Sunday, September 15, 2019

OFFICIAL SECRETS: NOT A BANG BUT A WHISPER



OFFICIAL SECRETS, written and directed by Gavin Hood, starring Keira Knightly as Katherine Gun, Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson

OFFICIAL SECRETS is my favorite movie of the year, so far. Although it begins and ends not with a bang but a whisper, the concussion, while quiet, is deafening.

Here is a model of sturdy, no-nonsense storytelling. It’s quiet, but relentless. Its script brooks no distractions and allows us no relief. The casting is superb, from top to bottom.

It recounts the true story of Katherine Gun (Keira Knightly), a British whistleblower who leaked information about an illegal NSA attempt to extort the UN Security Council into supporting America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. We know that her efforts and those of others to prevent the invasion failed. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war were slain. And the reputations of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and General Colin Powell were irreparably damaged.

So much is history. OFFICIAL SECRETS teases with what we know, what we think we know, and what we have forgotten.

Meanwhile, Gun, a translator for British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), is having a hard time. Her initial actions were patriotic attempts to forestall the invasion, but quickly she’s in over her head: Her violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Act draws the unwelcome attention of Scotland Yard and British and American security forces, damages her marriage to a Turkish Muslim, and promises a prison sentence for treason. The firm of lawyers she turns to, including Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), offers little hope, beyond a “guilty” plea and a diminished sentence. The crux of her salvation lies in how the Iraq War is to be judged and defined—Is it legal or is it illegal? And is the document that has crossed her desk an authentic NSA document or a British hoax? The answer to all of this, more precisely, resides in the spelling of one of the words in the memo: The word “favorable” appears in the NSA document; but in its re-release to the public the word is spelled “FAVOURABLE.” So what, you say? The parsing of this spelling riddle will literally spell Gun’s innocence or guilt.

This nicety of British and American spelling is perhaps my favorite part of the film. It’s a tiny scene, barely whispered, and you have to watch closely lest you miss it. Upon such details can hang the fate of nations—and that of a lowly civil servant.

OFFICIAL SECRETS joins the honorable list of recent films—THE POST, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, CONCUSSION—that remind us how important newspaper investigative journalism continues to be. In this case, the venerable British newspaper, The Observer, leaps into the fray. As print disappears into the cybersphere in our post-9/11 era, and as readers prefer the computer screen to folded newsprint, we wonder how many stories like this fall between the cracks.

OFFICIAL SECRETS speaks softly, but its message is loud and clear.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

IT CHAPTER TWO



SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN ENDING

I’m riffing on Pirandello’s famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, because this sequel to the first half of Stephen King’s 1986 door-stopper of a novel, IT, is searching not so much for an “author” but for an ENDING. In the opening minutes of the movie, director Peter Bogdanovich puts in a cameo appearance and says it all: “All stories need an ending.”

I appreciate Bogdanovich’s urgency. And you will, too, because it’s not long into the movie before you’ll be saying the same thing.

The children of the first film are back, 27 years later—a standup comic, a writer, an interior decorator, a limousine owner, an abused wife, a local historian—now returned to the little town of Derry, Maine, the scene of their childhood terrors. They are called back to confront once again Pennywise the Clown, and all the carnivalesque horrors that follow in his train. Each of these kids has borne into adulthood the literal scars of the traumas of his and her youth. Once members of a self-proclaimed Losers Club, they are still struggling to overcome fears and traumas of guilt, sex, inadequacy, cowardice, etc. In other words, they’ve had a tough time, like most of the rest of us, just trying to navigate adolescence. Chief among these traumas is an incident that triggered the whole thing in the first place, as recounted in the first film—a boy’s guilt over the neglect of his younger brother that led to the little boy’s drowning. Until they can confront and exorcise those terrors the clown known as Pennywise will keep rampaging up and down Derry and, in the process, grow bigger and bigger, like some ghastly Thanksgiving Parade blimp. It’s up to the children—now adults—to literally burst that bubble.

