At the Movies

At the Movies: Maudie

October 31st, 2017 5 Comments

 

Darleen dragged me off to see a movie I hadn’t heard about, nor did I particularly want to see it when she tried to explain what it was about. But it was clearly something that was important to her and—let’s face it—there aren’t all that many movies even made these days for people over forty inches in height, so we went to see Maudie.

Part of the reason I wasn’t particularly wild with desire to see it was that Darleen made the mistake of telling me about a review she had read in The New York Times. I compounded her mistake by actually paying attention and imaging, erroneously, the Times might have something intelligent to say. After we saw Maudie, I was so stunned by the complete disconnect between the movie and the review that I took the time to read of bunch of reviews in some other major papers and magazines, and before I give you my own reaction to the movie, let me fill you in on what I read so that you too, gentle reader, will never trust anyone or anything other than your own opinion. That includes me.

A quick synopsis of what I read in various mainstream publications:

The opening is so boring and bleak that the only reason to bother sitting through it is the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The opening is the best part of the movie, which is only redeemed after that by the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) wisely don’t adhere to the reality of Maud Lewis’ life;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) might have created a better movie by sticking closer to the truth of Maud Lewis’ life instead of going for commercial success;

The directing is a masterpiece of subtle understatement, wisely staying out of the way and not trying to impose theatrical conventions on the story;

The directing is uninspired and vacillates between the irreconcilable extremes of Maud Lewis’ life;

The score was hauntingly beautiful and understated;

The score was pushy and inappropriate.

I have used my own words here, obviously, but essentially stuck to the essence of what was written.

And then there were the snarky, Snidely Whiplash comments within the reviews, as if each critic had his or her own personal animosities they wanted to air, the most egregious one dismissing Kari Matchett’s lovely turn as the vacationing New Yorker who basically discovered Maud Lewis as “Cate Blanchette doing Katherine Hepburn.”

Yet, to be fair, all these critics grudgingly praised the film and especially the performances of Hawkins and Hawke.

For my part, I was absolutely blown away by everything to do with Maudie.

For those of you who don’t know who Maud Lewis was (I didn’t), she was essentially a Canadian Grandma Moses, an untrained folk artist, whose cheerful and colorful depictions of rural life in Nova Scotia caught the attention of the world.

That’s the sanitized version. It’s true, but as with all human affairs, the truth was rather more difficult: a life that was mostly very grim, very hard, and very unforgiving. Whatever the reality was or was not is unimportant here. This is a movie and should be judged solely on its merits as a movie, and on that basis, it knocks the ball right out of the park.

Everything starts with the script. Written by Sherry White, a Canadian actress and writer I had never heard of, the script is as spare as it should be, considering she is writing about a shy and reticent lady married to an almost non-verbal man, but within that framework Ms. White manages to balance beauty and brutality, laughter and tears, the physical fragility of her heroine and the indomitable resilience of her spirit. There are lovely touches of humor and hope in the bleakness of these two people’s extremely circumscribed lives, but I confess I had to take my glasses off and wipe them more than once.

Directed by another lady I had never heard of, Aisling Walsh, an Irish director who managed to balance the widely disparate elements of the story with remarkable grace, and who had the sensitivity to allow two immensely gifted actors to bring their characters to life, even when that life sometimes took them off-script. Ms. Walsh also did an exquisite job of capturing the harsh beauty of the environment that inspired Maud Lewis, a job that must have been exceptionally difficult: filming in cold weather is fraught with challenges, from fogged-up lenses to frozen batteries that can no longer power the cameras, to freezing cast and crew members. And much of the film takes place in different seasons, something that must have brought its own challenges. Kudos to her.

And then the performances! Oh, my. There isn’t a false note or bad lick from anyone anywhere in the film, but it is Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins who simply took my breath away. Actors choose projects for many varied reasons, but the challenges inherent in any given role are the primary lures for actors who have confidence in their own abilities. How do you find and convey the wisdom and humor in a tiny, fragile, deformed, possibly limited lady whose only means of real expression was through her art? Sally Hawkins does it.

If you like the kinds of action/adventure movies that depend so heavily on stunts and special effects, Maudie is almost certainly not going to be your cup of tea. But if you are interested in your fellow man, if the hidden bits and pieces of the human psyche that we know are there in all of us but that we so rarely see, if William Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower, if those things appeal to you more than gun fights and car chases, you will love this movie. No matter what conflicting nonsense the damned critics spout.

