Wonderstruck (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Todd Haynes has a lot of his own history to live up to.

After establishing himself as an audacious talent with “Superstar” (which used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter), he became a pioneer of the “new queer cinema” with “Poison,” and broke through to the mainstream by reinventing the glossy Hollywood melodrama in “Far from Heaven.”  He has pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative form, subverted cinematic tropes to challenge definitions of gay culture imposed by heteronormative society, and given voice to “otherness” through a medium in which it has historically been repressed.

With a pedigree like that, it may come as a surprise that, for his latest work, he has chosen to make what is essentially a feel-good family film.

Such a pairing of director to material might seem unlikely, at first; but once the film starts rolling, it doesn’t take long to realize that Haynes and “Wonderstruck” are a match made in movie heaven.

Through two interwoven stories, taking place 50 years apart, its the saga of two young runaways.  In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who has recently lost his mother to a traffic accident – embarks on a quest to find his father, whom he has never known; in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees her tyrannical father and goes to New York to seek out her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  As their tales proceed, it becomes clear that the parallels between these two children are more than just a similarity of detail, and that they are somehow linked across time by the answers they pursue.

The conceit is inherently both literary and “gimmicky,” but the director – along with author Brian Selznick, who adapted the thoughtful screenplay from his own 2011 novel of the same name – has turned both those qualities into building blocks for pure cinema.  Known for appropriating vintage techniques in his work, Haynes takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore two widely different periods in a single film.  Each story is framed in the visual language of its era, utilizing the gritty milieu and unmistakable color palette of seventies cinema for Ben’s segments and the richly evocative black-and-white grandeur of the silent screen for Rose’s.  Both affectations, as executed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, are exquisitely realized, making “Wonderstruck,” perhaps above all else, a bewitching treat for the eyes.

Likewise, Haynes’ musical choices are canny reflections of each period.   His oft-noted love for seventies “outre” rock finds expression in Ben’s timeline through astute selections by David Bowie, Fripp and Eno, and Sweet; for Rose’s silent world, the near-constant orchestral accompaniment (by Haynes regular Carter Burwell) eloquently provides the emotional cues made necessary by the lack of spoken dialogue.

Equally on target are the film’s performances.  The ever-luminous Moore, a longtime muse for the director, proves yet again that she is one of her generation’s most gifted actresses with her virtually wordless performance.  Michelle Williams, as Ben’s doomed mother, strikes a perfect balance of warmth and melancholy.

Superb as these seasoned veterans are, the film rightly belongs to the trio of younger actors around whom its plot revolves.

Fegley and Simmonds both give mature, fleshed-out portrayals that engage our empathy for the duration of the film; and the winning Jaden Michael is a joy as Jaime, the lonely and sensitive boy who befriends Ben, providing an emotional ground in the here-and-now for a story which otherwise deals in unrequited connections between past and future.

It is the man behind the camera, however, who is the real star of “Wonderstruck.”  Though this heart-tugging fable about the enduring power of love might, in other hands, seem sappy and manipulative, Haynes – as much chameleon as auteur – embraces its sentimental qualities and deploys them with unflinching sincerity within the framework of his own distinctive style.  Informed by his fascination with semiotics, he explores its themes through layers of meaning intricately woven throughout its recurring motifs.  His use of the film’s preoccupation with architecture and museums is by itself worthy of extensive commentary – but the riches of this “cabinet of wonders” are best left to experience first-hand.

As a side note, Haynes is an “out” film director who has reached a place of prominence in the industry, and as such carries the hopes and expectations of an entire community on his shoulders.  Although “Wonderstruck” is a “non-queer” story, it is told with unmistakably queer sensibilities.  As always, Haynes gives us a film about societal “outliers” trying to find their place in a world that has no room for them – something that goes right to the heart of the LGBTQ experience, yet speaks to the yearnings of a broader audience as well.

This universal appeal means that most viewers will likely fall in love with “Wonderstruck.”  Not only is it Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is one of those rare films that truly deserves to be called “magical.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.

