Monday, October 31, 2022

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special




What can be more frightening than Paul Lynde consorting with witches and the rock band Kiss? The Paul Lynde Halloween Special suggests that there was way too much cocaine being used by people working on television in the 1970s.

After going through several holidays, Paul Lynde finally figures out which holiday is coming up: Halloween. After a Halloween-themed version of Lynde's breakout song, Kids from the musical Bye, Bye Birdie, we get the overall plot of the special.

Paul Lynde is driven up by his housekeeper Margaret (Margaret Hamilton) to her sister's house, Gloomsbury Manor. Here, Lynde discovers that her sister is a witch, Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes) and Margaret herself is the Wicked Witch of the West. They want Lynde to be their "spokes-human" to give witches a more positive image. In exchange, they will grant him three wishes. Lynde's first wish is to be a trucker. 

No, I'm not making that up. 

As Big Ruby Red the Rhinestone Trucker, he must battle against his frenemy Long Haul Howard (Tim Conway) and the diner owner (Billy Barty) for the love of diner waitress Kinky Pinky (Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly).

His first wish fulfilled, Lynde is brought back to the haunted house to enjoy the first of three musical numbers from Kiss, Detroit Rock City. Accidentally wishing to be in the desert, Lynde at least manages to get to be a sheik, where he woos heiress Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). In an act of generosity, Lynde's third wish is to fulfill the Sister Witches great dream of going to a Hollywood disco.

With that, we get Florence Henderson singing a disco version of That Old Black Magic, Kiss performing the romantic Beth and the more rock King of the Night Time World and everyone joining in for Disco Baby (a reworked version of the racier Disco Lady).

The 1970s had a curious fixation with variety shows and specials. Some become established classics, like The Carol Burnett Show. Others might not be classics but are still remembered, such as The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour and Donny & Marie (who make a cameo during the Kids number). 

Then there are such things as The Star Wars Holiday Special and The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. I'm not sure if "strange" really covers this hour of television. Perhaps people really did want to see Paul Lynde dressed up like a rabbit singing Here Comes Peter Cottontail followed by Kiss rocking out in a haunted house owned by Witchepoo and the Wicked Witch of the West. 

It might be bonkers to even bother stating that the plot, such as it is, is beyond idiotic and nonsensical. Lynde got his three wishes but he never campaigned for witch rights. Yes, it was an excuse for the sketches, but none of the sketches were funny.

In fact, they were cringey to cray-cray. Out of the three (or two really, as I would argue there was no third sketch per se but a strange musical montage mixing Harold Arlen with glam rock) it is hard to decide which was the worst. If asked, I would offer the first sketch revolving around truckers.

Lynde, already a large and flamboyant personality, looks downright bonkers as "Big Red". None of his quips are funny here and everyone else acts almost desperately to sell this routine. The most desperate is Kelly, who appears to be playing her Happy Days character just in an alternate universe. 

The Sheik spoof is no better, but it allows Lynde a chance to be as open about his homosexuality as the times would allow. When asked why he wore only one earring, Lynde quips that he's "a very chic sheik" and calls himself Florence of Arabia. 

Even more outlandishly, Lynde manages to slip in a surprisingly risqué quip in the Trucker sketch. If "Kinky Pinky" wasn't already daring enough, he I believe calls himself "Deep Truck", a clear reference to the pornographic film Deep Throat. There are also vague suggestions of bestiality thrown in in the Sheik sketch.

It's all pretty wild, especially for what I presume was meant as a family variety special.

Almost all of the songs are bizarre. Lynde's opening Kids number somehow ended up creepy to the point of almost being unintentionally salacious. "Come on and ring my doorbell, you won't be sent away. I'm just crazy for Kids today!", Lynde warbles, the lyrics and delivery coming across as more suggestive than I'm sure intended. Henderson's solo disco That Old Black Magic number was too operatic for my tastes, but this and Kids does reflect how dated The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is.

As if seeing Betty White as "Miss Halloween 1976" wasn't clue enough.

In the Kids number while performing a kick-line with his court of ghouls, Lynde sings "There's too much Alice Cooper, not enough Alice Faye", which makes me wonder whether anyone watching then knew who Alice Faye was, let alone today. The Rhinestone Trucker, I figure, was in reference to Glen Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy. The Disco Baby and That Old Black Magic numbers are also clearly disco, which was still popular at the time. 

Again, it is the strangest thing that Kiss is the most sane element in The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. The highlight is the performance of the ballad Beth, which was quite tender and moving. It is so at odds not just with the overall Kiss persona of quasi-satanic aliens but with the special on the whole. Amidst the bad puns and weird musical numbers (Kiss' Detroit Rock City and King of the Night Time World included), to hear this love song feels jarring in its sincerity.

Some of the acting is strong. White as this rather bitchy witch queen was a standout, milking every inch of her bemoaning how if she couldn't get a date with Paul Newman, the other witches could have found a better Paul like Paul Williams or Paul McCartney. Hayes and Hamilton looked like they were having a ball in playing their most famous roles outside the characters' original worlds. Conway is the unsung hero, playing the poor roles to the best of his abilities. 

Lynde and Henderson leaned in a bit too much into the camp. Certainly, the latter was hamming it up for all it was worth. The former though had a bit too much of the snark in him. When conversing with Kiss, he quipped, "Four kisses on the first date", the grin revealing a bit too much satisfaction. That was followed up by his comment over how the band got its name. "You all got into a fight and your moms told you to Kiss and makeup". 

At the end though, Lynde seemed to break from a persona and become a person, one who desperately wanted to be loved, let alone liked. "I thank you for making me feel wanted," he addresses the audience directly. Here, the viewer draws the sense that Lynde, for all his quirkiness and apparent self-satisfaction, really wanted people to care about him. Apart from Beth, this signoff is probably the most touching part of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special.

However, touching moments is not the aim of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. It is meant to make us laugh. That it did not do. It is however, a curious moment of television: part carnival side show, part oddball musical variety show, part time capsule. Watchable in a bizarre way, to quote Paul Lynde himself, "I LIKE THE FUNKY STUFF!"  



Sunday, October 30, 2022

Black Adam: A Review (Review #1662)



Is it damning with faint praise if you said a film is "adequate" and "met its basic requirements"? Black Adam, the newest DC Extended Universe feature, is "fine". A pastiche of other films comic book and otherwise, it neither breaks new ground or stumbles so disastrously it is not enjoyable. 

In the ancient land of Kahndaq, a tyrant rules the land, forcing the population to mine for a rare mineral that when used, will be used to create a crown which will allow him to rule the world. A young child begins a revolt, and just before he is to be executed, he is spirited away to a group of wizards, who grant him great power when he says "SHAZAM!". He defeats the king and becomes a mythical Kahndaqi hero, Teth Adam.

Now, the nation is still occupied by outside forces. The occupiers are in a race to find the mythical Crown of Sabbac, but only archaeologist Adriana Tomaz (Sarah Shazi) knows where it is. She inadvertently leads Intergang (the occupiers) to Teth Adam's tomb. In desperation, she calls on Shazam, and up pops in the very-much alive Teth Adam (Dwayne Johnson). He kills the Intergang troops, but he also has no compulsion of killing others.

