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The Greatest Showman

Mindhunter

Brazilian Romance

The Two Popes

The Crown 3

The King

Moonlight

A Fortunate Man

Velvet Buzzsaw

Roma

Florence F Jenkins

Allied

The Words/Night Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adore

Albert Nobbs

All the Way

American Hustle

American Sniper

Amour

Anna Karenina

Argo/ZeroDark 30

Atlas Shrugged Pt 1

Atlas Shrugged Pt 1I

Atlas Shrugged Pt III

August: Osage County

Bad Education

Before Sunrise, Sunset

Before the Devil...

Begin Again

Beginners

Behind the Candelabra

Bernie

Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Big Little Lies

Birdman

Biutiful

Black Swan

Blancanieves

Blue Jasmine

The Borgias

Boyhood

Bridesmaids

Bridge of Spies

Bright Lights

Broken Embraces

Bulworth

Burton and Taylor

The Butler

The Canal

Captain Phillips

Carnage

Carol

Chi-Raq

Cinderellla (2015)

The Company You Keep

The Conformist

Crazy Heart

The Crown

A Dangerous Method

The Danish Girl

The Descendants

Django Unchained

Doubt

Downton Abbey

The Duchess

Durrells in Corfu

Edge of Tomorrow

Enough Said

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The Family That Preys

Fences

Feud: Bette and Joan

The Fighter

Flight

For Colored Girls

Genius

Gone Girl

Good Behavior

Grace of Monaco

Gran Tarino

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Great Gatsby

The Help

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Hidden Figures

Hope Springs

House of Versace

The Hurt Locker

I'm Not A Serial Killer

I’m So Excited

Ides of March

Illusionst/Paitned Veil

The Imitation Game

Inception

Inglourious Basterds

Inside Llewyn Davis

Into the Woods

The Iron Lady

It’s Complicated

J. Edgar

Justin Timberlake

The Kids Are All Right

Killer Joe

The King’s Speech

Kingdom of Heaven

La La Land

Larry Crowne

The Last Station

Les Misérables

A Little Chaos

Limitless

Lincoln

Looper

Ludwig

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Men

Magic Mike

The Master

Maurice

Midnight in Paris

Mildred Pierce (Winslet)

Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

The Monuments Men

Mud

My Week w/ Marilyn

Myra Breckinridge

Nine

Nightcrawler

Noah

Nocturnal Animals

The Normal Heart

The 100 Foot Journey

Outlander

The Paperboy

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Pearl Harbor

Philomena

Pinero

Pittsburgh

Political Animals

Pompeii

Prometheus

Quartet

Ratatouille

The Reader

La reina del sur

The Revenant

Revolutionary Road

Robin Hood

Romantic Englishwoman

Room

Rosewater

The Rules of the Game

Running with Scissors

Safe House

St. Vincent

San Andreas

Savings Mr. Banks

The Scapegoat

The September Issue

Sex and the City 2

Shame

Sherlock Holmes

Shooter

Shutter Island

Silver Linings Playbook

A Single Man

The Skin I Live In

Skyfall

The Social Network

The Sorrow and the Pity

Spotlight

Stalingrad

Still Alice

This is Where I Leave You

Titanic 3D

To Rome with Love

Trainwreck

The Tree of Life

Trumbo

Truth

12 Years A Slave

2012

Venus

The Walker

War and Peace

War Horse

Whiplash

Wizard of Lies

Wolf  of Wall Street

Woman in Gold

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel in sci-fi movies has never looked as deluxe as it does in Morten Tyldum’s 2016 Passengers. The production design of the star ship Avalon by Guy Hendrix Dyas and Gene Serdena and their company of support is eye-gluing, from its massive serpentine tentacles contoured and rotating to produce gravitation to its inner Spic & Span spotlessmess; excluding piles of tools, the climax and the grand concourse’s need for pruning, there are roaming squads of roombas. These artists honor science’s possibilities and expand the plausibility of consumer atmosphere of 2001: beyond loads of technological upgrades, Avalon is wondrously comfortable in providing lush suites, a multistory mall, ethnic restaurants, entertainment venues, infinity swimming pool, a cocktail lounge in homage to the one in The Shining and once-in-a-lifetime views. In total this is rare resplendence—a superlative Sarah Greenwood hoped we’d be suckered into using for her grotesque castle in the live action Disney version of The Beauty and the Beast. That Dyas and Serdena lost the Oscar to La La Land, which no one talks about in terms of awesome conception or in any other way, requires that ballots be recounted. To populate the space playhouse, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are the protagonists, Laurence Fishburne the deck captain and Michael Sheen the bartending android. The three humans are at different times involuntarily awakened from the 120-year hibernation trip to another planet, Chris being first when at the beginning the ship’s shield, guided by autopilot without course correction, fails to prevent damage from an asteroid cluster, resulting in a few years of domino breakdowns the mainframe supercomputers attempt in vain to rectify. (The other 5,255 as crew and future planeteers remain in their blissful deep sleep.) Jon Spaihts’s script was considered “hot” by the standard of studio bidding and big name directors and stars were in and out of consideration and there were the customary qualms about recovering a hundred million dollar investment, in that the movie isn’t going to be one of those Marvel jobbies culminating in gigantic battles against hideous extraterrestrials to save mankind. American box office didn’t recoup costs but international audiences did and pushed it into profit. Outside of the U.S., Passengers was received with appreciation that interstellar journeys don’t have to be filled with a cast of CGI thousands or reek with deadliness other than cosmic debris. Altho the “look” of this movie abundantly compensates for Spaihts’s lack of intellectual grip on the proceedings, it doesn’t reduce his flimsiness: in the recognition of quicker mortality that deprives Chris, Jennifer and Laurence of the promised land, their expectedly emotional responses are maladaptive, having a filler effect, and the actors don’t perform them very convincingly. Who buys that Laurence hibernating in a “goofy” pod induced 612 anatomical “disorders”? Saying he had hibernation sickness in the past is suggesting he’s been on decades-long trips and those, and not solely malfunction, could be the accumulative effect of body deterioration. He doesn’t clarify, nor do Chris and Jennifer inquire; this scene and Laurence’s other moments feel truncated. Having directed The Imitation Game, 2014’s most successful independent feature, Tyldum demonstrated handling both quips and depths in the maze of decoding Germany’s WW II Enigma device, so why he and Spaihts haven’t more fully shaped these characters hurts the movie’s impact of destiny, which transforms colonists Chris and Jennifer into fabled Star Trekkers in a series of posthumous survivalist ebooks. Convenient: Jennifer’s the writer-chronicler and Chris the handy engineer, who does some pretty fantabulous things as craftsman and horticulturist. We’d be less indifferent if there were some tibits of human ponderings that had to transpire during their journey: discussions about wanting children, who’d probably be alive at the time of the crew’s scheduled reawakening and get to do what the parents didn’t. Do Chris and Jennifer plan to expire together? Will the memory chips in Michael Sheen’s robot and any spying eye cameras tell tales? (Salvaging parts, Chris converts a roomba into a roving monitor.) Perhaps interchangeable with a non-serious Sam Worthington, Chris has an easiness of presence; partially stripped of his Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World doofus shit, though still dancing and briefly in Forrest Gump hirsuteness, he gets a bigger share of tolerance from us than Jennifer, as he did what we’d have done in the same situation. Inner torment duly noted, his powerful drives are equally powerful motivators; Laurence couldn’t be more wrong in dismissing Chris as “a drowning man” when hearing the charge that’s he’s a murderer—extra circumstantial evidence of missing narrative. Twenty five minutes in Jennifer appears, thankfully stripped of Mystique’s body suit, and very soon flashes the winning smile, gabs merrily and later wears tantalizing heels to invite a PG-rated romp. (Intended as R-rated, she confessed being smashed to film it.) Then comes the furious venting upon discovery she was stalked while supinely vulnerable. Reluctant to forgive the comely molester of her peace, she goes into frantic mode—sort of keying up her insufficient vocal cords for the soon-to-follow hysteria of the God-awful Mother! Not that she doesn’t have additional excuses: Avalon’s fusion reactor is about to blow, all lives are endangered and Chris could perish from the repair mission that’s idiotically vague of permanent solution. Otoh, he’s master fixer upper, so she can hit willy-nilly all the panel options for the Lazarus effect. They make a cute miracle couple living as legends on Avalon without answering this pressing question: Do they live long enough to hear from customer service in response to Chris’s video inquiry, for which he’s charged $6,012? (5/22/2020)

