Mad Max: Fur Road
Midnight in Paris
Mildred Pierce (Winslet)
Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
The Monuments Men
The Normal Heart
The Passion of Ayn Rand
La reina del sur
The Rules of the Game
Savings Mr. Banks
The September Issue
Sex and the City 2
Silver Linings Playbook
A Single Man
The Skin I Live In
The Social Network
The Sorrow and the Pity
This is Where I Leave U
To Rome with Love
The Tree of Life
12 Years A Slave
Wolf of Wall Street
Woman in Gold
No movie I’ve seen recently has been more challenging to sensibilities or sexologically absorbing than Adore. Its story, originally told to writer Doris Lessing (and published in her 2003 collection The Grandmothers), is about two men who, as best friends, are in long term relationships with each other’s mother and become a bit pissed when the mothers, also best friends, end the affairs. Themes of incest, adultery, cougars and predators and the most elusive meaning of the term “mother love” mesh provocatively—thanks to Christopher Hampton’s specialty as an illustrator of the vicissitudes of sex (Dangerous Liaisons, A Dangerous Method)—and when expectations for a moral wrap turn upside down, viewers, even those of us in tune with the current upheavals of the old morality, may not be prepared. This probably accounts for the movie’s failure to attract much attention: In initial release for only twenty eight days in America, the gross was a pathetic $319,000 against a production costing about $16,000,000. (Didn’t do any better outside the country, either, under the titles Perfect Mothers, Two Mothers and Adoration.) The cheeky if not verboten tone is set early on: Naomi Watts and Robin Wright take appreciative ganders at their sons and proclaim they are “gods.” After destiny, Naomi concludes to Robin they’ve “crossed the line,” making it the understatement of 2013. Director Anne Fontaine keeps the movie from becoming a Pedro Almodóvar blitz—the material has his kind of festering forbiddances—and allows us the dignity of sorting out the prurient roundelay. And the mommies oblige: Naomi Watts and Robin Wright laugh, romp and weep without the tentacles of soap—they’re updates of Lola Albright in A Cold Wind in August defying boundaries. Supremely efficient, they do carry some distractions: Naomi’s a facial fuse of Nicole Kidman, Helen Mirren and Laura Linney, and Robin, in a softly distinguishable accent, has a naturalism in her maturity that echoes Julie Christie without the harshness. Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne makes clear why some of the principals don’t want to pack any bags—the sedated sexcapades are set in idyllic settings of Seal Rocks and Shelly Beach, Australia. Despite being abandoned by financial backers and distributors who got a case of the frights, Adore is a no-cheat gem.
The chatty dispatch that is the short story “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs” first appeared in Irish writer George Moore’s 1918 privately published A Story-Teller’s Holiday and reprinted in his 1927 Celibate Lives. A presumed impotent “who told but didn’t kiss” and was considered by Gertrude Stein, in her usual acerbic summations of artists and writers about whom she tired, “a very prosperous Mellin’s Food baby,” Moore’s “infancy” didn’t dissuade him from becoming one of the first Irishmen to write about sexual themes—often banned until his readers started to clamor for more—nor did his abstention keep him from being chummy with Degas, Renoir, Monet and Zola and later with the likes of Wilde, Stein and their bohemian life style accommodations in London, Dublin and Paris. Written before the Stein avant-garde, the character of Albert Nobbs is strapped in, “a man living without taking pleasure in something outside of his work,” a forerunner and gender-bender version of Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day. In Glenn Close’s respectful investment of Albert Nobbs, first as labor pains in the off-Broadway play in 1982 and in 2011 as a full delivery, we don’t get the “tall, scraggy fellow” with “melancholy eyes” as “the ugliest thing...out of a fairy-book” but we do get a subservience freak. The long-familiar messages are that those in service are seldom compensated, that many of them have lives of quiet desperation and protect themselves and their secrets with subterfuge. The genteel gallop of mounting gossip is what I responded to in Moore’s writing; what I couldn’t read about Glenn Close is whether she really expects us to respond to her. Having co-written the movie adaptation with Gabriella Prekop and John Banville (who supplied Irish idioms), Glenn alters Albert’s psychological underpinnings beyond Moore’s unexpressed intent—this servant is now provided a distant memory of a multiple sexual assault as entree to sapphism, despite the fact that there’s not a single diagnosable inguinal stirring to warrant the leaning. The repressed emotions and rage unleashed don’t stir much commiseration, either, since Albert’s courting of a lass (which is a lift from Moore’s 1894 novel Esther Waters) is essentially nonsensical and, inexplicably, Albert’s adieu happens basically off-screen. On the latter issue, it’s a cheat that mars the plea for the quietly desperate, and perhaps even egregious of director Rodrigo García, who helmed five episodes of Six Feet Under. My tolerances are taxed when Glenn wears sang-froid that Derby, which presents the extra confusion that her Albert appears to suggest Romaine Brooks’ “Self-Portrait” (1923) and “Peter, a Young English Girl” (1924). Yet Glenn’s strong masculine face—helped by a very Captain Hook-like chin—never softens enough to betray her masquerade: when she gets into a dress, she’s more mannish than ever. If socially hip audiences don’t expect a chick flick wrap, it still seems a bit much that Janet McTeer’s Hubert, a close facsimile of k.d. lang (which is enough to frighten those “One Million Moms”), not only gets a job thanks to a floor-boarded treasure but also a possible second bite of the apple with a Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike. As with Streep in The Iron Lady, there’s great applause for the makeup, for the diligence in crafting a characterization, for the prestige that our eyes stick to. But I’m fresh out of empathy for monuments; these titans are in repositories my feelings can’t reach. I’ll take a re-consumption of Meryl’s Miranda or It’s Complicated and just about any of Glenn’s sublime villains over their laureled masonry.
Director David O. Russell is really hung up on East Coast proles: the screamers in The Fighter, the manics in Silver Linings Playbook and now the scheming sleazers in American Hustle. Though his movies portray different decades, they appear to be triplets in temperament —they’re Melissa Leo shooting blanks as extolments of schmucks. (She’s not even in the last two but the performers who are meme her schtick.) Using the ABSCAM scandal of the 70s for AH, he manages to keep the machinations of the FBI sting from getting too blurred but in the process makes dullards of most of the principals. That’s why, before it too gets tiresome, we cling to our appreciation of Amy Adams’ tantalizingly cleavage because there’s nothing else to look at or anything going on to care about. Until twirled-haired Jennifer Lawrence comes on as a super jolt of caffeine to help us recover from the frequent bouts of the drowsies. Can’t tell if she’s as aware as we are that the script is dudsville but she charges through every minute she’s in. Previous to viewing the movie I glanced at previews and magazine and online spreads featuring the wardrobe and it would seem that Amy and Jennifer do more for tramp chic than any of the tramps I know. Upon seeing the movie I feel disappointed the broads don’t have more costume changes because, really, what else is there? What the costumers do for men’s fashions is confirm that the 70s was not an era of style but stigma, as there’s plenty of grimacing when Christian Bale glues his toupee on top of a physical appearance that is grotesque. Bradley Cooper is brave enough to allow curlers in his hair and does the open shirt plunge—he and Amy are the Ken and Barbie of the Navel Disco—but Russell undercuts a redeeming value of the couple by not granting some lengthy moves on the dance floor. That leaves Jennifer, who’s up for confrontation and Amy furnishes the opportunity in the Ladies Room. The exchange is par for the bitch course, till Jennifer plants a surprise that is the movie’s only fun moment. After this promising bit symbolizing the 70s sexual revolution, we’re right back to ABSCAM and it’s still not translating any more excitingly on screen, not unlike the way Newman and Redford’s The Sting failed to energize. (We rely on costumes, winks and mischievous smiles to survive that one.) Russell’s imitation of the 70s will remind aficionados of another mimic master who strands audience without empathy—Ang Lee, in The Ice Storm. Conversing with a movie-loving millennial about our mutual lack of response to American Hustle, she very casually yet succinctly concluded, “It’s a plane that never takes off.”
The Daily Beast ran a piece a while back entitled “Why ‘Sniper’ Drives Both Sides Insane” and in it the writer thumbnails Clint Eastwood’s limited talents: His sense of “reality is that it’s whatever you want it to be.” The Right sees the American Sniper as hero, killing our enemies without wanting to recognize that the politicians they supported helped create them. The Left sees the sniper as a psychopath, Texas-nurtured and let loose by a predisposed military. Those of us trying to stay neutral before viewing the movie have been made a bit demented too by all the screaming disceptations. Eventually watching it, and coming to a scene in which Bradley Cooper is holding a fake baby, we need to feel a strong annoyance: the Oscar-winning director couldn’t come up with a real one? Yet we’re don’t, the blahs has already taken over. Becoming indifferent to the butchery associated with the on-going war against terrorism—beheadings are now kicks du jour—we’re no longer even feigning outrage while watching 30,000 Iraqi pansies fleeing Mosul as example of American military investment. Peculiarly apathetic as well, Eastwood neither arouses patriotism nor touches the moral issues; repeating his meandering chair monologue at the 2012 GOP convention, he’s fragmenting intents and purposes and as consequence American Sniper is about as deadening a major movie as any in recent years. Cheating in not telling the rawer side of Chris Kyle, he probably knew he couldn’t—that he’d lose most of us if Kyle’s killing of “the savages” was more sociopathic than duty approved by cell phone, that his “specialty” came about as by-product of a segment of America dwelling in the God & Guns culture. In lieu, and inherently contradictory, Eastwood pretends to make a pro-American anti-war tract and in the process solemnizes the shooter as safeguard to reduce the underlining obscenity in celebrating Kyle’s record of confirmed kills, that as a negative hero he’s a perspiring crawler doing the bidding of liars who ought to endure a harsher fate than his own. (The Right still doesn’t get the Socratic irony in his death.) Easy to be angry, but how else should we respond when what’s happening in the movie begs the question, “What are we doing there?” and, worse, whatever the answer—and it isn’t Cooper setting his sights on prey—it’s too late to rectify. (Many felt the same creeping desperation in The Hurt Locker and we’re hoping not to be disabused of the belief that we finally did something right in Zero Dark 30.) Looking like a towering anomaly, reportedly wearing Kyle’s walking boots, Cooper affects a clear and friendly Texan accent as his one link to the audience, though it’s not what made the movie a blockbuster. That is the result of the propitious timing of its release. After the various institutional prevarications and intervention failures, after the ISIS decapitations and burnings, after the Paris/Charlie Hebdo slaughter and all the rest, we don’t want to be made any more emasculated than we are about the insanity so we go see this movie during the Xmas and post-holiday periods. It’s the safe penitence for situations we refuse to face that have been caused by politicians who have zilch personal stake in their military-industrial war trumping. (If we had a draft we wouldn’t be there, and that’s why we don’t have one.) Despite the humongous box office of $540 million, American Sniper doesn’t change anything: as with much of media coverage, it’s so numbing that we turn grateful there’s not much worth remembering when it’s over.
Amour is a tough go, for those nowhere near the ravages of ageing and for those nearing or already there. Personally, I was riveted. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are acting masterfully; they convince us of the illness, the situation, most of the peripheral observations. (Sometimes the camera stays on bits, like kitchen sink duty or that damned bird, almost abusing us in the way Jeanne Dielman abuses.) Over at imdb, there is a sizable number of comments about how Amour has left viewers cold. Legitimate grievance: director Michael Haneke has invested heavily in the homebound realism that not to give the audience a sense of Jean-Louis’ closure is like an unexpected hunt for assumptions. His character’s bravery is debatable, and his bravery as an actor to permit himself to do the part sans any flattery is courageous, but we want something tangible about what happens to him. After all, it is this performance on which the movie ultimately rests.
Director Joe Wright told The Hollywood Reporter that he scrapped his “on location” filming of Anna Karenina in favor of a plethoric theatrical tragedy after a vision came to him during problem-solving dreams aggravated by his parental exhaustion over a new baby. He imagined Anna’s flirtation with Vronsky and her eventual torments as a life exposed on stage, allowing upper Russian society to literally stop and judge. Using Tom Stoppard’s sharply truncated script, narrowing the novel’s narratives down to the single theme of love, the director shaped his stage settings to emphasize a “ballet for words.” What he achieved overall is something different, I think—a verbal opera in which the characters eschew singing and instead become vocalizers embellishing the key markers of Leo Tolstoy’s dense libretto. Just about every line Keira Knightley utters when love turns sour is ever more deeply an aria affirming the author’s admonition that it’s far less forgivable to break social rules than society’s laws. Wright’s chasséing concept won’t be for everyone: since the novel’s an epic of realism, moviegoers are predisposed to seeing it acted out with the big visual splendors of Russia as backdrop, as is the case with Bernard Rose’s very decent 1997 version starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean. When the scope is reduced essentially to the stage (though there are sequences filmed outdoors), a claustrophobia intemperate with pretentious ornamentation is risked. Employing his reliables from Pride and Prejudice and Atonement—production designer Sarah Greenwood, set decorator Katie Spencer and costumer Jacqueline Durran—the gamble is considerably less vexing. But his investment in Knightley’s anorexic magnetic power is what really pays off. As the panoply of mises en scène moves forward, she’s mesmerizing, many of us glued to not just her exquisiteness in Durran’s gowns but also when she’s looking awful from the morphine or in harsh bright light or suffering as a social pariah. (Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey even makes her teeth an attraction, though if there’s one faulty note in the packaging it’s her last dress.) As her husband Karenin, Jude Law is much more tolerable than could have been guessed and not at all harmful that he reflects a bit of Henry Fonda. It’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky who a little too frequently breaks the spell of the retrovision. His blonde baby curls are flourish as handicap—a danseur in the pejorative. All the good taste exhibited in this expensive matinée doesn’t prevent us from thinking that Anna’s most pressing problem is her bad taste in men.
A TO Z: Ben Affleck’s Argo and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark 30 are perfectly all right. They get their jobs done and allow us to feel some pride about accomplishing risky necessary undertakings instead of phony wars and drone attacks. No one is objectionable except for the opening wussie-weighted narrator in the former and Mark Strong coming on a little too in the latter. Affleck’s full beard does a lot for him, as does his under-acting, and what a relief after Flight to see John Goodman not wallowing in shit. (But what is all that over-praise for Alan Arkin about?) Affleck got plenty of award mileage out of being slighted by Oscar in the director race—the word pedestrian to describe his style might explain the omission—and it’s a palsy-walsy benefit to have George Clooney as a producer come voting time. Viewing the end credits, the real star appears to be casting director Lora Kennedy, who matches the real principles with credible-looking actors. (She did the casting for The Town and helped with Syriana and Cloud Atlas.) Bigelow’s ZD30 is a better made movie than her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, though hardly as affecting. Not because we already know the outcome—the reenactment of the climax provides a needed visual interp—it’s the disengagement with the characters. Realizing the time and travails it took to pinpoint the merciless orchestrator, we want to connect to someone, anyone, despite a see-thru wall of protection that’s always there; for example, there’s neither audience regret that Jennifer Ehle is smithereened nor a real build to a shout out cheer at the conclusion of the mission. Lest we arouse more animosity from the crazies? Probably unintended, Jessica Chastain’s character’s certainty that in the body bag is the foe we’ve been hunting down for more than a decade is implicitly insulting. Having had our national honor subverted by the hubris of the BushLite administration, we’re to accept a “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” confidence in lieu of the comfort of confirmation? (I flashed on the next conspiratorial cover up—that there was no DNA testing—and how unsurprising it is that the Navy Seals are now disputing one another over who did what.) In her last scene, Chastain barely processes nominal satisfaction with the payoff of her persistence; she’s earned her exhaustion yet she seems as neutralized emotionally as we all are by the hangovers of the trillions of dollars spent to engage in a perpetual state of antagonism. Argo and ZD30 are moderate victories deflecting Ugly Americanism.
Over at Huffington Post, a member calling himself Squeezed wrote the following about the rush of GOPers like Paul Ryan to embrace Randism as the answer to our economic woes: “These conservatives need to get off their Ayn Rand bandwagon. There were no children in Rand’s books. No elderly, no disabled, no poor and no veterans. In Rand’s world, there were no recessions, no wars, no disease, no ignorance, and no poverty. In other words, Rand was a victim of her own fevered imagination.” Viewing Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, the first thing the audience notices is how the movie makers include the unemployed and the homeless in the opening minutes, as if they too might have read Squeezed’s concise slam and decided to defuse the potential criticism. For the record, the movie was already nearing the end of its theatrical run when the comments appeared but certainly the makers perceived the novelist’s lack of acknowledging capitalism’s collateral damage when it moves into downer mode. In the books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, Rand pits the super-charged defenders of self and creators against the greedy parasites that are big government and corporate conformity. The joke of Atlas Shrugged is that all the conspiracies against individualism Rand rages about become a single conspiracy to form her one big idea—that John Galt plots to stop the machinery of world commerce to force a return to the use of “man’s mind” to pooh-pooh social morality (culprits like religion, regulations and welfare). Galt’s nearly 56 page rant is Rand attempting to refine her philosophy of self-serving as an anti-Communism/anti-God manifesto; it’s the loftiest extension imaginable of Howard Roark’s defense but much more rigged in that Rand allows Galt to control the world’s radio waves and pontificate as if he’s the pope exercising infallibility. The climatic propaganda is not in the 2011 movie, of course—Galt’s orgasmic complaining will be seen in part three AS: Who is John Galt?—but as a miniseries it might have. Ten to twenty million was spent to make the first part which is, essentially, a 96 minute trailer. Compare its budget to the $45 million effectively spent to make Showtime’s The Borgias and you understand the wrongheadedness of elevating the novel beyond the more efficacious conveyance of television. And, supporting the argument, A.S.: Part 1 looks like letterboxed TV. Lovely to gaze at—Ross Berryman gives the melodrama a friendly, expensive-looking gloss in much the same way he did for Ugly Betty—and the musical score by Elia Cmiral is very decent, and Taylor Schilling’s ball-busting Dagny more Sharon Stone than fevered bitch Ayn. The New Zealand-born Grant Bowler glides on his studzie looks as Henry Rearden, though how his physicality settled for Mrs. Rearden, dripping with edge by the homely but always watchable Rebecca Wisocky, is unanswered. (Who can forget Wisocky as the scratching drug-addicted, murderous, incestuous mother on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent?) Rand’s one of those screed-bent harridans who never openly reconciled her solipsism with real needs; her fictional Roark and Galt would demonstratively reject government assistance in their last years but in her own life she depended on Social Security and Medicare. The Randies of current politics would be the first to strip her of them.
In one of the deleted scenes included on the Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike disc, Esai Morales’s Francisco d’Anconia, a Randian Hispanic George Clooney, mocks some guests at a wedding celebration by calling them an “entourage of moochers.” Had it been included in the present cut, the audience would have its best laugh. What chuckles we get have less to do with the novel than the hazards of the updating process—Dagny’s Wonder Woman ease as a Lear jet pilot, the cold power generator as a miniature version of the Genesis device from ST: The Wrath of Khan, swanky autos with built-in TV, the ubiquitous computers, IPhones and IPads. (Apple isn’t “looting” the Chinese labor pool?) And Hannity and Williams as ads for Fox. But some of Rand’s hyper text remains, neatly compacted, only this time the philosophical crud oozes out as an unconcealed anti-commie manifesto. Exposed as contradiction, the metaphors of train and inexpensive limitless energy are anathema to the current crop of Randian boobgeoisie—they want to kill public transportation and mooch everyone else’s oil to keep their multiple Mercedes, car elevators and assault weapons factories running. Don’t know if there’s any connection other than getting a job, but reliable veterans from Ugly Betty—John Putch and Ross Berryman—are primarily responsible for what decent things there are in the two parts of Atlas Shrugged. Putch, who directed several Ugly Betty episodes, keeps the one-note treatise in Atlas II moving as television, which is where it belongs anyway. The most complimentary aspect is photographer Berryman’s pleasant eye; just as he did in the first part, he captures the settings advantageously, especially the lush butch office of Henry Rearden with the shiniest black floor I can ever remember seeing. Both men worked in a hurry to get the second part into theatres before (and purportedly sway) the 2012 election and whatever the shameful joke that is the way this project has been split into parts, they are not to blame. Nor are they to blame for the new cast, as it appears that the producers of the first part failed to get contract commitments from the originals. Escaping Berryman’s friendliness, Samantha Mathis as the second Dagny is flabby, double-chinned and has a distracting resemblance to Kari Matchett from Covert Affairs. Playing the irreplaceable type, surrounded by conveniently endless incompetents, she’s superior to everyone, including her own sex. (Proclaiming herself the alpha male, she’s like an energized closet boozer faking it as the author’s alter ego.) Somewhere between $20 and $30 million dollars were spent to produce Atlas I and II—more than enough to turn the entire novel into a handsome fantasy as TV special with the same cast—and the combined returns are just under $8 million, not counting DVD and rental sales. Since the movies advocate the doctrine of creators over government looters and citizen moochers, who made the decision to turn John Galt into a soap opera with a suspended finale? If people like the Koch Bros. are the surreptitious financiers and this is their example of “creating” in the relative freedom of the entertainment industry, and the return on investments result in two successive years of tax write-offs, are they not repeat offenders of the twin Rand crimes of mooch and loot?
Got through Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt? simply because of its egregiousness. It’s of a special caliber—a smirkfest of stupidity. Disguised as a philosophic thriller, Ayn’s novel is foremost a polemic against Russian communism. Having been absconded by the GOP as an apologia for selfishness, the once subterranean credo of greed is now gleefully out of the closet. Whether sympathetic or repulsed by her Objectivism, readers recognize the deceitful shift, about which Ayn would fulminate, especially at Roman Catholics John Boehner and Paul Ryan. A judicious editing job might have spared us at least a few hundred pages but Ayn wasn’t someone who brooked brevity at the expense of self-proclaimed smarts. There’s no way for readers slogging to the finish not to conclude that she’d have to be around to make sure her brand of absolutism would be faithfully adapted to the screen. (Love or hate the nutty funny emancipation of The Fountainhead, she successfully demanded Warner Bros hold to her manifesto in the screenplay.) In the bio The Passion of Ayn Rand, author Barbara Branden wrote that NBC was interested in doing a miniseries of Atlas Shrugged and the deal went as far as having hired Sterling Silliphant to do a 12 hour adaptation, approved by Ayn who, at Silliphant’s request, did the narrowing down of Galt’s interminable speech to a fifteen minute block. Before the calamity that is the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, were the whereabouts of that script ever sought? How difficult would it have been for the boobhead Randians to find and refurbish it? Obviously they weren’t interested in serving Ayn’s best interests; they didn’t care that she was trenchant on State and Church-compelled sacrifice for the common good; they didn’t care that in her rigged game was the honorable intent of cheering for optimum individuality as a moral good. All the movie makers cared about was to use the novel as a vote-getting device to cover two election periods; based on 2014 election returns, the voters they were appealing to would be anathema to the author: white Christian bigots. They didn’t see Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt? anyway—its box office so dismal it vacated most theatres in two weeks and gone entirely after three. Even if they had the chance to view it, there’s more than reasonable doubt they’d recognize the movie’s chief theme of elitist-controlled opportunism for all the cartoon buffoonery. (They’ve since become Trumpettes.) Branden also wrote that Ayn wanted Farrah Fawcett for Dagny. She’s Ayn’s dreamy alter-ego searing with intelligence and loaded with oomph, a heroine to admire as well as fuck. Though the author had passed before Farrah displayed limited acting chops in The Burning Bed, the bleached teeth icon might have had some luck, as Sharon Stone might have, albeit without erudite threat. (There were teases some years back about Angelina Jolie going dual purpose for Oliver Stone.) Instead, as the third Dagny in the series, we get this mousy little thing called Laura Regan and who wants to do her? The mighty John Galt, played with such fleer by Kristoffer Polaha that I laughed my ass off when he’s getting electro-shocked by a psycho who, at the controls, recalls the frenzied Colin Clive in Frankenstein.
