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Used People

Call Me By Ur Name

Trial of Chicago 7


Hillbilly Elegy

Ma Rainy’s

The Crown S4

The Boys in the Band

Phantom Thread

Darkest Hour

The Wife

Brazilian Romance









Albert Nobbs


All the Way

American Hustle

American Sniper


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


Behind the Candelabra


Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Big Little Lies



Black Swan


The Blind Side

Blue Jasmine

The Borgias



Bridge of Spies

Bright Lights

Broken Embraces


Burton and Taylor

The Butler

The Canal

Captain Phillips




Cinderellla (2015)

The Company You Keep

The Conformist

Crazy Heart

The Crown

A Dangerous Method

The Danish Girl

The Descendants

Django Unchained


Downton Abbey

The Duchess

Durrells in Corfu

Edge of Tomorrow

Enough Said

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The Family That Preys


Feud: Bette and Joan

The Fighter


Florence F. Jenkins

For Colored Girls

A Fortunate Man


Gone Girl

Good Behavior

Grace of Monaco

Gran Tarino

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Great Gatsby

The Great Showman

Hairspray (3)

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


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

The King’s Speech

Kingdom of Heaven

La La Land

Larry Crowne

The Last Station

The Laundromat

Les Misérables

Life of Pi

A Little Chaos







Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Men

Magic Mike

The Master


Midnight in Paris

Mildred Pierce (Winslet)


Mr. & Mrs. Bridge

The Monuments Men



My Week w/ Marilyn

Myra Breckinridge



Night Train to Lisbon


Nocturnal Animals

The Normal Heart

The 100 Foot Journey


The Paperboy


The Passion of Ayn Rand

Pearl Harbor




Political Animals





The Reader

La reina del sur

The Revenant

Revolutionary Road

Robin Hood


Romantic Englishwoman



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


Sherlock Holmes


Shutter Island

Silver Linings Playbook

A Single Man

The Skin I Live In


The Social Network

The Sorrow and the Pity



Still Alice

This is Where I Leave You

Titanic 3D

To Rome with Love


The Tree of Life



12 Years A Slave


The Two Popes

Uncut Gems

Velvet Buzzsaw


The Walker

War and Peace

War Horse


Wizard of Lies

Wolf  of Wall Street

Woman in Gold

The Words





















In addition to the respect given as actor, sexagenarian Helen Mirren enjoys the glow of being the grandest of Dames, thinking herself not only a fashion icon but, exuberant with assurance, a sexpot. These pluses, with some reservations, certify she’s ready and relishes the opportunity to play Catherine the Great, the last woman to rule Russia. Having wanted to follow up the successful 2005 Elizabeth I with another historical sweep, she and HBO set their sights on filming the story of the 18th Century empress’s numerous sexual affairs and the all-consuming love for and political machinations engaged with Jason Clarke’s Grigory Potemkin. Getting a prominent executive producer credit not received for Elizabeth I, she commands considerable sway over the project; no exaggeration, we feel her overseer presence beyond acting and accoutrements—there’s something gamy as well as uncanny at the heart of this four hour one-woman exhibition, who in real life became the most prolific and engrossing cougar chronologist in history. The freaky lure for viewers is that, at 73, Mirren plays the empress at the start of the series already 35 years older than the real Catherine, and when she dies from stroke at 67, there’s only a six-year difference, yet by observance at least thrice that. Complicating the hurdle is that the real age difference between Catherine the junior and Potemkin is only 10 years; in the series, the two actors are distanced by 24. Permitting exemptions and generosity, Mirren might be deemed to have succeeded by the sheer magnitude of task. Acknowledging other disadvantages—abrasive-looking when the camera closes in on her, the passivity of expression during sex with the younger tricks, some of whom Grigory would personally select—she wouldn’t quite impress without the presence of Clarke balancing with Grigory’s misfit magnetism. The reality of her “hot stuff” demeanor sticky, she adopts a Martha-like jocularity with a butch George that’s used in place of unconvincing sex—the empress and the educated ruffian general parade their infamous quarrels as love bouts. This compromise works, until it doesn’t. (Continue at Catherine.)


Beeban Kidron’s limpy 1992 Used People has one of those “must see” casts—Shirley MacLaine, Marcello Mastroianni, Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Marcia Gay Harden, Sylvia Sidney and a quiet Doris Roberts—playing extra ordinary. Headed by Hollywood’s prime practitioner of plebeian, MacLaine has been at it longer and more irritatingly successful than just about any other major star. Here she curbs her tendency to overload the sap by basing her character & manner on good friend Bella Abzug, who wasn’t too thrilled. (If any of us looked & talked like Bella we’d be very thrilled, until we suffer Margo Martindale in Mrs. America.) MacLaine is back-door receptive—she lets us sneak in and enjoy her much reduced yet still exasperated-in-general harpy, though we know what starts tolerably “small” will become a “showbiz” finale. That’s a handicap Marcello shares as the legend creates another balancing act: his second effort in English, coming after 1991’s A Fine Romance with diction perfectionist Julie Andrews, he’s conveying insecurities about getting the language right while mounting an all-out charm offensive as backup and he’s fortunate the audience is rooting for him. (He started to learn English a year before making A Fine Romance; in both films we feel the presence of a coach instructing dialogue emphasis.) The “romance” of Shirley and Marcello is the lesser of enjoyments; commencing at her husband’s funeral, ineptly depending on flashbacks to clarify the latter’s connection to the deceased, and then climaxing with convenient heroics rewarded with an All in the Family indemnity, the chemistry and wooing aren’t persuasive. Slightly better are the moments with Shirley’s daughters Bates and Harden and friends Tandy and Sidney as a mildly whiney-ass Jewish chorus. By far the showiest, Harden, a mother resisting grief over the loss of a child and without a husband, goes through a series of compensating transferences as Jackie, Marilyn, Holly Golightly, Dunaway’s Bonnie, Barbra and Bancroft’s man eater Mrs. Robinson. In knockoff apparel and bargain basement wigs, yentas Tandy and Sidney flush toilets while discussing leaving NYC for the promised land of Florida, now a twenty-years-late joke given the GQP is on the loose and—when is this scene going to be filmed?—baby Burmese pythons slithering through plumbing pipes. Chicago’s Gene Siskel wasn’t happy with the picture, bitching it’s “all about behavior.” Well, what are we if not behavior? Yet his carping contains a covert point—the demeanors aren’t sharp enough to matter. (Bates’s admonishments issued to Shirley and Harden are practically courtesies.) Appears that the quieter part of something called a “tutoring liaison” in the credits is to help avoid ethnic overdose and the “dialect coach” is there to modulate accent and they’ve done their jobs with such earnestness that the real Jews among these broads are in counterfeit mode—playing stereotypes as safely goyish—that Kidron has a ready excuse for unnecessary reticence. Used People is not a particularly appropriate title, being connotative of dried up and disposable, which by appearances might be the suggestion but not the intent. Were it not for one of Shirley’s mystic travelogues, Out on a Limb would suffice, as we’re all vulnerable in taking risks outside of our comfort zones. A believer in reincarnation who has said she’s the brother of Ramtha in their Atlantean past lives, Shirley as actor has rebirthed as a late 1960s defunct idishe frintsesin who expects us to believe she never went into a Queens neighborhood tavern. Walking the local streets with Marcello, wading in a fountain pool or sitting with him in a pub booth, isn’t she wondering if his schmekel has been shaved? We can bet every other member of the chorus is. (11/12/2021)


