Thursday, August 29, 2019

In colonial Australia, brutality within brutality

The Nightingale, opening Friday at the Upton Birmingham 8, is Jennifer Kent’s second feature film, following her critically successful The Babadook (2014). While her earlier film dealt with the horror of psychological trauma, The Nightingale deals with horror that was very much of this world, set during colonial Tasmania early in the 19th century. We all know that Australia was a penal colony but Tasmania harbored Britain’s most hardened criminals. The film’s central character, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a petty criminal from Ireland, wasn’t one of them but the island had to have a semblance of women for all those men, and you can guess the results. In the story, Clare is released after serving seven years and seeks she and husband Aiden’s (Michael Sheasby) freedom to make a new life. Yet Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) keeps her as a personal slave. One night, Hawkins, a frustrated middle-ranked officer, goes too far, and an incident so horrific occurs that Clare must seek revenge, the undertaking of which makes up three quarters of the film. So, from a plot perspective, the action is pretty straight forward. The movie has all the trappings of any story where morality, retribution and justice take center stage, but set in the hinterland of this frontier off Australia’s coast. What makes the story more complex - and this is why the director wanted to make the film in the first place – was to depict the multilayered gender, race, class and imperalist brutality that marked ker country’s early development. “The colonization of Australia was a time of inherent violence; towards Aboriginal people, towards women, and towards the land itself, which was wrenched from its first inhabitants,” she says. So, while the narrative is one dimensional the relationships between the characters is not. We have the British military oppressing Irish convicts (Clare shouts “I fucking hate the English!”), the abominable treatment of women - at least lower-class ones (convicts and Irish), and the universal despotism towards Aboriginals. But within these layers are subsets of exploitation - even Clare sees herself a superior to Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), her Aboriginal guide. “Move boy!” she orders, and when he seeks spiritual guidance, scowls, “I don’t want you putting your hocus pocus on me.” The film’s sets and costumes including uniforms made form original dyes, are certainly authentic, especially the “Old Masters” painting look of building interiors. And Kent said she painstakingly researched period speech though there are contemporary nods that underline the  universality of sadism. I don’t have too many problems with the way the film was made,  except that the actors’ faces, particularly Clare’s and Hawkins’s, seem a bit too fresh-faced for their ordeals. And I would have somehow liked this plot to have been less of a conventional ”chase” film.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Graduate - what was all the fuss about?

I had seen snippets of The Graduate and in fact thought I’d seen the entire movie. But just to make sure I turned on TCM Sunday during the network’s Summer Under the Stars tribute that day to Dustin Hoffman. Turns out I hadn’t seen the movie in its entirely – not by a long shot. And now that I have, I have to ask - and sit down and write - what was all the fuss about? For this was the iconic coming of age film about an alienated generation confronting their parents’ “establishment” values and materialistic society in which they had grown up. (The movie is based on the book by Charles Webb and its main character effuses the same desultory sullenness as J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, though at least Caulfield critiqued the world around him.) Perhaps its fame comes from being released exactly at the right time - the late 1960s and no more profound a year than 1967, symbolized by the “generation gap” and the Hippie and counterculture movements. In The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role) is the estranged (and affluent) college graduate, returning home from the east. His parents are the proverbial squares, with they and their friends’ flashy cocktail parties, vapid talk and careerist expectations, epitomized when Benjamin is buttonholed by one of them and told: “One word – plastics.” Okay, we get it. But Benjamin, as a character, is as lame as they come. He’s quiet to a fault, dim-witted, sultry and a bit of an awkward jerk. Nevertheless, neighbor Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft – perfect for the role) seduces him, but to his great reluctance. Why? We just don’t know – Benjamin never talks! Then, just as strangely, he comes around and takes her up on her offer. It’s never explained why. For her part Mrs. Robinson is the ice queen extraordinaire. Eventually – surprise! - Benjamin opens-up and tries to break her down but is only partly successful. Later, out of the blue, an unknowing Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) suggests Benjamin date their daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross – also a perfect choice for the role when there was so much competition). Benjamin resists – again, why? Then he takes her out on a horrible date. Finally, our misfit confused boy comes around and even begins stalking Elaine. The denouement comes at Elaine’s wedding in Santa Barbara, when Benjamin seeks to rescue his would be paramour. Alas, we'll never - ever!, par for the course for this story - know the reason why. The movie is now considered one of America’s most significant films. But it was made in 1967 and who knows what people were smoking then.

