Tag: #movie

You’ve never heard a movie like this one

750x450 a quiet place

Catch it if you can

If you like, you can call me out of it.  In fact, way out of it.

But it wasn’t until just a few months ago that I became aware of the 2018 film, A Quiet Place.    But I must have been about the last one to get on board.  It made a ton of money.  And raked in award nominations and wins like fall leaves after a good blow.

It was probably unconscious.  A Quiet Place is a scary movie.  And scary movies and me go together like oil and water.  Or actually, more like water dripping into boiling oil; it’s not pretty and someone’s gonna get hurt.

In a nutshell, the movie’s a sci-fi horror flick about an earth that’s been conquered by ravenously hungry aliens.  Who, although they’re blind as bats, can hear a pin drop.  And, when they do, it’s game permanently over for the unfortunate man, woman, child or infant who dropped it.  And if that’s not a recipe for suspense, I don’t know what is.

Silence is golden

Ever tried to keep three young kids quiet for even a few minutes?  When they’re not sleeping?  Then imagine doing that for day after day.  Then week after week.  And month after month.  And then imagine that your failure to do so doesn’t just wake the baby napping in the next room.  But almost instantly brings down on your head a monster that makes Jaws look warm and cuddly.  And then imagine that a monster devours your youngest son for playing with a space shuttle toy.

Welcome to the world of Lee and Evelyn Abbot.  And their three-then two-young kids.  Sure, they’re smart.  Lee’s an engineer/tinkerer.  Evelyn’s a physician.  But it hardly matters; their backs are up against the wall.  And it shows.  In the quiet of the basement of their country farm house, they silently join hands around the dinner table.  And silently give thanks for their daily bread.  And silently pray for deliverance.

The family under siege

The great thing about science fiction, I suppose, is that you can let your imagination run wild with it and make it mean almost anything you want.  And Quiet is no exception.

For example, there’s this article, from a Catholic perspective, that lauds the film for the couples’ willingness to risk bringing a noisy infant into this terrifying world.  Rather than aborting it.

But in a larger sense, perhaps a better analogy would be to the family itself.  And the world at large.  About how, simply because they exist, families find themselves under assault from all sides by unseen and scarcely understood-but terrifying forces.  Drugs.  Mindless violence.  Sex.  Hollywood.  Politicians.  A global economy that chews people up.  And then spits them out.

But there is a silver lining to A Quiet Place.  The sequel is scheduled to come out in 2020.  If, that is, I’m not too much of a scaredy-cat to watch it.

 

I, Claudius

Decadent Rome.  Decadent America?

I don’t really remember how I, Claudius got on my Netflix radar.  I think it was my sister who suggested it.  But in any event, it took months, even years, for it to work its way to the top of my queue.  But I’m glad-I think-that it eventually did.

1976 BBC TV series, the show depicts the early days of the Roman Empire.  From the Pax Romana of Augustus, to Tiberius, and then to Caligula the Empire sank ever further into corruption, depravity, luxury and ruthless violence.  There’s a brief respite when Claudius, who escaped assassination only by playing the part of a harmless idiot, assumes the throne.  But at the death of Claudius (probably at the hands of his wife Agrippina), the loony excesses of Nero lead the Empire over the cliff to ruin.  And so, with a whimper, ends the line of emperors that began with the mighty Augustus.

Allowing for dramatic license, the show actually seems pretty accurate.  Moreover, the show was a huge commercial success and was voted by others in the British film industry as the 12th among the 100 best TV programs of all time.  

Fine.  But what’s ancient Rome got to do with us?

Good question.  But, unfortunately, I fear that the excesses of the Roman actually have quite a lot to say to the America of our day.

Start with something simple: the relative burdens of “empire.”  Ours, with its globe girdling military presence, dwarfs anything Rome ever ruled.  The Pentagon “estimates” that we have 5,600 bases around the world.  Which, when you’re fighting perpetual wars, isn’t all that surprising.

And the sheer cost of our military?  The U.S. spends more on arms than the next six countries combined.  And four of those six could be considered allies.  Keeping the Empire’s barbarian hordes at bay eventually bankrupted Rome.  What makes us think we’re any different?

As depicted in I, Claudius, the Legion’s elite Praetorian Guard routinely interfered with politics, making and unmaking Emperors and even assassinating some, such as Caligula.  Now, under Trump and for years before him, key cabinet posts are filled by generals and admirals.  Are we to the point of having our own version of Rome’s lawless and cosseted Praetorian Guard?  Perhaps not yet.  But who can make a persuasive case that is not the direction in which we’re trending?

And then there’s Harvey Weinstein

weinstein sketch

By today’s standards, I, Claudius is pretty tame sexually.  But what it lacks in today’s explicit, pornographic images, it makes up for with suggestion and imagination.

