NO TIME TO DIE
NO TIME TO DIE
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were seen, even before their spectacular fall from grace, as tacky, tawdry and gaudy. The garish clothes and makeup turned our preaching pair into parody, where any good the Bakkers accomplished was either washed or forgotten. Judging from the end results of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, those involved in the film decided to lean heavily into the cartoonish and freakish spectacle of their lives rather than attempt to try and humanize these unholy figures.
As a child, Tammy Faye feels the Spirit, though as the daughter of a divorcee she is not altogether welcome into the Pentecostal church where her divorced mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) plays piano. However, neither the Spirit or Tammy Faye will be denied.
It isn't long before Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) goes to Bible college over her parents objections. More objections come when she marries Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), an early proponent of Prosperity Gospel theology. Soon, they start their journeyman preaching, eventually taking their children's show to the Christian Broadcasting Network and its powerful magnet, Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). While he and fellow minister Jerry Farwell (Vincent D'Onfrio) plot to use their power to rule the Republican Party, all Tammy Faye wants to do is help the gays.
Tammy and Jim decide to break off into their own rival television empire, and thus the Praise the Lord (PTL) Ministry was born. Soon, the money came rolling in, though with it came depression, prescription addiction and sexual temptation for both Jim and Tammy Faye. As their empire grew, then collapsed, Tammy Faye is forced to rebuild her life away from Jim.
It takes a certain amount of skill to take a couple that is already gaudy and cartoonish and make them look MORE gaudy and cartoonish, so on that level The Eyes of Tammy Faye should be congratulated. Here are two figures who came across as insincere at best, downright loony at worst; instead of trying to find the lost people behind the personas, The Eyes of Tammy Faye doubled down on how oddball Jim and Tammy Faye apparently were.
The majority of the blame falls to two people: screenwriter Abe Sylvia and director Michael Showalter. Showalter opted to tell his performers to emphasize the insincerity of the Bakkers in how they presented themselves both publicly and privately. Even when we could have had more human moments, such as when Tammy Faye is interviewing an AIDS patient on The PLT Club, Chastain comes across not as Tammy Faye, but as a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Chastain and Garfield went deep into making the Bakkers look like complete crazies. Not once did either of them look like genuine people but instead look like over-the-top spoofs. There is just such an exaggerated manner to their performances, such a forced manner, that it never comes across as real. Even if we grant that the real Jim and Tammy Faye were a bit over-the-top, a great opportunity to find the real people there.
The only genuinely positive quality Tammy Faye appears to have (a more open and tolerant view on homosexuals versus the Church General) is lost not just in Chastain's overtly garish performance but in Sylvia's screenplay. This is combined in D'Onfrio's Jerry Farwell. Not only does D'Onfrio neither look or sound like Farwell but The Eyes of Tammy Faye went all in on a fixation on how "evil" both he and Robertson were. While Jim Bakker comes across once or twice as trying to find a balance between faith and politics, D'Onfrio's Farwell was written and directed to focus solely on his homophobia and lust for power.
Jones, for her part, apparently studied Allison Janney's performance in I, Tonya to portray Tammy Faye's permanently disapproving mother.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is also done in by its production. At one point I actually gasped at a musical montage that can best be described as "Disco Gospel". When the film closes at what is meant to be Tammy Faye's triumphant comeback at the religious Oral Roberts University, Chastain's Tammy Faye Bakker looked like a young Dame Edna.
Was that the goal of The Eyes of Tammy Faye: to make the title character look like a drag queen?
While Chastain has received much praise for her performance, I cannot share in the enthusiasm. I found it cartoonish and overtly insincere. Chastain bears some of the responsibility, but Showalter directed her to be cartoonish and overtly insincere. The script did not help matters. If The Eyes of Tammy Faye is to be believed, she was genuinely unaware she was overloaded with makeup. Moreover, the film hints that Jim may himself be gay or bisexual, such as when a tickling session with a male friend has ominous music and Tammy's sad look. However, even if he is, what it has to do with anything is unclear, as unlike Farwell or Robertson he does not say anything specifically against gays.
