Thursday, February 4, 2016

Supergirl: Stronger Together Review


SUPERGIRL: STRONGER TOGETHER

Returning to the world of National City, we see that Stronger Together, Episode 2 of the debut season of Supergirl, has moved in a, yes, stronger direction.  Having gotten the introductions out of the way, we can start developing the characters (and even throwing in a few surprises our way).  Stronger Together does at times play like a repeat of the Pilot in terms of story, but that I figure is merely growing pains.

Supergirl aka Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is still struggling to find her place in a world dominated by the legend of her younger cousin.  She has the heart to be a superhero, but while she's got the skills she still can't quite get the handle on the experience.  An effort to stop a fire from reaching an oil tanker proves successful, but in her efforts to pull the ship away from the fire (her efforts at blowing it out having failed), her strength pulls the ship apart...causing a major oil spill. This unfortunate incident draws the ire of National City magnet Maxwell Lord (guest star Peter Facinelli).  This dual disaster also irritates CatCo head Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), who is both irritated and fascinated by Supergirl.  Cat, who started out as Perry White's assistant and clawed her way to her own empire, finds in Supergirl both a mirror image and a dumb girl mucking it for women everywhere (especially in the shadow of her more famous rival, Superman). 

Cat isn't above using James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) to use his connections to land an interview with Supergirl, which he is reluctant to do.  Kara doesn't want to do it either.  Instead, she, James, and her friend-zone coworker Winn (Jeremy Jordan) decide she will go small-scale, to build up her rep and confidence.  This seems to have the desired effect: more positive press and rebuilding her reputation after the oil spill debacle.  However, Kara's sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and Department of Extra-Normal Operations Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) aren't keen on this either.  Alex, in a Kryptonite-filled room, shows Kara that sheer strength isn't enough.  Whether Kara listens is another matter.

 
Despite her best intentions, there is still evil at work.  Kara's Aunt Astra (Laura Benati) is plotting against her niece for world domination.  To help in this, we get a Hellgramite, one of the aliens who escaped from the Phantom Zone prison where Astra was locked up too, by her own sister Alura (Benati in a dual role).  To try and draw the Hellgramite out, a trap is laid but in that Alex is captured.  Kara is stunned to find her Aunt alive and determined to kill her, but using Alex's words of wisdom, she realizes that one is 'stronger together' (which we learn is the El-Mara Family motto).

Astra is temporarily disabled, and Alex brings Kara to her own mini-Fortress of Solitude, where she has an emotional encounter with the hologram of her mother.  She also agrees to grant Grant that interview she wants (especially when she learns that James' job is threatened). 

We also learn that Dr. Henshaw has some secrets of his own (the red glowing eyes being a clue).

Friend?  Foe?  We shall see (even though I already know, it will be fun to see how they get there).

Stronger Together works primarily because the cast does so well, particularly Benoist as Kara/Supergirl.  We see in her performance the eagerness to do good with her lack of experience clearly coming through.  I think the audience can identify with Supergirl in that youthful mix of enthusiasm with clumsiness.  Benoist does not make Supergirl either a peppy girl jumping into things without thinking or someone just trying to prove herself.  Instead, she makes Supergirl into someone who wants to contribute to the world with the gifts she has, but who does come to understand that she still has a lot to learn.

After just two episodes, I think Benoist is simply the best choice for Supergirl, and if I had a daughter, I'd be thrilled to have her look to Supergirl as a role model.  Supergirl makes mistakes, sometimes doesn't take advise, but she also learns from her mistakes and is aware that she is stronger with a team around her.

Leigh holds her own as the older and wiser sister, who has a mix of wisdom and envy regarding Kara.  She has worked hard to get where she's at and truly loves her little sister, but a little part of her does have issues with the fact that Kara will best her in other ways.  The mix of sibling love/rivalry elevates Stronger Together.

Even Flockhart's "Devil Wears Prada"-type Cat now if nothing else has a bit of a motivation beyond being a stone-faced tyrant.  Learning that she started out as the assistant to Metropolis Daily Planet's editor Perry White gives a different dimension to her hostility.  Cat Grant is a woman who sees herself having fought hard to get where she's at, and Supergirl is, for her, a female Superman, who like Grant has to prove herself and not make all womankind look foolish or weak.  I find this a most fascinating track to take with Grant: instead of being monstrous just for being monstrous, Cat is in her own way a very fearful person, afraid of being dismissed due to her gender. As such, Supergirl to her holds both the promise and potential failure of feminism and true gender equality.

Flockhart also gets points for the following line: "Drunk at 9 a.m.  That's the last time I have breakfast with Ruth Bader Ginsberg".  That would explain some of Justice Ginsberg's rulings.



One thing I do wonder about is the odd relationships between Kara and Winn/James.  Despite everyone's best efforts, Winn isn't coming across as just Kara's perpetually frustrated friend with no benefits, he's coming across as her perpetually platonic gay friend.  Winn at one point brags to James, "I've got mad sewing skills," which makes James look twice at his potential rival.  Apart from Rosie Grier, I can't think of ANY man who openly brags about his 'sewing skills'.  The fact that Kara appears completely oblivious to Winn's clearly besotted nature and James' reaction to Winn's 'sewing skills' comments doesn't help matters.   I hope the love triangle business is hopefully dispensed soon, because it's not flying. 

Right now I'm on the fence regarding the more manly James.  I like my Jimmy Olsen to be a bit more insecure versus the strapping version we get here. 

I like that there is a mystery being built up regarding Harewood, and that while in a small role, Facinelli I figure is going to be more prominent.  One excellent quality in Stronger Together is how the fights are both really well-done and not afraid to show Supergirl get beat up.  Nothing too grisly, but seeing her take one on the chin is a sign the show is not afraid to tackle the violence a female superhero would face.

If it weren't for the somewhat repetitive nature of the episode (Supergirl has to fight another alien working with her evil aunt), the episode might have ranked higher.  However, thanks to great work by Benoist in particular and some wonderful moments of humor in the middle of the action, Stronger Together is another winner for this debut season.     


MAD SEWING SKILLS
   

8/10

Next Episode: Fight or Flight

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Room: A Review



ROOM

The subject matter of Room appears to make it either a more unhinged Lifetime movie or a rather uncomfortable feature to watch.   However, thanks to some remarkable filmmakers behind and in front of the camera, Room becomes a sublime film: moving, heartbreaking, realistic, and ultimately uplifting.  The fact that the filmmakers could take what could have been a rather distasteful subject and not give in to sensationalism is one of Room's many achievements, along with the sheer quality of the acting and its ability to be quite loving and compassionate towards the characters and audience.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has lived his whole 5 years in a world he calls "Room".  The very small area has the bare essentials of life and one luxury: TV, where he sees a world that he thinks is pure fiction.  All this is to protect Jack from a very harsh and ugly truth: his mother Joy whom he knows only as Ma (Brie Larson) is being held prisoner in "Room", a sex slave to Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).  Old Nick abducted Joy seven years ago, and I figure you can do the math.

