“Meeting Gorbachev”

Restroom chatter after viewing Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’ s Gorbachev documentary dispersed in one communal sigh. One patron added, ” I did not realize what a nice man Mikhail was! ” An 87 year-old widower, who loved his wife and rose from the brilliant son of Russian peasants to head the Soviet Union comes across as profound, too.

In a series of three contemporary interviews and archival videos, Herzog and Singer elevate the man by showing a core of sensibility that reminded me of my father in both temperament and strength. Genuine, funny, and able to establish immediate rapport, Gorbachev shines as a world leader, who never forgot the people. Like a good personnel director, he listened and stayed positive. His task was to make life better for all, not just for the people in power. He visited all outposts of the Union, and he walked when he had to. The film’s title, “Meeting Gorbachev” is perfect. At one point as he stands nose to nose with a female citizen, he jokes that he can not get much closer.

While nuclear disarmament and the unification of Germany are highlighted, this documentary focuses on the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. Based on his biography and on William Taubman’s book “ Gorbachev: His Life And Times” ( 2017) , we see him as intelligent, perceptive, wise, and somewhat tragic. He became a “ person non-grata” to those Russians who blamed him for the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1992. The end of the Cold War is what he takes credit for ~ using his power to make the world better for people.

We learn that his mother was strict and illiterate, and that his father Sergei, a war veteran told Mikhail on returning from the battle field that , “ we fought until we ran out of fight. That is how we must live.” Twenty million Russians were lost in World War II. We witness Easter flowers being placed on his parent’s graves. Respect was valued; recklessness looked down on.

The most prestigious university in Moscow was Moscow State, founded in 1755. Philosophy, Medicine, and Law  degrees were offered. Mikhail studied law and met his future partner, Raisa, here. Raisa studied philosophy. They married and had one daughter. Their union was said to be a profoundly happy one, and seeing Mikhail’s soft flow of tears as he talks about her death in 1991 is moving.

His genuineness permeates the film. Gorbachev was chosen as the youngest leader of the Soviet State, because of his extraordinary political talents. Perestroika, a series of reforms meant to improve the stagnant 1980’s Soviet economy, and Glasnost, a new transparency and openness by lifting press restrictions etc.., were at the top of Gorbachev s agenda. He believed that a complete restructuring was essential.  High -ranking officials were rankled. Hardliners and KGB types fought back. Rumors of ill health are debunked by Mikhail, but the power struggle forced his resignation in 1991. Tragic for everyone but Boris Yeltsin and his old-guard handlers.

At one point after the incompetence of  Chernobyl, Gorbachev intones that “people who do not understand cooperation and disarmament should get out of politics.” He wanted a ban on nuclear testing and the elimination of nuclear weapons. “ The death of civilization” he feared. He saw the banning of an entire class of intermediate range weapons as progress.

There were parts of this documentary that I loved. The way Gorbachev would touch his hearing aids to better hear Herzog was sweetly evocative of age. His love of sweets and his surrender to diabetes were likewise humanizing. His pregnant pauses effective in highlighting the weight of his words. Momentous handshakes, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, human longing for freedom and unity all touch us. Gorbachev’s  belief in Communism, his warm smile, his efforts, will stay with viewers.

The boogie-woogie being satirized in a Moscow University skit in the 1940’s, the modern methods of wheat harvesting and sheep shearing, the penchant for Russian medal giving, and Kremlin Wall burial rites add panache to the delight of        meeting Gorbachev for me.

“ Mary, Queen of Scots”

It may help one’s enjoyment of screenwriter Beau Willimon’s movie “Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018 ) if you brush up on those Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth personages before you enter the theatre. Having not read the book on which the screenplay is based, John Guy’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”, I do not know how much the first thirty-five minutes conform. But, they are deadly, cold, and dark, and that includes the screen. This being said, as one sorts out the two Tudor Marys, one being “Bloody”, and our star, Mary Stuart ( Saoirse Ronan), the film picks up and splendid acting ensues.

