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There used to be 200,000 Christians in Japan. In the seventeenth
century, the Buddhist shogunate decided to eliminate them. Christians
were tortured, starved, crucified, and wiped out by the Buddhists.
Thank heaven Buddhism is such a tolerant religion. Otherwise it would
be terrible to think what might have happened.
Martin Scorcese's film "Silence" depicts a slice of this history. Two priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan seeking to learn the fate of their fellow priest, played by Liam Neeson. Japanese Christians rush to the priests, eager to receive the sacraments of communion and confession.
The priests are set upon by Japanese Buddhists who starve and torture them. Occasionally there is some flapdoodle dialogue about whether or not Christianity belongs in Japan. You will receive no spiritual insights from this dialogue. It is lifeless and uninteresting. Ask any college sophomore to talk to you about Buddhism and Christianity and you will be more intrigued.
The movie is very slow. Events are depicted almost in real time, with no editing. As one reviewer said, "the movie starts in the 1500s and never ends." The torture is graphic and grotesque. There are decapitations, crucifixions, and drownings. The ending won't surprise anyone. The priests have no power. They are surrounded by people who are not only eager to torture them, but also to torture other people. The Buddhists tell the Christians, "We will only stop torturing these innocent Japanese people if you renounce Jesus."
What on earth was Martin Scorcese thinking? What is the point of this movie? Is Scorcese trying to get us to renounce something? The film sure feels like torture.
The movie questions whether or not Christianity "belongs" in Japan. It implies that Christianity does not belong in Japan. Here's the thing people are being tortured. Under torture you'll say whatever the torturer wants you to say. You'll say that Trump won the popular vote. With the threat of torture hanging over the head of every character in the film, the debate is rather skewed.
Even as he appears to be belittling Christianity as an imperialist, colonizer's religion, Japanese Buddhism doesn't come off any better. The film consists of one scene after another of Japanese Buddhists torturing innocent people, coldly and gleefully. Not a great advertisement for Buddhism. Buddhism was also used by Imperial Japan during WW II. It's time we take a serious look at how Buddhism has been exploited to condone evil.
"A Monster Calls" is a weirdly, distastefully Christophobic film.
Conor, an adorable little English boy (Lewis MacDougall) is very sad because he is bullied in school and his mother has cancer. His father lives in LA and is married to someone else and has another child. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) appears cold and controlling. Conor is artistic and he likes to escape from his sad life by drawing.
One night, Conor is visited by a talking tree (Liam Neeson). The tree promises to tell Conor stories that will help him with the burdens he faces in life.
That's pretty much all that happens in the film. The film doesn't go deep into the pain a child feels when he watches his mother go from being a bit pale to being bedridden and bald. It doesn't do much of anything with Conor's heartbreaking relationship with his absentee father. It doesn't delve into the complexities of bullying. Why do the bullies behave so badly? How can bullied kids change their situation? The film doesn't even ask these questions, never mind answer them. The film doesn't explore or articulate Conor's relationship to art. Conor is at the age when romantic love first rears its head. Conor cuddles in bed with his mom, but he doesn't seem to see or be seen by any romantic prospects.
The talking tree promises to tell Conor stories that will help him in life. The stories are animated and narrated by Neeson. The animation is lovely. It is pen and ink and watercolor. The watercolor splashes colorfully across the screen.
The thing is, the tree's stories suck. They are boring and pointless. There isn't much going on in this movie, and the stories, which are promised to be profound, are just painful to listen to.
I did cry watching this movie. I think you'd have to have a heart of stone not to cry watching a lad deal with such depressing life circumstances. But the film is so underdeveloped that I left the theater feeling unsatisfied.
The one thing the movie does do and does with great efficiency. The film bashes Christianity. Watching this movie, I had to ask myself, what is going on in England? Why does England hate Christianity so much? Why are Christophobic themes so prominent in English films, from the creepy clergyman Mr. Collins in every new iteration of "Pride and Prejudice" to this film, which opens with a scene of a church crumbling into the earth?
