Monday, November 12, 2018

HALLOWEEN



HALLOWEEN, directed by David Gordon Green, and starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, Haluk Bilginer as Dr. Sartain, Will Patton as Officer Hawkins.

HIDE AND SEEK

You come away from the new HALLOWEEN almost suffocated from two hours confined in safe rooms, crawl spaces, and cages; from two hours hiding and seeking in a dark tangle of Halloween tricks and treats.

Yes, here is another HALLOWEEN, or, more properly, a second take on the original John Carpenter classic from 1978. Improbably for some (including me), that original outing has spawned over the years a host of sequels and a plethora of copy-cat slasher films. Praise it or blame it, it’s a force that has come to be reckoned with.

Now, forty years later, Laurie Strode (Curtis) has turned her encounter with stalker, Michael Myers, into an obsession to kill him, should he ever escape the insane asylum that has housed him all this time. She has amassed an arsenal of weapons (which she proudly displays in a scene evocative of Travis Bickel’s weapons array), rigged her house with a basement saferoom and fitted out the rooms with cages, alarms, and booby-traps. Michael Myers has given her a Purpose in Life.

He has likewise given his psychiatric keeper, Dr. Sartain (Bilginer) a decades-long fascination with his charge that threatens to swamp his own identity to the point that, late in the movie, he actually dons Myer’s face mask in some weird sort of Brotherly Love. Watch him tenderly stroke Myer’s face and then don the mask. That’s the most disturbing scene in a movie that all too often lapses into just another collection of pop-up scares.

Another scene that pulled me out of my almost somnolent state also transpires late. That’s when director David Gordon Green baldly copies the most famous scene from the original film. I refer to the moment when Laurie has pushed Myers out a window onto the street below. When she takes a second look, the body has disappeared. It was a great moment, the instant that a physical horror transitioned to a transcendent evil. The new HALLOWEEN reverses the polarity: This time it’s Laurie who has been pushed by Myers out the window; and this time, it is Laurie who disappears upon a second look.

Now, both Predator and Prey have surpassed their mortal coils and belong to the ages.

At least, that’s about the best I can come up with regarding an only mildly interesting horror film.

Maybe the Final Horror is that David Gordon Green, a director capable of the wonderful George Washington, has come down from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

FIRST MAN



Directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife Jan.

A SPACE CASE

FIRST MAN is a big box of visual and aural tricks with which the film manages not to tell its story of the first man on the moon, but to suggest it. It’s almost—but not quite—a ho-hum event. Witness this brief exchange between spaceman Neil Armstrong’s wife and son: She tells the boy his father is going to the moon. The child replies, indifferently, “Can I go outside and play?” Life is like that in this movie: Daddy “goes outside” to the moon; his son “goes outside” to play.

Nice.

Thus, FIRST MAN is an almost offhand treatment of events that will be familiar to those of us alive and aware at the time of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Newer viewers unaware of the details of the story are likely to spend moments in this movie puzzled and wondering just what is going on. The movie is an evasive maneuver and seems perversely determined to catch those viewers guessing, while parsing out the story in dribs and drabs.

Consider. Notably lacking is the apparatus included in most historical films, i.e., those helpful narrative devices of billboarded titles, a few newspaper headlines, newsreels, and radio broadcasts that contextualize the narrative. Only at the end, as Armstrong’s foot plants itself in the lunar dust, do we get a smattering of same. Instead, for most of the time, snatches of conversations are sometimes muttered, evaded, interrupted—even unintelligible at crucial moments. The characters keep their backs turned to us at times; at others, they are almost lost in the background of a shot. And what they say is, well, more unsaid than said. And the Big Moments of the drama are so downplayed as to be almost repressed. Example: When the final decision is made that Armstrong will be commander of Apollo Eleven, you can almost hear him saying, “Okay, now pass the salt.”

Now, all of this is quite appropriate to the way Armstrong himself comes across to us. At times he’s IN space; at others, he’s rather OUT of it—

Space Case.

