Saturday, December 30, 2023

Poor Things: A Review (Review #1783)



The term "acquired taste" is one that Poor Things rightly earns. A film that in my opinion is trying too hard to be eccentric, it just left me cold.

Mad scientist Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is keeping his newest creation far from the public gaze. She is Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman he literally brought back to life. He found her shortly after she successfully committed suicide, and to his surprise found she was heavily pregnant. He opted to install her unborn child's brain into her head and managed to create a new woman.

Bella stumbles through Baxter's home a bit like an unhinged Helen Keller only with all her senses intact. She says the first thing that pops into her mind to "God" as she calls Godwin. Bella is uncouth in her eating and has motor skill issues, but she has discovered a new hobby: auto-erotic exercises with fruit.

She has also discovered Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). Max is Godwin's assistant whom he brought to monitor Bella's progress. She is not in love with him as the concept is foreign to her. Somehow, though, Max has fallen for Bella. A marriage is soon planned, as Godwin knows he won't last forever. 

Enter Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo). A shady lawyer brought in to draw up the marriage contract, he soon discovers Bella as the ultimate sexual conquest. They run off together, with Max distraught and Godwin merely non-plussed. All their "furious jumping" is too much even for lothario Duncan, who attempts to taper down our nympho. She, however, will not be denied. A sailing journey to get Bella under control fails, especially after she discovers both philosophy and poverty. Eventually, they end up destitute in Paris, where he goes mad and she goes to a brothel.

Bella becomes the queen of whores, yet even her growing knowledge of such things as socialism and lesbianism seems rote. Finally brought back to London by Max to see a dying Godwin, there is one last twist before their nuptials courtesy of Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). Will Bella become her own woman?

Essentially a more lighthearted Frankenstein with a bit of The Island of Doctor Moreau and Freaks, I was not impressed with seeing how many times and in how many ways Emma Stone could get humped. I think it was because sometimes things were a bit too eccentric for me in its efforts to be funny. I get what director Yorgos Lanthimos was going for in his visual style. The film is split into a black-and-white opening section and a color section, bringing color once Bella finds the joys of furious jumping.

I get that this is some kind of steampunk universe, where things are exaggerated and overt. It is just that I did not laugh once. I think it is because I could never shake the idea that Poor Things was trying too hard. Everything from the performances to the visuals to Tony McNamara's screenplay adaptation of Alasdair Gray's novel were too open about their eccentricity for me to accept even this fantasy world.

"Did he lay with you?", a displeased Duncan asks Bella after she wanders off without him to explore the joys of Lisbon. "No, we were against the wall," she replied in her not-quite monotone but more staccato delivery. A lot of what is meant to be funny just did not hit me. At one point, Duncan attempts to literally toss another passenger, Martha (Hanna Schygulla) off the ship for giving Bella endless books to read. Martha seems almost delighted by his unhinged efforts, but as I watched I was not laughing. It was not horror at the sight but my sense that, while I got that all this is supposed to be broad, it did not impress me.

That also goes to the performances. Many have lauded Emma Stone's turn as Bella, our naive nympho. I will grant that her performance is technically skilled. However, that is what I kept seeing: a technically skilled performance as opposed to the character. I never saw "Bella Baxter" but "Emma Stone acting". I do not know if that is a compliment or insult here. Did she give a good performance? Yes. Did she ever convince me she was the character? No.

I would say the same for all the performances. Again, I appreciate that Poor Things is meant to be broad. I just thought it was a bit too broad for me. I could not shake the idea that since everyone was in on the joke, it just did not make it funny for me. Ruffalo and Dafoe each play their part in the same vein, with deliberately mild exaggerations. I confess never believing that Duncan would sacrifice everything for the sake of pleasing Bella, probably because things were played so big that it did not make sense to me for him to be driven mad by her loss. Dafoe was probably the most grounded out of the three, not making Godwin into a crazed mad scientist (even if he was that). 

Poor Things does have a strong aesthetic in its world building. That should be a plus in its favor. Its two-hour-plus runtime was a strong negative though. Maybe the film could have lost a couple of Bella's sexual encounters in the brothel, such as a father bringing his two boys to see him have sex with her to teach them about sex.

Ultimately though, I found less to like than things to hate in Poor Things. I did not hate it, but I could not embrace it. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Color Purple (2023): A Review


It is a bit difficult for me to look on the musical adaptation of The Color Purple because I am familiar with the 1985 film adaptation. As such, I already know the story and cannot help thinking of the original film. With that said, 2023's The Color Purple does have some good elements despite my familiarity with the subject.

Going from 1909 to 1947, we get the life of Celie Johnson. Young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) is abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her father Alonso (Deon Cole). She is on her second child by Alonso, who promptly takes her child away after birth. If not for her sister Nettie (Hallie Bailey) life would be unbearable.

It is not long before Nettie catches the eye of Mister (Colman Domingo). Alonso would rather pass Celie off to him, and with that, Celie goes to marry Mister. Mister is as abusive to Celie (Fantasia Barrino) as Alonso. In one respect, he is worse: he drove Nettie off his land when she refused his advances. Celie lives forever under the shadow of Mister's true love, blues chanteuse Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson). Shug is her own woman, unbossed and unbought as they say. She is not afraid of Mister, down to calling him "Albert", his actual name.

Also unafraid of Mister is his son's wife Sophia (Danielle Brooks). She's large and in charge, telling Mister and his son Harpo (Corey Hawkins) what's what. She won't allow Harpo to beat her and promptly leaves when he so much as tries. Shug eventually comes to stay with Albert and bonds with Celie, finding in her a kindred spirit. Harpo turns his house into a juke joint, where Shug is Queen of the scene.

Celie, through time and the encouragement of Shug, Sophia and Harpo's new girl Squeak (pop singer H.E.R., billed as Gabriella Wilson H.E.R.) slowly comes into her own. Able to at long last stand up to Mister after discovering a cache of letters from Nettie, she embarks on her own as Shug's traveling companion and eventual career as a seamstress of renown. Things come full circle for Celie, able at last to reconcile her past and future through curious twists of fate.

When you have a film as well-known and beloved as 1985's The Color Purple, one runs the risk of merely copying the original when making a remake. 2023's The Color Purple has the difference of being a musical adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. I would not have thought that the story would lend itself to a musical. I was somewhat wrong, in that The Color Purple can work as a musical.

I say "somewhat wrong" not out of ego. Rather, it is because try as the film might, it could not shake off its Broadway roots. My mind kept going to the phrase "too staged". Almost every musical number felt unrealistic. I know that is a strange criticism of a musical, but I hope to clarify myself. In the most successful film musicals, like The Sound of Music or 1961's West Side Story, the musical numbers were as organic as possible. There is, granted, an unreality to people singing and dancing on film, but those films did not feel unnatural or exaggerated in how that was presented.

The Color Purple, conversely, made almost every musical number grand, big and obvious that it veered very close to parody. The opening number, Mysterious Ways, was so massive in the choreography that I thought I was watching a stage presentation versus a film. Another number, She Be Mine, is almost bizarre when young Celie is walking through a group of men in a chain gang keeping rhythm before she ends up walking through a group of women who choreograph a dance at a waterfall while doing laundry.

