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.

Monday, June 11, 2018

HEREDITARY: THE GODS DESCENDING



Written and directed by Ari Aster, starring Toni Collette as Annie Graham, Gabe Byrne as Steve, and Alex Wolf as Peter.

SPOILER ALERT

Object if you may to a horrific story about ghosts, gods, and seances, but at least pay homage to a cast of performers who give their all to the tale. Indeed, Toni Collette ratchets up a wrenching intensity as the mother to a haunted and traumatized family that places her on a par with Essie’s Davis’s frenzied performance in a similar role in The Babadook. And that’s high praise indeed.

The recent death of the reclusive matriarch of the Graham family triggers events that accelerate from a standing start to an all-out Gothic sprint at the end. The deceased’s daughter, Annie, is greatly troubled during the funeral, and her memorial speech is likewise troubling. She doesn’t seem to have liked the old girl, very much. And soon we find out why.

I should have known that something seems very wrong with this story at the very beginning: A slow camera dolly moves in to a cutaway of a doll house interior and into one of the tiny rooms. The stiff tableau of miniature family members suddenly comes to life. Welcome to the Graham family—father, mother, son, and daughter. Are they literally living in a doll house? Of course not. Well... maybe not.

True enough, their lives are exposed, the fourth wall torn away. And what we find is a family in the grip of nothing less than a coven of Black Magic worshipers inhabiting nearby a little hut perched on stilts. We don’t know this, at first; we have to pick our way through a thicket of sudden deaths, decapitations, and empty graves before the payoff. And all the while, we watch with mounting horror the psychological deterioration of Annie Graham and her son, Peter (another extraordinary performance by Alex Wolf). We can take comfort, I suppose, by ascribing the nightmares and apparitions of the dead to deranged mental states. But that’s too easy. HEREDITARY won’t allow us this refuge. It relentlessly confronts us finally with the reality of a witch’s cult.

Relentless, yes, but a slow-burning fuse at that. If ever there were a sincere film about witchcraft, this is it—rivalled only, perhaps, by Carl Dreyer’s classic Day of Wrath. The subtlety of camera work, editing, and mise-en-scene is marvelously suggestive without sacrificing the blunter aspects of the witching. And the impassioned conviction of the entire ensemble doesn’t allow us for a moment to ridicule or reject the Gothic claptrap to which the movie is occasionally liable.

And if the oddly lyrical and worshipful climax, delivering a stiff tableau worthy of any haunted doll house, doesn’t send you busily hunting down references to the demon god, Paiman, then your own demons are not worth their salt.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

BOOK CLUB



BOOK CLUB. Directed by Bill Holderman, and starring Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen. Oh, yes, a few guys are on hand for the ride, including Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Craig T. Nelson, and Richard Dreyfuss.

BOOK CLUB is not about a book and not about a club.

In the first place, the book that is being read by the women in this club is hardly a “book,” but Fifty Shades of Gray, more of a screed about kinky sex indulged in by men and women alike than a tome for active discussion. And in the second place, this “club” is more of a refuge for women talking about men—the men they dislike, the men they yearn for, the men they forgot, the men that disappointed them—than for women talking about politics, home life, local gossip, professions, and, yes, sometimes about men.

Either way, this movie is an equal opportunity insult—to books, to the women who enjoy them, and to the clubs that bring readers together.

The women in question here are Jane Fonda, a wealthy hotel owner who avoids commitments to the many men who slip in and out of her bed; Mary Steenburgen, a wife disappointed by a husband who straddles a motorcycle instead of her; Diane Keaton, lately widowed, whose possessive daughters restrict any opportunities for a new man in her life; and Candice Bergen, a federal judge who for decades would rather handle court documents than a man. Of the bunch, it is only Bergen who delivers a candid and lively performance that bears the remotest connection to the realities of a woman of a certain age navigating today’s freewheeling singles scene.

For these four women the Book Club is more of a group confessional in which they exchange smarmy winks about Fifty Shades of Gray and trade advice about how to snare a man than it is for anything more intelligent and engagingly personal. Just ask any women you know in book clubs and they’ll share the dismay at what’s on screen. I have. And they do.

Do the men come off any better? Well, yes and no. Andy Garcia has a winning charm. And Don Johnson is, well, he’s Don Johnson. He has the best line in the book: “Love,” he says, “is just a word; it’s what you make of it.” They both cut through the nonsense thrown at them by, respectively, the flighty and annoying Diane Keaton and the hardened, unlikeable Jane Fonda . I hate to say it, but neither Fonda nor Keaton transcend their by-now standard collections of tics, grimaces, and, in Fonda’s case, dismaying plastic surgeries.

Which leads me to my greatest disappointment. These four actresses have obviously settled for less in doing this movie. They deserve better. And so do we, who have grown to love and respect their work.

