Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cinderella (2015): A Review


The thing about Cinderella is that it knows what it is: a pure visual confection, appealing to those who know the story best from the Disney animated feature that Cinderella freely draws from.  There's a reason for that: this Cinderella is a live-action adaptation of that Disney movie, perhaps a bit more expanded than its predecessor but an adaptation nonetheless.  I think that Cinderella, fully aware of what it is, didn't bother to be an update, a retelling, or anything other than a squarely traditional, visually sumptuous picture.  As a result, it is very good.

Ella (Lily James) has a pretty happy life.  She is loved by her mother (Hayley Atwell), who tells her to 'have courage and be kind', but Mrs. Tremaine soon dies.  Her father (Ben Chaplin), soon remarries, and the new Mrs. Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) comes, accompanied by her two daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera).  Mr. Tremaine, a wealthy merchant, goes off for business, and he too dies.  The Lady Tremaine is displeased that she is now a widow twice over, and slowly pushes Ella to be the sole servant in her own home.  Her stepsisters mock her, dubbing her Cinderella (from the cinders that cover her face).

She has no one to confide in but her mice friends and her horse.  She rides and meets someone who tells her he is Kit, an apprentice on a hunt, but who is really the Prince (Richard Madden).  Unaware of who he really is, she is the first person to treat him as a person and not as royalty.  The King (Shakespeare denier Derek Jacobi) wants his son to get married to a princess quickly, as he is dying.  The Prince wants to marry for love, but nonetheless the King orders a ball to find a bride.  The Prince, however, gets his father to invite the kingdom's nobility and aristocracy as well as foreign princesses to the ball.

As such, the Tremaine's daughters can attend, and Lady Tremaine is determined to marry one of them off to the future monarch.  That is, except for Cinderella, who is forbidden to go, royal edict or no royal edict.  Cinderella is heartbroken, but she gets unexpected help from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), who uses her rather ditzy style of magic to help Cinderella attend the ball. 

At the ball, Cinderella discovers that the apprentice Kit, whom she fancied, is the Prince; the poor farmer's daughter Kit (his father's nickname for him) is the same girl who has dazzled the entire Court.  However, she must flee at the stroke of midnight, in her rush leaving her glass slipper. 

Kit soon becomes King, and begins his search for his Queen.  The Lady Tremaine discovers the other glass slipper and when Cinderella rejects a deal to make her the power behind the throne, the Lady Tremaine smashes the glass slipper.  She then strikes a deal with the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard), who wants the new King to marry a true royal princess.  The King, however, will not be denied.  With his own glass slipper, he orders all the maidens to slip it on.  Obviously, it fits none, and when they arrive at the Tremaine estate, the sisters are fitted and found unfit.  Cinderella, locked in the tower, attracts the attention of the soldiers by her singing, but both the Grand Duke and Lady Tremaine push to leave.  However, one of the soldiers stops them. It is the King in disguise, who insists on having all the women try the slipper.  The shoe literally fits, and they marry (the Lady Tremaine, her daughters, and the Duke we are told, leave the kingdom, never to return). 

And they lived happily ever after, the Fairy Godmother tells us.

Again, Cinderella breaks no new ground.  It isn't attempting to update the traditional story or have a new spin on the tale.  It is determined to stick to as traditional a narrative as possible, and bless director Sir Kenneth Branagh for being firm in his vision to make this a visual feast while sticking with total tradition. 

We get all the traditional motifs of the Cinderella story: the wicked stepmother, the mean stepsisters, the charming and beautiful Prince, the sweet Cinderella.  About the only big change is making the Fairy Godmother a batty, slightly bonkers figure.  Then again, since it IS Helena Bonham Carter...

The real brilliance in Cinderella is that it knows exactly what it is: a pretty film where everyone is asked to play their roles with no real introspection.  James proves to be a pretty but simple Cinderella, all sweetness and loveliness but not much of a spine to stand up for herself or against her stepmother.  Blanchett is vamping it up as the wicked Lady Tremaine, devouring the scenery but doing it with a wicked sense of wit.  Madden is pretty as the Prince, and I don't think much is asked of him apart from that.  Bonham Carter is the comic relief, daffy, scatterbrained, with a 'bibbidy-bobbidy-boo' thrown in once or twice for good measure.

It's a sign of the professionalism within the production that Bonham Carter and Branagh, who had an affair that broke up Branagh's marriage to Emma Thompson, worked together well (he directing, she starring). 

I think that everyone pretty much understands that Cinderella is suppose to be pretty-looking, straightforward, traditional.  The highlight is the costuming, which is big, colorful, beautiful. 

I found Cinderella to be pretty, enjoyable, sumptuous, and on the whole entertaining.  Its greatest strength is its total sincerity, its complete lack of cynicism or irony.  It knows what it is and doesn't pretend to be anything else.  It's an unapologetic family film, where good triumphs over evil, where we see two pretty people fall in love, and which is a lovely confection for the eyes.

Go into Cinderella with that in mind, and you'll find it is a wish fulfilled.  Go into Cinderella in any other mood, and your heart will grow cold.          


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge: A Review


The title Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is really a pun.  The phrase 'introducing so-and-so' is used when someone is going to make their debut (and I suspect, is expected to make a big splash).  However, it also works in that Dandridge is perhaps not as well-remembered as she should be and thus, the film has to 'introduce' her to us.

In what turned out to be a curious bit of casting history, Halle Berry, who would go on to be the first African-American woman to win a Best Actress Academy Award, plays Dandridge, the first black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.   Berry herself would win an Emmy Award for her performance as Dandridge, one of five Emmy Awards Introducing Dorothy Dandridge would win out of its nine nominations.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge plays like many Hollywood biopics: a story filled with triumph, tragedy, and an untimely death.  Now add the extra layer of racism, and we get a fascinating, if not completely perfect, rendering of Dandridge's life.

