Tuesday, January 2, 2018


Released to theaters within just a few months of each other, DUNKIRK and THE DARKEST HOUR present an historical event inside-out and outside-in. Framed in the timespan of a few weeks in May, 1940, Operation Dynamo’s mass evacuation of the embattled Dunkirk beaches that played a key role in Britain’s resistance to the Nazi invasion is a subject viewed from the outside looking in (DUNKIRK) and from the inside looking out (THE DARKEST HOUR). Aided by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s treatment is all vast spaces, on land, sea, and in the air. Armadas of ships, planes, and sailors race toward a last-minute rescue of the 350,000 embattled British troops. It’s an opera, proclaimed loudly on a vast stage. Joe Wright’s version, assisted by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is an interior vision of narrow corridors, sealed offices, and secure war rooms. It’s a claustrophobic chamber drama in hushed voices in cramped spaces. It wreaks a miracle of its own—Churchill’s inspiring message of resistance, not capitulation.

Winston Churchill in the first is only a voice heard in the final minutes on the radio. In the second, Church himself (Gary Oldman) delivers the message in the crowded chambers of Parliament. The soundtrack of the first is punctuated by explosions of bombs and cannonfire; in the second, it is counterpointed by the quiet tap-tap-tapping of secretarial typewriters.

Each has its share of unlikely civilian heroes—Mark Rylance’s grim determination on the open sea to avenge his dead son in DUNKIRK; and a cry of resistance by passengers in a crowded subway car in THE DARKEST HOUR.

What do we make of these two visions of a single event? Taken together, they book-end an event with a comprehensiveness and a complexity denied to either alone. Each hardly exists without the other. Ideally, they should be screened together, with perhaps a breather in between. Their great, collective message is that History is a chronicle told in both shouts and whispers. History places figures in landscapes and situations of release and confinement, action and stasis, silences and words, resolution and ambiguity.

Somewhere in between is our best chance to understand the mysteries of is happening all along in the storied world in which we live.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher as You Know Who.

The last thing anyone needs is my take on the new STAR WARS entry. What follows is just my own selfish need to get a few things off my chest after enduring the damn thing. Yes, enduring what was, for me, a movie which at its core was bland and, well, inert. Forget the plot. I already have. No, I refer to the iconic characters of who exist at center stage, Luke and Leia, whose beloved souls who are no longer with us. Requiescat in pace. Indeed, both are scarcely present in this movie at all. Take Mark Hamil, who spends his time glowering inarticulately beneath the cowl of his monkish robe. C’mon, Mark, say something! Stop galloping up and down the steps of your own little island, running away from Rey, and do something. When you stop for a breath, you can only mutter something about the Stuff that Binds Together the Universe. Lucretius said it better thousands of years ago. And Philip Pullman pronounced it better last week in the His Dark Materials books. Now, I’m the first to admit that at the time of your final face-off, you have a tiny, almost inadvertent great moment, i.e., when after the froth and fury of a deadly fusillade of cannon fire, you remain nonplused, fastidiously flicking an offending bit of grit off your cloak. But that’s about it. Otherwise, you wind up after that only a useless pile of empty clothes.

And take Princess—now General—Leia. Please. Carrie, I’m sad that the script and the filmmakers have given you so little to do. Except merely existing like a useless lump with that hang-dog expression during protracted close-ups of your glum features. I’m not complaining that you’ve grown old—heavens, God help us all!—but you’re Our Princess, and we can reasonably expect more agency from you. And when you exit the planet, comatose from enemy fire, floating up and away. . . I must confess I hoped you would not come back. Why you did come back, considering it would have been a useful exit moment for your character, I have no clue. But because you are back and will presumably return for the next movie, I hope the filmmakers will have the grace not to subject you to CGI immortality but allow you to gracefully fade away into the nether regions of The Force.

