Wednesday, November 30, 2022

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

 


HALLOWEEN (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Broadway Rising: A Review


BROADWAY RISING

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2022

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. A Review


GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: D+

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Fabelmans: A Review

 

THE FABELMANS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: C-

Friday, November 25, 2022

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

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

STRANGER AT THE GATE (30 minutes)

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

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

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

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

DECISION: B-

WHAT THEY'VE BEEN TAUGHT (9 minutes)

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

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

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

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

DECISION: B-

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Prince Andrew: Banished. The Television Documentary

 

PRINCE ANDREW: BANISHED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Monday, November 21, 2022

She Said: A Review (Review #1670)

 

SHE SAID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DECISION: C-

Sunday, November 20, 2022

The Menu: A Review

 


THE MENU

"You are what you eat" the saying goes. What if, however, you are how you eat? The Menu is not the takedown of the elite that it appears to aspire to be, but with some good performances, it entertains even if it bites off more than it can chew.

As a side note, I do not know why 2022 has produced more than a few "takedowns of the elite" films, but there it is.

Hawthorn is an exclusive restaurant, so exclusive it is on a remote island and the experience is $1,250 per person with a twelve-person limit. Foodie Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) is beyond giddy with glee at being able to go. His date, Margo (Anya Taylor-Joy) is not. She finds everything about Hawthorn bizarre to idiotic and cannot understand why anyone is excited, let alone so extravagant over something as simple as food.

The various guests at this latest dinner are among the rich and powerful. There's Richard and Anne (Reed Birney and Judith Light), who have dined repeated at Hawthorn. There's George Diaz aka Movie Star (John Leguizamo) and his personal assistant Felicity (Aimee Carrero). We also have billionaire bros Bryce, Soren and Dave (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro and Mark St. Cyr). Finally, we have food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) and her editor, Ted (Paul Adelstein). Lillian "discovered" Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes).

"Chef" as he is called by all, rules his kitchen and island with a firm hand. Aided by his assistant Elsa (Hong Chau), he has prepared a seven-course meal for his guests. Everything has been immaculately planned, except for Margo. Tyler was originally meant to bring another guest but substituted Margo almost at the last minute without informing Chef, Elsa or anyone at Hawthorn.

This will have devastating consequences for everyone, as Chef has decided that this will be a literal last supper for everyone, staff and diners alike. As the dinner continues, it will be difficult if not impossible for anyone to survive this dinner from Hell, though Margo may have a few surprises up her sleeve.

The Menu can be seen as allegory or can be seen at the surface level.  If we go by the latter, The Menu reminded me of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Like in Dame Agatha's novel, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy's screenplay has a group of disparate figures trapped on a remote island by a madman who has decided to bring about justice as he sees it. 

The most open comparison between And Then There Were None and The Menu is when we begin the Third Course (I counted seven courses and S'mores for dessert, with almost all courses appearing as on-screen text). Here, as Chef recounts a strange mix of his abused past and Taco Tuesdays, he presents his diners with tortillas that have images of various acts and crimes on them. They range from the most innocuous (such as Tyler's photographing of the dishes despite firm instructions not to) to the openly criminal (the billionaire bros' offshore accounts).  

Compacting the action to one night, The Menu builds its mystery slowly. That is one of the film's drawbacks. Despite its surprisingly short 106-minute running time, The Menu feels longer. It may be due to how most people nowadays have a one-course meal (not counting buffets). As my mind went to And Then There Were None, I expected to see them die one at a time. That expectation is on me but given how The Menu and the Christie novel share similarities, I could not help thinking that. 

Some things, such as how Chef managed to get his cult-like kitchen staff to participate in this Jonestown-like scenario, are never fully explained. Other elements, such as how Chef managed to get one particular diner to not be there at the fiery conclusion, are not believable to me.

However, The Menu has some strong positives through the performances. I would put Nicholas Hoult at the top of them as the elitist fanboy who ultimately can only appreciate but never create himself. His Tyler is what makes The Menu a strong black comedy. Tyler is so obsessed about the food and being in the presence of Chef that he more effectively spoofs fanboys better than most fanboys accidentally spoof themselves. He is delightful oblivious to anything outside his plate: amidst the growing chaos and even suicide that takes place in front of everyone, there is Tyler, happily eating and refusing to attempt an escape.

