Monday, April 8, 2024

Monkey Man: A Review

 

MONKEY MAN

I am somewhat aware of the John Wick universe, though I have seen only the final film in the franchise. It apparently has been influential in the action film genre, for I have seen many comparisons between the John Wick films and Monkey Man. Dev Patel does triple duty as writer, director and star for Monkey Man. At each job, Patel bites off more than he can chew, creating a film that drowns in its self-importance.

The Kid (Patel) has been earning a living as an underground fighter billed as "Monkey Man", the matches overseen by Tiger (Sharlto Copley), the sleazy ringmaster. Monkey Man takes the punches against stronger opponents, and the money is just enough to keep his master plan going.

That master plan is to take down Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), a corrupt cop and Baba Shanti (Makarand Deshpande), a powerful guru to the political elite. Over the course of the film, we learn that both are involved in the Kid's mother's death and the expulsion of his community. He manages to infiltrate the upper levels in which Rana runs via an exclusive club. Now billing himself as Bobby, he gets some help from Alphonso (Pitobash), whom I qualify as his frenemy at the club. Ultimately, Bobby manages to only wound Rana, forcing him to flee as all the police force chases after him.

Bobby manages to survive his brutal escape, where he falls in with a group of hijras, transgender women who offer Bobby shelter and a chance to train. Bobby now works to go back to inflict his very bloody revenge on Rana and Baba Shanti come hell or high water.

I have an instinctive reaction against films that are self-consciously artsy. Monkey Man is so obsessed with being so visually arresting that one is in danger of getting seasick during some sequences. Patel as a director loved giving audiences running sequences where we see the camera flowing hither and yon. There are so many scenes where, as a director, Patel indulges some grand visual efforts. One sequence involves stealing a cellphone and how it is transported eventually to The Kid. It, like so much in Monkey Man, served only to call attention to itself, to show how allegedly incredible every sequence is.  

A very curious moment is when Bobby is training. He stops, sits and rips his shirt open. Fine, let Dev Patel show us what a nice body he has. Bobby then rips open his chest to reveal his heart. I get that this is all symbolic, but it just strikes me as all so silly. Over and over, Monkey Man seemed set on attempting to impress us with its visual style that it ended up doing the opposite. So much of the film is almost too dark to see. The parts that are visible do nothing but call attention to themselves and show off. 

In more than one way, Monkey Man is nothing unique. Patel uses the standard method of filming an action fight scene with pop or rock music underscoring it. Granted, it is not as overblown as what Argylle put us through, but that is no comfort. I cannot praise a film that uses a remix of Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love when attempting to kill the corrupt cop. Contrary to what I hear a lot of my film reviewing brethren, I find it unoriginal. 

Patel, as a writer, might know some of the conventions of action, but did not give some of his actors much to work with. Characters such as Ashwini Kalsekar's Queenie or Pitobash's Alphonso (whom I referred to for most of the film as "Quality Control" because I thought that was his nickname) were not built up enough to be either strong antagonists or frenemies. At two hours, the film seems stuffed and disjointed. We could have cut out Sharlto Copley's character without any major impact. 

Patel, as a director, is fond of flowing camera moments and close-ups. He also let people like Copley ham it up to his heart's content. To be fair, Copley's Tiger was meant to be cartoonish, so perhaps I could cut him some slack. Patel also structures Monkey Man in a curious way. He starts with Kid/Bobby as a child, then shifts him to being the punching bag at Tiger's ring, and only later does he piece together the combined history of Kid and Rana. Patel is pretty one-note as this avenging figure, though again he too was not written to be complex save for a fondness for a stray dog.

A dog tying into both stories may be why I have heard many comparisons between Monkey Man and the John Wick series. I am generally unfamiliar with the John Wick franchise apart from Chapter Four. As such, I cannot confirm or deny such a comparison. With my limited knowledge of it, however, I think Monkey Man was aping the visual style and perhaps the body count factor (no pun intended). However, I actually cared about John Wick. I did not care one bit about Kid/Bobby. 

Monkey Man is probably the most overrated film of the year. I felt as if I was literally trapped inside an arthouse student film. Despite all of that, at least it's better than Argylle

DECISION: D-

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Abdication: A Review (Review #1805)

 

THE ABDICATION

The story of Queen Christina did not end with Greta Garbo. After the Swedish Sphinx went into exile after giving up the crown, the real former monarch went to Rome to be received as a loyal daughter of the Church. The Abdication is not a sequel to Queen Christina. It is, however, a dull film that treats its characters as another element of its lush production.

Queen Christina of Sweden (Liv Ullmann) has renounced the throne and finds freedom and liberation from its heavy responsibilities. Now, she arrives at the Vatican sooner than expected. She has converted to Catholicism and wishes to receive the sacrament of Communion from His Holiness the Pope and no one else. That she is a former Queen also entitles her to this privilege. The College of Cardinals, however, are alarmed at the various tales of debauchery and decadence that come with Christina. To investigate the allegations and verify the truth of Christina's conversion, Cardinal Azzolino (Peter Finch) is sent to question her.

Christina is disgusted at the idea of being questioned at all. Nevertheless, she submits to Azzolino's inquisition. Sometimes haughty, sometimes sincere, Christina reflects on her past and present. Azzolino is soon drawn to the beautiful and contradictory ex-monarch. Could they be falling in love? The matters of the heart and the matters of faith collide, but will both make more sacrifices for the other? Will they remain true to their individual vows?

The Abdication should work. Its director, Anthony Harvey, is an old hand at royalty in crisis, having successfully filmed The Lion in Winter six years earlier. The screenplay is by Ruth Woolf, who wrote the play on which The Abdication is based on. It has two fine actors in Ullmann and Finch. It has a beautiful Nino Rota score and lush production design and cinematography. Therefore, why is it such a slog to sit through and ultimately so boring?

I think it comes down to how the material is treated. All the elements that should have made The Abdication a good film were poorly handled. Harvey directed all his cast to be so serious and grand versus real. Christina and Azzolino came across as dull and lifeless. There were a few moments when Ullmann and Finch individually were strong. However, when they were together, each looked as if they were in an informal battle to see who could be grander in their performance. 

There was a brief moment when we could have even had some fun with things. When she arrived in Rome, Azzolini confronts Christina with the accusations of her allegedly libertine journey to the Holy See. He presents her with a book: The Pleasure and Depravities of Christina, Queen of Sweden. This appearance of the Fifty Shades of Grey of its time maybe wouldn't be played for laughs, but it would be fascinating to learn what those "pleasures and depravities" were, especially given how almost stern and serious Christina appears to be in The Abdication

The Abdication seemed to care more about the visuals than about the people. All that lush cinematography, from the opening scene of Christina renouncing the throne to her flashbacks in the royal gardens end up drowning the film in some almost mystical vision. The music, equally grand and to be fair quite beautiful, also makes things almost too unreal. The film should be about the inner conflict, spiritual and carnal, between Christina and Azzolini. It ends up being about how majestic and opulent things can look.  

There is such a seriousness running through The Abdication that no one appears human. Moreover, there were some odd choices. The initial inquiry from Azzolini to Christina is abruptly cut by two cardinals discussing how Azzolini may use this inquiry to his advantage only to return to the Azzolini/Christina interview. It is a strange cut that only serves to force the foreshadowing of their alleged romance. 