Is there a real movie in here, somewhere? Indeed, what would a movie about a women’s book club look and sound like? BOOK CLUB grants us no answers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

LET THE SUNSHINE IN



LET THE SUNSHINE IN. Directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche as Isabelle. With a surprise appearance by Gerard Depardieu.

How sadly funny this movie is!

That is not apparent, at first. For awhile, you think you’re watching a throwback to those French films of the 60’s by Eric Rohmer or Chabrol or Godard, where everyone talks seriously and endlessly about everything and anything. That’s what our 50-something Isabelle (Binoche) is doing with the various men in her life. In the bedroom, the art gallery, the theater, the country, they talk, endlessly, their words, sentences, looping in and out of each other, tentative, halting, stopping altogether, reversing course, circling back again; full of reversals and contradictions; and ultimately, and maddeningly—all of it irrelevant. Life, love, relationships, the arts, the landscape, the Whole Damned Thing, are all here to be talked about examined, analyzed, questioned, and dismissed.

It’s all so serious, in a deadpan way, until you realize that this is really a sad comedy where, despite all the talk, nothing is happening. Indeed, nothing makes any sense. And that’s the joke that begins to dawn on us. Isabelle’s gallery of men—the brusque middle-aged banker, the ambivalent young stage actor, the distant gallery owner, the former husband and father of her 10-year old daughter—advance and retreat, here, then there, then gone again. She seems to be hungering for commitments but moves in a world that offers none.

Isabelle is the still-point of all this, sometimes wracked in sobs, sometimes regarding it all with that amazing bemused smile of hers. But hers is a restless centering as people and situations revolve around her, popping in and out of her life, inscribing a weird kind of geometry.

A random geometry of life and love.

And so it is, finally, that Isabelle sits down with a man who seems to be her advisor, her guru, her Mystery Man. Who the hell is he??? Then comes the surprise: it’s Gerard Depardieu, sitting there in the half-light! He gazes at some photographs of her lovers. He launches into a monologue. He spins out this remarkable nonstop string of observations about her lovers past and present. Some will fulfill her needs, some will not. Others are yet to appear. And they might be the Great Love. Or maybe not. On and on he goes. While Isabelle just sits there, an enigmatic smile on her face. “Be open,” the man is telling her. “Be open.” She repeats the words, over and over. It’s her mantra. And while he talks, the camera tilts down ever so slightly to reveal that all the while he is waving a pendulum over the photographs, like a divining rod, seeking their Mysteries.

Even while the credits scroll down the screen he keeps talking. Nothing can stop him. Until the screen grows dark.

We are laughing, by this time. Even if we can never be sure what we are laughing at.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

DISOBEDIENCE



DISOBEDIENCE, directed by Sebastian Lelio and starring Rachel Weisz Ronit Krushka, Rachel McAdams as Esti Kuperman, and Allessandro Nivola as Dovid Kuperman. Music by Mathew Herbert.

Rabbi Rav’s last sermon strikes the discordant note that reverberates throughout the rest of the new film, DISOBEDIENCE. “God has created the angels,” he declaims, “who can only follow their blessed gifts; and the beasts, who can only follow their earthly instincts; and there are we humans, in between, neither one nor the other, but who must choose... “ Thereupon the rabbi is stricken with a heart attack and collapses, dead, on the spot.

Those words will be repeated near the end of the movie by the rabbi’s successor, Dovid Kuperman. But at those fateful words, “you must choose,” he suffers an insight; and that revelation allows him two choices: The first is to resign his appointment; and the second is to free his wife from her obligations by marriages.

Both are stunning admissions in this rigidly patriarchal Jewish community. In between those two scenes is a drama of love and faith that are severely tested. The late rabbi’s daughter, Ronit Krushka, has left her New York home to return to her family community in London. She seeks forgiveness for leaving her father and the faith decades before. As a youth she had formed a passionate attachment to Esti Kuperman, which had shocked the heterosexual tenets of the faith. And now, back in London, that attachment rekindles. Complicating an already tense situation, Esti is the wife of the rabbi-to-be, Dovid.

Immediately, as the sexual tension grows between the two women, the community is outraged. Esti resolves to leave her husband and go back to New York with Ronit. Dovid himself is placed in an untenable position: He is expected to succeed the late rabbi; moreover, Esti announces she is pregnant with the child they had hoped to have.

Before the resolutions come at the end—they are not as simplistic as it would seem—we have an absorbing drama highlighted by the strong intensity of the performances by the three principles. The London streets and houses of the Jewish community are entirely convincing, i.e., there is not one moment we feel we are watching studio; rather, this is a place that is lived in, where people really do work, raise families, and worship. And the music score by Matthew Herbert is a wholly engaging, subtle, yet piquant complement to the action.

In other words, the choices by the filmmakers, cast, and crew, are wonderfully right and work together to convey a beautiful experience. Here is a movie that is really about something, an always welcome event to some of us moviegoers exasperated and dismayed by much of what else we see on the screen these days.