Friday, December 30, 2016

LION: HEAR HIM ROAR!




LION. Directed by Garth Davis and starring Dev Patel as Saroo, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as Sue and John Brierley. Based on Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home.

Halfway through LION, in a random moment, a young man named Saroo Brierley tastes a pastry called “jalebis” (an Indian fried-dough treat) This “Madeleine” moment, a la Proust, triggers events that will cast his mind back to a lost childhood in India and forward to an odyssey in search his true identity.

LION is one of the most powerfully affecting films of the year. The year is 1986 when five-year old Saroo is separated from his older brother and his mother in the small province of Kandhwa, India. Left to roam the streets with his older brother in search of coal to trade for milk, a series of accidents separate them, and he finds him trapped in a fast train bound for Calcutta. There, adrift in the push and shove of the city, unable to understand the Bengali language, he survives by sheer pluck and good fortune. In one narrow escape he is taken in by a lovely young woman who, it turns out, is a member of a child kidnapping ring. Instinctively, he senses something wrong and he flees. Later, he is taken to what seems to be an orphanage, where there are hints of physical and sexual abuse. But a kindly agent from a Lost Child organization intervenes and Saroo is sent on a long journey to the island of Tasmania in Australia to meet his adoptive parents, Sue and John Brierley. A new world opens up to the child.

Twenty years later, Saroo, now a handsome young adult and loving family man, enrolls in a Hotel Management program in Melbourne, where he meets lovely young Lucy, and seems headed for a lucrative career. But then, there is that momentary taste of the pastry he had so loved as a boy in Kandhwa. As the days and weeks pass, Saroo begins to think about his lost childhood and the fate of his mother. He is haunted by the pain she must have felt all these years, searching, searching for the boy lost to her. Saroo’s preoccupation grows into obsession as he studies his wall map and gazes at the computer Google Earth search screen. Increasingly frustrated, he grows distant from his parents and withdraws from his girl friend. And then, magically, one night, he falls into a trance as watches the marker on the computer screen moves restlessly across the global map—like the marker on a Ouija board?—coming, inevitably, to rest on a small dot on the global map. It’s a marvelous sequence, as the film cross-cuts from him tracking the computer screen, to recollections of the child he was, back and forth, as if the child he was is guiding the man he now is. Here is a superb demonstration of the power of editing.

Off to India, Saroo reverses the journey begun more than twenty years before. Ironically, when he finds his tiny village, he no longer can communicate in his native tongue. Language was an obstacle when as a boy he couldn’t speak Bengali, and now it is his own native tongue, Hindi, that is lost to him. But the encounter with his ageing mother, the prolonged embrace, the growing excitement of the villagers surrounding them is a powerfully emotional moment. This affect is compounded in the closing images from the real-life reunion in Kandhwa of Saroo’s adoptive parents with his newfound biological family.

The stunning first half of the story is virtually wordless, with an untrained newcomer, Mumbai native Sunny Pawar, quietly amazing as the boy Saroo.

The best is saved for last. A title informs us that Saroo had been mispronouncing his birth name. With the proper pronunciation, the name means—



LION.



Monday, December 26, 2016

HIDDEN FIGURES: A FOOTRACE INTO AMERICAN HISTORY


Directed by Theodore Melfii and starring Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spender as Dorothy Vaughan, Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, and Kevin Costner as Al Harrison.

The image you remember from HIDDEN FIGURES, is of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson racing out of the NASA Research Center at Langley, Virginia, across the street, into an adjacent building, and down a long corridor toward—what? An emergency staff Briefing? No, she is bound for the restroom that is marked for “Coloreds Only.”

While the errand of this African American woman is undeniably urgent, it also tells us a lot about racism in America in the early 1960s, in general, and segregationist policies at NASA, in particular. More to the point, it captures another kind of race going on at the time, NASA’s mandate to put a man in space.

Indeed, the eventual success of John Glenn as America’s first man in orbit parallels the first halting steps—think of Johnson’s run to the bathroom—of America’s long road toward racial justice. Ms Johnson eventually faces the ire of NASA administrator Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) regarding her absences and defiantly points out the absurdity of segregating African-American restrooms. That inequity is immediately adjusted. Would that race relations at that time were more peacefully and equitably achieved!

Oh—and by the way, there is yet another race going on, and that is the deadline for transitioning from the “human computers” that these ladies represent—i.e., mathematics by slide rule and the human brain—to the IBM computer technology to which they must quickly adjust or lose their jobs.