A brief factual history helps. Mary Stuart ( 1542-1587) is tolerant and portrayed as such. She was beheaded, and Director Josie Rourke begins here. The rest is flashback.

Our Mary is not to be confused with Mary Tudor (1516-1558) “Bloody Mary” (so called by her Protestant opponents) daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Nor is she to be confused with Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, who married Louis XII of France in 1514.

Our Mary Stuart married a French King,too. And we see, via the flashback,a young eighteen-year-old widow after the death of France’s Francis II. The scenes where Ronan plays coy with her ladies-in-waiting are meant to stress her youthful sexuality, her playfulness, and lack of hautiness. She soon is swept away by her cousin’s amorous intentions and marries a second time. Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley,( Jack Louden) is father of her son, James. In 1557, a year later, Lord Darnley is murdered by the Fourth Earl of Bothwell. As plotted by Queen Elizabeth’s make regents, he becomes Mary’s third husband. The Queen and her lords believed that they had to separate this marriage between two Catholics.

Margot Robbie is amazing in her supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I. She must protect her crown, and a Papist must not again sit on the throne. Her overt confidence, interwoven with self-effacing admittance of jealousy and the belief that Mary is the better woman, is well-scripted.

Mary is just as perceptive. Ronan just as brilliant in her portrayal. Her missives fly for the cousins\ sisters to “resolve our destinies”. She is honest, strong, and able to tell her husband that he is not her master, even at eighteen. Later, when Lord Darnley ( her second husband) sleeps with a man. Mary dismisses him from her bedchamber, but tolerantly tells him that she “can not fault him for his nature.”

The back and forth screen time between Mary and Elizabeth further separates any meshing of womanly accord. When they finally meet in person, we are taken by the weight of both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s decisions. Mary will not declaim her people though she asks for Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth and her regents believe that they must control Mary’s claim. When Elizabeth’s advisors propose civil war in Scotland to aid their cause, she tells Mary, “ I choose to be a man”.

Willimon’s television-drama sensation “House of Cards” ( 2013-2017) shows that he understands the political arena, and at forty-one, he does not dispute that woman have had it rough. The “Me, Too” movement shines through in his revisiting of history. In one card playing scene, a knife is put to Mary’s pregnant stomach. This is where men think her power grows. By the way, my favorite visual was the shadow of Mary’s bountiful profile.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” takes one to a period I don’t wish to return to, though I loved the four ladies praying at Mary’s bedside. Basically, any woman thinking and planning is seen as whimsical and foolish by “wise” men.

Mary endures gossip, name-calling, and subterfuge. She is called a “polecat”, betrayed by her half brother, the Earl of Moray ( James McArdle), and humiliated by at least one husband. Other male personages seem to be fuzzily identified. John Knox is played by David Tennant, and advisor, William Cecil, is played by Guy Pierce. Both are good in their parts, but a knowledge of English history would assuredly help in following the historical arc.

Queen Elizabeth controls her conscience by rolling paper into flowers and embroidery. She muses that “ when we are dead nothing matters”. Her sigh of “How cruel men are!” thrusts the sub-theme forward. This film seems to champion Mary Queen of Scots’ reputation. Guillotined, Mary is poryrayed as loyal, dutiful, and tolerant, rather than ambitious. She believes that to relinquish the throne is against God’s will.

We wish Queen Elizabeth did not yield so to her male regents’ bridle. When she burns her artful paperwork, she symbolically succumbs to a man’s world. The red flowers melt into blood between her legs. Another nicely graphic touch, yet makes one think that only women who give birth are true women. Robbie beautifully and understatedly emotes that “we could do worse than put her (Mary) on the throne of England.”

The second half of the film is far superior to the first. I loved the thatched wash house scene, where the pock-marked Queen plays peek-a-boo with the lovely Mary. Both women seem utterly alone. Robbie, again delivers remarkable lines: “ Your gifts are your downfall…I was jealous of your beauty, your bravery, your motherhood”.