Character counts—even in Space Opera. I grew up with John Carter’s interplanetary adventures, and he and Dejah Thoris could teach Leia and Luke a lot: Namely, even if your characters are wafer-thin, you can still do something. In Action Resides Character. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that somewhere. He was a Force in himself.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Directed by James Franco. Starring James Franco, Dave Franco.

The best short form review of THE DISASTER ARTIST is. . . WHY???

And that’s what I kept mumbling to myself throughout this troubling, even repellent copy-cat movie. Why? Why this movie? Why the movie that it’s based on, The Room? And is this movie-about-a-movie—a movie about the making of a movie—as bad as its reputedly bad subject? Indeed, why are we so fascinated by bad movies in the first place? And should we be fascinated by this movie?

Or should that be the point? Maybe it’s a tribute, or deconstruction, or spoof, or indictment not of bad movies, so much as serving notice to us viewers that we have long since ceased to differentiate—or care—between what is good and what is bad? Maybe it’s not about bad movies as about bad audiences.

The time is 1998. Two participants in an acting class meet and decide they will go to Los Angeles in search of acting careers. After no success in landing parts, they decide to make their own movie. It will be scripted by Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and will star his buddy, Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). What amounts to a six million-dollar budget produces a movie called The Room that, upon its premiere in 2003, produces gales of derisive laughter that rocks the house. What began as a movie playing in a single theater that made a paltry $1800 has by now become the Worst Movie Ever Made that has to date turned a profit among its cult viewers.

I must say that James Franco portrayal of Tommy is one of the creepiest, even scary roles I’ve seen on screen all year. I kept prodding myself that it’s supposed to be funny, and that the simulations of the Room’s scenes are supposed to be funny. If we assume that Franco’s portrait is spot-on (and according to the side-by-side comparisons of The Room and its look-alike that is indeed the case), then it wasn’t funny at all. And the portrait of Tommy with his lank, shoulder-length hair, explosive outbursts, irrational behavior, and bizarre accent came across as someone dangerous. This is a person teetering on the brink of his own special abyss.

Now, I have since seen some excerpts from The Room. It’s not as gloriously bad as something by Ed Wood. It’s just bland by comparison. I recommend that you watch THE DISASTER ARTIST before venturing into the domain of The Room. That way, you can preserve your own nervous horror at what you’re seeing. And then, after seeing the original, which is pretty tepid by comparison, measure your reactions against the ecstatic responses of its cult followers to the original.

Gus Van Zandt made a shot-for-shot., scene-by-scene reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho. If the point of that exercise was clear to some (it wasn’t to me), then what are we to make of this A-list movie expending its top talents, budget, and crew in simulating to exact detail something as questionable as The Room? Or, I could ask, is it less legitimate to copy a bad movie than it is to copy a masterpiece?

Inevitably, The Disaster Artist will be compared to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Except that the latter film allow us access to the inner melancholy and tragic sweetness of Wood himself. The Disaster Artist keeps Tommy Wiseau at arm’s length. Thank goodness. The only drama here is the very inexplicableness of Tommy, who is so much more bizarre than his movie, The Room. Where does he come from? How old is he? And, above all, where does he get his money? He and his partner, Greg Sesteros, make public appearances to this day. And they’re not telling. Neither does this movie. Foul! I cry. My own answer is that Tommy Wiseau can only be explained if we are allowed to speculate about his extraterrestrial origins. That would make a great science fiction movie, where everybody and everything are Unidentified Flying Objects.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Directed by Dan Gilroy. Starring Denzel Washington as Israel, Colin Farrell as George Pierce , and Carmen Ejogo as Maya

“He was drowning in the shallow end of the pool.” What an effective way to describe the plight of Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington). Once a dedicated, but virtually penniless idealistic lawyer, ever ready to defend the downtrodden in the Los Angeles criminal court system, he turns a corner and sells out for the big bucks. Which means he leaves behind a cramped little office and a lifelong ambition to press forward a huge class action suit, and finds himself in the offices of a slick L.A. high-rise, working for a slick boss (Colin Farrell). Drowning .

