Thursday, May 30, 2019

THE CHAPERONE


Directed by Michael Engler and starring Haley Lu Richardson as Louise Brooks and Elizabeth McGovern as Norma. Adapted by Julian Fellowes from the novel by Laura Moriarty.

It tells us a lot about actress Louise Brooks that her sharply acerbic Lulu in Hollywood, published in 1982, three years before her death, contains a chapter entitled, “Why I Will Never Write My Memoirs.” Apparently, even she had difficulty facing up to the scandal-ridden career that had blazed so brightly in the late 1920s and early 1930s, yet faded just as quickly, leaving her in relative obscurity for the last forty years of her life.

In his interview with her, published in the estimable The Parade’s Gone By (1968), historian Kevin Brownlow found in the reclusive Brooks “a woman of immense creative energy, “ a “brilliant writer,” and someone “completely honest about herself” and “not afflicted with morbid nostalgia.” Born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1906, she moved with her family to Wichita, from whence she pursued a career in dancing in New York before making her first films in the mid-1920s in Hollywood. Her career really took off in Germany, under the mentorship of the formidable G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, 1928-1929). From then on, her career stumbled; and after making a few B-westerns back in Hollywood, she returned in 1938 to the family home in Wichita where she taught dance while hiding away from Hollywood. Her last years were spent in Rochester, New York, where her Memoirs spurred a new-found fame and cult status.

All of which, ironically, is almost irrelevant to Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel and Julian Fellowes/ Michael Engler’s 2019 film adaptation. Based on a thin layer of historical fact, Norma (Elizabeth McGovern) is the middle-aged Wichita housewife who chaperones lively 15-year old Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) on her trip to New York to audition for the famed dance company of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (“Denishawn”). Once ensconced in their New York walkup, Norma and Louise are a study in contrasts as they pursue diverging paths: Norma, a quiet and slightly tight-laced matron, seeks from an orphanage the truth of her past. Louise, a budding ingenue, sports her signature bobbed hair-do as she marches briskly into the future with the Denishawn Dance Company. Norma finds an unexpected new friend in the handyman of the orphanage. Louise enjoys the attentions of a new boyfriend and, by no means incidentally, curries favor in the eyes of dance master Ted Shawn.

The story concludes in 1922, years before Brooks’s entrance into the movies. Norma returns to Wichita, her new lover in tow, to confront her startled husband. Louise goes on the road with the Denishawn company, new worlds of her own to conquer. Only a brief Epilogue serves up a few glimpses of the later years of both women. Big mistake. This token nod to later history—complete with unconvincing wigs and makeup—should have been omitted entirely and the story of the relationship between the two women, so different in age and temperament, allowed to remain on its own. And yes, a few token images from Pandora’s Box play out against the closing credits. Better to have left them out, too. Without context and limited to a few scant seconds, they fail to convey anything of Brooks’s sensuous allure.

Given the presence of a lively character like Brooks, and compared to the pagan, hedonism she brought to the screen, The Chaperone is a surprisingly mild affair. Excepting a few scenes of a wild party with Louise’s new boyfriend and her revelations to a startled Norma about her not-so-proper lifestyle, there is little else to hint at the spectacular rise and fall to come. Haley Lu Richardson is fetching and conveys at least some of Brooks’s charisma. Her dance scenes, in particular—including a wonderful recreation of one of Denishawn’s signature dance programs—are highlights. But the palm goes to the superb Elizabeth McGovern, who has worked before with scenarist Julian Fellowes and director Engler on the Downtown Abbey series. Her every scene shows textbook restraint and subtle eloquence. A real standout is her brief reunion with her birth mother (Blythe Danner). We sit back, savoring these two pros in action, as they test each other’s mettle, their mutual discovery ending in quiet recriminations and heartbreak. It alone is worth the price of admission. The fine supporting cast includes Campbell Scott as Louise’s father, Miranda Otto as Ruth St. Denis, and, of course, Blythe Danner. I should also mention Geza Rohrig, a handyman at the orphanage, who brings a nicely muted quality to his turn as Norma’s new love.

By the way, Louise Brooks wasn’t the only screen entertainer to come from that corner of southeast Kansas—Cherryvale, Parsons, Iola, and Independence—that also produced, respectively, Vivian Vance, ZaSu Pitts, Buster Keaton, and Martin and Osa Johnson. They all were born within the years 1894-1906 and none of them remained for long in their home towns. But they all have been honored ever since with annual celebrations back home. I had the privilege of being involved in all of them as an organizer. And I can attest to the fact that screenings of Brooks’s Beggars of Life and Pandora’s Box still astonished those who attended the Parsons events. Happily, once lost, they are now available in new restorations for today’s home viewing.