Intentionally or not, She Be Mine brought to mind Sam Cooke's Chain Gang. Again, I know this is a strange criticism for a musical, but The Color Purple was curiously big on choreographing its musical numbers with elaborate dance numbers that looked more suitable for a theater stage than a film. I can see how a number like Push Da Button might be big and almost over-the-top. It is Shug Avery's debut performance at Harpo's juke joint. However, why have an elaborate dance number for Workin, where Harpo is singing and dancing with his work crew when building said juke joint? 

I understand that several numbers from the stage musical were cut from the film version, with only Keep It Movin and Superpower (I) being written for the film. Both new songs are fine, the former catchy and the latter well delivered by Barrino. However, I think some of the other songs could have been cut, or at the very least not delivered in such an elaborate fashion that only served to call attention to themselves.

On the whole the performances were quite good. The standout was Brooks as Sophia. Big, bold and brassy (as Mister, Senior observed, "more entertaining than a radio show"), Brooks dominates whenever on screen. That is not to say that she does not have quiet moments. When softly pleading with Celie for her to stay when Sophia is locked up, Brooks is deeply moving. 

Henson is commanding as Shug Avery, though at times I felt she was making the character less bold and assertive as she should have been. Wilson aka H.E.R. had a smaller part but she did well as Squeak (real name Mary Agnes). Barrino, who played Celie on Broadway, really came into her own late in the film, particularly her solo number I'm Here. She and Henson also had a wonderful scene in What About Love? (not the Heart song), an Art Deco fantasy that subtly suggests a Sapphic relationship between them. 

I think that we did not see as much acting as we could have from Barrino or Henson due more to director Blitz Bazawule and screenwriter Marcus Gardley, which despite the film's two-hour-plus runtime felt oddly rushed. The directing of the male actors showed a curious element. Domingo and Hawkins came across as almost too nice to be these harsh men. Yes, Domingo's Mister slapped Celie hard. As I watched, however, I never felt that Domingo was brutal. In short, I think he was playing someone who was cruel, but he never convinced me that he was Mister. He was Colman Domingo playing Mister. Only Louis Gossett, Jr. as Old Mister in a small part did well. 

I would say that David Alan Grier as Reverend Avery, Shug's disapproving father, was the most cartoonish in his portrayal.

The Color Purple does have excellent production work and cinematography, capturing the look of early Twentieth Century rural South. It also has some nice bits of dialogue. "If they're rough around the edges, you know they soft on the inside," Celie tells Shug. While talking about seeds, the double meaning is well-crafted. 

It is hard to shake the memory of the 1985 original in this adaptation. Using Miss Celie's Blues (Sister) from the original here helps. It is not a bad inclusion, but those kinds of callbacks don't help separate the new from the old. Ultimately, I think it did not translate well from stage to screen, yet while The Color Purple fails to get away from the past, it does decent enough in its crowd-pleasing presentation.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom: A Review



2023 may finally be the year when those long-held ideas about "superhero fatigue" finally come to fruition. This year we have had seven live-action superhero films, and all but one of them are sequels: Ant-Man 3, Shazam 2, The Flash 2, Captain Marvel 2, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Blue Beetle and now Aquaman 2. Technically, all these films have other titles as all but Blue Beetle are sequels, but I frankly don't want to type them all out. We close out this cacophony of people in tights with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Is it a terrible film, or even a terrible superhero film? No, for I still think Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania is still far, far worse. Aquaman 2 is just there, neither a horror or a thrill, a product of people essentially exhausted by it all.

Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has mostly settled into his role as King of Atlantis. He has his wife Mera (Amber Heard) and their son, Arthur, Jr., watched over by Arthur's father Tom (Temuera Morrison). Aquaman's old enemy David Kane aka Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) still seeks revenge against him for the death of Manta's father. Manta's scientist Stephen Shin (Randall Park) has located a powerful trident that soon begins corrupting Manta's mind. In exchange for releasing the entity behind the Black Trident, Manta will be avenged.

This is very bad news. Releasing the orichalcum deposits hidden within Atlantis may bring about an ecological disaster that will destroy the sea and surface worlds. Despite everyone's best efforts, Shin and Manta have acquired the deposits. In order to help them, Aquaman now has to get his imprisoned brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) out. Orm, for his part, detests having anything to do with Arthur, but it is better than prison.

It is discovered that the way to release the villain Kordax from his ice prison is through the blood of the royal line. That puts Arthur, Jr. in danger. Will Arthur and Orm put aside their differences to save Arthur, Jr. and stop Kordax? Will Atlantis finally emerge from the shadows to take its place among the surface nations? Does anyone care?

I think by now Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was doomed mostly through not fault of its own. There is a curious lethargy to things, as if everyone involved is just tired and wants to get all this over with. There is no enthusiasm for anything in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom because whatever story it is telling is just not interesting or engaging enough to pay attention.

At times, there seems to be almost a desperation about the whole thing. I feel for Momoa, whom I sense really did his absolute best to sell the film and the character. He played Arthur as mostly intentionally funny, someone who enjoyed things and had a quippy manner to him. His best moments were not when fighting against Mantra but in endlessly ribbing Orm. "Come on, Castaway. Grab Wilson and let's go," he tells his brother. Another time, he quips, "Look, Loki, I'm not looking for advise here".

It is going to be maddening to comic book fans to try and explain how DC's Aquaman knows about Marvel's Loki. Momoa really did try to sell Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom as a fun, almost goofy film. He is almost desperate in the comedy, such as when attempting to sell the human-phobic Orm about the joys of steak and beer or convincing him that cockroaches are a delectable sweet.  

This is played perfectly well against Wilson, about the only one to emerge from Lost Kingdom with any sense of dignity. I think it is because he appears to be wholly committed to this project. Other actors, such as Nicole Kidman as their mother, the barely seen Amber Heard or Abdul-Mateen II's villain, are either too bored or too broad in their own performances. Wilson is taking all of this seriously. Perhaps too seriously, but Orm is a more serious character, so I cut him some slack.

Park, who has also bounced between DC and Marvel, is the opposite of Momoa. Yes, he is playing desperate. However, he is playing desperate as in he does not want to be there and cannot wait to get out. Try as I might, I could not shake my sense that things here were cobbled together from bits and pieces, strung together almost by sheer will. Though the screenplay is credited to David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (who also has a story credit), Thomas Pa'a Sibbett, star Momoa and director James Wan also have a story credit. My sense is that there were more people involved. It cannot be a coincidence that there is a global warming element in Lost Kingdom.

At one point, Mantra remarks that things are now to his benefit. "Thank goodness for global warming," he says. Shin replies, hesitantly, "That's not exactly a good thing". It might have been a good thing, but I think most people frankly have grown too bored with the messenger to care. Oddly, I was reminded of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Both films ends with some kind of speech about the topic du jour: nuclear disarmament and global warming respectively. Granted, Lost Kingdom at least did not focus exclusively on global warming and ended with I think rock music as the King of Atlantis all but told us to rock on. How interesting that the ending reminded me of Iron-Man

I can say that, for myself, I did not hate Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. It does have pretty colors.

While I cannot recommend it, I cannot find it in my heart to demolish it. I did not hate Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. My main reason is that it is not a terrible film. It is really a nothing film. It is something to have in the background while you are doing your dishes or the laundry. It fills the emptiness of sound. I suppose that is a positive.  

