Wednesday, March 23, 2022

100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection. The Television Documentary


There may have been once a love that dare not speak its name, but said love dared to be photographed. 100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection, based on the book Loving: A Photographic History of Men in Love 1850s-1950s, is brief and perhaps a bit dry. However, it is a good primer to this somewhat hidden world of men who went surprisingly far in revealing their same-sex attraction long before Stonewall burst gay life out into the open.

Longterm partners Hugh Nini and Neal Treadwell came upon a curious photograph in an antique shop: two men in what appeared to be suggesting they were more than friends. They became intrigued by the idea that long before the openness about homosexuality, gay men could or would be daring enough to be pictured with their romantic or life partners. From that one picture, Nini and Treadwell began scouring antique shops searching for this lost history and reclaiming it.

A knowing glance, a hand on a leg, two bodies close together, sometimes in bed, down to men locking lips. Here was a hereto unknown world, one where a man could not only express love towards another man but be willing to be captured forever on film doing so. As we go hither and yon from 1870 to World War II, the photographs sometimes speak for themselves.

Loving: The Nini-Treadwell Collection

Others, however, are not as clear cut, and here is where 100 Years of Men in Love may be flawed. While some of the photographs have writings on the back that strongly indicate the subjects were lovers, most do not. As such, it is impossible to verify exactly what the nature of the relationship was between them.

Were they long-term partners? Were they briefly lovers? Was it a one-sided love affair? Were they really heterosexuals? I think Nini and Tredwell are aware that there is an ambiguity in that we are not privy to the majority of the backstories. They acknowledge as much when they mention at the end that they have levels or degrees of certainty. There is a no ambiguity when the photo has two men kissing each other, but when I saw some of the photographs, I did not get the sense that the men were lovers or even same sex attracted.

One well-known photograph series is of two young men who hold up a sign stating, "Not married but willing to be". The suggestion is that the two men want to marry each other, but is that the case? One can also draw a conclusion that they are offering themselves to women. Another photograph from their session does suggest the subjects were more than friends, but outside of a seance there is no way to know for sure.

As a side note, the images of the famous gay lovers Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas that I have seen hardly suggest the ardent passion between them. 

Even those photos that have inscriptions can have ambiguous meanings. One read "George Thompson and a buddy, 1940. Here's one of both of us before we were...well, you know". Therein lies the issue: we don't know. We can think their relationship went beyond friendship, but could it not also mean "before I came out to him, and he said No"? Could it not also mean "before we had a falling out"? 

Other images, such as the ones the film suggests was the first same-sex wedding, may not be as the photographer and subjects intended.

Loving: The Nini-Treadwell Collection

Granted, I come at this from a heterosexual perspective where images of heterosexual affection were in abundance. However, are some of the photographs a case of seeing what one wants to see versus what actually was? On some of the photographs I think even Nini, Treadwell and director/voiceover reader David Millbern would concede that things may not be as we see.

I did wonder if perhaps we are applying 21st Century ideas to 19th Century images. In the same way that the now-controversial photos Lewis Carroll took of children are seen by some as de facto child pornography, could some of these photographs now interpreted as revealing same-sex love be nothing more than good friends reflecting the ideas of their time? 

Loving: The Nini-Treadwell Collection
We will probably never get a definite answer to that.

However, 100 Years of Men in Love has some striking images that are practically pieces of art. We even learn that the selfie is not a new idea: a 1902 photograph of two men was done in such a way as to allow the subjects to see themselves as they were photographing themselves. 

Another interesting point is how many of the photographs have the subjects under umbrellas. Nini and Treadwell wonder whether umbrellas were a hidden sign for gay, the rainbow flag of the era so to speak.

100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection does at times play like a commercial for the Loving book. It is unfortunate that a long segment about a closeted World War II veteran who had a long-term relationship with a fellow soldier he met while serving did not have that soldier's family speak. It would be interesting to get more than these faces and learn about their lives.

On the whole though, 100 Years of Men in Love: The Accidental Collection has some beautiful images and does touch on how love between two men has never been truly hidden, merely obscured.  


Monday, March 21, 2022

Behind the Door (1919): A Review (Review #1584)



In the early days of film, the First World War was a dominating subject. Two of the first three Best Picture winners revolved around the war (Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front) and there were other films that dealt with the war. Behind the Door was slightly behind the times in that it premiered after the war's end, but it touches on subjects that still resonate today.

Broken World War I veteran Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) returns to his Maine hometown, into a world far different from what he knew. Going back to 1917, we see that despite being a second-to-third generation American, Krug is suspect because of his German ancestry and his mother's German birth. He however is able to stand up against everyone in town, and his former enemy Bill McTavish (James Gordon) now joining him to enlist.

They now serve on the USS Perth, but there's a stowaway: Alice Morse (Jane Novak), whom Krug secretly married. She is hidden by the nurse's group with the hopes of disembarking at the next port, but a German U-boat has taken the ship down. Alice and Oscar have survived, but evil German captain Brandt (Wallace Beery) has taken Alice prisoner, leaving Oscar to float off. However, Oscar manages to survive. Now with a new command, Krug reencounters Brandt, who does not remember Krug. Brandt delights in recounting Alice's cruel fate, unleashing Krug's fury. Now Krug has a chance to enact his own revenge, harkening back to his time as a taxidermist. 

It is a sad note that the condition of many silent films makes them hard to watch. Behind the Door is no exception, for the version we have now is patched together from three separate sources. Even then, sometimes we see the damage dominate the center of the film. As such, it makes it hard to see. 

