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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.
"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.
"Star Trek Beyond" is standard-issue Star Trek. There are lots of
costumes that aren't all that convincing. There is lots of danger that
an evil genius might destroy the universe. There is lots of chasing and
gizmo-tinkering that saves the universe at the last minute. It's all
completely implausible and runs on arbitrary rules, but that's nothing
new for sci/fi or fantasy movies.
The special effects of outer space and human habitation of it are higher quality than in the old TV show, of course. Starbase Yorktown is a series of rods radiating out from the center of a transparent sphere. Humans inhabit these rods, all of which appear to have their own gravity. There is no garbage in the streets and everyone is young, beautiful, and healthy, which is kind of creepy if you think about it too long.
The main characters perform their old tricks: Kirk is recklessly heroic, Spock is logical, Bones is crabby, Scottie messes with dilithium crystals, Sulu pilots the ship and is shown reuniting with his newly-minted male partner and daughter, and Chekov gets to joke about how a Russian invented something, a Cold-War-era joke that younger people won't understand at all, but that will give Baby Boomer Trekkies a chuckle. Of all the traditional cast members, Chekov is given the least to do. This is rather sad since Anton Yelchin, the actor who plays Chekov, died in a freak accident in June, 2016. There is also Jaylah, a space girl who looks a bit like Darth Maul. In TOS, Kirk was the most heroic. Not so here; everyone shines equally. Every participant wins a trophy. This insistence on making every character as heroic as Kirk lessens the differences between the characters and makes the interplay between the ensemble less fun.
The plot involves an evil genius who wants to destroy the universe, and the Enterprise crew stopping him.
Star Trek plots are always examined for possible societal significance. This plot may be a reference to The West v. Terrorism. In the beginning of "Star Trek Beyond" Kirk narrates a world-weary monologue. Life is too placid, too predictable. He needs a new challenge. This may be the scriptwriters, including Simon Pegg, who plays Scottie, voicing the post-WWII-era West becoming too comfortable. The villain of the piece, Krall, wants to re-introduce pointless violence and hate into an all-too-comfortable universe. Or maybe not. This is Star Trek; feel free to come up with your own interpretation.
The one character change in this reboot that saddens me most is Uhura. I loved Nichelle Nichols' Uhura. I loved her because she was an accurate depiction of a woman in a man's world. I also loved it that she was black. My family were immigrants and her minority status was an inspiration to me. She was a communications officer, the kind of job a woman would typically have. She was in the background, as women often are in men's stories. She was someone I could embrace, relate to, and be inspired by.
In the reboot, Uhura is not really African American. Zoe Saldana is a light-skinned Hispanic. Uhura's difference has been toned down. And Uhura has become a leader, an action hero, as karate-happy as Captain Kirk. Conversely, she spends a good amount of her time playing a stereotypical role assigned to ethnic women. She is the hot, exotic temptress who will lure cold Spock into a love relationship. The original Uhura's sexiness was never exploited in this way.
"The Infiltrator" is a gripping, intelligent, fast-paced cops-and-
robbers movie with a dream cast and high production values. I was on
the edge of my seat for almost the entire film. The top-notch
performances by all involved, but especially Bryan Cranston, really
sucked me in. That "The Infiltrator" tells a true story of a brave,
resourceful, and heroic public servant, Robert Mazur, makes it
inspirational as well as entertaining.
It's the early 1980s and Colombians and others are exporting millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into the US. US Customs special agent Robert Mazur takes on the persona of Bob Musella, a Mafia-connected money-launderer. He offers his services to the Pablo Escobar cocaine drug lord. The Escobar gang takes him in and he and other Operation C-Chase agents take down the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the seventh largest bank in the world.
Mazur is masked and driven through Colombian jungle where he is forced to participate in a grotesque voodoo ritual. He and his fake fiancée, Kathy Ertz, (Diane Kruger) are invited into the private homes of extremely wealthy and discriminating criminals, and he and Kathy form genuine personal relationships with them. Mazur's partner, Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo), gets a man killed and has a brief breakdown afterward.
Indeed this is a very violent movie. At one point Mazur is conversing with a fellow undercover agent and without any warning the agent is shot to death with blood spattering everywhere.
"The Infiltrator" doesn't offer any innovations on cops-and-robbers. Many other films have treated South American drug kingpins, Mafiosi, and undercover agents.
