Tuesday, December 27, 2022

An Enemy of the People (1978): A Review (Review #1681)

 

AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE

Steve McQueen earned the nickname "The King of Cool". As such, it might be startling to see such a ruggedly handsome, action-oriented star as a meek scientist. An Enemy of the People was a wild breakaway from the McQueen persona, which is why it might have been quietly shunted off and forgotten by Warner Brothers and probably not known to McQueen fans. That is a terrible shame, for An Enemy of the People shows McQueen was a more adept and talented actor than he was ever given credit for. 

Meek and humble Dr. Thomas Stockmann (McQueen) is like everyone in his small Norwegian village eager for the new therapeutic springs to open. As the scientific advisor for the spa, he checks the waters and they have appeared safe. The latest results, however, show that there is high contamination due to pollution from the nearby tannery which is infecting the spa waters.

He begins advising to delay the opening to allow cleanup and repairs, but that could take years. His brother, Mayor Pete (Charles Durning) urges Tom to say nothing. Dr. Stockmann is aware of the impact a delay will cost, but he is convinced that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. He goes to his friends at the local paper, where he offers his exposé. They at first agree to publish, even to share in any blowback, but the specter of increased taxes (and getting blamed for them) pushes them into silence. Finding himself more and more isolated, Dr. Stockmann is both shocked and angered at how quickly the town has turned against him.

He is declared a literal "enemy of the people", endangering not just his reputation and life but those of his wife Catherine (Bibi Andersson) and their two sons. His daughter Petra (Robin Pearson Rose) also remains steadfastly loyal, even rejecting her beau, newspaper writer Hovstad (Michael Chrisofer). Tom contemplates, then rejects going to America. He will fight it out, but it will be hard when townspeople continue hurling rocks at the house of "an enemy of the people".

I can only guess as to why An Enemy of the People ended up frightening the studio into giving it an almost token release.  My sense is that the image of Steve McQueen as this meek, humble scientist motivated by moral outrage was not what audiences might have expected. Maybe Warner Brothers thought it was not what audiences wanted. That is a real shame, because An Enemy of the People shows McQueen was quite capable of playing characters versus just action leads. 

His Dr. Stockmann was quite, contemplative, using words rather than fists to fight. McQueen gives Tom almost an innocence, a naivete that makes his shock at how the town turns against him sad and infuriating. McQueen has a wonderful bit of monologue at the end when he condemns the town for insisting that the majority is always right.

Listing off how majorities have never been right until it is too late, McQueen gives Tom a moral anger and courage but still speaks elegantly. It is not a monologue where he rants, shouts or rages. Instead, it is one where he is righteous but controlled. "The majority is never right until it does right," he tells them, and McQueen's delivery is excellent.

An Enemy of the People showcases a different side of his range, one rarely if ever explored. He is quite effective in the role, and it is highly plausible to imagine him being successful on a stage had An Enemy of the People been performed as the Ibsen play instead of a film adaptation.

An Enemy of the People is quite well-acted overall. Durning's Mayor Pete could at times veer quite close to being a mustache short of twirling, but he also has quieter moments where he sees Tom not as an enemy but as a brother. Christofer's Hovstad evolves from a courageous liberal to a cowardly toady. Tom remarks that people like him and Richard Dysart's newspaper publisher Aslaksen (also quite good) are "radical and liberal...when it is safe". Andersson was underused as the loyal Catherine, as was Rose as Petra. George Schaeffer ably directed his actors into mostly strong performances.

Earlier, I remarked that Steve McQueen would have been successful in a stage production of An Enemy of the People. Perhaps that is what keeps the film from being better. There is something stage-bound about the film, as though we were watching a more elaborate theater production than feature film. It is not a major flaw, but you never get the sense you are in Norway. Whether it is in the house, the Messenger office or at the town meeting, An Enemy of the People feels and looks like a stage production.

I am reminded of those PBS or BBC stage adaptations such as I, Claudius, where it is obvious the actors are on a set. With I, Claudius the acting and camerawork is so brilliant that you either forgive or forget that the sets are sets. With An Enemy of the People, you do not.

Still, I think An Enemy of the People is a nice, little-known film that hopefully will find a greater audience. This is a film that I would show someone just being introduced to Steve McQueen. I would show it between say a Bullitt and The Great Escape. Freed from the overall persona, An Enemy of the People shows Steve McQueen, actor. It might not be a great film, but he shows he was better than perhaps even he gave himself credit for.

DECISION: B-

Monday, December 26, 2022

Spoiler Alert: A Review (Review #1680)

 

SPOILER ALERT

I genuinely do not understand the current series of "based on true story" films which have come down in the past few years. Spoiler Alert, based on the memoir Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, fails to translate between book and film, resulting in sometimes quite horrifying moments.  

TV Guide writer Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) does not get around much. Over his better judgment, he goes to a gay bar where he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge). The two form an instant sexual attraction. Michael struggles with intimacy, due to body issues stemming from his youth as a fat kid. Despite that and a Smurf obsession that would have probably frightened anyone else away, Kit not only stays with Michael but commits full time to their relationship.

A health scare and Michael's curious status in their son's life pushes Kit out of the closet to his parents Marilyn (Sally Field) and Bob (Bill Irwin), who take the news surprisingly well. Now free to be open, Kit and Michael begin their lives together. It's not all rainbows and lollipops, however, as after 13 years they have essentially split up. They now live apart but are still not formally separated. 

That is, until Kit is eventually diagnosed with a very rare cancer. This brings Kit and Michael together, and with Kit's impending death coming, they decide to get married. It, however, will end in the hero's death, leaving Michael and Kit's parents set to move on.

Granted, I have not read Michael Ausiello's memoir. I have never heard of Michael Ausiello's book. I have never even heard of Michael Ausiello. Perhaps that is a problem with Spoiler Alert: it suggests we should have an interest in the life of this TV Guide writer who eventually created an online entertainment news network. Spoiler Alert does not make the case that Ausiello or his story is worth knowing.

It is severely undercut when Spoiler Alert segways into deliberately fake sitcom modes. More than once does David Marshall Grant and Dan Savage's adaptation shift to Ausiello's fantasies of his early life as a sitcom. You have the deliberate artifice emphasized, but that undercuts the drama Spoiler Alert wants to give us.

These shifts probably read better in the book, but in the movie, they stop the action cold. They come out of nowhere and treating Ausiello's mother's cancer as a running gag is cringe. It may be true to the book, but somehow the fact that it is deliberately fake makes it look like it is a joke. The flights of fancy take the lowest turn when Kit is dying.

The audience is already wrapped up in what is meant to be a very sad moment. We have been told Kit has literally hours to live. He is on his hospital bed, his mournful parents in agony over seeing their only child passing away in front of them. Michael crawls into bed with him and says gentle goodbyes to the love of his life.

Suddenly, via Parsons' voiceover, Ausiello starts speculating about what if this were just another scene from his imagined biopic. All at once we hear "CUT!" and everyone gets up and showing that it is all fake. Aldridge as "Kit" is fine, even getting some coffee, with Parsons as "Michael" attempting a quick interview. Rushed interview done before having to go back to scene, we then see "Kit" dying.

At that point, I became angry. Michael Showalter, who somehow managed to direct Jessica Chastain to an Oscar for a parody of a parody in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, managed to make an even worse film. As bad as that film was, even he could have seen that deliberately shifting things into "reality" and "fantasy" undercut the drama. Was it Spoiler Alert's aim to play Kit's death almost for laughs? To somehow make fun of it? To suggest that it somehow "wasn't real"? 

