ARSENIC AND OLD LACE – A DELIGHTFUL COMEDY OF TERRORS AT OUR OWN LAKE CHARLES, LA ACTS THEATRE

 

 

 

 

The Addams Family was an endearing bunch of creepy oddballs. Appearing like zombies, witches and vampires they were actually a loving Mom, Dad, kids and extended family of rich and philanthropic homeschoolers.

The family of Queen Eleanor and King Henry II, in the classic Lion in Winter were not so companionable, and battled continuously with each other throughout the play. Different members bond with, then betray, each other, jockeying for power, land, revenge, attention, or love. At the end of a particularly vicious argument with her husband, Eleanor, left sitting on the floor in the doorway, gathers herself together and to self-console muses: "Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?"

The Guardians of the Galaxy is a band of violent and ethically questionable outlaws and vigilantes who come together as a family unit in part to (re)raise Groot, who is a sentient tree. (See my review on that one here .)

NONE of them have anything on the Brewsters.

The premise of Arsenic and Old Lace is that Mortimer, a once cynical-of-romance theater critic, now totally smitten and freshly engaged to Elaine, the girl next door, goes to his sweet, loving, maiden aunts’ home for a visit and to break the good news.

In residence is his adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt, periodically charging up the stairs he knows as San Juan Hill and digging grave sized locks in the basement, which he thinks is the Panama Canal. Hovering in the background is the ominous, but so far absent, other brother, Jonathan. And so the stage is literally set for this very black and very funny slapstick comedy about a family which would put the Guardians on alert, make the Addams Family startle, and have both Henry and Eleanor running for cover. Bodies pile up and are switched like the plates of tuna in Noises Off or the suitcases from What’s Up Doc, identities are hidden and a good time is ultimately had by all…except for the corpses…in Arsenic and Old Lace.

I hesitate to say more for the benefit of those readers who have not seen either the play or the brilliant 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. If you don’t know the story it is just too delightful to spoil. If you do know some of the details then it will be like going back for seconds of your favorite ice cream.

Clay Hebert, the director and Officer Klein, is a familiar and welcome face from every stage Lake Charles offers. He has a resume which spans from McNeese's Theater to ACTS, and from Lake Charles Little Theatre to the Bayou Players and independent film productions all over Lake Charles. Clay artfully guides this fairly large cast through the quick draw and fast paced humor of Arsenic, which is to comedy what very dark and deliciously bitter semi-sweet morsels are to chocolate chip cookies, skillfully leading his troupe over that tightrope between horror and humor.

Louis Barrilleaux, another talented veteran of ACTS, LCLT and McNeese for over 20 years, is Mortimer, the eye around which this storm circulates.

Kelly Rowland and Sarah Broussard, respectively as Martha and Abbey Brewster, age themselves convincingly 50 years to play Mortimer’s adorably naive and unassuming aunts whose home is the site for some rather….unexpected events. Both ladies have degrees in performance, Kelly in music and Sarah in theater, with a wide and diverse range of acting credits.

Rebecca Harris, an actress with an impressive resume, is Mortimer’s confused but stalwart fiancee.

Aaron Webster, a self-described reluctant actor, is eminently creepy as Jonathan, the ne'er-do-well prodigal brother.

Brahnsen Lopez, another stage veteran, plays Jonathan’s would-be repentant colleague, Dr. Einstein (not Albert).

Matt Dye, local radio personality and frequently cast in small but scene stealing roles, does it again as Teddy.

Mark Hebert, Dusty Duffy, Dylan Conley and Kathy Heath round out the cast with memorable supporting characters.

 

The set is terrific, creating the authentically homey, gentle parlor of two elderly aunts, making the sinister events all the funnier for the contrast, complete with two sets of stairs and a landing up and through which Teddy has the freedom to charge with abandon, a window seat which can house…various and sundry… and French doors through which the characters are free to pop in and out.

I was privileged to interview Diki Jines, master electrician on the set and will have his interview clips up shortly below, talking about the set, its design and a little background.

Timing and blocking are very key, especially in this comedy of terrors and Clay has the tempo and coordinated actions and responses wound like a Swiss Cuckoo clockwork.

It’s a joy to watch a stage full of such talented veterans work smoothly together, and the fact most are old friends and/or fellow thespians, who have trod the boards often together, helps catalyze the chemistry that makes this play full of intimately connected characters work. These performers know each others’ rhythms and make the most of their considerable pool of experience to bring us a delightful evening of fun and fright, chills and chuckles, comedy and carnage, shocks and snickers, jocularity and jump scares.

So go warm up — or chill out — in anticipation of Halloween at ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. But be sure to BYOW. (Bring your own wine.)

BUY TICKETS HERE, OR CALL (337) 433-2287

CHAPPAQUIDDICK – THOSE WHO DO NOT LEARN FROM HISTORY…..

SHORT TAKE:

Historic drama based upon the information in public knowledge surrounding the murder of Mary Jo Kopechne by Teddy Kennedy.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Only adults. The language is raw, the topics unsavory and the behavior of the main characters despiccable.

However, it is an expose of the disreputable goings on by the Kennedy pseudo-Mafia Clan during the 1960's so worth a look for the corruption, hypocricy and disgusting activities into which the Kennedys dove head first. Apparently the people involved took the aphorism to heart: If you can't be a good example, be a horrible warning.

LONG TAKE:

Before getting into Chappaquiddick…. figuratively as I have no intention of taking a swim, I thought I might make two points: the first is a reference to another movie and the second describes a thousand year old family dynamic.

In the 1987 drama Broadcast News, about TV journalism, Aaron played by Albert Brooks is concerned about the trustworthiness of William Hurt's character Tom. Knowing Jane, his best friend, played by Holly Hunter, is falling in love with Tom, Aaron gives Jane a warning. In an interview, Tom is filmed breaking down in tears while interviewing a young woman who had been the victim of a date rape. The young woman's recollection of the event cuts back and forth to Tom's emotional but dignified reaction. Knowing Jane would refuse to question Tom's sincerity, Aaron asks her to consider one simple fact: Tom only had one camera.

