“First Man” 2018

Director Damian Chazelle of “Whiplash” 2014 and “ La La Land” 2016 has another winner in this year’s “First Man”. Emotionally satisfying, if a bit long, this retrospective of the NASA ‘s space program highlights Neil Armstrong’s path to becoming the first man to walk on the moon’s powdery surface.

The film begins with Ryan Gosling as Armstrong bouncing  off the atmosphere and through monstrous sound and tremendous vibrations fighting the space capsule and returning to Earth. He is an engineer who knows how to get home. Home plays a big part of this film. Claire Foy, of Queen Victoria fame, plays Neil’s wife, Jan. They lose a toddler daughter to brain cancer, and we grieve with them. They are a couple that use words sparingly. They dance; they touch; they stare into each other’s eyes, and they understand and are committed to their individual goals, be it supportive wife or space adventurer. The early nineteen sixties it is!

The screenplay written by Josh Singer is based on James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong. Hanson is a retired history professor and taught at Auburn University in Alabama. Hanson helped produce the film of America’s most famous astronaut. We hear Neil say little. When asked by a Gemini interviewing-committee-member if the recent death of his daughter would affect his performance, he replied that “ it would be unreasonable to think it would not have some effect.” Later, and not very surprisingly, we see him place his daughter’s bracelet on the moon. Why it doesn’t float away is unclear.

The lunar topography is what we have come to expect, but Armstrong’s thoughtful comment about how its vantage point changes your perspective is well-taken. There is a reverence for creation that I like. Competition with the Russians and the politics of NASA spending seem almost secondary to the thirst to know more about our world.

There are some good cinematic shots of wet shadows on the floor in NASA garage facilities, as well as moon shots. The sound editing is relentless in relaying every creak  and groan and brain-shaking vibration. We experience becoming one with the machine. It is not pleasant. When floating quiet does come, we are relieved.

The back and forth rhythm between the familial and the astronautical is well-paced. When Jan is cut off from hearing her husband’s and the station’s chatter, she balks. She demands to be privy in present time. “ Don’t give me that this is protocal” , she seems to be saying. “  Protocol is for making people think you have things under control.” Neil’s hatch opening, his tethered breathing, his boot imprint, and his panoramic reflections are more respectful than euphoric. We remember neighbor’s thumbprint cookies and his small son’s questions, and his wife’s laugh. The film ends with Neil in quarantine and Jan sitting outside the glass partition. She waits for him to initiate. Non-verbally, he does. We feel he has reached his destination.

This is a film championing, as Walter Cronkite called them, “sailors of the sky”.  Somber in sacrifice and majestic in intent, NASA seems to be asking us not to push “ the abort” button on space exploration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Colette”

The Belle Époque Era never looked more gorgeous than in this new period piece based on the first marriage of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The interiors are resplendent; the outside nature scenes verdant. And Keira Knightley has never been better. Add a beautiful original score and this is a not-to-be-missed film.

Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, but many do not know the early story of her first husband, Henri Gautier Villars and how he acquired fame  through ghost writers. His best ghost writer was his young and talented wife, Colette. When she asked for her name to be placed on her Claudine novels, he refused. Like, “The Wife” ( reviewed Sept. 19th, 2018) woman as kingmakers  is the theme of the year, as rightly so given the manosphere times.

Director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland highlights fluid gender and has Colette’s husband, played remarkably by Dominic West, sanction Colette’s lesbian trysts as long as he profits, both physically and financially. He is quite the libertine in frequenting prostitutes and keeping creditors at bay. He sells soap, perfume, fans, and even candy under the Claudine name. “ Since when is scandal  bad thing?”, he coos. When he bends to pick up the post, he inadvertently farts to Colette dismay. “ Intimacy in all its abandon, my dear.” is his response. The writing is good.

West plays Willy, a soldier friend of Colette’s father. He romances the nineteen-year-old Colette with fawning visits and presents. One gift being a snow globe containing the Eiffel Tower. Later, Willy describes the tower as a gigantic erection that he is rather jealous of….and so it goes. Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Westmoreland are having fun.