Elizabeth was forty years on the throne. She thought women ruled better without discord, but her signing the death knell for a despairing, but resolute, Mary did not finish the deal. Mary’s son, James, became James VI of Scotland and James I of England after Elizabeth’s death. Oscars for the female leads is here reason enough to see “ Mary, Queen of Scots”( 2018), and revisiting the possibilities of historical-could-have-beens is fun, too.

“BlacKkKlansman”

“BlacKkKlansman” is another film to remind us that “Reconstruction” after the Civil War was never completed, and that our current President is pushing the other way and deconstructing any progress made in thwarting racism.

Director Spike Lee uses the storyboard foundation of a true tale. Ron Stallworth was a black cop in the 1970’s in Colorado Springs. Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington plays Ron, and he is easy to identify with as he joins with a  white, Jewish policeman ( Adam Driver) to infiltrate the KKK.

The 1970 garb of safari jackets, the “air karate”, and the put-downs like, “You think you are hot shit, but you are a cold fart” are fringe worthy, period details. Ditto for “I can dig it.” Funny for some; embarrassing  for others. The music like “Happy Days” , both ironic and loud, is used to drive emotional points; but, it can be overpowering. Subtle is not the tone used  in this film. And why should it be!

I love the large portraits of black student union members being moved by Stokely Carmichael’s speech. The young need to know that Kwame Ture ( Carmichael’s name choice) was the philosopher who coined the term “black power”. This is black power that does not need white help.

Topher Grace plays a smarmy David Duke that hits the mark. He speaks of the “ real America” and “America First” in direct correlation to D. Trump. Felix and Connie are Duke followers and so full of hate that their  “take America back” connotes lynchings.

The last two minutes of the film is tear producing as Lee shows real  footage from  current 2017 white supremacy activism. The screen frame of “Heather Hegel: Rest in Power” and the upside down flag are images that dampen any hyperbole that Spike Lee used to make viewers laugh earlier in the film.

This is a righteously angry film that I hope will get more than the African metal targets running to the polls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Black Mass”

Any film that begins with a tape recorder sputtering out  ” I am not a rat” and goes on to tell the story of the biggest informant -FBI -scandal in U.S. history lets you presume that codes of honor can be tricky. Based on the Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill’s NYT’s best seller, ” Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and  A Devil’s Deal”, Director Scott Cooper does his best with a great cast and a weak,understated screenplay.

Shot in South Boston, this film is full of dark bars, grimy alleyways and industrial river sites. “There is trouble outside” becomes visceral. “Throw the first two punches” the street mantra. The music is heavy-handed and evocative of other crime-ridden films. See “Black Mass” for the acting not  for the cinematography. Though there are two exceptional camera shots: one an overhead pan of Jimmy reclining with his hands behind his head. We long to get into that psyche; yet, we really never do. The other memorable  photo still captures Joel Edgerton as Jimmie’s FBI friend, John Connolly. His headshot photographed against six-inch -flowered, kitchen wallpaper highlights his personal allegiances. His wife loses. And as that wife, Juliette Nicolson is amazing. Her Marianne is full of depth. I wish the screenplay gave her more time. When Jimmie knocks on her locked bedroom door and creepily puts his hands around her neck. We can feel that touch. We can understand her wish to scream. Her control is lost only in her brimming eyes. Depp, Nicolson, and Edgerton all give Oscar-worthy performances. It is in this threatening scene where “Whitey’s” evil is best portrayed. Marianne knows Jimmie has changed her husband. That “southie -kid” loyalty never leaves John Connolly. He goes to prison for forty years without testifying against his psychopathic childhood friend.

