“On Chesil Beach”

“ On Chesil Beach” is a not so unusual story about a six-hour marriage. If you ask friends if they know of any marriages that did not survive the honeymoon most can name two. Try it. What is unusual about the  novelist’s Ian McEwan’s screenplay is that it reorders how we think about love.

The film begins with calm seaside views and rather disjointed music. We think the pebble beach scene and the rock and roll tempo don’t match. Alas, neither do the expectations of the virginal Eddie and Flo.

In a series of flashbacks, memory pieces, we are introduced to two young Oxford students, their love at first-site encounter, and their family histories. The build-up is too slow, but the personalities of both Edward’s artist mother ( Anne-Marie Duff) and Florence’s  teacher/father  ( Samuel West ) add emotional nuances that are intriguing as we watch our protagonists circumvent and effectively deal with difficult parents and middle and upper-class divides.

In a time frame beginning with the early nineteen sixties and touching on 1975, thirteen years later, and then 2007, thirty-two years later, we get to surmise the onward progression of our characters’ lives and of their regrets.

Award-winning theatrical director Dominic Cooke directs his first feature film with “On Chesil Beach”. His entire cast, at the top of their game, show 1962 sexual repression and cultural conformity  in re-robing nakedness, in marking cricket lines, and in turning music pages one corner at a time. Rules shine in the piece: spontaneity be damned.

Help is offered. The minister tries to get Flo to voice her fears; Edward’s father tries to engage his distraught son. Actors Saoirse Rowan and Billy Howle are brilliant in showing how sexual fears of inadequacy impede physical intimacy. A sense of humor is not something that comes easily for neophytes in any new endeavor.

Innocence and inexperience are a given, but Flo’s problem-solving solution is most frustrating. How can she say she is no good at something she has never tried? How can she be so incurious and unventuresome when it comes to her own body and that of her chosen lover? I did not register any abuse or past trauma in McEwan’s screenplay, yet what else could it be? Could the rather clinical sex manual she references be that traumatizing?

For all her charms, Saoirse Rowen has a difficult time making us take her side. Her extreme sense of control even to the point of  strongly suggesting that she remove her own stockings, was more pathetic than funny. While Billy Howle had all my sympathy with his fumblings, an older man sitting behind us emoted, “ It’s about time!” in pure disgust and frustration. Other viewers will recall their own “first time”, and it is here that the film succeeds. “On Chesil Beach” succeeds in  not in showing fumbled touching, but in orchestrating truly touching scenes.

We see Howle and Saoirse sharing the events that made them feel like independent movers in the world, grown-ups. For Flo, it was buying her own single train ticket at thirteen; for Eddie, it was defending a Jewish friend from racist remarks. We hear the kind, but uppity, Flo tell how Eddie is not like anyone she has ever met. “He knows birds, always has a history book in his pocket and a pencil stub…and does not know a beignet from a croissant.”

If Florence’s mother thinks Ed is a “ bit of a country bumpkin”, Ed thinks Flo is a tad “ square” with her classical music. He is an “rock and roll” enthusiast. Their courtship does not seem stilted, yet there are dating episodes where everybody is making out at the movies, but them. They share goals, and there is a wonderful Mozart piece where octave changes are taught. In their physical relationship, Flo understands that Ed is always advancing, and she is always backing away. Yes, Florence looks mildly terrorized, but more priggish. Ed is still recoiling from two waiters laughing at him, but can still ask, “ What is it, darling?” when Flo hesitates with “ it sort of tickles”. Flo ends up running two miles down the beach.

Edward flaring temper leads to one of the most painful honeymoon arguments ever seen, thus our title, “On Chesil Beach”. Verbal stones are thrown. “It was unfair of you to run out like that!” She responds with how “ unpleasant and revolting” it all is. And a great octave leap has a humiliated man making a decision he will later come to rue.

The ending of this film seems improbable and a tad manipulative, yet it gets the emotion that it wants from the audience. Could patience have saved the day? Five kids with the cello player seems like he might have a technique down. We wish Ed had ten children in tow.