This is a character driven film, and Knightley is a period piece’s dream. She tells Willy that she can read him like the top of an optimologist’s chart. Colette’s mother, Sido ( Fiona Shaw) , played with great nuance after her cruel, step-mother role in the film “Lizzie”, understands her son-in-law, too. “ A mess, a profligate” , Sido ( Colette’s real mother’s name was Adele)  calls him. Willy sells the rights to Colette’s Claudine novels for a mere 5,000 francs, and Colette tells him that he has “killed our child”. We learn from the film’s endnotes that Colette never spoke to Willy again.

Cinematographer Gile Nuttgens does his magic with a cat on an unmade bed, a bejeweled tortoise, velvet sets all in candle glow. Add an original Thomas Ades’ musical score to the lushness and we have a feast of movement interspersed with the silence of writing desks and ink wells. Denise Hough and Eleanor Tomlinson are both deliciously dressed and willing consorts to Colette. I loved it as a feminist coming-of -age story.

“Fahrenheit 11/9”

Michael Moore begins with a smart title and ends with a call to action. “This Girl is on Fire” would be an apt theme song. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a worthy star, and those like her. Those who take no money from special interest groups may be democracy’s last hope.

The boiling point and this retrospective of how America ended up with Donald Trump as President begins with the   snide question: “ Was it all a dream?” and then morphs into snippets of commentators and recognizable politicos overtly saying “ Donald Trump will never be President of the United States”. As many famous faces merely scoff and laugh at the idea, footage of Hillary’s 85% to Trump’s 15% presage a done deal for electing the first woman to the Oval Office.  Michael Moore reminds us of what he warned, “Dismiss him  ( Donald Trump) at your own peril.”

The use of operatic music is effective in re-living the tragedy of Trump’s win. State by state: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina etc… sound the Wagnerian cry. We are reminded that Trump had written no victory speech. His image projected on the Empire State Building is superimposed with a voiceover of  “ How the fuck did this happen?” Smoothly, the next screen shot is of the making of a cast dummy. At the Wax Museum, Donald’s waxen image with orange woven hair morphs into Donald Trump live. Moore is a master at this, both in innuendo and direct assault.

Many points are made, and not much escapes criticism. The media were ecstatic with the “cash cow” of the apprentice presidency. Video sections of Trump bragging about “phoner interviews” and reams of incidences where Trump kept the media waiting are splayed out to damning effect. When the “circus does come to town”, crimes are committed in plain sight, and Donald’s words, “ I sort of get away with things like that.” ring a scary truth. Moore is good at this.

One of the creepier segments of this documentary/diatribe parades a  sequence of twelve to fifteen shots of Donald with his hands on his daughter, Ivanka. Somehow, we think of kneading freshly risen dough.

A segue using the voiceover: “Trump loves strong men.” has Moore introducing us to the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder. Snyder, once the CEO of Gateway computer company is a “ privatized” of public services. Moore is in home territory. His scathing depiction of the Flint water crisis is tongue-in-cheek laudatory: “CEO governor  pulls it off~ poisons a city. No terrorist government has accomplished this!”

O’Bama takes his hits, too. We are shown how when President O’Bama came to Flint and drank the water on camera, he minimized the problem. Detroit was used for target practice, and when General Motors’ car parts started to corrode because of Flint river water, the Lake Huron pipeline was diverted to remedy the problem. The residents of Flint were left with the water from the polluted Flint River, but the car parts were saved.

Goldman Sacks and the banking industry was a priority of the O’Bama administration, too. Clinton and Sanders are rebooted, and the electoral college is said to have been written to appease the slave states. Bury it if we wish for a true democracy, states Moore.

Education and gun control are fleshed out as well. The Parkland piece brought tears to my eyes. As did privatized schools and prisons. When information is controlled and all critics are discredited, we have a despot a foot.

Moore tells us that “history is a huge resource for patterns.” Hitler comparisons are made to Trump. Bother were outsiders who trumpeted putting their nations first. Crowds flocked to see them. German athletes who did not sing the National Anthem were punished.  Trump’s rhetoric is used side by side that of the Nazi party’s.

Amid all the liberal points made, is the overriding theme :Our government that we count on for basic protections is being dismantled by corporate interests. We get what we deserve unless we do something about it. “Democracy is only an aspiration in America.” “The America I want to save is the America we have never had.” We must mobilize for freedom, and keep idealism alive. Moore does inspire. The film is equally balanced between pessimism and idealism. The status quo is the enemy as much as “Big Phara” and the NRA. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” screams  for action and votes.

