‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

ACTING LESSONS (Segue of the Day: 5/6/15)

I’m off this week, which means I’m way busier than usual. Watching movies, listening to music, reading books. That’s what I call busy!

Oh yeah, and cleaning house. After enough of that, I need a break.

So I’ve been staying real busy.

Day before yesterday brought back-to-back, first time viewings of The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, Niels Mueller directing, Sean Penn’s show all the way, 95 minutes that felt much longer), followed by Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt directing, Sally Field’s show all the way, 110 minutes that made time stand absolutely still).

RICHARDNIXON4

Penn nailed his performance. There was never a moment when I wasn’t saying to myself, “boy that guy can really act.” Of course, he didn’t get inside the killer with sociopathic tendencies he was playing (a gentleman named Sam Bicke, based on one Sam Byck, who actually did try to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House), because, well, Sam, however his last name is spelled, was a killer with sociopathic tendencies.

It’s not really a place the Method can take you, try as actors, writers, et al, will.

Or, to put it another way, it’s not a place the Method can take you unless you’re not planning to come back (a place only Vivien Leigh in  A Streetcar Named Desire has ever been willing to go in front of a movie camera when playing anyone dangerous…her exact quote was “it tipped me over into madness,” which in real world terms meant she was hauled off her next movie set in a strait-jacket).

One thing I know about Sean Penn. He’s always planning to come back.

I bring this up because I wonder how much time our “culture” has actually spent trying to get inside the heads of the violently deranged.

More time, I’ll wager, than we’ve spent celebrating any textile mill workers, even those occasional heroes in the fight for basic labor rights.

I’ll grant you there are a lot of pitfalls to doing anything really good–as opposed to “worthy”–with a story like Norma Rae. Martin Ritt had worked magic with everything from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to Hombre, to Sounder, so, with a fine cast assembled, he probably could have been trusted to at least keep the thing on track.

But I had my reasons for staying away from it all these years.

The union-is-coming-to-save-us narrative (which I rightly suspected was at the heart of the thing) was hardly uncomplicated for somebody like me, who lost a mother to brown lung acquired during a twenty-year stint in an unprotected textile mill not unlike the one in Norma Rae and nonetheless had about the same use for unions as my father, who once spent an off-season from the carny circuit working in an auto plant where the union was firmly enough established to threaten square pegs (my dad’s natural born state) with the very same tactics used by employers in places where the square pegs were union organizers like the one played by Ron Leibman in Norma Rae.

I figured it was just going to be a pure shot of Hollywood-style two-hanky adrenalin then, and I’d need to have my bullet-proof heart-valve safely installed whenever I did get around to watching it.

My real qualm, though, was being none too sure about what Sally Field could do with a southerner (the record of southerners playing southerners in Hollywood is deeply mixed…that of non-southerners not named Vivien Leigh playing southerners is considerably worse). Mind you, everybody in the south likes Sally Field as much as everybody everywhere likes her and, back in the days when Norma Rae was being cast, shot and released, she was sort of an adopted daughter. Anyone in this part of the world would have been very surprised indeed to learn how hard she (and Martin Ritt, to his everlasting credit) had to fight for the right for her to carry even a small budget movie because nobody in Hollywood considered her a big enough star.

Apparently those people had never heard of Smokey and the Bandit!

I’m sure none of them had ever heard of Heroes, her first chance at a serious part on the big-screen, which might well have changed how the world felt about her and both of her co-stars (Henry Winkler and Harrison Ford) if the behind-the-camera talent had been on the order of Martin Ritt and his crew.

So it wasn’t like I had anything but fond feelings for Sally Field, before or after they handed her an Oscar. Loved her in Smokey and the Bandit. Loved her more in Heroes.

I had no doubt she had probably been just fine in Norma Rae, even if they did give her an Oscar for it.