WTF kind of idiotic sex romp is being foisted on us in Call Me By Your Name? The only way to get through the bullshit is to see it as a sixty-five-years-later update of David Lean’s Summertime: Timothée Chalamet, as Elio the nauseatingly skinny Raphael-like Hepburn, is a pampered 17 year-old multilingual musician and transcriber hot to trot and since there’s nothing else to do “somewhere in Northern Italy” in the summer of 1983, he has a few rounds of sexual exploration with an equally horny local signorina. They’re both aware that he’s merely cuming through the motions, and in a more real world they’d get the scratchies caused by the bed bugs in the mattress they do it on in an attic. With very liberal parents the epitome of Euro permissiveness—a lot of kissy kissy, hugs, hands running through sonny boy’s uncut locks and, yes, Mom does know what’s going on—maybe Pops’s specialty in the history of sensual antiquity has seeped into Elio’s testosterone because, at least in the book and not mentioned in the movie, he’s purposed an attractive American male as candidate to be Pops’s annual 6-week summer research assistant. Elio’s fascination with Armie Hammer’s 24 year-old Oliver is touch & go at the start, unable to figure out if he dislikes or is turned on by Oliver for his arrogance, while giving the fresh arrival intense once-overs with the virtual binoculars and will soon be whiffing the mesh crotch of his swim suit. From where did this raunchy bit come? Is there a homoerotic novel hidden close to his crib? At first he half-credibly pretends not to like the touchy-feely stuff Oliver engages in, but isn’t it really playing the game of Clue? Gee whiz, are those masculine hands on my nearly always bare back signaling he wants me? Shall I try going bottomless? With his gaydar perhaps over-tuned by his father’s tendencies—and fortunately not carrying any outward signs like Pop’s twaddle and manicured finger nails—Elio sets the bait as a smartypants Lolito instructing on the meaning of a WWI memorial, prompting Oliver to ask, “Is there anything you don’t know?” to which Lolito says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter,” and Oliver asks, “What things that matter?” and the answer is, “You know what things.” (That mesh rush is about to kick in.) The anxious shifts in Elio’s let’s-get-it-on are the only things Timothée has to work with; his actor’s intelligence and commitment to passionate smooching rescue him. The tall, amiably glossy Rock Hudson version of Rossano Brazzi, Armie is the summer’s knight in skimpy shorts; he has a lot in common with Rock, as their shines have been tarnished by persistent negatives that add allure and their heights cause degrees of swooning from shorter costars. Liz, for example, is looking way the hell up at Rock in Giant; Alicia Vikander gets dwarfed by Armie in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and so do Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex and Amy Adams in Noctural Animals; Lily James forgets how to act as she submits to his towering gold-suited glob in the moldy luxuriance of Rebecca. Little Lolito is very agressively eager to climb the house guest’s frame. Packaged in super good looks, Rock’s temperament is another attribute—we can’t help liking him. Losing his attractiveness post-Call Me, Armie has often been assumed to be snotty and snobby, an unnerving jokester as self-professed flesh muncher; here as Oliver he’s an exceptionally free & easy fit, winning Pops’s blessing when passing the yearly orchestrated intern test about etymology. And probably when Pops, filling in for Lawrence Kasdan without too much of the Truman Capote affect, starts his remembrances of past yearnings unconsummated that he’ll later use to soothe heartache.

The movie skirts around its nasty catch—the suspicion of ephebophilia—and in spite of the offsetting diversions we resent its inescapable presence. We all know teens have sex with adults because many of us, when we were teen aggressors with stiff cocks having no conscience, had sex with them and enjoyed it. Possible that the issue here is our discomfort in Timothée, barely registering 17 and often looking younger, modernizing Mann’s hermaphroditical Tadzio as a teaser in jeans and paisley trunks, and soon to be in the well-practiced hands of Armie looking around 30, not 24. Uncomfortable as well is Elio’s father’s excitement in antiquitous male nude statuary that doesn’t quite pass as socially redeeming cover, noted by Oliver’s stare. (Has he already noticed vicinal similarities?) The age of consent in Italy is 14, which, to Americans, is tantamount to a free “no jail” card; in fairness to Oliver, he’s cognizant of worries about trespassing boundaries, about exploitation and molestation, allayed by Elio’s assurance that everything’s peachy creamy. Director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Bridges overemphasize one of the escape clauses: the craziness of parents who keep watching for signs that their son has been sphucked by the guest right there in their own home-turned-sex spa. They’ll want to celebrate his getting to the bris meat of things—a freylekh mitzvah. These fantasy conveniences warrant Elio’s “first love” that will produce more fantasy in the sequel to the novel, not likely to make it to the screen any time soon if Armie’s career remains in the dumpster. A few things to wink at: three songs from the soundtrack, which Rock would term “airy-fairy” (his description of Pillow Talk), with avowed Christian singer Sufjan Stevens lispingly calling up Michael Franks as we hear “Futile Devices,” “Mystery of Love” and “Visions of Gideon.” Taking a lunch break on the orchard grass, the family’s handyman is amused by a visiting couple at the patio table expressively yammering over Italy’s fractious politics and moviemaker Luis Buñuel, telling us that at least one person sees what a crock this movie is. These twinkles don’t make up for Timothée’s anoxic physique. It isn’t objet d’art or adequate for sexual objectification, it’s downright objectionable. Read somewhere that before filming he exercised. What with—a flat-chested Ken doll? He needs ER pec-cercising. (5/7/2021)