 

 

 

Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

Trumbo (2015)

mv5bmjm1mdc2otq3nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0njq1nje-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

When most younger Americans hear the phrase “Cold War,” it likely conjures vague impressions of backyard bomb shelters and spy vs. spy intrigue in far-flung corners of the world; but when confronted with the acronym “HUAC,” odds are good that many of them will be able to come up with nothing more than a blank stare.  That’s a pity, because in today’s political climate, the history of the House Un-American Activity Committee should be an essential cornerstone of our cultural knowledge.  For that reason alone, “Trumbo,” director Jay Roach’s new biopic about the most prominent member of the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” is a must-see.

I won’t go into detail about the anti-Communist hysteria in post-WWII America- after all, this is a film review, not a history lesson.  Suffice to say that Dalton Trumbo was a prominent Hollywood screenwriter, called before congress to answer questions about his affiliations to the American Communist Party.  Standing on his constitutional rights, he refused to cooperate; not only was he convicted of contempt, political pressure on the Hollywood establishment resulted in a blacklist which prevented the hiring of film artists who would not testify before the congressional committee, and he was left with no means to make a living despite being one of the most lauded scribes in the industry.  “Trumbo,” recounts this history, and goes on from there to detail the story of the writer’s determined climb out of the ashes.

John McNamara’s screenplay focuses its attention on the man himself, giving us a whirlwind tour of his 13-year struggle, and intertwining the political with the personal through an emphasis on private scenes- as well as some healthy dashes of humor along the way.  Through the periphery of Trumbo’s story, we are given glimpses of careers destroyed, lives ruined, and good people forced to betray their friends and their ideals.  The result is a film that delivers a timely socio-political warning about governmental overreach, disguised as a safe, middle-of-the-road narrative.

Some might argue that the story of this dark chapter in Hollywood history might be better told by a less “Hollywood” movie.  Even through its darkest moments, we know that the hero will triumph and the powers that oppress him will be vanquished.  Most were not so lucky; their careers were permanently derailed, and the few survivors still had to wait years after the blacklist fell before getting work.  In addition, though it strives to convey the complex ethics of the situation, it paints at least one character (notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) as a clear target for the audience’s moral outrage without offering any satisfactory insight into the motivations which may have driven her.  It should also be said that “Trumbo” “re-arranges” facts for smoother story-telling- standard movie-making procedure, perhaps, but regrettable, nonetheless.

Such quibbling aside, the film delivers a solid, honorable account of a determined man’s journey through darkness.  Contributing to that is a meticulous recreation of the mid-century period, achieved through set and costume designs that convey the passage of time by reflecting subtle changes in the prevailing styles.  More important, though, are the strong performances, provided by an ensemble ranging from familiar Oscar-winners to relative unknowns.  A few standouts: Michael Stuhlberg, portraying actor Edward G. Robinson through suggestion rather than impersonation; John Goodman, hilarious as the no-nonsense producer who employed Trumbo during the blacklist; and Helen Mirren as Hopper, who reveals the tough-as-nails power-player masquerading as a blowsy busybody while still managing to give us glimmers of her humanity- despite the script’s failure to do so.

The impressive cast, however, rightly takes a back seat to Bryan Cranston, who displays his astonishing range with every subtle shift of expression.  He completely inhabits the larger-than-life Trumbo with an authenticity that never makes him seem affected.  He’s a delight to watch- the image of him doggedly typing away in the bathtub is bound to become iconic- but never afraid to show us Trumbo’s ugly side; and despite his exceptional work throughout, he saves the best for his final, moving recreation of a late-in-life speech that and leaves us with a powerful impression of Trumbo’s integrity.

That integrity, of course, is a given from the beginning of the film; but “Trumbo” is not meant to surprise.  It is meant, rather, to retell of a story that should always be retold.  As its postscript reminds us, the Communist witch hunt affected people in all segments of the population, not just members of the Hollywood elite.  Though set in a time gone by, the film is chillingly contemporary; and if paranoia and political opportunism can combine to persecute a wealthy white man, then who is really safe?  It’s easy to point out that none of us are Trumbo- but his story serves as a reminder that he could be any one of us.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

The Revenant (2015)

 

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

With a title like “The Revenant,” one might expect the newest work by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to be a horror movie.  Indeed, though its name is meant only as a metaphoric reference to the central character’s experience, many viewers may find themselves horrified by much of its content and imagery.  This is not a criticism; rather, it’s a warning to viewers who might otherwise be unprepared for the level of intensity attempted- and achieved- by Iñárritu as he tells this story of determination and survival within the terrifying beauty of the natural world.

