Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Crucifer of Blood: A Review



THE CRUCIFER OF BLOOD

The television film adaptation of The Crucifer of Blood is a curious addition to Sherlock Holmes-based productions.  It stars American acting legend Charlton Heston in the role of the very British Sherlock Holmes, one where he recreates his Los Angeles theatrical performance.  On the whole I think Crucifer of Blood is entertaining if one thinks of it as a theatrical adaptation, where the stage origins are clearly visible. 

A loose adaptation of The Sign of Four, we start with an extended flashback to India, where Private Jonathan Small (Clive Wood) falls into possession of a maharajah's treasure during the Indian Mutiny at the Red Fort of Agra.  Two British officers, Colonel Alistair Cross (Edward Fox) and Captain Neville St. Claire (John Castle) find Small with this treasure, where the two natives aiding in guarding that particular gate are killed, one by St. Claire, one by his own hand.  The suicide believes he is now cursed, and that this curse will continue.  As insurance, Small has Cross and St. Claire sign a blood oath to share the treasure.

Thirty years have passed, and St. Claire's daughter Irene (Susannah Harker) has come to London to ask for help from Sherlock Holmes (Heston) and Dr. Watson (Richard Johnson) to help her father.  The Captain has become an opium addict, and appears haunted by both a strange curse and the death of her mother, which she believes her father caused.  Holmes and Watson go to Colonel Cross' massive estate, where we discover St. Claire is hiding, terrified of the treasure Cross has been hoarding (and which St. Claire has sold his rights to in exchange for a smaller pension).  However, in the dark and stormy night Cross is murdered almost right under Holmes and Watson's nose. 

With one of the military men dead and the other terrified, it is a search to find St. Claire.  He is found in an opium den, where the Chinese owner Fu Tching is none other than Sherlock Holmes (passing himself off for the real Fu Tching, who owes him a favor).  However, Small manages to strike again, as St. Claire is poisoned like Cross was.  The search is now on for Birdy Johnson (James Coyle), Cross' manservant who has run off.  Birdy does go to 221 B Baker Street while Holmes, Watson (who has fallen in love with Irene) and Inspector Lestrade (Simon Callow) have gone off chasing after Small.  Birdy comes to find Irene, and we get one or two more twists which Holmes has managed to put together.


As I finished Crucifer of Blood, I admit I was entertained by it, although I can see why many Holmesians (as Sherlockians now is almost exclusively reserved for fans/lunatics of the BBC's Sherlock television series) find great flaws within it.  The biggest issue involves Charlton Heston himself.  It isn't that Heston is a bad actor.  It's in the fact that he never bothers to attempt a British accent.  Heston sounds thoroughly American, which puts him at odds with all the other actors (who are British).  Furthermore, near the end we see Heston slip into the more theatrical mannerism that Heston at the latter stage of his career adopted.  When he begs Watson to stay rather than leave his services, it was delivered as dialogue, not as a plea to his friend. 

Finally, there's the age issue.  Heston appears a bit too old for the character.  This isn't a deal-breaker per se but it does make the forced romance between Johnson's Watson and Harker's Irene look bizarre at the very least.  Johnson looks like he's romancing his daughter to granddaughter (or at least her friend).  To their credit everyone does what they can to make it believable, but it does look a little bit curious.

Another aspect that Crucifer of Blood has against it is the deliberate play structure the film has.  Director/writer Fraser Heston (adapting the Paul Giovanni play) takes a few good steps visually (such as the extended flashback and St. Claire's drug-induced hallucinations in sepia) but the film is filmed in such a way that at times it does appear that it is basically a filmed play.  The titles on the screen almost read like a playbill (a scene opens with "An Hour Later" on the screen), and the film doesn't take advantage of opening up the play.  In many ways, Crucifer of Blood has the stage dressings and structure of a television movie with some aspirations, which was exactly what it was.



However, the film had some great qualities.  Of particular note was Harker, who made the transition her character required both believable and highly entertaining.  Castle was similarly excellent as the dying and tormented St. Claire, and his final scene was quite moving and effective.  Callow, while having a smaller part, was deliberately funny (in that inept way all policemen are) and brought that 'comic relief' the character required.

In a surprising turn, Charlton Heston's moment as Fu Tching was quite good (and better than his Sherlock Holmes).  One figures this Chinaman (to use the parlance of the times) WAS Holmes, but Heston was so good under the make-up it did make one wonder for a moment.  As Holmes himself, Heston was a bit theatrical (I figure drawing from the more broad performance the theater requires) but he was still entertaining.  One figures that Crucifer of Blood captures what Heston would have been like on stage, so that's a bit of a plus.  Fox has the 'evil Englishman' part pat, and he came off as a bit comical. 

The Crucifer of Blood should not be seen as high theater (as one might see Charlton Heston's version of another play-turned-TBS film, A Man for All Seasons), but as light entertainment.  Certainly the play is that: the characters' names evoke other Sherlock Holmes stories (Neville St. Claire was The Man With the Twisted Lip, and Irene, well, one guess).  I can imagine the play being highly entertaining if one didn't think too greatly on it.  It was meant for a good time, and the film version of it should I think be seen in that vein.  I think Holmesians would get a small kick out of seeing all these little in-jokes thrown at them, and they don't disturb the flow of the story, another plus.

Charlton Heston certainly won't rank among the great Sherlock Holmes interpretations like a Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Vasily Livanov, or Benedict Cumberbatch (though for full disclosure, I prefer Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary myself).  However, Heston managed to hold his own (American accent notwithstanding) and kept things rolling.   It is a good thing that we got to see his stage version of Sherlock Holmes captured in the TV-film, and while not great it isn't the horror others might have made it out to be.  On the whole, I found Crucifer of Blood entertaining, like a night out at the theater, where I could forget my troubles and dabble in a little Victoriana. 