As drug-addict, chain-smoker, tongue cancer victim and matriarch in August: Osage County, Meryl Streep is showboating, which has a slight amusement early on until we recognize it’s a cover for the fear of being defeated by having to smoke to excess. She can’t do it convincingly—despite reportedly being a light smoker—and nothing matters more when playing this kind of drama queen than getting the hang of the habit. That disgusting cig is the physical crux of the character; we must see and feel her addiction to the incessant drags, we must feel repulsed and lung-clogged by the exhales of smoke. She can’t even hold the coffin nails right. (Don Draper’s daughter handles one with more expertise.) Implicit that there are allowances for on-set health considerations, just as we’re expected to provide them for Oprah in The Butler, yet how can we grant leeway to our country’s most accomplished performer when she so amateurishly bungles that crutch? (A misjudgment to take a plum role she’s unsuited for in order to rob someone else the opportunity to strut more carcinogenically; Melissa Leo at long last might have been tolerable for something.) Julia Roberts is the movie’s only real amazement. When the family sits down for an afternoon meal—in 108° Oklahoma heat; did anyone spot an air conditioner?—and the spewing emotional volcano erupts big time, she takes over. Great to see her revved up, in command, and Meryl at this point concedes, partly out of generosity, partly due to director John Wells not knowing what to do with her after the blowout as consequence of the shift in Tracy Letts’ script—a hodgepodge of second rate Albee bitches trying to Hellmanize a Williams get-together during which a few Come Back to the 5 & Dime absurdities are unleashed. Listening to Meryl swear up a storm, I flashed once again on the role she’s destined for: Kael. Opposite Helen Mirren’s Gilliatt. Pauline and Penelope: Lives in the Dark. A movie lover’s dream.
At the age of twelve and already a tubbie, Pedro Almodóvar’s future was cast in subversion and counter-culture when he won an essay contest about the Immaculate Conception while attending a Roman Catholic boarding school. His years there resulted in the usual religious education centering on “guilt, sin and punishment,” prime ingredients to feed the rebellion he’d cathartically engage in once Franco died and social restraints were lifted. His comic strips, Super 8 movies, articles in Diaro 16 and his drag queen period were his public unshackling, leading to limited success with What Did I Do to Deserve This?, Dark Habits, Matador, the erotic Law of Desire and then to his huge international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, unleashing onto a hungry audience Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels, All About My Mother and all the others. The most challenging and very timely, Bad Education is an elating blend of Almodóvar’s trademark send up of trash-ridden lives with his fairly new-founded need to bring weight to the proceedings. It’s not a full exposé on priests abusing male students, like Canada’s The Boys of St. Vincent, but it exposes enough and more than adequately mirrors the damage of psyche bombs that inevitably explode later. Almodóvar took almost ten years to write the screenplay—previewed in 1987’s Law of Desire when Carmen Maura finishes singing in a chapel—and watching the eventual movie unfold, viewers can see why: as autobiographical glimpses of his childhood education (during which he personally was not molested by the clergy) and early gayhood, the structure is very tightly knit and multi-layered. The technique is probably more difficult to describe than to see: Almodóvar isn’t only making a movie, but a movie inside the movie, a reading as conception of a movie as well as an audition, and within all the stratums there are flashes detailing the primary characters. (An IMDb user thumbnails Gael García Bernal’s daring triplet as a “Homme Fatale.”) It’s also subversive, pulling out the underpinnings of a justice expected to be rendered, and thus, I think, crowning Almodóvar the dramedist Tennessee Williams privately always wanted to be. This Spaniard’s leap-from-the-closet boldness and romanticized fireworks play out as parallels to parts of America’s greatest dramatist’s life, especially those escapades in the Florida Keys, Mexico and Europe. Only Tennessee didn’t have the venue of social permissiveness or the nerve to bring them to the stage; culturally ingrained, and when not loaded up on booze and pills, he was the gentleman playwright. He’d no doubt publicly acknowledge as well as envy Almodóvar’s total freedom to reshape without disguise not just the complexities of relationships between the sexes on screen but also their raw, ever-present no-excuses carnality. After watching Almodóvar’s exultant soapers as theatre of unrepentant souls we don’t really want to go back to the way most other moviemakers depict women and gays and the pricks in their lives, just as we dread going back to incessantly wordy O’Neill or the Kansas guilt trips of Inge once we’ve spent a few evenings with Tennessee.
The small classics that are Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset provide two Chatty Cathys golden opportunities to do walking tours through Euro beauties Vienna and Paris and succumb to romance. What the director pulls from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is worth hailing; they’re as close to instinctive as modern movie tales get, considering the perimeters of intent, the logistics of settings and the ability to tune out peripheral distractions. They speak the language of instant rapport between two strangers—and then separated lovers—without any glaring falsification. How much the two actors contribute to the first talkfest Sunrise isn’t clear but they get credit (and an Oscar nomination) for their share of the script for the follow up Sunset. We recognize the Parisian Delpy as Barbara Branden from The Passion of Ayn Rand but there’s not a trace of the hypocritically subservient intellectual; she elucidates with a breezy beguilement, going light on the accent. The long-term case against Hawke is that he can’t carry a picture. He lacks the foundation on which to build reliance, appears a little vacant upstairs, and if there’s one nitpicky issue in Linklater’s stream of consciousness casually borrowed from Joyce, it’s the irony in not being able to quite accept Hawke’s character as an author. (Otoh, because of his limitations, he’s ideal for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.) But he supports very well the curves and swings; he’s agreeably compliant, and at the end of the second outing, he’s waiting for the right moment to make his move. And that may be, in a nutshell, his essence. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset avoid the dreaded “scenery porn” plague that has annoyed many viewers about Woody Allen’s recent travelogues. Regrettably, all the good feelings we have about the first two movies go sour in Before Midnight. Ethan and Julie are cohabiting now, with two daughters in tow on a vacation, and instead of the deep blue sea of coastal Greece we get the whines and testiness of The Nine Year Itch. Ordinary life interferes with the bliss of love: “I did this for you to make you happy” and “Yeah, but remember, I did this and that for you!” The only installment left is After Separation.
Director Sidney Lumet was only 83 when he made his first HD movie—2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Though not the only reasons to see it, they are the primary ones. Hackneyed as this sounds, if you didn’t know he was directing, you’d want to guess the movie is an independent from a rising talent. Possibly overstating but he hadn’t been this energized since Network and Guilty as Sin; he hadn’t lost his notorious speed, enviable efficiency or his ability to get swell stuff from actors in a take or two. With HD’s lack of time-consuming paraphernalia, he finally found the method to advantageously display his methodology in what is his most consistently good looking movie since God knows when. Receiving Kelly Masterson’s unsolicited script in the mail, he loved the story but wanted to make two changes—that the movie would be a melodrama more than the thriller Masterson envisioned and that the two men plotting the robbery should be more than friends or acquaintances, they would be brothers. This last change intensifies the drama’s twists and turns significantly; the growing dread becomes gripping, almost comically horrifying. Never quite get into Philip Seymour Hoffman, even when he’s exceptional; the only time I enjoy what’s happening to him on screen is when he’s getting knocked off, as in The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Or getting nearly caught in the act in Doubt.) In Before the Devil, he’s so effectively monstrous doing what he does—including his repulsive banging away on poor Marisa Tomei—that when he gets what he deserves it’s like a divine Shakespearean intervention. As Albert Finney walks out of the hospital room and into the light, it’s rather like Sidney strolling into movie immortality. A great kiss off.
2014 another year when movies didn’t equal the excitement of television. What on the big screen matched the epic qualities of Game of Thrones Season 4, equaled the juicy invective of House of Cards Season Two, or rivaled the personal angst of Walter White in Breaking Bad or Don Draper in Mad Men in the first half of its conclusion? The big box office winners were not unexpectedly communal comic books served up as expensive fast food by movie makers and executives dependent on sequels and remakes—what else explains Noah?—and the award contenders such as Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gone Girl, Mr. Turner and Whiplash are hoping that redbox and Netflix will activate the stay-at-home appetites. Sneaking through the juvenility and Oscar bait is John Carney’s Begin Again and it knocked me out. Smiling at the pleasant surprises, I would at some point realize that the smile stayed as well as grew. Excepting Adam Levine’s Quaker-like beard, there’s nothing about this minor gem I didn’t respond to favorably, including the otherwise persistently employed “ex” Catherine Keener. Very obviously 2014 has been a good year for Mark Ruffalo; on a roll in The Normal Heart, Foxcatcher and here as a flailing music producer, he’s in great control. Thanking Carney’s Irish roots, there is pleasure watching an actor play a boozer viewers don’t have to feel guilty about liking. (Was Michael Caine in Educating Rita the last?) Keira Knightly’s storied acting in big pictures would seem to preclude her from consideration in a smaller picture as a struggling songwriter-singer but she pulls it off, just as she pulled off the modest Last Night. She’s also considerably aided by Levine’s reverberating stage version of the Oscar-nominated “Lost Stars.” For those who don’t stay for the credits, you may want to in order to find out what happens to the album.
Beginners is one of those quirky slices of unconventionality you either immediately respond to or just as quickly reject. I’m in the former category, as some of the familial territory is closer to home than expected and I’ve been eager to see Christopher Plummer in his Oscar-winning performance. He doesn’t let the audience down; hardly taxed, he’s nimble and amusing as a closeted elder who wants to feel emancipated from the shackles of being something he never really felt he was but—significantly—didn’t reject, either. What’s real about his character, based on writer-director Mike Mills’ late father, is that he represents countless pretenders who deferred to social norms until passages altered the course of lives. Sounds a little lofty but it’s the crux of Plummer’s role and he nails it with a flawless lightness. (Never more so than during the moment he’s told that hospice care is all that’s left.) A major astonishment is Ewan McGregor, finally looking adult and sexy, finally acting, holding his own opposite the seasoned Plummer and the very lovely Mélanie (Inglorious Basterds) Laurent and a dog. Goran Visnjic as Plummer’s love interest is somewhat problematic; he may be Mills’ vision of his father’s bf, but in bad hair and limpiness he’s an eye sore. Not the swish horror of Cliff Gorman’s Emory or William Hurt’s Molina, but combing back the locks and canning the pansified defensiveness might have been beneficial.
Liberace was rarely about music, despite his grandiloquent Muzak virtuosity in bastardizing longhair and easy-listening classics. He was always about the audacity of queer showmanship—becoming the first publicly sanctioned American drag queen—and the more flaunting the display of jewel-studded furs, fingers, getups and cars mixed with his corn ball chitchat and dazzling ease at the keys, the larger the gawking audience. How his career began during the enforced puritanical mores of the fifties still remains a mystery: were we that naïve? Were women, the majority of his audience until he hit Vegas as cross generation freak show, in denial of his predilections or were they motherly protective because many of them were hoping that their little Liberaces at home would spring out of the closet as huge money-making machines? His “crying all the way to the bank” success had another component: audiences felt both comforted by and superior to him because, while enjoying a dandy gone super wacko, he was a pleb intellectually. In Behind the Candelabra Michael Douglas never wavers in portraying him in that vein: a total powder puff exhibitionist on stage, he’s equally a philistine off—getting head through a glory hole while adorned in fox. Essentially he’s on a spree of boys, toys and pricey knickknackery crammed into various mausoleums that give atrocity new meaning. Using the adjective fearless to describe what he does is plausible; it’s not often we get to see a major actor get this divertingly featherbrained in the fairy shallowness. It’s also why he’s a bit of a bore, as there’s nothing else here. If deeper psychologies are to be uncovered, other than his shame in contracting and attempting to hide AIDS that would eventually expose his ingrained Catholic pretenses few ever believed anyway, no one, much less director Steven Soderbergh or scripter Richard LaGravenese, has thus far revealed them. Even the money deals the star and his agents made—some of the most lucrative in entertainment—are discarded as filler. All that’s left to wonder is what kind of hangers-on could stomach Liberace in the sack. Matt Damon’s Scott isn’t as knee-deep in pursuits of the gay high life. With makeup facilitating the collapse, he’s just about every trick-turned-scorned-lover who loses self-respect, becomes infantile and shrill; most damningly, he’s fully aware of the decline at every stage. What permutations he goes through—transforming himself into a blonde version of Liberace as a fantasy Adonis, the booze and drug addictions, the humiliations and heave-hos—aren’t surprising (they’re a bit like Sharon Stone’s distresses in Casino) but they are nevertheless grievances for others to self-righteously punish. Debbie Reynolds continues with another of her fag hag mother roles, this time nearly unrecognizable. Let’s be grateful for her crack delivery of a rejoinder after winning a home-based slot machine jackpot.
Richard Linklater’s Bernie, based on Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly piece “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” is less about Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey playing out a true tale of murder than it is about the real townspeople of Carthage and their amusingly expressed prejudices “behind the pine curtain.” The director’s method is likely to remind movie lovers of the witnesses in Beatty’s Reds in that they seem to be quite relaxed before the camera as they rattle off recollections and opinions and are often more entertaining than the actors. Of course these Carthaginians are of a wholly different cerebral caliber. The term “mockumentary” has been tossed around to describe how they’re presented here and I think that’s misinforming because the satire isn’t a sendup of fakes or scoundrels; rib-ticklers for the audience, they’re affectionately viewed as parochials seriously confabulating. With one exception—Sonny Davis, who succinctly separates the state into regions (where I reside is called “the carcinogenic coast”) and near the end of the credits thumbnails the jury as “people who drink warm beer while eating fried mudcat.” His twangy vivid articulation steals the show in the course of setting it up: Most of Carthage, McConaughey’s district attorney gauges, would vote to acquit Black of murder because many saw it as a public service that he killed the insufferable bitch MacLaine who just about everyone including her own family hated. (Trumps an actual partisan, “We need more Bernies in this world.”) So a change of venue is sought, with the D.A. hoping a far less involved panel might convict if they suspect the murderer of being the usual stereotyped mortician and in East Texas that’s a bigger crime than the one he committed. Catching sight of the jury members in the courtroom—one of them a woman whose tummy flab is the equivalent of a grossly ballooned inner tube—the image of Rick Perry voters becomes fixed. These are the faces belonging to the asses Romney’s kissing.
Tom Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel opens with snippets of boohoo stories of the English retired set and I began to feel a foreboding—that soon enough there’d be a lot of clichés and stereotypes. It’s much worse: there are torrents of both and no rescue. Hadn’t been able to catch this very popular entertainment first run—during which it grossed over $134 million world wide, on a budget of a mere $10 million—but was eager for the redbox Blu-ray release. I was even more primed by Chicago wise man Don Selle’s rave that it was the “best film, best script, best cinematography, best editing and best score” thus far in 2012. Hyperbole aside, Selle’s response indicated something really worth while. By the time Dev Patel finishes running through the hotel to breathlessly greet the prestigious performers and show them their ramshackle rooms, I was itching from the cooties. OMG, it’s The Money Pit in Jaipur, with Patel doing Victor Banerjee’s Aziz from A Passage to India. (They tip over on every emotion.) The only minor surprise in this return of a mini raj at the Marigold is the “swing song” of Tom Wilkinson. Everything else is predictable and mundane, and in the end disappointing to the HGTV crowd: other than budgetary considerations, why couldn’t we see whatever improvements were made to the hotel? As for the sequel, it’s so unspeakably unnecessary that I don’t have the energy to type out its title.
One of my favorite newsgroups contributors describes Emmanuel Lubezki’s Oscar-winning photography in Birdman as “restless, unbroken prowling.” Though there are said to be only sixteen visible cuts, the camera records—and director Alejandro González Iñáritu has rehearsed the actors to accommodate—some very long single shots that actually do become restless in their self-consciousness and they adversely affect the performances. You can feel the actors’ awareness that the camera is virtually on top of them, you can sense that they’re hoping to be able to remember all the mapped-out turns every which way in order to get it all in one uninterrupted shot. Sometimes you think you’ll need Dramamine. Only when the camera stays somewhat steady do parts of the performances work: Emma Stone rattling off the bitter truth to Michael Keaton, Stone and Edward Norton on the roof of the theatre, Keaton in his dressing room before his final appearance on stage during opening night. Spontaneity the goal but just once does that feeling happen—when a kitchen cabinet falls on stage during a preview. There’s supposed to be a naturalness in the tribute to Latin genre of magic realism too, even if we’re alerted to it right at the start—when Keaton is levitating, and later exercising telekinesis. Iñáritu integrates bits of Gabriel García Márquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings for the metamorphosis of Keaton’s fame as Batman into Birdman, and Borges’ Labyrinths shows up in Norton’s hands when he’s in a tanning bed. The MacBeth references are less clear, except in the anti-critic view of Lindsay Duncan (the viper Servilla in HBO’s Rome) as Renata Lady MacBeth Adler intent on destroying what she hasn’t seen yet. (At her favorite watering hole she’s not only writing her pans in advance but taunts the productions’ artists, who stop by for a drink, by forecasting she’ll destroy them.) Birdman is a sob story about the hazards of otherwise good actors getting trapped by the fame they seek and resentment they experience when the public won’t move beyond what made them famous, in this case comic books. What better way out of a pity party than a Márquezian flight of fancy?
What’s up with Alejandro González Iñárritu? Why does he spend so much energy on depressfests? On his knees to Robert Altman, Babel is handicapped by a two ton cinéma vérité heaviness in its efforts to congeal the multiple vignettes and it’s nothing if not punishing to sit through. (If forced to endure Altmanesque ccs, the preference would be for something like Crash for its limited surprises and redemptions, or Playing by Heart for Angelina.) Biutiful isn’t quite so dispersed, thanks to Javier Bardem as the glue holding together the subplots, albeit one of them—his “gift” of talking to the dead in order to sooth the pain of surviving relatives—is disturbing in its moral ambiguity, unlike the other schemes and scams he’s mired in. As actor he saves Iñárritu’s ass by giving the epitome of a measured performance; his progression of decline is gradual but pernicious and his emotions are neither under nor over played. Inspite of the picture’s downer temperament, he and his screen daughter impart the most painfully real hug in years. (That the actors branch of the Academy Awards justifiably honored him with a nomination for a movie relatively few will see is an apology to themselves for giving him an Oscar for his bad hair in No Country for Old Men.) The sights of Barcelona in Biutiful are the flip side of the scrimpy views we get in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Stillman’s Barcelona. Given the results of the movies, the city might want to file suits against the movie makers for alienation of affection.
Director Darren Aronofsky remarked, “It’s a very hard line, as a filmmaker, to know when is too much. And I’m usually on the wrong side of it.” Black Swan is full testament to losing his bearings on a study of the psychosis of obsession. As a cultish haven for anorexics, ballet is an ideal art form to project a dark fantasy about a dancer going bonkers in pursuit of perfecting what America’s reigning dean of dance critics Arlene Croce calls “the greatest unstageable ballet ever written.” To achieve this, sly Aronofsky violates the numero uno rule of a ballet master—that the principal ballerina have the emotional well-being to lead the repertory in Swan Lake. Stacking a ton of wacko baggage onto Natalie Portman, manifesting in the forms of stealing, self-harming, bleeding fingers, beaver munching, webbed feet, wishful vengeance and the sprouting of feathers and wings, we’re watching not a dancer’s rendering of metamorphosis as much as voodoo pyrotechnics. Doesn’t jive with the hide and seek schizophrenia. If Black Swan isn’t in trouble from the start, as a suspicious lift from a Murder, She Wrote episode entitled “Danse Diabolique” (S8 Ep 11, 1992), it’s certainly in deep doodoo when Portman’s mother Barbara Hershey comes into view. One of the original collagen lip guinea pigs, she now looks like the distaff version of the freak show that is Mickey Rourke in Aronosky’s The Wrestler and the longer the (smartly infrequent) chance to stare at her the more we want to upchuck. Still, we think we might know who shares blame for Natalie’s bizarre hallucinatory behavior. The movie can’t disguise what appears to lay people to be mediocre dancing; the swan waves have some delicacy and grace but a dearth of both in the legs and the perfunctory movements don’t advance the tale—on stage only the costumes, makeup and facial expressions do that—and while Portman’s admittedly no dance pro and irrespective of the months-long training for persuasion’s sake she remains persuasively inadequate. (Whiner Sarah Lane needn’t be too eager to divulge her contributions, either.) The adagio is excused as secondary to Portman’s characterization when in point of fact she doesn’t have a character who expands understanding of what’s going on inside her. Much like Glenn Close’s psycho bitch in Fatal Attraction, the character here seems to contract; just as we think that one or another mini-climax will finally reveal a clue, that maybe even Hershey’s behind that door as delayed justice (which would’ve been pleasing), a nothingness smacks us down. Portman’s all symptoms leading every which way; we have to settle for a menstruation horror out of Carrie as diagnosis that only further alienates us. Unlike Close, looking chicly fried and taking the psychotics seriously enough to seek advice from specialists on how to play them (and got robbed of her efforts by an audience-demanded revenge), Portman lacks the prep or range as actress to carry the dementia. In defense she can’t be expected to internalize burgeoning insanity when the script’s this warped of intellection. Don’t want the tommyrot dumbed down but we need something. Maybe it’s all in what Portman told gaga George Stephanopoulos on GMA sometime back: Black Swan is “a conversation piece.”
As the housekeeper in Pan’s Labyrinth, Maribel Verdú has the appearance of inner fortitude we see in Anne Revere and Irene Papas, yet as actress she’s a see-through; she advances her stances. In Blancanieves, a b & w silent following The Artist by only a year, she has a similar and this time belonging unreservedness playing the badass stepmother to Snow White. At first I wondered if she might be doing a send up of Fran Drescher as Capucine doing Big Nurse. Soon after she’s Eurotrash exercising a dominatrix persona and then channels an emaciated Joan Collins when wearing the widow’s veil and hiding from justice in a bull’s stall. She’s fun but not enough fun; she needs both a villainous hunk as partner instead of the wus she gets and a more comically gratifying kiss-off. (The comeuppance is economy class.) The resurrection of the silent movie mode—this Spanish tribute was in development at least six years before the release of the Oscar-winning French job—reminds us of a cranky device we could do without: when the inevitable moment comes for Verdú to serve the unappetizing entrée, she games with a chomping bit that’s handicapped by a distorting passage in an otherwise marvelous A to Z score by Alfonso de Vilallonga. He updates the antique of a Dirty Work at the Crossroads as a screecher, jolting us out of the enjoyment of the dirty she dishes out; the wicked witch becomes a symphonic Baby Jane. The two actresses as Snow White—the child Sofia Oria, the adult Macarena Garcia—don’t suck the sap, though Oria has scenes with a (sort of) pet that will make American foofs flash back to Samantha in Friendly Persuasion. It’s daring to use Daniel Giménez Cacho as Snow White’s daddy, given that even today a lot of us have a difficult time seeing beyond his Father Manolo in Almodóvar’s Bad Education. That role remains etched on his smooth, semi-sinister handsomeness and there’s probably nothing he can do to alter so indelible an impression. (My fellow foofs still argue whether Manolo has an orgasm during the birthday gift sung to him by Ignacio.) Director-writer Pablo Berger is unsentimental in adapting the Grimm fairytale and efficient in the use of what many of us would argue is gimmick moviemaking. Just as we did with The Artist, our responses come out of a limited curiosity, that at some unavoidable point we get more than our fill of the refreshed methods and tricks. Imitation of the silent era is likely to become a boring form of flattery.
