Friday, April 14, 2017

"Gifted" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Gifted" as well as DVDs "Jackie" and Jim Jarmusch's latest film "Paterson."  The Book of the Week is "Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest."]



Gifted


Frank (Chris Evans), who is raising his child prodigy niece, Mary (McKenna Grace), after his sister killed herself, finds himself in a child custody battle with his own mother (Lindsay Duncan).

My idea of movie hell is one starring a kid, worse yet, a precocious wise-cracking kid, and from the trailers I had seen, that's what the film seemed to be about.  So it was with trepidation that I found myself in the theatre waiting for this film to begin, but being a Chris Evans fan, I was at least looking forward to seeing Chris Evans out of his Captain America gear and in his wonderful handsomeness.

And, wouldn't you know? My worse fears were partially realized.  We not only had a self-described smart ass seven year old, but the uncle and neighbor were also smart asses and I could go one step further and say that the grandmother could also be accused of that since she got to throw around the odd zinger bon mots as well.  Even the one-eyed cat seemed to have attitude.

There are supposedly only seven plots in the whole world and those plots are reworked and recycled ad infinitum in books and plays.  In the movie universe, I think there are fewer, because I keep seeing the same story over and over.  In any case, we have seen this film before - two people trying to get custody of a child - remember "Kramer vs. Kramer?" - and this film borrows liberally from that one, right down to that scene where little Billy Kramer encounters Ted's one-night-stand naked in the hallway after making whoopee with Ted.  Except here it's little Mary's teacher, Bonnie Stevenson (Jenny Slate), and she's coming out of the bedroom wearing just a towel or a sheet, not sure. But it's actually kind of a funny scene because as Mary and her teacher encounter each other, Mary nonchalantly says, "Good morning, Miss Stevenson," much to Miss Stevenson's chagrin.  I told you the kid is a smart you-know-what.

The custody battle is between Mary's uncle, who has raised her since birth after her mother killed herself, and his own mother, Evelyn.  You see, Mary is a child math prodigy (haven't we done that story before too?) and the grandmother, also a gifted mathematician (Mary's mother was practically Einstein according to this film), doesn't want the child's brain wasted in a public school.

Now here's the thing.  I know I'm supposed to hate the grandmother because she wasn't a very good mother to our guy, Frank, and his sister, but I am thinking that her aim to get this kid a good education is not a bad thing. And to this film's credit, Evelyn is not painted as a villain per se.  However, Frank has some real enmity against his mother for expecting so much from her kids and not being present in their lives, and he doesn't want that to happen to our little Mary.  He wants Mary to go to public school, join the Girl Scouts and have fun as opposed to, oh, let's just say becoming extremely famous, wealthy and winning the Nobel prize.  So on the one hand, Girl Scouts, playgrounds and public school versus extreme success, celebrity and working her brain?  Gee, which should I choose?  I think being a normal kid is highly overrated!

I know, I am making fun of this a little bi,t but it is quite far-fetched and aims for you to be rooting for Frank and little Mary, who wants to stay with Frank and the nice neighbor lady, Roberta (Octavia Spencer), who is kind and wise, very wise.  Doesn't Octavia Spencer always play wise, knowing characters?  So there is little Mary who I frankly found to be obnoxious and bratty, Frank, who seems to have no ambition (he used to be a professor) - and Octavia, well she always plays Octavia.  Whereas, the grandmother was for me a more interesting character, and I have always had a soft spot for Lindsay Duncan.  For one thing, she is a British actress, which moves her up in my estimation right there, but she starred in a couple of my favorite British mini-series, "A Year in Provence" and "The Rector's Wife."  Jenny Slate usually plays odd comic characters so her portrayal of the sympathetic teacher is a nice change of pace.

Directed by Marc Webb with a screenplay by Tom Flynn, there was some disconcertingly shaky camera work going on which bothered me no end and the clichéd characters bothered me just as much: Poor but earnest uncle just wants the child prodigy to have a "normal" life," whatever that means; kindly next-door neighbor provides the requisite wise and loving female presence in her life; caring teacher provides some love interest for our handsome leading man (and just in case you didn't know it, Evans and Slate had a romantic relationship in real life too); and then there is the drama of the mean grandmother trying to break the kid and her uncle up.

I am sorry to be so curmudgeonly about this movie.  I don't really want to discourage you from seeing this film if you like these kinds of films, and right now, there are few dramas out there aimed at adults.  It's not a terrible film, just predictable, and I admit my bias against precocious child actors so take what I have said with a grain of salt.  Maybe I was just in a bad mood that day, but it also didn't help that Chris Evans was sporting a beard covering up that handsome face of his. Chris, lose the beard.  I want to see your pretty face. It would have helped.

Rosy the Reviewer says...pure schmaltz and usually I like schmaltz but unfortunately this film just left me cold.  


