See You Down The Road

The movies of the 1930s mostly offered an escape from the reality of the Depression, with musicals or comedies or gangster pics. The movie goer would plunk down their couple of dimes or a quarter and escape the plight of the country for a double-feature with a newsreel and maybe a cartoon or a short. It wasn’t until the end of that decade and the beginning of the 1940s that movies started addressing the devastation of the Depression in films like Tobacco Road, Sullivan’s Travels, and Meet John Doe. As decades separated the pain of that experience from the current world, films felt free to explore that time. Movies like Bound for Glory, Seabiscuit, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and many more could deal with the Depression from the safe distance of a half-century or more.

One of the first to deal with that time in a powerful way was 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel from the previous year. Henry Fonda gave a career-defining performance as everyman Tom Joad, leaving the Dust Bowl-devastated Oklahoma with his family to become itinerant farm workers in California, traveling to follow the harvest times. Directed by John Ford, the cinematography by the great Gregg Toland evoked the realistic Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange.

In 2008, the stock market again tanked as the housing bubble burst, and while the Great Recession wasn’t quite as stark as the Great Depression, the devastation people faced was just a real, and as long-term. In 2017, Jessica Bruder detailed how older Americans who’d lost their homes adopted a transient lifestyle similar to what happened in the 1930s. “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century” detailed how the golden years for many seniors had turned into “the wander years,” as the New York Times Book Review put it. Now the story has been brought to the screen in a truly remarkable way.

The movie begins in Empire, Nevada, a company town that existed to support the US Gypsum plant located there. The company’s main product is dry board for construction, and in 2011, in the wake of the end of the housing boom, the company closed the plant. Within 6 months, Empire became a modern ghost town, with its zip code retired by the U.S. Postal Service. We meet Fern (Frances McDormand) at her storage locker as she loads some belongings into her 2001 Ford Econoline van and heads out on the road. Empire had been her world, the place where she’d buried her husband, and now it was gone.

What follows in Chloe Zhao’s starkly beautiful film is a mixture of cinema verité and narrative story, following Fern as she travels between jobs and learns how to survive on the road. The jobs become a part of the story, be it filling orders at Amazon during the Christmas season, cooking at a restaurant in Wall Drugstore, or maintaining an RV park. McDormand actually did the jobs and spent time living in the van. There are also gatherings of nomads such as one in Arizona that provide a support system.

Zhao and McDormand were accepted into the nomad community, with several playing themselves. There’s input from Bob Wells, who calls himself a vandweller and is essentially an expert on the nomad life – you can watch videos he’s done explaining the lifestyle on YouTube – but you also get to know people like Linda and Swankie. Except for McDormand and one or two others, everyone who appears on screen goes by their real names. (Some of the nomads didn’t recognize McDormand and treated Fern as a real person.)

The one other professional actor in the film is David Strathairn, playing the role of – no surprise – David, who becomes close to Fern over the course of the year. David has been on the road for a while, but while he and Fern are working at Wall Drug, his son tracks him down. The son and his wife are about to have a child and would like David to be part of their life. Fitting with the film, David’s son is played by Strathairn’s son, Tay.

A major character in the film is the country itself, and Zhao captures its beauty, be it the high desert of Nevada, the Badlands of South Dakota, or the California coast. Nomadland has both the elegiac tone of loss, blended with a fierce determination to carry on regardless of what happens. In a way it evokes the spirit of the westerns, with vans substituting for Conestoga wagons pulled by horses.

Nomadland has, as of this writing, collected over 200 awards from critics and film societies, including Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director. For the upcoming Oscars, it has already made some history. McDormand, who also produced the film, is nominated for Best Actress along with the film’s Best Picture nod – the first actress to receive those two nominations for a picture. It also received four other nominations, for Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing, and Cinematography. While the cinematography was done by Joshua James Richards, the other three nominations are for Zhao (along with a Best Picture nomination for producing). She’s the third person, and the first woman, to receive nominations in all those categories. The other two people? Joel and Ethan Coen, McDormand’s husband and brother-in-law, respectively. One other bit of trivia – this is the first year that two women are nominated in the Best Director category, with Zhao being joined by Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.

Even without the award nominations, the film is a remarkable achievement. It lets the audience step inside the nomad world, to become involved with the people, to laugh with them and to cry with them. When the gatherings of nomads break up, they don’t say goodbye but rather “See you down the road.” After seeing the film, you may find yourself watching for them – down the road.

A Rainey Day

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was born in Columbus, GA, in 1886, and was a contemporary and mentor of Bessie Smith. While Smith was known as the Empress of the Blues, Rainey was known as its mother who bridged the gap between early vaudeville and the true expression of southern blues.  With the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, Midwest, and West, a market was created for Blues music. Paramount Records, founded by the Wisconsin Chair Company in 1917, signed some of the most important blues artists of the day and between 1922 and 1932, they released about a quarter of all the “race records” (as they were called at the time). It was a lucrative business, though Paramount couldn’t survive the depression and closed in ’32. Ma Rainey continued performing until her death in 1939 at age 53. As their nicknames show, Bessie Smith could be viewed as the champaign and strawberries of the Blues, while Ma Rainey was the meat, potatoes, and beer – a person who lived the blues with ferocity and unbowed pride. While there are thousands of pictures of Smith, only 6 pictures of Ma Rainey remain.

