In Memoriam: Goodbye Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams

This week, we lost two great stars, each representative of very different eras. I add my brief two cents to the many eulogies written over the week. Here are the two statements I drafted for my university’s press office.

Bacall and Williams

When Lauren Bacall (1924-2014) – née Betty Joan Perske – first walked on screen in Howard Hawks’s 1944 To Have and Have Not, audiences could sense the raw power of her young talent. Paired with veteran Humphrey Bogart – 25 years her senior – she more than held her own, and in her sultry voice told him just how to whistle. A star was born, and when she later married Bogart, a star couple was formed. Never Oscar-nominated until The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996 – sadly losing to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient – Bacall nevertheless dominated the films in which she starred, which included The Big Sleep, Key Largo, How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Murder on the Orient Express, The Shootist, and Dogville, among many others. Winner of two Tony Awards, for Applause in 1970 and Woman of the Year in 1981, Bacall had a long and successful life as an actress, author (of three autobiographies), mother of three (two with Bogart, and one with her second husband, Jason Robards), and woman of the world. With her death, we lose one of the great lights of Hollywood past and present.

Robin Williams (1951-2014) was the most important and influential comedian of his generation. For those who came of age with “Mork and Mindy,” he left an indelible impression of brilliant manic energy and unrivaled empathic intelligence. While audiences remain divided on the quality of his later film work, he touched us deeply – and made us laugh hysterically – in films as diverse as The World According to Garp, Moscow on the HudsonGood Morning VietnamDead Poets Society (his portrayal of Mr. Keating had an enormous influence on my own early teaching), The Fisher King, Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Oscar after 3 previous nominations), not to mention his multitude of stand-up comedy performances. He will be sorely missed by millions around the globe.

If you want to hear more of my thoughts on Robin Williams, you can listen to the podcast of the August 18, 2014, Midday with Dan Rodricks show (on Baltimore’s NPR News Station, WYPR, 88.1 FM).

“Calvary” Stumbles on the Way to Crucifixion

Calvary

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.

Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

- St. Augustine

“My first taste of semen was when I was 7 years old”

- Off-camera voice spoken through confessional wall to Brendan Gleeson’s Father James at the start of Calvary

A film that opens with the above epigraph, attributed to St. Augustine, as white text over black, and then segues into a stark confessional scene, in which an unknown man describes his childhood molestation by a Catholic priest, holds out the promise of a raw emotional journey into how the hope and promise of Christianity collide with the sins of the Church, especially the sin of pedophilia. As written and directed by Irishman John Michael McDonagh, whose previous feature, The Guard, was similarly set in a small Irish hamlet and also starred Brendan Gleeson (who also starred in In Bruges, written and directed by Michael McDonagh, John Michael’s brother), Calvary starts out with every indication of fulfilling that promise, and then some. McDonagh has a wonderful feel for his homeland’s beauty and ruin, as well as for simple dialogue that conveys more by what it doesn’t say than through needless exposition, and Gleeson is more than up to the task of carrying the weight of the film – and of the world – on his wide and weary shoulders. But about halfway through the 100-minute running time, Calvary begins to falter, losing its light touch and deft mixture of comedy and tragedy to become an overwrought mess. It stumbles badly on the way to its own crucifixion. Still, the film is well worth watching for Gleeson, alone.

Gleeson plays Father James, a widower (and now-sober alcoholic) who joined the priesthood after his wife died. He has a troubled daughter, nicely played by Kelly Reilly (who, with this and Flight, needs to be careful not to be typecast as the struggling addict), who comes to visit him after a failed suicide attempt. Through their conversations, we learn much about what motivated this one-time bon vivant to become a priest, and their scenes together are gently rendered. It’s all colored by the threat uttered in the opening confessional, however, in which the sex-abuse survivor declares that he will exact retribution on the Church by killing an innocent priest – Father James – since killing a guilty man would mean nothing. As Gleeson makes the rounds of his disillusioned flock – the only believer in the power of faith is a visiting French woman whose husband dies in a car wreck – we watch him struggle to bring some good into the world in the face of indifference, all the while knowing that he will probably die if he doesn’t leave. And struggle he does, since no one gives a damn.

For a good while, the film is very effective at showing how the years of administrative neglect and moral corruption have eroded the ability of even a sincere priest to do his work. We almost come to believe that Father James will ultimately triumph over the disgust of the scant congregation members he has left. The fact that he doesn’t is not where the film goes wrong. Rather, the threads of the story begin to fray as McDonagh starts underlining his points in bold underline, explaining in no uncertain terms how Father James’s struggle is quixotic, at best. Then there is also the question of tone: as the film grows psychologically more dire, the comedic bits seem less and less appropriate. Finally, the ending eruption of violence is shown in such an out-of-the-blue graphic close-up that it feels like it belongs to a different movie, as if McDonagh is channeling his inner Tarantino.

