Thursday, June 30, 2022

Madonna: Truth or Dare. A Review (Review #1603)



Few pop stars have been as loved and hated in equal measure as Madonna Louise Ciccone. Madonna: Truth or Dare chronicles her Blonde Ambition Tour, though whether it was meant to positively or negatively portray our fair diva is left to the viewer.

Traversing from the rainy season in Japan down to the North American and European legs of her tour, Madonna shares her insights in voiceover on various issues ranging from her "emotionally crippled" backup singers and dancers to how displeased she is that Kevin Costner thinks her show was "neat". There are the various difficulties technical and otherwise: from heavy rains in Japan that she was unaware of or prudish Toronto police threatening arrest to the Pope finding her mockery of Catholic ritual objectionable.

As she tours around the world, from London to the Bay, apparently nothing is off-limits, much to the irritation of her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty. I figure sometime during the Blonde Ambition Tour they broke up, because during Truth or Dare she is open about planning to seduce Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. Unfortunately for our temptress, "Antonio Bandaras" as she calls him was then happily married. As the tour ends, she bids farewell to her ersatz family, the mother who must let her children fly.

To say Madonna has a healthy ego is an understatement. Few people would think twice before almost gleefully discussing their seduction plans only to dismiss said subjects of seduction as having a small penis when they fail in their conquests. I am somewhat puzzled by how someone who shrewd in managing their image would at times have no issue coming across as vain to vapid.

At times, I got the sense that she was performing, fully aware that cameras were recording. As such, she had to play "diva". Somehow, despite what is meant as a behind-the-scenes glimpse, I never shook off the sense that she was showing us what she wanted us to see versus what really was.

Even if Madonna wanted to be open about her life, calling her metaphorical children "emotionally crippled" or being somewhat dismissive of a former friend's near-naked plea for help does not make her look good. At times, Truth or Dare is a bit cringe-inducing. Moira McFarland, the childhood friend fallen on hard times, asks the Material Girl to be her latest child's godmother. From what I saw and remember, Madonna's noncommittal response suggests a woman who sees her former friend as more a bother than a person.

To be fair, Madonna does appear to let her guard down at times. During one of the truth or dare games she plays, her immediate and somewhat mournful response of "Sean" when asked who the love of her life was suggests that despite the misery that she and Sean Penn put themselves and each other through, she still would not trade it for anything.

Maybe trade it for erasing all copies of Shanghai Surprise, but who is to say.

She also appears to be a loving, even protective daughter to her father Tony, leading a mass singing of Happy Birthday when she performs in her hometown of Detroit and joyfully irritated that he wonders if she can get him and his wife tickets to a show.

As for the now-infamous moment of her visit to her mother's grave, I did not think it was as ridiculous as it has been reported. It was a bit peculiar her lying next to the gravesite, but I do not mock people for mourning their parent in their own way.

Truth or Dare splits sequences between black-and-white for the non-concert footage and full-blown color for her various performances. For me, it does make me wonder what a full concert film would have been like. It is clear Madonna is proud of her show. This is clear when her anger erupts over technical issues, though how her frequency is different from that of her emotionally crippled backup singers I can't guess at.

As a side note, I do not know why that phrase, "emotionally crippled", has stuck with me, though to be fair I do not remember if she thought it was her backup singers or dancers who got this peculiar title.

If you see her perform such hits as Holiday, Vogue and Express Yourself, you will be entertained. I found this version of Like a Virgin a bit silly versus erotic, though I find the idea of anyone flopping about on a bed more hilarious than titillating. 

However, Truth or Dare is not about Madonna's concert tour. It is a portrait of the artist as a diva. Warren Beatty appears both perplexed and irritated by how incessant the cameras are and how she is almost maniacally going along with the chronicling. "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk", he observes. It suggests he wonders not only why Madonna wants everything documented but also whether the documentation is to showcase her own sense of brilliance.

There is only one moment that I can remember her not allowing cameras in. To me, it was a minor point over a technical issue early on during the tour. For reasons I cannot guess at, this was more detrimental to her image than seeing her perform fellatio on a water bottle. 

Perhaps I did not end up thinking much about Madonna: Truth or Dare because I had seen Julie Brown's spoof Medusa: Dare to Be Truthful long before I saw the object of Brown's mockery. That take was intentionally hilarious and succeeded wildly in that department. Whether or not you think Madonna: Truth or Dare is also intentionally hilarious or not I leave to viewers. For myself, I found the concert scenes more revealing than the backstage scenes.


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Adventures of Prince Achmed: A Review



Animation has evolved greatly in the nearly hundred years between The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Lightyear, though the latter has shown that story still trumps visuals. The Adventures of Prince Achmed, remarkably short, still gives us some beautiful images even if it can get a touch repetitive.

The film is made up of five Acts. An African sorcerer goes to Bagdad to present his latest creation: a flying horse. The Caliph is impressed but cannot persuade the sorcerer to present it as a gift. For what would the sorcerer sell it for? 

For the beautiful Princess Dinarsade, who is already married to the long-lost Aladdin (though we do not learn that until later in the film). The Caliph is horrified, and her brother Prince Achmed is equally appalled. Nevertheless, the Prince agrees to ride the flying horse.

Bad idea, for the horse takes him far off, away from Court and to the island of Wak-Wak. From here, Achmed falls in love with the beautiful Pari Banu, Queen of Wak-Wak. The sorcerer, however, will not be denied. Magically escaping the Caliph's prison, he finds Achmed and Pari Banu, abducting the latter to sell to the Chinese Emperor.

Achmed now must fly to China and later to other parts of the world, aided by Aladdin and a good witch, to ultimately defeat the sorcerer and save Pari Banu.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed, in a technic sense, is a lost film. The version we have now is put together from surviving elements of the original German film. However, Prince Achmed as it stands now has some beautiful animation. It was a painstaking process, as it is not a hand-drawn animated film, but one made up by silhouettes. I do think that the sequences involving Aladdin's genie are hand-drawn, or at least look so visually splendid and original that it puts more recent animated films to shame.

Again, there are some beautiful sequences in Prince Achmed, complimented by Wolfgang Zeller's score. The wizard's duel between the witch and the sorcerer is visually impressive.

As a side note, one can imagine that the makers of The Sword in the Stone drew inspiration from the battle between good and evil.

The color elements, such as blue for night or yellow for China, add more beauty to the film. Granted, perhaps portraying China in yellow could come across as perhaps stereotypical, though I think it was not an intentionally insensitive decision. Perhaps a poor one from today's perspective, but it does not take away from its overall beauty.

Same goes for the African sorcerer. It does look now a bad decision to make the villain African, but again I cannot say for certain that there was any malicious intention. 

