Saturday, April 20, 2024

Notes of Autumn: A Hallmark Television Movie Review



It is a curious thing that out of the four Hallmark movies that I have seen so far, two of them have a gay love story given that the target audience for these films tend to be straight women. Do straight women like seeing movies about male same-sex romances? 

I do not think that people would accuse Hallmark movies of being deep or particularly good. They seem to be the television version of comfort food: something filling for the feelings. Notes of Autumn, my latest sojourn into this world of sappiness, makes me genuinely wonder why I put myself through all this. Poorly acted, poorly written, at times veering on cringey, Notes of Autumn is not so much a disaster as it is brain-melting.

Ellie Matthews (Ashley Williams) was once an aspiring pianist who now works as a flustered and somewhat frustrated events planner. Leo Carrington (Luke Macfarlane) is a highly successful writer of the Parkington Manor book series which, judging from the reenactments he sees, is a vaguely Regency-era romance series. Ellie just got fired from her latest job due to constant distractions and a scatterbrained manner. Leo is struggling with his latest Parkington Manor book, his fifteenth book in fifteen years.

As a side note, the dialogue states that Leo has written fifteen Parkington Manor books in 15 years. That makes it at least a book a year for a decade and a half. No wonder he's bereft of ideas. Moreover, I don't think even James Patterson can knock his books out that fast, though to be fair, Patterson does have coauthors, but I digress.

To get away from their troubles and find new sources of inspiration, lifelong BFFs Ellie and Leo decide to swap homes for two weeks. This will give Ellie a chance to recharge and reevaluate what she needs to do to move on. It will give Leo a chance for a long-delayed vacation from British Columbia and perhaps break his writer's block.

They cross paths ever so briefly at an airport, so briefly that they cannot let the other know about each other's living situations. In rural Pinewood, Leo fails to make clear to Ellie that she will be helping Sam Perkins (Marcus Rosner), a nature guide who is organizing the local Piano Ball. He needs help with both organizing the charity event as well as the amateur chamber quartet trying to learn Vivaldi's Autumn section of his Four Seasons concertos. Similarly, Ellie fails to make clear to Leo that she has let her friend Matt (Peter Porte) use her large kitchen as a testing ground for new dishes to interest investors for his hoped-for restaurant. In those two-plus weeks, Ellie & Sam and Leo & Matt will find inspiration and romance from and with each other.

After enduring Notes of Autumn, I had exactly one question: what the hell are gourds? Ellie goes on about gourds and their decorative powers for fall-themed events, but I simply kept wondering what gourds were.

Rick Garman's screenplay was hellbent on Ellie and Leo having mirror situations. I am not talking about the swapping homes situation. After all, Notes of Autumn relies on this as the engine that drives the plot forward.

I am talking about, instead, the dual couples having simultaneously similar situations that I think are among the television movie's many low points. For reasons I simply cannot fathom, both Ellie and Leo essentially have to break into each other's home where they will meet their love interest. Ellie cannot find the keys to Leo's lavish rustic retreat, so she tries to shimmy up to the second floor when Sam happens to pass by. Leo does have a key, but he sees that someone else is already inside, so he grabs a figure of a giraffe as protection against the probable burglar. Hilarity and hijinks are supposed to ensue.

These duo disasters rely on an implausible if not impossible set of circumstances. Not once does it occur to Ellie to let Leo know that she gave Matt permission to use her kitchen? Not once did Leo make clear that he was volunteering Ellie to be his substitute? This oddball situation is explained away by both having to share these vital pieces of information as they pass each other at their connecting airports. However, a more sensible thing would have been to talk about it with each other or even texted. The television film starts with them calling each other often, but that soon is forgotten and they rarely if ever check on each other until they again cross paths at the airport. 

Adding to the overall idiocy of Notes of Autumn is over why couldn't Matt use Ellie's kitchen. Leo tells Matt that he needs privacy to work. However, all Leo and Matt had to do was call Ellie or come to an agreement between them to where Matt could use the kitchen (which the owner already gave him permission to do) when Leo was out, say for a walk or a visit to whatever tourist trap the big city of Westerhaven had.

As a side note, the degree of ruralness between Westerhaven and Pinewood is almost nil. The latter looked the former's suburb. 

There is just so much that is astonishingly dumb about Notes of Autumn. While Ellie knows that Leo is gay (it is about a good ten minutes before we get a quick mention about him not having had a boyfriend in a while), she apparently didn't know Matt was. Either that, or she did know and never thought that the two gay guys she knows might hit it off. I think she did, but if so, why she never thought Leo and Matt could make a connection one can't figure out. 

