Sunday, December 9, 2018
“Smallfoot” is a better idea than movie. The twist is that in this story, bigfoots really exist, except to them we’re the mythological and frightening creatures. It’s a cool concept that gets watered down into a standard kiddie film with boingy action and a slathered-on life-lessons theme.
Channing Tatum voices Migo, a young yeti who is about to take over the prestigious job of gong-ringer. This means making the sun rise by catapulting himself across their Himalayan mountain village and slamming his head into a massive gong. His dad (Danny DeVito) has held the position for many years, and has literally shrunk in the job.
A lot of the things the yetis do are like that -- they’re fun but don’t make much sense. Still, it’s a bustling place with a lot of joy.
They have some strange laws, though, enforced by the stoic Stonekeeper (Common), who wears a robe consisting of stone tiles, each one inscribed with a law known to be true. One of them reads, “There is no such thing as a smallfoot.” Odd that they would have a word and a rule for something that supposedly doesn’t exist.
Soon enough Migo stumbles across a real smallfoot, aka human, in the form of Percy Patterson (James Corden), a down-market wildlife television personality who has come to the Himalayas in order to fake a bigfoot sighting and pump up his ratings. Then he runs into the real thing, they become fast friends and Migo takes him back to his mountaintop village.
This puts him in conflict with the Stonekeeper and the yetis’ entire belief system. But with a few musical numbers and antics, everything will turn out all right.
“Smallfoot” is animation for the whole family, or at least the sort under age 10. It’s a perfect movie for home video, since parents can hit the ‘play’ button and then find something better to do.
Video extras are decent, and include a new animated short, “Super Soozie,” about a yeti toddler. There’s also a sing-along mode, three music videos and a couple of making-of featurettes.
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
When Willem Dafoe was still young, there was something about him that seemed quite ancient. Now that he’s older, he retains an eerie vitality that allows him to effortlessly play a man three decades younger than himself.
Many say the art of Vincent van Gogh is similar ageless.
Here was a man quite literally obsessed with his work, and yet he only sold a single painting during his short lifetime. “At Eternity’s Gate” is a chronicle of his last, lonely days living in the tiny villages of Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, where he cranked out an astonishing body of work that will live on in immortality.
I’ll confess, at first I was put off by yet another film about van Gogh. Just last year we had “Loving Vincent,” an Oscar-nominated animated movie that used imagery by modern painters to relate the story.
And yet I found “At Eternity’s Gate” to be a breath of fresh air. Dafoe gives a transformative performance as the artist, depicting a man as wrapped up by his own demons as his desire to share his vision of how he sees the world.
Rather than portraying von Gogh as a man who made great art despite his mental instability, director Julian Schnabel, who co-wrote the script with Louise Kugelberg and Jean-Claude Carrière, shows them as inextricably entwined.
Dafoe’s lean, rawboned face turns out to be a surprisingly good match for the features shown in van Gogh’s various self-portraits. The photography by Benoît Delhomme is stunning, with many wordless passages of him just wandering around the French countryside, feeling inspired and feverishly getting it down on canvass.
Rupert Friend plays his brother, Theo, who supports him financially and, on the rare occasions when they’re in the same place, emotionally. They have a very tender moment where Theo comes to the asylum where Vincent has been committed, and cuddles him just as they did on cold nights as boys.
Oscar Isaac makes an impression as fellow painter and friend Paul Gauguin, who is angry and confident to van Gogh’s placid timidity. Both struggled to establish themselves in the face of Impressionism, but while van Gogh wanted to evolve from it and create a new form painting builton what he called “sunshine,” Gauguin rejected the old masters entirely. (Though he concedes Monet is “not bad.”)
Mads Mikkelsen and Mathieu Amalric play, respectively, a priest who struggles to reconcile van Gogh’s faith in God with paintings he considers to be ugly and disturbing, and Dr. Paul Gachet, one of van Gogh’s doctors and the subject of one of his most famous paintings.
The film’s title comes from one of van Gogh’s lesser-known works (if there is such a thing), “Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate).” Van Gogh speaks about his love for painting nature, musing that while flowers may fade and wilt, his capturing of them in paint will live on -- or at least have a chance to.
I liked how the film handled van Gogh’s infamous ear cutting. Rather than fetishizing the incident, Schnabel treats it as just one more episode for a man who struggled to reconcile the real world with the disparate, chaotic one he experienced in his mind. After the incident, the director depicts it by just having Dafoe’s head turned away from that side.
Lovely and insightful, “At Eternity’s Gate” celebrates the art of Vincent van Gogh without trying to obscure the madness and genius of the man behind it.
Monday, December 3, 2018
I love it when screenwriters give some of the best dialogue to minor characters. That's a hallmark of 1948's "Red River," directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. It's a big picture with an intimate feel, not to mention one of the darkest-themed Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood.Plantin' and readin'. Plantin' and readin'. Fill a man full of lead, stick him in the ground, and then read words at him. Why, when you kill a man, why try to read the Lord in as a partner on the job?--Simms Reeves
Frequent Wayne collaborator John Ford is said to have remarked after seeing the film, "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!"
Personally, I think "The Searchers" was the apotheosis of the grimmer side of Wayne's star persona, but "Red River" certainly deserves a spot among his better performances.
The quote above comes from the frequent Western player Hank Worden, known for his stick frame, bald head and high moan of a voice. It's a reference to Wayne's character, pioneer cattleman Thomas Dunson, who has a habit of shooting dead anybody who opposes him, including his own cowboys, but always insisting upon a proper burial and Bible reading the morning after.
All his killings seem to conveniently take place in the evening so as not to interrupt the massive cattle drive he's currently undertaking from Texas to Missouri. The story is a fictionalized version of the first major drive in 1865 on the Chisholm Trail, which actually goes to Kansas. (More on that in a minute.)
Dunson has spent the better part of the last 15 years building up the largest beef herd in all of Texas, only to find himself destitute with no market for his cattle. So he resolves to drive 10,000 head 1,000 miles to Missouri. He doesn't even have enough cash to pay his men, only the promise of triple pay if and when they should reach the market.
"Red River" is chockablock with interesting side characters and throwaway lines of dialogue. Screenwriters Borden Chase and Charles Schnee received an Oscar nomination for their story, based on Chase's story in the Saturday Evening Post. It contains the usual Western tropes of six-shooter duels, marauding Indians and womenfolk tempting cowboys to leave the trail in favor of more civilized town life.
The other Academy Award nod was for Christian Nyby's editing, which may literally have saved the film from extinction. Originally shot in 1946, "Red River" wasn't released until two years later as Hawks sought to tighten the narrative, and also was sued by Howard Hughes, who thought the finale too similar to his from "The Outlaw." Brennan recorded a narration which was used to replace written journal entries that pop up from time to time, but that cut of the film was lost for decades until it was reassembled from the Criterion Collection release a few years ago.
The version I saw is not that one, and still includes the journal pop-ups, which as Hawks feared are fleeting and difficult to read.
Brennan plays Groot (!), another in a long line of cantankerous oldsters in his repertoire. He's more sensible than some of his other soft-headed characters, showing fierce loyalty to Dunson but only up to a point. The story opens with just the two of them breaking off from a wagon train to stake their own claim across the Red River in Texas.
Dunson leaves behind a bountiful lass (Coleen Gray) who pretty well throws herself at him, insisting he take her along, but the lonesome prairie is no place for a woman and all that. He gives her his mother's bracelet as a promise to send for her, but hours later the pioneers are massacred by Indians, one of who wears the trinket as a prize.
