6/23/17

My Cousin Rachel : Adequate, but Not Memorable?


MY COUSIN RACHEL (2016)
Directed by Roger Michell
Fox Searchlight, 106 minutes, PG-13
★★★


"Did she? Didn't she? Who's to blame?" These words appear at the beginning and end of the latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel. The 1952 film stored Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. Talk about big shoes to fill! Happily Rich Weisz is up to the task of the role of Rachel Ashley, and Sam Claflin is fine as Philip. On a less exciting note, the film is decent but is more of a passing thought than a lingering presence.

The setting is 19th century Cornwall. Philip has just left university with the revelation that he cares nothing for books, the wider world, or clever banter. It's the rural life for him. Philip is an orphan, but a lucky one whose cousin Ambrose acted as a surrogate father. Alas, family news is not good. Ambrose has gone off to Italy, where he married a young wife named Rachel. Shortly thereafter, Ambrose took seriously ill. By the time Philip arrives in Florence, his the cousin has died, news delivered in an offhand manner by Rinaldi (Pier Franceco Favino), an Italian man cleaning up affairs at the empty villa, to whom Philip takes an instant dislike. He's a bit rash, our young Philip—a sort of impetuous man-boy.

Back in Cornwall, Philip is now master of the estate, a role disturbed when he begins to find cryptic and desperate notes among Ambrose's effects suggesting that Rachel is to blame for his demise. Was she? Or was it a brain tumor? Philip is convinced that she is to blame and wishes to avenge his cousin–until Rachel shows up in Cornwall and he is the smitten. This is much to the chagrin of young Louise Kendall (Holliday Granger) who has loved Philip since both were children.

Rachel proceeds to remake the dreary estate, often overspending her allowance. Philip doesn't mind. In fact, he hopes to marry her when he turns 25 and has complete control over his affairs. But does she want such a rash, immature partner? The situation is complicated by the fact that Rachel allows him to possess her sexually on the eve of his important birthday. Does she desire him? The estate? Or is she just being Continental? And why does Rinaldi keep showing up? Is Rachel's outward goodness her true character, or is it her fiery anger that occasionally boils to the surface?

Some of Philip's closest associates–his lawyer and his godfather (Iain Glenn, Sir Jorah in Game of Thrones)–warn Philip to curb his infatuation, but is he too far gone to heed them? What are we to make of the sudden turn for the worse in Philip's health? Is the tea Rachel gives him an herbal cure, or is she slowly poisoning him? Is she, perhaps, a witch?

All of this resolves and, in the end, makes sense, but with the impact of a pulled punch. The film is a sort of mash up of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1949), Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen. Like a lot of pastiche, it's like a copy of a copy. None of this is to say that My Cousin Rachel is a bad film; it's just one that leaves us with the vague feeling that it should have been better. Ultimately, it feels like a costume drama whose major cinematic virtue is the wild Cornish seacoast. Otherwise, it would have been a good Masterpiece Theatre offering.

Rob Weir

6/22/17

Massachusetts Democrats a Symbol of Why the Party Loses


 
Hello, my name is Rob and I am politically disenfranchised. When I go to the voting polls my choices are between Republicans, the selfish and savage minions of Wall Street, and Democrats, the foolish and idiotic mouthpieces of Nowhere.

I live in Massachusetts, putatively one of bluest states in what is often referred to as the Union. I assume the word “Union” is meant to be ironic. Ha ha! It’s almost as funny as terms like “representative” and “The People.”  I don’t mean to sound bitter; I’m actually very sad, because these days "democracy" is just a comfortable lie we tell ourselves.

I won’t write about the Clown in the White House or his Reign of Error. Nor is there much I can add to what has already been said about the systematic ways in which Republicans pander to greed, mephitic social irresponsibility, and mind numbing disregard for the very future of the planet. I expect this from the Republicans. I also expect Democrats to behave like Franklin Roosevelt, not George W. Bush with better grammar. Silly me.

It’s pretty obvious that Democrats are incapable of ruling. I’m not just talking about the four recent Congressional elections they managed to lose to candidates defending the most indefensible politician since Joe McCarthy. I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that Democrats could lose to an eight-year-old write-in candidate if Nancy Pelosi endorsed the Democrat.   