I'm going to walk that back a bit, for the tickling may have come before a joke, but I cannot remember the joke to say if it was homophobic or not.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is too wrapped up in the trappings of this personality to find the woman within. It's a terrible shame, for as gaudy as Tammy Faye Bakker may have been, there was a real figure behind it all.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
The Marvel Cinematic Universe chugs on, now on its "Phase Four", building up a new de facto season for the fanboys to enjoy. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is pleasant, sometimes quite lovely to look at, but also perfunctory and a bit cold and remote.
Shaun appears to be a quiet, mild-mannered parking valet. That is, until he and his BFF Katy (Awkawfina) are attacked on a San Francisco bus. Here, he becomes a master martial arts fighter and reveals his true identity: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). He is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a thousand-year old criminal mastermind who possesses great power thanks to his mastery of The Ten Rings, a mystical talisman.
Wenwu Xu once conquered worlds until 1996, when while searching for the mythical land of Ta Lo, he met his match in the beautiful Ying Li (Fala Chen), a guardian of Ta Lo who can fight Wenwu on his level. Naturally, they fall in love but he is denied permission to live in Ta Lo, so they leave to start a family: first Shang-Chi and then his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang).
Shang-Chi searches for his long-lost sister, who runs a Macao fight club. Wenwu has sent mercenaries for both of them, but it is to seek their help. Wenwu is convinced Ying Li is not really dead, but held prisoner at Ta Lo. Both siblings know their mother is dead, killed by a rival gang which pushed Wenwu back to a life of crime. They go in search of Ta Lo, aided by the unlikely help of Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley), the whacked-out actor who masqueraded as "The Mandarin" from Iron-Man 3. Now sober, Slattery had made friends with a Ta Lo creature, who helps guide them to Ta Lo.
Here, they meet their Aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who essentially gives Shang-Chi, Xialing and Katy a crash course in defense against both Wenwu and his plans, which are all part of machinations to manipulate him into releasing the Dweller in Darkness, who has been held prisoner at Ta Lo for eons. Wenwu's power of the Ten Rings can release the Dweller, so it is up to the others to stop him and save both the world and Wenwu's soul.
The best compliment I can offer about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that it is...pleasant. I freely admit I am not a Marvel fanboy, waiting breathlessly for the next installment of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera. As such, the various characters that pop in and out, such as Benedict Wong's Wong from Doctor Strange don't excite me. I genuinely struggle to so much as remember their names, let alone what their roles are.
As a side note, I fear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming the world's longest and most expensive live-action cartoon, but that's neither here nor there at the moment.
In fact, these appearances appear to be part of what I see is the overall problem with both the MCU in general and Shang-Chi in particular. There is now a rote manner to these films, a routine, yes, a formula that after thirteen years has grown stale. As I watched (at times struggling to stay awake), I found something that I had not felt or remember feeling even among the worst MCU films like The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
I felt absolutely nothing.
If I did feel anything, I felt Shang-Chi was so remote, so distant, so uninteresting. Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (writing the screenplay with Dave Callahan and Andrew Lanham) wanted to hit a more emotional, character-driven Marvel film separate from the usual superhero action. All well and good, but I left feeling so cold to the story. It may be because a lot of focus was given to the family dynamics, but Shang-Chi stumbled over odd inconsistencies in it.
I can't get over how at one moment, Wenwu condemns his son by saying "You watched (your mother) die" and the next moment be absolutely convinced that his late wife was very much alive and held prisoner. To my mind, it didn't make sense but was needed to move the plot forward.
I am not throwing away the positives. Sir Ben Kingsley was clearly in on the joke as the totally whacked-out Trevor, lending a good amount of humor into things. That is not what Awkwafina did, her style of comedy more forced and unreal.
As a side note, her becoming some kind of Warrior Princess in the span of apparently a couple of days is both unbelievable and expected.