Consigned to lifelong bachelorhood (read: cantankerous chastity), Dunson takes a young boy who escaped the attack, Matt Garth, as his ward and heir apparent. He admires that the lad, shell-shocked by the killing of his family, still has the wherewithal to pull a pint-sized gun on Dunson when he slaps the boy to his senses.
"He'll do," Dunson mutters to Groot in admiration.
Years later Matt has just returned from the Civil War a seasoned leader and gunfighter. Dunson appoints him trail master of 30 or so cowpunchers, with Groot driving the chuck wagon. As the trail goes on and the troubles pile up, Dunson becomes increasingly dictatorial and hard-handed, shooting several deserters or would-be mutineers.
Matt, now played by Montgomery Clift, obediently knuckles under and keeps the men (mostly) in line. But when one lunkheaded idjit (Ivan Parry) causes a stampede by clanking some pots while stealing some sugar, resulting in the death of one man and 300 lost head, Dunson insists on whipping the transgressor. When the man refuses to accept this debasement, Matt shoots him in the shoulder to prevent the boss from giving him one between the eyes.
Soon Dunson is barely sleeping and drinking all the time, a paranoid petty tyrant of the plains.
Things finally come to a head when Dunson wants to hang some deserters, and Matt opposes him, essentially leading an ad-hoc mutiny. The older man vows to catch up to Matt and kill him, and for the rest of the movie the audience is looking over his shoulder right along with him.
They finally make it to Abilene, turning west to avoid the bandits attacking every cattle drive, and because they heard there's a new railroad stop there. There Matt again meets up with Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), a plucky gal and member of another wagon train the boys saved from Indians along the way, and they fall hard for each other.
(Including the usual heavily-implied but in-no-way-depicted sex.)
The final showdown between Dunson and Matt is energetic, if a little soft-headed. Dunson has recruited a dozen or so hard gunmen to accompany him, but then insists on a mano-e-mano face-off with Matt. Matt refuses to draw his gun, even when Dunson shoots his hat off and grazes his cheek. I loved Clift's surly, sneering defiance in this scene.
They trade guns for fists, until the scuffle is broken up by Tess when she holds them both at gunpoint and essentially forces them to hug it out. Dunson's fevered spell is immediately broken, and he's back to smiles and treating Matt as his adopted son.
This doesn't really play for me. If Dunson never intended to kill Matt, then why round up a crew and come after him? In the original published story, Dunson is slain by Cherry Valance (John Ireland), a deadly gun they took on at the start of the drive. But a movie can't end with John Wayne gunned down -- at least not unless it's his last film, "The Shootist," which coincidentally this film uses footage from in the flashback scenes.
Cherry is the darkling yang to Matt's yin, both skilled gunfighters with a lot of bravado and grit. In an early scene, they trade pistols and impress each other with some sharpshooting.
It seems destined that the two will eventually come to blows and/or bullets -- several other characters make this observation explicitly -- but interestingly, they never do, forming a grudging friendship. I would have loved to seen a sequel where the pair light out for some adventures of their own.
A few other notables from the cast:
- Harry Carey Sr. plays the friendly businessman in town eager to scoop up the beef, and his son Jr. is the unfortunate cowboy who got squished in the stampede. His dream was to buy his wife a pair of red shoes, which is a pretty meager dream.
- Shelley Winters has one of her earliest screen roles (uncredited) as a dance hall girl. Ditto for Richard Farnsworth, playing a background cowboy.
- Chief Yowlachie plays Quo, an Indian scout who wins a poker hand against Groot in which he has staked a 50 percent interest in his set of false teeth. I loved his line, "From now on, I will be known as Two Jaw Quo." He lets the cook have his teeth back for eating, but otherwise carries them around in a little pouch like a totem.
Originally just seen as another workaday Western, the reputation of "Red River" has grown with the years, and was even named the fifth-best ever of its genre by the American Film Institute. That's a bit over the top, methinks, but it's definitely a surprisingly hard-bitten tale that rides high in the saddle.
Sunday, December 2, 2018
I enjoyed “Mission: Impossible -- Fallout,” as I’ve liked all the movies starring Tom Cruise as international superspy Ethan Hunt. The franchise has been going for 22 years now if you can believe it, though only six films total. It seems like anytime talk of “Is Tom Cruise’s star starting to fade?” pops up, he quickly runs back for another MI megahit.
“Fallout” is essentially a retread of the last one, again featuring the same villain: Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a terrorist who wants world peace but thinks it can only be achieved by mass destruction and death. Ethan put him in jail in the last movie, but he manages to break out and start mayhem anew.
The new wrinkle is the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a famous philanthropist by day who is assisting Lane on the sly. There’s a suggestion of an attraction between Ethan and her, though I get the sense any coupling would be of the praying mantis variety. (Google it.)
The various sidekicks are back: Ving Rhames as Luther, munitions man extraordinaire; Simon Pegg as Benji, sort of a nerdy Q knockoff; Angela Bassett and Alec Baldwin as Washington politicians tut-tutting Ethan’s methods; and Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, a British agent who’s been both an ally and nuisance over the years.
Henry Cavill plays a new ally-slash-competitor, CIA wetboy Walker. He and Ethan have a memorable two-against-one fight in a men’s bathroom against a little dude who’s more than a match for them. Of course, their own confrontation is telegraphed so much it feels inevitable.
“Mission: Impossible -- Fallout” is a perfect example of a popcorn movie. It tastes good going down, but it’s empty calories you soon forget.
Bonus features are quite good. These include three separate commentary tracks: one with director Christopher McQuarrie and Cruise, another with McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton, and the third with composer Lorne Balfe.
There’s also an expansive making-of documentary, deleted scenes with optional commentary, a musical breakdown of a key foot chase, storyboards and an isolated musical track score.
Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Maria Callas may have been the most photographed and filmed woman of her day, or any. It’s difficult for a normal person to think what it’s like to have almost your every daily movement tracked and recorded for posterity, often to be consumed by a public with an insatiable appetite for it. I think most of us would wilt in such a glare.
Luckily, one benefit of such a life lived is that it provides an abundance of material to document it, which is why “Maria by Callas” is an atypical and often compelling documentary film.
Rather than have a bunch of people talking about the opera diva’s legacy as an artist, director Tom Volf tells Callas’ tale in exactly her own words. The two-hour movie consists entirely of interviews with her, footage of her performances or public appearances, and deeply personal letters to friends read by (speaking voice) sound-alike Joyce DiDonato.
I confess I am not an opera aficionado; I don’t care for the way it bends the human voice into unnatural reverberations, and as a storytelling vehicle it feels very static and contrived. One of its chief obstacles as a popular art is that you’re looked down upon for not liking it.
But “Maria by Callas” focuses more on the woman than the artist. This is suggested by the title, as well as one of the earliest interviews shown, in which she talks about the dichotomy of living as the singer, Callas, and as a simple, shy woman, Maria. Savaged in the press for her tempestuous relationship with composers and maestros, as well as her often chaotic love life, Callas was loved and hated on an immense international scale.
She comes across in the film as self-involved, extremely intelligent, confident in her professional choices and retiring in her personal life. Decades before women were instructed they could “have it all,” she talks with open regret about the impossibility of having both a family, which she regarded as a woman’s highest calling, and enjoying the kind of career she did.
The documentary tracks her early life, born and raised in Brooklyn to Greek immigrants until they decided to move back to their homeland when she was a teenager, and being pressed into a musical career by her mother at age 13.
Curiously, the film offers nothing about her courtship and wedding to the much-older Giovanni Battista Meneghini, who she says traded on her celebrity. There is quite a bit, though, about her long-running romance with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, which began as a friendship, then turned into an affair, then bounced back and forth between for the rest of their lives.
