Mildred Pierce (Winslet)
Jalopy survivalism in the aftermath of apocalypse became the central theme of George Miller’s hyper Argosy tale The Road Warrior. That wasn’t the original intention; the director had in mind a Joseph Campbell-inspired myth about a loner hero warring against anti-chivalry. The story would evolve into an inflated Jung-heavy pulp journey mixing greed for the 7 Sisters oil and other natural resources with tongue-in-cheek s & m among the lususes naturae. In Mad Max: Fury Road, the jalopies, including a Valiant Charger, Cadillac DeVille, Mercedes-Benz Limo, remain prominent and likewise ready for a spread in the annual post-nuke edition of Auto Restoration. Even Rolling Stone will want to wax poetic about the traveling stage complete with multiple speakers and a cuming-with-fire guitar, in essence an update on the history of music in battle. For a while this 34-years-later retread stays marginally entertaining, with some visual eye-candy supplied by John Seale. Then the inevitable: the de rigueur format takes over, a loss of interest builds, and in spite of Miller’s aim to rely on “real” effects and reduce the expensive fakery, everything begins to look like an overload of tired CGI. Just one example: butching up Charlize Theron isn’t enough so the tricksters give her a gratuitous prosthesis. Devotees, including the striplings over at FSM, talk about the movie’s “depth” and “intelligence,” as if Theron as a stand-in for Sigourney Weaver qualifies, neglecting the fact that viewers have to overlook a few of her lassie charges appearing to be creepy groupies not very eager to be rescued from the Outback’s chief ogre (who could use clarifying subtitles) and that the lady seeders called the Vuvalini are, by optical appraisal, a terminal fancy. The cheat of Miller’s scorched, desolate domain is that sex seems the province of the aberrant, but what are we to make that here he adds ghostly white kohl-eyed saltpeters from Cirque du Soleil as sub for the Hell’s Angels bondage in TRW? No surprise in Miller duplicating TRW climax, yet even with the Cirque du pole vaulting it’s a lot less exciting—very minute is storyboarded to death. He also lifts the wrong bits from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdrome, what with the menagerie of freaks laboring to utilize the makeshift mechanics. (Okay, there aren’t any “right” bits to lift, either.) Difficult diva Tom Hardy as the current Max isn’t provided the lengthy stargazing shots that Miller gave Mel Gibson. Wrong penalty: both the audience and the movie require Hardy’s testosterone. What’s allowed, once the iron bar mask is removed, manages to be sufficient to guess the potential to re-charge Max’s batteries and in the next outing confirm he can get it up for someone else, moving beyond suspicions of autosexuality. There is one surprise: Occasionally suggesting a British Tom Berenger, Hardy becomes a bonnie version as well as the ideal candidate to do the bio of Charles Laughton.
Having watched much of the Mad Men marathon before the finale, I’ve come to agree with others who call the series a true original novel for television. Creator Matthew Weiner zeroes in on carefully weighed structure, characters we know or are, incisive dialogue, questions that needn’t be answered simply, if at all. He stresses accuracy in social and cultural moods, settings, wardrobe & hair & makeup—we boomers forget the influence of Elizabeth Taylor—and gives us a terrific integration of pop music classics as evocations of our own personal experiences to draw upon. (Hearing Brasil 66’s “Going Out of My Head” on the radio, we empathetically connect to Don’s temporary despondency.) In the same way readers argue over a great novel’s intents and resolutions, viewers are obviously enjoying debating the significance and closures of the series. With that said, here are a few subjective thoughts about the wrap. One unsettling touch of reality: the camera pans from daughter Sally doing the dishes to mother Betty, who continues to smoke. Most of us probably flash on family & friends who did the same right up to the very end. The rest is a bit much: Don finding himself through a Big Sur version of Erhard’s tunic-clad est—scenes out of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—but, even with all the whammies besetting him before that cathartic hug, he evidently gets back to the ad agency to use his epiphany to “produce” the famous Coke commercial. Though Peggy’s probably instrumental in Don’s return, it can’t be dismissed that big boss Hobart has a thing for wonder boy—perhaps a bit of penis envy. (He’ll tolerate the prize catch as troublemaker but not the Tit Queen who’s threatening legal action.) Don will also no doubt work around Betty’s expressed wishes that he not interfere with the kids. Yeah, like he’s gonna follow that advice. The Peggy summation is the lousiest: as much as we grew to love her, root for her, she ends up with someone that repulsive? (When inevitably named creative director at McCann and re-gazes at the pussycat-adorned Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife hanging in the office, she’ll ditch him.) Clotheshorse Roger partners with Marie—does he suspect he’ll need a caretaker at the end stages of his cirrhosis of the liver? Joan gets the worst of it, not unexpectedly: Rubenseques always have the toughest time convincing others that they should be taken seriously. Certainly not business savvy to be throwing a model airplane at an office ditz, no matter how funny that moment is, yet something about the reactions of all those droolers over bombers that will have her gleefully “burning this place down” in the future. (There’s sure to be pressure on Weiner to do a spinoff or reunion show.) As a mirror of the 50s, Mad Men is the filmed novel about the metropolitan white collar environment that Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and to a lesser degree O’Hara’s From the Terrace and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything would want to be; reflecting the 60s, it’s sort of a combo of a straight Albee and oversexed Philip Roth revealing the contradictions and obsessions inherent in the illusions about American life advertised on the boob tube; and moving into the early 70s, it dabbles with the fantasy of peace and harmony out of Hair and previews the “jump-your-bones” of cocaine. We know what will happen: the end of work place boozing and smoking, while sex and bigotry simmer. Excluding personal favorites, maybe the perfect novel doesn’t exist and there’s little perfection on TV, but as sociological canvas of our penchant for faking standards and mores we don’t believe in except to find ways to profit from, Mad Men comes as close to both as we’re likely to get.
Other than Mittens and Queen Ann convincing themselves that they’d be “gifted” with four years at the ultimate residence, the best laugh to come out of batshit craziness in 2012 is EW.com’s blurb that Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike is “the Citizen Kane of stripper movies.” From start to finish it’s a bore; it also looks jaundiced, like Traffic, and excepting Channing Tatum the male cast matches the atmosphere by appearing to be zapped of energy, merely going through the motions to pick up their unearned tips. We all know why this phony butch frippery made $160 million on an investment of $7 mil, but even those drawing cards, including the deleted segments, are tiresome. The “La Bare” phenomenon deserves attention, if for no other reason than the reality that all but hardcore dykes have it for the real thing. But can’t there ever be a movie about strippers who relish what they do? Something, say, beyond Gypsy Rose Lee’s teasing but not the affront that is Showgirls, a one-woman titstacular as a graphic comic book. Why must the only one enjoying what he does be Matthew McConaughey who, despite having buffed up the bod, reeks of a Hugh Hefner repulsiveness? (When the camera moves in on his repressively hungry face and greasy curls, regurgitation starts.) Screen writer Reid Carolin used Tatum’s real-life experiences as a stripper without much regard to the supporting cast, resulting in one of the more unaccountable wastes of potential in recent years. What were Carolin and Soderbergh thinking to allow the depressant Alex Pettyfer to push aside rushes like Adam Rodriguez, Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello? They end up having so little to do that viewers, who want to see them in action, start smirking at what they actually do: with the most inviting rump since Natalie Wood’s, Bomer is irredeemably coupled with a mammary gland freak and Rodriguez shakes some pretty flabby cheeks. Tatum’s “sexiest man alive” routines confirm he’s got the moves, though less erotic than calisthenic bboying. (Flexing his stuff, his upper back muscles flare out like a cobra about to strike.) Soderbergh’s triple duty as director, cameraman and editor is an X-ray exposing barricades to dampen the sensations of lust. Not ten minutes into the sequel, I hit the fast forward button. Unhappy with the progress, I pressed max. Tutum, Rodriguez, Bomer and Manganiello deserve to be castrated.
Remember Tom Cruise’s psychotic jumping on Oprah’s couch? Sooner or later that nuttiness would show up on screen and, however altered for concealment, it does in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a Rorschach test ostensibly about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and a few composites as initial followers. If the movie’s opaqueness about the subject is a phony measure to keep the director from being harassed, it also explains why we’re feeling appreciatively rescued by the showing off of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. In this muzzy universe of Dianetics that keeps detouring to avoid going where it wants to go, master Hoffman and slave Phoenix act out the scuttlebutt surrounding Scientology—simplifying, a cult overlord controls the minds of his male adherents who in turn control their women. Hoffman’s powerful character acting seldom disappoints these days. Where does it come from? Is it possible he’s found a way to use his broadening gut not as crutch but to feed his fermentations, in the traditions of Sidney Greenstreet, Charles Durning, Brian Dennehy? Not yet having reached their level of physical blimpishness, he has exceeded their acting formulas by keeping his characters’ repulsiveness fresh and volatile. (Or is it all about his heroin snorting?) Unusually handsome this time out, Phoenix’s forward drooping shoulders, hands-on-hips, thinness and clefty palate are fascinating props to support the psychotics. He has to himself the movie’s showpiece sequence—in a spacious department store—during which as a photographer he gets into an altercation with someone. Liked the sudden and shuddery tension in it and while easy to believe it doesn’t really fit into whatever the movie’s scheme of things, the probable truth is that it does: you have to already be a scary nut to follow a bigger one. Beyond the showboating of the two actors, The Master allows us to be grateful for the reprieve from all the lemon-tinted digitals of late like Woody’s Tours du Jaunisse and the self-immolating Seven Psychopaths; photographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. reminds movie lovers how much they didn’t realize they’ve missed the beauty of 65mm imagery. The spread is not a full banquet, but, as with some of the plates in Jane Fonda’s Julia served by Douglas Slocombe, you won’t go home starving.
The Merchant Ivory movies are banquets of good taste that often don’t taste all that good. We ingest all the stellar acting, directing, high fidelity to original source material and all the lush fixings but we leave undernourished. After The Bostonians, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, Jefferson in Paris and The Golden Bowl, we ask ourselves if we’ve missed the main course. Merchant and Ivory are sometimes too gentlemenly as movie makers; they’re resolute in being as “literary” as the novels they adapt and in doing so they often miss the elements of drama and surprise in the central themes—that is, the differences in expectations and emotional responses we derive from the word and the kinds we get from a movie. Two examples: the audience doesn’t perceive any punch when Emma finds out she was willed Howards End—it’s like “Oh, really?” as she slides her arm through Anthony’s—and in Remains the audience is robbed way too early of the irony of the new owner of Darlington Hall. But with E.M. Forster’s Maurice, Merchant and Ivory are really connecting, we can feel this is material they feel through the flush of experience and they know where they’re going with it. They’ve found the heat in Forster in much the same fearless way director Iain Softley found it in James with The Wings of the Dove. (Even if the duo take a lot longer.) The fright for Maurice and his ilk in Edwardian England is that their closeted sexuality might be discovered and what would await them: social ruination, prison, even corporal punishment. In the age of Wilde, blackmail and entrapment are seemingly around every darkened corner. Yet love in the time of “obscene imaginings” is only mildly abated and in the long of painful celibacy there can be ladders to explosive orgasms. When Maurice is at just about the end of his hold on his own mental well-being, he sees in his bedroom window the object of consummation. What man in his virginal state hasn’t come close to premature ejaculation when he’s in the throes of his first lustful embrace? If in Maurice Ivory gives us a case of claustrophobia with so many confining fussy settings, he never narrows the scope of what’s going on in them—his actors relish the chances to keep in perpetually ruminative character—and he finally delivers a dream wet with satisfaction.
What Woody Allen didn’t get at in Vicky Cristina Barcelona—even with a Spanish cinematographer—was his pivotal star, second only to Paris as the quintessence of a sophisticated and photogenic European metropolis. Perhaps Allen didn’t have adequate time for personal scouting of good locales, maybe he didn’t rely enough on his photographer to suggest better ones, but any one who’s been to Barcelona knows they came up woefully short, sacrificing its attributes to a piddling sex farce. From the opening assemblage in Midnight in Paris, it’s clear Allen’s not going to repeat his slipup; there’s sufficient “scenery porn” to make audiences want to pull out their iPhones and book Paris for spring or summer. It’s complimentary—many of us are indeed engaged in imagery foreplay long enough to want to shoot our wads and making the climaxes more fulfilling is that we’re getting not one Paris but two. (Reportedly Allen and photographers Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas used the digital intermediate process which supposedly provides higher resolution and better fidelity in color. Have others noticed that the “current” Paris looks a little jaundiced, sepia in the early stages of hepatitis? Even the 20s night scenes as terrific retrovision sometimes want to overpower with a dingy tinge.) Allen’s always had a fondness for magic displacement but seldom has he been this natural and nonchalant about it. His device—a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet—is used with elegant simplicity; only the big literary names and artists are the special effects. With semi-doofus demeanor and (still!) topped off in washed-out surfer whirls, Owen Wilson doesn’t seem to be anyone’s choice to play a literary-minded romantic lead, and there’s never any authenticity to his writer’s angst, yet Allen’s very clever in mixing author anxieties with life-changing bedazzlement of the famous. Rightly, because we have an appetite more for the lives of Scott and Zelda (played with tipsy zest by Alison Pill who flashes some Mary Kay Place) and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein than we have for Wilson’s ensnarement with a future bride (Rachel McAdams looking like a beautiful Tuesday Weld) or his prospective in-laws out of Romney’s gated La Jolla. Allen’s writing isn’t up to his usual smart-ass glib; too many of his characters pontificate and opinionate—and are expectedly set up, particularly Michael Sheen, who suffers less from his pompousness than from the (intentional?) cruelty of not having enough hair on the back of his head—to become tired targets we’ve seen too often in the director’s other movies. There’s a lot of writing, based on borrowings, that is grandstanding: Corey Stoll’s Hemingway reciting stanzas and administering sexual declaration as advise, or when Kathy Bates’s Gertrude is issuing critical assessments with diffident assuredness—for example, measuring the impact of Picasso’s “La Baigneuse.” But Bates brings a bounce to the pastiche and gives Gertrude the bulldyke persona without a trace of recoil. After Nine and Inception, I began to wonder if still-in-the-closet sadist movie makers might want to do in Marion Cotillard because they appeared to enjoy abusing her talents. Allen saves her with Adriana, who without the slightest understanding of time warp is not at all reluctant to jump into the dandy conceit of living in the dreams of the storied past. Lucky girl.
Kate Winslet is no Joan Crawford in the 2011 HBO Mildred Pierce and I’m not sure that’s a compliment. Crawford’s indelible, iconic 1945 melodrama
trash, truncated for speed and given a noirish complexion that, justified or not, suits the characters and the eventual sleazy murderousness that erupts. Under the direction of Todd Haynes, who master-cloned the Douglas Sirk era with the impeccably produced Far From Heaven, the five part Mildred Pierce, studiously
adapted from the James Cain novel and filmed in New York, exudes the California period of the 30s with such authenticity that many of us overly familiar with the story spend an inordinate amount of time absorbing the environs’ details and, not our fault either, spend less time on the actors’ efforts than we do in comparing them to the originals. Crawford, using her whorey movie training, couldn’t help converting her character into a suffering diva; Kate, despite real gifts, can’t do much other than hope
to make us forget about
going all out for the drab. But Kate never looks good in drab. Zackery Scott’s Monty is thinness as slimy marauder; Guy Pierce’s Monty adds dangling forehead hair that doesn’t hide his ever-steady resemblance to Scott Glenn or his catwalk physique. He’s so skinny that his spine pops out at his neck; what is he—an androgynous alien out of V? (When the grown up Veda played by Evan Rachel Wood is seen naked in the last part, we might think she’s a knockoff of Guy.) Against Joan, Ann Blyth’s
bait from the start; against Kate,
Morgan Turner’s young nail-quickening Veda—in the first three parts before replaced for age requirement—is a budding prodigy-snooper who needles over what she uncovers and is dangerous because she can’t or won’t prevent herself from becoming a troublemaker, the origins appearing to be based on having been mollycoddled. If viewers know only the Crawford movie and not the novel, Veda’s additional talent as a coloratura will come as a shock, and very possibly unbelievable. (A further shock
is Sumi Jo’s singing for Wood not earning credit.) The miniseries’ climax has absolutely zero build up. Cain’s bent is making a continuous fool of Mildred until she explodes, but at the moment she discovers Veda in Monty’s bed, Haynes’ direction of the action feels like a polite afterthought and the attempt to kill the daughter a bungled construct. The anti-climax is also botched: The viewers don’t know about the private plotting of Veda (and Monty) to use Mildred’s violence
as a ploy to get out of a singing contract to enrich herself with a better one, so when guilt-ridden Mildred finally fathoms that she didn’t destroy Veda’s voice or career after she attempted to strangle her, the realization isn’t what it needs to be—another kick-me-in-the-groin. What audience satisfaction is there in duped parents as retards getting stinko’d? Carol Burnett’s classic sendup “Mildred Fierce” gets it right.
Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and the follow up Mr. Bridge are sometimes called satirical looks at the upper middle class American WASP out of 30s/40s Kansas. And somewhere on the Internet there’s a lousy essay making the couple analogous to politician Robert Dole and presumably his wife Elizabeth. That is to say, because the essay didn’t have the guts to, no Whitey is really racist if the blacks and Jews and other minorities just do what the Bridges and the Doles tell them to. In another but more richly conceived essay on the net there’s the assertion that a reader is never sure what side the author is on; he’s observing through multiple short scenes the lives of a couple not yet coming to grips with their learned prejudices their own children are quick to abandon. (Connell suggests the mindsets of Walter and India Bridge won’t change—mirroring the deserving fate of Elizabeth Dole’s reelection campaign.) The movie version Mr. & Mrs. Bridge by the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala team attempts to combined both books and present evenly the frictional sides of Walter as a sex-starved uptight lawyer who’s got a yen for one of the daughters, and India a frump who never uses her brain. Because the Newmans—Paul and his wife Joanne Woodward—are on board, the social hatreds of Walter and the ignorance of India are constricted; the characters remain clearly what they are but any deep offense of bigotry or for the stupid is given the customary softening we’ve seen in other movies by the movie-making team. Newman and Woodward are first rate, acting better in this than anything they’ve done together since The Long, Hot Summer. Naturally the character contrasts are the show: the old man is rigidity with cracks—he can’t really say no to his kids; the old bag a fumbling mess who during one crisis or other thinks tea or hot chocolate or the “Mystery of Marriage” pamphlet can be problem soothers. Walter believes he cuts through the crap; India’s unable to enforce a single proscription—like stopping Saundra McClain’s scene-stealing maid Harriet from boozing on the job. (And India’s inability to do much—she doesn’t even honk the car’s horn!—is evidently the key to her last scene.) Woodward reportedly said that Mr. Bridge was closer to who Newman was than any other character he played and probably what she meant was the fatherly concerns and not Walter’s politics. As for Woodward, many will recall that one of the great laughs from the Kael years was her quip that Woodward was “turning into the educated people’s Lana Turner.” After this and a few other “Hazel”esque performances, she fermented into Shirley Booth.
