Saturday, July 31, 2021

Summer Under the Stars 2021: Some Thoughts


As we come again to Turner Classic Movies' Summer Under the Stars, I see that TCM sticks to the familiar in both terms of programming and players. 

It sticks to the familiar when it comes to patterns. We have at least one minority, one silent, one foreign and a few living actors featured on each day. This year though, we got a few surprises. 

For the African-American slot, TCM brought on board Louis Armstrong, a musical genius not known for his feature films. Sadly, it's a sign of the few films they could find or show that the documentary Satchmo: The Life of Louis Armstrong, is being shown twice on his day. I find this odd since Paris Blues featuring Armstrong could easily be slotted in. In fact, I thought Paris Blues was part of the lineup, so seeing it not listed took me by surprise.

As a side note, I find that this year TCM is featuring a surprising number of performer-related documentaries versus feature films, which to my memory they have not done in past years. There's the aforementioned Satchmo, then there's James Cagney: Top of the World, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me and Kim Novak: Live From the TCM Film Festival for those players' respective days. Seems strange to delve into documentaries rather than feature more obscure or lesser-seen films. It is stranger given that they opted not to or weren't able to get more recent documentaries for other players such as Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words or Jane Fonda in Five Acts to show for their days. 

It would be nice if on occasion TCM showed something within this century once in a while apart from TCM Underground.

They could also have come up with A Conversation With Gregory Peck or Judy Garland: By Myself for their days. My thinking is that because the Bergman, Fonda, Peck and Garland documentaries were not TCM or Turner-produced they weren't going to show them, which is understandable. If they felt more adventurous however, perhaps TCM could create original documentaries to fill in some slots. Certainly it might do better than showing many-screened films again.

Showing the Novak appearance at the TCM Film Festival to fill her day is more surprising given that for Charlton Heston last year they opted not to show Private Screenings: Charlton Heston when it easily could have fit into the programming and as far as I know is available to them. 

We have Ramon Novarro filling in the Hispanic and silent film star slot, who is one of the surprisingly high twelve debut players for Summer Under the Stars. He makes his first appearance on SUTS as do Armstrong, Eve Arden, Richard Burton, Maurice Chevalier, Setsuko Hara, Tony Randall, Robert Redford, Margaret Rutherford, Robert Young and the comedy duo Abbott & Costello. Another debut, George Segal, is featured more than likely as a de facto tribute due to his March 2021 death.

In a sense, seeing so many new Summer Under the Stars players is a step forward, allowing for a chance to move beyond what we've seen before. However, some habits are hard to break: Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn have probably had more than their fair share of SUTS appearances, so unless they venture into more esoteric territory in their filmographies we're set for some more Greatest Hits marathons.

It's interesting that for Bette Davis, TCM is showing the 1945 film version of The Corn is Green. Wonder why TCM couldn't or wouldn't show Hepburn's version made for television in 1979. It would make for an interesting comparison.

The foreign film star slot is also surprising. Japanese actress Setsuko Hara makes her debut, and to my memory this is the first time I have seen a non-European performer given his/her own SUTS day. The last time I believe a non-European performer received a SUTS salute was in 2012 with Toshiro Mifune. That means that despite the potential of Asian, African or Latin American actors to be featured it has taken nearly a decade to move out of the Continent.

Note that when I speak of Latin American performers, I don't mean those who made English-language or silent films like Dolores del Rio, Ricardo Montalban, or Novarro. I look towards those like Maria Felix, Mario Moreno "Cantinflas", Libertad Lamarque or Silvia Pinal (the last one still living as of this writing).  To be fair, both Arturo de Cordova and Pedro Armendariz, Sr. could easily fill in slots in both English and Spanish-language films, but I figure that if TCM opted not to show any of del Rio's Mexican films I doubt we'll be venturing South of the Border. 

Sorry, Carmen Miranda.

