Harriet

 

It’s hard to believe that this is the first film on the life of Harriet Tubman, the legendary 19th-century “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. This film should be a remake, or at least a retelling, as this is a historical personage we should all be more familiar with. There are some bumps and some weaknesses in the film, but it should be seen for two main reasons—lead actress Cynthia Erivo’s performance and for dealing with the issue of slavery in America.

Erivo is a young British actress and the winner of the 2016 Tony Award for the Best Actress in a Musical for The Color Purple. She easily makes the move to film with a (I hope) sure-to-be-nominated performance as the tough and determined abolitionist and slave rescuer. The film rests firmly and securely on her shoulders, and there isn’t a false move made. She’s entirely relatable while projecting period accuracy at the same time. This is a model for matching the right actress with the perfect role.

The film itself is solid, and is filled with genuinely touching human moments. Rarely has a film included so many touching and genuinely emotional reunions. The cinematography by John Toll (Academy Awards for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, and currently working on Matrix 4) is on the lovely rather than the gritty side, but it matches the tone of the film. The film could have been grittier in tone and look, but the grit here firmly resides in Erivo’s face and heart. The look doesn’t achieve the beauty that was so controversial in 12 Years a Slave, but is still easy on the eyes.

The music is a problem. It does far too much of the work for the viewer (and listener), and unnecessarily so, seeming not to trust the images and performances to signal meaning. It tells us too quickly and strongly who is nice, who is mean, who is dangerous, and when we are to be worried. It approaches mickeymousing far too often, and we’re robbed of the experience of realizing things on our own.

While the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated, there is a fascinating undercurrent to Joe Alwyn’s characterization and performance. He plays the son of Harriet’s slave owner, and the relationship, while not explored enough, adds some needed nuance to the film. Is he just the typical bigoted slave owner, a blond personification of racial cruelty? Or is there more to his obsession with Harriet than we might think at first? The film hints at more, but perhaps since this is a fictional character (sorry…), the film won’t press the possible issues too far. But there is a layer of intriguing questions that make the film richer.

There is also a nod made to unintended consequences in the film. Not everyone wanted to be rescued, and the film offers some understandable reasons why the risks might not be worth it. When Harriet makes some decisions (such as her first escape), she is surprised and often angry by what can happen in her absence. And actions that might have worked well in years past aren’t always smart now, as laws change  and new considerations arise.

One strength of the film is the treatment of Harriet’s connection with God. The film raises the questions of Harriet’s hearing God’s voice as being due to a head injury, and a journal entry to this effect is one of the few moments of humor in the film. But the film doesn’t make fun of her, and demonstrates that whatever she felt she was hearing, it led to one successful “freedom raid” after another. It’s a tightrope walk to show in terms of screenplay and visuals that Harriet was having a spiritual experience, and one that needs to be respected; it could have been played either darkly or comically. Addressing the role of God, and especially the voice of God, in a film is dangerous work. That the film succeeds so handily here is a triumph, and one that will likely be overlooked by many.

The film isn’t always accurate historically. Gideon (Alwyn) is fictional, as is Marie’s character (played beautifully by Janelle Monáe). Time is compressed, and Harriet’s astounding successes after her years as a “slave stealer” are given short shrift. Harriet Tubman’s life deserves a mini-series, which probably won’t happen because this film is a good enough portrayal to last for years.

Most importantly, at least for a student of slavery and the black experience (i.e., me), this is a must-see for nearly all Americans. It’s not the deepest or most thoughtful film of the year, but it’s well-made, and will likely be the only film on this important person for a long while. Americans of the 21st century need to be reminded of the horrors of slavery and racism, and sometimes a film becomes important simply because it addresses or presents issues of importance.

One final note: This was directed by a black woman, Kasi Lemmons. She’s perhaps best known for Eve’s Bayou (1997). Conversation starter: Why does Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, the upcoming Little Women) get so much press for being a female director, and why does Ava DuVernay (Selma) attract similar press for being a black female director, when Lemmons hardly gets attention for a well-made film about a heroic woman set against the greatest abomination in our country’s history? Talk amongst yourselves.