 

“Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden”

No amount of anger can render the kind of violence shown in the film “Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden” without labeling the perpetrator a psychopath. Twenty whacks in the face with a hatchet done twice and once stark naked is more than even any abused “me,tooer” can conjure. Sorry, screenwriter Bryce Kass has taken the Lizzie Borden story into the modern era with no awareness of nineteenth-century repressive mores.

The nudity is over the top while it does show maniacal planning. Basically, Lizzie’s intellectual prowess slides into mind numbing revenge for tampering with her freedom. Lizzie is not to leave the house unaccompanied, and her inheritance is strictly controlled. In similar Victorian times, Emily Dickinson, remember, had to seek permission from her father to write at night. Victorian women’s  issues, the class divide, and gender repression were all better seen in the 2017 film “ A Quiet Passion” with Cynthia Nixon playing poet Emily. Not that Chloë Sevigny does not do an admirable job, but the motivation is just not extreme enough~and I argue can never be if Lizzie is to be anything but insane.

The film’s pacing is flawed, too. Except for the violence, “Lizzie” is a  painfully slow film. Even the Shakespearean sonnet reading by gaslights and candles does not make up for days going by petting pigeons and picking pears.

Hateful looks make the thirty-two year old Lizzie ( Chloe Sevigny) look like a rebellious teen. The lesbian sex in the pigeon-house and it’s subsequent thrusting against the hay stacks is for a sensationalized motive~ never proven . Yet, the flashback approach and the August 4th, 1882 beginning shot, that has us looking at the back of Lizzie’s fragile neck while we have thoughts of her step-mother’s soon to be severed, is promising. The screenplay just doesn’t deliver.

The film is well cast with Jaime Sheridan in the role of horny, miserly dad. He tells Lizzie that her epileptic seizures set the family up to ridicule. Denis O’Hare is overtly unctuous as the oily uncle, John Morse; and Kristen Stewart as Irish maid and sexual consort to Lizzie and Father dearest is fawn-like in her victimhood.  Actress Fiona Shaw is a long-suffering, though hateful step-mom. I  like how  she delivers her understated line to her husband, “…I am astonished at the endless ways you find to humiliate yourself and this family.” Kim Dickens is a credible older sister, who happens to be away at a friend’s house when the blood is splattered.

Director Craig William MacNeil can’t do much with a script that edges toward slasher/repressed lesbian suspense noir.

We do see Lizzie as whip-smart and sharp-tongued. When a taunting young woman asks why Lizzie’s family keep their house so dark, Lizzie retorts with the query, “ Are you an Edison? You seem  fixated with illumination.” When Lizzie’s father catches the maid, whom he has forced to have sex with him now with Lizzie, he calls his daughter an abomination. Lizzie coolly responds with, “ At last, we are on equal footing.”

But if you are seeing “Lizzie” to better understand her or to fill in the blanks of her history, you are seeing the wrong historical drama. Missives of the threatening sort, all in the same hand, bombard the family. Mr. Borden is not well-liked. He punishes Lizzie by having her pet pigeons served for dinner. Yet, it deference to their wealthy family, the murder trial is a closed affair. One will have to watch the History Channel to get the facts on these  unsolved murders. The psycho-drama in “Lizzie” did not enlighten or work for me.

“The Wife”

Not since  Albee’s “ Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf” have we witnessed such a verbal battle between a husband and a wife. Granted the scene is in the closing twenty minutes, but the pent-up fury against husband Joe Castleman is a tour de force for actress Glenn Close. As his wife, Joanie, Close has the role of a lifetime.

”The Wife”, aptly named, is a film that seethes. Close, herself, says it is “ the trickiest role I’ve ever confronted”. One of the reasons may be inherent in the character Joan Archer Castleman, herself. She is full of angry thoughts as she perpetuates a sham for over forty years. It is she ,and not her illustrious husband,  who has written his Nobel worthy oeuvre.

We will see this same theme of women who do not get the praise they are due in another new film soon to be released. “Colette” stars Keira Knightley and explores meaning, value, and pleasure in a man’s world. “Hidden Figures” ( reviewed  Jan. 10, 2017 ) touched with the same, and showed racism as a second zinger holding women back. What makes “The Wife” stand out is the kingmaker, Glenn Close. Her performance is Oscar ready.