Playwright August Wilson broadened the knowledge of Ma Rainey beyond historians of the blues with his first Broadway play in 1984, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” It was the first of what became known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays each set in a different decade of the 20th century exploring the Black experience. (“Ma Rainey” was the only play of the cycle not to be set in Pittsburgh.) The cycle contained several other excellent plays, including “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “The Piano Lesson.” Set in 1927, “Ma Rainey” spoke to the early days of the Great Migration as rural Blacks left behind the world of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan to seek a better life, only to discover the rest of the country had its own version of segregation. Now the play has followed “Fences” to movie screens so more people can enjoy the brilliance of Wilson’s writing.

The story begins with brief views of Ma Rainey performing earlier in her career, first in a tent in the south and then in a full theater, before switching to a hot summer at a recording studio in Chicago. Her manager, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), has brought Ma (Viola Davis) and her band there to do a record, but there’s a definite feeling that she’s now on the downward slope to the end of her career. Her band – trombonist Cutler (Coleman Domingo), pianist Toledo (Glynn Truman), and drummer Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – are comfortable supporting Ma, but trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has his sights set on his own stardom, propelled by an incident from his childhood that left him scarred. Ma arrives late to the session, accompanied by her young girlfriend Dusie Mae (Taylour Paige) and her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown). The session seems to have many more stops than starts, and it’s questionable if they’ll succeed in making a record.

Director George C. Wolfe comes from the world of Broadway, having first worked with legendary producer Joseph Papp before striking out on his own. Wolfe has shepherded several hits to Broadway, most notably directing both parts of “Angels in America” for which he won Tony awards in 1993 and 1994. While Wolfe knows movie versions of plays require more motion for the picture, he balances the film to retain the theatrical feel, particularly in a couple of standout scenes to retain the musical flow of Wilson’s prose.

The film is anchored by Davis’ performance as Rainey that hits you with the heft of a sledgehammer. Ma knows the record label is exploiting her, and she has no compunction about exploiting them back as far as she can push it. You can see the wear and tear of her dissolute life, but in Davis’ embodiment they become badges of honor. In contrast, Boseman flashes across the screen like a lightning bolt, supremely confident in his musical gift. The cancer that would soon take his life shows in Boseman’s gaunt body, yet he summons a final bravura performance that lights up the screen like a fireworks display.

The story builds to its final, devastating climax, then Wolfe includes a brief coda that gives you a final kick on your way out the door. The film is co-produced by Denzel Washington, who had mounted the Tony-winning revival of “Fences” on Broadway in 2010 and then did the film version 6 years later. Davis won a Tony for the play, then took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film. For this year’s Oscars, both Davis and Boseman are nominated. I wouldn’t bet against either or both of them being honored that night.    

The Budding of the Rose

It’s well-known that Hollywood is gloriously incestuous, and loves stories about itself, from 1932’s What Price Hollywood? to La La Land and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Thus it’s no surprise that the movie that’s cleaned up on Oscar nominations this year is Mank, the Netflix film about the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. It does help, though, that Mank is an excellent piece of filmmaking.

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a fascinating and flawed character. Born in 1897, he was a Columbia graduate who spent time as a foreign correspondent in Berlin just after WWI, then worked at the New York Times as assistant theater editor (to George F. Kaufmann) before joining the New Yorker as their first theater critic. A member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, he socialized (and occasionally collaborated with) the brightest literary stars of the 1920s – Kaufmann, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly – and co-wrote a number of plays as well as contributing to the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and other publications. In 1927 he was lured west to become head of Paramount Pictures story department where he worked on many screenplays without credit, including the Marx Brothers comedies Horse Feathers and Monkey Business. In 1933, he moved to MGM where he co-wrote the adaptation of the Kaufmann/Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight. He often contributed to screenplays without credit, including The Wizard of Oz. It was Mankiewicz who wrote much of the opening set in Kansas, and he was the one who suggested filming those scenes in black and white. Mankiewicz recognized the dangers of Naziism early and took a leave from MGM to write a screenplay on Hitler titled “The Mad Dog of Europe.” Even though no studio would produce it, by 1935 Propaganda Minister Goebbels let MGM know that none of their movies could be shown in Germany if Mankiewicz’s name was on it. Mankiewicz sponsored many refugees who fled Nazi Germany before and during WWII.

While you get a taste in Mank of his literary days, the screenplay mainly concentrates on two periods. One is the period in 1939-40 when, after a car accident that broke his leg, Mank (Gary Oldman) began working on Citizen Kane. Producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who’d worked with Orson Welles since they founded the Mercury Theater together, brings Mank to a desert inn near Victorville to write, recuperate from his accident, and dry out – Mank indulged regularly and often in alcohol, which one writer of that era called “the writer’s crutch.” RKO had originally hired Mank to work uncredited with Welles so they could portray Welles as a wunderkind – actor, director, and writer. There to help Mank work are Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossman), who serves as maid and cook, and Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a secretary whose husband is fighting in the Royal Navy.

