“Irrational Man”

At seventy-nine,Woody Allen can no longer charm romantically inclined girls,so what does he do? Make fun of the romantic temperament,of course.

As writer and director,Allen does his wordplay thing, called antithesis. “Conservative ~in a liberal way” is how Jill,our smitten college senior,( Emma Stone) describes her philosophy teacher, Abe. ( Joaquin Phoenix) Murder as giving one meaning to live is Abe’s existential thought, “The perfect murder made me feel alive.” When Jill cites that Abe suffers from despair, he retorts drolly with “How comfy that would be”.

Joaquin Phoenix enters in a voiceover as Abe Lucas. He is in a late-model,gray Volvo entering a new campus setting in Newport. Abe is relaxed as he bonds with his philosophy students and ironically talks about “situational ethics”.Kant’s perfect world where there is no room for lying foreshadows Allen’s storyline,too. Kierkegaard’s “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” meshes with Abe’s choices and moral posturings.With flask always at hand, Phoenix is so comfortable in the role that he often channels Woody’s mannerisms. This is funny and adds another layer of depth to the film. His definition of philosophy as verbal masturbation does not.

Emma Stone is equally as good as the besotted Jill. When she stares with her big blues and states,”I hate that you think I’m practical”, the audience gets that she is too romantic to throw away the risk of losing a boyfriend for dating her prof. Allen uses a second character voiceover to keep us guessing who is really “the irrational man”,student or teacher. Anyway, Jill sees Abe as a brilliant sufferer. She wears a new perfume on a restaurant date and sighs,”I love that you order for me.”

If Emily Dickinson is quoted as “drunk on air” then Woody is “drunk on music”. His film’s jazzy score is often more entertaining than the film’s action. Besides Abe imbibing non-stop on single malt Scotch, his colleague in the Science Dept. unscrews flasks just as fast. Parker Posey plays the screwable Rita. Initially,she has trouble making the character more than a caricature. As the film progresses,she warms up and plays a dreamy foil to Jill.
When Abe complains,”I can’t write. I can’t breathe”, Rita follows up with “I hope you are not going to send me out into the rain without sleeping with me.”Forthright and gossipy,her crackpot theory and mutual crush rattles Jill and allows for a neat story arc.

Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is shown when Abe sees no way to save himself but by killing the precocious Jill. The storyline is silly. The flashlight roll into the elevator memorable.The passive intellectual finding zest for life in murder is more cause for despair than for humor. Go with your instincts on this one. A dark cloud has crossed Woody’s moon and there is poison in the park.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment”

“Good Apples in a bad barrel”~Zimbardo

Billy Crudup’s voice declaring Mastercard’s ability to improve your life as “priceless”,does not prepare you for his role as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the author of “The Lucifer Effect”. Nor does Crudup’s acclaimed title role on Broadway in “The Elephant Man” pave the way for his portrayal of a prideful academic whose “mock” prison perpetuates the devil in man.

Under the direction of Kyle Patrick Alvarez,Crudup is able to channel the renown psychologist as he loses himself in his quest for significant publishable data. Fingering his goatee and watching his volunteer subjects,Zimbardo is not likable in this film. He is not the winner of The Vaclav Havel Foundation Prize or the challenger of the American Correctional System. He is the perpetrator of an experiment that would be against the law today. This is a docudrama of his redemption and of the stoppage of his clinical experiment after only six days.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens with the pleasing sounds of the typewriter. A Want Ad is being written and duplicated in 101 copies. Fifteen dollars a day will be paid to emotionally-stable college males,who participate in a psychological study. The interviews begin. Guard or prisoner roles are queried;role selections are made by a coin toss; head shots are taken. Formal arrests are made. Prisoners are blindfolded. Sunglasses and uniforms are given to the guards,dresses of numbered sackcloth to the prisoners. Day one begins with ad-libbed orders from the guards: “hands on the wall”, “feet wider”,”strip”, “shut up”, “clothes to the right”. Billy clubs are out and lice spray is sprayed. “Mr. Correctional Officer” is how warden and guards are required to be addressed. One guard who uses an accent like the Southern official in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) later reminds me more of  the movie “Deliverance” as he has the men pretend to sodomize each other with the image of camels humping.

