Jay Ruud’s Movie Reviews
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
My lovely wife and I go to movies. Lots and lots of movies. And I have opinions about movies. Lots and lots of opinions. Here, I share them with you. Lucky!
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.
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
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.
Beauty and the Beast
Bill Condon (2017)
The tale may not really be as old as time, but it’s at least as old as 1991, when in the midst of the Disney Renaissance, the studio gave us a musical follow-up to The Little Mermaid that featured a heroine who had her own ideas and her own agency and wasn’t about to wait around for her prince to come. It was the guy, trapped in the form of a beast, who had to wait for her to save him from his bestial side. The film struck a chord twenty-six years ago, and fittingly became the first animated feature film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It went on to become a hit Broadway musical, capitalizing on the Oscar-winning movie score composed by Alan Menken and songs by Menken and the late Howard Ashman.
As of this past weekend, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has embarked upon its third life, this time as a live-action film that promises to be its most lucrative life of all, having pulled in some $175 million this past week, out-performing all of star Emma Watson’s previous films in its opening weekend—and in case you don’t grasp the significance of that, remember that her previous films included all of the incredibly successful movies in the Harry Potter franchise. The current film is, like 2015’s Cinderella, essentially a reshooting of the original animated film with (big-name) live actors. Cinderella, though sticking very close to the classic Disney cartoon, was campy enough not to take itself too seriously, and therefore was a whole lot of fun, while Beauty and the Beast is weighed down by its own seriousness much of the time. The rare exceptions come from Luke Evans (The Hobbit’s Bard) as Gaston and Josh Gad (from Broadway’s Book of Mormon) as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou. The duo’s rendition of the song “Gaston” is the most entertaining musical moment of the film, but it often seems that they are in a different—and more fun—movie from everyone else.
Nor does Beauty and the Beast measure up to last year’s live-action remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book. That film, far less reliant on music, took the general narrative of Disney’s movie, made passing allusions to iconic moments from the animated film, but rethought the plot, turning the film into a fresh new version of Kipling’s original tale. Beauty and the Beast follows its original almost slavishly, but adds some new scenes and new music (making the live-action version some forty minutes longer than the cartoon). These additions generally involve the creation of some backstory for Belle (Watson) and her father Maurice (played with solemn noncartoonishness by Kevin Kline), ostensibly to clarify their motivations, I suppose. But in fact these amplifications are unnecessary and, without exception, quite dull. There is a scene where, through some magic mirror trick, the Beast is able to transport Belle to Paris, where she lived with her parents as a baby, and where she learns exactly how her mother died. I suppose this allows us to appreciate why old Dad is so sad, and why he treasures his daughter so much, but we already knew that his wife had died and Belle was all he had left, so we already understood all that without this scene, which really isn’t all that interesting and takes us away from the main plot of the tale. There’s also some incongruity here: If the Beast can transport Belle and himself through time and space, why doesn’t he do that later in the story, when it could prove a really handy skill?
As for the new songs, added by Mencken and Tim Rice (best-known as Andrew Lloyd Weber’s collaborator on Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), there are three: “Days in the Sun” (providing some backstory for the object-characters in the Beast’s castle); “How Does a Moment Last Forever,” concerning the backstory of Belle and Maurice; and “Evermore,” sung by the Beast when he finds himself in love with Belle. But these new numbers pale before the original songs, and not one of them is memorable in the least. Why did Disney think it was a good idea to add them? Don’t get me wrong, I only want to know.
To recap the plot briefly, in case you’re one of the three people in the civilized world unfamiliar with it, it begins with a great nobleman being turned into a beast for his arrogance, and all of his servants transformed into household furniture, as part of the curse. In a nearby village, a beautiful and independent-minded young woman named Belle (that’s French for “Beauty,” in case you need to be reminded) dotes on her inventor-toymaker father Maurice while fighting off the advances of a local egotistical suitor named Gaston. Mocked for her bookishness and her intelligence, she longs to leave behind “this provincial life.” Maurice is imprisoned by the Beast for picking a rose, and Belle offers to take his place. While imprisoned in the Beast’s castle, she befriends the anthropomorphic household furnishings and learns to look beyond the Beast’s outer form to fall in love with the human soul within. Meanwhile Gaston plots to put Maurice away in an asylum, “rescue” Belle and slay the Beast. It’s a fairy tale, so you know how it ends.
