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!
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.
Paris Can Wait
Eleanor Coppola (2017)
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.
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.
Patty Jenkins (2017)
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.
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Joseph Cedar (2017)
It’s nice to know that, amid the dreck of movie selection this Memorial Day weekend, led by the poorly reviewed and disappointingly attended new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and the even more poorly reviewed and more disappointingly attended Baywatch, there is a decent film that the grownups might go to in Central Arkansas. Of course, it’s only at Riverdale and you wouldn’t have known it was there on Saturday because they did not think to mention it on their Flixster site. Besides, it’s been in circulation since April 14 and has finally made it to Little Rock: it’s called Norman, and is subtitled “The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.” If it piques your interest I recommend that you run to see it within the next few days, since, unlike the atrocious King Arthur, for example, which is likely to be hanging around theaters for months, Norman will probably exit Arkansas within a week.
Which is too bad, since it’s a worthy film with smart dialogue, a realistic plot, admirable character development and praiseworthy acting. But it lacks superheroes, CGI effects, explosions and mass destruction at video-game pacing, and pure escapism, which the juvenile summer audiences demand. Or at least which they have been conditioned to demand by a film industry that consistently underestimates its audience’s intellect and attention span. But I digress.
Norman is written and directed by Israeli director Joseph Cedar, best known for his 2008 film Beaufort, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign language film that year. As the rather ironically quaint subtitle suggests, Cedar seems influenced significantly by the classical structure of literary tragedy, and he actually divides the film into five acts, each of which has its own subtitle, just in case you’d be inclined to miss the traditional structure of the film’s plot.
The incredibly unlikely tragic hero in this case is Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a New York “Fixer” as the subtitle suggests. The term implies someone who makes arrangements for other people, someone who gets things done, who finds ways to bring people together to make deals, who makes money if those deals work out. Norman carries around stacks of his business cards that read “Oppenheimer Strategies.” We see him in the beginning of the film trying to be put in touch with rich New Yorkers who will purchase the entire projected tax bill of a small country for eighty cents on the dollar. He typically tells people that he is well acquainted with some other person of influence through his dead wife, who babysat for that man, or had some other connection. He always knows somebody who knows somebody that he wants to put you in contact with. All for his own seven percent “finder’s fee.”
Of course, Norman is only a wannabe fixer. He really doesn’t know anybody, and he seems to spend all his time wandering the streets of New York in a long camel coat with a plaid cap and scarf, trying to make deals on his cell phone because, well, he doesn’t seem to have an actual office. But he always has some new plan, and remains optimistic no matter how many failures he has. And after a failure, he seems to regularly seek some comfort in his local synagogue, where Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) is sympathetic but realistic about who Norman is. When Norman’s nephew Phillip Cohen (Michael Sheen), who actually does seem to have the ear of at least one important financier, tells him he’s like a drowning man trying to flag down an ocean liner, Norman responds “But I’m a good swimmer!”
Still, Norman does manage to score a success almost serendipitously. Early in the film he follows a low-level Israeli politician named Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), catching him in front of a high-end men’s clothing store admiring an expensive pair of shoes in the window. In a brilliant scene without words, we observe him from inside the store looking out, the shoes in the center of our frame, and watch Norman greet Eshel as if running into him by coincidence, flatter him, touch his arm, then his shoulder, change focus to the shoes, and convince Esher to come into the store and take a look at the shoes. We have just observed how Norman works, and Gere has made us know this character through pure pantomime alone. Norman ends up buying the shoes, convincing Esher to take them as a gift (one that, as his face shows when he looks at the price tag, he can ill afford). But imagine Norman’s surprise when, three years later, Esher becomes the Prime Minister of Israel.
This is, for Norman, the turning point. It enables what the subtitle calls his “moderate rise,” for at an event in New York, the Prime Minister recognizes Norman and greets him warmly, promising to make him his special liaison to the Jews of New York. What practical advantage this gives Norman in his daily conniving is hard to put your finger on, but it does seem at last that the schmuck has found a degree of credibility.
It also gives him some extra confidence, and he makes promises to his loved ones that it seems unlikely he’s going to be able to keep: his nephew wants to get a rabbi to marry him and his Korean girlfriend. His rabbi needs 14 million dollars to keep the local synagogue afloat and Norman says he has an anonymous donor who’ll contribute half. Neither of these seems likely as things begin to spin out of control. The subtitle includes the “tragic fall,” so this shouldn’t be much of a spoiler.