The framing device is of Dorothy Dandridge engaged in a long overnight call to her friend and ex-sister-in-law Geri (Tamara Taylor).  Dorothy remembers all her life as she makes a collage of photos of that has gone before. 

There was the physical abuse and terror she faced from Auntie (LaTonya Richardson).  Auntie was the 'personal friend' of Ruby Dandridge (Loretta Devine), the mother of Dorothy and her sister Vivian (Cynda Williams).  It's not directly stated, but one guesses that Auntie and Ruby (who worked in Hollywood in primarily maid parts) were longtime partners.  Dorothy catches the eye of legendary dancer Harold Nicholas (Obba Babatunde), one half of the brilliant Nicholas Brothers dance duo.  She and Harold marry (and she enters marriage a virgin), but Auntie's violent assault to see if Dorothy really was a virgin traumatized her, making sex more a chore than a pleasure.

Harold proves to be a bad figure, as he went golfing while Dorothy waited for him at home when she went into labor.  Over Dorothy's objections, she was taken to the hospital, where she gives birth to her only child, a daughter she names Harolyn, whom they call Lynn.  Lynn is diagnosed as mentally retarded (to use the terminology of the day), who will remain mentally at four for the rest of her life.  Dorothy is devastated by the diagnosis and she tries to be with Lynn as much as possible, but work (and a divorce from Harold) make it impossible.

Dorothy catches the ear of Earl Mills (Brent Spiner), a music producer who was tricked into listening to her unofficial audition at a party.  Mills is intrigued, but Dorothy is determined to have a Hollywood career.  That career leads her to take on roles like a jungle Queen in a Tarzan movie (where her questions about logic are dismissed in favor of her showing more skin).  She agrees to hit the club circuit to raise her profile (and get some income).

She has to push against rather ugly racism, but her charm, talent, and beauty win even the most hostile of audiences.  Dorothy, however, continues to push for a film career, and a new opportunity has come up.  An all-Negro (again, the term of the day) musical based on the opera Carmen.  Carmen Jones' legendary director, Otto Preminger (Klaus Maria Brandauer) thinks Dandridge is too soft and lady-like to be his sultry seductress.  However, a quick wardrobe change and appearance in Preminger's office takes that idea off his head.  Even before filming begins, they become lovers, with Preminger serving as her mentor on the set and in the bedroom.

Dandridge is a sensation as Carmen Jones, and all her work gets her where she wants to go: to the Academy Awards as the first black woman to receive a Best Actress nomination.  She not only attends the ceremony (and is seated among the elite rather than the back of the room like Hattie McDaniel, the first black Academy Award winner), she gets to present an award, another barrier broken as she becomes the first black female presenter.

Obviously, she didn't win (even if she had had weak competition I doubt America would be ready for a black female Oscar winner), and worse, Preminger started giving her bad advice.  20th Century Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck (William Atherton) wants to build her up to be the first real minority sex symbol by casting her in non-black roles (an Italian, a Mexican, and an Asian) in order to build her profile.  She agrees to star in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I as Tuptim, a slave to serve as a concubine for the King of Siam.  Preminger tells her she, an Academy Award nominee, should not go back to playing slaves.  Despite Miller's frantic pleas, Dandridge reneges on her promise, damaging her career and inadvertently passing a chance to be in a successful and artistically creative project.

Her career in clubs isn't too hot either.  She still objects to being hidden away in penthouse suites, forbidden to cross the casino floor or use the backstage restroom.  She's even told that should she decide to swim in the casino's pool, it would have to be cleaned.  Dandridge will not be denied, and she dares to put her foot in the water.  As she finishes her set, she and Mills find the swimming pool has been drained and is being scrubbed, just because she put her FOOT in the water.

A short-lived marriage to hotel owner Jack Denison (D.B. Sweeney), an abusive man who bilked her out of her fortune, temporarily puts her down, as does an unhappy reunion with Preminger on the film of Porgy & Bess (Preminger having abandoned her prior) and having to give up her parental rights to Lynn due to inability to maintain her hospital bills.  Miller, however, comes to the rescue.  He gets her to get off the pills and booze and puts her up in a spa.  Here, she regains her health and gets better news: club dates and foreign-film projects are opening up.  It looks like Dorothy Dandridge is making a comeback.

Sadly, she injures herself when tripping over weights, fracturing her ankle.  We go back to the beginning, where she ends her call and hears from Mills, who is coming to pick her up for New York and a booking engagement.  She decides to bathe before leaving, but when she doesn't respond to his calls, a frantic Miller bursts in.  He finds Dorothy Dandridge dead: on the bathroom door, nude.  It is unclear exactly how she died: the investigators on the scene speculate that she may have died from a rare embolism (bits of bone that floated into her blood stream and blocked blood flow to her brain), or it was a suicide (a note previously written by Dandridge having been discovered). 

Dorothy Dandridge was only 42.

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is an excellent film.  It has high production value and is an extremely well-acted production.  In regards to the former, the recreations of events like Dandridge's Oscar presentation and Carmen Jones look authentic all around.  Comparing the two you see that Introducing Dorothy Dandridge took great care in replicating the moments to where they match them remarkably well. 

Berry is simply brilliant as Dandridge, whether in channeling her anger at being mistreated by the racists or in her coquettish nature with men.  The anger and the heartbreak Dandridge has (in particular with regards to her daughter) are moving.  We celebrate Dandridge's defiance when she dips her toes in the water.  However, when we see that the casino has kept their word to clean it out, Berry doesn't speak, doesn't emote, but shows a quiet pain and reflection on what she has to endure.