George Clooney spent roughly $70 million dollars directing The Monuments Men as a private buddy movie, only I didn’t feel much personal camaraderie and doubt if others will either. He opens it very unconvincingly—his voice and urgent appeal to save art stolen by the Nazis are as weak and obscure as the two-man audience he’s addressing. Rolling out the cast, there’s not a single moment of belief in any its members as historians of art or curators of museums or, much less, John Goodman as American sculptor Walker Hancock. (John’s in imminent danger of becoming a bad joke whore.) Beyond the blahs the performers spread, we don’t find much to dislike about the picture other than a country house sequence that’s a limpy nod to Inglorious Basterds and the clumsiness of a hero’s death in a Bruges church. What’s disappointing is that there’s not much to like: There’s a minimal interest if only to compare it to John Frankenheimer’s The Train; I like the use of the tie Cate Blanchett gives Matt Damon; Nora Sagal furnishes a very uncluttered version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” We’re not anticipating the let’s-go-get-’em energy of The Dirty Dozen, but when Phedon Papamichael’s camera pans the actors on that freight elevator we’re not expecting to see so many pronounced frowns on a wasted cast. They look like they know the party’s over.
2012 became the year of Matthew McConauhey. After Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy and Killer Joe, is there a better actor from the red states currently practicing his craft? By any calculation, his prevalence would be overkill yet, so far at least, he’s escaped the contempt of familiarity. (Not for long—the media ginned up his Dallas Buyers Club as Oscar certainty.) Why he’s skirted the dangers of overdose I’m not sure, though other movie lovers speak of his naturalness, that few performers working right now are more simply or more comfortably who they are. Or, acknowledging that I’m repeating a critic’s thumbnail used in another note, this: “There’s no actor who could hold his jock strap.” Certainly took time for us to be convinced—a slew of bad movies and performances preceded his present stature—and it’s not farfetched to surmise that what’s made him so effective lately is that those bummer experiences and fame’s vicissitudes have brought him back home, embracing and sometimes relishing in the acceptance of territory that now seems his almost exclusively. Without suggesting self-limitations—even if there’s evidence he has—I’m according him the honor of being a full length mirror of indigenous panoply. And Mud, made in 2012 and released in this year, reflects another extension of his southern repertoire. He’s pulling magic tricks out of his swamp-soaked Stetson. Wish the movie had similar tricks to pull: so many shallow questions unnecessarily pop up about the characters that if it hadn’t been for Matthew’s expansion of dominion we’d have lost interest. (How does his love interest Reese Witherspoon, who deserves a larger part, pay for her motel room? How do the boys—who come upon a hiding Matthew on an island in the Mississippi river—pay for all that gas for the boat engine for the return visits? Wouldn’t one of the parents ask why the boys need more gas money?) Except for the ending, writer-director Jeff Nichols appears to have absorbed bits of Weir’s The Mosquito Coast as an Arkansan who hasn’t much interest in tying up loose ends. During the climax of Mud, he pops an amusing load in an excessive nighttime shoot-out. Thing is, we don’t believe a minute of it, nor the movie as a whole.
The press started piling on 1970’s Myra Breckinridge even before filming started, and when production commenced the negatives grew stronger, often from the people involved in its making. Author Gore Vidal disavowed it; critic Rex Reed as “Myron” would write an exposé claiming the movie would never be released; later on, John Huston refused to mention it in his autobio. By the time the movie was released, the universally bad buzz squashed stampedes to the box office and only those desperate for a guilty pleasure fix sneaked in to the late night showings. I was one of them, but I’ll be damned if I remember anything other than the names of those who got duped into it. Then one day E! ran a repeat about movie stinkers and there’s Myra and I booked via Netflix. Of course it remains a disaster; absent Vidal’s cheeky distant camp on American sexual mores, it’s an all-out blitz of indecency. Free from any memories, I’m enjoying it now, especially Raquel Welsh’s “go for it” romping; she’s the only one who suggests she wouldn’t dare blow the chance to upstage all the others and in many scenes she does. Clad in Theodora Van Rinkle’s bad taste, Raquel is rather like a Jackie Collins heroine, sashaying with all the élan of Hollywood and Vine. Huston doesn’t offer any defense—perhaps he was blissfully zonked—but Mae West was reportedly insistent on not having Raquel in their scenes together, not wanting the age differences to exacerbate her wax museum kisser and, I suspect, fearful that Raquel would out-diva her in a diva shoot-out. (I’d have bet on Raquel.) Propped up by muscled emptyheads and gyrating fems, West “sings” Ottis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” and the Alan & Marilyn Bergman “You Gotta Taste All the Fruit” with all the ripeness of a fag hag eating a soft, blackened banana. Not until I went back to Vidal’s shamelessness did I realize that director Michael Sarne and writer David Giler held to a reasonable faithfulness and it matters not in the least. Sarne threw in a cavalcade of clips from the Golden Oldies that it becomes obvious he used the shtick of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” to navigate the transgender material that at the time wasn’t mainstream fodder. (Lots of clips initially used were excised after legal threats from those oldies still on life support.) The high of all the lows is supposedly Raquel’s “tits-in-a-flag” ride of a virginal male ass; for those who love Freudian slips, it’s Rex screaming, “Where are my tits?!”
In Nightcrawler, looking at novice stringer Jake Gyllenhaal’s cruelly intrusive video of a dying accident victim and determined to withhold her pant of the rush that “if it bleeds it leads,” graveyard TV news director Rene Russo instructs her crew with the following lingo: “I want to break it up and do a wrap-around from the scene, a walk-in standup, a teaser at 5 and repeat at the half.” Rene sounds suddenly empowered as a fatigued vagabond in the business of TV news, having jumped from one low-rated station to another after her two-year contracts aren’t renewed because she’s not lifting ratings out of the cellar. She’s still unjaded enough not to be an ego-whacker, that when she sees a spark of commodity in a newbie, she’ll be encouraging. Her first impression of the crawler of the night is probably “where did they dig this guy out of?” because Jake, with 20 pounds of flesh gone, looks like Halt and Catch Fire’s Joe MacMillan as Max Schreck’s Graf Orlok from Nosferatu. This might be what attracts her—his seedy emaciation suggests he’s starving and her circumscribed praise of his insensate work may be happy meals for both. Rene is at her sharpest when she’s at the edge of classlessness. Overly decked out and amusingly hung over in Pierce Brosnan’s remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, she wants to play by the rules but she also knows living by them isn’t as satisfying as skirting around them. Not quite shamefaced, her ample gift is in putting dirty smiles on our faces. Though married to Dan Gilroy, the director/writer of Nightcrawler, she’s not engaged in stealing scenes or hogging the show but she’s very sorely missed when not on screen. The movie’s second asset—the conversations between Rene and Jake that quicken our senses, that alert us to the dread of a bloodless stalker’s invasiveness. There’s this swirling queasiness in the way Reno looks at, listens and talks to him, staying ahead of his creepy trespasses of privacy and insinuations employed as leverage. She doesn’t like being accosted by his effrontery, though it apparently doesn’t keep her from going to bed with him, if we can believe what Jake says. I choose not to, for Rene’s sake; it’s a hazardous way to pay forward in order to get a fattened up contract renewal.
Rob Marshall’s Nine is about as sexy straight as Elena Kagan. Bloated with neutered incidentals about Daniel Day-Lewis’s Guido as an irresistible kingpin director suffering a mid-life crisis in the midst of a creative one, the musical is apparently about his reconciliation with himself and his wandering fancies and at the same time with his long-suffering wife, his mother and his extramarital bimbos. Those who sat through all of Fellini’s 8½, progenitor of the musical, may have eventually picked up on what it seemed to be about—a vanity celebration of the exhausting vagaries of a genius who just happens to be Italy’s most famous movie maker. A lot of hopeless-to-explain viewers defend the meandering with fulsome praise and theories and those of us who don’t merely accept it as foreplay to the visual cums he’d later splatter all over the screen. But why Marshall is helming this unmelodic roundelay about Fellini’s alter and his broads locked into their Euro brooding is a bit more perplexing for both sides. He got away with Chicago because he cut any risk of emotional attachment and relied on staccato editing and stiletto choreography to transform the original Roxie Hart into a cold-blooded wench; his triumph was avoiding having to go to bed with Renée Zellweger. (Even the equal opportunity offender “Family Guy” got it right about her.) He can’t, however, get away with his antiseptic barriers in Nine. This is a decidedly hetero mélange of pseudo reality and fantasy demanding erotic sizzle between the boring mournings after; instead, we sense the same apprehension that most of the performers project: we feel and the actors look trapped in the director’s dissociation, his estrangement, from the material. Unable to knead his shoot-the-wads flashiness to an egotist’s daydreaming, some sympathy is due: the Arthur Kopit book of Nine is inchoate, scrambled with things going every which way (just like the primary source). Michael Tolkin (The Player) did the screenplay and Anthony Minghella provided polishing (before dying several months prior to the start of filming) and likely both writers might have surrendered to the gamble that the magnetic presence of Javier Bardem as a seductive Guido would coalesce all the fragmentation because their own efforts to fortify the puerility came up woefully short. Then Bardem pulled out and Day-Lewis came on board, altering the sexual force and ethnicity of the character. And Maury Yeston’s score hasn’t much to cream over either; when story elements are turned into lyrics and melody, the sounds are discordant and Marshall’s presentations, requiring sensuality over gymnastic gyrations, just too damned derivative. Carmenized in top-heavy curls, Fergie works those chairs from Cabaret and Chicago when belting out “Be Italian,” and she’s nearly overwhelmed by the cavernous set; Penélope Cruz slithers down that tiresome ubiquitous (and pink!) phallic symbol while singing minus irony “A Call from the Vatican”; and Kate Hudson’s energizing “Cinema Italiano” is more a 60s homage to her mother circa “Laugh In” done MTV style than as tribute to Guido. (Are there whiffs of plagiarism in the song and routine? From “Thriller” maybe?) Only one of the tunes, “Unusual Way,” had the promise of torch, voiced with poignancy by Nicole Kidman in a prom formal, but the number is never a whole, it’s been chopped into pieces so there’s no build. An alarm goes off when Judi Dench appears in an Anna Wintour cut and it keeps wailing as she sings “Folies Bergère” like a female Maurice Chevalier. Marion Cotillard does a Madonna-like “Take It All” and while warbling “My Husband Makes Movies” she walks up and down stairs rather idiotically. There’s a need for a shock absorber when Sophia Loren can’t do a simple waltz with her son the movie maker—she’s uncertain and ungraceful, unforgivable coming from a director who’s a master dancer. (He hides her in funereal candles, ready for visitation.) Trying to act out the mess, flabless Daniel Day-Lewis puts his trust in smiles, accent, acrobatics on scaffolding and an overload of cigarettes. He’s the kind of thespian who turns the craft of acting into the art of vacancy. With the shivers and sexlessness of Nine, Marshall turns himself into a closeted lesbian.
Movies with bible themes are, like everything else, cyclical; what’s old becomes currency from new chumps. In the fifties and sixties, big screen technology gave the religious-themed spectacles like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible and Hawaii a presumed prestige; their expensiveness kept them from straying too far from the otherwise sadistic fantasies and periods. (Okay, DeMille’s bible study camp is rollicking relief, for which we’re all eternally thankful.) In the seventies some religious movies got hip and we found ourselves singing along in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Then came Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and afterwards Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Roughly a decade later The History Channel confirmed the reversal of its primary mission with Rona Downey’s miniseries The Bible, a huge ratings hit forecasting God & Company would be returning for some limited engagements. With Darren Aronofsky’s Noah the prime example, believers got more than they expected. This time movie technology isn’t advancing the biblical simplicity of indecorous bling of wickedness and the promise of good cheer in the afterlife. Instead, as atheist ecology, CGI is being used to destroy the scriptural story of Noah, to make mock of it as Transformer: Extinction of Intelligence. It confirms Bill Maher is on to something: only a hateful God could destroy the world’s innocents because he’s pissed with a relative few. To what avail is the legend of the great flood anyway? To get away with blaming Noah’s 500 year old sperm for the second round of incestuous monsters spawned? (Who exactly did first son Cain screw to beget his exiled clan?) Unboundedly stupid, inconceivably disrespectful to even primitive cognition in the general audience, to say nothing of the contempt for the sincerely nescient religionists, Noah is the worst prestige epic I’ve seen in my lifetime of watching movies.
Progressive yet a realist, I’ve never been able to tolerate writer-activist Larry Kramer when he’s in his kick ass mode against the “let ’em die” attitudes about AIDS. He was, and remains, too prissy, pushy, too much a screamer to be an efficacious advocate for the gay community. Clearly he doesn’t think so, angrily taking a lion’s share of credit for getting NYC and then the nation to pay attention to the ramifications of the Homocaust, as if the “shock value” of Rock Hudson and Gaëtan Dugas and the emergence of the 24/7 CNN news cycle were merely coincidental. When Streisand optioned Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, with some early leaning toward playing what is now the Julia Roberts role, she experienced the unpleasantness of his constant nagging about her delays to move the project forward. I’m being too kind: Even in receptive circles of Hollywood he rubbed people so raw with his abrasiveness that the willingness to give money for a production would dissolve after initial meetings. Another big problem: who’d play Kramer? No male with box office appeal was eager to uglify to the degree that he’d be referred to as another Harold (from The Boys in the Band), the commonly heard slur at the cafes on Sunset Blvd. Streisand eventually pulled out and, despite his workload with Glee and American Horror Story, director Ryan Murphy took over. Confirming that sometimes long delays and difficulties translate into good fortune, his HBO version is a more focused weeper than what Streisand probably would have directed, since she’s inclined to insert soft-focus vanity interludes. (Surely she and son Jason would duet the title song over the credits.) And the casting issue has been resolved by a winning and brave twosome—Mark Ruffalo as Kramer and Matt Bomer as his lover. Drawing upon his sneaking-up-on-you magnetism that saved The Kids Are All Right, Ruffalo’s crafty dilution of Kramer’s mannerisms—the swish, the limpiness, the shrill—grants the audience a reprieve and lessens the severity of the charge against Kramer for failing to cease and desist with his bellicosity. Obviously only in reel life is there a chance a man as attractive as Bomer would be that open to being sexed by the likes of Kramer. In this age of the bootilicious, though, no one needs to be gay or a prison inmate to recognize Bomer as a desideratum.
Lasse Hallström’s confection The One Hundred-Foot Journey, based on Richard C. Morais’s beloved international bestseller, is safe for those afraid of unexpected jolts (albeit after receiving one within minutes of its opening), safe for those wanting a straight romance for a change, safe for those who love Helen Mirren going from grand cru Valrhona to grand noir Michel Cluizel. The movie’s ambiance looks intensely affected even when it isn’t and that doesn’t hurt—the postiche is required “magical” component that keeps the eyes moving and, with Oprah and Spielberg producing, holds at bay the pro forma of snobby French prejudice. Throughout I was reminded of Ratatouille, which also unifies setting, food and enmity of rats to create receptiveness for the audience. (Would have liked someone closer to Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego as a clever connection, but Michelin is loath to notoriety of its raters.) Been a long time since an actor’s back is required to act and Mirren’s does so quite nicely when she’s evaluating an omelet as a test of a gourmet’s skills; we can envision her mouth savoring the condiments, measuring how moist and tender the eggs. Om Puri has fun getting back at Mirren when she’s in saboteur mode. Manish Dayal’s up & coming chef and his romantic interest Charlotte Le Bon stay fresh and appealing. Overall, the charm wears thin, or so I thought until watching a few days later the palate-numbed Magic in the Moonlight, a trifle so antiquated that all there is to do is guess if there’s much creative juice left in Woody Allen and wonder what kind of diet Colin Firth used before filming. It makes The One Hundred-Foot Journey a cinch to get that coveted extra star.
