Tuesday, January 7, 2020

THE KING



Directed by David Michod. Starring Timothee Chalomet as King Henry V, Joel Edgerton as John Falstaff, Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France.

The sight of Timothee Chalomet as the lovestruck Laurie in Little Women hardly prepares us for his blood-spattered King Henry V in the new Netflix production, THE KING. But his dark-eyed intensity is the same, even if his force of arms is wielding a broadsword against rival Percy Hotspur rather than hugging the reluctant Jo March.

The story of the warrior King Henry V and his exploits at Agincourt in 1415 come to many of us via the play by William Shakespeare and latterly the films of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. We know that young Henry reluctantly assumes the throne after the death of his father, Henry IV. He now must abandon his days of drinking and wenching, ignore his former drinking buddy, Sir John Falstaff, take up arms against the blood-lusting Dauphin of France and his superior forces and, even more dangerously, negotiate a marriage to Catherine de Valois

But now, the historian has his or her say. The backdrop is late Medieval England during the Hundred Years War between England and France, when Henry V was the second English monarch of the House of Lancaster, and England became one of the strongest military powers in Europe. There is a decidedly downbeat cast to it all. Here, we have history at close quarters—with no quarter given. For all its expanse and scope, it’s lowdown and dirty. Vulgar invective replaces Elizabethan soliloquy. Grinding poverty stains pomp and heraldry. When combat is not waged from a safe distance, with catapults and longbows, it is nasty business at close quarters, where it’s largely a question of trying to stay on your horse while bashing away at heavily armored foes. Everything and everybody ends up down in the mud, where there is little to distinguish English from French, friend from enemy. No medics attend the wounded. A finishing sword stroke is the only compassion, the only remedy. Politics, then, as now, consists of the mantra, “Trust No One.” Patriotic fervor and King Henry’s war was in reality a fraud and a land grab.

Timothee Chalomet’s King Henry is boyish and impulsive, and we are reminded that the historical king was barely twenty when he came to the throne and only thirty-five at his death. His friend, John Falstaff, is not the bloated caricature of Orson Welles but Joel Edgerton’s wise and canny drinking buddy-turned battlefield advisor (who depends upon the pain in his right knee to predict impending rains). Fairly stealing the show is a barely recognizable Robert Pattinson as the Dauphin of France. In a key scene, this blond, sniggering creature delivers a jaw-dropping taunt to Henry. It belongs in a highlight reel—but not for the faint of heart. His own demise is a startling pratfall.

Watch for Oscar nominations all around—and kudos to Chalomet who, like Henry, is a star on the ascendant.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

HIS DARK MATERIALS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE


HIS DARK MATERIALS. Adapted by Jack Thorne from the trilogy by Philip Pullman. Starring Dafne Keen as Lyra Bevacqua, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as Lord Asriel.

Now that all eight episodes of Season One of HBO’s HIS DARK MATERIALS are available for streaming, let’s pause a moment.

Witches fly, armored polar bears prowl the Northern Wastes, and gas-balloons and metal zeppelins hover over the towers of Old Oxford. Alternate worlds mix and blend. Toss in a mad scientist and a 12-year old girl battling a cosmic conspiracy and you have more than a taste of HBO’s new adaptation of the classic trilogy of heroic fantasies of British author Philip Pullman.

But, unfortunately, that’s only a taste. As a kind of steampunk odyssey filled with adventures and terrors, the HBO series emerges as a cross between Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series and C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegories. Fair enough? Not really? So far, Season One falls short of the profound subversive text beneath the surface of Pullman’s original trilogy. More than an adventure story for the kiddies, it’s really a sharp critique of the Catholic Church. Consider these words by author Pullman. They are at the core of his books: “What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us, and if we had our heads straight on this issue, we would have churches dedicated to Eve instead of the Virgin Mary.”

And that’s exactly what HIS DARK MATERIALS is—or should—be all about.

What sounds blasphemous to conventional Christian ears is the reason why the first attempt to bring HIS DARK MATERIALS to the screen bombed. It adapted the first of the trilogy, The Golden Compass and contained enough of Pullman’s message to raise the alarm and discourage the continuance of the second and third installments, respectively, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The three books spanned seven years of Pullman’s writing life and were published in 1995-2000. Two children, a precocious young teenager, Lyra Bevacqua, and her older friend, the stalwart Will Parry, stride across parallel worlds in their battles against the monolithic consortium known as The Magisterium, an organization masking global control under the guise of religious doctrines. The saga, moreover, introduced two thematic ideas, first, that every one of us possesses a guiding genius, a “familiar,” here called, a “daemon,” a changeable animal shape that accompanies and guides us from our birth to adolescence; and two, that all of the cosmos is constructed out of particles called “Dust.” Just what this atomistic matter is, exactly, is quite complicated. Certainly, it’s not the grime of the streets; and it’s not what we call God, but the material that created God. As we reach maturity, this material becomes a part of us—but we must lose our innocence to acquire what is wisdom. Dust is a metaphor for enlightenment. Unlike conventional Christianity, which preaches that our loss of Innocence is the result of the Fall of the Biblical Garden of Eden that precipitates us into a sinful state—Original Sin—His Dark Materials reveals that this “Fall” is actually our salvation.

