Who deserves to bring home a gold statue?
By Jim Delmont
This World War I film is like a dream, a melancholy dream most of the way, but as fascinating and inescapable as dreams can be. It is a tale of two British army corporals sent on a mission to stop a minor offensive against the mighty German lines, which have been fixed in muddy trenches for three years. The officer in charge of the planned offensive doesn’t realize that his 1600 men are heading into a German-planned ambush. The corporals convey a written order from a general to cancel the offensive and one of the men, Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman – Lannister from “Game of Thrones”) was chosen because his brother is an officer with the battalion in danger. He chooses as his mate in the task, Corporal Schofield (George Mackay – Bodevan in “Captain Fantastic”). They are both ordinary blokes with accents to match, ordinary soldiers doing their duty. This is definitely not a flag-waving patriotic movie, nor is it in any political way an anti-war movie. It is simply a battlefield story.
The action takes place over two days in April, 1917 (ironically, the month the U.S. entered the war on the side of Britain and France). The battle landscape is utterly fantastic in its morbid and grotesque details. Dead men and animals are smeared into the mud, half-buried, over miles of territory. Everywhere there are ruins: buildings, upended tanks, twisted bridges, burned and flattened villages. Through this nightmare landscape the corporals risk their lives every step of the way, but – it being April – here and there they stumble upon the blossoms of cherry trees, a little touch of natural beauty. The unexpected happens: a German biplane is shot down by British aviators and crashes near them; a young French woman is found, without food or milk for a baby that may not be hers; each man suffers wounds.
Director Sam Mendes, who apparently based the story on tales his grandfather had relayed to him about the war, skips the usual chatty background information on the two men. The story just unrolls with the men as they are in those moments, and the cinematography is seemingly one long take (though it isn’t – there’s a trick to it). In a sense, their mission is also one long take.
“1917” avoids stirring emotion until the finale, when it fits. There are echoes of both “Saving Private Ryan” and “Paths of Glory” in this movie, but it has its own personality. Both Chapman and MacKay essay their roles with a steady hand. The corporals are good at self-preservation, but not given to foolish heroics.
World War I killed 10 million men in four years and was probably the worst event in European history since the Black Death plague of the 14th Century – and it led to both the Communist and Nazi revolutions, the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. It ended a century of relative peace, prosperity, and scientific progress. It was just awful. “1917” has 90% approval from both critics and public on Rotten Tomatoes, was nominated for ten Oscars, and dominated the U.S. box office on its opening weekend. Well worth a visit.
THE TWO POPES
Also with roughly 90% approval from critics and public on Rotten Tomatoes, and nominated for three Oscars, is the charmer, “The Two Popes,” a mostly fictional tale about a reconciliation between conservative German Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger) and populist-liberal Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio). The film is based on a play by Anthony McCarten, who did the script - which accounts for the engaging dialogue and intimacy in the basic story line. In 2012, as the story goes, the future Francis wanted to resign as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and Pope Benedict opposed the move. When they met in Rome to discuss the situation, an odd friendship bloomed, as they disagreed, in a pleasant way, about many aspects of the Roman Church’s role in the modern world. Strongly hinted is the notion that Benedict, long something of a villain to progressive forces in the Church, was himself persuaded that Bergoglio had some good ideas whose time may have come. It would be difficult to find a better actor for Francis than Jonathan Pryce, who physically resembles him to a remarkable degree. Pryce, a brilliant performer, has won a Golden Globe for the role and is up for an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins is the crusty Benedict, and he’s up for an Oscar, too - in the supporting category. The film is irresistibly likeable, as the two men graciously parry and thrust verbally, each learning from the other. The Vatican sets (including a full scale replica of the Sistine Chapel, courtesy of Rome’s Cinecitta Studios), are impressive and create a grand mood which is carried into the scenes of Cardinals voting for a new Pope. The pomp and splendor of the Vatican is always fascinating, as are the ancient practices and rituals of the Church, including elections of popes.
The back story in “The Two Popes” is shown in flashbacks as Bergoglio blames himself for not being more of an activist, as a young priest, against the cruel reign of the military in Argentina in the 1980s, when thousands of students and others (“the disappeared ones”) were murdered by the regime, which also blundered into a war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, which brought about the regime’s downfall. The Benedict/Francis relationship may never have happened as depicted, and it seems unlikely Benedict would have voted for Francis after he resigned as Pope, but who knows? Two of the finest veteran actors in Britain make this story, something of a metaphor, work. Pope Francis has definitely been more liberal and the film has a few moments of what can only be called propaganda, but overall it is a clever story, superbly acted, and brightly presented in Cesar Charlone’s cinematography. It opens with Bergoglio preaching to the poor in a slum neighborhood of Buenos Aries and ends with him elected Pope. In between, lots of good moments.
Renee Zellweger is up for a ton of best actress awards and has already won a Golden Globe for her depiction of a failing Judy Garland in “Judy.” The year is 1969 and Garland’s career is in a slump as she desperately tries to keep custody of her children from former husband, Sid Luft, who has launched a legal offensive to remove the children – Lorna and Joey, both teens – from the vagabond performing life of their mother. Zellweger has been made up to look like the iconic Judy with her later short haircut and facial tics, and her halting manner of speaking - often with tones of irony or exasperation. She manages this well, but what really works is her uncanny ability to convey attitude, the inner Judy, a mix of anguish and pride, of deep personal doubt, but still capable – with the help of liquor and pills – of confident performance. A towering talent, who had made famous comebacks before, Judy is nevertheless conveying a cry for help. This odd mix, the poignancy of it, made her a favorite with gay men, who flocked to her concerts, offering their hands in white gloves, thrust en masse to the stage. This connection is downsized in the film to a friendship with two gay fans, with whom Judy has late night scrambled eggs in their flat, an experience of a lifetime for them.
Judy’s dependence on pills is shown in flashbacks to have begun at MGM when she was a teen performer. Though she wasn’t overweight, she was nearly starved by the studio and put on diet pills that initiated lifelong insomnia, offset by sleeping pills, which also became an addiction. As an adult, Judy added liquor to the mix. Louis B. Mayer is shown in “Judy” as a towering, well-dressed business man with an unctuous voice that carried a hint of menace. A nasty chaperone oversaw Judy’s weight regimen, which once actually included a dinner consisting of soup and a single lettuce leaf. Almost everyone in the English-speaking world (and certainly beyond) has seen Judy singing “Over the Rainbow” in the 1939 classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” Judy then was 16 but looked younger. The song, her voice, the earnest feeling she brought to it, was unforgettable. She became one of the most famous performers on earth, but the weight of fame was heavy, demanding, disrupting at times. Her weakness for new beginnings (five husbands), financial ineptitude (often by her managers and husbands), drinking and pills, wrought havoc. In 1969, her agent booked her into a major London nightclub venue in hope she could recover her equilibrium and financial stability. This is that story.
At 49 when filming, Renee Zellweger was almost the same age as the Judy Garland she portrays. This film is based on Peter Quilter’s aptly named play, “End of the Rainbow,” and has the succinct quality of a play, rather than the scattered anecdotal course of a bio. Yet the flashbacks (some with a young Mickey Rooney) fill out a life story, with Darci Shaw playing the young Judy. In London, a shaky Judy, drinking too much, on the phone a lot with Luft, who is keeping the children temporarily so they can attend school normally, knows she needs touring to make the money she needs for custody, but that the touring itself is the main danger in losing custody. Overwrought, she seeks consolation from a fledgling young producer, Mickey Deans, who will become her fifth husband. On stage, she triumphs, but also flops when drunk. The movie moves to a climax over her inability to perform regularly. The final scene is a knockout – and it is pathos rather than bathos because Judy’s situation was that of genuine personal tragedy. Zellweger mixes characterization with impersonation, and brings it off. She creates a great artist who is also an unhappy human being, and she does all her own singing, capturing the tone and range of Garland at that stage in her life. Renee deserves that Oscar.
Director Noah Baumbach has been the king of indies, usually filmed in New York, sometimes with Greta Gerwig, always with a sense of personal intimacy in exploring human relations - with believable dialogue - with some irony, some hope, some disappointment. “Marriage Story” is his masterpiece, loved by critics and audiences alike, earning a tableful of awards and award nominations. In it, Scarlett Johansson plays Nicole, an actress who is divorcing her theater director husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), as she relocates to Los Angeles where she has been offered a TV series. He prefers to stay in New York with the theater company he has laboriously built over the years. The main problem is custody of their eight-year-old son, Henry (played by nine-year-old Azhy Robertson). The movie is an essay on divorce, especially with children. It is heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time, like a car wreck. Both parties earn sympathy from the viewer, but with a tilt toward Charlie in the first hour.
Scarlett Johansson was so young when she made a film breakthrough in “The Horse Whisperer,” age 14, that it is hard to believe she is 35. She is still young-looking for her age, but as an actor she has matured, deepened. Adam Driver, a year older, was discovered by the public in the cable series, “Girls,” in 2012, but he has been involved with acting from high school and did a stint at Juillard after a patriotic enlistment in the Marines following 9/11. He is a brilliant actor, which was obvious from his earliest appearances in “Girls.” Here he is working at an Oscar-deserving level and has been nominated, along with Scarlett and Laura Dern, who plays Nicole’s L.A divorce lawyer. The Screen Actors Guild has nominated all three, too.
“Marriage Story” is intimate, mostly conversation, with a restrained musical score by Randy Newman. It draws the viewer in close, almost embarrassingly so. Whose side are we on? In the end, both. At first, Nicole and Charlie think they can work things out themselves, then Nicole allows herself to be represented by a cynical, confident divorce lawyer played by Laura Dern. Everything changes. Charlie is suddenly a deer in the legal headlights. He turns to a friend, an easy-going older lawyer beautifully played by Alan Alda, who brings understatement to every line. When he seems too soft to take on Dern’s character, he hires his own shark, nicely essayed by Ray Liotta. Things get nasty.
Then the couple meet alone again to see if they could, as originally intended, handle things in a simpler fashion, but a shouting match ensues, in which Charlie breaks down (Driver’s best scene – genuinely moving, in which he has a line, “You were happy, you just decided you were not now.”). In between, there are many domestic scenes with Charlie spending time with Henry and meeting Nicole by necessity, in which old ways sometimes assert themselves in a ritual as simple as she cutting his hair, as she always had. Perhaps show biz people should not marry one another, which seems to be true! Nicole has a career beckoning in TV in L.A., Charlie is quintessential New York City, as much so as Woody Allen. The question looms: even if the marriage is doomed, can the relationship be saved?
