Sunday, October 14, 2018

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE


Directed by Drew Goddard, starring Jeff Bridges as the priest, Cynthia Erivo as the singer, Lewis Pullman as the hotel proprietor, Jon Hamm as the FBI agent, Chris Hemsworth as the false prophet, and Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spaeny as the sisters.

A QUIRKY GUEST REGISTER

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE might be the best thing in the theaters at the moment.

Check in at the most bizarre hotel this side of Barton Fink, where a group of travelers gather for a night of confrontations, revelations, and gruesome violence. And speaking of the Coen Brothers, BAD TIMES is right out of their playbook. It’s a dangerous Neo-Noir set in the late 1960s. It’s a dark and stormy night. Lightning flashes fitfully illuminate the scene. The blood-stained guest register introduces a motley cast of characters. And despite the grim pleasures of it all, there’s a moment of grace that tops it all off at the end.

There’s the priest who’s not a priest but a thief and ex-con looking for buried money under the floorboards of one of the hotel’s rooms; a vacuum salesman who’s an FBI agent keeping the hotel under surveillance; a struggling lounge singer who just wants to get to a gig in Reno; two young ladies on the run from a phony evangelist, and a self-styled hick evangelist who lives by his own infernal playbook. And yes, the hotel proprietor with lots of secrets of his own: He’s left a string of bodies in his wake; moreover, he possesses an incriminating piece of surveillance film. Did I say “surveillance”? The El Royale Hotel is a voyeur’s paradise. A secret corridor of one-way mirrors affords uninvited glimpses into the unholy activities of the occupants within.

The narrative line is a tangle. We view brief vignettes of each of these lives, only to be rudely wrenched out of the scene by savage and abrupt shock cuts. Events are then rewound and repeated by reverse angles viewed through the one-way mirrors. It’s disorienting, but fascinating. Indeed, a certain diabolical pleasure holds us in a kind of thrall as we piece together the shards and fragments of the story.

Of course, it all ends up in a holocaust of flames, bullets, and bodies. Everything gets sorted out... sort of. But amid the penultimate moments, when the priest who’s not a priest hears a last-gasp confession and delivers his own absolution, we are moved by an experience that is nothing less than an epiphany.

So many things could gone wrong here; the kaleidoscopic assortment of characters and fractured incidents could have fallen apart at any moment.... However, the conviction and power of all these players keep things under control. In particular, Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo deliver beautifully crafted performances. Bridges’ faux confession scene is among his very finest moments on screen. Erivo’s quietly nuanced a capella singing provides the soul of the story. Indeed, I came away, wondering, who is this Cynthia Erivo? I had not seen or heard her before. But her quietly desperate lounge singer is a miracle of subtlety. On both counts we have here Oscar-caliber moments. (Note: Erivo is a British actress and singer recently distinguished for her Tony Award-winning performance on Broadway of “Celie” in The Color Purple.)

In brief, this is a movie for the jaundiced eye.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

THE WIFE



Directed by Bjorn Runge, starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce as Joan and Joe Castlemans and Christian Slater as the journalist.

GHOST WRITERS IN THE SKY!

In THE WIFE, veteran actors Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce have been ill-served by a lame and improbable script. Too bad. It should have been fun to see these two pros on screen. What results, however, is mostly a pompous, strutting Pryce and a showcase for the Glenn Close Enigmatic Stare.

Dramas about writers and writing are notoriously difficult to bring across. There are exceptions, notably Jane Campion’s Angel at My Table, about Janet Frame, and End of the Tour, about David Foster Wallace. And recently we have had Genius, about the relationship between Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins—whose subject of an editorial hand behind the writer’s success rather resembles THE WIFE.

But THE WIFE doesn’t belong in that accompany.