That’s the story’s ending, and it is one devoutly to be desired. It’s been a long search. It’s taken three hours and a multiple number of false endings to do the trick. Including a whole lot of dime-store philosophizing about having the courage to grow up and believe in yourself and all that sort of thing. Meanwhile, comic-book creatures straight out of Creepshow keep jumping out of closets, falling from the ceilings, erupting from the floors. Decapitated heads sprout spider’s legs, tongues shoot out of yawning mouths, and razor teeth chomp and chew everything in sight.

It helps to have seen IT, Chapter One, since the story splits the characters into their incarnations as kids and adults—threading their pasts and their presents throughout the narrative. There’s so much noise and strife in the process. Good heavens, growing up is apparently such an awful business. Watching it through is such an awful business.

I’ve held back on the most awful monster of all, by the way. And that is the weird, gaunt shopkeeper who puts in an appearance halfway through. He is a perfect Horror to behold. And “It’s” name is Stephen King.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE



Directed by Avi Belkin.

As someone who has spent the greater part of his professional career interviewing people, I watched MIKE WALLACE IS HERE wishing I could interview the director. And I would do it with questions delivered with some of the hard-charging style that was Wallace’s trademark.

For example—

Why spend the first half of the documentary on some kind of hyper-drive? The movie breaks out of the gate with shock cuts and breathless pacing, allowing no time for viewer reflection and processing.

Second, why cut short so many of Wallace’s interviews, allowing us no sense of the give-and-take of his repartee?

Third, why are most of the famous faces in front of Wallace’s microphone not identified? Younger viewers who don’t stay for the final credits will be baffled.

Fourth, why repeat to the point of tedium the use of split screens and transition devices like television static and color bars? Enough is enough. We get it. It’s about television.

Meanwhile, we race through the requisite Greatest Hits of his career as a pitchman (lots of cigarette commercials), as host of the ground-breaking radio program, Night Beat, his work for CBS (especially 60 Minutes), the controversies surrounding his controversies with the cigarette industry, Watergate, and Vietnam. As Wallace enters his 70s and 80s, his energy scarcely flags, as his drive for professionalism gives way to a desperate need to stave off mortality. The documentary is at its best here, although, as I’ve noted, it’s hectic pace tends to derail its impact.

Aside from a few skirmishes with his private life—his regrets about fatherhood, grief at the death of his son, Peter, the grinding depression that led to a surprising revelation about a suicide attempt—the film emerges as just one more procession of Big Names, from Malcolm X to Bette Davis, from Barbra Streisand to General Westmoreland, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Thomas Hart Benton. It’s mix-master blend of the pop and the profound effectively defines the decades of his best work.

In sum, we learn little about Wallace’s technique, how he worked, how he prepared for interviews. There is one tiny, startling moment, when it’s revealed that during some occasions his questions were prepared in advance for him by somebody else. Really? Tell me more.

There are only a few moments at the end where we feel the pangs of loss of someone like Wallace, who died in his 90s in 2012. Should not a documentary about an investigative reporter wear its own heart on its sleeve? Warts and all, we need someone like him now, more than ever. Beyond his quirks and ego, his was a fearless spirit that should not be allowed to be squashed by the deafening noise of the Trump Era. Indeed, the Donald is seen briefly in an interview from the early 90s, and we can only regret that he did not make good on his promise not to enter politics.

Finally, younger viewers may be startled at all the smoking going on throughout the film. Everybody smokes. All the time. Cigarettes dangle from stained fingers. The entire film is seen through the haze of cigarettes. Hey, it was the 1950s and 1960s. As Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it was.”

Sunday, September 1, 2019

PEANUT BUTTER FALCON


CRAZY QUILT

Starring Shia LeBoeuf as Tyler, Zack Gottshagen as Zack, and Dakota Johnson as Eleanor. Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.

Young Zack, a downs syndrome youth, calls himself “Peanut Butter Falcon.” That’s his wrestling moniker and his tribute to his favorite wrestler, “Saltwater Redneck.” And to honor the sobriquet, he smears peanut butter all over his face. There. Let’s get the title out of the way.

