“Chappaquiddick”

“Chappaquiddick” is a good film that humanizes a tragedy and somehow balances privilege and commonality. It is not cavalier with the facts, nor is it overly judgmental. The opening picture of the Kennedy family sets the stage for our understanding of  familiar expectations and personal identity psychology. The tragic drowning of Mary Jo Kopechne is not as illuminated as it is seen as a reminder of the moral underpinnings of the soul.

Actor Jason Clarke plays Senator Edward Kennedy and Kate Mara portrays Mary Jo, the idealistic staffer of his brother Bobby. The “boiler room  girls” are invited to the traditional Martha’s Vineyard  end-of-campaign-cabin party. Drinking plays a big part and a wrong swerve ends with Kennedy and Kopechne submerged  upside-down in Poucha  Pond. Kopechne does not survive. Anyone of voting age in the seventies remembers the scandal. For those younger, the history is as dramatic and tragic as Arthur Miller’s “ Death of a Salesman”. Truths are scrambled and emotions of guilt and identity roil.

While screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan point to privilege in the film as an essential thrust, the conflict becomes more of one of  conscience and identity, the common man’s ride, too.

Clarke does an admirable job in showing Kennedy’s self-deluding calm as he tries to shift reality. Clarke’s hairline and eyes resemble Ted Kennedy’s, but I wish make-up artists would have used prosthetics to widen his jaw, like they did for Gary Oldham in the award-winning “The Darkest Hour”.  Jason Clarke’s Bostonian accent is good and not overdone.

The major dramatic conflict centers on cousin, Joe Gargan ( Ed Helms), who pushes the Senator toward his conscience ;and, the elderly patriarch Joseph Kennedy ( Bruce Dern), who counsels with the gruff and amoral croak,  “alibi”.

It is this Kennedy that loses the most stature in                    “ Chappaquiddick”. Even aged and stroke-damaged, this patriarch’s  callous and high-powered “ the end justifies the means” philosophy does not support the family’s interest, but his own. He looks bad, and we wonder, “ Where is his wife, Rose?”

Ted’s father’s admonition of Ted in being able to choose his own life path was chilling: “ Lead a serious life or a non-serious one. You can choose, but I won’t have much time for you if you choose the latter.” We can understand why Edward Kennedy wished to report that he swam back to the mainland rather than rowed back with his two friends.

The scenes where the Senator seems aghast that having a valid driver’s license is important points to privileged naiveté. The scene where Ted attempts to fault his cohorts     for not reporting the accident are gasp worthy, yet privilege has its down side, too. The pressure of “living in the long shadows” of his brothers is palpable in the Roger Mudd interview scene.

The father-son tension is extreme. The need for his father’s approval intense. Ted’s own small son’s rhetorical question, “ Uncle Jack can do anything, can’t he Dad!” was heart piercing.

Director John Curran builds the film’s tension by letting Clarke indulge in the slow pull and release of a man conflicted. Service to self, family, and God are strong currents that can rip.

I had forgotten that the Apollo landing and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk shared the 1969 headlines with the infamous Edgartown one. Seeing Ted’s buddies, Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, stripe to their skivvies, jump into the dark water and try to open the submerged car’s doors is reminiscent of a teenage nightmare. When cousin Joe says, “ Call your mom. Don’t let her find out about another tragedy in the news,” we wonder how old these men are.

Too late to be rescued, Mary Jo is seen mouthing the “ Our Father “ in three inches of trapped air in the Kennedy black 1967 Olds. This flashback is effective and haunting.

The high-powered lawyer team confiring and developing a public relations story is both infuriating and prescient. The logic, loyalty, and humor are cynically wrapped in a three-minute session at Hyannis. Wife Joan attends Mary Jo’s funeral with Ted, while Ted dons an unneeded neck brace. The theatrics aside, the fact is made  that if Mr. and Mrs. Kopechne do not blame Ted, then neither should America.

The final boyhood bedroom scene with father and son is for the stage, and I think a tad over the top. I feel the same about the face slap episode. A father taunting a son with “ you will never be great” is never effective or pretty. Ted’s response that his brothers were great because of who they were, not because of who you are seems like simplistic overkill.