Leo, newly inspired by his feelings for Matt, has started writing, but not the newest Parkington Manor novel that his editor Karen (Lucia Walters) wants. Instead, he submits the first three chapters of Cornerstones, about two male architects in love. Karen at first rejects it for unnamed reasons, but later tells Leo and Matt that she will push to publish Cornerstones. My question is, why can't he publish it under a pseudonym as J.K. Rowling has under her pen name of Robert Galbraith? Nothing prevents him from publishing Cornerstones, which sounds infinitely better than anything in the Parkington Manor series.

To be fair, this series led to probably the only intentional laugh I got from Notes of Autumn. Matt, vaguely aware of Leo's books, told him that Ellie had mentioned that Leo had written the "Parking Lot Mansion" books. I think Garman may have been inspired, unintentionally or not, by Misery. The Parkington Manor series reads like the fictional Misery books, and Matt tells Leo that his Italian mother may hold Leo hostage if he cannot finish another Parkington Manor book.

Truth be told, from the deliberately overacted sections of Leo's thwarted Parkington Manor: Part 16 book, they look like terrible reads. I understand two stars of Hallmark's When Calls the Heart series appear in the sepia-toned reenactments. I guess that is nice for Hallmark viewers, not so much for anyone unfortunate enough to give Notes of Autumn the time to watch.

Yes, I am probably overthinking all this. I had to do something to combat the boredom and mind-numbing stupidity of Notes of Autumn.

Ellie and Sam's story is no better. As played by Williams, Ellie comes across as a near-total idiot, mistaking perky for insipid. She comes across as irritating, dim, and the type of woman whom men should flee from. Rosner can best be described as "Hallmark hot": a bland character but an attractive man, complete with woodsman beard. Yes, we know that they will eventually fall in love. However, Notes of Autumn never makes the case as to why either would genuinely want to.

I do not know if coming out was the best career choice for Porte or Macfarlane. Good for them if they want to be open about their lives, but I wonder if they will ever play it straight, so to speak. Porte comes close to being a stereotype of a gay man. Macfarlane plays it straight (again, no pun intended), playing Leo as someone who does not even want a friendship with Matt, let alone see him as a potential love match. He is not so much closeted as he is detached. It is to where when Leo initially pulls away from Matt's effort to kiss him, it comes across as a straight man pulling away from a gay man's mistaken impression, not a gay man's overall reluctance at romance. 

Oddly, I saw things that Notes of Autumn may not have intended with some of the lesser characters. When meeting the quartet, Sam introduces each by name. "Beau is playing the violin," he says. I literally asked myself, "Was that a pun?" 

Beau is playing the violin. Bow is playing the violin. 

Maybe that is giving Notes of Autumn way too much credit.

Somehow, "Beau playing the violin" is one of the best parts in Notes of Autumn. His jazzier take on the fiddle reminded me of Nickle Creek. I'd rather follow a romance between Aidan Kahn's Beau and Kelsey Lopes' Wendy than either Ellie & Sam or Leo & Matt. 

The split stories did not mesh well. We get more of Ellie than of Leo, and the quartet does try to give each a personality. It might have worked better to split the stories into two separate films (Notes of Autumn and Notes of Autumn 2: Parkington Manor's Revenge).

I can forgive the "she doth protest too much" when the quartet keeps asking her to accompany them on piano. The television film needs this faux-conflict (faux-flict?) that will be resolved in the end. However, one would think that Ellie's almost incessant whining about how she can't do XYZ would drive Sam away from her. Again, as played by Williams, this woman is somewhat whiney and dim. He could do much better. Despite Sam's heterosexuality, Leo is a better prospect for him than Ellie.

It is curious that Sam mentions how he has to drag Leo to a nearby farmers' market when we see how Leo seems to actually be enjoying going to a farmers' market with Matt. OK, it might be due to a potential attraction. However, why did director Troy Scott not make Leo more reluctant to go to the farmers' market so as to show consistency. 

That simultaneously similar farmers' market visit, I might add, was before Leo found out that Matt was "single" when Matt mentions how Leo sounds like his ex-husband. For all the celebration Notes of Autumn and Hallmark gave themselves about representation, Leo could only say that Matt was "single". The film metaphorically went "don't say gay". Yet, I digress again.

Sam tells Ellie that Leo helped him craft beautiful words for his Pinewood Nature Tours brochure. However, when Sam and Ellie are at a Pinewood farmers' market and earlier on a nature hike, Sam was so eloquent by himself that Leo would have done better to walk in the woods with this hunky man than go off to the more cosmopolitan Westerhaven. The Matt & Leo romance felt forced. To be fair though, it is hard to make some of the dialogue sound anything less than cheesy.