Johnny Depp’s transformation as James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang is make-up-award worthy,too. The honed nose,the blue eyes and the balding-scalp-overlay give a mesmerizing effect. Only in one scene did I catch a glimpse of a rubber-neckline give away. Depp’s acting is a stunner,yet the viewers get no real insight into this crime boss who kills with bare-handed abandon in broad daylight,once in front of a full recess playground. Depp’s voice is raspy,deep, and cool. When he instructs his five -year -old son, it is to say,” It is not what you do, but where and when. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

This is the man who becomes a top echelon FBI informant,code named “Charlie”. Jimmie,with friend Connolly’s aid, is in alliance with the Feds to bring down the Angiulo Brothers,a Mafia family. This is the “Devil’s Deal”: the FBI allows Whitey Bulger ,small time gangster, to become a crime kingpin to “bring down the Italians”. With two sympathetic notes shown after his son’s Reye Syndrome death and in his gin rummy card game with his mother, Bulger goes on to become the crime lord of Boston and Miami rackets. His admonition to “never hand me a bag full of money in public. I’ll whack anyone, anywhere” is proven true in ghastly car -window -blood splatter over and over again. Bulger uses some of his filthy lucre to buy weapons for the IRA. Our FBI’s “professional criminal consultant” lives by getting and giving loyalty to his friends until they do something he considers stupid.

One telling scene has Jimmie parading his power as “cock of the walk”.He asks for the recipe of a particularly pleasing steak marinade; and though it is described as a secret family recipe, it  is given to him anyway. Bulger chides that “just saying can get you buried real fucking quick”.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Jimmie’s brother and U.S. Senator, and former Chancellor of The University of Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon is John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) FBI boss. Again,the cast of “Black Mass” could not have been better. The movie should have been. It seems incongruous that a man known for extortion,racketeering and murder, a man who utters dictates of “pull out his fucking teeth and bury him next to the whore” would be last filmed in a candlelit church with no more insight into his mind.

“Jimmy’s Hall”

See this film for its lovely cinematography of Joss Barratt,a mixture of sepia, blue-dust shuttered haze, and fresh and verdant Irish-green countryside. See it as an Irish history lesson (1922-23), when the pro-treaty Irish forces backed by the British caused a Civil War, and see “Jimmy’s Hall” for a bitter-sweet story of a lesser-known Irish icon,Jimmy Gralton, played charmingly by Barry Ward. Most of all, see it for the passionate “confessional box” scene where the maverick Jimmy berates Father Sheridian (Jim Norton) for never listening but when people are on their knees.

Richard Wright,one of America’s famous ex-pat novelists, wrote that “literature is protest”.The same can be said of film. Plus, injustice fires the pen. Certainly, the Scott’s-Irish lawyer and screenwriter Paul Laverty knows how to frame Jimmy’s story. Much of the dialogue pits the Communist Jimmy against the estate owners and the powerful Catholic Church hierarchy with their “hand in the till”. In one stunning set -piece Gralton makes his point to the parish priest, ” (you think)..the interests are the same? Do you think the system seeped in allusion and avarice works for need and not for greed.?”

This working-class film begins with Jimmy’s return to his thatched-roofed home and to his lonely mother after the death of his brother Charlie. He has been in America,in New York City- far from the peat bogs and wet ash pits. We learn from his mother that ” scars on the heart take a long time to heal”. The Church is given a balanced reading in the addition of the younger Father Seamus (Andrew Scott). He fears that the Church will lose the youth of the parish if Fr.Sheridian keeps haranguing with his question,”What is this obsession with pleasure?!”


The Patrick Pearse and James Connelly Community Center draws a bigger crowd than the parish dances. Gaelic song,Yeat’s poetry,and art and boxing lessons and the introduction of Jazz to the traditional clogging beat Jimmy sees as working for the common good of the people. The fact that the Hall is named for two heroes of the 1916 Easter Uprising against the British plays into the opposition’s venom. “The venom in their hearts for all they can’t control” are Jimmy’s words. He is gaining too much influence and is seen as “the cock of the walk” in the political unrest.