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Judy

Judy Garland was the greatest musical performer in American film (and perhaps on the concert stage as well) of the 20th century. It’s likely that no film could do her life—or even a portion of her life–justice. Judy, which focuses on Garland’s year or so before her untimely death in 1969 at the age of 47, is a rather paint-by-numbers, too-soft-by-half account of those years. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it’s nowhere near what it could be.  It does, however, feature what (at this writing) will most likely be an Oscar-winning performance by Renée Zellweger, playing the comeback queen in a kind of comeback role for the actress (oh, how the Academy loves that combination!) It’s worth seeing the film for that performance alone.

The plot is simple and simplistic: Judy has blown through money and husbands, and she is schlepping her children around without the ability to pay for their care or housing. She gets an offer to sing in London, where she is especially loved, and she leaves her two younger children with her ex (their father Sid Luft) so she can earn enough money to get back to America and retrieve her children back. Along the way there are flashbacks to her time as a child at M-G-M, where her addiction to pills began, and where she was mistreated, overworked, and it is suggested, perhaps sexually abused.

By now that story of her youth is nearly legend, and the film plays it without nuance. The bad people are very bad—men and women—and yet the whole series of flashbacks is played out in lovely colors and surprisingly bring lighting—soft sweet memory cinematography with people acting badly. On paper that sounds intriguing and vaguely Hitchcockian; here it’s just strange and confusing. Of course we’re meant to believe that this early mistreatment is the reason for all of Garland’s later behaviors—with pills, the bottle, and erratic behavior on- and off-stage. There’s very little insight into any other factors, including Garland’s own choices, her difficult family life before films, or the sometimes unusual combination of drive and insecurity one often finds with great artists. There is one fine moment, though, that indicates what the rest of the film could have included. Judy mentions that she asked her close friend and performing partner Mickey Rooney for a date, and he rather cruelly turned her down. Later we see another soft and sweet flashback that has Rooney asking her out, but the draw of the audience’s applause overrides her desire to go out with him, and she turns him down. Oh, to have had more of that!

The softness of the flashbacks bleeds into the adult years, not in terms of visual treatment (thought that is clean, clear, and pretty as well), but in perspective. Garland died of a drug overdose—not a pretty picture. She was petulant, funny, cruel, and often completely unreliable. She drove some fans to ecstasy; she drove managers and business partners to utter distraction. Another Judy film might have ended with her dead on her bathroom floor, with all the failed possibilities of a life only half lived tragically felt. This one ends with Judy triumphant at a concert months before her death—the typical “this is how we really want to remember this person” so popular in films. The film manages to include erratic behavior, the love of the masses, bad marital choices, and drugs, but there is nothing that ties this all together. Even her last husband, the younger Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), is presented with possibilities (Is he a user? Does he really care for her? Was he really able to help her career?),  but with no guide for the viewer as to what might have been going on. There is a great deal left out of her life, even the short part of her life portrayed here. But there is a valiant attempt to include elements of her life, personality, and difficulties; there just doesn’t seem to be an attempt to bring all these elements together.

Where the script and direction fail, however, Zellweger succeeds. Everything finally culminates in this film not in the story or its treatment, but in Zellweger’s performance. Between the character and the actress playing her, the viewer is distracted away from the rest of the film’s holes and weaknesses, and is drawn into this dominating show. Other than being taller and prettier than Garland, Zellweger IS Garland—a clichéd phrase that in this case isn’t hype. There were times when, in a moment here and there, she looked and acted so much like the real Garland that it was simply uncanny. Zellweger’s mannerisms have been subsumed into this other person; even Zellweger’s tendency to employ her mouth as an acting style works for this portrayal. Her non-singing parts were rich and detailed, and looked deeply acquired and felt. You could feel the deep fatigue of more than four decades of performing and being forced (or feeling like she was being forced) to perform. You could sense the insecurity, the anger, the frustration, and the immaturity that flashed from Garland when pressed by people and circumstance.

