Paris Can Wait

Paris Can Wait

Eleanor Coppola (2017)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

In the interests of full disclosure I must admit that my sole reaction to the trailer for Eleanor Coppola’s new film Paris Can Wait was, “Wow, that’s a movie that I’ve seen a hundred times, and it doesn’t look like there is a single new twist in it.” The fact that my reaction after seeing the movie itself was exactly the same could conceivably be a case of seeing just what I expected to see, or it might be a case of my being right to begin with.

My wife will undoubtedly have a different point of view, and will tell me—as she often does, correctly, in such cases—that I am not the film’s intended audience. And usually she would be right. In this case though, it would seem the intended audience is people who enjoy travel, in particular gastro-tourism, which is what the movie is all about, and that is a group that I unflinchingly belong to. But the fact is, even those who are the intended audience—that is, people who have actually made the effort to go to the film thinking they were going to like it—don’t seem to like it much. According to Rotten Tomatoes.com, only 48 percent of the folks attending the film came away with a positive rating for it. So what’s the problem with Paris Can Wait?

Well, it isn’t Diane Lane, who is sympathetic and believable as the protagonist Anne, a long- suffering wife of a rather narcissistic film producer who is also going through a difficult empty nest syndrome as her daughter Alex is off to college. Nor is it Alec Baldwin as the husband Michael, whose occasional tender impulses toward his wife are constantly interrupted by his business, as Baldwin plays the oblivious blowhard to perfection. And it isn’t Arnaud Viard either, who plays Jacques, Michael’s French business associate, who volunteers to schlep Anne to Paris when an ear infection prevents her from flying to Budapest with Michael. Or maybe in part it is Viard after all. No, the acting is fine, though I did find Viard’s charm wearing a little thin as he kept stringing the road trip along and charging everything to Anne’s credit card, while flirting with her in a way that becomes increasingly uncomfortable. As she grew more and more charmed by him, I grew more and more annoyed.

Nor can it be claimed that the film is not beautifully shot. The seven-hour drive from Cannes to Paris is turned by Jacques’ side trips into a two-day jaunt through Provence and Burgundy, giving us a mini-tour of the Pont du Gard aqueduct near Nimes in Languedoc, the Basilica of Saint Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, the world-famous Museum of Textiles in Lyon, all fairly idealistically filmed without a single other tourist around. But the French countryside is highly photogenic. Even more time and effort are spent photographing the mounds of French food the two travelers consume, as they stop several times a day to eat sumptuous gourmet dinners augmented by expensive French wines, heaps of chocolate desserts, and plate after plate of French cheese, so that in all justice fromage should receive second billing in the film, right under Lane’s name. This is all quite indulgent and even decadent, but even pictures of delicious food get tiresome after a while, as Facebook has probably taught most of us, and in a film like this, the short drive that has ballooned into a days-long endurance test is reflected in the film itself, which even at 92 minutes seems to go on too long. By the time Paris is in sight we’re dying for something to happen, or dear God, to be let out of that car.

Eleanor Coppola, the 81-year old wife of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame, directed this film—her first narrative film after making a name for herself in documentaries, like the Emmy-award winning Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which chronicled the chaotic behind-the-scenes production of her husband’s Vietnam War saga Apocalypse Now. There is unquestionably a significant autobiographical aspect to Paris Can Wait, built up over years of its writer-director’s experience as wife of a mega-powerful Hollywood insider. There is also good reason to applaud Ms. Coppola for providing a film aimed at the vastly underserved audience of women over fifty. But to some extent the film is more of a vanity project

Start with the movie’s premise itself: the neglected wife of an incredibly successful businessman is at a crossroads of her life, and finds herself through a kind of pilgrimage. But her pilgrimage, which involves incredibly expensive meals and luxury hotels charged to her credit card, is the sort that could only be available to a small fraction of the film’s audience. And although Anne insists she needs to get to Paris more quickly, the film never tells us of any specific obligation she has except to be there when her husband arrives. How many women in real-life unfulfilling marriages are really going to be able to identify with this kind of lifestyle?

But I suppose one may envy it, and fantasize about such a life. But then, aren’t there better movies to do that in? The clichéd “road trip to self-discovery” goes back—well, as far as Homer’s Odyssey, so I suppose you can call it archetypal if you want, but it’s certainly been done better as far back as, say, It Happened One Night. Or in Rainman,. Or Easy Rider. Or The Motorcycle Diaries. Or with a feminist twist in Thelma and Louise. But each of those films added something a little new or different to the formula. I don’t see anything new here, except maybe in the focus on food, which, again, has already been done better in, say, Babette’s Feast, or Big Night, or Chocolat, or Julie and Julia. And if what you manly want to see is Diane Lane rediscovering herself, that too has already been done better in Under the Tuscan Sun.

The very best scene in this movie, in my own view, is the scene in which Jacques’ faded blue vintage Peugeot breaks down, and it is Anne who finds that the problem is a broken fan belt—which she proceeds to fix with a nylon stocking, something she says she “saw on YouTube.” This scene stands out because it is the only place in the film where Anne shows any agency in her own right. She allows herself to be essentially under her husband’s thumb until, too distracted by his own business concerns to consider the problems of such an arrangement, he turns her over to the protective hands of his French partner, another man, who drives Anne all around southern France, often against her own expressed wishes, mansplaining to her all about how she should be more French in her attitudes about life, love, and food, and teaching her all kinds of things about food, wine, and tourist sites. From her passenger-seat vantage point, Anne learns all about herself, as explained to her by the man doing the driving. If she is going to be a new woman after her transformational road trip experience, it’s apparently not going to be a new woman taking charge of her own destiny. Indeed, the film has a rather unsatisfactory “Lady or the Tiger” ending which I can’t imagine working out without some man telling Anne how to solve it. The fan-belt scene undercuts the rest of the movie, demonstrating that Anne could in fact be her own woman if she chose to be so.

At the risk of incurring the displeasure of my wife, who is enough her own woman to give me a vehement piece of her mind about my choice, I’m going to give this one two Jacqueline Susanns: you might like this movie. I didn’t.

 

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My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel

Roger Michell (2017)

Roger Michell, director and writer of the screenplay for My Cousin Rachel, adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, once said that Du Maurier “lights her scenes like Caraveggio and writes them like Hitchock.” Michell, of course, alludes to Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut, the Oscar winning film adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940). The lesser-known fact is that Hitchcock’s eerie late-career thriller The Birds (1963) was also adapted from a du Maurier short story. There was something in the brooding, melancholy psychological Gothic melodramas du Maurier specialized in that found a kindred spirit in the director famous as the master of suspense.

My Cousin Rachel, a historical novel more reminiscent of Wuthering Heights than of Psycho, was previously filmed in 1952, unfortunately directed not by Hitchcock but by journeyman Twentieth Century Fox director Henry Koster, who had recently directed The Bishop’s Wife, The Inspector General, and Harvey (and would go on to helm The Robe, Flower Drum Song, and The Singing Nun). Koster’s adaptation of the book plays down the darker elements and plays up the romance between stars Richard Burton and Olivia de Haviland, to the extent that du Maurier was dissatisfied with the project. Still, the film garnered four Academy Award nominations, including one for Burton as the story’s unreliable narrator Philip Ashley—a character in every scene of the movie but nominated, by the twisted logic of Hollywood, for Supporting Actor; it was the first of Burton’s seven unsuccessful Oscar nominations, though he did garner a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for the film.

The current film, if not exactly Hitchcockian, might actually be called Caraveggian: several of the pivotal scenes of the movie Michell films in candlelight, creating the dramatic use of contrasting light and shadows in a way reminiscent of Caraveggio’s chiaroscuro technique. And Michell thus seems more concerned with creating the brooding mood of a melancholy Wuthering Heights than the air of Hitchcockian suspense. Thus what we get is a kind of film seldom seen these days: one in which most of the action is internal. There are those who would probably find My Cousin Rachel slow moving, despite its rather snappy 106-minute running time, and for those moviegoers, all I can say is there is a lot of summer-blockbuster-type action in The Mummy—premiering this week on about 850,000 screens to a 17 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval rating—so if all you want is action, you can go there instead. Rachel is in limited release, and you’ll only find it on one screen in central Arkansas at Riverdale.

Considering the situation just described, it’s interesting to note the ironic twist that the popular and well-received 1999 version of The Mummy, which the current iteration seeks to reboot, starred Rachel Weisz. I don’t know what that little tidbit means, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia to astound your friends with at parties.