The screenplay, by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, is based “in part” on a novel by Michael Punke, which was itself based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman, he was part of an 1823 fur trading expedition in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; abandoned and left for dead by his comrades after sustaining severe injuries on the trail, he managed to crawl 200 miles to the nearest settlement- despite his grave condition, the harsh weather, and the danger from hostile Arikara war parties in the region.  The real Glass became something of a legend, to be sure; through the combined dramatic embellishments of Parke’s novel and the movie’s script, that legend is transformed into a classical revenge tragedy exploring the contrast between the savagery and nobility of man.

To go into any more detail about the plot would be difficult, not so much for fear of giving away the twists and turns of the story as for the sake of preserving the revelatory power of the film’s key moments.  Iñárritu uses a fluid camera to immerse his audience, creating an effect which is less like watching a series of events take place than it is like being in the midst of them as they arise and recede.  It’s disorienting and overwhelming; the vast scope of the wilderness setting, the camera’s restless focus, the hyper-reality of the natural light and the meticulously crafted soundscape- all these combine to form an atmosphere pregnant with surprises, both wondrous and terrible.  When those surprises come, the film commands a visceral response that rises beyond mere involvement in its narrative and connects you with that primal corner of your psyche that still sends prickles up your spine whenever you hear an animal howling in the darkness of night.  Iñárritu, far from rehearsing yet another big-screen tale that could easily have been lifted from a samurai epic or “spaghetti” western, seeks to provide his audience with a concrete experience of unthinkable occurrences.

It may have been the director’s audacious vision to bring such remarkable things to the screen, but an expert team was necessary to realize it.  The film’s roving camerawork, though carefully plotted by Iñárritu, was executed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also managed to give every shot a surreal and luminous beauty that haunts the memory long after the film is over.  Accompanying the stunning visuals is the ethereal score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (in collaboration with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which contributes its own sense of stark detachment and otherworldly grace to the action.  In front of the lens, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a raw performance, possibly his best to date, as Glass; he communicates a profound range of humanity with a minimal amount of dialogue, in spite (or perhaps because) of the sheer physical ordeal of filming the role.  No less effective is Tom Hardy as the darker half of the story’s human conflict, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man who has become hardened into the personification of self-serving indifference.

“The Revenant” certainly feels unprecedented, but it does not completely escape its very “Hollywood” roots.  It retains many of the familiar tropes found throughout decades of frontier adventure movies, and it yields to the temptation of rewriting history in order to provide the kind of satisfying climactic showdown expected in such fare.  Nevertheless, Iñárritu, who is Mexican, brings an outsider’s perspective to this inherently American milieu and transcends its form to offer something beyond expectation.  Even as he charts the inexorable force of will that drives the drama, he confronts us with the breathtaking enormity of Nature and thereby forces us to contemplate our own irrelevance in the face of its awesome power.  He took well-documented pains to do so- going over budget and behind schedule in order to shoot his film in sequence with natural light, under grueling and dangerous conditions which sometimes endangered his cast and crew- but the payoff is visible in every extraordinary frame.  “The Revenant” shows us a kind of cold, profound beauty that is rarely seen in a mainstream American film, and that is a precious reward for those who have the stamina to endure it.

 

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

WITCH

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, is a horror movie which asks us to suspend our modern-day disbelief in order to accept that witchcraft, black magic, and Satanic possession are as much a part of the real world as its family of 17th Century protagonists considers them to be.  Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” and based on the lore of a region and era in which widespread hysteria over such matters infamously culminated in the Salem witch trials, it informs us that much of its dialogue is taken directly from official transcripts of first-hand accounts from the period.  It strives to convince us of its authenticity, seeming to insist that our ability to accept the literal truth of what it shows us is crucial to our understanding of the story.