As far as the singing and performing parts go, I have to give Zellweger props while still holding my praise in reserve. I am very familiar with Garland’s voice, and I am a singer myself. Zellweger did some easy singing in Chicago, but it was nothing like what was called for here. She clearly has done her homework, both in the singing and performing. The edgy and nearly over-the-top style of later Garland was nailed by Zellweger, and her movements and actions while performing evoke Garland’s television work especially. But I’m sorry—this is Judy Garland we are talking about, the possessor of one of the great voices of all time in popular music. In the less demanding songs (e.g., “The Trolley Song”), Zellweger can handle the notes, and you can hear her occasionally injecting the phrasing and throatiness of Garland’s voice in a way that is exciting and evocative. But in the more demanding songs (e.g., “Come Rain or Come Shine”), Zellweger’s limitations become embarrassingly obvious, and the powerful endings and (relatively) high notes that Garland would wind up and pitch to the back rows are simply beyond Zellweger. There are even moments where, to use a common current phrase, she’s “pitchy,” something Garland never was. Zellweger has to take breaths where Garland never did, and the phrasing suffers.

And then there is the final song.  I suppose a film on Garland has to end with her signature song, but to have it so broken up, and then unfinished, was either a questionable artistic choice of the screenwriter, or a necessary evil due to Zellweger’s inability to bring it to the emotional and musical heights we all remember. For me, my wife sings a much better “Over the Rainbow” than Zellweger manages, and the contrast was uncomfortable.

A comparison with La Vie en Rose can’t be helped. This was 2007’s film about “France’s Judy Garland,” Edith Piaf, who also died (in 1963) at 47. That won Marion Cotillard the Best Actress Oscar, quite deservedly and decidedly unusual for a foreign-language performance. Cotillard lip-synced Piaf’s actual songs, and pulled off perhaps the most convincing lip-synching in film history. Perhaps she took a cue from Garland herself, who when lip-synching her own pre-recorded songs when doing a film, actually sang the songs rather than just moved her mouth. In any event, we got believable performances from Cotillard while hearing Piaf herself. It’s not Zellweger’s fault that she can’t aspire to Garland’s heights; no one could. But the comparison for those us who know Garland’s work makes every musical performance a disappointment to one degree or another.

There has been some criticism that this performance is superficial and unnecessarily over the top. But check out Garland’s film performances after M-G-M (or even in 1947’s The Pirate), and take a look at her interviews. This was a woman who lived an over-the-top life in an over-the-top way. She found drama where that was none, and would constantly reinvent her past for a good story and to keep her persona as victim going strong.

This is going to be, for better or for worse, this generation’s Garland film. I’m not sure if it’s possible outside of a documentary or a limited TV series for even the best production could adequately portray one of the world’s greatest performers. We’re not likely to get a better dramatic performance of the star than we have here. Fortunately, the musical numbers are limited in number and often demand as much acting as singing.. But the Garland as victim trope needs a fresh look at some point. When Garland died, my saddened 16-year-old self mentioned to my mother (a fan of hers) how awful and challenging her life was. Her answer: “It’s not what happens in someone’s life that matters; it’s how they react to it.” Now that’s a Garland film I’d like to see.

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Joker

 

Where to begin? I can’t recommend this to most of my friends, for a myriad of reasons. For those that want to be entertained, the film falls short, delivering a dark shot of confused and depressing nihilism in place of diversion. For film history folks, this is early Scorsese revisited but with less focus and a lot less edge (and therefore, less interesting). For fanboys of the genre, it’s confusing; it’s really more of a simple origin story of a broken psychopath shoehorned awkwardly into the Batman/Joker construct. And for many other in love with the art of film, it’s less than the sum of its parts, even accounting for a captivating performance by one of our great American actors, Joaquin Phoenix.

The film is a smash financially, and it is so full of so many ideas about society, parents, abuse, law and order, etc., etc., etc., that there will be many a conversation about its suggested topics. Since few of those topics are presented with clarity (except that yes, abusing children is bad and leads to problems), the film functions more like an icebreaker question and conversation starter than any kind of definitive artistic expression that must be studied in and of itself.

As a film, it’s grim and muddy and violent and almost never stops moving, with camerawork that seems to reflect its central character’s wandering and increasingly sick mind. That’s a choice, and it joins well with Phoenix’s off-kilter performance. But the film has to back off from that subjective imbalanced movement occasionally for the sake of narrative sense and the viewer’s patience, and those moments of calmer medium-distance perspective contribute to a kind of jerky rhythm to the film that tends to enervate rather than energize it.

