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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Book of Henry

This is the thinking person’s superhero film. Henry is a super-genius 11-year-old who does all the thinking, business and planning for his single mom Susan and helps raise kid brother Peter. No phone-booth transformations for this nerd, though, just the celebration of intelligence, knowledge and responsible citizenship. These days that’s a rare Marvel.
To Henry our greatest danger is not violence but apathy. When he senses that his next door classmate Christina is being abused by her stepfather Henry exhausts every normal avenue of reporting and intervention. To no avail, because the stepfather is a prominent figure on the police force with a brother high up in the social services command. 
Before dying of a brain tumour Henry prepares an amazingly detailed plan for his mother to kill abuser Glenn Sickleman. He documents Christina’s predicament and gives his mother a step-by-step program. It's a dead-serious variation on his earlier specialty, complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. 
With such a precocious son Susan doesn’t have to be the standard issue Mom. While he’s poring over abstruse texts and manuals she plays violent video games, to his bemusement. She responds to Henry’s death by lapsing into childishness. For Peter she prepares three meals of desserts every day. 
When she undertakes Henry’s plan she grows up. After the pertinent institutions turn her away too, she plans Glenn’s assassination under the cover of the school’s student talent show, in effect undertaking to develop a new talent of her own. Hit Mom. 
The film backs away from that vigilante justice. That would be childish, Susan realizes. But the wheels Henry set in motion before dying save Christine anyway. When her sons’ photos distract Christina from her killing shot, she instead faces Sickleman and promises she will expose him. The school principal who couldn’t bend procedures to confront Sickleman is moved by the pain in Christina’s dance performance finally to file a formal, surprise complaint. This double exposure prompts Sickleman to kill himself, clearing the way for Susan to adopt Christina, admitting her to her unusual, loving and nurturing family.  
     For a film that deals with such horrors and that takes so many dramatic swerves of plot, this is a surprisingly cheery work. It revives the image of our lost America. There people look after each other. The social and government institutions can be roused to protect the helpless. The truth can be discovered under layers of lies and subterfuge. Why, people as well as our social institutions step forth to help the suffering. Those were the days — at least in films.
      And imagine -- an American commercial film that actually respects intelligence and knowledge. It's hero is a "brain." This during the cataclysmic reign of a president who proudly avowed "I love the poorly educated." And whose virtually every major cabinet appointment was to someone not just wholly unqualified for but actively antagonistic to the mandate and responsibilities of the office. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

