Saturday, October 5, 2019

JOKER


Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Gotham City has a sound. It’s the grind of several double-bass instruments flailing away in the basement of their registers. And Gotham City has a laugh, a high, maniacal laugh emitted from the throat of a psychopathic killer named Arthur Fleck. In case his name is not familiar, try... Joker.

And Gotham City has a theme. It’s a street sermon delivered with a sledge hammer about the ills of our cities and our citizens—that we are all mad; and that we are all jokers. In case that’s not abundantly clear by the end of the film, we have this amazing scene where the city erupts in flame and riot, and the streets are clogged with jokers, every one of them wearing clown masks. And one of them levels a pistol and shoots the city’s mayor and his wife at point-blank range.

And here’s the irony—we don’t know who that killer is. Is he the Joker? He could be any one of all the jokers (lower case) in the world. To compound the irony, the real Joker makes his escape by clapping on a clown mask over his own hideously clownish face makeup. Double jeopardy.

I think this movie is already in trouble. At least that was the muttered verdict overheard from departing viewers. That grind and that laugh is just too much. Joaquin Phoenix, who is already something of a “joker” in his predilection for bizarre roles, pulls out all the stops, relentlessly laughing until he chokes, tugging up the corners of his mouth at every opportunity, and dancing and capering down streets abd alleyways.

Must we have backstories for all our super heroes and villains? Must we explain away Joker’s sublime villainy with lurid tales of child abuse, a medical condition that produces uncontrolled laughter (it’s called “pseudobulbar”), and so much psychobabble? He emerges before us as just another sick dude. But one with a red nose and green hair.

At least some viewers will have fun registering all the references the movie makes to other movies likewise famous for their bleak, nihilistic tone—like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole on a theater marquee and references to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. And all the while, when we’re not listening to the grinding away on those double-bass instruments, we’re hearing soundtrack songs like “That’s Life” and “Smile” (written by another clown, Charlie Chaplin).

And so, at the end, we leave Bruce Wayne, a victim of Joker, standing alone, his slain parents dead at his feet. He now will join the Joker as just another traumatized child with a flair for costumes.

Prologue: A psychiatrist sits opposite a manacled Joker, now incarcerated in the Arkham Asylum. “Tell me a joke,” she mutters. Joker looks up, then whispers, “You won’t get it.”

Will you?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

JUDY



Directed by Rupert Goold. Starring Renee Zellweger, Finn Wittrock, and scripted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow.

NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING

Recent kudos to Renée Zellweger are well deserved for her astonishing turn as Judy Garland in this harrowing portrait of Garland’s last months during the weeks she spent touring the London theaters shortly before her death.

While paying due diligence to the standard bio-pic formula that requires flashbacks—Judy on the Wizard of Oz set, Judy cowering under the menace of nasty old Louis B. Mayer, Judy wilting under the indifference of her frequent co-star, Mickey Rooney, etc.—the film concentrates on the last, drug-filled weeks when Judy was presiding over the wreckage of her life and career. And I need to say at the outset that I did not watch JUDY as a portrait of Miss Garland. To the contrary, I bypassed the obligatory biographical details and watched it as a portrait of a person burning herself out. That’s drama enough, without worrying about whether or not Renée Zellweger resembles Judy (sort of) or if her voice matches hers (which it doesn’t). No, the more we concentrate on that, the greater the distance we feel from the character.

In other words, freed of that sort of baggage, I found myself wary and nervous in the onscreen presence of this person who only incidentally is calling herself “Judy Garland.” I found myself watching all those tell-tale tics, twitches, and lapses that betray a person losing control. All of us have found ourselves in close quarters with people like this, and we know there is never a moment when we can predict anything or feel comfortable in their presence. To stay with the entertainment industry, for the moment, I myself have spent many occasions in Hollywood with the National Film Society when we catered to the whims of movie stars and hangers-on like this during awards ceremonies and dinner tributes. The hours I spent in the company of Rita Hayworth and Ida Lupino, for instance, bless them!, were not ones spent basking in the glory of their stardom but ones staring into the unstable abyss of defeat and regret.

