STORM BREWING…AND NOT ONLY IN THIS HEART OF MINE (Segue of the Day: 10/19/17)

I was just reminded (by one of those random accidents that are the Internet’s true reason for being) that Michelle Williams has been signed to play Janis Joplin.

It might not happen. The idea of a Janis biopic has been around forever and this particular one has been bobbing up here and there for nearly a decade (this is the second time Williams’ has her name attached, but this time she seems to have actually been cast after a grueling audition). But it’s farther along than any previous attempt.

If it does come to pass, all I can say is Williams is the one actress most likely to connect with Joplin’s unique ethos (and certainly the only actress who could pull off the Marilyn Monroe/Janis Joplin Daily Double).

And it will mean this…

may very well meet this…

Bear in mind that’s not even in extremis….for either of them.

The mind reels.

Much as I want Michelle Williams to be in every movie that matters, I’m not even sure I want this to happen. The concept is frightening and I’m already certain if it ends up a scintilla less terrifying in reality than it already is in my imagination, I won’t know whether to be gut-punched or relieved.

Either way, I can imagine myself running out of the theater yelling “I can’t bear it” with an English accent.

But one thing’s sure. If it does come to pass, I’ll be there.

I might even watch the Oscars that year.

O YE OF LITTLE FAITH (At the Multiplex: January, 2017)

Hacksaw Ridge (D. Mel Gibson)

Mel Gibson is, rather famously, a devotee of a brand of right-wing Catholicism (that no one believes has subsumed mainstream Catholicism), which is a rough equivalent of the Protestant Fundamentalism which is now supposed, by all the best people, to have subsumed mainstream Protestantism. This may have been why he was drawn to the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a WWII conscientious objector, became one of that war’s great heroes in a manner very different than Alvin York, the conscientious objector who had been a great hero of WWI.

Whatever Gibson’s reasons, I’m not sure he was the right person to tell this story.

Or, to put it more directly, I’m not sure that the Mel Gibson who has been striving mightily these last few years to get back in Hollywood’s good graces, was the right person to tell this story.

Mind you, what is here is good. It punches all the buttons a non-Christian audience would expect to have punched and a few that folks who don’t mind a little Christianity might expect as well. The acting is good (especially by Andrew Garland as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his hard-ass sergeant). Gibson’s direction is mostly crisp and unfussy, only straying when he reaches here and there for inspiration (artistic, not religious, though if you can’t find one, it’s unlikely you’ll find the other). And the principal action scenes, which follow Doss as a medic who, without benefit of a weapon (which he refuses to carry), delivers body after wounded body from a nightmarish no man’s land which has opened up between Japanese soldiers and American G.I.s during the brutal fight for Okinawa, are tense and moving. The movie even ends with snippets from a documentary about the now-deceased Doss, in which he and some of the seventy-five men he saved confirm bits of the improbable story we’ve just seen and it makes for a lovely, understated coda.

But I found the movie more than a little disappointing for what it did not do, which was depict Doss as a man of a specific faith that must, by its very existence in a believer’s life, transcend any secular notion of redemption or honor.

That is, it does not really seek to understand the one really important thing one would expect from a director who has previously worn his religiosity so explicitly–one might say garrulously–on his sleeve.

Namely, why religion?

And why this particular religion?

That Doss is a man of faith is pounded home, you might say, religiously. But the source of his faith is shown to be not divine inspiration but, via a flashback that comes near the end of the film, a mere extension of an “event” of the sort which is common enough to have led men in a host of different directions (one such man, Bill Clinton, even went into politics). In other words, Doss’s particular conviction is shown as his own choice and a choice of convenience at that–an option among therapies that one can forgive a Virginia hillbilly for not recognizing as a crutch in a time and place where shrinks were in short supply.

As any believer knows, though, your choice is only half the equation. The part where God reaches out His hand (which must be at least as familiar to Seventh Day Adventists and Opus Dei Catholics, as it is to, say, Baptists like myself) to offer the sinner a redemption he could not otherwise hope to find, is curiously missing.

Back when Hollywood was principally in the business of telling stories, they knew better. Watch Sergeant York, Ben Hur, The Robe, The Nun’s Story (the latter three made by Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Ben Hur by a man whose family did not) and, whatever one thinks of them, they all acknowledge the primacy of the hero’s (or heroine’s) conversion. Having had a dust-up with your old man in your teenage years, however horrific the details, does not explain an unarmed man’s willingness to defy an order to retreat from one of the most hellish battlefields man has ever created on God’s earth, so that he can rescue the wounded.

For that, you probably need to have seen the light.

Obviously, the light itself can led different men down different paths. Desmond Doss won his Medal of Honor for saving men, Alvin York won his for killing them. My father, who hailed from the same part of the woods as Doss’s western Virginia and York’s east Tennessee, was sent to a firefighting unit (a more normal assignment for C.O.’s, even those who, like my dad, had their status rejected by the draft board) and shortened his time after VJ day by volunteering for psychiatric experiments. Then again, he didn’t really see the light until the late sixties when he rejoined the faith and wound up becoming a missionary.

So it goes. But one thing all three men could have told you is that the story of a Christian without reference to his specifically Christian conversion is a story with a hole in its center. Without that, Hacksaw Ridge is just a well-made war movie and amounts to little more than Mel Gibson’s self-conscious (and, to all appearances, successful) attempt to get back in the good graces of a Hollywood which seems now willing to forgive his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, et al, just so long as he doesn’t pretend those crazy Christians are motivated by their Christianity (as opposed to seeking “comfort” within it)–that any acts of heroism they may have committed are coincidental to their faith, as opposed to a feature.

