10/15/21

Supernova Well-Acted but...

 

SUPERNOVA (2021)

Directed by Harry Macqueen

Bleecker Street, 95 minutes, R (language, adult situations, brief nudity)

★★ ½ 

 

 

 

If you love someone, could you let them go? That's the burning question in Supernova.

 

Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) have been a gay couple for more than 20 years. Sam, a concert pianist, and Tusker, a writer and amateur astronomer, have led a good life – travel, gourmet food, lively friends, family acceptance, and intimacy. Their world is shattered by Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia.

 

That's the fulcrum of this heart-versus-mind film. We come in upon a quietly tense and sullen road trip. The mood is set early when we notice that Tusker can’t really read the road map, falls asleep easily, and confesses that he did not bring his medication with him. He tells Sam that they both know it doesn't help, which establishes the central issue: Sam sees, but looks away because he can't bear to admit the truth.

 

The two are on their way to England's Lake District to revisit a site where they first camped, a prelude to visiting Sam’s sister, Lily (Pippa Haywood) and her husband Clive (Peter MacQueen). The eventual plan is for Sam to make his return to the concert stage. A surprise party reunites Sam with dear friends he hasn't seen in a while, but one of them lets a proverbial cat out of the bag. This and discoveries Sam was supposed to make ex post facto takes us to the crisis point: Tucker plans to commit suicide before he could no longer exercise that option.

 

I’m not giving away much, as this is pretty much all the film is about. What would you do if you were Sam? You can imagine being strong enough to help those who can't care for themselves and won't even know who you are, but are you? Who gets to choose, those inflicted or those who love them?

 

Some movies are slow because their plots need time to marinate; Supernova is more like a short story padded to novel length. Frankly, it would've been a better one-act play than a movie.

 

Two things partially redeem it. First, Dick Pope’s cinematography is glorious. Granted it's easier when you have the Lake District as your backdrop. Pope, though, skillfully exploits its changeable light and weather to match moods demanded by the screenplay.

 

Second, we need actors the caliber of Firth and Tucci to make the threadbare script work. Sam is a combination of silent rage and fear, his clenched jaw tongue pressed against cheek our tip that he's not really in control. Tucci, by contrast, is calm, rational, and last-hurrah charming. He knows the score and is willing to concede before the last inning is played.

 

Supernova looks good and is well-acted, but it's a so-so film. In addition to being   stretched to 95 minutes, its title is a contrivance. Tusker explains to a young girl that she is made of star stuff, but what are we to conclude about that? Tusker shows no indication of mysticism of any sort, nor does he connect his stargazing to his portending fate.

 

There is a more substantive flaw in the film. For a guy who is supposedly in the midst of an inevitable decline, Tusker is too often lucid, logical, and capable of sustained discourse. It would be safe to say that Tusker would have to end his own life, as he would not meet doctor-assisted suicide standards for such a choice. Overall, Tusker’s part is under-written. A clear indication of dementia – absent from the film– is that sufferers recycle the same remarks in exactly the same words. They also have trouble following conversations and are certainly not the life of a party.

 

See Supernova for its exteriors and to observe how two great actors play off one another. Frankly, though, Sam and Tusker should've been played by gay actors. Firth and Tucci are convincingly tender playing old lovers, but they are decidedly straight.

 

Supernova will tug at your heart strings, but for a more accurate portrayal of dementia, see superior films such as Away from Her (2006), I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015), Still Alice (2014), and The Father (2020).

 

Rob Weir

10/14/21

The New Puritanism? Woke Up and Go Back to Sleep!



 

Consider these two quotes. The first is from British author L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” The second comes from Rhode Islander Stephen Hopkins. When asked whether Colonists should consider a Declaration of Independence, he replied, “… in all my years I ain't never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about.”

 


 

Would that we took such sentiments to heart. We recently celebrated–if a day filled with rancor can use that verb–what is now called Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly Columbus Day and, in some places, Pulaski Day. My local paper saw a spate of op-eds for and against the new appellation. I think we should call it Heritage Day and honor everyone’s roots, but that’s not how things work anymore. 

 

 

Other calls to alter the past came on the heels of the holiday renaming controversy. As if poor Pawtucket, Rhode Island, needs more problems, a new statue to William Blackstone, the area’s first white settler, abstractly depicts him riding a bull and reading a book. The Narragansett Nation wants it to come down, as whites displaced and killed Native peoples. In Northampton, Massachusetts, a biennial art show was canceled because a person identifying as a Native American poet objected to one painting (of 60 works) he claims promotes genocide. If you look at the work, it’s hard to make that leap of logic, but the local arts commission deemed the outcry so dangerous that it cancelled the entire show. 

 

 

 


 

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum, writes of the “New Puritanism,” which she blames for "trampling democratic discourse." She takes to task both Conservative and Liberal Puritans. I will ignore Puritans on the extreme right, as I find them irredeemable. I am, however, distressed with Liberal Puritans, though I share nearly all of their values. It saddens me when they behave exactly like the pejorative “Snowflakes” the hard right calls them. Is there any substantive difference between the censorship of Conservative or Liberal Puritans?  The latter often want no part of anything that upsets them or challenges their value systems, though both are prerequisites for true discourse. Overnight, dialectics have been replaced by orthodoxy posing as revealed truth and sanitized history linked to political ideology.