Rachel, of course, plays cousin Rachel (see what they did there?), and her presence essentially makes this film, though in fact she does not appear for nearly the first third of the movie. The story begins with Philip, an orphan, adopted and raised by his kind and wealthy cousin Ambrose (also played by Claflin, so that Rachel’s initial meeting with him can be punctuated by her surprise at his resemblance to his cousin). The boy grows up without any women in the house, though the young Louise Kendall (Holliday Grainger of Cinderella), his neighbor and daughter of his godfather Nick (Iain Glen of Eye in the Sky) clearly has her eye on him. Philip seems indifferent to her, however, and doesn’t seem to understand her or any other woman. Things change when Ambrose falls ill, and is advised to travel to Italy for his health. From Florence he writes his young ward that he has met a half-Italian cousin of theirs with whom he falls in love and ultimately marries. The naïve Philip doesn’t understand why Ambrose would need a wife when, after all, he has Philip at home, but as Ambrose’s time in Florence is prolonged, Philip gets a much more disturbing letter, in which Ambrose implies that his wife has somehow exacerbated his illness and seems to have designs on his life, referring to her as “my torment.” Philip rushes to Florence, only to find that Ambrose has died, Rachel has left town with all Ambrose’s things, and the only person there to explain the situation to him is Rachel’s enigmatic friend Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino of World War Z and Angels and Demons). But Philip, convinced Rachel has poisoned Ambrose, vows to take revenge on her. When he learns that she plans to come to England to visit her late husband’s estate, Philip is determined to make her pay.

Built up as a kind of villainess in the narrator Phillip’s mind and therefore in the audience’s expectations for nearly half an hour, cousin Rachel turns out to be not at all what we expect when we first see her, through Philip’s eyes, in the candlelit room he has provided for her. She seems nothing more than a poor widow, dressed in black, serving him tizon, an infused tea she concocts herself from her own herbs, and which she continues to push on Philip throughout the film, as she certainly must have done, as well, with Ambrose. The naïve young Philip is soon infatuated with the beautiful and exotic Rachel, and forgets his suspicions of her, swinging to the other extreme and wanting to give her everything he owns.

But others in the village, including Nick and Louise, continue to be suspicious of Rachel, and though their suspicions fall on deaf ears with Philip, we in the audience can’t ignore the questions: Did Rachel come to England just to get her husband’s money away from his heir? Why does she go through the money he gives her so quickly? Is she sending money out of the country to Italy? What is her relationship with the rather smarmy Rainaldo? Is she as loose a woman as some would suggest? What’s in those tizons she’s pushing on Philip anyway? And of course there is the most important question, the one that the whole film hinges on: Did she or didn’t she kill Ambrose?

Du Maurier, I am reasonably certain, wanted that question to remain unanswered at the end of the story—wanted readers to be, like Philip, uncertain about Rachel’s guilt or innocence. For Michell, that seems to be less of a concern. He rushes through a large portion of the novel after Rachel has arrived in England, presenting time passing in a montage rather than allowing tension to mount. Claflin’s Philip is also too obviously unreliable: He plays him like a petulant child most of the time, despite his passing his twenty-fifth birthday during the progress of the story. I suppose his naivete might be explained by being raised without any women in his house, and with his provincial life in Cornwall, and by the lack of intellectual curiosity he all but boasts about when he talks about his schooldays. But these things do not make him a sympathetic character, and they make us less likely to believe him worthy of Rachel’s love, or to approve his suspicions of her, most of which have fairly logical answers that don’t involve her being a murderess.

Weisz, however, is masterful in her depiction of Rachel, and there is a fairly contemporary feminist tone in her performance that Michell presumably wanted to inject into the film: She is, after all, a woman alone trying to provide for herself at a time when there were few options for women, walking a tightrope between charming enchantress and chastely impoverished matron. Wishing to live a life on her own terms, she is nevertheless at the mercy of a boy whose every whim can have profound effects on her, for good or ill.

In its beautiful scenes of Florence and of rural Cornwall, Mike Eley’s cinematography is impressive. Dinah Collin’s costume design is spot on as well, helping to create a realistic period piece. Weisz is excellent in the title role, and the supporting cast is remarkable as well, though Claflin is pretty annoying, but I imagine he’s supposed to be.  Still, the film would have been more suspenseful if his suspicions were more reliable.

Three Tennysons for this one. If you go to see it, you’ll have a more fulfilling experience than you will at The Mummy. And if you really want to see The Mummy, find the 1999 version with Rachel Weisz, and watch that one at home.

 

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Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Last week on Fox News, commentator Neil Cavuto and guest Dion Baia spent some time on the significant question of Wonder Woman’s costume in the new film by Patty Jenkins, claiming that the redesigned red, blue, and yellow costume is evidence that, unlike the traditional red, white and blue costume—with the blue field-of-stars shorts or bikini-bottoms traditionally worn by the comic book character—is evidence that the film is an example of Hollywood’s “money trumps patriotism” attitude. Of course, that didn’t stop people from flocking to the film in droves: It grossed $100.5 million in the United States and Canada this weekend, giving it the most successful opening weekend ever for a film made by a female director. And just as interesting, The Hollywood Reporter noted that 52 percent of the audiences for the film’s opening weekend were girls or women, whereas previous superhero films from the Marvel or DC universes typically have drawn audiences with 6o percent or more male majorities.

Of course, putting Wonder Woman in a thinly-disguised American flag would have made absolutely no sense in the context of this film, which the talking Fox heads had obviously not seen before making their comments. Wonder Woman, born Diana, Princess of the Amazons, is the daughter of the Amazonian queen Hippolyta, born and raised on the isolated island of Themyscira—a Paradise island inhabited solely by women, and deliberately hidden away from Ares, the Greek god of war, whom the Amazons have been created to oppose. A chance incursion brings the First World War onto Amazonian soil, and Diana, believing the “war to end all wars” to be the work of Ares himself, leaves her Paradise island to travel to London, then to Flanders Fields to the front lines in Belgium. And as we know from her previous brief appearance in last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in the present time, Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, works as an antiquities dealer at the Louvre in Paris. So Fox news…where in this story of an ancient Greek mythical warrior woman turned loose in a war in Europe and ending up in disguise as a French museum employee does Wonder Woman’s Americanism fit in?

To be fair, the original Wonder Woman premiered in DC comics in October 1941, getting her own publication in 1942, in which as secret identity Diana Prince she worked as an American Army nurse and later an Air Force secretary, and, as Wonder Woman, fought against the Axis powers. Her red white and blue costume had a clear symbolism, even if the field-of-stars shorts were not exactly fashion-conscious. But Wonder Woman has been through several reboots over the years, and the character in this movie is light years away from the original conception. Played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot (best-known for appearances in the Fast and Furious films) this Wonder Woman is an innocent eye coming from outside to view civilization’s darkest hour and to judge the human race essentially as an outsider.

Other than the initial contribution, 2013’s Man of Steel, the films in the DC Extended Universe project (until now) have not been critical successes, partly because of their dour, unstintingly somber tone. This tone is to some extent the product of a world view that sees moral ambiguity everywhere. The selection of World War I, with its tangled motives, its introduction of chemical weapons, tanks, aerial bombardments and modern technological warfare, and unheard of numbers of casualties, was the logical selection for a film with this world view, rather than “the good war,” World War II, so much more easily seen as a conflict of good vs. evil. Thus Wonder Woman continues this ambiguous world view: Diana believes that she must destroy Ares, god of war, and leaves her Paradise island on a mission of good vs. evil, but finds that the world outside is much more complex, and that humans themselves can be evil without the help of any supernatural being—but finds that they are also capable of profound acts of goodness.

But what makes Wonder Woman different from, and superior to, the latest DC Extended Universe films is a lighter touch at times, which allows Diana’s human side to emerge. Much of this comes in her relationship with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine of Star Trek), an American spy who crash lands in the sea off Diana’s island, not from the Starship Enterprise but from a WWI biplane in which he is fleeing a German war ship. The princess, who has been learning Amazon fighting techniques from her fierce aunt, the general Antiope (Robin Wright, as implacable a force here as she is as Claire Underwood in House of Cards), winds up saving Steve from drowning, but not before the Germans pursue them onto the island and kill a number of Diana’s Amazonian sisters before being repelled. Later coming upon a bathing Trevor, Diana, who up to this point has never seen a man, wonders whether Steve is a typical specimen of human masculinity. He suggests that he is “above average.”

