Thursday, November 25, 2021

Trog: A Review (Review #1550)



Christina Crawford once said in an interview that if Trog wasn't her mother Joan Crawford's last film, that it should have been. In many ways bonkers, bizarre and comical, Trog may have been a poor way for Crawford to end her impressive career. However, it says a great deal about Joan Crawford: actress that she gave it her all to make Trog as rational as it could be.

While exploring British caves a group of young men come upon a kind of monster, one that killed one of their own and left another injured. Dr. Brockton (Crawford) believes the creature is not a monster but the literal "missing link" between ape and man. She is not only convinced that it is a troglodyte (hence the name "Trog") but can be brought into civilization. With enough patience, "Trog" can learn to speak and tell of his world.

Opposing her is Sam Murdock (Michael Gough), a local businessman convinced Trog is a real monster who is bad for business. He also is contemptuous of Dr. Brockton on many levels: as a scientist, as a female, as a female scientist and possibly as an American. Determined to bring about both Brockton and Trog's downfall, he secretly breaks into the Brockton Institute. Unfortunately, Trog is still violent enough to attack him (though to be fair I would argue it was self-defense). Regardless, Trog escapes and goes on a murderous rampage, culminating in his abducting a little girl. Will Dr. Brockton be able to save both the girl and Trog, or will her discovery end in death?

Not since Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla has there been such a strange and perhaps sad blending of a great talent with an oddball premise. As a film, Trog is an amusing failure, its blending of science fiction and sincerity almost endearing in its sincerity. Yet it is that same almost innocent delusion that makes Trog entertaining.

One cannot suppress giggles when one see Mildred Pierce both threaten and plead with a human gorilla to give her "the human child". It just seems so wild, so flat-out weird that it beggars belief. 

However, Trog shows that no matter how almost crazed the plot, Joan Crawford was a true professional. Not once did she ever try to make her performance match the camp nature of Trog. To her immense credit, Crawford played everything straight, as if finding this missing link and teaching it to fetch was the most rational thing in the world. Her performance grounds the lunacy of Trog in a vague reality that makes the craziness of it all if not believable at least not completely insane.

Crawford was taking all this very seriously, and it is Crawford alone that makes Trog not slip into complete farce. I say "complete farce" because Trog is a B-Picture, the type the TNT Network's 100% Weird would have a field day with. Almost everything save Crawford is so bonkers and comical that Trog cannot be believed even when seen.

It is clear that Trog is a man in a very poor-fitting ape costume, forever looking like it had been hurriedly thrown on him. It is clear that various subplots such as a potential romance between Dr. Brockton's daughter Anne (Kim Braden) and Brockton's assistant/Trog survivor Cliff (John Hamill) are forgotten.

Apart from Gough, who pre-Batman was a delicious villain, all the acting is remote and disengaged, as if the cast was trying to distance itself from Trog while it was being made. Crawford and Gough had worked together before in Berserk!, also playing antagonists. Again they made for a fine pair of rivals, keeping the audience entertained with their verbal sparring.

I can also recommend John Scott's score, which is quite nice.

One thing that did trouble me and kept me from fully enjoying Trog was the violence near the end. Trog's killing spree was too graphic for my tastes, almost sadistic, and I lost some of the camp enjoyment. 

However, as oddball and bonkers as it was, Trog if nothing else had a sincere and committed Joan Crawford performance. What kind of commitment she should have offered Trog is something I leave to viewers. 


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Young Bess: A Review



Before she was Gloriana, she was Young Bess. Chronicling the early years of the Lady Elizabeth Tudor before she gained the throne as the third legitimate child of Henry VIII, Young Bess suffers from a stodginess that push it down. However, it is just respectable enough to make it acceptable if not as great as its subject. 

On the day Queen Mary I dies, two old servants to Lady Elizabeth (Jean Simmons) remember the tumultuous years that got them where they are now. Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) forever finds herself declared illegitimate and legitimate, depending on what mood Henry is in. 

As much as Henry pins his hopes on his only legitimate son the Prince Edward (Rex Thompson), Henry knows that Elizabeth is also needed in case the future Edward VI and their elder sister Mary don't live. Bess, willful, stubborn but lonely too, has her own issues. She's fallen madly in love with handsome courtier Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger), the only man who can coax a smile from the Lady/Princess Elizabeth. He, however, has eyes only for Catherine Parr (Deborah Kerr), Elizabeth's fourth stepmother.

Complicating matters more is that all three find themselves in Tudor court intrigue, forever on the swordsman's edge. Elizabeth sacrifices her love for Thomas by persuading him to let his third stepmother marry Thomas. Now, however, while Queen Elizabeth I now rises, she rises alone, her stepmother and Thomas having died long ago.

Young Bess is properly respectable, but at its heart we do not see the fires burning beneath the future Queen. Instead, we get a more dry telling of her extraordinary life. I think the main reason for that is because Young Bess loses steam when it forgets its protagonist.

It is a curious thing that despite the title Young Bess is not the main figure. Instead, Jan Lustig and Arthur Wimperis' adaptation of Margaret Irwin's novel focuses more attention on the Catherine Parr/Thomas Stewart romance that it might as well be titled The Not-So-Merry Widow. Perhaps this was due to trying to build up Kerr as Star (they rhyme) but neither she or Granger appeared to be anything other than stilted in their sweeping romance.

