Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 August 2016

Divergent #3

I really hope that Allegiant was the last of these Divergent films. I really liked the first one, and the second one (Insurgent) was diverting enough, but this third film really jumped the shark.

There is no logic that could explain some of the events of this movie. I will release my complaints that a wall somehow keeps out acid rain in this film. I will also release my complaint that an apparently benevolent council in Providence would allow a dictator they didn't trust to run security for Chicago, even after being told that he was lying to them. But what I can't really release is that our heroine, Tris Prior, couldn't manage to recognize the rhetoric of fascism as soon as she was confronted with it. This fascism, surely, was apparent to everyone watching the movie – Robert Schwentke is not the most subtle of directors – and was certainly apparent to our hero Tobias/Four. But the brilliant Tris is oblivious? Come on. I don't buy it.

Apparently the folks at Lionsgate are trying to figure out a way to fulfill their contractual obligations with the series' author while avoiding making yet another one of these films (there was supposed to be a fourth, Ascendant). And I don't blame them. This thing just gets more and more convoluted meanwhile I seem to care less and less.

18 August 2016

Two Films about Florence Foster Jenkins

Remember when there were back-to-back movies about Yves Saint Laurent and it seemed rather strange that they could end up being so different from one another? Well, this year, there are back-to-back films about Florence Foster Jenkins, a much less famous person, and they are, once again, very very different from one another. Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins (released on August 12) explores a little section of time near the end of the life of an amateur singer and socialite, her relationship with her devoted husband St. Clair, and her desire to sing a concert of operatic music at Carnegie Hall, although she is, in fact, a terrible singer. Frears' film stars Meryl Streep and will dutifully get a great deal of Oscar buzz and probably a couple nominations (Streep and Consolata Boyle for the costumes). The other film is Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite, which fictionalizes the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, sets it in France, and changes the names but essentially explores an identical plotline.

If you've seen the trailer for Florence, then you know what Frears is going for. Florence is a glossy, silly cartoon of a film, that is interested primarily in a kind of emotional reversal, whereby we spend most of the film laughing at Lady Florence and then over time, as we come to think of her as a lost, desperate soul, we begin to pity her in many ways. This approach is a kind of standard movie-making approach to these kinds of characters, it seems to me, and Frears knows how to do something like this well. Big movie studios also have the tendency to treat this period of time in frivolous ways – one might think immediately of last year's execrable Trumbo and its version of the 1950s as a kind of cartoon (Saving Mr. Banks and Hitchcock did this as well). In any case, the point is that Florence is, like the three movies I've just mentioned, more interested in the true story of this really interesting real person and what she did than in actually exploring who the person was, how she might have felt, why she might have made the choices she made, and what the impact of those choices might have been on the people to whom she was closest.

Florence fails as a film because, frankly, it isn't that much interested in Florence herself as a person. Florence looks at Florence as a freak, a curiosity whose story is fascinating because it is so outrageous but who isn't interesting as an artist. In many ways, although Florence is played by the great Meryl Streep, the film pays no attention to the woman's humanity. This is not only because the film's tone is absurd, but also because the plot itself follows Florence's husband, St. Clair Bayfield, and Florence's accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, more closely than it does Florence herself. In fact, we spend more time alone with the two of them than we do with Florence by herself. In other words we see Florence through other people's eyes most of the time, and much of the way we look at her is mocking.

Of course, it is hard not to mock. Florence Foster Jenkins was a terrible singer, and she gave an infamously terrible concert at Carnegie Hall. This is the stuff of legend. And no matter how one slices it, it is pretty hilarious to hear Meryl Streep screech through the Queen of the Night aria or an aria from Lakmé. But this is as deep as the film is content to go. And the film, in fact, has nothing to say about any of this. Just that it happened. Florence Foster Jenkins is a real missed opportunity, and it seemed to me like a retread of Frears' earlier Mrs Henderson Presents. I was bored.

* * *

Marguerite (which was released in the U.S. on March 11) is something else altogether. Xavier Giannoli transposes the WWII-era tale of FFJ to France between the two wars, setting the story in Paris in 1920 and 1921. Marguerite is a wealthy, eccentric socialite with a love of opera and a huge collection of costumes, recordings, scores, and props. She adores opera, performs concerts for a club that meets in her home, and seems to have no idea that her voice is awful.

