Friday, April 29, 2016

The Verdict: A Review


THE VERDICT

I know of The Verdict through its reputation.  The Verdict is suppose to have one of Paul Newman's greatest performances, so amazing that some people think (erroneously) that he won his only competitive Oscar for it.  He didn't: he won if for The Color of Money, and while he was nominated for The Verdict, he lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi.  Even Kingsley thought Newman was going to win, recalling years later that he told his then-wife before the winner was announced, "Ready to applaud Paul Newman?"

How could anyone beat The Mahatma?

Now that I have seen The Verdict, one thing is clear: Paul Newman Was Robbed. 

The Verdict has to be among Newman's greatest performance, the evolution of his character a subtle one, and one that surprises you with this journey into redemption.

Frank Galvin (Newman), once a brilliant lawyer, is now on the skids.  Alcoholic, lonely, and with virtually no future, he attempts to find clients by crashing funerals, pretending to be one of the mourners, and slipping his card to the widow or bereaved family.  His mentor and friend Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) is disgusted by Galvin's self-destruction, but still cares enough to send him a sure-fire winner.  It's a medical malpractice suit for a woman left in a vegetative state thanks to a disastrous operation room accident.  She had been given anesthesia that caused her to choke on her own vomit while delivering her child, something that should not have happened...if she had not eaten 9 hours earlier.

If she had eaten 1 hour prior to surgery, however...

The Catholic-run hospital and the two doctors are eager to settle out-of-court, the Archdiocese of Boston in particular not wanting any scandal.  Galvin is thrilled about the potential for a large settlement, from which he will take the customary third and which could put him if not back on top at least save him financially.  To make for a better case, he goes to see the victim again at the hospital and takes Polaroid shots.

It's here, looking at her state, that the glee slips from Galvin's eyes, and he sees the victim for what she is, and sees himself for where he's at.  Against all logic, when he meets with the Archbishop, he calmly, but perhaps sadly, tells him he will reject the offer and take it to trial.

This means going up against a host of opposition, and not just from the Church.  It means opposing the will of the victim's family, against the advise of Mickey, and that's just for starters.  It means going up against the equally brilliant legal mind of Ed Concannon (James Mason), the Church/hospital/doctors lawyer.  Concannon doesn't see the broken down Galvin as a threat, but he also isn't automatically dismissive either.  Concannon does have an ally in Judge Hoyt (Milo O'Shea), with whom he is quite chummy.

In all this comes Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling), a beautiful woman whom Frank has managed to pick up and with whom he's stared a relationship. 

Things continue to go against Frank.  His star witness who can vouch for the doctors' ineptness has vanished out of the country, and the hastily-called substitute ends up making things slightly worse.  The fact that the substitute witness is black, old, and not from Boston, along with the virtually open way the judge practically argues the case for the defense all make things much harder for Frank.

Despite this, despite all the opposition, Frank Galvin will not give up, give out, or give in.  Galvin will keep fighting, and eventually, through perhaps questionable means, finds the only person in the operating room who is not testifying for the defense, a former nurse who admitted the victim and took down her information.  Frank, at wits end, all but pleads for her to come after travelling to New York to find her.

Mickey goes to New York too, to give Frank bad news regarding Laura.  He's made a discovery regarding her that is shocking.  Still, despite this, he slowly pulls himself away from booze and self-pity to bring Nurse Costello back, who gives damning testimony.  Concannon manages to fight his way back to where he gets Hoyt to order the jury to disregard the evidence.  Galvin is lost.

With nothing to lose, he addresses the jury at Closing Arguments, telling them they are the law and to do good, to do justice.  When the jury delivers its verdict, it is a shocking one, and in there lies Galvin's redemption and we end with him, soberly drinking coffee, ignoring the calls of a drunk Laura.



The brilliance of Paul Newman's performance comes from how Newman brought the evolution of Galvin into a slow but thoroughly believable and both heartbreaking and uplifting way.   Of particular note is when Galvin goes back to the hospital to see the victim.  He'd done it before, and was clinical towards her, as if studying her with no sense or interest in who she was.  We'd also seen him jump for joy at the thought of the settlement, and when he goes in to photograph her, there seems to be an almost ghoulish sense of glee about it.  Slowly, very slowly, we see the realization come to Frank, the disillusionment sweep over him.

It's a very quiet turn, done mostly with Newman's eyes, but he does demonstrate both the shock of her condition and realization of his with his body, the confident manner given over to a cross of regret and recrimination.  It's as if he is in shock, at himself, at what he is doing, at what he has become, and in what he is seeing.  This particular moment, so quiet yet so powerful, gets to you, and we see just how dynamic Newman's performance is.

That is how he is throughout The Verdict, and the script by legendary writer David Mamet (adapting Barry Reed's novel) is not afraid to make our hero an extremely flawed one.  We open with Galvin in shadow, playing pinball and swilling booze, a literal shadow of his former self.  He goes to funerals to get clients and is willing to go along to get along.  The Verdict, however, shows when Galvin begins to break free of his own perceptions, holding on to his old ideas of justice and fierce determination even when everything seems to go against him.


Sidney Lumet not only gets the already brilliant Newman to give perhaps one of his finest performances, but he does this with the whole cast.  James Mason, as the wily lawyer, exudes a cool rational manner to his Concannon, particularly when he coaches one of the doctors in his testimony.  Concannon is able to argue both sides and in his courtly manner shows his power as an attorney.  Perhaps Mason's best moment is when he cross-examines Nurse Costello, who has given the evidence that clearly showed his clients were indeed negligent. 

It looks like Concannon and the defense will about to collapse, especially when Costello is able to reproduce a copy of the disputed report that shows she wrote a ONE rather than the NINE she was ordered to make it to protect the doctors.  Mason acts the desperate disbelief beautifully, but more fascinatingly he shows Concannon furiously, but so calmly, fighting back, determined to turn things around one last time.  It is a brilliant performance.

Everyone: Warden as the loyal friend, Rampling as the loving femme fatale, O'Shea as the politically-connected biased judge (his determination to turn Galvin's witness against him to where HE is the de facto defense attorney), Joe Seneca as the flawed star witness for the prosecution, all gave simply brilliant performances.  There isn't a bad performance in The Verdict, a veritable acting showcase.

Lumet doesn't throw much in terms of theatrics: no overblown score (though Johnny Mandel's music is still strong), no great dramatic moments, just a solid script and great actors showing what they can do with a strong director guiding them.  Most other directors would have given us a 'big moment' when Mickey reveals the truth to Galvin, but Lumet deliberately kept us at a distance, letting us imagine what was said.  We saw what must have been a particularly devastating turn for Galvin, but the fact that Lumet and Mamet kept us at bay, with only street sounds to hear, was a brilliant decision.