Into this, under orders from Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sends in the Justice Society to contain Teth Adam. The members are led by Carter Hall aka Hawkman (Aldis Hodge). Joining him are his older friend Kent Nelson aka Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan) and two newbies: Al Rothstein aka Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo) and Maxine Hunkel aka Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell). Hawkman can fly, Doctor Fate can see the future and multiply himself, Atom Smasher can grow and shrink as needed and Cyclone can control the wind.

As they fight and attempt to reason with Teth Adam, they also must contend with saving as many lives as possible. Teth Adam is helped by Adriana's son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) but thwarted by Ishamel (Marwan Kenzari), who is connected to the last tyrant of Kahndaq. As truths are revealed and the fate of Kandaq and the world hang in the balance, sacrifices must be made. 

While the now-christened Black Adam may be a future enemy or antihero, a strange visitor from the planet Krypton comes to speak to him.

After watching Black Adam, my main takeaway is that it is "fine". It gave the viewer what I think he/she wanted to see in a comic book adaptation. You got lots of battle scenes, you got some quips, and a few twists that were not all that surprising. Black Adam hit every beat expected of it. As such, I cannot fault a film for meeting the standards I expect from it.

The curious thing about Black Adam is that one does not need to have an extensive or exhaustive encyclopedic knowledge of DC lore to follow the plot. We get a helpful voiceover introduction that sets up the Kahndaq BC era, and we do not really bother with long introductions of the Justice Society characters.

They pretty much pop up, and it is almost amusing that screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani almost expect one to know who these people are. How else to explain young Al getting a quick telephone call from his uncle Al (Henry Winkler) asking him not to damage the suit. Black Adam did take stabs at some character development, such as having Atom Smasher munch on something often and suggest relationships that appear to be going back decades.

Every performance was exactly what it was meant to be, nothing more, nothing less. I do not think anyone would offer that Dwayne Johnson is an actor, unless you have been yearning for "Dwayne Johnson in Death of a Salesman". He was hulking and stoic as Black Adam, and while I can give him credit for attempting to be dramatic when we get his backstory, I would say his main purpose is to kill bad guys and leave one wondering if he was good or bad.

The interplay between Johnson and Sabongui (who was one of the standouts as the fanboy Amon) had a Terminator 2 manner to it: the robotic killing machine learning things like using catchphrases from the skateboarding teen. Swindell and Centineo as Cyclone and Adam Smasher (or as I called them, "Not Storm and Not Ant-Man") are starting out their careers, and they were fine. The roles were so limited that they could have easily been cut from Black Adam altogether without affecting the film. I suspect they were there to set them up for more DCEU films, but they did not do damage or elevate the characters.

They were fine, though Swindell was better as she, unlike Centineo, was not asked to throw in some "not MCU Peter Parker" stumbling for her character. 

Brosnan was there to be the elder statesman of the Justice Society (and as a side note, I would not know the difference between the Justice Society and the Justice League. Is the former like the AAA team to the MLB latter?). He mostly seemed amused to be in all this and bless him for attempting to make his end moving. It was not his performance that did not make this possible. It was the script. Try as Black Adam might, I could not work up emotion for someone I barely met. 

Two other standouts were Hodge as Hawkman and Shahi as Adriana. The latter was not quite a damsel in distress but not a whiny angry person either. Hodge for his part played the part to strong form, making Hawkman this leader who was also a loyal friend, one determined to see Black Adam join the present world but whom he would kill if necessary.

The visual effects were a bit hit-and-miss, especially at what is meant as the climactic battle. They were not among the best I have seen but they were not embarrassing either. Like everything in Black Adam, they were serviceable. It did feel like Black Adam, with one or two respites, was one long Kahndaq battle, but I did not think it wore out its welcome. It certainly was not overwhelming to the point of visual overload like Aquaman was. 

A lot of Black Adam felt like it was a remix of other films. I saw elements of Terminator 2, the MCU Spider-Man films, some X-Men films, even a dash of Deadpool. Not good, not bad, just fine. I never fault a film for being what it aimed to be. As such, Black Adam is fine.


Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Anastasia (1956): A Review



The myth of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, purported last surviving daughter of Czar Nicholas II, is tackled in Anastasia. Remembered more as the "comeback" film for Ingrid Bergman (and her subsequent Best Actress Oscar for the film), Anastasia is entertaining and efficient even if a bit stage bound. 

A trio of Russian exiles are after a £10 million inheritance if they can find the true Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna. The leader, General Bounine (Yul Brynner) believes he has found the perfect woman for this scheme. She is "Anna Koreff" (Bergman), recently out of an asylum who once claimed to be the Grand Duchess while institutionalized.

Bounine, along with his conspirators Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sasha Pitoeff) soon take the vulnerable woman under their wing, training and coaching her to pass her off as the lost daughter of the Czar. However, unlike other women they had used, something about Anna that makes her stand out.

She appears to recall more than what they have told her. She can be more forthright about her position. Can it be that these three have, through mere happenstance, found the actual Czar's daughter? Could Anastasia have indeed survived? 

Anastasia's grandmother, the Dowager Empress (Helen Hayes) is not convinced, until she finally agrees to a private audience with the woman. Even then, once a ball is prepared to present Anna as Anastasia, affairs of the heart may complicate this mystery. Just as before, this woman disappears, and when her nephew Prince Paul (Ivan Desny) asks what she will tell those waiting for Anastasia's arrival, she replies, "The play is over. Go home".

There is more than a pun in the closing line. Anastasia cannot definitely answer whether Anna Koreff was the real Grand Duchess Anastasia. The film strongly suggests that she indeed was given the climatic reunion scene where the Dowager Empress recognizes in Anna her granddaughter's tic of coughing when she was nervous. However, Arthur Laurents' adaptation of the Marcelle Mauret and Guy Bolton play gives the Dowager Empress an out too. As she tearfully embraces her "granddaughter", the Dowager Empress also states that if she is not, she would rather not know or something to that effect.

The script is filled with witty lines, ably delivered by the cast. Tamiroff is close to comic relief in his flustered manner. "We're not doing this for art. We're doing this for money!" he exclaims when he sees how few emigres support Anna's cause. When the Dowager Empress chastises her lady-in-waiting over her flirtatious manner, she snorts, "To a woman of your age, sex should mean nothing but gender". 

Anastasia is a showcase for Bergman, whose forced exile after the scandal over her affair with director Roberto Rossellini ended with this film. She brought Anna's vulnerability and quiet strength, mixing the confusion and agony of her life with a sense of hope that she might finally find her true self. There is a scene where she has to act with just her voice as she is speaking from another room. Bergman is able to convey the delight of her drunkenness while still seeming sensible. It is on the whole an excellent performance.

Hayes too was strong as the haughty yet wounded Dowager Empress, one who had been paraded a slew of impostors but still held out hope. Appropriately imperious but also capable of warmth, Hayes brought that theatricality to the screen well.

Brynner was more hit-and-miss. He struck me as too all-business to make any potential romance between Boudine and Anna plausible. I did not see a softening of Boudine, but a man driven by recognition more than money. Yes, he wanted to money, but he did not seem obsessed with it. Rather, Brynner made it look like Boudine just wanted to prove he could do it for his own amusement. 

I would not say Yul Brynner was a weak link, but he was so abrupt with everyone it seems to strange to think he could fall in love with his own creation.