Hacksaw Ridge is hardly without value–if Casey Affleck really is the competition for Best Actor, and really is going to be bypassed for his Clintonesque sins, my feelings would not be hurt if Garfield won it instead.

It’s just not what it might have been if Mel Gibson had found forgiveness for his own real sins and put his heart back in his chest where any true believer knows it belongs.

YEARNING TO BREATHE FREE (At the Multiplex: December, 2016)

New category…where I write about new movies I actually see in the theater.

Hell or High Water
(D. David Mackenzie, 2016)

and…

Manchester By the Sea
(D. Kenneth Lonergan, 2016)

Jeff Bridges and Michelle Williams are pretty much the only two working actors I’ll pay full price to see act in a theater anymore. (I’ll pay to see Jennifer Aniston, but that’s mostly to see what she’s doing with her persona, of which being even a very good actress is not the most essential part). Especially since Williams tends to make the kind of movies that rarely play around here, I don’t expect to get many chances to see them both in the same month. Some day they should do a movie together. Maybe he could play her dad. I’d pay to see that.

Bridges saves Hell or High Water even though he’s coasting. He hasn’t reached the state of post-Lonesome Dove Robert Duval yet, where he just plays the same guy over and over and looks sleepier and cootier every time out, but there’s a lot of his Rooster Cogburn (True Grit) in his Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton, here. And, though I’ve only seen clips of it, I suspect a lot of his Bad Blake (Crazy Heart) as well. In theory, the movie should have a lot of other things going for it. The plot is a nice twist on the Robin Hood theme, the writing and directing are efficient, if hardly inspired, and the rest of the cast is good enough to get by, with Gil Birmingham a standout as Bridges’s Half-Indian/Half-Mexican partner.

There’s fun to be had. It didn’t bore me, a quality which, at today’s prices, I don’t take for granted.

It didn’t grab me either, hard as it kept trying. The best chance it had at pulling me in was with a soundtrack that tried a little too hard to match the desolation of its West Texas setting. The comparisons to The Last Picture Show, noted by a number of critics as a nice metaphor for our current bleak state of the national heart, are not entirely off base.

The problem is, it stays metaphorical. The connection never hurts and that’s where I know the right soundtrack could have helped because the one selection that strikes all the way home–the one that plays out with Texas losers Chris Pine and Ben Foster (the Howard brothers…nice joke for the Jesse James crowd) running down the dusty roads listening to a radio that, for once, plays something that sounds like it came from that dust–is so perfect it throws the rest of the movie off stride.

I don’t usually concede that anything Elvis did so well was done better elsewhere and I don’t concede it here. But it does fit the setting better. There’s a quality in Waylon’s voice–and Waylon’s alone–that nails the wasteland spirit of the new Texas dirt the way Al Green’s voice once nailed Black America’s Crack Epidemic, and Patty Loveless’s voice nailed Hillbilly America’s Meth-driven White Death, years before they actually happened.

Anybody who knew enough to put one Waylon song in this should have known enough to give him the whole show.

If they couldn’t do that, they should have hired Michelle Williams and given her one big scene. That’s just about what she gets in Manchester By the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s drearily well-made chamber piece set on the other side of the country in contemporary New England.

It’s not the first time she’s blown the nihilism clean out of a movie. She did it in a better movie called Me Without You as far back as 2001, and, more recently, in 2008’s Incendiary, which was not as good.

She does it again here and could have probably done it for Hell and High Water if somebody had just asked.

I imagine she has done it in a few other movies I haven’t seen–much as I admire her for taking this task on, and much as I believe it’s necessary for somebody to take it on, I really have to be in the mood for this stuff. When she picks up her Oscar next spring it will be for blowing nihilism out of whatever movie she’s been in for fifteen years running and because it’s her turn. God bless her for that. The best thing about that, if it happens, is that it will just be possible the thing is being done in time to save her sanity. I can’t believe she can take much more of this.

She’s so good in that one big scene that she actually allows Casey Affleck’s previously bewildered performance to finally come together–to merge the ruined man he’s become in the movie’s present with the vibrant man we’ve seen in the movie’s flashbacks.

And when he wins his Oscar this spring (assuming his alleged tendency to abuse women doesn’t catch up with him first) he should really thank Michelle Williams.

Because, without changing a single thing more, his performance stays together the rest of the way. By the end, I almost liked a couple of the people I was supposed to like. I even almost liked him. The only thing lacking by then was nerve.

What it needed, as the last scene played and gave way, yet again, to the dreary score, was one perfect kick in the modern gut. One song that nailed everything in place and turned the whole thing from a chamber piece into something worthy of Michelle Williams showing up, yet again, to save the day.

What it needed was something to reestablish the filmmaker’s true fake vision, to show that he didn’t really believe everything would be alright in the godforsaken land he had just gone to such mighty lengths to portray in so much excruciating detail.

Of course, the song that would have nailed it all in place came straight into my head. They really should call me in to help out with this stuff.

Since they don’t, sometimes I just have to turn the sound off in the movie theater behind my bloodshot eyes and let the right song play in there and walk out with a grim smile on my face.

I was never more right than I was this time. By the time I hit the parking lot, I had convinced myself I had almost been in the presence of greatness.