Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Capsule Reviews: What They Grow Beyond

The Whales of August (d. Lindsay Anderson) – The feature film career of Lindsay Anderson (there were some TV things after, which, though I haven’t seen Is That All There Is? or Glory! Glory!, sound by no means negligible), the man who brought the world such wild and wildly aggressive satires as If…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital, ended in a seemingly unlikely way. The Whales of August, from  1987 and which Kino Lorber has just released on Blu-ray as part of their Kino Studio classics line, was written by David Berry, based on his own play, and is play, almost stereotypically, almost parodically, through and through. It’s about two elderly sisters, one of them blind, who spend their summer together in a seaside cottage that has been in the family forever. During that time, the sisters spar, with the blind one, Sarah, picking away at emotional scabs and unleashing a cruel streak now and then which tests Libby, her gentler sister, who still mourns the loss of her husband in World War II. And all this time, they await the seasonal return of the whales to their part of the sea, a natural phenomenon that has meant much to them ever since they were young.
So it’s about memory and death, plus whales. I have no doubt that Anderson had deeper reasons for wanting to put this not-exactly-electric play on the big screen, but watching it now the big idea seems to have been to give some old Hollywood stars another swing at the ball. Bette Davis plays Sarah, her unique vocal cadence only intensifying with age, and Lillian Gish plays Libby. I like both of them here, though at times Gish’s movements feel practiced. Bette Davis musters all her energy to Bette Davis the hell out of the thing, and I can but tip my cap. Also present are Ann Sothern as a somewhat nosy, but not unfriendly, neighbor, Harry Carey, Jr. as the local handyman, and Vincent Price his own self as a recent widower who the ladies all like.
My instinct is to say that, with all due respect to Anderson and the cast, it plays like a kind of novelty film – check out all these screen legends, now very old, in one movie. Then again, I suspect I feel that way because today no one would make a film populated almost entirely with a cast like this unless the story was about how one of them was dying and he wanted to blow his savings with his old pal at their favorite strip club one last time. But The Whales of August really does kind of just sit there. It feels like boilerplate theater. Even if I was wrong about where exactly this would all end, I feel like that’s only because the writer lightly tweaked things so that it didn’t head directly into the predictable. It’s the difference between turning right and bearing right.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (d. Rian Johnson) – Yesterday I learned of the existence of a petition, drawn up by some numbnuts or other on a popular useless and meaningless petition website, called “Rian Johnson Must Admit That The Last Jedi is Awful.” The thinking behind this, if I understand it correctly, is that Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest film in the popular franchise, is so bad that the man who wrote and directed it, Rian Johnson must stand before the nation and tearfully (one assumes) admit that his particular Star Wars movie is not any good at all, and, I believe it is implied, he knew this all along. I think I have this right. (Furthermore, this petition is seeking 1,000 signatures, a goal it may well have reached by now, so, Rian Johnson, your day of reckoning is at hand.) If I were to dig one layer deeper into this, what I believe I’d discover is that hardcore Star Wars fans are fucking dipshits, a truth that I believe each layer thereafter would only confirm. They are entitled, by and large, and quick to anger; their notions of what a story should be, or even can be, are a sludgy porridge of tiresome and dull theories put forth over and over again by what’s-his-dick who wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces and online screenwriting guides. In their enraged insistence that art must reach what they imagine are their own very high standards, they are in fact anti-art.
The above being the reality of the world we all inhabit, Rian Johnson is expected to apologize for what struck me, when I saw the new film the other day, as not especially world-upending tweaks to the universe and characters and themes and “philosophy” thus far established in the previous Star Wars films. In this one, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), here a major character in the series for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi, is kind of a curmudgeon when dealing with Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has sought him out both to help her understand her own powers, and to bring him back from his new life as a hermit to help the new Rebellion, which is losing its war against the new Empire. Luke doesn’t want to, and in fact wants to burn down, literally, the world, beliefs, and history of the Jedi. Following some bad business when attempting to train Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) some years back, Luke became disillusioned, you see.  Some fans are taking serious issue with this portrayal of Luke because it’s only been thirty-four years since Return of the Jedi – nobody changes at all in that amount of time. So the thinking goes, I guess. I can tell you that if I was Luke, I’d have reached his point of grumpy reclusion in half that time, and by the time Rey showed up would have gotten to the point that I’d just throw rocks at her until she went away.
So Luke changed, as people do, but this is no good. Also I’ve gathered that many are upset that Johnson is letting the story’s themes drift away from the Chosen One narrative and into the idea that maybe to defeat evil you might do better with two, even three people. I feel like that’s always sort of been there anyway – Luke may have flourished under the construct of the Chosen One, but in the very first movie he’d have been blown all to shit without Han Solo swooping in like he did. Then, too, is the frustration that with Han Solo having died in the previous film, The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’s “the same but again” crowd-pleaser, and the sad death of Carrie Fisher rendering any plans for her Leia moot, these new heroes and villains – Rey, Rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former Storm Trooper turned heroic defector Finn (John Boyega), villainous, deeply conflicted, patricidal Jedi prodigy Kylo Ren – don’t have the oceans of complexity within their souls to carry one more movie. I actually saw someone on Twitter ask those who had the audacity to enjoy The Last Jedi to reflect on what we, the audience, knew about Luke, Han, and Leia at the end of the very first Star Wars movie, and compare that to what we know about Rey, Finn, and Poe. I would say “Go ahead and reflect on that, buddy.” There is a strange delusion among Star Wars true believers that those original, indisputably iconic characters, were somehow something other than mythopoeic rubber stamps. What carried Han, Luke, and Leia beyond that was Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher (and obviously George Lucas). If the complaint, then, is that none of these new young actors have the charm of Harrison Ford, well, why not just ask for the moon while you’re at it. Ridley, Isaac, and Boyega have proven over the course of these two movies that, in terms of talent, they’re doing more than fine – I think Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are giving the best performances of the entire series of nine movies. No one has been as committed to a Star Wars performance, ever, as those two.
None of which is to say that The Last Jedi is a great film – I don’t even think it’s a great Star Wars film. I think the first hour or so sags under the weight of bad jokes, thin, uninteresting political commentary that it nevertheless seems proud of, and some performances from good actors who seem, in this environment, very uncertain (I’m thinking primarily of Laura Dern here). But at a certain point, Rian Johnson shifts his film into another gear, and one rousing action sequence, performance choice, or image is stacked upon another, so that the ultimately I’ve found it hard to remember what specifically I found so objectionable in the first hour. There’s a lightsaber fight involving Rey and Ren that is visually one of the most stunning things I’ve seen in a while, and emotionally intense and viscerally absorbing, all at once. It has massive, powerful moments for the most important characters in the series, and they work. So what if Benicio del Toro seems to be playing Kramer from Seinfeld, or that a decision made by one character new to the series is so wrong that even though Johnson seems to want the audience embrace it, it’s clear that he, himself, can’t? So what, in other words, that The Last Jedi isn’t perfect? If that’s what you want, you haven’t seen one yet anyway, so what’re you complaining about? In ten years, if you suddenly think “Hey The Last Jedi is actually pretty good” keep that shit to yourself, you fucking crybabies. 

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