The Trial of the Chicago 7 is by necessity truncated: the many involved in court were there for five months and director-writer Aaron Sorkin whittles down to the “essentials.” The caveat: they are Sorkin’s; he interprets the farce to juice his anger in the age of Twitler. Turning the proceedings into what they were considered right from the start—a show trial—he slide-shows into flash-fire satire that’s as relevant as it is entertaining, as glib and maddeningly revealing about ourselves as JoJo Rabbit is purposely bright amidst Germany’s darkest deeds, as hazardous to fairness as The Death of Stalin is cuthroat to bureaucrats. (The comparisons likely won’t stop there.) By means of delivering factoids and altered facts—without altering the real outcome—Sorkin’s a crackling hauteur on ideology, tilting in favor of wide and urgent resistance, the unaccomplished aim of his bombast that is The Newsroom. Living in Chicago at the time of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and the 1969-70 trial, the police-state tactics employed under Mayor Richard J. Daley were a shared trauma of paralyzing inaction: via TV, and memorably evoked in Mad Men, everyone I knew back then saw the fury of confrontations and beatings and had formed, based on political persuasion, the “evidence” to support conclusions yet we did next to nothing to see justice equally applied to all perpetrators, including those preferring to club heads instead of granting park permits. Had Hubert Humphrey somehow won the election—improbable without knowing Richard Nixon’s subversive activity torpedoing peace talks with North Vietnam and mathematically difficult with George Wallace picking up 46 red state electoral votes—the then-U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s decision not to prosecute the more famous of demonstrators would have stood. As another advance of his own neo-fascist tactics, Nixon’s victory unleashed his well-known vindictiveness as he instructed the new A.G. John Mitchell to indict, prosecute and convict the loudest of the media-followed radicals as prerogative in the spoils of war and maneuvered the justice system to ensure that Judge Julius Hoffman, a rabid conservative who supported Nixon, would preside over the case. (In Spielberg’s The Post, Nixon uses his press hatred template to retaliate over the publication of the Pentagon Papers.) Calling the trial a shambles is the most polite of obscenities; labeling it a miscarriage of justice has to include, with regret, that its expected conclusion was very much guaranteed by the defendants’ varying antics. Which allowed right wing contempt to move full speed ahead against the presence of celebrity onlookers and witnesses, though they don’t have parts in the movie: Dick Gregory, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Jesse Jackson, Timothy Leary and singers Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, Phil Ochs and Judy Collins, who tried to sing her smash “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” while testifying. (What fun it might be to watch Frank Langella’s Judge Hoffman go berserk when she starts her wobbly warbling.) Because the movie’s condensed time frame coalesces much of the courtroom behavior into Saturday Night Live intros and skits, it’s exceedingly clever to position Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman as the main headliner. Building the strength of the ensemble are Eddie Redmayne at his butchest as Tom Hayden (who hadn’t married Jane yet); Langella’s death knoll on Hoffman; Ben Shankman as Leonard Weinglass; Michael Keaton as Ramsey; and striking in undauntedness, Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler. Hanging over the trial and its adjudication were, of course, the on-going Vietnam war and Seymour Hersch’s explosive story on the My Lai massacre; and several months after the sentencing of the Chicago 7, the killing of four students at Kent State. This from a Vox reviewer: “Sorkinese as a worldview is basically a precursor to the flattening of nuanced political arguments into a series of viral ‘gotcha!’ tweets, where the goal is smug point-scoring that validates the audience in the moment, but the result is the skewing and gamification of political discourse.” The trial was skewed before it ever started and its gaming not solely political discourse but also representational of Nixon’s treasonous disruption of the Paris peace talks, which LBJ knew about and didn’t have the cojones to use against him. We learned about it in Jaunary, 2017 from the New York Times. (5/7/2021)


David Fincher’s Mank is a designer movie for critics and hardcore friends of old films, aka as foofs. His father Jack, who died in 2003, started writing the original screenplay back in the late 80s, having been inspired by Pauline Kael’s 1971 Chatty Cathy “Raising Kane” which argued Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane and that Orson Welles’s raging ego as director was the main determinant for getting, in her estimation, an unearned co-credit. What we’ve never been able to assess is the extent of battles ensued when Mank (Gary Oldman) tells Orson (Tom Burke) that upon completion of his first two scripts of tentatively titled American, he’s going to renege on the contractual agreement to remain anonymous and demand screen credit. We want to think that if you’re going to do a “Who Did What?” story, you’d want to verify if the Screen Writers Guild actually arbitrated the co-credit. At the same time, you’d gather info to reveal on-location bits of the very guarded making of the movie itself. For instance, there’s no mention of Mank ever being on any California or New York set rewriting scenes during the four months of filming, so the presumption is that he wouldn’t have first hand knowledge—and by extension wasn’t notified until later—of script changes, large or small, that might be necessitated, especially in regard to the script’s complicated chronology of connectives. And more in movies than the other art forms is the “bragging rights” legacy tier: first is the “creative ownership,” belonging to the director, and secondarily script ownership. Mank was, at 41 and looking like Walter Winchell, solely a writer and on the skids. Orson, at 25, was the bellowing “wunder kid” directing and acting, simultaneously coordinating with various production crews and, throughout the process of filming and editing, involved with RKO to find legal avenues to get the William Randolph Hearst polemic to theatres, as Hearst’s tactics against chains not to show the movie were extensive and effective. If the Guild forced arbitration, as assumed, it had certainly weighed in reluctant favor of co-credit, particularly on the basis of the 300 pages of notes Orson and Mank wrote previous to Mank’s settling in at Victorville, CA, to pen the first two drafts. At the end of Citizen Kane, the credit reads: Original Screen Play (first line), Herman J. Mankiewicz (second line), Orson Welles (third line); “By” is not used; neither is “Story by,” an additive that could have prevented trouble. There’s also this: Mank had friends in the Guild but, due to his refusal to vote for its unionization, there wasn’t any surety that, aware of his infamous vituperation and chronic alcoholism, it would support his claims of sole authorship, though one of the Guild’s primary purposes was/is to protect writers from the abusive usurpations by directors and from studios using relay teams now commonly referrred to as script doctors. In Mank, there’s a shorthand acknowledgment Orson knows he’ll lose a protracted credit fight, and it may be the correct assumption that he capitulated to avoid one, probably at the behest of RKO and its lawyers not wanting to spend additional money over more mazy legalities.

