The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle

Destin Daniel Cretton (2017)

2 JACQUELINE SUSANNS

The official synopsis of this film from the distributor says that it “chronicl[es] the adventures of an eccentric, resilient, and tight-knit family.” I guess that’s just a euphemistic way of saying “criminally dysfunctional.” At the end of this film—this is not really a spoiler—the father of the family, Rex Walls (a mercurial and highly believable Woody Harrelson), surprises his favorite daughter Jeannette (Academy Award-winner Brie Larson of Room) by apologizing to her in a kind of deathbed mea culpa. My wife, herself no stranger to relationships with Narcissists self-medicating with alcohol, left the film under a heavy cloud, saying “Those people never do that.”

This ending is the biggest flaw in a film that boasts a number of positive things, including a no-holds-barred tour de force from Harrelson and an understated, intense performance from Larson. But perhaps the most memorable, and surprising, job of acting is from Ella Anderson, playing the tween-aged Jeanette, who allows us to see the complex feelings the young girl has for a father whom she both adores and fears, trusting in his dream of building the family a glass castle, but in the next instant gasping for breath as he throws her into the deep end of a swimming pool telling her she has to “sink or swim” in this world, and later sewing up a deep wound in her father’s shoulder with a needle and thread and pleading with him to stop drinking.

The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (of Short Term 12, which also starred Larson), was adapted from Jeanette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name by the director and co-written with Andrew Lanham. I have not read the book myself, but I wonder how satisfied the many fans of the book will be with this adaptation, particularly with the Hollywood-style ending providing such very convenient closure and, it seems, an acceptance and forgiveness of her parents’ shortcomings by Walls herself. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God never gives us more than we can handle. And other platitudes that are intended to make you feel better about inscrutable malice that you can do nothing about, or unforgiveable and unnecessary cruelties on the part of people who would just as soon not be held accountable for their actions.

Walls’ father, and to a large extent her mother as well—something we learn by the film’s end but which I won’t reveal because that really is a spoiler—put her and her siblings through dangerous and unconscionable childhoods because their own narcissism and enabling personalities apparently made them incapable of shouldering the responsibility to be actual parents. The fact that the film attempts to portray that experience as a positive influence on Walls’ life because, as the official synopsis of the film puts it, it gave her “the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms,” is a failure of ethical responsibility on the part of the filmmakers, a fact that the sentimental and unconvincing death-bed confession underscores.

To be sure, there are scenes of memorable pathos, like the one in which a very young Jeannette (played by Chandler Head), sets herself on fire while trying to cook on a gas stove, and suffers burns that scar her for life, while her inattentive mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is caught up in her painting. Or when Rex chastises his daughters for “causing trouble” when they try to prevent Rex’s deplorable mother from molesting their brother. But these are not scenes that in any way persuade us in the audience to cut the parents some slack.

The film begins with the adult Walls and her fiancé David (Max Greenfield from The Big Short) in New York City in 1989, where Jeannette is a successful gossip columnist and David is a wealthy financial adviser. At a dinner with a potential client, Jeannette is asked about her parents, and David makes up some cover story for her, but on her way home through Manhattan, Jeannette sees her mother and father on the street going through a dumpster. She ignores them and her taxi moves on, but this encounter sparks the first of a series of flashbacks through which the story of Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960s and ’70s unfolds, parallel to her life with David in 1989 as she tries to adapt to a new and different world while her parents are squatting in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan.

Since two thirds of the film deals with Jeannette’s childhood, the top-billed Larson is only on screen for perhaps a third of the movie. Through the lengthy flashbacks we witness Jeannette and her siblings, Lori, Brian, and the baby Maureen, as they are dragged from town to town, one step ahead of the law, the bill collectors, and the child welfare authorities. Rex cannot hold onto a job even if he’s willing to take one, which is seldom, and Rose Mary just wants to paint, though we never see her sell a single painting, or even give one away, for that matter. The children are given books to read but never stay anywhere long enough, or openly enough, to actually go to school, until Rex finally brings the family to his hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where they live briefly with his stern, abusive mother, an episode designed to round out Rex’s character and in part explain his eccentric personality and make him more sympathetic.

In fact, the film seems to go the extra mile in getting us to sympathize with Rex. We see him give up drinking and get an actual job in Welch, after moving the family into their own house—a wreck that needs a lot of fixing and where he plans to build his glass castle, the blueprint of which he continually works on. Presumably this is a symbol of his unattained dreams, so we are intended to see him as to a dreamer, and perhaps meant to sympathize with him as someone who never achieved his dreams. Well you know what? There’s only one way to achieve your dreams, and that’s to work toward them. Rex’s actual job lasts about five minutes in the film, before he abandons his good intentions and starts drinking again. Ultimately, the siblings make a pact that they will take matters into their own hands and leave this home as soon as they can earn enough money to get away.

Even after Jeannette makes her own escape to New York, her parents show up and continue to make her life miserable, Rex at one point cold-cocking David at a Thanksgiving dinner and bloodying his nose. One thing that the film does not make clear is exactly what happens between David and Jeannette—they don’t seem to be together by the end of the picture. Are we supposed to believe that Rex and Rose Mary were right, and that Jeannette realizes that her “values” were messed up because she wanted a job and a secure marriage?

This is a well-made film complemented by moving performances by Harrelson, Watts, Larson, and particularly Anderson. But ultimately it fails because there is nothing in the evidence presented in the film itself to justify what seems to be the effect Cretton wants the film to have: the vague sense that what Walls and her siblings endured was ultimately positive because it made them strong and determined, and created a powerful bond among them, is really not enough. All I see here is that whatever doesn’t kill you leaves you scarred, like Walls’ poor burned torso. Perhaps the children can forgive their parents finally, but they sure as hell can’t excuse them. The only message I get from this film is that there are some self-involved assholes that have no business being parents. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.