Every time Old Nick comes to rape Joy, Jack has to go into Wardrobe.  He is not aware of the horrors she is living, but knows something isn't quite right.  When Old Nick tells Ma that his recent job loss may mean a cutback to their meager supplies, Joy decides it's time to try and make a second escape (her first pre-Jack one having failed).  She is forced to try and explain reality to Jack, that "Room" isn't the whole of the universe, an idea Jack stubbornly refuses at first. Slowly, he accepts that it might be true, that TV isn't all fake and that the skylight above them is not the only source of light. 

Jack eventually is coached to play dead, with Ma telling him to jump out the first stop Old Nick makes and find the first person to give them a message that Joy Newsome is still alive.  The ruse works, with Joy having wrapped Jack in the carpet and convincing Old Nick not to look at him (Old Nick having been led to believe Jack had been struck down with a violent fever).  Jack does as he's told and Joy is rescued (Old Nick having been unable to convince a passer-by that Jack was his 'daughter' due to Jack's long hair and fleeing).


Once Joy and Jack are rescued, you'd think their troubles are over.  No, they have new troubles (albeit not as horrifying as being raped almost daily and being held prisoner).   While Joy is at first overjoyed to be free and be reunited with her parents, her mother Nancy (Joan Allen) and father Robert (William H. Macy) have a surprise: they've divorced in the ensuing years (her disappearance a factor in that), and Nancy has a new husband, Leo (Tom McManus).  Joy and Jack find the adjustment to 'regular' life extremely hard.  Joy is depressed and resentful, mixed with anxious and emotionally wrecked.  She attempts suicide, with Jack puzzled as to why she left so suddenly.  Jack too is finding the real world a place of confusion, but also a place of sheer wonder (the first time he sees a real dog is a joy).

In an act of sheer courage, Jack tells Nancy he will give Ma his hair (from which, like Samson, he draws his strength) and Joy returns to him, thankful and humbled by his sacrifice, telling him he's saved her again.  Eventually, Jack asks to return to "Room", and he makes his goodbye to it.  He tells Ma to say bye to "Room" too, and as he walks out for the last time into the new and more open world, Joy mouths "Bye, Room", and walks away with him.

Again, Room's subject matter I think could frighten people off.  On a personal note, when I told my mother about the story (very reluctantly, as I figured her reaction would be one of revulsion), she looked rather askance at the whole idea.  No matter how hard I tried to tell her the story was ultimately uplifting and positive, the mere concept of a girl and her son being held hostage, of that same girl being raped repeatedly and a child being born under those circumstances all made her extremely unwilling to see it.  She probably would skip it even in the second-run theaters. 

If people are frightened off by the subject matter, they simply shouldn't.  Nothing in Room is graphic or distasteful.  Director Lenny Abrahamson always ensures that whenever something could be horrifying (such as when Old Nick comes to rape Joy) we only get the impression of things.  It helps that Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own novel) use Jack's perspective to couch the uglier parts (such as him only hearing things and not seeing the extent of Joy's assaults).  Abrahamson also directs the scenes in Room extremely well, making this 10 x 10 foot area seem livable and real in the eyes of a five-year-old.

Abrahamson also manages to make situations tense when needed, whether when it looks like Joy's plans might go awry or when she is giving an interview to raise money and it goes wrong.  Other scenes, like the delight Joy takes in her first shower or in breakfast made for her (even if it hospital food, which for the record I like), are also so well-filmed.


Abrahamson also has to get enormous credit for getting absolutely wonderful performances from his whole cast.  Brie Larson showed in Trainwreck she can handle comedy.  Room shows she can handle drama, and not just handle it, but excel at it.  Larson has to be among our best young American actresses, adept at just about anything (I've yet to see her in a musical).  Larson's Joy/Ma is a quiet young woman, one who does so well under extremely difficult circumstances.  Joy's only motivation is to protect Jack from the horrors of their life, and we see that caring, nurturing love Joy has for her son.  We also see the anger, the hurt, and ultimately the peace that comes to Joy at the end.  It's a performance that both breaks your heart and fills you with hope at the same time.

Equal to Larson is Tremblay as Jack. His performance was also wonderful and excellent as this innocent, forced into a world he thought wasn't real.  In his petulance, his at times annoying manner, Jack was no sweetheart.  Like any five-year-old, he could be trying, difficult, irritating at times.  However, his discovery of the world was traumatic for him in his own way, and at the same time, very exciting.  When he unrolls himself in Old Nick's pickup truck and looks up at the sky for the first time, the mixture of amazement and disbelief is extraordinary.  He sees for the first time with clear eyes what we take for granted: the trees, the streets, the houses that pass by, even the train tracks where Old Nick has to pause at before crossing.  To him, this is the equivalent of going to a new planet, and the film gives us the world through his eyes, making all this more moving.

If you don't get emotional, maybe even a bit teary-eyed, at the scene where Nancy cuts Jack's hair so that he can pass his 'strength' to Ma, you have no soul.

In their smaller roles, Allen, Macy, and McManus all handle their roles as the parents well, each attempting to handle all this in their own way: compassion, difficulty, patience, anger, fear.

One of the great successes with Room is that the film handles all the situations well and realistically.  Part of that comes from the fact that while there is a score by Stephen Rennicks, it is used sparingly.  Many scenes appear almost documentary-like in their straightforwardness.  It would have been disastrous to have drowned moments with music, and fortunately everyone involved took the story seriously, not attempting to portray Joy's return as one big party but as something to navigate through, sometimes making mistakes (Joy forcing Jack to play with the Legos, her attempted suicide) but ultimately working towards making the best of the situations.

Even the fact we had some voice-over (one of the banes of my film-going experience) didn't impede my love for Room, since here it actually works.  If there is maybe ANY criticism I can make on the film, it's that I didn't quite believe the escape as it appeared, that the situation where the passerby Jack found could have happened the way it was shown.  It almost looked like there was a bit of delay in reaction to what exactly was going on, but that really is a minor issue.

