3/25/22

Beautiful World Where Are You a Mess

 

BEAUTIFUL WORLD WHERE ARE YOU? (2021)

By Sally Rooney

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 352 pages.

★★

 


 

 

If you have trouble with novels about people in their 30s who are trapped in perpetual adolescence, avoid Beautiful World Where are You? As you will probably infer from the title, this book centers on people in search of something. What, exactly, is the question.

 

Its major character is Alice Kelleher, another in the (too long) line of fictional characters who have written their way to renown and financial security. Yeah, like that like happens to so, so many novelists. Not! Alice had a breakdown (of a barely explained sort) a few years earlier and she’s still a bit loopy. She goes on a blind date with Felix Brady and by all accounts, it’s a bust. So, naturally, they will end up going on more, she will take him on one of her book tours, and they still don’t like each other very much, though Alice enjoys having sex with Felix. It makes as much sense as Alice’s best friend Eileen Lydon, who decides to sleep with the hunky Simon Costigan, a really nice guy though he’s more like a big brother and has a steady girlfriend. Not creepy enough for you? It seems as if the entire circle of people in Alice’s circle are bonking each other, though nothing seems to last longer than it takes to change the sheets. They are all competent in using technology and assuming affected hipness, but they are clueless about adulting or long-term relationships.

 

Alice doesn’t even do tech or hip; all she knows is books. So of course, she keeps sleeping with bad boy Felix, an inarticulate warehouse worker with debts, a taste for drugs and booze, and an abiding hatred for his brother. Simon is religious; Eileen is a drama queen and editorial assistant who knows a lot about art, but is seeking a “central principle.” She loves Simon but fears getting deeply involved with him because what if (gasp!) they got together and then broke up? Then he’d not be in her life. Duh!

 

There are more serious themes yearning to break out, if you call comments on celebrity culture weighty. Or an attempt to piggyback on the Covid pandemic. Alice writes, “It makes me wonder whether celebrity culture has sort of metastasized to fill the emptiness left by religion. Like a malignant growth where the sacred used to be.” To be hip about that question, isn’t the answer obvi? But wait, there’s more. There is the question of whether having a baby is the right thing to do in a world threatened by Covid and climate change. I don’t know, but shouldn’t one actually pay some attention to maturing before even making such queries?

 

The title comes from both a poem by Friedrich Schiller and a biennial art exhibition Rooney attended in Liverpool. Schiller’s poem was titled “The Gods of Greece” and is a lament for the loss of paganism, the coldness of Christianity, and nature’s lost magic. I’m not sure how this fits in Rooney’s novel. I suppose the biennial factors into Eileen’s love of art. At heart, though, there aren’t many true-sounding chords struck in Beautiful World Where are You?

 

 Ireland’s Rooney has been lucky; at 31 she actually has won a bit of acclaim. I liked her 2018 novel Normal People, but my view of Beautiful World is that it’s a freaking mess. Get back to me with these characters when they’ve got something to say.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

3/23/22

Black Angel Reconsidered

 

BLACK ANGEL (1946)

Directed by Roy William Neil

Universal Pictures, 81 minutes, Not Rated.

★★★  

 


 

 

 

Black Angel has long been considered a second-tier film noir, though lately its reputation has trended upward to the point that it’s now viewed as underappreciated. Watching it now suggests that both views are valid.

 

It’s one of those did-he-or-didn’t-he movies that will leave you guessing until the end. Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) is married to Kirk (John Phillips), a two-timer who is being blackmailed by his blonde bombshell lover, nightclub singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), Things go considerably more than wrong when Marlowe is murdered in her swank apartment and Kirk is arrested for the slaying. The evidence is airtight, but although Catharine knows that her hubby done her wrong (as thugs might say) she doesn’t believe he’s capable of homicide. If she doesn’t prove that, Kirk will fry in the electric chair.

 

So, who else would you enlist to help you find the “real” killer other than Mavis’s ex-husband, a broken-down alcoholic pianist? That’s where Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) comes into play. He’s cynical about most things, but he has a soft spot for a sob story. Or is it the shapeliness of Catherine’s legs and her d├ęcolletage? The cops have Kirk dead to rights, though, and Captain Flood (Broderick Crawford) pooh-poohs Catherine’s insistence of his innocence. The more Martin and Catharine investigate, the more she is convinced that the real murderer is a guy named Marko (Peter Lorre), a former sleazy thug who now poses as a legitimate nightclub owner. Martin doesn’t like sticking his neck out for anybody, but he doesn’t have much to lose and the more time he spends with Catharine the more he finds himself falling for her. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse story that hinges on a brooch. 

 

There’s a lot to like here. Both Vincent and Dowling were knockouts, both of whom were also successful models. Then we have two guys born for the roles they played. Crawford as a flatfoot? The man made his living playing one and he was always convincing in doing so. Of course, there’s Peter Lorre, who is like a ferret come to life and seemingly as furtive as one. (Would you trust Peter Lorre?) Duryea is also superb. He was a malleable actor who could played a world-weary loser as he does in this film, a chiseler, a cowboy, or a romantic lead. He was also a very talented dancer.