Oh, Yes!

October 10th, 2017 9 Comments

Darleen (above) as the stewardess of my dreams.

A friend of Darleen’s sent a link (http://dustyvideobox.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Horror%20at%2037000%20Feet%20%281973%29) to a British blog about a movie Darleen made back in 1973. The blog is very entertaining and has a lot of very enticing photographs of my beautiful wife. You tell by glancing at the photo above just why the blogger was so smitten by her.

At the Movies: Dunkirk

August 10th, 2017 12 Comments

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

That famous aphorism is usually attributed to Joseph Stalin, sometimes to Adolf Eichmann, and occasionally to Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front), more rarely to various other people. It makes no difference who said it first; it is one of the most cold-bloodedly trenchant assessments of war (or, in the case of Stalin, the merry butchering of an entire people by a tyrant) ever made. And it is also the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wonderful and everything that is not so wonderful about Dunkirk.

The evacuation, in just three days, of roughly 400,000 British (and French, Belgian, and as well as some Polish and Dutch) forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were trapped between the sea and the invincible might of the German Army, is one of the most unbelievable, magical, miraculous triumphs of will, sacrifice, determination, and above all of courage, in all history. The Royal Navy, augmented by hundreds of private, shallow-draft boats—fishing boats, pleasure yachts, ferries, anything seaworthy—crossed the channel (some of them multiple times) to rescue Allied troops from the extremely shallow beaches around Dunkirk.

Were the Battle of Dunkirk and the battles that led up to it defeats for the Allies? Of course, but Dunkirk was also, in a perverse way, a victory in terms of its positive morale boost for the Allies and its negative morale effect on Hitler. It is axiomatic among all military forces that a single act of courage can inspire an entire army and turn the tide of battle. The courage of the beaten soldiers and their intrepid rescuers—so many of them civilians—at Dunkirk, inspired the British people in ways that probably, ultimately, led to victory, even as it showed Hitler he could not roll over the British as easily as he had over other European democracies and armies. At least, that’s my theory; I have no idea if historians agree with it.

To satisfy both the demands of story-telling and the first part of Stalin’s aphorism, the movie wisely focuses on a single man, played by Fionn Whitehead (playing an architype named Tommy, “Tommies” being British slang for their soldiers in World War Two), whose death would be a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t tell us enough about him to make us really care; it would be a far greater tragedy if we knew him more and better, but the only character in the movie who is given any backstory whatsoever is the civilian owner and skipper of a yacht, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance.

As for the last part of the aphorism, the approximately 400,000 thousand other soldiers are only hinted at, admirably hinted at, but never seen in their entirety because, logistically, how could they be shown? So too, the makeshift armada of rescuers (some 800 boats, historically, of all sizes and shapes) is only hinted at, and the result of those diminished representations leaves the casual, historically uneducated viewer with the impression that a few thousand soldiers were rescued by a few score civilians, and that—sadly—diminishes not only the movie, but the historical context and importance of this most valiant and heroic moment in man’s bloody story.

And that is perhaps the greatest weakness of Dunkirk. I am no historian, and my knowledge of World War Two comes as much from my father’s voice—ah, that beloved and greatly missed voice!—as we walked around the many varied battlefields he took me to during the eight years we lived in Europe as it does from books, yet I was ahead of Darleen, who had to keep asking me questions all through the movie. Who? Why? Why not? Where? When? And why again? If the movie had been able to convey the magnitude of danger for Great Britain, it would have mattered less that we have no vested emotional interest in the soldier played by Fionn Whitehead.

(For the record, if those soldiers had been lost, England, that sceptered isle, that royal throne of kings, that other Eden, that happy breed of men, that precious stone set in a silver sea, would have been completely unable to defend itself, and Hitler’s planned invasion would have gone ahead and his armies would have rolled over the last European stronghold of freedom and democracy as easily as they had over all the rest of Europe. As it was, even with the unparalleled triumph of Dunkirk, the British were still nearly helpless. Ever since World War One, the British government had been systematically disarming its citizens, in violation of their own rudimentary Bill of Rights and unwritten constitution, so that their entire civilian population was armed with nothing more than a handful of custom sporting shotguns and even fewer custom sporting rifles to defend their sceptered isle. Thousands and thousands of Americans voluntarily stepped into the breach and donated their beloved hunting rifles so the Brits could defend themselves. Having learned nothing from history, Great Britain is today once more completely disarmed and has a higher rate of violent crime than South Africa’s and twice as high as America’s.)