 

It is laudable to oppose racism, battle for equality, and support universal rights. If only the latter really meant universal. Have you noticed the situational ethics and cultural relativism involved in explaining away things such as women in burkas, black-on-black crime, or Palestinian rockets? Or how all things Christian, white, or Israeli are axiomatically soaked in privilege? It is assuredly true that systems of power come into play, but “universal” is an absolute. Violence and inequality are either justified or they’re not. If parsed, it’s not universal; it’s a double standard.

 

Alas, many Puritan Liberals seek to rewrite things that upset their worldview. Much of my career was based on “teaching the controversy.” I’ve always felt we must look in the face of history, discuss what was done, why it was done, and what it meant–to them, not us. It’s not necessary to applaud the beliefs or deeds of the past, just understand them. Note to Millennials: You did not discover that many white people have been racist; that’s why we study Indian Removal, slavery, xenophobia, and nativism. Were these things wrong? In a system of universal, immutable values, yes.

 

But let’s not confuse the ideal with the real, or conflate wrong-doing with pure evil. Open that can of worms and you can excise Martin Luther King Jr.  from history books; he was a serial womanizer. Should we not discuss Native Americans who warred on enemy tribes? Or Islam, which gave us the very word assassin? Should we ponder what generations 20, 50, or 100 years from now will make of current sacrosanct values?  You cannot white-wash history, but neither can you black-wash, brown-wash, red-wash, or yellow-wash it.

 

I recall two times Liberal Puritans accused me of “micro-aggression.” I was once called on the carpet for doing accents in class, to wit, a Scottish brogue. Should I mention that I am third-generation Scottish, grew up with Scottish relatives and neighbors, and was engaging in self-deprecating humor involving my own culture?  If you think this is ridiculous, another “Snowflake” said I was racist for using "the N-word.” Actually, I didn't; I made her read the actual word in a primary source document. That seemed appropriate in a course on the Civil War involving enslavers justifying human bondage. I’ve yet to read an enslaver that used the PC term “N-word.”

 

How about troubling monuments? There are legitimate reasons for relocating some. No African-American should have to walk past a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest to enter a courthouse or voting booth. I've also never understood the Southern adulation of Robert E. Lee, whose picture I displayed alongside that of Benedict Arnold and asked if there was a difference between the two. (Spoiler: Arnold actually fought on the same side as the Founders before he changed sides.) But rather than tearing down statues, we should use them to teach controversy.

 


Puritan Liberals should never be so na├»ve as to believe their views will prevail. Is it conceivable that in the near future Puritan Conservatives will demand that Donald Trump's statues stand in front of courthouses? Is it conceivable they will seek to unseat Arthur Ashe and other African Americans as “offensive?” Look at what happened in Maine, where off-the-rails Governor Paul LePage removed a mural or Frances Perkins, the first female Cabinet officer, from a place of prominence. Bad for business, said he of the Puritan Right.

 

Various points of view must be aired, or only those from the winning side du jour will prevail. The same is true of freedom of speech and academic freedom. To Liberal Puritans I offer advice they don’t wish to hear: “Woke” up and go back to sleep!

10/13/21

The Plot is a Spellbinding Mystery

 

THE PLOT (2021)

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

Celadon Books, 323 pages.

★★★★★

 


 

 

The Plot is a psychological mystery that makes you think you’ve identified its keys, but keeps you just enough off balance that you don't trust your instincts.

 

Jake Finch Bonner is an author whose first book garnered enough acclaim to attract an agent for a second novel, which did not review or sell well. That agent, Matilda, continues to represent Jake, but the once “promising” young author looks like a one-hit wonder and he certainly can’t support himself on his paltry royalties. Keeping the wolf away from the door entails teaching in the MFA program in Fiction, Poetry, and Personal Nonfiction at Ripley College in its summer Ripley Symposia in Creative Writing.

 

Ripley is described as being in “northern” Vermont and internal clues suggest it's a composite of Lyndonville, Marlboro College, Goddard, and Middlebury's Bread Loaf program. It’s quite a comedown for a Long Island lad who went to Wesleyan. He writes and writes, but is spinning his wheels. Into his gloom comes Evan Parker, an obnoxious summer student with an inflated opinion of himself. He bruskly informs Jake that he can’t be taught anything and has no plans of sharing his work with his peers or instructors. Pretty brassy for a guy who has no publishing credits to his name. Parker boasts he has a “million-dollar plot” and only begrudgingly writes eight pages for Jake’s class. It’s little more than a brief sketch of several characters, but to Jake’s horror, it's compelling material, though he has no idea where Parker intends to take any of it.

 

Several years later, Ripley closes and Jake takes a winter symposium gig at a small school near Cobleskill, New York. It's so dreadful that he dreams of being back at Ripley. There’s even a student from California who can't fathom why there is no avocado toast in the cafeteria. Jake does, however, discover Evan Parker’s obituary and learns that he never published his novel.