“Marriage Story” is not without humor: the court-ordered “evaluator” who visits Charlie when Henry is with him is a weird, stiff eccentric. The script has humor, usually ironic, but it simmers with love, too. Baumbach has hit it out of the park this time, as has his main cast. Kudos all around.
Scorsese's 'Irishman' reunites director, actors from gangster classics
By Jim Delmont
Much celebrated this awards season is Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” a movie that unites the director with actors he used as gangsters in films as far back as 1973 (“Mean Streets”). What a reunion it is! Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel were both in Scorsese’s “Mean Streets, De Niro and Joe Pesci were in “Goodfellas” (1990) and reunited in Scorsese’s “Casino” (1995). All three are in “The Irishman,” along with other Italian-American actors like Bobby Cannavali. Al Pacino is also in it. A star of all of Francis Coppola’s “Godfather” movies, he had worked with De Niro four times, but never for Scorsese - though both always wanted it.
This three and a half hour blockbuster was released to theaters a few weeks before becoming available on Netflix, which made its production possible. The genre of “The Irishman” is not that of the crime movie, nor even the gangster film, but perhaps most accurately, the Godfather genre. “The Godfather” (1972) was released a year before “Mean Streets,” and shot a year before that, but as a big budget production must have been in preparation for a much longer time. “Mean Streets,” a low budget film, was shot on the streets, much of it with a hand-held camera. It would make sense to assume that “The Godfather” was never far from Scorsese’s mind as he crafted “Means Streets” and, later,” “Goodfellas.” In a sense, this is his “Godfather,” complete with Pacino.
Like the “Godfather” films, there is a glaze of romanticism about these cruel characters and their peculiar tribal ways, as well as a keen sense of zones of male intimacy and simple codes of deference and status. Dialogue between two gangsters who know each other well, might run to something like this: “Something has to be done. I mean, it just isn’t right.” “No, it isn’t right.” “I mean, you just don’t do that.” “No, you wouldn’t do that.” “Something has to be done.” All lines are delivered low key, almost as though painful to utter, and the feel is intimacy, as in longtime relationships with mutual understanding. Other people are not in that zone. It’s very much a male movie, too, as the mafia must be, with women strictly as accessories.
Frankly, no one in the business is better at this style of acting than De Niro, who is utterly natural, simply brilliant, handling his lines throughout - and he is a subservient character throughout. The more superior, yet quieter character is Joe Pesci, retired from acting for decades but back for this encore. The tough little actor who was so menacing in his late forties in “Goodfellas,” is here a gentle and vulnerable old man, though still a crime boss. The scenes between Pesci and De Niro are the best in the film.
De Niro, as Frank Sheeran, a mob hitman and minor Teamsters official, narrates the entire story from his old age in a home for the elderly. CGI effects are used to make him look younger (generally they work) and make-up makes him look older (he, Pesci, Scorsese, Keitel and Pacino are all in their seventies). The narrative style provides a sentimentality as the decades slide by, underscored by hit songs of each decade and other nostalgic details. A problem is that De Niro is totally unbelievable as an Irishman, so hopelessly urban Italian are his gestures, voice, looks. Also, he’s about 5’9” and the real Sheeran was a huge Irishman about 6’4.” That he can speak Italian is written off as a result of his WWII combat experience in Italy. Also, the story seems to be mostly fiction, based on ramblings by the real Sheeran in his old age, which were put in a book. So fierce has been the criticism of the book and film that even De Niro had to admit the story is “ours” rather than Sheeran’s. The real Sheeran may never had killed anyone, definitely not Joe Gallo as in the movie, and it is unlikely he had anything to do with the death of Jimmy Hoffa, a main character in the movie. Regarding Hoffa, again an actor just doesn’t fit the role – Pacino, good as he is, simply is not Hoffa, despite the hair-do – he’s too Italian also. Hoffa was a thick-bodied thug, with an Irish face, and he had an edge of intimidation and threat about him.
Pesci, as the real mob boss, Russell Bufalino, takes a liking to the young Sheeran and brings him slowly into the mob and the Teamsters. Eventually, Sheeran gets a call from Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters racketeer who was hounded by the Kennedy brothers, with a simple question, “I heard you paint houses” (euphemism for splattering blood in executions). After that, Sheeran is Hoffa’s man.
Scorsese takes amiable shots at famous people: the mob helped elect JFK, then he turned on them; Sheeran met the oddball David Ferrie (who had false red hair and false eyebrows made of cardboard) during prep for the Bay of Pigs invasion (Ferrie was a suspect in New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s investigative circus into JFK’s assassination); Nixon pardoned Hoffa as a political ploy.
A metaphor carried through the film is the morally suspect one that Sheeran was the good soldier in the Italian campaign, doing killing for his country, and he just carried on that work for Bufalino and Hoffa later. A fascinating scene near the end – and one of the movie’s best – is one between the elderly Sheeran and a young priest taking his lifetime confession and asking if he “feels” remorse. Nope, says Sheeran.
As the movie does have something of a documentary feel, truly alarming are the number of genuine murders by the mobs in the 1970s and ‘80s, with the screen providing subtitled dates and brief descriptions of how each was wacked in real life.
Besides the Oscar level work of De Niro and Pesci, strong support comes from Stephen Graham, an Englishman who has perfected the Italian-American gangster mode; he played Al Capone in “Boardwalk” and here plays “Tony Pro” Provenzano, an enemy of Hoffa - and from Anna Paquin, as a Sheeran daughter who can’t accept his lifework.
What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa in 1975, other than his disappearance and presumed murder, remains a mystery. In all likelihood, Frank Sheeran had nothing to do with it. Also, because this movie is so long, and available on Netflix/TV, many people may watch it in segments, which would not please Martin Scorsese, who may win his second Oscar for it.
Epic Combat, Period.
Sentimental, patriotic film stirs feelings, brings tears
By Jim Delmont
“Midway” is reminiscent of the 2001 Pacific War epic, “Pearl Harbor,” but without the two-best-friends-in-love-with-the-same-girl theme (a story line so old it goes back to the silent film era). “Midway” is just a combat movie, period. The fact that it has a mostly no-name cast works to its advantage, providing an almost documentary edge (ironically, famed film director John Ford is shown in one segment filming on Midway Island for his first combat documentary for the U.S. Navy, being strafed by Japanese fighter planes in the process). It is also one of those movies more popular with the public voting on Rotten Tomatoes (92% approval) than with the critics (42% approval). This is the reverse of the recent space thriller, “Ad Astra,” in which the critics warmed to the film at an 84% clip, while the public shied away at 40%. This is probably due to the fact that “Ad Astra” is largely cerebral, contemplative, with most of the dialogue a monologue by one astronaut and with not a lot of action. “Midway” is nothing but action: opening with the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941, and moving along to the audacious Jimmy Doolittle carrier-based bombing attack on Tokyo itself in April, 1942 (most of the pilots had to ditch, some captured, some killed, some saved by friendly Chinese), then to the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, a naval stand-off that saved Australia and New Zealand from invasion and was the first check on Japanese expansion, then on to the huge American naval victory in the Midway region in June – a dramatic turning point in the war.
Battleships, dominant in World War I and long before that, were by 1940 helplessly vulnerable to air attacks from carriers, as Pearl Harbor made clear. Aircraft carriers were now the faster and more effective warships of the Second World War. Midway was a battle between carriers, four on the Japanese side and three on the American - one of them, the Yorktown, had to be hastily repaired at the Pearl Harbor naval shipyard after major damage in the Coral Sea action.
Like some of the recent space adventure movies (“First Man” comes to mind), ”Midway” puts an emphasis on the size, noise and alarming vibrations of war machines. The aircraft carriers are just plain scary – monstrous craft heaving on the ocean - and the various aircraft, mostly dive-bombers, are dangerous, tricky, hard to land, and terrifying when in combat nose dives. A word about CGI – in this movie it is not only necessary, but is brilliantly done. In no way could conventional filming convey the absolute hell of tracer bullets and anti-aircraft explosions, literally filling the screen with an overpowering array of death-dealing color and light. How pilots could fly directly into such a canvas of destruction is a tribute to their courage, discipline and patriotism. Initial dive bomber raids on the Japanese were virtually suicidal for Americans, who peeled off in formation only to be shot to pieces.
Crucial to the American victory was the breaking of the Japanese naval codes by American intelligence services, who had been shamed by their failure to anticipate the Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor. Stung by this embarrassment, they went all out to crack codes and anticipate Japanese carrier movements (Patrick Wilson, one of the few well known U.S. actors in the film, plays Edwin Layton, a chief intelligence operative vital to this success). The leading man in the film, playing a naval fighter pilot, is Ed Skrein, a Londoner employing a flawless American accent. He has that gum-chewing, irritating independence of many Americans in war films, but his character, Dick Best, was a real, not a fictional person. The major characters in the movie were all real people, ID’d at the end, as to their various fates. Better known actors play small roles, some merely cameo: Woody Harrelson, on screen a bit longer than the others, as Admiral Chester Nimitz, overall commander; Dennis Quaid as Admiral “Bull” Halsey; and Aaron Eckhart as Commander Jimmy Doolittle. Japanese actor Etsushi Toyokawa plays the famous Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who is quoted after Pearl Harbor with the famous line; “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The line has appeared in many movies, and is reputed to have been written in his diaries, though scholars can’t locate it (he was ambushed by U.S. fighter planes while on a mission later in the war). Nevertheless, Yamamato often said the war could not be won.
The Japanese are treated with dignity throughout, in many scenes in which they plan action - often disagreeing about tactics - and in all combat scenes. At the end, the film is dedicated to the fighting men of both nations, an unusual note of respect. The private lives of the sailors and pilots is explored minimally, though Best’s wife and daughter figure in a few scenes.
