A Quiet Passion (directed by Terence Davies). 2016.

with Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine.

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Emily Dickinson wrote poems in the privacy of her house in Amherst Massachussetts because her father allowed her to be an artist, as long as it didn’t interfere with the rest of the household. The rest of the household included her mother, also named Emily, her sister Lavinia, and her brother Austin, along with several employees (not servants who can be insulted or overlooked). Keith Carradine plays Edward Dickinson as a stern religious paterfamilias with all of the decision making power and sometimes a modicum of grace. Jennifer Ehle keeps smiling in that ingratiating way she did as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. But Lavinia (aka Vinny) is Emily’s saving grace. Vinny keeps counsel, is constant, and tells Emily off in a way when warranted.

I enjoyed the first half of the movie with its dialogue worthy of an Oscar Wilde play: witticism, retort, further witty reply, even more playful retort. These scenes especially with Aunt Elizabeth, a horrible prig, demonstrate the intelligence and depth of the Dickinson family. For family was all to Emily. Her parents and siblings formed her whole world. As she explains to her independent sprightly friend, Vryling Buffam, I probably won’t marry, my family is enough.

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But when her family begins to die, the tone changes drastically. Davies lingers on illness and death forgetting the audience’s taste for the intellect that comes with verbal greatness. Davies wallows in the disheartening parts of being human: besides illness and death, there are infidelity and envy. It’s as if Davies has been kidnapped by the strict religion of the day that Emily rejected (she would not kneel when everyone else did) and trains his viewers in his lugubrious point of view. I kept sighing and yawning, even as Emily was dying. Poor Cynthia Nixon must pretend to have not one not two but three convulsions very slowly with melancholy music. The mother’s severe depression is demonstrated by showing her eyes well up with tears. Otherwise, she remains a cipher. It makes me think that Davies unlike Dickinson suffers from a severe lack of imagination.

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Even though the second half of the movie lagged, and ends with the most well known of Dickinson’s poems accompanying her casket, Davies frames each shot beautifully. He morphs the younger actors into their older selves artfully with time lapse photography. Visually the movie keeps you watching, along with the laudable acting, but the challenge of capturing the essence of Emily Dickinson eludes Davies.

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Personal Shopper (dir. Olivier Assayas). 2016.

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This movie made me nervous which is I suppose the point, but not in the way the director intended.  There is genuine suspense, but if you don’t buy the special effects with ectoplasm,  you are left with an impatience to see where the plot is going.  Personal Shopper‘s supporting cast is minimal and weak, so the movie pretty much rests on the shoulders of Kristen Stewart.  The story:  Maureen’s (Stewart) twin brother, Lewis, has died of a heart condition she also has, and since both of them are mediums,  Maureen is waiting to see if he will speak to her, or let her know if he has reached the other side. I learned from Wikipedia why the director doggedly depended on low lighting during these scenes. “According to some mediums, the ectoplasm can not occur in light conditions as the ectoplasmic substance would disintegrate.”  

I wish I knew more about the characters.  We learn that Lewis loved carpentry, and wanted to create a school for it, in the old house about to be sold.  We watch  Maureen’s dependence on her phone, which she uses constantly to listen to (what?) and watch an old movie about Victor Hugo communicating with spirits as she disembarks from a train.

After Maureen’s effort to find her dead brother’s spirit in his house, she is back at work, selecting clothes for her celebrity employer.  An incident of buying some leather pants seems to have more portent.  When Maureen attempts to retrieve these pants because the store did not approve them being worn and returned, a man is in the apartment. Ingo (Lars Eidinger) is the boyfriend of Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), her celebrity boss, and somehow manages to elicit the story of Maureen and her brother.  Both characters are frustrated by Kyra, who is evidently a terrible pain, spoiled in the extreme, expecting to have everything her way no matter how unjustified.

The scenes with the most tension occur as Maureen, on her way to London on the Chunnel (many scenes involve commuting, going to and fro, including some of the best photography in the movie, when Maureen is on her motorbike), receives a text message from an unknown sender, asking her when she will arrive, indicating that he has personal details about her.    Now the movie shifts genres and becomes a mystery / thriller.  Could the texter  possibly be her brother?