 

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Detroit

Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow (2017)

In July of 2016, a black man named Philando Castile, driving with his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, was pulled over because his brake light was out. Asked for his license and registration, Castile informed the officer that he was carrying a gun. Then, while reaching for his license, he was shot several times and killed by the officer. There were videorecordings of the shooting and its aftermath. Despite the video evidence, the officer was acquitted of second-degree murder in the slaying.

African Americans are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police as white Americans, and are five times more likely to be unarmed when they are shot. In the Minneapolis area, however, it has taken the recent shooting of an unarmed white woman, Justine Damond, by a black officer to get a majority of people calling for an investigation into police training and culture.

Into this contemporary controversy, Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit has been dropped. The film, written by Bigelow’s regular collaborator Mark Boel (who also wrote the screenplays for her acclaimed films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) is set during the race riots in Detroit in 1967, which ended with 1,100 people injured, 7,000 arrested and 43 killed. The film, which premiered in its title city on July 25—fifty years to the day from the riots, which occurred July 23-26, focuses on the infamous brutalities (one might be inclined to say the atrocities) inflicted on a group of mostly black residents of the Algiers Motel, resulting in the deaths of three black men at the hands of three white Detroit police officers.

The film begins with a strangely out of place animated history of black Americans chronicling in thin outline the emancipation of slaves, the great migration to the north, white flight to the suburbs, and ghettoizing of blacks in overcrowded central cities, resulting in broiling tensions and, in Detroit by 1967, a powder keg whose explosion is virtually inevitable. This background is supposed to give context to the film’s content, one assumes, but in its oversimplification and ignoring of important things like, for instance, the entire civil rights movement to that point, as well as the Watts riots of 1965 and the Newark riots just two weeks earlier, it sheds more heat than light, and I can’t help but feel that the film would have been better without it.

The story itself opens with a police raid on an unlicensed bar in a black neighborhood on the night of July 23. As police arrest patrons of this “private party,” a neighborhood crowd that has gathered around begin to complain to the mostly white police about what seems police overreaction to the apparenty peaceful after-hours club. Things escalate as the crowd becomes more agitated, and soon becomes violent. This violence spreads through the neighborhood, ultimately turning into a riot with looting and burning of buildings, and it grows to involve both city and state police, and ultimately the National Guard is brought in to restore order.

We are kept on the street for the first part of the film. Bigelow uses a documentary style of filming, with handheld cameras and mixing in actual historical footage. In one incident, a black man loots a grocery store and is running home with two bags of food when a police officer, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter of The Revenant), chases him down and finally shoots him in the back. The man escapes but ultimately bleeds to death, and Krauss is dressed down by his superior, who tells him he’s classifying the action as a murder—but then sends Krauss back on the streets. Krauss, It should be noted at the outset, is not the actual name of any of the police officers involved in the incidents depicted in the film, and as presented he is a composite character. Despite the documentary style of the film, and despite the fact that the events depicted are essentially true and reconstructed from survivors’ testimony, some details and some characters are fictional. But while there was no actual Krauss, one of the officers involved in the Algiers incident was implicated in a prior shooting of a looter during the riot. And that is a significant point with regard to how much responsibility must be attached to the department itself for subsequent events.

We’re also introduced to a black security guard named Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega from Star Wars: The Force Awakens), the only officer involved that we see with a home life. Dismukes, who also works on the line at Ford, eventually gets involved in things at the Algiers Motel in order to try to assure a nonviolent outcome.

The story segues into the detailed sequence at the Algiers, which we see mainly through the eyes of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, a local Detroit doo-wop group. On the third night of the riots, the group is about to get its big break, appearing onstage in a downtown theater, when suddenly the concert is shut down by police fearing violence in the area. Reed and his best friend Fred (Jacob Latimore from The Maze Runner) try to make their way home through riot-torn streets lined with national guard troops and police beating suspects with night sticks, but finally decide to rent a room at the Algiers for the night, and head home when things quiet down in the morning. Also staying at the motel are two teenage white girls from Ohio named Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and the brasher Julie Ann (Hannah Murray), the Vietnam veteran Green (an impressive Anthony Mackie, who was also in Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker), and an impulsive hothead named Carl (Jason Mitchell of Straight Outta Compton), among others. Carl, frustrated and annoyed by the situation in Detroit, impulsively fires a small starter pistol out his motel room window.

That is the catalyst that brings three area police into the motel, looking for what they assume to be a sniper. Led by the loathsome Krauss, three Detroit police, plus at various points Dismukes and a National Guardsman, enter the motel and round up the lodgers and proceed to line them up against a wall and terrorize them, insisting that they “tell the truth” and reveal who the sniper is and where the nonexistent gun is hidden. As the guests insist that there is no gun and no sniper, Krauss ratchets up the interrogation tactics to the point of torture. And it goes on and on. The film is relentless as Krauss in its cruelty, and let me warn anyone planning to see this movie that it is not for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach.

Without going into spoiler detail, let me just say that by the end of the night, three black men are dead at the hands of the Detroit police. Perhaps even more disturbing, we see both the state police and the National Guard, both in a position to step in and stop the atrocity, wash their hands of the business. The last section of the film raises the hope that justice may actually be done, as the three police officers (as well as, flabbergastingly, Dismukes), are charged in the killings and put on trial. No one wathing the movie will be surprised at the all-white jury’s verdict. One of the flaws in the film, it seems to me, is that Dismukes is essentially dropped as a character after his arrest. We don’t learn why he is brought up on the same charges as the white officers. Is his problem his passivity, his willingness to go along with what is happening in the belief that he can mitigate damages, rather than actively seeking to prevent the abuses? We are never told.