If indisputable that the vast wasteland sickens with its broadening stupidity, ever more apparent with current mindless political coverage, it’s also the medium that introduced its own art form—the miniseries. Whatever else are pluses and minuses, the form is ideal for binge viewing. The rage of bingeing isn’t new, of course. TV marathons of usually crummy sitcoms or the Star Trek things have been around for years, and when video and then DVD came to the market the chance to see the better stuff in their entirety without much interruption accelerated virtual nonstop consumption. With Blu-ray and the advances in large home screens, and the instant availability via outlets like Netflix and other on demand services, bingeing has taken on a wholly more satisfying modus vivendi. We watch House of Cards, HBO’s John Adams, Rome or the world-wide phenomenon of Game of Thrones and imports like Downton Abbey and The Borgias in stunning clarity and sound and not want to leave the atmospherics. We crave more; we even want to share by throwing binge parties. (Or for season wraps.) My first binges probably came when storms knocked out cable and the only viewing options were lousy quality videotapes of I, Claudius, The Jewel in the Crown and North and South. (About the latter in DVD: while the endless cues for commercials are clocked in, the missing sells allow us to get back to the dirty rotten schemes of Ashton, the series’s version of Scarlett, and her vile lover Elkanah Bent.) Bingeing on a miniseries has one draw back—by choice we don’t take breathers between episodes to give thoughtful scrutiny to what we’ve seen. This works in favor of most series, but not, for example, with Broadwalk Empire, which dies when Bobby Cannavale departs. Or Downton Abbey, when we’re watching the beginnings of each season before the DVD set becomes available and the month-long wait allows, maybe even exacts, that we start thinking about what’s going on in those early chapters. The fake heir returning to Downton in season two reeks of amateurism, and not long after we watch the first Mrs. Bates fall to the floor dead by some mysterious means that, when finally resolved, doesn’t make sense. (We know Mr. Bates didn’t do her in, and the one “suspect of interest”—Molesley—is never considered despite a series of hints and motives, wanting both Anna and Mr. Bates’s job as valet.) When bingeing, the accumulation of details and imagery are often chaotic builds, especially in the ambitious if not overscaled Game of Thrones. Or they become the rush of discombobulated emotions in Six Feet Under and the bruisingly funny Nurse Jackie. The plots, subplots and numbers of characters have viewers waving the white flag and recovery would seem simple—stop overindulging. But bingeing doesn’t work that way; getting hooked on the good stuff means we need the fix right now. Loving G o T, and especially in a Blu-ray gorge, I still haven’t figured out who is who and from what kingdom they reside or trying to escape from or conquer. The bibliographical sprawl is wide and getting wider, even as death overtakes those who deserve it. I should care that I don’t get it all but nevertheless remain enthralled and comforted by its scale, ambiance, unpredictability. (And I’ve got it real bad for the mother, her dragons and Diana Rigg!) What millions of us are into doesn’t require much awareness of content or empathy—we’re not moved by most individual characters per se but by the despicable things that happen to them. When there are stunning shocks and horrors, excepting a wedding massacre and a bisexual’s exploding head, they’re safely outside our need to emotionally respond to them. This is probably why I very unexpectedly like Outlander, Starz’s poor women’s answer to G o T—it keeps the focus on a limited populace. The time travel guide—Caitriona Balfe’s Claire—gathers up enormous goodwill from viewers by the tricky device that she’s always the modern caught in the web of a darker age; shutting down the story’s illogicality, we’re right there with her when she nearly or actually betrays her origins and has to find ways to get out of the desperate situations in which she finds herself. So far, only the obligatory witch trial nettles with its excessive shrilling, though two surprises save it. Obviously an outlandish adventure, fraught with all the expectant perils, and had Claire been played by an established star the gamble might not pay off; we’d be less willing to suspend disbelief. Balfe’s contemporary husband and dark age antagonist is Tobias Menzies, known to viewers of Rome for playing Brutus. He’s a sensation unveiled in a way that only women producers, directors and writers could get away with, specifically the elongated and bizarrely romantic climax of the conclusion of season one. The “herb of love” has never been more purple in its powers of seduction.
DELIVERANCE REDUX: Pedro Almodóvar tried for nearly a decade to work a deal to film Peter Dexter’s novel The Paperboy. Obstacles kept him from following through and the project went to director Lee Daniels. Not a poor choice, it turns out; he’s got at least as much temerity—that is, real balls—as Pedro. A director would need those to get the phenomenal trash Nicole Kidman lets loose with. Usually strapped in by an artist’s constraints, as in Portrait of a Marriage, or The Hours in which she won the Oscar by a nose, or in the recent HBO Big Little Lies (she’d have been a revelation if given the time to explore her settling for violence with sex), the fascination of Nicole is in the clock-work craft, how she steadily ticks through characters, bringing intelligence and respect to the material. The danger is she can sometimes bore: when her Virginia Woolf finally goes down there’s no more appropriate reaction than relief. In The Paperboy, ratted up as American International slut, she’s as unflinching in her moment of fearlessness as Matthew McConauhey’s in the perfect companion piece Killer Joe—maybe more so because Daniels dares to allow John Cusack to show the wet evidence. Parked in a car with Zac Ephron and Al Wilson’s “Show and Tell” playing on the radio, she’s lascivious invitation to action. Because it’s rare, Nicole as a ho is a must see. By the time McConauhey (in the Dexter role of journalist) is found beaten to a pulp and in a compromising position and Nicole moves into the forbidden swamps with Cusack, the fun stops; the screenplay by Daniels and Dexter turns darker than we’ve been prepared for and though Macy Gray is the entertaining narrator clarifying events that have been muddled by the various accents, mumbles and shadiness, we’re disappointingly shocked out of what otherwise would have been a juicy comic ride. It ends up a History Channel’s “Swamp People” as Deliverance Redux. (The movie was filmed in Los Angeles and New Orleans, yet we’re never certain if we’re supposed to be in the Louisiana wetlands or Florida’s Everglades.) Ephron and Cusack (minus his trademark black) surprise us and McConauhey has become unreservedly the most employed icon of the red states.
Barbara Branden’s The Passion of Ayn Rand is the pivotal biography on the 20th Century’s most controversial philosopher; it takes you into murk no one had sloshed through before and that every subsequent book about Rand has borrowed—if not stolen—from. Foremost throughout Branden’s intimate recollections is the revelation of her subject as the ultimate selfish bitch. By the time you finish the 422 pages, you’re convinced that Rand was her own planet circling her own sun and you’re also sure that she was pernicious as inner person who received—and continues to receive—reverential respect she doesn’t deserve. Branden is incisive and insightful as she psychologically dives into Rand who, while railing against religion and the contemptible mobs, fostered her own propaganda and clique in the form of Objectivism. But you’re just as struck that as intelligent as Branden is, she sacrificed her own sense of self to a dumfounding altruism that was anathema to the Goddess she worshiped. She’s written an apologia not just about her own tolerance of and then justifiable exit from Rand’s ruinous personal influence but also an unsettled forgiveness of the woman she had every right to hate more than love. What’s uncomfortably implicit is that Branden is writing the confession many of us have agonized through when our entrancement by the mesmerizing intelligence of a human nova turns to embarrassing self-clarity, how we acceded to subservience to a higher power who “denounces,” “rejects,” “scolds,” “accuses,” “threatens” and “despises” all others by self-righteous decree, who is irrational, surreptitious, an emotional murderer like the rest of us. All of this comes out in the Showtime version of The Passion of Ayn Rand. In a resonating depiction that makes the movie the perfect companion piece to the second half of the book, Helen Mirren once again sheds her own star skin to become a conduit to history. Her Ayn is not a pretty picture; the fearsome effrontery is there from the start and the dread steadily builds until the brutal slaps against Barbara’s husband Nathaniel, real assaults the real Rand neither apologized for nor had the perception to see as the beginning of the collapse of her reign of reason and rationale. As the young married couple caught in the web of Rand’s infectious narcissism, Eric Stoltz and Julie Delpy aren’t dwarfed by Mirren’s persona. Jeff Beal’s sensual if not noirish jazz score might seem a bit inappropriate but it’s choice. Today Rand’s philosophy in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is still entertaining and very stimulating reading; for simplification’s sake, her Objectivism tantalizes for its importance of liberation of self from the shackles of conformity. And when watching videos of her debates with others, it’s inescapable that she’s blade-sharp, ready to cut to smithereens opposing views of those who dare to challenge but, as with the novels, the value is in the drama of the writer, her ideas second. This is the diametric opposite of what she said she intended; it is, nevertheless, the absolutism of her life. Rand never solely ran her own business or ever ran for public office or accepted an appointed or advisory position in government in an effort to apply her laissez faire doctrine. But disciple Alan Greenspan did and we’re now left in the horrific wake of capitalist deregulation. Beware what your atlas shrugs.
Almost painful to say Philomena barely cuts it. Director Stephen Frears is at low ebb, crawling along to reveal more Sins of Holy Mother Church. By the time unrecognizable Barbara Jefford as Sister Hildegarde explains it all for us there’s insufficient energy to want to wallop the bitch from here to Hell. As journalist Martin Sixsmith trying to trace the whereabouts of the real Philomena Lee’s long-lost son, Steve Coogan looks ready to do some smacking but, as with The Queen, comeuppance for parasitic institutions is often justice denied. (Intentional or not, Frears enhanced Queen Bee’s stature; hope she thanked Helen when they did lunch.) Philomena is short on connective weave; the jolt of a sudden plot expedient indicates Fears and writers Coogan and Jeff Pope realized they weakened their moral purpose with taradiddles on hotels, Big Mama’s House and books unfamiliar to the larger international viewership. Yeah, we get it about the joys in the little people’s lives, but no one wants to see Dame Judi being “little,” even if true to the character right down to that nauseating granny do. It’s off-putting watching Frears neglect his star into atrophy as an aging passivist, neglecting the audience’s need for requisite ire—a mother’s just inveighing against the damage done by rigid sloganeer nuns gaming adoption. (To say nothing of the stench from the continuing revelations of the Irish Catholic Church’s chicaneries.) Philomena is all too namby-pamby parochial for this recovering Catholic.
Piñero weaves, bobs, swerves, bounces as bad movie school technique by director-writer Leon Ichaso to tell the depressing and blessedly brief bio of the Puerto Rican-born poet-playwright who was also a boozing drug addict felon with a bum liver slowly killing him. Without Benjamin Bratt’s Dramamine-loaded balance as the author of Short Eyes, we’d all end up dead from the overdose of the motion sickness formula. And he’s just about great in spite of being physically miscast: of Peruvian-German descent, with a singularity of masculine Teutonic-tinged Hispanic face, he’s anything but the real skinny little runt Miguel from the island—Marc Anthony is a much closer facsimile. We can see not just Bratt’s willingness to get into the seedy street theatre that was Piñero’s life, to which he gives a toughened up dignity, but also an actor’s liberation in always being on. The surprise is that he never tips over. With the horribly conspicuous camera never letting up, Bratt can hardly stop moving; he seems to want to run away from it and so do the rest of us. Ichaso reverses the direction movie lovers want to go in.
Evidently Jeff Goldblum suffered a severe case of the vanities during his two week run of The Music Man in Pittsburgh back in 2004. As treatment he mollycoddled his conceit in a mockumentary about his experiences that would eat up roughly 400 hours of celluloid and take a year and a half to edit down to the 84 minute Pittsburgh, officially released in 2006 and, after minuscule distribution, going directly to DVD and Netflix. This trivial pursuit about what is or isn’t real got to me early on and not in a good way. There’s improv but it’s extempore that became scripted and then turned into a hand job. The best part of the mock isn’t in its 84 minutes, it’s in one of the available outtakes—when Jeff conveniently finds Hawaii Five O’s Scott Caan kissing a lovely on an East coast beach. I like Jeff a lot: on screen, similar to Barbra, he has been both an astonishing beauty and staggeringly ugly, the ethnicity captivating no matter how prejudicially framed. He’s also ace in serving dual purposes: in The Big Chill he’s the party favor among the flummoxed as well as token warning about and acquiescence to celebrity journalism’s growing insipidities. No one can begrudge him the super hits, either—he’s the relief we need from the ravenous dinosaurs and menacing aliens. Still, he can be annoying—in Will & Grace, for example. And here: though the snippets of The Music Man are filler and not from the original production, they are enough, as are the rehearsals, to confirm Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s description of Jeff’s tendencies as “loosey-goosey.” He’s Danny Kaye, gangling and elfin as Jolly Giant dwarfing the shi-poop-pi, those on stage as well as off. More annoying is his “engagement” to co-star Catherine Wreford, a Canadian bulimic-anorexic singer-actress about to (maybe) get the immigration heave-ho unless she finds employment or an American sucker. So Who’s Your Daddy gets the starring role of Harold Hill (that nobody wants him for) opposite her Marian just in the nick of time and, since there’s plenty of smooching, probably got some ass as a bennie. (Some time after the betrothal ended, she contracted brain cancer.) Clear that Jeff’s gaming us; why he thinks we need to be played isn’t.
Political Animals is escapist trash for junkies. Using the Clintons as the base, with tasty changes, writer Greg Berlanti is a bit like Gail Sheehy as Jackie Susann on a telenovela high. He has fun with the gossip-soaked territory and no one, certainly not Sigourney Weaver, Ciarán Hinds or Ellen Burstyn, lacks the chance to catapult some great throwaway lines loaded with adult language that has some kick. Weaver’s got the physical stature to be a force in politics, though the dresses and those unusual outer corset things she wears as supportive accessory are often unflattering, and sometimes her voice descends into an improbable meekness, and her scenes with the female reporter (Carla Gugino) nose-dive into repetition. Hinds’ sexcapades obviously echo Bill’s, but the persona suitably leans toward LBJ, and his last scene with Weaver is just right. The real star is brutal realist Burstyn, winning an Emmy for being vogue in her stylized gray hair and oversized garments concealing the booze weight and very convincing when piping in the mota. (Reminded me of Kathy Bates and the other old broads getting high at Frances Convoy’s place in Six Feet Under.) The dish seems to be that USA was disappointed by the ratings, hoping that the show would catch on and then become a limited recurring series. Not surprised it didn’t do better—familiarity about politicians breeds contempt in an age when “politics” has become an over-played contact sport. Weaver’s already lived in the White House under taxing circumstances; would she really want to go back after Dave? She’d likely say yes, to get the paycheck; Hillary, after the runs of “Bill” and “Obama,” should say no but probably won’t.
A little less than eight minutes into Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii, Joe Pingue’s fattie Graecus, in braided beard and a wig with black curls hanging down his forehead, is moaning that the gladiator games ain’t cutting it, that he needs “something new, something fresh” to spark things up. In walks orphaned slave Kit Harington as an Eric Banna wannabe with titanium 6 pack abs and Pingue’s reaction almost delivers the promise of Frank Thring resurrected. From this point onward, we know that there will not only be plenty of laughs but also plenty of borrowings, mostly from Gladiator, later from Dante’s Peak and 2012. Kit’s black comrade Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is a Vesuvian Issac Hayes; Kit’s love interest Emily Browning is a deb Sophie Marceau; Kiefer Sutherland revels in his harmless counterfeit acting ala Phoenix (and we enjoy it too) and his champion is Sasha Roiz as a Jewish Paul Ryan. The chariot climax is way over the top, maybe too funny, though who’d want it any other way? The Rodinish “Kiss” gets immortalized in tephra, satisfying the Titanic devotees.
After the box office returns came in on his Alien and then Cameron’s Aliens, Ridley Scott let it be known that one day he’d return to do a prequel to fill us in on how the species we love to see splattered to smithereens was conceived. Might be mistaken but I think I heard a collective groan throughout moviedom: does anyone really care? Even if some do, Prometheus isn’t the conception of origination worth waiting for. At every turn we see the Alien template, which was already a refurbishment of a shit-in-your-pants genre that gave audiences the scary good time they didn’t know they wanted so much. This time out, there’s not much to crap over; in fact, it’s all flatulence. What Prometheus seems to be is a respectful check-list amalgam of sci-fi and pop culture: at the very start the music borrows (and repeats throughout) a few notes from the Star Trek theme; the space craft in the opening sequence jointly recalls the symbolic monolith from 2001 and one of those fifteen-miles-in-diameter jobbies moving out of the clouds as it passes over the Brooklyn Bridge in ID4; Michael Fassbender’s wussie-walking-Mao-suited blond android a “T.E.” O’Toole with the voice of Hal from 2001; the bucolic imagery on the huge screen in the lounge on the ship Prometheus flashes us back to Edward G. Robinson’s farewell in Soylent Green; the tunnels the Prometheus crew walk through similar to ST: The Wrath of Khan; the giant storm out of Stephen Sommers’ Mummy series and one of the Terminator movies; the pregnancy a newfangled take on Rosemary’s Baby; Charlize Theron’s sexy gait courtesy of J’adore; the hidden croissant-shaped ship’s fate a nod to Titanic and Avatar; some of the visual animation effects echo Jan Kounen’s Renegade; Emun Elliott as Chance strongly resembles Stanley Tucci. I’m sure to have missed plenty of others.
In Dustin Hoffman’s unendurably affectionate Quartet, Maggie Smith is a retired opera diva who walks out of a restaurant when realizing she’s been set up by her fellow dinner companions to be smoozed into doing one of those glories-of-the-past benefits she loathes. Altho definitely not Dustin’s aim, it’s the point at which I walked out too. Maggie’s long earned our respect as an actress of selective gifts, and no one denies she’s the top drawer attraction in the Downton Abbey series and is peaking in justified world-wide popularity. But there are limits and one of them is that she could never play an opera singer—period. Scanning Netflix for titles of her movies not yet seen, I noticed her other Quartet, made in 1981 by the trio James Ivory, Ismail Merchant and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Hesitated to queue it; while there’s always a lot to admire in Merchant & Ivory productions, I’ve seen too many not to feel the inevitability of being dispirited because their pictures almost always end with a frustrating lack of conclusiveness. With the risk prepared for, this Quartet likewise failed to deliver a satisfactory finish, yet, fortunately, Maggie keeps it going as tolerating wife to openly philandering Alan Bates. She’s loaded with the sort of obsequious patronage we’ve come to expect to see in movies about older women expatriates living in Paris during the late 1920s, and a near-lesbian air of Coral Browne passes by at times to make us wonder if she might secretly want to make a move on Alan’s current paramour Isabelle Adjani. Then again, this isn’t Henry & June. What causes viewer strain is Isabelle. Strangely forecasting Keira Knightly and Naomi Watts, she can’t shake the nuttiness of Adèle H; loose with emotions, this is an Adèle as Jennifer Jones prematurely released from the local loony bin. Can’t think of another French actress who hasn’t earned a career’s worth of extravagant adulation. Ivory and Merchant are extraordinaires in managing to give us convincing evocative period settings on the cheap, and no less impressive here.