If HIDDEN FIGURES’s Tale of Two Races—and the racial pun is intended—too neatly parallels the racial, social, and scientific anxieties of the time, that is all to the good, as far as I am concerned. This is a superb example of that much-maligned type of film, the “Feel-Good” story. It keeps its focus on Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, as they struggle to secure their place in the largely segregated NASA, as well as face social changes in the public and at home. If the details of work life at NASA are tantalizing, yet baffling to most of us, the glimpses of life away from the workplace are welcome and affectionately observed.

We may never have heard of these three ladies, very “real” if until recently “hidden.” Their exploits are documented and impressive, indeed, astonishing. At the same time, I imagine there are many youthful viewers of this film who will reject as too preposterous the details of segregated life—the spectacle of separate seating arrangements, the marginalization of separate living arrangements, separate bathrooms, separate water fountains—not to mention violence in the streets. That aspect of American life in the 1960s is never obtrusive, but all too visibly there, nonetheless. HIDDEN FIGURES is a footrace into American history. And we viewers who have inherited the subsequent victories of social justice, science, and mathematics—with a “finish line” in view, if not yet reached—may comfortably sit back and cheer from the sidelines.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

FENCES AND AUGUST WILSON



“I have to confess that I’m not a big movie person,” August Wilson said during my interview with him in 2002. He had come to Kansas City to guide the Missouri Repertory Theater’s production of his play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “I don’t go to a lot of films,” he continued, “and I don’t know very much about the history of stage-to-film adaptations. But I have learned personally while working on the screenplay for Fences that adapting a play to film can be an exciting process.”


And now we have that screenplay and film of Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Fences (1987), eleven years after his death in 2005, directed and starring Denzel Washington in his third outing as director. It reunites him with Viola Davis from the Broadway revival (they both won Tonys). It’s a film of quiet desperation, charged by a few moments of angry outburst, of a man, Troy, beleaguered by life’s disappointments and frustrations, surrounded—one could say, fenced in—by a job as a trash collector, a long-suffering wife, Rose, a brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, two estranged sons, and unexpected news that a recent affair has produced a baby daughter. His only escape, it seems, are the local bar and cherished dreams of a long-vanished past as a star baseball player. As we see him decline from the brash rogue we see at the outset, to a self-pitying wreck at the end, he determines to build a fence of his own, one that protects him from the world at large, and one that defies for the moment the ever-impending Death. But as the poet says, what is he walling and what is he walling out? Washington and Davis give towering performances. Davis, in particular, invests Rose with a strength and vulnerability that provides the emotional throughline of the film.

Troy is the Everyman of August Wilson’s oeuvre. Critic John Lahr contends that “[Wilson’s] audience appeal almost single-handedly broke down the wall for other black artists, many of whom would not otherwise be working in the mainstream.” (John Lahr, “Been Here and Gone,” The New Yorker, 16 April 2001, p. 50). His plays examined the African American experience in this century, each one set in a different decade, beginning in the time period of 1911 with Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and continuing with Fences, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney, and King Hedley II. They form what Lahr describes as a “fever chart of the trauma of slavery” (52). That bondage is to the course of history itself, as a character in Ma Rainey declares: “We’s the leftovers. The white man knows you just a leftover. ‘Cause he the one who done the eating and he know what he done ate. But we don’t know that we been took and made history out of.”

In my interview with Wilson, he commented on the differences between writing for stage and screen.
“Certainly it is a different thing to write for the screen instead of the stage. The way I see it, the stage tells the story for the ear, and the screen for the eye. It was a matter of selecting images to tell the story. On stage, you can’t really control where the viewer’s eye goes; there’s a whole stage picture there, and the viewer can be looking anywhere. But with the camera, if you want the viewer to look at something in particular, you can put their eye there. Also, a film gives you the opportunity to take the viewer to different places. We can see Troy at work, driving the truck, hauling the garbage on his back. You can see him with Alberta, the woman with whom he’s having an affair (she remains offstage in the play). On the other hand, you don’t want to yield to the temptation to show everything, the stage teaches us that some things are better unseen. It’s a question of artistic choices. Do you do flashbacks of Troy playing baseball, of him in the penitentiary? And you can write the scene, maybe even shoot it; but if it’s wrong, you take it out. I’m seriously thinking about visualizing the baseball stuff. Haven’t written that, yet, but maybe.”
Denzel Washington and his cast have wrought a faithful adaptation of Fences that serves the playright well. Sure, there are some “stagy” moments of back-story dialogue, reported action, and rather heavy-handed baseball metaphors; and the appearances of the brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, especially at the end, sit uneasily in the greater realism of the screen. But that’s August Wilson, take him or leave him.

