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The Scapegoat

Illusionist/Painted Veil

Larry Crowne

My Week w/ Marilyn


Pearl Harbor

Wizard of Lies

Nocturnal Animals

Big Little Lies

Feud Bette and Joan

Hidden Figures

La La Land

Bright Lights

Durrells in Corfu


Good Behavior

The Crown


I'm Not A Serial Killer

All the Way

The Revenant

War & Peace







Albert Nobbs

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



Black Swan


Blue Jasmine

The Borgias



Bridge of Spies

Broken Embraces


Burton and Taylor

The Butler

The Canal

Captain Phillips




Cinderellla (2015)

The Company You Keep

The Conformist

Crazy Heart

A Dangerous Method

The Danish Girl

The Descendants

Django Unchained


Downton Abbey

The Duchess

Edge of Tomorrow

Enough Said

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The Family That Preys

The Fighter


For Colored Girls

Gone Girl

Grace of Monaco

Gran Tarino

Grand Budapest Hotel

The Great Gatsby

The Help

Hemingway & Gellhorn

Hope Springs

House of Versace

The Hurt Locker

I’m So Excited

Ides of March

The Imitation Game


Inglourious Basterds

Inside Llewyn Davis

Into the Woods

The Iron Lady

It’s Complicated

J. Edgar

The Kids Are All Right

Killer Joe

The King’s Speech

Kingdom of Heaven

The Last Station

Les Misérables

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


Myra Breckinridge




The Normal Heart

The 100 Foot Journey


The Paperboy

The Passion of Ayn Rand




Political Animals




The Reader

La reina del sur

Revolutionary Road

Robin Hood

Romantic Englishwoman



The Rules of the Game

Safe House

St. Vincent

San Andreas

Savings Mr. Banks

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 Walker

War Horse


Wolf  of Wall Street

Woman in Gold



















Akira Kurosawa is often eulogized as the visual version of Shakespeare. We’ve heard this equivalency long before he passed, as far back as The Throne of Blood, and, to make the connection seemingly indisputable, his 1985 epic splash Ran is touted to be the ultimate King Lear in warlord drag. Writing the screenplay on and off for years, basing it on Segoku-era military leader Mori Motonari who had three sons, he acknowledged using the Bard’s tragedy to frame the bloody tohubohu of sixteenth-century Japan because he needed to make sense of what is inscrutable Shõgun action, to keep it from becoming another Kagemusha. (Could be said uncomplicatedly the latter is about a horse dethroning a fake.) As with Lear, themes abound: the suffering of lovelessness, deserved or not; the battles of inheritance; treachery; nihilism; and, obviously, chaos. These and other motifs drift in and out like the inclement weather did while filming and that is the movie’s saving grace, a feast of atmospherics by compromise with nature. The fog and chill of Mt. Fuji were storyboarded before shooting started; the volatile weather, however, enhanced what the Bard might be envious of—the soaked-in-disease ambiance, which in turn adds intense contrast to the Oscar-winning costume designs by Emi Wada and Oscar-nominated art/set direction and lensing. But let’s be honest, the punches in the prolixity of Lear don’t easily roll. They didn’t for Laurence Olivier, either, in the 1983 Granada Television’s economized video version, though he managed to capture Lear dispensing and suffering from punches: his hands roll from his gray bearded face and then blowing a lewd, incestuous kiss to his beloved Cordelia—yet is it a kiss?—and he virtually sings an agonizing aria mixed with disdain and hurt when he’s turned away by his two other daughters, bitches Goneril and Regan. Kurosawa’s vistas and bloodbaths are compensation for pent-up emotions without actors verbally expressing them, forfeiting the rot of familial dysfunction to choreographed pantomime, to horses, landscapes and, the scourge of samurai, rifles. If the peril in the theatre of Bushido is much the same in Shakespeare’s tragedy—the pathologies keeping us in a deep freeze—the settings and tempestuous action are satisfying substitutes, delivering the master playwright’s pre-cinematic senses the British usually and over-respectfully avoid. Some time before Ran, Peter O’Toole wanted to play Lear with Kurosawa directing. It’s okay to grieve the lost experience. (2/9/2018)

Might have zapped right by a cable movie channel’s airing of Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapepoat. But Matthew Rhys, who’s currently playing in The Americans and in Spielberg’s The Post as Daniel Ellsberg, stars as two men looking so much alike that, without sharing an ounce of the same blood, one of them plots to steal the other’s identity and the victim ends up rather unwittingly replacing the plotter as husband, lover and father. Directed and adapted by Charles Sturridge in the generally satisfying ITV tradition he’s amenable to—having respectfully co-helmed with Michael Lindsay-Hogg the ITV miniseries of Brideshead Revisited—this 2012 version of The Scapegoat is a disporting stretch. Resisting duplicating the stuffy chit-chat of the novel, which is set in France and has a different ending, Sturridge changes the locale to Britain during the period covering Elizabeth II’s coronation and dabs with some 21st century cynicism. Sometimes we’re not sure what the hell is going on and for a while Rhys doesn’t, either, yet he wins us over by the uncomplicated truth—simply telling his “family” that he isn’t the real husband and father, though they regard his confession as a joke and dismiss it. Not having the physical authority to play Darcy in Masterpiece Theatre’s Death Comes to Pemberly, which is neither a masterpiece nor needed, Rhy’s slightness works for him here; he’s sort of inconsequential—until it matters not to be—and it’s his good fortune that he’s acting opposite actors who likewise aren’t of much consequence. Except for Eileen Atkins, who requires an expanded presence; it’s she, not her home care nurse, who needed to tell Rhys that he “smells” differently than the man whose identity he’s replaced. (We do wait for any of the women, including his city paramour, to detect it and/or the differences in his package.) The slightness of Rhys also works in admitting that he isn’t much good at setting straight the family’s ruinous finances; in fact, he’s relieved to have to admit it. As the climax is about to arrive, allowing the return of the rogue husband, Sturridge directs confusingly: we can’t comprehend how it is that the bastard convinces someone so quickly to commit suicide; scenes seem to be missing. Then the director moves guardedly during culmination, hoping to prevent any hint as to what happens in the clash of the dead ringers in the shadow of a raging furnace to ensure a guessing game. A bit more intriguing is what the movie suggests as the victor watches Elizabeth II ascend to the crown. The B & W 1959 movie version may now be more noteworthy for its star Alec Guinness often looking a lot like Kevin Spacey. (1/26/2018)

DOUBLEHEADER: Edward Norton’s lean muscularity would impress us in 1996 with Primal Fear and The People vs. Larry Flynt; scare the hell out of us in 1998’s American History X; drift us into savagery as the insomniac narrator in 1999’s Fight Club; mollify us in 2000’s Keeping the Faith; and make us mildly swoon as an unlikely old fashion matinee idol in 2006’s The Illusionist and The Painted Veil. Neither of the last two received wide box office, though the former managed a very decent return by the power of word of mouth. It’s not hard to be captivated by the major elements—Norton’s persuasiveness as legerdemainist, the benighted photography by Dick Pope, the subtle visual effects (that last stage trick startling, which later we think we should have seen coming). Coalescing without the drudgery of heavily weighted phoniness, the movie does have the feel of an art farter; part of its fun is our enjoyment in spotting director Neil Burger’s messy implementations: a few seconds too long at a water bank scene alert observing eyes of needed correction; inspector Paul Giamatti’s barmy self-amused slow uptake on just what transpired; Rufus Sewell’s crown prince wasting time locking doors and windows; the last camouflage heading toward the train a bit cheesy; the idyllic provinciality foretelling boredom. Jessica Biel, born in Minnesota, emits Euro beauty and élan. (The optics of Burger and Pope have been influential, particularly with James McTeigue’s The Raven, in which John Cusack goes all out as the dipso Edgar Allan Poe searching of his lady love kidnapped by a serial murderer replicating some of the author’s infamous dispatches.) Why The Painted Veil didn’t inherit the same viewership of The Illusionist is still a baffle. John Curran’s version of Maugham’s penitence allows us to appreciate again Norton’s gift of convincing range. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Mrs. Soffel, Philadelphia) believed the original “one dimensional” perspective of character Walter was too limiting—Maugham wrote in third person with a decided slant favoring Kitty—and expanded the view of her bacteriologist-husband. The balance works; Walter evolves into the dual humanist he hadn’t discovered in himself—a devotee to the welfare to a populace and pardoner of weakness. (He also heats up at just the right moment.) Hadn’t fully realized until recently how many movies Naomi Watts has been in; where I’m currently living the cable movie channels seem to be showing nearly all of them and except for wilted blonde dos here and there, she’s very adaptable, able to connect with King Kong, humorously berate her mother as an “idiot,” “imbecile” and “lunatic” all in the same scene in Allen’s middling You Will Meet A Tall Stranger and titillate in the kicker Adore. (Had forgotten too, one of her earliest appearances is in Australia’s groundbreaking miniseries Brides of Christ back in 1991; ten years later she’d earn an Oscar nom and win the National Society of Film Critics award for David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.; and, about-face being unpredictable, a Razzie nominee for Diana and Allegiant.) Responding to her in The Painted Veil in which she plays Kitty, who gets shipped off to cholera-loaded China of the 1920s as retaliatory action for indiscretion, permits an ideal showcasing of her tenaciously clinging aloofness. She echoes Annette Bening’s persistent chill, and it must have been one of the reasons Rodrigo García cast them in 2009’s Mother and Child. In Maugham’s melodrama we’re required to bestow sympathy to Kitty; in the movie, we’re not that quick to absolve. With Stuart Dryburgh offering up some exquisite imagery of China, this is a first-rate period piece about emotions in reserve that has a turn we all know is coming yet what we’re not prepared for is how deeply affecting it will be. (12/29/2017)