Joe Gargan died at 87 a few months ago, estranged from the Kennedys.  Though the film shows some hints of jealousy when it comes to his cousin Ted, it is Joe Gargan’s moral strength that shines in this film. Helms is great as the guide, who is ultimately disappointed by Ted’s slow acceptance of responsibility. Gargan’s outrage is shown in the lines, “ we all have flaws. Moses had flaws, a temper, but he never left a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea.” Like Willy Loman’s friend and neighbor Charley , he does his best to pay needful attention. Edward  Kennedy was a lion in the Senate, but he is made more human by being seen as an Arthur Miller mesh of Willy, Biff, and Happy: deluded, flawed, and longing to escape.

“Isle of Dogs”

Wes Anderson’s animated adventure trek is full of dry wit and laugh-out -loud deadpan humor. It is an up-dated version of a 12 year-old boy searching for his lost dog. The boy, Atari, happens to be Japanese and his savior-in-kind an American foreign exchange student named Tracy Walker ( Greta Gerwig’s voice).

We begin with “ Ten centuries ago before…” and the disclaimer that all barks have been rendered in English. We are introduced to “underdog dogs” who have been banished to a trash island. A complicated back story is told in several flashbacks. A 67th term incumbent has transformed the Japanese archipelago into a dog free state. The question of “ What ever happened to man’s best friend?” is asked again and again as the tidal wave of dog hysteria over snout fever deports all canines to the Isle of Dogs. “Fear has been mongrelized”. Here, in “Isle of Dogs”, we see rain and rats and maggot strewn refuse.

Bryan Cranston’s voice and wry tone  are perfect as the nomadic alpha dog, Chief. We hear rumors circulating amongst Duke, Boss, Rex and Chief: “ One of our own hanged himself on his own leash”. On the up side , we meet Nutmeg, a preening show dog who does lap dog tricks and keeps the male dogs sniffing. Most of the dog fights are over food, however ; and one of my favorite scenes is when the crew waxes over their favorite long lost treats be it green-tea ice cream or Kobe beef with lots of salt and pepper.

Our storyline meshes with kidney transplants, robotic replacement pets, aboriginal dogs, military issued teeth, and messenger owls. Add conspiracy theories, pro-dog student protests, and “red button” fears, and we wonder how Anderson can be so “au current” in his tale of tails.

The haikus rendered at apt parts are lovely. They stay to the traditional form and therefore include images of nature’s seasonal beauty, even as we see the trash mounding skyward. The five syllabic count lines “Frost on windowpane” and “Falling spring blossoms” made me smile.

The stop-action animation I am drawn to, but there are plenty of action dust clouds for others. Silhouettes and shadows are appreciated. The drum beat sound track keeps one’s heart pulsing and the stellar list of voice overs range from the aforementioned Cranston and Gerwig to Liev Schreiber, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

I could see this treat again, but with Japanese sub-titles and even more campy refuse like igloos of saki bottles and hacker cubbies. Atari does find his pet and a new litter gives hope for the future. Wes Anderson answers the question “ Who are we, and who do we want to be?” with a animal loving  a drum roll.

“A Wrinkle In Time”

Madeleine L’ Engle 1962 s sci-fi teen novel is put to the big screen with only some success.  Ava Du Vernay directs Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, and Reese Witherspoon in the tale that champions love of self, love of family, and love of humanity. These three celestial beings are a tad didactic and full of pep talks and positive and supportive voicings. “ Love is always there even if you can’t feel it” is pretty hope-filled. Given that the age of most viewers will be from second to sixth grade is a wrap, but subtlety would have won out, I think.

Our protagonist, Meg Murray, is played stunningly by Storm Reid. She will become a role model for many young girls, and it is cool to have the “mean girls” learn that they are the crazies.

Reading, science, and intelligence are trumpeted, which are good things. The philosophy of “ staying focused on the light when dark approaches” holds forth, too. Evil is acknowledged: centering oneself is a must. Fear turns to rage which, in turn, turns to violence. Imaginative warriors are needed. Models of great earth warriors are Einstein, Mandela, and Ghandi.