Young Bess herself seems more eager when playfully accepting the overtures of page Barnaby (Robert Arthur), a young lad clearly besotted with our noble lady. I would have preferred a film focusing on his thwarted love for the Tudor Princess, if only to see Elizabeth be more central to the film.  

It is a curious thing that Young Bess spent so much time away from Bess herself, a decision that pushed the film down. However, there are some elements that make it slightly more appealing.

Miklos Rozsa's score was appropriately lavish and grand, making for entertaining listening.

We see Charles Laughton play Henry VIII again after his Oscar-winning turn in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Loud, arrogant, proud, tyrannical but with a bit of mirth beneath the menace, Laughton's brief performance was enjoyable. His death scene was a bit of scenery-chewing, but I can forgive that. Simmons did well as the proud, haughty but lovelorn figure, doing the best she could with a weak script.

Again, if only Young Bess weren't so focused on the Thomas/Catherine romance. Despite being almost the main characters neither Granger or Kerr gave it their all, both too wrapped up in being "dashing" and "grand" to make Thomas or Catherine deep characters.

Young Bess is not a bad film, just a bit stodgy and less than what it could have been. Pleasant, non-threatening and a minor diversion, it is acceptable if nothing more. 



Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Spencer: A Review



What a difference a few years make. Since Twilight premiered, I have seen Robert Pattinson go from sparkling vampire to avenging Batman and Kristen Stewart go from lovelorn human to the late Princess of Wales. Spencer, an imagined glimpse into three tumultuous days of the former Lady Diana Spencer, has been highly praised. I see many of my brethren all but guaranteeing Stewart will win Best Actress in a cakewalk.

Now that I have seen Spencer, for my own view that is not an Oscar-winning performance. A bit too hallucinatory for most audiences, Spencer is more fever dream than straightforward biopic. Also, that is not an Oscar-winning performance.

"A Fable from a True Tragedy" as the film text tells us, Spencer covers the three days of Christmas 1991 or 1992 in the House of Windsor. While the rest of the family trudges through the rituals of monarchy, Diana, Princess of Wales (Stewart) endures what appears to be a break from reality.

She seems haunted metaphorically and literally by the ghost of Anne Boleyn (Amy Manson), another woman who married a royal only to have her head cut off. A Boleyn biography is left at her bed, and she finds kinship with her royal predecessor. Spencer's only consolation are her boys, Prince William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddy Sprie). 

Her disconnect from her in-laws might come from her constant tardiness, stubborn refusal to perform even the most mundane of tasks asked and self-enforced isolation save for William and Harry. If she talks to others, it is either Major Alistair Gregory (Timothy Spall), Chief Chef Darren (Sean Harris) or her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins). Maggie was sent away, something that so upset the Princess she had to be brought back. As she goes through her bulimia and mental stability, she makes a firm stand against the royal pheasant shooting, forcing the royals to give up the boys to enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken  and her to contemplate her future.

Spencer is the second biopic of "Famous Woman in Time of Crisis" directed by Pablo Larraín after the brilliant Jackie. Unlike Jackie, however, Spencer's screenplay by Steven Knight decided to take a slightly more esoteric manner to its subject by injecting a lot of fantasy. The end result, I figure, was to make Spencer more a meditation on our Princess. The end result made her look genuinely bonkers.

Scenes of her imagining literally eating pearls from her necklace or using wire cutters to tear at her skin do not help the case that Diana, Princess of Wales was sane. Instead, it makes her look dangerous to herself and to others. The fact that Spencer does not have her interact much if at all with the Windsors also creates a false idea that she was more willfully reclusive than neglected royal wife. It almost seems that Diana willfully pushed herself away from people versus being pushed. 

When she literally stood her ground and declared she would not move until her children came with her, I was surprised no one literally took a shot at her given how sometimes crazed she came across.

Spencer so drowns in overt symbolism that for me it veered into parody. The image of the scarecrow, her referring to pheasants as 'beautiful but not very bright", her wandering around an old home and the Diana/Boleyn connection were odd to say the least. I think some in the audience felt this too given that I saw a couple walk out.

That in itself isn't a good sign, but that they opted to leave Spencer at the Alamo Drafthouse says something to their impatience at the grand manner the film took.

Kristen Stewart has wowed fellow reviewers with her performance, but I was not wowed. I didn't find she played a character but more an impersonation. Her soft, breathy manner seemed more appropriate for a weak Marilyn Monroe biopic than a Diana, Princess of Wales one. If Spencer was meant for me to sympathize with the late Princess, it didn't work. She just wandered about the film, forever putting herself through misery. Only at the end when she finally fled Sandringham did she show any sign of life. 

Granted, that may have been the point, but it makes things hard when you get a biopic that does not tell you much if anything about the subject. I don't know if the main takeaway I got from Spencer was that Diana, Princess of Wales seemed downright looney and the Windsors were lucky to get her out, but there it is.

As Stewart has to carry almost all of the film, it makes for hard viewing. She can look like Diana, and maybe sound like her. However, to my mind there was no there there.