In spite of these significant problems, however, the movie raises important issues of institutional failure and faith, and with fine supporting performances from Chris O’DowdAidan GillenIsaach De BankoléMarie-Josée CrozeOrla O’Rourke and even *gasp* Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son, and an actor I usually find unbearable to watch, but who here is very good), Calvary has many reasons to see it, even if the sum total of its quality elements do not help it transcend its flaws. I give it a (very) qualified recommendation.

“Magic in the Moonlight” Offers Charm Without Substance

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014)

Woody Allen’s new film is as delicious and amusing a confection of cinematic delights as any he has made in the past 20 years. Filled with gorgeous shots of the French Riviera – often bathed in the fading rays of magic hour – from master cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Midnight in Paris), Magic in the Moonlight is a visual marvel, well served by the fine lead performances from Colin Firth and Emma Stone. Unfortunately, it is not well served by an ultimately pedestrian script burdened with a foreseeable plot twist that leads to the inevitable (and distasteful) union of an older man to a much younger woman (not quite shades of Manhattan, but still problematic and not particularly believable). Isn’t it time we start demanding more than the same tired clichés?

We are in 1928. Stanley (Mr. Firth), a world-famous magician (who goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo, Orientalism being in fashion then) is approached by an acquaintance on a mission. It seems as if some mutual friends have fallen under the spell of a young American medium, Sophie (Ms. Stone), and it turns out Stanley is a noted expert at unmasking spiritual frauds. Will Stanley travel to the south of France to expose the pretender? Of course! And so off he goes, incognito (no one must know that he is the famous Wei Ling Soo), to the charming mansion in which Sophie has so comfortably settled, senses and cynicism on full alert, prepared to destroy the young lady. But a funny thing happens on the way to battle, as Stanley – a lifelong bachelor only recently engaged – finds himself enchanted, rather than repulsed, by Sophie. Is she real? Is Stanley’s conversion real? Does he love her? Does she love him? Or is it all a game, where no emotions are genuine?

For a while, the film works – and is, in fact, very entertaining – largely thanks to the solid performances from the leads and the supporting players, which include a very funny Hamish Linklater, an icy Marcia Gay Harden and a ditzy Jacki Weaver, among others. But the central romance at the center of the story – in spite of the considerable charms of both Mr. Firth and Ms. Stone – just doesn’t work. At no time does their budding attraction the one for the other feel anything other than pure screenwriting conceit. As the film moves away from Stanley’s initial misanthropic cynicism (something Mr. Firth perfected in his work in “Pride and Prejudice” and Bridget Jones’s Diary) to later genuine hope and feeling, the script devolves into hackneyed romantic-comedy conventions, and we lose interest. In the end, though magic there may have been, it was in the beautiful light of Khondji’s images and not in the writing.

“Get on Up” Never Quite Stands Tall

Get on Up

Get on Up (Tate Taylor, 2014)

With a terrific central performance by Chadwick Boseman (42), Get on Up has what it needs to give “Godfather of Soul” James Brown his due respect, but is hampered by a messy script and pedestrian direction from Tate Taylor (who did a little better in The Help). Papa may “got a brand new bag,” but it’s a very mixed one, indeed.

Part of the problem is the film’s approach to chronology. It begins in 1993, although we don’t know that it’s then until the end, when we return to the same scene of James Brown walking backstage to the chant of a crowd calling his name. We then immediately jump back (not that far) to 1988, where we meet a seemingly confused Brown who brandishes (and shoots) a gun in a building he owns, and then we keep moving backwards, now to 1968 and Brown’s musical tour of Vietnam, where he performs for the troops. We make one final quick jump, to 1939, where Brown is a little boy with warring parents, the result of which feud leads his mother (a wasted Viola Davis, who should have won an Oscar for The Help) to abandon young Brown. Soon he is brought to a brothel run by an aunt, played by Octavia Spencer (much better served by this summer’s Snowpiercer), who becomes his de factor mother, and from then on we jump around from time period to time period, often without specific reason. Sometimes there are subtitles to the dates, explaining why they’re important, and sometimes not. Sometimes Bozeman breaks “the fourth wall,” to address the audience directly, and sometimes not. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.