Taylor-Joy too excels as Margo, the sole sane voice among the culinary intelligentsia and hangers-on. She uses her working girl smarts to find a solution out of this predicament. Granted, this is aided by having her go to Chef's home (where no one is allowed in), but this is what needed to happen to move the plot forward, so I can excuse it. Her general disinterest in the posh surroundings, her lack of pretention and everyday manner put her at odds with the insanity around her.

Fiennes does strong work as Chef, this seemingly placid man who has gone thoroughly bonkers. Only once does he rant, and that involves his financial backer or "angel" appearing in a way. It does stretch the imagination that Fiennes could convince anyone he is from Iowa, however. In his calm but haughty manner, his generally soft-spoken delivery and controlled lunacy, Fiennes gave an excellent performance.

Similarly strong performances came from Chau as the devoted assistant who may be just as looney as her boss and McTeer as the perpetually snobbish food critic. I would say that The Menu does not have a bad performance in the film, a credit to director Mark Mylod.

The Menu also has a strong, sparse score by Colin Stetson and production design. The film evokes this insular world, where mayhem blends with a nice aperitif. 

The Menu is perhaps not as sharp and witty as it aims to be, but it is a nice snack to munch on. 

DECISION: B-

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

An American Tragedy: A Review

 

AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY

An American Tragedy is the first adaptation of the Theodore Dreiser novel. Pretty much forgotten now compared to the second adaptation, A Place in the Sun, this adaptation has some positives in one performance and echoes of the silent film era. However, it is also a bit of a slog which has not dated well.

Handsome, ambitious hotel porter Clyde Griffiths (Phillips Holmes) loves good times and good-time girls. A car accident where he is a passenger, however, forces him to flee Kansas City. Moving to Lycurgus, New York, Clyde finds a job as section head of a garment factory thanks to distant relatives.

There is a strict rule against fraternizing with employees, but Clyde cannot control his lust for pretty, innocent Roberta Alden (Sylvia Sydney). They begin a secret romance, but soon Clyde's eyes shift to Sondra Finchley (Frances Dee), the factory owner's pretty and wealthy daughter. As he squires Sondra about, "Bert" begins having doubts about Clyde's loyalty and love. This grows more complicated when Roberta ends up in trouble. 

Roberta pushes Clyde into marrying her, but he knows such a thing will keep him from Sondra and her money. Does this, however, mean he would commit murder to keep what he is so close to obtaining? A trial convicts him of such an act, though perhaps he is more morally than legally guilty. 

An American Tragedy came when film was still struggling to enter the sound era. As such, director Josef von Sternberg shapes the film in some ways as a silent film. There are title cards filling in information and written in a somewhat dramatic fashion that could be straight out of a silent film. However, they all play over the sound of flowing water, the suggestion of the impending tragedy coming across.

The film has strong visual moments, such as a wild Jazz Age party early in the film. An American Tragedy has touches of Josef von Sternberg's visual style. The factory, for example, has things going on in the fore and background, in keeping with von Sternberg's method of filling the screen with as much as possible.

Josef von Sternberg in some ways seems an odd choice to direct An American Tragedy. His forte was in the elegant, grandiose lives of the wealthy in exotic locales. An American Tragedy is squarely Middle American working-class. Despite this, he makes the most of the locations. There is a scene where Roberta hands Clyde a note, and he moves off to read it. We cannot get a full image of Clyde's reaction, but we know that it elicits a smile from Roberta. 

Sylvia Sydney is the standout in An American Tragedy. She plays the innocent so beautifully, unaware of Clyde's darkness. She is shocked by his kisses, and her naivete when coming close to her end is beautifully played. 

It is curious that while Phillips Holmes is not bad looking, he seems a poor choice to play this selfish individual. I found him to be overly dramatic, someone who seemed to be trying for a stereotypical silent film performance. His courtroom scenes were particularly weak, though to be fair the lawyers were all hamming it up to the Nth degree. I do give him credit for making Clyde cold and sinister underneath the charm. However, I found him somewhat stiff in manner. 