Monday, April 8, 2019

WHAT’S IN A NAME?



The only reason I went to see SHAZAM recently was my misguided loyalty to the original Captain Marvel character. Sadly, that concept from the C.C. Beck/ Bill Parker 1939 original has been so mangled and misnamed over the years that the original, disabled newsboy Billy Batson and his super alter-ego, Captain Marvel, seems now lost forever. Instead, we’ve recently had something called CAPTAIN MARVEL, which bore no resemblance to the original but appropriated the name. But wait—(as they say), this super hero was a woman who is never actually named “Captain Marvel,” but who instead has a boss named “Mar-Vell.” Whaaa?

And now in SHAZAM, we have a young boy named Billy Batson, but his super alter-ego has been stripped of the name “Captain Marvel” and instead dubbed “Shazam.” I cry, “Foul!!!!” The inescapable association these days with clunky Gomer Pyle is hard to abandon. Moreover, “Shazam” is not his only name here, but the infinitely better sobriquet, “Captain Sparklefingers,” is applied at times. Somehow, that last seems just fine.

But really, can’t we make up our minds about this particular superhero? The name-game, not to mention the gender issue, has gotten out of whack.

But why do I complain? Am I not the guy who fairly trembled with pleasure upon encountering the many names of J. R. R. Tolkien’s immortal hero from Lord of the Rings—“Aragorn”... sometimes named “Ranger”... sometimes named “Elfstone... sometimes named “Strider.” I mean, how cool was the guy’s full nameAragorn II, Son of Arathorn, Elessar Telcontar! Magisterial, regal, swashbuckling, by turns.

And was not James Fennimore Cooper’s great hero the bearer of many names: “Hawkeye”... “Leatherstocking”... “Long Rifle”... “Pathfinder”? Again, very cool.

So I maybe I should be a little more forgiving about the confusing name-game surrounding the superhero once named, simply, “Captain Marvel.”

As for the movie, SHAZAM, I won’t even try to untangle the writhing tentacles of the plot. Except to note that the appearance here of the muscle-bound “Captain Sparklefingers” uncomfortably resembles a Mad Magazine classic spoof of Superman and Captain Marvel that appeared in the mid-1950s. Those with fond memories of that great satire, drawn by the immortal Wally Wood, will recall that “Superduperman” clashed with “Captain Marbles.” And the image of Captain Marble’s overstuffed muscular upholstery was really funny. But the sight of the bizarrely-padded “Captain Sparklefingers” should have stayed in a comic book. Here, on screen, he is merely ridiculous.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

WELCOME TO MARWEN.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Steve Carell as Hogancamp Leslie Mann as Nicol and Merritt Weaver as Roberta.


I must say at the outset that WELCOME TO MARWEN is one of the bravest movies of the year. I say “brave” because surely Robert Zemeckis could have predicted the critical roasting and the box office disaster it has incurred. But he made it anyway. And he doesn’t flinch from what is, which is, admittedly, pretty creepy material.

Mark Hogancamp has found a way to cope with the trauma of a brutal beating he suffered in a bar. Damaged not only in body but in mind, he spends his time hiding from the world and indulging in building the miniature, table-top world of Marwen, a fictitious town in Belgium during World War II. He’s designated a World War II time frame, he says, because “That’s when we knew who the Good Guys were.” His miniature alter ego is “Captain Hogie,” who engages in ongoing battles with Nazis with the assistance of a group of warrior women.

They are all dolls.

Now what happens in this story is what really happened to the real-life Mark Hogankamp during his struggles with PTSD. And he really did build a miniature town populated by dolls. A documentary was made about his experiences, called Welcome to Marwencol.

Meanwhile, in the Zemeckis movie, Mark is struggling with loneliness. He can only get close to the Marwen world; and even there his inability to connect with people is echoed by his aversion to contact with, yes, dolls. Yes, even in Marwen he has his share of problems. Which is maybe the most interesting thing about this whole fantasy movie. If he can only summon up his courage to go the court proceeding that will put away the thugs who beat him up... Maybe that will bring some healing. Standing in his way, however—if a doll can really said to stand—is his wicked nemesis, a green-haired doll who pulverizes anything or any rival doll who invades his life and might bring healing to his condition.