Credit Zellweger here. This collection of faltering mannerisms could easily have descended into the grotesque satire that Bette Davis gave us in her impersonation of the mad old Mrs. Skeffington in that Hollywood classic. Zellweger, who is, by the way, one of my favorite actresses (check out her early film, The Whole Wide World) has wrought a miracle here—a portrait neither comic nor grotesque; rather, one that enlists our empathy. And one that burrows inside us to evoke our sympathy and wonderment at the extremities of which we ourselves are capable as we flail about, desperately holding off the inevitable darkness.

Recall the wonderful poem by Stevie, who observes a person far out on a lake—
“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”

IS HE WAVING AT ME, OR IS HE DROWNING?


Saturday, September 21, 2019

AD ASTRA



Written and directed by James Gray and starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.

Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema and music by Max Richter.

AD ASTRA recalls Judith Merrill’s classic definition of science fiction as “whirling wheels and soft footfalls of thought.” Here, the wheels—all the hardware of rockets and space stations and whiz-bang gadgetry—and the thought—a man’s search for identity—all work together in a film that will disappoint the fanboys of Star Wars but delight enthusiasts of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Let me explain. Astronaut Roy McBride is on a mission to locate his father (Tommy Lee Jones), who went missing while on a 30-year exploration of life in the galaxy. There is some evidence that dear old Dad might be still alive; that he may have gone insane; and that he may be unleashing Zeus-like power surges that are threatening the very existence of the solar system. Call him “Mr. Kurtz.” And so, like Conrad’s Marlow, Roy provides some interior narration threading through the movie.

Roy spends most of the film adrift in the spaceways, lost in the limbo of his consciousness, and uncertain in the ambivalence of his feelings for the father that deserted the family thirty years ago.

And we viewers find ourselves likewise treading water in a movie whose narrative drive is as slow as Roy’s heartbeat and as (seemingly) random as the course of events. This is not a bad thing. Rather, the aleatory music of Max Richter and the amazing visuals by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema sustain our attention. And yes, critics are already all over Brad Pitt’s blue eyes commanding the screen. (No kidding!)

Consider AD ASTRA a cosmic expansion of another crazily-ambitious film by James Gray, the estimable Lost City of Z several years ago. It too involved a father and son’s journey into the “heart of darkness” of the Amazonian jungles. AD ASTRA may look up to the heavens rather than down into the forest primeval, but the search for identity has the same compass heading—True North.



Sunday, September 15, 2019

OFFICIAL SECRETS: NOT A BANG BUT A WHISPER



OFFICIAL SECRETS, written and directed by Gavin Hood, starring Keira Knightly as Katherine Gun, Ralph Fiennes as Ben Emmerson

OFFICIAL SECRETS is my favorite movie of the year, so far. Although it begins and ends not with a bang but a whisper, the concussion, while quiet, is deafening.

Here is a model of sturdy, no-nonsense storytelling. It’s quiet, but relentless. Its script brooks no distractions and allows us no relief. The casting is superb, from top to bottom.

It recounts the true story of Katherine Gun (Keira Knightly), a British whistleblower who leaked information about an illegal NSA attempt to extort the UN Security Council into supporting America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. We know that her efforts and those of others to prevent the invasion failed. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides of the war were slain. And the reputations of President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and General Colin Powell were irreparably damaged.

So much is history. OFFICIAL SECRETS teases with what we know, what we think we know, and what we have forgotten.

Meanwhile, Gun, a translator for British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), is having a hard time. Her initial actions were patriotic attempts to forestall the invasion, but quickly she’s in over her head: Her violation of Britain’s Official Secrets Act draws the unwelcome attention of Scotland Yard and British and American security forces, damages her marriage to a Turkish Muslim, and promises a prison sentence for treason. The firm of lawyers she turns to, including Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), offers little hope, beyond a “guilty” plea and a diminished sentence. The crux of her salvation lies in how the Iraq War is to be judged and defined—Is it legal or is it illegal? And is the document that has crossed her desk an authentic NSA document or a British hoax? The answer to all of this, more precisely, resides in the spelling of one of the words in the memo: The word “favorable” appears in the NSA document; but in its re-release to the public the word is spelled “FAVOURABLE.” So what, you say? The parsing of this spelling riddle will literally spell Gun’s innocence or guilt.