Dee was sadly pretty much a nonentity in An American Tragedy. She may have been the motive, but she was on screen so little that she had no real impact. 

This may be due to the film's surprisingly brief running time of 96 minutes. It is curious, however, that despite its remarkably short length the courtroom scenes felt rushed. A lot of An American Tragedy seemed to have information filled in via newspaper headlines. That had the effect of rushing things to move the story forward. 

Once or twice is nothing out-of-the-ordinary for early sound films. An American Tragedy, however, seemed to go slightly overboard with this technique.   

An American Tragedy is worth watching for Sylvia Sydney's performance and for certain cinematic elements from Josef von Sternberg. It is not a bad film by any stretch, though not as good as it could have been. 

DECISION: C+

Monday, November 14, 2022

Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. The Television Documentary

 

JIMMY SAVILE: 
A BRITISH HORROR STORY

The name Jimmy Savile means little to nothing to American audiences. The British, however, were mad about this flamboyant, eccentric television host. His programs ranged from the kid-friendly Jim'll Fix It (where he granted wishes that children had written to him) to the music presentation show Top of the Pops. His death was mourned by the British public. It also burst wide open what had been whispered about for decades: the Sir James Savile was a pedophile. It went beyond merely lusting after Lolita-type girls. The scope, length and coverup of Savile's sexual abuse was horrifying when uncovered.

Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story attempts to cover the scandal that erupted when the truth came out. It is unfortunate that in a way, the documentary too fell under Savile's fame to give the victims their time.

Using archival footage from Savile's decades-long career and newly-filmed interviews, Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story divides its story in two parts. Part 1: Making a Monster recounts his rise from Northern miner to radio DJ, when he grew to become the number-one DJ in the country. With his outlandish behavior and bizarre wardrobe, he became a natural for television. He had a wild persona that also appeared to reveal an extremely charitable one. He soon became a massive fundraiser for hospitals, raising millions of pounds for such organizations as the Leeds General Infirmary, the Broadmoor Hospital for psychiatric help and the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which specialized in spinal injuries.

This charitable work earned him the affection of the upper echelons of politics. Figures such as Margaret Thatcher and the-then Prince of Wales feted him. The latter even pushed successfully for a knighthood. It wasn't until after he became Sir James that the fainted, most tepid question about Savile's alleged predilection for "little girls" even made print.

It is only now in Part 2: Finding the Monster, that we begin delving into the nightmare Savile created. Though there had been whispers about Savile, few people questioned his public persona as just merely eccentric. The eccentricities extended to being a porter at the hospitals he raised funds for, with 24 hour access and even private rooms for him. Anonymous letters sent to an underfunded Child Abuse Investigation group from Scotland Yard went unfollowed. When he was finally brought in for questioning in 2009 (two years before his death), he was defensive and dismissive of the allegations. 

Moreover, no one was willing to speak publicly to charge Savile with anything. It was only after Savile's death that his myriad of victims felt free to speak publicly of Savile's decades-long predatory behavior had done to them. Friends Reunited, a British version of Facebook, was full of anger and condemnation for all the loving tributes Savile was receiving. The producers of a documentary that Savile's former employer, the British Broadcasting Corporation, had rejected, took their work to the rival Independent Television which broadcast The Other Side of Jimmy Savile on their Exposure program. The scandal horrified the public that had so loved Savile. 

Savile's victims had ranged from ages 5 to 75. They dated as far back as the 1950s. Horrifying tales of molestation to rape sickened the public. It was to where Savile's grandiose headstone, down to its cruelly worded "It was good while it lasted" inscription was taken down in the dead of night rather than wait for someone to do it.

Perhaps the closest comparison that American audiences of A British Horror Story would understand is that of Bill Cosby. The man who had been "America's Dad" being a serial rapist shocked generations who had grown to love "The Cos". Jimmy Savile, however, was more than just an avuncular host. It would be as if a combination Art Linkletter, Bob Hope and Dick Clark had raped children for decades with higher-ups either not interested or covering it up to protect their brand and reputation. The horrors in A British Horror Story, however, did not come as thoroughly as I think they could have and should have.