The living performers of Novak, Fonda and Redford might allow for more contemporary films, but the most recent one will be 2001's The Last Castle for Redford. At least to be fair it is better than last year, where 1996's The First Wives Club was the newest film as part of Goldie Hawn day. I'm not arguing that Turner Classic Movies show Monster-in-Law or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to venture into something like All is Lost for Redford or Youth for Jane Fonda. It would allow a chance to see these performers' autumn work and introduce new films to audiences that probably missed them in theaters.

It might also be nice if TCM ventured into lesser-known films in the various performers' filmography. For Katharine Hepburn, perhaps the lesser-known or seen The Trojan Women or Long Day's Journey into Night rather than another showing of Bringing Up Baby or The Lion in Winter. Peck could get Arabesque, Old Gringo, The Chairman or Other People's Money, films again less familiar to most audiences. 

I look forward to this year's Summer Under the Stars, making new discoveries. On the whole, I find this a more interesting venture than last year.

For 2021's Summer Under the Stars, it's a case of one step forward, one step back. 

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Boys in Red Hats: A Review (Review #1500)



When footage of the encounter between Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann and Native American Nathan Phillips first went viral, I personally resisted the temptation to offer any kind of opinion. Long ago have I learned that things are not always as they appear, and that there is another side to the story. That, however, was not what our Twitter mob/instant reaction media did. In a wild rush to judgment, ratings and moral posturing, the Mainstream Press and the social media warriors declared that the Covington students were harassing a poor old Indian, a war hero, exercising their white privilege and wealth to bully someone else. It perfectly captured, it appears, the Fifth Estate's worldview than the truth. The Boys in Red Hats attempts to sort out not so much what happened but why the fallout was as it turned out to be.

Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Schroder, like most people, was first outraged by the bullying, smirking manner of these entitled white boys against old Native Americans. However, things soon started shifting wildly when more footage starting emerging beyond the snippet first circulated. That footage showed a different story: one involving the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group of black people described as a domestic terrorist group. Throw in the fact that not only had it been Phillips who had approached the students versus the other way around, but that Phillips' own past is questionable. Schroder, feeling he'd been duped, decided to reexamine the story.

There's an added element in Schroder's take: he himself is a graduate of "Cov Cath", familiar with the world the students occupy. As such, he started wondering if outside factors were playing a part in how the narrative was being formed, a narrative that is mostly at odds with what he knows of this institution. I say "mostly" because as The Boys in Red Hats goes on, he makes clear his memories of Covington are not rose-colored. With his supervising producer Justin Jones serving as his sounding board, The Boys in Red Hats weaves interviews with those pro-and-con Covington as Schroder aims for interviews with the two central figures: Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips. 

As in all life, things that appear clear can 
become different from another perspective. The encounter between Sandmann and Phillips was presented to the public in a certain way, with clear cut heroes and villains. Those Make America Great Again caps were the chef's kiss, symbolizing to some viewers just how evil these kids were. However, in the chaos of the actual incident, where all sorts of things were going on and many pieces were moving hither and yon, it was or should have been impossible to sort things out clearly. The Boys in Red Hats is not a defense of the Covington Catholic students as total innocents nor a damnation of Mr. Phillips. If anything, it is a portrait of how people were quick to decide things that perhaps they did not fully understand.

Schroder uses his insight into the world of "Cov Cath" to attempt a translation about what the students did. The chants they used prior to the encounter was an almost reactive response to things going from one bizarre situation (the harassment by the BHI) to another (Phillips approaching them with a drum). A strong insight about the students' reaction to Phillips comes from Vincent Schilling, a Native American reporter.

He points out that in American society, sports teams fans break out into tomahawk chops. How can we as a society, he says, condemn teenagers for doing tomahawk chops while Phillips beats his drum when adults get if not celebrated at least openly encouraged to do so at Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves games? In essence, how can we ask for teens to exhibit sensitive behavior when adults don't?   

The film weaves various conversations between Schroder and Jones that at times do distract from what is meant to be that examination into the Sandmann/Phillips encounter. As they debate whether and how to try and get sit-down interviews with either of them, Jones seems more willing to push back against Schroder's ideas of whether it is worth the struggle to try. He also is more open about not attempting to explain some odd moments from the overall Covington culture. A particularly cringy moment is when we see the students in what at first appears blackface. 