Carriers were expensive, decisive in the naval war, and difficult to replace, as were the trained pilots assigned to them. At Midway, caught by surprise while most of their planes were on deck being refitted with new weapons, the Japanese suffered a breath-taking holocaust as all four of their carriers – one a flagship for the Commander – were sunk, along with a heavy cruiser that went down with 700 men. In all, the Japanese suffered over 3,000 killed, ten times the American toll, and a payback in lives equal to American losses at Pearl Harbor. Many skilled pilots could never be replaced. The American carrier, the Yorktown, was so wounded, it eventually had to be scuttled.
“Midway” is patriotic and sentimental, but the sentiment, which surely will bring tears to the eyes of many viewers, is due to the visceral knowledge that at the deepest level, human life is at stake and brave men are willing to make that sacrifice, total and final. This is a rare feeling that most civilians never experience, except vicariously, as in viewing a movie.
It’s No Space Opera
Pitt is mesmerizing in contemplative, philosophical movie
By Jim Delmont
“Ad Astra” (“to the stars”) is a tour de force for Brad Pitt who completely dominates this fine, intelligent sci fi film in a performance that is a master class in underplaying a role. Pitt is stoic and provides a stoic narration of events that are often incredible in themselves. In fact, if the plot of “Ad Astra” were typed up in an abbreviated summary of its main events, it would seem melodramatic, not believable, over-the-top. But Pitt, his director, James Gray (who also wrote the minimalist script with Ethan Gross), and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Interstellar”) have created an audio-visual world so intense, so controlled, so inexorable, that whatever happens has an accepted normality.
Set in the near future at a time when humans are making routine trips to the Moon and Mars, there is a dangerous disturbance in the solar system, coming in destructive waves from the vicinity of Neptune, where Pitt’s character, Roy McBride, had lost his famous father, Clifford, also an astronaut, when he went off decades earlier on a dangerous mission, the Lime Project, to help locate other forms of intelligence in the universe. It is thought that the anti-matter power source of Clifford McBride’s ship has gone awry, and may be causing the disturbances. There has been no communication from him for many years, but some Space Command authorities think he may still be alive, but stranded. His son, Roy, is a lonely man, estranged from his wife, without a father, a loner by nature, and a man of intense personal military discipline and control.
He has to maintain this discipline through some violent adventures (pirates on the dark side of the moon?), violent conflict on his own spaceship, fang-displaying wild baboons found on an abandoned Norwegian scientific space vessel, and the awesome rendezvous with the planet Neptune and its natural dangers, not to mention a possible meeting with a father who may be mad.
“Ad Astra” is reminiscent of such recent space epics as “Solaris,” “Gravity,” and “First Man.” It shares with them a deliberate technical reality, as well as the proposition that man is tiny, dwarfed by space, and hopelessly dependent on his artificial environments in vessels that are themselves vulnerable and small. Of course, all such films derive in part from their great-grandfather, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which, in 1969, showed us the smoothest technology carrying highly capable and intensely trained men to strange, violent events in the cosmos that they couldn’t imagine ahead of time.
The musings of Roy make up most of the script. He can endure the claustrophobia, the fact there is no one to talk to but the ship, and he can suppress anxieties and emotional displays when nearing his father. In many ways, “Ad Astra” is an exercise in the many legends of the hero, as described by Joseph Campbell and others. He must depart, leaving home on a perhaps impossible quest, endure trials and dangers, search for a father, survive an ultimate life-changing and life-threatening challenge, and return home, having achieved self-realization (in this case, also reconciliation with his wife, Eve).
Pitt is brilliant, an aged Donald Sutherland (now 84), is likeable as a kindly mentor, Tommy Lee Jones – always up for eccentricity – is the interestingly semi-mad father, and among a large and capable supporting cast is Liv Tyler, at 42 still lovely, but with a patina of early middle age, as Eve, the abandoned mate. Brad Pitt, now in his fifties, remains movie star handsome, but now he has a seriousness, a depth, that is perfect for this role. His narration and his performance are mesmerizing, despite the long stretches of space journey lacking in action. This is a contemplative, philosophical movie, not a space opera.
Classic Spapstick Comedy Gets Special Screening
'Caddyshack' – with special guest – to be shown at Joslyn's Witherspoon
By Jim Delmont
Impresario Bruce Crawford has gone for raucous comedy with his 45th Omaha Film event presentation: the irreverent 1980 classic, “Caddyshack,” a deliberately broad slapstick comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Cindy Morgan, joined by Saturday Night Live favorites Chevy Chase and Bill Murray (Morgan will be a guest speaker at the showing Friday, Nov. 8 at the Witherspoon theater in the Joslyn Museum). Taking place entirely in and around Bushwood Country Club and its golf course, and featuring a goofy mechanical gopher, “Caddyshack” is a slobs vs, snobs tale, with Ted Knight doing a variation on his Ted Baxter character from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” playing a snobbish country club type who openly resents the showy vulgarity of Dangerfield as a wealthy eccentric intruder (basically Rodney Dangerfield) who shows up in a bizarre Rolls Royce, sporting red pants, a white belt, a green shirt, and a rainbow-striped sweater. He is given to wearing plaid sportcoats and insulting the ladies. The script is full of Dangerfield wisecracks, as though he was doing stand-up comedy and he is the star of the show.
Filmed in 1979, “Caddyshack” pushed the envelope a bit on sex and bathroom humor, earning an R rating – but that was deliberate. This movie was meant to shake things up and create hilarity at the same time – so there is a touch of female above-the-waist nudity, sight gags with a phallic intent, flippant references to marijuana, and other jabs in the ribs of propriety. Without doubt, the funniest scene involves a Baby Ruth candy bar that is so outrageously funny that I couldn’t stop laughing for at least five minutes at a recent screening.
“’Caddyshack’ is one of the most popular comedies ever made,” said Crawford recently. “I’ve been wanting to show it for quite some time and Cindy Morgan became available as a guest, so we booked it. It is also a nostalgia movie, with a wide following. The wonderful thing about it is that we are showing it in a real theater with a large audience, the way Americans used to see comedies. There is a big difference between seeing a comedy movie with a thousand other people and watching it alone at home. People don’t have that big theater experience anymore, with the tiny box theaters at the multiplexes. Seeing it at the Joslyn will be a communal experience, like those of the old downtown movie palaces.”
“Caddyshack” was a hit from the start: made for $6 million, it recouped half that in its first weekend. Saturday Night Live had been on the air only five years then and Chevy Chase had been with it from opening night, with Murray arriving in 1977. In “Caddyshack,” Murray’s character, Carl, is obsessed with killing a gopher that has dug holes on the golf course. His attempts are a running gag, involving extreme methods that backfire. His character originally was supposed to be a silent Harpo Marx type, but director Harold Ramis allowed him to speak. Between being silent and speaking normally, Murray chose a weird, lip-twisting mush-mouth approach, which was probably the worst of the three choices. Chase is cool and engaging, Cindy Morgan is the sex bomb (but intelligent) Lacey Underall, and old-timer Henry Wilcoxon, who started in early sound films and worked for decades in Cecil De Mille biblical epics, shows up in a cameo role in which he is comically hit by lightning in a brief satire from his appearance in De Mille’s 1956 “Ten Commandments,” complete with a musical burlesque of Elmer Bernstein’s score for that movie.
Nostalgia buffs will get a kick out of the 70s haberdashery: bell bottoms, huge heaps of hair on young men, loud clothing colors. With its sight gags, unabashed slapstick, tongue in cheek irreverence, “Caddyshack is somewhat like “Airplane,” Animal House,” and other raucous comedy favorites.
“Caddyshack’ will be shown once at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 8 at the Joslyn, 2200 Dodge Street. Cindy Morgan (“Falcon Crest,” “Tron”) will meet and greet moviegoers, sign autographs and speak before the showing. The event is a fund-raiser for HELP Adult Services and tickets ($24) are available at Hy Vee service counters beginning this week, and also at the Joslyn on the evening of the performance. For further information, call 402-341-6559.
From TV Screen to Big Screen
Familiar cast, usual predicaments highlight film version of 'Downton Abbey'
By Jim Delmont
“Downton Abbey” the movie, is the TV series writ large – gorgeous on the big screen, with the familiar cast of regulars in the upstairs/downstairs mode, the usual knotty problems (this time a dinner visit by the King and Queen of England), the customary sentimentality, the same superb supporting cast – well known to regular viewers, a lush musical score by John Lunn, who did 34 of the 52 episodes of the TV series, artistic cinematography (Ben Smithard) that would have delighted Maxfield Parrish, and the gigantic, imposing and altogether overwhelmingly impressive Abbey itself (in real life Highclere Castle, home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnavaron , located in Hampshire and in the family since 1679). The Village of Downton is represented by Bampton Village in Oxfordshire.
The “Downtown Abbey” six-season TV series, featuring the aristocratic Crawley clan, their good fortunes and misfortunes from 1912 to 1926, was one of the most-watched TV series in history, often drawing audiences as high as 12 million in Britain (one fifth of the population). It drew similar audiences in the U.S., as the most successful show in PBS history, with 24 million viewers for the final season. Eventually a worldwide audience followed its episodes in 220 countries.
Why was a series about an aristocratic family in a gigantic castle with a flock of servants so successful? A major reason is the writing of Julian Fellowes, who did all the TV episodes and this movie. He cut his teeth on upstairs/downstairs entertainment with the script for Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001), with Maggie Smith in a similar role as a snooty grande dame. Smith, now 84, is again the Dowager Countess Violet, a central figure up to her usual social mischief, and always in competition with Cousin Isobel. Fellowes has a gift for character, casual elegance in conversation, a grasp of the full range of colloquial chatter from middle and working classes, a wit that is warm rather than sharp or cold, and a talent for twining multiple story lines that complement one another and carry the larger narrative forward.
The two-hour “Abbey” movie version takes up exactly where the TV series left off, time-wise, in 1927 – but some former plot elements are ignored: for example, Mrs. Patmore(the marvelous Leslie Nicol) and Daisy are back in the kitchen, with no mention of their previous departures. At the beginning of the movie, there is a charming intro by two members of the cast, in civilian clothes (one of them being 71-year-old Jim Carter, who plays the likeable stuffy butler, Mr. Carson). When the main elements of the six seasons are rattled off quickly, tongue-in-cheek, in this fashion, it becomes apparent what a soap opera “Abbey” really has been, with its sudden deaths, broken loves, illegitimate babies, melodramatic conflicts, fatal and non-fatal illnesses, miscarriages, run-ins with the police, personality feuds, and so on. But the series (and the movie) are so gilded with style, fashion, manners, history, that it all seems much more important and believable.