Director Rowan Deacon had all the elements to make his two-part series gripping television. It could have been a condemnation of the culture of celebrity that shielded Savile. It could have given a voice to the hundred of Savile's victims. Instead, A British Horror Story ultimately ended up being almost curiously fixated on pop psychology and the very celebrity that Savile used to commit monstrous crimes.

We get vague suggestions that Savile's Catholicism and close relationship with his mother may have colored his actions. Could his charitable work have been a way to absolve himself from his crimes? Was there something unnatural about how close he was in his early years to "Duchess" (Savile's nickname for his mother)? The idea that Savile used his charitable work as cover to allow himself entry into places where vulnerable people could be at his disposal appears not to enter Deacon's mind. Rather than suggest that Savile put up a front, he plays on the notion of "Catholic guilt" and potential absolution.

In a sense, that almost seems to let Savile off the hook, to suggest that whatever good he did was a way to cleanse himself from the evil. It would be easier to say Savile was evil and used his position to violate people, full stop. 

A British Horror Story also wants to push the Savile/Thatcher and Savile/then-Prince Charles connections into something more lurid. Again, rather than put up the idea that Thatcher and the Prince and Princess of Wales were taken in and duped by Savile, Deacon seems to bring up Savile's connections to the British Prime Minister and Royal Family for unclear reasons. 

Thatcher may have heard the whispers of Savile's nymphet fixation, but it is not as if she was procuring young girls for him. It is plausible that HRH the Duke of Edinburgh may have also heard about Savile's attractions to tween girls, but there is no way of knowing he did. A British Horror Story, by bringing this up and putting more focus on the relationships, does not tackle the corrosive nature of celebrity to hide crimes.  

I think a greater focus should have been put on the press, which had the story (or at least inklings of it) and did little to nothing. It's not until close to the end of Savile's life that one reporter, Lynn Barber, does the most gentle inquiry to Savile himself when she asks about rumors that he likes young girls. To be fair, no victim wanted to speak out openly prior to Savile's death. Also, Savile had become close friends with police, who sadly dismissed the accusations against "our Jim".

Still, I think A British Horror Story let the press off rather lightly.

It also takes up too much time going over what the British public already knew about Savile's colorful persona. Part 1 takes up nearly the whole hour and a half covering his career that it gives the last few minutes on a police interview and the first questions asked openly. Part 2 takes so long speculating on how Catholicism might have been a way for Savile to clear his conscience that by the time we get to his crimes, the program is nearly over. Sam Brown is the only victim to speak in A British Horror Story about her experiences on-camera (the few others via archival footage). Her sections are sad and painful to hear: the guilt she carries, the experiences themselves. It seems a terrible disservice to focus more on Savile's funeral than on Brown's story.

One of the oddest parts of A British Horror Story was how much foreshadowing the film does. Savile's comments about his outside activities or open flirtations were, at the time, seen as humorous or at least merely part of his eccentric image. We see a montage of him saying, "My case comes up next Thursday," clearly taken as a joke about his life off-camera but now through hindsight seen as admissions of guilt. Things he said decades ago about the Loch Ness Monster or how he's a "very tricky fellow" can be seen today as creepy. However, at the time, they were not intended as such.

I do not know if one can make the connections between what he said then and what we know now.

As a side note, I thought that My Case Comes Up Next Thursday would have been a good alternate title for A British Horror Story. However, could it have been too jokey for the subject matter? 

Jimmy Savile might have done good in the millions he raised for various organizations. There may be, surprisingly, people who still think well of him. Jimmy Savile now is reviled, more so given he got away with it. Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story is a lesser primer on the monstrous acts he did than a condemnation of a corporate culture and a public too dazzled with fame to bring him to justice. It may have been good while it lasted, but for those who suffered through his evil work, it will never be over.


4/10

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. A Review

 

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

I think it is fair to say that out of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Phase Four, the sequel to Black Panther is the most anticipated, or at least, the most hyped. After Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman's sudden and unexpected death, there was concern over how to proceed with the franchise. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is adequate, but longer and unwieldly in its execution. 