Set in New England of the early 1600s, it follows a family of settlers who have been cast out of their Puritan community for their preaching their own strictly conservative beliefs.  They establish a farm on the edge of the wilderness, where father William rules the family with a firm but loving hand; he daily performs the hard work required to maintain their home with the help of his eldest, daughter Thomasin, and her brother, Caleb; mother Kate tends to her newest baby, while the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, spend their days playing with the goats in the stable.  For a time, they seem to thrive, living an austere but tranquil life.  Their fortunes take a turn, however, when baby Samuel, while under the watch of Thomasin, suddenly disappears from their midst.  Though William insists the infant was taken by a wolf, it soon becomes apparent that another sinister presence from the woods is responsible, and as its mysterious grip tightens around the isolated family they find themselves terrorized by events that challenge not only their deeply-held faith in God, but their faith in each other, as well.

In the hands of many directors, this plot would undoubtedly be the framework for a host of lurid thrills and cheap shocks.  Indeed, throughout The Witch, horror buffs may find themselves repeatedly expecting the requisite “surprise” pop-up frights, and waiting for the slow build to explode into a progression of ever-grislier mutilation and carnage.

Eggers, however, has a different experience in mind; through both his screenplay and his meticulous staging of the film, he avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on maintaining and reinforcing the kind of realism more reminiscent of a subtle period drama than an over-the-top fright flick.  Not only are the costumes and the settings simple and historically accurate, the language of the dialogue is written and spoken with the ring of period authenticity.  The cinematography (elegantly executed by Jarin Blaschke) uses mostly natural and available light to remain firmly rooted in the real world while still using plenty of shadow to evoke the implied darkness lurking in the heart of the story, and Eggers artfully frames his shots to create painterly images that are nevertheless tangibly naturalistic.

Perhaps most critically, the actors are uniformly superb, a true ensemble cast.  Each member of the family is portrayed with the kind of absolute honesty that reveals complex and unexpected layers of humanity; even the youngest children are remarkably believable, a fact which enhances the overall effect of the film’s horror immeasurably.  All deserve equal credit.  .

It is the film’s well-crafted realism, though, that may prove its fatal flaw, for some audiences.  Everything about it, from its title to its haunting score (composed by Mark Korven), tells you that it is a horror film, but- on the surface at least- it doesn’t play like one.  The pace is slow, and the implied menace is rarely shown.  Even the title character herself barely appears onscreen, though we are emphatically expected to believe in her.

The brilliance of Eggers’ movie, of course, is that it never really does expect us to do that.  The movie hinges on the certainty that we will question the reality of this family’s experience and analyze it on a deeper level.  This is no cautionary tale about danger in the literal woods; rather, it’s a warning about what happens when we isolate ourselves within our beliefs- at odds with our communities, our loved ones, and our own true nature.  The interpersonal drama of the little family we are shown gives us plenty of clues about the real evil that is tearing them apart, and it comes from within, not from without.  It is this sly and subversive subtext running through its center that makes The Witch stand apart within its genre.  It may not terrify, but it provokes, and that is what will linger in your memory.

Well, that, and a certain black goat…

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby 2013 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Great Gatsby, director Baz Luhrmann’s appropriately extravagant 2013 screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic “Great American Novel” about an enigmatic millionaire at the center of New York’s Jazz Age social whirl and the intrigues and entanglements which surround him at his Long Island estate.  The fifth film to be based upon the classic book and arguably the most ambitious, it takes special pains to recreate the giddy, opulent atmosphere of the “roaring twenties,” as well as making a direct connection to the contemporary party culture through its interpolation of modern pop music, and striving to translate the story’s introspective style into a strong visual narrative.  Buoyed by the box office appeal of its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Luhrmann’s reputation for making wildly eccentric- and hugely successful- films that combine high art with pop culture (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge), it has met with considerable box office enthusiasm.  Reactions, however, have been dramatically mixed, from critics and the public alike, ranging from enthusiastic praise to vehement antipathy.