However, once we accept the damage will be there, we see that Behind the Door is a very strong film. Some of the visual moments showcase beautiful moments, particularly with the title cards. When a mob comes to attack Krug, we read "Somebody get a rope and start the tar to boil" accompanied by an image of a burning noose. When we see title cards as Oscar and Alice are adrift, we see the text almost float in the water.

We even get a little bit of fourth wall breaking when Beery gives us a quick glimpse when we first see him. I almost expected him to try and twirl his mustache. I put that down to a theatrical background where audiences could boo the villains.

Behind the Door is simultaneously progressive and regressive in its portrayals. It does well in showing German-Americans as loyal, patriotic people (would that films made in World War II done the same for Japanese-Americans, though to be fair a few films did). However, we get the EVIL Germans, where we see them be sexually rapacious, violating innocent American womanhood.

Behind the Door did well is that it managed to show just enough without being overtly graphic. The audience sees Alice slipping into the darkness while the German sailors swallow her up, and we can imagine the horror of Krug's cruel vengeance. We do not need the film to be overt to be filled with horror.

The film does have some issues when it comes to the acting. It does have some of that almost cartoonish silent film acting style that looks over-the-top nowadays. Of particular note is Bosworth, who at times lets his shaking fists do his acting for him. Novak was very pretty and her acting did not slip into theatrics. There were some moments that came close but not full-on grand.

Gordon's McTavish did strong work, shifting from antagonist to friend. Beery also did well as the brutal Brandt to where he was almost sympathetic in the end. His last moments, the look of horror in his face, were well-acted.

The film is also quite beautiful in certain moments.

Behind the Door, not remembered now, might be worth a remake. Sad to say that the themes of brutality and revenge in war are still relevant. While the film is itself sad, we do get a nice moment to close this tale, a curiously optimistic moment in this tale of woe.


Saturday, March 19, 2022

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022): A Review


I confess to struggling with the title of Everything Everywhere All at Once. The movie, on the other hand, is surprisingly simple despite the seemingly whacked-out premise. A film that works on two levels, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a wild, frenetic ride that while perhaps long is still funny, action-packed and heartwarming.

Harried launderette owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is facing a myriad of issues on this day. She is being audited by the IRS for various business expenses; she has her father Gong Gong's (James Hong) birthday party to finalize, a party to which her openly lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) wants to bring her girlfriend Becky to. She also is unaware her husband Wayne (Ke Huy Quan) is filing for divorce. 

Evelyn is at the IRS office, and while the sardonic auditor Diedre (Jamie Lee Curtis) is curtly dismissing a karaoke machine as a business expense, Evelyn finds herself amidst the most surreal and insane mission. Wayne insists he is really another version of Wayne from another universe, and that this Evelyn, from this universe, has to summon the resources of the other Evelyns from other universes to defeat the villain Jobu Tobaky. Jobu can see "everything, everywhere, all at once", making her dangerous.

It is unfortunate that Jobu Tobaky has the form of Joy. As Evelyn struggles between this universe and the other multiverses crashing hither and yon, she glimpses what the other Evelyns did if they had taken different routes from the path she took. Eventually, the Evelyn from this universe finds the strength to save her world.

Everything Everywhere All at Once pushes things between silly and sincere, bouncing from a world where mankind developed hot dogs for fingers to where mankind evolved into rocks that can talk without speaking. The movie excellently shifts from people laughing at poor Evelyn being overwhelmed by the mad goings-on and almost tearing up when alternate Evelyns see that different roads would not have brought her happiness.

At heart, Everything Everywhere All at Once, stripped of its wild even crazed action sequences, is about accepting life as it is versus how one would have wanted it to be. It uses the trappings of science fiction and action to deliver a moving message: life is indeed what one makes of it. 

Writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Schienert (who style themselves "The Dans") are sharp in how they crafted the film. The ironically named 'Joy', the mixing of humor and pathos (Evelyn telling Wayne she should have rejected him being funny and sad) and the blending of the various multiverses all work to make this a surprisingly optimistic story.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is about the choice to give in to fatalism, apathy and hopelessness (which Jobu Tobaky/Joy does) and maintaining a hope that this world, this life still has moments of genuine happiness (as the gentle Wayne insists). The film puts these surprisingly deep ideas about existentialism vs. optimism within a wild series of action pieces and out-of-this-world locales.

The performances were all excellent. Michelle Yeoh is an international treasure, and Everything Everywhere All at Once gives her perhaps her greatest showcase to reveal the exceptional talent she is. It certainly gives her a chance to showcase her action prowess, but it also gives her moments of comedy and drama to which reveal an actress. Whether expressing confusion to irritation at having to be dragged into this lunacy or showing the glamourous film star from another multiverse regretting her lost love, Yeoh dominates the film with a delightful brilliance.

Quan too balances the more comedic elements of the slightly bumbling Wayne with the more action-oriented Alpha Wayne. He even is allowed to show a more elegant side when he is the suave Wayne in another multiverse. Hsu mostly kept to one mode (sullen) but given that was the character it was a good turn. It is also wonderful to see the living legend Hong get in on the action, playing both villain and gentle. Curtis was wild as one of Jobu Tobaki's figures, astonished at what she can do as an action figure.

There were elements that I did not think were necessary, making Everything Everywhere All at Once long. While I got the Ratatouille/Racoon-Tootie joke, I did not think it was necessary (for the record, I have not seen Ratatouille but know the gist of the plot). The elements around Diedre's awards to my mind were vulgar and unnecessary. I know the audience found it funny, but I found it coarse. 

Minor points though, as Everything Everywhere All at Once was simultaneously wild, funny, adventurous and remarkably moving.