Cate Blanchett is Ruth Madoff doing Mia DuBois in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. There’s never been anything near this kind of full-fledged heavy-duty crackup in any of his movies and while fascinating and scary, it’s also foxy. Long the Jewish American Bergman as comedic truther dispensing laughs as meds to comfort our foibles, he surprisingly ricochets the perturbations in Williams’ illustrious play to cast a damning assessment, using Blanche and her instability as subtext to mirror the psychological war he and his former familial associations have been and apparently still are engaged in. That’s a loaded assertion but the interpersonal emotionalism well-nigh supports it. Didn’t easily spot this during the movie—nor was I looking for linkage—but I became aware that something’s not jelling at face value because Cate eclipses her tribute to Williams and the lovelies who’ve played Blanche, and Woody doesn’t have a deep history of making movies filled with purgatives. (Interiors cancels itself out as a sour imitation of Bergman.) Lifting the Madoffs is great cover initially—providing filler for the motivations, acknowledging friends who were rooked—until the altered Williams slashings turn into an all-out venting process, primarily tho not exclusively by Cate assailing Alec Baldwin’s yen for fresh flesh and Bobby Cannavale doing an exasperating straight version of his exasperated cop in Will & Grace. Protective illusions are replaced by knifelike accusals; there’s little kindness, not even from strangers. Could charge myself with reading too much into Cate’s tour de force, or accept that Woody “transformed” the playwright involuntarily. But he does nothing unwittingly; he calculatedly tags Mamma Mia the whacko presaged in Secret Ceremony.
The Borgias, Neil Jordan’s one time dream epic turned by providence of Steven Spielberg into a Showtime three season series, isn’t wholly faithful to the known historical record of the infamous family but it holds fast to the sinister, murderous and aberrant sexual activities that are history’s gossip. On that basis, it’s nearly spectacular in mouthwatering lasciviousness. Under the clenched if not tyrannical control of chief writer-director and executive producer Jordan, the series isn’t consciously contrived as a bingefest in the way Netflix’s fashionable House of Cards is, but it has been designed for the kind of audience insatiable for Vatican and royal intrigues, bloody stabbings, throat-cuttings, beheadings, burnings at the stake, poisonings. (All superbly rendered.) There’s much more going for it than just the super juicy: its terrific cast headed by Jeremy Irons, classy production values, music, editing and CGI effects grandly reflect the conservatively estimated cost of $135 million. The sharply edgy scripts reek with the stench of the power hungry, the bizarre and the deviant on every level: Game of Thrones has nothing on Sean Harris’ Micheletto, the most itch-inducing assassin in the history of the miniseries medium. And not even Francis’s crowd-pleasing magnanimity can scotch a viewer’s recognition that Catholicism, as with any other formal religion, schemes to fleece its adherents. Filming 24 of the episodes, Paul Sarossy’s cinematography is probably the show’s major achievement in that it’s the lush adhesive that holds everything together—television rarely looks so good. (Blu-ray the only way.) The Borgias is prurience of the highest caliber and not to be missed. Note on cancellation.
Boyhood has one and only one extraordinary achievement—Sandra Adair’s film editing that makes the transitions of the twelve year span of the story virtually seamless. We all know director Richard Linklater spent a dozen years making the movie, and we know going in we’ll see the same performers age. What I don’t think we expected is the ultra smoothness of the process: there are no abrupt time shifts, no black screen breaks, no dissolves, no makeup tricks or special effects. Scenes or sequences will show the characters at one point and in the next they move up on the age notch so fluidly that it takes the audience some extra blinks to realize it. Adair’s feat seizes our admiration and doesn’t let go. Separate from the editing, the charge of gimmick is justifiable to a degree: Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are talky walky tours of Vienna and Paris respectively, but when we discover we’ll be shortchanged of Greece’s beauty in Before Midnight we want to divorce ourselves from the repetition of the improv-style experiment. In Bernie, the use of three stars to interact with the real folks of Carthage, Texas to tell a true story is for the purpose of making a mockumentary. Informed audiences can’t help but drag these artifices to Boyhood; the director is by choice iterative. And a repeat offender of miscalculation of viewer forbearance: the glimpses of ordinary life in a typical dysfunctional Texan family will drive many to eject the DVD. This sensing where Linklater’s going with all the dullards impairs the overall experience; we want more than transparent segments linked by the tour de force subtlety of the passages. Surprisingly, there isn’t much to receive from the cast: the pleb version of Meryl Streep as the good mother, Patricia Arquette wins acclaim and awards for sticking with the project; Ethan Hawke has already done the Before things so what he is doing here violates the rule of familiarity; the kids acceptable if finally forgettable. (Marco Perella’s boozing professor is the only surge passing through the hicksville current.) For all their outrage that Boyhood didn’t win best film and director at the Oscars, the critics themselves came up short in honoring their darling’s singular accomplishment that will be studied and copied for years to come: only the Boston, San Francisco and L.A. critics bestowed Adair their awards for film editing. This is an indictment of critics.
QUEEN OF THE SBMs: I’ve returned to a movie I didn’t much care for originally, in order to better understand why so many distaff millennials love it. Taking in the Blu-ray unrated version, I’m less inclined to add any new unfavorables about Bridesmaids yet still trying to figure out its popularity. The appetite of male audiences for “gross out” comedies reminds us that giving up childhood isn’t easy. The boys have been potty trained but they’ve probably never learned to wipe their asses properly, so when they see stars like Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Will Farrell and Adam Sandler flaunting their ass-itching idiocy on screen, it’s clearly toilet tribalism. But women now too? Though not an unhappy fact that Bridesmaids is the reverse of the deepishly shallow sisterhood of the chic four in Sex and the City, the seven dipshits here are for the most part repulsive and juvenile—mutations out of Animal House, Something About Mary and Family Guy and forerunners to and borrowers from the new slobby nastiness sitcoms are eager to frame on baby boomers’ children and grand kids. With box office numbers making Bridesmaids the most successful women’s comedy thus far, is the only selling point merely to watch how far into the shit can these broads will go? And once is not enough: women gather for repeat home viewings, boozing on wine and Cosmos, guffawing like baboons at the gauche skanks of SBMs. (Stupid Bitch Movies. SBs once the province of bikinifests and the teen slashers until Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson confiscated the terrain.) In my second screening, it’s clearer now that Wiig’s reveling-in-mock instability saves the movie from itself: With no intent to pejoratively pigeonhole, she’s a topflight working class comedienne who knows how to snaffle the audience as she goes over the edge. As a jewelry store sales associate, she takes the attitude of Kevin Smith’s Clerks—remember Randal saying “This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers”?—and updates with deliciously catty verbal bombs ala Ann Coutler. There’s not one of us who’ve had a job in retail who didn’t every once in a while feel the totally arbitrary yet very pleasurable impulse to handle some customers with escalating insults. And highly enjoyable when the insulted customer returns the barbs in the way Mia Rose Frampton—Peter’s daughter—does. These moments haven’t much to do with the bridezilla antics endangering the tradition of weddings and that’s what makes them the comedy’s bright spots. While major sequences such as the plane to Vegas and the engagement party are too long, Wiig manages to rescue them using an intercom to create Twilight Zone/Airplane mayhem in the first and pulling a gooey bit with a giant cookie in the second. Playing Wiig’s mother, Jill Clayburgh goes to AA but isn’t an alkie and paints caricatures of celebrities like Wynonna Judd accentuating her gums. Jon Hamm gets a good laugh with “You’re no longer my number three.” Looking like Kaley Cuoco in the posters, Wendi McLendon-Covey has a throw-away line about cracking a blanket in half that confirms the movie misses many of its roving targets. As co-writer, Wiig only had to ask a former kid what he used as a cum rag.
Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies seems deliberately unexciting, its pace too relaxed and Thomas Newman’s quiet score an added sedative. The atmosphere of the 50s cold war decade lulls us into a strange calm by using over-refurbishment; after a while we’re not sure if what we’re looking at is real or fake and with all the digital monotony we barely care that there’s little to distinguish its design from many other recent productions. Does this spy swap of Russian Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers make for a good movie? An unenthusiastic yes. Factually it doesn’t cheat all that much on the basics and there are two worthy performances. Hanks is his usual all-purpose American and, let’s face it, no one does that routine better. The virtual lost brother to Bryan Cranston, Mark Rylance’s normality as methodic stag and artist is the most absorbing-to-watch “sanity” on the screen in years. (How in the name of Thespis did Oscar not let him slip by in favor of the sentimental old codger prize to the repulsive Stallone?) But the movie wobbles on its omissions; enamoured as they are with Abel, Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen avoid the opportunity to bring a long-delayed balance about Powers after his U2 spy plane was shot down. Critics mention the “blank expression” on the face of the actor playing Powers; is it bad acting or a reflection of pre-determined code of conduct? Arguably, it’s denigration—an arbitrary continuation of the undeserved yet widely held impression that he was somehow a retard, mainly due to unflattering views of him in the newspapers and on TV news. In the movie both a C.I.A. instructor and Hanks show contempt for him at different stages: perhaps knowing something we don’t, the instructor has disdain for him before the flight over Russia and Hanks is dismissive of him in a transport plane after the spy exchange. During the cold war fever, many of us remember he was labeled a coward for not using the poison pin inserted in a dollar coin to prevent being captured alive and, worse, a traitor for signing a confession and apologizing. Neither dummy nor craven, he was a very experienced and disciplined pilot, caught in circumstances resulting from the failures of self-destruct measures when the plane was struck by missiles and the instinctive struggle to stay alive. Our government’s initial lie about a lost weather plane was dependent on the “certainty of expendability”—that the U2 and the pilot would perish to the degree that plausible denial would suffice. With wisdom and courage, Eisenhower defused the rising tensions with Moscow by openly admitting the reconnaissance, enraging Washington war mongers. Would take more than a decade for Congress to put an end to a campaign of scapegoat and exonerate Powers. (He was killed in 1977 while on duty as a helicopter traffic pilot for KNBC News in Los Angeles—the copter crashed after running out of fuel, reportedly due to a gauge malfunction, though the subsequent NTSB investigation faulted him for “poor fuel management.” He’s buried at Arlington National.) If there’s any message in Bridge of Spies other than Hanks’s portrait of James B. Donovan as doggedly determined to secure the release of Americans held by enemies, it’s that allegations and smears stay with us longer than inconvenient facts.
BROKEN TRUST: A bad omen that in Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar so overtly heists from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Bad Education, foretelling he’s bereft of fresh ideas and cleverness. And, possibly much worse, he’s suffering attention deficit to details and audience alertness. When the movie “Girls and Suitcases” that has been made inside Broken Embraces is suddenly premiered—without the editing input and presence of its creator (Lluís Homar) and star (Penélope Cruz), who are off fornicating at a sleazy playa—Pedro seems not to notice that as soon as we see the movie’s ad and accompanying newspaper article, we know what the producer (Cruz’s obsessively jealous lover) did without any need for further explanation. Getting more anyway, in a lackluster sequence in a bar, we’re wondering why Pedro’s wasting our time. Out of relief from the boredom of the redundancies we start re-writing this movie in our heads, or at least make a guessing game out of what’s about to happen. The ominous moments preceding the car accident, for example, turn out to be tiny interludes of nothingness because the accident is not the next retaliatory step from the jilted producer (that it could be) but a cause and affect for Homar’s character’s blindness. Okay, but what’s that planted joke at a peep hole all about? Did Pedro forget to give his only good laugh a payoff? As best I can judge, there’s no reason for the blindness, not for Homar anyway because he’s already enough of a handicap. Born in Barcelona, he doesn’t look Catalonian—he’s what a healthy Patrick Swayze might have looked like a few years from now, he’s got a Germanic nutsiness oozing from his pores; he’s less an actor, more a goofus. (That’s what made him just right for Bad Education.) Cruz is back to being a mouse so that Almodóvar can play with his movie star scrapbook and make her up as a Monroe in swept platinum and a nauseating Audrey Hepburn. With Volver and now Broken Embraces, he’s gone from being Spain’s reigning dramedy vulgarian to being his own worst stereotype—a fagged out hairdresser.
Warren Beatty’s 1998 Bulworth is his most under-appreciated movie. As a California Senator up for reelection and despairing over the politics of ass-kissing and corruption, Bulworth hires a hit man through a third party to end his misery. While waiting for the unknown assassin to strike, he frees himself from the shackles of speech constraint and at campaign stops unloads the awful but screamingly funny truths, often in a honkie rap style. The early reactions from some supporters—mostly blacks and Jews—are typical outrage, but soon the polls reflect that Bulworth’s message of telling it raw resonates and he begins to lead in the polls. As might be expected, he has a quick change of heart—he wants to cancel the hit job. Panic sets in when his third party contact suffers a massive heart attack and he can’t be sure if the contract has been scrubbed. Beatty’s script, co-written by Jeremy Pikser and reportedly punched up by Aaron Sorkin and James Toback, has all of the trademarks of the star’s usual travails: it’s frustratingly hodgeypodgey (Halle Berry’s dreadful dreadlocks, the black vagrant’s unintelligible muttering), luminaries moving in and out without much to do, the famous star ego once more framed as cuddly insecure, and when all else doesn’t quite cut it his supposedly lethal charm offensive is rolled out. Beatty still believed back then that he need do no more than beam a smile and flash his puppy love eyes to claim victory. Not quite what happened. The initial reviews of Bulworth were good, it received an Oscar nom for the script, but the box office was just over $29 million (world wide) against an estimated budget of $30 million. Part of its b.o. weakness must be squarely blamed on the timing—when the Clintons were under assault by what turned out to be a real “vast right wing conspiracy.” The audience that progressive Beatty appealed to just wasn’t in the mood to watch more denigration. And not helping matters was the great Hollywood womanizer and his squeeze Annette Bening thinking themselves morally superior in their tiny brained carping against the Clintons for not keeping promises, unable to fathom from their pool side lounges the reckless efforts engaged to destroy a presidency. Hollywood didn’t forget what the Beattys did, either: no way would Bulworth gain prestigious Best Film, Actor and Director noms, and Bening, believing she deserved an Oscar the following year for American Beauty, was shut out. (In case anyone forgot: Kevin Spacey wasn’t; he remained loyal to Bill.) Enough time has lapsed to pardon Beatty but not his wife, who continues to spread frost bite on screen. In any political season, during which we’re deluged by embarrassing examples of candidates making sudden U-turns, Bulworth is required viewing.
Throughout the run of their sometimes disastrous last appearances together in the ill chosen, mockable Private Lives, everything that personified Liz and Dick as an emotionally warped couple became fodder for a nightmare. The most media-splashed, gossiped-about twosome of the 60s had disintegrated long before the play—in too many bad movies together, public spats, divorces—but on stage, as a reunion in full view of applauding suckers who couldn’t get enough of whatever low they wanted, the dissolution would be journeys to the precipice. Certainly for Burton in the insane belief he could rise artistically above the Noel Coward trap while fighting to maintain sobriety, and for Liz, loaded on booze and tabs and slurring as well as camping her way through performances, the next stop would be Betty Ford for the first of two highly headlined rehabs. Their intensity of eros, equaled by the ferocity of mutual despisal, was of course hugely fueled by the handy likes of Remy Martin and Jack Daniel’s but also fed by the myths only they believed about each other—that she thought he was the greatest living stage actor and that he thought she was the greatest living movie actress. That volatile mix would doom their careers and is what Burton and Taylor replays with a guilty pleasure fascination. Clearly lacking in ABC’s Liz and Lifetime’s Liz & Dick are good actors who can get to that level of self-destructiveness in famous personalities, to traverse the cesspool of outsized celebrity to portray the personal demons. Good fortune for all that Helena Bonham Carter as Taylor and Dominic West as Burton are unexpectedly proficient in giving a sad and, I’d risk, fairly honest glimpse of the neuroticism that became Liz & Dick. Bonham Carter gets closer to Liz than one would think possible; even with changing the mole to the left side—a trick that works—she carries the facial vision the late makeup artist Way Bandy saw in Liz (roll over top left of this note). She’s also the right size, gets the twaddle and attitudinal voice right, believably sloshes through any variant of embarrassment. She has the gift to mimic the famous—she brought out the closeted ordinariness and common sense of Queen Mum in The King’s Speech as tribute. As Liz, also infamous for mimicry, the imitation is a bit deeper, as in kinship: both have exhibited bohemian trash taste and living; both have been survivors in the distorting universe of entertainment long enough to know the reverse of Liz’s famed adage that “success is a great deodorant—it takes away all your past smells.” When becoming as famous as Liz, it’s difficult for anyone to inhabit with conviction her life but there’s belief in Bonham Carter when she speaks—that the drawling cunty expressiveness could and in some instances did come from Liz. West seems larger than Burton physically, and Burton’s ailments minus the sauce are merely discussed as opposed to being revealed, but he’s no slouch. We can see in West why Burton had to flee Liz, afraid of the emotional ensnarement, fearing the fragility of his sobriety, in constant awe of Liz as a powerful attraction on so many levels but damning it as well. By fair assessment Burton never needed her to get an audience for his stage work, yet when she collapsed into one of her psychosomatic maladies during the run of Private Lives and he tried gallantly to go on with her understudy, the audience quickly vanished. West’s reaction as Burton to the ego crush, that he simply wasn’t an equal drawing card, is humbling. And vindictive: Burton would use one of Liz’s lengthy convalescences to run off and marry mousy nursemaid Sally Hay. Burton and Taylor is neither tawdry exposé nor overwrought melodrama; revealing no fresh insights, it is about the perils of dependencies created and often left unresolved by the hook of passion.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler is a snippetfest of black servitude juxtaposed against presidential quandaries about civil rights. Don’t know why I wasn’t so much reminded of its progenitor—the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House—as I was of Forrest Gump, maybe because just as there’s a retarded goofiness in Gump’s excursions through some of the same decades’ social upheavals, there’s a discomforting dumbing down in all the white actors who show up as Daniel’s versions of the commanders-in-chief. Robin Williams’ Ike, John Cusack’s Nixon, John Marden’s JFK, Liev Schreiber’s LBJ and Alan Rickman’s Ronnie look like they’re playing charades. Who knows if they’re supposed to be sincere portrayals or mockable? Daniels permits only blacks to have ankle-deep moral gravitas while thumbnailing whites as cartooned honkies, thus subverting the personal journey to racial as well as pay equality. The whole movie eventually, unintentionally becomes disbelieving even if what it purports about Forest Whitaker’s character is based on the facts of another’s life. Worse, its stacked favoritism of black characters doesn’t keep us from ending up feeling indifferent about them. (This can’t be said of Olivia Cole’s Maggie Rogers in Backstairs.) The smoothness of the epochal transitions demonstrates that Daniels knows how to put passages together—his economy in covering a mighty timescale is admirable—but he doesn’t get to the altogether. Possibly he’s too dispersed but it’s more like inattention to the smaller details. This becomes clear when the audience watches Oprah Winfrey smoking a cigarette; her Gloria is married more to the cancer sticks and booze than she is to Whitaker’s butler yet the star and not the character holds the cigs between her fingers as a neophyte scared of the consequences. And her beehive comes a few years earlier than its creation. Daniels was insistent on one of the most famous of world wide celebrities to do Gloria, and Winfrey agreed to play against her own fame, so it matters to get the incidentals right. Whether we love her or have had it with her First Mammie omnipotence, her good fortune is that we can’t keep our eyes off her. It’s the dedication, the fullest since The Color Purple, and at about the time she’s at the dinner table giving an Angela Davis type the once over she’s entered a comfort zone, and in great makeup she’s beautiful resignation on the porch during the first Obama presidential campaign. Near the end, in the kitchen, she’s funny sneaking in Tyler Perry’s Medea. The profuse media attention devoted to her has usurped Whitaker’s restrained work as guidepost to racial evolution. During the revisionist The Help, smart viewers understood that a shit-loaded chocolate pie might be wonderful fantasy comeuppance but in reality would never go unpunished. The peril of its glossy dross is in swaying the uneducated that fiction is accepted as fact. At a Thanksgiving dinner the hosts’ oldest child as a recent college graduate caused jaws to drop with this: “Loved how Inglorious Basterds captured Hitler’s death.” Who knew?
Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal isn’t my kind of java but there’s no denying its savory blend. A caught-in-a-haunted-house chiller, there’s definitely a Henry James additive in the aberrations from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and some of the hallucinatory ingredient of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, though bloodier than either author could dare imagine himself to be. I’d also argue that Kubrick’s The Shining drips into the percolation as added flavor. Unclear why this hybrid has been badly handled in American release after receiving sizable attention at the Tribeca Film Festival and terrific response via the Internet. Instead of a more conscientious rollout, the distributors dumped it for a week last October in the basement circuit of 30 theatres across the country, with a few opting for one showing per day. Ending up at Netflix and On Demand, with redbox still undecided, it’s being treated as a throwaway bastard and poorly served by a poster with a Linda Blair look-alike grabbing for her next victim. (The advertising negligence recalls the misleading William Castle-like promotion that hampered the box office of The Innocents.) Though I’m neither annalist nor connoisseur of hair raisers, what differentiates The Canal from those in the genre I’ve seen is the expressive use of sound. In Dolby 5.1, this is a layered thriller in which sound designer Aza Hand, supervising sound editor Patrick Drummond and sound mixer Daniel Crowley blend sound and effects to achieve an increasingly altered reality by providing subjective auditory sensation. We’re listening in on what’s behind the house’s walls but not sure we hear anything at first; even the ordinary sounds—the background noise in a school, a set of keys or the great touch of hearing the little boy eating chips with ketchup—augment the combination of real and uncertainty. The unusual crispness of the various sounds is the result of having recorded all new effects—no library inventory would be inserted. (Took longer to do the post sound work than filming and the threesome were justly nominated for their efforts by the Irish Film & TV Academy.) Speaking only for myself, the last time sound effects in a battle of possession were this good, so right there, was Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Kavanagh writes and directs in smart fashion, centering on Rupert Evans in a portrayal eliciting initial inculpability that sprouts psychological tentacles. It’s a character workout as well as schematically worked out. The “small” scale of the picture, the way it’s been claustrophobically photographed and shrewdly edited, with a few shocker special effects, coalesce to be progressively more eerie and disturbing. Best of all, The Canal has an ending befitting Irish pranksters.