 

The Greatest Showman, conceived by its star Hugh Jackman, owes a lot to John Travolta’s Hairspray: it’s a series of high energy music videos interwoven into frothy history. No accident that Zac Efron is major co-star in both: he’s added bait to lure in younger generations to see a bio musical about 19th century P.T. Barnum. All the same, this movie was not well-received by the critics, who didn’t buy into the mod hips and hops of lyrics and dance, and objected to eliminating some of Barnum’s other facets, like his political career, which came into being during his years of circus derring-do. Though we rarely consider the “greatest show on earth” in terms of political enterprise, the circus really was his training ground: In Connecticut, as both a Representative in its House and the mayor of Bridgeport, he was anti-slavery, socially inclusive, pro-Temperance and anti-contraceptive. (Whatever else his motivation for the latter proscription, male casualties from the Civil War were at least 500,000.) Jackman is the right personality to play Barnum; fundamentally a showman, which makes him ideal to emcee awards ceremonies, he’s the updated and tall Gene Kelly of athletic musicality. His arm-spreading ringmaster presence reassures, having regained his mile-wide smile and charisma, both having been forfeited when playing Logan of the retractable claws. (To his unintended detriment: many of us simply couldn’t find a way to care about his Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, director Tom Hooper’s forerunner to the coronavirus that is Cats.) A production cost of around $85 million, The Greatest Showman brought in a measly $8 million during its Christmas opening weekend and was quickly epitaphed as a bomb. In less than two weeks, it suddenly exploded at the box office and would gross worldwide an impressive $435 million, to this day still a mindboggler. The musical isn’t panoramic in scope; it’s rather piddling in confined visual range and disappointingly empty of the expanse to the Big Top and vagabond atmosphere, ingredients not absent in DeMille’s cloying 1952 The Greatest Show on Earth. That’s likely due to budget concerns and Michael Gracey, who never directed a musical, much less a movie; we can feel a rookie’s clumsiness in his otherwise enjoyable clutter of visual effects and the unfortunate dispersal of Barnum as character. A strong interjection needs to be included—these weaknesses might be why it became a hit; audiences appear to want to be softened into an escape, want something without much badgering, without the hangover that is La La Land, whose sophomoric songs are written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the very same team that here has been drinking the live-wire java leftover from Hairspray’s Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. The 19th Century virtually dismissed in the soundtrack, viewers connect to the pop anthems about self-worth & inclusion and happily zumba in their seats to the unflagging rhythms and vigorous dance numbers by choreographer Ashley Wallen. Minus the midway freaks, they don’t have to fight any gross exaggeration, either, as with Travolta’s hydrocephalic cabbage patcher, or be coerced into boogieing to the no-ass-for-you messaging in Chi-Raq, or teabag the amplified cojones of ABBA as Mamma Mia! frivolity. (Meryl’s right to have wanted her dipshit Donna expired before granting the cameo fantasy of “My Love, My Life.”) Don’t understand why Efron, who plays real partner Bailey, isn’t named Bailey; Keala Settle is a mammoth-breasted version of Jennifer Hudson out of Dreamgirls, only much more fun in her bearded emancipation proclamation that is “This is Me”; Rebecca Ferguson, as Swedish singing star Jenny Lind, decently lip syncs to Loren Allred’s annoyingly repetitive “Never Enough”; Zendaya sometimes recalls Beyoncé; and Michelle Williams suffers frequent bouts of bad makeup application (and misapplied again in Fosse/Verdon, looking less like Gwen than Mary Tyler Moore as Shirley MacLaine). Memorable in other roles, such as the ghost writer and lover to Robin Wright in House of Cards, as Mickey Doyle in Boardwalk Empire, and as the eerily efficacious Billy Graham in The Crown (Season Two), Paul Sparks scores with another example of his specialty in quiet if inexplicable edge as newspaper publisher, editor and sometimes critic James Gordon Bennett, who serves up the appropriate word to describe Barnum’s chaos. He’s reservedly contemptuous of its plebeian environment, needling that Barnum’s humanity as “philanthropist” is “the creed of a true fraud.” To which Jackman’s P.T. replies, “Mr. Bennett, when was the last time you smiled? Or had a good laugh? A real laugh. A theater critic who can’t find joy in the theater. Now who is the fraud?” (4/10/2020)

 