The story, while fantastical, at times does feel repetitive. How often can Pari Maru be abducted? There are times that make one wonder if Prince Achmed could be shown to children. When he first arrives in Wak-Wak, Prince Achmed is all but cavorting with a bevy of beauties, all of whom desire to devour him. It's pretty risqué for the times.

Children, I imagine, will also be put off by both the lack of speaking and the German subtitles. I would argue though that Prince Achmed is not made for children. If anything, it would be for families or even adults. 

Fantastical, visually splendid, and with a beautiful score, The Adventures of Prince Achmed should be better known separate from it being the oldest known surviving animated film. Credit to writer/director Lotte Reiniger in crafting this film, blending art and adventure in an elegant package. While the film will probably find more viewers interested in either film history or artistic endeavors, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is still a nice distraction from larger but empty animated films.


Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Elvis (2022): A Review



Elvis Presley casts a giant shadow over America. He's such a monumental figure in the culture that even those who have never seen any of his films or heard any of his songs know who he is. His home, Graceland, is the second most-visited estate after the White House. Impersonators abound, forever keeping the memory of The King alive. As such, no film could be expected to capture all of Presley's life. Elvis does not, and it does showcase all the glitz and opulence of his persona. However, the lead's star-making turn, along with a brash production elevate it to rousing entertainment.

Narrated by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis recounts the life and career of Elvis Presley, this poor white Southern boy who unlike most of his peers, grew up around black people. Intrigued by both the secular blues music and the sacred gospel music around him, Presley absorbed these genres along with the more traditional country music of the white community in that musical hodgepodge known as Memphis, Tennessee. 

Colonel Parker, carnival snowman (a conman really), is enthralled with the fact that this white boy can sing like a black man. He sees in Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) the idea crossover figure, one who will make him a great deal of money. Presley, determined to provide for his parents, agrees to make Colonel Parker his manager. From there, Parker leads his client into massive (albeit controversial) success, with merchandising, movies and live concerts.

Presley wants more for his own personal life, but Colonel Parker has a way of stopping things like world tours or better film roles. The reasons are not just financial, but personal. Ultimately though, despite being old enough to be his father, Colonel Parker outlives The King, but lives long enough to see that Elvis is eternal and loved, while he is mortal and reviled.

Elvis has as its major plus the central role played by Austin Butler. Butler has it all in his portrayal of Presley. He has the physicality down: the snarl, the gyrations, the voice, none of which feel like mimicry or spoof. Butler does more than capture Presley's on-stage persona. In the few moments where Elvis is allowed to be soft and still, Butler reveals the tragedy, hurt, anger and fear Presley faced. His best moments are when Presley is human, frail. In his devastation on his mother Gladys' (Heather Thomson) death. In how he expresses his regrets about his life and loss of the male lead in the Streisand version of A Star is Born, Buter shows us the full range of this man. It is an exceptional performance, and if he does not become a star with both Elvis and the upcoming Dune: Part II, it'll be one of the most shocking turns ever.

Not that Butler skimp when it comes to the concert scenes. He unleashes the wild, uninhibited man who just does what his body wants him to do. There's an almost ferocious manner to his stage performances, even when Presley has become sadly corpulent and almost a parody of himself. Both on stage and behind the scenes, Austin Butler does what once was thought impossible: he outacts Tom Hanks.

To be fair, it is not that Hanks wasn't trying, but the script went overboard in making Colonel Parker into a cartoonish villain. A good villain never knows he is a villain. More often than not, the villain believes he is either merely smarter than everyone else or that he is actually doing good (mostly for him/herself). As played by Hanks, however, Colonel Parker knows Colonel Parker is EVIL, to where he was a mustache short of twirling.

The presumably Dutch accent and theatrical manner, however, do not help. While Elvis drops hints that Colonel Parker is in reality an illegal alien and not the man from West Virginia as he claims, Elvis never has that fact fully formed. As he totters around, hamming it up for all its worth, the sight of the evil Colonel Tom Parker in a Christmas sweater forever demanding Presley sing Here Comes Santa Claus is almost comical. This performance will probably be the nadir of Hanks' career with perhaps only his villainous turn in The Ladykillers giving it a run for his money.

It's curious that Hanks, who built his career and own persona as the most loveable of Americans, flounders when playing a truly villainous role. 

I do not think it is all Hanks' fault, though he bears a great deal of the blame. I think it is because director Baz Luhrmann (who cowrote the script with Sam Bromell, Craig Pierce and Jeremy Doner) were more interested in the flash and glitz of Presley's persona. To be fair, Luhrmann did capture a lot of that mythic Presley stage magic: the Las Vegas concerts shot in the same manner of the Presley concert documentary Elvis: That's the Way It Is

In terms of costuming and theatrics, Elvis does Elvis proud. However, sometimes less is more, and Elvis might have done better to focus on Presley the man versus Presley the showman. As so much focus is on the entertainer, we get little from Presley's wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), who is in very few scenes to where she was essentially not important to the story. 

Other performances such as Thomson as Gladys were strong, but it is a shame that Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s B.B. King or Yola's Sister Rosetta Tharpe just popped in and out. 

Despite the weakness of the script and an uncharacteristically bad Tom Hanks performance, Elvis will please Presley fans. With a star-making performance from Austin Butler, grand staging and a sympathetic portrait of Presley, Elvis is a film that loves The King tender.



Saturday, June 25, 2022

Spiderhead: A Review (Review #1600)


The past few years has given us the mantra of "trust the science". Spiderhead, for its part, makes the case that science can still run amok, and that human frailty can still bring destruction on itself.

Jeff (Miles Teller) is serving a sentence for a crime that resulted from his irresponsible actions. However, he and other inmates at the Spiderhead facility have an extraordinary amount of freedom, almost Scandanavian. Why? They have agreed to be guinea pigs for new drugs overseen by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who gives them various mood-altering chemicals whenever they acknowledge consent.

There's G-46/Laffodil, which causes the subject to laugh even when told of tragedy. N-40 or Luvactin overrides their sexual inhibitions to where arousal and sex abound. Not every chemical, however, is jolly. The most dangerous so far is Darkenfloxx, which overwhelms them with regret and anger and violence.

Jeff knows about Darkenfloxx, which is why he will not acknowledge using it on Izzy (Jurnee Smollett), the fellow inmate/cook whom he is attracted to. He does agree, very reluctantly, to its use on Heather (Tess Haubrich) with horrifying results. Here, Jeff learns the true nature of Steve Abnesti, setting off a chain of events that send the facility into eventual chaos. The truth of B-6, whose reason for being had not been revealed before, is also exposed. Abnesti dubs B-6 OBDX or Obidiex, and it becomes a desperate race to escape this mad lab.