Why are wussiness and racism the first negative charges we feel in Captain Phillips? Early in we find ourselves shouting “Do something!” and “What’s wrong with these pussies that they’re not fighting back?” The potential of Somalia savagery became a reality as far back as the infamous 1993 Black Hawk Down episode, and since at least 2005 commercial shipping companies had warned of escalating piracy, so it’s revolting that those skinny ugly Davids, in vulnerable motor boats, ladder up without AK-47-like resistance from Goliath. Is this supposed to be the elicitation director Paul Greengrass is aiming for—the flip side of fatal courage in United 93? (It’s not as if Phillips battled for control of a 757, or fought frenzied mobs in Mogadishu.) Most of us probably cheered the news back in 2009 that Phillips & company were rescued, but our perceptions of what were initially hailed as heroics have been neutered by the movie’s take on infuriating impotence. Greengrass might argue he’s simply made a topical docudrama with the big name star proving once more he’s our most proficient “Everyman.” That’s about as deep as the movie gets; even Tom Hanks, whose presence usually acts as dependable filler, goes through the travails rather barrenly. Moving as his moments are in the Naval ship’s infirmary, he appears less relieved than anxious when he reclines on the examination bed. Maybe he’s thinking about the ordeal as future book, or about that call he’s likely to get from the POTUS inviting him to the White House, or about how he’ll pardon himself after failing to exercise some 2nd Amendment remedies to fend off piracy. One sure thing these days about Americans of every political persuasion: they don’t want to be reminded of any more wussifications contrived as valor, confirming why Captain Phillips inherited only some of Tom’s otherwise huge audience.
Carnage is in dubious hands. Director Roman Polanski hasn’t the finesse, humor or verve to do satire in a parlor setting, which is why his final sequence says more about the battling foursome’s truthiness than they verbalize in total. Excepting Christoph Waltz, whose infuriating cell phone obsessiveness is used to confirm his and therefore our ever-growing distance from human contact, the actors are badly miscast, in the same obviousness of the director’s Death and the Maiden. Kate Winslet, Jody Foster and John C. Reilly don’t fit any identifiable parental modes, they haven’t an ounce of empathy about their “civilized” distress (over each couple’s son involved in a bullying altercation) because they’re inferiorly faking it; they’re in emergency need for more rehearsal. Winslet, who gets the only laughs as a hurler and then seeker of remedy for her husband Waltz’s social disorder, appears lost in the incipient script—she doesn’t have anything to grab onto except the upchuck bucket and the bottle. Awash in asexual jitters, Foster looks ready for a strait jacket almost from the beginning. She barely utters a single line with conviction; in no time every word drops like a thud. (She’s also getting increasingly more unsightly.) Playing her ill-matched husband, Reilly screams and hollers as if he’s an American philistine as target. And that’s due to a particular nastiness in Polanski’s anti-American tone, which is not present in Yasmina Reza’s original play loftily titled Le Dieu du carnage. Wanting to be sardonic about manners and political correctness as guides to behavioral solutions, with undeniable structural steals and boozed-up spousal warfare borrowings from Albee, Carnage doesn’t have a chance to rise above superficiality and feckless acting because it coldly oozes a Facebook Twitterdome—distant exhibition and empty rhetoric.
In my email the other day was a reader’s comment that I’m spending more time watching “women’s stuff” than anything else. When opening the Netflix DVD mailer later that afternoon, it contained Carol, and in the previous delivery it was Suffragette. Defending the choices as accidental, I concede the point for balance. In the meantime, comments on director Todd Haynes’s predilection for restoring to the screen a near-perfection of the mid-20th century American decade are required. His reproductions of the 1950s in Far From Heaven and Carol facilitate a remote angst in many of us in that we recognize that the actors’ characterizations are plants as musing as the production designs. There are few distinctions between the performances and the settings—the decorative assemblage is affected by intense stylization that can be alienating. Those who grew up in the era, who may even have similar stories to share, have difficulty with Haynes’s intentionally revisionist nonjudgment. It’s false to real experiences; outside of heavily metropolitan conclaves, and often in them, there were always fears of exposure, ridicule and punishment for gays, an obscene eagerness to litigate violently against them. (Or send them to psychiatrists for a “cure,” the “enlightenment” of the period.) While Carol is one of the more tranquillized “women’s pictures,” concentrating on an early 1950s same-sex love affair set in New York, and even though it’s great to watch Cate Blanchett as Carol turn into mink-clad Gena Rowlands with Grace Kelly hair, the whole god damned thing is too dreamily out of touch to be felt. It’s one long foreplay of lezdar transmission, which makes the movie tastefully unique but not particularly tolerable: soon into Rooney Mara’s gamine pixie there’s annoyance over her fixated stares. (Audrey Hepburn and Jean Simmons, both of whom Rooney has been compared, would not be pleased.) In the bonus section on the DVD, the cast and crew talk about how “in sync” everyone was during the making of Carol. Not completely. Questions about a surreptitious tape are unanswered: Cate’s estranged husband Kyle Chandler discovers she’s on a road trip and he hires a private investigator who, trailing her and companion Rooney, records their supposedly first sexual encounter in a Waterloo, Iowa motel on New Year’s Eve. When Cate finds out about it the next day, through a telegram sent to her at the motel, she grabs a gun from her luggage and threatens the p.i. who tells her that he already sent the incriminating tape to her husband. How can that be when the post office would have been closed already on New Year’s Eve and not open at all on New Year’s Day? And true for any other shipping service. If the look, sound and acting protagonists are in lockstep with Haynes’s replications, so must be the plot details. Coalescing to achieve resolution of the underlining issue that what we are sexually eventually prevails, Haynes’s forward-thinking sympathies are unfailing, just as they are in Far From Heaven, which comes with the extra of interracial love. From the sexual revolution onward, in spite of persistent homophobia that continues to endanger, the likelihood of getting to fulfillment is much stronger. In recollections of the 50s and 60s, however, I don’t recall knowing contented, well-adjusted lesbians and even when living in the liberal neighborhoods of Chicago and Houston I didn’t meet happy ones. The kinds I’m familiar with are the guilt-tripped and the factory-working boozing butch bowlers who, behind closed doors, didn’t hesitate to use belts against the naked skin of their kids when they misbehaved. As a filter providing gooey reinterpretation of social history, Haynes finds it anathema to consider a movie suggesting lasting consequences resulting from societal proscription and heavy emotional baggage. He wants us to ignore that in the real 50s world some of those kids were not all right.
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq might have been a brutal, raw docudrama of city shame; instead, it’s a faux Greek chorus video (in verse!) about Chicago’s South Side women denying sex to their mates until there’s peace in the hood. (It turns into an international crusade.) That’s likely why it’s compelling to watch—viewers who have paid any attention to what’s going on in the South Side will be fascinated by the sheer disbelief in the premise. Lee’s gutsiness in relocating and updating the Greek drama Lysistrata engenders some admiration, but what seems to happen is that a black Westside Story keeps wanting to emerge. The energetic performers look like they want to break out into song and dance on the streets. There’s an abortive effort with the cast doing “Oh Girl”; the Leontyne Price of the hood Jennifer Hudson begs to wail the woes in “I Run”; a beautiful solo entitled “I Want to Live” sung by Kymm Lewis utterly wasted in its use for the end credits. The major disappointment of the movie is visual—we don’t get an encompassing canvas of the South Side’s poverty, depravation, its endangerment. Lee either eliminates the views, as with the prologue when we hear the opening irritant “Pray 4 My City,” or uses the community’s streets for Teyonah Parris’s ass-swaying, or hides them in darkness. If we don’t see the scourge of the violent environment, how can we be expected to experience outrage? Can’t condemn Lee for trying to impel righteous indignation. Worthy of suspicion, however, is that he doesn’t get it, that fanciful mixing of a Grecian formula with rap psalmody alienates more than unites. Rejection of the movie by audiences, including South Siders, confirms there’s no justification for camouflaging the real Chi-Raq.
Before the 2015 Disney Cinderella, probably the last version I remember sort of liking was the Disney-Whitney Houston update of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. In that one, it was impossible to avoid Jesse Jackson’s dream of a Rainbow Coalition: The fairy king Victor Garber and queen Whoopi Goldberg begetting their gay-bar Filipino prince Paulo Montalban who falls for a black Cinderella, surrounded by a variety pack of nationalities choreographed by Rob Marshall. Everyone got by except Brandy Norwood. Just ain’t no way she cuts it as Cinderella; she’s got wide-eyed innocence but not the requisite loveliness, which must be showcased when Houston’s fairy godmother works her abracadabra. Brandy’s makeup has been disadvantageously accentuated around the eyes and lips; she needed the miracles of Kevyn Acoin. (Suppose it’s small to want more from her, because she exonerates herself nicely by giving the mind-numbing score a real lift; who didn’t feel their ears puncture when Julie Andrews pierced about that damned little corner and chair?) Randy Ser’s award-winning garish production design and Ellen Mirojnick’s equally gaudy costumes have the look, color and appeal of animation. Not unexpected, then, that Bernadette Peters as the cockamamie stepmommie comes close to stealing the show; in shiny tendrils and tiny steps, accompanied by her scratchy and snorty faux pas-prone idiot progeny, she’s a living cartoon. At the time, the musical seemed a fitting conclusion to any need to see another version. (Okay, I’d take in the spoofy Ella Enchanted just to listen to Steve Coogan voice the snake cleverly named Heston.) Would have passed on Disney’s latest redo but avoiding Lily James is impossible. True, a few incautious dips in a vat of glucose and she’d emerge diabetic. She keeps a steady control, though, injecting balance to counter the spikes of mandatory gooiness. She also puts huge smiles on viewers’ faces and that doesn’t come as surprise: the needed replacement for the libertine Sybil on Downton Abbey, James as Rose enamored us first with her flapper flippancy, indecorum and her showdowns with her bitter mother. Then, falling in love with a Jew, she navigated the social negatives by saving her future father-in-law from the horrors of public revelations of his past indiscretion. Realizing her foxy politesse, he sees what we’ve seen all along—she’s a force of positivity and change swelling into joy. In Cinderella, this is abundantly felt as she walks into the Royal Ball and, courteously bowing to the smitten prince (Richard Madden, Games of Thrones’s Robb Stark), takes charge on the dance floor. Some feminists aren’t happy about either the movie or James’s portrayal, sourpussing that both are stereotypically subservient. Quite the opposite: as Cinderella ever more confidently swirls in the prince’s arms, there can be no denying who has the upper hand. Possibly an overstatement I can live with, James is the best Ella so far. Director Kenneth Branagh willingly accedes to the Disney demands to neutralize the Grimm aspects of the brothers’ fairy tale with the lighter touch of comedy, even if we’d like more laughs, especially from the underutilized stepsisters Sophie McShera (Daisy in Downton Abbey) and Holliday Grainger (Lucrezia in Showtime’s The Borgias). He allows Cate Blanchett’s sinister stepmother to be coiffed and decked out as an ancestor to Ingrid Thulin in Visconti’s The Damned, and sends up Helena Bonham Carter’s fairy god mother as a blond bombshell packing a few pounds. (She’s also the narrator.) The CGI is weighty without overwhelming—Haris Zambarlouko’s photography blends the expensive effects with Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume supervision to capture a Ludwig nuttiness. With hysterical affright burdening us these days, Cinderella is a gloriously romantic if brief respite.
An accidental tribute to male protein, Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is a frayed geezer reminder about those anti-Vietnam war demonstrators remaining on the run from Johnny Law because of serious felonies committed in the name of social conscience. When Susan Sarandon, who has been in negotiations to turn herself in, is instead arrested while fueling up her vehicle, her old compadres start to get the jitters, including Redford as a lawyer declining to represent her and his old girl friend Julie Christie who’s a fellow fugitive and current drug trafficker. Redford’s dependable arcadian style as director remains a comfort—we’ve been conditioned to know he’s not going to mug us with any deep political hangovers. What his style doesn’t do is cover up the gaping holes in plot and so he relies on the blockbuster boomer cast—including Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Stanley Tucci—to pretend to glide over them. Sarandon’s explanations for her socially conscious protestations have, to borrow from Albee, “a quietly noisy relaxed intensity” required these days to move beyond the divisive rhetoric of the past as well as the present. She’s been aided by millennial Shia LaBeouf borrowing his slightly green reporter mode from Dustin Hoffman; he’s nerdy, insistent, agreeable, especially opposite an arresting Gleeson. With the weight of misfit, Christie is close to a stunt; her hair is like a mop covering a bad facelift and she’s fighting hard to eliminate any traces of her accent. And like Sarandon, she gets unaccountably shortchanged. Though this sense of being gypped is not fatal, it is central to Redford’s stingy emotions. He squelches what is forewarned as multiple reunions of the long lost—we’d still be watching if he hadn’t—but he abandons our need to see at least a few of the loose ends tied up in favor of giving us the creeps that as a geezer he’s still potent enough to have fathered a child. In careful distance from the camera (we can’t count the facial bumps) and in diffident gait, he’d have been more plausible and made us more comfortable keeping the company of grandchildren.
BODY TALK: A contributor to the user review section over at IMDb.com offers an intriguing comment worthy of repeating—that Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterwork The Conformist is best viewed in a language we don’t understand sans the subtitles. Which is to suggest, and I agree, that the movie derives its fascination from the language of the body and no one’s more than Jean-Louis Trintignant’s. As the “me too” fascist during the Mussolini era, he’s performance art realized by nuances in physique and movement; he uses his slender build and height as shield to protect himself from the exposure of his demons and, from the very beginning, he’s a super tight-ass holding in his bowels as he descends into the moral vacuum and begins to betray his self-confidence in convincing his fellow thugs he’s one of them. With Vittorio Storaro’s camera aiding and abetting, we clearly see this as he walks briskly through the halls of one of Mussolini’s architectural monstrosities—there’s an inadequacy of sang-froid, he’s speeding to abide by the mob’s tyranny. He obligates himself to the fascists as self-preserving atonement for a major crime he believes he committed in his youth; his offense, however, is a pas de deux of submission and adolescent experimentation that leaves the viewer with a Thomas Mann-like Tadzio hangover about who did what to whom first. In the choreographed pièce de résistance set in a forest, Trintignant, wrapped up in a winter coat with an enshrouding collar not too unlike what his co-star Anouk Aimée hid behind in A Man and A Woman, will stare out a car window with freeze-dried response. No words are necessary. Bertolucci alters the conclusion of Alberto Moravia’s novel so that the just penalty isn’t any longer waiting for the machine gun but in the horror of wasted compliance. That expression of reckoning on Trintignant’s face may be the single most salutary silent acting he’s ever done.
Jeff Bridges doesn’t save Crazy Heart, in spite of the fact that he’s giving another very fine performance, reeking with his usual authenticity; viewers can virtually smell McClure’s. Neither Maggie Gyllenhaal nor the music by Stephen Bruton, T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham and Gary Nicholson save it, though they furnish enormously pleasing support. What saves the movie, which is one more rehash of the boozed-up burnt-out country singer trying to redeem himself, is its ending. The script by director Scott Cooper alerts us that troubles are ahead and when they arrive there’s a thud or two of letdown; we really don’t want to travel that tired ass road of disrepair that’ll be magically blacktopped by some intervention and reward. Certainly don’t need another Tender Mercies revival, a fear invoked as a quiet moan by Robert Duvall’s appearance. (Seeing his mustache I audibly grumbled.) But something smart happens: just as we think the ending is upon us as the screen goes black, a few seconds later the real conclusion starts to unreel and all the hoary conventions that precede it congeal—the decencies of the characters emerge, we get dignity without all that sticky virtue. Won’t waste excess words on Bridges except to say that he deserves his Oscar (in a less predictable bandwagon dispersal of honors it would be his second, coming after his work in Fearless), that there’s no other American actor who can so physically hand himself over to scroungy bums and still keep us watching, and that he sings—as does Colin Farrell—receptively. Awards went to “The Weary Kind” as best song; my personal favorite is “Hold on You.”
In the opening scenes of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Keira Knightley is so unlike anything we’ve seen from her that we’re startled and apt to want to reject the histrionics as overacting. But the ferocious “hysteria” of her character was requested by Cronenberg; according to Keira, the medical records on Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, a patient/lover/protégée of Carl Jung, are “vague about the fits and tics,” and the director and star ended up searching through annals of psycho behavior to find similar cases in which the neurotic twitchings were described in depth. I feel compelled to mention this because apparently a lot of viewers turn off quickly and don’t stick around to watch the rest of what, imo, is 2011’s best essay. (Not unfair to infer that those viewers might be more tolerant of Emilia Fox’s Sabina in Roberto Faenza’s 2002 The Soul Keeper, a more traditional bio.) Cronenberg provides adult moviegoers starving for some intelligence a refresher course on the intense relationship between Sabina and Jung and the fractured relationship of Jung and Freud, but few of us expected this degree of silkiness. Thinking it over, we should have. The brightly lit portraiture by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky frames Cronenberg’s silkworm—the masterful mesmerizer Christopher Hampton, who adapted the screenplay from his own play The Talking Cure, which was an adaptation from John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method. Hampton uses his rare gift of clarity in the midst of competitive argufying—e.g., Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement, the English translation of the play The God of Carnage—to furnish gracefully soothing expressiveness that Michael Fassbender as Jung and Viggo Mortensen as Freud pour honeyed verbal tones over. (Their tight-collared debonaire, letter-writing and compulsive habits enhance the spell, even if we want to stop Jung from shaking that salt and we’re reminded why Freud died from mouth cancer.) Lifting from one of my favorite movie newsgroup contributors, Knightley is “ballsy”; her Sabina’s “hysteria”-turned-daring-thesis is that our sex drives contain the “instinct of destruction” cohabitating with the “instinct of transformation,” postulating that our sex lives have been born and shaped for good or bad by those who were the first to get their hands on us. Daddy’s spankings are Sabina adapting the destruction of the past she can not change to maximize the pleasure of the present and future. A Dangerous Method provokes and enthralls. And more so after seeing The Soul Keeper, which could be regarded as a primer. Structured somewhat like Neil LaBute’s Possession, in which “moderns” are in search and discovery of subjects from the past, this movie sticks to broader details of Sabina’s life, omitting the deeper meaning of the sexual proclivities caused by the Daddy Effect, and in the last part concentrates on Sabina’s progressive “White Nursery,” its resulting traumas and the infamous German Einsatzgruppen on the hunt for Jews. Fox is satisfactory but not satisfying; she has her moments, like her breakthrough with a child suffering from infantile autism who turns out to be the son of Stalin, yet she doesn’t quite grow into the role. There’s a leftover actressy obsequiousness; she remains Mr. Darcy’s sister. Depicting Jung, Iain Glen uses that mellisonant voice effectively, as he does in just about all his roles, including his Sir Richard Carlisle in the second season of Downton Abbey, and he’s estimable fighting against the horrors of draconian mental health treatments, but with the script avoiding Sabina’s sexual turmoil, he has the depth of a mannequin. Where A Dangerous Method challenges and enlightens, The Soul Keeper is woebegone composition, another darkie periodical about lambs being sacrificed to killing machines. I’m betting Sabina wouldn’t want that as her legacy.
Never having been able to fully watch My Left Foot because of a persistent deficit of compassion, I almost didn’t see The Theory of Everything for the same reason. Thankfully not the frequent self-centered trickster that is Daniel Day-Lewis, Eddie Redmayne is believably humble as brainiac Stephen Hawking; he doesn’t demand applause as one of the supremely handicapped, regardless that such affliction is instant Academy Award. In other words, there’s no guilty conscience in the unpleasant adversities. Rather the opposite in The Danish Girl, in which he’s exquisitely creepy-crawly as Lili Elbe, one of the first known transgenders who in fact had four groundbreaking operations in the process of transition—the last one a transplant of a uterus—in Germany in 1930 and 1931. Redmayne probably has no intention to become the embodiment of nature’s foul plays, yet he’s the prime illustrator at the moment. With intense paleness and thin frame, susceptible in a Quentin Crisp way, his Elbe’s delicate femininity produces some recoils and it’s a compliment to want to use a flyswatter during some of his icky pooh scenes: among the preliminaries before crossing the Rubicon are the pushing in of his genitals to make them disappear between his thighs; entering a whorehouse to study a no-touch exhibitionist’s semi-erotic muliebrity; not unexpectedly antidromic in women’s clothing. (Often the bad luck with transgenders, he’s more attractive in male mode, wearing Edwardian left-overs, than when wearing dresses.) Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxen definitely have some hard swats coming for corrupting Elbe’s real story, thinking they can make better post-truth nonfiction out of the David Ebershoff novel. As a man Elbe’s name was Einar Wegener, an artist who met his wife Gerda Gottlieb at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. A marriage of convenience—he a likely intersexer and she an alleged switch-hitter—they moved to Paris to live openly their kinky arrangements. Though both award-winning artists, and with consent from Elbe, Gerda’s career took precedence when her paintings, primarily those that included barely disguised representations of her husband as a woman, were embraced as avant garde. (Controversy erupted when the public found out it was her husband posing.) With the growing itch to switch, the marriage was legally dissolved by the time Elbe underwent the challenging surgical procedures, the final intended to fulfil her fantasy of having her male lover’s child. The movie ignores mention of this, except for the virulent infection as aftermath. It also shows Gerda being at Elbe’s side during the recovery. She wasn’t there, having sent flowers instead; at that time she had married again, to a gold digger, and living in Italy. The second marriage a failure, her success as an artist dwindling to a halt, she died a drunk and penniless in Denmark in 1940. Alicia Vikander’s Oscar-winning depiction of her isn’t but needs to be Eurotrash, in the way Kris Jenner and her daughters are Ameritrash. They’re peddlers of trendy psychology, enablers to the “miracles” of modern medical facilitation; they share the boobgeoisie urge to profit in pushing or being freak shows.