Aristotle argued that the tragic hero should be someone who in some way is superior to the average person, so that the fall is more pitiable and fearful. Norman’s tragedy is more along the lines of Willy Loman’s in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—a tragedy of the common man. The common man, too, has hopes and dreams and dignity, and the failure of those dreams may be as tragic as Hamlet’s is for him. Whether we feel that with Norman, I will leave to you to decide if you choose to watch this film. Suffice it to say that, as with most tragic heroes, Norman’s fall is the result of the same dominant characteristic that caused his rise in the first place: his penchant for talking up everyone he meets and trying to sell them something.
The tragic hero, too, should experience what Aristotle called anagnorisis: the truth or knowledge gained from tragedy. Norman who, like King Lear, has “ever but slenderly known himself,” is brought face-to-face with a mirror image of himself near the end of the film, in the form of Hank Azaria in a cameo role as Srul Katz, even more of a schlemiel wannabe than Norman ever was, trying Norman’s own tricks on Norman himself, now perceived, apparently, to have some connections in his own right. It takes Norman back for a moment just before the inevitable fall.
Norman is a wise and well-constructed tale that succeeds because of good writing and exemplary acting. Ashkenazi is excellent as an over-trusting politician (Norman has “a tremendous heart!” he says at one point to his skeptical wife). Buscemi gives his customary rock-solid performance as Rabbi Blumenthal, and Michael Sheen is appropriately annoyed and sympathetic by turns as Norman’s long-suffering nephew. And Charlotte Gainsbourg shines as Alex Green, a no-nonsense Israeli intelligence officer stationed in New York. But Gere’s performance makes the film: playing against type—it’s hard to see People’s “sexiest man alive” from the days of An Officer and a Gentleman and Pretty Woman here in the grey-haired, bespectacled, slump-shouldered Norman. Much easier, actually, to see Dustin Hoffman from his Death of a Salesman days—but meeker. In fact, as I watched the film I kept imagining Hoffman in the role, but must admit that even that two-time Oscar winner couldn’t have done better with it than Gere does.
Three big Tennysons for this one. I recommend you see it—it’s a refreshing little oasis in the summer blockbuster desert.
Ridley Scott (2017)
I remember watching James Cameron’s Aliens and being absolutely terrified back in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure it was the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and that remains true to this day. Alien III was something of a letdown for a number of reasons, but mostly because it allowed you to see the xenomorph aliens more clearly, which took the fear of the unknown out of the equation. It isn’t the rivers of gore or the disgusting slimy creatures themselves that arouse the primal fear in the viewer (a fact that so many creators of mere “slasher” movies fail to comprehend), it’s the mind’s horror at what it cannot see, cannot explain and cannot understand that moves an audience most surely toward terror.
Alien: Covenant, the current prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien universe in theaters now, continues that trend to show us too much, so as a pure horror film it’s inferior to Aliens or Scott’s original Alien. However, it does rely on the true Alien formula of colonists deep in space, looking for an Earth-like planet to colonize, landing on a new planet that turns out to be a really bad choice because, well, aliens. The aliens seem to have no other purpose but to kill any living thing that comes in their range, or to use it as a host for their offspring, who then burst out of their human host’s body with grotesque and hideous carnage and then, once hatched, well, they want to kill any living thing in sight. And, as usual, there is an android presence who may or may not be all that helpful to the humans, and there is a kick-ass woman warrior type who gives the aliens all they can handle. All these boxes may be checked for Alien: Covenant, but I think we see too much of the aliens themselves for the film to induce the kind of horror that Aliens did thirty years ago. Add to that the fact that, partly in repeating the motifs of previous Alien films, and partly just from fairly clichéd writing, the film is absolutely predictable from beginning to end; it may be only Alien-universe fanatics that will find this film more than a slight diversion.
Chronologically, the story of Alien: Covenant begins in the year 2104, eleven years after Scott’s first Alien prequel, Prometheus (2012). Prometheus began in 2089, when the archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charles Holloway find evidence of human origins, and takes place mainly in 2093, when Shaw and Holloway lead an interplanetary mission to find the “Engineers,” the creators of the human race—and take with them an android named David who turns out to have an agenda of his own. The events of Covenant lead up to the beginning of Scott’s original film in this franchise, Alien (1979), which takes place in the year 2122, eighteen years after the end of Covenant.