Berry also has a great moment when she re-auditions for Preminger, using her feminine wiles to show she is no sweet girl, but a sultry sex goddess who could lure men to their doom.  She has to play Dandridge playing Carmen, a hard feat that Berry does well.  Berry may not be the greatest of actresses today, but when given good direction (courtesy of Martha Coolidge) and a good script (courtesy of Scott Abbott and future uber-producer Shonda Rhimes), Berry can be quite capable of giving an effective performance.

Her two primary costars, Spiner and Brandauer, are also excellent as the nervous but loyal Mills (who has carried a torch for our torch singer too lately revealed) and the arrogant but brilliant Preminger (whom we figure would not leave his wife for anyone, even Dandridge).  Coolidge uses silences to convey emotions, to let us know what is going on.  Seeing Preminger walk away while Dandridge is performing on stage says so much without having to say anything vocally.

Other characters, like Williams' hot-and-cold sister Vivian and Devine's Mother Ruby do get a bit short-changed, popping in and out with little rhyme or reason.  Sometimes certain events, like Dandridge's relationship with Lynn, do get short-shifted and are rushed.  The entire Denison marriage was done almost as an afterthought, with Sweeney being a small part of what perhaps could have been a more important role.

Still, on the whole Introducing Dorothy Dandridge did exactly that: serve as an introduction to a pioneer.  Dorothy Dandridge broke down walls for African-American women in entertainment.  She was beautiful in any hue and by any standard, and as Mills points out to her, by taking some of the degradation she is making it slightly easier for the next woman.  She took the blows so that others, like Berry, would not.  Her legacy should not be forgotten, even if it is also tainted with pills, booze, and lousy decisions (Dandridge's rejection of the role of Tuptim, a part played in the film by another minority trailblazer, Puerto Rican legend Rita Moreno, was a terrible mistake).  We feel a sense of optimism when she begins her recovery and her comeback, only to mourn when we find her in the same sad situation another screen beauty ended up in.  Like Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge was found nude when dead, her corpse left exposed while the investigators looked her over.

Dorothy Dandridge's importance in African-American history, particularly with regards to film, should not be forgotten or ignored.  Introducing Dorothy Dandridge does much to keep her legacy alive. 

A well-acted, well-written, well-directed biopic (albeit a bit rushed), we are very pleased to be Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Norma Bates Goes Clubbing


We've got creepy neighbors.  We've got orgies.  We've got yet another disappearance with Norman Bates somehow connected.

Why knew life in Oregon was so flat-out weird?  Bates Motel's newest episode, The Arcanum Club, makes the cheerful oddballs of Portlandia look like Walton's Mountain.  Compared to the loonyness of White Pine Bay, Twin Peaks looks like Newberry. 

Annika Johnson, recent Bates Motel guest, has disappeared.  Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) becomes alarmed and angry that despite the declarations of her son Norman (Freddie Highmore), he was the last person to see Annika alive.  Norma has Norman take her to the last place Annika went, but that turns out to be a false lead.  With a little help from Emma (Olivia Cooke), Norma discovers that this party girl had an invitation to a place called the Arcanum Club.  Norma attempts to go there as Annika, but she does not know the password and is told to leave.  Undaunted, she sneaks in where she gets a big surprise: in a remote cabin away from the main building, she witnesses an orgy being observed by a mysterious figure.  She is spotted though by an old friend, Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who urges her to leave.  Norma wonders what Romero, who recently left the motel himself, is doing in a place like this.  He tells her he is there merely to 'press the flesh', but is not there for any tawdry business.   Norma tells him about Annika and urges him to investigate.  As she leaves, she comes across the Lee Berman Memorial Bypass, close to completion.  In a rage she drives her car to the sign and knocks it down before returning home.

Norman and Emma have gone out on their first real date, where Norman wishes he were Peter Pan and suggests Emma could be his Wendy.  Wendy and Peter, Emma reminds him, didn't have sex.  This sex talk is interesting, as Norman asks Emma if she had sex with Gunner (Keenan Tracy) and she says yes.  He asks if she feels bad afterwards, but she says she feels naughty, not guilty. 

Gunner has his own issues.  He's hooked up with Caleb (Kenny Johnson), a ne'er-do-well and the father/uncle of Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot), Norma's other son.  Dylan reluctantly lets Caleb stay in the cabin where Dylan is planting the legal pot.  However, they have a creepy neighbor, Chick (Ryan Hurst), who is bound to give them trouble.  Oh, and a woman's naked corpse is found floating in the water.

Despite Bates Motel's best efforts to be fair to everyone, you can't get away from the fact that Vera Farmiga is simply the best thing on the show.  She does so much within the hour, going through all sorts of emotions.  When Norma learns through Emma that Norman did go with Annika despite Norman telling her a few minutes prior that he hadn't seen her, her face expresses so much.  There's anger veering to fury, but there's also fear and alarm, panic at what she thinks her precious son is capable of.  The range of emotions is what we see, and just for that, Farmiga deserves another shot at winning a well-deserved Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Emmy. 

Throughout The Arcanum Club, Farmiga does so much.  She's comic when she arrives, disheveled after smashing through the sign.  She's raging in fury when she sees the embodiment of what will kill off her business.  She's almost prudish when she witnesses the goings-on of the elite.  She's tender and almost heartbroken when Romero leaves.

Speaking of, while I know there are many #Normero fans out there, I for one wouldn't be too thrilled to hook Norma and Sheriff Romero up.  After all, I want both of them to live.

The Arcanum Club has unintended moments of comedy.  Intentional or not, when Romero tells Norma that he's there "pressing the flesh", it is a bit of a double-entendre given what we've just caught a glimpse of.  In an almost innocent and slightly jealous fashion, Norma asks "Then why are you here?"  Romero replies, "I'm not here for that," referring to the orgy. 