In 1199, John, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was coronated King of England. The youngest of five sons, John was never expected to rule. His oldest brother, William, died of a seizure at three. Henry III died of the flux (dysentery) on rebellious campaign against Henry II. Richard died on the Crusades. Geoffrey died in a tournament accident leaving one son, Arthur who was imprisoned and left to die. John, both spoiled as a prince and ignored as unimportant – called Lackland as it was never thought he would own land – was not trained to rule, but only shooed off to manage some lands in Ireland – which he did badly, and was arguably the most corrupt, debauched, incompetent, ill prepared and venal ruler England ever had. But, nonetheless, the crown was placed upon his head because, refusing to consider any but the immediate male descendant of Henry II, John was assumed to be the rightful heir – irrespective of his lack of character or training or fitness for the position.

Teddy Kennedy was the youngest of four brothers. It was never thought he would be a candidate for President. Joe, Jr. died in action during World War II. John and Robert were both assassinated. Teddy had five Sisters, but at that time, much like in King Henry's era, it would have been unthinkable to place a crown on a daughter's head when a male heir was available, no matter who that heir might be.

The movie suggests that Teddy Kennedy himself recognized that he was the spare, the "also ran", the leftover, the one who no one thought would be put in a position of power, but who had been instead, like John with Ireland, given the political position of Senator in Massachusetts as a token gift by his extraordinarily powerful family. Debauched, spoiled, incompetent, unprepared, one almost feels sorry for him being thrust into the position of having to run for the presidency, the position even he knew he was not qualified to hold, except that he flagrantly used his position to abuse others and ultimately to murder.

The night of Mary Jo Kopechne's death, Kennedy, by his own admission, and according to the movie, had been drinking and driving and ran off a bridge with Mary Jo in the car. According to his testimony, he does not remember how he got out of the car. But he did ultimately confess to walking away without notifying any authorities of the accident, leaving Mary Jo to suffocate in the overturned car without hope of rescue. Had he notified the authorities promptly, it is very likely she would have survived……That is assuming the story told in the movie is complete and accurate.

Make no mistake, the movie does not whitewash any of the behavior of Teddy, his legal staff and advisors, his father Joe, or his drunken friends and co-workers.

Teddy and his colleagues had spent the night drinking and carousing with those they nicknamed The Boiler Room Girls.

Supposedly working as secretaries and campaign assistants, it seems as though the Boiler Room Girls also had other duties to perform that night for these powerful and influential men, duties in which they quite voluntarily participated.

At some point following Mary Jo's death, Teddy, supposedly in a sudden attack of conscience, decides to confess his complicity in the incident despite available alibis willingly provided by others and anxiously swallowed by their fawning media. Of course, he also takes the opportunity to attempt to make himself the victim and affects an unneeded neck brace that even the media found ridiculous. Completely out of character, if this is to be believed on face value, the confession is at least a small point in Teddy's favor. A very very small point.

Given a suspended sentence, the only real penalty for him was the hit to his political career.

However, as his confession DID seem completely out of character, one must ponder if there was more to the story than even this expose movie tells. Does the movie come clean as to just one of the dirty secrets of the Kennedy Clan or is it but yet just a further complicit hiding of what really happened on the night Mary Jo Kopechne died?

The movie, in and of itself, is fascinating, well performed and well done. Shot with care to the details of ‘60's style, clothes, music, architecture, and attitudes – all carefully reconstructed, all harken back to a time that I remember as a child.

Jason Clarke, who cut his teeth in American television through a very rough show called Brotherhood, has used that platform to launch himself into bigger and better things, including the

Planet of the Apes franchise, White House Down, and the

Terminator movies. Australian by birth, Clarke's restrained and convincing Boston accent is reminsicent of his time as Tommy Caffee in Brotherhood.

Kate Mara, previously in Fantastic Four and The Martian, as the ill fated Ms. Kopechne, is sympathetic.

Bruce Dern, a Hollywood constant in everything from comedies like The Burbs to sci fis like

Silent Running to dramas like

The Hateful Eight, plays Papa Joe, the patriarch of the Kennedys who, despite being almost immoble from strokes, still controls the dynasty.

Ed Helms, mostly known for comedies like The Office and The Hangover, takes a serious turn as the adopted Kennedy who acts as both trusted confidante and inadequate conscience-keeper of Teddy.

Clancy Brown, all 6 foot 3-1/2 inches of him, plays yet another in a long line of sinister characters, as Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense under JFK who spearheaded the cover up and managed the fall out from the exposure of the Chappaquiddick murder.

The events leading up to Miss Mary Jo Kopechne's death took place the same weekend as the Moon Landing. This was either incredibly coincidental, collateral damage from the celebrations going on in connection with the landing, or very well planned, depending upon which view you take of the story this movie tells – whether you believe it is accurate or just another cover up for the benefit of what political functionaries believe is a willing audience.

Chappaquiddick feels like a murder mystery but without the denouement of a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

There are too many holes in the plot to be completely satisfying and one longs for a super detective to walk in, gather the suspects together and point unerringly at the guilty party or parties. But one question floats quite readily up to the surface of this cesspool.

If career politicians and their family and friends in places like Massachusetts or Arkansas, who feel they are routinely entitled, by birthright and political position, to exoneration from crimes like rape, murder, insider trading, selling access to the White House, opening our borders to foreign national criminals and terrorists, and incompetence bordering on treason by allowing an Ambassador to be slaughtered while ignoring pleas for help – then what ELSE are they lying about in order to further their careers?!? And shouldn't they go to jail as the rest of us peasants would? Will we, as voters, learn from history or be doomed to repeat it over and over and over again?

But MAYBE, perhaps, just possibly, it did all occur as the movie lays out. Pretty pitiful apology for a woman who was so unceremoniously dispatched and discarded by a powerful member of a political party which defines itself as protector of the little people. Extraordinarily meager payback for a young woman who was literally forgotten to death. Or is there a worse crime for which Teddy was guilty, for which the conviction of manslaughter was a slap on the wrist in comparison?