While Welles always said the story of Citizen Kane was not based on William Randolph Hearst, the involvement of Mankiewicz made that impossible to believe. The story jumps back and forth from Mank writing the script and his MGM days. Mank had spent plenty of time at San Simeon with Hearst (Charles Dance) and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). During that time a California gubernatorial had writer and muckraker Upton Sinclair challenged the GOP candidate backed by Mayer and Hearst. The race had a particular note of irony, since years earlier Sinclair had written a novel about a progressive newspaperman fighting against conservative factions to help regular people. Hearst had been the basis for Sinclair’s character. Mank also befriends Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s paramour, star of MGM pictures, and a lover of liquor like Mank.

David Fincher has become one of the pre-eminent film directors of this day, with credits like Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and Gone Girl. Yet it took him almost a quarter-century to get Mank made. The script was actually written by his father, Jack, a talented writer who had articles published by Smithsonian magazine, Saturday Review, and Reader’s Digest. Jack had written the script in the 1990s, but David couldn’t get backing because he intended to film it in black and white in homage to Citizen Kane. Jack passed away in 2003. In the 2010s, Fincher helped Netflix establish itself with its first major streaming hit, “House of Cards,” and later worked on “Mindhunter.” He entered into a production agreement with the service that gave him the chance to finally make Mank the way he’d envisioned it. Not only was it shot in black and white, but Fincher used microphones from the 1930s to give the picture a sound like classic films, and soundtrack composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross abandoned their usual electronic style to create a classic screen score. Fincher even added the small marks on the print that were used to tell projectionists when to be ready to switch to the next reel.

Gary Oldman had envisioned using extensive prosthetics to make him look like Mankiewicz, like he did for Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but Fincher wanted a more natural look. Still, Oldman as usual delivers a consummate performance, imbuing Mank with a Shakespearean feel even as it blends comedy and drama. Dance provides a suitable foil as the austere and powerful Hearst, including a devastating climatic scene with Oldman. A delight, though, is the fine performance by Amanda Seyfried as Marion. While she is much younger than Davies in the period of the film – Mankiewicz and Davies were actually the same age – Seyfried’s intelligent, heart-felt embodiment of the character goes a long way to restore Davies, who was in fact nothing like Susan in Kane. (A few years before Kane was released, Davies had retired from films after a twenty year career, including several years when she was the most popular star at MGM. In interviews later in life, Orson Welles stated he felt bad about the portrayal of Susan in light of it being confused with Davies.)

For the upcoming Oscars, Mank has been nominated for the most with 10, including nods for Best Picture as well as for Fincher, Oldman, and Seyfried. That actually puts it one ahead of Citizen Kane’s tally of 9. Hopefully, though, it won’t suffer the same fate as Kane which only won in one category – Best Screenplay. Strangely enough, that was one category in which Mank wasn’t nominated.

One last bit of trivia: In the movie you hear the radio broadcast of the 1940 Oscars where the win for Mankiewicz and Welles is announced. The voice actor for the scene is the host for Turner Classic Movies for the past 20 years, and the grandson of Herman, Ben Mankiewicz.

Take Care

I’ve enjoyed darkly comedic or pitch-black comedy movies since when I was a kid and saw The Wrong Box and The Loved One. Recently there’s been a renaissance in the genre, including last year’s best picture, Parasite. But then we’ve also had Jo Jo Rabbit, Get Out, Knives Out, Ready or Not, The Favourite, The Death of Stalin, and A Simple Favor, among others. Add to that the recent release on Netflix, I Care A Lot.

As with the best in the genre, it takes what could be a serious drama or a straight thriller and pushes it to the edge of farce. In the case of I Care A Lot, it’s people preying of the elderly by having them declared incompetent, becoming their legal guardian with control of their finances, then looting their lives for profit. (It doesn’t even need to be an elderly person, as in the case of Britney Spears who lost control of her life over a decade ago.) While it does happen at times that a court-appointed caretaker is needed to protect an elder, the potential for abuse in the system is broad and easy to exploit.

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) has a small company providing legal guardianship services. With the help of doctors who can go to court to request guardianship for patients, Marla has built up a base of dozens of clients she “cares” for, which means she can put them in a retirement home, sell their homes, liquidate their assets, and pay herself handsomely. With kickbacks to the doctors and the nursing home administrators, she has complete control over the person, including controlling communication with the outside world and keeping them drugged so they can’t complain. Worse, all of this can be done without any comment from the targeted person or her biological family, who can be denied access to their loved one.

Marla and her assistant/lover, Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), learn of an exceedingly tempting target from Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt). Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) is unmarried, living on her own in a very nice house in an expensive neighborhood. The doctor goes to court and says Jennifer can no longer take care of herself, and Marla has strategically placed herself in the spectator seats so the judge can conveniently call on her to provide guardian services. Then, armed with the judge’s order, Marla swoops in, packs Jennifer off to one of the nursing homes she works with, and proceeds to liquidate Jennifer’s possessions before putting her home on the market. This time, though, Marla has made a mistake. Jennifer Peterson is a false identity assumed by the mother of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), the kingpin of a Russian crime syndicate. Roman is not happy when he learns what has happened to his mother and being the target of Roman’s displeasure can be lethal.

Writer/Director J Blakeson had done the crime thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed 12 years ago, which was well received with its tight focus and twisty plot. Since then he directed the so-so adaptation of the YA alien invasion novel The Fifth Wave along with “Gunpowder,” a BBC miniseries on Guy Fawkes starring Kit Harrington, and penned The Descent: Part 2, the kind of sequel no one really wants to see. I Care A Lot, though, has the structure of a crime thriller, just from a wickedly cockeyed perspective, and for the most part he juggles the plot effectively.