 

“You Were Never Really Here”

Watching Joaquin Phoenix work is reason enough to see this film. Jonny Greenwood’s score is another.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsey films like “ Molvern Callar” ( 2002) never tell a story chronologically. In “You Were Never Really Here” , Phoenix does want he does best, plays a reality-taxed, wracked individual with  acute visceral feelings. He is a PTSD sufferer, who is hired to rescue  a U.S. Senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter. As Joe, he has flash backs to childhood abuse and war atrocities. Child sex rings and sex traffickers add to the taut tone. The tenseness is charged with a wavering electric current that keeps the viewer apprehensive throughout. We long for ennui, or at least a respite from sound whispering voices and plastic bags pulled tightly over faces.

Back exits, trash cans, police sirens, late night terminals  and wet alleyways predominate. Joe’s abode with his dementia-ridden mother ( Judith Roberts) offers no respite. It, too, becomes a murder scene. Weird scenarios play out. His mother watches “Psych” alone and plays “gothcha!” games on him. We see his battle scars as he puts her to bed. City dogs bark as he cleans up her water logged bathroom. He chastised her for the 1972 cream cheese in the fridge, and polishes silver with her. He likes green jelly beans. It is hard to see him as a vigilante, a killer for hire.

The Senator is as creepy as Joe’s weapon of choice, the hammer. His daughter Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov) must be retrieved. He wants the kidnappers/brothel owners hurt. He wants Nina for unfatherly reasons we glean. This tawdry storyline drags us in more than most viewers will wish to be. Jonny Greenwood’s score and Joaquin Phoenix’s dazzling performance makes the horrific vice psychologically edgy. Joe respectfully buries his mother in lake waters, and we recall the scene where they sang old show tunes together. As Phoenix floats submerged in the waters stillness, we wonder if this netherworld will bring him peace. Can a murderer gain our empathy? Can a soldier’s bizarre suffering make him something to be feared? While author Jonathan Ames may consider his protagonist an avenging angel, most will see Joe as a damaged Marine and former FBI operative, who has kind underpinnings though he is a trained killing machine.

“Beast”

My world view is that damaged individuals can be saved, even from themselves. The  film debut of writer/director Michael Pearce has other ideas. His  film “Beast” is based loosely on the crime novel, “ The Beast of New Jersey”. A constant foreboding awaits you, as does a surprising and arresting ending.

Roadside memorials, church choirs, volunteer search parties scouring fields,  and bar strobe lights set the scene. A series of young girls have been killed, but Moll, our protagonist still lives at home at 27. She is dealing with a  formidable mother, a cognitively impaired father, and a self-history to overcome.

Dream sequences prepare us for revelations of teen assault on a classmate with Moll holding the scissors. In one of her mother’s many directives, we learn of a school expulsion and juvenile detention time spent. And then there is the sexual abuse hinted at at the hands of her detective brother,  played  so possessively  by Trystan  Gravelle.

Moll longs for love and liberation. We see that she deals with emotional pain through self-mutilation. Here, glass shards pressed into her palms. Her lashing out as a thirteen-year old is attributed to bullying. A decade and a half later, we see her act out over her sister upstaging her birthday party by announcing that she and her husband are expecting twins. Moll seeks affirmation and she finds it in an off-the-grid man, named Pascal.

Pascal is a charming, wild , rabbit-poaching, iconoclast. There is a rogue-aura yet creepy attraction about him. He is menacing in his cliff speeding, poor impulse control, and general love of danger.

He seems to understand the romantic elements of surf spume and kisses on high promontories that dash to the sea. They walk through dark meadows, and he tells her what a good person she is. His family members are surfers and potato farmers, but none are around. He did jail time for an assault on a fourteen-year-old girl. Premonitions of dead owls and bunnies are strewn on many screen frames. So are female hands reaching out of muddy, shallow graves. Horror tropes are used creatively in windblown curtains and heavy drum music.

Moll, for her part, works as a guide on what Pascal calls      “ granny wagons”, vacation-goers touring the island. She tells Pascal that her mother tried to “ beat the bad out of me.” Moll sings in the church choir that her mother directs. “ I need more from you, Moll”, is her one refrain.

Geraldine James is a mother that does not mince words. She has an uncanny way of humiliating Moll in lieu of forgiving her. “ You can’t change the rules because someone has shown an interest.” She ends this put down with, “ May be I’ve been too soft on you.” She is all about “mom control” .

Moll invites Pascal to a country club dinner, where he is chastised for his clothing, black jeans. Moll toasts her disapproving family with “ to my family for everything you have done for me. I forgive you.” She and Pascal are told to get out, and Moll packs up and moves in with him.