Let me leave you with a couple of final thoughts.

If you are still puzzling over the import of the single camera in Broadcast News, consider this: If Tom only had one camera, there is no way he could have cut back and forth between himself and the young lady. Therefore, Tom's quiet moving tears had to have been done at a later time and edited in. In short, they were faked after the fact. And despite Tom’s protestations that he really DID cry at the time but had to "recreate" them for the video, Jane was devastated and their relationship was over. If he was willing to lie to her about that to advance his career, then what else was he faking to proceed up the ladder?

Similarly, there is a question begging to be asked which is imperatively relevant to Chappaquiddick.

Mary Jo could not get out of the car. Evidence suggests she suffocated and did not drown. Is it possible that Mary Jo was already dead, already suffocated, when the car hit the water and Teddy was never in it when it was pushed or driven into the water? There was no way to definitively determine that immediately ex post facto because there was also no autopsy, despite the unusual and mysterious circumstances of her death, before a hastily organized and executed embalming and funeral.

But, admittedly, all that is speculation and circumstantial evidence.

So that is not the question I want to leave you to ponder.

But DO consider THIS: Just as Aaron had to point out Tom’s perfidity by asking Jane to reflect on one simple fact, I leave you with a riddle.

The divers had to pry open the car to get at Mary Jo’s body. There was no open window, no propped open door, no broken windshield. The car was flipped over on its hood and sealed up tighter than a drum when it was found.

So how did Teddy get out?

RED SPARROW – A GOOD MOVIE MOST PEOPLE SHOULD NOT SEE

SHORT TAKE:

Well written, well acted espionage movie which is unwatchable for most audience members because of the extreme nudity and violence.

WHO COULD WATCH IT:

Were this movie edited to remove some of the most graphic moments I might have a cautionary recommendation for young adults and up. As it is, I would advise only mature married couples who have a strong stomach and fairly tough sensibilities.

LONG TAKE:

Back in the day when movies would come on TV after a thorough scrubbing of content inappropriate for family viewing I might have been able to recommend you wait to see Red Sparrow when it comes on your local viewing station. Now that that is no longer a viable option I am hard pressed to advise what demographic this movie might be suitable for. It’s a shame too because it is well done. A fast paced, cohesive spy thriller with a flaw-free plot, worthy of a Mission Impossible scenario with excellent acting, good believable character and relationship developments and a pacing and editing that keep you guessing to the very end.

The problem is they show too much. I don’t mean that pedantically they talk down to the audience. I mean they SHOW — TOO — MUCH!!

The premise is that a young Russian woman, Dominika, (Jennifer Lawrence – Hunger Games and Passengers), just at the end of the Cold War is extorted, by her highly placed uncle, (Matthias Schoenaerts) into selling herself to a wealthy Russian businessman in exchange for medical assistance for her desperately ill mother (Joely Richardson – Return to Me and Liam Neeson's sister-in-law). But the job is far more than she was led to believe and at its conclusion is told she can either be considered a loose thread to cut or "volunteer" to be a "Sparrow" – a spy who learns how to elicit, through seduction, any target – as Dominika, herself, later describes it "whore school". This is where the movie begins its elevator-like descent into scenes which made me glad my husband and I went to this movie without friends or family.

Upon her "graduation" she is sent on assignment by her superiors (Jeremy Irons – Scar from Lion King, the new Batman Alfred, and Ciarán Hinds – Aberforth Dumbledore from Harry Potter and Claudius in Benedict Cumberbatch' Hamlet) to become "acquainted" with an American agent (Joel Edgerton – Bright, The Great Gatsby and The Thing). Given the nature of espionage movies one can guess that the motives of each of the many characters involved is not always what you expect and the plot will take some precipitous twists and turns – which this movie artfully does.

Red Sparrow is Kingsman without the humor or any comicbook filter, Black Widow's origin story without the PG rating, Mission Impossible with the violence ratcheted up several notches, James Bond without the gentility or leaving anything to the imagination.

There are scenes of complete frontal nudity of men and women. There is sexual, emotional, psychological and physical torture, shocking and bloody graphic violence. Not that any of it is, really, gratuitous. This, I suspect, is the nature of espionage at its basest level, especially the brutality, dehumanization and and the stripping away of individuality that defines Communist Russia. It is even likely that what the filmmakers here have shown IS filtered compared to what really goes on in the liberals' dangerously ill-informed idea of Utopia. But we, the audience, don't really need to see every — single — detail. The viewing audience does have an imagination, which, arguably could have been put to better use.

Sharks eat people. We know that. But Spielberg didn't even SHOW Bruce the shark in Jaws until way late in the movie knowing that what you do not see is often far worse than what you do. (That and the fact the mechanical shark didn't work but hey – chicken feathers into chicken salad…) The audience in Jaws did not need to see ever single bite, chew, and serrated incision the shark made on every one of its victims – though the scene with Robert Shaw was pretty grotesque and possibly the least effective because of it.

The story itself is intriguing but the episodes of violence, nudity and sexuality are enough to disturb the suspension of disbelief — and I've seen A Clockwork Orange and am a Monty Python fan!!! Screenit.com the review website which provides a detailed analysis of movies allowing parents to determine whether this movie is appropriate for their children REDLINED on every category that counts.

It doesn't happen often but this is a good movie which I just can not recommend.

LOVING VINCENT – AN ANIMATED BIOGRAPHY IN VAN GOGH’S PAINTINGS

SHORT TAKE: Astonishing and beautiful, one of a kind film in which a reluctant messenger plays detective in an attempt to parse out the circumstances of Van Gogh's death, animated in the style of Van Gogh's paintings!

WHO SHOULD WATCH:  Anyone interested in classic art, though younger audience members might get bored. Adult themes of mental illness, prostitution, alcoholism and, of course, the death of Vincent Van Gogh – the main topic of the film – are points of discussion, though there is no graphic content of either a sexual or violent nature, and little or no prafane language.

UNFORTUNATELY, SCREENIT.COM HAS NO DETAILED CONTENT STATISTICS ON LOVING VINCENT YET.