On the other side of the equation, if the script had given us even as little backstory about Fionn Whitehead as we had for Mark Rylance, we would have been emotionally hooked enough to find the death of that single man a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie never does either, and the result is that we have neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat to sink our teeth into.

On the plus side, the movie uses special effects and unrelenting sound to convey some of the equally unrelenting violence and horror of war. Young Tommy is on the move constantly in his desperate effort to stay alive, and each new sanctuary turns out to be a more horrible death trap than the last. You can understand all too well the blank, thousand-yard stares of those men who are lucky enough to survive major battles; it is a look the movie captures very well toward the end, when Tommy and some of the other lucky ones find themselves back in England. And I know it is just special effects, but kudos to the director for capturing a small taste of the nightmare of men being burned to death as they drown, the floating fields of oil on the water’s surface bursting into flame and roasting men alive.

To quote the last line of Bridge on the River Kwai: “Madness! Madness!”

But special effects don’t make a movie, and while we know this was a critically important pivotal point in the war, and while we know this was one of the truly transcendent moments of courage and altruism in all of human history, both the majestic triumph and the personal humanity are lost in muddy middle ground between tragedy and statistics.

At the Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives

April 9th, 2017 3 Comments

 

I’m reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language, but what drew me to it was a comment ascribed to V.S. Pritchett (I think) who called it “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature.” I take exception to that. Think of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, William Trevor, Tolstoy, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes… Oh, I could go on at length, naming authors ancient and modern, alive and dead, classic and casual, whose books have characters that so epitomize aspects of humanity that those characters’ very names have become bywords for real and enduring qualities of human nature, both good and bad.

But it was that description, “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature,” that came back to me as I watched The Best Years of Our Lives the other night, because that movie is, if not unsurpassed, certainly up there at the top of the heap in its depiction of human nature. It is rich, complex, tragic, funny, multi-layered, compelling, but above all very real, real in its humanity, real in its understanding of the difficulties soldiers faced returning to civilian life following the horrors of World War Two, real in their hopes and dreams and disappointments, real too in each one’s final tenuous and ambiguous triumph over his own personal adversity.

Ambiguous? So, is there a happy ending or not? Yes, there is, to the same extent that you can say The Graduate has a happy ending: Dustin Hoffman gets the girl and they escape on a bus, but the final shot of Hoffman and Katharine Ross shows both of them beginning to comprehend the uncertainty of their choices, and the fragility of their future. So too in The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews takes Theresa Wright in his arms at the end and kisses her rapturous face, a part of you thrills for them, but you also hear Andrews lay out succinctly and brutally just how difficult their life together is going to be.

I think movie-making may be the single most vulnerable art of all precisely because it is such a collaborative effort. Writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound mixing, editing, lighting, art direction, set decoration, props, make-up, all these and more have to come together perfectly, and any weakness in any one of them can tweak the whole production enough to reduce potential greatness to mediocrity. (If you should doubt me, I will cite as an example a 1950’s-era mystery I tried to watch recently that had such stark and garish lighting, as if every Manhattan apartment was lit by Klieg lights, that I turned the thing off.) But it all starts with the script, and in this case Richard Sherwood’s script is simply perfect. He won an Academy Award for it, and the movie also raked in awards for William Wyler (directing), Fredric March (best actor), Harold Russell (best supporting actor), best film editing (Daniel Mandell), best score (Hugo Friedhofer), and then topped it all off by winning best picture.

In addition to Andrews, March, Wright, and Russell, the film also stars Myrna Loy, about whom Jimmy Stewart once said: “There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” That pretty much tells you all you need to know about her personally, and it shines through in her acting.

But what gives the film its humanity is the very real, three-dimensional depth of all the characters. There are no heroes here away from the battlefields and jungles, beyond the extraordinary heroism shown by practically all of the Greatest Generation, nor are there any villains. The only “bad” person (played by Virginia Mayo) is bad only to the extent that she is vain and vapid, shallow and narcissistic, and people like that are on every street corner; in fact, who among us has not been all those things at one time or another? The good guys and gals make stupid mistakes that are little better than the deliberate selfishness of Virginia Mayo and all of them have to live with the consequences of those mistakes.