She was taken aback when Onassis suddenly married Jackie Kennedy in 1968 --- something Callas says she learned about by reading the newspapers. One letter written to him shortly before the betrayal is heartbreaking in the almost pathetic way she offers herself to him.
There are also several long performances from various parts of her career, which Volf feels compelled to relate in their entirety. I couldn’t tell you how wonderful a singer Callas was, though some dub her the greatest songstress of the 20th century, while others have called her sound “ugly” and “arid.”
I was more interested in her acting than her singing. While performing, Callas often clutched her hands to her chest, almost as if trying to protect herself while forcing the air out of her lungs. With her large, expressive eyes, bold protruding nose and wide mouth, Callas was not a classical beauty. But her presentation, like her voice, was so arresting because she did not seem to resemble any other person.
Maria Callas was, in a word, unique. While this documentary skims over some portions of her life and career that I would’ve found interesting -- such as how her dramatic early weight loss may have contributed to her vocal decline -- it’s still a fascinating film. The art may not inspire me, but this portrait of the artist does.
Sunday, November 25, 2018
“Searching” shows that even with new tools, good storytelling still follows some very old rules.
This mystery-thriller stars John Cho as a dad searching for his missing daughter by following her digital trail on social media, email and chats. The entire movie plays out on computer screens, as David Kim types and clicks is way through a byzantine trail of clues.
It may not sound like you could watch an entire movie this way, but it’s surprisingly effective. Director Aneesh Chaganty and co-screenwriter Sev Ohanian keep things moving along at a brisk pace, keeping the audience guessing.
David and his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), lost their wife and mother a couple of years ago, and haven’t really processed their own relationship going forward. They both keep busy, and she’s going off to college next year, and they’re fumbling their way through.
One day Margot doesn’t return her texts or phone calls. A study group trip turns out to be bogus, so David grows worried and calls in the cops. Rather than being dismissive, they’re right on top of the case. Soon it becomes a media sensation, which only adds to the pressure.
What David learns from his searching is that Margot is very different from the person he thought he knew. She’s rather lonely and estranged from her fellow students. No one’s bullying her; it’s just that in this age of Instagram and Facebook, it’s easy to present a picture of a happy life without actually living it.
“Searching” is an engaging look at the search for not just a person, but the truth behind the façade.
Video extras are pretty good. They include a feature-length commentary track by Chaganty and Ohanian, plus three documentary shorts: “Changing The Language Of Cinema,” “Update Username: Cast and Characters” and “Searching For Easter Eggs.”
Thursday, November 22, 2018
“The Front Runner” is an unflattering portrait of American politics, but even more so of the media.
Based on a book by political journalist Matt Bai, who also co-wrote this screenplay, it examines the moment when tabloid and mainstream news intersected, merged and never really looked back. This was Gary Hart’s 1987 campaign for the presidency, when the U.S. senator from Colorado was seen as the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic nomination, only to have it all unwind in less than month when his serial philandering was reported.
For decades, Washington politicians held the journalists who covered them to a gentlemen’s agreement: look the other way when young ladies are seen going in and out of our doors, and we will give the access you need to do your jobs. It was a nearly all-male environment, both in the corridors of power and the newsrooms charged with checking them -- so the Faustian bargain was accepted.
Consider that just two years before Hart’s implosion, Teddy Kennedy was witnessed assaulting a waitress along with his protégé, Chris Dodd. It went unreported for five years, and only then in a chuckling passage in a men’s magazine.
That was the mentality held by Hart, a wonky and charismatic politician played by Hugh Jackman. Hart is a man of big ideas and enthusiasm for the future who was laid low by clinging to the unsavory practices of the past. He is annoyed, then outraged, that his philandering is not swept under the rug as it always has been.
“This is beneath you,” he seethes at a young Washington Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie) who dares bring up rumors of his affairs. “Follow me around, put a tail on me. You'll be very bored.”
This line has entered the lore of politics, but like a lot of legends it’s mostly fiction. Hart did not challenge journalists to follow him and then openly dally with bimbos. Reporters from the Miami Herald, acting on a tip from a friend of one of Hart’s conquests, staked out his D.C. townhouse and witnessed model/pharmaceutical saleswoman Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) going in and out. They only heard about the “follow me” line after the fact.
(It should also be noted that the Herald reporters, played by Steve Zissis and Bill Burr, did not “hide behind bushes” as Hart contended, which also became part of the erroneous mythology.)
Directed by Jason Reitman, who co-wrote the script with Bai and Jay Carson, “The Front Runner” is an ambitious, contemplative movie that asks hard questions without offering easy answers.
Was it unseemly for reporters to lurk around during Hart’s downtime to see who he dallied with? Should they have looked the other way, as had been practice? Was it fair for Hart’s talents and ambition to be the price our nation paid for demanding more of our politicians?
One female journalist gives a poignant speech pointing out that Hart, for all his blessings, was still just another man willing to employ his power to use and dispose of women who cater to his whims. There’s also a nice sequence where one of Hart’s campaign workers (Molly Ephraim) is charged with “handling” Rice as the story explodes, knowing she is about to be fed to the wolves.
The film reminded me a lot of early Robert Altman movies, with large casts of characters moving in and out of the frame as the camera slides past, their conversations overlapping and receding. It lends a sense of documentary-like authenticity.
There’s too many supporting actors to mention, although Vera Farmiga and J. K. Simmons stand out as, respectively, Hart’s wife, Lee, who is willing to overlook his dalliances until they become an embarrassment her, and the campaign manager who has spent years building a political machine only to watch it turn to ash virtually overnight.
Thirty years later, Hart’s fall seems almost quaint now in this day of presidential porn star mistresses, handsy politicians of all stripes and a media that has grown both quantifiably smaller and more meager in its ambitions.
Making do with the errors of the past is bad, but sometimes in reaching for something better we degrade ourselves. “The Front Runner” is the cautionary tale of our collective rise and fall.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
“Ralph Breaks the Internet” has more brains than heart. The filmmakers seem to have thought very carefully through the implications of taking throwback arcade game villain (now reformed) Wreck-It Ralph and shooting him into the wild world of the Internet.
It’s represented as a vast, science fiction-y cityscape where every major Internet player has their own building hub -- Google, eBay, SnapChat, etc. People are represented by little blocky icons as they steer through the landscape. Those annoying pop-up ads are street barkers holding up signs imploring folks to click. Likes are hearts, which can translate into actual money. And so on.
(There’s no hint of a sleazier neighborhood, fleshy pursuits taking up an astonishing portion of the real digital domain. But hey, it’s a Disney animated flick.)
I wish the movie had given as much care to its emotional navigation. If the message of “Wreck-It Ralph” was to not put people in the little boxes society assigns them, then the sequel is a mushier muddle about setting someone free if you really love them, or something.
The story picks up six years later, the same amount of time that’s passed between movies. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and pint-sized racer Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) are still fast friends, spending virtually all their downtime when their arcade is closed sloshing root beers and having adventures in various other games. During the daytime they go to “work,” aka starring as characters in their own games.
In the last movie, Vanellope’s game, “Sugar Rush,” was the hot new thing, but time saps everyone’s glow. Vanellope is getting a little tired of winning all the time on the same old tracks. She’s craving the “not knowing what comes next feeling,” while Ralph is content with the same-old, same-old.
When the steering wheel on her game snaps off, the kindly old arcade owner doesn’t have the cash to buy a new one off eBay. So Ralph and Vanellope take a ride on the wifi he recently installed.
