Tuesday, November 29, 2016


“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


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


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


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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, Teresa Palmer as his wife Dorothy, and Hugo Weaving as his father.

“What do you want of me?” moans Desmond Doss in the thick of the carnage in 1944 as Allied troops attempt to take the Japanese-held escarpment known as “Hacksaw Ridge” on the island of Okinawa. It’s a question and it’s a prayer: “I don’t understand. I can’t hear you.” Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector, Doss questions his own Gethsemane. Later in the film, as his wounded, spread-eagled body is lowered back down the cliff face, an abrupt cut reverses the trajectory and we see his body lifted up into the heavens. Indeed, this is a Mel Gibson movie, and we know the director of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is bound to transform this true account of Doss’s heroism into a parable of Christian martyrdom. Indeed, Doss has his own Resurrection, of a sort. He came home and was the first conscientious objector to ever earn the Congressional Medal of Honor, having saved an estimated 75 men without firing or carrying a gun.

The historical record tells us that Desmond Doss was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon. Against the jeers and harassment of his Army comrades, he stubbornly believed that while the war was justified, killing was nevertheless wrong. As an Army medic, he single-handedly evacuated the fallen from behind enemy lines, braved fire while tending to soldiers and was wounded by a grenade and hit by snipers.

He had shipped out in March 1944 with the rest of the 77th Division (the Statue of Liberty Division) for the Pacific Theater, first to Guam, then to Leyte in the Philippines, and finally to partake in the Allied invasion of Okinawa, an island 340 miles south of mainland Japan. The United States invaded Okinawa in order to use the island as an air base for an invasion of mainland Japan, which is only 340 miles away. Japanese forces were deeply entrenched on the island, hammering American troops from caves and tunnels, in addition to setting booby traps. Private Desmond Doss and his battalion were ordered to ascend a jagged 350-foot escarpment called the Maeda Escarpment, which was heavily fortified with Japanese defenders.

Gibson adheres relatively closely to Doss’s story, from his upbringing in idyllic Lynchburg, Virginia, his youthful determination as a Seventh-Day Adventist to never touch a gun, his courtship and marriage, his enlistment and subsequent humiliation and harassment at the hands of his Army buddies, and his heroic exploits atop Hacksaw Ridge to rescue the wounded.

By contrast to the idyllic first half of the film, the second half graphically captures the battles on Hacksaw Ridge with astonishing visceral grit. The shift occurs suddenly, without warning. One moment the troops have successfully climbed the cargo nets erected on the face of the escarpment and are beginning their cautious advance across the corpse-laden battlefield. And the next moment—a savage fusillade of rifle, mortar, and machine-gun fire stops them in their tracks. The screen seems to erupt in a baptism of sound, fire and fury. The bodies of the soldiers jerk like marionettes on the strings pulled by an insane puppeteer. It’s a moment unlike anything I’ve ever seen, not excepting the opening 30 minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. And it sustains that virtually wordless intensity for fully an hour, culminating in Doss’s astonishing rescue atop the Ridge of the wounded soldiers who otherwise would have been left behind. Despite enemy fire, he quickly contrives a system of ropes to lower the bodies, one by one, back down the escarpment. “Just one more,” he repeats, like a mantra. “Just one more.” Those scenes on the escarpment hold us breathless.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Directed by Scott Derickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as her assistants Mordo and Wong, Mads Mikkelson as his enemy Kaecilius, and Rachel McAdams as his girl friend, Dr. Christine Palmer.

“Death gives us the meaning of our lives.”

This is the mantra that pervades the new superhero movie, DR. STRANGE.  Too bad the theme is ultimately dropped. Only immortals need apply here.

Dr. Strange is a Super Sorcerer who first appeared in the byline of Steve Ditko in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. He brought mysticism to the Marvel Universe (as if the very presence of super heroes isn’t pretty damned mystical already). He lives in a mansion called the Sanctum Sanctorum, located somewhere in New York City (Times Square is probably the actual location). He begins his comic book existence as Stephen Strange, a surgeon of preternatural gifts and a colossal ego, who has no time for petty medical emergencies but is interested only in the Big Cases. When he loses the use of his hands in a terrible auto accident, he abjures Western healing and departs to Kathmandu in search of medicinal alternatives. He meets a bald, androgynous guro simply named The Ancient One who invites him to forget everything he knows and submit to supernatural arts. Not only are his hands healed but he acquires magical abilities, a powerful amulet known as the Eye of Agamotto, a Cloak of Levitation, and an enemy named Kaecilius. This guy (whose eyes are ravaged and glittering with evil intent) bestrides multiple dimensions of time and space. In sum, as one critic has observed with decided understatement, “DR. STRANGE is the gateway into the cosmic corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where things can get pretty trippy” (Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly).