By the end of Room, I came close to joining some in the audience in crying for joy and for Joy. I can say that I was extremely moved by the film: in Jack's innocence and Joy's determination to survive, in the fact that both their lives, scarred in their own way by their ordeal, do look like they will have a happy-type ending.  Room is very moving, beautiful, emotional film.  It was handled exceptionally well, with some simply pitch-perfect performances.  Again, don't let the subject matter frighten you off. Room is one of the best films of 2015, a film made for adults in terms of intelligence and compassion: two things we all need.   

DECISION: A-

Monday, February 1, 2016

Bridge of Spies: A Review


BRIDGE OF SPIES

Sometimes, a historical film can be purely an exercise in studying the past.  Other times, someone can use the events of the past to draw parallels to the present, making them more about today than yesterday.  Bridge of Spies is somewhere in the middle of these two types.  The first half is clearly and as open an allegory about the "War on Terror" as it is about the Cold War to where, if the filmmakers were honest, they would have just substituted "jihadist" for "Communist" to make it even more abundantly clear where they stood on issues like due process for terrorists and Gitmo.  The second half, however, plays it more straightforward, as if we got the message out of the way to get into a different story (though still with political overtones).  Part of my coldness towards Bridge of Spies comes from the former, using the Cold War as a thinly-veiled effort to show how the stack is against those who for some reason are seen as a threat to the country based solely on their efforts to exterminate us...a very thinly-veiled effort.  However, once we get the allegory out of the way, Bridge of Spies becomes more conventional and more interesting.

James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), insurance attorney, is given a new assignment: defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a seemingly harmless man who has been arrested for being a Soviet Communist spy.  Donovan doesn't want to gig and is genuinely puzzled as to why he was selected, but being the moral upright Constitution-loving lawyer that he is, mounts a defense for Abel.  No one in 1950s America wants to see this spy defended as he is an evil man who wants to destroy America with THE Bomb, but Donovan, wisest of all men, knows that America is simply better than this, and that all men in the States, even enemy combatants, deserve their day in court and the best defense possible.  Donovan gets hate mail and his home at one time is shot at, nearly killing his daughter (and some of the beat cops aren't thrilled to be protecting the home of the man who champions Abel).  Eventually, despite losing in the first trial, Donovan continues his one-man moral mission, down to taking it to the Supreme Court.  While again he loses, Donovan does get a small victory of sorts when Abel is sentenced to 20 years rather than death, the lawyer suggesting that Abel may serve a purpose in the future.

That future comes in the U2 Incident, when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), American pilot recently recruited by the CIA to photograph Soviet installations, is shot down over Soviet airspace, placed on trial, and sentenced (as well as tortured for information).  Donovan is contacted to be the contact man in backroom negotiations for an exchange: Abel for Powers.  It's off to East Berlin to begin the officially unofficial talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Then enters a new complication.  American economics student Fredric Pryor (Will Rogers) tried to get his East Berlin girlfriend and professor father out of East Berlin but ended up trapped there as the Berlin Wall was being built.  Not just that, but Pryor too is being tortured by the East Germans.  When he arrives in East Berlin, Donovan is told of Pryor's situation, and he wants to get him in the exchange too.  However, the CIA is interested only in Powers, and while he's given permission to try for Pryor, it's made clear the student is not a priority (except for the upright Donovan).

Donovan finds negotiating between the Soviets and the East Germans rather difficult, their petty territorialism irritating him and making things harder.  Waiting in all this is Abel, who might be able to return home.  Eventually, Donovan negotiates a successful exchange to take place on the Glienicke Bridge (hence, Bridge of Spies).  The East Germans throw a fit when they hear Donovan went to the Russians for Pryor and won't turn him over.  Donovan faces stiff opposition from the CIA, livid that Powers' return might be in jeopardy.  Donovan for his turn is irritated by the East German obstruction, and coolly suggests that if Abel is brought to East Berlin only to be returned due to their petty hurt feelings, Abel, who has maintained his silence, might finally talk, and that the Russians might not be pleased by this turnaround.  That is enough to bring Powers AND Pryor to freedom.  In a post-script, we discover that Donovan continues negotiating with the Soviets, of particular note for prisoners in the Bay of Pigs incident.



There is something within me that instantly rebels against being lectured to in a film, even when I agree with the lecturer.  Bridge of Spies struck me as such a lecture, at least for the first half of the film.  All the talk about enemies caught in the United States deserving a fair trial and due process and the open antagonism of the judge and the public against the idea that even spies like Abel should be put on trial rather than summarily executed, in my view, was as open a call to support those accused of terrorist acts today.  The film, to me, used Abel as a symbol for people like the late Osama bin Laden of unhappy memory.  Rather than being merely shot in the raid portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty, I could not shake the belief while watching Bridge of Spies that those involved in the film would rather have had someone like bin Laden had his day in court.

Perhaps it is how Donovan angrily dismisses the CIA's idea that he violate attorney-client privilege to help them against Abel (whom Donovan constantly points out has been nothing more than 'a good soldier' for his side).  Perhaps it is the open hostility of the beat cop who launches into Donovan after his home was shot at by questioning Donovan's desire to defend Abel (to me reminiscent of a New York City cop going after someone defending Khalid Sheik Mohammed).  Perhaps it is Donovan's stirring defense of the idea of protecting all people's rights in the U.S. before the Supreme Court. Perhaps it is the idea that Powers and the CIA were flying the 1950s version of drones over the enemy. However, throughout the first half the idea of allegory, of using the Cold War to draw parallels to today was something I could not shake.

That isn't to say that I oppose/support giving spies/terrorists their day in court.  It is merely the idea that I'm not convinced that such parallels were necessary.  It also to me made me wonder whether a bit too much time was taken up with the Abel case because to me, it looked like we got two movies put together: the Abel case and the Powers/Pryor situation.  Could there have been a better way to put these two together?
         

However, there was a lot to recommend.  Of particular note is Rylance as Abel, who makes Abel into a sympathetic character.  His casual comment "Would it help?" at many situations shows a somewhat detached manner to Abel, but it also made things wryly amusing.   He steals every scene he is, and when he goes across the bridge we get the sense that he won't get rewarded for being loyal to the State.

As a side note, the scene when Donovan meets Abel's 'family' is amusing and made me wonder whether they were in fact related to Abel. 

Hanks is his solid self as the typical All-American figure he does so well, the upright citizen who sees things through.  I can't fault him for being good at his job, and bringing a touch of humor too (such as when he makes a call to his wife pretending he is 'fishing' in London). 

