“ A Private War ”

The philosopher Albert Camus once wrote that “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph, and the signs of horror are still in the air.” 

The bio-pic “A Private War” introduces most of us to Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent who wrote for London’s “The Sunday Times” and ultimately lost her life in Syria. There is evidence that she was targeted by the Assad regime, but “ A Private War” is more of a character study then a dramatic thriller, though it has harrowingly frightening  war scenes.

Rosamund Pike carries the film. She is always on the screen. Her husky voice letting us know she believes in her mission to bear witness to the suffering of civilians in war ravaged places, especially the women and the children. Yale educated, Colvin covered conflicts all over the world for twenty-seven years in places as diverse as Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, and  Sri Lanka.  She lost her left eye while reporting on the battlefield in East Timor. Feisty, yet suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism, Colvin is surrounded by friends, ex-husbands, and loyal colleagues. Nikki-Anika Bird is a natural at playing the no-nonsence, Rita, while Jaime Dornan is more leaden in his admiration of Marie. Stanley Tucci captures the more wanton edges of fame and opportunity. 

Director Matthew Heineman makes sure that “suffering is part of the record”, and the film is exhausting in both the personal and in the national tolls. At fifty-six, Colvin’s flak-jacket is still in use. She is disfigured, British Correspondent of the Year, and suffering from nightmares. One of my favorite scenes is when she lies to a border guard that she is a nurse. She uses her health gym card and points to the word “health” to parlay her way closer to the action. More tender scenes like when Marie comments that during war “ the fragility of the human body never leaves you,” are well-placed.

The film written by Arash Amel, sticks to its premise that journalists are truth-seekers who care, and through their writing and with photo-journalists as partners, they work to make us care. Colvin was driven in her belief that truth-telling journalists could save lives. Grim and provocative, she made her mark. She was addicted to war zones. A favorite line is “ Don’t be English-be honest. Get me back in the field.”

Amel’s flashback use is jumpy, but I can’t see chronology working as well either. Homs, Syria 2012 does not flow easily into London, 2001. Along the way, we see her interviews with Muammar Gaddafi after U.S. planes bomb Tripoli. We see Colvin’s toughness and her charm. The film’s title is taken from a Vanity Fair article written by Marie Brenner, “MC’s Private War”. It is a good one, and I am glad it was used. 

A new book by Linsey Hilsum, “In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspobdent Marie Colvin” summons up other similar insights. I will add this biography to my collection of female journalists living abroad and reporting their stores and their truths. Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” ( 2017) and Deborah Campbell’s “ A Disappearance In Damascus” ( 2016) are well-worth reading in the spirit of Marie Colvin. And, who knows, maybe their films will follow.


“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Let me begin with “I loved this film, and I can’t think of a thing that would improve it.” From the acting to the storyline to the music to the pacing and the cinematography ~ all facets of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” worked to warm the heart to these flawed characters. And characters they are. Melissa McCarthy is Oscar-worthy as real-life author Lee Israel. And Richard Grant is brilliant and equally award-worthy as Jack Hock ( his name, he reminds us  rhymes with “cock” ), Lee’s seemingly insouciant partner in crime.

Marielle Heller directs and Amy Nauiokas is the producer. Women power to be sure! Cinematographer Brandon Trust gives us a 1990’s upper West New-York neighborhood before gentrification. Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty round out the superb contributors to a film about a dissatisfied New York writer, who though she wrote her way to the New York Times Best Seller’s list, could not secure an advance to complete a Fanny Brice bio. she wished to write. Retaining her fame was hard, and her NYT ‘s best seller is seen reduced by seventy-five percent and languishing on a bookseller’s sale table.

Now, almost penniless, Lee drinks and grumbles. Her surly “fuck-offs” alienate her from her agent, played with just the right caring frustration by Jane Curtin. 

Since her rise with her biography of Dorothy Kilgallen, Lee is now reduced to loving a cat that doesn’t reciprocate and scamming a coat checker to stay warm. Even her long-time  vet is asking for cash up front. Her down and almost out status, gives us a chance to meet the super of her apartment building and see Lee’s kinder side. McCarthy is wonderful at capturing myriad emotions with just the look of an eye or a lip pulled more tightly.