Seldom has a visual style and a psychological portrait been so strongly unified as in this portrait of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. We see him sidelong, as it were, from a skewed angle, his words few and his expressions spare. He is remote, diffident, distant from his fellow astronauts, mostly absent from home life. His emotional distance from his long-suffering wife and children is as remote as his distance from the moon. It’s all his wife can do to persuade him to talk things over with his children before the Launch. No matter the chaos around him—be it an unruly child, a test pilot crash, a space capsule emergency, a near-miss of the moon—he is unruffled and remote.

What’s explains the psychic and emotional trauma behind this man? The film gives us an answer—sort of. It begins with the apparent loss of his baby daughter to cancer. At least, I think that’s what happened. The montage of images is so select and so subtle, that we wonder if it happened at all. By the way, the child does appear to him in later scenes. In a way, to him, she never died—

Space Case.

I might add that Ryan Gosling’s performance as Armstrong is perfectly attuned to this sort of measured distance from people and feelings. No one on the planet—or on the moon—can better convey this sort of thing. Remember Lars and the Real Girl?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE


Directed by Drew Goddard, starring Jeff Bridges as the priest, Cynthia Erivo as the singer, Lewis Pullman as the hotel proprietor, Jon Hamm as the FBI agent, Chris Hemsworth as the false prophet, and Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny as the sisters.

A QUIRKY GUEST REGISTER

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE might be the best thing in the theaters at the moment.

Check in at the most bizarre hotel this side of Barton Fink, where a group of travelers gather for a night of confrontations, revelations, and gruesome violence. And speaking of the Coen Brothers, BAD TIMES is right out of their playbook. It’s a dangerous Neo-Noir set in the late 1960s. It’s a dark and stormy night. Lightning flashes fitfully illuminate the scene. The blood-stained guest register introduces a motley cast of characters. And despite the grim pleasures of it all, there’s a moment of grace that tops it all off at the end.

There’s the priest who’s not a priest but a thief and ex-con looking for buried money under the floorboards of one of the hotel’s rooms; a vacuum salesman who’s an FBI agent keeping the hotel under surveillance; a struggling lounge singer who just wants to get to a gig in Reno; two young ladies on the run from a phony evangelist, and a self-styled hick evangelist who lives by his own infernal playbook. And yes, the hotel proprietor with lots of secrets of his own: He’s left a string of bodies in his wake; moreover, he possesses an incriminating piece of surveillance film. Did I say “surveillance”? The El Royale Hotel is a voyeur’s paradise. A secret corridor of one-way mirrors affords uninvited glimpses into the unholy activities of the occupants within.

The narrative line is a tangle. We view brief vignettes of each of these lives, only to be rudely wrenched out of the scene by savage and abrupt shock cuts. Events are then rewound and repeated by reverse angles viewed through the one-way mirrors. It’s disorienting, but fascinating. Indeed, a certain diabolical pleasure holds us in a kind of thrall as we piece together the shards and fragments of the story.

Of course, it all ends up in a holocaust of flames, bullets, and bodies. Everything gets sorted out... sort of. But amid the penultimate moments, when the priest who’s not a priest hears a last-gasp confession and delivers his own absolution, we are moved by an experience that is nothing less than an epiphany.

So many things could gone wrong here; the kaleidoscopic assortment of characters and fractured incidents could have fallen apart at any moment.... However, the conviction and power of all these players keep things under control. In particular, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo deliver beautifully crafted performances. Bridges’ faux confession scene is among his very finest moments on screen. Erivo’s quietly nuanced a capella singing provides the soul of the story. Indeed, I came away, wondering, who is this Cynthia Erivo? I had not seen or heard her before. But her quietly desperate lounge singer is a miracle of subtlety. On both counts we have here Oscar-caliber moments. (Note: Erivo is a British actress and singer recently distinguished for her Tony Award-winning performance on Broadway of “Celie” in The Color Purple.)

