Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ivory Tower: A Review


Education is expensive.  That is a given.  Ivory Tower, a new documentary, asks two pertinent questions.  1.) WHY is it so expensive to where graduates face decades of debt to pay off their education when there's no guarantee that they will have good jobs post-graduation, and 2.) is it worth the cost?  In its brief running time Ivory Tower covers a lot of territory, and while the results might be a bit rushed the film itself is a fascinating investigation on how a university education may not be worth the price of admission.

Ivory Tower explores various aspects of higher education.  There's how universities have begun to compete with each other to provide the most amenities to prospective students, creating a mad rush to build bigger facilities that in turn drive up costs for attending.  Things are not helped that in these universities, the idea of education goes out the window due to the whirl of social activities.  The idea of evaluations, the film argues, goes further into thinking of universities as businesses rather than centers of learning.

As is the case in these things, Ronald Reagan is responsible for a lot of the problems.  Public funding of education has undergone a radical decrease since the Reagan Revolution, leading to an increase of both federal student loans and private loan companies charging extremely high rates for the money, leading to graduates unable to pay back the debt even if they wanted to because they simply cannot find jobs after graduation.

All sorts of plans and ideas float about, from the Thiel Fellowship and the Uncollege Movement (where people are paid to drop in exchange for starting a start-up) to MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), which are free to all.  Ultimately, whatever solutions are out there, they pale next to the gargantuan figure of student debt, which will crush everyone and is making negative changes at Cooper Union, which until last year was the only higher education center that did not charge tuition and had guaranteed free education.

I look on Ivory Tower as more of a primer on the complex and difficult issue of student debt.  It covers a great deal of ground, which perhaps in its 90+ minute running time may not be enough time to hit everything.  Still, the information and student stories that we do get are fascinating.  There is the story of Deep Springs College in Death Valley, an all-male college that is a mixture of commune, farm, and college.  Here, the students are a small number, they work around the farm, and engage in learning, antithetical to the party schools like Arizona State University.

Ivory Tower does not raise objection to the idea of an all-male college, no surprise given that it also covers historically black colleges such as Spelman College (which was created for African-American women), it is interesting to see that the film does present alternatives to the traditional state university.  The film also looks at the issue of not just the cost of education but also on whether the cost students are left with is worth it given how bleak the future for many graduates is. 

If Ivory Tower's solution is to put MORE money into higher education, then I think the film loses a great opportunity to show that lack of money isn't the problem.   Near the end we see that at San Jose State, a private company was brought in to help with remedial math students at SJS.  The film never questions why college-level students require remedial math. 

However, Ivory Tower does touch on interesting elements about the state of higher education.  The mad race to outdo other universities to attract students with fancy buildings is worth exploring.  The rise of administration at the cost of actual professors is also something that could be delved further into.  The high cost of education with the diminishing results from four (or more) years of spending is something that I think requires much study.

Ivory Tower doesn't so much offer solutions (though like a lot of these 'advocacy' films, we are directed to a website to learn more), and the problems are bigger than blaming one group (what did Milton Friedman ever do to them?).  Still, I thought Ivory Tower was a strong investigation about how a bad mixture of high cost and low results may be more than anyone can afford in more ways than one.        


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gotham: Harvey Dent Review


It's a curious thing that Harvey Dent isn't a big part of Harvey Dent.  The same thing happened with Selina Kyle in Selina Kyle.  I don't know if this is a quirk of Gotham or just a way of saying, "Look, here's ANOTHER Batman character popping up".   Like Selina Kyle, Harvey Dent is one of Gotham's weaker episodes.  HOWEVER, like with Selina Kyle, the performances push the episode higher.

Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) has been put into protective custody by Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  Where else to place her but at Wayne Manor?  Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is puzzled and intrigued by this street urchin, but the Wayne family manservant Alfred (Sean Pertwee) suspects she's nothing but trouble.  Meanwhile, Gordon believes he has found a new ally to find the people responsible for Thomas and Martha Wayne's murders.  It's Assistant District Attorney Harvey Dent (Nicholas D'Agosto), a seemingly nice guy with a penchant for flipping a coin.  He suspects a major businessman, Dick Lovecraft (Al Sapienza) is behind it, and we get to see Dent's dark side when he explodes after Lovecraft threatens to make a fool out of him.

Speaking of explosion, Ian Hargrove (Leslie Odom, Jr.),a not-so-mad bomber, has been sprung out of jail by Russian working for Fish Mooney (JPS).  She has a scheme to hit her boss Falcone where it will hurt him the most: at his money.  However, the bombing campaign leads to deaths, which the troubled Hargrove doesn't want to participate in but is forced to against his will.  Thanks to investigative work by Gordon, his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) and forensics Edward Nygma (CMS), the police track down Hargrove and the Russians, where we find that Mooney has one more trick up her sleeve.