"Ellie says it's because of me and I know it's because of you", Matt tells Leo about him sparking new life in him to pursue his dreams. Leo replies, "I think it's because of us". There might not have been great or even good acting in Notes of Autumn. However, no actor could work with such an awful script and make it sound anything other than laughable. 

To be honest, I can no longer remember if it was Matt who said that to Leo or vice versa. I don't think it really matters, it's still awful. 

Notes of Autumn, even by the surprisingly low standards of a Hallmark Television movie, is bad. Uninteresting characters poorly acted with a pair of at times flat-out stupid stories, it has nothing to offer viewers not addicted to the Hallmark formula.  

One last point about Notes of Autumn. Matt is the only major character to not have a last name. I do not know why that detail stuck out, but it did. 


Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Omen (1976): A Review (Review #1808)


THE OMEN (1976)

I do not know why the 1970's brought about a slew of Satan-centered films, or at least it seems that way to me. The Omen is a chilling and brilliant film, where the horror comes less from what is on screen than what is not.  

Rome, June 6 at 6 pm. Ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) has received devastating news. His newborn son is dead. This will devastate his wife, Karen (Lee Remick) if she finds out. However, there appears to be a way out: substitute his dead child for a living one born at the same time whose mother is dead. With that, Thorn presents this child to his delighted wife, and they name him Damien.

For the first five years of their lives, the Thorns are moving up, culminating with Thorn being appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom. However, Damien seems surrounded by strange goings on. His nanny hangs herself in front of everyone at Damien's birthday party. The new nanny, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw) is very possessive. An apparently mad priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) warns Robert that great evil will come to him and his family due to Damien. Damien himself has a total breakdown when he approaches a church.

What could be at the heart of all this work? Brennan reveals to Thorn that Damien is the Antichrist. Those who want to further his rise will stop at nothing to get Damien to fulfill his satanic mission. It will mean murder and brutal accidents for everyone involved. Thorn at first rejects this, but with evidence from photographer Jennings (David Warner), he travels first to Rome and then Israel to uncover the shocking, even horrifying truth. Here, biblical scholar Bugenhagen (Leo McKern), Thorn is told that he must kill Damien on the altar of God with special knives. Can Thorn bring about the death of a child to save the world? 

The Omen works best when it underplays things. The film does not have many if any big moments of blood. It is surprisingly restrained in its various killings. Apart from Brennan and possibly Jennings, the visuals of death are not visually gruesome. To be fair, Jennings' death is obviously fake and would now look comical. The same goes to when Thorn and Jennings go to the cemetery to find Damien's birth mother. It is obvious that it is a set, making things look a bit fake.

I cut The Omen some slack in that this moment communicated what the audience needs to know. The film also gives us still shocking moments, such as the deaths of the first nanny and another person caught up in this evil. While again, they are not graphic, they still leave an impact. Karen's tragic fate is rendered quite cinematically, making it both elegant and horrifying. 

The Omen is blessed with solid work by most of the cast. For most of the film, Gregory Peck plays his normal moral uprightness in a strong manner. I will take Peck to task for that cemetery scene. Despite discovering the truth of both Damien's mother and his own son, he was surprisingly almost bored. Peck did not show outrage or horror at his discovery. Instead, he seemed a bit detached from things, as if reciting dialogue versus attempting to make Thorn a real person.

Remick too was a bit dramatic and theatrical as Karen. However, it worked for her here. It is rather the supporting cast that does the best. Troughton's Brenan does come across as psychotic prone to speaking in riddles. However, when he is speaking more clearly, his words of doom are frightening. Whitelaw's Mrs. Baylock ably goes from pleasant and warm to menacing and dangerous. Warner's Jennings too shifts from cynical to horrified. It is a credit to director Richard Donner that he got such strong performances from almost all his cast.

The Omen also has excellent cinematography that gives the story an added layer of storytelling. Early on, we see Damien sitting in front of a fire, the message of his birth clear. There is also the moment when Brennan goes on a rant in front of Ambassador Thorn. The various family photos play a strong counter match to what Brennan is saying.

Finally, there is Jerry Goldsmith's Oscar-winning score, surprisingly his only Oscar win out of 18 nominations. While the best-known musical element for The Omen is his vocal theme, Ave Satani, also Oscar nominated, the overall score blends romance with terror quite well. The musical shifts from an almost pastoral section when the Thorns first arrive in London to the creepy music playing when Karen comes to a shocking conclusion balance the menace and horror of the story.

The Omen works on almost every level. Some of the effects are dated, and parts of David Seltzer's screenplay do not hold up. Why, for example, does Thorn push to kill Damien then not be willing to do it? However, these are minor quibbles. The Omen works due to how the story builds up slowly, allowing the menace to grow logically. It also works due to how it draws on an Oedipus-like manner to try and avoid fate only to end up fulfilling it.  

Menacing without being graphic, effectively creepy and well-crafted, The Omen is a fine example of true horror. 


Next Omen Film: Damien: Omen II

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. A Review



I think it is fair to say that your enjoyment of Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire will depend on how invested and knowledgeable you are about what I understand is called "the Monster Verse". Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is dumb and overblown. I think people who do not care to give much thought to things will enjoy it. 

King Kong remains in Hollow Earth, the world beneath our own. He suffers from a toothache that requires him to rise to the surface, where he is attended by Trapper (Dan Stevens). Also on the surface is Godzilla, who is battling against monsters for humanity's sake. 

Things grow to a crisis when Godzilla senses danger, whereupon he begins sucking up nuclear power. King Kong too faces danger when he comes upon a hereto unknown group of large apes and actual humans living on Hollow Earth. On the surface, scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and her adopted daughter, the native girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle) sense a disturbance. Jia, like all of her now-lost Iwa people, is especially attune to something off. 

Eventually, after fighting each other WWE style at the Pyramids of Giza, our giant frenemies must join forces against Skar King, another giant ape bent on taking out both lizard and gorilla. It is a clash of titans involving not just them, but the giant moth-like creature Mothra.

Perhaps I would have thought better of Godzilla x Kong if I either cared or understood what exactly was going on. Early on, I did ask if there was a plot in all this. It is a bit hard to take even the outlandishness seriously when you have a man in a Hawaiian shirt gleefully serve as a giant gorilla's dentist. I did ask when Trapper showed up, "who the hell is he?". 

I do not know if it is because I cannot invest the interest to follow along with the Monster Verse or because Godzilla x Kong follows in the shadow of the excellent Godzilla Minus One. However, I found there is a lot to criticize in Terry Rossio, Simon Barrett and Jeremy Slater's screenplay (based on a story by Rossio, Barrett and Adam Wingard). I mean, apart from a lack of a screenplay.

For example, I noticed that Kong always seemed to be injured in some way. I do not know why he had to be. The nadir of this, however, is when his arm is injured just when he needs it the most. What are the odds that a secret project on Hollow Earth would be to create a special mechanical arm for him to use? Actually, I might walk back that last statement. The nadir of this might actually be when Kong and Godzilla begin fighting each other in Egypt. Yes, they are both giant monsters. However, how did Godzilla get from Gibraltar to Egypt so quickly, even for him? How did he sense Kong's presence? Did Kong's roar reach all across the Mediterranean? 

When you see King Kong and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, behave as though they were the main event at WrestleMania, you wonder if you can stretch believability even in this circumstance. Godzilla x Kong doubles down on the massive destruction the people behind the film think audiences want, logic (however thin) be damned. As big as the film's visual effects were, as massive as the film's visual effects were, and as overblown as the film's visual effects were, they can't match the more effective visual effects of Godzilla Minus One. The latter won the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, the first Godzilla film to be nominated, let alone win. I doubt Godzilla x Kong will even be nominated for next year. 

Godzilla x Kong shortchanges the human actors. Except for Brian Tyree Henry as Bernie, the podcaster who was our sometimes eager, sometimes reluctant hero, I don't think anyone was even bothering to try and make any of this plausible. Stevens was having a ball amping up his character, this devil-may-care whacked-out dentist to monsters. He was the counter to Hall's more sedate scientist. 

Honestly, I cannot remember what they were like, lost in the explosions and smaller apes roaming about. Still, I do not think people go to something like Godzilla x Kong for the humans. They go in to see giant monsters go at each other. Here, however, they could not even do that. Godzilla, despite being top billed, is barely in the movie. This is more a Kong-centric film, so I do feel a bit cheated.

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is more for those who maybe follow these two giants of cinema more than I or even the average person does. It is loud, overblown and pretty much with no real plot that does not require you to have more than a passing knowledge of past Monster Verse films.  

Still, it is better than Argylle

Monday, April 8, 2024

Monkey Man: A Review



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


Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Abdication: A Review (Review #1805)



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. 



Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Mr. Baseball: A Review (Review #1804)



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. 


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