LONG TAKE:

The word "unique" is too often blithely thrown around. If you go online you'll find "unique" hair styles and "unique" ice cream stores. "Unique," in fact means "being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else". And there are really only so many ways you can manipulate your hair before redundancy becomes an issue and I'm afraid a truly "unique" ice cream might not be edible. Even so, there are still a few things that genuinely qualify as "unique": Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, each and every individual human soul, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Mona Lisa and….Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent is a movie of which there is only one of its kind. Not just different or unusual, though it is that, but actually unique. Loving Vincent was animated by over 100 professional artists using 853 backdrops and over 66,000 paintings which, if laid out like a carpet would cover both the entire United Kingdom and the Island of Manhattan. 80 of the artists were chosen for their professional technique, facility with computers and ability to accurately recreate Van Gogh's style.

This technique has never before been used. The effect is mesmerizing, like watching one of Van Gogh's paintings come to life before your eyes.

The plot follows Armand Roulin, the son of Joseph Roulin, a postmaster who had been a friend of Vincent's. Armand is portrayed and captured as a facile youth who matures during the course of the movie by Douglas Booth who was Romeo in the 2013 Shakespeare film, Shem in Noah and Titus in Jupiter Rising. Booth carries the water of the narrative beautifully as we see the story unfold through his eyes like the petals of the irises featured in one of Van Gogh's paintings.

Joseph is captured using  Chris O'Dowd, a charming and gentle British comedian who has appeared in roles as varied as Thor: Dark World, the dark and theologically intriguing murder mystery Calvary, the most recent space oriented sci fi installment of the Cloverfield franchise called Cloverfield Paradox, and was in a quirky British comedy about time travel called FAQ About Time Travel.

Joseph tasks his drunken aimless son with transporting the last letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. This begins a journey for Armand which will change his perception of the world and himself for the better. Vincent has been dead for two years by the time Armand starts out and during the course of his travels Armand's adventures transform from a simple delivery to an inquiry into the master painter's life and mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Armand finds out as much about himself as about those who knew Vincent well as he tries to uncover what truths he can concerning the premature demise of this, at that time, unappreciated genius.

This film would have been an achievement in storytelling had it been done live action and would have rivaled Immortal Beloved whose main protagonist sought the identity of the Immortal Beloved to whom he wished to deliver Beethoven's remaining post mortem letter. Or even the curiosity piquing Citizen Kane as one journalist interviews everyone who knew Kane to try to determine the identity of Rosebud. The script is written with sensitivity and three dimensional prose to tweak out the tangles of conflicting evidence amidst the testimonies of those whose only connection was their acquaintance with or love for Vincent. This, as a tale, would have been a great story by itself.  But to use the UNIQUE and brilliantly appropriate, though massively ambitious, technique of animating it with Van Gogh style paintings was itself, if you will excuse the intentional pun, a masterstroke by the writers/directors Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. This is as different in its own way as the one take-one unbroken shot that Russian Ark was (see a previuos blog).

Armand seeks out and questions a number of others. Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) was a friend of Vincent's.   Dr. Gachet (played by Jerome Flynn), who appears in Portrait of Dr. Gachet, had cared for Vincent in his last few months and during the gunshot and subsequent infection that killed Vincent. Louise Chevalier, housekeeper to Dr. Gachet (Helen "Narcissa Malfoy" McCrory), who had no use for Vincent and his odd ways. Adeline Ravoux (played by Eleanor Tomlinson) was an innkeeper's daughter who ran the hotel Vincent last stayed in. Adeline was featured in Van Gogh's Portrait of Adeline Ravoux. Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird) portrays Marguerite. Marguerite Gachet was the daughter of Dr. Gachet, and is the girl in Van Gogh's painting Margueite Gachet at Piano. And Robert Gulaczyk, a Polish theater actor, plays Vincent himself and bears a more than passing resemblance to the shy, kind, sensitive and tormented painter. All the actors were chosen, not just for their acting (for the capture) and voice talents but for their resemblance to characters in the actual paintings by Van Gogh.

Even the title is creative, evocative and chosen with care. Your "Loving Vincent" is the way Vincent would sign his letters to his brother, Theo. Loving Vincent could refer to the way the painters are expressing their respect and affection for this great artist, as in – this is how we are "loving Vincent", by creating this beautiful movie about him. Or it could be a command to the audience as a demonstration of the way we could appreciate the man and his work – as in, if you watch this movie with the appreciation it deserves you will be "loving Vincent". Or it could simply be a description of the man himself. Loving –  as an adjective to describe the great, generous and open heartedness of the man who was the genius master craftsman of the easel – as in – he was a great, a creative, a brilliant but also a loving Vincent.

It is unfortunate and shortsighted by the Oscar committee that Loving Vincent has been selected to compete in the Oscars as "only" in the animated feature film category. There is precedent to allow animated features to compete in the "Best Picture" category – Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3 all were accorded that respect. Loving Vincent MORE than deserves the acknowledgement to be included in the Best Picture category.   This is a serious film about the creative life and mysterious death of one of the world's most beloved master painters. It also only HAPPENS to also be an animated movie. We learn not just about the circumstances of his death but of the complex man whose life was cut far too short from those who knew him best and in conversations that appear deceptive or misleading at first, as in the style of an Agatha Christie novel, and all come together like some lovingly sculpted three dimensional puzzle.

Not only is this movie made WITH beautiful paintings, it IS one big gorgeous animated painting. This is a remarkable work of startlingly pure love – a love letter from these hundreds of artists and actors and seamstresses and animators, caterers and drivers, electricians and sound technicians, not to mention the writers and directors …… to Vincent Van Gogh

Watching this movie gave me a new appreciation for Van Gogh's paintings and has inspired me to seek out and learn more about this great man's work.

It also couldn't help but remind me of two other lovingly created items which focused on Vincent Van Gogh. The first is one of the most moving three and a half minutes of cinema I have ever seen.

