Arts in Review Archive
Horny, Foul-Mouthed Young Nuns Run Amok in The Little Hours (July 14, 2017)
Outcasts Hunted by Cannibals Find Love in The Bad Batch (June 24, 2017)
William Friedkin Revisits Exorcist, Documentary Roots in The Devil and Father Amorth (May 22 & July 5, 2017)
The Dinner Digs into Family Loyalty, Morals (May 4, 2017)
Beating Brutality through Sacrifice and Redemption (April 28, 2017)
Philip Caputo's New Novel Arises from His Daredevil Journalism (April 18, 2017)
Mondo Cozmo Refreshes Rock with Hopeful 'Shine' (April 5, 2017)
Hollywood Hierarchy Drives Drama in FEUD: Bette and Joan (April 3 & 24, 2017)
In Big Little Lies, Does Big Mystery Cover for Small Story? (Feb. 20, 2017)
Isabelle Huppert Chic as Character's Life Unravels in Things to Come (Jan. 21, 2017)
Sidney Lumet's Moral Direction (Jan. 6, 2017)
Neruda Explores Blurred Boundaries of Art and Reality (Dec. 30, 2016)
The Stones Roll Back into Chicago Blues (Dec. 27, 2016)
The Opportunist Also Rises (Dec. 13, 2016)
The Devil and William Friedkin (Dec. 11, 2016)
Tracy Letts on the Playwright's Job—and the Actor's (Dec. 11, 2016)
Rebecca Hall Astounds in Christine (Dec. 11, 2016)
Philip Caputo's New Novel Arises from His Daredevil Journalism
PHILIP CAPUTO THRIVES ON DANGER. As a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune he covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was later wounded in Lebanon and held prisoner by Palestinian fighters. In 1977, at the age of 36, he established his career as an author with his best-selling book A Rumor of War, a memoir of his experiences as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. His novel Horn of Africa (1980) is set in Ethiopia; his book of three novellas Exiles (1997) partly in Australia; and Acts of Faith (2005) in Sudan. Caputo's new novel and sixteenth book, Some Rise by Sin—which Henry Holt and Company published May 9—takes place in Mexico and derives from his reporting on the country's narco gangs.
Caputo is drawn to conflict zones, but his novels are more character-driven than propelled by plot. Some Rise by Sin tells the story of a middle-aged American priest exiled to a remote town in Mexico after his tangential involvement in a church scandal in Los Angeles. A brutal, pseudo-religious drug gang is terrorizing the Mexican village, and the priest—a tough man of tested faith wracked by his own memories and desires—is faced with the moral and spiritual quandary of whether to betray his vows to fight the criminals.
Some Rise by Sin includes two characters who originally appeared in Caputo's 2009 novel Crossers, which likewise took place in the border territory between Arizona and Mexico. Although Some Rise by Sin picks up the story of those two characters 10 years later, they are not main characters in either book. The new novel is "loosely related to Crossers, in that two characters from that book reappear in Some Rise By Sin, but it's not a sequel," Caputo told Moresby Press.
He explained how his new novel grew from his work as a journalist. "I did two stories on the Mexican drug wars and related border issues," Caputo said. "One was in 2007 for The Virginia Quarterly Review, the other in 2009 for The Atlantic. The latter assignment, which took me into Juarez and deep into the state of Chihuahua, gave me the inspiration for Some Rise By Sin. My translator and assistant told me a story about a Catholic priest who'd become a snitch for the Mexican Federal Police by revealing the confessions he heard from drug traffickers. In that tale, the priest was Mexican and had turned informant for venal motives. For the purposes of my novel, I created an American missionary priest who violates the seal of the confessional for altruistic reasons."
Hollywood Hierarchy Drives Drama in FEUD: Bette and Joan
ON THE SURFACE, FEUD: Bette and Joan is about the rivalry between aging actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as they film the B-horror movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962. But by the fourth episode of the FX series that started March 5, it becomes apparent that even outwardly successful people in Hollywood are brutalized by a power hierarchy that constantly reminds stars, directors and others of their place in the pecking order.