The screenplay allows its viewers to read between the lines. Lee is observant, but judgmental. She is lonely, but stand-offish. She is witty, but a “mean girl”. She is unlikeable, but we understand and forgive her. The film’s title is  also the title of Lee’s own memoir which she borrowed from an invented quip she gave Dorothy Parker after supposed drunken behavior. You see, Lee has been forging addendum to literary figures’ prized memorabilia. We learn , along with Lee, how profitable selling to collectors can be, especially if the artifacts are embellished. 

One such Lee Israel add-on actually made it into Noel Coward’s biography. Julie Andrews was fraudently said to be “ quite attractive since she dealt with a monstrous English overbite.” 

Enter Richard Grant, Dolly Wells, Anna Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Ben Falcone ( McCarthy’s actual husband ) to add to one of the best supporting casts seen in film this year. No character study is complete without the insight of friends and foes. While Lee is peddling her spiced-up forgeries, one lonely bookstore owner shows an intellectual and a romantic interest in Lee. Lee apologizes, but declines: “ I’m not good at social clues.”

Later, we meet Lee’s former girlfriend, Elaine, ( Anna Smith ). Elaine gives us her backstory of  being exhausted talking Lee off the ledge. She talks like someone who has had hours of therapy herself. Elaine tells Lee that she tried, but Lee was too self- involved, too miserable, and too trust adverse. Lee’s lawyer ( Spinella) is equally honest and forthright, but his kindly touch is abraded in familiar fashion. It is only Jack whose friendship lasts, and he  agrees to let Lee write about their literary crimes. “ Make me with perfect skin, and don’t make me sound stupid,” he jokes. 

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is well-paced and uses music to wonderful effect. “ Oh, What A Hit We Made!”  both speaks for Lee and Richard, and for the film itself. When Israel states that “ she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”, moviegoers will agree with her caustic wit and remember the pain that called it forth. Kudos all.

“ The Girl In The Spider Web”

The “me,too” movement has a good push with “The Girl In The Spider Web”. Despite its over-powering music, “ The Girl In The Spider Web” shows especially what child abuse can do to the psyche. Revenge takes over in this film with techno skills celebrated and with a chessboard metaphor.

If you have not read the Stieg Larrson trilogy, the characters are a tad blurry. Lisbeth Salander is played by Claire Foy, not Rooney Mara, nor Noori Rapace before her. Like a female James Bond, the Lisbeth Salanders vie for our favorite. Claire Foy shows more emotion, yet Rooney Mara remains my favorite. I liked the impenetrable facade.

Here, in the fourth Salander movie, Foy gives us Lisbeth’s backstory, and it is not pretty. Incest and betrayal forge her childhood into a morphed techno-dragon, who is out to seek revenge on deplorable men: the kind who beat and ravage.

The first sequence has our protagonist rescuing a beaten wife and stringing her apologizing husband upside down in their posh condo. Lisbeth uses her hacking abilities to transfer their fortune to his wife and child. We hear Salander’s harsh, “ Take your child and go!” She complies. When the upside-down spouse demands to know who Lisbeth is, she cooly replies, “You should ask yourself that question.”

While Lisbeth is fighting wrongs, her sister Camilla,(Sylvia Hoeks) has woven a web to make Lisbeth suffer further for leaving her with their incestful father. An even colder fish than Lisbeth, Camilla, always dressed in red couture, seeks to suffocate her sibling. The heavy, black neoprene, womb-like contrivance with its attached placenta that is used to do this is symbolically cool. Camilla cuts a slit over her sister’s mouth and then glues it shut. She is a mess of push and pull, a psychopath for certain. Game board moves keep us guessing.

The writing and wayward plot could use some tightening. The avenging angel trope is mixed with Ducati flair and techy brilliance. When a client asks for the impossible to vaporize his project, Firefall, his young son is kidnapped. The god-like power for a single user gets National Security Agencies honing in for the technologically rich abomination. The chase is on.