2023 Best Picture Winner: 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Celluloid Closet: The Television Documentary



An apocryphal story has it that movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn wanted to film the novel The Well of Loneliness. When told that the main characters were lesbians, Goldwyn reported said, "Well then, we'll make them Americans!". Thus, we get a strange but humorous moment with regards to gay images on film.

"Hiding in plain sight" might be the motto of The Celluloid Closet, a documentary whose theme is that homosexuality was always visible in cinema, albeit so coded that any straight viewer would almost certainly miss the gaiety within.

Based on Vito Russo's nonfiction book and lecture, The Celluloid Closet travels through the world of film, where filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman find coded and not-so-coded images of gays and lesbians in films from the silent era down to 1992. We also get interviews from various film historians, screenwriters and actors who have participated in the films in question.

According to narrator Lily Tomlin, homosexuality in film, when depicted at all, was there to laugh at, or to pity, or to fear. As we bounce around the gay or gay-read images, we find that perhaps while some things have changed, some things remain the same.

The Celluloid Closet works if you accept the premise that every clip used was both coded as gay and intended as such. I do wonder though if sometimes, to misquote an apocryphal Sigmund Freud quote, a cigar is just a cigar.

Take for example a clip where two men are dancing together while a violinist plays into what appears to be a megaphone. This clip is from the Dickinson Experimental Sound Film made in 1895. What Russo and The Celluloid Closet implies or suggests is same-sex romance captured on film may actually be two male Edison coworkers dancing together merely because there were no women around.

Another silent film, Algie the Miner, portrays a swishy man as part of early gay stereotypes of gay men as effeminate. However, the film itself states that while Algie was effeminate, he was also going through a lot of hoops to marry a woman. Algie may have been a "sissy", and he may have been subtly gay. However, was that the original intention or just an interpretation? 

In short, The Celluloid Closet makes a lot of jumps from Point A to Point B, jumps that may not be accurate. Little thought is given to context or intent with regards to the various creators' ideas or intentions. It is a wild leap to suggest that the Dickinson Experimental Sound Film is gay representation on film. Without concrete evidence that it was or intended to be such (and I would think Thomas Edison would not have even thought of such a thing), The Celluloid Closet is in some cases either leaping to conclusions or flat-out wrong in those conclusions.

This rather freewheeling manner comes from the fact that The Celluloid Closet never gives us the film titles on-screen or set up the particular film's situation. As such, audiences are led to conclusions that might not be accurate, but which are there to strengthen the case the film is making, erroneous as said conclusions may be. A clip from Dracula's Daughter is used to highlight the trope of the dangerous lesbian. It is more than likely that there were lesbian undertones in this scene, but given she was literally Dracula's daughter, it is also possible that she was more into blood than sex.

We delve into context with Ben-Hur when uncredited cowriter Gore Vidal is interviewed. He tells us that he deliberately wrote a gay subtext when Judah Ben-Hur and his Roman friend Messala reunite. According to Vidal, Ben-Hur director William Wyler was both shocked and intrigued by this scenario. It had to be just overt enough to be seen but subtle enough to avoid censors. It also had to be kept from Ben-Hur star Charlton Heston. "You can tell (Stephen) Boyd; don't breathe a word of it to Heston, otherwise Chuck will fall apart," Vidal states.

I wonder now if the gay interpretation of Judah and Messala came from Vidal's oft-told tale versus being genuine. I confess to a certain naivete, but I never got the gay subtext in Ben-Hur when I first saw it. I am not saying that a gay subtext isn't there, but I can't say for certain that it is most definitely there. It is up to interpretation, and Vidal to my mind is an unreliable narrator. 

Context to my mind is key. It is one thing to have a montage of clips where the gay slur "f****t/f*g" or "queer" (curiously more acceptable nowadays if used by the subject him/herself) is thrown about by characters. However, were these terms used to show the characters as ignorant or used to deliberately demean someone? The lack of context is, I think, a major flaw in The Celluloid Closet's presentation.

I for one, am not ready to make the comparison between the gay character Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer and Frankenstein's monster. It is there for anyone who wants to see it, and it is an interesting parallel. I am not sold on it just yet.

However, by no means is The Celluloid Closet a bad film. Some moments are quite revealing. Quentin Crisp, for example, points out that when a man is in drag everyone laughs, but that when a woman is in drag nobody laughs. We also see that lesbian depictions are easier for audiences than gay men depictions. It's a curiosity that women loving women on film, such as in Personal Best, is seen as palatable but men loving men require warning signs the way Making Love did.   

The Celluloid Closet makes an interesting case that gay images on film have always been there, even if they had to be opaquer than they are today. It would be interesting if The Celluloid Closet revisited the images of LBGT characters and stories today. There is some progress where the gay-centered Moonlight can win Best Picture, but the "bury your gays" trope where gay characters are killed off is still very much with us.

The Celluloid Closet is a good start for those wanting to start studying film and/or gay issues.


Friday, March 11, 2022

The Batman: A Review


The evolution of the character Batman from campy to creepy has been quite curious to behold. Each successive Batman adaptation became darker, far removed from the frivolity of the 1966 film adaptation of the overtly comedic television series. The 1989 adaptation was dark and gritty for the times until it too devolved into camp idiocy. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy too went darker than before. Now, we get The Batman, where it is almost always raining, psychopathic criminal geniuses wander about, and despair is everywhere. The Batman is far longer than it should be, but with just enough to barely recommend it.

It is also far longer than it should be.