While we may learn that this is part of a "blackout" where they are encouraged to wear all black and paint themselves black, and that there are "whiteouts" and "blue-outs" where the students adopt similar tones, it's still a bit jarring. It's more so when we see at least one or two add other paint in the blackouts that suggest wide grins, elements not added when they are in white or blue. 

Context may be everything, but sometimes even in context things look a bit bizarre and tawdry. Jones as the outsider may serve to keep the insider Schroder to not wander into a defense or explanation of the culture that he has been part of.

The interviews are concise and well-spoken, giving us various viewpoints from those defending the kids to those enraged, and still enraged, by the Covington Catholic students. It may not delve greatly into elements others bring up such as "white privilege" why exactly the MAGA hats create such a visceral reaction pro or con; however, on the whole The Boys in Red Hats should be a good primer not so much as to the Smirk Encounter, but in how our own views color what we see.  
"I love my bubble", one interview subject tells Schroder off camera. Perhaps it is that love that not only sparked this crisis, but keeps others going in perpetuity.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Cymbeline: A Review


I'm always up for a Shakespearean adaptation, especially if it goes beyond the more popular plays. Cymbeline attempts to bring to life a more obscure Shakespeare play with simply disastrous results that are almost astonishing to watch in the wrong way.

Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is leader of the Britons Motorcycle Gang, in an uneasy peace with the Rome Police. His new Queen (Mila Jovovich) has hopes that her son Cloten (Anton Yelchin) marries Cymbeline's daughter, her stepdaughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) to keep power within the family. She also wants Cymbeline out of the way. 

Imogen, however, has eyes only for Posthumus (Penn Bagley), Cymbeline's poor protégé. Their secret marriage forces Posthumus' exile. Here, he wagers that Imogen will remain loyal when Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) wagers otherwise. Iachimo makes both Imogen and Posthumus believe at points that the other has been unfaithful, with only Pisanio (John Leguizamo) loyal to both. Imogen goes to Milford Haven to look for Posthumus, who is convinced Iachimo has successfully seduced Imogen through false evidence.

Now as "Fidel", Imogen finds Belarius (Delroy Lindo) and his sons, with whom "he" has taken refuge. Through a series of tragic events, Cloten is beheaded, "Fidel" is mistaken for dead, and a war erupts between the Bike Club and the corrupt Rome Police, leading to a fiery conclusion and more deaths.

There are three ways to adapt Shakespeare. You can stick with the traditional version, you can update the time and place but keep the language or you can update the plot and move it to another time and place. The Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor version of The Taming of the Shrew is a good example of the first, 10 Things I Hate About You is a good example of the third. Cymbeline attempts the second, and while I'm one of the few who does not think Romeo + Juliet is this unimpeachable masterpiece, it is miles ahead of Cymbeline.
The problem, the main problem, the central problem, the dominant problem in Cymbeline is the sheer lack of emotion throughout. The actors appear too focused on reciting the lines than on giving the characters any believability. The vast fault lies with writer/director Michael Almereyda, who apparently directed everyone to speak in near total whispers. Perhaps he was afraid of waking audiences from the inevitable sleep Cymbeline will induce as they slog through it.

Perhaps only once did Cymbeline allow anyone to show anything beyond mere stillness, and even then it was almost sad to watch. Cymbeline is surprisingly miscast and misdirected, where actors with little to no range attempt Shakespeare and actors with great talent are forced to restrain themselves to almost catatonic levels.

Dakota Johnson simply has no range or business attempting to act. Her Imogen was totally blank and acted as though Shakespearean English was untranslatable. Same goes for Penn Bagley, who looks lost attempting to decipher all this. Conversely, Anton Yelchin and Ed Harris are exceptional actors who are forced to show no emotion and just speak the words in a bizarre hushed tone. Jovovich straddles those two worlds, though she is quite beautiful.