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has as its tagline, "the tide is turning". I think most everyone will agree with that, though it may not be turning the way anyone at DC or its rival Marvel would like it to. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Maestro (2023): A Review (Review #1780)



I have been assured that a film can be both a good movie and a plea for Oscar consideration. As such, Maestro is a fine example of both. On the former, Maestro is quite good, flowing easily from fantasy to reality and filled with top-level performances. On the latter, Maestro is cowriter/director/producer/star Bradley Cooper's naked GIVE ME AN OSCAR film, as passionate a plea for Oscar glory as has come down the pipeline in a while.

Maestro covers the career of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper), particularly his marriage to Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Lenny is thrust into the limelight when, as the assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the 25-year-old Bernstein fills in at almost the last minute with no rehearsal time. 

His unexpected debut is a total smash, elevating him to the highest ranks of conductors as well as composers. Despite a romantic relationship with clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer), Lenny soon falls quickly for Felicia, a Chilean aspiring actress who like Bernstein, is attempting to forge her way in the artistic world of New York.

Felicia is enthralled with Lenny, and he too seems to be madly in love with her. Eventually they marry and have three children. Bernstein's career rises higher and higher, not just becoming America's first world-renowned conductor (and an openly Jewish one too) but also a feted composer of such works as Broadway's On the Town and West Side Story along with symphonic work. Felicia, for her part, has a respectable if not grand stage career, working more at home than the stage.

However, things soon start shifting. Success for Bernstein have corrupted him somewhat. He is more open about his same-sex liaisons, much to Felicia's irritation. She is not horrified or even particularly angry about his same-sex liaisons, but had asked Lenny to be discreet, which he is now no longer. One particularly enraged fight on Thanksgiving has her tell him that if he is not careful, he will end up a "lonely old queen". Perhaps as a way of purging himself from his demons, he creates the symphonic work Mass, and despite their struggles they remain together until Felicia's death from cancer.

At the end, Leonard Bernstein is now as open as possible with his trysts, even being physically intimate with a conducting student of his from the Tanglewood Music Center. He is a legend, but he is also a lonely old queen, dancing his last years away and still missing Felicia. 

Maestro has an interesting set up in that about half the film is in black-and-white, half in color. It is a credit to Cooper and editor Michelle Tesoro that the transition is not jarring. In fact, it actually works quite well, suggesting life pre-and-post marriage. To my mind, the black-and-white section works best. We see the evolution of the romance between Bernstein and Montealegre as well as their rising careers. It does not shy too far away from Bernstein's same-sex relationships (the first time we see Bernstein is when it is clear he was in bed with another man) but we can see how they did genuinely fall in love.

Once we get to color, we get a shift in their relationship. I think that might have been the purpose, but it does leave a bit of a mystery over how Felicia eventually grew to accept or at least tolerate Leonard's infidelities. "Fix your hair. You're getting sloppy," Felicia snaps at Lenny at a party after seeing him kiss a young male guest. While the double meaning is clear, I do not remember ever seeing a moment before this that Felicia was aware of Lenny's proclivities. Was she angry that he was fooling around in general or with a man in particular? The black-and-white section showcased their relationship as a genuine love story, and I do not question that. I do, however, question whether she had ever expressed any kind of reservations or disappointment or disillusionment over his activities or desires. 

As Maestro goes on, Lenny's private indiscretions become more the focus. It is not a bad thing, but on reflection I wonder if Bernstein would want people to focus on what he did with his body than on his body of work.

As a director, Bradley Cooper does some wonderful work in Maestro. A sequence where his and Felicia's relationship finds a reinterpretation from a Wonderful Town dance number works remarkably well. While a flight of fancy, it actually felt surprisingly grounded. The black-and-white section where Felicia brings Lenny to the stage and flirt via dialogue is so well acted and staged. Just before we transition to color, we get a visual cue where we see Felicia almost literally standing in Leonard's shadow.  Again, it makes me think that the black-and-white section was more inventive, more original. Once we shift to color, Maestro becomes more a standard biopic. 

Even here, however, Cooper makes strong choices. The Thanksgiving argument between them is done in one master shot. We do not cut to any closeups or move away from them. It is as if Cooper is making the viewer a witness to Felicia's mix of rage and fear, Lenny's arrogance and denial. 

Cooper also gets strong performances out of his cast. Mulligan has been one of our best actresses working today. Maestro shows her in top form. Felicia does have rather patrician tones in her delivery, but I figure this is how she spoke. Mulligan can communicate her mix of rage and public embarrassment in silence as well. At the Mass debut, she observes Leonard holding his latest boy-toy's hand openly while sitting next to her. The emotions swirling through her: the public humiliation, the hurt, the anger, all flow through Mulligan's face.

Cooper does well in the film too. I would argue that, again, in the color section, he is too actorly and mannered with his focus on getting Bernstein's gravelly voice and physical mannerisms. In the black-and-white section, we see just a nice young man on the make, eager to get a career and a girl. At that point, we can almost forgive how in his enthusiasm for Felicia he threw away his then-romantic/sexual partner Oppenheim. There is a sweetness in his courting of Felicia that makes Lenny likeable. At the party where they first meet, they have a conversation where he points out their similarities that plays so well.

As a side note, I do wonder why Snoopy was so important to Leonard, but I digress.

Maestro also has surprisingly strong performances from Sarah Silverman as Leonard's sister Shirley and Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim. While both are small performances and are pretty much gone when we go to color, they still are memorable.

One aspect in Maestro that is brilliant is in how the film used Bernstein's music to set mood. Oftentimes in film, people will use music not written specifically for the film to create moments with varying degrees of success. Maestro, however, uses such works as selections from Fancy Free or the Postlude from A Quiet Place to both set the mood and advance the story. Even when not using Bernstein's music, such as when we hear Bernstein's beloved Gustav Mahler, the music works well. 

It is also a chance to hear the breath and variety of Bernstein's music, everything from West Side Story to symphonic works. 

Perhaps using R.E.M.'s It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) was a misstep. I get that perhaps Maestro was signaling that by the end of his life and career, Bernstein's ego was now thoroughly out-of-control. Still, somehow it comes across as tacky. 

Finally, on the issue of the makeup use. There was controversy over the use of prostethics to make the Gentile Cooper look like the Jewish Bernstein. I think the makeup worked, especially if you want Cooper to look like Bernstein. Cooper, after all, was going for as close to an embodiment of Bernstein as possible in appearance, voice and mannerisms. My view is that the controversy was blown out of proportion.

Maestro is not a perfect film. It is, I think, longer than it should be. Sometimes one does feel as if you have to know who some of the other people in the film are to justify their involvement. One would, more than likely, not have a firm knowledge of who Aaron Copland or Jerome Robbins were, let alone the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. I also think that both Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre would not want to have their private lives be revealed in this way or in any way at all. However, Maestro works as a portrait of creative people in love who still struggled to reconcile themselves to each other. A love story and insight into creativity, Maestro works well.

Felicia Montealegre Bernstein: 1922-1978
Leonard Bernstein: 1918-1990


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Seven Seas to Calais: A Review



In Elizabethan times, daring men sailed for Queen and Country as privateers, taking booty from the Spanish Empire to fill the coffers of Gloriana. Seven Seas to Calais is a callback to those swashbuckling days and film. It is not a good callback, however.

