Rocketman

Think back—how many popular music star biopics have you seen that follow this arc: sincere artist’s unexpected (if inevitable) rise from obscurity to massive success, addiction to alcohol/drugs, shaky career trajectory, painful rehabilitation, ultimate triumph? Don’t any ascending stars watch these movies? Maybe it’s a comment on the how young people perceive their invulnerability. Or on filmmakers’ affinity for formula.

Rocketman, which covers Elton John’s early career, has those elements. Blessedly, it is not that movie (trailer). Writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher have accomplished something much more interesting and creative.

In the opening scene, Elton John (played brilliantly by Taron Egerton) strides down an empty hallway in full sparkly devil bodysuit, cape, cap, and horns and plunks himself in a chair at an AA meeting. “I know how this goes,” he says and enumerates his many addictions. The group leader’s probing returns him to his childhood where he picks out tunes on the piano by ear. Back in the support group, in costume, he wrenches off the horns.

He’s taken back to other earlier events, and each time he return to the group, another piece of his outrageous costume is gone. Clearly, he’s stripping off the trappings of his onstage persona to get to the man underneath. So much more effective—and emotionally resonant—than the overhead shots of poor Ray Charles writhing on his rehab bed. (I love a great metaphor!)

When John is finally able to embrace the sweet child he was, well . . . Whatever process the real-life John went through, it worked. He’s been sober for 28 years.

This movie doesn’t set out to be chronologically precise biopic and is not limited by that form. It’s a musical, with toe-tapping dance numbers and bracing energy. The filmmakers weave in Elton John’s songs with their remarkable lyrics where they fit in the development of the character. The friendship between John and his forever lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is an emotional core of this story. Other relationships may implode or fade, but Taupin, whom John met thanks to a complete fluke, has been with him for fifty years.

The film does not deny audiences the considerable pleasures of the Johns/Taupin music, which Egerton delivers with enthusiasm. Plus there were probably blood-soaked feathers on the floor as people fought for the job of costume director, which ultimately went to Julian Day.

Do yourself a solid, see it!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics Rating: 91%; audiences: 88%.

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

Author Lynne Olson drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Princeton Public Library this week to hear her discuss her latest book, a biography of a mostly unheralded Frenchwoman, Marie-Madeleine Fourcade. Fourcade ran a loose network of 3,000 spies within Vichy France during the Nazi occupation, and Olson calls it the most influential organization spying on the Nazis in the war.

Born in 1909 to wealthy parents and raised in Shanghai, she married a military intelligence officer at age twenty, and ultimately had three children. During the war, she sent the children to Switzerland for safety and did not see them for years at a time. Sometime in there, Olson says, she had an affair with pilot hero and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince, et al.) She survived the war and many harrowing experiences and died in Paris in 1989.

The French Resistance movement, uncoordinated and spotty though it was, came in three flavors. Two have received considerable attention in films. First, sabotage—blowing up train tracks and the like (the Sebastian Faulks novel and film Charlotte Gray depict this nicely). Then there were the heroic efforts to help downed British and American pilots escape. The third, less cinematic job of the Resistance was intelligence gathering. Where are the troops headed, the armaments stored, the ships docked? This is the kind of information the Allies badly needed and Fourcade’s huge network collected and passed on.

You’ll recall that de Gaulle was in London during the war, but when Fourcade’s brother traveled there to offer the network’s services, characteristically, he would not cooperate. But MI6 would, not realizing for quite a while that the group’s leader, code name “Hedgehog,” was a woman. She was arrested several times and escaped twice. After D-Day, she was again captured, but that night she stripped down, held her dress between her teeth and wriggled through the bars of her cell, put her dress back on, and walked away.

She and one notable young woman who worked for her were able to get the information they did from unsuspecting Germans because, for the most part, no one took her seriously because she was a woman. She’s nearly forgotten today, Olson believes, for the same reason. After the war, de Gaulle created an organization to honor the war’s heroes—1032 of its 1038 members were men.

Olson’s conclusion is reinforced by the experience of another unheralded WWII spy, American Virginia Hall. One of the several new books (movies in the making!) about her is titled A Woman of No Importance.

Vittoria Colonna: A Renaissance Woman

Never heard of her, you say? Well, she was born a long time ago, in 1490, engaged at the age of three to a Spaniard, Fernando Francesco d’Ávalos, and married to him at age 15. They had no children and she saw little of him during their marriage, as he was off fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He died when she was 35.