As a side note, perhaps because of Jovovich's beauty it seems almost implausible for her to be Yelchin's mother; the fact that there's a mere thirteen year age difference between them making things more odd.

This, to be fair, is how everyone says their lines, making what should be fiercely dramatic moments so unnaturally still and restrained. Everyone is wasted in Cymbeline, even the few who stumble into passable performances that if not for poor directing could have done wonders. Lindo in his too-brief role was better than what ended up on screen. Leguizamo is the best, for he managed to show something of human emotion.

Curiously, he and Hawke are no strangers to contemporary Shakespearean films having starred in Romeo + Juliet and 2000's Hamlet respectively. Leguizamo was much better than Hawke, who was similarly hampered by attempting to match everyone else's hushed, quiet manner. It is bad enough when actors recite Shakespeare versus living out the words. It's worse when they have to speak them so hush-like that it sounds as if they have to whisper.

Cymbeline's one good aspect is David Ludwig's score, which has a pulsating tone that is missing from the film.

I hope that there is a better adaptation to Cymbeline in the future, because while the idea of shifting the story from Celtic Britain to biker America is not without promise, this version failed. One hopes that this Cymbeline soon comes to dust.  

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Six Wives of Henry VIII: The Television Miniseries



Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, widowed. Three Catherines, Two Annes and a Plain Jane. These are two ways to remember the unmerry wives of Tudor, those six unfortunate women who found themselves as consorts to the lusty Henry VIII of England. The Six Wives of Henry VIII cover the tumultuous times of Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr as they struggle to navigate both the political intrigues of Court and the mental gymnastics of of their oft-married monarch.

Starting with Catherine of Aragon (Annette Crosby), we see how Henry VIII (Keith Mitchell) came to find himself with this cavalcade of Queens. Catherine of Aragon, loyal wife to Henry, is devastated then enraged to be dumped for pretty courtier Anne Boleyn (Dorothy Tutin). However, Mistress Anne finds life at the top is not all crowns and dances. "You will endure all, Madam. I rule here," he tells the woman described as "a proud shrew".

Anne's fall is mixed with her personal courage, making her worthy of respect. Queen Number Three Jane Seymour (Anne Stallybrass) has something of a fever dream as she lays dying, remembering her courtship and struggles with Henry and his villainous Chancellor Thomas Cromwell (Wolfe Morris). She disagrees on his dissolution of the monasteries, but while she cannot fight this she at least gives Henry the one thing he's wanted: a male heir. 

The German Princess Anne of Cleves (Elvi Hale) is wary of being Queen Number Four, but Cromwell needs that German alliance. Anne is appalled that the portly, vulgar "King's Messenger" is really the King. Henry for his part isn't too thrilled with Anne, but the wedding takes place. Anne, like Jane, is appalled on how religion is misused by the King and his ministers to torment the people. However, an unlikely bit of luck comes her way when the political winds shift, making the much-hoped German alliance unnecessary. Cromwell's fall is Anne's salvation, as she cleverly suggests an annulment and makes Henry think it's his idea.

Not so clever is Catherine Howard (Angela Pleasance), Queen Number Five. Niece of the powerful and power-hungry Duke of Norfolk (Patrick Troughton), the pretty but stupid and somewhat slutty girl catches the eye of the now very heavy and gangrened king. She attempts to be aroused by him but even he can't arouse himself. Cromwell's execution is soon followed by her own, her indiscretions in an effort to sire a male backfiring spectacularly on her. While her now-disgraced uncle survives with his head intact, he falls out of power altogether.

Finally, there's Catherine Parr, Queen Number Six. The twice-widowed Parr wants nothing to do with the much-married monarch but is pushed into it by ambitious Seymour relatives. She too, like Jane and Anne of Cleves, finds the religious tumult impossible, putting her own views against that of the King himself. It is only by mere luck and Henry's death that she is spared the fates of Anne Boleyn and her predecessor.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII takes the unique approach of featuring each wife in a separate episode both written and directed by a different group of writers and directors. In a more surprising turn, three episodes (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr) along with one episode (Catherine of Aragon) were directed or written by women (Naomi Capon and Rosemary Anne Sisson respectively). In a time where women were not often given chances to work behind the camera, The Six Wives of Henry VIII gave a chance to offer something of the feminine perspective on the ultimate male chauvinist pig. 