What happened? After being mugged, and his fortunes reaching a desperate low, Roman takes advantage of an opportunity to turn in a criminal on the run. It’s an illegal move, but it nets him $100,000 on the sly. New suits, a penthouse apartment, and a new job beckon. But his left turn into corruption immediately threatens his life when the imprisoned criminal’s stooges seek him out in retribution. Shaken out of his momentary illicit endeavors, Roman returns the money, leaves his apartment, and prepares to turn himself in. But not before he’s shot dead on the streets.

A higher justice? It falls short of the kind of redemptive fable Joseph (Lord Jim) might have written, but it delivers Roman back to the ideals of his youth. But a fatal price.

Although the film tries to do too much in a short span of screen time—Roman’s fall-and rise is abrupt and unconvincing. But thanks to Denzel Washington, who fairly lives in the role, the film delivers something rare in movies about the law—a tribute to those who labor on behalf of the ideals of law and order. While it lasts, the film is gripping and flows at a satisfying pace. And there’s Denzel’s performance of a man lost in the early idealistic years when he was mentored by a legendary champion of the downtrodden—a rather pathetic figure who shuffles along in his rumpled clothes, stuttering nervously, constantly adjusting his glasses, cursed by a motor mouth that constantly gets him in trouble. He’s something of a savant, gifted with a phenomenal memory for legal minutiae, but hopelessly out of place in the more cynical halls of justice. Another actor might have delivered nothing more than a collection of outward tics and eccentricities. But for Denzel, it’s a chance to tamp down his powerful charisma and work instead from within.


Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and starring Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy, Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy, and Barry Keoghan as Martin.

Do we recall the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Sacred Deer?

Late in the film we learn that Dr. Steven Murphy’s daughter has written a paper about the Greek character of Iphigenia. This is an important detail, since it echoes the plot of this film: In variants of the Greek myth, by Aeschylus and Euripedes, Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer in the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis; for which he is ordered in atonement to kill his daughter, Iphigenia.

Indeed, Dr. Murphy is faced with a similar dilemma. He is an affluent heart surgeon with a beautiful wife and son and daughter. Lately, he is the target of a relationship with creepy young Martin, a 16-year old whose father had died under Murphy’s knife during an operation. Martin’s attentions, at first affectionate, soon turn dark when he confronts Murphy with an ultimatum: He charges Steven with the murder of his father; and now he, Steven, must kill a member of his own family as an act of atonement. If he fails to do this, his family will suffer from strange maladies—starvation, paralysis, bleeding from the eyes—until they die

Indeed, both children are afflicted and hospitalized. A battery of tests yield no diagnosis. They come home and are confined to their beds, under the care of their parents. Alarmed by their deterioration, Steven kidnaps Martin, ties him up in the basement, and tortures him against the release of his curse (if that is what it is). Anna, meanwhile, learns that her husband had indeed been responsible for the death of Martin’s father: He had been drunk during the operation and the patient had died. Increasingly distraught, Steven threatens to shoot Martin; but the boy only calmly repeats his charge that it is Steven who is the murderer. If Martin dies, Steven will be guilty of the death of his entire family. The choice as to which family member must die is Steven’s. He gathers them all in the basement, places bandages over their mouths, puts hoods over their heads, and stands in the middle of the room, rifle in hand. Placing a hood over his own head, he circles dizzily round and round, firing three times until he blindly makes a hit. It’s the boy, slumped lifeless in his chair.

The film ends with Steven and his wife and daughter sitting at a café table. A few feet away at the counter sits Martin, his wounds healed. After a few moments of silence, Steven and wife and daughter (who now can walk) leave the room.

At first, the tone of the story is very quiet, the pacing deliberate, the dialogue clipped and in a monotone. As the action unfolds and an underlying tension escalates, a strange selection of musical cues embellish the slow-burning action—Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Bach’s St. John Mass, and works by Ligeti and Gubaidulina. The grim deterioration of the children matches the growing disfunction of the Murphy marriage. It makes for gut-wrenching, even excruciating viewing as Steven works out his frustrations in his torture of Martin and moments of violence against his own children.