One of the topics of conversation for those so interested is that this is a period piece—New York, oops, I mean Gotham, in the 1970s. The movies shown as playing in one scene are both from 1981—Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade—but this is the same landscape as Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver with a twist (in more meanings than one) of his 1982 The King of Comedy. The homages or at least references to Taxi Driver are too numerous to mention (see the streets, the taxis, the city, and of course, De Niro). The King of Comedy moments are less important here, but having De Niro be in the “successful” role instead of being the loser adds a certain frisson. Of course there are Dark Knight/Heath Ledger references throughout, some subtle and others deliberately not so.

The Dark Knight gave us a Joker in median res, with little to no explanation of how he got this way, and a more unreliable narrator of his own story is probably impossible to find in all of cinema. That leaves open a world of conjecture and yes, mental chaos, which tends to work better in the Batman stories. Here, the poor guy is just a victim of yes, society to a point (does everyone—adults and children—default to knocking people to the ground and then kicking them relentlessly when they get angry?), but mostly of a deeply mentally disturbed mother who created an environment of abuse. Plus he has no dad, found out that the dad he temporarily thought he had wasn’t, and he’s adopted. Ultimately, Arthur Fleck (worst name ever) is simply the product of his upbringing. Wherever he seems to have some agency, the film suggests that it is actually his free-floating mental illness that causes him to make what his mother might call “poor choices.” It’s not really him, and not really society. The film approaches the substance and development of his twisted character in a similar manner to how Phoenix/Joker stops to dance in the bathroom and elsewhere—fascinating but bewildering.

As committed as JP is to the role—and the commitment is total—this performance won’t overshadow Ledger’s character and work in The Dark Knight for two reasons. One is the rather pedestrian explanation of how Fleck got to be Joker; Ledger’s Joker insists that there is no logical explanation for him. The other reason is context. Joker as the main character is adrift if not connected to Batman, and functions better as a supporting character with Batman front and center. As great as Ledger was, and Phoenix is, the character of the Joker seems more like a spice that enhances the dish than the main ingredient, where it doesn’t quite work, and needs too many other ingredients to try to make a recognizable meal of it. Yes, there is a bit ‘o Batman here, but it doesn’t provide any kind of real balance to the Joker, and is rightly controversial in its inclusion in this story; it seems tacked on to somehow force this film into the DC canon.

Time will tell this film’s worth beyond the central performance and its providing a prosaic explanation for one of the least prosaic characters in comics and the films based on them. The current question is why—beyond brilliant marketing—this film is striking such a chord. Perhaps that will provide the film’s biggest shudder of all.

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Ad Astra

Ad Astra is an intimate emotional journey writ large (as in galaxy large.) It’s a combination of Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 127 Hours, with hints of A River Runs Through It, Road to Perdition, Field of Dreams, and Apocalypse Now. And it gives us the second great performance by Brad Pitt this year.

The plot is relatively simple, and almost slim. IMDB lays it out as well as any other source:  “Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his miss father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the world.” Pitt is Roy McBride, and Tommy Lee Jones plays his father. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are in it, too, and they make an impact when they are on screen. But they are in the film for relatively short periods, and this is basically all Brad all the time.

The film tackles issues of loneliness, identity, fatherhood/sonhood, and isolation. Several questions arise, however, and they are the real story: “What/who are we in this universe?” “ Are we alone in the universe?” “What should the relationship be between fathers and sons, especially if they have a similar calling, or if one of them goes off the rails?” “Can we properly function without intimate human contact?” “How do we handle it when a loved one doesn’t want our help?”

The film is meditative, surprisingly quiet (albeit with a few action scenes), and thoughtful. To describe the various stages of  Roy’s internal journey would be to spoil the film, but it fits nicely with his outward journey. As quiet as the film is, there are notes that are not as subtle as they could be. Roy’s wife is named Eve, which is perhaps too on the nose. (And Liv Tyler, as she often does, plays less of a real character than an archetype, the beautiful woman—now not the beautiful girl—who represents all lovely womanhood, be it human or Elven). Also, Roy’s dispassionate description of his final psychological state is nearly a parody of his earlier descriptions and is a little too explicit.

Director James Gray is no stranger to journeys that are both physical and psychological (The Immigrant, and especially The Lost City of Z). Here he masterfully blends the personal and the intimate played against adventure that takes one across the universe. (It’s rather like Lawrence of Arabia, but with a personal journey that’s more direct and much less complex). Spoiler alert: Roy’s story begins with isolation and ends with the expressed need for connection. But nearly every person Roy “connects” with inhabits their own space, and seems contained and slightly remote and removed. Even at the end of the film, when it is suggested that Roy and Eve might/will reconnect, they each receive their own screen space, and there is no real physical connection.