 

Then we get to the head-scratching stuff. If you were trying to prove that a wise guy was guilty of a murder, how would you go about investigating him? Why you’d form a lounge act, naturally. Martin can tickle the ivories and it turns out that Catharine can pass as a sultry torch singer. Now all she has to do is get the act booked at Marko’s club, catch Marko’s eye, gain his confidence, and find some evidence without being fingered herself. She also has an odd motive for all of this. We can sympathize with her desire not to see an innocent man die–if indeed Kirk is innocent–but what’s with her professions of love for the man who jilted her? At some point, we wonder also why Martin continues his dangerous subterfuge. Maybe he does like the cut of Catharine’s jib, but all Martin can really foresee is the likelihood that he’ll be left in the lurch if Kirk is sprung. All indications are that Catharine will take the big lug back.

 

Sometimes one looks at an 81-minute film and proclaims it taut. In this case, more background into the evolving relationship between Catharine and Martin would help the ending make more sense. Nonetheless, Black Angel is often stylish and it holds together okay, even if not brilliantly so. Call it a B level noir that with a little extra credit could rise to a B+.

 

Rob Weir

3/21/22

Farmageddon in Bad Need of a Script Doctor

 

A SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE: FARMAGEDDON (2019)

Directed by Richard Phelan and Will Becher

StudioCanal and Netflix, 87 minutes, G

★★

 


 

 

I am a fan of both Nick Park and Shaun the Sheep. Alas, Farmageddon is more of a waste of clay than another Wallace and Gromit. As most know, Park’s Aardman Animations creations are done with molded figures that are meticulously manipulated through stop-motion placements. These cast the illusion of continuous motion akin to the hand-drawn individual cells in classic animated films.

 

Farmageddon has moments of inspired silliness, but this Shaun the Sheep feature will remind you of saccharine Disney/Pixar collaborations. It doesn’t help that it features an alien that looks like a cross between a rabbit and Maggie Simpson.

 

Plot is generally incidental in an Aardman movie. This one is no exception, though one wonders if Farmageddon would have been sharper had Park directed it rather than Richard Phelan and Will Becher. Shaun and his fellow sheep are hungry and bored, but are constantly on their guard, as farm dog Bitzer runs the grounds like a Marine drill sergeant on behalf of his master, Farmer John. Shaun, being a clever sheep, decides to order pizza, Bitzer confiscates it, but the boxes are empty. We learn that the culprit is Lu-La, an alien who has crash-landed in a field near the village center, has cloaked the ship, and is ravenously hungry. Lu-La has no idea where it is, but has a few powers to aid in being furtive, including the ability to imitate sounds. (There is no actual talking in the film; adults make gibberish sounds like adults in Peanuts creations.) Lu-La’s ramblings will eventually take him to Farmer John’s place, where Shaun befriends the visitor after both get involved in mayhem.

 

Farmer John thinks all the scuttlebutt about aliens is nonsense, but he senses a way to make a few pounds–this is a British production, dahlings–and constructs a cheesy, makeshift Roswell-like theme park, the film’s namesake Farmageddon. Meanwhile, Agent Red of M.A.D. (Ministry of Alien Detections) takes things more seriously. She’s a commanding sourpuss whose belief in aliens made her the target of ridicule as a child and she’s bent on proving her detractors wrong.

 

You can probably write the script from here. It’s part E.T., part 2001: A Space Odyssey part Night at the Opera with Farmageddon as its setting, and part caper film as Shaun tries to stop Lu-La from appropriating food from village stores. There are nods to other films, including Close Encounters, Alien, RoboCop, and Wall-E. These and Shaun’s travails are the best parts of the film. If only everything else was half as clever.

 

Farmageddon goes hypoglycemic when we learn that Lu-La is actually a naughty child who accidentally took the family flying saucer for a spin. I’m sorry, but we don’t need a Hallmark-like family values can Lu-La get back home family values saga. These parts are gag-me sweet and we know how things will turn out once we learn about Ub-Do and Me-Ma, Lu-La’s parents. (Me-Ma? Really?) Can Shaun and Lu-La get to the top of the rickety Farmageddon tower in time to send a tracker message with Bitzer and Agent Red in hot pursuit? No way. Lu-Lu is captured and made into a chicken pie. Oh wait, that was Chicken Run.

 

Farmageddon frustrates is an out-of-balance movie. Aardman Animations movies are generally at their best when they are as much for adults as for kids; this one tips the scales way over toward the age 7 and younger crowd. That’s fine in theory, but then why bother with all the homage or snark? It also might have helped to have an alien more convincing than Lu-La. And then there is the worst soundtrack I’ve heard this century. It features Nadia Rose, The Vaccines, and Kylie Minogue. You will not believe Minogue is a pop star; her singing is dreadful. Not that it matters, as none of the music enhances the film or builds connective tissue to it. Why is it there? Write me if you have the faintest idea.

 

Shaun is always fun and the stop-motion effects are remarkable, but Farmageddon made me want to scream, “Get me a script doctor.”   

 

Rob Weir