In flashback, we learn that Jimmy had been deported from Ireland ten years ago.He never was given a trial. His exile cost him the love of his life. Simone Kirby plays that love,Oonaugh Dempsey. She is calm,understated and clearly -though married and the mother of two children-still in love with Jimmy Gralton.In a beautifully atmospheric scene,they dance alone in the hall. The sexual tension is heart-breaking. To borrow a line from the film their attraction is more of a moth to the flame than a dog to a post.His “I wish we had another life to lead” says it all.

Director Ken Loach has kept the film lengthy;but on review,I don’t know what I would have taken out.I loved the detail of Yeats being read,and JMJ heading the students’ papers and art work. The pulpit lecture with the reading-out of the names of the “debased” was humorous as was Fr. Sheridian’s lament of evil hatching in the hall “starting with feet and working toward the brain”. Earls commandeering land,brown-wool-vested gangs,cottage evictions,fiddles and fathers lashing their violins and their daughters all added to the aura.

In the end, Jimmy’s mam (Aileen Henry) says it best “I might lose a child,but Ireland loses much,much more”. I felt this way when Jimmy Gralton went to the rectory and said “Come to have my devil horns put on”, and then asked Fr. Sheridian to join the Community Center’s Board. When Jimmy accuses the old priest of “having more hate in your heart than love”, his words sting. Father admits that Jimmy can’t be bought and that he has courage and decency.We smile and don’t smirk as we see the priest listen to a jazz record as he has a wee dram before bed.

Enjoy the effective use of stop action as “the pied piper” is led away and the young promise to keep dancing and dreaming. Jimmy died on December 29th in 1945 in New York City. He was forbidden to ever return to his birthplace Effrinagh or to his Mother Ireland.

“Testament Of Youth”

What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long,British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is  young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.

There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother,provincial parents,tantrums,tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.

Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children,and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.

The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.

“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.

Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”

Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.

Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts;she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.

Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.

Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it,but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.

“Amy”

Asif Kapadia’s documentary on British jazz singer Amy Winehouse is heartbreakingly powerful. Seeing such talent consumed by bad choices and bad circumstances moves one to tears. Whether Winehouse is belting out tunes,licking lollipops or hazed in cigarette smoke,her fixations make one wish to set her straight. At least straight out of the arms of creepy boyfriend and later husband,Blake Fielder. Their three-year marriage was a disaster, as were the outfits he encouraged Amy to prance around in. One wants to shout into the screen “lose the loser” even as one views the footage of their marriage soiled in heroin and crack cocaine.

The documentary does a great job of meshing celebrity culture with its hanger-ons, greedy family members, and retreating friends. Amy with her ugly tats and blond streak in her dark hair is reckless and tasteless,vulnerable yet mouthy.  Shown as “a force of nature” with lots of attitude and charisma, she is fun to be around, but snarky and cutting when she needs attention. An over abundance of headshots shows her in back seats, under pink kitty-printed blankets and being interviewed on late night tv. Such raw talent, sincere and sultry is what moves us. Seeing her slide into bulimia and drugs is painful. This viewer kept mouthing the words: “somebody help her!” Having a daughter born just three months before Amy in 1983, I was more than touched that Amy did not live long enough to make it to her twenty-eighth birthday. If Winehouse was an “old soul” with her jazz phrasing and soulful rasp, she was a toddler in playing with risky choices. The need for direction was not there from her parents,her Jewish religion or her more loyal friends. Michael Jackson was her brother-in-death.

Born in 1983, dead in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, Amy Winehouse’s story is a celebration of her big, tempestuous sound. Listen to her North London “Moon River” and be astounded. Amy’s story is beautifully structured through her own lyrics. Having her words on-screen is moving and enlightening.You want to immediately download her  “I can still taste better days” so it will  not leave you. “Rehab”, “Stronger Than Me”, “You Know I’m No Good”,and “Back To Black”,a slang term for heroin, moves listeners emotionally. The documentary lifts Amy Winehouse out of the muck and stills the late night jokes. It makes you want to hug James Taylor, Carole King and Tony Bennett. Amy, your story makes us what to bring out the strings.