After more than thirty years spent ghostwriting her husband’s books, Joan Castleman watches in dismay as her husband Joe thanks her during the ceremony in Stockholm for being his muse and support. Disgusted, she leaves and threatens divorce. She would rather live in anonymity than be credited merely as his helpmate. But she is more than that. She wrote his books in secret, all of them, behind a closed door, the family unaware of what was going on. All this time, her husband’s main job has been to stay out of her way. Check that: He does do something: He cracks walnuts a lot. I kid you not. He not only cracks them for her, but he cracks them for all his mistresses, too. That’s a lot of walnuts. And a lot of mistresses. Even the title of one of his books is The Walnut. Really. I expected a “walnut wrangler” on the end credits. How he’s been able to disguise the fact that he hasn’t been writing at all is never explained. Maybe the walnut-cracking was enough to fill his spare time. The closest he gets to literature is to quote James Joyce to any young lady who catches his eye. Have a walnut?

Poor Joan Castleman. Is she another downtrodden female writer? Not a bit of it. She’s not only content to be his ghostwriter, but flashbacks reveal that she had wanted to write his books. It was her idea from the get-go. He thinks he is seducing her; but in reality it is she who has been seducing him, catering to his ambitions for the success, fame, and privilege of a successful writer. She is no victim. This is her choice. Who is guiltier of hoaxing the public, he or she? As for that celebrated Glenn Close Enigmatic Smile, is this the expression of a wronged wife or a crafty manipulator? And yet, at the end, we’re supposed to believe that she has HATED this all along. Please.

I realize this is probably a subversive reading that I’m offering here, one that is completely counter to the movie’s putative commentary on The Wronged Woman. . . but that’s my take and I’m sticking to it.

Meanwhile, what about the Castleman books? What do we know about them? Why the Nobel Prize? According to the speech at the Nobel ceremony, Castleman’s books have “changed the course of literature.” Whatever that means. Too bad such superlatives don’t describe this script.

We can’t forget another character who shows up at the proceedings. He’s a trash journalist, a ruthless opportunist who wants to write the tell-all expose of the Castleman’s chicanery. Christian Slater is perfectly cast and perfectly hateful. He’s right where he belongs. He and the Castlemans deserve each other. His dialogues with Mrs. Castleman demonstrate only that she’s a greater fake than he is.

Lastly, there is one more tag-along character in this wearisome parade. And that is Castleman’s son, a budding writer, God help him. He wears a perpetually surly expression and wrings his hands because Daddy won’t praise his own pitiful stories. Does he know that the best example Daddy can provide him is how to find a beautiful graduate student who will do the writing for him? As for the nut-cracking, he is on his own.

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.

RBG: “THE NOTORIOUS RBG”



RBG, produced by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

“The Notorious RBG” is emblazoned on tee-shirts across the country. And amidst the current crop of super heroes on screen, Variety magazine trumpeted about this modest little documentary: “How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Summer Box Office Avenger.”

Wow, do we need this story of the 84-year old Little Woman That Could! Judging from the enthusiastic response of the packed house at the Tivoli Theater, it’s striking a nerve with hammer blows that put Thor’s hammer to shame.

The narrative strategy of RBG is standard-issue: We have a profusion of film clips and photos from Ruth’s childhood, her education at Harvard and Columbia, her remarkable string of Supreme Court victories in the 1970s, her rise to the Supreme Court in 1993 , her subsequent fame as the Great Dissenter in favor of women’s issues cases, her current status as Guru to a new generation of women and liberals, and numerous encomiums from Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, and other women on the Front Line. And speaking of Women on the Front Line, there’s a breathtaking citation of a quote from 19th-century abolitionist Sarah Grimke: “I ASK NO FAVOR FOR MY SEX; ALL I ASK OF OUR BRETHREN IS THAT THEY WILL TAKE THEIR FEET FROM OFF OUR NECKS.” On a more personal level, Ginsburg is revealed to be an opera lover (a few choice bits from Lucia de Lammermoor), a proponent of physical fitness, and an educator.

This last provides one of the funniest moments in the film: She describes her days in the ‘70s arguing before the Supreme Court as a “kindergarten teacher” before an all-male court teaching the realities of women’s issues.

Most moving of all are the glimpses we get of her relationship with her beloved husband of more than 45 years, Marty Ginsburg, who died in 2010. He is the Man Behind the Throne, so to speak, whose love, support and advocacy of his spouse paid no little role in her career.

Through it all, the quiet-spoken RBG is a Sphinx with a twinkle in the eye and a gentle jibe at the ready.

Female filmgoers will support the film. But it is the men who must also go, watch, and be educated.