The essential fascination with the “Abbey” phenomenon may be the openly displayed class differences, so antique to modern America, where dress and manners have all but collapsed into an arrogant blue jeaned individualism. With this individualism has come a rootlessness, a loss of identity for many, especially the young. In “Abbey” people not only know their place – they have a place. These rigid social conventions are meticulously followed by rich and poor alike and this very rigidity of social definition is compelling: a glimpse of another civilization, a lost one, in which people also spoke English. Another attraction is the obvious sense of the entire ensemble in the mansion, aristocrats and all of their servants alike, being one family. There is no class conflict between those in the lower levels of the castle and those in the upper rooms. In fact, a humorous touch in the film is the class conflict between the Abbey staff and the snooty, officious royal staff that accompany the king and queen and invade the sacred spaces of the Abbey servants, who conspire to steal some of their duties.
The Crawleys had three daughters, but Lady Sybil died and cousin Rose (Lily James) had gone off to America near the end of the TV series. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is back, now happily married, and the aristocratically cool Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is as lovely as ever – with a bobbed hairdo close to that of silent film star Louise Brooks, and done up in the gowns and jewelry of the 1920s in fashions that harken back to the Edwardian age more than they do to the short skirts, ugly stockings and cloche hats of the Roaring Twenties. All dressed up, she is simply stunning.
The king and queen are coming! That would be King George V and Queen Mary (the grandmother of Queen Elizabeth). Downton Abbey is in a turmoil of joyful expectation and fear they may fail in some particulars. Against this dominant story, all kinds of lesser plot elements ensue, including an alarming incident related to the new butler’s homosexuality (Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow) that is resolved in typical Abbey fashion. The Irish widower, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is prominent both in providing advice to the unhappily married Princess Mary of the royal entourage (charmingly played by Kate Philips) and in developing a new love interest. The downstairs crowd throw themselves into a frenzy of activity (with Mr. Carson temporarily back to help out), while overseeing the larger picture is the unflappable head of the house, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, as pleasant as ever and seemingly not having aged a month since the first season).
The movie version of “Downton Abbey” is a the usual visual feast, but on a much larger screen: magnificent rooms and furnishings, wondrous tableware and service, the formal ware of both genders, elegant candelabra, vast spaces handsomely decorated, and occasional outdoor views of the estate grounds that are breathtaking. It is no wonder “Abbey” has won so many awards: two Emmys for composer Lunn, others for Maggie Smith and Fellowes, for costumers and the TV director Brian Percival, plus some Golden Globes and prestigious Screen Actors Guild awards.
The director this time is Michael Engler, who had done four episodes of the TV series, and he keeps the style and mood right in the familiar groove. Obviously, fans of the TV series will love this expansion of the saga, but general audiences should appreciate its visual beauty, multi-story lines, and the always interesting conversations provided by Fellowes’ script. There might even be a sequel. If so, the perfect title would be “Return to Downton Abbey.”
Gripping story portrays real-life siege, circa 2008
By Jim Delmont
“Hotel Mumbai,” a true action film based on the notorious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel siege of 2008, is now out on DVD. It conveys events when the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), was attacked in a three-day hit and run mass slaughter by a small group of Pakistani Islamist terrorists – young men, unsophisticated hardline believers, under mind control and electronic direction – ran amok in the city, most of them ending up at the hotel for the big finale.
This is director Anthony Maras’ first full-length film and it is gripping, in large part because it reflects reality. The screenwriters made some adjustments, though, for the story line: the restaurant worker played by the talented English-Indian actor, Dev Patel, is a composite of two men, a waiter and a hotel security man; the Russian special forces veteran is also a composite of two, one of them a real special forces vet; a young international couple, played by American Armie Hammer and Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi, is a composite of two couples - but that hardly matters, as the horrors of the occasion are rendered honestly and at length. Boniadi, playing a wealthy guest with her husband and baby, is a near dead-ringer for a young Suzanne Pleshette. The hero of the movie is based on one man, the hotel executive chef, Hemant Oberoi (played by Anupam Kher). The chef kept his head and coolly assembled his staff to assist as many guests as possible, at one point herding them to a safe room, a private club on a higher floor that had especially tough doors and locks.
The film opens with the 10 young terrorists arriving by water in a small dinghy, packing AK-47s, grenades and other explosives. The scene is an eerie one filmed against the vast skyline of Mumbai, a city as teeming with people as New York. The cityscape itself, and the magnificent century-old hotel, are almost dreamlike. The hotel, an immense building, at least a block long and six or seven stories high, has 560 rooms and can accommodate 1,600 guests. It is architecturally a feast of Indian period styles and has the authority of both size and exotic design.
To emphasize reality, much real newsreel and TV tape footage from the event is blended in with the movie scenes. The casual and unfeeling murder of dozens of humans, including women and children, is a lesson in the fatal “otherness” that fundamentalism in ideology or religion can fashion, especially in the naïve and idealistic minds of young people. Again and again, the authoritarian voice of the master planner – heard but identified only as “the Bull” - gives chilling orders to them to continue their mayhem.
A larger lesson from “Hotel Mumbai” is the fragility of civilization. Ten young men were able to kill 160 Indians and wound another 300, against almost no resistance. No one in the hotel seemed to have as much as a pistol, including security men. The city police sent out a pitifully small force which refused to go in until, seemingly out of shame, a tiny number entered and engaged two terrorists – but the police did not have automatic combat rifles. Unbelievably, the special forces that would act in such cases were hundreds of miles away in Delhi and took ten hours to get to the scene.
Civilization functions peacefully and on a grand scale because the overwhelming majority of people accept the law and keep it. Ancient Egypt, a land of at least five million people, was held by two Roman legions – about 10,000 men, because Egypt accepted Roman authority as the law of the land. Mumbai is a city of 18 million, which was paralyzed and dysfunctional for days because of an assault by ten men. Such are the weaknesses of urban civilization.
Among the better performers – besides Patel, Boniadi, and Kher – are Jason Isaacs as a tough Russian on a sexual holiday and Hammer as the young wealthy American trying to save his baby and protect his wife. Nick Remy Matthews’ cinematography renders the action and the claustrophobia of terrified guests in their rooms with skill. The script, by Maras and John Collee, is all almost all in English, the hotel’s lingua franca, with only the terrorists speaking in Pakistani dialect with subtitles.
The average moviegoer may find the carnage too much to take, and the frustration of watching large numbers of people unable to defend themselves in any way is a continual frustration. No one seemed to have a personal weapon. But this event really happened, not long ago, pretty much as it is portrayed – and there are plenty of people in the world who would like to see it happen again in another great world city. “Be prepared,” that famous motto, is the right advice.
'Aliens' Star to Make Omaha Appearance
Special one-night-only screening of classic 1986 film at Joslyn
By Jim Delmont
Almost a year to the day after screening the sci-fi classic “Alien,” impresario Bruce Crawford is offering for his 44th Omaha Film Event its sequel, “Aliens,”one of the true epic sci movies in Hollywood history. Directed by James Cameron, “Aliens” opened up the claustrophobic world of its predecessor into a vast canvas of horror action on an empty moon which once held a space colony.
The famous huge, slobbering ugly aliens, one of which was seen in the first film, got to that moon first and have set up an incubation camp underground, breeding large numbers of their kind from a gigantic queen. They have captured some humans from the former colony and cocooned them for breeding purposes as the baby aliens must hatch from living creatures.
The mood of extreme danger is palpable from the earliest scenes of U.S. Marines in space gear unloading on the surface. The back story is that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the heroine and only survivor of “Alien,” has
been in protective hypersleep for 57 years (though not aging) and awakens to join her rescuers, only to be plunged back into a monumental fight for survival that far surpasses the adventures and terrors of the earlier film.
Actor Michael Biehn, who plays Corporal Dwayne Hicks, the leading man in the movie, will be a special guest at the showing, providing information about the making of the film and engaging in a meet-and-greet session with fans, in which he will sign autographs.
He gave an excellent performance, a kind of iconoc American military figure at his bravest. Biehn has worked non-stop in movies and television since “Aliens,” and has been so busy he has four films forthcoming in the next couple of years.
Released seven years after, “Alien,” the sequel spawned others and became part of a veritable franchise of sequels, prequels and parallel movies, plus a cornucopia of video games, comics, toys, and books.
“It has become one of the most popular adventure films in cinema history and one of the rare examples of a sequel surpassing the original,” Crawford said. With a much larger cast and almost endless armed conflict, “Aliens” is an action-adeventure sci-fic epic – almost, but not quite a horror film, because of the scientific plausibility of such a ferocious race living somewhere in space. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including best actress for Sigourney Weaver, and won two: for best sound effects and best visual effects (the latter are amazing).
A larger-than-life theme running through the film is the battle to protect her young by two fierce mothers: the hideous alien queen and Ripley, who protects and defends a waif, a child who has somehow evaded the aliens who killed or kidnapped all the other humans in the colony. This young girl, Newt (played by Carrie Henn, an eight-year-old who looks younger), will survive only if Ripley survives. The scene of Ripley with a flame thrower facing off against the giant evil queen is a classic.
Crawford pointed out that “Aliens” shares in the sequels, prequels, fan base and collectible items associated with “Alien.” Sigourney Weaver played Officer Ellen Ripley in “Alien,” “Aliens,” and both sequels, “Alien 3” (1992), and “Alien Resurrection” (1997). Two prequels have been released: “Prometheus” (2012), with events 30 years before “Alien,” and “Alien Covenant” (2017), eleven years after that, both directed by Ridley Scott. In addition, there have been several spin-offs, including two “Alien vs. Predator” films.
Composer James Horner was nominated for an Oscar for his “Aliens” score, and the USA Academy of Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Films chose “Aliens” as its film of the year, along with a slew of other awards including best actress for Weaver and a special award for Carrie Henn. At two hours and 17 minutes, “Aliens” is a big, impressive production, but it may be too intense for pre-school children.
“Aliens” will be shown once on the big screen in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Hall, Friday, May 24, at 7 p.m., at 2200 Dodge Street. The showing is a fundraiser for the Nebraska Kidney Association. Tickets are $24 at HyVee customer service counters and can be purchased at the Joslyn the night of the showing. For more information, call 402-932-7200, 308-830-2121, or visit www.omahafilmevent.com.