Is Larry Crowne any good? If I said the movie was better than its legacy—click here for the details—it might sound like revisionism, yet, in deciding to take a second look to satisfy myself that it’s worth watching and not as a curiosity, it got funnier. There are risks for Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts together in a very small movie: do they play “small” so as not to allow their matching fame to overshadow everything else and hope audiences buy it? Do they play “big” as in dominating the picture so that we’d forget their characters are ordinary people in likewise circumstances? (A non-issue ordinarily, in that both have been successful playing commoners.) They move to the middle, using their fame to keep us interested but don’t allow themselves to dominate except by their uncommonly likeable presence. As luck has us, Roberts’s character isn’t someone who wants to be that friendly—she’s a community college teacher with a “Boozilla” attitude up the kazoo: she’s super eager to cancel her classes in public speaking if there isn’t the required ten student minimum in attendance; she’s not up to snuff with pop culture—unaware of the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars; she doesn’t know how to turn off the MapGenie in the car; she’s disgusted by her husband’s porn addiction and gets angry with him when he knocks her for not having big knockers. She uses her edginess almost imperially, by and large in the classroom where she can hold reign, being bell-ringer impatient and curt, probably wanting to laugh yet withholds. Having another “demon rum” hangover, this time from a previous night’s unplanned outing with Hanks, she enters the classroom wearing evidence-hiding sunglasses and must offer an apology to him, daring to ask for his discretion, as her standing in academia could be jeopardized since he is, technically, a student. After those Robert Langdon talkathons, that does seem a reach, but no one does Everyman better than Hanks, this time facing the ever-changing vicissitudes of the dangers of steady employment. Larry doesn’t blame anyone for his lack of higher formal education, which is the said reason he was let go because without a degree he couldn’t be promoted at U-Mart. Entering college for the first time, he enrolls in two courses we’re aware of—Roberts’s and George Takei’s economics class. Using his ingratiation, an inexhaustible asset, Hanks gets us to swallow a large portion of the role. (Only a few times in his career has he failed to win me over: not as you might think in The Bonfires of the Vanities but his stint as a death row corrections officer in The Green Mile and his immigrant trapped in Spielberg’s The Terminal.) A few extra gulps are required when Hanks the director loses track of supporting act Bryan Cranston, who buffed up and bleached his teeth, and when as co-writer he allows himself to get an A+ for what at max is B+, though the George Bernard Shaw quote is sufficient as well as politically prescient to forgive him. And a big gulp over Hanks’s magnanimity about that ten student minimum: there’s one whose face, voice and mannerisms conjure a shadow we don’t need. Always the nicest of the nice, he gives Takei and his sonorous voice a very amusing turn. (9/11/2017)

Simon Curtis’s 2011 My Week with Marilyn has three things going for it: Michelle Williams in an Oscar-nominated performance as the star, Eddie Redmayne as the young assistant Colin Clark who’s enamored and, within the story of the making of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, the sweet story of their questionable fling. Based on Clark’s 1996 The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and his 2000 diary that carries the same title as the movie, they cover much the same territory as Olivier’s remarks in his Confessions of an Actor. (If you’ve read that one, you come to the conclusion that he doesn’t confess enough.) Clark’s diary, written two years before his death, alleges an affair with her that’s missing in the first book, and the secret stayed mum for around fifty years. This alerted the suspicious entertainment watchdogs at The Guardian. No disputing he had been hired as a gofer principally because he was the son of Sir Kenneth Clark, the celebrated art historian, and the ordeals endured by the entire crew are factual. The snoops, however, don’t buy the beddy bye. But who’s to say, given her states of mind and emotions, exacerbated by booze and drugs, what she may have encouraged when alone with Colin, since he was—and is played by Redmayne as—a puppy. Truthiness is at play here: Williams gets to some of Marilyn’s fleeting essence of magnanimity. She and Curtis seem acutely aware that viewers are tired of Marilyn’s repetitious conditions—it’s become a bane as well for actresses trying to play her—and lessen considerably the exasperation by giving her an open heart with a bit of early history popping out. In this version, Marilyn connects to real people as refuge, to say to someone like Redmayne’s Colin, “Come on, let’s take a dip.” Not at all farfetched that as lonely superstar she’d want to cuddle and play with an adorable puppy, maybe grant a fuck as bestowal to a younker who isn’t trying to enforce dominance over her. Surprising me more than anything else about Williams is that she bares a stronger resemblance to Barbara Nichols than to Marilyn. (And I admit sometimes confusing Williams with Carey Mulligan; they do seem interchangeable.) Redmayne has been dream casting for several years: in The Theory of Everything, in The Danish Girl, and as Colin, for whom he comes fully equipped: requisitely a cutie with just enough appeal not to overshadow the star, sufficiently naive to be excused for crossing the line, a gallant who won’t kiss and tell for years. A bonus attached: when he grows up, he’ll make a decent Bond. If accounts of her histories with men are even half way true, Marilyn did herself a disservice in not taking Colin home. That generosity might have helped save her. (9/1/2017)

RATS GALORE: Rats as love objects? Pixar faced some Disney executive consternation when wanting to make 2007’s Ratatouille, about a Parisian restaurant virtually overwhelmed by one of the public’s most detested creatures. Spotting them rummaging through garbage or crawling out of sewers, or moving across the lawn late at night more than adequately explain the revulsion. Thus it takes guts to turn rodents into entertainment and the teams responsible for this—way too numerous to mention here—deserve kudos for their audacity in putting them in a kitchen. We’re all thinking the same: how do they decontaminate? Ingeniously. Dependent on the overload of the cutes, this is still daring stuff even for animation, an art some of us only partially respect. We’ve seen too many Disney productions and the knock offs and the misgivings multiplied after two of the form’s biggest hits—the 1991 Beauty and the Beast and 1994’s The Lion King—received unwarranted lavish praise. Their art work seems labored, with some imagery meeting standards while the bulk lack clarity, contrast and defining details. For example, as the former opens, the pastoral village is colorful in a Thomas Kinkade palette. When discovering the beast’s gargoyled Neuschwanstein and Belle becomes captive, he offers her his beloved library; it’s a disappointing mass of blur and too quickly discarded. Following the transition of the beast to prince, the castle undergoes a changeover as well but doesn’t appear finished. A lot of shoddiness in, as well as a shortage of, practicality: when wolves are attacking her, the beast and the horse, we haven’t any idea how she gets the massive hulk on the horse or, in another rescue, her fatty daddy. (The horse may be the more neglected love object—he has to nudge Belle into showing affection.) The artists for The Lion King have conceptualized Africa out of its travel poster lushness, which was intentional; in the course of doing so, they inadvertently sabotaged their efforts with an Africanized spiritual as overture, making just about everything that follows redundant. Two majestic touches in a rat save it: the cunning incorporation of the facial contours of Jeremy Irons into Scar and granting him a full onslaught of drollish maleficent elocution. Before Ratatouille, he was the top choice as the best phonation in animation. That honor now shared with Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego, the feared rat as Paris food critic whose favorite pastime is pecking away to kill off all those Chefs Boyardee. Maximizing the vox to a near-poisonous yet at the same time mellifluous British drawl to match the sardonic caricature of his elongated scowling face and stilty fingers, the inimitable sounds are love play. The joy in his lark, said to be modeled after French actor Louis Jouvet, is sweeping; a new criterion has been established. So too the animation: the clarity and detailing, particularly in the kitchen, are eye-popping. Computer-generated, the graphics don’t produce toil in workmanship or that dreaded puppet twitchiness to bring the deadness to life. Maintaining the energy in abbreviated action, which is one of the assumed charms of animation, there’s brisk polish in the continuity of movement; the animators are never sloppy in getting exaggerated activities in the restaurant humorously, adroitly right, including the instructive jerking of hair. Bringing a tourist view of the City of Light, which is also intentional, the artists provide a new definition for photosynthetic—altering images with filters to enhance the glowing artifice rivaling reality. (Those artists associated with 20th Century Fox’s 2011 Rio advanced this technique with breathtaking results.) CNN’s Anthony Bourdain adds one more element of praise: “They got the food, the reactions to food, and tiny details to food right—down to the barely noticeable pink burns on one of the character’s forearms.” In the developing and producing stages for more than six years, Ratatouille will accrue a near-infinite list of people to credit and appreciate, with two stand outs as representatives of skill sets: director Brad Bird for his guiding pluck and, of course, O’Toole. In all of the Academy’s recent attempts to be more inclusive, it’s long overdue that a category for Best Voice Over be added. That wouldn’t be so much a legacy borne out of sentiment as much as necessary recognition. Animation to succeed requires the art of vocality.  (8/11/2017)