Spiderhead, adapted from the short story Escape from Spiderhead, has some excellent ideas about the blindness of science and the greed that it can fall into. It, to be fair, does not go into new territory with its story. You have the seemingly benevolent figure, the young man taken in by a mix of regret and desire to improve, the pretty young thing who harbors a deep, dark secret.

However, director Joseph Kosinski keeps things well grounded. Of particular note is Spiderhead's aesthetic. There is a sparseness to the film, an almost clinical manner to things that keeps simple. We are not given large set pieces or large moments apart from Heather's shocking act when she accidentally is overdosing on Darkenfloxx. 

The film benefits tremendously from some of the performances. Like Kosinski, Miles Teller scores another excellent film after their triumph in Top Gun: Maverick. Jeff is a haunted figure, filled with regret and pain. It is understandable why he would agree to the experiment separate from the knowledge that participation will reduce his sentence. Teller has at times struggled in his career such as when he attempted to be a superhero in the 2015 Fantastic Four film.

However, he now is reminding us of the immense talent he showed in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash. Jeff is not a sad sack, but one who is motivated to correct what he can to the best of his abilities. Tormented but wise, hoping to free himself from the past, Teller makes Jeff a figure the audience will support. 

While their roles are smaller, both Smollett as Izzy and Haubrich as Heather hold their own. Smollett's performance shows Izzy as sensible, kind and compassionate, making the reason for her imprisonment both shocking and tragic. Heather, for her part, has moments of comedy when she acknowledges sex with Jeff via N-40 but also horrifying when she is overwhelmed with Darkenfloxx.

Rhett Rees and Paul Wernick's adaptation, however, fails when it comes to Hemsworth. From his forced pleasantness to doing an almost balletic dance to Roxy Music's More Than This, Hemsworth came across as goofy. Based on his performance, I would not blame people for thinking that Spiderhead was a comedy. I cannot take seriously a villain who is worried that that Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley and Morley Safer will all expose his actions, unaware that they are all dead.

The music does not help. I do not mean the score, but the myriad of pop songs that populate Spiderhead. I do not know why Thomas Dolby's She Blinded Me with Science had to start pumping out near what is meant as a serious moment. It took away from the seriousness that Spiderhead wants to push. The film has a lot of songs that somehow got in the way. So did a running gag with a feces-obsessed inmate that is revealed at what is meant as the climatic escape.

This brings Spiderhead down, as does the various drug names. Laffodil for laughter. Luvactin for wild sex. Darkenfloxx for despair. Phobica for creating irrational fear. Obidiex for total control. Inadvertently or not, Spiderhead reminded me of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy. That film also used a pharmaceutical company whose product appeared first benevolent but ended destructive. Even the drug's name is meant to be funny: Gleemonex. Spiderhead's curious drug names are both too on-the-nose and unintentionally hilarious. 

This, along with a weak ending, bring Spiderhead down. However, there is just enough to make Spiderhead worth a look. 


Thursday, June 23, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Sins of Daedalus Review



It says a lot about medieval Italy when an invading Ottoman armada is one of the lesser problems they face. The Sins of Daedalus, which closes out Season Two of Da Vinci's Demons, packs in a lot with excellent results. Thrilling, sometimes shocking, it carries a lot of stories that one hopes will come to a great conclusion in Season Three.

As Florence recovers from its occupation, we find that Nico (Eros Vlahos) is a shrewd figure. No surprise, as his full name is Niccolo Machiavelli! His cleverness is needed now more than ever, as Vanessa (Hera Hilmar) finds herself as the Regnant of Florence. This is not a position she wants, preferring to retire quietly along with her new son. However, her new son is a Medici, and the only male Medici around. Clarice (Lara Pulver) has disappeared after the chaos of the occupation, and Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan) is in Naples.

Apparently, everyone else is in Naples. The battle between the Florentines Lorenzo and Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) and the joint alliance of Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) and whacked-out King Alfonso (Kieran Bew) must put aside their differences and join forces against a greater threat. The Ottoman Turks are fast sailing towards the Neapolitan kingdom, determined to begin the conquest of Europe. Bayezid (Akin Gazi), the Sultan's son, is eager to take revenge against the Pope who not only scorned him but humiliated him out of Rome. With Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) forcibly serving as envoy, she gives the Christians the ultimatums: surrender the country to Bayezid and to Islam or else.

Leo won't take the "or else" bit lying down, and neither will the rest of them. It is as the ships begin to approach that Pietro da Vinci (David Schofield) gets the shock of his life when he looks through the spyglass. The sorceress and soothsayer serving the Sultan's son is none other than Leonardo's mother!

The Sins of Daedalus throws a great deal at us, leaving us with many loose ends. We have Vanessa as the de facto ruler of Florence, the real Pope Sixtus having left his prison, Count Riario (Blake Ritson) as the newest member of the shadowy Enemies of Man. It has so many stories flying hither and yon, yet it never loses its balance on any of them.

The pacing never lets up as The Sins of Daedalus jumps from one story to the next. From the arguing among the various Italian leaders to how Nico manages to outwit the Florentine elite with some Machiavellian maneuvering, one never feels shortchanged in terms of plots.

That, however, may not work well when it comes to the performances. No, the performances are pretty good to great. We have many strong performances all around, and even when we have smaller parts such as Sasha Behar as "the Seer" we see strong actors doing strong work. The problem is that we get little bits where they do not get enough time.

I grant that as the season finale, we have to put a lot of things and open up that third season. 

However, on the whole I found The Sins of Daedalus moved well, has strong performances and manages to leave things with enough endings to get us to a Season Three. 


Next: The Complete Second Season

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Hustle (2022): A Review



I begin my Hustle review with a confession: I know very little to nothing about basketball. All these years, I thought Dirk Nowitzki was Polish. I went to my first NBA game this year and while I enjoyed it, I also was a bit lost. I had to call my BFF and ask him not only who this "Luka" was but how to pronounce his last name. I figured he was talented given his jerseys and t-shirts were all around me. It was so to where I bought a Doncic t-shirt with only the vaguest idea who he is. As such, Hustle is probably geared more towards current basketball fans than to people like me. However, the story more than makes up for any gaps I had over the myriad of NBA cameos that the film has.

Philadelphia 76er international scout Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler) yearns to be a coach both to move up career wise and to stay closer to his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). The new 76er owner Vince Merrick (Ben Foster) however, is not sold on Sugerman being at court unless he finds him a big talent to revive the team's fortune.

