Friday, May 18, 2018

AVENGERS AND OTHER SUPERHEROES


Whether or not you’re a fan of recent super-hero epics like Avengers: Infinity War, which breaks box office records, a colossal testament to cinematic greed and excess, or Logan and Unbreakable, which are master classes in how the whole superhero-genre can gain our respect, our attention might rightly be directed to one of its profoundly influential literary prototypes, which remains particularly relevant today.

Once upon a time, Philip Wylie wrote a novel called Gladiator. It was about a man who could lift weights of four tons with ease, leap such distances that he almost seemed to fly, shed machine-gun bullets with ease, rip bank vaults apart as if they were paper-mache. No, it wasn’t a Superman story. It was published in 1930, eight years before Schuster and Siegel produced their first “Superman” comic. Superman and every other superhero owe it a lot. In the opinion of fantasy and SF historian Joe Moskowitz, “Gladiator is probably the greatest tale of a physical superman since the Biblical story of Samson.”

In brief, it is the story of Hugo Danner, born the results of experimental drug treatments given to his mother. When the baby smashes his crib to smithereens, Mom knows she’s got trouble on her hands. She and her husband take great care in the training of their child to hide his strength and deal with the psychological impact of his growing awareness of his “differentness.” After demonstrating remarkable athletic feats as a youth, Hugo leaves home after accidentally killing a fellow athlete. Hugo has difficulty finding a place for himself, exploiting his great strength in prize fighting, strongman acts, pearl fishing, soldiering, farming, and even banking. But when he faces the inability of others to accept him, he determines it would be best to kill himself. The passages at the end of the book when Hugo considers his end are among the most moving in the genre:
Conscience was bickering inside him. Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race, being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. If his theory about the great builders of the past was true, then perhaps this would explain why the past was no more. If the Titans disagreed and made war on each other—surely that would end the earth.
Amidst a raging thunderstorm, Hugo raises his fist to the lowering clouds. A lightning bolt strikes him dead.

With apologies to Nietzsche, Wylie himself had this to say about the possible advent of a race of superheroes. “For if ever there does appear upon this planet a tightly knit minority of really superior people, it will be the end of all the rest of mankind--and mankind knows it, not having come through a billion-odd years of evolutionary struggle for nothing.”

Fortunately, Wylie’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But in the subsequent race of literary superheroes,” which his Gladiator so profoundly predicted, we find ourselves awash in their ilk. You can’t swing a stick—or Thor’s hammer, for that matter—without bumping into one. But be careful: You don’t want to piss them off. The moment they shed their benign agendas, we’re all in trouble.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR or, HOW THOR GOT HIS AXE PART ONE


Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring everybody in the whole damned Marvel Universe (including Stan Lee as a bus driver)

Yes, subtitle this mess “How Thor Got His Axe.” And add, “How Thanos Got His Sunset”, and how “Viewers Got Dust Thrown In Their Eyes”. . .

I admit I am the last person to be fair to this movie. I’ve been on record for years about the silliness of this stuff. And as an educator I’ve been forced to watch with growing dismay its addictive results on adolescents and teens. (You might as well shoot this into their veins.) But at the same time, I should be the most qualified person to judge this movie, since I was weaned as a boy on the exploits of John Carter of Mars, the story of a Confederate Army Captain who gained Superhero-Dom on the Planet Mars (and whose name was conferred on me by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself). Big John kinda started this whole thing. Am I a hypocrite to condemn the former while privileging the latter?

At least John Carter’s story was one of the spiritual yearning for Identity, the longing for a rightful home that transcended space and time.

What do have with AVENGERS? An anti-story. A cynical grab at box office bucks. (It’s worked!) Patches and shards of special effects and massive suits of armor and mystical mumbo-jumbo and some Business about The Six Stones that may determine the fate of the Universe.

Okay, Big Thanos: MAKE A FIST. Your gauntlet has six settings into which the Six Stones can be affixed. And then, all Hell will break loose. And you can enjoy your damned sunset.

Pity poor Wakanda, by the way. It had its moment in the sun a few months ago; and now... well, you know...