Francis Drake (Rod Taylor) has been sailing those seven seas, raiding Spanish ships and taking their treasures. It is an open secret that Queen Elizabeth I (Irene Worth) is his patroness, sharing in the profits. Drake now has a new voyage, and with him a new crewman.

That is Malcolm Marsh (Keith Michell), an eager young man seeking fortune and adventure. The adventure is for himself. The fortune is for Arabella (Edy Vessel), a pretty young French maiden at Elizabeth's court. He, despite her objections, sails with Drake to irritate and benefit off the Spaniards' gold and land in the New World.

In said New World, Drake finds a literal gold mine and liberates its enslaved Native population. Marsh, for his part, ends up accidentally married to many an Indian maiden, particularly one named Potato (Rosella D'Aquino). While he must leave Potato behind, he takes some sweet tasting earth fruit to Court, naming the delectable delight in her honor.

Marsh is displeased to find Arabella engaged to Babington (Mario Girotti), another courtier. She, however, is unaware that Babington is in cahoots with the Spanish to overthrow the Virgin Queen and bring her cousin Mary Queen of Scots (Esmeralda Ruspoli) onto the English throne. Babington and his fellow coconspirators dupe Arabella into helping them and plot to assassinate the Queen when she is touring various castles. Will now-Sir Francis Drake and his men be able to stop the coup and save their monarch?

Seven Seas to Calais tries to be a throwback to the Errol Flynn-type films of swashbuckling and derring-do. Yet it takes only a few minutes into the film to see that it is a B-picture, made on the cheap.

A major clue is the predominance of Italian cast and crew, which seems so at odds with Seven Sails to Calais very British setting. An unintentionally funny moment is when there is an aborted mutiny. As the ringleader demands they rally to his side, Drake faces him down. Cheering his victory, the crew begins shouting, "DRAKE! DRAKE!" but it came across as the extras attempting to figure out how to pronounce "Drake". 

That is not to say that Italian productions are cheap. Rather, there is a lot in Seven Sails to Calais that just does not look right. For example, take when Drake and his men arrive in America. When they enter the gold mine, it looks far too nice to be believable as a gold mine. This gold mine, where the indigenous people were made to work, is very nicely decorated and open. It looks like a more upmarket version of the Morlock mine in Taylor's The Time Machine. I half-expected some green-skinned creature to pop out and try to take some poor Spaniard down.

Filippo Sanjust's screenplay also has a particularly ghastly section. Perhaps as an Italian, he thought it would be clever to have the word "potato" originate from a Native American princess. Hearing it now, it only ends up sounding goofy and deliberately fake. When Marsh flees to his ship at dusk, in Indian headdress and buckskin pants, it is neither funny or sad. It does give Michell a chance to show off his body, so there is that.

Seven Sails to Calais also loses focus on what story it wants to tell. It goes from Drake's privateering adventures to a plot involving Mary Queen of Scots. I think one or the other would have worked, but it is almost as if once Drake returns with his booty the filmmakers needed something else to make the film run its one-hour-forty-minute runtime. Other elements are not answered, such as how Arabella could be seen as a conspirator when she ended up held at sword-point and locked in a room.

The performances were fine. Taylor did his best to be swashing and daring, even if at times he came across as more barking bully than courageous figure. Perhaps there is a reason for his gruff manner. He might have been aware that Seven Sails to Calais seemed more about Malcolm Marsh than Sir Francis Drake. A lot of focus was spent on the Marsh character, such as his romance with the pretty Arabella or his accidental romance with Potato.

Such a silly thing to write. 

I do not know if this was meant to show Drake's story through another's eyes, but Seven Sails to Calais seems more about Marsh than about Drake. Michell is pleasant and pretty enough, but not the best performance all around. The film is populated by pretty people, for both Vessel and Girotti were very pretty to look at. Irene Worth more than lives up to her name as Queen Elizabeth I, in turns haughty and naughty, she made the film more entertaining than perhaps it should be.

Seven Seas to Calais is a bit empty in its presentation. It is not dreadful, but it is a bit cheap looking. Perhaps someone can come along to remake it in a more grounded and more entertaining manner. Seven Sails to Calais is the type of film where after seeing it, you wonder why not remake this to see a better version.

Circa 1540-1598

Monday, December 25, 2023

Journey to Bethlehem: A Review



Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews annual Christmas movie review, where I look at a Christmas-themed film. This year, I look at what I thought was not possible: a musical built around the birth of Christ.

I attend a Baptist church but am still highly reluctant to be baptized. My spiritual journey, however, has led me to a curious element in present-day American Christianity: the Christmas church show. We are mostly gone from the days when Sunday school students are trotted out to do a medley of Jingle Bells and O Holy Night or reenact the Magi's search for the Christ Child. While we do still see that in some churches, today's megachurches mount epic productions that would make the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark producers marvel at its scope. These are massive spectacles, some with original songs, lavish costumes and visual effects which can overwhelm congregants/spectators. 

I am one of those "they mean well at heart" type of people when it comes to these big Christmas spectaculars. That is the attitude that I bring to Journey to Bethlehem.

Drawing from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we start with the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men) finding a star that they see as leading them to a new king. With that, Gaspar (Rizwan Manji), Melchior (Omid Djalili) and Baltazar (Geno Segers) begin their journey. That leads them to the Roman province of Judea, nominally ruled by King Herod (Antonio Banderas). 

Herod is too busy drinking and keeping his son Antipater (Joel Smallbone) from the throne to care about his people. As such, the romantic struggles of the peasant girl Mary (Fiona Palomo) would be of no interest. Mary would much rather learn the Hebrew scriptures than marry but marry Mary must. As her sisters encourage her to look positively on her upcoming nuptials, she meets a nice but flirtatious Jewish boy who takes a shine to her. Good thing too, for Mary finds at her betrothal party that her fiancée is that same nice but flirtatious Jewish boy, Joseph (Milo Manheim).

While neither is particularly thrilled at the prospect of marrying the other, they do find something of a spark between them. Things take a wild turn when the Archangel Gabriel (Lecrae) comes to Mary and tells her that she is to bear the long-promised Messiah. That will be hard given that she is a virgin. Joseph and Mary's family are horrified at the pregnancy, so she is sent off to stay with her cousin Elizabeth to avoid scandal. Joseph, struggling with his feelings, also has a dream confirming the Child's divinity, and rushes to Mary's side.

By this time the Magi have come to Herod asking for help to find this new King. Herod is alarmed and angry. Will he get Antipater to slaughter the innocents? Will the bumbling Magi make it? Will Mary and Joseph both overcome their own struggles and find a place for her to give birth?

One cannot assume that the story of the Nativity is known to modern audiences. Even in the nominally Christian country of the United States, the basics of Christianity and/or Judaism can be unknown. It should be remembered that on a Jeopardy episode, not one contestant could answer a question related to The Lord's Prayer. As such, Journey to Bethlehem does cater more to contemporary views on society than what Scripture might hold. How else to explain seeing Mary, Mother of Jesus come across as an early version of Yentl? This Mary wants to study the word of God and not get married despite the catchy Mary's Getting Married number. 