Like the 1952 Burton-de Havilland film and the 1983 TV mini-series, this adaptation preserves the feminist thrust of Daphne du Maurier’s novel. 
Phillip’s narration may suggest the film is about one man’s love for a woman. But the plot instead dramatizes and exposes the male’s fear of a powerful, effective, overwhelming woman — to the point that he must demonize and destroy her, even if — or because? — he loves her.  
     That’s Phillip’s last conundrum. Rachel is dead, he is happily married to the safe Louise, but Rachel remains his continuing passion and torment.“This question that I must ask myself, again and again, every day of my life, never to be answered now, until we meet at last in Purgatory. Were you innocent, or were you guilty? Rachel, my torment. My blessed, blessed torment.” 
Was she trying to kill him as he thought she killed her first husband, his cousin Ambrose? Or did he have her all wrong, his suspicions based in his own weakness rather than in her strength? 
After her death all the evidence points to the latter conclusion. Her suspicious Italian mentor/lover turns out famously gay. She was not an adulteress, nor a gold-digger and she was not trying to poison him. He shared his cousin’s feverish paranoia that would blame the wife for what went wrong. All her apparent guilt was a misrepresentation, shadowed by his prejudice. The issue is not her ambivalence but his insecure retreat from her. Her desperate "I can't do this again" does not refer to her poisoning him but to her nursing yet another lunatic boy's suspicion. It's spoken in despair not confession.
The tension is in the title. Rachel is not his cousin but his cousin’s widow. When Phillip leaves her that title after Ambrose’s death  he reveals his uncertainty about her. How kindred is she, whether in blood, spirit, character, humanity. How “cousin” is she? The "cousin" excludes his acceptance of her as his "love." The title like his fear keeps her at a distance.
At first he’s persuaded she’s an outlaw usurper. When he falls in love he loses that suspicion. But in the boy’s insecurity before such a powerful woman, he relapses into demonizing her.  
Phillip is the stunted boy emerging from the narrows of the man’s world. “The only women allowed in the house were the dogs” (i.e. Women are bitches). That misogyny is the family males' sickness. When he comes across his dying cousin’s plea for help Phillip resolves to make Rachel suffer for everything Ambrose did.  “Whatever it cost my cousin in pain and suffering before he died I will return with full measure upon the woman that caused it.” 
      That resolve holds up till he meets her. But after succumbing to her charms, in his insecurity he returns her to her guilt, i.e., his fear. Instead of avenging his cousin he repeats his madness by blaming her for his weakening. Blame the woman when the manhood wilts.
The film contrasts two kinds of women. Louise is blonde, appealing, attractive, compliant, convenient, the daughter of his guardian lawyer. She is safety personified. She will live under Phillip’s control as both submitted to her father’s. Over his affection for her Phillip can keep control. 
But Rachel is as dark as she is mysterious, unsettling, overwhelming. Phillip can’t control his feeling for her: “Because I love her and nothing else! It isn't a little loving. It isn't a fancy. It isn't something you'd turn on and off. It's everything I think and feel and want and know. And there's no room in me for anything else. And never will be again.” 
Rachel will not be controlled. She angrily rejects Phillip’s buying her with an allowance. In response, he buys her at a higher price, by imposing on her his bequest of everything he has on the sole condition the estate would revert to him should she marry. This is a boy trying to buy a woman he lacks the manhood to win or to hold or to trust. 
Ambrose’s and Phillip’s disease reads as their failure to stand hale and secure before her. The herbal wisdom she brings from the East only confirms their suspicion. The bitch is a witch. Her strength is a threat. What she knows and they don't will destroy them. 
       Of course the man is as damaged and restricted  by his misogyny as the woman he rejects. If there is an actual murderer here, it’s Phillip, who in his madness sends Rachel riding on the dangerous cliff that -- like the men -- crumbles under her. When he apostrophizes Rachel at the end he only bemoans his own failure as a man to have respected the superior woman.
       DuMaurier wrote middle-brow potboilers. But now and then she struck down to an archetypal bedrock.    

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The King of Comedy (1983)