Two years into his vigilante crimefighting, The Batman (Robert Pattinson) finds himself a new adversary who calls himself The Riddler (Paul Dano). He too is taking the law into his own hands, enacting violent vengeance on the corrupt and shady politicians who have sold out Gotham for decades. The Riddler kills powerful figures such as the Mayor and Commissioner of Police, but there is more to his wicked schemes than he lets on.

The Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a billionaire recluse, haunted by his parents' murder twenty years ago. His loyal manservant Alfred (Andy Serkis) cannot draw him out, let alone get him interested in Wayne Enterprises or Foundation business. The Batman, however, has taken an interest, not just in finding The Riddler's next scheme, but how it ties into the vast corruption Gotham finds itself in. That corruption also involves The Penguin (Colin Farrell), chief underling to mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). It also draws in Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who works at Penguin's Iceberg Lounge and the secondary, secret club Pengy runs. Selina has her own connection to Falcone as does Bruce, a connection he is unaware of.

As The Riddler continues his reign of terror, with only The Batman and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to face him, the various machinations of all our villains soon form in an explosive finale.

Curiously, this plot summation does not sum up how sprawling The Batman is. At nearly three hours, it is longer than Dune (my current standard for long films). That in itself is not a terrible thing, if it can justify said running time. However, I do not think The Batman can. How many times can The Batman/Bruce go to the Iceberg Lounge and meet up with the same twin bouncers? Did we need such a long time with corrupt, weak and weepy District Attorney Colson (Peter Sarsgaard)? 

Oftentimes, one of our four villains (The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman and Falcone) disappears and except for Catwoman you do not really miss them. The Penguin probably fared the worst in this situation, as I kept thinking he could have been eliminated from the film altogether without it affecting the flow of the story. It is almost like he was there because The Penguin is one of the better-known Batman villains.

To be fair, I can see the temptation to keep Pengy in given how good Farrell was in the role. Sleazy, under heavy makeup and curiously vague Italian/Nuw Yawk accent, Farrell is unrecognizable and puts in the very few remotely funny moments. He also is the featured player in one of The Batman's major setpieces: a mad chase that takes full advantage of the impressive cinematography.

However, I found The Penguin rather superfluous to where I forgot he was in the film unless he was literally in the scene. The same is the case for Serkis' Alfred, who was there just to be there. 

It was the opposite with Kravitz's Selina Kyle, who not only dominated every scene she was in but whose absence was clearly missed. Selina's mix of assured self-confidence and deep vulnerability, coupled with a righteous albeit at times misapplied sense of justice made her the standout. Second to her was Turturro, playing perhaps an Italian stereotype (down to listening to Al Martino's I Have But One Heart when Bruce confronts him), but in his stillness and soft voice he makes Falcone menacing, arrogant and above all highly dangerous.

When it comes to Dano, I appreciate that we did get a chance to see his face versus the Zodiac/Unabomber mix he was shaped to be. While many compare The Batman with Seven in terms of visuals and sense of utter despair, I think a better comparison would be between Dano's performance and Seven's Kevin Spacey. One wouldn't blame people for thinking The Riddler was John Doe, Jr. I found Dano slipped between serious and silly, between being that menacing figure The Riddler was intended to be and being slightly goofy to camp. 

I wasn't the only one: various audience members chuckled and laughed when Dano's Riddler slipped from soft to crazed. 

I also was not impressed with director/co-screenwriter Matt Reeves' script (with Peter Craig). The Batman keeps to a tried-and-true method of having the villain's masterplan work exactly right based on hitting the exact circumstances needed to work. At a certain point, I thought The Batman would have done well to end, but we had another hour to go, and I despaired about how long all this was taking.  

Finally, Robert Pattinson. I have for the longest time insisted he cannot act versus Film Twitter's assertion that he is his generation's Peter O'Toole, some titanic force of acting prowess to rival the likes of Stewart, Bogart or Grant. I thought he did will as The Batman, for which he was the majority of the time. I also did think that The Batman was genuinely bonkers at times.

It is when he is Bruce Wayne that I found him lacking. I do not know whether it is the character who was meant to be catatonic or the actor who was, but there was no Bruce Wayne here. Given that Pattinson was primarily The Batman for the majority of The Batman, I won't belabor the point.

The Batman has some exceptional visual moments and Michael Giacchino's incredible score. Both evoke the menacing, decaying, perhaps doomed world of Gotham, and are standouts in the film.

The Batman is not a bad film. It has some strong performances and elements that make it worth watching. However, it is longer than it needs to be and some of the performances do slip into almost cartoons. On the whole though, The Batman has just enough to make this Gotham journey worth the time.


Thursday, March 10, 2022

Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. A Review.



AIDS is treatable, but as of this writing not curable. There was a time though when the mere mention of AIDS created a terror to anyone who heard it, let alone anyone who was diagnosed with it. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, ties five AIDS patient stories, along with their families, to bring us individual faces to this plague.

We get stories as individual and varied as those who tell them. Dr. Tom Waddell, former Olympian who helped found the Gay Games. Robert Perryman, struggling drug addict but devoted family man. Jeff Sevcik, film fan and partner to film historian Vito Russo. David Mandell, Jr., a tween hemophiliac. David Campbell, landscape architect. As we weave in and out of who each of them was, we hear from their loved ones, ranging from lovers to friends to parents.

Common Threads follows a structure with each storyteller: we start with how they met (or in Mandell's case, his early childhood), then on how they contracted AIDS and finally up to their dying days. Some of their storytellers do not have the disease, such as Sara Lowenstein, a lesbian whom Waddell fathered a child with. Others, however, are also HIV-positive, such as Sallie Perryman, Robert's wife. 