If Mank isn’t all that much about who gets script credit—though Dad Fincher’s first drafts were supposedly centered on Mank’s battle to get it—and if the movie isn’t about the making of Citizen Kane, what is it about? For the most part, it concentrates on establishing Mank’s vitriol against press mogul Hearst and MGM chieftain Louis B. Mayer and their obsession over the 1934 California election of governor—which feels like a “fake news” insert because it is—and sets up his earlier friendship with Hearst and the on-going relationships both men had with movie star Marion Davies. Exempting Amanda Seyfried’s smart cookie portrayal of Davies as a blond Betty Boop, these elements become dives into the very nearly unrecoverable: falling asleep during the first two tries, I made it through the third, and had to go back a few more times to make sure I understood what the hell is being presented. Media fact-checking reports claim that about 50% of Mank is true and about 50% is false; if tabulations are accurate, the degree of verity is rather offensive in light of all the frenzy over Kael’s disputed piece. (Points eventually disclosed: She didn’t do her own research on Citizen Kane, having allegedly paid only half the researcher’s fee yet pulled a real Orson by not giving the researcher credit; that she spoke only to producer-actor John Houseman and Mank’s secretary Rita Alexander and refused to interview Orson because she believed he’d grandstand; and, later, New Yorker checkers admitted having a tortuous time confirming her purported facts, many of them publicly challenged.) Nothing about Mank’s hatred of Hearst (Charles Dance) and Mayer (Arliss Howard) had much to do with the governor race; in fact, Mank voted for the Republican incumbent Frank Merriam and, yes, actually made a political donation without coercion from Irving Thalberg. Disliking opponent Upton Sinclair for his pro-union stance that screamed socialism, he didn’t try to keep a studio hack as a Sinclair convert from committing suicide because, quite simply, it never happened. For a considerable stretch before breaking with Hearst, Mank enjoyed his company and lifestyle of abject grandiosity, indulging the opportunities to hobnob with Churchill and other important dignitaries at San Simon, at which he was witty court jester and miner of material, and he liked Davies, doubtlessly related to their joint love/need for drink and equally doubtless as model for Kane’s mistress Susan Alexander. Having spent some years trying to save European Jews from the rising fascist tide, Mank’s belated disdain of Hearst came out of what his brother writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz called the alcohol-induced “binges of perversity and extremism,” one of them his espousal of Charles Lindbergh’s call for nonintervention in Europe in spite of knowing the aviator’s pro-Hitler leanings. As Europe was being devoured by fascist dictatorship, he realized in brief sober interludes his own moral hypocrisy, and that of Hearst who had shifted from the egalitarian purposes of newspapers to promulgating in editorials a justification for fascism. This betrayal to democracy and specifically to Jews is beyond tangential connection to Mank’s insistence on getting that screen credit, as he wanted to be recognized by Hearst as his public executioner. (He wanted to excoriate Hitler as far back as 1933 when he wrote The Mad Dog of Europe about Adolf Mitler but no studio dared to risk German box office receipts.) His problems with Mayer and “poetic” glamour boy Thalberg (Ferdinard Kingsley, the son of Ben) stemmed from Mank’s gambling debts, boozing and resulting explosiveness, and from Mayer’s notorious dictatorial disposition and his perfidy in pushing Thalberg out of MGM. Absent the intense sibling rivalry between the brothers Mankiewicz, younger Joe—enacted by the impressive Tom Pelphrey, who in 2020 also played with an exhaustive impressiveness Laura Linney’s psycho brother in Ozark—shows up as casual agent to Mank’s decision not to remain a script ghoster: “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written.” Critics and foofs agree but David Fincher’s intent to reward Mank with single ownership comes without empathy: while Gary Oldman is high proficient as the “washed up” slosher to keep us attentive—when we’re not fighting the drowsies—it’s from the safety of detachment; this Mank is mostly quick and cold flourishes of self-contempt and Algonquin Round Table scorn. Like Dorothy Parker’s “Excuse my dust,” he provides his own epitaph, only more wordy: “I seem to have become more and more a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of an opening that will enable me to escape.” Orson, never wanting to be outflanked, supplies his own too: “Kiss My Half.”

After each viewing of Mank I’m reminded of Cuarón’s Roma, which has a similar atmosphere of trickster stuff in its technical virtuosity—that we’re never quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. In beauteous if not breathtaking HD b & w, both want to cast nostalgic spells. Roma creates backgrounds of nineteen seventies views of Mexico City streets that don’t appear that way anymore and in Mank, with Donald Graham Burt’s production design half in and half out of “deep focus,” there are frames with 3 layers of clouds, with clouds that insistently don’t move, with Citizen Kanesian sets, grounds, menagerie, vistas and Davies’s playhouse being trucked off the MGM lot. These are just some of the images that move us from reality to, in the former’s case, a heightened Pieta on the Beach, and in the latter to a cluster of chesty word heaps as equivocating fairytale. Much of Mank’s visual techniques (as well as its script structure) are obvious homage lifts from Citizen Kane and their upgrading worthy of congratulations until we read the perplexing Fincher yak about how he purposely “degraded” Eric Messerschmidt’s Hi-Dynamic Range cinematography to match the look and scratches of the “yesteryear” era and had sound designer & mixer Ren Klyce do the same for the soundtrack by fiddling around to give it a faux “analog warmness.” (No one wants to recall Zelig, Woody Allen’s case of the shpilkes.) I’m thinking something else too—that here’s a moviemaker who falsifies a facts-are-evident story about the road to paternity of Citizen Kane and at the same time tinkers around with software Easter eggs, if you can find them on your monitor, to enhance the fabled past. Fincher’s Manky-panky evolves into a curiosity of modernism damning its own bravura. (4/9/2021)


Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is an unintended screamer that Glenn Close starts saving 3 minutes in by giving her drug-addicted daughter Amy Adams the finger with this extra: “Perch and swivel.” With heavy boobs pushing her nearly over (and screen hubby Bo Hopkins has quite the set too), Glenn throws in meanie grimaces here and there that send her right to Razzieville, but, as preparation for a possible embarrassment, it’s not out of whack for Oscar members to reward such antics. (Two blatant examples are Helen Hayes in Airport and John Mills in Ryan’s Daughter, and if inclined I’d check out all the other egregious winners but then I’d be here all day citing them.) Roughly twenty minutes later, and at times hinting via hair and bloat a Janis Joplin and then Lisa Emery’s hag Darlene in Ozark, Amy revs up for a series of blow outs confirming Howard remains an eternal stripling as his joie de vivre in making movies—even the alleged serious stuff like A Beautiful Mind and the expensive Dan Brown trilogy—is akin to cutting the cheese and watching his audience holds its collective nose while looking around to see who’s to blame. In lieu of maturity, we get the camera closing in, often as fake cinéma vérité, on all of Amy’s swacks and cussings, pill sneaks, roller-skating and Glenn’s if-looks-could-kill frustrations and threats, noticeably behindhand. (When Amy’s “little fat ass” son hears commotion on the street in front of their house and runs out to find her hyper-hysterically attacking his sister, Glenn follows in what seem like interminable seconds to help shield him from the paramedics trying to subdue Amy with a tranquilizer; the rest of us are laughing as confirmation of Amy’s earlier joke about neighbors fighting: “It never gets old.”) My hunch is these two pros, in respect-to-Howard denial during interviews, won’t admit to sensing they were in deep shit over the way Howard integrated the whizzbangs, that to survive the serialitis they had to walk the tightrope with pretense that’s minimally disguised caricature; they’ve got to be onto the probability of audience reaction. Commendable is how mesmerizing they stay in the hopelessness and much of it has to do with the stunning makeup—especially Glenn’s—that Howard, in his single smart move, provides comparison for when the real two women are glimpsed at the end. Hillbilly Elegy ransoms its admonition on the opiate crisis to become red state cornpone that John Waters might say would be even funnier if accompanied by a scratch & sniff card. (4/9/2021)