Covenant itself begins with a flashback linking it to Prometheus, dramatizing the creation of the android David (Michael Fassbender) by the wealthy financier Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his conversation with his creator, in which he reaches the conclusion that, since David cannot die and his creator can, then he not Weyland is the superior being. We switch then to the film’s present: on board the Covenant, a spaceship carrying some 2,000 colonists intending to plant a colony on a new earthlike planet, Origae-6. Colonists and crew are all in hibernation while the ship itself is being efficiently run by the computer “Mother” and an android called Walter, who looks one heck of a lot like David. Turns out he’s a new and improved model (in the sense of being less “creative”—read less apt to question his superiors—than David), though he still looks just like Michael Fassbender.
An emergency damages the ship, forcing Walter to wake the crew from their hibernation, but that same emergency claims the life of the captain, Branson (James Franco) who was apparently married to Daniels (Katherine Waterston), this film’s answer to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The entire crew, it seems is made up of couples, that having apparently been a requirement for this mission of colonization. The new captain is Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), who gets off on the wrong foot with his crew by ordering them to secure the ship before letting them grieve Branson. When the crew gets a strange transmission of static-filled garble that sounds like someone singing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” they become curious about the planet from which the transmission originates—an earthlike world that seems to be a new paradise and is just days away, as opposed to their original destination, which is still seven years away and would require them all to return to hibernation. Oram now makes his second mistake, redirecting the ship to the new planet in order to see if it could serve as the new colony for Covenant’s passengers and crew. He does this, by the way, over the “official” objections of his second in command, Daniels. Guess who’s going to be right about this.
The landing party finds a paradisical world, but one curiously without any animal life at all. Two members of the party inadvertently disturb little pods with microscopic spores that fly up their noses or into their ears, and guess what? Give yourself a gold star if you figured out that those two crew members become hosts for incubating alien xenomorphs. The only real surprise here is that two of the women crew members get absolutely hysterical and do a number of stupid things when the first alien is hatched. I mean, seriously, these are members of a crew sent into deep space with the responsibility of an entire human colony placed on their shoulders. If it was likely, or even possible, that they would start freaking the freak out at the first sight of something alien (Who could have possibly anticipated an alien being in space? Especially when you’re in a franchise called “Alien”?), then isn’t it pretty likely they would have been screened out, like, I don’t know, RIGHT AWAY?
There are a significant number of fairly stupid people in this crew. I’m guessing it will not surprise you, nor will it be a legitimate spoiler, if you were to learn that most of them get killed by aliens. What does surprise them anyway, if none of the audience except perhaps those under six (who should not be at this movie, by the way!), is that the crew also finds the wreck of the Prometheus on this planet, along with—get ready for a head slap of surprise—David! Dr. Shaw is unfortunately deceased, though it was her voice that kept repeating the John Denver song on that transmission. So, um, did David deliberately lure this crew here, or was that an accident? It’s suspicious, but never really explained.
From what I’ve told you, I’m pretty sure most of you can write the rest of the movie yourselves, especially if you remember the prequel Prometheus at all. And even the dullest among the audience will see the “surprise” ending of the film coming from about a light year away. Still, three performances in the film may come as pleasant diversions, though they are hardly surprises.
Crudup manages to make his character interesting, even complex, though this is in spite of, rather than because of, the script. He says that he is a man of faith, and that seems to set him apart from the rest of the crew. His indecisiveness comes from a kind of alienation from his fellows, but his faith also gives him a kind of optimism about this new world and the possibilities of the human colony—but in the Alien universe, optimism is misplaced, maybe even a flaw. But of all the characters, Crudup is the one who does more than simply react to the horrors of the external stimuli. Unfortunately, the exploration of what his faith might mean in this kind of world is never really explored in the script.
As Daniels, Waterston is sympathetic, smart, and more of a natural leader than her captain. She certainly contrasts with those hysterical women in the crew, and reminds us of Weaver’s Ripley. But it’s an open question whether she’ll be around for any further episodes in the Alien universe—and Scott has suggested there may be as many as three more of these prequels.
But it’s Fassbender who steals the show, playing the twin androids. Maintaining the deadpan aspect of the cyborg personality, but at the same time differentiating the two androids to actually make them distinguishable and individual characters, is no small feat. It’s an acting tour de force that transcends the material he’s given, and may haunt you well after you’ve forgotten the rest of the film.