And “just fine” wasn’t going to be good enough for a movie that was going to kick me in the heart valves if it was anything but completely incompetent, which, given that Martin Ritt directed it, I knew it wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t going to be good enough if she was only as good as she was playing a southerner (at least I think that’s what she was playing) in Forrest Gump, which I’ve never quite seen, but have seen enough of to know I don’t exactly need to see the rest.

It wasn’t going to be good enough even if she was only as good as she was playing Mary Todd Lincoln, where she was very good indeed.

If somebody wants to kick me in the heart, take me inside the world my mother married my father to escape, then no “performance” was ever going be quite good enough to earn the right. And knowing that was the main reason I couldn’t ever quite get around to either watching Norma Rae or entirely putting aside the idea that I needed to watch it.

So one day this week I was fingering my stack of unwatched movies and I suddenly decided it would make a perfect followup to the pluperfect professionalism of Sean-Penn’s-show-all-the-way in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

So there.

Before I could talk myself out of it, I put my bullet-proof-heart-valve-vest straight on. Set my tissue box to hand (okay, I have what we call “sinuses” which means not just any old sinuses but sinuses that “act up,” so I generally have my tissue box to hand anyway but I don’t always double-check before popping in a DVD if you know what I mean).

I fully prepared myself, therefore, to accept the thing for what it was bound to be.

And it turned out to be exactly what it was bound to be and exactly what I was prepared for it to be.

All of it.

Except for Sally Field playing a southerner.

So-Cal-acting-class-Flying Nun-Gidget-Enquirer-bait (well, when she was dating Burt anyway) Sally Field.

Making time stand still.

Turning this… OPELIKAIMAGE1

(Alabama’s Opelika Cotton Mill, where Norma Rae was filmed in 1978, circa 1908: Library of Congress. Mill abandoned, 2004.)

And this….

CANNONMILLS1

(Above and below: Cannon Mill in Concord, NC, about a generation before my mother started working in the one in Kannapolis: Library of Congress: Cannon Mill sold to Fieldcrest, 1984; sold to Pillowtex, 1997; bankrupt, 2003. Cannon brand now licensed and headquartered in Hong Kong.)

and this…

CANNONMILLS2

into this..

NORMARAE1

or this…

NORMARAE2

or pretty much any other frame in a movie that would just be a movie (and no doubt quite a good movie) except for the improbable thing she made of it.

Life as somebody in a particular time and place might have lived it.

Not necessarily as my mother lived it (though I wish I’d given myself a chance to ask her). Probably not quite as Crystal Lee Sutton (nee Pulley), the inspiration for Norma Rae, lived it. Certainly not “movie life” as we are accustomed  to having it delivered to us, from Citizen Kane on down, in a neat, small package we can carry around in our pockets.

But life just the same. Life with enough force to live outside of the movie celebrating it or, as it turned out, the Overlords bent on crushing it.

Good thing. Because, in the real world, crush it they did.

If Field’s Norma Rae Webster had been who and what the logic of even the most supreme craft dictated she should be, the movie and the performance would be well-made curios now. The unionization the film celebrated was a heartbeat away from having its own heart ripped out. Adjusted for inflation, the nation’s handful of remaining textile workers (since amalgamated into a larger union) now make about what Crystal Lee Sutton was making the day she decided not to take it any more. Whether they make it in somewhat better working conditions is probably in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say I have my doubts.

Because wherever they are weaving and folding the bulk of the towels these days, I’m guessing you can still get a brown lung in there.

But, once upon a time, Sally Field went beyond craft. So Norma Rae ended up being something more than a finely wrought tract or “story” or even “narrative,” something that might actually survive the well-planned economic blight and not-entirely-unplanned cultural collapse that were nesting inside the very events the film depicted to a tee.

A hundred years from now (go ahead and laugh if you think it will be longer) when whoever is picking over our bones decides they really want to know “Just what the Hell was an ‘American’ anyway?” they could do a whole lot worse than to start with what So-Cal Sally Field did here when she stripped herself away and made time stand still.