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!”

READY PLAYER ONE: BALANCING ACT


Directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on the novel by Ernest Cline.

After spending almost two and a half hours watching Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE, I am left with the final speech, addressed to us viewers: “SPEND MORE TIME IN REALITY! THE ONLY REALITY IS THE REAL!”

Dutifully, I tore off the 3-D glasses and hurried out of the theater, hungering, even lusting, after “The Real.”

Why, I wondered, as I guided my car into the homecoming traffic, did I spend two-and-a-half hours with this movie’s virtual realities—if its ultimate message demands that I deny them?

But then, as I headed homeward on I-435 at 4:00 in the afternoon, I had cause to revise my thoughts: The traffic was in gridlock. Turning onto the off-ramp into my suburban neighborhood, the fast-food signs accumulated rapidly, shouting their own realities of burgers and fries. I repeated the question in growing exasperation: So THIS is the “Real???” . . . And then at home, as I sat down to the keyboard ready to write about READY PLAYER ONE - I was immediately assaulted by the latest rants from Donald Trump: SO THIS IS THE “REAL”???

Neither the REAL nor its VIRTUAL substitute has any validity unless both are balanced; or, to put it another way, citing St. Augustine, fact and fancy, like our perception of the Godhead, are both ONLY A MATTER OF DEGREE, MORE OR LESS.

What READY PLAYER ONE did for me, in the meantime, was provide a lovely extended sequence when we plunged into a virtual reboot of that 1980 classic, THE SHINING. Now we could prowl the interiors of the Overlook Hotel once again, although now we are participants in the action. And I wondered if I could reboot my own version of READY PLAYER ONE to explore other sites of experience and nostalgia, plunging into the cinematic realities of my own childhood. How I would want to immerse myself into my seven-year old experience with Disney’s PETER PAN; only now I would be in it, soaring over the rooftops and towers of London, and alighting, light as a feather on the clock hands of Big Ben.

READY PLAYER ONE also encourages each of us to reboot our own realities, our own nostalgias. Author Ernest Cline had his nostalgic revisit to the 1980s. I suspect, given his druthers, Spielberg might have preferred his own movie reboot, say, to blast off with the crew of ROCKETSHIP X-M, from his childhood, in 1951, on its way to Mars. My grandfather would have looked further back and to revisit THE GLENN MILLER STORY and sit in on the legendary gig at the Glen Island Casino in 1939. And his father would ride with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as he and the Musketeers rushed to the aid of the French Queen.

And so forth. . .

Maybe, in a way, our own imaginative illusions are necessary to help cushion the shock of the REAL outside the theater— when, albeit reluctantly, we have no choice but to SPEND MORE TIME IN REALITY!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

DUNKIRK X TWO


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

THE LAST JEDI: FOR GOD’S SAKE DO SOMETHING!


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

THE DISASTER ARTIST.


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

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.: A HIGHER JUSTICE



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.