A film like this lives or dies on its central performance, and Pitt gives what may well be his best performance, one that demonstrates both his strong points while extending his range. Pitt’s journey as an actor is receiving a good deal of thought and talk this year, and it’s true that this role fits where he is right now as few other of his films have. There has often been a certain removed quality to Pitt’s work, as if his energy is centripetal and every move and word is from a point of thoughtful and isolated observation. That works well here, as that is the character’s starting point. But as the film develops, so does the performance, and Roy’s isolation (aversive to touch at times) turns to connectivity (reaching out to Dad). At the same time, Pitt softens, opens, and even comes to tears; it’s a beautiful emotional arc.

To put on a more practical hat for a moment, it’s hard to see how this film will capture its audience after a few weeks. It’s not a rip-roaring space adventure, nor is it a quiet character study. There are a few exciting and tense moments, but this is a father-son film that follows an overly-controlled and isolated man as he deals with finding his father and realizes his need for others. Fortunately, it’s also a vehicle for the star-of-our-times as he gives a performance of richness and depth as he’s never done before. Perhaps that will end up being enough.

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Downton Abbey

Nothing really new here. If you liked/loved the series on TV, you’ll like/love the movie. It’s just a little bigger, a little more grand, a little more lush, and has perhaps one or two too many subplots. To give enough breathing room for all the secondary stories, the film would have to be at least a half hour longer, but the ability of its likely (older) patrons aren’t used to sitting that long—hence the two-hour running time.

The plot itself has been signaled well enough in the trailers (the King and Queen are coming!!), but creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes has a nifty twist prepared to keep things from becoming too predictable. What is predictable, and by predictable here I mean comforting and familiar, are all the characters, their personalities, their interrelationships, and of course the place and time. The well-appointed rooms, the gorgeous costumes, the elegant and moving music—they’re all there. Perhaps the film’s greatest triumph is logistical—getting all those actors together long enough to get this film recorded. My guess is that it will never happen again.

And perhaps the near-zero chance of making this happen again is the reason Fellowes felt he had to tie up so many stories; he may well have felt that there was no way many of the stories he started would ever be able to be developed beyond these two hours, and so they had to be presented with some kind of closure or a promise thereof.

All these actors are solid. But a few performances are worthy of note. Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), featured so prominently in the past, is practically invisible here, and she is missed. The happy opposite is the case with Tom (Allen Leech) and of course the indomitable Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Leech’s romantic subplot is rushed and unfulfilling, but he has some lovely moments remembering his wife and explaining how he looks at things now. Smith, whom I admire as both a line reader and actor (see https://film-prof.com/2013/04/15/actors-and-line-readers/), gets her chance to do the former (of course), but also has the chance to show her skills as a serious actor near the end of the film. Perhaps only Smith could have been called upon to wrap things up in such a believable and moving way.

The film’s major misstep (and it’s a significant one) is in handling Mr. Molesly (Kevin Doyle). Doyle was a surprise comic addition to the television show, and his comedy worked best in unexpected small moments. Here he is directed to go over the top from the word go, as if his drunken dance routine highlighted in the TV show were extended to an overly energetic performance throughout the entire film. It doesn’t work, and it makes his final exchange with Miss Baxter feel less authentic than it is written to be.

Some films are nearly critic-proof, and Downton Abbey might be accused of being immune to serious criticism. But not just matching but transcending a well-crafted television series can’t be taken for granted. There were many places where the story could have been overdone or underdone, or a performance might have fallen short, or an approach might have proven to be foolhardy, or the writer or director could have risked taking things in a “daring” new direction. Other than Doyle’s misconceived interpretation, none of these things is true of Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s as comfortable and generally unsurprising, but translating any television show to the big screen successfully, especially with a television director (Michael Engler) at the helm, is no small feat. For those who are looking to keep a show faithful to its TV series while expanding it for the big screen, Downton Abbey may well find itself a future model of how to do it right.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Whales of August (1987)

Sometimes, seeing two films in a short period of time can lead to fascinating insights and comparisons that would otherwise not have presented themselves. I just saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in a movie theater on a large screen (thank you, RIT student John Dugan for letting me know this was happening) and saw The Whales of August (1987) at home. I don’t think I could have arranged a greater contrast in films if I’d planned it.