The screenplay, by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, frames Fitzgerald’s plot as a flashback, told by the depressed and alcoholic Nick Carraway- the novel’s narrator- as he receives treatment in a sanitarium.  In the summer of 1922, the young war veteran moves to New York to work in the booming stock market.  He rents a small cottage in an affluent Long Island community, near his cousin, Daisy, and her wealthy husband, Tom Buchanan; a far more intriguing neighbor, however, is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, whose palatial mansion next door to Nick is the site of spectacular parties at which New York’s “glitterati” cavort each weekend, and whose origins are the subject of many wild and conflicting rumors.  As the summer progresses, Nick becomes entwined in the affairs and intrigues of the wealthy social whirl that surrounds him; he is “fixed-up” by Daisy with professional golfer Jordan Baker, he is made an unwilling confidante and accomplice in Tom’s infidelities with working-class housewife Myrtle Wilson, and he eventually receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties.  There, surrounded by the free-spirited excesses of the Jazz Age- flappers, movie stars, musicians, gangsters, politicians, and businessmen, all mingling together in a seemingly endless sea of illegal liquor- he finally meets his infamous neighbor.  Gatsby- who is surprisingly young, handsome, and courteous- is a man possessed of a singular and intangible charisma, to which the idealistic Nick is immediately drawn; the millionaire courts his friendship, taking care to establish his own integrity.  In time, Gatsby reveals that five years previously, as a soldier preparing to depart for the war, he had a brief romance with Nick’s cousin Daisy, and though he promised to return and marry her, he kept himself apart while amassing his fortune; unwilling to wait indefinitely, and presented with a proposal from the rich and handsome Tom, she married, and now her former lover hopes to win her back- with Nick’s help.  Though he has mixed feelings about the morality of the situation, Nick agrees to facilitate a reunion between the pair, and their passion is rekindled- but Gatsby’s noble optimism may not be enough to overturn the jealously guarded status quo of the privileged elite, and the surfacing secrets of his past may shatter the spectacular dream he has so carefully built upon them.

Fitzgerald’s novel, a labor of love for the struggling author whose earlier successes were behind him and who was actively striving to create a lasting and definitive work, was a commercial and critical disappointment when it was published in 1925; it was seen as a shallow and inferior book by a formerly great writer, and by the time Fitzgerald died fifteen years later, it was largely forgotten, except by those who saw it as a quaint and nostalgic period piece, and its creator went to his grave believing himself and his magnum opus to be failures.  In the disillusionment of the post WWII era, however, the book’s theme of naive optimism crushed by cynical reality began to take on a new resonance, and The Great Gatsby rose to prominence as one of the quintessential American novels, eventually being ranked by literary critics and scholars as one of the most important books of all time and becoming standard curriculum in high school English classes the world over.  In the nine decades since its publication, it has become increasingly noted for its timelessness; it possesses a quality of universal relevance, for within the highly specific time and place of its setting it tells a story that touches on experiences of human life that exist in any era.  Consequently, like most great novels, it has repeatedly found its way in front of the camera, and though it’s hard to accurately gauge the relative success of these cinematic incarnations- the original silent version from 1926 is now considered a lost film, and the 1949 remake with Alan Ladd is largely unavailable due to copyright issues- the consensus seems to be that the results have been more or less disappointing.  Anyone familiar with the book itself will find this unsurprising; much of the story’s depth and power comes not from the events of its plot but from the private observations of its narrator, Nick Carraway, through which Fitzgerald’s voice infuses Gatsby’s tragic tale with meaning and significance, as well as providing acute insights on human nature, complex ethical and philosophical ideas, and a fairly sizable portion of social and cultural commentary.  Besides the obvious and uninspired use of voice-over narration, this crucial element of The Great Gatsby has proven virtually impossible to translate to the visual medium of cinema without sacrificing most of its potency- until now.