In brief, this is a movie for the jaundiced eye.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

THE WIFE



Directed by Bjorn Runge, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as Joan and Joe Castlemans and Christian Slater as the journalist.

GHOST WRITERS IN THE SKY!

In THE WIFE, veteran actors Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce have been ill-served by a lame and improbable script. Too bad. It should have been fun to see these two pros on screen. What results, however, is mostly a pompous, strutting Pryce and a showcase for the Glenn Close Enigmatic Stare.

Dramas about writers and writing are notoriously difficult to bring across. There are exceptions, notably Jane Campion’s Angel at My Table, about Janet Frame, and End of the Tour, about David Foster Wallace. And recently we have had Genius, about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins—whose subject of an editorial hand behind the writer’s success rather resembles THE WIFE.

But THE WIFE doesn’t belong in that accompany.

After more than thirty years spent ghostwriting her husband’s books, Joan Castleman watches in dismay as her husband Joe thanks her during the ceremony in Stockholm for being his muse and support. Disgusted, she leaves and threatens divorce. She would rather live in anonymity than be credited merely as his helpmate. But she is more than that. She wrote his books in secret, all of them, behind a closed door, the family unaware of what was going on. All this time, her husband’s main job has been to stay out of her way. Check that: He does do something: He cracks walnuts a lot. I kid you not. He not only cracks them for her, but he cracks them for all his mistresses, too. That’s a lot of walnuts. And a lot of mistresses. Even the title of one of his books is The Walnut. Really. I expected a “walnut wrangler” on the end credits. How he’s been able to disguise the fact that he hasn’t been writing at all is never explained. Maybe the walnut-cracking was enough to fill his spare time. The closest he gets to literature is to quote James Joyce to any young lady who catches his eye. Have a walnut?

Poor Joan Castleman. Is she another downtrodden female writer? Not a bit of it. She’s not only content to be his ghostwriter, but flashbacks reveal that she had wanted to write his books. It was her idea from the get-go. He thinks he is seducing her; but in reality it is she who has been seducing him, catering to his ambitions for the success, fame, and privilege of a successful writer. She is no victim. This is her choice. Who is guiltier of hoaxing the public, he or she? As for that celebrated Glenn Close Enigmatic Smile, is this the expression of a wronged wife or a crafty manipulator? And yet, at the end, we’re supposed to believe that she has HATED this all along. Please.

I realize this is probably a subversive reading that I’m offering here, one that is completely counter to the movie’s putative commentary on The Wronged Woman. . . but that’s my take and I’m sticking to it.

Meanwhile, what about the Castleman books? What do we know about them? Why the Nobel Prize? According to the speech at the Nobel ceremony, Castleman’s books have “changed the course of literature.” Whatever that means. Too bad such superlatives don’t describe this script.

We can’t forget another character who shows up at the proceedings. He’s a trash journalist, a ruthless opportunist who wants to write the tell-all expose of the Castleman’s chicanery. Christian Slater is perfectly cast and perfectly hateful. He’s right where he belongs. He and the Castlemans deserve each other. His dialogues with Mrs. Castleman demonstrate only that she’s a greater fake than he is.

Lastly, there is one more tag-along character in this wearisome parade. And that is Castleman’s son, a budding writer, God help him. He wears a perpetually surly expression and wrings his hands because Daddy won’t praise his own pitiful stories. Does he know that the best example Daddy can provide him is how to find a beautiful graduate student who will do the writing for him? As for the nut-cracking, he is on his own.

Friday, September 14, 2018

THE NUN


Directed by Corin Hardy, starring Taissa Farmiga and Demian Bichir. Story by James Wan.

TOO MANY SPOOKS SPOIL THE BROTH

That’s a maxim that too few horror movies observe. THE NUN has too darned many nuns. There are nuns to the left of us, nuns to the right of nuns, they volley and thunder. . . All apologies to Alfred Tennyson.

