how despite being both her PA and a major fan Maggie does not know Grace's surprising secret, but it quickly papers over things with a line about Grace having good lawyers.


No clue, no real inkling of what happened was ever given, and characters meant to be major seemed to drop out of nowhere. Of particular note is Eddie Izzard as Dan Deakins, a fellow musical star who agrees to drop out as the opening act for Grace's live album launch party so David can make his debut. We never get a hint of who he is until he shows up, then as soon as his plot device goes that's the end of Dan.

I kept thinking how nice it would have been for him to agree to maybe ask David to join him only to be rebuffed when David learns for whom the party is for. Maybe not a great idea but something different.

Johnson is still struggling to leave behind her Anastasia Steele manner from the Fifty Shades films. Here, she's so maddeningly hesitant and timid it's a wonder she's able to speak. Even when confronting producer Richie Williams (Diplo in a cameo) over a remix that she feels is overproduced, Maggie seems unable to be the strong woman she needs to be. Whether trying to talk Grace into putting out new material or romancing David, Johnson comes across as fearful and apprehensive.

Director Nisha Ganatra fails to get many sparks in the David/Maggie romance, their initial flirtations awkward and stiff. Much better were the scenes with Johnson and Ross, who was the standout in The High Note. It makes it to where one would have preferred seeing a Grace Davis-centered film versus her assistant's rather dull life. Cube is just there to rattle off lines, and it's clear that Harrison needs more vehicles to showcase a promising talent.

The highlight of The High Note is the soundtrack, which is filled with good songs. Tracks like Bad Girl and Stop For a Minute were good, and it's unfortunate that the closing song Love Myself failed to garner any recognition.  

The High Note is adequate. A bit longer than perhaps it should be, with weak performances save for Ross and Harrison, Jr., it is acceptable but it could have reached much higher. 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Cry 'Havoc': A Review


CRY 'HAVOC'

Cry 'Havoc' is the rare World War II film that centers around women, particularly nurses and nursing volunteers on the front lines. Topical at the time, Cry 'Havoc' now looks both dated and stagey, though a couple of good performances save it from being a total bore.

As the Japanese sweep through the Philippines, the U.S. Army is in desperate need of nurses. Unfortunately there are only two currently serving: Captain Marsh (Fay Bainter) and Lieutenant Smith (Margaret Sullavan). Nurse Flo (Marsha Hunt) is tasked to find female volunteers among the various refugees. Sadly, she can find only nine of various backgrounds. The dominant figure is sultry Pat Conlin (Ann Sothern), who constantly butts head with "Smitty". Add to that the fact that Pat and Smitty are both interested in the same (unseen) man: Lieutenant Holt.

The rest of the women find the stress of combat and death hard, but they do their part to attend the wounded. As the Japanese come closer to their hospital, the women continue their work, though sadly not all survive to see the fall of Corregidor and their capture. As the women slowly march upwards from their bunker Pat and a seriously ill Smitty reconcile, the truth about Smith's secret marriage and Pat's platonic relationship with Holt breaking their own war.

Cry 'Havoc' is based on a play and it clearly shows. Many scenes are set in the underground bunker they share, and worse, director Richard Thorpe stages the scenes as if we were in a theater. Bizarrely, despite having ample opportunity to open up Cry 'Havoc' by setting scenes outside, so much of the action is set in this one room it might have just been a filmed play.

That might have been forgivable but not the fact that so many of the performances are bad. At the top of the list is Sullavan. From the beginning there seemed to be a forced brittleness to her performance, no real emotion behind her secretly ill Lieutenant Smith. A frozen face no matter what scene she was meant to play, it seems almost laughable that she and Holt could ever be involved, let alone passionately in love. Intentional or not, Sullavan comes across as a parody of a screen lesbian, making the potential of a deep heterosexual love comical.

Another bad performance is Dorothy Morris as Sue, a British girl traumatized by war. What is meant as a deep scene as she emerges from a hallucination mistaking a volunteers meeting for a party while waiting for her sister to return comes across as hilarious. Morris was simply awful: her British accent poor and her theatrics more comical than moving. Ella Raines as the Philadelphia patrician's daughter Connie too was bad in her own hysterics, though to be fair she did manage to have a strong moment with Sothern when they start to bond despite their differences.

It was not all bad, as a few good performances came out of it. Sothern's turn as the brassy, no-nonsense Pat showcased her ability to backtalk to anyone, but we also saw a different side to her. In that scene with Raines, Sothern shows a more mature woman capable of showing tenderness to a frightened girl. She even quietly accepts a bit of perfume from Connie until she hears the other women coming, where she reverts to type. It reveals that Pat's persona is more of a protective device, as does her admission that she and Holt never had anything more than talks. Ann Sothern is a highlight of Cry 'Havoc', giving a wonderful performance.