Oh, perhaps the film dragged a bit and we didn't get Concannon's own summing up, but I am not quibbling over little things.  The Verdict is a master class of actors at the top of their game, a strong, twisty script, and some of the sharpest directing around.  I offer that the Academy's own verdict was wrong this year: Paul Newman deserved the Oscar for The Verdict

DECISION: B+

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Tom Barges In On Oscar

Sidney Poitier:
Best Actor for
Lilies of the Field


TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1963

The 36th Academy Awards has one memorable historic moment: it was the first time a black man had won the Best Actor Oscar and the second time that a black person had won any competitive Academy Award.

The second time a black man would win the Best Actor Oscar was a mere 38 years later. 

Sidney Poitier, the man who broke this color barrier, was never nominated for an Oscar again.  I guess maybe they thought it was a 'one-and-done' type situation.   Despite some remarkable performances throughout his career, the most the Academy could muster was an Honorary Oscar. 

In a curious turn of events, the second black man to win the Best Actor Oscar happened to win the same night Poitier won his Honorary Oscar under circumstances that made me think the winner won for the wrong film and his closest competition lost due to his own bullish manner.

In other Oscar notes, we had a comedy win Best Picture, a rarity in Oscar Annals. Tom Jones also went 0 for 5 in terms of acting wins, not surprising since three out of the five nominees were in the same category.  What do I keep saying about nominees from the same film cancelling themselves out?  No wonder Miss Marple won.

You had a couple of mini-scandals this year.  Patricia Neal won Best Actress despite having a total of 25 minutes of screen-time in Hud out of 112 minutes total (which begs the question as to whether she should have been a Supporting Actress nominee instead).  We also had that behemoth Cleopatra up for nine Academy Awards.


Cleopatra is in a category by itself in terms of cinema.  This epic remake of the Theda Bara silent film (sadly lost) became a byword for excess.  The production costs were staggering: star Elizabeth Taylor was paid $1 million dollars, the first time anyone was paid that much for one film.  Chump change given the overall cost of the film itself.  Adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra cost over $340 million dollars in today's money...officially.

The financial costs were so shocking that this one film nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox, the studio teetering on total extinction due to the money Cleopatra was sucking up.  The production was chaotic: originally set to be filmed in London, the weather proved uncooperative.  For some reason, foggy London-town made for a poor Alexandria.  Elizabeth Taylor became so ill she nearly died.  The delays forced a recasting of the two other leads (Julius Caesar and Marc Antony), and the studio was limited in choice of director thanks to the Taylor contract.

The eventual director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, became the de facto producer, and the scale of the production was so great that he had to have daily injections to keep him going.  There were fears that the project might literally kill Mankiewicz, who had to be producer, director, and screenwriter...all with virtually no time as he was forced to do all three on the fly.

Even that wasn't as downright scandalous as Le Scandal: the affair between the very married Taylor and her equally married costar Richard Burton.  The affair became so brazen that there were actual press notices detailing that there was NO Burton-Taylor news to report.  The scandal was so great even the Vatican got into the act, calling Taylor an 'erotic vagrant' (the most elegant way of saying 'whore'), with Congressmen suggesting Taylor be stripped of her American passport due to her dual British-American citizenship.

Oh, and did I mention Cleopatra never had a final script? 

Mankiewicz tried to write one, but the pressure to get things rolling was so great that he sometimes had to write scenes between takes or at night after an exhaustive day of shooting. 20th Century-Fox tyrant Darryl F. Zanuck, who retook power at the studio due in large part thanks to the mismanagement of Cleopatra, fired Mankiewicz before its director could edit the film together.  Zanuck, however, found he had to get Mankiewicz back because even he, no stranger to film, could not make sense of Cleopatra as it stood.

The reviews were mixed and some feel that Cleopatra is one of the worst nominees for Best Picture, up there with The Alamo and later, Hello, Dolly! or Doctor Doolittle.  We'll see about that.


As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1963 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

   


So Little Time: 55 Days in Peking
Charade: Charade
It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World: It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
More: Mondo Cane
Call Me Irresponsible: Papa's Delicate Condition

I think it's clear which song among these has stood the test of time (sorry, So Little Time).  Call Me Irresponsible (apart from being a good Donald Trump theme) is a charming song that meets one of the criteria for being chosen: it is still remembered.

Charade: Charade
From Russia With Love: From Russia With Love
Higitus Figitus: The Sword in the Stone
It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World: It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Call Me Irresponsible: Papa's Delicate Condition

I think it is a safe bet that most people don't remember the film Papa's Delicate Condition, but Call Me Irresponsible has become an American standard.  It's amusing that while the Academy chose to consider songs from films hardly anyone remembers, at least two songs from more remembered films were not.  From Russia With Love is interesting in that the release dates make it hard to pin down.  However, I got tired of trying to fit things perfectly.

And for the record, I find Michael Buble VERY difficult to tolerate now.

BEST DIRECTOR

Federico Fellini: 8 1/2
Elia Kazan: America, America
Otto Preminger: The Cardinal
Tony Richardson: Tom Jones
Martin Ritt: Hud

I think it's amazing that out of what appear to be very serious, dramatic films, the usually stodgy Academy chose a risqué comedy for Best Director.  That is not to say I think they made the right choice.  I can see why Tom Jones was seen as so out-there, but for my eyes, I did not find it amusing or raunchy.  I actually found it a bit stodgy.

For me, there is only one name on this list that towers over all the others, one whose work is still seen and loved and studied and held as a high point in cinema.  I confess that when I first saw 8 1/2, I thought the whole thing bonkers.  However, I saw it again with an open mind and clearer eyes, and found that it is beyond amazing, truly, one of the greatest films ever made.

Federico Fellini: 8 1/2
Alfred Hitchcock: The Birds
Stanley Kramer: It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Cleopatra
Robert Wise: The Haunting

Now, while giving Mankiewicz a nod might shock people today, given how Cleopatra was pilloried when it was released (and still held in a bit of contempt now).  However, I think no director could have done any good with a film so clearly out-of-control as Cleopatra.  There are certain moments that are still memorable (Cleopatra's entry into Rome is a SPECTACLE that perhaps only De Mille could have topped).  Still, only one of these directors could really be the choice, and while there were better choices that year, Fellini it still is.



BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Diane Cilento: Tom Jones
Edith Evans: Tom Jones
Joyce Redman: Tom Jones
Margaret Rutherford: The V.I.P.s
Lilia Skala: Lilies of the Field

There was no way any of Tom's girls could have won.  This was the first time three actresses from the same film received a Best Supporting Actress nomination...and as such, they kept to the general rule of cancelling each other out.  That leaves us with two possibilities: the nun and the eccentric duchess.  It's clearly no contest, as it looks like comedies or comic performances were winning out.