It also has Mary and Joseph essentially meet cute, with Joseph a bit of a klutz who tends to start conversations with "Thank you", slightly unsure of what to say. To be fair, a positive element of Journey to Bethlehem is that Mary and Joseph are closer to age versus the more traditional portrayal of Joseph as almost old enough to be Mary's father. 

Journey to Bethlehem also caters to modern tastes at the Annunciation. Exactly why Gabriel has to be a bit clumsy and unsure when he comes to Mary is, to my mind, a way to humanize this most divine and holy of moments in Christianity. Writers Peter Barsocchini and Adam Anders (the latter who also directed), I figure, had the best of intentions in the making of the film. Again, to their credit they did well in humanizing the central characters of Mary and Joseph. We got to see them as young kids, unsure about things, caught up in very extraordinary situations.

However, the Annunciation scene bothered me greatly. I see no reason why the Archangel Gabriel had to be slightly comic in his hesitancy. This is the single greatest turning point in human history: the Word made Flesh, God come into the world. To try and add lightness to what should be a moment of solemnity and dignity runs the risk of making light of the moment. I think it was a mistake to have Gabriel bump his head as he glides towards the sleeping Mother of Christ.

Despite that, a lot of Journey to Bethlehem is entertaining, mostly intentionally so. Musicals live and die on the songbook, and there are some quite good numbers in the film. A true highlight is the Herod number Good to Be the King. Banderas is devouring the scenery with wild glee, delighting in showing off Herod's lust for power. The music and lyrics (written by director Anders, Nikki Anders and Peer Astrom) gives Good to Be the King a wild, pulsating manner. It also manages to work in parts of The Lord's Prayer in a deliberate way.

"Mine is the kingdom, mine is the power, mine is the glory, forever more!" Harod belts out. It is surprisingly bold to put the words of Christ in Harod's mouth, but it works. The songs shift well from scene to scene depending on the moment. You have the overtly goofy Three Wise Guys where the Magi work to charm the mercurial Harod, a clear comic number in keeping with the lighthearted portrayal of the Wise Men. Then there is what I think the other good number that is not Good to Be the King. The surprisingly tender We Become We, a duet between Joseph and Mary when both accept the truth about their feelings for each other despite Mary's pregnancy, is quite pleasant and moving. I would not be surprised to hear We Become We become a wedding song.

I think there were maybe one or two musical numbers that did not fully work for me. There's the aforementioned Mary's Getting Married, which was a bit forced in portraying her conflicted views on the arranged marriage. Smallbone's In My Blood, where he struggles with his legacy as Harod's son, is also slightly unintentionally comic. The dancing Roman soldiers might have done that part wrong. It is curious that Smallbone, better known as part of the Christian Contemporary Music group For King and Country, had one of the weaker numbers.

It is more puzzling that Lecrae, who has a good career as a CCM rap artist, was not given a song to perform. 

I think the performances ranged from the pleasant to the appropriately crazed. Manheim and Palomo are quite pleasant and charming as Joseph and Mary, this couple of kids who go from hesitant to aware of love. Both have solo numbers: Mother to a Savior and King for Palomo, The Ultimate Deception for Manheim. They both did well both separate and together. I would give the edge to Manheim, who made Joseph less polished despite being older than Mary. He is unsure and unsteady, even able to show inner conflict (albeit by literally playing a split version of himself in The Ultimate Deception). Palomo made Mary into a more confident figure, which is at odds with Mary as the humble maiden traditionally thought of. 

Banderas is absolutely loving tearing into King Harod as a drunk, slightly looney but still dangerous figure. He belts out Good to Be the King with wild abandon, a bit camp but still fun. Smallbone looks like his job is to growl and scowl, but it was fine.

Journey to Bethlehem is fine. Given its surprisingly brief running time of 98 minutes, I think families will find in it a nice, mostly inoffensive take on the Yuletide season. I did a like how it humanized Joseph and Mary, down to ending the film with them framing the film as the story they tell a child Jesus about His birth. I think it might have been slightly more reverential given the subject matter, but on the whole, I think they meant well.


2022: Santa Claus (1959)

2021: It Happened on Fifth Avenue

2020: Roots: The Gift

2019: Last Christmas

2018: Christmas with the Kranks

2017: The Man Who Invented Christmas

2016: Batman Returns

2015: A Madea Christmas

2014: Prancer

2013: A Christmas Carol (1951)

2012: Arthur Christmas

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Hell's Heroes (1929): A Review



In the early days of sound cinema, various studios and production companies were still feeling their way through the new technology. While it is thought that sound brought limitations to film, sometimes filmmakers could find that they could still be creative. Hell's Heroes, an adaptation of The Three Godfathers that would be remade at least two more times in 1936 and 1948, moves quickly in its brief running time and manages to move the viewer. 

Three bandits arrive in the desert town of New Jerusalem to rob a bank. Waiting for them is their ringleader, Bob (Charles Bickford). The bank is successfully robbed, though a clerk is killed. One of the gang members, the lookout Jose (Joe De La Cruz) is killed, but the others manage to escape. Bob, along with his cohorts Thomas or Barbwire (Raymond Hatton) and William or Wild Bill (Fred Kohler) congratulate themselves on their latest heist.

Soon, however, problems emerge. They have little water and the water they passed is poisoned with arsenic. A windstorm drove their horses away. Worse is when they come upon a covered wagon with a baby and his dying mother. She has them promise to take her son to New Jerusalem to be with his father Frank Edwards, a teller at the bank. 

Bob would rather leave the child to die, but Barbwire and Will Bill will have none of it. They agree to go back to New Jerusalem and save William Robert Thomas Edwards, Jr. It's forty miles to New Jerusalem, and the journey is daunting. Barbwire was shot in the escape and knows he is not long for the Earth. Bill knows that there is little water and milk for the baby. Will Bob rise to the challenge and save his godson or put himself first?

I was surprised that Hell's Heroes runs a brisk 68 minutes long given that its successors ran longer. I think it is because screenwriter Tom Reed (adapting the Peter B. Kyne novel) and director William Wyler opted to keep things pretty basic. We had the bank robbery, the discovery of the baby and the efforts to save him. Simple, direct. In that brief running time, however, Hell's Heroes manages to pack quite a lot in it.

The film manages some nice bits of dialogue. "Start reaching for Heaven, stranger, or you're headed straight to Hell," Barbwire taunts the unfortunate bank clerk in the holdup. The gang's discussion over the meaning of "toilette" is also good, a nice touch of humor in the film. When seeing a sign to New Jerusalem, the gang manages a nice quip. "3 Miles to New Jerusalem, a bad town for bad men", it warns. "How did they know we were coming?" Will Bill quips.

Wyler also has some wonderful visual moments that hold up quite well. When reading the sign to New Jerusalem, there is a shot of Bill metaphorically hung by the noose hanging on the sign. There is an amazing shot of us looking down on a stumbling, exhausted Bob that moves down to eye level. It is almost like a drone came down to see him. 

We even get a bit of Pre-Code naughtiness when the randy Sheriff (James Walter) "drops" something in the saloon to get a glimpse at the charms of Carmenita (Maria Alba), the dancehall girl Bob is sweet on. 