The film opens and closes on shots of ambiguous reality, the no-man’s-land between real life and its representation on TV. The first shot is the grainy image — as off a TV screen — of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) starting his act. But we don’t see the TV set, just the TV graininess full-screen. Do this film’s first image — which is usually of life — here is of a TV image. From here on, the media image trumps any reality. The film explores that gap.
In the last shot Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) stands at a mike milking the audience’s applause (as Langford did earlier). He stands in the darkness with no clear context. He may or may not be on a stage or before a camera. He’s pinpointed by lights, in his garish showbiz suit. He’s not doing anything but basking in the lights and wallowing in the applause.  
Pipkin has completed his prison sentence for abducting Langford and he has been paid a million dollars advance for his best-selling confessional book. Now he is celebrated for being a celebrity not for anything he is doing. The act has supplanted the person. The shot seems so unreal it suggests it may be Pupkin’s fantasy, an image of the ambition or desire his career has left unfulfilled despite his apparent success. 
The casting advances that meta-cinema mode. It plays in the grey area between reality and its mediation. Among the minor characters, Johnny Carson’s producer Fred De Cordova plays Langford’s producer Bert Thomas. The Ed MacMahon role is provided by McMahon’s predecessor on the Jack Paar Tonight show, Ed Herlihy, effectively playing the oleaginous McMahon. (Johnny Carson himself was offered the Langford role but declined it.) Familiar guests Dr Joyce Brothers and Tony Randall play themselves. Media figures Bill Jorgensen, Marvin Scott, Chuck Stevens, William Littauer and Jeff David speak as themselves. Producer Edgar Scherick plays the network president. Director Scorsese plays the show’s director, with his mother Catherine heard as Pupkin’s “Ma-aaa.” His father is at the bar watching Pupkin’s TV appearance. DeNiro’s wife Diahnne Abbott plays Rupert’s romance.  
Other castings play against their familiar image. Comedian Sarah Bernhardt plays the needy, wealthy Masha with an abrasive ardor for star Langford. Her brashness and anger are an extension from her comic persona. Comic pianist Victor Borge appears as pianist in Pupkin’s fantasy of his TV marriage — but neither cracks nor plays a joke. Similarly, Lewis is almost exclusively known as a manic comic but he plays this role absolutely straight, without a scintilla of a lapse into the persona that has defined him. 
De Niro’s Pupkin is a dramatic variation on his usual Scorsese role: the constrained savagery of an alienated brute on the make. As Pupkin pulls a comic routine out of his family life frustrations, Scorsese makes this DeNiro character an adept aper of TV’s false warmth. In his fantasy patting of “Jarelleh’s” cheeks the De Niro and Lewis personae touch and spark. As Pupkin dreams of surpassing Langford, he — like the film itself— appropriates the royal title to which Jerry Lewis has the plausible claim.  
These castings convey the film’s central confusion between role and reality, privileging the former. Artifice is all. Hence the abyss between the friendliness and warmth that Langford projects on air and his bleak solitude at home. There he eats alone. He walks around with a single golf club. He may well golf alone. In his mother’s basement Pupkin practices a social glibness that he learned off TV — and criminally contrives to air it. 
Of course one of the main forms of this false human connection is love. “I’m going to love you like nobody’s loved you” opens the film’s theme song. Sick loves, twisted loves, abound in this arena of social fakery. In his fantasy Rupert expresses his love for Langford and Liza Minnelli, as if his emotion can bring their cardboard cutouts to life. Masha’s passion for Langford has nothing to do with what either is or feels, just her random though total commitment. 
     The theme is concentrated in the street scene where a woman tells Jerry she loves him. When he declines to speak on the phone to her cousin she yells at him, hoping he gets cancer. She too loves him like nobody loves him. But it’s not a matter of come rain or come shine. It’s a matter of reality supplanted by artifice. In this light the film foreshadows the inflection of American politics into reality TV show.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

It Comes at Night

In this superbly crafted thriller two families struggle to survive a global plague that seems to have eliminated mankind. And of course humanity. 
The heroes are a white Roman History teacher Paul and his black wife Sarah and her 17-year-out son Travis. Their heavily secured forest refuge is invaded by a white handyman Will, who persuades Paul to let him bring in his wife Kim and toddler Andrew. Paul has the water, arms and refuge; Will can provide animals for food. 
After their initial violent suspicion the two men settle into a partnership, but their suspicions and paranoia are never quite overcome. The relationship explodes when Travis’ dog comes home with the fatal disease. Travis and Paul suspect Andrew may have it. Will senses that fear. His decision to take his family’s fair share of supplies and leave leads to a fatal shootout. 
The film opens with Sarah’s father dying of the cankerous disease. He’s shot by Paul and burned to contain the plague. In the last shot Paul and Sarah sit alone at their kitchen table, Travis’s chair empty, Travis himself dead by that plague.
The plot presents two plagues. The physical is that disease that claims the grandfather, his dog, his grandson Travis. Will’s family is free of that disease but destroyed by an alternative plague, a psychological one, paranoia. 
It’s paranoia that drives Paul to conclude his guests threaten his family’s security and life. The resourceful teacher’s irrational fear has a rational basis: his family is threatened by a fatal disease and by violent survivors. 
Will’s sense of that paranoia drives him to pull a gun on Paul to enable his family’s escape into an equally dangerous outside world. Both men are good, responsible figures simply determined to protect their families. This is a tragedy of good intentions. Both are destroyed by the poison in the air, their mutual fear as much as the rampaging disease.
The film carefully avoids any particular time and situation. But one passing joke firmly establishes its current pertinence. As Will and Kim frolic in their bed, little Andrew playfully stabs his father’s feet with a toy. “The terrorist is biting my toe,” squeals Will. He repeats the line.  
So that’s the plague we’re facing these days which the film refracts through the two plagues of blood and fear. The current swell of global terrorism has bred a paranoia and mutual fear that threatens the social fabric, the community of man. That’s the poison in the air which nourishes the two respectable families’ fear, suspicion, and ultimately violent defence. 
Paul’s mixed marriage is not remarked upon. It’s just there, natural, warm, an image of an unusually healthy America. Nor is there any racial tension after Will’s arrival. This directs the film’s conflict away from the racial difference towards an even more worrisome conflict: between families with the same values, the same concern for their own, divided by a not completely unfounded fear and mutual suspicion. 
This film reflects upon the climate that created and is fed by Trump’s six-nation travel ban, a cold-hearted and ill-calculated exploitation of people’s desire to protect themselves and a fear of any refugee, however safe and kindred.    
     The generic title confirms that direction. What comes at night but the monsters of the imagination, the fears bred by darkness and ignorance, the enemies we create by projecting our fears upon some Other. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Woman