Resolution never seems to come. Moll revisits her scissor-scarred victim, and lies for Pascal to her detective brother. She mercilessly beats a rabbit that does not die immediately from her hunting shot. We see Moll’ s beastly side. When Pascal tells her that she is a good person, Moll flashes back with an angry, “ You don’t know me!” Pascal intervenes when a bully gangs up on an immigrant, and we are lead to believe that we don’t know either of these violent lovers. The foreboding is kept in play by axes being raised and wrestling-like love-making played out.

The final sequence is with its blood-pounding score is choreographed to be a real shocker. We remember the taunts of her brother: “ You think because you take care of your father and you sing in the choir that you can fool others that you are someone else!?”

Two damaged protagonists keep the drama ramped.  Moll’s angery screams are some of the more horrific seen on-screen, as are Pascal’s accusatory words, “ You can’t tear my life apart because you don’t like the weather.”

Yellow police tape, a night breeze, and a mouth stuffed with burial soil, and a stray neck hair metaphor will not be for every film goer, but I was mesmerized.

 

 

“RBG”

What does a perfectly paced bio-homage look like? See “RBG” and enjoy. Using a partial interview format, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen give us a review of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s landmark court cases and a love story so sweet that Martin Ginsberg becomes an icon, too.

One can never tire of hearing an 84 year-old woman forcefully say, “ I ask no favor for my sex~only that our brethren take their feet off our necks.” From here we get all the details of background and schooling. Ruth’s father was from Odessa~ a Russian Jew who worked as a haberdasher. Ginsberg’s stylistic flair and her penchant for wearing lace and beaded jabots and collars may have their roots here.

A Brooklynite, Joan Ruth Bader’s mother suggested to Joan’s  kindergarten teacher that her daughter be called “Ruth” since there were so many “ Joans” in her class. Her mother Celia died from cervical cancer while Ruth was in high school. Nina Totenberg, friend and award-winning NPR Legal Affairs correspondent, relays how Ruth could not attend her own graduation because of her mother’s untimely death. Ruth’s only sister, Marilyn, died  at six  from meningitis when Kiki ( nicknamed by her because of her active kicking ) was just 14 mos. old.

We learn from Ruth that her mother was strict and that she  instilled two rules in her: be a lady and learn to fend for yourself. Ginsberg’s humor shines in her retelling of her father sending her to Cornell University. “There were four men to every woman~ an ideal place to send a daughter. I never did a repeat date, until Marty.” She was 17 and he was 18.

The Martin love story is a romantic one. Seeing him on camera, self-deprecating and masterly funny, one gets an idea of why Ruth says that he was the “ most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.” Opposites in temperament, she shy and he the life of the party, they were married and had two children, Jane and James. Both are interviewed on-screen, as is a granddaughter. Directors Cohen and West do a brilliant job of meshing the personal with the professional.

Ruth tells us that “Marty cared that I had a brain.” Ruth graduated from Columbia Law School and they studied at Harvard together while raising toddlers and dealing with Marty’s testicular cancer. She taught at Rutgers and Columbia, and in 1970 was the Director of the Women’s Rights Project. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was on Carter’s endorsement that Bill Clinton designated Ginsberg as the second female justice of the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Conner being the first.

We see snippets of her inauguration. We are reminded that she loved opera, and gave the eulogy for her friend Justice Antonin Scalia.

While experiencing many indignities as a woman herself,  she strategized and put her legal mind to work in order to   make equitable law. We forget that in 1970, a woman could be fired if she were pregnant, and that a woman soldier did not get a military housing allowance. Male homemakers could not collect social security benefits. Her arguments were all-encompassing. Ginsberg was not going to be happy with a little code change here and there. Gender-based discrimination does exist,  and it hurts everyone.

The Notorious RBG made sure that enduring change happened one dissent and one opinion at a time. She created a legal landscape in the 70’s and the 80’s where equal protection under law meant that “ one did not throw away one’s umbrella in a rainstorm because you did not get wet”. This documentary holds Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in esteem for working so ardently for liberty~ a liberty where the “least is heard with the greatest.” This film is a paen to how change can happen to the benefit of all when a mind like Ginsberg’s  decides to serve us all.