Charles Wallace (Meg’s younger , genius brother) and she must make a plan to rescue their father. They are given three gifts to aid them: a magnifying glass to see what is enfolded, the gift of your faults, and a command to stay together.

Aninated scenes are colorful and the cabbage ride being my favorite. The pre-teen love interest of Calvin will keep middle schoolers giggling. And “abandoned children” everywhere will toughen up. Enjoy the quotations and the credits given; and parents who want to “ shake hands with the universe”, remember to hold your children’s hands, too. Message heavy this film is.

“A Fantastic Woman”

The Best Foreign Film winner of 2017 has three beautiful scenes and terrific acting. “ A Fantastic Woman” also has some missteps. For much of the film our protagonist is shouldering grief against the wind of prejudice. One of the best frames shows this by having Marina ( beautifully portrayed by Daniela Vega) drop her head and bend into the wind in order to keep up-right. It is a beautiful metaphor visually wrought. I dubbed it “the wind walk”. While the film draws sympathy and addresses the concept and definition of  normality, it also overdoes transgender disco stroblight scenes. And the sound track of “ You make me feel like a natural woman” seems ironically funny more than romantic.

”Una Mujer Fantastica” is directed by Sebastian Leilo. It is a Chilean film that has haunting visuals and teems with the glow of life. We begin with images of the South America wonder of the world, the Iguazu Falls. Legend has it that a beautiful woman fled with her lover here and the gods punished the lovers with an eternal fall. The fall here is down a series of apartment steps that leave bruises and contusions on Marina’s lover, Orlando. Enough physical evidence that a doctor calls the police since he suspects foul play. The subsequent police station examination of Marina by the sexual offense unit is hard to watch. Grief is denied and criminal intent is seen as truth.

Cultural touchstones are as apparent as the prejudice. Orlando ex-wife Sonia tells Marina, “When I look at you I don’t know what I am seeing~a chimera.” She forbids her from attending Orlando’s funeral service. She wants to protect her seven -year-old daughter and herself from embarrassing questions. Orlando’s son shares in Sonia’s perversion cries. He threatens with, “If you steal anything, I’ll know.” Everywhere the love Marina and Orlando shared is made tawdry and debased. When Marina is assaulted by Orlando’s son and his  buddies, we are shocked by the violence. As a counter weight we are given St. Francis’s “make me an instrument of your peace, a channel for your love” while Marina’s voice teacher, his sister as his brother-in-law offer Marina a respite.

Walking is what Marina does throughout the film. The walk through the spa from male to female section is haunting and symbolically touching. The one item of masculinity-that clunky gold  watch bothered me, as did the show of rage when Marina drove for a car’s windshield and then stomped on its roof. I wanted her dignity to remain long-suffering and noble. Like one character said, “being with you is complicated-like quantum physics”, yet this film does its best to keep it simply about love.

“Nostalgia”

Not everyone will go to the cinema to see a film that garnered a thirty-six percent critics’ approval rating. Rotten Tomatoes may have hurt this Mark Pellington film, but  this reviewer was glad I ventured ahead.

No one should expect an action movie with the title “Nostalgia”. Nostalgia lingers, takes its time, trumpets molasses-like meandering. Ten to one the four people who walked out had never experienced loss, or if they had, chose not to experience it again as a leisure activity. Having just come from a friend’s daughter’s funeral a few weeks ago, I was enmeshed in the vignettes of loss.

I admit to sentimentality. I keep things that have meaning to me. I even have trouble letting go of things that once had meaning to me. Admitting this, I enjoyed watching veteran actors become normal individuals wrestling with artifacts from their pasts just like normal people. Catherine Keener was at her best. No longer the old hippy, but a grieving mother, who wished that her daughter shared her interest in the detritus of her grandparents’ stuff. Keener’s shower crumble is dirge-like and real.