But let me turn to the redoubtable critic Anthony Lane, who can skewer a superhero movie better than most. He advises us that for just $19.99 Thanos could have collected all the Six Stones on the QVC Network! (That in itself is punishment enough). He adds, “Why is it always the Universe that’s at stake in these stories? Why not Hackensack? Does anybody care what happens to South Dakota, or Denmark, or Peru?”

And I’m going to steal from Lane a quote he attributes to Sigmund Freud, which says a lot about all of us who fall victim to films like AVENGERS: “Even dire criminals and comic heroes captivate us within the context of the arts by dint of the narcissistic rigor with which they keep at bay anything tending to diminish their ego.”

Finally, if you’re puzzled about the Dust Storm that concludes AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS, I advise you to read Philip Pullman’s magnificent epic trilogy, His Dark Materials. It answers everything...

I also hope you will read Philip Wylie’s classic Gladiator, first published in 1930. It’s a superhero story, THE superhero story, which stands alongside John Carter. More on that in a second installment to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN...


BREAKING IN, directed by James McTeigh,, starring Gabrielle Union as Shaun Russell.

BAD SAMARITAN, directed by Dean Devlin, starring David Tennant as Cale Erendreich and Robert Sheehan as Sean Falco.

Never go to the party without checking out the exit. Never enter the front door unless you know the back door. Consider the houses in two new films, BREAKING IN and BAD SAMARITAN. Viewed at random, they nonetheless display remarkable similarities: No sooner do the characters go inside, then they have to go outside. Immediately. But then, darned if everybody doesn’t find themselves inside again. Only to escape outside again. And so it goes, like a continuing point-counterpoint, in again, out again...

In BREAKING IN, Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), along with her two children, inspect the dwelling of her recently deceased father. It’s quite a house, heavily fortified and lavished with all manner of technological gadgetry, including room monitors and motion-control sensors. There is a secret inside: There’s a safe somewhere with a cool million secreted away. And there’s also a gang of four thieves caught in the act of searching for the swag. The gang grabs the kids and keeps them inside, while mother Shaun is trapped outside, looking in. It’s not long before she finds herself inside while the kids are now outside. And the bad guys, well, they’re in and out, reversing the polarities. And so it goes, over and over.

I’ll stop there while I note that THE BAD SAMARITAN also features an amazing house to go in and out of, full of high-tech whiz-bangs, including monitoring devices and motion sensors. It too hides a secret: In this case, it’s a maniacal serial killer, Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) and the female captive he keeps chained in a torture room. Amateur burglar Sean Falco—yes, there’s a “Sean/Shaun” in both movies!—breaks into this house, discovers the shackled victim and, yes—you guessed it—hastily escapes to call the cops. Sean’s break-in is discovered by Erendreich, who turns the tables and breaks into Sean’s own house. Meanwhile, the cops enter Erendreich’s house and find—nothing. So now they leave. You can bet they’ll be back. Meanwhile, our “bad” Samaritan in desperation goes to the FBI. Maybe they’ll listen. . .

Okay, so where are we with these films? In or out?

IN BREAKING IN Shaun and her two kids manage to turn the tables on the bad guys. It’s cat-and-mouse, all the way, creeping through the corridors and rooms inside and stalking the thieves from the roof outside. Shaun may be “just a Mom,” as she declares to them, but she’s damned resourceful and manages to leave a trail of broken bodies behind, some in and some out of the house. It’s all about family.

In BAD SAMARITAN, our young hero is on his own. Once again, he’s inside Erendreich’s house, but he discovers the killer is one step ahead of him and has set a timer to blow everything to smithereens. So, he blasts his way out of the garage before the whole edifice explodes in a blaze of glory. Undaunted, he tracks the killer out to the country where—you guessed it—the killer has upped the ante and keeps another house. Inside is the killer’s victim, imprisoned in a cell. Before our hero can break in, he’s caught and bludgeoned with a shovel. Now we’re outside. Before the killer can dispatch the captive girl, who’s been shoved inside a lime-filled hole, the tables are turned, the girl crawls out of the hole, and the killer is overwhelmed. In a final stroke, they take his body back inside the house, tie him up, and leave him for the arriving FBI.