When I first ventured into these wonderfully complex books, I thrilled to the adventures and the fertile imaginative worlds therein; subsequently, I found myself, as per Pullman’s guidance, immersed in his avowed sources, namely, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provides the themes and the title of the trilogy (see Book Two, line 916); William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which abolishes easy boundaries between Good and Evil (and which gives us, among other things, the image of a “golden compass” that creates the world); the martyred monk Giordano Bruno’s beliefs in multiple worlds; and that peculiar little story by Heinrich von Kleist, “The Puppet Theater,” which mandates our search through innocence and beyond to wisdom. In brief, they all suggested that the character of Satan, as envisioned by Milton, reveals that when God forbade Adam to partake of the Tree of Life, he kept humankind in ignorance in the service of God’s ego. But to the contrary, should we not ask: Should not God be flattered by Adam’s interest rather than be frightened by his curiosity? Is not the desire to understand God’s world not heresy but true devotion? Thus, author Philip Pullman, who insists he is a Christian atheist, seems to embed in his trilogy the conviction that the parable of the Garden and the Fall of Man is merely a selfish demand for obedience; and that our resistance, our hunger for knowledge is admirable. As Pullman says--“What Christianity calls the Fall of Man is the best thing, the most important thing that ever happened to us.”

If all this seems to stretch the trilogy’s meanings ‘way out of whack, many steps beyond the juvenile trappings of an adventure story, just make your way through the spiritually profound third volume of the trilogy and it’s all there, no mistake.

It remains to be seen if these ideas, only tepidly introduced into the first season of the HBO adaptation, will be further explored in the second and third seasons. Season Two is already in the can, and we can only assume (and hope) that it and a third season will see the light, as it were. So far, the performances by the admirable Dafne Keen as Lyra, Ruth Wilson as her scheming mother, Mrs. Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda as the swashbuckling adventurer Lee Scoresby, and James McAvoy as the maddened scientist Lord Asriel are gripping; and the production values impressive. But will the series follow through on the “illumination” of Pullman’s profoundly anti-conventional religious ideologies; or will it obey only the vulgar glare of commercial storytelling?

In the final analysis, declares Pullman, HIS DARK MATERIALS functions consciously what Blake said Milton was doing without knowing it—“telling the story from the devil’s point of view.”

Thursday, December 19, 2019

BOMBSHELL



Directed by Jay Roach. Starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, and Katherine McKinnon.

Already the media is asking questions about BOMBSHELL’s gallery of lookalike actresses and actors: How many prosthetics did Charlize Theron wear in her portrayal of Fox newswoman Megyn Kelly? Did lowering her voice damage her throat? Is John Lithgow’s prosthetic padding more lifelike than Russell Crowe’s in his portrayal of Ailes in The Loudest Voice earlier this year? Etc. This is unfortunate, because that sort of verisimilitude is bound to fail at close quarters. Too often the screen is crowded with a gallery of lookalikes—Chris Wallace, Rudy Giuliani, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Bill O’Reilly, etc.—that comes across as one of those crowded Al Hirschfeld panels of caricatured celebrities. The best we can say is that as caricatures they are playing an amusing game of charades. But “amusing” is not what we’re after, here.

Otherwise, BOMBSHELL switches the polarities of the standard newsroom expose. Recent films like Official Secrets (one of my favorite movies earlier this year) and Dark Water deployed media to uncover scandals and misdeeds. BOMBSHELL turns inward: It’s the Fox News operation that is itself exposed. And I’m not just talking about Roger Ailes’s infamous directive that the Fox anchor women sit at desks whose transparent glass revealed their legs. Ailes’ spectacular fall from grace (?) is by now well known and documented. The same holds true for the bitter struggles of anchorwomen Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlsen against the predations of Ailes.

So, I found myself looking more at the edges of the frame, looking for characters and stories that are not well known. The presence of Kate McKinnon, for example, as a closeted lesbian concealing a picture of herself and her lover under her newsroom desk, is more than a disturbing footnote to this story. While the gender politics play out in the heterosexual arena, it is her character of Jess Carr who must remain silent—concealing not just her sexual identity but her liberal views. Praise must go to BOMBSHELL for craftily inserting this disturbing secondary story, for it points out the fact that the “bombshell” revelations of the doings at Fox News are only part of a much more complicated picture. Behind every desk at Fox News—or any other print and broadcast newsroom, for that matter—there are other stories, like Jess’s, that remain muffled and hidden.

When will those stories be told?

Pardon me now. Emerging from the toxic waste dump of BOMBSHELL, I’m washing my hands. Then I’ll go back to see The Two Popes again. There are secrets there, too. But played out in a rather different arena.