The story, of course, is a timeless romance with a significant lesson that will stir people in whatever form it takes. My wife, who was perhaps the only person in America still living who has never seen the original Disney animated film, was caught up with the story, seeing it for the first time in this version. But so many things fall flat in this remake that it will be hard to form any real affection for it. Unlike the cartoon version of Lumiere the candelabra, Cogsworth the walking clock, the teapot “Mrs. Potts,” and God help us a wardrobe and a harpsichord (which have no true face at all), these live-action blocks of furniture are too real to be convincing as metamorphosed humans. As cartoons, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts had all the expressions of real people, but in this case the considerable skills of Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and especially Audra McDonald as the wardrobe, are completely wasted on objects that never really come to life. And this turns the most memorable musical number of the animated film, “Be Our Guest,” into an unremarkable display of computer graphics rather than the stunning Busby-Berkeley style chorus number it is in the original.
To a lesser extent this is true of the Beast as well. Dan Stevens (late of Downton Abbey) does the best he can with the role, occasionally getting us to feel empathy with the creature, but as a CGI/motion-capture creation he has little opportunity to show emotion, or to form any chemistry with Watson, who we must imagine was shooting her scenes with a lover who was only there in her imagination. Watson does her best as well, but like her onscreen father Kline, is so dead serious all the time that most of the fun is squeezed out of the story.
One thing that isn’t a problem in the film is the much ballyhooed “gay moment” that director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) mentioned in a press interview prior to the film’s release, saying that it was there as an homage to lyricist Ashman, who died of AIDS just before the animated film’s release in 1991. That revelation caused some Muslim countries to ban the film, and fringe “Christian” extremists to threaten boycotts. Obviously, those threats have not hurt the box office. But the “gay moment” is so subtle that it is barely noticeable, and cannot possibly offend anyone who isn’t looking to be offended. Still, if you don’t want your children “exposed,” keep them home and stay home yourself. With the money the film is making, nobody is going to miss you.
Two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson for this one. See the film if you want to—you probably will anyway. But I think you’d be better off to stay home and watch the original on DVD.
A United Kingdom
Amma Asante (2017)
It’s a good bet that the vast majority of Americans would be hard put to find Botswana on a map. And even among those who were able to do so, the name Seretse Khama is likely to elicit only blank stares. Unless, perhaps, you are a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s popular “Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels, in which Khama is often mentioned with reverence as the father of modern Botswana. In fact, Khama deserves to be much better known outside his own country. The first democratically elected president of the newly independent Botswana in 1966 was a paragon of honest, wise and forward-looking statesmanship and democratic values while still honoring his nation’s cherished traditions, a founding force that set Botswana on a stable and peaceful course for the past fifty years, an anomaly in the often tumultuous post-colonial Africa.
Amma Asante’s new film A United Kingdom, released on February 10 but finally arrived on one screen in central Arkansas this week, will go a long way toward making Khama’s name better known. But the film does not center on Khama’s administration, but focuses instead on his more tumultuous personal life and its dramatic effect on world politics nearly twenty years earlier.
In the film, Seretse Khama (played by David Oyelowo of Selma), who is in fact the heir to the kingdom of Bechuanaland (as Botswana was then known) is in London studying law, preparing to be an enlightened leader at the reins of his nation, then one of the poorest in the world. But taking a night off from his studies, he attends a “missionary dance” where, in a somewhat romanticized “love at first sight” moment, he meets an English office clerk from Lloyds of London named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, far more sympathetic here than in Gone Girl). Despite intense social hostility in opposition to their interracial romance—not the least from Ruth’s father, who disowns her, and from the British government, who virtually order her to break it off, the couple are married in a small ceremony, and prepare to start a new life in Seretse’s kingdom.
But it turns out things are no better in Bechuanaland, for here Seretse’s uncle and regent Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene, last seen in Eye in the Sky) speaks for a large portion of his tribe when he insists that this marriage to a British woman be annulled and Ruth be sent back to England. How can Seretse insult the women of his own tribe by not choosing one of them, and choosing this foreigner instead? Nor do the tribal women, led by Seretse’s aunt and his sister Naledi (Terry Pheto, from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) welcome Ruth with anything but open hostility.