What draws you in and keeps you watching is Rosamund Pike’s amoral Marla. She won the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, beating out Kate Hudson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Maria Bakalova (for the 2nd Borat film). It’s her best role since her Gone Girl, with a very different feel. Where her Amy Dunne was an ice queen, Marla is a force of nature, imposing her will on her world. Gonzalez serves as a bit of an anchor on reality for both Marla and the audience. It’s a 180-degree turn from her recent role in Baby Driver as Jon Hamm’s murderous bank robber partner, Darling, and she manages to keep the audience’s sympathy. Dinklage brings a restrained, business-like quality to Lunyov, but the real delight is Dianne Wiest, especially when she lets Marla know just how big a mistake she’s made. The movie makes a serious point about abuses in conservatorships, but it’s also the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Getting near the end the plot gets bogged down and I was a bit concerned if Blakeson could wrap up the story in a satisfying way. He manages to shoot the story to a higher level just before karma comes calling. Hopefully it won’t take another dozen years for Blakeson to give us another slightly poisonous confection like I Care A Lot.

Zach Snyder, I’m Sorry

Three and a half years ago, I’d summed up 2017’s Justice League by saying it needed to be more stirring. Its 120-minute run time didn’t allow for enough development of the characters of Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. At that time, I’d noted that the director, Zach Snyder, had dropped out of the production because of the tragic death of his daughter, and that Warner Brothers had brought on Avengers director Joss Whedon. From what I read, I believed Whedon had reshot about 20% of the film, but that most of the footage had been delivered by Snyder before he left.

Now, having seen Zach Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max, it appears Whedon kept about 20% of Snyder’s script and majorly revamped the rest of the story. One of the biggest weaknesses I identified in the earlier film was that the main villain, Steppenwolf, only appeared at the end, while the heroes did battle with hordes of bug-like flying henchmen. In Snyder’s version, Steppenwolf’s there from the beginning, though he represents an even bigger bad, Darkheid. (Think Loki to Thanos in Avengers.) Whedon had also focused on Martha Kent and Lois Lane early on, which telegraphed the resurrection of Superman. Snyder leaves Martha and Lois until the second half of the film and adds a major twist to that scene.

My other main complaint about the earlier version was that Whedon concentrated on the main three characters – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman – and had little time for the Flash, Aquaman, or Cyborg.  In Snyder’s version, the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) are fleshed-out, and in Miller’s case his quirky portrayal is muted so he’s no longer an annoying presence.

But the huge change between Whedon and Snyder is with Cyborg. Whedon hardly gave Ray Fisher’s character any screen time or development. In a tweet last August, Fisher had accused Whedon of “gross, abusive, unprofessional, and completely unacceptable” behavior during filming, and last month excoriated Warner Brothers’ investigation into what happened on the Justice League set. The report on Fisher’s displeasure with Warner Brothers appeared on along with reporting on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” alums Charisma Carpenter and Michelle Trachtenberg having also made allegations about Whedon’s behavior when that series and “Angel” were being shot. The actors received support from show runner Marti Noxon and castmates Sarah Michelle Geller, David Boreanaz, Eliza Dushku, and Amy Acker.

In Snyder’s version, Cyborg becomes the pivotal character who guides the rest of the Justice League in their conflict with Steppenwolf. Instead of the wimpy ending of the earlier version, it takes every member of the League working together to succeed, with Cyborg and Flash being integral to their success. Fisher is quite effective in the role and goes toe to toe with the rest of the cast with power, which actually lends credence to his complaints about Whedon. There’s no justification on the screen for Fisher being sidelined.

Snyder does have problems sticking the landing. It’s partially due to his original vision of this being the first movie of a trilogy. As of now, Warner Brothers has no plans to pursue that. Snyder also included an extraneous and lengthy postlude so that he could have a cameo with Jared Leto’s Joker in the movie. Overall, it takes Snyder about 20 minutes to wrap up his version, but since you’ve already been sitting there for over 3 ½ hours, you’ll likely stay all the way to the credits.

Those 3 ½ hours prior to the ending are thrilling, fulfilling, and seem to go by much faster than Whedon’s version. Snyder’s organized the movie into chapters, which helps focus the story. Also, you can tell your brain that you’re simply binging a limited series rather than watching one 4 hour movie. (Warners even talked about releasing it as a 4-part limited series, but instead kept it together as a full movie.) The look of the film is a bit different in that it’s in 4:3 ratio, which is like the old pre-digital televisions. With flat screens, it means there are vertical borders on the sides when you watch the film. However, it was kept this way since this is the aspect for IMAX screens. Watch the film on your home computer or go out and see it on an IMAX screen, and the film itself will look exactly the same.

According to IMDb, Snyder never saw Whedon’s version, and he didn’t use any of the footage that Whedon shot. Snyder’s wife, Deborah, and his friend Christopher Nolan had advised Snyder not to watch it since it would break his heart. After seeing Snyder’s expansive vision restored, I heartily agree with that sentiment. May the 2017 Theatrical Edition be swiftly forgotten, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League be the definitive version.

