Archive for November 2021

Belfast

November 28, 2021

In his autobiographical film Belfast, writer-director Kenneth Branagh has a lot to say about the transporting power of movies, Star Trek, and the loveliness of a smart girl in one’s classroom. The movie is filmed in nostalgic black and white except for the opening and closing images and whenever we get a peek at whatever movie is playing at the cinema when the young hero Buddy (Jude Hill) is brought there. One such trip finds Buddy and his family taking in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the effect of the flying car swooping off a cliff and into the oceanside air makes everyone lean forward in their seats. In his own films since 1989, Branagh has chased that intoxicating mix of awe and engagement, and has sometimes caught it. But he doesn’t do it here.

As it happens, Belfast — told through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy — has little to say about Belfast. It seems a humble place where everyone knows each other; a chorus of chipper voices alerts Buddy when his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) calls him in for tea. But it’s also a place increasingly riven by tensions between Protestants and Catholics; Buddy and his family are the former, and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) is under pressure from local louts to take a (violent) stand against the latter. Pa has also been offered work, and a better house, in England. Ma doesn’t want to leave. After all, their lives are in Belfast, as well as Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench) and ailing grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). 

What the place doesn’t have is specificity; some of the movie was actually filmed in Belfast, but it might as well be a backlot. (Reportedly, the family’s street was built for the production on an airport runway.) Branagh is competing here with some heavy hitters even in relatively recent years — say, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). Those films (and the books they came from) found unstable comedy or unbearable tragedy — on occasion both at once — in the traumas of the Irish childhoods in which they immersed us. Branagh’s Belfast feels lightweight other than the early set-piece of rioters’ chaos, which in itself just seems like an event to get our attention quickly. That attention soon dissipates when we’re asked to focus on tribulations not particular to the Troubles — the father running afoul of the tax man; Buddy trying to get his maths grades up so he can sit next to his beloved.

Branagh may be saying that despite the unique clashes of Belfast, it was largely peopled by folks who worried about the same things most of us do (in addition to fretting about being in the wrong place when the bricks flew). But if we go to Belfast hoping for insight into how a little Belfast lad went on to glory in theater and film, eventually being knighted, we may leave empty-handed. About the only hints of Branagh’s future endeavors are a quick shot of an Agatha Christie novel and an eye-rolling bit with Buddy leafing through an issue of Thor (Branagh has directed movies in both universes). The theme song from High Noon seems to cast a longer shadow over Branagh’s memories than Shakespeare. 

I wasn’t hoping for Easter eggs here — more like elements that would have made this resound as Branagh’s Belfast rather than anyone’s Belfast. The incidents here, including a sequence in which Buddy nicks a box of washing powder from a store in the throes of looting, feel remote and anodyne. To us, the wrestling over whether to leave the increasingly explosive Belfast isn’t a struggle at all — get the hell out. Instead of making us mourn the city, Branagh resorts to making us mourn for poor old Judi Dench left on her own. Aside from a charming little dance between her and Ciarán Hinds, Dench is kept too steadily in the background to embody the land, its joys and discontents. (The movie is generally uptempo, scored as it is with the rambunctious hits of fellow Belfast boy Van Morrison.) But Caitríona Balfe takes over, as mothers in Irish tales often do, and it’s she whose sadness makes the strongest case for the continuity of place. All Branagh can do is make us yearn for a time when a poverty-stricken family of five could still afford a matinee show.

King Richard

November 21, 2021

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You may be forgiven, watching King Richard, for wondering what exactly Richard Williams’ deal was. Was he a prophet or a damned lucky delusional? As tennis fans know, Williams is the father of Venus and Serena Williams, two of the greatest tennis players of all time. As the legend goes, Richard planned — literally, a 78-page plan — a future in tennis glory for his daughters before they were even born. He got this notion when he caught Virginia Ruzici on TV winning a tournament. If Ruzici won a lot of money doing this, Richard reasoned, think how much two girls could win. Richard didn’t know anything about tennis, but he learned, and he taught his daughters.

Now, what possessed this man to predict that his Black daughters could dominate a theretofore blindingly-white sport, and that they would both be born with the athletic genius to do so? Did Richard receive a nighttime whispered message from a herald? Further, in King Richard, once Richard gets his girls on the right track, he consistently goes against the grain of everything he’s advised to do. The girls’ coach says they need to start playing in the Juniors? No, Richard says, they’re not ready yet. Nike offers a $3 million endorsement deal? Well, Richard says, we’re gonna hold off. Richard gambles a frightening amount on his instincts, on his sense that he’s right. (We might catch a bit of subtext that Richard, who grew up in hard times abused by racists, is wary of all the received wisdom that comes from white faces — well-meaning, but white.)