And that’s, bless him, Denzel Washington, the same thoughtful and dedicated artist that I was privileged to meet and interview years ago on the occasion of appearing in Spike Lee’s MALCOLM X.


Monday, December 19, 2016

JACKIE


Directed by Pablo Lorrain, starring Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup. Written by Noah Oppenheim.

There is a moment in JACKIE when the newly widowed Mrs. Kennedy (Natalie Portman), at her home in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, murmurs, more to herself than anyone else, “I lost track somewhere; what was real, what was performance.” She is looking back on the days immediately after the assassination of the President (Caspar Phillipson). A reporter from Life magazine, Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup), waits, notebook in hand. She is vague at time, almost defiant at others, but always careful to control her image. What should he ask; what can he ask? Can she be quoted; when not? And, in a grim moment of black comedy, he has to ask, what was the sound of that first bullet?

Any apprehension that JACKIE would be a routine, sentimentalized portrait of the life of Jacquelyn Kennedy in the weeks following the assassination of President Kennedy, are immediately dispelled in the opening minutes of the film. The film, like its subject, is restless. While the chain-smoking Jackie wanders, alone and isolated, through the vast spaces of the White House, dressed in a succession of gowns, some of them official, one of them splashed with Jack’s blood, a slipstream of images, past and present, captures those moments of reality and performance. Impressive reenactments include the famous 1962 Valentines’s Day television tour of the White House; the fateful motorcade; Lyndon Johnson (taking the oath of office; Jackie’s television tour of the White House; a performance by Pablo Casals; excerpts of Richard Burton singing “Camelot”; plans and counterplans for the President’s burial arrangements; the spectacular funeral procession; and the many embraces and recriminations, by turns, in exchanges with Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jack Valenti. Not until more than halfway through the film are we shocked at the sudden moment of Jack’s death, the sound of the first bullet, the eruption and splatter of his blood, his bleeding body thrown across Jackie’s lap.

As imaginatively presented as all this is, I felt pulled out of it at times by the slathers of mournful soundtrack music by composer Mica Levi. An unfortunate pastiche of Benjamin Britten’s music for Peter Grimes, it lumbers along, relentless, insistent, always tugging at our elbow, as it were. It’s overkill, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Like any attempt to pull the story out of history, JACKIE places us in the sight and hearing of moments immediately following the assassination that cannot possibly be documented. The most egregious liberty, to some, will be the presence of the entirely fictitious Priest McSorley (John Hurt) as he counsels Jackie on issues of faith and doubt. To paraphrase Jackie’s comment, when does the performance capture anything of the reality of those days? Jackie herself in her exchanges with the reporter (Billy Crudup) states repeatedly that the television and print story is more real than the events themselves.

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER


Directed by Nicholas Pesce, starring Kika Magalhaese as Francisca.

Perhaps one of the most poignant yet deeply disturbing portrait of loss, isolation, and loneliness I’ve ever seen, the unheralded THE EYES OF MY MOTHER demands serious attention. Yes, it adheres to certain standard tropes of the horror film, notably murder, evisceration, necrophilia, incest, and madness—yet the distancing effects of its stark chiaroscuro black-and-white palette, its painfully slow pacing, and its dispassionate gaze transcend the generic formulas. We are left confounded, curiously detached from its horrors, yet compelled to watch. . . And in its severely ascetic manner, detachment, and visual purity, it invites comparison with Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson.

Francesca is a little girl who lives in a remote forest with her mother and father. She is told by her mother of the fate of her namesake, St. Francis, who, after living alone so long in the woods, beheld visions, and eventually went mad of an eye condition that resulted psychosis. “Loneliness can do strange things to the mind,” muses the mother. She is herself an eye surgeon, late of Portugal. She teaches her daughter the art of the surgical removal of a cow’s eyes (just like a human’s, only bigger”). The little girl holds the lenses aloft with gentle reverence.

Now we are prepared for the pathos and horrors to come. A passing trucker comes upon a savagely mangled woman’s body on the highway. . . . A long flashback takes us to the story’s beginning: One day a salesman comes to the house and kills the mother. The father, newly arrived, finds the killer hacking away at the corpse. He chains the killer to the floor of the nearby barn. “Why us?” the little girl asks the killer. “You let me in,” he replies. “Why do you do it?” she pursues. “It feels amazing,” says the man.