Too, the movie never asks the question that must be ramming through the viewer's brain. "Why the heck are we doing this? Why are we spending so much money trying to prevent drug addicts from doing what they are going to do, anyway? Why are we allowing criminal gangs, who are as violent and sadistic and without conscience as any terrorist group, to have so much sway? Why don't we legalize and regulate and tax drugs and let Darwinian laws take their course with the addict population? Why don't we let Uncle Sam reap the profit of human weakness, rather than criminals?"
"The Infiltrator," unlike the 2000 film "Traffic," never asks that question.
PS: I am a proud Polish-American and so is Robert Mazur, whose father's family is Polish, and whose mother's family is Italian.
I'm easily frightened by movies. I've never been able to get through
Disney's "Pinocchio." "The Conjuring 2" is one of the least scary
movies I've ever seen. I laughed out loud several times. I thought it
was so ridiculous, heavy-handed, absurd, over-the-top.
I was actually scared during one scene. Patrick Wilson, as paranormal investigator and allegedly Catholic anti-demon commando Ed Warren, wades into standing water underneath a suburban home. Everyone knows anyone who wades into standing water in a domestic setting risks being electrocuted. Alas, the only menace Warren faces is the cardboard outline of a standard-issue specter who rolls up behind him. Boo!
The other scary factor: how old Franka Potente, who plays paranormal investigator Anita Gregory, has gotten. Back in 1998's "Run Lola Run" Potente was the embodiment of youth. Now she's in her forties. Scary.
I honestly don't know what filmmaker James Wan was trying to achieve. Was he really trying to make a scary movie, or was he trying to make a meta-commentary on how schlocky scary movies can be? I hope the latter, because that is what he has achieved. The saving grace of the film is the presence of Vera Farmiga, an actress who deserves so much better than this, but who shines like sterling amidst the dross.
"The Conjuring 2," just like the original "The Conjuring," is based on an allegedly true story. In 1977, in Enfield, England, two sisters, 11 and 13, claimed to be experiencing demonic possession. They were the child of a single mother and lived in a council house, that is a government welfare house. There was video footage proving that one of the girls was faking.
Never fear. Ed and Lorraine Warren, an American couple who sold themselves as real live paranormal investigators and exorcists, showed up.
"The Conjuring 2" wallows in 1970s nostalgia. That there even is such a thing as "70s nostalgia" is evidence of the demonic. The men all wear wide lapels and wolfman sideburns. There is a lot of emphasis on retro tech, like bulky reel to reel tape recorders the kind that actually could capture Satan's voice, whereas today's hand-held digital devices just don't pack the same punch.
There is a loooong pointless scene where Patrick Wilson, as Ed Warren, treats the possessed children to an imitation of Elvis Presley singing "I Can't Help Falling In Love with You." Watching this endless scene, I really wondered what was going on with James Wan, the director. Is he tired of cheap, teen horror and does he want a career as an artiste and auteur?
"The Conjuring 2" is really hard to look at. The allegedly haunted Enfield council house is visually repugnant. There are threadbare, royal blue chairs on a threadbare, royal blue rug. If you have any taste at all, you know what horror I dare invoke with these words. Everything in the house is begrimed. It looks as if a toddler had been rolled in molasses and car exhaust and then set loose on every fixture. And of course the family is so poor that they can't afford a single one-hundred watt bulb. The house is kept at forty-watt level throughout the film.
The allegedly scary stuff: kids levitate and speak in deep voices. A scary nun appears. If you've ever gone to Catholic school you are laughing as hard as I was at this point. The nun looks so much like Marilyn Manson that I'm sure his lawyers are asking for their cut of the film's box office.
There are some cinematic classics in the horror genre. James Whale's Frankenstein is indelible. "The Haunting" from 1963 is one of the most profound and disturbing films ever made. These films are about so much more than James Wan's bag of tricks, which consists of sending an impaired person into a dark space say, Patrick Wilson after he's been partially blinded by escaping steam from a broken radiator, having that person stumble about, holding the camera on one spot for a long time, and then having a scary nun pop suddenly into the frame. Horror classics have something truly menacing and challenging behind the costume.
There is something truly scary behind "The Conjuring 2" and behind the Amityville Horror, another Warren cause celebre. In both cases, we are talking about broken families. We are talking about kids who have troubled relationships with their parents, or absent parents. Shenanigans like the Warren's obscure the real facts that really need to be addressed. At least two of the children who grew up in the Amityville home say that they were abused by their stepfather. We were so busy looking for demons in that house we couldn't see the kids being hurt.