The film then becomes an archetypal initiation story, in which Diana, in quest of the wicked Ares, whom she has been raised specifically to oppose, leaves her protected home and loses her youthful innocence as she experiences the real human world. Brought to London where Steve must report to his British superiors (it’s never explained why as an American he is assigned to a British commander), Diana’s innocent observations about what she sees tend to be amusingly suggestive of a kind of superior wisdom: She sees a corset in a shop and wonders if this is what passes for women’s armor in this world. When told about the duties of a secretary, she remarks that in her country such people are called “slaves.” It is at moments like these that the film is at its best.

In presenting Diana as a superhero (superheroine?), the film includes one inspired battle scene in which the princess crosses no-man’s land between trenches on the western front, clearing out the German trenches and liberating a small village where trapped civilians have been starving. However, the film does ultimately degenerate into the kind of battle scenes that form the greater portion of most superhero movies, and that are as interchangeable as tube socks. In the process, Diana learns much about the degeneracy, vanity and cruelty of the human race, but also learns to appreciate what is good about humans, particularly the virtues of love, and she displays an “emotional intelligence” that male superheroes seldom manifest.

The film’s greatest asset is its star: Gadot is beautiful and formidable, but passionate and sympathetic like no other DC protagonist before her. This Gadot was worth waiting for. Pine is likeable and believable as the American spy—indeed, the lone American is ultimately the noblest of the film’s male characters (a rather forceful contradiction of Fox news’ contention that the film is anti-American). Elena Anaya, as a German scientist trying to develop a deadly new chemical weapon that will propel Germany to a final victory, is a tantalizing figure but one that the film fails to develop enough to capitalize on. Danny Huston as the evil commander Ludendorff isn’t much more than a stereotype, though David Thewlis (Vargo of TV’s Fargo) is appropriately smarmy as a not-completely-trustworthy British politician.

But perhaps the greatest triumph of this film is finally, that Hollywood rarity, a woman director—and Jenkins has not made a feature film since her acclaimed Monster in 2003—has successfully delivered a big-budget blockbuster action movie, and one that, unlike most superhero films, has a heart. One caveat, though: like almost all of these blockbuster movies, it’s really not worth seeing in 3D. Don’t waste the money.

Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. Miss it at your peril.

 

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Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Joseph Cedar (2017)

It’s nice to know that, amid the dreck of movie selection this Memorial Day weekend, led by the poorly reviewed and disappointingly attended new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and the even more poorly reviewed and more disappointingly attended Baywatch, there is a decent film that the grownups might go to in Central Arkansas. Of course, it’s only at Riverdale and you wouldn’t have known it was there on Saturday because they did not think to mention it on their Flixster site. Besides, it’s been in circulation since April 14 and has finally made it to Little Rock: it’s called Norman, and is subtitled “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” If it piques your interest I recommend that you run to see it within the next few days, since, unlike the atrocious King Arthur, for example, which is likely to be hanging around theaters for months, Norman will probably exit Arkansas within a week.

Which is too bad, since it’s a worthy film with smart dialogue, a realistic plot, admirable character development and praiseworthy acting. But it lacks superheroes, CGI effects, explosions and mass destruction at video-game pacing, and pure escapism, which the juvenile summer audiences demand. Or at least which they have been conditioned to demand by a film industry that consistently underestimates its audience’s intellect and attention span. But I digress.

Norman is written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar, best known for his 2008 film Beaufort, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film that year. As the rather ironically quaint subtitle suggests, Cedar seems influenced significantly by the classical structure of literary tragedy, and he actually divides the film into five acts, each of which has its own subtitle, just in case you’d be inclined to miss the traditional structure of the film’s plot.

The incredibly unlikely tragic hero in this case is Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a New York “Fixer” as the subtitle suggests. The term implies someone who makes arrangements for other people, someone who gets things done, who finds ways to bring people together to make deals, who makes money if those deals work out. Norman carries around stacks of his business cards that read “Oppenheimer Strategies.” We see him in the beginning of the film trying to be put in touch with rich New Yorkers who will purchase the entire projected tax bill of a small country for eighty cents on the dollar. He typically tells people that he is well acquainted with some other person of influence through his dead wife, who babysat for that man, or had some other connection. He always knows somebody who knows somebody that he wants to put you in contact with. All for his own seven percent “finder’s fee.”

Of course, Norman is only a wannabe fixer. He really doesn’t know anybody, and he seems to spend all his time wandering the streets of New York in a long camel coat with a plaid cap and scarf, trying to make deals on his cell phone because, well, he doesn’t seem to have an actual office. But he always has some new plan, and remains optimistic no matter how many failures he has. And after a failure, he seems to regularly seek some comfort in his local synagogue, where Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) is sympathetic but realistic about who Norman is. When Norman’s nephew Phillip Cohen (Michael Sheen), who actually does seem to have the ear of at least one important financier, tells him he’s like a drowning man trying to flag down an ocean liner, Norman responds “But I’m a good swimmer!”

Still, Norman does manage to score a success almost serendipitously. Early in the film he follows a low-level Israeli politician named Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), catching him in front of a high-end men’s clothing store admiring an expensive pair of shoes in the window. In a brilliant scene without words, we observe him from inside the store looking out, the shoes in the center of our frame, and watch Norman greet Eshel as if running into him by coincidence, flatter him, touch his arm, then his shoulder, change focus to the shoes, and convince Esher to come into the store and take a look at the shoes. We have just observed how Norman works, and Gere has made us know this character through pure pantomime alone. Norman ends up buying the shoes, convincing Esher to take them as a gift (one that, as his face shows when he looks at the price tag, he can ill afford). But imagine Norman’s surprise when, three years later, Esher becomes the Prime Minister of Israel.

This is, for Norman, the turning point. It enables what the subtitle calls his “moderate rise,” for at an event in New York, the Prime Minister recognizes Norman and greets him warmly, promising to make him his special liaison to the Jews of New York. What practical advantage this gives Norman in his daily conniving is hard to put your finger on, but it does seem at last that the schmuck has found a degree of credibility.

It also gives him some extra confidence, and he makes promises to his loved ones that it seems unlikely he’s going to be able to keep: his nephew wants to get a rabbi to marry him and his Korean girlfriend. His rabbi needs 14 million dollars to keep the local synagogue afloat and Norman says he has an anonymous donor who’ll contribute half. Neither of these seems likely as things begin to spin out of control. The subtitle includes the “tragic fall,” so this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler.

Aristotle argued that the tragic hero should be someone who in some way is superior to the average person, so that the fall is more pitiable and fearful. Norman’s tragedy is more along the lines of Willy Loman’s in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—a tragedy of the common man. The common man, too, has hopes and dreams and dignity, and the failure of those dreams may be as tragic as Hamlet’s is for him. Whether we feel that with Norman, I will leave to you to decide if you choose to watch this film. Suffice it to say that, as with most tragic heroes, Norman’s fall is the result of the same dominant characteristic that caused his rise in the first place: his penchant for talking up everyone he meets and trying to sell them something.

The tragic hero, too, should experience what Aristotle called anagnorisis: the truth or knowledge gained from tragedy. Norman who, like King Lear, has “ever but slenderly known himself,” is brought face-to-face with a mirror image of himself near the end of the film, in the form of Hank Azaria in a cameo role as Srul Katz, even more of a schlemiel wannabe than Norman ever was, trying Norman’s own tricks on Norman himself, now perceived, apparently, to have some connections in his own right. It takes Norman back for a moment just before the inevitable fall.

Norman is a wise and well-constructed tale that succeeds because of good writing and exemplary acting. Ashkenazi is excellent as an over-trusting politician (Norman has “a tremendous heart!” he says at one point to his skeptical wife). Buscemi gives his customary rock-solid performance as Rabbi Blumenthal, and Michael Sheen is appropriately annoyed and sympathetic by turns as Norman’s long-suffering nephew. And Charlotte Gainsbourg shines as Alex Green, a no-nonsense Israeli intelligence officer stationed in New York. But Gere’s performance makes the film: playing against type—it’s hard to see People’s “sexiest man alive” from the days of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman here in the grey-haired, bespectacled, slump-shouldered Norman. Much easier, actually, to see Dustin Hoffman from his Death of a Salesman days—but meeker. In fact, as I watched the film I kept imagining Hoffman in the role, but must admit that even that two-time Oscar winner couldn’t have done better with it than Gere does.

Three big Tennysons for this one. I recommend you see it—it’s a refreshing little oasis in the summer blockbuster desert.