My sainted Aunt used to keep fabulous quilts carefully tucked away in an old trunk; and when she would take them out, I was in awe of their crazy patterns, varieties of fabric, and reckless matches of color. PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is like one of those quilts. But when you air it out on the movie screen, you find the stitching is sloppy and the fabrics torn.

And so we have a crazy-quilt story about a thief (Shia LeBoeuf) on the lam from a couple of thugs, a runaway downs child (Zack Gottshagen) escaped from a nursing home, and the boy’s caregiver (Dakota Johnson) anxious to bring him back. And of course, they all end up on a raft floating downriver.

Mix and match these story elements as best it can, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON succeeds best when it’s just content to just let things meander along, like that aimless river. But when the whimsy and caprice abruptly grounds characters and events in coarse-grained reality, the tissue of the story comes apart. There are lapses in continuity and abrupt lurches in tone from comedy to brutal violence (and back again). For example, when the boy meets his idol, the wrestler Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he transforms into Peanut Butter Falcon, dons costume and swagger—and nearly gets his brains beaten out. But this is a cartoon, after all, and nobody gets hurt. Instead, he rears up heroically and throws his opponent out of the ring. Some fun.

At this point, we’re not sure of the patterns of this crazy quilt. We can like it for a lot of reasons, particularly for the fine-tuned performances by LeBoeuf and Gottshagen and the wonderfully textured sense of the rural North Carolina scene. But we come away with a vague sense of unease. We realize the movie tends to exploit Zack’s condition as a downs syndrome child—his slow speech and blunt manner, for example—more for the sake of comedic effects than the poignant and sober reality of his vulnerability in a dangerous and confusing world.

Friday, August 16, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD


SPOILER ALERT!

By now we must know that the new Tarantino film concludes by side-stepping the Manson-Tate murders and locating the crimes elsewhere. In other words, there is no Manson-Tate slaughter at all! We should be accustomed by now to the way Hollywood cherry-picks history, but this recent example is particularly startling. Its effrontery in altering history is rivaled, in my opinion, by the amazing conclusion to a mid-50s movie, QUANTRILL AND HIS RAIDERS: In this version of the Lawrence Raid, Quantrill and a few raiders are turned away at the city border and Quantrill is shot and killed by the citizenry.

In other words, there was no Quantrill/Lawrence Massacre at all!

Kinda takes your breath away, doesn't it?

I recall the advisories of cultural historians Hayden White and Niall Ferguson who propose that alterations in the historical time line should bear a certain responsibility. In other words, are the alterations executed in the realm of PROBABILITY? COULD they have happened that way? We could argue whether or not Tarantino obeys that injunction.

But this is Tarantino's thing, isn't it? When we see Hitler killed in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, we know what he's up to.

I guess we have to respect these alternative histories... but it’s just a pity that films like these aren't accompanied by "teaching moments," that is, a sober examination of the whys and wherefores of these alterations. And excellent teaching moments they can be--the same holds true for Hollywood's alterations of the texts of stories and novels-- but, alas, are seldom observed. But that's a matter primarily for the classroom, right?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK


Directed by Andre Ovredal to a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro. Based on the books by Alvin Schwartz.

Starring Zoe Colletti as Stella and Michael Garza as Ramone.

“The book reads you.”

In today’s parlance, this movie issues several “trigger warnings”—that is, don’t anger your local scarecrow; inspect your next bowl of soup for a dismembered big toe; and be careful what scary stories you read in the dark—they may appear on screen at your local theater.

That’s what happens in this exemplary collection of local legends, twice-told tales, and campfire frights. They've come to the screen. Based on stories by Alvin Schwartz whose publication in the 1990s occasioned trigger warnings of their own to cautious parents and young readers, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK delivers plenty of shocks and gross-outs. It’s just in time for a new generation of young adults (it’s rated PG-13) who’ve grown up on Stranger Things.

They understand. Just like readers in the ‘90s understood.