The film begins when a young singer from the city, a young reporter from a Paris newspaper, and a young poet all arrive on the scene and manage to hear Marguerite perform. We see this first concert through their eyes, and we get to know the three young people, but as the film progresses, it is Marguerite whom we get to know. The other characters fall away. They are only a kind of narrative way into the story of the singer herself.

The story takes off after the reporter, Lucien Beaumont, writes a review of her work – never lying about her abilities but describing her singing in the generous terms that someone who is fond of the singer might use – calling her courageous and raw and natural and compelling. And she is compelling. When Marguerite sings, Giannoli doesn't simply ask us to cringe or laugh; he asks us to watch her, to try to see her, to understand what this is. I should say, too, that Marguerite is played exquisitely by Catherine Frot, who won a César award for her work. And in fact, the acting is excellent all around (my other favorite was Sylvain Dieuaide who plays Lucien).

On her way to the Dada Festival
Marguerite does some other interesting things, too, sort of merging the lives of Florence Foster Jenkins and Raymond Roussel. Once Marguerite becomes popular with the young artists in Paris, befriending them and beginning to hang out with them, she agrees to perform at a Dada salon (a truncated version of the "Dada Festival" from 26 May 1920), singing the Marsellaise while a film is projected onto her dress. Marguerite becomes a hit with these young people. She is a delightful person, and they enjoy spending time with her, and she is also interesting to them as a bad artist. The Dadas, of course, are interested in "bad" art, in pushing the boundaries of art, in asking us to find art in unexpected places, and their affection for Marguerite's skill-less singing and unbridled love of performing is genuine if tinged with class envy. (Incidentally, I should say that the young poet in these sequences is designed to look exactly like Tristan Tzara but is a kind of amalgam of Tzara and two other Dadas, Hugo Ball and André Breton.)

the brilliant Catherine Frot
What Marguerite does best is allow us in to Marguerite's life. Of course she is delusional. Of course her singing is laughable. Fine. But Marguerite, in its generosity toward this character, sees further. There is not only her bad singing and her silly artistic whims. Marguerite is not a comedy. It is, instead, a real exploration of the life of a frustrated artist and the ways she is exploited and derided in various ways. Much of Giannoli's film is outrageous, certainly – it was an insane time to be a member of the avant-garde in Paris – and so there are a lot of laughs to be had, and it is very funny at times, but Marguerite never stops being about beauty and art and the deep desire each of us has to be loved.

Paradoxically, Marguerite, the 2016 film that completely fictionalizes the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, is a deeper, more fascinating exploration of that artist's life than the film entitled Florence Foster Jenkins.

17 August 2016

Captain Fantastic

This was complicated and flawed and a little more sentimental than I wanted it to be. And also I loved it and don't care about its problems. There is so much to recommend about this picture.

05 August 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Hilariously clever. All of the actors are great – and it is truly a great company of players – but for me Alden Ehrenreich really stole the show.

I loved everything about this: the weird homosexuality that was apparently everywhere; the spoofs of Esther Williams and Gene Kelly; the fact that the Communists really were plotting the downfall of Hollywood; the Soviet submarine; Channing Tatum (he's perfect); the Ben-Hur riff (Hail, Caesar: a Tale of the Christ hahahaha); and the fact that Marcuse is a character, lecturing Hollywood types about consumer capitalism. The whole thing is just too clever by half. I loved it.

America America

I respected this Elia Kazan movie a great deal, and I would certainly rather re-watch this than one of his Tennessee Williams pictures again, but I had trouble loving America America. It just never wormed its way into my heart the way I expected it to or wanted it to.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

This is really funny. Some of it was over my head (apparently many of the folks in this movie are on a television show that I don't know, and there were some inside jokes that I didn't get), but enough of this was for general audiences that I laughed a ton.

02 August 2016

Panic in the Streets

This is good. I forget how much I love Richard Widmark. This early Kazan film is a lot like Boomerang! in its interest in law enforcement, male bonding, and film noir techniques.

01 August 2016

Jeff Nichols' New Little Gem

Jeff Nichols is just so good. Midnight Special is his fourth film (his fifth, Loving, will be out during awards season) and it is a tense, taught, always exciting sci-fi movie that is full of surprises and twists. I don't want to say too much about this, because I don't want to spoil anything, but I can say that Midnight Special is about a dad trying to help his son, who has special powers possibly related to Cyclops from the X-men. He wears goggles and can only travel at night because the sun does very weird things to him. But dad (Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and another man (we don't really know much about who this guy is at the beginning, but he's played by Joel Edgerton who gives a superb performance) are trying to get the boy somewhere or are running away from something.