But Seretse tests his people’s will against his uncle, and in a traditional assembly of his tribe, is proclaimed king by a majority of the people. His uncle, unwilling to accept this decision as final, leads a significant minority of citizens away, to set up his own faction in opposition to Seretse. As for Ruth, she is finally accepted by the women of Bechuanaland when Naledi, her resistance worn down by her brother’s love for Ruth and Ruth’s dogged determination to see things through with her stiff upper British lip.
But Seretse’s uncle, and the British government, refuse to let things stand. While there is no violence in the realm, the British interpret the break between Seretse and his uncle as a civil war in need of their interference (Bechuanaland is a British protectorate at the time). But it becomes clear, particularly through scenes in Parliament, that the real issue for the Brits is South Africa. In a series of laws passed between 1948 and 1950, including laws prohibiting intermarriage or cohabitation between races, South Africa was establishing it infamous system of apartheid. The South African government could not tolerate this interracial marriage at the highest level of government in their much weaker neighbor just across it northern border (a little hint for those of you who still were having trouble finding Botswana on the map). The South Africans pressured the British to remove Khama from office or be cut off from South Africa’s mineral riches (including gold and uranium) and, in addition, face the possibility of a South African invasion of Bechuanaland. The Labour government in power, still reeling from debt following the expense of World War II, gives in to the demands of South Africa and, tricking Seretse into traveling to London in 1951, tell him he is now exiled from his own country, and he must live in isolation away from Ruth, who has remained in Bechuanaland, knowing she would not be allowed back into the country if she left.
What happens afterward is a matter of historical record, but I won’t go into any details here for fear of spoiling the movie for you. Suffice it to say that in the end Asante (who directed Belle) has put together a film that is beautifully shot (images of animals in the Kalahari wash over you as you watch this film) and that ultimately celebrates love and the triumph of the human spirit over bigotry, hate, and small-mindedness—a seventy-year old story that was made for our own time. I do think that the screenplay by Guy Hibbert (who wrote Eye in the Sky) fails in some key areas: In the first place, I was never really drawn into Ruth and Seretse’s relationship. There are a few very brief exchanges about jazz and a few scenes of them dancing together, and we are supposed to believe that these few things cemented a great love between them. There is the obligatory sex scene between them, but I’d gladly have sacrificed that for a scene of the two of them discussing their plight, rather than the one line it’s given when Ruth says to Seretse, “We’ve misjudged this, haven’t we?”
For that matter, Seretse’s uncle is never allowed to voice his reservations about Seretse as king. He has a sentence or two about how it’s wrong he married out of the tribe, but surely there are political considerations, and perhaps ambitions, that he is never allowed to voice. Even in a climactic reconciliation scene, Seretse and Tshekedi wander off by themselves and we are left with the women to wonder what they are talking about.
I realize that it is quite unusual these days for people to talk to each other much in films, but in real life people actually do talk to each other, and that’s the chief way we have of knowing what they are like and who they are. The lack of meaningful dialogue in the film makes the characters seem two-dimensional. This is particularly the case with the representatives of the British government in the film, most notably Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport) whose consistently condescending manner may make the audience want to hiss, as at a melodrama’s villain, but makes it hard to see him as a fully realized character. As for Pike, while she has some admirable moments standing up to her oppressors, her unruffled, icy demeanor make her seem like something of a cold fish, especially since she is denied the ability to express her feelings through dialogue.
Oyelowo fares a bit better: he has the opportunity to wax eloquent in two public speeches (as he was able to do as Martin Luther King in Selma). But those are set pieces, not dialogue, and this is his public persona, not his private self. His finest hour in the film comes when, exiled from his wife and home, he receives a phone call from Ruth, introducing him to his newborn daughter. Here we finally see the inner man, this time not through words so much as the emotions he displays.
A United Kingdom is a truly fascinating real-life historical drama that ultimately does a better job delineating the political issues behind the narrative than it does the human elements that move it along. It might have been a great film, but it settles for being a good one. The story is worth knowing, Three Tennysons for this one.
Jordan Peele (2017)
It starts out as an updated version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, morphs by the second act into The Stepford Wives, and finally ends up going full Frankenstein. Whatever you think of writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out, you’re not likely to spend a lot of time saying, “Yeah, I saw that coming.”