One of the stories the tree tells is about a bad bad bad bad English clergyman, maybe even as bad as Mr. Collins, who is disrespectful to an herbal healer. I mean, come on. The herbal healer gets revenge against the bad clergyman in a really vicious way, and the film celebrates that. To make everything crystal clear, in the animated portion, the clergyman is shown with a giant white cross on his bad bad very bad no good chest.
This film creeped me out. It uses the most poignant of life circumstances to bash Christianity. How exploitative and nasty.
On the plus side: Young actor Lewis MacDougall is beyond spectacular in this role. He gives one of the great child actor performances of all time. This kid, I hope, is going places.
"Patriot's Day" is an efficient little thriller that recreates the
events of April 15, 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated two
bombs during the Boston Marathon. Mark Wahlberg stars as a police
officer, but there is really no main character in this movie. It is
more of a docudrama, moving from event to event, from one person
affected by the bomb to the next. We are introduced to, and spend a few
minutes with each of the victims, police officers, FBI agents, and
unidentified interrogators. We visit in the Tsarnaev home previous to
the bombing. We watch as the governor ponders the decision to shut the
city down. We watch police go from house to house in Watertown, seeking
It's all very suspenseful and interesting but the film made no lasting impact on me. "Patriot's Day" never takes any of the risks that might propel it into the territory of memorable art. It takes virtually no stand on the many questions this bombing prompts us to ask. The Tsarnaev family were immigrants. They applied for political asylum. They were, for all intents and purposes, Muslim refugees, though they were never given the "refugee" designation.
There is a debate going on around the world right now about what to do about Muslim refugees from war-torn regions, and whether or not taking in Muslim refugees is safe for the receiving country. "Patriot's Day" goes nowhere near this question.
There is also a debate about what to do about terrorists' family members. Noor Salman, the wife of the Orlando terrorist, was arrested on January 16, 2017. What about Katherine Russell, the widow of Tamerlane Tsarnaev? Before the bombing, Russell performed a google search of the rewards Islam offers to the wife of a dead Muslim terrorist. This is mentioned in the film. Russell is shown living in the same tiny apartment with the brothers, where they prepared the bomb. The film implies that she was aware of their plans. She is free and no charges have been brought against her.
The film depicts Russell being interrogated by a woman in a hijab. The suggestion is that America needs good Muslims to fight bad Muslims. In any case, the interrogator gets nothing out of Russell.
In addition to following police officers and other first responders, the film also follows the victims. The viewer is given a brief intro to young lovers whose legs must be amputated. Eight-year-old Catholic schoolboy Martin Richard was the youngest victim. The film does not show him alive. We see, rather, a cloth covering a very small body. We see the cloth rippling in the wind, and a police officer standing guard over the body till investigators can address the corpse without disturbing evidence. In fact the bomb tore Martin's little body apart. The damage was described at the trial. Martin Richard's beautiful face, in a photograph radiating young life, innocence and hope, is shown on screen after the film concludes.
"La La Land" is a fun, sweet movie about two young artists, their
attempt to establish their careers, and their love affair. It's
enjoyable but not the masterpiece reviews insist it is.
Mia (Emma Stone) is a barrista and an aspiring actress. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist. They meet during a traffic jam, get together at a party, and go through the ups and downs of young people who are in love and who are also chasing artistic success.
"La La Land" is a musical. People sing and dance. That's fun. Neither Stone nor Gosling is a professional singer or dancer, so the singing and dancing are mediocre.
Mia and Sebastian go for a walk at night. Their walk is cinematically reminiscent of a walk that Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse take in the 1953 movie musical, "Band Wagon" to the tune of "Dancing in the Dark."
Just like Fred and Cyd, Mia and Seb begin their nighttime walk as bickering enemies, but during the dance they warm up to each other. They dance under trees and streetlights. The difference is that Gosling and Stone can't begin to match the magic that professional dancers like Astaire and Charisse conjure in their dance number. Gosling's voice is barely there.