At the heart of the stories, both on stage and screen is a book. You don’t read the book, it reads you. Thus, five teenagers in the sleepy little town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania find themselves in possession of a book that “reads’ their respective traumas and produces them, “writ large,” tailor-made, as it were, to their real life. Stella, who is a young storyteller, finds this book during a raid she and her friends make on a local haunted house. Local legend has it that a wealthy family of industrialists named Bellows once lived there; and that they kept secluded from public view their disturbed and abused daughter, Sara, who eventually hung herself. After the family mysteriously disappeared, the house has been left to wrack and ruin. But Stella may yet walk there...

The book in Stella’s hand contains hand-written stories by Sara Bellows. They are written by a very angry young lady who is raging against her fate. The ink is fresh. That’s because Sara is writing scary stories even now, long after her death. The words crawl across the pages, line by line, even as they watch. And each of the stories is targeted to destroy Stella and her companions.

And so, heigh-ho, off we go, on with these deadly, twisty tales, as Sara and her friends try to find the secret behind Sara Bellows and her book before they all meet nasty ends. The stories nicely balance a delicious campfire thrill with a more substantial, gruesome impact. The monsters are very cool, especially the vengeful scarecrow and a decidedly creepy character called “the dangling man,” who assembles his body parts into a hideous parody of the human form. It’s pretty strong stuff; and I suspect some younger viewers prepared to laugh at the gross-out moments might find the laughter catching in their throats. The stories are writing them, too.

I see the intrusion of a Vietnam-era background—the movie is set in 1968 and one of the kids is dodging the draft—as ultimately irrelevant, unless you accept the fact that newsreel footage of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon present horrors of their own that are quite in keeping with the rest of the movie. Moreover, the addition of a backstory about the coverup of the poisoning of Mill Valley’s water supply may unnecessarily complicate the hard-wiring of the plot.

The direction and shock cuts deliver what young audiences come for. And the name of Guillermo del Toro serves as another lure to get them into the theaters. But viewers of a certain age—that’s me—may come away with how neatly the movie taps into those “phobic pressure points” that Stephen King writes about in his classic Danse Macabre (still one of the best overviews of horror we have). The mantra that “Books read us,” fits right in. That “danse” in search of our phobias is precisely the way words on the printed page and images on the movie screen seek us out—find us—and have their way with us.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

PAVAROTTI



THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW ARTICLE WITH LUCIANO PAVAROTTI BY JOHN C. TIBBETTS WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN “THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR” ON 5 May 1989. I RECALL THESE EVENTS NOW UPON RECENTLY VIEWING THE NEW RON HOWARD DOCUMENTARY.

MY 1989 INTERVIEW FOLLOWS BELOW IN ITS ENTIRETY.


I suppose not many folks can say they spent a half hour alone with opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti in the backseat of a limousine...

Let me explain:

OPERA superstar Luciano Pavarotti has received many extravagant titles over the years, from ”The King of the High C's'' to “Grandissimo Pavarotti.'' But perhaps none is as close to his heart as the simple appellation, “Doc.'' “Doctor Pavarotti'' is the way he is known to the citizens of the town of Liberty, Mo., just a half hour's drive from Kansas City.

Mr. Pavarotti has just arrived at the Kansas City airport in preparation for a solo concert recital next Tuesday under the auspices of Richard Harriman and William Jewell College.

It is a warm spring evening, but he has the familiar red silk scarf wrapped about his neck. He is trimmer than I expected. We exchange hurried greetings and move to his curbside limousine for a prearranged interview.

Once inside, the flashing cameras and the noises are shut out. Luciano settles back into the deep cushions with a sigh. He is tired. The evening before, he had just finished preparing Verdi's “Luisa Miller'' with the prizewinners of the latest Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia. Ahead in coming weeks are performances at the Metropolitan Opera and a European tour.

“Yes,'' he continues, “I just finished `Elixir of Love,' and there is a recording of `Trovatore' ahead, and then the tour - but after that I go to my beach house at Pesaro [on the Adriatic coast] for the rest of the summer....''

He pauses a moment, checking the slim, leatherbound notebook he carries in the inside pocket of his jacket. The solo recital Tuesday is the only such concert he will give all season. Indeed, the recital will mark the fifth time since 1973 that he has come here under the auspices of the William Jewell College Fine Arts Series. He is looking forward to seeing many old friends.