Overall though, Anastasia flows well and is strong entertainment. The mystery of Anastasia has been resolved long after everyone involved in Anastasia has passed. However, is it not amusing to think that the "real" Anastasia might have lived to see her own story brought to life in this way? More than one resurrection for Anastasia



Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Barbarian: A Review (Review # 1660)



Do people watch a film just to watch something? Barbarian is not a good movie, certainly not a great one. I doubt I would call it "entertaining". However, I did not hate it. Instead, I just accepted that Barbarian is nonsensical and trashy. 

An apparent double booking between Airbnb and HomeAway puts aspiring documentary production assistant Tess (Georgina Campbell) and jazz musician Keith (Bill Skarsgard) together in a small Detroit house. Tess finds the neighborhood not the safest, but apparently the mean streets of Detroit are safer than the house's basement. Something lurks beneath the basement and subbasements, something unholy, something that got Keith killed.

At this point, I'll stop to wonder why Detroit being unsafe struck Tess as surprising, but I digress.

An abrupt shift now takes us two weeks later to sunny L.A. and A.J. Gilbride (Justin Long), a television star whose new show may be scuttled due to rape accusations. In need of quick cash, he goes to his hometown of Detroit to see if he can dispose of some real estate. One of his holdings is the house Tess and Keith were renting. A.J. also finds the myriad of basement space and sees this as a selling point. 

He also finds a still shell-shocked Tess and "Mother", a hideous creature that has a baby obsession and that had killed Keith. Now, with a second segway into the Reagan years to tell "Mother's" backstory, A.J. and Tess must fight to live out this night of terrors.

Ah, those pesky points of logic. Perhaps I should not question why, after two weeks, no one has noted both Tess' and Keith's disappearance. After all, this is Detroit, where calling the police will get you no response. We can question why Tess and Keith opted to be so cheap as to stay in a sordid Detroit neighborhood versus say something safer and cleaner, like a Motel 6 or Super 8. We can question why A.J. would pretty much drunkenly confess to at the very minimum pressuring his Chip on His Shoulder pilot costar into sex. "It took some convincing," he tells a friend while at a bar, which does not sound good at all.

And we haven't even gotten into the finale, which involves water towers, falling people and eye gouging. 

Looking back at Barbarian, writer/director Zach Cregger wanted to simultaneously shock the viewer and hit familiar horror beats. It is unfortunate that in doing the latter, he made the former pretty muddled. You cannot have someone say, "She ain't never been in here" and not expect her to pop out at that precise moment.

Barbarian is not stretching in terms of film or horror, but I cannot fault it for achieving its goal of aiming low. 

One of the major issues with Barbarian is how it seems to abruptly go from one point to the other. We go from this horror inside the house and jump straight to California. Granted, the two stories do end up together but it feels unnecessarily abrupt.

It also asks more questions, such as how is A.J. connected to this house. 

The acting is bad. Skarsgard and Campbell looked blank and very stiff individually. Together they were worse. I do not know if Barbarian was hinting at a potential Keith/Tess romance, but if it was, it must have been from a whole other draft. Justin Long felt better when attempting to make Barbarian into a drama about a man whose career was crumbling by his own hands. Once he got into the house of horrors, it felt he shifted to another film altogether. 

Barbarian is not a great film. Moments of unintentional comedy, especially what was meant as a climatic finale, wrecked what might have been better. Despite or perhaps because of this, Barbarian is not a film I ended up hating. It's too silly to hate. Bad it may be, predictable even, with some bad performances. I think though, as I am more removed from when I saw Barbarian, I can find it dumb but harmless. 


Friday, October 21, 2022

Pinocchio (2022 Disney Remake): A Review



The Disney Vault continues to be raided as a way to keep Disney Dollars flowing in. I do not know if it signifies a naked cash grab, a dearth of creativity at the House of Mouse or a mix. I do know that Pinocchio, the latest animated-to-live-action adaptation, is a sad thing to experience.

Riding on the coattails of the original, we have Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) coming into the home of clockmaker Geppetto (Tom Hanks). He creates a little puppet to essentially replace his son whom I assume is dead. Geppetto's wish to make his new puppet Pinocchio a real boy gets answered by The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who gives Pinocchio life but keeps his as a puppet. To be a real boy, he has to earn that, with Jiminy Cricket now appointed his conscience.

Geppetto is thrilled to have a son back and sends him off to school. The naïve Pinocchio, however, has temptations via the fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) who tells him that he should take to the stage. He eventually joins the traveling show of Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), who treats Pinocchio cruelly. Pinocchio escapes thanks to Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), a Stromboli puppeteer and her puppet Sabina (Jaquita Ta'le). 

Pinocchio now has to find Geppetto, who in turn has gone looking for him. Their searches intertwine with a visit to Pleasure Island (where bad children meet a donkey's end) and facing off against the sea monster Monstro. Will they all survive? Will Pinocchio become a real boy?

The answer to the second is a firm "No", one of the many poor changes and choices screenwriters Chris Weitz and Robert Zemekis (with the latter directing) made. You go through this journey with Pinocchio and end up with nothing. 

I simply do not know who Pinocchio was made for. It was not made for those who love the original 1940 version. Pinocchio wants to have its cake and eat it too. On one hand, it veers very close to the original by keeping most of that story intact. The luring by Honest John, the Stromboli tour, the visit to Pleasure Island, Monstro.

On the other, the changes it made to the original do not help or enhance it. On the contrary, they seem to come almost from a point of hate against the original. Honest John going on about how Pinocchio could be an "influencer" and suggesting he take the stage name of "Chris Pine" not only instantly dates the movie but comes across as dumb. Having Pinocchio escape Stromboli not through the intercession of The Blue Fairy but by a mix of Pinocchio deliberately lying and Fabiana/Sabina's help seems a slap in the face to what generations have grown up with.

To be fair, Sabina is a cute thing and the suggestions of romance between Sabina and Pinocchio are in their way charming. On the awful side of this though, you have two bad choices. First, you have Pinocchio deliberately tell lies to make his nose grow long enough for Jiminy to get the key. Second, you lose that sense of magic and genuine repentance for having lied.

Now that I think of it, there is a third: the poor use of Cynthia Erivo. You are blessed with an extraordinary talent of a two-time Oscar nominee and relegate her to only one scene. Even worse, you prevent her from singing the entirety of When  You Wish Upon a Star, one of the most beautiful songs ever written for film. 

It does not help that Zemekis directed Erivo to have some kind of rapid-fire delivery in the dialogue, almost as if she were in a screwball comedy. 

Pinocchio has some new songs that are mixed with some of the original films. However, none of them were standouts and some had the opposite effect of being slightly cringe. Out of the four new songs, The Coachman to Pleasure Island is the best of them (and it is pretty bad). It feels so wrong for something that is I figure geared for families, too big and bombastic. For reasons that we probably will never know, Tom Hanks was given two songs: When He Was Here with Me and Pinocchio, Pinocchio

Hanks is not a singer, so he opted for the Rex Harrison style of talking on pitch, where he speaks the song to a melody. Apropos of the poor sing-talking, starting Pinocchio with a mournful number about dead children might not have been the best idea. 