Back at Wayne Manor, the relationship between Bruce and Cat (Selina's preferred name) continues to evolve.  She asks if he's ever kissed a girl, to which a stunned and embarrassed Bruce says no and wonders why she would ask such questions.  Cat mocks his training, insisting he's a nice kid who would be devoured by Gotham.  However, by the end we see that they are at the end of the day, just kids, who find laughter and stress release in a friendly food fight.  Alfred, seeing Master Bruce finally smile and laugh and behave like a kid after everything he's been through, finds that Cat may not be so bad.

Again, it's curious that the title character in Harvey Dent made exactly three appearances, and add to that that the visual cues as to Dent's future fate as Two-Face were so nakedly shown.  When we get to a critical moment between Dent and Gordon, half of D'Agosto's admittedly beautiful face is bathed in light, while the other half is obscured in near darkness.  It's obvious what Gotham is saying, and I'm not big on things being nakedly obvious and/or overt as they are here. 

However, the casting of D'Agosto was a great move.  I'll state the obvious: Nicholas D'Agosto is an extremely handsome man.  As such, he would fit into the idea of an attractive young man on the rise whom we know will eventually become into a deformed figure physically and emotionally.  However, in that crucial scene with Lovecraft this intense anger bursts out from him that made D'Agosto extremely frightening, as if Dent carries intense darkness and chaos beneath the veneer of charm.  It was a small performance (though not in height since the 6'1" D'Agosto towers over the 5'8" McKenzie) but D'Agosto did quite well.

The BEST part of Harvey Dent wasn't Harvey Dent himself.  Instead, it was the interaction of Mazouz and Bicondova as Bruce and Selina.  Mazouz's hesitation and genuine confusion as Bruce towards Selina's life and actions are so real and natural.  Mazouz made Bruce into that 'nice kid' from a wealthy background who is direct but hesitant, a child still struggling to relate to people his own age.  His naivete is counteracted by Bicondova's street-smart Selina, who when relating the 'truth' of her mother appears to not believe her own story.  While the meeting of the future Batman and the future Catwoman at this point might (please/displease) fans, I thought it worked so well thanks to Mazouz and Bicondova.  Their last scene where we see that despite both their characters attempting to be adult (tough on Kyle's part, intellectual on Wayne's part), they are also kids.

Interestingly, we saw more of CMS' Nygma (who is slipping back into the more frenetic take on Nygma than the more functional Nygma we'd seen prior) than we have of Gotham's breakout star, Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin.  He is in the episode, formally to get him connected to Fish's mole Liza (Mackenzie Leigh) for future stories, and he's still good.  However, I liked the fact we got a brief break from Oswald's machinations.  Anyway, back to CMS' Nygma.  It was both amusing and I think accurate to have him try so hard to fit it and fail so often.  We can see the dynamic between Nygma, Bullock, and Gordon when Nygma puts his hands on both Bullock and Gordon's shoulders, which neither Bullock or Gordon were not pleased about.

The case involving Hargrove worked well, though nothing spectacular.  At least it was more grounded than The Balloonman (no pun intended). 

On the whole Harvey Dent worked well thanks to Mazouz and Bicondova, who made things a delight in their brilliant portrayals of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  Some of the twists didn't work (Barbara's departure) and some of the twists were flat-out stunning (Barbara's new old love...WOW!).  I hope D'Agosto's version of Dent gets more screentime and a deeper exploration of Dent's divided soul without being so obvious (maybe he doesn't have to be flipping his coin so often).  Still, so far I haven't seen a bad Gotham episode yet, so Harvey Dent shows promise. 

Half in light, half in shadow...


Next Episode: LoveCraft  

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interstellar: A Review


There is a great risk when it comes to looking over any Christopher Nolan film, especially one with such naked ambitions towards greatness as Interstellar.  Nolan is held in such a lofty position among a core group of cineastes that to suggest that he is somehow anything less than a combination Stanley Kubrick/Alfred Hitchcock/John Ford/Orson Welles/Steven Spielberg/Cecil B. DeMille/Akira Kurosawa/Federico Fellini/D.W. Griffith/Satyajit Ray/Martin Scorsese/David Lynch/F.W. Murnau/Werner Herzog is akin to saying Jesus was not the Son of God.  As a result, any film that Nolan is involved with, be it something as avant-garde as Memento or as commercial as The Dark Knight is treated as if it were the Second Coming, and anyone who disagrees or suggests that Nolan is anything less than the personification of living, breathing genius is seen as an idiot at best, an infidel worthy of beheading ISIS-style at worst. 

