Archive for March 2018

Journey’s End

March 25, 2018

journeys endThe necessarily melancholy Journey’s End, a World War I drama, has been around a while. How long? A 21-year-old Laurence Olivier made his first big splash in the source material, R.C. Sherriff’s well-regarded play, in 1928. The current film version is the fifth such adaptation; the first was James Whale’s debut, in 1930. And yet it doesn’t feel old, perhaps because Sherriff, an army officer in the war, left any cant out of it. No one harrumphs on about the glory of sacrifice — or the insanity of war. It’s just these men, many barely old enough to harvest whiskers, waiting for their turn to step into the bear trap. At the time the tale is told (March 1918, or roughly a century ago), the war is still eight months away from armistice — plenty of time for many thousands more men to die in the mud.

A newcomer to the material might expect Journey’s End to follow Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a wet-eared though not toffee-nosed young officer who asks to be assigned to the company commanded by a pre-war friend, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, stepping into Olivier’s big shoes). But the  story, at least as told here, focuses more on Stanhope, human wreckage trying to hold himself together with whiskey, and his friendship with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany, looking more than ever like the young Max von Sydow). Raleigh is more of an object here, a thing that introduces drama and brings Stanhope’s tensions to the fore. Stanhope, you see, was involved with Raleigh’s sister, and if Raleigh writes a letter to her mentioning what a mess her brother has become…

This string of the narrative is standard dramaturgy that could, in theory, unfold anywhere (Raleigh is off to medical school and discovers old chum Stanhope, an anxiety-ridden third-year resident popping pills to stay awake). But here it’s linked to the war and the agony of dread it causes all the men — existential dread to the nth degree, the horror of a man watching an unknown other man gurgle and die in the muck, and knowing there’s no reason he himself is alive (for now) and the other is not. A good part of the action happens offstage — or offscreen, rather — betraying the film’s origins on the boards; a major character dies out of our sight, which we don’t expect to happen in a movie. (It does, however, make for a delayed jolt that films don’t usually do, but which is part of a playwright’s bag of tricks.)

Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française) mostly with hushed intimacy, Journey’s End lets off a few bangs — most of the combat is reserved for the third act — but is often found picking up the sounds of a straight razor scraping off stubble, or a cigarette torching into life, or an exhausted soldier sipping tea that tastes of onions. Indeed, all the senses are engaged here, the narrative slowed down just enough for us to share in the tactility of the men’s discomfort. The actors scale down their performances accordingly; Claflin has the flashier role, getting drunk and upbraiding everyone around him (most of the men absorb his abuse with a shrug), but is also allowed quieter moments to create pockets of fear and sickness.

It’s all a bit of a lad’s tale — we’re on the movie’s home stretch before we see our first female face (with no voice) — and a white lad’s tale, too. (Someday soon we may see a film about the Harlem Hellfighters, or perhaps a biopic of Dorothy Lawrence.) Period war movies may be the only genre left that can plausibly ignore the modern (and justified) demand for diversity; the least such movies can do is reveal the cracks in the façade of privilege, and Journey’s End does so. A good portion of the film’s pathos lies in the pained smile of Paul Bettany’s Osborne, a schoolmaster in pre-war life, who has seen the apocalypse of the new mechanized way of war. In the face of the mass meat grinder of the war that was supposed to end all wars, a man can try to retain some humanity. That’s about it.

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Final Portrait

March 18, 2018

finalportraitYou don’t have to know anything about Alberto Giacometti to enjoy Final Portrait, an account of the Swiss sculptor/painter’s halting attempts to paint a portrait of his friend, the American art critic James Lord. Final Portrait is the fifth film in 22 years directed by the wonderful character actor Stanley Tucci, and the first in which he does not appear. On the rare occasions when he is moved to sit behind the camera, Tucci seems most interested in artists — their difficulties, their integrity, the ways they can drain the energy of those around them. In his filmmaking debut, Big Night, Tucci played the long-suffering younger brother of the chef (Tony Shalhoub) of the Italian restaurant he managed; his brother insisted on fashioning art with his cuisine, rather than the weak-tea “Italian food” their American customers demanded.

Here, Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) feels like a fraud because all of his art is “unfinished” — most artists know that you never “finish” a piece, you just abandon it, otherwise you’d tinker with it forever if you could (and some artists do). When James (Armie Hammer) sits for a Giacometti portrait, he soon senses that the work is becoming a tinker-fest. Giacometti roughly renders James’ features, then goes for his thick brush and slathers gray paint over everything he’s done, then starts over again. What begins as a three-hour session in Paris turns into weeks. James is often seen on the phone, repeatedly cancelling his flight home to New York.

In a lesser, crasser movie, we’d eventually see the airline employee on the other end answering with a crisp “Yes, Mr. Lord, we know.” Stanley Tucci doesn’t make lesser, crasser movies. Final Portrait isn’t cheaply jokey like that, but it is nimbly entertaining. The color scheme, mostly the grays of Giacometti’s studio, interests me; usually, of late, I’ve been honking on about the dreary monochrome of most movies. But the grays here, courtesy of cinematographer Danny Cohen, have variety and texture. The result is that Giacometti’s workplace feels weirdly cozy. We can believe in it as a place — spattered with plaster, stuffed with hidden sacks of money — that Giacometti can retreat to, and frequently gets tired of, shuffling out to get a drink with his prostitute muse (Clémence Poésy).

