Movie Reviews - 2016 postsMonday January 23, 2017
Movie Review: Jackie (2016)
Hollywood has done up the JFK assassination every which way. We’ve seen it from the perspective of the president (many), conspirators to kill the president (“Executive Action”), and the doctors, nurses and FBI men in Dallas the day the president was killed (“Parkland”). We’ve seen movies about men who doubted the official version of the assassination (“JFK”), about the man who killed the assassin (“Ruby”), and about a man who travels back in time to kill the assassin before he can kill the president (“11/22/63”).
Here, Hollywood finally gets around to telling the story from the perspective of the woman sitting next to him in the car.
Myth > History
“Jackie” is an atmospheric movie—a powerful rendering of one of the saddest weekends in American history—but it’s also interested in story. More, it’s interested in story-making and mythmaking, and the difference between the two.
It’s really a tale of post-traumatic stress disorder. Our perspective is Jackie’s (Natalie Portman) throughout. The camera stays close to her face, and we feel her horror, her attempt to process what can’t be processed: wiping her husband’s blood off her face in the Air Force One bathroom; standing stunned as LBJ takes the oath of office; refusing Linda Bird’s entreaties to change out of the blood-splattered pink Chanel suit she was wearing that day. “Let them see what they’ve done,” she says, eyes flashing. She doesn’t remove it until she’s back in the White House, where she showers the blood and viscera of her husband out of her hair. There’s that sad moment telling Caroline and John-John that daddy won’t be coming home. It’s extra sad because we never imagined the scene before, but yes, somebody had to tell them and apparently it was her. One of the many awful tasks she assigned herself that weekend.
The key moment, for both the movie and history, occurs as she rides with Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) in the ambulance taking JFK to the D.C. hospital. She asks the driver and passenger-seat nurse if they know who James Garfield was. They don’t. Then she asks about Abraham Lincoln. Of course they know him.
The rest is her fight to make sure her husband isn’t forgotten like Garfield but remembered like Lincoln.
The movie comes in four parts:
- Jackie being interviewed at Hyannis Port by a journalist (Billy Cruddup), the weekend after the funeral weekend
- Long flashbacks to the assassination and its aftermath—particularly the logistics of the burial and the funeral
- Short flashbacks to the 1962 TV special, “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy”
- Jackie’s talks with an Irish priest (John Hurt), as her stillborn babies are reinterred next to their father in Arlington National Cemetery the week after she talks to the journalist.
The parts are at odds with each other: 1) and 2) are about myth-making. Jackie knew people forgot men but remembered myths, so she made JFK’s funeral, his final burial place at Arlington, and his short presidency—comparing it to the big Broadway hit of the day, “Camelot”—mythic. The point of the ’62 White House special was the opposite: It was about bringing history to life. Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), who helped her redecorate the White House and show it off in that TV special, tells her how important it all was. “They need to know that real men actually lived here,” he says. “Not ghosts and storybook legends. People who faced adversity and overcame it.” But she doesn’t want Kennedy to become Garfield, a forgotten relic of history, so she makes him mythic. She fights everyone in this endeavor.
The Kennedy family originally want a burial site in Massachusetts, but Jackie nixes it (“I don’t mean to upset your mother,” she tells Bobby, “but Brookline is no place to bury a president.”); then she personally chooses the spot at Arlington so many of us have since visited.
LBJ and his team are wary of her funeral plans that mimic Lincoln’s—particularly the dignitaries walking out in the open behind Jack’s casket. At this point they don’t know if Oswald was a lone nut or if there are others out there. For example, there are death threats against visiting French president Charles De Gaulle—and so they suggest bullet-proof cars. They keep going back and forth on this. There’s a great scene between Jackie and LBJ aide Jack Valenti (Max Casella), where, amid the stifled politeness, he seems to get his way. Then just before leaving she says this:
Inform them that I will walk with Jack tomorrow. Alone if necessary. And tell General De Gaulle, if he wishes to ride in an armored car—or in a tank for that matter—I won’t blame him. And I’m sure the tens of millions of people watching won’t either.
She battles the journalist, too. This was the part of the movie I bought into the least, to be honest, even before I knew Cruddup was Teddy White, a Kennedy family friend. Here’s a guy who has access to the most sympathetic woman in the world two weeks after the assassination, and though that access obviously comes with strings attached—she gets to dictate what does or does not wind up in the article—it’s still one of the biggest scoops of the decade. Yet Cruddup seems to shrug his way through the interview. He seems exasperated. There’s an exchange later with the priest, where Jackie asks him what men see in her now:
Priest: Sadness. Compassion. [pause] Desire, maybe. You’re still a young woman, Mrs. Kennedy.