Years pass. Francesca, now a beautiful young woman, tenderly takes care of the killer in the barn, now bereft of eyes and tongue. “You’re my only friend,” she whispers to him, cradling his body in her arms. She also cares for her father, dead of an apparent heart attack, sleeping in his bed, dancing to the blind stare of his corpse, washing his body in the bathtub. Her loneliness overwhelms her and she cries out to her mother, now buried in the nearby forest. Desperate, Francesca drives to a local bar and picks up a strange woman, and brings her back to her home. Rebuffed in her sexual advances, Francesca kills her. Distraught, Francesca wanders out to the highway, where she is picked up by a passing motorist and her baby. After persuading the mother and child to join her back at her house, she snatches up the baby, stabs the mother, and chains her eyeless and mute body to the barn floor.

More years pass. Francesca stocks her refrigerator with the packaged eyes and other body parts of her growing “family.” Finally, one night the boy she has abducted wanders into the barn and releases his captive mother. Francesca is in a panic. “What’ll I do?” she moans, cradling the corpse of her mother (apparently freshly dug up from her grave). Meanwhile, dragging her chains behind her, the mother staggers out to the highway and is picked up by a passing trucker. The narrative circle is closing. The trucker alerts the police, who close in. Francesca crouches in a corner, knife in her hands, waiting, clasping the little boy by her side.

All of this, horrific as it sounds, is told in a style that eschews sensationalism. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is lean and spare. Dialogue is limited to a bare handful of exchanges. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein’s lighting is starkly simple. Newcomer director Nicholas Pesce’s static shot compositions are carefully calculated to conceal more than they reveal, while long shots and medium-distance shots keep the guignol horrors at arms length. Francesca herself moves with an almost balletic grace as she goes about the rituals of love and death. The few, powerful close-ups are reserved for the moments of her desperate, perverse need for love—when her loneliness has indeed done “strange things” to her mind—in bed tenderly kissing the corpse of her father; in the bathtub, lovingly bathing his desiccated limbs; in the barn spooning food into the ravenous mouth of her mother’s chained killer; in the kitchen, hugging the abducted child to her breast, oblivious to the wounded mother thrashing about at her feet. Her most beautiful moment comes in the scene when she executes a slow, seductive dance before the seated corpse of her father. Francesca lives in her own dream of love and of family, moving in a space devoid of any remorse, absent from the reality closing in around her. We can’t accept what she is doing; but we can’t deny her our compassion, either.

Like St. Francis, Francesca exists in a state of grace, a terrible, wounded spirit, a mad, isolated figure betrayed by her eyes, seizing the eyes of others as substitutes for the love and family denied her. If we are brave enough, we will watch her with eyes wide open.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

SCHUMANN, CRAWFORD, MADNESS, AND HOLLYWOOD


When I wrote about the MGM biopic about Robert Schumann, Song of Love (1947) in my book, Composers in the Movies (2005), I noted that the film’s attempts to deal with the composer’s aberrant behavior and psychological disturbances came hard on the heels of other Hollywood films in the 1940s noir period, notably Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Robert Siodmak’s Dark Mirror.


What I didn’t know at the time was that another film at that precise moment, Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed, also depicted the psychological trauma and collapse of its protagonist, Joan Crawford. More to the point, it saturated its scenes of mania, persecution, aural and mental disintegration with the music of Robert Schumann—in particular, excerpts from Schumann’s Carnaval. Is it mere coincidence that Carnaval, like Possessed, was likewise a portrait of doubles, possessive love, and manic states of mind? Possession’s release in July 1947 preceded by a bare few months the release of Song of Love in October 1947. And is it mere coincidence that two European-trained composers, Franz Waxman in the first film and Bronislau Kaper in the second, found in Schumann the source of musically dramatic trauma? What is immediately apparent is that Possessed prepares us for a stiff dosage of the “Chopin” music from Carnaval, from the opening credits, to a scene with Van Heflin at the keyboard when he first meets Crawford, to a concert scene, and to numerous dramatic and hallucinatory episodes in the deranged mind of the homicidally jealous Crawford. Most spectacularly, at the climactic moment that Crawford guns down Hefflin, the theme erupts in an hysterically dissonant shriek.

That particular theme, the “Chopin” music from Carnaval, is so brief and gentle, that it hardly seems fertile material for a movie about a dangerously unstable woman. But maybe it’s Bronislau Kap er’s genius to recognize in it the potential for high melodrama. Ah, beneath such placid exteriors can lurk madness and murder! Which is exactly the point.

So, there we have it—two movies about madness, two movies with music by Schumann, two movies released within two months of each other... Just a mere footnote in movie/ music history?

Perhaps my taking the time to write about this at all is a kind of “possession” of my own. Has my lifelong preoccupation with Schumann and his music resulted in finding Schumann under every rock and crevice in the Hollywood Hills?