Which is too bad, since Bozeman (who, according to the credits, lip-synched to Brown’s original vocals) brings great energy and charisma to his turn as the singer. After seeing what Bozeman did in 42 and here, it would be great to see him next create a role from the ground up, without benefit of biopic research. It would also be wonderful to see him act in a movie with a better script. Still, he is almost worth the price of admission, as is Nelsan Ellis (“True Blood“) as his long-suffering friend and lieutenant, Bobby Byrd. It’s a very mixed bag, indeed.

Affably Silly “Guardians of the Galaxy” Is a True Summer Pleasure

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

Until I first saw a trailer for this new superhero fantasy from Marvel Comics, I had never heard of the “Guardians of the Galaxy,” though it appears that these characters have existed in some form since 1969 (the year of my birth!). Still, something in the irreverent tone of that trailer caught my fancy, and given the relatively lackluster commercial fare on offer so far this summer, I went into the screening with some hope of having a good time. And I did. I am happy to report that Guardians of the Galaxy could be the big-budget blockbuster film you’ve been waiting for since June: action-packed, funny, slickly produced, with a decent script and (for the most part) interesting characters. With an extremely likable Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation“) leading the way, Guardians may be silly and derivative (shades of Star Wars in the poster, to begin with), but it’s also a terrific piece of escapist sci-fi entertainment. Zoe Saldana (AvatarStar Trek) – she of the ever changing on-screen skin color – and Bradley Cooper (The HangoverAmerican Hustle) – who here lends his voice to that of a surgically altered space raccoon – add their talents to the mix, to great results.

The movie begins on Earth in 1988, when the lead character – then a boy, but soon to grow up to be Chris Pratt – is kidnapped by a group of interstellar mercenaries just at the moment of his mother’s death, never to return. One of the recurring jokes in the film is that Peter Quill (Pratt) has a knowledge of pop culture stuck in our planet’s 1970s and 80s. When next we meet him, he is now an outlaw, himself, who very soon finds himself at the unwelcome center of a plot to destroy the universe. He may be a thief, but he’s not a psychopath. Thrown in jail after a failed heist, he joins forces with a ragtag band of fellow misfits and felons. The usual trial period of arguments and tests of friendship ensue – again, the plot is not going to win any points for originality, though the world and character details make up for that – before our characters become a true team.

Unpretentious, light-hearted and well-acted, Guardians of the Galaxy blends just the right combination of humor and action to be a near-perfect summer movie. It may be silly, but that’s all part of the appeal. I highly recommend.

Learning to Be a Man in Linklater’s Powerful “Boyhood”

Boyhood

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

The story of how Richard Linklater (Dazed and ConfusedBefore Sunrise, etc.) made his new film, Boyhood, is almost more interesting than the film, itself (although the movie is quite fine), and for the full story, I direct you to the movie’s press kit. There, you will discover how Boyhood was shot over the course of 12 years, using the same actors in the same roles, allowing them to age with their characters. Since the protagonist, Mason (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane), begins the film as a 6-year-old boy and ends it as an 18-year-old man, we see him change in ways profound and moving. While at first he is tentative and awkward (though always at ease in front of the camera), by the end of the journey (at 165 minutes, a long – but not arduous – one in cinematic terms) he has grown into a young person of singular individuality and winning charisma. For that, alone, the film is worth watching. That it is so much more than that is a tribute to Linklater’s powers as a writer and director.

Mason comes from a broken home, in which his mother (a strong Patricia Arquette) has separated from his father (Ethan Hawke, charming as always), leaving him and his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, a perfect match for Coltrane) to deal with a succession of alcoholic step-fathers (Arquette’s mother is a good parent with bad choice in men). The film is the story of how Mason and his sister survive and prosper through a childhood that sees them relocate innumerable times. Their life is not always pretty, but it is full, and full of love and support. I found the scenes between Hawke and Coltrane to be among the most touching in the film: the absent father doing  his best to remain connected to his sensitive offspring.

The film is also an object of raw visual beauty, with stunning shots of Texas’s Big Bend National Park interspersed with more mundane shots of various Texas towns, all of it combined into a lovely tapestry of the everyday details that comprise a life lived by regular folks. As such, it is the perfect antidote to the bloated Bayhem of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and is the must-see film of the final months of summer. It opens at Baltimore’s Charles Theater today.

