Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal knowledge and experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon childhood in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.” He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when he started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life miserable. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. Far be it for me to reveal any more of the plot. You’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a pure hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics. This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the UK in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come up. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part One)

“Magic Fire Music” from the Centenary ‘Ring’ production by Patrice Chereau (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders

Wagner’s Ring is back. And with a vengeance! On alternating Saturday afternoons, the Metropolitan Opera presented Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Ring of the Nibelung”) — complete and uncut — to radio audiences and Sirius-XM satellite affiliates around the world.

The Ring cycle floated up to the top of the Rhine River, first with a live performance on March 9, 2019 of Das Rheingold, then on March 30 with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), followed two weeks later on April 13 with Siegfried, and concluding on April 27 with “The Twilight of the Gods,” or (in the original German) Götterdämmerung.

People new to opera, and to Wagner and his world, often ask a pertinent question: “Who are the real heroes and villains of the Ring?” We meet both protagonists and antagonists in Das Rheingold, which Wagner called a “prologue” to his stark tale. With the subsequent work, Die Walküre, the characters we thought of as heroes don’t always act the part. In fact, things turn ugly rather quickly in Acts I and II. And in Act II, the gods, so-called, are a lame bunch, but the humans are no different. What about the dwarfs in Das Rheingold? Slimy and sinister. And the giants? No better! One brother slays the other (the Cain and Abel story in disguise), while one god (Wotan) trades in his sister-in-law (Freia) in lieu of payment for a botched real estate deal.

Pushing on with the cycle, the titular Siegfried is touted as the nominal hero. But what does he do that smacks of the heroic? First, he’s a boorish lout whose petulance and wild mood swings, along with constant temper tantrums, would put to shame many of today’s teenagers. And second, he wakes the sleeping Brünnhilde from her slumber, woos and “marries” her, then betrays the woman he loves to another pretty face and, most unheroically of all, lies about it. Oh, sure, it was the “potion of forgetfulness” that did all that. In compensation, he dies a “heroic” death by getting stabbed in the back. But does all that justify what came before?

Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunnhilde in Wieland Wagner’s 1954 production of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival)

“Geez,” you say to yourself, “what a bunch of losers!” This doesn’t give us listeners much to root for, does it? Ah, but you would be mistaken to assume that good triumphs in the end and that evil is punished. To be honest, no one comes up smelling like a rose in this four-part family drama. Which is all to the good for opera lovers.

Wagner, no shining example of humanity, crafted a spectacular Game of Thrones series for the ages. Beginning with Das Rheingold, audiences are introduced to the giant Fasolt, a love-starved brute in need of TLC and understanding. Along comes a double-dealing, conniving and shiftless real-estate developer who refuses to pay Fasolt and his brother, Fafner, for their labors. (Hmm, now where have we heard that one before?) It’s all downhill from there. And then we have Alberich who, right from the start, has love on his mind (or, rather, sex). But who does he approach to alleviate his lust? A bunch of mermaids, that’s who. We know what happens to him: he gets spurned, which leads him to steal their gold.

As the old saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is the prevailing theory of Wagner’s vision. But what were the means by which power can be attained? Why, through politics, of course.

Politics, as most politicians will tell you, is a dirty business. If that be the case, then Wagner was mired in it, although he wasn’t particularly adept at playing the game. Too brutally honest and much too self-indulgent! He believed that what was good for him in terms of creature comforts would be good for Germany as a whole and for everybody else. His woefully ignorant efforts at changing the politics of his time led to his fleeing his native land for more (politically speaking) temperate zones.

Richard Wagner’s grandson, director-producer Wieland Wagner (1917-1966)

Wagner’s genius, besides his unquestioned musical abilities, was in basing his operatic themes on the corrosive, all-corrupting influence of power — absolute power, we should be clear. Hand in hand with power came that oft-associated connection to the political. And the characters that Wagner created and developed and eventually set to music were themselves enslaved to it. And to destiny, a destiny that could be traced to that primal act of thievery, i.e., Alberich’s pilfering of the Rhine gold so casually guarded by those witless Rhine Maidens.

Another facet of the composer’s genius was accomplished by crossing Norse legends and Teutonic myths with Greek tragedy and Biblical creation stories. Was not Siegmund and Sieglinde the first man and woman? Did they not commit original sin against the law? And were they not punished for their crime? There are dozens, if not more, examples of the familiar and not-so-familiar passages from all these various sources. That Wagner managed, through limitless trials and personal tribulations, to complete his vision and bring it to fruition is a textbook example of obsessive compulsion.

It’s All in How You Interpret It

Siegfried faces the dragon Fafner in the 1951 Wieland Wagner production of ‘Siegfried’ (Bayreuth Festival)

After his death, Wagner’s legacy continued with his widow Cosima, and later his son Siegfried, who begat two sons of his own, Wieland and Wolfgang. The two W’s eventually inherited the Bayreuth Music Festival by birthright. In the early 1950s, Wieland made the fateful decision to purge any and all Aryan (read: Nazi) influences from the Festival by stripping his grandfather’s works to their essentials.

As a matter of fact, he eschewed all manner of props and decor, to include helmets, shields, tables, chairs, thrones, even sets and scenery, for subtle lighting effects and pseudo-classical wardrobe. Armature was pared down to a minimum which made the look he gave his cast akin to Greco-Roman fashion.

The tragedy itself took place on a circular-shaped disc that stood-in for the all-powerful Ring (or the world, if you will), while the stage was set ablaze by modern lighting techniques and appropriately dark shading to highlight the ups and downs of the plot. Wieland’s second Ring production from the late 1960s (captured live on CD by Philips and conducted by Karl Böhm) took another giant leap forward by incorporating Jungian archetypes and totemic set designs.

French director Patrice Chereau at Bayreuth Festpielhaus directing the Centenary ‘Ring’ cycle (Photo: Bayreuth Festival, 1976)

This ultimately gave rise to the iconic Centenary Ring cycle production by French director Patrice Chéreau. Conducted by the iconoclastic Pierre Boulez, with Richard Peduzzi responsible for the set designs, Jacques Schmidt as the costume designer, and André Doit as lighting director, the story was placed during the Industrial Revolution, on or about Wagner’s time.

With little to no knowledge of the composer’s work (or of opera, for that matter), Chéreau patterned his ideas after George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, a minor classic in the “Marxist struggle” field of writing and a credible capitalist interpretation of the Ring. The production proved illuminating in that the director, along with his Gallic colleagues, took a remarkably fresh look at the story. They introduced a theatrical basis for their views by padding the drama with singing-actors who could dive head-long into the polemics, yet preserve the all-important human element so far lacking in earlier versions.

Chéreau brilliantly and, I might add, perceptibly employed Brechtian distancing techniques, such as the bursting of the fourth wall — specifically, during the finale to Götterdämmerung when what’s left of the Gibichung contingent stares accusingly out into the audience — in order to convey the folly of mankind’s pursuit of material matters.

Gwyneth Jones as Brunnhilde in the Immolation Scene from ‘Goetterdaemmerung’ (Photo: Bayreuth Festival 1976)

He also took advantage of the Victorian setting by having many of the characters pose as individuals from music history. For example, Wotan was made up to look like Wagner himself; the Rhine Maidens pranced around an industrial waterworks as if they were floozy prostitutes looking for customers; and Mime was played as a cringing old fool who resembled Wagner’s father-in-law, the composer and concert pianist Franz Liszt, and so on.

Although the singing, in general, was below the quality of Bayreuth’s heyday in the 1950s to 1960s (what artist could hope to compete with the likes of Hans Hotter, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen, Birgit Nilsson, Hermann Uhde, Josef Greindl, and Gustav Neidlinger?), the acting was of a level previously unseen in prior Festivals. Among the participants who gained positive notices by their association with this production were Donald McIntyre as Wotan/Wanderer, Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, René Kollo and Siegfried Jerusalem alternating as Siegfried, Heinz Zednik as Mime, Zóltan Kélemen and Hermann Becht as Alberich, Jeannine Altmeyer and Hannelore Bode as Sieglinde, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund, Matti Salminen as Fasolt, Fritz Hübner as Hunding, Karl Ridderbusch and Hübner as Hagen, and many others.

What other Ring production of the past 40 some-odd years, with the “possible” exception of Harry Kupfer’s “Road to History” version from the 1990s, has made such a revolutionary impact in the way we envision Wagner’s epic? Certainly not the Robert Lepage cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, which, despite the millions spent on bringing it to the company’s reinforced stage, needs to be mothballed posthaste before further damage is done.

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Operatic Hodgepodge: The Met Opera Presents ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ ‘Pelléas,’ ‘Carmen,’ ‘Iolanta,’ and ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Duke Bluebeard (Gerald Finley) with his reluctant new bride, Judith (Angela Denoke), in Bela Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

It’s the Subject That Matters

Opera is such a fascinating subject! Of all the articles I’ve written throughout the years and posted on my blog, opera happens to be the most frequently recurring one. And with good reason: It’s the subject I have the most knowledge of, if not the one I feel closest to.

While I’ve also discussed and analyzed a number of past and current movies — most notably, those concerning the science-fiction, biblical epic, crime drama, action-adventure, and related genres — I always come back to opera as my surefire “go-to” topic. Opera speaks to me in ways that other subjects do not.

Another compelling reason would be the annual Saturday afternoon series of radio transmissions — broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Since I started listening to the broadcasts at, oh, around the middle- to late 1960s, I have not missed a single year’s worth of live opera, not even when I lived in Brazil. That’s how pervasive and all-encompassing those transmissions have become. But while the broadcasts are on, I have little room for other concerns.

Nevertheless, I’ve written various unrelated articles in the past, many involving the career retrospectives of actors Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington — two of my favorite film performers. I’ve also begun (but have not concluded) several in-depth studies of the Star Wars series, along with opera in the movies, the Alien saga, a short series concerning the cinematic life of famous artists, and many others.

Now, I have every intention of picking up where I left off, but first let me play a little game of catch-up with this latest post. It’s one I am sure readers will take delight in: the Met’s operatic hodgepodge of works that, by coincidence or not, were all written generally around the same time period.

These works, the names of which can be found in the title of this post, have been influencing the future course of the operatic art in ways we’re still talking about a hundred or more years later.

Requiem for Verismo

A jealous Adriana (Anna Netrebko) watches her lover, Maurizio (Piotr Beczala), kiss the hand of her rival, the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili), in Francesco Cilea’s ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ at the Met Opera

The reports of verismo’s “death” had been greatly exaggerated. Verismo, a version of operatic “realism” — known to American theater addicts as naturalism, a more didactic form of stage representation espoused by impresario David Belasco and others — had not died, but simply undergone a series of experiments that made the Italian-led variety all-but unrecognizable.

Many chart verismo’s “birth” with the 1875 premiere of French composer Georges Bizet’s bewitching opera Carmen, an enigmatic title character as much of the anti-hero as Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been nearly a century before. Some musicologists go back farther than that, to Verdi’s more sympathetic treatment of Violetta Valéry in La Traviata (“The Wayward One”) from 1853, as the touchstone for operatic realism.