MISS SLOANE



Directed by John Madden, starring Jessica Chastain as Sloane, Mark Strong as Schmidt, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Esme, John Lithgow as Senator Sperling

MISS SLOANE is the saddest movie I’ve seen all year. The efforts by lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane to defeat the gun lobby in Congress are as corrupt as the forces arrayed against her. And she is extremely effective, as far as it goes. What is it the Bible says, about “The Wisdom of the Serpent”? Just as her tactics include unwonted surveillance, cynical manipulation, and bribery, the gun lobby is even worse as it stoops to blackmailing a United States Senator into holding an ethics witch hunt against her. It’s a vicious, even deadly tennis match, the political ball batted back and worth, intrigues doubling down on both sides.

Of course, in the balance hangs attempts to tighten gun controls. Conservative critics are lining up to attack its “Hollywood liberal smugness”; and progressive voices are applauding what they see as a brave attempt to expose the chicanery that exists on all sides of the issue. Meanwhile, as the movie makes clear, the reality of rampant gun ownership still is, and will remain, out of control.

Meanwhile, what we can applaud in a bipartisan way is a cracker-jack thriller, a carefully crafted plot that asks you, a la THE STING, to pay close attention, from the very opening shot to the twisty denouement. Even so, I doubt if many viewers can see the switcheroo coming. Sloane herself, in Jessica Chastain’s feisty, tightly-wound portrayal (she wears her lipstick like a scarlet flag), is out to double-cross everybody, both friends and foe. And she freely admits her own motives are hardly partisan. Rather than a passionate concern for gun control, she is motivated more by the will to win, to win something bigger than she’s yet brought off. Her methods are so extreme that we begin to wonder at the end if anything we have seen wasn’t ultimately part of her manipulations, on either side. Certainly she pays a heavy price for bringing down her opponents and the corrupt Senator out to get her. So what, really, has she won?

What has anybody won?

Monday, December 12, 2016

LOVING: A QUIET REVOLUTION


Directed by Jeff Nichols and starring Ruth Negga and Joel Egerton as Mildred and Richard Loving.

The bravest thing about LOVING is how quiet and understated it is. The 1967 court case that ended Constitutional prohibition to interracial marriage, that declared marriage a fundamental right, never raises its voice, as it were. It decisively turns its back on Big Moments, Violent Confrontations, and Epic Battles. Rather, Ruth Negga’s and Joel Egerton’s performances of the interracial couple who violated anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, encountered a particularly quiet but vicious bigotry, were forced to relocate to Washington, D.C. under penalty of imprisonment, and faced potential branding as having bastard children if they lost their case before the Supreme Court, are subtle and understated. Richard, in particular, is a man of few words and reluctance to be a public hero. Their lawyer, Bernard Cohen, is inexperienced. Virginia’s denial of their case is never shown. The Supreme Court case before the Warren Court is dispatched in mere minutes and a few words. No victory dances are permitted, no public demonstrations are depicted. The couple, back home in Virginia, simply go back to their lives, their children at play in the house that Richard has been seen building throughout the film. Of their later lives, only a few titles inform us that Richard died six years after the decision from an auto accident and Mildred never married, dying in 2008.

Indeed, in the one rare moment when Richard has doubts about the ten-year ordeal he and his wife are enduring, the impact is tremendous.

Seldom have the movies given us a private and public drama with such tremendous consequences and with so little fanfare.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS


Directed by Tom Ford. Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gylenhaal, Michael Shannon. Based on the novel, Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright.

SPOILER ALERT.

Among the installations in Susan Morrow’s Los Angeles high-chic art gallery are an impaled steer hanging upside down in a glass case, a painting consisting of the word RE VEN GE, and videos of an extremely obese nude dancing women. Susan herself gave up creative work years ago and feels only a distant, numbing connection with her high-class gallery. Her personal relationships are no different. She’s estranged from her mother (Laura Linney) and daughter; she’s given up on the handsome and dashing husband she married and sleeps alone while he’s off on business trips sleeping with other women.

One day Susan gets a package containing the proof of a novel written and dedicated to her by her former husband, Edward. It’s called “Nocturnal Animals,” after a nickname given her by Edward because of her sleeplessness. The rest of the movie consists of scenes of her reading the book, interspersed with scenes from the book and flashbacks of her disastrous relationship with Edward (including the abortion of their child). Finally, the book finished, Susan gets an email from Edward, back in town after many years. She agrees to meet him that night. Upon arriving at a restaurant, Susan sits down, orders a drink, and wait. And waits.

And waits.

Fade to black.