That is the end result, and it is a terrible one. Spoiler Alert seemed determined to make as many deliberately bad decisions as it could. Certain moments are acted as though it was a television sitcom, with deliberately bad acting. Of particular note is when Kit finally comes out. The pauses, the exaggerated mannerisms from Irwin, Field, Aldridge and Parsons. The actors look as if they are aware that they are acting versus being the characters. It is sad to watch.

The acting en masse is poor, sluggish and almost openly insincere. Part of it does come from Showalter's directing and the screenplay to be fair to the actors. It is, despite the actors' best efforts, no way to make Ausiello's Smurf obsession (something that just came out of nowhere) look anything else other than psychotic. Still, the actor is there to convince you that Kit would continue a relationship with Michael despite trying to have sex with Papa Smurf looking on. They cannot. 

Is it wrong to think that Ben Aldridge is too hot for Jim Parsons? That may be a strange criticism, but somehow it shows that they share no chemistry as these star-crossed lovers. To be fair, there are moments that show what Spoiler Alert could have been if things had played out straighter, so to speak. As Kit and Michael contemplate the former's diagnosis, both show a vulnerability and desperation that does come across. 

Those moments are few and far between. What were Showalter, Grant & Savage and Parsons thinking when they deliberately ape a pivotal scene from Terms of Endearment? Maybe that really did happen to Ausiello & Cowan exactly as shown in Spoiler Alert. However, by this point, you think it is all fake, a terrible disservice to the story you are trying to tell. 

Spoiler Alert might be a good memoir. It might even balance humor with heart, which probably attracted everyone involved to a film adaptation. It cannot balance both. Spoiler Alert, perhaps, might not be a terrible film. It is, however, a terribly made, terribly acted one. 

DECISION: F

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Santa Claus (1959): A Review

 


SANTA CLAUS

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews annual Christmas movie review, where we look at a Christmas-centered film. This year, we go down Mexico way, to perhaps the oddest take on jolly old Saint Nicholas ever committed to film.

Santa Claus is an American creation, though like many an American creation, with foreign roots. Santa Claus the film, however, is to my mind, a rare time when an American creation is appropriated by a foreign market.  In turns weirdly charming and just weird, Santa Claus is more infamous than famous, but not without a strange, albeit looney, charm.

Narrated by Keith Hetherington, Santa Claus takes us to jolly old St. Nicholas' literal castle on a cloud. Here, children from all over the world help Santa (Jose Elias Moreno) make toys. Santa is not able to go to Earth until Christmas Eve, leaving much room for Lucifer to wreak havoc on mankind. 

His generally inept minion Pitch (Jose Luis Aguirre "Trotsky") is tasked to turn children to evil. While he is successful with a trio of bad boys, his efforts at corrupting sweet but poor Lupita (Lupita Quezadas) fails. Santa can only watch at Pitch keeps making his pitch to turn kids to the dark side. Pitch fails with both Lupita and Billy (Antonio Diaz Conde hijo*). Billy is as rich as Lupita is as poor, but a literal "poor little rich boy". He has everything a child could want, but his parents attention. They do not ignore him per se, but they are going out to swanky nightclubs on Christmas versus spending time with Billy.

At last, it is Christmas Eve. With some help from his good friend Merlin (Armando Arriola), Santa carries a powder that will put people to sleep and a rose to make him invisible. Will Pitch, however, be successful in thwarting Santa's sojourn down Mexico way? Will Lupita get her doll? 

Santa Claus is, well, bonkers. I think the film is sometimes called Santa Claus vs. The Devil (though I think Santa vs. Satan would have been better); that title is just slightly more rational than the perhaps more well-known and more infamous Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It is somewhat difficult to judge Santa Claus given that the original Spanish-language version is not as available as the English-dubbed film mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I can't, however, imagine that the original is any better.

There are some absolutely cringe moments in Santa Claus that, if one is extremely generous, come across as wildly misguided. When we see Santa's children workshop in Toyland (already the notion of de facto child labor being odd), seeing the "African" children in loincloths and bones in their hair is ghastly. Not that noting the "Orient" children due an Indian dance makes things any less culturally clueless.

Other moments look like they came from a very cheap LSD trip. Of particular note is when Fetch gives Lupita a dream about the doll she wants. From out of wardrobes pop up rather frightening-looking dolls that are more terrifying than endearing. Quezadas' puzzled expression match the viewers who watch this very bizarre Ballet of the Blue Dolls. 

Hetherington's narration, meant to explain things, only ended up coming across as, if not patronizing, more elementary school type. Hearing a kind of sing-song voice say things like "OH NO, LUPITA! DON'T TAKE THAT DOLL!" adds an extra level of silliness to an already whacked-out premise.

I do not think that there are any performances. On a certain level, director Rene Cardona keeps a childlike manner to how he has his actors play the roles. A lot of Santa Claus is at a child's level, so we can be a bit generous. Nevertheless, Moreno's Santa Claus can come across as a bit loony to creepy, particularly when he laughs. Trotsky as the Devil aims for whimsical, but even for something as lighthearted as Santa Claus, it can be too exaggerated.

Also, the thought of "Trotsky as the Devil" seems to work.

Despite the poor acting, weird sets, very irrational elements (somehow, the idea of parents going out on the town while their son is asleep on Christmas Eve is both strange and rational), there is something oddly charming about Santa Claus. It is like seeing a child's family drawing. It looks like a bunch of lines, out-of-alignment facial features, and nothing like what anyone looks like. Still, you find yourself delighted by the effort, wildly misguided and all. 

* Hijo in Spanish can be "son" or "boy". Here, I suspect it is closer to "Junior". 

DECISION: C+

2021: It Happened on Fifth Avenue

2020: Roots: The Gift

2019: Last Christmas

2018: Christmas with the Kranks

2017 (Eve): Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

2017 (Day): The Man Who Invented Christmas

2016: Batman Returns

2015: A Madea Christmas

2014: Prancer

2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)

2012: Arthur Christmas

Monday, December 12, 2022

Devotion (2022): A Review

 

DEVOTION

"Inspired by a true story" is a poor way to sell a story like Devotion. What could have been and should have been an exciting, insightful true-life tale ended up bloated, lethargic and blank. 

Naval Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors) is the only African-American in his squadron. This, in a surprising and positive turn, is of no importance to the other pilots, including Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), who has just arrived at the base.

It is 1950, and in this year we see Brown very reluctantly work with Hudner. Brown does not dislike Hudner and the latter is more than willing to work with, even be friends with, the former. A tentative working relationship begins between them, one encouraged by Brown's devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson).

It is not long before Brown and Hudner's squadron are ordered to the Mediterranean. Here, Brown encounters actress Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) while on shore leave at Cannes. She invites him and his fellow officers to a night at the casino, and this is the rare non-work adventure they share.

As 1950 draws to a close, the long-feared war in Korea finally breaks out. The squad takes the fight to the North Korean-Chinese border, but Brown does not survive. Hudner is determined to try and save Brown, but cannot. He, however, has kept his pledge to Daisy: not to save him, but to stay with him.

We are told in a post-script that the search for Ensign Brown's remains continues.

I think many who praised Devotion wondered why and how the film failed. Among the elements is the generic title. Granted, the film is based on the nonfiction book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice by Adam Makos. However, the longer book title at least gives one an idea of what the story is about. "Devotion" as a film title is more opaque. Devotion to what? Country? Family? Fellow Navy fighters? Elizabeth Taylor? 

