“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.

 

 

“Crazy, Rich Asians”

“ China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she awakes, she will shake the world.” Napoleon

On top of the world economically, China is now equal to the United States in excessive consumerism.  Spiraling personal income may not be the main theme of the Cinderella story “Crazy, Rich Asians”, but the satire stems from the insane opulence portrayed. Fashion, jewels, decor, and up-scale travel rival all.

Twisting through a wedding extravaganza in Singapore is the simple romance of Rachel, ( Constance Wu ) a thirty something NYU economics  prof who likes to teach game theory to her students. At  spring break, Rachel and her boyfriend of 12 months are going to Singapore to meet his family and attend his cousin’s and best friend Colin’s wedding.

This is lightweight fare as we see Rachel’s mother hand her Tupperware meals before Rachel is ushered into a first class private suite by handsome and wealthy boyfriend, Nick. ( Henry Golding )

Based on a book by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy, Rich Asians” has some funny characters and lines. Gossip, Radio Asia, hits the mark, as does Rachel’s friend from uni-days, and Oliver, “ the rainbow sheep “ of the family. Amid the golden brilliance of Versailles, we hear her mother say, “Eat up, a lot of children in America are starving.” We also hear of Singapore’s butterfly gardens and movie theatres equated to New York’s despair and salmonella. Amanda, Nick’s old girl friend also adds to the thin narrative’s drama.

Matching silk pjs and 1.2 million dollar earrings float across the screen. Fast paced montages of  architectural top of the world buildings shine along with gourmet delights. A week of wedding pre-partying gives us more excesses of island massages and international-ship-container-floating-bachelor rowdiness. All this leads up to Rachel not being accepted by Nick’s mother and grandmother. Chinese-American just isn’t the same as Chinese.

Guard, gates and guns stand outside the 200 million dollar enclave  of  the Young family. Rachel listens to Eleanor, Nick’s mother, ( Michelle Yeoh)  speak of  Rachel never being enough. A mahjong face -off leaves Rachel winning. Pursuing your passion and putting one’s family first meld as director Jon M. Cuy displays the most over-the-top wedding ceremony done on screen. Enjoy the dragonflies and the flower strewn stream flowing to the altar. Ten to one, some bride will copy this ~which may be the biggest satire of all.

 

“The Bookshop”

A Penelope Fitzgerald novel from 1978 inspires director and screenplay writer Isabel Coixet Castillo from her Spanish roots to the eastern coast of England where village emotions are repressed and class warfare is a chess game of strategies.

“The Bookshop” has a simple plot, beautiful cinematography, eccentric characters, and a “them against us” filmed screed. Throw in unrequited romance and a literary backdrop and Masterpiece Theater vibes reverberate. Most will be entranced.

Emily Mortimer is Florence Green, the widow of a serviceman and a mentor to the young teen, Christine ( Honor Kneafsey). Christine is the voiceover narrator, who is as spunky as Florence is persistent. Our time frame is 1959.

Conflict over opening the first bookstore in the village emanates from the aristocratic and controlling Violet Gamart, played dragon-like by Patricia Clarkson. Her very breath fires up trouble of every sort for Florence, who is not intimidated by wealth, power, or political position.

Florence and her late husband met working in a bookshop. Her husband used to read her poetry, and the Victorian line  “never give a lady a restive horse” made them laugh. Victorian etiquette aside,  the tea cosy, the Liberty of London prints, the risqué cards, the  Nescafé, the feather dusters, the cigarette holder, and fruitcake and milk-laden tea, all make us smile as well.

Sweet scenes of “sea scouts” helping Florence build bookshelves  show her mixing into the village community. Florence has a first customer, and gossip flows. The lonely and mysterious Mr. Edmund Brundish , a standout in Bill Nighy’s already brilliant repertoire, is another reason to see this period piece. Oscar-worthy is the buzz.