Carmen and Violetta are so-called women of loose morals, to put it politely. Carmen is a free spirit who defines love as a “rebellious bird that no one can tame.” In that, she flits from lover to lover like an insatiable bee. Her mantra never varies. Simply stated, Carmen lives by her own rules and remains true to herself, even to the bitter end. On the other hand, Violetta starts out as a cynic where love is concerned, but meets her tragic ending as a heroine who sacrifices personal happiness for the man she loves.

Both Carmen and Traviata are path-breaking works that proved influential to what would come after. From 1890 to around 1910, opera in Europe experienced a pan-hemispheric explosion, and from almost every region. The seminal works that wafted in from Imperial Russia, for example (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Borodin’s unfinished Prince Igor, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades), did much to alter and/or extend the meaning of the term “opera” as a heightened form of theatrical expression.

From Germany, the likes of Richard Strauss (Salome, Elektra) and Engelbert Humperdinck (Hänsel und Gretel) made important inroads along orchestral lines; and from Eastern Europe, such artists as the Czechs Antonín Dvořák (Rusalka) and Leoš Janáček (Jenůfa), and the Hungarian  Béla Bartók (Bluebeard’s Castle), contributed greatly to the expanding nationalistic nature of the repertoire.

What about France? Well, the French had Gustave Charpentier (Louise), Jules Massenet (Le jongleur de Notre-Dame, Thérèse, Don Quichotte), Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande), and Maurice Ravel (L’heure espagnole) to thank for bringing Gallic music and taste to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, their Italian counterparts outrivaled all others with an absolute flurry of operatic activity. Among the assorted items from Italy’s then-current crop of musicians, one can count such novelties as Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Zazà, Alberto Franchetti’s Germania, Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Pietro Mascagni’s Lodoletta and Le Maschere, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (a two-character comedy), and Italo Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re.

None of the Italian works mentioned above, however, succeeded in maintaining a lasting popularity (or touching the heart) as those that Giacomo Puccini had with La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Tosca. Puccini’s later works, i.e. La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, and Il Trittico (previously reviewed in these pages), although bursting with musical inspiration and obvious technical advancements, were nowhere near the popular status of his earlier successes.

Which brings us to Francesco Cilèa’s old-fashioned, four-act Adriana Lecouvreur (1902), broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera on January 12, 2019, and presented in a lavish new production by director Sir David McVicar, with set designs by Charles Edwards, costume designs by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Adam Silverman. It was conducted by the erudite maestro Gianandrea Noseda.

It’s interesting to note that, somewhat differently from Puccini’s down-to-earth output, Adriana Lecouvreur is a bit of a throwback. The story takes place at the Comédie-Française during the 1730s in the salons of the rich and famous, an era of powdered-wigs and extra-marital intrigues. It shares similar thematic material with Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896), which set its story amidst the rumblings of pre- and post-Revolutionary France. Personally, I prefer Giordano’s more melodious offering, but either opera will do in a pinch.

Franco Corelli as Maurizio and Renata Tebaldi as Adriana

There is much to recommend in Cilèa’s effort, though, which has been performed by a galaxy of prima donnas since its Milan debut. How well I recall the on-air pairing of Renata Tebaldi in the title role with the gallant Franco Corelli as her lover Maurizio, opposite the mezzo-sopranos of Irene Dalis, Regina Resnik or Mignon Dunn as the rival Princess de Bouillon. The role of the love-struck stage manager, Michonnet, was invariably taken by the stalwart Anselmo Colzani.

The legendary Magda Olivero, who studied the part with the composer himself, was also a memorable Adriana; and the vocal fireworks that tenors Mario del Monaco, Placido Domingo, and Carlo Bergonzi generated, in addition to the sonic explosions that mezzos Giulietta Simionato, Elena Obraztsova, and Fiorenza Cossotto set off on records, are well documented. The bottom line is that this opera demands big voices.

Still, Adriana is a vastly different affair than Cilèa’s earlier veristically-derived L’Arlesiana (“The Girl from Arles”), made famous by the remorseful tenor aria, “Lamento di Federico,” which star singers from the gramophone period on left recorded extracts of. Adriana has no such compensation (that is, if we fail to take into account the heroine’s introductory air “Io son l’umile ancella,” or Maurizio’s “La dolcissima effigie” and “L’anima ho stanca”). What it offers instead is a chance for singers to act out their fantasies with parts that are vocally rewarding, if histrionically over-the-top.

The Met Opera’s production emphasized this former aspect, casting the opera from strength with the regal presence of the renowned Anna Netrebko (a real-life diva in the flesh) as a grandiloquent Adriana, a rejuvenated Piotr Beczala in top Jussi Bjoerling-form as Maurizio, a flamboyant Anita Rachvelishvili as the flashy (and incredibly spiteful) Princess, and the remarkably capable Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet. Netrebko and Rachvelishvili had previously been paired as Aida and Amneris in the September-October 2018 run of Verdi’s Aida, achieving quite a success! In this work, the two artists were veritable spitfires.

Russian diva Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur

If only they had something more substantial to work with, for Cilèa’s opera is a long one by verismo standards. Its cumbersome plot defies belief (the title heroine slowly dies from a poisoned bouquet of flowers sent to her by her rival) and requires the utmost patience on the part of listeners. Whole scenes and bits of crucial dialogue were cut both before and after its premiere, making it more confusing than it already was; not only that, but vast stretches of the unwieldy score, along with an inferior libretto (by one Arturo Colautti, who adapted Fedora for Giordano), amble along aimlessly until the last act.

Adriana’s lengthy and drawn-out death scene, in the hands of a superior talent such as Ms. Netrebko’s, gave the episode some much-needed drama and lift. In lesser hands, Adriana can test the audiences’ ability to sit quietly and listen. As a magnetic stage performer, Anna Netrebko is without peer and unquestionably a Met mainstay. Her triumph in the part was assured, but her Italian enunciation remains mushy and mystifying, which had little effect on the pro-Netrebko contigent.

Michonnet (Ambrogio Maestri), the Princess de Bouillon (Anita Rachvelishvili) and Adriana (Anna Netrebko) in ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’

Equally superior were the lavish outpourings of Mr. Beczala and Ms. Rachvelishvili. Bravi tutti quanti! Signor Maestri copped the top prize in the diction category, as did baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Quinault, tenor Carlo Bosi as the Abbé de Chazeuil, and bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro as the Prince de Bouillon — all underdeveloped characterizations left to wander about by the incomprehensible entanglements of the plot.

Vive la France!

While some Italian operas take place in France itself, many French works are set in purely mythical times. One such work, Debussy’s five-act dreamscape Pelléas et Mélisande, is a darkly brooding, distinctively moody piece based on Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama of the same name.

Symbolism, as best as it can be defined, appeared at roughly the same time that verismo started to take root. It can be explained as a reaction to reality, in that it favored the interpretation of dream imagery by way of symbols and the mind’s imagination to that of more pragmatic resolutions. It sounds more formidable than it is, by the way.

What Debussy did, basically, was to set Maeterlinck’s play to music, cutting down the number of scenes to thirteen or less (excluding those with little to no dialogue) and providing a virtually continuous musical accompaniment that underscores and/or comments upon the actions, thoughts, and desires of its protagonists. The justly celebrated interludes are what give this symphonically driven opus its signature soundscape.

This technique can seem mind-bogglingly frustrating to listeners waiting with baited breath for a recognizable melody or two from one of French music’s most admired craftsmen (see examples of this in Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, La Mer, Images for Orchestra, and his numerous piano pieces). The funny thing about it all is that, for this kind of nebulous story telling, everything clicks into place.

Comparing Pelléas et Mélisande to Bizet’s Carmen — in this instance, the Met broadcast of Pelléas on January 29, 2019, with the following week’s transmission of Carmen on February 2 — can prove striking as well as enlightening. How does one compare Grand Marnier to Cointreau? There can be no better contrast between these two transitional works than by hearing them back-to-back.

British musicologist, writer, and critic Rodney Milnes, in the section devoted to Carmen from Opera on Record (Hutchinson & Co., 1979), marks the work as “one of those operas in which creative genius of the highest order has, after an uncertain rather than (as generally supposed) a disastrous premiere, been answered by lasting popularity, the popularity reflected in a steady flow of records from the turn of the century onwards.” There is no argument from anyone about his findings.

Clementine Margaine as Carmen in Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ at the Met

What controversy still swirls today around Carmen concerns performance practice: that is, which version of the score to use, either the heavily dialogue-ridden opéra-comique version or the inferior one with musical recitatives inserted by Ernest Guiraud after Bizet’s premature death. In the radio broadcast above, the Met unwisely chose the Guiraud adaptation, which seriously undermines the nature of Bizet’s work in almost every way.

In opposition to how Carmen is portrayed above, music critic Felix Aprahamian, in that same Opera on Record volume, refers to “Debussy’s one and only completed opera” as “a spell-binder” and “the French score of scores.” From a certain point of view, Mr. Aprahamian is correct in his appraisal. No other work from that early twentieth-century period has been as elusive or difficult to pin down as Pelléas. Technically and musically, there is little to no direct relationship between Bizet’s opera and Debussy’s. Yet, both require singing actors of the highest artistic level to bring out their riches for all to hear and admire.

So which opera is “better”? You might as well as ask to choose who’s best among one’s own brood. If your taste runs to readily hummable tunes (e.g., the Habañera, the preludes, the “Toreador Song,” the “Flower Song”), then Carmen’s your first choice.

As the titular gypsy seductress, French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine maintained a mastery of the language and style, despite a soft-grained sound and choppy phrasing. At times, her character’s gruffness overpowered the other singers, but this is supposedly an uneducated gypsy girl, so smoothness and liquidity are uncalled for in this context. It’s a shame, though, that Margaine’s native-language skills remained under-utilized due to the lack of dialogue in this corrupted version.

The gypsy Carmen (Clementine Margaine) listens to Don Jose’s “Flower Song” (Roberto Alagna) in Act II of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

The same can be said for tenor Roberto Alagna as the psychopathically obsessed Don José. Having previously essayed the part when this Richard Eyre production was new, he and Ms. Margaine made a ferociously battling couple in their blistering scenes together. No such language barriers were evident in Alagna’s carefully distraught assumption, which contrasted sharply with that of Aleksandra Kurzak (Mrs. Alagna in real life) as the country-bumpkin Micaëla, the lovely hometown girl Don José left behind when he joined the army.

As the showy, self-absorbed toreador (the correct term is torero, since there is no such word as “toreador” in Spanish. “Toreador” was the invention of the librettists), Alexander Vinogradov made for a booming and energetic Escamillo, all flashy exuberance and sex appeal, with little subtlety. Maestro Louis Langrée conducted.

Still not convinced? Well, then, if you take a fancy to more eclectic fare, or something more challenging to chew on, why not give Pelléas a try?