Devotion is a very bland title, though perhaps in retrospect it is fitting for a surprisingly bland film. This is a rich subject tackling war, race, the comradeship of fighters, and yet things moved so slowly and haphazardly. Nothing really sticks, making the two-hour-nineteen-minute running time feel longer. I did ask myself at one point, "When is this going to end?", a terrible thing to wonder for any film, let alone one as sincere as Devotion.

Elements are constantly hit on that never go anywhere. We see Ensign Brown talk to himself using racist language (ostensibly to shield himself for when he came across it), but Devotion rarely showed any elements of racism thrown at him. The worse I can remember is when the snooty French doormen initially refused him entry to the Cannes casino. 

To be fair, I was slipping in and out of consciousness during the film, so I might have missed something. However, apart from this and having an unpleasant neighbor who called the police on the Browns for having loud music, I cannot recall any major incidents where race played a role.

I should be happy that Devotion opted out of the easy, safe and predictable route of having his fellow Navy pilots be unhappy or uncomfortable with a "colored" aviator. Brown's fellow pilots got on rather well with him, though found him deliberately standoffish. It is, however, strange that Devotion both included and excluded the race element. At one point, the other black crewmen seemed interested in seeing a fellow African-American fly, but as far as I remember there is little to no mention of their involvement towards or with Brown. 

It is also surprising to see how France was seeing as more openly racist given how often France has been seen as more welcoming to African-Americans like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin. 

I think it is because Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart's adaption simply did not know what it wanted to say. Was it an "overcoming racism" film? Was it a "war film"? Was it a "band of brothers" film? Was it an "inspirational true story" film"? It was none of these, though I suspect it was because it was trying to be all.

J.D. Dillard's directing did not help. It was not as if the actors did not try, but sometimes one is aghast at how bland they all were. In what was meant to be a moving moment, one of the flyers is facing death when he cannot correct his landing. The flyer, Mohring (Nick Hargrove), ultimately fails and crashes.

This scene should be studied by future filmmakers and actors to show what not to do. As acted by Majors and Powell, there is not a drop of emotion, of urgency, of concern over their fellow flyer potentially being killed right in front of them. For all we know, they could have been talking about Mohring ordering everyone sandwiches. 

Once his plane does crash, Dillard has the characters stay put, not out of shock but out of a bizarre disconnect bordering on disinterest. No one seems horrified. No one seems upset. No one moves for seconds. Even as they stare at the wreckage, there does not seem to be much concern. This is supposed to be a death among the band of brothers, but despite the film's desperate efforts to make one care, one doesn't.

It also does not help that I would not have been able to tell you who Mohring was or what his role in Devotion was. That goes for anyone not named Jonathan Majors or Glen Powell. 

A takeaway from Devotion was my confusion over how I thought Joe Jonas had already been in a World War II film. In reality, I was confusing Joe Jonas with Nick Jonas from Midway. Is it to the point that the Jonas Brothers are that interchangeable that I literally could not tell the difference between Joe and Nick? 

Again, the actors in Devotion tried hard to make things worth the time. Jackson's Daisy is the best of the lot. In her all-too-brief scenes, she did the best she could with the material to make Daisy a loving but concerned wife. 

The other actors too did the best they could with what they had. It is interesting that Powell played Lieutenant Hudner. This is the third time Powell has played a Navy pilot after Hidden Figures and Top Gun: Maverick. It's gotten to the point where a friend of mine literally asked me if Powell had served in the military before becoming an actor (he hadn't). I'm sure Powell has done other films where he isn't flying combat missions, but "Glen Powell as a military character" is coming close to parody. Here, he is shockingly bland and distant, almost like a nice guy who just wandered onto the set and decided to say lines.

Majors too did what he could as Ensign Brown. His best moments were with Jackson, where he could show a nice connection to Mrs. Brown. He did his best too when he is facing death or showing some irritation about the flight report that detailed him disobeying orders (even if the results were beneficial). However, try as he might, the efforts at "stoic" ended up as "bored". 

Again and again, Devotion's greatest flaw is the screenplay. At a battle, we hear from two soldiers. "You want a prayer? Dear God, send us some angels," one of them says, and at that moment the Navy fighters come in. I found that a bit too on-the-nose and predictable. 

Devotion somehow, despite its best efforts and intentions, ended up making a case that a documentary about Ensign Jesse Brown would have been better than the biopic we got. He deserves a lot better than Devotion.

1926-1950


DECISION: C-

Saturday, December 10, 2022

America America: A Review

 

AMERICA AMERICA

If there is one thing that one should know about America America before seeing it, it is that it is very, very long. Running close to three hours, America America can tire a viewer to where I would recommend creating an intermission. Elia Kazan's ode to his uncle's journey to the New World is a love letter to his past with a dynamic central performance.

With narration at the beginning and end of the film by Kazan himself, America America recounts the early life of Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis). Ethnically Greek, he and his family live in Ottoman Turk-controlled Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Seeing his Armenian friend killed and realizing life for Greeks is not all that much better under the Ottomans, it is reluctantly decided that as the oldest male, Stavros must go to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) to set up the family there via an uncle who has a carpet shop there.

Stavros, however, has other ideas. While he goes to Constantinople, suffering many misfortunes, he dreams of going somewhere else: America. He falls out with his Uncle Isaac (Harry Davis) quickly after it is suggested he use his handsome face and charming smile to wed a plain daughter to any wealthy man desperate for an heir. His hard work fails to get him the money for the steerage, and in desperation returns to Uncle Isaac.

Isaac takes him in and Stavros appears to agree to the plan of a financially beneficial marriage. However, it is all a scam to get the dowry as payment for the voyage. Stavros, by chance, also reencounters Hohannes (Gregory Rozakis), an Armenian he had helped when he began his long journey. Hohannes did not have to prostitute himself to get passage. He is being sponsored along with other men for labor. 

At last at sea, an onboard affair threatens to derail Stavros' plans. Hohannes, however, comes through and pays his debt to Stavros, who now at last emerges on Ellis Island as "Joe Arness". He is now able to slowly bring his family to America, America. 

America America (the name deriving from the nickname Stavros got from his fellow dockworkers' mocking his constant proclamations of "America, America") has a very important issue: length. It is close to three hours, with surprisingly few montages (I can remember only one, when Stavros was on the docks and starving). I think that can exhaust the viewer.

This might be from Kazan loving the project too much and wanting to include everything his uncle wen through. However, America America should be a moving film, not a documentary. The very lengthy segment where Stavros is essentially hoodwinked into losing everything on this way to Constantinople seemed endless. We get foreshadowing when the fellow traveler tells him, "Everything I have is yours and what is yours is mine". I instantly thought that this would not end well.

Stavros' affair with the older woman who helps him when they sail to America too seemed to add to the length. If one watches America America, I recommend having an informal intermission when Stavros reaches Constantinople. It seems a good place to stop given that America America feels like two films put together.

The length of America America: the long setup, the longer journey from the village to Constantinople, the reluctant romancing of the wealthy but plain Thomna (Linda Marsh) and the sea voyage all conspire to make America America a long viewing. However, there are some fine elements in the film.

At the top of the list is Stathis Giallelis as Stavros. He has a handsome but dangerous face, someone who can be charming but also intensely menacing. There's an intensity to Giallelis' performance: one that suggests that seething anger at the world and ferocity to break into his own.