Intermixed with these five individual stories are news reports on the growing crisis, along with narrator Dustin Hoffman reading the increasing number of people who have died of AIDS. We start with 355 in 1981, then see each year increase to 1,235 (1982), 3,933 (1983) up to 55,388 in 1988. As the numbers grow, we end Common Threads with the unfurling of the massive quilt on the Washington Mall, those left behind able to grieve their loved ones, and those not directly affected to ponder the massive loss.

It is impossible not to be moved by these stories, and it was wise of directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman to showcase a variety of AIDS deaths. It makes clear that this disease is not strictly and solely one that impacts a small group. Though we do have three gay men featured (Waddell, Sevcik and Campbell), we do have a straight man (Perryman) and a minor (Mandell). As such, we do get those must vulnerable: gay men, hemophiliacs and drug users. However, we also see that those in "less vulnerable" groups can also run the risk of acquiring the disease. 

We see how Sallie Perryman, calmly, almost serenely, tells us that she too tested positive. This was a straight black woman, devout in her faith, yet AIDS will claim her too. We also see, perhaps jarringly but necessary, Campbell's lover Tracy Torrey, a Navy officer who was closeted but who is clearly in the final stages of death. It was a brave act to show Torrey (who died before the film was released) speak his own tale as well as that of Sevcik, the love of his life.

Another partner, Vito Russo, was also HIV-positive but healthy-looking. He was more outspoken in his activism, making clear that both his and Sevcik's diagnoses pushed him to be vocal about the disease. 

One of the most moving moments is perhaps one of the oddest. It is when David Mandell, Jr. (who lived to be 12) has a video chat with the character ALF. It takes a lot to make one get teary-eyed at seeing a child talk to a puppet, but I found it deeply emotional. Mandell was a big ALF fan, and while we know ALF can't do anything, seeing the alien from Melmac offer words of hope and encouragement to his fan got to me.

Common Threads is barely political. We do get mention of Russo's activism, some of the slow to no action from the Reagan Administration and from those who saw AIDS as a punishment. However, those were few. Instead, Common Threads was more focused on the individuals who died of AIDS, and those they left behind.

If I found things to criticize, it would perhaps be the Bobby McFerrin vocal score, which sometimes seemed a bit much but not a dealbreaker.

Sadly, AIDS has been all but forgotten. The red ribbons, once ubiquitous at any awards show, have been long relegated to video archives. Even now, seeing the paranoia AIDS caused early on might be seen as more a curiosity than anything else. Common Threads can be seen as a time capsule on early AIDS fears. It can be seen as a chance to see those who lived and died from it speak to us. 

It should be seen, period. AIDS is still with us, and just because one can live with AIDS does not mean people are no longer dying of AIDS. It is true: we are bound by Common Threads.


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Hannibal Rising: A Review (Review #1580)


Does evil need to be explained? It apparently is not possible for the most sinister of figures to not have an origin story revealing how said figures came to be the way they became. Hannibal Rising is the origin story of that most monstrous yet fascinating of psychopaths, Hannibal Lecter. It is a terrible shame though, that his origin turns out to be surprisingly boring to dumb.

Little Hannibal Lecter survived the Nazi and Soviet invasions of his native Lithuania, though he lost his whole family. Lithuanian collaborators take refuge in the Lecter hunting lodge, where their leader Grutas (Rhys Ifans) looks on menacingly at Hannibal and his younger sister Misha. Did Grutas and his fellow Nazi collaborators commit a barbaric act of cannibalism to save themselves?

Eight years later, young Hannibal Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) is now in a Lithuanian orphanage, ironically enough what was once Castle Lecter. After taking murderous revenge on a bully, he finds letters that lead him across the Iron Curtain to an uncle's home. His uncle sadly has died, but his widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li) takes him in. She trains him in the way of the samurai, training that comes in handy when a local butcher insults her. Hannibal now has his first kill.

Escaping to Paris where he can train as a doctor, Hannibal and Lady Murasaki now begin their new venture: hunt down those who killed Misha. Slowly, methodically, Hannibal takes bloody revenge on his childhood tormentors, until he leaves for Canada to find the last of them.

Perhaps it was Hannibal Rising screenwriter Thomas Harris' wish to make our murderous cannibal a sad, even sympathetic figure. He should know the most about Lecter: as Harris adapted his own novel and created the character. Having said that, it is a wonder why Harris opted to make Lecter some kind of hero, a Nazi hunter seeking to avenge his beloved little sister.

It is curious that little to nothing suggests that this Hannibal enjoys the taste of human flesh. Granted, as it is his origin story, we can forgive his lack of calculated genius where he is able to escape whatever traps laid for him. However, Hannibal Rising is surprisingly unoriginal in its take on our character. Having him hunt down people gives him an honorable motive, which makes one wonder whether Harris wanted us to see him as less methodical murderer and more wounded soul.

To my mind, having him kill others to avenge his family's killing is almost hackneyed, surprisingly unoriginal and a terrible letdown for someone so charmingly and delightfully wicked. It does not help that none of the previous Hannibal Lecter films hinted at his haunted past. It also does not help that Hannibal Rising does not suggest Lecter would turn out to dine on people. It actually suggests he might turn out to be a good man. As such, if anyone saw Hannibal Rising first then moved on to either Red Dragon/Manhunter or The Silence of the Lambs, he or she might be confused. 

He at first was angry that Grutas suggested to Lecter that he ate and enjoyed his own sister's flesh, but now he likes the taste of it?

