Playing Catch-Up: Carol (dir by Todd Haynes)


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(Minor Spoilers Below)

Carol is the best film of 2015.

I say that without a hint of hesitation or doubt.  2015 was a wonderful year for movies and I would say that there were at least 20 film released that I would call great.  And, out of those 20, Carol is the best.

Carol opens in 1952.  Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is young, lonely, and living in New York City.  She’s an aspiring photographer who can’t afford a decent camera, a secret bohemian living in a world where morality and culture are defined by the bourgeoisie.  She has a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacey) and he’s eager to marry her and move to France but, try as she might, Therese simply cannot bring herself to feel the same way about him that he feels about her.  Though she lives with him, she refuses to have sex with him.  At one point, she asks him if he’s ever heard of men being attracted to other men and she asks if he thinks the same can be true of women.  Richard says sure, before adding that it’s always the result of “something wrong” psychologically.

It’s Christmas.  Therese gets a temporary job, working at a department store in Manhattan.  From the moment we see Therese surrounded by the Christmas crowds, we realize that she feels totally out-of-place among the rest of the world.  She is withdrawn and quiet and rarely looks anyone in the eye.  That is until she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett).

Carol is searching for a gift for her daughter and accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store.  When Therese arranges for the gloves to be returned to Carol, Carol thanks her by taking her out to lunch.  Soon, Carol is inviting Therese to spend Christmas at her house in New Jersey and a jealous Richard is complaining that Therese has a “crush” on the older woman.

Carol is going through a difficult divorce.  Her alcoholic husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is demanding full custody of their children.  Harge knows that years ago, Carol had a brief affair with her best friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), and he can’t handle it.  When he stops by, drunk and belligerent, on Christmas, he discovers Therese visiting Carol and he freaks out even more.

(With all the attention being paid to the exquisite performances of Blanchett and Mara, now would be good place to mention that Kyle Chandler does a great job playing a loathsome character.  With his performance here and his role in The Spectacular Now, Chandler has cornered the market on playing abusive alcoholics.)

For New Year’s, Carol and Therese go on a trip and they finally consummate their relationship (in Iowa, of all places).  But what they don’t know is that Harge has hired men to follow them and to get proof of their relationship.  If Carol wants to see her daughter again, she knows that it means seeing a psychotherapist for help with her “problem” and never seeing Therese again…

Carol is an amazing and beautiful film, a portrait of both forbidden love and the struggle to survive in a society that demands total and complete conformity.  In many scenes, director Todd Haynes pays homage to the masters of 50s melodrama, filmmakers like Mark Robson, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.  The film’s lushly vibrant colors and attention to detail feels reminiscent of the films that Sirk made for MGM, with Cate Blanchett often made up to resemble Lana Turner.  Meanwhile, Rooney Mara often resembles Natalie Wood from Rebel Without A Cause.  One shot in particular, with the shadows of a window bar falling across Blanchett’s face like the bars of a prison cell, immediately brought to mind the end of Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

For the longest time, I have complained about Rooney Mara’s performance in David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Well, I’m prepared to stop complaining because Mara is brilliant in Carol.  Her blossoming as an actress mirrors Therese’s blossoming as a woman.  Rooney Mara is being promoted for best supporting actress but make no mistake.  There’s nothing “supporting” about Rooney Mara’s performance.  Carol is all about Therese and it works because of Mara’s wonderful performance.

Regardless of what may or may not happen with the Oscar nominations on Thursday, Carol is the best film of 2015.  It’s a film that we will still be talking about decades from now.

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Review: Gotham S1E02 “Selina Kyle”


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Tonight’s Gotham picked up where the “Pilot” left off and that’s the fallout from the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. We find out during the episode that the Wayne family was considered one of the two pillars of the Gotham community which kept the city’s order and status quo. The other pillar being Don Carmine Falcone was a nice touch by the writers. It was this little piece of world-building information that is gradually selling me into this series even this early in it’s freshman season.

The history of Batman, the Wayne family and the underworld which permeates Gotham has been told and retold so many times that it’s hard to imagine that anything new could be added to keep things fresh to hardcore fans of the character and the world. It’s actually been a major problem for comic book and film screenwriters when it’s time to come up with something new and not have it become such a major deviation from the character canon to alienate fans.

Showrunner Bruce Heller must’ve seen something within the backstory and history of some of Batman’s adversaries because he looks to be setting up Carmine Falcone and Fish Mooney as the two main antagonists for season 1. In the comics and in the films we don’t really get to explore these two characters very closely. They’re described as underworld mob bosses and, at times, seen as brutish thugs who just happen to be the heads of their criminal enterprises.