Coming Out Of A Shell

A bit of history: Mary Anning was called “the greatest fossilist the world has known,” but because of her sex and station in life most of the world doesn’t know her anymore. She was born into the family of a cabinet maker and amateur fossilist in 1799, one of ten children though only one brother survived to adulthood, a common occurrence before advances in medicine. Worse, her father died when she was eleven, plunging the family into poverty. To make ends meet, the family turned to collecting and selling fossils, which were plentiful in the cliffs outside of Lyme Regis where they lived. When she was about twelve, Mary discovered the first fossilized skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, which was displayed at the British Museum. While she was known to other scientists and collectors – it was common for the upper class to display fossils in their homes at that time – she wasn’t allowed entrance into scientific societies and many of her discoveries were displayed without giving her credit. She made many more remarkable finds, including the first plesiosaur, before she died at age 48. Now writer/director Frances Lee has brought a fictionalized version of Mary to life in Ammonite, which is currently available for viewing on Hulu after a theater run shortened by COVID.

The movie begins with the installation of the Ichthyosaurus in the British Museum, with the explanatory card changed to remove Mary’s name. When we meet Mary (Kate Winslet), she’s in her forties, going out daily to the cliffs and beaches outside Lyme to see what has been revealed then taking her pieces back to her small house and shop where she lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones). She literally scratches out a life by revealing and cleaning fossils such as Ammonite shells preserved in stone. Her routine is interrupted by Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a wealthy collector, who is accompanied by his quiet, restrained wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Murchison pays to accompany Mary on one of her searches for fossils. While Mary doesn’t like company, she can’t afford to turn Murchison away.

Murchison then presumes on Mary to essentially babysit Charlotte while he’s away on an expedition for a month or more. While the money is needed, Mary has little use for Charlotte, while Charlotte hates being close to the water. Events take a turn, though, after Charlotte falls deathly ill and collapses on Mary’s doorstep. When Mary summons the town doctor (Alec Secareanu), he proscribes bed rest. Caring for Charlotte softens Mary’s heart, which had been as hard as a fossil itself. The recovery, as well as her husband’s absence, brings Charlotte out of her own shell. Once able, she accompanies Mary and fully participates in the collection. Slowly their relationship grows deeper, more emotional, and finally physical.

Lee lets her camera observe all the aspects of life in the early days of Victoria’s reign, immersing the audience in that world. She also doesn’t hammer home story elements. For instance, Charlotte wears black early in the film, and one word tacked onto a sentence hints that her melancholia might be tied to the loss of a child. When Charlotte’s sick, Mary goes to a local woman, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), to get a tin of salve to help with Charlotte’s recovery. Mary’s interaction with Elizabeth suggests they had an earlier relationship that ended badly, leaving Mary hurt and repressed.

Much has been written about the love scenes between Winslett and Ronan, which are passionate explosions of emotions for both characters. However, they are not simply added to the story to for prurient reasons. Instead, they are the point of the story, with the characters overcoming the fossilization of their lives in a patriarchal society to break free and live. Kate Winslet has said that she will no longer do a sex scene directed by a man, and indeed Lee used an all-female crew when shooting two love scenes between Winslet and Ronan. But another scene puts the exclamation point on the relationship. When they are out on the beach, Mary silently decides to go for a swim. While out in the water, she’s surprised to find Charlotte coming out to join her. Having Mary with her has overcome Charlotte’s distaste for the water, freeing her to enjoy it.

It’s a joy to see two of the best actresses currently making films work together. Both Winslet and Ronan can speak volumes with a simple touch or a glance. This is the second time that Gemma Jones has played Winslet’s mother; they appeared together 25 years ago in Sense and Sensibility. Fiona Shaw can always be counted on for stellar work, and even though her screen time is but a few minutes, it is memorable. 

Mary Anning did not have an easy life, and that comes through in Lee’s screenplay. In the end she leaves it to the audience to decide the fate of her two main characters. Even though this is a fictional tale, I found myself hoping that there might be some small piece of reality in the story, that Mary might have found a Charlotte. With how she’s been treated by history, that would be only fair.

Gotta Dance

In 2010, a lesbian high school student in Fulton, Mississippi, wanted to attend the prom with her girlfriend, but the school board banned her attendance. With the help of the ACLU, she sued the school board and won. In an act of true cruelty, she was “given” a prom that only 7 people attended, while the rest of the student body held their prom at a secret location. Her story attracted national attention through a social media campaign, and celebrities like Green Day and Lance Bass contributed to create an inclusive “Second Chance Prom.”

The story inspired an original musical-comedy stage production, “The Prom,” that was mounted in Atlanta in 2016. Two years later it came to Broadway where the show received positive reviews and a Drama Desk award for Best Musical, but high production costs caused it to close after a year without making a profit. It might have ended as a footnote in the history of Broadway, except that mega-producer Ryan Murphy decided to do a movie version of it as part of his production deal with Netflix, with him directing as well. With his record for success, Murphy can get just about any actor he wants, and the cast is an embarrassment of riches: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, and in two cameo roles, Mary Kay Place and Tracey Ullman. 