Before Baby Jane opens and becomes a surprise box-office hit, Davis and Crawford are both told by talent agents that they have no offers for work. An incensed Crawford, played brilliantly by Jessica Lange, shouts at a conference table full of agents at the William Morris Agency: "If I have to find my own projects and wait for you to field offers instead of drumming them up, I don't see the point of having an agent. You're all fired!"
Meanwhile, Davis, played by Susan Sarandon, places a classified ad in a newspaper that only half-jokingly reads: "Mother of three. Thirty years experience as an actress in motion pictures. Wants steady employment in Hollywood."
After Baby Jane is released, its director Robert Aldrich, played by Alfred Molina, is offered other B-movie horror scripts, but aspires to direct something better. Studio boss Jack Warner, played by Stanley Tucci, tells him: "What do you think, that you're a big, star director all of a sudden? You're a journeyman, strictly B-list. Dreams are delusions." Warner predicts Bob's next picture outside the studio will flop, but says he'll probably take his calls anyway, because "I've got a soft spot for losers."
Aldrich is forced to direct a B-western starring Frank Sinatra, who yells at him: "Who the fuck do you think you are? You're nobody. I oughta have you decapitated and buried in the desert ... No one would notice you're gone!"
When Bob's assistant Pauline, played by Alison Wright, writes a script for Crawford and wants to direct it herself, the aging star tells her: "I'm not turning you down because you're a woman; I'm turning you down because you're a nobody."
Warner wounds Crawford by saying that Davis has more talent. "She can act rings around you," he says. Episode five centers on the bitter competition between Davis and Crawford over which star will receive the Best Actress nomination and Oscar for Baby Jane. Later we learn that Davis resents Crawford for her beauty, while Crawford envies Davis for her talent.
In the elegiac final episode that aired April 23, a fan tells Crawford that he loves Baby Jane because its characters are "cast aside, beaten down and forgotten, but they never give up hope that they'll rise again. They're survivors." Crawford says, "What do you know about survival?" and walks away.
Amid the backstabbing, scheming and disappointments, you don't know whether to despise or feel sorry for the dueling stars Crawford and Davis. But you can be sure that the show—with its excellent writing and performances, its gorgeous sets and period detail and haunting title-sequence music by composer Mac Quayle—is this year's best. It should be interesting to see which one of its principal stars, Lange or Sarandon, will win the awards. Our money is on Lange.
Neruda Explores Blurred Boundaries of Art and Reality
"AM I FICTION?" the detective who is chasing Chilean poet Pablo Neruda asks in Neruda, the intriguing new film from director Pablo Larrain. In fact, the policeman played by Gael Garcia Bernal (above) is invented for the movie—not just as a plot device in a game of cat-and-mouse down the length of the slender South American country, but to symbolize real and imagined persecutors of leftists who "like to play the victim," as another character in the film puts its.
Nobel Prize-winning poet Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, who went by the pen name Pablo Neruda, after the Czech poet Jan Neruda, was also a diplomat and politician in Chile. When the country outlawed communism in 1948, Neruda—played in the film by Luis Gnecco—was forced into hiding, as other members of the party were arrested. (In the movie, a prison camp in the harsh Atacama Desert in northern Chile is run by Augusto Pinochet, who would later become dictator of the country after a coup d'etat against democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973.)
A reflection of Neruda's writing style, which sometimes ventured into surrealism, the film toys with the relationship between reality and illusion, including the suggestion that the pampered, hedonistic poet perhaps wasn't suited to speak for the country's impoverished masses.
As the story unfolds, the beautifully shot film moves from the urban sophistication of Santiago to the port city of Valparaiso, and then south to Chile's Lake District—a landscape of mountains and cloud-shrouded pine forests—and the snows of the country's southern reaches, where the dogged policeman, by now obsessed as much with trying to prove his own existence and worth as with apprehending Neruda, concludes his journey. Like a "second sea," the Andes Mountains separate Chile from Argentina, where the poet eventually finds exile, supported by Pablo Picasso and other artists in Paris.
