Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Oscar Catches a Kingfish

Olivia de Havilland:
Best Actress for
The Heiress

The 22nd Academy Awards went back to its proud American roots.  After seeing the British film Hamlet overrun the Oscars, the Academy chose a tale of the sordid South as its top film of the year.  A good of this year's Oscars deal with corruption of some kind: political or social. 

A curious side note is that this would be the last year all five Best Picture nominees would be in black-and-white.  From now on, that style would be fading to black, as color soon dominated the Best Picture prize.  After 1960's The Apartment, there would be only two black-and-white Best Picture winners (and one of them, Schindler's List, would have some color scenes, while the other, The Artist, was pure black-and-white).

Curiously, this year I don't find myself in disagreement with almost all of the Academy's choices.  This doesn't mean I think the winners were themselves the very best, merely the best of their fellow nominees (something different).  

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 1949 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ORIGINAL SONG




Through A Long and Sleepless Night from Come to the Stable
It's A Great Feeling from It's A Great Feeling
My Foolish Heart from My Foolish Heart
Baby, It's Cold Outside from Neptune's Daughter
Lavender Blue from So Dear to My Heart

About the only song that comes close to taking out Baby, It's Cold Outside is the sweet, charming, and nostalgic Lavender Blue.  What is interesting is that Baby, It's Cold Outside is considered a Christmas song, but it has nothing to do with Christmas.  It doesn't even have anything to do with winter.  It's a metaphorical number, describing a man's wish that the woman he fancies stay just a little bit longer (for her own good, of course).  Why Baby, It's Cold Outside (which I think might be the first duet to win Best Original Song) has become a Christmas standard when the song isn't about Christmas or set at Christmas and Neptune's Daughter has nothing to do with Christmas (as far as I know) is therefore a bit of a curiosity.
   
One thing that Baby, It's Cold Outside does have is how interpretation can make or break a song.  In the Ricardo Montalban/Esther Williams version, it's a song of seduction (albeit a charming, light version).  When Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sing it (with Skelton being the one protesting he must go and Garrett being the aggressive one) it becomes a comical number.  Either rendition works so well (Neptune's Daughter being at heart, a romantic comedy of mistaken identities like Romance on the High Seas or Top Hat, and to a lesser degree, something like While You Were Sleeping), and it has become a standard in American music.

Still, just like The Ten Commandments is not an Easter movie, Baby, It's Cold Outside is not technically a Christmas song.

Still, we'll overlook that. 

BEST DIRECTOR

Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Letter to Three Wives
Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol
Robert Rossen: All the King's Men
William A. Wellman: Battleground
William Wyler: The Heiress

I'm awful tempted to give it to Wyler because you've got some real good pieces of acting in The Heiress.  The reason I'm opting for Mankiewicz however is because he had the difficult task of keeping the audience guessing as to which of the three wives is the one who will find herself without a husband.  We also have essentially different stories tied together, almost anthology-like.  That, for me, for the moment, pushed Mank higher. 

Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his brother Herman were talented.  As for their descendants Josh and Ben...

John Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Letter to Three Wives
Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol
Raoul Walsh: White Heat
William Wyler: The Heiress

That being said, we had some real extraordinary films and filmmakers coming our way this year.  I'm choosing Raoul Walsh, underappreciated, for White Heat, one of the best noir/gangster films made.  We know what's going on long before most of the characters, and Walsh brought out the best in people like Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Mayo, and James Cagney in what really is one of not just his greatest performances, but one of the greatest performances captured on film. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Ethel Barrymore: Pinky
Celeste Holm: Come to the Stable
Elsa Lanchester: Come to the Stable
Mercedes McCambridge: All the King's Men
Ethel Waters: Pinky

Well, looky here.  We got two women from the same film (Pinky) and two other women from the same film (Come to the Stable), with the winner being the outlier.  I kind of lean towards Waters' sympathetic turn as the black grandmother to a biracial woman 'passing' for white.  Certainly Pinky was an interesting topic for the time, but for the moment I'm keeping with the shrewd Southern political operative who finds herself trapped in the seedy world she tried to manipulate.



Mary Astor: Little Women
Betty Garrett: On the Town
Virginia Mayo: White Heat
Mercedes McCambridge: All the King's Men
Ethel Waters: Pinky

It's a pity that comedy isn't as well-regarded as drama by the Academy (though to be fair, I found Eddie Redmayne's performance quite comedic, and he ended up winning).  It looks like Betty Garrett's forte was in man-hungry roles, where she went after her fellow and was unafraid to show it.  Somehow, her turn as the cabbie with her eyes on Frank Sinatra always struck me as a performance that was properly supporting.  She wasn't the lead, but her scenes were played correctly: light and funny.

Granted, her own life wasn't all laughs: wife to Larry Parks (whom you might remember from The Jolson Story, which earned him a Best Actor nomination in 1946), Garrett herself, like Parks, had been a member of the Communist Party.  Her career wasn't as affected as Parks (which was all but destroyed) but she still had damage to her name.  That she survived is a wonder.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



John Ireland: All the King's Men
Dean Jagger: Twelve O' Clock High
Arthur Kennedy: Champion
Ralph Richardson: The Heiress
James Whitmore: Battleground

This is really the only category with which I disagree with the Academy's choice.  I think both Dean Jagger and Twelve O' Clock High are pretty much forgotten.  I can't say that the choice was bad, but I can't work up enthusiasm for either.  For a while I had John Ireland's newspaper man turned political hatchet man as my choice, but was persuaded to instead choose Ralph Richardson's cold patrician father in The Heiress, a man who doesn't shrink from insulting his daughter (even as he is right about the golddiger she's found). 