There are to be fair, some good lines in the film. When Azzolini remarks that her successor and cousin Charles X Gustav is reported to have no character, she quips, "It seems to be an advantage for a King, to have no character". Later, when questioned over her struggle to sleep and habit of moving from bed to bed in her temporary Papal palace, she remarks, "Sleep is the refuge of idiots". Azzolini replies, "We can assure you of beds, but not of sleep". The sequence where a Vatican friar, Dominic (Louis Fiander) keeps showing bedchambers to Christina's disapproving dwarf (Michael Dunn) is amusing.

In retrospect, my note of "Poor Dominic: unable to satisfy a dwarf" reads funnier than intended. It is also about the only amusing part in a film that takes itself far too seriously.  

This, I imagine, plays better on a stage than on a film. That may be the big issue with The Abdication: that the translation from stage to screen failed. More than once did I write how GRAND everything was in the film. Too lost in its own sense of grandness, The Abdication is a poor follow-up to Her Majesty's story. 

1626-1689


DECISION: D+

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Mr. Baseball: A Review (Review #1804)

 

MR. BASEBALL

Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Opening Day Film review, where I look at a baseball-related film to coincide with the Minor League Baseball Opening Day. Today's film tackles the wacky culture clash that unites American and Japanese baseball.

Shohei Ohtani is still early in his Major League Baseball career, but he is already being tapped as one of the greatest players of our time if not all time. He comes in the shadow of another Japanese baseball figure, one who is so illustrious and legendary that one only need say "Ichiro" and baseball fans know whom you speak of. While Japan has still not dominated the baseball world to the extent that the United States has, they certainly are a force to be reckoned with. 

It is not only the U.S. who has been importing Japanese players, however. More than one Yankee has set sail for the Land of the Rising Sun to see his career rise. Mr. Baseball takes its fish-out-of-water story and does very little with it.

Arrogant Yankee superstar Jack Elliot (Tom Selleck) is having a career slump. Once a World Series champion all-star, Elliot now finds himself fading away to younger rising talents. The Yankees opt to trade him, but not to Cleveland as he fears. Instead, he is sent to the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball.

Elliot is highly displeased by this turn of events and is openly hostile to everything and everyone in the Dragons organization. His translator Yoji (Toshi Shioga) does his best to give more acceptable translations to Elliot's horrors, but he too grows frustrated by his client's intransigence on matters. No one can help Elliot: not Yoji, not Max "Hammer" Dubois (Dennis Haysbert), the only other American on the team, and not Uchiyama (Ken Takakura), the Dragons' gruff manager who is himself a NPB legend. Elliot will listen to no one, even after everyone tells him that he has a hole in his swing. 

Elliot continues to meet personal indignities, though things look up with the beautiful Hiroko (Aya Takanashi), the Dragons' marketing director. Though Elliot is displeased at having no say in being marketed for Japanese television ads, he eventually finds that there will be, to use her term,  "funny/monkey" business with Hiroko. There are more twists and turns as Elliot finally accepts things as they are, some romantic, some baseball related. Will Elliot be able to overcome Uchiyama's myriad objections regarding both his baseball playing and Hiroko? Will he be able to make a comeback to the United States?

This may be the strangest criticism against Mr. Baseball, but Tom Selleck seems too nice for the role. It is not that he is a bad actor overall. It is that he is not believable as Jack Elliot in the film. Selleck may be right for the part physically. However, he never showed that he could be this arrogant jerk that made Elliot's transformation believable. 

Take his opening statements to the press upon arriving in Japan. Gary Ross, Kevin Wade and Monte Merrick's screenplay (from a story by Theo Pelletier and John Junkerman) have dialogue that could make Elliot be more clueless than hostile. When asked why he is playing in Japan, Elliot replies, "I had a yen for playing here," an obvious pun in English. As directed by Fred Schepisi, his reply was too weak to be angry, too dumb to be accidentally silly. Mr. Baseball aims to make Elliot's comment be arrogant and dismissive, but Selleck delivers it not in an angry tone but more vaguely clueless, vaguely disinterested one. When asked what he thought of Japan, Elliot replies, "The airport's nice, I guess. And there's lots of little people walking and talking very fast".

This could have been funny if Elliot were nervous or dimwitted. However, the film clearly aims to have Elliot be angry and resentful. As delivered by Selleck, presumably under Schepisi's direction, it was surprisingly soft. These were not bitter comments, but they were not unaware comments either.

In retrospect, Mr. Baseball could have done better by making Elliot more clueless than hostile. It might have made the film funnier if Elliot were more prone to say idiotic things accidentally than say meanspirited things deliberately. This is especially true given that, again, Selleck came across as too nice to be hard. Granted, Selleck tried, but he never displayed more than a glowering dislike versus downright rage at his plight.

Mr. Baseball also has some unsurprising clichés, such as the Hiroko/Elliot romance. Oddly, the twist involving Hiroko and Uchiyama is not surprising, though it is forced and illogical given how that connection never once came up until the plot required it to. Mr. Baseball could have been funnier if it had opted for certain changes. Along with the idea to make Jack Elliot more good-natured idiot than resentful player, more comedy could have come with a subplot involving Elliot and his put-upon translator Yoji.

You couldn't even throw in one "Yoji Berra" quip? 

There are other curious elements that were either unexplored or unexplained. Given Jack Elliot's ego, one would think he would be thrilled to be shilling Japanese products. A running gag could have been made of Yoji's translation troubles. When Elliot, for example, says that it is not over until the fat lady sings, Yoji tells the other players, "When the game is over, a fat lady will sing to us". Yoji's struggles to make sense of Elliot's statements could have made things amusing. Sadly, they opted not to try.

How exactly Jack Elliot of all the American players became "Mr. Baseball" (or Besuboru) is unclear, especially given that Max Dubois is already there. Oddly, only once do we see Elliot be with other expats. Again, introducing elements that never come up again seems a lost opportunity.

Haysbert is wasted in the film. It might have been better if Dubois and not Elliot had been the main character. Takakura and Takanashi did as well as they could as the gruff but shrewd manager and the marketing director who has a close connection to said manager.

I'll let you guess what that connection could be.

Mr. Baseball does have one strong positive. It gives us an insight into certain elements of Japanese baseball that are unfamiliar in the West. For example, Elliot is hit by a pitch, enraging him. However, he is told almost immediately that the pitcher has tipped his cap, indicating that it was unintentional. Despite being told this by his teammates during the game, Elliot still rushes the mound, accidentally clocking poor Yoji in the melee. Details such as these are why Mr. Baseball is a de facto training video for foreign players entering the diamond of the rising sun.

That is good, but not enough to make Mr. Baseball itself good. Mr. Baseball is good only in showing us the peculiarities of Japanese baseball. It might be worth revisiting in a remake. That would allow the film to decide which route to take with Jack Elliot: reformed jerk or clueless Yankee. As it stands, it does not go either way, much to the film's detriment. 

Mr. Baseball may be big in Japan, but it won't be going Stateside. 