Fire and ice imagery and dark sets keep the cinematography interesting. The most explosive scene being when Lisbeth’s loft is firebombed, and she saves herself by diving into her milky bath water. Bathtub safety wins again.

While all of this is a tad James Bond silly, there is a psychological thread that excentuates how “the past can be a black hole”. Director Niels Arden Oplev stays true to “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo”, “ The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest”, and “ The Girl Who played With Fire”, by adding more bi-sexuality and cult fun. Pink suitcases full of dildos mesh with cement bunkers, safe room elevators, and mutilated faces cut up by spider-tat-scalpel wielders. “The itsey bitsy spider” is hummed alongside gas masks and electric prods.

Writers Frede Alvarez, Jay Badu, and Steven Knight could have written a better script, but they kept Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist alive for another sequel.

“Free Solo”

A documentary about an extreme sport will have you shaking your head and gasping in your next breath. The idiocy of some human goals and the splendor of nature are the reasons. National Geographic funded, “Free Solo” introduces most to Alex Honnold,a thirty-three-year-old professional rock climber. We watch him arduously prepare for a rope-less climb up the 3000 foot granite wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan.

Many call Yosemite National Park one of the most beautiful valleys on Earth, and film directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin do not want to see free soloist Honnold there. They hope to see him on top looking down on that valley from the most impressive wall on Earth, El Cap. This tension between wishing Honnold to succeed and fearing that they may distract him with a camera drone or a sound enhances the fear factor.

One of the most surprising part of the film is the preparation details interwoven into the narrative. The route is charted, memorized by touch, journaled with body positions and practiced moves. Physically, yoga stretches and drill and pull excercises prepare the body. Emotionally, dealing with fear and expanding comfort zones, and seeking perfection in being physically fit provide the armor needed. The preparation is arduous, time sapping, and methodical. Incrememental progress is the mantra.

While Alex is honed in to extreme preparation, his girlfriend, Cassandra McCandless, is all about communication. They met at a book signing, and their real life relationship is a boost to the narrative. We understand Alex more through her loving eyes. She is a life and transition coach, who knows how to ask questions and respect and clear emotional boundaries. Her boyfriend’s ropeless ascent is given her perspective, too. 3200 feet is a long way, and when it is a sheer granite rise the risk is enormous. The movie’s visuals are heart-stopping, even for the climbing camera men. There is no margin for err.

The writers provide the lists of fellow climbers, thirty to forty, who have died. They show Alex giving talks to high schoolers about making one’s hobby into a successful career. When one student asks how much money Honnold makes, Alex doesn’t wince: “ I make an income compared to a moderately successful dentist.” He tells the questioner that one-third of his income goes to a non-profit. He is forthright and honest.

We see the risk-adverse Alex climbing in Morocco and cooking vegetarian in an old van. If solo climbing trains your mind, it also benefits from a amygdala wired for high stimulation. We see Alex undergo brain imaging(MRI) to prove this point. The amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear.
Alex needs a higher stimulation to activate his amygdala. Seeing Alex do a karate kick while hanging by his fingers is pretty crazy. With only his chalk bag, Alex shows us that repetition and practice have their place in a successful outcome, too. The crew finds Alex’s attempts equally scary. The film’s sound track extenuates the suspense, even though we know the outcome. The first person to free solo El Capitan will make you doubt gravity. There were a lot of fathers and mothers with their teenagers in the theatre. I wonder what they talked about after this documentary.

“A Star Is Born” ( 2018)

For me, “ A Star Is Born” (2018) is a fourth remake with the same toxic dose of melodrama as all the others. Why,  Bradley Cooper, why ?  Why not write a new story to show off your singing, guitar and directorial talents?

I’m guessing that Lady Gaga and the fountain flow of economic pay-offs have something to do with the answer. My movie ticket-taker told me she saw your film twice and purchased the sound track. Love at first sight, mentorship, obscurity followed by a shared stage, then acclaim for the neophyte while you, the star, falls~really falls. But, alas, there is no discernible font of innovation here.

Oh,well, before the first screen shot is seen, we hear the fans screaming. In this 2018 version, Cooper is Jackson Maine~ the same Jackson as Fredric Marsh, James Mason, and Kris Kristofferson before him. It is a great contrast to Cooper’s climatic scene where he staggers and crawls up to the Emmy mic and wets himself.