All we’re missing are a few clowns! A reasonable expectation. What is it about clowns and nuns that creates such unease in us? It’s not enough that both wear costumes and enact rituals. No, we wonder if our reactions to clowns and nuns alike are rooted in some pre-historical fear, some disturbance in the human genome past understanding? I bet that somewhere in the mists of dawn, there was a cave where a clown capered and a nun prayed? Small wonder that one of the writers of THE NUN, Gary Dauberman, also worked on the ultimate clown movie, It.

You recall there were fleeting images of a ghastly nun that appeared in the other “Conjuring” movies. Now, in THE NUN, a deranged Holy Mother—that is, an Unholy Mother—gets a film all her own. And boy, does she “holy roll”! The setting is a Romanian abbey in 1952, where nuns have the uncomfortable, er, “habit,” of hanging themselves from the nearest stained-glass window. Somebody must have seen the epic Powell and Pressburger classic, Black Narcissus. So, the Vatican, which in 1952, had yet to wrestle with demons of its own, dispatches an exorcising priest and a nun novitiate who sees visions to the site. And such a sight it is. It’s a structure riddled with passages and subterranean vaults. One of those vaults functions like a plug that holds back an infernal creature that for centuries has been trying to break through and destroy the world. Hey, give a demon at least an “A” for effort!

So as long as the nuns pray, the hellish beast remains shackled. But by the time our intrepid ghost busters arrive, the Evil One has grown impatient and is about to bust loose.

Some of the nuns are for real. Some are not. The fact that it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other is, somehow, the whole existential point.

By the time we viewers crawl out of the theater, anxious to bust loose like the Evil One from His cell, we have grown tired of the endlessly repetitive shock tactics. Every moment Something jumped out of the Gothic Jack-in-the-Box. And all the while, the soundtrack growls, moans, and bursts into deranged mashups of medieval chants. Maybe worst of all, the damned movie is TOO DARK. I bet 95 percent of the thing is cloaked in a cheap chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have disowned. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing that this cloaking darkness ABETS the sense of dread, or if it’s just a good thing that it prevents us from SEEING anything. Hey, be grateful for small favors.

Let me just add, in closing, that Crucifixes and Holy Water and even a vial containing the blood of Jesus Christ prove ineffective deterrents against Evil. Think about that a minute.

THE NUN is indeed a film For Our Time. Where everything these days is upside down—even the Cross.








Thursday, September 6, 2018

THE BOOKSHOP

Directed by Isobel Coixet and starring Emily Mortimer as Florence Green, Patricia Clarkson as Violet Gamart, and Bill Nighy as Mr. Brundish. Based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

SPOILER ALERT

It’s a pity that old Mr. Brundish will never get to read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Thanks to Florence Green’s book shop, and her recommendations, he’s already read Fahrenheit 451 and is ready for more. But Mr. Brundish dies before he can turn a page. Moreover, the book shop itself perishes in the flames of a fire. And the picturesque little seaside village can only limp along without it.

Mr. Brundish’s tragedy is the tragedy of this film in microcosm. Indeed, it’s the tragedy of literacy these days; and I’m writing this on the very day that the demise of The Village Voice has been announced.

All the elements of a small English village idyll are here: The East Anglia town is the very picture of a rustic fable. The villagers are the usual collection of types—the crusty old curmudgeon who lives on the hill, the social matriarch who controls society, the young widow who comes to town as a stranger bent on winning over the inhabitants, and the clever little girl who learns to love books. But leave your expectations at the door. THE BOOK SHOP is so much more than that. THE BOOK SHOP is so much better than that. Although I can sympathize, I guess, with those disgruntled viewers who will leave the movie theater with a sour taste in their mouths. They want muffins, tea cozies, and a view of the sea. And this is largely denied them.

Let’s get this straight: THE BOOK SHOP is a devastating indictment of insular small-town life. And it’s emblematic of the crisis loyal book readers are facing today. Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel was written in 1978, and she certainly could see what was to come.