TOO MANY FRONTS: Admit to falling prey to the barrage of bad reviews for Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor and kept away. Throughout the intervening years when it too frequently aired on cable, I’d tune in for a few minutes at different points (never from the beginning) for the quick filler up on its clichés and assumed historic inaccuracies. Liking Kate Beckinsale, but already fed up with Ben Affleck and not impressed by Josh Hartnett, it was easier to click onward and forget. Now, raining in Vallarta, with nothing else worth watching, and a chance to see a good print from the start, there is, mea culpa, more to it than the nasty critical responses and Razzie noms. This big fat war rouser ain’t too bad. Guessing, the huge success of the romantic side of 1997’s Titanic hurt the romantic angle of Pearl Harbor. It would, in part, facilitate a backlash against its screenwriter Randall Wallace for supposedly having lifted the Titanic formula. Another part of the backlash towards him came from having written Mel Gibson’s Bravefart, now regarded as an embarrassment. (More to critics who raved and Hollywood conferring Oscars, both groups having been duped.) Clear now is what survived in Wallace’s original script isn’t the culprit, it’s the additions by uncredited writers and Bay himself in the form of actions without any basis in fact. The most egregious fabrication being that the Japanese pilots attacked a hospital and civilians. No alternative facts here; both sides and witnesses agree it never happened. Bay’s excuse for the hospital being blasted by enemy pilots manning their gunneries was to make the sneak attack even more barbaric. Had he just moved Kate to the vicinity of a hangar, those wowie effects would have been just as powerful. (Her desperate search as nurse for an improvised tool to cut away patients otherwise entangled in beds and help them escape the ensuing explosion is quite potent.) As for the love triangle reeking of drippy opportunism, Bay offers the defense—and people who lived there before and during have confirmed—that the carefree, idyllic atmosphere of Paradise was true to the period and, with very few privy to the imminent attack, what would occupy its residents with overactive hormones more than hard-ons and wet panties? Possibly due to Armageddon or having directed those Donny Osmond music videos, the critics were gunning for Bay. He has his ace, though—the spectacular attack itself. A combination of real ships and planes, special effects, tons of stunt men and CGI, we’re right there, just as we’re right there when the unsinkable starts sinking, just as we are when Tom Hanks heads for blood-splashed Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. The brutality in Pearl Harbor is such that some of it had to be excised from the theatrical cut, restored in a subsequent DVD, and every bit of it believable. Even when we can’t believe it: the men hopelessly using their basically worthless rifles to shoot the Japs down. Tora! Tora! Tora! never gets this close. Early on it’s established that the “acting” will alternate between dual indignation: “You love me but when I’m out of sight you start fucking what’s his face?” and the gung ho of “Haul ass to our planes, fellas...let’s shoot those mother fuckers to oblivion.” (Language restraints exist in the PG 13 release, also restored later.) Affleck renders a gooey farewell to his buddy who, as the movie’s major sacrifice, manages to leave Affleck’s eventual wife preggers. Sort of keeping all the upchuck in the family. Bay’s vision suffers from sprawl—too many war fronts; we’re watching an abridged Winds of War. Wouldn’t have hurt any if Ali MacGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent appeared as guest victims to pay for their acting crimes. (7/28/2017)

COZENAGE: As with Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro has zapped my tolerances. Don’t want to see him in anything anymore. Not even in the Emenegildo Zegna fashion ads, which are popping up in all those tiresome metrosexless glossies. However, with a doctor’s appointment delayed for several hours and having my laptop handy and a WiFi hotspot nearby, I’d give HBO’s The Wizard of Lies, about Bernie Madoff, a try. Someone whose opinion I trust said De Niro, who plays the bastard, is “awake” in this one and we all know what he means. (For me, the last time he seemed fully, non-hysterically conscious was in 2009’s Everybody’s Fine.) He is maybe one half to three-quarters awake this time. Headcase persuasive when asking the interviewer if she thinks he’s a sociopath, he reminded me of my cousin Denny McLain, the infamous Detroit Tigers pitcher who, on a far less catastrophic scale, was without a shred of conscience about what he had done to himself, his career, his family, sports and business associates and apparently still doing to fresh chumps by employing the effective trick of flashing a killer smile. (But not in the Bundy way.) Watching De Niro’s Madoff, with few smiles and in receding wavy gray hair, viewers are strangely lulled by his amorality; we become groggy wondering what happened to his ethical insides. When did he become vacant, how did the base benumbedness take over? Director Barry Levinson and the scripters don’t provide any answers or clues, not even contempt, so therefore De Niro’s not delivering a characterization; there’s no Madoff here and he might never emerge. Hearing about the malefactor’s varied and formidable background, there’s the substituting uneasiness that perhaps he’s part of a cozy conspiracy of high finance, business schools and phony Randians breeding the species of Gordon Gekko sociopaths, and, scarier, eventually putting one in the White House. As for Michelle Pfeiffer’s kvetshing wife to Madoff, her aggravating Jewish nasality sounds suspect, which has to do with a lingering disbelief: Many of us, including just about all the victims who lost everything, never bought the insulting defense of the real Ruth as a stereotypic shmendrik unaware of the shenanigans. There was plenty of Page Six-like gossip and speculation about Bernie’s business dealings before the shit hit. Wasn’t she ever curious to read about them? Her act as klip hit its fishiest when she went about acting as if it’s an everyday task to transfer $10 million from one account to another, no questions asked. (Bernie’s quick admission to guilt on all counts satisfied prosecutors who, because of the angry mob of the swindled, decided to dispense with a case against Ruth in order to find any monies, properties, other valuables to reimburse the duped.) Had she been made to walk a public gauntlet instead of being glared at in an elevator, she’d have ended up somewhat like Irene Papas in Zorba the Greek. (A more involved and entertaining version of Ruth is Lily Tomlin’s Marilyn Tobin in Glenn Close’s Damages.) Playing Andy, one of two Madoff sons, Nathan Darrow has the resemblance and probably the skills—re Frank’s and Claire’s secret servicing agent in House of Cards—to do, after bulking up a bit, Edward Albee. Softening my stance just a little, De Niro gets an indeterminate stay of execution. The “image” he represents is the dangerous blur of corruption existing between callous celebrity and justice. Obscene are the fates: The two sons are dead, one from suicide and the other cancer; their parents remain breathing parasites. (6/16/2017)