This book called Nocturnal Animals is deeply mysterious. It’s a violent affair about a man named Tony and his wife and daughter accosted by three thugs on a lonely Texas highway, forced to the side of the road, and subjected to brutal taunting and abduction. Left alone in the brush country, Tony reports the crime to a weirdly taciturn detective, Andes (Michael Shannon in an oddly arresting performance). The wife and daughter are found, raped and dead. Andes takes up the case. Suspects are found and interrogated and identified. But when the case is dropped and the men released, Andes and Tony take the law into their own hands. Disclosing that he has terminal lung cancer, he refuses to let this last case get away from him. He and the grieving father take the men to Andes’ house. Andes gives Tony a gun. Andes shoots one of the criminals but the other gets away. Tony goes in search of him, confronts him in a cabin, and in a scuffle, shoots him. Staggering away from the cabin, Tony accidentally shoots himself dead.

This book occupies a central and disturbing place in the larger narrative. It shares a communal identity with both Edward and Susan. Is it Edward’s recriminations against Susan? Is it Susan’s projection of her own guilts? Significantly, as Susan reads the novel, she projects the image of Edward into the character of the protagonist, Tony. And the wife and daughter very much resembles Susan and her daughter.

The last half of the film, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, shifts freely in time, tense, and multiple story lines. Fictive and real worlds seem to comment on each other; and at times, their soundtracks likewise merge. The collective effect is of characters out of time, place, and identity. The shocking images of the dancing obese woman that open the film, such a pitiless and pathetic indictment of the sterility of modern art, are matched by the final image of the empty, staring gaze of Susan in the restaurant as she waits. . . for what?

Friday, December 2, 2016

LOBSTER STEW


LOBSTER, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz.

Perhaps the best approach to LOBSTER is simply to begin with a brief synopsis of events. From there on, it’s every person for himself!

Part One: We begin with a woman stopping her car to walk into a field to shoot a cow. Cut to Colin Farrell. A dog sits at his feet. The dog is his brother. Now single after 12 years of marriage, Colin is checking in to some sort of seaside resort hotel that seems more like a boot camp than a pleasure spa. He identifies himself—his shoe size, his marital past, and his sexual preference—at the front desk, strips for an examination, receives a new issue of clothing, a stun gun, and retires to his single room. Everyone appears to be in some sort of trance. Speech is slow and stilted. We learn that if they find a partner within 45 days they can avoid the fate of being transformed into an animal. What animal would Colin wish to return as? He says, “A lobster. Lobsters enjoy the sun and the sea; they live for 100 years; they remain fertile.” There are hunting forays where the guests stalk each other with their stun guns. Afterward, the bodies of those who are shot are laid out on the hotel veranda. Meanwhile, a hotel maid stops in at Colin’s room every now and then to perform sexual services (apparently to confirm the hotel’s agenda, namely, that he is indeed a heterosexual).

Part Two: One day Colin chooses a woman for his partner. She agrees their utter lack of romantic interest makes them ideal companions. They marry. But when she kills his dog (you remember the dog is his brother), he weeps sorrowfully. Whoops! He has emotions after all! She threatens to “turn him in” to the transformation chamber where he will become an animal. But he kills her and escapes.

Part Three. Escaping to the surrounding forest, Colin falls in with a community of “Loners,” single people who have escaped the hotel compound. They are instructed to remain fiercely celibate. They conduct training exercises and, in general, avoid any contact with each other. It turns out that they employ a spy to infiltrate the resort hotel, the very maid who has visited Colin with her sexual errands. Lovely Rachel Weisz catches his eye. She says she is leaving her post at the hotel. Colin is ordered to dig his own grave. But it is the female leader of the community who is overpowered and who is interred in that grave. Colin and Rachel, who has mysteriously gone blind, leave the community and exist alone for awhile in the forest, where he plays “touching and guessing” games with her, bringing various objects for her hands to touch.

Part Four. The two lovers (if that’s what they are) leave the forest and take refuge in a city cafĂ©. He promises her he is going to do something that will heighten his sense of touch. The story ends with him in the bathroom, a steak knife poised before his eyes.