Playing grotesque in headbands and bolts of flash fabrics, Viola Davis is hypnotic as the mother of blues in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. There’s absolutely no way to remove your eyes from viewing what is perhaps the screen’s greasiest-looking American lusus naturae. She’s an exhibitionist on stage singing and slinging the sprawling derriere, a flaunting darer to the prissy cracker starers. Since there isn’t much of a character to emote, she’s using physicality to produce a drive-by scandal. That said, I’m getting tired of Viola personally, and fast. She’s in the throes of whiney self-sabotage in the grease trap that is the present de rigueur of self-promotion: when not diminishing her dignity as Aibileen in The Help by expressing regret that she performed in it—has she repented doing How to Get Away with Murder or Widows?—she’s “acting out” a lot of overblown rhetoric about cast members in the promo Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A Legacy Brought To Screen as Juilliard alumni’s Gloria Gaynor—remember her Vanity Fair photos?—and now publicly complaining about her professional frustrations in not getting the bigger bucks deals, mirroring Ma and Mo’Nique’s give-me-what-I-deserve harping. Maybe we should call her Mama Mo’Nique. Undeniable that Viola be paid commensurate to her talents as our best black woman actor but wouldn’t she better serve herself by getting a new agent or agency than being a likely future guest on one of Oprah’s CBS interview specials skirting around the charge of sexism and, when pushed, racism? But who’s trapping her in the works of a dead author of counterfeit Eugene O’Neill—for a third time? In case we’ve already forgotten, the first two are the stage and movie versions of Fences. Things might get worse: actor/producer Denzel Washington plans to bring all of Austin Wilson’s “Century Circle” plays to the screen, big or small. (2 done, 8 more to go.) How long can audiences, especially black ones, tolerate Viola and Denzel melodramatizing that Black Lives Matter through the filter of whitey O’Neill? Skittish as we are about her magniloquence, we’re the same about his ambitiousness, which sounds like he’s hoping to revive the 70s American Film Theatre experiment as the possible Netflix Black Theatre experience—of vanishing returns. While Viola gets only 27 minutes of screen time in Ma Rainey, Chadwick Boseman is nonpareil in 44 minutes of zesty testiness; in spite of his illness and perhaps triggered by it, he and his character’s lanky arrogance are radioactive schmooze. There’s something preternaturally jivey in the way he holds his trumpet on stage and moves to steal Ma’s spotlight—he’s blowing his own horn for St. Peter to open those pearly gates. (Unfortunately the script traps him in another of O’Neill’s airless settings, in which he starts over-scaling about those shoes.) Upon the unprepared-for-news of his passing, he’s been quickly elevated to posthumous award bestowal as a way to help console the pain over a lengthy career denied. In a year when Oscar’s efforts at diversity in selection have accelerated, it’s realpolitik that his likely win, in the honorable tradition of Peter Finch’s for Network, stands as fitting emotional healing. If he doesn’t, we’ll know who is responsible. (4/9/2021)


Netflix has been honest about its disappointment that Season Three of The Crown didn’t deliver the sustained high viewer numbers of the first two. Any one who read the volume of comments on social media understood the generational remove: younger audiences who were held by Claire Foy’s Elizabeth weren’t ready for Olivia Coleman’s. In spite of considerable advance notice that, at creator/writer Peter Morgan’s insistence, the cast of principals will change and age every two seasons, those viewers balked at the shock of Her Frumpiness having emerged so quickly in the first episode that they were unwilling to accept the transition and left. (Had a similar estrangement with her in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, about Queen Anne’s rumored-as-sexual relationships with two women who go to war over her, as a satire based on All About Eve somehow slipping from funny and fresh to stale and tragic and finding myself increasingly disinterested all the way to conclusion.) Coleman’s Elizabeth manages to defrost the icy image barriers in S 3 and in S 4 she’s now the highly practiced and even frumpier queen and chief bearer of Morgan’s truthiness, as opposed to what is or isn’t verifiable fact. Morgan’s penchant for concocting intimate conjecture during epochs rattles many, including the U.K.’s prime minister, Diana’s brother Earl Spencer and Washington press doyenne Elizabeth Drew. They want what they’re not going to get—truth about royalty that has, practically speaking, no longer any legitimate purpose other than to maintain the “twisted architecture” of titled nincompoops as unentitled symbolic unifiers. The protestation from the aggrieved: The Crown needs to be labeled fiction, and right now Netflix refuses, sticking to the obvious that viewers are aware that not every moment is secure in documentation. Heres the trickier aggravation: the complainers dont want to admit that there’s no way to deny Morgan’s powerfully pleasing endowment—dialogue, as the best of its kind, intensely interlaced with myriad historic connectives to remind us how we became addicted to the Windsor menagerie of pampered trash. (Only the three queens in the series hold to monogamous faithfulness.) If the most recent news reports are accurate, those deserters from S 3 are back for their Diana fix and perhaps won’t be too happy: S 4 strongly reasserts that Princess Diana was a yawn way over her bowed head. Some of us are sick of her right at the start when, falsely dressed as a faery from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she’s sneaking peeks at another head bower Prince Charles. They’d be perfect for one another in any earlier century but they’re deadly as romantized ideal in the 20th. Di needs something stiffer than a jokster who moons “morning, noon and night” over Camilla’s cuckoldry. The very idea that Elizabeth II would semi-compel these two to the alter is confirmation that she’s reapplied S 1’s dunce cap by disremembering her own family’s tortured history of mismatches, about which she eventually castigates herself and is all but finger-pointedly scolded by Helene Bonham-Carter’s Princess Margaret. Intermittently rescuing Emma Corrin isn’t so much her clonzy Di but her resemblance to actress Jacqueline Bisset, at irregular intervals to Naomi Watts in the unfairly received 2013 Diana and, Anglican God forbid, Jodie Foster. Her only winning sequence comes when Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip takes her out to “stalk” a mortally wounded Imperial-class grand stag at Balmoral, site of the royals’ tests for invitees. After that, it’s predictably downhill for the poor wretch overwhelmed by soon-to-be in-laws trapped in sickening obedience to fradulent protocol, with bulimia an explicit ingredient as aftereffect. Considering events forthcoming, there’s clever pr in the odd reversal of fortune for married adulteress Camilla—we begin to like her. Real Camilla should be thankful that Emerald Fennell’s enactment of her otherwise less than honorable moral positioning is rather charming. Saying to Di during the season’s most amusing luncheon moments—“Darling, you really know nothing, do you?” and then exiting with “I’m all for sharing”—we know why actors might kill for chat this cagily double-edged. (And Fennell knows how: she’s the writer/director of Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan.)