Why I Don’t Love “Lucy”

Lucy

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

If Stanley Kubrick‘s least original pupil married John Woo‘s most scattered (yet devoted!) disciple, had a child together – perhaps watching Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life at the moment of conception – and named her Lucy, she’d probably look a lot like this new film from French action-thriller writer/director Luc Besson (La Femme NikitaThe Fifth Element). Besson has almost always made films that combined the fantastic with ultra-violence – some of which are quite fine, such as his first (and my favorite) feature, the post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat – and here he is at it again in a story about what happens when one woman’s brain function increases from 10% to 100% power over the course of 24 hours … as she is trailed by Korean gangsters out for her blood. I have often found much to admire in Besson’s visual imagination, and much to lament in the illogic and near-idiocy of his scripts and dialogue, which has gotten worse with each film. Unfortunately for me, the latter overwhelmed the former in Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson – having a banner year with films like Under the Skin and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – plays the titular Lucy, a young American out for a good time in Taipei, Taiwan. Unfortunately for her, she picks the wrong boyfriend, and soon finds herself a captive of Korean mob boss “Oldboy” (sorry, that would be Min-sik Choi, who played him in another, better movie), who surgically sticks a large package of a synthetic blue crystalline drug (shades of “Breaking Bad“) in her abdomen, making her the most unwilling of drug mules. Unfortunately for him, his underlings can’t keep their hands off of her, and when she resists the rape, they kick and punch her until the drug seeps into her system, making her suddenly a superwoman. Why? It’s “CPH4,” ostensibly derived from the regenerative chemical inside a woman’s womb, and large amounts of it ingested all at once will apparently turn one into a deity.

Meanwhile, back at the academic ranch, Morgan Freeman – seen earlier this year in the equally ridiculous science fiction caper Transcendence – somewhere in Paris, is conveniently giving a PowerPoint lecture (reduced to bullet-point level) on what happens to the human brain when it is able to access more than its (he says) normal 10% usage capacity. Freeman imbues his scientist with all of the gravitas for which he has become known, but even he cannot make the reductive pseudo-intellectual discourse make sense. Eventually, we can guess, Lucy will find him, and perhaps he will be able to help her, or she him. But about those Korean gangsters . . .

If all you want is a good time, with reductive repeats of action scenes and car chases you’ve seen before, with actors who’ve done better work elsewhere, with all of it dressed up in the trappings of high-concept sci-fi, then Lucy just might work for you. But unlike, say, the last Captain America or this summer’s Snowpiercer – both of which gave us plenty of gun fights and choreographed violence, but also smart scripts – Lucy performs the opposite trick on its audience than it does on its heroine: we feel increasingly dumber as the film progresses. By the time the movie was over, my brain was truly mush.

There is one thing Besson tries for which I’ll give him credit, and it’s in the editing. Right from the start, he creates a series of Eisensteinian montage sequences where he jumps away from the main action for a second to show us a narratively unrelated image that then informs the next shot to which he cuts. True, this is as derivative as the rest of his film, but at least it’s interesting.

*Spoiler alert* Given what happens to Johannson’s character at the end of the film, perhaps the best and only way to view the inanity of Lucy is to read it as a weird hallucinatory prequel to last year’s Her. Ever wonder where that movie’s OS, Samantha, came from? Well, now you know.

If You Let It, “Venus in Fur” Will Dominate Your Senses

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013)

Whether or not one finds Roman Polanski a great artist, a problematic human being, or both (there’s a terrific 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, that explores his sexual crime of the 1970s), he proves in his new French-language film, Venus in Fur, that he can still direct a powerfully affecting story. Given that this movie takes place in a single location with only two actors, who spend all of their time talking to each other without the benefit of visual effects (unless one considers lead actress Emmanuelle Seigner’s leather corset one such effect), Polanksi’s feat in creating such a cinematically gripping tale out of such spare tools is especially remarkable. True, it all breaks down and descends into a bit of forced hokum at the end, but until it does, Venus in Fur is a movie that dominates your head, your heart and possible other parts unmentioned.

The film is based on a play by David Ives (who collaborated with Polanksi on the screenplay adaptation), which was, itself, inspired by the 1870 Austrian novel of almost the same title, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name, because of this book, formed the basis of the word “Masochism”). The story is that of one Thomas Novachek, a playwright (and first-time director) who has just adapted von Sacher-Masoch’s book for the stage. At the end of a hard day of terrible auditions, as Thomas is preparing to leave the deserted theater for a relaxing dinner with his fiancée, in walks a bedraggled woman of uncertain age and provenance, who introduces herself as Vanda (the same first name as the main woman in the book and play), and declares that she is there (albeit late) for an audition. She has even come with costumes, including a modern leather dominatrix outfit (which Thomas sneeringly derides as anachronistic) and a 19th-century dress. She is working-class and vulgar, and not at all in the mold of the character that Thomas has written, yet after some back and forth, she manages to convince him to let her read. And then, suddenly, she metamorphoses into an almost perfect incarnation of the woman of Thomas’s words (and, possibly, dreams).

