Posts Tagged tragedy

Marriage Story

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Noah Baumbach.  Starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, and Azhy Robertson.

When Stephen Sondheim, George Furth, and Hal Prince were working on Company in the late sixties, they wanted to craft a musical about relationships, commitment, and the fear of commitment while simultaneously taking the marital problems theatregoers came to a musical to escape and throwing those problems back in their faces. The initial staged finale rejected marriage entirely, and Prince said it was too depressing and shocking for an audience in 1970. Sondheim and Furth then wrote a new ending which gave us one of Sondheim’s most famous and beautiful songs: “Being Alive.” In Sondheim’s words, it’s a progression “from complaint to prayer,”¹ and in the context of the show it acknowledges the fears and difficulties of relationships while simultaneously showing the importance of human connections.

Why am I talking about Company? In regards to Marriage Story to reveal the reason would spoil one of the best cinematic surprises of this year, so I will only say that it features into the film in two crucial scenes. Those scenes both beautifully underscore the driving premise of the film: that you cannot use another person as a source of your happiness, but after you’ve shared any meaningful part of your life with someone, even if parts of it were toxic and divorcing them was a necessity, there will always be some love for them and the ways they drove your crazy and put you through hell that makes the divorce and separation all the more painful.

Painful is the optimal descriptor for Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s newest film about self-centered yet sympathetic characters whose desires for themselves lead them to clash with one another. That clash begins when protagonists Charlie (Adam Driver)—a New York based stage director—and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson)—an actress from LA—decide to separate. The two of them have lived and worked in New York for approximately ten years where they’ve also raised their son Henry (Azhy Robertson). However, an amiable separation escalates after Nicole visits Nora, a divorce attorney played by Laura Dern, prompting Charlie to seek his own legal counsel in the form of Jay (Ray Liotta).

If there are any villains in the film, they are the lawyers, and both Dern and Liotta dig into their roles with zeal that makes their characters easy to hate. At the same time, to say that the lawyers are the villains who prey upon the pain of this couple, and thus exacerbate it, for their financial benefit, grossly misses the harm that Charlie and Nicole wreck not only upon each other, but upon their son, and upon themselves as well.

That is the pain that makes Marriage Story a somber viewing experience, and in my opinion, an indescribably powerful one as well. It’s an overused truism that pain can be cathartic, but this journey into hell, which leaves its protagonists with gaping wounds and scars reveals that in order for both Charlie and Nicole to heal the unhealthiness of their relationship, the proverbial bandage needs to be ripped off, exposing the ugliness that has been gradually festering for years.

It may not sound like an enjoyable experience to watch, and if someone has a personal aversion to vicious family dramas, Marriage Story would be near excruciatingly unbearable to sit through. A film that is about the destruction of a relationship probably sounds like it could never be inspiring. However, the performances, dialogue, directing, editing, and scoring are all out of this world, and it is a joy to see this level of perfect craftsmanship. Furthermore, they are not being used in a story in which divorce is something to be rooted for, but as an exposition of an unhealthy relationship from which a divorce is inevitable. Marriage Story is a depiction of how anyone can learn from the mistakes that led to such a toxic relationship and grow from them after it inevitably ends.

Growth is ultimately at the heart of Marriage Story. That growth can be seen in the transformation of the opening voiceovers, and also in the aforementioned tribute to Company. The film opens with two voiceovers: one from Charlie, the other from Nicole. They recall the reasons they fell in love with one another and the ways that love grew during their marriage. Both voiceovers are accompanied by montages of the spouse being described, edited in a sort of honeymoon bliss home movie that only looks at the roses of a relationship.

At the same time as roses, thorns grow as well, and pruning that mess is where true growth for all the characters happens. The scene where Charlie and Nicole confront the largest and ugliest thorn coming between them is as explosive as the climax of such a story should be.

The conclusion shows a transformation, giving an earlier scene an entirely new meaning, and also showing how a seemingly simple act of consideration for someone else is the basis for any type of love growing between two people, even if it’s a love that should not be manifested in a marriage.