In another scene, Stone sings what might have been a show-stopping number, a song about her free-spirited aunt who lived in Paris and went swimming in the River Seine. During this song, Stone wears a non- descript, baggy sweater and she barely moves. Stone is very compelling as an actress. As a singer, especially during this number, she falls flat.
Damien Chazelle's direction doesn't highlight the dance numbers as it might. The opening scene depicts an LA traffic jam. Passengers emerge from their cars and dance on the highway. They sing a lyric-dense song; you can't hear them over the music in order to make out the words. It's frustrating. Their movements are not flattered by Chazelle's camera.
Even so, I very much enjoyed "La La Land." Its strengths would have been evident whether anyone had been singing or not. "La La Land" brings home how hard it is for struggling artists to nurture healthy relationships. Mia and Sebastian live in poverty. At one point he looks at a water stain on the ceiling and despairs. They are crushed when their best efforts meet with failure. They are tempted to sell out. Their careers demand that they not be present for each other for months at a time. Mia and Sebastian let each other down.
"La La Land" drags after a bit. Stone and Gosling are virtually the only characters in the film. Their key interactions are repeated. "La La Land" redeemed itself, for me, in a final, fantasy sequence that was incredibly poignant and true and that was unlike anything else I'd ever seen in any other film. I'd recommend seeing "La La Land" for that sequence alone.
"Hidden Figures" is an inspirational bio-pic about three real black
women mathematicians who played a part in NASA. It's relentlessly
wholesome and a bit starchy, but worth seeing for the history it
Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who calculated the flight trajectories for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 moon flight. Octavia Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughan, the first black woman supervisor at NACA (later NASA). Janelle Monae plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician and aerospace engineer. Kevin Costner plays the fictional Al Harrison, a composite boss figure. Kirsten Dunst is another composite figure, representing the mean white racist. Jim Parsons is, again, a composite figure, playing the mean white racist male version.
"Hidden Figures" shows its leads struggling against white racism. NASA was located in Langley, Virginia, which operated under Jim Crow. Johnson must run between buildings, often in pouring rain, in order to use the "colored" restroom. Her coworkers decline to drink coffee from the same pot she uses. White coworkers refer to the black women by their first names, while the black women refer to the whites as Mr or Miss and last name. In spite of all this, the women are able to achieve significant contributions to the space program, using their superior skills at mathematics.
The movie's thoroughgoing wholesome preachiness can make it a bit dull. The black people in the film are all perfect beautiful, perfectly dressed, kind, rational, great parents. Not a single black character ever dresses poorly or loses her temper or swears or is impatient with children or makes a mistake. Such perfect people make for boring drama.
In recent years, Hollywood has caught much flak when it produces movies that show whites advancing black civil rights. "Mississippi Burning" was widely criticized for telling the true story of white contributions to the Civil Rights movement. Critics demanded films that depicted blacks as heroes and whites as bad guys. The historical reality is, though, that without white allies, Civil Rights would have been dead in the water.
As I was watching "Hidden Figures," I thought of the invisible white allies the film erased from its account. Virtually every white person the film's black women encounter is a hostile bigot or merely clueless (as is Costner's composite character). A Polish engineer, the real life Kazimierz Czarnecki, is shown in a seconds-long scene encouraging a black woman, but it is made clear that he is encouraging her because he is a foreigner and not American. In another seconds-long scene, astronaut John Glenn is shown going out of his way to be pleasant to the black women; Harrison pulls him away, as if to say, "Being nice to black people is not allowed at NASA."
I don't believe that African American women were invited into NASA, encouraged to get advanced degrees, and to spread their wings without white higher-ups deciding that NASA would challenge Jim Crow and play a part in the Civil Rights Movement. Those farsighted heroes, whoever they were, have been erased from this account.