Wyler got good performances out of his three leads. Bickford seems a strange choice to be Bob given how future roles had him play mostly upright characters. Here, Bickford does well as this criminal who despite his own sense eventually gives his life to save an innocent. Raymond Hatton brings an almost sweetness to Barbwire, his last scene where he asks Bill not to let the baby die between two thieves is touching. Kohler's Bill brings some humor but also sadness when, realizing that there is not enough water for him, Bob and William Robert Thomas Edwards, Jr., he thinks on what he is to do.

Hell's Heroes is not subtle in some ways. Barbwire for example, dies under a tree curiously shaped like a cross. The minister at the Christmas Eve service the town attends is standing under a sign that reads, "Suffer little children to come unto me". On the whole, however, Hell's Heroes is a good film and a good adaptation of a story that would become better known.


Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Iron Claw (2023): A Review



There are many people today who believe in "the Kennedy Curse", the idea that the Massachusetts political dynasty is fated to suffer great tragedies, the agony and the ecstasy as matriarch Rose Kennedy described it. There is another apparent curse on another family of renown. The Von Erich wrestling family, going on its third generation, is also plagued by the idea of a curse. The Iron Claw is their story, one of misery, failed expectations and more misery. 

Wrestling patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallaney) wants to move both his career and his family up to the upper echelons of life. He pushes his four living sons (his oldest, Jack Adkisson, Jr. having died in childhood) into the wrestling world, building a dynasty to challenge all newcomers. The oldest living son, Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) is the most proficient in the ring. The third son, David (Harris Dickinson) is the tallest, his height giving him strong advantage. The fourth, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) is the shortest, but is training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The last son, Michael (Stanley Simons) is the outlier in this muscular clan, more interested in music than in the iron claw (the family's signature wrestling move). 

Nevertheless, Fritz will not be denied. The Von Erich boys have a mix of love, respect and probably fear of Fritz. Their mother Dottie (Maura Tierney) will not interfere between Fritz and the boys or really be involved with them, at one point informing Kevin that if he wants to discuss anything, that is what his brothers are for.

Kerry is forced to return to Texas when President Carter pulls the U.S. out of the Moscow Games, cutting his own dreams out. Soon, he too enters the family profession. Fritz sees to it that David and Kerry join Kevin in the ring, though not getting Mike into things for the moment. Kevin also manages to get married to Pam (Lily James), the only brother to do so or to have anything close to a life outside the ring.

Fritz feels frustrated in not achieving the ultimate prize of a world heavyweight championship and knows his sons can bring the belt home. However, this goal is deadly for almost all the Von Erich boys. David's career is quickly ended when he dies suddenly due to a ruptured intestine while on tour in Japan. Kerry does win the belt, but drunkenly drives out, causing him to lose his right foot. Mike seems ill-suited for the profession, being thin and generally gentle in spirit. The Von Erich legacy, however, pushes him to dip his toe into the ring with disastrous results. A freak shoulder injury leads to toxic shock during surgery, leaving him in a coma. Barely surviving that, he seems mentally incapacitated and frustrated.

By now, Kevin's paranoia about a "Von Erich curse" is so great that he insists on his children carrying the family legal surname of Adkisson to avoid said curse and moving away from Pam. Curse or no curse, the Von Erich boys are consumed by tragedy. First Chris and later Kerry commit suicide. Kevin's injuries are emotional rather than physical, but no less crippling. After Kerry's suicide, Kevin finally agrees to sell the family's wrestling organization despite (or perhaps because of) Fritz's fierce opposition. Kevin can heal, and Dottie can now go back to painting, her long-lost passion rekindled.

I am not a wrestling fan, but I must admit that the Von Erich name does echo in my memories. The Iron Claw would be a good introduction to this fabled family, but perhaps writer/director Sean Durkin loves the subjects too much to let us fully into their world. I admit to sometimes getting muddled as to which brother was which save for Kevin. I think that is due to how The Iron Claw gave us bits of David, bits of Kerry, and bits of Mike but they still were a bit opaque. Apart from preferring music to smacking stronger men, what got Mike to join in the family business? A sense of guilt over David's death? Intense pressure from Fritz? A combination?

What pushed Kerry to kill himself? We get a very bizarre to downright creepy scene where Kerry goes into a sunset world where he reunites with David, Chris and even Jack whom he never met. The overt symbolism of leaving a coin on the boat, like if he was paying an invisible Charon, is troubling to me. I could not shake the idea that somehow this was almost encouraging suicide in the idea that it is a good way to reunite with loved ones dead and gone.

I am absolutely positive that this was nowhere near Durkin's intention, or anyone involved in The Iron Claw's intention. However, the entire scene, even if it is Kevin's vision, still felt very disconcerting to me.

The Iron Claw also makes the case that rather than a curse, it was a collection of poor decisions that led to the Von Erichs myriad of miseries. David was aware that he was ill. Kerry went out driving after having celebrated his victory (which we did not see but just heard announced). As we see shots of the highway, one already knows he is bound for trouble. The next scene immediately jumps to back injuries. We are not surprised when we see Kerry using crutches. The big surprise is when we see him without a foot. Chris' dilemma of going into the ring, barely touched on if that, comes and goes.

Sometimes, The Iron Claw is surprisingly quiet and removed from things. The search for Chris is literally kept at a distance. After seeing him swallow so many pills and wash it down with alcohol, I was genuinely surprised that he was able to leave the house. Try as the film did, I never could muster much interest in this dysfunctional family.

That is not to say that The Iron Claw does not have some positives in it. This is probably Zac Efron's best work to date. As Kevin, we do see in Efron's performance Kevin's inner struggle to be the man his father aspires him to be as well as his terror of the Von Erich curse. He is more than matched by James' Pam, though I think it was a mistake to sideline her for long stretches to where I forgot she was in the film. Same with Tierney, for Dottie was both not a major figure and almost maddeningly mysterious. Whatever her feelings or emotions at the loss of so many of her children, or how her faith helped her, are not shown or answered.

Curiously, while the film suggests that the family had some kind of faith system to sustain them, whatever it was apparently played no part in their lives. They can have crosses around the house and attend Services, but judging by the film it was not important to them. 

The Iron Claw also does well in capturing the aesthetic of the late 1970s and early 1980s wrestling broadcasting, down to less bombastic but still grand pre-and-post match interviews. The spectacle of even lower-tier wrestling was well shown. We also get a nice scene where in David's debut, tag-teaming with Kevin, their opponents go over with them prior to the match how things will go. 

It is not all perfect here, however. Aaron Dean Eisenberg's efforts at playing Ric Flair did not go over very well. Even with my limited knowledge of wrestling, I was nowhere near convinced that Eisenberg's performance could match the real Flair's theatricality or Flair on any level.

The Iron Claw wants to be a tribute to the troubled Von Erich family. It, I imagine, also wants to delve into their world. I still feel a bit left out of things. I think a documentary would have done better. 



Friday, December 22, 2023

Wonka: A Review (Review #1775)



I find that some films simply want to please, to be cute and whimsical. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was cute and whimsical while also being surprisingly dark. Wonka, the new prequel to the 1971 musical, leans heavily on its celebrated predecessor with mostly positive results. 

Former ship's cook Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) has arrived in an unnamed city to make his fortune as a chocolatier with delicious and fantastical sweets. Owing to his naivete and generosity, however, Wonka soon falls into the clutches of launderess Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman) and her henchman, Bleacher (Tom Davis).