Except perhaps in the opening scene, where a young black man is lost in the suburbs at night, looking for an address, and a car ominously pulls up next to him. It’s a cliché scene straight out of an old slasher movie, but with a black man in the place of a teenaged white girl. This looms like an ominous cloud over the first part of the movie, which otherwise seems sanguine enough. A young African American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya of Sicario) is getting ready to spend the weekend with his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. His white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of TV’s Girls) makes Chris even more nervous than he would normally be about this big step in their love life when she mentions that she hasn’t told her parents that he is black. They’ll be fine with it, she assures him. After all, they’re good old liberals—her dad would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. Sure, we’re thinking from the audience. We’re seeing things through his eye here, not the rose-colored glasses that Rose seems to be wearing.
In a scene heavy with foreshadowing, the couple hit a deer on their way to the country estate, and Chris hears its cries and watches it bleed out the last of its innocent life. A local cop takes the accident report, and then asks to see Chris’s license, even though Rose was driving the car. Chris is willing to show the officer his license rather than to make any trouble, but Rose steps in and forces the officer to back down, sure that this is a subtle kind of racist harassment. What a good daughter of liberal parents she is.
Rose’s parents, with the incredibly white names of Missy and Dean Armitage, meet the couple at the front door of their impressive home. Dean (Bradley Whitford from TV’s West Wing) quickly goes over the top in welcoming his daughter’s new black boyfriend, calling him “my man” and mentioning—as expected—that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. He does employ an African American maid and groundskeeper, and seems hyper-conscious of how that must make him look to Chris, but he explains that Walter (Marcus Henderson) and the Georgina (Betty Gabriel) had worked for Dean’s parents until they died, and so he and Missy had kept them on as old family friends.
As Missy, the always impressive Catherine Keener (of…well, of the hundred things that Catherine Keener has been in) is far more reserved. She seems to be watching events from a distance, and calmly tries to keep Dean from making too big a fool of himself. It’s all rather awkward, but awkward in a fairly amusing way at this point—in a Spencer Tracy-Sidney Poitier kind of way. But there is, hovering in the edge of our consciousness, that dead deer, that suspicious cop, that black dude in the first scene—and the undercurrent of inevitable racism beneath the veneer of Dean’s hale fellow well-met. The paranoia that we seem to be feeling along with Chris gets pumped up significantly with the arrival of Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones from TV’s Friday Night Lights), who seems like a loose cannon and makes thinly-veiled aggressive suggestions to Chris.
Even stranger are Chris’s encounters with “the help.” He approaches both Walter and Georgiana at different points, trying to find somebody in this extremely white neighborhood that he can feel more at home with. But both the housekeeper and the groundskeeper relate to him even more awkwardly than the Armitages: They both talk like white people—in fact, their language is that of white people who are about eighty years old. What they really sound like are black people doing a parody of how white people talk. The effect is eerily unsettling. And it certainly does nothing to make Chris feel more at ease.
Chris feels even less at ease after Missy (a psychiatrist, married to neurosurgeon Dean) hypnotizes him without his consent the first evening in the house. Ostensibly, this is to cure his smoking habit, but there is a menacing note to it, as the hypnotized Chris tumbles mentally into a dark “sunken place,” where he can only glimpse the real world helplessly across an unbridgeable black gulf.