Meanwhile, there has been some talk that female viewers attracted to the current Book Club will flock to RBG. What a stupid expectation that is. Viewers of RBG will likely consign Book Club to the Graveyard of Misbegotten Movies. The only possible connection between the two films is that one of the women in Book Club has a cat named “Ginsburg.”

Friday, May 18, 2018

AVENGERS AND OTHER SUPERHEROES


Whether or not you’re a fan of recent super-hero epics like Avengers: Infinity War, which breaks box office records, a colossal testament to cinematic greed and excess, or Logan and Unbreakable, which are master classes in how the whole superhero-genre can gain our respect, our attention might rightly be directed to one of its profoundly influential literary prototypes, which remains particularly relevant today.

Once upon a time, Philip Wylie wrote a novel called Gladiator. It was about a man who could lift weights of four tons with ease, leap such distances that he almost seemed to fly, shed machine-gun bullets with ease, rip bank vaults apart as if they were paper-mache. No, it wasn’t a Superman story. It was published in 1930, eight years before Schuster and Siegel produced their first “Superman” comic. Superman and every other superhero owe it a lot. In the opinion of fantasy and SF historian Joe Moskowitz, “Gladiator is probably the greatest tale of a physical superman since the Biblical story of Samson.”

In brief, it is the story of Hugo Danner, born the results of experimental drug treatments given to his mother. When the baby smashes his crib to smithereens, Mom knows she’s got trouble on her hands. She and her husband take great care in the training of their child to hide his strength and deal with the psychological impact of his growing awareness of his “differentness.” After demonstrating remarkable athletic feats as a youth, Hugo leaves home after accidentally killing a fellow athlete. Hugo has difficulty finding a place for himself, exploiting his great strength in prize fighting, strongman acts, pearl fishing, soldiering, farming, and even banking. But when he faces the inability of others to accept him, he determines it would be best to kill himself. The passages at the end of the book when Hugo considers his end are among the most moving in the genre:
Conscience was bickering inside him. Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race, being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. If his theory about the great builders of the past was true, then perhaps this would explain why the past was no more. If the Titans disagreed and made war on each other—surely that would end the earth.
Amidst a raging thunderstorm, Hugo raises his fist to the lowering clouds. A lightning bolt strikes him dead.

With apologies to Nietzsche, Wylie himself had this to say about the possible advent of a race of superheroes. “For if ever there does appear upon this planet a tightly knit minority of really superior people, it will be the end of all the rest of mankind--and mankind knows it, not having come through a billion-odd years of evolutionary struggle for nothing.”

Fortunately, Wylie’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But in the subsequent race of literary superheroes,” which his Gladiator so profoundly predicted, we find ourselves awash in their ilk. You can’t swing a stick—or Thor’s hammer, for that matter—without bumping into one. But be careful: You don’t want to piss them off. The moment they shed their benign agendas, we’re all in trouble.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR or, HOW THOR GOT HIS AXE PART ONE


Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring everybody in the whole damned Marvel Universe (including Stan Lee as a bus driver)

Yes, subtitle this mess “How Thor Got His Axe.” And add, “How Thanos Got His Sunset”, and how “Viewers Got Dust Thrown In Their Eyes”. . .

I admit I am the last person to be fair to this movie. I’ve been on record for years about the silliness of this stuff. And as an educator I’ve been forced to watch with growing dismay its addictive results on adolescents and teens. (You might as well shoot this into their veins.) But at the same time, I should be the most qualified person to judge this movie, since I was weaned as a boy on the exploits of John Carter of Mars, the story of a Confederate Army Captain who gained Superhero-Dom on the Planet Mars (and whose name was conferred on me by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself). Big John kinda started this whole thing. Am I a hypocrite to condemn the former while privileging the latter?

At least John Carter’s story was one of the spiritual yearning for Identity, the longing for a rightful home that transcended space and time.

What do have with AVENGERS? An anti-story. A cynical grab at box office bucks. (It’s worked!) Patches and shards of special effects and massive suits of armor and mystical mumbo-jumbo and some Business about The Six Stones that may determine the fate of the Universe.

Okay, Big Thanos: MAKE A FIST. Your gauntlet has six settings into which the Six Stones can be affixed. And then, all Hell will break loose. And you can enjoy your damned sunset.