DECISION: D+

2023 Opening Day Film: Angels in the Outfield (1951)

2022 Opening Day Film: Bull Durham

2021 Opening Day Film: Alibi Ike

2020 Opening Day Film: Mr. 3000

2019 Opening Day Film: Ladies' Day

2018 Opening Day Film: Fear Strikes Out

2017 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out 

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. A Review (Review #1803)

 

GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE

One of the great mysteries of film, for me at least, is the continued love if not obsession for Ghostbusters among a group of devotees. Don't misunderstand me: I think well of the first Ghostbusters. It was one of the first films I saw when theaters reopened post-COVID. Oddly, my only takeaway from seeing Ghostbusters that time was how surprised I was over how long the film was. However, I do not understand why for some, Ghostbusters is something to adore if not worship. Men in their forties and fifties insisting on more adventures with our spectral hunters to where we get an entire franchise is something that puzzles me. The first film was fine, but I never saw a need for more. 

Nevertheless, Ghostbusters has spun now three more films and two cartoon series. I do not remember seeing Ghostbusters II. I detested the 2016 reboot. I thought Ghostbusters: Afterlife was serviceable if not particularly good. Now we get Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. Will this be a triumphant return to a beloved franchise or an abomination that hopefully kills off this franchise? 

The Spengler family: matriarch Callie (Carrie Coon), now-adult Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and fifteen-year-old girl genius Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) have left Oklahoma and now live at the firehouse where Callie's father, the late Egon Spengler, had the Ghostbusters headquarters. High school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) is also there, though his status among the Spenglers is unclear. The firehouse, however, is not just an old building. It is the former headquarters of the Explorers Club, where in 1904 the members were frozen in fear. Now, a century-plus later, the new Ghostbusters meet challenges old and new. The old is the cantankerous Mayor, Walter Peck (William Atherton), who still hates our spectral fighters. Their newest escapade results in destruction and a forced grounding of Phoebe, which she openly hates and has contempt for.

The only bright spot for our surly teen genius is a growing friendship with Melody (Emily Alyn Lind), who just happens to be a ghost. The original Ghostbusters, meanwhile, are doing their own things. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) runs a supernatural shop and hosts a seance-type podcast produced by Podcast (Logan Kim), who is yet another Oklahoma exile. Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) is still bankrolling the Ghostbusters with a new holding center for the various ghosts previously captured. The paranormal center is run by Dr. Pinfield (James Acaster) where Trevor's Oklahoma love interest Lucky (Celeste O'Connor) is also working there. Stantz comes across a mysterious orb brought to him by Nadeem (Kumail Nanjiani), who is interested only in the quick cash his late grandmother's trinkets can bring him.

We find eventually that the orb contains the powerful demon Garraka, who will freeze the world but needs a ghost army to conquer the world. To do so, he uses Melody to con Phoebe into separating her spirit from her body so as to control a human. Nadeem finds he is a Fire Master, able to combat Garraka, even if he is unaware of anything about being a Fire Master. Will old and new Ghostbusters be able to join forces to defeat Garraka and save the world?


Watching Frozen Empire, I cannot help but think that screenwriters Jason Reitman and director Gil Kenan decided that fans of the old series and fans of the new series needed to have something for them. As such, they gave each of them their own movie and sliced both of them into one. It is absolutely astonishing that Frozen Empire felt that we needed thirteen characters, some with extremely tenuous connections to anything. 

Lucky, Podcast, Trevor, Pinfield and Patton Oswalt's Dr. Hubert Wartzki could have been eliminated without any interruptions to the plot. Oswalt was in exactly one scene, which served as infodump and who was not heard from again after he gave the needed information. Worse, the story he told could have been told by Stanz or even in an opening precredit sequence. Frozen Empire is so stuffed with figures that it cannot hold. 

There was no need or reason to have Lucky or Podcast at all in the film as both did nothing to justify their existence. You could have dropped Podcast and given his tasks to Trevor. You could have done likewise with Lucky and given her tasks to Phoebe. It would have allowed them to do more than what especially Trevor did. His whole arc was to fight Slimer, a subplot that could have easily been eliminated. Slimer had to be there because he is a classic Ghostbusters fan favorite, but other than being one more "memberberry", Slimer was irrelevant. 

Trevor, sadly, was equally irrelevant to Frozen Empire. For long stretches, he disappeared from the film, and it says everything about his character that his absence could go unnoticed and not affect anything in the film. Same goes for Lucky, for Podcast, and worse, for the original Ghostbusters cast. Aykroyd and especially Bill Murray also could have been gone. Murray pops in for a quick scene with Nanjiani and then at the climactic battle, not even bothering to take anything other than his paycheck. 


There is a schizophrenic manner to Frozen Empire, as if Reitman and Kenan felt that the mere appearance of Murray's Peter Venkman would be enough to make people cheer. Maybe it did, but why have him there if you won't do anything with him? What you have is, again, two movies jumbled into one, which ultimately short-changed everyone.

It does not help that the character Frozen Empire focuses on is thoroughly unlikeable. Grace's Phoebe starts off as a bratty bitch: obnoxious, belligerent, openly disrespectful and smug. If all that was not bad enough already, Phoebe makes a cacophony of dumb decisions for someone we are repeatedly told by others (and by Phoebe herself) that Phoebe is the brightest person around. The nadir of the "Phoebe is incredibly stupid for someone incredibly bright" comes when she willingly separates her spirit from her body for potential ghost lesbian sex.

As a side note, I never thought to write the phrase "potential ghost lesbian sex", but Frozen Empire hedges its bets on whether or not Phoebe and Melody were or wanted to be more than friends. 

It is never established whether the fifteen-year-old Phoebe and the forever sixteen-year-old Melody were in love, in lust or just friends. Was this relationship going Ghost or going Casper? Given that the body/mind separation would last only two minutes, what on earth did Phoebe think she could accomplish with Melody in such a brief amount of time.

Frozen Empire also attempts to throw in some epic backstory about the Fire Masters, but there was no buildup to it. Instead, it is just thrown in there. Apart from a scene between Aykroyd and Hudson where they talk about needing to move on, there are no performances. Paul Rudd was relying too much on his Paul Rudd persona, affable and slightly diffident. Coon's Callie did what she could but there was no character there. Nanjiani equally did what he could to make this silly character anything worth noting, but all the gags involving Nadeem were obvious. 

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is a big ball of nothing. I know many people, especially Ghostbusters fans, absolutely love the film. That is their right, and no number of appeals to logic will dissuade them from the love they see things through. Overstuffed, rambling and split between giving old fans things to squee over and trying to move things forward, Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire left me thoroughly cold.  

Friday, March 29, 2024

Immaculate: A Review

 

IMMACULATE

I am not sure where the concept of nuns being scary came from. Maybe it is the wardrobe. Maybe it is the thought of potentially beautiful young women secreting themselves in isolation. We have and will keep having horror nuns pop up in film, with Immaculate as the newest entry. A movie which came very close to being if not good at least serviceable, Immaculate failed at the very end. 

Novitiate Sister Cecilia (Sydney Sweeney) comes to the Our Lady of Sorrows convent, which is essentially a hospice for older nuns suffering from various ailments physical and mental. Here, she meets two contrasting nuns. There is Sister Isabelle (Giulia Heathfield Di Renzi), a rather curt, bitchy nun. There is Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli), more worldly and sarcastic with whom Cecilia bonds with. 