Line-ups are excruciating with role-call intimidations,sleep interruptions,bogus exercise punishments and finally violence. Revolt is attempted,as are escapes. The cinematographer’s use of slow motion is very effective in capturing the robot-like circumstances of the rule bound group. Letters are written to perspective visitors,visitors commune,groups are divided and cell mates change. A priest is called on to counsel in Day Four. He is not trusted by Zimbardo,who feels he may call a lawyer and halt the experiment, thus nullifying any cogent results.Yet, the priest tells our psychologist that he is doing a good thing:”Boys of privilege should know what prison is like.”

A colleague of Dr.Zimbardo questions his research and the rather “frightful site” of the mock prison. He asks if an independent variable or simulation is being used to validate his research. Zimbardo spews invective at this challenge.

Day Five finds two prisoners released after a breakdown and a parole hearing. One consultant is a black man who served time in Rikers. He was selected to “legitimize the project”.He treats the prospective parolee with indifference and realizes that they all have become part of this demonstration.”I enjoyed it ( the power). You can’t imagine how that makes me feel.”

The mastermind of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment redeems himself with the aid of his fiancée, a former student and psychologist at Berkley. He becomes a distinguished PBS Series teacher/host in “Discovering Psychology” and holds teaching positions at Yale,Columbia, NYU,and Stanford. His understanding of sadistic abuse and the ease of abandoning morality under certain conditions led to his role in the Abu Ghraib investigation in Iraq. Zimbardo’s  book “Psychology and Life” is in its nineteenth edition. He has evolved from academic egotist to a champion of social bravery. The film never tells us this,but we see his frightened eyes, the tears, and the head-holding pain of awareness,and his stepping up to halt evil when he sees it.This is not a fun film, but an instructive one. How do good people become evil ? How is the evil within each of us manifested ? Do we need more martyrs to a cause? This is a cerebral film about the baseness of humanity. Submissiveness and power are central to the theme.

“Infinitely Polar Bear”‘

Mark Ruffalo plays a “teddy bear” of a daddy even with pan-throwing-manic episodes. I doubt that any social worker would agree with this assessment,and this may be the film’s main flaw: down-playing mental illness like it is eccentricity. Using alcohol and pills and leaving eight and eleven years-olds home along even if it is only for one night is not a good thing, yet this film exudes so much love that we make exceptions.

Can a once institutionalized parent graduated to a half-way house muster enough personal control to provide for the safety of his charges? Screenwriter and director Maya Forbes thinks so because her story is based on her real life father who suffering from bi-polar disorder and was able to do just this: successfully care for Forbes and her younger sister in Boston while her mother completed her MBA in New York City. “Infinitely Polar Bear” normalizes the manic and skirts the depressive, but it wonderfully shows a family loving each other while choosing and suffering with the best course of action.

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana play Cam and Maggie Stuart,a mixed raced couple of mixed economic up-bringing. Cam was expelled from Exeter and Harvard,and has a trust fund doled out sparingly by a grandmother called Gaga. Just enough money is given to pay for the subsidized rent controlled apartment the Stuart family keeps. When an old Bentley is offered,Cam turns the car down because of the inconquency and the cost of gas. Maggie believes in work and education as a means to an end. She even lies to thwart the boundary restrictions of the best school for their girls, Amelia and Faith. She is described as having a bourgeois,Mid-western, can-do spirit. And in eighteen months,with Cam watching the girls,she will have her MBA and a chance at a better life for her babies. This is her plan, but she is anything but sure. Can she keep her promise to be home every weekend?!