LITTLE WOMEN



Adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Kristen Stewart, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen as the “little women.”

The problem is Jo.

The problem is always Jo.

What to do with feisty, brilliant, restless Jo March?

Louisa May Alcott couldn’t come to terms with Jo. She didn’t want to marry her off. But her readers and her publisher insisted on it. But even though a suitable husband was conjured up, you suspect that Alcott and Jo herself would have none of it. All those sequels about Jo and the kids. Someone else must have written them.

And now the dilemma continues: Who will filmmaker Greta Gerwig cast as Jo? We’ve had Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, and Winona Ryder... and now enter Saoirse Ronan with a flurry of flounces, jitters, and antic dances. When she settles down for a moment, she turns to the camera and bemoans the plight of women in a professional world. “There’s more to a woman than just a person who loves,” she mumbles.

As much as director Greta Gerwig loves Ronan’s Jo (actor and persona appeared earlier in a film called Lady Bird), you begin to realize she’s not sure what to do with Jo. Solution: scramble the time tense. Regard Jo as a moving target. Begin her story in the present-day and then immediately flashback seven years into the past. Keep her in a slipstream of time and space: One moment, she is an adolescent girl writing her melodramas in the attic; the next instant, a canny business woman haggling with her publisher. Here, she’s at home in Concord; there, she’s moving in to a boarding house in New York. She comes, she goes. Her suitors likewise come and go. Poor Laurie (Timothee Chalomet). The same for the other little women: No sooner do we begin with Meg (Emma Watson), married to a teacher; Beth (Eliza Scanlen), sickly and living at home with Marmie; Amy (Florence Pugh), touring Europe with paintbrush in hand—than we’re hurled back in time to the humble March abode, when the sisters rough-house and perform Jo’s theatricals, run errands to the poor folks next door, and languish for news about their absent father. Beth, in particular, ever sickly Beth, is confounding--alive one moment, dead the next. Then alive again. You suspect she finally expires, impatient to be done with it.

It’s confusing at times. Where are we and when?

I guess there’s nothing really wrong with this game of cinematic musical chairs. The autumnal cinematography by Yorick le Saul is lovely, the music by Alexandre Desplat sprightly and gentle, by turns, and the costumes will earn their own Academy-Award nomination. But I yearned for the characters to just tell their own story rather than be chess pieces moved around willy-nilly in space and time at the whims of the director. Maybe Greta Gerwig, like Jo, had her own reckoning with a producer, who insisted on a reckless piece of time-shifting narrative rather than a good old piece of old-fashioned storytelling.

Ultimately, Joe remains a problem. Her own problem.

Bless her.

Friday, December 13, 2019

KNIVES OUT: THEY ALL DUN IT! (OR COULD HAVE)


Directed by Rian Johnson with an all-star cast.

I must admit that at first I was mildly surprised at the continuing box-office popularity of KNIVES OUT. The traditional cozy scheme of the body in the library attended by a bunch of suspicious characters is sometimes scorned in favor of the tough-guy noir school of crime fiction. But, when you think about it, the cozy Agatha Christie-style of thriller is just as dangerous as anything this side of Sam Spade. And that’s box office. Both types depend on one core consideration: They all dun it! Or—They all could’ve dun it! Indeed, in Christie’s The Orient Express, everybody DID INDEED DO IT!

Now there’s a sobering thought. Guilt is spread all around, like poisoned jam on toast.

The fact that in KNIVES OUT only one person is ultimately unmasked by detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) doesn’t fool me. The list of suspects are all proven to be potential murderers: Arrayed around the dead body of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) are his vicious family members, including the manic Joni (Toni Collette), menacing Walt (Michael Shannon), scheming Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), rakish Morris (Don Johnson), and the mysteriously absent Hugh (Chris Evans).

Don’t turn your back on any of them.

Another trope dear to my heart with such doings is the Big Reveal. Yes, gather everybody around the fireplace and the detective will solve the mystery, no matter how impossible or impenetrable it seems. The only problem is, that the explanation is sometimes so byzantine in its complexity that we fall back in bewilderment:

Will somebody please explain the explanation?

And so we have Daniel Craig, having a wonderful time with his southern accent, exposing the culprit in a bewildering tangle of blackmail, adultery, contradictory wills, mysterious footprints in the garden, and a plethora of suspects busily shinnying up and down the second-story trellis. Yes, everybody is having a good time.

Let me add that in the midst of all this rampant villainy, KNIVES OUT gives us a most unexpected pleasure. And that is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabreras, the young caregiver to the murdered man. She’s not just the needed still point around which this mad carousel revolves, but her character is an embattled immigrant, which provides a bunch of not-so-subtle jabs at President Trump.

And yes, she’s a suspect, too. I’m suspicious of her: I suspect that here is a quietly charismatic star in the making.

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.”