 

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Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott (2017)

I remember watching James Cameron’s Aliens and being absolutely terrified back in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure it was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and that remains true to this day. Alien III was something of a letdown for a number of reasons, but mostly because it allowed you to see the xenomorph aliens more clearly, which took the fear of the unknown out of the equation. It isn’t the rivers of gore or the disgusting slimy creatures themselves that arouse the primal fear in the viewer (a fact that so many creators of mere “slasher” movies fail to comprehend), it’s the mind’s horror at what it cannot see, cannot explain and cannot understand that moves an audience most surely toward terror.

Alien: Covenant, the current prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien universe in theaters now, continues that trend to show us too much, so as a pure horror film it’s inferior to Aliens or Scott’s original Alien. However, it does rely on the true Alien formula of colonists deep in space, looking for an Earth-like planet to colonize, landing on a new planet that turns out to be a really bad choice because, well, aliens. The aliens seem to have no other purpose but to kill any living thing that comes in their range, or to use it as a host for their offspring, who then burst out of their human host’s body with grotesque and hideous carnage and then, once hatched, well, they want to kill any living thing in sight. And, as usual, there is an android presence who may or may not be all that helpful to the humans, and there is a kick-ass woman warrior type who gives the aliens all they can handle. All these boxes may be checked for Alien: Covenant, but I think we see too much of the aliens themselves for the film to induce the kind of horror that Aliens did thirty years ago. Add to that the fact that, partly in repeating the motifs of previous Alien films, and partly just from fairly clichéd writing, the film is absolutely predictable from beginning to end; it may be only Alien-universe fanatics that will find this film more than a slight diversion.

Chronologically, the story of Alien: Covenant begins in the year 2104, eleven years after Scott’s first Alien prequel, Prometheus (2012). Prometheus began in 2089, when the archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charles Holloway find evidence of human origins, and takes place mainly in 2093, when Shaw and Holloway lead an interplanetary mission to find the “Engineers,” the creators of the human race—and take with them an android named David who turns out to have an agenda of his own. The events of Covenant lead up to the beginning of Scott’s original film in this franchise, Alien (1979), which takes place in the year 2122, eighteen years after the end of Covenant.

Covenant itself begins with a flashback linking it to Prometheus, dramatizing the creation of the android David (Michael Fassbender) by the wealthy financier Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his conversation with his creator, in which he reaches the conclusion that, since David cannot die and his creator can, then he not Weyland is the superior being. We switch then to the film’s present: on board the Covenant, a spaceship carrying some 2,000 colonists intending to plant a colony on a new earthlike planet, Origae-6. Colonists and crew are all in hibernation while the ship itself is being efficiently run by the computer “Mother” and an android called Walter, who looks one heck of a lot like David. Turns out he’s a new and improved model (in the sense of being less “creative”—read less apt to question his superiors—than David), though he still looks just like Michael Fassbender.

An emergency damages the ship, forcing Walter to wake the crew from their hibernation, but that same emergency claims the life of the captain, Branson (James Franco) who was apparently married to Daniels (Katherine Waterston), this film’s answer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The entire crew, it seems is made up of couples, that having apparently been a requirement for this mission of colonization. The new captain is Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), who gets off on the wrong foot with his crew by ordering them to secure the ship before letting them grieve Branson. When the crew gets a strange transmission of static-filled garble that sounds like someone singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” they become curious about the planet from which the transmission originates—an earthlike world that seems to be a new paradise and is just days away, as opposed to their original destination, which is still seven years away and would require them all to return to hibernation. Oram now makes his second mistake, redirecting the ship to the new planet in order to see if it could serve as the new colony for Covenant’s passengers and crew. He does this, by the way, over the “official” objections of his second in command, Daniels. Guess who’s going to be right about this.

The landing party finds a paradisical world, but one curiously without any animal life at all. Two members of the party inadvertently disturb little pods with microscopic spores that fly up their noses or into their ears, and guess what? Give yourself a gold star if you figured out that those two crew members become hosts for incubating alien xenomorphs. The only real surprise here is that two of the women crew members get absolutely hysterical and do a number of stupid things when the first alien is hatched. I mean, seriously, these are members of a crew sent into deep space with the responsibility of an entire human colony placed on their shoulders. If it was likely, or even possible, that they would start freaking the freak out at the first sight of something alien (Who could have possibly anticipated an alien being in space? Especially when you’re in a franchise called “Alien”?), then isn’t it pretty likely they would have been screened out, like, I don’t know, RIGHT AWAY?

There are a significant number of fairly stupid people in this crew. I’m guessing it will not surprise you, nor will it be a legitimate spoiler, if you were to learn that most of them get killed by aliens. What does surprise them anyway, if none of the audience except perhaps those under six (who should not be at this movie, by the way!), is that the crew also finds the wreck of the Prometheus on this planet, along with—get ready for a head slap of surprise—David! Dr. Shaw is unfortunately deceased, though it was her voice that kept repeating the John Denver song on that transmission. So, um, did David deliberately lure this crew here, or was that an accident? It’s suspicious, but never really explained.

From what I’ve told you, I’m pretty sure most of you can write the rest of the movie yourselves, especially if you remember the prequel Prometheus at all. And even the dullest among the audience will see the “surprise” ending of the film coming from about a light year away. Still, three performances in the film may come as pleasant diversions, though they are hardly surprises.

Crudup manages to make his character interesting, even complex, though this is in spite of, rather than because of, the script. He says that he is a man of faith, and that seems to set him apart from the rest of the crew. His indecisiveness comes from a kind of alienation from his fellows, but his faith also gives him a kind of optimism about this new world and the possibilities of the human colony—but in the Alien universe, optimism is misplaced, maybe even a flaw. But of all the characters, Crudup is the one who does more than simply react to the horrors of the external stimuli. Unfortunately, the exploration of what his faith might mean in this kind of world is never really explored in the script.

As Daniels, Waterston is sympathetic, smart, and more of a natural leader than her captain. She certainly contrasts with those hysterical women in the crew, and reminds us of Weaver’s Ripley. But it’s an open question whether she’ll be around for any further episodes in the Alien universe—and Scott has suggested there may be as many as three more of these prequels.

But it’s Fassbender who steals the show, playing the twin androids. Maintaining the deadpan aspect of the cyborg personality, but at the same time differentiating the two androids to actually make them distinguishable and individual characters, is no small feat. It’s an acting tour de force that transcends the material he’s given, and may haunt you well after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film.

I’m rating this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and half a Tennyson for memorable performances, most notably Fassbender’s.

 

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie (2017)

Southey

I guess Guy Ritchie’s new digitized entertainment King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has something to do with the legend of King Arthur, in the same way that Robin Hood has something to do with the flour sold under his name: There are characters in Ritchie’s production that are called by the same names as some characters in the Arthurian legend. Of course, they have no other similarity to those characters, nor does the plot, if that’s really a word one can use when discussing what is essentially a video game that we are meant to sit and watch, bear any actual resemblance to any story that Thomas Malory, Tennyson, or T.H. White ever told.

Ritchie, of course, is not the first to usurp Arthurian character names for a story exempt from any relationship with actual Arthurian tradition. Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, with Clive Owen in the title role, did that sort of thing—painfully turning the courtly Grail knight Sir Bors into a flatulent churl—but at least that film had the excuse that it wasn’t trying to work with Arthurian legend at all, but to present a story set in the political turmoil of the period when the historical precursor of Arthur emerged as a legendary Celtic hero. Ritchie’s film has no such intent. It seems his effort is bent on serving as an origin story for a new fantasy/superhero franchise, based, however loosely, on Arthurian legend. This is clear from the film’s conclusion, which seems to promise sequels to come (in fact there are actually six films planned). We can only pray that such an eventuality never occurs.

Where Ritchie and co-writers Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram seem to have got their notion of Arthur’s legend is anybody’s guess, but they do not seem to have gone beyond Disney’s Sword and the Stone—frankly one of Disney’s worst animated movies but still, as a contribution to Arthurian legend, head and shoulders above Ritchie’s travesty. From somewhere they seem to have become aware that Arthur was the son of King Uther Pendragon, that he grew up in obscurity and he proved himself the true king by pulling a sword from a stone. They also seem to have picked up something about that sword being special and blessed by a magical “Lady of the Lake.” Interestingly, they also seem to have heard somewhere that an evil king named Vortigern ruled Britain (though they call it England) sometime before Arthur, and that he wanted to build a tower. But these little factoids get so jumbled around in ways that have nothing to do with their position or significance within the legend that has come down to us that the mind boggles at what has been lost.

