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Enough Surprises in Noted Iranian Director's Slow-moving Dissection of Marital Discord
Fireworks Wednesday is celebrated Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's 2006 film that finally saw the light of day here in the US ten years later following a DVD release. Here Farhadi is both director and co-screenwriter, exploring marital discord between a middle-class couple on a Wednesday eve right before the Iranian New Year (outside a plethora of fireworks are exploding all over the city).
The warring couple is wife Mozhdeh and husband Morteza Samiei; they have a young son, Amir-Ali who can't help be affected by the terrible tension between his parents. Morteza wants the apartment cleaned as the family was initially planning to take a trip to Dubai the next day (which never comes to fruition). He hires a maid, Rouhi, to clean the apartment, against Mozhdeh's wishes.
Rouhi, is a virtual innocent compared to the Samieis, as she is soon to be married and has a cheerful disposition. Her working-class origins are succinctly contrasted with those of the middle-class Samieis (perhaps Farhadi is emulating Bergman's Persona, the 1966 face-off between a mentally ill actress and her more well-adjusted nurse, charged with taking care of her).
Fireworks Wednesday has a rather slow-moving plot but the central question keeps us interested: is Morteza cheating on Mozhdeh with their divorced neighbor, Simin, who runs an illegal beauty salon in their apartment building?
Mozhdeh conscripts Rouhi to spy on Simin and learns from her that both her husband and the neighbor won't be home until 5PM. Her suspicions about the affair virtually confirmed, Mozhdeh then has Rouhi pick up Amir-Ali at school and goes off to spy on her husband; after he finds out, he publicly beats her and she's ready to take her son and move in with her sister and brother-in-law.
All hell breaks out in the apartment with Mozhdeh accusing her husband of the affair. It's the level-headed Rouhi who lied about how Simin knew of the Samieis' departure time to Dubai (she presents an alternative explanation), calming Mozhdeh and preventing her from leaving.
There are more surprises here but keep in mind, as previously mentioned, it takes quite a bit of time to get to the big payoff. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. Yes it's Farhadi who teases us into believing that the wife is unstable and paranoid. But ultimately he reveals to the audience that indeed Morteza has been having an affair with Simin. The next twist is Simin wants out of the affair. And finally Rouhi figures out that Morteza is guilty as sin (she can smell his perfume-the same given to her by Simin during her beauty salon session there earlier). Again, it's the level-headed Rouhi who prevents further heartache by not confirming Mozhdeh's deeply held belief about her husband (which now happens to be true).
Farhadi follows in the path of the earlier master Bergman, suggesting that the unhappy couple will continue to soldier on, despite the husband's infidelity. The performances here by stars Hedyeh Tehrani (Mozhdeh), Taraneh Alidousti (Rouhi), and Hamid Farokhnezhad (Morteza), are impeccable. While the dissection of marital infidelity is not the most original idea for a film, it's presented with great verisimilitude with enough surprises to keep our interest.
First Reformed (2017)
Schrader's troubled Reverend is a derivative portrait based on Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest"
Desperate for anything resembling intellectual cinema, the critics fawned over noted writer/director Paul Schrader's latest offering, an homage to iconic French director Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest." If you'll recall, Schrader in his younger days was known as being the screenwriter for Scorsese's acclaimed "Taxi Driver," an insipid tale about a miscreant who is held up as a hero as a result of a penchant for vigilantism. Worse was one of the most overrated films of all-time, "Raging Bull," another of Scorsese's early failures in which Schrader turned a colorful pugilist into an angry martinet.
Like Woody Allen before he stopped acting in his own films, Schrader seeks international recognition as a "deeper" kind of filmmaker, a la Ingmar Bergman. What better way to accomplish that than emulate an iconic "foreign" director such as Bresson?
Like Bresson's unnamed country priest, Schrader's protagonist, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is also an outsider, who seeks to do things his own way, bent on proving to congregants that his brand of spirituality is far more "real" and credible than the kind of religion peddled by the likes of Pastor Jeffers (played by Cedric the Entertainer of all people!). Jeffers is the head of the nearby Abundant Life mega-church which basically owns and operates Toller's First Reformed congregation in upstate New York as a tourist attraction (due to its connection as a site for the Underground Railroad).
In Bresson's "Diary," the priest also has a mentor, the Priest of Torcy, who like Jeffers, attempts to mold his charge into a respectable spiritual counselor. Both Bresson's Priest and Toller are moralists and can't keep their big mouths shut. In Toller's case, it's his encounter with the troubled environmental activist, Michael, whose shocking suicide convinces Toller that he's been living a life of inaction (if only he could live up to the example set by Jesus and his ministry).
Just as Bresson's Priest piously blames a landowner for the trouble he's having with his daughter (a potential runaway) due to an ill-advised extramarital affair, Toller blames the mean-spirited industrialist Edward Balq for his less than progressive views on climate control. Both the landowner and Balq have been funding their respective churches, so when each man of faith voices his displeasure, their superiors are not pleased at all. The bottom line is that the antagonists in both Bresson's and Schrader's passion play are decidedly one-dimensional.
Bresson's priest and Toller are also joined at the hip by the respective illnesses they suffer from. Both apparently are facing some kind of stomach cancer which lead them both to adopt the mantle of a martyr.
But Schrader's character's road to martyrdom takes a far more absurd turn when the giving, mild-mannered Reverend suddenly decides to wear the deceased Michael's suicide belt and blow himself up during the 250th anniversary convocation at the First Reformed church-with Balq, the governor of NY State and Pastor Jeffers all in attendance.
Schrader still believes he can win a few additional critics' accolades by channeling his inner Travis Bickle (his Taxi Driver protagonist), proffering a tawdry scene of nihilistic violence. But better to have his troubled Reverend ultimately take the high road-here Toller dispenses with the suicide vest after Michael's widow, Mary, arrives at the church (against his instructions) and prevents him from swallowing a can of drain cleaner. There is still an intermediary step toward partial martyrdom-Toller wears barbed wire, mimicking Christ's wearing of the Crown of Thorns before the Crucifixion. But wait! This could have been merely an alternative dream sequence proffered by Schrader. Note that Pastor Jeffers could not get into the rectory next door to the church so how did Mary get in? Either way, both endings make no sense.
Despite an intense performance by Ethan Hawke, the noted thespian is undone by the ridiculousness of Schrader's script. Indeed it is a script that is wholly derivative, based on source material that is obviously superior to this paltry imitation, but overrated in its own right.
Schrader even after all these years must resort to titillating his audience through the suggestion of puerile violent wish fulfillment (here it's the anti-environmentalists who must get their comeuppance). Just as unlikely as the Reverend's sudden murderous rage is the completely unconvincing turnaround-a call for love's embrace-which should have been the good Reverend's stance all along.
Victoria & Abdul (2017)
Judi Dench shines as a depressed Queen Victoria who finds meaning in life through a relationship with an unlikely confidant
Before Shrabani Basu's book of the same name, the story of the relationship between a Muslim Indian servant by the name of Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria, was basically lost to history. By chance while on a family trip to Victoria's holiday home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, Basu noticed a painting of Abdul and wondered who he was. Her research led her to discovering Abdul's journal which was still in his family's hands since his death in 1909.
Abdul, a low-level civil servant in the prison system, hailed from Agra, India. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to present a coin commemorating British rule over India, for Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887 along with a co-worker Mohammed, decidedly anti-British in his outlook.
Abdul (portrayed as a gentle soul here) has no such objections to paying tribute to Victoria and is excited to be invited to the Palace. The courtiers instruct him to be obsequious when he meets Victoria and he is specifically told not to look directly at the Queen. He however defies their instructions and somehow Victoria takes notice of him. Before you know it, Victoria insists that Abdul remain at the Court as her "Munshi" (teacher).
Much to the chagrin of her son Bertie (later to become King Edward) and the other stuffed shirts at the Palace, Abdul is revealed to be not a Hindu (as originally believed by those who invited Abdul to England), but actually a Muslim. Soon Abdul is teaching Victoria Urdu and passages from the Qur'an. When she finds out he's married, she has him bring his wife and mother-in-law to live at the Palace.
The film succeeds on two fronts. First the deep-seated animosity of Victoria's family and friends toward Abdul leads to the central conflict in which Victoria's affection for her "Munshi" is directly challenged. At one point the entire staff threatens to resign over Victoria's declaration that she plans to have her confidant knighted. Underlying all of this is the implication that British society at the time was guilty of endemic racism. Victoria is held up as a model and champion of liberalism, willing to defend a "lowly servant," condemned by British society based on his perceived inferior station in life.
Victoria may not have been completely a shining beacon, championing the downtrodden immigrants of her time, but her small gesture of friendship toward Abdul here suggests she was certainly much more progressive than many of her contemporaries. What's more, it's recorded in her writings that she was aware that Abdul may have been subject of "race prejudice," which (she writes) accounted for the outright hostility against him.
More important is how the relationship helped Victoria in her old age, after she endured the death of her beloved husband years earlier, along with the friendship later on, with the Scottish manservant, John Brown. The gentle Abdul kept her engaged in the world after she withdrew due to the depression over the death of her husband.
While Judi Dench is magnificent as a complex Victoria, Ali Fazal as Abdul is saddled by a script that puts the teacher on a pedestal and reduces him to a one-dimensional good guy. Abdul's dark side is suggested but never explored in detail. It makes sense that Victoria would become angry with him after relying on his account of the Indian mutiny of 1857 (in which hundreds of British troops were massacred by Muslims following a "fatwa" issued by a prominent Iman). Perhaps there needed to be some additional dialogue explaining Abdul's position-why he put that particular spin on the story that distorted what had actually occurred (could it have been that he was actually ignorant of the true facts of the massacre and was subject to the propaganda of his fellow Muslims back in India?).
Another event also remained unexplored-this is when the Court physician reveals the saintly Abdul actually suffers from gonorrhea which accounted for the fact that his wife had no children. Again, Victoria ignores Abdul's potential dark side when she curtly orders her physician to heal him of his affliction. What does Abdul have to say about this development? We never find out.
Finally, history tells us that Abdul actually campaigned to have himself knighted; the film suggests otherwise-that it was solely Victoria's idea. Had the film's scenarists chosen to depict events in this way, Abdul wouldn't have come off as such a goody two-shoes.
Nonetheless, the denouement is sad. Following Victoria's death, Abdul was unceremoniously sent packing and all papers relating to his stay at Court, were burned upon orders of Victoria's son, the new King. Despite Abdul's shortcomings, the Royal Family failed to recognize that Abdul was actually good for Victoria, and helped her cope while she was undergoing a deep depression. In short, they should have "worked something out," but given the times, this was an impossibility.
Director Stephen Frears does an excellent job sustaining our interest in a story that could have easily become lugubrious. The production design is excellent, aptly giving us a real feel for the times. More could have done with Abdul's character, but Judi Dench steals the show as a Queen who found meaning in life through a friendship with an unlikely confidant!