Too bad.  Kind of wish he were.  He lives like a virtual monk, and if anyone needs a release in this town...

Earlier, Norma yells at her son, "I don't know why, but unhinged women seem drawn to you," complete with hand gestures.  Part of me wanted to say, "YOU should know, lady who wants her eighteen-year-old son still sleeping with her..." A mixture of possessiveness and genuine concern is expressed in the scene between them.  Norma is both frustrated and fearful, and finds no recourse or easy solution.  The fact that Norman thinks Annika is a 'nice girl' should be setting alarm bells like crazy.  The fact that at one point he refers to Annika in the past tense should raise more.

Highmore and Cooke are working so well on-screen as Norman and Emma.  One almost feels for Norman who is making a stab at a normal relationship (no pun intended).  We still see that for Norman, sex and violence go hand in hand, an erotic attraction being tied in to brutality.  The fact he pulled away from Emma in their kiss shows that at some level he a.) knows about his impulses and b.) genuinely cares for Emma, whom he doesn't want to harm.

The one thing that I think isn't working is the subplot with Dylan and Caleb.  This time it isn't Thieriot, who has grown on me as both an actor and a character.  We see that he really is a very kind young man who is beaten up way too much by everyone all around.  We see that Caleb is actually a better father to Gunner than he is to Dylan.  Granted, Caleb didn't rape Gunner's mother or conceive his own nephew as well, but still, I feel so much for Dylan.

It's the 'creepy neighbor' business that doesn't excite me, because I wonder where this particular story is going.  That, and the 'creepy neighbor' is a little too obviously creepy.

Another thing I wondered about was when Norma crashes the party.  How exactly did she manage to climb over the wall in an evening dress without doing anything to it?  Furthermore, weren't there any guards roaming the place to keep intruders out?

Finally, in the credits a supervising producer is listed as Steve Kornacki.  They don't mean the MSNBC host, do they? 

Minus those bits The Arcanum Club continues to showcase some simply extraordinary acting (in particular by Farmiga).  We get the sense that Annika is pretty much done for, and that no matter what Norma may want, she knows in her heart that Norman Bates is dangerous.  Let's face it, this is the third death he's been involved with in some way.  Eventually, everyone's going to have to wake up.


Next Episode: Persuasion

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Legend of Lizzie Borden: A Review


It's one of the most infamous crimes in American history: the brutal murders of Abby and Andrew Borden.  The woman accused: Lizzie Andrew Borden, spinster.

Lizzie Borden has become a byword for 'psycho', a woman whom the popular culture has convicted of murdering her father and stepmother despite being acquitted for the crimes in a court of law.  That's what we should remember: in the eyes of the law, Lizzie Borden did not kill her parents.  However, for all intents and purposes, Lizzie Borden is forever remembered as a murderess, a cold-blooded creature whose nursery rhyme is a perverse tribute. 

Borden has entered into infamy, an American figure of diabolical evil. She's been the subject of songs, plays, and even, perhaps bizarrely, a ballet (Fall River Legend, choreographed by the legendary Agnes de Mille).  No surprise that a television movie was made as well. Premiering in 1975,  The Legend of Lizzie Borden uses her tale to tell of a family in chaos, and while it presents a plausible way Borden might have done it, there's no way to prove the telefilm's theory now, nearly a hundred and twenty-five years after the infamous murders. 

The film starts by saying that this story is 'based largely on fact', and it is built on historic records, for the Borden murder case was one of the first major trials given wild publicity through various press accounts of varying credibility.  It was the sensation of the time, a true cause celebre.  Lizzie Borden (Elizabeth Montgomery) welcomes a neighbor into her home with some chilling words, "Papa has been murdered.  Won't you come in?"  Whether it is shock or cool acceptance we don't know, but there is a gruesome crime scene.  The Borden patriarch, Andrew (Fritz Weaver) has been hacked to death.  There are police and a lot of nosy people milling about, but when the family maid, Bridget (Fionnula Flanagan) refuses to go upstairs, a neighbor who goes with her makes a more grisly discovery.  Abby Borden (Helen Craig) is dead too, hacked to death as she was making up the beds.  This is a double shock to everyone.

Into this chaotic scene comes Lizzie's sister Emma (Katherine Helmond).   She asks her sister one question, "Did you kill Father?"  Lizzie says, "No, I did not".  However, that's not the end of it.  In the inquest, the prosecutor Hosea Knowlton (Ed Flanders) is quite aggressive towards the Spinster Borden.  Arrogant, bullying, and condescending, Hosea leaps on all the inconsistencies and evasions Lizzie gives.  As a result, she is found 'probably guilty' of murdering her parents, and held for trial.

The trial becomes a media sensation: Patricide Spinster Murderess!  Some, however, rally to Borden's defense, seeing this as persecution because she's a woman.  The trial soon becomes a battle between the arrogant (and rather clumsy) Knowlton and the shrewd defense attorney, former Massachusetts governor George Robinson (Don Porter).  Knowlton, thoroughly convinced that Borden is a murderess hiding behind her skirts, keeps making mistake after mistake.  He makes mistakes in how he handles the witnesses, even friendly ones.  Knowlton badgers them, bullies them, and is generally arrogant with how he treats everyone who hints at seeing things contrary to his own vision.

Robinson, for his part, is more courtly to everyone.  Moreover, he uses his wits to get at the hot-tempered and self-righteous Knowlton.  Robinson gets the medical examiner to testify that Lizzie Borden was on prescribed morphine when she appeared at the inquest (thus somewhat out of it, so out of it that she might contradict herself and not be aware of it).  He also takes advantage of a tactical mistake Knowlton made. 