Claire Bloom: The Haunting
Ethel Merman: It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Patricia Neal: Hud
Suzanne Pleshette: The Birds
Margaret Rutherford: The V.I.P.s

A few weeks ago, I took my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. to see It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.  He did not like it, and in particular did not like Ethel Merman's performance as the loud, overbearing battle-ax who pushes everyone around.  However, I think that was exactly the way the character was suppose to be, so in that sense, she played it correctly.  She was also the only real female of note in the film, and the one that stands out in a group dominated by all-time great performers.  Maybe Fidel is right in it being one-note, and maybe my original choice of Pleshette would be better.  For now, though, I think she'll be great...

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Nick Adams: Twilight of Honor
Bobby Darin: Captain Newman, M.D.
Melvyn Douglas: Hud
Hugh Griffith: Tom Jones
John Huston: The Cardinal

My goodness but am I thrilled they didn't give Hugh Griffith another Oscar.  ONE for his turn as the most fake Arab sheik in history was bad enough, but TWO would have been unforgiveable.  Moreover, Griffith had if memory serves correct exactly one scene.  Bucking the trend of comedies, the Oscar went for a drama like Hud, and to Douglas, who slipped from the dashing men-about-parts like in Ninotchka and into more serious fare.  I really don't see him having much if any competition.



Pedro Armendariz: From Russia With Love
Bobby Darin: Captain Newman, M.D.
Melvyn Douglas: Hud
Roddy McDowall: Cleopatra
Robert Shaw: From Russia With Love

Sad to say that McDowall got majorly screwed over.  In the disaster that was Cleopatra, most everyone agreed that McDowall was one of the few good things in it as the plotting Octavius (the future Caesar Augustus).  However, the bungling 20th Century-Fox accidentally submitted his name in the LEADING rather than SUPPORTING Actor category, and as such, he was shut out of the running.  It was so horrifying that the studio took out an ad to apologize to McDowall.  As a result, a good chance for him to have won was lost.

What makes this even more bizarre is that Fox not only was able to push Rex Harrison to a nomination despite his own lack of screen-time, but that the Academy went along with it. 

BEST ACTRESS



Leslie Caron: The L-Shaped Room
Shirley MacLaine: Irma La Douce
Patricia Neal: Hud
Rachel Roberts: This Sporting Life
Natalie Wood: Love With the Proper Stranger

I don't think anyone has a real argument against Patricia Neal's performance in Hud.  I think the argument comes from whether, like McDowell, it was a Leading or Supporting performance.  She was on screen for twenty-five minutes, far shorter than any of her competition in their respective films.  I actually wonder whether Douglas, the Supporting Actor Oscar winner, was in the film longer than Neal, the Leading Actress Oscar winner.  While part of me thinks maybe Wood or MacLaine might be better choices, for now I'm sticking with Neal.



Judy Garland: I Could Go On Singing
Julie Harris: The Haunting
Audrey Hepburn: Charade
Tippi Hedren: The Birds
Maureen O'Hara: McClintock!

Horror or suspense isn't as well recognized by the Academy as a 'serious drama'.  However, I think we had some good performances in that genre.  I think Hedren did as good a job as possible given her non-existent acting experience, but right now, I am leaning strongly towards Harris' much-frightened woman in The Haunting

BEST ACTOR



Albert Finney: Tom Jones
Richard Harris: This Sporting Life
Rex Harrison: Cleopatra
Paul Newman: Hud
Sidney Poitier: Lilies of the Field

Seriously, Rex Harrison?  It isn't that he gave a BAD performance, it's just that the man is dead before the movie is half-over!  People talk about Caesar (sometimes to an annoying degree), but he's gone before we get to intermission.  How is THAT considered Leading?!

Out of all the nominated performances, I think the real battle is between Newman and Poitier.  I didn't laugh at Finney's take on the randy Tom Jones, and while I think Harris would be a good choice, I think he got crowded out by these two other acting titans.  Right now, I think to myself, let's go for Poitier. 



Stathis Giallelis: America, America
Marcello Mastroianni: 8 1/2
Steve McQueen: The Great Escape
Paul Newman: Hud
Sidney Poitier: Lilies of the Field

I am surprised that Giallelis, on whom America, America hangs on (and from the clips, hangs quite well), was overlooked in favor of Rex Harrison.  I think he would make an excellent choice. However, I guess the Academy wasn't in a particularly generous mood to outsiders, as one of the most realized performances was also overlooked. For me, Marcello Mastroianni's performance as Guido, the brilliant yet lost film director, Mastroianni makes this complex man endlessly watchable.

BEST PICTURE



America, America
Cleopatra
How the West Was Won
Lilies of the Field
Tom Jones

Look, we don't exactly have a great slate to pick from this year.  I didn't like Tom Jones, and I figure it's pretty much forgotten now, what was considered daring in 1963 now a bit trite and slow.  I don't have an objection to How the West Was Won.  It IS sprawling if nothing else, but I can't bring myself to call it the Best Picture of 1963. 

Out of the list, my mind tells me America, America is probably the logical choice.  However, since when was the Academy ever about logic (just ask those who thought Eddie Redmayne was actually good in The Theory of Nothing, let alone The Danish Girl)?

I'll say this about Cleopatra: it is if nothing else, entertaining.  Whether it is entertaining in a 'it's really lavish' way, or in an almost camp way, or in a 'what were they THINKING' way, I leave to you.  I've always enjoyed it (sometimes for all three reasons), and while there is a lot that could be said against it, I still find myself entertained by it.

As such, with some trepidation, I pick Cleopatra as the Best Picture of 1963.



8 1/2
The Birds
The Great Escape
It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Jason and the Argonauts

Fortunately, there were better films in 1963 that the Academy, in their infinite wisdom, overlooked.  At the top of that list is the brilliant, perhaps bonkers, 8 1/2, a film that defies convention, perhaps logic, but is still among the most extraordinary, amazing, and simply brilliant films.  A movie about making a movie (or not making a movie), where dreams and reality collide, 8 1/2 should be seen twice.  The first time to get over the shock of it, the second time to appreciate its brilliance.

As such, I pick 8 1/2 as the Best Picture of 1963.

Next Time, the 1964 Academy Awards.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Bessie: A Review



BESSIE

The first time I heard Bessie Smith was during a broadcast of American Roots Music on the radio.  I heard her song I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.  I was absolutely stunned, not just by the incredible voice, but by the brazen sexuality in the song.  How else to interpret such lines as "I want a little sugar in my bowl, I want a hot dog between my rolls"?  I literally blushed when I heard it.

Now the Empress of the Blues gets the biopic treatment with Bessie.  The film might have been better titled Impressions of Bessie, as we get a hodgepodge of Smith's life but not much about Smith herself.  Bessie at times leaves one wondering what exactly happened, but while the somewhat jumbled nature of the film goes against it, the performances lift it up.

Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah) is an up-and-coming blues performer going with her brother Clarence (Tory Kittles) to various halls to try and move up.  However, she keeps failing the 'paper bag test', where black performers have to match the color of a brown paper bag to be considered for larger spotlights.  Frustrated, she hops onto the train of the reigning Queen of the Blues, Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique).  Ma sees Bessie Smith, despite her country roots, has something special and makes Bessie her protégé, showing her the tricks of the trade and the business side of 'show business'.