The story opens with the head of the PTA at the high school in a small town in Indiana, Mrs. Greene (Washington), announcing that student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) would not be allowed to attend prom since she’d come out as a lesbian. In New York City, Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) are preparing for opening night of their musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. When the reviews come in, it’s clear the show has tanked and will close after one performance. Dee Dee and Barry commiserate in a bar with long-time chorus girl Angie Dickinson and down-on-his-luck-actor-bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells). They feel the need to engender some good will and appear selfless, and when they hear about Emma’s situation, they decide to descend on her small town to get the PTA to change their minds. Trent offers them a ride to Indiana since he’s headed that way with a non-union traveling production of “Godspell.” Needless to say, their appearance before the PTA is a disaster, and a subsequent attempt to support Emma’s cause only makes things worse.

Emma is supported by the school’s principal (Key), who is also a fan of musical theater and has seen Dee Dee several times on Broadway. As the New Yorkers learn more about Emma, including how she was disowned by her parents and kicked out when she came out, causing her to now live with her grandmother (Place), the reality of it starts to hit them, especially for Glickman who had left his home in Ohio rather than give his parents a chance to throw him out and has not spoken to them since. Complicating everything is Emma’s love, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who is the still-closeted daughter of PTA president Greene.

The screenplay was written by two of the composers of the original production, Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, and the effective score keeps the energy bubbling throughout. One standout sequence, set in the town’s mall, has Trent and the Gospel cast meeting two high school couples who are Emma’s prime tormentors. When the couples defend their bullying on the basis of the Bible, Trent and cast give them a tuneful trip through all the sinful activity condemned in Leviticus that is conveniently forgot by many “religious” people. It’s an argument that’s been made before – one of the best sequences of “The West Wing” has the president educating a religious bigot in a similar fashion – but with the music and choreography it becomes a joyful experience.

All of the well-known cast are exceptional in their roles, particularly Kidman who does a showstopping homage to Bob Fosse as she tries to lifting Emma’s spirits, but the standout is newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman. It would be intimidating to anyone to have to play against this cast in your first movie, but Pellman thrives as Emma, not only holding her own but standing out. Also deserving of praise is Rannells, who has been working as a voice actor and in series television almost without break since he was a teenager (The Knick, How I Met Your Mother, and Girls are a few of his credits). The role is a bit cliched as the Julliard grad who hasn’t been able to survive as an actor, but he transcends it with verve and energy.

As a musical-comedy, it is completely enjoyable. Murphy, though, makes you feel the injustice and devastation of Emma’s being ostracized. By the end both the New York contingent and the town learn lessons about acceptance. With the number of anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation still being enacted in multiple states, it’s clear it’s a lesson still to be learned.  

Pas de Deux

The creation of the film Malcolm and Marie is a fascinating bit of movie making in the age of COVID-19. It was written and directed by Sam Levison, who created, wrote, and mostly directed the HBO series “Euphoria,” following discussion with series star Zendaya. They wanted to find some way to keep their crew working after the pandemic shut down their production, so they planned to quarantine the cast and crew and film within a bubble. Levison eventually settled on the idea of a relationship drama that plays out in real time. John David Washington was recruited for the other role by Levison reading the first ten pages of the script to him over the phone.

With the blessing of SAG/AFTRA, the Writer’s Guild of America, and the Director’s Guild of America, the film was shot at a secluded private home in Carmel-on-the-Sea (CA) from the middle of June to the beginning of July, though cast and crew additionally quarantined for two weeks before and after filming. Different from most movies these days, it was shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, giving the story sharp detail that’s often lost amid color photography. The one group that had no idea the film was being made was the public, leading Entertainment Weekly to do a feature story on “Zendaya’s Secret Movie.” After a bidding war with several streaming services, Netflix secured the rights for $30 million, which was essentially the film’s gross since, with the fall and winter wave of COVID cases, theaters that showed it were almost empty.

The film plot is ridiculously simple to summarize. After the enormously successful premier of his new film, director/writer Malcolm (Washington) returns to the Malibu house he’s using with his wife, Marie (Zendaya). While speaking to the audience, Malcolm has thanked a grocery list of people who helped with the production, but omitted thanking his wife, whose life closely mirrors the main character. Fireworks ensue.

Now why would you want to sit through an argument for an-hour-and-three-quarters? The answer is that this is no screaming match – in fact, the characters rarely raise their voices. Instead, this is an evening of theater with two actors at the top of their games running through dialogue that ebbs and flows, hits rapids, and on a couple of occasions slips into a quiet pool for a few moments while the audience catches its breath. Think of it as a more cerebral, less violent Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Rather than using words as a blunt weapon, both Zendaya and Washington wield them like rapiers, thrusting, parrying, and every once in a while, landing a cut that draws blood.

Levison has crafted a raw, honest script of a couple trying to work through their relationship. You rarely get actual speeches in films these days; dialogue is usually kept short while the camera tells the story. Here, the camera wanders through the scene while it listens to Malcolm and Marie each state their feelings and responses in dialogue that can go on for minutes at a time.

Thus far in her career, Zendaya has played teenaged characters, and did it extremely well as her 2020 Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series attests. She also brings witty intelligence to her recurring role as MJ in the Marvel Spider-Man series. Malcolm and Marie, though, serves as her transition to adult roles, and it bodes well for a long, accomplished career.