In smaller roles, Spall, Harris and Hawkins did better. I would put that to the fact that they behaved like real and sane people, not borderline nutters.

If there is something to complement Spencer on it is Jonny Greenwood's score. It blended jazz and chamber music quite well, echoing the late Princess' fragile hold on reality.

Spencer is one of those films critically adored but audiences won't easily embrace. Unlike the late Princess of Wales herself, I think few will be fond of this Spencer.



Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Many Saints of Newark: A Review



I confess that while I have heard of the HBO series The Sopranos, I have not seen a single complete episode. I know bits and pieces as well as seen clips from the show about the life of our therapist-seeing mafioso. However, I know little to nothing about the myriad of characters and storylines The Sopranos spanned over its run. 

The Many Saints of Newark, which should serve as the beginning of Tony Soprano's rise, is clearly for the made men (and women) who know every inch of the Bada Bing! Club. For those of us on the outside, it is nearly incomprehensible. 

Told in voiceover Spoon River Anthology-like by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), we learn about his father, Richard "Dickie" Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie endures his father "Hollywood" Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) and his luscious new Italian bride Guissepina (Michela De Rossi). Dickie, a local mafioso, enforces the will of the family along with his associate Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal) and other figures.

They use black muscle to enforce their will, until the racial tensions in Newark explode. Former Moltisanti enforcer Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom, Jr.) discovers his own black life matters and joins in the rioting. Fortunately for Dickie, the riots provide an excuse to blame his father's death on, even if it was purely accidental on his part.

Some time later, Dickie has taken Guissepina as his mistress and must confront Harold, all while serving as de facto role model for the young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini). Assisting Dickie from prison is his uncle Sally (Liotta in a dual role of twin). As Dickie has to deal with various issues and both his families, not everyone comes out alive, including Dickie. Slowly but steadily, Tony Soprano must find his place in this world. 

I think that people unfamiliar with The Sopranos or who, like me, have some information but did not watch the show will find The Many Saints of Newark both puzzling and frustrating. I can speak only for myself, but when I went into The Many Saints of Newark, I thought I was going to watch the rise of Tony Soprano.

I didn't think I would end up watching the rise and fall of Dickie Montisanti.

Screenwriters Lawrence Konner and David Chase (the former who has written for The Sopranos, the latter who created it) decided to go all Phantom Menace/Solo: A Star Wars Story when it came to their iconic character. We saw how Uncle Junior Soprano (Cory Stoll) got his back issues. We got baby Christopher Moltisanti trying to steer clear of the teenage Tony, forever pushing him away. We saw Pussy Bonpensiore (Samson Moeakiola) before he became Big. 

Those are, I figure, nice and maybe even amusing touches for Sopranos fans (though even if I were well-versed in Sopranos lore I would find the "baby Christopher senses something bad from Tony" bit a bit too on-the-nose). However, The Many Saints of Newark essentially operates on the idea that the viewer already knows all these characters and situations. As such, it shuts the door on non/casual Sopranos watchers faster than Michael Corleone does to Kay.

At one point I noted "I don't know what's going on" because all these figures are mysteries to me. Worse, for a film that is a Sopranos prequel, the figure of Tony Soprano himself is pretty much absent in The Many Saints of Newark. He's a shadow, a mystery figure that slips in and out. The only thing I actually learned about Tony Soprano is that as a teen he was into hard rock. 

Since Tony Soprano barely played a part in The Many Saints of Newark, what you end up with is The Dickie Moltisanti Story, and he isn't all that interesting to focus so much attention on. This is not the fault of the actors, who did as well as they could with what they had.

I thought well of Nivola as Dickie, hot-headed enough to kill his mistress by drowning her in the ocean but tortured enough to attack a stolen television set at his father's funeral. Even though his scenes were sadly few, Bernthal was appropriately loutish and boorish as Johnny Soprano (a racist jailbird, as his wife described him at his "welcome home" party).

Speaking of Livia Soprano (Vera Farmiga), it's a shame that she was reduced to this whiny, neurotic slightly cranky figure. I find it hard to imagine that a woman who had tranquilizers recommended to her would end up putting out a hit on her own son.

At least I think Livia did. Again, not having deep knowledge of The Sopranos my memory may be faulty here, but The Many Saints of Newark wasn't about to bother trying to set things up for me. It assumed I already knew everything about our favorite next-door mobsters. 

There is a surprisingly somber, sluggish tone to The Many Saints of Newark that drag it down further. There is simply no joy here, and frankly too much fan-service to recommend the film if you are not a Sopranos fan.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Dune (1984): A Review

DUNE (1984)

In the filmography of David Lynch, his adaptation of Frank Herbert's massive science-fiction epic Dune is a curiosity. Loved by some, loathed by others, disowned by Lynch, perhaps now we can look at Dune again with new eyes, fresh eyes. It is time for the sleeper to reawaken. 

The planet Arrakis, also known as Dune, is the source of major conflict between two grand intergalactic Houses. One noble family, House Atreides, has taken over Arrakis from their bitter rivals, House Harkonnen. 

Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), secretly in league with Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer) will eliminate House Atreides and retake Dune. Standing in his way is Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow) and his son, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). The Duke's concubine, the Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), once a member of the nun-like Bene Gesserit order, has trained her son in the ways of the order. 

Could Paul be the Kwisatz Haderach, a long-prophesied Messiah-like figure? Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (Sian Phillips) fears as much. She too joins in the plot against the Atreides, but despite everyone's best efforts the now-Duke Paul and the Lady Jessica survive. They also join the native Arrakis Fremen people, who will stop the spice production and bring total war against the Harkonnen and Emperor, where Paul's sister Alia (Alicia Roanne Witt) and the Baron's bloodthirsty nephew Feyd Rautha (Sting) will involve themselves in this epic battle.

At a certain point, one gets the sense that even David Lynch (who adapted the novel as well as directed) thinks all this is so much patent silliness. You can't have the Emperor of the Known Universe shout out "Bring in that floating fat man!" and not expect people to burst out laughing. One thinks that even if Dune kept elements from the book to the film, the idea that anyone could take seeing a cat milked seriously boggles the imagination more than the sandworms that threaten Arrakis.

Dune is filled with oddball moments that they astonish the viewer, not in amazement but in stunning incomprehension. When the Harkonnen army is attacking the Atreides Arrakis fortress, military leader Gurney Halleck (Patrick Stewart) leads his troops with "LONG LIVE DUKE LETO!" while holding the noble family's pet pug. As to why Gurney is cradling the pug one simply has no idea. When Gurney reappears to the now Fremen-like Paul, the questions of exactly how Gurney survived for an unknown amount of time and especially what happened to the dog are not answered. 

To be fair to Lynch, he was given an impossible task in trying to fit in what is a grand epic story into one film. So much of Dune has to be explained to the viewer that the film buckles under the massive weight. With endless characters and plots the film eventually becomes incomprehensible. I imagine that even those who read Herbert's novel would find Dune near gibberish with things going so fast that it becomes a muddle. For those who have never read Dune, things simply become too convoluted to try and sort it all out.

Take Paul's romance with the female Fremen Chani (Sean Young). The film has them going from meeting to passionately in love in what seems minutes. As Dune tries to move on from one thing to another, things have to either be rushed or forgotten. The Fremen servant Shadout Mapes (Linda Hunt) says some kind of warning to herself in voiceover, pops in to see Paul, and then is seeing dying during the Harkonnen attack. 

It's simply astonishing that experienced filmmakers could have a character apparently meant to be important (or at least relevant) pop in and out with nary a rhyme or reason.

This leads us to perhaps one of Dune's most disastrous elements: the infamous voiceovers. As the plot is so thick, Lynch resorted to voiceovers to try and fill in plot points and details. Dune literally opens with a voiceover from Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen), which to be fair worked well. It is only later that the viewer keeps hearing the thoughts of endless number of characters that it slips into farce. 

While this is probably not a definitive count of  Dune's voiceover use, I counted five times when Madsen's Irulan explained plot details or moved the plot forward through dialogue. That Irulan literally figured in no way to Dune's plot apart from being de facto narrator makes the choice of having her explain things more puzzling.

Even that perhaps could be forgiven, but not Dune's endless voiceovers from so many other characters that it becomes maddening. I counted, give or take, a stunning FIFTY-FOUR times when a character spoke his/her thoughts. While MacLachlan's Paul carried the bulk of the mind-thoughts, we also literally heard the thoughts of the Lady Jessica, the Reverend Mother, the Baron Harkonnen, Fyed, Mapes, Fremen expert Doctor Kynes (Max von Sydow), the Atreides' loyal servant Thufir Hawat (Freddie Jones) and perhaps the Emperor and Duke Leto. 

It is more than likely I missed a few, but the endless "softly speaking my thoughts" grew so incessant that the audience could probably guess correctly when someone would start whispering their inner thoughts to themselves.

This, for whatever reason (desperation, disinterest) was how Lynch both moved the plot forward and tried to give backstory. It simply didn't work, causing nothing more than frustration and puzzlement.

Dune was also hampered by a poor production design. It wants us to look upon the leaders of the Spacing Guild as these powerful, albeit mutated beings pulling the strings behind the scenes. However, as my late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. observed, they look like giant talking penises.

And he actually liked Dune!

The world of Dune looks like massive sets from a foreign production: in turns gaudy and fake. Nothing looks real and the efforts to make things seem real make Dune look more fake. Perhaps credit can be given to certain moments where Dune looks like a low-grade acid trip, but so much of it looks and feels bonkers. 

In terms of performances, I don't think even the actors knew what was going on. Bless actors like Ferrer, who were forced to try to make massive info dumps sound rational. However, Dune's screenplay damned them into nearly-impossible situations. Almost every actor appears stiff in a misguided effort to make Dune appear serious versus silly, but the near-uniformity of blankness helps no one.

MacLachlan went on to better collaborations with Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), but Dune shows him weak, stumbling through bad dialogue and showing his lack of experience. As if to compensate for the stiffness of almost everyone else, McMillan's Baron Harkonnen embraced the sheer insanity of things by being unapologetically wildly over-the-top, devouring every scene with almost manic frenzy. Sting was apparently having a grand old time as Feyd, the murderous crazed villain determined to kill the potential Messiah.