The film’s chief effect, and no doubt its intent, is to stir up a feeling of moral outrage in the audience, which then, one assumes, might carry over into support for causes like the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Its effect, that is to say, is chiefly emotional. In this way it is actually much like a horror movie, a kind of home invasion story with Jason or Freddy Krueger replaced by the maniacal racist cop with the Nazi-sounding name of Krauss. Thus the effect for some viewers may be nothing more than horror, and they may see Krauss as simply the personifiation of inexplicable malice.

For nothing in the film gives Krauss any complexity. Even his two fellow officers have a little depth—one, Flynn (Ben O’Toole of Hacksaw Ridge), is a less overt racist who becomes incensed at finding white women in that black veteran’s room; the other, Demens (Jack Reynor from Macbeth) is motivated simply by doing what is expected of him, and does what the others do because he thinks he’s supposed to. But we know nothing about Krauss beyond what we see him do, and his motivation seems to be simply sadistic racism. The problem is this makes it too easy for us to dismiss what happened at the Algiers, to attribute to a single bad apple, to mark this sort of crime as an aberration.

But continuing incidents of the past fifty years, including the two incidents in Minnesota cited earlier, suggest that such acts of violence are endemic in the system. They aren’t all acts by deranged monsters. Or if they are, why are such persons so common among the police? Is the problem poor screening at the entry level? Or flawed training of new officers? Or burnout among veteran officers? Or a fundamental fear of black people that causes law enforcement to shoot first? These are questions Bigelow and Boel leave on the table, and that’s a sadly missed opportunity. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

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The Big Sick

The Big Sick

Michael Showalter (2017)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

I admit that I really didn’t want to see this movie. For one thing, I thought it had a stupid title. For another thing, I really didn’t want to watch still another movie about a love affair in which some young person is dying of some terrible disease and we get to watch the lovers be all brave and unsentimental and the survivor goes off all devastated but better for the experience. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, blah blah blah. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. But I let my awesome wife Stacey Margaret Jones pick the movie this week, and this is the one she picked.

I still think the movie has a really stupid title, but it turns out that was the only thing I was right about. There is a reason it’s the second-best reviewed movie yet this year (Get Out is No. 1 with a 99 percent rating on rottentomatoes.com). But Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick is no maudlin Love Story, but a clever and unusual romantic comedy giving what might be seen as contemporary social commentary, but not in any kind of overt manner.

Essentially, it’s a comedy in the most traditional sense. Romantic comedy as we know it dates as far back as the Greek New Comedy of the fourth century B.C. This comic norm, as described by the literary scholar Northrop Frye, is an archetypal, or universal, literary pattern that appears at all times and places worldwide: a pair of young lovers, representing the new and freer society, are thwarted in their efforts to get together by some obstacle that must be overcome. The obstacle is often something eccentric, trivial or even absurd—the woman declares, for instance, that she can only marry a man whose name is Earnest. The lovers are often also kept apart by some blocking figure—often the girl’s parents, specifically her father, but are ultimately able to overcome the obstacle and circumvent the blocking figure and others who represent the old, more oppressive society, and get together.

In The Big Sick, the blocking figures are the boy’s parents, not the girls, but that’s not too significant a shift from the comic norm. The obstacle, however, is not something trivial or silly: It’s a life-threatening illness that puts the girl in the hospital in a coma for much of the film. And that, of course, threatens to derail the comedy completely. After all, comedy generally deals with the typically human weaknesses like folly or, in the case of darker and more satirical comedy, vice. We usually leave it to tragedy to deal with the true evils of the world, like war or murderous characters like Iago or death-threatening illnesses. But The Big Sick does what the best comedies do: it shows the resiliency of the human spirit to rise above difficulties and obstacles and create a new and freer society, at least for its protagonists.

The film was written by Kumail Nanjiani (of HBS’s Silicon Valley) and his wife Emily V. Gordon, and tells the only-slightly-fictionalized story in which Kumail (playing himself), a stand-up comedian in Chicago, and meets Emily (Zoe Kazan of Ruby Sparks) one night during his act. She’s a grad student in psychology at the University of Chicago. The two hit it off and after what they initially believe is a one-night stand they become more deeply involved amidst a lot of very entertaining and amusing dialogue. Meantime Kumail’s mother (Zenobia Shroff) keeps trying to set him up with nice unmarried Pakistani women, whom she invites to weekly family meals to meet Kumail, saying “Who could that be?” and “Look who just dropped in!” as she introduces them to his son. As the product of a traditional Pakistani Muslim family, Kumail’s parents expect him to marry a Pakistani Muslim whom they choose for him. As his father Azmat (Anumpam Kher of Silver Linings Playbook and Bend It Like Beckham), tells him in a speech that has no doubt been heard by many a second-generation American from an immigrant parent: We made great sacrifices for your sake, and all we ask in return is that you “be a good Muslim and marry a Pakistani girl.”

Things come to a head when Emily wants Kumail to meet her parents, who are visiting from North Carolina, and he makes excuses not to, presumably because he can’t reciprocate. When he tells her that he has to marry a Pakistani bride or will be disowned by his own family. “I can’t lose my family,” he tells her, and she ends the relationship.

Now any traditional romantic comedy worth its salt would at this point have Kumail defy his parents, choose Emily, and go on to marry her and create the New Society, free of the unreasonable barriers and constrictions of the older generation. Of course, he would need to have some motivation for this change of heart. Here, the motivation comes in the form of the forty-megaton “obstacle”: Emily is hospitalized with an unknown and life-threatening disease and must be put into an induced coma to save her life.