Finally, there’s one other transformation that only some people will pick up on, but it takes something that initially appeared one way, and adds layers of richness by presenting it in a completely different context. I can’t spoil what that is, but the way it microcosmically depicts the journey from pain to acceptance is hands down my favorite scene of any movie this year.

 

Personal recommendation: A

 

 

1 Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 196.

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A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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All That Jazz

Year of Release: 1979      Directed by Bob Fosse.  Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Leland Palmer, and Deborah Geffner.

“And they’re dread wrong, I know they are/’Cuz I can play this here guitar/and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star on Broadway.” I remember in an undergrad pop music class analyzing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song On Broadway, from which those lyrics are taken. The one thing I remember from that discussion was the professor pointing out the irony of immediately following that line with an unremarkable guitar solo, which is quickly swallowed up by the band.

Bob Fosse uses On Broadway for the opening number of his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz. Over the course of the song we watch director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider in a career best performance) run a grueling day of auditions for his next musical as the mass of starstruck wannabes grows smaller and smaller. It could seem like a cynical song to open a cynical movie, but Fosse’s musical is every bit as much a love letter to the glamorous showbiz life as it is a critique.

On the one hand, All That Jazz is in many ways a seedier and more unflinching version of Fellini’s with elaborate song and dance numbers. Joe Gideon is a famous director who is facing a midlife crisis, struggling to finish a film that is well behind schedule and over budget, while simultaneously unable to make up his mind how he wants his next Broadway show to go. In the midst of these work conflicts, he recalls his formative experiences working in showbusiness and looks to the various women in his life for inspiration from the ingénue actress he cast in his latest show so he can sleep with her, to his current girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his angelic muse.

If this set up sounds like a version of the “sexist man abuses everyone he knows and gets away with it, because he’s a great misunderstood artist” trope, it is because All That Jazz is a sort of confession for Fosse, who himself was a womanizer who abused drugs and alcohol, the same as Joe Gideon. However, Fosse is not interested in absolving Joe (or by extension himself). Indeed, he focuses more on the pain caused to the women by Joe’s selfishness, and the viewer’s sympathy is always with his resigned ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his heartbroken daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) who wishes her dad took better care of himself, or his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) who quietly accepts the other actresses he decides to sleep with.

In addition to Joe’s mistreatment of women, he also abuses drugs. There’s hardly a scene when he does not have a cigarette between his teeth. His carefully choreographed morning routine involves pills and eyedrops so he can get an inspirational high before putting his nose to the grindstone. However, the passion he throws into his abusive behaviors is an equally strong driving force for his work, which the film makes clear is a vocation for him.

On the most basic level, All That Jazz is a cautionary tale about wasting one’s talent and the dangers of throwing one’s life away on copious sex and drugs. At the same time, it is also more than the story of a super talented director and choreographer who dances and drugs himself to death. A sense of vocation permeates the film, from flashbacks of Joe’s childhood to interactions with his own daughter and Joe’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as he arrives there. All of these scenes show a burning drive to create that no amount of drugs or sex can replace or squelch.

Importantly, the creations are marvelous to behold. For my money, this is the best Fosse choreography ever captured on film. (No argument though with anyone who prefers his film of Cabaret.) A lovely scene of father-daughter bonding when Michelle stays late in the studio one night and dances with her dad shows how Joe has shared his talent and time with his daughter, the two gifts she wants more than anything else. Later she returns that gift with her dad’s girlfriend Kate in a two-woman performance choreographed to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. Erzsebet Foldi and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s own partner and collaborator for several years) are fabulous dancers, more than doing justice to Fosse’s dance routines.

Life imitates art imitates life. This is true both of the film and its creators and of the creations and characters within the film. The one scene we see edited over and over again from Joe’s upcoming movie is a monologue from a stand-up comic about going through the five stages of grief when one finds out they’re dying, which Joe himself starts enacting as his health begins to worsen. An elaborate striptease in a musical that is going to be a star vehicle for Joe’s ex-wife showcases the brilliant choreography and tremendous talent of Joe (and Fosse) while adding a sexual tension that is present in many aspects of his life. Finally, the way Fosse turns the final scenes into grand production numbers is the zenith of art and life blending.