Liu's Shang-Chi/Shawn was fine, nothing extraordinary but nothing terrible. I put that down to the failure of the script to give him much to work with versus any genuine lack of acting ability. He did everything that was expected, nothing more, nothing less.
That pretty much sums up Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It was...fine. It isn't terrible. It isn't brilliant. It is just there.
I do remember that some of the kids watching the film said near the climatic battle, "He's the Lord of the Rings". In a sense, it is true.
Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Eternals
I confess to not being a Bob Ross fan. It's not a personal dislike for the late painter beloved by millions for his soothing voice, pleasant on-screen manner and landscape paintings. At most, it's a general disinterest. Still, he has become an American cultural icon. Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed would like viewers to think it will delve into a more dark side to the world of happy trees and pleasant winter scenes. However, the film suffers from a lack of focus, hitting a lot of marks but not getting far in many of them.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed is part hagiography, part exposé and a dash of inspirational stories involving the painter. We learn through his son Steven, a painter and instructor in his own right, about his father's entry into the art world. Painting was a joy for Ross, and after finding the alla prima or wet-on-wet technique from painter William Alexander (who had his own show, The Joy of Oil Painting), it wasn't long before Alexander became a mentor to Ross.
Ross began teaching courses under Alexander's brand, where he came upon Annette Kowalski. She was a grief-stricken woman who found peace through The Joy of Oil Painting viewing. At first disappointed to find Alexander was not teaching at her instruction seminar, she quickly changed her mind, finding in Ross someone who could go on his own. Along with her husband Walt, she got Ross to replicate Alexander with his own The Joy of Painting program, growing it into a wildly successful venture.
However, as time goes by, we see the Kowalskis as evil, taking advantage of a genial and later ill Ross to take his name and likeness for their own lucrative business. After Ross' death in 1995 the Kowalskis turn the Bob Ross Certification courses into a neo-terrorist endeavor, and cut out Steve from his share of profits. Their hold over Bob Ross, Inc. is so great that over a dozen people declined to participate in the documentary, fearing litigation from the Kowalskis.
I see the Bob Ross phenomenon with a puzzled eye. I find his paintings to be kitsch, a variation of Thomas Kinkade in terms of artistic merit. I can see the appeal of Ross in that he essentially painted optimism and brought joy to many people due to his pleasant manner and sotto voce delivery. However, as nice and pleasant as the myriad of Ross landscapes are, I personally find nothing in them that says they are great art.
Again, like Kinkade's paintings of quiet, light-filled pastoral scenes, the mountains and happy trees of a Ross painting feel a bit hollow. There's nothing wrong with comfort or kitsch, and I certainly won't take away the pleasure the Ross paintings brought and still bring to people. It's just that I see them and think they are pleasant but not extraordinary. Yes, anyone can paint but can anyone create the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Thinker or Guernica?
Therefore, I am not attached to Bob Ross the persona as much as his fans, and I see Happy Accidents as a bit confused. There is a curious struggle to balance the wonderful memories Ross evokes among those interviewed with what the film looks at as the Kowalskis nefarious acts. Even the affirmation that Ross and Annette had an affair seems more a blip than a revelation to shock. How long was the affair? Why did they engage in mutual betrayals of their respective spouses? How did it impact their working relationship?
Happy Accidents does not answer those questions, preferring to move on to more of how nice and unassuming Ross was, almost oblivious over how the Kowalskis were taking him to the cleaners until he is dying.
As a side note, while Ross and Annette may have had an affair, it seems slightly hysterical to believe given that by all appearances Annette is old enough to be Ross' mother.
We do get information as to how duplicitous the Kowalskis, or specifically Annette, may have been when after Ross' death she hosted her own show where she apparently and shamelessly stole the techniques from Gary and Kathwren Jenkins. These artists who also had their own television show were driven out of the television painting business due to Annette Kowalski apparently stealing their methods and suppliers. They Kowalskis even apparently manipulated Ross' half-brother Jimmy Cox to sign away the rights to Ross' name and likeness, leaving Steve Ross out in the cold.