There’s no faulting the Met’s casting in either the Debussy or the Bizet work. Although an announcement that both tenor Paul Appleby (as Pelléas) and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (as Golaud, Pelléas’ older brother) were suffering from an indisposition, neither artist labored through their parts. Each sounded in his element, with decent French enunciation and a thorough understanding of the opera’s vocal and histrionic requirements. In that sense, Ketelsen’s performance practically stole the show.

Golaud (Kyle Ketelsen) suspiciously eyes Melisande (Isabel Leonard) in Debussy’s opera ‘Pelleas et Melisande’

As the elusive Mélisande, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (the part can be sung by either mezzo or soprano) kept up that bewildering air of inscrutability that her character possesses throughout the piece. But the most heartfelt performance  of all, for me, was that of the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto as Old King Arkel. His was the most emotionally rich portrayal in memory, his majestic basso profundo tone effortlessly filling the theater at each turn of phrase. And his French was halfway decent to boot.

There isn’t much drama to all the goings-on (cryptic and furtive conversations being the norm), only what is hinted at in the scoring: a mysterious other-worldliness redolent of ambiguity.

‘I’ll Take Door Number One’

Angela Denoke & Gerald Finley in ‘Bluebeard’s Castle,” with Sonya Yoncheva in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Iolanta’

Strangely, this is somewhat akin to the foreboding territory envisioned by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók for his only opera, the one-act Bluebeard’s Castle (1911), broadcast live on February 9 as part of the double bill with Tchaikovsky’s final opera Iolanta (1892).

Both Bluebeard and Iolanta are separated by two decades. During that short interval, modern developments in the classical-music world (among them, the incorporation of the pentatonic scale) provided composers with other, more unusual methods of orchestral coloration. Bartók, with the aid of his librettist Béla Balázs (a young Symbolist poet who, in fact, revered Maeterlinck), also introduced the Hungarian language into opera’s expanding vernacular. With its singular stress on the first syllable, followed by a weaker and longer accent on the second one, Hungarian is as foreign to the opera world as the unopened seven doors of Duke Bluebeard’s fortress abode.

Some wag once railed that Puccini’s arias were tailor made for the gramophone. Similarly, it has been written that Bartók and Balázs’ Bluebeard was the ideal opera for long-playing records (or, in today’s sonically enhanced universe, either the compact disc or digital download). That may have been the case, but as the Met’s double-bill — with a late-Romantic work by the heart-on-sleeve Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for openers — I found the coupling inconsistent and unconvincing. Perhaps Wolf-Ferrari’s two-character Il Segretto di Susanna (whose “secret” was that she hid her smoking habit from her husband) would have provided a more well-grounded comparison to Old Bluebeard (hint, hint!).

Regardless, the revival of Polish director Mariusz Treliński’s 2015 production featured major cast changes for both works: as Iolanta, soprano Sonya Yoncheva took over for Anna Netrebko, while tenor Matthew Polenzani picked up where Piotr Beczala left off as Count Vaudemont. As Bluebeard, Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley replaced Mikhail Pretenko, and soprano Angela Denoke stood in for Nadja Michael as his wife Judith. Both works were conducted by the young Hungarian-born Henrik Nánási.

Judith (Angela Denoke) inside Bartok’s ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

In Iolanta, Mr. Polenzani was, true to the wintry weather, another artist battling a bad cold. He sounded fine in his part, though, coming off surprisingly spry in his breathtaking late-act duet with Ms. Yoncheva as the blind Princess Iolanta, whose family has kept the fact that she cannot see a deep, dark secret. How they were able to fool the girl into thinking she was a normally-sighted person is a hard-to-believe mystery in itself. Mezzo Larissa Diadkova as Marta, tenor Mark Showalter as Alméric, bass Vitalij Kowaljow as King René, and baritone Alexey Markov as Duke Robert, all acquitted themselves commendably and contributed to a fine ensemble.

The real bonus came in the Bartók piece, where the eerily-spoken introductory lines (in native Hungarian) chilled the bones of this listener. When the music started, there was a telltale hush over the audience. This is one unsettling score, the lead-up being that Judith is Bluebeard’s latest bride. She challenges, no, begs her husband to open each of the seven doors he keeps under lock and key. Though she insists and cajoles at every turn, Bluebeard slowly consents to her entreaties by giving Judith first one key then another and another, until all seven doors are unlocked.

The winner in this battle of wills was the always dependable Finley, who continues to prove how thoroughly vibrant, how manly, and how appealing his baritonal, dusky-toned vocal apparatus is on the Met’s cavernous stage. After an absence of fourteen years (she made her Met debut in 2005), German soprano Denoke held her own alongside such competition.

The climax comes when the fifth door is flung open to reveal Bluebeard’s vast kingdom. A massive organ pedal peels forth and an incredible C major chord is struck as Judith lets out a piercing high note — a sonic tour de force! From there, the music becomes more and more melancholy. As the sixth door is opened, a voiceless sigh is perceived, revealing a lake of tears. And at the final reveal, Bluebeard’s three earlier wives appear — alive and in the flesh! Shivers!!!

At the opera’s ponderous conclusion, Judith silently takes her place with the other wives (as a “trophy bride” perhaps?) while the music fades away to nothingness. Brrrr…. I need to get some air after that. Let me open the kitchen door. Uh, on second thought, maybe not….

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Seven): ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ Episode V — Parents and Their Children

Heads in the Clouds

Threepio, Artoo, Luke & Leia contemplate their fate at the conclusion of ‘Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)

The Millennium Falcon follows the trash dump to freedom (along with the unseen bounty hunter, Boba Fett, hot on its intergalactic trail). Meanwhile, Luke is doing much better in the control department by staying calm and collected. But in the midst of his Jedi training with Master Yoda, which involves levitating rocks and such, he has an eerie vision of a city in the clouds, with Han and Leia in trouble. He can see into their future, and it’s not a pretty one.

To save his friends from further suffering, Luke decides to leave Yoda’s training camp. Yoda counsels against interrupting his lessons, but Luke is determined. As he makes this decision, the Millennium Falcon approaches the Cloud City. Han Solo expects a safe port of call and some kind of warm welcome from his old gambling partner, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). There are extra added FX inserted here, which are good for what they are: extra added effects.

The slick and debonair Lando (“old Smoothie” as Han describes him) indeed welcomes Han and his friends to his turf. He extends his hand to Leia and offers to help them and their ship (which used to be HIS ship, by the way). Assured of his cooperation, the band enters the premises under Lando’s protection.

Threepio lands himself in hot water almost immediately by meddling where he shouldn’t. His usual habit of poking his nose where it doesn’t need to go gets the better of him, however, as C-3PO has his head and arm blown off in the bargain (he “thought” he had heard an R2 unit in there….).

Back on Dagobah, Luke is preparing to depart on his X-wing fighter with Artoo. A vision of Obi-Wan Kenobi appears to him, warning Luke of the Dark Side’s power. Despite Old Ben and Yoda’s admonitions and predictions of disaster (“This is a dangerous time for you” and “if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil”), the headstrong youngster takes off after his friends.

Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) exchanges thoughts with Master Yoda (voiced by puppeteer Frank Oz)

“That boy is our last hope,” sighs Obi-Wan forlornly, as his form slowly fades away in the background.

“No, there is another…” This phrase is cryptically intoned by Master Yoda, a foretaste of what is to come. (In the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater where I first saw the picture, this casual aside left most viewers baffled. Others with more insight speculated among themselves as to what Yoda meant. As for myself, I had trouble just understanding what the hell the little toad had muttered to himself.)

Back at Cloud City (amidst another round of superfluous FX), Princess Leia is pacing back and forth in her quarters. She voices concern about the missing C-3PO to Han. Chewie, for his part, has gone in search of the unruly robotic butler. He finds the overly curious droid in a junk room, spread out in pieces as the furry star pilot attempts to put him back together.

In the ensuing scene, Lando invites the trio to dine with him, sans the physically discombobulated Threepio of course. Unfortunately, “old smoothie” leads our hearty adventurers straight into the gloved hands of Lord Vader himself, thanks to Boba Fett’s relentless tracking of their whereabouts.

Luke and Artoo are on their way at last! But as Chewbacca wails and carries on in the cell, Han is painfully tortured (vide the unearthly electronic sounds that fill the room). To occupy himself, Chewie tries to rebuild Threepio. He can’t make heads or tails out of the mess, a veritable Leggo set of spare parts.

And what about poor Han? Forever suffering the torments of hell, that’s what! Everything hurts, which will also be a running gag with actor Harrison Ford in the upcoming Indiana Jones series (produced by George Lucas and directed by StevenSpielberg). In just about every subsequent feature after Empire, Harrison will be battered about, poked, punched, pulverized and beaten to the ground. It’s a miracle the actor survives these ordeals. Perhaps being frozen in carbonite isn’t such a bad idea after all! At least he’ll be protected from the elements (and from physical abuse).

Han (Harrison Ford) feels awful after being tortured; Chewie (Peter Mayhew) gives him a helping hand

Luke’s X-wing fighter ship now approaches. There’s a quick wipe to Lord Vader outside the holding chamber. Vader orders that Leia and the Wookiee remain in Cloud City, to which Lando objects. Vader cuts him off with a curt “Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly.” Agreeing to Vader’s terms (!), Lando mutters under his breath that the deal he’s made with the Empire gets worse as time goes by. Oh, yeah!

Han is returned to the holding chamber in worse shape than when he left it. While Leia soothes his aching head, Lando returns to his “friends” and informs them that Han is to be turned over to the bounty hunter for delivery to the loathsome bandit, Jabba the Hutt. Jabba wants his prize trophy (Han had squelched on their deal, too, no doubt). Ticked off at his seeming betrayal, Han gathers up what strength he has left to take a poke at Lando’s chin. Before things get out of hand, Lando halts the brawl. He is powerless to prevent what will occur.

Frozen in Time (And in Carbonite)

The freezing facility is made ready for the inevitable. Certainly, the excellent sound effects in this sequence (the work of sound designer Ben Burtt), and in the ensuing lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, are to be commended. But before Luke’s entry into the fray, Han Solo will be the test subject. The rising smoke and gases from the freezing chamber, along with the red glow, evoke shades of a fiery hell. In fact, the heat from the blast-furnace sets made Peter Mayhew’s Chewie costume stink to high heaven.

The prevailing darkness and flame-red colors fall on the actors’ faces, which give them a hellish glow. Chewie throws a Wookiee fit in order to save his friend Han, but Han looks up at the eight-foot-tall, walking fuzz-ball and tries to soothe his jangled nerves. He charges Chewie with taking care of the Princess. Leia then turns to Han as they kiss goodbye. Their love theme resounds on the soundtrack. Han is taken to the freezing platform to meet his maker.