What follows is a delightful series of short vignettes of the play within the movie – a play which appears to be about one man’s obsession with seeking pleasure from pain and punishment at the hands of a dominant woman – interrupted by frequent breaks when Vanda insists on questioning the themes of the play, and Thomas’s motives in writing it. Slowly, this woman whom Thomas initially treats as his own private Pygmalion begins to take over the action, turning Thomas from creator/dominator to creation/submissive. It’s a fascinating progression, and the two leads incarnate their characters with wit, wisdom . . . and no small amount of sexiness. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, among many terrific roles), one of France’s finest actors – and here coiffed à la Polanski, becoming the film director’s doppelgänger on screen – gives a performance imbued with the usual thoughtfulness we have come to expect from him, along with a touching nervousness I had not seen before. It is Seigner (also in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, in which she played Amalric’s long-suffering wife), however, who is the revelation here. Earlier in her career, in movies from her husband Polanski’s fallow period, such as FranticBitter Moon and The Ninth Gate, she demonstrated an almost embarrassingly shallow range of emotions. But in the last 10 years she has grown as an actress, and now in her late 40s is a magnificent and nuanced screen presence. The way she makes her Vanda instantly jump from 19th-century diction to 21st-century patois is a marvel to behold. See the movie for her (and her boots!). True, for this viewer, the ending became too obvious and clumsy for me to call the entire film great, but until those final 15 minutes I was hooked.

Midday on Film, 7/25 @ 1pm: Hits, Misses, Sleepers & Indies – The Narrative of Summer 2014

[NOTE: If you missed the show, check out the podcast]

Rodricks Summer 2014 Movies Blog Image

It’s that time of year again, when we review the films of the summer blockbuster season – those in theaters, those that have come and maybe gone, and those soon to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and what to avoid. From Transformers: Age of Extinction to Snowpiercer to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to Think Like a Man Too to Obvious Child to Life Itself and beyond, we’ve got your summer movie needs covered.

Join us on Friday, July 25, when Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss the hits, the misses, the sleepers and the independent releases (now often called “specialty market” or “limited debut” films).

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

Roger Ebert Embodies “Life Itself” in All Its Glory

Life Itself

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Documentary director Steve James (Hoop DreamsThe Interrupters) began filming Roger Ebert five months before he died. Just as they began making the movie, Ebert was admitted to the hospital with a pain in his hip, which turned out to be a cancerous tumor. This followed a series of health issues that began in 2002, when the then 60-year-old film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times (made famous through his long-standing collaboration with Gene Siskel) was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which ultimately led to the amputation of his lower jaw in 2006. In spite of that history, neither James nor Ebert, nor Ebert’s wife, Chaz, could have foreseen that Ebert would die (in April, 2013) before the project upon which they had just embarked would be completed. They had intended the film to be a celebration of Ebert’s life as a man, critic and thinker. It would have been nice for Ebert to see this moving tribute to him, but his death in no way inhibits the power of the encomium: indeed, taking its title from Ebert’s 2011 autobiography, the film is a most fitting eulogy, revealing Ebert in all his great humanity and intellect.

At times the film is hard to watch, since Ebert allowed himself to be filmed during his final days, and seeing the once vital television presence reduced (physically, not mentally) to a shell of his former self is painful. Still, though the lower part of his face may loosely flap where the jaw used to be, Ebert’s eyes remain bright throughout. Narrated by James, the film also includes interviews with Chaz, Ebert’s friends, his colleagues, filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, one of the film’s producers, who wasn’t always well-reviewed by Ebert), as well as fellow critics (who didn’t always agree with him). We see archival footage from some of the many tapings of his show with Siskel (including behind-the-scenes sniping between the two, which is funny), as well as from some of his innumerable appearances at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s annual Conference on World Affairs, plus home videos of his life with Chaz and her children and grandchildren. We learn a lot more about the man (who won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 1975), but for me to reveal all it in this review would spoil your pleasure in discovering the information, yourself. Suffice it to say that the film is about a powerful populist thinker who never doubted the ability of anybody, anywhere, to appreciate art as entertainment, entertainment as art, and to see thoughtful ruminations on both as one of the reasons we were put on this earth. As much as he loved movies, however, he also loved Chaz and his family, and life, itself.

This is the movie to see this weekend in Baltimore (it’s playing at the Charles Theater). Go.