No sooner has Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) come to town to open her book shop than the city elders take deadly aim. The banker is dubious. The neighbors are chilly. And Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) is a study in pure evil: Under the feint of seizing the store’s property in order to open an Arts Center, she’s simply bent on destroying Florence’s dream. Clarkson’s quiet and studied portrayal is calculated to leave you writhing in fury. Aligned in Florence’s corner is that crusty old hermit on the hill. And here we have Bill Nighy in a brilliantly restrained portrayal of an old man who’s finding out too late what love can be all about. He dies while on an errand to save Florence’s shop from destruction. And if you thought that Violet’s evil gnashes your teeth, prepare yourself for the rage that will shake your dentures with what happens to him. And if you love Dandelion Wine like I do, then you are overwhelmed at the book that will remain unread by his side.

But there is a book that will be read. And that is Robert Hughes’ masterpiece, The Innocent Voyage. (Here, it bears its alternate title, A High Wind in Jamaica, the title with which Alexander Mackendrick’s film adaptation reached the movie screen in 1965). This is the book that Florence Green gives the little girl, Christine (Honor Kneaf), who has been working for her in the book shop. And in case you don’t know, this is the book that turns the tables on the Stevensonian kind of pirate yarn: Here, it’s the children who are destructive and the pirates who are their captives. Anyway, taking her cue from the book, little Christine salutes Florence Green by burning up the book shop in a gesture of defiance, depriving wicked Violet Gamart from getting her greedy hands on it. The voice on the soundtrack turns out to be her voice, looking back from the distance of fifty years on the book shop that changed her life.

THE BOOK SHOP is a painful blend of stark village depravity with a winning, fable-like quality. The scenes between Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy are the finest, albeit chaste, love scenes this writer has seen in years.

Honor this movie. Celebrate it for all its bumps in the road. And, by all means, read Dandelion Wine and A High Wind in Jamaica.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

BLACKKKLANSMAN

Directed by Spike Lee, written by Lee and Kevin Wilmott, starring John David Washington and Adam Driver.  

My impression after my several interviews with Spike Lee is of his genuine passion for educating today’s generation—white and black America alike—about the realities of racism in America. I say “educating” because he sincerely feels that his films are his “weapons” in that cause... As Gordon Parks has famously said, you choose your weapons; and as Parks’ weapons were his camera and pen, so too are Spike’s weapons his movies.

John Tibbetts with Gordon Parks

When Spike and I talked about his movie, Malcolm X, for example, he was dismayed that today his generation doesn’t know who Malcolm was, not even who Jackie Robinson was. That ignorance, he says, which is born of ignorance, complacency and narrow thinking, cannot stand.

Autographed painting of Spike Lee by John Tibbetts

Interesting, isn’t it?—that now his BLACKKKLANSMAN features Denzel Washington’s son , John David, in the role of the crusading policeman, Ron Stallworth? The distance from Denzel in MALCOLM X and John David in BLACKKKLANSMAN is not very far, is it?

John Tibbetts with Spike Lee

It is not surprising that one of the knocks against BLACKKKLANSMAN is the sledge-hammer indictment of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy in America, that it is more polemic than storytelling. Spike can’t help himself. But he’s right. There’s no room for subtlety in sequences like Belafonte’s recounting of the lynching in 1916 in Waco of Jesse Washington (a moving scene penned, I suspect by Kevin Willmott); and there’s no room for subtlety in Spike’s indictment, at the end, of the rancid racism festering today in Trump’s America.

Autographed drawing of Spike Lee by John Tibbetts

One can only hope that BLACKKKLANSMAN proves to be both the entertainment that Spike needs to reach his audiences, black and white, and the hammer-blow sermon that that same audience needs to confront and understand our own history. When the Jewish policeman (Adam Driver) admits that his involvement in the undercover operation of the Klan has caused him to reflect, for the first time, on his own Jewishness—one of the great moments in the movie—he is speaking for all of us who need to reflect, even if it’s for the first time, on our own complicity in the tensions of race in America.