FRAULEIN X: Remember Keir Dullea defending Lana Turner against a murder charge in the soaper Madame X and in the finale he finds out he’s the son she was forced by a hateful mother-in-law to give up years ago because of some sudsy crime of social embarrassment? There’s a very distant kinship to that kind of fear of revelation in The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry and written by David Hare, the same team that gave us The Hours, yet another drama about the damages of secrets. Liked The Reader because we’re not allowed to know why German Michael Berg (the younger played by David Kross, the older by Ralph Fiennes) never revealed exculpatory evidence to lessen the punishment of WWII crimes by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) as an Auschwitz/Kraków/Death March guard who was held chiefly responsible for murdering hundreds of Jews by locking them in a burning church. It’s obvious initially why Berg doesn’t: he had a brief but very hot affair with the considerably older Hanna in 1958 that no one knew much about (though his dad might have suspected he was getting laid). The affair having been over for some years, Berg is now a law student of Bruno Ganz and required to attend public trials and during one of them he discovers Hanna is being charged for crimes against humanity he knew nothing about. (Neither he nor Hanna discussed a whole lot between sex except books; they didn’t even exchange names during the earlier period of their relationship.) Despite his embarrassment, he consults with Ganz about knowing information that would assist her and he even goes to see her before the trial ends. Arriving at the prison, he gets a case of cold feet, exits before the visit, and decides not to inform the court of what he knows as fact. Subsequently Hanna is given a much harsher sentence than the five other guards, who in effect frame her by claiming it was she who wrote the typical Nazi fill-in-every-detail report of the extermination in the church. As her personal reader of novels (including War and Peace, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chekov’s The Lady and the Dog), Berg knows that she couldn’t have written it. Aside from the potential mortification of admitting he knew and in what ways he knew her, he may have deemed that Hanna’s own testimony, voiced with chillingly curt apathy, was sufficiently self-damning. He might have felt his own generation’s pressure to condemn the Germans who were villainous Nazis (as a clear distinction from regular German Army), though the scenes in the theatrical release don’t emphasize this as much as the deleted ones on the DVD release. Possibly more central to his lack of help is that he was going to punish her, far less for Holocaust atrocities, much more for having ended their affair so abruptly, for having literally walked out of his life. But we’re not sure. We’re not sure, either, why the prison authorities didn’t intervene on her behalf when they would inevitably discover Hanna lacked literate functionality. When The Reader was in the running for some 2008 Oscars and various critics’ associations honors, there were more than just a few on the Internet, and in the printed press as well, who complained that if a major movie deals with the Holocaust, it usually gets priority consideration. Before this movie, there was Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Polanski’s The Pianist, and before them Life is Beautiful and Schindler’s List, and before those The Music Box and Sophie’s Choice. (Even Italy did a prestige TV special entitled Angela, and I’m intentionally avoiding other movie examples and TV’s Holocaust, Playing for Time, Escape from Sobidor and War and Remembrance.) The complaints have more than a whiff of prejudice, but it doesn’t make them entirely illegitimate. There’s something about Zyclon B dramas and their derivatives that get voters to check their ballots; giving awards to them seems a way of easing a collective guilty conscience, a way of distancing the painful reality of an unimaginably horrific part of our world history. Because it’s safely on screen, and not in our neighborhood like Dachau, the unimaginable becomes the art of irony. While the actor members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated Winslet for the right performance in the best actress category (wisely ignoring her misfittedness in Revolutionary Road), one of the ironies of her Oscar win is that Hanna’s demise was a self-imposed sentence without reflexive moral mandate. The audience isn’t stomping for blood due to Winslet’s precisioned balancing of Hanna’s lack of education with a growing self-discomfiture about war deeds and actions she originally failed to equate with inhumanity. Ironies perhaps stronger and arguably more immoral when joined are her reader’s ambiguity and ambivalence.
The $10 million gamble of Telemundo’s La reina del sur paid off in 2011 with spectacular ratings and splashy attention, both favorable and controversial. Since last year’s unveiling, the breakthrough telenovela has been sold to numerous international markets, all of which struck ratings gold when airing it. This spring, Telemundo’s sister station mun2TV ran the series with English subtitles, increasing its American audience substantially. That’s how I saw it. Not since the peak periods of All My Children and One Life to Live in the very late 70s to early 80s has there been so consistently a high level of consumable trash, made all the more watchable due to the on-going Latin American drug trafficking wars. Many of soap’s chestnuts are revisited, but what’s new here is the full-steam-ahead effrontery. La reina is all about sex, violence and betrayals and I can’t remember when I’ve ever relished the vices more. At center is one of the strongest female characters in years—Teresa Mendoza, played by Kate del Castillo. (Agnes Nixon, creator of AMC and OLTL, would quickly recognize Kate’s role as a bold first in the medium.) Castillo’s practically hunky as the unplanned queen of the south; her physique is Mexican butch without the hangovers of sexual denigration. For that angle, and differentiated from the de rigueur prison rug-eaters, we get Cristina Urgel’s Patricia (Paty) O’Farrell as an Irish-Spanish glam dyke in love with Teresa. Has been reported that Telemundo was skittish about Paty, fearful the Mexican audience would be repelled by her lesbianism. Thanks to Urgel’s flair, a boozy, cocaine-fueled flippancy to all constraints, the audience instead grew into a surprising infatuation with her. More than Castillo’s tough Teresa, Paty’s decadent dramática endears her to us. The series hardly looks fake; though some sets were built, most of what we see is in the category of the real thing, and even where expensive locales were cleverly subbed with more economical settings, there’s a genuine sense of place, reeking with HD luster. The one marvel of an attribute throughout is the physical casting of the whole slew of rotten bastards, bitches and incompetent authorities. Not since North and South have amantes de basura witnessed a better assemblage of scumbags from Central Casting.
TUPPERWARE ROAD: What is the best actress of her generation doing in her husband’s poopo profundo Revolutionary Road? Kate Winslet plays a morose, discontented 1950s American wife and mother of two who can’t move beyond the flop she made of herself in some local theatre production. Not only is the character second rate whine, Winslet aches out a second-ratedness; the conspicuous miscasting is too much for her. And for us: the marriage to Leonardo DiCaprio is in crisis too early into the movie—they start arguing in the car and DiCaprio pulls into a highway rest stop and they get out and re-do George and Martha’s “total war” from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but without any preparatory details we can’t gauge the depth of their bitter estrangement. The on-going shouts and insults are glazed, as in impenetrable; the otherwise dollar store grievances are being viewed through Tupperware, matching the prestige cast. As the movie bloats forward, somebody forgot to burp Tup’s patented top because Kate begins to leak flatulence about escape, wanting to drop out of middle class entrapment and move to Paris so hubby can find himself while she works as some secretary. Huh?! We don’t believe it for a minute, and neither can she. In short order she expands her gripes; still maintaining a spotless home while packing for the trip, she spouts a mix of Ayn Rand and The Feminine Mystique and the whole dreary panoply—“the hopeless emptiness” of her life, the search for “truth,” how she has to find a place for herself, wanting a “whole other future”—gets trotted out. But the departure to happier pastures gets stuck in a detour when she discovers she’s pregnant again and hubby is offered a promotion. Except for some sleazy dancing and quickie in a parking lot with her neighbor, her mood becomes increasingly encased in depression; she becomes a female eunuch out of ’night, Mother. We don’t have to read Richard Yates’ novel to know it’s coming (or welcome it). We do, however, in order to penetrate the movie because Justin Haythe’s script is inchoate and badgering. The novel, published in 1961 to excellent reviews but never a popular read until now, is a more damning version (I’d say steal) of Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Where Wilson uses WWII as early foundation of problems to come, Yates attempts to connect the Revolution of 1776 to the need to be freed from the shackles of the Eisenhower 50s, that handy whipping boy period supposedly responsible for discontenting people to their deaths. Though both writers use career drive, materialism and television as culprits for the decade’s sociological ills, Yates excoriates them as lethal traps, that they kill individuality. He makes King George’s oppressions and Rand’s warning of mind-numbing conformity worthy of a two-fer—abortion and suicide. (So that’s what the Revolution was all about. Who knew?) Haythe’s screenplay, centering on “poor me” harangues, booze and adulterous sex, is probably not meant to be this impersonal, but Sam Mendes’s direction, particularly of his wife, is very and that’s what’s fatal. His removal of anything we can feel for the couple—for example, when we see them with their children—seems as intentional omission of emotions so that once more he can give in to his penchant for being judgmental about American social mores. Just who the fuck is he to finger-point about our sins? After his freeze-dried nit-picking in American Beauty and now Revolutionary Road, American moviegoers should insist he be deported back to England and made to take a hard look at the moral collapse of the promise of Tony Blair’s Labour Party. He’d have plenty to bitch about. DiCaprio manages not to embarrass himself, though he’s mired in so many brawling matches it’s difficult to recall his better moments. Kathy Bates represents Yates’ hatred of duplicity: she periodically incarcerates her son, played by Michael Shannon, for suffering the scary 50s mental illness best described as bluntis truthitis. But he brings a bit of energy to the Tupperware Road wake. The movie’s very ending, right out of the novel, provides a remuneration for the audience, a rather dangerous one at that: as Bates backstabs, her husband turns off his hearing aid and it’s the perfect gesture reflecting what many of us feel about what we’ve sat through.
Excepting Richard Lester’s Robin & Marian, long time pop promulgation hasn’t permitted much of a somber view of the mythology of Robin Hood, not after Errol Flynn’s romp in The Adventures of..., Mel Brooks’ takeoff Men in Tights, or Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. (Or the Patrick Bergen version bordering on the humorously psychotic.) Watching Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, with Russell Crowe as the democratic rogue, it’s assumed by the beginning—the intro of Cate Blanchett’s Marion—that things are going to be played relatively straight and soon confirmed when Eleanor of Acquitaine regally cautions her malevolent wus of a son John on the hazards of duplicity with Godfrey (Mark Strong, fresh from Sherlock Holmes, doing Basil Rathbone). And in this version of the Robin legend Richard the Lionheart is dispensed with quickly. At the conclusion, we’re still not sure what to make of where we’ve been taken. We’ve spent all that time carefully watching Crowe (and his growing warts) and Cate hoping for clues yet what we get from them aren’t jocular talking points but polite foreplay. It isn’t until Robin’s unmerries booze on bees’ honey that things loosen up and that the material isn’t meant to be as luggy and stale as it appears. (The uplift doesn’t last long, though in the climatic battle against France’s King Philip, we get Cate doing a Keira out of King Arthur.) The movie opens very dark and remains under-lit throughout that even in Blu-ray we can’t always tell what’s happening in scenes. If the wattage had been turned up just a bit, we might have been able to see where the money was spent, because this is a tempered spectacle without much computer fakery. Spending in excess of $430,000,000 on Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and now Robin Hood, Scott has become Samuel Bronston reincarnated.
The Romantic Englishwoman is one more example of Helmut Berger stealing scenes from real pros. Done up as a dishwater blond libertine who tries with minimal success to hold the swish in his buns, he’d seem easy for Glenda Jackson or Michael Caine to thwart yet they fail to throw counter punches to protect themselves. Maybe they’re too amused by Berger’s sometimes overwhelming self-consciousness as a natural extension of his bad performing. Which is probably why we can’t keep our eyes off him; he’s everyone’s nancy chum or target “maturing” into an unexpectedly lethal comedienne. Just about everything he’s performed in, whether it’s The Damned, parts of Ludwig, the dress up fantasy Ash Wednesday in which he’s at his “butchest,” Conversation Piece or here, is inherently if not screamingly funny to watch; he uses his unmanliness and manner of speech as WMDs. And when delivering his last line to Caine while being escorted to his exit, his gallows humor detonates. The movie’s title is a misnomer because it’s impossible for Jackson to play romantic even in the quixotic sense: before her turn with Berger she had to fake it for Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday and then for Richard Chamberlain in the mess that is The Music Lovers. She’s hideously coiffed ala Louise Brooks and you wonder if she even bothered to approve her costumes, confirming that neither she nor her co-stars have much resemblance to the provocative posters. Caine’s pulling another of his screamer jobs, but there’s a bit of sympathy offered from viewers after they see one of the walls of his writer’s den plastered with black & white images of Jackson. Who’d have ever thought that we’d get too much Glenda? There’s a promise for some gaminess—Caine surprises his wife Glenda by hiring her former fling-now-house guest Berger as his live-in secretary—but director Joseph Losey seems only half-aware that his miscast actors are roaming through set-ups and settings they appear uncomfortable in. That is, Michael and Glenda look out of place; Helmut’s right at home as mooching metro-pansexual.
If any viewers are borderline psychotic going into Room, they’ll be full blown coming out. Excruciating. This is an intensely repellant drama reflecting the malignancy that is the derangement and ramifications of misogyny, and while the subject demands wider exposure and examination, watching the goings-on is a such a depressant that most of us will be running away instead of gathering forces to do anything about what’s so socially and culturally ingrained as well as tolerated. The movie’s final scene implies the psycho logic that after returning to the scene of the years-long crimes Brie Larson’s Ma could walk away having found something resembling snowy closure. I don’t believe it; about the best she can expect for all the suffering is a walk to the podium to collect an Oscar for not wearing makeup. More believable is the likelihood little Jacob Tremblay’s Jack will scare the bejesus out of Ma when sometime down the road he grows long hair again and becomes another Caitlyn.
The dismal box office of Rosewater is hardly unexpected, since the fans of Jon Stewart aren’t inclined to stay imprisoned for about an hour and forty minutes if there isn’t much to mock. There’s another excuse not to see it: they neither know nor have any desire to know about a seminal event in Iran in 1953. (Ramping up war fever, Congress conveniently if perilously dismisses our nasty history as well.) Stewart hasn’t and that’s something to admire about his directorial début: while rah-rahing for freedom of speech and press and condemning prisoner brutality, he’s reminding us that we bear responsibility of hearing out the positions of adversaries based on our government’s illicit actions. Conversely, it’s also the movie’s weakness—there’s a paucity in what we learn. Adapted from Then They Came For Me, the saga of BBC/Newsweek reporter/photographer Maziar Bahari caught up in the tumult of the 2009 Iranian election has, very briefly, the flavor of the romanticized gung-ho of The Year of Living Dangerously until it becomes clear his personal history as an Iranian barely hinders his dumbfounding naïveté. Arrested for using hidden-in-plain-view satellite dishes atop a neighborhood roof in Teheran to smuggle out footage of Iran’s social unrest, he claims press credentials as shield and ends up in the notorious Evin prison for nearly four months. He’s suspected of being a spy; his bigger crime is having been a guest on Stewart’s The Daily Show. He’s interrogated and brutalized by an Iranian inquisitor nicknamed Rosewater. Showing little if any intellectual curiosity about his captor or bothering to press geopolitical issues with him to gain insight, Bahari, as played by Gael García Bernal, seems to have retreated from a journalist’s engagement and instead collects quirks like Rosewater’s obsession with New Jersey. (When not making goo-goo eyes at Signourney Weaver, Mel Gibson was at the least attempting to assess the situations about Sukarno and the commies.) Stewart’s comic detonations of politics on The Daily Show are at odds with the namby-pamby he displays here. Okay, we get it, he wants to play serious; his method, however, turns out to be shallow. Scant as they are, viewers jump way ahead of the old workhorse “free me” premise and end up thinking that Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari’s mother has become overutilized as stereotyped casualty (her better moments are in Will & Grace and as a detective in Law & Order: SVU) and that in spite of Gael García Bernal aging handsomely, he’s fated to be too pocket-sized to be credible as anything beyond a daddy’s boy toy.
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) was released in pre-war France in 1939 and met with protests and bans. About an Upstairs/Downstairs flock of empty-headed romancing adulterers who gather for a hunt and surprise masquerade party to relieve their mounting boredom, the Jean Renior-directed classic romp is as much of a mirror of class privilege today as what was reflected then. Because, let’s face it, we haven’t changed; the class-separated money-hungry amoralists, for the most part, are still getting away with crimes paid for by everyone else. Fresh eyes to this work probably will not be as impressed as many previous viewers and critics were; we’ve had and probably have had it with the movie’s “sophisticated” influence in endless refills of upper/lower class dramas—remember The Shooting Party?—and only last season the world went nuts for Downton Abbey. What’s very impressive about Renoir’s movie isn’t only the flowing camera or editing but also, maybe primarily, the aphoristic dialogue, both smartly and hurriedly spoken—we really need to be fast absorbers of loaded subtitles. The lead actress Nora Gregor, as Christine, doesn’t quite emerge as singular a presence as the others in the cast and hardly her fault: for seasoned British and American audiences, she’s a conflation of Sonja Henie, Judith Anderson, Celia Johnson and Pat Nixon (Richard’s wife). The apparent ease with which her Christine jumps from one man to another to corpse and then arrogantly assume protective excuse is lasting barometer. If moralists back then were outraged that rules of retribution weren’t abided by, it’s not known outside of art houses if audiences actually laughed at the lack of them. The new Criterion Blu-ray edition has a cover inviting titters but don’t be too shocked if our atlas of twittering twats merely shrugs.
What’s going on in Hollywood that no one is able to offer Denzel Washington a role equal to his talents? Though it’s true not every role he’s done in the last decade is the same, every role seems to be and smart audiences don’t want to see what they might perceive is yet another actioner in which he appears to be the black Sylvester Schwarzenegger. Or a Mad Max as a total recall savant in the approaching-minor-cult-status-but-still-preposterous The Book of Eli. And now with Safe House, the once great hope has added Bourne to his nomenclature. (Contagious? Angelina has done the same in Phillip Noyce’s Salt.) Watching him waste his skills as an ageing spook is sorry ass. He’s not boring—he rarely is—it’s that his repetition feels like a hangover unshaken. The misery worsens when the movie’s jig is revealed too early and causes audible moans. This criticism sounds easy, and petty, but it’s actually painful to write. (And would be the same trying to write about Liam Neeson’s choices after Gun Shy and Kinsey.) Every time his name comes up in conversation about movies the same regret is expressed by others—that he isn’t utilizing his gifts, as in Cry Freedom, Glory, Philadelphia, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Hurricane, Malcom X and The Great Debaters. The letdown was exacerbated when he played the rogue in Training Day. If the performance was customarily adequate, it may have mattered more that particular year that he and Halle Berry were honored as the Academy’s black Ken and Barbie mantel pieces. The TD “image” trapped him into the convenience of pigeonhole by producers, directors (especially Tony Scott who used him five times) and writers trying to exploit it. Okay, so he didn’t play “type” in Inside Man, not with that shaved head and flabby midsection, and he can be forgiven for not having a prayer fending off Jodie Foster’s scene-stealing high heels. But he is trapped in the other Scott’s American Gangster; he’s the go-to bro to personify venality. In the blatancy of the rip-off that is Safe House, his only saving grace is that his costar Ryan Reynolds is spared the stunt of pretending a romance with Sandra Bullock.