The ‘Roma’ Mystery
Why is this film getting glowing reviews from critics
By Jim Delmont
“Roma,” is getting rave reviews from critics with such words and phrases as these abounding: “wonderful,” “a masterpiece,’ “sumptuous,’ “gorgeous,” “a rapturous magnum opus,’ “a tidal wave of empathy,” on and on. In fact, it is an overlong and rather dull film deliberately made in black and white, which makes it even duller.
The mystery is how a movie as agonizingly slow and generally uneventful as “Roma” can earn such superlatives from the cineaste crowd. “Is a puzzlement.”
There are clues, though: the title, “Roma,” though it is the name of the Mexico City neighborhood where writer/director Alfonso Cuaron grew up (actually, Colonia Roma), is also the title of a famous film by Federico Fellini (“Fellini Roma”); the main character, a timid, almost mute servant named Cleo, has had her name borrowed from Agnes Varda’s ‘60s French New Wave classic, “Cleo from Five to Seven”; most telling of all, the visual aspects of “Roma” are obviously borrowed from the neo-realism of post-World War II Italian films, and the odd, almost disjointed, but often whimsical narrative flow is very reminiscent of Fellini’s work in general (minus the uproarious humor).
Cuaron openly admits the story is autobiographical. He grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in an upper-middle class urban neighborhood with nannies, servants and private parking. He was and is “white,” that is European in appearance, whereas most people in Mexico City (and in the film) are Mestizo or Indian-looking, especially Cleo, who is played by a non-professional, Yalitza Aparicio, a village schoolteacher. The wealthy family in “Roma” is white; the servants are Indian. The rather non-verbal father in the family is a doctor, who carefully maneuvers his huge Ford Galaxy into the narrow courtyard parking place each afternoon. The family dog, the children and servants welcome him. There is a ritualized nature to these and other scenes, providing subtle humor. As his wife, Marina de Tavira is natural and winning. In fact, naturalism is vital to the entire production: black and white film shot by Cuaron himself in 65mm; no musical score; lots of ordinary sounds, up close and distant; a relaxed acting style, especially suited to Cleo, a sweet, naïve person. The grandmother in the film is Veronica Garcia, whose physical appearance is so odd that, well, something may be made of it – or not.
The story is uneventful for about an hour and a half, though the father’s trip to Canada has become a bit of a mystery. When a few dramatic scenes ensue in the last 40 minutes of this 135-minute movie, they are engaging: an urban riot (the Corpus Christie student clashes of 1971), an unwanted pregnancy, a near-drowning at a beach outing, a risky birthing at a hospital, the bad news about the missing doctor/father. But it is all too little too late.
What sinks “Roma” is the self-indulgence of the director, whose takes are abnormally long. Typical film editing, cutting these takes back, would take an hour out of the movie – or so it seems. Even the rolling credits, at beginning and end, are tedious. The pace is godawful, to put it mildly. Meanwhile we are all to enjoy the touches of past film masters: De Sica, Fellini, Varda, even Bergman here and there. Most of what happens is normal, undramatic (a single, peculiar exception being a scene of male frontal nudity in which Cleo’s lover jumps around going through martial arts maneuvers with a fighting stick). The simple peasant ambience of much of the film, reflected in the main character, may also be an explanation for the uncomfortably slow pace.
Another possible explanation for the rapturous reception “Roma” is getting from critics may simply be political correctness: women are done wrong by selfish men. Another PC aspect is the class distinction inherent in the employment of servants by those wealthy enough to hire them. That the rich are white and the servants non-white, may be another lesson in PC.
Cuaron has made some very good movies, in quite a range, from sci fi to Harry Potter, and including “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and “Gravity.” He has talent and here is working with a good cast (the children are very good, apparently spontaneous in some scenes, for naturalism). Aparicio is sweet, never “acting,” yet far short of any “best actress’ nomination, despite all the hoopla.
“Roma” may be everyone’s “best foreign film” choice, but not mine.
By Jim Delmont
Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon (1969) was rather laconic in personality, even when delivering his famous message: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” as he stepped off the U.S. lunar landing module onto the ash-like surface of the moon. Ryan Gosling, one our best film actors, underplays Armstrong, but brings an inner intensity that penetrates the laid-back exterior of the man as the media knew him. In fact, the gifted director, Damien Chazelle (who wrote and directed the best film of 2016, “La La Land,” a very different project) presents his entire story in a rather stolid “right stuff” personal atmosphere in tune with the personalities of the astronauts themselves – highly disciplined men who faced unprecedented dangers and who lost friends and colleagues to pre-moonflight disasters (the incineration of Apollo 1 Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee being the worst example). This didn’t mean Armstrong and the others were non-emotional, but they kept the lid on, as did their wives, who had to live with the possibility that their husbands might go into space and never return.
When President Kennedy made his bold declaration to Congress in 1961 that the U.S. would pursue the goal in the decade of the Sixties “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” the key phrase was “returning him safely to earth.” No one knew at the time that the man would be Neil Armstrong, a test pilot, or that the man would safely return.
Perhaps to make up for the highly technical episodes in the film, Chazelle has chosen a film style of huge close-ups, so as to create a mood of intimacy and personal intensity. The camera is also in hand-held mode, apparently not fully engaging the steady-cam, thus making for a jittery sense of reality. Never has the mechanical environment of space travel, with its claustrophobia, intense noise and violent shaking and oscillations been so vividly recreated, not even in Ron Howard’s 1995 epic, “Apollo 13.” The take-offs of the monster rockets are terrifying to the tiny men atop the 48-storey multistage explosive machinery. The cockpits are jammed with instrumentation and toggle switches, the humans almost accessories to them.
To counter this technical side, screenwriter Josh Singer provides personal stories, emotionally touching on the human scale, of his characters, especially Armstrong and his wife, Janet, beautifully played with intensity and compassionate intelligence by the remarkable British actress Claire Foy (whose extraordinary range in recent years has included Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth II, and Lisbeth Salander, the offbeat heroine of the latest girl-in-a-spiderweb installment). With her plane-Jane 1950s look, solid American accent, and pixie haircut she conveys perfectly the strength of a woman who has already lost a pre-school child to illness and is in danger of losing her husband at any time.
“First Man” is carefully set in its time, a period of intense Cold War rivalry, in which the Soviet Union has made every major step into space exploration ahead of the Americans. JFK, not willing to run in tandem, decided to take a big jump from obvious next steps to the daring task of getting to the moon with living, breathing men – not robots – and he intended to do it quickly, in “this decade,” a promise reiterated in a 1963 speech at Rice University. Haste meant danger – and much of the effort, incredibly technical, was also touch and go, including the landing of the smaller capsule itself after it left the mothership in moon orbit.
Training sessions, backyard socializing of families, political decisions, all lead up to the moment when the gigantic Saturn C-1 rocket booster, itself atop 5 colossal F-1 boosters (an engine complex that dwarfed anything the Soviets had at the time) was ready for the adventure, as hundreds of millions watched lift-off on global TV outlets. Armstrong had known disasters before, as a test pilot and when his Gemini spaceship lost control and began whirling at one revolution a second, his life minutes away from extinction. Cool under fire, he survived with quick thinking and adroit instrument changes. He also had come within half a second of death when ejecting from a malfunctioning early model of the lunar lander.
Apollo 11, the voyage to the moon, began on July 16, 1969, and completed its mission with a landing on the moon, July 20, as much of the world watched and wondered, accompanied by the non-dramatic words, “the Eagle has landed.” The actual steps, with the famous “mankind” statement, came six hours later, on the 21st. Putting men on the moon was an amazing engineering and technical achievement that no nation on earth has duplicated in nearly half a century. The USA did it multiple times. The very American nature of the effort, with all its risks, could have been underlined by showing the planting of the American flag on the moon’s surface, but the filmmakers chose not to include that moment, perhaps for political reasons (political correctness re nationalism?). Armstrong’s colleagues were astronauts Michael Collins, who stayed in moon orbit as pilot of the main vehicle, and Buzz Aldrin, who joined Armstrong in the lander and on the moon, the two men spending nearly a full 24-hour day there, scooping up samples to bring back for study.
Getting back alive was the next problem, re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph generated half the heat of the sun – but it was done. Surviving all the dangers, Armstrong and his co-pilots returned to acclaim, publicity, and to their families: Armstrong to Janet and their two sons. A late scene, when Armstrong is in quarantine, separated from the rest of the world by a wall of glass – a reunion with Janet - is one of the film’s most touching, underplayed as is so much of the personal story.
Gosling is superb in his low key portrayal, Foy is a genius, the supporting cast excellent, Josh Singer’s musical score moving, and the cinematography of Linus Sandgren – along with the lighting – conveys reality that is often harsh, often moody. The massive sound and special effects crew (including stunt people) fills pages and will surely be up for honors at the end of the year. At two hours and twenty minutes, “First Man” may be a tad long, but it is a big entertainment and an equally big history lesson for those with no memory of mankind’s first successful visit to another world.
Finally, It's Here
Netflix now showing long-awaited Orson Welles film
By Jim Delmont
Orson Welles’ long lost legendary film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” is finally out after decades of financial and legal red tape, multiple delays, and a mighty effort to edit and polish the sprawling 1970s effort that Welles lost control of long before his death in 1985. Filmed between 1970 and 1976 or so, Welles came up with about 100 hours of footage, but he edited down only about a third of the final product as seen in this version. Peter Bogdanovich (charmingly cast as an actor and would-be film director), film editor Bob Murawski, the original cinematographer Gary Graver and others spent years getting the movie into shape at a bit over two hours and Michel Legrand has contributed a likeable new score that manages to keep up with the frenetic pace of the visual action. Netflix provided the final financial boost and this strange, enigmatic movie is now streaming on that outlet, along with an invaluable companion, Morgan Neville’s “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” an excellent documentary about the original production years and the long decades of restoration and recovery of “The Other Side.” But don’t see “The Other Side of the Wind” without also seeing the documentary - but see the Welles film first (that is the order available on Netflix). It is running also at one theater in North Hollywood!