In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, Jake Gyllenhaal has been carrying this festering hatred of his former wife Amy Adams—over her early on dislike of his writing, over their marriage finally collapsing after a furtive termination—for some twenty years. His rage metastasizes as a retaliatory novel in manuscript form about a man unable to stop the ugliest of crimes waged against him and his family. We don’t merely see the manuscript delivered to Amy, we see its malignancy depicted. But the fictional details attempting to emotionally correspond to the real life assault he feels are, I think, over-scaled and unjust. The novel wants to affix blame on Amy for the fate of its family as punishment for the perfidy she committed against him. During the picture’s pivot, when Amy’s beside herself with remorse while in the car with future hubby Armie Hammer, she lifts those tear-soaked eyes to look out the front windshield to see Jake standing there, apparently having figured out, either by exceptional hearing or lip reading, what she did. Loathe to point this out: he’s kind of wussie (Amy’s mother figures him out early on), the marriage didn’t stand much of a chance, and if numbers count in tit for tat, only one innocent deserves grief. Three, though, are overkill. The novel’s resolution has the relieving consequence that an accident can set straight the blinding rage. Even that is objectionable: Jake appears to issue a Rod Sterling judgement. Maybe what the waiter needed to deliver as Jake’s excuse for not showing up at the restaurant is the novel in published form as fait accompli. (And Jake probably doesn’t want anyone to see what two decades of hate have done to his looks.) Unsettling too are Ford’s queasy commingling of the lusus naturae and the use of violence as rectifying comeuppance: the wife and daughter in the novel are victims as objet d’art—arranged as exhibition somewhat mirroring the two horizontal objets d’fattie at Amy’s gallery. The connection is loose but still linked enough to wonder how Jake got the similarities into the novel when the gallery presentation is in the present. Is Ford saying “artistic” misogyny is permissible as allegory? He likewise seems to beg as inclusion the delayed weak sister heroics from Straw Dogs, minus connective eroticism. Similar to Ford’s début A Single Man with Colin Firth, Nocturnal Animals avoids the vicissitudes of sexual arousal. He said A Single Man is about enjoying life’s senses to the fullest, but how can that be when Firth’s taking a sexless trot to the grave? Now that’s real betrayal: neither the material nor the audience deserve the naïve oppressiveness, not when our own experiences reflect the reality that grief often propels the strong urge for, and at the very least preoccupation with, sex. (And that’s not a modern sexological discovery.) For Nocturnal Animals, he’s using unseen evil sex as gateway to recreational murder framed as a sterile aestheticism to whip poor Amy to death. In the first movie, he’s a neat freak John Schlesinger as a revirginized poof; in the second, he’s a neutered Sam Peckinpah without the toxic Texas sweat. He’s not likely to become a sensualist movie maker until he pulls the prophylactics off the meat. The movie’s not a total bummer, as I like the following touches: Laura Linney’s racist, materialistic Repug mother who has the movie’s single most revoltingly true line about which puffy-faced Amy wants to say never; the blubbered nudes; Hammer brushing away the (presumed) sugar-free sweetener onto a spotless Ford kitchen floor; the N.Y. elevator operator exposing a cheater; Jena Malone in a Catholic school blouse under an abbreviated leather straight jacket; the otherwise unthinkable glimpse of shit-stained toilet paper. (6/2/2017)

HBO’s Big Little Lies is one super Who Deserves to Get It Most? Going in we know someone’s been murdered and by the fourth episode of seven, we’re still not absolutely sure who. However, we’re feeling confident every one of the central characters could be a deserving victim. (A strange amusement, a few of the kids could even be suspects!) The show’s ingenious plus among many, including the uniformly outstanding cast and a mostly chic atmosphere changed from Australia in Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel to California’s Monterey, is that it defies while at the same time using cliché. Rapidly thrown in variously plausible directions, with the installment cliffhangers putting us on edge, this isn’t the usual soap giving a primary audience of women some hours of sex, gossip and whines. Applying those elements, the viewers—including, so say the stats, the 40% comprised of men—are being challenged by actions coming from and to the gut, both cerebrally and viscerally. The principle part of feeling the biffs is recognizing one of the characters—Nicole Kidman’s—is onto something: Says a Film Score Monthy contributor, “It is fascinating to watch her seesaw between an intelligent, assertive woman and a wimpy, submissive female addicted to her demons and self-delusions.” Because this is a limited series, and it should stay one, we don’t get into Nicole admitting to experiencing sudden aggression as entrée into more orgasmic ecstasy. It’s certainly suggested in some scenes. (We keep waiting for the therapist’s light bulb to switch on.) During the weekly breaks between episodes, hooked millions apparently tweeted or went to chat forums to wonder how many of us were thinking the same; on that basis, and with Jean-Marc Vallée directing and David E. Kelley writing right up to the line without crossing over, Kidman is revelation. As her husband, Alexander Skarsgård epitomizes both the function of a supporting performance and adversarial carnality. (Fair to point out that Nicole, with Colin Firth, had a trial run in 2014’s Before I Go To Sleep.) Downplaying the still-hanging-on Legally Blond Elle, Reese Witherspoon does some of her best work, especially when she’s away from Adam Scott as her husband. Not for a minute is there belief he’s corporeal enough to satisfy her or any one else, and much less so when singing “The Wonder of You,” a number all wrong for his character. Whereas Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who did Wild and Dallas Buyers Club together, intentionally provide next to zilch close ups of the community theatre director played by Santiago Cabrera, who at one time delivered some satisfaction. Detected in the next to last episode when spilling some confessional beans to her daughter—who earns the prize for the most amusing social media stunt attached to losing one’s virginity—Reese goes hollow; that block in transmitting depth we’ve seen in her other dramatic work reappears. Appropriating Agatha Christie as structure for some of the best trash seen in years, Big Little Lies is Murder on the Trivia Night Express as cleansing action. But that g.d. set of binoculars at the end indicates otherwise: its intrusion and the build from popular demand are necessitating an unnecessary second season. (5/19/2017)

TGIt’sOver: Three episodes into Feud: Bette and Joan, I wrote on Facebook, “It’s not too early to tell what permanent impressions will be made. For sure: Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis (looking like Tallulah Bankhead,) Lange as Joan Crawford and the others—Catherine Zeta Jones as Olivia de Havilland, Judy Davis as Hedda, Kathy Bates as Joan Blondell, Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich and Stanley Tucci as Jack Warner—are thoroughly prepped. There’s an early scene of Sarandon on stage in The Night of the Iguana and, brief as it is, likely nails what a bug-eyed, in floor-mop-wig bomb Davis was said to be as the original Maxine, informing that Ryan holds a fidelity to the meaning of detail, not just in reproduction. The scripts have a persistence in dishy delights, providing the actors ‘scenes’ just too good to be true; they’re cagey wish fulfillment, giving everyone everything they want to believe about old Hollywood. With hopefully little fear of abatement in that kind of pleasure, Ryan is present Hollywood’s most entertaining raconteur.” Not quite, as it turns out. By the time Feud gets to the 1962 Academy Award story in which Bette is a nominee for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Joan attempts to undercut her co-star’s chances to win, I reached the starting point of feeling exhausted from the old slobberings of pettiness. The bitchery isn’t fun anymore, it’s boring. Murphy wants to be fair to the broads, but as the 8th inning approaches and then moves into its final stretch, he’s pretty much decided to give Joan a more sympathetic view, and probably right to have done so as a balance to Christina’s melodramatic doodling, and comes to the verdict that Bette probably was the more disagreeable. What he didn’t plan was what he’d end up doing—making us sick of both of them. Those who stayed to the series conclusion received the not very surprising confirmations that Bette was a tough hag who used cigs and acid putdowns—with scant mention of how often she liked to physically slug away—as perverse sustenance, and that Joan was an insecure hag who couldn’t pass through the clouds of her self-assumed inferiority to see that she was the better performer in Baby Jane and was further undone by being a peevish diva believing her fame granted virtually unceasing entitlements. The eight scripts are as “almost factual” as could be expected given the various sources, so says Vanity Fair which provided a weekly “fact or fiction” update, yet the episodes affirm that viewers don’t need the filler of the tidbit interviews of Bates (appearing more like Crawford than Lange does) and Zeta-Jones. Did either one say anything worth remembering? Nor need the imaginary remorse-induced hallucinatory sequence of Joan with Hedda Hopper and Jack Warner. The making of Baby Jane gets the more sensational attention but Murphy intentionally overplays the climate of the specific awards season competition: only the ageing Hollywood gossips worked up the nonsense that Bette was a shoo-in. (We still get the fictitious from Hedda’s and Louella Parsons’s scumbag successors—prevaricators such as Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince who wait until their subjects Paul Newman, Lana Turner, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor are dead before concocting extended fantasy quotes and scenes—for example, the last mentioned getting her rug eaten by Bankhead.) Absent from the series is any mention about Hollywood having already experienced the fright of Davis in and the animus towards her over Frank Capra’s swan song Pocketful of Miracles the previous year, another deeply troubled shoot that left a lot of scars among the cast & crew. Having a grand time as Warner, Tucci gets the bastard’s machinations down pat to assure Bette is nominated for Baby Jane—the cold-blooded exploitation of her (and the rest of the preserved distaffer corpses who followed) to pull in as much b.o. cash as possible and to do that he made sure directives were issued to Warner Bros employees who, as eligible Academy members, nominate her grotesquery. They did, as contemptible sneer. The bets for ‘62 Oscar wins were pretty much over the day the noms were announced: Lawrence of Arabia would be the big sweep, Greg Peck’s work in To Kill and Mockingbird had the surging “civil rights” crowd and Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke were the year’s beloved handicapped couple in The Miracle Worker, p.r. too good for the Academy to resist. (5/5/2017)