Here Vortigern is Uther’s brother and betrays him, having succumbed to what I can only think of as the dark side of the Force. Seems there is a race of Mages, of whom Merlin was one—we don’t get to see him, but apparently he originally gave the magic sword to Uther (the unfortunately wasted Eric Bana). But an evil Mage named Mordred (uh…isn’t he supposed to be Arthur’s son? Oh wait, we’re just playing with familiar names, I forgot) is trying to destroy Uther, but he defeats Mordred with the magic sword (inexplicably not called Excalibur, as far as I could tell), but then Uther is killed by a magically enhanced videogame version of Vortigern (played with malicious zeal by Jude Law, though even he can’t save this film). Vortigern is being advised by a kind of monster-octopus-thing with three human heads, who encourages him to kill his closest loved ones in exchange for power. So naturally he’s not exactly going to be a benevolent king. As for the sword—well, Uther throws it up in the air, it comes down embedding itself in his neck, and he turns into a stone, from which the sword needs to be pulled. I’m not making this up. And believe me when I say that this makes more sense than much of the rest of this movie. At least you can follow this part.

In the legend that has come down to us over a thousand years of telling and retelling, the young Arthur is spirited away at the death of his father and raised in obscurity by the good knight Sir Ector. But Ritchie knows better than the hundreds of previous writers who have worked in this tradition before, and has the young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) raised in a brothel, in the old Roman city of Londinium, where he ultimately becomes leader of a small group of thugs. I suppose Ritchie finds it amusing to iconoclastically denigrate Arthur’s upbringing, or perhaps he thinks it makes the character more of a “regular guy” and so makes it easier for us to relate to him. Again, Ritchie is not the first to do this sort of thing. In Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight, Richard Gere as Lancelot is depicted as a kind of itinerant ne’er do well and squabbler until he catches on with Arthur’s court and catches the eye of Arthur’s queen. But even that generally execrable film knew enough to keep the basic outline of the Arthurian love story, so that it was recognizable as a contribution, however misguided, to the compendium of Arthurian legend.

Okay, fair warning: curmudgeonly rant coming up. Skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to hear it. I understand that one of the producers of Ritchie’s opus declared, “It’s not your father’s King Arthur,” and said it as if that is a good thing. This is essentially the reason why almost all filmed versions of the Arthurian legend have been dismal failures: the filmmaker is handed a complex story that has been told and retold over a thousand-year period and has remained popular for all those centuries because it is a great story about love, loyalty, nobility, courage, camaraderie, war, and the principles we live by that define our humanity—a story that appeals to the deepest heart of our being. And then the filmmaker says “Who cares about all this old stuff? I’m going to make the story my own!” You know what? If it’s not “your father’s King Arthur,” then that means it not going to be nearly as good as your father’s King Arthur. Ritchie’s film is worse than most because it so completely ignores the tradition, but it’s only the latest in a long string of abominations.

This is not to say that the story should simply be retold precisely as it always has been every time. It could not have survived so long if it weren’t reinterpreted and tweaked every generation or so to speak to current concerns. As the author of my own series of “Merlin mystery” novels, I have engaged in that kind of reframing myself. But if you examine the few successful Arthurian films—like John Boorman’s Excalibur, the film adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (itself based on T.H. White’s novel), and yes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—you see that they are based on conventional versions of the story with events reinterpreted or characters’ motives reexamined or, in the case of Python create a spoof of medieval motifs with which the filmmakers are very familiar. This is a far cry from the hubris of ignorance so apparent in failed versions like the current one.

At this point I need to catch myself and ask, as my dear wife often does, whether I’m not ignoring the crucial question “is the movie good at what it’s good for.” In other words, if I forget about the Arthurian names and pretend that this is simply a kind of superhero action movie set in an imaginary Middle Ages that have nothing to do with Arthurian legend, is the film then worth seeing or not? And yes I can close my eyes and imagine it as a sort of bad episode of Game of Thrones—it has a similar darkness and foreboding tone, a similar worm’s eye view of the Middle Ages that deliberately contrasts Tolkien’s idealized view, and a similarly suspended disbelief in the forces of dark magic—but even then I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. Even a bad episode of Game of Thrones has a rationally constructed plot and characters whose motivations you can understand and follow. Here, aside from certain unexplained head scratchers, like the presence in Celtic Britain (or Saxon England—again, hard to tell when this is supposed to be going on) of Arthur’s Asian Kung Fu instructor (Tom Wu) and a rebel leader who is clearly African (Djimon Hounsou), there are times when it is difficult to know what on earth is going on. Ritchie will get to a point in the film when, say, Arthur and his new-found friends, hiding in the forest and planning rebellion like Robin Hood and his Merry Men (Ritchie apparently likes that story better, since there’s a lot more of that kind of thing than anything Arthurian here), and just when someone is about to make a point, the editing flashes forward to sometime in the future when apparently this plan is taking place, then back into the past when something happened that Arthur might be thinking about at the time. This frenetic editing causes consistent problems with coherence and continuity in the film.

This all culminates in a climax that is virtually inexplicable. What I’m about to say might be considered a spoiler, but I don’t think it really is because I honestly don’t know what I’m talking about. Here a mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who has no name (maybe Ritchie and his fellow writers had not read enough of their fathers’ King Arthur to have heard of Morgan la Fay), and whose accented English suggests at times that she has no more idea of the meaning of what she is saying than the audience does, has a big snake bite Arthur on the neck, saying that the venom will cause him to see his future. Then he does a whole bunch of violent stuff and apparently we were supposed to understand that he really did all those things and wasn’t just foreseeing them. Or Ritchie just forgot what he was doing. Or the transition that would have made this make sense was edited out. I guess I could forgive this kind of ending if the whole movie wasn’t this way. But it was. So no, wifely voice of reason, I’m afraid this film really isn’t good at what it’s good for, and succeeds neither at what it is trying to be or what an audience might want it to be. I know that Ritchie really is just trying to make something that is visually “cool,” but seriously, at some point a movie has to make sense. Not only is this not your father’s King Arthur, it really shouldn’t be yours either. I’m giving this, yes, one Robert Southey on the Ruud movie meter. You’ll miss it if you have an ounce of sense.

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

(James Gunn, 2017)

The original Guardians of the Galaxy grossed more than three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide in 2014, making this sequel inevitable, and clearly volume three is in the works, to judge by the closing credits of the current film. Volume two, which made nearly $150 million its opening weekend, has not disappointed its backers, and promises to make an even bigger fortune in the weeks to come. There is enough of what made the original film successful carrying over into part two to ensure the continued success of Star Lord and his crew.

Chris Pratt is back in his role as Peter Quill (aka “Star Lord”), and he is joined by his kind-of sort-of love interest, the green-skinned alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the terribly literal strongman Drax (Dave Bautista), along with the engineered raccoon-like scaliwag Rocket (voiced frenetically by Bradley Cooper). You may remember, too, that the original Guardians included a giant talking tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), who sacrificed himself to save the others at the end of that film. Being a tree, Groot provided a cutting that the other Guardians kept, which has now grown into a new Baby Groot—still voiced by Diesel, though, as a baby, the infant Groot has a very limited vocabulary, so Diesel doesn’t get many lines, beyond a baby-talk “I am Groot” kind of thing. But Baby Groot pretty much walks away with this film, he’s so incredibly cute. Preparing us, we can be sure, for a massive marketing campaign of Baby Groot action figures in the very near future.

Another popular aspect of the first film was the mixed tape that Quill’s mother left him at her death in 1988, creating a best-selling soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s songs that were the soundtrack of Quill’s life through the adventures of Volume One. Volume Two begins with two set pieces: The first is an idyllic love scene set in 1980, played out to the tune of Looking Glass’s hit song Brandy, involving a liaison between Quill’s mother and a CGI-youthened Kurt Russell (as a visiting humanoid space lover) that recalls the popular 1984 film Starman, for which Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination. How awesome would it have been to have gotten Bridges to play this role in Guardians? But I digress. Russell shows up later as Quill’s fugitive father, but more of that anon.

The second set piece incorporating the mixed-tape soundtrack is a battle that the Guardians fight against a giant slug-like monster while they are trying to protect essential batteries for a gold-skinned race of obnoxious little snobs called “the Sovereign” that takes place in the background while Baby Groot is grooving out to the vibes of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” And, in the meantime, the opening credits roll.