A package from Bruce Wayne sets this narrative going. That adds a popular culture level of mythology to the original two: the life of the gods and the life of mortals. In the former our heroine was born when Zeus infused life into the clay doll her mother had shaped. That's an earthier version of the virgin birth. In the latter the Amazonians live their man-free warrior existence in splendid isolation until discovered (attacked) by German soldiers at the end of WW I. 
Of course Diana Prince (WW) bridges all three mythologies. Her evil counterpart is Ares, the god of war, who visits earth by possessing two villains, the German officer and the British traitor. War transcends religion, politics and philosophies because the murderous spirit is innate in all of us, the option that the better eschew. This Ares steps into the comic book mythology when he becomes a shape-shifting Transformer beast in the final fight.  
The film’s presiding spirit, though, is feminism. This we might expect from a woman superhero and a woman director. What’s interesting is the breadth of values this feminism propounds. 
First, it’s not Woman Good, Man Bad. The evil woman scientist — popularly known as Dr Poison — proves you don’t have to be male to be evil. Though, of course, it helps. Dr. Maru’s marred face, with its plastic coverup, turns the convention of cosmetics sinister. 
On the other side of the ledger, Steve Trevor — who’s such a good guy he gets two male first names — has the kind of compassion, courage and decency we’d normally expect in a woman. In fact he’s the one who makes the Ultimate Sacrifice to save the world from a planeful of poison gas. He gives Diana the most impressive First Sighting of a Man since Miranda’s in The Tempest.
Steve is feminist enough to joke about his manhood. When he tells Diana he’s “above average” its an estimation of his overall qualifications. In the film’s best joke, when she sees him full frontal, Diana wonders why men let their lives be dictated by that silly, small little thing. No, dear reader, the reference is to his watch, passed on from his father and which he passes on to her as his last loving keepsake. We’re doubtless intended initially to respond wrong.
This feminist hero is certainly strong, with superhuman skills, flight and strength. Her command of 100 languages also gives her a bit of an edge over the blustering Old Boys bumbling in the British government. From Steve she learns the respect for human potential that keeps her from joining Ares. 
     Finally, this feminism extends beyond women to the marginalized and suppressed of any nation or gender. Hence her quartet of comrades at the end include three stereotype personae: the amorous little Frenchman (“voila”), Spud from Trainspotting and the alien Indian (Will Sampson’s image played by Eugene Brave Rock). Diana Prince is a woman for all seasons. The film's feminism is a call to humanity. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