Stan thinks he has when he finds Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), a Spanish construction worker and street basketball hustler. Stan sees Bo has the raw talent and physicality to be in the NBA. However, Bo also has both no real experience and anger issues. Despite having no backing from Vin, Stan brings Bo to America to train in order to be looked over for a potential career. Bo has to leave his mother and daughter behind to pursue this unlikely goal. He also has to endure the taunts of Kermit Wilts (Anthony Edwards), the basketball phenom who has a long amateur record to make him into an All-Star. 

Bo flounders a bit with scouts, his inexperience and anger getting in the way. However, with some social media savvy from Alex and a little help from figures like NBA legend Julius "Dr. J." Erving, both Bo and Stan may reach the NBA together, if separately.

As I watched Hustle, I gave it the nickname My Fair Luka since in some ways, the film reminded me of My Fair Lady. Here is the older mentor who will take the common street person and transform him into an NBA superstar. In some ways, Hustle does not break the mold when it comes to inspirational sports stories. You have the said older mentor, the younger talent, the training montages, the antagonists, and a triumphant victory for both.

That being said, one can see Hustle knew it was staying within certain confines and used them to its advantages. It does stretch believability that Stan would come upon a major talent almost by happenstance. However, as Hustle does not pretend to be above cliches, you can roll with those moments. The training montages were impressively filmed, with some excellent camera work and editing that made them visually unique and interesting. 

Hustle does best when it gives us an insider's look at the business of basketball. We see the front office meetings where various players are judged. We see the intense work the athletes go through to remain major players.

What is also good in Hustle is that most of the NBA players who appear handle the acting part well. Hernangomez is the co-lead in Hustle, and he is surprisingly strong as Bo, the street kid who is his own stumbling block. I do not think he has a career in theater when he retires, but he did make you forget that he is in real life a professional basketball player. Unlike some of the other NBA stars, Hernangomez did not stumble much when it came to line delivery. Sometimes he could be a bit stiff, but on the whole he did well.

Anthony Edwards was equally respectable as Wilts, the taunting antagonist. Granted, I was expecting Anthony Edwards the actor from Top Gun and E.R. when I saw the credits. That said, the NBA Anthony Edwards did well in his small role, though he was more saying the lines than acting them. 

Many of the cameos were handled well, though I figure those who follow the NBA would recognize the players more than I. Some cameos, like those from Allen Iverson and Luka Doncic, were almost "blink and you'll miss them". Others, like Nowitzki, were a little on the bad side. On the whole though, they were handled well.

The professional actors had some strong performances. Adam Sandler has for now left the man-child roles that propelled him to fame. His Stanley Sugerman was a driven but regretful man, one who has a passion for the game but also who is worn down by it. He finds basketball a curious mistress, but one he loves. It is a strong dramatic performance, whether it is in a delight in teasingly being hard when training Bo or revealing the tragedy that still haunts him.

Hustle unfortunately gives both Queen Latifah and Ben Foster little to do, which is a shame. In particular with Foster, you wish he would have been given more than the somewhat cliched arrogant boss who has it in for our hero role. However, Foster is an exceptional talent who does strong work with his small role. Latifah is somewhat relegated to "supportive spouse", but she is also able to hold her own when not as supportive.

Hustle is probably more for basketball fans, like Sandler, who follow the ins and outs of the sport. It however is not inaccessible to non-basketball aficionados. I did not feel left out due to how Hustle is not exclusively about basketball but about the drive to rise above where one is at. Entertaining, well-acted even by the athletes, I think both fans and haters can enjoy Hustle.


Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Enemies of Man Review




As we finally arrive back in the Old World after our Incan encounter, we see that Da Vinci's Demons still goes all in on the cray-cray. The Enemies of Man brings us a bit of a downer ending and given that we're only one episode from the finale, it does not bode well to see an upbeat one.

Now that we've left the Amazon, Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) finds that things in his beloved Florence are now worse than before. The city is now in the hands of corrupt and sleazy Duke Federico (Vincent Riota). Holding Clarice de Medici (Lara Pulver) hostage, the city is in despair, thrown into chaos. How will Leo liberate his libertine city? The way to do so is not without a brutal cost, as Leo's mentor and friend must pay the ultimate price when they learn that Carlo de Medici (Ray Fearon) is the mysterious Labyrinth, who seeks revenge against the Sons of Mithras. It was Carlo, not the Abyssinian, who traveled to Macchu Pichu 

Meanwhile, Count Riario (Blake Ritson) is a man broken by guilt and emotional turmoil; he is saved from a suicide attempt after his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) mocks his pleas for spiritual forgiveness. He soon finds himself being emotionally and psychologically tortured by those who saved him, a spent and distraught figure.

In Naples, while Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) has enough time for some sexy-time with Duchess Ippolita (Jeany Sparks), he finds that King Ferrante (Matthew Marsh) is dead, leaving his equally unstable son Alfonso (Kieran Bew) as the new king. Worse, now King Alfonso remains fiercely loyal to the Pope, who seeks terms of surrender.

Perhaps it is because a lot of time has elapsed since I've seen the episodes, but I find that The Enemies of Man and the following episode are blending together. There certainly is a lot going on here, and to their credit some of the performances are simply brilliant.

At the top of that list is Ritson, who has shifted from whispering villain to a tragic figure. As Da Vinci's Demons has progressed, he has stolen the spotlight from the equally hunky Riley. I think it is due to how their characters have evolved. 

Riley's da Vinci has remained pretty much the same: cocky, arrogant, catnip to every woman he comes across. Riario, however, has evolved from a coldblooded figure into an emotionally battered one, driven by genuine desires of blind loyalty only to find that the cost of following his faith has been a high one. Thinking he was saving souls, he was instead destroying his own.

It is a wonderful thing to see, which is why I am more impressed by Ritson than by Riley. It is not that Riley has slacked off: the sight of his friend, mentor and father-figure dying before his eyes is a strong bit of acting. It is, however, that he does not have many opportunities for such displays.

I thought well of The Enemies of Man, though at times it veered close to slipping into farce. Of particular note is when we see Clarice, who looks like the medieval version of Princess Leia's slave girl from Return of the Jedi. The episode is dominated by darkness and greys, which is fitting for such a downer of an episode and the generally bleak situation. Perhaps they went a bit overboard in the portrayal of Florence as a truly desperate city, but it is not a hill I'm willing to die on.

The Enemies of Man packed in a lot of stories in its running time. I thought it was good not great, but a strong lead up to the season finale.