Kirk Douglas: A Letter to Three Wives
John Ireland: All the King's Men
Dean Jagger: Twelve O' Clock High
Edmond O'Brien: White Heat
Ralph Richardson: The Heiress

Out of all the performances nominated, I still struggle with including Dean Jagger.  I'm throwing him in just in case later on I find I did miss something (but don't hold your breath).  However, it's Edmond O'Brien as the double-agent keeping tabs on the gangster Cody Jarrett that impressed me more.  O'Brien would go on to actually win an Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa (and curiously, as far as I know the only person to win an Oscar for playing someone named 'Oscar'). 

BEST ACTRESS




Jeanne Crain: Pinky
Olivia de Havilland: The Heiress
Susan Hayward: My Foolish Heart
Deborah Kerr: Edward, My Son
Loretta Young: Come to the Stable

Few performances really stand out as real tour de force, but de Havilland (still with us at 99 as of this writing) in The Heiress has to be among the greats.  de Havilland is among the greatest actresses of all time, and while I don't put much stock in 'the last of' whatever, de Havilland can truly be said to be among the last true pure actresses.  As the plain daughter of a wealthy man done in by love who enacts her own revenge on the man who had 'grown greedier with time: first for her money, then for her love', her final scene is chilling and brilliant.

Jeanne Crain: Pinky
Olivia de Havilland: The Heiress
Susan Hayward: My Foolish Heart
Katharine Hepburn: Adam's Rib
Loretta Young: Come to the Stable

Bolt the door, Mariah.  We have an undisputed winner.

BEST ACTOR



Broderick Crawford: All the King's Men
Kirk Douglas: Champion
Gregory Peck: Twelve O' Clock High
Richard Todd: The Hasty Heart
John Wayne: Sands of Iwo Jima

I'm a little surprised that of all the John Wayne filmography, the Academy chose to single him out only twice: in the future for True Grit, and for this war film.  Again, I find myself not being a Gregory Peck fan, but from all the nominees it's Crawford's Huey Long-type Southern politician, one who starts out as a true people's champion only to be corrupted himself by power, that is the best performance out of the nominees.

As far as I'm concerned, Broderick Crawford blew the other nominees away for his Willie Stark, whom we start out admiring and cheering on, only to find ourselves horrified and disgusted by how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It's almost to where we're happy he gets his just desserts, though a bit of us still remembers the honest and good Willie Stark, and mourn.



James Cagney: White Heat
Montgomery Clift: The Heiress
Broderick Crawford: All the King's Men
Ralph Richardson: The Fallen Idol
John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Again, I think Wayne was a much better actor than even his fans give him credit for, and where was Clift's beautiful schemer who found himself locked out of heart and home?  Still, let's face it: James Cagney's Cody Jarrett, deranged evil gangster and unabashed mama's boy, is THE performance of performances.  I think that this role is Cagney's greatest screen performance, better than his George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (and that one's pretty awesome itself).

I took it for granted that Cagney had been nominated for White Heat and was shocked and astonished to find he hadn't been.  Many years later, his White Heat costar Virginia Mayo said that the Academy would never nominate him for a 'gangster' film, that you'd have to be in something like Mr. Skeffington or something outrageous like that to get nominated (for the record, Mayo never received an Oscar nomination).  Up to a point, I agree: the Academy tends to favor dramas, and costume dramas in particular.  However, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with Mr. Skeffington, and why she picked on the film (and by extension, Claude Rains, my all-time favorite actor) I can only guess. 

Still, to ignore Cagney as the psychopathic killer with a mommie complex is an embarrassment to the Academy (up there with Eddie Redmayne's cold and calculated Oscar-bait being awarded a prize).  The scene where Cagney learns his dear Mama is dead...frightening, brilliant (and exactly the same reaction that my brother/best friend Gabe, Lord of Packer Nation, had when he heard that Brett Favre was going to play for the Minnesota Vikings).

Despite their best efforts, he made it...TOP OF THE WORLD!    

BEST PICTURE



All the King's Men
Battleground
The Heiress
A Letter to Three Wives
Twelve O' Clock High

I'm tempted to pick The Heiress, for I have a weakness for costume films myself.  It's also extremely well-acted, and has the benefit of an Oscar-winning score by American master Aaron Copland.  That is as far as I can tell the only real competition to the film I think was the best of the bunch: the sordid story of a good man corrupted to the core.  All the King's Men is based on the life of Huey P. Long, Governor and Senator from the great State of Louisiana (though in the film the state's name is never mentioned).  The Kingfish, as he was dubbed, was a good man at first, a real people's champion.  As time went on however, and as he amassed so much power that the Pelican State became virtually his own fiefdom, The Kingfish started getting out of control, crushing opposition by means not mentioned in polite society.  He had ambitions to higher office, dreaming of removing President Roosevelt and instituting his "Share Our Wealth" plan for massive wealth redistribution. 

As a side note, the descendants of Share Our Wealth are still very much alive in certain circles.  I'll leave you to figure out where politically such ideas flourish.



All the King's Men
The Fallen Idol
The Heiress
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
White Heat

However, while I won't argue that the nominated films are bad (Twelve O' Clock High being perhaps the outlier), I do think we could have gotten a better slate of candidates.  At the top of my list is White Heat, one of the best examples of a gangster film.  For me, White Heat is not exactly film noir, but a very close cousin.  It also is interesting in that the gangster film had pretty much fallen by the wayside after World War II, but White Heat didn't get the message.

