Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/24/19 -- Wild Nights with Emily, Peterloo and Sunset

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. If it works, you may see this approach again. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Wild Nigh Nights with Emily

The movie, A Quiet Passion (2017), took us inside the isolated life of poet Emily Dickinson. Cynthia Nixon led director Terrence Davies' somber look at a poet who could be preoccupied with mortality. It's not easy, after all, to be upbeat about a poet who wrote this line: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." Those familiar with Dickinson's work may be a bit shocked to find that Wild Nights with Emily, which casts Molly Shannon as the poet, sheds the shroud of gloom that usually accompanies talk of Dickinson. Shannon portrays a poet who carried on an enduring lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler). Don't fret about Dickinson's brother Austin (Kevin Seal); he busies himself with an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), the woman whose lecture about Dickinson's life and poetry frames the story. The movie traces the relationship between Amy and Susan back through their teen years, and director Madeleine Olnek often takes a frolicking approach without dismissing the seriousness of Dickinson's work. The movie doesn't short change the difficulties Dickinson had finding acceptance as a woman poet in the 19th century but approaches much of the story with a sly understanding of the absurd propriety that keeps everyone from acknowledging the obvious. Shannon and Ziegler make what initially seems an unlikely approach (fiction based on reasonable speculation) into something that challenges Dickinson's image, cracking the ice of literary reverence to find a real person. At one point, Dickinson writes a poem on the back of a sheet of paper containing one of her recipes. She supplies some of the local Amherst kids with gingerbread that she lowers in a basket from her bedroom window and, thanks to Shannon, has an expression that punctures pretension. I have no idea how Dickinson purists will react to the movie, but it made me feel better about a poet who seemed to live with an eye on the grave. If it's wishful thinking, then consider it a good example of such license: In Wild Nights with Emily, we meet a Dickinson who seems to defy convention without guilt, particularly when it comes to tasting the pleasures of love, sex, and emotional intimacy.


A bit of background for those of us who aren't particularly well-versed in English history. In 1819, the British cavalry spent three hours stomping through a crowd of as many as 80,000 protesters in St Peter's Field, Manchester. The protesters were demanding that parliamentary representation that reflected a one-man-one-vote approach. (It would be nearly a century before women in Britain won the right to vote.) It pains me to say that director Mike Leigh, whose work I take seriously, has turned a potentially volatile story into a series of illustrated position papers that expose all sides of the disputes leading up what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Heavy on mise-en-scene, Peterloo devolves into a series of meetings that make it seem as if the movie's real subject is oratory. Suffice to say that none of the movie's various politicians could survive the age of Twitter. The movie clearly expresses its main conflict: The elite want to keep the discontented masses at bay, and those same masses want to be heard. The oppressed consist of those who work the mills of Manchester, eking out a living and trying to cling to their dignity. Leigh's approach requires him to introduce a large number of characters, many defined almost entirely by their political stances and by whatever flavor the actors are able to bring to the enterprise. Leigh clearly sides with the downtrodden, beginning his movie by following a young bugler (David Moorst) who returns to Manchester in a near daze after the Battle of Waterloo. The movie builds toward the fated demonstration at which the great orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) has been scheduled to address the crowd. At times, Leigh creates the illusion that events almost are unfolding in real time. But there's hardly a shot or scene that doesn't overstay its welcome, and Leigh winds up with a movie in which honorable intentions aren't quite enough to stave off the feeling that we're undergoing a bit of an endurance test.


I was not among those who found Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015) as stunning as many other critics. That film, Laszlo's first, won an Oscar for best foreign-language film. I suppose, then, that I shouldn't have been surprised that Laszlo's second outing -- Sunset -- proves even less successful. Over-using his signature camera move -- he follows characters into scenes in a way that disorients the viewer -- Nemes takes us to Budapest on the eve of World War I. The movie focuses on Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), a young woman who arrives in Budapest from Trieste. She hopes to find employment at a renowned millinery shop. It doesn't take long to learn that Irisz is the daughter of the shop's former owners, a couple who were killed in a fire that ravaged the store. The meticulous Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov) has rebuilt the business. He has no wish to hire anyone from the family of its previous owners. Irisz, who was sent to an orphanage at the age of two, also learns that she had an apparently wayward brother who murdered the husband of a countess (Julia Jakubowska). A variety of characters keep warning Iresz to leave town; she keeps ignoring their advice. Pressing on as she tries to locate her brother, Irisz begins to learn dreadful secrets about the hidden agenda behind the hat business. Confusing and ultimately unsatisfying, Sunset adheres to the rules of slow disclosure as if they were holy writ; but, in this case, the gradual revelation of information not only keeps the audience from getting ahead of the story but creates considerable frustration. In Sunset, slow disclosure comes perilously close to no disclosure at all. Sunset constantly flirts with larger meanings, but no deluge of insight arrives to quench the thirst for a comprehensible resolution.

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