I think only Sian Phillips managed to come across as remotely sensible as the Reverend Mother, though her "GET OUT OF MY MIND!" cry has become a gif.

If I find any good in Dune, it is in Toto's score, which sounds like an early-80's rock concept album. Curiously, the one track not written by Toto was The Prophecy Theme. That was written by Brian Eno, and with its vaguely New Age/Music From the Hearts of Space manner it is surprising Eno didn't score the whole of Dune versus just one excellent number.

Despite its myriad of flaws, I cannot help but if not love David Lynch's Dune, at least find it entertaining. Whether I find it entertaining due to its whacked-out nature or not I cannot say for certain. It may be crazy, maybe even awful, but Dune is never nothing short of weirdly fascinating. 


Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Eternals: A Review (Review #1545)



It is difficult to keep "the continuing story of The Avengers" going, but go it must. Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not been as roaring a success as have the previous Phases of the World's Longest and Most Expensive Soap Opera. Eternals decided that what would jump-start flagging interest would be a new cast, more diverse, and a new tone: more somber and introspective.

Pity to go through all that work and come up with something so dry and dull.

The God-like Celestials have created two creatures: Deviants that destroy the native populations on planets, and Eternals, who are there to protect said natives and foster their growth despite not interfering in the native population's internal affairs.

With the last of the Deviants killed, the Eternals merely exist, waiting for the Celestial Arishem to tell them what to do. For the time being, our Eternals live on, making due while seeing the best and worst of humanity. Our ten (!) Eternals: leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), his former lover and material-controller Sersi (Gemma Chan), Asian muscleman Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Greek goddess-like Thena (Angelina Jolie), woman-trapped-in-a-child's-body Sprite (Lia McHugh), surly mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), deaf black female speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), gay inventor Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry) and cocky Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) live life among humans as best they can.

It isn't until a new Deviant suddenly emerges that Ikaris, Sersi and Sprite join forces to get the band back together. However, Ajak has been killed (thus, meaning they really are not Eternal), and there is more danger where not all will live to find out the shocking truth about their mission. Will they defy Arishem to save humanity or put the greater good ahead of their love for these simple creatures?

For the longest time I was trying to remember what Eternals reminded me of, and finally I remembered. Eternals reminds me of The Muppets Take Manhattan. It might be a strange parallel, especially given that four people adapted the comic book series (director Chloe Zhao requiring two screenwriting credits bumping it up to five). However, both involving getting a group of former friends forced to separate back together, and both involve searching for their leader/a new leader. 

I leave it up to you to decide if Salma Hayek and Kermit the Frog can be seen as equals.

Eternals, despite its threadbare "getting the band back together" story runs a monstrous two-and-a-half hours long including a bizarre mid-credit scene where former One Direction member Harry Styles joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe and former Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington is teased as a new figure who will spin off into his own adventures.

As a side note, Harry Styles was fourteen years old when the MCU kicked off in Iron-Man, so make of that what you will.

Eternals, bless its heart, wants to be a more serious, perhaps even meditative entry into this never-ending series. However, its self-seriousness slips into almost pompous self-importance, treating so much with such moroseness it can't bother to be even remotely fun. Never has the potential end of the world seemed so anticlimactic bordering on dull. 

Not that the plot point of "the Earth as a giant incubator for a new god-like being" makes things any more interesting. Marvin the Martian's plans for Earth's destruction were more logical.

The dull nature of Eternals wasn't just one of its major issues. In a film where major turning points such as the fall of Tenochtitlan and the bombing of Hiroshima were treated as so much window dressing, we are saddled with simultaneously so little and so much story that you end up bored and confused.

You have ten ostensibly major characters in Eternals, and no film can hold so many leads and expect to give them a fair shake. Trying to cram so many figures into one film means that oftentimes you forget about the missing characters as soon as they are off screen. The majority of screen time is between Madden and Chan, but even with a brief (and dull) sex scene you don't care about them.

To be fair, I think Madden was directed to be lifeless as Ikaris, a figure who does not seem capable of any emotion. Chan, I think, did her best but she too seemed disengaged from things that it is a puzzle why anyone would think either would make for Ajak's successor.

I think that due to forcing so many characters in what other films would start with three at the most creates bad situations. You have the situation where characters are not missed when not on screen. You also have to reduce characters to their most basic characteristics: surly (Druig), cocky (Kingo), conflicted (Thena), gay (Phanos), deaf (Makkaris). 

With regards the last two, Eternals may have been aiming for a good thing to have greater diversity and representation. However, apart from being deaf what is Makkaris like as a person? Did Arishem create Makkaris as deaf? How did she manage to communicate in sign language with ancient Mesopotamians and Babylonians with the greatest of ease? If you are going to go through all the trouble of changing a character's race and gender plus add a disability, at least take the time to add a personality too. Otherwise, it comes close to merely running through a checklist of characteristics for a little virtue signaling.

To be fair, Phanos has a little more to distinguish him apart from being gay: he is a technical whiz. However, him being gay is a large part of his persona to keep making references to it (such as in a kiss between him and his Arab spouse which can be clipped for Chinese/Arab markets); if one is going to make a character gay just to say "we have a gay character", why go through all that and skip making him more complex?