Forty megatons is a little heavy for a light comedy, but to its credit the film does not become maudlin or manipulative with sentimentality. It retains a light touch in spite of all. And something truly unexpected occurs: Kumail, who remains a constant presence at the hospital, is forced into a kind of intimacy with Emily’s distraught parents Beth (the always impressive Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond). In contrast with Kumail’s own parents, Emily’s parents seem to have no problem with their daughter dating a Muslim. What they do resent—what Beth in particular resents—is his rejection of Emily. But Kumail’s relationship with Beth and Terry deepens over the two weeks they are in constant contact in the hospital waiting area and, in one memorable scene, at Kumail’s own standup act, and the film turns out to be just as much about their relationship as it is about Kumail and Emily’s.

I won’t spoil the end for you, but this isn’t a movie you go to for a lot of surprises. It’s not going to dazzle you with its CGI effects or thrill-ride action scenes. You go to it to get a glimpse of a very real relationship among characters with very real emotions and things to say, all of which is done with a comic tone that just makes you leave the theater feeling good, like, say, some classic screwball comedies. Except, of course, those classic comedies would have never had the girl in a coma. For that matter, they wouldn’t have had a Pakistani Muslim romancing a white American graduate student from North Carolina. The film does have the effect of making us see such a relationship as normal.

Kumail is charming and funny playing himself. Kazan is charming and funny playing somebody else, and is a sparkling presence in the film even though she spends half of it in a coma. Both Kumail’s parents are excellent in their roles, though of all the characters in the film they seem the most stereotyped. They don’t get much beyond the “we are Muslim and you have to marry a Muslim” stage. But Hunter is phenomenal as Emily’s mom, making you feel every bit of her terrified concern for her daughter, her anger at Kumail, her frustration with the medical professionals, her outstanding issues with her husband. And Romano is just as likeable as he was in Everybody Loves Raymond, but adds a depth to his character that he could never show in his TV personality. Together they put together that extreme rarity in current American cinema—a film in which people actually talk to each other, and talk in ways that real people actually do.

This is a film you really shouldn’t miss, though it might be under your radar. I’m going to give it four Shakespeares. But I still think it has a stupid title.

 

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Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Christopher Nolan has explored everything from the interior of the psyche in Inception to the far reaches of the galaxy in Interstellar, to the dark knight of the soul in his Batman trilogy, but for me his most remarkable and fascinating film is Memento, a film that disrupts the linear narrative and tells its story in two different timelines that forces the viewer into a constant re-examination of the events portrayed. But that experiment turns out to be just a dress rehearsal for his newest film, Dunkirk, which is without question his most impressive achievement to date.

The vast majority of Americans will be unfamiliar with the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Even if they’ve heard of the place and know that something important happened there, they may not be certain whether it happened in World War I or World War II. Brits probably are more likely to know something about it, but even for them it’s ancient history these days. And the film doesn’t really help you out much. You’re kind of thrown into the action with some of the young soldiers on the beach, though you have Kenneth Branagh as Royal Navy Commander Bolton speaking to Mark D’Arcy as the army’s Colonel Winnant to give you occasional clues as to what’s going on from a broader military and political perspective, but even that is just a few crumbs of information.

Dunkirk is a French coastal town where, from May 26 to June 4, 1940, some 400,000 British and Allied troops were trapped against the sea after a complete military fiasco in which the advancing German armies had swept across the low countries into France. Surrounded on all sides by German troops, and attacked regularly by German fighter planes, the Allied army waited on the beach for ships to come to ferry them 26 miles across the channel home to England. As Bolton explains to the army, the harbor is shallow which makes it difficult to send destroyers in to pick up troops—and besides, Churchill doesn’t want to risk too many ships, or too many RAF planes for that matter, sure that he’s going to need them for the next battle—the battle for Britain itself.

Which might seem to us an unwise choice, and not much in the film gives a context for that decision. But remember: at this point in 1940, with France about to be overrun and the rest of Europe on its knees, England was considering surrender to the Nazi war machine. The United States would not enter the war for another year and a half, and Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler. And that meant that Germany’s next step after Dunkirk was to bring the hammer down of England itself. Churchill, Bolton tells us, is hoping to rescue 35,000 of the 400,000 soldiers on the beach. The British expect, in other words, to lose more than 90 percent of the troops. But what people remember most about Dunkirk is the fact that ultimately more than 350,000 were rescued, largely through the efforts of 800 to 1,200 small boats—civilians’ fishing boats and leisure craft—that made the trip across the channel to pick soldiers off the shore and ferry them out to warships in the deeper part of the channel, or in some cases all the way back to Dover. It was a remarkable demonstration of the pluck and determination of the British citizenry. Ultimately, surprisingly, the military debacle was turned into a source of pride and was seen as a success, providing the impetus for Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches…” speech on June 4.

In a sense, the evacuation of Dunkirk was the opposite number of D-Day: At Dunkirk, Allied forces evacuated Europe; on D-Day they came back to stay—four long years later. And in some ways Dunkirk recalls that quintessential D-Day film, Saving Private Ryan, in the confused, up-close-and-personal feel that you get as a viewer with some of the gunfire and explosions in the film. But in the end, this is less of a war film than it is a farewell to arms, concentrating not on battle scenes but on getting those soldiers away from the battle. But it’s extremely difficult to tell the story of 400,000 men in one relatively brief (107 minute) film. And Nolan doesn’t try. Instead, he chooses to tell the story in a nonlinear narrative (a la Memento) from three different perspectives: One view is through the experiences of one lone, frightened British private named (what else?) Tommy (played by young newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is just trying to get out of Dunkirk and go home by any means possible. A second focuses on Dawson (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance), the civilian skipper  of one of those small recreational craft (the “Moonstone”) commandeered in Dover to cross the channel and help ferry men from the beach. The third point of view is that of RAF pilot Farrier (played by a nearly unrecognizable Tom Hardy, disguised in a helmet that covers his face for the entire film), who gives an aerial perspective of the whole situation, while blasting at German warplanes bent on sinking as many Allied vessels as possible.