As someone who works in the performance industry, it is rare to see anyone who lives life quite as recklessly as Joe Gideon. It is not uncommon to know people with substance abuse problems or a history of unhealthy relationships. However, even when an artist’s passions are misspent on destructive choices, that desire to create and partake in the divine creation is an unconquerable force. It’s a force Fosse understood, which is made clear throughout this entire film, especially in the fantasy sequences involving an angel (Jessica Lange) who forces Joe to reflect on his life even as she inspires him.

I suppose it is strange to find inspiration in a destructive tale of excess, but the celebration of beauty and art becomes a form of grace offered to even the most undeserving. While the film is cynical in critiquing the destruction an artist can choose to inflict upon himself and others, it simultaneously is a joyful celebration of the achievements the same artist can do if he applies his talents the way they were meant to be used.

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Martin McDonagh.         Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.

When I was in undergrad, (longer ago than I wish to acknowledge) I took a humanities course for which we read Antigone, and for a classroom of 21st century college students, it was very easy to interpret the play as the story of a noble heroine standing up for justice and truth against a tyrannical ruler. It was quite eye-opening when one of the extra reading assignments (I don’t remember who wrote it) about Sophocles’ tragedy emphasized that the name of the play is Antigone, and thus Sophocles is saying she is the tragic character with a fatal flaw. That same reading went on to say that the ancient Greeks would have viewed both Antigone and Creon (the tyrannical king) as equally wrong and equally right, because they both dealt in extreme absolutes, refusing to the see the truth to the other’s side.

Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand) is a similar protagonist to Antigone. Her daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months ago, the Ebbing, Missouri police department has come nowhere near catching the killer, and there are several prominent officers on the force with a notorious reputation for harassing and torturing black citizens. When she notices three unused billboards just outside of town, she rents them to advertise the incompetency and corruption of the police with the following statements: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Considering the recent news stories about police brutality and how often sexual predators get away with their crimes, it is all too easy to sympathize with Mildred. It is also easy to criticize Chief Willoughby (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) for being too lenient with the more violent and racist cops in his force, most notably Sam Rockwell’s explosive Officer Dixon, because as Mildred says, “the buck has to stop somewhere.”

However, as true as Mildred’s statement is, Harrelson’s performance clearly reveals there is more to Willoughby than a lazy, overly lenient cop. He followed every lead he got in the murder case, and every single one turned up a dead end. He’s dying of cancer, which preoccupies enough of his time that he makes the mistake of allowing the worse officers to continue working for him.

In the first instance of the film turning the tables on the audience’s expectations, when Willoughby mentions his cancer to Mildred, she bluntly responds, “I know; the whole town knows.” Shocked that she would still put up the billboards, Mildred indifferently responds, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak,” a morbid joke Willoughby appreciates, indicating the two of them are not that different, which is reinforced when he later returns the joke with an even harsher one.

That sort of dark humor, a trademark of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, is scattered throughout the entire film. However, unlike his last two dark comedies with tragic subject matter, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is tragedy punctuated with jokes.

As a tragedy, the tragic flaw of all the characters is anger, and McDonagh indicts the audience for our own anger as well, at times stacking the deck to make that anger seem all the more justified. As I said, it is easy and natural to sympathize with Mildred, and Sam Rockwell’s nakedly racist and brutal Officer Dixon provides an easy villain to hate. However, as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her, “All this anger only begets greater anger.”

That line is a succinct summary of what McDonagh is doing with Three Billboards, showing how the anger of Mildred toward the cops, the town towards her, school kids towards her son (Lucas Hedges), Dixon towards blacks, is all connected in a giant cycle making none of them that different. Even though some of that anger is justifiably motivated, when it escalates into rage, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish from the racist anger motivating Dixon.

Shortly after Mildred first puts the billboards up, the local priest callously attempts to counsel her to take them down. She retorts with a vicious insult about the sex abuse scandal. As others have noted, it is the sort of line that often receives cheers, and it comes early enough in the film, while we’re still meant to sympathize completely with Mildred, that it is certainly possible McDonagh intended it that way. However, while the rage-fueled response may feel good to Mildred and to some viewers at the time it is delivered, the remainder of the film shows that what begins as righteous anger very rarely stays that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Frequent obscene and profane language, harsh violence with considerable gore, occasional racist and homophobic epithets, frank discussion of rape                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Matt Reeves.                   Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, and Toby Kebbel.