This approach also allows a chance to see the various women not just as pawns in a game but as fully formed figures, with flaws as well as virtues. Of particular note is Tutin's Anne Boleyn. As she faces trial for high treason, adultery and incest, we see her private bravery and courage when she knows there is no hope of survival.

I think every one of the poor Mrs. Tudors did well in the miniseries. There's the foolishness of Pleasance's Catherine Howard, who despite being a bit of a tart you end up feeling sadness for her. Hale's Anne of Cleves showed a deftness as she handled Henry, a man she clearly does not love but who manages to outwit the mad king.

At the heart of the miniseries' success is Michell as Henry VIII. Proud, boastful, arrogant, and with a particular way of seeing the world as he wished it, by the end we feel sympathy for him too. His genuinely heartbreak at his impotence with Catherine Howard is a moving bit of acting. He can be wry at times, suggesting to a man that "if your morality won't let you take a mistress, commit bigamy". In all his virtues and faults: his arrogance, his besotted nature with his wives, his yearning for a son, Michell makes Henry a fully formed figure.

Other roles are equally well-acted, from Troughton's scheming Norfolk to Morris' repulsive Cromwell.

Despite having many hands at work, The Six Wives of Henry VIII has a strong coherence, if at times a bit too stage-bound and dry. Jane Seymour is the only time where I remember there being any location shooting. In fact, Jane Seymour is surprisingly dominated by outdoor scenes, where most of The Six Wives of Henry VIII is studio-bound. Sometimes this is to its detriment: when Catherine Parr and Henry got married, the set literally rattled. 

The miniseries also has very little editing, the camera flowing from one actor or group of actors to another, staged in a way that prevents cutting unless its to the next scene. Whether this puts people off or not depends on the viewer, but at times it does feel a bit dull.

Still, The Six Wives of Henry VIII is well-acted and written, giving a good primer to the many women who found themselves Queen of England under the larger-than-life King.   


Friday, July 9, 2021

Greenland: A Review



For better or worse, Gerard Butler is now the default guy for a disaster movie, intentional or not. Greenland is beyond Butler's usual work of battling the elements in that it tries for a more grounded approach. Whether he or anyone involved in Greenland is really up to the task is up to the viewer.

Scottish structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) receives a strange text message saying he and his immediate family have been selected to be sheltered. Sheltered from what? More than likely from "Clarke", a massive comet that the government assures the public will cause minimal if any damage when bits of it enter our atmosphere.

In reality, Clarke's chunks will destroy whole cities, with one of them being an extinction-level piece that will destroy most Earth life as we know it. Only a chosen few however will be safely tucked away in secret mines. Clarke's arrival comes at the worst time though: John and his estranged wife Allison's (Morena Baccarin) birthday party for their son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd).

Forced to leave their friends and neighbors behind, the Garritys soon enter a maelstrom of epic proportions. Separated when Nathan accidentally leaves his insulin in their truck, they are separated more when the military base is overrun by desperate people. Even more separation occurs when misguided good Samaritans kidnap Nathan and leave Allison stranded on the highway.

Eventually they all reunite and head to Allison's father's ranch, where her father Dale (Scott Glen) provides provisions for them to go to Canada. John on his travels that flights there are headed to their original destination: Greenland. John must take the originally assigned group there to make it, even though Nathan had been denied their original flight because of his diabetes. More struggles ensue until they reach the safety of Greenland.

Greenland moves away from the usual sci-fi/action films Butler's limited acting can do, so one gives him begrudging respect for at least attempting to move for something that gives his character more than a weapon to fight with. We don't get much daring-do with his John Garrity, but we also don't get much introspection from him either. Butler manages to hit the required beats (loving father, repentant husband) with some surprisingly muddled action sequences.