That doll is named “Dejah Thoris.” After recovering from the shock of hearing the name of the John Carter’s Princess appropriated to this demon figures, I settled back and tried to figure out what was going on in this, certainly the oddest—and as I said, the bravest—movie of the year.

Director Zemeckis is obviously attracted, perhaps obsessed with the intersections of Mark’s doll world with Mark’s real world. They shift back and forth, and at times they merge in a seamless union. Which, of course, is Mark’s problem. And Zemeckis’s technical challenge.

Did I mention that Mark is fixated on high-heeled shoes...? Particularly, stiletto heels, which, he admits, were not invented until 1954, years after his imaginary time frame of Marwen.

And director Zemeckis doesn’t back off from this, either, disturbing as it might be to some. I did wince, however, when Zemeckis couldn’t resist inserting some cameo references to his trilogy, Back to the Future, and to the fairy tale of Cinderella (and in the latter, Cinderella’s silver slipper becomes a stiletto heel).

All the time I’m watching, I kept thinking of another documentary about a real-life casualty of life and conflict. That movie came out in 2004 and was called The Realms of the Unreal. It was about another lonely man lost in his fantasy world, named Henry Darger, who populated his one-room Chicago apartment with thousands of pages of typescript and hundreds of drawings chronicling a cosmic battle involving own cadre of battling females, the “Vivian Girls,” and the “Glandeco-Angelinnian” slave rebellion.

Both of these men, Mark Hogankamp and Henry Darger sought and found themselves in their own fantasy worlds. It gave them great consolation and resulted in great cost, both personal and psychological, to them. But to the extent that they wielded powerful imaginations. . . let them be honored for that.

And let there be at least a tip of the hat to Robert Zemeckis, even as his movie goes down in critical and box office flames.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER.

Directed by Sara Colangelo. Starring Maggie Gyllanhaal.


HOMEWORK AFTER HOURS
I must confess a film with a title like THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER might not have attracted me had it not been for the presence of Maggie Gyllanhaal. Since she is known for her brave performances in rather eccentric roles, so I gave this a look.

The rewards, for me at least, were many—not the least of which is her performance of a woman’s descent into madness... Never has a destructive obsession been so quietly, even tenderly observed.

At first, we see Lisa Spinelli as a quiet and caring teacher, patiently teaching her young charges their alphabets, playing them classical music during rest periods, and always attentive to their playground games. One day she overhears young five-year old Jimmy (Parker Sevak) reciting words that seem to be some kind of poem. She writes the words down. They are disarming in their unselfconscious simplicity. While Lisa is not a poet herself—her poor attempts in a night class she is taking elicit only polite interest from her teacher—she is sensitive enough to realize she has a young, even precocious talent on her hands.

Lisa decides to recite those lines to her night class. The praise from teacher and students is immediate and enthusiastic. Gratified, she claims them as her own. Eagerly, she waits for the little boy to produce another set of lines. Again, she writes them down, and again she recites them to the applause of her writing class.

She begins taking the little boy out of the classroom at times, into the bathroom, out to the playground, in search of a quiet space where he can tell her more of his poems. She never raises her voice. She is always quiet and tender. But it is obvious she needs something from him. And it is apparent that her mentoring is becoming manipulative. She is, in short, dangerous. She contacts his parents, pressing them to encourage his talent. Too often, she says, the world stamps out such promise. Jimmy is like a young Mozart, who must be allowed to realize his gifts. She is right about that, of course. But she decides she is the one to nurture him. At all costs.

Things are going downhill with Lisa. Soon, she is calling Jimmy at home on the telephone. When her writing teacher finds out she has been passing the boy’s poems off as her own, he throws her out of the class. He attacks her for exploiting and preying off the work of others. The boy’s father grows alarmed and transfers him to another school. At home, Lisa’s family life is unraveling. They care nothing about the arts, she declares; they are only pathetic and common...

Packing her bags one day, she slips out of the house and follows Jimmy to the playground of his new school. Crouching outside the fence, she entices him to leave with her for a trip. Where are they going? He asks. She drives on.