Close’s face is in close-up during much of the film. She is not a pushover. We see a strategist who knows her mind. She once told an infant that she was in love with the baby’s father and went on to marry him. Based on Meg Wolitzer’s 2003  novel of the same name, the film begins with sex of a sort. Husband Joe tells Joanie that she doesn’t have to do anything~just lie there. It is a good start. Maybe, it is because the wife has done so much already, and she has lied so easily that this is so aptly ironic.

Once the call is made from Stockholm announcing that Joe Castleman has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, we get flashbacks to Joan’s student life and early marriage. Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo role here as the older writer explaining the “good-old-boy-network” to aspiring Joan. Joan listens.

After marrying her instructor, Prof. Joe Castleman, her decision to edit and eventually write for her writing-blocked husband seems an easy fix. Joe has no problems deluding himself that he is the writer.  Jonathan Pryce almost goes overboard as the narcissistic, predictably gauche mate, who looks at his wife as a secondary character. He even has trouble bowing to the king of Sweden.

Another interesting self-serving character is the journalist/biographer, Nathaniel ( Christian Slater). He is “trolling for bitterness” and suspects that Joan has written any masterpiece attributed to Joe. He is transparent and direct. “Do you care to confide in anyone?” The blowhard husband and stoic wife is a cliche  , but Joan announces that she is no victim. She says she is more interesting than that. And a brilliant fraud she may be. Even Joe and Joan’s son, David, asks himself if he is worshiping at the wrong parental shrine.

Some of the best constructed scenes are the early flashbacks that mirror their contemporary lives. The couple jumping up and down on the bed, young David’s needs not being met, and Joe’s affairs with his hokey walnut missives and James Joyce recitations. He never  ups his game : he is so content with himself. But it is the acidly bitter slurs and the twelve-tone musical scale that linger. Womenhood is in constant flux.

Joe acknowledges her at his acceptance speech though she asked him not to. We know that boundaries need to be reset if Joan is to live an authentic life. My favorite ending for this rather unlovable character comes on her flight back to the United States. She will tell her children the truth, but will not malign Joe’s reputation in any way. . How can she pull this off and at what cost? As she caresses the blank pages of the notebook on her lap, we think we know.

“Operation Finale”

The film “Operation Finale” ( a horrid title, in my opinion ) leads us to Adolf Eichmann and his “Final Solution” rather circuitously. The film, based on the  real life event, shows a Mossad special unit planning and executing the abduction of the Nazi fugitive. Tension is well-maintained even when the Zionist team must live with the safely harbored Eichmann for ten days.  The Argentinians will not let Eichmann leave Argentina without his signed personal release. International law is upheld, even under these unjust circumstances.

Many of the scenes show Eichmann not in hiding, but in spewing his hate at white table-clothed assemblages with rabid Jew-haters, one of them being his twenty-something son, Claus. One depressing scene has Claus hanging a red SS flag above a German Club door. War is never really over is the sub-text.

Once we see Eichmann goggled and restrained, the mind games begin. This to me is the most interesting part of the film. Ben Kingsley has the hauteur to pull Eichmann’s ego off , and Kingsley’s portraiture of evil  is frightening. Right when one  thinks one sees some human trait, it is eclipsed by a crazy nationalism that shakes one’s soul. Yet, Kingsley’s work is nuanced. Will Eichmann provoke his captors to murder? Will he attest to crimes against humanity to see his wife and two sons again? What was this strategically intelligent man thinking as he sat in a bullet-proofed box during his trial? Are all ideologues delusional?

Fifteen years after World War II, I was twelve. But why wasn’t I more aware of this Mossad success and the Israeli trial itself  three years later, for I had just read Leon Uris’ “Mila 18” and was moved to tears. I read “Newsweek” weekly, but Peter Malkin ’s name was unknown to me even decades later.

In 1989,  Malkin’s legendary work was cited in the Israeli newspaper, “ Maariv” as being one of the greatest figures in the history of Mossad. No wonder Oscar Issac wanted to produce and star in “Operation Finale” as Malkin.