 

Does Jake have an obligation to take what little he knows of Parker's idea, spin it, and see where it takes him? Would that be plagiarism, literary responsibility, or independent creation? As Jake learns, no one can copyright a plot­–not that he had the foggiest idea what Parker had in mind. Three years later, Jake riffs off what he inferred and his novel Crib is a sensation: two million sold in its first run, an Oprah pick, TV appearances, packed readings, a New York City apartment, and Matilda begging him for his next book. A book trip to Seattle involves a side visit to a joke of a radio show, but he does meet Anna Williams, the producer, and the two take to each other like condoms and sex.

 

What could go wrong? Writer’s block for one thing, but more disturbing are emails from “Talented Tom” that say, “You are a thief. We both know it,” and degenerate from there. Is this some kind of Tom Ripley/Ripley College reference? It can’t be Evan Parker, who died of an opioid overdose just months after Jake met him at Ripley. Who is sending these messages and why? As in many mystery tales, Jake doesn't follow the advice to leave matters into the hands of the experts such as his agent and the publisher’s lawyers. He investigates on his own in a journey that takes him north to Rutland, Vermont, and south to Georgia. Each new email causes Jake to unravel a bit more.

 

The truly masterful thing about The Plot is that it's extremely well plotted! In the too- crowded field of mystery writers, Jean Hanff Korelitz also stands out because she can really write. It's a testament to her craft that we begin to wonder if Jake saw more of Parkers novel than he claimed, or if his tormentor is a psycho. We feel Jake’s existential dread and experience feelings of creepiness, though nothing more pointed than emails prick Jake’s privileged bubble. This is one mystery whose resolution I did not see coming. The final twist makes sense, but it nonetheless staggered me.

 

Rob Weir

 

10/11/21

Mary Shelley a Tepid Take on its Namesake

 

MARY SHELLEY (2018 USA release)

Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour

IFC Films, 121 minutes, PG-13 (adult situations)

★★

 


 

Mary Godwin Shelley (1797-1851) was a fascinating individual. She was the daughter of proto-feminist icon Mary Wollstonecraft and theoretical anarchist William Godwin. Her mother died shortly after giving birth, but Mary was well educated. She grew up strong- willed, intelligent, and stroppy enough to defy her father by becoming the lover of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and eventually his wife. She is best known to history as the author of Frankenstein, though it was first published under Percy's name. She badgered her father to put her name on the cover when Percy drowned in 1822. What's not to like about such a firebrand?

 

The answer, alas, is the lame biopic Shelley, which doesn't have the courage to spotlight the very qualities that made Mary’s name immortal. Mary is played by Elle Fanning, who is shortchanged by an immature script from Emma Jensen and PBS-Lite misdirection from Haifaa al-Mansour. We certainly get no sense that al-Mansour is a controversial figure in her native Saudi Arabia for daring to become the filmmaker.

 

We get a quick drive-by of Mary's early life, but most of the film concentrates on the period between 1816-22. Mary is presented more as a coltish girl-woman rather than learned or strong. She has a troubled relationship with her stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin (Joanne Froggart), and is drawn to the dashing Shelley (Douglas Booth), who is being tutored in moral philosophy by Mary's father (Stephen Dillane). In an act of defiance, Mary elopes, which was very problematic as Percy was already married. In the script, Mary's father is outraged–understandably so, but he acts more like a scolding schoolmaster than an anarchist. (Percy and Mary tied the knot properly when his lawful wife died in 1816.)

 

The film accurately resents Percy Shelley as a fop content to burn through family money rather than exert himself, but much of the film is just filler to get us to Switzerland, where Mary's sister-in-law Claire (Bel Powley) fawns over Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), who has impregnated her. He treats her like a vase of dead flowers and casts her aside. In 1816, Byron's Swiss villa is more famously recalled for a challenge in which Byron, Percy, physician John William Polidori, and Mary compete to see who can concoct the best ghost story. You know what had its genesis from Mary. You can also understand her fury when publishers insisted it bear her husband's name. And so it would remain until Mary reconciled with her father and Percy was pushing up poppycocks.

 

The film’s central subject is too tasty to call Mary Shelley a complete waste of time, but it’s absolutely fair to call it a waste of potential. Fanning is surprisingly flat, almost as if she recognized this is as a TV special gone wrong. A further problem occurs in presenting Claire Clairmont. She too was a wronged woman, but Powley plays her as so cloying and histrionic that you could see why Byron wanted nothing more to do with her. It would have been nice had the film delved into the gender dynamics that allowed him to walk away with nothing more than a vague promise to give financial support to the child. (He eventually took over his daughter’s care with the stipulation that Claire had to stay away.) We get no sense of Claire’s intellect, only that she was a royal pain in the neck.

 

I could go on with similar critiques of other characters in this film, but you probably get the idea that most of them are exactly that – just characters, not the embodiment of complex historical figures. Mary Shelley bombed at the box office, so we can only hope that a better script and director will come along, as there hasn’t been an interesting  version of the Mary/Percy/Byron tale since Ken Russell's Gothic (1986).

 

Rob Weir