It seems that even when he appears happy, Stavros has some lurking anger underneath. Giallelis holds your attention with that mix of charm and anger, naivete and arrogance. It is an exceptional performance. 

The film also shows Kazan with a strong hand in creating subtle character comments. Early on, he is told to "kiss his father's hand" as a sign of respect for having associated with Armenians and causing the family to worry. Later on, when his father had to essentially crawl to the Ottoman city officials to get Stavros back, Stavros sees his father having to do the same to the official. Stavros had been arrested with the few surviving Armenians after the Ottoman Turks burned them in their church, with only him being Greek saving him. 

Another moment is when he, somewhat reluctantly, lets go of the fez he's had since leaving his village. Later on, the maid of his older lover hurriedly gives Stavros the one thing he wanted to wear in the New World: a straw hat, the symbol to him of his new life as a successful American.

My biggest difficulty with America America is that punishing length. However, I think in particular immigrants will relate to this story of one man determined to get to a new world that offers a new beginning. The further one is separate from his or her roots might make one less inclined to view America America. I think though, the film is not to be enjoyed or endured. It is to be seen for what it is: a thank you from an American to that distant ancestor who took that first step to get him where he is now.  

DECISION: C+

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Halloween II: A Review (Review #1676)

 

HALLOWEEN II

Nothing succeeds like success. After the low-budget Halloween became a surprise hit, a sequel was all but inevitable. Halloween II made some wise choices, keeping things simple and direct.

After surviving her attack by Michael Myers, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is rushed to the hospital. Over her objections, she is sedated, where she dreams of her past, including her adoption. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and Sheriff Brackett (Charles Cyphers) are in a mad pursuit of Michael, who is not only stubbornly alive but killing his way around town. Once he hears where Laurie is, it's off to the hospital to kill Laurie once and for all.

EMT Jimmy (Lance Guest) has taken a shine to Laurie, but Head Nurse Ms. Alves (Gloria Gifford) will have no hanky-panky in her ward. If only Ms. Alves knew what was going on at Haddonfield General. Smarmy EMT Budd (Leo Rossi) and Nurse Karen (Pamela Susan Shoop) have been in a love/hate torrid affair. Despite the danger, Budd and Karen have a tryst in the therapy pool, where Michael finds them.

Michael is on a full-on killing spree to get to Laurie, but why is he so fixated on her? As Loomis is forcibly escorted out of Haddonfield by Governor's orders, he learns a shocking secret: Laurie is Michael's long-lost sister. Realizing Michael will not stop until he kills her, Loomis forces the Deputy to bring them back to the hospital. The body count is already high, but will Laurie and Loomis both survive Michael Myers' fatal wrath?

Halloween II works because it kept to the formula of the original Halloween. Cowriters John Carpenter and Debra Hill opted to start right from where Halloween ended, which kept the story flowing. While we had Loomis and Laurie separated for most of the film, their stories did not seem to interrupt the other.

I would argue that this is because we spend most of the time at the hospital. Fortunately, when we were not with Laurie, the Loomis story worked well. It also gave viewers some of Halloween II's more shocking moments. Of particular note is when the semi-crazed Loomis chases someone he thinks is Myers. The resulting fiery crash is jolting in its "just-graphic-enough" manner. That one suspects it might not be Myers (and I think most Halloween II viewers would have thought it was not) makes it more shocking. Audiences have knowledge the characters don't, so they realize the real horror of this particular incident.

Halloween II has more kills than Halloween. At nine (by my count), it is almost double that of the first. Surprisingly, despite the eventual franchise's reputation for being gory, I don't think Halloween or Halloween II were excessively graphic. Some deaths were even off-screen. Some also did not involve knives.

Budd and Karen's end were quite clever and well-crafted, a credit to director Rick Rosenthal (Carpenter not directing the sequel). Again, the audience is put ahead of the characters, which builds up the tension. Karen's death is not unexpected but not as graphic as it could have been. 

Her and Budd's demise does, however, give new meaning to "turning up the heat". 

The performances are also quite effective. Curtis is not as active here as she was before, but in her blend of vulnerability and strength she develops the Laurie Strode character. Pleasance veers close to crazed as Loomis, forever convinced that Michael Myers is some kind of almost superhuman evil. 

The smaller roles are also well-acted. Guest's Tommy has a sweetness to him, balanced by Rossi's pervy Budd. Gifford does not go full Nurse Ratchet as Ms. Alves, but she makes clear that she is not to be trifled with. Shoop makes Karen not into a bimbo but a basically decent person who is also a bit randy.

Some elements in Halloween II might not quite work together. I don't think we learned if Tommy lived or died. I also think the connection between Michael Myers and the Celtic mythic figure Samhain: The Lord of the Dead quite worked how I think the film intended. Other deaths seem to be almost irrelevant to the overall story. 

Those ultimately are minor points. Halloween II is a strong and more importantly logical sequel to the original. It also manages to work on its own, though I figure people would not see Halloween II cold. On the whole, Halloween II is a competent and well-shaped film and sequel.    

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Halloween (1978): A Review (Review #1675)

 


HALLOWEEN (1978)

Long before Michael Myers became a meme and almost cuddly figure, he was a quietly menacing figure that inspired genuine fear. Halloween shows that one does not need a large budget or extreme violence to create a now-iconic horror figure.

Halloween, 1963. Haddonfield, Illinois is shocked when six-year-old Michael Myers, dressed as a clown, kills his sister Judith with a butcher knife. Fifteen years later, psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) is going to take Michael to a court hearing. Loomis is convinced that Michael, whom he has tried to treat all these years, is more than a menace. He is evil incarnate.

Unfortunately, Michael manages to escape from the mental hospital in the fierce rainstorm. It is October 30, 1978. Loomis rushes desperately to Haddonfield, where he knows Michael will go. No one, however, is taking his warnings seriously.

They should, for Michael has selected his newest target: high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis). The relatively shy teenager is babysitting this All Hallows Eve, though her other friends don't mind mixing a little tryst with their boyfriends with their own babysitting. Michael, calmly and coolly, begins his murder spree. Will Laurie survive this night of terror? Will Dr. Loomis bring Michael in?

Halloween clocks in at an hour and a half, and it is fascinating to see how in that brief running time, co-writer/director John Carpenter can do so much (the script written by Carpenter and Debra Hall). Halloween begins with an impressive six minute sequence where we see from little Michael's point-of-view. Sometimes it does come across as a little clumsy (Judith's stabbing in particular), but this is strong filmmaking where less is more.

A lot of Halloween's success comes from how economical the film is, "economical" in every sense of the word. The kills were, to my count, a mere five. Moreover, they were not particularly graphic. We even have one or two that were not via stabbing but via strangulation.

Halloween also sets Michael up as this shadowy figure, lurking in the background but not being active until very late in the film. This is a brilliant decision, for it keeps the audience anticipation going into when he will strike.

You have a balance of the old and the new in the performances. Donald Pleasance is strong and effective as Loomis, forever warning of the danger Michael Myers is. He firmly commands the screen as the voice of reason and danger. Halloween's opening credits read "Introducing Jamie Lee Curtis", and it is surprising that this was her film debut. The daughter of Oscar nominees Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis is effective as "the final girl". 

She is a little hesitant at times, but we can put that down to the character as well as her first film role. Curtis brings a blend of innocence and rational fear as she faces this mysterious menace, unstoppable and unreasonable. 