Lawrence is considered the greatest epic ever filmed, and I can’t disagree with that. It’s certainly of its time, with music that is far more dominating than in today’s films, with a scope that is beyond most filmmakers, and with a stately pace that rewards the patient but might test the attention span of many modern folks. This may be one of the great “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” films of all time. If someone wants to see a great big fat epic film, this is the one. But try to see it on the largest screen possible. It’s meant to overwhelm, and it did this past week.

I’d last seen Lawrence on the big screen after its restoration in the late ‘80s, and seeing it in 70mm back then was unlike anything I’d ever seen before; I felt as if I could walk out of my seat and into the image. This time it was presented in digital, but the newest restoration was still glorious, and the film presented a master course in cinematography by Freddie Young (Oscars for this, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, but also cinematography for the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips; 49th Parallel; Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Lust for Life; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Nicholas and Alexandra, to name a few.) This was likely Young’s and director David’s Lean most beautiful and expressive work before Lean’s becoming self-conscious about it.

This is also the film that many claim to contain the best performance not to win an Oscar, and some consider Peter O’Toole’s work here the best performance by any actor in any film. That’s subjective, of course, but the performance hasn’t aged over the years, and is as enigmatic and confident as ever. Alec Guinness’s performance as an Arab used to bother me, but the great actor (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai and fame for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in some popular space opera) was made to look the part, and clearly brought his considerable skills to creating a believable character. What surprised me was how over-the-top-yet-missing-the-mark Anthony Quinn was. Of course a Mexican actor playing an Arab was a stretch, but Guinness showed how the lack of background didn’t have to be an impediment to a believable performance. Quinn chewed up all the scenery in sight, and kept popping out of the fabric of the film. But it’s Lean’s and O’Toole’s film, and if the post-intermission (yes, there was an intermission) part of the film doesn’t quite add up to the first half, it’s still a must-see for everyone interested in what film can be. Look around and find out when it’s coming to a movie theater near you, and then don’t let anything get in the way.

The opposite of Lawrence is the delicate, lighter-than-air The Whales of August, which simply floats on the screen until it fairly evanesces by the end credits. It’s known for being the last film of legendary Lillian Gish at the end of her 75-year career in film, as well as Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern. It was also the second-last film of stroke victim Bette Davis, and one of the last films of Vincent Price. It’s a quiet chamber piece, with basically 3.5 characters. Gish and Davis play two sisters, one soft and kind and one edgy and attitudinal (guess which actress plays which). It was Sothern who got the supporting actress Oscar nomination, and she is fine if still held to a rather small part. Gish is lovely and doesn’t miss a beat, ever the consummate professional. She’s nearly lighter than air. Davis, of course, provides the cynicism and holds the drama down to a jaundiced realism before (spoiler alert) she decides that there is more to live for.

Price’s character is interesting, as he brings in the pre-Soviet Russian aristocracy into a New England context, and helps to pull the film out of its possibly too-constricted place and historical moment. His character was originally scheduled to be played by Alec Guinness, who would have connected this film to Lawrence of Arabia and would have added another texture to the film. But Price is surprisingly effective, bringing a soft Continental touch to his character, who has been physically unmoored due to the death of his dear female friend. The dialogue and acting around his attempts to investigate if Gish’s character might be his new dear friend is subtle, polite, and moving.

The film will always be remembered as Gish’s final effort (at age 93), the end of a 75-year film career. But a few other notes of interest add some delightful context to the film. Ann Sothern’s daughter plays her as a young girl, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen plays the young Bette Davis in that same short segment in the beginning of the film.

When you want to be rolled over with drama, beauty, sound, and scope, try Lawrence. If you need a quiet, lovely, and soft film experience, join Gish in her final performance. Both films are historic, and ring two very different internal bells.

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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

This is the first time I’ve genuinely looked forward to seeing a Quentin Tarantino film. As my film students have come to learn, I’ve had an aversion to him and his films for a number of reasons, none of which I’ll go into here—though I greatly admire many of his sharply drawn characters, the generally high level of acting, and the cinematography of Inglourious Basterds.