La promesse (1996)
Despite unsatisfying climax, cinema verité chronicle of disturbed father-son relationship and immigrant exploitation proves gritty and highly compelling
Some of you may have seen the Dardennes brothers 2011 film "The Kid with a Bike," which starred Jérémie Renier as the father of a disturbed 12 year old whom he abandons. In the Dardennes brothers first significant (1996) feature, La Promesse, you can see Renier as the troubled 15 year old protagonist, Igor, who shines in his initial foray into the feature film landscape.
Shot in a gritty cinema verité style significantly without music, La Promesse chronicles the unhealthy relationship between Igor and an amoral father, Roger (Oliver Gourmet). Roger proves to be cannily drawn, a bad man who is still fleshed out with some sympathetic characteristics. Despite beating Igor at times, the point is made that he still cares for the boy (in his own half-assed way).
Roger houses immigrants but also exploits them by overcharging for rent and undercharging their pay. When Amidou, an immigrant from Burkina Faso and one of Roger's construction workers, falls off a scaffold, Igor tries to save the man by applying a tourniquet to his bleeding leg. Roger, fearing that he'll be discovered by government inspectors, throws the tourniquet away, allowing the man to bleed to death. To add insult to injury, he dumps the body right at the construction site and covers the corpse with cement. Before Roger arrives on the scene, Igor promises the dying man that he'll take care of his wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and her infant child.
At the beginning of the film, Igor is introduced as a juvenile delinquent of sorts, who steals money from a woman while working part-time at a service station. The promise turns the boy into a responsible citizen as he ends up trying to help Assita after the husband's disappearance. The uncaring Roger even goes so far as paying a man to scare Assita into leaving by attempting to rape her (the subterfuge involves Roger pretending to scare the man off before he actually commits the crime). It gets worse when Roger creates a fake telegram which is delivered to Assita, falsely claiming Amidou is in Germany and wants her to meet him there. Only Igor's last minute intervention prevents Roger from delivering the beleaguered widow into the hands of sex traffickers. Assita is effectively drawn as she's not a complete goody two-shoes. There is a disturbing scene of animal sacrifice (a rooster is sliced up as part of her rituals) and later she has a breakdown, accusing Igor of infecting her child with some sort of disease. Fortunately Assita comes to her senses and they bring the child to a hospital for treatment. There, a sympathetic nurse allows Assita to use her identity papers so she can leave the country to live with a family member. There is a harrowing scene at the climax where Roger catches up to Igor at the service station where he used to work, with the boy preventing the father from chasing after them by clamping a chain to his leg.
All of this is pretty gripping but a bit predictable in the end as Igor is committed to helping the woman. Igor's confession is indeed satisfying but the Dardennes brothers abruptly break things off and keep us guessing as to what the consequences are of Assita finding out her husband is dead. Does she go to the police? Does Roger prevent her from acting or pay her off? Does Assita finally turn around and indeed move in with a family members in another country? What does Roger do to Igor? The Dardennes brothers wish to leave things to our imagination-not sure that is the best tack to take here as the story sort of demands more of a conclusive denouement.
La Promesse is indeed a gritty portrait of a disturbed father-son relationship as well as a damning chronicle of the exploitation of immigrants by unscrupulous men whose desire for monetary profit outweighs any humanitarian concerns.
Worthy premise of Nazi war criminals hiding out in Argentina subsumed by Dick Powell's one-note hothead protagonist and overly talky, convoluted plot
Director Edward Dmytryk was known for creating film noirs prior to being blacklisted in the 50s due to a past association with the Communist party. Ironically, Dymtryk quit the party after the writer of the first draft, John Wexley, lambasted him at a Communist party meeting over changes he made to the script, toning down the pro-Socialist message.
You would think that people in the government after World War II, would have been pleased with the basic premise of the film: that Nazi war criminals were still alive and hiding in such places as South America. But the "party" line was that the war was over and the Fascists had been defeated; any suggestion that this nascent bunch of deplorables were plotting to rise again was decidedly politically incorrect.
Despite the unusual theme for a film noir (and it's debatable how much of a "film noir" this film is), Cornered proved to be a rather lame potboiler in its execution.
The narrative actually begins decently. Dick Powell plays Canadian RCAF flyer Lawrence Gerard, a former POW, who returns to France to find out who was responsible for the death of his bride of 20 days, a member of the French resistance. His father-in-law Rougon informs him that it's Marcel Jarnac, an official in the Vichy government who collaborated with the Germans (Jarnac is officially declared dead but Rougon doesn't believe it but has no idea where he is).
Gerard finds a tantalizing clue in the freshly burned out office of Jarnac's associate--an envelope addressed to Jarnac's purported wife. Gerard ultimately attempts to find the widow in Buenos Aires. It is at this point that the narrative falls apart given the totally unlikely course of action Gerard takes. The Canadian enters the bad guys' lair under his own name making it quite clear he's looking for Jarnac and intends to take him down. In real life, such a person would probably last a scant week in such an environment before bumped off by the unsavory thugs he's looking for.
To add insult to injury, Powell is not the charming, cynical private eye Phillip Marlowe in the clever adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel Farewell my Lovely (called Murder, By Sweet in the American release, also directed by Dmytryk a year earlier in 1944), but a decidedly unlikable hothead.
Gerard is approached by the portly Melchior Incza (played by character actor Walter Slezak) who is later revealed to be working for Jarnac. Incza offers his services as a guide around town but Gerard is determined to find Jarnac on his own.
Gerard soon meets Jarnac's alleged widow at a party where he also meets Tomas Camargo, a fascist connected to Jarnac, and Camargo's uncle, lawyer Manuel Santana, who turns out to be operating an anti-Fascist group, tracking Jarnac on his own.
After hounding Mme Jarnac, she finally reveals to Gerard that she's being paid to pretend she's Jarnac's wife and she's actually afraid of him. A good deal of the convoluted plot is taken up with Gerard's ruse--pretending to have an entire dossier on Jarnac which he threatens to release to the press unless Camargo agrees to reveal Jarnac's whereabouts (Gerard only has one signed title page of the dossier which he found in the burned out ruins of Jarnac's associate back in France, which he gives to Incza).
The climax leads Gerard to an old meeting place of Jarnac's where he finally reveals himself (and murders Incza in the process). You can pretty much guess what happens next--a struggle to the death between Gerard and Jarnac with Jarnac ending up on the losing side of Gerard's set of multiple (fatal) punches. A paper detailing Camargo's connection to Jarnac ends up in Santana's hands, who plans to reveal it in court, not only to get Gerard off the hook for the Jarnac homicide, but to expose Camargo's organization in Buenos Aires.
Despite the worthy warning of a Fascist resurgence, the Nazi villains here are a decidedly generic bunch. They really are a bunch of stock characters from the typical murder mystery of the day. With the one-note Powell and an overly talky plot, Cornered fails to come close to the much more worthy film noirs of its day.
Indigenous tribe impresses in this South Seas updated Romeo and Juliet tale
Tanna is a remote South Sea island where filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler along with Dr. John Collee wrote the first ever Australian-made film to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It's considered "foreign language" since it's performed almost exclusively by the Yakel, an indigenous tribe who speak their own language.
The film, released in 2016, is quite an accomplishment in the sense that these native performers have no previous experience as actors and are quite convincing presenting a part of their history dating back to 1987 when the tribe faced a supreme crisis of conscience leading to a great cultural upheaval.
The story revolves around two young lovers, a young girl named Wawa (Marie Wawa) and the late chief's son, Dain (Mungau Dain). The tribe promised Wawa to a neighboring and rival tribe, the Imedin; such arrangements are designed to keep the peace between the two groups. Dain seeks revenge against the Imedin as they murdered both his parents but the grandfather preaches conciliation. Things get more complicated when the Imedin attack the Yakel's shaman who is severely injured.
The drama, reminiscent of the old Romeo and Juliet saga, surges after Wawa runs away with Dain, refusing to have anything to do with the arranged marriage. This occurs after she's pressured by her parents along with the women in the tribe who follow the "kastom," the spiritual customs that insist on political expediency over affairs of the heart.
A good part of the film is seen through the eyes of Wawa's younger sister, Selin, who goes looking for her in a forbidden area near a volcano. Wawa and Dain consider for a short time moving in with some local converted Christians but find their customs too unnatural for their tastes. The narrative ends tragically after the lovers realize they will eventually be caught by the Imedin who have been searching for them. They ingest poison mushrooms, committing suicide.
One very good thing does come from the tragedy. The Yakel do away with the practice of arranged marriage and allow young lovers to choose their own mate.
The bonus tracks on the DVD are as interesting as the film itself, showing some cast members leaving their home for the first time and attending an awards ceremony at the Venice Film Festival where they are feted by an adoring group of cinephiles. Even more fascinating is when the entire tribe sees the completed film for the first time on their home turf, with the film projected on a giant white sheet in their village ensconced within a jungle clearing.
The Yakel come off as a healthy bunch where partial nudity is seen as completely natural. The film's scenarists' adoration for the tribe leads to a rather uncomplicated view of the principals but there are enough idiosyncrasies in each character to keep one's interest. The story features some suspense at film's end as we care to learn the fate of the doomed protagonists. Tanna may not have a complicated plot but the presentation of the material by non-actors is an impressive achievement.
The Death of Stalin (2017)
TV comic luminary reduces Stalin's Politburo successors to a coterie of foul-mouthed, bumbling misfits
A mainstream comedy writer, known for Veep on television, Armando Iannucci as director and co-writer, has ventured into the realm of a much darker subject, "The Death of Stalin." The genre is black comedy, a send-up, where the principal members of the Politburo vie for power following the death of Stalin of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 5, 1953.
Most of the humor is sophomoric but occasionally there are a few moments of mirth. The dark atmosphere of Stalinism is ably conveyed in the film's introductory scene based on real events. A Radio Moscow producer forces an orchestra to replay a concerto so that a recording can be pressed for Stalin who demands it on a whim.
A conductor is dragged out of bed, the audience is not permitted to leave and additional people from the streets are conscripted to fill out the hall (ironically most of these newly minted spectators are members of the proletariat, who have little to no interest in classical music). Historically the actual event occurred nine years prior to the terrifying dictator's death, but no matter-the bizarre nature of the various Russians' acquiescence, reveals the level of fear that gripped the populace during those unhappy times.
Iannucci unfortunately attempts to extract humor not from an examination of a crazed bureaucracy designed to cope with terrifying circumstances-but by focusing on and then reducing Stalin's successors as a coterie of buffoons. Oddly no character sports a Russian accent but rather utilizes an unsuccessful mix of American and British doggerel. Steve Buscemi is particularly unconvincing as Khrushchev-not only doesn't he look like Stalin's eventual replacement but delivering his lines in colloquial American English, hardly sounds like the man who told an American audience at the United Nations that "we will bury you."
The plot loosely follows how the various players attempt to grab their share of power following the leadership vacuum left wide open after Stalin's death. As in real life, the principal villain is NKVD state security head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) who attempts to buy Foreign Minister's Molotov's (Michael Palin) loyalty by arranging for the release of his wife, denounced as a traitor and imprisoned a few years earlier by Stalin.