Finding out they need money to buy the wheel, they at first stumble upon the idea of acquiring rare items in online games to sell. They invade a post-apocalyptic game called Death Race, and encounter Shank (Gal Gadot), the smooth leader of a road gang whose car they’re supposed to steal. That doesn’t work out, but leads to the idea of making goofy videos starring Ralph to splash all over a YouTube clone with their head algorithm, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), lending advice.
Things go from there. The movie hits a torpor around the middle, though it picks up soon enough.
By far the most interesting stuff is when Disney pokes fun at itself, represented as a chaotic mishmash of its classic cartoons and IPs it’s acquired in recent years: the Muppets, Marvel Comics, Star Wars. It’s the sort of thing you’ll want to freeze-frame when it comes out on video so you can catch all the Easter Eggs and inside jokes.
This leads to Vanellope, who’s at least nominally a princess, landing in the quarters of all the Disney princesses -- Snow White, Moana, Rapunzel, Belle, you name it, they’re here. Together they share a freewheeling moment where they trade their stiff gowns for comfy sweats and talk about the foibles of their trade.
There’s the downside, like being expected to wait for a strong man to solve all their problems, but also the bliss of finding your perfect dream song.
They actually bring back most of the original voice actresses to reprise their roles. I loved the self-poking fun of even the other princesses being unable to comprehend the thick Scottish brogue of Merida from “Brave.”
The last act gets very action-oriented and super hero-y, which the kiddies will love but I found a little rote. Still, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a fun sequel with lots of color and spectacle. It doesn’t quite pass the test of “Did this movie need to exist?” But I don’t mind having it around.
Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Tony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, stumbles out of bed to find his Bronx apartment filled with friends and relatives -- all men. It’s been another hard night working at the Copacabana, another face split open by his fists. It’s what he does. His people are there because a couple of plumbers are working in the kitchen while he was sleeping, and they are black.
How could you leave my sister alone with those “eggplants,” demands his brother-in-law (Sebastian Maniscalco). His father refers to the men (in Italian) as “sacks of coal.” After Tony spies his wife (Linda Cardellini) giving the plumbers lemonade, he quietly slips the offending glasses into the trash.
This is the opening for “Green Book,” one of the finest films of 2018. It’s about two very different men who forge an unexpected bond while traveling in the Deep South in 1962. It’s a historical tale that has an urgent relevancy to our very divided times.
Few films move me to real tears; this one did, and not just once.
The Copa is closing down for a couple months for renovations, and Tony needs a paycheck. The slicked-back-hair types can always find work for him; Tony has a talent for the rough stuff but doesn’t relish it. Another prospect presents itself: chauffeur a doctor around for eight weeks.
It turns out this is Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist (and owner of several doctorates) who is about to embark on a private concert tour in the Midwest and South. He is everything Tony is not: black, educated, literate, well-dressed, finely mannered, aloof. Shirley is put off by Tony’s Guido manners, but knows that when the tour turns left into lands of overt segregation, he will need not just a driver but a bodyguard.
The physical divide between the lead actors is striking. As Shirley, Mahershali Ali seems to have grown taller and leaner from when he won an Oscar for “Moonlight.” His Don Shirley is a man of very refined tastes. He plays only Steinway grand pianos and drinks nothing but Cutty Sark. Riding in the back of a brand-new turquoise Cadillac Sedan De Ville, he places a fine cloth over his legs, as if creating a barrier from the ordinary.
Vigo Mortensen’s Tony Lip has simple but voracious appetites. He is seemingly perpetually eating, stuffing his hole with sandwiches, steaks, burgers, whatever he can get. I’d guess Mortensen packed 40 pounds on for this role. Affecting a stumblebum patois, he seeds his speech liberally with “deese and dose,” along with plenty of epithets.
They cruise around the country, sharing extended conversations that gradually move from boss/worker to adversaries to something like an alliance. Tony isn’t hateful, but grew up with racism seeped into his skin. Shirley is a more complex character, proud of his blackness but aware of his estrangement from regular folks with his skin color.
Shirley sits atop a throne of his own making, but as he tells Tony, a high castle can be a lonely place.
Food and music are the fuel that drives their journey. Tony is astounded to learn that Shirley has never tasted fried chicken, and promptly pulls over in Kentucky for a bucketful. He’s also amazed that Shirley is unaware of celebrated black pop singers of the day like Aretha Franklin, Chubby Checkers or Little Richard. In a fit of hyperbole, Tony declares himself more authentically black than his passenger.
Shirley’s band, the Don Shirley Trio, plays intricate jazz with a deep overlay of classical music that belies his training. He’d prefer to play Chopin, but the record label doesn’t think that would sell. Shirley goes along, both for the sake of his own ambitions and for ulterior motives, which prompted this tour of swanky rich folk’s homes and country clubs.
As they turn south, their fortunes follow. There are expected run-ins with police and rednecks, but also the subtler kind where well-heeled types invite Shirley into their mansions but won’t let him use the bathroom. He’s a man of massive resolve and dignity, but there are limits.
At first Tony helps Shirley because it’s his job; he will not receive the back end of his contract if they miss any performance dates. But later, he stops seeing Shirley as an “other” but one of his own, to be backed up and stuck to.
People will no doubt be surprised to learn “Green Book” is directed by Peter Farrelly, best known for the “Dumb and Dumber” flicks. He co-wrote the script with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son. The title comes from real publications of the day that instructed black travelers on safe places in the South where they could eat or sleep.
I kept waiting for the film to stumble or a strike a false note, but it never does. As the men face adversity together, their natural enmity falls away. It’s a simple tale, personal yet timeless. With so much in the world beating us down every day, I savored being uplifted.
Monday, November 19, 2018
"Well, you ain't much. But you're a helluva lot better than nothin'."
I'm not sure if "Molly and Lawless John" fits in with the so-called "Acid Western" genre that I've only recently stumbled across. I'm starting to get the sense that it's a very loosely defined collection of films that spanned only a handful of years. It seems more like an idea that was only retroactively applied to a very disparate sort of cowboy pictures.
The late, great Pauline Kael coined the term in her 1971 review of "El Topo," which I think may be the only movie everyone can say without reservation deserves that label. Maybe also Jim Jarmusch's much-later "Dead Man" -- a film that receives the highest critical censure I have to offer: "unwatchable."
"Molly" is interesting for a few reasons. First, it features Sam Elliott in one of his earliest starring roles. Like Spencer Tracy and a handful of other fine actors akin to himself, Elliott seems like he was born middle-aged, his mien gaining more and more character as it assumed an increasingly craggy appearance.
But here he is, still in his 20s, smooth-faced and lacking his iconic mustache (aside from a beard his character grows midway through the story, which I suspect was a face merkin).
How powerful is the imagery of Elliott's upper lip hairs? Do a search for photos related to this movie and you'll find that the film has been reissued on video a number of times with DVD covers and posters that depict an older, bountifully mustachioed Elliott. One of them is so recent, the actor must've been at least 60 at the time.
John Lawler is actually referred to as "just a boy" by the main character, Molly, a forlorn sheriff's wife edging up against motherless middle age played by Vera Miles. The setup is that he's captured after robbing a bank, killing several men in the process, and her husband, Marvin Parker (John Anderson), puts him in his jail until the judge can arrive to authorize the stringing up.
Molly, like a lot of sheriff's wives in the movies, has an unofficial capacity as cleaner of the jail and feeder of the prisoners. She loiters in these errands, clearly intrigued by the rangy cowpoke making eyes at her, and they steal a few quick conversations.
She then arranges to send off the tired deputy on guard duty so they can have a few hours alone together, and John sweet-talks her mercilessly, saying she favors his mother with her long brown hair, and he regrets that he'll swing from a rope without getting to see her have the child she so desperately wants -- and that he could help her have, unlike that crusty old sheriff.