Why exactly rednecks would declare this Scottish brogued man "unqualified" for rescue is I suppose some commentary about "immigrants" getting things "regular" Americans can't, but perhaps that is giving Chris Sparling's screenplay too much credit.

Sparling however does set himself up for a peculiar scenario. If those with any kind of diseases were rejected for rescuing, why then did they initially include Nathan in the selected group? Was the government unaware that Nathan had diabetes? Surely they would have done massive background checks on the Garritys, so if Nathan's diabetes was a reason for exclusion, why pick them at all? Why wouldn't they just select a structural engineer with either no family or one that didn't have any diseases? 

His script also can't shift away from certain clichés, such as the rocky marriage that can be fixed apparently only by an extinction-level meteor. Then there's the matter of the insulin being lost, and you sense that Greenland isn't even trying to find new ground.

In certain ways, Greenland teeters towards parody due to situations like those, which are stabs at character development but don't go deep or far. The various separations look they were cribbed from the Pomp & Circumstance section of Fantasia 2000, making John and Allison the Donald and Daisy Duck of Greenland

A great deal of the acting is also unsteady. To be fair, Baccarin didn't have much of a character to play, the neglected/cheated-on wife who eventually finds love again. Again, the performances pushed Greenland into being almost a spoof of disaster films: seven minutes in and I was rooting for Clarke. 

Butler has almost never bothered to act in his career, letting his massive frame and Scottish growl build his cinematic career for him. Greenland isn't an exception, though at least he made that effort to make John less action hero and more "ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances". It didn't quite work, but he gets a B for effort. 

The special effects weren't grand or imposing given the situation. Serviceable is the best word for them.

However, as the film progressed I found if not interest in Greenland as much as a mild respect for them at least making the effort for a more realistic scenario of a world spinning into chaos. Moments such as the Garritys farewell to Dale are effective. The sequence where Allison and Nathan go into a looted pharmacy to find insulin and both observe and are caught up in the nightmare of looting and killings is chilling, perhaps more so given both the pandemic and the Antifa/Black Lives Matter lootings and killings.

It may be that Greenland found itself released at the worst time possible, the story of a world in total disarray and destruction coming in a year where we've seen nothing but total disarray and destruction.

Greenland wasn't terrible. It wasn't good either, but again I'd go back to the word "serviceable". It isn't something to seek out but neither something to reject.   


Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983): The Television Special


The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best-known Sherlock Holmes stories, its blending of the supernatural with murder making it all but irresistible to audiences. The 1983 television adaptation, while perhaps not as well known as others, is a surprisingly strong version that should be better known.

Dr. Mortimer (Denholm Elliot) comes to celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes (Ian Richardson) for help. Sir Charles Baskerville has died from an apparent heart attack, but Dr. Mortimer suspects that at the very least, Sir Charles' death was connected to an old family legend of a demon hound that haunts the family.

This curse, brought about by a Baskerville ancestor's rape of a farmer's daughter, now may come upon the newest Lord of Baskerville Hall, Sir Charles' American nephew Sir Henry (Martin Shaw). Already there has been an attempt on his life, but who and why would anyone want Sir Henry dead? Holmes sends the loyal Dr. John Watson (Donald Churchill) to the moors to be his eyes and ears.

There are suspects aplenty. Could it be jealous drunk Geoffrey Lyon (Brian Blessed), angered over his abused wife's liaison with Sir Charles? What about the creepy servants Barrymore (Edward Judd) and/or his wife (Eleanor Bron)? Seemingly pleasant neighbors Beryl Stapleton (Glynis Barber) and her brother Jack (Nicholas Clay) may also have motive for murder.