In an effort to shock the jury and get them to see things his way, he shows the court Mr. Borden's skull and uses the ax found at the Borden home to prove that was the murder weapon.  This he did after the forensic examiner from Harvard kept insisting that the blood found on the weapon was animal, not human (concurring with Borden's account of her father having killed pigeons with an ax, much to her horror).  When he fits the ax into the skull, the shock causes Lizzie to faint in front of the jury.

We do learn other things during the trial, thanks to Lizzie's flashbacks, which show her struggles with Abby and Andrew over money, Abby's insistence on Andrew changing his will, and how the death of Lizzie's biological mother affected her.  In the extended sequence, just as the jury is about to rule, Lizzie has either a flashback or a vision of the murders.  We see that Lizzie killed both Abby and Andrew while nude, which made the washing off of blood easy.  Whether this was real or an expression of Lizzie's drugged fantasy the film does not establish.

Lizzie Borden, having been found not guilty, goes home in an upbeat mood.  Emma has beaten her to their home.  She looks Lizzie in the eye and says she'll ask it once more, then never mention it again.  "Did you kill Father?"  This time Lizzie does not answer, and as the camera spins round her, we learn that the sisters died nine days apart and that the Borden murder case was never solved.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a really good Gothic horror film where all the elements come together so splendidly.  The first and most important element I believe is Elizabeth Montgomery's performance (which earned her an Emmy Award nomination).  Going as far away from Samantha Stephens of Bewitched,  Montgomery made Lizzie into a total human being.  She made Borden sympathetic as she endured the horror of prison and accusations of murder.  She then turned it around when we saw the less sympathetic aspects of Borden: her shoplifting (something so common the local merchants always added extra to the bill, which Andrew quietly paid), her somewhat haughty demeanor to Emma.

When it comes to the actual murders, Montgomery reveals more than just her body.  She gives Borden this rage that is unleashed on both Andrew and Abby, a flinging fury that can no longer be contained.   Much has been made of the fact that Montgomery appeared nude (though this being network television, most of this is left to the imagination, perhaps a quick glimpse of nipple at the most).  That, however, should not take away from Montgomery's brilliant performance in The Legend of Lizzie Borden.  In turns whacked-out, malicious, tragic, and cold, Montgomery really reaches high in her performance.

As a side note, Hayden Rorke, better known for his work in I Dream of Jeannie, has a small part as a newspaper reporter.  Thus we are treated to a joint appearance by Samantha Stephens and Dr. Bellows. 

Helmond, best known as the vampish Mona Robison in Who's the Boss, is also excellent as the put-upon older sister.  She is the only one who is innocent in this maelstrom, a woman who loves her sister but also fears her and fears for her.   In one critical moment though, we get through William Bast's screenplay a suggestion, however slight, that Emma gave tacit approval for Lizzie to perhaps do her vile deed.  After Lizzie tells her that she'd rather see Abby dead than have the will changed, Emma quietly says she will be leaving on a short trip to a nearby town the next day.  Nothing overt, but the suggestion lies there.

This is the other brilliant aspect of The Legend of Lizzie Borden.  The screenplay leaves much to the imagination.  In fact, the entire scenario of Lizzie murdering people while nude is done in a way that never states directly whether this is how it was done or whether this is how Lizzie imagined it could have happened.  We get a lot of conjecture but nothing solid.

We also get to see the trial (which I think is accurate in terms of history), and see how in some ways, things have not changed.  The trial of Lizzie Borden reminded me so much of the trial of O.J. Simpson.  In both, the identity of the accused was used in their favor (her gender, his race).  In both, the prosecutor(s) came off as aggressive, hostile, even vindictive.  In both, the high-priced legal defense came across as more pleasant and shrewder.  In both, the prosecution badly bungled evidence it thought would make their case (with Borden, the father's skull, with Simpson, the infamous 'black glove').  In both, they were found not guilty...but have been seen as such ever since.

At one point, Hosea makes a dismissive remark to his wife when she suggests that perhaps 'hiding behind her skirt' was the only thing Borden could do.  "Next thing you know, you'll want the vote".  Apart from being a sexist pig, Knowlton continuously lets his own zeal block his case, and we see that Borden didn't so much win than Knowlton lost.

The Legend of Lizzie Borden is also enhanced by the somewhat creepy score which keeps to the Victorian Era with a tinny-piano but also includes a rather off-kilter children's choir that enhances the mood of vague unease.  The editing also enhanced the film, especially when we see the disastrous skull demonstration (billed as The Trump Card, each new segment having a distinct title) and when we 'witness' the actual murders.  The askew angles, photography, music (or in the second murder, near-total silence save for the ticking of a clock) all create a creepy weirdness that is fascinating and terrifying.

Did Lizzie Borden really "take an ax and give her mother forty whacks"?  Legally, the answer is no.  Realistically, the answer is no one can answer beyond a reasonable doubt.  The infamy of the Borden murders will forever taint Lizzie Borden's memory, innocent or guilty.  The Legend of Lizzie Borden, while nowhere near the definitive or final answer to one of the most infamous American crimes, is still a fascinating watch that still holds up nearly forty years after its broadcast thanks to some fine directing (by Paul Wendkost) and a brilliant performance by Elizabeth Montgomery, who never lets us know whether it was real or all in her mind.



Thursday, March 19, 2015

Spider-Man 2: A Second Look

Thanks to James the Movie Reviewer (as we lovingly call him, Our Only Reader) for the recommendation.

Ah, Spider-Man 2

Few films have left me with a contradictory, conflicting view at each viewing as Spider-Man 2.  There are some films that I love every time I watch them (Casablanca, It's A Wonderful Life, Singin' in the Rain, Citadel, Hugo, The Spectacular Now, Jane Eyre).  There are films I loath every time I see them (The Hangover Part II, Spider-Man 3, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman Returns).