Hannibal Rising is also littered with some ghastly performances. Rhys Ifans devoured the scenery to the extent you thought he did literally eat the child actors in the film. It is watchable only in a hilarious kind of watching. It is so over-the-top it almost hypnotizes you, amazed that the bad accent and crazed manner could be considered remotely rational. Kevin McKidd, who plays another Lithuanian cannibal, could not handle the accent any better, though to be fair he did make a decent stab at playing a slightly more sympathetic figure.

One is puzzled about Gong Li, a good actress given little to do. As for the late Ulliel, he did on occasion slip into camp, but I think that was more the script than him. He made a surprisingly charming figure who sought out honorable revenge. Pity that he seemed to be playing in a different movie, one about Nazi hunters than murderous cannibals.

So much about Hannibal Rising is wildly wrong that one feels for the lost opportunity. Unoriginal origin story, mostly bad acting, lousy situations, with little to suggest we are getting the birth of evil. The film plays more like bad fanfiction than it does the genesis of this now-iconic character. Hannibal Lecter had a better origin long after he became an adult, and Hannibal Rising is a poor beginning to this massive figure.




The Silence of the Lambs

Red Dragon





Monday, March 7, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Lovers Review



We now conclude Season One of Da Vinci's Demons with The Lovers, getting our first taste of a shocking historic event. 

The search for the mythical Book of Leaves was set into motion long before Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) was born, but the Sons of Mithras have had their eyes set on him. Now that he is a grown man, he must choose to follow the path of esoteric wisdom. This does not, however, bode well for his current patrons, the Medici family. Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) is irritated that his younger brother Guiliano (Tom Bateman) has not appeared for the forced engagement party to join the Medici and Pazzi families. 

Lorenzo is unaware that Guiliano has been stabbed by Lorenzo's mistress Lucrezia (Laura Haddock), who is also a spy for the Vatican. Surprisingly, Guiliano survives and stumbles his way back to Florence. He is found by Dragonetti (Ian Pirie), Captain of the Night Guard who appears to be in league with the Pazzi. Is Guiliano safe in his care? What about Vanessa (Hera Hilmar), who discovers she is carrying Guiliano's child? The Pazzi will not wait for Guiliano or Rome. They decide the best thing to do is have a coup d'état and eliminate both brothers simultaneously. This will be accomplished through a blasphemous act: to kill them both at Easter service, with perhaps killing Lorenzo's three daughters and wife Clarice (Lara Pulver) too for good measure.

Will Leonardo sail to unknown lands as instructed by the Sons of Mithras? Or will he sacrifice that to save the Medicis from extermination? It culminates in Florence's own murders in the cathedral, where an enraged Riario (Blake Ritson) joins the slaughter while Lucrezia helps Clarice and her girls to escape. Here, when Lorenzo has seen his brother killed and is himself in mortal danger, he bizarrely focuses on the potential that Lucrezia and Leonardo were lovers, apparently angrier at his artist fooling around with his mistress than with the Pope's nephew about to blow them both away.

It wouldn't be Da Vinci's Demons without some kind of bonkers situation, and The Lovers gives it to us with the Pazzi Conspiracy (though more than likely an ahistorical version). Most of the episode does not flag in its pacing and story, moving things quickly from Guiliano's dilemma to the Pazzi conspiracy and culminating in a wild free-for-all at the cathedral.

We get wild turns all over the place: Leo storming in to save Lorenzo! The mysterious papal prisoner is really His Holiness' own brother! Vanessa tearfully telling a dying Guiliano that his line will continue as she is with child! Riario for once going full-on bonkers! Leo and Lorenzo trapped as the Pazzis and Romans are blasting their way through their safe room!

The Lovers is brimming with action, and it also has strong performances from Riley and Haddock as our thwarted lovers. Leo's fury and Lucrezia's regrets blend perfectly, making this a most tangled romance. Ritson too is released to go all wild, crazed fury, making his rage all the more frightening. For the entirety of Da Vinci's Demons, Ritson has played Riario as a calm figure, rarely if ever speaking above a soft tone. Here, however, he is shouting with manic force, the seething pent-up rage finally allowing him to devour the scenery the way others have.

The Lovers does what a great season finale should do: leave audiences hanging on a wild note. 


Next: The Complete First Season

The Power of the Dog: A Review



The Power of the Dog is beautifully shot. It is well acted. It has strong production elements and an excellent score. It is also a slog to sit through: self-consciously artsy that it becomes boring.

Montana ranchers Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) dominate their corner of the cattle world. Phil is a bully: curt, dirty and demeaning to just about everyone (such as calling George "Fatso"). His cutting manner towards Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), effeminate son of hotel/restaurant proprietress Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) so upsets her she cries. George attempts to comfort her, and from that a whirlwind romance blossoms leading to marriage.

With a new sister-in-law and nephew now at their vast estate, Phil is even more irate. He taunts Rose by being able to play his instrument (the banjo) better than she can play hers (the piano). Phil, for all his bullying and bravado, has a deep secret: his idolizing of his late mentor Bronco Henry was more than hero worship. Never openly stated, the "physical culture" magazines Bronco Henry had that Phil hides in his secret garden are as open a declaration that Phil is homosexual.

His nude bathing while caressing if not performing autoerotic exercises to Bronco Henry's scarf apparently not being proof enough. Peter has come upon Phil's moments of ecstasy, and while he's angry Phil appears to now take Peter under his wing. Is he hoping to make a man out of Peter? Does he want to be Peter's Bronco Henry? What, for his part, is Peter's game? Things come to a climax when Rose, either out of spite or drunken insanity, sells the hides Phil refuses to. As Phil and Peter continue their dance, who will come out alive?