In a crucial distinction between these two films, I should note that BREAKING IN takes itself very seriously (unless you greet with some bemusement the ingenious plotting that turns everything inside out). BAD SAMARITAN, by contrast, never quite takes itself seriously. It is a weirdly funny film, mixing some terrific shock effects with a few deft, deadpan exchanges among the characters. In sum, we learn from both films that it’s best to plot an escape for every entrance in life. If that’s the best I can say for both experiences, then,... COUNT ME IN!

Monday, May 7, 2018

TULLY


Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Starring Charlize Theron as Marlo, Mackenzie Davis as Tully, and Ron Livingston as Ron.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

NIGHT NURSE.

Like a nocturnal Mary Poppins, the young lady we know only as “Tully” comes to the aid of a mother stressed out after the birth of her third child. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has reason to be stressed: Her first child is autistic, her second child is nearing her “difficult” pre-bubescent years, and the screaming new baby needs constant attention. Chaos reigns. Marlo’s hubby (Ron Livingston) is no help. He works hard, but he’s away on business all the time and too tired at home to deliver anything but a night-time peck on the check.

So along comes Tully, a bright-eyed 20-something, preternaturally wise in the ways of seemingly everything, especially children. And she is very effective in her night-time caring for the baby, soothing mother and child along the way. However, we begin to watch with some apprehension as Tully ingratiates herself into Marlo’s trust. Soon the two women are sharing confidences. And, yes, things get pretty creepy when Tully arrives at Marlo’s husband’s bedside prepared to be a surrogate for Marlo’s flagging erotic desires.

Then, after the household appears to be settled and back on track, Tully persuades Marlo to share a night on the town. The ladies visit the bohemian haunts of Marlo’s pre-marital escapades. There is a key conversation between them when Tully declares she can no longer remain as the Night-Nanny. But by now Marlo has grown dependent on her. She needs her. Tully is insistent that it is time to go. Like Mary Poppins, her work is done. Marlo must now return to the “normalcy” and safe routine of her life as wife and mother. On the ride back home, Marlo falls asleep at the wheel and plunges the car off a bridge into a stream. Miraculously, she is saved and wakes up later in the hospital to the kindly face of her waiting husband.

But something odd is happening. Marlo’s husband is called into the hospital office where he is quizzed about her psychiatric problems. Problems? At first, puzzled, he then admits yes, his wife has suffered exhaustion recently. All the while, Marlo is experiencing a delirium dream, a vision in which a mermaid-like figure swims down toward the sunken car and releases her from the confining seat belt. She swims to safety.

Strange, yes. Indeed, there has been something decidedly strange about this movie from the very beginning. It’s only upon nearing the end of the film when it is casually noted that Marlo’s maiden was Tully. Tully... Of a sudden, all the tumblers of a locked safe move into position and the door flies open: Tully has not existed to anyone save Marlo. Tully is Marlo. That is, Marlo’s pre-marital self. The self that had been locked away and lain dormant for too long. Think back to the careful staging of every scene with her and Marlo together and we realize Tully never interacts with anyone save Marlo.

It’s fascinating to realize how an extraordinary, outre fantasy has been deployed in the restoration of normalcy. The miracle hasn’t blown open the doors off reality, it has closed them tightly. Mary Poppins didn’t fly away. She landed back on our doorstep.

Friday, April 27, 2018

PETER RABBIT: GOING HIPPITY-HOP!


Written and directed by Will Gluck, starring Rose Byrne and Domnall Gleeson; Peter Rabbit is voiced by James Corden.
“It’s like a 3-D version of a cartoon!!” That sentiment, uttered by an incidental character late in Peter Rabbit, pretty well sums up this amazing mixture of live-action and animation.

When Thomas McGregor leaves his job at Harrods in London and journeys to Windermere, in the Lake District (locations actually shot in Australia) to claim the estate of his late great-uncle, Farmer McGregor, he’s in for a shock. He finds the house and garden invaded by all manner of geese, hedghogs, deer, badgers, and—yes—rabbits. And not just any rabbits, but that blessed family of “Beatrix Potter” rabbits, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and their older brother Peter Rabbit. In a frenzy, McGregor tries to rid house and garden of his unwanted guests. However, the anger of this gawky, clumsy young man is somewhat abated by the sight of his neighbor, the preposterously fetching young lady known only as “Bea.”