One thing I didn't care for was Thomas Newman's score (having taken over for an ill John Williams, Steven Spielberg's usual collaborator).  I'm not fond of hearing what is suppose to be 'stirring' music at 'stirring' scenes, punctuating things too much.

Oh yes, Spielberg.  The man's a craftsman, and Bridge of Spies is on the whole pretty straightforward in terms of how the film moves.

For myself, I can admire, like, and respect Bridge of Spies, but I can't go crazy for it.  Again, part of it is the somewhat heavy-handed nature of the symbolism (intentional or not), and part of it was the idea that it was a mix of two films.  Still, it was well-made, well-acted (particularly by Rylance) and an interesting tour of Cold War real politick

I saw parallels between then and now, and whether others do or not I cannot say.  For me, they were there.  For others, perhaps not.  Again, whether they were intentional or not I cannot say.  I can say Bridge of Spies is worth crossing.     

DECISION: B-

Sunday, January 31, 2016

My Sweet Laird: Braveheart Review


BRAVEHEART (1995)

I know nothing of Scottish history, and Braveheart will in no way enlighten anyone on the subject.  Braveheart is built around a historical figure (Sir William Wallace) but in most other respects it's a far cry from an actual biopic.  My thinking though, is that it isn't meant to be a strict biography of the Scotsman who fought to keep Scotland out of a unified British kingdom.  Rather, it's about a more universal struggle for freedom, with Wallace as a symbol of that struggle to maintain a people's unique identity over tyrannical conquerors. 

Braveheart has now a major disadvantage: it was the epic vision of Mel Gibson, who has proven himself to be, eh, a little oddball, in the ensuing twenty years.  Long before his "sugar tits" drunken tirades, long before he expressed in unhinged, hyperventilating terms his desire to strangle his mistress/baby mama, and long before he declared Jews responsible for all the wars of the world (I presume, including the one chronicled in Braveheart), Gibson was a respected actor and director, a little manic but harmless.   Now, he is forever tainted by his own darkness, the charming goofball turned anti-Semitic nut, one likely to go postal at the mention of Anne Frank.  Is it fair to praise the greatness of a man's work while condemning the man himself for his vile acts (in the same way we can laud The Cosby Show while being appalled at the accusations against Bill Cosby)?  I think yes, but as well-shaped as Braveheart is, the film itself reveals other aspects of Gibson's worldview that are disturbing: his love for gratuitous violence and his barely hidden homophobia bubbling up in a film that celebrates the notions of freedom from tyranny. 

What to make of it now, when the film stands in the shadow of its creator's own disarray?

Young William Wallace grows up a Highlander of modest means despite his family's reputation and respect among his community.  The Wallaces want to live in peace and freedom, but William sees the evil of the British when he finds his father and brother murdered when lured to a 'peace conference'.  His uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) takes him in, reinforcing his late brother's belief that 'it's our wits that make us men, not fighting'.   He gets educated and grows up, returning to his ancestral home years later.

Now an adult, William Wallace (Gibson) finds his beloved Scotland still under British rule, with the monarch who killed his family, Edward I better known as Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) still on the English throne.  Longshanks is displeased at his effete son Edward (Peter Hanly) but does believe that his daughter-in-law Princess Isabel of France (Sophie Marceau) is better in so many ways (and I suspect Longshanks would like a Prima Nocte with her).  The issue of letting the lords of the manor have the 'first night' with a new bride is one of many issues causing consternation in Scotland, the English essentially raping virgin Scottish brides on their wedding nights.  This is the reason Wallace marries the great love of his life, Murron (Catherine McCormack) in secret. 

Wallace wants nothing more than peace and Murron, but the world will not allow him this.  English soldiers harass his secret bride and while she proves herself a true Scotswoman she is executed most brutally.  In fury and vengeance, Wallace becomes a one-man army, an avenging angel soon joined by others into a full-scale revolt against English rule.



Wallace's victory at Stirling over the English piques the interest of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), a contender for the Scottish throne.  He too wants a free Scotland, but his father is happy to compromise with the English if it will ensure the throne for his son.  Longshanks goes to crush the rebellion, sending Isabel ahead in order to bribe Wallace, but this is for naught.   At the Battle of Falkirk, Wallace is betrayed by his fellow Scots and Robert, who was pushed into siding with the English by his ambitious father, manages to send Wallace out of danger, though the Bruce is wracked with guilt over his actions.  Wallace continues his mad war, and has a fling with Isabel, who coolly informs her hateful father-in-law that the child she carries is not from his gay son, but from Wallace himself. 

Both Robert the Bruce and Sir William Wallace are betrayed when Robert sets up a meeting with Wallace only to find it was used to capture the Scottish rogue.  Wallace is condemned for high treason and is to be hung, drawn, and quartered.  Wallace, defiant to the end, will not call out for mercy to spare his life, screaming a fierce "FREEDOM!" as he is killed.  In the end, Robert the Bruce, free from his father's punishing force, decides he will not pledge loyalty to the new English king, but will fight for Scotland's freedom at Bannockburn.

As I said, Braveheart is one of these historic films that doesn't bother itself with historical accuracy if it gets in the way of a good dramatic moment.  So what that Princess Isabel was all of three years old when she was supposed to have had her affair with Wallace!  So what if Prince Edward was probably at most a healthy bisexual who sired children with women other than the Queen while keeping male company! Never mind that whole 'the kilts are all wrong' business.  Braveheart isn't and frankly I don't think ever was about historical accuracy.  It was about a message: the message of a people being free from occupation by a tyrannical ruler.  In that respect, Braveheart's leaps of accuracy are essentially irrelevant.

If however, we focus on Braveheart's message, then it becomes a rousing spectacle.  In fact, as much as I loath Gibson the man for his vile views, as a director he did a simply smashing job.  Almost every element came into sharp focus, and I can see why so many people then and now love the film.  Almost everything about Braveheart is brilliant. 

Let's start with John Toll's superb and beautiful cinematography, which captures the beauty of the Scottish Highlands along with the more seamy aspects (the hangings, the bloodiness).  Sometimes Wallace has dreams that are extraordinarily filmed, and when he begins to avenge Murron's death he comes almost as a ghost-like figure, an avenging angel about to execute swift and brutal justice.

The James Horner score is also quite beautiful (a rarity with the late Horner, whom I was not a fan of).  Horner mixes Scottish and classical music in a lovely fashion, and the mixing of Scottish and English music at the Battle of Stirling underscores (no pun intended) the oncoming conflict between the two warring peoples. 

