Thursday, December 5, 2019

THE AERONAUTS: FALLING UPWARD

 
Directed by Tom Harper, starring Eddie Redmayne as James Glaisher , Felicity Jones as Amelia Wren, written by Jack Thorne (suggested by Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards)

THE AERONAUTS is the story of two adventurers embarking on a record-setting hot-air balloon ascent. The year is 1862, Wolverhampton, England. Ballooning is still regarded more as a romantic stunt than as a scientific endeavor to study for the first time, the layers of the upper atmosphere. Within minutes of takeoff and after surviving a dangerous thunderstorm, our intrepid aeronauts find themselves high above the clouds. Suddenly, unexpectedly, they encounter a cloud of yellow butterflies gaily fluttering around the balloon. The contrast between the earth-bound humans struggling upward against gravity and the tiny butterflies, blithely indifferent to such impediments—as if mocking gravity—is delicious. The moment even pauses for a reference to Edmund Spencer’s classic lines about butterflies, “The Fate of the Butterflie [sic].”
[See] the race of silver-winged flies
Which doo possesse the empire of the aire,
Betwixt the centred earth and azure skies...
There will be many more moments to greet our aeronauts, many of them hazardous, but none so delightfully suggestive as how tentative is the engagement of man, nature, and poetry.

Although THE AERONAUTS cites a screenplay by one Jack Thorne, the real impetus of the film is Richard Holmes’ classic account of ballooning, Falling Upwards (2013). In my own conversations with this legendary British biographer of figures like Coleridge and Shelley, I quickly learned that Holmes is a passionate devotee of ballooning and has taken many flights himself. That title, Falling Upwards, is a perfect statement of the two gravities that pull upon us poor human creatures—the gravity that keeps us down to earth, and the “tug” of the skies that tempts us to leave it. “Show me a balloon and I’ll show you quite often a tall story,” writes Holmes. Here is an historian who savors both the pull of facts and the flight of fancy.

Holmes’s narrative and the movie’s storyline chronicle the historic flight of one James Glaisher. He was already a renowned scientist of the upper air when he and his companion, Henry Coxwell, take flight on a voyage that turned out to be a record-setting ascent, reaching an estimated height of almost 35,000 feet, some seven miles above the earth. It was a flight full of wonder and terror. Glaisher and his companion nearly froze and succumbed to asphyxiation in the process, and it was owing only to the dare-devil exploits of his companion, who climbed aloft to release a frozen valve line, that the balloon descended back to terra firma.

The Aeronauts radically departs from this basic storyline, even if it thankfully preserves the poetry. Here, Glaisher’s companion in the balloon is a woman, the fictitious Amelia Wren, who brings to the adventure a backstory in which she lost her husband during a previous balloon ascent. Persuaded by Glaisher (here a young man rather than the middle-aged, stolid figure of history), Amelia, like her historical counterpart, Henry Coxwell, proves to be the real hero of this version. As their balloon rises to heights above 25,000 feet, and as she and Glaisher begin to succumb to freezing cold and suffocation, she takes to the rigging in a desperate climb up to the top of the balloon to release the frozen valve line. It’s a spectacular sequence as this dauntless woman saves the day against everything a hostile nature can throw at her.

I believe that despite such changes in Holmes’ historical account, THE AERONAUTS would gain his favor. Holmes in all his works recognizes and applauds the women of science and adventure. If he weren’t such a scrupulous historian, he might have supplied such a narrative as this. Meanwhile, the aerial photography is wondrous, pitting the struggles of the two aeronauts in the tiny gondola basket against the limitless expanses of the darkening blue of the planetary heavens. And never does the movie fail to honor what Richard Holmes calls “the upward possibility” of man’s never flagging urge to fly.






Wednesday, December 4, 2019

1917


Directed by Sam Mendes. With Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden.

1917 opens on an idyllic image of two soldiers, asleep, resting against a tree. The fields around them are verdant, the air quiet. All is at peace. By story’s end roughly twenty-four hours later, all is at peace again. The fields are still green. But now, after the many hazards of a desperate quest, only one soldier takes his rest. He alone has survived within this perfect circle of events. And we now know that these two moments of peace were only respites against the relentless brutality of war and slaughter.

April 1917. Two young British lance corporals are assigned an impossible mission: They are to deliver a message across enemy lines to a battalion readying for a charge. Unless that charge is stopped, the soldiers will be slaughtered. And so, the odyssey of these two reluctant heroes begins. But only one will complete the mission.

Not since The Revenant and Gravity have I seen such a harrowing struggle for survival. And, like both those films, much of the action is captured in uncut shots by a restless, roving camera. That relentless eye sometimes follows the action, sometimes pursues it. It soars above at times for the aerial view, and at other it plunges below for the tight closeup. Its pitiless omniscience takes no sides. All that matters is the story of the soldiers’ race against death as they track a breathless trajectory through tunneled trenches, mortar-scarred fields, barbed-wire emplacements, demolished buildings. How can human frailty withstand the Furies of War?