It is curious that perhaps the best performance and most complex character is Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo's exceptionally eager manager forever filming him for a documentary about this Bollywood legend. While there as primarily comic relief (which he does well), Patel's farewell to the Eternals when all hope appears lost is surprisingly moving. That cannot be said for Nanjiani's Kingo, someone who is meant to bring humor through an inflated ego but whose efforts at humor fall flat. 

As another side note, if Druig is hiding in "the Amazon", wouldn't it be more logical to have his villagers speak Portuguese versus Spanish? Yes, many parts of the Amazon are in Spanish-speaking countries, but I think most people associate the Amazon with Brazil. Yet, I digress.

Eternals is slow, boring, and worse, uninteresting. Thor: The Dark World was so bad I literally had to look up my own review to even remember if I had seen it. I will remember watching Eternals, but I do wish I could forget that I had.  

Next Marvel Cinematic Universe Film: Spider-Man: No Way Home


Monday, November 15, 2021

The Last Duel: A Review


When I went to Arizona earlier this year, one thing I did was go to Medieval Times. I did enjoy this romp through ye olden days, and despite some good efforts by those in front and behind the camera I found Medieval Times more entertaining than The Last Duel.

Told in three versions, we learn the story of Marguerite de Carrouge (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouge (Matt Damon). Chapter One is his story: a noble French warrior, financially strapped, married the wealthy Marguerite. A dispute over territory that may or may not be part of her dowry causes a rift between himself and his frenemy, Jacques de Gris (Adam Driver). While there is a reconciliation, a charge of rape by de Gris against Marguerite causes them to face off in a duel to the death.

Chapter Two is in many ways similar to Jean's story except it is Jacques' story. Essentially, Jacques, driven by unbridled lust, does rape Marguerite, but his powerful lord Pierre d'Alencon (Ben Affleck) offers some protection. However, as Jacques has appeal to the King himself, and Jean's challenge is accepted by all, the duel takes place.

Chapter Three (or "The Truth) is Marguerite's story. Jean, so far, has failed to impregnate his wife. However, now she is pregnant, but whether it is Jean or Jacques, and whether it is due to a rape or a willing fling, is the source of much debate, shame and scandal. If Jean is killed in the duel, she too will be killed as an adulteress since God will decide the winner. With lives hanging in the balance, who will survive?

The Last Duel is pretty much a slog, due in large part to screenwriters Affleck, Damon and Nicole Holofcener's very, very, very serious manner with their adaptation of Eric Jager's nonfiction book. By jumping straight into the combat and sometimes repeating the same information one almost throws their hands in despair at the thought of having to see scenes repeated almost verbatim.

There is, for example, something almost sadistic in seeing Marguerite raped twice if not three times (definitely at Chapters Two and Three, can't recall in Chapter One). The Last Duel agrees in all three versions that Jacques does rape Marguerite, so one wonders if perhaps a more linear story versus this Rashomon-like manner would have worked better.

The Kurosawa film is the clear inspiration for The Last Duel with its variations on the story. However, as the three chapters mostly if not wholly agree on elements, why have us sit through the same battle twice? This is especially the case given that the battle Jean and Jacques fought alongside each other has brutal beheadings. I don't know why one would want to see something like that twice.

As a side note, certain scenes in Chapter One play as if they were ripped off from Gladiator's German battle opening. Curiously, I think a lot of The Last Duel was cribbing from Gladiator with diminishing returns. 

Director Ridley Scott does himself no favors in how he directed the actors. There is not a bit of life in any of them. I figure their performances were meant to match the somber, serious nature The Last Duel took. However, in every actors' manner, none of these real-life figures came across as real. Instead, they came across as emotionaless waxworks capable of movement but hollow.

Each performance was bad, but only in degrees of badness. I have never believed Ben Affleck could act, and The Last Duel does not change my view. It's a curiosity or a blessing that Affleck stays mostly in Chapter Two given how camp and cartoonish he was. Damon made his Jean into perhaps the biggest warrior wimp in history, someone who is simultaneously clueless and boring. Driver to his credit I think did his best, but the script was beyond anything even he could do.

Comer was the most interesting of the actors, and if The Last Duel had focused on her versus trying to make the men around her remotely interesting we might have had a movie. 

As a side note, yes the various hairstyles were in turns distracting and comical.

The Last Duel underscores its self-importance and seriousness with its cinematography. If I am to believe the film, the sun literally never shines in France. The film is dominated by cloudy greys and heavy snows, with little light coming through. 

The Last Duel makes no case as to why any of us should care about anything going on. The characters were boring, the situation dull despite the prospect of innocents being killed, and the overall setting oppressively gloomy. "He's no f---ing fun," Pierre quips about Jean. The same could be said about the movie. Granted, a film revolving around violence against women should not be fun. However, it also does not have to be so lifeless. 


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Detour (1945): A Review



By all measures, Detour should have been forgotten, a relic of small-budget filmmaking firmly of its time. However, these qualities rather than diminish Detour actually enhance it, making it an early example of film noir that would go on to influence a whole genre of film.