Among Halloween's best elements is the score, which director Carpenter also wrote. The hurried pace and repetitive nature of the opening theme is now iconic, ingrained into the dominant culture to signify danger. The rest of the score also works well.

If perhaps there is an issue in Halloween, it is how some things seem slightly preposterous. The headstone over a victim's body looks too grand for the setting. I also wondered how both Laurie and Michael could have survived some of their attacks. 

That is a bit of a nitpick, however, for Halloween has not just stood the test of time but gone on to influence the horror genre. Future films in what would become a franchise have been hit and miss, with some being clear embarrassments for all involved (filmmakers and fans alike). Still, separate from the overall cascade of future projects, Halloween is an excellent film which should get more credit for being a landmark in independent filmmaking.

"Was that the boogeyman?", Laurie Strode asks Dr. Loomis after he apparently shoots Michael Myers down. "As a matter of fact, it was," he replies. Halloween is a strong fright-fest and an exceptional film in the horror genre.  

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Broadway Rising: A Review


BROADWAY RISING

After the September 11th attacks, Broadway closed for two days and was part of a campaign to bring people back to New York City. Nineteen years later, the lights of Broadway were closed again, this time for eighteen months. Broadway Rising tells the story of those on the stage and behind it on how they struggled but managed to mostly come back. Interesting if at times showcasing some odd tangents, Broadway Rising will interest those who follow The Great White Way.

Interviewing various people over those eighteen months, we learn the triumphs and tragedies of some of Broadway's leading lights and those who keep the shows going. We do get to hear from people as Virginia Claire, who starred as Glinda in Wicked and Tom Kirdahy, a Broadway producer who lost his partner, playwright Terrance McNally to COVID. We also hear from those who work behind the scenes, removed from the bright lights and marquees.

Of particular note is Ernie Paylor, a stage doorman at Jagged Little Pill who due to COVID eventually lost his leg. Dancer Adam Perry may look super-fit, but he endured long COVID as well as a forced change of job from the stage to floral design. 

This forced pause as well as the mass protests brought about a reevaluation for others working in theater. Figures like stage director Miranda Haymon and playwright/actress Jewelle Blackman found the lack of black figures and stories on Broadway part of a larger systemic racism in theater. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo closed the Great White Way on March 12, 2020, the order to reopen came on May 5, 2021, with Opening Night scheduled for September 14. Now the various shuttered productions race to have everything set and ready to welcome people back.


I think people who are not well-versed in Broadway will find some of the stories Broadway Rising tells more interesting than others. We do hear from those whose livelihoods depend on performing, like singer Claire (who became a mother during the interim) or dancer Perry (who sees that as he approaches 40 and with injuries may not be able to continue a stage career). However, I think we sometimes forget the large support crew that works on these shows. It is hard to not think on stage doorman Paylor, who courageously comes back to Jagged Little Pill with a prosthetic leg. 

It is also hard not to react emotionally to someone like Kirdahy. Despite his wealth and influence on Broadway, we see he too went through a difficult and painful ordeal; hearing him shift from the present tense "is" to past tense "was" when talking about McNally is a reminder of the loss people suffered due to COVID.

Other elements in Broadway Rising will either puzzle or trigger people. For example, the various Zoom meetings and classes may evoke painful memories of the forced lockdowns and the misery of not having human contact. The various masks may also bring about terrible memories for some.

Director Amy Rise allowed the speakers to say what they thought, but there is an issue with that. The various talks about systemic racism and Broadway essentially not being "black enough" do not relate well with how Broadway Rising is about how the theater survived the worldwide pandemic. The chaos unleashed post-George Floyd may be a worthy subject, but it does not blend well with what people who go into Broadway Rising might think it is about.


"(Theater) is not void of any systems of oppression, because it is related to capitalism. It is related to supremacy and hierarchy," declares Haymon. How exactly COVID shutdowns are a failure of capitalism or supremacy (and I'm assuming she meant "white supremacy") is left unclear. Going on about Broadway being that "system of oppression" and using the term "BIPOC" may throw people off.

The oddest section may be when we hear from Pass Over playwright Antoinette Nwandu. "We are the healers!", she shouts out to the reunited cast and crew. "We are here to heal our people so they can go out and save the f---ing world!". There is something slightly pompous and contradictory about Nwadu's ideas.

Those elements may be good for a documentary about the lack of representation on Broadway, which is curious given how Broadway is probably more open to minority actors and writers than film or television. That, again, might put people off Broadway Rising. However, on the whole the stories from those who make their living in make-believe begin forced to deal with reality should pique people's interests.  

Monday, November 28, 2022

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. A Review


GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY

I found Knives Out to be both an acquired taste and a vastly overrated film. It barely got a passing grade from me, and I think it was one of those films I was almost pushed to like. For reasons I cannot fathom, people clamored for more stories about Detective Benoit Blanc, our Foghorn Leghorn on crack. Thus, we have Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Glass Onion has some good elements and one particular standout performance. However, it also suffers from a highly inflated sense of self and has a twist that stops the film cold.

Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is purported to be the world's greatest detective. However, the COVID-19 lockdown has left him pretty despondent. Like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, he needs mental stimulation lest he go insane. That stimulation comes from a surprising source: a large puzzle box that was sent, not to him, but to a disparate group of former friends of tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton).

Our "not Elon Musk" has these little soirees for a group of people he met decades past at a bar called Glass Onion. This group of frenemies are not regular people. They have each achieved great success in various fields. There's Governor Claire DeBella (Kathryn Hahn), now running for the Senate. There's Birdie (Kate Hudson), former supermodel who has now become a sweatpants tycoon (perfect in the COVID-19 pandemic). "Men's rights YouTuber" Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and leading scientist Lionel Toussiant (Leslie Odom, Jr.) are also guests at this weekend getaway. Birdie's assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) and Duke's girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) tag along as well.

There is one more visitor, the mysterious Cassandra "Andi" Brand (Janelle Monae), Bron's former business partner whom he diddled out of the company. Why she agreed to come (or why Bron would invite her) no one questions. Bron invites them to a murder mystery weekend, where he is to be the victim. Blanc's presence puzzles but also delights Bron, who sees it as a chance to outwit the crazed Cajun. Pity that, despite Gillian Flynn coming up with the murder scenario, Blanc solves the fake crime quickly.

Fortunately, we get a real crime: Duke is poisoned, but was the drink intended for Bron? Benoit Blanc now has to solve this case, one that involves twins, the hydrogen-fueled alternate energy source dubbed Klear, and a twist that stops the film dead cold.

To reveal more would be to give the whole show away. However, it is here, when we get the twist, that for me, Glass Onion falls apart. What is worse is that the twist is not necessary. In fact, Glass Onion would have worked better if writer/director Rian Johnson had opted to let us in on things rather than stop the film and go back almost to the beginning. If we had the information revolving around Andi and Helen right from the start, we could have had a great double act.

I started imagining what Glass Onion could have been, one that could have been the fun and zippy film it was clearly aiming at. Instead, the forced stop to get information felt like an unnecessary step. For me as I said, Glass Onion stopped dead cold. It was not so much that I did not believe the twist so much as it set up things that could have been set up at the beginning with no difficulty. 

Glass Onion, as a mystery, shows that Benoit Blanc is not a good detective, let alone "the world's greatest". Craig is having a whooping good time devouring the scenery as this Raging Cajun Foghorn Leghorn on crack, hamming it up with delight. After making James Bond such a miserable, morose figure, I think it must be fun for Craig to not bother acting. Instead, he just has to strut his cartoonish accent and roll his eyes.