[Spoilers galore—continue at your own risk if you haven’t seen it.] Where to begin with Once Upon a Time…? In some senses, it’s a mature departure from his earlier work, though it resonates throughout with references to those earlier works (especially regarding wish fulfillment, Inglourious Basterds, and fire.). It’s a rich blend of sound and image, with so many cultural and cinematic references that it’s going to be a guaranteed subject for conversation and writing for serious critics, film students, and Easter egg sleuths for years to come. It’s by far my favorite QT film, and it manages to build and build uniquely and creatively until he lets loose with what could be called a typical Tarantino ending that folks will either love or hate—or in my case, both love and hate.

But even before that controversial ending has a chance to either pull you in all the way or completely take you out of the film , QT has created a funny, serious, dreamy, surreal, parodic,  series of sights and sounds that shouldn’t blend together, but do. He uses diegetic music in so many different ways, for example, that one minute the viewer is grooving along with Cliff (Brad Pitt) and the next, is listening to music emanating from a scene that turns into nondiegetic accompaniment for the next scene before we’re aware of it–and it works.

Full disclosure: I was 16 in 1969, when these film events happened. Many think that the Manson murders were the unofficial end of the 1960’s (the film’s take), while some think that the Kent State murder a few months later has that dubious distinction. In any event, for Hollywood and for many who were coming of age at that time, those murders were as shocking and as culturally significant as President Kennedy’s was shocking and political. I hadn’t yet been freed from high school by this time, but was aware of the free-spirited music and mindsets that had been developing around me. Tarantino has captured the mood and feel and more, and has put his own stamp on it, including what is becoming his revisionist trope.

Tarantino is doing so many things in this film, from social comment to loving respect for 1960’s TV and Hollywood, to slight (or not so slight) satire on the same, to recreating and celebrating and undermining 1969 swinging Hollywood, that it might be dizzying trying to follow everything he’s doing–except for the fact that he’s created a dynamic blend of narrative and dream that keeps the viewer engaged, even when he stretches that viewer’s engagement to the limit (which is does more than once). To call it a rich stew doesn’t do this complex film justice. It justifies many more words than I have time or inclination to present.

The casting and acting combination may well be the best of the year, or many a year. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton (great name), a TV actor trying to make it into film, but whose career is in low gear. Dalton is much less intelligent than DiCaprio, often a great challenge to a smart actor. DiCaprio plays it humorously most of the time with a performance that is self-conscious about its character’s flaws and limits, but he doesn’t stay there. Rumor has it (or IMDB has recorded) that DiCaprio had a hard time doing second-rate acting as Dalton without visible condescension, but he manages to pull it off, and also nails it when Dalton has to pull out his best acting for one intense scene. This is a high-wire performance with great range and range of expression. Should the Academy have waited a few more years to give Leo an Oscar?

The owner of the film, however, is Brad Pitt, who does a star-making turn again by playing a character opposite of DiCaprio’s in many ways, from Cliff’s imperturbable unflappability to Pitt’s finally accepting and even celebrating how cool and good-looking Brad Pitt is. Pitt is supposed to be playing second fiddle to DiCaprio here as his stunt double/driver/personal assistant. But he ends up taking over the narrative at some points and finally becomes the primary agent of action at the climax of the film. Pitt has never looked so comfortable in his own skin, and he exemplifies the laid-back 1969 California dude perfectly and without irony while still carving out his character’s individuality. DiCaprio is all motion and range; Pitt is all internal stillness and consistency. They are both bravura performances, and while DiCaprio is the better actor in general, this film belongs to Pitt/Cliff.

There are so many other good-to-great actors in smaller roles that it would take too long to go into how they do, why they were cast in this role, and what meaning it has for the film. Lena Dunham as one of the Manson girls? Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme? Maya Hawke as the “Flower Girl” in the group?. Timothy Olyphant in just an extended but meaningful cameo? And Luke Perry in his last role? Then there is Bruce Dern, playing the real George Spahn of Spahn Ranch fame because Burt Reynolds died before filming, and bringing a meta sensibility to the role because of he turns his own career has taken in later years; is what happened with and to George Spahn similar to what happens to actors who are aging out?