The problem is so simple that the same eight-year-old could grasp it: Democrats don’t believe in democracy any more than Republicans do, but they’re not as good at hiding that fact. Let me illustrate with a case from the Blue Bay State. Last fall a voter referendum did something the Massachusetts General Court (our name for the legislature) had refused to do for years: it legalized recreational marijuana. The same referendum, which is supposed to have the weight of law, placed a maximum 12% tax on pot and placed into the hands of local voters the decision over whether individual towns could ban sales or farms.   Call it grassroots politics, with all intended wordplay.

Before continuing, let me state that I am not a pot smoker. I have never used any drug that didn’t come with an Rx on the label; when you grow up in an alcoholic family, getting high is not a phrase that rings with romantic allure. I’m neither pro- nor anti-pot. I get cross, though, when someone bogarts democracy. The voter intent couldn’t be more clear—done deal.

Except it’s all gone up in smoke thus far. From Day One, Democrats have tried to undo voter will, even though Republican Governor Charlie Baker has signaled his willingness to sign a bill into law. That gesture shouldn’t be necessary in the first place—the whole damn point of a citizens’ referendum is that elected politicians don’t get to say. A word on Massachusetts politics: Democrats control the House by a 124-36 majority and the Senate by 34-6. There is no worry that the GOP can sandbag anything, not even with a gubernatorial veto. Nonetheless, Democrats tried to nullify the referendum altogether, a move that not surprisingly met with so many challenges that they backed off. Next came the successful effort to delay implementation of legal marijuana, which was supposed to happen this fall, but will be delayed for another six-twelve months.

Plenty of time to file amendments—more than a hundred so far, many filed by local pols that seem to think that the Catholic Church elected them, not ordinary voters. The current House version slaps a 28% tax on cannabis, a figure that probably won’t pass legal muster, but who knows? The House bill also gives control over local sales and farming to local officials, not voters. Is the real intent  simply to bog down everything until these fools can wrestle away the last semblance of mass democracy? I’d like to say that Senate leader Stan Rosenberg of Amherst has taken the lead in calling out the House. Alas, Rosenberg, who was a champion of local power before he became Senate leader, has joined the Glad-Hand Brigade and become a player. In lay terms, he  has morphed into Mister Waffle.

I'm not sure what will be the final fate of recreational pot in Massachusetts. That’s not the point. Democrats are supposed to represent the will of the masses, but they have no clue who or what the masses are anymore. They have become empty suits that wring their hands with other empty suits when they frequently assemble to dissect why they’ve lost still another election. And they still have no clue.

To all Democrats: Don’t ask me to get excited about your latest vacuous Madison Ave-style ad. Don’t call and ask for a donation unless you want to hear me say, “Political donations are not tax-deductible because politicians are not charities.” Maybe I’ll the word “charitable” to that rant as well. Don’t tell me I have to cast my vote so the Wall Street savages don’t win. Don’t bother, because I’m not sure it’s worth my effort to vote for anyone. I’m disenfranchised.  

6/21/17

Cezanne et moi is a Masterpiece--About Friendshiip

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CÉZANNE ET MOI (2016/17)
Directed by Danièle Thompson
Pathè, 116 minutes, R (language, nudity)
★★★★★

Cézanne et moi takes a look at two men whose work changed Western culture: painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and writer Emile Zola (1840-1902). Cézanne was among the first to declare Impression a spent force that had degenerated into inconsequential decorativeness. His Post-Impressionist works bridged the transition to Modernism with such impact that Picasso declared him, “The father of us all.” Zola was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in literature. His 20-volume Rouzon-Macquart series—which includes his masterwork Germinal (1885)—is the definitive fictional take on the tumultuous years in which France threw off the reign of Louis Napoleon (1852-70) and established the Third Republic (1870-1940), though Zola also skewered the latter in a famed 1894 work, J’accuse in which he exposed the depths of French anti-Semitism.