As much as we are told Blanc is this sharp detective, I saw someone who was more spy than detective. Blanc often looked clueless, and he has information more fall on his lap than find it himself. Moreover, Glass Onion allows Blanc to solve the fake mystery without giving the audience the clues necessary to solve it. When were we, for example, shown the bow and arrow that was the murder weapon? 

Other elements, such as the character of Daryl (Noah Segan) just being there seems to almost mock the audience. 

Glass Onion congratulates itself on being clever and original, but what I saw were elements of both the Agatha Christie novel A Murder is Announced and Neil Simon's Murder by Death. Those two were much more clever and funnier than Glass Onion.

There are positive elements in the film. At the top of the list is Janelle Monae, who without giving away too much has to play two characters. She balances the dual roles mostly well (her Alabama accent coming close to being Craig-level parody). Hudson embraces Birdie's uninhibited stupidity (even if the idea that she approved of using a "sweatshop" because she bizarrely thought that is where "sweatpants" were made stretches credulity). Henwick's Peg, her longsuffering assistant, was underused.

Glass Onion also has some nice production design and a jaunty score from Nathan Johnson. 

However, apart from that, I found Glass Onion doubled down on the bad elements from Knives Out. Craig's deliberately cartoonish accent is enough to make it an endurance test. Plot elements that seem a bit too convenient (if not for a cell phone, we would have had one more dead person) and points of illogic (why Bron opted not to share his COVID vaccine that allowed everyone to go maskless on his island) made Glass Onion less clever than it thinks it is.

Audiences, I know, enjoyed Glass Onion. I can see why. It requires little thinking to resolve the case and gives actors a chance to coast while cashing a nice check. 

DECISION: D+

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Fabelmans: A Review

 

THE FABELMANS

When is a biopic not a biopic? This is the question that haunted my viewing of The Fabelmans, the third film from a major director loosely based on his life (after Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, Kenneth Branagh's Belfast and maybe Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza). The Fabelmans is not a celebration of cinema and its transformative power. It is almost a celebration of Steven Spielberg by Steven Spielberg. That does not make it a bad film. It does make it a misguided one. 

Sammy Fabelman first fears, then is enthralled by his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth. The climatic train crash in particular both terrifies and thrills him. His engineer father Burt (Paul Dano) and his piano-playing mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) indulge their son by getting him a train set for Hannukah and letting him use the family camera to film his own train crash.

Burt's computer career takes him from New Jersey to the wilds of Arizona, where they continue being one of the few Jewish families around. Fortunately, the Fabelmans have each other, and the family friend "Uncle" Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen), Burt and especially Mitzi's BFF. Benny, who has a very intense friendship with Mitzi that Burt is either oblivious to or chooses to ignore, manages to move to Arizona too.

Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) soon wraps himself in filmmaking, taking what would have been a simple Boy Scout photography badge into making a Western that involves his Scout troop and his sisters. Burt is pleased, though he sees filmmaking as a mere hobby. Mitzi is supportive, but Sammy captures her and Bennie being far too chummy on a camping trip. This puts a strain on the Sammy/Mitzi relationship.

This, along with Burt's second move to northern California and her mother's death, puts a mental break on Mitzi. It also ends their marriage, Mitzi too enraptured with Bennie to stay away from him. Sam has his own issues, particularly with the jocks who bully him for being Jewish. Sam manages to get a girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East), though whether she likes Sam for himself or sees him as a project to convert him to Christianity is unclear.

As a side note, I think she's more Catholic than evangelical. I don't know many evangelical Christians who have that many pictures of Jesus in their homes. 

High school is heaven and hell for Sam. The highs of making a Senior Ditch Day film, the lows of Monica breaking up with him. Amidst the turmoil, a year heals enough for Sam to push his way to work at the very bottom for Hogan's Heroes. It also gives him a chance to meet legendary director John Ford (David Lynch), who tells him the importance of where the horizon should be. And with that, Sam Fabelman begins his cinematic career.

The Fabelmans is as thinly-veiled a Steven Spielberg biopic as Steven Spielberg could make that it almost becomes a guessing game which elements in the film are fiction and which are not. Spielberg has been open about how The Greatest Show on Earth was the first film he remembers and how it influenced his decision to pursue filmmaking. A film that the fictional Sammy and the real-life Steven made as a Boy Scout share the same title: Escape To Nowhere. Sam and Steven were Boy Scouts who reached Eagle Scout status. Steven & Sam both lived in Arizona. Sam & Steve's families were the few Jewish families around whatever neighborhood they lived in. Steve & Sam's parents divorced. Sam & Steve have three sisters.

At one point, one of the bullies, Logan (Sam Rechner) angrily then tearfully confronts Sam about how the Ditch Day movie portrayed him as almost a god-like figure. After they reach a rapprochement, Logan threatens Sam about ever telling anyone about his tears. "I will never tell," Sam tells him, then adding, "unless I make a movie about it". So, we are saying that this did happen, and that hereto unknown bully now has something he considers shameful put on the screen over a half-century later? 

To me, that kind of winking at the audience pushes The Fabelmans to be less that love letter to cinema and more a love letter from Steven Spielberg to Steven Spielberg.

I am at a loss to understand why so many of our Baby Boomer auteurs, entering the twilight of their lives and careers, are opting to make these semi-autobiographical films that are "love letters to cinema". I cannot recall anything like this coming from a Welles, a Capra, a Lean or a Hitchcock. Maybe Fellini's Amacord and Roma, but apart from those I am surprised by this rush of nostalgic films on the early days of a filmmaker's life. The closest I can think of is The Quiet Man, thought that was more John Ford's love letter to his native Ireland than it was to cinema. 

Unlike Roma or BelfastThe Fabelmans is simply too close to director/co-writer Steven Spielberg's life to be considered fiction. Those films focused on either outside characters (Roma's maid Cleo) or on a single segment of the filmmaker's life (Belfast's Buddy living through The Troubles) and both for brief time periods. They used these figures as outsiders to see their world and how it influenced them. The Fabelmans, co-written with Tony Kushner, decided to instead go through what seems to be pre-filmmaking life of its subject.

As a side note, I would have loved if The Fabelmans had ended with "not Joan Crawford" slapping "not Steven Spielberg" for trying to direct her in a "not Night Gallery" episode. 

The Fabelmans' greatest flaw is that Spielberg is simply too close to the subject to be objective about it. He is blinded by seeing his life story emerge from the screen to notice some poor performances. Judd Hirsh has one scene as Uncle Boris, a former lion-tamer who warns Sammy that being creative will tear him apart but that it will be worth it. I understand some are suggesting a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this one scene. I am astonished that this Yiddish schtick could be seen as anything other than hammy and over-the-top. 

I have no strong view on whether Michelle Williams is a Lead or Supporting Actress in The Fabelmans (though lean towards Supporting). I do have a strong view that Williams makes Mitzi look pretty bonkers from the get-go, and I do not know if that was the intent. She made Mitzi at times hysterical in every sense of the word, slipping into caricature. To be fair, you cannot have lines saying she named a newly acquired monkey "Bennie" and make it sound rational. Rogen was pushing the eternally funny guy bit but was never realistic. As Sam's grandmother observed, "Bennie is not your uncle and he is not funny". True on both counts.