Perhaps the real subject of the movie is our compulsion to depend on technology to lead us where we don’t want to go.  How did the unknown speaker in Maureen’s texts get her number? Why does she continue a conversation with a mildly threatening disembodied voice? Is this how we are haunted now? Not by ectoplasm, but by bytes and bits ? Assayas is enchanted with the woop noise that accompanies the text as it is sent to the recipient.

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There are some surprises and sudden jolts of violence in the movie, which gave me more to think about after I had left the theater than when I was in it.  Even though the metaphysical questions at its heart are worthy– who are we really? why are we here? where are we going? is there life after death?–  something slightly pretentious and disingenuous about the filmmaking (those beginning endless scenes with irritating low lighting at dusk), the script (weak dialogue especially for the supporting cast), and the acting (Stewart flounders and stammers too much) left a sour taste in my mouth. Still, Stewart is a beautiful actress, and one can see why Assayas is mesmerized by her.  A pity this movie did not have, as did The Clouds of Sils Maria, an actress of the caliber of Juliette Binoche to play against.

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Frantz (directed by Francois Ozon) 2016

With Paula Beer and Pierre Niney.

A girl brings flowers to the grave of her fiance, killed during the First World War.  We are in Germany, and the wounds are fresh in the spring of 1919, just months after the armistice.  Anna (Paula Beer) wears black, walks slowly, deliberately to the grave. She has taken up residence with the parents of her slain intended, the Frantz of the title.

When she finds flowers already there at the grave, and discovers that a young man is responsible, she wants to know who he is and what his relationship is with Frantz.  Adrien (Niney), a slight, slender young French man weaves a tale of their relationship, something pleasing to hear, something that mourners would be glad to know.  French men who fought in the war are not welcome in Germany.  Frantz’s father repels him at first.  As the stories unfold that Adrien brings them, and soothes them, the audience can tell it is a deception, and for the first part of the movie, we wait to see the truth unmasked.  When it finally comes, as Adrien is about to return to France from the German town he brought himself to as a kind of tribute to Frantz, it feels as if the movie is over.

But that is just the beginning of the story telling.  It turns out that Anna cannot bring herself to share the truth with Frantz’s parents, so she invents stories of her own.  At this point, the movie bogs down a bit, and I found myself wishing that I could live in the heads of the deluded parents, safe and secure from the ugliness of truth.  frantz

War has a habit of taking the will to live away.  Stories are sometimes not enough.

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Le Suicide by Manet

The characters all are drawn to the Manet painting, Le Suicide, and besides the movie’s concern with war guilt, truth telling, and nationalism, there is a fair dose of suicide as well.  Ozon inserts color at rare moments in  this otherwise black and white film, when the characters who are in deep mourning are allowed to live in the moment and be freed of their tragic past.

“Be happy!” urges Adrien as Anna leaves him presumably for the last time.  How odd a request to someone so permanently damaged, broken, even.   The couple who play Frantz’s parents are excellent (Ernst Strutzner and Marie Gruber), and their stern earnest portrayals hearken back to a serious era of movies, when World War I was fresh in everyone’s minds.

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Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele) 2017

With Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, Catherine Keener.

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The story is simple.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented young photographer, is invited by Rose (Allison Williams), his girlfriend, to meet her parents for the first time.  He is black and she is white, and the parents don’t know that, because Rose says it doesn’t matter.  “If my father could have voted for Obama for the third time, he would have.” So much for the bona fides of not being racist.

But when they arrive at the nameless suburb, we remember the opening scene when a hapless young black man in search of a house in an unnamed suburb is kidnapped by a man in a black helmet who appears from an ominous white sports car.  The set up is scary, and the music adds to the feeling of creepiness, beginning with a lyric whose refrain is “run rabbit run.”  Throughout the movie there are references to hunter and prey.  Animals sometime stand in as black surrogates, beginning with  a suddenly violent accident with a deer on the road which sets everyone’s teeth on edge.  We are in horror movie country here.  Is the deer real? Will it rise up and strike its killers?