Do not spoil this movie by watching trailers. Just watch it without knowing anything.

Jaeden Liberher in Midnight Special
All becomes clear as the movie progresses, and Nichols alternates the sharing of plot information that we need and terrific suspense sequences beautifully. Nichols has also created a kind of alternate world (as, indeed, he did with Mud and Take Shelter) so that the film, if it is a science-fiction film, really works like a mystery more than anything else. On one hand, we watch the fugitives run. On the other hand, we watch a government official (Adam Driver) try to figure out what is going on, and we learn simultaneously with him. But what in the hell is going on? Who are the good guys? Where did this boy with super-powers come from? This we will begin to understand only slowly, and as in Mud, more and more is revealed as the movie progresses even though our perspective this time is not the partial understanding of a kid but the alleged masterful understanding of law enforcement and the federal government.

From Take Shelter
But exposition? Forget about it. I kept thinking maybe we would go back in time in order to explain something about how we got here. But forget about it. This ain't no big Hollywood movie, and the questions with which we are left are doing their own kind of work, lingering and haunting like the troubling ending of Take Shelter.

Nichols' worlds are not places that we can understand completely. Or, rather, what Nichols' films give us are our own world with the wonderful returned to it. If we are asking what in the hell is going on here? How can this happen? the film is reminding us that if our science knows a great deal, if we think we can understand the human brain (as in Take Shelter), there are still many many mysteries out there; there are still inexplicable wonders to be explored. And not just that: we are looking for mystery. The characters in Midnight Special want, like Fox Mulder, to believe in something else. And Midnight Special (and I think Nichols in general) is interested in reminding us that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen in Starman (1984)
In short, this movie is masterfully directed. Nichols gets great performances out of everyone (the other performers are Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Liberher, Paul Sparks, David Jensen and Bill Camp). David Wingo's haunting minimalist score is all low beats and fast drums. And the movie is an edge-of-your-seat, fast-paced, action/mystery/chase/sci-fi kind-of-thing that I loved. It's also a bit of an homage to late 1970s early 1980s sci-fi cinema, especially Close Encounters and Starman. This is definitely one of the best of 2016 so far. I can't wait for Loving to be released in November.

Ooooo. And pay very close attention to the ending.

25 July 2016

Henry & June

This was erotic, but oh so hetero, almost in defiance of its subject matter, which is all about Anaïs Nin's sexual obsession with Henry Miller's wife, June. I was bored.

18 July 2016

Mister Roberts

I had been avoiding this film for years thinking it was going to be a bunch of Jack Lemmon silliness. (He's just not my thing. I recently, for example, watched Blake Edwards' The Great Race and was completely annoyed by the Lemmon idiocy at its twinned center.) But Mister Roberts was nothing of the kind: Just an old school, sentimental, whimsical Hollywood picture, co-directed by Mervyn LeRoy and John Ford.

My favorite bit of dialogue in the film:

William Powell: Ok, ok. Any minute now you'll start quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Henry Fonda: That's a lousy thing to say!

I found this thoroughly enjoyable.

15 July 2016

Boomerang!: a Cameo, Coded Homosexuality, and Lives That Matter

Elia Kazan's Boomerang! from 1947  is a story of a Connecticut city where recently a bunch of corporations and career politicians have been kicked out, and a reform party has come in to run things. Things are great in the city, we are told (and it is true). But Boomerang! is also a crime film (although not a film noir), and so the film begins with an Episcopal minister being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. The killer gets away, running down the street and disappearing.

After a few days, in which the police can't seem to find any leads on who might have done the deed, the newspapers begin dragging the reform party's city officials through the mud. The reform party is obviously upset, and eventually a candidate for the murderer actually is found (a great Arthur Kennedy). He is, however, innocent, and although the film makes that fairly clear to us from the beginning, it is important politically that the party gets a conviction, so they railroad him. This becomes easier and easier when his alibi crumbles, eight people are willing to say they saw him commit the murder, and ballistics people at the police station testify that the bullet that killed the man came from Arthur Kennedy's gun. Still, we know the man is innocent, and better yet, the State's Attorney (played by Dana Andrews) knows it and is willing to fight for this man's freedom.