That is not to say The Fabelmans does not have good performances. Gabriel LaBelle makes a strong debut as Sam, a boy who loves film but sees his life as basically an observer. His confusion over the sign of the cross, the hurt about Mitzi's intense bond with Bennie (she states that it did not go beyond emotional infidelity, so I'm taking her word for it) and fear when meeting the legendary John Ford all go so well together. I would say that LaBelle looks a lot like a young Spielberg, which is a problem in attempting to separate fact from fiction. That, however, is not LaBelle's fault.

Paul Dano is excellent as Burt due to him having the least showy part. He has to play calm and efficient, caring but realistic. It is to Dano's credit that he does more by doing less, especially when paired with the all-guns-blazing Williams. 

As a side note, as far as I know neither Dano or Williams are Jewish, which makes it interesting how today many audiences insists that only "X actors play X roles". 

Finally, there is the issue of the title. I am sure that I am not the only one who noticed the pun of "Fabelman" and "Fable Man". Are Spielberg and Kushner suggesting that they are "fable men", our modern-day Aesops? To my mind, that only adds to a sense of self-aggrandizement to the whole project. 

The Fabelmans again is not a bad film. It has some positives, but Steven Spielberg should have followed the Roma/Belfast route where he either focused on a small part of the main character's life or saw it through an outside character. This is a de facto Steven Spielberg biopic made by Steven Spielberg. That closeness, that struggle to separate the director from the character, pushes The Fabelmans as less an homage to the power of film and more the ultimate vanity project.

DECISION: C-

Friday, November 25, 2022

Two Documentary Short Film Reviews: Stranger at the Gate and What They've Been Taught

The following are reviews of documentary short films, Stranger at the Gate and What They've Been Taught.

STRANGER AT THE GATE (30 minutes)

Stranger at the Gate tells the story of Richard "Mac" McKinney. A twenty-five-year veteran, his posttraumatic stress disorder affected more than his personal life. Once out of the military, McKinney began to actively consider bombing the Islamic Center of Muncie, Indiana, where he lived with his wife and daughter.

In an effort to case the joint, he discovered to his shock how welcoming the Muslims at the Center were. One of the influential members, Dr. Saber Bahrani, even hugged McKinney's legs, which surprised him. After eight weeks of visiting the Center, accepting the community's welcome, he decided to convert to Islam.

Stranger at the Gate makes clear that McKinney was not radicalized by outside sources but by his own inner demons. Decades of killing Muslims in combat, and the aftershocks of September 11th, turned him into a potential terrorist himself. I say "potential" because he ultimately did not commit his planned attack. Stranger at the Gate reveals universal truths: kindness and compassion are the greatest weapons against intolerance and darkness. This trait of loving others is one taught in many faiths, particularly the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It also, not overtly, shows how veterans are in strong need of post-service care. If the Islamic Center members had not treated him with gentleness and caring, things might have turned out very differently to tragic results. Director Joshua Seftel uses his interviews well, with the various subjects speaking directly to the camera. There are no reenactments, though at times the various shots and pauses to suggest the more dramatic elements of the planned bombing were a bit much. 

Treating everyone with compassion, with love, with care. Some things are true regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Would that we all learn and apply such truths. 

DECISION: B-

WHAT THEY'VE BEEN TAUGHT (9 minutes)

What They've Been Taught is on the idea of creation. An artist from a Western viewpoint would say he/she "created" a piece. A Cherokee, argues Cherokee Elder Thomas Bent, would not take such a view. Rather, a person is taking the raw material and "making it into" or "making it into a thing". "You are not the Creator," Elder Bent offers. 

Rather, we are here as guests. As such, we must have reciprocity with the world. All that is here does not belong to us. We, the living, use what is here but must also leave something behind. It does not have to be something large or monumental. One can offer a simple prayer, and that will suffice.

What They've Been Taught can be seen as a meditation about the world and both what we give and take from it. Director Brit Hensel shows us how a Cherokee takes a piece of lumber and "makes it into a thing", in this case a mask that is worn in the film. The ideas that Elder and first language speaker Bent shares are neither new nor even exclusive to Cherokee. Michelangelo spoke about how he did not create his marble marvels. They were already there, and all he did was bring them out. To be stewards of what we have is an idea found in the Old Testament. This is, I believe, a reason why the Israelites were so adamant about not creating graven images, lest they consider themselves creators who can dare replicate the Creator.

It is a brief film, but it does make one think. 

DECISION: B-

It is curious that the two documentary shorts, Stranger at the Gate and What They've Been Taught, do touch on what I think of as universal truths. There is the importance of treating everyone with love, compassion, courtesy and respect. The idea that "we are all created in God's image" is an ancient one, though too many times we forget to be respectful to our fellow man. We forget that, for all our worries about tomorrow, we are not guaranteed tomorrow. As such, what we do now to, as the saying goes, leave the world better than how we found it, is also so important.

Stranger at the Gate and What They've Been Taught, if anything allows the viewer to pause and think on these truths, and on why we fail to apply said truths.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Prince Andrew: Banished. The Television Documentary

 

PRINCE ANDREW: BANISHED

You are the company you keep, or so the saying goes. Prince Andrew: Banished suggests that such is the case with the disgraced Duke of York. A sordid tale of sex, entitlement (figurative and literal), arrogance and immaturity, Prince Andrew: Banished hits mostly familiar marks but moves fast and makes for interesting, albeit sad, viewing.

Using archival footage and recent interviews (including a now-infamous BBC Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew) Banished covers how, over time, the-then His Royal Highness became embroiled in a salacious sex and sex trafficking scandal. As the second son of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Andrew was the spare. As such, he grew up extremely spoiled but surprisingly poor, at least by Royal standards.

While his elder brother Charles was both responsible and wealthy, Andrew flittered about in life. He expected freebies wherever he went. In a certain way, Andrew never grew up: his eccentric collecting of teddy bears testifies to a strange immaturity. Described by one of the interviewees as "an infantilized brat", Andrew had one brief moment of maturity and glory when he served in combat at the Falklands War.

Apart from that though, Andrew made a habit out of making a spectacle of himself. He and his then-wife Sarah Ferguson (aka Fergie) were tacky and tawdry, convinced their Royal titles should give them more than what others thought they were worth. Out in America, two figures soon allowed Prince Andrew to be feted and financially rewarded to the level he thought he should.

There was British expatriate Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of a disgraced tycoon who nevertheless still managed to move in high circles. With her was American financier Jeffrey Epstein, a man of low reputation. It was a match made in hell: Maxwell and Epstein could bask in the light of a member of the House of Windsor, and said Windsor could be treated to the finer things in life, no questions asked. Among those finer things were a virtual harem made up of underage girls who were not there by choice. 

When the scandal over the Duke of York's connections to a convicted pedophile finally broke, it created more than a furor. Prince Andrew's efforts to defend his friendship with Epstein led to a disastrous interview which ended up making things worse. That he thought the interview had gone so well showed a man divorced from all reality. With him stripped of his military and HRH titles by the Queen shortly before her death, Andrew now is just there.

"This entire sorry saga boils down to sex and greed," journalist Annette Witheridge witheringly observed.  Banished paints a pathetic portrait of a pathetic, even almost tragic figure. He was Her Majesty's favorite child (his attending to the Queen at Prince Philip's memorial service despite the scandal attests to that idea). From his birth, Andrew had two terrible flaws: a sense of entitlement and a sense of grievance over his position. Unlike the wealthy Charles or the less wealthy but not extravagant Anne, Princess Royal or Edward, Earl of Wessex, Andrew craved the high life. 