“Selina Kyle” is the title of tonight’s episode though we don’t really see the title character until much later in the episode. The episode itself dealt with a new case for the Gordon and Bullock duo who are still feeling their way around each other. It doesn’t help that Bullock seems to be getting tired of Gordon’s “holier-than-thou” attitude towards him and the rest of the force considering he and many in the force think Gordon killed Cobblepot in the previous episode. We, the audience, know better, but Gordon knows he has to continue to sell that assumption made by everyone.

While tonight’s episode wasn’t as overly busy with cramming as many Batman characters and locations it was still quite packed. In addition to building on the Gordon and Bullock relationship, we also have the episode’s main story about teen runaways being grabbed off the streets by unknown parties. Then there’s still the Wayne murders which the pilot episode showed wasn’t really solved. Will the murders of Bruce’s parents take up the bulk of the first season (I sure hope it doesn’t) or will it get a good enough resolution to help move the season’s narrative towards other more interesting storylines.

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It’s in the last twenty or so minutes of the episode that we finally get to see Selina Kyle. Camren Bicondova has such a unique look that it’s a bit jarring seeing her, at first. Yet, it’s the actress’ very exotic-look that hints at Bruce Wayne and Batman’s one true love turning into quite the seductive beauty. Yet, tonight’s episode just portrayed Selina Kyle as a tough, street-savvy runaway whose major role this season is the fact that she knows who really killed the Waynes.

Now, what really made tonight’s episode keep the series on an upward trend would be the two characters mentioned in the beginning: Carmine Falcone and Fish Mooney.

These two characters have become more interesting in just two episodes than throughout all the thousands of stories told about Batman through the comics, films and cartoons. As played by John Doman and Jada Pinkett Smith respectively, Falcone and Mooney make the show really interesting. These are not costume wearing villains or mentally-scarred antagonists. They’re hardcore criminals, but who have learned how to work within the system that is Gotham’s elite society. Where the show pushes forward that the Wayne family has been and continues to be a longstanding pillar of Gotham community, the show also seems to intimate that it does so with a sort of tacit acknowledgement of the seedier side of Gotham.

John Doman’s performance as Carmine Falcone continues to impress. There’s an almost paternal quality to the character but one that never tries to hide the brutality that’s made him the boss of all of Gotham’s criminal underworld. There was such a nice transition from polite businessman to sociopath mob boss in a space of a heartbeat during Falcone’s impromptu meeting with Mooney that one had to rewatch the scene more than once to pick it up.

Of course, many will point out that Jada Pinkett Smith as Mooney was just as good, but in a much more showier fashion. No disagreement in this corner. Smith’s performance is the opposite of Doman’s and it will be interesting how the power play between the two bosses will develop and how it’ll affect the rest of the cast of characters on Gotham.

This show still has growing pains to go through, but tonight’s episode was a good way in working through it while still trying to tell a compelling story. One thing Heller seems to have gotten right (whether by accident or deliberately) with this show’s writing is that he’s made the villains more interesting than it’s supposed heroes. That’s always been the case with Batman outside the comics and this show just continues to perpetuate it.

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Trash TV Guru — “Gotham” Episode 1, “Pilot”


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Okay, fair enough, I’m kinda late to the party here since Arleigh has already chimed in with his thoughts on the rather unimaginatively-titled first episode of Fox’s new Gotham TV series, Pilot, but as  the closest thing to a “Bat-fanatic” here at TTSL, I thought I’d go ahead and offer a second opinion — even if it’s not terribly different from the first one you fine folks have read here.

Let’s start by stating the obvious — between Year OneEarth OneZero Year, and Batman Begins, the origins of the Dark Knight detective have been done to death on the printed page and the silver screen over the last couple of decades, so only the venue is really “new” here, the basic outlines of the story this show is going to present are already well-known — aren’t they?

Well, yes and no. We all know how the series “ends,” whenever that happens to be — Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl and becomes Batman. Similarly, we all know how the story begins — wealthy socialites Thomas and Martha Wayne are gunned down in the notorious “Crime Alley” neighborhood of Gotham City in front of their young-at-the-time son, (here played by David Mazouz) and his life is, obviously, forever changed.

It’s what happens in between those well-established “bookends” that  events in Gotham will be playing out, and there does seem to be ample room for either whole-cloth invention, or creative re-interpretation, within the confines of that territory, and this pilot episode shows that, as was done with Smallville over the course, of — what,  ten seasons? — the principal creative minds at work here, most notably executive producer (and writer of this opening salvo) Bruno Heller, will be doing a little of both.

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Apparently the main plot thread, at least running through the first season, will see clean-cut rookie detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his crooked partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), investigating the Wayne murders, and this initial episode largely focuses on them chasing a red herring in the form of a small-time hood named Mario Pepper (Daniel Stewart Sherman) , who they end up killing while he’s trying to escape, to the equal parts relief and despair of his wife and young plant-loving daughter, Ivy (Clare Foley). There’s some painfully strained dialogue that will probably make long-time Bat-fans cringe interspersed here and there, and a couple of scenes that are downright painful to watch, but by and large the story moves along at a reasonable enough little clip, the twists and turns our two protagonists encounter are generally involving, and the stage seems to be set for at least a modestly entertaining yarn as things progress.