This nicety of British and American spelling is perhaps my favorite part of the film. It’s a tiny scene, barely whispered, and you have to watch closely lest you miss it. Upon such details can hang the fate of nations—and that of a lowly civil servant.

OFFICIAL SECRETS joins the honorable list of recent films—THE POST, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, SPOTLIGHT, CONCUSSION—that remind us how important newspaper investigative journalism continues to be. In this case, the venerable British newspaper, The Observer, leaps into the fray. As print disappears into the cybersphere in our post-9/11 era, and as readers prefer the computer screen to folded newsprint, we wonder how many stories like this fall between the cracks.

OFFICIAL SECRETS speaks softly, but its message is loud and clear.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

IT CHAPTER TWO



SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN ENDING

I’m riffing on Pirandello’s famous play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, because this sequel to the first half of Stephen King’s 1986 door-stopper of a novel, IT, is searching not so much for an “author” but for an ENDING. In the opening minutes of the movie, director Peter Bogdanovich puts in a cameo appearance and says it all: “All stories need an ending.”

I appreciate Bogdanovich’s urgency. And you will, too, because it’s not long into the movie before you’ll be saying the same thing.

The children of the first film are back, 27 years later—a standup comic, a writer, an interior decorator, a limousine owner, an abused wife, a local historian—now returned to the little town of Derry, Maine, the scene of their childhood terrors. They are called back to confront once again Pennywise the Clown, and all the carnivalesque horrors that follow in his train. Each of these kids has borne into adulthood the literal scars of the traumas of his and her youth. Once members of a self-proclaimed Losers Club, they are still struggling to overcome fears and traumas of guilt, sex, inadequacy, cowardice, etc. In other words, they’ve had a tough time, like most of the rest of us, just trying to navigate adolescence. Chief among these traumas is an incident that triggered the whole thing in the first place, as recounted in the first film—a boy’s guilt over the neglect of his younger brother that led to the little boy’s drowning. Until they can confront and exorcise those terrors the clown known as Pennywise will keep rampaging up and down Derry and, in the process, grow bigger and bigger, like some ghastly Thanksgiving Parade blimp. It’s up to the children—now adults—to literally burst that bubble.

That’s the story’s ending, and it is one devoutly to be desired. It’s been a long search. It’s taken three hours and a multiple number of false endings to do the trick. Including a whole lot of dime-store philosophizing about having the courage to grow up and believe in yourself and all that sort of thing. Meanwhile, comic-book creatures straight out of Creepshow keep jumping out of closets, falling from the ceilings, erupting from the floors. Decapitated heads sprout spider’s legs, tongues shoot out of yawning mouths, and razor teeth chomp and chew everything in sight.

It helps to have seen IT, Chapter One, since the story splits the characters into their incarnations as kids and adults—threading their pasts and their presents throughout the narrative. There’s so much noise and strife in the process. Good heavens, growing up is apparently such an awful business. Watching it through is such an awful business.

I’ve held back on the most awful monster of all, by the way. And that is the weird, gaunt shopkeeper who puts in an appearance halfway through. He is a perfect Horror to behold. And “It’s” name is Stephen King.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

MIKE WALLACE IS HERE



Directed by Avi Belkin.

As someone who has spent the greater part of his professional career interviewing people, I watched MIKE WALLACE IS HERE wishing I could interview the director. And I would do it with questions delivered with some of the hard-charging style that was Wallace’s trademark.

For example—

Why spend the first half of the documentary on some kind of hyper-drive? The movie breaks out of the gate with shock cuts and breathless pacing, allowing no time for viewer reflection and processing.

Second, why cut short so many of Wallace’s interviews, allowing us no sense of the give-and-take of his repartee?

Third, why are most of the famous faces in front of Wallace’s microphone not identified? Younger viewers who don’t stay for the final credits will be baffled.

Fourth, why repeat to the point of tedium the use of split screens and transition devices like television static and color bars? Enough is enough. We get it. It’s about television.