The sudden death of King T'Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther, has not only thrown Wakandans and the world into turmoil, but left the Royal Family adrift. Princess Shuri (Leticia Wright) still grieves a year after T'Challa's death, haunted by her inability to save him. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) urges her to start moving forward, but she has problems of her own.

The other nations want Wakanda's vibranium supply, and they will go to any lengths to get it short of war. An attack on an American ship that has found vibranium on the ocean floor has been attacked. It is not the Wakandans who have done this. Instead, it is a new hereto unknown people: the Talokan. Their king, a half-human half-merman known as Namor (Tenoch Huerta) infiltrates Wakanda and gives an ultimatum: hand over "the Scientist" who made the vibranium-detecting device or face war.

That "scientist" turns out to be sassy MIT student Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). She is pleased to receive Wakandan royalty, but not pleased when Okoye (Dania Gurira) threatens to take her to Wakanda by force. With some help from "colonizer" Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) they avoid capture, but Namor takes "the scientist" and Shuri to his underwater kingdom of Talokan, where we learn his backstory.

The rescue by self-exiled Wakandan Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) only serves to antagonize Namor more. That leads to an attack on Wakanda, where not all survive. Ultimately though, a new Black Panther arises, one that forces peace and allows for grief. It also allows for a new, hereto unknown Prince of Wakanda to be found.

I point out that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is close to three hours, two hours and forty-one minutes to be exact. That makes it close to half-an-hour longer than Black Panther as well as the second-longest Marvel Cinematic Universe film (after the three-hour, two-minute Avengers: Endgame). It is also longer than Dune: Part 1, albeit by only six minutes. As such, Wakanda Forever seems to live up to that name. I would not say it is overindulgent, merely bloated.

Director and cowriter Ryan Coogler (writing with Joe Robert Cole) made some very curious decisions in Wakanda Forever. For example, there is an early scene where we cut back and forth between a French raid on a ship carrying vibranium and Queen Ramonda addressing the United Nations in Geneva about that exact raid. I wonder why we could not cut Ramonda's address, focus on the raid and culminate with the captured mercenaries being brought forward.

Other moments were cringe-inducing. Hearing Dora Milaje General Okoye refer to the FBI as "the popo" might have been funny (it was to the audience I saw Wakanda Forever with). However, I do not think Okoye would even be aware of the term, let alone use it. This break from character took perhaps the most unintentionally silliest turn when K'uk'ulkan/Namor was showing Shuri around his underwater kingdom.

First, this rather serious, slightly pompous and menacing Mesoamerican warrior king tells Shuri the various dangers of trying to enter Talokan, until he breaks out into something close to a smile and says cheerily, "Or we can get you a suit!". This, to my memory, is the only time Namor comes close to showing any humor. That already is strange enough. As Shuri floats along to see the wonders of Talokan in her underwater suit, the end result has her looking like SpongeBob SquarePants' Sandy Cheeks!  

As a side note, while Namor makes a big thing out of pronouncing his name as "Nah-MOOR", no one else seems to have gotten the memo. If memory serves correct, "Nah-MOOR" is used only once. Everyone else pronounces it "NAY-moor". I'm of Mexican descent, and I would say "NAY-moor". To be fair, I heard "K'uk'ulkan" and my mind drifted to the Mexican bogeyman "El Cucuy", but I digress.

Jokes aside, Wakanda Forever has serious problems due specifically to the script. It is meandering and filled with plot points and characters that add nothing to whatever it is trying to say. The Namor origin story could have been cut down or cut altogether, for it includes how the Talokan people came to be, Namor's own origin and the origin of his name. Same with the extended Talokan attack on Shuri, Okoye and Riri in Boston.

It is curious that what is meant as a major action piece felt dull. It is even more curious that anyone would bother saving Riri given the two major problems with her. There is how inconsequential she was to Wakanda Forever and what an unlikeable character she was. In the former, Riri disappears for long stretches of Wakanda Forever. She is essentially the Maguffin, what most of the plot centers around but who has no real impact in the story itself. She was superfluous, there only to tie Riri into the MCU for the upcoming Ironheart Disney+ series. 