Di and Charles would be supremely adequate as sole antagonists to the queen in any scenario but as the cards are dealt, her hand holds another bitch—Margaret Thatcher. Gillian Anderson’s version is mimicry of affectation; everything’s visually and audibly too right, from the over-sprayed hair, the turn of the head, the arched posture and voice accentuating her vacant compassion. It’s showoff art, not respectable artistry that’s demonstrated in The Fall and Sex Education. While real Thatcher’s public scolding in governance is upheld, Gillian’s domesticity of the PM’s home life of ironing, cooking and subserviently serving food to her cabinet goes phooey, defying the juxtaposition. No one disputes Thatcher as “homemaker” in private; otoh, when hosting government officials, she carried the split imagery for the theatrically political point to prove she wasn’t “entitled,” an exhibition of self-humanizing that she regularly betrayed in Parliament. (Streep has similar difficulties in The Iron Lady, attempting to resolve the paradox of being vociferously anti-privilege while wrapped in Thatcher’s peculiar haughtiness and in doing so becomes a monument to statuary elitism.) Gillian seems unaware that, at Balmoral and the Bahamas, she’s Holland Taylor as Nancy Reagan. And, as if to punish with more annoying certitude, she’s not unnoticeably rather like that anti-feminist horror show Phyliss Schlafly, except that while Mrs. America doesn’t love her son much, and for reasons different than Elizabeth’s for not caring much for the first royal son, mother Maggie favors if not dotes on hers, much to the displeasure of the twin daughter. Gillian’s one indubitable achievement is being a ten-episode reminder that people get sick of politicians who stay in power too long. Thatcher isn’t the only personage to administer and receive vexation: by the last episode, Coleman’s had it with the Snivel Twins and their bad marriage. She brushes off Di’s woes—repulsing the audacity of and need for a hug—and finally reigns down upon the spoiled, self-indulgent son over his untenable threats of divorce, demanding he start conducting himself in the manner of a future king. What she won’t know (yet) is that Josh O’Connor’s Charles will go ballistic on Di, angrily bellowing that he’ll “refuse to be blamed any longer for this grotesque misalliance” his mother, father and sister helped engineer to keep him away from Camilla. (Charles’s sycophants are on record denying that he behaved badly towards Di.) Excepting Philip’s moving outpouring in the previous season, S 4 tries for a domino effect of introspection: Philip’s discovery of his surrogate father figure Lord Mountbatten’s 500 pages of funeral instructions, necessitating a painful confession that his territorial claim of Dickie as father was sabotaged by his own tortured relationship with Charles; the queen over her deficient motherhood; Erin Doherty’s Princess Anne over the celebrity sister-in-law usurper; Auntie Margaret hobbled to forced reduction of royal duties by that bloodly napkin as device to discover long-hidden genetic imbecility that borders on exploitation. We’ve known since the first season that living within a constitutional monarchy is going to be anathema to whatever it means for royals to live “a normal life.” While holding fast to the nonsense that the crown is anointment by God, they’re more desperate to hold on to the crown’s ancestral goodies and ceremonies as lifetime security they don’t deserve; they’re an entertainment series waiting to be canceled. For all the carping about falsity that Morgan is being assaulted with, one very obvious fiction not mentioned is the presence of Elizabeth’s favorite personal secretary Martin Charteris, played by Charles Edwards. The real Charteris retired from his position in 1977, two years before Thatcher become prime minister, and three and a half years before Charles and Di married. Per Morgan’s two season casting rule, Edwards was kept on as continuity, though Currin’s tiresome upchucking is a one season run, to be replaced by Elizabeth Debicki. Eager to see the vision she’ll be in that darkly fulgurous haute couture dancing with John Travolta. (12/18/2020)


Mart Crowley’s 1968 The Boys in the Band was the first American play and subsequent movie to bray the gay. It was then and still is the all male version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, stealing structure and theme of self-hatred. An assemblage of amplified stereotypes gathering to celebrate the birthday of a self-mutilating Queen Bee Jew not particularly likable, within a setting allowing most of the guests to shake faggot repartee, the lingering accusation is that it remains a provider of circumstantial grounds for moral martinets to say, “You see, we were right about them!” As a movie fifty years ago, Boys wasn’t considered to be what Netflix’s 2020 production deems itself—a venerated classic. We did feel to an extent liberated as we laughed along with our queer friends drinking, dancing, playing the game of confessing love to those who got away. Others in the audience, the ones who remained protectively repressed, felt society’s inculcation of condemnation, feeling the self-loathing and embarrassment, not too different from how viewers were meant to feel about the piss-elegant nellies and Tenderloin tricks in Frank Sinatra’s 1968 The Detective, a perversely stacked exposé on convenient victimizing to quick capital punishment a gay man (the ferociously bad Tony Musante) for a murder he didn’t commit. Did Crowley’s play and the movie help as breakthrough? With movies as universal conveyance, doubtlessly yes. Not yet events of historic change when the play opened, by the time the movie unrolled Stonewall and proliferation of urban gay bars became swells of communal liberation, and the gay disco clubs soon to follow created a surprising gravitation pulling in liberal straights propelled by the adjoining congregational explosion—the sexual revolution of the 70s. Netflix’s version directed by Joe Mantello, who also helmed the 2018 revival and Albee’s Three Tall Women with Glenda Jackson as the author’s mother the same year, is a date-stamped reminder of then-prevailing negative attitudes and the question half a century later is, in light of a “born that way” acceptance and marriage equality, can the play survive as a perennial to be pulled out of the proverbial closet to be relevant to our current lives or is it a swish & kiss curiosity piece that needs to be, as a famous critic once suggested, a musical? Omitting the full throated chorus of laughter over the demarcation line “But you’re married,” which would make a showstopper tune, the situations and the party favor bitchery have lost much of their zesty and vindictive histrionics; Mantello has rehearsed his cast out of spontaneity and into banality. He succeeded in getting packed audiences in New York, primarily due to the fact that all of the actors are openly gay—some of them well known like Zachary Quinto, Tuc Watkins and, the larger draws, Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons—and theatregoers were primed to enjoy the early-on camp camaraderie and the hoped-for-thrills of live mishaps. The movie redo, substantially steadfast to the 1970 William Friedkin picture once inside the two story loft-like pad with a generous top floor patio, isn’t affecting as it is strangely sincere in its insincere affectation, with the actors one by one waiting to lay bare their Maria Martyr testimonies duplicating the guck of Albee’s “get the guests.” Parsons is the major sludge: a snit queen in his glory on The Big Bang Theory, he’s not an authentic male bitch. The obligatory guilt-ridden Catholic, his Michael has a few seconds of rearing up to strike but doesn’t have the fangs to inject venom. Working against him is that he has to override twelve seasons of weekly exposure happily earning him $160 million; ineptly shedding tears and regret and hurrying to a midnight mass for alleviation, followed by running down a City of Night street as a pansy who forgot to carry an Emez shopping bag, his drama credit limit seems to have maxed out. (And likewise less than convincing playing an agent in Ryan Murphy’s revisionist Hollywood.) His predecessor Kenneth Nelson didn’t dispense full doses of poison, either, yet his bites had sting. He also looked sveltely in slacks, sweaters and scarves and I believed he’d bounce his ass listening to Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66’s “The Frog” and drench himself in Arden’s Sandalwood because, well, I did too. Matt Bomer as Donald is incredulously paired with Parsons, flimsily intimating friendship with benefits. Choice of casual mate here is a problem for Matt: his attractiveness has been sacrificed to sexual turn-offs and, because playwright Crowley never went back to repair the lack of character development, Donald has, despite sounding saner than everybody else, enough unexpressed troubles to seek a psychiatrist Michael is more clearly in need of. Hearing that Donald makes $45 a week as a “charwoman,” we’re thinking how in hell can he afford both a headshrinker and that sports car he drives so recklessly around in? Cliff Gorman was smashingly repulsive as the super sissy Emory in the original movie and the incantation by Robin de Jesus isn’t any less, with plenty of boldfaced Bette Midler in wrist and bottom-swaying action; both give Alan, the married straight friend of Michael, a pardon for aggression. (No rocket science required: To whom does Michael not make a call?) The one certifiable “butch” is Watkins as Hank; from his connivingly funny David Vickers Buchanan in One Life to Live onward, he’s always in great shape and his quiet, friendly demeanor here more than equals originator Laurence Luckenbill, who had the better looking Larry as lover in Keith Prentice. In this new edition, Larry is played by Andrew Rennells, who’s more sloppily spot-on as avowed open slut in dark stripes-over-white pants than stylishly light-suited Prentice. (Rennells, in real life coupled to Watkins, doesn’t spare drive in Murphy’s The Prom, either, giving “Love Thy Neighbor” a Broadway-at-the-Mall hard push.) British GQ writer David Levesley wrote of the 2020 version’s ramifications: “You have to fear then that all this play does, by being presented so faithfully in 2020, is suggest this is still sort of the way things are: that gay men live cursed half-lives, where the only enemy greater than societal disgust is the contempt you hold for yourself.” Patently the intent of the ultra right wing Christers, the hiding glad raggers in the Roman Catholic Church and some of the American Curia now ensconced in the SCOTUS, all of whom are itching to go back to the bad old days, to sanction the theatre of malice and masochism that The Boys in the Band personifies in its rituals of crucifying one’s self through praying and/or braying the gay away. The first go around did its job; this revival a backlash commercial. Courtesy of the charge card consumerism of the Upper East Side torture chamber bash, this query: Why hasn’t Arden revived Sandalwood as a full body liquid wash? Never knew a time when the aphrodisiac on a rope didnt do the trick. (12/18/2020)