White Heat was Cagney's last gangster role, a fitting farewell to an iconic genre and the man who made it so.  It's also my choice for the Best Film of 1949.

Next Time: The 1950 Academy Awards.   

Monday, July 27, 2015

Adagio for Vietnam: Platoon Review



PLATOON (1986)

For the longest time I avoided Platoon.  I think it was if not a difficult subject at least a film that somehow, I had become wary of.   Perhaps I felt I was going to get lectured about how bad the Vietnam Intervention was.  After watching Platoon, I found that it was more the morality play about one individual and the high emotional cost of war.

Granted, it was a bit of a lecture.  Stone can't help himself.  However, it was also highly effective about the emotional cost of war and of a world seemingly gone mad.

Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arrives in Vietnam to serve his country, having dropped out of college.  Under the belief that "why should rich kids stay home while the poor kids go and serve", he is eager to do his duty as his father and grandfather have done.  Vietnam, however, ain't your daddy's war.

The terrain is difficult, the enemy all around, the jungle brutal, the mission muddled, the men disheartened.  Taylor soon sees that his platoon is essentially divided into two camps: the literally battle-scarred Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and the more moral Sergeant Elias Grodin (Willem Dafoe), the latter generally known as just 'Sergeant Elias' or plain 'Elias'.  Taylor gravitates towards the Elias camp, down to getting high while waiting for combat, while the tougher Barnes group gambles and generally thirsts for war.

After one of their own is mutilated and another two are literally blown away by a booby trap, some of the platoon decide to enact their own revenge.  They find a Vietnamese village where certain members, including Taylor, torture and terrorize the villagers, convinced they are working with the Viet Cong.  This horror includes one of them beating up a mentally disabled villager and Barnes, enraged at the villagers' refusal to admit they even like the Viet Cong (let alone are in league with them), shooting an unarmed woman when she I think complains about their behavior.  More horrors ensue until Elias appears, furious at how the troop has behaved.  The Americans take the villagers away as they gleefully burn the village down.


Elias is convinced America is going to lose in Vietnam, believing that we've been kicking other people's asses for so long he figures it's time we got ours kicked.  Barnes is worried that a potential court-martial about what happened in the village will be the end of him, so at another battle he takes advantage of the chaos and shoots Elias.  As the troop flees they see Elias running, desperate to get away from the Viet Cong, wounded but not dead as Barnes reported. 

Taylor is convinced Barnes murdered Elias, but cannot prove it. Barnes makes it clear he has no problem killing Taylor should he decide to try anything against him.  However, war calls, and the platoon finds itself under major attack from a massive Viet Cong force.  Many are killed or wounded, and the Vietnamese are winning the battle.  Barnes and Taylor have a final confrontation, where Taylor enacts justice.  As he has been twice wounded, Taylor is sent home, having learned the horror of war and the brutality of man, his innocence shattered beyond repair.   

It's curious that Stone is a bit unaware of some of the ironies of his own mind.  Platoon for example has a very strong viewpoint when it comes to how the troops in Vietnam came from the poor, the generally uneducated, and minorities and how the rich white people avoided war (drawing the same lessons from Credence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son).  Stone failed to notice that in essence he had as his lead...a rich white male who was more educated than his fellow soldiers.  In essence, Taylor (the Stone substitute) was picking up 'the white man's burden', as the other soldiers from different racial and educational backgrounds than Taylor/Stone were almost unable to control themselves.

None of them for example questioned the morality of burning villages or raping girls (they required the white Elias and Taylor to do it for them).  The other white soldiers, like Barnes or John C. McGinley's Sergeant Red O'Neill, were close to war-crazed or hypocritical (though in fairness, seeing the cowardly O'Neill forced to return to battle after hiding under a corpse to escape the VC onslaught was emotionally satisfying). 

Perhaps it is because I believe the vast majority of the men who served in Vietnam weren't crazed loons or war criminals that Platoon doesn't sit too well with me.  I don't think Vietnam vets were all girl-raping, village burning terrorists. I just have too much faith in people to really believe this was reflective of the entire war.


That being said I don't think Platoon was meant to reflect the whole of the Vietnam experience.  It's how Oliver Stone saw Vietnam, and if that's how he saw it, if this is based on his own experience, then I can't reshape it.  He has said it is a morality play, and that is how it should be seen.  It is a battle between the moral Elias and the brutal Barnes over which direction the naïve Taylor will take.  We place the innocent in a brutal, horrible reality, and see where his moral compass will point.  Taylor does slip into an anger about his fellow soldier, but he also sees that war is no excuse for deliberate cruelty (to quote Tennessee Williams).

As a film, Platoon has excellent visuals and a strong, though at times overdone, use of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.  The mournful piece, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (by an American or from anywhere really), is the theme of Platoon, underscoring (no pun intended) the theme of innocence lost.  I say 'overdone' because when we hear it once we already know that Platoon is an elegy for an America lost.  However, you don't have to beat us over the head with 'THIS IS A TRAGEDY'. 

Audiences are smart enough to get it.

As a side note, wonder what would have happened if Tiesto's version of the Adagio had been used...

However, in all other respects Platoon is an excellent film.  The horrors of battle are brought to us in stark, unsparing turns.  Charlie Sheen gives a strong performance as the naïve Taylor, and both Berenger and Dafoe as the polar opposites of morality do excellent work.  We even get a brief glimpse of a young Johnny Depp before he became almost a self-parody (albeit a highly paid one).