Meanwhile Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is nominally put in charge of the government only to prove that he is spineless, vacillating between the various factions and failing to make any decisive decisions. Eventually it's Khrushchev who conscripts World War II Army hero Marshall Zhukov, who arrests Beria and basically arranges his execution (with the approval of the rest of the Politburo).
Iannucci's one-note characterization of the principals as a group of foul-mouthed misfits does not jibe with the reality of their personalities. Worse is the implication that Stalinism was principally the fault of men like Beria, an overt sadist and child molester who takes on the convenient role of the fall guy here.
Samuel Goff in his article in the Calvert Journal "The Death of Stalin: a black comic masterpiece? Don't make me laugh," argues that Iannucci fails to discuss the "mechanisms of power" in Stalinist Russia. It's the "faceless pencil-pushers" who "combine to enact mass death, the memo a more potent symbol of the system than the rifle, the whole thing a meeting of bland procedural discipline and actual murder. There is not enough banality in Iannucci's portrait of evil." Goff rightly concludes that "we see horror, and we see satire, but never in conjunction. The result is a lacklustre and tonally confused story about some awful men being awful to each other."
Whatever you believe about the men who led the Soviet Union following the tyrant Stalin's death, they were not a bunch of bumbling fools. If slapstick and a series of pratfalls are your "thing," then you might actually find The Death of Stalin to be humorous. More demanding critics must require a more serious examination of a ghastly historical reality.
Un beau soleil intérieur (2017)
Little suspense or character development in tale of lovesick painter thwarted by coterie of commitment-phobe males
Despite the overwhelming positive critical response, there were a few critics who took French director Claire Denis to task for Let the Sunshine In, in French "Un beau soleil interior," best translated into English as "a beautiful sun inside." Written with co-writer Christine Angot, "Sunshine" stars the iconic Juliette Binoche as Isabelle, a divorced abstract painter who can best be described as "love-starved."
A few female critics were angry that Denis depicts Isabelle as a woman who defines herself solely through her relationships with men. That wouldn't be so bad if the men depicted were an interesting lot-unfortunately they are not. What's more, Isabelle's back story is gravely lacking-we find out little about her professional life as a painter as well as the nature of her relationship with a 10 year old daughter (whom we meet only very briefly mid-narrative).
Perhaps the most worthless review of Let the Sunshine In is the highest rated on Metacritic (a 100)-by Justin Chang writing in the LA Times who terms "Let the Sunshine In" a "sublime comedy of sexual indecision." He's right about Isabelle's sexual indecisiveness-but where is the comedy?
Clearly Denis treats her beleaguered protagonist with kid gloves-she's really the woman with the "beautiful sun inside." She might be a "glutton for punishment," but in the end it's really the men who are at fault here (and a sad bunch they are indeed!).
Perhaps potentially the most interesting man that Isabelle tries to hook up with is an oily banker whom we meet first (in the opening scene they're having a rather unsatisfactory sexual encounter). The banker's crime is that he wants an intimate relationship but will not give up his relationship with a wife to whom he's been married for many years.
Denis unfortunately is loathe to build any suspense in her inert plot, so our frustrated banker makes a lame attempt at the art of stalking by plying Isabelle with a bouquet of flowers. He's unceremoniously given the boot by our lovesick protagonist and that's the last we hear of him.
The rest of the Isabelle's potential suitors need little more description. They include an actor, Isabelle's ex-husband, a working class schlub and an art curator. Unlike the arrogant banker, their shortcomings amount to a coterie of dating misdemeanors: they're basically all a bland bunch and simply unable to commit.
Finally Isabelle decides to go to a "professional" for advice after so many failed attempts at love. He turns out to be as bad as Isabelle's aforementioned love objects. It's Gerard Depardieu as a "medium," whose generalized "psychic" predictions prove as lame as their source-another abject mediocrity who believes in his own BS.
Like the entire prior narrative, the medium goes on and on as the credits roll. Is Claire also mocking Isabelle for her gullibility? If she is, it's gentle mockery as it's already been established that the men here are the "butt" of the over-extended joke.
Perhaps Denis can be forgiven for her feminist bias and her gentle ribbing of the male sex-but her main shortcoming here is an aesthetic one. Despite a good deal of smart, sophisticated dialogue and Juliette Binoche's performance (infused with verisimilitude), it's Denis' inability to build suspense and present a protagonist with an internal arc that displays a modicum of change.
Ready Player One (2018)
Master Auteur of Special Effects and Pop Culture also reveals obsession with futuristic virtual reality world too reminiscent of today's unhealthy fixation on video games
Steven Spielberg is fast becoming a connoisseur of the pyrrhic victory. In his previous missive, The Post, the Supreme Court rules in favor of the editor-in-chief along with the owner of the Washington Post, in their quest to have the Pentagon Papers published in spite of government opposition. Unfortunately, no one is held to account for the very crimes the Papers expose.
Similarly, here in Spielberg's latest, Ready Player One, his adolescent protagonist, Wade Watts (aka "Parzival"), triumphs over CEO Nolan Sorrento, head of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who's been trying to gain control of the OASIS, a virtual reality world, created by the now deceased (Steve Jobs-like) James Halliday.
Even Spielberg concedes at film's end that maybe the OASIS is not such a good thing, when he has Watts (after gaining control of the OASIS), declare that the world is off limits on Tuesdays and Thursdays (teenage addiction to video games is indeed a big, big problem in our contemporary society).
There are some other problems with Ready Player One. Chief among them are the small stakes Watts and his buddies are fighting for. IOI simply wants to place ads for profit in the OASIS as opposed to blocking content which is a chief sticking point in the overall net neutrality debate.
It's a rather clever conceit that Watts and the vast majority of the denizens of a futuristic 2045 Columbus, Ohio, live in trailer homes stacked on top of one another (The "STACKS); but the urban area (controlled by IOI) is not as clever-in fact rather derivative as one is reminded of the run-down Detroit in the original Robocop.
And IOI's power in the real world is rather sketchily defined. The "Sixers" are debtors turned indentured servants coupled with researchers who are attempting to solve all the clues Halliday left in the OASIS to gain control of the virtual world. Sorrento and his minions will even go as far as blowing up Watts' aunt's STACKS residence (perhaps the most distasteful and out of place event in the film-designed to demonize the IOI crowd much more than they should be!).
When IOI does commit murder, where is law enforcement in all this? Presumably IOI controls them. But why is Sorrento so easily taken down by the police at film's end? Yes Wade's pal Aech sends the police the recording of Sorrento ordering the bombing; but again wouldn't the police be in Sorrento's pockets? They apparently have been looking the other way all this time in regards to the "Sixers," who are being used by the corporation for nefarious purposes. So if the police do have an "independent streak," that needs to be better defined.
Spielberg of course is on more solid ground in his mastery of special effects. The plot is divided into three parts, with Watts solving each aspect of Halliday's puzzle, obtaining three special keys that lead to the acquisition of the special Easter egg and ultimately a contract that gives him control of the OASIS.
In the first sequence, Watts' vehicle is blocked by King Kong who prevents all from encountering the wizard-looking Halliday who holds the first key. Watts finds an important clue in Halliday's archives, a virtual diary which Watts plays repeatedly until he uncovers the clue to finding the first key (the solution involves going "backward," instead of "forward).
In the second sequence, Watts becomes more involved with love interest Samantha Cook (the avatar Art3mis in the OASIS) and discovered that Halliday's main regret was that he never kissed Kira, on a movie date to a screening of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." Aficionados of that film will dig the references and attendant special effects but the closer parallel is to the Spielberg's executive-produced "Back to the Future."
In addition to actually working in a DeLorean during one of the action sequences, there is the whole idea of the equation of success with heterosexuality. That of course was the theme in Back to the Future where McFly Sr. "gets the girl." And Watts makes certain of not making Halliday's mistake, by kissing Samantha in the end. By the way, it's the holographic projection of Kira, who hands Watts the second key.
The third sequence (or Act III), gets a little convoluted especially when a series of plot twists prove rather far-fetched such as Samantha easily getting a hold of Sorrento's password into his station which allows Watts to recruit OASIS players to join in the all-out assault at the big fortress where the key to Halliday's puzzle awaits (Along with Samantha, he's aided by his online buddies, all whom just happen to live in close proximity to Watt's residence, in Columbus, Ohio).
There is a force field that must be neutralized and finally Watts is clever enough not to sign the contract (which was Halliday's big mistake, having dissolved a partnership with his long-term friend and business partner Morrow who shows up as the curator at Halliday's archives).
In addition to extracting solid performances from his actors (notably Tye Sheridan as Wade and Mark Rylance as Halliday), Spielberg remains the master of special effects and also of pop culture, as the film is chock full of references to music and film from the era of the auteur's younger days (80s music is particularly prominent here). It's a wild, entertaining ride (if that's your sort of thing) but also predictably inconsequential, given the trivial obsession with the virtual world-too reminiscent of today's unhealthy fixation on video games!
Wonder Woman (2017)
Mythology and World War I setting are pluses, but Wonder Woman's exploits add up to puerile wish fulfillment
When Wonder Woman came out, it was touted as a "higher class" action hero film. Indeed, right away we're introduced to a narrative infused with mythology, where Amazon warriors created by Zeus are entrusted to protect all mankind. Diana (never referred to "Wonder Woman" during the film), is the daughter of Hippolyta, and she and her fellow Amazonians live on a secluded island, training to eventually confront the God of War, Ares, who is held responsible for all the wars propagated by an evil mankind, fallen from grace after their initial emergence in paradise.
What Wonder Woman also has going for it is the World War I setting-Diana's leading man is American pilot Captain Steve Trevor who ends up on the Amazons' island, after his plane is shot down by the Germans. The setting of "the war to end all wars" is appropriate as many of the battles ended up in stalemates, highlighted by pointless trench warfare, leading to massive casualties. Later it's Ares who tells Diana that he was only a passive onlooker to all the carnage. It's men themselves who are responsible for all the perfidy. And what better illustration is the conflict, initially entitled "The Great War," which perhaps represents mankind's greatest folly.
While Ares remains Diana's primary antagonist in the narrative, the Germans, represented by real-life World War I general, Erich Luddendorf and a nasty chemist, Isabel Maru, are the primary villains on the earthly plane. It's Maru who's developed some new kind of poison gas that threatens to turn the war in favor of the Germans and Diana, Trevor and a motley crew assembled by Trevor, must stop them.
Act 2 of Wonder Woman is unfortunately rather puerile as the idea of a woman with supernatural powers proves to be wish fulfillment for deluded feminists and their male enablers. Maybe kids might be impressed by all the histrionics, but when Diana manages to wipe out an entire German regiment and successfully liberates a besieged French town singlehandedly, one can only laugh at the stupidity of such a concept.
At a certain point, Luddendorf is able to release Maru's gas, killing many in another French town, and Diana takes revenge, killing the brutal general (in real-life, Luddendorf did not die in World War I, and lived until 1937!). Meanwhile Trevor and his team blow up Maru's laboratory. Soon Trevor successfully highjacks the bomber loaded with poison gas which Luddendorf had ordered dropped on London.