Phantom Thread is Daniel Day-Lewis’s swan song from movies. I don’t really believe that: when the right script turns up to showcase his and Meryl Streep’s hermetic glories, he’ll be back. In the meantime, it’s suitable he’s potential casualty in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cryptic tale of obsessions and ultimate possession. Immersed in the English 50s world of antiquated fashion, his Reynolds Woodcock, one of five Agnes Nixon-like soaper names the director as writer couldn’t resist, is a straight Momma’s Boy version of a Cecil Beaton doily queen whose designs are by and large oppressively regal, smothered in lace and dipped in dour colors, for wealthy post-Edwardian hags. A fastidious taskmaster riveted to his routines and requiring revolving muses, he’d probably be freer, safer and satiated with a sassy NSA Suzy Parker but as priss he nabs the drab Alma, a plain Jane waitress at a rural inn played by Luxembourgian Vicky Krieps. Usually opposed to spoilers, I caution that what follows, not fully in chronological order, discloses too much but Anderson’s script is a yo-yo; with the actors in frequent soft-spoken inaudibility—that cc option comes in handy—viewers are sedately reeling and befuddled by the to and fro. So here goes: Unaccountably smitten, Reynolds brings Alma to live at the House of Woodcock. Learning the trade, she becomes Reynolds’ new inspiration, for whom he creates a couple of stunners, one a gown wrapped in 16th century Flemish bobbin lace over lavender that might be the movie’s choicest. She’s a far better still photo model in couture than as runway walker: as if to match her trotting frumpiness, there’s a red atrocity that looks like she’s wearing a way below-the-waist apron festooned with Grandmama’s embroidery. Getting singular attention will be a wedding dress for a princess Nixoned as Mona Braganza. (The remaining three from Pine Valley are Countess Henrietta Harding, Nigel Cheddar-Goode, Rubio Gurrerro.) Alma intuits Braganza as a May-December threat. Throughout is the Day-Lewis employment of his long-established posing, this time as stares evolving into prickliness; he’s a bubble level trying to adjust the imbalances of arrogant prerogatives. The toxicity is mainly short-lived save for the Barbara Hutton replica Barbara Rose (Harriet Sansom Harris); resentful of his sister (the stoic Lesley Manville) reminding him that the chronic lush Rose is who keeps the House of Woodcock afloat—and sufficient reason to attend another of her weddings—he reluctantly goes, bringing Alma to witness Rose’s face crash hard at the head table. While none of the other guests even notice she’s being carried away, Reynolds and Alma feign indignation and go to her hotel suite demanding the return of the ugly heat-inducing dress, which she’s still in as she lay passed out. He doesn’t get that as contemptuous couturier impervious to changing style he’s soon to be twilighted, the reckoning of which comes when he enquires into Countess Henrietta’s abandonment, flying into a tiz over the buzz about that “filthy little word ‘chic.’” His sister refrains from mentioning how unchic his bum rolls are. Alma has previously felt his thorny abuse too, scolding her for noisily scraping the toast because it’s “entirely too much movement at breakfast.” Apparently he’s a goner for the whole day if “distracted” in the morning. Later, against his sister’s warning, Alma prepares him a surprise dinner with, to his displeasure, asparagus with verboten butter, crabbing that it takes “gallantry” to eat it. (Shaking on the salt, he’s a candidate for high blood pressure meds.) A love/hate blowout ensues. As retaliation, she spikes his tea with grounded poisonous mushrooms, their effects manifesting when he falls into and damages the princess’s bridal gown, due to be shipped the next day. Seeing the gown completed just prior to the collapse, Reynolds finds that it’s flawed yet unable to assess where the defect is. (We do: the folded satin support under the honeymoon set as offering isn’t seamlessly integrated with the fold under the arms, leaving unsightly extrusions at the biceps.) Alma readily and dually does Florence Nightingale, assisting him up to his bedroom and, as he sleeps to recovery, helps to repair the gown and discovers a hidden label marked “never cursed” threaded into the hem. Awakening her as she sleeps on the fitting room sofa by atypically kissing her feet, he then emotes he can’t do without her and asks her to marry him. We wonder if we’re hearing him right, unsure if he’s aware of the danger he’s in or likes that he’s in danger. Off to Switzerland for their honeymoon, he realizes his mistake when watching her squirrel-like eating and belittles her dice shaking at Backgammon. Returning to London, overhearing how he despises her, she cooks up another supper, sauteing a larger portion of edible fungi, presented as an omelet. Staring at her, and she at him, and barely managing not to go at her for pouring water too loudly and taking too long to do so, he takes a bite. The more she masters the secrets of phantom threads, the longer she’ll rule. Infatuated perhaps, Brian Gleeson’s Dr. Hardy, in a fireside chat that could pass as informal deposition, may be less into than onto her. (10/16/2020)