I Will Always Dance, Sabina's number, probably captures what went so wildly wrong with Pinocchio. Mentions of salsa, tango, rumba and cha-cha again contemporizes the film. None of the new songs fit the setting or suggest a timeless quality. Instead, the songs and Alan Silvestri's score seem determined to make Pinocchio routine, soulless, lifeless. 

This contemporary feel is compounded by the dialogue and the actions. Seeing Pinocchio water-ski to Monstro and outrun him by using his feet like a motor is sad, just sad. 

For those who thought Elvis was the worse Tom Hanks performance of 2022, you are in for a surprise. Tottering and slightly creepy, Hanks' Geppetto is apparently trying to channel Mark Twain in looks. Erivo as I mentioned is wildly underused. It is curious that of all the voices, Lorraine Bracco as Sophia the Seagull is the most recognizable. To be fair, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is unrecognizable as Jiminy Cricket, though the dialogue did not help him.

As a side note, how did Jiminy Cricket survive being put in a glass jar for hours with suffocating (another change that did not work)?

Lamaya was charming as Fabina but like Erivo underused. Evans was having a ball as the Coachman who also dressed up like a carnival barker on Pleasure Island. He seems to be the go-to man for Disney musical live-action remakes and is a great talent. Still, there was not much there for him.

I will concede that the Pleasure Island sequence was quite impressive-looking and Pinocchio himself looked nice. However, the positives are few and far between.

There is no point to Pinocchio. I do not think there has been much point to any of the Disney live-action remakes so far. It is just a shame, more so that given all both Pinocchio and the audience has been through, that he does not end up a real boy.


Thursday, October 20, 2022

Beauty and the Beast (2017): A Review



I imagine that the people behind the remake of the animated film version of Beauty and the Beast really did, in their heart of hearts, have the best of intentions. Yes, the Disney Corporation has been raiding their fabled Disney Vault and remaking their animated catalog into live-action versions because, reasons. There has been something predatory about how Disney remakes old films, many already established and beloved classics, and throws them at audiences willing to watch the same thing because people are in them. While Beauty and the Beast is at times pretty to look at, there is a hollowness, a sadness to it all. 

In Ancient Regime France, an enchantress has cursed a vain prince and his servants to be a beast and inanimate objects respectively. Many years later, a bookish girl named Belle (Emma Watson) yearns for a life far from the provincial world she lives in. She also longs to stay far but very far away from self-proclaimed hunk Gaston (Luke Evans). Gaston has got it into his thick head that Belle is the ideal wife, even if he is oblivious to the googly eyes of his faithful Sancho Panza, LeFou (Josh Gad).

Belle's father Maurice (Kevin Kline) goes on business but ends up at the now-forgotten Beast's palace. He eventually flees after seeing a talking teacup, but when attempting to take a rose for Belle, he is captured by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle, alarmed by Maurice's horse arriving alone, goes and takes her father's place. Maurice cannot get anyone to believe his wild story, though Gaston sees it as a way to get Maurice to agree to a marriage.

As Belle and the Beast attempt to negotiate their lives, both begin to soften towards the other. The palace servants, such as the uptight clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), the suave candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), the kindly teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and wardrobe Madame de Garderobe (Audra McDonald) all conspire to help the blossoming romance. Granted, they have ulterior motives: only when the Beast can love and be loved in return can the spell be broken. However, it is now a race to create this magic moment, for the Beast has until when the last rose petal the enchantress gave the Beast falls. Will Belle and the Beast see something that was not there before? Will Gaston get his way?

We've had live-action remakes of Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, Pete's Dragon, Dumbo, this one, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pinocchio and the upcoming The Little Mermaid and Snow White. That is also not counting such films as Maleficent and its sequel Maleficent: Mistress of Evil plus Cruella, which are not strictly remakes but revolve around Disney villains. Still no word on whom they will cast as Basil of Baker Street for the inevitable The Great Mouse Detective live-action remake. 

Most of the Disney live-action remakes (which have grown so plentiful they might as well be their own genre) follow a surprisingly similar route: stay very close to the original and only tweaking bits here and there. Beauty and the Beast follows this familiar route, but with continuing diminishing returns. The film aims to be distinct but in copying so much from the animated version, it is simply impossible. However, if it wants to be an almost shot-for-shot remake, why then bother? 

Beauty and the Beast has what I call "forced frivolity", where we are told how happy everything is but it does come through on the screen. Instead, we get some scenes that are almost sad to watch. A good example is the Be Our Guest number. It was here that I first recognized Ewan McGregor's voice, and while he is capable of singing, there was no true joie de vivre coming from the number. Instead, if felt sluggish, almost creepy.

I think it comes from the fact that screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos were given very little leeway to find something new and original. They had to have the servants be objects just like in the animated version. However, the end results fail spectacularly. The clock and candelabra look off-putting and unnatural. Worse was Mrs. Potts, who looked like a face had literally been drawn onto a teapot. There was no warmth or sweetness communicated from the objects, because they were limited to being "real".

The few things the writers did change from the 1991 version were nonsensical and pointless. We got a Mr. Potts, who thanks to the spell forgot he had a wife and child. The enchantress essentially swept in after the last petal fell to bring the beauty behind the Beast to life. Even the "LeFou is gay!" bit was vague. For most of the film, LeFou was more fey than gay, with only the mildest hint at the end when a man cuts in to dance with him.

While Beauty and the Beast kept to most of the 1991 songs, the three new songs by Alan Menkin and Tim Rice are bland and forgettable. Two of them center around the Beast, with Evermore being a ballad sung by the Beast. The other Beast-centric number, Days in the Sun, appears to want to soften the Beast's character and make him sympathetic due to an unhappy childhood, a strange decision given he is meant to soften over time. I also got the sense that new lyrics were added to the songs, but if so I don't think it was an improvement.

For example, Gaston seems to be longer and with a strange section where LeFou cannot spell out "Gaston" because as he sing-talks, he is illiterate. I cannot remember for certain if that was part of the 1991 version, but I don't think it added anything either.

As if that was already not bad enough, the cast seems wildly out-of-place. Emma Watson looks more angry and hard as Belle, never displaying anything close to warmth. Moreover, her singing voice is frankly awful and harsh. Stevens too was not very good when singing, and not much better when in Beast mode. 

McGregor and McKellen seem ill-suited for the Lumiere/Cogsworth double-act. They seem almost complete strangers in the film, making the idea of longtime association laughable. I thought that Cogsworth looked like Tik Tok from Return to Oz, but having seen Tik Tok, he looks worse. Emma Thompson, I think, did her best as Mrs. Potts, but couldn't quite get the sweet and motherly nature there.

Kevin Kline did do well as Maurice, a mix of eccentric and caring coming through. Luke Evans was hamming it up to the Nth degree as Gaston, and his voice was much stronger than Watson or just about anyone else save Audra McDonald. He went all-in on the himbo Gaston, so I give him credit for that.

Beauty and the Beast has some pretty-looking moments and nice costumes, but so much of it is uninteresting I genuinely wonder why anyone would prefer it over the original. To my mind, Beauty and the Beast was like seeing someone propping up a corpse. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Anastasia (1997): A Review



It takes a deft touch to make an animated family musical film whose plot revolves around a political assassination that includes killing teens and children. Anastasia is a film that manages that balancing act exceptionally well, blending fantasy and history with strong musical numbers and even some cute animals.