Nolan alternates between these three perspectives, but the narrative is more complicated than that. Each of the three perspectives is set in a different time frame as well. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film when the graphics identify each story. The first, Tommy’s story, is called “The Mole” (a confusing term that refers to the concrete breakwater off the beach from which most troops were evacuated). This section is given the timeframe “one week.” Thus the story of Tommy, and the two companions he picks up—the reticent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the more talkative Alex (played convincingly by former One Direction member Harry Styles)—engage in one attempt after another to get off that beach. The second section, “The Sea,” follows Dawson, his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who hops aboard on a whim, as the three of them cross the channel to ferry men home. Their task is complicated when they pick up a shell-shocked survivor of a sunken lifeboat (played by Cillian Murphy, a veteran of Nolan’s Batman films as well as Inception), who insists he can’t go back to the beach. This part of the story, we are carefully told, has a timeframe of one day. The third timeline, “The Air,” lasts just one hour, and focuses on Farrier and two other spitfire pilots chasing German warplanes across the sky, Farrier trying to save as many soldiers as he can while fighting against time and a damaged fuel tank as well as the Luftwaffe.

Because of these three different timeframes, you can’t be surprised when you move from nighttime to daytime when the perspective shifts, and need to keep in mind that something in “The Mole” episode may be happening before something in “The Sea” timeline, even if the Sea-time episode is on the screen first—and that almost everything, no matter when it is shown, is occurring before that last hour when the planes are in “The Air.” So when Cillian Murphy is fished out of the water in the daytime in one scene, and a little later is on a lifeboat at night, telling Tommy and his friends there is no room, don’t be surprised. Just remember the timeline.

This triple perspective has the effect of forcing us to see the overwhelming experience of Dunkirk not as a simple story with a single narrative arc, but as the complex event that it in fact was. It also forces the viewer to be more actively involved in the process of the story, not unlike a postmodern novel.

In addition to the narrative technique, the film’s epic scope is also impressive, as Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography fills the screen with stunning images of the beach filled with its hundreds of thousands of soldiers lined up to await transport, or of the view from inside a spitfire chasing down a Nazi Messerschmitt. Hans Zimmer’s musical score is heavy, pounding and nerve-wracking, adding to the tension of every scene. There are no weak spots in the performances either, with Rylance, Murphy, Hardy, Branagh and Whitehead all turning in exemplary work. There is no doubt that Dunkirk will be in the running for various Oscars come February.

But Dunkirk is not perfect. There is little in the way of dialogue, which is fine, since the focus is mainly on action and spectacle, but what dialogue there is, is often unintelligible, either because Zimmer’s music is drowning it out, or because the British accents are thick and (as with most movies nowadays) nobody is enunciating very clearly, or, in the case of Hardy, the lines are muffled by a flight helmet covering the lower half of his face. This can be a bit annoying. Perhaps more importantly, the lack of context given for the events of the film extends to its characters as well. We know nothing at all about the lives of anyone involved. The characters exist for us only in this brief moment of time at the Dunkirk evacuation. We don’t know where they are from, whether they are married, whether they are doctors or ditch diggers in civilian life, nothing. As a result, we don’t feel close to any of the characters. We are held aloof from them. Maybe that is Nolan’ intent—each of the characters is just one of the 400,000 on the beach, and hence becomes an everyman figure. But doing that sacrifices intimacy.

You definitely should see Dunkirk. It is a high-quality film, and I give it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.

 

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves (2017)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

Well, I’m going out on a limb here and I’m going to claim that Matt Reeves’ final picture in the science-fiction reboot Planet of the Apes trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, is the best film of the year so far. How strange that seems to say: This is a franchise that sought to revisit the quirky, campy world envisioned in the original classic 1968 Charlton Heston film that spawned four progressively inferior sequels. Who would have thought that anything more could have been done with the idea? That original film, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who two years later would win an Oscar for directing Patton), and co-written by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling (adapted from a novel by French author Pierre Boulle), seemed like a wild, silly concept to the original skeptical audiences, but proved stunning (that Statue of Liberty ending!) and profound by the time the film ended, raising serious questions about what it means to be human, and about the dangers of modern technology—specifically the threat of thermonuclear destruction then at the height of the Cold War.

The current trilogy takes the no-longer-so-campy concept of intelligent animals, animals closely related to humans, and asks not so much what it is to be human, but rather how much we have in common with the creatures with whom we share the planet. And, interpreting the apes as a microcosm of the natural world as a whole, one threat this final film in the trilogy warns of is the more currently relevant danger of abusing the natural world, and its creatures, and what forms Nature might take in responding to those human abuses.

But that’s just one of the film’s many takeaways. The story of War for the Planet of the Apes begins two years after the events of Reeves’ previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes, are just trying to live in peace in their woodland realm, removed from human beings. Humans, however, have been having their own problems: a deadly degenerative virus is affecting people, taking away their ability to speak and ultimately their ability to reason, so that as apes evolve mentally, humans devolve, becoming more animal-like. In what he sees as a war for survival of his species, a new human military leader, identified only as “the Colonel” (Woody Harrelson), attacks Caesar’s tribe, inflicting severe losses on them.

From advance scouts, the apes hear of a new land where they can be free from this kind of war, somewhere out of these woods and beyond the desert. But the night before they leave to begin their exodus, a sneak attack by the Colonel brings more grief to Caesar, and as the tribe begins its journey, Caesar goes off alone to take revenge on the Colonel. But he is joined by his closest friends and advisers, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the faithful chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the gorilla Luca (Michael D. Adamthwaite). His desire for revenge ultimately comes in conflict with his duty to protect and lead his tribe when they are enslaved by the Colonel, forcing Caesar to make complex moral decisions. During his internal struggles he is visited by the taunting vision of Koba (Tony Kebbel), the renegade ape from Dawn whose hatred of humans brought about the first ape/man conflict. Is Caesar a better moral being than Koba, or is his quest no different after all?