Platoon is in the end I think not about Vietnam.  It is about morality: in war and within ourselves.  Granted, Platoon also unleashed a torrent of Vietnam-related films, some good, some bad. It has been one of the films that has shaped how we view Vietnam (along with Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter...with The Green Berets as an outlier).  It is an excellent film, well-crafted, telling the story it wants to tell well. 

   

DECISION: B+

1987 Best Picture: The Last Emperor

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Grift That Keeps On Giving: The Sting Review



THE STING (1973)

In the annals of Best Picture winners, The Sting has to be among the more curious ones.  It isn't a serious film by any stretch.  In fact, The Sting is gleefully and openly a lark, a sly, witty film part comedy part caper.  I'm going to say this up-front: the 'twist' ending, at least to me, was pretty obvious.  In fact, apart from one minor surprise this idea that The Sting is this wild and twisty tale is a bit far-fetched.

That doesn't mean it's not any fun or any good.  Far from it: The Sting is a delight from beginning to end.

Joliet, Illinois, 1936.  Grifters Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford), Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones), and Joe Erie aka the Erie Kid (Jack Kehoe) pull a quick con on Motolla (James J. Sloyan).  Unbeknown to the three, Motolla works for crime kingpin Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), and Lonnegan doesn't take kindly to Chicago losing $11,000 to a group of nobodies.  Lonnegan orders the three found and money returned.  Hooker has already blown his share on the tables, and then finds Luther, his mentor, has been thrown out the window.  With both the thugs and crooked cop Lt. Snyder (Charles Durning) after him, Hooker flees for his life.

On the lam, Hooker finds Frank Gondorff (Paul Newman), Luther's old protégé who himself is hiding from the FBI.  Gondorff is upset about Luther and wants to take Lonnegan down, so he cooks up an elaborate scheme to sucker Lonnegan out of hundreds of thousands with the help of other cons who join forces all to get even with the man who killed their friend.

This con involves a scheme called 'the wire', which had pretty much fallen out of fashion by now.  It involves having the mark think he has inside tips on horse racing, then luring him into thinking that he can make a killing, only to get suckered in the end.

The Sting builds this scheme slowly, Gondorff putting the pieces slowly, Hooker, now his protégé, coming close to being discovered by the unsuspecting Lonnegan, who thinks through circumstances that Hooker is named Kelly and wants to in turn screw Gondorff, whom Lonnegan knows as Shaw, boorish card shark who hoodwinked Lonnegan into losing big. 

Into this mix comes a secret assassin who has tracked Hooker down, an FBI agent who wants Gondorff and squeezes Hooker into helping him and Snyder, and the ultimate con on the master con, leading to an amusing conclusion where the real mark...is the audience.

Again and again, I'll say that the big twist in The Sting, at least for me, isn't one.  In fact, I was expecting it and could see it a mile away.  It was clear that this twist (and no, I won't tell you what it is, for that would be in very Polk taste) was the best way to handle things.  However, this is one of the things that makes The Sting such a great film: David S. Ward's screenplay is one of the sharpest and shrewdest scripts in how it handles the long game.

Through each step (The Set-Up, The Hook, The Tale, The Wire, The Shut-Out, and The Sting), Ward's script gives us just enough to fill us in, but holds enough back to where when we go back to it, we see that they were telling us everything by hiding it in plain sight.  About the only point of contention I would have involves Salino, the hitman Lonnegan put on Hooker.  It's logical, but I didn't get the sense that with Salino, we were given the necessary clues to give us the conclusion.  I think this is one time we were slightly misdirected.

In all other aspects, The Sting is a really great and amusing picture.  The film is unapologetic about being an old-style 30s gangster-style film, from the opening credits which denote the old Universal Studios logo down to the various title cards that set up each piece of the intricate plot.  There's one aspect that doesn't go with the mobster-style though: the violence (Luther's death, for example, isn't shown: we only see his body).  In fact, while there is violence (when the Erie Kid is beat up for example), it's interesting that The Sting is really not a blood and gore film.


This is interesting in that Lonnegan is suppose to be a particularly violent thug, but as played by Shaw (which must have been a bit of an irony to have Robert Shaw play against a character named Shaw) his menace is more quiet than overtly vicious.  Shaw's Irish master criminal was excellent: a man who thinks he's getting away with his old tricks whose hubris blinds him to how he's being played.  The final scene where he's told "Place it on Lucky Dan" only to find the wording has a slightly different but highly important meaning is brilliant: the fear and rage as he sees that he's going down while still not realizing he's been had.

Newman and Redford made such a great pair that it is surprising that this was their second and I think final collaboration (after Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid).  I think Newman has less to do as the cool hand Gondorff, but he still exudes command as he plots every move (even those involving the less experienced and more impetuous Hooker).  Redford, curiously enough, would earn his only acting Oscar nomination for The Sting, and I think well worth it as the sometimes naïve, sometimes dumb, sometimes wise guy Hooker. 

Other smaller performances, like Harold Gould's Kid Twist and Durning's shady detective are also excellent.  Of particular note is Eileen Brennan as Billie, Gondorff's 'girl Friday'.  She is sassy and clever and as determined to bring Lonnegan down as the others.

While it's not often I mention this, the style of The Sting goes to Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation of ragtime (particularly Scott Joplin's The Entertainer) and Edith Head's brilliant costumes.  All the elements came together under George Roy Hill's direction (or misdirection) if you like. 

In so many respects, The Sting works so well as a film that the greater pleasure comes from not seeing the slow burn rather than trying to keep ahead of Lonnegan and the double or triple-dealing going on.  An unapologetic lark, it's more fun if you don't think about it (though it works quite well if you do).