For example, there’s the scene where Caligula (who’s declared himself the incarnation of the god Jupiter), suspends his nude, very pregnant wife by golden handcuffs.  (She‘s also his sister. And, as is only fitting for a god’s consort, is a goddess herself.) As her nervous titters morph into horrified awareness, he proceeds to disembowel her because the unborn infant “might become a threat to my rule.”  Which, judging by the standards of the rest of this despicable bunch, is a reasonable prophesy.  

At the outset, we only see the woman’s back.  And, fortunately, the relatively prudish 1970’s era camera diverts its eye even further at the end of the scene so that we only hear the woman’s hideous screams from the other side of a closed door as she’s butchered.

But no such luck with the low life Harvey Weinstein and his vile film, Pulp Fiction.  Harvey and the film’s director, Quentin Tarantino, hold nothing back: gore, graphic sex of all varieties, drug fueled orgies, you name it. (I couldn’t bear to watch this stinker through to the end.) Sure, I know most critics fawned over it.  But so what?  The cowering sycophants around Nero and Caligula did the same for their “gods.”

But what’s really troubling about Pulp Fiction isn’t so much the film itself, but what it’s enthusiastic reception has to say about our larger culture.  What can you say for a nation that celebrates all the varieties of perversion and violence that were on display in this movie?  Probably the same thing you’d say about a decedent Roman empire that did very much the same thing.

Is it too late for us to draw back from this yawning brink?  I’d say no; it’s never too late.  But I’d say that this is equally true:  those who fail to learn from history, are condemned to repeat it.

In other words, I, Claudius is a show all concerned Americans should watch.  Carefully.  And learn from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far From The Madding Crowd

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

A real, live white male hero?  Not possible!

I’ve watched it more times than I want to admit.  But, as Sergeant Troy, the film’s anti-hero says just before he stops a richly deserved bullet to the heart, “Honesty in all things.”  So.  There you have it.  Guilty as charged by my wife, who more than once has cast a wondering, skeptical glance my way as she goes up the basement stairs while I spin the elliptical, watching Far from the Madding Crowd yet again.

I like Carrie Mulligan as the impetuous, strong willed Bathsheba Everdene.  And Mattias Schoenaerts as the wise, steadfast Gabriel Oak.  I like the marriage bond that finally unites the two.  I like that, right from the outset, “a baby or two” is recognized as the natural and desired outcome of marriage.  I like the defiant heterosexuality.  And the picture’s equally defiant sexual modesty, even prudery.  I like the gentle, English countryside. And the Victorian conventions that bound it together.  I particularly like that the film makes no effort whatsoever to appease the vast array of aggrieved minorities and pressure groups that Hollywood has seemingly come to believe are its primary raison d´être.

The thrill is gone

But all good things come to an end.  Especially after the furnace is stoked cherry red.  But in due course, I’m confident the thrill will be back.  And what’ll I do then?  Climb aboard the elliptical.  And watch it again.  Even knowing each of it’s twists and turns.

And which is something you might want to consider doing yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

“Madame”: God In The Box.

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

Screenshot from the movie MADAME (2017)

And The Money Changers In The Temple.

How I happened to watch the film, I’m not sure.  Perhaps on one of those interminable flights to or from Greece last spring when scraping the bottom of the barrel of viewing choices became a necessity.  When sleep, in seats built for midgets, proved so elusive.

In any event, Madame isn’t good enough that you’d want to suffer through a 14 hour flight to take in.  But it does have some redeeming qualities.  It features the pampered, sexually “liberated” existence of the ultra-wealthy of Paris. And the working stiff, household servants that cater to their every whim.  Judging by the consensus of most of the cinematic literati, it has all the  of a sparkle of a flute of bubbly gone flat (see herehere, and here).

Something’s Happening.  But You Don’t Know What It Is.

And that’s pretty much how it was for me as well.  But there was also something that didn’t quite fit.

But, finally, it dawned on me:  why did a painting of The Last Supper feature so prominently in a film that most parents would want to slip out the back if their kids were sitting next to them?  And that the movie didn’t mock or demonize Christianity-which is so often the only way films seems to be able to treat the subject-was nearly as strange.

No, the painting, and the fortune that it represents, remains serenely in the background, looking on as the weaponized and heartless sexual escapades of this cast of wealthy playboys and girls manipulate each other like so many pieces on a chess board.  (In one scene, two of the female antagonists maneuver oversize chess pieces on an oversize chess board.)  The painting, by Italian Baroque master, Caravaggio, appears at least 6 times in the show; its larger-than-life financial significance is a topic of conversation even more frequently.