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay portray the two soldiers. To them goes our admiration, our respect, our honor. The grit and danger they face is all too real. Making the film must have been an endurance test. It’s as if director Sam Mendes is determined to throw everything at them. George MacKay, in particular, is the one left to shoulder the burden of the rescue mission. When he’s not dodging a crashing airplane, digging himself out of an underground bunker, buffeting raging flood waters, he’s racing madly through the chaos of shot and shell, a broken-field runner thrown to the ground, rising, thrown down again. Again. Again. Only a few moments of respite are granted him: There’s a hushed calm when he fills his canteen with a newly discovered pail of fresh milk; and there’s hushed intensity when he shares a moment with a lone woman and child while hiding from surrounding Germans.

To the great cinematographer Roger Deakins we bow in admiration for the most amazing camerawork of this or any time. There is doubtless some trickery behind the apparently seamless two hours of real-time action. Well, obviously, it’s not real time. Two hours of screen time somehow becomes twenty-four hours of dramatic time. And we can peer closely at the action to try to determine how those long takes might actually be a series of discrete takes. We can do that, and critics and observers are already divining the techniques behind the magic. But the rest of us can only fall back in astonishment.

1917 is destined for several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography. The latter is surely a “lock.”


Thursday, November 28, 2019

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: TABLE-TOP LIFE



A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD Marielle Heller from Tom Junod’s book and staring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, Matthew Rhys as Lloyd Vogel, Chris Cooper as Jerry Vogel.

Picture Fred Rogers, alone, in the dark, sitting at a piano. Taping has concluded of a recent episode of his celebrated kids television show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (1968-2001). The crew has left. The set is empty. Rogers sits down at the piano. He absently plays a few notes. . . Then, suddenly, he pounds with both hands the lower register of the keyboard. The dissonant crash is startling. Fade out.

That’s about as close as we get to whatever inner discords mark the otherwise sunny and saintly nature of Mr. Rogers.

(He’s already admitted, earlier in the film, that a two-hand crash on a keyboard helps him cope with life’s troubling realities.)

People attending A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD may be forgiven their confusion at encountering a story that’s more about a magazine journalist, Lloyd Vogel, assigned to write for Esquire a character profile of Rogers, than it is about Rogers himself. They’ve fallen victim to the marketing of the film which cleverly conceals this disproportion. And that was my own growing confusion—even consternation—as I watched. For more than half the movie we’re caught up with Lloyd’s personal and emotional problems: He’s not happy with his responsibilities as the dad of a new baby and he hates his dad. The movie seems to have jumped the tracks from Mr. Rogers’ table-top neighborhood, which the film repeatedly references, and entered another reality. We ask questions: Do I care about Lloyd’s problems? Wouldn’t I rather know more about Mr. Rogers? Why is this movie keeping us at a distance from him?

How you respond to those questions determines your take on this film. I predict many viewers will begin to squirm, wondering, Where the hell is Mr. Rogers??? Aside from devoted performances by Tom Hanks, a tense Matthew Rhys, and, particularly, the admirable Chris Cooper, the few scant scenes showing Rogers “ministering” to Lloyd’s anxieties and traumas with a handful of homilies about love and forgiveness and a minutes of prayerful silence while dining with Lloyd—and “ministering” properly describes Roger’s delicate counseling of the man—fail to convince. Lloyd comes away redeemed, newly accepting his paternal responsibilities and forgiving his ailing father’s sins.

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. We never can get close to a saint, says a character early in the film. We have to be content with a few scenes of him playing on the set of his table-top neighborhood, crouching behind his beloved puppets, performing a piano duet at home with his wife (the music is Schumann’s Bilder von Osten), enjoying a serenade on the subway by fellow passengers, and dispensing crooked smiles to one and all. And, oh yes—there’s his visit to Lloyd’s terminally ill father: “I asked him to pray for me,” Rogers tells Lloyd later.

But what echoes in our ears is that crash of notes from Rogers’ piano.

Even in a table-top world, the dissonance is troubling.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

DARK WATERS: THE MAZE AND THE MONSTER

Directed by Todd Haynes from screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (adapted from a New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich). Starring Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott and Ann Hathaway as his wife.

When the Greek hero Theseus ventured into the center of a maze, he found a dreadful monster, the Minotaur. There was a fight. Theseus emerged victorious. Now, let’s leave myth behind and consider a contemporary situation: Picture an ambitious young corporate lawyer, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), crouching on the floor of a warehouse, surrounded by piles and piles of boxes, files, and notes. This is his Maze. At its center he finds something just as monstrous—a beast we know by name of DuPont. There’s nothing mythical about this monster. It’s a chemical giant suspected of manufacturing products that are poisoning hundreds of thousands of people. Our young hero takes up the battle. And the winner is... ?