“I think this recital is very important to everybody,'' he explains, “since the first time I made my first recital was exactly in this place.''

His face is etched in silver outlines by the lights outside the car window. The voice that can fill auditoriums the size of Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden is hushed in this tiny cell of silence.

“That recital gave to my performing a different dimension,'' he says. “I was able, through this first concert and the others that follow it, to reach people who were not the usual people for the world of the opera. Some go only to see opera; others only to the recitals. Now I find both. Yes, it all start here from the Liberty, Mo., concert.''


It had been a chilly February night when Pavarotti first came here to perform sixteen years ago. At that time he was known in the music world solely as an opera performer.

The young man, born in Modena in northern Italy, had given up careers as an elementary school teacher and nighttime insurance salesman to pursue singing. He moved quickly from his opera debut near his home town in 1961 in “La Boheme'' to a debut four years later at La Scala in Milan (again in “La Boheme'') and then his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1972 as Tonio in Donizetti's “La Fille du Regiment.''

In the audience at that Metropolitan debut was Richard Harriman, an English professor from William Jewell College, and supervisor of the college's concert series. Professor Harriman decided he would try to get this young singer to appear at the college in a recital.

When he contacted Pavarotti's press representative, Herbert Breslin, he was told the singer did not do recitals, but possibly they could kick around the idea. “So we talked further,'' Harriman recalls. “It developed that Mr. Pavarotti had considered a solo recital debut, but it would cost me $6,000. Now in those days, that was the fee given to the highest-paid tenor in the world, Richard Tucker. `Nobody's ever heard of your singer,' I said. After a pause, his voice came back to me: `They will!'''

Soon the arrangements were made, but when Pavarotti arrived the night before the recital he was unsure that he would be well enough to go on. The next day, however, he felt better. “I got the call from Mr. Breslin that all was well,'' says Harriman. “We made the drive into Kansas City, where Mr. Pavarotti was staying at the Muehleback Hotel. He warmed up on the piano in the Presidential Suite, which once belonged to President Harry S. Truman. We bundled him up and got him back to campus, and the rest is history.''

What Pavarotti remembers about the concert was his nervousness about appearing on stage alone. “I was very nervous where I'm going to put these hands,'' he says. “So I decided to stuff my hand with a handkerchief, and during the performance my hand began to move normally. From that day I considered it a very good-luck concert for me, because it began something very new for me.''


In a later conversation with me, his accompanist, John Wustman, talked about the concerts here. Pavarotti “was so used to the opera stage, and he felt naked,'' Mr. Wustman said. “There was no prop, no glass, none of the things you might have in `Rigoletto' or any other opera. I think he felt he needed something, and this [handkerchief] idea came to him. It has been his trademark ever since, the world over.''

Wustman was not Pavarotti's pianist that night. He started accompanying Pavarotti at the singer's third concert here, in 1978. “But it is the fourth time I remember the best,'' said Wustman. “That was in September 1983. We moved the concert from the William Jewell campus in Liberty to nearby Kansas City. That was a special time for Luciano.”

Make that “Doctor'' Pavarotti.

That was the year the singer received an honorary PhD in music from the college. The ceremony was packed with spectators, opera fans, and local and national news media. Pavarotti beamed in his cap and gown as he walked to the podium alongside his sponsor, Professor Harriman.

Now, as the William Jewell Fine Arts Series celebrates the opening of its 25th season, it seems only fitting that Doc Pavarotti return for another benefit.

The singer lifts his shoulders in a quiet shrug when I ask him how he managed to be here. He is not one to dwell on such things. “I fit it in, yes. I am glad to come here again. It is really something to be able to come here and make real a piece of music in this way - when you are alone on the stage with nothing else - nothing, just a fantastic pianist like I have.'' There is a knock at the limousine window. The luggage has arrived and has been stowed in the trunk. Time to leave.

One wonders if the quiet simplicity of this area reminds him of his native village of Modena and the soccer fields of his youth. Or maybe it's just the way folks talk to him here. After all, there are times - even in the life of an opera superstar - when the simple title of “Doc'' is preferable to “Grandissimo.”