We know immediately that “Bea” is a latter-day stand-in for Beatrix Potter. We know that because this is the Lake District, because we’ve already seen the Miss Potter movie with Rene Zellweger, and because Bea’s study is crowded with the delicate, pastel drawings we recognize as the originals of all the beloved Potter characters. What’s amusing is that Bea doesn’t take these images seriously—she’d rather paint the pallid, semi-abstract images that she thinks marks her as a “True” artist. I mean, what does she know? Meanwhile, the living embodiments of her animal pictures are hopping and scampering all around the place and bedeviling the likes out of the hapless Thomas McGregor.

Of course, when Thomas falls in love with Bea, he has to disguise his hatred of the animals. And therein resides the conflict and most of the wondrously creative sight gags—gags that appeal as much to adult viewers as they do to the wee ones. Before misunderstandings are cleared up, thanks to the machinations of Peter Rabbit and his siblings, Thomas resolves his issues and accepts both Bea and her universe of talking animals into his life. (Yes, I said talking. How is it that Thomas comes to understand them? Easy, according to Peter Rabbit, he’s just listening to his heart!

Watching this amazing film is quite an experience. You go through stages, at first marveling at the convincing CGI of the animals, the traditional hand-drawn animation of Bea’s drawings, and the seamless blends of them all with real-life animals. How do they DO that??? you keep saying to yourself. Yes, you marvel and try to figure it out. . . but then, gradually, you give up the analysis and accept the hoppity comingling of them all.

And did I say the gags come thick and fast? There’s a quick and ready wit on every hand, and you have to watch closely to catch even a percentage of them all. My favorites are the many jokes about those strange jackets that the rabbits wear; the rooster who greets every sunrise with renewed surprise (“What? The sun is up again. . .?!”); and the flock of birds who swoop and dive to rap music. And there’s the music score by Dominic Lewis, a witty mashup of songs and musical sequences that even gives us a weird soupcon of classical references, including Schubert’s “Serenade,” Verdi’s “The Anvil Chorus,” and an adagio by Albinoni.

Critical cavils aside, which charge that the “purity” of Potter’s concepts is wronged, I found Peter Rabbit to a wholly enjoyable romp, er hop. . .

Monday, April 16, 2018

A QUIET PLACE: SOUNDING THE SILENCE



Directed by John Krasinski and starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski.
(Spoiler Alert)

A QUIET PLACE keeps us on tiptoe, listening. Listening. . . for what???

Outside the guarded perimeter of the Abbot Iowa farm house lurk Monstrous Presences. They prowl unseen through the meadow grasses. But we hear their chattering jaws and gnashing teeth. Although these Creatures are blind, the slightest sound from humans brings them instantly to the scene, where they savagely devour their prey. Any sound is fatal. And when the youngest Abbot child accidentally triggers the tinny sound of a toy, they are on him in an instant. And he is gone, without a trace.

Who these Creatures are and how they came here is unknown. Only a handful of newspaper clippings tacked onto the Abbot’s basement bulletin board hint at some sort of invasion that has left the world hostage to sound—any sound, natural or human. Cities and towns, ordinarily a cacophony of sounds, have gone silent. Only the quieter countryside offers refuge. And here are the Abbots, marooned and embattled within their guarded perimeter. Their only advantage is that they can see and the murdering Creatures cannot. So, quietly, voicelessly, the Abbots go about their days and nights, under siege, ever on guard against making the slightest sound. Down in the farm’s basement, Father taps out radio signals in a futile attempt to reach the outside world. He keeps a cache of noisy fireworks out in the field in case their noise is needed to distract the Creatures away from the farm. And a perimeter of lights are color coded—green for safety, red for danger.