Now this is out of the way, let me say that everything you’ve just read is secondary in Cézanne et moi. The film is really about deep friendship, tempestuous personalities, egoism, and the wounds that can be forgiven and those that cannot. It is easily the best new film I have seen this year. Don't listen to cranky reviewers whose idea of subtlety is a pause before something blows up. I was hooked from the opening sequences through the closing credits—and be sure to be settled in your seat to drink in both of them. In the first, master cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou lingers over jars of ocher, tubes of paint, vials of oil, and genre painting setups. It may be the lushest use of color I have seen since Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993). It is also the calm before the storm.

The movie opens with a schoolyard fight in which young Zola is being thrashed by elementary school bigots for being half Italian. (The child actor so evokes Jean-Pierre Léaud as to suggest homage to 400 Blows.) Zola is rescued by Cézanne in what may be the only fight he never started. This was the beginning of a deep friendship that stretched in the 1890s, when Cézanne’s perpetual enfant terrible behavior clashed too deeply with Zola’s bourgeois comfort and crippling self-doubts. Love is not too strong a word to describe their deep bond, the depths of which made their periodic estrangements tragically sad.   

Director Danièle Thompson uses a kaleidoscopic overview to highlight the Three Musketeers-like boyhood and adolescence of Paul, Emile, and their rotund sidekick Anchille. It works effectively to get us to a young adulthood in which Emile (Guillame Canet) is an impoverished and frustrated writer catching sparrows to feed himself and his widowed mother, Émilie* (Isabelle Candelier). By contrast, Paul (Guillaume Gallienne) is the son of haute bourgeois parents, though he is about to be cast out by an imperious father who finds Paul’s paintings offensive and frivolous. No matter, Emile and Paul assuage their setbacks in a whirlwind of café life, intellectual discourse with other disaffecteds (Pissaro, Monet, Renoir, de Maupassant), the occasional street brawl--like an infamous assault on well-heeled snobs at the 1863 Salon des Refusés--and mutual admiration of each other’s work, a task generally involving one telling the other that his failure complex is misguided. Paul also drowns his troubles in drink, trading art for paint, and models who are often also prostitutes—including Gabrielle (Alice Pol), who will later reemerge as Alexadrine Zola! 

Thompson takes us back and forth in time quickly so she can linger on Zola and Cézanne as adults. We see stunning role reversals: the hotheaded Paul living in rustic squalor amidst the tranquil countryside of Aix-en-Provence versus the measured Zola who thrives on the noise and political crises of Paris while slowly settling into the bourgeois life he outwardly detests.** These contradictions are among the topics of discussion that take place as the two stroll amidst the eye-popping ocher cliffs near Roussillon or in Zola’s stuffed, posh office. Slowly, but inexorably, mutual admiration gives way to mutual recrimination.

This film is a delight for the eyes and not just because of the colorful cliffs and lithe female nudes. Provence’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the dam Zola’s father built, Zola’s study, and the French countryside are characters in their own right, as is the Provencal light. Pay attention to how Dreujou contrasts Provence’s radiance with the shadow and subdued light of Paris or Zola’s home. We see this technique also in the somber and smoky hues of the tenements and cafés and sun-dappled Provencal picnics that are like tableaux of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. (Both men hated Manet’s work, by the way!) But the clash that divides is the erosion of support and respect for one another as it slides into hyper-critical attacks and unexamined self-centeredness.

Cézanne et moi is exceedingly well acted, with lots of juicy small parts expertly brushed into the film’s canvas. It is also superbly directed and, at turns, tender and heartbreaking. For my money, it’s hard to imagine we will see better cinematography in an upcoming film (though bet on some summer blockbuster winning the Oscar). This film made me think of friendship as a fragile figurine that must be handled with care, lest if fall and shatter. (Think ye of that high school yearbook with its sincere BFF inscriptions from people you’ve not had contact in decades.) Call this one a work of genius about two geniuses who made imprudent decisions.***

Rob Weir     


* The Zola family fortunes took a nosedive when Emile’s Italian-born father, an engineer who built a dam in Aix, died when Emile was just three. In the 1840s, an age before insurance was widespread, the death of a male breadwinner often spelled instant poverty.

**As an ironic footnote, Cézanne’s father left him a small fortune. Today, Cézanne’s work is far better known than Zola’s, though the latter is still considered a literary pillar.