Smith soon starts getting notices thanks to Ma Rainey's mentorship, and inevitably upstages the diva (at one point, literally).  Rainey doesn't cotton to such things, so they split with Smith (who now has her own strong following and reputation) striking out on her own.

Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith have something else in common: both are passionate bisexuals who go through men and women with equal pleasure.  Bessie's longtime girlfriend is Lucille (Tika Sumpter) who travels with her.  Lucille, however, also knows that Bessie likes the boys, and into Smith's life come two men.  The first is Jack Gee (Michael Kenneth Williams), who 'auditions' as Smith's bodyguard and who eventually becomes her husband.  The other is bootlegger Richard (Mike Epps), who supplies her with more than bathtub gin.

Smith has highs and lows in her life.  There is the trauma of her childhood, which involves her wicked sister Viola (Khandi Alexander), who is still wildly disapproving of Bessie until they slowly start repairing the years of damage.  There is her own scandalous life: one that involves getting stabbed after she tells off a man at a party who was harassing her crew and a vicious run-in with celebrated photographer and 'liberal' Carl Van Vechten (Oliver Platt) who thinks Smith is the perfect embodiment of what he calls "N****r Heaven".

Smith soon achieves great success...but also great failures.  She adopts a son and names him Jack Gee, Jr. (much to the displeasure of Gee, Sr.).  Devolving into alcoholism, first Lucille, then Jack leave her (the latter taking Jr. with him).  Changing tastes also affect Smith, as she finds that despite her success with major label Columbia her music isn't as popular in the Depression as it once was.  Smith reconciles with Ma Rainey (who wryly comments she could write a book too about her experiences and call it Cracker Hell), and decides to make a full-scale comeback.  She is approached by musicologist John Hammond (Bryan Greenberg) to be part of an anthology concert, but she leaves him hanging.  At the end, Smith and Richard (with whom she finds a level of happiness), sit in the back of a truck, contemplating what the future holds.


If one wants a straightforward biography of Smith, I think they'd be better served to read one than go to Bessie.  The film goes through a lot of material in a jumbled manner where a lot of things are presented but not answered.  For example, we get a lot of flashbacks to Smith as a girl (filmed quite poetically I might add) that suggest something happened to her mother.  The voice-over of Viola telling Bessie that Bessie had caused her mother's death intrigues us, but exactly what happened to Mrs. Smith we never learn.

We never learn what happened to Jack Gee or Jack Gee, Jr.  At what appears to be a pivotal moment, a group of Klansmen come to try and storm their way into a tent concert during her comeback and Smith, ever bold, goes out and confronts them.  The Klan ups and runs, and she goes back to the concert.  Yet this seems to not strictly come out of nowhere but to be added for dramatic purposes.  I cannot say whether or not something like this DID or DID NOT happen, merely that it seemed to be put in there.

The same can be said after Smith is stabbed on the street (there's some alliteration for you).  She appears to become delusional, insisting she has a show to do.  Rising from the hospital bed, she goes out the hallway, through a door...and straight onto the stage, where she gives a song.  Was she crazy?  Was director/cowriter Dee Rees (who made the excellent Pariah) attempting to be rather artistic?  It again wasn't so much confusing as it was cluttered, as if Rees was trying to put too much in and giving us more a 'greatest hits' rundown than a true exploration of Smith as an artist and as a woman.



This of course is not to say Bessie does not have strong qualities.  Chief among them is our beloved Dana Owens as Bessie Smith.  It is fitting that the Queen play the Empress of the Blues.  Latifah brings the arrogance and vulnerability to Smith.  She makes Smith a fascinating woman: strong but sometimes insecure, hurt and hurtful, seeking pleasure and seeking peace in equal measure.  Latifah can sing and act, and Bessie is yet another strong showcase for her extraordinary talent.

Equaling her is Mo'Nique as Ma Rainey.  Though she had a smaller role Mo'Nique was equally fascinating as Smith's mentor, who showed her a much wilder world than even Smith could imagine.  In one scene, a man approaches Smith for a tumble, but she declines.  When one of Rainey's female stage performers comes up to Smith, Smith asks where Rainey is.  To her surprise, she's told she was just talking to Rainey herself.  Smith looks up to discover Rainey, in full drag, going up to the stage to perform a la Dietrich.  Their scenes of combativeness and reconciliation were so wonderful to see: the anger Rainey had mixed with the concern for her former protégé at how far her life had fallen.

Sumpter, in the smaller role of Smith's mistress, had less to do but she to her credit made Lucille (whom I understand was a composite character) into someone who loved Smith with all her flaws.  Alexander was wicked as Viola (but in this case, a good thing...such an underused actress).  Epps and especially Williams were also standouts as the men in Smith's life.

I don't fault the acting (which was quite good from all parts).  I fault the jumbled, rushed story and the bits and pieces that didn't seem to go together.   Bessie is worth watching for the performances (particularly by the Emmy-nominated Latifah and Mo'Nique).  I'd say Bessie is not up to the Empress' standards, but it is a good primer for a fascinating figure in musical history.

1894-1937

5/10


Sunday, April 24, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea: A Review



IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

I have not had the privilege of reading Moby-Dick; however, if In the Heart of the Sea, the film based on the incident that inspired Herman Melville's classic, is accurate, then it must be one of the dullest book ever written.  Few films have gone out of their way to be so lifeless, so dry, so uninteresting, dragging what could and should have been a fascinating story into something that if I had paid to see, I would have walked out.  In the Heart of the Sea I think wants to be epic, but it gets in its own way.

The main story involves the 'conflict' on the Essex, a whaling ship.  The antagonists are the haughty but inexperienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and the first mate, Owen Chase (Thor...I mean, Chris Hemsworth).  Chase is already angry because despite the promise of the whaling company, he was not made Captain.  Adding fire to his wrath is that Pollard was chosen due to his family connections than for his sailing skills.

Into the sea they sail, searching for whales for which to help light the world.  There are storms, and there is also a large whale that seems to have a personal grudge against the Essex.  Thanks to said whale, the Essex is obliterated, forcing the surviving crew to board lifeboats and sail on...and on...and on...and on...and on...and on...and on...eventually making land.  Chase sees that others have landed on the island and died there, so back onto the water where they sail on...and on...and on...and on...and on...and on...and are forced to do unspeakable things to survive.  Eventually, after another encounter with the whale, the few survivors manage to return to Nantucket.

All this is told to a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by 'the last living survivor' of the Essex, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Glesson), in flashbacks, where Tom Holland played the young cabin boy.

Maybe there was pressure, internal or external, on director Ron Howard to make 'an Oscar picture', something GRAND and IMPOSING.  What he ended up was something shockingly boring.  I mean B-O-R-I-N-G!  Many times during In the Heart of the Sea I felt almost goaded into falling asleep.  I don't think I've been as bored in a film.

