Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Top Gun: Maverick. A Review (Review #1593)


After being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic/panic, Top Gun: Maverick has finally hit theaters. A film that deftly balances nods to the past while creating new stories, Top Gun: Maverick does just about everything right to become one of the best films of 2022.

Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is still a rebel, forever testing new airplanes as well as the Navy's patience. Only the personal intervention of his friend, now Admiral Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Val Kilmer) keeps him from getting thrown out. Maverick, despite the major misgivings of Admiral Beau "Cyclone" Simpson (Jon Hamm), is given a new assignment.

He is to instruct the next generation of the Navy's elite Strike Fighter Tactics pilots on a strike into an unnamed enemy territory. They are to exterminate an illegal uranium enrichment facility before it becomes live. There is an issue for Maverick however apart from his lack of desire to teach. One of the potential fighters is Bradley "Rooster" Bradshaw (Miles Teller), who is the son of Maverick's old friend Goose, whose death still haunts both.

As the mission date comes closer, Maverick and Rooster must navigate their own pasts, while also dealing with their present. For Maverick, it is rekindling his romance with Penny (Jennifer Connelly), a bar owner. For Rooster, it is enduring the arrogance of his frenemy, Jake "Hangman" Seresin (Glen Powell). The mission, which does not go by without some hitches, brings satisfaction and resolution for Maverick and Rooster.

Sequels, especially those taking place decades after the events of the past film, can be tricky. You can drown the project in nostalgia, making callouts to various events and characters with little rhyme or reason. You can also try to expand on the story by ignoring what made the original so important to viewers. Independence Day: Resurgence is an example of doing just about everything wrong for that kind of sequel. Top Gun: Maverick, conversely, does not hit a wrong note in its story.

If you have never seen Top Gun or it has been so long that you don't remember everything, Top Gun: Maverick gives you enough information to fill in the blanks. We have little montages to give viewers information on the Maverick/Goose storyline. Bits of dialogue from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay fill in more information without hammering it in. Fans will enjoy starting out Maverick with a repeat of Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone

We even have a bit of an homage to one of Top Gun's more memorable or infamous moments, depending on your point of view. There is a beach football scene where our shirtless hunks (and one appropriately dressed woman), play around, muscular bodies glistening in the setting sun. This appears to be an homage to Top Gun's beach volleyball scene, which some take as homoerotic, and some still go on about the players wearing jeans.

These moments that call back to Top Gun are subtle enough to catch fans attention without them being fan service. Moreover, they allow for character development. Seeing Maverick see Rooster and his fellow Naval fighters singing happily at Penny's bar allows viewers to remember a similar moment in Top Gun. It also allows for Maverick to reflect on his loss and guilt about Rooster's father.

Fans of Top Gun get their moments with these characters, but Top Gun: Maverick also allows for a new generation to have their moments too. Unsurprisingly, the actors who play the rookie pilots were not even born when Top Gun premiered save one: Jay Ellis as Reuben "Payback" Finch, and he was only four. Granted, none of them would be able to challenge Cruise as the star, and Top Gun: Maverick shows that despite being old enough to be their father, Maverick still can show these guys he was still far above them.

However, the younger cast gave strong performances, creating their own unique characters. Miles Teller is a tremendous talent, showcasing his skills in films like Whiplash. He's been a bit lost in his career of late, but Top Gun: Maverick brings him back. His Rooster is angry but determined, set on living up to the ghost of Goose and the shadow of Maverick. Teller does the most with the role, not making Rooster a blank action figure, but one filled with rage and regret, aware of his skills but unaware that those around him have tried to protect him even if he no longer needs protecting.

Top Gun: Maverick is also a calling card for Powell as the arrogant and cocky Hangman, his generation's Iceman. The character may be a bit one-note, all swagger and entitled, but Powell quietly shows that he too has his fears, especially when seeing how difficult and dangerous the mission is. 

The other pilots, from Monica Barbaro as the efficient Natasha "Phoenix" Trace to Lewis Pullman as the naive Robert "Bob" Floyd, act their parts well. If there is a negative here, it is not in the performances but in that we did not go deep into these characters. 

Perhaps that is more understandable in that Top Gun: Maverick was always going to be dominated by Tom Cruise. We see here what Cruise is capable of as an actor. Now more involved as an action star best known for his dangerous stunts in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Cruise here has moments of deeply moving acting. His scene with Kilmer, expressing his fears and regrets, is effective, and I can see how people would shed a few tears. 

We also see how Cruise dominates the film through Maverick's love story with Penny. Connelly does not make her a vixen or a victim. Instead, she is a stable, mature woman, mature in every meaning of the word. Self-assured, loving, in love but not tied down waiting for her man, Penny is smart and romantic, a rare combination. I do not remember the younger kids having a romantic subplot.