When Han is being lowered into the pit, Leia cries out, “I love you.” Now, one would half expect a repeat of that hackneyed “I love you, too” phrase, but director Irvin Kershner wasn’t satisfied. Repeating take after take after take, and rewrite after rewrite after rewrite, “Kersh,” as he was fondly called, wasn’t convinced that another “I love you” would do the trick. Finally, in a last-ditch move, Kershner had Harrison do a final take where the ad-libbed line “I know” came out of the actor’s mouth. No one believed the scene was over when Kersh yelled “Cut!” but the line stuck. Not only did it stick, it went on to become a classic. And Harrison’s “Clark Gable meets John Wayne” acting impression became legend as well.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford) faces the freezing chamber

And, as “frozen in carbonite” Han Solo is taken on his journey back to Jabba, so will Luke be taken to the Emperor as a prize gift from Lord Vader — or so Vader thinks.

In the meantime, Threepio has been jabbering on about Chewie’s lame efforts at putting him back together à la Humpty-Dumpty (it’s a clumsy attempt at channeling the classic nursery rhyme, one might suppose, but so be it). He doesn’t realize that Chewie is more concerned about sparing the life of his buddy Han, who had previously asked him to save his rage for other times. Threepio must have witnessed Han’s stealing a parting kiss from Leia who, in the film’s most passionate exchange, FINALLY declares her ardor for the half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

And what does Han Solo remark in return? “I know.” To echo the words of the late Governor Tarkin: “Charming to the last.” In these so-called final moments, Han has gained a measure of nobility that, up until now, his character has rarely if reluctantly displayed. His stature with Leia has risen ten-fold by his noble self-sacrifice. Furthermore, it’s a credit to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and the late Leigh Brackett, and also to Kasdan, Lucas, and Kershner’s keen sense of where the Leia-Han romance needed to go: it had to take center stage. At this juncture, you could say it’s the big setup for what will be the ultimate reveal at the end. But that is yet to come, dear fans! “Patience, young padawans! Patience!”

While audiences are still fawning over this sequence, i.e., where Han’s body is frozen stiff in the coal-gray-black carbonite — his expression is a mixture of pain and horror, as well as fierce resolve — we are being distracted from the real crisis. That is, how will Luke Skywalker be able to overcome and resist the Dark Side when faced with such unrelenting power, the power of the Dark Side, which he knows very little of?

As indicated above, John Williams’ love theme rises tellingly in the orchestra as the rectangular carbonite container (reminiscent of the black monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only sideways) hits the ground with a resounding thud.

May the Military Force Be With You!

Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) eyes the bounty hunter Boba Fett

Vader hands Solo over to the bounty hunter and demands that Calrissian escort Leia and the Wookiee to his ship, the aptly-named Star Destroyer Avenger. When Lando balks at this change in their plans, Vader cuts him off with a terse, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Lando shoots a knowing look at the cool bald guy with the radio-transmitting headset (known as Lobot), who silently acknowledges the message: they are planning a little getaway of their own.

With blaster in hand, Luke cautiously wanders the Cloud City’s halls. He catches sight of Han’s frozen-in-carbonite form and the armed escort that accompanies it. Without prior warning, bounty hunter Boba Fett (voiced by Temuera Morrison) shoots his formidable weapon at him while Leia shouts of an impending trap. In true “hero’s journey” fashion, young Luke is heedless of her admonition. Artoo has the door close on him (redolent of a monstrous mouth with teeth) as Luke enters the freezing chamber for the final confrontation with Fate and the dreaded Dark Lord.

Luke surveys the layout of the freezing chamber before he is abruptly greeted by a thrice-familiar voice. “The Force is with you, young Skywalker,” Vader croons in sepulchral tones. “But you are not a Jedi yet.”

Now begins another of those Captain BloodRobin HoodSea Hawk sequences whereby Vader and Luke cross lightsabers in what seems like every nook and cranny in the Cloud City complex. Luke’s blue-shaded lightsaber mixes with Vader’s red-toned one — Akira Kurawawa’s samurai influence runs deep in this and subsequent scenes.

Luke (Mark Hamill) challenges Lord Vader (body by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) to a lightsaber duel

In the meantime, Lando is able to free Leia and Chewie from their bonds, only to have Chewie almost choke the life out of him for his seeming betrayal of old buddy Han. He’s saved from his fate, however, by choking out a few breathless phrases that there is still time to save his friend. Oh, good to hear! They make haste for the east platform. Meanwhile, R2-D2 and C-3PO are reunited at last, even if Threepio is a bit worse for wear (and as cranky and complaining as ever).

Vader and Luke continue to battle it out in Edo-era fashion. Vader also exudes over-confidence, as to be expected, but Luke surprises him with some deft maneuvering in and out of the freezing chamber.

“Impressive,” observes Vader, “most impressive.” He takes a few swipes at young Skywalker. “Only your hatred can destroy me,” he bellows, but is that really part of Vader’s plan?

Vader calls on Luke to release the full brunt of his anger. It is the only way the Dark Lord can be vanquished. But Luke manages to fight his way out of a conflict. Losing his balance, Vader plunges into the outer rim of the pipes surrounding the freezing chamber. There is a brief pause in the action, enough for Luke and the audience to catch their breath.

Luke jumps in after Vader. He snoops around the reactor room — again, the superb sound effects in this next sequence are tops in their field. From nowhere, Vader re-emerges. Undeterred, the Dark Lord throws everything at Skywalker that isn’t nailed down (and then some!). Luke impotently swats at the oncoming objects, one of which breaks open a window. He is then sucked out of the room and thrown onto a platform in another of those omnipresent Forbidden Planet moments, with Luke holding on for dear life — literally on the edge! The look is all there, down to the triangular shaped doors, in another of George Lucas’ nods to his sci-fi past.

Back to Lando and company: he cautions everyone to leave Cloud City at once before the Empire takes over operations. Panic ensues, of course (in one more of those “expanded” scenes — completely uncalled for, in my opinion). Artoo is able to open the hanger door where the Millennium Falcon is housed. While Threepio hurls a series of comical one-liners at his mechanical playmate (having mostly to do with the inoperative hyperdrive), Lando and Leia manage to board the Millennium Falcon in time to make their escape.

Trust Your Feelings!

In the same instant, Luke and Vader are back at it. The Dark Lord duels it out with the novice Jedi Luke to the edge of the platform, where Luke nicks Vader’s right arm with his lightsaber, a nice move. It looks like he made a dent in the bout, until that fateful moment when Vader slices Luke Skywalker’s right hand off with his lightsaber.

Vader makes an offer that Luke must refuse

Luke will remember this encounter for the rest of the series (and what remains of his screen life). Indeed, this is the pivotal episode in the hero’s journey where the confrontation with one’s parent reaches mythical proportions. In both Classical and Norse mythology, we have copious parallels to consider: in Siegfried’s chance encounter with the Wanderer (or Wotan) in Wagner’s Ring cycle; in Oedipus’ slaying of his father Laius from the Greek tragedy by Sophocles; and in Orestes’ murder of his mother Clytemnestra to avenge her killing of his father Agamemnon.

Luke’s conflict with himself has also reached a climax, in typical Greek fashion, with the discovery of his true origins. Left with no defenses and suffering an open wound on his hand (emblematic as well of Amfortas’ unhealed wound via the lance held by the magician Klingsor), Luke holds on for dear life with his left arm. Vader, sensing his quarry is trapped (and knowing of his true origins), plays psychological mind games on him. In fact, messing with another’s mind is part of the routine (i.e., that “old Jedi mind trick” gimmick).

Conveniently, Vader suggests a way out of Luke’s predicament by offering to complete his training. In getting Luke to trust his intentions by making them sound reasonable and acceptable, Vader uses reverse logic to validate his offer. In other words, the ends justify the means; it all sounds so logical and doable, but it really isn’t.

So what does Vader offer? In essence, Vader reveals his plan to usurp the Evil Emperor by bringing Luke to his side — to the power of the Dark Side, that is. First, he claims that with their combined forces, both he and Luke can end “this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” I’ll bet! But Vader’s plans go much deeper than that.

Lord Vader emphasizes the “power of the dark side” to Luke Skywalker

Fortunately for film fans, Luke imagines himself capable enough to reason this out. “I’ll never join you!” he blurts out. Atta boy, Luke!

Now comes the big reveal! Realizing that he must level with the young man, Vader tells Luke the thing he longs to hear but wishes he never heard. “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”

“He told me enough,” Luke counters roughly. “He told me you killed him!”

“No. I am your father.”

Luke cannot accept this knowledge (or rather, he refuses to swallow the bait). Knowing who the messenger is, he cannot possibly be receptive to the message. Can you blame him?

In response, Luke hurls a mighty and repeated “No!” to Vader’s metallic visage. But Vader presses the matter further by proposing a father-son union. By joining with him, they can depose the Emperor. It is Luke’s destiny. Together, they can “rule the galaxy as Father and Son.” This does not sit well with Luke’s plans. In defiance of his parent, Luke releases his grip on the platform — and on life as he’s come to know it — and floats down the long garbage chute (similar to the one where he, Leia and Han had fallen into in Episode IV: A New Hope).

Consequently, Vader is left empty handed. What must he have felt at that moment? Did he expect this kind of reception from his young recruit? Did he search his feelings, as the Evil Emperor had earlier advised him, or did he not heed his master’s word? To be exact, Vader poses the same message to Luke: “Search your feelings; you know this to be true!” One wonders, too, if Luke bothered to heed his advice.

There are many avenues to explore in not only Luke and Vader’s troubled and unrealized relationship, but also in Vader and the Emperor’s long association as slave and master, and as pupil and mentor. In reality, if Vader was “happy” with his current situation, why would he want to destroy it by killing the hand that feeds it, i.e., the Emperor (and with Luke’s help no less)? Was it ruthless ambition, lust for power, or unnatural selection? Or was it a case of “destroy or be destroyed”? By firing the first shot, he may have tried to avoid a problem before there was a problem to resolve.

Luke hangs on to what he can, which amounts to a few metal rods of support in open airspace. He keeps asking himself why Old Ben (Obi-Wan) never told him about his father. Calling out telepathically to Leia, the Princess forces Lando to turn the Millennium Falcon around so they can rescue Luke. Hesitating at first, Lando is convinced to help Luke out after Chewie bares his teeth in his direction. Upon arriving at Cloud City’s base, Lando goes through the top hatch and drags poor Luke to the safety of the cargo hold.

TIE fighters are in hot pursuit as they try to dodge their attack. Too, Vader is back on his flagship Star Destroyer to view the chase from his vantage point. In like manner, Vader calls out telepathically to Luke, who is in sickbay convalescing.

“Luke, it is your destiny….”

“Ben, why didn’t you tell me?”

The Millennium Falcon is being tracked by the Star Destroyer, and Lando and Chewie are STILL trying to jump into hyperspace (deactivated beforehand by the Imperial crew at Cloud City). Providentially and despite Threepio’s claims of “delusions of grandeur,” Artoo is able to reactivate the hyperdrive which blasts the fast-moving Millennium Falcon beyond Vader’s reach.