Next Episode: The Sins of Daedalus

Monday, June 20, 2022

Lightyear: A Review



Lightyear, despite what audiences may think, is not really part of the Toy Story universe. Well, it is, in a roundabout way, but then, it isn't, according to those who made it. Confused? Don't worry, you won't get anything out of it.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is leading a large ship of travelers in space to a new planet when he sees an uncharted planet. Taking the ship to explore if it is habitable, he and his loyal second-in-command Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) quickly find that it is a dangerous world. While they manage to save those aboard the ship, they are now marooned on this planet, now named Takani Prime. 

Making the best of things, the passengers set up a colony. Buzz is determined to finish the mission, but that requires going into hyperspace. After the first test run, Buzz discovers that what to him are mere minutes are really four years on Takani Prime. Nevertheless, he persisted. Approximately 62 years pass, during which Alisha has married a woman named Kiko, given birth to a son, had a granddaughter and died.

Also after 62 years, Buzz's pet cat robot Sox (Peter Sohn) has finally gotten the formula right to get to hyperspace and take everyone off Takani Prime. Buzz, however, has to deal with two problems. One is the invasion of Takani Prime from a mysterious figure named Emperor Zurg (James Brolin). The other is Izzy (Keke Palmer), Alisha's granddaughter, and her two companions: clumsy Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and elderly convict Darby Steel (Dale Soules). Forced to join forces with "rookies", Buzz must now fight alongside them to stop Zurg and save the community. Zurg, however, has a shocking secret of his own that ties him to Lightyear, one that could destroy past and future. Buzz now has to make many choices and do the right thing.

Ah, to be so meta. Lightyear wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be simultaneously tied to and untethered to the Toy Story franchise. It wants us to imagine this is a live-action film as well as the big faux-1995 hit that inspired the Buzz Lightyear action figure which Toy Story's Andy so longed for. In fact, Lightyear opens with an almost Star Wars-like opening text saying that Lightyear is the 1995 film Andy saw that made him fall in love with Buzz Lightyear.

If that is the case, one is left wondering why Andy preferred a Buzz Lightyear action figure when a Sox one would have been the more popular one. 

Lightyear is a pretty pointless film. Worse, it is a dull one, with little wit or joy to make one want repeat viewings, let alone inspire a crazed in the Clinton years. The Buzz Lightyear in Lightyear is a pompous nitwit, one who changes little between ineptly putting potentially millions of lives at risk due to his own idiocy and refusing to accept any help.

Perhaps the heights, or depths, of Buzz's intelligence is when he literally tries to stop a falling spacecraft with his own body strength. I am aware the Chris Evans played Captain America, but even for an alleged "it's animated but it's really a live-action film" this is daft. I imagine that if Lightyear had been the live-action film Disney and Pixar insist audiences are supposed to treat it as, they would have either rolled their eyes or howled with laughter at Buzz Lightyear attempting to either slow down or stop a spacecraft with just his own physical strength.

IF we treat Lightyear as this action/drama they'd like us to, I'd have to say that it fails spectacularly. None of the characters are interesting. Buzz is dull, dim and not interesting. The comic relief from Mo Morrison falls flat. Darby is nothing more than a crochety old person (often I was not sure if Darby was a male or female). Worse, she (I think Darby is female) is so uninteresting that both Buzz and I had a hard time remembering her name.

"Nice job, elderly convict," Buzz tells her at one point. It was such a low level of interest that Buzz apparently did not bother to learn her name. I think I heard it once, and I couldn't remember it either, so this was a broken clock being right twice a day deal. 

Izzy and Grandmama Alisha were not interesting either. Izzy helpfully informs us that she has space-phobia, so we know she'll have to confront it later on. Alisha helpfully informs us that she is engaged to a woman named Kiko, whom we never actually hear from or know. 

Lightyear, if it is tied to the Toy Story mythos, now opts to contradict what people have seen before. If my memory of Toy Story 2 serves correct, Emperor Zurg turned out to be Buzz Lightyear's father, an obvious spoof of The Empire Strikes Back. Now, we learn that Zurg is really an older version of Buzz. 

It's as if Lightyear almost went out of its way to upend what audiences were already used to.

The Star Wars connections are fast and furious in Lightyear, to where if Lightyear had actually premiered in 1995, George Lucas would have sued for copyright infringement. You have an explosion that mirrors the destruction of the Death Star. You have a hologram that is inches short of saying, "Help me, Obi-Wan Lightyear. You're my only hope". 

It is one thing to spoof famous moments. It is another to flat-out rip them off and try to pass them off in what is meant as a major franchise starter.

That Lightyear fails so sadly in being fun or interesting makes its naked suggestion for a sequel more sad than hilarious. 

So much of Lightyear is so uninteresting. He is not a hero, but an idiot. He does not seem to either understand or care that rather than work to get people off the planet his incompetence got them there, he keeps losing years. We're supposed to believe it was a robotic cat, and not the scientists, who figured out the hyperspace formula. We're supposed to believe that said robotic cat can run for over 60 years without any kind of maintenance.

Lightyear, to be fair, does have some positives. Michael Giacchino's score is quite good, and some moments are visually arresting. Of particular note is when Izzy has to cross into deep space. However, because Lightyear took itself so seriously, there is no real joy in the project. I get that it is meant to be seen as this great space epic that inspired the toy, not the toy's origin story. However, sometimes people can be too clever by half, making what could have been a fun family film into a self-important, dull one.

Lightyear will not last in the memory by the end of the year, let alone to infinity and beyond.


Monday, June 13, 2022

Jurassic World Dominion: A Review



I see that I am fighting something of an uphill battle when it comes to Jurassic World Dominion, the film billed as the conclusion of the Jurassic Park/World film franchise. Audiences, it appears, seem to love this hybrid of nostalgia and action. I did not hate it, but I am also puzzled as to why audiences love it.

Jurassic World Dominion essentially is two films that run parallel to each other, briefly cross paths but never really connect, then diverge to their own stories. Plot One involves Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). They have served as de facto parents to Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), the clone we last saw in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. The sullen, surly child hates being hidden away from the world, but hidden away she must be. She, as a clone, is the target of nefarious figures. 

Unsurprisingly, she is abducted, along with the child of Owen's favorite dinosaur, Blue. It's up to Owen and Claire to rescue Maisie. That involves going to Maltese dinosaur black markets and getting help from Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise), a pilot who can spirit them into the heavily guarded dino sanctuary run by megacorporation Biosyn, headed by the shadowy Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). 

Plot Two involves giant locust plaguing the American Midwest and South. Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) has been investigating the giant locust, which curiously affect only non-Biosyn seed. Fortunately for her, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Golblum) happens to be lecturing the Biosyn staff at Dodgson's invitation, so he can provide a way for her to get locust samples to prove Biosyn is up to no good. To provide credibility, she gets her fellow Jurassic Park survivor Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) to join her.