Cooper is very easy on the eyes. The steroid shot in the tush being my favorite. His six-pack side shot does not bemoan his character’s beer drinking, either. He is on beautiful display. Cooper seems to do it all in this film, even fall in love spontaneously. His fourth song, “ Maybe It’s Time To Let The Old Times Die” is how I felt about the Arizona return to his Father’s “gravesite”with its “ hot wind and history”. Editing is not deemed important in “ A Star Is Born” (2018).

But then there is Lady Gaga. ( Stefani Germanatta) As Ally Campana, I like how she labels her dad with “celebrity disease”. Her interplay with her wanna be crooner patriarch is perfect. The family dynamics chemistry better than the romantic. The breakfast scenes better than the bathtub ones. When her dad opines, “It’s all my fault.” She easily rolls her eyes with, “ You don’t have that kind of power, Dad.” She is a mixed bag. Her vulnerability is hit and miss. The same with her uneven acting. I hated her anger scenes, and felt she was stronger in the “triage” role of caretaker. Smashing the hallway memento posters was almost silly, as was her punching the picture taker. Is this what being a modern woman means? Please!

She will be up for an Oscar for best song, but it won’t be for Edith Piaf’s  “ La Vie En Rose”. “ I’ll Never Love Again” showed her real talent.

Sam Elliott is admirable as Bobby, Jackson’s half brother. He makes the most of his scenes without show-boating his tears. My favorite line may be Cooper’s as he is found sleeping in the grass, “in my mind I made it to the door.”

 

 

“Mid 90’s”

Teenagers trying to fit in is never an easy theme for parents, teachers, or any adult that wants to champion selfhood and individual self-awareness. Adults know that friends are key to this passage. Strong families and mentors help buffer the pain of feeling lost in the world.

Jonah Hill’s first foray on the other side of the lens has its moments in this coming of age film: moments not of the typical humor one associates with Hill’s work. “Mid 90’s” is shocking in its sibling anger and remorseful in its depiction of youth in need. From its opening scene of a body being slammed into a wall, this film pulls no punches on drug and alcohol abuse and self-serving sexual experimentation. Too many adolescents see these vices as what it means to be an adult.

One of the best scenes shows our protagonist, Stevie, aka “Sunburn”, walking into his older brother’s room. Forbidden to enter Ian’s domain, Stevie treats it as a shrine. He looks in awe before touching a cap, lifting a shoe, touching a magazine, and almost caressing the neatly arranged clothes in the closet. This is not a typical teen’s room. This eighteen-year-old needs to control the one part of his life that he can. He is incensed at his mother’s  loose ways with men, and bullies the thirteen-year-old Stevie  to the point of pathological abuse.

Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea” ( reviewed Dec.3, 2016   ) and of  “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” ( reviewed Jan. 28, 2018 ) continues his forte of playing volatile, grieving, unsound, senior-high youth. His talent for character complexity is in full swing. He can make a hardened bully sympathetic~ quite a feat, here.

The other cast members are equally laudable. Our protagonist , Stevie, is Sammy Suljic. Suljic is rarely off-screen and rarely without his skateboard. He is an observer. His quiet “ wanna-be” traits endear him to the four “homies” of the skateboard shop. Just like when Stevie takes notes of his brother’s album choices, Stevie, now dubbed Sunburn, is a voyeur of sorts. He takes in the crazy conversations of the group and glows at being “water boy” during spontaneous practice sessions behind the shop. He, also, takes crazy risks. Losing a body part does not seem out of context, here.

We , also, see Stevie in self-destructive acts. He beats his legs with a wire hair brush, and tightly wraps a cord around his neck. Hill seems to be graphically telling us that these kids are in deep places. Ray, my favorite character, is the most mature. Na-kel Smith plays the philosopher-king here. He is aware of all the homies’ individual demons. He sweetly mentors Sunburn: “You take the hard hits. You know you don’t have to, right?”