Mrs. Scrubitt and Bleacher run a mix of hostel and laundry where those unfortunate enough to seek shelter there are hit with an outlandish bill owing to them not reading the fine print (Wonka being illiterate does not help). Willy soon becomes friends with Noodle (Calah Lane), a cynical orphan also working off an even larger debt. 

Willy won't be deterred in his determination to create chocolate concoctions to delight his clientele. Neither the brutal working conditions of Mrs. Scrubitt & Bleacher or the Chocolate Cartel will stop our eager, enthusiastic, eccentric confectioner. The Chocolate Cartel is headed by Mr. Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), who pushes the other cartel members into crushing all newcomers. They also bribe the Chief of Police (Keegan-Michael Key) to do their bidding. Joining forces with the other Scrubitt slaves, Wonka works his magic to fulfill his destiny. To do that, he not only needs to take on and take down the chocolate cartel, but also face off against Lofty (Hugh Grant), a bitter Oompah Loompa set on getting justice from the hapless Wonka.

It looks like Willy Wonka's dreams are about to come true, but there is sabotage afoot. Will Willy thwart the Chocolate Cartel's machinations? Will he be able to disable the duplicitous Father Julius (Rowan Atkinson) and his monastery of chocoholic monks to make his dreams come true and keep his promise to his late mother (Sally Hawkins)? 

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a beloved film, something that is close to the hearts of many. As such, trying to create something of an origin story for this enigmatic figure is a tough task. I say "something of an origin story" because Wonka does not go into great detail about his past. We start with him arriving on a ship, singing the opening number A Hatful of Dreams. We learn later on that he is driven by a desire to honor his late mother's memory, with his idea that if he succeeds, she would metaphorically if not literally be beside him one last time. He mentions briefly that he first dreamt of being a magician.

However, apart from that, Willy Wonka is still a bit of a mystery. How he came to discover all his fantastical chocolates (let alone make them) or how his top hat can conjure up all sorts of things is left unexplained. I think on the whole this was a good idea in Simon Farnaby and director Paul King's screenplay. We get bits and pieces (particularly his love for his mother as the primary motivation) but yet still have a bit of mystery and whimsy for Willy.

Wonka works hard to be whimsical and colorful, perhaps a bit too hard. Try as it might, there were few moments of genuine wonder. Of particular note is A World of Your Own, one of the few musical moments that does stick with the viewer for a while. Everyone involved both in front of and behind the camera work hard to make A World of Your Own into something close to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's signature song Pure Imagination (which Wonka echoes, quotes and reinterprets at the beginning and end). 

Yet, despite its best and determined efforts, A World of Your Own does not quite hit the mark. I think it is because the number takes place on what looks like what it is: a film set. It is not a bad set, but like in a lot of Wonka, there seems to be a bit of magic missing. It is not for lack of trying. It is just that there is something a bit mechanical about things.

As a side note, I personally am astonished that A World of Your Own or another song, For a Moment, were not shortlisted for the Best Original Song Academy Award. Those are probably the best songs in Wonka in my view. To think that an original musical will not be so much as nominated is quite a puzzle for me. 

I think a lot of Wonka felt like it was more for the stage than for the screen. Curiously, the first half was top-heavy with musical numbers to where by the time we got around to the fourth song I began to openly wonder if a musical could have too many songs. To be fair, some of Neil Hannon's songs had clever lyrics. In Sweet Tooth, the Chocolate Cartel's ode to bribery, I was impressed on how it made the "conscience nonsense" rhyme work. In a reprise of You Never Had Chocolate Like This, the line "hair repair éclair" struck me as clever. 

A musical rises and falls on its songbook, and Wonka is wonky on that part. It is not that the songs are terrible per se. It is that they are not particularly memorable. For a Moment was moving, and I think A World of Your Own was meant to be the showstopper. It was good but not great. I also did like the opening A Hatful of Dreams, but on the whole I do not know whether they will be embraced in the same way something like Pure Imagination, I've Got a Golden Ticket or The Candy Man from the 1971 film will be.

I am loath to compare the original with a remake, adaptation or prequel. Wonka, however, wants us to not forget its origins. The film starts by quoting Pure Imagination and we get new lyrics of that and Oompa Loompa throughout the film. It is hard to build something original and separate when you keep going back to the more familiar first feature.

I cannot fault the cast. Chalamet dives in with an almost manic glee, embracing the wackiness of Wonka while still finding gentle moments of tenderness when remembering his mother. His voice was fine if not particularly great. I would say it was a bit gentle, but I am willing to cut a little slack on that department. If anything, Chalamet was game for things. 

Lane's Noodle, essentially his costar, was pleasant in her role. I do wish they had not made her so bitter and cynical but instead more willing to embrace wonder and magic. That is more the screenplay's fault than Lane's.

Coleman and Davis embraced the overt camp of Mrs. Scrubitt and Bleacher, though they faded away when no longer necessary to the plot. It does become curious that after being told that they both had sharp eyes on their de facto slaves, they weren't attentive once they were hoodwinked into falling in love. Granted, the plot made clear how that was done, but it did not convince me. Grant was surprisingly delightful as Lofty even if his part was small (no pun intended).

A lot of Wonka had the characters be a bit cartoonish, but given that everyone was aware that things were meant to be exaggerated, I do not find that to be a flaw. From Key's increasingly obese Police Chief to Joseph's grandly silly Slugworth, the actors played the parts as required of them. I can find flaw in Atkinson's corrupt cleric only in that he was underused. 

He did have one of the funniest moments in Wonka however, when a telephone call interrupts his funeral obituary. "Hello, pulpit," he answers, leading to general laughter.

Wonka was to my mind charming and sweet, trying its best to be delightful. I did find it was trying perhaps a bit hard to be overtly charming, sweet and delightful. However, I was pleased enough with the final product to think well enough of it. While I doubt it will match let alone overtake Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in being beloved, Wonka is a pleasant enough companion piece. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Say Amen, Somebody: A Review



It is surprising to learn that gospel music, now seen as standard in mostly African-American churches, was not only looked down on but actively discouraged by the Church. Say Amen, Somebody is the documentary about this American artform and two of its founding figures. A joyful feature with uplifting music, Say Amen, Somebody would make believers out of even the hardest of atheists.

Director George Nierenberg follows Professor Thomas A. Dorsey, credited as the Father of Gospel Music, and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, a Dorsey protégé and gospel elder stateswoman. Professor Dorsey reflects on how difficult it was to get pep into spirituals if memory serves right. The older generation, wary of Dorsey's early life as a blues performer and songwriter, thought he was corrupting the sacredness of hymns with his work. Both he and Mother Smith bristle at the idea that they were bringing blues to the church. 

They saw their work in music as genuine ministry, so much so that Mother Smith would not go commercial either in record sales or attempt to sing secular songs. This puts her in stark contrast to two of her contemporaries: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson, who did one or both. Mother Smith's devotion to the Lord is so great that she sees nothing wrong with female pastors. 

Both Dorsey and Smith may or may not attend the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses that year as both are in physical decline. They, however, will not be denied, summoning up their strength for one more convention to sing out and continue training the next generation to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Say Amen, Somebody is first and foremost a celebration of gospel music. Even at age 77, Mother Smith is still a dynamic performer, singing glory to her Savior no matter what the venue. Late in the film, we see her balancing a microphone in one hand and her walker with the other. She will keep going, her faith and joyful spirit infectious. 