Top Gun: Maverick also has thrilling action scenes before we get to the climatic raid. Some of the training sequences are intense and gripping, the danger elevated as to whether or not they will make it out alive. The film, again, was wise to not have the final mission go perfectly, giving us moments of action and character development.

If one can criticize certain elements, it is in perhaps some of the film's predictable moments (for example, who would come to the last-minute rescue). However, I think it is wrong to say that giving audiences what they want in something like Top Gun: Maverick lessens the film. Audiences who have long embraced Top Gun know what they will get with Top Gun: Maverick, and it does not cheat them.

That being said, Top Gun: Maverick also allows newbies to both explore this world and thrill to the action while letting these characters breathe and tell their stories away from the air. Top Gun: Maverick is a magnificent film, one that honors the past while living in the present, that balances action and heart. It might even be better than the original, a credit to its craftsmanship. 


Friday, May 27, 2022

Body of Evidence (1993): A Review



Madonna has done her damndest to carve a cinematic career. Apart from A League of Their Own, Evita, and perhaps Desperately Seeking Susan and Dick Tracy, however, she has pretty much failed in her Material Girl effort to become her generation's Marlene Dietrich. Body of Evidence, her erotic thriller, came on the heels of Sex, her book of erotic photographs, and the erotic album Erotica. Almost gleefully illogical but not completely camp, Body of Evidence is a curiosity.

Rebecca Carson (Madonna) has been charged with murder. What is the murder weapon? Her own body. District Attorney Robert Garrett (Joe Mantegna) alleges that Rebecca used sex, mixed with some cocaine, to kill her much-older lover Andrew Marsh. 

Did she do it: the murder, not sex, because there is a sex tape? Her defense attorney Frank Dulaney (Willem Dafoe) does not ask, but it is not long before the married Frank is seduced by our femme fatale. Rebecca is into a little S & M, bondage and pouring wax, luring Frank into her sordid web of sex games. 

This makes defending her difficult. This is made harder thanks to witnesses such as Marsh's loyal secretary Joanne Braslow (Anne Archer) and Rebecca's former lover Jeffrey Roston (Frank Langella). The latter, who like Marsh had a weak heart but unlike Marsh got heart surgery, gives evidence suggesting she might have tried murder through sex on him too. More "shocking" twists take place until Body of Evidence ends with the real murderess revealed and getting her due.

There is something of a plot in Brad Birman's script, but Body of Evidence is choppy, muddled and shifts from murky to laughable from one scene to the next. For example, Frank is seen with a woman named Sharon (Julieanne Moore) and a young man, Michael (Aaron Corcoran). Body of Evidence however never makes clear that they are married until well into the film. I thought they were just dating, and that Michael was Sharon's son from a prior relationship. We don't find out Frank and Sharon are married to each other until she confronts him about burn marks on his body.

Given that in an earlier scene, he used a towel to cover up his burn marks, how and when did Sharon discover them? Sharon confronts Frank about his liaison after Rebecca calls him, but according to Sharon, Rebecca never actually said they had an affair. In fact, Sharon discovers the indiscretion merely by the way Rebecca says "Frank". 

As a side note, Michael is never seen or mentioned again. 

Body of Evidence just rushes through things, never bothering to explain anything. Whether it was done to try and "surprise" viewers or through laziness, you marvel at the pretty much bonkers story. We very late in the film discover that the sex tape had something of a bonus feature: a clip of Joanne, nude, that Marsh had shot himself. Apart from wondering why a fellow attorney would bother watching a tape after it had appeared to have ended, one wonders why Joanne having a relationship with Marsh is a shock.

Over and over, things are introduced that become more and more oddball. Dr. Paley (Jurgen Prochnow), who gives damning testimony against Rebecca, is later discovered to have dated Rebecca! If it is a shocking twist, it was rather convenient to have Frank play voicemails from Paley to Rebecca at the ready. On the stand, Rebecca reveals she ended her affair with Rolston because she found him in bed with another man! Rolston, surprisingly still in the courtroom days after giving his testimony, only rises and nods at the allegation.

Rebecca and Sharon immediately recognize each other in the ladies' restroom, but as far as we know neither actually knows what the other looks like.

Logic, it seems, is not what Body of Evidence is interested in.

Instead, it is about the not-quite-graphic sex scenes between Madonna and Defoe, particularly ones involving hot wax. They are to be fair, shot in an artful style by director Uli Edel, but he should have spent more time directing his actors than setting up Playboy-lite sequences. Madonna displays her body, but nothing else in terms of acting.

She speaks her lines with disinterest, in the same way regardless of whether she is seducing dumb men or defending herself. Sometimes, it looked like was on the verge of giggling her way through her dialogue. Anne Archer was clearly embarrassed to be there, being almost zombie-like in her performance. It looked more like someone trying to get through a hostage video in an effort to escape than a genuine effort to act.

Moore tried, but there is only so much an actress of even her talent can do with such a silly script. Dafoe too made an effort, but like Moore could only get through it with as much dignity as he could muster. He is not believable as a man fallen to temptation. 