Mindhunter is the crime series that smart audiences, fed up with ever more explicit media violence, have been waiting for, even though it deals with some of the most sensationally sickening American serial murderers of the 70s. Based on author John E. Douglas’s factual efforts in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences unit to move out of “old school” assumptions to get a deeper understanding of the proliferation of psychopaths, two special agents and a PHD interview the more infamous, interacting close to verbatim record with Edmund Kemper, Jerry Brudos, Richard Speck, Son of Sam David Berkowitz, Charles Manson and henchman Tex Watson, and Wayne Williams. Small fry liquidators are examined too, sacrificing Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. These three civilized analytic inquisitors—Jonathan Groff ’s Holden Ford, Holt McCallany’s Bill Tench and Anna Torv’s Dr. Wendy Carr—have varied reactions, from disgust and revulsion, fear and loathing, to fascination and challenge. As do we, held rapt by the intelligent word heaps with and about the criminals and the peripheral horrors. From our 21st century perspective the only “new” here, and it’s enough, is revealing historic turning points in the FBI’s belated recognition that “motive” for abominable sprees would necessitate profiling, establishing protocols and recognizing signatures, unleashing a metamorphic catalog of criminal psychopathology. And this: Only a few FBI agents detect media as possible conveyance for its spread, for “being played with.” (Already ominous in 1955: Chicago and its suburbs would experience shock at inexplicable atrocity when the naked bodies of three boys were discovered in a forest preserve ditch and, eight years old at the time, producing my own jolt in seeing the bodies tabloided on the front pages of the Chicago American and Chicago Sun Times, and hearing the adults talk in hushed tones about some sort of abuse we kids weren’t suppose to know about, and how the murders intensified instructions of caution from parents, teachers, TV and radio on avoiding strangers while we walked to school or returned home; forty years later law enforcement arrested and convicted the man believed to be responsible.) Attractive as a “fresh-scrubbed pussy,” Groff’s agent, also an on-the-road instructor of hostage situation techniques illustrated by Dog Day Afternoon, has difficulties as a Blue Flamer not following guidelines, loquaciously opinionating and theorizing, covering up slips of ethics, and pushing for risky intervention, particularly with the Atlanta child murders and the racial animus overtones, and seems well on his way to be efficient at cunnilingus. (The “fuck me heels” ploy he uses to get a killer to spill the beans backfires; he also seems short in the driver’s seat.) The obligatory conservative suit as champion of his co-workers, McCallany’s Tench is a common senser regarding the deranged he’s helping uncover and document, an amused nuance catcher on words like “beau” or associated labeling, and at the same time handicapped by worries his adopted seven-year-old son is likely to be a future case file. A close dead ringer as the born-ten-years-later feminist twin to Cate Blanchett, Torv’s Wendy coldly spouts the then-latest psycho jargon—and a bit ironical in quoting the APA classifying gay as “a sexual orientation disturbance”—in the period fashion of a hungry ball-buster on Phil Donahue. They’re compelling in their characters’ struggles to get keep from bringing home all the “crazy”; they nevertheless face consequences, and McCallany, in Marine flattop and with near-perpetual cig, emerges from the shadows after thirty five years of typecasting to be the empathetic standout. When the actors playing the serial killers register their scariness—Cameron Britton’s Kemper and Happy Anderson’s masturbating Brudos the scariest?—Groff, Torv and McCallany become lifelines for our sanity. Adapter and co-writer of Mindhunter, Joe Penhall is Wikipedic with 70s data weighing through self-hatred, sexual inadequacy, mothers and misogyny, compulsive thrill-kills. The first rate choice in David Fincher as producer and tent pole director of seven of the 19 episodes in the two season run grant his Se7en, Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to be glanced—without in-your-face graphics; words and the way the killers express them are the reel violence. Similarly successful, the selections of music Fincher and soundtrack interpolator Jason Hill use are meant to be “little interstitial wake-up calls” for sociological connectives. Director Carl Franklin’s kinship with and fidelity to Fincher, having started with their work together on Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards, bear fruit in the last four episodes of season two, concentrating on Atlanta’s injudicious response to the unresolved killings of black children. (23 children and six adult males were murdered, one body of a child not recovered; Williams was convicted of killing two of the adults and while not yet indicted and tried for the others, forensic testing assigns him as probable murderer of all six men and 18 children. Coincidently June Carryl as Camille Bell, mother of one of the first victims, not only looks like and essays the moral spirit of Esther Rolle but also carries uncanny resemblance to the real Williams.) The remaining shows in both seasons are helmed by non-Americans Andrew Douglas, Asif Kapadia, Tobias Lindholm and Andrew Dominik. Uniformity of all six helmsmen is the highest of compliment. Another kind of high is an elevator scene in which “The Basement Boys” Groff, Torv and McCallany are facing the sliding doors while descending to their dingy basement offices. Just minutes before they’re quietly anxious about the possibility of being fired—re Groff’s on-going insubordination, Torv’s covert solicitation for more funds, McCallany’s ineffective control of his colleagues—and while one of them gets mildly chewed out, their boss informs that their Behavioral Sciences department, in consideration of groundbreaking work, has been awarded two grants totaling $385,000. In the lift, with McCallany looking at Groff who’s looking at Torv who intuits but doesn’t acknowledge being looked at, three self-satisfied smiles slowly appear. (2/28/2020)

 