Sidney Lumet's Moral Direction
"I'M NOT DIRECTING THE MORAL MESSAGE," the filmmaker says in American Masters: By Sidney Lumet, on PBS. "I'm directing that piece of the people, and if I do it well, the moral message will come through."
Subtly or otherwise, a moral sense pervades the prolific director's 44 movies in 50 years—starting with 12 Angry Men in 1957, until his last film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, in 2007. In between, Lumet gave us Fail-Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict and many other pictures, at a rate of nearly one per year. As he explains early in the PBS documentary, an experience he had as a young soldier in World War II, when he witnessed a 12-year-old Indian girl near Calcutta being gang-raped by American G.I.'s on a train but did not intervene, instilled in him a lifelong desire to fight injustice. Lumet, who grew up "dirt poor" on Manhattan's Lower East Side during the Great Depression, says his films all share the bedrock concern: "Is it fair?"
"I love characters who are rebels," he says, "because not accepting the status quo, not accepting the way it's always been done, not accepting that this is the way it has to be, is the fundamental area of human progress—and drama, God knows." The other perennial source of drama is family, he says.
Lumet, who died in 2011 at the age of 86, three years after filming the interview, never received an Academy Award for Best Director. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2005.
Beating Brutality through Sacrifice and Redemption
"THIS BEAUTIFUL, SORROWFUL, BLOOD-SPOTTED COUNTRY" is how Philip Caputo describes Mexico in his new novel Some Rise by Sin, a tale of downtrodden people trying to survive and redeem themselves under the crushing forces of poverty and drug-gang violence. Henry Holt and Company published the book May 9.
The novel's protagonist, an exiled American priest named Father Timothy Riordan, is assigned to a church in the rural Mexican town of San Patricio, where two young men have been shot dead by soldiers during a peaceful protest. Riordan is asked to approach a brutal local military captain and ask for an apology. The priest finds himself recruited into the role of peace broker between the townspeople and the army—and is then forced to become an informer, undergoing his own crisis of conscience and faith as he breaks the seal of the confessional to pass along tips that might help the army and police fight a sinister drug gang called The Brotherhood.
Riordan, a gray-haired, Harley-riding missionary who is strong but compassionate, is an interesting if not necessarily compelling character—though by the end of the book he is certainly memorable. In Caputo's last two novels, this one and Crossers (2009), which also took place in the border area between Mexico and the United States (Caputo himself lives in Patagonia, Ariz., four months a year), the secondary characters are sometimes more interesting than the protagonists. Two characters from Crossers reappear in Some Rise by Sin: a gay drug lord, and a cop and sometimes-assassin for the drug bosses who has synesthesia and can see sounds and hear colors. In the new novel, a subplot involving an expat American doctor—a lesbian named Lisette—feels incongruous and obligatory.
In his last couple of novels, Caputo repeats variations on character types: Crossers had a middle-aged woman with a gay, young-adult son; Some Rise by Sin includes a middle-aged, gay woman with a straight, young-adult son. Both books have as secondary characters beautiful, artistic middle-aged women from wealthy American families who, despite their privilege, somehow wind up with crooked teeth. Crossers features a rich, milquetoast Manhattanite who comes to the rescue of his uneducated and cash-strapped Arizona rancher cousin; while Some Rise by Sin sees an American priest and doctor saving inhabitants of backward Mexican villages.
Caputo is a fluid storyteller who knows how to create evocative descriptions and keep the reader turning pages, but dialogue is not always his strong suit. Some of the characters feel unconvincing because their dialogue sounds unnatural—their words often serving to deliver exposition rather than help develop believable personas. Like the expository dialogue, story points are often stated overtly when they would be better left implied, such as "it seemed like a macabre warning."