R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) tries to put C-3PO back together again

In an instant, the ship has disappeared from view. Vader is left on the deck of the Star Destroyer to brood and pace back to his quarters. This brings relief to the furrowed brow of Admiral Piett, who believed that he would be the next victim of Vader’s unappeasable frustration with how badly things have turned out.

Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia takes Luke to his bunk and plants a kiss on his lips for encouragement. The ending is a cliffhanger encased in true cliffhanger fashion. Rebel spaceships abound throughout. Lando vows to regroup on the planet Tatooine to find and bring back Han. In sickbay, Luke is being fitted with his new bionic hand. With feeling restored to his pulse, he approaches and embraces Leia. The two look out into the endless reaches of outer space as the Millennium Falcon takes off on its mission to rescue Solo.

Juxtaposed against the original New Hope ending, where, facing the viewing audience, the entire crew is rewarded for their bravery, the same cast members (minus Chewie and Han) are seen from the rear, their backsides turned to those same viewers in contemplation of their future. What does that future hold for our intrepid companions?

(End of Part Seven)

To be continued…

Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes     

‘Children of the Night’ — Celluloid Creatures and Other Movie Monsters (Part Two): Dark and Stormy Nights

Period poster art for “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

A Gathering of Giants

From that notorious June 1816 gathering at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati off Lake Geneva came one of the most elaborate, incontrovertibly ground-breaking horror stories ever written, one that has stood the proverbial test of time.

A young and highly-educated girl named Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the lover and future second wife of British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, channeled a lively imagination (and her own tragic childbirth experiences of loss and suffering) into the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, published anonymously in 1818.

Just to be clear, the name Prometheus, in Greek mythology, refers to one of the Titans — that is, the children of Uranus, god of the heavens, and Gaia, goddess of the earth. Prometheus was also the only Titan to have fought on Zeus’ side in the ten-year battle against the gods and other Titans.

His name means “forethought” and, of all the Titans, Prometheus was by far the cleverest. So much so that he is credited with favoring man with thought and crafts and, most significantly, with stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man. In many accounts, Prometheus is also ascribed with having created man out of clay, thus his significance in Mary Shelley’s story of Victor Frankenstein and his obsession with creating life.

Prometheus steals fire from the gods

For stealing fire and allowing man to master its use, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock (via a spear through his chest — ouch!), while each day an eagle would feast on his liver. But every night, the liver would grow back, only to have it eaten away again the next day. Eternal suffering and punishment for his “crime” was Prometheseus’ fate. In Frankenstein, God punished Victor Frankenstein for having taken lightning from the sky to give life to an artificial being by turning his creation against him and those he loved.

Besides the silver-tongued George Gordon Lord Byron, accompanying Mary Godwin and poet Shelley on their summer outing were Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and Byron’s former lover and friend, Dr. John William Polidori (dubbed “Polly” by the bard). What with the dreadful rainy weather (due, we are told, to an overactive volcano that previous winter), the couples kept themselves entertained by engaging in the usual leisure-class pursuits: card playing, parlor games, and the reading of books and poetry were the order of the day. These were some of their activities, along with the imbibing of spirits and (ahem) related carryings on.

They were leading a typical upper-class, self-indulgent lifestyle, as many in their station were wont to participate in. And to pass the time, the young people turned to telling one another ghost stories. Ah, but what stories!

So much has been written about this remarkable literary and historical encounter that, surely, someone somewhere would have attempted to make a film about it. And indeed someone did: two full-length features, at that. However, the earliest cinematic representations of Byron with Shelley and wife Mary can be traced to Universal Studio’s The Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale’s masterful 1935 sequel to his original Frankenstein (1931).

In the witty prologue to the picture, which features a delightful opening minuet scored by composer Franz Waxman (and which, in many film historians’ opinions, takes place after that infamous Lake Geneva get-together), a powerful storm rages on. Trivia note: The servant girl leading the Russian wolf hounds off-camera is played by Una O’Connor, who appears in the movie proper as the strident-toned Minnie.

Inside a castle eerily similar to the one where Baron Henry von Frankenstein (Colin Clive) fashioned his creation from old dead bodies, a flowery Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), whose ornately aristocratic accent flows trippingly off his tongue, faces Mary (the enchanting Elsa Lanchester), busy at her needlework, and introduces himself as England’s greatest sinner. He praises Shelley as England’s greatest poet, to which Shelley inquires, “What of my Mary?” To which Byron replies: “She is an angel.”

“You think so?” is Mary Shelley’s sly retort.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elsa Lanchester) at Villa Diodati, from director James Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein”

Byron invites her to watch the storm, but she declines, claiming that lightning alarms her. “Astonishing creature,” he admonishes.

“I, Lord Byron?” Mary asks quizzically.

“Frightened of thunder, fearful of the dark,” declares Byron. Nevertheless, he expresses admiration for the story, as well as astonishment that she, Mary, a charming and frail young woman, could have fashioned such a frightful tale, one to chill the marrow of one’s bones. He admits that Murray, her publisher, would have a dreadful time releasing this fantastical tale to the public.

In defense of her work, Mary reminds Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), that her publishers did not see that the purpose of her story was to convey a “moral lesson of the punishment that befell a mortal man who dared to emulate God.” Against Mary’s wishes, Byron eagerly recaps for his friends, and for the viewing audience’s benefit, the most harrowing sequences from Frankenstein: how the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein created his hapless monster, who itself was “killed” for having murdered and terrorized a village — altogether forgetting that Universal had anachronistically updated the story for modern times. (Indeed, the studio had plans to resurrect the monster, so it behooved Universal to come up with a viable angle.)

In the instant that Byron approaches Mary to take into his hand the “fragile white fingers that penned the nightmare,” she accidentally pricks her finger with a darning needle. As Mary rises to her feet to show Shelley the blood, the friends form a triad, with Mary in the middle — the image of which will be repeated near the end of the picture, as the eccentric Dr. Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger), with exaggerated pomposity and rolling his “r’s,” introduces Henry Frankenstein to their new creation, the nameless hissing Bride (Ms. Lanchester again, only not so enchanting as before).

Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Mary (Elsa Lanchester), & Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) in the Prologue

Taking her delicate hand in his, Shelley declares it a shame that Mary should have ended her story quite so abruptly. “That wasn’t the end at all,” she insists. Mary then goes on to further embellish the tale, picking up the thread where the earlier film had left off, i.e., at the burning mill tower.

Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) & Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

The Literary Life, Literally

Author Jill Lepore, whose The New Yorker magazine article, “The Strange and Twisted Life of ‘Frankenstein’” (originally published under the title “It’s Still Alive!”), is a brilliant synthesis and summation of Mary Shelley’s life and work, refers to the novel as “no minor piece of genre fiction but a literary work of striking originality,” one that helped to establish “the origins of science fiction by way of the ‘female gothic.’”

The term “gothic” and its loose connection to the above-named Romantic-era writers and poets also happens to be the title of a film by that most daring and baroque of British “out-there” filmmakers, the flamboyant movie and television director Ken Russell. His 1986 Gothic, released by Vestron Pictures and produced by Al Clark and Robert Devereux (with a soundtrack by New Wave musician and performer Thomas Dolby), is a fictionalized and (let’s say it and be done with it) over-the-top recreation of that Villa Diodati gathering of imaginative minds.

Russell’s previous screen work, among them the critically-acclaimed Women in Love (1969), based on D.H. Lawrence’s ribald novel of the same name; The Music Lovers (1970), about the ill-fated sex life of Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky; The Devils (1971), adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, which concerned the sexual shenanigans of 17th-century nuns at a convent in France; Mahler (1974), probably Russell’s most sedate composer picture from this period; the rock-opera Tommy and another composer “biopic,” Lizstomania (both 1975), both starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey; the mind-bending science-fiction feature Altered States (1980), from the novel by playwright Paddy Chayefsky; and the sexually-themed thriller Crimes of Passion (1984), with Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, are worth noting for their offbeat nature and subject matter, as well as their uninhibited (and self-destructive) attitudes toward sex, free love, and religion.

All of these films served as mere lead-ups to Gothic, his most outlandish visual production on the timeless story of Mary Shelley (a sensational motion-picture debut by the fresh-faced Natasha Richardson) and her soon-to-be-betrothed Percy Shelley (Julian Sands, typecast as the troubled poet), traveling to Lake Geneva in order to spend time with the ravenous, neck-biting Lord Byron, marvelously portrayed in hangdog, rock-star-like fashion by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne. Byrne and Byron must have shared one of those out-of-time Vulcan mind melds: the two figures, actor and poet, complement each other’s ravings like a hand in a custom-made glove.

Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, l.) greets Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) in Ken Russell’s “Gothic” (1986)

Canadian-born actress Myriam Cyr is well cast as Claire Clairmont, who is much too obsessed with Lord Byron; and rising character player Timothy Spall portrays a fey Dr. John Polidori — he, too, is obsessed with Byron, but in all the wrong ways. Still, history records that Polidori went on to write the first documented vampire story, entitled (quite naturally) The Vampyre, wherein he modeled his lead character, Lord Ruthven, after Byron himself. (See the following link to my previous entry: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/25/children-of-the-night-celluloid-creatures-and-other-movie-monsters/).

Needless to say, there are shocking images of spooks, skulls, and witches’ Sabbaths; devil worship, blood-letting, and after-births; leeches and body horror; nasty trolls and hallucinatory visions; naked heathens and heaving bosoms — anything and everything the viewer (or the director, for that matter) would likely associate with the gothic style and aesthetic. However, the actual encounter among these so-called literary types is treated as the result of drug-induced mind trips.

But nothing in the near-contemporary output of the Brontë Sisters (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre), or that of Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility), can equate to the perversity of Gothic’s “shock ending.”

After the evening’s horrors are over and done with, a semblance of normalcy returns to sleepy Villa Diodati, along with pleasant weather. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin serenely descends the long staircase, her face frozen in a steady gaze. But her mind has been set ablaze with inspiration from what she has learned and experienced.

She joins Lord Byron and Polidori at a picnic on the Villa’s grounds. Polidori offers her some tea. Byron, puffing on a fat cigar, reassures her, “There are no ghosts in daylight. You’ll get used to our nights in Diodati. A little indulgence to heighten our existence on this miserable earth. Nights of the mind, the imagination. Nothing more.”

“What about your ghost story, Mary?” Polidori cheerfully quizzes.

“My story … my story is a story of creation,” she calmly muses, “of a creature who’s wracked with pain and sorrow and hunger for revenge, who haunts his mad creator, and his family and his friends … to the grave.”

Shelley (Julian Sands), with his betrothed Mary (Natasha Richardson) & Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall), in “Gothic”

Suddenly, we are transported to the present day. A guide, discoursing through a loudspeaker on board an offshore vessel, takes the viewer on a tour of Lake Geneva and the Diodati estate. As he speaks, the guide announces that eight years after their time at the Villa only Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont remained alive. Byron died of a fever in the Greek war, Shelley drowned in a boating accident, and Polidori, Byron’s biographer, took his own short life in London.