The Entertainer is taking a bow...




  

DECISION: B+

1974 Best Picture: The Godfather Part II

Friday, July 24, 2015

Holmes Goes Nutmeg



ELEMENTARY: THE ADVENTURE OF THE NUTMEG CONCOCTION

I don't know if The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction is as close to a Christmas special as Elementary will get, since it has nothing to do with Christmas.  There is no mention of the holidays at all, but I can't help thinking that it's connected to the holidays.

Maybe it's the nutmeg.  The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction has a strong story where the criminal, granted, is a bit of a curious surprise, but on the whole holds up and has what really is Elementary's strongest point: character development.

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) takes a case: the disappearance of a young woman five years ago.  The only clue is the curious scent of nutmeg found at the crime scene.  Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), with his protégé Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond) foists himself on the case, going to FBI Agent Blake Tanner.  Tanner is convinced the missing woman, Kim Holder, is part of a serial killer's murder spree he's nicknamed "Pumpkin", but Holmes is convinced the various crimes of "Pumpkin" are not related.  In short, Sherlock Holmes thinks the FBI is chasing shadows.

Still, there is a missing woman to find. Watson and Kitty, who have formed a good working relationship, discover that the missing woman had been having an affair with a high-powered lawyer, Noel Kramer (Lewis Cleale).  He is innocent of her disappearance, but in a case of 'she knew too much', Kramer may have inadvertently led to her disappearance and probable death.

Kramer represented drug trafficker Raymond Carpenter (Kevin Geer), who may have thought Jessica (the missing woman) knew too much via pillow talk and had her rubbed out.  Holmes now suspects that it's not the murders that are the connection, but the clean-up crew, one that requires a concoction with the aroma of nutmeg.  For that, he calls in one of his Irregulars, whom he knows only as The Nose (John Horton).  The Nose's skills in sniffing out clues is without parallel, and at the latest site where nutmeg is detected, the Nose knows. 

I LOVE writing that line.


Holmes' plans to entrap the cleaner backfire, but ultimately we get a clue via a mural Holmes finds ugly.  It leads to an ex-student of the Spaudling Technical Institute who may be involved in the murders.  We get a last minute twist that Kitty finds which brings the real cleaner to justice, for he has murdered himself.

In a subplot, Watson is asked for help by an old flame, Chris Santos (Christian Camargo), which makes her question her relationship with Andrew.  In the end though, she opts to stay rather than stray, and Kitty, having solved the case, slowly comes to terms with her past, playing Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (The Pastoral), which her father so loved.

Oh, and Ms. Hudson (Candis Cayne) made an appearance.

It's a bit curious that Ms. Hudson is one of my favorite characters on Elementary (along with CLYDE!) in that she is so rarely seen (which I find a flaw on the show).  I do wish she had a larger role rather just appear intermittently, but in fairness perhaps Cayne has more side work that I don't know about.  I would like her to make more appearances and have a larger role, but perhaps that will come in due time.

Leaving aside that, The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction I think works remarkably well.  For once, the killer isn't the most obvious choice.  In fact, as we build the case, slowly and surely, we get a step-by-step breakdown of how Holmes came to his conclusions.  We aren't treated as fools, but instead we get a pretty logical explanation to things.  I do grant that the killer does if not appear quite randomly he does not get a particular showcase to have us think he could do it, the fact that we didn't solve it halfway through is a step forward.

What Peter Ocko's script gave us was a pretty enjoyable hour which allowed Jonny Lee Miller to have a wry wit to the proceedings.  This Holmes doesn't shrink from interfering in people's lives either person or professional.  Watson asks Kitty (off-screen I think) to look into the Chris Santos identity theft case, and while Watson and Holmes are waiting to interview Carpenter, Holmes asks Watson if she enjoyed "horizontal refreshment" with Chris. 

Now there's a euphemism we haven't heard before. 



For Holmes, sex and love have mixed only once, with disastrous results, so he has little stock on the idea of love-making.  However, bits like this allow Miller to have a natural humor with his Holmes, one who knows the ways of the world and can mock it.

Miller also gets another moment of humor at Holmes' expense when his plan backfires.  It's unfortunate that we didn't see his arrest for murder when he sets up Kitty as his 'victim' in an effort to lure the cleaner, but the interplay between Miller and Liu is delightful.  They have a great rapport together, which is why I think they make an excellent Holmes and Watson.

Lovibond has also meshed well as Kitty.  I think there was a fear she would be an appendage to the whole show, but I think she's come into her own, making Kitty sympathetic and her journey an interesting one to watch.  Liu for her part continues to excel as Watson, her scenes of doubt with Santos a highlight.

It was also nice to see another Irregular, and an older gentleman at that.  Not all of Holmes' team have to be hipsters (like Everyone, though does the group count as part of the Irregulars).  I wouldn't mind if The Nose made another return appearance (though Ms. Hudson takes precedence, as does CLYDE!).

On the whole, The Adventure of the Nutmeg Concoction is a sharp, well-written, and especially well-acted episode.  "I expect nothing, which is why I'm such an exceptional detective," Holmes declares.  For my part, I expect great things, which is why I'm such an Elementary fan. 