Brazilian Romance is Sarah Vaughan’s last studio album in which she performs solo, excepting guest artist Milton Nescimento’s Portugese inserts on “Love and Passion.” Quite a few press reviews maligned it when released in 1987, carping the “Divine One” was over the hill, assigning additional blame for their dissatisfaction to the fractious recording sessions with volatile Sarah battling producer Sergio Mendes over concept and her jazzy ostinato proclivities. We the public, like the critics, could believe she’s both pleading and venting in some lyrics of the slightly minacious “Obsession”—“all those silver clouds in my eyes make me believe you are a blessing when you are a curse in disguise.” Sergio may well be the rare musician, perhaps like Tony Bennett, in seemingly perpetual joy but he too had tantrums, having fired his entire Brasil ’66 ensemble, including Lani Hall, over complaints that their accommodations on the road were sleazy. (Dating and eventually marrying Herb Alpert, Lani was wisely reinstated, along with better lodging.) Attending a Sergio concert at the famed Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in the early 70s, I remember the curtain opening and as he and the group began “Ye Me Le,” one of the bongos perched on an elevated platform fell over from vibration, stopping the show; with the curtain closing, the audience heard furious shouting, detecting Sergio’s accent. As arranger of Brazilian Romance (and a huge contributor to Lani’s 1998 Brasil Nativo), legendary Dori Caymmi alludes to larger issues: “There was a basic mistake with the production. I don’t want to mention names, but the producers were all thinking pop while I was thinking jazz. Recording in the pop vein was shortsighted, a real disservice. The approach for a first class vocalist like Sarah Vaughan is nothing less than…Sarah Vaughan. Anyway, there was this misconception, which made her very difficult to work with, and to further complicate things, she was making this album for CBS without permission from Quincy (Jones), who held her contract at Qwest.” The plural “producers” affirms CBS-Columbia’s financial overseers were involved in the contretemps related to the album’s orchestral scoring and, judging by the effusive instrumental compositions, consented to its leaning more toward expensive Rio-esque romanticism than hardcore Brazilian rootage. Columbia’s scant recording history with Sarah also seeped in to infect: the company released her first solo album back in 1950, let her go after she complained about the commercial material she was expected to record, then issued two compilations in 1955 of her previously unreleased recordings it still held rights to publish and from which she collected pittance, and in 1982 released the extravagantly unnecessary Gershwin Live! performance. Sarah had troubles beyond her vanity such as a litigious demeanor and privately-held health concerns that her naturally declining “first class” vocal powers were accelerating from excessive smoking and drinking, punctuated by cocaine and marijuana use. Reportedly being frequently late for the Brazilian Romance recording sessions and often leaving early in a huff, tempers flared as costs of studios, musicians and transportation to L. A., Detroit and Rio were rising. The arguments between Sarah and Sergio over approaches to the material started in rehearsals and proceeded to get heated during taping, with Sergio, in headphones, stopping the recording process any time he’d hear displacing languorous slushiness and/or scat she would sneak in as method to get her way. She wanted interpretive freedom, he wanted restraint. The eruptions and resentments from the warring sides would suggest underlining incompatibilty, but after her successful Brazilian-themed albums I Love Brazil and Copacabana, which included her takes on Sergio’s renderings of “Like a Lover,” “Empty Faces” and “Pra Dizer Adeus,” she wanted to do a third, and specifically his “So Many Stars,” wishing to create another signature with the impact of her version of “Send in the Clowns.” Music written by Sergio and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and considered a timeless classic first recorded by Lani, at the age of 20, for Brasil ’66’s Look Around, the packaging of desire, emotional surge in and Dave Grusin’s arrangements of “So Many Stars” epitomized 60s ultra-sophisticated ballad, oftentimes heard as a “last call” at many urban watering holes. Not conjecture that Sarah was convinced the song, as well as the whole gig, would be a breeze, what with Columbia’s money, all the imported talent supporting her and Sergio supervising. What she wasn’t apprised of is Sergio as taskmaster: consistently referred to as a drill sergeant, he doesn’t suffer divas at the expense of solid performance. He is, though, appreciated for compensating voices not in their prime; he knew Sarah’s wasn’t in 1987 and still took the assignment. Tailoring the 10 tracks to her strengths, permitting limited wallow but no whaling, he accorded her version of “So Many Stars” and, like Streisand’s later rendition with equally lenghty introductory foreplay, she’s husky with conviction turning into melancholic evocation—one of the reasons the number attracts long-established singers. Either willingly or through obedience she’s in control with deeply pleasurable plangency settling into the exhibition as conceptual center, much more appealing than her live performances of the song on youtube. Yet “So Many Stars” isn’t remembrance of fucks past, it’s about the search for the next one; if verbs aren’t switched to past tense, age limits apply. Melancholy over “what we might have been” is, however, the fitting subject of the stellar “Photograph” that sequentially follows; she’s poignant and hurting, and the opening gush of George Duke’s light fingers might be origin for Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s spurting in Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice. In fact, all the tracks open as inviting avenues leading to some thrilling articulation and modulation delivered in her earned imperfection. Instead of absolution, the critics wrote as if in sudden discovery that Sarah’s “voice was shot”—sexism from predominantly males who ignored the diminution of Sinatra and Bennett and excused them as consummate artists of style while gleefully picking at her scabs, that after forty years of singing her “octave scale and vibrato have unfortunately atrophied,” that her celebrated scat is absent. On the later, the selections don’t include Sergio’s speciality of Brazilian nonsense syllables, which is a regret. As for the lessening of octave and vibrato: at 63 when recording, the “free-falls” from her “divinity” have throaty realness—a vocal suppuration—discharged in Dori’s complex (virtually curlicue) arrangements of story-telling, while Sergio’s discipline brings to the fore her almost masculine command of multiple lyrics, as in “Love and Passion,” and dabs her oozing fluctuations, flourishes and foibles. (Listening to the word profusions, we know why she didn’t sing most of these numbers in concerts—she’d have to read the sheets.) Having died from lung cancer only three years after Brazilian Romance, Sarah probably didn’t resolve whatever embranglements resulting from clashes: in one of her live performances of “So Many Stars” she quizzes the crowd if it’s aware of the album’s release—the people sat in silence, confirming that Columbia wasn’t spending much on a national push—and she namelessly if lamely mocks Sergio about the spelling of Brazil as a reminder that she remained acerbated. There’s no kiss-and-tell from her nemesis. Tensions can and often do accomplish surprising achievement, even if it takes thirty three years to be acknowledged. Wrapping that dissipated yo-yo voice in deluxe tropical trappings courtesy Dori’s guitar, Duke’s pianissimo, Hubert Laws’s flute, Carlos Vega’s drums, Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion, Marcio Montarrovos’s flugelhorn and trumpet, Chuck Domanico’s and Alphonso Johnson’s bass, Tom Scott’s and Ernie Watts’s potent sax, and all under Sergio’s engineered blending, Brazilian Romance is receiving its due in reappraisal as Sarah’s bittersweet kiss-off. Aqui está para você, Cadela! (2/14/2020)

 

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is a kind of Odd Couple variation of The Shoes of the Fishermen tangoing around the real horrors depicted in The Boys of St. Vincent, HBO’s Judgment, Almodóvar’s memoir Bad Education, the Oscar-winning Spotlight and the documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It’s a duet as less an account of moral responsibility than a fabricated pacifier: two distinctively different elected divas at odds congenially argue over Roman Catholic canon and then absolve each other’s sins. Clearly neither pope is up to dealing with enforcing Church doctrine if first required to accept the neglected tenet of compassionate care of its adherents as the very core of Jesus’s message, though the present pope admonishes the former for that very oversight. The reason they became popes, implies the movie, is that they were the factotums for the times to not so much “change” the Church but to “save” it from the growing scandals. (Though how to save without change is barely discussed.) The movie tilts heavily in favor of smoothie Francisco—with Jonathan Pryce at his most ingratiating—and, while not totally negated, Anthony Hopkins’s Benedict is unsympathetic in that he’s generally regarded, with legitimate suspicion, as a Nazi whose youth conditioned him to become the prime fixer to mitigate damage from the Church’s many outrages. Benedict seems to have honed this regretful task under John Paul II, another culprit thus far escaping excoriation; having rejected the mounting evidence that so many priests, including Marcial Maciel Degollado who founded Legionaries of Christ, were ravenous pedophiles, the E.T. of papas was quickly elevated to sainthood upon his death as diversionary public relations. The movie doesn’t tell audiences what they want confirmed: that the dressed-to-the-blingy-nines curia demanded Benedict’s removal for his failure to handle the sex scandals, which were initially remedied by hiding the perpetrators via repeated relocation and then blame and threaten lawsuits against the victims to curb the expensive pay outs while at the same time serious allegations against additional priests mushroomed throughout Christendom. Anthony McCartern’s script details Francisco’s geo-religious journey at the price of excluding of Benedict’s rise as a “scholar” within the Church and this softening of one and biographical skip for the other gnaws at informed viewers. Reasoning absent about the lack of equal info could prompt the oft-heard zinger that for years seminaries were frequently referred to as the JC Fruit Farms. Most of us aren’t fooled regarding the dictates surrounding myths conceived and promulgated by supposed celibates who have seldom if ever “lived” in healthy heterosexuality, something the real Francisco has cautiously alluded to in attempting to establish more married clergy as a “family values” action currently being fought over by many of the Church’s lushly ensconced insiders, including Benedict. It’s a battle with no winners: every time we tour a Catholic asylum these days we’re all wondering the same: how many of the priests are pedos or queens? And there is that diva thing, in the repellency of Benedict’s mousy prissiness used to disguise his obfuscatory protection of the Church, and in Francisco’s disquieting temper brought into focus when he very recently smacked a hanger-on’s hand not once but twice when she tugged on his arm to draw him near her during a Vatican stroll. Albeit unfortunate and so is the timing, ubiquitous video can be a superstar’s inextricable polygraph, helping to aid and abet in conviction, in this case The Two Popes being guilty of ass-kissing falsity. Deep in a cabinet I have hidden an unpublished novel entitled A Monk’s Prayer, hommage à Susann et Wallace written around 1972, about the corruption in the Vatican and the devil’s assassin out to ice the new pope as a reformer named Francisco who’s planning to debunk the “faggot myth that is the Virgin Birth.” Am I seer or what? (1/10/2020)