Making the most of her role is Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a fictional Manson girl. Qualley was most recently seen in her Emmy-nominated role as Ann Reinking in TV’s Fosse/Verdon, where she had to not only act but dance that legendary dancer’s part. She owns every scene she’s in here, which is miles away from her Reinking role. She’s everything an uninhibited flower child of the late ‘60s should be, and her role and performance add depth and layers of fluctuating meaning to the film.

I’ve enjoyed the brouhaha around Margot Robbie: “She doesn’t have enough agency in the movie” and “Her role doesn’t give her enough lines.” How do I say this nicely?: People who really don’t know what they are talking about should really stop talking. Her role as the doomed Sharon Tate (a.k.a. Mrs. Roman Polanski) is yes, the stuff of dreams, but this movie isn’t about her at the same time that it is about her world and how it soured. It might be said that any breathtakingly lovely blonde could have played this role, and that would be wrong. Robbie has an intelligence behind her beauty that keep us engaged long after we notice her looks. She represents the “look” and so-called “freedom” of the late ‘60s with her miniskirt and white boots. But she also shows a little-girl joy at seeing her image on the screen (watching the real Sharon Tate—wow, could someone please dig into that?) while also showing us a young woman who doesn’t quite know who she is but who has patterned herself after ‘60s clichés, to a kind and generous woman about to have her first child. It’s not a performance that insists that you watch, but instead invites you in to observe, to enjoy, and even to ponder. There’s depth in her character and greater depth around it.

Not every scene works. The Playboy Mansion scene doesn’t really add anything, and the current actors playing ‘60s actors is more distracting than meaningful. There is also a long unbroken take of dialogue between Rick Dalton (studying lines between shooting scenes) and the child actress Julie Butters, playing a child actress named Trudi (who looks like a combination of the young Brooke Shields and the young Elizabeth Taylor) who has to spout some of the funnier, more ironic, satiric lines about the Art of Acting. As usual, Tarantino’s dialogue is biting and intelligent. But coming out of the mouth of a genuinely young child in a long take doesn’t quite resonate. Butters does her best and she may well become the actress some think she will be, but the dialogue is too much for her, and the long take doesn’t allow for a back-and forth selection of the best takes of either actor.

What does work is the extended Spahn Ranch scene, which “interrupts” the narrative and pulls us away from the person we thought was the lead—Dalton. This is Tarantino at his bravura best, deviating from every expectation about plot and character to go on what could be considered an unnecessary side journey. Pitt is just about perfect here, and he gets to demonstrate his character’s tough exterior, fighting skills, and soft heart. But far more than that, this is a scene of developing dread and tension, feelings that began much earlier in the film with that reverse tracking shot that ended with the shot of “Cielo Drive.” There is great suspense here, and suspense that is stretched to the breaking point. But there is also deep dread mixed in. Since we know that Cliff is not a real person, we don’t know what might happen to him in this strange and unfamiliar setting. We do know historically what they group was capable of, so Cliff’s adventure here keeps us tied to Tarantino’s main character while building foreboding for what we (think we) know is coming.

That sequence is one of the most mature and daring sequences Tarantino has directed. It took exact pacing and a great deal of restraint to do it. I was hoping that restraint—which yielded such creativity here—would last throughout the rest of the film. But this is Tarantino, after all, so of course I was wrong. The end sequence at Dalton’s house is gonzo, all hell breaks loose, over-the-top-beyond-all-recognition action and violence. It’s at this point that QT seriously deviates from historical accuracy, but that important fact is all but drowned out in the moment by the utter insanity and unleashed carnage we view. Of course the irony is that this is violence that we want to see to some extent (cue Hitchcock), but it’s so overboard that it finally becomes funny. I understand that this is a QT trademark, but after my first viewing, I believe that while I see what he’s doing with the violence, the way he did it prevents this from becoming a great film.

Yet…yet…I was a sucker for the ending scene outside the Polanski residence. As in many of QT’s films, history is distorted in a way that delights the brain with “what ifs” while quietly acknowledging what we all know really happened. The film wraps up perfectly with the title coming just as we settle into the alternate reality that’s been presented to us. It’s a dream we wish could have occurred. And a number of themes are suggested by the words “Once Upon a Time” coming first, reminding us that we watching wishful revisionism, and then having …. “in Hollywood,” opening all the thoughts the film suggests in the combination love affair/satire QT has with the Dream Factory.

And yes, I’ll see it again. Probably more than once.

 

 

 

 

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