I think the biggest problem is the Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (adapting the Nathaniel Philbrick nonfiction book, with the story by Leavitt, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) never gave the audience anyone or anything to care about.  There is a dryness In the Heart of the Sea that makes it a slog to get through.  The dialogue in the film sounded too much like dialogue and not like real things real people would say to each other.

Howard gave us a tease about what is suppose to be this epic struggle between Pollard and Chase, but apart from a few moments (particularly a scene that takes place in a squall) there isn't much of a real battle of titans.  Instead, Walker and Hemsworth don't appear to even be in the same movie, both actors failing to connect to either their characters or each other in conveying real antagonism.

Oddly, Walker was more believable as a vampire-slaying Abraham Lincoln than he was as an uppity captain.  We get exactly ONE scene where we are suppose to get that Pollard should/would look down on the working-class Chase, and those were the 'words of wisdom' from his father.  This briefest of moments make Pollard come across as both weak and stupid, not snobbish or haughty.  His determination to sail into the squall doesn't look like anything: either a sign of Pollard's foolishness or naïvete.  Instead, it just comes across as something he has to get across.

As for Hemsworth, with his still-strong Australian accent and gruff voice coming through, I am not convinced that he is a.) an actor or b.) a star.  His Chase was no better: all stiff and dull.  Hemsworth made Chase into a figure who was there, not someone the crew could really rally around.

I think a lot of In The Heart of the Sea's issues stem from a curious detachment from everything.  The squall sequence for example, should be exciting and tense, but it comes across as remote, dull.  Same for the endless days the Essex crew were bobbing up and down the ocean.  We learn it was 34 days before they saw land, and by goodness was Howard determined to make us feel all 34 days.

Having the flashbacks interrupted with the Melville/Nickerson story did not help.  We were taken out of an already dull story to see an equally dull story.  It's a disaster when you have two boring stories battling it out for our attention.

It is hard to judge other performances given how either brief they were or how we never got a central character.  Ostensibly Nickerson's story, for long stretches neither Holland or Gleeson had much role in the film.  For the life of me I don't know who or what Cillian Murphy was suppose to be (I might have been asleep at that point).

There just is something rote, empty, hollow about In the Heart of the Sea.  Action that has none, weak performances (sorry, Thor...stick to swinging the hammer), and a story that sails into oblivion, this film sinks. 

There is something sad about watching a film where one writes in the notes, in caps, PLEASE COME TO AN END!

DECISION: F

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice Review



BATMAN V. SUPERMAN:
DAWN OF JUSTICE

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a near-disaster, an overlong, sometimes nonsensical film with some bad, downright cringe-inducing performances and an unwieldy story where plot points, down to whole sequences, come and go without rhyme or reason.

As such, the applause for it at the end demonstrate that a lot of audiences simply don't care, so long as they get big moments of wanton destruction that require little to no thinking on their part (akin to a Donald Trump rally).   Batman v. Superman is a film that, at least to its credit, didn't play out as one long trailer for the Justice League films we will be plagued with in the near future.  It also managed, despite itself, to give Wonder Woman a good debut for her upcoming film.  However, the few good things in this monstrosity cannot overcome the bad.

It's been 18 months after the events of Man of Steel.  Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) witnessed the destruction of Metropolis at the hands of Superman (Henry Cavill) when said Man of Steel fought General Zod (Michael Shannon) in their extremely September 11th-type war.

Should I even wonder why Wayne Enterprises apparently is headquartered in Metropolis rather than Gotham?

Anyway, Wayne, still traumatized by the murder of his parents all those years ago, sees Superman as a dangerous vigilante figure, accountable to no one.  I figure Wayne thinks the only unaccountable vigilante in the Gotham/Metropolis metroplex (since the two cities are the San Francisco/Oakland version of Comic Book World, being a mere bay away from each other) is him.  Batman is a real lawman-outside-the-law, literally branding those he captures (here again, I wonder if perhaps having a bat branded on one's skin would make said criminal MORE popular with the inmates, rather than less.  It's not like The Caped Crusader goes after pedophiles like Jared from the Subway commercials).  Anyway, despite the warnings from Bruce's manservant Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are determined to bring this Kryptonian down.

For his part, Superman's alter ego Clark Kent has shacked up with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who knows his dual identity.  Good thing too, as Lois appears to be in constant need of rescue, starting from when she is used as bait to get at an Islamic terrorist mastermind.  Superman can sense she is in danger (Spidey-sense?)...but he cannot hear or see or sense bombs (more on that later).  What, does Lois have some sort of 'Danger Sensor' that rings for Supe's ears alone?

For his part, Clark/Superman thinks Batman is a danger to the law.  He wants to write Daily Planet articles on The Dark Knight (again, because the Gotham Gazette cannot be bothered to cover this crime-fighter who dresses like an exile from Die Fledermaus facing off against super-criminals who look like clowns or wear green question marks or waddle).  His editor, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) insists Kent cover sports, but Clark essentially ignores him and goes on his anti-Batman campaign.

Into this enters tech billionaire Alexander 'Lex' Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).  He is after some kryptonite, which is part of some scheme to use General Zod's corpse to make what he dubs a 'defense mechanism' against Superman and/or any other Kryptonian who stumbles onto Earth (watch out, Supergirl).  Standing in his way is the Democratic junior Senator from Kentucky, June Finch (Holly Hunter).

I just realized...Batman v. Superman has three Oscar winners and three Oscar nominees: Hunter, Irons, and Affleck, then Adams, Fishburne, and sadly, Eisenberg.

Finch detests Luthor and won't grant him import permits for the kryptonite...even if his piss were called Grandma's Lemonade. 

When Wayne and Kent meet at Luthor's benefit for the Metropolis Library (a most peculiar moment since, despite the two cities' proximity and Wayne's reputation as a millionaire playboy, Kent has no idea what Bruce Wayne looks like), Wayne encounters a mysterious woman with an agenda of her own.  She is Diana Prince (Gad Gadot), who manages to outwit Wayne to get what she wants (even though what she is really after she as yet cannot get at).  For that, she needs Wayne, and Wayne makes surprising discoveries.

Not only is there an old photo of this mysterious woman, but there are brief video clips of 'metahumans' that Luthor has been tracking.  There is one of a kid who can move at super-speed (Ezra Miller), one that is almost merman-like (Jason Momoa) and one that looks like he was part man, part machine (David Fisher).  Curiously, these little clips are in files that feature a "Flash"-like lightning bolt for the first, an "Aquaman"-type for the second, and a C-type for a "Cyborg"-style for the third.  Oh, and did I mention a Double W for a Wonder Woman?


As part of Luthor's mad scheme, he blows up the Senate conference room where Superman finally shows up to answer questions (because the Senate cannot be bothered to serve subpoenas), thus ridding himself of that pesky Democratic junior Senator from Kentucky.  As the hall is blown up, Superman a.) could not see, hear, or sense the bomb, and b.) essentially looks around with a blank expression as he is surrounded by flames and corpses.