No one right now is a classier conjurer of private conversations we’ll never be privy to than Peter Morgan, the creator and chief writer of The Crown. Denying any intimate sources—and courteously disbelieved by most of us—he writes dialogue with such sedately juicy delineation of the British royals that we hang on every nuanced word. In season three, the standout is what he supplies for Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip. The Alpha male of his predecessor in season one and two is subdued but for the swagger of expected dissenting opinion; his appeal is that he’s a deeply crease-faced royal unexpectedly in a crisis of faith, precipitated by the rescue of his mother Princess Alice from Greek political turmoil in 1967 and escalated by the Apollo 11 mission of 1969. His quandary in grasping the significance of the latter’s meaning is compounded by his requested audience with the three astronauts, from whose ordinariness, and not their heroic adventure as technological advance, he feels acutely imbalanced. (In her middling manner the queen comforts with counterweights.) Sitting within a group at St. George’s retreat he initially mocked as a “concentration camp for spiritual defectives,” his unexampled turnabout into inchoateness seems to want to go Anthony Hopkins’ C.S. Lewis on us, as flashbacks from Shadowlands in which the beloved Christian apologist is artlessly befuddled at meeting Debra Winger’s Joy Gresham. This is Menzies’s artful tour de force moment, as empathetic a view a Mountbatten will ever receive. Olivia Coleman’s Elizabeth doesn’t quite get that treatment yet there’s more clarity: remaining steadfastly the performance artist, she’s haughtily caught in the turbulent times of inter-family squabbles, political battles and catastrophes, headstrong in duty to country and crown first, and once again emitting nostalgic impression her horses are preferred over family. She continues to require tutoring on sensitivity, lacking the finesse to navigate the tragedy of Aberfan during which she’s a stupefying blockhead. Relaying to Prime Minister Harold Wilson her failures to emote, she confesses, “There is something wrong with me.” By end of season 3, Coleman’s queen achieves pentimento—re-painting over burdensome feelings to stand alone; she’s nothing if not consistency. Roughly the height of the real snit, Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret renders the underlining hazardous waste of royals empty of social conscience. The show’s on-going stretch of assertions into factoids remains a forgivable carp and immediately perceived at the LBJ White House dinner for Margaret at which she allegedly mocks JFK, with Kennedy family members present. There’s groundwork for payback: in a second season episode, Margaret tells her sister that Jackie made disparaging remarks about her after having been feted at Buckingham Palace and, also alleged, Jackie petitions for a return visit to apologize. No one, including any royal footman or switchboard operator who’d know, has blabbed that Jackie actually went to Windsor Castle for tea and sympathy, nor is any one sure Margaret did what’s purported—booze heavily until the wee hours at the WH, during which she delivered bitchy put-downs and dirty limericks, though in other situations these examples would be par for her course. (The WH revelry might be slightly more plausible had this Margaret been outfitted in the press-covered original gown; accuracy in attire appearing to be a must in the series, what sneaky purpose is there to clothe her in that substitute atrocity?) Bonham Carter affirms the fangs to denigrate, to engage in effrontery, even sing, and then shift heftily to make real the acceptance of her sister’s indissolubly stoic persona. Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty as, respectively, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, are estimable facsimiles, faithful to our media-drawn conceptions of who they privately might be with their parents. We’ve known since the start of the series that macho Philip has issues with pansified Charles; in this current season his Mommie problems mushroom from impatience to mild showdowns. Surveying the lineup of familial conspirators facing him as if posing for a Vanity Fair cover, he sees they’re dissing on him as another Duke of Windsor. Silent in season one and two, Princess Anne finally arrives as Daddy’s Girl; she’s everything Charles isn’t. She too, however, has Mommie problems, as the queen thus far virtually ignores her except for the brief dismay she shares with her own mother over Anne’s dispensing of intimate favors. Morgan’s been super generous in bestowing his supporting characters many memorable lines and here’s one favorite: when the queen says the nation will be shocked by his sudden resignation so quickly into his second term as PM, Wilson cues, “No shock lasts more than 48 hours; there’s too much appetite for the next shock.” For Doherty’s Anne, Morgan offers a laconic jeu d’esprit to her bedmate—“A resumption or a cessation?”—that devilishly enters our modern sexual phraseology. He makes us crave for more. (12/6/2019)

In a sixty-five-years-later remake of David Lean’s Summertime, Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in Call Me By Your Name frolic to eventual melancholic romance that puts many of us through the agonies of impatience. Do get on with it, boys. They signed contracts granting veto over nudity and that’s a smart move, as Armie’s legs in shorts already look borrowed from a 50s Gidget clone and skinny Timothée doesn’t have much to facilitate a rise except for being a mildly passionate smoocher. Throughout, we’re prompted that the latter is an intelligent actor, fluent in languages and a decent musician, yet where can he go after that tearjerking Italian Xmas? To the 15th century, as Henry V in The King, a non-blank verse edition of Shakespeare’s heavy chronicle. Resembling the short-lived monarch in his youthful thinness and monkish bowl cut as depicted in known drawings and portraits, Timothée uses his voice to give himself authority; he does this by mostly speaking low, sometimes so low that the volume button has to go way up. He deliberately disregards the fictitious traps director David Michôd co-wrote with co-star Joel Edgerton (Falstaff) on the way to the Battle of Agincourt. Their fabrication doesn’t stop even in battle, as the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) slips and slides to his own demise. We’re also informed by Henry’s future wife Catherine of Valois, daughter of the defeated and psychotic French king Charles VI, that her father would never be so calculating as to send an assassin to dispatch a usurper. (Explaining why Sean Harris, the infamously itchy Micheletto in Jeremy Irons’s The Borgias, will be.) A cheap cleverness sneaks in when Falstaff is referred to as Sir John of Newcastle and not John Oldcastle who in fact was Henry’s friend until he mounted a rebellion and was later hanged and then sent aflame along with the gallows. He was never at Agincourt and why he’s in this tale seems to center on Edgerton, if we judge by appearance and imitative voice, issuing tribute to Orson Welles as weather forecaster. With no big names to pay millions to, the budget is too conspicuously controlled: The battle’s mercilessness is limitedly exhausting; the sets and costumes inordinately negligible; the musical chorus weak; and, as with so much of digital filming these days, leaving unfulfilled the desire to satisfy our Technicolor privation. For balance, there’s one efficacious beheading that’s practically a close up. Shot by Australian Adam Arkapaw in the large screen format of Arri Alexa 65 and running for two hours and twenty minutes, having been cut down from three and a half, The King oddly labors not to be the epic we’d prefer and need in order to receive a satisfying wrap. Timothée is given a hands-holding bit as if it were the end of episode one. (11/22/2019)