At this point, the hype and hyperventilation that has greeter Interstellar, a three-hour time/space travel film, has been deafening and in my view, may have caused more harm than good.  The Nolanites had built up Interstellar to be this defining, history-altering picture, something somewhere between 8 1/2 and Citizen Kane.  Interstellar openly quotes from other classic films, most obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I also saw hints of the original Planet of the Apes and last year's Gravity.  None of this should be interpreted to suggest that I thought Interstellar was bad.  Far from it: Interstellar is a good movie.  However, that is what it is: a GOOD movie, not a GREAT movie.

I understand there is something about spoilers, and while spoilers don't generally bother me (here's one: Rosebud is a sled) I think I give a summary of the plot without giving too much away.  The world has turned into one giant dust bowl.  Former pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is now a widower and farmer attempting to eke out a living with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow), and his two children Tom and Murphy, generally known as Murph.   For plot reasons that might be spoilers, he comes across a secret government project to fly people through a wormhole and seek out new planets that humanity might move to.  It's a secret government project because schools now teach the Moon landing (or Egg landing, if you believe Doctor Who) was all a fraud to bankrupt the Soviet Union. 

Side note: am I the only person who heard in their mind Homer Simpson say, "Oh my god, Lyndon LaRouche was RIGHT!" when the teacher kept repeating that the Moon landing was a fraud?

In any case, the Lazarus Project, headed up by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) prevail upon Cooper to pilot the spacecraft.  Going with him are Brand's daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi).  Off they go, and to kind of sum up, two planets are visited, though in the timey-wimey ways of the universe, an hour on one planet is equal to seven years on Earth.  That means while Cooper is out there, his children live their lives: Tom a farmer, Murph (still bitter about her father leaving to save humanity all these decades later) working alongside Professor Brand (who must be well over a hundred by now).  As it stands, we get one final twist on another planet and another twist on Earth where we are led to believe all things are connected.

Somehow, no matter how often I'm told otherwise, I can see where Nolan is going with his movies.  It might sound like bragging but EVERY 'twist' in The Prestige I called before they were revealed onscreen.  They were perfectly logical.  I can't quite climb to that claim with Interstellar only because when we get what might be a logical reveal as to Cooper's place in Murph's life, I thought, "WE are THEY"?  The resolution seems a little too pat, too convenient in regards to what Christopher and his brother Jonathan are giving us in terms of story.

There were also plot points that were either skimmed through (Cooper went into the program rather quickly, and it seems odd that someone who almost just wandered in and hadn't flown in years now had The Right Stuff) or went on far too long for what they were trying for and not achieving (Doyle's fate, Amelia's motivations to go to another planet that seemed to spring out of nowhere).  There were audible gasps when we saw Michael Caine again.  If we are to believe the timeline Interstellar gave us, Brand would (using Caine's real age of 81) would have to have been at least 104 when the story goes back to him and Cooper's still-pissed off daughter.   You'd think she'd gotten over it by now.

Going further into story, Interstellar packs in so much that could have been cut.  The entire "big reveal" about the second planet and what Cooper/Amelia did/didn't know was basically repeated, and I don't understand why Nolan felt the need to tell US the audience and then tell the characters when it meant telling US the audience again what we already knew.  The entire storyline of the second planet seemed to be from another movie altogether (and not a particular clever one too). 

Among Interstellar's greatest sins is Hans Zimmer's score.  His obsessive use of the organ to echo the Opening from Also Sprach Zarathustra (or perhaps Camille Saint-Saens' conclusion from his Organ Symphony) was bordering on the ridiculous.  WE GET IT...INTERSTELLAR IS THE NEW 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY!  You don't have to keep beating us with your music to keep telling us so!  Of course, this isn't when Zimmer doesn't slip into Music From the Hearts of Space territory to make it all so New Age-like.

In terms of story, Interstellar flies all over and never fully lands anywhere.  In terms of both visuals and performances, Interstellar lives up to its lofty pretentions.   This is a film that demands to be seen in IMAX or the largest screen you can find, for the sheer visual splendor of deep space really overwhelms you and takes you as close as one is able to get.  Interstellar is visually stunning as we go from one world to another, and also within the worlds it takes us to, creating a fantastic universe.

Interstellar also has some brilliant performances by Matthew McConaughey (his scene where he sees his children's lives go while reacting in silence shows that he has left the himbo persona behind...mostly).  Equally strong was (spoiler here) Casey Affleck.  Hathaway and Chastain were equally strong as the explorer and lost daughter.  I did wonder what Topher Grace was doing here, and at least he wasn't in the film long enough to ruin it.