Another disturbing aspect of this film. I'm really sick of James Wan's exploitation of Catholicism, a religion he evidences zero respect for but loves to exploit in order to plump up his box office. Wan is constantly tossing crucifixes, rosaries, and clerical garb onto his piles of junk. Ed Warren, in "Conjuring 2," references the Catholic Church so many times it is monotonous. Wan is from Malaysia, a Muslim majority country. He is himself Chinese. I do not see him denigrating Islam or Confucianism in his films. He wants to avoid any risk of true horror.
"Free State of Jones" is a moving, authentic, important film. Matthew
McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Newton Knight, an
historic figure. I forgot I was watching Matthew McConaughey and felt
that I was watching Newton Knight. I've really never seen a performance
quite like McConaughey's here. His Newt Knight is the most manly man in
any room or swamp and yet he is also as tender as a mother.
In the early Civil War battle scenes, he plays a nurse. Knight is not shown mowing down the enemy with impressive, explosive gunfire. Rather, he is shown risking enemy fire in order to save men's lives, or to retrieve and bury the corpse of a boy shot in battle on his first day. My tears flowed freely during these scenes. Later, Knight himself cries after one of his men is hanged. But Knight gets his revenge, an eye-for-an-eye revenge scene that I won't soon forget.
Newton Knight was a white Mississippi farmer. He was the grandson of a slaveholder, but Knight owned no slaves himself. He served in the Confederate army, but deserted in 1862, after serving for almost a year. He was outraged by the Twenty Negro Law, that allowed families who owned twenty slaves to exempt one family member from service for every twenty slaves they owned.
Knight and other deserters formed The Free State of Jones, declaring their loyalty to the Union, and flying the stars and stripes rather than the stars and bars. After the war, Knight worked for Reconstruction and married Rachel, a freed slave woman. His children also married cross-racially. He died in 1922. As might be expected, he is a controversial figure in Mississippi. Fans of the Confederacy denounce him as a traitor. Others celebrate him as one white Southerner who had a conscience and resisted white supremacy.
Newt Knight was clearly someone with a bucketload of charisma. His power inspired men to fight to the death against their own nation. McConaughey radiates charisma in this role. He is masterful and yet intimate. I'd follow this Newt Knight into battle and feel proud to do so.
"Free State of Jones" is receiving negative reviews. It's easy to see why. There is something in this film to anger multiple grievance mongers.
First, race hustlers will hate this movie. Race hustlers want the official story to be that all whites are supremacists and all blacks are heroic. A film that depicts a white man who worked for black rights is taboo. Race hustlers anathematized "Mississippi Burning" and "The Help" for the same reason. Such a shame that the race hustlers' ideological blindfolds make it impossible for them to appreciate great art.
Liberals might hate this film for a couple of other reasons. I don't know if I've seen a movie where almost every scene hinges on how guns are used. Almost everyone is armed, and uses those weapons to keep breathing and to settle disputes. Even little girls have guns and use them heroically. Second amendment fans may love this film. It depicts what they dream of: oppressed citizenry taking up arms to defeat their own government.
In addition to clinging to their guns, these rebels cling to their God and their Bibles. This is one of the most religious American films I've seen in a while. It's an historical fact that Newt Knight was a devoutly religious Primitive Baptist he didn't drink, for example. The film drives home Knight's Christianity. He is shown in a long scene using a quill to record a birth in his Bible. In one heartbreaking scene, a slave who has been sexually molested survives psychologically by reciting verses from Genesis. "Free State of Jones" practices a muscular Christianity. One eye-for-an-eye scene takes place in a church.
Republicans will be torn about "Free State of Jones." On the one hand, Knight, like many populist leaders, preaches against economic inequality. "No man should be poor just so that someone else can be rich." I can hear theater seats squeak as Republicans head for the exits. Knight's words, though, reflect the facts. Poor white Southerners were sabotaged by the slave economy and they knew it. That's why they deserted.
But Republicans, if they sit through the entire film, will see how the Republican Party was the favored choice of freed slaves in the post-Civil-War era.
There is a narrative problem in the film. The viewer expects "Free State of Jones" to end after the Civil War. I actually began tying my sneakers, readying to leave the theater. But the film keeps going in what feels like an anti-climax. Gary Ross, the filmmaker, wants to make a point: the Civil War was *not* the happy ending. The KKK rose up, and Jim Crow became entrenched. Black men who tried to exercise their right to vote were lynched. This is an important point, but the film should have been better structured so its narrative flow didn't stop before the film itself did.
"Free State of Jones" was clearly made by sticklers for authenticity. Everyone looks dirty and tired. The clothes look like clothes people wore in the nineteenth century. A confederate officer's uniform looks baggy and tacky, not sparkling and admirable. Scenes are shot in lamplight. I loved this aspect of the film, as will Civil War re-enactors.