Given that the three males (Andrews, March, and Russell) are all thrown back into normal, everyday, middle American, big town/small city life after four years of unparalleled hell and horror, it is small wonder that they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Given that the women who love them (Wright, Loy, Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell) have no training or experience to prepare them for helping or even dealing with their wounded men, it is small wonder they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Not as many as their men, but they too stumble and fall. Being women, they all—with the exception of Mayo—pick themselves up more quickly and gracefully than their men. Loy’s character in particular epitomizes the wisdom and patience we all wish all women had all the time, yet she also has just enough humorous annoyance to make her maternal paradigm as believable as she is engaging. It is a remarkable performance, and it should have earned her an award. The scene where she tells her daughter of all the times she and Fredric March had to struggle to keep their marriage intact could be a masterclass in the very best kind of acting, where all the pain and all the tears are only subtly hinted at, resonating beneath the surface of the calm and beautiful face. It’s human nature at its best.

The other parallel I could make to Middlemarch (and I’m only comparing it because of the accidental juxtaposition of taking a break from the book to watch the movie) is that each of the returning soldiers in The Best Years of Our Lives represents a different socio-economic level, just as each of the primary characters in Middlemarch represents a different level of England’s rigidly stratified society. The problems Andrews, March, and Russell have to deal with are the same in terms of wounds, physical or psychological, but greatly different in terms of the reaction and support of their families and loved ones.

One last note: watch for Hoagy Carmichael’s compelling turn as Uncle Butch, the owner of the bar where the three soldiers congregate to lick their wounds and drown their pains. He radiates the same kind of quiet strength and wisdom that Myrna Loy does, asking the right questions at the right time, giving the right direction at the right time, without ever being overbearing, all of it while playing the piano and listening, listening, listening. Listening, after all, is the actor’s most important job.

At the Movies: Fences

February 8th, 2017 6 Comments

Fences

A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.

I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.

In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.

If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.

It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.

Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.

And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.

I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.

At the Movies: La La Land

February 1st, 2017 12 Comments

An_American_in_Paris_poster

 

When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision not to write negative reviews of books or movies. It’s far too difficult to create any kind of work of art, and far too easy for any fool to criticize and belittle what he can’t do himself.

But last night I saw something that angered me.

La La Land has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best original score, best original song, and more. It received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, and Emma Stone won best the actress award from the Screen Actor’s Guild.

I was suspicious about all those nominations when I saw the trailers on television, but, hey, a lapse in someone’s judgement can result in a dreadful trailer for a great film or a great trailer for a dreadful film, so I went to see La La Land, not with high expectations so much as with an open mind. If I had gone with high expectations, I would have really become enraged.

La La Land is the kind of inoffensive movie to which you can safely take your grandmother and your movie-infatuated ten-year-old daughter, and after I’ve said that, I have exhausted my repertoire of a compliments.

Embarrassingly mediocre, one incoherent cliché after another, it’s “best original screenplay” consists of an impoverished storyline watered down and rebottled from half a dozen real musicals written by real writers and real composers. Has no one ever seen, or does no one remember such trifles as An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, to name the two that La La Land steals from most egregiously? Can anyone with a room temperature IQ and over the age of ten honestly pretend to compare the musical genius of the Gershwin brothers to the mild and modest work of Justin Hurwitz? I won’t insult Alan Jay Lerner’s memory by even bothering to compare his script to Damian Chazelle’s lame, incoherent, and uninspired platitudes.

Unfortunately, this pedestrian version is performed by actors who can’t sing and can’t dance, neither of whom had enough charm or charisma to keep me from wandering out of the theater to get a drink of water I didn’t desperately need. Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good young actors, but neither one of them has singing chops that should ever be heard outside of the privacy of their respective showers, and neither one of them would ever make it through the audition phase of Dancing with the Stars or the first round of So You Think You Can Dance?  Contrast that to Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Hell, contrast it to Fred and Ginger in any one of their magical confections.

Darleen tells me Emma Stone won her SAG Award for best actress over Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. SAG must have awarded it for best monotonous walking sequence, because I’ve never seen so much unnecessary walking from nowhere to nowhere for no purpose. This in a film set in a city where Steve Martin famously drove next door to talk to his neighbor in LA Story. (I think that was the movie.) Motion pictures are called that because they use visual images to tell a story. That, by definition, means the images you see on the screen must cause the storyline to advance. Random wandering from one spot to another does not advance the story. If Emma Stone had taken her award and walked over to Meryl Streep and presented it to her, it would have left me with a more charitable opinion of Ms. Stone. Her performance in La La Land no more deserves an award than it deserves to be remembered.