I, Daniel Blake

The title emphatically states the hero’s affirmation of his identity and rights. He may be the helpless object battered about by the social system but he makes himself the subject of his own story. That's why he spray-paints his cause on the bureau’s outside wall — and evokes a chorus of citizen support..
The heartless muscle-bound social welfare system is a fair depiction of what happens when legislation turns its back on humanity. It’s the Alt Right’s dream come true, the objective of the Thatcher, Harper, Bush and especially now Trump governments. 
The scene where Daniel is offered a drink of water in the welfare office? The Tories removed the water coolers as an economy measure in 2010. So the reality in Britain is even worse than the tragedy presented here.
One worker from that office comes to Daniel’s funeral, But then, she sensed his vulnerability earlier and courted criticism from her “superior” when she tried helping him navigate the online form-filling. She was scolded for treating him as an individual, recognizing his individual needs, thus setting an unfortunate "precedent." Her coworkers take pride in enforcing their system’s insensitivity, always buttressed by The Law. 
As a good Leftie, director Ken Loach does not despair at the government’s inhumanity. Rather, he punctuates the official cruelty with periodic examples of individuals helping out, people being human.
In addition to that clerk, the department store manager personally intervenes to negate the security officer’s arrest of the shoplifter. His good deed is promptly balanced by the dubious assistance offered by that security officer, a part-time procurer.  
In the food bank scene Katie is treated most generously, not just with the abundant provision of supplies but by the staff’s kindness when she humiliates herself by ripping open a can of fruit, desperate from hunger. Earlier Katie went hungry to feed her helper Daniel.
So however bleak the situation Loach finds hope in the brotherhood of man. His neighbour and friend China may be a hustler and a slob but his offer of help is sincere.  
The hero’s name resonates. He’s another Daniel in a lion’s den, struggling to survive in the jungle of savage red tape.  Nature red in tooth and claw is now "civilization" red in tape.  The Blake recalls William Blake, the poet grieving the industrially stained London and the “mind-forged manacles” imposed upon but accepted by the broken citizenry. 
While the younger Katie pieces out a meagre existence Daniel’s resources steadily shrink. He loses his support payments, has to sell off his furniture, shrinking his life to a blanketed quiver. His dignity keeps him from the food bank. By the time he wins his day of appeal, and with salvation near, his heart buckles from the strain. 
True to the naturalistic tenor of the story, the social vision, the glamour-free casting and rhetoric-free performances, and the absence of consoling sentimental music, the film eschews the happy ending obligatory in American film. Blake’s death is as purely a release as Lear’s and the final condemnation of the system that privileges process over people. 
                                 
Here Loach’s heart and head seem to operate in sync. Not so in his joining the BDS-holes who would undermine the only democracy in the Middle East, the sole guarantor of religious, political, gender and civil rights, i.e. Israel.
As is common among the “useful idiots” on the Left, Loach responds with appropriate compassion to the suffering of the Palestinians. His error is in defining its cause. What his prejudice prevents him from realizing is that this horrible suffering is the fault not of Israel but of the Palestinians’ own elected tyrannies and their determination to waste generation after generation of their own lives in their hope to eradicate the Jews. 
     After all, the Palestinians could have had their own prosperous, healthy and secure independent state at any time since 1922 — if they had only accepted peaceful coexistence with the Jewish state. They have persistently rejected that peace. So, when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and the Palestinians had the chance to prove themselves a responsible state, they instead promoted their genocidal intention anew, firing hundreds of rockets at Israeli civilians and building invasive tunnels to attack. Supporting the Palestines against Israel only advances their abusive enslavement by their own government. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