Small people in small British villages like Hardborough, Suffolk, make our heroine’s courage a virtue to love. When Nighy says, “ I would like to help you make me believe in things I thought forgotten”, we sigh. Nighy’s fist cupping, his pauses, his very breathing is impeccable.

I especially liked the montage of villagers looking out their closed windows. The nature scenes and the church blur, and the frames of Florence reading with light streaming on patterned pillows are romantically evocative. Kudos to cinematographer Jean Claude Larrieu, and to costumer designer Mercè Paloma, and  to Alfonso de Vilallonga’s string score. Color, composition and score were all lovely, as was the uncredited voice over by Julie Christie.

Literature as life changing is the subtext of “The Bookshop”:Ray Bradbury’s “ Fahrenheit 451” the nightmare.  “No one ever feels alone in a bookshop” is the truism. Our narrator and arson , Christine, shows us as much.

“Puzzle”

“ Puzzle” is a small, honest film without any dazzling scenes. Kelly MacDonald plays Agnes, an unimaginative yet child-like woman, who is slow to find self-expression in anything but keeping an orderly household. The first minutes show her vacuuming the parlor rug. She is readying the house for a party~baking a cake, setting up a banner and balloons. We are surprised it is her birthday, and even more surprised that it is 2018.

We meet her husband Louie, wonderfully played by David Denman, as he accidentally drops his dessert plate, and it breaks into pieces. Agnes rushes to pick up the shards and         immediately begins to cement the segments together. There is a missing piece and Agnes gets on the floor searching under furniture for it. Louie doesn’t see the importance. Nor does Agnes see the need for her new I-phone, a birthday gift from her sons. When she calls it her “alien robot friend”, her sons, Ziggy ( Bubba Weiler) and Gabe ( Austin Abrams), tell her she can use it for Bible study and recipes.

Agnes seems most comfortable focusing on what is in front of her. She does not ricochet out of form. The borders and snap of puzzle pieces seem to be her forte. A glass of wine and a 1000 piece zigsaw define her joys.

A gift of a map of the world zigsaw sends her on a commuter train to New York City to seek out more challenges. It is here that she copies a phone number of a puzzle match winner seeking a competition  partner. “ I think  I might be good at this.” she shyly notes.

Irrfan Khan, who was so wonderful in “The Lunchbox” 2013, reviewed here, plays another romantic, understanding lover. Just like in “ The Lunchbox”, he seems to be adept at appreciating under-appreciated women. Snoring and over-weight husbands beware. The added depth of his fixation on natural disasters is ironic and oddly funny. He puzzles to control chaos.

As Robert, Khan is impressed by Agnes’s speed and adroitness. He won the National Puzzle Competition last year, and hopes to move on to the International Contest in Belgium. “ Let’s see how we work together.” , he enjoins. They practice twice a week at his Manhattan townhouse as his maid serves them wine and tea. Robert tells Agnes that she is modest, funny, beautiful and strange~ the best puzzler I know.” They toast to getting all the wrong pieces right.

Director Marc Turtletaub ( “Little Miss Sunshine” 2006) does a good job with frames of Grand Central Station,  and moon-gazing shots where Agnes finds it hard to swallow her own birthday cake. Shots of laundry, grocery , dishes balance with her son’s vegan, Buddhist girlfriend and more literal puzzle-solving.  Her repressed Hungarian, Catholic background somehow does not mesh with how easy it is for her to lie. Purposeful slights like not buying Louie’s favorite cheese seem petty. Broadening one’s knowledge and horizons by watching world news seems long in coming.

As her dissatisfaction with her life revs up we are made to see Louie as a sympathetic figure. His role mentor for husbandry has been his dad, and he is doing better than knocking Agnes back to her wifely chores. His “you lied to me like a child” belies the fact that she is treated like one. Menial tasks aside, he tries to  please her by selling his fishing cabin to further their sons’ education, but then balks at culinery school as not very manly. At the same time Agnes’ rebuff, “ You denied me like a heartless master!” seems way out of line.