Al Roberts (Tom Neil) narrates his story in voiceover as the song I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me triggers his memories and temper. A once-promising pianist relegated to playing in a dive bar, the only bright spot is his fiancée Sue Harvey (Barbara Drake). She decides to try her luck in Hollywood, much to Al's unhappiness. Eventually though, he follows her to California, hitchhiking due to limited funds.

Close to his goal, his last ride is with Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a gambler who plans on making a big score at the racetracks. On a dark and stormy night, Charles appears to have suffered a heart attack when Al was driving. If that didn't kill him, falling out of the car and hitting his head on a rock did it.

Al, terrified he'll be blamed for Haskell's death, rashly hides the body and assumes his identity. As he crosses into California and comes closer and closer to Sue, he gives a lift to a woman calling herself Vera (Ann Savage). Vera reveals that she knows Al is not Haskell, as Haskell had given Vera a lift earlier and tried to assault her. She threatens Al with exposure unless he sells the car and splits the profits. Al, already trapped, finds himself further ensnared by Vera's machinations, until things take a shocking and bizarre turn that destroys them both.

Detour is essentially a B-movie with a thin budget. You can see it with the rear-screen projections and limited sets (which look like they are close to wobbling). However, the lack of funds helped in keeping the focus on the story and performances. Even the sparse nature of Detour can create surprisingly strong visual moments.

When Al imagines what Sue's potential Hollywood stardom would be, we see her singing I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me while musicians play in the shadows. There is a haunting and haunted quality to this little moment in the surprisingly short running time (a little over an hour). Whether it is Al literally fading into fog or how dark the world gets when Al remembers to Vera's introduction, Detour's visual style is a masterclass in how to use limitations to a film's advantage. 

Detour may not be the literal first film noir made, but I find it fascinating that it was released in 1945 when the United States was probably at its zenith in strength and optimism. The U.S. had just won the most intense and immense war it had fought outside its Civil War, the economy was roaring and light musicals and comedies were the cinematic norm. At a time of joyful escapism we plunge into this dark tale of dreams shattered and human misery, of dangerous women and weak men. 

As most of Detour is a two-person show, we focus on the performances of Neal and Savage. Neal is perfect in his sad-sack yet tightly-wound up Al. In the flashbacks to his New York days he has a charm mixed with if not cynicism at least a more jaded manner to his character. The shift from the handsome and talented piano player to a disheveled, almost totally ruined man is an exceptional performance.

It however, falls in the shadow of Savage's fierce and yes, savage performance as Vera. She is hard as nails, unrepentant, angry, and unafraid to stomp on anyone who got in her way. Only once can I remember even a modicum of humanity behind the stone-cold heart, and that memory is hazy. Detour gives us in Savage's performance one of most fierce femme fatales in film.

One aspect of Detour that I am surprised isn't covered more is the potential that Al may be an unreliable narrator. We take it at face value that the story he's telling is true. To accept that however, we have to accept the strange manners that death takes. As he is the one telling us this story, we accept that it is the truth. However, what if he is telling us things to paint himself as almost a victim? Particularly with Vera's fate, it seems so bizarre that it is almost unbelievable. 

Detour is a brilliant film: short, bare-bones and filled with strong visuals and performances. You can't take a wrong turn with Detour.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Dune (2021): A Review

DUNE (2021)

It has been nearly forty years since the first attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's massive science fiction epic Dune to the silver screen. The David Lynch adaption is not fondly remembered by fans and critics (though I will take a look at his Dune later). For Denis Villeneuve version is a massive epic, carefully crafting its universe even if at times it is ponderous to the point of pomposity.

The planet Arrakis is the only place in the known universe where "spice" is found. This spice allows for greater human powers and interstellar travel. For twenty years the House Harkonnen has ruled Arrakis through the approval of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. The Emperor, however, has now granted control of Arrakis to their bitter rivals, House Atreides.

Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) takes up his command, bringing his concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son, Paul (Timothee Chalamet). The Lady Jessica once was part of the Bene Gesserit, a nun-like order with great mental powers. She has trained Paul in the ways of the Bene Gesserit, but Paul is a troubled young man.

He has strange dreams of a woman on Arrakis, one who may play a role in his future. While Duke Leto is working to reach rapprochement with the native Fremen, the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) with the Emperor's silent blessing, plots to destroy House Atreides and retake Arrakis: both the planet and the riches the spice grants them.

House Harkonnen manages to retake the fortress on Arrakis, but Paul and the Lady Jessica survived thanks to their mental powers. As they find some Fremen, Paul sees Chani (Zendaya), the literal woman of his dreams. Could now-Duke Paul Atreides be the Messiah long-prophesied by the Fremen?

In terms of production, Dune is an absolute marvel. I am one of the millions who have at least heard of Dune but have never read it. As such, it is simply impossible for me to judge how faithful this adaptation is to the Herbert tome, but I imagine that if anything Villeneuve (adapting the novel with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth) took the source material seriously. Major credit should be given to them for giving novices information without being clumsy but in a naturalistic way (such as a variation of an audiobook on the backstory of the Fremen).