It is near the end of the Dr. Who episode – Vincent. Dr Who and his companion Amy have traveled back in time to meet Vincent Van Gogh. They befriend him and come face to face with the mental and personal struggles of this gentle soul and decide to bring him forward in time to show him the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay. Tony Curran, as Vincent, does a magnificent job as Van Gogh and the scene is touching, funny and deeply moving. .  Dr Who excerpt – Vincent at the Musee d'Orsay.

The other bit of Van Gogh fandom which occurred to me was Don McLean's song Vincent. McLean is probably best known for American Pie. The song Vincent came out in the same year, 1971, when I was twelve: "Starry Starry Night, paint your palette blue and gray…how you suffered for your sanity…flaming flowers that brightly blaze, swirling clouds in violet haze…and when no hope was left in sight on that starry starry night you took your life as lovers often do…." The melancholic and beautiful tune sums up the feel of this visually, emotionally, narratively and lyrically moving film. LISTEN TO VINCENT HERE: VINCENT by Don McLean

WARNING: I really have none except that the topic of suicide may upset the very young.

This film is a gorgeous masterpiece which I like to think that Van Gogh, himself, would have appreciated.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AMAZING MOVIE AND ITS CREATION HERE: LOVING VINCENT WEBSITE

SEE IT ON AMAZON HERE: LOVING VINCENT

THE POST – SELF-AGGRANDIZING TREASON

SHORT TAKE:

 The Post is a lionization of the treasonous leaking of government secrets by members of the media in 1971.

LONG TAKE:

There are two ways to review this movie. One to just view it AS a movie – an entertainment and consider its conveyance of a story. The other is to examine the purpose behind its creation.

You judge a comedy by how much it makes you laugh. A drama by, perhaps, how much it makes you think. You see Mel Brooks, you don’t expect a serious analysis but broadly painted parody. And Star Wars is Star Wars. BUT when a movie holds itself out as HISTORY, then it is fair to assess its authenticity, consistency, and credibility. The Post has …. NONE.

As a movie, The Post is – OK. It’s an interesting view of life during the 1970's as seen through the eyes of wealthy aristocrats and their journalist syncophants who spend their days socializing with men of power, finding ways to insult conservatives under the guise of news, and holding exorbitantly expensive parties to pat themselves on the back for being protectors of the "little people."

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks who play Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee respectively, are accomplished actors and make their characters convincing and "nuanced," as they like to say.

But the going is very very slow in the beginning, pedantic even, as Streep's Graham stands around and does a lot of hand wringing and the writers try to set the mood and hammer the audience with 1970's references – from clothing to posters to hairstyles, "sit-ins," and street protests – dating themselves with hippies and posters of The Blob. BUT much is left out that is salient both historically and morally. The film makers positively assail us with reminders of the era. BUT for all that they do not include "inconvenient truths".

A minor example – smoking is ubiquitous but only shown to represent hard industrious work by "brave" dedicated people. For a movie promoting itself as a slice of history there is no realistic or accurate portrayal of the coughing, burn marks on furniture, the stink, the dirty ashtrays, the obnoxious breath. It’s a small detail but exemplifies the kind of disingenuousness of the entire movie.

In a VERY poor writing ploy we were are bludgeoned again and again and again with how "courageous" Katherine Graham is for planning to publish these confidential papers. If I were writing a romance and repeated over and over in the voice of no less than 4 or 5 different characters at no less than 10 times throughout the movie blatantly stating how much the protagonist was "in love," wouldn’t you not only tire of the assertion but begin to wonder if the "lady" doth protest too much? I suspect the writers knew d*** well that what Graham and Bradlee did was not courageous but perfidious, sleazy and traitorous. I wondered by the end of the movie if they were trying to convince me of the lie or themselves.

The entire film is shown as an idealistic portrayal of newspaper people bucking up against a "repressive" government. In fact, they revealed confidential information about an ongoing firefight against a hostile country in a way which ultimately encouraged the ENEMY to persevere against what was advertised globally as the weak will of the United States to win the battle.

There are many complaints about the tenacity of the Vietcong. Why SHOULDN’T they have carried on – KNOWING, thanks to our witless gutless Communist sympathizing press, that our government had concerns about America’s ability to win against them?

During World War TWO there were GRAVE doubts about either our or England’s ability to stand up to the Nazis. Does ANYONE think it would have been a good idea to ADVERTISE THAT??!!

In addition there is a disgusting pile of hypocrises and a blanket wrongness of plot and characters that are, in a quote from Hamlet – "rank…and smells to Heaven".

Just a few examples:

1. DID YOU KNOW (because it certainly wasn’t brought out in the movie) Bradlee committed perjury in 1964 to hide a document because it had "TRUTH" in it about Bradlee’s bosom buddy JFK? 

In one scene Bradlee and his then wife, Antoinette, wax nostalgic over a photo of them with Jacqueline and John Kennedy. What does not come up in the course of this movie, however, is that Bradlee was instrumental in the hiding of a diary belonging to his sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer. Her murder took place 10 days after the Warren Commission released its findings on the assassination of JFK. Meyer was murdered in a "random" act of street violence which has gone unsolved to this day. Bradlee found the diary soon after her murder, which implicated his buddy JFK in a prolonged affair with Meyer. The existence of and information in this diary was revealed years later. The prosecuting attorney, Alfred Hantman, for the only suspect they ever had – Ray Crump, a black man who had been fishing nearby – was horrified and stated that knowledge of this diary would "have changed everything". Bradlee committed perjury, LIED UNDER OATH, during the trial of the man accused of murdering his wife’s sister, about a diary which had material evidence to the case JUST TO PROTECT HIS GOVERNMENT FRIEND. He eventually admitted as much in a tell all biography years later in order to net himself more money and notoriety at the expense of our country. But he hid this relevant information during the investigation of his wife's sister's brutal murder.

So the people’s "right to know" about government scandals apparently stops at the door of anyone who is a Friend of Bradlee.

2. Bradlee and Graham committed treason during a time of hostilities with a foreign government.

He admits to his boss, Katherine Graham, that he can not be sure that revelations from the Pentagon Papers will not jeopardize the lives of soldiers in the field or our country’s safety.