Any movie by Orson Welles, even one nearly 50 years old, is a big deal. So how does it stand alongside other famous Welles efforts? Not at the top, for sure. A glaringly autobiographical statement, “Other Side” presents one mad day in the life of a Welles-like film director, Jake Hannaford (played by his great friend, filmmaker John Huston), who is desperate for funding to complete a ‘70s-style Euro art movie, also titled “The Other Side of the Wind.” Hence Welles’ last film is a movie-within-a-movie, with a third layer of camera madness presented by documentarians (or paparazzi) who are filming from every angle everything going on at a party for the Huston character’s 70th birthday.
Welles, who was decades ahead of his time in the 1940s with sound innovations, ceilings on sets, odd camera angles and lenses, and original editing, managed to create in his early twenties a movie still regarded by cinema scholars as the best or one of the best films ever made, “Citizen Kane” (1940). This was made for a major studio, RKO, as was his second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which was re-edited and given a new ending while he was out of the country, giving rise to the permanent legend of Welles vs. the Hollywood studio system. But the studio system was collapsing in the late ‘60s and independent films – many inspired by the French New Wave and the appearance of a new arthouse theater audience in the U.S. - were surfacing everywhere, and suddenly the director (the “auteur” to borrow the European word) was in charge, often writing his own scripts and overseeing or doing his own editing. The time for Welles had finally arrived and, at 55, he felt he was young enough to join Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard, Antonioni and the others in doing his own thing.
“The Other Side of the Wind” is very much a 1970s movie – not only because of the now absurd male fashions (lots of hair, extravagant sideburns, mustaches, strange clothing – like bell bottoms and paisley blouses), but because a certain hysterical energy is loose in the film, as it was in society at large at the time (Vietnam War, Nixon, riots, Watergate, the sexual revolution and more). Welles, rather prudish in previous films, offers frontal nudity, lesbian orgies, combinations of genders in compromising activities in public restrooms, and oodles of scenes in which his mistress/life companion, Oja Kodar strolls along stark naked in scene after scene (against desolate backgrounds). All of this, however, is in the film-within-the-film, the arthouse movie the aging director Hannaford is trying to finance so that he can complete it, despite the disappearance of its young male lead (a pretty boy named John Dale, who is sexually teased and pursued by Kodar as the unnamed femme fatale).
Kodar was then in her early thirties and quite the dish – a Croatian with high intelligence and eroticism to burn, she helped create the movie-within-the-movie and was rewarded with a knockout sex scene with John, in a moving automobile as rain poured down and auto lights flashed by, certainly one of the most memorable scenes in all of Welles’s oeuvre. This arty/sexy movie-within-the-movie, which is being screened at the party and is seen in bits and pieces (the sex scenes are all very brief, except the one in the car) is obviously a spoof of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose film, “Zabriskie Point,” had been a hit in the U.S., to the dismay of Welles. In fact, the films of Antonioni, very bold and self-indulgent – with the exception of “Blow Up” - do not hold up very well, fulfilling the familiar remark about watching paint dry (“L’avventura,” “Zabriskie Point,” “The Passenger”). To underline his satirical jab, Welles rented for his party scenes the Arizona desert house next to the one Antonioni had used in “Zabriskie Point.”
This new outing by Welles has all his usual touches: dialogue that seems overlapping but isn’t, with ironic remarks shouted out or intruded seemingly at random; endless physical movement of people and cameras; the hand-held camera look, which Welles had pioneered long before the street-made New Wave films in France; a circus-like atmosphere (perhaps borrowed from Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” made a few years earlier?); a certain grotesquerie in supporting characters; and a strange lack of any real intimacy or empathy. Huston’s Hannaford is as stagey as Welles himself might have played it, so that an estrangement between Hannaford and the young Bogdanovich character near the end barely registers.
What is rewarding is to see all those now-faded or dead performers when they were young in the heady days of the early ‘70s. Bogdanovich, now ill at 79, and seen and quoted in Neville’s documentary, is gloriously young, a pal of Welles in real life, he plays a character, Brooks Otterlake, who has already achieved exactly what Bogdanovich would achieve in a few years – spectacular success with his first major movie (“The Last Picture Show”), a case of art predicting life. He brings energy and carefree youth to his role. Also splendid is the late Susan Strasberg, then in her thirties, playing a character based on Pauline Kael, the hottest film critic of the time, with whom Welles feuded. Two of the most celebrated independent directors of the day – Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky - play themselves. Also, some veteran actors show up, all welcome: Cameron Mitchell, then in his late 50s; Edmund O’Brien, Lilli Palmer, and Mercedes McCambridge, all then about sixty years old. A real oldtimer, Norman Foster, who died in 1976 at age 73, plays a major role as an explainer and agent-type working for Hannaford, and the great Paul Stewart, so important in “Citizen Kane,” decades earlier, plays a somewhat similar role.
What is “The Other Side of the Wind” about? Celebrity, failure, betrayal, a wild party, an attempt at a Euro-style 70s movie, voyeurism, more than a touch of the general cultural madness of that day, and near-total confusion. In fact, as the Kodar movie is being screened, someone notices a reel is out of place in the showing. “Does it matter?” answers the projectionist. This could also be said of the larger movie.
Hannaford’s ultimate fate is fudged a bit, but he won’t get his financing or bring his young male lead back. He is a very old man who can’t finish his masterpiece, as Welles could not finish his own version of that predicament.
The Neville documentary explains a lot about “The Other Side of the Wind” and about Orson Welles, and it has a wonderful quote: “The new Hollywood ended” in the mid-70s when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” were released. After that it was “Jaws” and “Superman,” Indiana Jones and Batman. Never again would the American “auteur” film be as important as it was in that brief period between the studio system and the blockbuster. Welles’ time had come and gone in a flash – but he gave it a shot and “The Other Side of the Wind” is the result. Meanwhile, arguments will continue over whether “Kane” or “Ambersons” or “Touch of Evil” or “Chimes at Midnight” was his best film.
One Night, Special Screening
'Back to the Future' co-creator, co-star to appear
By Jim Delmont
It’s been longer now (33 years) since “Back to the Future” was released than the time period trip backward (1985 to 1955) taken in the film by the youthful hero of the comedy/fantasy, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, in one of his most famous performances). The zany sci-fi adventure was the inspiration of Bob Gale, the co-writer, co-producer and co-creator of what turned out to be a series of movies, video games and a TV series. He will be a special guest of Bruce Crawford in a one-night-only showing of the popular movie at the Joslyn Art Museum, Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. Also appearing with Bob will be Harry Waters Jr., who played singer Marvin Berry in the film. Gale will discuss the making of the film and both Gale and Waters will be available for autographs.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who had a solid start to fame a year earlier with “Romancing the Stone,” got a big lift from “Back to the Future” and went on to direct two sequels, plus “Cast Away” and “Forrest Gump.” He and Gale got support from Steven Spielberg and made the movie for Spielberg’s Ambin Entertainment. It was a gigantic box office hit, pulling in $381 million globally – huge for that time.
In the story a high school student in 1985 is struggling with personal and parental problems. When an oddball inventor in town – Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd, then 47, but with an Einstein halo of white hair) – reveals to Marty that he has fashioned a DeLorean DMC-12 into a time machine (don’t ask how, just go along for the ride), but has stolen plutonium from terrorists to make it work, a series of events results in Marty being back in 1955, trying to sort out events that will help his parents in their future situation. The plan backfires when his mother takes a shine to him instead of to the teen version of his dad (an interesting Oedipal touch that is nothing but funny). He is frustrated and must disentangle himself from the mess or face not being born!
Eventually a town square, a lightning bolt, and some plot twists will help return Marty to 1985, but there is a lot of humor and anxiety before that happens. Will the future be changed by his intrusion into the past? Well, yes, but you have to see the movie to find out. Remember “the butterfly effect.”
“Back to the Future” is no. 42 on the all-time favorites list of IMDb users; was named one of the ten best sci-fi movies of all time by the American Film Institute; had three Oscar nominations and numerous other awards; and had a 96% approval from Rotten Tomatoes film critics (Roger Ebert loved it, pointing out that there was a lot of Frank Capra in the film’s sentimentality and humor).
The showing of “Back to the Future” is a fund raiser for the Nebraska Kidney Foundation and one of a continuing series of Omaha Film Events begun in 1992 by Crawford. He considers it one of Hollywood’s all-time great fantasy-comedies.
The single screening will be at the Joslyn Museum, 2200 Dodge Street at 7 p.m., Nov. 9. Tickets are $24 and are available at Hy Vee service counters or by calling 402-932-7200 or 308-830-2121.
Will Hawke Finally Win the Big One?
Reluctant movie star turns in another amazing performance
By Jim Delmont
Ethan Hawke is always the bridesmaid…”
Nominated endlessly for best actor honors (and for a few best script accolades, shared with Julie Delpy), he rarely walks away with the hardware. Uninterested in being a movie star, he nevertheless is one – and in a series of remarkable roles, has shined as brightly as any star, but never bright enough to walk away with an Oscar, a Golden Globe or a Screen Actors Guild award. This is a shame, for his work in many films is as good as it gets: “Maude” (2016); the charming romantic trio with Julie Delpy – “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”; “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999); “Born to be Blue” (2015, as Chet Baker); and three stunningly good films, “Training Day” (2001), “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), and “Boyhood” (2014).
Add to this list “First Reformed,” an art house film with limited release, but now available from Netflix. This film is an interesting exercise in quiet theological desperation by the famed director Paul Schrader, whose script helped make “Taxi Driver” (1976) a bloody masterpiece, and who is now 72 years old and given to some serious reflections (though his last outing - over which he did not have full control, apparently - was “The Dying of the Light,” with Nick Cage, something of a dud in 2014). Helping on this one is the fact that Schrader himself had a strict Calvinist upbringing in Michigan, not seeing a movie until age 17.
“First Reformed,” loved by critics but not as popular with audiences, is a somber examination of a middle-aged Christian minister, ill in body and soul. It has brought renewed attention to both Schrader and Hawke, with likely year-end awards nominations for both. Hawke’s minister is suffering from personal loneliness, ill health, and a loss of faith. The latter, for those with a long memory, is bound to be remindful of Ingmar Bergman’s bleak masterpiece, “Winter Light,” a 1963 film about a Lutheran minister failing in faith. But Schrader’s minister, in a small Calvinist church in upstate New York, has larger worries. When he counsels a young couple about their decision to have an abortion (the wife doesn’t want it, the husband does), he gets an earful on the doomsday environmental concerns of the husband – “who wants to bring a child into THIS world.” These concerns widen the moral compass of the minister’s outlook.