Based on the autobiography, “Eichmann In My Hands”, “Operation Finale” is not the first movie made of this event. “The Man Who Captured Eichmann” ( 1996) starred  Robert Duvall as Eichmann and Arliss Howard as Peter Z. Malkin. The 1979 “ House On Garibaldi Street”, likewise.

“Operation Finale” written by Matthew Orton and directed by Chris Weisz is worth seeing, though the lack of editing causes the suspense to lag in some places. Facts like Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, then Prime Minister of Israel, giving his assent to the Mossad extradition attempt are hard to ferret out. The romantic relationship between the doctor, Hanna, ( Melanie Laurent) and Malkin is  thinly developed and resolved.

The acting is good, though heart-throb Issac’s 1950 hair style and karate chops look a tad silly. His intensity still rivets. Kingsley as Ricardo Klement, Eichmann’s alias in South America, commands the screen just boarding a bus. Lior Raz, of undercover commando fame in the tv thriller “Fauda”, is also perfectly cast.

Real footage from the Holocaust serves to remind us that Eichmann had six million accusers. Flashbacks of horrific rememberences and imaginings are balanced with themes of justice and toasts to life. A needed pause in the grief comes from one of the shorter operatives after the trial. “History only remembers the tall people.”  Malkin counters,” What about Napoleon?” To be rebuffed humorously with, “ What about who?”

Through jostling Jeep rides and paper trails of planning to scenes of impulsive, straight-edge shaving and catch and extract avowals, the narrative keeps us on edge even though we know the outcome. If Eichmann was a “human  metronome” in his patterns and habits, Malkin is a not a revenge seeker, here. He worries that the future will look like the past. And Eichmann worries that the Jews will come back like “mushrooms after the rain”. A sobering tale that needed to be told again.

 

“Juliet, Naked”

What a gem of a film! The mythology around our idols intertwined with poignant memories in old photos elicit not characters bound by their fates, but characters like us moving in thoughtful steps in the right directions.

This charming, but imperfect world is set in Sandcliff, England. One thinks of “stuck in the sand” and “jumping off a cliff” after we meet Duncan ( Chris O’Dowd ). O’Dowd has never been as clueless and self-absorbed as he is in “Juliet, Naked”. Women may forever repeat “Duncan” to warn off anyone considering co-habitation with a jerk.

Annie, ( Rose Byrne ) our protagonist, spends much of her time sleeping off depression. Her job of running a historical museum had  been her dead father’s. Pickled baby sharks in glass jars and shells and old photographs comprise the cache. Annie is feeling like she may want a baby, but Duncan believes that the world doesn’t need more kids. However, he seems one himself.

The feeling of missing decades haunt Annie and one other character, Tucker Crowe. The old acoustical rocker Crowe is Duncan’s obssession. Duncan’s hobby is running an on-line forum and a Tucker Crowe website, “Can You Hear Me”. Duncan considers Crowe a seminal figure of alternative rock: his 1993 masterpiece “Juliet” the epitome of genius.

The walls of Annie and Duncan’s abode are papered with his posters. Old tapes of Crowe’s work are enshrined. Annie is clearly in second place; and,  when a new colleague of Duncan’s, Gina, steps in Annie is in third.

British author Nick Hornsby of “ High Fidelity” fame has written a novel that captures the regrets most honest adults have. Director Jesse Peretz has delivered  these memes for the screen. The cast is stellar. The music written by Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock, Nathan Larson, and Conor Oberst soulful.

When Annie starts an on-line friendship/romance with her boyfriend’s idol/obssession we cheer her on. Anything to get her away from Duncan! One of my favorite scenes is when Annie, in new light blue lacy underwear is batting the fire alarm, and Duncan has a melt down over the absence of D batteries. He calls Annie a “ half-formed relic master, however unnuanced”, and we want him out of her life. Feckless as Tucker may be , he gets regret as he explains his last 14 years of watching “Law And Order” and drug and alcohol abuse.Throw in his five children by assorted mates and Annie’s lesbian sister, Co-hart Terry and his “ Summer of 1964 Exhibition” ;and, modern life looks normal. Tucker attempts to cheer Annie when she confesses she has missed decades of fulfillment. He tells her to subtract the time she spent reading good books and sleeping and she could hone her loss down a half decade.

No one will feel they have wasted 98 minutes of fruitful musings by seeing this lovely slice-of-life picture. Maybe viewers will even  learn to value things that come easily.