With Baz Luhrmann behind the camera, this previously insurmountable obstacle becomes instead a means by which to transform a literary masterwork into a breathlessly cinematic experience; rather than taking the expected course of offering a dramatization of the outward events of the plot, thereby rendering extraneous the all-important narration, he has constructed his film as a visualization of Nick’s memories and impressions, thus filtering the story of Gatsby’s idealistic quest through his eyes, and making the movie- like the book- a reflection of his internal reality rather than an objective record of events.  In doing so, the director frees himself from the understated simplicity of the novel- one of its most admired strengths- and allows for a limitless influx of the over-the-top theatricality which has defined his career.  The narration has been restored to its rightful place as the key component to experiencing the story, and Luhrmann employs the tactics of modern filmmaking to bring it into sharp focus, translating literary conceits into clear, striking imagery without regard for maintaining an illusion of realism.  It’s a bold approach, and a canny one, for while the book’s sedate detachment is a springboard for the reader’s imagination into the passion and drama beneath the surface, such a technique is better suited for the page than for the silver screen; by making the kind of florid, outrageous choices for which he is famous, Luhrmann uses aural and visual stimulation to bring about a heightened emotional state in a more directly visceral way.  The end result is the same, but the style which brings it to us is, appropriately enough, purely cinematic.

To describe the world Luhrmann conjures for The Great Gatsby in detail would be an overwhelming task, but anyone familiar with his elegantly excessive sensibilities can easily imagine the result of bringing them into a recreation of the Jazz Age, an era of such noisy and self-indulgent flourish that even the most flamboyant exaggeration cannot be said to go too far.  The screen is filled with a maelstrom of period fashion and design, meticulously realized and embellished with all the high-tech magic of a 21st-Century production.  The filmmaker seeks to over-saturate us, not simply in order to magnify our emotional response but to simulate, as much as possible, the giddy energy of the period’s amplified lifestyle, making it clear that every speeding car, frantic dancer, and crowded speakeasy is a pointed and obvious metaphor for the reckless mindset of the age. The camera zooms and twirls through crowds of dancing, reveling party people, piecing together its imagery with a mosaic of rapid cuts and juxtaposed images and making the film’s first two thirds feel like an ongoing bacchanalia; even when the scene changes- to luxurious estates, sumptuous rooms, bustling offices, and (in all their CG-rendered glory) the glittering streets and skylines of New York City- there is a constant sense of urgent movement, providing an appropriate and irresistible feeling of pushing forward to whatever spectacular experience comes next.  In this way, Luhrmann manages to capture the heady, progressive character of the twenties, with all its lax morality and blasé sophistication, in a much more tangible way than most previous films about the period, which often fall prey to a tendency towards the stiff and pretentious- or worse yet, to the quaint and precious- in an attempt to tell the story through imitating the stylistic means of the time itself.  Far from undertaking a recreation of twenties-era filmmaking, he instead pulls out all the stops available in the modern age, not only with the aforementioned computer-enhanced scenery and hi-tech camera fluidity, but by using audaciously contemporary conceptual imagery to bring some of the novel’s more abstract literary conceits (the famous “green light,” the ever-watching eyes of the oculist’s billboard, the utilitarian hellscape of the “City of Ashes”) to life in ways that would be impossible- even unimaginable- in the early days of cinema.  He even goes so far as to make his movie as a 3D blockbuster- and like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby is an example of how this state-of-the-art technology can be elevated from the level of a mere gimmick to an effective artistic embellishment by a true master of the craft.

All this visual opulence has given The Great Gatsby a decidedly dream-like quality, reminding us that what we are watching are the larger-than-life memories of the tale’s narrator, romanticized and heightened by his emotional state; suitably enough, after the parties have ended and the sordid truths have begun to emerge, and the story moves towards its denouement, the golden-hued, luminescent reality of Gatsby’s world takes on the semblance of a nightmare- still the glowing dreamscape, but now tinged with dread, foreboding, and sadness, it is a world in which the shimmering lights taunt us and the fixtures of luxury seem cold and comfortless.  For some, this change in the movie’s thrust, from the fast and furious to the slow and sorrowful, seems to make for an anticlimax in which the promise of the first 90-or-so minutes diffuses into a limping, unsatisfying conclusion; this, of course, is precisely the point of The Great Gatsby– the world it depicts is full of people going nowhere fast, riding a whirlwind of careless abandon towards the assumed certainty of an ever-brighter tomorrow, but we know (as Fitzgerald may have, in some way, foreseen) that their overconfident fantasy will come abruptly crashing down with the stock market just a few short years later.  Gatsby himself is their champion, a uniquely American figure who reinvents himself in the image he wishes to present, believing that wishing can ultimately make it so, and never permits doubt to enter into his thinking or his plans; anything is possible for him, so he thinks, if he wants it badly enough.  It’s a seductive idea, and one which all of us, to some degree, would love to believe in; Gatsby’s failure, then, becomes our own, and Luhrmann’s film does not allow us to deny it within ourselves by distracting us with the continual flash of the previous scenes.  In the end, all of Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzle falls away to reveal a stark and sobering human truth, conveying the purpose of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece by providing a full sensory experience which allows it to hit us not just on an intellectual level, but right where we live.