Jackie (wistful): I used to make them smile.
Cruddup's journalist displays little of these feelings. He seems to be rolling his eyes through the endeavor.
Myth relies on history
The casting is a mixed bag. Loved Portman. Caspar Philipson, the Danish actor they got for JFK, is an astonishing look-alike—particularly the eyes—but also a teeny man. Bobby towers over him when it was the opposite in real life. I didn’t buy Cruddup as the journalist, and I didn’t buy Sarsgaard as Bobby—he wasn’t forceful enough or crisp enough. I loved John Hurt as the priest, but even he seemed to have too little sympathy for the most sympathetic woman in the world. At the same time, their scenes together are the best in the movie. Maybe because all the bullshit has receded? It’s Truth with a capital “T”: life, death, confession.
Indeed, my favorite exchange, not just in this movie but for most 2016 movies, is the priest’s recounting of the parable of the blind man. Jackie is wondering what kind of God would allow not only the assassination but also the loss of her two babies, including one in August, and he says the following as they walk in Arlington National Cemetery:
Let me share with you a parable. [pause] Jesus once passed a blind beggar on the road, and his disciples asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was made blind so that the works of God could be revealed in him.” ...
Right now you are blind. Not because you’ve sinned. But because you’ve been chosen—so that the works of God may be revealed in you.
I’m an agnostic—in almost everything, really—but if you’re going to reconcile the horrors of the world with a personal, omnipotent God, this is a beautiful way.
“Jackie” was written by Noah Oppenheim, a producer of the “Today” show (of all things), and directed by Chilean director Pablo Larraín (“No”), and it's a deeply felt movie and much recommended. Uncommented upon? Jackie created the myth of Camelot, but it was subsequent history that made that myth resonate. This is the myth:
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot
Yet if LBJ hadn’t led to Nixon who led to Reagan; if the Gulf of Tonkin resolution hadn’t gotten us into a full-scale war in Vietnam; if the civil rights movement hadn’t led to the Black Power movement, and if the rich hadn’t kept getting richer and the poor kept getting screwed, it might not have felt like a brief, shining moment. Her metaphor would’ve been an addled thought from a distraught woman. Instead, it feels like the truth.
Movie Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
I’ve been hearing end-of-the-year buzz that “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” is a way underrated movie; that it’s actually, you know, good. Some go further: Some suggest it’s this generation’s “This Is Spinal Tap.”
If so, pity this generation.
I know it’s unfair to compare a contemporary with a classic. But since others raised the issue...
Why ‘joke’ is less funny
“Spinal Tap”’s humor grew out of the conventions of real music documentaries, while “Pop” feels as if it’s riffing on copies of copies of copies of copies. “Tap” is grounded. Its cities on the tour are real. Its main characters may be idiots but there’s something human about them. They’re half caricature/half character, while “Pop”’s Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) is all caricature. There’s no there there. Conner is just a joke, and the movie treats him as a joke. When you do this, ironically, you remove a lot of the funny.
There’s a trajectory to Tap’s downfall, and it follows their American concert tour—east coast to west coast. Their humiliations start small but grow: a canceled date in Boston (“I wouldn’t worry about it, though, it’s not a big college town”), a misplaced hotel reservation in Memphis, flak over the album cover. For a time, Tap seems oblivious to it all; they still think they’re on top of the world. Then the humilations deepen: second billing at a Holiday Inn, a no-show album signing, playing an Air Force Base. Their onstage humiliations are human-sized and serve to prick their pomposity: Nigel can’t stand back up again after bending back in classic rock-out pose; Derek’s “pod” doesn’t open; they get lost beneath the arena in Cleveland and the Stonehenge props are tiny rather than towering.
Conner’s humiliations are outsized and less funny. To jazz up his act, he goes for a quick-change bit, but has to hide his junk to make it work, and a wardrobe malfunction reveals him to be seemingly dickless. (I like that, backstage, his handlers try to assure him that no one noticed.) To bury that story—as if it wouldn’t be a meme forever—his publicist (Sarah Silverman) suggests he propose to his girlfriend (Imogen Poots), which he does, with Seal singing her favorite song and her favorite animals (wolves) nearby. But the singing upsets the wolves, who attack the guests and turn the garden party into bloody chaos.