If you see the film in 3D, which I am unconvinced is ever worth the exorbitant surcharge laid on it by the profit-obsessed Hollywood film industry, you will actually be entertained by the way things swing out at you and Baby Groot during this battle. And that is the third aspect of Film One that carries over into this one: top-of-the-line action sequences and CGI effects that dazzle the viewer, making this film a true feast for the eyes. If, and that’s a big if, it is ever advisable to pay for the 3D version, this is the time. Trust me, I wouldn’t tell you if it wasn’t true.

But what really made the original Guardians of the Galaxy such a huge popular hit, more than any of these qualities, was the irreverent attitude and tongue-in-cheek cynicism of the characters, especially Quill, and at base the ironic view of the whole film toward the conventional “it takes a bunch of superheroes to save the galaxy” theme inherent in these comic-book movies: A healthy awareness of the absurdity of the basic notion behind these kinds of fantasies—the feeling that, if you can’t make a joke about it, it doesn’t belong in the film—is a healthy perspective to keep. Indeed, that’s what originally differentiated Marvel from DC comics in the first place. Those straight-as-an-arrow, super-serious DC heroes like Superman and Batman were really expected to be taken seriously in their quest to save the world. But Spiderman? Is he strong? Listen Bud: he’s got radioactive blood. Marvel heroes had more psychological complexity, and were wise enough to laugh at themselves. That essentially has held true of the films coming from these two traditions. Iron Man, for instance hits that irreverent note pretty strongly. And the first Guardians hit it out of the park.

Not so much this one. Somewhere around Act II, Kurt Russell shows up riding an egg-shaped craft and saving the Guardians from the hot pursuit of the Sovereign (from whom Rocket has cavalierly stolen a precious battery), and he no sooner meets Quill than he announces that his name is Ego (seriously—do you think that might signify anything?) and that—hold onto your hats—he is Quill’s father.

The revelation underscores the theme of the whole movie, affecting each of the characters in his or her own way. Quill must deal with suddenly having a father when he has grown up without one, and come to terms with his father’s abandonment of his mother. In the meantime, Gamora is at odds with her criminal cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), whom she has arrested and plans to turn in and with whom she is engaged in a kind of “Dad liked you best!” sibling feud. Even Rocket begins to examine his emotional traumas as a fatherless youth, and Yondu (The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned disgraced Ravager who kidnaped Quill as a child, emerges as a kind of long-lost father figure for our hero. This is balanced against the new “family” that the Guardians have forged themselves into, a relationship underscored by the presence of Baby Groot and the need for all the Guardians to watch over him as the new baby in their family. The chief question of the film becomes whether Quill will be forced to make a choice between his newly revealed father and the group of misfits who have become his surrogate family.

Ego himself raises even more serious questions—questions of a theological nature, and questions that may suggest a spoiler alert on the way, so if you want, you might skip this paragraph until you’ve actually seen the movie. Ego, you see, is not simply a humanoid alien being. Essentially Ego is a god, and his motivations are the sort of motivations that human theologians attribute to the creator God as they try to understand him. Even the father’s name—Ego—recalls Yahweh’s declaration to Moses that his name is “I am.” This is all fine for an omnipotent being, but as it turns out Ego is not omnipotent, and the “Ego” name may suggest a darker side, a kind of sociopathic Narcissist. But I don’t want to give too much away.

If all this seems a bit heavy for this little band of sardonic misfits to carry, that’s probably the one real drawback of this movie. It seems out of character for the wisecracking Quill to be so bogged down with existential angst, and when it affects Rocket, well, that might just be going too far. Fans of the original Guardians are still going to find enough here to delight them. And Russell, Rooker and Pom Klementeiff as Ego’s timid little servant girl Mantis give winning performances to complement the lead ensemble. Some may find that the serious turn takes away from the irreverent cynicism that made the first film such a treat, but I’m sure they’ll all be back for Volume Three. It will be interesting to see whether that installment continues this new introspective trend or returns to the cheeky tone of the first Guardians. But for now, I’ll give this one three Tennysons. It’s definitely worth a look.

 

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Gifted

Gifted

Marc Webb (2017)

Diane Adler was a brilliant mathematician, a prodigy whose talent had put her on the fast track to scholarly fame and immortality. She is on the verge of solving one of the most difficult and significant of all mathematical problems. Solving this problem will make her world famous and be a profound boon for theoretical physics, but at the peak of her career she commits suicide while still in her twenties, leaving a six-month old daughter to be cared for by her brother, Frank.

This is the back story of Marc Webb’s current cinema offering, Gifted. Webb, whose recent work has included two Spiderman movies that have all but overshadowed his earlier, more relationship-driven pieces like (500) Days of Summer, returns to his roots in his most recent film, and has brought along another refugee from the Marvell universe, Chris Evans, better known as Captain America, to play Frank Adler.

As the film opens, Diane’s daughter Mary (McKenna Grace), now 7 years old and living with Frank in a small, modest home in a coastal town in Florida where Frank works as a self-employed boat repairman, is about to start first grade, a step she is not at all eager to take. When she gets to school, it takes about two minutes for her new teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) to realize the girl is a mathematical prodigy, though it also becomes clear that Mary does not work and play well with others. Bonnie and her principal believe that Mary will be much better off in a private school for gifted children, but Frank will not hear of it. He wants Mary to live a “normal” life, and as details emerge about his sister’s suicide, we can understand why Frank wants to avoid the mistakes that drove Diane to her early death.

But as it turns out, Frank won’t be able to make that decision on his own. The principal, Ms. Davis (Elizabeth Marvel of T.V.’s Homeland), believing she is acting in Mary’s best interests, is determined to see that the child ends up at a school that will challenge her to her full potential, and so she calls in an authority figure who is willing and able to challenge Uncle Frank.

Enter Grandma. Frank and Diane’s mother Evelyn, played with a white-hot intensity by Lindsay Duncan (Birdman, Alice in Wonderland), was herself a mathematical prodigy, and thus the film becomes a chronicle of the fortunes of three generations of female geniuses in one family. Evelyn, it turns out, was at the beginning of a brilliant career when she abandoned everything to marry her less talented husband and to support his career, a decision she has always bitterly regretted—regretted enough to put all of her frustrated ambitions on her daughter, even to the extent of thwarting Diane’s own romantic life. Frank clearly blames Diane’s suicide on Evelyn’s vicarious zeal for Diane’s success, and is determined not to let Mary’s gift be an excuse for denying her the life of a “normal” child.

And of course, the case goes to court, where Evelyn’s thinly veiled ambitions for her daughter and now her granddaughter are pitted against Frank’s low income and lack of health insurance. Who will get custody, with Mary’s happiness hanging in the balance? I won’t reveal the outcome of the trial, or its aftermath. Suffice it to say that there are no simple solutions, and a number of thorny questions are raised in the process. Is it really in the best interests of a child to curb her normal social growth in favor of a single intellectual talent? How pure are the motives of those who say they are acting in a child’s best interests? How much should the child’s own preferences be allowed to determine her future? Is physical or emotional security more important for a child’s welfare? Certainly Webb and screenwriter Tom Flynn (Watch It) are to be commended for not simply giving us a feel-good movie (not that this isn’t a feel-good movie, but that’s not all it is) but for making us consider all the angles of the situation.

There are other things to like about the film: Young McKenna Grace gives a remarkably non-cloying performance as the child prodigy Mary. Chris Evans proves he has some acting chops as well and is not simply the emotionless stiff he plays in Captain America. Jenny Slate as Mary’s teacher is perky and likeable. It is Lindsay Duncan, however, who really walks away with the movie, giving a nuanced and even sometimes sympathetic portrayal of the mother too blinded by her own ambition to ever admit that she was responsible for alienating her son and—at least in part—for pushing her daughter into the abyss.

I should also mention Octavia Spencer, who as always gives a memorable performance as Frank and Mary’s neighbor and Mary’s sometime babysitter. But here is where the film starts to unravel at the seams. Why on earth is Spencer here at all? She is completely wasted in this small part, and one wonders if the producers simply wanted one more familiar face in the picture that might draw audiences in, even if she doesn’t do much? Or did she have a larger part that ended up on the cutting room floor? In any case, as it is, she’s about as necessary for the plot as a third nipple.