The other gang members are as natural and as hurting as any street group. Olan Presnatt is known as “Fuckshit”. He escapes through alcohol and abuse of his ADHD meds. He is funny, dangerous, and good at playing the dozens with cops for hire. “ Fourth Grade” is played by Ryan McLaughlin. His dream of filming movies belies his dirt poor background. If he can’t buy socks, how did he get ahold of that video recorder? His film efforts make a fitting close for this film.

Gio Galicia is Reuben. He is fighting for a place in the pecking order of gang hierarchy. We learn from Ray that Reuben’s mom beats both him and his sister. His jealousy of  Sunburn is hampering their friendship. In the politics of youth relationships, Hill has it right. We remember those little group tussles as in the another of this years’ teen-based films, “Eighth Grade”, ( reviewed Aug. 20, 2018). Hill’s take is  less up-beat, more urban than suburban in tone, but equally as menacing.

While Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter, plays Ian and Stevie’s young mother struggling in the parental arena, her character, Dabney, doesn’t “get it” until the film’s end. Vigilence is not in her DNA. When she asks Stevie’s skateboard buddies if they would like to see him in his hospital room, we hope for the best with her new realization that his skateboarding friends truly care about him. Hill has made us care about all of them, too.

 

“The Old Man And The Gun”

Contentment and pathology are the poles that keep director and writer David Lowery’s film “ The Old Man and the Gun” moving forward. Touted as Robert Redford’s last starring role, this  film gives Redford a chance to rectify his lone sailor mess in “ All Is Lost” (2013). Redford does not do well when he is the only cast member and has no one to smile or crinkle his eyes at but wet fish. He is best at charming repartee, and here Sissy Spacek lends her charm in mirroring his. Jewel ( Spacek) and Forrest ( Redford) have the chemistry that most of the older viewers came to see. Oldsters understand swan songs.  Spacek can twirl a bracelet, and Redford can smile.

The irony is that the early forties demographic are the ones that could learn the most from this film. Much of this is due to the character of John Hunt, captured so beautifully by Casey Affleck. Hunt is a Texas detective who connects small bank robberies in five states in two years time to a group of three old prison buddies dubbed the “ Over-The-Hill Gang”.

Affleck’s character is feeling like no one cares if these robbers are caught. He is dedicated, but under appreciated. He has a loving family, and his two children look up to him as “ catcher of the bad guys”. Vignettes of the children sending messages over the police scanner and using push pins to target the pattern of robberies are warm and insightful. This is how long, painstaking work and family can co-exist. When the Feds decide to take over Hunt’s investigation, Affleck looks tired, but not defeated. Will he learn something from his gentleman outlaw ? Will we discover more than clichés about doing what you love?

The storyline “ The Old Man And The Gun”  is based on is a true story first made public in the pages of the New Yorker. In 2003, David Grann researched and wrote the piece on Forrest Tucker, a seventy-eight-year-old man,  who robbed some umpteen  banks and broke out of numerous jails. San Quentin being one of them.

Though the film is replete with repetitive scenes of calm, well-planned heists, and deli booths of pie and coffee, the back story of women left and children denied is glossed over. Small hauls and good manners don’t cancel out the threat of gunfire. When one teller cries under stress, Tucker sweetly calms her down. His accomplices, played understatedly by Danny Glover and Tim Waits, keep the pacing flowing. They watch, take notes, stand on roof tops and take photos. Armored cars seem to ramp up the gang internal beat.  Then they return to motel rooms and watch black and white cowboy flicks.

Meanwhile, Tucker does romance Jewel. They rock on her front porch and ride her few horses. She reminisces about happiness. He thinks of a small proud boy, and we learn a little of his past. Tucker buys her a bracelet ( a jewel for Jewel ) and attempts to take care of her mortgage surreptitiously. Spacek is good at moseying along. She makes listening to water boil prescient.

This is something that the young detective becomes good at too. Who is living the chaser or the chased? When he dances in the dark kitchen with his bone-tired wife, Affleck draws depth . The Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde tropes are here, but it is the quiet “ nick knack paddy whack, give a frog a loan” moments that mean the most. Humor, respect, and craziness outshine “throwing the cuffs on”.