As contraction of involuntary celibate, “incel” has become both an urban slur aimed at and a popular badge worn by misogynists who can’t get any action. Not as derogatory as “faggot” yet close, in that numbers of incels are probably closeted, unable to deal with what strokes their boners. The central character in Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-winning Moonlight, Chiron isn’t too sure about his feelings toward women in general, being unsympathetic to and ambivalent about his drug-addicted mother. This is implicitly linked to his sexual identity crisis. A virgin as safety factor, he’s in fear of his neighborhood bros’ reactions to anyone outside the accepted norm. Making matters perilous, Chiron looks outside the norm, a bright-eyed Miami ghetto ghoul ready to be pounced on. Asking about himself if he’s a faggot, the response from his mother’s drug pusher is No, that’s a word others use to denigrate. How do I know I’m gay, then? The answer from the same source is stunning to hear and likely the reason for Mahershalo Ali winning a supporting actor Oscar: time will tell. During the first third I wanted to shout “Get on with it!” (A similar response, in different context, to those dawdlers in Call Me By Your Name.) Less impatient in the second part, having rather liked that chair smashing over a thug and being startled by an outdoor down-low sequence. The last third offers three moments—an apology, an admission and the visible shakes—that, having finally gotten into the director’s tempered rhythm, tell viewers they won’t be getting more. For a while, the question “Is that all there is?” comes to mind anyway, because it does seem a lot falls away in the time jumps. Then the delayed reaction hits: irrespective of our skepticism in an age of intense sex obsession, the sparseness is of a whole, we are getting all there is that matters. A Euro somnambulate artiness permeates throughout Moonlight; this is not USC textbook movie making in the John Singleton fashion of Boyz N the Hood or the urban guerilla that is the angry Spike Lee. The black Miami vicinage is a unified vision: Jenkins and his movie school buddies James Laxton as cinematographer and Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders as film editors, all of whom would join to do 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, found harmony in measured aesthetics and economy. (Production cost said to be somewhere around $4 million and highly laudable; Beale Street shot up to $12 million.) The diligence extends to Tarell Alvin McCraney’s script; based on his drama school assignment In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the dialogue has the sound of fractured urban-ethnic conversations to the point that we’d like flash translations to make sure we’re following the syntax. Economy is also present in the acting; excepting Naomie Harris, the principals are absent of showiness. Alex R. Hibbert as the first and Ashton Sanders the second actor playing Chiron have significant resemblance and graduated consistency; Trevante Rhodes as number three is the buffed survivalist out of the shadows but for his sexual latency. Everyone’s favorite Moneypenny who needs to become the female Bond, Harris doesn’t quite sway as a mother with regrets; she’s flashing the reminder that an addict’s remorse is often inconclusive in its sincerity. (She’s substantially more persuasive shaving Daniel Craig.) A few years late with remonstration but still deserving: when Bonnie Dunaway and Clyde Beatty couldn’t defrost their brain freezes fast enough to look at the envelope heading and went on to ignore the printed words on the inside card—Emma Stone for La La Land—and instead feebishly announced La La Land as the Oscar winner for best picture of 2016, their joint gaucherie and goosey excuses symbolized the rot in presumptuous Sunset Boulevard divas. The far more just reversal of fortune that took place minutes later, in a multiple roadkill as the best awards finale ever, continues to impact and strengthen the slow build of power in the real winner. (7/19/2019)

Bille August’s due process concerns against familial, social, political, racial and religious tyranny are firmly established in his shoehorned appropriations of such celebrated works as Martin Andersen Nexø’s 4 volume Pelle the Conqueror, Selma Lagerlöf’s Jerusalem, Peter Høeg’s Smilia's Sense of Snow, Anastassia Arnold’s Marie Krøyer, James Gregory’s Goodbye Bafana and Peter Bieri’s Night Train to Lisbon. His appeals don’t always feel like good fits and can manage to cause blebby irritations—ignoring Barrabás’s importance in Allende’s The House of the Spirits; exacerbating antiquation in the 1998 Les Misérables—but I’m nevertheless captive to his egality as a pusher of “wellness literature,” Die Zeit’s thumbnail of Bieri. As a Dane, August proffers the obvious that he’s the director to tackle A Fortunate Man. Notwithstanding that it’s referred to as an adaptation of 1917 Nobel prizing-winning Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan’s eight volume Lykke-Per, praised for its epic philosophic annotation of society in Denmark in the late 19th century, the screenplay is in fact adapted from a condensed single volume published much later to alleviate fears of slogging through all the text. No admirer of August will be surprised that the movie, ending up an even more stripped down synopsis than his miniseries, is a tough go, as traps become promptly apparent. The easiest to escape from: defaulting to a dubbed version, Netflix offers the movie in subtitles and if you have the forbearance as well as speed-reading skills (required because translations fly by), that’s the way to “hear” it as the voice overs have zilch depth. A second trap, as virtual genetic predisposition, sets us up to be flogged again by inexhaustible religious bigotry, juvenile proscriptions and guarantee of God’s wrath warping into destructive behavior. This the DNA of perplexing Per (Esben Smed), a prodigy engineer student from a pair of backwoods anti-Semitic Christers. Despite his repellent parents and poverty, he’s a success at higher education, defiantly ingratiates himself to a rich Copenhagen Jewish family who become benefactor and marriage hunting ground, and, without intellectual humility, presents an ambitious, career-making wind mill irrigation project to the regional planning commissioner. Having his ego bruised by the latter’s abrupt cancellation, Per goes off like a Robert Goddard rocket. The solution is simple: apologize. Inculcated by his father’s “certainty,” he finds himself repeating the very imbalance he has long rejected. (Reflexive intransigence, I’m thinking, can ignite bipolar flares.) Smed’s Per exasperates yet intrigues in being “one of us,” and he’s fascinating to disciples of absentees Nietzsche, Goethe, Jung and Freud. Minus the tentacles of religiosity, the circumstances of fictional Per’s early rise and conflicts also parallel Dev Patel’s nonfictional mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in 2015’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, worthy of attention if missed. Smed provides an amusive side issue: is he auditioning for the bio of Laurence Harvey on his own or bumming from Leonardo DiCaprio, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper? August has packaged A Fortunate Man as a diametrically themed Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s love letter to his childhood. Not accidental, as August was impacted by Ingmar’s demonstrable warmth and exhausting richness in and narrative sweep of the original TV miniseries and, as ironic twist, a sharp critic of the truncated movie version. (He hasn’t insisted that Netflix, with a growing reliance on international miniseries, make available the whole of Lykke-Per.) In glossies taken during her twenties, Katrine Greis-Rosenthal is tantalizing, a Danish Jewess equal parts spoiled and temptress in the Veruschka mode; Don Draper would have her. Presented here initially as a less attractive, dowdy-haired sister to mate-seeking Per, her Jakobe is without coincidence a younger Gunn Wallgren, the beloved matriarch in Fanny and Alexander. The unveiling comes as the beauty inside Jakobe emerges; like grand mama Gunn, she’s a Glad bag filled with cures. If one day a musical, Per must suffer further by rendering, as stirringly as Sammy Davis, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (6/14/2019)