He wakes back in his bed, but the fear of that hypnosis experience nags at him. But at least he doesn’t want to smoke any more. Things descend to their weirdest point the next day at a garden party attended by a large group of the Armitages’ friends—all of them middle aged or older white folks, and all of them with some sort of uncomfortable borderline racist remarks to make. Chris spots one African American from behind, and approaches him like an oasis in the desert, but Anthony (rapper Lakeith Stanfield, from Straight Outa Compton) is as awkward in this situation as Walter and Georgiana were: He is married to a white woman twice his age, and he is dressed and acts like a white man twice his age: He wears a straw hat, sport coat and khakis while he sips a martini. And when Chris tries to fist-bump him, Anthony gives him a weak handshake. The only relatively comfortable conversation Chris has at this party is with a blind former photographer played by Stephen Root (Office Space, The Man in the High Castle). He’s white, but he recognizes the absurdity of his fellow guests, and he knows and admires Chris’s work. It’s a bit of a relief for Chris to find that somebody here is normal. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Chris is ready to leave after this party, but all hell is about to break loose, and that’s really about all I can tell you without spoiling the whole movie. The twists that come are interesting and shocking, and the end of the film, which makes good on the promise of blood, gore, and horror, will be satisfying for those who have come to this film thinking they were going to see a formulaic comedy-horror flick. The comedy part is probably less satisfying: Many people have found the film funny, and I suppose there is some amusing social satire in the veiled racism of some of the conversations, and in the bizarre affect of Walter, Georgiana, and Anthony, but for the most part the; atmosphere is tense rather than humorous. The only laugh-out-loud moments come from Chuck’s friend and dog-sitter Rod (LilRel Howery of TV’s The Carmichael Show) a TSA agent back in the city, who keeps telling Chris via his iPhone to get the hell out of there, and conjures up Jeffrey Dahmer style scenarios to scare Chris with. If only Chris would listen.
Peele, previously known for “MadTV” and as half of the comedy sketch team “Key & Peele,” gets well away from the comedy sketch genre in his directorial debut, and creates a deftly crafted spoof of the cliché horror flick, but one with a disturbing underlying theme. Peele sets out to debunk the myth of a “post-racial” America, and he does so not by taking on the easy target of openly racist rednecks, but by focusing rather on the sublimated racism of the liberal elites. But if the purpose of satire is to reform society by lambasting societal folly and vice, then Get Out cannot be said to have fulfilled this function: The satirical target here are too entrenched, too committed to the destructive path. It takes a bloodbath at the end, a complete destruction of the film’s society, not a reformation, to bring about the purgation of vice. In part that is characteristic of the horror genre, but in effect it also suggests the unleashing of at least as powerful a counter-racism in the brutally violent denouement. In the end the film is a grim picture of a society where no one is to be trusted and everyone is a potential enemy. Three Tennysons for this one.
I Am Not Your Negro
Raoul Peck (2016)
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”
That sentence from novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social activist James Baldwin essentially encapsulates Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro in one memorable sentence.
Baldwin, one of the most acclaimed African-American novelists of the last century, was particularly associated with the civil rights struggle in the late 50s and 60s, and is particularly remembered for novels like Go Tell it on the Mountain and social commentary such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time. But that was 50 or 60 years ago, and it may be that few people read him anymore, except as a kind of historical curiosity, or unless they are particularly interested in African American literature, but even so you’re likely to read a lot more of Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou (both of whom were strongly influenced by Baldwin). Or, if you’re reading writers of Baldwin’s generation, you may be more likely to be looking at Richard Wright (a close friend of Baldwin’s) or Ralph Ellison, though in those decades Baldwin’s books outsold both Wright’s and Ellison’s among both black and white readers. Likewise Baldwin was more political, more directly involved in the Civil Rights movement, more visible as a spokesman for at least one aspect of the movement, and was at the same time a close friend of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, the fallen martyrs of the struggle for racial equality.
Peck’s aim in this film is to bring Baldwin’s insights out of the historical context of his time and demonstrate how relevant they still are in the not-so-post-racial American of the twenty-teens. Through the juxtaposition of images, Peck suggests direct connections between Baldwin’s comments on American society in his time and present-day American culture, between the struggles for voting rights and fair access to public education in Birmingham and Little Rock and the “Black Lives Matter” movement introduced into the film with images of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Amir Brooks.
The starting point of the film is a letter that Baldwin wrote to his agent in 1979, describing a project he planned to undertake. Eleven years after the King assassination, Baldwin proposed writing a personal account of the civil rights movement of the mid-60s revolving around and connecting the lives and murders of his three close friends—Evers, Malcolm X, and King—a book that he was planning to call Remember This House. But Baldwin made little progress on the book, and when he died eight years later, he left only thirty pages of manuscript. Peck has taken these completed pages, given them to Samuel L. Jackson to read, combined them with images drawn from the virtually unlimited access to Baldwin’s estate and from archival footage of the writer at speaking engagements or television interviews, to create his own vision, in a different medium, of what Baldwin’s imagined book would have been like—a sweeping record of American history and of the African American within that history, up to the present moment.