Yeah, we’ve seen St. Vincent a few times too many but it’s still fun watching Bill Murray as master slob curmudgeon. It’s safely all he can be, even when he’s responsibly playing a president in Hyde Park on the Hudson; the “messing around” persona is his second skin. (With The King’s Speech released two years before, Hyde is sort of a companion piece since a good deal of the script deals with Bertie’s diffidence, coinciding with his visit to the States. The gist seems to be that FDR’s handicaps empowered the king to handle his own. Suppose it’s comforting to know Murray’s president didn’t require John Brinkley’s pre-Lavitra treatment of goat glands to get it up for Laura Linney.) When Murray’s working hard to shed the slobbery, as in the remake of The Razor’s Edge, the image not only creeps in but you want it to creep in. He’s muttering to himself, “What am I doing in this shit?” As opposed to full, small doses of his schlumpiness are often more effective: in an episode of Sarah Jessica Parker’s 1982-83 comedy Square Pegs, he nails it as a freewheeling substitute teacher who frolics with the students and calls Claudette Wells’s jiving La Donna “Chocolate Lady.” Tailor-made for St. Vincent, he’s both relaxed and lax in the duties of guardianship and paying off gambling debts. You don’t believe any of director-writer Theodore Melfi’s setups—questions pop up that are answered in the deleted scenes on the DVD—yet you find yourself half-sucked in enough to be half-moved when Murray’s canonized. Naomi Watts sounds so much like Helen Mirren in the throes of affectation that, borrowing from quipster Pete Wallace over at rec.arts.movies.current-films, she’s likely to “borscht” at any minute; Melissa McCarthy doesn’t chafe; and Chris O’Dowd reminds many of those Catholic grammar school days when the parish priest as comic was employed to make sense of all the nonsense. This is as good a time as any to remind viewers he gives a real star-making performance in the Australian bio-musical The Sapphires, a better movie than the similar Dreamgirls and available at Netflix.
The disaster flick genre hit a high point with Roland Emmerich’s 2012. He’d been working up to that kind of “pour me another tiny triple” extravaganza with Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, both of which have some decent CGI moments between the slack & hack. In 2012, the effects are more fully realized, for the most part quite satisfying and there’s time to absorb them. (Particularly liked when the Vatican gets it.) Had minimal expectations for San Andreas—any movie with Dwayne Johnson as marquee lure is suspect—yet there’s always hope for a few wowers. But it doesn’t deliver, and worse, it’s boring. Director Brad Peyton suffers from premature ejaculation: On DVD the crowded CGI feels unfinished, never getting to the buildup and subsequent orgasmic thrills of destruction. The Hoover Dam is improbable casualty and yet there’s no cascade sweeping toward the poor sons of bitches in its path. (If L.A. and San Fran have to go, so must Vegas.) The visuals of the cataclysmic fault have no awe of nature on a rampage—they’re like Windows backgrounds. The debris surges in San Fran seem to pile mostly on top of the central characters who once again are an estranged family guaranteed a sappy miracle. As with John Cusack and Amanda Peet in 2012, Johnson and Carla Gugino cruise the perils of earth cave-ins and collapsing highrises while in transport, this time in a helicopter and later in a Coast Guard-like cutter used to ridiculously mount the tsunami before it rather lamely hits the Golden Gate and the city. Wipeout movies demand lots of laughs—ID 4 and 2012 have their share—yet, more than forty years later, even in its shoddiness, nothing compares to Earthquake, the long-standing champion of screamers. The best San Andreas offers up is Peet’s weakling boyfriend Ioan Gruffudd, whose undefined villainy isn’t sufficiently bad enough to shout out a cheerful boo. As time waster between barrages of falling girders and toxic ocean water, viewers wonder if Hugo Johnstone-Burt is meant to be the Australian version of the pabulum that is Willie Geist. (1/15/2016)
Saving Mr. Banks, directed by The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock, is fairly faithful to P.L. Travers’ testy trepidations about the concept, music and animation used in the Disney movie of her Mary Poppins. She was, of course, dead-on about the last inclusion and on the night of the Hollywood premiere to which she was not an original invitee, she had the temerity to waste no time telling Walt that the penguins and other cockeyed inserts had to go. But she had only one legal card—script approval—and zero say on the tricks of film editing or the final cut. Neither did she have deep pockets to mount a law suit if necessary: In order to receive the $100,000 she’d collect for selling limited rights to the book, she had to agree to a script (that she would in fact help alter) despite personally deploring Walt’s penchant for “sentimentality” ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, despite hating Dick Van Dyke and claiming Julie Andrews was just too pretty, because, with her books temporarily out of favor, she was essentially broke. (Her uppity disinclinations and fiscal house disorder were well-known to Walt’s brother Roy, who had been trying to secure rights to the Poppins books for more than twenty years.) Once getting beyond Emma Thompson’s sticky Englishwoman obeisance to manners, what I enjoyed about this movie is its rarity—a Disney about two real adults in combat over fantasy vs. semblance of reality. While there are media reports that Walt had little to do with the taxing negotiations with Travers over contested changes and supposedly left the song writing team of Richard and Robert Sherman to deal with her, the available trustworthy information is that Walt was not only making periodic visits to the rehearsal hall wherein Travers, the Shermans and screenwriters Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi were butting heads in the war of compromise, he would also be on the phone with them when situations warranted. (The movie shows Walt flying to London to soothe her feathers; point of fact, he used the blower.) Though some have criticized the movie’s flashbacks as labored analogs somewhat “Disney-fied”—out of dignity and not a whitewash by writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith—they are not only central reminders to viewers that Travers endured the antithesis of a Mickey Mouse childhood before and after her alcoholic father’s death from influenza but also justification for why she resisted turning Poppins into “supercalifragilistic” musicality. (One of the movie’s purportings shows Travers as a heroine on white horse saving her mother from suicide before her father passed. Not quite: the mother unsuccessfully attempted to kill herself but only after her husband died leaving the family destitute. It’s at this time Aunt Ellie, the real person on whom Poppins is modeled, comes into their lives as a heavy duty taskmaster.) Substantially taller than the author, Emma gets into her priggishness, comes close to her snobbish vocals and is only minimally softened in the Disney tradition; we have no problem understanding why Travers’ grandchildren reportedly said of her, “She died loving no one and with no one loving her.” Tom Hanks hides Walt’s 2 pack a day habit and anti-Semitism, yet there’s a formidable force at work in the wooing and finessing to get what he wants. Most of us believe that Walt wouldn’t have approved the making of Saving Mr. Banks. The infantilization of the material would confirm Travers was right all along—that his Mary Poppins is a mess worthy of her anguish, that for all the scrambled benefaction, it’s a freak show akin to an antsy-pantsy Theatre of the Absurd. She refused to permit the Disney machine anywhere near Poppins again. Don’t shed too many tears: her perpetual badmouthing would be assuaged in good measure by the 5% royalties she received against the 1964 movie’s $102 million gross. Big money in those days.
UGLY ANNA: R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue isn’t a documentary on Anna Wintour’s reign at Vogue, it’s a kissumentary. No accident that the chronicler was granted access to Wintour and Vogue a year after the splash of Streep’s characterization of her in The Devil Wears Prada—a cunning way to respond to all the media speculation that Streep got too close. What do we get? A reserved frostie as ringer for Lee Grant who wears her flapper hair and sun glasses as protective armor. We’re not going to be allowed to know much about her, we’re only going to be allowed to see that she’s as much performance art as the art Vogue fashion editor Grace Coddington conjures for the designers deigned worthy by the industry’s most powerful arbiter. Absent is a single moment of the meaning of “stuff” that Miranda Priestly so expertly conveyed; not a single word about Wintour avoiding elevators if they were filled with the little people; not even a wink about why she’s called “Nuclear Wintour.” If power is all about career-making, setting trends and propelling sales via a print medium, Wintour may be the most influential print deity of all time. And the worst-dressed: reported that she gets an annual $200,000 clothing allowance but who’d be caught buried in those printastrophes, those sleeveless frumpy geometrics and Rorschach tests? For the movie’s poster, she’s wearing one of those atrocities, accessorized by a bread loafs-like fur scarf, over-her-calves booties and, as more armor, a gray coat with a collar that suggests a skinned Chinese Shar Pei. (At the recent State dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, she was equally ugly in a business suit with a Vogue circulation chart as pattern.) In droopy black, looking somewhat like the bohemian older sister of actress Lindsay Duncan (Servilia in HBO’s Rome), Coddington, a former model, has the flair for extreme stylistic presentation, and, after decades of a working relationship with Wintour, a much-needed skill for expressing subterranean bitchery. The design star of the inside pages, she’s smartly obeisant to her boss. In an industry that takes no prisoners, that sucks on the tits of genuine creative artists and pansy provocateurs who in turn grovel for glossy spreads and mentions, Wintour exalts as its supreme cipher, a hag in high-priced rags deconstructing the glam she’s pushing. The rendition of herself would be contemptuous camp if not for its contemptible intentions. Wikipedia is more revelatory than Cutler’s ass-kissing.
Too soon into Sex and the City 2, as you’re hearing a chorus sing “If Ever I Would Leave You” at the nuptials of Him & Him, you begin to feel a creepiness coming on fast and just a few minutes later, when that mascara-drenched jackal Liza Minnelli shows up several decades removed from Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” your worst fears are realized—you’re already sick of the whole shebang and there are almost two hours to go. It gets worse: the over-the-top Patricia Field outfits on every scale, the over-stressing of the latest “women’s issues,” the plot contrivances that are not germane but preposterous, the men never having much to do except fulfil crotch fantasies. (And this time out they’re falling short on their duties.) Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie and Kim Cattrall’s Samantha are self-absorbed Randettes with ever growing and irritating unattractiveness. Does anyone give a shit about Carrie’s desire to make a life just for herself and Big, how they don’t need children, how she’s crackbrained over a kiss she received from a previous lover in Abu Dhabi? Would we be surprised that if there’s another chapter of these Anna Wintour bimbos she’ll find Big enlarging elsewhere? Parker’s Jewish sense of style has become faulty and never clearer than when she buys that pair of pukey Aladdin-like shoes. And what is that parasol-like atrocity she’s wearing in the market? How many more of Samantha’s droolings for meat must we have to endure? And what’s with the suitcase as a gynecological pharmacy? She’s a hustler going to extremes to salvage the kooze nobody wants anymore. It’s enough to make us want to booze—permanently. Inexcusably dumbass that the movie is filmed in Morocco but the settings are pretending to be Abu Dhabi, similar to the idiocy of using Malibu as Mexico in the first S&C movie. It’s also offensive that Samantha defies the restraints of her host’s country by feeling up a stud in a restaurant in front of native patrons and flips the bird to judgemental gawkers when her purse spills out condoms. Is there a purpose for flaunting her ugly Americaness? For that violation of the infantile, she and director Michael Patrick King and writer Candace Bushnell deserve immediate arrest and imprisonment at Abu Ghraib. (We’re thankful we believe in more than one second chance: wasted in The Ghost Writer, Cattrall redeems herself opposite Matthew Macfadyen in Channel 4’s “Any Human Heart.”) Like the legion of fans for the original series, I’ve often enjoyed the broads and the situations they encountered and how they sought resolutions to their dilemmas in about 30 minutes per episode. The superficial accoutrements weren’t too hyperbolized and sometimes the price for the phoniness of fame was very funny, like when Carrie falls on her ass as a runway model and one of the gay chums comments, “OMG, she’s fashion road kill.” Sometimes I could be very moved by the interference of real life: when Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda was on the blower telling Carrie about her mom’s sudden death, it was a scene verbatim out of my own life. But movie versions of TV shows suffer inherent danger in elongation, exposing their bibles by using empty filler, the gimmicks and the limitations that charmed through installments become taxing when confined. Maybe only the Star Trek franchise defies this because of scifi nuts’ continuing need for greater special effects and outlandish new worlds. But we know the world of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Kristin Davis’s Charlotte too well. Listening to Carrie in this installment, via voice over or on the phone or in direct conversations with all the others, the utterances are mundane, repetitious, without our need to know. It’s fatal for the movie to supply its own review, even if it’s a fictional one in The New Yorker. The caricature accompanying the piece, with Carrie’s mouth taped shut, says it all. Justly earning Razzies for Worst Screen Couple/Ensemble, Worst Prequel/Remake/Rip-Off/Sequel and Worst Actress for the gal pals.
With the exception of the riveting fingers-in-the-crotch bar sequence, I didn’t find Shame, Steve McQueen’s “character study” of sexual addiction, very intense, nor did I associate it, as others have, with garbage like Looking for Mr. Goodbar or American Psycho. If anything, I was reminded of Jack’s compulsiveness in Carnal Knowledge and Peter O’Toole’s table bit in Venus. Without the entrapment of the clinical, Michael Fassbender hits the right notes of a sex addict—incapable of and impotent in personal relationships, obsessed with privacy and resentful of intrusion, cruelly selfish, exhibitionistic, a clean freak and, at center, impulsively subservient to sex urges of all kinds. (Jack wouldn’t have entered that male-only emporium.) Don’t get the critical raves or awards, though: is the praise because there are all these silences between words? And as consequence the critics spent their time drooling over his member while trying to relate to the tastefully insatiable? He handles the improvisational dialogue well, his mute gazes have a low-density erotic charge, and for some time into the movie, he calls to mind a smutty Kevin Kline and later a raunchy Steven Weber. Disappointing that McQueen couldn’t find a less nauseating anthem for Carey Mulligan to sing; given the posh club in which she performs, there’d likely be the same “Not that shit again!” moan from the clientele that’s heard from viewers. Never been convinced of the necessity for NC-17. What it usually ends up meaning is that what you’re about to see isn’t for audiences over seventeen. Shame looks polished and adult; underneath the surface of its neutrality, you hear “Way to go, man!” for satyriasis.
Avoided the 2009 Sherlock Holmes for a while because the previews and clips suggested it’s a little too over the top, and I’m not crazy about Robert Downey, Jr., or Jude Law, who gets my flesh crawling. Then my niece hands me the DVD and says, “You liked The Illusionist, you might like this one.” Clever girl: I didn’t just like the latter, I loved it. Skillfully, patiently directed by Neil Burger, the flick’s captivating, romantic and exquisitely shot chiaroscuro style by Dick Pope, with subtle visual and special effects and a last stage trick out and out startling. But a movie by Guy Ritchie compares to one of 2006’s best? With a moody lampblack opening like a 19th Century James Bond cross-pollinated with Batman and Robin, and with Downey speaking with a winning accent stolen from Christopher Hitchens (with insertions of Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson and Robert Stephens, who also played the sleuth), Sherlock Holmes compares very favorably. With so many surprises to choose from, the biggest, of course, has to be Ritchie. Who thought he had it in him to put together a refurbished Holmes & Watson tale? While the actors’ chatter and some of the action remain at credibility’s edge, tho never to the detriment of the audience’s reception, Richie’s shared vision of an industrial charcoal London—the crowded and dealing alleys, dirt-covered streets and booming construction—is the joy of this entertainment. Our eyes are often battling to absorb all the inspired flourishes: Sarah Greenwood’s production design, the art direction by Niall Moroney and James Foster and James Foster and Nick Gottschalk and Matthew Gary, Kate Spencer’s set decorations and some spiffy costumes by Jenny Beavan. And the CGIers, the names too numerous to mention, honorably spent a mighty portion of the $90,000,000 price tag. Saving for special mention Philippe Rousselot’s lush Stygian-like lighting and photography and the sharp blade editing by James Herbert; together they encase and speed forward the expectant Holmesian cleverness as chimera. The major villain, first glimpsed with a serpent’s tooth, is Mark Strong giving homage to Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and the moviemakers even threw in a variation of Bond’s Jaws—Robert Maillet as Dredger. The tasty pleasure of this techno eclair is that it oozes rich filling without the dangers of excess fat.
Shooter is one hellava rootin’ shootin’ Movie Tavern escape that lifts you to a high level of pure visceral pleasure. Sure to recall Payback (either version) though it keeps the “you’re gonna get yours” retaliations away from overt sadomasochism and misogyny but, arguably a difference, not sexual assault. Mark Wahlberg is phenomenal as himself, a likeable ruffian who seems to have come to terms with his own abilities and hones in on what will make them better. With determination he keeps the timbre of his voice low, knows how to breathe and grunt pain and has grown into an action figure without the convenience of sociopathic excuses. Director Antonio Fuqua, who didn’t quite get it right with Tears of the Sun and went wacky with Keira Knightley’s battle getups in King Arthur and who directed Denzel Washington to a questionable Oscar in Training Day, doesn’t redeem the assassin-3rd world machinations but he definitely knows audiences want their heroes up close—zits and all—and he doesn’t disappoint with Wahlberg. The villains get their share too: Danny Glover is enjoyably despicable, Ned Beatty equally entertaining as a corrupt politician, and Elia Koteas gets his cahonnies off’d more than once. With Michael Peña and Kate Mara terrifically supporting the butch insurgency. Music lovers will note that Mark Mancina’s score steals from James Horner’s Titanic, specifically when the ship hits the iceberg and the stokers are rushing to keep from being trapped by the closing of the water tight doors.
Shutter Island is like wading through sludge stolen from Vertigo, from Williams’ threat-of-lobotomy in Suddenly, Last Summer, from The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Scott Hicks’ Hearts in Atlantis. It’s mired down with excessive non-linear plot and that’s no surprise considering Laeta Kalogridis, who wrote the mazy screenplay, also co-wrote Stone’s Alexander. By the time we get to the crucial revelation, who didn’t want to slap director Martin Scorsese and Kalogridis upside their heads for not making valid the value in their depressing Susan Smith/Andrea Yates redux? Leonardo DeCaprio works valiantly to bring something to the husband/father but all the psycho twists and turns are too heavily manufactured to keep him afloat. And the experiments at the asylum that is Shutter Island are in the hands of convenient “experts” like Ben Kingsley and Max Von Sydow, so the final escape isn’t a treatment to help rest a troubled mind but paranoia about the obscenity of expediency to hide the failures of psychiatric hocus pocus. The movie’s best features are Dante Ferrretti’s production design and Robert Richardson’s photography, both heightening the diseased ambiance. The visual effects crew and Thelma Schoonmaker do some highly commendable composite imagery and editing in combining various Maine and Massachusetts sights to produce the island and environs. One sound effect I didn’t find effective—the daunting blasts of the fog horn that have the unnecessary familiarity of the invaders from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. What’s the purpose? To keep us awake?