It's unfortunate that the original John Watson in the Los Angeles production of the Heston vehicle was not in the film.  That actor's name? 

Jeremy Brett.        

6/10

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

HEY MR. WILSON!


WILSON

I'm going to give you a scenario for a movie: a progressive college professor is thrust into the White House by universal acclaim (and deep divisions within the opposition party).  This leader is noble, is pure, is beloved, almost worshipped by all mankind, untouched by corrupt forces.  Far above all mankind in wisdom and foresight, he stands up to these nefarious evildoers, for he is somehow above politics.  This leader also knows the high cost of war and how we must avoid it at all cost, and would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and though he would not be appreciated within his lifetime, today his Presidency is ranked with that of Washington or Lincoln.

Minus the death of the First Lady, Wilson plays like a dress rehearsal for the Barack Obama Story (which I understand will be called King of Kings Part II: Grandson of God). 

I note the sharp irony that in real life, Woodrow Wilson would not only have hated this particular successor (because Wilson was an out-and-out racist who went out of his way to bring segregation at all levels of government), but would have been disgusted that anyone would have spoken that 'mulatto's' name in the same breath with his.  I do hope that when the official portrait of President Obama is placed in the White House, it faces that of President Wilson, as a perfect irritant to the memory of the man who thought Birth of a Nation was a documentary.  Wilson, the hagiography of the 23rd President, does not justify its massive length. It also does something deadly to any biopic: it goes from being a chronicle of a man's life to being a lavish love letter to its subject.  Wilson doesn't dive into the man's psyche so much as give us a shockingly glossy portrayal, one where it all comes off in turns dull and laughable. 

We start in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson (Alexander Knox) is indeed President...of Princeton University.  The Democratic Party calls on him to run for Governor of New Jersey, and like Cincinnatus, he goes forth to save the state.  "You believe in the principles of democratic equality, the abolition of any special privileged class", his wife Ellen (Ruth Nelson) tells him.  Now, the Jersey Dems thought Wilson would 'play ball', but he shocks them by being as honest as Caesar's wife.   He is beholden to NO man!  His time as New Jersey Governor puts him in contention for the Democratic Party nomination for President, and while he does not campaign for the nomination (being too noble), his underlings are more than happy to do it for him.

Well, a divided Republican Party allows Wilson to sweep into office, where he brings peace and love and greatness to all mankind.  Thanks to him, we have the Federal Reserve, Anti-Trust legislation, Federal Trade Commission, an eight-hour workday, and sunshine on Sundays. 


However, there is crisis both external and internal.  The world is falling apart just at the same time Ellen is dying, and the burdens are becoming greater and greater.  Still, he must go on, and so must his efforts to keep us out of war.  He knows the high cost of war (especially since the side he favored in the American Civil War lost).   However, when war comes, he must lead the nation to victory.  After victory though, those evil Republicans, headed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) will not give the world peace through the League of Nations.  Being always right, Wilson will not compromise and embarks on a cross-country tour.  In the middle of all this, though, comes more tragedy.  The President suffers a major stroke, and the new First Lady, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (Geraldine Fitzgerald) does her best to ensure that the gravity of the President's condition be kept as closely a guarded secret as possible. 

Though paralyzed he cannot resign...it would paralyze the WORLD!

Despite his best efforts to make the world safe for democracy, his party is voted out thanks to his stubbornness about the League.  Wilson leaves office, sad but not bitter about all this, knowing he will rank among the greats, like his hero, Abraham Lincoln.

I remember watching a documentary about Wilson's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck.  When discussing Wilson, the interviewee marveled at how Zanuck, as shrewd a producer as anyone in Hollywood, would have thought Woodrow Wilson would make for an interesting subject, let alone a brilliant movie.  Abraham Lincoln, yes, he said, but WILSON?  It should be remembered that President Wilson was a hero to Zanuck, and thus he would of course imagine the whole world would see Woodrow Wilson the same way Wilson sees Wilson (and I imagine, how Woodrow Wilson saw Woodrow Wilson). 


The great problem with Wilson today is that the film is far too laudatory, making the President such a saintly, holy figure one is surprised that he didn't just walk across the Atlantic to go to Paris rather than waste time by taking a ship to get there.  There are scenes, dialogues, and scenarios that are beyond historically inaccurate and just downright laughable. 

Woodrow Wilson was a racist, plain and simple.  He still harbored animosity towards the North as a Southerner, so why would he think so highly of President Lincoln.  The idea that someone who enforced strict segregation in Washington, D.C. when prior to him, blacks and whites could work together somehow "believed in the principles of democratic equality" is insane and asinine.  He no more believed in 'democratic equality' than he believed in monarchy.  A little part of me suspects that if he could, President Wilson would have revoked the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Another rather far-fetched scene is when he secretly serves coffee and donuts to troops of various nationalities.  The idea that Wilson would be so welcoming of all races is rubbish.

Wilson makes no mention of the department of propaganda he set up to promote the war, or how he locked up those who opposed the war, like Socialist Presidential candidate Eugene Debs.   Maybe those scenes were deleted.

Wilson, if one looks at it today, just seems so enamored of its subject that the film becomes this Profile for Sainthood for good old Woody, too busy building him up to be this Titan For All Ages that the few times we see Wilson the man they almost ring hollow.   Alfred Newman's score announces WILSON WAS A GREAT MAN, and the opening title cards are a howler:
Sometimes the life of a man mirrors the life of a nation.  The destiny of our country was crystallized in the life and times of Washington and Lincoln...and perhaps, too, in the life of another President...This is a story of America and the story of a man...Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States...


Talk about laying it on a bit thick!  That is a direct quote, and it shows just how Wilson flops as history, for it is stubbornly determined to show Woodrow Wilson as something beyond a mere mortal and into an almost divine figure. 

As a film, Wilson also fails because Henry King's direction has almost everyone behaving so stiff and formal, as if they know they are caught up in 'great moments of history'.  There are a few good moments (Knox's scene with Ruth Ford as his daughter Margaret when he remembers his late wife was good), and Thomas Mitchell's lackey was a breath of fresh air to the rather profound nature the Wilsons lived in (though I wondered why he always called him "Governor" even when Wilson got to the White House).  Knox wasn't bad as the President, just so righteous all the time as Wilson that I would have volunteered to serve the Kaiser if it meant getting rid of this moralistic figure.

It is only when Wilson's growing stubbornness on the League makes him ever-so-slightly unsympathetic that Wilson managed to get some air into its grandiose ideas about the subject.  By this time the nearly two-and-a-half hour snoozefest has all but either wiped us out or had us cheer on the Republicans.

Wilson is a wasted opportunity because it insists we all love, admire, even worship the subject of the film.  It hides the negative aspects of Wilson's character and Presidency (the muzzling of dissent, the overt bigotry) to give us a very whitewashed idea of who this man was.  However, given how Woodrow Wilson loved all things white...



DECISION: D+

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Mary Sounds Off, Badly


COQUETTE: A DRAMA OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH

When the transition from silent to sound films took place, some stars rose, some fell.  Among those who struggled with the coming of 'talkies' was Mary Pickford, who before sound had been America's Sweetheart (via Canada) and one of the great silent film stars of all time, known throughout the world.  She was about the only person, male or female, to rival Charlie Chaplin in popularity.  Pickford was the first major star to make the transition, her shrewd producer's mind knowing that despite her love for silent films knew they were coming to an end.  Coquette, curiously, is not just interesting because it was Pickford's move from silence to sound.  This is an early example of someone going for a radical change in persona. 

The Girl With the Golden Curls had become a star primarily for playing children (a remarkable feat given she was a woman in her 30s).  She was seen as this symbol of purity, spunk, sweetness, and Coquette showed a Pickford her fans couldn't imagine, what with her bobbed hair and wildly flirtatious manner.  This would not be the last time a star took a role where they played against type, or that they would be rewarded with an Academy Award for this wild turnabout.   However, Coquette as a film is a sheer disaster: stagey, clumsy, horrendously acted (even by Pickford), and so mind-numbingly dull and lifeless both the film and Pickford's performance will rank among the Academy Awards' worst choices.

Norma Besant (Pickford) is a total flittering flirt, going hither and yon from one man to another.  Her father, Dr. John Besant (John St. Polis) is displeased with his daughter's wayward ways, but given she just teases without actually attaching herself to any real scandal, there's not much he can do on the subject.  Dr. Besant prefers the solid Stanley (Matt Moore) for a son-in-law, and while Norma toys with him, she now has her eyes set on the newest hunk to come around these here parts, one Michael Jeffrey (John Mack Brown).  He, however, is poor, hill country folk I think, while the Besants are from Southern aristocracy.  Norma tells Michael she'll marry him once he gets established and can show Daddy he's a good egg.

We go from the Summer Dance on June 16, 1928, to the Autumn Dance on September 18, to find that Michael can't truly stay away from the divine Norma.  For her part, while she is happy to do the Charleston and be the flapper she was born to be, Norma too finds Michael too hard to resist.  Discovering he is hiding outside the Country Club, she goes to him and swears eternal love.  However, Daddy Dearest won't go for this poor white trash a'courtin' his little honey-lamb, and is more outraged when we all discover they 'spent the night together'.  There's an argument that ensues, with Michael swearing to take her away.  Dr. Besant isn't about to let THAT happen, and up at Michael's shack, he lays dying of a gunshot wound.


Norma comforts him, pleading for him to stay with her and of the life they will lead together.  However, it is all for naught, and now her father must stand trial for murder (I guess Islamists aren't the first to go for these 'honor killing' things, only Southerners at least killed the guy not the girl). 

In any case, at trial Norma confesses to her wicked, wicked ways.  She says she could not resist Michael's lovemaking.  As it stands, while on the witness stand she sees the results of her actions, and Dr. Besant sees that he was wrong in what he did.  Taking a page out of Chekov's belief that if you introduce a gun into the story, you should use it, Dr. Besant takes the honorable way out (because, well, courts usually leave bullets in guns used as prosecution exhibits).  Norma, devastated by all that has happened, walks back home sadly, saying she has to help her not-so-little brother Jimmy (William Janney) with his math schoolwork.

Whether it was because this was her talking picture debut or because this film broke from her "little girl" image, I think in the long-run Pickford could simply not have made a worse choice in material than in Coquette.  The mannerisms of silent films, coupled with the technical limitations of early sound films, seemed absolutely determined to make Pickford look more than ill-at-ease with the microphone.  It made her look incompetent and almost ghoulish. 

Unlike her previous films, Pickford could not rely on a sweet charm to carry her through.  The hair and clothes styles marked her as a woman simply far too old-looking to play what is suppose to be a teenage to early twenties character with any sense of reality.  That isn't a real deal-breaker, but her performance is.  Pickford's Southern belle is so broad and mannered she make Rue McClanahan's Blanche Devereaux seem downright tame.  Again and again her histrionics came across as if Pickford were either under the impression that Coquette was a comedy or a silent film.   Throughout Coquette one sees that Pickford was finding the transition from silent to sound film acting a bit difficult since she is technically speaking but using her face and body to push her performance.  Her overwrought reaction to Michael's death nowadays might elicit laughter rather than tears.

That isn't to say Pickford alone shares the blame for Coquette's failure.  None of the actors did particularly well, being so dramatic it is in turns laughable and unbearable.  Perhaps it is fitting therefore that Louise Beavers as their maid Julia is the only sensible character in the film.  As a digression, it doesn't help in making Norma a sensible person when she not only acts like a child, but goes so far as to sit on Julia's lap!  Of particular note in the 'really bad acting' department is Brown, who looks physically imposing and appealing but once he starts to shake his fists or do anything close to human actions, he is stiff throughout.  As a corpse he's quite convincing though.


What really damns the film more is the technical flubs in it.  It's so stagey, forcing everyone to stand in a particular spot to have the audio recorded.  Stanley, for example, stands in the exact same spot that Jimmy was only a few minutes prior, which makes clear where the microphone was.  Adding more chaos is in how the sets look just like sets, and how the transition from day to night looks strange, almost making it too dark to see.  Finally, at the country club scene, the music is curiously so loud that the dialogue is all but drowned out, showing that filmmakers still hadn't found the right balance and making this really a hard film to watch.

However, Coquette would be a hard film to watch regardless of the clumsiness of early sound films.   Badly acted (especially in what Pickford probably thought was one of her defining roles, down to a shocking Oscar win...and that was even before people thought the Oscars actually meant anything), Coquette is worth watching only to see just how difficult the transition from silent to sound was.  Perhaps if Coquette had been a silent picture, it might have worked better.   It still might have been a bit broad, but at least it would have spared us some really bad dialogue and dimwitted characters.  It might also have allowed for a more artfully crafted film where they were not confined by the locked-in camera.

Coquette may have won Mary Pickford her desired Best Actress Oscar, but this film does not a legend become.  To get a true taste of Mary Pickford's brilliance, try one of her silent films.  The least said about Coquette in terms of Mary Pickford and the Academy Awards, the better.  In this case, it is true: Silence IS Golden.  

DECISION: D-

Monday, October 13, 2014

My Father, My Frat Brother



FRANKLIN & BASH: FALCON'S NEST

There is an unexpected benefit of going back to Season One of Franklin & Bash is that it gives me a chance to find out what has happened to characters from the past.  With Falcon's Nest, we revisit Danny Dubois, aka Double D, an old friend of Peter Bash and His Royal Highness Elmo, Duke of Landingshire.  Double D first appeared in Season One's Bro-Bono, which is the last Season One episode of Franklin & Bash I've reviewed.  Here, he makes a return appearance, older, wiser, and more mature: three things the leads are not.  Falcon's Nest is a very interesting example of what can happen when a former dimwit with no prospects grows up while current dimwits with tons of cash will not.  In many ways, the contrast between Double D and HRH and Peter Bash so sad in so many ways.

The last time we saw Double D, he was living at this grandmother's retirement home, where he found a place in this world of retirees.  However, now with his grandmother dead Danny has to vacate the retirement home where he is genuinely liked and where he has found a sense of purpose.  Stu Weston (Armin Shimerman), the tyrannical head of the Casa Del Palms Retirement Homes' board, wants Danny out.  It doesn't matter that the residents love him and are pretty much willing to give him an exception to the age requirement.  With that, Double D turns to Peter and HRH for help.  There appears to be a way out.  The reason Double D was allowed to stay was because his grandmother lived there, and so long as she was around he was permitted to stay.  Therefore, why not get Grannie's last boyfriend, a resident who calls himself Falcon (Barry Bostwick) to adopt him as his son?  Never mind that Daniel James Dubois is 36 and Falcon is 76. 

Details, details.

It seems a stretch, and Falcon's drunken behavior (compared to the wildly mature Danny) doesn't help.  What then?  Well, our boys, being the legal minds that they are, decide on a new strategy: get DANNY to adopt Falcon!  Being Franklin & Bash, you can guess where this went.


In the subplot, HRH is still struggling with his relationship with Ellen Swatello (Rhea Seehorn), going so far as to blame HER for him sleeping with his best friend's mom because she broke up with him.  Swatello though, is having bigger problems than Elmo Franklin (if you want to think of that as a Breckin Meyer short joke, have at it--I'm frankly beyond caring now).  The firm's mercurial head, Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell) sees nothing strange in giving a corporate lawsuit to virtually untested Anita Haskins (Toni Trucks) rather than the ex-ADA Swatello (who bristles at the idea of being second chair to someone with almost zero courtroom experience).  Pulling rank, Damien Karp (Reed Diamond), who is attracted to Anita, opts to join Anita's case...as First Chair, of course.

This lawsuit involves GoWest Airlines, which cancelled a flight that caused scientist Erica Boyd (Erica Birdsong) to miss a major conference that would have awarded her millions in grant funds that was virtually in the bag.  Anita has a secret agenda in going against GoWest, which is clouding her judgment in the eyes of Karp.  Anita balks at the settlement Damien worked out, telling him that for all their faults, HRH and Peter go to the mat for their clients.  However, Anita also calls out HRH and Peter, telling them that Karp is actually a good guy and extremely capable lawyer and are far too dismissive of Damien as both an attorney and a person.

Well, in order to win that case, Damien actually adopts a somewhat F&B method: asking that since the cancellation was due to 'an act of God', they should be allowed to call God Himself to the stand.  They settle for Ted (Matt Doherty), a GoWest technician whose report caused the airplane malfunction to be called 'an act of God'.  Well, they win that case too and Karp finds why Anita harbored this hostility: she missed the Red Wedding on Game of Thrones due to a similar GoWest cancellation, which in turn caused her to break up with her fiancée when he told her all that happened on that episode.



Now, I'm going to say that Falcon's Nest did have at least one amusing bit: the question as to which one of our two dimwitted himbos with law degrees was the 'sidekick'.   Apart from the idiocy of the argument itself hearing them referred to as "Yogi & Boo-Boo" (Karp), "Sherman & Mr. Peabody" (the judge in the adoption case), and "Wallace & Gromit" (Karp again) seems pretty accurate as to the intelligence level of both HRH Elmo, Duke of Landingshire and Peter Bash.   There is something again sad about two men who tell the retirement board that in a mental age test, both of them tested at 13...collectively.  Danny's score was in the 60s age group.

That, however, was not how I would have described Falcon, and a little part of me thought Barry Bostwick could do better than his drunk, disheveled loon, a guy who describes himself as a Golden Girls God.   I figure he played the part well, but somehow, I couldn't help think that with Falcon, we were looking into HRH and Peter's future (especially since neither appears willing to move away from the other in a relationship I think has grown toxic).   I'm not going to argue against the adult adoption idea because it doesn't seem too far-fetched.  Having Danny adopt Falcon though...

In any case, there were things to enjoy in Falcon's Nest, such as the interaction of Trucks and Diamond as they continue their odd dance, and seeing Jenny O'Hara as the octogenarian ex-hooker Nanette is always fun (though sadly, I thought THIS should have been the episode Pindar said goodbye...even if seeing Kumail Ninjiani in bed with O'Hara would have scarred everyone for life).  I also thought Michael Weaver's Danny was a much better and stronger performance than last time, and I think he just deserves better than what he was given.  Seehorn similarly kept the stiff Swatello we've come to actually admire as one of the few sane people in this madhouse, but also brought a little softness when she realized that when Anita was asking her advise about someone being attracted to someone else at the law firm, she wasn't referring to Ellen Swatello herself.

If it weren't for those other factors (like Infeld so brazenly dismissing Swatello, or relying too much on Danny's maturity to bail them out), Falcon's Nest could have risen higher.  Truth be told, in retrospect Falcon's Nest might actually be the best Franklin & Bash of the season if you think an average Franklin & Bash episode should be based around idiocy.  It's harmless, dumb, and this might be the first time I think I was too harsh with a show that has just sunk. 

For the moment, I'm holding to my decision, but who knows...I may yet adopt a different idea.     

Yeah, an "Emmy-worthy" script...

3/10

Next Episode: Spirits in the Material World

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gotham: The Balloonman Review



GOTHAM: THE BALLOONMAN

The Balloonman is the first Gotham episode that I felt brought together the police procedural we have and the Batman story we are leading up to in a perfectly balanced way.  This is due to having two stories going on simultaneously: the investigation of crimes that are pretty bizarre (fitting in this comic book-based world) and the slow rise of a prime Batman villain, The Penguin.  It also helps that nearly everyone's performances in The Balloonman are top-notch, with two or three standing out in a sea of altogether strong performances.

Gotham has a mysterious avenging angel.  He finds disreputable members of society (an embezzler, a dirty cop, a very dirty cardinal) and executes them by latching them onto a weather balloon and have them float up into the air.  As we know, what goes up...

Put on the case is Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).  Bullock is generally unconcerned that these figures are going up, up, and away, but Gordon, being Gordon, believes no one can take the law into their own hands.  As they continue to investigate, a clue finds that the case is tied to Gordon via the caseworker for Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who now has both provided information about the Wayne murders and managed to run off.


Meanwhile, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) has slithered back to Gotham, taking the first steps to become a master criminal.  He finds the grime and corruption of the city beautiful.  With his mind still on revenge against Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), he gets a job at the restaurant of Sal Maroni (David Zayas), the rival to Mooney's patron Falcone (John Doman).   Mooney, even if she were aware of Cobblepot's return, is too concerned with striking at Falcone, which involves having his girl go through an off-screen 'accident' and even getting rid of her faithful and loyal lover, Lazlo (Michelangelo Milano).  Gotham is coming closer to a crime war, but there are other players that have yet to make their presence known.

Meanwhile, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), whose drug and lesbian history is slowly being revealed to us (but not Gordon) keeps having doubts about James placed by her former lover, Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena), who thinks Gordon is dirty.  She is convinced Gordon killed Cobblepot on Falcone's orders, so when Oswald shows up at Barbara and James' flat, it comes as a shock to both of them (and imagine if Montoya knew about this).

In all of this, young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), becoming obsessed with the investigation of his parent's death and the actions of the now-captured Balloonman, he wonders whether someone may be willing to break the law in order to save it.  Who will defend the people of Gotham, a reporter asks, now that the vigilante Balloonman has been taken.  Young Bruce ponders such a query...

The Balloonman works so well because of three things: story, visuals, and performances.  In regards to the first, we see that the cases Bullock and Gordon are getting are not tied to the general Batman mythos.  They may be as I am not well-versed enough to know every detail of it.  However, the crimes of the Balloonman are bizarre enough to take place in this comic book-based world and yet be grounded (no pun intended) in that world's reality.  The actual revelation of the Balloonman was both logical in terms of investigative work (albeit with a touch too happy coincidence) and plausible.


The Balloonman himself is in some ways a more twisted version of Gordon.  James Gordon is someone who will fight to protect all, both guilty and innocent.  The Balloonman has similar goals, but he has decided to work outside the law to enact justice on those the law is unable to touch.  Despite the call for him to do the same, James Gordon is not prepared to slip into the darkness of justice.  Bullock, for his part, has no problem giving the Balloonman a taste of his own medicine, but while the shady Bullock and the moral Gordon have reached détente with their worldviews and are forming a solid team, Gordon will not slip into Bullock's darkness either.  Throwing himself onto a floating Balloonman, it is now Bullock who is faced with a moral dilemma: let the scum go up with his partner or bring both of them down to safety. 