Andy Serkis has described War for the Planet of the Apes as a film about the battle for Caesar’s soul, and that is the war which consumes most of the action in this film. The fighting between apes and humans which began in the prior film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes a backseat where both species, either as individuals or as a whole, live or die according to their own choices.

In a film where the outcome is predetermined – because the trilogy which War concludes serves as a prequel to a world where humans have died out and apes have inherited the planet – diverting the heart of the action from an apes versus humans standoff is a wise choice. That way we can feel the tragedy of humanity’s extinction without rooting for either side to eliminate the other. This is a stark contrast and improvement from the first film of this trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where all the humans were either forgettable, clichéd good guys who could die off without any sense of loss or insufferable monsters whom any normal person would want the apes to destroy.

However, the second film, Dawn, changed that by showing the best and worst of both humans and apes, and by pitting Caesar (the leader of the chimps played by Andy Serkis) against Koba, (Toby Kebbel) an ape consumed with hatred toward humans for the abusive experiments they had carried out on him. Koba’s ghost continues to haunt Caesar after an early tragedy in War reveals to Caesar that he has a capacity for the same level of hatred. If the primary conflict in the last film was ape versus ape, here it is ape versus self.

Caesar’s internal wrestling with rage, along with the consequences of the choices he makes as a result, weakens the Moses figure he otherwise is to the apes, who are trying to pass through a desert to their own promised land in order to escape slavery or death at the hands of desperate humans willing to attempt anything in order to survive.

Here, there is very little good to be found in humanity who given themselves over to fear and anger in their desperation to survive. The worst of man is personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel who views himself as fighting a holy war for the survival of humanity not only against apes, but also against a new strand of the virus which killed millions of humans while increasing apes’ strength and intelligence, and against other humans who disagree with his extreme methods. The Colonel is the leader of the villains, much as Koba was in the last film, but as there was with Koba, there is a scene where we learn the source of his anger and extreme methods, making him, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable.

Like many fanatics, the Colonel is religiously driven: crucifying apes, blessing his soldiers with the sign of the cross, appropriating the U.S. national anthem in a borderline idolatrous way, painting alpha and omega symbols on the American flag, and carving them onto apes he’s convinced to serve him. It’s certainly possible that the alpha and omega were chosen to reflect the simultaneous end of humanity and rise of the apes, but the religious connotations of those Greek letters can hardly be overlooked in light of the other symbols.

When the Colonel finally has his main confrontation with Caesar, his rationalization is a perversion of love, which has taken a good thing (protection of humanity) and twisted it to justify any atrocity needed for that end. It reminded me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves regarding unhealthy patriotism that “can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [Heavenly Society] and use them to justify the most abominable actions.” (The Four Loves, p. 38)

“I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable.” (The Four Loves, p. 37)

The Colonel has passed from insufferable to monstrous, and when Caesar witnesses that, he sees his rage taking him down that path as well. Thus, it is fitting that the ape versus man conflict between Caesar and the Colonel forms a smaller part in Caesar’s own struggle that drives the film.

Ministering to Caesar’s better nature is his oldest surviving friend the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who finds a peculiar child (Amiah Miller) who personifies one of the Colonel’s fears and reminds Caesar about the costs of violence. All the themes tie together pretty obviously, and at times, the film is a little heavy-handed and the pacing a little too drawn out, but as an examination that twists the traditional revenge tale it succeeds very well.

As a chronicle of how the apes inherited this planet, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as the strongest installment of the trilogy which began with humans cutting corners for the sake of profits and science and culminated with them cutting ethical corners to engage in acts which made them more brutal than the beasts they feared. It’s unquestionably tragic, but Matt Reeves’ film treats it with the solemnity it deserves, while never forgetting to remind us of the more peaceful outcome that was sadly rejected in favor of violence.

 

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content advisory: Gun violence, ape fights, some mild gore, an implied off-screen euthanasia, torture of apes.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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