Other veteran actors are at their best here, too. A lonely Bruce Dern queries the insurance adjuster ( John Ortiz) with, “Might you be coming back?” Ortiz’s day moves from one tragedy to another. His  stops link one loss with another. Ellen Burstyn has a marvelous monologue after her house and that of a neighbor burns to the ground. Charred, walled debris surrounds her. Her items taken from a burning building are rhinestone jewelry from an aunt and her husband’s storied and signed baseball. Her retro traincase with its cracked mirror is evocative of so much as she drags it around to her numerous lodgings, that its symbolism becomes an archetype for both safety net and albatross. Burstyn’s lonely hotel meal is gray. “Can what we hold in our hands be the same as what we hold on our hearts?” Her treasure leads us to Jon Hamm and another remarkable sequence of  purveyor of artifacts to cherisher of them.

Hamm is mesmerizing as Will. He unwraps the Ted Williams’ ball like a priest. Each handkerchief fold is delicately lifted. He plants the seed that she ( Burstyn) is coming to unburden herself. He shares his own pain, really listens, and he holds her hand. Later, he admits to giving her a fair price~ “for me”. He restates reality to Burstyn, who opines that he won’t remember her. “Saying good-bye is hard. Ned is gone, and now so is his ball.” We love this guy. Soon he will have his own family ephemera to catalogue and keen over. Hamm is at his best in his silences. Lying on the floor listening to vinyl jazz, he is so watchable in hitting the right chords.

Keener’s daughter and Hamm’s niece, Tallie, is played equally as real and  true. Annalise Basso sounds like most of our children when she rejects any talismans of her parents’ or grandparents’ past. “ I don’t need anything.” When pressed, she explains,” It is hard for me to understand what all this means to you. This is your space, not mine.” Ironically, all of Tallie’s possessions and likes are digital. Soon to be nothing but lost. She is “wiped clean.”

There may be too many grief chords and platitudes repeated: too many “ lives lived” intoned, and when bare tree branches are framed over and over again, we get it. “Nostalgia” salvages some truth that is important~ not dumpster stuff all.

 

 

“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

How can a movie have such an incredible cast and such superb acting and still sink to mediocre? Poor screenwriting, I’d answer. Film reel credits for Annette Bening, Jamie Bell, and Julie Walters entice and draw us in, only to have us wonder why anyone cares about a true story of an aging narcissist. Gloria Grahame is our  subject. Grahame was in over 38 films, and was nominated for the Oscars’  “Best Supporting Actress” twice. She was married four times, and scandalously married the son of her second husband.

The film “ Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool” centers on another relationship with a much younger man, three decades younger. Peter Turner’s story is the crux of the film. He accepts her, loves her, and is hurt by her. She is diagnosed with breast cancer, keeps it from him, but when it reoccurs  she seeks solace with his, the Turner, family in Liverpool.

The 1951 sex scandal aftermath and Gloria’s four word acceptance utterance ( “Thank you very much” ) are screened. “ The Bold and the Beautiful” ( 1953 ) seemed to be the title of her life story. Bening does not play to type here. Gloria is obsessed with her looks, spends much of her time before the mirror, and generally is unlikeable. Her painful descent into stomach cancer includes a scene where she asks Peter to burp her. Flash back to their earlier flirty days makes the depressing demise of the deluded star bearable, but just. We see them viewing ‘Alien” together.

Peter is an actor too. They talk about the craft. Gloria likes  monologues because, “ you get to say all the lines”. She confesses that she would have liked to have played Shakespeare’s Juliet. One of most touching scenes has Peter taking the sick Gloria  on a field trip where they sit on stage and perform a scene as Romeo and Juliet. It is sad, heartfelt, and a balance from sex, sin, and salvation where they watch reruns of her old movies on red sheets.

Gloria spends a lot of time ordering Peter around. She sends him to health food stores for apricot kernels and black grapefruit juice. She refuses to call any of her four children, all as young as Peter. She continues to be demanding, hyper-sensitive , and distant. Peter lovingly packs her suitcase for her death trip to NYC., and she leaves a headshot from her earlier days for him on the chenille bedspread.