Perhaps if Happy Accidents had focused more on the Kowalskis alleged antics and less on how wonderful Bob Ross was, we could have had the darker tale director Joshua Rofé was aiming for. However, Happy Accidents sometimes forgot all about the Kowalskis, so we were left with more a standard biographical documentary on the happy forest ranger for the happy trees.
Part of me wonders if Ross really was as naïve and unaware as he is shown. He might not have cared about the fortune The Joy of Painting and the workshops were raking in for him, but he at least should have been aware that his name and likeness were marketable. After all, The Joy of Painting was it should be remembered, essentially an informercial for the Bob Ross Painting Workshops. Also, for all the criticism that the Kowalskis get for commercializing Ross' name and likeness on all sorts of merchandise, Happy Accidents isn't questioning those who would buy Bob Ross Chia pets or related rubbish, enriching the Kowalskis on Ross tchotchkes.
Worse, the last minutes of Happy Accidents were used up by testimonials of people who were metaphorically saved thanks to Ross' Joy of Painting and courses. There too is a ready-made subject, divorced from the Kowalskis machinations that would make a greater case for the importance Bob Ross has to people.
That kind of story I would like to see, but the efforts to make Happy Accidents a scandalous exposé fails, H. Scott Salinas' overtly ominous score not making things better. The film is good for diehard Bob Ross fans, but it still leaves much to be desired. This is especially true when after watching Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Greed & Betrayal we find that sadly, there is no real Joy in Painting.
I have long thought that any subject could be turned into a musical. Diana: The Musical sorely tests that idea. Songs that veer from the merely comical to the downright gaudy, with some simply ghastly moments and dumbfounding performances that will elicit either shock or outright laughter, Diana: The Musical sets musicals back at least ten years.
Diana covers the life of the late Princess of Wales (Jeanna de Waal) from her romance with His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales (Roe Hartrampf) through their tempestuous marriage and ultimate divorce. Diana wants more than anything for Charles to love her, not his longtime mistress Camilla Parker Bowles (Erin Davie), but that is a struggle for all concerned.
Watching and commenting (and singing) on all this is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and romance novelist/Diana's step-grandmother Dame Barbara Cartland (Judy Kaye in a dual role). As Charles has a lover, eventually Diana has one too, in the form of very hunky Major James Hewitt (Gareth Keegan). However, all fairy tales, even ones as disastrous as that of the Waleses, must come to an end, though for the Princess, one that ends in terrible tragedy.
Diana, like everything in the world, was impacted by COVID-19. Set to debut on Broadway, the show had to be delayed, and even the filmed version shows the impact the pandemic caused (photos of the masked crew attending the naturally unmasked cast end the presentation). Had it premiered on the Great White Way, Diana would have either closed in days or run for years for the same reason: near total ineptness.
Audiences either would have walked out in shock and anger, or sat in near stunned disbelief at it's "so bad it's good" manner. I don't think anything has come close to showcasing the woefully, wildly misguided efforts of a cast and crew since Springtime for Hitler.
In many ways, Diana plays like parody, almost trying to outdo Springtime for Hitler in tackiness and terribleness. The music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro (book by DiPietro) soon start stumbling over themselves attempting to ram as many rhymes into them as possible, sometimes with shockingly bad results. It becomes almost a running game to find which song has the worst lyrics, especially since Diana is hellbent on forcing rhymes at every opportunity.
I got tired trying to chronicle every bad rhyme in Diana, but the show loses no time trying to make every song almost comically bad even without rhymes. "Nineteen and naïve, shy and insecure, thinking princes never lie, believing love is pure" Diana sings about herself in the show's opening number Underestimated. My main question is "why is Diana singing those words about herself"? I could see others singing that about her, but it seems odd that she would express herself to be that way.