Narrated in part by the Dowager Empress Marie (the late Angela Lansbury), we first see how beautiful the Czarist Imperial Court was until the evil sorcerer Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) put a curse on the Romanov family. Soon, the Imperial family is overthrown. In the chaos of the Romanovs fleeing, kitchen boy Dimitri helps the Dowager Empress and her youngest granddaughter Anastasia escape the palace, though the Empress loses her at the train station.

Ten years later, there's A Rumor in St. Petersburg that while the Romanov family has been executed, one of the daughters may still be alive. Two con artists, Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) and Dimitri (John Cusack) are looking for a  young woman who could pass as the Grand Duchess Anastasia. The Dowager Empress, now living in exile in Paris, has offered a massive reward to anyone who could genuinely prove herself as Anastasia.

Into this world comes Anya (Meg Ryan), an orphan who wants adventure and a Journey to the Past, to find her roots and family. She is, to Vladimir and Dimitri, the perfect impostor. However, is she an impostor? Could she be the real Anastasia, whose very name means "resurrection"? Rasputin, trapped in a netherworld, believes so. He, aided by his bat Bartok (Hank Azaria), plots to kill her before she reaches Paris. His plans are for naught, as the group has reached the City of Lights. While the Empress' cousin Sophie (Bernadette Peters) is convinced, will Anya prove herself the true daughter of the Czar? Will Dimitri and Anya admit their feelings? Will Rasputin succeed in his nefarious scheme?

The mind boggles at the idea that a story involving violent revolutions, frauds and wildly ahistorical flights of fancy can make for an almost charming musical. Anastasia, however, proves that it can be done. As Anastasia is geared towards families, we will not have an animated sequence of the Royal Family's execution. 

Instead, co-directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman blend various elements to create our story. You have the historic elements but you do not see the more graphic parts. To counterbalance the thoroughly evil Rasputin, you team him up with an almost adorable bat.

Granted, one wonders why Rasputin would rely on a creature like Bartok, but there it is. You also create, through both the animation and Lloyd's performance, a villain that is a mix of serious and silly. Yes, he is attempting to murder a young woman. However, he also is a bit of a bumbler who is quite literally falling apart. 

Anastasia opts to keep most of the focus off the potential fraud and sordid history. It does this by putting more focus on the romance between Anya and Dimitri. As the film continues, we see this shyster and the smart, plucky girl slowly fall in love. Like many a romance, they at first meeting think little of each other. However, we see how close they have grown.

This is aided by a whole slew of excellent songs. Journey to the Past, a lovely and strong number that speaks of Anya's longing for a family, was the one singled out for Oscar consideration. For my part, the slower, more contemplative Once Upon a December sung by Lansbury was the better song. Almost everyone in Anastasia gets a musical number. The big surprise is Rasputin's rock-like In the Dark of the Night, eerie and slightly comic. Purely comic is Paris Hold the Key (To Your Heart), a bouncy upbeat number that Peters sells to full effect.

Anastasia feels like a full-on Broadway musical with its songs, so it is no surprise that there was an actual Anastasia stage musical. The songs work so well and have such distinct styles that they work in moving the story forward.

The voice acting too is excellent. While Anastasia has well-known actors, they all seem perfectly cast for their roles. Ryan brings a plucky yet vulnerable heroine, lost but rising in courage. Cusack too has a shifty but loveable manner to Dimitri. Lansbury is caring but grand as the Dowager Empress, Grammer is likeable as the wise and surprisingly flirtatious Vladimir, and Peters (underused) is delightful as Princess Sophie.

Lloyd and Azaria work well as a double-act, the former's appropriately grandiose but comical wizard and the latter as the almost childlike bat.

Anastasia is an excellent film. Cute enough for kids (down to adorable dogs and bats), blending fact, fantasy, romance and adventure. With excellent songs and animation, Anastasia is funny, charming and even moving. Despite myself, I did get a little misty-eyed when Empress Marie and Anya reunite. It may not be history, but Anastasia is well-crafted and good for all ages.



Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Halloween Ends: A Review



If there is one point on which I have been roundly criticized, it is in that I have, for various reasons and circumstances, made Halloween Ends the first Halloween film that I have ever seen. Horror is not a genre that appeals to me. I do not hate it, but I am not passionate about it. As such, I just never found the Halloween franchise something I needed to see. 

Having now seen Halloween Ends, I think I can safely say that I have yet to see a Halloween film. Few films in a franchise, especially one billing itself as the epic conclusion to a long-running series, have gone as far out of their way to sideline their central characters as Halloween Ends.

Halloween Night, 2019. Twenty-one year old student Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell) is babysitting for a wealthy family. The only son, Jeremy (Jaxon Goldenberg) is an obnoxious tyke who taunts Corey and locks him in the attic. In a rage, Corey kicks the door open, which somehow ends up causing Jeremy to plunge to his death four floors just as his parents come in.

Three years later, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is still coming to terms with the havoc her nemesis Michael Myers has caused not just her but the whole town of Haddonfield, Pennsylvania. Not quite a recluse but not a social butterfly, Laurie's time is taken up with her memoirs and her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Allyson, also traumatized by Michael's murder of her mother, is working as a nurse.

This brings her in contact with Corey, now out of prison, whom Laurie helped after he was bullied by a gang of high school band members. Laurie at first encourages a romance between them. Soon, however, we see that Corey is developing a dark, murderous side. The bullying and an encounter with Michael Myers himself turns Corey into a de facto protégé of our favorite serial killer.  Soon, Corey starts killing while still pushing Allyson to leave this Podunk town behind. 

Corey's murderous mayhem can only be stopped by Laurie, who also must face off against her decades-long antagonist.

Again, I come at this from the vantage point of someone mostly unfamiliar with the Halloween mythos. Despite my admittedly limited knowledge however (here helped by an early montage that caught people up via Laurie's memoirs), I imagine that Halloween fans would feel that Halloween Ends was a bait-and-switch of almost insulting proportions.

Halloween Ends is not a Halloween film. It is a Corey Cunningham film with Michael Myers as a guest star. So much of Halloween Ends centers around Corey that the film really could have cut Myers out altogether without affecting the story.

There were, by my count, fourteen and a half kills in Halloween Ends. Michael Myers was responsible for two and a half of them (the half coming from snapping the neck of someone who had already stabbed himself in the neck). One death was accidental, but the eleven other kills were all Corey. At one point, Corey literally takes Michael's mask and kills while wearing it.

Things like that, I figure, make a mockery of Michael Myers. People, especially Halloween fans, did not come to see Corey Cunningham go on a murderous spree. I also do not think they came to see their favorite serial killer be made into someone else's servant. There are four credited screenwriters to Halloween Ends including the film's director, David Gordon Green. That is already a bad sign, to have so many hands on a script.

That four people minimum came up with one awful to idiotic decision after another is bad enough. Such things as having Corey recreate Michael Myers moments, not explain how after being tossed off a bridge Corey no longer needed his glasses and making vague suggestions that Michael either transferred his powers to Corey or at least looked into his soul are eye-rolling.

What made things worse is that one suspects there were more people working on the script. It felt as if the various screenwriters were throwing everything at the script to force a delay in the confrontation between Laurie and Michael. It also felt as if Halloween Ends wanted to build up a character that is not important to the past stories and which they cannot build up any future Halloween films. 