She doesn't take much convincing to bust him out, and off they ride together, dodging posses and having adventures. It's soon quite clear that John's affections for her extended only so far as her ability to get him out of certain death. He even tells her so, quite explicitly, that he lied to her to save her neck.
Yet Molly retains a grim, doomed hope that the bandit will turn out to be the man of her dreams she thought the sheriff would be. He even ditches her on several occasions, only to return. In one sequence he leaves her stranded alone in the desert, and when his horses appears over the dune a few days later, the gullible, parched woman even smiles at him.
Just as our pity for Molly has started to curdle toward distaste, she starts to show some backbone. When an American Indian squaw with a newborn babe stumbles upon them and promptly dies, Molly latches onto the infant with ferocious, if passive determination. It's immediately evident that she views this as her last, best opportunity for motherhood.
She names him "Little John" and makes it clear she wants big John to act like a father to him. He seems ready to put the boy on a spit and roast him, though he does (albeit briefly) show him some tenderness, when Molly has to go into town to pick up supplies and run an errand on his behalf.
It turns out this chore is the breaking point. Molly is to seek out Dolly (Cynthia Myers), a whore that he traffics with whenever he passes her way. In Dolly Molly sees the same neediness and dependence that has come to define her own interaction with him. John actually makes Molly and the baby sit on the stoop outside their hideout shack while and he and Dolly have extended, celebratory sex.
The next time John's fickle moods bend southward, Molly has finally toughened up enough to take a genuine stand in the sand. "I loved you..." are her parting -- and for him, final -- words.
This was the first feature film for director Gary Nelson, a television veteran who would go on to helm some notable pictures including "Freaky Friday" and "The Black Hole." The version I saw (via Amazon streaming) had apparently been cropped on the sides to play on TV, resulting in a nearly square image that I'm sure left off some important panoramic vistas. "Molly" has a spare, cinema verite sort of beauty.
The screenplay, the only one by erstwhile actor Terry Kingsley-Smith, has a great premise but doesn't really flesh out the characters enough. John in particular remains largely an enigma, his actions swinging this way and that along with his regard for Molly. He's a user, only caring for people as far as they can do for him. But Elliott's face shows several flashes where it seems like he's tempted by her stubborn goodness -- particularly the way she always seems to have faith in his ability to change, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I'm not sure if they're intentional, but there are some tinges of proto-feminist themes in this movie. Molly remains the clear central character throughout, and John is the external force that plows into her life and shakes things up. Starting out as a passive wallflower who wants only to be a mommy, by the end she's a seasoned veteran of the open range, her hair shorn, her face sun-blasted and her demeanor abrupt and commanding.
Miles had a long and distinguished career, doubtlessly best known for playing the snooping sister in "Psycho" -- a role she reprised in the regrettable sequel nearly a quarter-century later.
She was hardly a stranger to Westerns, playing a key role in "The Searchers." After this film she made two other family-themed Westerns in quick succession, "One Little Indian" and pairing with James Garner in "The Castaway Cowboy." She largely returned to her roots in TV after that, remaining active into the 1990s. (And, at nearly 90, she's still with us.)
"Molly and Lawless John" isn't a great movie or even a particularly good one, but it's an interesting time capsule of how the most venerable of film genres was aging after the apex of the counter-culture. It may not be acid, but it's a strange trip.
Sunday, November 18, 2018
“We the Animals” won’t be everyone’s bag, but it’s a highly creative and interesting form of moviemaking.
Jeremiah Zagar, a veteran documentary filmmaker, brings to life the novel by Justin Torres about a trio of brothers growing up in a rural area in the 1980s. It eschews a conventional sense of dialogue and plot in favor of imagery and music to convey the boys’ journey.
With both parents stuck working menial night jobs, Manny (Isaiah Kristian), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Jonah (Evan Rosado) are left more or less to their own devices. They wander the rustic countryside around their home, get into minor trouble and deal with the crumbling relationship of their parents (Sheila Vand and Raúl Castillo).
Jonah is the writer/dreamer of the family, carefully keeping a sprawling journal consisting of clippings, writings and drawings that he hides underneath the bed the boys share. His musings come to life in gorgeous, disturbing animated sequences. It is through Jonah’s eyes that the story plays out.
After a fearful encounter that includes physical abuse, the father moves out, while the mother stays bedridden for days. The brothers empty the house of food before resorting to shoplifting and stealing from an old man’s vegetable patch to eat. The man takes pity on them and feeds them, leading to a tentative friendship with his grandson.
“We the Animals” is a dreamlike movie that’s beautiful to look at, even when it reveals a lot of the ugliness we all feel inside.
Note: I could not obtain any information about bonus materials.
Friday, November 16, 2018
William Goldman so mastered Hollywood's byzantine rules that he not only became known as its greatest screenwriter, he also saw through its charades and shenanigans -- and wasn't afraid to write that, too.
When his "Adventures in the Screen Trade" was published in 1983, he was riding as high as anyone could: winner of two Oscars (for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men"), highly-paid and sought after both for his own screenplays and as a script doctor for others', someone whose name alone could help get a project green-lit.
But he wrote honestly and acidly about the business of Hollywood in the book, including his own travails and butting of heads with giants like Robert Redford. Perhaps not coincidentally for a place known for the phrase "you'll never eat lunch in this town again," the next few years were a downtime for him. Even "The Princess Bride," based on his beloved own novel, was a middling hit in 1987. But he hit a second stride that lasted through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Bill has died at age 87. I'm proud to say I knew him, if only a little.
He and my father, Jim, were fast friends at Oberlin College and kept in touch over the years. When I was growing up my dad would make occasional references to knowing somebody in showbiz, which I largely ignored until I was a teenager and knew I wanted to write about movies. He would always call him "Bill," as in mentioning to my mother, "Just got off the phone with Bill Goldman." And so I will, too.
I first met Bill in 1990 when I transferred to New York University to join the Cinema Studies department -- not the much larger and more heralded Film department; we watched movies rather than make them for an education. By then he was divorced and his daughters grown, so he was living alone in an expansive apartment in a Manhattan hotel.
I remember it was raining a deluge that day; my parents and I all got soaked to the skin. So we decided to eat lunch in, wearing some of Bill's old sweatshirts. I got to hoist his Oscars, which he kept lackadaisically on an old bookshelf. Many people have commented how they're much heavier than they appear, which I found to be true.
My dad was a little nervous about leaving his only son alone in the big, mean city. He gave me the phone numbers of two friends in New York City I was supposed to call upon if I had any trouble, and one was Bill's. I kept it for many years without ever using it.
That first day we spent some hours talking movies -- I'm afraid to say I probably came across as a little snotty. My tastes still ran to visual spectacles in those days, before I'd learned that I needed to learn more. Bill was polite to his friend's son, declining to tell me what an ass I was. The only hint was the inscription he wrote in my copy of "Adventures," which reads: "To Chris Lloyd, You knew all this anyway, God Bless, Bill."
Luckily, we did not leave it there.
Bill was just as direct via email as he was in person or in his writings. If Bill thought the favorite to win the Best Picture Oscar that year was piece of shit, that's exactly what he would write. We occasionally argued, but in a good-natured way.
Interesting aside: in email, Bill mostly eschewed things like capitalization and punctuation. Sentences tended to be very short or run on. Perhaps someone so used to writing in the careful formatting of screenplays craved having a sphere where he could throw out all rules.
But he always signed them the same way: "God bless, Bill."