We watch, considerably alarmed, as she takes him swimming into a nearby lake. She hugs him to herself as he bobs up and down in the breakers. She takes him to a hotel. She tells him they will go away together and publish a book of his poems. The boy, who has passively accepted all this, now realizes something is very wrong. He locks her into the bathroom and calls the police. From the other side of the locked door, Lisa is resigned to her defeat. She calmly issues instructions to help him call the police and give them their address. It’s as if she is watching herself doing all this, complicit in it, only mildly alarmed at her own behavior. There are no rants, no attacks. She is just a sad, sad woman, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, a hint of a bewildered smile on her lips. Out of her obsession to protect and nurture—all of it supposedly out of her passion for Art—she is destroyed and perhaps so is the boy.

The final scene is devastating. The police arrive. The boy is taken to the car and locked in. From inside, we hear his still, small voice: “I have a poem,” he says. “I have a poem.”

But now there is no one to hear him. No one to listen. His fragile genius will surely wither away in an indifferent world. Lisa has been right all along. But she is lost in the darkness of the final fade-out.

Monday, December 17, 2018

AT ETERNITY’S GATE.



Directed and written by Julian Schnabel. Starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh.

GATE CRASHING!

The sunflowers are withered.

It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with this poetically sensitive depiction of the last three years in the life of the Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. These were years spent in around Arles, years of a chaotic chain of circumstances—corrosive relations with Paul Gauguin, pleas of help to brother Theo, incarcerations in hospitals and asylums—that miraculously produced the masterpieces we now know and celebrate. AT ETERNITY’S GATE, I must admit, surely benefits from lushly photographed landscapes and an outstanding performance marked by Willem Dafoe’s trademark intensity. It’s just... well, I’m probably the one at fault, for expecting a more insightful and interpretive conjoining of image and music from painter-filmmaker Julian Schnabel.

Instead, Schnabel trots out the Usual Suspects about the troubled painter’s mental and physical turmoil—the visions, the erratic emotional temper, the restlessness that damaged friendships and home life, the stabbing painterly “performances” at the easy... And he serves them up with pertinent, brief excerpts from the painter’s letters. But it lacks context for all these things. The painter’s words, about his God and about his work, about his fellow painters, are shorn of the needed nuances of time and circumstance that they deserve. Please note: Van Gogh was an extremely gifted and expressive writer, as measured and steady in his letters as he was impulsive and reckless in his behavior. But eviscerated and clipped as are his words here, his thoughts seem merely artificial and cliched. He is ill-served here. Consult his letters. See for yourself.

And there are those annoying, wordless, interpolated passages where Schnabel’s camera follows Van Gogh on his interminable ramblings across the countryside. We see his feet, we see his face limned against the sky, we see through his eyes the landscape ahead... Walking, always walking. On and on. A lot of screen time might have been better served than this preoccupation with walking, climbing, scrambling. Worse, during these walking sequences, there’s an annoying solo piano on the soundtrack, lamely hammering away at repeated chords, likewise, on and on...

But there is a final irony here—one that I assume is intended by director Schnabel. He defies our expectations of filling the screen with Vincent’s signature images of blazing-yellow sunflowers. Instead, all we get is a field full of desiccated blooms and stalks, pitiful brown remnants of a once proud glory. But that is fine. That is fine with me. This bravely, rudely works against our expectations. It’s the sort of debunking touch that we had found and welcomed so frequently in an earlier Van Gogh biopic, one that I much prefer—Vincent and Theo, by Robert Altman.



COLD WAR



Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and starring Joanna Kulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Victor.

SONGS OF THE EARTH?

COLD WAR is a story of two lovers who meet, separate, reunite, stray apart again... over fifteen years, from 1949 to 1964... and then finally march steadily toward the fate that has always awaited them. It’s a great film.

Warsaw, 1949. Zula is a fresh-faced young Polish girl who auditions for the famed Mazurek Ensemble of singers and dancers. Like them, she is young, relatively untutored, from farm and the country. They come from the earth, they perform music of the earth, they bring their quirky, plaintive folk songs to audiences across Poland. But it’s not quite as simply stated as that: Zula auditions a song she calls “Two Hearts.” Is it a Polish folk song? Not really: She heard it in a movie soundtrack. And that’s not the first musical irony of many to come. Attracted to her is Victor Tomasz, the conductor of the ensemble. On his off hours he is performing--not a Polish folks song... no—he’s belting out a more sophisticated Polish tune, Chopin’s “Fantasy Impromptu.”

Are you getting the sense these two performers are slightly out of kilter with the program?