In a scene that struck me as very typical of the kind of justice in which Kazan was interested, Dana Andrews has a conversation with one of the city officials.

Dana: It's the boy's life.
City Official: If he's innocent! ... And even if he were is it worth it? We've cleaned out the city, we've thrown out the crooks, the grafters. We've made this town a decent place to live! Is one man's life worth more than the community?
Dana: Yes, Mac. It is.
City Official: Ok. Well. You'll have to fight the whole town.

This kind of ethical stance strikes me as typical of mid-century American films about justice, films that believe in innocence until guilt is proven and in the sacrifice of happiness for a whole group of people so that justice can be done and an innocent man not be sacrificed. I have to say that this film made me a bit nostalgic for this kind of ethical stance from law enforcement, although I am not sure if it ever actually existed. These days to say that one innocent man's life is a precious thing has become somehow radical. In our country the police can kill innocent men and then be protected by the governments they serve. And relatives of mine can say things like, "well, if you don't want to stand with the police, don't expect them to come when you need them," when what they mean actually is precisely what this city official in Boomerang! is arguing: Does this man's life really matter if we can keep (the rest of) the people happy?

Dana Andrews
Of course, this is a film, so although the story is based on a real story in which the crime was never solved, Boomerang! tells us who the killer is by telling us very early on in the movie that the murdered man, Father Lambert, was keeping a lot of secrets, since he encountered all kinds of very troubled people in his work. The way that this sequence is coded is, for me, the film's most interesting aspect. We hear in voiceover that "Since he was a man of god, his labors sometimes led him into the strange and secret places of men's souls. He was just and forgiving but he was also a man. And a stern and uncompromising judge of character." Ok, good enough, but then we get a little scene with Father Lambert and a man of about forty who apparently has a "strange and secret place" in his soul. Because it is the only scene with Father Lambert that functions like this (indeed, he was murdered in the film's first few minutes), it becomes clear that this sequence is very significant and that this person is probably Lambert's killer.

But check out how this scene is coded. We're in Lambert's office, and the first thing we hear is:
Lambert: Stop that! Even if I wanted to forgive you I – I couldn't. It's out of my hands. Jim, you're a sick man.
Jim: But father, I –
Lambert: We've been through it all before. I can't help you. A sanitarium perhaps.
Jim: No, I won't. If – if people –
Lambert: It's not people. It's you. I've told you that before. This time, fortunately, no great harm has been done. The next time... No I can't get you go on any longer. It's got to be a sanitarium. Have you... spoken to your mother about this?
Jim [in total panic]: You wouldn't tell her!
Lambert: I haven't spoken to anyone.

The scene continues for a little longer, but then Jim looks at him very strangely and walks off. It is obvious that he did it. But why? What is he protecting? The mother for me is the dead giveaway. What forty-year-old man is concerned what his mother thinks? But of course there is also the sanitarium, the fact that whatever has been going on makes him "sick," the fact that they've "been through it all before". It is worth noticing, too, that the man himself believes that it is people who need to change, and the man of god who believes the "great harm" lives inside the man himself: "It's not people. It's you." he says with real gravity.

Gay and Main
This coded homosexual-as-killer seems to me rather surprising for 1947, especially in the way it is presented, and Boomerang! does not appear in Vito Russo's documentation of queer representation, The Celluloid Closet, but perhaps it isn't quite that rare. Homosexuality is frequently a way of signifying degeneracy in this time period: here we are in a modern-day Sodom, that sort of thing.  

But in Boomerang! homosexuality signifies the unsolvable, the inexplicable, a dark and secret place in the corner of a town that serves to disrupt the peace in a violent, terrifying way, all the more violent and terrifying because it is unspeakable, totally unassimilable to what we can be permitted to know about humanity.

Before I totally let this go, I just want to note that Boomerang! begins by telling us in voice over that although this happened in Connecticut, this is a story that can happen in any city in America. Very specifically the narrator says that "you may have other names for your streets, but whether you call them Center Street or North Street or Main Street, they're not much different from these." Immediately the camera pans down to a street sign. Father Lambert is killed at the corner of Gay and Main.