I knew he was ill in recent years, and the death of his daughter three years ago marked about the last time we spoke. I'm glad to see the various news services giving his passing glowing coverage. His last produced screenplay was "Dreamcatcher" in 2003, based upon Stephen King's book, and it was a commercial flop. I remember some of the reviews at the time were quite vicious in mentioning Goldman's name.
Bill Goldman was a great writer who was also open about how painful the process of writing was for him. He talked of "going into my pit" upon embarking on a new project. He often felt cut off and alienated from others. The reputation of a curmudgeon eventually formed around his persona, especially as he got older.
But as everyone else spends this time talking about his achievements as a writer, I just wanted to pay my own meager tribute to the man. His most famous saying was "Nobody knows anything," but I'm one of many who can say that this was a man who knew a lot.
Thursday, November 15, 2018
What an utterly imcomprehensible movie.
J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" spinoff, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," was a lackluster effort that showed that successful novelists don't always make for good screenwriters. It featured a drab, uninteresting protagonist, a retread of the Harry/Voldemort dynamic of good/handsome young wizard versus the evil/ugly old wizard, and a lot of hard-to-follow CGI. Even though it only came out two years ago, I barely have any solid memory of it.
The not-needed sequel, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald," is so nonsensical that I spent the entire 2¼-hour run time just trying to figure out who was who and what was what. I still didn't have it all properly sorted by the end.
You may recall that the end of the first film, magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, still stooping and mumbling his dialogue) had battled a member of the Ministry of Magic, which acts as the law enforcement for the parallel world of wizards and witches, who was revealed to be the nefarious Grindelwald. Like Voldemort, he believes that magic-users are destined to rule the world over the non-magical Muggles, especially those of pure blood.
He quickly escapes his confinement in a daring mid-air battle, and sets about leading his revolt. Professor Dumbledore (Jude Law), the most powerful wizard in the land, refuses to take on Grindelwald himself, and begs Newt to do so instead.
"You do not seek power or popularity," Dumbledore tells Newt as the pretext of why he should do battle in his place. Flashbacks, however, reveal a friendship of a... special nature from when he and and Grindelwald were young.
(Rowling still keep insisting, in a cheap bit of post-publication revision, that Dumbledore is gay, though as a screenwriter she hasn't yet seen fit to make it explicit.)
This sets off another round of international magic-hopping, face-offs, Newt being chased by the ministry "aurors," including his own brother, and the introduction of some new critters from Newt's briefcase menagerie, including one that looks like one of those Chinese parade dragons brought to life.
Several side characters return, without good purpose. There's Newt's Muggle friend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and his witch lady love, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Credence (Ezra Miller), a disturbed wizard everyone refers to as "a boy" even though Miller looks to be pushing 30, acts as the Macguffin everyone is chasing after because he's the key to something.
(Things are always keys to something in the Harry Potter universe.)
Katherine Waterston returns as Tina, an auror who arrested Newt in the last movie and then fell in love with him, although no one actually says so because everyone's British. This movie literally has no idea what to do with her, so she's shunted off to the sides of the action and we largely forget about her. We're to believe that she's an expert investigator, but took at face value an erroneous wizard newspaper article claiming Newt was engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) rather than Newt's brother, Theseus (Callum Turner), thus hurting her feelings.
Johnny Depp is pretty much the only interesting thing in the movie, needling and coaxing like a mythical serpent, essentially colorless with a shock of platinum hair, death's-head pallor and mismatched eyes. As written he's merely a more charismatic version of Voldemort, but still, whenever he's onscreen you can't take your eyes off him.
The opposite can be said for Newt, who's just as bloodless and boring as the last time around. It often happens that the protagonist of a story, especially one with a fantastical backdrop, is made to be less interesting than the whiz-bang supporting characters and villains, acting as a familiar anchor for the audience to relate to.
But Redmayne's Newt is just a drip. The fact that he's caught in a raging storm of impossible-to-follow subplots and eye candy makes it understandable that he's swallowed by his own story.
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
“Wildlife” features some truly wonderful actors plying their craft at the highest of levels. And I didn’t believe a one of them for a cold minute.
This drama set in 1960 stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a youngish couple whose marriage is fracturing. Ed Oxenbould plays their sensitive 14-year-old son, Joe, who is forced to sit a front row seat to the slow, raucous dissolution. The film is based on the novel by Richard Ford, unread by me.
In stories of this kind we’re used to a lot of repressed emotions and raised voices behind closed doors. In the Hollywood view of this period, America was a cloistered place where people didn’t like to publicly air their dirty laundry. Things like marital estrangement and infidelity were swept under rugs.
Here, the film takes things so far to the opposite end it strains credulity to the breaking point, and beyond.
Not only do Jeanette and Jerry Brinson (Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, respectively) make no effort to hide their growing war from Joe, they actually enlist him as a participant. He sits in on their arguments and is explicitly asked to offer an opinion or take sides.
Later, the grotesquerie will grow even more overt, and less believable.
The Brinsons move around a lot because Jerry is always chasing the next big thing. He was recruited to be a golf pro at the club in Great Falls, Montana, but soon loses the job because he’s too “familiar” with the guests. (Read: he gambles with them.) They quickly offer to take him back, but Jerry’s pride is hurt and he refuses. Soon he’s doing little more than lounging on the couch, listening to ball games on the radio and sipping an endless parade of beers.
Jeanette is outwardly supportive of her husband’s lackadaisical job search. She even takes work herself as a swim instructor, and Joe gives up football to work in a photo studio afternoons after school to help make ends meet.
That changes when Jerry agrees to take a job fighting the fires that seem to rage every year in the vast Montana forests. It will take him away from the family for weeks on end, which Jeanette views as a betrayal of sorts. She imagines him dallying with women, and uses that as justification for stepping out on her own.
The target of her amorous energy is an unlikely one: Warren Miller, a much older man played by Bill Camp. Balding, portly, bespectacled and walking with a pronounced limp, Warren isn’t much to look at. But he owns a car dealership, so Jeanette views him as a trade up from Jerry.
This is the directorial debut of Paul Dano, a very offbeat and good character actor, who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”).
The biggest problem with “Wildlife” is never giving Joe any kind of distinct identity. His role is to just be there and witness the turmoil. Many stories use a character of this sort to be the audience’s lens to look at the real subjects, in this case Jerry and Jeanette.
But Joe isn’t even much of a real character. He doesn’t seem to have any interests, or motivations, or thoughts, or personality. There’s a girl who takes an obvious interest in him, but Joe sort of shrugs her off and the movie forgets about her.
There’s one scene in “Wildlife” that’s make-or-break. Jeanette puts on her “desperation dress” and takes Joe with her to have dinner at Warren’s house while Jerry is away. It’s an exquisitely awkward event. Mulligan skillfully shows us Jeanette’s obvious intention: to throw herself at Warren. For his part, Warren doesn’t appear disturbed about initiating the affair in her son’s presence, even offering fatherly advice.
I can’t for the life of me fathom people who would act like this. The problem isn’t that the film presents characters who are beyond comprehension; it’s that it doesn’t even attempt to explain these people to themselves.
Sunday, November 11, 2018
One of my greatest pleasures as a critic is pointing people to wonderful films they may have missed. It’s cool to review the latest blockbuster, but nothing beats helping others find movies they might not have otherwise.
“Alpha” is a rousing prehistoric adventure tale that presumes to depict the first cooperation between humans and canines. It’s a gorgeous film with great production values, convincingly portraying Europe circa 20,000 years ago.
Kodi Smith-McPhee plays Keda, a youngster on the verge of manhood. He’s been picked by his father, the chief of their tribe, to participate in a buffalo hunt for the first time. It’s the unofficial rite of manhood, since it involves a long, arduous journey and a dangerous encounter that will determine whether they have enough food and furs to survive the coming winter.