So, what exactly is going on? I’m blamed if I can give you a coherent report. And I doubt if the movie can, either. Characters, super powers, martial arts, cool costumes, and tussles with extra-dimensional bad guys scatter and tumble across the Marvel Universe. We do know there is an other-worldly condition known as the Dark Dimension that can give immortality to the characters—but at a price, as the Ancient One realizes. Indeed the theme of Time and mortality dominates the action. Time is the relentless force that propels and ends our days; it is the proposition that only death can give meaning to our lives. Yet, Time must be harnessed, reversed, manipulated, halted and death be defeated. Immortality is the prize. The evil Kaecilius wants to wrest Time from its inevitability and play with it like a child with a toy. Dr. Strange in his new identity as a cape-wearing superhero of burgeoning powers confronts Kaecilius—and the battle is on. And it doesn’t end there. The Good Doctor also must face the dreaded Dormammu, who rules the Dark Dimension. He is one of the oldest foes of the Ancient One and is plotting to invade the dimension of Earth.

Meanwhile, super powers are not conferred only to Men in Tights (and I must add in an unexpected touch that Strange wears pants, not tights). There is Dr. Palmer, who will assume a new identity of her own, “Night Nurse,” who provides medical assistance to the good guys and a romantic involvement for Strange. Stay tuned.

Paradoxically, the array of fantastic effects, which includes breath-taking chase scenes across cities whose architecture is fractured and splinted, twisted into pretzel shapes, and where gravity is a sometime thing, looks for all the world like a rather old-fashioned ‘70s psychedelic trip. Pink Floyd wouldn’t be out of place here. It is all very dazzling, but in its relentless assault on our senses inevitably becomes sense-numbing and, oddly, rather irrelevant to the attraction of the characters themselves.

Sadly, DR. STRANGE, despite the delightful presence of an occasionally errant cape and a sprinkling of wryly comic touches, falls victim to the same disastrous trope to which every superhero movie succumbs: nobody ever dies. This is a constant irritant to me. Mortality is never a factor. The imminence of death does not illumine life. Superheroes can bash and pummel and thrash each other ad nauseam to little effect. The real drama of any story, i.e., the frailties of the human condition, are notably absent. Thus, there is never any accountability or consequence to anything. And although the story of Dr. Strange seems preoccupied with Time and mortality, like I said at the beginning, there is ultimately no such thing, everything and everybody just goes on forever, like Tennyson’s Brook, ceaseless, unchanging, undying. They are, in the final analysis, only a succession of flattened tints and tones of the comic-book page.

I turn instead to the first and still the most intelligent of modern “super-hero” narratives, Philip Wylie’s GLADIATOR, published in 1930. I recommend it. It explores the plight of a truly superior man in a world of ordinary people. Despite his extraordinary gifts, he is all too mortal. Alas, when the “Superman” comic book character appeared almost a decade later, most of the implications of this sobering theme was lost. “Conscience was bickering inside him,” writes Wylie of Hugo Danner. “Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. . . ‘If there were only a God,” [Danner] whispers in his last breath, ‘what a prayer I would make!’”


Directed by Sean Ellis, starring Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy as Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. Co-written by Anthony Frewin.

Is the taking of the life of a Nazi monster worth the thousands of lives lost in the reprisals that followed? What is won and what is lost on each side of the ledger? ANTHROPOID raises the question even as it fails to answer it. Indeed, there is no answer. And the protests of critics who seem to want a moral and philosophical debate ring hollow to me. Rather, the film dips our hands in the bloodbath that was Operation Anthropoid and leaves us stunned and baffled.

In 1942 two Czech freedom fighters parachute into Nazi-occupied territory near Prague on a mission dubbed “Operation Anthropoid” to assassinate Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich. This man, third in command under Hitler, was one of the chief architects of the Final Solution. Dubbed “The Butcher of Prague,” his death is nothing less than a gift to humanity. At the same time, alas, killing him also led Heinrich Himmler to order terrible reprisals against the Czech citizens of Prague. History must ask, was the death of this man worth the slaughter that followed of thousands of men, women, and children? How to make sense of it all? The mind recoils at the attempt.

The story begins in December 1941 as the two men gain ground and connect with the remnants of a fading Czech resistance. Plans are considered, reconsidered, and, after a rather tedious delay, carried out. The assassination is a sloppy affair. Heydrich is attached in his touring car, but it takes the man more than a week to finally die of his wounds. As a result, citizens are rounded up and tortured. The assassins retreat to the Karel Boromjeksky Church. What ensues is a grim and bloody sequence as the soldiers lay siege to the church. For hours it’s a standoff as the small band of patriots hold off the surrounding hordes. The church becomes a scene of unremitting chaos. From rooftop to basement, the besieged defenders scramble, evade, and fall, one by one, to the hail of bullets, explosions of grenades, and watery torrents of unleashed fire hoses. A few who hold out for a few more precious moments finally choose suicide with cyanide pellets. I have seldom seen a more grimly effective staging of protracted and relentless violence. It’s a bravura achievement. The editing is razor-sharp, the camerawork agile, and the visceral horrors extremely graphic.

In the end, none of the men are taken alive. As one of the men (Cillian Murphy) faces his final moments, he sees before him a vision of the woman with whom he had enjoyed moments of grace and beauty. She stretches out her hand. He responds—

Fade to black.

It’s a curious, jarring break in the action, a surreal benediction, a weird footnote to the carnage that has preceded it. We are left with scant details in the film’s ending titles of the reprisals that greeted the assassination of Heydrich, the only Nazi officer assassinated during the war. We may or may not be satisfied with a film that as an “entertainment” has little to do with comforting us or reassuring us that there are answers or justifications to the horrors of war.