To get that high life, he abused his position shamefully and shamelessly. He parlayed a created post of Special Envoy for Trade not so much to promote British industry but to get handouts and shady deals with people of dubious backgrounds. Banished portrays Andrew as essentially a teetotaling sex addict, someone who did not smoke or drink but could not get enough of the pleasures of the flesh.

This addiction to sex and money eventually got him entangled with Jeffrey Epstein, one of the strangest figures to emerge in recent memory. Banished barely touches on Epstein's other shady connections with former and future Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, understandable given the subject. However, Epstein was a man who moved in high circles, ones that Andrew was delighted to touch on.

In a certain way, Banished makes one almost feel sorry for the Duke of York. Even the few clips from the Newsnight interview make one cringe at how amazingly stupid this man is. Banished suggests that Andrew had been in an entitled bubble for so long he genuinely thought he would be believed no matter how bizarre and idiotic his answers were. It shows a man totally unprepared for the intense questioning, as if he is making up his answers as he goes along.

The Epstein/Andrew connection was a mutually beneficial relationship, and Banished makes the case that a toxic mix of hubris and idiocy brought down more than one individual.

Prince Andrew, Duke of York is not a victim, one of the interviewees states. This is true. Virginia Roberts Guiffre is one of the victims. However, Banished makes one wonder if Prince Andrew's fall was not somehow preordained.  

In the end, who would have figured that in among the Yorks, it would be Fergie who ended up the more respectable one? 

7/10

Monday, November 21, 2022

She Said: A Review (Review #1670)

 

SHE SAID

Can a film die from its own nobility? She Said is a film that is fully aware it is "important", along with "courageous" and "noble". It, however, dramatically fails to actually be any of those things, ending it surprisingly hollow for such an important topic.

After Donald Trump was elected despite the Access Hollywood audiotapes, and after his FOX News enabler Bill O'Reilly fell due to his own sexual misconduct accusations, New York Times reporters Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) start investigating a new powerful figure accused of sexual harassment and misconduct.

That figure is Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, of whom stories have been whispered about for decades. Actresses Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd (the latter playing herself) have spoken about their experiences with Weinstein, but have either been dismissed or not heard. Twohey and Kantor start delving deeper into this explosive story.

Their eventually joint investigation is not helped by many people either refusing to speak on-the-record or even speak to them at all. They fear reprisals, career damage and the powerful Weinstein lawyers. Some, however, are still so traumatized by their experiences that they cannot bring themselves to confront their pasts. In one odd circumstance, a non-disclosure agreement signed by Rowena Chiu (Angela Yeoh) and Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) strictly forbid them from seeing a therapist about their experiences. Despite all the obstacles and the pressures of their own lives (both Twohey and Kantor attempting to balance work and marriage/children, with the former struggling through postpartum depression), they continue until Harvey Weinstein faces a reckoning.

She Said carries with it an air of importance that borders on parody. A particularly unintentionally hilarious moment comes after Kantor speaks with Irwin Reiter (Zack Grenier), a Miramax executive who knows many dirty secrets. After insisting on a five-minute meeting where he constantly looks over his shoulder, Kantor leaves and notices a black vehicle slowly driving behind her. It is only when she looks back and starts walking slightly faster that the vehicle starts to drive away.

It is hilarious because here, She Said wants to push a narrative that Harvey Weinstein is some kind of almost mob-like supervillain versus a powerful and reprehensible figure. The film is apparently inches from suggesting that Weinstein was going to put a car bomb in Kantor's vehicle or train snipers at Twohey's baby. She Said continues to suggest something that never comes across: the menace that Weinstein is beyond pushing women metaphorically and literally.

The film wants desperately to create a sense of menace and fear about Weinstein, but it simply is not there. The "black SUV slowly following our intrepid reporter" was probably the nadir of this suggestion. It may have well happened: I never read the nonfiction book that Rebecca Lenkiewicz adapted. However, it comes across as slightly funny bordering on self-important. Weinstein did pay off several accusers, but the suggestion (vague as it was) that Kantor and Twohey's lives were in literal danger seems absurd. I do not know if Harvey Weinstein, loathsome as he is, would literally murder reporters to silence them.

Director Maria Schrader opted for a very sparse manner in She Said, with slow scenes that have little drama. I was surprised that Mulligan and Kazan showed little to no emotion through most of She Said. That is not to say they either didn't show any emotion or tried to. Mulligan snapped furiously at a drunk guy trying to pick her up at a bar, as if she was holding back anger until now. One can wonder why this guy was tipsy at lunchtime, but there it is. 

Her anger might have come from the postpartum depression Twohey was suffering from, which apparently was cured by going back to work on such an emotionally-charged story. Through most of She Said, there seemed to be something brittle, on edge about Twohey. Mulligan failed to make her a three-dimensional figure or even the avenging angel she saw herself as. Instead, she came across almost as smug and hostile, particularly when speaking with Lanny Davis (Peter Friedman), one of Weinstein's major lawyers. Mulligan's face expresses barely concealed contempt for Davis, which undercuts the film's suggestion that Twohey was an impartial journalist determined to get to the truth no matter where it lay or what it revealed.

As a side note, this is the second project Mulligan has worked on that has this "avenging angel against the patriarchy" role after Promising Young Woman

Mulligan and Kazan gave weak performances, though the latter was worse. Her Kantor came across as almost a junior intern in this newspaper world. Some of her scenes, such as when talking with Rowena's husband Andrew (Edward Astor Chin) looked more like filmed rehearsals than actual performances. 

As a side note, I kept wondering why Andrew had an Australian accent, though whether that is because Chin the actor or Andrew the character is Australian She Said cannot answer.  

In one particularly bad moment, Kantor and Twohey are walking down the New York City streets together. "It's like an ocean of wrongdoing," the former says. "Can you imagine all the Harvey Weinsteins out there?" she metaphorically asks. The line delivery is bad enough, but the dialogue here does not sound like actual speech. It sounds like speechmaking, which is worse.

She Said also has a strange plug for a parallel between Weinstein and former President Trump and O'Reilly. The film begins with what I think is an unnecessary section about Trump's own loutish behavior. I figure the filmmakers were aiming at how the powerful men always get away with it, but it seems a case of gilding the lily or grinding axes.

Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher were underused as New York Times editors. Other smaller performances, such as Morton, Yeoh and Jennifer Ehle as another victim struggling with breast cancer, did stand out. It might have been better to have followed their stories versus Twohey and Kantor.

There is a coldness in She Said that weakens the good intentions. It squarely aims for a present-day All the President's Men or even Spotlight. I would argue that She Said borrows very heavily from the latter in terms of production and style. Sadly, it may have tried for its style, but it did not have its substance.

Perhaps She Said's failure comes from the fact that those who were not aware of the Weinstein story never get a great sense that they should care. Weinstein is almost a shadow, someone so powerful he could almost hire assassins to eliminate troublesome women. For those who are aware of the Weinstein story, they also know that the press, rather than being crusading speakers of truth as She Said presents, were just as enabling as those who worked for Weinstein all those years. It is hard to take seriously a film about Harvey Weinstein from an industry that not only went out of its way to cover up his actions but feted him. 

Some of us remember how often Harvey Weinstein was thanked at awards, down to Meryl Streep calling him "God". It may not strictly be a whitewashing of Hollywood and the Fifth Estate's role in enabling the abuse, but it is close.

DECISION: C-