The detail in Dune is rich and deep, evoking this universe where all the planets are fully formed and real. The ocean-dominated Caladan, home of House Atreides, the dark, sinister Giede Prime of House Harkonnen, the vast emptiness of Arrakis: all of them are filmed in such a way as to be fully immersive. Greig Fraser's cinematography is breathtaking in how all these worlds are unique to themselves.

The universe in Dune is equaled by the detail in the production design. This appears to be both a futurist and ancient world, one where space travel blend seamlessly with ancient rites and rituals. Dune also blends Hans Zimmer's sometimes grand, sometimes surprisingly gentle score into this universe. 

The overall effect is to provide the viewer with a plausible, grand universe. On that level alone, of creating this grand visual spectacle, Dune is a massive success. Again, by taking things seriously, Dune builds this complex universe and brings an epic yet comprehensible feel to it.

Its seriousness is however, one of Dune's flaws. The characters, settings and situations are such that they behave as if they all know the various goings-on are so grand and epic that it becomes ponderous and stifling. The near-total lack of humor or life sometimes suffocates Dune to where the characters appear almost pompous in how they see the universe. The various Houses and their associates appear to have no lives outside their grand epic mannerisms. 

That makes the few times Dune attempts to have even a little levity, the fact that it falls flat makes the seriousness all the more pronounced. While the massive scope and political machinations in Dune don't lend themselves to lightness, the intense gravitas can make things look drier than the sandworms that dominate Arrakis. This goes into almost all the performances, where Villeneuve does not give the actors much of a chance to more beyond "I Am Serious and Will Behave Accordingly At All Times". 

Still, credit where it is due, and there were some highlights. All of House Atreides (Isaac, Ferguson and Chalamet) should be credited with strong performances. A special note for Ferguson, whose Lady Jessica was both strong and vulnerable: able to handle herself but still frightened for her son enduring a physical test by her former order. Isaac's Duke Leto managed to show the caring father behind the serious leader, and Chalamet's willowy looks makes it believable that this conflicted young man may rise to be the long-awaited Arrakis messiah. Also of note is Skarsgard, though he does not appear often in Dune. His Baron is engulfed in shadows, but his menacing manner works well for this villainous figure.

While this somberness bordering on grating manner is one of Dune's few great flaws, it remains a flaw that keeps me from fully embracing the film. Despite this, the overall nature of Dune leaves the viewer wildly impressed in its epic nature.


Monday, November 1, 2021

Aaron Loves Angela: A Review (Review #1541)



Romeo and Juliet inspired our urban ghetto story of young love, Aaron Loves Angela. It's a bit underdeveloped in some ways, but its sweet story and tackling of then-current issues, along with a new twist on interracial relationship, makes it worth the time.

Talented basketball player Aaron (Kevin Hooks) has eyes only for Angela (Irene Cara), which proves a distraction on the court. There is, however, a major hitch in that Aaron is black and Angela is Puerto Rican. He also has to contend with his troubled father Ike (Moses Gunn) and Beau (Robert Hooks, Kevin's real-life father), the local pimp/drug kingpin trying to make a major score.

Beau loves throwing it in Ike's face that Ike's football career did not come to fruition. Despite running a successful diner Ike still struggles with his failed gridiron dreams and his wife's abandonment, sometimes taking it out on Aaron. Aaron and Angela continue their romance but their bliss is interrupted by Beau's latest scheme. Beau's efforts to pull a fast one costs him his life and end up putting Aaron and Angela's lives in danger. Will our star-crossed lovers manage to survive those after Beau's loot?

Aaron and Angela works for various reasons. One is the work of screenwriter Gerald Sanford and director Gordon Parks, Jr., both of whom bring a reality to the film. This is a gritty world, one that openly shows the dilapidated and dark conditions our characters live in. Sanford blends the blossoming romance with Aaron's home life quite well. Of particular note is when Ike drunkenly berates Aaron for being there, quickly turning around to apologize and acknowledge it is his anger at his wife's abandonment that causes his reaction.

Sanford and Parks, Jr. do not attempt to either sanctify or vilify Ike. Instead, he is presented as a whole man: flawed, hurt but desperate to see his son achieve what he could not. Almost all the characters are similarly showcased: the hooker next door Cleo (Ernestine Jackson) may have deflowered Aaron in his efforts to be ready to give himself to Angela, but she is also wise and genuinely caring. Even Beau, as over-the-top as he may have been in his pimp manner, has a sad moment. He tells Aaron, who has come upon him when the failed drug deal takes place above his and Angela's love nest, that his life choices led him here.

There is a flaw that Angela's private life is almost forgotten with Aaron taking a more prominent role. Perhaps this is due to Aaron Loves Angela being Cara's debut, but it's a credit to Parks, Jr. that he coaxed strong performances out of his cast. That it is Cara's first major role works in her favor, as her hesitancy and naivete makes Angela a more endearing character. How she discusses the magic of art is quite impressive for a new actress.

Another aspect to Aaron Loves Angela that makes it a strong film is Jose Feliciano's music. From his opening song Salsa Negra to the romantic ballad Angela, the music is authentic and appropriately lush.

Aaron Loves Angela may have limitations in terms of budget and some of its 1970s manner is dated. However, it's a sweet, simple story that works well.