Another aspect of the film is ironic. The movie wants the viewer to accept black women as thinkers. And yet it dresses two of its leads in the tightest of dresses and the highest of heels and the lushest of fake eyelashes. Even when at home, putting the kids to bed, the leads are picture perfect. Look at photos of the real Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson. They were not hot models. They looked like mathematicians often look: a bit rumpled, with average attractiveness.
Yes yes we all know movies must have attractive leads. But Russel Crowe was allowed to look rumpled and nerdy in "A Beautiful Mind," about mathematician John Nash. No one forced him to wear a tight shirt that displayed his chest hair or his pecs. Even movies urging equality must resort to old fashioned, sexist objectification of women's bodies in order to bring in viewers.
For much of its runtime, watching "Pawn Sacrifice" is a grueling
experience. Young Bobby Fischer is growing up fearing being spied on by
government agents. His mother, Regina, (Robin Weigart) is a communist
living in Cold War era Brooklyn. Bobby escapes from what looks like a
loveless childhood and a chaotic home life by focusing on chess.
Regina takes Bobby to Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pia) a teacher who greets Bobby by telling him that chess is a religion that takes anyone regardless of nation or creed. One hopes that this kindly man will serve as a ray of light in Bobby's life, but Bobby behaves as if he is autistic. He makes little eye contact and focuses only on the board, shutting out his opponent and his mother and sister who must stand and watch as he spends hours on his first chess match with a near master. Once young Bobby loses to Nigro, he refuses to shake hands, cries silently, and icily demands another game.
The real Bobby Fischer was noticeably tall and slim with very striking facial features: piercing eyes, prominent nose, large, curved lips and a sprinkling of facial moles. Tobey Maguire is short and slight, with refined features, darker hair and no moles. Fischer was from Brooklyn and he lacked a formal education. He dropped out of high school. He talked like an uneducated Brooklynite who happens to be a headline-making genius; he had a lot of attitude. Maguire is from California and he never really captures Fischer's unique voice or inflection.
The film picks up with the arrival of three characters played by brilliant actors: Michael Stahlbarg as Paul Marshall, a sort of fixer / hand-holder, Peter Sarsgaard as Father William Lombardy, a chess master, and Liev Schreiber as Boris Spassky. These three actors are superb, and each has a moment on screen that absolutely took my breath away.
Marshall is a long suffering lawyer who prods Fischer to go to Iceland to take on Boris Spassky and become the new world champion. Lombardy is the closest thing Fischer has to a friend. He serves as Fischer's second.
Bobby tears apart hotel rooms seeking hidden microphones; perhaps the Russians, the CIA, or the conspiratorial Jews are spying on him. Bobby runs from journalists' cameras and the fans who want to grab and kiss him. Bobby cracks when he hears spectators cough or when he can smell their breath. He demands more money, special chairs, different rooms, quieter cameras. Though Jewish, he listens to tapes that convince him that Jews are evil people taking over the world.
All this is really hard to watch. It's especially hard to watch for anyone who remembers the Fischer-Spassky match. Bobby Fischer was an incredibly gifted man. He was world famous. After his match, he could have made millions and enjoyed a cushioned retirement. Instead he trusted the wrong people, became a raving lunatic Jewish anti- Semite and a member of a cult he would later denounce, denounced America, cheered 9-11, spat on documents, broke laws, became an exile, and, after refusing necessary medical treatment, died entirely too young and unnecessarily. His ironic, poignant last words, they say, were, "Nothing is as healing as human touch."
You can't watch this movie and not wish that somebody had done something to help this man. You can't not wonder, what was wrong with him? Was it the bad relationship with his mother? His lack of a father? His illegitimacy? Was he schizophrenic or autistic? Or is that he was treated like a star and did not receive, from others, the kind of feedback that forms character? A combination of all of these factors? Because Bobby Fischer is a commodity, even in death, we will never know.
In the film, Paul Marshall, the more practical and earthbound of Bobby's advisors, suggests taking him to a psychiatrist. Father Lombardy responds that chess is a rabbit hole. He mentions the hundreds of millions of moves that chess masters must take into consideration. He says that taking Bobby to a psychiatrist would be like pouring concrete down a holy well. The implication is that Bobby's chess genius is inextricably tied to his mental illness.