Meanwhile, his opening act, Hunter (Chris Redd), eclipses him in popularity, not to mention vindictiveness. But when Conner asks his manager, Harry (Tim Meadows), to kick him off the tour, he discovers Hunter is Harry’s client, too. It’s Conner who goes back home, the tour a failure, his career seemingly over.
So what happens? He becomes a better person, of course. He once fronted a boy band, The Style Boyz, and he reconciles with the estranged members he screwed over: DJ Owen (Jorma Taccone), and lyricist Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). All along, we’ve been following the latter, who, after a stab at a solo career, has been farming and woodcarving in Colorado. Both are treated as jokes—as if anyone could enjoy such things, so far away from the limelight—with the former having a typical comedy punchline: he’s been farming weed, yo. All three reunite on the “Poppy” awards, and are back on top. Added bonus: Hunter is a dick to Mariah Carey onstage, so no one likes him anymore. Because it’s never enough for you to succeed; your enemies have to fail.
‘I feel young again! I feel ... 38!’
It’s interesting to note the need for a villain. Does “Tap” have a villain? You could argue the Yoko-Ono-ish Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), who controls David, and causes the riff with Nigel, and who takes over from their seemingly incompetent manager, Ian Faith. She has a bit of a comeuppance as well: Ian returns, and in Japan, where Spinal Tap is resurrected, the two eye each other warily. But all of it is much subtler than “Popstar”'s disimissal of Hunter.
You know what’s amazing to me? Andy Samberg is actually older in “Popstar” than Michael McKean and Christopher Guest were in “Spinal Tap”: 38 years vs. 37 and 36. I still think of Samberg as the next generation but “Lazy Sunday” was more than 10 years ago.
The Lonely Island guys give us a few good parody songs: “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song),” along with Conner’s would-be testimonial to gay marriage, “Equal Rights,” in which he continually insists, “I’m not gay.” But there’s nothing as clever as marrying the bombast of gangster rap with a very ordinary, very white Sunday afternoon.
One of the biggest problems for me is that “Popstar” doubles down on the very thing it should be satirizing: celebrity culture. 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood and Simon Cowell, as the mockumentary’s talking heads, act like they’re in the on the joke, when, to me, they’re part of the problem. But the movie sees them as part of the solution.
A few years ago, Samberg co-starred as the son of Adam Sandler in the dreary comedy, “That’s My Boy.” Not yet, but he’s becoming dangerously close.
Movie Review: Doctor Strange (2016)
Am I the only one who sees a metaphor for the 2016 election in this movie? Hear me out.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, doomed to play brilliant but pompous) plays a brilliant but pompous neurosurgeon who gets into a car accident and damages the nerves of his steady hands, rendering him useless and purposeless. But after hearing of a paraplegic who learned to walk again, he travels to Katmandu and trains at Kamar-Taj under the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton), with the idea of eventually curing himself and returning to practice. Instead, he becomes “Master of the Mystic Arts”; and instead of saving one person, or several people, he saves the whole damn universe.
But he makes an enemy in the process: his friend, and one-time mentor, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Why?
OK, back up a bit, because it’s actually fairly clever what Strange does.
The movie opens with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his team of bad guys/one hot girl stealing pages from an ancient book that allow them to tap into the power of Dormammu, the dark dimension. For some reason, these guys also invite Dormammu into our universe, and that’s destroying everything, particularly Hong Kong. So Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto (don’t ask) to turn back time; then he travels to the dark dimension, where he creates an infinite time loop so that every time Dormammu kills him, he returns to battle again. It’s sort of like “Groundhog Day” or “End of Tomorrow” but in miniature. I like this bit. He knows he can’t beat Dormammu so he lets it get bored until it agrees to leave the Earth alone. He outsmarts it.
So why does Mordo have a problem with this? Because bending time is forbidden.
Mordo, you see, is a stickler, a puritan. He’d rather have the world end than break the rules to save it. He was earlier incensed that the Ancient One tapped into Dormammu’s dark power to keep living, even though, in the long run, she was doing good.
And that’s the metaphor:
- Ancient One = Hillary
- Dormammu = Trump
- Tapping into Dormammu's power = Paid speech to Goldman Sachs
- Mordo = Bernie, or a Bernie Bro
Things worked out better in their universe.