 
 
***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

On DVD





Jackie (2016)



After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, despite grief and trauma, First Lady Jackie Kennedy works to create a legacy for her husband.

The film begins in Hyannis Port in 1963. An unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup) is interviewing Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) one week after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.  This is based on a real life interview that Jackie gave to Theodore White for Life Magazine a week after the assassination and which led to many of the myths surrounding the Kennedy legacy. Through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards, Jackie's life in the White House is revealed, most notably the famous 1962 televised tour of the White House that she gave for CBS, the assassination itself, which is recreated, and the televised funeral.

However, this film is less a biopic and more about how Jackie, wanting JFK to be remembered as she thought he should, orchestrated and invented much of his legacy, most notably the funeral procession modeled after Lincoln's and the idea that Kennedy's time in office was like Camelot.

In a scene where Jackie is in a limousine, she asks the driver if he remembered anything about Presidents McKinley or Garfield, both of whom were assassinated while in office.  The driver says no.  Then she asks him what he remembers about Lincoln and he does know what Lincoln did.  That was Jackie's impetus to make sure that JFK was remembered and the inspiration for the funeral procession: the riderless horse, walking behind the casket in the cortege and burying Kennedy at Arlington rather than in the family plot.  Jackie wanted JFK, like Lincoln, to be remembered.

All of us Baby Boomers remember exactly where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot.  I was in my 10th grade chemistry class when the principal came onto the intercom and said our President had been shot.  That was so out of the realm of possibility for me that I thought he meant our STUDENT COUNCIL President. It was a defining moment for all of us.
 
Jackie did such a good job with the Camelot story that I actually thought Kennedy's term had always been characterized as such, even before his death.  I had no idea it was a calculation and was made up after the assassination by Jackie and perpetrated by the media to shape JFK's legacy. "Camelot" was a big Broadway hit at the time and supposedly JFK's favorite show. She fed that idea to the journalist who was interviewing her and it became true.  She herself says early in the film "You know what I think of history?  When something is written down, does that make it true?"  Well, once the journalist wrote his piece likening Kennedy's tenure as President to Camelot, it became true.

Natalie Portman was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. Did Portman deserve a Best Actress nomination?

At first, I found her an odd choice to play Jackie Kennedy, especially when her accent and voice sounded more like Marilyn Monroe at times than Jackie, which knowing JFK's womanizing history would be a cruel irony, but once I settled into the film, I got used to the voice and the accent and, yes, Portman was amazing, and deserved the nomination.

Should Madeline Fontaine, the costume designer, have won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Costume Design (she did win a BAFTA)?  She was the favorite going into the awards, but she lost to Colleen Atwood ("Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"). Jackie's clothes were iconic and that point was made at the end of the film where we see some deliverymen unloading a truck filled with manikins wearing copies of Jackie's suits.  A nearby storefront window is filled with her clothes.  Atwood did a brilliant job recreating Jackie's style.

Funny that both Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup are in this, when I just recently reviewed "20th Century Women," in which both also starred.  Again Crudup doesn't have much of a part nor does Gerwig, though her part is notable for the fact that she plays it entirely straight as Jackie's assistant.  There is nary a bit of her usual quirky mannerisms, which is a sign of her acting abilities.

Director Pablo Larrain did a good job of melding actual footage of the assassination and the aftermath with the film, and the script by Noah Oppenheim, using a journalist's interview with Jackie to move the story forward, makes us feel like we are seeing inside the woman, a woman who always seemed aloof and unknowable. There were also some nice visual touches such as Jackie walking through the newly renovated White House which had been done up all in white wearing her blood-stained shocking pink suit.  My one complaint about this film is the score.  It was very jarring and discordant and seemed more appropriate for a Hitchcock film than an historical biopic.  I actually would have liked some pop music from the time that would have been a foreshadowing of the times that were ahead.

There was a touching moment when Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) laments what might have been had JFK lived. What would he have done with civil rights, the space program, Vietnam...we will never know.

"Don't let it be forgot that for one shining moment there was...Camelot."

Jackie created the Kennedy myth of Camelot. The question is: Did Jackie create Camelot for Jack or for Jackie?

Rosy the Reviewer says...this film puts a human face on a defining moment that all of us Baby Boomers experienced.  A wonderful film.





Paterson (2016)


A character study of a young bus driver named Paterson who just coincidentally lives and drives his bus in Paterson, New Jersey.

Adam Driver plays Paterson, a bus driver living in Paterson, N.J. who also happens to be an amateur poet. The film follows Paterson over the course of a week, from Monday to the next Monday.  Each day we see him and his wife, Laura, lying in bed. Each day he hits the alarm, gets up, has his bowl of cereal and goes off to work.  As he drives his bus, Paterson is a silent presence, observing and overhearing his passengers, thinking his deep thoughts and composing his poetry as people come and go.  Sometimes he interacts with them, sometimes not. We hear what goes on in Paterson's mind as he composes his poems while driving his bus, and we see the words on the screen like subtitles as he writes them down in his ever present notebook on his lunch hour. 

His wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is a bit of an airhead who stays at home coming up with various schemes.  She aspires to be a country singer but also wants her cupcakes to be a success at the local farmers' market.  She spends time painting the walls of their house in black and white shapes (even the shower curtain), seems to wear only black and white clothes and makes up dinners that are barely edible. The two seem like an odd couple, but she is infinitely supportive and encouraging to Paterson about his poetry and whatever it is that they have, it seems to work.  

After work, Paterson walks home, and in the evening, though he seems to have a contentious relationship with his English bulldog, Marvin (played by Nellie, a girl), Paterson takes him for a walk which is actually a euphemism for hitting the local bar.  He ties Marvin up outside and has a beer at the bar and interacts with the bartender and the locals. There is the bartender who is playing chess with himself, the man and woman who keep breaking up with each other and a set of brothers named Sam and Dave, named after the famous singing duo who were also from Paterson. 

There is much talk in the bar about the famous people from Paterson.  In addition to Sam and Dave, Lou Costello was from there as were poets Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams. Later when Paterson meets a Japanese tourist, he and the tourist talk about William Carlos Williams, who, of course, is a hero of Paterson's and just happened to have written a poem called "Paterson."   

And that's what this movie is as well.  It's a kind of poem. It's a movie about real life and about hope, and there is a certain kind of poetry in the simplicity of routine and real life, where nothing much happens, which in turn means nothing bad happens.  For most of us, our lives consist of routines.  Our body gets up and goes to work and does what we need it to do, but our mind is our own. And no matter what our lives consist of, no matter the daily routine, each day we get up and it's a new day.  Who knows what the day will bring? There is always hope.

We take for granted the people we encounter in our daily lives: the bus driver, the cable guy, the bagger at the supermarket.  Who knows what deep thoughts they are thinking while they go about their day?  Who knows what they do when they go home at night?

I have to say that some of Paterson's poems sounded like some of Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts that were a staple in early "Saturday Night Live" shows.  Remember those?  But it doesn't really matter what you think of the poetry.  The whole film is a poem.

Driver is a hot commodity these days after having emerged from his TV role on "Girls."  He has been in some high profile films since like the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," "While We're Young" with Ben Stiller and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." He currently has three movies in post-production (one is the latest "Star Wars" installment) and is currently filming another.  And I find it interesting that he is an unlikely leading man with his gangly physique and unconventional looks.  He looks more like a hipster on his way to his favorite coffee house than one of our hottest actors. But he is very good in this and the film's success depends on our believing who he is.  And I did.  Paterson is unassuming and real.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this is a moody and mesmerizing character piece.  Whenever I watch a Jim Jarmusch film - and I have been a big fan ever since "Stranger than Paradise" - I have to ask myself, "Why isn't director Jim Jarmusch a household name?"  Possibly because of films like this and that is by no means a negative.  But he makes small pictures that are more character study than plot or action filled.  He's not exactly indie, but he isn't really mainstream either.  He is somewhere in between, and I guess he is an acquired taste because his films are slow moving and character driven, but they are infinitely interesting. He celebrates real life and the lives of everyday people. And why shouldn't he?  We are all an interesting bunch of everyday people.  He deserves a wider audience. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...a film about the beauty and poetry of everyday life and the film is a poetic beauty.


 
***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***


206 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?






Diary of a Country Priest (1951)


A young priest takes over his first parish where the parishioners are less than friendly.

The verdict is still out on director Robert Bresson for me.  Oh, I know he is part of the French New Wave, but I had a hard time with "Pickpocket" and "A Man Escaped," two films that were also ones I was supposed to see before I died.  However, I have to say, this one grew on me, and it was due to Claude Leydu, the actor who played the young priest.  He looked like a combination of a young Martin Sheen and Eraserhead and was such a sad sack that I couldn't help but root for him.

Leydu plays the young priest who doesn't appear to have an actual name.  He arrives in the village of Abricourt where everyone is quite hostile to him.  It doesn't help that he has few social skills, never smiles and swans around town wearing a large cape.  He also has a stomach ailment and eats nothing but bread and wine.  He is admonished by an old priest who comes to check up on him, and basically the old priest tells him to get some balls, take charge of the religious community and stop being so sensitive.  Like anything else, a priest's job is basically marketing, marketing himself and marketing God and our young priest just isn't very good at it.  He needs to schmooze.  

But it doesn't help that he is the butt of pranks by the local children headed by Seraphita, a young girl who would be a good candidate to play "The Bad Seed." As he visits the locals, he meets the Countess, who is grieving for her dead young son and the Count, who is having an affair with the governess.  What is it with men and the nannies?  Ben Affleck, Jude Law, Robin Williams...all fell victim to the charms of their nannies and ruined their marriages in the meantime.  Moral of the story ladies:  Do not hire hot nannies!