Mantegna, I think, had the right idea in Body of Evidence: ham it up for all its worth and have fun with something so utterly preposterous. He seemed to have figured this was nothing more than a Madonna vehicle, so instead of fighting it, Mantegna opted to show his cynicism for it all. 

Perhaps he saw how the light always hit Madonna's eyes and decided if the film was not going to try and be good, neither should he.

After watching Body of Evidence, it ends up coming across as a bad Basic Instinct knockoff. It does not help that Basic Instinct was released a year prior to Body of Evidence. This is a terrible film, yet I found it in some ways funny in its efforts to be so serious and neo-noir. The ending in particular had me laughing thanks to the performances and the actual conclusion. 

Blessed with bad performances, a muddled story, delightfully lacking in logic, I am surprised that Body of Evidence hasn't become either a cult or midnight film. This is less a body to die for and more to laugh at.


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Rope of the Dead Review




Sworn enemies are forced to unite in The Rope of the Dead, where we learn that sadism is an international and multicultural trait. A mostly good to great episode, we have however, the excessive graphic violence of Da Vinci's Demons that for me is most troubling.

In the New World, Incan high priestess Ima Kama (Carolina Guerra) tasks Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) and Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson) to essentially join forces if they are to get closer to the mythical Book of Leaves. For Leo, it means getting bit by a poisonous snake which causes him to both have sex with Ima and enter the netherworld where he meets the dead. There, the dead will guide him to clues about how to acquire the Book.

For Riario, it means searching for the antidote. The task entails becoming the hunter and the hunted, fighting Incan warriors whom he has to kill in surprisingly gruesome ways. Ultimately, while he emerges triumphant, to get the antidote, he must sacrifice the only love he has.

Back in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) must endure torture physical and psychological from the bonkers Royal House of Naples. Lorenzo gets advice from his dead brother Guiliano (Tom Bateman) on how to survive mad King Ferrante's (Matthew March) plan before Ferrante will give him a formal audience. Lorenzo has one arrow to kill a horse tied to a rope, otherwise the slack will eventually run out and hang him (or snap his head off). Only one person has survived this test: Ferrante's heir Alfonso, Duke of Calabria (Kieran Bew). 

Finally, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), on her way to Constantinople, has an encounter with Al-Rahim, better known as The Turk (Alexander Siddig), who will help her get to the fabled city as part of both their plans to get help from the Ottoman Turks against the usuper Pope. 

Both Leo/Riario and Lorenzo manage to survive, with a little help from the dead. 

I have commented on what I think is the excessively graphic violence on Da Vinci's Demons, something that has concerned me. The graphic violence is something I commented on with regards another show, only Gotham was on network not premium television. Violence as depicted on television has, to my mind, become not just more and more graphic. It has become almost sadistic in its portrayal, close to, as I see it, encouraging viewers to either passively or worse, actively enjoy it.

The Rope of the Dead went far beyond anything I am comfortable with. We saw graphic decapitations, head snapping, intense stabbings of various body parts. I am not opposed to violence on screen. I also know that Da Vinci's Demons has set itself up to be violent as part of its world-building. However, The Rope of the Dead for me went way overboard in what it chose to show. It would not have taken away from my enjoyment if it had opted to be less graphic and more suggestive. A lot of what I saw could have been toned down or not shown to the degree it was.

I suspect that both in succeeding episodes and Season Three we will see equal or even more graphic violence, which troubles me greatly.

It is a shame, because a lot of The Rope of the Dead worked quite well. Of particular note was the visualization of the netherworld between life and death, which was beautifully crafted and filmed. The episode also gave Riley and Cowan some of their best material, particularly the latter. This episode gave Lorenzo a chance to genuinely grieve his brother, to metaphorically release his own demons at both Giuliano's death and the knowledge that despite being the older he will outlive him, perhaps for decades. 

Riley and Ritson too excelled, their own confusion and grief really pushing things forward. Granted, it did make me giggle that Leonardo would need to have sex with a beautiful Incan high priestess in order to achieve connection to the netherworld. The guy finds new reasons to indulge his sexual powers. It also was amusing to see the end turn into a bit of a Battle of the Six Packs between Riley and Ritson (I think the latter would be the winner).

Tom Bateman in a guest spot served as guide to not one but two figures, and The Rope of the Dead gave him a chance to overact to the point of being theatrical. However, given that his character is dead, I can cut him some slack in his over-the-top manner. Not so Estella Daniels as Zita, Riario's love interest. It is a shame that she too will be relegated to a ghost, for I think she could have developed into a fascinating character.

The Rope of the Dead gets major points deducted for its violence. If not for that, I would have ranked it higher, but minus the almost sadistic nature of the visuals, I thought highly of the episode.