Interstellar is ambitious if nothing else, and at times it cannot carry the weight it so desperately wants to.  It may be because it throws too much all over the screen (at times one wouldn't be blamed if they thought they'd wandered into a Ken Burns documentary by mistake).  It may be because most of the characters are a bit thin.  It may be that the curious message we get from the Nolan Brothers (something akin to "Love is All You Need") could be a bit silly.  It could be that the film is simply unnecessarily long and it could have been restructured and other parts cut or trimmed. Still, Interstellar is breathtaking visually and has some strong performances.

However, it is no 2001 or Planet of the Apes. No matter how it tries whenever it echoes those two films, it would have worked better if Interstellar tried to be its own vision.  If it had, perhaps it would have found itself where it aimed to be: among the greatest science-fiction films of all time.  It isn't, but you can't blame Christopher Nolan for trying...     



As a Bonus Feature, I give you the Finale to Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony Number 3, also known as The Organ Symphony.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dracula Untold: A Review


I have nothing against Dracula Untold.  I say this because in many ways, Dracula Untold is not a particularly good film. Like this year's Maleficent, this film wants us to root for a figure usually portrayed as the embodiment of evil.   Maybe even feel a touch of sympathy for said 'villain'. 

Vlad (Luke Evans) is a Transylvanian prince forced to be a soldier in the Turkish sultan's army, where he kills in such a spectacular way by impaling the enemy that he soon earns the nickname Vlad the Impaler.  He soon finds that killing is torture for his soul, so he manages to leave the Sultan's service and returns to take his place on the Transylvanian throne.  Things are going rather well: he has a wife that he loves, Princess Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and a young son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson).  However, this Era of Good Feelings is short-lived.  The Turks are back, and after getting their annual tribute they have more bad news for Vlad.  They're going to revive that old "we're taking the children to serve in our army" bit, and we're going to need Ingeras too.

Vlad is torn.  To refuse is to start war against a more powerful adversary.  To accept is a betrayal to his people.  In desperation, he seeks his former metaphorical brother, the Sultan Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, playing his second Middle Eastern character and thus, the British idea of 'ethnic').   Vlad offers himself for the children, but Mehmed refuses.  Vlad, unwilling to give his son up, kills the emissaries about to take Ingeras, triggering a war.  Vlad then goes to the mountains where he had encountered a creature he later had learned was a vampire (Charles Dance).  The Vampire gives him blood to drink, and if Vlad can resist taking human blood in the next three days, he will return to being fully human.  For now, Vlad has superhuman power, which he can use to defeat the Turks.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan.   The war does go on, but there a few hiccups.  For one, his people, thanks to a meddling monk (no, not THE Meddling Monk from Doctor Who) discover his secret, terrifying them all.  Second, the Turks do nab Ingeras and have a hand in killing Mirena.  As it stands, Vlad did attempt to save her as he has the power of flight, but is too late.  She urges him to drink of her blood, and well, you can pretty much fill in the rest (including a final battle with Mehmet, made more difficult as the wily Turk has surrounded himself with silver, with affects vampires...take THAT, Stephanie Meyer!).  Oh yes, Vlad doesn't sparkle in the sunlight...he all but melts.

You think that after the battle things will be good, but now Vlad's army of vampires wants Ingeras' blood.  Fortunately, that same meddling monk arrives with a cross to save Ingeras, and Vlad wipes out the vampires (including himself) by lifting the clouds and letting the sun shine.  However, an eager devotee of Vlad comes in the nick of time to save his master, and Vlad has now lived all these years, where he finds a woman who looks just like his late wife in present-day London.

Now, I should point out that I did fall asleep for a bit in Dracula Untold, but not because I wasn't entertained.  Rather, schoolwork has been particularly brutal these past two weeks with Infernal Statistics, and the lull of a dark theater, with the constant blacks and greys of the film, were simply too much for me. 

In any case, I found Dracula Untold to be mildly entertaining in that silly 'we're taking this oh so seriously but we still know it's all a bit of nonsense' style.  It's an action horror film, one where we figure out early where everything is going and to everyone's credit they knew it as well.  Luke Evans makes the most of his time as Vlad, the man who wants peace but goes to extreme lengths to protect his people and family.  He makes it plausible to believe Vlad really wasn't that bad a fellow: someone who really loved his wife and child and would do anything to protect them.