 *** Among other bad calls: Cézanne smashed many of his canvasses and neither had the healthiest of relationships with women other than their mothers.

6/19/17

The Founder Half Good and Half Advertsing

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THE FOUNDER (2016)
Directed by John Lee Hancock
The Weinstein Company, 115 minutes, PG-13 (language)
★★★

The Founder is another example of the challenges of bio-pics. They are always  metaphorical tightrope walks. On one hand you want your central character to be sympathetic enough to keep the viewer's attention but on the other, a lot of intriguing people have more imperfections than a shattered milk bottle diamond. The Founder is similarly flawed. It takes a peek at a very imperfect individual: Ray Kroc (1902-1984), the mastermind who franchised MacDonald's.  

The title is ironic; although he later asserted that a store he started in Des Plaines, Illinois was the first MacDonald's, it was not Kroc's idea. The original MacDonald's was a hamburger joint in San Bernardino, California named for two brothers: Dick and Maurice MacDonald. Our action begins in 1954, when Kroc is a Willy Loman-like salesman for a milkshake maker almost no one wants. When Ray (Michael Keaton) gets an order for an army of them, he's so curious that he drives from Illinois to California to investigate. He is astounded to witness the booming little joint that Dick (Nick Offerman) and "Mac" (John Carroll Lynch) MacDonald are operating and it's the first time he's ever experienced a fast food take-out establishment. As he sits down on a bench, bites into his burger, and declares it the "best hamburger I've ever had," Ray begins to think big.

Here is the first (of many) times in which myth and reality clash. The MacDonalds were cranking out short order burgers, not filet mignon in a bun, so I doubt Kroc experienced an epicurean wet dream from that greasy patty. Also, for the record, White Castle had been around since 1921, and was well known in Illinois, where Kroc was born, raised, and based. The above scene also points the way for another of the film's flaws—John Lee Hancock can't decide if he wants to direct a character study or an extended MacDonald's ad. He opts for both, which is seldom the right way to go. I found the second route to be, if you will, unpalatable. Oddly, though, the film skips the decision to adopt a clown* as MacDonald's icon—perhaps because it has become controversial and is now used by activists a symbol of corporatism run amok.

The film is strongest when Hancock shows Kroc for what he was—an ambitious hustler, glad hander, and schemer. His 'genius' was to foresee the possibilities involved in fast food franchising during the post-World War II economic and baby booms. We also see his egoism, shown poignantly in his curt and heartless request for a divorce from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) so that he could pursue another man's wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who would eventually become his second wife and widow. That romance, however, is also slathered in Hollywood myths, including a wooing scene played out at MacDonald's window after hours that you'd find silly in a film about teenagers. Joan is also the center of another advertising moment. She gets credit for an instant milkshake powder that is tested in a posh Chicago restaurant and pronounced, "the best damn milkshake you've ever had." Ummm… no! That's why Mickey D's eventually went back to actual ice cream. And Joan was no angel, despite her later philanthropy. Ask anyone associated with the San Diego Padres when she owned the team.

Take away the embarrassing moments, and The Founder is actually a decent film. Keaton is a good enough actor to play both charming and oily convincingly. We witness Kroc's ruthlessness in driving out the MacDonald brothers for a cheap buyout, in reneging on verbal agreement to pay the brothers royalties, and in working with industrial lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak) to figure out that the key to fortune lay in control of real estate, not in salted fries, shakes, and assembly line burgers. The film takes us to 1980, when Kroc and Joan—whom he married in 1969—live amidst southern California gilded luxury and Ray preens before a mirror while rehearsing a speech for a different Ronald: presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

As a film, The Founder is a bit like a MacDonald's meal: fast, filling, and loaded with lots of crap you don't need. But, when you don't have time to cook literally or intellectually, those salted fries fit the bill.  

Rob Weir

* For the record, Ronald MacDonald was patterned after future weatherman Willard Scott's portrayal of Bozo the Clown, a character developed in the 1940s. In 1963, Scott played Ronald "the hamburger crazy" clown in three MacDonald's TV ads. However, Ronald didn't become the corporate symbol until 1974.