DARK WATERS is based on the true story of a legal tussle between the citizens of the town of Parkersburg, Pennsylvania and a “minotaur” known as the DuPont company. DuPont owns the town. It employs its people. It’s also devouring its citizens: Its nearby factories are poisoning the livestock, the people, the wells and rivers. Something is in the water. Lawyer Bilott, while shouldering his way through the maze of documents, finds references to a mysterious substance called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which turns out to be a form of ammonium salt used as surfactant in the emulsion polymerization of PTFE. It’s a likely carcinogen.

Its best-known product is known today as Teflon.

It coats our pots and pans, our clothes, our carpets. We eat it, we wear it, we walk on it.

Mark Ruffalo lends his quietly charismatic gravitas to the crusading Robert Bilott. He places his firm in jeopardy when he leads the charge against DuPont. While negotiating the legal procedures, delays, deceptive practices arrayed against him, the town around him is dying. His family life suffers. Indeed, he is succumbing to the ills he is endeavouring to expose.

As the latest entry in films investigating social, political, and corporate corruption—just a few months ago, we had Official Secrets, about a whistleblower exposing a conspiracy behind America’s invasion of Iraq—DARK WATERS wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no questioning its crusading zeal and its passionate commitment. Like Robert Bilott, it is driven by what amounts to a monomania. We are drawn into its maze and we hate the Monster at its center. Yet, if we pause and pull back for a moment, we might question its black-and-white depiction of corporate corruption. There’s little room for ambiguity. Teflon and its related products are in all of us, and it’s only a matter of time before we all are affected. We’re scared to death. And the movie offers us little consolation.

Later, out of the theater in the daylight, the movie’s dreadful message behind us, we might pause and do some investigating on our own. We can cruise the internet to see if the ills laid at the door of Teflon are based in fact. Warning: If you do this, you find that Teflon is dangerous, that it’s not dangerous, that we don’t really know.

No matter. The Monster bides its time.

Dark Waters opens in Kansas City theatres on Friday, December 6th.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN: GUMSHOE!



Written and directed by Edward Norton, based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. Starring Edward Norton as Lionel, Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, and Bruce Willis as Frank Minna.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is not only one of the best films of the year but it features an amazing performance by director-writer Edward Norton.

The term “gumshoe” not only describes the genre of this neo-noir detective story but it also pertains to our gum-chewing protagonist, Lionel, whose nickname, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was conferred upon him as an orphan boy. Afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome, Lionel chews gum to stabilize his errant, erratic thought processes. Indeed, Tourettes is not just a gimmick but an important element in the storyline. It not only inflects Lionel’s speech with unpredictable non-sequitors and bursts of profanity, but also fuels his obsession with detail and order, which eventually enables him to sort out the byzantine complexities of the murder mystery at the story’s heart.

When we first see Lionel, he’s picking at the loose threads of the cuff of his sweater. A perfect representative anecdote for the relentless way he picks apart the loose threads of the plot’s puzzle and weaves the strands back into a coherent solution.

Lionel works for a smart detective named Frank Minna. When Frank is killed during an aborted investigation, Lionel sets to work to solve and avenge his mentor’s death. As he seeks out suspects and suffers periodic ambushes from bad guys (a standard trope in detective noirs), he uncovers rampant corruption in the mean streets of New York City. At the center of the maze of corruption is Moses Randolph, a power-hungry builder who razes lower working-class districts and erects bridges in his unrelenting drive for power and influence. The resemblance between Moses and President Trump is obvious from the start. A racist and sexist sociopath who cares nothing about human values, Moses declaims, “I don’t obey the rules, I’m ahead of them.”

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN is a wonderful, albeit unheralded surprise. Here is a New York City in the late 1950s rich in period detail. As is proper to all urban noirs, Lionel’s odyssey takes from glitzy City Hall to seedy back alleys, trash-strewn streets, and smoke-filled jazz joints—all important scenic characters on their own.

In one of the finest onscreen performances of the year, Edward Norton invests his Tourettes-afflicted character with an endearing, even delicate deadpan charm and sincerity. A weirdly comic tone prevails; and we never know when a sudden outburst in speech or behavior will disrupt the action, either exposing him to danger or propelling him further into the secrets of the convoluted plot. The affinities between MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN and other classic noirs, particularly Chinatown and The Two Jakes, are apparent enough and have been commented on by many critics. So, let’s leave that alone and just savor a film that is whip-smart and visually delectable in its own sordid majesty.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

THE CURRENT WAR



Directed and written by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison, Michael Shannon as George Westinghouse, Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla.
SWITCH ON!
THE CURRENT WAR may be the most important film of the year. Not because of its clever style and brisk storytelling; not because it features three big-name historical characters—Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nicola Tesla; but because of what it’s about. The late 19th century saw the irruption of forces, scientific, industrial, and social, that changed the world. The fracturing of space, time, and the cosmos that began with Galileo and Newton had arrived.