I also enjoyed Diana Lewis as simple Southern girl Nydia, who joined the volunteers as a way to find her Alabama boyfriend. For reasons unclear, Joan Blondell was wildly underused as Grace, former burlesque queen. Same goes for Bainter, who is on screen for at most ten minutes, mostly at the beginning and end of Cry 'Havoc'

That may be one of the major problems with Cry 'Havoc': simply too many characters. As the majority of the plot involves the love triangle between Smitty, Holt and Pat, other characters disappear for long stretches, making them almost redundant. That perhaps might work on the stage, but in the film a lot of women seem to get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps a remake can cut some of the characters, such as the West sisters. 

One unintentionally funny moment comes when one of the women says she has what passes as a date with an anti-aircraft gunner. "There's a gunner out there who's going to show me how to operate his anti-aircraft gun. He's brought down seven". Maybe it's my own mindset, but that line sounds curiously suggestive of something more than downing "Japs" (the popular term for the Pacific front enemy at the time). The use of the phrase "We're all free, white and twenty-one" may have been common at the time, but it's pretty cringey now.

Cry 'Havoc' is a bit of a downer, even for a war film. The film rarely gives the women moments of levity, and the only one that comes close (a light swim) ends in tragedy. The film seems a product of its time, but while there is strong potential in the tale of women on the front lines, a slow pace and more than a few weak to bad performances take that potential out.  

DECISION: D+

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Mortal Kombat (2021): A Review (Review #1482)

 

MORTAL KOMBAT 

I did not play Mortal Kombat or see any Mortal Kombat films before we got this reboot. Apart from its fantastic theme song I have little knowledge of anything related to this video game turned franchise. I'm someone who judges a film based on what it is aiming for, but even by those measures Mortal Kombat is just a bad film. Sleep-inducing, grotesquely violent and self-serious for something this schlocky, Mortal Kombat is just a bad film.

Japan 1617. Master swordsman Hanzo Hayashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) finds his past catch up with him when he and his family are killed by the villainous Bi-Han. Moving towards the present-day, young MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is contemplating retirement when approached by Jax (Mehcad Brooks). 

Unbeknown to Cole, he is to join an elite group of humans to fight in an otherworldly battle known as "Mortal Kombat". Also unbeknown to him, he is a descendant of Hanzo (a young baby having been missed by Bi-Han, now known as Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). Quickly thrown into a chaotic universe, Cole trains at the secret temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).

Under his personal protection, Lord Raiden gets the other champions to train to fight his nemesis, the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han). Eventually, one of them, arrogant mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) turns rouge, and begins an all-out bloodbath between the forces of Lord Raiden and Shang. Some survive, others do not, but with Sub-Zero defeated by a resurrected Hanzo, now known as Scorpion, it will be a mere matter of time before these two group battle it out again. Their next battle may even be joined by a movie star named Johnny Cage...

I can appreciate a film that attempts to keep to its video game roots, even to where a novice like myself can recognize catchphrases and killing methods. As such, I figure I should judge it on a curve. However, what can one say about an action film where I was struggling to stay awake only to be jolted awake by seeing a woman sawn in half?

Mortal Kombat the game was not shy about letting the blood gush all over, but Mortal Kombat the film went so insanely overboard with the gruesome aspects of it that if one didn't know it was fiction they might think it was a snuff film. Right from the get-go when Hanzo is killed we see director Simon McQuoid not shy away from showing just how graphic he could be.

We see arms violently removed, people frozen and their souls sucked out. It may be similar to the video game, but it is rather horrifying to someone with little or no knowledge of it all.

Perhaps that might be forgiven if Mortal Kombat was any fun. Instead, it is so deadly serious that is is also a bit boring. Few if any of the characters had any personality, taking everything oh-so-seriously that it sucks out the joy of what could be a romp. This may be why the character of Johnny Cage is so popular, as he is probably one of the only Mortal Kombat combatants to show any humor.

I don't think anyone in Mortal Kombat cracked a smile. Again, while there should be a balance between all-out laughs and all-out grim, Mortal Kombat never really bothered to make any of the characters save one interesting. Lawson was the clear standout as Kano because he was the only one to have a genuine personality. Brash, arrogant, obnoxious and unapologetically selfish and self-centered, Kano was worth watching.

To be fair, Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade also has some good moments, particularly as she is the only one who isn't initially marked to be a combatant. However, the rest of the cast was nondescript. In the leading role, Lewis Tan I think did as well as could be done with such an underwritten part, but he suffered by being a bit bored-looking like everyone else.

It was to the point where Mortal Kombat is so dull I genuinely missed the part where Kano turns to the Dark Side, let alone cared if any of them lived.

Perhaps Mortal Kombat's worse fault lies in its naked declaration of a sequel. It is bad enough that Mortal Kombat violated one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Film By Suggesting There Will Be a Sequel. It is in the blundering way it did. You had Shang declare he would raise a new army. You had Raiden declare he is seeking new warriors. You had Cole going to Hollywood to search for a new champion. You had Cole pass a poster announcing the newest movie from action star Johnny Cage.

While it shouldn't be a surprise Mortal Kombat would get a sequel, you don't need so many spotlights to announce that. 

Mortal Kombat is boring and violent, a terrible mix. For me, it did not test my might but my patience.

DECISION: F