Overall, “Doctor Strange” is efficient and fun but it’s hardly breaking new ground. On the contrary, it’s going over much of the same ground that “Iron Man” did eight years ago: The vainglorious man with Ronald Colman moustache (now goatee) brought low, then raised higher with greater powers and greater purpose. I guess Stan and Jack liked that storyline.
Once Strange arrives in Katmandu, the various concerns/tensions are all resolved with such facility as to seem facile:
- Will the Ancient One accept him? Yes.
- Is he too egotistical to learn the mystic arts? He is ... but he does anyway.
- Will he just cure himself and go back to his pompous ways, lording it over second-raters like Michael Stuhlbarg? Nope.
- Will he be seduced by “the Dark Side” like Kaecilius? Nope.
Oddly, once the battles begin, Mordo begins to worry not that Strange will be seduced by the dark side but that he doesn’t have the will to fight the dark side. It’s a concern introduced at the 11th hour and dismissed at 11: 10, and was never a concern of ours. If there’s one thing Strange isn’t, it’s a quitter.
Collecting comics in the 1970s, Doctor Strange was never one of my favorite superheroes. I didn’t understand his powers, I don’t like alternative dimensions that look like a sketchy part of outer space, and I’m generally not a fan of vainglorious men with Ronald Colman moustaches. But somehow Marvel Entertainment makes this movie work.
Think of that. Marvel can take one of its lamest characters, run him through three screenwriters, hand him off to a director mostly known for shitty horror flicks (“Devil’s Knot,” “Sinister 2”), and wah-lah: a fun flick that mixes elements of “Kung Fu,” “Groundhog Day,” and the mindbending landscapes of MC Escher. Hell, they even throw in a bit of “The Greatest American Hero”: a man doing comic battle with his superpowered clothes.
Cf., DC, which can’t even put the two most popular superheroes in the world together without making a crap salad.
Movie Review: Manchester By the Sea (2016)
Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea” unfolds slowly and naturally. It’s like life in that we make assumptions about the people we’re watching. It’s not like life in that we get to stick around to see how our assumptions are wrong.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman/super for four apartment buildings in Quincy, Mass., near Boston. He does his work calmly, competently, but with something missing, some spark. Early on, he seems to have the patience of Job. He shovels the sidewalks, fixes the drips, unclogs the toilets without complaint. At one point he overhears a tenant say she’s attracted to him, and she gives him a tip, but he doesn’t respond. Because he just unclogged her toilet and that’s no way to begin a relationship? Later, at a bar with a beer, he doesn’t respond to another woman’s flirtations. Then it’s near closing, he eyes two guys across the bar, and you think: Of course. He’s gay.
Then he picks a fight with the two guys. Turns out he’s not gay, not calm, doesn’t have the patience of Job.
Slowly, as he heads north to the titular town to deal with the sudden heart attack/death of his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), we find out how he got this way.
At the local high school, he’s twice referred to as the Lee Chandler, and we wonder if he was a star athlete. Nope. When his brother’s will is read and he discovers he’s the guardian of 15-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he almost flips out. “I’m just a backup,” he says. Later, in flashback, we see him with a wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), and one ... two ... three kids? Really? So he doesn’t seem like a backup there. And hey, what happened to those kids anyway?
That, of course, turns out to be the answer to everything: Why Lee is living in a small, cramped basement apartment in Quincy, why he’s full of rage, why something is missing from him, why he can’t return to Manchester-By-the-Sea.
A few years ago I read a great piece by David Grann in The New Yorker about Cameron Todd Williams, a Texas man who was put to death for setting a fire that killed his wife and three girls—except he probably didn’t set that fire. The state of Texas probably executed an innocent man. I kept flashing to it, watching this movie, since Lee’s tragedy is similar. Drunk one night in a cold house, Lee starts a fire in the fireplace to warm up his girls, then walks down to the nearest convenience store to get more beer. When he returns his house is ablaze. His wife makes it out, his kids don’t.
The difference is that Lee isn’t charged with murder but wants to be. When the cops tell him he’s free to go, he tries to blow his brains out in the station. That’s why the basement apartment in Quincy. It’s his punishment, his prison. He’s doing life without parole. It’s also why he doesn’t want to leave—particularly for Manchester By the Sea, which just dredges everything up.