It's here that Grant and Sattler discover Maisie, that Biosyn falls into total chaos, and then after the two groups complete their goals, go their separate ways.

I kept an informal track of when the cast of the Jurassic Park films and the cast of the Jurassic World films finally met. For a film that lasts approximately two and a half hours, the two groups finally worked together at about the 1 hour and 45 minute mark. Granted, I could be wrong in my calculations. However, it does show to me at least that essentially neither group was needed for the other group's plot. 

You could have had a whole film around the Owen/Claire story, with them taking over from Sattler, Malcolm and Grant with the Biosyn break-in. You could have had a whole film around the Sattler, Malcolm and Grant story, with them taking over from Owen and Claire with the Biosyn break-in. Dominion is, to my mind, two films crammed into one, where one story essentially interrupted the other.

Early on in Dominion, I thought that there were two plots going on and that one of them could work without the other. I am astonished at how odd everything around Dominion is, particularly with the superfluous Sattler, Malcolm and Grant.

For reasons I cannot fathom, Sattler and Grant were amazed at the creatures Biosyn had in its sanctuary. I thought to myself, "They've encountered dinosaurs before. Moreover, dinosaurs have apparently been around for close to thirty years. Why then are thy still amazed?". I would have thought the novelty had worn off.

However, like many audience members, the novelty has not worn off. Nostalgia can get over many things such as logic or plot. For example, when a group of them were trapped in a cave and Malcolm could get them out by punching in the right code, I saw Maisie pick up a skull to throw at the dinosaurs. I wondered, "Did people already die here and Biosyn did not appear to notice or care?"

As Dodgson was attempting to flee his own fallen kingdom, he takes with him an old, beat-up shaving creme container. Am I to assume that this was the container that held the stolen samples from the first Jurassic Park film? If so, how was it found, given it was buried in the mud during a hurricane when the park first fell apart? I figure whatever was in that container had long ago become useless, so what was the point of it being there?

Moreover, while there were a lot of dinosaurs running around the world, why did only the CIA notice giant locust were swallowing up whole fields? 

I genuinely felt for Sam Neill, up to a point. I figure he made a great deal of money to come back, but out of the already unnecessary Jurassic Park characters, his Alan Grant particularly suffered. Many times, he looked genuinely lost to where I thought Grant had dementia. When he finally sees Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong), Grant cocks his head slightly and says, "I Remember You", but I was not sure if he meant that as an accusation or as surprise he recognized anyone. He was forever kept out of things, such as Malcolm and Sattler planning to break into the underground laboratory. 

Instead, he was shunted off for some odd, alleged comedy bit involving a Biosyn barista, and even that got a bit lost in the shuffle. Why he needed to be both included and excludes is a mystery.

So much of Dominion seems put together haphazardly, as if screenwriters Emily Carmichael and Colin Trevorrow (who also directed) felt logic was a bother to deal with. Perhaps this is a spoiler, but apparently Maisie is not a real clone, or at least a clone that was birthed versus some lab experiment.

I don't know, a lot of Dominion did not make sense to me. I figure it can be explained by wiser people, but I also think that the main issue of "two films for the price of one" still creates a difficult situation.

I do not think there was any actual acting, unless it was either over or under. Jeff Goldblum has perfected his slightly eccentric persona, but I was surprised at how lackadaisical he was when trying to break people free. No sense of urgency or even realization of the potential for death seemed to disturb him. Pratt, to his credit, handled the action well, but I have not shifted my view that he is more an action star than actor.

Sermon came across as highly unlikeable to where I would not have objected if she had been eaten by a dinosaur. Scott seemed more funny than dangerous as the crazed evil billionaire. Wise was the only one to come out well out of this as the competent pilot. 

I did not hate Jurassic World Dominion. I just did not have as good a time as I did in Fallen Kingdom, though to be fair my enjoyment of the latter was more for the unintended humor than anything else.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Kundun: A Review



It was a few decades ago when Tibet was the cause du jour for many, particularly in the arts. That is, until the Chinese market became so lucrative that many would willingly ignore the human rights violations and systematic oppression of religion and minorities to get at the yuan. Kundun, a biographical film of the Fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, was the second of two films built around His Holiness released in 1997. Respectful, reverential to the point of deifying the Dalai Lama, Kundun is a beautiful but sadly hollow portrait of this historic figure.

Kundun shows the life of Tenzin Gyatso, a precocious, slightly obnoxious Tibetan boy. He is coddled a bit and somewhat entitled, but no one can explain why. That is, until 1937, when little Tenzin correctly identifies various objects belonging to the 13th Dalai Lama, declaring each "MINE!" in his child's voice.

Spirited off to Lhasa, he grows in wisdom and deep Buddhist faith while seeing the frailties of mortal man. His parents become comfortably wealthy, the man who found him grows greedy and eventually dies in the Potala Palace prison, leading the innocent Dalai Lama to ask, "Potala has a prison?".

He also faces the growing threat from the Chinese, culminating in the Communist invasion of Tibet in their effort to force Tibet to join China (or rejoin China, as the Chinese stubbornly insist Tibet has always been Chinese). The Dalai Lama is urged to flee, and he comes close, but ultimately is temporarily talked back into returning to Lhasa and even meeting Chairman Mao (Robert Lin). The Chairman, as pleasant as he appears to be, is not a man to be trifled with. Despite His Holiness seeing some common ground between socialism and Buddhism, Chairman Mao coolly informs the Dalai Lama, "Religion is poison". Seeing no alternative, the Dalai Lama goes into exile in India, where he still hopes to return to his native Tibet.

Kundun reminds me of two other films, both Best Picture winning biopics: The Last Emperor and Gandhi. Like the former, Kundun is the story of a child perceived as all-powerful and all-knowing, who can order adults around to do his bidding who ultimately is shown as powerless and forced into exile. Like the latter, Kundun is the story of an almost divine figure, who has apparently never sinned and who has a persona and personality that has him almost walk on water.

Herein lies the problem with Kundun: it is pretty but also pretty empty, a film of visual and audible splendor but hollow despite the admittedly beautiful trappings.

This was apparently a passion project for practically everyone involved. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison was active in the Free Tibet movement and devotee of His Holiness. So too is composer Philip Glass, who wrote the Oscar-nominated score. Director Martin Scorsese is one who searches out for spiritual themes in some of his films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence, so Kundun's strong Buddhist spirituality would appeal to him.

However, again herein lies the problem. Kundun, both film and title character, are treated with such awe and reverence that the man behind the Ocean of Compassion is lost. Like with Gandhi, we never know the man behind the myth. The film spends far too much time and energy making the 14th Dalai Lama into this God-Man, one that almost makes Jesus Christ look like your wacky next-door neighbor. This Dalai Lama oozes divinity to an almost maddening manner. He is unsoiled by humanity. He is never cross. He is never happy. He neither cracks jokes or throws shade. 