Well I can guarantee you that it did. What Bradlee and Graham did was commit treason of the most heinous nature. They gave aid and comfort to the enemy in a time of open armed and hot confrontation. They assured the North Vietnamese – and BY EXTENSION the Russian Communist superpower with which we were a red button away from moving our cold war to a nuclear one – that our government was dispirited and convinced it could not win. Bradlee and Graham, as well as people of their ilk who carry on today with liberal journalism, single-handedly helped to assure our defeat at the cost of not only our soldiers lives but the lives of the citizens of Vietnam. Had Bradlee and Graham and others of their elitist inclinations sought to support our fight against Communism, Vietnam might be a democracy today and the war might have ended years before it did. Instead these high rolling socialites cozied up to the propaganda hype of the utopian society they think can be accomplished if only THEY were holding the reins of Communist power. In short, they helped Communist Russia’s puppet subjugate Vietnam under the crushing weight of Communism.

Instead of plaudits Graham and Bradlee should have been tried for treason and spent the rest of their lives in jail.

3. The movie is blatantly prejudiced against the Republican party.

The Pentagon Papers spell out that Truman covertly funded opposition to the Vietnam Communists. Eisenhower continued the support. Johnson committed troops to fight actively despite declaring he would never do this to the American public and expanded the war’s fronts. Nixon was the one who ended the war – which was what Bradlee and Graham were trumpeting needed to be done. But who gets the vast majority of opprobrium, distaste, comments and hate from these high minded "fair" journalists constantly and often gratuitously every 15 minutes of the movie? Nixon. The man who actually did what they said needed to be done.

Unless you like to be hammered with slanted inaccurate propaganda, give The Post a miss.

BRANAGH’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – The Perfect Movie

I have seen a lot of filmed murder mysteries from drama to slapstick: Thin Man series, China Town, Minority Report, The Usual Suspects, The Maltese Falcon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Clue, Rear Window, Scoop, Murder by Death, even the occasional Dr Who and the TV shows Columbo, Grimm and Perry Mason. There’s something truly satisfying about solving a puzzle with the end result the protecting of the innocent and the meting out of justice. But my favorite has always been Murder on the Orient Express. A group of strangers stuck on a snow bound train with a murdered man and a famous detective and one of them a murderer. A bit like Christie's Ten Little Indians but, to me, Orient Express has more pinache.

I’ve seen the 1974 version many times. Knowing the ending does nothing to undermine the enjoyment of watching the mystery unfold like a beautifully formed rose bud – all the parts slowly falling into place. Who wouldn’t like it?! With the star studded cast including the likes of     Albert (Bourne franchise) Finney, Sean (James Bond) Connery, Lauren (Humphrey Bogart’s wife) Bacall, Ingrid (Casablanca) Bergman, SIR John Gielgud, Anthony (Psycho) Perkins. The list goes on – it is a BIG cast.

But as good as the 1974 version was, it is only the amusing movie hors d’oeuvre to the cinematic banquet that is Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Not only is this the best rendition of a murder mystery I have ever seen, it is one of those rarest of birds – a perfect movie. Branagh brings brilliance to anything he undertakes – from Thor to Cinderella to    Hamlet* (ALL of which he directed). He is one of those auteurs, like Orson Welles and Woody Allen who can both star and direct in the same movie and create masterpieces.

Prudence, by defintiion, is the virtue of knowing the right thing to do at any given time. When you are someone who sees the subtle imperfections of the world this virtue becomes an obsession. In a detective this can be a superpower…and a curse. Such is the struggle of Branagh's Hercule Poirot. This kind of complex personality overlay onto an already brilliant screenplay is an example of what makes Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express special. It could have been refilmed as another lovely remake with modern celebrities. The last theatrical version was in 1974, as I have said, so it is due for a remake. But true to his genius and his respect for his audience, Branagh is not content with merely revamping an already rich treasure of a story but like Gershwin's ability to create a timeless song from a simple catchy line of music, Branagh takes a classically fun tale and reworks it into a presentation worthy of a Shakespearean telling.

As in the original, the premise is that a murder takes place on a train, which locomotive is almost immediately and Providentially caught in an avalanche of snow. The manager of the train, a good friend of Poirot's, implores Poirot to solve the mystery for him before the train is freed and the killer has an opportunity to escape. As well as catching a killer, he also (by the way) wishes to avoid the shame of scandal to the Orient Express from an unresolved atrocity committed aboard this regal moving institution.

Of all the movies I have ever reviewed this is the one about which I would be most loathe to commit a spoiler ……. so will not.

But I will say there are a few minor tweaks to the story, re-imagined by Michael Green from, obviously, the Agatha Chtistie novel of the same name. These changes work well, and add depth of character and intrigue to even Christie's fascinating creation. One such contribution is Branagh's Poirot which, while I will not go into detail, is a brilliantly satisfying choice which makes the usually taciturn and ascerbic character more approachable and likeable, aware of his own shortcomings and has a character arc which dovetails beautifully with the theme and complexities of the story.

If you have not read the book or seen the 1974 movie, which  by the way is very good, and are then fortunate enough to be able to see this 2017 version with virgin eyes, do NOT watch any trailers, see any interviews, read any opinions but go straight to the movie with childlike delight. If you ARE familiar with the story then go to revel in the brilliant directing. Branagh stages the film like a fairy tale with all the exotic detail that was Stamboul (Old Istanbul) in 1934 and the extreme elegance of the Orient Express which in its day was host to Princesses and Counts. The colors are bright, the costumes splendid reflections of the complex suspects. And enjoy the sheer artistry of Branagh direction as he shoots with elegance equal to the time and place. He uses mirrors, windows and framing to fracture images hinting at characterizations; overhead shots to both reveal and hide clues at the same time. Dramatic events are bold and large as life; intimate scenes feel almost intrusive into private tensions and personal conflicts.   At turns I laughed out loud and was brought to tears.

And Branagh knows how to work an ensemble cast. From the musical rendition of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost to the light comedy A Midwinter's Tale to Hamlet with its massive star studded cast, he knows when to shine and when to hold back and always gives every member of his cast ample opportunity to be memorably in the forefront.