My Mom, who dragged me to Dracula Untold, kept going on about how handsome Luke Evans is.  I didn't have the heart to tell her the real story, and to be frank that is rather irrelevant.  Evans is a real action star, and Dracula Untold shows he can play the human elements of the titled character.  That is more than can be said for Cooper, who loved being all evil as Mehmet, and it looks like he was having a ball being this monstrous.  As far as he was concerned, he was cashing a check, and there are worse ways of making a living.  Bless least he was trying.

Similarly, I thought well of Gadon (who is really above the material but did her best to play it straight) and Parkinson (who really had little to do apart from looking terrified all the time).  Dance, in a brief role as "The Master Vampire" balanced being dignified and being aware of the lunacy of it all. 

Matt Samaza and Burk Sharpless' screenplay does leave the door open for a sequel, and while I oppose those tricks I'm not going to raise large objections over this.  Their script did its best to make Vlad a human being, more flawed and tragic hero than blood-sucking monster.  Again, credit to Evans for playing it so well.

Like many of these horror/action films, Gary Shore indulges in constant grays and darkness, which is now becoming shorthand for 'we're in a dark film'.  I can't say I'm impressed by that, but again, I'm not going to go to war over these trifles in a trifle of a film.

At the end of the day, I think people know that Dracula Untold is nothing more mindless good times.  I enjoyed it for what it was: a mild distraction that was aiming at being just that and nothing more.  If it was aiming to be something deeper, an exploration into the recesses of a tortured soul, it didn't do itself any favors.  For me, Dracula Untold won't replace either the Bela Lugosi or even Gary Oldman versions of the Dracula story, but if nothing else, Dracula Untold will soon find itself in constant rotation on FX or some other pay network programming.

I can live with that.     


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cantinflas: A Review


If Americans audiences know of Cantiflas, it is due exclusively to his appearance in Michael Todd's opulently lavish adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, which remains one of the most shocking Best Picture winners in history (beating out both Giant and The Ten Commandments).  Around the World in 80 Days is generally derided as one of the worst Best Picture winners, and that conversation is for another day (and for the record, I think Giant should have won).  Around the World in 80 Days was Cantinflas' first English-language film, and one of only two he made in the language (the forgettable and embarrassing Pepe being the other, and the less said about this unfortunate stumble in Cantinflas' career the better). 

Despite the language barrier, Mario Moreno, the person who created the Cantinflas character, is recognized by cineastes as a true comic genius.  No less a talent as Charlie Chaplin complimented Cantinflas when the Little Tramp called him 'the world's greatest comic'.  The language barrier may be a difficulty in watching both Cantinflas AND Cantinflas, the biopic of his life pre-Around the World in 80 Days, but it is worth checking out if only to see both the rise of a great comic and two standards of Hollywood filmmaking: the "we GOTTA sign this star by a certain day" and "the tears of the clown" story.

Cantinflas is anchored by the mad rush Broadway impresario Michael Todd (Michael Imperioli) to sign this Mexican comic, Cantinflas (Oscar Jaenada) to a small part in his epic cameo-drive spectacle.  Todd pictures Cantinflas, the biggest Latin American star in the world, to play the part of a Native American chief.  To Todd's surprise, Cantinflas is perfectly happy to turn Todd down, as he has turned down so many other American offers.  The language barrier isn't the main stumbling block (as Moreno tells Todd, he can speak English when he needs to).  Cantinflas a.) simply has no interest in American productions, b.) is someone who has total control over his films and sees no reason to exchange his hard-fought creative control for Hollywood fame, and c.) really thinks the role IS too small for him.

Todd is highly anxious about signing Cantinflas, for without him the studio is threatening to pull funding.  To Todd's surprise, he finds an unlikely ally, none other than Charlie Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick), who tells Todd he has been going about this wrong.  Don't appeal to Mario Moreno, the British comedy icon advises.  Appeal to Cantinflas.

This serves as the narrative hook as we go through Cantinflas' life, from his early days working the tents (where he more or less fell into his comic persona) through his marriage to Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas), the Russian √©migr√© making a career in Mexico, the strains on their marriage due to his constant work, their failure to have biological children together, and Cantinflas' growing alienation from his roots.  While he rises in popularity among the Mexican and Spanish-speaking people (particularly the working-class he embodies in his Cantinflas character), Valentina thinks he is growing too close to the artistic and wealthy elite.

Eventually, Cantinflas reaches both a personal and professional crisis, as his in-laws begin to snipe at him for his failures as a man and husband, the troubles he endures as head of Mexico's actors union, and the strains with Valentina.  A personal note from Chaplin and the script for Around the World in 80 Days, this time with Cantinflas as co-lead, appear to win both Todd and Cantinflas far more than either expected.