Arthur Miller Cameo in Boomerang!
There is one more fun thing to point out about Boomerang!, and that is that playwright Arthur Miller appears in the police lineup at one point. The cops are dragging in dozens of men, and we get a single shot of Miller struggling with police. This is a fun cameo. Two years after Boomerang!, Miller's play Death of a Salesman would appear on Broadway, change the American theatre fundamentally, and win the Pulitzer Prize as well as every Tony Award for which it was nominated - including one for... Arthur Kennedy. Lee J. Cobb, the original Willy Loman, also appears in Boomerang! as the chief of police.

13 July 2016

Rams (Hrútar)

Icelandic poster
Last year, for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Picture award, Ethiopia submitted Yared Zeleke's Lamb, a lovely film that I reviewed here, and Slovakia submitted Ivan Ostrochovský's Goat, which as far as I can tell doesn't have a distributor in the U.S., and Iceland submitted Rams, which just recently made its way to DVD. It was a serious year for livestock.

You might think Rams is about sheep, since it is a film about two farmers who live next door to one another and both raise sheep from a specific breed. But the title refers to the farmers themselves, who are hardheaded brothers who haven't spoken a word to one another in forty years. If they are forced to communicate in some way, they write notes to one another and then have a dog carry them to the recipient. They barely acknowledge one another's existences, and when they do it is decidedly unfriendly.

American poster
You might also imagine that this means that Rams is a whimsical film about two brothers, like, learning to love one another again or banding together to fight off a threat from the outside or something like that. (And who would blame you when looking at this American poster, which asks viewers to "get sheepish" and features Siggi Sigurjóns staring at a taxidermied ram?) This is what I thought, too. Rams is also only about 90 minutes long – comedy length – and these brothers communicate via carrier puppy. But Rams is not a whimsical movie. It's a sensitive film about people living in very difficult circumstances. The feud is a serious one, and the stakes are high.

I really liked this picture. It is funny when it wants to be but also truly devastating at times. Rams is photographed beautifully and unpretentiously by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and its central performance, by the comedic actor and writer Sigurður Sigurjónsson, who (I'm not making this up) is the Icelandic voice of SpongeBob Squarepants, is excellent.

12 July 2016

The Knight of Cups, the Melancholy Drifter

I can totally see why no one liked Knight of Cups, and indeed (especially after To the Wonder), why people are wondering if Terrence Malick has simply run out of things to say. 

Knight of Cups includes Malick's usual lush, gorgeous imagery, and his typical whispered voiceovers, but this film is not The New World or The Tree of Life. The subject matter here is Christian Bale playing a kind of washed up or tired screenwriter who has no subject matter to work on. (If, indeed, Malick himself is the screenwriter who can't think of anything to say, this makes a great deal of sense, but I don't think I'll go there.) But this isn't a film about Hollywood or screenwriting or Los Angeles, really. Sure, it is filled with gorgeous images of Southern California, certainly – from Descanso Gardens to Santa Monica to Hollywood Boulevard to Skid Row – and there are some great sequences in Las Vegas, with beautiful, stunning images. And the parties in Knight of Cups are also really fun, although they lack the energy and wit of the parties in, say, The Great Beauty or even, dare I say it, The Great Gatsby.

That is because Knight of Cups is not a film about Hollywood moviemaking or money or Vegas or even Los Angeles. It's a film about a man and "the women he has loved" or somesuch nonsense. And the Malick voiceovers, therefore, are all inanities about romance and losing a person and things like that. When Natalie Portman says, somewhere in the film's third act, "I know you have love in you", I couldn't help but roll my eyes. Why does it matter whether you think he has love in him or not? What I mean to say is that Knight of Cups' subject matter is just not compelling. I actually even think that this film would have been better without the voiceovers – I am fairly certain I would have liked it better if it had simply been a series of images of him with these various women, his brother, his dad, and the few bits of actual dialogue we got. Instead, the voiceovers dumb everything down, and they are so short and clichéd that they seemed to me like finger painting on the surface of a Rothko.

Still, the images: They're stunning. Nearly every frame bursts with beauty. And it was a pleasure for me to see Los Angeles itself photographed so gorgeously. Most of the actors, too, do lovely work. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Antonio Banderas were particular highlights, to my mind. I still think the film is unmissable. I wouldn't have skipped it, even if I didn't love it.

And I am not going to worry to much about Malick and whether he's lost his mojo. He is the master and this is what he's interested in right now. Eventually he's gonna work through whatever he's working through about love and masculinity, and young women frolicking amid blowing curtains, and then maybe we'll get something else. He doesn't owe me anything.