The fact that Luthor was to have gone in (down to having a seat reserved) but opted not to at the last minute I'm sure won't draw any attention.

From here, Batman and Superman get into an epic battle thanks to Luthor, who kidnaps Martha Kent (Diane Lane) because he knows she is Superman's adoptive mother, and to save her Superman has to kill Batman.  Superman, who knows Batman is Bruce duel it out, but Batman has a surprise for the Last Son of Krypton: he has kryptonite.  The battle comes close to having Batman kill Superman when Superman calls out "Martha".  Superman is calling for his adoptive mother, but as it so happens, "Martha" is also Bruce Wayne's mother's name.  This puzzles and stuns Batman (the fact that Superman called him "Bruce" drawing no surprise).  Lois, who earlier had been thrown off the Luthor Building by Lex, is there to explain things, but there are bigger problems.

Luthor has managed to create his super-man, and it turns from the corpse of General Zod to Doomsday.  Now, while Superman rescues Martha, Batman fights Doomsday, then jumps in...WONDER WOMAN (who got off an airplane to get there...though whether she used her invisible plane we know not).  Superman later joins in, and both he and Lois know that the only way to defeat Doomsday is to use the kryptonite lance Batman had earlier, a lance Lois conveniently tossed into a pool.  She has to get it, but gets stuck, so Superman has to get out of the battle to save her (this I think makes the third time he rescued our intrepid girl reporter).  Using the lance, Superman kills Doomsday but not before Doomsday fatally injures the Man of Steel.

SUPERMAN DEAD!

As Metropolis mourns, Diana and Bruce go to the funeral of Clark Kent (who was 'killed in the chaos') rather than the state funeral for Superman.  Bruce now is going to find the other 'metahumans' to join forces, and we end with Lex, now in prison and with a bald head, and the earth slowly rumbling at Clark Kent's burial plot (bringing back horrifying flashbacks to the end of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). 


Well, with Batman v. Superman, we get the answer to the question, "Can you make a sequel to a bad film that is even worse than the original and botch the set-up for more sequels?"   One watches Batman v. Superman not so much in confusion (though there is plenty of that) but more in frustration, wondering why allegedly smart people cannot figure out how to make something worth our time.

I'm going to start with the aspect that bothered me the most: Jimmy Olsen.  He is my favorite character, and from what I'm told, he WAS in the movie.  However, from what I'm also told, he was there in the first few minutes as the CIA agent that accompanied Lois Lane, Dupe Deluxe. 

OK...I knew things were going wrong when I saw that the photographer (whoever he was) was using FILM for his pictures.  Who uses film for still pictures now?  I think even the most basic photog uses digital, but no, Batman v. Superman opts to have this photog use film.  I don't remember him being called "Jimmy Olsen", or him being relevant to the plot.  However, when I saw the terrorist removing a roll of film, I thought...this guy ain't no photographer (not even a cub reporter).

Yes, the fact that from all appearances Jimmy Olsen just popped in (and wasn't his usual self) is in itself bothersome, but I think also indicates how wildly Batman v. Superman miscalculates its desire to be something else, something unique.  James Olsen in Supergirl is already hit-and-miss, but if this is the DC Expanded Universe take on the character, I can see why almost all the others went so wrong.

Screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio apparently decided the best way to introduce characters from said Expanded Universe was to have little bits playing on a laptop, where The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg are shown for no discernable reason.  There's no reason to be there apart from letting us know they are IN this universe.  However, I couldn't help think, there MUST have been a better, smarter, more rational way to integrate them into this universe.

Couldn't Bruce Wayne have given a talk where Barry Allen would ask a question?  Could not Wayne Enterprises be informed of Dr. Stone's work?  When the White Portuguese sailed, couldn't a strange figure be following it underwater?

What a ham-fisted way to integrate these characters, and worse, not only could have cut them out entirely, but how dumb does DC think its audience is by having their emblems pop up on their video clips? 

Speaking of things that could have been cut out, what was it with those dream sequences?  Of particular note was the one where Batman apparently fights Moth-Men who work for Superman.  The film seems so determined to be 'epic' it forgets time to time to be 'rational'.  The heavy-handed symbolism works against the film, making it much more ponderous and overly-serious than it should be.

There are so many things within Batman v. Superman which don't make any sense.  Why is Luthor so interested in all these meta-humans?  How does Luthor find out what Superman's identity is?  How does Superman find out what Batman's identity is?  How was it that Clark Kent, ace reporter, didn't know who Bruce Wayne was?  Why didn't Perry White fire Clark for insubordination?  Where was Superman's Fortress of Solitude?  Why does he apparently go to the Himalayas to consult his dead father (Kevin Costner)? What was the point of that entire sequence?  What was Luthor's ultimate plan?  Why was Diana Prince so worried about a picture that looked like it came from Wikipedia?  Why, despite Bruce Wayne's master skills at detection, could he not figure out the White Portuguese wasn't a person but a ship? 

What, Wayne Enterprises has no way to get Google?

For me, the biggest bizarre aspect of Batman v. Superman was the Holly Hunter character?  Since when would a JUNIOR Senator head up a Senate committee?  Moreover, since when would KENTUCKY elect a DEMOCRAT?  Why not just make Senator Finch the Republican from Washington State...it be just as rational.

For some reason, this leads me to that pesky 'acting' business.  Let's get this clear: Henry Cavill is a breathtakingly beautiful-looking man.  When he stands still and poses (which he does a lot in this film), he seems ideal to the role of Superman.  When he is modeling, he is perfect.  It's only when he's required to speak or actually act that Cavill gets into trouble. 

Henry Cavill cannot act.  With the possible exception of The Tudors, I don't think Cavill has given anything close to what can be called actual acting.  Pia Zadora in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians had more range than Cavill in Batman v. Superman.

I think that even director Zack Snyder was aware that Cavill was beyond limited.  Despite his character being part of the title, there are very few scenes where Superman or Clark had dialogue.  A lot of Cavill's scenes are of him posing or staring at things (if anything, Superman has a penchant for landing).  I think there was a conscious decision to limit Cavill speaking unless it was absolutely necessary, but whenever he did, it was if not sad at least disheartening.

Of particular note is when he survives the assassination of I figure more than three Senators.  There is the Senate committee chamber, up in flames, dead bodies all around, and Superman just stares about him with no hint of emotion.  I was absolutely stunned that even a model as bad in acting as Henry Cavill couldn't bother to get any emotion going.