I might be more favorable towards The Power of the Dog if it were not so self-consciously artsy veering on pretentious. Of particular irritation is the film separating itself into chapters with Roman Numerals (IV chapters in total if memory serves correct). There is no reason to break up The Power of the Dog in this way, at least that I can see. This struck me rather as pompous, nakedly declaring "THIS IS ART!"

As a side note, it might not be surprising The Power of the Dog involves gay cowboys given the male nudity we are treated to, including a brief bit of Cumberbatch. I don't care one way or another, but I wonder whether Brokeback Mountain handled repressed gay cowboys with more humanity and less nudity.

Sometimes the artsy nature of The Power of the Dog slipped into parody. There was one point where Phil was caressing the horses so that I thought he was literally into bestiality. After Peter asks Phil if he and Bronco Henry were "naked" when Bronco Henry saved Phil's life by keeping him warm body-to-body, the film started into swelling music and shots of horses. I don't need the artsy gay erotica of Call Me By Your Name, but this "slender youth offering grizzled older man a cigarette as euphemism" is a bit too silly for me.

The film can and probably will try viewers' patience at its two-hour-running time. What would be Chapter I would be especially hard. One wonders why director/screenwriter Jane Campion (adapting the Thomas Savage novel) could not move things faster in bringing our four characters together. Twenty minutes into The Power of the Dog and I was still wondering when something was going to happen. 

Her directing of the performances does not help. Far too often, I felt as if the acting was deliberately false, too mannered and forced to be believable. I rarely if ever saw the characters as "real" people, but as "actors playing at great drama". Cumberbatch in particular had that issue. He struggled with his American accent and to my mind was trying a bit too hard in playing gruff, let alone gruff American. There was again, a mannered manner to his evil/self-loathing. To my mind, whatever message of toxic masculinity The Power of the Dog was trying for could have been better done if it were not so forced.

Plemons and Smit-McPhee were acceptable if again a bit mannered and stilted, but that was really the film as a whole. I will move more towards Smit-McPhee in that he did not disappear from the film for as long a stretch as Plemons did. Moreover, I sensed that Peter was not the innocent boy he might have looked as. Derided as a "Miss Nancy" (a euphemism for gay), I found him to be the real villain. 

Here is where some symbolism came to me. Phil dies from anthrax due to handling diseased animals which entered his bloodstream through a major gash in his hand. The film offers that the diseased carcass came from some hide that Peter had kept hidden, allowing Phil to finish the lasso he'd promised Peter. However, to my mind, it is Peter who is the "diseased animal" that metaphorically infected Phil. By manipulating this tormentor of his mother to give in to his carnal desires, Phil is poisoned metaphorically by Peter. Thus, Peter can get the best of all worlds: he can have sex with an attractive man and help kill his rival. Granted, that might not have been the intended interpretation but that is how I saw it.

I did think better of Dunst's Rose: a woman driven to drink by her own fears, at times almost paralyzed by them. 

As a side note, it is curious that The Power of the Dog made me think of another film where the arrival of a woman causing friction in a vast Western estate. The difference between this film and Giant though is that the female lead was made of stronger stuff, and that instead of Luz the sister we had Phil the brother.  

The Power of the Dog does have some positives. There is some beautiful cinematography and an excellent musical score, in turns of the time and contemporary. On the whole though, I think The Power of the Dog is a film that cineastes will adore: all full of symbolism and "deep meaning". However, I think most audiences will not flock to this film with such fervor and devotion, finding little to care about puppy power.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Hierophant Review




As we race towards the end of Da Vinci's Demons Season One finale, we are getting more sex, more violence and more craziness.  

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) wants to get to the secret in the Vatican's Secret Archives. He knows buried deep within the bowels of the Holy See, he will find the information to locate the Book of Leaves. However, he can't just walk into the Vatican. He can, however, snorkel his way in by essentially inventing a diving bell. Once inside, he literally bursts out of His Holiness' bath. A shocked Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) is forced into the Archives, but Sixtus is a wily figure. He tempts Leo with knowledge, particularly about his mother. Managing an escape (thanks in part through the Spear of Destiny), Leo finds that his friends Zoroaster (Greg Chillin) and Nico (Eros Vlahos) have captured their bitter enemy Riario (Blake Ritson). With both keys now in his hands, Leonardo is close to finding the Book of Leaves.

Meanwhile, Guiliano de Medici (Tom Bateman) is balancing his affair with bar wench Vanessa (Hera Hilmar) and investigating who Rome's spy is. He also has to endure the machinations of his brother Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan), who has pimped Guiliano out to the Pazzis in a marriage of convenience. His investigation has discovered Lucrezia (Laura Haddock) is not just Lorenzo's mistress but said spy. This is also discovered by Leonardo, but unlike him Guiliano does not know the motive behind her actions. Nevertheless, it is a battle for survival when Lucrezia and Guiliano finally see each other, where one may not survive.

The Hierophant is a very esoteric title, deriving from tarot cards. It fits into the episode on so many levels. First, the card is of a sitting Pope, which connects to Sixtus IV's various schemes and wickedness. It also connects with arranged marriages, which Giuliano is facing. It is a sign of the intelligence within this ahistorical episode and series that this balance works.

As a side note, it is only now with such a title as The Hierophant that I realize that Da Vinci's Demons derives almost all if not all its Season One titles from tarot. As each episode title has connected to that episode's plot, it did not occur to me to make that tarot connection until The Hierophant given that for those unaware of tarot, it would be a very obscure title.

The Hierophant is to my mind the best episode of the series. It is breathtakingly beautiful in terms of visuals, particularly when Leonardo is underwater or when we see various dreams and fantasies. It gives viewers perhaps obvious but still shocking moments, such as when Leonardo crashes His Holiness' bath. We even get to see Ritson's firm abs, showing even the villains can be hot.