Going dumb to a movie is usually the best chance to be surprised by the rare good one. Hidden Figures, for example, has been off my radar, with only a vague familiarity about its subject, who’s in it, the media attention paid to Oscar nominations and SAG honoring it as the best acted ensemble in 2016. The first morning showing on the Saturday I saw it was half-filled, with mostly whites from roughly 50 to retirement. Just before lights went down, a couple escorted in maybe a dozen grammar school age blacks and judging by their behavior they were not just polite but very attentive. Takes no time to gauge the audience’s vibes—in this current Trump era of hate, malice and threats, Hidden Figures is more than a Black History Month primer, it’s a major antidote. That might otherwise be a turn off in our current social coarseness, permitting easy mocking of “feel good,” but judging by the hearty responses, the audience arousal is moral consciousness hopefully reawakening. Part of the reaction is due to general ignorance: Many of us don’t know about the real brigade of black women mathematicians supporting NASA’s Mercury Space Mission, belatedly brought to the fore by Margot Lee Shetterly. (Published by William Morrow in September, 2016, the book, which includes their contributions to Apollo, is also available in Morrow paperback and in an expurgated Young Readers edition from Harper Collins.) Another reason for the movie’s success is director-writer Theodore Melfi, who previously helmed St. Vincent with Bill Murray. The significance of angels returns, this time fully legit, with history backing up the beatification. Having often carped in the past that directors and writers don’t make better historical movies because they mess up the facts with noodleheaded fiction, I yield to Melfi’s use of a batter of fudgy truthiness to shore up the timelines of events: the breaking of color barriers happening to the gifted ladies in the movie actually occurred before the start of the mission. To save time, he combines and compresses the embattled racial breakthroughs with the urgencies for problem-solving and life-saving equations, throwing in lingering conspiratorial pettiness. (We know we’re in a dose of the latter when spotting how high Jim Parson’s pants are around his waist.) The central white honcho is a composite and let’s leave it to Salon’s Neal Pollack to describe his feat: singlehandedly “Kevin Costner ends racism at NASA by destroying a bathroom sign.” He’s referring to the lavatory travels Taraji P. Henson’s Katherine G. Johnson has to take in order to relieve herself. (What confounds is how her calculations don’t get smeary from the ass wipes or rain.) Although Henson will shock her boss and white co-workers with a loud justified grievance, Melfi, stuck with stereotypical characters and scenes, keeps them temperamentally harnessed, allowing the ladies to usurp persistent discrimination with foxy if honeyed maneuvers. We observe their condescension and admire, as one of the benefits of an education, their use of both to advance despite the roadblocks. Without neglecting the powerful meaning of the basic chronicle confirming black lives matter, the ladies are the show: Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson and Henson clutch not only the importance of their portrayals, they’re also cautiously agitating to present personal histories to prevent being dissed as pre-Affirmative Action quotas. Their small steps provide big impacts and give us goose bumps: Spencer picking up a book about FORTRAN, an early IBM programming language; Monáe gingerly feeding the ego of a bigot judge; Henson on the ladder leaning into the giant blackboard writing or correcting math equations. At the movie’s conclusion there was an outbreak of applause (I even joined in) and one of the chaperones audibly said to the kids, “It’s okay to clap.” Their pride palpable, its essence a spreading joy. Until we think what Trump, DeVos and Sessions might do to their future. (2/24/2017)

Don’t get it: What’s the big fucking deal about La La Land? At max a decent and eventually tiring stab at pretending to be a tribute to Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris, a salute to the whimsy of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and a nod to the energy of Hairspray (at least in attempting the alleged spontaneity during the freeway opening). Ends up as a reminder that, as with other movie musicals in which there are no major performers who sing or dance professionally, the audience is caught in an ambivalence not of its own choosing. Making it high-risk for viewers is that there are no sparks between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Director Damien Chazelle brings together two talented actors for the slowly revealed intention of keeping them apart. Reality is a dangerous ingredient to use in a musical expecting us to accept alternative fantasies as consolation, to soothe the presumably brokenhearted in much the same way the grand stairwell postscript works in Cameron’s Titanic. With one critical difference: while we needed Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as idealized romantics to help recover from the ordeal, in La La Land we’re glad Gosling is rid of Stone. Confirmed by the croaking of “Audition” as an arietta, she’s the antithesis of musical heroines. Hasn’t there been enough damage done by designed imperfection in musicals? Evidently not: Chazelle is the youngest award-winning director still ditching classes in aesthetics. His music choices aren’t fully shaped to the contours of the story—most of the original material is tentative, repetitious, half-assly trying to break out as melodic and memorable. The excessive mediocrity of the rhyming in the songs is crushing; it’s freshman year music school, without bang. And we need bang in this musical big time, and the only time we get it—the only time the movie comes alive—is when John Legend arrives and our blood courses to his “Start the Fire,” complete with a riff as bastardization of pop jazz in SRO dance form. It will be used, however, to badger Gosling who doesn’t want to sell out, who longs to be—who’d have guessed?—a jazz purist. The smart part in this second-rater is Gosling’s maturing acceptance of compromise to achieve his dream. (His co-star “born” in Paris, with no discernable proof of success other than to be recognized in a studio lot eatery, hitches up with a boobtube staple.) All too redundant Chazelle is stuck in adolescent fear over the waning of his beloved genre: La La Land is yet another repeat semester, following his two term failures Grand Piano and Whiplash. Tracy Turnblad would call him a retard crusader. (2/10/2017)

A pre-postmortem shroud closes around us while watching HBO’s Bright Lights, about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Filmed in 2014 and 2015, this meant-to-be loving tribute to the showbiz matriarch by the pungently honest daughter becomes premonition of the December, 2016 shocks. The documentary confirms Debbie’s health was declining more rapidly than most of us knew anything about. By the time she’s ready to be honored with a lifetime achievement award from SAG, we’re in a disquiet by how she’s mentally and physically distressed, a view quite the opposite of what she paints in the opening of her last book Make ’Em Laugh. Was it Carrie’s intent to set up a tempered farewell by disclosing frailties negating her mother’s long-held posture to keep some things, at least for a while, more private than others? Inserting footage of her care of terminally ill father Eddie Fisher, the eternal culprit who died four years before the film was finished and who was used by her and Debbie in their solo acts for years, is likewise perlexing. (Magnanimous the gesture, creepy the result, as it seems to be in the Joan Crawford tradition of scheming for “a little extra publicity.”) Carrie’s own condition sets off an alarm too: She’s neglectful of anatomy, verbally slumpy, clumsy in gait. Cancer stick in one hand and Coke Cola in the other, the two addictions are substitutes for the harder stuff, yet they’re still hobblers, still thieves of life force. (She looks less glommed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.) When the news broke of her heart attack on a trans-Atlantic flight, it took mere minutes to get pictures and videos of her last London appearances; she again looked sallow, hung over from weariness, pushed into an exhausting cycle to peddle yet another book and movie; she’s a tattered postcard from the junkets. A fatalism is detected—she’s playing Russian Roulette with her own lack of self-preservation. If we all loved how she knew no bounds as an amazement of frankness about herself, how she brought the duality of comic and serious enlightenment to the devastation of bipolar, there was in her public persona a nimbus of inevitability ready to pour down. We admired Debbie for being similarly upfront, only more reserved by her own generation’s limits: foremost a creature of social propriety, and with unimaginable stress taking its toll, she refused to allow Carrie’s plug to be pulled on Christmas Eve or Day. She granted us a momentary reprieve. Not meant to overtly forecast a gloomy if not spectacular finale to live in the annals—though Debbie is heard saying something suggesting eerie conclusiveness—Bright Lights illuminates the tragedy. Unsettling as it all is, their joint departure makes bizarre sense. (1/14/2017)