The film is captioned in time frames like “summer”,”winter”, “spring” and “one year later”,after the backstory of 1978 is shown through hazy reels of home movies. No babies are shown,no early years of the relationship,but we come to understand that Cam is jobless after being fired from a designer’s job. Cam tells the girls that he does not know who did the pushing. The girls know their parents split over “something to do with making money”. What we see are scary and controlling Cam-outbursts mixed with eccentric behaviors like keeping children out of school to pick mushrooms for Mommy’s omelet. Cam is not a layabout. He is a chain-smoking Lucky Strike, crepe making Dad,who Maggie proclaims is funny,compassionate and outdoorsy knowledgeable.

Cam’s projects are hilarious. He never throws anything away and uses placards all over the house to label greasy bike chains and freshly glued pottery. The older girl Amelia is played by Imogene Wolodarsky, Forbes’ real daughter. She moans “Nobody wants what we have.” Yet, this film proves the opposite. Everyone wants a parent who will stay up all night making a sparkly and rufflely flamingo skirt,and who will teach one the lyrics of the Hitler one-ball song.

The casting is great. Ashley Aufderheide is a perfect Faith, as she models Dad and carves a flower into the dining room table. Love is always in the air even in tangled hair-combing and utensil pounding scenes. Enjoy Ruffalo’s wardrobe,especially his red undies and matching headband. The bibs and railroad hat are equally cool.Whether Ruffalo is wrestling,hunting or mating,he just emotes a “nice guy” vibe which this viewer admires.

A Bohemian take on mental-disability challenges with plenty of Gerber daisies to go arround.

“Southpaw”

Ever since I read Edward Hoagland’s second novel “The Circle Home” in 1965, I have been drawn to boxing as a metaphor for slugging out a life. “Scrappy” might be the adjective that sticks best. In Jake Gyllenhaal’s new movie, “Southpaw” he plays the scrappy kid,who made it out of the orphanage with a partner who stayed by him,even when he was incarcerated. Now married,Billy Hope and Mo (Rachel McAdams) are living the “good life” with pergolas and pools and canopied beds. Their ten-year-old daughter, Leia (Iona Laurence)is protected and cherished.Then fate intervenes as screenwriter Kurt Sutter follows the typical story arc of falling from grace and redeeming oneself.

The dialogue and the storyline are the weakest parts of the film,and the great cinematography can not really save it, even though photography director Mauro Fiore choreographs some stunningly fast montages of gauze wrapped hands, blood-vessel-broken eyes, and neck-snapping punches and upper-cut jabs.

As Light Heavy Weight Champion of the World,Gyllenhaal has worked to look the part. His musculature is completely different from his last highly acclaimed role in “The Nightcrawler”. His neck and abs are impressive. His arm tattoos reading “Fighter” and “Father” set his roles. “Fear No Man” is inked on his back in the same font used in the initial credits.

Billy ends his career ignominiously by hitting a referee. The shot of him naked and alone sitting on a white-tiled,shower floor and crying out,”Anyone still here?” is an example of the dialogue. “I feel like I broke her heart” and ” My wife would have liked you” are other  examples of his simple declarative sentences. But one comes to a “fight movie” to see the sweat spume and the blood fly.  Here  the sound of the strikes and jabs is what you will remember.

The score is by the late James Horner, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Eminem has a new song heard as one of these  famous montages flick on and off the screen. The beat was good,but I could not make out the lyrics.

A social conscience of sorts is attempted with the character of Tic Wills (Forest Whitaker).He becomes Billy’s trainer and come-back manager who organizes charity bouts and teaches young street kids disciplined sport. Billy who has been dubbed “The Great White Dope” tells Wills, “I can handle the rules. I grew up in the system.” It is this same system that Billy wants to keep his daughter out of. But provisional custody is court ordered. Naomi Harris plays Angela Rivera,a social worker who shows professional caring and warmth. Oona Laurence,likewise, is painfully believable with her anger-crossed arms answering the question “Is that your Dad?” with her sad “I don’t know anymore.”