It’s not that La La Land is so unspeakably bad that angers me, because it isn’t unspeakably bad. It’s that the Academy and the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Golden Globes committee are so unaware of their own history and the history of magic real Hollywood musicals once offered that they would have the temerity to praise such mediocrity. It’s either ignorance, or they allowed themselves to be bought or bullied.

John Legend was the best thing in it (Legend and a quick glimpse of a beautifully restored blue and white ’66 Corvette in the background of one sequence) and there wasn’t enough of him or his music to keep me or Legend-groupie Darleen in our seats. I’m angry at myself for having wasted two hours desperately clinging to the hope that the damned film might improve and that something, ANYTHING, noteworthy would happen. Where the hell is Kim Jong-Un when you need a little diversion?!

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

January 25th, 2017 10 Comments

Hidden Figures

 

In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.

Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.

What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.

The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.

And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.

And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…

I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.

Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?

Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):

“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”

The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments

hacksaw-ridge

 

On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

At the Movies: Florence Foster Jenkins

September 10th, 2016 15 Comments

florence-foster-jenkins

 

Normally I see movies years after they’ve been released, but a concatenation of disasters and stresses in both households caused Dan Bronson (Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody) and his wife to suggest we all go out to dinner together and take in Meryl Streep’s latest movie. I am so glad we did. Run, do not walk, to see Florence Foster Jenkins. You’ll almost certainly have to run to catch it before it gets yanked out of theaters because it’s the kind of film that will be largely ignored by the movie-going public today, revered and acclaimed at the Academy Awards tomorrow, and appreciated by viewers for decades to come. It’s absolutely brilliant.

I had never heard of her, but Florence Foster Jenkins was apparently a well-known tragi-comic figure in Manhattan during the first half of the twentieth century. She was what is described as a socialite, which basically means she was smart enough to have been born to the right family with plenty of the right stuff. She was also apparently born with a certain degree of skill as a concert pianist, being good enough to have performed as a child at the White House for President Rutherford B. Hayes. After that, the details of her life quickly descend down the scales from comedy to tragedy.

This is not the place to write a complete biography, but putting it in a nutshell, a combination of syphilis contracted on her wedding night from her first husband and/or an injury to her arm put an end to her career as a pianist, but not an end to her love of music or her desire to perform. She had the money to be able to afford the very best vocal instruction, but sadly, whatever skills had emerged from her fingertips did not emerge from her mouth. Instead, what did limp out was a sequence of unholy sounds that made her an object of ridicule among virtually everybody unfortunate enough to hear her sing, which included—because of her wealth and social position—some very famous people, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly because they wanted to get their hands in her purse, some of whom stifled their laughter publicly for social reasons, and a few of whom stifled their laughter, publicly and privately, because of such quaint, old-fashioned virtues as loyalty, love, and a genuine appreciation of her great generosity.

Not much comedy there, I hear you cry. Enter writer Nicholas Martin, director Stephen Frears, Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, and a cast of literally hundreds of pitch-perfect performances.

In real life it is unclear to what extent Florence Foster Jenkins realized she was a comic figure or to what extent her brain had been addled by the syphilis, making her oblivious. In the movie, while Nicholas Martin and Stephen Frears tip their artistic hats to that ambiguity, they wisely move their plot forward through the device of Hugh Grant’s increasingly frantic efforts to protect this unfortunate but well-intentioned woman, so that the movie becomes a magical and delicate balance between tragedy and comedy. And that is, obviously, the very best of all possible balancing acts.

Hugh Grant’s layered performance as Florence Foster Jenkins’ second husband is hands down the finest work he’s ever done (and he has done a lot of excellent work), playing a man who almost certainly started many years earlier as just another garden-variety leech, but who now has to balance his natural inclinations against his very real love of this pathetic, ridiculous, vulnerable woman. The dance he does with a pretty young thing at a wild party at his apartment is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

Simon Helberg, as the concert pianist struggling to balance his musical sensibility and artistic ambition against his sense of loyalty and his soft heart, practically steals the movie. The scene where he first hears Florence Foster Jenkins sing—if you can call it that—and the sequence of emotions that cross his face, from stunned disbelief to incredulity to rising hysteria, as his hands continue to mechanically play the accompaniment, is, by itself, worth the price of admission.