After two appearances in his father Denzel’s films when he was a child (in Malcolm X and Devil in a Blue Dress), Washington focused on football rather than footlights, playing for MorehouseCollege and getting signed by the Rams, though he ended up playing for the Sacramento team of the United Football Lead. However, when he decided to follow his father into acting, the experience led to his being cast in Dwayne Johnson’s sports agent show “Ballers” on HBO for the series run. His breakthrough role was as Ron Stallworth in BlacKKKlansman, working with Spike Lee. Because of the different path he charted, Washington didn’t have the stage experience of his father, who started in summer stock and has regularly appeared on stage throughout his career, winning a Tony Award for his performance in a revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” on Broadway. Malcolm and Marie makes a good argument that he could make the transition to live theater.

As Elton John once sang, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Malcolm and Marie underlines that, and it makes for riveting drama.

A Not So Distant Mirror

In the last few years, it has happened too often that a minor offense has led to a deadly encounter with police because of a person’s skin color. The appearance of a bifurcated justice system, with one branch for Whites and another for Blacks, rears its ugly head over and over again. While long ingrained in the United States, there are times when this racism becomes unmistakable, usually when aggravated by sharp divisions in society. Two recent films, set in the late 1960s, look back at just such a tumultuous period of history.

A little background: On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, sparking riots of rage across the country. Two months and two days later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles – a gut punch to the Anti-Vietnam War movement that was at its height. Then, in August, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to massive, violent demonstrations as police cracked down on the protesters, usually with billy clubs. After Nixon won the presidency, his Attorney General, John Mitchell, ordered the Federal Prosecutor for Illinois to bring charges against those seen as leaders of the Chicago protests. One charged was the national leader of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, even though he had no relationship with the other protestors and had made only a brief stop in Chicago around that time to substitute for Eldridge Cleever at a rally. On December 4th, 1969, during the trial, the leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, a charismatic young man named Fred Hampton, was assassinated by Chicago cops with the assistance of the J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Normally I will deal with one major new movie at a time, but these two films could be viewed as companion pieces, expanding the understanding of both movies. I’ll deal first with the story of Fred Hampton as related in Judas and the Black Messiah. (Black Messiah was actually Hoover’s term for someone who could unite the poor and powerless, which he saw as a great threat to the status quo.) Some of the story is told from the perspective of Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a habitual thief who was recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and inform on their activities. His duplicity is contrasted with Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), who’s dedicated to the cause of racial and economic justice. An element of the story is Hampton’s tender romance with Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) who became Hampton’s common-law wife and mother of his son. (Both Johnson and Hampton’s son cooperated with the filmmakers in the portrayal of Fred.)

The simplistic view of white America cast the Panthers as revolutionaries in black berets and leather jackets who carried rifles openly. The reality was much more complex, and Judas/Black Messiah shows the community focus of the movement. Under Hampton, the Panthers established a free breakfast program in their neighborhood, building on something Fred himself had started doing on his own for neighborhood children when he was 10 years old.  Inspired by King, Hampton reached out to poor Whites and Hispanics and formed the Rainbow Coalition of community groups to seek economic justice for all poor people. (Jesse Jackson later co-opted the name and used it for his more moderate organization.)

Racial violence, though, was always present. In an interesting historical twist of fate, Fred’s mother had babysat for Emmitt Till, whose 1954 lynching while visiting Mississippi became a seminal moment in the movement toward civil rights. As a young teenager, Fred himself saw the violence that greeted Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Chicago. The city police had a history of violence towards other races, and when the BPP resisted, the confrontations came close to open warfare. Hampton had been sent to jail on a trumped-up charge he’d stollen $71.00 worth of ice cream, but the conviction was overturned. During this time, the FBI had an illegal secret division set up by Hoover that was actively engaged in counter-intelligence work against civil rights activists. Along with using snitches like O’Neal, they had agents working undercover in the organizations, and there were documented instances of them creating forged documents and fake stories to sow discord between cooperating groups, like those in Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition.

Kaluuya is mesmerizing as Hampton, especially when he reproduces speeches Hampton gave. He well deserves the Golden Globe he recently received for the performance, though one aspect of the story is lost. Kaluuya is 32, while Hampton was 21 when he died. Similarly, Stanfield is 29, while O’Neal was a teenager during the period of the film. Yet Stanfield as well is riveting in his portrayal of O’Neal, a weak man caught in an untenable position.

Bringing Hampton’s story to the screen had been pursued for years, but the earlier projects all fallen through. This time Shaka King, who was mostly known for comedies, was attached as director and co-writer, and the producers included Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Creed, Fruitvale Station) and Charles D. King (Fences, Just Mercy, Harriet). With the cooperation of Hampton’s family, the production came together. While some elements of the story are fictionalized, much of it is accurate, in particular the climatic raid in which Hampton died. Given the evidence, most historians count it as an assassination.

The second film to watch also had a long gestation period. Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg approached Aaron Sorkin about writing an adaptation of the story of the Trial of the Chicago Seven. Spielberg had originally wanted it produced during Obama’s tenure in the White House, but it didn’t come together. Later, Sorkin decided to direct his own script.

The protests in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention rocked the country with the violence carried live by the television networks. It was a seminal moment that shook the country in a similar way to what happened on January 6th of this year, though the details of the two events were completely different. As noted, the charges against the defendants weren’t filed until the next year. Along with Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the major personalities were Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron-Cohen), and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong). William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a nationally prominent civil rights attorney, represented the defendants, while Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) prosecuted, with Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) presiding.