The plot has two twists: Trevor must sacrifice himself to get rid of the gas and Ares is revealed to be Sir Patrick Morgan, the British politician who was trying to arrange an armistice between the warring parties. I suppose the writers get some credit for these twists but Diana's final confrontation with Ares proves to be anti-climactic, as we've already suffered through enough unrelenting gore.
Gal Gadot as Diana is eye candy for presumably a majority male audience and must be applauded for the very good shape she's in. Nonetheless Gadot does not have the requisite warmth to end up as an iconic, endearing character. More successful is the handsome Chris Pine, best known for his work as James T. Kirk on the Star Trek reboot. Special mention must be given to David Thewlis as Ares. He reminds me of the late Alan Rickman, who was a natural playing complicated antagonists.
Watch Wonder Woman for the production design and a few good performances. But in the end, it's really just another comic book action flick detached from the historical verisimilitude it attempts to impart.
Compelling by-the-numbers docudrama, highlights Ted Kennedy's dark side
John Curran's Chappaquiddick is based on the 1969 inquest into another Kennedy family tragedy-this one involving Senator Edward ("Ted") Kennedy. The film can best be classified as a docudrama and very much sticks to the chronology of events that occurred on Martha's Vineeyard, a couple of days before the historic 1969 moon landing.
The danger in this approach is that the narrative simply becomes a dry rehash of the events that transpired. Curran does put his own spin on things (a blessing and a curse!) but ends up successfully drawing a complex portrait of the only surviving Kennedy son (played with convincing verisimilitude by Jason Clarke, a dead ringer for the Senator, if there ever was one).
Most people know of the basic events surrounding the Chappaquiddick incident. Screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan take the position that Mary Jo Kopechne, Robert Kennedy's former secretary on his campaign, died an agonizing death after she remained alive in an air pocket until her oxygen ran out, after Ted Kennedy lost control of his car which plunged off a bridge. They base this on the conclusion reached by the diver that recovered Kopechne's body who concluded that she died not as a result of drowning but running out of air.
Director Curran is absolutely convinced of this scenario but it's still only speculation as there was no autopsy. Still, it seems quite believable that this is what happened. The tragedy was compounded due to what happened next-Kennedy's failure to report the incident until the next day.
It's unclear whether Kennedy actually made attempts to save Kopechne himself (he maintained that he did) but he did notify his friends, Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), who did dive into the water but were unsuccessful in extracting the doomed secretary.
It occurs to me that Gargan and Markham used as much poor judgment as Kennedy by not coming up with the idea of immediately contacting the police, as ultimately it would have taken a professional diver to save Kopechne. They relied on Kennedy's promise to contact the authorities that evening and failed to appreciate how "out of it" Kennedy was after the accident.
If Kennedy had an excuse for not contacting the police immediately (as a result of being in "shock"), certainly his behavior the next day was disgraceful. Curran isn't afraid to show how Kennedy's efforts to cover up the incident were quite involved, from his initial plan to tell the authorities that Kopechne was behind the wheel, that a doctor prescribed sedatives for a non-existent concussion and then wearing a neck brace at the Kopechne funeral, again attempting to play the part of the victim.
Even more fascinating is the gathering of a Kennedy "inner circle," arranged at the behest of Kennedy's father, Joe (Bruce Dern), his life force now severely diminished by a stroke. The power players included Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) and Ted Sorensen (Taylor Nichols) who unsuccessfully attempted to stop the local police chief from reading the complete statement Kennedy gave to him chronicling the entire incident.
It's Curran's speculation that Kennedy was torn between trying to please his father and maintaining the family legacy as opposed to rejecting the trappings of power that led to adopting an "inauthentic" personality. I'm not totally convinced that Joe would have slapped Ted as Curran depicts it here. In fact, Joe Kennedy's caretaker recalls an opposite reaction: that he hugged his son when he heard the news of Kopechne's tragic death (there is a scene where Ted hugs his father, but it's Ted who initiates the embrace, not the other way around).
Ultimately Curran does well in portraying Ted Kennedy as a complex character. At first, Kennedy acts poorly, thinking only of himself in an attempt to save his political career. Ironically, once Kennedy spends a little more time reflecting, he chooses the more honest approach (leading to a plea in court of leaving the scene of an accident and the subsequent punishment of a suspended sentence and probation).
For Kennedy bashers, such a sentence was probably wholly unsatisfactory-but in the end the voters in Massachusetts were willing to forgive their Senator (following a cleverly crafted mea culpa on live TV). Did the sentence fit the crime? Probably yes, as it was a first time offense. Should Kennedy have resigned (as his good friend Markham wanted him to do)? That's another question still open to debate.
Chappaquiddick is hardly an original, creative project but nonetheless informs its audience of events that few people are aware of. In addition, Curran isn't afraid to display Ted Kennedy's dark side which may be the result of his own narcissistic failings as well as (in contrast), the pressure he felt attempting to live up to the legacy of three brothers who earlier met tragic ends.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Despite Impressive Animation, Lame Comic Dialogue Sinks Action Fantasy, Patronizing Towards Adults and Inappropriate for a Younger Audience
Kubo and the Two Strings is Travis Knight's animated stop-motion fantasy adventure film set in a feudal Japan voiced by a coterie of prominent actors. The overall effort is disappointing as so much excellent work went into the visual side of the film but little into the dialogue which can best be described as sophomoric and simply not funny.
Don't plan on taking your kids to see this as the story as it has an undercurrent of nasty characters who might be a little too scary for children. When we're first introduced to Kubo (Art Parkinson), the young protagonist, he already has had his eye plucked out by his evil grandfather ("The Moon King" voiced by Ralph Fiennes) and his two aunts (a Japanese variation on the bad witches from the "Wizard of Oz") who are out to kill his mother, Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who was cast out by the family after marrying Kubo's now missing dad, Hanzo.
Soon enough, the aunts (i.e. the witches) kill Kubo's mother and Kubo learns he must find three talismans to assist him in eventually defeating his grandfather. They include armor, a sword and a breastplate. Just as in the Wizard of Oz, Kubo is assisted by three characters who protect him from the wrath of his aunts. First there's "little Hanzo," Kubo's own Origami creation, who resembles his father, a Samurai warrior, along with a Monkey who comes to life from Kubo's monkey amulet given to him by his mother (the monkey is also voiced by Theron) as well as a Beetle/man hybrid (Matthew McConaughey).
It's soon revealed that the Monkey and the Beetle are manifestations of Kubo's parents but hardly approximate their grandeur. The Monkey's lines in particular are quite grating, as she spends most of her time insulting the Beetle, who comes off as foolish and ineffectual. Nonetheless, the two manage in the end to sacrifice themselves and kill the aunts, so that Kubo can have his final confrontation with the evil grandfather.
As I mentioned at the beginning, a great deal of thought went into animating this enterprise and most of it is quite impressive. However, when it comes to the animation of the grandfather's spirit (which takes the form of an ordinary dragon), one must conclude that the film's animators could have created a more interesting and compelling (final) monster/adversary for little Kubo.
The ending is at least appropriate as Kubo uses the strings from his Shamisen (banjo-like instrument), culled from his mother's hair, which enables him to neutralize his grandfather's powers and transform him to a feeble old man, on whom the villagers (from Kubo's nearby town), take pity.
Despite the impressive animation, the film's inappropriate comic tone undermines the filmmaker's serious intent, and relegates the overall effort as a lame attempt that patronizes the adult audience while at the same token, ends up scaring its base of young children.
Love, Simon (2018)
Despite overly idyllic world view, this gay coming of age tale is vastly entertaining
If straight people can have polished, witty, rom coms, why can't gays? And now with Love, Simon, they do! No matter that most rom coms present a rather idyllic picture of the world, preferring to look at the world with the glass half full, opposed to the glass half empty. What's missing of course is the deeper level of complexity with characters that might be a tad bit more multi-dimensional-traits suggesting a darker side and the attendant machinations that come with such a view. Nonetheless, there's nothing wrong with unbridled optimism, and Love, Simon delivers unsparingly-a tour de force that entertains to a surprising denouement that doesn't disappoint.
Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a closeted gay teenager living in an Atlanta suburb with two liberal parents and his younger sister. While the mother is completely accepting (a psychotherapist of course), the characterization of Simon's Dad is more subtle. After Simon ultimately comes out, the father, despite his outright displays of liberalism, realizes he's uncomfortable with the idea of his son being gay, and in a highly effective emotional scene must seek forgiveness for the hostility that he realizes has been simmering for quite some time, just below the surface.
The supporting players, Simon's three buddies, Leah and Nick (long-term childhood friends) and a newcomer Abby, fit seamlessly into the plot as Simon must avoid emotional entanglements with the females due to his particular sexual orientation and ensure in the end that his friends maintain their equilibrium in their relationships with one another.
Leah has been secretly pining away for Simon but of course she's unaware that he's gay. Meanwhile, Simon believes Leah has a crush on Nick who would like to hook up with Leah but is hopelessly shy. The break into the second act comes about when Martin (a fellow thespian, in the student production of "Cabaret") blackmails Simon after discovering his emails to the incognito gay student (who goes by the online moniker of "Blue"). It seems Martin is hopelessly smitten by Abby and wants Simon to act as the intermediary, assisting him in romancing her.
In addition to these interesting machinations, there's the overall mystery as to Blue's identity. When Simon and Leah show up at a Halloween costume party (dressed so cool as John Lennon and Yoko Ono), they run into Bram, a black Jewish kid dressed as Barack Obama (Bram has the funniest bit in the entire movie-telling Simon and Leah that he's come as "Post-election" Obama, enjoying Mai Tais on the beach in Hawaii and ensuring that his legacy isn't spoiled by the current occupant of the White House). Simon's belief that Bram is Blue is shattered, when, looking for the bathroom, accidentally discovers Bram making out with a girl in a bedroom.
Simon experiences his dark moment of the 2nd Act when he's "outed" by Martin, who releases all of Simon's emails to the anonymous Blue, on social media. Subsequently, Simon temporarily loses his friends when Abby discovers that he's been trying to manipulate her into dating Martin. Interestingly enough there are parallels between Simon and Martin and their behavior. Both make poor choices under stress. In Simon's case, it's the blackmailing by Martin that forces Simon to try and help his misguided fellow student and lie to his friends. And it's Martin's humiliation at the football game where he expresses his love for Abby and is rejected by her, that leads him to release Simon's emails.
The plot leads to a fitful conclusion as another "Blue" possibility is revealed. Lyle, the waiter at the greasy spoon, is soon eliminated as a candidate, as he turns out to have a crush on Abby. Simon and another gay student, Ethan, end up bonding after they're subject to taunts by two anti-gay students, in the school cafeteria. As with everything in this film, all's well that ends well, when the all-knowing drama teacher (a sassy black woman) stops the gay bashers in their tracks and ensures they end up in the dean's office. It's there that they apologize to Simon and Ethan (in real life, things might not have ended up so winningly!).