Cantinflas has the benefit of Jaenada's casting.  This originally proved controversial as Jaenada is a Spaniard and not Mexican.  The concerns were that Jaenada would not be able to accurately portray the Mexican icon: from his accent to the lack of physical similarity made him a dubious choice.  However, just like Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez excelled as the Mexican-American Selena and the Texan Renee Zellweger captured the very British Bridget Jones, the Catalonian Jaenada really did excellent as Cantinflas.  His voice and mannerisms were spot on, sometimes shockingly so, in particular when he played Mario Moreno at home, where he looked radically different than 'Cantinflas'.

He doesn't go for mimicry but for as close to a genuine portrayal as possible.  It is more than looking like Cantinflas.  It is going into the complex and even contradictory persona of both Moreno and Cantinflas where Jaenada does really strong work.

It's almost a shame that some time is lost with Imperioli's Todd.  It isn't that Imperioli is bad as Todd (though there doesn't seem to be much of a physical resemblance between the two).  It just seems that Todd is there merely to tie the story together when a more straightforward biopic on Cantinflas would have worked just fine.  This is especially true given how little we see of the making of Around the World in 80 Days or what Cantinflas thought of it all.   The movie attempts to end on a triumphant note when we see Cantinflas winning a Golden Globe as Best Actor (beating out Yul Brenner and Marlon Brando), but the film also papers over more negative aspects of Cantinflas' life.

While we get the idea that he had an affair with Czech actress Miroslava (who came to Mexico as a child and became a Mexican film star), the film flat-out never mentions her suicide, or that it might have been the a result of that affair.  It also fails to mention Cantinflas' natural son, whom he and Valentina legally adopted.  Cantinflas is in some way a sanitized version of Cantinflas' life.

Still, on the whole Cantinflas is an entertaining film and an interesting look at an icon of cinema.  It has a strong performance by Jaenada and while it doesn't dwell much into Around the World in 80 Days, it might serve as a good intro to someone wanting to know a bit about the figure who rivals Charlie Chaplin as perhaps the greatest film comic of all time. 


The Man is Gone.  The Legend Remains...     


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

So Dark The Dawn


I have been a fan of the Planet of the Apes series but had purposefully avoided the newest film in the franchise, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, because the previous film was I think not as good as it could or should have been.  I have always felt that science-fiction films work best when they can be seen as or are allegory to issues of the day, and Dawn of Planet of the Apes I think can be seen as that.  I also think that it is among the best of the POTA films because it is not afraid to be dark, to tackle the sense of fear, paranoia, and violence it deals with.  That isn't to say it's perfect, but Dawn is I think, like the original and Escape From Planet of the Apes, a simply fantastic film that works on both the story we see and what it is subtly telling. 

Picking up from the events of Rise of Planet of the Apes, humanity has been devastated by the simian flu, which has killed millions.  The apes at the center of this flu have moved to the forests of northern California and both sides deliberately avoid the other.  The ape leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis) does not want humans near his fellow apes, but he does not want to go to war with them.  This is more than can be said for Koba (Toby Kebbell), who is still bitter about the experiments the humans performed on him and thirsts for revenge. 

Things remain at an uneasy peace until 'man enters the forest'.  The humans, armed, have entered the ape realm in order to attempt to use the defunct dam in the apes' territory to provide power to the dying survivors' community in San Francisco.  The leader of the expedition, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), along with his wife, nurse Ellie (Keri Russell) and Malcolm's son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are both terrified of the apes and in awe of them.  They believe that rapport can be reached where both sides can coexist peacefully.  Caesar is not hostile but not welcoming either.  There are efforts on both sides to try to bridge the divide, but there are those on the other side who still fear the other.

On the ape side, there is Koba, and on the other, there is Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who is still haunted by all that he has seen and lost (including his family due to the simian flu).  Eventually, both sides reach an agreement: a small party can come to repair the dam, but they must be unarmed.  Things appear to go well despite one of the humans having snuck in a weapon (the relationship being repaired when Ellie saves Caesar's wife with medication), but Koba, distrustful and itching for a fight, goes into human territory and takes weapons, killing two men he disarmed in the process. 

Koba has decided to lead a silent coup by torching the ape village, attempting to assassinate Caesar (despite the cardinal law of the apes "Ape No Kill Ape", and blame the humans.  The few sympathetic apes help Malcolm and the others flee, but now Koba has taken full charge and takes the ape army to San Francisco in an effort at total extermination.  Dreyfus and the humans attempt to defend the city, but the apes' strength and their overwhelming firepower overwhelms the city and San Francisco falls.  What follows is a bloodletting orgy that would put the fall of Troy to shame.  When one young ape refuses to kill unarmed humans, Koba's response is to drag the young ape to the top floor of San Francisco City Hall and hurl him to his death, horrifying his fellow apes.