Next Episode: The Vault of Heaven

Monday, May 23, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Sun and The Moon Review



Who is to say that Leonardo da Vinci did not encounter Incas at Machu Picchu? Da Vinci's Demons long ago abandoned the idea that it was in any way historical. With The Sun and the Moon, we get more wild goings-on, some surprisingly not involving Leo cavorting with Incans.

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) along with his friend Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin), have come upon the New World in hopes of rescuing their friend Nico (Eros Vlahos). It is no surprise that they are captured by the Incans, who demand they go through a ceremony to choose life or death. Only Leo's quick mind and ability to understand their language quickly do they manage to survive. 

Well, that and the attraction that Ima Kana (Carolina Guerra), the high priestess, has for Leo. She can speak their language, letting them know that other Europeans have been to Machu Picchu before, also in search of the Book of Leaves. Those Europeans also include Nico and Riario (Blake Ritson), their now-frenemy. 

Back in Italy, Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) finds himself prisoner of the mad King of Naples, Ferrante (Matthew Marsh), who is essentially insane. Lorenzo finds he has to play a dangerous game to have his audience with the King, who has a bizarre fondness for human taxidermy. While Lorenzo is attempting to survive this and making googly-eyes at his former love, Duchess Ippolita (Jeany Spark) much to her husband Duke Alfonso's (Kieran Bew) irritation, back in Florence the Lady Clarice (Lara Pulver) is fighting to control the Medici Bank.

She has an ally in her half-brother-in-law Carlo (Ray Fearon), bastard son of Cosimo. Carlo plays both sides of the game, but ultimately proves loyal to Clarice. He also proves an excellent lover, for in the "what's sauce for the goose" school, Clarice finally gives in to her own temptations.

There is one issue that I don't think The Sun and the Moon thought much on. That is on the Kaliari challenge the Inca forced the travelers to play. The challenge is to choose from among three objects to see if they lived or died. Two of Leo's companions chose one object, which led to their instant (and rather violent) ends. Leo, however, managed to solve this riddle by using all three objects.

Again, given that in the premiere episode we know Leo will live, the only suspense is in figuring out how he will solve the problem. In reality, the issue is with Riario, Nico and Zita (Estella Daniels). They are prisoners of the Inca, so the issue becomes how they are still alive. Did they have to go through the Kaliari challenge too? Did Riario come up with the same answer and if so, how? 

By presenting such an elaborate (and bloody) situation to end up having other characters just pop up, I felt not exactly cheated but more puzzled as to how one group is still around when more than likely they would have met a grisly fate.

Perhaps I am overthinking things, but that part of the plot just lies there, unanswered.

Still, a lot of The Sun and the Moon manages to make sense, at least in the "Leonardo da Vinci secretly traveled to South America as part of finding a mythical book containing esoteric knowledge" way. The episode also balanced three storylines without skimming on one or the other. 

The smallest and maybe least interesting subplot is the Medici Bank attempted takeover. That was resolved within the episode itself, and one perhaps figured that The Sun and the Moon would play on Carlo's potential double-dealing. The eventual liaison between Carlo and Clarice too is also pretty much a given.

However, credit where it is due, and in The Sun and the Moon we get a nice bit of dialogue between Carlo and Clarice. When Carlo describes his situation as the result of being "a bastard with an unsuitable complexion", she replies that it is almost as bad as being a woman. It is curious that here, we get what might be considered a little commentary on race and gender without it being smashed above our heads.

The Ferrante subplot gives both Marsh and Bew a chance to embrace the cray-cray of the Neapolitan royal family with relish. Both of them show the delight King Ferrante and Duke Alfonso have in their combined cruelty and evil.  

If I had an issue with The Sun and the Moon, it is on something that continues to trouble me: the graphic violence. The sex is surprisingly tame, at least for Da Vinci's Demons. The violence, however, is still too much for my liking. However, this show indulges in that, so I have to accept that it is not going to get any less graphic. 

The Sun and the Moon is a strong episode, adding to the overall craziness of Da Vinci's Demons. Riario and Company somehow surviving aside, this episode moves the plots forward while not skimping on the sex and violence, two of Da Vinci's Demons calling cards.


Next Episode: The Rope of the Dead

Friday, May 13, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Ends of the Earth Review


I was both pleased and troubled by The Ends of the Earth. There is a particular moment that, while reflective of evil, was to my mind a bit too graphic for my liking. I understand that Da Vinci's Demons is more graphic sexually and in violence than I like. However, some things are a bit too much for me to enjoy.

The wicked Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) is holding his twin brother, the real Pontiff, hostage. Why not just kill him and be done with it? As children, then Francesco tried, but Alessandro survived and now the imposter thinks the good twin is unkillable. That, however, does not prevent Francesco from killing his own niece in front of her father in a flashback.

At this point, that even the "good" Pope has two daughters is something we need think on.

Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) and Piero da Vinci (David Schofield) continue on to Naples in a plan to get aid in reversing the excommunication that Sixtus has imposed on all Florence. They are attacked by criminals and later captured by border troops. 