DANCING WITH BEEPERS: A firm believer in the less-you-know-about-a-movie-before-seeing-it-the-better-off-you-are, I made a determined effort to shut down all the media overload on Silver Linings Playbook, though that became difficult when Jennifer Lawrence started racking up awards for her performance and Dr. Oz was used as blurb for the movie’s ads to confer skimpy legitimacy. The subject of bipolar disorder is very close to me. I provide (and have for close to seven years) home care for someone in my family who has it, along with suffering the ravages of a debilitating stroke. Long suspected my charge was off the charts: like Brad Cooper’s character’s behavior, the mood swings, energy levels and verbal tirades were not just dramatic, they were dramatic flash fires not easily extinguished and like Cooper’s movie family, mine became confused, on-edge, angry and exhausted. In the midst of the last manic session before diagnosis, my patient insisted all the 110v electrical circuits in the house be changed to 220v, wanted me to break cathedral windows that couldn’t be opened so that there’d be more fresh air, and demanded we go to Home Depot to buy roofing insulation to be installed the same day under the existing roof. Agreeing to go to HD, I instead rushed to the ER fearing the hyper agitation would result in another stroke. The attending physician asked for an additional example of bizarre behavior: the patient wanted me to wash the ozone off the bathroom walls. As with Cooper’s condition and his family’s responses, our highest frustrations came in trying to break through the wall that bipolarity constructs. There’s no way to connect when patients are in throes of disturbance; common sense is no avenue, nor argumentation, nor compassion, except to make sure they don’t harm themselves or others, and that they’ve taken their meds. If they haven’t, there’s high anxiety waiting for the medicine to kick in. One of the sloppy errors in Silver Linings Playbook (without which there’d be no story) is that the patient and caretaker parents aren’t taking the scheduled “beeper” maintenance seriously enough. Though the script doesn’t offer clinical explanations, bipolar illness when raging isn’t usually one of those psychological disorders minus “physical” symptom; sparked by a chemical imbalance in the brain, the tantrum-like bipolar outbursts are often camouflaged by triggers like booze, drugs, sleeplessness, negligently prescribed sleep aids like Temazepam, and, of course, lingering and unresolved emotional issues. Family genetics can play a part: watching Robert De Niro as the father, the “origin” of the son’s condition seems suggestive, and equally revelatory is the resistance of family members to follow up with counseling. Having done Limitless, and here wearing facial battle scars, groomed beard, shortened thatch and a huge black plastic garbage bag over his sweats, Cooper’s tailor-made for wired; he’s so spot-on at times that even in its own exhaustion a knowledgeable audience appreciates his character’s lacerating critique of a Hemingway novel. Jennifer Lawrence carries on with The Hunger Games puffy face—from the wrong kind of drugs—and while not bad, she’s annoyingly overconfident in believing she’s convincing as a manic. (Was 2012 such a bad year for actresses that she’s a default winner?) Both performers are trapped in disbelieving plot devices such as being clueless amateurs entering a professional dancing contest, having a cop assigned to magically appear to constrain the ramifications of bipolar episodes. The cast is also handicapped by a simpleton’s twist—converting a failure of working class bookmaking into a remedial Rocky success. As Silver Linings Playbook progresses, there’s sufficient evidence that just about everyone, including friends, are graduates of the Melissa Leo School of Acting. No accident: director David O. Russell, having done The Fighter, swaps the quarrels of a boxing family with a set of shrill loonies. But another story seeps through the cracker factory’s foundation—Light in the Piazza. Just as De Niro and wife contrive as romcom enablers to get Cooper and Lawrence together, Olivia de Havilland pushed for retard daughter Yvette Mimieux to wed Rossano Brazzi’s halfwit son George Hamilton. Yvette and Georgie are probably still playing with their rubber duckies in the tub; Brad and Jennie will likely share meds when they’re between refills and looney bin lockups.
An unlikely source of praise for A Single Man comes from Chris Matthews who on MSNBC’s Hardball applauded Colin Firth’s work as “the best performance of a homosexual since Peter Finch’s in Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Coming from that movie-loving liberal, we might be tempted to over-hail Firth’s class act depiction of an early 60s closeted college professor who’s in sedate suicidal mourning over the loss of his lover of 16 years to an accident, even though we perceive early on that the aspirin intake quietly tweets a serious malady as plot linchpin. (He seems aware of Dr. Lawrence L. Craven’s landmark studies on aspirin reducing heart attacks; most of us back then were not.) The dilemma, at least for me, is accepting Firth for what, exactly—his sexless trot to the grave? Director Tom Ford says that his movie début is about enjoying life’s senses to the fullest, but how can that be when Firth’s repressing the most vital ones when he refuses the services of a Spanish hustler who apparently has the assets to fully reawaken them. The final day’s “clarity” of Firth equals courteous rejection and subsiding death wish: the portrayal, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel of gay widowhood, has a Fanny Hurst-turned-Manuel Puig atmosphere of self-sacrifice filtered through Ford’s starchy insensibilities. That in 2009 a highly respected gay artist would make a movie sponsoring denial is an appalling contradiction; there’s not a chance in whoever’s Hell that Ford himself would buy into the chastity he’s putting Firth through. Neither the material nor the audience deserves this retrograde falsity, not when Isherwood was in fact promiscuous and whose experiences, like our own, reflect the reality that grief often propels the strongest urge for sex. And it’s not like we just recently discovered that connection. What isn’t wholly sanctimonious is Ford’s compulsive/obsessive designer eye—he’s meticulous, methodically spot-on with details, though one almost humorously corrects itself: when Firth’s ready to end it all he first considers using a pillow and then, second, a sleeping bag to absorb the blood splatter. (Just a minute or two before this he’s left instructions to be buried in one of Ford’s suits with the tie in a Windsor knot.) A Single Man is a tribute to John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, not just in Finch’s character’s preference and its prestige ticktocking—everything’s right on schedule—but also in incidental sequences that aren’t required yet add perspective: in Schlesinger’s intelligent soaper we get glimpses of Glenda Jackson’s and Peter Finch’s familial backgrounds, while here we get the “light in your loafers” moments reminding us of the prevailing social prejudice. To bolster the often indeterminate 1962 setting, we get help from a Brigette Bardot wanna-be in Firth’s classroom, a mohair sweater worn by a student version of Firth’s deceased companion—Matthew Goode, whose “I’m taken for” is the movie’s best line—and sex-repellant Julianne Moore in a trashy Ann-Margret-as-Blanche-Devereaux bouffant. (We can’t miss that Moore and Firth are a little like Grace & Will.) Up close, Firth carries a nipper of Marcello Mastroianni in those nerdy glasses and that’s a plus; if he had some drive, he might still be alive. Chris Matthews’s hosanna for Firth would be earned if it hadn’t been attached to an infuriating inference Ford seems to endorse—that the only good gay is a dead one.
For much of his career Pedro Almodóvar has been on an unrepentant high flaunting his recovery from Franco and Catholicism, culminating with his chef-d’oeuvre Bad Education. But a discernable change was in the works, starting with Talk to Her, made two years before Bad Education. He was beginning to scale back the splashy psycho-neuroticism, playing it safe, and, horror of horrors, boring us. In the later Volver and Broken Embraces, his loveable dementia became outings for Penélope Cruz to dress up in a hairstylist’s fantasies and he’d go super tutti-frutti in the skies with I’m So Excited, quickly grounded because viewers weren’t. With The Skin I Live In, there’s a promise of the reemergence of Pedro’s hallmark perversity and subversion—he appears to have sneaked back into the confessional to re-up for that theatre of sick souls stuff—and, as bonus, merges with the Tom Ford obsession as a Mr. Clean queen getting off on but losing track of clinically unhinged scenarios. The Skin I Live In has been astutely observed by a movie newsgroup contributor as “straight-faced camp”: Antonio Banderas is a celebrated plastic surgeon who has been stripped of his licence over highly unusual and unapproved practices, particularly in the way he’s perfecting skin-grafting ever since his wife Vera died from burns caused by a car crash. Driven as a suavely modified Dr. Victor out of Frankenstein, at times looking strikingly like Noël Coward, Antonio continues experimenting in the private infirmary assembled in his Toledo, Spain swankienda, at which is his first captive, the kidnapped Vera # 2. Undergoing extensive and very successful skin grafts against her will, she’ll soon discover he has crafted his wife’s face onto hers. Additional complications are paraded out in typical diabolic Pedro fashion: Antonio’s house keeper is his mother—Marisa Paredes—only he doesn’t know it; he doesn’t know, either, that he has a half-brother, a malefactor who’s on the lam and ends up at the fancy digs to see Mommie Paredes, who, after threatening him with a gun, gets tied up and gagged so as to watch him rape Vera # 2 on the security cameras. Antonio arrives just in time, yet somehow # 2 will eventually end up in the looney bin. Not deterred from attempting another transformation, he kidnaps Vicente, indigenous Eurotrash who becomes Vera # 3 as punishment for having raped his daughter. (No one’s sure that happened.) In seeking a full replica of the wife, Antonio also gives Vera # 2 and Vera #3 two extras—masterfully sculptured sets of Vera # 1’s tits. And, “naturally,” he has got to try out them out, checking their consumability, but in the process finding the vaginoplasty science of penile inversion not quite ready to facilitate pleasure. We’re never sure, either, who he wants to put it to—the “image” of the first Vera or his smoothly forged Frankenstein creations. Safe guess: both. This barmy tale, an adaptation of Thierry Jonquet’s classic Tarantula that feels more like a vengeful re-do of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, has for a spell the customary enjoyment of trying to figure out how Pedro will resolve the shituations. Becomes a major letdown when he flat out cops out. Suppose it was bound to happen: he lathers up the doings that are too incredulous to accept even as camp and can’t traverse through the clogging suds to give us a knockout ending, to make up for the clumsy climax, resulting in two deaths that aren’t convincing. (In spite of immaculate sets, editing and cinematography, there’s a lot of sloppiness throughout.) The makings for a seriocomic, fashionably transgendered wrap are there, with a variety of killer one-liners as options. But Pedro isn’t searching to find the optimum. He seems exhausted, maybe indicating he’s dispirited in not using muse Carmen Maura instead of her stand-in, detected as substitute the first time we see her and again as an Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo-like mother trying to find her missing son. Maura, inducted into Movie Quips Hall of Fame for her self-evaluation after slapping her married lover’s lawyer in Women on the Verge, needed to be the una chica Almodóvar to deliver a trophy-winning punch about that dress.
Hardly an accident that the beginning and ending sequences of David Fincher’s The Social Network conclude with the admonishments that Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, is either “an asshole” or tries very hard to be one. If we evaluate him by this movie, by what we’ve read about him elsewhere and by what we saw during his interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, Zuckerberg doesn’t need to try to be one because the malady seems built into his DNA—his dysfunctional nature and attitude. Along with Sarah Palin, he’s about the most fitting example of the persistent narcissism infecting us as social beings because, despite his anti-social tics, he’s convinced over 500 million of the equally self-absorbed that there’s value in an endless supply of digital photos, alarmingly empty-headed “me too-ism” and idiotic exposure of privacies. (Click here for my own experience.) All of this makes the movie riveting, and if some of it doesn’t appear germane to the story Fincher is telling, its collective self-centeredness definitely is—as a tale so expansive it overrides everything we regard as social etiquette. Now the social norm, Facebook is the International Directory for exposing en masse traits we were once educated not to. On that basis, and if not bestowed by closeted Facebook addicts, the movie’s many awards as the year’s best are legitimate, and it can be said unhesitatingly Fincher has never been better as a director. (Remember Alien 3 as a scorched bathhouse for psychos, or the spiked dildo slaughter of Se7en?) Andrew Garfield’s thick-haired Eduardo Saverin stands out as the only character worthy of shedding regret for, while Justin Timberlake’s turn as Sean Parker sufficiently recoils until he’s seen swishing away from the camera in a scene or two, reminding us that he’s a little too relaxed as one of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
Those who’ve seen Annie Hall know about Woody Allen’s obsession with Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, the four hour and twenty five minute documentary focusing on France’s speedy subjugation to the Nazis. Obviously Allen’s fixations are persecution and death, subjects he has returned to time and again, but in relation to this specific purgative, they don’t quite fit. The Sorrow and the Pity is about surrendering at almost any price to avoid demise, not just one’s own but to save Paris and the rest of “civilized” France. Ophul’s strength is in the revelations of the continuing hypocrisy France engages to keep from coming to terms with what was, for the most part, a national sellout. (Originally meant to be aired on French TV in late 1969 or early 1970 until censors banned it as too “one-sided,” it finally aired in 1981.) As psychology, the documentary has universality, speaking to what the rest of us in similar situations would do and what is remembered. The people that viewers believe are telling the “truth” about what happened don’t substantiate with “fact” to support their claims because they too are obviating details, especially the emotional kind. For example, a Buckenwald death camp survivor can’t rise to earned outrage that one of his own neighbors snitched to put him there. And those who are probably prevaricating do so with amused anxiety, perhaps expecting that Ophuls might have witnesses suddenly appearing to refute them. But there’s more than science of human behaviors at work: the uniqueness of France’s white flag, collaboration and limited resistance is the exposure of an ingrained national hubris. We’re all grateful that Paris was spared; what we’re not too respectful about are the French who easily flipped their fannies over to be used by the Nazis and later were too ready to call it righteous duty with moral authority to find public sacrificial lambs negligibly responsible for the rush to appeasement. One of them the famed actress Arletty, who was sentenced to a concentration camp and then prison for her affair with a German officer, then put under house arrest for two years and suspended from working for three. She pulled no punches if it’s true that she said the following in her defense: “My heart is French but my ass is international.” More exciting to get screwed by conquerors than wimps.
Movies about newspapers used to be rowdy comedies that made us feel good about reporters getting the goods on the creeps and saving innocents from prison or execution. Partly myth, there was belief in going to the press to get a fair shake, to report corruption, to have faith in the Fourth Estate as leveler. Do we feel that way now? The irony in Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s tenacious Washington Post accounts on Watergate that eventually brought down Nixon is that our respect for the institution of investigative reporting turned to eventual misgivings about media harangues. Though the nation was gripped by the unfolding dramas generated by the twosome’s reporting, and while legions of Nixon haters weren’t surprised by the swamp of illegality he was up to his ass in, there was and remains something pernicious in using the moldy chiaroscuro of Deep Throat as snitch. If Nixon’s end conveniently justified the concealment and saved Deep Throat’s life, that camouflage didn’t then and doesn’t now earn an acquittal—the accused has the right to know his accuser and so does the public. For a much longer time than should have been tolerated we granted Bernstein and Woodward the imprimatur of beatified journalists. Their celebrated dark-shadowed scoops on All the President’s Men didn’t create better journalism; they and the movie version re-populated journalism schools but spawned a frenzy of agendized fishmongers reaching a nadir with Bill Clinton. We’re worse off for it; we’re getting more “breaking news” and feeling ever less sure we know more. (No one in Washington knew anything about Dennis Hastert? ) Spotlight is the first movie about current journalism that addresses what we’ve grown increasingly contemptuous about—that newspapers, networks or other media hold or use ugly stories, or only tell portions before burying them without follow up, for reasons unrelated to their avowed professional creed and intuitional smarts. What’s brought to attention by the movie is that the businesses that are The Boston Globe, community leadership and the Church had been immoderately intertwined; the long-held imbalance of justice for children as sexual victims of Catholic priests became the consequence of the false avouchment that the Catholic community of Boston couldn’t bear the news that supposedly celibate members of God’s squad did such things. With Boston courts, Church hierarchy and lawyers in collusion, systemic secrecy of charges and payoffs was the rule. Spotlight does something more—it shows us the length of time needed and setbacks suffered in the efforts to reveal the extent of the cover up that, throughout the Roman Catholic reach, is still unfolding. (Re: HBO’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.) At critical turns in the story is the question of conscience: why did the paper wait when it had received the basic compiling offered by informants years before? The question is answered implicitly: To keep the lid from exploding, the victims mattered less than the community’s sense of phony religiosity. The city didn’t break loose when the first full scale reportage was printed in early 2002; it was the Globe’s telephone system that exploded with confirmation that the sexual abuse of children by priests was much larger in scale. (This detonation of the “silent” has been repeated internationally, and with unusual damning public outrage in Ireland.) Spotlight beams on familiar faces—Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci—and it’s like old home week. Considering their familiarity, they’re surprisingly acceptable, especially Ruffalo (as he is in Infinitely Polar Bear, too) and Tucci, blessedly absent the customary bling. And Rachel McAdams gets frank responses from Michael Cyril Creighton as victim bringing a poignant levity to the term “blow job.” Then there’s Liev Schreiber, in short-of-chin beard, using his melodious Voice of Reason to becalm the belated urgency to do something. Directed with efficiency by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight minimally satisfies the need for retribution and enough to win the Oscar as best PSA. Mea Culpa, though, probably had greater impact: released by HBO in 2012, its disturbing disclosures about Pope Benedict XVI, otherwise known as Joseph Ratzinger the protectorate of pedophile priests, quite likely became major catalyst to his unprecedented abdication in 2013. Unsurprisingly media amnesia returned: Francisco’s September, 2015 “You’ll Love Me” tour to America received six days of wall-to-wall coverage.
Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad is impressive, once we get past its deeply bruised blue video game look. The sets are real—taking six months to construct—and the CGI isn’t overwhelming. Didn’t see this in 3D but many of the effects are very decent on DVD, and, in order to enjoy the integrity of sound effects, I highly recommend selecting the Russian language track. (The English-dubbed track is hollow.) What surprises more than anything else is who becomes the film’s central focus—Thomas Kretschmann as the German Kapitan Kan. It’s obvious, maybe perplexing, that the director is more invested in the character than any other except Mariya Smolnikova’s Katya, a famished version of Juliette Binoche. Immersed in war duty and sexual desire, Thomas’s Kan reflects the Reich’s maleficence with a stealthy bit of eroticism, contradicting the intended protection and falsification of the supposedly moral Russkies, who would in fact engage in retaliatory rape of captives when overrunning Germany in the race to Berlin. This isn’t Thomas’ only appearance in a war movie about the city—he’d do the 1993 German Stalingrad. (He also plays the savior in Polanski’s The Pianist.) How we segue from the movie’s opening of the disastrous 2011 Japan tsunami to the Battle of Stalingrad and back again is outré. Perhaps Fedor was “advised” to insert Putin agitprop as certification of international cooperation and conclude with (an offensive) additive about freedom. Constrained by a reported $30 million budget, Fedor likely couldn’t afford to provide a larger panorama of the brutality—though there are courageous stunts and sufficient CGI glimpses of its hellish expanse—yet he nevertheless delivers. His father would be pleased.