I wasn’t aware of Geoffrey Rush before his Oscar-winning and annoying turn in Shine. Later on, as I saw other, better performances from him, I had to confront the question: In Shine, was I watching an irritating actor, or a great actor who had played an irritating person very effectively? By now I would fall into the latter camp on Rush, and here he creates a gravely shambolic mad genius whose skyward-pointing tangle of hair recalls similarly coiffed visionaries like Eisenstein, George S. Kaufman, Barton Fink. His Giacometti is mordant, depressed: he will never be finished, he will die before reaching any closure in his work. (And indeed two years after the events here, Giacometti was dead.) Rush does especially subtle work with Shalhoub as Giacometti’s brother Diego, who gently suffers the great artist’s foibles.

James, who went on to write books about Giacometti, figures out he has to still Giacometti’s hand before he reaches again for the annihilating thick gray brush. An artist learns to listen to the editor voice inside that dictates when time is up and the piece is as done as it’s going to get. Mute that voice and you get (in David Denby’s words) a “lordly ditherer” like Kubrick, or Malick, or your choice of creatives who take eons between projects, chewing the damn thing to death, to shreds. Giacometti is a restless god, always with two or three pieces going at a time, his studio full of his own work, some of which seems to regard him balefully. (In one shot he has a wordless psychic clash with a large plaster head that resembles him in profile.) Here and in films like Big Night and Joe Gould’s Secret, Stanley Tucci shows an artist’s respect for the unfinished, the abandoned, the work someone lived with and dreamed of until it was time to send it out into the world. James may be Giacometti’s final portrait, but I sincerely hope this won’t be Tucci’s.

Oscar Night 2018

March 5, 2018

90th Annual Academy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018The most Oscar-y part of the 90th Academy Awards came when there was a comedic bit so long and unwieldy it had to unfold across either side of a commercial break. In it, host Jimmy Kimmel and a variety of celebs from the ceremony (Guillermo del Toro, Armie Hammer, Mark Hamill) took a stroll over to the nearby TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s). The bit was largely pointless and self-congratulatory (good fellows, let us favor the groundlings with our presence!), especially when you consider the moviegoers in the theater were probably there because of indifference to the Oscars in the first place. But then that’s Oscar: bloated and self-regarding.

And I say that as someone who loves movies, and as a bleeding-heart liberal who agrees with many of the progressive, inclusive ideas espoused in the nominated films and by the presenters and winners. Even for me, the sanctimony got a tad thick — imagine how it played for those in the middle or right of same. At times, one might have taken the temperature of the evening by trying to divine which nominee would most piss off the current president. Among the nods for Best Director were one woman, one African-American, and one Mexican. That the race between directors, and between their films, broke down thus is, I would say, encouraging (the two white men, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin McDonagh, contented themselves with “your nomination is your award”).

In the midst of all this, it seemed, the show needed to feint at rapprochement with red-staters via a pro-military montage. There was also a good deal of #MeToo rhetoric, but as for its real-world efficacy, we shall see. (Do we know of any upcoming major-studio, big-budget films willing to cast Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, or Annabella Sciorra in significant roles to make up for what Harvey Weinstein did to their careers? That, I think, would be more helpful to them and to similarly insulted and injured women than feel-good lip service.) If these Boomer and Gen-X filmmakers don’t know the younger crop of #NeverAgain activists has left them in the dust, it can only be because they don’t want to know. The future belongs to Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg.

But we were talking about the Oscars, weren’t we? It got in before the midnight curfew, but I’ve never really minded the length. The Oscars are long. They will always be long, and there will always be things we wish weren’t there, at the expense of things we wish were there. They should really stop doing In Memoriam, since we all find things to hate in it (no Tobe Hooper??). Bitching about the Oscars is as big a sport as just watching/enjoying them. There’s really no difference. Again, as in recent years, there wasn’t much of anything enormously ill-advised; even the wrong-envelope debacle last year was a mistake, not something that people actually sat down and planned, unlike the infamous Snow White Incident of 1989. There hasn’t been anything that indelibly wrong-headed in a while.

Which is a little sad. Jimmy Kimmel has been a perfectly competent host (it lost something this year without Matt Damon for Kimmel to spar with), but no one will remember his gigs the way they remember David Letterman’s tour of duty, excoriated at the time but now seen as more or less an appropriate response to the glitz factory. What the Oscars have lacked for years is a certain sense of are-we-live? danger, the knowledge that anything can happen. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway found that out last year, and they returned this year, because Hollywood loves a comeback, and because they probably didn’t want the last thing they’re noted for on this earth to be fucking up the Oscars.

In truth, the Oscars could use more fucking up. As usual, there are mitigating oddities: the director of Blade 2 now has an Oscar, as do Drexl the pimp, Guy Fleegman, and the star of a Chuck Lorre sitcom. I was rooting for Get Out, as much because I’m a horror fan as because I legitimately dug the movie, although there would have been reasons to welcome or at least tolerate the ascension of any of the nine nominees. Get Out spoke incisively about white “liberal” hypocrisy, but it also worked like gangbusters as a new suspense classic. If it didn’t — if it didn’t have that ruthlessly efficient script expertly playing the audience like a piano — no one would be talking about it even a year later. Its Oscar win may or may not increase its viewership, but it will most certainly make any project Jordan Peele pitches more attractive to the beancounters. And the point of the Oscars is more Jordan Peele movies, or movies of comparable energy, originality, and craft. Finally, Roger Deakins — a great talent almost as snubbed by Oscar as Susan Lucci was by the Emmys — won, at long last, for Best Cinematography, an honor he should have won at least seven times before. But he has an Oscar now, so I didn’t have to throw anything at the TV.