George Clooney’s cool nattiness has come at a cost for discriminating audiences. Enjoying his tailored deportment means we sacrifice a closer connection to him, that the only thing we’re allowed to like is his mansome act. That’s enough for the Ocean series, or the dipshit Intolerable Cruelty, but even when he’s serious—in Syriana, the TV Fail Safe, Good Luck, and Good Night, The Good German, Michael Clayton, The American and Up in the Air, or sand-dusted in Three Kings or water-logged in The Perfect Storm—the act gets in the way because what’s missing is recognizable humanness. He’s a Clark Kent in tights sans the cape; at some point a self-respecting superman will sense his deception, that he can’t fly as an artist if all he’s offering is commodity. In The Ides of March, which he directed and co-wrote as a narrowly focused Game Change, his work appears to be an extension of the familiar goods, this time as a politician running for the presidency, mouthing all the right kinds of progressive mantras and some of them winningly concise. (The reverse of the poisoned arrows Warren Beatty shoots at political correctness in Bulworth.) When the plot makes its pivot, on Ryan Gosling’s discovery that the politician he’s strategizing for has been fucking the same staff member he has, Clooney transforms startlingly from The Slickster Candidate to self-preserving warrior by antagonizing that “there’s no note” of evidence to implicate him in what might become a scandal. Clooney’s also a model of efficiency as movie maker: minus the credits, The Ides of March runs only 95 minutes (and Good Night, and Good Luck runs 93 with credits), has a crackerjack script covering the basics, provides a Karl Rove for Paul Giamatti, and gives Gosling a cagey uncertainty and another opportunity to be behind the wheel. (He’s physically something like a Canadian Robert Redford without the facial bumps and platinum hair and is a GQ ad for the sleeveless T.) Perhaps the tribute to the Richard Brooks/Conrad Hall rainwater on glass from In Cold Blood sticks out, but it’s not the misstep that is Gosling putting the victim’s cell phone down on the car’s center console preempting the jolt of a phone ringing a bit later. Reasonable to otherwise conclude that Gosling’s the movie’s center but after The Descendants, my attention refocused on Clooney. Those of us fed up with his armored urbanity are taken aback not only by his economy in Ides but also by a performance close to revelation in The Descendants that could easily tumble into a maudlin Houseboat, or a phonier Father Goose. The latter had a deglammed Cary doing a Heaven Knows, Mr. Grant; in The Descendants, Clooney’s grooming is made sloppy by Hawaiian humidity. He’s a husband/father in a constant state of anxiety trying to sort his conflictions about familial situations he was negligent about; he’s got the “walk” and “run” of a scion carrying the weight of piling complications. Some argue the movie, exempting Clooney, is blah, too mild, in need of a major climax. Wouldn’t the movie dissolve into disbelief if there had been, for example, a miraculous recovery of the coma victim, the threat of which was imminent in at least one scene? (Almost falls into incredulity anyway when conveniently the “enemy” turns out to be a wus as a possible beneficiary of a huge real estate deal.) Award season long over, it’s not too late to fess up that after The Ides of March and The Descendants, Clooney is 2011’s best actor.
The fancy of Jewish revenge in Inglourious Basterds offered the audience a cheeky comeuppance as terrific entertainment, and director Quentin Tarantino kept it pretty much under control. In Django Unchained, there’s never any disguise that he would give blacks—okay, a single black—the chance to give old Whitey his due. Simply stated, that’s what’s wrongheaded about the movie: there isn’t a single surprise in it; everything’s right on cue, right down to the director’s repulsive appearance. Could hardly wait for the expected bang up finale. And that need to see it over started when Leonardo DiCaprio takes us to his plantation, at which time the movie loses whatever’s left of its momentum. All of Tarantino’s movies seem too long, by at least half an hour; he likes dragging scenes through the carnage, or allowing actors repeated close ups during which they’re not transmitting anything beyond what they transmitted in the last close up. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz work well together, but why the latter won another Oscar for mere role reversal isn’t clear. Don Johnson is a gentleman savage Colonel Sanders; Samuel L. Jackson a gentleman savage version of Oscar Polk’s Pork out of Gone with the Wind; DiCaprio a gentleman savage version of Philip Casnoff’s Elkanah Bent in North and South. Tarantino was in frequent terrorist mode when being interviewed about DU, claiming that he made a more honest movie than anyone else about the condition of blacks at about the time the Civil War was about to erupt. Make no mistake about this—he’s fabricating. Roots, when not showing us the Martha Stewart-decorated cabins of the slaves, and North and South, when relating to the consequences of slavery, are surprisingly honest depictions. (And not just in the use of the “n” word.) Even the trasher Mandingo, which beat DU to the screen by thirty seven years, has depictions more historically plausible than the concoctions of Tarantino, the neighborhood sissy overcompensating as boor historian.
EGALITARIAN FEATHERS: As soon as we hear Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn in Doubt delivering his Sunday sermon to parishioners—and asks the question “What do you do when you’re not sure?”—we’re cued that writer-director John Patrick Shanley will not adjudicate his central issue. Why should he, since we in the audience are sure to issue the indictment, run the trial and act as jury because we’re all carrying the same media-fed verdict on Roman Catholic clergy hanky panky? I’m not making light of the serious subject; I’m pointing out that Shanley is telegraphing early on that the subject’s seriousness is more an acting exercise than a bruising, harrowing exposé in the vein of Canadian John N. Smith’s The Boys of St. Vincent. Those of us educated in Catholic schools during the 50s and 60s watch Doubt not with suspicion but with reserve because some of us back then had been involved in relationships with adults we never told our families about until years later, having been fearful of the consequences, unwilling to say anything because we actually enjoyed it. Though Doubt doesn’t specifically deal with that issue, what makes it compelling retrovision is that we sensed a nun or two did pick up on “something,” which would be reasonable in that behaviors fall into observable patterns and those nuns weren’t stupid. (They’d tell our parents we were “distracted,” our minds “elsewhere,” “preoccupied with home-wrecking movie stars” like Liz in BU 8. That was the extent of intervention.) Some of us had as teacher a version of Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius who, entering the order as a widow, has been around the block enough to connect longish finger nails to child abuse. In traditional black and Quaker-like habit, giving short shrift to the sign of the cross, she’s the emblem of the daily terror Catholic school kids of the period had to learn survivor skills to deal with. She’s a memory refresher about the slaps on the back of our heads when we weren’t paying attention—or worse, falling asleep—at Mass; the scary principal as final authority over our pranks-as-sins; the roving busybody do-gooder out to protect her charges. With a Bronx accent, adding just enough Rosie O’Donnell to get some smiles, she speaks real English, not that melodious Catholic Speak of The Nun’s Story. She isn’t too tactful, she has that right-off-the-street no-nonsense practicality not allowing for too much blab, guardedly watching and listening to those speaking to her. (Or about her: hearing Hoffman’s sermon on the dangers of spreading irretrievable feathers from a damaged pillow is just about a declaration of war.) If there’s a “joy” in the movie, it’s in not knowing what she’ll say next or how she’ll respond in delicate situations. During her conversation with Viola Davis as the mother of the boy who is likely being abused by Hoffman, her “am-I-hearing-this-right?” anxiety is close to stunning; she’s absorbing—and so are we—a mother’s heartbreaking realism over a family tragedy no one (in 1964, the movie’s timeline) can do much to remedy. As Streep’s nemesis Hoffman is far less repellent than he usually is, and Amy Adams as the young nun of Shanley’s childhood has a fine sequence in which she sends one pupil to Streep’s office for some minor infraction when in fact she’s really trying to deal with the realization that the allegedly abused pupil’s distractedness is at the heart of her crumbling composure. In the role Oprah Winfrey coveted, Davis is riveting, as she often is, especially in episodes on the Law & Order spinoffs. But Doubt belongs to the celebrated Streep. At this stage in her career, a performance is no longer an event; she’s moved beyond the reserved seat acting of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa and Ironweed, and the special engagement stuff like Kramer vs. Kramer, Silkwood, Plenty, Dancing at Lughnasa and Angels in America. Previously boxed in by her educated speechnology and stingy with warmth (okay, empathy), our finest thespian has come in from the cold. She’s become an egalitarian, spreading her feathers of equality while never waivering on integrity and self-respect.
Hyperbolic but not undeserved: ITV’s Downton Abbey (Season One) is stupendous entertainment. Okay, politely if not decorously stupendous. Changing the paradigm for miniseries, wherein so many elongated teleplays tend to move at a leisurely even draggy pace, this one starts at a fast clip, soon races like a speeding locomotive, and at its climax reaches speeds equaling Europe’s AGVs. Not since the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice has there been as satisfying a romantic “novel” on the tube, with a close-to-perfect cast, headed by one of the grande dames of tricksterism Maggie Smith, who turns into a parade of steal-stealing arched eyebrows and killer enunciations. Creator/writer Julian Fellowes has covered the Upstairs/Downstairs genre before—penning Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. But that one had nine English stars dominating characters and suffered a murky conclusion that in the soap opera scheme of things didn’t quite matter. In Downton Abbey the ever-more quick shifts of plot—centered around the contretemps sparked by the sex-based legalisms of an estate entail—do matter and they work so well because we Americans don’t have, with the exception of Maggie, any star-gazing hangover effectswith the cast. These actors are fresh, often exciting; they not only seem to belong in the rarefied world of Downton Abbey, they re-confirm why England’s greatest export is acting. To say the least, new stars have formed: foremost would be Hugh Bonneville as the compassionate but heir-wanting patriarch Lord Grantham; Michelle Dockery as first daughter Lady Mary who asks in pique “How many times am I to marry the man I’m sitting next to at dinner?” (the answer from her mother: “As many times as it takes”) in order to save the dynasty; Jessica Brown-Findlay as the third daughter Lady Sybil whose politics and dress are decidedly those of a suffragette and moderne; Brendan Coyle as the limping valet Mr. Bates (a tribute to Alan Bates) and Joanne Froggatt as Anna the good maid who loves him enough to uncover his veiled honor. Our favorites to “hate” are Siobhan Finnerman’s O’Brien, the personal maid to Elizabeth McGovern’s Countess Cora, and Rob James-Collier’s Thomas, the footman as valet wannabe. She’s an Edwardian version of Madame Defarge who looks like she could be the much taller daughter of Ann Way (Miss Gaunt in Smith’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie); he’s a blackmailing perv cut down by the sting that “one swallow does not make a summer.” Together they connive to destroy reputations and separately one of them spifflicates an heir. (In the DVD but not aired on PBS, the twosome scheme an additional bit of sneaky knavery.) The mother & son team of Isobel and Matthew Crawley are refreshed examples of the emerging English upper middle class: Penelope Wilton suggests a refined Nancy Reagan who, as with Brown-Findlay, brings a pleasing melodiousness in voice, while Dan Stevens is like a Beau Bridges crossed with a slightly thinned Glenn Beck. Fellowes is strongly dependent on Maggie Smith and she obliges by going full throttle with her Dowager Countess’s enthrall of imperious pronouncements and fears (of electricity, the telephone and office chairs that swivel) and no matter how many times we’ve seen variations of the celebrated Smith shtick, she’s still very funny. Especially when asking, “What is a weekend?” She’s got her share of killer lines: when Mary claims Sybil is entitled to her own opinions, Smith corrects, “No, she isn’t until she is married. Then, her husband will tell her what her opinions are.” About withholding secrets before marriage, she confesses for all of us, “Everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.” The actors I’ve mentioned are my own favorites but not meant to exclude the others because they’re all damned good, each given his or her moments to shine and oh, do they! The supreme efficiency of the story is enhanced by the trio of directors—Brian Percival, Ben Bolt and Brian Kelly—and the topnotch editing by John Wilson, Alex Mackie and Nick McPhee. John Lunn’s music and main theme are as inviting and appropriate as scores get and during the sequence in which Sybil shows off her new garb the violins accelerate with a genuine felicity. Though sets were built, primarily the kitchen and adjoining rooms “downstairs,” much of it was filmed at Highclere Castle in Berkshire. Not the gross opulence of Pemberly but it makes one hell of an impression.
When the Guinness Book of Records sighted Downton Abbey (Season One) for “attracting the highest critical ratings of a TV show,” it would only be a matter of time before America’s favorite pastime of nitpicking would commence to do a job on the second season. Every succeeding episode of Downton Abbey II managed to rile up viewers, mostly in the negative, about creator-writer Julian Fellowes’ machinations and sparked huge Internet debate (Slate used a posse comitatus to tackle the onslaught) as to whether the beloved show has become excessively soapy. Two factors blew the lid off the Abbey. First, the mysterious return of “Patrick,” the heir to Downton Abbey presumed to have died on the Titanic during the opening of the first episode in the first season. It’s like we’re treading through the sludge of The Downton Patient, hopefully over. The second low point, the miraculously fast recover of Matthew from his spinal injuries sustained during battle. The miracle granted wiggle room for the hard-on to come, but it also engendered unintended howls and screams. There are other unimpressive aspects, like Lady Cora’s mounting dipshitedness, Daisy’s incessant moaning about having done the right thing about William, the lack of resolution over O’Brien’s “soapgate,” and Mr. Bates’ tiresome and limpy nobility. As well as his problems with the bitch wife Vera having been stretched without the needed big bang. (What we got during the trial in the Xmas special was anti-climatic.) I’ve wondered why the show appeared to be on an even faster track than the first season, until the answer is rather casually provided by producer Gareth Neame in a DVD special feature, in which he said Fellowes was actually writing while the show was filming. That’s a guarantee for chaos and the second season unquestionably felt chaotic at times. (Reportedly Fellowes was juggling this series with his mundane script for the ABC four part Titanic.) As soon as the DVD became available, midway through PBS’s initial airing, I bought it and sat down to watch all the chapters that same day. After the myriad of snarky slams by the know-it-alls, which involuntarily seep into our notion of fairness, I felt obliged to give the show a more just shake. Surprised by how much better the second season is uninterrupted, with Maggie Smith funnier straight on than in weekly installments, and Michelle Dockery fantabulously holding it together in spite of all the frustration and disappointment. Part of what I sensed about the series when viewing it nonstop was the pressure; there’s a palpable squeeze in both the actors and the scripts—trying to get it all in and in the process losing continuity. Excluding the compulsory cliffhangers, the actions of some characters are left dangling—for example, the most intriguing suspension is Thomas’s grief over the death of the blind lieutenant having been displayed and then discarded. Fellowes is maddeningly writing “up” to the situations, attempting to keep the flow steady and without the pitfalls of cliché but it’s obvious he’s been pulled in too many directions and consequently the actors are politely—and very professionally—“frantic” to cover the missing groundwork. The second season isn’t the graceful glide of the first, primarily because no one could have dreamt of its worldwide success and the resulting heavy pressing on Fellowes, the cast and crew to provide more knockout entertainment. Regardless of all the bitching, Downton Abbey II gives the audience what it’s been waiting for and is still the best romantic diversion on TV this year. However, as an antidote to the gooeyness, I recommend the incomparably trashy La Reina del sur.
The surprise as well as danger of The Duchess is that it is as close to perfect as its kind gets. Ever since Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett, the British have happened upon a style of condensation that is indicative of our limits; the scourge of a 140 character limit seems a Twitter exclusive but it’s a manifestation of our unwillingness to absorb and demand more detail. It may no longer be tenable for audiences to watch a four hour version of Pride and Prejudice or find disturbing the shocking omission of the Queen and hubby Albert’s kids in The Young Victoria, without whom today’s viewers haven’t a clue to the family’s line of hemophilia that would be one of the major catalytic ingredients to the Russian Revolution. The movie makers will tell us that they can’t include everything, that they are trying for the essence of their stories. Director Saul Dibb, who doesn’t really have a résumé to suggest his accomplishment, likewise speeds through the history of his subject Georgiana, the 18th Century Duchess of Devonshire. While hardly missing a beat, and certainly not the essentials, he pulls all the technical elements together—Gyula Pados’s photography as loving adoration to John Alcott’s meticulous setups from Barry Lyndon, Rachel Portman’s score and Petr Matejak’s soloist violin, Masahiro Hirakubo’s film editing—without sacrificing facts, incidentals, the flavor as well as the pulse of the period. He guides the “essence” of Georgiana’s story through the eyes of Keira Knightley and she’s nothing less than a marvel in spite of herself: because of the costumes, she doesn’t look as anorexic here as she has in other movies—those Pirates of the Caribbean extravaganzas, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, from the waist up in Atonement—and she has this manner of speaking that, clear and precise as it is, sounds as if she’s carrying a few too many loads of saliva. Mushy yet we’re held. Certainly not the celebrated Rubenesque Georgiana as sketched and painted, Keira embodies both the boozing libertine (who would die from a liver ailment) and Diana Spencer as she audaciously battles the eternal wars for the same freedoms and entitlements as the titled men. Sound vaguely familiar? Princess Victim and those living corpses Charles and Camilla? With a script as highlights, Keira fills in the gaps of the Duchess’ situations with grace and an impressive emotional power, especially when she rages at the Duke’s indifferent usurpation of her friendship with Lady Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell as a pretty version of Shani Willis), or when she falls into Bess’s arms as her love child is carried away. Her leading men are Ralph Fiennes (as the Duke) and Dominic Cooper (as Charles Grey, a future prime minister) and neither is quite up to matching her or the plush surroundings (that magnificent dark brown fabric wallpaper!) and not because their acting is wanting, it’s those uncomplimentary wigs. As Glenda Jackson doing Megs Jenkins, Charlotte Rampling as Lady Spencer is dignified acquiescence. BTW: though the costumes here are very fine, and won the Oscar for Michael O’Connor, isn’t it time for the Academy to distinguish between what are the best original vs. reproductions? Just how new and/or innovative are O’Connor’s dresses, or the Oscar-winning stuff for The Young Victoria by Sandy Powell, or Milena Canonero’s Oscar-winning gowns for Marie Antoinette?
In his defense, Tom Cruise is probably our best blue/green screen actor. The counterpunch is that the appraisal would be telling us something about him as real person that isn’t altogether reassuring—that he can invest his energies and acting emotions more convincingly in the foreground of huge empty canvases than with his character and the audience. There is something of the pseudo “Dianetics” swirling around him, an excess of its supposed “technology” producing a cold front; whatever the methodology in achieving metaphysical balance, the mumbo jumbo keeps him from being wholly relatable—the human elements of him that we should be responding to are frozen. (As Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and one of the movie’s producers, he manages to get the audience to be receptive to him as a Stuart Woods problem solver who’s up front about not having much inclination to dethaw.) Yet he’s the right android for War of the Worlds and Edge of Tomorrow. We don’t watch these movies but for kicks, though we need to maintain tolerance for the progressively counterfeit efforts and accept as strange comfort Cruise’s “act” as master forger. While Edge did very respectable business—at this writing the total is $369 million against a budget of $178 million—there’s been sizeable chatter about the American box office being only $100 million, that executives at Warner still haven’t been able to get over the shock of the quick shrinkage of audiences after the opening weekend. It becomes very clear in the opening thirty minutes that the audience very quickly gets its fill of the repetitions of a Groundhog Day scenario, the overworked expression “maggot” subbing for the slur starting with the letter f, and that the movie is yet another ripoff of the Scott/Cameron monsters. There’s a particularly egregious lift from Aliens as Cruise, just before his descent to save mankind, is facing the gangling octopussies. Usually a dependable attraction, Emily Blunt fails to suffice as respite, even if we like how she’s a gymnastic trophy. Director Doug Liman, who brought lightning speed to The Bourne Identity and some preposterous bang bang to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and is the executive energy behind TV’s Covert Affairs, hasn’t much to work with to make the script by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth satisfactory in its conclusion. As with Oblivion the year before, we leave thinking “What the fuck?” Entirely possible that Cruise will never quite reach adulthood on screen.
James Gandolfini’s Fat Albert gut is the centerpiece of Enough Said, and it clearly bothers Julia Louis-Dreyfus who, as a traveling masseuse, tries to conceal her unease with other people’s various personal shortcomings. During their first date, she’s grossed out watching him loading up a dessert with diced water melon and M & Ms at an ice cream/yogart shop, but he cleverly disarms her muted prejudices when they’re at the check out and asks, “Got any money?” (He’d zap her with the unexpected again when he tells her that he likes her ass.) In an implicit plastic universe of botox, super-bleached teeth, boob enlargements and Zumba physiques, Julia can’t believe she’s liking—and liking the sex she’s having with—a man whose body repulses and she doesn’t have the cojones to deal with it. And, despite his concern that he might be crushing her during the act, he’s tired of dealing with the issue, since his marriage to Catherine Keener went kaput over of it. Because there’s no way to block that James played gastronomical Russian Roulette, the movie circumstantially permeates with a poignancy that probably would not be there otherwise. By unintended default, director Nicole Holofcener, the virtual twin to Vicki (News Radio) Lewis, arrives at a new-style pathos, dependent entirely on the twosome’s understated performances. There’s no pity in their characters or in our reactions to them; they’re two very ordinary middle-agers coping. When they’re sitting on the porch, in smiling dispositions of inertia, some of us are wondering if Julia might have read Lori Gottieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.
Ridley Scott admits to one of the guiltiest of pleasures—the love of roadshow spectaculars. He’s virtually Sam Bronston De Mille resurrected, having reconfigured The Fall of the Roman Empire as Gladiator, refashioned El Cid as Kingdom of Heaven, and now renovates The Ten Commandments as Exodus: Gods and Kings. His track record of success has been spotty: the big hit Gladiator has some deplorable effects and editing but, as forgiveness of sins, Russell Crowe seduces with his voice and is very moving at the climax. The theatrical version of Kingdom, a domestic flop, is a bitterly fought compromise, suffering severely from the studio-demanded cut of Orlando Bloom’s romance with Eva Green. Releasing his “director’s cut,” with the love affair and other connectives restored, it becomes whole and given the on-going savagery in the Middle East even more germane. (Thus far his most convincing yet underrated roadshow, it’s helped enormously by writer William Monahan using agnosticism as the salve to soothe the ulcerations of religious insanity.) A similar vexation applies to E:GK. Deemed a box office disappointment here (recouping cost and into profit via int’l admissions), in its present state it’s not satisfying. Mammoth with graphics to the point of overdose—all right, the crocs turning the Nile into blood are pretty good and the chariot tumbling into a steep revine is a minor bow to the only sequence worth watching in 1959’s Solomon and Sheba—there’s little if any human compensation from Christian Bale’s Moses and Joel Edgerton’s Ramses. The plot advances are foreshortened; the preperbutal image of the higher power derisory; wtf Signourney Weaver’s all about is anyone’s guess; and plenty of other danglings due to fights over length. We’re going to have to wait for Scott’s four hour plus vision to see what’s missing. If he releases the cut—he’s on record saying he won’t. Who believes he’ll not allow two hours of expensively produced material to be included in a deluxe Blu ray? What we know: there won’t be anything like De Mille’s screamer dialogue or the Mexican mercado bling. What we might hope to get: Weaver as a coupling of Judith Anderson and Vincent Price fulminating about the plagues and demanding a hit on Moses. No one else in the cast has the potential to provide the laughs we need as emergency relief.
Tyler Perry’s stature as the most successful black movie maker would be more salutatory if he didn’t make the same damned film again and again. The box office indicates that his audiences aren’t bothered by the safety of knowing what they’re going to get, but after a while those of us who are start getting itchy for new angles on the shopworn subject matter of— your pick—bitchy or battered or betrayed wives and girlfriends, corrupt cheating bastard husbands, pretty boys as saviors, nagging in-laws, the powers of faith. By now even Madea and her two tons of tits have been pretty much emptied of diversions, though in TBS/TNT repeats of The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, she still gets a load of laughs when sawing up a gauchely appointed living room. (And in that movie Kimberly Elise has the most sensuously thin set of hands in recent memory.) Without changing formula, Perry’s The Family That Preys has a major star giving us a huge break from the softened up skirmishes—the one and only Kathy Bates, this time in a dirty splash of southern accent and a Hillary 90s do. The hair is of course too straight and long and too blond for her shortness and hefty poundage yet its wrongness is what makes it right for the character who settles a family score and bestows generosity before the tentacles of Alzheimer’s envelope. She provides the most pleasurable “special guest” acting to date in a Tyler Perry movie; neither a sore-thumb stereotype nor working against type, she’s having a grand time putting down her philandering son (the perfectly cast Cole Hauser) and has some fun moments with Alfre Woodard and an especially moving one with her in a roadtrip motel. If it weren’t for Perry’s elementary skills in character development, Bates would have a personal triumph, which in spite of everything she probably achieves anyway. (He’s not so lucky with Robin Givens who comes on like no tomorrow as Faye Dunaway.) One of the unsettling anxieties about Tyler Perry as an otherwise highly competent movie maker is that he doesn’t let us in—we really don’t know who he is outside his gabby soul food as cocoon and this barrier is likely the result of his considerable inner-conflicts. His appearances with Oprah, who devoted three shows to men who were sexually abused as children, were noteworthy more for the self-pity and pain of introspection and victimization than getting to the core issues of forgiveness and acceptance of a past that can not change. He talked, for example, about forgiving his violent father but in listening to him you’re not hearing convincing testimony that he really has. (Only Oprah zeroed in on the necessity of real forgiveness in what amounted to three hours of “Lifetime for Men.”) That Perry has a better rapport with viewers when he’s in drag as Madea confirms he’s much more in touch with his feminine side in dramedy and this invariably affects the male characters he plays in his own movies. His evasiveness is his right to privacy, but let’s not be fooled: his eye for movie male angels is unambiguous.