I was basically disappointed in “Southpaw”. Scriptwriting like,”Come on,baby, get off those ropes” leave me punch-drunk and I want to go home. And the boy named “Hoppy” because his mother liked bunnies was as sad as his killing. Sorry, but Clint Eastwood did a better job with his “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

“Mr. Holmes”

Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. ~ Joseph Wood Krutch

Don’t miss director Bill Condon’s film “Mr. Holmes”. I was entranced with some of the best acting I have seen. The seventy-six -year- old Ian McKellen is so masterful that he brings tears to the viewers’ eyes in his show of joy, of fear and of grief. This performance just can not be missed on the big screen. McKellen’s silences, his stares, his impatience and his show of regret are astounding.  Playing a ninety-three- year-old man,who is  still filled with the wonderment of learning about the world and how to live in it, touches our souls.

The film based on a novel I have not read, (Mitch Cullin’s “A Slight Trick of The Mind”) shows Holmes losing his belief in the absolute power of pure logic. At his most indulgent, Oliver Wendell Holmes (  a real person and true American  Brahmin and contemporary of Longfellow) once stated that “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind over-tasked”. Here  Arthur Conan Doyle’s character,Sherlock Holmes, rather cruelly learns that intuition and feeling reference things that logic alone can miss.

The subsequent suicide of a young woman thirty years ago had precipitated the end of Holmes’ career. Now,dealing with major memory loss (that his physician has asked him to document with dots in a journal), Holmes is sadly obedient. Conundrums now posed are bedeviled with lapses of short-term memory as simple as the name of his housekeeper’s son.

Roger is the ten-year-old son played by Milo Parker. His character is exceedingly gifted and in awe of our detective’s methodology and rational carriage. It is lovely to see Holmes correct this bright boy’s put-down of his mother’s language and reading acumen. We have the feeling that the younger Holmes was as saucy. Parker,too,is an amazing actor with his wide eyes and constant questions and sassy,quick comebacks. McKellen excels in showing his delight and approval all the while reminding us of what the grade school detective must have been like. Now,boy and man swim together in the sea. Enjoy the clear language of Holmes’ : “Come along or we will lose the day.” Whether working in his apiary or watching the film, “Lady Grey” where an actor stars as the detective, Holmes states that ” Logic is rare. I dwell on circumstance.” When Roger asks Mr.Holmes what will happen to his bees if he dies, our detective says, “I can’t solve everything!”

Age and the passage of time is a motif in all three storylines: the case that caused Holmes to retire,the widowed housekeeper’s work to provide for her son,and the misplaced revenge of a Japanese national. Flashbacks to Japan include Hiroshima-scared faces and ground devastation. Holmes brings back prickly ash,a supposed remedy for senility. Asked by the young Roger of the herb’s side effects, Holmes responds with “hope”. “Forgetfulness the cure.” When Mrs.Munro  (Laura Linney) asks what to do with it,Holmes snarkily says,”cook with it to enhance your specialities.” McKellin’s earlier groans and subtle question of ,”Is that for dinner?” are right-on delightful in their old age commonness.

Laura Linney is herself masterful. Her protectiveness,tenderness and anger will stay with you. “Spite” and “malice” are words her son uses. She marvels, “Where did you get words like that?” Still she has her mother’s lesson, “Lesson, there then. Don’t say everything you think.” You will knowing smile at the film’s and her last line: “The workers do the work.”Mrs. Munro is  not talking about the bees!

Besides incredible acting all around and multiple story lines,we learn factoids of bee husbandry, the glass harmonica, and how the dead are not so far away when they are remembered with love and with well-placed  stones. We learn that Watson saved Holmes by “bringing him back from the brink” and writing a fictional tale where Holmes was the hero. Early on we learn that there are many misconceptions about Holmes, wearing a hat and smoking a pipe are two. The wrong house address is another. One truth abides Holmes tells his young friend,”When you are a detective and a man visits you, it is usually about his wife.”

On Monday afternoon,at one thirty on July twentieth,2015, there were sixty people in the theater,all over sixty. All were drawn to the screen as soon as McKellen’s steam train left Cuckmere Haven Station. You will be drawn,too, as you learn about “Welsh pony” boys,invisible stories,Catholic “sins of desire”,cowardice cloaked in sacrifice and the fact that logic alone can not explain human nature.

“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.