These opening scenes are masterful. Suffering from a serious illness (possibly cancer), Hawke is intense, internal, troubled, as the somewhat alcoholic and wounded minister, Ernst Toller. Philip Ettinger a young actor, strikes all the right notes as the husband, Michael, and the film’s secret weapon, Amanda Seyfried as Mary, the wife, is subversively effective in what is basically a limited role. The toll that counseling can take on a priest or minister is evident, as the minister struggles with his conscience, already riven by his own domestic tragedy – he had urged his son to participate in the Iraq War, where he was killed. This also killed Toller’s marriage, leaving him alcohol as an anesthetic.
Seyfried is so good in this movie, with so few lines, that it is something of a miracle that she is such a powerful influence in it. When Mary discovers that her husband has a suicide vest hidden in their garage, she tells Minister Toller. What to do? Call the police? Bring the three together? Counsel the husband alone?
Without giving away key plot elements, there is a back story, too. Toller’s tiny church, sparsely attended, is approaching its 250th anniversary, as it survives only on the largesse of a much larger evangelical church nearby, headed by the personable and ebullient Rev. Jeff Jeffers (wonderfully played by actor Cedric Kyles, also known as Cedric the Entertainer). The anniversary will be a big event. Working for Jeffers is a choirmaster, beautifully played by Victoria Hill, with whom Toller – as a divorced man -has had a fling, and who is genuinely concerned about him, though now rejected.
Where “First Reformed” goes off the rails is the assumption that a suffering and decent soul like Toller would requisition Michael’s suicide vest and seriously consider using it himself – not just for suicide, but to injure others, because they may be responsible in part for global warming. This is totally unbelievable within this story – and it is sad that this environmental thread, perfect for the Michael character, should be unwound beyond its length. Those who remember “Taxi Driver,” as I do, may be cringing from an anticipated, very un-Christ like finale, but you have to see it to find out.
Influenced perhaps by Bergman – and possibly by Robert Bresson’s famous 1951 French film, “Diary of a Country Priest” - Schrader’s film style is slow, old European, with long takes complemented by a somber musical score by Brian Williams. Although the film is in color, you’ll swear after seeing it that it was in black and white – such is the mood. A final scene with Amanda Seyried is – whether real or magical realism – a triumph in symbolism, humanity, imagination, and love.
The excursion into contemporary political concerns is as much a mistake in the film as it is in the declining mainstream Protestant churches of today, half or more empty. You can’t attend one of them without hearing a fiery sermon about global warming, LBGTQ rights, racial injustice, etc., while the individual’s relationship to God – Paul’s great call for personal salvation – is utterly missing.
Nevertheless, in his later years, with a brilliant 47-year-old actor as centerpiece, Schrader has written and directed a memorable film, and Amanda Seyfried deserves some award attention, too – with Ethan Hawke perhaps finally winning the big one – but don’t count on it.
The Best Ever?
'Mission: Impossible' cruises to No. 1 at box office
By Jim Delmont
Everybody likes the new “Mission Impossible.” 98% of critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site and 93% of the public – and it was easily number one at the box office its opening weekend. More remarkable than that is that 56 year old Tom Cruise still looks 35. How does he do it – and how does he do these scary stunts at his present age? In “Mission Impossible: Fallout,” Cruise flies a helicopter through dangerous canyons, hangs from a helicopter on a rope, skydives from 25,000 feet (oxygen was needed), free-climbs a steep cliff (a reprise of “Mission Impossible 2”)and jumps from one tall building to another (actually breaking his ankle, which held up shooting for six weeks). The sky dive action required 104 takes dropping from a C-17 and coordinating action with other sky divers – a potentially fatal exercise. In fact, fellow actor Henry Cavill was forbidden to do it because of the danger. He also runs – and runs. How many 56-year-olds do you know who can flat-out run a hundred yard dash? At top speed, chest out, arms pumping: Cruise does it over and over.
This sixth “Mission Impossible” film is a travelogue, an endless chase, a love story, a stop-the-nukes drama and a reunion of characters from previous films in the series, including the Mission team, Simon Pegg as Benji and Ving Rhames as Luther; plus – big surprise – Ethan Hunt’s wife, Michelle Monahan; the MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson from “MI: Rogue Nation”); and villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, also from “Rogue Nation”).
The bad guys have stolen plutonium and plan to hit the three most sacred religious sites on earth: the Vatican, Mecca, and Jerusalem. Cruise, as Ethan Hunt for the sixth time (beginning in 1996), goes after them. The chases, via foot, motorcycle, road vehicles, helicopters, rush the viewer through the streets of Paris, various London locations, and the glaciers and mountains of New Zealand and Norway. All this is gorgeous to see, while Lorne Balfe’s music score provides heart-sounding emotion, liberal use of the “Mission Impossible” main theme, and occasional moments of reverie and dark beauty. This is a handsome film, thanks to cinematographer Rob Hardy, with a fast-moving editing job, and an overall Rembrandt look to many interior scenes.
Just to make things complicated, not only is the Mission Impossible gang after the bad guys (Alec Baldwin shows up with his Spencer Tracy familiarity as Ethan’s boss), but the CIA edges in sideway with an agenda of its own: Angela Bassett is the CIA chief and former Superman, Henry Cavill – with a perfect American accent – joins up with Ethan at her direction, only to make trouble later. Wolf Blitzer of CNN shows up as himself (and doesn’t have a word to say about President Trump).
Some film critics take a paragraph off to slam Cruise’s religion, Scientology, but that hardly seems appropriate. Whatever vitamins he’s on, whatever religious convictions he has, he’s proof that Ponce de Leon did discover a Fountain of Youth somewhere. Rhames and Pegg (looking a bit more muscular than in the past) do their usual good jobs, Cavill maintains dignity as an American hunk, Ferguson exudes a sly intelligence and just-below-the-surface sexuality that is an odd match for that of Monaghan, Hunt’s first and greatest love. They are actually in a scene together. The finale, as in many “24” episodes, requires cutting the right wires seconds before they obliterate several miles of landscape and heaps of people – edge of the seat stuff.
“Mission Impossible: Fallout” is a wild ride, a tad too long at 147 minutes, but jolly good action for a summer escape experience. Can Cruise do it a seventh time?
Sci-Fi Classic Returns
Original 'Alien' gets special screening at Joslyn
By Jim Delmont
The sci-fi classic “Alien,” which began its filming 40 years ago, will be celebrated May 25 at the Joslyn Museum with a one-evening only showing, the 42nd film in the 26 years that impresario Bruce Crawford has maintained the Omaha Film Event series. Released in 1979, “Alien” was a big hit, spawning a veritable franchise of sequels, prequels and parallel movies. It has also created a cornucopia of video games, comics, toys, and books.
“I saw it the first time as a teenager,” Crawford said, “and it has a huge fan base after all these years – in fact, there are so many collectibles connected to this movie that we will have four tables of display items at the Joslyn, including models of the Alien itself, along with spaceships, toys and other items. Our honored guest will be actress Virginia Cartwright, who played navigation office Lambert in the movie.”
Cartwright has been busy in TV and films non-stop since “The Alien,” appearing in scores of TV series (“Resurrection” and “Invasion” among them) plus many movies, including such classics as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Right Stuff.” She will be signing autographs after introducing the film and commenting on the making of it.
“Virginia worked in ‘The Birds’ for Alfred Hitchcock,” Crawford added, “and I’ve often thought that ‘Alien’ is the kind of sci-fi movie Hitchcock would have made had he gone in that direction. It has typical Hitch aspects, such as what you don’t see is scarier than what you do – and it’s very much a suspense movie; the infamous ‘chest scene’ is as shocking as the shower scene in ‘Psycho.’ It is one of the best thriller movies ever made and certainly one of the top ten sci-fi movies of all time.”
Crawford pointed out that in terms of sequels, prequels, fan base and collectible items associated with it, “Alien” is right up there with the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises. Sigourney Weaver played Officer Ellen Ripley in “Alien” and all three sequels, “Aliens” (1986), Alien 3” (1992), and “Alien Resurrection” (1997). Two prequels have been released: “Prometheus” (2012), with events 30 years before “Alien,” and “Alien Covenant” (2017), eleven years after that, both directed by Ridley Scott. In addition, there have been several spin-offs, including two “Alien vs. Predator” films. Director Scott has indicated that there may yet be one or more prequels, keeping the franchise going for a long time.
“Alien” won an Oscar for best visual effects and was nominated for set design. Its composer, Jerry Goldsmith, was nominated for a Golden Globe for his score, and the Academy of Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Films chose “Alien” as its film of the year, along with an award to director Scott.
“Alien” will be shown once on the big screen in Joslyn’s Witherspoon Hall, Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at 2200 Dodge Street. The showing is a fundraiser for the Nebraska Kidney Association. Tickets are $24 and go on sale Thursday (April 26) at HyVee customer service counters and can be purchased at the Joslyn the night of the showing. For more information, call 402-932-7200 or visit www.omahafilmevent.com. Crawford expects the thousand-seat theater to be sold out.
The Shape of Crude
Cartoon film replete with grossly caricatured villains, bizarre sexual frankness
By Jim Delmont
I expected “The Shape of Water,” which I finally screened, to be an exercise in “magical realism,” a somewhat Latino fairy tale, dark and lyrical, offbeat, creative, romantic in a princess-and-the-frog sort of way. Instead, I encountered an ugly comic book – maybe a comic book for intellectuals – but a comic book, and one with Tarantino touches in terms of episodic sadism and violence. It’s not a giveaway to say that the plot revolves around a woman’s love for a water creature in a government laboratory. The woman is a cleaning woman, the creature (who strongly resembles “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”) is being held captive by government scientists – and the military authorities of both the U.S. and Soviet governments have shown an interest. In fact, the Soviets have a spy on site (the splendid actor, Michael Stuhlbarg, who was so good in “Boardwalk Empire”).
The film is set in the 1950s and, to a degree, is both a satire of and an homage to ‘50s pop music, clothing, TV shows, Cold War attitudes, autos, diners, and even Technicolor – as the lighting and cinematography (Dan Lausten) are intentionally color-saturated.