The theme of redemption becomes apparent as Leah arranges for a reconciliation between Simon and Nick and Abby (who are now a couple). Even Martin is offered a measure of forgiveness (by the film's scenarists), when (in an act of mea culpa) offers to purchase the final ticket on the ferris wheel for Simon, where Blue's identity is finally revealed.
The happy ending of course is wonderfully optimistic but a little too idyllic to qualify for a more complex look at gay life. Perhaps what is needed is Love, Simon, the sequel. Is there a new Tennessee Williams on the horizon? With this incarnation however, simply be prepared to be vastly entertained-a difficult accomplishment these days considering the dearth of truly witty and compelling screenplays.
Dead on Arrival (2017)
Impressive Bayou country visuals and frenetic pacing subsumed by stock Mafia types and less than clever plot resolution
Stephen C. Sepher, writer/director and actor in his own film, based his screenplay on the original 1949 D.O.A. starring Edmund O'brien-about a man who's been intentionally poisoned and only has a day to uncover who's responsible for his murder. Sepher wrote the original script for Heist (2015) starring Robert De Niro, but significant portions of it were changed by a subsequent writer-here, however, the script is all his so he'll now have to swim or sink in the face of honest criticism.
The story begins with Sepher's protagonist, one Sam Collins (Billy Flynn), a pharmaceutical salesman who pulls over on a highway outside of New Orleans, in obvious great distress. He's taken to the hospital by a state trooper where he's informed that he's been poisoned with some kind of botulism which has no cure. We then flashback to 12 hours earlier when Collins has been invited to a party thrown by the sleazy Dr. Alexander, who Collins has been trying to obtain a contract with involving his company's newly minted vaccines.
The action turns up a notch when Alexander turns up dead and Collins is suddenly the prime suspect. The good news is that Sepher has done a number of things right including filming in the visually impressive Bayou country, introducing an ensemble cast of colorful characters (the most successful being a psychopathic sheriff's deputy played by a harrowing Tyson Sullivan), utilizing some comedy to flesh out his investigative detectives (the boss continually busts his subordinate's chops over his Armenian heritage) and keeping the pace frenetic which leads to the uncovering of the murderer's identity (which is not completely apparent despite the relatively small number of suspects).
Nonetheless, Sepher's script is not as clever as it could have been. It was explained at a recent Q&A that the Italians have some roots in the New Orleans area which still (I don't think) is enough to introduce a few stock Mafia types to spruce up the action. Here a mafia tough (Anthony Sinopoli) becomes irate over Dr. Alexander's apparent misplacement of his $2 million investment; he's aided by two quirky hit men (played by Lillo Brancato and Sepher himself), who provide some familiar Sopranos-like comic relief.
The plot becomes more convoluted with the introduction of too many female prostitute characters to keep track of. One of them brings Sam to a voodoo priestess who makes an unsuccessful to cure him using an herbal liquid concoction. Both the priestess and the prostitute (the one with the heart of gold helping Sam), meet the same fate at the hands of the psycho sheriff's deputy. A few others get bumped off including a transvestite and another prostitute (whose name I can't recall) who has been having kinky sex with Dr. Alexander's insurance man, Hans Dunkel (an effective Chris Mulkey).
I won't reveal who's responsible for Sam's poisoning and all the carnage, but to suffice it to say Sepher's explanation as to who double-crossed Alexander and the Mafia guy and why, is not all that clever. Furthermore not much is done with the Collins character for that matter either, as we find out little about his backstory (he's mainly seen being chased and collapsing all over the place due to the poison he's ingested earlier).
A further opportunity is lost when Sepher fails to criticize the pharmaceutical industry for its many excesses, particularly in regards to the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Good old Hans questions Sam at the beginning of the narrative about the potential dangers of vaccines but Sepher later leaves us with the Mafia boss's false admonition: "Vaccines don't kill people, people do." Tell that to mothers who receive pennies to the dollar in government created "vaccine courts," following fatal accidents involving their helpless children, forced to undergo vaccine shots infused with a myriad of toxic substances.
Black Panther (2018)
Like Trump, Coogler must play to his base in spite of entry into exclusive film fraternity
Somehow I have a feeling that director Ryan Coogler anticipated the success of his Black Panther as well as the dilemma he now finds himself in. As a newly minted member of (the almost all-white) film establishment, and (probably now) a multi-millionaire to boot, Coogler undoubtedly had to figure out a way to fend off accusations from his base, of being a "sell-out." He did this by crafting his Black Panther script along with co-writer Joe Robert Cole to appeal to the masses of ordinary African-Americans who don't belong to an exclusive club of rich people that Coogler has recently joined.
Coogler accomplishes his appeal to the base first by embracing the idealistic, utopian vision of Africa in the form of the nation of Wakanda, a Marvel comics invention, that harks back to films from the 30s such as Lost Horizon, where a "mysterious, harmonious valley", dubbed "Shangri-la," thrives, somehow protected merely by mountains and a large number of overarching clouds.
The whole idea is to present a positive image of African culture (mainly for) African-American youth in light of a history of put-downs which began of course during slavery times, when horrible stereotyped images of black people were first introduced and subsequently proliferated. Unfortunately, the tendency now is to go to the other extreme, so the blacks of Coogler's Wakanda are all powerful due to possession of the magical Vibranium, the super metal that gives them the technology to not only compete with the former (white) colonial powers of the world, but to surpass them!
The ascendancy of black power as depicted here is nothing more than wish fulfillment, and clashes with the true political history of Africa since each country achieved independence and threw off the yoke of their colonial masters after World War II. Coogler knows that the phony Wakanda is much more appealing with its lack of corruption and suggestion of complete female empowerment (he also throws in some completely out of place Star Wars-like spaceships just to prove he's as good as any established sci-fi director).
By playing to the base, Coogler refuses to present a "warts and all" portrait of the African homeland and reinforces what amounts to chauvinism (excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one's own cause, group, or gender). Although Coogler holds up the tribal infighting in Wakanda as some kind of cause célèbre, it's really an unconscious admission that African history is not so wonderful. As Patrick Gathara writes in the Washington Post, Africa is represented here "as being divided and tribalized, with Wakanda run by a wealthy and feuding elite, centered upon "royalty and warriors", whose fortune comes not from its citizens' skill or ingenuity, but from a "lucky meteor strike."
Coogler's other strategy to win over the masses is to introduce a vengeful antagonist, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, the former protagonist star of Coogler's prior effort, Creed. Here, Jordan is much more effective playing the bad guy, since Coogler's protagonists apparently all tend to be rather bland (that includes the star of this film, Chadwick Boseman, who plays King T'Challah and the Black Panther (all rolled into one).
We first meet Killmonger in a flashback when he's just a kid in 1992 Oakland, California. This is where his father is killed by T'Challah's dad after he's discovered working with the racist South African Ulysses Klaue, who is attempting to steal Vibranium from Wakanda. Killmonger holds a grudge into adulthood and is determined to seek revenge against his uncle and cousin (as well as all whites).
Some may say that by Coogler using the name "Killmonger" (an obvious pejorative appellation), this suggests that he disapproves of the character's militant position. But think again. T'Challah doesn't finish Killmonger off at film's end-quite the contrary, he offers to save his life, if he only submits to eventual imprisonment. Killmonger instead takes his own life-Coogler views Killmonger's death as clearly tragic and obviously has sympathy for him.
By evoking some measure of sympathy for the villain, Coogler sets another bad example for impressionable youth, suggesting that Killmonger's position has merit. And what exactly is Killmonger's position? He seeks revenge (as well as hegemony over) all whites associated with the excesses of colonialism in an African past. This of course ignores the fact that the almost all of the nations of Africa have been independent for at least 50 years and are responsible for their own shortcomings which of course include (first and foremost), rampant corruption (not to mention subjugation of women and other human rights violations).
The strategy is of course to find a familiar scapegoat and deflect any calls for self-responsibility. Some may argue that Coogler is actually conflicted about this issue of revenge, especially because he depicts T'Challah as being conciliatory toward whites and seemingly rejects violence at film's end. But in actuality, Coogler's embrace of a Martin Luther King Jr. hero is merely done as a matter of expediency-he must suck up to the powers that be so they allow him into the exclusive film fraternity which he craves to be part of. In a sense, T'Challah's actions are almost a footnote-down deep, Coogler's real sympathies remain with the masses of deluded militants-with their puerile (and self-destructive) call for vengeance.
When one looks closely at Coogler, one sees a very technically capable director who will remain a mediocrity as long as he continues to suck up to the mass of deluded chauvinists who embrace vengeance as a means of solving the sorry legacy of slavery and racism in the United States today.
Red Sparrow (2018)
Despite some over-the-top violence, neat twist ending exposes Russian old wine in flashy new bottle
What is there to say about Red Sparrow? It's a solid mystery-thriller with good acting and a plot that keeps your interest. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, the characters don't exactly jump off the screen at you. You could say they're a little more than just one-dimensional but if there is any reason why you might watch this a second time, it would be to mainly confirm some of the more complicated plot points you might have missed.
Yes it's set in Russia and it's worth watching just to catch a glimpse of the protagonist, Dominika Egorova, played by the most alluring Jennifer Lawrence, who certainly keeps her body in tip top shape which will certainly be appreciated by most men who are no longer pre-pubescent. Dominika is an expert Bolshoi ballerina whose career comes to an abrupt end when a fellow dancer accidentally crashes into her during a performance, smashing her kneecap.
All her perks will be lost (she'll lose her apartment) and no longer afford to financially provide for her infirm mother, so she's approached by her sleazy Uncle Ivan (played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a dead ringer for Putin), who is high up in the Russian Intelligence Service--Ivan wants Dominika to seduce a powerful politician, Dimitry Ustinov, and replace his phone provided by the Intelligence service. Things go awry when Ustinov attempts to rape Dominika and then one of the Intelligence Service's professional killers enters their hotel room and promptly strangles him to death.
With no witnesses permissible, Ivan doesn't give his niece much of a choice-death or join the service! Off Dominika goes to the special sparrow school where operatives are trained to do dirty work for Mother Russia! If you are faint of heart, then you might want to close your eyes in the scenes where Dominika undergoes her training (that includes forcing trainees to perform sex acts in front of the class).
The plot picks up when Dominka is sent to Budapest to try and discover who the mole is (code dame: Marble) in the Russian Intelligence Service who has been passing secrets to the Americans. Specifically, Dominka must gain the trust of Nate Nash, the good guy CIA agent, played by Joel Edgerton (who most critics agree has no chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence).
It was a little difficult following what happens next, but Domnika's roommate, Marta, another Sparrow, has been assigned to pay money for secrets from Stephanie Boucher, a chief of staff for a US Senator. I'm not exactly sure why, but Dominika butts in on Marta's case, arranges to negotiate with Boucher but soon Marta ends up dead at the hands of Simyonov (the same guy who strangled Ustinov the politicoan), followed by Boucher's accidental death--hit by a truck--and then Dominka's forced return to Moscow, where she is promptly tortured for blowing the Boucher case.