She takes her singing seriously, such as when she gives advice and training to various singers both in seminars and one-on-one. Mother Smith is also mother in other ways, such as with the Barrett Sisters or Zella Jackson Price. They are her own proteges who face the pull-and-push between going on the road and caring for their families.

Mother Smith's own children reflect on that struggle when visiting a dilapidated train station where their mother would leave and arrive from a tour. While proud of her and aware that she was fulfilling a mission, they cannot help but miss the time they could have had with Willie Mae Ford Smith, their mother. 

Mother Smith makes clear to Zella that there is a cost to sing to and for the Lord. While she does not say this to any of the Barrett Sisters directly, we see the struggle is there too. Say Amen, Somebody features our singers at home too, which are among the best moments in the film. Delois Barrett, who also sings in her husband's church, talks with him at breakfast about an opportunity to tour Europe.

While it will be a brief tour, she is eager and excited for the opportunity that she has both worked hard for and wanted. Pastor Frank, however, is not as enthusiastic, seeing it as almost selfish of her to be away from the home church. As she contemplates things, she asks Frank at one point, "You want eggs with your sausage?", bringing the domestic into the spiritual.

Say Amen, Somebody touches on an issue that I think still is relevant in both gospel and what is known as Contemporary Christian music. Simply put, it is the conflict between worship and performance. Where is the line between saving souls and making money, between seeing gospel music as a way to reach people for Christ and as a vehicle for worldly success?

Mother Smith and another group at her tribute, the O'Neil Twins, make clear that they are not in gospel music for the money. They see it as their ministry. They paid a price for not venturing into commercial music, even within gospel circles, but they see it as their mission field.

The other major figure, that of Professor Dorsey, is more analytical. He does not sing as much as Mother Smith. However, he is just as moving. His telling of how, through great personal tragedy, he came to write the gospel hymn Take My Hand, Precious Lord is deeply moving. As he talks about his shift from blues to gospel after a spiritual awakening, he looks around and says, "Say amen, somebody," with a slight twinkle and laugh while waiting for his own call-and-response.

He too is seen at the end of Say Amen, Somebody in a walker as he marches forward to the stage (a gospel tradition Dorsey created). It is a wonderful moment, full of life and joy that praise can give.

It should go without saying that Say Amen, Somebody has great gospel music. From Mother Smith performing to a group of seniors to her tribute down to the Convention floor, it is all but impossible not to tap your foot and smile as we get beautiful musical moments.

"Remember me, not just for me, but for the work I've done," Mother Smith quotes from a Professor Dorsey song. Say Amen, Somebody shows that while they have entered into the Kingdom, their work definitely lives on.


Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. A Review



There are precious few people who can claim to have worked for both Walt Disney and John Lassiter. Floyd Norman is one of them. The literal Disney Legend has his life and career chronicled in Floyd Norman: An Animated Life. Breaking down barriers without ever giving it much thought, we see the measure of a man who cloaks himself in his illustrations. 

Floyd Norman loved to draw from his earliest days, inspired by seeing Dumbo in a California theater. Norman grew up in a family that attended theater, museums and musical performances. The Norman family also did not think that race was a determining factor for or against them. While Floyd was aware that he was black, it never occurred to him that he could not work at the Disney Studios because he was black. As Norman put it, he did not see himself as black, America did.

He was hired at Disney, which may not have been the most progressive of studios but which in this case did not see color, only talent. Norman worked his way up from an "inbetweener" (someone who illustrates the animation between a set of movements), all the way up to working on One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone.

After Walt Disney died, Norman formed Vignette Films with other African-American illustrators and filmmakers. The company focused on films on black history, even chronicling the Watts Riots with Roy Disney's camera. Eventually, he moved on to work with Bill Cosby on the Fat Albert animated series and the Hanna-Barbera Company. Finding his way back to Disney, where he wrote for the comic books, he was frustrated when he was forced into retirement at 65. Despite this, Norman found his way back once again, with some work on Toy Story 2 to keep up with the times. Things eventually come full circle for Norman, when he works on a special feature for the One Hundred and One Dalmatians DVD, extending a sequence that had been shortened for the original. 

The portrait of Floyd Norman in An Animated Life is of a man who at then-79 does not look back so much in wonder as in mostly joy. His outlook throughout the film is one of almost perpetual optimism and a love of life. That is not to say that Norman sees the world through rose-colored glasses. While he does not raise his voice or show visible anger at his forced retirement, you know that there is resentment, even perhaps bitterness, at how he was initially shunted off. As his Vignette Films partner Leo Sullivan observes with Norman, race was not an issue, ageism is a big issue. 

Norman is one of the few animators still alive who knew Walt Disney personally. At a surprise birthday party for Norman (which he was uncomfortable with), he remarks to someone next to him that there are only three people left who worked on The Jungle Book: Bruce Reitherman (the voice of Mowgli), composer Richard Sherman, and himself. As someone with first-hand experience with both the Disney Studio and Walt Disney himself, his insights into the movie mogul are important. Norman bristles at the idea that Disney was a racist, so much so that he penned an open letter countering Meryl Streep's assertions that Disney was. She, unlike Norman, did not know the man. Norman observes that Disney was not brutal but blunt, unafraid to remove long-worked on sequences if he felt they did not work for the film. Norman states that he consciously sat behind Uncle Walt so as to not be in his eyesight and thus, have to answer questions.

An Animated Life takes him to both the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco and the Walt Disney statue where Norman's name is inscribed as a Disney Legend. Norman has great respect for Disney the man, with a little nostalgia at the museum. He still, however, cannot resist a quip, wryly observing that Walt Disney was not as tall in real life as his statue.

Norman, in his quiet way, was a pioneer. He might not think that being the first black animator at Disney is remarkable, but it is. More than once, Norman says that he is not a black filmmaker, just a filmmaker. While Vignette Films did specialize in black history and topics, he saw it as a way to serve an underrepresented audience, not a political act. Norman and Sullivan were, to use Sullivan's terms, the "docile part of the movement". 

He was, in his way, an activist, but his activism veered more towards age discrimination than race discrimination. Norman was not immune to racism, but he saw it as the other person's problem, not his. His race did not prevent him from pursuing his love of animation. His age, however, did, and that bothered him. His second wife or Sullivan (I cannot remember which) observed that when Norman wrote his memoir, he was allowed to talk about race but Disney insisted on removing his views on age discrimination. 

Norman's reflections are insightful and amusing. Everything from having Scarlett Johansson sing a sweet Happy Birthday to Norman (as she was recording her dialogue for the live-action Jungle Book) to how Watts rioters literally paused while he and Sullivan changed film to chronicle the chaos is taken with good grace and delight. Seeing him with his former Hanna-Barbera colleagues at a weekly lunch and his "Floydering" (when he wanders the Disney Studios at will) is amusing and charming. 

Floyd Norman is many things. According to Gary Trousdale, the co-director of Beauty and the Beast, Norman is "the Forrest Gump of animation". For others, he is a trailblazer who can count his creation to the Soul Train opening as a minor work. Floyd Norman: An Animated Life gives one a fascinating portrait of the man and the artist, one who broke barriers and has many a tale to tell, almost always with a smile and warm laugh.