“But something created that night, 170 years ago, lives on,” the tour guide informs his audience, “still haunting us to this day: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

The camera turns away from the vessel and pulls back down to reveal an object in the water, which comes floating up to the surface. It is the naked body of a stillborn creature — a horrid, ugly, misshapen creature. A creature wracked with pain and sorrow. An ungodly child!

Less is More, More or Less

Two years after Gothic bowed in movie theaters (or bowed out, as the case may be) the same theme was taken up again and filmed as Haunted Summer (1988). Directed by Czech movie-maker and screenwriter Ivan Passer (a longtime U.S. resident), and scripted by noted director Lewis John Carlino, Haunted Summer presented a more sedate (and, ergo, less memorable) reading of the story behind the mixed couples’ 1816 mid-June foray.

Unlike the tempestuous Ken Russell, Messrs. Passer and Carlino wanted nothing better than to present the Shelleys, Byron, and Polidori as, yes, hot-blooded Brits, but also as young people in their passionate “summer of love.” Where both Russell and Passer emphasized their connection to 1970s flower children, screenwriter Carlino dwelled on the Shelley’s concern for the poor and downtrodden (they were also die-hard abolitionists, as were Mary’s parents) — historically accurate, if truth be told, but hardly digestible screen fare.

Still, the cast was promising: Eric Stoltz (Mask, Lionheart) as Percy Shelley, Philip Anglim (The Elephant Man on Broadway, The Thorn Birds on television) as Lord Byron, Alice Krige (Chariots of Fire, Ghost Story) as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart) as Claire Clairmont, and Alex Winter (The Lost Boys, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) as John Polidori. Good actors all, with plenty of stage and film experience between them.

Byron (Philip Anglim), Claire Clairmont (Laura Dern), Mary Godwin (Alice Krige) & Shelley (Eric Stoltz) at Villa Diodati, in “Haunted Summer” (1988)

Where the story lets them down and unfortunately veers off course is in its emphasis on the men — Byron, Shelley, and “Polly” — instead of on the women. It is Mary Godwin’s association with Shelley and the pleasure-seeking Lord Byron, along with the classic output they produced as a result, that fascinates us, not the foreplay and sex drives of Claire for Byron (and Shelley, if we may be so bold), or Shelley for both Mary and Claire.

In our opinion, Anglim’s stiffly-acted Byron lacks presence and charm, if not sheer sexiness. He’s not nearly as threatening (or as positively dashing) in these departments as what Gabriel Byrne brought to the part. As for Eric Stoltz, his Shelley speaks in a high-pitched squeal, which grows more and more irritating as the story (and his temper) progresses. On another trivia note, both Byrne and Stoltz were reunited earlier for the low-budget epic Lionheart (1987). In that vehicle, Byrne played a malevolent character known as the Black Prince (perfect typecasting, to say the least).

While we’re on the subject of biopics, I have two other features in mind to share with readers: the recent Mary Shelley (2018) with Elle Fanning in the title part and first-time screenwriter Emma Jensen, directed by Saudi-Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour (so far unseen by yours truly); and an earlier one, Gods and Monsters, released in 1998 by director-screenwriter Bill Condon, about the last days of James Whale, the openly gay British auteur of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man (1933), and other movie classics. Whale was wonderfully portrayed by Ian McKellen, himself a gay actor. He is best known to today’s audiences as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbitt film series, and as Magneto in The X-Men flicks.

That intriguing title, Gods and Monsters, derives from a scene in The Bride of Frankenstein, whereby the pseudo-scientist and mad necromancer, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, an old theater colleague of Whale’s), proposes that he and Baron Frankenstein drink a toast to their new-found partnership.

The mad Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in a toast to “gods and monsters,” from “The Bride of Frankenstein”

“To a new world of gods and monsters!” Pretorius chuckles, as he downs a glass of gin, his only weakness. “The creation of life is enthralling,” he boasts afterwards, “distinctly enthralling, is it not?”

Indeed, it is — especially when it leads to the creation of memorable horror stories such as these.

End of Part Two

(To be continued…..)

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Street Life: The Politically Incorrect World of Animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoonist, artist, writer, producer and animator Ralph Bakshi

Cartoon Caricatures

For those who grew up in the inner cities — and by that, I mean the worst parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, to encompass the streets of Philadelphia, the segregated neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and the over-crowded tenements of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and East L.A. — the pervasive violence, the lack of upward mobility, the profanity and discrimination, the sexist treatment of women, the drugs, prostitution, and out-and-out squalor and despair were an inescapable way of life. (If you don’t believe me, check out the HBO series The Deuce.)

Add to these an irreverent outlook, a comically skewed yet perceptive observation of humanity with all its failings and faults; of basic “survival mode” amid the stench of neglect and decay, and you begin to understand what drove the art of a young Jewish immigrant growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1940s and 50s.

For artist and animator Ralph Bakshi, irreverence toward the status quo (with his middle finger prominently raised in direct response to it) was a natural form of self-expression, a method for combating the boredom and loneliness of line-drawing or cell-painting — and of perfecting his own off-kilter approach to what nowadays is known as the politically incorrect.

The young Ralph Bakshi, drawing away in his studio

Nothing in Bakshi’s background, which manifested itself in his copious artwork, was commonplace or mundane. Quite the opposite: whether his characters were anthropomorphized animal figures or highly-caricatured examples of the human kind, for better or worse they lived and breathed the urban street life, something the young Bakshi was intimately acquainted with. They throbbed with vibrancy and authenticity — even if that so-termed authenticity verged on the exaggerated and extreme.

In today’s contentiously politicized atmosphere, an artist of Bakshi’s ilk, and intensely polemical output and worldview, would be hailed as a visionary. His work would be broadcast on primetime cable with the same loyalty and dedication that have made such programs as the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, HBO’s Westworld, Black Mirror, or the award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale the critical bonanzas they’ve become.

But back in the 1970s and 80s, when Bakshi first gained notoriety by depicting outright lust, loose morals, avarice, intolerance, violence, and racial bigotry in full-length cartoon fashion (Fritz the Cat, 1972; Heavy Traffic, 1973), he was looked upon with disdain if not outright revulsion as the architect of animated subversion. By capturing the stereotypical behavior of the racially mixed minorities he had grown up with, and by imposing his own personal (some would say “offensive”) stamp and pulp style to animation, Bakshi revealed the true “colors,” such as they were, of big-city life and the people who populated it.

“Fritz the Cat” (1972), based on Robert Crumb’s underground comic

Rotoscopy, or the process of tracing live-action models and settings from real-life individuals or photographs, became a workable (albeit crudely stylized) means of translating Bakshi’s vision into actuality. The later introduction of computer graphics and CGI-animated features, however, only emphasized the fact that what Bakshi had accomplished at the time clearly pointed in that direction. He once complained, in an online interview, that he was heavily criticized for having used the rotoscopy method once employed by such pioneers as Max and Dave Fleischer and Walt Disney, which modern computer animation has taken full advantage of. His reaction: he expressed excitement at the prospect that he, a simple cartoonist and writer, was the path-breaker.

In the early days of his career, Bakshi toiled at Terrytoons and Hanna-Barbera, while later branching out with his own makeshift studio. He worked, when work was indeed available, for such big-name outfits as Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Twentieth Century-Fox, but never with lavish budgets and always on the brink of ruination. If the results remained stillborn or obviously rushed, their very crudity and inconclusiveness lent his features a degree of quaintness and immediacy — that is to say, of living in the moment.

Not a Second to Spare

The sultry Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) from the live action-animated feature “Cool World” (1992)

This feeling of living in the moment was unlike anything one had gotten from earlier animated productions. The influence of New Hollywood, and the newfound freedom of expression and permissiveness that came with it (“sex, love and dope” were some of the themes), served as both a godsend and a curse to Sixties and Seventies filmmakers such as Bakshi.

Along with the animator, a new generation of cinematic entrepreneurs (i.e., Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, John Cassavetes, John Carpenter, Paul Schrader, and others) had come of age in the wake of this new open-mindedness. As a group, they succeeded in tearing open the motion-picture envelope of what could be seen and heard on the big screen.

Bakshi, as the only animator, was a key contributor to this idea of a more open cinematic experience, the literal exposure of urban myths regarding our beloved American society — a cruel, dishonest, and demeaning one, from the point of view of the oppressed, which included such insalubrious characterizations as street hustlers, hookers, bums, vagrants, drug dealers, low-life types, pot-smokers, corrupt police officials, innocent bystanders, the mob, high school dropouts and college kids, and so on (see Fritz the Cat; Coonskin, 1975; and Hey Good Lookin’, 1982).

“Hey Good Lookin” (1982), Bakshi’s semi-autobiographical feature

Ralph Bakshi’s so-called genius, then, was in taking the side of the not-so-casual observer. His “camera lens” focused primarily on subject matter and theme, along with their accompanying surroundings — aspects that, in today’s mixed-up crazy world, have endeared him to a whole new generation of film fans.

His overall film work (yes, even the less characteristic sci-fi/fantasy features) are a symbiotic blend of actual street sounds and competing voices, mixed together with whatever-was-available background footage, still images, out-of-focus snapshots, and flavorful period music. The stunning visuals, many if not all of them individually and painstakingly traced from life, attest to the director, screenwriter, and animator’s innate ability to make use of existing material.

He is never to be confused with the likes of Ed Wood, who despite whatever outward enthusiasm he might have demonstrated in his amateurish film productions, could never be considered an artist. Bakshi was, and remains, an artist through and through.

The interracial relationship depicted in “Heavy Traffic” (1973), with its mixture of live-action (background) with animated foreground figures

Not that his on-the-fly working methods would be mistaken for professionally-finished “quality” product. In stretching the limits between the real and the imaginary, Bakshi frequently struggled with budgets and lack of funding. More often than not, he failed, to a large extent, to bring his vision to completion. Although less polished than the majority of his contemporaries’ work, to this writer (and, let’s face it, to most viewers) the less polished and “finished” Bakshi’s product felt the more revelatory and genuine they became. Indeed, their very imperfections proved more artful, more thrilling, and, yes, more true to life than anything introduced by the Disney Studios.

Certainly the textures were there: the sense of an incomplete masterpiece-in-the-making; of further insights to come (then again, maybe not); the inescapable feeling of imbalance, of rawness and raunchiness; of disproportion and of sketchiness, of living on the edge or whatever else he could think up.

The copious bloodletting and perpetuation of ethnic and cultural stereotypes were there in spades (no pun intended). Add to them the clash of varying styles and formats within the same picture frame, and the incompatible combination of realistic drawings with cartoony creations — again, the intervention of real life into that of the make-believe film world.

This clash of styles would continue to be a hallmark of many of his productions, in particular that of Coonskin (1975) and the later Cool World (1992). Adult-oriented plots, defiantly for (and about) mature audiences and the all-too-serious situations that abounded in his films, along with their ribald humor — these were the qualities that set Bakshi apart from every other animator of his period.