Somehow Dominika convinces her superiors that because she refused to reveal secrets under torture, the CIA would accept her as a believable turncoat, so she's promptly returned to Budapest, only to find Simyonov attempting to kill Nate by skinning him alive with some kind of electric blade (again, for all squeamish filmgoers, please close your eyes if don't care to watch such unpleasant scenes!). Fortunately for Nate, Dominka turns on the sadistic Simyonov and dispatches him after a protracted fight on the kitchen floor.
Red Sparrow might lose a few points here and there for reveling in all the violence, but the twist ending saves it from ending up in cinematic purgatory. SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD. Dominka finds out who the mole is-a bigwig in the Intelligence Service-who urges her to save herself by turning him in. But instead, she frames good old Uncle Ivan, and he's shot down on the airport tarmac during a prisoner swap, with Dominika returning to Mother Russia, now hailed as a hero and able to take care of her mother, which was her number one goal in the first place!
If you can stand all the over-the-top sex and violence, Red Sparrow is actually quite watchable, with solid performances from all the principals, and a twist ending that ties everything up quite nicely. Oh did I mention why Uncle Ivan must get his comeuppance at film's end? It's implied he molested Dominika when she was a child-a fitting end for the neo-apparatchik, symbolic of the new Russia, the same old wine in a flashy new bottle.
Game Night (2018)
Fast-paced action farce rivals The Hangover for top clever concept honors
Sometimes all you need is a wonderfully clever concept to make a fairly successful comedy and screenwriter Mark Perez has done that here. Like The Hangover, which focused on the repercussions of a night out of bingeing, Game Night too concentrates on a night out--this time one of mayhem involving game aficionados caught up in real-life, life-threatening suspense.
The protagonists are neatly drawn farcical characters, gamers Max (Justin Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) whose whirlwind romance and ensuing marriage are depicted in the opening sequence of the film. Once they've settled into married life, we learn that Annie has been having trouble getting pregnant due to Max's low sperm count (their doctor suggests that Max's lifelong competition with his older more successful brother Brooks is responsible for the stress that has impacted his ability to impregnate his wife).
Nonetheless, the games must proverbially go on, as their Friday night gathering with friends takes place on cue. The friends include a black couple, Kevin (Lamorne Morries) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who's brought along his co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan) as what he believes to be a date. Their enjoyment of games such as Charades or Trivial Pursuit is interrupted when brother Brooks arrives and promptly humiliates Max by recounting an embarrassing incident in Max's childhood.
When Brooks proposes an interactive role-playing mystery game at a house he's rented, with the winner getting the keys to his Stingray, Max and Annie are more than game to accept his proposal, as they are bent on getting back at him for the earlier humiliation. Before all hell breaks loose, we also meet Max and Annie's next door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons), a former game participant, now ostracized by the group due to his separation from his wife.
The fun begins when Brook's hired actor playing an FBI agent is assaulted by two masked intruders who turn out to be real-life thugs. They in turn, much to his surprise, kidnap Brooks, leaving Max and Annie and their group unaware that Brook's game is no longer being played by his hired actors. While Kevin and Michelle follow clues left by Brooks, Max and Annie try to locate Brooks using his phone's GPS,, while Ryan and Sarah attempt to make contact with the company Brooks conscripted to play out his interactive fantasy.
Each of the couples as well as Gary have their moments of mirth, some more successful than others. The banter between Max and Annie, referencing their love of gamesmanship, makes them an engaging team throughout the narrative but not all the physical comedy works. The mishap where Annie accidentally shoots Max and his subsequent machinations in attempting to deal with the injury, proves routine and predictable.
Kevin and Michelle have a nice payoff with the extended "Denzel Washington" joke. Here Michelle relates a story where she had a fling with the famed actor only to discover it was a case of mistaken identity. Ryan's joke about rich people hiring lower-class denizens for underground fight clubs comes to fruition when the group comes upon such a scenario in their attempt to steal a MacGuffin that will possibly save the kidnapped Brooks. But little is done with Ryan and Sarah's interaction-the joke here is that she merely finds him a boor and announces officially to the group that they are not a couple!
There are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep one's interest throughout, including the groups foray to Gary's house to use his computer to learn the identity of the man using the alias Marlon Freeman. There's a rather long-winded not-so-funny sequence of Max dripping an excessive amount of blood on Gary's dog and perhaps one too many closeups on Gary himself as his obsession with trying to get back into Max and Annie's group goes on for a little too long.
Things pick up again as the group plays "catch me if you can" as they steal that Fabergé egg from Donald Anderton's house (aka Marlon Freeman), an apparent rival of The Bulgarian, the menacing underworld figure whom Brooks has run afoul of.
More surprises are in store when Gary temporarily "saves" Max and Annie as part of a new game he's made up, only to be felled by a real-life shot from the Bulgarian's henchman. No need to chronicle the ending which involves Max and Annie's successful effort to save Brooks and stop The Bulgarian. In addition to the plot's resolution, the internal arc of Max and Brook's conflict is also resolved, with Brooks confessing to a life of being insecure and acting the way he did out of jealousy of Max. Furthermore, Gary survives and is restored to Max and Annie's group.
Life's lessons are learned by Brooks as well as the group, who needed to take Gary back in to become whole again. Game Night is well acted throughout and although not all of the jokes hit the mark, the overall concept and execution of the clever plot, puts this farce up there with the more successful ones released in recent years.
Born to Kill (1947)
Portrait of amoral psychopaths proves gripping in spite of less than convincing morally good counterparts
When Born to Kill came out in 1947, it was hated by many critics of the day, including Bosley Crowther, the NY Times critic, who was put off by the stark depiction of the two amoral protagonists. But that's exactly why I find it has some merit-it pulls no punches in suggesting that there are psychopaths out there who look for innocent victims as their prey!
Directed by Robert Wise (of "Sound of Music" fame), he was from the old school who emphasized the screenplay as the most important aspect of the filmaking process. The film isn't filled with a lot of visuals emphasizing all that film noir atmosphere which we typically see in films of that period and genre. Nonetheless, Wise has his nice touches (when Sam Wilde played by tough-guy Lawrence Tierney murders a couple in a Reno home, Wise cuts to the barking dog, cleverly preventing us from seeing the final murderous coup de grace and building further suspense).
Lawrence Tierney indeed is perfectly cast as the psychopathic Sam Wilde who murders the aforementioned innocent couple in the first ten minutes of the film and then goes on to kill his best friend Marty (the wonderful ubiquitous Elisha J. Cook) as well as Helen Brent, the "femme fatale" most cooly played by Claire Trevor.
Tierney was perfect because he was a hot-head in real life-it's believed he did serious harm to his career by getting arrested so many times for assaulting fellow thespians and regular people on the street (that includes shoving Quentin Tarantino later in life on a movie set!).
Trevor as Helen is a perfect complement to Tierney's Sam, as they both portray street savvy, vicious operators, mowing down anyone in their paths. While Helen is a femme fatale, she's different than the usual one found in film noirs (as pointed out by noir expert Eddie Mueller who provides excellent commentary on the DVD extras). Most femme fatales end up ruining their man, but here, Sam is so deranged and too tough for her to bring him down.
Sam is actually worse than Helen, unable to control his temper whenever he feels slighted. His philosophy is simple-he wants to attain power so he can "spit" in anyone's eye, if he feels like it. Helen on the other hand is conflicted-she realizes she has a dark side but that's tempered by her supposed love for her "foster" sister Georgia Staples (Audrey Long) as well as her connection to the wealthy man she plans to marry, Fred (Phillip Terry).
Unfortunately, it's the characterization of both Georgia and Fred that drags the film down. Georgia, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate, a goody two shoes, has all that money but isn't generous at all (for some reason) in helping resentful Helen (if she is so nice, why is she so stingy with her money?).
Worse than that is her supposed animal attraction to Sam. Yes I get it that all the women are smitten by him, but most normal people would still be a little curious as to the background of the person they're going to marry. She never seems to make any serious inquiries as to what he does for a living or anything about his past, and the next thing you know, they're tying the knot! Georgia is a dull character, and the film scenarist obviously spent little time in fleshing her out.
The same goes for Georgia's male counterpart, Fred, who also deserves the goody two shoes appellation. His wet fish personality is obviously created to contrast with the wicked Helen-and when all this "pure goodness" decides to break it off with Helen, we know then she's doomed.
The sub-plot involves the alcoholic Mrs. Kraft (played by the more than colorful Esther Howard), owner of the boarding house back in Reno where her boarder and good friend Laury and her date was murdered by Sam. She pays portly detective Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), to investigate who did the tragic couple in.
In addition to the electric interchanges between Sam and Helen, the scene where Marty decides to bump off Mrs. Kraft in a deserted beach area of San Francisco, is a most welcome diversion from the main plot and adds to the growing suspense. It's a real twist and turn in the plot, when Sam shows up and bumps off Marty in a fit of jealousy, allowing Mrs. Kraft to escape.
Helen goes over completely to the dark side when she threatens Mrs. Kraft, ordering her not to go to the police. Her attraction for Sam overwhelms any reason she has left and she now is willing to sacrifice her good relationship with Georgia, whom is still smitten with the brute.
Helen shatters Georgia's illusion as she passionately kisses Sam, as Georgia sits hidden in a chair nearby and sees everything! Helen of course gets her comeuppance at film's end as she must as those femme fatales who have swayed-must pay!
Born to Kill was ahead of its time in depicting two ruthless protagonists who in the end deserve each other. If only the characters who represent the morally good side of society were better drawn, then perhaps you could have called this a noir masterpiece.
Meditation on the "Objects in your Life" proves a fruitless endeavor
Nostalgia is director Mark Pellington and screenwriter Alex Ross Perry's collaborative effort that could have been aptly subtitled, "The Objects in Your Life." The big question that's raised here is whether (for example) all that bric-a-brac you've accumulated up in the attic over the years is worth saving (and perhaps venerating) or is simply a collection of junk that needs to be thrown out. Nostalgia focuses on these objects and one in particular (an old baseball signed by Ted Williams) that becomes a MacGuffin of sorts, connecting two disparate stories which constitute the bulk of the proceedings in a narrative that can be best classified as an ensemble piece.
Perry's tale begins deceptively, focusing on Daniel (John Ortiz) an insurance assessor/adjuster, who appears to revel in listening to claimant's confessions regarding the aforementioned objects. Daniel's first visit is with a curmudgeon, Ronald (Bruce Dern), who balks at going through his accumulated "stuff" looking for valuables to the chagrin of his granddaughter, Bethany, who obviously feels that parting with some of the bric-a-brac, is a practical and worthwhile idea (owing to the potential financial remuneration involved).
Daniel's meditation on the existential value of these nostalgic remnants sets the stage for his second visit with Helen (Ellen Burstyn), who has just lost her home in a fire. As Chuck Bowen writes in Slant, all the characters are "suffering saints" and "every scene concerns people's attachments to things that trigger past moments."