9/10

Next Episode: End of Watch

Thursday, July 23, 2015

We Only Said Goodbye With Words. Amy: A Review


AMY

From the moment we open with Amy, the new documentary of the late singer Amy Winehouse, we see that she was above all else, an extraordinary talent.  The film begins with her cover of Moon River, a beautiful, jazzy rendition that shows us the depths of her talent.  Had she stuck with her original notion of being a jazz singer, performing at small, intimate clubs and following her heroes Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn and Tony Bennett, I think Amy Winehouse would have been happier...and more importantly, alive.  As it so happens, Amy was done in by a variety of forces external and internal.

Culled from hours of private home movies and off-screen interviews, Amy follows the same method that director Asif Kapadia followed in his masterpiece, Senna.  Here we have another extraordinary examination of another extraordinary life, one that goes beyond the jokes, the shock, the scandals, to present us a very competent but at times insecure woman, who truly believed she wouldn't be famous and who in the end, just couldn't get over that final hurdle of self-damage.

Most of Amy comes from home movies shot throughout her life, from her childhood through her early days and down to various gigs pre-fame.  It's interesting that we see an Amy who was at times genuinely happy, vivacious, funny, nowhere near the persona of this gloomy drunk, scowling at the world and thoroughly disheveled.

However, while for a time she did have a focus on the music she so loved, into her life comes Blake Fielder, the Bobby to her WHITNEY!  The two formed a very toxic relationship, and Amy soon became fixated on Fiedler to the point of blinding herself to just how bad he was with her.  It was with Fielder that Amy began using heroin and crack cocaine (when in the past her vices were alcohol and marijuana, the former being especially potent).  Fielder was really bad for Winehouse, but she couldn't see it.



She also couldn't see that others around her, from her family (in particular her father Mitchell) to her team were at times not helpful.  Mitch, for example, vetoed the idea of Amy entering rehab (hence the line, "And if my Daddy thinks I'm fine" from her signature song, Rehab).  This decision to not cut her off at the pass before the fame really hit, before the paparazzi really hit, before she became the subject of ridicule, pretty much doomed her to her fate.

Not that her toxic relationship with Fiedler helped any.

Still, we see that behind the disheveled appearance and slurred performances (Belgrade being so sad to watch), we see that Amy Winehouse was actually a pleasant, even shy person.  One of the most heartbreaking scenes in a pretty heartbreaking film was when she recorded a duet with her idol, Tony Bennett.  Her nervousness and insecurity come through, and Bennett, ever the classy professional (he records in a suit and tie), calmly tries to guide her and reassure her. 

Early, when Tony Bennett of all people announces her Grammy win, Amy is already amazed that he would possibly present her with music's highest honor.  "Tony Bennett!" she tells her dad when due to legal reasons she had to perform at the awards via satellite from London.  When he announces her name as the winner, the genuine shock and almost innocence we see in her face is beautiful.  Sadly, one of her lifelong friends remarks that Amy tells her that it was all so boring without drugs.

The editing, particularly the sound editing, is one of the best I've seen (again, matching Senna).  How we fade in intensity from just her vocals to the full version of Back to Black is amazing. 

Amy is really a sad, sad film.  Her death on July 23, 2011 came just when everything seemed to finally be coming together.  She was off drugs, she was coherent, she realized the damage she'd done (her friend commented that Amy kept saying, "I'm sorry" over and over, and was lucid and upbeat).  She was focusing on returning to the music she so loved.  It looked like she was back on track, but that old alcohol wouldn't let go.  Her heart just gave out.  There were several moments that just made me want to cry to see this girl, who at one point was vivacious and eager to create something, turn into what she became.  It was so sad to see a good girl reduce herself to what she ended up as.

Still, Amy is a reminder of a great talent done in by herself and by others.  We can focus on the music, we can focus on her gifts as a singer and songwriter, one who when she was good, she was very, very good.    

1983-2011


DECISION: A-

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Diva Dangerous: Whitney Review


WHITNEY

I am not the target audience for a Lifetime movie, so I am not qualified to say if Whitney (or as I prefer to call her, WHITNEY!) is traditional Lifetime fare.  However, given that the biopic debuted on a network better known for 'women in peril' movies, perhaps Whitney was then not as far off from their regular fare as I thought.   Of course, the peril usually comes from a crazy person...well, so far Whitney is hitting all the hallmarks of Lifetime: the crazy person here being the subject of the film.  Whitney is not a terrible film.  It has good performances and musical numbers. 

How truthful it is to the life of WHITNEY! and her significant other Bobby Brown is hard to say.

Whitney is centered on just one aspect of WHITNEY!'s life: her romance with Brown.  Going by the film, WHITNEY! (Yaya DaCosta) met Brown (Arlen Escapeta) at the Soul Train Awards, WHITNEY! being impressed and slightly aroused by Brown's performance of his hit Every Little Step.  The confident Brown finds the elegant Houston equally attractive, and soon they start dating.  Brown, who in Whitney is a brilliant songwriter/performer, is pretty much a good guy: surprised to see WHITNEY! using a little cocaine.  WHITNEY! wants him, but so does his on/off girlfriend/baby mama Kim (Nafessa Williams), and he, through curious circumstances, ends up sleeping with both (after WHITNEY! dumps him, he goes back to Kim but then goes back-back to WHITNEY!).

Despite the loud objections of everyone in WHITNEY!'s circle, from her mother, singer Cissy Houston (Suzzane Douglas) and over the advise of WHITNEY!'s mentor, Arista Records mogul Clive Davis (Mark Rolston), WHITNEY! decides to marry Bobby (already having lost a child during filming of her debut film, The Bodyguard).  However, things do go well for either:  WHITNEY! wants to stay home with her new daughter and take a break from touring, but Clive wants her on the road to strike while the iron's hot.  Poor Bobby, whose own career is floundering, is disappointed when Clive puts the squeeze on him to get WHITNEY! back on the road.  Bobby also has to deal with being "Mr. Houston", as his somewhat erratic wife keeps slurping up that coke she so loves.  Eventually, Bobby's associations with his thug past and her own issues with drugs and self-indulgence get the better of this love story.   When she sings I Will Always Love You, it's to say goodbye to Bobby.