Then there is Spider-Man 2.

The first time I saw it, I completely loved it.  I thought it good but not as great as Spider-Man (which I consider one of the greatest comic-book adaptations ever).  I did, however, go through an emotional roller-coaster that took me days to recover from.  It was good enough to make me super-hyped about Spider-Man 3.

The second time I saw it, I completely hated it.  Doc Ock as a good guy?  A lot of plot slamming into each other?  I wondered whether my enthusiasm for the character clouded my view of the film.

The third time I saw it for a Spider-Man retrospective, both my enthusiasm and my disdain were tempered to where I thought it a good but not great film.  That is why I gave it a barely passing grade of C+, which is good but not great. 

Now comes the fourth time I enter the second chapter of the adventures of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Would I see it as the classic I first thought it?  Would I rediscover the reasons for my antagonism?  Would I still struggle to think it worth elevating to a higher level, sink it even lower, or perhaps still remain ambivalent on it? 


What I see now, I see not with the eyes of a Spidey fan, but with the eyes of an analytical film reviewer, one who isn't going to let emotion sway his views.  With Spider-Man 2, I saw far too much comedy, particularly in the first 2/3rds of the film, that I felt took too much away and took up too much time.  It's as if Sam Raimi was just afraid to make a serious comic-book film and wanted to show how 'fun' everything is.  We started with a long and I think unfunny bit with Peter Parker attempting to deliver pizzas the distance of 42 blocks in 7 & 1/2 minutes.  I says to myself, 'that can't be done'.  I says to myself, 'him coming in through the closet at the end is stretching this out'. I says to myself, 'I'm not laughing'.   

Again and again sometimes really good moments brought down by a stab at comedy that I think took away from things.

A plot point (which kept popping in and out) was how Spider-Man kept losing his powers, almost always at the worst possible moments.  This led to two moments that I thought were wasted opportunities.  The first is when Spidey is forced to take the elevator.  The whole thing could have been cut without affecting the story.  Spider-Man could have taken the stairs.  He could have changed into Peter's clothes to avoid such an embarrassing moment.  But NOOOO.... It had to be there because we all wanted a laugh.  Maybe I laughed the first time.  I haven't since.

The second and worse moment for me was when Peter gets his confidence and some of his powers.  He leaps from the building and yells, "I'm BACK!"  I was so happy at that moment: my Spidey WAS back.  Wouldn't you know it: he comes crashing down to Earth, and ends with him clutching his back and saying, "My Back!" 

I don't know.  I guess people find this funny.  I didn't.

There were parts that I did find funny that I don't think were meant to be.  When Doc Ock takes poor Aunt May, the entire battle between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus had me laughing for all the wrong reasons.  One thing I didn't think worked was when we had a heavily-accented Asian woman singing the Spider-Man theme song.  Leaving apart that it wasn't funny, it struck me as almost racist; the heavily-accented Mr. Ditkovich, who listened to klezmer music (which is Jewish folk music), didn't sit well with me either.  It was dangerously close to being anti-Semitic. 

There were also other aspects besides the heavy reliance on comedy that made me cold towards Spider-Man 2.  Raimi, maker of The Evil Dead films (the first I think involving a tree raping a woman if memory serves correct), I think went back to his roots when Doc Ock first unleashed his fury on the medical team operating on him.  I thought the whole thing looked like a horror film.  I was surprised a bit at how Raimi used the trappings of a horror film in a film geared towards comic-book fans (some of whom are children).

My view is that Spider-Man 2 was so sprawling that it seemed to grow for no real reason.  I disliked how heavy-handed the movie was with the Mary Jane/Peter relationship (not to mention the fiancée that served no real purpose apart from giving a conflict that I didn't think was there).  I disliked Danny Elfman's score, which was also heavy-handed (did we really need a big choir when Otto Octavius' machine first appears?  It's not like we don't get that it's dangerous).  I found Kirsten Dunst a bit weak and pathetic.  I found James Franco a bit whiny and not good at all (I think he wasn't acting so much as just reciting the words with little conviction).  I disliked that the conflict within Peter Parker was so drawn-out. 

As for Octavius, I agree with my friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. (who may or may not be dead): turning him into a sympathetic character wasn't a good idea.  Granted, I appreciate that Spider-Man 2 was going for something different, but I think there could have been a better way to show that he wasn't in control of himself.  Sometimes he was oh so evil.  Sometimes he was oh so nice. 

It wasn't until Octavius and Harry join forces that I felt the film picked up, and from that point onwards I was interested.  Up to then, only the scene where Peter confesses to Aunt May about how Uncle Ben died was a standout.  In that scene, I did feel emotion, I did see Rosemary Harris and Tobey Maguire act and Sam Raimi direct.   Once we got to when we had a real antagonist and a real protagonist then we got a movie.  Before that, it was a long stretch.

As a side note, how exactly did Peter talk Harry into letting him go?  A simple punch would have been enough, but Spider-Man 2 never answered how, after capturing Spider-Man, Harry Osborn didn't do anything with him?

Once we had the battle on the elevated train, we had a movie that picked up steam (no pun intended). From that point onwards, I actually cared about what was happening.  The movie actually came alive.  However, almost everything prior to that felt long, tired, unfunny, and boring.

Now that I've seen Spider-Man 2 for the fourth time, I can say that yes, it is better than either Amazing Spider-Man film (and I'm not sad to see Andrew Garfield go, though I still hold out hope that Dylan O'Brien, and not Logan Lerman, will be the new Spidey, not another British guy).  I think Spider-Man 2 is not in the same league as Spider-Man, but is infinitely better than Spider-Man 3

However, I also think Spider-Man 2 is too long, too reliant on comedy, and doesn't pick up until the last third of the movie.  If it weren't for that, the film would have failed completely.  It's lucky I thought the last third was good, otherwise, I would have been one of the few negative reviews.