England has long been enamored of naturalist and zoologist Gerald Durrell and his three quarters-true memoirs The Corfu Trilogy, a lovesome confection about his four years on the Greek island, living nearly destitute with his mother, two other brothers—one of them Lawrence, the author of The Alexandria Quartet—and his dipshit sister. The My Family & Other Animals part of the trilogy has been filmed for television twice before, in 1987 and 2005, and a stage play in 2006, but not until 2015 did the material get a fuller treatment by Simon Nye (who did the 2005 teleplay) and much better audience reception. As a six parter, with another season coming next year, The Durrells in Corfu is almost disbelievingly light and airy and even dulcet. You feel guilty watching it, knowing that a darkness nicknamed Hair Furor is out there causing mayhem. But you need the escape and Corfu sounds safe enough to avoid acting on 2nd Amendment remedies. The cast is headed up by Keeley Hawes as Louisa the widow-mother, Josh O’Connor the first son Lawrence, Callum Woodhouse the second son Leslie, Daisy Waterstone the daughter Margo, and Milo Parker the child Gerald. What’s entertaining are the qualities of the disparateness and alikeness between them, and the efforts of the mother to keep the family together, holding out for her measly pension, or Lawrence’s sporadic checks when his stories are accepted for publication, so they don’t have to beg or scrounge around the environs for wild grub. As it is, they are behind in rent on a dilapidated stone villa without electricity made palatable by a breathtaking Ionian sea view. With the sun roasty during the daytime, the story is half-baked—factually as well as logically—and there’s a climax resolving an otherwise sweet romance that asks you to accept current modernity in a 1936 setting. (With Greeks, “ó, ti eínai na gínei, tha gínei”; with the English, compulsory glib and politeness; with Swedes, hey, why not?) Close your eyes and Hawes conjures Keira Knightly’s voice; O’Connor is the spitting image of Maggie Smith’s former husband Robert Stephens; and Woodhouse has the youthful flabbiness of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Showing up as a recluse is Leslie Caron and her man servant none other than Jeremy Swift, the butler-turned-advice-columnist Spratt in Downton Abbey. The season directed by Steve Barron and Edward Hall. (12/23/2016)

Ernest Hemingway’s laconic critique of Thomas Wolfe as “the over-bloated Li’l Abner of literature” is typical of his thumbnail putdowns of fellow writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Norman Mailer. (The Naked and the Dead received this zinger—“The whole book’s just diarrhea of the typewriter.”) But the bastard’s right about Wolfe and it doesn’t take long to get sick of his North Carolina affectation in Genius. Maybe not Wolfe’s fault entirely; Jude Law’s portrayal of him is indeed too much and so excessively central that what might have been an unusually instructive movie adapted from A. Scott Berg’s bio on a legendary book editor—Max Perkins of Scribner’s—is turned into a haze-laden psych ward about a shitload of dullards. Would anyone want to read works by Wolfe or Zelda or F. Scott or Hemingway after seeing it? I thank my roving eyes for spotting at Barnes & Noble Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly, a spectacularly animated account of Hemingway’s writing of—and who were the real victims being savaged in—The Sun Also Rises that actually makes you want to re-read it. Colin Firth incessantly wears the fedora and dispenses champion assistance and remedies to his stable of needy talent that are hallmarks of Perkins. Yet he’s unconvincing with the fabled editing process, showing a speedy precision when Perkins was an unhurried reader, a poor speller and his copyediting quite sloppy. If all that is forgivable because of time constraints, what’s not is the unsuitability of Firth, Law, Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Dominic West, Vanessa Kirby and, the only American, Laura Linney. Can’t recall of late a prestige group of actors in the same movie who don’t belong in their roles and the harder they try to merge the overly-expressed verbiage into something meaningful, the more detached they get. A friend moaned she didn’t know who to execute first: Director Michael Grandage, writer John Logan, or cinematographer Ben Davis? I’d set sights on Jina Jay as sacrificial warning to other casting agents for not performing their primary job duty in resisting bummer choices. (12/16/2016)

Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary in Downton Abbey is not beautiful, or even pretty; she’s strainedly plain in a classic stateliness, and with snippy airs she sometimes seems to be playing blue-blood as dress-up. Her one talent is issuing instigative sarcasm relatively equal to granny Maggie Smith: to one of her post-widow suitors, “You must try to be witty tonight, Mr. Blake, after that we’ll lower our expectations.” As esprit de l’escalier its detonation is delayed for several seconds and in the blowback we find ourselves glued to her umbrageous eyes as he exits; she can’t decide if she wants the challenge and at the same time can’t resist agitating. A blend of Darcy and Lizzie, using both pride and prejudice as first responses, her antique correctitude and slow-to-catch-up modernism mixing to serve up a magnanimity she may not know she possesses, she grows by acts she wouldn’t normally permit herself to be subjected. But something lingers, a pleasing defect remains steady: “Am I aloof?” she asks her beloved maid Anna when she has heard that Blake and others regard her as such. She is and that’s what we love about her—she’s the quick of tongue bitch who’s eventually going to be dressed down by none other than late-blooming sis Edith. (We love that, too.) That Lady Mary seldom betrays her formality, except in the bedroom and in butler Mr. Carson’s compassionate arms when she’s at her lowest, is probably trait deep-rooted in Dockery, for she seems ever aloof, an ingrained calculator. Similar to Showtime’s Shameless and Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots in their insistence on increasing our appetites for rubbish, TNT’s Good Behavior makes every deliberate effort to molt Dockery’s patrician legacy and for maybe the first seven of ten episodes it’s joy watching her slither into juxtaposition as nearly unrepentant white trash con artist. The sweat in the workout is twofold: She’s busy using her skills of encasement to keep us on edge and then overbusy with shifting facials. We’re trying to keep up, until, finally, we can’t and neither can she: this reckoner on the down low goes down for the count in the backseat of an expensive auto. So does the series: with dismal ratings for its Tuesday night showings and purportedly strong ones for non-TV platforms, a second season has been ordered and this could come with regret; there’s no further need for Dockery to prove she can hit the character skids. The sheer audacity might get her a nomination or award here and there and if not, there are other wins: the Argentine actor Juan Diego Botto is 2016’s recipient of the He Who Benefits Most from a Beard prize; as Dockery’s mother, Lusia Strus earns first place in the Boozing Slutty Cougar category; and the music scoring, by Thomas Hass Christensen and Charlie Clouser, is the year’s most coolly appropriate in conveying the roller coaster moods. And the foxy appropriations of singles—about two dozen, including numbers by Robyn, Aurora, Elle King, Rihanna, Leisure, Feder, La Roux, Sacred Caves, the Beach Boys and Keely Smith—make the soundtrack a knockout. (12/2/2016 Revised 1/11/2017)

Writer Peter Morgan is obsessed with Elizabeth II. If not obvious in The Queen, with Helen Mirren, it would be after with his play The Audience, with Mirren again shaping a lasting impression of a monarch who—and this is the craziest part—we probably don’t know all that much about in spite of eight decades of media glare. Reducing the deficit of intimate knowledge is the motivator for Morgan in attempting to get into the queen, her immediate family and the government’s handling of them. His compulsion returns in The Crown, at a reported if hyperbolic cost of $130 million, making it the most expensive of Netflix entertainments. The ten episodes of the first season of maybe 8 are about a twentysomething Elizabeth dealing with her ascension after her father King George passes. While Morgan says he’s never met the queen, and claims to not want to, and also questionably asserts he hasn’t been privy to any behind-the-royal-doors revelations, there’s little doubt he has studiously catalogued his subject’s life, helped by mammoth troves of newspaper and magazine reporting, newsreels and television and a library’s worth of nonfiction books. At minimum he seems to have cautiously assessed the queen’s basic temperament. But, as detected in The Queen, I think he’s had a lot of non-credited assistance; in this new inner-view he’s quite likely using privately verified or reliably reported blabberings on Margaret the chronic smoking lush and on the Duke of Windsor from royal staff, jobbers, gossips and government officials to augment portrayals. We don’t hear verbatim private conversations; what we do hear are exchanges extrapolated from various sources and in Elizabeth’s case the tête-à-têtes sound awfully close to what could be accepted as distinctpossibilities. Morgan respectfully confirms the origins of the eventual caricatures of Elizabeth, including Carol Burnett’s: With a slightly pitched voice and showing the strain of imposed propriety, Claire Foy as the queen confesses self-doubts about her lack of pedagogy in reference to the complexities of and issues concerning the government and seeks help on the QT. That in itself quite an eye-opener, yet it’s her inquiry to the Queen Mum about why she wasn’t properly educated that may startle more. It’s also the moment we begin to feel for her, how as a royal-in-waiting she’s intellectually impoverished by the idiocy of nanny-state matriarchy and regimental pomp and circumstance. All she was ever taught as importance was the country’s constitutional limits of the monarchy as means to figuratively save her head. (The real queen almost lost hers when Diana died.) She also has to learn on the job any negotiation skills commensurate to her position, which is stingingly repeated as one of state-demanded subservience. Foy’s range as actress hasn’t been tested so far, excepting her painful decision to renege on her promise to sister Margaret that she can marry the divorced Peter Townsend. The script grants the Duke of Windsor his own rehabilitation at this point; after the scandalous Simpson affair that resulted in his abdication as king, he gently reminds Elizabeth of the necessity of not imperiling further the monarch’s survival. (As with all the royal sponges, he needs that stipend.) The delight of The Crown is Alex Jennings as the Duke. In past roles, including doing Prince Charles in The Queen, he’s often been the forgettable austere pris or nerd or both; here, as insistently unashamed scoundrel, his Duke is proudly, stylishly ready to ignite mini dramatic flares to defend himself, even if his own mother—the always amusing Eileen Atkins suckling the coffin nails as Queen Mary—pretends to despise him for his embarrassments. Adding to his list of historic personages, John Lithgow is super-satisfying as the declining Winston Churchill; not too effective is Jeremy Northam’s Anthony Eden, about whom we need clarity as regards to his abdominal problems, drug-taking and political troubles with Egypt’s Nasser (coming in Season Two); Matt Smith looks more like Prince Harry than the bored Philip. And Vanessa Kirby doesn’t waste a minute as Margaret, the real beauty in the family and, before Diana, a casualty of love in an era of institutional snobbery. When not dragging on her perpetual fag, she’s slugging back the booze and there’s no doubt why—the gilded cage is a prison filled with vacuous figureheads. (11/25/2016)