It does need to be noted that much of Trial is not historically accurate, with fabricated characters and a very clear slant toward the protestors in the script. If you would like to read more about the actual history versus the film version, please click here. That said, it is an Aaron Sorkin script, whose writing is always music to an audience’s ear. He had taken on a herculean task in compressing the trial – which lasted over 5 months – into a two-hour-and-nine-minute run time. It’s also true that the lens through which we view history does change. In 1968, the country overwhelmingly supported the police and blamed the protestors for the riots. Since then, the image of the police has been tarnished, especially with cellphone cameras now able to record events and be broadcast throughout the country. The protestors on the ground in Chicago in 1968 are now grandparents and great-grandparents. Things change.

Sorkin uses flashbacks throughout the movie to show what is referred to at the trial, giving immediacy to the action. He also creates tension with disagreements over tactics between Hayden and Hoffman. Redmayne is watchable as always and gives a fulsome performance as Hayden. The revelation, though, is Sacha Baron-Cohen. While we’re used to him in outlandish, over-the-top roles, he’s shown in the past ability as a straight actor, such as in Hugo and Les Miserables. As Hoffman, Baron-Cohen is mesmerizing, at times indulging in humor but with the intensity of a tightly coiled spring hiding just below the surface, ready to burst forth at any time. All the cast, including Michael Keaton in a small but important role, have brought their A game to the screen, though likely the hardest performance is Langella at Judge Hoffman, whose biased and arbitrary handling of the trial led to the convictions being overturned on appeal.

During the trial, Sorkin has the Black Panthers as a presence in the courtroom, with Fred Hampton providing support for Bobby Seale. From what is known this is a fiction created by Sorkin, who uses Hampton’s death as the tipping point for Seale, leading to his case being split off from the other seven defendants. Once separated, the charges against Seale were never pursued. But while it’s a fiction, it gives a physical view of Hampton closer to reality. The role’s performed by 26-year-old Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has been very busy recently with major roles in Waves, The Photograph, and The High Note. While he has little dialogue, Harrison projects pride, competency, and dedication as Hampton, even as he appears too young for such maturity. Combining Kaluuya and Harrison, you get a fair understanding of who Hampton was, and why he was so threatening to Hoover and the establishment at that time.

It was the philosopher Santayana who originally said, “Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” An old friend put a sharper edge on the phrase by saying those who don’t learn deserve to repeat it. There are strong echoes of 1968 in what’s taken place in this country in the last few years. Hopefully these two movies will be part of our learning to value and respect all.  

Here We Go Again

With the pandemic still in full swing, and with almost a year now of changing our behavior to prevent infection, about the best movie to sum up these days is Groundhog Day. Even if there are differences with each day, it seems we’re waking up every morning to the strains of “I Got You, Babe.” There have been other movies that played with the theme, such as Edge of Tomorrow which turned the concept into a thriller, or last year’s rom-com Palm Springs. Now, Amazon has blended Groundhog Day with the novels of John Green and come up with The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.

The movie assumes (rightly, I believe) that everyone watching will have seen the Bill Murray comedy, so it doesn’t bother setting the story at the beginning. We’re introduced to Mark (Kyle Allen) when he’s well into his time loop. He catches a mug when it starts to fall, stops a guy from getting pooped on by a bird, saves a girl from falling into a pool after being hit in the face with a beach ball. It’s all already happened before – until Margaret (Kathryn Newton) walks through Mark’s loop.

At first Margaret isn’t interested in Mark, even though they’re both caught reliving the same day. Mark pursues her and eventually they become friends. They bond together by showing each other small, wonderful moments that they’ve discovered in the course of reliving their day, things like observing an eagle catch a fish, or a janitor sit down at a piano when he thinks no one’s looking and play beautiful music, or a teen girl managing to pull off a skateboard trick that a group of guys have been attempting without success. Mark, who wants to be an artist, draws a map of their discoveries every morning. But early every evening, Margaret leaves Mark, and won’t tell him where she goes.

The screenplay was written by Lev Grossman, based on one of his short stories. (Grossman’s work was also the basis for the Syfy series “The Magicians.”) It can be dangerous to flirt with an iconic movie, but Grossman acknowledges Groundhog Day by having Mark cite it when explaining to his best friend what’s happening. Grossman comes up with some nice variations, such as the two leads getting on a flight to Tokyo so they’ll cross the International Date Line to make it to the next day. While some of the film feels like young adult tropes, Grossman manages to put in a surprising twist, and an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

Director Ian Samuels had mostly worked in short subjects before helming Tiny Perfect Things, managing to win or be nominated for awards on the film festival circuit. He keeps the film focused and moving, and it has a surprisingly deep resonance in the end. While only 23, Newton is a seasoned veteran, having had television roles in “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Supernatural,” and “Big Little Lies” along with supporting roles in movies like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and Blockers. Next up she’ll be playing Paul Rudd’s daughter Cassie in the third Ant-Man movie. She is now definitely ready for her closeup. Allen has a much shorter resumé, but he manages to effectively carry the majority of the movie with grace. We’ll next see him as an anonymous Jet in Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, but if there’s justice in Hollywood he’ll get opportunities in larger roles thanks to this film.

In a sense, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things qualifies as an example of the title. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it does have some perfect moments. The focus isn’t on some major theme; it’s content to tell Margaret and Mark’s story, but in doing so it shows how even a small story can have a large impact.