I’m rating this one two Jacqueline Susanns, and half a Tennyson for memorable performances, most notably Fassbender’s.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Guy Ritchie (2017)
I guess Guy Ritchie’s new digitized entertainment King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has something to do with the legend of King Arthur, in the same way that Robin Hood has something to do with the flour sold under his name: There are characters in Ritchie’s production that are called by the same names as some characters in the Arthurian legend. Of course, they have no other similarity to those characters, nor does the plot, if that’s really a word one can use when discussing what is essentially a video game that we are meant to sit and watch, bear any actual resemblance to any story that Thomas Malory, Tennyson, or T.H. White ever told.
Ritchie, of course, is not the first to usurp Arthurian character names for a story exempt from any relationship with actual Arthurian tradition. Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, with Clive Owen in the title role, did that sort of thing—painfully turning the courtly Grail knight Sir Bors into a flatulent churl—but at least that film had the excuse that it wasn’t trying to work with Arthurian legend at all, but to present a story set in the political turmoil of the period when the historical precursor of Arthur emerged as a legendary Celtic hero. Ritchie’s film has no such intent. It seems his effort is bent on serving as an origin story for a new fantasy/superhero franchise, based, however loosely, on Arthurian legend. This is clear from the film’s conclusion, which seems to promise sequels to come (in fact there are actually six films planned). We can only pray that such an eventuality never occurs.
Where Ritchie and co-writers Joby Harold and Lionel Wigram seem to have got their notion of Arthur’s legend is anybody’s guess, but they do not seem to have gone beyond Disney’s Sword and the Stone—frankly one of Disney’s worst animated movies but still, as a contribution to Arthurian legend, head and shoulders above Ritchie’s travesty. From somewhere they seem to have become aware that Arthur was the son of King Uther Pendragon, that he grew up in obscurity and he proved himself the true king by pulling a sword from a stone. They also seem to have picked up something about that sword being special and blessed by a magical “Lady of the Lake.” Interestingly, they also seem to have heard somewhere that an evil king named Vortigern ruled Britain (though they call it England) sometime before Arthur, and that he wanted to build a tower. But these little factoids get so jumbled around in ways that have nothing to do with their position or significance within the legend that has come down to us that the mind boggles at what has been lost.
Here Vortigern is Uther’s brother and betrays him, having succumbed to what I can only think of as the dark side of the Force. Seems there is a race of Mages, of whom Merlin was one—we don’t get to see him, but apparently he originally gave the magic sword to Uther (the unfortunately wasted Eric Bana). But an evil Mage named Mordred (uh…isn’t he supposed to be Arthur’s son? Oh wait, we’re just playing with familiar names, I forgot) is trying to destroy Uther, but he defeats Mordred with the magic sword (inexplicably not called Excalibur, as far as I could tell), but then Uther is killed by a magically enhanced videogame version of Vortigern (played with malicious zeal by Jude Law, though even he can’t save this film). Vortigern is being advised by a kind of monster-octopus-thing with three human heads, who encourages him to kill his closest loved ones in exchange for power. So naturally he’s not exactly going to be a benevolent king. As for the sword—well, Uther throws it up in the air, it comes down embedding itself in his neck, and he turns into a stone, from which the sword needs to be pulled. I’m not making this up. And believe me when I say that this makes more sense than much of the rest of this movie. At least you can follow this part.
In the legend that has come down to us over a thousand years of telling and retelling, the young Arthur is spirited away at the death of his father and raised in obscurity by the good knight Sir Ector. But Ritchie knows better than the hundreds of previous writers who have worked in this tradition before, and has the young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) raised in a brothel, in the old Roman city of Londinium, where he ultimately becomes leader of a small group of thugs. I suppose Ritchie finds it amusing to iconoclastically denigrate Arthur’s upbringing, or perhaps he thinks it makes the character more of a “regular guy” and so makes it easier for us to relate to him. Again, Ritchie is not the first to do this sort of thing. In Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight, Richard Gere as Lancelot is depicted as a kind of itinerant ne’er do well and squabbler until he catches on with Arthur’s court and catches the eye of Arthur’s queen. But even that generally execrable film knew enough to keep the basic outline of the Arthurian love story, so that it was recognizable as a contribution, however misguided, to the compendium of Arthurian legend.