Another excellent aspect to Braveheart is that it might be the last film (at least in my memory) to display its epic battle scenes clearly and without it being confusing.  No quick cuts to make things blurry or hard to follow.  Instead, Gibson put the battle sequences together in a coherent manner where we can understand who is who and what is what.


Gibson as a director also proved adept in drawing strong performances out of everyone.  Of particular note for me is Macfayden as the conflicted Robert the Bruce.  He captures that mixture of morality and ambition, the struggle between being his own man and being pushed and controlled by his father.  Marceau is good as the Princess (though I couldn't quite get over the robes).  Though her role was smaller, McCormack is equal to the task of the noble and strong Murron, the equal to Wallace.  In the lead role, Gibson excels at bringing the determined nature of Wallace, the quiet nature of a man who would rather farm than fight but who is forced into a fight for freedom. 

He even managed a good joke at his expense.  When Wallace first appears before the troops to give his "They Can Take Our Lives..." speech (the Scottish version of St. Crispin's Day), one of the Scotsmen drily comments "Can't be Wallace.  Not tall enough," a wry quip on the 5'9" Gibson.

As great as Braveheart is, and as epic as it is, there were things about the film that disturbed me.  Gibson appears fixated on being as brutal when it comes to the violence as possible. Gibson seems to push the bounds in terms of depicting the horrors of human torture, sometimes to the point of vulgarity.  Of particular note is when Wallace (a bit Christ-like) is being executed.  It seems a bit much in terms of the visuals, to where I openly wondered about historical accuracy being one thing, but 'torture porn' being another.  The violence, or rather the fetish Gibson has about displaying it to such a level, bothered me.  I figure violence has to be part of Braveheart, but at times Gibson appears to show it only to display some sort of delight in it.   

I also have never been a fan of voice-overs, though in fairness they weren't overly done.  I also wonder whether the film really did have to be close to three hours long.

Apart from those issues (particularly the violence), Braveheart more than lives up to its reputation for being an epic.  It's not history by any means, but it is rousing, which is something that would make any Scotsman proud.

Circa 1270-1305





DECISION: B+

1996 Best Picture Winner: The English Patient

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Revenant: A Review



THE REVENANT

Revenant means "a person who returns" or "a person who returns as a spirit, a ghost" (courtesy of dictionary.com).  It is a fitting title for The Revenant, this dark tale of survival and revenge, though I think a better title would be Leonardo DiCaprio's Naked Oscar Plea Number 8047. No more illustrious biopics (The Aviator) or toying with exotic accents (Blood Diamonds).  Having failed to win with these usually-Oscar proof roads to victory, this time, he's taking a page from Eddie Redmayne by suffering for his Oscar.  The Revenant is by now means a bad movie, but it is an unnecessarily long movie, and one that I find hard to fully embrace.

Out in the West, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is the guide to a group of fur trappers who have been ambushed by a group of Native Americans.  The natives believe this party is holding the chief's daughter prisoner, though in reality they are not connected with the real abductors.  Having fled on a boat with a smaller group, Glass, his half-native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), and the others float down the river until Glass convinces them they are sitting ducks if they stay on the boat. Over the very loud objections of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), they abandon the boat and the furs and go across the mountains to safety at Fort Kiowa.

While scouting alone, Glass is mauled by a grizzly defending her young (the infamous 'bear rape' scene).  His wounds are many, and he is barely clinging to life.  The others discover him after he fires one shot, and again over the objections of Fitzgerald, who thinks Glass should be put out of their misery, their leader, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhall Gleeson), insists they carry Glass.  After a while though, Glass becomes too much of a burden, and Henry tries to follow Fitzgerald's advice.  Finding he can't kill a man still alive, he instead asks for volunteers to stay with Glass while the others attempt to reach the fort, to rescue them later.  Hawk stays with his father, as does Jim Bridger (Will Pouter) and, in a surprise, Fitzgerald.

Naturally, this is a bad decision, as Fitzgerald appears convinced (or convinces himself) that Glass wants to die.  As Fitzgerald attempts to smother him Hawk comes upon him, and Fitzgerald kills him.  He then tells a surprised Bridger that he's seen natives and they must flee, forcing them to bury Glass alive (albeit barely), with Hawk perhaps lost (Bridger unaware he's dead).

An enraged Glass wills himself to live, and slowly, very...very...slowly, he heals to where he is functioning, avoiding the wrathful natives still on his trail in his quest to revenge his son.  He finds help with another native who like Glass has had his family killed.  He advises him that 'revenge is for the Creator', not man.  Unfortunately, the native is lynched by a group of French trappers while Glass is asleep, neither aware of the other.  Glass finds that a native woman is being held prisoner and in a cross of revenge for his friend and a need for a horse he kills two of them and runs off with a horse, freeing the woman (who is the chief's daughter) in the process.

Soon Fitzgerald's lies come back to haunt him as Henry and Bridger put the various pieces together, culminating in Glass' reemergence.  Fitzgerald attempts to flee to Texas, stealing the fort's money in the process, and Henry and Glass join to hunt him down.  Not all of them survive, and Glass finds that revenge truly does belong to the Creator.


Another Oscar, Another Lecture...
As I said, The Revenant is not a bad film. The score is quite impressive.  It is also beautifully photographed by director Alejandro G. Inarritu's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki.  I will concede that.  However, that might be part of the problem.

At two-and-a-half hours one wonders why we had to be treated to seemingly endless shots of the mountains, the rivers, the snow.  Especially the snow, piles and piles of snow.  One person next to me started softly singing "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" when we go for yet another snow-falling sequence.  Personally, I thought it bordered on parody.  There should or could have been something Inarritu could have cut or trimmed to make it a tighter, shorter story apart from all the transitions. 

Could not one of those dream/vision sequences where Glass sees his Native American wife floating through the air or some rather dreamy walk through a burned-out village or a surprisingly violent ambush have been cut or trimmed?  Did we really need all those mountain flyovers?

Moreover, part of the story was a bit perplexing.  Why did the Native American chief think these trappers had his daughter?  As far as I remember no one ever acknowledged they were hunting the wrong people.  Maybe I missed it while attempting to stay awake, which I did, though The Revenant does try one's patience in that department.

In terms of performances, I think in retrospect Hardy got the better of Leo.  DiCaprio's was the more showy of the two: all intense suffering (physical and emotional, but particularly physical).  Hardy though had an equally difficult task: to make Fitzgerald someone who could bully all those around him while still showing a touch of subservience. I am still not completely convinced Tom Hardy is an actor.  I wish I could pinpoint it, but I can't (though I imagine if I met Hardy and said so, he'd pick me up and toss me across the room Inception-style for so much as saying 'hello').  Always scowling our boy Tom is.  However, The Revenant does give him a chance to show his usual gruff and angry manner.