Pity poor Wakanda, by the way. It had its moment in the sun a few months ago; and now... well, you know...

But let me turn to the redoubtable critic Anthony Lane, who can skewer a superhero movie better than most. He advises us that for just $19.99 Thanos could have collected all the Six Stones on the QVC Network! (That in itself is punishment enough). He adds, “Why is it always the Universe that’s at stake in these stories? Why not Hackensack? Does anybody care what happens to South Dakota, or Denmark, or Peru?”

And I’m going to steal from Lane a quote he attributes to Sigmund Freud, which says a lot about all of us who fall victim to films like AVENGERS: “Even dire criminals and comic heroes captivate us within the context of the arts by dint of the narcissistic rigor with which they keep at bay anything tending to diminish their ego.”

Finally, if you’re puzzled about the Dust Storm that concludes AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS, I advise you to read Philip Pullman’s magnificent epic trilogy, His Dark Materials. It answers everything...

I also hope you will read Philip Wylie’s classic Gladiator, first published in 1930. It’s a superhero story, THE superhero story, which stands alongside John Carter. More on that in a second installment to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN...


BREAKING IN, directed by James McTeigh,, starring Gabrielle Union as Shaun Russell.

BAD SAMARITAN, directed by Dean Devlin, starring David Tennant as Cale Erendreich and Robert Sheehan as Sean Falco.

Never go to the party without checking out the exit. Never enter the front door unless you know the back door. Consider the houses in two new films, BREAKING IN and BAD SAMARITAN. Viewed at random, they nonetheless display remarkable similarities: No sooner do the characters go inside, then they have to go outside. Immediately. But then, darned if everybody doesn’t find themselves inside again. Only to escape outside again. And so it goes, like a continuing point-counterpoint, in again, out again...

In BREAKING IN, Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), along with her two children, inspect the dwelling of her recently deceased father. It’s quite a house, heavily fortified and lavished with all manner of technological gadgetry, including room monitors and motion-control sensors. There is a secret inside: There’s a safe somewhere with a cool million secreted away. And there’s also a gang of four thieves caught in the act of searching for the swag. The gang grabs the kids and keeps them inside, while mother Shaun is trapped outside, looking in. It’s not long before she finds herself inside while the kids are now outside. And the bad guys, well, they’re in and out, reversing the polarities. And so it goes, over and over.

I’ll stop there while I note that THE BAD SAMARITAN also features an amazing house to go in and out of, full of high-tech whiz-bangs, including monitoring devices and motion sensors. It too hides a secret: In this case, it’s a maniacal serial killer, Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) and the female captive he keeps chained in a torture room. Amateur burglar Sean Falco—yes, there’s a “Sean/Shaun” in both movies!—breaks into this house, discovers the shackled victim and, yes—you guessed it—hastily escapes to call the cops. Sean’s break-in is discovered by Erendreich, who turns the tables and breaks into Sean’s own house. Meanwhile, the cops enter Erendreich’s house and find—nothing. So now they leave. You can bet they’ll be back. Meanwhile, our “bad” Samaritan in desperation goes to the FBI. Maybe they’ll listen. . .

Okay, so where are we with these films? In or out?

IN BREAKING IN Shaun and her two kids manage to turn the tables on the bad guys. It’s cat-and-mouse, all the way, creeping through the corridors and rooms inside and stalking the thieves from the roof outside. Shaun may be “just a Mom,” as she declares to them, but she’s damned resourceful and manages to leave a trail of broken bodies behind, some in and some out of the house. It’s all about family.

In BAD SAMARITAN, our young hero is on his own. Once again, he’s inside Erendreich’s house, but he discovers the killer is one step ahead of him and has set a timer to blow everything to smithereens. So, he blasts his way out of the garage before the whole edifice explodes in a blaze of glory. Undaunted, he tracks the killer out to the country where—you guessed it—the killer has upped the ante and keeps another house. Inside is the killer’s victim, imprisoned in a cell. Before our hero can break in, he’s caught and bludgeoned with a shovel. Now we’re outside. Before the killer can dispatch the captive girl, who’s been shoved inside a lime-filled hole, the tables are turned, the girl crawls out of the hole, and the killer is overwhelmed. In a final stroke, they take his body back inside the house, tie him up, and leave him for the arriving FBI.