Meanwhile, we race through the requisite Greatest Hits of his career as a pitchman (lots of cigarette commercials), as host of the ground-breaking radio program, Night Beat, his work for CBS (especially 60 Minutes), the controversies surrounding his controversies with the cigarette industry, Watergate, and Vietnam. As Wallace enters his 70s and 80s, his energy scarcely flags, as his drive for professionalism gives way to a desperate need to stave off mortality. The documentary is at its best here, although, as I’ve noted, it’s hectic pace tends to derail its impact.

Aside from a few skirmishes with his private life—his regrets about fatherhood, grief at the death of his son, Peter, the grinding depression that led to a surprising revelation about a suicide attempt—the film emerges as just one more procession of Big Names, from Malcolm X to Bette Davis, from Barbra Streisand to General Westmoreland, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Thomas Hart Benton. It’s mix-master blend of the pop and the profound effectively defines the decades of his best work.

In sum, we learn little about Wallace’s technique, how he worked, how he prepared for interviews. There is one tiny, startling moment, when it’s revealed that during some occasions his questions were prepared in advance for him by somebody else. Really? Tell me more.

There are only a few moments at the end where we feel the pangs of loss of someone like Wallace, who died in his 90s in 2012. Should not a documentary about an investigative reporter wear its own heart on its sleeve? Warts and all, we need someone like him now, more than ever. Beyond his quirks and ego, his was a fearless spirit that should not be allowed to be squashed by the deafening noise of the Trump Era. Indeed, the Donald is seen briefly in an interview from the early 90s, and we can only regret that he did not make good on his promise not to enter politics.

Finally, younger viewers may be startled at all the smoking going on throughout the film. Everybody smokes. All the time. Cigarettes dangle from stained fingers. The entire film is seen through the haze of cigarettes. Hey, it was the 1950s and 1960s. As Walter Cronkite said, “That’s the way it was.”

Sunday, September 1, 2019

PEANUT BUTTER FALCON


CRAZY QUILT

Starring Shia LeBoeuf as Tyler, Zack Gottshagen as Zack, and Dakota Johnson as Eleanor. Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.

Young Zack, a downs syndrome youth, calls himself “Peanut Butter Falcon.” That’s his wrestling moniker and his tribute to his favorite wrestler, “Saltwater Redneck.” And to honor the sobriquet, he smears peanut butter all over his face. There. Let’s get the title out of the way.

My sainted Aunt used to keep fabulous quilts carefully tucked away in an old trunk; and when she would take them out, I was in awe of their crazy patterns, varieties of fabric, and reckless matches of color. PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is like one of those quilts. But when you air it out on the movie screen, you find the stitching is sloppy and the fabrics torn.

And so we have a crazy-quilt story about a thief (Shia LeBoeuf) on the lam from a couple of thugs, a runaway downs child (Zack Gottshagen) escaped from a nursing home, and the boy’s caregiver (Dakota Johnson) anxious to bring him back. And of course, they all end up on a raft floating downriver.

Mix and match these story elements as best it can, PEANUT BUTTER FALCON succeeds best when it’s just content to just let things meander along, like that aimless river. But when the whimsy and caprice abruptly grounds characters and events in coarse-grained reality, the tissue of the story comes apart. There are lapses in continuity and abrupt lurches in tone from comedy to brutal violence (and back again). For example, when the boy meets his idol, the wrestler Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), he transforms into Peanut Butter Falcon, dons costume and swagger—and nearly gets his brains beaten out. But this is a cartoon, after all, and nobody gets hurt. Instead, he rears up heroically and throws his opponent out of the ring. Some fun.

At this point, we’re not sure of the patterns of this crazy quilt. We can like it for a lot of reasons, particularly for the fine-tuned performances by LeBoeuf and Gottshagen and the wonderfully textured sense of the rural North Carolina scene. But we come away with a vague sense of unease. We realize the movie tends to exploit Zack’s condition as a downs syndrome child—his slow speech and blunt manner, for example—more for the sake of comedic effects than the poignant and sober reality of his vulnerability in a dangerous and confusing world.