Over at sea, Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) is working to keep the remaining ex-slaves from thinking they will sail off the face of the earth. He cannot convince them with his evidence of a circular Earth, so he hopes a little astronomy will help. It majorly backfires, leading to tragedy and death. However, it does lead him to find to a major discovery: the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around.

In many regards, The Ends of the Earth is a good, strong episode. You have excellent performances from Riley and Faulkner in particular. Seeing Leo's discovery of the solar system is a particularly strong bit of acting. Equally so is how Sixtus IV goes all Diana Ross by not having anyone look at him, coupled with him being a good and bad twin.

However, we see here at least two things that I did not think well of. First is the whole "good twin, evil twin" bit. I might have gone for a lookalike or impersonator, but did we need to have a literal evil twin? I am not impressed with what can be a bit cliche, even if Da Vinci's Demons is meant as ahistorical. 

I like villains who are villains because they enjoy being villains. To be fair it does give Faulkner a chance to show range, be sympathetic and villainous. However, the "evil twin" bit just feels off. 

Second, and more disturbing, is how we see the fake Sixtus dispatch his niece. For my mind, it was too graphic when an opaquer manner would have worked. I just dislike seeing children up to teens killed. It is curious that the mass deaths on da Vinci's ship and the killing of the bandits that waylaid Lorenzo and Piero were less graphic than the one the imposter Pope committed. 

I am much distressed by the graphic violence not just on Da Vinci's Demons but from past shows like Gotham. That, however, is perhaps for another time. Suffice it to say that for the moment, this brought the episode down.

If not for that, I would have given The Ends of the Earth a higher rating. This is especially true given that it was nice to see Leonardo actually challenged in the firmest of tones by those around him. However, this is the highest score I can muster given what I saw as needlessly graphic violence.


Next Episode: The Sun and The Moon

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Voyage of the Damned Review




Things are starting to settle in Season Two of Da Vinci's Demons, with The Voyage of the Damned setting many plots forward. Good performances and threading plots elevate this episode.

It appears that Count Riario is seeking to go against the will of his uncle Pope Sixtus IV by commanding a ship go against its original plans. However, Alfonso, Duke of Calabria (Kieran Bew) is not fooled. Riario is unmasked as Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley), trying to pull a fast one. Even though he and his friend Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) escape, Alfonso still has control of the ship.

No worries for Leo. He creates an early version of the submarine to catch up to it and use the slaves aboard to overtake the ship. Happily helping them is Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman), despite thinking the whole thing mad. Or does he?

For his part, Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) is surprisingly delighted that the Medici family has retained its hold of Florence. He is especially pleased that one of his bishops, Clarice Medici's own brother, was hung for treason. It provides him the perfect excuse to excommunicate all of Florence, which he and Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) know will bring Florence to its knees unless the excommunication is reversed. 

As Leo and Zoroaster set out on their way-out plan, Lorenzo begins his own to save his city, much to the dislike of Leo's father Piero (David Schofield). And that's not even counting the sudden appearance of Lorenzo's half-brother Carlo (Ray Fieron), whose plans are still unclear.

One of the positive aspects of The Voyage of the Damned is its opening. It gives Riley a chance to almost spoof Blake Ritson's soft, whispery Riario. Watching, I figured there was something slightly odd about how "Riario" was shot, but the vocal manner is pretty much on the mark. 

Part of me imagines that Riley was having a grand time doing a Riario impersonation; it does also reveal that despite Da Vinci's Demons eccentric world, it is not afraid to have a little fun. 

A lot of The Voyage of the Damned was just that: fun. Boardman's Amerigo Vespucci is fun, always managing to bring enough humor without being cartoonish. James Faulkner is fun. Not in a ha-ha way, but in how he is able to play two characters with equal ease. There is the wicked Pope Sixtus IV and then there is his imprisoned twin brother.

Riley is showcasing his Leonardo as a man who takes glee at his own genius, where even the risk of drowning is more inconvenience than dangerous. Granted, he does show slight fear when his calculations on his submersible are slightly off, but only slight. Besides, knowing that he is going to live, it cannot build up the tension The Voyage of the Damned wants us to have.

We even get Alexander Siddig popping up as "The Turk", though he is the only one not having any fun. The Turk is always such a downer, unable to have a moment of levity. I do also wonder what role Carlo will have, given we have never been given a single clue to his existence. That, however, remains to be seen.

The Voyage of the Damned is a good episode, having action, a touch of danger and even a few laughs. 


Next Episode: The Ends of the Earth

Monday, May 9, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Blood of Brothers Review




Now that Da Vinci's Demons has given us a strange destiny for our title character, we can focus back on the violence and sex of Renaissance Florence. The Blood of Brothers gives us surprising twists and even a bit of comedy among the murder and mystical mayhem.