Every few minutes in THE CURRENT WAR somebody throws a switch. In 1880 Edison switches on his first light bulb. Two years later he switches on the lights of Wall Street. And a year or so after that another switch electrocutes a man in the first electric chair. Meanwhile, industrialist Westinghouse and inventor Tesla hurl electrical current thousands of miles across America to power the dynamos of Niagara Falls and the Columbian Exposition of Chicago. The world blazes with light. But with these new forces unleashed, mankind finds itself perched on the rim of the abyss.

THE CURRENT WAR takes its title from the intense rivalry between inventor-industrialists Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in the waning decade of the nineteenth century to power the dynamos and light up the world. Edison’s mode of direct current is countered (and outclassed) by Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current. Deception and treachery are at hand. Vast fortunes are at stake. And the future of us all is in the balance.

It’s a complicated story and THE CURRENT WAR’s clever mode of storytelling leaves some of us behind. We should have boned up on our history beforehand. Director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick are at the switch. Intimate character sketches and glimpses of vast dynamos flash by. Split screens, flashbacks and a restless camera slice, dice, and puree the narrative. If the screen is always gorgeous, the storyline is occasionally confounding. Thomas Edison connives and maligns Westinghouse. Westinghouse, in turn, gives as good—or bad—as he gets. And in between there is Tesla, flitting from one to the other, holding in his hands the switch that will leave them all in the dust.

Let me throw another switch and digress for a moment. In his memorable account of his visit to the Gallery of Machines at the 1900 Paris Exposition, statesman-philosopher Henry Adams was overwhelmed—“He began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross... Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.” The Virgin was the force that built Chartres; now, the Dynamo is the force that builds the world.

Is this the end? Is there no more room for spiritual man? As THE CURRENT WAR nears its end, and as a merger of sorts between Edison’s light bulb and Westinghouse’s alternating current creates General Electric, these two titans of science and industry meet by accident at one of the pavilions of the Columbian Exposition. While they talk shop, unnoticed behind them is a modest little Japanese woman bending with brush and ink at her calligraphy. Somehow, we realize, not all the forces at their command can stand against the power and grace in the creations of this woman’s skilled hand.

Friday, October 25, 2019

THE LIGHTHOUSE



Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.

LAND’S END

SPOILER ALERT!

I like THE LIGHTHOUSE, although it is an unlikeable film.

Young Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has just come to a remote and windswept lighthouse to assist the grizzled old lighthouse keeper (Dafoe) in his daily chores. There’s thunder in the air. Seagulls daily assault the property. Mermaids disport themselves on the rocks.

And the lighthouse rears up against the tumbling clouds, its circling eye piercing the gloom, endlessly searching... perpetually warning...

THE LIGHTHOUSE is as grim and uncomfortable as it gets. Not just for the two men trapped in its stony entrails but for the viewer, likewise confined to his theater seat, reluctantly unable to look away. We’re all confined. And we get a sense of what’s in store when young Winslow smashes an offending sea bird against the rocks. Disaster will follow, warns his boss. The reference to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where all hell breaks looks due to the destruction of an albatross, is not accidental; indeed, the dark spirits of other masters of the grim maritime guignol, Edgar Allan Poe and William Hope Hodgson, are constantly evoked. Nightmares and monsters are coming to call.

Take these two men, inexperienced apprentice and grizzled old veteran, lock them into the lighthouse, shake rather than stir, and watch what happens. What begins as a sedately paced account of the daily chores of a lighthouse—hauling the coal up the cliffs, cleaning the cistern, scrubbing the walls inside and out—slowly turns nasty. Storms arrive and repel passing ships. Food supplies diminish. The water goes foul. The two men exchange their good-natured “Yo-yo-ho, and a bottle of rum” sea shanties for insults and knotted fists.

The lighthouse, meanwhile, is hungry. Its platforms, circular stairs, and revolving gears are the teeth and jaws waiting to crunch the men’s bones and swallow their blood. You could typify the entirety of THE LIGHTHOUSE as a deadly case of indigestion.

And pay attention, because as things get worse, master and apprentice seem to exchange identities. Who, now, is who? “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

And in the end, the lighthouse swallows and spits up on the rocks our young lighthouse apprentice. The sea birds feed on his corpse and tug at this liver. Prometheus is bound.

And we viewers, in the end, are lost, without a lighthouse to guide us home.