Some have called the film an allegory. It isn’t, by a strict definition of the term, for an allegory is a narrative in which abstract concepts are represented as physical objects or characters. But it is certainly true that the film’s story recalls other familiar narratives and invites comparisons through biblical, literary or historical allusions. One of these, perhaps the most obvious, is the narrative of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt under Moses. The apes flee war and slavery, led by their charismatic leader Caesar, the new Moses. There is no Sinai experience or handing down of a new Law, but there is a sort of “Red Sea miracle” late in the film, and the recreation or mirroring of those events does create a good deal of sympathy for the apes and for Caesar, just in case you were inclined to root for the humans. The “let my people go” inference all but forces us to think of the apes as those “people,” and to believe, like them, that all reasoning beings should be free.

Nor is it a coincidence that the Exodus experience, as evinced in old spirituals like “Go Down, Moses,” was used by slaves in the old South to parallel, even to represent in coded language, their own plight and drive toward freedom—for many Americans perhaps a stronger incentive to sympathize with the enslaved apes in the film.

The humanizing of the apes is also a reverse parallel to the tendency of nations—or at least of their governments—to de-humanize other peoples whom they have decided to categorize as enemies. Such dehumanization—categorizing certain groups as “less civilized” or “more barbaric” than we are, justifies our actions when we oppress, enslave or annihilate them. There is no doubt that dehumanization of Jews, categorized as “vermin” by Nazi propaganda, ultimately made the Holocaust possible. Thus it is not surprising that the apes in the movie are locked up in a camp that bears a striking resemblance to Dachau or Auschwitz—all that’s missing is the “Arbeit macht frei” sign on the gate. Contemporary political rhetoric that suggests Muslims or Mexicans/Mexican Americans are somehow inferior, less civilized, more barbaric, than we are allows the denial of their civil rights to be seen as acceptable. It’s no accident that the Colonel in this film is using slave labor to build a wall.

At the same time there are unmistakable allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film Apocalypse Now, Woody Harrelson with his shaved head—particularly in a scene where he interviews Caesar and the light and shadow play off his bald dome—recalling Marlon Brando’s obsessive Colonel Kurtz in Coppola’s film. Through Coppola’s Kurtz, Reeves manages also to allude to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s source for his film, a novel set in the Congo Free State, where unparalleled atrocities were committed on the “barbaric” African population in the name of Civilization. Conrad’s is a novel all about dehumanization, and it is appropriate to remember that Conrad’s Kurtz’s last words written in his journal concerning the Africans are “Exterminate the brutes!” In this vein it is germane to mention the apes in Reeves’ film called “donkeys,” who serve in the human’s army and help the Colonel in his planned genocide of the apes, apparently believing that by cooperating they will be spared. Conrad depicts certain Africans who are “detribalized”—who have abandoned their traditional social, religious and ethical values in order to join he white man’s culture, but who, since they also are not fully accepted there, are essentially without any moral compass or personal dignity. The same can be said of the “donkeys” in this film.

None of these hifalutin ideas would come across if the film were not well made and well acted. It is the remarkable current state of computer generated imagery that makes this film visually stunning—far more realistic than Charlton Heston’s apes in the era of pre-Star Wars special effects were ever able to achieve (though it shouldn’t be forgotten that that original film won a special Academy Award for achievement in make-up). Filmmakers of Heston’s day would be awed by the achievement of this film.

Andy Serkis, who first introduced audiences to the astounding possibilities of motion-capture technology in his creation of Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, is nothing short of amazing in creating Ceasar—there is not a single moment during this film that you do not believe wholeheartedly that Caesar is real. If some antiquated Academy rule dictates that Serkis cannot be nominated for a “Best Actor” Oscar, then they ought to make sure he gets some special award recognizing his achievement in this film, which is, without exaggeration, the creation of a whole new category of acting. As the big-hearted, empathetic Maurice, a character without the ability to speak and who communicates in ape sign-language, Karin Konoval creates a profoundly sympathetic character out of movement, gesture and facial expression, all of which she does through motion-capture.

Beyond the impressive effects and the thoughtful social commentary, Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback have created a script that is first and foremost about character and relationships. It is to the credit of the director and the actors that those characters are realized in an impressive new medium. And for those of you who still prefer the original film, Charlton Heston fans will be delighted to see two young characters—the young chimp Cornelius and the young, speechless human girl Nova—who seem to provide a link to the 1968 film—a closing of the loop as it were. But they’ve got to grow up first.

I’m giving this one four Shakespeares, folks. Seriously.

 

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Spiderman: Homecoming

Spiderman: Homecoming

Jon Watts (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

I don’t know about you, but for me this summer “blockbuster” season has been shaping up to be perhaps the most disappointing in recent memory, with the unrelenting dreck of films like the latest Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mummy and King Arthur only occasionally mitigated by Wonder Woman and the second Guardians of the Galaxy. Then along came a Spiderman that frightened those summer doldrums away.

Not that there was any particular reason to expect this third reboot of the Spiderman franchise in fifteen years to be anything special. Director Jon Watts is a novice in the area of feature films, being best known for his work on The Onion News Network. He had five other writers who worked on the script for this film, which does not bode well for any kind of unified or coherent presentation. And star Tom Holland as the new Peter Parker/Spiderman has never carried a movie on his young, relatively puny shoulders before, though his brief scene-stealing stint as Spidey in last year’s Captain America: Civil War was a memorable introduction to his talents.