The author has an occasional habit of presenting cliched images and then trying to excuse them with lines like "He was right out of central casting," or "It was like a scene from The Godfather," which only remind the reader that they've seen such things before. Also off-putting is his tendency to write sentences in Spanish and then translate them into English. Why not settle on one or the other? Offering further evidence of indecisiveness, it sometimes seems that Caputo can't decide if he wants to be a literary novelist or a commercial thriller writer; his books contain somewhat uneasy, if admittedly entertaining, combinations of both.
By the end of Some Rise by Sin, however, we know that we're in the hands of a masterful craftsman and sympathetic observer of human suffering, as well as a journalist who has done the hard reporting that allows him to tell such rich and well informed stories.
The Dinner Digs into Family Loyalty, Morals
"FAMILIES ARE OPPRESSIVE AND UNLOVING AND CRUEL," Paul Lohman says in The Dinner, an adaptation of the best-selling 2009 psychological-thriller novel by Dutch author Herman Koch. By the end of the movie that opened May 5, however, Paul, played by Steve Coogan, is ready to kill to save his son from the consequences of the teenager's own actions—but whether the father's motivation is love, mental illness or a desire to disprove his earlier statement is unclear.
In the book, as Paul and his wife Claire prepare to meet Paul's estranged older brother Stan and his much younger second wife Katelyn for dinner at an expensive Amsterdam restaurant, Paul at first seems like the sympathetic, if slightly bitter, sibling. Stan, who in the novel is a politician running for prime minister of the Netherlands—in the movie, a U.S. congressman campaigning for governor of an unnamed state, played by Richard Gere—has summoned Paul and Claire to dinner to talk about a problem with their sons. Paul, a public school teacher who considers himself "a warrior for the underclass," sees Stan as "self-serving and elitist" and resents him for being their mother's favorite when they were children.
In the movie, written and directed by Oren Moverman, the restaurant is in an old mansion, where waitstaff swarm to the table bearing a series of gourmet courses. The waiter lingers to detail pretentious ingredients in the dishes, such as "young vegetables" and "edible flowers." In the movie as in the book, the characters leave the table often and for implausibly long stretches of time, even putting their winter coats back on to go outside for a while. Rebecca Hall plays Katelyn, and Laura Linney plays Claire.
In the book, we gradually learn that the couples' sixteen-year-old sons, the cousins Michael and Rick, have committed a cruel prank that resulted in the death of a homeless woman. Along the way, our first impression of Paul as a sympathetic character and Stan as his pompous brother begins to shift, as little by little we realize that Stan is the reasonable one and Paul is mentally unstable. But in the movie, the book's character development and mystery never occur. It's clear from the beginning of the film that Paul is disturbed, and that the boys have done something terrible inside an ATM vestibule late at night—an incident that Michael films on his phone and which winds up on YouTube, even as its perpetrators remain unknown.
Stan wants the boys to turn themselves in to the police, and says he plans to hold a press conference in the morning to announce he is dropping out of the race for governor. Not wanting to lose the family's privilege, Claire and Kate vehemently object to both suggestions, defending the actions of their sons and claiming that the homeless woman, who was passed out on the floor in front of the ATM, was a threat to the boys.
If the novel had a rich atmosphere, the movie is arid and almost antiseptic by comparison, and its murky lighting and hand-held, high-definition video-camera work and almost total absence of music sometimes make The Dinner feel low-budget and amateurish. Give credit to the cast, though—especially Coogan, whose part is the best written and who never lets us doubt that his tortured character is real.
The Dinner purports to ask audiences how far they would go to protect their children. But for parents, the real question might be: "How much of your own selfishness are you willing to reveal, even as you claim to be looking out for your family?"
In Big Little Lies, Does Big Mystery Cover for Small Story?