Though my own response to Luhrmann’s vision of Fitzgerald’s novel may have been highly positive, it should be noted that others have not been quite so appreciative as I.  As mentioned above, reactions to The Great Gatsby have been wildly mixed, unsurprisingly for a film by this particular director.  Baz Luhrmann is one of those filmmakers whose personal style is not only unique and unmistakable, but also aesthetically controversial; as a rule, audiences (and critics) either love or hate his work, with very little middle ground.  With a sensibility that might best be described as low-rent Bohemian glamour, he is unapologetically operatic, deliberately provocative, and audaciously eclectic; he challenges our expectations and preconceptions by imposing contemporary attitudes onto whatever material he happens to be exploring, whether it be the Renaissance poetry of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the Parisian post-impressionist fantasia of Moulin Rouge.  His most controversial tactic by far is his prominent use of anachronism in his artistic choices, and Gatsby is no exception.  By far the biggest sore spot for most of the film’s detractors is its use of modern-day pop music- rap, hip-hop, “indie” rock- in the film’s soundtrack, a jarring device which directly opposes the visual (if heightened) authenticity of the 1922 world he has so painstakingly orchestrated.  To be sure, it seems, on first analysis, to be a blatant ploy designed to capture the attention of the youth demographic so coveted by studio executives wishing to maximize their profits; but as the movie progresses, it becomes plain that Luhrmann, who seamlessly interweaves the contemporary material into the genuine period jazz which accompanies the action, has a more pointed artistic agenda here.  The juxtaposition of this familiar “now” sound with the equally familiar (and, for many, dated) sound of the era’s music makes an unmistakable and instantaneous connection between the fast-living partiers which surround Gatsby and the modern-day club culture of which many of the movie’s audiences are presumably a part.  With this over-the-top stroke, Luhrmann succeeds in bringing home the point that, though separated by several generations and countless shifts in cultural interest, the people on the screen are, in essence, the same as the people seated in the theater.  Though it may be difficult for many to overcome their disapproval of Luhrmann’s choice, it is undeniable that it’s an effective tool, and in truth, there is a sense that the strains of Florence + the Machine, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé are a sort of reverse echo from the future, an otherworldly intrusion that we are meant to hear but to which the characters onscreen are oblivious.  Seen this way- and given the fact that Luhrmann has remained diligently faithful to Fitzgerald in both plot and thematic substance, as well as providing a remarkably detailed and authentic recreation of the time and place of the novel’s setting, The Great Gatsby is probably the director’s least anachronistic film.