Every one of the actors does a superlative job. Not suprising as any director who could inspire a good Shakesepearean performance out of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing could get a good perfromance out of even a dust mop. But most of these guys do not need such inspiration as they are already accomplished actors.

It is my honor and delight to mention each of the main performers:

Kenneth Branagh, director and lead, plays Poirot himself. I have seen enough Branagh to know that if he thought someone else could have done a better job he would have hired him. I'll tell you this is the best Poirot or classic detective of this genre I have seen anywhere.

Johnny (Jack Sparrow) Depp plays Edward Ratchett, American gangster and suspicious ne'er-do-well who brings a frightening intensity to what otherwise could have been a cookie cutter stereotype.

Sir Derek Jacobi – friend and collaborator of Branagh in a number of previous outings from the aforementioned Hamlet to Henry V to Cinderella, plays Edward Henry Masterman, British manservant to Ratchett. Jacobi is a knighted Shakespearean thespian who lends a graceful sympathy to Masterman.

Josh (Beauty and the Beast) Gad plays Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's assistant, lends a surprisingly effective though odd combination of Bogart and Peter Lorre from Casablanca into this character of questionable motives.

Daisy (Rey from Star Wars) Ridley plays Mary Debenham, stepping away from her interstellar Jedi to bring a singular classy elegance to her role as governess.

Leslie Odom portrays Dr. Arbuthnot, a man of many surprsing talents with skill and credibility.

 Dame Judy Densch – M, Shakespearean actress of tremendous dignity and comportment – continues to demonstrate her command of her art in even one of the smaller roles as the elderly Princess Dragomiroff.

Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin from Spiderman, Platoon, Odd Thomas, voice of Gill in Finding Nemo) equally at home in comedy or drama, as villain or hero, brings his many talents to bare for  the German professor Gerhard Hardman.

 Olivia Coleman is solid as Princess  Dragomiroff's personal maid.

Manuel Garcia (Magnificent 7) Rulfo is charming as Biniamino Marquez the Italian born newly Americanized citizen car salesman.

Marwan Kenzari is Pierre Michel, the ubiquitous conductor.

Michele Pfeiffer redeems herself from her awful participation in the terrible Mother! as the wealthy manhunting widow, commanding and entertaining in every scene she's in.

Luc Boynton portrays the fragile ephermeal Countess.

Sergei Polunin is almost comic relief in his intensity as the tightly wound Count, protective and attentive husband of the Countess.

Tom Bateman plays Bouc, playboy, friend of Poirot and ultimately responsible representative of the owners of the Express with style and contagious enthusiasm.

Penelope (Pirates of the Caribbean, Nine) Cruz, in a surprising turn plays Pilar Estravados, the intense missionary with an unexpected tough streak.

So go see this masterpiece of film making. Whether you have never heard of Agatha Christie before or if you've got the story memorized from a previously favorite version, you will more than be rewarded for your time in viewing this crown jewel retelling of the ultimate murder mystery.

* Branagh's Hamlet is the most spectacularly filmed Hamlet ever to grace the screen and the ONLY filmed theatrical unabridged Hamlet so far in existence.

 

 

 

 

 

Suburbicon: Clooney sinks a Coen comedy

SHORT TAKE: Clooney’s failed attempt to walk in the shoes of the Coen brothers, Suburbicon is supposed to be a noir comedy in the line of Fargo but sinks under the heavy handed weight of Clooney’s attempt to be socially relevant.

LONG TAKE: Years ago the Coen brothers wrote a darkly comic script about a quiet average suburban family who descends slowly and inexorably into evil and ultimately madness beginning with one bad decision. That script lay fallow until George Clooney – alumni of multiple Coen films, including two of my favorites –

Hail, Caeser! and o brotherO Brother, Where Art Thou? – decided to film it.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS:

The premise of the main story deals with the disintegration of a family subsequent to a robbery which results in the death of the paraplegic mom, Rose (Julianna Moore). As the story unfolds, like the gradual rotting of a supporting beam to a house, the unnatural complacency of the husband, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) during the break in, the displays of grief amongst his friends and family that he obviously does not share, the quick injection of the twin sister Margaret (also Julianna Moore) into the mother’s place all begin to develop the smell of what Big Daddy from Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof might have referred to as “mendacity”. gardner and margaretThat is – the husband and the deceased wife’s sister are lying and definitely up to no good. Much of this growing tragedy is seen through the eyes of their 12 year old boy Nicky (Noah Jupe).

What struck me about the machinations of Gardner was the “Banality of Evil” – a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt – the ease with which otherwise ordinary decent men can be lured into committing great evil.

At its best moments, Suburbicon reminded me of the movie Good – starring Viggo “Aragorn” Mortensen and Jason “Lucius Malfoy” Isaacs. Good is about a decent ordinary man named John Halder (Mortensen) who is slowly lured, one simple, poorly chosen decision at a time, into having his mother euthanized, betraying his best friend and family to hideous deaths, and becoming a functionary of the Nazi party, ending in the weight of his guilt pushing him into madness. Good is a tragic tale of the noble man whose flaw of stunning self-interest destroys him and everyone around him. Good is a fascinating movie heartbreakingly told with complexity and depth of purpose. But – at the deliberate risk of being punny – Suburbicon is NOT Good.

There is an especially telling scene in Suburbicon where Lodge calls his son, Nicky, into his office. Nicky, by witness of a number of incriminating events subsequent to his mother’s murder, has already inferred his father and aunt’s complicity. Aside from the terrible vulnerability a child would feel, he has been betrayed by his father in the most fundamental of ways. intimidatingHis father has not only failed to protect their family but he has opened the door to permit evil and chaos wreck their will upon their home. carSo driven is Lodge by his own mortally self-indulgent passions, that he has tried very little to even pretend sympathy or connection with his son throughout this ordeal. Knowing his son’s suspicions Lodge enters the bathroom where Nicky is bathing – metaphorically and physically vulnerable – to cajole then berate Nicky into agreeing that what he knows – he does NOT know. Then in a later scene he lectures his son on his failings, rationalizing the boy’s grief and suspicions on being undisciplined and coddled by his dead mother.  Lodge’s thinly veiled justifications for his own abominable deeds reek of the casual self justifications offered by the Nazis at Nuremberg.