As a result, I see no reason to alter my original score.

Sorry, Pete.  My Spidey-sense says you're barely OK.



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Seventh Son: A Review


It's interesting that when Seventh Son arrives on DVD, it can quite rationally mention that it has two Academy Award winners (Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore).  As we all know, even Academy Award winners have to eat, because there really is nothing to show that Seventh Son is worth their talents, let along even the extras who were in this monster of a disaster.  In turns boring and stupid, Seventh Son might now be the nadir of young adult fantasy adaptations, making something like Twilight or Beautiful Creatures read like Jane Eyre or Gone With the Wind.

Come to think of it, if the film is like the original source material, who was dumb enough to publish Joseph Delaney's The Spook's Apprentice (the first in a series from which Seventh Son is based on).  I can see why the original title didn't work for all sorts of reasons, but Seventh Son isn't the most original title either.  If only the title to this piece of sleep-inducing crap were the least of Seventh Son's problems...

Master Gregory (Bridges), a warrior against the supernatural, has trapped the malevolent Queen of the Witches, Mother Malkin (Moore).  He thinks its for time and eternity, but of course not.  She escapes and makes quick use of both Master Gregory and his apprentice, Billy (Kit Harington, who decided he needed more dragons outside Game of Thrones).  With Billy dead at her hands, Master Gregory needs a new apprentice, and it can't be any old boy.  He needs the seventh son of the seventh son.  After short order, he finds one in Thomas Ward (TBA), who has strange visions that leave him temporarily unconscious.  His mother, Mam (Olivia Williams) gives him an amulet that will protect him, and with not much work Master Gregory and Thomas go for him to be trained.

As things go, Thomas has only a week to master what it took Billy ten years to, because the Blood Egg, a once-in-a-century event, is happening soon.  When the Blood Egg is full, Mother Malkin will be able to take control with help from her minions.  Among those are her sister, Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue), and Lizzie's daughter, Alice (Alicia Vikander).  Alice is a bit like Hermione Granger (half-witch, half-human), and while she is sent to spy on Tom and Gregory, Tom rescues her from being burned as a witch.

They also fall in love.

In any case, it's now a race to defeat Mother Malkin (whom we discover had a romance with Master Gregory but who killed his wife in anger) and Alice constantly changing sides.  Thomas is able to rise to the challenge, sort-of kill the Witch Queen (who promises to come back and haunt them) and has to stay put in a cave while Master Gregory goes off somewhere.

In between fighting my own battle to stay awake and trying to figure out why everyone involved made the decisions they made I realized that nothing, but nothing could have saved Seventh Son.  Everything about it is so wrong, so dumb, so bizarre, so incompetent, that not even someone like pre-Hobbit Peter Jackson could have put this into anything coherent, let alone worthy of our time. 

Let's start with the performances, the most obvious place to start.  As I kept watching Seventh Son (despite the film's determination to put me to sleep), I kept wondering about Thomas.  He looked familiar but at the same time looked like someone I hadn't seen before, some unknown having the misfortune of trying to break out with the broken-down franchise starter.  Once we got to the credits, I finally figured out what I had been missing.

Thomas Ward is played by Ben Barnes. 

Barnes seems absolutely determined to prove critics right: he's nothing but an extremely pretty and youthful-looking face with absolutely no business attempting to pass himself off as an actor.  It's sometimes hard to say whether Barnes or Channing Tatum is the less talented of people who use their looks to get movie roles.  At least Channing Tatum has ONE discernable talent: taking his clothes off.

Barnes, as far as I know, doesn't know how to take his clothes off.  He certainly doesn't know how to act.  Ben Barnes has managed to shut down not one but TWO fantasy franchises (Delaney's The Wardstone Chronicles and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of, TWO Chronicles Barnes has killed off).  

I might walk back that last statement about Barnes having no discernable talent.  He does have one.  He can convincingly look like a seventeen-year-old despite being 33.  Granted, he can't convincingly look or sound Latino (like when he tried in The Big Wedding), but he still looks like a man half his age.  More power to him in this department, but apart from that Ben Barnes keeps building a case against him as a legitimate thespian with every film he's in.

Then we have Jeff Bridges.  Jeff Bridges, who has let his Oscar all but wreck his career.  He seems absolutely determined to mumble his way through every post-Crazy Heart project.  With the exception of True Grit (where he did mumble, but at least he had the excuse he was playing drunk), Bridges hasn't made a good movie since (TRON:Legacy, R.I.P.D., and now this).  Seventh Son is the worst of Bridges: mumbling, apparently unaware of anything going on around him, and to top it off, speaking in a bizarre pseudo-British accent that never settled on what it was suppose to sound like.  Even that wasn't as bad as the fact that he looked like he couldn't move his chin, which made his dialogue at time unintelligible.  Seriously, I didn't understand what he was saying to where I thought subtitles would have helped.

Come to me, Oscar...

Finally, there's Moore.  I think she was about the only one that got the idea that Seventh Son wasn't just beneath her talents, it was beneath her as a human being.  Barnes tried to act (always a bad choice for him), Bridges couldn't decide whether the material was serious or not (thus whether he was in on the joke or not is still in doubt), but Moore decided that she was just not going to take any of it seriously.  She was just there to make some money (and I'm sure underpaid as well), so she just went along with things and decided it really wasn't worth trying,

As far as the others, from a 'why is he here?' Djimon Hounsou to a perpetually sad Harrington (oh Kit, you always look it here, in Pompeii, or Game of Thrones.  Why is thou so troubled?), everyone looked pretty much embarrassed to be here.