Sister Cecilia is here at the invitation of Father Sal Tedeschi (Alvaro Morte), who is Cecilia's unofficial mentor in matters of faith. She is presented a most holy relic: a nail which was used at the Crucifixion. Cecilia notes strange goings-on, but none as strange as that of her being pregnant despite being a virgin. Rather than be appalled or shocked, the Church hierarchy is surprisingly pleased at the news. It is a miracle, a new Immaculate Conception. However, not everyone is pleased that Cecilia is the bearer of the returning Savior. Could there be more wickedness behind this apparent miracle? How far will both the Church and Cecilia go to see this Child come onto the world? The sacred and profane mix in mad science and murder to a shocking and even hilarious conclusion.

Immaculate seems to be a reverse Omen/Rosemary's Baby in that rather than seeing the literal Spawn of Satan, it wants to see the rebirth of Christ. As I am not Catholic, I can offer only a limited view on how the Church would react to a nun pregnant despite being a virgin. Immaculate, however, asks us to believe certain things that I figure even some Catholics would reject as heresy if not outright blasphemy. The big twist is that somehow, our mad scientist priest has managed to extract the DNA of Christ from the Holy Nails and attempted with repeated failure to impregnate a woman to bringing about a new Christ. For us to believe this, we would have to believe that the nails were indeed the actual nails and some rusty pieces of junk. I openly wondered why they didn't opt for the Shroud of Turin, which has a stronger possibility for this way-out premise.

In one curious scene, Sister Isabelle attempts to murder Cecilia and when led out of the bath, begins screaming that it should have been her. This leads one to wonder if the other nuns were aware of this wild scenario and willing if not eager to go along with it. Andrew Lobel's screenplay will not answer this question, nor others that it throws in but does not fully answer. 

I figure that her impregnation came about through what she thought was a dream sequence, vaguely reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby. However, one figures that the creepy nuns in red masks injected her with whatever concoction Father Sal whipped up. We are treated to a set of jars chronicling his failures, but why this version would take one can only guess at. It is a puzzle why Cecilia, who found faith helped her after a traumatic childhood near-death experience, would apparently allow herself to be worshipped. The opening of Immaculate, which features another nun attempting an escape only to be buried alive, never answers whether this nun fled due to finding out what blasphemous acts were being done there or because she was meant to be the newest vessel for this wicked act.


Again, for most of Immaculate, I think the film worked for what it was: a vaguely Gothic horror film. Director Michael Mohan gives us appropriately spooky visuals with the catacombs and mist covering the convent. We have Will Bates' appropriately creepy music. Sweeney does mostly well as Cecilia, this vaguely unaware woman who finds herself in these strange circumstances. It is not a great performance, but again for most of Immaculate, I found it serviceable. Most everyone else plays things as directed albeit one-note: bitchy (Di Renzi), abrasive (Porcaroli)

It is not until the end when the film falls off. In the concluding scene of the birth, the focus is on Sweeney's blood-soaked face. The thud that we hear, presumably the child's birth, was met with laughter from the audience. Cecilia's actions after the birth, however, were met with stoney, if not horrified silence. The ending did not sit well with me, and I think a more ambiguous ending would have worked better.

If not for the ending (and the thud of childbirth), Immaculate could have been a serviceable horror film. It gets points knocked down for that. Immaculate is anything but. 

Thursday, March 28, 2024

2023 Live Action Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews

 

2023 LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM 
OSCAR NOMINEES

I like to watch as many of the short film Oscar nominees as possible: animated, documentary and live action. This year, I was able to see only the Live Action Short Film nominees. I now review them in order presented, adding the runtime as well.

THE AFTER 

(18 minutes)

The After is about Dayo (David Oyelowo), a once-successful businessman who witnesses a random knife attack in which his daughter is stabbed and his wife plunges to her death when attempting to save her daughter's body. Some time later, Dayo is an Uber driver who lives his life vicariously through his fares. It is not until a particularly bickering couple, along with their own daughter, comes along that he finally breaks down. The girl, Emily (Izuka Hoyle) gives him a hug, which causes him to fall to the ground and wail, frightening Emily's parents. With him all cried out, he returns to his vehicle.

I get what The After is going for, so I give some credit to John Julius Schwabach's screenplay for making the effort to tackle grief. I can also commend that the film both opted for a knife attack and did not shy away from showing children killed. However, I think that he and director Misan Harriman could not help themselves in being a bit too heavy-handed with the idea that grief cripples emotionally. At what is meant to be the climatic, cathartic moment of Emily/Laura (Amelie Dobuko) hugging Dayo, I suppressed giggles versus bawling. His collapse was actually funny, and to be fair, the parents' reaction was rational. I found Oyelowo more funny than tragic, and I do not think that is what The After was aiming at. I was not taken in by what I figure was meant as a moving drama on grief and acceptance, though the closing song, Let It All Go, was good.

DECISION: D-

RED, WHITE AND BLUE 

(24 minutes)

Arkansas waitress Rachel (Brittany Snow) is struggling financially when she sees the results of a pregnancy exam. She has two young children already: a tween girl, Maddy (Juliet Donenfeld), and a boy, Jake (Redding Munsell). Rachel opts for an abortion, with some help from a mysterious benefactress who gives her a very large tip. She will,  however, have to drive from the "slave" state of Arkansas to the "free" state of Missouri for the procedure. Rachel and Maddy bond on this unofficial road trip, but once at the abortion clinic, Rachel is met with indifference until we get the twist: the abortion is not for Rachel, but for Maddy.

Red, White and Blue is produced by Samantha Bee, who is so far on the Left that even the liberals that I know and knew find her over-the-top. The film veers dangerously close to being pro-abortion propaganda. By showcasing the most extreme case for an abortion, I think Red, White and Blue is not so much trying to start a conversation but promote a one-sided view on a very contentious subject. It is unfortunate, because Red, White and Blue came close to showing that abortion is not as clear-cut and simple as either side presents it. When the film leads you to think that it is Rachel who is seeking an abortion, we get quick shots of her looking at her children's pictures. In a particularly moving moment, we see Rachel seeing Maddy on a carousel then shift to Rachel remembering when she was pregnant with Jake, observing Maddy on a carousel, Rachel tenderly touching her growing belly. 

Had the film kept out the twist, we might have had a more introspective film from writer/director Nazrin Choudhury. It would have achieved something so rare in today's fierce abortion debate: nuance, and an acknowledgement that abortion is a complex issue with which people genuinely struggle about. Instead, it went for the shocking twist that did not sit well with me. It somehow suggests that a tween girl getting an abortion due to an assault is the same as an adult getting an abortion due to too many kids. It can be tricky to make that parallel without pushback. Red, White and Blue (whose title alone is suggestive of abortion as almost patriotic) ends with an overtly grand mini-speech by Maddy about how elephants are her favorite animals because female elephants stick together, help anyone in the herd and are strong and brave. I literally rolled my eyes at this point, clearly getting the forced subtext. Choudhury and Bee are laying the symbolism way too hard here. Red, White and Blue is well-crafted and well-acted. It just did not land the ending. 