The case comes to a conclusion, one involving fake Gypsies and lost-lost heirs, but also ending in romance and a bright future once the demon hound is brought to heel.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has a very elegant, polished look and feel, a major credit to producer Sy Weintraub. Despite some scenes being studio-bound The Hound of the Baskervilles does capture well the Gothic horror feel of the story. Sometimes the studio nature is hard to ignore, such as when the first attempt on Sir Henry is made on what is meant to be the streets of London. On the whole though, we do get a sense of this Victorian world.

The performances on the whole are also on the whole good. Ian Richardson is not usually thought of in terms of Sherlock Holmes actors, let alone among the great ones. He makes a case for why he should rank higher on lists as he does a great job as the Great Detective. Richardson brings Holmes' arrogance and snobbery but allows him a slight touch of humor. He does, for better or worse, bear a strong resemblance to Peter Cushing where if you look fast you would think it was Cushing as Holmes, but that is a minor point. Richardson in a sense has a dual role, and he manages both well albeit that it soon becomes clear who is who.

Elliot keeps to a persona of a bumbling, slightly addled figure with his Dr. Mortimer. He was the closest to comedy relief, but he could also be serious when needed. Shaw was a bit blank as Sir Henry, but I put it to the efforts to have him try to speak with an American accent (he was eventually dubbed). Shaw seemed a bit removed from things, but that is a minor point. Perhaps the best performance save for Richardson was Clay, called to play multiple roles and doing each one well.

On the other extreme is Brian Blessed, a man who has built an entire career out of being bombastic to the Nth degree. Here he is simply unrestrained as Lyons, though to be fair his last scene where he tearfully denies committing murder shows he can on occasion tone it down.

As a side note, his story remains unresolved at the end of the film.

With regards to Churchill's Dr. Watson, he sticks with the Nigel Bruce interpretation as a thickheaded blubbering idiot, which is something much to my disliking. Pity that it wasn't until the Guy Ritchie films that the good Doctor had some kind of rehabilitation.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a well-acted, well-crafted adaptation of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel that hopefully gets more attention. Perhaps a bit too artsy at times (Sir Hugo's rape of the young girl intercut with a drowning horse a bit much) but on the whole I was surprised how good The Hound of the Baskervilles was. 


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

F9: A Review (Review #1497)



The Fast and Furious franchise is cinematic junk food: not nutritious but enjoyable. How these street racers and petty criminals morphed into superspies that can defy the laws of physics and gravity without so much as a scratch are things we really don't notice or care about. F9, the latest entry into the Fast and Furious Saga, shows that an already bonkers franchise can take one turn too wild as to be deeply embarrassing to all concerned.   

Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living a quiet life off the grid when their "Family" recalls them to help find Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), missing when his plane went down in the Latin American nation of Montequito. From here, they find themselves caught up in another explosive situation with nefarious master criminal Cypher (Charlize Theron) involved. Also involved is Dom's hereto unknown and unmentioned brother Jakob (John Cena), with whom Dom had a falling out due to Jakob's involvement in their father's death. Jakob is also the henchman for Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), son of an Eastern European dictator bent on his own world domination.

At the center of all this is the device developed for Project Ares, one which will allow whoever holds it to control all electronic devices in the world. Otto plans to use this to give himself total power and take over the world.

I'm stopping to say that The Brain's schemes to take over the world sounded more rational.

Jakob, the Pinky to Otto's Brain, goes in search of the other half of the Ares device in Edinburgh, with Dom and his "Family" in hot pursuit. Jakob may have the device, but he's still missing the key. This key involves Han (Sung Kang), believed killed in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift but who has risen from the dead. This battle between Dom's blood family and his adopted family culminates with Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Raj (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) going into outer space in a Pontiac Fierro. Crisis averted, there are hints of rapprochement in the Toretto clan even as Cypher escapes yet again.

I have seen many memes mocking the "Family" aspect that once was a major selling point to the Fast & Furious franchise. The film series was always fun and goofy despite its brazenly more and more absurd situations. Yes, sometimes even its most forgiving fans thought some moments were eye-rolling, but despite that we accepted things because the series had a heart. Maybe it was totally unbelievable that cars could leap from one floor of a skyscraper to another, but ultimately this group genuinely loved and cared for each other. 