The controversial and racially charged “Coonskin” (1975)

We need only mention the extraordinary use of Nazi propaganda footage from pre-World War II Germany to entice rebellion (Wizards, 1977); the medieval storming of a rotoscoped castle, taken wholly from MGM’s Ivanhoe (The Lord of the Rings, 1978); and entire scenes lifted from Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (Wizards again), or the tracing of Saruman from Charlton Heston’s Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (The Lord of the Rings). Were these blatant infringements of copyrighted material, or were they Bakshi’s personal homage to classic films and the individuals who made them?

Pot smoking, sexual promiscuity, philandering, fornication, drug addiction, hustling: indeed, all levels of documented human behavior were explored and exploited, as unsavory as they appeared to some. All of these facets simply emboldened Bakshi, who conveyed the deeply flawed personalities of his creations as they were. But the empathy he displayed for them nonetheless shines through the muck. No one is perfect, in his assessment, and no one is less flawed than anyone else. We’re all human, or inhuman if you prefer. That’s the lesson one learns when watching one of his pictures.

A true original and an independent hero to writers and art directors alike, Bakshi’s films are fascinating from the point of view of their uniqueness. His characters float in a surrealistic environment of their own formation, a hallucinatory topsy-turvy world as unseemly and disjointed as an LSD trip. Yet, there is something poetic to his work, the dialogue (as coarse and vulgar as it gets) is no more shocking than, say, the harshest of David Mamet or the gutter language employed on cable network programs.

His influences extend from the aforementioned brothers Max and Dave Fleischer to Walt Disney; from Walter Lantz, Bob Clampett, and Ollie Johnston to Tex Avery, Ub Iwerks, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Paul Terry, and the underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, among others. To such established cartoonists as Milt Caniff, Al Capp, Al Hirschfeld, and Chic Young; even to comic and pulp creators Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Lin Carter, and Jim Steranko.

Robert Crumb (self-portrait), underground comic book artist, writer, musician, and creator of “Fritz the Cat”

Bakshi’s films remain as relevant in today’s society as they ever were. For reasons already noted, we continue to face the same age-old problems of race, sexism, drug addiction, corruption, organized crime, gun violence, inequality, and such as many of his characters have experienced — with an ever-increasing lack of faith in our institutions to control or combat them.

His films have proven especially popular with young adults, now coming of age at a perilous point in our history (and who, ironically, happen to see themselves depicted on the screen); teenagers in love, interracial relationships, and gender bending; kids in trouble leading aimless lives, bigoted mind-sets, and families squabbling over who-knows-what.

Bakshi once stated that he came to the animation business at a time when animation was in its death throes. The art was dying, he claimed, and he was right. He may also have been the catalyst who led the charge in its revivification during the modern era.

Always a voracious reader, Bakshi wrote about the people he knew: the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, the Italians, the Jews, and the other ethnicities in his neighborhood. He had a fondness for their culture and how different or alike they were from one another. Above all, he reveled in their individuality and distinctiveness, their abundant love of life, and most characteristically their music. He felt a responsibility to discuss these folks in his work, to talk about their lives, to capture their complexities in timeless of-the-era fashion that still resonates with fans to this day.

In future installments of this series, we will be looking at each of his films individually, and discuss their merits and deficits, as well as their continued significance in and application for our troubled times.

(End of Part One)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Best’ of the Rest — Films I Enjoyed (or Not) in the Movie Theater (Part Two)

“Mad Max: Fury Road,” with Charlize Theron & Tom Hardy

Welcome back! Summer is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for movie-going season. Here’s the continuation of my truncated reviews of first-run movies that over the years yours truly has watched at our local multiplex cinema. The films are discussed in chronological order. Happy reading, everyone!

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Let’s start things off with a bang! This fabulous reboot of the old George Miller-directed Mad Max series (from 1979 to 1985), which featured the young Mel Gibson, makes the recent spate of American-made Marvel Universe and Justice League pictures look like finger painting by comparison. Starring British actor Tom Hardy as the laconic and psychologically-challenged ex-cop Max Rockatansky, the story takes place in a futuristic “society,” if that’s the correct verbiage; a blighted backdrop where some terrible form of global catastrophe has left the planet a barren waste land (or, at least, the section where Max and his cohorts dwell and fight in). Gas (or “guzzoline” as it is called here) is the currency that sets men free and enables them to lord it over their underlings. Women, who happen to be the community’s driving force and all-important keys to survival, are treated as breeders and/or nursemaids by the few who are able to procreate. The look, the feel, and the grime of this No Man’s Land have been recreated to a startling degree. Along with them, the power of the chase, and the use of makeshift automobiles and rough-and-ready trucks (such as the War Rig) of every size and description — which make up the bulk of the community’s transportation system — are part of several incredibly visceral scenes in this stunt-laden spectacular. There are a variety of set pieces, all of them plot driven. Gibson, the original Max, was initially tapped to give life to this sequel of sorts. Thankfully, however, director Miller made the decisive move to go with a younger actor. This is where Hardy’s grim visage and restrained thespian skills come in handy in depicting a character whose steely-eyed determination and spare gestures far outweigh his inability at conveying his profoundest thoughts. A man of action and instinct, Max is the “grin and bear it” type (more like grunt and grumble, as depicted in those early 1930s Popeye cartoons). Everything feels right about this continuation, which is light years removed from the Star Wars franchise, or any of those dreadful The Hobbit movies directed by Peter Jackson. Filmed on the desert terrain of Namibia in Africa, Mad Max: Fury Road is anchored by a seething, pitch-perfect performance from South-African born Charlize Theron as the one-armed Imperator Furiosa (a real spitfire), the real focus of this fire and brimstone road epic. Nicholas Hoult is the frenetic pumped-up Nux, with Hugh Keays-Byrne as the repulsive Immortan Joe, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as the Splendid Angharad, Nathan Jones as the hulking Rictus Erectus, and Riley Keough as Capable. Told in three parts (each with its own distinctive tinge), with brief flashbacks to prior incidents (more like electric-light sparks) that continue to pollute Max’s brain-wave patterns, the visual and coloristic elements in this latest entry in the apocalyptic realm are exhilarating, to say the least. Every aspect of this action-packed adventure flick is splendid and has been placed in more than capable hands (love those Pole Cats) by the visionary Dr. Miller, including the excellent soundtrack and the outstanding music score by Junkie XL. Our favorite weirdo characters: the actor and musician iOTA (real name: Sean Hape) as the fire spouting, electric guitar-playing The Doof Warrior; and the brief bit (accompanied by the “Dies irae” from Verdi’s Requiem) by the so-called Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter). Honorable Mention: The women who comprise the Vulvalini. Do see this in widescreen surround sound (or in a first-class home theater setting). The color range and amount of detail are positively astounding! You can turn the volume off and it would still make sense, it’s that good. Keep alert to the proposed sequel, Mad Max: Furiosa.

Kylo Ren (l.) threatens Finn & Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Ho-hum, another day, another lackluster science-fiction foray into the Star Wars universe! After creator, writer, director, and erstwhile producer George Lucas sold the rights to his money-making franchise to Disney, it seems that creativity and original content went out the door via the star-freighter’s garbage chute — and into the pockets of backers hoping to make a killing (or “chump change” in this instance) with this ponderous excuse for a continuation. This is one long and hopelessly hokey sequel, people. As longtime readers of this blog know, I have been a Star Wars fan since the first film appeared on the horizon (or in our solar system) back in 1977. I was present at every one of the premiere showings on the traditional Memorial Day weekend. I even stood on that endless line (which veered off into the stratosphere) for the initial run of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. You can imagine my disappointment, then, at this less than rousing epic, which is long (oh, soooo long) on special-FX and short on actual substance. A lot of sound and fury, as well as lightsabers and firepower, signifying …. Well, that’s a good point. What does this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute adventure-less thrill ride have to do with Lucas’ space fantasy? And where does one begin to relate the many problems we have with this film’s bogus story line? New characters abound throughout, which is all to the good. And familiar characters make spurious entrances, which is all to the bad. Some old favorites and friends (Han Solo, Chewbacca), and some overly recognizable wisecracks “help,” in a manner of speaking. There’s a little bit of everything for the geek in all of us, including a space-age kitchen sink to play in, and a new robotic android companion (BB-8) to squeak at. One thing I did like, and that was the elevated quality of the starships and cruisers, which have that solid, bulky, tactile-rendered, lived-in feeling from the originals. Indeed, the return of the Millennium Falcon intact was reason enough to cheer about. New cast members Daisy Ridley as Rey (game and lively), Adam Driver as Kylo Ren (brooding), John Boyega as Finn (clueless), Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron (wasted), Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata (dig those crazy goggles), Domhnall Gleeson as the spittle-spewing General Hux, and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke (in motion-capture mode, just as Lupita was above) give it the old college try, along with a last-minute cameo from Mark Hamill as the bearded Luke Skywalker. Some mad dashing about by Harrison Ford as Han, as well as a badly aged Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and dozens more, provide some needed spunk. The brief bit by Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth in the Game of Throne series on HBO) as Captain Phasma promises more than it delivers. Truth be told, the old gang does add some flavor and spice but little else that’s nice to the circuitous plot. Ah, yes, the plot. The story takes place 30 years after the incidents that wrapped up Episode VI. It seems there’s another bunch of storm-trooping soldiers in charge, only this time they’re called the First Order (i.e., the bad guys) which rose from the remnants of the deposed Galactic Republic. On the opposite side of the tracks, there’s our correspondingly insignificant Rebellion, unconvincingly labeled the Resistance (the so-named good guys). The dark side of the Force makes a comeback, thanks to the badly damaged mask of the late Darth Vader, which holds a considerable grip on the impressionable Kylo Ren. Hmm, I wonder why ….. Yes, folks, the plot becomes oh-so predictable at this point that there’s no sense going into specifics. The more things change in that long ago and far, far away galaxy, the more they stay the same.

Beetle, Kubo & Monkey of “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Another gorgeously constructed, brilliantly realized stop-motion tale from Laika Studios, the company that brought you Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014). There is exemplary voiceover work by the ubiquitous Charlize Theron, in addition to Art Parkinson (excellent, by the way), Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. A decent score by Dario Marianelli (Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina), who also composed the music for The Boxtrolls, sets the right Oriental tone throughout this extended road and buddy picture. And the novel use of ex-Beatle George Harrison’s song, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” will surely bring a tear to one’s eye. Laika Studios, and especially its director, animator, and CEO Travis Knight, continue to mine the richly rewarding, frame-by-frame field that spotlights the struggles that young people face in life — in particular, the problems that kids encounter in convincing their elders, who should know better, to listen to their counsel and advice (a favorite topic of the above stop-motion features). In practically all of Laika’s movies, relatable characters such as Coraline, Norman, Eggs, and now Kubo continuously confront this challenge, sometimes head-on but most times by blindly stepping up to the challenge and taking charge of the situation. One such child, the 12-year-old Kubo, learns to live by his wits in the adult world and tries to cope with its troubling consequences — most of them not of his choosing and, in this unusual feature, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, origami, the Shinto religion, and the supernatural (in the form of two wicked aunts and a sinisterly clever grandfather). He meets along the way the representative characters manifested by Monkey (Theron) and Beetle (McConaughey), his steadfast companions on a mission to track down his deceased father’s weapons and armor (as you can tell, there’s a lot of story to glean through). The importance of family and respect for one’s ancestors are stressed, something that Pixar Animation Studios later attempted with the award-winning Coco (2017). Ambitious in the extreme and a little long and murky at times, Kubo and the Two Strings remains an admirable effort at understanding a foreign culture; one that is so different from our own that the film ends up more as an evocative experiment rather than an emotionally cathartic one (which it aims gamely to put over, but ultimately fails). Small children may have difficulty deciphering the finer points that are tossed at them. They are not alone! When the story plays second samisen to the visuals, and when the conversation turns to thoughts of death, family, and (gulp) individual sacrifice, it starts asking an underage audience more questions than they can handle. It may not be the best told fable in the expanding Laika library, but it certainly is their best-looking and best-sounding picture to date. The opening tidal wave sequence alone is worth the investment. In that, Laika is the lone path-breaker in this once-vanishing form of stop-motion entertainment.     