DECISION: C+

KNIGHT OF FORTUNE 

(24 minutes, in Danish)

Widower Karl Bergstrom (Leif Andree) is seeing his wife's corpse at a Copenhagen morgue, or rather, her casket. He cannot bring himself to have the casket opened, attempting to distract himself by trying to fix the morgue's light and failing to do so. Soon, he is startled to find Torben (Jens Jorn Spottag) in the bathroom stall next to him. Karl does not want to admit he is there to see his late wife, but Torben says that he is there to see his own late wife. Reluctantly accompanying him, Torben begins a lengthy eulogy until they are interrupted by the real woman's family. Karl eventually discovers that Torben was unable to say goodbye to his wife. He spots him on a park bench, and they bond over their mutual spouses' favorite song, Knight of Fortune.

I will grant that perhaps the language barrier blocked my understanding of Knight of Fortune. However, a few years ago, all but one of the Live Action Short Film nominees were not in English and I not only understood everything but thought the only English-language nominee was the worse. Unsurprisingly, the sole English-language nominee, Riz Ahmed's film/music video The Long Goodbye won. Knight of Fortune, written and directed by Lasse Kyskjaer Noer, is I suppose fine. It has an idea in there. I just was not won over by it. The film left me colder than the corpses, as if it was trying to be funny but not succeeding. It may also be due to how Knight of Fortune was dominated by greys, with only the closing scene in any color. Maybe it is not a terrible film, but not one that I thought much of. 

DECISION: D-

INVINCIBLE 

(30 minutes, in French)

Starting in media res, Invincible tells of Marc-Antoine Bernier (Leokim Beaumier-Lepine), a young Quebecer who, despite the pleas of his mother over the phone, plunges a car into the water. We then go back to how we got to this moment. Marc is highly troubled, finding a bit of respite when allowed to go for a weekend with his parents and younger sister. Weekend furlough over, Marc goes back to the youth detention center. He clearly does not want to be there, making life hard for himself and a bit frustrating for friend and foe alike. Frustrated, he makes a desperate run for freedom, one that ends in tragedy.

Invincible is inspired by a true story, we are told in the beginning. Its writer/director, Vincent Rene-Lortie, was moved by the story of his friend to create this fictionalized version of events. Invincible is an excellent short film. Beaumier-Lepine's performance is exceptional. We see Marc as both a weary young man and sweet kid, arrogant but also life-affirming, beaten down but with some hope. In one particularly sharp moment, Marc uses an illegal lighter to set off the sprinklers to refresh himself after the fan in his room goes out. Invincible does not paint Marc as either an innocent or a victim. Rather, he is a complex figure. We see his world, one that has both joys and self-inflicted misery. This young man is a skilled wordsmith, a poem he wrote about his plight deeply moving. There is not a bad performance from the cast, though Beaumier-Lepine is the dominant figure. It is hard not to be moved by Invincible, whose title does seem ironic but which holds the audience in rapt attention. 

DECISION: B+


THE WONDERFUL STORY OF 

HENRY SUGAR 

(39 minutes)

Adapting a Roald Dahl short story, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is that of the ultimate anonymous benefactor. Narrated by "Roald Dahl" (Ralph Fiennes), we learn of a figure named Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is a gambler looking for the perfect way to win at cards. While staying at an estate, he comes upon a book by Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel). We then get Dr. Chatterjee's account of Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who comes to Dr. Chatterjee for him to verify that he can indeed see without his eyes. Khan, he tells the doctor, has learned this through years-long training with a Yogi (Richard Ayoade), who was reluctant to train him. Now having read Chatterjee's story of Khan's training with the Yogi, Henry Sugar will teach himself how to read what the cards are without seeing the front of them. He does so after years of training and begins to reap a fortune. Finding what to do with it, Henry causes an accidental riot when he flings the money out the window. Reprimanded for this, Henry decides to hit various gambling houses and use the winnings to fund hospitals and orphanages, the former in disguise and the latter anonymously. With Sugar now dead, his story can finally be told.

The Wonderful Story of  Henry Sugar is a Wes Anderson film, meaning that it doubles if not triples down on his twee style. Some people love it, some people hate it. I can go either way. Henry Sugar does not let up in the Andersonian deadpan manner. In fact, we get everything that people either adore or detest about Anderson in miniature, with a new twist. As Henry Sugar is adapted from a Dahl story, we get even the narration delivered by the actors in the same slightly disengaged manner. Every. Single. Word, be it dialogue or not, is spoken. We also get the various figures speaking to us directly at least once during their presentation. I continue to be unimpressed with Benedict Cumberbatch. I have yet to find a great performance from him, only his luxurious baritone. To be fair, this may be the most ethnically diverse cast Anderson has ever worked with: an Indian man (Patel), a black man (Ayoade) and a half-Indian man (Kingsley). I was not won over by The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which I did not think was so wonderful. It does, however, have Benedict Cumberbatch in drag, so there is that. 

DECISION: C+

CONCLUSIONS

Looking through the five short films nominated for Live Action Short Film, there is a theme running through them, intentional or not. Each film revolves around death. Two of the nominated films (Invincible and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar) have their lead characters die. Two of the nominated films (The After and Knight of Fortune) are about the grief that accompanies death. The last film (Red, White and Blue) involves the taking of life, at least as seen in some circles. From my perspective, I think the moving Invincible is the best of the lot. It hit me emotionally because it was so grounded, a far cry from the overt whimsy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. I was disappointed in Red, White and Blue as I felt it lost the chance to look at abortion beyond the binary debate and bring shades of conflict and contradiction. The twist simply never sat well with me. Red, White and Blue is well-acted and mostly well-written, but dear goodness that "elephants are like women, STRONG AND BRAVE" speech coming from the girl came across as grandstanding and something a tween girl would not say. The After and Knight of Fortune are not terrible per se, but I found them uninteresting. Worse, I found The After slightly comical due to Oyelowo's performance. 

Ranking: 

Invincible

Red, White and Blue

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar *

The After

Knight of Fortune

Even before the Academy Awards ceremony, I figured that The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar would win. The Academy has been searching for a way to give an Oscar to Wes Anderson, who up to now had eight nominations counting this one. Now, Wes Anderson can be an Oscar winner. It is a terrible shame that the popular beat out the good. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Dune: Part Two. A Review (Review #1800)

 


DUNE: PART TWO

I start by saying that I loved Dune: Part One. I've seen it four times. So far, I have seen Dune: Part Two merely twice. Epic, grand, surprisingly less bogged down with worldbuilding, Dune: Part Two is at the same level as the first part, though perhaps with a less stronger reason to go to a Part Three.

The great houses of the universe, along with the Emperor (Christopher Walken) and his daughter, Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) believe that House Atreides is extinguished, all the members having died on the desert planet Arrakis, better known as Dune. Unbeknown to them or Atreides sworn enemy, House Harkonnen, there are two survivors of House Atreides. There is now-Duke Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, the Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). They are adapting to the desert world and that of Arrakis' native population, the Fremen.

Paul is now slowly winning the heart of Fremen warrior Chani (Zendaya), while training with Stilgar (Javier Bardem) in the ways of the Fremen. Stilgar comes to believe that Paul is the Mahdi, the long-prophesied Messiah to lead the Fremen to a paradise. Chani is more dubious, as is Paul himself. The Lady Jessica, however, who is now the Reverend Mother to the Northern Fremen, believes that he can be the Messiah. She has surprising support from her unborn daughter, Alia, who has great powers after the Lady Jessica drank from the Water of Life, which transferred the knowledge of the past Reverend Mothers to her.

The Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) become alarmed at the rise of a mysterious Fremen called Muad'Dib. He is leading a rebellion on Arrakis that will interrupt the lucrative and needed spice trade. The Baron sends his psychotic nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to take control of Arrakis. Feyd-Rautha is a potential Kwisatz Haderach, the great being who can be a male Bene Gesserit (the hereto female-only order which has been controlling things behind the scenes). The war between the rebellious Fremen and the Emperor/Harkonnen alliance comes to a climax when Paul, revealed as Muad'Dib and a potential Messiah, battles Feyd-Ratha for not just Arrakis but for the known universe. It is the start of a holy war, one where marriages of convenience and alliances shift like the sands of Dune.

Dune: Part Two is a long film at close to three hours. To the credit of director and cowriter Denis Villeneuve (writing with Jon Spaihts), the film rarely feels sluggish. Things move along remarkably well.

The performances, particularly from the newcomers, are excellent. Butler is the best of the new group, his Feyd-Ratha a menacing, monstrous figure. He dominates with his cruel, psychotic performance. Moreover, Butler does well in capturing what must be the Harkonnen voice, this guttural, whispering voice that is scratchy but dark and cruel. 

Pugh does well as Princess Irulan, though she suffers due to a diminished role. Faring worse is Walken, who is wasted in almost a cameo. While it is more than likely that Walken and especially Pugh have expanded roles in a Dune: Part Three, I think their roles could have been expanded.

Those returning from Dune: Part One also gave stronger, richer performances than their first going. Chalamet grew into this warrior figure, one who still struggles with assuming the mantle of Messiah. Does he believe that he could be the Mahdi? Is he using this prophesy to move on his plans to overthrow the Emperor and assume both power and revenge? Chalamet never lets us fully figure out one way or the other, keeping the mystery intact.

Dune: Part Two does well in balancing out the struggle between faith and doubt with the characters of Stilgar and Chani. Bardem brings the true believer's unquestioning faith that Paul is the Chosen One, even bringing a bit of humor when he insists that Paul saying that he isn't the One is proof that he is. Zendaya counters him with a firm belief that while Paul is a good man, he is using the prophesy to keep the Fremen under his thumb. Ferguson brings an almost terrifying manner to Lady Jessica, a mixture of power-mad with almost fanatical belief in Paul.

The film also has excellent production all around. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography and Hans Zimmer's score all work to create this grand universe so separate from our own. Of particular note is when Paul rides the conqueror worm. The visuals and sound all make this sequence a spectacular sequence, especially when we get Paul's POV. 

Zimmer's music is both grand and intimate, particularly in its love theme. He has this vaguely Arabic style, one that works extraordinarily well with the desert world. Greig Foster's cinematography is also exceptional, going from the vast deserts of Arrakis to the dark world of the Harkonnen planet, Giedi Prime. 

Where I think Dune: Part Two struggles is in its length. Somehow, I think too much time is spent on Arrakis and less on the political machinations of both the Emperor & Harkonnen alliance as well as the works of the malevolent Bene Gesserit order. It is well over an hour before we start getting much about the imperial plots with the Harkonnen. The final confrontation between Feyd-Ratha and Paul Atreides, while visually splendid and well-choreographed, almost feels hurried. The battle between the Fremen and the joint-Imperial/Harkonnen legions does feel rushed, as if it were something to get through versus the culmination of this epic space saga.

Those are minor points. I think even those who were not enamored of Dune: Part One will find much to admire, if not love, in Dune: Part Two. As there is a strong likelihood that there will be a Dune: Part Three, this film will serve as a bridge between them. Whether it should be a bridge or the conclusion is still a subject of debate. Grand, epic, if perhaps longer than it should be, Dune: Part Two will thrill fans without leaving nonbelievers totally frozen out.

DECISION: B+

Sunday, March 17, 2024

The American Society of Magical Negroes: A Review

 

THE AMERICAN SOCIETY OF MAGICAL NEGROES

The term "Magical Negro" is shorthand for a black character whose entire existence is to offer sage wisdom to the white protagonist. Perhaps a good film mocking this trope could be made. The American Society of Magical Negroes is not it. Boring, insipid and in its own way racist, The American Society of Magical Negroes fumbles badly whatever ideas rattled in its head.

Meek artist Aren (Justice Smith) is quickly recruited by Roger (David Allen Grier) into a secret society of black people whose entire purpose is to placate white people to prevent said white people from going on murderous rampages against black people. After practicing with an insecure white policeman whom he gives confidence to, Aren's first official assignment is Jason Monk (Drew Tarver), a web designer at Meetbox,  a facial recognition company. 

Unbeknownst to Aren, also working there is Lizzie (An-Li Bogan), a pretty girl whom he met at a coffee shop (after accidentally spilling coffee on her). To his dismay, Aren must fix Jason's professional and romantic life, one that includes Lizzie. Meetbox is in the middle of a scandal due to its failure to distinguish between faces in Ghana, a glitch that was of Jason's making. Despite this, Jason has been selected to present the new and improved facial recognition system to Jason's idol, Meetbox CEO Mick (Rupert Friend). It might have been Lizzie's work, but Jason still gets use out of his white male privilege.

Aren, however, is starting to get a sense of himself. So are other Magical Negroes, causing Magical Negro Queen Dede (Nicole Byer) to lose her ability to float. She has already expelled one Magical Negress, forcing her to live as a "regular black woman" (and thus, removing her protection from certain death at the hands of white people). Now she faces greater rebellion by Aren. Will he be able to lead his people to the promised land while still landing the "ethnic" Lizzie?


I remember hearing something about some kind of outrage over the word "Negro" appearing on black crayons. I figured that this was some kind of Internet joke, but apparently not. I came across a petition to remove the word "negro" from Crayola crayons because "negro" was offensive. Never mind that "negro" is the literal Spanish word for the color "black" and that the offensive crayon also contained the French word for "black" (noir). To the creator of this Change.org petition, the word "negro" had to be expunged in the same way that Confederate statues, the country music groups Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks (now Lady A and The Chicks respectively) and Gone with the Wind needed to be removed. I read the comments by those signing the "No Negro Crayons" unsure if they are serious or seriously stupid.

Watching The Magical Society of Magical Negroes, I am reminded of this faux-rage because its thinking is as shallow as those who find a foreign language needs to be altered due to their own sensibilities (and as a side note, the creation of "Latinx" falls into that mindset). Writer/director Kobi Libii is not subtle about his ideas. The film climaxes in an America Ferrera in Barbie-like rant about how "this country wants (Aren) dead". I would argue that this country does not give a damn about Aren, but it has nothing to do with his race.

Rather, it is because Aren is, to use a good Yiddish term, a nebbish. Right from the opening, Aren is so meek and docile that it would be a wonder if anyone actually cared about him to even bother hating him because he's biracial. There's a quick mention by Aren that his mother is white, but this is irrelevant to The American Society of Magical Negroes. Whatever conflicts already existed within Aren about his identity are not explored in this blink-and-you-miss it moment.