Lombardy cites Paul Morphy, a chess genius who could not succeed at conventional life. But look at Boris Spassky. He is still alive and no one suggests that he is mentally ill. Maybe a mentally healthy Bobby would have been an even better chess player.
Liev Schreiber, in the commentary, says that chess masters must constantly predict their opponent's attacks, and that doing so contributes to paranoia. Perhaps so.
Although I found the film hard to watch, the performances by the leads were so profoundly rewarding that they lifted me up in awe and made me cry. I don't know how Liev Schreiber did it, but he perfectly channeled a Soviet man from the 70s. I know because I was there in the 70s. Michael Stahlberg utterly inhabits his part, a chain smoking, sweaty palmed, tireless enabler who takes every abuse from Bobby and never stops trying to push him forward. Peter Sarsgaard is just simply superb, in every scene, from praying the rosary on his knees to the moment when dawn breaks on his face as Bobby starts winning. Tobey Maguire has a moment that is so powerful it gave me chills. He is beating Spassky. He is in his element. It is his bliss. See the movie for that moment, one I watched over and over again.
"The Light Between Oceans" is a pretentious, manipulative, anti-art
exercise in pseudo-art. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a
veteran returning from World War I to Australia. He gets a job as a
lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock. He meets and falls in love with Isabel
Graysmark (Alicia Vikander).
Stop right there. Tom's last name is "Sherbourne," pronounced as "share born." Isabel's last name is "Graysmark," as in "gray area." Janus is the ancient god with two faces; January is named after him. He looks in two directions.
Are you taking notes yet? You need to be taking notes. There will be a quiz. Tom's last name is "share born" because he will share a child with another woman. Isabel's last name is "gray mark" because she is meant to get us thinking about the gray areas in moral questions. Janus Rock is named after Janus because the story is meant to get us thinking about how there is more than one way to look at a question.
Are you bored yet? Do you yet see how you are being manipulated and talked down to? Wait, there's more.
Isabel suffers miscarriages. At the exact moment that she is weeping over the grave of one of her miscarriages, a rowboat washes up. It contains a living newborn and a dead man.
At this point I have to ask, how stupid do Stedman and director Derek Cianfrance think we are? This key scene is utterly implausible. Have a healthy, live neonate and a dead man in a rowboat ever washed up on the shore of an ocean where a mother, at that moment, is grieving a miscarriage? Yes, yes, we all know that movies are not real. The point is that movies have art at their service, and they use art to make us either believe, or not care about, implausible plot elements.
The film makes no attempt to explain why or how a husband and father would leave his wife, put his newborn baby into a rowboat, and head out onto open ocean. It never attempts to explain how the husband died and the newborn baby survived. Think about it. Did a seagull drop a very heavy clam shell that hit the father in the head but missed the child? We know seagulls are obnoxious, but are they really that malicious? Is their aim that expert?
It is later explained that the father was German the very people Tom had killed in WW I and a victim of prejudice, prejudice he was trying to escape. In a rowboat? On the ocean? With a newborn baby? Leaving his wife on shore? No. This plot element serves one purpose only. To lecture the audience about what a bad, bad thing prejudice is, including prejudice against Germans, the folks we all, since WW II, love to hate, especially when we are at the movies. And Tom killed Germans!!!
Tom and Isabel bury the dead man and keep the baby, never telling anyone of this kidnapping. Then there are more utterly implausible plot elements, in which every character does several things that completely defy any expectation of them the flimsy plot has managed to build up in the viewer. It is painfully clear that these stick figure characters exist only as an attempt to make the book's author and the film's director look like deep people asking big, heavy questions.
Michael Fassbender is an interesting actor but he is given nothing to do here. He gazes at the ocean and looks sad. That's it. His facial expression does not change for two hours. Alicia Vikander similarly can't bring Isabel to life. Fassbender looks about 45 and Vikander looks 15. Weird. Although, after this film, they became a real life couple, they don't strike any on screen sparks.