And Meryl Streep. I’m sure there must be some things Ms. Streep does not do better than anyone else (possibly her income taxes, diesel engine maintenance, mounted cowboy shooting, cryptanalysis) but none of them have anything to do with acting. She is, simply, the best there ever was. The scene when she sings (again, I use that word loosely) for the first time, Dan and I both became completely hysterical and I thought Darleen might have to leave the theater, and yet those scenes are balanced against moments so poignant you ache for her. It is no secret that many an actress’s singing has been “sweetened,” some by my gifted bride, many by the great, recently deceased Marni Nixon and other talented anonymous singers, but according to Darleen, the most difficult thing for a good singer to do is sing badly. I have no idea if Ms. Streep did her own atrocious singing or if she was ____________ (fill in the opposite of “to sweeten”), but the scenes of her in full costume, butchering opera, are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

Unlike its eponymous title character Florence Foster Jenkins never strikes a false note.

At the Movies: Carol, Bridge of Spies

January 20th, 2016 20 Comments

Cate Blanchett

Tom Hanks

 

In a spirit of wild self-indulgence, Darleen and I watched two movies recently, two movies that both take place in the 1950s, both featuring some of the greatest talent alive today, both with breathtakingly beautiful and moody photography, and both ballyhooed as potential Oscar material. There the resemblance ends.

I normally make it a rule not to review any book or movie I don’t like. Why bother? It’s so very difficult to create anything, and after you’re done, it’s so very easy for any mean spirited fool with a wicked wit to tear down what you’ve created, and I don’t wish to be lumped into that smug, acid-tongued category. To quote the great Elizabeth Ashley (defending Tennessee Williams): “Sir, is it not the way of curs and mongrels always to chew on the tails of champions?” There are never enough champions, and always far too many curs and mongrels and I have no desire to swell their ranks.

But there are parallels here that bear scrutiny and the very thing that makes one of these movies so forgettable is the thing that makes the other so very unforgettable.

Carol is a lesbian love story starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I was aware of who Miss Mara is, but I had never seen any of her work. As for Cate Blanchett, I have only seen a little of her work (Elizabeth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Bandits, Blue Jasmine) but enough to think Australia ought to declare her a national treasure, or that the American government should kidnap her and claim her as our national treasure. It doesn’t hurt that she has one of the most extraordinary faces ever to grace the screen, with eyes that hint at secrets you’ll never know, and that wonderful, mobile, tragic mouth.

So all in all, I was looking forward to Carol.

I was also looking forward very much to Bridge of Spies. It too stars national treasures: ours (Tom Hanks) and England’s (Mark Rylance) along with Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, neither of whom are exactly slouches in the talent department, and it was directed by Steven Spielberg who, it is generally conceded, has some talent himself in the directing department, to the tune of three Academy Awards. But primarily, I was looking forward to it because it deals with the famous Cold War incident where Francis Gary Powers and his U2 were shot down by the Soviets, and how Powers was eventually released in exchange for three Russian spies.

At least, that’s the story I grew up with, because my father helped catch one of those spies in a convoluted Cold War caper that penetrated even some of my five- or six-year old consciousness. (Men—FBI agents—sitting in front of old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorders set up in our basement; occasional odd incidents involving a Russian gentleman who came to our house, usually late at night, but who once made the mistake of letting himself in somehow during the day while we were out and who got pinned against the wall by our one-eyed Boxer for his pains, the Boxer who is in the photograph with me on my bio page; my father leaving alone at odd hours when normally he would play with us.) Alas, none of that is in the movie, and who knows now what the truth was then? Certainly not I.

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, as Kipling reminds us, and even more ways of telling stories on page or on screen, but the one inviolable rule is that while you may tease and tantalize your audience with mysteries of many kinds at the outset, you must, must, ultimately provide resolution. It’s Chekhov’s gun: if you mention (or show) a gun, you must then use it at some point, otherwise, why bother showing the damn thing in the first place?