Perry hands Bustyn a very long-winded monologue who meditates on the importance of her late husband's baseball, so intricately tied up with their life together. At first she appears overly attached to the baseball and just like Bethany, her son and daughter-in-law feel such an attachment unhealthy.
But eventually Helen comes around and decides on a trek to Las Vegas where she agrees to sell the ball to a collector, Will (Jon Hamm). Before we move on to the third story, the ball inspires another long monologue about the scourge of old age where Helen mournfully acknowledges she'll pass on and will be forgotten.
Once the baton is passed, Will is now the focus of a narrative that emphasizes his lack of fulfillment, due a heartbreaking divorce with his ex-wife. He visits his sister at the family home where they need to clean out the attic. The objects there (including the swimming pool) evoke childhood memories for Will but all the meditation brings the narrative to a virtual standstill.
Suddenly, out of the blue, Perry injects a family tragedy to spice up the drama in the form of the death of the sister's daughter, killed in a freak car accident. Catherine Keener, as the sister, gives the strongest performance in the film, as she breaks down over the death of her child. Nonetheless Perry's handling of his theme about the objects in your life goes awry when he has the father of the girl (James Le Gros) bemoaning how all her photos have been lost once her cell and iPad are destroyed in the car accident.
Ray Green writing in The Wrap correctly notes Perry's faux pas: "Apparently Hamm and LeGros have never heard of social media, where the average teen's every meal, night out and camping trip is chronicled across friends' profiles in greater detail than Boswell gave to his "Life of Samuel Johnson." It's a straw-man argument, and a fusty old-guy one at that."
Ultimately Nostalgia doesn't have much to say and is dependent on its classical sounding score, which intrudes into almost every scene, and attempts to create more feeling than what is actually written on each page of this well-meaning but shallow screenplay.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Unlikely tale of love-starred wife and curmudgeon fashion designer husband fails to impress despite strong visuals
Director Paul Thomas Anderson is chiefly known for what I would call "generic historical period pieces." I use the term "generic" since his stories are fictionalized accounts of true events and they are usually strong on style but weak on substance. His earlier "The Master," a take on the early days of Scientology, represented much more meatier subject matter than what we have here in Phantom Thread-the visually impressive but rather dull tale of an eccentric fashion designer based in 1950s London.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a bachelor curmudgeon who just happens to be a star designer of extremely expensive gowns for women in high society. His business is run by his sister Cyril (played most winningly as an ice queen by the most talented Lesley Manville).
Woodcock meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a good-looking waitress at a restaurant in the countryside, and before you know it she's modeling for him and eventually becomes his lover (although I can't recall any scenes involving overt sexuality between them). It's literally a slow-moving affair and only those who like their romantic interludes presented in a lugubrious fashion, will find it compelling.
As Alma becomes more devoted to Woodcock, he's unable to reciprocate her affection, as he's completely self-centered and a raging creature of routine. Things come to a terrible boil when Alma fails to prepare asparagus the way Woodcock likes it for dinner (he prefers the vegetable cooked in butter; she insists on some kind of oil).
To inject some drama into the proceedings, Anderson ludicrously transforms the docile Alma into an affection-starved scorned lover who poisons her husband with mushrooms she's collected on the grounds of the house. Her plan is to make Woodcock devoted to her as she nurses him back to health. The plan works to a tee as the confirmed bachelor now agrees to marry her!
After Woodcock recovers, the bickering begins anew so Alma decides to poison him again-this time with an omelette. In a classic case of pathetic masochism, Woodcock deduces what his wife has been up to, but submits to being poisoned once again, and having Alma again take care of him.
Does it really make sense? Not really, but Anderson needed some way of spicing up a rather inert tale to begin with. Phantom Thread has some beautiful cinematography, an elegant score that sets the mood of 1950s England (both London and the countryside) as well as a peek at a collection of neat-looking gowns (the kind they used to wear, way back then!).
Day-Lewis's Woodcock has been hailed as an Oscar-worthy performance but I think he's saddled by a script that highlights a one-note, one-dimensional character. The women, on the other hand, are much better, especially Manville as the sister who is the only person who knows how to stand up to her often-bullying brother.
If you like fashion, then perhaps Phantom Thread is the film for you. Others more into drama will probably find this a bit too slow-moving, generic and inauthentic, for their tastes.
Powerful depiction of innocents caught in web of evil despite overwrought religious symbolism
The Ascent is the fourth and final feature of Soviet director Larisa Shepitko, who tragically died in a car accident at the age of 40, two years after the film's release in 1977. In many quarters, the film is hailed as a masterpiece. Given the simplicity of the story, I would be hesitant to place it in that category but it is nonetheless an impressive piece of filmmaking, with its austere black and white cinematography and great acting by all the principals concerned.
The film is set during World War II in Belarus, one of the Soviet republics which was subject to the Nazi occupation. The protagonists are two partisans, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) who belong to a battalion consisting of both soldiers and civilians that come under fire by Germans and forced to flee into the forest in the dead of winter (the snow impacts the landscape throughout the entire narrative).
Sotnikov and Rybak are ordered to find food as the battalion has run out of supplies and both troops and civilians are on the verge of starvation. The two soldiers first discover a farm they were looking for has been burnt down by the Germans and the inhabitants presumably killed. They find a house inhabited by a "headman" and his wife and conclude he's a German collaborator as he still has foodstuffs and a roof over his head. Sotnikov and Rybak take a farm animal for food but decide not to execute the headman.
During an encounter with Germans, Sotnikov is shot in the leg and is severely injured. Sotnikov is on the verge of killing himself with his own shotgun but Rybak heroically drags him to another cottage, where they find a woman, Demchikha, and her three children.
The action turns tragic when the Germans find the two partisans who are hiding in Demchikha's attic and arrest them along with the innocent woman and bring them in for questioning. The film ably highlights the Nazi's cruelty as they arrest Demchikha and ultimately find her guilty of being a partisan along with the two men (the children are cruelly left to fend for themselves in spite of the mother's heartrending pleas).
Back at German Headquarters, Sotnikov and Rybak are interrogated by Portnov, a member of the Belarusian Auxiliary Police, another German collaborator. The film again ably notes that a good deal of the dirty work was done by locals allied with the Germans. Sotnikov ends up being tortured by Portnov and local collaborationist soldiers (a hot iron is applied to his chest) but he refuses to provide any information in regards to his batallion's position. Rybak, in contrast, tells Portnov everything he knows and is offered a chance to join the auxillary police.
Meanwhile, the Headman has been accused by the Germans as being a partisan and he, along with Basya Meyer, the teen daughter of a Jewish shoemaker, end up imprisoned along with Sotnikov, Rybak and Demchikha.
The film's denouement is clearly a mixed bag. Much is made of the contrast between Sotnikov, a Christ-like figure and Rybak, who is called a "Judas" to his face by a townsperson after accepting Portnov's offer to collaborate and acquiescing--watching while his comrades are executed. The reactions of the two are drawn out for maximum melodramatic effect, with Sotnikov bathed in a saintly aura as he goes to the gallows and Rybak, practically tearing his hair out with guilt over his decision to collaborate.
Despite all the histrionics, Portnov and the Germans are depicted quite realistically, reacting to the entire scene as "business as usual," and confirming the old dictum of the "banality of evil." Demchikha's cries for mercy, in particular, are quite upsetting as they fall on the deaf ears of the monsters who callously ignore her pleas (her appeal is based on the face that she is the mother of three small children).
The Ascent feels more like a parable than a story based on a completely real incident. The characters aren't completely fleshed out as real people but the emotions here ring true. The religious symbolism may be a bit overwrought with the contrast between courage and betrayal but the story still provides an unflinching glimpse at the power of evil men and the inability of innocents to escape their deadly clutches.
Una Mujer Fantástica (2017)
Nice atmosphere but Chilean director's symbol of transgender victimhood is a one-dimensional character
Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman in English), is director Sebastián Lelio's Academy Award nominated entry for the Best Foreign Language Film from Chile. It stars Daniela Vega as Marina Vidal, a transgender waitress who has recently moved into an apartment with her boyfriend Orlando, a textile business owner, thirty years her senior.
The film begins grippingly as Orlando suddenly collapses in the bedroom after some lovemaking and is rushed to the hospital by Marina. There he expires from an aneurysm. What will happen to Marina? At first, with a pulsing electronic rock film score, A Fantastic Woman feels almost like a film noir as Marina becomes the subject of a police investigation into Orlando's death.
But instead of finding out more about Marina and what makes her tick, the film's scenarists are content to present her as a heroine, courageously fending off those who ostracize her due to the deep prejudice against transgender people in contemporary society (in this case Chile).
In addition to being harassed by the police, Orlando's ex-wife will not allow Marina to attend his wake or funeral and Orlando's brother wants her out of his apartment immediately. The brother has also dognapped Diabla, a German Shepherd whom Marina has bonded with during her relationship with Orlando.
The harassment reaches its apex when the brother kidnaps Marina and drives her around as his anti-gay pals tape her mouth shut with duct tape. Fortunately she's released by the thugs and eventually is able to get Diabla back (we don't actually see how but Orlando's other brother, Gabo, appears a tad bit more sympathetic and may have helped her).
One keeps asking where is this all going and there is a mystery of some of Orlando's keys connected to a locker at a sauna which the deceased businessman used to go to. Perhaps it's those missing misplaced vacation tickets of Orlando's which we find out about at the beginning of the narrative-but unfortunately no, those are what you might call a pseudo-MacGuffin. Marina ends up finding (SUPER SPOILERS AHEAD) nothing in the locker!
Lelio's mistake is to put Marina up on a pedestal as a symbol of victimhood for transgender people as well as making her into that (previously alluded) courageous heroine. We find out next to nothing about her background (except for some brief interactions with her sister and brother-in-law) and it's clear Lelio doesn't know how to turn her into a complex character. Had he done that, then perhaps she would have some bad characteristics mixed in with the good.
While Lelio nobly offers up an impressive and atmospheric visual palette, stands up for all transgender people and in doing so, creates a welcome plea for tolerance, it's simply not enough to craft a requisite compelling protagonist.
Darkest Hour (2017)
Oldman shines in impeccable performance as Director Wright narrowly avoids pitfall of complete hagiography
Political leaders often come to represent the embodiment of a nation, particularly during wartime. In reality, they are only singular entities, part of a greater whole. The challenge in any fictional representation is to humanize them, and avoid hagiography at all costs. Joe Wright manages to do that, but comes close to putting his Churchill on a pedestal. Nonetheless, one must still admire the effort.
Darkest Hour covers the period of Churchill's ascendancy to the office of the Prime Minister, through the darkest hour of Britain's retreat from Dunkirk and near capitulation to the Nazis. This particular period in British history usually is regarded as Churchill's finest hour, so the tendency to elevate the iconic figure to almost unquestioning estimable status, is ever present. But Churchill was flawed in more than ways than one, and notably he was cast out of office by popular demand, following the end of World War II.