Monday, August 19, 2019

An icy way to transcend madness

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Richard Linklater’s film version of Maria Semple’s 2012 novel, is a somewhat oddball tale about fame, art, depression and yearning. Yet the film is riveting, thanks to a great cast including Cate Blanchett, one of today’s most versatile actors, and wonderful direction on Linklater’s part. Virtually any Linklater film, from his Before Sunrise and Waking Life titles right through to this one, is more than worth a view. So, hurry to Bernadette for its insights into misanthropy, creativity and longing, all set within a slightly whimsical context. Blanchett as Bernadette is a reclusive people-hating but well-to-do neighbor in a hilly Seattle neighborhood. She used to be a star architect but gave it all up when a crass television personality bought her imaginative dream home and totally destroyed it. Now, as a mother relegated to dropping off and picking up her daughter at school, scowling at her neighbor Audrey (Kristren Wiig), increasingly disconnected from husband and genius Microsoft engineer Elgin (Billy Crudup) and assertive daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), she is thrown into a new trauma. That’s when Bee requests, for her remarkable high school grades, a prize – anything she wanted! – of a trip to Antarctica. For Bernadette this is too much. It’s not the continent she objects to as much as the logistics of getting there, like being trapped on a boat with boring and crass fellow passengers. Meanwhile, a series of small events occur as the planning for the trip gets underway. A mudslide from her property slams into Audrey’s home during Audrey's much ballyhooed fundraising brunch. Audrey also alleges Bernadette ran over her foot while picking up her daughter at school. Husband Elgin has an affair with a co-worker (ZoĆ« Chao). When talk turns to having Bernadette committed to a mental asylum she escapes, and to the unlikeliest of places - yes, Antarctica. The film (spoiler alert) shifts to the icy continent and for all the world looks like it’s been filmed there, including with penguins walking within feet of the characters as they talk about the meaning of life on a rocky outcrop. (Greenland in fact was where the movie was shot.) Upon discovering this, Elgin and Bee set off on another ship and hope to rendezvous with her. They do, but it makes no difference, at least for now. Because Bernadette, as a stowaway on a scientific mission to the South Pole, has at last found the creative spark that will transform her back into the starchitect she once was. At first blush this plot might seem absurd and your reaction might be, "why waste my time?" But watching the film it doesn’t seem that way, with the characters and events filling in as symbols and signposts to some of the deeper meanings of life.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Cohen still shines through uncompromising doc

British documentarian Nick Broomfield’s latest film Marianne & Leonard Words of Love (at the Landmark Main in Royal Oak and Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor) explores perhaps the strongest theme in all of Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry – his love affair with his one-time lover Marianne Ihlen. After all, such iconic Cohen songs as "So Long, Marianne", "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and "Bird on the Wire” all in some way are about Cohen and Ihlen’s relationship. I didn’t know what to expect from the film, given that Cohen and Ihlen spent most of their time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. That was a long time ago after all and how much actual film footage from that period would still be available? In fact there’s a fair amount. This of course was before Cohen ascended into the pop or at least countercultural literary limelight in the mid to late 1960s. And after that time there’s plenty of archival film of the modern gravelly-but-oh-so-romantically-and-introspectively-voiced bard who became a beloved figure in the folk, rock and pop world. While the woman Marianne is obviously central to the film in reality the film is more about Cohen vis-s-vis his relationship with Marianne and any number of other unnamed lovers, but also with Suzanne, inspiration for the equally iconic song of the same name. We learn that as the 1960s went on Cohen, emblematic of the spirit of the time, was a fully indulgent participant in free love and the sexual revolution, and with his looks and poetic charm, a magnet for innumerable women. But he always had to remain free and this also caused stresses on his relationship with Marianne, about whom on stage he joked that he kept spending fewer years, months, weeks and then days with as the years went by. To his credit filmmaker Broomfield doesn’t ignore some of the negative repercussions from the era and Cohen’s relationships. Marianne’s son Axel ended up in mental institutions and there were deep psychological stresses on the British family who adopted Cohen on Hydra including a suicide. Drugs, including widespread use of LSD, were psychologically and physically harmful on the people around Cohen.   Nevertheless, showing this downside doesn’t impede the film’s overall narrative of Cohen’s greatness through the artist’s significant life chapters – as poet, novelist, singer (having first to be coaxed to sing on stage by Judy Collins), Buddhist monk and then the  “I’m Your Man” fedora-wearing elder folk-rock superstar in the 1990s through 2000s. This is a fascinating movie from the first moment to the last.