So much time is spent on Corey and his romance with Allyson it is almost like Halloween Ends does not care about Laurie or Michael. I do not understand the thinking behind every decision in the film.

Some of the scenes that were meant to inspire horror only ended up having the opposite effect. The radio DJ was supposed to meet a grisly end, but if so, the audience laughter showed they failed to do so. You cannot have characters such as Corey's mom say things like, "Boys who keep secrets don't get custard for dessert" and expect people to take this remotely seriously.

As Corey is essentially the lead character in Halloween Ends, I think Rohan Campbell gave as good a performance as he could given this is still early in his career. In the early scenes as the pre-loony Corey, he was pleasant while still feeling a bit off. It is only when he comes back that you struggle to believe he is bullied by people who went to band camp (even if three of the four were unpleasant, with only one showing even the smallest glimpse of kindness). Sometimes Campbell felt forced as the menacing Corey, the angry young man turned psycho.

Curtis made Laurie look slightly bonkers. Granted, the character has been throw a lot. However, she could not muster the menace of finally facing her tormentor once and for all or the wounded woman attempting to protect her granddaughter. Matichak looked bored throughout, as if silently cursing her agent for wrapping her up in this. 

I figure there were a few cameos and appearances from those in past Halloween films, but they did not elicit any responses. Instead, Halloween Ends is a disservice to Halloween fans. It is not a Halloween film. Filled with bad performances, nonsensical story beats and a central character no one cares about, Halloween Ends is a terrible, even sad, way to end this long franchise.

In the final analysis, I can see why it was called Halloween Ends. It is because no one would go see a movie called Corey Begins


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Amsterdam: A Review (Review #1655)


Amsterdam touts itself as both a comedy and historic film with its opening on-screen text: "A lot of this really happened". If so, then history must be really dull and nonsensical. Simultaneously frantic and lethargic, Amsterdam thinks it is fun and zippy when it achieves only one thing: embarrassing everyone involved.

Hopping almost manically from 1933 to 1918 and back again, we see three people thrown together by World War I. There's Doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), who is not eager to be there put was pushed into it by his social-climbing wife and in-laws. There's Harold Woodman (John David Washington), a black soldier who won't tolerate discrimination against his fellow African-American soldiers. Berendsen, made commander of this group of troops, is injured alongside them.

At the hospital, they both meet Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a French nurse who is actually American. The three bond and share an idyllic time in Amsterdam despite Woodman and Berendsen's injuries (the latter with a glass eye), where Valerie and Harold begin a romance. 

Burt and Harold find themselves caught up in the murder of Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), a Senator's daughter who asked Berendsen to perform an autopsy on her father. She is convinced it was murder, part of a plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and install a fascist dictatorship. Burt and Harold, along with Valerie (a surrealist artist who is now back in America) must clear their names of the crime. That means dealing with Valerie's frenemies Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers), American and British spies whom Valerie knows. It also means dealing with Valerie's brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). 

The planned coup d'état revolves around General Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro), who is to be the unwitting stooge to a cabal of industrialists bent on world domination. Things reach a climax at the military reunion, where attempted murders and conspiracies are exposed.

Writer/director David O. Russell is a good filmmaker. The cast is comprised of talented actors (three Oscar winners, two nominees). This collection of talents only makes the fiasco of Amsterdam harder to bear. As I watched, it was clear that everyone involved thought Amsterdam was clever and funny and even insightful about current-day situations. Whatever allegories between the little-known "Business Plot" of 1933 and such things as January 6 went over my head. 

What did not go over my head were the simply frightful performances. They did not compliment each other but instead were in conflict with each other. The tones of the three leads are a clear example. Bale acted as though Amsterdam was a Borscht Belt skit on acid. His performance was essentially that of a Jackie Mason impersonator, all rapid-fire line delivery and hand movements. At certain points when Bale was bemoaning life with his wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), I thought we was going to exclaim, "Take my wife...PLEASE!"

Washington in turn was the complete opposite: stoic to the point of comatose. Perhaps he figured that Bale was sucking the air out the room with his non-kosher hamminess, so he opted to be too serious. If Bale thought Amsterdam was a rapid-fire comedy, Washington thought Amsterdam was a esoteric drama. Both style, fighting with each other, made it impossible to believe Burt and Harold were BFFs. 

Robbie was stuck in the middle, unsure of which direction to go. Perhaps finding it hard to match either tone, she straddled both and left no mark. Unable to control Bale's almost-crazed manner or lift Washington to play along (even with a romance that fell flat), Robbie was given a thankless job. I think she did the best she could under the circumstances, but she simply could not compete.

Amsterdam was long and meandering, with elements that seemed thrown in but never having a payoff. The entire subplot of Canterbury and Norcross' ornithological explorations was random. By the time we get to the alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government, it seems almost an afterthought versus what I figure is the main point of the film. The two cops who go after Burt and Harold appear to give them a free hand. Granted, it is because one of them served with Burt and I think supplies him with drugs, but it still seems bizarre that the junior cop did not say or do anything.

The other actors seemed to just be there. Malek and Taylor-Joy were nonentities in things. Only DeNiro seemed to take a stab at making things serious, but he too had some mugging. Taylor Swift was not on screen long enough to leave an impression (though the car running over her left an impression on her). I have heard people literally applauded when she was run over, though that did not happen when I saw the film. As with Harry Styles in Don't Worry Darling, you cannot throw a pop star into a movie and expect a transformative cinematic performance. 

In her defense, Amsterdam obviously made a mockery of established, well-trained and talented actors, so Tay-Tay already started out ten steps behind. If people like Bale, Robbie and DeNiro could not make Amsterdam work, how could T-Swift do better? 

Russell's script is already confused about what Amsterdam wanted to be. It made the cardinal sin though of sounding too contemporary for a film set in the Great Depression. People talk about being on "the right side of history" and "living your truth", expressions that I do not think existed in the 1930's. Granted, those are the script's minor issues, but they are issues nonetheless.

I think Amsterdam (a city that was not a major part of the film or story) is one of the biggest disappointments of the year. Rushed and dull, excessively long for the story it is not telling, one can only damn Amsterdam

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Catwoman: A Review



Catwoman became notorious right after its release, a film derided and despised by both public and critics alike. Many "me-ouch" and variations on "catastrophe/catastrophic" were tossed around with glee. I think those kinds of puns are tacky, but given how Catwoman ended up, they kind of fit.

Mousy Patience Phillips (Halle Berry, and no pun intended on the "mousy" bit) aspires to be a painter but is now relegated to working as an in-house advertising artist for the Hedare Corporation, which specializes in beauty products. CEO George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) is unhappy with Patience's work, though to be fair he's just a crabby person.

He's dumped his wife Laurel (Sharon Stone) as the face of Hedare after 15 years, opting for a literal younger model. This does not sit well with Laurel, but there is evil at work. The new Beau-Line beauty products have a curious side effect: they will turn the users into disfigured monsters if they stop using them.

Unfortunately for Patience, she accidentally overheard Laurel and the reluctant Dr. Slavicky (Peter Wingfield) about the Beau-Line products. As such, she is "killed", but Patience has secret allies: mystical cats who have chosen her as the new Catwoman.