Now a widow, with her parents also dead, Vittoria was her own boss, and she became the first woman poet published in Italy. At first she wrote love sonnets to her husband. It seems she adored him—who conspicuously did not love her—more after his death than during life. She wanted to become a nun, but Pope Clement refused—needing her to control the whims of her troublesome brother. Because of her wealthy background, she knew all the important people of her age.

Vittoria was a friend of the intellectual Marguerite de Navarre, became perhaps the closest friend of Michelangelo and fell into platonic love with Cardinal Pole, another neglected Renaissance character. Reginald Pole was an Englishman, exiled by Henry VIII because he opposed The Divorce. Pole was only two votes away from becoming Pope  in the mid-1500s and became the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury after Henry’s death.

Vittoria’s later poems were devotional, not romantic, and it’s ironic that Michelangelo, also a skilled poet, wrote love poems to her, while she did not write them to him. She died in 1547.

Her story was especially interesting because of a course I took last winter about the importance of the few highly educated women in the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the cultural lives of Italy and France, despite the strength of those patriarchical societies. They may not have had many rights, but they figured out a way to have influence. Vittoria herself inspired many women poets, who credited her with paving the way for them. The result was that, by 1599, Italy had 200 published women poets, compared to, say, England, with 12.

This is based on a presentation by Brandeis professor Ramie Targoff in Princeton last night. She’s the author of Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna. Writing in the New York Times, author Sarah Dunant said, “What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience.” Certainly the audience that heard her story last night in Princeton would agree.

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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On the Big Screen

Looking for a weekend movie? If I had it to do over, out of these three, I’d pick First Man.

The Wife

Beautifully acted by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and directed by Björn Runge, the movie is based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Anderson (trailer). For me, there was an unreality to the story’s central conceit that (in this day and age) a woman uses her writing talent to prop up her Nobel prize-winning and serially unfaithful husband for forty years. I ended up mad at her.

What I liked best? The smarmy performance of Christian Slater, determined to get a tell-all biography out of it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Colette is another movie in theaters now about a woman writer whose husband takes credit for her work and about a lot else too, judging by the previews. I’m not a Keira Knightley fan. But Dominic West as her husband . . . that’s tempting!

First Man

The biopic of Neil Armstrong was directed by Damien Chazelle (trailer), with a screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, who wrote Armstrong’s biography. Ryan Gosling does a fine job as the buttoned-up Armstrong, who can keep it together even when he’s on the verge of bouncing off the atmosphere into the void of space in the hair-raising opening sequence. And it’s fun to see Claire Foy as an American housewife rather than The Queen.

I liked the evocation of the 1960s throughout and those times, which, in retrospect seem simpler, but of course weren’t. The early days of the space program were a time of heroes, even though Chazelle doesn’t overdo it. Ignore the complaints that he doesn’t show the flag-raising ceremony on the moon. Chazelle wisely opted for a scene that would be meaningful to the very private Armstrong, not a rah-rah “we’re number one” ego-stroke for the country.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences: 64%.

The Old Man & the Gun

An aging Robert Redford portrays Forrest Tucker, a “gentleman bank robber,” who capped his career of prison escapes with an audacious escape from San Quentin at age 70. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer), the screenplay also had help from David Grann, author of a 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker.

Sissy Spacek is a cautious but interested late-in-life romantic partner, and Casey Affleck plays a dogged police detective who follows Tucker’s career of robberies and won’t give up the case to overbearing FBI agents. I also liked his robbery team, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. It’s a pleasantly diverting entertainment, and you can safely wait for Blu-Ray.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences: 62%.

Read the Book?
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Pages vs. the Silver Screen – 2018 Edition

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansmanThe real-life Ron Stallworth infiltrated the KKK in the late 70s, but in his movie, director Spike Lee resets the action earlier in the decade and makes some other changes for a stunning result. Every thoughtful American should see this riveting film (trailer), which ping-pongs between comedy and tragedy, passing repeatedly through high drama and providing first-rate acting from a fine cast, start to finish.

The comedy part comes from the ability of Colorado Springs’s first black police officer, Stallworth (played by John David Washington), to convince a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) that he’s actually a hate-filled white racist. The tragedy comes from considering that the racial issues that divided the country in the 1970s remain painfully relevant today. In a grim coincidence, I saw this film on August 12, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville’s deadly white supremacist rally.