When Keda is injured and separated from his people, he must find his way back on his own. After fighting off a pack of wolves, he nurses the one he stabbed with his knife back to health. He names the animal Alpha, and after some initial antagonism, together they begin the long trip home.
Director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt craft a story that is part spectacle, part coming-of-age tale. The humans speak in an ancient language with subtitles for our benefit. The movie almost doesn’t need them, because you can usually discern Keda’s thoughts without his speech. He communicates with Alpha through hand motions, whistles and eye contact.
It might be too intense for younger children, but “Alpha” is a great adventure story for the whole family.
Bonus features are quite good. The DVD has two making-of short documentary features: “The Wolf Behind Alpha” and “Boy & Wolf.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray edition and you add two more: “Building the World” and “A Hero’s Journey.”
The Blu-ray also boasts a new director’s cut of the theatrical film, plus three deleted scenes with commentary by Hughes and an alternate opening and ending with commentary.
Thursday, November 8, 2018
“The Grinch” is bright, joyful, goofy and largely misguided.
Personally I always liked the darker undertones of Dr. Seuss’ tales. The Grinch is literally green with envy, a nasty old crank who looks down on the perpetually happy denizens of Whoville, while obviously wishing he could join in their caroling and merry-making.
He has to find his bottom before he can grow -- three sizes, heart-wise.
This new animated version jettisons much of the nastiness of the book, 1966 television special and 2000 live-action version starring Jim Carrey. He’s sad rather than loathsome, more worthy of pity than scorn. I certainly can’t imagine someone writing a whole song about how mean he is.
Dratted, he’s even nice to his dog, Max. He still makes him pull the sleigh, but it’s not all that hard and he gives lots of praises. “You’re the best dog a Grinch could hope for,” he practically purrs.
There are lots of changes from the original story. (Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney directed by a screenplay adaptation by Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow.) Instead of being an outcast, Grinch is a member of the community who occasionally drops into town to buy groceries. A flashback places him at the Whoville orphanage as a lad, and it’s possible he’s actually a Who himself. I noticed they all have furry faces, though not so hirsute as the Grinch’s bounteous neon body hair.
Though, in one of the better throwaway jokes, it’s suggested that Grinchy is going gray and the green is a dye job.
Grinch is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s proven himself to be a true vocal chameleon who can do both this and the dragon Smaug from the “Hobbit” movies. He lives in his vast mountain cave lair, getting about mostly by automatic chair. In his iteration he’s essentially a brilliant inventor throwing together contraptions to serve his whims.
Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely), the adorable little girl who helps teach Grinch the spirit of Christmas, even gets a backstory as the daughter of a harried single mom (Rashida Jones). She hatches a scheme to capture Santa on Christmas Eve so she can ask him to help her mother out, recruiting her friends to rig cookie traps. I don’t think Cindy Lou thought this out very well.
There’s lots of boingy action and kiddie-friendly humor thrown in to pump up the entertainment quotient. For instance, there’s a mountain goat that just randomly screams instead of braying. And an apprentice reindeer, Fred, who’s immensely fat but willing.
“The Grinch” is one of those movies that comes along, entertains children and is soon forgotten by adults.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018
“Boy Erased” is a little too self-important for its own good, but it boasts emotive performances and a generally sensitive look at how some people struggle to reconcile their religious tenets with the reality of people who believe they were born gay. It’s essentially one belief system vying against another.
This is the second drama in the last few months about the controversial practice of “gay conversion therapy,” in which people attend intensive retreats administered by church groups to “cure” their same sex attraction through a mix of Bible teachings, pseudo-science therapy and even alleged psychological and physical abuse. Some minors have reported being held against their will, and there are instances of them committing suicide as a result of the practice.
It’s outlawed in 14 states and, as the end titles make explicit, the filmmakers would really like their movie to be a vehicle for banning it in the other 36.
I was put off by this sort of brazen electioneering, especially since the movie I had just seen took pains not to depict all people of faith as bizarre loons.
Writer/director Joel Edgerton adapted the story from the book by Garrard Conley, chronicling his own two weeks in the Love in Action conversion program as a teenager in 2004. Lucas Hedges, a surprise Oscar nominee a couple of years ago, cements his acting chops playing Jared Eamons, an All-American kid from Arkansas who struggles with his burgeoning homosexuality.
Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe play the parents, Baptists who wear crosses and try to live by the literal word of the Bible. They seem to have a good life. They’re a close-knit trio, prospering under dad’s Ford dealership. He also preaches in their church. Mom wears a blonde bouffant and a perpetual smile, plays the role of dutiful wife and mother but clearly has a strong sense of self.
When they get a call from someone at Jared’s college outing him, his parents threaten to throw him out of their house and their lives unless he agrees to the therapy recommended by their pastor. It seems OK at first, a 9-to-5 set of workshops in which there’s lots of support and loving the sinner while hating the sin. The other attendees seem just as lost as Jared, but determined to “lean into” the therapy.
But cracks soon start to show. There is crying and browbeating glimpsed on the fringes. Jared’s personal items are confiscated each day, and pages of his journal torn out to be inspected for troublesome thoughts. Jared is especially jarred to learn the month-log program is just an assessment period; some people move in and stay for a year or more.
Edgerton himself plays Victor Sykes, the man running the program. He’s not an out-and-out villain, more a guy in over his head who thinks he’s a great coach but is steadily running the team into the ground. He has a system for breaking down gay kids in order to build them back up again, but he only seems to have thought out the breakdown part.
Truly terrifying is Brandon, a tattooed ex-con played by bassist Flea. He’s the “scared straight” portion of the program, though Brandon is clear in expressing that his problems did not extend to same sex attraction. His main job is to literally teach the male attendees to act manly, e.g. not crossing your legs and having a firm handshake. Triangles are the strongest shape, he instructs.
“Boy Erased” is best when it focuses on Jared’s increasingly extreme experiences at the therapy program and his fragile relationship with his parents, especially his dad. Flashbacks to his early gay encounters are fitted in rather awkwardly.
The movie also doesn’t make much of an attempt to illuminate the interior lives of Jared’s fellow attendees. He and Jon (a darkly charismatic Xavier Dolan) keep starting conversations that never really go anywhere. I kept expecting them to initiate a secret friendship or even a relationship, but the movie misplaces this dynamic.
It’s still a worthwhile film, one that doesn’t treat either gay kids or Christians as cartoon figures, all bright lines and easy answers.
I sometimes imagine what Oscar Wilde would be like if he lived in our age. My guess is he would be the king of Twitter, dicing up issues of the day in devastating short poems, or host of a late-night talk show where he would bring on guests of a more intellectual bent than Stephen and the Jimmys, exchanging bon mots and some light flirting over martinis.
In the 1890s Wilde was the leading literary figure in England, dashing off popular plays, books and verse at a staggering pace. He was also a major star of what we would now call pop culture, a must-have on the upper crust social circuit.
That all came crashing down when was convicted of a crime for his more-or-less open homosexuality in 1895, especially an ongoing affair with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. He served two years of hard labor in prison, and endured a penurious existence without the benefit of fortune or fame until his death in 1900 at age 46.
It’s this period that “The Happy Prince” chronicles. It is written, directed and stars Rupert Everett, who I did not recognize throughout the course of the movie. It’s a devilishly charming and deeply tragic performance, a look at a genius laid low for the crime of being who he was.
Self-pitying, manipulative and self-centered, it’s a portrait of Wilde that tries to show both his enormous talents and evident flaws.