He is all virtues, no flaws.

It is interesting that in the Jesus miniseries starring Jeremy Sisto, Christ was able to tease his disciples and have a good time at the wedding at Cana. The figure many people hold to be God in human form had a sense of humor. The figure many people hold to be the reincarnation of a high Buddhist teacher, conversely, is gentility itself, forever horrified at the barbarity and cruelty of humans and forever calm, placid and serene.

Whether it is being informed of his father's passing or that the Chinese have invaded, nothing appears to affect or trouble His Holiness. Kundun takes the term "His Holiness" to almost hilarious levels, where one expects him to float off into India rather than bother crossing it on land.

Like with The Last Emperor, the title character is more an observer than the engine. The difference with the last pairing is that when it came to the actual Last Emperor, Pu Yi, his inability to shape history itself, let alone his own life, was the driving force of the film. 

Kundun, conversely, puts the Dalai Lama at the center of events but they neither impact him nor does he impact them. They just happen around him, and despite his court waiting for him to make decisions, his primary decisions seem to be to let them do whatever they think is best.   

In short, despite being the main/title character, there is no Kundun in Kundun.

The blame lies with Scorsese and Mathison. Scorsese has all his actors behave as though people have no emotions. He is too focused both on the visuals in Kundun and in showing reverence to His Holiness to take time on focusing on Tenzin Gyatso the man. Even the minor villain of Reting Rinpoche (Sonan Phuntsok), the Tibetan regent who found the reincarnated Dalai Lama but grew too greedy when it came to his reward, was almost more a shadow than a positive or negative entity.

Mathison for her part was simply too worshipful of the Dalai Lama. She clearly believed him to be quasi-divine, incapable of human frailties or frivolities. She looks upon His Holiness with reverence, but she also expects us to as well without giving us any reason to. Those of us who are not Buddhist will wonder what drives this man, why we should care about his particular plight, and Kundun does not give us reasons to.

It is hard to empathize or care about someone who is so far above us, so perfect, so pure, so holy. 

The positives in Kundun are exterior. The film has a beautiful score, mixing West and East splendidly. It also has some beautiful visual moments courtesy of Roger Deakins' cinematography. It is not surprising that the cinematography and score were two of Kundun's four Oscar nominations, along with the film's costume and set designs. Each of them creates a beautiful, rich visual production that is a feast for the eyes and ears. 

However, a rich visual and audible experience cannot make up for an empty production. Kundun is not a bad film, but an empty one. It is worth watching only as something to watch, to enjoy the vastness and visual splendor it presents. If you enjoy seeing and hearing beautiful images and music, you can enjoy Kundun. If you want to know the private man behind the reincarnation, look elsewhere, for Kundun is nowhere to be found in Kundun.

Born 1935


Saturday, June 11, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Fall from Heaven Review



It is not until now that I realize the pun in The Fall from Heaven, that of a literal fall. As we finally get closer to the end of Da Vinci's Demons Season Two, we get one of the best performances of the series and some wild, even funny turns.

We are finally back to the beginning when we started Season Two, and we see that Riario (Black Ritson) is overwhelmed with guilt over his past. Despite being a "sword of the Church", he sees that he is a most miserable sinner. Despite being close to death, he and Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) will continue their mad hunt for both the Book of Leaves and Leo's mysterious mother. Engineering a great escape, they along with Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) and Nico (Eros Vlahos), they go back to the cave and discover an automaton that speaks in Leo's mother's voice. How to escape the Incans?

Well, fly away of course. Leo creates parachuting and sadly informs Incan High Priestess Ima Kama (Carolina Herrera) that there is no literal book. With that, she knows her civilization is doomed. So is Riario's soul, who reveals a shocking revelation about his most brutal act involving his own mother.

Meanwhile, back in Italy, Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) is amused by the appearance of the Turkish Bayezid (Akin Gazi), the Sultan's son. He quickly orders him stripped and driven out of Rome, much to Bayezid's shock and anger. In Naples, Florentine Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) is working to curry favor with the mad King Ferrante (Matthew Marsh) with a little help from pirates and a lot of help from former flame Ippolita, Duchess of Urbino (Jeany Spark). In Constantinople, the Sultan's advisor Jacob Pasha (Raymond Coulthard) sees that Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) is not on the up and up.

It is the Riario story that elevates The Fall from Heaven. Ritson's performance is perhaps his finest in the season. A haunted, tormented man, he's moved past the soft-voiced villain from Season One. His final monologue, accompanied by genuinely shocking and sad images of his final interaction with his mother, will move the viewer.

If not for Ritson, I would have found a lot of The Fall from Heaven very uncomfortable. Again, I go back to the graphic violence on the show. The throat-slashing of Incan sacrificial victims was far too graphic, and I think unnecessary. The killing Riario remembers too is highly disturbing to me. Then a poor Incan warrior gets crushed by some doors. I do not understand why Da Vinci's Demons opts to show more than perhaps I think they should. I do wish some restraint would be exercised.

I also found some of the acting surprisingly theatrical. I would put Coulthard's Jacob rather overdone, but Spark and even some of the regulars like Cowan seemed to revel in some slightly campy acting.

I am not sure whether to take Leonardo da Vinci and company paragliding to safety funny or not. Granted, we crossed some lines when we have Leonardo da Vinci cavorting in Incan High Priestesses but even here, things seem pretty bonkers.

As I reflect on The Fall from Heaven, I see that my enthusiasm has damped a bit. Blake Ritson did a fantastic job here, and he elevates the episode. However, apart from that, I was not bowled over by this fall.


Next Episode: The Enemies of Man

Monday, June 6, 2022

Shanghai Surprise: A Review (Review #1595)



Upon its release Shanghai Surprise was painted as one of 1986's biggest bombs and one of the worst films ever made. Now, with nearly forty years since it became infamous having passed, perhaps one can look at Shanghai Surprise free from its notoriety. I confess to enjoying Shanghai Suprise, as well as finding it a pretty bad film.

In 1937, mysterious opium smuggler Walter Faraday (Paul Freeman) disappears in Shanghai. A year later, prim and proper Helping Hands missionary Miss Tatlock (Madonna) is told by her superior Mr. Burns to hire Glendon Wasey (Sean Penn) to help her find the lost opium stash. Wasey has no interest in searching for "Faraday's Flowers", which he dismisses as a myth. However, Tatlock is set on finding the opium, which she believes will help ease the pain of wounded soldiers.