Took maybe fifteen minutes, twenty max, before getting my fill of the Oscar-winning performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter. Neither miss a single opportunity to overdo it, to grab center stage and domineer. Bale’s crackhead is far from an acting original—it’s equal parts apery of boxer-trainer Dicky Eklund and a lift from Robert De Niro’s trademark manic boringness. Leo’s bottled blond mother of nine as a perpetually burning cancer stick is an obnoxious mix of Eleanor Parker and Dorothy Lyman’s early 80s breakthrough Opal on “All My Children.” Not exactly defective realizations—they may even be embarrassingly authentic to Eklund and his mother—but they’re without any downtime, they’re exhausting, and what infuriates some of us is that director David O. Russell is apparently besotted with them. When making her first appearance as a bartender whose ass catches the eye of Mark Wahlberg, the amazing Amy Adams eviscerates the clichéd blowouts of Bale and Leo by the simplicity of a real pro’s measure. For a while she and Wahlberg are respites between the histrionics until, disappointingly, she gets dangerously close to becoming a miniature Leo and he surrenders as subservient to Bale. On one level The Fighter delivers: boxing is a barbaric sport that gets its audiences worked up for the visceral pleasures of all those bloody punches and slams, and it’s also the nastiest of audience participation sports as the crowds can quickly turn on a boxer or a dull bout. (Anyone who’s attended boxing tournaments knows that the crowds’ screaming reactions are often the real thrills.) On another level the movie undercuts its inspirational intentions with perverse revelation: when the HBO documentary on Bale’s supposed boxing comeback is aired, he and his family are indignant that it concentrated less on his career and more on his addiction to crack. Viewers wonder how any urban family mob back in the mid 90s could feign being that media naïve. The movie exposes the boorish brood’s self-protective ignorance—especially from the daughters, most of whom look like ratted-up clones of Joan Cusack from Working Girl—when it comes to light that Leo as the booking agent/manager never worked a deal anyone made money from. In a real world she’d earn the contempt of her fellow working class, not awards for what her mother love does unapologetically—pollute her family’s lungs. Shouldn’t this movie be called The Fighters?
Never know what will spark comment from readers, but based on the intensity received about my disappointment in Denzel Washington’s career (see Safe House), they’re in loud defensive posture letting me know he’s “at his best” in Flight, with the larger portion of the slams coming subsequent to his Oscar nomination. Won’t contend he isn’t good in it—he gives a performance that for many will help wipe away the bad smells after nearly ten years in the garbage heap. What’s silent in the e-mail is anything about the movie itself, hopefully a reflection on the readers’ perceptions in realizing how insipid is its lack of complexity. (The vacuums that are Richard Gere’s Arbitrage and Bradley Cooper’s The Words spring to mind.) By the time Denzel looks at a rider in an elevator on his way to the NTSB grilling, by none other than insipid Melissa Leo, the outcome is a foregone anti-climax. As an in-denial druggie-boozer, Denzel has his moments—his sneaky pouring of vodka into orange juice; his juiced-up adrenalin rattlling off all the emergency procedures that helped save most of the passengers; his antagonism toward Don Cheadle; his untamed urge to drink. Since proportionately little is made of the finding of negligent maintenance of the plane for the sake of the far more “sexy” issue of Denzel’s inebriation (not an issue in the fatal crash of Alaska Airlines flight #261 in 2000 on which this movie is partly based), director Robert Zemeckis pushes his cast into dicey morality traps he can’t legitimize: aside from all of Denzel’s infractions, the airline and union are conspiring nullifiers of fact and ethics to avoid their share of responsibilities, and a young co-pilot into a Jesus freak that suggests a steal from Peter Weir’s Fearless. When the movie was over, I did appreciate that he hasn’t yet become Sidney Poitier as a pompopus moral gasbagger. If he doesn’t get better material soon, he’ll likely have a go at that routine too.
While watching Tyler Perry’s soaper For Colored Girls, I wondered why the escalating “oh, woe for me” refrain held a distance memory. Then it came flooding back: in high school I wrote a play about a young woman who in the 60s loses her boyfriend/news reporter to some Berlin Wall skirmish, discovers she’s pregnant with his child and needs to go to Sweden to abort because she unwittingly took baby-deforming Thalidomide, then goes to a Swiss skiing resort to recuperate only to hook up with a cad who gives her an STD. At the end, still trying to escape problems, she calls the hotel concierge and just as she asks “When’s the next train to happiness?” an avalanche plunges down on her. Even with Perry adding extras like rape, child killing, AIDS and sex on the down low, there’s no chance his movie would equal the comedic howls of mon chef-d’oeuvre. But it’s what’s happening to Perry that is chancy—his hopefully involuntary transsexualization of mind. His fixation on women’s issues in his movies before For Colored Girls have saving graces—he balances the eternal carping with injections of breast armored mommas like Madea and Kathy Bates crashing the pity parties and with some lovely and handsome performers. But he really gets suckered with Ntozake Shange and her play of lamenting poems for seven black women. In adapting the fem suffering to The Trojan Women doing Beloved as The Color Purple in modern dress, Perry puts names to characters who were identified only as colors and pens narratives not much above Oprah’s Brewster Place. How women were duped into thinking Shange’s dirgy prose as monologues would be both an advisory and an uplift probably relates to the early finger-pointing politics of women’s lib; under Perry’s updating it’s a full scale misery index. When Kimberley Elise bears the movie’s most horrific loss, the tragedy rightly numbs her but the audience is also numbed by the subsequent inactions of the other women providing solace. Trying to get deep into the unrelenting ruthfulness, the actresses fumble their characters’ sisterhood because bigger sis Perry’s too busy weeping for them. With so many Stations of the Cross we start looking for a way out. That’s why some of us watch Thandie Newton more than she deserves to be watched: close up she’s Barbara Luna and from afar she’s a zippy Pia Zadora out of a John Waters joke. Perry’s antique feminism is vexing; he needs to man up.
Telling a friend I redboxed Gone Girl, she cracked, “That’s one bitch whose house I’d never sleep in.” Sparked laughs but it’s less of a joke in the movie. Watching Rosamund Pike go full throttle as an update of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, a viewer, already queasy over the twist and turn of events, begins to feel whooshes of fear and gets why her husband Ben Affleck, unable to escape, locks himself in a second bedroom holding the cat for dear life. As with Close, there’s little explication to know why Pike is this tipped; the post-cable disturbances are suddenly, handily there, fodder to feed both an enticing abuser as misandrist in Jodi Arias fashion and Nancy Grace’s disgraces. Similar to Close’s pushiness, the energy invested by Pike is quite the jolt; the impact of the unhinged wrath sets off all the alarms but we keep watching to see what she’ll do next. Refreshing memories, Fatal Attraction was stripped of its original ending because preview audiences hated that Close rather amusingly framed Michael Douglas for her suicide; here David Fincher directs to keep the insanity in a limbo of Hell that some have called bogus but, with so much left morally unresolved these days, it’s a reflection of the ever-growing appetite for increasingly sicker scenarios. Pike has limits in her Americanization; flattening her accent, she’s likable exchanging clever chatter with Affleck as their romance buds and when they’re pumping noisily in a library. Then, as the curves come, she starts to unshackle identity by becoming an imposter who loses her smarts; the cliched hick motel segment and using a hopelessly inadequate Neil Patrick Harris contradict her deviousness. Sacrilegious in anti-Affleck circles, I found him terrific, a reversed Scott Peterson trapped in truth. He’s going to need more than a deadbolt.
The dismal reviews Grace of Monaco received after opening the Cannes Film Festival back in 2014 altered plans for the American release. Harvey Weinstein, holding the U.S. rights, refused to distribute it until director Olivier Dahan re-cut. Whether Weinstein got the cuts he wanted remains confusing if not contentious; bypassing theatres, suggesting little faith, the movie premiered on Lifetime in May, 2015. What’s apparent—and probably the major difficulty—is that no one seemed to be in the know that Dahan and Nicole Kidman were tête-à-tête in making a Graceful fairy tale. With the princess speed-driving on those dangerous Monaco cliffs as early-on premonition, Grace steers between fishy wish fulfillment and unsubstantiated gossip embellished as factoids: Kelly sacrificing her less-than-secret desire to return to the screen in Hitch’s Marnie in order to lessen the (real) jeopardy of Prince Rainier’s political problems with De Gaulle. At an elaborate charity event this Grace is made the miracle worker who saves her prince from the threat of French invasion over insistence to collect taxes from the tax evading rich and in the process she ascends to adoration in the eyes of not just the Monegasque but De Gaulle as well. That Grace is “fact” as fancy shouldn’t have come as a surprise: Dahan’s La vie en rose isn’t exactly unvarnished biography, either, having built on myths of a dwarf diva. Glad to have kept a nearly unprejudiced mind about Grace, keeping away from the preponderance of bad notices, dismissing the Rainier children’s protestations that their mother’s entitled to a Spic & Span rendering to eliminate outsiders from seeing doubts and foibles of an actress in the numbing role of pompous royalty and as mother battling with two allegedly slutty daughters. The movie doesn’t touch the subject of her children, nor the unconfirmed affairs with Coop, Milland, Crosby, Cassini, Holden and whoever else bragged about bagging her (a few biographers, tiresome snot Donald Spoto included, pretend that Grace was, well, sort of magically virginal when she walked down the isle on her wedding day), nor does it get to the circumstances of her untimely death. It’s a reasonable assumption that whatever audiences Grace garnered—outside of America it earned about $30 million against a purported cost of $35 million—they were disappointed that none of the above was present, that by any measure it’s not a juicy tell-all. I didn’t hold any hope it would be, yet on its own dignified trash terms it’s enjoyable bullshit. Kidman obviously saves it; she creates a reproduction of Kelly that’s credible within the tale’s framing. Those familiar with Kelly’s performances and public appearances recognize the porcelain elegance as outer wear and sense the strained effort to induce detachment as protection. While Kidman isn’t newly minting these traits—she’s used them throughout her own career—the performance is processed through courtliness and propriety. Since we really don’t know the woman behind the facade, Kidman is striking emblem of the star and princess held captive by the perils in playing the game of expectations.
As a curmudgeon bigot, Clint Eastwood is very funny in Gran Tarino when he calls his neighbors a variety of slurs like “toad,” “egg roll,” “pussy cake,” on and on. He’s like Dirty Harry in retirement, close to the finish line. It’s a no brainer as well as one of those two-for-one specials that Eastwood will not only get the audience on his side almost immediately but that he’s also setting himself up to eventually do the right thing, or its “as the case may be” equivalent. Bee Vang as the co-star becomes the beneficiary of Eastwood’s largesse. Doesn’t hurt, either, that Clint reminds us of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond and Paul Newman out of Nobody’s Fool, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say he’s doing limited homage to both. Fortunately this turn came before his disastrous performance at the Republican convention of 2012; unfortunately he may be far less generous than his movie portrayals of late.
Watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom one day, forgot that I did the next. After reading some newsgroup comments about it later, the movie sounded vaguely familiar. As confession, it should have felt familiar at first viewing: As an oddball in my youth, I needed to be more empathetic about the movie’s misfits finding each other, and that Anderson’s onto something in showing irony in their situation—that after being ostracized by the ruling clique, they often become that clique’s cause célèbre. (And though taking place in the environs of Rhode Island, its setting reeks of my own fond memories of sanctuaries like the Wisconsin Dells, the sand dunes of Indiana, the stone quarry water holes of Illinois.) Paid more attention to Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. There’s a doll house rapture about it, which is a plus but also a minus—it’s all rather sissified. Not accidental, either: To avoid saying anything about how funny the Ralph Fiennes camouflage is would be tantamount to malpractice of criticism; he’s bliss in a personal breakthrough. (Practically sixth sensed, he verbalizes what we want to hear.) However, there’s that damn fixation on insistent symmetry; the neat “balancing” feels nearly pathological. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember much of Moonrise—I fell into a trance.) Yet the exactitude of TGBH works and I’d argue works better on DVD than in a movie house because we can pause the screensaver imagery and admire its painstaking proportionality. Because the future of movies is going to be home delivery on even larger screens—Samsung’s UHD curved jobbie is a beauty, and the second generation introduced this year will cement its popularity and become the eventual standard—any movie maker who doesn’t tailor to that inevitability is going to lose audience share. The “peachiest” thing to say about Anderson is that his movies are virtually labeled Samsung Ready.
Baz Luhrmann is a flash & trash director utilizing the music video mode and CGI to the max. His method blazed in Moulin Rouge, was nearly snuffed out in Australia and re-ignited in the over-the-top version of The Great Gatsby. Though these movies are excessively cluttered, there’s something crazy and mythic about the way the effects are applied to F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favorite critics describes the jam up as a “Keystone Cops assault on the nerves” and that’s not meant to be flattering. Yet it is: a flamboyant “vision” is permitted to be extracted from a novel that never quite feels real—it’s almost illusionary—and is simpatico to F. Scott’s heady game of morality. And because there’s narrative clarity, Baz’s rendering is, I think, superior to Jack Clayton’s 1975 romantic twaddle with eternally posing Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and the ugly twosome Karen Black and Bruce Dern eclipsing the tragedy’s import. Unlike Redford’s glamorous sweating golem, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay has blood coursing; if we can’t grasp what he sees in Carey Mulligan’s Daisy, he’s the appropriate stripling unaware that his insistent naïveté is the catalyst to doom. Holding together Baz’s concept, Toby McGuire, as in Pleasantville, is once more a narrator. His Nick voices the explanatory (with some borrows from other Fitzgerald material) in modulated bonhomie. During Australia many of us had our fears undoubted that Baz’s movie making was a retarded vogue and when it was announced he’d spend around $100 million in Australia on a remake of the quintessentially American Gatsby, those fears compounded. Scarier was the news that Amy Winehouse, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Will i. Am would mix with Gershwin, Fats Waller and Cole Porter. But he trusted his imaginative eclecticism would revitalize a classic and the wide ranging demographics of his audience, providing a highly impressive box office, substantiate his bragging rights. All the same, Baz, it’s time to make a movie without the crutches.
The Help is revisionist chocolate pie. It looks and initially tastes good but once the taste buds pick up the faulty ingredient the movie’s comeuppance is exposed. There’s no way Octavia Spencer’s Minny the maid would ever get away with feeding excreta to a white bigot former employer, one so visible in the community, with connections to the governor. If Minny wouldn’t have been jailed and eventually imprisoned, she might have been killed on the spot or lynched later that night. A trial for homicide? The honkie bitch would be easily acquitted. Immensely enjoyable as Minny’s moment in the liberal sun is—the Oscar audience burst into applause and a standing O when Spencer won a best supporting actress accolade—the pie’s toxic extra further reduces the credibility of the revenge because it’s unnecessary. (Once wrote a short story entitled Chocolates for Breakfast, Ex-Lax the substitute. With the victim virtually fastened to the toilet and moaning in agony, the villain grins, “You’re shitting to death.”) Like director Tate Taylor, Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1969, and during her youth there was lovingly cared for and guided by a black maid. Using that as groundwork, she then coalesced stories from others who had long-term servants to pad the novel which, like the movie version, is attitudinally “now” more than a searing historical reflection of Mississippi in the early sixties. Saving both the book and movie is that there’s no pretense about Stockett’s moralizing adjustments, making the obvious lectures on intolerance and forgiveness more amusing than they would be otherwise. Throughout her career Viola Davis’s brand of acting has been insistent conviction and she’s no less unshakable as Aibileen. With a face mirroring long-endured pain, she mesmerizes us quickly—there’s no way to stop looking at her. Powerful and serious, she’s putting so much measured intensity into the role that she’s a living memorial to the harsher realities. (She already built its foundation as a maid in Far From Heaven.) In no small way, The Help is for those who left To Kill a Mockingbird feeling quiet outrage about the denial of justice. Whatever the arguable merits of that movie, it didn’t gloss over the deadly reality. Lee Harper’s mini guide Scout was wrapped in her father’s arms as comfort to soothe the brutality of racism. If left to The Help, she’d grow up to be Skeeter (Emma Stone) writing Guess Who’s Bringing Dessert?
Philip Kaufman assembled an exceptional cast for HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn on a budget of roughly $20 million, with about 60 days of shooting, and almost all of that done in and around San Francisco. Squeezed by those limits, the director’s discipline is admirable. Supported by crack sound and film editing and retro-style visual effects, the material—the volatile relationship between Ernest and eventual wife Martha starting in Key West just before the Spanish Civil War and concluding with Papa’s suicide—stays personal and intense, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman sexing through the boozed-drenched skirmishes. Altho playing Hemingway is a trap of bravado, Owen keeps from tipping over into the insufferable; matching up physically, he’s the gallivanting animal slayer-drunk the ill-famed incidents portray, as well as the sexist barbarian with a charming killer smile, the writer who ritually knocks out his morning quota of words standing up, and always lurking are the insecurities that second wife Pauline is quick to drop as ego-deflating bombs. By end, after the mounting effects of accidents, plane crashes, battle wounds, monumental liquor consumption, the long list of faux pas, undiagnosed manic depression, sexual dysfunction, the reckless Mayo Clinic-administered electro shock treatments, Owen reaches that psychological shell of “no there there.” Excepting Stacy Keach’s gentleman brute in the adequate if laundered 1988 miniseries Hemingway, can’t think of another portrayal of Papa that strives for measured disproportionality without triggering disdain. But, with the movie outlined through the flashbacks of writer Gellhorn, this is really Kidman’s show. She’s startling to look at when we first see her as the aged, blood-shot, incessant cancer-stick puffer, ever-more resembling Elizabeth Montgomery with a touch a gray hag Glenn Close. The facial design is meant to mesmerize straightaway and she and the make up artists succeed. She’s at the top of her game any time she’s going for sharp edge—with opportunity to do in-your-face, she eagerly unfastens restraints in The Paperboy and in several scenes here—and as Gellhorn she adds and maintains a spitfire dignity. If viewers expect her to slap Hemingway back when he unleashes his sauced temper, she’s no dummy-headed broad begging for repeats from the great beast’s explosiveness. (She was the only wife of four to walk out on him.) Writers Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner (sometimes actress who wrote 1968’s Petulia, 1995’s Georgia and 2000’s Pollock) keep to the known chronology of events yet dubiously interpret some of them. The documentary Hemingway, Gellhorn and Harvard-educated writer-activist John Dos Passos (David Strathairn) made about the Spanish Civil War—The Spanish Earth, released three years before publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls—was intended to partially showcase José Robles, a highly esteemed Spanish academic and translator who was killed by the Russians under cryptic circumstances. The script shifts some of Robles’ bio data to Paco Zarra (in a caped romanticism by Rodrigo Santoro), ostensibly to continue the fallacy of Hemingway’s charges that Robles deserved to die because he was a spy for the Fascists, but perhaps the real intent seems to be to smear him. The scripters rather insistently add a touch of homophobia (it had been rumored and derided that Robles and Paco were lovers) via a slimy Russian played by Tony Shalhoub to further excuse his murder. We’re shown Gellhorn on the cover of the 7/22/1944 Collier’s in reference to a major filing on the western European war front. A simple Google check reveals that cover never happened; in fact, the exact words “Voyage to Victory by ERNEST HEMINGWAY” are inserted vertically next to a shot of a woman dressed in native folk costume. And about the filing, we’re confused as to whether Hemingway actually got to the front. The way it unfolds in the story falsely suggests he didn’t. (Sexism as rivalry, the sonnavabitch tried to keep her off transport ships to Europe.) Gellhorn’s famous comment that she “was the worst bed partner in five continents,” coming at the beginning of the movie and gleefully reported by male biographers and sex gossips, is pragmatically adjusted (by Kidman too) to clarify the point that her gave her lovers what they wanted, only to be disparaged by Hemingway in suspiciously vindictive letters revealing his growing pathologies, including flares of anti-Semitism. We’re not sure if Gellhorn’s annotation in the movie—that she isn’t “a footnote to someone else’s life”—is more irony than complaint: Like Papa, she committed suicide; in 1998, at 89, virtually blind and ravaged by liver and ovarian cancer, and with, according to biographer Caroline Moorehead, a “well-organized rationale,” she ingested a lethal dose of meds. By any fair assessment, she was neither asterisk nor cipher, this latter charge a Papa’s Club derogatory intimating she was as writer nothing without him, that she was dependent on the bastard’s seminal input. Watching Ingrid Bergman’s Maria in FWTBT, we’re reminded of Aldous Huxley’s put-down that as novelist “what Hemingway had to say was in the white spaces between the lines.” That’s where he put Gellhorn until Kidman, confuting a similar belittlement that she was nothing without the Scientologist, dually fills in the blanks.
Sex the great med when you’re getting it, the least discussed major depressant in long-term relationships when you’re not. Every couple in the same situation knows the awful truths in David Frankel’s Hope Springs. It’s a comedy about rejuvenation creating its own minimal drama by confirming that the fears of open discussions about sexlessness—and perhaps the greater scare of solutions—are discomforting if not paralyzing. But those watching the Meryl & Tommy Lee ordeal are probably quietly cowering in their unexpressed admission that after a while sex with the same partner becomes boring, that no matter the attempts to mask the issue, the same old tired piece just doesn’t cut it. This bit of candor is something neither Meryl nor Tommy Lee dare reveal to Doc Steve Carell. A male screenwriter would have allowed Tommy Lee the gamble to insert the truism. (Was held to the story for another reason: with limp hair screaming for life support, the dowdy Meryl looks and acts so much like a close friend that it spooked me. Uncanny not only for the similar physicality and angst but also because her hubbie, an ageing sports jock, is another “mute” unable to share inner conflicts.) Though incontestably proficient, Meryl and Tommy Lee belie the conclusion of Hope Springs because their marriage isn’t in much of a crisis other than sexual inactivity. Despite his scary glowering, viewers are meant to be sent home happy that this couple will be until-death-do-us-part companions with or without successful instructions on becoming a fellatrix. Distaff writers notwithstanding, there’s much more “honesty” between Meryl and Alec Baldwin on that swing in It’s Complicated.