Knew nothing about Velvet Buzzsaw except for a promo with Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo the principals and Rene’s husband Dan Gilroy writing and directing. More than enough to check it out after his Nightcrawler, which, despite giving us the creeps, captures the vernacular of and sleaze in the TV news business, less satire than roaming reality as marketable horror. In Buzzsaw Gilroy targets the L.A. art scene’s pretentious critic babble, the greed of dealers and avarice of buyers. The movie starts entertaining almost immediately, with Jake an appraiser in minimal effeminate mode looking for his next jargon-inducing subject and when art dealer Rene offers him the exclusive on a new find, they become giddy with visions of books, articles, exhibitions and sales in big numbers. They don’t know much about the artist, other than having recently died, nor pay much attention to his portfolio reeking of Edward Munch as foxy lifter of varied styles. Hooked to a cell phone, the thieving finder of the artist is unaware the paints on canvases displayed are oozing down and spreading as if to devour; a personal shopper for the rich is so pie-eyed by future fortune that she’s unable to resist a Roman Holiday act of bocca della vertià on a bowling ball-like abstraction and you find yourself yelling, “Go on, bitch, do it!” If true the chameleon Daniel Day-Lewis has retired, Jake is next up as replacement. He’s an actor welcoming challenge of metamorphosis, exemplified in Donnie Darko, his Nosferatu in Nightcrawler and his failed writer in Nocturnal Animals; turmoil seems his very scary forte. Rene’s métier is being in charge, sensing the thrill of endangerment re The Thomas Crown Affair and Nightcrawler, thwarting calamity but for an indelible stain. At times this movie’s spotlessness might make you think Tom Ford is whispering to Gilroy to clean up, and yet, as in Nocturnal Animals, there’s messy action colliding with fartistic intentions. Ford, though, is premature ejaculator, distressed by corrective malice that prevents full throttle orgasm. Gilroy brings a Dartmouth-educated temperance to his cascading ferocity as multiple climax. “Auteur” companion pieces, Nightcrawler epitomizes vulturous media response to the human condition and Velvet Buzzsaw fantasizes about art going rogue on Trumpian parasites. (5/15/2019)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a memory piece reflecting about nine months of his early movie-loving youth in Mexico City’s Chapultepec neighborhood known as Colonia Roma during the despised Luis Echeverría presidency. Except for the inclusion of the infamous 1971 Corpus Christi student massacre, his recollections are unsurprising, shopworn, chronically tedious. What’s surprising is there’s hardly any curbing of enthusiasm for a movie that could be indicted for threatening to be a walkout bore in spite of its very good looking black & white visuals, in spite of the chaos deliberately injected to jack up the plebeian drudgery. (Each actor was given conflicting instructions in an attempt to avoid it.) Having admitted to being “scarred” by the era, Cuarón’s working out his conflictions about patriarchal abandonment, his remorse over the plight and abuse of domestic workers and the ominous reemergence of fascism. (American audiences might conjure the border wall war as additional sprout.) As autobiographer, it’s his prerogative to direct intimately; in lieu, he removes himself and opts to stage epochs, particularly the mowing down of the students, as virtuosity intended to be the sudden impact of bad things happening and not dissimilar to what he does with the hurling space junk in his overpraised Gravity. Yet Roma chills, not thrills; its threadbare emanations create a lustrous gray tapestry—an objet d’ empty art culminating in a familia Pieta—by Señor De Sica Fellini weaving to produce wizardry as an Altmanesque Wes Anderson. His taking-it-all-in pannings and many editing tricks don’t strengthen the movie’s cultural atmosphere and emotional tenor; the exacting set decoration placements, the freshly washed streets and tidy stores borrowed from Anderson’s crazed Spic & Span symmetry and the fiddling with Tuxpan’s beach waves block his revived sensitivities at the behest of his current sensibilities. (More on how effects were achieved.) He told the press that he didn’t want to interfere with viewers’ emotions springing from his story, which means what, exactly? That unemotional prowess as director, cinematographer and chief editor will do the trick in unlocking the magic of accumulative force that’s dormant in the script and the actors? (The movie feels sneakily annotative, that we’ll have to wait for his DVD commentary to experience less iciness about stagecrafting a 45 years-in-the-making revisionist family reunion.) I did respond to Cuarón’s father driving his prized status symbol (that will return for an amusing curtain call) into the casa’s parking space and one of the tires rolls over dog shit, cueing to one of the idiosyncrasies in Mexican life. Compulsive scrubbers of clothing, bedding and floors, Mexicans are often indifferent not only to picking up their dogs’ craps but also to the rest of us having to navigate around them. Sooner than mañana people experience what happens in the movie: preparing to drive off for another ostensible business trip, Dad tries to maneuver around the piles but steps in one anyway. After he departs, the anxious clingy wife, who could pass herself off as Kate del Castillo’s sister, shouts an obligatory “goddamn” at the sweet lamebrain mucama for not sweeping away the messes. The bourgeois scatology ignores the moviemaker-to-be and his siblings having neither working smell-detector noses nor assigned chores, two more indictments. Here’s another: the audience is reminded that Cuarón’s love of astronautics likely started with 1969’s Marooned, its title becoming the most regenerative of feelings received from his currículum. The generosity of Hollywood and the critics toward Mexican directors is admirable, encouraging, a political decency statement, a not so implicit slam against the ruinous American fixation in juvenile remakes. The adulation, however, comes with a price the industry and the critics try to avoid: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman and The Revenant, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water and Cuarón’s Gravity and Roma are, apart from artistic gambles with technical proficiencies, vexatious chores to like. We should all get trophies for sitting through them. (1/25/2019)

If fiction, we wouldn’t buy a minute of Florence Foster Jenkins. We might joke that moviemakers decided to take the character Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane and let Meryl Streep run with it, as another exercise in super business. At least four recent bouts before this one: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady and Into the Woods. Based on a Ripley-like believe or not, Meryl’s Florence isn’t quite a triumph of acting as it is a landside of gutsiness; in ways similar to her Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher, she cascades down upon us another “spot on” semi-satiric tribute. Frumped out in whacko regalia, Florence’s clueless aesthetic is the drawing card; according to published accounts of her concerts, the amusingly expressive audiences loved the rip-roaring effrontery, wrapped in a bedeviling naïveté. Nina Arlanda’s Agnes convulsively lets go for us and it’s cathartic, a recognition of our embarrassments: listening to Meryl’s botches, I quickly remembered a ROFLMFAO moment when sharing with friends my recorded butchery of Edu Lobo’s Brazilian scat classic “Casa Forte.” That taping was youthful, healthy diversion; I’m not too sure about Florence’s awareness in weighing the mocking response she received, in that the poignancy in the issue of illusion slowly brought on after reportedly contracting syphilis at 18, on her wedding night, is left dangling. But what fun it must have been to be part of those very animated extras for the filming of the concerts, made risky when director Stephen Frears asked Meryl to sing and Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon to tickle the ivories live, foregoing the prerecordings. This in-movie audience is the best since Singing in the Rain. After watching FFJ, I was ready for a leave of absence from Meryl’s “acting.” Familiarity with process does breed contempt. Then, as one of the few virtues in channel surfing, the opportunity for a second viewing came up a few days ago and, in spite of being incessantly aware of her strive for the gold standard, it’s a reëducation if not a high to watch her tune out the apparatus and procedurals of moviemaking to indulge in the cult of Florence’s scream-inducing badness, exonerating Cole Porter’s repeated attendance at her sold out concerts. (11/02/2018)