Florence is still in the grips of chaos after the murders in the cathedral and the Pazzi coup d'état. Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) is still hovering between life and death, but so is his frenemy Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley). Lorenzo and Leo both survive, but the former is both still critically injured and enraged at the latter schtupping his mistress.

Focus, Lorenzo, focus.

As Clarice Orsini de Medici (Lara Pulver) attempts to hold on to her family's power while literally besieged, Leo comes up with yet another brilliant idea to rally the Florentines to the de Medici cause and reject the Pazzi coup. He creates an ability for Lorenzo to broadcast his voice over the people, who instantly rally to their leader and turn violently on the Pazzis.

Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) and Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) survive walking the plank but cannot stop Count Riario (Blake Ritson) from sailing with the astrolabe and worse, Nico (Eros Vlahos), to a new world to find the Book of Leaves. Riario discovers the art of erotic pleasure with Zita (Estella Daniels), an Abyssinian who finds our dour figure quite desirable. In order to complete his destiny of finding the Book of Leaves and rescue Nico, Leo now embarks to catch him, with a little help from cartographer Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman).

What I enjoyed about The Blood of Brothers is that the show is allowing a little bit of comedy within the crazed metaphysical hijinks. That comes primarily from Boardman's introduction as Vespucci, the man who somehow gave a whole continent a corruption of his first name: America.

Imagine if they'd named the New World "Vespucci". 

Boardman brings a levity in his Amerigo Vespucci, a bit of a rake who fakes his death to get away from creditors. One wonders exactly how many times he has "died" to pull this off. With Boardman on board, so to speak, we can hope to see more of him in future episodes.

In some ways, The Blood of Brothers feels like two episodes tied into one. You have the resolution to the attempted coup with Lorenzo managing to rally to retake power. You then strongly transition to the new journey as Leo begins his race to follow Riario, and I give credit for being able to achieve the shift with little difficulty.

As a side note, I admire how Tom Bateman managed screen credit for appearing as a corpse. Must have been a nice paycheck to get paid for literally playing dead.

Pulver again is a standout here, as Clarice's strength and resolve dominates others who would put her down because she is both a woman and a Medici by marriage. Cowan could be slightly irritating as Lorenzo given how negative and almost coward-like he came across. Ritson is a surprise as Riario as he cavorts with Zita. One would not think he had any emotions or desires, but here he is giving in to the pleasures of the flesh.

I do question how Zoroaster and Lucrezia managed to get to shore given how it looked they were far off at sea, but I'm not going to quibble too hard on this point.

The Blood of Brothers is a step up from the last episode, as like a ship slowly correcting course. Giving us surprisingly less graphic sex than past Da Vinci's Demons episodes with a hint of the violence, I thought well of how the show is slowly moving. 


Next Episode: The Voyage of the Damned

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The Northman: A Review



One looks at The Northman with respect in that it clearly stayed within its vision, even if that vision was extremely long and not very deep. Trippy, a bit bonkers and long, The Northman is a visual, if trying, feast.

Nordic Prince Amleth rejoices at the arrival of his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Aurvandil's Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) also rejoices as does his brother Fjornil (Claes Bang). Amleth is initiated into the world of men through a psychedelic ceremony led by Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), the Court Jester and mystic.

There is evil afoot, however, when Fjornil kills his brother to seize the throne and the Queen. Amleth flees swearing to avenge his father, save his mother and kill his uncle. Years later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), has become a fierce Scandanavian warrior, a beast inside man-flesh. Killing his way through the land of the Rus, he encounters a vision from a Seeress (Icelandic pop singer Bjork), detailing his destiny towards his stepfather/uncle.

Now hiding out among captives bound for King Fjornil's realm, Amleth hooks up with the Slavic Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) in every way conceivable. He saves his half-brother Gunnar's life, with the royal family unaware that the long-lost prince has returned. However, far from this being a happy reunion, there are a few surprises for Amleth before the Valkyries carry him to Valhalla. 

In many ways, The Northman is not a particularly original story despite being based on the Nordic legend of Amleth. I do not think it helps that the dialogue is pretty stereotypically Norse in manner, very gruff and slightly pompous. The manner in which everyone speaks is rather grand but also slightly eccentric to modern ears. One wonders if people in pre-Christian Scandanavia spoke in such tones.

However, I do not think people will watch The Northman for an exploration into Amleth's psyche. They will go for the visuals, which are exceptional. The cinematography of this world via Jarin Blashke is beautifully rendered. The final battle between Amleth and Fjornil in what looks like literal Hel is visually arresting, a vision of fire. Even the more psychedelic scenes where Amleth has visions do not look completely bonkers.

You also revel in Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough's score, full of blood and thunder so in tune with Vikings (no pun intended).

I thought well of some of the performances, particularly Kidman as the Queen who is more than what she appears to be. In his small role, Willem Dafoe as the spooky Court Jester embraces the cray-cray. Skarsgard is not asked much of save to be the stereotypical Viking warrior and show off more of his physique.