As the weekend goes on, more signs indicate that the young man is not safe.  The movie explores a paranoid nightmare of a black man who cannot trust white people, and even less, the black folk who work on the estate and seem to have suffered some kind of brain damage.

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We kept some of Grandma

I loved the humor in the movie.  At one point, Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who suspects that things aren’t right when Chris doesn’t return on time, goes to the police to report a missing person. While there, he gives his theory of what the white folks are doing to the black men in that neck of the woods.  What the on duty officer does with the information is funny. It also shows how important it is to have one good friend.  Rod is a member of the TSA and knows his way around an investigation.

The photography captures each scene with its alternating twistedness and fear, the acting is dead on, and the music by Michael Abels sets the mood perfectly.  This movie’s brilliance lies in how it lands its points in two different genres: as a horror movie and a social satire.

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Catherine Keener plays a psychohypnotist

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Beauty and the Beast (dir. Condon) 2017.

With Emma  Watson and Dan Stevens.

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Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.  Music and lyrics by HOward Ashman and Alan Menken.

With Emma Watson,  Dan Stevens, and Kevin Kline.

The remake of Disney’s animated film has many things going for it.  The fairy tale of the redemptive power of love and compassion features a feminist heroine.    The musical score has aged very well.  Cast members Emma Watson, Kevin Kline and company perform beautifully.

Disney is Disney is Disney.  You can’t get away from the extra flourishes on the gown, the cutifying of the candlestick and arms holding up the candelabra.  How can you outdo the original re-imagining of the enchanted castle by Cocteau?

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Scene from Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete featuring human arms holding candelabra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is also hard not to compare the live action film with the animated one released in 1991, which the 2017 version seems to want to recreate with special effects.

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There are visual references to the Morgan Library when Belle comes upon her dream library, complete with balcony stacks and ornate marble flooring that has a circular pattern in the center.  My ear heard “Don’t go into the west wing!” come straight from the Hitchcock drama, Rebecca.  And who would not recognize the mountain top scene in the Sound of Music as Belle finally feels free from her provincial life?

Gaston (Luke Evans) has the appropriate mean streak.  He and his side kick, LeFou (Josh Gad) sing it loud and proud what louts these provincial men just returned from war are.   The streak of homoeroticism is welcome along with the witty narcissism.  How to tell the story of the redemptive power of love without making it too mushy is made easier because Belle is a heroine of the first order. Her father admonishes her to be fearless and so she is.

Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle’s (Emma Watson)  scenes together really click,  convincing you of their tight bond.   Maurice seems to be a tinkerer creating a beautiful contraption made from mysterious gears and precious metals.

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Some of the scenes seem needlessly busy with choreography more suitable for Gladiator, with its digitally enhanced cast of thousands.  Bill Condon likes musicals with great pizzazz, so he has dressed up the set making me long for the neatness of the animated movie which actually seemed to have given the filmmakers more freedom.  How tiresome is Dan Stevens’ opening scenes with the over-costumed ladies and gentlemen dancing.  When he is transformed into a beast, I felt sorry for whoever was having to wear that gigantic costume.  Stevens’ voice is altered as if he is in a witness relocation program.

Auto tune just about ruins the song about Gaston, or is it the sound design that drowns out the human voice with amplified orchestral bombast?  In fact, I would guess that all of the songs are autotuned.  Why would you need to autotune Audra MacDonald’s voice?  Richard Condon has an over the top style of directing that takes a perfectly good premise and overdoes.  Is he afraid that we won’t get it that Gaston is a narcissistic bully?  This overdoing every flourish feels like the director does not trust the intelligence of his audience, and slightly annoys me.  It is the equivalent of a great chocolate cake with too much frosting.

Still those scenes with Kline and Watson are worth seeing, and the star of the show for me is someone I had not known of before, Hattie Morahan. Morahan plays several crucial roles including the witch who appears at the opening scene and puts all of the wheels of the plot into motion.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck). 2016.

With voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson.