As another side note, I did wonder why El Cucuy referred to her only as "The Scientist". I guess even he could not be bothered to learn her name. 

Wakanda Forever serving as a de facto Ironheart pilot leads me to the latter: her unlikability as a character. If I had been Queen Ramonda, I would have been, "Here, take this obnoxious child to Talokan and do what you wish, oh Feathered Serpent". Perhaps Thorne played the part as written: as this sassy, allegedly wisecracking definitely backtalking girl genius. However, all that backtalking and alleged wisecracks just made her insufferable. When offered hospitality by the Talokans, she starts babbling about it all being part of some "supervillain s-hit". Over and over, Thorne's performance stretches the idea that Riri is any kind of genius.

Tony Stark can get away with snark when facing great danger. Riri Williams cannot. Tony Stark is an adult and billionaire. Riri Williams is a nineteen-year-old student who makes her money by writing other people's schoolwork. Here again, if perhaps Wakanda Forever had made her a realistic figure (say, a teenager terrified of the FBI chasing her or underwater people in general), we could have had something.   

Again, this might have been the character as written, so I want to grant some leeway on the subject. The returning cast, however, has no escape. I know there are calls to nominate Angela Bassett for Best Supporting Actress in Wakanda Forever, but my question is, "why?". It was forced in my opinion, especially whenever she has to be dramatic. This plagues all the performances in Wakanda Forever, an over-the-top and excessively dramatic set of acting that never came across as believable. 

It is curious that while those involved in Wakanda Forever wanted to make a three-hour tribute to Chadwick Boseman (the film's Marvel credits show only Boseman, which I think is the first time they featured only one actor), they acted on film as though their heart was not in the film itself. I am sure they would argue the contrary, but what I saw on the screen never came across as acting, but merely moving their mouths and bodies. 

The stiff acting, behaving as if all this is meant to be deep versus entertaining, was hard enough. Seeing Freeman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as his boss/ex-wife in a subplot that went nowhere made things harder. The Michael B. Jordan cameo similarly came across as unnecessary. At the very least, I wondered why it could not have been part of a second vision versus having two visions.

If there are positives in Wakanda Forever, they are in the still-strong technical elements. Ludwig Goransson's score blended African sounds with some vaguely Mayan ones, and the lyrics to the vocals complement the story (though I think you would have to both be listening and know Spanish to get what is being sung is almost literally telling you what is being shown). Ruth Carter's Afrofuturistic costumes now also feature Mesoamerican clothing for the Talokan, though the comment I read about why they wear feathers underwater is a valid point of curiosity.   

What I came away with after watching Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a film that is, adequate. Nowhere near the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe film (I doubt any MCU film will dethrone Eternals for that dubious honor), but a letdown after the first Black Panther. We now close the chapter on Phase Four of the world's longest and most expensive soap opera.  

DECISION: C-

Next MCU Film: Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Till (2022): A Review

 

TILL

There are, for the most part, two types of biopics. There is the insightful biopic, the type that works to get into the mind of the subject and explore his/her world. Then there is the reverential biopic, the type that works to canonize the subject to where you think he/she almost walks on water. Lawrence of Arabia is a good example of the former. Gandhi is a good example of the latter. Till, the biopic of Mamie Till-Bradley, veers closer to the latter. While it suffers from a perhaps excessive running time and a lack of strong vision, Till is also elevated by a strong central performance.

Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) is forever fretful for her only son, Emmett "Bo" Till (Jalyn Hall). She warns her precocious fourteen-year-old about how different life is for a "Negro" in Mississippi than it is in their hometown of Chicago. Nevertheless, Emmett goes to the Deep South to visit his cousins in August 1955.

Mamie still worries for Emmett, mentioning at least twice that this is the longest they have been separated. Mamie's fears are sadly and horrifyingly founded. While down in Money, Mississippi, Emmett forgets that there are unwritten rules for blacks when they interact with whites. In a wildly misguided effort to compliment shopkeeper's wife Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), Emmett whistles at her. This one wolf whistle sets off a chain of events that sent shockwaves throughout the world.