But Holland as the new face of the franchise is one big reason for the film’s success. Holland, 19 when he first played the part in last year’s Civil War, looks much younger and is believable as the 15-year-old high school sophomore he plays in the film. Toby Maguire was 26 and Andrew Garfield 28 when they first played the character, and so were beyond the adolescent angst that has always been one of the things that made the web-slinger of the comics the most popular of all Marvel’s heroes. Holland capitalizes on his character’s status as high-school nerd.

It’s no accident that Spiderman: Homecoming often has the feel of a John Hughes movie from the 1980s. Holland has been quoted saying, “My goal was to try and kind of be our generation’s Marty McFly.” Apparently Watts had the cast watch Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films as well as Hughes films like Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club and especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There’s even a sequence of Spiderman chasing through his neighborhood, making casual quips to the neighbors as he runs through, directly reproducing the famous chase scene at the end of Ferris Beuller. And not only is there a climactic scene at his school’s homecoming dance from which Peter has to duck out to take care of important business, not unlike Marty McFly at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, but there is a direct echo of Back to the Future II when Peter slips into a new flashy Spiderman uniform designed for him by Tony Stark that at first hangs loosely around his body, but shrinks to fit him like a glove when he hits a button—precisely as Marty McFly does when he first dons his “future” wardrobe in 2015.

But these little homages to ’80s teen flicks are merely there to underscore the spirit of the film, which tries to recapture that era’s spirit. Holland is a kind of misfit (as every adolescent ever has felt her/himself to be) with a huge crush on an older girl, the cool senior Liz (Laura Harrier). He plays in band and is on the Academic Decathlon team, both of which he neglects while he waits for a call from Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) to take part in the next big Avengers mission. Meanwhile he patrols his own neighborhood, not quite getting the hang of superherodom: His first missions include recovering a bicycle that may or may not have actually been stolen (he leaves a sign on it asking for the owner to reclaim it); assaulting a man who seems to be about to break into a car that turns out to be his own; and finally helping an old lady find the subway, who rewards him by buying him a churro. He finally does get himself a bit of notoriety when he foils an ATM holdup, though the crooks escape through the use of high tech weaponry. But the point is that Peter not only has real-life teenage concerns in his personal life, but he also is a typical adolescent just trying to figure it out in his superhero life as well, which is what makes him endearing.

Some of the supporting characters are quite memorable as well. Zendaya (best known from TV’s K.C. Undercover) plays the super-quirky Michelle, one of Peter’s Academic Decathlon teammates with a mildly obsessive interest in him. Jacob Batalon (who ironically plays Sancho Panza in the upcoming film The True Don Quixote) is Peter’s even nerdier high school best friend Ned, who becomes Spidey’s obligatory sidekick. Perhaps Watts’ true pre-production stroke of genius is the casting of Marissa Tomei as Peter’s long-suffering Aunt May, who strikingly transforms Peter’s surrogate mother from the conventional kind old grandmotherly widow of previous Spideys to someone more age-appropriate for the aunt of a 15-year-old boy, and someone who, unwittingly, has a bevy of admirers among the neighborhood men and boys.

But chiefly, Holland is complemented by Michael Keaton’s brilliant performance as Spidey’s new super-villain nemesis, the Vulture. Keaton’s contribution goes beyond the mind-bending cinematic hall of mirrors that his casting creates, with the Vulture resembling uncannily Keaton’s Birdman character, which in turn was a sly allusion to his creation of the dark and complex Batman in 1989. It was Keaton who ushered in the new generation of film superheroes with complex characters and motives, and he does something similar for villains with the character of Adrian Toomes, introduced in the first scene as a salvage contractor who is driven into bankruptcy by the government’s teaming up with Stark Industries to monopolize the cleanup of the widely-scattered alien weaponry left scattered around New York after the first Avengers movie. Toomes’ plight, which drives him to become a high-tech arms dealer in defiance of Big Brother and the super-rich, makes him a sympathetic adversary, and one who connects with Peter’s own working-class roots.

That mention of Stark Industries brings up another big difference between this Spiderman and previous incarnations: With this reboot, Spidey joins the Marvel Universe—something previously prevented by contractual obligations and the rights various studios had to certain characters. This is the subtext of the film’s “Homecoming” title. I’m not all that certain that this is an improvement, since it simply means that Peter’s story will now be intertwined with those of the countless other Marvel heroes whose stories play off one another in what will soon be scores of interconnected films. Which means whether it’s Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, etc., etc., ad infinitum, every film is just another sequel. Not the greatest situation to inspire creative originality. Still, it adds a few wrinkles to this Spiderman. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is Peter’s mentor—when he’s doing his Spiderman thing, Peter says he’s working at his internship for Stark Industries. Stark wants Peter to develop his skills some more before he becomes a full-fledged Avenger, but Peter makes himself something of a nuisance calling his “contact,” Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies), until Hogan basically tunes him out. This makes Peter try to handle Toomes alone—a mistake which we can somewhat blame on Peter’s delusions of grandeur, but perhaps even more on Stark and Hogan’s failure to take him seriously. Another typical adolescent quandary.

One other thing the Marvel universe adds to the film: It gives us Chris Evans as Captain America making hilarious public service announcements played at Peter’s school.

Finally, there is one more particularly refreshing thing about this film: For once, the hero is not trying to save the entire world, or even the galaxy, from threats of ultimate evil. Peter is, in fact, just a friendly neighborhood Spiderman, trying to stop crime in his own community, or at most in the borough of Queens. There’s something much more real and human in that. So the action scenes may not be as fantastic as in some other superhero movies—I usually doze through those anyway. (So, as usual, I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for the 3D screening of this if I were you). This Spiderman is much better in the simpler scenes of Peter’s personal life and relationships. It’s a film that has a lot going for it, including a few doozies of plot twists that I certainly didn’t see coming. If you have any interest in superhero movies, you’ll leave this one wanting more. I’m going to go with three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare on this one.