Dozens have portrayed Winston Churchill throughout the years, including alphas Richard Burton, Brian Cox, Albert Finney and Robert Hardy and at beta level Simon Ward, Rod Taylor and Brendan Gleeson. Some of their performances, and from those I haven’t mentioned, don’t leave much lasting impression except for the Winstonian bombast and drollness, which are used imitatively and not the fault of the actors, as Winston hadn’t received a fuller kind of scripted detailing until recently. There are now two standouts in that expansion—the American John Lithgow in The Crown and the British Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. Almost a foot taller than Winston yet shrinking before us as he navigates to spare getting the heave-ho, Lithow, given the time and factual incidents to furnish character insight, is in immensely pleasurable as well as high command mode. Oldman, about three inches taller than Winston, is narrowly relegated by Andrew McCarten’s script to the potential disaster of Dunkirk—wisely avoiding depictions of rescues that Christopher Nolan’s same year epic exposed to the peril of boredom by providing too many of them. The crisis is made vicious by the infighting in his own government left over from Chamberlain’s limpy appeasement policy, espoused by Stephen Dillane’s careerist snob Viscount Halifax. Oldman said he wanted to do more than serious impersonation of temperament and speechifying, that he’s going for creation. More like first class re-creation: Demanding double-spaced memoranda, he’s intimidating firecracker; shouting “Will you stop interrupting me while I am interrupting you,” he’s justified tyrant; hearing FDR explain how to get embargoed military planes across the Canadian border and onto England, Oldman quietly and dumbfoundedly repeats, “You did say a team of horses?” Whether in obstreperousness or fleeting emotions, he too is enjoying the ride, telling us he’s thankful Lithgow preceded him—allowing opportunity to view the master class. In fat suit, facial prosthetics and puffing on Romeo y Julieta cigars, one extra ingredient makes Oldman electric: sober for years, he seemingly continues to tap into booze “edge,” inhabiting Churchill’s relentlessness with derring-do, which is often lost in actors after abandoning the bottle, in such examples as William Hurt and, in the last ten years, Anthony Hopkins. But a still-volatile ex-boozer remembers the benders, especially one lasting 70 days in London, so when a House of Lords elder itemizes Winston’s vice—“A drunkard at the wheel: wakes with a Scotch, a bottle of champagne for lunch, another with dinner, brandy and port until the wee hours; I wouldn’t let him borrow my bicycle”—Oldman appears to permit himself to smell the condensed vapors of the old black magic. Acting for this ex-souse becomes the safer replacement high, and can be felt even when downplaying characters, as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Mank. (He can fail too, miserably in The Laundermat.) With 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, 2007’s Atonement, 2012’s Anna Karenina and 2017’s Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright is unabashed peripatetic, refusing to allow his actors to be stationary rumps; borrowing “tunnel vision” set structure from Anna Karenina, he’s staged Oldman and the griping opposition in crowded, narrow confinement, this time blocking without theatrical melancholia, deliberate and defiant as a reality playhouse moviemaker. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and McCarten’s hallmark compaction (the second of a roll starting with The Theory of Everything and later Bohemian Rhapsody and The Two Popes) are co-conspirators accommodating Wright’s vision. Dillane, Lithgow’s portrait nemesis Sutherland in The Crown, has as Halifax the last words after Churchill’s empowering oratory to arouse the nation against any appeasement that brings Parliament to a white handkerchief-waving frenzy in the Commons Chamber: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” The quote belongs to Edward R. Murrow, from his 1940 Columbia LP recording entitled I Can Hear It Now: “The hour had come for him to mobilize the English language, and send it into battle, a spearhead of hope for Britain and the world.” (10/9/2020)


Glenn Close has for so long fit into the niche of bitch that when it looks like she isn’t going to be one we’re still expecting her to turn into one. In Björn Runge’s The Wife, she’s in optimum straightjacket control against pestering journalist Christian Slater, an untrustworthy scandal monger eager to do a biography about her Nobel laureate husband Jonathan Pryce after discovering the early obscure works of both the author and the wife. Over drinks in a Stockholm bar, he insinuates that she and not Pryce is the mastermind behind his novels. (No spoiler here, as we get hints of her nearly latent agony very soon into the story and there will be flashbacks.) Cautious about not betraying cool restraint, she exits Slater’s ingratiating inquisitiveness hoping to have temporarily mollified him; while walking back to the hotel, she’s shifting into what appears to be a buildup to bitch mode, briefly exposed as she scolds Pryce’s untidiness. Before the ritzy Nobel festivities begin, Close and Pryce learn that Slater has also talked to their son and repeated the suspicion. As the unraveling proceeds, Close makes another but more dramatic exit—leaving the formal dinner in the midst of barely contained emotional turmoil: she’s previously asked Pryce not to thank her during his Nobel acceptance speech, which he ignores by lavishly praising her as his muse. It’s an embarrassing backward pivot; her character inalterably knows that with fame comes more vulnerability and that someone has already put the pieces together, as it only takes, you know, reading. She’s been living the value of propriety, resolute about not publicly endangering her husband or herself and by consequential extension his stature and monetary worth. But in the limo she’s threatening divorce and, back in the suite, the bitch arrives, hurling invective about Pryce’s chronic philandering, selfishness, his hack writing while throwing neatly arranged copies of his books to the floor and then packing a suitcase. With so many clues and cues advanced, we’re well-apprised of what’s coming next. The movie’s final moments, however, aren’t registering as punchy anticlimactic. Trapped by the movie’s 50s device of the ever supportive wife’s duty of silence, we’re supposed to recognize that her warning, on a Concorde Super Sonic, to take Slater to court if he divulges his hunches in an eventual book is an extension of more wifely silence of the fraud. What action could she take when he inevitably publishes the goods? What would be her defense in trying to save a reputation never deserved? Does she think the literati is going to support her claims that her husband isn’t the male version of Lillian Hellman telling stories not true to his personal experiences? Fumbling fool Pryce doesn’t even remember the name of the central figure in one of the acclaimed novels. Then there’s Nobel itself, changed from the Helsinki Prize for literature in Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel. From second tier to the grand prize, yet no one seems bothered by trashing the revered institution. (Strangely, the Nobel Foundation granted permission to use trademark and ceremony.) As I see it, there’s one opportunity to have an emancipating anticlimax to the charade and save the picture: for Close to join forces with Slater to reveal the truth. She’d become cause célèbre, gaining all the past dues like TV and magazine interviews, book and Netflix deals, being hailed the new icon of the “long suffering wife.” With Runge acquiescing, Wolitzer, whose book is an acerbic screed about the sins of male cultural dominance in publishing, and screen adapter Jane Anderson are pulling a con job on us—turning a gifted woman writer into another pathetic Elizabeth McGovern, the sour graper who, ranting about the subservience of women during the Eisenhower era, evidently dissuades Close from her pursuit of a career to brave the function of appeasing kingmaker. Giving a tightly engineered performance, in which few antiquated stones are left unturned and few reactive grimaces deemed unnecessary, Close turns into an insufferable Mrs. America to be tossed into the dustbin of MeToo martyrs. (10/2/2020)


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 wailing, 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)


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Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 All Rights Reserved.