This might have worked, had someone other than Guillermo del Toro written and directed it. A veteran of horror, comic book adventure and gory films, del Toro has come up with a cartoon film, replete with grossly caricatured villains, bizarre sexual frankness, absurd sentiments, recurring Tarantino touches of nastiness (the chief villain’s fingers are turning black with gangrene after being bit by the creature, but nothing is done about it until he breaks them off). What might have been a fairy tale morphs into a crude, adolescent-minded farce that makes the awarding of both best picture and best director Oscars absurd. Of the nine nominees for best picture, at least seven and probably eight (including “Darkest Hour,” “Lady Bird,” “Dunkirk,” Three Billboards,” and “Call Me by Your Name”) were better. Another mystery is why the gifted composer Alexandre Desplat won with this score, when he has been passed over for others much more impressive. Deserving in their Oscar nominations were Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, friends and helpmates of the woman (Sally Hawkins) smitten by the creature. As to judging Hawkins, she plays a mute woman in low key. Keeping in mind that both Jane Wyman (“Johnny Belinda”) and Patty Duke (“the Miracle Worker”) won Oscars playing mutes, this performance is not in the same league, and is surely the least impressive of the five nominated this year.
What makes this movie bizarre isn’t restricted to the Tarantino ugliness, but to an odd, dated sentimentality of the sort seen in Charlie Chaplin’s talking films of the 1940s and after. It is a clumsy sentimentality (the ending of this movie is ludicrous) and fits the Tarantino side of the film as a piece of chalk scrapes a blackboard.
Why Academy voters went for “The Shape of Water” is hard to fathom. Perhaps the vote was so split among nine nominees (a good argument for returning to the traditional five) that a small overall total earned a win. Political correctness may have played a role, too, as America takes several hard backslaps to the face with Michael Shannon’s crazy Christian CIA-style overseer a cartoon villain, the Americans pictured as bad as the Russians in the Cold War (a Mexican angle of vision?), and 1950s America caricatured as a silly, mindlessly materialist playground.
Whatever the motivations, “The Shape of Water” is crude, almost childish – and bereft of the loveliness, the deep emotions, it might have conveyed as a grand fairy tale. Blame del Toro. That the Oscar best picture of the year is easy to get on DVD just a month or so after winning, tells you something.
Oscar-winning actor is totally immersed in fastidious and disciplined character
By Jim Delmont
“Phantom Thread” will be the last film from Daniel Day-Lewis, the brilliant English actor who has been nominated for the best actor Oscar six times, winning three times - a record. At 61, the actor has announced his retirement after a career spanning four decades, which included a heavy amount of stage work. Having won Oscars for “My Left Foot,” There Will be Blood,” and “Lincoln,” Day-Lewis has chosen an odd little film for his finale. “Phantom Thread” is a carefully crafted small scale film about the personal life of a fictional high couturier in London in the 1950s. The unlikely director is Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made sweeping films like “Magnolia” and “There Will be Blood,” but has here drawn a small circle, a film that is nearly claustrophobic: three people in one house - though the house is also a place of business.
A dark romance, “Phantom Thread” has the mood of a 1940s melodrama, and a musical score close to that era, too (by English composer Jonny Greenwood) – but the pace and visual composition of this film are nothing like those of the 1940s. The overall look of the film is like something from a Dutch Master: meticulous, intense in color and detail, intimate, deep. The photography favors huge close-ups, the more to intensify personal relations, and the pace is slow while the film is long. Critics have loved it (91% on the Rotten Tomatoes site), while audiences have been less enthusiastic (69%). It is definitely not a general entertainment movie.
A study in intimacy, “Phantom Thread” details relations between three people: Reynolds Woodcock, a world famous dress designer, his spinster sister and right-hand-woman, Cyril (Lesley Manville), and the intruder into their carefully choreographed lives, an ordinary waitress who is much younger, of lower social rank, and European (Alma, played by the Luxembourger, Vicky Krieps). Alma brings Reynolds his impressively hearty English breakfast at a local spot he favors when not breakfasting work days in the house with his sister. The designer is a study in bachelor habits: daily dress and grooming with military precision; a demanding overseer of a group of women who hand stich all his creations. Both artist and artisan, he is set in his ways (and, though handsome, looks every month of his sixty years). Self-centered and completely absorbed in his work, Reynolds is no monster (despite what some critics have written) – in fact, he seems the norm for a middle-aged 1950s genius/millionaire who serves royalty and celebrity with aplomb and perfect good taste.
Alma, when she makes her first appearance, as a waitress, is a bit coy, obviously intelligent, and open to the wit and charm of her famous customer. You know something is going to happen, but fear the contrast in age and rank will make for an unhappy ending. When Reynolds eventually drapes her in the right swathes of material, you begin to hope (a scene as erotic as its opposite – undressing her – might have been).
It is not every day that a filmmaker can make a successful drama about making the right dress by 9 a.m., but Anderson - working like Jan Vermeer in terms of detailed interiors, gorgeous fabrics, light and shadow – manages to do it. And not just one dress, but many. Meanwhile, the unlikely lovers flirt, close-in, merge, drift apart, then back again. When a note of criminality appears late in the film, it is just barely acceptable as a possibility. Alas, the ending, on a similar theme, is as improbable as a melodramatic plot turn at the end of a 1940s weeper. It spoils the film.
In the meantime, feast your eyes on the tiny world of architectural perfection, clothing elegance, carefully arranged dining scenes, and miraculous sewing exercises by nimble fingers. Sound, also, is a presence – subtle and graceful, easily bruised (much of the dialogue is almost whispered). Day-Lewis is famous for losing himself entirely in his roles, whether of Hawkeye the frontier scout in “The Last of the Mohicans” or as America’s most famous and most afflicted president, in “Lincoln.” Here he is totally immersed in his fastidious and disciplined character, with little heart or time for a beloved. Lesley Manville is perfection as his protective sister, and Vicky Krieps brings charm and a knowing psychology to her major film debut. Director/writer Anderson has gone from the rambunctious to a still life exercise in beautiful photography and personal intimacy.
Unfortunately, the ending makes all of the above a flight away from reality.
Greta the Great
Actress-writer-director shines with 'Lady Bird'
By Jim Delmont
Greta Gerwig, who has worked mostly in indie movies, has been a favorite of mine for years. Tall, sweet, a little dreamy, lanky in movement, sincere, smart yet modest, she has essayed many roles successfully, finally gaining major attention in “Frances Ha,” a Noah Baumbach film she co-wrote. Learning on the set - not in film school - she picked up the skills necessary to write and direct “Lady Bird,” one of the highest rated films (by critics) in the history of the Rotten Tomatoes site and a prime candidate for Oscars and other film honors this awards season (it has already won two Golden Globes - for best comedy and best actress: Saoirse Ronan).
Greta used her own background, growing up in Sacramento in the 90s and early 2000s, for an amusing, sometimes touching story of the last year or two of high school of a young woman somewhat resembling herself. However, Gerwig has made it clear that the ups and downs of her main character, Christine (renamed by herself, Lady Bird) are not her story. Her high school years were bland, while Lady Birds’ are baffling, frustrating, meandering. Lady Bird is suffocated by the provincialism of Sacramento (“the Midwest of California”) and of her Catholic school, which is very much old style (it might just as well been the ‘50s) – nuns and priests, lots of ritual, not much room for individualism. But the principal confining element in her life is her mother, a woman who has struggled with middle class poverty, extra jobs, her husband’s employment problems, a tight budget, a difficult daughter, and an adopted Latino son. Intelligent, and with good taste, she can’t get a better house, a better neighborhood, and has to shop with her daughter at the thrift stores. TV veteran Laurie Metcalf is brilliant as Marion, the mother, and has already received a best supporting actress nomination from the Screen Actors Guild, as she did from the Golden Globes. She lights up every scene, her character trying desperately to control (over-control) the small side of her environment with tidiness, every day rules, restraints on herself and her children – because she can’t control her larger environment, including income and social standing.
Greta Gerwig is to be congratulated for carefully avoiding rendering the mother (and the Catholic school and its teachers) as cartoon depictions. The dialogue between mother and daughter, often very funny, always rings true. The mother is a real person – we tend to like her and understand her own frustrations, which she handles as best she can. The Catholic moments – lots of them – are often reverential, if sometimes mischievous. One can see that kids with ordinary backgrounds can experience the beauty, discipline, and sense of history in the Church – while Greta gets some tongue-in-cheek jabs at it via Lady Bird’s vexations and longings for a more exciting and meaningful life, which she imagines would come if only she could attend a fancy college in the East. Her parents, down on cash, want to steer her to nearby UC Davis, famous for its agricultural program (but a top notch liberal arts school, too), but she has bigger dreams. All the teachers and authority figures at the school are presented with affection – and the lasting influence of the Church is perhaps underlined in a lovely scene near the end when Lady Bird, now away from home, wanders into what appears to be either a Catholic or Episcopal church and listens for a few moments to the beautiful religious music of a choir.
Playwright Tracy Letts, who also doubles in acting, is perfect as the gentlemanly academic dad down at the heel, but sympathetic to his obstreperous daughter. Lady Bird’s overweight best friend, Julie, is beautifully realized by Beanie Feldstein; Julie is good in math, but not at attracting boys – their BFF relationship later threatened a bit when Lady Bird cozies up to the good-looking and wealthy charmer, Jenna, who represents the social circles Lady Bird wishes she could reach (Odeya Rush is just right in this role). Lady Bird’s crushes on boys and the resulting disappointments provide some of the funniest moments in the movie.
Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, with an impeccable American accent, provides Lady Bird with a bit of Gret Gerwig’s own on-screen charm, while carving out a teen girl overcome with longing. It’s a fine performance and will be recognized so by the Oscar nominating voters. Comedies rarely win best picture Oscars, but “Lady Bird” is certain to be nominated. It is not a big picture, but an admirably sculpted small one, springing like Minerva from the forehead of Greta Gerwig, whose script and direction are right on the mark. This movie could have been a sitcom, or a vulgar satire. Instead, it is touching (tearfully so near the end), engaging, nicely wrought, and enjoyable throughout: 215 critics (out of 216) can’t be wrong. Make me the 216th.