CATTY POWER MOMS competing for attention and influence at an upscale grade school in Monterey, Calif., should be a rich enough source of dramatic and comic material to sustain a limited series on HBO. But with Big Little Lies, which premiered Feb. 19 in the cable giant's coveted Sunday evening slot, the show's producer and writer, David E. Kelley (L.A. Law, Boston Legal) and director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) seem to signal their insecurity that the interactions of the moms themselves can't hold the audience's interest. Immediately, we'll informed that a murder has taken place at a fundraising event for the school, and we then view the show in flashback without knowing the identity of the victim or killer—a device used to force suspense where it wouldn't otherwise occur and make the story more engaging, at least in theory.
Based on the best-selling novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty but transplanted to central California, the show stars Reese Witherspoon as blond busybody stay-at-home mom Madeline Martha McKenzie, who clashes with Renata Klein, a high-powered career mother played by Laura Dern. Nicole Kidman plays Celeste Wright, a former lawyer and ostensible friend of Madeline, while Shailene Woodley is a single mom and new arrival to the town and school, whose clothes and home make clear she is from a lower socioeconomic class than the other women, and whose son faces ostracism.
The character types and what they represent for parents and kids today—and the star power of the cast—should have been more than enough to create an interesting and relevant show. But by making them subordinate to the guaranteed drama of a teased-out murder mystery, Big Little Lies sells itself short.
The Stones Roll Back into Chicago Blues
IT MIGHT BE TEMPTING to dismiss Blue & Lonesome, the Rolling Stones' new CD of blues cover versions, as minimal effort expended for maximum gain. After all, its 12 songs were all written by Chicago bluesmen in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, not by the Stones, and the band recorded the entire album in just three days, with no overdubs (the title track was done in one take). But with these raw, unpolished recordings, the Stones sound the most sincere they have for a long time. You're hearing the band play live in the studio, but they might as well be performing at the smoky Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago's South Side.
Four of the songs, including the title track, were originally recorded by Little Walter, and the galloping beat of his "I Gotta Go" is a highlight of the album. Other tunes simmer in a minor-key blues dirge, like "All of Your Love" by Magic Sam. Blue & Lonesome also covers Howlin' Wolf ("Commit a Crime"), Little Johnny Taylor ("Everybody Knows About My Good Thing"), Eddie Taylor ("Ride 'Em On Down"), Lightnin' Slim ("Hoo Doo Blues"), and Jimmy Reed ("Little Rain").
The final two tracks are Willie Dixon songs— "Just Like I Treat You" and "I Can't Quit You Baby," the last with lead guitar by Eric Clapton, who happened to be working in the studio next door. The Stones are all in their 70s now (or close—Ronnie Wood is 69), and have returned to the passion for Chicago blues music that first inspired them more than half a century ago.
The Devil and William Friedkin
DIRECTOR WILLIAM FRIEDKIN, who still insists he has never considered his 1973 classic The Exorcist a horror film—but rather a movie about "the mystery of faith"—got the chance to videotape an actual exorcism in Rome in 2016, some 43 years after the release of the movie that he said was based on an actual case.
In a powerful piece of journalism, the 81-year-old filmmaker writes about his recent experience in the December, 2016 issue of Vanity Fair. Although the case he describes in the magazine is very different from the one in the film—here, the young woman said to be possessed has been exorcised nine times, and she telephones the priest to cancel the tenth session because she's not feeling up to it—in the end, Friedkin was "terrified" by what he witnessed, he writes.
Mondo Cozmo Refreshes Rock with Hopeful 'Shine'
"MY FRIENDS ARE SO ALONE and it breaks my heart / My friends don't understand we all are lost," Josh Ostrander, aka Mondo Cozmo, sings in his moving new single "Shine." Despite the sadness of those words, the tune is an anthem of hope with its chorus "Let 'em get high / Let 'em get stoned / Everything will be all right if you let it go." The sentiment can be taken literally or as metaphor; either way, the song acknowledges our pain and then blasts it away through musical catharsis.
"Shine" follows a simple chord progression transposed into magical territory by clamping a capo on the fourth fret of Ostrander's acoustic guitar—and by his soulful lyrics, melody and voice as he sings: "Stick with me Jesus through the coming storm / I've come to you in search of something I have lost. Shine down a light on me and show a path / I promise you I will return if you take me back."