Will Smith plays Richard as a batch of conflicting signals — sometimes cramped and cynical, sometimes carried along by his dreams. People, including his wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis), keep telling Richard he’s heading for a fall, cruising for a bruising. But he has no fear of failure; he seems to fear regret. He doesn’t want to look back and mourn the risks he didn’t take, the money he left on the table. Smith finds something fiery in Richard’s center; the man’s entire being and sense of self are tied up in being vindicated. Through his daughters’ triumphs, the world will tell Richard Williams that he was right. Richard pisses off one elite coach (Tony Goldwyn) and moves on to another (Jon Bernthal, in the funniest performance) and pisses him off. Nobody has seen things done the way Richard wants them done. This guy is nuts. And yet the world keeps sustaining his vision. Smith uses his star charisma — which makes the audience lean towards him — to make Richard seem nourished by everyone else’s doubt. All the film’s energy is directed towards Smith; it’s Richard’s story, not Venus or Serena’s. 

Richard is an odd man to hold the center of a film that also boasts, somewhere off to the side, two lightning bolts like Venus and Serena. The story Richard tells about himself (and which this movie co-signs) has a Biblical whiff about it: God tells Richard (or Noah, or whoever) that this thing is going to happen, must happen, and you’ve got to prepare for it. The Richard of this movie (truly I know little of the man aside from what Smith, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and writer Zach Baylin give us) is a prickly, flawed, arrogant, possibly great man whose character goes somewhat unresolved, our questions unanswered. And it’s not that the movie is trying to be the sportsball equivalent of Last Year at Marienbad or anything; it just recognizes there’s more to him, to anyone, than even two hours and twenty-five minutes can capture. 

Alas, this male’s vision is mightily supported by a woman (Aunjanue Ellis comes through with a loving, sensible turn that even in moments of quiet watchfulness is the film’s moral compass) and by, of course, two girls. If not for them, there’d be no him. King Richard plays us out with Beyoncé’s “Be Alive,” which is about Venus and Serena: “We fought and built this on our own.” True enough. But the movie needs Richard’s righteous self-regard; it would be too close to a standard sports biopic without it. All the familiar beats are there, the advances and seeming setbacks, leading up to the big game with the whole universe hanging on it, and … well, you’ve seen sports films before. But maybe you haven’t seen Richard before. 

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

November 14, 2021

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In 1941, an 18-year-old Kurt Vonnegut Jr. inscribed a book to his high-school girlfriend, who would later become his wife. He wrote, “To be shown to our children when they begin to wonder what things are most important in this world that some fools call hell.” Within four years, Vonnegut had lost his mother to suicide and, as an American prisoner of war in World War II, witnessed the bombing of Dresden and its horrific human toll. Sometimes, at least some of the world can be hell. Like any of us, Vonnegut struggled to exist in a world where Dresdens happen but birds also say “poo-tee-weet?” and children dance and elders laugh.

The long-in-the-making documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, by Vonnegut reader-turned-friend Robert B. Weide, knows enough not to pin Vonnegut down. He was complex, at times irascible or depressive, and towards the close of his time here, he was more or less openly yearning for the exit. (The war didn’t kill him, nor did his lifelong affair with Pall Malls, an untruth in advertising that irked him; he died from brain injuries incurred in a fall in his home, and even then it took several weeks for him to be finished, in 2007 at age 84. So it goes.) The documentary is shuffled around non-chronologically, in keeping with Vonnegut’s premise that life is a simultaneous continuum, that someone dead now is still alive somewhere else in the timeline, and vice versa. If we are all already dead, there’s no need to fear the inevitable.

At the same time, the dead leave behind people who want them still alive in this timeline, thanks very much. The man we meet in Unstuck in Time is a man with some scientific training and artistic instincts who created a buffer between himself and life’s intractable sadnesses. It was difficult to be a loved one finding oneself on the outside of that buffer, and Weide acknowledges that; he talks to Vonnegut’s three grown children as well as his four nephews that he took in after their mother, Vonnegut’s sister, died of cancer. They all chuckle about how the old man could be a grouch, a struggling writer trying to feed a family of nine. Ironically, it was Vonnegut’s magnum opus Slaughterhouse-Five, which came out like a kidney stone over a period of years of stops and starts, that redefined him and settled his money worries forever.

Unstuck in Time is a sympathetic, often fond portrait of a man who knew pain and seemed to consider it humanity’s common denominator, our shared cross to bear. He couched his insights in sci-fi narratives or absurdist premises, written simply so anyone could understand. He talked about kindness, the need for community. He looked the part of elder statesman even at 47, when Slaughterhouse-Five landed and made him a father or grandfather figure to a generation facing its own war. (Stephen King, of that demographic, dubbed him “Father Kurt.”) He functioned as a sort of whimsically dyspeptic eminence on TV, the country’s unofficial conscience. Sadly, he began to feel he’d outlived his time. Slaughterhouse-Five (my all-time favorite book) turned out to be his gravestone achievement, though his subsequent books still sold and he found some late-period purchase as a voice against the Iraq War.