With fish lips, in tightly coiled skirts and strutting unstably in ankle-breaking stilettos, Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace in Lifetime’s House of Versace is casting very close to parody. We’ve come to expect Gina will trash her way through—as in Showgirls, the greatest pop slime ever spread on deserving audiences, or Killer Joe—and this time out she’s been given the gift of rubbish that is Donatella’s tabloid life. With all the drugs and booze and going beyond Peter’s Principle accelerated by the addictions, she became her own perfect storm, clearly manifested in—and exploited by the paparatzi because of—a rough trade persona. (Before the heavy-duty snorting and champagne she resembled Rebecca De Mornay.) This coarseness saves Gina: watching her physical rendition and listening to the accent, which isn’t as thick as the originator’s, we cotton to her for all the blowouts and gross stupidities in Donatella’s efforts to equal brother Gianni’s success. She doesn’t have to be realistic—though as actor she certainly thinks she’s achieving the serious—she only has to be entertaining and on that basis she wins us over. The other trick casting is Raquel Welch playing Gina’s mother. She’s looking good with just the right hair and in a wardrobe showcasing the curvaceous bod predating as well as rivaling the vavoom of Christina Hendricks. Then comes the stab at an Italian accent. At first she’s not given a lot to say, which benefits her, but during the last half hour she’s straining in compulsory “Mother loves you” tableaux. Alex Carter, playing Donatella’s husband Paul, is the production’s only butch, with pectorals outflanking any set of knockers except Raquel’s. In resemblance and mannerisms Enrico Colantoni is a satisfactory equivalent to Gianni. Based on Deborah Ball’s popular bio, and directed by Sara Sugarman, House of Versace doesn’t have a single scene or utterance of dialogue we don’t see or hear coming. Superior to Lifetime’s insulting Liz & Dick, it’s not Angelina Jolie’s Gia, perhaps what Sugarman used as initial model. At least we get an upper ending—Rehabilitation of a Drama Queen Doper.
Never felt good enough to see The Hurt Locker. My personal shortcomings were reinforced when Chicago’s Don Selle, whose reactions to movies are trustworthy, wrote that after thirty minutes he walked out on it. A few months later Don updated, saying he felt pressured to see the movie again because people said he was missing out on something great and of course it was winning all those prizes. He wrote, “When I’m wrong, I’m dead wrong...THL destroyed me.” His change of mind convinced me to start the penance and sit through it. Well, Don’s initial response is, I think, more genuine. The Hurt Locker is by design a not-so-steady 16mm docudrama—gritty, informative, compelling for a while, performed about as well as could be expected given the narrowly defined script. But if its director had been male instead of Kathryn Bigelow, I doubt the movie world and the critics would have paid so much attention. It’s obvious they’ve given her a pass; they’ve excused her sloppy infractions of military procedures, the most glaring discrepancy being an EOD expert going rogue. The pump of praise she got is a reminder of the same high Oliver Stone got for Platoon—that their movies’ presumed emotional wallops are the stronger experiences of war, that they didn’t have to bother with the inconvenience of facts to support them. We’d all give Bigelow a pass on the implicit questions the movie raises from the start: how the hell did we ever get mired in all that religious insanity and why are we still there? (The first is a political blame game, the second easier to answer: no draft.) Bigelow’s far less subtle message is that the American way of war has become a drug, and the addiction is fed not only by a political-industrial complex but also by a volunteer military force juiced up to view enemies as video kills—until reality explodes. The movie’s title refers to the personal physical damage inflicted within the boundary of explosives but Bigelow establishes additional significance when we see a warehouse filled with lockers used for the personal affects of deceased soldiers. Enjoyed the brevity of the unobtrusive appearances by Guy Pearce and especially Ralph Fiennes, whose bounty-hunting mission covers the consequential security breach of a lone Humvee stranded out in the desert. At end, viewers wonder if Jeremy Renner’s steely EODer, as he’s walking towards the next IED, ever mentally packs his locker. His job is enough to give us the heebie-jeebies; it’s the illuminating production design and art direction, however, that give us the prejudicial creeps.
I’M NOT: Having listened to his audiences’ loud pleas to return to zany cavorting after the dramedies Talk to Her and The Skin I Live In and whatever in hell was intended with Broken Embraces, Pedro Almodóvar has come up with I’m So Excited. The milieu is golden opportunity—flight attendants unleashed on an Airbus 340 from Madrid to Mexico—but holy shit! What happened?! He manages to fuck it up big time; he’s tiresome, irritating and, through creative bankruptcy and repetitious gay geezer propaganda about oral copulation, uncharacteristically offensive. We’re ready for Mile High clubbing and flesh in the lavs, ready for attendants to smack passengers and tape their brats’ mouths shut, confiscate cell phones, camp to the Pointers Sisters. But we’re not up for the “singers” to overdose the fem on the job, or for the entire economy section, including its attendants, to literally be put to sleep, or for the shopworn device of a landing gear malfunction or business class passengers broadcasting their pitiful problems over a phone as intercom. Where did this last additive come from—Boys in the Band? And what’s the purpose if the majority are zonked out anyway? Somebody better be found guilty and face the firing squad for turning Ceilia Roth into a botoxed Lee Grant. Pedro pilots a flagrantly swish Airplane without enough barf bags.
The Imitation Game is another of those acclaimed “based on a true story” movies filled with half-baked characterizations of real people, unnecessarily misleading about historic events and perfunctory about conclusions. Saving the movie, at least during the first hour or so, is the youthful impertinence in Graham Moore’s script: would be difficult not to enjoy how Charles (No Longer “The Hair”) Dance is the definition of askance when he interviews Benedict Cumberbatch as prodigy Alan Turing for a job to help break the Enigma code. The writing has zest, a snap, crackle and pop contempt that the actors have a high time with, bringing as much élan to the 40s erudite twentysomethings as they can get away with, knowing they’re bucking facts. Allowing for eventual dramedy, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum positions the comedy portion as variation of West End—actors deliver their amusing stuff, get some approbation and leave, come back for seconds. Mark Strong has no other function; Matthew Goode is almost exceedingly comfortable, matched by equally comfy Tuppence Middleton setting her sights on him during a few keenly flirtatious moments in a pub; Keira aces a test in less than its six minute deadline but would’ve anyway by flashing that cheeky smile. The drama part is what goes phooey. After the code is breached and the war comes to an end, the system quashes down on the heroes as they’re told they’ll be disbanded, barred from telling anyone about what they did, to never socialize with one another. The Imitation Game purports that, absent an after-Bletchley Park life, nothing’s left but a trick’s burglary leading to martyrdom: Moore and the victimizing British government assert Turing killed himself. Those close to him aren’t so sure it wasn’t simple misfortune: notoriously disheveled, he may have accidentally inhaled vapors of potassium cyanide used for removing substances from cutlery. The movie goes genteelly over the top in suggesting he’s languishing about as a gynaecomastic queen receiving tea & sympathy while waiting for the right time to bite into Snow White’s poisoned apple. (Call the Midwife has an episode explaining the kind of draconian treatment people with Turing’s bent endured.) For American audiences, there’s additional apprehension and expressed by others before moi: Cumberbatch looks like he’s filling in for Jim Parsons’ skinny, nellie, annoyingly self-congratulatory Sheldon. Cumberbatch has Turing’s hairstyle, there’s a vague resemblance, but no effrontery. Says Christian Carly in his NYRB piece, “In perhaps the most bitter irony of all, the filmmakers have managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate. This is indicative of the bad faith underlying the whole enterprise, which is desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem.” Perhaps Carly and Hollywood were too easily played: Moore, winning an Oscar and the WGA for (loosely) adapted screenplay, professes to be neither gay nor espousing any serious “liberation” intent. The British genius deserves better than high gloss Masterpiece venality; he merits as trustworthy a treatment as Stephen Hawking gets in The Theory of Everything.
Up front I admit needing to see Christopher Nolan’s Inception twice. Couldn’t figure it out the first time—my mind intermittently wandered and at some point lost track and mistakenly thought that one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s aims in getting into all those dream states was to try to bring back his wife Marion Cotillard. (When she turns out to be a depressed selfish hag I was glad he didn’t.) For the second viewing, my attention stayed steady and during one of DiCaprio’s many hyper conversations it became clear we could all be excused for slacking off during any viewing because the god damn thing is clogged with excessive plot. Nolan worked the script on and off for ten years and movie lovers will feel the heaviness not of the movie making itself—the way some of us felt about his inexplicably popular The Dark Knight—but by the burdens of his inventions about dreams. Challenging to conceive, they’re counter-challenging to sit through. Most of us experience dreaming as subconscious and deeply intimate theatre and usually don’t remember much except rare nightmares or the recurring dreams trying to escape to our consciousness in efforts to resolve some lingering issue. Nolan bucks dreaming as exclusive only to the dreamer, innovating that dreaming can be shared—on demand!—between two or more simultaneously. Of course even that’s too easy so he concocts a dream within a dream within yet another dream as an orgy without sex but with a lot of shoot-your-wad effects. Fortunately Inception plays us like few other prestige movies pixilated with subterranean phantasies; there’s an intense wooziness in the explorations and a loaded pleasure in watching, as the cinematography and visual effects are intoxicatingly handsome and the sound editing and sound mixing ultra-smooth. (Until we get to that snowy mountain fortress where things turn James Bondish and I’m not sure why but when the wimpy son Cillian Murphy finds his dying father Pete Postlethwaite inside, I flashed on the comatose president deep in the bowels of the White House in Dave.) At finale time, expecting to receive a satisfying tying up of loose ends, viewers are left dangling, not unlike their own dreams. The convoluted ambiguity is preferable to being conned into a clever wrap easily preyed upon by mocksters. By encouraging a debate about dream states and the pampered quiescence of lengthy First Class 747 transport, Inception is an Alain Resnais puzzle as actioner complete with pregnant zilch concealed in the high gloss Oscar-winning accoutrements. It’s coming to me now—why Dave flickered in mind: Cillian’s find at the fortress is paltry when compared to Kevin Kline saving the presidency.
Inglourious Basterds is finally a movie by Quentin Tarantino that earns our amusement. A Jewish revenge fantasy, when the climatic movie house sequence at long last commences—a composite of all the horrors we’ve long heard about Holocaust victims rounded up to be burned to death, with the juicy extra that Hitler gets his real good—it’s guaranteed that even non-Jews stand up and cheer. Consisting of chapters, with doodles, music from our past (“The Green Leaves of Summer” but don’t ask why), and setpieces borrowed from The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, the bullshit is uniformly well performed, with the huge exception of Brad Pitt doing an amalgam of macho ballbusters from Hollywood’s W.W. II genre, and no one of course stands out more than 2009’s most heralded supporting act, Christoph Waltz. An Austrian by birth, Waltz virtually inherits the mantle of prima donna Nazi, and that should be a caveat for all those heaping excess praise. You can count on the knives to be sharpened and ready for plunging if Waltz offers a nanosecond of his self-seeking colonel in his next movie. Some of the sequences—the blowout in the Paris ratskeller, for example—contain such warp speed editing during climatic action that, on DVD, you have to replay the action in order to know who got it and who didn’t. The one element that continues to elude Tarantino is his ability to build nerve-wracking suspense; like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill twins, he gives us too much time waiting for what’s coming. Perhaps he can’t help elongating because he’s so much in love with his own ideas and borrowings; as an aging sublimationist, he can’t bear to part with his infusions of trivia. (Watching him being interviewed on TCM by Elvis Mitchell, in tendrils Travolta used for his Battlefield Earth headdress, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking these two remain stranded at the Oh Kael Corral.) But Inglourious Basterds is a time-waster equal to the drama queen nonsense of John Waters, this time with welcomed clarity and wowie virtuosity.
Will join the consensus that Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t get to the center of whatever the Coens had in mind. But, as a huge plus, it’s beautifully shot by the Frenchman Bruno Delbonnel. Extensively studying movies and photographs of the period, he creates and infuses with enjoyable nostalgia an evocation of the late 50s/early 60s urban metropolis. Some exterior street scenes filmed in New York could easily be Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, et al. (The kind of look Robert Mulligan’s 1960 The Rat Race needed.) How the Coens became this curiously ambivalent with their focus might have to do with discerning too late that they put a depressant in the middle of the folk era, a milieu that’s a genial mixture of decaying beatnik and pleb sentiments for peace and poetry, attracting the educated passives seeking solace in the Dylanesque of discordant lyrics and ubiquitous guitar while sipping 3.2 beer. Oscar Isaac has the manicured beard accentuating his disheveled curly hair but not the belonging; he’s a misfit prop we derive little from except a sedated contempt. (Possibly what tabby Ulysses senses.) Not belonging either, Justin Timberlake is early 60s polite and fastidious in both appearance and mimicking the sing-along anthem “Five Hundred Miles,” continuing the suspicion he’s a self-imposed closet case. He reminds some of us when it came to be that “folk” in Chicago’s Old Town was becoming a sanctuary of lamestream: patrons would mock-along to Johnny Mathis’ “The Twelfth of Never” between the live acts.
We know going in that a Terry Gilliam picture is likely to be a production design dream (okay, occasionally a nightmare) and that the writers’ contributions might be tossed because the director can’t help himself. For example, his 2005 The Brothers Grimm is a free adaptation of their more famous tales—Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Gingerbread Man, Jack and the Beanstalk, Hanzel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty—congealed into a fantasy enabling the brothers to be engaged in them. Fascinating to watch within the expensively rustic and foreboding forest. Rob Marshall’s version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods plausibly borrows Gilliam’s dark environs, and surely from the Harry Potter series and, for the number “Agony,” a bit of Thomas Kinkade whimsy. (Gratefully this isn’t the deadly bucolic Kinkade that is What Dreams May Come.) As with Bros. Grimm, there’s a huge expenditure of forced energy. Using the title song to stitch the tales together, Marshall isn’t merely guiding the actors into them, he shoves. Feeling the fatigue, we can’t get out of the woods with the intended felicity. The fail isn’t solely Marshall’s; the lack of fusing elements is in James Lapine’s book of the musical and has been since its first staging. (In order to avoid unwieldy mechanics, it’s sometimes performed as a concert.) Employing his trademark thrusting to mask the deficiency of empathetic emotions, as he did with Catherine Zeta-Jones’ “He Had It Coming!” in Chicago, Marshall thrusts Meryl Streep’s witch at us and she too willingly colludes. The result is that she’s a monkey wrench messing up the whole abstraction. As an inevitably over-inflated presence, her vitality is worked up as marque value; she sings and acts as the stage star granting her fellow players an audience. What she’s not doing is pulling us into that audience; her Sisyphean crusade to save the show leaves us cold. (We had this coming, after the chill of Chicago and the frostbite of Nine?) The singing is frosty too, sounding as if we’re present in a refrigerated recording studio with the actors, even when we’re told some of them are actually recording on set. The music, generally piercing, is incessant with that inimitable Sondheim rhyming cadence boring our ear with its familiarity: Anna Kendrick’s homely Cinderella warbles like Desiree’s daughter in A Little Night Music. There’s deliberate cloaking too: Her prince, Chris Pine as 2014’s most attractive “movie star,” sings “Agony” that leans toward a gay duet, though we gotta smile at his humorous steal of Richard Harris’ speaking voice in Camelot. Johnny Depp’s brevity a blessing; Christine Baranski salvages the foot-shortening surgeries; Emily Blunt deserves a better husband, not that drip. Audiences for the Grimm stories and the other fairy tales are very open to updated renderings—Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent and 2015’s Cinderella are affirmation. What they don’t want is to be estranged from what they love, nor have to hope their “children will listen.” Though Gilliam’s immense chaos and Marshall’s prestigious muck aren’t quite guilty of corruption, they could cause some to sue for alienation of affections.
Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady is a personal flip book, according an ailing, ageing Margaret Thatcher to flash through different stages of her contentious career. To even the fairest or supposedly disinterested observer, Streep would be indictable impersonation if she didn’t make the heroic effort to connect the dots in Abi Morgan’s flimsy screenplay. In the pivotal scene during which Thatcher is engaged in a pedantic reproach of an assistant’s draft speech, Streep is both an extraordinary encapsulation of a hardheaded politician destroying her career and a meaty revelation of a woman obviating her own recognition of desolation. (The best directed sequence of Phyllida Lloyd’s movie career thus far.) What Streep’s doing here doesn’t seem to be acting, though I’ll be damned if there’s a word for what would sufficiently describe it. Haters will jump on her mechanics as “process,” and that has always been the main difficulty in responding fully to her. Acutely aware of the criticism, she doesn’t want interlopers watching hers; she wants the working out of her character to be away from a snooping camera until she believes she’s achieved her aims. But her infamously stringent academic approach—an all-encompassing absorption as a “listening to” and “studying” tour of duty—is so self-instructive and guarded that she often creates a super classy defense barrier, preventing many of us from making contact. I think Streep deserved the Oscar for providing a monumental statuesqueness, but I’m not convinced she moved us in any way other than admiring the Michelangelo-like chiseling. Having watched her in more than thirty performances, and noting that there are some exceptions mentioned on this site, I’m coming close to the conclusion that she’s never more unAmerican than when playing American. She’s our finest actor who, stingy and evasive with native warmth, rarely comes in from the cold. This is what distinguishes her from any other major American artist. It’s a crazy badge of honor for all of us when she’s shipped overseas as our most celebrated indigenous émigré.
FALLING IN LOVE (AGAIN): One of the joys for baby boomer viewers who’ve had the same kinds of experiences as Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated is watching the comic truth of where we’ve been and might still be. There probably are few embattled couples, married or otherwise, who don’t recognize the weighted tentacles of years-long relationships, how friction and boozy circumstance often parlay into unexpected but pleasurable breach. It’s more the hidden ammunition in and less the benefits of the on-going war because nothing—not money, not the kids, not the bitterness of failed hopes for a future together—fucks things up more quickly or makes warriors more vulnerable than heating the sheets. On that basis we view with increasing attention the situation comedy writer-director Nancy Meyers sets up for Streep and Baldwin. Based on Meyers’ track record, harmed somewhat by stealing the Carrie/Mr. Big union from Sex and the City for Something’s Gotta Give, the expectation of a perceptive glimpse of ex-marrieds taking chancy rolls-in-the-hay was minimal, yet, boosted by the force of Streep’s expansive presence, the amusing complications have reverberance. Streep and Baldwin enact the realities we don’t tell others we know about—what the Clintonesque “is” really is. Their moments together are bittersweet, poignant, anguished, unresolved. (Wasn’t buying into Streep and Steve Martin as anything more than platonic friendship, a puny balancing act satisfying only the saps.) Viewers have been known to wonder if Baldwin’s manic-depressive; beyond his private life’s public outbursts getting media exposure, as an actor there’s a scary instability and at a party, deep in contemplation watching Streep giving Martin the attention he covets, he’s close to an emotional charge that’s probably not in the script. Someone nine years younger than his co-star, he’s keenly contrapuntal; despite his heart attack-inducing flab, Streep’s attraction to him is clear. Steve Martin evidently had the bags removed under his eyes yet it doesn’t help much in the role of the “nerdy” architect, in which he’s totally clueless. (Maybe that’s why we never get to see a model of what he purposes to do to Streep’s home.) Meyers’s decision to keep Streep associated with food (after Julie and Julia) isn’t damaging as it is unnecessary—especially when hearing that her dishwater blond character also studied in Paris—but what is fatal is the evisceration job done on Mary Kay Place. The soundtrack is filled with goodies—Crosby Stills and Nash, Daniel May, Joss Stone, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Basement Jaxx, Fine Young Cannibals, the Beach Boys, Oscar Peterson doing “Night and Day” and “In the Still of the Night,” Gladys Knight singing “Since I Fell For You,” and used instrumentally is Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating.” The opening music by Heitor Pereira promised an entrée into melodious Brazilian sounds but regrettably it gets lost to a recurrent theme. For a while Streep provided fodder for carpers who think she’s became—in her sixties!—the queen of chick flicks. A concern if not for the fact that many of us keep rediscovering her boundless talent in turns we shouldn’t at all be surprised she can do but are anyway. There is and has been in recent years a genuine excitement about watching her open up, not only here but in also in Julie and Julia and Mamma Mia!, even in the tight coils of The Devil Wears Prada and Doubt. Noteworthy in It’s Complicated is that she seems to be at her most comfortable and this may matter more than anything else; when she’s on a high, there’s a glowing relaxation. And her beauty has lost porcelainization, it looks lived in; she appears to love the skin she’s in.
Clint Eastwood’s noirish-tinted J. Edgar is one of those very decent non-linear jobbies that isn’t too difficult to follow while you remain comfortably sure it’s Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover. Due to constant time shifts, DiCaprio’s drag goes through various physical changes and they wouldn’t be at all dislodging if he didn’t frequently look like someone else who’s also famous. Just as you’re feeling convinced by the performance, there’s the sudden specter of Philip Seymour Hoffman and while an accidental shift of concentration, it’s no less annoying. Fortunately, DiCaprio is an actor without much fear; he takes on Hoover’s sexual identity crisis in a manner prescribed by the closeted, excessive but factual fear-of-exposure times. Like his clean freak Howard Hughes in The Aviator, he stays tightly within the borders of the material provided. They are not the same mask but they are companion pieces; using the idiosyncrasies of the famous men with mother problems as character origins, DiCaprio’s ploughing whatever depths to turn the portrayals into plausibility. And in both he puts on quite a show. The debate, I think, is whether his method and not his overall performance, particularly here in J. Edgar, is the more fascinating. (Method being a less dirty word than the Meryl Streep “process.”) But our finer actors are expected to deliver more, and the dependence on prep and apparatus is often the price when they’re doing the famous covered by the media. If DiCaprio’s Hoover is safely removed from mimicry, it’s not because the script by Dustin Lance Black (who also wrote Milk) transcends the basically sketchy bio with opportunities for clarification. There are these controversial as well as private moments during Hoover’s life that have the sinister, chiaroscuristic atmosphere of a Confidential version of All the President’s Men and about all a viewer can surmise from them is over-compensation as means to avoid being discovered. Eastwood directs the tabloid fodder ambivalently; no one leaves J. Edgar knowing more about him.
The Kids Are All Right never really gets to the issues raised and why should it with such a copout title? By default the movie wants to explore much more its subtext that is the D.H. Lawrence theme of the fox in the hen house and examine much less the not-so-subtle propaganda that a lesbian couple can have two healthy kids courtesy of modern procreation. To deepen their commitment to each other they decided each will have a child from the same anonymous sperm donor. Even the most liberal among us can see how the psychodynamics of the lesbian bondings are at best sticky, which is why director Lisa Cholodenko has all but ignored them. And because they’re brushed off, the audience not lesbian is likely to see Mark Ruffalo, the donor to Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as less sexist than sympathetic. In a super user-friendly performance that’s one of the best supporting acts of 2010, Ruffalo is more victim than predator: it’s apparent he’s a goofus—he doesn’t grasp the web he gets trapped in—but he’s not amoral or indifferent or cruel, he tries to respond to the complexities his donations have unwittingly set up. And because “his” kids are not all that mature, either, they’re unable to deal with the consequences of their curiosities and the inevitable laws of desire that create the movie’s crisis. Non-flannel sapphists tell me tell me they’re turned on by the fox’s fleshy sexiness, that they too would fall into lustful fling the same way Moore does, validating the Lawrentian maxim that all but hardcore butches surrender to the real thing. When Ruffalo attempts to make amends, he’s so harshly rebuffed we end up rooting for him. That’s not difficult for us because once again Bening is doing yet another variation of what she’s famous as well as infamous for—playing a cold ass bitch. In a sequel, after the kids have lived a bit more and discover what’s missing in their twin moms, they’ll likely stop by Dad’s restaurant for a real meal. If not, they’ll probably become the subject of a future episode of Law and Order: SVU.