There are some other glaring issues that the film does not deal with, chief among them Frank’s lifestyle. It is revealed in the film that he was formerly a professor of philosophy at Boston University, a job and career he apparently abandoned in order to fix boats in Florida and raise his niece. I suppose it is possible that this was his own rebellion against his mother after Diane’s death, for undoubtedly, she was also a force behind his own success, though not as malevolent a force as she was with her daughter, who was her own alter ego. Or perhaps Frank blamed himself for Diane’s death, since he seems to have missed the signs of her depression, and so hid himself away through guilt and shame. The film never actually addresses the question. Nor does it allow Frank to come up with the obvious solution to his problem in court: I have an erratic income and no health insurance? Why don’t I get a friggin’ university teaching job and eliminate that problem? Never seems to occur to him, or to anybody in the film, though he has several supporters, including Mary’s teacher, who would seem likely to suggest that possibility.

And speaking of this teacher, what is the point of the virtually gratuitous scene of Frank and Bonnie hooking up at Frank’s house? Ultimately nothing comes of this liaison, but it does give Mary a chance to catch her teacher in the act, coming out of the bathroom, in a scene possibly deliberately designed to remind us of a similar scene in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film which this one seems to be channeling at times, particularly in the court scenes. But I’m afraid it is no re-gifted Kramer vs. Kramer, and though the acting is fine, there is no Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep here. There is a film that you may leave the theater feeling good about, but that when you start thinking about it afterwards, you start seeing a significant number of holes. I’m giving this one two Jacqueline Susanns, but I’ll throw in half a Tennyson because of the decent performances and the significance of the questions raised.

 

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The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Niki Karo (2017)

Early in The Zookeeper’s Wife, the new film from New Zealand director Niki Karo (The Whale Rider) based on Diane Ackerman’s best-selling nonfiction book of the same name, the title character Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) climbs into the elephant habitat at the Warsaw Zoo, which she and her husband manage, where a distraught mother elephant is erupting with anxiety over her unresponsive calf. She is able to calm the mother and to save the calf from apparent asphyxiation by unclogging its trunk, while guests from a dinner party she had been hosting only moments before stand amazed, marveling at her courage, her  resourcefulness, and her sympathy for and relationship with the animals. These qualities define her choices and her motivations through the remainder of the film.

At the same time, the visiting director of the Berlin Zoo, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl of Captain America: Civil War) puts his own life on the line: Noting that Antonina’s assistant has no weapon to protect her, he climbs into the habitat himself to subdue and calm the male elephant while Antonina deals with the problem. There is from the beginning a professional connection between the two that, on his part, is augmented by a personal attraction as well.

The film begins with an almost idyllic scene. Antonina and her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh of The Broken Circle Breakdown), have just become caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo in the summer of 1939, and the zoo is popular and flourishing under their management. Antonina rides around the zoo on a bicycle, accompanied by a baby camel who trots behind her. They play with lion cubs in their apartment. But the pact that Hitler has signed with Stalin puts Poland into an untenable position as buffer between Germany and Russia, and Jan warns Antonina that war may be coming and they should consider leaving Warsaw. She will not abandon her home, and the inevitable happens. On September 1, the German invasion begins, the bombs do not spare the zoo, and many animals are killed or, their cages destroyed, wander the streets of the city unattended. Eventually, when the chaos subsides and the German army occupies the city, the animals are rounded up, but many have been lost. And now the Żabińskis need to deal with their old acquaintance, Lutz Heck, who has been appointed Hitler’s chief zoologist.

Heck at first seems helpful: He convinces Jan and Antonina to allow him to “save” the zoo’s most important species by transferring them to the Berlin Zoo for the duration of the war. They will, of course, be returned when the war is over. Such requests, Jan quickly realizes, are not requests at all but veiled orders. Heck also has it in mind to perform what Jan considers ill-informed genetic experiments in breeding the animals, particularly an American Bison specimen, from whom he hopes to revive the long-extinct species of Aurochs. Heck’s motives and his sincerity become more suspect when, as winter approaches, he engages in the wholesale slaughter of most of the remaining animals in the zoo, as a “kindness” to them since he thinks it unlikely they will survive the harsh coming winter.

The disguising of cruelty under the cloak of social utility manifests itself all too son in the Germans’ handling of the Polish population as well. The Jews of Warsaw are harassed, their stores are trashed, they are forced to wear identifying armbands, and ultimately, they are rounded up and confined to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Żabińskis’ close friends, the entomologist Maurycy Franekel (Iddo Goldberg) and his wife Magda (Efrat Dor), come to Jan and Antonina to ask them to hold on to Franekel’s insect collection, his life’s work, and the Żabińskis decide to risk their own safety, and that of their son Ryszard, to hide Magda in their house and protect her from the Nazis.

But saving one life, it turns out, is not enough, and Jan and Antonina ultimately come up with a bold plan to turn the now abandoned zoo into a pig farm, to raise meat to help feed the German occupiers. For this, they must approach Heck and get his blessing for their scheme. The pigs will be fed with garbage from the ghetto. This enables Jan to bring a truck back and forth between the ghetto and the zoo without arousing suspicion, and allows him to smuggle Jews into the zoo to be hidden and cared for by Antonina until they can be secreted out of the area, all of this under Heck’s nose. In this way, the Żabińskis were able to save some 300 Polish Jews, all but two of whom ultimately survived the Holocaust.

The story itself is so compelling that it is hard to separate the movie from the story it tries to tell. And indeed there are a number of things that the movie does well. The image of the zoo is a powerful one, as it becomes symbol and metaphor for the plight of the Jews in Poland: It is difficult to ignore the parallel between Herr Heck’s genetic experiments with animals and the genetic experiments Nazi doctors are known to have performed on unwilling Jewish subjects, as well as their obsession with “pure Aryan” genetic lines. I’ve already mentioned the wholesale slaughter of zoo animals by someone thinking he was performing a public good, an act foreshadowing the “final solution.” It is hardly a stretch to note that the imprisonment of Poland’s Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto parallels and reflects the caged zoo animals, that it mirrors the Nazis dehumanization of the Jews, or, for that matter, that the Żabińskis’ empathy for their own animals cannot help but find a corresponding feeling in their attitudes toward the Jews. Add to this the fact that Chastain is, as always, powerful in the lead role, and Heldenbergh is solid as her supportive and stalwart husband, and it is clear that there is much in the film to celebrate. Shot in Prague rather than Warsaw, the film does a good job in capturing the tone and style of the era.

But there are other things to consider. There is for instance, the inevitable comparison with Schindler’s List, the elephant in the room, so to speak, of Holocaust movies about people helping Jews escape the Nazis. Whereas Schindler is a fascinating character, a war profiteer and playboy who nevertheless is moved to help people because, after all, he discovers a moral conscience, Antonina is a kind of secular saint whose motivation is far less complex. Nor is there a Ben Kingsley character here—none of the Jews saved by the Żabińskis is developed in much detail. We know enough about a few of them to have some sympathy for them, but there is no intense scene of a mother and daughter standing in the showers and expecting the gas to be turned on at Auschwitz. There is no little girl in the red coat. And while we’re considering Schindler’s List, there is also no Ralph Fiennes character.

Herr Heck is, of course, intended to be this person in the film, and though Brühl is perfect in the role, the script does not allow him to flesh out his character enough for the audience to understand what makes him tick. He admires the Żabińskis professionally, but is physically attracted to Antonina as well, and is more than willing to use his position as an SS officer to push his suit upon her. But he is a Nazi, and often simply acts as the stereotypical Nazi commandant would. We don’t really see beyond his Nazi mask to find out if what he feels for Antonina is simply lust or something deeper. We don’t see whether he has a real interest in animals or simply wants to use them. We never see exactly how he feels about Jews, or whether he is simply following the party line because it’s expected. And he forms a strange relationship with Antonina’s son, which promises to explode in the end. But his final actions are difficult to understand without the motivations we are not particularly clear on by the end of the film.

And speaking of the end of the film, it is climactic certainly, but the last half hour or so is not as tightly plotted as the rest of the film. The progress of the story sputters out in short scenes without clear transitions. I don’t know whether it was the editing or the script that allowed the plot to degenerate into disjointed fragments, or whether that effect was intended to reflect the disintegration of the German hold on Poland, but the effect feels confused to me.

So to sum up, The Zookeeper’s Wife has a great story and fine performances, but could, I think, have been better realized. Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one.

