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Damien Chazelle has directed two gems (Whiplash, La La Land) that could not be more different, and his third picture is every bit as accomplished and even further afield tonally from his prior movies.  On the surface, the film is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Moon landing, but this is not the gripping, white-knuckle paean to American ingenuity that was Apollo 13 or the sweeping, ironic The Right Stuff, both exquisite films in their own right.  Instead, this is the personal story of Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who, after having lost a young daughter to a malignant tumor, forge ahead in the space program, where calamity is a daily feature.  It’s a beautiful, personal picture, seamlessly melding the grit and determination of one family with an overarching, monumental and patriotic (more on that below) achievement.  It is one of the more moving yet subtle films I’ve ever seen.

Two addenda.  First, the omission of Gosling and Foy in the acting categories for the Oscars is, in my view, the filmic version of the Saints-Rams no-call.  Gosling’s driven and emotionally-stunted introvert is meticulous and engrossing, a master class in precision (think Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea).  Foy, as the wife holding it all together, is simply heartbreaking.

Second, this film caught some flack for failing to depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon.  When asked (and never ask an actor anything), Gosling took as stab at an answer, observing that the landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.”

And . . . .kaboom!  The culture dummies – this time on the right – went after the picture, as some sort of anti-American agitprop.  Little Marco Rubio was particularly incensed:  “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

The criticism is moronic.  Films are not required to meet a quota of patriotic content.  Worse, though, the charge is false.  The singular American achievement of the landing is represented by footage of JFK literally crowing over, well, the race to that achievement.  Moreover, there is footage of a French woman who observes, “I always trust an American. I knew they wouldn’t fail.”

As if that idiocy wasn’t enough, the left weighed in to label the film a right wing fetish object with a “misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness” or, gasp!, potentially dangerous for reinforcing the “pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment.”

What a bunch of fucking losers.

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Just as Dunkirk was an ode to English pluck and a representation of the viscerally brutal and arbitrary nature of war, The King’s Choice serves the dual purpose of a national homage to Norway’s resistance in the face of a Nazi invasion and the strain placed on the powerful and the ordinary in such circumstances.  Norway’s King Haakon VII, is a sweet, doting grandfather who is constitutionally deferential to a democratic body that is crumbling under the weight of events.  He must bolster the government while staving off the more muscular, ambitious desires of his son, which carry with them an implicit criticism of his father as weak.  Indeed, as the king suffers from a bad back, we often see him in a fetal position on the floor or a bed.  Meanwhile, the German attaché, who is juxtaposed favorably with the uncompromising Wermacht, desperately pleads with the king to accede to Hitler’s demand for submission, knowing that failure to do so totally will mean the deaths of many innocents.   The tension is palpable, the pace gripping, and the quiet moments – especially the scenes showing the effect on the families – poignant.

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It took a while, but the bloom is now completely off the Kennedy rose. When I was watching the second season of The Netflix series The Crown, an episode was devoted to a visit from JFK and Jackie to a young queen Elizabeth. In it, the Kennedys were portrayed as backbiting amphetamine addicts. Quite a distance from Camelot and Copland and the rest.

With Chappaquiddick, we receive a sober and accurate docudrama that puts us in all the rooms as Teddy Kennedy attempts to extricate himself from scandal. It is 1969, the sting of Bobby’s assassination is still fresh, and Teddy has taken the weekend off to compete in the Edgartown regatta and party with a gaggle of RFK’s former staffers. After a fair amount of drinking, and perhaps sex (the film is agnostic on this point), Teddy drives a young staffer off of a bridge, resulting in her death. His first words to his friends/advisers are, “I am not going to be president.“ They are a fitting encapsulation of Ted Kennedy‘s curse. Throughout the film, he is shown as an uneasy and insecure carrier of the Kennedy torch, and as he wavers in leading the family, he hesitates in determining what kind of man he wants to be.

On the one hand, he strives to be a true profile in courage by heeding the advice of his close cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), who persistently urges Teddy to do the right thing. Despite Gargan’s advice, Kennedy allows himself to be guided by all of the other forces that control his life. He is surrounded by a plethora of advisors who effectuate all of the fixes on his behalf, including updating his drivers license and getting poor Mary Joe Kopecnhe’s body off the island (the latter a necessity because an autopsy might reveal she may have had sex or worse, may have suffocated to death rather than drowned, suggesting an even more horrific death and, given Kennedy’s delay in reporting the accident, an unnecessary one).

The lure of the expedient and self preserving is all the more powerful given the unwavering fealty many characters exhibit to the Kennedy clan. There is no shortage of acolytes. He is the next man up and thus, the chosen one, and they will do anything on his behalf.

Finally, there is Teddy’s father (Bruce Dern), crippled by a stroke, yet still capable of blurting or writing words most hurtful. His one word to Teddy the night of the accident, when his desperate son calls for advice and comfort, is a garbled “Alibi.”

Look, as is historically appropriate, despite his facilitators, Teddy is the villain in this piece. But as played by Jason Clarke, he is not a demon. Clarke is uncanny in his resemblance, but it is not an impression, and he exudes the charm, the cleverness, the soft self regard (at one point, Gargan rips the neck brace Teddy has chosen to wear for the Kopechne funeral, screaming “ you are not the victim!” and Teddy storms off to give his Daddy a look), and most acutely, the desire for a destiny wholly different than one he has been given. It is a delicate, nuanced performance.

The film also gives a long overdue rendition of Kopechne. The winner of perhaps the worst first line of any journalistic story goes to Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. In 2004, in a sentence that managed to be sycophantic, cruel and ghoulish, he wrote, “If she had lived, Mary Jo Kopechne would be 62 years old. Through his tireless work as a legislator, Edward Kennedy would have brought comfort to her in her old age.”

I didn’t make that up.

As played by Kate Mara, Kopechne is not a mere device. Her equivocation in joining Teddy’s staff is buttressed by a soon-to-be verified discomfort with his weakness.

This is a solid, gripping film. My only two nits are some discordant comic bits as Teddy’s brain trust advises him through the nightmare and the fact I saw it in the theater. There is no need to see it there. It is picturesque but the big screen is a luxury lessened by—

a) the exorbitant cost (3 tickets, M&Ms, Icee = $62)

b) the fuckhead kid who kept playing with his electric chair

c) the smelly dude to the right

d) the chatterboxes behind us

 

 

 

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Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win.  We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer).  The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption.  This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December.  Here are the other nine:

A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)

About a Boy

Die Hard

It’s a Wonderful Life

Arthur Christmas

A Christmas Story

Elf

Bad Santa

The Nightmare Before Christmas

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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

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This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz.  An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry.  But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero.  As usual, he’s marvelous.  One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.