Was the episode a great intro to the series? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Was it good enough? Sure, what the hell — I’ll be back next week for more, at any rate, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

So, how about a rundown of what Heller and director Danny Cannon get right, and what they get wrong, shall we? First, the good stuff : Mazouz is excellent as the pre-pubescent Bruce Wayne, and shows  pretty remarkable acting range for a kid. He’s by turns heartbroken, sullen, withdrawn, and determined. Good show all around. McKenzie displays a requisite amount of “regular-guy charm” as the show’s ostensible lead. Logue is a magnificent casting choice for a gruff and cynical veteran detective who’s definitely on the take — probably from more than one source — but may not be completely beyond redemption. Camren Bicondova largely lurks behind the scenes as a young Selina Kyle, but she exudes mysterious charisma to spare and you’ll definitely want to see more of her. John Doman seems intent on giving crime boss Carmine Falcome a whole new layer of depth and a set of complex motivations that really have me interested in finding out just what makes him tick. Cory Michael Smith is the perfect blend of genius and creepy in his role as police scientist Edward Nygma, who will “grow up” to become, of course, The Riddler. And Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald Cobblepot delivers his lines — and performs his physical actions — with a kind of just-beneath-the-surface insanity that shows that if and when he does become The Penguin, he’ll probably be more of the Danny DeVito ilk than the Burgess Meredith one.

The real show-stealer, though, is Jada Pinkett Smith as new character Fish Mooney, a second-tier — for now — player in the local mob scene who has brains, ambition, cunning, and sex appeal to spare. She seems to be having the time of her life sinking her teeth into the role, and it certainly shows. And if she’s not enjoying herself, well then — guess her acting is even better than I’m giving it credit for.

Oh, and just as a quick aside : does anyone else think the scene where she’s auditioning a struggling young stand-up comic for her club might be the first appearance in this series of, well — you-know-who? Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but I had to put it out there regardless.

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It’s not as if Heller isn’t prone to offering other subtle hints in this episode’s script, either — one of Gordon’s superior officers just happens to be named Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara), and folks who have read Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman : Year One know that name well. Likewise, fans of the Gotham Central comics series will already be well familiar with the names Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya (played by Andrew Stewart-Jones and Victoria Cartagena, respectively), who pop up here as GCPD internal affairs agents. They’re not given much to do, admittedly, but a word of warning to Heller and all other series writers as far as this subject goes : Renee Montoya, in particular, is someone with a lot of hard-core fans, being that she represents one of the few positive portrayals of strong, independent, lesbian women of color anywhere in mainstream comics. Treat her right, or ignore her altogether, but don’t get this one wrong. There are some lurid hints dropped that she has “a past” with Gordon’s fiancee, Barbara (Erin Richards), but I wouldn’t suggest playing Montoya for pure soap opera value — it would be tremendously disrespectful to a character that was truly groundbreaking on the printed page.

Which brings us to what Gotham, at least so far, seems to be getting wrong (apart from some occasionally dodgy set design and CGI work and the script flaws previously mentioned) : Sean Pertwee (son of my second-favorite Doctor to Tom Baker) is a good casting choice as Alfred, and his protectiveness of his young charge certainly shows through, but Heller writes him as a semi-militaristic hard-ass in a move that seems to be a direct nod to the risible work of writer Geoff Johns in his limp Batman :Earth One graphic novel (please note I’m only singling out Johns’ script for criticism, as Gary Frank’s art on that book was superb). I hope they don’t go too far down that road with the world’s most famous fictional butler. Poison Ivy appears to be the victim of a radically different “re-imagining” that, so far, looks a lot less than promising. The overall tone of the proceedings appear overly concerned with shoe-horning in too many specific Bat-elements and not doing enough to establish the city as an entity separate from its most famous vigilante crime-fighter. And having Barbara be a well-heeled, glamorous socialite is a bit of a betrayal of the working-class roots of Jim Gordon and his family that we’ve all come to know — he just doesn’t look right lounging around in her fashionable penthouse apartment.

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All in all, then, what we’ve got  is a case of “some good, some bad.” By the time the episode was over I was reasonably optimistic that, despite the “mix n, match” approach to re-invention and outright invention that I mentioned earlier,  we’re not looking at another Smallville clone here — i.e. a show that amounts to little more than Beverly Hills, 90210 with super-powers. The jury is still out, though,  on whether or not this show’s creators have enough of a different spin to add to the Bat-mythos to make this a worthwhile project. They’re borrowing influences from a wide range of sources, some of which I would’ve preferred having them ignore altogether, but it’s probably safe to assume that only some of those things will prove to be major factors in the series going forward. How far forward I go along with it remains to be seen, as there was nothing in the pilot episode to make me say “alright, awesome, I’m all in!” — nor was there enough to make me throw up my hands and walk away in disgust. We’ll call how I feel about things “cautious optimism” for now, with the greater emphasis being on “cautious.” Heller and co. have me interested — not it’s time to impress me.