Somehow, despite himself, Henry Cavill is not the worst performance in Batman v. Superman.  That dishonor goes to Jesse Eisenberg.  In many ways, Cavill and Eisenberg are similar (though obviously, Cavill is gorgeous and Eisenberg isn't).  While Cavill has become an 'actor' thanks exclusively to his looks, Eisenberg has become an 'actor' by doing the same nerdy, rapid-fire delivery, tick-laded shtick over and over again.  There were times when Eisenberg was cringe-inducing as Luthor, less evil genius and more annoying nutter.  When he 'brings together' Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, I literally covered my eyes at how bad he was. It's as if he were told Lex Luthor is just Mark Zuckerberg as a crazy, incoherent buffoon with delusions of grandeur who has some hare-brained scheme that might not make sense even to him.

While Cavill can be generously called a master of subtlety (if by subtlety, you mean expression no emotion), Eisenberg is the master of wild histrionics, devouring the scenery to a degree not even Faye Dunaway in full Mommie Dearest kabuki mode would dare go.   

To my surprise, Ben Affleck is actually not bad in the film (especially since he's slightly above Cavill in terms of acting ability).  His Bruce Wayne didn't have much personality, as he was basically a crabby old man, one who had no personality and has no problem being brutal to suspects.  Still, given it's Ben Affleck...

The best performance was Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman.  Again, she didn't have much to work with, but her scenes showed a strong female who in the climatic battle fought furiously, like a  true Amazon,  Gadot has silenced her critics (myself included), and makes one anticipate for the upcoming Wonder Woman film.  My only concern was in what kind of story would involve her.

That isn't as bad as how I wonder how Clark Kent will explain his miraculous resurrection once Superman reemerges.

That I think is perhaps why, for me, Batman v. Superman is a failure.  I felt no emotion when Superman met his 'end' against Doomsday (a monster that just popped out because he needed to), especially since I know he will return.

Finally, I detest films that so nakedly evoke September 11th.  This one went so over-the-top that it went over-the-line for me. 

Muddled, dull, overblown, overlong, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a film that will be forgotten, a launching pad for a slug of other DC Extended Universe films, mini-trailers for other films. 

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, is like the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination campaign.  We, the common folk, can see them going over a cliff.  Those in charge, however, despite themselves, cannot find a way to stop the inevitable disaster from coming to fruition.

Oh, Martha...



DECISION: D-

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bates Motel: Lights of Winter Review



BATES MOTEL: LIGHTS OF WINTER

You've got strippers, lesbianism (in a roundabout way), and perhaps people crazier than Norma and Norman Bates.  Lights of Winter gives us just enough hope that maybe, just maybe, these two crazy people will make it...only to show us that they are condemned to be lost in more ways than one.  Where will our Crazy Train take us?  One thing's for sure: it's going to take a lot more people down.

While Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) is stuck in Pineview, his new 'friend' Julian (Marshall Allman) tells him he can help him out.  First bit of help is to get Norman an unauthorized phone call to his brother Dylan (Max Thieriot), who wants to help but who also thinks Pineview is probably the best place for Norman.  The second way Julian helps Norman is by helping him break out of Pineview, where Julian takes our dear little one to The Landing Strip, a strip bar.

There, Julian goes off to a private room, and Norman is enticed to go to another one.  There are no rules, no names, nothing forbidden in this den of iniquity, and soon we get a real bizarre situation where Norman begins to refer to himself in the third person and soon starts imagining it's not him, but his mother Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) who is enjoying the pleasures of the flesh with the stripper.  Unfortunately, the good times end when Julian gets into a fight with bouncers.  Julian thinks he's getting shaken down, and the resulting fracas causes the police to be called...which in turns brings in Dr. Gregg Edwards (Damon Gupton).  He tells Norman that Julian has broken out many times as a way of seeking attention that he so craves, and Norman tearfully admits that perhaps there is something wrong with him.

While his mother is probably concerned, she is also letting her hair and guard down with her new husband, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).  They soon start enjoying the pleasures of the flesh with each other (and still frustrating Normero fans by not giving us a proper love scene between these two beautiful people).  Norma finds herself...happy for a change, which can only mean there's disaster coming her way.  That impending disaster will probably come in the form of Rebecca (Jamie Ray Newman), the bank official/money laundress/Romero's ex-mistress, who is not happy about this new relationship.

Seriously, is EVERYONE in White Pine Bay involved in shady business?  IT makes Twin Peaks, Washington look like Mayberry R.F.D.

Rebecca also wants the money Bob Paris has in his safe deposit box, but the key has disappeared along with Bob.  Or has it?

Finally, Dylemma goes on, with Emma (Olivia Cooke) now getting her lungs working, Dylan wonders where to go: with her or with the Bateses.

Decisions, decisions.

Some people, I figure, are not meant to be happy.  Norma Bates and her namesake are two such people.  It looks like Norma has finally found a bit of peace with a man who despite his reason has fallen for her, a hope for the future, and her sons far away where they should be.

Despite this, we know that she will not be happy because deep down, she is too clingy and too pushy for her own good.  Unwilling to trust others, sooner or later she will go back to her old ways and make a mess of things.

Still, in Lights of Winter, when she is with Romero at the festival, her lighted umbrella in hand, dancing with her new husband, she has a little bit of joy, unaware of the burden Romero carries and of the dangerous woman coming at her.

Highmore continues to do what I thought wasn't possible: take attention away from Farmiga's brilliant performance.  Farmiga continues to be brilliant (her scene when she visits Emma shows a genuine kindness to our much-tortured woman), but Highmore brings that growing sense of danger mixed with haughtiness and smugness to Norman.

Highmore in Lights of Winter makes him mostly arrogant, condescending, mean, a bit full of himself.  His manner over the phone with Dylan shows a man who still cannot imagine he is even remotely responsible for anything that has happened to him.

It's only at the end, with Dr. Edwards, that Highmore gives us a more vulnerable, weak, even frightened Norman, one who might be understanding that there is something wrong, but maybe not with Mother.

As I've said, Farmiga is just a delight to watch as Norma: the joy, almost innocence she has about life mixed with a fear and regret about not being able to help her son (or perhaps understanding that it is too late to help him when she could have done a long time ago).  She is a master (or is it mistress) of great acting.  When has she given a bad performance on Bates Motel

The unfortunate thing about Lights of Winter is that I fear Emma Decody is being written off the show.  She talks about moving (to where Dylan might move with her) and there aren't signs that she is coming back to White Pine Bay (except perhaps for visits).  If that's the case, it would be a great loss to see her go.  As it is, she could have been completely written out of all four Season Four episodes and it wouldn't have impacted things much.

It's odd that her mother's murder at the hands of Norman (in the guise of Norma) might be the only thing keeping Emma on the show.

I won't even go into how Dylan, always one of Bates Motel's more hit-and-miss characters, is getting lost in the shuffle.  Could Bates Motel really write both of them out by season's end? 

THE HUMANITY!

It would be worse of Dylan was the entry to bringing back Chick (a character and storyline I absolutely detested).

Guest star Allman was good as the man-child Julian, leading Norman astray (although, given Norman's already had sex with at least two women, there is no logic to the idea that he at a strip bar would be something of an innocent).  It's almost hilarious when Julian and Norman get caught (putting Norman in a boa-vest doesn't make things more rational).