Cianfrance's direction is flatfooted. I hoped for spectacular ocean and sky imagery. No luck. The sky is often flat gray. The ocean shots are not innovative or mesmerizing. While watching the film I reflected that landlubbers like me find the sound of waves crashing on shore to be soothing. I realized that if I lived on Janus Rock I'd come to find that sound oppressive, in that one cannot escape from it. Cianfrance does nothing with this contrast between a civilized person's assessment of a remote island, and the feelings of someone more or less condemned to solitary confinement on such a place.
The narrative structure of this film is simply wrong. We see Tom return to Australia, apply for the lighthouse job, meet Isabel, meet Isabel again and propose marriage to her, Isabel get pregnant, Isabel have a miscarriage, etc. Anyone who has seen the trailer for the film knows that all these scenes are merely buildup to the ultimate showdown over who gets custody of the shipwrecked baby. The entire first hour of the film should have been eliminated. The film should have begun with Tom, Isabel, and the baby confronting their ultimate fate. That's where the drama of the film is. That's how we could have gotten to know, and care about, the characters.
Ironically, a narrative that pretends to be deep and important is constructed in such a manner that we are never allowed access to Tom's, Isabel's, or other key characters deepest thoughts, emotions, and motivations. The small moments of conversation, court testimony, facial expressions, body language, clinging or rejecting, that could have made this story come alive are never seen. All we get are stick figures moving around Stedman's and Cianfrance's pompous ambition.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Bridget Jones' Baby" is a surprisingly funny, smart, adorable romantic
comedy. Yes, really.
When I heard that there was going to be another Bridget Jones movie I thought, wow, that is going to be the worst film of the year. The previous two Bridget Jones movies combined comedic and romantic highpoints and low points.
In the first film, "Bridget Jones' Diary," there is the legendary "I like you just as you are" staircase scene, where the impeccable and quite possibly inhumanly perfect Colin Firth (as Mark Darcy) walks down a staircase that showcases his luscious long legs and tells plump, goofy, perpetually self-sabotaging Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) that he likes her just as she is.
If you've never seen the film, you can watch that scene over and over on youtube, where fans have posted multiple copies of it, and watched and re-watched it hundreds of thousands of times. How to find it? Just start typing "I like you just as " and Google will finish the sentence for you. There's also a scene where Mark Darcy cooks dinner with Bridget Jones. If I die watching that scene, I will die happy.
The Bridget Jones movies also include hysterically funny fistfights between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as the two men vying for Bridget's affections.
But for all their perfect moments, the Bridget Jones movies also included cringe-worthy, masochist, misogynist scenes where Bridget is made out to be the butt of highly humiliating jokes.
And "Bridget Jones Diary" was released *fifteen years ago.* Renee Zellweger was already in her thirties. Part of the point of the film was that she was a spinster who had not found a man and was desperate to do so. Fifteen years later, Renee Zellweger is 47, subject of a tsunami of articles and internet posts arguing that she has committed the unforgivable sin, in a woman, of aging. She is too damn old, fanboys and girls stamp and shout. She should be retired to a remote, cloistered nunnery; if she must venture out, it is only with a bag firmly affixed over her old-lady face.
Zellweger had plastic surgery and it ruined her, some allege. Others are enraged that she didn't have enough plastic surgery. Everyone is ready with pitchforks and torches to burn the lady for surviving past age 25.
And, finally, a romantic comedy about a woman in her forties who gets pregnant and does not know who the father is? Yuck.
In spite of all my misgivings, I went to the theater anyway, and "Bridget Jones' Baby" rapidly eliminated all my resistance. I laughed out loud throughout this movie, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so much during a first run Hollywood comedy. In "Bridget Jones' Baby," the emphasis is much more on comedy than it is on romance. Everything is played for laughs. The jokes are broad, low-brow, and slapstick. Don't expect sophisticated wit. Think nekkid bums and b00bs.