Thus the movie’s main conflict is set up: Lee, the new guardian, doesn’t want to stay in Manchester, but Patrick, with friends and girlfriends and school, and a father’s boat he wants to return to, doesn’t want to leave. Patrick has the better up-front argument, Lee the better buried argument. But even as this argument gets unburied, we see Lee making a go at it. We see him asking for work. We see him running into his ex. This is a powerful scene, and it also upends our assumptions. We expect that he’ll want forgiveness from Randi and she won’t give it. Instead, she has more than forgiveness; she has love. And he finds this unbearable. “No, you don’t understand,” he says, breaking away from her. “There’s nothing there.” Williams is so good in this one scene she might win an Oscar for it.
I still remember Roger Ebert’s review of “The World According to Garp.” Watching, he kept thinking, “This is nice ... this is nice ... this is nice,” but for all of those nice scenes the movie never added up to anything meaningful. I think a lot of indie movies are like that. “Manchester” isn’t. All of its small scenes add up. The movie doesn’t give us a happy ending (as with studio films) or tragic ending (as with indies), but balances on that razor-thin line of honesty and understanding; of things that aren’t said and things that don’t need to be said. Its redemption is small, but more poignant for its smallness. For Christ’s sake, go see it.
Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016)
The older I get, the less I want to see this kind of shit.
“Nocturnal Animals,” written and directed by Tom Ford, from a novel by Austin Wright, spends two hours veering between the dull and horrific.
On the dull side, we watch Susan Morrow, a beautiful modern-art gallery director, with long red hair forever cascading down one side of her face, trapped inside her beautiful glass house. Her marriage to her beautiful husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), is falling apart and the girl just doesn’t know what to do with herself. So she reads an early galley of a novel, “Nocturnal Animals,” that her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), not only sent to her but dedicated to her.
The novel is the horrific part. In it, a husband and father, Tony (whom Susan imagines as Edward), and his attractive red-haired wife and daughter (whom Susan imagines as Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber), are run off the road in the middle of the night in Bumfuck, West Texas by three yahoos, led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Feigning to help, the yahoos slowly terrorize the family until two of them kidnap the wife and daughter in Tony’s car. The third drives Tony into the middle of the West Texas desert and dumps him. Near death, Tony makes his way back to the road and gets a ride to the police station, where he meets the local sheriff, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who investigates. And outside of an abandoned shack in the middle of the desert, they find the wife and daughter: naked, raped, murdered, and provocatively (one might say artistically) posed.
For some reason, Susan keeps reading.
Me, I would’ve thrown the book across the room. I would’ve walked out of the movie but I was at the theater with a friend. The movie plays off my worst fears—not being strong enough to protect those who need protecting—and gives nothing back for the trauma: no art, no insight. The Sheriff eventually tracks the yahoos but Ray is released for ... lack of evidence? Or does he make a plea deal? Either way, Andes, who’s dying of cancer, and Tony plot to kidnap and kill him but he gets away. Then Tony tracks him to the abandoned shack, has a gun on him, lets him yap. About raping and murdering his wife and daughter. And still Tony doesn’t act. He actually waits until Ray attacks him with a poker before shooting. Both men die. The end.
Well, the end of the novel anyway. The movie keeps going. Back to the boring part.
To be honest, it ends OK. After reading this awfulness, Susan gets it in her head to meet up with Tony at a romantic restaurant. She’s obviously thinking that she shouldn’t have left him in the first place—that her rich, bitchy mother (Laura Linney), seen in flashback, got into her head, and Susan began to see Edward through her mother’s eyes as a failure. Oh right: the abortion, too. Back in the day, just as she began a fling with Hutton, she finds she’s pregnant with Edward’s child but decides to abort the baby. Afterwards, she’s crying in a car in Hutton’s big consoling arms when she spots Edward watching them with cold, betrayed eyes.
So is the novel revenge of a kind? For the abortion or the affair? And if she had the abortion, who’s the red-headed, college-age daughter she rings up shortly after starting the novel? Hutton’s? How old is Amy Adams supposed to be here?
Regardless, she gets dolled up to meet Edward at a swanky restaurant, arrives first, has a drink, and slowly realizes that he’s not coming; he’s standing her up. That’s the end of the movie.
And is that Edward’s final revenge? If so, how does he know she’d react the way she reacted to the novel? Here’s a story about a woman similar to you being raped and murdered; I totally know you’ll fall for me again after reading it. And THEN I’ll stand you up. Ha ha.
Me, I’m done with this kind of thing. I can’t imagine why Tom Ford of all people chose something so pointless and depraved for his second feature.