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The movie opens with an interview on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 which was a period in American television that Johnny Carson, talk show host of the Tonight Show, reigned supreme.  Dick Cavett took on Johnny Carson as an alternative talk show host, and interviewed a slightly more intellectual set of guests.  It is in this context that Baldwin appears on his show.   James Baldwin speaks, in full command of his language, his ideas, his persona as he describes the condition of black men in America. Besides the Cavett show interviews, there are other conversations and a chilling debate at Cambridge University where he receives a standing ovation– every member of the audience white, educated, privileged, moved by his rhetorical skill and fervor.

Raoul Peck uses the idea of Baldwin’s last would be book, a memoir about his relationship with three great black leaders brought down by assassination– Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.  The film shows a brief summary of each man’s significance to the civil rights movement.  These scenes are stitched together with more contemporary scenes, from Ferguson, genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seamlessly segue from the assassination of three major leaders of the movement in the 1960s to the continuing slaughter of young black men in the present.

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The Cavett interview took place in the mid 1960s, sometime between Evers’ and Malcolm’s murders.  I felt the sorrow and tasted the outrage of an intelligent writer, witness to so much death at the hands of bigots.  We watch them full of hatred as they spit on a young black girl attempting to go to school.  There are also images of lynched black men, and scenes of the police beating men senseless, including the sickening footage in Los Angeles of Rodney King which launched riots in Los Angeles in 1991 that resulted in dozens of deaths.  

Baldwin explains why he left the United States in 1948; he wanted to live free in Paris and be safe from the vicious eyes of whites who live separate from blacks and don’t understand them at all.When he returns during the Civil Rights movement to pay his dues, his voice has a clarity and urgency touched with literary brilliance. Here is a man who loved words and used them perfectly to decry the inglorious history of the Untied States, which has no place for blacks.  

Movie clips demonstrate this.  I had never seen Joan Crawford dance in that movie from the early 1930s (Dancing Lady), or the murder mystery where a terrified janitor is wrongly accused of murder.  I was familiar with Stepin Fetchit, and John Wayne’s relentless pursuit of Indians in  John Ford movies, movies where the Indians might easily stand in for the black race. We watch clips of Sidney Poitier, Doris Day, Ray Charles.  Baldwin elaborates the contrast between the white vision of purity and happiness, and their notion of black beasts prowling on their white women.  

Watching I Am Not Your Negro made me wonder if our nation can make any progress in race relations until there is a commission like the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa that reckoned with the sordid history of apartheid.  It is important that we acknowledge the racism upon which our country is founded.  In the wake of recent killings– Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, it feels as if everything Baldwin is saying on the Dick Cavett show in 1965 still holds true today, more than 50 years later.   He takes pains to say that he is not a Christian, or a Muslim, or a member of the NAACP.  He is a witness to the ugly hatred that has killed so many, and continues to kill.  Peck’s movie made me feel the sorrow of Baldwin afresh today. 

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Hidden Figures

with Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner.

hidden-figures-posterA trio of brilliant black women work on the space program at Langley in Virginia in 1961.  Obstacles abound:  sexism, racism, a few hundred white men stupider than you standing in your way.

The story begins in 1961 when the cold war demanded that NASA defeat the Russians in the space race.  Mathematicians sit in bullpens  cranking out the figures that will result in successful launch and landing ond ultimately an orbit around the earth.

Jim Parsons reprieves his role as a geek, Jim Stafford, one of the mathematicians working under an autocratic supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  But the movie is a tribute to the three women who prevailed over an unjust system that would deny them entry in the halls of power there they belonged– solving the math problems and science of engineering space flight.

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the star, working in Harrison’s office for manned space flight, trying out her formulas for the trajectory of the space capsule on the huge blackboard.

Octavia Spencer who plays Dorothy Vaughan works her magic.  Vaughan knows that  human computers will be replaced by machines, and learns FORTRAN on her own so that she can program them.  “Atta girl” she hums as she gets the behemoth machine to run for the first time.  White men had been floundering for days to do what she did in a minute.

Maybe we are all hungry for uplift but I found the happy ending just what I needed on the day after President Trump fired his Attorney General for trying to enforce the constitution.  It is more than heartening to see women overcome sexism and racism not through through the assistance of other more privileged white men, though John Glen gave them a boost.  It was through their great intelligence.

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Katherine Johnson at her desk 

 

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