Okay, fair warning: curmudgeonly rant coming up. Skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to hear it. I understand that one of the producers of Ritchie’s opus declared, “It’s not your father’s King Arthur,” and said it as if that is a good thing. This is essentially the reason why almost all filmed versions of the Arthurian legend have been dismal failures: the filmmaker is handed a complex story that has been told and retold over a thousand-year period and has remained popular for all those centuries because it is a great story about love, loyalty, nobility, courage, camaraderie, war, and the principles we live by that define our humanity—a story that appeals to the deepest heart of our being. And then the filmmaker says “Who cares about all this old stuff? I’m going to make the story my own!” You know what? If it’s not “your father’s King Arthur,” then that means it not going to be nearly as good as your father’s King Arthur. Ritchie’s film is worse than most because it so completely ignores the tradition, but it’s only the latest in a long string of abominations.
This is not to say that the story should simply be retold precisely as it always has been every time. It could not have survived so long if it weren’t reinterpreted and tweaked every generation or so to speak to current concerns. As the author of my own series of “Merlin mystery” novels, I have engaged in that kind of reframing myself. But if you examine the few successful Arthurian films—like John Boorman’s Excalibur, the film adaptation of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot (itself based on T.H. White’s novel), and yes, Monty Python and the Holy Grail—you see that they are based on conventional versions of the story with events reinterpreted or characters’ motives reexamined or, in the case of Python create a spoof of medieval motifs with which the filmmakers are very familiar. This is a far cry from the hubris of ignorance so apparent in failed versions like the current one.
At this point I need to catch myself and ask, as my dear wife often does, whether I’m not ignoring the crucial question “is the movie good at what it’s good for.” In other words, if I forget about the Arthurian names and pretend that this is simply a kind of superhero action movie set in an imaginary Middle Ages that have nothing to do with Arthurian legend, is the film then worth seeing or not? And yes I can close my eyes and imagine it as a sort of bad episode of Game of Thrones—it has a similar darkness and foreboding tone, a similar worm’s eye view of the Middle Ages that deliberately contrasts Tolkien’s idealized view, and a similarly suspended disbelief in the forces of dark magic—but even then I’m afraid it just doesn’t work. Even a bad episode of Game of Thrones has a rationally constructed plot and characters whose motivations you can understand and follow. Here, aside from certain unexplained head scratchers, like the presence in Celtic Britain (or Saxon England—again, hard to tell when this is supposed to be going on) of Arthur’s Asian Kung Fu instructor (Tom Wu) and a rebel leader who is clearly African (Djimon Hounsou), there are times when it is difficult to know what on earth is going on. Ritchie will get to a point in the film when, say, Arthur and his new-found friends, hiding in the forest and planning rebellion like Robin Hood and his Merry Men (Ritchie apparently likes that story better, since there’s a lot more of that kind of thing than anything Arthurian here), and just when someone is about to make a point, the editing flashes forward to sometime in the future when apparently this plan is taking place, then back into the past when something happened that Arthur might be thinking about at the time. This frenetic editing causes consistent problems with coherence and continuity in the film.
This all culminates in a climax that is virtually inexplicable. What I’m about to say might be considered a spoiler, but I don’t think it really is because I honestly don’t know what I’m talking about. Here a mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) who has no name (maybe Ritchie and his fellow writers had not read enough of their fathers’ King Arthur to have heard of Morgan la Fay), and whose accented English suggests at times that she has no more idea of the meaning of what she is saying than the audience does, has a big snake bite Arthur on the neck, saying that the venom will cause him to see his future. Then he does a whole bunch of violent stuff and apparently we were supposed to understand that he really did all those things and wasn’t just foreseeing them. Or Ritchie just forgot what he was doing. Or the transition that would have made this make sense was edited out. I guess I could forgive this kind of ending if the whole movie wasn’t this way. But it was. So no, wifely voice of reason, I’m afraid this film really isn’t good at what it’s good for, and succeeds neither at what it is trying to be or what an audience might want it to be. I know that Ritchie really is just trying to make something that is visually “cool,” but seriously, at some point a movie has to make sense. Not only is this not your father’s King Arthur, it really shouldn’t be yours either. I’m giving this, yes, one Robert Southey on the Ruud movie meter. You’ll miss it if you have an ounce of sense.
If you want to know something about my own Arthurian tales click the link below:
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.