The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
Why didn’t anyone tell me how hard it would be to keep up on with new movies, TV shows, and reading while living with a newborn? (Actually, EVERYONE told me).
Somehow…I did manage to finally finish a novel…T. C. Boyle’s The Women, a piece of historical fiction recommended by my wife that vividly details the life of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the four (often tempestuous) women he loved. Hopscotching points of view (which include all four women, but also Wright, and a Japanese apprentice) and flip-flopping timelines, large swaths of the early sections are a bit sluggish to get through (though I’m not sure if some of the difficulty I had turning the pages was due to my own exhaustion and short attention span). But, man o’ man, when the novel finally settles on its final 100 or so pages, which culminate in the infamous murder spree at Wright’s palatial Wisconsin hideaway Taliesin that resulted in the deaths of his mistress, her children, and other workers at the hands of an hatchet-wielding, fire-starting butler from Barbados, it was impossible to put down as the setting, characters, feelings, and horrific actions were made indelible on the mind as if the reader was right there watching it all.
(Side note – the earlier passages at his Oak Park estate outside Chicago were especially vivid in a different way as we had visited Oak Park last summer and I could picture his disgruntled ex-wife Kitty and their children in the rooms described by Boyle).
Meanwhile, in this day and age of Netflix, it’s easier to stay on top of some newer programs as binge watching lends itself well to being stuck inside a house for weeks on end. Continue reading
Spike Lee uses D. W. Griffin’s incendiary Birth of a Nation in quasi-meta fashion in his masterful comeback film about racists getting their comeuppance, the wildly entertaining yet sobering BlacKkKlansman. If the former film was “history written by lightning,” then the latter might be “satire written by thunder.” But while Lee and his screenwriters are thunderous in their political leanings, the filmmakers are most effective in delivery of the message because of how taut, understated and meticulous they are in the weaving of their storytelling craft.
BlacKkKlansman is a procedural undercover cop jawn about Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington in a “star is born” type performance and a chip off the old block of his dad Denzel) who infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK (almost on a lark, in prank-phone call style) in the 1970’s. When the KKK agrees to meet him in person for the purpose of initiation, he convinces his sergeant to let him use his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, shockingly good) to pose as the eager new racist recruit. Thus we end up with Jewish cop pretending to be a black cop pretending to be a white supremacist…and getting away with it…and stopping a terrorist bombing to boot. It would all be ludicrous if it wasn’t true (though apparently some of the details of the actual case are played with loosely here for the purpose of entertainment and message delivery). There’s a lot more going on in the film, and it’s tonally played to expert effect flipping between a satirical comedy of manners and a cop thriller about the worst kind of criminals.
Well, I’m a little over three weeks into this new fatherhood thing (our son having arrived auspiciously early last month), so it was rather serendipitous that Ron Rash’s long-nursed Something Rich and Strange short-story collection (seriously, I’ve been working this one for like three years) was in closest reach when I found myself with a short window of respite.
The next story up just happened to be “Badeye” and I don’t know if it was simply the pure joy I found in being able to read something amidst the exhaustion that made me feel the way I felt about it, but, man, it’s got to be my new favorite short story of his. Like an Appalachian set Stand-by-Me where the narrator reaches back to his childhood and tells us, “That summer was the longest of my life…”, Rash’s story is about a little boy who loved snowcones and snakes, his mother’s spiritual and moral battle against both, how he found a way to connect to his previously distant father, how the father comes through in a big way in the boy’s time of need, the mysterious man who delivered the snowcones, the secrets both adults and children keep from each other, and the tales we weave about it all.
It instantly brought to mind one of my favorite short-stories of all time from arguably the greatest short-story writer of all-time, Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, and Cigarets” from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (fitting words for this time in my life) collection. Like Rash’s “Badeye”, Carver’s masterpiece is also about a father and son, and the secrets both adults and children keep from each other. Carver’s harried, cluttered, suburbia of 1950’s California seems a far cry from Rash’s brutal yet beautiful Appalachia of the same time period, yet the stories share universal themes, and as a new father with a newborn son, I can appreciate them on an added level above just their brilliant craftmanship. Continue reading
What lengths would one go for love…or in war? Cataclysmic outside events thrust unlikely people together…torn from their privacy to create new intamicies…in secret…but in service for something larger…a delicate, romantic spy game that could determine the fates of strangers in strange lands just as much as it could the fate of the ones you most love.