"Crack is whack", she once said.  What she meant to say was, "I'm whacked on crack".  Whitney is very entertaining, but exactly how true it is to what actually happened in the sad and sorry spectacle that was the WHITNEY!/Bobby relationship is dubious. 

The film pretty much at times plays like a whitewashing of Bobby Brown almost from the beginning.  Screenwriter Shem Bitterman and director Angela Bassett (who costarred with WHITNEY! in Waiting to Exhale) opted to have Bobby's first number be the sweet Every Little Step.  In reality, Brown sang the more defiant My Prerogative at the Soul Train Awards when they first met.  This might be a small change, and it might have been done for a variety of reasons (copyright, licensing, what have you).  However, to me, the change in songs is indicative, accidentally or not, of how Whitney decided to portray Brown in this story.

Every Little Step is a nice love song about being together forever.  My Prerogative is about not giving a rat's behind what others think and doing whatever one wanted.  In reality, WHITNEY! and Bobby were squarely in the latter. 

Throughout Whitney, Bobby is shown as some sort of great songwriter done in by his wife's constant neediness and self-indulgence.  If only he didn't have to deal with WHITNEY! and her insecurities, her wild sex drive, and her cocaine use (which we see first as casual, and by the end...not as casual but nowhere near as out of control as it got), he would have gone on to be the equal to someone like a Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.  WHITNEY!, if we believe the film, was the one that introduced Bobby to cocaine.



Again, this might be the case, but Whitney at times seems almost too eager to please its subjects, both living and dead, to be a real exploration.  No mention is made of their many antics, of how toxic they were whenever they were together, how the private WHITNEY! was nowhere near the image of Houston as this elegant, sophisticated lady.  WHITNEY! could be vulgar, crass, self-indulgent, unwilling to listen to anyone.  We might get little hints here and there about that, but Whitney still veered too close to the public image of this good girl to give us just how bad she could be.

No mention is also suggested that Bobby Brown is no saint either, culminating in the short-lived reality show Being Bobby Brown, best remembered now for giving us as sordid a picture of WHITNEY! and Bobby as possible.  Brown, if he were in real life as he is shown in Whitney, would have been appalled at the concept of Being Bobby Brown, let alone the execution. 

Sometimes reality is more horrifying than fiction, especially one that pulls its punches.

In fairness, there are good things in Whitney.  DaCosta handles herself well as the demure diva, even if she looks nothing like WHITNEY!  Escarpeta does a great job in making Brown highly sympathetic.  The various musical numbers are also well-crafted.  The budgetary limitations show, but bless Bassett for making them move and be full of energy, even when showing something as simple as WHITNEY! recording I'm Your Baby Tonight in a studio. Deborah Cox supplies the musical vocals, but DaCosta manages to match the vocals very well.

Whitney is pretty well acted and directed.  The whole film though, at the end of the day, while entertaining is a bit of a whitewash.  The true ugly nature of the WHITNEY!/Bobby relationship is obscured in the film.  The couple became a source of mockery for how they led their public life together, let alone how dysfunctional they were in private, with drugs and arrogance and self-indulgence all over the place.

Whitney Houston had an incredible voice and was a beautiful woman.  She was also self-centered, self-indulgent, a bit of a loon, self-destructive.  Bobby Brown, contrary to what Whitney shows, fed and aggravated the destructive tendencies of Miss Houston.  Whitney as a production independent of its subject, is pretty entertaining.  As a chronicle of events, it's more hit-and-miss.

If WHITNEY! had lived, I think this would be her reaction to Whitney...         



6/10

The Interview: A Review

THE INTERVIEW

The Interview is terrible. 

There's just no getting around that.  Separate from the scandal and misery the film caused Sony in terms of leaked e-mails and hacking from a terrorist regime so paranoid and devoid of humor, The Interview as a film is unfunny, insulting to the audience, crass, immature, and just terrible. Terrible, Terrible, Terrible.

In other words, it's a Seth Rogen production.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) is the host of nightly talk-show Skylark Tonight, which while popular is not respected, which goes double for Skylark himself.  Dave is a vapid moron who is so witless that his only points of references to just about anything is Lord of the Rings (the movies, not the books, since Skylark is the type of dimwit who thinks To Kill A Mockingbird is a hunting manual).  His best friend/producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) pretty much goes along with everything Skylark does, though at a party to celebrate their 1,000th episode he sees a former friend who sneers at Skylark Tonight and everything to do with it (his friend works at 60 Minutes).  This needles Rapaport, but it doesn't bother Skylark since, in his words, "They hate us cause they ain't us".

These are the types of inane oddities Skylark dishes out often.

Skylark, however, gets surprising news.  He comes upon a profile of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and discovers that the fat pig of a despot is a fan of all things, Skylark Tonight.  More shocking than North Korean nuclear missiles coming at us, Rapaport manages to negotiate a live interview with the reclusive leader of the Hermit Kingdom.  This news stuns the entire universe: an idiot like Dave Skylark gets a sit-down with Kim Jung-un?!  Even Bill Maher in a cameo mocks this, suggesting Dave is such a moron that when Skylark gets to Pyongyang (which Dave can't pronounce), he'll end up thinking he's interviewing the guy from Gangnam Style.