Bridget Jones is a TV producer. She is single. She and Mark made a go of it, but separated. He is now married to someone else. Bridget has a couple of one-night stands and relies on outdated, ecologically friendly prophylactics. Emma Thompson is her gynecologist. Go see this movie for Thompson's performance alone. If you don't laugh at her, I don't want to know you.
Patrick Dempsey is the other potential father. During every scene he's in, all I could think was, did his mother dip him in a magical river shortly after he was born? Dempsey is so obscenely handsome. He also comes across as being such a nice guy. He's just pure pleasure. His fireplace-warm and crackly good humor keeps the potentially awkward plot bouncing along, never getting too serious or painful.
I really think it's a human rights abuse that not every woman is issued her very own Colin Firth. He is arguably the perfect man. He may be the last living actor who can convincingly play a gentleman. Again, the film is played for laughs, but there is one scene that is heartbreakingly real. Firth is informed that Bridget is pregnant. He is so overwhelmed with emotion that he must leave the room. It's a small moment, but a poignant one, amidst the rest of the bedroom farce.
Renee Zellweger has aged, as have we all. But she's great. She inhabits Bridget, and steals our hearts.
The rest of the cast includes Bridget's funny, wacky mom, who is involved in an election meant to mirror current politics. Those brief scenes are as funny as the rest of the movie. Bridget's gang of friends are onhand, and seeing them feels as good as a reunion with your own old gang with whom you raised heck when you were young. As for the Hugh Grant character go see the film. I don't want to spoil it for you.
"Florence Foster Jenkins" is a mildly amusing and warm-hearted movie
about a real person, Florence Foster Jenkins, who sang very badly and
yet used her inherited wealth and influence to sing one concert at
Carnegie Hall, one of the premier venues for classic music. The one
joke is stretched rather thin.
Florence (Meryl Streep) pours her heart into singing an opera aria. Listeners look at her outlandish costume and see her working so very hard to crank out earsplitting sounds. The listeners look shocked and then they laugh "Oh! This is a joke! You almost had me there!" and then they realize that she's serious, not kidding, and then they suppress their laughter. This happens a few times too many in the film. Rubber-faced Simon Helberg, playing the part of Florence's piano accompanist, the excellently named Cosme McMoon, mimes this shock / laughter / pity routine several times.
There's more to the movie than its one joke. There is also some pathos and insight. Florence Foster Jenkins contracted a serious illness from her first husband and her life was full of private pain she worked hard to conceal. The scenes where Florence's difficult private life are revealed cause the viewer to feel some admiration and sympathy for this otherwise ridiculous and manipulative figure. Also, Florence's so-called "marriage" to actor St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) is touching. Bayfield and Florence never consummated their union. They never even wed. Bayfield had a mistress. But still it's clear that he feels affection for his "Bunny."
There is also a gorgeous 1940s feel to the film. Everything has a golden glow. Costumes and era music and dances are faithfully recreated.
The movie raises several questions that matter a lot to creative people. Can artists judge their own work? Florence was a real patroness of the arts. She loved music. How is it that someone who could recognize the value of a Verdi could not recognize her own vocal failures? Especially after it had been recorded and played back to her? Is it possible that her chronic illness affected her cognition later in life?
What is the assignment of critics? Do critics benefit society by stating "This performer is very bad" even if such a review will break a harmless old woman's heart?
What if someone produces bad art that gives joy to people? Some listeners, including some soldiers serving in the war, took pleasure in Florence's performances.
What about Florence's relationship with Bayfield? Was he exploiting her by allowing her to live in her fantasy world? Or did he love her and was he being supportive?
What about Florence herself? Would it have improved her life to confront her own limitations honestly?
Again, building a movie around one joke is stretching things too far. I think this could have been a better film had it included scenes that touched on the above questions and potential answers.
My mother was born in Slovakia and I grew up on stories. How beautiful
her village was, of course. But stories of overwhelming ugliness, too.