I relate all this in as deadpan a manner as possible, since that is precisely the weirdly muted and stilted absurdist comic tone that is LOBSTER. The business of animal transformations is left hovering as allegory more than a reality (although animals of all description ramble about the backgrounds of the scenes). Hints of romance, gay and otherwise, abound, but with always the threat of some kind of dangerous recrimination. What seems obvious enough is this trenchant satire on our society’s determination that everyone pair up together, as if we are all stumbling our way to that Great Ark waiting for us at the end of the world. There are few concessions to those of who demand a linear storyline with characters who have motivations and background stories. It could be very off-putting were it not for the way we are impelled to keep watching, even if we are not permitted expectations of any kind. Shot in the lovely seaside and forested areas of Ireland, the stark but lovely visuals are nicely complemented by chamber works by Beethoven, Schnittke, Schostakovich. There is even a brief moment in the city sequence where the strains of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote are heard. This is the English debut of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

BENJAMIN BAGBY PLUCKS THE MEDIEVAL EPIC STRING


“Hwaet!” declaims Benjamin Bagby, modern-day bard of medieval song and lyric. The word means “Listen!” And we are invited to attend to the music and the sounds of the adventures of ancient gods, heroes, and monsters. Ben came to Kansas City with his company of Sequentia musicians, 17-18 November 2016.

Don’t be fooled by Professor Bagby’s academic credentials. He may be a Professor of Medieval Studies (“Master Professionnel Pratique de la musique medieval”) at the Sorbonne in Paris, but you know his head and heart are invested in the action and romance of the Middle Ages. Midwestern born and raised, his true home is in the feudal castles and monastic cells of old Europe.


During his Kansas City visit we found that nothing could be more spare and affecting than the simplicity of his presence, on stage and in the classroom. Dressed in black, he alone commands our attention. He strums his lyre and plucks his harp while declaiming in old English the epic stories of Beowulf and the pagan songs of Boethius.

Ironically, we can never know if these performances precisely duplicate the art of a particular medieval bard, and we can never rediscover the “original” melody to which any epics were sung in the early Middle Ages, since any given melody probably never existed for any one narrative or story—variations were passed along in each of the oral traditions. Bagby says he relies on careful use of specific information and techniques, coupled with an intuitive spirit based on a working knowledge of both medieval song and the essence of sung oral poetry. That way, he continues, “It is possible to reconstruct highly plausible performance models which allow our venerable ancestral stories to live again.”


We learned that it is the SOUND of his words, rather than their SENSE, that ultimately mattered. Yes, there were subtitles that provided the lyrics of the songs, but gradually, you ignored them and attended to the “music” of the words. It becomes a primarily AURAL experience.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

THE HANDMAIDEN



Directed by Park Chan-wook, and starring Kim Taeri as Sooki/ Tamako, Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko, and Ha Jung-woo as Fujiwara. Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

This High Gothic thriller interlaces its intertwined plotlines, shifting points of view, and narrative ambiguities with a graphic eroticism and nasty violence that are so finely tuned, you scarcely can separate one from another. It instantly takes its place among my favorite films of this or any year. This line by the poet Robert Browning perfectly describes it: "It is horror added to voluptuousness."

Ordinarily, I prefer to know little about a film before I venture into the theater. What surprises are in store are mine to confront, for better or worse. And at the outset, I can say that THE HANDMAIDEN will embrace those viewers brave enough to emulate my example with edges and enigmas enough for anyone. However, since this is supposed to be my review and commentary, I will have to warn you that SPOILERS lie ahead. Let it be on your conscience if you wimp out and read this or any of the other reviews before you see it. You will deprive yourself of the one of the most surprising and fantastic movies of the year.

Reduced to essentials, the plot is divided into three parts. In the first part we meet a female pickpocket named Sooki who takes on a job as a handmaiden to the beautiful and innocently fragile Lady Hideko at the estate of Hideko’s uncle, a rich old book collector, who intends to marry his ward. Sooki’s real purpose, on the other hand, is to promote Lady Hideko’s marriage to a fake count, who will in turn commit her to a mental institution so that he can claim her fortune. Now, as it happens, the old book collector has a similar agenda of his own. The plot thickens when Sooki falls in love with her victim. The second part is a reverse angle on what we have just seen. Sooki realizes too late that the Lady Hideko is not the fragile innocent she had supposed, but a conniving agent who betrays her. Sooki, not Lady Hideko, is the real victim of a conspiracy: She is consigned to the asylum under the identity of Lady Hideko. The Lady under a new identity escapes with the fake count and the Lady’s fortune. The third part picks up the action after the plot switch. Sooki escapes her prison and rejoins the real Lady Hideko. Now lovers, they turn the tables on their victimizers and contrive to escape with the money.