Bob and Anne Fredericks, the expatriate American manipulators in chief, need to sell the painting to pull their financial bacon out of the fire that their opulent Parisienne lifestyle has landed them in.  When the picture is finally sold, Bob, who fits the part of the unctuous undertaker down to the ground, watches with satisfaction as the painting is securely nailed in its coffin-like crate.  And then borne away by grim faced pallbearers.  Earlier, Bob describes the painting as his “grandfather’s greatest acquisition.”  Oh, well.  When the creditors are hounding you and there’re appearances to be maintained, what’s a Last Supper and family heirloom among friends?

Release The Kraken!

But it’s when the painting’s sold that things get really squirrelly.  Anne pairs up with the Frenchman whose wife she confronted on the chess board.   Only to be eventually dumped by the husband.  Bob canoodles with his much younger French tutor.  Maria, a maid who, despite her peasant Spanish Catholic upbringing, carries on with David the art broker/aristocrat who profits handsomely from selling the Caravaggio.  Except for Maria and David, around whose two very different worlds the movie wobbles, it’s tough to keep track of all these illicit liaisons without a program.

Holy Family painting by Svitozar Nenyek

“I’m Old Fashioned.  I Believe In Marriage.”

Just before the credits roll, Maria, an enigmatic smile on her face, is shown confidently striding through the streets of Paris.  But towards what, we’re not sure.  That she’s leaving Bob and Anne and David, who’ve treated her like so much beige carpeting to be trod on, is certain.  But is she just in search of another maid job for the ultra-wealthy, where, if she’s lucky, she can trick another gullible rich guy into believing she’s a Spanish princess?

Maybe.  But what would that prove?  That’s she’s learned nothing from observing, as only a maid can, just how heartless the rich and famous can be?

But maybe this idea fits better.  Amanda Sthers, the director and script writer, in addition to her other achievements, is the divorced mother of two children.  At one point in the film, she puts these words in the mouth of Maria, “I’m old fashioned.  I believe in marriage.”  Unsurprisingly, when Maria makes this pronouncement, the playboys and girls around her shrug it off.

At another point, Maria tells David that “I love the picture of the Holy Family that I have next to my bed.”  David, who can’t imagine such things without seeing dollar signs, wonders, “Which master painted it?  It must be tremendously valuable.”  Kitsch art and genuine feeling collide with the money changer.

Is Ms. Sthers, through one of the film’s only sympathetic characters, telling us what she thinks about marriage and Christianity?  Can’t say “Yes” for sure.  But neither can I say “No.”

Madame?  Or, In Other Words, Mrs.

The title of the movie is odd.  The French equivalent of Mrs, does it refer to Anne, the only married woman who has anything other than a bit part?  But Anne definitely plays second fiddle to Maria.  And Maria, it doesn’t appear, is married.

Turns out, however, that Maria has a teenage daughter that she, apparently, can only mother from afar through FaceTime. An aspiring figure skater, the daughter’s lessons are paid for by Bob and Anne. Fearing that Maria’s involvement with the art dealer might scotch their chances to sell the painting, Anne’s maternal instincts kick in,  “You know, Maria, if you can’t get this thing with David under control, we may have to quit paying for your daughter’s skating lessons.”  Yep.  The maternal instincts of a serpent.

So maybe, just maybe, Maria has resolutely set her face toward resuming her role as something other than a FaceTime avatar for her daughter.  And, who knows, even something as wildly old fashioned as a family.

Second Meanings.

C.S. Lewis, in his book, Reflections On The Psalms, says this about hidden meanings in those famous poems.  Or, for that matter, movies:

“Hitherto we have been trying to read the Psalms as we suppose-or I suppose-their poets meant them to be read.  But this of course is not the way in which they have been used by Christians.  They have been believed to contain a second or hidden meaning, an ‘allegorical’ sense . . .  Such a doctrine, not without reason, arouses deep distrust in a modern mind.  Because, as we know, almost anything can be read into any book [or movie] if you are determined enough. . . (Some of the allegories thus imposed on my own books have been so ingenious and interesting that I often wish that I had thought of them myself.”)

So, am I guilty of “imposing” an ingenious allegorical meaning on Madame that has no business being there?

Of course, I can’t be certain what Ms. Sthers had in mind when she created this movie.  Maybe it’s just, as most of the critics believe, a fizzy French nothing burger of a naughty comedy.

But if so, why so obviously give the Last Supper painting pride of place?  And which, at least briefly and less than perfectly, holds back the sexual anarchy, angst and greed that prevails after the painting is sold for an inflation adjusted 30 pieces of silver?

But perhaps that’s the real problem with this movie.  Maybe Ms. Sthers herself doesn’t know exactly what she wants.  A bonbon?  Or something with more substance, a commentary on the anomie that besets us when the idols of money and sex trump all other values?  And what happens to people who think they’ve succeeded in doing as Pilate directed the chief priests and Pharisees: “You have a guard.  Go and make the tomb as secure as you know how.”