This is as dark a story as one might tell and in the hands of the Coen brothers who directed equally dark themed topics like Fargo through the medium of humor they become multilayered stories which make you wiser for having watched them. But wherein the Coens guide their films through those grim forests with the lightening lantern of humor, Clooney takes himself too seriously and drives the Coen scripted screenplay to murky depths. The trailers advertise a black comedy. What we get is a noir which attempts and fails humor like someone who uses a hand buzzer in a funeral line.

To underscore Clooney’s heavy handedness he adds to the Coen script a clunky grafting of the real life incident of the Myers family in Bush, Pennsylvania in 1957, wherein a black family’s entrance into an otherwise white suburban community results in two weeks of harrassment culminating in a neighborhood riot. Clooney is too intent on castigating the memory of early white suburbia as uniformly viciously racist based upon a single isolated incident, rather than craft the Aesop-like Coen tale to which we are used.

There is some small merit to the historical event’s inclusion to the Coen brother’s film as a macrocosm of chaos, as it were, to the microcosm of the family’s disintegration. In addition, as a clunky plot point, the riots act as a convenient McGuffin to explain why the neighbors don’t notice the insanity unfolding in the Lodge’s home. But Clooney cannot resist the urge to overlay his own obvious disdain and suspicion of middle class America upon the story all the while in an act of hypocrisy more wryly amusing than the movie, patronizingly presents the beseiged black family not as individuals but as de-personalized racial symbols. Neither adult has a first name and the father does not even have any lines. The only personality given to the black family is through their son Andy and only then through his friendship with the white Nicky Lodge child next door.

Samuel Goldwyn once famously said to an idealistic screenwriter with visions of teaching the public a socially meaningful lesson: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Clooney would have been wise to heed that advice.

Hopefully Clooney will learn, if he directs any movies in the future, from the admonition that Edmund Kean allegedly gave upon his death bed: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

As a side note – if anyone was wondering – I looked for a connection to Satyricon – the story whose obvious title similarity screams for comparison – and really couldn’t find much – aside from the fact Satyricon in all of its manifestations from Roman literature to Fellini – were just bawdy house sensualities with about as much deep meaning as your average porno film. I suppose it is possible the title was simply intended as a warning that this story might start out as an innocent  look at suburban life in the 50’s but will become an excuse to roll around in undiluted profane sexuality and raw graphic violence and bloodshed.

A NEW POST – A NEW LEAF

In both the reference to a movie of the same name, and as an analogy for the fact we are taking a break from the ongoing much longer blog about Back to the Future and fatherhood —–

We interrupt this multi-post on Back to the Future to bring you – as John Cleese might say – something completely different.

I would venture to say that most, if not all of you, have never heard of the movie A New Leaf. Penned, directed and starring Elaine May, co-starring the iconic Walter Matthau, this is a small budget film made in 1971 based upon the short story, The Green Heart, by Jack Ritchie. The protagonist, Henry Grahame, (Matthau) is a self-absorbed, self-indulgent aristocratic heir who runs through his family fortune until, in his late thirties finds himself without friends or fortune. There is only one person in the world who cares anything about him, Harold (the delightful singer and Shakespearean theatrical actor, George Rose), Henry’s valet, who sums up the basis for his loyalty to Henry in this one speech: “How many men these days require the services of a gentleman’s gentleman? How many men have your devotion to form, sir? You have managed, in your own lifetime Mr. Graham, to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”

Of course, Harold tempers this with the warning that if Mr. Graham continues to be poor, he immediately tenders his two week notice.

Henry quickly realizes that, for him, there are only two options: suicide…………….or marrying rich. With Harold’s aide Henry embarks on a quest to find a rich widow or single heiress who would be tolerable to his refined tastes and isolated ways. He soon discovers that while there are MANY candidates, he can’t stand any of them…until he finds the least suitable one of all. An extremely wealthy but ugliest of ugly ducklings. Shy, socially awkward, clumsy, naive, gullible – she is everything Henry would NOT want in a mate, aside from the money. However, it suddenly occurs to him, she would be quite easy to —— murder.

So begins the courtship and honey-murder, I mean —moon of one of the most charming little comedies I have ever seen. It is ultimately a film about the power of love, redemption and poetic justice, but told in the singularly most UN-conventional and UN-sentimental way I have ever seen demonstrated.

I REALLY am not going to spoil this one for you. You have to see it……if you can. It is quite hard to find and after much searching I located a copy on VHS.

But if possible, I recommend this movie as one of my all time favorites. This movie would be appropriate, with parental supervision, for even younger teens. Henry is quite chaste. There is very little profanity and no sex. Henry’s SOLE vice is avarice. The only questionable moment is when one socialite attempts to seduce him and Henry, in a breathtaking moment of humor, literally runs screaming from her.

Walter Matthau is at his finest in a brilliant example of miscasting gone right. Aside from Hello Dolly, I can’t think of a less appropriate vehicle for Matthau. But – as in Hello Dolly – he is such an amazing actor that he pulls off the deliciously arrogant and thoroughly self-centered Henry while making him – somehow – adorable.

Elaine May is perfectly terrific as the totally INcapable Henrietta Lowell. Vulnerable, dependent, socially oblivious and educated to the point of being a blithering idiot in everything except her one field of interest – botony – May creates a child-like character who is both endearing and extremely annoying at the same time. You come to understand why Henry would consider killing her yet dread her disappearance. May is probably not familiar to too many. She made her biggest mark with Mike Nichols as half of an improvisational comedy duo and did a good deal of stage work. She was in only about a dozen films, including a teensy part in The Graduate, wrote only 10 screenplays and directed only four movies, the last mostly because of her tendency to go way over budget. As an aside, one of her directorial efforts was Ishtar, the biggest financial flop in history at that time.

But she did manage to produce A New Leaf – this beautiful blossom of a movie.