Like his spiritual father Mark Twain, Vonnegut knew the importance of tucking his message inside a candied pill of humor. Weide frequently catches Vonnegut dissolving into laughter, sometimes, as one of his daughters points out, at inappropriate times: at his high-school reunion, Vonnegut looks at a plaque commemorating students who lost their lives in WWII, and he wheezes with laughter as he says that several of them died not in action but, say, during training or of spinal meningitis. (So it goes.) It was a sweet irony to Vonnegut, who knew there was no good way to die in war. During the end credits, Weide gives us a montage of Vonnegut laughing; it isn’t just a cheap way to send us out comforted — it’s an affirmation of Vonnegut’s ethos and his mission as an artist. Maybe his stories would make you sad, but damned if he wasn’t going to go for some jokes along the way.

Out of the Blue

November 7, 2021

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Linda Manz had a great camera face, scarred and wary, yet open to profane as well as sacred experiences. Her face haunts the few movies she appeared in, like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and especially Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue, which has been rescued with a 4K restoration and has been making the rounds. What Manz does in Out of the Blue isn’t quite acting. It’s behaving, or attitudinizing, sorting through the externals of a broken girl, Cindy Barnes, or CeBe. Her affectless tough-girl delivery takes some getting used to; at first it strikes our ears as amateurish. But as we learn more about CeBe and her bombed-out, devastated life, we learn to read her splintered disposition — closed off from the world’s harm, but drawn to whatever forlorn adventure she can glean from it, because she’s still only 15 — as elaborate armor. 

Hopper was only going to act in the film, initiated as a Canadian TV-movie. But original director Leonard Yakir faltered, and Hopper took over, refocusing the narrative on CeBe instead of on a virtuous psychiatrist’s attempts to save her. (Remnants of this plot, with Raymond Burr in a two-scene bit as a school therapist, remain in the finished film.) Hopper co-stars as CeBe’s feckless father Don, who drove his truck into a packed school bus while drunk and was sent to prison for five years (CeBe was with him at the time of the accident; Manz’ real scars are explained in the film as the result of the crash). Don gets out of prison, reunites shakily with CeBe and with her junkie mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), and wastes no time falling back into old self-destructive habits.

Pretty much every male CeBe encounters is a creep or worse, and the girls at her school, which she attends sporadically, mostly have no use for her. So she spends a lot of time alone in her depressing room, listening to Elvis and spouting punk-rock slogans (“Disco sucks! Subvert normality!”). Manz is eminently believable as Hopper’s offspring — they share a spirit as well as some features. The tone of their scenes together is dangerous yet saddening. Don has no idea how to be a functioning human being, much less a father. Does CeBe know how to be a daughter? It’s by no means clear that anyone in her life has “raised” her. Her “parents” are too lost in their own pain and addictions. Unsupervised, CeBe drifts around the night streets of Vancouver, going to punk shows and dodging unwelcome male notice.

It’s not long before we understand this isn’t going to be the kind of movie that leads up to a redemptive finale, in which the parents get their act together for CeBe’s sake and offer her some stability; nobody else, particularly not slime like Don’s menacing buddy Charlie (Don Gordon), is going to step in on her behalf either. Out of the Blue says that some people — some entire families — are just damned, and it doesn’t take a judgmental stance about it. Hopper, as director and uncredited writer, extends no hope whatsoever, and there’s something vital and cleansing about the movie’s thorough nihilism. As played by Manz, CeBe is hurt and bleeding but still alive. We see flashes of the innocent little girl she used to be who died long ago — an unabashed grin when a punk band’s drummer lets her hammer the skins for a minute onstage; her habit of curling up with her teddy bear and sucking her thumb.

The movie ends on a profoundly downbeat note, to put it mildly, and yet it doesn’t depress us because it doesn’t lie to us. We feel that a story like this can only end in this bleak but honest manner. The events of the narrative don’t exactly please us, but Hopper’s absolute dedication to honoring the truth of CeBe’s life (not to mention casting himself as one of many demons on the side of her dark lonely road) pays off. Movies are allowed to leave us feeling something besides happy or sad. They increasingly, frequently leave us feeling nothing at all. Out of the Blue is a gritty artifact from a time, the late ‘70s, when artists could work out their feelings about unbearable ways of living. It was also a time when a spiky presence like Linda Manz, who died last year six days short of her 59th birthday, could take over a movie and leave us wondering what we’d just seen, but knowing we’d seen something strange and beautiful.