The sound track is abysmal. When we hear “slip, slipping away” the gag reflex hits. “You really got a hold on me” makes us yell out the question, “why?”. This film never makes the attraction clear.

“Black Panther”

The African bodily adornments in the new super hero blockbuster “Black Panther” rival a decade of National Geographic photo ops. Take for instance the lip plates of Ethiopia, the Igbo ceremonial masks, the Zulu headdresses, the Basotho blankets, and the Ndebele neck rings. With the beading, the fabrics, and the body paintings, “Black Panther” furthers the premise that black is beautiful. Designer Ruth E. Carter proves it.

Director, Ryan Coogler, of “Fruitvale Station” ( 2013) fame, has created a fantasy African utopia that reminds us that slavery  is not the king of African history.  Our secret place is Wakanda. Plateaus of waterfalls cascade and green forests thrive, and loping animals frolick. Purple flowered nectar holds hallucinatory powers. Xhosa is the language spoken in the kingdom. Wakanda is the marvel of Africa.

While not a fan of superhero marvels, at seventy, I saw “Wonder Woman”, and enjoyed it.  “Black Panther” has  more depth and has its super women, too. Letitia Wright is the brainy techno-whiz, who exudes confidence in her gadgets and medical artistry. As Shuri, sister of the Black Panther King, she uses the Wakanda’s unique resource, the metal vibranium, to both protect and strengthen the community. Another rival to Wonder Woman  is the General of the Palace Guard.  Here, Danai Gurira is impervious to any threat to the king or kingdom. Her eyes flash and her stare withers. Her battle prowess commands the screen in sword-wielding savvy. Nakia is the beautiful Letitia Nyong’o, the king’s love interest. Angela Bassett is Queen Mother in all her splendor.

Then there are the men. Chadwick Boseman leads the almost all black cast in this superhero spectacle. As the Black Panther he is nuanced and evolving. As T’Challa he gets to hear advice like: “Your father’s mistakes can not define who you are.” Still ancestors are praised. A tree of black panthers is one of the arresting images in the film. Statements like: “I can not rest while the monster of our own making reigns” dot the film. Superheroes, remember, change the world.

The anti-hero is Eric Kilmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, who has been in every one of Coogler’s films. He plays an angrier man, who wants to get back at African colonizers. He believes that the world is getting smaller and that there are only the conquerors and the conquered. White mercenaries are present, as is a CIA operative, and an arms dealer. Forrest Whittaker is the be-robed spiritual shaman who contributes to the subtext.

The themes are many, but colonial ravages and self-interested nationalism are equally rebuked without stopping for retribution.

The structural setting of “Black Panther” is interesting. It sandwiches the story between Oakland, California and our African paradise with one jaunt to the British Museum.

The film begins with a small boy’s voice, “tell me a story”. We hear of an asteroid, five tribes, and a super power that was hidden in plain sight. Suddenly, we are in Oakland, California with its basketball courts, assault rifles, thick, gold chains, and “ Grace Jones-looking chicks”. Then we are back in Wakanda as the new king is ceremoniously inducted. Ancestors are praised and physical challenges to the newly inducted king are made. Only the cave dwellers scoff at tradition.

There are dizzying air craft descents and car races that leave nothing left of the cars, and girls get to drive. There are mechanical rhinos and cool communication devices. There is funny dialogue and teasing about “ old school shoe wear” and the anathema of having to listen to someone else’s  music. There is international intrigue as a CIA operative tries to keep Asian purchases at bay. And the hand to hand combat is intense. The sparks just keep coming. Rebel cries distinguish between serving your country and saving your country.

I have seen all of Coogler’s films, and I am a fan. ( see “Creed” review on http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com.  Jan. 2nd , 2016). He got a nuanced performance from Sylvester Stallone when he was 28. At 32, Coogler is helping rewrite curriculums around the country. Black History has a fun, new, more positive beat. One that holds advanced civilizations with a responsibility to enlighten the world. Anyone who was smart enough to stay as the last credit rolled by, will know that Ryan Coogler will have a lot more to offer the world.