Without question, the star of this Gatsby is its Australian director; but acknowledgement must be made to his fine cast, charged with putting faces to these iconic characters, who manage to rise admirably to the task- one which is made no less difficult by Luhrmann’s sensibilities, which insist on maintaining Fitzgerald’s already-elevated language in a deliberately heightened style.  Front and center, of course, is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in the title role; he is well-suited to play Gatsby, handsome and confident, but with an innate sensitivity that seems almost to be deliberately- and ultimately, unsuccessfully- concealed.  He makes this archetypal American dreamer into a flesh-and-blood individual, whose shining veneer is full of cracks that allow glimpses of the flawed psyche that lies beneath; we get a real sense, from almost his first appearance, that this pretty package contains damaged goods, but his charm and his sincerity- even when he is most obviously putting on a not-very-convincing front and telling the most outrageous untruths- are so engaging that we, like Nick, are naturally drawn in, and we like him despite our ever-growing certainty that he is not what he seems to be.  The more we learn, the more we sympathize with him and long for the success of his grand, romantic undertaking, and though this is partly due to Fitzgerald’s skill in creating the character (and Luhrmann’s skill at translating it into film), DiCaprio deserves full credit for successfully bringing what is clearly a deep understanding of this complex figure to his work here.  In the difficult role of Nick, who is in many ways an outsider to the story, but upon whom so much depends, Tobey Maguire also does stellar work.  Taking clear inspiration from the notion of his character as a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself (a conceit made obvious by the film’s framing device), he gives us a young man with all the manic emotional intensity of a burgeoning alcoholic, indulging in outrageous behavior and introspective intimacy yet always seeming aloof and distant, concealing a surging ocean of depth and feeling behind a faintly bemused, stoic expression.  Thanks to Luhrmann’s stylistic window, we are allowed to see past this placid exterior to the poetic soul which fuels the narrative, and when his pent-up passions finally explode forth, Maguire’s roaring performance elevates Nick to his deserved status as the true hero of the tale, rather than the parenthetical necessity so often presented in previous attempts to dramatize The Great Gatsby.  Joel Edgerton, stuck with the difficult role of Tom Buchanan, is able to bring out the humanity of this elitist, misogynistic racist, though to make such a pointedly hateful man sympathetic is beyond his- or, perhaps, any actor’s- abilities; Elizabeth Debicki fares better as Jordan Baker, presenting the quintessentially chic, sophisticated, and disaffected flapper in a long, lean package that manages to be likable despite the character’s inherent coldness; and Isla Fisher, though her Myrtle Wilson suffers from having a bare minimum of screen time and therefore pales in (the perhaps unfair) comparison to Karen Black’s standout performance of the same role in Jack Clayton’s 1974 film version, shows us both the appealing sparkle and the desperate longing of this tragic girl who is forced, by both the men in her life, to hide her light under a squalid, ashy bushel.  The film’s best performance, though, comes from Carey Mulligan, as Daisy; vilified by so many commentators as a vapid and shallow representative of self-absorbed materialism, the focus of Gatsby’s obsession becomes, thanks to the intelligence of this gifted actress, a real woman, torn apart by the conflicting impulses of her heart and the ingrained conditioning of her social role.  Though Fitzgerald’s portrait of Daisy leaves her inner experience a mystery, Mulligan lets us in, and shows us the pain, the fear, and the heartbreak that goes on as she struggles towards making her choice, and plainly shows us that it is a difficult and heartbreaking choice for her; because of this sensitivity and humanity, we can see why Gatsby should want her so badly- the unspoken depth she reveals validates his obsession, and rescues his character from shallowness, as well- and transforms this much-maligned character from a cruel and thoughtless child into as much a tragic victim of the status quo as her would-be paramour.  It’s a truly luminous performance, yet subtle enough in detail to go unnoticed and unappreciated by many; full recognition is deserved, however, and this remarkable English performer certainly gets it from me.

Ultimately, of course, The Great Gatsby is a movie that is destined to divide; like all revered books, its source novel evokes deeply personal responses in its readers, and it is inherently impossible for an adaptation in any form to satisfy all of them.  Coupled with Luhrmann’s love-it-or-hate-it style of cinema, it is inevitable that many audiences would be left cold- or, just as likely, be actively outraged- by this film’s approach.  It is unlikely that anything I could say would sway those who dislike it, but for viewers with an open mind and a love for outside-the-box filmmaking, this is a movie that deserves a chance; as a fan of the book, I expected to be disappointed, but instead I found Luhrmann’s version not only exceptionally true to Fitzgerald’s original, but loaded with the kind of passion and insight that thrills me and reminds me why I love movies so much.  Is it eclectic and sometimes jarring to accepted sensibilities?  Absolutely, and that’s one of the reasons it worked so well for me.  Most of all, though, it is the work of a bold and consummate artist who was driven- by his own love of the material- to create a lavish and definitive representation of this resonant literary touchstone, and though I can understand why some may take exception to a few of his personal touches, for me it is beyond question that he has succeeded, far beyond reasonable expectation.  Baz Luhrmann has managed, after 87 years, to finally give us a film that conveys why The Great Gatsby is, truly, great.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1343092/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.