ANOTHER ROUND UP: Started watching Masterpiece’s The Durrells in Corfu and it’s very pleasant stuff—rather like an indigent expatriate’s stab at Ekmek Kataifi using sub par ingredients. In this series so far, the Durrells, the most famous of the British family of five being budding author Lawrence, are the opposite of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. After several episodes, and a second season to come next year, it’s reasonable to assume another addiction. That assumption covers the belief that once again well-crafted television, even without bankable stars, proves itself to be better than any of the recent movies viewed lately. More troublesome, I couldn’t remember all the names of those movies, requiring a visit to the Netflix and Redbox sites to be refreshed. Scanning the list, the response isn’t any different from my original impressions—“Who needs them?” There’s The Benefactor with the depressing Richard Gere who looks in urgent need of a career boost as either Trump or Bill Clinton; the slow and bad preview of Brad and Angelina’s divorce unintendedly played out in By the Sea as half-ass tribute to the Hepburn-Finney Two for the Road; the kill-‘em-before-they-kill-us morality dilemma that is Eye in the Sky and the latest evidence of Helen Mirren’s inexplicable scattershot choices of projects; the journey which takes 45 Years to find out about a secret that’s wisely left unresolved; discovering Gerald Butler’s butch comportment isn’t enough to make him one of the bizarre Gods of Egypt; that it’s not the audience’s fault there isn’t a single recallable moment in Hail, Caesar; described wittily by a rec.arts.movies.current-films contributor as “the vertical version of Snowpiercer,” High-Rise previses that sky living isn’t always paradise and confirms Tim Hiddleston doesn’t have what it takes to be the next Bond; that too much CGI produces a new and virulent strain of Digitalis destroying the real story of In the Heart of the Sea; that putting the same set of actors in movie after movie from the same director doesn’t guarantee Joy. There’s disappointment in Disney’s The Jungle Book, with its frenetically silly action and Scarlett Johansson’s serpent lacking updated redemption; that Butler’s popcorn butchery works in the formulaic Olympus Has Fallen and London Has Fallen until it becomes clear he’s failed in his job duties in not “accidentally” snuffing Melissa Leo when she’s doing the suffering act as Defense Secretary; regretting the demise of the once auspicious vocation of Joseph Fiennes while watching the under-produced Risen; and still wondering if Tina Frey has any acting chops to salvage gratuitous slop like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. At least there’s the Cubs and next week another hour in Corfu. (11/11/2016)

Millennial who’ve read the John Wayne Cleaver novels by Dan Wells will likely enjoy what they see in the movie version of his first I Am Not A Serial Killer. Those of us out of the loop probably won’t be too thrilled by what we “hear.” Though sound designer Aza Hand and supervising sound editor Patrick Drummond, who gave us some of 2014’s more impressive sound work in the Irish chiller The Canal, continue to supply brisk ambient effects, the terrific twosome go to the brink of unrecoverable on an important transition. When Christopher Lloyds appears on a frozen, snow-covered lake, the sounds emanating are four-alarm displacing. Meant to be organic—that is, Hand and Drummond integrated actual recordings from the vocals created on set during the climax—the Cuisinart blend preempts transformative intentions, elicitng moans. The katzenjammer noise accelerates the difficulty nonreaders will have with the narrative throughout: we’re watching septuagenarian Lloyd perform super feats and instinctually reject them because we recognize where we’re going and resist wanting to go there. Making the bedrock of Wells’s premise intriguing is that the intelligent antihero, a young lay expert on infamous serial murderers, is a presumed budding sociopath consciously setting up safeguards not to become one. A great hook, similar to a Law & Order: SVU episode entitled “Prodigy,” but as movie we don’t feel his temptation to indulge the requisite lack of conscience; having the opportunity, he guilt-trips himself after he impulsively goes a bit bonkers. Other than his perturbing-to-others interest in Bundy, Gacy and Dahmer types, his only detectable pathology as turn-on is snooping, conveniently resulting in his witnessing Lloyd’s compulsive sprees. The visual evidence insists that actor Max Records playing John Wayne is close to being a teenage Meryl Streepish transgender, apparently sufficient to label him antisocial, hence the taunts from his bullies who also know he lives and works in his family’s funeral home, a lift from Six Feet Under. Using 16mm, and with a budget of a mere $1.45 million dollars, the Irish director Billy O’Brien and photographer Robbie Ryan restore our memories of the old Main Street town ambience of the American Midwest. As represented by the Minnesota towns of Virginia, Galen Valley and Hibbing, there’s no question why we wanted to get out of those hellholes. But a major ingredient is missing: we expect a sense of fright to erupt and spread rapidly among the townspeople. They don’t seem terribly riled or concerned when gathering at yet another funeral; they’re strangely docile. While I Am Not A Serial Killer will be compelling for the crowd hungry for ghoulish twofers, the dilemma for discriminating adult audiences is impossibly wanting O’Brien and screen adapter Christopher Hyde to cut the age of Lloyd’s character by 15 to 20 years, add some fresh psycho nifties and pooh-pooh the pop-out, thus making the finale a richly deserved horror. Thanks to the wizardry of Hand and Drummond, the creepy and repellant pressure swooshes of the embalming equipment and the agonies endured should give considerable boost to cremation services. (10/7/2016)

Bryan Cranston’s LBJ in HBO’s All the Way is hands-down the most mesmerizing bravura in years. He’s so damned good that he’s spooky. He doesn’t just look and sound like LBJ, he also incarnates what Washington columnist Elizabeth Drew said of her own experience during a White House interview—that when LBJ “hovered over me, I thought he was the largest and most terrifying person I had ever seen.” Cranston does a lot of hovering over underlings; makes a lot of ass-kissing and angry phone calls; frequently unleashes LBJ’s salty Texan vocabulary and dictatorial directives loaded with threats of many kinds; retreats to his White House bed when he’s down from the anticipation of defeat. If there’s genius in his acting, as Ms. Drew believes, it’s in the way he finds an actor’s joy in showboating and permits us to laugh, not in mock but in gratitude for his fearlessness. (He can deeply touch us too: his LBJ has never forgotten how his father, whose life went down the tubes, was mistreated by mendicants.) Director Jay Roach’s reliable lack of bearing allows discomforting suspicion over the way LBJ is shown in the White House reacting to JFK’s personal effects, barely eased when Melissa Leo’s Lady Bird turns the omnipresent smile to grief; permits Hubert Humphrey to be a patsy; and fails miserably to scream for rewrite on the Vietnam additive. Leave it to studious, exacting Ms. Drew, who’d clarify mistakes in Selma, to make clear the facts vs. the liberties writer Robert Schenkkan has taken re the battle to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Whatever errors about proper attribution for the legislation, they seem piddling next to the way red states are presently assaulting and undermining civil and voting rights. A step up from the near-mimicry in Trumbo, Roach doesn’t shortchange the implicit ramifications: Cranston’s spellbinding LBJ foresees the consequences of the South’s indefatigable use of bigotry. (7/1/2016)