Stallworth built his unlikely relationships by phone, but when his physical presence was needed, his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) stood in. Spike Lee could have made a predictable film out of this basic material, but he works it, proving nuance and impact. He intercuts footage of a KKK initiation ceremony with scenes from a black student organization’s meeting with an aging civil rights figure (Harry Belafonte). Two speeches received with wild enthusiasm by totally different audiences bookend the story: a compelling stemwinder early in the film by Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture, the name adopted by former Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, and, near the end of the film, a speech by David Duke carefully designed to mask his underlying meaning and make it more palatable to mainstream.

Self-awareness, loyalty, respect, humanity—these values are all on view, as are their opposites.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 77%.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace Based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel My Abandonment, this film, directed by Debra Granik, raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer (trailer). It was inspired by the true episode, which you can read about on Rock’s website, that in its conclusion is more unsettling than the film.

For four years, Vietnam Veteran Will (played by Ben Foster) has lived with his adolescent daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in Portland’s 5200-acre Forest Park, their camouflaged encampment further hidden by waist-high vegetation. Will apparently suffers from PTSD, and selling the drugs the VA gives him is one way the pair makes money. They visit the city for groceries and other supplies, though most of their time is spent in the rain forest.

Eventually, they are discovered. Unexpectedly, the authorities make a heroic effort to find a living arrangement that Will can tolerate. Helicopters spook him. Crowds spook him. Many things. For Tom’s benefit, he struggles to adapt to a more regularized life. The love between them is palpable, but will it be enough?

Foster gives a strong performance; McKenzie has received considerable praise, though the scanty dialog doesn’t give her much to work with, and she hits just a few emotional notes. You can count the times she smiles on one hand.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 100%; audiences 86%.

The Book – Film Smackdown

Quite a few other movies this year are based on well-regarded books, as noted in this Literary Hub article. Which works better? Based on Book Marks ratings for books and Rotten Tomatoes for films, here’s the score:

  • Both darn good: Annihilation, Crazy Rich Asians, We the Animals, Lean on Pete, Sharp Objects, The Wife, The Looming Tower (I’m watching it on Hulu now)
  • Books markedly better than the movie: Red Sparrow, The Yellow Birds, Ready Player One, On Chesil Beach, Dietland
  • Movies markedly better than the book: Uh-oh.
  • Still to come in 2018: Bel Canto (read the book years ago; looking forward to the film and Ken Watanabe!)

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

The Catcher Was a Spy

The Catcher Was a SpyIt might almost be worth seeing the new movie Gotti with a sneering John Travolta in the lead, simply because it has received a (surprisingly) rare “0” rating from Rotten Tomatoes critics. Unanimity about a movie’s goodness or apparent awfulness is so rarely achieved that this may be a cinematic low-water-mark. A filmic Sahara. A future cult classic.

Last weekend, I went to another movie most critics have panned, because it is crammed with components I like: spies! history! Nazis! baseball! Based on a book by Nicholas Dawidoff, it recounts a bit of the true story of Red Sox catcher Moe Berg and was directed by Ben Lewin (who gets most of the blame), with a good script by Robert Rodat (trailer).

It wasn’t perfect, and maybe it’s slow for action film devotees, but the acting was superior. Paul Rudd played Berg, a man who loved baseball and had a great smile, but was hard to know. Through his Princeton connections, he was recruited to the fledgling OSS by its head Wild Bill Donovan (Jeff Daniels), mostly because of his facility with languages and despite his somewhat ambiguous sexuality. He has a girlfriend in Boston (Sienna Miller) for much of the film, but that’s an on-again, off-again thing, first with his baseball travel schedule, then his work in Washington and overseas.

Finally he gets the kind of assignment he craves: the U.S. has the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Allies believe the Germans are attempting this too, led by Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). But they can’t be certain (sorry). Berg is teamed up with a military man (Guy Pearce) and a physicist (excellent work by Paul Giamatti) to find out. If these suspicions are correct, Berg is to assassinate him. Unlike so many celluloid spies, Rudd’s Berg seems actually to weigh the significance of this assignment.

In a key scene early in the film, Berg signals the pitcher, but the pitcher waves him off. The opponent on first tries to steal second, but Berg manages to get the ball there in time to throw him out, ending the inning. Walking back to the dugout, he says to the pitcher, “Never ignore my signal when a man’s going to try to steal second.” Pitcher: “How’d you know he’d try?” “I just knew.” Berg’s skill in sizing up people was perfect for the OSS.

Rex Reed in the New York Observer said, it’s “a juicy story told blandly,” but still a movie worth seeing, and I agree. Maybe Gotti should get a second look.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 32%; audiences 67%.