Now, despite her growing romance with police officer Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), Patience must embrace her feline feminine side to stop Laurel and become the crimefighter Catwoman.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Catwoman has three credited screenwriters (John Brancato, Michael Ferris and John Rogers) with two of them having a story credit (Theresa Rebek being the third). I sense that more hands went into the script, which is cliched, unintentionally hilarious and groan-inducing. It is as if Catwoman never decided to be serious or camp. 

Instead, it opted to try and straddle both sides, making for a most confused final product. You take up a lot of screen time with Patience's wacky BFF Sally (Alex Borstein) but she comes across as grating and irrelevant to the plot. 

The fact that "Beau-Line" is pronounced at least two different ways but the second word is never pronounced as "lyne" but as "leen" is one of the lesser oddball elements. 

You have seen this "kill the woman who ends up coming back as Catwoman" in Batman Returns, and I'm astonished no one commented on the similarity. That Catwoman wants to be separate from the Batman mythos makes this all the more strange. 

One of Catwoman's greatest issues story-wise is that it gives Patience very little time to build up from this shrinking violet to frisky vixen. Trying to tie her in to a long line of vixens kind of just sits there. To be fair though, poor Halle Berry clearly does her best with what she is given. We see this when Catwoman and Laurel have their final confrontation: at one point Berry puts her hands up like paws as Laurel is beating her with a pole.

I do not question Berry's commitment to the role. She again was given a pretty thankless job and worked her behind off to make any of this work. Berry, however, was doomed from the start by things outside her control. Her costume was tawdry, not slinky. It would be something better suited to a furry dominatrix.

Her director, billed as "Pitof" (Jean-Christophe Comar) was probably the worst choice to helm what was meant as a major action film/franchise starter. For reasons unclear the producers gave the directing job to a man who had made only one film prior to Catwoman and whose said sole film was in French. Even that could be forgiven if not for some of the performances.

Benjamin Bratt looked utterly bored, even at times drugged throughout. He has no connection with Berry in what are meant as love scenes, and after getting shot, Lone seems more confused than in pain. Despite being shot however, he is still able to, later on, punch out a few hitmen, so I'm curious to understand that. 

Lone also has to be among the dumbest cops in history. At a robbery crime scene, we see a box of cupcakes and a note reading "Sorry" prominently displayed. Yet it takes what appear to be hours if not days for him to see that the "Sorry" matches the same "Sorry" Patience wrote on a coffee cup that she sent him after missing a date. Her feline agility when saving a kid from a crazed Ferris wheel (already a silly set up) again seems to escape him.

Stone probably thought she was in another film altogether, closer to the campy 1966 Batman than the darker 1989 Batman. She vamps it up to the Nth degree, refusing to take any situation seriously. It's almost admirable how crazed it comes across, even if the end result is laughable.

Catwoman also has some ghastly visual effects that make Catwoman clearly animated. I think it also does not help matters when Pitof appears more fixated on showcasing Halle Berry's ass than on I figure more important matters.

I think Catwoman is a terrible film, but I did not end up hating it. Rather, I felt almost sorry for everyone and everything revolving around Catwoman. I am, however, surprised that Catwoman is not a cult film, one where audiences can laugh together at people trying desperately to make things good and failing spectacularly.

Cats can land on their feet. Catwoman just fell on her face. 


Thursday, October 6, 2022

Blonde: The 2001 Miniseries



Before the Joyce Carol Oates novel Blonde was adapted into a Netflix film, there was a little-remembered miniseries. Another time there may be a comparison between the two adaptations, but for now let us look at the first adaption. Blonde is a well-acted adaptation that should be better remembered.

With many of the characters speaking directly to us including from the title character herself, Blonde tells a fictionalized version of the life and times of Marilyn Monroe (Poppy Montgomery). Blonde opens with a written statement: "Although the following film depicts some actual persons and events, it is a work of fiction". 

We see Monroe almost beached on the shore, then go in chronological order from her childhood as Norma Jean Baker. Her mother Gladys (Patricia Richardson) informs us that her daughter's name came from two of her favorite stars: Norma Talmadge and Jean Harlow, and her surname from the husband she disliked the least. While her grandmother Della (Ann-Margret) tries to shield Norma Jean from Gladys' growing instability, she dies suddenly, causing Norma Jean great guilt. 

Norma Jean is married off to Bucky (Niklaus Lange), a pleasant though sexist young man. Norma's beauty and ambition propel her to first a modeling then film career. Under the management of Mr. Shin (Wallace Shawn), the now-Marilyn Monroe starts gaining more film work. Shin, who is in love with his creation, dislikes her association with Cass (Patrick Dempsey) on both a personal and professional level. 

As her star rises, Marilyn is wooed and lost by both The Baseball Player (Titus Welliver) and the Playwright (Griffin Dunne). Eventually, her affair with the President and her own emotional turmoil kill her at 36, her long-hoped dreams of motherhood unfulfilled.

Blonde breaks the fourth wall quite often, almost to the point of parody. Most of the time these interviews work. Of particular note is when Montgomery as Monroe speaks to us. Montgomery stays away from a breathy, whispery speaking style that Monroe might have used in her films. Instead, this Marilyn was soft-spoken but also strong and sincere. It is only at the end when she bizarrely comments about the President's "Social Security men" in a strange Southern accent that Montgomery/Monroe comes across as bonkers.

Throughout Blonde, the Marilyn Monroe we see is capable, fully aware and an intellectual. Many times in Blonde does Monroe either quote or write poetry. Marilyn came across as caring, frightened and deeply mournful. She declines Shin's marriage proposal even if it would set her up financially for years, but also cries bitterly when she learns of his early death. 

Other performances work well. Patricia Richardson, best known for the sitcom Home Improvement, was quite strong as Gladys both when in a somewhat catatonic state and when being glamorous as she speaks directly to the audience. Shawn too did well in drama as Shin, not in a comic manner but still with a lightness recognizable to Princess Bride fans.

Other performances though could have been better. Dunne was almost blank when with Montgomery. When he mistakes the raspberry stains on Marilyn's dress for blood, he asks "Is that blood? Are you miscarrying?" in such a bored manner one almost thinks he is barely learning English. Oddly, he does better when being "interviewed". Dempsey is admittedly handsome but leaves little impact as what we are meant to understand was a great love in Monroe's life.

Jensen Ackles as Eddie G. (Edward G. Robinson, Jr.) leaves even less of an impression and in my view was miscast as the third party in this strange ménage a trois. Eric Bogosian as the sleazy photographer was one-note in his aggressive manner.

Blonde does well in moving things forward, though other elements seem odd. For example, when the Playwright finds Monroe at the foot of the stairs, it is unclear given her emotional state whether Monroe fell or threw herself. The miniseries also ends on, if not an ambiguous note at least a less depressing one, with her performing and a text telling us that she died without becoming a mother. 

The miniseries played quite well as almost a biopic even if again Blonde is merely based on actual people versus being true-to-life. Well acted in particular by Montgomery and Richardson, Blonde is worth watching. 


Monday, October 3, 2022

Bros: A Review



It was perhaps inevitable that after Obergefell, we would have a same-sex romantic comedy. Bros touts itself as the first same-sex romantic comedy by a major studio featuring an all LGBTQ+ cast. I think this leaves a false impression that there have never been same-sex romances on film, or that openly gay actors have never played romantic leads gay or straight. 