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The Beguiled

The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola (2017)

In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s Southern Gothic thriller set in Virginia in 1864, Amy (Oona Laurence), a young southern girl in the woods looking for mushrooms, finds a half-dead Union soldier, who convinces her he is harmless and whom, for the sake of what she sees as Christian charity, she helps to shelter at her nearby school, the Farnsworth Academy. This is a boarding school for upper-class southern girls that persists in the war-torn countryside as an island of refined manners and aristocratic instruction in subjects like music and French. It is run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with her one remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst, who also appeared in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette). There are five students including Amy, one of whom, Alicia (Elle Fanning, who was in Coppola’s Somewhere), is a teenager on the verge of womanhood herself. All of the girls remain at the seminary because, we are told, they have nowhere else to go. As for the wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), he encroaches on the peaceful isolation of this remote sorority like an unwelcome dose of reality. Though he cannot stand up or move under his own power, Ms. Farnsworth tells the wounded Yankee, “You are not a guest here. You are a most unwelcome visitor.”

Assuring the girls, and herself, that when the corporal is recovered they will turn him over to the local Confederate troops, Martha proceeds to tend to McBurney’s wounded leg, pulling pieces of shrapnel from it and sewing up the wound with household needle and thread, sterilizing it with brandy. As the soldier begins to mend, he reveals things about himself to the women and girls in the school, who despite their initial fear and disgust at housing a Yankee, are drawn to him—he is, after all, the only man around. He is simply a poor Irish immigrant, he tells them, who took money to take another man’s place in the draft and ran from battle when he had the chance. As McBurney continues to mend, it begins to appear less and less likely that the women will ever turn him over to the authorities, and the repressed Martha, the lonely Edwina, and the adolescent-hormonal Alicia entertain romantic notions about the unwelcome visitor who has become their guest, and the film takes a number of dangerous turns amid heightened sexual tensions.

Coppola won the Best Director award for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in May, before the film opened in the United States. It is a remake (something she has said she had never considered doing) of a 1971 film directed by Don Siegal and starring Clint Eastwood in the Farrell role—Siegal also directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry that same year. That original film also starred Geraldine Page in Kidman’s role, and Elizabeth Hartmann in Kirsten Dunst’s slot, and was based on a 1966 novel originally entitled A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan. Coppola’s effort, based on both the novel and on the earlier film, has come in for a good deal of criticism for the way that it strips the story of much of the complexity of its earlier incarnations, particularly the issues of race and class, as well as the milieu of the Civil War, that permeated the novel and its first film adaptation.

McBurney, for example, is completely apolitical, having joined the Union army merely for the money it netted him. He does not come anywhere near expressing a desire to rid the world of the execrable institution of slavery. The women of the seminary see the war mainly as something that has affected them personally—Amy’s brother has been killed in Tennessee, and McBurney is quick to tell her that he has never been near Tennessee. But the larger issues of the war are never touched on, and one of Coppola’s major changes from her sources is the elimination of the character of the slave girl Hallie (Mattie in the book), a decision for which some have charged her with engaging in the long Hollywood tradition of “whitewashing” history, to which her response has been, “That’s another movie.”

It is possible to read that response as a somewhat cavalier dismissal of those critics’ concerns. But in fact it does, I think clarify what Coppola intends with her movie. The fact is that for Coppola, this film could just have easily been set in a medieval convent in France during the Hundred Years’ War, where the nuns take in a wounded English knight. Or it could have been set in a galaxy far, far away on a planet inhabited solely by women onto which crashes an enemy Klingon warrior. The historical or physical setting is immaterial, so long as it is a place where, plausibly, this precise gendered situation may occur.

Perhaps this explains why the film, supposedly taking place in Virginia, was shot in Louisiana, which, though providing a beautiful background for cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, looks about as much like Virginia as it does Nebraska. But it’s the landscape of the mind that Coppola is interested in, not the physical time and place, so complaints about the film’s ahistoricity miss the point.

Siegel said of his 1971 film that it was mainly about “the basic desire of women to castrate men,” and his film, as well as the novel itself, have been seen as misogynist in their portrayals of women. But Siegal and Cullinan were both male, and writer-director Coppola brings a woman’s understanding to the psyches of her women characters. Kidman, Dunst and Fanning all give subtle portrayals of lonely and competitive women, held in check by a surface Southern gentility that masks internal struggles of cunning, jealousy and the pent-up desire suppressed by their long isolation from men that bubbles to the surface—and ultimately erupts—when a man is thrown into their midst.

Yet for all this, Dunst and Fannng manage to keep their characters sympathetic, and even Kidman, whose actions are most appalling, can be seen to be acting at least in part out of fear and a desire to protect her charges. Even Farrell, both beguiler and beguiled, comes across as sympathetic, or at least more so than Eastwood’s lecherous deserter in the earlier film.

The film being chiefly about interiority, is especially heavy on mood, and this is where Coppola is particularly in her element. The film seems to be shot through a lens of Vaseline, something like an Impressionist painting, as if humid mists are rising from the bayou, bathing each scene in a simmering heat reflecting the characters’ inner lives. Interiors are lit by candles so that much of the film is in a fuzzy half-light, ensuring that we cannot clearly see what is coming to the surface of perception. And the soundtrack is mostly silence in this film—an ominous silence that mutes the internal motivations of the characters, which can only be guessed by their faces and their actions.

So subtle is all of this, and so quiet the film’s atmosphere, that some viewers may be lulled into impatience or boredom, or find the film slow moving. I did not, but if you are looking for that great blockbuster summer action movie, skip The Beguiled and wait a few days for Spiderman. Three Tennysons for this one.

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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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