"Me Before You" was made to appeal to the lowest common denominator. In
spite of myself, though, I was moved by and I enjoyed this film.
"Me Before You" is a romance between a perky, poor, not spectacularly beautiful girl and a rich, suicidal, model-handsome quadriplegic. You may have begun gagging already. I understand, and believe me, everything that you fear may be wrong with such a film is wrong with this film. It talks down to its audience. Its play with dangerous ideas is a child playing with matches. And yet, I cried.
I think two things save "Me Before You" in spite of all that's wrong with it.
Sam Claflin plays the part of Will Traynor, the rich, handsome, suicidal quadriplegic. Claflin is young, ripped, and handsome enough to be in a toothpaste commercial. He is really good. I believed everything he did. I was right there with him. I felt his pain and desperation.
Janet McTeer, a multiple-award-winning actress, is the soul of the film. She plays Will's mother. She is given very little to do, but she pops in and out regularly. There is an infinite sadness and terror in her eyes. I'm a former nurse's aide and I'm very familiar with dealing with family members of afflicted people. Janet McTeer is superb. She shows the exact strength, vulnerability, and hoping- against-hope of the loved ones of the wounded and doomed.
"Me Before You"'s plot doesn't do anything you wouldn't expect it to. If you go to the movies to be surprised or intrigued, stop right now. But you already knew that when you saw the movie poster of the perky girl sitting on the lap of the very handsome man in a wheelchair, as they gaze lovingly into each other's eyes.
"Me Before You" takes place in the England that exists only in the imagination of fans of Masterpiece Theater, Jane Austen adaptations, and Merchant Ivory films. This is very much not the England of Sadiq Khan and Brexit or even of royal family scandals.
There are very rich people who also have good taste. There are poor people who are warm, simple-minded, and humble, not at all resentful or bitter about their place. Sort of like Hobbits. There is sweeping, green countryside defined by rambling stone walls and trout streams. There is a big, fat castle yes, really overlooking everything.
Weather? It's either blue skies, burgeoning lilacs and hydrangeas, or gently drifting snow outlining the castle battlements, or perfectly formed autumn leaves. Thomas Kinkade is the meteorologist.
Louisa "Lou" Clark is a cutie pie poor girl. Emilia Clarke, who plays Louisa, telegraphs how adorable Lou is in every scene. She is constantly dimpling her cheeks and wriggling her eyebrows as if they were migrating caterpillars looking for a leaf to pupate on. Look, if you wanted to smack Emilia Clarke during every scene of "Me Before You," could you please send me a Facebook friend request? Does the word "subtlety" appear in Emilia Clarke's dictionary? Or "teamwork"? In every scene she demands attention. Actors should never work with babies, animals, or Emilia Clarke.
Lou is supposed to be really poor. Lou never wears the same item of clothing twice. Her clothes are unique designer finds. Her shoes alone would go for a few hundred bucks. Oh, but she's this noble poor girl. Yeah, right.
The filmmakers here keyed their film to teenage girls who love clothes more than life itself and who have short attention spans. My utterly subjective estimate: no scene in the film lasts for more than ninety seconds. You think there's going to be a serious discussion, or even three consecutive lines of dialogue, about the issues at play here: can afflicted people live worthwhile lives? Is suicide ethical? Will this film encourage the handicapped to off themselves? But that never happens.
It's safe to guess that Will's quadriplegia is, to the filmmakers, merely a plot device. Tweener girls find guys attractive, but are anxious about real physical intimacy and all it entails. Also, tweener girls don't want to be obliterated by masculinity. They want to exist in a world where they are the center. And, tweener girls are anxious that they aren't pretty enough.
Thus, "Me Before You" gives tweener girls a very handsome, ripped hero who couldn't engage in physical intimacy even if he wanted to. And he is so needy and so isolated that the tweener girl's cuteness and spunkiness and fashion choices become the center of his world. And she doesn't have to be beautiful to be the center of the universe to this handsome guy who, if he were not a quadriplegic, would be the hottest date in town.
Yes, it is all pretty awful, right down to Lou's boyfriend, who is an endurance athlete obsessed with his physical performance, but insensitive to Lou's emotional needs he is meant to contrast with the lovable quadriplegic. One man can run but can't feel. One man can feel but can't walk. Oh good grief.
And yet I cried while watching this film. In spite of everything, Claflin's and McTeer's performances opened my heart.
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