 

 

 

 

 

“Godard Mon Amour”

How will an 87 year-old icon of French New Wave Cinema feel about his mid-life crisis shared as a farce with the world ? Hopefully, he will laugh and cry and feel one with man. For Jean-Luc Godard is put out there in all his dastardly fumbles, as only an ex-wife can do. Based on the late Anne Wiazemsky’s  memoirs of filming “La Chinoise” ( 1967), “ Un An Apres” ( 2015) on which “ Godard Mon Amour” is based, chronicles her life with Godard at this time. We see him in all his narcissism and exasperating egotism.

The politics of shutting down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with student protestors, the break with other film giants like Francoise Truffaut and  Bernardo Bertolucci, the forming of the Dziga Vertov Group are all covered.

Pretentiousness and joyless jerkdom are here, but so is youth and the gradual disintegration of a marriage which may have understood love, but never understood the will that must balance it.

Director Michael Hazanavicius, Oscar-winning director of “The Artist”, originally titled his newest film                   “Redoubtable”. Jean-Luc Godard is the formidable international iconoclast whom now Hazanavicius “destroys”, all the while copying and giving homage to Godard’s great innovative style. What fun! At least for a director competing with an international, cinematic legend.

Comic/Tragic, “ Godard Mon Amour” is divided by snarky subtitles: though light and flippant in tone. The narrator is Wiazemsky. These are her biographical memories of her older husband, 38 to her 19, lose his confidence and ignore his wifely muse. He is jealous and literally myopic. One running gag is his constant loss or breakage of his glasses.

Godard is often scathing in his remarks to his admirers. At one point he admonishes a fan by calling him “ an annoying zombie”. Though Godard is a committed Marxist, he is shown as unhappy having to share a car with five friends. Creature comforts seem to supersede his ideology. The car ride back from  Cannes to Paris combines a screaming match with pouting silences. The music is perfect. Sometimes the sound track is stuck like they are. Complex sound-scapes are a hallmark of Jean-Luc, too.

One scene of anarchy during the  student riots some fifty-years-ago, plays like gladiators on display. Jazz and waltz tempos disrespect the rock-throwing and flames of conscientious objectors. Likewise, the film tries to make Godard something of a cliche as an artist of a certain temperament. Yet, his work still leaves us breathless.

Louis Garrel and Stacy Martin star. Both  tumble along beautifully. There are funny sex scenes and plenty of French comfort with full-frontal nudity. The fragility of relationships is a sub-theme, just like in most of Godard films. Goddard’s  innovations like the shot-reverse-shot, the transfer of segments of film back to negatives, and a fragmented, spontaneity in form are all given homage by  director Hazanavicius.

At one point, in this no-straight forward narrative, the Italian great, Bertolucci, derides his friend Goddard: “ You insult your own masterpieces!” And Anne’s voiceover states, “Our horizon began to shrink.”  “ I loved him as long as I could.”

Wiazemsky died in 2017 of breast cancer. She was the grand-daughter of the Noble Prize in Literature ( 1952) recipient, Francoise Mauriac.

“Disobedience”

In his first English language film, Chilean director and writer Sebastian Lelio has widened the world’s view on religion and sexuality and the tension between. From beautiful biblical poetic verses on togetherness to graphic co-mingling of bodily fluids, Leio’s work can open viewers’ hearts and minds to the pain of choice, the strictures of ritual, and the beauty of both.

Much of the story is painful. Like Lelio’s award-winning   “ A Fantastic Woman” ( reviewed Mar. 22, 2018) our protagonist must deal with rejection and derision because of her sexual orientation. Religion plays central to the role  of free will, here. In a beautiful and reverent twist, religion becomes a means of acceptance rather than a means of stricture. This is quite a coup, as is the open ending.

Our setting is an orthodox Jewish community in current London. The estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi returns for his funeral.

The action is slow and character driven. We walk through key fragments of the storyline piecemeal.  There is no false memory here. We learn that the rabbi had happened upon his young daughter and her friend in a lesbian tryst. The community clamps down, and the daughter soon leaves the country. The rabbi encourages the guilt-ridden and depressed partner to marry his rabbinical student.

From this framework, ( based on a novel by Naomi Alderman) the actors take over, and they are incredible. Rachel McAdams plays Esti Kuperman with all the earnest soulful longing of a woman tied to a passionless union with a man she respects and who offers her forgiveness.