Oh, how I'd love to see a movie where Tom Hardy gets a pie thrown in his face.

DiCaprio has been getting raves for his performance, and while I do think DiCaprio is a better actor than his detractors say, I am a bit of a loss to understand why this particular performance is his best.  He is very physical in it, but he seems to also be especially dour in this, managing to out-dour the perpetually grumpy Hardy.  Maybe it's just me, but this is a rare moment when I can see DiCaprio ACT rather than BE.  I believed him to be Howard Hughes, I believed him to be Jordan Belfort.  Here, I saw only Leonardo DiCaprio.  Worse, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio saying, "this is absolute hell, but it's worth it because I'm finally going to get the Oscar I've so long wanted and show I am an ACTOR among actors, not just the pretty boy in Titanic". 

In short, I had a hard time seeing Glass as human.  I also thought he was pretty dumb to a.) wander out there alone and b.) try to shoot the bear when it had left him alone the first time.  Sure, he was injured by the bear, but the second go-around made things worse.

And for the record there was no 'bear rape'.  Granted, a couple of the shots did make it look like the bear was entering him from behind, but there was no actual 'bear rape', so let's put that out of the way right here, right now.

I cannot say The Revenant was a bad movie.  It looks and sounds great, has some good performances in it.  In terms of a film, it's perfectly functional.  I can say that I was not moved by The Revenant.  It's not a film I'd watch again or that I think I benefited from by watching at all.  Serviceable though dour, The Revenant is not bad.

No pun intended, but in truth, The Revenant left me cold. 

DECISION: C+

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is Oscar Afraid of the Dark?



On an episode of Designing Women, the character of Suzanne Sugarbaker acquired dark makeup to attempt to look more like The Supremes for a benefit concert.  The other characters were aghast at the idea of essentially donning blackface.  Suzanne was unfazed and insisted white women wearing dark makeup was in no way racist, commenting that Dustin Hoffman would wear dark makeup if he were playing Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Suzanne!" her older (liberal) sister Julia snapped.  "Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a BLACK actor".  

"Well I think THAT'S racist," was her bizarre response.  "It should go to the best actor, and that could be Dustin Hoffman". 

Essentially, both have a point (though George Sanders in All About Eve would correctly add, 'an idiotic point').  Yes, Dustin Hoffman would NEVER play Martin Luther King.  That part would go to a black actor, in the same way any historic figure should be played by the correct ethnicity. The only exception I would say is Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in his Hamilton: The Musical.  However, a musical (or any theatrical show) is less bound by reality than a film, so we could get away with that kind of casting.

As a side note, I fully support Miranda recreating his role on television or film...he and the show are simply too good to not let him do it, and again, a musical film is less bound by reality from the get-go.  Granted, I've never read The Federalist Papers, but I don't think Hamilton and Jefferson rapped their views to President Washington.

Warner Baxter as a Mexican in
In Old Arizona (1929)

However, Hollywood has a rather horrid record in casting.  The film industry constantly struggles to cast minorities in what should essentially be color-blind casting. 

I'm just going to pick The Big Bang Theory as example, though as someone who has seen a few episodes I am speculating a bit.  With the exception of Kunal Nayyar's Raj, all the leads are white.  Nothing wrong with that, but what about the characters in particular demands that they be played by white actors exclusively?  Could Sheldon or Leonard or Penny possibly be played by a black actor/actress?  None of the actors were famous when the show debuted, so we cannot fall back on the 'there are no black stars to draw wide audiences' line. 

Come to think on it, has there been a Hispanic character on Big Bang Theory that was part of a major storyline versus a mere guest appearance?  Am I to understand that there is no such thing as a Hispanic nerd?  There are no Latinos who are passionate about quantum physics, no Mexican-Americans who are well-versed in Doctor Who lore?

On the last one, I guess I might be the only one in existence then...

In short, nothing prevented the producers of The Big Bang Theory from selecting a wider pool of actors.  It was their chose to cast an almost-all white cast, to cast primarily white guest actors for roles major or minor.  Therefore, it was their choice to make The Big Bang Theory a show with virtually no African-American or Hispanic representation.

Going back to the past, I look at Friends.  What prevented any of the denizens of Central Perk from being black or Hispanic or Asian?  Perhaps Ross and Monica Geller (granted, the number of black or Hispanic or Asian Jews is extremely small), but even that could have been altered.  Again, none of the Friends cast were 'names' when the show debuted (maybe Courtney Cox...maybe).  Could you have cast a black person as Chandler, or a Hispanic as Phoebe without affecting storylines (unless of course, television scriptwriters do not see Latinas as particularly ditzy). 

Again and again I cannot understand why scripted television shows set in contemporary times cannot have truly color-blind casting.  There is a difference between Empire (where ethnicity is an important factor, and for the record, though I've never watched the show I am Team Cookie) and say, Elementary (where it isn't).

I find it curious that there was more outrage in the casting of an Asian woman in the role of Dr. Watson on this adaptation of a fictional character than there was in the casting of Jennifer Connelly as a Hispanic in A Beautiful Mind (Alicia Nash being from El Salvador, a pesky detail the film made no mention of). 

Charlton Heston as a Mexican in
Touch of Evil (1954)

We extend this curious inability in color-blind casting to films.  Again, if we're talking about a historic piece like Carol or a book adaptation like Brooklyn, it would not make sense to cast say Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the lead.  Despite Miss Mbatha-Raw's tremendous talent, the idea that a black woman could move easily through society in the 1950s is idiotic (or that Mbatha-Raw could possibly pass for Irish). 

I think we all should acknowledge that Dustin Hoffman could never play Martin Luther King.

However, I'm not talking about historic films or biopics.  I'm talking about films where race and ethnicity is irrelevant to the character.  We can look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens as a good example.  Finn's race is irrelevant.  Poe's ethnicity is irrelevant.  Kylo Ren's racial background is irrelevant.  I think John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver could have been cast as any of the three parts and, minus their actual acting, it would not have affected the film as a whole. 

Would it have mattered one bit if say, Edgar Ramirez and not Chris Pratt was the lead in Jurassic World?  Could Mbatha-Raw or Zoe Saldana not be as good as Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World as well?  Was there anything specifically necessary for white actors to play the leads in this massive movie?  I'm not saying that Pratt and Howard were miscast or should not have played the parts, or that Ramirez and/or Mbatha-Raw or Saldana should have been cast.