A few days after the incident, Carolyn's husband Roy (Sean Michael Weber) and his half-brother JW Milam (Eric Whitten) force their way into Emmett's uncle Reverend Moses' (John Douglas Thompson) house and take him by force. As news hits Mamie, in her heart she knows Emmett is dead. His mutilated body is found three days later.

Mamie, against advice, decides to have an open casket so the world can see what was done to her son. This horror is too great for even the Mississippi justice system to ignore, and a trial of Roy and JW is set. Mamie, despite the best efforts of black activists, knows too that these white men will not be convicted. Using her mother's pain, Mamie Till-Bradley will now advocate for true justice for all.

Till tackles a necessary story, particularly in these deeply troubled times when race relations have become so fraught. Till is very respectable, and therein lies the issue. Everyone involved in Till acts as if they are fully aware of the importance of telling Mamie and Emmett Till's story to where it comes close to being remote, a dry history lesson versus a story of a mother's grief turning into courage. 

I could not help thinking how strong Till would have been if a more experienced writer and/or director had helmed the film. My mind thought of someone like a Spike Lee or Harriet's Kasi Lemmons, if they or someone else had helmed the project. Instead, it is Chinonye Chukwu in her third feature film who directed and cowrote the film (with Keith Beauchamp and Michael Reilly). 

Till feels terribly distant, remote, removed from both the horror of Emmett Till's murder and Mamie's grief & courage. There is something a bit off about most of the acting. I found many of the performances very stiff, ones that suggest the actors were again fully aware that Till is "an important story". It is, and the subject matter merits being treated with compassion and delicacy. Instead, there is an almost odd restraint in most of Till that keeps viewers slightly separate from things.

I do not think it is the fault of the actors, but of their directing. There was an unfortunate element of forced foreshadowing to Mamie's deep anxiety. It might be historically accurate, but it also pushes audiences to be forever waiting for the moment when the situation comes upon us. I in no way advocate for a graphic depiction of Emmett Till's torture and killing. However, by keeping things restrained to the degree they were, the full impact of the horror does not hit the viewer to the degree that I think it should.

There is also a curious element of introducing us to important figures who should be more impactful. The closing credits mention how Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), who drove Mamie to where she was staying during the trial, was himself murdered. However, given he and his wife Myrlie (Jayme Lawson) share one if two scenes at the most, it does not have the impact it should have.

As a side note, Whoopi Goldberg, who plays Mamie's mother Alma Carthan in Till, played Myrlie Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi

That is not to say that we do not get flashes of what Till could have been if helmed by more experienced hands. The scene where Mamie is at the morgue, looking over the mutilated corpse of her only child, is deeply heartbreaking. The entire scene is well-crafted: we are held back from seeing Emmett's brutalized corpse for a long time, then we get bits of what remain, until Mamie finally lets out the deep, shattering wails of grief. It is impossible not to react to this scene of unbearable agony, and Deadwyler is deeply moving here. It again is impossible not to shed a few tears at this moment.

Deadwyler gives a strong performance as Mamie, a woman of true courage who pushes her grief and anger down in the pursuit of justice for both her son and other mothers' sons victimized by hate crimes. It is, however, again the screenplay that restrains her from time to time. For example, I thought Till could have benefitted from a moment where Mamie's firm resolve to show her son in his horrifying condition came about. 

Instead, she just comes in and says she wants an open casket. What motivated her to take this step? What struggles, if any, did she have about her taking this momentous step? Till does not reveal them, opting to just move forward. It is curious that later in Till, we get a long take of Deadwyler on the stand, with only the voices of the defense and prosecutor speaking to her. Deadwyler rises above the material, but once again I sense a hesitancy to show the mix of anger, courage and a mother's grief while testifying.

Till was respectable. What it should have been was fiery, passionate, firm. I am glad that Mamie Till-Mobley's story now has been told on film. I only wish it had been done both sooner and better. 

Emmett Till: 1941-1955
Mamie Till-Mobley: 1921-2003

DECISION: C+