F9 though seems to have lost that heart, the franchise having lost its mind somewhere between Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. Now instead of these ordinary people involved in extraordinary situations we get these almost invulnerable superheroes performing acts that would get even the most skilled superspies if not injured, killed. 

It's one thing to quietly acknowledge the absurdity of the "Family" almost never getting injured whenever they face off against super-criminals. It's another when you openly talk about it and draw attention to it. I can accept absurd, I cannot accept stupid.

Stupid, however, is what dominates F9, a film that mixes total idiocy with shameless arrogance that I will suspend disbelief beyond what even in the Fast & Furious world would be unbelievable. So much time in this bloated two-and-a-half hour spectacle is spent on the Dom/Jakob falling out that it grows tiresome. We get a backstory to something we just don't care about. A lot of that could have been captured in less time. Worse, treating all this Dom/Jakob storyline with such seriousness ends up looking comical.

Granted, not as comical as seeing a Pontiac Fierro literally flying into outer space. It's hard to know what director Justin Lin, who cowrote the screenplay with Daniel Casey and shares story credit with Casey and Alfredo Botello thought how audiences would react to this. I hope they didn't think audiences would be awed or wowed by it. The theater I saw it at was laughing uncontrollably at seeing Roman and Raj not only flying a Pontiac Fierro in outer space, but crash it into a satellite with only the satellite affected.

When I heard they were going into outer space, I thought that at most they would skim the edge of the Earth's atmosphere to keep things to some level of reality (at least reality for a Fast & Furious film). I didn't think they would literally fly off into outer space. Not since Indiana Jones survived a nuclear explosion by hiding in a refrigerator have I not only seen something so stupid but be asked to accept it as even remotely logical. I spent far too much time wondering not just how the Pontiac Fierro didn't get immediately crushed when out in space, but how Roman and Raj could ever even try reentry. 

While this sequence that makes the cringe-inducing Homeboys in Outer Space look like The Outer Limits by comparison was saved for the end of the film, we had already seen enough idiotic escapes to have us think F9 was simply full of itself. We are asked to believe that not only can our "Family" go through a minefield with the greatest of ease but that they can almost by sheer willpower swing their cars across chasms by a single rope cord. There's also the introduction of Tokyo Drift's Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), who has gone on apparently to help invent the Flying Fierro. Somehow, he and his crew made said Flying Fierro look like Doc Brown's DeLorean from Back to the Future.

As a side note, by this point it wouldn't surprise me if in Fast 10 the "Family" literally time travelled. Makes as much sense as Pontiac Fierros able to serve as spaceships.

There's also the issue of clunky dialogue. Roman describes Cypher to Dom as "the woman who killed the mother of your child", perhaps thinking Dom wasn't aware of that fact. Roman's meta-monologue about how implausibly he keeps surviving and Otto's unhinged declaration that he wants not only guns but the Millennium Falcon and Chewbacca make F9 look even dumber.

There is no acting in F9. Those who have been with the franchise from the beginning are not stretching, though perhaps to be fair there is nothing more to mine for these characters in terms of backstory. Those who pop in for quick cash grabs (Theron, Dame Helen Mirren, Russell) are having a most fun time not having to put any effort. For some reason, I think Black fared the worst. It's not because he gave a bad performance (his was just as good as everyone else, meaning equally bad). It's that he looks at least ten years older than his 38 years. As for Cena, the most recent face to this, all he is capable of doing is scowling, and even that he does poorly.

He's much better at groveling to the Chinese Communist than he is at anything remotely considered "acting". 

There were cameos from pop stars that had some in the audience squealing with delight but whom I had no idea who they were.  

I have enjoyed every Fast & Furious film, even the much-derided Tokyo Drift. I hated the spinoff Hobbs & Shaw, and while I didn't hate F9, I can't muster any enthusiasm for it either. Somehow, F9 seems hollow, too stupid and insulting for those who genuinely care about these characters.