I AM saying that, as far as I know, nothing precluded a Ramirez or Saldana from taking the Pratt and Howard roles.  Nothing overtly required that the main characters be white.  They could have been anyone really.  However, again it was the film industry: the casting directors, the producers, the screenwriters, the director, and everyone else connected with Jurassic World that made the decision that the two leads would be played by white actors.

Here again, we can reject the 'we need big names, and there aren't many if any big name black or Hispanic actors' line of reasoning.  Jurassic World was going to be a hit no matter what.  It could have had rubber dinosaurs where you saw the strings being pulled and it still would have made a billion dollars opening weekend. 


I'm An Indian Too...


What was the reasoning, the rationale, to not cast or perhaps even consider black or Hispanic actors for parts in Jurassic World, or 45 Years, or Trainwreck (though I can't bear the idea that Bill Hader, a true comedic genius, wouldn't be in the film), or Spy, or Aloha?

As a side note, we had a film where the 'native Hawaiian' was played by Emma Stone.  Yes, it was made clear she was only a quarter Hawaiian (and more insanely, a quarter CHINESE), but Emma Stone is as quarter Hawaiian as Saoirse Ronan.  Zoe Saldana is more believable as a quarter Hawaiian than Emma Stone.  No slam on Stone herself, but Cameron Crowe wildly miscalculated that casting choice.

If Hollywood cannot be trusted with casting someone who is a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian, why would we think they'd do better in casting someone who actually IS a mere quarter Polynesian or quarter Asian?

Aloha bombed at the box office, and so did Pan (rightfully so).  Yet here we have the casting of a white actress (Rooney Mara) to play the Native American Princess Tiger Lily.  Leaving aside how awful Pan as a film was, what was the rationale to not cast an actual Native American actress in the role?  Why specifically was there a need to cast Mara?  She is not a big name (and with Hugh Jackman in the film and the subject matter itself, that should have been enough to draw audiences).

I do not think it is overt racism that causes these situations where a.) non-white actors are apparently not even considered for roles that are color-blind or b.) white actors are apparently cast in non-Anglo parts.  I think it's just ignorance and a fear that with a non-white lead, a film or television show won't do as well as it would with a white lead.  There's no rational reason for said fear, and no proof that a film or television show with color-blind casting cannot be embraced.

The Fast & Furious franchise has a multi-ethnic cast, and it's been a huge money-maker, appealing across all racial/ethnic lines (and as a side note, the same with religious-based films like War Room, which was seen by whites, Hispanics, and blacks despite being a primarily African-American cast).  None of the leads were big names when the first one was made.  Why can't a similar approach be used for non-action films?

This fear and failure to cast minorities in color-blind parts we know is not new.  We've seen it before, but you'd think that given how many in Hollywood campaigned for a black President, you'd think they of all people would jump at the chance to cast minorities in roles.  However, they are not in any rush.

I've also been cast as the
Ayatollah Khomeini

They not only fail to consider minority actors for color-blind parts, but have no problem casting white actors in non-white roles.  A good (or bad) example was Jake Gyllenhaal as the title role in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.  OK, it's based on a video game, so we don't have to be too specific in a live-action version.  However, really: the Swedish-descended Gyllenhaal as a Persian?  It was bad enough when Sir Alec Guinness played an Indian in A Passage to India (which was in 1984, really not that long ago).  However, Jake Gyllenhaal as a Persian in 2010? 

Again, bad enough when white actor Tab Hunter can play Mexican Guy Gabaldon in Hell to Eternity, but at least THAT film cast actual Japanese actors as Japanese characters...and it was in 1960! 

All this leads me to the newest controversy about #OscarsSoWhite.  Out of 20 acting nominees for the 88th Academy Awards, all 20 were white.  This has led to sharp criticism and accusations of racism on the part of the Academy. 

Here's my view.

Looking over the films nominated, most are period films where the casting of a non-white actor would be off.  How could you have a black actor in The Revenant?  Where would Hispanics pop in in Bridge of Spies

Diane Houston:
the only African-American Oscar nominee 
for films of 1995
And herein lies part of the problem.  The nominated films almost all would have a hard time having minority actors in them.  It isn't so much that black/Hispanic actors are ignored (though they are).  It isn't so much that Hollywood won't cast them in parts where race/ethnicity is irrelevant (thought they don't).  It's that black/Hispanic actors aren't in these 'prestige' films the Academy oh so loves. 

Really think you could make Idris Elba into The Danish Girl?

Films where you have majority-black or Hispanic actors (say, War Room or McFarland, USA) tend to be ignored by the Academy because they aren't 'prestige' films or 'Academy Award material'.  The Academy favors such rubbish as The Theory of Everything, so they aren't going to rush out to honor Straight Outta Compton.

The Academy's failure to recognize minorities is nothing new.  Twenty years ago, there was an uproar over the fact that there was exactly ONE African-American nominee: Diane Houston for Tuesday Morning Ride, a Best Live-Action Short Film nominee.  She lost, to Christine Lahti and her film, Lieberman in Love.

How soon they forget...

The problem is not #OscarsSoWhite.  The problem is Hollywood's continuing inability or unwillingness to get past race and ethnicity when it comes to casting parts.  Hollywood stubbornly won't cast minority actors in parts that don't specifically need white actors.  Is it overt racism or merely ignorance, an effect of living in a bubble? 

I think it's a mix.

There are thousands upon thousands of actors in Hollywood, all vying for a chance.  It isn't an easy life, to be an actor.  You face rejection, you face months of unemployment or underemployment, and you face the constant call-backs, and that doesn't even mean that the show you're lucky enough to be cast in will get picked up, or that the film you're in will be released (or that you won't be edited out).

For a minority actor, it is much harder, because you have to face all that, and carry the extra burden that many productions simply won't consider you because they cannot possibly imagine that a Hispanic nerd or a black paleontologist could realistically exist.     

Ben Affleck as a Mexican in
Argo (2012)
Until such a time as Hollywood recognizes that actors can and do come in all shades, that blacks and Hispanics aren't all a monolithic group, and that unless the part specifically calls for a particular racial/ethnic actor someone who isn't white CAN play a particular role, you will continue to see The Academy Awards merely reflect the state of race in Hollywood, not create it.

Until such a time that Hollywood looks at itself and admits the problem isn't the Oscars, but themselves, you will see no difference between casting an Anglo as a Mexican in 1929...or in 1954...or in 2012.

Some things, apparently, never change.        