What I did have a problem with The Northman is its two-hour plus running time. I confess I did nod off for a bit, overwhelmed by the constant visions and generally crazed manner these berserkers behaved at. I also was surprised that a few times, the audience chuckled if not flat-out laughed at some of the intonations and what appears exaggerated manners of the characters.

The Northman will, I imagine, try some people's patience in its length and violence. Perhaps it would have been better to make this a miniseries versus a feature, but in terms of production I thought well of the film. I do not know if I would watch it again, but on the whole, it works as eccentric entertainment. 


Saturday, May 7, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Blood of Man Review



It is a curious thing that the Season Two opener for Da Vinci's Demons kind of flubs it to give us a preview of coming attractions. The Blood of Man has not a terrible start but after the curious opening kind of struggles to get back to where I think it should.

We open with a captured Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) and Count Riario (Blake Ritson) preparing for death in what appears to be a Pre-Columbian world. Once we are about to see their killing, we then jump back to the chaos of the murder in the cathedral.

Poor Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan): dying from his slashed throat but too obsessed that Leo has been schtupping his mistress Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) to care about his impending death. As they escape and fight, Leo comes up with a brilliant idea: a blood transfusion. Lorenzo is in no condition to give his consent (which he probably wouldn't), but Leo gets his way. In his own weakened state, he sees things that yet may be.

The Pazzi family is attempting to complete their coup d'état while poor Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) and Lucrezia attempt to complete Leo's original mission of sailing beyond the known world. Unfortunately, Riario gets to the ship first and gets them to walk the plank. 

I think I can appreciate what The Blood of Man was going for, but somehow this "Leo and Riario are trapped by Incans" preview cut away from the tension that The Lovers had left off with. I think it is due to knowing that from now until we get this encounter with the New World, we know they will survive. 

As such, part of me no longer feels any worry for whatever travails either of them goes through. I know they will live, so why worry about Leo's health? 

Moreover, there were other aspects of The Blood of Man that I was not following. How did Riario get to the ship first? Why did we have to go forwards six months at all? Why can't Lorenzo be sensible for once and focus on how he is dying and his family may be summarily executed versus caring about whether Leo had sexy-time with Lucrezia?

I should resign myself to knowing Da Vinci's Demons will be violent, but there is something involving an eye in The Blood of Man that I thought went a bit overboard (no pun intended). 

Still, I can't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think Da Vinci's Demons still has some strong performances. Riley and Cowan act exceptionally well together, and Laura Pulver as Clarice Orsini de Medici comes into her own. She ensures her daughters' safety while taking command in her husband's absence. James Faulkner is going to have a grand time playing both the wicked Pope Sixtus IV and his imprisoned brother Alessandro. 

The Blood of Man would have worked better for me if it had started when I think it should have: amidst the chaos of the assassinations versus having a slow opening scene of Incan insanity. That weakened the episode for me, but I figure things will work better as we go on.


Next Episode: The Blood of Brothers

Monday, May 2, 2022

Morbius: A Review (Review #1590)



Without a hint of irony, I can say that Morbius is astonishing. Astonishing in that the mind boggles over how alleged professional in film could make something simultaneously bland and horrendous. Morbius is somewhere between disaster and unmitigated disaster: rushed and incomplete, boring and nonsensical, it is a low point for the comic book film genre.

As children, Michael Morbius and his friend/"brother" Lucien aka Milo suffer from a rare blood disease. Twenty-five years later Morbius (Jared Leto) is a brilliant scientist who has developed synthetic blood to treat his disease. Convinced that vampire bats can help provide a cure, he procures hundreds of them to do his mad science experiments.

Despite the trepidations of his lab partner Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), he experiments on himself. Naturally, things go awry: Morbius becomes a vampire, with extraordinary physical powers. However, the blood lust disgusts Morbius and he begins a search for a safe antidote.

Milo (Matt Smith) has no qualms about living it up as a living undead. He kills with pleasure, enjoying his newfound physical freedom. The various killings are being investigated by Agent Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson) and his Boy Friday, Agent Rodriguez (Al Madrigal), the comic relief. The conflict between Michael and Milo will lead to a conflict between these ersatz brothers, where not all will survive.

In the two mid-credit scenes, Adrian Toomes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man film Spider-Man: Homecoming ends up suddenly in this universe; as Vulture, Toomes suspects Spidey had a hand in being in this strange new world. Meeting with Morbius, he suggests an alliance.

Ah, Morbius, trying to have its cake and eat it too. I can't think of a film, at least this year, that has bungled even the most basic elements of filmmaking as this one. Just about every element in Morbius is awful that it becomes difficult to single a good thing in the film. 

It is not the acting alone. Leto makes Michael Morbius less a conflicted man than a blank figure. One would not be blamed if instead of a vampire, Morbius was revealed as a zombie given how dull Leto made him. Whether it is summoning vampires to help him fly (don't ask) or romancing Martine, he looks bored with it all. 