Watch the video here.
Isabelle Huppert Chic as Character's Life Unravels in Things to Come
"IMAGINATION COMPENSATES for the absence of a loved one," Nathalie, played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, says in Things to Come, the new film from director Mia Hansen-Love. A middle-aged philosophy professor living a comfortable life in Paris with her husband, also an academic, and their two young-adult children, Nathalie unexpectedly sees her world fall apart.
Her elderly mother, a former fashion model abandoned by her parents as a child, is declining fast and can no longer live on her own. Young "marketing fiends" at Nathalie's publisher cite sales analytics when informing her they intend to redesign a book of her essays with loud colors on its cover. Heinz, her husband of 25 years, announces he's leaving her for a younger woman.
Nathalie is thrust into a freedom she has never known, a new reality that she finds both frightening and exhilarating. She spends time with a former student and his young intellectual friends in the French countryside before returning to Paris when her daughter gives birth. At 63, Huppert is stylish and beautiful in Things to Come, a slow, quiet movie that poses many philosophical questions—including, "How do we know when something is true?"
Rebecca Hall Astounds in Christine
BRITISH ACTRESS REBECCA HALL delivers one of the best performances of 2016 as an ambitious yet disturbed television reporter who commits suicide live on the air during a newscast. Based on the true story of Christine Chubbuck, who worked at a small station in Sarasota, Fla., in 1974, Christine from director Antonio Campos has an eerie realism, thanks in part to its use of actual TV-studio equipment from the period as props.
The movie also stars Michael C. Hall as Christine's co-anchor and unrequited love, and playwright/actor Tracy Letts as her prickly boss, with whom she clashes as he pushes her to report "juicier" stories for the struggling station. J. Smith-Cameron plays Christine's patient but exasperated mother, Peg.
Though not in wide release, the film should help propel Ms. Hall's career. Her previous screen credits include Frost/Nixon, The Town, and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She will star as one of four parents faced with the dilemma of how far they should go to protect their teenage children from the consequences of their own actions in The Dinner, an adaptation of the best-selling novel from Dutch author Herman Koch, set for a May, 2017 release.
Tracy Letts on the Playwright's Job—and the Actor's
"THE JOB OF THE ARTIST is to hold the mirror up to the world we live in and the people who live in it," Tracy Letts (above, right) said during a Nov. 18, 2016, Q-and-A after a screening of the movie Christine at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. More specifically, "The job of the playwright first and foremost is empathy," he said.
Letts's plays have included the dark psychological thrillers Killer Joe and Bug (both made into films by director William Friedkin), and the black comedy August: Osage County (for which Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, the play brought to the screen by director John Wells). Consistent with themes of those works, Letts said there has been mental illness in his family, and that he has personally struggled with addiction.
Asked about his performance as Christine Chubbuck's demanding boss, Letts said "The dramaturgy—what the guy wants, what the guy needs—is on the page" in the screenplay by Craig Shilowich.
ERNEST HEMINGWAY'S RISE as a writer and public figure seemed fueled as much by his charisma—and all the well-connected supporters who lined up to help him launch his career—as by his talent and innovative writing style. As Lesley M. M. Blume writes in her deliciously readable book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,) Hemingway's debut novel and ticket to stardom was a gossipy roman a clef about his own experiences traveling to a drunken fiesta in Spain with a group of friends in 1924. But the reportorial book, essentially non-fiction with just enough invention added to call it fiction, was elevated to high literature by a title taken from the Bible and the opening epigraph "You are all a lost generation" from Gertrude Stein.
Blume's book reveals that for all of his popularity, Hemingway was an opportunist and back-stabber who used his friends, wives and supporters to further his career, and then tossed them aside, and even publicly mocked them, once they had fulfilled their purposes for him. And yet, like those friends, Hemingway's loyal fans and readers can't help liking him, anyway.
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