Moviegoers who’ve seen Julie Christie as an Alzheimer’s victim in Away From Her have a heads-up about what to expect from Julianne Moore in Still Alice. And that’s what makes for serious objection: as with Christie, there’s a safety net surrounding Moore in that her character will go only so far, that the movie makers are anxiously keeping away from the messier horrors of the disease. She’s another elongated commercial implying things aren’t too scary or emotionally or financially taxing; that, absent hard-to-face facts, it’s more than adequate to comfort a stricken Mom with “We love you, we’ll get through this together” and call it a day. Passivity rules, even with the fear of passing on the genetics—only one of Moore’s three children agrees to be tested. Just about everyone deciding to watch the movie is aware Alzheimer’s might touch them in one way or another or already has, but it won’t prevent the quicker recognition they’ve been fobbed yet again by an obligatory primer. In prepping for and executing shifts into the disease, Moore appears to be working harder to get a voting audience on her side. (She did the same in Far From Heaven.) Like Christie’s, her performance is skillful in its overly cautious transitions—for example, joking she had too much champagne when forgetting what she wanted to say during a professor of linguistics lecture, or pissing in her pants before she can find the bathroom. But she doesn’t get into the trauma of the fleeting moments of self-acknowledgment that what’s vanishing is more than memory, or losing the battle of controlling bodily functions, it’s the irreversible blow in realizing she’s losing the very vitals of who she is. The movie inadvertently begs the haunt that a career in the humanities is hazardous to health: Moore’s an expert in the science of language and Joanne Woodward in Do You Remember Love is a professor of literature and Judi Dench the Irish novelist Murdoch in Iris. While Woodward and Dench are comparatively spontaneous in their cascading diminution and fearful in their frustrations—getting suddenly pissed, having emotional breakdowns, and in despair over their love of words evaporating in the growing dark—Moore, similiar to Christie, virtually coasts to oblivion. In Still Alice, the audience isn’t given the chance to see who’s going to be there to help Moore when the going gets rough, as Jim Broadbent will in Iris, or hear the excuses family members have for not wanting to go through it, or sense how afraid they’ll be to deal with the end stages. There’s solid hinting her husband Alec Baldwin won’t be around enough to be affected, having received a prestige job offer he can’t refuse; he’ll probably never have to heartbreakingly yell “I can’t help you!” in the middle of the night in the way Broadbent cries at Dench. (He justly won honors, including the Oscar, but his work is superbly augmented by the unrecognizable Hugh Bonneville as the young husband to Kate Winslet’s young Iris.) The co-directors/co-writers of Still Alice—Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland—seem to have wanted to argue that a tidy if pretty PSA is the price for maintaining a victim’s dignity. Therein lies the indignity in the copout they’ve made—hiding the realities of illness. The sad dramatic irony is Glatzer, who died from ALS in March of this year, didn’t hide his when making the movie.
This is Where I Leave You proves wrong that Shiva can’t be a setting for comedy. Directed by Shawn Levy, with Jonathan Tropper adapting his stormier novel, it’s a gathering of dysfunctionals loaded with small surprises. With whiplash dialogue the ensemble cast doesn’t waste, the seven day shebang is rather like a Jewish ménage of the predominately WASP The Big Chill and comes with a bonus—it allows you to forgive yourself for wasting time on August: Osage County. If you haven’t seen TIWILY yet, then you don’t want details and that provides the excuse to go on about Jane Fonda. I’m improbably in love. She may be at her peak as dramedienne and a full force of nature: as an ego-pumped widow showcasing a skanky boob job, matriarch to three sons and a daughter, she’s never been this decompressed on screen and that includes her fun romp in Monster-in-Law. There’s none of her chilly “star” power which again shows up in Netflix’s Grace and Frankie. Hardly a stereotypic Jewish mother, she uses her character’s favoritism toward son Jason Bateman and his troubles with believable endearment. Jason benefits most by her maternal largesse—he’s never been better. (Partisans for State of Play might disagree.) The beard might have plenty do with it too, keeping down the association with his previous bummers; on the other hand, he starts the movie by receiving a double whammy—the first a jolt of betrayal, the second the shock of expiry—that quickly endears us to him. Jane’s other children are Adam Driver, Corey Stoll and Tina Fey, who’s stuck in a sappy situation with a former boyfriend but delivers expertly some yeasty overlapping verbiage. As girlfriend to Driver, Connie Britton is the distaff equivalent to Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill, both a little too “smart” as discerning interlopers. Tropper’s novel wasn’t intended to be about a Jewish family when he started writing it; what he wanted was to reexamine Jason’s character with his family—particularly with one brother with whom he fought for years—but in order to keep the principals together for more than just a few hours or an overnight to explore the baggage that often pops open when immediate family members are confined for a period, he uses the custom of Shiva and thus converted his clan. On screen it works without being Hollywood Jewish; Levy makes sure we’re never offended by pigeonholes, if we disregard a young rabbi who is a nebbish version of Ben Stiller from Keeping the Faith. As in The Big Chill, there’s a Porche, only this one isn’t banged up. Coveted from afar, it fittingly if temporarily ends up in the right hands. Shlimazel Tov!
Titanic 3D is an audience participation movie, in the tradition of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Ten Commandments, the sing-a-long to The Sound of Music, John Waters’ Hairspray and Streep’s Mamma Mia. At first, the audience I saw T3D with was polite, but by the time Gloria Stewart utters the line “Wasn’t I a dish?” the restraints were lifted. All the laughs came on cue, but now hipsters were adding some camp flair to the lines, and in no time we’re all openly hissing at Billy Zane and David Warner, and when a voice shouted “Law suits!” as the victims start slipping and falling into immobile objects that kill them or when one of the women is hopelessly struggling to maintain a grip on the rails and someone hollered out “Hold on, bitch!” the audience erupted. As movies move into the domain of audience ownership, our “love” as well as “contempt” bred by familiarity transport us into a union of festiveness. During the initial Titanic release, first-timers probably didn’t leave the theatre too lightheaded; after years of hacked up TV exposure numbing the tragedy and now mockingly enjoying the 3D update on the big screen without interruption, we the repeaters exit the theatre giddy. An unimaginable turn considering that the real story’s hook remains the greatest caveat about the ship of mankind trying to fool Mother Nature. (Comparing this version with Julian Fellowes’ cheesy “Titanic” on ABC is impossibly prejudicial, since his script is one blatant steal after another from Cameron’s, including the embarrassing inclusion of a piece of jewelry that gets lifted by one of the maids, played by Lyndsey Marshal who was the wanton queen of the Nile in HBO’s Rome. Perhaps the four part drama will be more tolerable on DVD, without ABC’s obscenity of running commercials every eight minutes and one of the breaks smack in the middle of the ship’s last seconds of descent!) As for the newly added effects in T3D, all of us know that a movie not originally designed for 3D isn’t going to be 3D, yet, after fourteen months of intense labor to try to bring an updated technology to a 15 year old movie, the “resurrection” is neither a full success nor a flat-out failure. By success, I’m measuring intent as well as effect against the impressive Smilebox technology used to duplicate Cinerama for the DVD/Blu-ray of MGM’s How The West Was Won, the best restoration of a lousy blockbuster to date. Though the major disappointment is the inability to enhance the splitting of the ship—the only reason I was willing to sit through the movie again, as it remains one of the most spectacular Wow! moments in movie history—I’ll say that what is a pleasant surprise is Cameron’s dimensional concentration of the principals; there’s something curiously satisfying in seeing Leo and Kate and Bates up front and filled out, and the sets—among them the first class cabin (and that mirror) for Kate, and the sprawling public deck—have decent depth. What you get for your money is 2½D.
TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN: Woody Allen’s Europa Tours started in London back in 2005 with Match Point, and continued there with Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, and then hopped on over to Barcelona for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, back to London for You Will Meet a Tall Stranger, then onto to the City of Light for Midnight in Paris and concluding with a stop in the Eternal City for To Rome with Love. Exempting the blend of magic and locale of Midnight, I’m thinking that if these movies are from the same Woody moviegoers have loved for all his charming neuroses, they must feel stranded on the If This Is Tuesday, This Must Be ZilchVille bus. Irritatingly so with To Rome with Love—an insult to Romans. He’s using celebrity, the paparatzzi, adultery and “You Gotta Have A Gimmick” from Gypsy to mock Rome as a cesspool of Berlusconi fools. As you watch you’re trying not to believe that anything you’re seeing is really this deliberate, that he could pen such crap, but any director using the empty bag of tricks that is Roberto Benigni hasn’t much of a defense. Allen tries for one—admitting to taking European money to make movies because he was assured he’d have no interference in their making. Supposedly unlike some unnamed American financiers, no one on the continent would insist on seeing his scripts, or dictate casting selections. But why does a viewer wish someone in London or Barcelona or Rome had meddled? Match Point, borrowing from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, becomes an amoral Hitchcock with a heavy hangover from A Place in the Sun. (The audience understands why Monty is driven to want to dispatch Shelley Winters, whereas Woody doesn’t give Rhys Meyers an ounce of redemption or an inamorata to warrant a reversal of fortune. Wasn’t at all averse to seeing Rhys’ victim get it, but had Charlize played the nag, I might be more sympathetic.) Staying too long in London, Allen appears to have lost sight of the fact that his métier as an entertainer is in dealing with the contretemps of romantics mismatched and by the time he got to Barcelona he seemed afraid to maximize his own quip about bisexuality doubling one’s chances for a date, in that Vicky needed to be Vick as Javier’s surprise lover, and, even worse, he failed to provide the special lure of the Mediterranean’s most teeming metropolis. In To Rome, his view of the city is so icky icteric that you’re desperate for a splash of Technicolor to ward off more disease. (Many of us felt contagious from the tourist shots of Midnight.) Don’t remember a group of his characters having so little to do and doing it with this dissing level of puerility. (Okay, Interiors, but that’s purposeful imitation of deadened life.) Nothing in To Rome has any legitimate purpose to be in anything but a toilet; Allen is heaving up sour vino.
Up to and including a disarmingly honest grave site farewell, Trainwreck works as double feature with Bridesmaids. Writing herself a part that Kristen Wiig could easily slip into, Amy Schumer flaunts a raw caustic bluntness, stinging about her own shortcomings and everyone else’s; she’s slobby egalitarian, an attraction as loose caboose who likes dirty sex talk. (Her profligacy susceptible to charges of statutory rape and hazardous for steady employment.) She also writes scenes inspired by Wiig’s caprice—the verbal assaults in the movie house have the same kind of juicy animosity as Wiig’s confrontation with Mia Rose Framption in the jewelry store in Bridesmaids. By her own admission, though, Amy tailored the script of Trainwreck to suit director Judd Apatow’s adolescent whims and if that’s not enough of a derailment, she wrecks it even more by teaming with Bill Hader, a second-rate Jim Carrey inconceivable as sports doctor and practitioner of cunnilingus. There’s absolute zero alchemy in the pairing. Amy’s let-it-bleed mode isn’t compatible with wussies; her raunch needs to bounce off the equally armed. Instead, as perhaps the least romantic in the current catalogue of millennials, she’s plotting to win the romcom sweepstakes by giving up the goodies to go jiggling with the Knicks’ jigglettes at Madison Square Garden. Who the fuck wants Amy romping sober? Boomers in the audience are going to have the additional chore of trying to see beyond an obvious resemblance—Amy looks as if she’s the daughter Kathleen Turner gave birth to, mannerisms included, during her own boozed cheeks years. The sports crap as an anti-Bridesmaids addictive worked to get the couch jocks into theaters on date night. Most of the rest of us who waited until its DVD release regret that there isn’t more S’Nuff stuff, with unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as the editor. Oscar for best disguise.
The high critical response to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life has a direct relationship to 2011’s re-infantilization of movies. If Tree isn’t about buffed up comic book heroes or faggish vampires or another outbreak of chickflickitis, then it’s got to be profound “cinema.” And there is something reassuring about Malick taking his sweet time to get Brad Pitt and Sean Penn to do what he wants, even if the audience isn’t too sure what the hell that is. Movies about the connective meanings of our existence are criticized as pretentious and polarizing because they usually are and the extra burden here is that the quasi spiritual encounters are of the Quaaludian kind. Technically the movie seems applaudably Spic & Span—we’d be safe in eating off the plates that are Emmanuel Lubezki’s celluloid images—but as the “cinema” photography advances we’re feeling more and more groggy and occasionally nonplussed when getting caught up in a memory machine, recalling similar pictorial successions in The Bible...in the beginning, 2001, a few Star Treks and any number of Hubble slide shows off the Internet. Reeking with prestige as a journey from the big bang to the discovery of the processes that give us universal linkage, The Tree of Life sheds not the leaves of spiritual, mental and emotional contemplation but those of esoteric emanations. Other than the ugly use of a belt against a defenseless child, is there anyone in this movie with a pulse?
First alert that Trumbo will lack gravitas is director Jay Roach, who doesn’t have any. Second alert: I found his Game Change a pile of shit, dependent on using Tina Fey mockery as performance guide for Julianne Moore’s Sarah Palin. Doing so doesn’t make her Palin dishonest, just too expedient. But it thumbnails Roach’s approach to Dalton Trumbo. He hurriedly pushes through the writer’s commie politics that created difficulties with Hollywood’s right wing community and the House on UnAmerican Activities committee looking into pro-Soviet Union sympathies and subversion without clarity in understanding the Hollywood 10 positions, other than freedom of speech and lawful right to hold political views different than the generally ignorant majority. (This coming at a time when the nation as a whole falsely believed we won WWII virtually single-handedly, and more than 75 years later, surveys of high school students tell us they believe we allied with Germany to fight the Russians.) Third alert: The most salient argument mentioned doesn’t have the requisite hefty resonance—that Trumbo and so many others persecuted for their politics did nothing against any established law except for showing contempt of Congressional witch hunts negating citizens’ constitutional rights. A lack of time to dive deeper into the imbroglio would be Roach’s excuse—this is a movie begging to be a miniseries. There’s another issue not addressed: Did Hollywood really not know that Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday and The Brave One? Few if any secrets in a company town. The handy silence especially revealing in reference to movie-only hero John Wayne, who in Trumbo is slammed for his war service. Claiming to want to respond to the call to arms at the start of WWII, Wayne’s selective service classification was initially 3A: at 34, he was deferred for dependency as a father of four. In 1944, he was reclassified 2A, deferred as actor in support of the national interest; one month later his status was revoked and made 1A. Movie executives intervened and he was listed 2A again. Knowing older big name actors enlisted despite valid 3A classification, he did make a patriotic call—to John Ford, hoping to join his war documentary film unit. That didn’t go anywhere and neither did Wayne. Pardoning his lack of enlistment, he said he had to keep making “one or two more” movies to “rally for the cause.” By the time the war ended, he had made only five war-related movies, if one counts the unwittingly funny Reunion in France. Wayne’s alignment with right wing gossip-millinery queen Hedda Hopper gets major attention in Trumbo yet minus a few pertinent details. When Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas openly defied the Motion Picture Alliance types and publicly announced that Dalton would be the screenwriter for Exodus and Spartacus—two of 1960’s prestige hardtickets—Wayne was suffering setbacks in directing his sappy epic The Alamo, made worse by his subsequent embarrassing campaign to garner Oscar nominations to boost a sagging box office. In the incipient stage of shrinkage as colossus of influence—her syndicated column was already getting quietly reduced in print due to her repetitious anti-communist, moral and amateur psychoanalytical harangues—Hedda would soon reap legal wrath, public humiliation and escalating career woes over her published inference that actor Michael Wilding was gay. (He might have dabbled but she couldn’t prove it.) Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the gossip is ready-to-burn effigy, soaked in the fuel of arrogance and menace; missing are fun incidents like Spencer Tracy literally kicking her ass for reporting about his off-screen relationship with Katharine Hepburn. Albeit amusing, the actors playing Wayne, Douglas and Preminger are caricatures, imitators of speech patterns. Using the legalese of semantics while testifying before the HUAC, Edward G. Robinson did not specifically name any persons as communists, but, repudiating Commie-leaning organizations he helped fund and calling himself a “dupe,” he implied Trumbo and others were. That didn’t square with the studio heads who relegated Robinson to B pictures and television until DeMille offered the atonement role of a traitor in The Ten Commandments. The title subject fairs somewhere between perfunctory fact and sloppy parody. Bryan Cranston gets into the bathtub to write, is immersed in clouds of cigarette smoke (resulting in lung cancer for which he was in hospice care when he died from a heart attack), suffers the expected indignities, and manages a modicum of moral punch for the closing. Persuasive he is not, bereft of the plangency as beacon of conviction. Nor does he get the best line in the movie. That belongs to Louis C.K. who, as an amalgam of victims, tells the HUAC that before answering questions he needs to speak with his doctor to check if it’s safe to remove his conscience. We’ll need to check with Washington sage Elizabeth Drew before viewing Roach’s next scrutiny of history—All the Way, with Cranston as LBJ and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird.