The Hierophant also has some of the best performances yet from the series. Of particular note is Bateman as Giuliano, who gets to be romantic, intelligent, courageous and tragic all in the course of an hour or less. Heldar too has excellent moments, helped with strong dialogue. When Giuliano tells her she is foolish to describe her digs as better than his palace, she replies, "Your palace is a prison with better linen". Holding her own yet in clearly in love with Giuliano the man, Heldar holds our attention.

The Hierophant balances three plotlines: the Pazzi's conspiracies, da Vinci's investigations and Giuliano's discoveries. Each work well without intruding on the other. With spectacular visuals, strong performances and even a hint of tragedy (this episode ends with mournful music versus the traditional theme), The Hierophant is a fast-paced, thrilling adventure. It is what Da Vinci's Demons set out to be. 

Next Episode: The Lovers


Tuesday, March 1, 2022

CODA (2021): A Review (Review #1578)



In some ways, CODA is not original separate from the fact that it is an English-language remake of a French film. Despite that, CODA is a deeply moving, beautiful film that is in turns funny and dramatic.

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA: Child Of Deaf Adults. She is also the only hearing member of her family, making her the de facto interpreter for them. Her father Frank (Troy Kostur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are struggling fishermen, while her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) generally hides away from the world and manages the family finances.

Ruby has two secret loves: music and Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Her crush is so great that she joins the choir despite being painfully shy about singing in public. Enter wacky choir director Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who pushes the kids to literally sing out. He also pushes Ruby to reach her potential and does a little accidental matchmaking by pairing Ruby and Miles for a duet.

Ruby is facing pressures on all sides. Her parents, randy and somewhat uncouth, do not shrink from sex both in having it loudly and discussing it to a shocked Miles. They also face financial pressures to where the Rossis decide to go co-op rather than endure the regulations and poor market. That only increases the pressure on Ruby to keep interpreting. Will familial bonds force Ruby to give up on dreams her family cannot partake in? Will she and Miles form a bond? 

As I said, in many ways CODA hits familiar beats. It is not a surprise that Ruby opted to take a day for herself with Miles the same day a pesky observer boards the Rossi's ship, revealing they have no one to hear emergency messages or the Coast Guard. The push-pull between a loving but unintentionally binding family and the young girl's own desires is also familiar ground. There's the montage of the Rossis integrating into the hearing world they have mostly kept separate from (Jackie for example laughing with the other fishermen's wives while they do some signing). Then there's the somewhat wacky teacher, who gives the kids Let's Get It On to sing and accidentally signs "It's a pleasure to f*** you" to Frank and Jackie. Given how sexual they are, I was a bit surprised they didn't laugh it off.

However, CODA has extremely moving and intelligent moments that hit the viewer. There is the concert where Ruby showcases her skills. Her family cannot hear the concert, but the reactions Kotsur and Matlin show when looking around how their daughter moves the hearing audience is a joyful moment. As CODA shifts to their perspective, we can focus on the pride and joy their daughter/sister is bringing to others. Seeing them mirror the audience in their standing ovation while still making the sign for "applause" is a beautiful moment. 

I found it hard not to shed a few tears when Frank, Jackie and Leo sneak into Ruby's audition and she, seeing them, begins singing and signing Both Sides Now.

Here is where the cleverness of CODA comes from through via writer/director Sian Heder's adaptation of the French film La Famille Belier. As she sees her family, as she contemplates how she loves them but also is separate from them, she has "seen love from both sides now". She has seen it from the hearing and from the deaf world. Heder gives the song an additional meaning that I figure Joni Mitchell had in mind.

Heder gives us little details that make CODA a life-affirming comedy. There's Ruby's deliberate misinterpreting to her parents that the doctor's orders of no sex for two weeks are really no sex ever. There's Frank signing his advice on condoms to Miles, who both clearly understands without needing interpretation and is quite embarrassed. However, there are other moments, beautiful moments that make CODA a delight.

After the concert, Frank asks Ruby to sing the song she sang with Miles. As he puts his hands on her vocal cords to feel, the man who loves gangster rap because of the bass shows his pride in his little girl. Despite saying only one word in the film, "Go", Kotsur clearly earned that Best Supporting Actor nomination. In turns raunchy and proud, he is proudly working class, loving his family but also uncouth. 

Matlin's equally randy but loving Jackie is also an excellent performance. She is able to handle the comedy such as when telling Ruby that Leo's Tinder scrolling is fine at the dining table because it is something the whole family can do. She also can deliver beautiful moments, explaining that she originally wished Ruby had been deaf, fearing that the difference between them would make for a fraught relationship. Durant is excellent as Leo: in turns angry at being seen as helpless without Ruby but also quietly proud of her. 

CODA clearly is Emilia Jones' film. As Ruby, she was brilliant; in turns fearful and loving, she can express defensiveness when outsiders do anything against her family but also frustration at how they bind her down. Ruby would naturally be upset that her music lessons would be thwarted by a television interview she was told about at the last minute. That her parents appear puzzled as to why Ruby would put her own dreams over them adds a layer of drama and relatability to her plight. Separate from the deafness, many children feel their parents love sometimes becomes more a burden than blessing.

CODA is a beautiful film: funny, heartwarming if a bit standard in how things will play out. That however is not a negative, for CODA plays well in how life can be, with the layer of a world most of us do not know. 

We really don't know love and life after all until we have seen them from Both Sides Now.   


2022 Best Picture Winner: Everything Everywhere All at Once