Essentially bribed into helping, Wasey and Tatlock begin the search for Wu Ch'En She (George She), Faraday's former valet who stole Faraday's Flowers as Shanghai was engulfed in chaos. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones searching for this stash. It isn't long before Wasey and Tatlock are both pursuing and the pursued. Everyone from warlord Mei Gan (Kay Tong Lin) to baseball-obsessed gangster Joe Go (Clyde Kusatsu) and even Faraday's frenemy Willie Tuttle (Richard Griffiths) work with or against them in their pursuit. 

We even get Faraday's former mistress China Doll (Sonserai Lee) and the ever-present yet unexplained Justin Kronk (Philip Sayer) into this mix. Faraday's Flowers may not be what people think they are, and neither may some other figures milling about. Ultimately, Wasey's glow-in-the-dark ties may be the key to get at this treasure, with Gloria Tatlock as a bonus prize.

The summary of Shanghai Surprise is actually more straightforward than the film itself, as Shanghai Surprise pretty much jumps from one point to another with nary rhyme or reason. Is it a comedy? It is an adventure? Is it a drama? Is it a romance? Is it a musical? 

Trying to make it all of them does not work, especially since at each point it fails.

I admit I did laugh at one particular scene, when Victor Wong offered "the reverend lady" insurance on her body parts in exchange for information. His offer to insure her "twin pagodas" or "haven of celestial bliss" made me laugh, but more in a cringe manner than in a hilarious one. A lot of the laughter from Shanghai Surprise comes from how inept and illogical the John Kohn and Robert Bentley adaptation of Faraday's Flowers was.

I admit never having heard, let alone read, Tony Kendrick's novel. However, there is simply no way to make a man with porcelain hands remotely threatening. Lim's Mei Gan came across as a Dr. No spoof that even Austin Powers would think was too silly. It was such an over-the-top performance that somehow, a villain having porcelain hands that he apparently can use to crush an opponent's with seems almost rational.

There are other oddball elements, such as Joe Go constantly referring to himself in the third person and the various sexual techniques that China Doll might use on Wasey. Poor guy: he has to have sex with a beautiful courtesan to literally pump information out of her. When they visit Tuttle at his cafe/brothel, two women mistake Wasey for "Phil Borak", but there is never an explanation to this. Was this a fake name Wasey had used? Was it a genuine case of mistaken identity? Why is this important enough to bring up? Why was it not brought up again?

At the heart of Shanghai Surprise's failure are the figures who earned the nickname "The Poison Penns". Madonna simply embarrasses herself throughout Shanghai Surprise. A more generous interpretation can be offered in that Miss Tatlock had no consistency: one moment disgusted by Wasey, the next taking her clothes off to seduce him into staying on.

However, there are scenes and moments where you cringe at seeing how inept the Material Girl was. Throughout Shanghai Surprise, she did not act. She did not even really speak her dialogue. She instead seemed to just be there, saying things that did not appear to make sense to her, as if English was being created on the spot. Some moments were so bad in terms of acting, such as when she stomps up and down in anger, that it simply boggles the mind how someone who controlled so much of her image would look at that and think it should be released.

Penn, however, makes things worse. He is a trained actor and future two-time Oscar winner, but here he looks bored and unenthusiastic. His performance also suggests that he did not know whether Shanghai Surprise was meant to be serious or silly, as he switches between the two, sometimes in the same scene. 

Shanghai Surprise is remembered now, apart from its connection to the former Mr. and Mrs. Penn, for the songs the film's producer wrote for it. George Harrison's soundtrack, on the whole, I found fine even if not particularly great. I do not know why the title song needed to echo a James Bond opening credit scene (in this case, You Only Live Twice). Shanghai Surprise is rather curious, a song that I simultaneously like while also think is awful. 

I am puzzled why one number, The Hottest Gong in Town, had to be in Dixieland style. It sets that wild, almost schizophrenic manner to Shanghai Surprise, not sure what it wants to be. 

As I conclude my look at Shanghai Surprise, I am amazed that it has not been embraced as a midnight movie. I found Shanghai Surprise to be a "so bad it's good" film, a film that did entertain me, if perhaps if not the way it ended it to be. 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Vault of Heaven Review


Perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for The Vault of Heaven is due to what is a pretty cliched situation: the many-trapped vault. I can roll with this up to a point, but my major takeaway here is, "Why do temples holding secrets always need so many clever traps?". 

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) and Count Riario (Blake Ritson) are forced to join forces to find the mythical Book of Leaves, suspected to be hidden within a well-guarded Incan cave. Along with their companions Nico (Eros Vlahos) and Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin), they must go through various traps which Leonardo solves with some ease. Once they get to the final test, Leo hears his mother's voice coming from inside. However, as he went ahead without Incan High Priestess Ima Kama (Carolina Herrera) despite his promise not to, they are all to be executed.

Back in Florence, Clarice de Medici (Lara Pulver) is continuing her affair with her half-brother-in-law Carlo (Ray Fearon). A tryst, however, is a true coitus interruptus when ninjas descend from the roof to try and kill them, along with Vanessa (Hera Hilmar), who carries the late Guiliano's child. Who could be behind the plot, and why? 

Finally, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) has reached Constantinople, where she has an audience with Bayezid (Akin Gazi), the younger son of the Sultan. She hopes to get him to go to Rome as part of her plan to get the real Pope Sixtus IV, her father, back onto St. Peter's Throne. However, like Leonardo, she finds herself a literal hostage to fortune.

Good or bad, I could not help thinking of Legends of the Hidden Temple while watching The Vault of Heaven. All that was missing was the Temple Guards popping out to scare Nico. 

I was not overwhelmed with the idea that the Book of Leaves is guarded via elaborate traps, finding the concept slightly comical. Somehow, it seems now slightly looney that the Incas would simultaneously want someone to find the Book of Leaves to save their society and make it so difficult that any effort to get to it will get you killed. We see others have tried, but some traps seem so outlandish that I chuckled versus feared.

We also have the issue of ninjas storming the Medici Palace. Granted, they were not literally ninjas, but their tactics were very Ninja-like. It makes things slightly hilarious versus scary. 

What does lift The Vault of Heaven are the performances, which continue to be excellent. Riley and Ritson work so well together as these frenemies, joined in a cause but having no love for each other. In a smaller subplot, James Faulkner oozes villainy with brilliance as Pope Sixtus IV. Commenting on the issue of temptation, he remarks that the sin is not in its existence but in its worship. Haddock also does well as Lucrezia, attempting to hide her character's fear behind an image of strength.

Still, the entire booby-trapped Incan maze deal is a bit hackneyed. Where art thou, Olmec?


Next Episode: The Fall from Heaven