In his masterpiece The English Patient, Canada’s titan of literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje described a novel as a “mirror walking down the road.” In his latest novel, Warlight, which mirrors many of the themes of his best, he describes a memoir as “the lost inheritance”. Warlight is a novel written as if it was a memoir, and the light it casts on the shadowy lives of those left picking up the pieces in the aftermath of World War II will leave one shaken as equally by Ondaatje’s craft as by the fates of the characters. It would make a cracker jack film or miniseries, you know, if someone skillful enough could dissect it, reassemble it, and focus the whole thing on the shocking soap opera-like revelation at the end…the twist of fate…the sad realization of what the consequences of one’s actions and youthful indiscretions could be. Continue reading
On the isle of Jersey, a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley – a revelation) emotionally enslaved by her manipulative and unforgiving family (headed by her posh, cruel, ice-queen of a mother played perfectly by Geraldine James) has a chance encounter with a guy from the wrong side of the sand dunes named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) that leads to a dangerous romance amidst the frenzied summer of a serial killer on the loose in Michael Pearce’s electrifying and disturbing directorial debut, Beast.
Beast is a classic sleeper film, having come presumably out of nowhere, and confounds all expectations of its tried and true “doomed romance” genre, here presented through the lenses of neo-noir and modern gothic. The less you know about the film going in the better. The complex psychological disturbances it displays (and transmitted exceptionally well by the cast, and most of all, by Buckley) need to be wrestled with, unpacked…not unlike the work one would do in therapy to better understand their past trauma and current motivations. For Moll, who is introduced to us through her own voice-over about the tragic fates of killer whales isolated in captivity (a chilling metaphor for what is about to unfold), being ostracized is clearly a trigger, but what the film accomplishes so brilliantly is confusion in the mind of the viewer. What are the true motives behind Moll and Pascal’s behavior? They compel us to sympathize with them even as we watch them careen into emotional and criminal mind-fields. Continue reading
There’s a great scene in Brad Anderson’s latest film, Beirut, where a former party-diplomat turned washed-up labor contract negotiator Mason Skiles (a frazzled-yet-still-dapper-perfect Jon Hamm) settles into his Beirut highrise hotel after returning to the city for the first time in a decade and after finding it a hostile, gunshots-outside-of-the-airport-and-checkpoint-riddled mess, pours himself a drink and walks to the window to take in the bitter, shattered view of a stooping, bombed-out skyline. Anderson’s camera then shifts POV’s to that of the bombed out skyline as it pans out and we see Mason staring out his window, the hotel itself one of those battered buildings, a shell-hole and tentacled crack blighting its side just a few windows away from Mason’s own.
You can imagine a late-era Graham Greene having written the scene, but it’s Tony Gilroy who penned the screenplay instead. Gilroy adroitly uses the civil war-torn era Beirut of the 70’s and early 80’s the same way Greene used WWII blitzkrieg era London (in The End of the Affair) and post-WWII era Vienna (in The Third Man). It’s a cluster **** of diplomatic nightmares, crumbling buildings, intrigue and perils (of both the heart and the body). Continue reading
*SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS REVIEW*
Apparently marrying Emily Blunt can give a guy an ego the size of Will Smith’s. Case in point: John “Jim from The Office” Krasinski, who has the nerve to star and direct in his own horror allegory vanity project, A Quiet Place, and cast himself next to his wife (the future Mary Poppins) who is quite frankly pretty amazing in anything…no exception here. Krasinski (a usually amiable goofball) is pretty terrible as a serious actor, but he’s a decent little workmanlike director, and his wife and the two kid actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) give compelling performances that allow their characters and the action to rise above Krasinki’s and the screenwriters’ shortcomings. The film, though far from original in either theme (shhh…you gotta stay quiet to survive this post apocalyptic horror show run by marauding blind monsters who hunt by sound) or design (haven’t we seen these clicking gawky body-ripping creatures before…like, in everything…oh wait, they have really nifty ears here), ends up being above average for the genre.
The whole thing is overtly an allegory about parenting…but you know, the “parents need to be martyrs” and “father knows best” over-protective “the world is a dangerous place” patriarchal kind of parenting. Continue reading
Seriously. Is the Death of Stalin funny? Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny? I’m asking for a friend.
Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?
Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev! He’s brilliant, as per usual. Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi). But is the performance…funny? I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how? Funny how it looks? How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev? Funny ha-ha?
Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece. What’s his end-game? A correlation to Putin’s Russia? Trump’s America? Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos? Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading
Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you. It’s a magnificent episode. So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words. Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!
The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.
Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff. Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd. Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. Continue reading