Malcolm and Ellie discover that Caesar is not dead but wounded, and the ape leader is heartbroken that his fellow simians are as capable of cruelty as the humans.  He also sees that humans are capable of good and have turned out to be better friends than the apes he trusted.  The humans manage to bring his son Blue-Eyes (Nick Thurston) to his father, where Caesar learns that both humans and apes loyal to him have been imprisoned.  Caesar advises on how to retake power from Koba, and despite his injuries Caesar and Koba have a final battle on Coit Tower for power.  Malcolm, meanwhile, has to stop Dreyfus from blowing up the tower to allow Caesar a chance.  In the end, there is no real resolution, with war now all but inevitable, and both Malcolm and Caesar mourn the lost chance for peace.

What people forget is that the original Planet of the Apes, apart from being great science-fiction, was also sharp political allegory, specifically about race relations as the civil rights movement was turning from passive resistance to more militant actions.  While Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver's screenplay might not have had this plan in mind, while watching Dawn of Planet of the Apes I could not help think of ISIS and their barbarism on the lands they have captured.  The hatred the apes have towards all those who are not like them I see reflected in ISIS' destruction of fellow Muslims mosques (let alone the destruction of Christian churches), which is perhaps the least monstrous thing they have done.

Just like ISIS has publicly beheaded and crucified Christians, Koba's shocking act of murder of a young ape who refused to kill unarmed humans to me reflects the madness that overtakes beings who have decided who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

What elevates Dawn of Planet of the Apes is the intelligence behind it.  This Apes film doesn't just seek to entertain with a fantastic adventure story (which it does) but it also treats the story seriously.  It understands that the premise has to be played straight, with no winking to the audience.  The world of Dawn is one that is believable because the idea that total war can be triggered by the smallest of actors/acts is realistic, and that the fear and paranoia of a few can overwhelm everyone in a tidal wave of terror.

Dawn also benefits from great performances.  Not once did we ever question that Caesar or Koba were real.  Andy Serkis is truly the master of motion-capture performances, having honed his craft as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.  Here, he brings pathos to Caesar, a wise leader who comes to trust humans.  Clarke and Russell also were excellent as the humans who attempt to live in harmony with the apes, being perfectly serious.  Oldman's Dreyfus was not a villain but someone who believed he was doing what was right to save humanity from the onslaught determined to exterminate him and his kind.

This is where Matt Reeves did a fantastic job: balancing the action (the siege and fall of San Francisco being especially thrilling) with the more quiet moments (such as when Caesar sees that apes are as monstrous as the humans he had so feared all these years). 

Dawn of Planet of the Apes is a thrilling, intelligent picture.  To me, it is among the best Planet of the Apes films, and here's hoping that the inevitable sequel does as well. 


Monday, November 17, 2014

Gotham: The Mask Review


In terms of crimes, The Mask is rather weak.  Once Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) figure out WHERE the victim came from, the crime is shockingly easy to solve.  However, what The Mask has in its favor is the character development, in particular of David Mazouz's Bruce Wayne, whom we can genuinely now see slowly coming into his own as the future Dark Knight.   We don't short-change the war brewing between Robin Lord Taylor's Penguin and Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney, where we get some really shocking moments.

That just gives The Mask an extra point because in my world, there can never be too much Carol Kane.  There can also never really be enough of Cory Michael Smith as Edward Nygma, so while the crime wasn't all that spectacular (although it was creepy), The Mask is elevated by a deeper exploration of characters.

Gordon and Bullock are investigating a body found by the waterfront, and at first it looks like a run-of-the-mill murder...until GCPD forensics officer Nygma finds a thumb inside the victim's mouth.  The crime is quickly connected to billionaire Richard Sionis (Todd Stashwick), who has a fixation for masks and swords.  Sionis believes himself a warrior, which doesn't sit well with veteran Gordon.  While speaking to Sionis, Gordon flat-out accuses him of the crime.  Soon it becomes clear that Sionis has a fight club going on at his investment firm, where he has the top three candidates for a position fight it out to see who gets the job.

Kind of makes the interview process more deadly, don't you think?

In any case, Sionis quickly takes Gordon and now has HIM as the object of the death match, telling the potential employees that whoever kills him will not only get the job, but a million dollars.  Gordon by now has given up on the idea that his fellow GCPD officers will have his back, but he has a surprise waiting for him as he fights for his life.