When the National Society of Film Critics awarded Matthew McConauhey its 2012 best supporting actor honor, many news outlets initially avoided mentioning he won for two movies—Bernie and Magic Mike. Concentrating on the latter, the inference is the society savored more his flash and brushed off how he smacked of repugnancy as the camera moved in on his slimy sexuality. And what he does in Bernie is overshadowed by the real citizens of Carthage. That leaves Killer Joe, made in 2010 by William Friedkin in about forty days and, after nearly interminable wrangling over cuts to avoid the NC17 rating, finally given an American release in 2012. Whatever the NSFC excuse in failing to mention it, K J is McConauhey’s real pièce de résistance; when “feeding” the incomparably trampy Gina Gershon, he’s so audacious that one critic’s remark—“there’s no actor who could hold his jock strap”—encapsulates for all of us the red-hot fearlessness. Filmed in Louisiana, the trailer park trash milieu of K J is insufferable in its accuracy. That double wider with its wood shingle moldings permeates with hickster amorality, contagious enough for Thomas Haden Church to succumb to what could be termed an act of filicide. Don’t think I’m the only one who’s always had a strange soft spot for Gina, the current combo of Gale Sondergaard and Gloria Grahame as Cobra Woman. Seems perfectly natural for her to get slugged every now and then, and equally natural for us to watch with an ever-smiling lack of sympathy. Arguably it’s not disguised misogyny justifying the guilty enjoyment, it’s Gina’s specialty as unremitting bitch that grants us permission. No trashaholic can resist that.
Contrarian Christopher Hitchens seldom disappointed: at Slate.com a short time prior to his death, he wrote a few good words about The King’s Speech before spewing his objections to the script giving Winston Churchill words he apparently never spoke. (Has to do with whether he kissed the despicable ass of Edward VIII and not Bertie’s, when in all likelihood he kissed both.) Hitch did a second piece going at screenwriter David Seidler for daring to question him and for glossing over or fouling up other facts. Valuable energy wasted for Hitch’s fading recovery because the intelligent viewers he wrote for aren’t watching the movie for spot-on accuracy, they’re watching the acting duet that is Colin Firth as George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel the speech therapist. I’d posit the history on the periphery is too condensed to be bugged by; if there’s a more valid bitch it’s that the highlights interfere with our immense enjoyment and involvement with the future and brief king and his presumed interloping friend. (Lionel wasn’t an intruder but the envious snots despised him as one.) All we really want to do is to get back to Firth and Rush who create genuine exhilaration out of their miniature class warfare. The genteel grenades lobbed at each other are at first breaches of and demands for proprieties and rules, graduating to weapons of inferiority—inflicting insults for one’s weaknesses, for the other’s lack of social status and professionally unrecognized expertise. When apologies are called for, a royal rebuff leads to introspective regret and eventual mutual respect. Firth’s evocation of George’s impedimenta—not just in speech but also in the emotional triggers and stress factors—is irreducibly art, just as Derek Jacobi’s I, Claudius and Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R are examples of history as art. These are also portrayals as avouchment of life despite the curses. Firth eclipses his predecessors in one regard—he’s heartbreaking, real with audience-empathizing fears from his very first scene to his nearly last, without us feeling compelled to well up. (And if there are drips, add that to Firth’s triumph.) One of the blurbs for Rush says he “chows down on...a feast of a role” and while I’d hesitate to use that verb, suggesting less than what he achieves, the banquet he serves is equal to what he consumes. Helena Bonham Carter’s royal “ma’am as in ham” is another of the actress’s sneaky winks at egalitarianism, nicely sympathetic and likeable. The squawks still echoing from partisans for The Social Network are that director Tom Hooper’s Oscar and DGA honors were safe conformist choices—knowing too comfortably the British blue blood territory, having guided Helen Mirren to deserving acclaim for Elizabeth I—but a movie about the honor and trust in friendship is preferable to one embracing theft, betrayal and greed as Randian values.
Ridley Scott’s “director’s cut” of Kingdom of Heaven is such a vast improvement over the original theatrical botch that in just about every way it’s a new movie. Not a great one but indisputably a great roadshow and that may matter more to the intended audience. Just as Gladiator plagiarizes The Fall of the Roman Empire, Kingdom steals from El Cid and though Scott barely acknowledges the lifts, lovers of Sam Bronston’s epics easily recognize the covert tributes. There are enough roadshow highs—grandeur, music, romance, villainy, a deeply moving finale—in Gladiator to forgive its atrocious editing and crappy CGI. In Kingdom, changing the locales of Spain in El Cid to Jerusalem and the Crusades, it’s of course still Christians vs. Muslims and still a subsidiary story about a piece of ass rivals fight over. The appreciated difference is that religious zealotry is supplanted by agnosticism. It’s a safety net for us, a welcomed relief that we aren’t going to be propagandized—the reluctant knight (Orlando Bloom) fights to save Jerusalem as an open city for all faiths while his equally worthy opponent Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) fights to take back the city as punishment after a band of Christian infidels instigated a bloodbath to break the uneasy peace between the faiths. And it’s why the movie is despised by mostly dummy Christian bigots—Scott and first-time screenwriter William Monahan refuse to take sides, though they aren’t remiss in giving us characters who, via Monohan’s prescient dialogue, comment about the forever folly of whose God is better. Foremost, Kingdom of Heaven is both great watching—the screen fills with sweeping imagery by John Mathieson that satisfies hunger for spectacle and beauty with becalming blue and tan hues that don’t come cheap—and uncommonly good listening, with Harry Gregson-Williams’ eclectic score infusing the atmosphere with original composition and borrowings from Bach, Luis Delgado, Raimon de Miraval, Jerry Goldsmith, the blends of which spark remembrances of celestial Roman Catholic chorals and far away moody Arabic incantations without the xenophobia. The scenic warfare is intelligible, too, something not fully defendable in Stone’s otherwise involving Alexander. When Saladin’s first onslaught begins, the fireballs slam and explode in the night as deadly fireworks yet Jerusalem holds; as his multistory ramps are deployed to breach the city’s walls on the second day of assault, they move like Lucas’s Imperial Walkers. Receiving similar fate when the defending knight unleashes his counter punch, Saladin cracks a Mona Lisa expression in deference to his foe’s efficiency. Because Bloom’s Cidish knight can not go into battle without a woman’s love, Scott restores all of the romance Bloom has with Eva Green as a Sophia-like queen that was cut under orders from 20th Century Fox executives. (Those shitheads contended viewers wouldn’t be interested, making the execs responsible for audience ambivalence in the initial release.) Green, the classiest and brainiest of Bond lays, is given a series of medium shots and close ups that take viewers back to Sophia’s Chimene and, while also calling forth French sisterhood lovelies Isabelle Adjani and Sophie Marceau, she’s a stunner in her own right, an exotic mongrel with Algerian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish blood lines. She supplies the angst Bloom intentionally lacks, since Scott and Monahan want to keep their major character stable and neutral. Bloom achieves this using a marvelous montone. His lengthy 12th Century hair needs a wash but that doesn’t negate a growing amativeness when, in a loosely fitting white tunic, he swaggers on his way to give Eva a good leveling. Ghassan Massoud is mesmerising casting as Saladin—the magnificently foreboding face balancing the peculiarity of the missing chest. Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons (who knows how to growl a command) and Edward Norton as leprous King Baldwin provide ace support. Almost all epics, including those mentioned here, never quite deliver accurate history. Directors and writers are habitually unable to marry their expensive indulgences with cold facts that are far more worthy; it’s the scourge of the specific medium and what helped doom Bronston. (Christopher Plummer dishes out examples of why in his Inspite of Myself.) But makers and lovers of roadshows seem intrinsically overtaken by the sheer madness of the spectacular and mega-thrilling blast of effects; at the expense of biography, they’re into the visceral experience of creating what we can never experience in our own time. And the simpler the story the better the response: Alexander, for example, is too Gordian-knotted in its non-linear structure to appeal to those who got their jollies from Gladiator and Russell Crowe’s foxy calibration, just as the complicated tribal and geo politics of Lawrence of Arabia don’t move general audiences nearly as much as the triumph of good over evil culminating with the chariot race of Ben Hur or the struggle for freedom from slavery in Spartacus. Kingdom of Heaven is somewhere in the middle—gruesome enough to sate blood thirst for war hammers slammed into heads and pre-ISIS decapitations, lavish enough for reserved seat addicts to feel the resurrection of Bronston, and sufficiently unafraid to remind viewers of the murderous infantilism of religion.
TOLSTOYS IN WAR: For a century Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sofya had been thought to be a harridan who wanted nothing else but to control her husband’s estate, including the coveted rights to his writings. The vitriol heaped upon her came partly from Leo himself, because he believed she was more interested in the privileged life he claimed so revolted him, and that she was disinterested in a philanthropic distribution of his works to be parceled out by the Tolstoyans, a cult obsequious to the max in attempting to gain copyright control. As history shows, the Tolstoyans did the most lasting damage to Sofya’s credibility, surreptitiously reporting to the Russian press supposed scandals she was involved in and the real fights she engaged Leo in. (They were, even in the last years, a very lively verbal couple.) Because Leo was the country’s most celebrated writer, the press and photographers were almost always ensconced nearby, reporting tidbits that were consumed voraciously as gospel, when in fact the taller tales were not only untrue, they would otherwise be actionable as libel and slander. Some of the gossip had grains of truth: Sofya was locked in vociferous battles with not only her husband but also her one of her daughters over the eventual ownership of literary rights, all the fights based on her valid suspicions that the daughter and especially the Tolstoyans plotted to convinced Leo to change his will. And the daughter did intervene to prevent Sofya from Leo’s deathbed. All of this is the stuff of Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, adapted from the factually-based Jay Parini novel. With Christopher Plummer as Leo and Helen Mirren as Sofya having a grand time chomping at the bit—theatrical in the best sense—the movie’s highest merit is its fairness. Most of the legend, hoopla and nastiness surrounding Leo during his last days come into view, as does a balanced portrait of Sofya’s urgency to control what she and we the viewers feel she has the right to inherit. Mirren’s portrait of a wife watching her family being deprived of a just inheritance is built on frustration and urgency, on a lifetime of humiliations and betrayals Leo inflicted, on her intimate knowledge that he was a world class hypocrite. It’s obvious why Tolstoyan Vladimer Chortkov (Paul Giamatti) wants to rob Sofya of any claim to copyright—the supposed philanthropy would enrich him as head of the organization that would dole out world-wide rights. But Sofya’s claims as famous aristocratic wife, editor, and copyist (she transcribed War and Peace seven times) were formidable weapons to challenge Leo’s will, which she did and the Russian Senate decided in her favor in 1914. International observers took note and in time governments elsewhere altered rules of copyright to help protect heirs from charlatans.
One word covers Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables—interminable. On stage, the musical is robust, even explosive in energy as it builds to a finish that propels the audience to emotional camaraderie. Watching its swirl of superbly choreographed blocking, in no way hampered by its big cast and multi-use sets changing like “transformers” before our very eyes, Victor Hugo’s material remains moldy, just as it does here and in Claude Lelouch’s 1995 version with Jean-Paul Belmondo and the 1998 Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush job, but not the narrative score: every song feels like a climax, each one stronger than the one before. (If you’ve been lucky enough to also see a first-rate non-English version, the music transcends language.) In Hooper’s movie, the songs are anti-climatic; as the camera closes in on the principals—Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway—the epic tale queerly loses its intimacy when we can’t help but notice these performers are trying too hard to get the songs right and, worse, they don’t have the kinds of voices we want to hear again after hearing them the first time. Applaudable that everyone is (reportedly) singing and being recorded on set; more applaudable would be to have voices that make the music stirring and memorable. What Hooper has done to Jackman is an offense to the genre of musicals but the larger crime is what he’s done to Crowe, used as a billboard advertising the urgent need for a dermatologist. Constructed in England, the French settings feel British—like a remake of Oliver by Tim Burton, complete with the “Pick a Pocket or Two” duo Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Though the sewer sequence is over blessedly fast, it nevertheless makes many of us want to disgorge, the one persistent reaction throughout this travesty. (As for the propensity toward ZitVision, a perceptive member of rec.arts.movies.current-films wrote that Les Mis “might be the first screen musical that looks good on an IPhone.”)
Don’t remember how A Little Chaos got on my Netflix queue. Never heard of it. Maybe I needed a Kate Winslet fix, and noted that Alan Rickman directed, so why not? Consider myself fortunate to have watched the costumer about a week before he passed, being able to enjoy him without the tentacles of the Grim Reaper. He’s the right image of poofy Englishman to wear the wigs and embroiderings of Louis XIV; borrowing from Sydney Morning Herald’s Robin Powell, he’s “drolly”—the bon mot panache part of his DNA. (As is his famed antagonism, though not on display here.) Rickman’s intent in directing a story about a 17th century woman landscape architect is to give smart women of the time a revisionist prominence, eschewing the norms of emission receivers and bosom decoration. Contrary to known fact—and with the fast interjection that the falsity is integral to the movie’s entertainment value—Kate is made the central designer of Versailles’s Grotto of Thetis. Throw in her romance with real creator André le Notre and it becomes a feminist fancy that conceives Matthias Schoenaerts’s version of him submitting to her talents. (The “updating” reminds me somewhat of Caitriona Balfe’s Claire in Outlander in that the lead fems are inwardly fighting not to overstep their improprieties and modernity.) Flashing a few creepy Streepy associations early, Kate quickly refocuses and shows her stuff; unlike Streep, she’s not insistent on chiseling her character to death. Schoenaerts is a slightly emaciated Viggo Mortensen. Could use more of Jennifer Ehle as Madame De Montespan, with whom Louis had seven children. Relishing a career playing fops, Stanley Tucci is Louis’s brother Philippe I, Duc d’Orleans, with yet another flashy ring on his finger.
The provocative hook of Limitless is the use of a drug that unleashes our access to the ability of the brain, which scientists claim we exercise maybe ten per cent on average. (If weighed by what’s observed in politicians, it’s substantially less.) More intriguing is that it’s also a pill permitting recovery of our buried memories and vast storage of data we’d likely never otherwise use, something in real time the pharmaceutical companies are already developing. The movie pill’s additional benefit is that its powers come on at an accelerated pace—within a few minutes after taking it. So if you’re in a situation in which you’re endangered, the pill’s advantages come on fast enough to be able to outsmart or outfight your foes. Bradley Cooper’s the pill popper who goes on quite the ride and for a while he and the gimmick keep the movie speeding along and it’s rather enjoyable when super rich Robert De Niro shows up and turns dirty by trying to blackmail Brad when his yo yo behavior warns that he’s been taking too much of a good thing. But people on this type of drug don’t want rehab while realizing success, so Brad’s got to figure out solutions to replenish his coveted magic potion and consume it with an acquired discipline. The rest of the story’s about whether he’ll succeed or crash. Cooper doesn’t have, yet, the face of a male trophy; he’s sometimes ill-favored in profile, with a weak reversed pyramidic chin and glassy eyes similar to Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan that often seem detached—they don’t make full contact with the people he’s in scenes with. From afar he’s compelling; when the camera moves in, he disappears as a droopy shouldered caricature. Like Javier Bardem he needs good hair real bad. When cut short or given a splash of highlights, he’s a spread out of Will Arnett for Dummies; when it’s greasy and messy, he’s a repellant Barry Mannilow, suffice for stupid actioners and comedic sloppers about boozing but not enough for convincing romantic lead or drugless intelligent adult. As with Ryan Reynolds, Cooper is limiting himself to the junk of bogus flattery. At this stage, Ryan Gosling is the more justified of the new Three Kings of Hollywood.
Accepting his Oscar for Lincoln from presenter Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis joked that he was in the running for The Iron Lady, which got plenty of laughs because the movie industry and moviegoers are well aware that these two actors incessantly study for and then in most cases hermetically seal themselves in their roles while filming. This assiduity has harmed both: while managing to convince plenty of critics and award voters they’re the best actors currently working, many detractors believe they’re cunning poseurs. Can argue semantics of acting, but if we don’t feel the characters they’ve spent months preparing to play, what’s the point? Detesting his bionics in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Last of the Mohicans, In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood and Nine, minimally tolerating him in The Age of Innocence, and admittedly unworthy to sit through My Left Foot, I was wary about what he’d strive to do in Lincoln. Obvious that he’d be helped by his own height and thinness, and by makeup artists who’ve managed to keep him from looking overdone, and obvious too that he’d be encased in all the richly dark peripheral apparatus, and, like Meryl in her monument building, he’d construct the voice. Yet, if everything that grinds one’s ax about his preparations is still present, as it is with Meryl in The Iron Lady, none of it this time is dominating. What’s been sorely absent from his characterizations is liking them and here, at long last, he has affection for someone he’s playing and uses it, perhaps to his own astonishment. Though his actor’s calculations remain strong, the sometimes unbearable ego as showoff is in check; the serious charm of political machinations that he uses as Lincoln to paralyze his political opposition feels as if it really belongs to the president. He’s facilitated by Steven Spielberg directing in absolute deference, causing carpers to attack Lincoln as a C-SPAN-like docudrama laden with speechifying by Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and, too lopsidedly, Sally Field. (Began to dread every time she opened Mary’s yapper.) Written by Tony Kushner, designed by Rick Carter and photographed by Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln owes its lineage to HBO’s John Adams, easily the most literate entertainment on American history produced thus far. That’s a good thing. What’s disquieting is that when Day-Lewis in Abe portraiture appears on the covers of Time and other magazines and media outlets as moral instructiveness, inevitably the intent becomes a weight heavy enough to nearly disable a sustained enthusiasm: Once Day-Lewis is accepted, we realize, reluctantly and out of ignominy, that the only major change since the Civil War not forced by the courts is color. The Grays are now the “new and improved” Reds.
For Rian Johnson’s Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt spent somewhere between 2 and 3 ¾ hours daily in the make-up chair getting a nose piece, upper and lower lips, reformed eyebrows, contact lenses to change eye color and had his ears pulled back so he would resemble a younger version of costar Bruce Willis. Though getting close to Willis’s voice, his overall transformation is less than successful; the brows might be at times too freaky close together, and not infrequently he hints at Kirk Cameron as MSNBC political analyst Julian Epstein. What’s unintentional is that with the makeup design he’s very nearly morphing into the leading candidate to play the racy life story of the late Laurence Harvey and it’s this factor that makes him unexpectedly watchable. As an actor, he’s fitting as a victim dispatcher, emotionally removed, but he doesn’t save us from quickly wanting to dismiss the plot, which isn’t complicated as it is over-stretched and sometimes confusing. However, he’s aided enormously by Emily Blunt whose acting exceeds the requirements of the script. The child actor Pierce Gagnon’s perceptive articulation compels and humors, until he turns into The Omen’s Damien as Carrie. Johnson was kicking around his idea for Looper for more than ten years and in the long development it appears what influenced him the most is Inception; the difference is that the former uses “time travel” as center device while the latter uses a form of “dream travel.” Looper is not the overblown technical accomplishment that is its inseminator, nor as maddening in grasping plot, but its own proficiencies, on a smaller scale, are commendable. With locale lifts from North by Northwest and Signs, Looper has won praise from the critics and a few prizes as best original script. Original I’m not so sure, an agreeable time-waster it surely is.
DREAM QUEEN: Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig arrived in America in 1973 highly butchered—cut from 238 minutes to 173—and shortened to about 156 minutes for cities outside the major metropolitan areas. What ended up on TV—on Bravo, for example, when it used to aired quality presentations—was a badly faded three hour edit. Finally an adequate 2008 DVD was released (and available on Netflix) that’s as close to a full version as we’re likely to get until a future Blu-ray edition. To a degree the regret of what’s missing is over: Ludwig is, upon reevaluation, Visconti’s least unsatisfying big one among his biggies. At roughly four hours, there’s a vision of both Der Märchenkönig and his fantasy kingdom, an honest attempt to get his adult life right, and it has intriguing performances by Helmut Berger as the royal pansy and Romy Schneider playing Elisabeth of Austria that failed to emerge in the rambling botches. An immediate qualifier: “vision” here is meant to convey that Visconti tried to hold a specific view without his chronic meandering often leading to disassociated set pieces. Because he stroked out during the movie’s making, there is some slop, primarily the various narrators who come before the camera to provide clarifying details otherwise absent in the filmed narrative. The customary sluggish, lingering style of the director is as paramount as in any of his other epics, yet in this outing it holds a stronger fascination; his obsessions with Germanic degeneracy and flamboyance—not just in the fairy sexuality but also in the real fairytale folies de grandeur—are stars in their own right but appropriately integrated into the storytelling. In rotting teeth from bad hygiene, Helmut’s Lud has moments: often resembling the queenly king and exhibiting a natural flair for the imperial outfits, his effeminacy is used fittingly; he knows how to caress a lover’s hair; he’s the right personality to go tripping through the Grotto of Venus and walk across the floors of the heavily bedecked antechambers as if he’s wearing lifts. Usually funny in his loon roles elsewhere, he still gets laughs early on but he’s surprisingly well-paced moving into the stages of psychosis. (You almost believe the characterization, which in itself is quite the accomplishment.) Romy shares with us what a ball she’s having as she laughs her way through Lud’s castles, grounds and that ludicrously vulgar hall of mirrors. In The Swan King, author Christopher McIntosh speculates that Ludwig’s “primary madness” may have been brought on by syphilis (about which there’s a paucity of cited proof) and he’s cautious about the king being murdered in a conspiracy and equally conservative that he committed suicide. Little doubt that the politics surrounding the effort to remove him from power—the infamous “deposition” to determine Ludwig’s compos mentis was, according to current historians, conducted without him—had much to do with his alleged insanity and sexual proclivities and the financial burdens his addiction to castle-building put on Bavaria. Presently, without an exhumation, there are no concrete facts about his death other than having found him—with “a dark, domineering, almost tyrannical expression” on his face—in the shallows of Lake Stamberg. Official cause of death was drowning, though apparently the autopsy recorded no water in his lungs. The mythologies surrounding Ludwig and his dream building have been advantageous to German coffers: his fantasies loved not only by his countrymen but by international tourists in the millions. No one who has been to Neuschwanstein, despite its depressing Teutonic interiors, has ever walked away under-whelmed by its magically wondrous setting, made even more splendiferous in the snows of winter. The Dream Queen bequeathed a lasting amour propre.
Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 , 2014, 2015, 2016 All Rights Reserved.