The whole family attends Easter Sunday mass, and the transformative ressurrection theme gets a tad lost. Montreal seems like a stop-gap measure to me, sort of like missing the Women’s Guild Meeting. Belgium, alone, would have been more courageous.

I loved the sound track by Dustin O’Halloran. “Ave Maria” and lyrics like “ Each breath will never reach deep enough” play movingly well. A retro-film, but worthy of your time.

“Eighth Grade”

What an inspired film morsel on parenting and navigating the teen years! Our starting point in “Eighth Grade” is the last days of junior high, though there is a flashback sequence to six grade via a shoebox time capsule, a clever and evocative device used twice.

Director\Writer Bo Burnham knows how to freshen up all the hallmarks of teendom: attitude, angst, mortified looks, and privacy issues. He uses all the core gateways of social media addiction, selfies, mall food courts, crushes, and “ Our Changing Bodies” health class video.

Even at seventy, one winces at “hair down there” and teachers who attempt to use teen slang to be one of the gang. “It is going to be ‘lit’! ” , the puberty instructor shrieks.

Any speech or English teacher can attest to the fact that Burnham has  teen verbiage down: “you know like”, “but like if”, and “and, and, em”, and “ it sucks” and  “anyways” . “Boring” and “amazing” are the primary vocabulary descriptors  of eighth graders.

Our protagonist, Kayla, is played memorably by Elsie Fisher. As a thirteen-year-old suburbanite, her tutorials posted on-line mirror her concerns and interests: “Being Yourself”, “Everyday Make-up”, “Going Out Look”,” Put Yourself Out There” and “How To Be Confident”. She is both silly and  insightful. Her twinkling “Gucci” with the thumb circle hand sign  ends every life tip pod cast. Her “to do list” reads “get more friends”.

Friends and their importance may be the missing formative piece in the film. The only semblance of real friend support comes from a mentoring high school girl and a geeky boy, Gab. Both seem to have self-motives for befriending Kayla.

The competitive boy flaunting his primacy with “breath holding” contests and “ archery bullseye” certificates. As he serves up chicken nuggets with eight plastic containers of individual sauces, he does engage her thoughts with questions like , “Do you believe in God?” and “ Do you like the silverware?” in the same breath.

Gab does posit that he has watched all Kayla’s videos, and that he thinks her own talk show is a possibility. The encouraging senior , Olivia, enjoys cheering the younger generation on. One of my favorite scenes has an upper classmen astonished that Kayla has been on “Snapshot” since fifth grade. He confidently states that she is “wired differently”.

Stages of heart-throbs, crushes, and sexual try-outs are covered. Dreams, trinkets and exploits surveyed. The fact that many of the eighth grade boys are still turning their eyelids inside out and squirting pool water between their front teeth, and stretching  bubble gum from their mouths is not missed.

Josh Hamilton is Kayla’s “oh, so patient” father, Mark. He tries so hard to engage Kayla, but resorts to spying on her at the mall. Humor and tenderness play out.  One of the funniest lines comes with Kayla’s request, “ Will you help me bury something in the backyard ?”

When Kayla asks her dad if she makes him sad, a sweet homage ensues: “I am so unbelievably happy that I get to be your Dad”. We recognize how much teens need statements like this. He is persistent; he doesn’t give up. He stays with her.

As Kayla clashes cymbals in the school band, we understand that she will not always earn the “superlative” ~Most Quiet”. She will be able to say when she feels uncomfortable.  She will be able to discern when someone tries to emotionally manipulate her for their own ends.

The twenty-seven-year-old Burnham has done a service for parents that think they can protect teens by sheltering them. Best to use this film to teach about the real dangers of predators, the ones who use your needs to get theirs met. Stranger danger and candy man stories need to be upgraded for pubescent teens . An upbeat film that deals with a selfish world, “Eighth Grade” has hit its mark.