Based on the book of the same name by Georges Bernanos, the plot is carried forward via the young priest's diary entries as he records his experiences, and everything is brought to a head when the young priest's stomach ailment is diagnosed.

Bresson's films start off really well with interesting stories and characters but then he takes so long to get to the point that I lose interest about halfway through.  Bresson's films are marked by a less is more philosophy.  He didn't even really want his actors to act.  They were merely props to forward the story and often symbolized how life pushes us all around against our will.  Very existential but I have found his filmmaking style to be quite cold.  Less might be more, and I keep wanting more, but in this case, the character of the young priest is so enigmatic that I was drawn in.

Why it's a Must See: "Cinema is the concrete and communal accomplishment of the Mystery of Incarntion.  Bresson's film demonstrates that everything can become possible: joking with death, writing on the screen, playing with desire, watching the insights of the psyche, generating fascination for life in rural France in the mid-twentieth century, and confronting religious questions."

Rosy the Reviewer says...a grim story of a crisis of faith, defeat and failure.  I never said this was going to be a fun one, but it's a good one.
(in French with English subtitles, b & w)

 
 
***Book of the Week***




Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown by Gerri Hirshey

 
 




A detailed biography of Helen Gurley Brown, who was Editor-in-Chief of "Cosmopolitan" magazine for 32 years and who turned it from a flagging publication written by men to a women's magazine that was an integral part of the sexual revolution and which today reaches over 68 million readers.

Much like the movie "20th Century Women," which told the story of three different women, all of whom grew up in the 20th century but all of whom had very different experiences (I reviewed it last Friday), here is another 20th Century woman who, despite becoming a forerunner in the sexual revolution of the 1960's and 70's still had one foot in the 50's. Helen Gurley Brown embraced the sexual revolution but made feminists wince with her advice on how to find a husband and keep him happy.


Today few remember Brown, but in the 60's, she shocked the world with her book, "Sex and the Single Girl," where she unashamedly declared it was OK for single women to have sex.  She took a failing "Cosmopolitan" magazine and brought it out of the doldrums to a huge circulation by aiming it at the single woman.  But just as "Cosmo" was hitting its stride, so was feminism, and her brand of flirtation and guile when it came to finding a man and keeping him happy did not sit well with the feminists, who considered her a traitor and literally invaded her office to take her to task. 

Growing up poor in rural Arkansas, HGB, as she was known, never thought she was pretty enough.  Her mother didn't help.  She also told Helen to use what she had, implying what she had wasn't enough.  So Helen applied herself, worked hard in many office jobs (which provided the fodder for her "Sex and the Single Girl" book), reinvented herself and looked for a rich man.  She enjoyed sex (and reported that she could have an orgasm just from kissing - if only!), didn't discriminate against married men and eventually married in her 30's to David Brown, a writer and film producer.  They were married for over 40 years.  She also was not against plastic surgery (she had plenty of it), barely ate so as to maintain her wraith thin physique and believed in psychotherapy.  No matter what her financial situation was, she always made sure she had enough to see a shrink.  But she was well-liked.  She was a good storyteller, embellished her life stories with each retelling and was so good at it that she was a regular on late night talk shows in the 60's and 70's.

"Helen's public retellings were generally breezy and comedic, with the eager Miss Gurley depicted as somewhere between the fifties TV ditz My Little Margie and Irma La Douce.  Throughout her writing career, Helen's published confessions and Single Girl vignettes were wrought with the illusory skills of a fan dancer - Sally Rand caliber - giving us versions of herself and her lovers.  Their pseudonyms and their peccadilloes flicker and morph with each telling."

So Hirshey attempts to set the record straight on HGB, interviewing friends of Helen's who are still alive and doing extensive research and what she has come up with is a detailed and enjoyable read about a woman who, despite views and actions that today many women would probably find to be politically incorrect, was an iconic 20th century woman: one of the first women to head a magazine, she campaigned for women's reproductive rights (we have forgotten that single women were not even allowed to get the pill in many states until the 1970's); and was an early feminist in her own way as she encouraged women to have jobs and be the best they could be and that included lots of sex and lots of plastic surgery.

When she died in 2012, her obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times.  It not only noted that though she died at the age of ninety, "parts of her were considerably younger."

Endnote:  Funny that a recent Cosmo article should be trending on the eve of my publishing this book review.  Helen was anorectic but I don't think she would have approved of this!

Rosy the Reviewer says...an enjoyable biography about an important and enjoyable 20th century woman.



Thanks for reading!
 
See you next Friday 

 
for my review of



"Colossal"


and


The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)


 and the latest on



"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project." 




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