In a crucial distinction between these two films, I should note that BREAKING IN takes itself very seriously (unless you greet with some bemusement the ingenious plotting that turns everything inside out). BAD SAMARITAN, by contrast, never quite takes itself seriously. It is a weirdly funny film, mixing some terrific shock effects with a few deft, deadpan exchanges among the characters. In sum, we learn from both films that it’s best to plot an escape for every entrance in life. If that’s the best I can say for both experiences, then,... COUNT ME IN!

Monday, May 7, 2018

TULLY


Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Starring Charlize Theron as Marlo, Mackenzie Davis as Tully, and Ron Livingston as Ron.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

NIGHT NURSE.

Like a nocturnal Mary Poppins, the young lady we know only as “Tully” comes to the aid of a mother stressed out after the birth of her third child. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has reason to be stressed: Her first child is autistic, her second child is nearing her “difficult” pre-bubescent years, and the screaming new baby needs constant attention. Chaos reigns. Marlo’s hubby (Ron Livingston) is no help. He works hard, but he’s away on business all the time and too tired at home to deliver anything but a night-time peck on the check.

So along comes Tully, a bright-eyed 20-something, preternaturally wise in the ways of seemingly everything, especially children. And she is very effective in her night-time caring for the baby, soothing mother and child along the way. However, we begin to watch with some apprehension as Tully ingratiates herself into Marlo’s trust. Soon the two women are sharing confidences. And, yes, things get pretty creepy when Tully arrives at Marlo’s husband’s bedside prepared to be a surrogate for Marlo’s flagging erotic desires.

Then, after the household appears to be settled and back on track, Tully persuades Marlo to share a night on the town. The ladies visit the bohemian haunts of Marlo’s pre-marital escapades. There is a key conversation between them when Tully declares she can no longer remain as the Night-Nanny. But by now Marlo has grown dependent on her. She needs her. Tully is insistent that it is time to go. Like Mary Poppins, her work is done. Marlo must now return to the “normalcy” and safe routine of her life as wife and mother. On the ride back home, Marlo falls asleep at the wheel and plunges the car off a bridge into a stream. Miraculously, she is saved and wakes up later in the hospital to the kindly face of her waiting husband.

But something odd is happening. Marlo’s husband is called into the hospital office where he is quizzed about her psychiatric problems. Problems? At first, puzzled, he then admits yes, his wife has suffered exhaustion recently. All the while, Marlo is experiencing a delirium dream, a vision in which a mermaid-like figure swims down toward the sunken car and releases her from the confining seat belt. She swims to safety.

Strange, yes. Indeed, there has been something decidedly strange about this movie from the very beginning. It’s only upon nearing the end of the film when it is casually noted that Marlo’s maiden was Tully. Tully... Of a sudden, all the tumblers of a locked safe move into position and the door flies open: Tully has not existed to anyone save Marlo. Tully is Marlo. That is, Marlo’s pre-marital self. The self that had been locked away and lain dormant for too long. Think back to the careful staging of every scene with her and Marlo together and we realize Tully never interacts with anyone save Marlo.

It’s fascinating to realize how an extraordinary, outre fantasy has been deployed in the restoration of normalcy. The miracle hasn’t blown open the doors off reality, it has closed them tightly. Mary Poppins didn’t fly away. She landed back on our doorstep.

Friday, April 27, 2018

PETER RABBIT: GOING HIPPITY-HOP!


Written and directed by Will Gluck, starring Rose Byrne and Domnall Gleeson; Peter Rabbit is voiced by James Corden.
“It’s like a 3-D version of a cartoon!!” That sentiment, uttered by an incidental character late in Peter Rabbit, pretty well sums up this amazing mixture of live-action and animation.

When Thomas McGregor leaves his job at Harrods in London and journeys to Windermere, in the Lake District (locations actually shot in Australia) to claim the estate of his late great-uncle, Farmer McGregor, he’s in for a shock. He finds the house and garden invaded by all manner of geese, hedghogs, deer, badgers, and—yes—rabbits. And not just any rabbits, but that blessed family of “Beatrix Potter” rabbits, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and their older brother Peter Rabbit. In a frenzy, McGregor tries to rid house and garden of his unwanted guests. However, the anger of this gawky, clumsy young man is somewhat abated by the sight of his neighbor, the preposterously fetching young lady known only as “Bea.”

We know immediately that “Bea” is a latter-day stand-in for Beatrix Potter. We know that because this is the Lake District, because we’ve already seen the Miss Potter movie with Rene Zellweger, and because Bea’s study is crowded with the delicate, pastel drawings we recognize as the originals of all the beloved Potter characters. What’s amusing is that Bea doesn’t take these images seriously—she’d rather paint the pallid, semi-abstract images that she thinks marks her as a “True” artist. I mean, what does she know? Meanwhile, the living embodiments of her animal pictures are hopping and scampering all around the place and bedeviling the likes out of the hapless Thomas McGregor.

Of course, when Thomas falls in love with Bea, he has to disguise his hatred of the animals. And therein resides the conflict and most of the wondrously creative sight gags—gags that appeal as much to adult viewers as they do to the wee ones. Before misunderstandings are cleared up, thanks to the machinations of Peter Rabbit and his siblings, Thomas resolves his issues and accepts both Bea and her universe of talking animals into his life. (Yes, I said talking. How is it that Thomas comes to understand them? Easy, according to Peter Rabbit, he’s just listening to his heart!

Watching this amazing film is quite an experience. You go through stages, at first marveling at the convincing CGI of the animals, the traditional hand-drawn animation of Bea’s drawings, and the seamless blends of them all with real-life animals. How do they DO that??? you keep saying to yourself. Yes, you marvel and try to figure it out. . . but then, gradually, you give up the analysis and accept the hoppity comingling of them all.

And did I say the gags come thick and fast? There’s a quick and ready wit on every hand, and you have to watch closely to catch even a percentage of them all. My favorites are the many jokes about those strange jackets that the rabbits wear; the rooster who greets every sunrise with renewed surprise (“What? The sun is up again. . .?!”); and the flock of birds who swoop and dive to rap music. And there’s the music score by Dominic Lewis, a witty mashup of songs and musical sequences that even gives us a weird soupcon of classical references, including Schubert’s “Serenade,” Verdi’s “The Anvil Chorus,” and an adagio by Albinoni.

Critical cavils aside, which charge that the “purity” of Potter’s concepts is wronged, I found Peter Rabbit to a wholly enjoyable romp, er hop. . .

Monday, April 16, 2018

A QUIET PLACE: SOUNDING THE SILENCE



Directed by John Krasinski and starring Emily Blunt and John Krasinski.
(Spoiler Alert)

A QUIET PLACE keeps us on tiptoe, listening. Listening. . . for what???

Outside the guarded perimeter of the Abbot Iowa farm house lurk Monstrous Presences. They prowl unseen through the meadow grasses. But we hear their chattering jaws and gnashing teeth. Although these Creatures are blind, the slightest sound from humans brings them instantly to the scene, where they savagely devour their prey. Any sound is fatal. And when the youngest Abbot child accidentally triggers the tinny sound of a toy, they are on him in an instant. And he is gone, without a trace.

Who these Creatures are and how they came here is unknown. Only a handful of newspaper clippings tacked onto the Abbot’s basement bulletin board hint at some sort of invasion that has left the world hostage to sound—any sound, natural or human. Cities and towns, ordinarily a cacophony of sounds, have gone silent. Only the quieter countryside offers refuge. And here are the Abbots, marooned and embattled within their guarded perimeter. Their only advantage is that they can see and the murdering Creatures cannot. So, quietly, voicelessly, the Abbots go about their days and nights, under siege, ever on guard against making the slightest sound. Down in the farm’s basement, Father taps out radio signals in a futile attempt to reach the outside world. He keeps a cache of noisy fireworks out in the field in case their noise is needed to distract the Creatures away from the farm. And a perimeter of lights are color coded—green for safety, red for danger.

Despite the deadly menace of these creatures—soon revealed to be hideous, scaly, arachnoid-like creatures—the focus of the film holds the Abbots in a tight and loving embrace. It is their story, after all. The young children are smart and protective of each other. And when Mom and Dad find a precious moment to embrace in a quiet dance, the moment is a brave defiance of love against encroaching evil. They are survivors. Ironically, however, the love that binds the family together ultimately brings about its own dangers. It is love that impels the father to issue suicidal screams to attract the Creatures away from his young son. The loving embrace of the mother for her newborn baby threatens to attract the Creatures prowling about the farm’s basement. Indeed, the birthing sequence must be counted among the most harrowing moments in this or any film.

It is left to the eldest daughter, whose deafness has taught them to communicate by sign language, to discover a way to ward off the creatures. The high-pitched shriek of her ear-piece shatters the Creatures’ highly-developed, sensitive ear drums, allowing Mom time enough to level a fatal shotgun blast. Until the next invasion. In the film’s final moments, she cocks the rifle and waits.

What makes A QUIET PLACE so effective is a soundtrack that insists on suppressing all sounds. And in doing, it enhances the smallest sounds. Too many standard-issue horror films do the opposite: They pump up the volume. They don’t frighten, they only deafen. There have been a few blessed exceptions: Preceding A QUIET PLACE a few years ago was a film called Don’t Breathe, a symphony of soundless horror. It was about three thieves who were held hostage in a darkened house owned by a murderous blind man whose preternatural aural faculties alerted him to their slightest noise. Much of the action held everyone frozen in position, silently poised a few scant feet from one another, the slightest sound both a protection and a danger to predator and victim alike. Let the Right One In and The Eyes of My Mother are two more recent films that deployed silence to provoke our ghastliest nightmares.

Now, A Quiet Place makes us listen. I must admit, however, that there is one drawback to all this: In the theater, we’re more aware of the popcorn munchers and paper-bag rattlers than ever. And those sounds can be like thunder.

This is the debut dramatic film from director John Krasinski, who also appears in the cast opposite his wife in real life, Emily Blunt.

Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL


Presentation given by John C. Tibbetts
at the Kansas City Lyric Opera Guild
Monday, April 9, 2018

BEAUMARCHAIS THE SCOUNDREL (“Beaumarchais, l’insolent”).

Produced by Charles Gassot; directed by Edouard Molinaro; screenplay by Edouard Molinaro and Jean-Claude Brisville (adapted from an unpublished play by Sacha Guitry). 1996; color; 101 minutes. Distributor: New Yorker Films.

To his The Marriage of Figaro (1784) Beaumarchais appended the subtitle, “A Mad Day.” The play’s conflation into twenty-four hours of the multifarious intrigues, deceptions, and loves of Figaro, Count Almaviva, and Cherubin was no less a “mad” enterprise than the attempts by Edouard Molinaro’s historical film, Beaumarchais the Scoundrel to encompass within two hours a decade in the life of Beaumarchais himself.

The action begins in 1773—a time of “high ideas and low subjects,” as an opening title declares. Louis XVI is waiting in the wings to succeed his father. Art and politics are in ferment. France is “dangerously behind the times.” It is up to figures like Voltaire and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais “to set the clocks right.”

Well, Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was indeed the son of a clockmaker. But his timing was nothing less than erratic. As the ensuing first fifteen minutes of the film admirably demonstrates, this gentle playwright, philanderer, intriguer, revolutionary, and swordsman led a hectic and complicated life: In a flurry of brief episodes he’s instructing the actors rehearsing his Barber of Seville in the art of naturalistic performance; dashing off a pamphlet to his enemy, Goezman; fighting a duel with a man he’s cuckolded, the Duke de Chaulnes; and cooling his heels in jail on charges of sedition. And so it goes. Beaumarchais accepts it all with perfect equanimity. “I write better in prison,” he says, settling down in his cell to write a new draft of Barber.