Notwithstanding all that however, I must admit that somewhere along the way an absurdist quality creeps into the film’s general tone. How easily, inevitably, I think, its unrelenting seriousness verges on self-parody. We are trapped in our bewilderment, unable to decide which is which—not unlike Steven’s own tortuous inability to make his deadly choice.

Friday, December 1, 2017


Directed by Martin McDonough and starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Officer Dixon; and Peter Dinklage as James.

THREE BILLBOARDS is more notable for what it does not do than what it does. Which is to say, it confounds our expectations at every turn, overturning, reversing, leaving them unresolved. Mildred Hayes is frustrated that a year has passed since the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. The case has gone cold. She resolves to plaster three billboards just outside the little town of Ebbing, Missouri with messages accusing Sheriff Willoughby of negligence in the criminal investigation. As bad as his passive reception of the message is, even worse is the reaction of his deputy, Officer Dixon, whose blatant racism offers only obstruction. At length, she learns the identity of a possible suspect. Vigilante style, she packs her gun and leaves on her revenge mission.

At least that’s what the movie at first glance seems to be about. I watched with growing surprise, delight, and even amusement as the plot insists on defying the very expectation it sets up. Let’s sample some of them: (1. When Sheriff Willoughby enters the story, he seems to be a compassionate, albeit rather reluctant agent on her behalf. But his sudden suicide halfway through the film (he suffers from terminal cancer) brings his help to an abrupt end. (2. Deputy Dixon’s racist obstruction shifts suddenly as a result of being burned in a fire—a fire at the police station started by Mildred—and, newly transformed, he launches an independent investigation on her behalf. (3. Mildred’s culpability in that fire is shielded by a local resident, “James,” a dwarf. Immediately, we imagine a growing romance between him and Mildred. But no, she rebuffs him and he disappears. (4. When Officer Dixon overhears what he thinks is an incriminating conversation by a stranger, subsequent DNA evidence reveals his innocence of that crime (although possible culpability of other crimes). (5. Although the suspect is innocent, Mildred and Dixon leave town, armed, determined to kill him anyway, as if in retribution for his other crimes. But in the last scene they admit ambivalence about their mission: Will they kill him, after all?—maybe, maybe not.

In the final analysis, easy expectations are set up, then abandoned. The movie is impatient of standard revenge genres. And it refuses, ultimately, to consign the little Missouri town to cardboard stereotypes. Life itself, in Ebbing and elsewhere—and even sometimes in the movies—has a habit of eluding our easy grasp.

Moreover, spicing this rabidly violent fable are not only quirky comic elements—not the least of which are Mildred’s incendiary actions against anybody who stands in her way (including her son’s teenaged companions)—but unexpected moments of grace. They include the note that Sheriff Willoughby leaves behind to his deputy, assuring him that he sees a “good man” underneath Dixon’s violent bigotry (an insight that soon will be borne out). The help offered Mildred by James is a beautifully nuanced gesture of compassion and an outreach of love. Dixon’s momentary thought of suicide (he holds his rifle to his head) is overturned by his resolve to help Mildred. And, best of all is a tiny scene that fairly shines like a jewel amidst the darkly convulsive violence and brutality of the little town: As Mildred crouches in sad defeat at the base of the billboards, she has a sudden vision of a beautiful deer just a few paces away. The camera remains tight on her face, as she addressed the creature with a wistful monologue about this unexpected intrusion of grace into her grimy life. It’s one of those scenes that illumines the entire film with its wistful beauty. And it surely will show up at Oscar time when her nomination will be accompanied by that very scene.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Directed by Bahrat Nalluri. Starring Dan Stevens as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as John Dickens.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS takes its cue from a famous painting by Robert William Buss, “Dickens Dream,” painted in 1870, around the time of Dickens’s death. It shows Dickens in the chair of his study, surrounded by the dream-characters of his novels. The movie likewise surrounds Dickens with his imaginary creations during the throes of his writing A Christmas Carol. This sort of psychic drama can be a tricky thing to bring off, wherein whimsy all too often turns into muddy pretentiousness; but on the whole, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS brings it off, not least due to the whimsical impersonations by the cast members of the imagined characters in A Christmas Carol.