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Butcher, The Teacher, The City as Matchmaker: Marty Review




MARTY (1955)

In the world of 1950s cinema, Marty must have stood out like a big lunk among the glamorous images audiences were used to seeing.  There are no beautiful-looking people or sets in Marty, In fact, it was distinctly, almost proudly, working-class.  Marty also is a very brief film (at 94 minutes, it holds the record for the shortest film to win Best Picture).  I would argue that its brilliance in its simplicity and gentleness and humanity, all characteristics that it shares with its title character.  Marty is a simply wonderful film, one that even now, 61 years after its release, people can still relate to.  It might not be as well-remembered as some of its other Best Picture winners, but it should not be forgotten.

The story is very simple: Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is an unmarried 34-year-old Bronx butcher, the last of his brothers and sisters who still has not gotten married.  He lives at home with his mother Teresa (Esther Minciotti), who openly despairs whether her son will ever marry.  Marty too quietly despairs, aware that his social awkwardness and frumpy looks don't win girls over.  He's had his heart broken many times and at this point seems settled to live as a reluctant lifelong bachelor. As far as his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell) is concerned, they both could live the bachelor life (though in truth, Angie isn't much of a player either). 

Prodded by his mother, Marty reluctantly goes to the Stardust Ballroom, where singles meet and mingle.  He really doesn't expect much of anything there, but then things take an interesting turn.  Coincidentally, a double date also goes to the Stardust, among them plain-looking teacher Clara (Betsy Blair).  Her date is eager to dump the frumpy Clara and tries to pawn her off on Marty, but he is appalled at the idea of standing a girl up.  Sadly, Clara is left behind for a better-looking woman, and worse, she realizes it.  Clara is devastated at this latest rejection, but Marty finds her and soon they make a connection themselves.

Marty and Clair leave the Stardust (leaving Angie there) and spend the night in glorious conversation, talking and laughing and falling in love.  Marty and Clara finally find someone who cares about them, and both appear happy, with Marty agreeing to call her the next day after Mass for a proper date.

However, soon Mama Piletti starts wondering whether it's a good idea for Marty to find someone to hopefully marry, especially given the situation with her sister Katerina (Augusta Ciolli).  She has become a source of tension between her son Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) to where they ask their aunt to take Katerina in.  Katerina warns Teresa that if her single son marries, the same can happen to her.  Furthermore, Marty's friends, all single themselves, soon start pushing Marty to also let Clara go.  He gives in and doesn't call in the afternoon when he promised.

That night, as Marty is with his friends trying to figure out what to do that night, and Clara is at home with her parents, silently crying, Marty realizes that he is about to lose someone that he genuinely cares about and who cares about him.  He rushes to the phone booth and tells Angie off. 

"You don't like her, my mother don't like her, she's a dog and I'm a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I'm gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees and I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad!" 

Marty ends with him on the phone to Clara.

While it isn't shown, leaving things ambiguous, I have a sense she did agree to see him, and these two plain, kind people lived happily ever after.

Paddy Chayefsky adapted his television play for the film version, expanding the original story for a feature-length run.  Chayefsky was a simply brilliant writer and Marty shows what talent he had.  The dialogue is so real and natural.  My favorite is when Mama Piletti tries to get her son to go 'put on the blue suit' and go to the Stardust, where in her words, there are lots of 'tomatoes' for him.  It's clear that with her Italian accent and curious use of a slang term she picked up, she has no idea how bizarre the term 'tomato' sounds to her son's generation.  Marty finds the use hilarious, but we also see that in their argument over whether he'll go to the Stardust or not, Marty is a very hurt and lonely man, aware of his own shortcomings and how he doesn't meet the standards other men have.

This is a beautiful scene because of its realism and how it plays out.  This scene is something that I'm sure has happened in many homes, where a lonely man is pushed to do something he fears will cause him more heartache but does so anyway to please someone else.

Marty also has some fine performances.  Borgnine until now was usually cast as the heavy (of particular note was his role as the murderous Fatso in From Here to Eternity).  Here he plays against type as the kind, gentle, schlumpy Marty, and he's wonderful in the part, simply perfect.  Just in his non-vocal moments, when he closes his eyes and tightens his face, we see Marty's fears, hopes and disappointments at being rejected yet again and the quiet despair of a good man who cannot find love.  Marty's goodness, kindness, and sensitivity underneath his rough exterior come through.

The same goes for Blair's Clara.  Blair makes Clara a gentle and sincere woman, not as confident as she could be given she is a teacher (and as such, more educated than the butcher).  They have such wonderful chemistry on screen, and again I circle back to Chayefsky's script.  When Marty compliments Clara by telling her, "You're not such a dog as you think you are," it doesn't come across as an insult because a.) that's how he talks, and b.) he calls himself a dog as well.  He obviously meant it as a compliment in his own bumbling and endearing way.

Honestly, if by the end of Marty you don't fall in love with Marty and Clara, there's flat-out something wrong with you.  Credit should go to both Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann, who brought out the best in everyone.

The subplot of the Italian sisters and of Marty's decision whether or not to buy the butcher shop from his retiring boss were quite well-integrated into the film, never coming across as add-ons or distractions.



Today, and certainly in the 1950s, films tended to focus on the glamorous life and the beautiful people.  Simple, short tales of honest, kind working-class people are few and far-between.  As such, Marty, both then and now, is a bit of an anomaly. If you look at the films in the 1950s that won Best Picture, they tended to be either big epics (Ben-Hur, The Bridge on the River Kwai) or lavish productions (Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth) or about the upper echelons of society (All About Eve, Around the World in 80 Days).  With the exception of On the Waterfront, critically praised films weren't about the working-class, and On the Waterfront is a searing drama about morality. Marty, on the other hand, was a small romantic film about two ordinary people falling in love.  Even today, in a market dominated by sequels, prequels, and comic book adaptations, massive action films and lowbrow comedy tend to be the ones being made.  Sweet and unapologetically gentle films like Marty aren't either in high demand or much seen.

That seems a terrible shame, and a greater shame that Marty is pretty much forgotten among its massive Best Picture companions like Gone With the Wind, Titanic, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, or The Godfather Parts I and II.  All those save Titanic are brilliant films, but they are massive, epic, while Marty is small, gentle and quiet.  Still, Marty is one of my favorite films because I can so relate to its simple story of ordinary people like us, versus the 'ordinary people' of Ordinary People.

Doris Day was right: Everybody Loves a Lover, and after seeing it, you'll love Marty too.

DECISION: A+

1956 Best Picture: Around the World in 80 Days