Sadly, almost everyone save Smith, Madrigal and Gibson followed Leto's example. Arjona and Jared Harris as Michael and "Milo's" father figure looked as if they wanted to be anywhere but here. Smith figured he was in junk and went all-in on the camp. His villain, while with little rhyme or reason (was he independently rich or dependent on Harris' Dr. Nicholas) at least had some fun with things. Madrigal overcompensated with the comic relief in a desperate effort to inject some humor into something that was taking itself far too seriously.

Gibson on the other hand, somehow managed to be accidentally funny as Stroud, someone who tried to play the situation straight but instead made the preposterous nature of Morbius more obvious.  

One can't blame the actors entirely. It is hard to make lines like "You don't want to see me when I'm hungry" any less ridiculous sounding. Matt Samaza and Burk Sharpless' screenplay gave no one except perhaps for Smith anything to really work with. The story needlessly jumps from present to past and back with no setup. We start with Morbius hunting vampires, then to his childhood, then to his sudden elevation to Nobel laureate. 

Worse, when they are in Michael and Lucien's past, here things jump more. Michael just names Lucien "Milo" because he's seen so many ill boys that he can't be bothered to remember their names, but as soon as Milo 4.0 starts dying, he suddenly becomes frantic for someone he showed total disinterest literally seconds prior. Later on, we see Milo/Lucien bullied, jump to Michael asking what will happen to Milo, then see the aftereffects of Milo's bullying.

It does not make any sense, but Morbius does not care to make sense.

The visual effects look cheap, cheaper when they hide the gore to appeal to a PG-13 crowd. Efforts to tie this to a larger universe (probably the Venom-Verse) by throwing in The Daily Bugle fall flat. It is strange that Morbius feels simultaneously rushed and slow, waiting for something to happen as it flies by.

In some ways, Morbius feels like The New Mutants: cheap, a bit flat, and without much reason for being. The difference between the two is that The New Mutants was at least more aware of its limitations than Morbius was. 

I have no interest in the ever-expanding multiverses of the various comic book films, finding things more convoluted in an effort to appeal to middle-aged teenage boys who refuse to let go of their childhoods. Morbius may be a quick fix between MCU or DCEU films, but expanding into these worlds is sucking the life out of cinema. 

Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Wobblies: A Review (Review #1589)



On this May Day, I think it would be appropriate to look at the restoration of the documentary The Wobblies. Using interviews and archival footage, The Wobblies gives a human, albeit biased, face to this labor organization that had a powerful impact on our world.

The International Workers of the World had a vision of uniting all labor under one big union, though this was unskilled labor (no accountants need apply). The nickname "Wobblies" more than likely originated from their initials, though one member recalls that it came from a "Chinaman" who could not pronounce "W" and said he was a member of "I Wobble Wobble".

For the record, the term "Chinaman" was his term, not mine. 

Unlike the other major labor union, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Wobblies detested capitalism and could not bring themselves to cooperate with the current system. Firmly opposed to the wage system, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie, unwavering in thinking the workers should share the profits, the Wobblies struck from factories to lumber mills. The Wobblies did not discriminate, accepting all races into the union (hence the admission of the "Chinaman"). 

Hearing the experiences of those who lived through the years of the Wobblies' most prominent years, The Wobblies gives one an inside look at the members, who then were in their senior years. One discusses how she declined a date with a policeman who had fought against them. Another interviewee talks about how the lumberjacks endured not only bad food and no sleeping quarters, even the plates nailed to the table lest the workers steal them.

However, in the end public opinion turned against the Wobblies. The intensity of their tactics, down to sabotage, turned people against them. They also faced the perceptions of members as lazy (the organization's initials mockingly used to mean "I Won't Work" or "I Want Whisky"). Finally, the First World War and Palmer Raids brought the International Workers of the World from their prominence into something of a relic.

The Wobblies may have influenced the Warren Beatty epic Reds both in terms of subject and in how the latter had interviews with the surviving members. Witnesses, if you will. The Wobblies/Reds connection grows in that Roger Baldwin, an ACLU founder interviewed for Reds, serves as narrator for The Wobblies.   

Part of me wonders whether someone so biased on the subject should have been the narrator. It makes The Wobblies look more an International Workers of the World promotional video than a series of reminiscences on how things were when they faced off for their beliefs.

What I found in The Wobblies, beautifully restored, is an interesting remembrance on their life and times. These lives and times are reflected for good: a parody of In the Good Old Summertime to In the Good Old Picket Line. They are also reflected for bad: using the term "Chinaman", the use of blues and harmonica to signify the "Negro" in the IWW. 

However, The Wobblies is not a dry recitation of facts because we get the human face to this organization. Less about their socialist worldview and more about the interviewees' lives, The Wobblies is a bit dry but an interesting look into this now forgotten or little remembered world.