Perhaps better as a follow up to Joan Crawford’s forgotten 1942 Reunion in France, Robert Zemeckis’s 2016 Allied is more or less a tribute to 1944’s Casablanca. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard aren’t in any peril of becoming the movie legends Bogie and Ingrid became by chance event. No one making that classic mess knew from day to day where the hell they were going with the script nor any idea how it would all turn out. In the heavily pedantic Allied, we’re amply apprised that Brad and Marion are pre-Bondettes, that they’ll machine-gun down prominent Nazis in Morocco, take fast refuge to London, at which we’re quickly reminded of the silk and nylon stocking shortage in the midst of the blitz, and we’re fully briefed about the “blue dye” mission Brad has to perform or extricate from. At climax, the only detail not sorted out is the degree of Marion’s love for him. Romantics affirm, others skeptical, the split decision resulting from the unease that while there’s nothing screaming awful in their performances, neither is there evidence of potent conviction. Brad’s been in too many WWII actioners—he’s now gliding by, set into motion at the beginning when parachuting down in the Moroccan desert in the first of two weak sneaks from The English Patient, the other a sex scene in a car during a sandstorm that should be but isn’t penetrating thru door and window cracks. (How did the car keep its spotlessly washed and polished gleam in the middle of the desert before the storm?) Brad’s go at French has a soph charm; Marion’s fluency, however, is used as gaiety that also glides by as prop, lessening efficacy in espionage. She has costume issues too: a couple ensembles salute Ingrid’s, and Bette Davis’s in Now, Voyager, but when walking away from the camera in some robes, the lack of tailgate tailoring hints at a fat ass she might not have. Is there a single surprise anywhere? Brad’s sister. Though a supposedly true story British screenwriter Steven Knight picked up while traveling in Texas as a young naïve absorber, there aren’t any black screen pronouncements of fact. Listless entertainment, Allied needs a lot of pick-me-ups. Smart money would be on Joan wanting to oblige. (9/28/2018)

Accidentally providential, Jeremy Irons made two movies about writers within a year. In 2012’s The Words, he is the real author of a novel (that becomes a highly praised best seller) he thought lost forever when, decades before, his former wife forgot to retrieve the briefcase, in which the book was stored, from the luggage rack on a Paris train. Sound familiar to Papaholics? The script, by co-directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sterntahl, is loosely based on the loss Ernest Hemingway suffered when first wife Hadley packed his scripts (including carbons) in a suitcase that would be stolen from a train in Paris and never recovered. Here’s the twist in the movie: failed writer Brad Cooper receives as gift from his wife a case he admired in a Paris book shop and, while examining its feel and design, discovers Irons’ typed manuscript, with only fingerprints attached as identification, in a hidden compartment. Ethical and moral issues abound when the two meet. In 2013’s Night Train to Lisbon, based on the novel by Peter Bieri, Irons is a Swiss professor who, spontaneously saving a young woman from suicide, comes upon a pocket-sized book and a ticket for the next express to the city in her unwittingly discarded coat. Unable to find her at the station, he throws caution to the wind and hops aboard. During the journey he gets increasingly absorbed in and curious about the book’s philosophically autobiographic musings of a Portuguese doctor living through the Estado Novo, the corporatist fascist regime of Portugal’s António de Oliveira Salazar, the forgotten neighbor to Spain’s Franco. Few over fifty in Portugal want to remember, either, until Irons starts probing. Both films are loaded with well-integrated flashbacks, supported by mostly fine actors and become companion pieces on the lasting power of words and consequential actions. Obviously Cooper, in The Words, differs from Papa in that he’s experiencing pain caused by the dilemmas resulting from taking credit for something he hadn’t the talent to write in the first place. (Josh Brolin faces a more diabolical situation for doing the same thing in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.) At the center of the confrontations with Irons there’s a modern mushiness, a satisfaction over the novel’s success while neither the imposter nor the authentic writer find a way to resolution. Dennis Quaid is not the answer; the hubris in his characterization and voice are purposeful with the intent to dangle a gnawing inconclusiveness medicated by long-term boozing, yet he’s the wrong actor to do it. As I see the deceiver, Cooper’s a Nervous Nellie looking around every corner for snitches; he wouldn’t have the cojones to evolve into a grinning dipshit con artist armed with corruptive bromides about choices. (Lasting echoes of the soothing effluence in Irons’s narration about the novel’s origins may be more paralyzing than the fears of being uncovered as a fraud, if we generously accept the manual typewriter as useable after being tossed in anger.) In Night Train to Lisbon, the connection Irons tries to make with the deceased doctor/author he never knew about and likely wouldn’t have, save the prevention of suicide, is also a stretch for educated viewers. Irons calls himself a divorced bore, so spent that he’s willing to forsake his comfort zone in a flash to—here we go—find meaning in his otherwise empty life through a hundred pages of lovely contemplation and, with flashbacks as testimonies, the heroism in the doctor’s struggle to save lives during the Estado Novo, including the life of the butcher of Lisbon. Irons plays meek, humble and exceptional politeness comfortably; when he arrives in Lisbon and begins inquiring into the doctor’s past, these handicaps turn into benefits—his visits to the doctor’s sister (Charlotte Rampling as a queasily incestuous Lauren Bacall), his eidetic memory lover, and their close circle in the resistance allow, after leery starts, the kind of openness a good fact-checking researcher seeks. Director Bille August, who would cast Irons as the pro-junta politician Esteban in The House of the Spirits, recognizes the insidiousness of fascism as if he too is a politico, and he looks like one, maybe even a prime minister. Having been attacked by critics for deficits in tension and fear, which were moderately brought to THOTS, he seems determined to be diplomatic, i.e., reserved in subterranean messaging. He allows Jack Huston’s doctor a valedictorian speech in a Catholic church that opens with his remark about liking cathedrals and then, to the shock of many adherents and observed by his father who is a Salazar-appointed judge, attacks the myths and follies promulgated in them. With much of Portugal’s senior citizenry remaining spooked about the era, the salience to which August aspires is not be deaf, dumb and blind to Camus’s warning that “it always comes back.” One of the unfortunately persistent blind spots in movies, Lisbon doesn’t get much visual attention here. Apart from the dulcet optometrist as trigger for renewal, August might have considered being more generous and viewers very appreciative by expanding her duties to include an ample walkabout. (8/24/2018)

   

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