(Clockwise from left): Valerian, Bubble, Commander Filitt & Laureline in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Probably the most ambitious, sumptuously photographed, and seamlessly realized special FX feature of all the above and below entries. A bit lacking in dramatic impact, there is still that goofy kid’s eye-view feel (“Look, Ma, I-made-a-sci-fi-fantasy picture”) to this gargantuan production. At a cost of nearly US $200 million, director, writer, and co-producer Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the most expensive European co-production to date. It’s a bit more than just a Fifth Element retread, Besson’s earlier cult hit, which many critics have compared it to. Based on a French graphic publication from the 1960s, Valérian et Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, this literal comic-book come-to-life adventure film stars Dane DeHaan as Major Valerian, a hotshot space pilot in the Han Solo tradition of maverick gunfighters; and ex-model Cara Delevingne as his co-pilot Sergeant Laureline, a spry no-nonsense police woman and would-be girlfriend to the girl-crazy Valerian. This attractive couple spars in the age-old tradition of The Thin Man series (starring William Powell and Myrna Loy), with barely disguised intimations of the snappy repartee between Han Solo and Princess Leia. We know, from our extensive movie-going experience, that love-hate relationships such as these end up in only one way: the two young people will eventually fall into each other’s arms. Or will they? That’s but one of the many off-center “in jokes” that Besson’s film plays up. The others include state-of-the-art effects and brief star turns by an accomplished cast, which includes Clive Owen as the sullen Commander Filitt, Kris Wu as Sergeant Neza, jazzman Herbie Hancock as the holographic Defense Minister, Ethan Hawke doing his best Dennis Hopper imitation as Jolly the Pimp, Rutger Hauer in an all-too-brief-stint as President of the World State Federation, the voice of John Goodman as the formidable Jabba the Hutt lookalike and sound-alike Igon Siruss (with insinuations of a probable sequel afoot), and the remarkable if limited input of pop-star Rihanna as the shape-shifting alien Bubble. Her exotic dance number has to be seen to be believed! Surely viewers will be reminded of the opera diva Plavalaguna sequence in The Fifth Element. As a matter of fact, there are one-too-many references to that earlier feature, sometimes to the current one’s detriment. Nevertheless, here’s another instance where the opening episode highlighting the seven-foot tall bald-pated race known as Müls (who smack of the blue-skinned Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar) offers much promise, specifically when it deals with their planet’s annihilation and the fate of their race. A plethora of related complications and extraneous side characters (for example, the rollicking trio reminiscent of Donald Duck’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) conflict with the main issue and leads to inevitable exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Likely, the film will play better on downloads and streaming devices, and in 4K or Blu-ray transmissions. Definitely a feast for the eyes as well as the ears, Valerian unfortunately veers off in too many directions at once. It can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be taken seriously (in the manner of Blade Runner 2049 below) or wallow in self-parody. A pity! As with Mad Max: Fury Road, I look forward to a sequel that will flesh out and expand upon the material.

Ryan Gosling as Officer K in one of many fabulous images from “Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

When I first saw this long anticipated follow-up to Ridley Scott’s visual masterpiece Blade Runner (1982), my initial reaction was, “Man, what a downer! How could the director and visionary of Arrival (see my previous review via the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/) make such a depressingly bleak, snail’s-paced picture as this?” Yes, it’s impressive to look at, but God, does this movie crawl — sometimes on all fours. Looking back at that gut reaction, I realize that Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian filmmaker, had other things on his mind than a mere follow-up to an acknowledged cult classic. In that respect, I give Monsieur Denis the benefit of the doubt. What he and his committed cast and crew members have assembled here is a stand-alone project: their own fantastically sentient world; a visually stunning, intellectually stimulating science-fiction recreation of a future where Replicants (human lookalikes with limited life-spans) do the drudgework (much of it off-world), while Blade Runners (police officers charged with tracking down miscreant Replicants) bring “law and order” to a Hong Kong-like megalopolis populated by emotionless automatons. These are the human characters, mind you. There are multiple references to the earlier film (many of them quite subtle, while others are blatantly overt), as well as tributes to sci-fi sagas of decades past, including intermittent allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both of these genre classics figure prominently in the ethos of Blade Runner 2049. Call it the “new noir,” or a sci-fi crime drama. Actually, it’s a literal police procedural, as Officer K (a relentlessly morose Ryan Gosling) begins the story by terminating a rogue Replicant named Sapper Morton (hulking Dave Bautista). The Replicants harbor a deep, dark secret: that one of their kind has given birth, something no Replicant was thought to be capable of. From this scene-setting prologue, we venture forth into the unimaginable: a futuristic Los Angeles, the city of “angels” (or “devils,” if you will), home of the Wallace Corporation, the business entity that took over for Dr. Eldon Tyrell and the Tyrell Corporation, where the original Replicants were grown and fabricated. The blind eccentric, CEO Niander Wallace (a creepy Jared Leto), has picked up where Tyrell left off. Obsessed with finding the culprit who gave birth, Wallace sends out his private bodyguard Luv (the equally glum Sylvia Hoeks), a supposedly detached Replicant but bubbling with pent-up emotions she can barely keep under control, to find the mysterious offspring of said Replicant. Meanwhile, Officer K has identity issues of his own. In his sparsely-decorated “space-age bachelor pad,” K keeps a holographic companion, the aptly named Joi (Ana de Armas), as sort of an artificially-intelligent girlfriend. Think Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013, but with a comelier shape and come-hither voice and eyes. Superbly photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, the murky screenplay is credited to original scenarist Hampton Francher, along with Michael Green. A bewhiskered Harrison Ford returns as former Blade Runner Rick Deckard, and Sean Young, the original Rachael (the one everybody believes has given birth) makes a cameo appearance via motion- and voice-capture technology. The remainder of the cast, to include Robin Wright as Lt. Joshi, Mackenzie Davis as Mariette (who shares a body meld with Joi in one of the film’s most memorable sequences), Carla Juri as Dr. Ana Stelline, Lennie James as Mr. Cotton (a makeshift Fagin to a bunch of urchin children), and Edward James Olmos in a neat little clip as Gaff, try to boldly go where no sequel has gone before. They succeed to some extent in delivering an original take on the plot, but that’s about it. Maybe they succeeded too well, for this film is extraordinarily dense, the story needlessly complex and meandering. Still, the sets, the costumes, the incredible holographic images, the soundtrack, and special FX are state-of-the-art miraculous. The overpoweringly loud and blaring music score, however (by veteran composer Hans Zimmer with contributions from Benjamin Wallfish), is much too self-indulgent to make an impact (except on your eardrums). Recommended but with hesitation, due to the high violence quotient and the disappointedly dragged-out-beyond-all-reasonable-limits story line.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) gawks at the “Asset” (Doug Jones) in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water (2017)

Made up for any deficiencies noted in Pacific Rim (see my earlier reviews of this and other movies: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2018/01/14/the-best-of-the-rest-films-i-enjoyed-or-not-in-the-movie-theater-part-one/), Mexican director, producer, and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro’s “comeback” picture The Shape of Water features some of the best emoting on screen this year. A modern-day Beauty and the Beast turned Creature from the Black Lagoon fairy tale, combined with fantastical elements from King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and other similarly themed productions, this film is what future generations may point to as the quintessential Del Toro picture. The color scheme, the use of water, shade and light, the enchanted and quixotic nature of the plot, and of course the “Asset” or Creature itself — played by the underrated mime and actor Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series) — are too marvelous for words. The Shape of Water has all the essential ingredients of Del Toro’s high-concept mind-set, and can be favorably compared to his earlier output, especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (part of Del Toro’s Spanish trilogy which began with Cronos), and even Mimic and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This one features a fish out of water story. To put it plainly, a highly romanticized account of 1960s Cold War struggles depicting downtrodden working-class stiffs — the unlikely trio of mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (sensitive Sally Hawkins), her African American co-worker Zelda Fuller (spunky Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor Giles (Oscar-winner Richard Jenkins) — battling to spare the life of a poor misunderstood sea creature, the amphibious Gill-Man-like “Asset,” against the baser designs of vicious military colonel Strickland (a particularly manic Michael Shannon) and the combined forces of the U.S. Army. This being set during the height of Cold War tensions, the usual suspects are present, including a Russian operative posing as an upright American scientist (the always dependable Michael Stuhlbarg) interested in preserving the “Asset” for his own independent study. Both the scientist and Elisa share the same desire: to learn from this obviously intelligent and responsive creature, who when you get right down to it is more human than the humans who surround and abuse it. Their narratives are told in parallel and supplement the main plot line. As with all such stories, there are multiple viewpoints to ponder and a variety of takeaways to be discussed. For instance, Colonel Strickland is no cardboard cutout villain, but a complicated individual trying to come to terms with this discovery and stymied by the cleaning crew’s lack of cooperation. His own love life with his clueless bimbo-brained spouse Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) is contrasted with the burgeoning love affair between the obviously smitten Elisa and the much more approachable creature, which she and her friends have kidnapped and hidden in Elisa’s bathtub. Now this is where things get a might “weird” and “kinky,” if you know what I mean. But remember, this is a fantasy, with elements of magical realism thrown in that will both delight and infuriate you. In one astonishing episode, Elisa and the “Asset” partake of an elaborate Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance routine. In another, Carmen Miranda is heard singing her trademark “Chica Chica Boom Chic” on the soundtrack. And speaking of the soundtrack, composer Alexandre Desplat has written a deceptively simple score which on first hearing may lull viewers into a state of blissful unawareness. As you can tell, this is both a film and a director enamored of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In combining his love of movies with his passion for the horror genre, Del Toro tries to do the impossible — which is, to make a picture that both die-hard romantics and confirmed horror and sci-fi buffs can look up to and enjoy on multiple levels. Not every critic was entranced by this production, but I can tell you that THIS horror, sci-fi and movie musical fan was thoroughly captivated by the director’s vision.

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes