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!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

DUNKIRK X TWO


Released to theaters within just a few months of each other, DUNKIRK and THE DARKEST HOUR present an historical event inside-out and outside-in. Framed in the timespan of a few weeks in May, 1940, Operation Dynamo’s mass evacuation of the embattled Dunkirk beaches that played a key role in Britain’s resistance to the Nazi invasion is a subject viewed from the outside looking in (DUNKIRK) and from the inside looking out (THE DARKEST HOUR). Aided by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s treatment is all vast spaces, on land, sea, and in the air. Armadas of ships, planes, and sailors race toward a last-minute rescue of the 350,000 embattled British troops. It’s an opera, proclaimed loudly on a vast stage. Joe Wright’s version, assisted by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is an interior vision of narrow corridors, sealed offices, and secure war rooms. It’s a claustrophobic chamber drama in hushed voices in cramped spaces. It wreaks a miracle of its own—Churchill’s inspiring message of resistance, not capitulation.

Winston Churchill in the first is only a voice heard in the final minutes on the radio. In the second, Church himself (Gary Oldman) delivers the message in the crowded chambers of Parliament. The soundtrack of the first is punctuated by explosions of bombs and cannonfire; in the second, it is counterpointed by the quiet tap-tap-tapping of secretarial typewriters.

Each has its share of unlikely civilian heroes—Mark Rylance’s grim determination on the open sea to avenge his dead son in DUNKIRK; and a cry of resistance by passengers in a crowded subway car in THE DARKEST HOUR.

What do we make of these two visions of a single event? Taken together, they book-end an event with a comprehensiveness and a complexity denied to either alone. Each hardly exists without the other. Ideally, they should be screened together, with perhaps a breather in between. Their great, collective message is that History is a chronicle told in both shouts and whispers. History places figures in landscapes and situations of release and confinement, action and stasis, silences and words, resolution and ambiguity.

Somewhere in between is our best chance to understand the mysteries of is happening all along in the storied world in which we live.