Archive for November 2016

Jackie

November 27, 2016

jackie

When considering Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I remember Priam’s line from The Iliad: “I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; / I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Jackie, of course, was not the first First Lady to be widowed, but surely the first to be so publicly widowed, her agony magnified and reflected back to her by the media. Once the Zapruder footage was made accessible, there she was, spattered and panicked, forced to move through the motions of abrupt bereavement over and over for the edification of conspiracy theorists everywhere for all time (“Back and to the left … back and to the left”). She did not have to put her lips to the hands of Oswald (or whoever pulled the trigger), but she did, I think, endure what no other mortal woman had endured, at least on that scale.

Jackie is the latest attempt to dramatize the 20th century’s most famous widow’s experiences, anchored by an uncanny vocal impersonation by Natalie Portman, whose Jackie is appropriately brittle and confounded. Towards the finish, the movie administers a couple spoonfuls of sugar to make the existential medicine go down — John Hurt appears as a priest to explain to Jackie and us why Jackie, and we, go on in a world without meaning, and there’s a bit too much dewy-eyed romanticization of Camelot. (I swear I could hear old Gore Vidal snorting in disdain from wherever he is.) But most of the film is a delicate, trickily structured poem of sadness, the kind of sadness that recalls Aeschylus’ “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

That structure, by way of screenwriter Noah Oppenheim and director Pablo Larraín, flips back and forth as Jackie talks. She talks to the country while giving a tour of the White House and her revamp of same; she talks to the aforementioned priest; she talks to presidential chronicler Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup). So the woman rendered hysterically silent by that Zapruder footage is given a chance to speak copiously for herself, even if she engages in conscious mystification. (More than once, she tells White that something she’s just said is off the record or that she didn’t say it at all.) Again and again, Jackie explains herself in plain English. Past a certain point, though, words are inadequate. Her husband is gone. Her two (surviving) children no longer have a father. This experience has been shared by millions, famous and not, but the details distinguish Jackie’s unique suffering.

With the aid of Mica Levi’s boldly emotive score, Larraín distills tragedy down to a few potent drops. (Larraín has said he dislikes biopics, but he’s got two out this season — this one and the upcoming Neruda.) He pretty much hands the movie to Portman, who finds volumes of variations on Jackie’s poised and sometimes archaic speech (“I’d rather them at home,” she says of her children at one point, in the sort of syntax one seldom hears any more). The editing, by Sebastián Sepúldeva, stitches it all together firmly enough but is occasionally too fancy — there’s a cut from Jackie angrily trying to remove her wedding ring to Jackie swallowing a pill, and it took me out of the movie for a second (“Wait, did she just swallow her ring?”).

For the most part, though, Jackie keeps things clear and preserves its subject’s sadness in amber. Some people forget she had a whole other marriage and life after JFK; for them, she is forever defined by her first marriage and its brutal end. Portman brings the icon of widowhood to sharp, sometimes prickly life — her Jackie will control how her story is told, thank you very much. After a while, we see how the pieces fit together. The reporter, the priest, the TV tour of the White House hosted by Charles Collingwood (father confessors all) — it all speaks of a woman who did everything a mid-20th-century woman was supposed to do: married well, made a beautiful house for herself and her family, but then lost it all. Like a lot of women in the ‘60s, she then had to find meaning without all those things to define her, and she did, though beyond the movie’s purview.

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Miss Sharon Jones!

November 20, 2016

sharonjonesBarbara Kopple’s compassionate documentary Miss Sharon Jones! was completed in 2015, got a limited theatrical release last summer, and hit DVD earlier this month. It is newly relevant for a saddening reason: its subject and star, the retro “queen of funk” singer Sharon Jones, passed away just last week. That makes watching Miss Sharon Jones!, which follows Jones as she deals with her first bout with pancreatic cancer and finishes up her Grammy-nominated album, more bittersweet than it might have been. It is well worth the watch, though, especially for viewers/listeners (like me) who hadn’t been familiar with Jones and her work with her band the Dap-Kings.

In recent years, Kopple, whose early work tended towards the political (1976’s Harlan County USA and 1990’s American Dream both won Best Documentary Oscars), has focused on female entertainers in extremis: films about Mariel Hemingway (Running from Crazy) and the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing). Miss Sharon Jones! devotes about as much time to Jones undergoing chemotherapy as to her music. Though there is some cookin’ footage of her and the Dap-Kings onstage and in the studio, the movie isn’t primarily a concert film; it’s a portrait of a woman and her art and the sickness that temporarily — and then, outside the reach of the film, permanently — stopped the music.

Intimate but not invasive, Kopple’s camera takes us close to Jones and her fear and pain. But Jones perseveres, and her strength permeates not only her singing but the movie itself, so that we don’t feel gross or exploitative for watching a dying woman. For, of course, at the time of filming, and possibly right up until the end, Jones was very much a living woman. I’ve heard and read many performers talk about whatever awful physical or mental torment they may have been going through, and as soon as the lights and applause hit them, all was forgotten. Sharon Jones frequently dances in this film, dances like a woman half her age and with none of the illness. The force of her will is exhilarating and, at times, a little intimidating. I would not have wanted to get between her and whatever she wanted. I would almost feel sorry for her cancer if the fucker hadn’t caught up with her in the end.