Carol violates this rule, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively, we are presented with two women, each in her different way trapped within a life she longs to escape, whose paths cross. And after that everything begins to fall apart. Why are these women trapped? Each of them is a stereotype of stifled, mid-fifties discontent; each longs for more than what life in that era is willing to allow them, but we are never given any backstory for their respective discontent. Rooney Mara longs to be a photographer, but what’s stopping her? Is it her own lack of any kind of color, any spark of divine fire? Is it her lesbian tendencies? Is it some other quantity or quality lacking within her? It sure as hell can’t be the American fifties themselves, as the film implies, because the arts were one of the few paths open to women back then. And while we are shown the problem, we are never shown the reason why she feels so trapped by her job and her boisterous boyfriend, or even given a clue why she can’t satisfy her artistic longings. Are they meant to be a symbol of her sexual longings?

Cate Blanchett is even more of a stereotype, albeit a colorful one: the woman trapped in a loveless marriage of wealthy convenience, who is torn between her love for her daughter and her longing for some kind of real love, which in this case means lesbian love. But what is behind that stereotype? What are the causes? What, other than lesbianism, sets her aside from ten thousand other women in that day and age? We are never given a clue or even anything specific enough about her to make her a unique individual.

Unfortunately, everything else in the movie contributes to the same sense of being shown stereotypes instead of real people. Cate Blanchett’s husband has appeared (more interestingly) in every John O’Hara, John Cheever, or John Updike short story. The daughter she adores is a generic child with no more individuality than a wooden clothing mannequin in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. New York City, specifically Manhattan, the most majestic, most iconic, most metropolitan place on earth, is reduced to Anytown, USA. The wealthy suburb where Cate Blanchett and Kyle Chandler uneasily and alcoholically share a mansion becomes Anysuburb, USA. Even the beautiful, rich, productive land that lies between the Atlantic and central Iowa is wasted; we see little unsatisfying glimpses of it during long, silent driving sequences which could be filled with the beauty of the land outside and with information about the protagonists inside, information that would make both of these women come to life with individuality.

It’s not the performances; it’s Phyllis Nagy’s writing that is lacking in this film. She shows us two women who are intriguing and then fails to deliver on her promises, reducing them to stock symbols of societal repression devoid of individuality. Even when a chrome-plated Smith & Wesson with mother-of-pearl grips is carefully shown in Cate Blanchett’s suitcase, implying that at least now we will see something out of the ordinary, if not unique, there is no satisfying conclusive use of that revolver. It proves, like the film itself, to be empty, empty and lugubrious.

And the opposite is precisely what makes Bridge of Spies not merely a brilliant portrait of the exact same era, but one of those films where you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left. The Cohen brothers, Ethan and Joel, together with a young man (his photograph makes him look all of fourteen) named Matt Charman don’t waste an instant or a word: everything either drives the plot forward or establishes character.

A perfect example is a little scene where Tom Hanks is lost in the still war-torn streets of East Berlin and is suddenly surrounded by five or six young thugs who steal his overcoat. Hanks plays the real-life lawyer, James Donovan, who was recruited (bullied into?) defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then recruited (bullied into?) negotiating the trade of that spy for Francis Gary Powers. Hanks plays the scene as impeccably as he plays everything he has ever done, a courageous man in a bad situation, trying to stay alive, but instead of just handing them the overcoat, he negotiates, finally trading the coat for directions to the office building he has been looking for. That little scene, all by itself tells you all you need to know about James Donovan. Let’s put it this way: because of that scene, when I looked up James Donovan and found he had been later recruited (bullied into?) into negotiating the release of 1,113 prisoners of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn he came back with 9,703 men and women. I have a mental image of Fidel Castro throwing his hands in the air and saying, “Oh, for God’s sake! Give this guy whatever the hell he wants and get him out of here before he talks me into making Cuba another American state!”

It’s that kind of glimpse into a man’s personality that I would have loved to have seen in Carol. Even the photography, rich and moody in both films, becomes specific in Bridge of Spies. I was in Berlin back in those days. I’ve seen Checkpoint Charlie and I’ve seen if not those specific streets, certainly others just like them, and that’s what it was like back in the late fifties. The opening scenes in Brooklyn are precisely that: Brooklyn, and nowhere else on earth. Tom Hank’s James Donovan is unique and singular in all the world. Mark Rylance’s spy is so uniquely drab and colorless he becomes colorfully fascinating. James Donovan’s three children are specific and singular. And Amy Ryan has a moment at the end where she has just heard the news about what her husband has done, what he has accomplished for his country, and she stands in their bedroom looking at his exhausted sleeping figure on the bed, looking at the man who holds no more mystery for her than any man has ever held for his wife, and you can see the wonder, the pride, the love. That’s specificity. That’s what Carol lacks.

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