And that’s only the beginning! As Beaumarchais connives, flatters, and protests his way through the theaters and courts of Louis XV and XVI, running through litigious intrigues as frequently as he went through wives (and spending almost as much time in jail as out), he seizes opportunities for adventure as a French spy in London and a gun runner to the American revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, his plays help foment a revolution in drama, too. At first, he thinks his Barber is too timid a critique of the monarchy and that perhaps Voltaire was right when he quipped, “Beaumarchais will never be another Moliere because he values his life too much.” Reluctantly, our hero determines to bring back the character of the wily servant, Figaro, in a tougher play. The Marriage of Figaro is an astringent political satire that creates considerable sensation and notoriety. Figaro’s rebellion against his master may be compared, according to the filmmakers—albeit rather simplistically—to Beaumarchais’ own challenge to traditional stagecraft as well as to the institution of the aristocracy. Ironically, in the midst of thunderous audience applause at the play’s premiere, Beaumarchais is sent back to prison. But when the King relents and offers his release, Beaumarchais bargains that he’ll leave his cell only if the King and his attendants attend his play’s next performance.

As improbable, even bewildering as most of it may seem to the uninitiated viewer (who may be tempted to dismiss it as pure Hollywood-style fabrication), the movie does a remarkable job in touching the requisite historical bases. Granted, at best, this densely-packed film can only suggest the complexity of the noisy polemics and endless intrigues, political and artistic, that always surrounded Beaumarchais. Yet, several extended scenes nicely convey Beaumarchais’ windy, legal battles with his bete noire, Goezman; the complex motivations behind his American endeavors (perhaps stimulated as much by a passion for political intrigue and business opportunities as a genuine regard for the American cause); and his ambivalent attitudes toward the aristocracy (wittily conveyed in a number of staged excerpts from Barber and Figaro).

The crazy-quilt episodic narrative structure betrays the scattered nature of its source materials, fragments of Sacha Guitry’s unpublished play; but it is, nonetheless, a beautifully mounted and compelling historical drama with an outstanding French cast. Fabrice Luchini’s Beaumarchais, particularly, is a wryly genial and charming rascal whose rather bland round face is punctuated with sharply peaked brows and dancing eyes.

Even if Beaumarchais was probably not quite the impassioned revolutionary advocating the overthrow of the monarchy and its institutions that the film ultimately suggests—the concluding title declaims, “The great men of this world applauded Figaro, without realizing they were also applauding the birth of the French Revolution”—there was nonetheless enough historical smoke in the factual record to justify and fuel this cinematic fire. (Wisely, the film concludes at this point, omitting the sad ironies of Beaumarchais’ later years, when the Revolution resulted in the destruction of his fine home, a narrow brush with the guillotine, and years in exile as an emigre.)

In the final analysis, Beaumarchais is the perfect subject for a vivid, flamboyant pageant—a veritable succession of tableaux vivants—such as this; a movie worthy to stand alongside other outstanding recent French literary and historical films, like Patrice Leconte’s comedy of manners and politics in the court of Louis XVI, Ridicule (1996); Yves Angelo’s adaptation of Balzac’s Napoleonic drama, Colonel Chabert (1994); and Patrice Chereau’s recreation of the Catholic and Protestant disputes in late 17th century France, Queen Margot (1994). Beaumarchais himself paved the way for any dramatic license in which Beaumarchais the Scoundrel may indulge. He knew how to embellish the dry legalities of his numerous Memoires with irony and wit, his spy missions with dubious accounts of action and swordplay, his comic plays with songs and dance. As one character in the film observes of him, “He’s fond of intrigues, as befits a good playwright.” If he is caricatured here a bit, it is only just, for he himself was a master of caricature. “When my subject seizes me,” he wrote regarding his theatrical endeavors, “I call out all my characters and place them in a situation. . . . What they will say, I know not at all; it’s what they will do that concerns me. Then, when they are fully come to life, I write under their rapid dictation.”

One suspects that had he the opportunity, Beaumarchais might have written just such a scenario as we have here in this film.

The concluding scenes contain delicious moments from a stage production of The Marriage of Figaro. Here are lines like this prescription for success in politics:
“Pretending not to know what you do know, and knowing what you don’t.
Pretending not to understand when you do, and having nonexistent secrets.
Trying to appear profound when you’re shallow.
Putting on acts, hiring spies, and firing traitors.
Tampering with seals, intercepting letters.
Justifying your lowly methods with lofty goals.
That’s politics! Upon my life!”

READY PLAYER ONE: BALANCING ACT


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so forth. . .

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