Don’t let the New York setting and largely American cast throw you off. This is another brilliant examination of Israeli social and political issues by the American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar. It’s perhaps his funniest but still as insightful and heartfelt as his others, from Time of Favour (2000) through Footnote (2011).
      Of course, the issues at play in this Israel ramify to cover other nations, other cultures, indeed humanity in general. As the Knesset scenes define Israeli politics the US scenes address the American diaspora, largely represented as the right-wing AIPAC. 
Two phrases define the film’s central themes. One is the pledge for peace Israeli Prime Minister Eshel gives the US ambassador: “The opposite of compromise is not integrity. The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” The idealistic Eshel embodies the Israel that has offered compromises for peace, striving to sustain justice and humanity — as witnessed in his phone-call to apologize to Norman, his “friend” about to be thrown under the bus in the interests of keeping the peace-making PM in office. 
The second is “tzedokah” — the term that dominates the Hebrew liturgy we hear first in the choir’s rehearsal, to which besieged hero Norman retreats to find peace, and finally in the full synagogue performance. The word means “charity,” the ultimate value in Judaism. The prayer is the Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing. This film is pitched as a prayer for healing in Israel and in the world. Norman proves the however unlikely figure of “the blessed” (what the prayer’s title means).
This despite his early appearance as a pathetic and suspect hustler, a mix of the political fixer or influence peddler and the Woody Allen loser, or nebbish. The “Norman” stamps him a normal guy, an Everyman, and the surname Oppenheim an ironic reminder of the wealth and power he doesn’t have. Try as he may he will never become the “macher” or big wheel he pretends to be.
At first the hustler aggressively tries to “help” business and political figures by putting them together for possible profit, his but mainly theirs. We don't hear him setting his fee. He’s living off a modest inheritance from his mother (coincidentally his channel to official Judaism too) but his eagerness to help others is tinged by his own need to make a living. The thousand-dollar pair of shoes he buys the down-at-luck Israeli minister becomes “the best investment [he] ever made” when that Eshel becomes PM. 
Eventually Norman’s vanity endangers that supposed friend’s career. Norman’s bragging to the woman from the Israeli justice department leads to a ridiculous investigation that threatens to bring down the PM. Of course, like several predecessors PM Netanyahu is currently under investigation for allegedly having accepted gifts or bribes from US businessmen. But Eshel is the ideal not Netanyahu. In Norman’s case the alleged corruption is insignificant, especially in the context of its possibly exploding the current peace effort. 
Norman rises from nebbish to tragic hero by transcending the charity of commercial helping and by sacrificing his life for the greater good. He not only saves his friend’s government and thus the peace process, he manages a traditional Jewish wedding for his nephew and his unconverted Korean wife, e gets the PM's underperforming son into Harvard, he helps a businessman make a  financial killing and — through that — raises the $14,000,000 needed to save his synagogue from destruction. All those good deeds come about through Norman’s compromise, which circumvents any possible complaints about “integrity.” What counts is humanity in all its diverse character and needs. 
At the same time as he is a realistic contemporary American figure — of the Sammy Glick and Daddy Kravitz persuasion — Norman is also The Wandering Jew. He has no family, no home, no definable background — and the nomad constantly wears his one camel-hair coat. 
Norman is only one example of that mythic type. In Srul Katz he meets his doppelganger -- same pestering desire to “help,” same card offering personalized “Strategies,” same disturbing ubiquity. Katz is a seedier, possibly earlier version of Norman, so he may or may not rise to Norman’s heroic resolution. In his doing good and the humiliations he suffers for that, Norman is a minor key Jesus and Katz a minor key Norman.
Heroism? Norman manages a particularly Jewish kind of heroic sacrifice. Ever hear of “suicide by peanuts”? The Lord moves in mysterious ways -- and through unlikely agents -- Her wonders to perform. 
      Norman has to be an unimpressive figure because it is a fantasy to assume any one person can resolve an issue as complicated as peace in the Middle East. In that tinderbox, when the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death, it takes extended compromise on both sides for peace. But the film remains rooted in fantasy in one other key element: it shows no Palestinian characters. Admitting the reality of the Arabs' 100-year resolve to eradicate the Jews would explode any fantasy of peace. It takes two to untangle.   
The film drives on two kinds of music, the cheery folk melodies of daily Yiddish life and the sombre ageless antiquity of the Hebrew prayer. That balance characterizes Israel, the eternal Jewish state whose legitimacy — however questioned these days — rests on formal edicts from the League of Nations and the UN as well as on Biblical history. In Israel everything smacks of both the fluid present and the echoing historic past. 
     So this individual fixer is also the mythic Wandering Jew. When Eshel recognizes and embraces him in public, Norman moves through a setting of frozen postures as if he were living in a separate time frame. So too the doubled reality in the scenes where characters from disparate settings appear in the same shot. The here and now in Israel is always the there and then as well. The moment is the eternal. The formal division of the plot into theatrical acts confirms the sense of a life lived both as an immediate flow and as part of a larger structure.