He shambles about Paris and Italy, living off the generosity of his few remaining friends, such as agent Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) and actor Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), a meager allowance from his estranged wife, Constance (Emily Watson) and whatever he can beg or grift.
The story moves backward and forward in time, with glimpses of a vibrant Oscar at his prime, standing on stages before rapt audiences. We also see him immediately after getting out of prison, when he thought he was at his lowest, and also when he falls even lower. He does little writing, spending his time and meager funds on absinthe, cocaine and dallying with pretty boys.
Things grow tense when his former lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan) turns up and they rekindle their relationship. Oscar knows that he lost literally everything he cared about to Bosie’s family, but he can’t resist his pull. For his part, Bosie is a spoiled rich boy who enjoys being the most important person in the world to a great man.
The title comes from one of Wilde’s tales, which he used to tell to his young boys as a sad bedtime story. He writes letters to Constance begging her to take him back, though we suspect this has more to do with wanting to be in money again.
His affection for his estranged sons seems genuine, though, and he semi-adopts a pair of street urchin brothers as stand-ins. Ever a prisoner to his vices, though, he occasionally has sex with the teenage one.
The dialogue is beautiful and intricate, bits of actual Wilde writings intermixed with words that sound like something he would say. Everett issues much of this in a gravelly purr that is both evocative and often hard to understand.
“The Happy Prince” is the tale of the deeply unhappy last days of Oscar Wilde. He was a victim of his times, but also of his own avarice for pleasure and self-idolatry. One of our greatest talents was treated cruelly, especially by himself.
Monday, November 5, 2018
I've been making an effort the last couple of years to catch up on Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films before he came to Hollywood and experienced his heyday in the 1940s through early 1960s. But the truth is I haven't seen any of his later movies.
I'm not a big fan of "The Birds" and consider "Marnie" to be an utter embarrassment. So I have sort of unconsciously lumped all his post-"Psycho" filmography into a mental bin I dismissed as unworthy.
"Torn Curtain" isn't going to be confused with Hitch's best stuff, but I was surprised at how effective and tense it was. His 50th feature, it was fairly savaged by critics of the time, who said Hitch's style was worn out, though it did decent box office.
The mercurial, mischievous director was eager to do another spy film because of the popularity of the James Bond flicks, and he even received the biggest movie star in the world at the time, Julie Andrews, to play in it.
Truth was Hitchcock didn't want Julie Andrews or her co-star Paul Newman, preferring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, who paired nicely in "North by Northwest." But Grant was retired and Saint deemed not a big enough star anymore. Despite the director's reserve, Newman and Andrews make an excellent onscreen couple, playing an American nuclear scientist defecting to East Berlin and his asssistant-slash-fiance.
The movie opens with the two rollicking in bed together, missing breakfast and then lunch in favor of some extended lovemaking. The very fact that a mainstream movie showed an unmarried woman and man in bed together tells you something about how much cinematic mores had changed by 1966.
The movie has two distinct halves. In the first, Michael Armstrong (Newman) defects to the Soviet bloc with his lady love, Sarah Sherman (Andrews), tagging along uninvited. He attempted to give her the slip at a Copenhagen science conference, but she followed him on the plane and is horrified to discover that he is going behind the Iron Curtain. Their relationship is strained and in danger of shattering.
In the second, he reveals to her what we suspected all along: he's not actually a traitor betraying America's nuclear secrets to the enemy, but doing quite the opposite: trying to pick the brain of a legendary German scientist, Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath), for the last piece of the puzzle to building a missile defense system that would give the U.S. the advantage in the nuclear Cold War.
Their relationship blooms again, just in time to spend the last hour of the movie being chased around by the Stasi security forces. From their kiss-kiss in a park, it's all chase-chase to the end, with a little bang-bang thrown in.
Hitchcock's camera work (photography by John F. Warren) is notable for its extreme close-ups of its stars, especially when their faces are close for kissing or conversation. It's distracting at first, seeing a star from eyebrows to chin, but the smothering effect also draws us into their passion.
He also uses the same technique for what is probably the film's most famous scene: in which Armstrong and a German farmer's wife (who's secretly part of the resistance) beat, stab and wrestle his "security guide," aka shadow, to death, finally doing him in by forcing his head into an unlit gas oven.
It's an astonishing sequence of grunts, sweat and blood, the flip side -- and more overt depiction -- of Michael and Sarah's canoodling.
The thug is Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling), a leering presence in a black leather jacket who prattles annoyingly about his days living in New York City, no doubt as a Soviet-sponsored spy. In a classic bit of Hitchcockian misdirection, Gromek perpetually struggles with a lighter that won't produce a flame. I figured this would prelude some fireball-related demise, though in the end it's the lack of a spark that ends him.
The movie (screenplay by Brian Moore from a story by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse) contains a rogues' gallery of interesting, colorful characters. Günter Strack plays Manfred, the well-coiffed East German scientist who recruited Michael and clearly has romantic designs on Sarah. Mort Mills is the spy chief helping them out, posing first as a farmer and then a travel agent.
David Opatoshu is Jacobi, who oversees an operation in which the underground runs a fake bus route from Leipzig to Berlin, complete with fake passengers. It runs 10 minutes ahead of the real bus, and during the trip through the countryside they're repeatedly delayed, to the point the real bus is in danger of catching up and revealing their ruse.
Leave it to Hitch to make a bus ride a nail-biter.
Tamara Toumanova has a fun role as a famous aging ballerina who is repeatedly (and inadvertently) dissed by the spy contretemps. She is first miffed when she gets off her plane and sees a horde of photographers waiting, puffs herself up for a picture, only to learn they are there for Michael's defection, which the East Germans are playing up for propaganda.
Later when Michael and Sarah are on the run, they hide in the theater where she is performing. She spots him from the stage, recognizing him from his photo being splashed in every newspaper, and calls the authorities, leading to another terrifically tense scene as the couple try to think of an escape with police closing in from every side during the performance. The haughty artiste gets her own comeuppance in the end.
By far the weirdest and most indelible supporting charactger is Countess Kuchinska, a displaced Polish noblewoman played by Lila Kedrova. Ostentatiously dressed, she is desperate to emigrate to the U.S. Spotting Michael on the street, she politely blackmails them in return for her help, which they didn't actually need.
She bemoans the terrible coffee and cigarettes of the Eastern bloc, and pleads with them to be her official sponsors to emigrate in exchange for showing them to the post office where they will meet their next contact (a location they had already discovered on their own). It never seems to occur to her that two American spies would not be looked upon favorably on her visa application.
A pathetic, cloying figure, Kuchinska makes a scene wherever she goes, hurts their cause more than she helps, though in the end she proves a figure of stouter resolve than anyone imagined.
"Torn Curtain" is also notable for another, sad reason: it marked the end of the long and fruitful partnership between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann. Hitch rejected Hermann's creepy, languid score and, after the latter refused to change his, ordered up a jumpier one by John Addison, dooming the relationship. I have a copy of Hermann's rejected score, and I can't imagine why Hitchcock disliked its eerie beauty.
Reportedly the studio wanted something jazzier and more modern. During their fallout, Hermann reportedly told off the director: "Look, Hitch, you can't outjump your own shadow. And you don't make pop pictures. What do you want with me? I don't write pop music."
Hitchcock, whose career was (imho) damaged by being put upon a pedestal by the French critics, who hailed him as an auteur, spent much of his last two decades worrying about being seen as old and out-of-touch. Instead of following his inner voice, he fretted about his films being derided, leading inevitably to what he feared most coming to pass.
At least, that's my working theory. I quite enjoyed "Turn Curtain" as a well-crafted bit of old school suspense. Maybe I'll need to go deeper into Hitch's last days to see if I'm right.