The year is 1843, and after the relative failure of his recent novels, Martin Chuzzlewit and the travel book, American Notes, the 31-year old author is facing a serious slump in his career. With the celebrated Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist already behind him and David Copperfield and Great Expectations yet to come, the need for a comeback compelled by a growing family and accumulated debts is pressing and immediate. And so begins the creation of what would become his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. It celebrates for all time a Christmas that is not so much a solemn religious observance but how we know it mostly today, a festival full of Pagan festivity and charitable brotherhood.

Visualizing the creative process on film is a really dangerous business. How do you penetrate with the camera something so mysterious as the imaginative impulse? Now, as actor Simon Callow, who appears in the movie briefly as Dickens’s illustrator, John Leech, once told me, this is a near-impossible task. In the instance of writing, what can you do, he admitted, when all you have is a person sitting silently in a chair, with pen in hand, a piece of paper before him?—Shoot closeups of the scratching pen? Cut to the writer’s wrinkled brow? Track the words spilling across the page? Etc. Indeed, any moment of creation is essentially sealed off from the probing camera. Isn’t it?

The Man Who Invented Christmas resorts to a kind of meta-cinema. As Dickens prowls the streets and records images and incidents and scraps of overheard dialogue, their imaginative correlatives--Marley, Scrooge, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the Three Christmas Ghosts—spring to life. The world is his storybook and he is merely their auditor. The characters crowd into Dickens’ study; and soon they beleaguer the poor writer with advice, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. “You are the author of this story,” suggests one of them with a sly wink—“aren’t you???"

It’s almost as if Pirandello had taken a left turn from his Six Characters in Search of an Author to A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at age 25. Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
I must confess although there is some charm and wit in this business, I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. Like most creative artists, Dickens didn’t always depend solely on the immediate world around him for direct inspiration. The processes of his writing must have been far more mysterious than that. In some unfathomable fashion, his work came from within. For example, some of his other Christmas stories didn’t depend upon the thronging streets of snow-bound London; rather, he wrote them amidst the sunny climes of Florence, Italy.

But I digress. With a deadline of just six weeks, Dickens has not only to contend with the demands of his phantom characters, he has to put up with the unwonted interruptions of family and professional life, the demands of his creditors, of his children, the intrusion of his neer-do-well father, and the prospect of yet another baby on the way. Moreover, a series of nightmares are plaguing him. They take him back to his dreadful boyhood, when the abandonment of his father forced him to work grueling hours in a London blacking factory. Writing A Christmas Carol reawakens forgotten traumas of a blighted childhood—traumas that would never entirely leave him but would remain unknown to the general public for many years.

But Dickens slogs along and at length comes to the moment when Tiny Tim has died, and the third Ghost takes Scrooge to the graveyard. Full stop. Dickens has insisted Tim must die. And Scrooge must remain unrepentant. Any happy endings and overnight conversions would never do. But a chorus of protests assails him, from characters and family members alike. Even the young Irish maid protests. Dickens holds firm. Things are at a standstill. Only a personal epiphany resolving conflicts with his childhood and with his estranged father will break through the impasse and bring Tim back to life and Scrooge to his redemption.

Am I so cynical to consider that Dickens’ had a point; that maybe his initial instincts for a downbeat ending—at least as the movie tells us—were right?

In closing I greatly admire THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS for its concentration on the novel and the characters of A Christmas Carol. And not, ironically, on this business of movie adaptations, of which there have been confoundingly many. Here, viewers have the opportunity to learn about the book, after all. Indeed, I’d like to think this movie proclaims an essential truth of the matter:

It’s time to READ THE DAMN BOOK. On its own terms.