Acting-wise, story-wise, Lights of Winter continues Bates Motel's solid record.  In a lot of other ways thought, I keep wondering...about Emma, Dylan, Dylemma, and whether anyone on Bates Motel will get some kind of happiness.    

8/10

Next Episode: Refraction

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Gotham: Mad Grey Dawn Review



GOTHAM: MAD GREY DAWN

What happens when good men go bad and bad men go good? Mad Grey Dawn gives us two stories involving our villains.  The first is on how the future Riddler will rise, beginning his evolution to super-villain.  The second is on how the current Penguin is working to be a sweet, kind man.  The fact that we get two real great performances out of them (and out of others in the cast) pushes Mad Grey Dawn to being a nearly brilliant Gotham episode. 

If only it weren't for Detective Jim Gordon...

Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) is truly attempting to be the sweet man Dr. Hugo Strange has programmed him to be and that his late mother has wanted him to be.  If it means crashing his former home, now run by Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell) and his...mistress, Tabitha (Jessica Lucas) with a peace offering of cupcakes, so be it.  Tabitha wants to kill Penguin right away, but Butch sees Oswald is too far gone to be any harm.  That doesn't mean there can't be a little torture a la tarring and feathering (I guess Pengy got off light in the great scheme of things).

Anyway, Oswald goes to his mother's grave for the first time, and his private time is interrupted by Elijah Van Dahl (Paul Reubens).  He too has come to mourn Gertrude Kapelput, and when he meets Oswald Cobblepot Elijah looks a bit puzzled by the similarity in their names (Oswald having Anglicized her Germanic surname).  Learning Oswald is 31 years old (FYI, RLT is 37 in real life), Elijah puts two and two together and makes a shocking announcement: he is Oswald's father.  Gertrude and Elijah had an affair when both were very young, and while the scion of a wealthy family loved the family cook, the Van Dahl family ordered them to separate.  Elijah never learned about Oswald.  Now, Oswald has found a home, a father, and even a new family...a stepmother, Grace (Melinda Clarke) and stepsiblings.

Things are looking up for Ozzie at last.

Pity the same can't be said for either Detective Gordon (Ben McKenzie) or Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith).  Nygma is growing more and more paranoid that Gordon will come close to finding the truth about Kristen Kringle (that she's dead and Nygma killed her).  With that, Nygma comes up with a rather elaborate crime spree involving riddles, but there is a greater plan in store.

Nygma, slowly and methodically, is putting together a puzzle that will lead Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) to a right and wrong conclusion: that Gordon killed former Mayor Theo Galavan and now is starting to kill those who are leaving 'anonymous' tips.  The first step in Nygma's master plan is to steal a minor painting from the Gotham Museum of Art, Mad Grey Dawn, leaving a question mark as a signature.  Gordon is able to put the various pieces together that lead to a bomb at the train station, but even this is still part of a larger plan to frame Gordon for a crime he didn't commit (to bring attention to the one he did commit).

Barnes, finding Gordon over the body of the detective who allegedly was the anonymous source, arrests Gordon (again; seriously, how often will the future Commissioner end up in the slammer himself).  After a four-week trial, Gordon is found guilty of the murder of Officer Pickney (can't remember if he was found guilty of murdering Galavan too) and sent to Blackgate Penitentiary.

Watching this is Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who has taken young Master Bruce under her claw to show him how to live on the street.  If it means taking on Butch's nephew Sonny (Paul Pilcz) so be it.  Getting beat up by Sonny appears to enliven Bruce, especially when Sonny unwitting brings up Bruce's parents.  Looks like he could use some of the mushrooms little Ivy Pepper (Clare Foley) is growing for Sonny.

I may pick on Jim Gordon, but that is only because I hate the idea that this trial went by in a blink-and-you-miss it manner.  It just seemed like maybe the trial could have gone on for at least an episode (wouldn't it have been great to have a surprise witness appear, or is that just me).

Perhaps my one caveat about Mad Grey Dawn came from Gordon.  He was obviously highly intelligent (he must be to have not only put Nygma's clues together but had enough French to realize that's where the clues were leading).  He was brighter than his partner Bullock (Donal Logue), so Nygma at least knows his man.


Still, with two stories going on (Penguin's road to redemption and Bruce's road to the Batcave), and with Nygma's machinations going on, part of me wondered if Gordon, forever growling (to where he would order his great love Dr. Thompkins to not contact him as he goes up the river), was going to get lost a bit.  He wasn't, as the cat-and-Riddler play between Nygma and Gordon was fascinating to watch, but still, I cannot muster great enthusiasm for Gordon.

I think that also comes from the fact that we had such great performances from everyone, regular and guest cast.  For those of you not in the know, this is the second time Paul Reubens has played the Penguin's father.  In Batman Returns, Reubens had a cameo as the deformed Oswald Cobblepot's father.  While in Batman Returns, Reubens had nothing to do but strike poses, here he plays the regretful man who now seems to have found a son he never knew.  The realization that he's Oswald's father doesn't come across as forced but as natural, and Reubens is eerily good as Van Dahl.  Reubens makes him just eccentric enough without making him full-on crazy in the way someone like Oswald's parents would be.

Let's face it: as much as I loved Gertrude, she was a bit oddball.

I also highly salute CMS as Nygma, who makes the future Riddler almost a tragic figure, brilliant in his mastery of the elaborate plan, but also one who has finally given in to that darkness that was lurking underneath his bumbling exterior. 

Another highlight is Chiklis as the upright Captain Barnes.  As he and McKenzie face off in the interrogation, you can see two great performances.

Finally, what can I say about my beloved Robin Lord Taylor? Here's what I can say...

GIVE ROBIN LORD TAYLOR THE OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A DRAMA EMMY FOR GOTHAM!!!!

How many exclamation points do I need to emphasize reality?

His entire performance, from the sweetness, almost total innocence of his encounters with Gilzean/Tabitha and Nygma, the joy at his new-found family, and the pain of his visit to Gertrude Kapelput's grave...THESE are what we call 'masterpieces of acting'.

RLT is just so brilliant on Gotham, that it makes me think if he were on any other show he'd be a virtual shoe-in for a nomination.  I simply don't understand why he isn't a frontrunner.  It can't be because it's a comic book-based show (the highly praised The Walking Dead is from a graphic novel).  Therefore, what it is? 

Robin, send Mad Grey Dawn to the Emmy people.

Even thought they weren't a big part of the episode, Mazouz and Bicondova were also great as we see the evolution to Batman come closer to fruition.  Not sure about the nephew bit, and being Sonny to boot.

Still, even with that and with the rapid nature of the Gordon trial, Mad Grey Dawn is one more Gotham episode in a series that is doing so well. 

Here's hoping The Riddler and The Penguin grow to the villains we all know and love.   

Riddle Me This...

9/10

Next Episode: Prisoners