Munich, like Yalta, was an obscene word in our household. In 1938, long
after Hitler had revealed that he was a rabid dog needing to be put
down, the West surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing one
bullet. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the man with an
umbrella, called the Munich agreement "peace for our time." One of the
many reasons so few Eastern Europeans are Anglophiles.
My mother taught me about Lidice, a Czech village that, with its inhabitants, had been wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis. The men shot, the women and children murdered more slowly, the houses razed to the ground. In fact the Nazis wiped out hundreds of villages in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
"Anthropoid" is a Hollywood movie that, at long last, tells some of the war from the point of view of desperate Czechs and Slovaks fighting the Nazis. Fanboys gripe, "How many World War II movies can you make?" One answer: chronicling of World War II will not be complete as long as major stories like Operation Anthropoid remain untold. Reinhard Heydrich was one of the worst human beings who ever lived. He chaired the Wannsee Conference that formalized the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to murder all Jews. He was also in charge of the Czech Republic. He brutalized the population and wiped out the resistance in short order.
Heydrich was the only top Nazi to be assassinated, although there were assassination plots against others, significantly Hitler himself. People need to know that non-Jews, as well as Jews, suffered under the Nazis. People need to know of the incredible courage and heroism of forgotten heroes who fought the Nazis. The questions of an operation like Anthropoid remain open. Is it ethical, and is it militarily strategic, to assassinate one of history's worst humans if you know that thousands of innocent people will be murdered in retaliation?
"Anthropoid" opens with two resistance fighers, Jan Kubis a Czech (Jamie Dornan) and Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak (Cillian Murphy), being parachuted into Czechoslovakia after their training in England. They must find the tiny remnants of the surviving underground and announce their assassination plan. Resistance members Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski) and Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) are not immediately enthusiastic. They recognize the risks of retaliatory mass killings. They understand that this assassination may be more of a means of bringing respect to the Czechoslovak government in exile in London under Edvard Benes.
"Anthropoid" is a tense, gripping, film noir-ish film. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, and I cried at the end. For hours afterward I was haunted by the film.
It's not for nothing that Steven Spielberg chose to make a glamorous, powerful, heroic, high-living member of the Nazi party the subject of his "Schindler's List." It's hard for a storyteller to tell the audience a story that has no triumphant moments, lots of death, and an ending that most filmgoers will already know.
"Anthropoid" consists largely of very tight shots on the faces of its two assassins as they live in Nazi-occupied Prague, trying to figure out a way to fulfill their mission. Scenes are dimly lit. Everyone is tense. There is little laughter or smiling. There is zero swaggering. There is a very brief moment toward the end that offers a hint of redemption. If you see the film, you will know what I'm talking about. The scene involves water, light, and a beautiful woman reaching out her hand.
The film does not take in the grand sweep of history. There are no shots of London headquarters, no fetishizing of squeaky Nazi boots or Hugo Boss uniforms. Lidice is mentioned in such an understated manner that filmgoers unfamiliar with it won't know what has been said.
"Anthropoid" offers an almost documentary look at what it is to be an assassin in a totalitarian regime. It's not fun. I was at first dubious when I heard that Cillian Murphy would be playing Jozef Gabcik. I wished for a Slovak actor. Murphy's performance is the emotional and aesthetic heart of the film. Murphy rarely allows any emotion to register on his face. He has turned himself into a killing machine. When, at a certain moment, a tear falls from his eye, that tear carries great weight. The audience knows what a courageous professional this man is.
My mother told me about Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik. When I have gone through tough times in my own life, I have used men like them to inspire me. How can I complain, when they went through so much worse? How can I give up, when they never did, through a six-hour shootout with Nazis who massively outgunned and outmanned them? How can I fail to take risks to fight evil, when a Slovak just like me managed to send to hell a man who seems to have emerged from its most fetid depths? "Anthropoid" is not a fun movie, but I'm glad I saw it. It brings me closer to the heroes it honors.
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