Whatever inclination we bring to Truth, especially in this era of fake news, there’s no denying the powerful despair Cate Blanchett delivers as 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes, probably the best performance in a 2015 movie nobody wanted to see. Loaded title notwithstanding, it’s about the unsettling and inarguably notorious botch of journalistic standards Mapes found herself viciously attacked for in reference to her September, 2004 story alleging George W. Bush was AWOL from National Guard pilot duties in the 1970s—and made all the more a “juicy brisket” because Dan Rather, a longtime GOP target, was the narrating reporter. Cate lends an exhausting realness to the dotty rush in uncovering supposed “facts” and arcanum and brings perceivable pain in the resignation that she was duped by the appearance of documents a little too quickly discredited by Internet henchmen armed with the font wizardry of MS Word. Downing booze and Xanax, she’s a blond maelstrom of conflicts: in gathering info, she eager-beavers to super-charge claims at the time absent unambiguous substantiation; she dismisses deeper examination of the motives of attestants; she ignores her own unexamined motives and connections to the Democratic party that put her in additional peril. Unwilling to concede ethical infractions gleefully mocked by other news organizations, she and her team spend God only knows how much time looking for proof of a 1970s superscript of “th” on any related military records as basis for acquittal. In political warfare, Mapes came up with zilchy arsenal. The incaution about previous Bush sabotage—the headline-making televised altercation between Rather and George Sr. back in 1988—is never expressed yet, with history as prologue, it’s implicitly very damning to the anchor. (Former ABC newsman Ted Koppel suggested a reason for that altercation: “The Bush people had a goal, an objective to be achieved by their candidate. And although he clearly did not suspect it, Rather had been selected to serve as high priest on the ceremonial de-wimping of the vice president.”) By most accounts George Jr.’s team was aware that Mapes was snooping around in 2000 to get the dirt on his National Guard service, though the investigation was shelved when her mother died during the period. With John Kerry being crucified for his Vietnam service in the run up to the 2004 election and the very timely arrival of heretofore unseen documents relating to George Jr., the opposition seemingly prepared for the next “ceremony.” Plenty of illation supports the suspicion Mapes and Rather were marked in a clever Machiavellian plot to counter their perceived bent to destroy George Jr.’s reelection chances and in the process another chance to destroy Rather’s career. This isn’t hindsight: many media junkies watching the original 1988 broadcast were heedful of possible if delayed repercussions stemming from the combative interview and during the 2004 broadcast we were dumbstruck by Rather blindly sacrificing himself on the Bush altar. Politics everything, Rather, Mapes and a cadre of 60 Minutes staffers got the expected boot. Mission finally accomplished. Years later, this question can’t be brushed off: Was their collective sin any more egregious than Lara Logan’s year-in-preparation smear of Hillary in a Benghazi hoax perpetrated by a liar still in hiding? All she got was an ass spanking and a suspension.
THE BRIGHT SIDE: In Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond, author Robin Wood goes hyperbolic in calling 1975’s Mandingo “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood.” The fearless simplifications of the movie’s unflinching stereotypes—condemned by critics yet to be lauded by them later in Roots and North and South—get the juices of hate and sensation flowing. And it’s more graphically brutal than Steve McQueen’s version of Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years A Slave. The accumulative effects of the privations, whippings and hangings in the latter might seem to provide the sense of irredeemable titillation but after a while the agonies begin to feel clocked-in. McQueen has directed a bore chore. This is picturesque history of slavery ready made for commercials; the Cross Creek-like interludes of landscapes, skyscapes, swampscapes serve double duty as salve and pause & piss breaks. Some of the “designs” of imagery recall Ridley Scott’s début The Duellists, about a moviemaker’s passion for composition; he and cinematographer Frank Tidy create sequences as living paintings, mounted with a fashionable cool. The inverse trompe l’oei of McQueen and photographer Sean Bobbitt is similarly mute of a direct emotional response. In the showpiece sequence, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon all but hanging from a huge mossy limb and anguishing for hours to prevent asphyxiation (or a snap) while other slaves go about their work to crowd the canvass, we’re taking in fastidious torture portraiture. Nearly the same for Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar-winning ouches: She gives good face during the slashings, and the sound effects are lacerating, but why do our eyes wander on over to white bitch Sarah Paulson whose husband Michael Fassbender has been fucking the whipped? (Paulson’s sex-starved oppressor has the only near-spontaneous scene in the entire movie—throwing a liquor decanter at her replacement.) These choreographed arrangements packed with extras work against intent to induce moral indignation; we’re not only aware Solomon will survive, since he wrote the story in the first place, we’re also aware the visuals are consistent with McQueen’s ambivalence—that “art can’t fix anything...it can just observe and portray.” He’s in lack-of-specificity trouble before all this: if we assume the moral, social and cultural obligations inherent in the history, perhaps feeling the need to drop a donation in the reparations pot, our charity begins to wane when we start to hear those wtf? borrowings of the foghorn-like sounds from the tripods in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, blaring as we see that covered wagon in which the kidnapped are being transported. (These gonzo sounds are even heard in the lush green-yellow swamps!) The director’s British hand in the white glove of spotlessness—this is a production courtesy of Mr. Clean—doesn’t hide a black pride to agitate bigots: Ejiofor’s dark eyes sometimes give off a beautiful bluish tint complimenting his King’s English and talent as musician and he’s such a natural wonder that he can sweat profusely in the cotton fields without fear of dehydration. 12 Years A Slave is a movie that Oscar voters can both flog and congratulate themselves over because its visualizations becalm the horror and revulsion of slavery; they’re relieved by the real Solomon concluding his story with this: “If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.” Next year the musical Fiddler in the Swamps.
2012 is, story-wise, ineffably dumb-dumb, but all of us who’ve seen Roland Emmerich’s other special effects extravagances—Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow—know that going in. We keep going back for the next outlandish CGI fix and Emmerich delivers with eye-popping catastrophe. Who doesn’t enjoy it when L.A., Vegas, the White House and the Vatican get theirs? Disbelief on automatic suspension, Emmerich still pulls a few boners too many. How could it be technically possible to build in two years those giant updated Noah’s Arks deep in the Himalayas? The dynamiting of the mountains and removal of the dirt and the building of the mammoth caves and roads to transport to and fro the materials to the caverns would have taken at least a decade, no? But the selected throngs don’t ask, they only clamor in frenzy to get on board, including England’s Queenie and her shitting Corgis, before the apocalyptic tidal waves hit. John Cusack must have it written into his contracts that he wear black (no star seems to need it more), and as I write this, I can’t remember the names of any of the other actors in the cast except Woody Harrelson, continuing the over-done quackery of Randy Quaid in ID4.
Peter O’Toole explains it all for us: Venus is “about a dirty old man and a sluttish young woman.” Wrap it in the world of septuagenarian actors, throw in a bit of pleb Pygmalion and a dash of vulgar Educating Rita and what we get is O’Toole delivering a master’s love of his craft. It’s a near-capper to a long career of frayed, flawed eccentrics—Lawrence, Henry II, the Earl of Gurney, Eli Cross, even Anton Ego—that have become his destiny fulfilled. No other elder actor alive right now could do Maurice—and perhaps no other actor would want to because in order to play him, he has to be utterly fearless. (Hollywood was probably a bit too skittish to bestow the Oscar he deserved, not after that table scene.) With Vanessa Redgrave enhancing further her welcomed magnanimity and Jodie Whittaker as Jessie. Directed by Roger Mitchell, whose most popular movie is the trifle Notting Hill, and penned by Hanif Kureiski, who wrote My Beautiful Laundrette, Venus is not based on but is inspired by the Junichiro Tanizaki novella Diary of a Mad Old Man, a fitting subtitle. A year later O’Toole would provide wondrous fun in the nonsense of Ratatouille, for which he maximizes his voice as Anton in a mellifluous British drawling the likes of which have never been heard before. It may be the greatest supporting act in animation.
Paul Schrader’s 2007 The Walker has as close to zero pulse as an otherwise interesting movie gets. A glimpse of the hangers-on class in Washington, it’s about a gentleman who spends most of his time escorting the bored wives to functions their hubbies conveniently become too busy to attend. Since most of the male companions known as “walkers” are gay, the absent husbands are presumably worry-free about any beddie-bye consequences but, as Woody Harrelson represents, walkers are often the most “in the know” consumers of gossip, specifically the ruinous kind. And so when there’s a murder within his coterie, he becomes convenient suspect and even more conveniently dropped by his card-playing hags. Harrelson reportedly disliked his own work, though he’s anything but bad doing a combo of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. His self-evaluation might be showing a bit of kindness towards Schrader who composes as if he’s latently human and conducts as a dead director walking. You see and hear his impairments in wasting the topnotch supporting cast of Kristen Scott Thomas (why is she always so sourpussy?), Lauren Bacall, Lily Tomlin and William Defoe. We’d all agree that Washington is terminal with financial irresponsibility and a lack of any common sense; it is not, however, a lifeless ménage of boring sex scandals.
Even with film editor Michael Kahn’s short cuts in editing to speed things up, Steven Spielberg keeps decelerating War Horse; depending on a viewer’s tolerances, it takes about forty five to sixty minutes to kick in. A long haul. Yet short on the waterworks. No one will deny the story doesn’t get tears flowing, but aren’t we really expected to cry an E.T. river? Becoming a redundant question about his movies, but why isn’t War Horse more satisfying? Something’s happened to him—perhaps his reliance on technology turns into dissociation; he’s iPading with all the slick tricks and swipes that he’s involuntarily canceling out emotional contact with us. (The same could be charged against Scorsese, whose Hugo begins well, is spectacular when the train is heading toward its crash, and then abruptly poops out.) During the D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, technology was used to emphasize the horrific impact of war’s suffering that’s often edited out but soon afterwards the whole thing fell apart; the director’s been wobbly ever since. The famed Spielberg touch started to lose its luster years ago, during the puerile parts of Close Encounters and with The Color Purple, but it’s hard to recover from bathos crapos like The Terminal, and the remake of War of the Worlds was severely marred by the screechiness of Dakota Fanning (who needed to be sucked up and digested by those spidery tripods) and the unnecessary over-the-top Tim Robbins. Its front end jumbled, Catch Me If You Can was saved when DiCaprio used his Leonardo talents to counterfeit and cash checks and Hanks got flummoxed trying to stop him. In puzzling ways Spielberg seems not to really want to deal with what’s inherent in War Horse. When he opens with scenic borrowings from Ryan’s Daughter that glide into The Brown Stallion, or when he gives a nod to Inglorious Basterds, or when he pulls a Grand Illusion bit by stopping the war to rescue the horse, these smooches to other directors don’t make War Horse better; they feel like lazy lifts by a magician too tired to integrate them seamlessly. (Maybe that’s why he hands the movie to John Williams whose score over-compensates.) At end, preparing for those waterworks, our eyes get immersed in carbon copies of the famous William Cameron Menzies glass shots from Gone with the Wind and though we don’t conjure Scarlett and Rhett showing up for an encore, we do count on—but don’t get—the horse and his master slobbering. Spielberg must not hold stock in Kimberly-Clark anymore.
If the abuse in Whiplash is what it takes to be a jazz musician, then little wonder the music art form has reportedly lost some of its long-fashionable cool. Who the fuck but a masochist would endure the sadistic slaps and slurs from J.K. Simmons, a triad of Buddy Rich, Louis Gossett, Jr, and Stephen Lang? Apparently director Damien Chazelle, whose “magnificent obsession” is tantamount to gluttonous punishment. Any doubts are vanished after viewing the Black Swan ripoff Grand Piano he wrote back in 2013. People without self-respect are the only ones who’d tolerate Simmons’ teaching methods. When Miles Teller as the drummer, bleeding from an accident, finally recovers enough of his to go after the sonnavabitch, I plead guilty to cheering him on. (Then I thought, Wait a minute, this is the level of passive-aggressive behavior I’ve stooped?) Whiplash may be suggesting that verbal and physical assaults are codified as norms in music conservatories—for Chazelle the teacher from Hell nightmares started back in high school, where he’s still stuck emotionally. And he implicitly advocates that from these schools a subterranean permission be granted for venting by a drummer (could be saxophonist, trumpeter, or the wandering pianist in Grand Piano) to do a blowout as psychological thriller instead of performance art. There is an excitement in watching a musician going to the max in an “improvisational” interlude while at the same time keeping within boundaries, the key to his riff being that he stay true to the material, maintaining the canorous and link it to his joy and ours in listening. The unseasoned musician usually tips over in solo, as Teller does vengefully at the ending; we’re embarrassed by his discordance, for having failed to deliver budding essence of the joy. This is what makes Simmons a failure as drill instructor; not only inciting wasted anger, he also robs his student(s) of that joy as an essential. (And there’s no one in his class or orchestra looking any too happy to be around him.) As for Simmons acting, he isn’t—it’s loudmouth, in-your-face obscenity used as substitute. In our vulgar bravado culture, he wins awards. Bully for him, though his character’s probably packing heat to protect against any number of assassins. The only scene that didn’t set me off is also the best: Teller asking a movie house clerk for a date and she punks him. But Chazelle doesn’t want us to like it as the best moment because he reverses course to go back to his single-mindedness. This might help explain why the movie hasn’t grabbed a bigger audience. It’s too determined to be much more than the critics’ darling, as is Boyhood; they’re telling us to get our kicks by being smacked and humiliated in the first and dulled to death by yokels in the second. The other night on the tube I saw the Delta Faucet commercial in which an actor is playing the spigots as if on a drum kit-xylophone contraption and wow, here’s an ad running a mere thirty seconds that has more creativity and filled with more joy than anything in the seventeen minute 2013 demo or the 107 minute 2014 full feature of Whiplash. If we have to bear this kind of sadomasochistic crap, Grand Piano has a leg or two up, for a while; it also has a better looking concert hall.
If American Hustle is still sitting on the runway, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street blasts off to become a high-flying zombie cruise. There must be some down moments in its three hours but who’s able to recall them in the rush of all the doped up lunacy? The same can be said to a degree about the 2007 memoir by fraudster Jordan Bellfort the movie’s based on; so much minutia on corruption and vice is coming at us so fast that The Sunday Times of London blurbs the book as a cross of The Bonfires of the Vanities and Goodfellas. Marty’s epic comes pretty close. He uses, though, and more successfully with Leonardo DiCaprio as Bellfort, the familiar narration template of Goodfellas and Casino; this time the voice-over has some wit and spark, a few surprises, pleasantly delivered. He binds his voice with what’s happening on screen, an extension of his character’s urban insanity. (De Niro and Pesci don’t have the polished voices to narrate with resonance; their thug speak throws you out of the intended spells.) If Leo’s spectacular in The Aviator and Catch Me If You Can—and he is—he’s spectacularly exhausting here; when he and Jonah Hill are on the crème de la crème of Quads, it’s unlike any kind of slow motion trip we’ve seen in a major movie. (We also want to sleep it off.) Matthew McConaughey (in a Top of the World restaurant) continues to be on a roll of stunning work; what does this man consume for inspiration? Kyle Chandler on the yacht is a delight to watch as he reacts to and sizes up Leo’s spiels as bribes, determining the right time to drop the anchor.
GOLDEN OLDIES PARADE: Watching too many movies lately about geezelles and geezers. During John Madden’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, with its actors cell-phoning in their performances and having problems getting through, I began to have visions of some of them doing commercials for ambulance chasers and Medicare Advantage on the Movies!TV, “this,” COZI and TV ASIA networks. Morgan Fairchild pitching prepaid funerals soon begets David Strathairn warning about Xarelto. This is not an attack of ageism, as I like many of the performers in TSBEMH and respect their desire to stay working; their alternative is about six feet deep. My objection is that they gather to do shit-loaded material: the waste of TSBEMH is in Madden’s empty syllogism and Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet is an alarming parade of condescension and the actors in both end up not only dumping on themselves but also on the audience. If they “look” to be having a good time, I’d venture that when they see themselves in these movies, they’ll cringe at being dumpsters. Case in point: while viewers have known Maggie for more than fifty years and are relatively immune to her every tick and trick of inflection, and because they know she’s reached Imperial apex as the Dowager in Downton Abby, they aren’t easily amendable to the out and out fraud she is as a cheeseparing, pitched bitch of an opera diva in Quartet. She’s contagious with the cooties, which she probably got from co-star Tom Courteney, the cootie queen in The Dresser. The same audiences likely didn’t see her in My Old Lady, yet if they had, they’d be as grateful as those of us who did that baby boomer Kevin Kline gives the performance of his movie career and thus thwarting the dangers of fixating on Maggie’s stationary presence. In a near-handsomeness, gaunt Jeremy Irons is very good in Night Train to Lisbon, and it doesn’t hurt that he and director Bille August project statesmanship, a necessary quality to have a go at adapting challenging political novels. With Night Train and The House of the Spirits, they’re champions struggling against Fascism and traversing relationships with spooks. The absent audiences for the former might be due to Courteney and his disfigured hands, though the real warning off is Charlotte Rampling as a hag fusion of Vanessa Redgrave (who was first choice), Rachel Roberts and Lauren Bacall. (Netflix has it and if Irons and August together again aren’t enough incentive, the fact that few movies do location in Lisbon—Filip Zumbrunn’s photography gives the city appeal—should make it a consideration.) Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner has the repugnantly lardy look of the artist in his last years, but without Dick Pope’s breathtaking duplications of some of his land and sea scapes, he and the movie are inDullgent. Since the movie’s narrative is wobbly, a Medicare Part B advisory should flash that Maggie canes are available sans co-pay. And then there’s Woman in Gold and Helen Mirren in another accent. After her previous bout in Hallström’s The One Hundred-Foot Journey, who’d want to be up for another? She’s competing with Streep to the win the prize for the most bookends. Wondering if the purpose of the based-on-fact movie—reminding us about the Nazis’ sweeping art heists and the legal torture survivors go through to get long-delayed justice—is too much of a tearjerker. The last flashback cinches the waterworks response director Simon Curtis wants and I admit to be being suckered, but afterwards felt a little embarrassed by the unintended Germanic efficiency: the emotions of War & Remembrance are right on schedule. (What’s missing is a closed-door peek into the intransigent Austrian legal view.) Ryan Reynolds as the lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg is somewhat brave to go nerdy-haired, reversing Randol’s part and de-accentuating the receding hairline. As actor he’s still at elementary gravitas level (the less assailable Andrew Garfield was initially cast), yet with generous Mirren buttressing he emerges from the suds with dignity in tact. Throughout the movie, even with viewers knowing the outcome in advance, royal Mirren renders Maria Altmann a suitable aureole of indetermination, not giving much hint as to how she’ll end up. Studying pictures of the older Altmann reveals a senior citizen Rene Russo; giving some of Klimt’s pushy eroticism the once-over, it comes as regret that Mirren hadn’t been one of his influences in a movie bio years earlier—she’s every inch the nervy broads he sketched, painted and leafed.
Text COPYRIGHT © Ralph Benner 2011, 2012, 2013 , 2014, 2015, 2016 All Rights Reserved.