Seeing the interaction between Logue (whom I'm starting to like as Bullock) and McKenzie (whom I'm also liking and identifying with) is one of the great treats of Gotham.  They even bring a touch of comedy, as when an irate Gordon asks what information Bullock got from a hotdog vendor.  None, Harvey replies.  He just wanted a hotdog.  Seeing Gordon save Bullock from having a large woman almost smash his head in with a television screen is tense.  Seeing Bullock punch said woman out is funny in a very creepy way.

Still, I'm getting ahead of myself.  The storylines of the Balloonman and Penguin's rise are balance with neither overwhelming the other.  We also continue to keep getting simply amazing visuals in Gotham, from the shocking rise and fall of Gotham's best and brightest to when Jimmy the balloon company head whose balloons were stolen.  Gotham has captured the noir atmosphere of a city crumbling all around us so well, again...Outstanding Cinematography Emmy consideration here.



It's a longer shot given how snobbish and at times idiotic the Television Academy can be, but there would be no justice if Robin Lord Taylor isn't already showing up on potential Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series lists for his pitch-perfect performance as Oswald Cobblepot.  Taylor shows Cobblepot to seemingly be weak, almost frightened (as when a low-level thug for Mooney recognizes him and is dragging him off to her club) to completely turn it around and show Cobblepot to be a dangerous and deadly enemy.  Very same scene, Cobblepot seems to gather his senses and violently kills this thug off.  Being network television there is only so much they can show, but the visuals and what we ARE shown are enough to leave their impression.  When Cobblepot is told he doesn't have the right kind of shoes to work at Maroni's restaurant, Oswald sees someone who does, and instantly we see the wheels turning.

In turns chilling and almost sympathetic, RLT is slowly creating what I think may be the most iconic interpretation of The Penguin.  As he once was in awe of Danny DeVito's Penguin in Batman Returns, so many Gotham viewers will be in awe of Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin. 

Pinkett Smith continues to have fun as the deliciously evil Fish Mooney, and while she had a small role Bicondova does great work as Selina.  However, for me the second standout (RLT being the first) is David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne.  Again, his role is small (understandably), but he so commands the screen with that mix of despair and innocence.  While watching the television report on the Balloonman, we can see that Master Bruce is pondering seriously who can be in a position to save Gotham from itself.  All the ideas of who Bruce Wayne will grow up to be appear to be entering his mind, and Mazouz continues to rise and rise in his interpretation. 

The Balloonman manages to tell two stories well, has strong visual elements, and really strong performances all around (Taylor and Mazouz being my favorites and I believe the strongest).  I'm so pleased that Gotham is finding its rhythm and that if it keeps producing episodes like The Balloonman, it will not only be a hit but will be a great addition to the Batman Canon.

          

8/10

Next Episode: Arkham

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Run You Clever Boy


THE MAZE RUNNER

At last I can say what I have been thinking for quite some time, ever since I sat through the first season of Teen Wolf.

Dylan O'Brien is one of the best young actors around, and if he continues to choose wisely (and even on occasion, unwisely, given he was one of the few bright spots in The Internship), O'Brien will find he cracked my Future Legends list should I revisit it. The Maze Runner combines action with depth, and had me fascinated as how it threw mystery upon mystery at me.  Moreover, I was so surprised at how well O'Brien handled his first real leading role that I constantly found myself wondering, 'With Dylan O'Brien around, why do we need Logan Lerman?'

A young disoriented man is sent to a seemingly pastoral place.  He doesn't know where or why or even who he is at first.  He discovers that once a month, a new boy is sent there, and soon he remembers his name: Thomas (O'Brien).  This community of 'lost boys' is headed by Alby (Aml Ameen), who was the first boy sent.  There are others who are leaders like the tough Gally (Will Poulter) and the more gentle Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster).  Thomas quickly learns that they are all trapped in a maze, one that opens every day but which not only closes at night, but one where if you are outside the Glades when they close, no one ever survives in.  To map out the area, there are what they call Runners, among them the generally quiet Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and Ben (Chris Sheffield).  Another youngster, Chuck (Blake Cooper) is too young to be a Runner, and more or less both looks up to and looks after Thomas.

In the few days Thomas is there, though, we find that he is different than those that came before.  He is curious about the maze and more importantly wants out, while almost everyone else prefers the safety of the Glades rather than risk dying out in the maze.  One time, circumstances bring both Thomas and Minho to be outside the maze, and they do the impossible: they live to tell the tale.  Gally is becoming more and more agitated about the breakdown of their society thanks to Thomas, but Alby, stung by the Grievers (monsters that are in the maze) is in no position to help. 


Things become more complicated when someone new arrives long before their scheduled appearance.  Not only is this person early, but it is something that has not come before: a girl.  Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) has a message in her hand: She's the last one, ever!  While her presence doesn't upset the natural order of things (young men being not interested in sex), Thomas still finds himself remembering odd things, things involving Teresa, and things that may help them escape.  Gally leads a revolution to keep what order he can, especially after the maze gates are not closed one night and the Grievers devastate the community.  However, a group of them, with Thomas as reluctant leader, manages to lead a counter-revolution and insist on leaving.  They do make it to a literal exit from the maze, but there are casualties, with one or two more twists thrown at us.

We also get the opening to a sequel.

Normally, I detest having films almost not end with such a suggestion, but given that The Maze Runner is the first in a trilogy of books by James Dasher I don't object.  This is the newest adaptation of teen dystopian novels (which appear to be the rage) and it isn't even the sole entry this year (with both The Giver and upcoming Mockingjay Part One heading our way).  However, I think The Maze Runner is the best so far and frankly prefer it to all the Hunger Games films (which appear beloved by critics and readers, though not by me). 