The performances were a contributing factor, but not the only one.  Charles Leavitt and Stephen Knight's screenplay (with screen story by Matt Greenberg) was such a rushed and chaotic affair.  We kind of just raced through things, never stopping to establish why anyone did anything or worked towards anything.  Worse, at times it was repetitive (twice Master Gregory and Thomas raced to the edge of a cliff) and jumbled (we clearly see a raft at the bottom of the first cliff, and when they manage to jump and get to it, the poor boatsman just watches before promptly being thrown off by the monster chasing after them, never to be heard or seen from again). 

It's not as if the three don't have talent.  Maybe there were too many cooks, or maybe they were under so much pressure to build a franchise they failed to put anything that would make it worth our while to watch more Seventh Son films (which I think is pretty much a dead idea). 

Helming all this is Russian director Sergei Bodrov, making his English-language debut.  Whether something was lost in translation I don't know.  I do know that this is beneath the talents of the cast (save Barnes, who shows little to no actual talent), or the crew (amazing how legendary art director and three-time Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti and two-time Oscar winning special effects master John Dykstra could fail so spectacularly). 

Seventh Son should not be seen by those who love the Last Apprentice series (which I now recognize).   It shouldn't be seen by those interested in the Last Apprentice series. It should not be seen by anyone really.

Ben Barnes, you have so much to answer for...


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On Bollywood and Tollywood Recommendations: A Fifth Anniversary Retrospective

Thanks to Ram Aditya G., Rick's Café Texan's only Indian reader, for the suggestions.

Well, since we are in March and in Spring Break, I've decided to tackle some unfinished business too long delayed.

Almost six months ago I was asked to look over what I was told were better examples of Bollywood and Tollywood musical numbers.  School pushed these things aside, but a nagging sense of good old Protestant guilt got me to take a little break during this my last school break to do so.

Now, out of the three suggestions for a Bollywood number by composer Sneha Khanwalkar, only one allowed me to actually listen to it without doing a YouTube search for Khanwalkar.  The message was they were not available in my country.  That was Superchor (Jugni Hasdi Ve Hasdi).  I thought it was an interesting song, and certainly contemporary as I heard a little rap mixed in.  Unfortunately, there were no visuals to accompany it, so a lot was lost in translation.

For a non-Indian like me, the visuals sometimes help figure out what is going on.  Granted, some numbers, like Tu Meri from Bang Bang (which I did see but haven't reviewed) might not really explain anything, but at least I knew what came before so I wasn't completely lost. 

In any case, I did a bit of searching for Khanawalkar, and I hope I got it right.  The few songs I heard, such as Kaala Rey from Gangs of Wasseypur, seem more avant-garde than I would think would go in a traditional Bollywood film.  I was taught that Bollywood films were more traditional, more conservative, and certainly Kaala Rey is neither.  It feels contemporary, not pop but close to experimental in the song. 

Not that I Can't Hold It Any Longer from what was described as the 'cult Bollywood film' Love Sex Aur Dhoka made things any more family-friendly.  While it takes place at a bachelor party, and remarkably tame for what I imagine a bachelor party to be (given my limited experiences with them, as they were all with very Christian men), I can't imagine this song would find its way to a more standard Bollywood production.  Another little song from Love Sex Aur Dhoka, (it lasts about a minute, which in itself is flouting convention), Mohabbat Bollywood Style, seems to almost ridicule the conventions, mocking just how grandiose the musical numbers can be.

The last song I heard, Tanki Hai Hum from Hard Kaur, seems to be almost a celebration of hedonism, boozing it up to your heart's fill.  It's surprising that this would fall within the confines of my idea of Bollywood as being more wholesome and dare I say, virginal.  They're not bad songs by any stretch, but a bit surprising to my little old Western mind.  They seem to push the envelope and are more adventurous than something like Tu Meri.  I can't imagine Krissh singing about downing Bacardi and tequila. 

The other links worked a little better.  The Tollywood composer Devi Sri Prasad's first number, Thakadimithom from Aarya, was upbeat and if not lavish at least energetic (which I think is more Tollywood than Bollywood).  I can't explain it precisely: as if Tollywood numbers don't have to be so gigantic and splashy than their Mumbai counterparts. 

Compare Aamchi Mumbai from The Businessman to God Allah Aur Bhagwan from Krrish 3.  The latter is big, colorful, extravagant.  The former is not colorful, relying instead on smaller number of dancers, all in sync, complimenting the main performer.  As God Allah Aur Bhagwan is bright and positive, Aamchi Mumbai is rather dark and cynical.  Bollywood numbers are big, brassy, bold.  Tollywood numbers are smaller, with a fondness for having the viewer look through things, where smaller choreography is better than the large-scale number of dancers a Bollywood number would ask for.   

The second link, a jukebox collection of numbers from Julayi, appears to confirm some of my ideas.  Here, we see that the numbers are not gigantic, and they have a strong sense of place.  They don't flit off into fantasy worlds (mostly).  Rather, they take place on the street or in working-class settings.  They don't go for big.

I also noticed that costuming is not a big deal in Tollywood films.  Most of the time, the leads wear regular, almost street clothes, the type one would see kids wearing at malls.  They don't have a big lavish colorful style in the wardrobe (most of the time, for I'm sure on occasion they do break out something lavish).  For the most part, however, there seems to be an everyday quality to the clothes worn in Tollywood production numbers. 

I liked the Devi Sri Prasad numbers, and I think I'm getting a sense of Tollywood songs.  He doesn't push convention like Khanwalkar, though he certainly does put a contemporary, harder, rock/techno stamp on it. 

With that, I thank Ram for his suggestions.  I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did, and look forward to seeing more Bollywood/Tollywood films, if and when the come to the EP.