Despite the deadly menace of these creatures—soon revealed to be hideous, scaly, arachnoid-like creatures—the focus of the film holds the Abbots in a tight and loving embrace. It is their story, after all. The young children are smart and protective of each other. And when Mom and Dad find a precious moment to embrace in a quiet dance, the moment is a brave defiance of love against encroaching evil. They are survivors. Ironically, however, the love that binds the family together ultimately brings about its own dangers. It is love that impels the father to issue suicidal screams to attract the Creatures away from his young son. The loving embrace of the mother for her newborn baby threatens to attract the Creatures prowling about the farm’s basement. Indeed, the birthing sequence must be counted among the most harrowing moments in this or any film.

It is left to the eldest daughter, whose deafness has taught them to communicate by sign language, to discover a way to ward off the creatures. The high-pitched shriek of her ear-piece shatters the Creatures’ highly-developed, sensitive ear drums, allowing Mom time enough to level a fatal shotgun blast. Until the next invasion. In the film’s final moments, she cocks the rifle and waits.

What makes A QUIET PLACE so effective is a soundtrack that insists on suppressing all sounds. And in doing, it enhances the smallest sounds. Too many standard-issue horror films do the opposite: They pump up the volume. They don’t frighten, they only deafen. There have been a few blessed exceptions: Preceding A QUIET PLACE a few years ago was a film called Don’t Breathe, a symphony of soundless horror. It was about three thieves who were held hostage in a darkened house owned by a murderous blind man whose preternatural aural faculties alerted him to their slightest noise. Much of the action held everyone frozen in position, silently poised a few scant feet from one another, the slightest sound both a protection and a danger to predator and victim alike. Let the Right One In and The Eyes of My Mother are two more recent films that deployed silence to provoke our ghastliest nightmares.

Now, A Quiet Place makes us listen. I must admit, however, that there is one drawback to all this: In the theater, we’re more aware of the popcorn munchers and paper-bag rattlers than ever. And those sounds can be like thunder.

This is the debut dramatic film from director John Krasinski, who also appears in the cast opposite his wife in real life, Emily Blunt.

Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL


Presentation given by John C. Tibbetts
at the Kansas City Lyric Opera Guild
Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL (“Beaumarchais, l’insolent”).

Produced by Charles Gassot; directed by Edouard Molinaro; screenplay by Edouard Molinaro and Jean-Claude Brisville (adapted from an unpublished play by Sacha Guitry). 1996; color; 101 minutes. Distributor: New Yorker Films.

To his The Marriage of Figaro (1784) Beaumarchais appended the subtitle, “A Mad Day.” The play’s conflation into twenty-four hours of the multifarious intrigues, deceptions, and loves of Figaro, Count Almaviva, and Cherubin was no less a “mad” enterprise than the attempts by Edouard Molinaro’s historical film, Beaumarchais the Scoundrel to encompass within two hours a decade in the life of Beaumarchais himself.

The action begins in 1773—a time of “high ideas and low subjects,” as an opening title declares. Louis XVI is waiting in the wings to succeed his father. Art and politics are in ferment. France is “dangerously behind the times.” It is up to figures like Voltaire and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais “to set the clocks right.”

Well, Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was indeed the son of a clockmaker. But his timing was nothing less than erratic. As the ensuing first fifteen minutes of the film admirably demonstrates, this gentle playwright, philanderer, intriguer, revolutionary, and swordsman led a hectic and complicated life: In a flurry of brief episodes he’s instructing the actors rehearsing his Barber of Seville in the art of naturalistic performance; dashing off a pamphlet to his enemy, Goezman; fighting a duel with a man he’s cuckolded, the Duke de Chaulnes; and cooling his heels in jail on charges of sedition. And so it goes. Beaumarchais accepts it all with perfect equanimity. “I write better in prison,” he says, settling down in his cell to write a new draft of Barber.