As a side note, Aren's art is ugly and the gallery owner is right: if he won't fight for his artwork, why should she? His yarn art is being rejected because it is awful, not because he is black. This may be a subconscious recognition from Libii that he may believe his creative output is rejected because of his race versus the fact that it isn't good. 


Libii stumbles greatly in his worldbuilding. Within the first ten to fifteen minutes, Aren gets swept into the world of the ASMN, but there is no sense of mystery or logic to this universe. Who is Dede? Why is she the Queen of the Magical Negroes? Why does she float in the air? What does Thomas Jefferson and Monticello have to do with anything? None of these questions are answered. I am not sure they are even asked. Why not just jump into Jason's story rather than take up time with the insecure cop? Why also would Ghanaians actually want facial recognition? I figure this was to suggest that "all black people look alike", but again, would the lack of facial recognition in Ghana cause this much worldwide outrage?

The American Society of Magical Negroes ends with Lizzie herself being part of a secret society: SOSWAG (The Society of Supportive Wives and Girlfriends). I figure this was meant to be a great twist. I push back against that because Lizzie was neither a wife nor girlfriend to anyone, let alone a supportive one. It's the last unclever moment in a film that imagines itself much funnier and smarter than it is.

It is curious that Libii could have had a better story if he had put a greater focus on the love triangle between Aren, Lizzie and Jason. The accidental encounter between Aren and Lizzie in another other film would have been the beginning of a "meet-cute" story. We could have even made Aren a magical being, one of a long line of them, who finds himself falling for his assignment. There is potential in that idea. However, The American Society of Magical Negroes is more interested in trying to find racism everywhere than in mining its potential.

I cannot say what kind of actor Justice Smith is. The two other films that I have seen him in (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves) have him playing the same type of character that he played here. In The American Society of Magical Negroes, he is playing what I think of as Woody Allen's illegitimate black son: a total nebbish, weak, meek, halting and stumbling. It is to where I now genuinely wonder if Justice Smith is acting or being. He has played the same character three times, so my growing idea that this is how he is in real life is not without some evidence.

No one really "acts" in The American Society of Magical Negroes, though I think Grier and Bogan are better than the material. To be fair, the brief parodies of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The Green Mile, heavy-handed as they were, did have the potential to be amusing (though the former used billiards rather than golf). I would argue, however, that 1923 and 1955 were different from 2024. 

The American Society of Magical Negroes is too convinced of its own moral rightness and cleverness to be good. It is not funny, it is not romantic, it is not insightful. It is worse than nothing; it is boring. I was nodding off by the end, awakened only by Justice Smith yelling about how American wanted him dead. I know America would not care one way or the other.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A Review

 

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK

Rasputin: The Mad Monk is a Hammer Films production, which may explain why the film is less biopic and more horror film. With only a magnetic performance from Christopher Lee to recommend it, Rasputin: The Mad Monk tells us nothing of the rise and fall of this most notorious of figures.

Renegade mystic Grigori Rasputin (Lee) finds pleasures in the flesh of nubile bar-wenches, especially after performing apparent miracles. Scandal forces Rasputin out of his monastery, but this is a blessing in disguise.

This allows him to travel to St. Petersburg, where he quickly befriends two people. The first is disgraced Doctor Boris Zargo (Richard Pasco), who is forced to make a living by challenging others to drinking contests. The second is Sonia (Barbara Shelley), who happens to be a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina Alexandra Renee Asherson). Rasputin quickly bullies the former and seduces the latter, his mesmerizing power irresistible to everyone.  

With Sonia in his grip, he gets her to endanger the Czarevitch so that he can come to save him. Rasputin now is close to total power, alarming two other courtiers. Sonia's brother Peter (Dinsdale Landen) is appalled at Sonia's seduction, but now enraged at her suicide due to Rasputin's influence and rejection of her as his once-mistress. His friend Ivan (Francis Matthews) initially wants nothing to do with any plot to kill this meddlesome priest, but finally agrees to try and kill him. Rasputin, however, proves hard to kill, and it will take extraordinary measures to eliminate this threat once and for all.


It is surprising that the real story of Rasputin, particularly his gruesome end, is not exploited in The Mad Monk despite the great opportunity to do so.  In the film, we see him fall to his end and that's the end of it. In reality, the man was shot, poisoned and eventually thrown into a river where he eventually drowned. I do not think, however, that The Mad Monk was interested in historical accuracy.

Instead, it was interested in a lurid subject that could mix sex with horror. We get that right from the beginning, when this shadowy figure comes to an inn and first saves a woman from death and then tries to rape her daughter. The Mad Monk uses Rasputin's story to create a more traditional horror film. 

The Mad Monk's screenplay by Anthony Hinds (writing as John Elder) does not answer what genuinely drives Rasputin. Is it a lust for power? Is it mere arrogance? Insanity? Truly demonic powers? We also barely touch on how dangerous Rasputin was or his hold on Czar Nicholas II and especially Czarina Alexandra. There is a hint of it when we see Rasputin hypnotizing the Czarina, but unlike the other women he meets, he has a strictly hands-off approach with her. Why not seduce the wife of Russia's autocrat? It would have been a major feather in his cap, but The Mad Monk does not bother explaining this. It also does not make clear if Vanessa (Suzan Farmer), another lady-in-waiting who serves as the bait for Rasputin's killing, actually sees Sonia put the Czarevitch in danger or not. 


To be fair, Hinds does throw in some good lines. The Czarina's personal physician Dr. Zieglov (John Bailey) learns he, through Rasputin's influence, is being replaced with the disgraced Zargo. Angrily turning to Rasputin, he says, "I always knew she was stupid. Now I know she's mad!".  

The film has some peculiar acting. Shelley's Sonia is at times comical in her hysterics. Of particular note is when Rasputin dumps her. Her cries of agonized despair at losing her lover along with attempts to kill him will be more funny than horrifying to viewers. Lee, however, excels in the role. He is intense throughout, making Rasputin a menacing figure. Director Don Sharp has a great moment when Peter enters Rasputin's mansion, a gift from the Empress. All we hear is Lee's voice as Peter tries to find him in the dark. It is a very effective sequence, made more so by Lee's voice acting.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk was, again, not interested in history but in horror. While it did not hit the mark with me, it is not without some positives. Christopher Lee would have made a great Rasputin in a better film, but on the whole, no one will be mad about the monk. 

1869-1916


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Tevya: A Review (Review #1797)

 

TEVYA

There is scant love for My Yiddishe Papa in Tevya, the first film version of the Tevye the Milkman stories later adapted into the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya, released in the extraordinary cinematic year of 1939, shows that Yiddish-language films could more than keep up with the big studios. 

Simple Jewish milkman Tevye (writer/director Maurice Schwartz) lives a relatively contented life with his wife Golde (Rebecca Weintraub) and his younger daughter Chava (Miriam Riselle). Chava, more intellectual than her parents or visiting sister Tseytl (Paula Lubelski) also has another difference. This "Jew-girl" has fallen in love with Fedya Galagan (Leon Liebgold), a Ukrainian gentile. To the delight of the gentiles and the horror of her family, Chava marries Fedya, moving away from both her family and her heritage.