Be that as it may, we now have this same-sex romcom, and despite the filmmakers' intentions they forgot two elements: the romance and the comedy.

Bobby Leiber (screenwriter Billy Eichner) is a podcaster and director of the soon-to-open LGBTQ+ Museum, which will feature among other things a closing wing detailing the homosexual life of President Abraham Lincoln. He insists he is happy in his misery, made up of Grindr hookups and quipping at all his gay friends' lives.

At the club, he spots the luscious Aaron (Luke MacFarlane), a probate lawyer who like Bobby is not looking for a long-term relationship. He appears more satisfied with being in threesomes than being monogamous. Nevertheless, the rapid-fire Bobby and the more straightlaced Aaron find an attraction to each other. From that, they date and don't date as they navigate group sex, Aaron's desires to be a chocolatier and Bobby's frustrations with opening the LGBTQ+ Museum. 

Will the live-action version of penguins Roy and Silo find true love with each other? 

Bros is not funny or romantic, two things that any romantic comedy should be. It is not funny because from the get-go it is trying too hard. Eichner, who cowrote the script with director Nicholas Stoller, opened with some totally cringeworthy moments that were almost insulting to the audience. At the awards show where Bobby received the "Best Cis White Gay Man of the Year" Award, we see Kristen Chenoweth wearing a large hat that represents the Stonewall Riots. 

Who genuinely thought either bit was funny? I sat there in disbelief that this could possibly have been conceived as amusing.

As if that wasn't already idiotic enough, the Out Athlete Award winner went on and on about how it's much harder being hot than being gay. Did Eichner and Stoller really think this was hilarious? Good comedy can be had from mocking conventions such as self-serious awards, but you have to have some sense of seriousness to sell the comedy. In short, you have to play the situations as if you are not aware that it is "funny". With these bits at the start, you are already telling the audience that you are not even bothering to play the situations seriously but instead screaming that "IT'S FUNNY! LAUGH, YOU PEONS! LAUGH!"

Bros is at times too referential to be seen as funny. Comments about the "serious gay cowboy film" and the lack of same-sex stories in Hallheart Channel films (obviously the Hallmark Channel) are more commentary than actual dialogue. Given that Hallmark is going to have a same-sex romance movie this year, Bros already looks dated. To be fair though, I doubt the upcoming The Holiday Sitter will be anywhere near the suggestion of polyamorous relationships like A Poly Holly Christmas, let alone feature the two male leads masturbating next to each other.

Watching Aaron getting blow jobs from two men simultaneously while also being with Bobby is not going to make most people laugh but gasp. There is another group sex scene where Aaron and his ex-high school hockey teammate start sex with Bobby joining in. The comedy is supposed to come from an uninvited man attempting to jump into the action, but given the muted reaction, I doubt it played as the comedy bit it was intended as. 

Perhaps in the gay community, the top (a man who takes the dominant sexual position) opting to be the bottom (or switching places so that his lover can be the dominant one and he be the submissive one) is a sign of vulnerability and openess. To others, whatever deep meaning will escape them. It is a bit hard to sell the universality of Bros when you have uncomfortable scenes of Grindr hookups that look almost mechanical.  

It also does not help that your lead characters are not worth following. Eichner's Bobby appears to be essentially playing Billy Eichner to where one would not be blamed if they called the character "Billy" versus "Bobby". Billy is too busy being rapid-fire in his delivery and a touch self-righteous to be likeable, let alone anyone to care about. He seems to be always "on", forever talking and annoying everyone around him. When he storms into the Lincoln Letters Wing in what he calls a "roid rage" (having injected himself with steroids to try and bulk up thinking that Aaron likes only buff men), Eichner does not act but spouts his dialogue out. Bobby is always talking to where you think a tranquilizer would do him a world of good.

Bobby is exceptionally unlikeable in how he behaves. When Aaron's mother Anne (Amanda Bearce) says that she thinks second graders might be too young to be exposed to gay history, Bobby/Billy goes into a tear. He goes on a verbal rampage about how his parents when he was 12 took him to see a play, Love and Compassion, which helped our flamboyant tween twink-in-training adjust to his gay life.

As a side note, I think Love and Compassion is meant to be Love! Valour! Compassion!, but I could be wrong.

We were, I presume, meant to sympathize or agree with Billy/Bobby (by this point it was hard to know whether it was the writer or the character making the speech). In reality, you leave this scene thinking that Bobby is bonkers. Anne was perfectly civil and not argumentative, but Billy/Bobby took it as a way to condemn people who do not share his views. He fails to notice that it was his parents' decision to take him to a show that opened with six men exposing themselves.

As a side note, would even New York theaters allow a 12-year-old to attend this Love and Compassion performance? Even openly gay 12-year-olds might get bored and fussy at theaters, so this nugget of Bobby/Billy's formative years sounds suspect, if not implausible. 

The idea that 7-to-8-year old's might not be ready to learn about any kind of sex escapes him, as does the idea that parents should decide what is appropriate for their children. Aaron's outrage is justified, but the film wants us to think him asking Bobby to not berate Aaron's parents is somehow wrong.

Just as one would question whether second graders were mature enough to handle a Holocaust exhibit, one could question whether teaching kids about LGBTQ+ history at that age is a good idea. 

Aaron too is underdeveloped (except for his body). He gets character beats (he, unlike other stereotypical gay men loves Garth Brooks and does not know who Debra Messing is), but he is in his own way shallow and a stereotype of a sexually promiscuous gay man. Bros wants you think he is independent and smart, different from the casual hookups Bobby goes for. However, how he tolerates Bobby is a mystery given how snarky and difficult, almost needy Bobby is.

At one point Aaron tells Billy "You're so smart and funny", and I thought that was Eichner projecting what he thinks of himself versus what Aaron actually thinks. I find it hard to believe someone like Aaron, who is openly yet casually gay and has a better job than Bobby, would endure him as a long-term boyfriend, let alone get weepy over him. Bros, again, wants you to think Bobby is in the right when Aaron gets angry with him when Bobby tells Aaron's mom off. I think Aaron was right in telling him off. MacFarlane to his credit did his absolute best to sell the character, but there was only so much he could do.

I will admit to laughing at a few parts. There's when the bisexual suggests he'd like a Hall of Bisexuals similar to Disney's Hall of Presidents. There's when Bobby, in the midst of his roid rage, attempts to demolish a bust of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg while screaming, "Bye-bye Buttigieg!". The bit about Aaron promoting his newest chocolate creation is amusing. After fulfilling his dream of making chocolates, Aaron sends Bobby a video touting his "Harvey Milk Duds". 

Apart from that though, I found Bros unfunny and unromantic.

Bros is a niche movie, aimed at a very specific, very narrow market. Despite whatever its star and cowriter Eichner may say, Bros is going to be more for LGBTQ+ viewers. Even in that demographic, I think Bros would find only gay men being interested if that. A same-sex romantic comedy can be made, but Bros is not it. Less romantic comedy and more vanity project for Billy Eichner, Bros is too hung up on forcing what humor it has between group sex scenes. If, say perhaps, Bros had been about a Grindr hookup that developed into a genuine romance, we could have had something. However, Bros opted to be less romantic comedy and more sex farce with more sex and less farce. 

After seeing Bros, if I were gay, I would run back into the closet.