The notion that Churchill was a politically flawed candidate is ably brought to the fore by Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten. There was principally the debacle of the Gallipoli Campaign in the First World War, as well as his support for Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis in 1936. What's more it was Churchill's unpredictable temper (magisterially conveyed by Gary Oldman in an Oscar-worthy role), that led to great reluctance (particularly among members of his own Conservative party) to elevate him as head of state.
When we first meet Oldham as Churchill, his unpredictable demeanor is on display in full relief as he berates his newly minted secretary, Elizabeth Layton, who has difficulty understanding him while taking dictation (Layton jointed Churchill's staff a year later than depicted here). In addition, Kristin Scott Thomas, in a minor part, is most convincing as Churchill's wife Clementine, who remains supportive but isn't afraid to criticize her often brusque husband, when he's in need of some choice words to mollify his often over-the-top behavior.
Director Wright did a fine job of casting the principals, as they all resemble their real-life counterparts, fitfully. This is particularly true of Neville Chamberlain and King George VI, who look and sound like the real thing. One fact I was unaware of was that Churchill kept Chamberlain on in an advisory role even after he was roundly dismissed from office.
Perhaps the best scenes in the film are the meetings between Churchill and the King. Ben Mendelsohn does a better job as King George VI than Colin Firth's Oscar-winning performance in "The Kings Speech." Not only does he look like George VI, but here the King appears more adapted to his speech disability than was depicted in the earlier film. The King's misgivings about Churchill eventually give way to admiration, as they end up on the same page in their determination to defeat Hitler.
Wright's antagonist here is Lord Halifax, who declined to become Prime Minister despite strong support in his Conservative party (it was in fact the Labour and Liberal parties who were against Halifax, finding Churchill the lesser of two evils!). Halifax wanted a negotiated peace with the Germans as he feared that Britain would soon lose the war and incur massive civilian losses. In hindsight, Churchill's prescient views on Hitler and the Nazi menace appear morally superior to Halifax and the so-called "appeasers" in the Conservative party. But in the context of the times, "appeasement" was quite understandable, given the fear of another World War I debacle, so imprinted in the minds of all Europeans who lived through that devastating conflict.
Wright's treatment of Churchill during the Dunkirk crisis is well-balanced. We discover it's Churchill's idea to institute "Operation Dynamo," where a flotilla of private boats were conscripted to save the Army stranded on Dunkirk beach. But it was also Churchill who ordered the garrison at Calais to stall the Germans from reaching Dunkirk before the evacuation. Wright's best visual is a shot of the beleaguered troops at Calais about to be annihilated; the camera pulls upward as the doomed troops are now a dot, with the German bombers raining bombs on their untenable position.
By its very nature, the Darkest Hour narrative is inherently dialogue heavy. But Wright very cleverly follows Churchill almost as if everything is in "real time" (yes it's over a few months but feels like days). Wright constantly is shifting scenes, taking us from Churchill's study, to the underground bunker, outside on the streets and in Parliament. The only dark stain here is Wright's decision to create that subway scene (or as the Brits call it, the "underground") out of whole cloth.
Wright argues that Churchill purportedly disappeared at times and often would go and speak with people out on the street for their input. It never happened that Churchill took a ride on the subway and spoke to the common people. It's a scene that feels forced, especially where he has Churchill take advice from a black man of Caribbean origin (it might be comforting to know Churchill harbored no ill-will toward minorities, but historically he was probably just as elitist as both his confederates and adversaries at the time!).
Ultimately there is enough here to conclude that Joe Wright has avoided complete hero worship (narrowly!). With Oldman's impeccable performance and a fluid recreation of a key period in world history, Darkest Hour is one of the stronger entries in this year's Oscar pantheon.
The Post (2017)
Spielberg preaches to choir as minions cheer Pyrrhic victory of Pentagon Papers and forgone conclusion of Supreme Court vote
Who exactly are the "heroes" responsible for the release of the Pentagon Papers? According to Stephen Spielberg, not Daniel Ellsberg, the man responsible for leaking the papers to the press; not the intrepid reporters who risked their careers in obtaining the papers from Ellsberg; nor The New York Times which was the first newspaper to break the story and the first company subjected to a federal injunction.
No, according to Spielberg, the "heroes" were Ben Bradlee and the owner of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham, played by the darlings of the liberal Hollywood establishment, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Spielberg briefly handles the uncomfortable reality that both Bradlee and Graham were tightly connected to players in those past administrations (not Nixon) whom were responsible for escalating the Vietnam conflict and lying about chances for success (Bradlee through his personal friendship with JFK; and Graham, with her close-knit pal, Secretary of Defense Bob McNamara, perhaps the chief architect of the Vietnam War).
Spielberg rather lamely dismisses these damning associations when he has Hanks as Bradlee acknowledge the tainted friendships by stating in substance, "we won't do it again." The actual decision to publish the bulk of the Pentagon papers is the other way in which Spielberg shows how Bradlee and Graham absolved themselves from their previous "guilt by association." Did their absolution make up for the past bad conduct? A better question is to ask whether what they did (sticking up for the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press) was an act that deserves so many accolades? We shall see.
Instead of examining what the Pentagon Papers were all about (all that important stuff about how the US government deceived the people about Vietnam), Spielberg prefers to delve into the minutiae of Bradlee and Graham's machinations running the Washington Post. Quite a bit of time is taken up explaining how the Post was about to "go public" in a stock offering which is designed to keep the company solvent. The offering occurs coincidentally at the same time the Pentagon Papers are first released by the NY Times, and soon both papers are subjected to a looming federal injunction. If the paper is held in contempt (and its principal officers-that is, Bradlee and Graham-could actually be sent to jail), investors might suddenly flee and the Post could possibly sink faster than the Titanic.
Is it possible that unconsciously Spielberg may have used the triumph over Nixon back then to compensate for Hillary's loss to Trump in the present? Could it be that this is wish fulfillment on Spielberg's part? And isn't Graham now being cast anachronistically as a feminist icon, as she goes up against her all-male board, most of whom don't like the idea of a woman running things? The moment where Streep is cheered by all the female protestors after the Supreme Court victory sounds like something that probably would happen today, but not back then. And Armond White writing in the National Review makes the very important point about the lack of inclusion of minorities while Graham was running the Post: "Here is some of the most dishonest filmmaking of Spielberg's career: There are strategically placed blacks and women in nearly every scene (though not on the Post's editorial board)."
Charles Bramesco writing in "Little White Lies" hits the nail on the head when he writes: "But it's Spielberg's attachment to an America that no longer exists that ultimately becomes his undoing. He wants to believe that justice naturally follows truth." Bramesco correctly points out that the "triumph" of the Post, supported by Spielberg and his liberal minions, is nothing but a Pyrrhic victory: "Never mind that nobody implicated in the Papers faced jail time, or that the government has continued its sketchy overseas meddling elsewhere, or that moneyed newspaper owners - a position inexplicably placed at the fore of the film, while the leakers and writers who assembled the story get scant minutes of screen time - represent the greatest threat to journalism in America."
If you marvel at catching a glimpse of all the old gadgets that constitute the technology of the 1970s, then Spielberg's obsession with those inanimate objects might pique your interest. As for the acting, Tom Hanks is completely miscast as the gruff Ben Bradlee and one longs for a glimpse of Jason Robards in "All the President's Men" who was completely convincing in the part. Meryl Streep does much better than Hanks and interacts nicely with Bruce Greenwood who looks and sounds like Bob McNamara. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian probably has the best of the reporter parts, as he's entrusted with ferreting out the Pentagon Papers from whistleblower Ellsberg.
If you want to find out about the behind-the-scenes machinations at the Washington Post in the early 70s, The Post is a semi-reasonable chronicle of those events minus Spielberg's editorial adjustments which can best be described as continuous proselytizing or preaching to a choir of committed do-gooders.
Ultimately, the sanctity of the Freedom of the Press here is really a baseless canard. Justin J, a poster at Rotten Tomatoes, grasps the absurdity of Spielberg's obsession with being on the "winning side". He writes: "The Post" does for the cinema of journalism what "The Newsroom" did for television: it uses history to preach to a choir of self-satisfied, smug circle-jerkers who pat themselves on the back for stating (and re-stating) a proposition that is already quite obvious to reasonable people. Should the First Amendment be defended and protected? Yes. Should anyone waste their time with this treacly, sanctimonious nonsense? No."
Love & Friendship (2016)
Delightful adaptation of early comedy of manners from Jane Austen
Love & Friendship is noted Indie director Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan. The original manuscript was discovered among Austen's papers many years after her death and published as an unfinished work. The novella is written in the form of a series of letters written by the principal characters to one another, revealing the social mores of upper middle-class families set in late 18th century England. Stillman must be applauded for distilling the narrative (set in that different format of those series of letters) into a workable screenplay.
The film can best be described as a comedy of manners. People in those times interacted with one another in a completely different manner than they do now. One can say that they were much more polite but despite the manners, the conversations were constantly infused with biting invective. The comedy stems from the all the back-stabbing and lack of moral principles that guide each character.
Chief among the principle-less is Austen's protagonist, the master manipulator Lady Susan Vernon, played flawlessly by Kate Beckinsale. Lady Susan is a deliciously sympathetic character despite her lack of moral scruples. Guided by a desire for sexual self-satisfaction, the recent widow is way ahead of her time!
When we first meet Lady Susan, she's just finished conducting an affair with the handsome Lord Manwaring, much to the chagrin of his heartbroken and jealous wife, Lady Manwaring. As a result, Lady Susan is forced to leave his estate and move in at Churchill, the home of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon and his wife, Catherine Vernon (née DeCourcy). Catherine's brother, Sir Reginald, makes no attempt to hide his contempt for Lady Susan, who already has a tarnished reputation in polite society.
Lady Susan's confidante is Mrs. Johnson, a transplanted American whose husband has had business in the State of Connecticut (Mrs. Johnson's American origins is Stillman's invention, making her into a Tory sympathizer, no longer welcome in her native country). Mrs. Johnson hangs on the every word of her scheming friend, and encourages Lady Susan in her calculating machinations.
Soon enough the principled Sir Reginald has fallen for the charms of the new Churchill houseguest but denies any deep affection for her to his father, describing those rumors as "vile calumnies." Lady Susan also has plans for her introverted daughter, Frederica, who has just run away from a boarding school where she's been quite unhappy. Frederica's mother compounds her unhappiness by matching her up with Sir James Martin, a wealthy landowner whom his peers regard as a complete fool. (Stillman explains during the documentary about the film included in the DVD extras that Tom Bennett, cast as Martin, improvised a great deal of dialogue, handily improving the part.)
Despite Lady Susan's base motives, she manages to "do the right thing" which leads to "all's well that ends well." At the suggestion of Mrs. Johnson, she ditches Sir Reginald and pawns him off on her daughter, who immediately falls for the handsome rake. Meanwhile, she surreptitiously marries goofy Sir James Martin (while having her lover, Lord Manwaring, live with her and her new husband on the Martin estate!).
Love & Friendship is a delightful adaptation of an early work of a master novelist. Stillman recreates the period with aplomb resulting in what one might term a picaresque romp! The film is a hoot, relevant today in depicting human foibles as it was back then.