It is not, as Baldwin said, a pretty story. The most grotesque moment in the film is a clip of a white woman in the mid 1960s in a televise interview, talking about what a devout Christian she is, and how she is certain God can forgive thieves and murderers, but she is certain that he can never tolerate integration. I audibly gasped when I heard her say this, and considered how very American it was and continues to be for us to recreate God in our own image. Peck, driving home the point that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, juxtaposes the ugliness of the hatred laid bare in the civil rights protests of the 60’s with the violence of Rodney King’s beating in the 1991 and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
The film is a testament to Baldwin’s thesis that racism is so endemic to American society that for some white people it is not possible to see him as a complete human being: “They have become moral monsters,” he says. The myth of America, given flesh in the films of heroes like John Wayne, turns the wholesale slaughter of indigenous Americans into an heroic act, and the manifest destiny of white America into God’s will.
Baldwin’s love of films, instilled in large part by a white teacher he remembers fondly, permeates his analysis of white attitude toward blacks. He traces his reactions to black characters in films, from Stepin Fetchit through Sidney Poitier. He examines Poitier’s films closely, from his jumping from the train with Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (the act, Baldwin says, that made the white audience feel good, while all the blacks in the audience were thinking, “Don’t jump, you fool!”) through his “Uncle Tom” act in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, to the “farewell kiss” (as Baldwin calls it) between Poitier and Rod Steiger at the end of In the Heat of the Night. Essentially Baldwin argues that American film contained, even in his own time, to reflect the way white people wanted to think about African Americans, rather than the way African Americans thought about themselves, or the way things really were. One wonders what Baldwin would have thought of films like Moonlight and Fences, and whether he would consider things to have changed in contemporary Hollywood.
Aside from convincing us, or reminding us, of Baldwin’s status as a complex critic of American society and student of American history and popular culture, no one watching this film can help but be impressed by how articulate Baldwin was. Early in the film Peck includes a segment of Baldwin as a guest on the Dick Cavett show, an episode that Peck returns to more than once in the course of his film. At one point Cavett brings out a Yale philosophy professor named Paul Weis, who immediately argues that Baldwin’s emphasis on race is too narrow. It does not take long for Baldwin to dismantle Weiss’s position.
Equally impressive are the clips of Baldwin in a public debate at Cambridge University, where he seems clearly to have won over the all-white audience of privileged British students. Though Peck’s film does not mention it, that debate pitted Baldwin against conservative icon William F. Buckley, and the audience overwhelmingly considered Baldwin the victor.
The film is not perfect. There is a looseness to the structure that makes it difficult to assess what Peck’s chief point is. That racism is part and parcel of American culture, and that Baldwin’s assessments of that culture are still relevant today, seem to be the major takeaways for the film’s audiences. But Peck stops short of suggesting any solutions or steps that might be taken to change the situation. The film strongly implies near the end that Barack Obama’s election did not change the underlying racism in society. Baldwin’s solution, the film seems to suggest, a kind of middle way between his friends Malcolm X, with his aggressive approach to change, and King, with his program of passive resistance. In fact, Baldwin believed that the only solution was a wholesale reshaping of America society along a homegrown socialist model, since American capitalism needed to keep blacks “in their place” to ensure the continuation of cheap labor. This is barely touched on in Peck’s film.
But overall the film is hard-hitting and powerful, and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s own words is mesmerizing. Of course, the only people who see this film are those who are predisposed to agree with its premises, which is a shame. Had this film won the “Best Documentary” Oscar last Sunday night, it may have reached a wider audience, but instead the Academy was more interested in the popular choice, giving the Oscar to a nine-hour made-for-TV project about O.J. Simpson that inexplicably wound up in this category. I think Peck was robbed. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.
Ruud Reviews Movie Rating Scale
This is a great film.
You need to see it, or incur my wrath.
This movie is worth seeing.
I’d go if I were you. But then, I go to a lot of movies.
2 Jacqueline Susanns
If you like this kind of movie, you’ll probably be entertained by this one.
I wasn’t all that much.
1 Robert Southey
This one really isn’t worth your money. If you’re compelled to see it anyway, at least be smart enough to wait until you can see it for less money on Netflix or HBO. If you go see it in the theater, I may never speak to you again.