This is How Your People Dance, chronicling the Prince and Lady Diana Spencer's date, is one for the record books. "And then there's Charles, who's happy when/He hears music by dead white men/Perhaps his girl can turn him into a rocker", Lady Diana sings before everyone starts rocking out. This comes after Diana expresses a desire "to sock her" when thinking of Camilla Parker Bowles.
As Barbara Cartland describes the dream man, we see the muscular shirtless Hewitt rise from the stage on a mechanical bull belting out in almost rock-star glee "JAMES HEWITT!". If you're not howling with laughter at this, you then would be staring in total stunned silence at the spectacle of it all (or at the least, admiring Gareth Keegan's physique and bravery at this spectacle).
"Ladies if your life has gone off course/You don't need no messy divorce/All you need is a man on a horse!" he rocks out to the swooning ladies keeping him company. "I can take you for a ride/All your troubles cast aside/You'll dismount satisfied", he goes on, and by now you have a respect for Keegan for getting through all this without breaking out in laughter himself.
Or at least for his physique.
Diana is flooded with songs: 25 without reprises, as if it was determined to be a wall of sound. With so many songs forcing many rhymes, you can't hold on to any great musical moments. The songs are not allowed to breathe, mellow in the mind. Instead, they are rammed through the nearly two-hour show.
Even here, the songs don't make sense to what we are seeing. Here Comes James Hewitt has the Major as some sleazy gigolo, but the show then shifts to present him as a lovelorn soldier. In Pretty, Pretty Girl the Princess sings "This pretty, pretty girl/was raised to strike a pose/perhaps she should fight/the only way she knows", but Diana makes the case that she was actually raised the be demure, not to "strike a pose".
The only songs I think were actually good were two slower numbers: I Miss You Most on Sundays and An Officer's Wife sung by Camilla and Queen Elizabeth II respectively. They allowed for character development versus merely chronicling the situations that most viewers would already know. An Officer's Wife might have worked better if director Christopher Ashley had allowed for greater movement as Her Majesty remembers her brief time of freedom in Malta but there was such a stiffness in the presentation that it took away from a potentially good moment.
I Miss You Most on Sundays and Diana in general surprisingly made Camilla a sympathetic character. It almost makes one long for a Charles & Camilla musical, and it curiously diminishes the Princess of Wales. It comes close to being a musical version of the television movie Whatever Love Means.
As a side note, we do have a song that uses that famous misquote, Whatever Love Means Anyway. What the Prince of Wales actually said was "whatever in love means", but by now the misquote is so ingrained that it isn't worth arguing about.
De Waal looks like the late Princess of Wales, and like the rest of the cast does her best, but she has little to work with. That transformation from "Shy Di" to Confident Woman isn't there. Hartrampf does better as Charles: not bothering to sound like His Royal Highness and actually making him sympathetic even as he rages over Diana behaving like a showgirl. Davie's Camilla makes me like her down to where she and Diana confront each other in The Main Event, I was on Team Camilla.
Kaye did better as the outrageous Dame Barbara Cartland than as the stiff Queen Elizabeth II, as she has a role in the former and nothing in the latter. Keegan suffers from how his character is made out to be: sometimes cad, sometimes caring.
Sometimes Diana can be too much. A case in point: the Snap, Click number, where a group of extremely enthusiastic paparazzi follow the then-Lady Diana in an admittedly exuberant dance number. Again, while Snap, Click has some ghastly lyrics, the choreography is big.
Ultimately, the best way to describe Diana: The Musical is if Bialystock & Bloom decided to mount another Broadway show after finding something more astonishing that Adolf & Eva's gay romp. If one wanted truth in advertising, it should have been titled not Diana: The Musical but rather Springtime for Spencer.
The original Venom was a curious film for me: while I gave it a negative review I also thought it the Most Underrated Film of 2018. I didn't hate it but thought it was a bad film. Unsurprisingly, we had a sequel. Venom: Let There Be Carnage however, does surprise in that it is short, simple and living up mostly to what its fans want.
Serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), last seen in a cameo from Venom, is back. He uses reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) as his unofficial spokesman, but with the help of Eddie's symbiote Venom, Eddie finds many of Cletus' corpses. This discovery gets Cletus the death penalty, but an earlier encounter with Eddie/Venom where Cletus bites Eddie allows Cletus to ingest a touch of the symbiote.
With Cletus now infected with his own symbiote, a red figure named Carnage, Cletus escapes San Quentin. He now has two missions, the first to rescue his long-lost love Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), a mutant with the power to shriek destruction with her voice. The second: to enact revenge on Eddie, Venom and Detective Harrison (Stephen Graham), the man who early in his career shot Frances aka Shriek and unwittingly put her away in the secretive Ravenscroft Institute.
Eddie and Venom are continuously at odds over their roles in each other's lives and have a falling out with Venom moving out of Eddie's body and causing his own mayhem. This danger, though, forces them together, especially as Eddie's former fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams) and her own fiancee Dan (Reid Scott) are in danger. It's a battle royale where not everyone survives. Eddie and Venom, however, are learning to coexist, but will a new universe bring unexpected rivals?
Venom: Let There Be Carnage comes in at a surprisingly brisk 97 minutes, putting it at odds with many comic book-based films. The two recent entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, came in at over two hours and ten minutes each. Surprisingly, every MCU film is longer than Let There Be Carnage, with the shortest ones running fifteen minutes longer.
As such, perhaps one of the pleasures of Let There Be Carnage comes from the fact that a lot of fat was cut, reducing things to the mere basics. Even Cletus' murderous background is captured in a simple (and deliberately simplistic) animation sequence where an MCU film would have spent much more time going into things. We got the most pertinent information needed and moved on.
Perhaps that has some drawbacks overall (you'd have to be a Venom aficionado to know what the Ravenscroft Institute is or who those evil figures were. However, on the whole these points are not major points for Let There Be Carnage. Rather, all you need to know is that Frances is being held prisoner, motivating Cletus to break her out.
Another point where Let There Be Carnage is different from most MCU/comic book-based fare is that it doesn't take itself seriously. There is little of the self-importance or grandiose manner that many comic book films have. We see this especially in Hardy's performance, where he doubles down on the slightly nebbish, bumbling Eddie. It stretches believability that the hulking Hardy could be so almost wimpy, but Hardy does a strong job when enduring the various indignities Venom inflicts him.
Let There Be Carnage, in fact, doubles down on the curious bromance between Eddie and Venom, two beings who are learning to live with each other, bringing out the best and worst in each other. That bizarre comedic element lends to the idea that Let There Be Carnage almost plays as a buddy comedy rather than a more straightforward and self-serious comic book film.
As a side note, when did comic book or graphic novel film adaptations started looking like they were adapting Russian novels exploring the meaningless of life?
Going back to the performances, Harrelson does a strong job with Cletus, not exactly camping it up but not delving too deeply into Cletus' twisted world. He keeps between enjoying being evil and having a love motivation. Even when threatening his "father" as Carnage to immediately clarify he didn't mean the Catholic priest we get that Let There Be Carnage is meant to be entertaining versus brooding. Scott has some fun as the lone sane person Dan, navigating this bizarre universe in a realistic way. After overhearing that the symbiotes are affected by "fire and sound", Dan asks "Fire & Sound? Is that a band?"
It is unfortunate that Williams and to a lesser extent Harris were reduced to "damsels in distress", with little to do apart from being the motivations for Eddie, Cletus and Dan to come to the rescue. However, again it was not a deal-breaker.
One word of caution though: there are some scenes that I think are too violent and graphic for younger kids. As such, I would advise against taking anyone under 7 or at the very least to be cautious when taking someone between 7 to 12. Even a more cuddly Venom can still be a bit gruesome for some.
If Let There Be Carnage is a bit rushed, it is not a flaw. The film doesn't seek out to be anything other than a mindless bit of mayhem. I don't fault a film for living up to what it aims for.