Attention masochists: Alejandro González Iñáritu’s The Revenant is just what you’re looking for. You’ll love the bear attack, the rips of flesh, the soaked-in-snow blood, the long journey crawls and frigid water dips, the disembowelment of a horse and, of course, the various shooting arrows, knifings, hatchet chops and, if I have it right, a while-still-alive scalping. (Better be one—it’s the very least the villain deserves.) Throughout I kept thinking of Into the Wild, which I hated more but not for the same reasons. Leonardo DiCaprio here has the “A” list presence to pull off the indulgences; he’s not acting, he’s hard-laboring through all the suffering. (Nobody else is acting, either, including Tom Hardy.) Into the Wild differentiates in that Emile Hirsch as the young man stupefies with his lack of common sense; lo siento, he deserved his fate. For all the toils in The Revenant, the real workhorse deserving qualified praise is the superlative photography by Emmanuel Lubezki, winning his third consecutive Oscar, this time for scenes of nature’s winter landscapes. (Some of them recall Robert Krasker’s silva in The Fall of the Roman Empire and Freddie Young’s in Doctor Zhivago.) Yet in spite of advances in digital cameras, Lubezki is handicapped by the conspicuous blues and grays; the sameness of palette is a reminder of how much is missing without real film and Technicolor. (I’ll exempt Game of Thrones.) Iñáritu is the darling of movieland at the moment, and it’s clear that he’s the kind of import Trump’s wall would attempt to prevent from coming into the country to steal jobs from our oh so talented hacksters. Looking at what American big budget directors have been giving audiences in recent years—cockamamie fantasy rehashes in which the male stars are buffed up to be lusted after by predominantly straight men—Iñáritu’s four Oscars and nearly two hundred other awards equal both an earned green card and respect for keeping away from the conventional. But there’s a repeated enigma: excepting Javier Bardem’s intensely felt hug of his daughter in Biutiful, Iñáritu is too distant from emotions; he closes off possibilities of rooting for someone, for DiCaprio’s recovery and revenge in this film. The grueling odyssey to get to that satisfaction stalls out. If audiences had to go through the bear attack and the subsequent hideous healing process and everything else, shouldn’t they be allowed to see the gruesomeness of the knife cutting into the forehead of Mr. Bad as reward for spending two and half hours in a picturesque gulag? Iñáritu transmits dispassion; the movie’s ending contradicts his (current) philosophical view of life’s meaning, a form of nature’s regeneration. Who more than ultimate survivor DiCaprio deserves renewal? As the camera pans upward to reveal Hirsch’s tragedy in Into the Wild, viewer response is too frozen by his stupidity to have sympathy. When DiCaprio faces the camera, it’s tantamount to Iñáritu giving into the chill of cultural fatalism. (6/24/2016)

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one of the major banes for adapters. Its hugeness isn’t the scariest part, it’s the chronic meanderings that end up on screen as parlor knittingfests, with endless prattle delaying pivotal momentum. This became deadly in the BBC’s 1972-1973 video tape version, in spite of the great Jack Pullman doing the adaptation. He’s showing optimum faithfulness to Tolstoy’s text, more than any other movie or TV version, but there’s no intimacy, the very ingredient that catapulted his juicy I, Claudius teleplays to landmark status. He’s also defeated by one of the least persuasive central figures in classic literature—the nerdy Pierre and Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of him. If Henry Fonda’s Pierre was (and still is) a laugh riot in King Vidor’s 1956 epic, it could be said he (and definitely Anita Ekberg as his wife Helene) saved the mess. Hopkins can’t save himself because, with Pullman’s loyalty, he’s insistently an ever-growing bore. The quandary is whether an actor can be effective as the naïve dullard without winking to let us know he’s in on the game, as Fonda winked in accepting he was miscast. Paul Dano in the 2016 BBC-Weinstein Company War and Peace seems to be in on the joke that Pierre is well-nigh intolerant by toying with our waning tolerance. His Pierre broadcasts that he’s an American playing a British version of a sloppily-dressed Russian Harry Potter. He’s a four-eyed dweeb in the center of a dying aristocracy, a clumsy passive flake as recipient of undeserving interventions, not just in idiot face-saving satisfaction over his wife’s flaunting adultery but in the thick of war too. He receives benefit early-on from chatty and conspiratorial sequences—the opening soirée in St. Petersburg, during which director Tom Harper and writer Andrew Davies sweepingly introduce most of the main principals, and in immediate succession the passing of  Pierre’s father. These are just two examples of topflight compression; at a running time of 354 minutes, there’s little Tolstoyan avoirdupois. Doesn’t come as any surprise to those who know Davies as one of TV’s masterly proficient writers, having written the original British House of Cards (and guiding force in the Netflix series), 1995’s Pride and Prejudice, 2002’s Doctor Zhivago and creating, executive producing and writing some of Jeremy Piven’s Mr. Selfridge. As the foremost of advantages of this newest rendering of War and Peace, Davies will be blessed with Lily James as Natasha. Together they move beyond operose melodrama to provide the character a balance between virginity, the sudden discovery of lust misinterpreted as love, and the penitence required to forgive herself and to seek forgiveness from others in order to be spared social and financial calamity. Takes a gifted actress to show in a single scene—Anatole’s seduction of Nastasha—the panoply of excitement, sexual stirring, the rush of moral urgencies and not fail to deliver believably. She’s breathtaking in this whirl and viewers are equally caught up in every emotion she’s imparting. Tolstoy expended thousands of words on several hundred pages to clear the debris for the incredulous wrap that joins Natasha and Pierre yet Lily manages the script concessions in prodigious flashes; nothing necessary is missing. As Andrei, James Norton goes from prancing horseman to the irony of being the sexiest-looking occupier of a death bed. The supporting cast supplies a variety of golden bits: Countess as housefrau Greta Sacchi; Jim Broadbent as nutty Bolkonsky; Tuppence Middleton as Helene and Callum Turner as Anatole intimating carnal knowledge. (Yes, Pierre has his chance to throw a table top at Helene, though not in the humorous vent Fonda does at Ekberg.) The nearly $15 million budget doesn’t allow for a cast of thousands—CGI augments numbers—and the backdrops aren’t what would be described as spectacular visuals, though what’s there to be seen, including chiaroscuro interiors, are more than adequate. Intimacy via close up as the prevailing modality, with Davies’s smart condensing and Harper’s talents for staging, this War and Peace substantially resolves the novel’s nagging Gordian knottiness. (6/17/2016)

ROUND UP: Watching too many recent movies can be hazardous to memory. Saw a movie yesterday and can’t remember much of it today. Or remember enough of something like The Hateful Eight to regret remembering anything at all. Its creator Quentin Tarantino is pansy mutation of hate, violence and lover of the “n” word. Don’t actors read his scripts and balk that though this is his self-proclaimed eighth picture, for all intents and purposes it’s the same picture he’s made eight times? Jennifer Jason Leigh sinks to her lowest point and what’s more embarrassing is she’s been encouraged to believe she’s acting. A total waste of Ultra Panavison 70, a fact ignored by those eternal adolescents at In70mm.com. Carey Mulligan’s emerging feminist convictions battling the misogyny of the old British gentry keep Suffragette from being too much of a waste of time; she has the strongest of quiet qualities among the crop of millennial actors, yet shortly after the picture is over you can’t recall much of what she’s suffering. This doesn’t happen in the remake of Far From the Madding Crowd, in which she’s torn by simultaneous attraction and confliction. Unlike John Schlesinger’s version with Julie Christie, Mulligan doesn’t have to look at Alan Bates as leprechaun; instead, and the partiality is there from the get go, she and the camera can’t get enough of Matthias Schoenaerts, whose every succeeding outfit, occasionally accessorized by strategically placed belts and layered sweaters, ready for a shabby chic spread in GQ. (He’s a fashion plate in The Danish Girl as well.) Similar to the ambience of Suffragette and Brooklyn, FFTMC is understated—the mansions, set decorations and other extras are adjusted to de-accentuate the minimal budget. With one exception: Adopting the technique of making central the lush Derbyshire panoramas in the Colin Firth and Keira Knightley versions of Pride and Prejudice, the Dorset vistas here are equally cardinal. Brooklyn attempts dual settings and you’re kept busy judging the CGI duplication of the borough of the 50s and more or less accept that Ireland seems stuck in a time warp. The babushka-clad lasses exporting themselves to America for the better deal will be reminders to some of their past beloved coworkers—in my circle Saoirse Roman and her ilk were nicknamed Carole Anderson—and wonder if their chantilly lace is meant to suffice as the thinnest barrier to surrender to anticipated deflowering. (The choice of seducer is either Emory Cohen as an Italian skinny Jeff Conaway in baggy pants or an Irish lookalike for Rupert Harry Potter Grint evolving quickly into Vladek Sheybal.) You don’t want to surrender to Daniel Craig anymore; he looks distressed in Spectre, unable to get it up. Hoping for the Levitra effects of Casino Royale, director Sam Mendes puts the tired ruffian back on the train, this time as tribute to From Russia with Love. But nothing cuts it in this picture—it’s a weathered billboard on which a poorly glued poster flaps for a new Bond and director. No stimulus in Macbeth, either: Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard have the power to go the distance as the bloody couple but odd things happen to prevent them from expressing their prophesied descent into madness. This Macbeth is crazy desecration as composite of foggy ecology with an inarticulate ancillary cast that confuses us even more. Can Shakespeare’s eloquence be mumbled and fumbled and still be expected to be understood? It can not. (6/10/2016)


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Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 All Rights Reserved.