The movie shows us the power of art and music to transform Jones from a suffering middle-aged woman to a volcanic goddess of song. It does this with a minimum of cant or bathos. Jones is seen to have been a devout Christian, and one of the extended examples of her singing and dancing, as the shackles of her disease slip visibly from her body, takes place in a church. Kopple doesn’t underline this; it’s just part of the DNA of so much African-American music. Jones was a uniter: her fans are racially mixed, as are her band and her friends — her best friend, a white nutritionist, gladly put Jones up at her home for a while. Again without pushing too hard, the movie speaks gently for kindness between diverse people. It’s a message I don’t mind hearing just now.

In brief, Miss Sharon Jones! has more on its plate than just Miss Sharon Jones. In just 93 minutes, the movie encompasses a good deal of experience and truth, and we get to hear some mighty fine retro funk while we’re there. Like the Dixie Chicks film, whose subject was the backlash after Natalie Maines voiced anti-Bush sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq War, the movie captures the impact of one band member’s problems on many other people. Jones knew she had to go on — the Dap-Kings depended on the income from performing. She also knew she couldn’t just sit home and mope — the music was perhaps a more vital therapy than the toxins pumped into her veins. And now, in this year that has taken so much from us, she is gone, too. She was not a household name (despite doing the talk-show rounds to support her album), but a lot of people felt her loss sharply. She meant something to more people than she might have realized. I hope she did realize.

Ghostbusters (2016)

November 13, 2016

kateThe key to the Ghostbusters reboot is that it works not so much as a comedy (it’s fitfully amusing) or as a big-budget adventure but as an unforced celebration of feminism. The four heroic women suffer some sexism, but not enough to get in their way significantly (they mostly power through and do what they want anyway). If they’re not taken seriously, it’s not because they’re female but because they insist in a secular age that ghosts exist. At heart it’s a story about two friends since childhood, who grew up to be scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), and who have grown apart since co-writing a book on the paranormal, which Erin has disavowed. The whole creaky, noisy spectacle leads to the moment when one of these women literally jumps into the abyss to save the other.

That’s what it’s all about, in the end; saving the world is okay, but sisterhood matters more. Ghostbusters has a sketchy script (by director Paul Feig and Katie Dippold), which functions largely as a clothesline for supernatural gags, but then so did the script for the sacrosanct 1984 original. (Aside from Peter McNicol’s performance, I’d just as soon forget about the wanting 1989 sequel.) I think Feig and Dippold, probably with the encouragement of the actresses, really just wanted to tell a small-scale story about the bond between smart women, and in Ghostbusters they seized the chance to do it on a massive scale, on a $145 million budget. God knows most of the legitimately funny bits could have been filmed in a one-bedroom flat for five dollars. But movies like that don’t get greenlit any more. Movies that cost $145 million and have a connection to a beloved franchise do.

Feig enjoys stories about friendships between women, and he has told them again and again in the last few years, in Bridesmaids and The Heat and Spy. Two minority women, the African-American subway worker and armchair city historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and the crypto-gay nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), round out the quartet of ghostbusters, and they all go to the limits of existence for each other. They’re afraid but forge ahead anyway, the true definition of bravery. Ghostbusters was not as big a hit as it should have been, or else McKinnon would have handily stolen the summer and perhaps the year. She gives us a scientist highly entertained by the buzz of her own brain; weird noises and asides keep leaking out of her — she’s placidly unstable and very much giddily alive. Jones’ Patty largely recalls Richard Pryor’s routine about black people’s comically pragmatic response to the supernatural (get the hell out) while managing to feel much less like a token afterthought than Ernie Hudson’s black ghostbuster in the original.

This Ghostbusters doesn’t feel like its predecessors, or look like them; it lacks the original’s cool, slick ‘80s lamination — the director of photography is Robert Yeoman, who provides the warm, bright hues of every Wes Anderson film (and all the aforementioned Paul Feig movies). The phantasms glow sickly green, and spew green slime; the improved technology gives us more visually elaborate ghosts but can’t give us a reason for their ghosting around. There’s a plot thread about some nerdy mad scientist trying to start the apocalypse (ah, that old thing), and the movie itself seems fatally uninterested in everything to do with it. This nerd gets killed about an hour in and spends the rest of our time hopping from body to body, eventually settling inside the ghostbusters’ hunky but dim secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, enjoying being stupid). I don’t imagine Paul Feig cared about the whys and wherefores of the ghosts; I know I didn’t.

Yet Ghostbusters is commendable for its respect for intelligence, its regard for friendship; its Stronger Together emphasis feels like a balm in the cold days post-Hillary. (It may be best apprehended as an artifact of the era when a female president seemed tantalizingly imminent.) Unlike the original, it doesn’t proceed from a writer’s genuine hungry obsession with all things inexplicable. The ghosts symbolize loud, chaotic elements seeking to split up our heroes, so they have more going on under the hood than they did in the original, where the ghosts didn’t mean much of anything except gag fodder. Here, the ghosts have a certain beauty and pathos, and are sometimes scarier than their ancestors (though Slimer makes an appearance, as do many other fan-service ghoulies and actors). The movie is more readily comparable to Feig’s other work than to its forefather. It’s a comfortable night out (or in), pleasing and unchallenging.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 7, 2016

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.