In no way does the foregoing convey anything of the beauties and complexities of tone and story. What world are we inhabiting? Is it Korean? Is it Japanese? (The action takes place during Japan’s 1930s occupation of Korea; and even the characters, who speak in both languages, are not sure.) Who is Sooki, really? (She goes by other names, like Tamako and Okju). Is it a film noir like REBECCA; a Gothic thriller like GASLIGHT; or simply an exercise for a soft porn display of lesbian sex? What about the weirdly blended music track of Asian and Western styles (much of it could have been lifted from Downton Abbey)? What about entire sequences that take us away from the primary narrative and immerse us into the perverse erotica of books by De Sade? And what about the book collector’s house with its maze of corridors and secret rooms, its layout of stiffly beautiful interiors, and its awful basement that houses a dreadful monster? The answer to all these questions is—YES!

THE HANDMAIDEN is like one of those Russian nesting dolls, each plotline and point of view and contradiction collapsed into one another. You sort them out as you watch, and you must continually check the veracity of what you have just seen against what is now disclosed, and what is soon to follow. Moreover, master filmmaker Park Chan-wook has served up one of the most elaborately sensual experiences you will ever see. A dreamy, freely flowing, but superbly controlled stream of intoxicating images, delicate moments, gut-clenching brutal violence, and a dreamlike fantasy astonish and startle, by turns. We are kept on the knife edge of reality and dream, immersed in incidents both real and subjective. We are fascinated and repelled, sometimes simultaneously.

And so here we are, we viewers complicit with the nasty delights of THE HANDMAIDEN. What must we make of it? To quote one of the characters: “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things.”

Thursday, November 17, 2016

ARRIVAL



Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forrest Whittaker.

*** SPOILERS AHEAD! ***

How will we communicate to those first arriving aliens? By music (as in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS)? A show of force (DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL)? Or mathematics (CONTACT)? ARRIVAL opts for a different kind of communication, a strategy that is based on emotions, heart, and memory.

Before I explain, let me first recall my early days in the Army back in the early 1970s. I remember during my first weeks in Basic Training taking a battery of language examinations. One in particular was a real challenge: It consisted of a booklet in an entirely made-up language. Page after page presented clues about vocabulary and syntax. As I leafed through the pages, I was able to glean clues and insights into this language until I could read, understand, and write it, although imperfectly. It was an intense experience. Well, watching the characters in ARRIVAL grapple with the alien language systems confronting them is like that experience—both for them and for we viewers. As such, ARRIVAL is one of the most absorbing and challenging experiences I’ve had in a movie in recent years.

The world wakes up one morning to find that twelve alien spaceships have arrived at various corners of the globe. These gigantic ovoid shapes silently hover above Russia, China, America, etc. Among the linguists and scientists dispatched to the ship hovering above Montana skies are Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. With little time for preparation and briefing, they find themselves inside the enormous structure, watching and listening in bewilderment as heptapod-like shapes materialize on the other side of a screen. They issue inky tendrils of smoke-like substance that form circular and star-like shapes.

There is little time to learn their language and find out what the aliens’ intentions are. The few words and concepts that are gleaned imply some kind of threat of weapons. As a result, the watch-stations around the world grow alarmed and bristle with weaponry, ready to annihilate the ships before they can launch whatever deadly design they have in whatever constitutes their “mind.” One by one, the watch-stations disconnect communications, leaving all twelve to labor in silence toward their common end.

Amy Adams alone is alarmed at this development. She is convinced that all twelve watch-stations form a grand design, or language that is some sort of warning of future events. She theorizes that each culture’s language system shapes how that culture thinks about time. It becomes apparent that she has an emotional link with these events. There are numerous flashbacks to scenes with mother and child, and we piece together a narrative that early in the baby’s development she had learned of an illness that would take her life in the future. Unlike her husband, who had abandoned the situation, she had faced this impending tragedy with a determination to cherish every moment that remained to the child. This sub-narrative gradually assumes dominance in the movie. We realize the film is a cosmic projection of her own grappling with loss, both of the child and the dissolution of the marriage. And her breakthrough in the aliens’ language not only saves the world from launching attacks on the ships but grants her a vision of a new future for her: She achieves an epiphany, courtesy of a musical quotation from Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings,” that she will unite with Jeremy Adams, her partner in the investigation, and build a new family.

In other words, like the film it most resembles, CONTACT, there is a climactic revelation of love and loss a promise of renewal, and the acceptance of a cosmic and personal design that unknowable but somehow consoling.

Kudos to the amazing musical and sound design. Image, music, and sound effects intermingle and blend in ways that are quite unusual. And while my attempts to reduce the film to a linear storyline make it sound precious and pretentious, I must confess it held me spellbound. I sifted through its fractured narrative much in the way that the characters themselves struggle to make sense of contact with the aliens—and yes, like I traversed page by page through that Army language test.