Now dead to Tevye, he faces more hardships when his new in-laws push to expel Tevye's family from the village despite having lived in relative peace and harmony. More troubles come when Golde dies, leaving Tevye adrift in a hostile world. The Galagans are successful in forcing Tevye and his family out, and now they contemplate where to go. There's Israel, America, Argentina or Palestine. Chava hears of her family's plight. She is also horrified when she sees that her in-laws stole her mother's petticoat despite it being part of Tevye's fire sale. Sneaking away, she begs Tevye to take her back and go into exile with him. Now reconciled, the family heads off to their ancestral lands to start afresh.


The surprising thing about Tevya, or at least the first half, is how much of it takes place outside. There are few indoor scenes for about half of the film. In fact, it is not until Chava's wedding that we start getting more and more interior scenes. I do not know why Schwartz decided to make Tevya such an outdoor film. It does make it feel free and natural, so that is a plus.  

As a director, Maurice Schwartz moves things well and has some beautiful imagery. At Golde's death, we see Chava standing outside the window, unable to grieve with her family as the rain pounds down on her. When Tevye gives the Sabbath blessing after declaring Chava dead, it is also a beautifully filmed sequence. 

As an actor, Schwartz excels in making Tevye a simple man. There is a simplicity to Tevye, one who accepts almost all things that come his way. Commenting to his horse when the animal does not move despite the lashings, Tevye quips, "He's accustomed to the whip as I am to poverty", revealing his wisdom and self-awareness. He even allows for a bit of comedy when he comes across three Jewish women who beg him to let them ride on his cart to get back home. "A hundred-pound Jewess has two tons of talk!" he bemoans.

There is much to praise in Tevya, but there is a major issue in the film. That issue is Miriam Riselle as Chava. She is absolutely appalling in the role. Rarely if ever does Riselle come across as anything other than hysterical. Her acting is so overdone that it becomes maddening to watch. I genuinely cannot remember one moment in Tevye where she was not so over-the-top in her manner. It was as if she was a parody of a silent film actress who was thrust into a sound film, and a Yiddish one at that. 

There is no other way around it: Miriam Riselle gave one of the worst performances that I have ever seen on film in any language. Overdramatic, almost cartoonish, it stands in stark contrast to everyone in the film. I walk that back a bit. Leon Liebgold as her goyim love interest was also a bit over-the-top in his declarations of love for the "Jew-girl" (the film's words). However, he was nowhere near Riselle's histrionics and almost crazed facial and body movements.

Tevya is a beautiful looking film, one that captures this now-lost Yiddish world. If not for Miriam Riselle, Tevya would be among 1939's myriad of masterpieces. However, it is still a film to holds up well and moves audiences Jewish and gentile alike. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Bob Marley: One Love. A Review (Review #1796)

 

BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE

It is the rare person who does not like either reggae or its most well-known ambassador, Bob Marley. Bob Marley: One Love is a Marley estate approved biopic on the superstar. That may be the problem. 

Covering the years 1976 to 1978, One Love details certain events in the life of Jamaican Bob Marley (Kingsley Ben-Amir). We start with the troubles inflicting the island nation, with rival factions vying for power. Amidst the chaos, Marley has decided to host Smile Jamaica, a peace concert to unite the people. Nefarious forces, however, do not want the Smile Jamaica concert to go on. 

This leads to an assassination attempt days before the concert. Bob Marley's wife, Rita (Lashana Lynch) is seriously injured, barely surviving. Bob is hit but not majorly injured. Despite continued protests, Marley rises to the occasion to be the Smile Jamaica headliner.

Still, it is unsafe, so he sends his wife and children to live with his mother in Maryland while he goes to London. Here, he sees the rise of punk music and, while overhearing the Ernest Gold score to the film Exodus, he is inspired musically to create his own work. Marley finds kinship in both Gold's stirring opening theme and the struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland, matching his own hopes for his Rastafarian faith. Out of Exodus the soundtrack, comes Exodus the reggae album. 

While Exodus is a major worldwide hit, Marley still cannot get tour dates to Africa. He also has to deal with shady business practices from Don Taylor (Anthony Welsh), his business manager. Finally, he has a melanoma diagnosis that will ultimately kill him in 1981. He does, however, return to Jamaica and in archival footage, see Bob Marley perform at the independence celebration for the new African nation of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most curious element in Bob Marley: One Love is how the film failed to make a case as to why anyone would care about Bob Marley. This is especially true for anyone who does not already know Marley or his music. There may be a few people unaware of who Bob Marley, the artist, was. One Love will not enlighten them given that his creative evolution is so haphazardly handled. In a sense, One Love almost expects the viewer to have some background about Marley and reggae. 

A lot of One Love expects you to have at the least a Wikipedia-sized knowledge about the subject. The film spends its first thirty-odd minutes on the Smile Jamaica story. In a lot of biopics, the events leading up to the concert would have been the film itself, with Smile Jamaica being the triumphant conclusion. However, One Love feels oddly rushed to get to what it thinks is a major turning point in the Marley story. 

I do not doubt that getting shot at is a major turning point, but outside of archival footage we do not get a firm background into the chaos in Jamaica or the violence in Kingston. Why are there two opposing camps? Why is Marley in particular targeted? Why does he have this hold among the Jamaican people? Same goes for when creating Exodus. What inspired him to delve into deeper subjects? It is, if not strictly speaking a guessing game at least an unanswered question. 

As a side note, I am dubious that Gold's Exodus score, brilliant and iconic as it now is, did inspire Marley's Exodus album. 



Over and over, One Love fails to make Marley interesting. We do not get the man or the myth. Instead, we get bits and pieces of each, never forming a full portrait of either. That may be due to having four screenwriters: Terence Winter, Frank E. Flowers, Zach Baylin and director Reinaldo Marcus Green (with story by Winter and Flowers). Having so many people made One Love unfocused, as if unsure of where to go. The decision to focus, or at least hit on, two events (the Smile Jamaica concert and Exodus recording) were curious ones. I figure a whole film could have been made on either. A whole film could have been built around his Zimbabwe concert. One Love could have also been a straightforward birth-to-earth biopic.

Instead, it just went here and there, never building on anything.

Part of One Love's failed efforts to make a case for a Marley biopic may be due to the Marley estate itself. Having the Marley family approve the film (we get Marley's son Ziggy open the film telling us as much). With the Marley family looking over things, we get a surprisingly clean and safe portrait of the man. Very few hints are made about Marley's myriad infidelities. Rita mentions it in passing, and there are two "blink-and-you-miss-them" moments where another woman may be visiting Marley. It is a strange decision to attempt to whitewash Marley's less admirable qualities.

It is stranger to not show us his creativity. Again, we get bits and pieces, but they amount to little.

Some credit can be given to the lead performances. Ben-Adir did his best to capture Marley's accent and body movements. However, that is all he did (and as a side note, I thought he was going to topple over in dizziness after performing War). Part of the blame is the script, but part of it has to be with Ben-Adir. Lynch was slightly better, but not by much. If there was any sense of anger about Marley's womanizing, we wouldn't know it. We also wouldn't know of her own infidelities through One Love

Come to think of it, we do not know Bob and Rita Marley through One Love. Perhaps the 2012 documentary Marley would be more informative (though I have yet to see it as of this writing). Until then, Bob Marley: One Love fails to even be a good primer on what should have been a fascinating subject. As it stands, no one will be Jamming to Bob Marley: One Love.

1945-1981