Soon, Zula and Victor fall in love. They and their ensemble quickly come under the Communist agenda promoting Joseph Stalin’s so-called People’s Music. And yes, now dressed in beautifully tailored peasant costumes, here they are, on stage in a crowded opera house, performing a gruesome but festive “Stalin Cantata” in front of a huge curtain bearing Uncle Joe’s fiercely-mustached face. Music of the earth is ground down under the dictator’s heel. The audience dutifully applauds. Touring takes the Mazurek Ensemble to Berlin and East Germany. Yugoslavia.

The lovers split when Victor escapes to Paris. He performs in a piano bar. Years pass. Now she’s also in Paris but married with a son. She’s gaining fame as a cabaret singer. (I might add that more and more she looks like Monica Vitti, which is fine with me!) Listen closely, and you’ll hear underneath the sultry smoke and slow, slightly dissonant harmonies that same song she same years ago, “Two Hearts.”

Regarded as a political dissident, Victor is dragged out of Paris by the Polish police. A jail cell waits for him.

And so it goes. More years pass. Crossing borders. She returns to Poland and performs a bongo-band version of “Two Hearts.” He follows. They try to reunite, but it hasn’t worked before, but maybe, just maybe, it’s going to work now?

COLD WAR is a history of music as much as of the political fortunes of two lovers. Of, I should say, what happens to music... as it springs from the rough, frayed hearts of the peasants, slumps to political agendas, transmutes into the discords of cabaret and blues, and erupts to Zula’s frenzied dance to “Rock Around the Clock.”

COLD WAR has a measured, rather stolid pacing, moving along in discrete chunks of story fragments. It frequently leaves gaps that allow us to fill in the story. Was it Miles Davis who once said, “It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play? COLD WAR is like that.

It’ll be a miracle if this Polish-French-British finds a home in local theaters. Check Amazon. But know that elsewhere, it’s garnered a fair share of international awards.





Monday, December 10, 2018

SUSPIRIA


Directed by Luca Guadagnio and starring Dakota Johnson as Suzy Bannion, Tilda Swinton as Madame Blanc (and two other roles). Mark Coulier is in charge of the prosthetic effects.

BODY HORROR

It’s not often that a movie review will lead off with the name of a “prosthetic effects” artist. But SUSPIRIA, a remake of a Dario Argento classic from 1977, demands it. His name is Mark Coulier, and his body-twisting prosthetic effects headlight the movie.

This story of the infernal doings at the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977 is more than an exercise in the strenuous balletic physicality in the Martha Graham tradition. . . much more. The central image of the movie depicts dozens of dancers, endlessly grinding away on the floor, arms and legs contorted, torsos convulsing. There’s no balletic grace and beauty here, only self-inflicted pain and bone-cracking contortions.

At least that’s what dance mistress Madame Bland tells her new protégé, a young American named Suzy Bannion, who has just come to the Academy in search of a career. What Madame Blanc has in mind and what young Suzy achieves is nothing less than a ritualistic worship of something else, something dark, even Satanic.

Indeed, the Markos Academy is a witches’ coven. There are Three Mothers in charge. And Suzy is the newest recruit into the coven.

I use the term “Body Horror” to describe SUSPIRIA as dark fantasy historian John Clute defines the term. In his book, The Darkening Garden (2006), he describes “body horror” as the indulgence of the visceral affect, “the atrocity of the thing itself”—the subjection of the body to tortures and dislocations—in the service of a new aesthetic of horror. Well, not so new. The pain and dismemberment of Jacobean Theater, the French Grand Guignol tradition, the flayed-body images of painter Francis Bacon, and the monstrous entities of H.P. Lovecraft are old hat. But the more recent revelations of Abu Ghraib have brought these perversions to a newly disturbing reality.

No, the horrors of SUSPIRIA are not comfortable. They’re not supposed to be. And the camera’s unblinking gaze into ripped bodies spilling out their entrails is not incidental. It is front and center. It ventures into self-parody, by no means incidentally bordering on laughter.

A defense of this, if one is needed at all, is that gruesome displays like these are a needed revelation of the savagery of the human soul. Nothing less will do.

SUSPIRIA and its close relation on the distaff side, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, suggest that pain and pleasure are closely joined, not opposed, but as integrated extremes that approach a dark purity of its own. It’s a chthonic ideal that rips out our own innards. It turns our eyes away from the upper air and plunges our gaze downward into the earth.

We might violently reject it this excess. But it’s too late.