And that’s only the beginning! As Beaumarchais connives, flatters, and protests his way through the theaters and courts of Louis XV and XVI, running through litigious intrigues as frequently as he went through wives (and spending almost as much time in jail as out), he seizes opportunities for adventure as a French spy in London and a gun runner to the American revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, his plays help foment a revolution in drama, too. At first, he thinks his Barber is too timid a critique of the monarchy and that perhaps Voltaire was right when he quipped, “Beaumarchais will never be another Moliere because he values his life too much.” Reluctantly, our hero determines to bring back the character of the wily servant, Figaro, in a tougher play. The Marriage of Figaro is an astringent political satire that creates considerable sensation and notoriety. Figaro’s rebellion against his master may be compared, according to the filmmakers—albeit rather simplistically—to Beaumarchais’ own challenge to traditional stagecraft as well as to the institution of the aristocracy. Ironically, in the midst of thunderous audience applause at the play’s premiere, Beaumarchais is sent back to prison. But when the King relents and offers his release, Beaumarchais bargains that he’ll leave his cell only if the King and his attendants attend his play’s next performance.

As improbable, even bewildering as most of it may seem to the uninitiated viewer (who may be tempted to dismiss it as pure Hollywood-style fabrication), the movie does a remarkable job in touching the requisite historical bases. Granted, at best, this densely-packed film can only suggest the complexity of the noisy polemics and endless intrigues, political and artistic, that always surrounded Beaumarchais. Yet, several extended scenes nicely convey Beaumarchais’ windy, legal battles with his bete noire, Goezman; the complex motivations behind his American endeavors (perhaps stimulated as much by a passion for political intrigue and business opportunities as a genuine regard for the American cause); and his ambivalent attitudes toward the aristocracy (wittily conveyed in a number of staged excerpts from Barber and Figaro).

The crazy-quilt episodic narrative structure betrays the scattered nature of its source materials, fragments of Sacha Guitry’s unpublished play; but it is, nonetheless, a beautifully mounted and compelling historical drama with an outstanding French cast. Fabrice Luchini’s Beaumarchais, particularly, is a wryly genial and charming rascal whose rather bland round face is punctuated with sharply peaked brows and dancing eyes.

Even if Beaumarchais was probably not quite the impassioned revolutionary advocating the overthrow of the monarchy and its institutions that the film ultimately suggests—the concluding title declaims, “The great men of this world applauded Figaro, without realizing they were also applauding the birth of the French Revolution”—there was nonetheless enough historical smoke in the factual record to justify and fuel this cinematic fire. (Wisely, the film concludes at this point, omitting the sad ironies of Beaumarchais’ later years, when the Revolution resulted in the destruction of his fine home, a narrow brush with the guillotine, and years in exile as an emigre.)

In the final analysis, Beaumarchais is the perfect subject for a vivid, flamboyant pageant—a veritable succession of tableaux vivants—such as this; a movie worthy to stand alongside other outstanding recent French literary and historical films, like Patrice Leconte’s comedy of manners and politics in the court of Louis XVI, Ridicule (1996); Yves Angelo’s adaptation of Balzac’s Napoleonic drama, Colonel Chabert (1994); and Patrice Chereau’s recreation of the Catholic and Protestant disputes in late 17th century France, Queen Margot (1994). Beaumarchais himself paved the way for any dramatic license in which Beaumarchais the Scoundrel may indulge. He knew how to embellish the dry legalities of his numerous Memoires with irony and wit, his spy missions with dubious accounts of action and swordplay, his comic plays with songs and dance. As one character in the film observes of him, “He’s fond of intrigues, as befits a good playwright.” If he is caricatured here a bit, it is only just, for he himself was a master of caricature. “When my subject seizes me,” he wrote regarding his theatrical endeavors, “I call out all my characters and place them in a situation. . . . What they will say, I know not at all; it’s what they will do that concerns me. Then, when they are fully come to life, I write under their rapid dictation.”

One suspects that had he the opportunity, Beaumarchais might have written just such a scenario as we have here in this film.

The concluding scenes contain delicious moments from a stage production of The Marriage of Figaro. Here are lines like this prescription for success in politics:
“Pretending not to know what you do know, and knowing what you don’t.
Pretending not to understand when you do, and having nonexistent secrets.
Trying to appear profound when you’re shallow.
Putting on acts, hiring spies, and firing traitors.
Tampering with seals, intercepting letters.
Justifying your lowly methods with lofty goals.
That’s politics! Upon my life!”