Review: Gotham S1E01 “Pilot”


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“Gotham stands on a knife’s edge” — Carmine Falcone

It’s one of 2014’s most-anticipated new series. The world is superhero crazy right now and it was only time before DC dipped back into the Batman well to base a live-action tv series on their most-successful property.

Gotham doesn’t actually take the usual tack and bring in Batman himself as it’s main character. The show uses one of Batman’s most important allies as the focal point of the show. Jim Gordon has always been one of Batman’s staunchest friends throughout every story ever told about the Dark Knight. This show looks to explore Jim Gordon’s early years as part of the Gotham City Police Department. We still get to see Bruce Wayne as a child and his character and who he will become still loom large over the pilot and, I suspect, the series in general.

The pilot episode was written by the show’s executive producer Bruno Heller and it’s actually too paint-by-the-numbers. It literally tries to introduce as many of the Batman rogues gallery in it’s less-than-an-hour running time. We get a quick intro to not just the Riddler and the Joker, but we also get the early beginnings of the Penguin, Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Don’t even get me started on Batman’s more traditional adversaries in Fish Mooney and Carmine Falcone.

It’s difficult to judge a series on it’s pilot episode since the show is still trying to find it’s identity. We saw this with last year’s other comic book series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and how it took literally 2/3’s of it’s first season to finally find it’s stable footing before it could even figure out what show it wanted to be. Gotham may just have an easier time to find its way in the superhero entertainment landscape since DC has confirmed that the series will not tie-in with it’s cinematic universe the way Marvel did with it’s own series. This should give Bruno Heller and his writers a much more free hand in molding the show into what they want. Yet, there’s a danger in that freedom in that too much of a drastic deviation from the Batman source will rile up the character’s rabid fanbase.

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The first episode does arrive with some very good performances from it’s leads. Ben McKenzie as Det. Jim Gordon commands the stage whenever he’s on the screen. He’s able to convey not just the man of integrity we know Jim Gordon to be, but also inject a bit of a darkness to the character that we rarely saw in the films and cartoons, but comic book fans are very well aware of. McKenzie’s Jim Gordon definitely a bit more rougher around the edges but still idealistic than the Gary Oldman take on Jim Gordon who was more seasoned, but also more cynical about the best way to combat crime in Gotham.

Donal Logue as his veteran partner Harvey Bullock does a good job in becoming the bridge for the audience between the principled Gordon and the more corrupt, underbelly of law and order that is Gotham. We’re not sure if he’s a corrupt cop or just one who has learned how to navigate the dangerous waters of the criminal underworld as one of Gotham’s protectors. Time will tell if this version of Harvey Bullock becomes more of the Batman Begins analogue Arnold Flass or the cynical, but loyal cop of the cartoons.

Now, a show about Batman’s hometown wouldn’t be able to call itself by that city’s name if I didn’t mention the rogues gallery that will end becoming Batman’s (and to an extent, Jim Gordon) reason for being. We don’t see colorful costumes or even the recognizable look of Batman’s villains in this pilot episode, but as stated earlier they do try to cram as many of them in this series premiere as they could. It’s almost like a convoy designed to remind audiences that the show will explore not just Jim Gordon’s early days before Batman rises from the shadows, but also the time of the villains before he arrives.

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Of all the bad guys the show tries to push at the audience in this pilot it’s Fish Mooney as portrayed by Jada Pinkett Smith that stands out most. Her crimelord brings a certain amount of flair to the episode that hints at the over-the-top villainy that will come about once Bruce is all grown up and takes up the mantle of the bat. There’s hints of a past relationship between her and Logue’s Bullock that could turn out to be interesting. Robin Lord Taylor as a young Oswald Cobblepot aka the Penguin is ok, but something in his performance looks like someone trying too hard to bring out in this series the Penguin’s quirky mannerisms that the character looks to be the most cartoony of all introduced in the episode.

Gotham had a good and interesting introductory episode that laid enough stones on the series’ foundation as it moves forward. With only 16 episodes instead of the usual 24 most full-length tv series get Bruno Heller and the show’s writers has less time to create this version of the  Gotham and Batman world we’ve come to expect. Will they manage to inject some new blood into a world that’s been adapted and reimagined through decades of comics, tv and film work or will the series just try to appease the hardcore comic book fanbase thus alienating the wider general audience.

We shall see and future review installments will tell if this site buys into the series with wholeheartedly or end up getting off the ride before it’s over.