There are good reasons for this.  First, there is simply no romantic subplot to intrude on our tale.  The Maze Runner is pretty much action, and even Teresa's appearance is one where the idea of having her and Thomas hook up doesn't appear to exist.   From the moment director Wes Ball throws us into the story, letting the noises and darkness fill us with that sense of dread and danger, the action rarely lets up.  There are some moments of calm and even some moments of character development (Chuck's longing for the parents he doesn't remember and his story are extremely moving).  However, by and large we get one action scene after the other, as these kids continuously struggle to stay alive in a world they do not understand.

Second, we have really good performances from the young cast.  Of particular note is Dylan O'Brien.  Those of us who know him from Teen Wolf will be surprised that he can play a more mature and less comic character than his Stiles Stilinski, who is so goofy and at least in the beginning the comic relief to the supernatural goings-on.  Scodelario doesn't have much screen time, but she makes the most of it as this girl who is genuinely confused about what she is doing there but who is as strong and capable of defending herself as anyone else.  Poulter is effective as Gally, who isn't evil but whose motivations, while conflicting with those of Thomas and his allies, are based on trying to keep order and protect those around him.  Cooper is the lightness in The Maze Runner, but his moments show that Chuck is also just a kid who loves and who deserved better. 

Finally, we have an interesting and involving story that piles mysteries upon mysteries, each of them either being answered or leading us to a surprising conclusion.  The special effects were effective and visually impressive (and moreover, were relevant to the plot), and while John Paesano's score sometimes was rather noticeable, I found myself both enjoying the music and finding it worked to set the mood be it action or suspense.

If I find any real fault in The Maze Runner (and they are minor) is that we go through so much that sometimes some of the minor characters who go with Thomas and Teresa (talk about T & T) get lost in the shuffle.  Hopefully they will have greater roles in the upcoming sequels.   Also, the ending(s) may be a bit much to take, with one big twist after another coming at us so soon we run the risk of rejecting the logic of it.  Certainly the last moments with Gally seem a bit out of place, and the 'the adults are dead/not dead' business seems like a bit too much.

Again, these are minor points that did not take away from my enjoyment of the film.  I found The Maze Runner to be exciting, remarkably intelligent, and held by some really strong performances, especially by Dylan O'Brien, who I hope with this series becomes a real breakout star.  The big teen dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Divergent series have had female leads, and it's good to show young girls that they are capable of being strong and capable leaders.  However, The Maze Runner is not afraid to let boys play again in the world of teen-centered action films, and of having a group work together rather than leaving it almost all up to one person.  We have a great group of actors (of both genders and many races, a big plus for me) and I for one am looking forward to the sequel.

And for someone who generally eyes sequels with suspicion, that is the most amazing thing of all...



DECISION: B+

Monday, October 6, 2014

Gotham: Selina Kyle Review


GOTHAM: SELINA KYLE

Gotham continues to balance the police procedural with the comic-book source material on the whole, rather well.  Selina Kyle oddly doesn't dwell too much on the title character, a figure we know will grow up to be Catwoman.  It's a bit of a tease, especially because we don't get to hear from her until at least halfway through her eponymous episode.  Having said all that, Selina Kyle is still a good episode where the crime-of-the-week keeps us within the Batman universe growing around us.

There's been a spate of homeless child abductions under the guise of the Mayor's Homeless Outreach Project.  Two figures, Patti (Lilly Taylor) and Doug (Frank Whaley) seemingly mild-mannered, are the abductors, stunning their child victims with a poison pen.  One of these homeless kids, Selina, who prefers to go by 'Cat' (Camren Bicondova) refuses Patti and Doug's generous offers of food, and flees when she sees what they do.  Another homeless kid, Mackey (Kyle Massey) also runs for his life with Doug chasing after him.  In the chaos, Mackey finds himself thrown through the window of a fancy Gotham restaurant.

In the abduction, a homeless veteran is killed, and that is the genesis of the investigation by Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue).  The upright Gordon is appalled that a fellow officer went to protect the restaurant rather than stay with the body, but this brings them to Mackey, who tells his rather outlandish tale.  To get some information, Bullock and Gordon go to Bullock's friend, mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith).  They appear to let bygones be bygones (she had, after all, tried to kill them both).  She doesn't know anything about the kidnappings, but she has her own problems.  It seems her overlord, mobster kingpin Falcone (John Doman) talked to Fish's former minion Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) because Gordon apparently bumped him off.  He told Falcone about Mooney's plans to overthrow Falcone.  Mooney denies this, and to show that he believes everything she says, he has her 'lover' Lazlo (Michelangelo Milano) beaten as they chat.

The police, who want to keep the abductions quiet, do find there is a drug in Mackey's system thanks to the analysis of CSI Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).  This drug isn't used much ever since the Arkham Asylum was closed, but who then manufactures it?  Gordon and Bullock find the provider, and it looks like the kids are rescued in time.



Never underestimate the corruption in Gotham, though.  Mayor Aubrey James (Richard Kind) doesn't want these kids around, so it's upstate for these urchin.  Gordon, ever straight as ever, is angered.  It's imprisoning the children without trial.  Bullock, however, does remind him that Gordon has no real standing in the morality department, having executed a man (or so he thinks).  That same man, Oswald Cobblepot, is working his way back to Gotham for revenge, and he finds two frat guys to pick him up.  The fact that his walk reminds them of a penguin is a trigger for Ozzie, who smashes the beer bottle they gave him and ruthlessly kills one while taking the other hostage.  Oswald's disappearance alarms his mother, Gertrude Kapelput (Carol Kane), who files a missing person's report.

Cat is one of the kids going upstate, a fate she does not relish, especially since she insists she isn't an orphan and that her mother is somewhere.  However, to her horror, Patti and Doug masquerade as the bus drivers and take the unsuspecting kids from the holding center, for The Dollmaker does not tolerate failure.  At the docks Patti and Doug think they are one short, and at first find nothing.  However, Patti finds Cat and is not afraid to kill her off.  However, thanks to Bullock's rough manners with a witness they managed to find a vital clue that led them to the docks. Gordon doesn't object because if it's between letting Bullock beat a guy who held children hostage and the lives of forty children, "Saint James" (as Bullock called him) won't bat an eye.

Cat insists on talking to Gordon.  This isn't the first kid James had talked to these few days.  Wayne family manservant Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) asks Gordon to talk to Young Master Bruce (David Mazouz) who has been injuring himself in an effort to 'test' himself.  Cat then gives Gordon shocking news: SHE knows who killed the Waynes.


Again, Selina Kyle as an episode really isn't centered on Selina Kyle herself.  She IS an important part of the story in that we do get a lot of the qualities that the future Catwoman will have.  She tells a frightened child on the bus that if attacked, he should go for the eyes (putting out her hands like cat claws).  We also see that she has the dexterity to move like a cat, and yes, she likes to be called 'Cat'.  For some, this is laying on a bit thick.  For me, I went along with it.

Selina Kyle really has a lot of balls in the air.  There's the main story of the child abductions.  There's the Fish Mooney subplot where she is swearing revenge on Falcone.  There is the Kapelput/Cobblepot subplot where Mrs. Kapelput is worried that some 'woman' has taken her little boy, while Ozzie is busy trying to get money to return to Gotham.  He is holding one of the frightened frat guys prisoner and at the end one isn't sure whether Oswald will cold-bloodily kill him as he did the other frat guy who ridiculed his unfortunate walk.  Then there's the story of James Gordon, attempting to keep the virtues in a town teetering on total moral collapse.  I give credit to Gotham producer and Selina Kyle writer Bruno Heller for keeping those balls floating remarkably well.  I did feel the Cobblepot storyline was underused (we see Oswald in the beginning, middle, and end but for all intents and purposes his story could have been either excised or the whole episode itself).  Apart from that I think the story flowed well enough to keep my interest.

One great highlight were the guest performances.  Taylor and Whaley had this bizarre throwback style to their Patti and Doug, as if telling you just by their excessively sweet manners that they really were quite vicious and evil.  They managed to keep their performances just this side of camp (though at one point Whaley, whom I had briefly mistaken for Peter Sarsgaard, appeared to be channeling Marlon Brando's Don Corleone when talking to their fence).     


I also loved Carol Kane's whacked-out Mrs. Kapleput (I figure 'Americanized' to Cobblepot), Oswald's very own Mommie Dearest.  In turns endearing and slightly bonkers, Mrs. Kapleput's assertion that it was a 'woman' who had led her little boy astray (and caused him to be missing) is amusing and well, weird.  There's a certain Miss Havisham quality to Kane's portrayal, a woman who is not quite there.  However, seeing how she clutches the rather-flattering picture of her little Ozzie had me smile.  I just hope she returns for more guest spots for two reasons.  One, I'd like to see the interplay between mother and son played out more.  Two, is there really such a thing as too much Carol Kane?

As for the regular cast, despite her brief time on her own episode Bicondova made the most of her Cat/Selina.  She was tough and smart yet with a hint of vulnerability underneath.  McKenzie seems slowly warming up to making Jim Gordon this solidly square figure who is devoted to his profession.  I'm also liking Logue as the sleazy Bullock.  He's the type of person I'd say was a bad man but a good cop.  We have yet to see any overt corruption or funny business from him, so while he may be unethical, he has yet to prove dirty.  He's also able to make the most unsympathetic of figures almost endearing.  Gordon is appalled at how dismissive he is towards the dead homeless man, reminding him the victim is a veteran.  "And I salute his service, but he's still a dead wino", Bullock responds.  When Bullock reprimands Gordon for allowing his fiancée Barbara (Erin Richards) to tip off the press, he tells his junior partner that he is letting his desires entangle him needlessly.  "You, my friend, are a monkey riding a racehorse," he tells Gordon.

There's more than poetry in that statement mocking Gordon's WASP woman. 

Pinkett Smith continues to keep a balance of camp and menace as Mooney where she delights in being evil.  She is matched by another standout in Doran, who has such a way with dialogue.  "Men who are about to die are very honest.  It pays to listen to them," he coolly tells Mooney before revealing his final conversation with Cobblepot.  The whole scene plays like a perverse replay of how Mooney dispatched Oswald when they had their 'mother/son' chat.  Claiming loyalty, Moony insists she would never betray him and that he shouldn't lose sleep over the moves of his rivals.  "I never lose sleep over my enemies.  It's my friends that keep me awake," he replies.

Couldn't have said it better myself.

If I find fault in Selina Kyle, it is the shortchanging of other characters.  Taylor's Penguin is still the highlight (though he has few scenes, they still provide great fear about how dangerous he is becoming), and the same goes for Mazouz's Bruce Wayne.  If they ever get them in the same scene, we'll have an incredible scene.  Both are becoming the performers who are running away with Gotham, and I hope that we will see more of them as the series progresses.

It also is frustrating me that Smith's Edward Nygma is still popping up in only one scene per episode so far.  Granted, his role may grow as the series goes on, but I think a lot of potential is being wasted on having him pop in quickly to just disappear as quickly.  I'd like a genuine moment of interaction with Nygma, Bullock, and Gordon, even dare I hope a scene outside work (does the Gotham City Police Department have a Christmas party?).  We need to get more of Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, not so much as counterpoint to Taylor's impressive Penguin but because there is such a great potential in the future Riddler.

I still think Gotham is a great series so far, and Selina Kyle was on the whole a second strong episode to a series that is continuing to impress as both an independent series and as part of the massive Batman mythos.    




7/10

Next Episode: The Balloonman