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Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island

Jordan Vogt-Roberts (2017)

I admit to having avoided Kong: Skull Island, the latest in the long line of remakes dating back to the first stop-action giant gorilla in the classic 1933 original, that pretty much introduced us to “special effects” on the big screen. The two blockbuster remakes of the original story, the 1976 John Guillermin remake, and the Peter Jackson 2005 homage to the original, both won Academy Awards for special effects, while telling essentially the same story as the original, so I assumed that I’d pretty much seen this film already, at least three times, and that the only reason to go to this one would be to see what kind of advances have been made in special effects in the twelve years since Jackson’s contribution. Besides, the story of Kong has always been essentially a “Beauty and the Beast” story—remember the last line Jack Armstrong speaks in 1933 (and Jack Black speaks in 2005): “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast”—and there was another Beauty and the Beast story out there to see this spring.

Those films were all essentially love stories. The Great Ape’s human side was revealed through his love for Faye Wray, for Jessica Lange, for Naomi Watts. In Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ new Kong epic, Academy Award winner Brie Larson (Room) takes on the female lead as photojournalist Mason Weaver, who latches on to an expedition heading for a previously unknown island in the South Pacific. Kong is sympathetic to her—he allows her to actually touch his face, and does save her life at one point. And there is the obligatory hold-the-girl-in-your-gigantic-hand scene, but this Kong has more important things to do than chase skirts, even Oscar-winner ones. He is not just king but god to the native inhabitants of Skull Island, and he has a full-time job protecting them—and, potentially, the whole human race—from monstrous lizard creatures who live in great cavernous places under the earth, who can enter our world from under Kong’s island home.

Nor is Kong heading for New York City this time, so there won’t be any scaling of the Empire State Building or any other human-made structures, so the motif of the bestial at the heart of human civilization that is the flip side of the beast-with-the-human heart theme underlying those previous Kong films is also absent here. And it’s pretty difficult to see how it would be possible to get this Kong home, even if you were able to knock him out and chain him up, since Vogt-Roberts makes him far larger than any Kongs we’ve seen before—how do you ship him home when he’s as big as the ship itself? Here, Kong seems big as a mountain at times, the living embodiment of the natural world, a god conceived as the personification (or gorillafication) of the forces of nature itself.

The film begins strangely, with an image of the sun in a clear sky, and then suddenly, a screaming body falling across it. Turns out it’s an American pilot falling from the sky as his plane is shot down over an unknown island in 1944. His parachute lands him on the island just before a Japanese pilot, his own plane destroyed, parachutes to land on the same beach. Immediately the American fires upon the Japanese pilot, until finding himself out of ammunition, he is chased by the Japanese soldier, and the two end up grappling on the edge of a cliff. At that point, with the sun behind him, the gigantic head of Kong rises from the cliff to stare at them.

It’s a memorable opening, and lets us know, first, that Kong has been on this island a long time, and second, that violence is not going to be any kind of an answer in the face of titanic forces of nature that we cannot control or subdue. And that pretty much sums up the film.

The next scene flashes forward to Washington D.C. in 1973, where Bill Randa (John Goodman) is lobbying a senator to fund an exploratory expedition he wants to take to that unknown island we’ve just seen 28 years earlier. Randa heads a small group of scientists engaged in investigating strange phenomena (in fact the group, called “Monarch,” is secretly trying to explore the existence of monsters, and to determine if those monsters are a threat to humans). He is allowed to piggy back on a larger expedition heading to the newly discovered island to map it. He then tracks down a former British Special Air Service Captain named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), who is a skilled tracker and survivalist, to guide his expedition. They are also assigned the protection of a U.S. army company—a helicopter squadron called the “Sky Devils”—recalled from the winding-down American mission in Vietnam  and therefore available to accompany the expedition, just in case there’s anything dangerous to be met with on this uncharted island. It so happens that these troops are led by Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is leaving Vietnam with an oversized chip on his shoulder, telling photojournalist Weaver that “We didn’t lose this war. We abandoned it.”

Since the island is apparently in the eye of a kind of permanent hurricane, the entire expedition must be ferried onto the island by helicopter, and in a scene highly reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the copters swoop in on the island, dropping bombs in order to allow Randa’s people to use the vibrations to seismologically study the geological makeup of the island (they quickly discover the earth beneath the island is hollow). What they don’t realize is that these explosions will be seen as a threat by the island’s protector—a certain hundred-foot tall ape. On the principle that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, Colonel Packard orders an all-out assault on the creature, raking him with machine gun fire from the helicopter squadron. The bullets have little effect on Kong, who destroys every one of the helicopters and in the process most of Colonel Packard’s men.

The survivors are divided into two groups, one led by Packard, along with Randa and a few other soldiers, the other by Conrad, along with Weaver and a few others. They need to make it to a rendezvous point on the north side of the island in order to be picked up by their transport, or they will be stranded on the island. But Packard wants to locate another of his men, Chapman, who has crashed somewhere on the island with a copter full of explosives. Packard, it seems, has no intention of leaving the island without wreaking vengeance on Kong. Kong killed his men, and Packard is not letting that drop. He may have been forced to “abandon” Vietnam, but he’s not about to leave Skull Island without destroying Kong. No amount of logic can convince Packard to forego his quest—Kong becomes his Moby Dick, and like a Vietnam-era Ahab, Packard will not rest until achieving his obsession.

Conrad’s group, meanwhile, has come into contact with the native inhabitants of the island, who worship Kong, and with a certain downed World War II fighter pilot named Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been trapped on the island for 28 years, and only wants to get home so that he can have a hot dog at Wrigley Field. Marlow explains how he became friends with his Japanese counterpart—until his friend was killed by the giant reptilian monster that only Kong can keep in check. He also happens to have a boat, constructed from his wrecked plane, that can get Conrad’s group to the rendezvous point in time to escape the island. The names “Conrad” and  “Marlow” are no accidents—they recall Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the novel that inspired Apocalypse Now and whose narrator, who pilots a boat up the Congo River, is named Marlow. In the “Skull Island” scenario, Colonel Packard recalls Kurtz, who in both his Heart of Darkness and his Apocalypse Now manifestations is obsessed with the violent destruction of the brutish and the bestial (“exterminate the brutes” he writes in Conrad’s text), in the process becoming the most bestial of all. Kong, meanwhile, becomes the white whale to Packard’s obsessed Ahab: the embodiment of the divine “insidious malice” that hides behind the pasteboard masks of the universe (as Ahab puts it in Moby-Dick). At the same time, Conrad and Weaver speak for the nascent environmentalist cause (1973 was just three years after the first celebration of “Earth Day” gave birth to the modern environmentalist movement), advocating the importance of leaving Kong alone, particularly since, as the natural enemy of the giant lizard creatures, he was the only one keeping them from destroying humanity. Meanwhile Marlow, as a kind of foil to Packard, demonstrates that violence should not be a first response against a perceived enemy, since that “enemy,” like his Japanese compatriot (or, it is implied, Kong himself) may turn out to be the best friend you’ve got.

This may seem a complex theme or set of themes for an old-fashioned giant ape popcorn movie to carry. And most critics who have enjoyed the film have seen it as simply a good old fun action flick. But Vogt-Roberts (whose only previous film was the 2013 Sundance hit The Kings of Summer) and his writers (Dan Gilroy, Max Berenstein, and Derek Connolly) seem to have deliberately loaded this fairly light film with this fairly heavy message.

They’ve also given it a fairly complex plot, with so many strands that I could not begin to unravel them all here—I haven’t even touched, for instance, on the motives of Randa’s fellow scientists, or several of Packard’s Vietnam vets. To try to get all of this into a two-hour movie, and to try to give major stars like Hiddleston, Goodman, Larson, Jackson, and Reilly any kind of equal time is an awfully difficult proposition. Mostly, the big names haven’t much to do. Hiddleston and Larson spend what time they do have looking concerned and not saying a whole lot—there might have been some romantic interest between the two, but there isn’t room in the story for it. Goodman is charismatic as usual, and he finally lets us in on his motives, but he isn’t on screen long enough for us to form any kind of bond with him. Jackson manages to play the psychotic gunman as only he can, but his motives don’t get enough screen time to develop any complexity. Reilly is the one who pretty much steals the show: He emerges from the native village chattering like Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, but he has all our sympathy from his first appearance through the end of the film where the credits roll over him. In some ways he is a kind of chorus figure, and in siding with the Conrad/Weaver faction as opposed to the Packard/Randa side, shows us where our own sympathies should lie.

I’ll give this one three Tennysons. It’s a new look at Kong, and an interesting one, that could have been better perhaps, if it hadn’t tried to be too many things at once.

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