Dave and Aaron, for their part, want a little street cred, but being Dave and Aaron, go on a drug-and-alcohol fueled bender.   Enter Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), the sexy CIA agent who gives these two an assignment: take out Kim Jung-un.  Dave and Aaron, being Dave and Aaron, at first don't get what she means by 'take him out' until it's made perfectly clear she means assassinate.  With some training in applying a specific poison, the dysfunctional duo go off to the Socialist Paradise (or what the United States will look like in the second term of President Bernie Sanders). 

At last they meet Dave's number one fan, Kim Jung-un (Randall Park).  Dave is easily smitten and taken in by all the greatness of the North Korean paradise and ends up thinking Kim is a really cool guy.  He's so taken with his little buddy, who shoots hoops with him, shows him his tank (complete with Katy Perry blasting in the tank's sound system) and the hot chicks he decides Kim is just a misunderstood player like himself.  Kim just suffers from a bad rep, and thus, Dave won't kill him.

Aaron is appalled at this, and with a little help from the sexy North Korean official Sook (Diana Bang), decides they will do the deed during the scripted interview.

I'd like to point out that Skylark, with a very reluctant Rapaport, had agreed to ask only the questions Kim supplied them with.  Like everything in North Korea, the whole thing is staged. It's only when Skylark a.) sees Kim lose it and drunkenly plot nuclear war, and b.) discovers the grocery stores are fake and filled with fake food, does he finally agree to go along with this caper.  In the end, while they bungle the plans they do end up killing Kim and return to a pleased America...complete with puppy. 

Yes, he IS cute...

Obviously, a satire on Kim Jung-un is possible, and certainly an intelligent one.  The Interview is not such a satire.  It tries too hard in so many ways to be funny when it ends up cringe-inducing.  Dave Sterling's screenplay (based on a story by Sterling and co-directors Rogen and Evan Goldberg) has nothing in it that is funny apart from the first scene, where Eminem in a cameo 'comes out' as gay.

That's right: Slim Shady on Skylark Tonight calmly and casually says he's gay, then says "I'm a homosexual" later on, and ends with "I like men".  What makes that funny is a.) the fact that Marshall Mathers III says it, and b.) the fact that Marshall Mathers III says it so calmly and matter-of-factly. 

Even here, though, we can see why The Interview is so horrendous as a film.  Dave Skylark as portrayed by Franco and as created by Rogen/Goldberg is such a complete and total moron that he can't come up with any follow-up questions without Aaron speaking into his ear.  Throughout The Interview the yin and yang of Franco & Rogen's characters never appears realistic.  That 'struggle' Rapaport has about being a 'real news producer' are thrown out there, but never explored (unlike Rogen's anus, which was the subject of a particularly ugly sight gag).  Skylark, for his part, is such a total dimwit that he cannot identify a tiger, referring to it as a 'big striped dog'.  His character is shown as such a moron again and again to where one wonders whether he is not actually stupid but downright insane.

They are given the task of assassinating Kim via a poison given through a strip placed on the palm of a hand.  When Skylark and Rapaport leave for North Korea, a reporter snidely asks if Skylark will kiss Kim's ass.  "No, but I'll give him something special with my hand," is what is suppose to be his witty comeback.  Skylark apparently doesn't realize that he's not just giving away the assassination method, but is suggesting that he will physically masturbate Kim Jung-un as well.

Again and again Rogen & Company are obsessed with this kind of juvenile humor that those Freaks and Geeks would have left in high school.

A big problem is the pacing.  Oftentimes it feels like we're rushing through things in order to get to the next orgy, the next penis joke, the next example of Skylark's idiocy or Aaron showing off what a flabby body he has.

At this point, the question as to why Seth Rogen has a career in film should be brought up, because apart from a few films (maybe Superbad, probably This Is the End, maybe Neighbors...though I haven't seen that one yet), Rogen has done the same shtick again and again and it just isn't funny.  Not that it was then, but why are people still paying money to see this over and over again?

More surprising to me is how violent The Interview gets at the end, particularly with Rogen's character.  It's played for laughs, but I think the actual reaction one has is revulsion , not revelry.

This takes away from Park's Kim Jung-un, who comes across almost sympathetic: more needy and spoiled than bonkers or even evil.  As played by Park, Kim is just a messed-up kid trying hard to live up to Daddy Dear Leader's expectations.  His performance (and Eminem's cameo) are the only good things in the film.

IF the screenplay had bothered to make Skylark slightly more intelligent than the gibberish-spouting loon/nitwit he was, or if it had bothered to make Aaron the more sensible of the two (well, it actually did try, and failed spectacularly in those efforts), or even attempt to make fun of the situations and characters rather than rely on "I have a hard on, let's look at it" style of humor, The Interview might have been worth something. 

It's a sad commentary that the North Koreans went into fits over this dribble.  Obviously, they are sheltered and humorless.  If they had any sense, they would have done what the rest of us should have done: ignored it and watch it die a quick death.  Instead, it sent its Guardians of Peace after The Interview and Sony, giving this horror much more publicity than it deserved.

Though, in fairness, how else would we have learned about Angelina Jolie being a 'talentless spoiled brat', or about "Johnny Madrid" aka Tom Hanks, or how the industry leading the charge against a 'war on women' goes out of its way to pay the broads less than the bros. 

The fact that the G.O.P. targeted The Interview is a funnier pun than anything the film itself came up with.           

DECISION: F