In the major subplot, Bruce Wayne returns to school, where he comes across Tommy Elliot (Cole Vallis), who quickly mocks him for becoming an orphan.  Bruce doesn't take kindly to that taunting, but the larger Tommy makes quick work of Master Bruce.  With a little help from Alfred (Sean Pertwee), Bruce literally takes down the larger Tommy, and now Bruce wants to learn to channel his perpetual anger into something, and asks Alfred if he'll teach him to fight.

In the minor subplot, the cold war between Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) and Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) continues unabated.  Oswald brings Fish two things: terms of peace (no blood will be spilt under orders from both dons) and a gift of a beautiful brooch.  Bad move, as Fish uses the pin to stab Penguin's hand, her rage growing to take down her former minion.  Oswald later gives the brooch to Mother Gertrude (Kane) who gives him an interesting insight into humans: they all have secrets.  Who better to know Fish's secrets than her new minion Timothy (Robbie Tann).  Timothy is roughed up and he breaks, telling Penguin Mooney has someone close to Falcone.  That's all he really needs, and he tells his boys to make sure Timothy's body can't be found.  They are at peace, you know.

As I stated, The Mask  in terms of crime isn't the best hour of television.  We know rather quickly who the criminal is and what it involves.  The Mask, however, is not about the crime.  Instead, it is background to the growing complexity of the characters.

In particular, The Mask is about Bruce Wayne.  We now get him out of Wayne Manor and have him interact with boys his age.  Again, not being incredibly versed in Batman lore, the future role Tommy Elliot has in the Batman mythos (which I will keep Hush-hush) escaped me.  However, even if Tommy played no part in the large mythology it would still be great because we could see the evolution of Bruce Wayne.  This appears to be the trigger that brings Bruce closer to embracing his destiny.  Mazouz is astonishing as Bruce (which he has been since the Pilot): he brings the vulnerability of the orphan Bruce with the growing rage within him to make a difference in the crumbling city he lives in and will soon be part of its leadership. 

We also see that Bullock is also again more complicated than people might have first thought.  He makes it clear he isn't Gordon's biggest fan either when he confronts the entire department over their lack of enthusiasm to help him find Jim, but he is going to stand by his partner. 

There are a few moments for CMS* as Nygma spread through The Mask, which is clever and better than having him come in for just one scene.  We see he is brilliant (he came to the discovery that the victim is connected to previous crimes through his own work).  We see also that he clearly enjoys the more gruesome aspects of the crimes (he has too much fun at the autopsy). However, if someone beats him to the punch he is displeased.   CMS has a great grin when he brings what he's discovered to Bullock and Captain Essen (Zabryna Guevara), but when Bullock tells him they already know what he discovered, his frown conceals his own barely controlled irritation at being outwitted. 

Interestingly, it was RLT who had a smaller role in The Mask, as it was more focused on the camp villainy of Sionis, but he still does excellent work throughout.  When he tells Mooney that her stabbing his hand was uncalled for, we can see that Penguin himself is coming close to exploding.  His scenes with JPS were coldly ruthless, and his scenes with Carol Kane (I just love her slightly bonkers Gertrude) are also excellent.  I'd love to see Gertrude take a greater role just to see how far Carole Kane is allowed to go. 

It's interesting that JPS, who has found detractors for being camp, has a great moment when she tells her mole Liza about how she swore never to be powerless after one of Falcone's men murdered her mother for lousy sex service.  It downplayed a bit the camp version of Fish and allowed some genuine emotion to seep through.  Whether this story is true is subject of debate: an old blues singer (Teodorina Bello), who has overheard their conversation, wonders why Fish tells such stories.  It's suggested but never overtly stated that this blues singer, Maggie, is really Fish's mother, very much alive and well.  Still, it was a great scene.

It's interesting that both Fish Mooney and Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot are their mothers' children.  Their backgrounds and how their mothers were/are is what made them what they became, and how they will fight each other through the rest of Gotham Season One. 

We even get a tiny bit with Camren Bicondova's Selina Kyle, where we can see a little comedy as she attempts to steal furs.  "Girl's gotta shop," she tells the officers who find her.  Sometimes a little levity goes a long way.

If things were fair, The Mask might have gotten fewer points because the overall crime wasn't particularly complex to solve, almost as if that were besides the point.  However, thanks to really great work by Mazouz in particular, along with Logue, Taylor, Kane, McKenzie, and both Smiths, we see that The Mask is better because of them. 


Next Episode: Harvey Dent

*As we have two actors named Smith (Cory Michael and Jada Pinkett), I think it will be better to use initials so as to not get the two Smiths confused.