Rachel Weisz is the outcast daughter, Ronit Krushka. One of my favorite scenes is where in the airport she  readies herself for her return to her Jewish enclave by taking the neck of her dark sweater in her teeth. She tears enough threads for it to be a garment duly rent. According to custom,  the rending is to vent pent-up anger. This dramatic expression of anguish symbolically exposes the grieving heart. Weisz’s face brilliantly captures her loss.

Alessandro Nivola is Dovid, the husband of Esti and the synagogue’s heir apparent. He is one of the most loving and sympathetic figures I have seen on-screen. Imagine Gregory Peck in “ To Kill A Mockingbird”.

All three characters are complex. Ronit is always gratifying her senses: taking a bite of brownie, smoking a cigarette, stealing a kiss. Sensual pleasures are part of her life. She is surprised by Esti and David’s marriage, hurt that her father’s obituary states that “ sadly, he left no children”. Esti, now a teacher in an orthodox school, is the one who informed Ronit of her father’s death. The rest of the shivah guests are hostile. A Mrs. Goldfarb is actually mean. “ It must be very painful for you not to have received the rabbi’s forgiveness.” The will makes no mention of Ronit, and the community is to have the house. As a famous New York photographer, she is sad that she never took her father’s portrait. Her cold reception does not dampen the fact that she wishes all to know she loved her father.

Dovid must “ keep his house in order”. Congregants make a formal complaint when they see Ronit and Esti together. Rumors fly, and Dovid tries to flush out the emotional truth of Esti and Ronit’s relationship. His anguish on all fronts is raw : “ What are you doing to us?” , “ What is wrong with you?” The three eat a meal together; they pray. The tension is controlled and calm. Then things change. Esti finds herself pregnant and suicidal.

Seven days of Shiva, a passionate sexual scene, and a speech of a lifetime are layered and tender. Freedom to choose is paramount both in this film and in life. Dovid’s , “ I do not have sufficient understanding…” will bring tears to your eyes. “Shalom” has never been spoken more deeply. This complex screenplay by Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is top-notch as are the three main actors.

One humorous line must be mentioned for an example of much-needed, comic relief. After an afternoon of love-making ,  Ronit tells Esti that she wants to take her picture. “ For the Jewish Messenger” she adds.

“ May you live a long life” is repeated as a blessing over the course of the funeral. It is to remind us that life is short and that we only have one chance to make it matter.

“Hichki” (2018)

Indian cinema often grabs your heart. This Indian film will inspire. Actress Rani Mukerji is endearing as she plays a teacher who puts a pencil in her mouth and bites down. She has Tourette’s syndrome and is using tricks to offset  her uncontrollable utterances. “Hichki” translates in Hindi to “ hiccup”.  Our  persistent  protagonist sees her malady as just an air gulp to be swallowed as she pursues her goal to teach children. A goal, by the way, she pursues for twenty-five years, a thoughtful and  idealistic addition.

Her goal did not start easily. Her father wants her working, and she has been interviewing for a teaching job for five years with no offers of employment. When a school does hire her, she has a class of fourteen, who smoke, pet rats, play cards and drink alcohol. They bet on how long she will last. They tease and mock her during roll call with her own tics. She goes with their stammering rap, and a bond is made. She rechannels their energy and stands up to their pranks. She differentiates “teaching them” from  “ breaking them”. She uses her scooter for home visits, and sees the inequity in her class’ lives. Though she is hired by the prestigious St. Notker’s school, her charges are all from the slums and used to hit the quota of underprivileged demanded by the state. One mother describes her son in terms of jackfruit, hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

Our teacher, Naina, creates creative units on gambling, fire-crackers, and air plane flight. She tells her class to stop blaming their situations. They are all experts at something. “Your fears will be your strengths.”  she intones. As one colleague tells her, “ You stammer from your heart.”

There are realistic episodes of cheating, expulsion, and truancy. A cloying sound track must be endured, but the joy of successful teaching is what will drop your tears.

Director Siddharth Malhotra and co- writer Anckur Chaudhry have a film that should be shown at teacher in-services to renew those professional sparks. Preceptures and awards aside,  this classroom of students will warm your heart. Pole star guiding never was this touching. We are all in this together was never more sweetly displayed.