Thursday, April 19, 2018
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Sunday, April 15, 2018
By Mike Hale
April 13, 2018
Jamie Hector and Titus Welliver
Among the many new statistics created by the baseball maven Bill James is the similarity score, which compares players across eras. The most similar player to the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes? Gus Zernial of the early 1950s Philadelphia Athletics.
If similarity scores could be applied to television shows, there’s no doubt which current series would score as most similar to the classic 1950s cop show “Dragnet.” Detective Harry Bosch doesn’t actually say “This is the city: Los Angeles, California,” but “Bosch” — whose fourth season went up Friday on Amazon Prime — is the spiritual heir to that granddaddy of laconic L.A. procedurals.
It’s part of a tradition that carries down through “Adam-12,” “Police Woman,” “Quincy, M.E.,” “The Shield” and “Southland,” and it wears its nostalgia proudly. Neither the character nor the show makes apologies for being old school. “Bosch” isn’t the best or most original series, but it’s honest and reliable, like Bosch. It plays fair with the viewer, and among fans of its genre, it has a rabid following.
Developed for television by Eric Overmyer from novels by Michael Connelly, the show accommodates the modern serial drama’s requirements for psychology and back story. Bosch’s daughter and ex-wife are significant characters, and the unsolved murder of his mother (with its echoes of the Black Dahlia case) continues to haunt him in Season 4. (A fifth season has already been ordered.)
But the soul of the series is procedural crime-solving, and that’s more than ever the case in the new season, which focuses on the murder of an African-American lawyer who was about to go to court with a brutality case against the Los Angeles Police Department.
Bosch and his team spend their time doing phone dumps, poring through financial records, searching homes and offices and then searching them again, and endlessly, fruitlessly tailing suspects through the Southern California streets and strip malls. They do it all on camera, and they complain about it. A lot.
The romantic associations of the setting balance this attention to the quotidian details of police work — the classic bargain of Los Angeles noir. “Bosch” is discreet but determined in its use of evocative locations, which this season include the Bradbury Building, the Biltmore Hotel, Du-pars at the Farmers Market, the abandoned Red Line tunnels beneath downtown and, most prominently, the Angels Flight funicular that still runs up and down Bunker Hill. The Smog Cutter, the Silver Lake dive bar, makes its final appearances, having closed late last year.
Anchoring it all is the deliberate, heavy quietude of Titus Welliver’s performance as Bosch, communicating untold skepticism and disdain through an arched eyebrow or a downturned lip. Mr. Welliver can suggest an entire personality in the way he stares at a whiteboard or silently chooses which chair to sit in, and the show has matched him with other nonhistrionic actors like Jamie Hector (as his partner), Sarah Clarke (his former wife) and Madison Lintz (his daughter).
The unhurried pace of “Bosch” can sometimes slow to a crawl, the writing can be workmanlike and the secondary story lines involving Bosch’s family or Los Angeles politics can be thin. But when it errs, it errs on the side of literalness rather than falseness, of plainness rather than pretension. The show doesn’t require patience so much as relaxation. Surrender to its hard-boiled charms, and it will treat you right.
By Mark Steyn
April 14, 2018
Jason Clarke as Edward Kennedy
As I wrote a few days ago, I had minimal expectations of Chappaquiddick The Movie, which opened last week despite the best efforts of the Kennedy family and their various retainers and enablers. I have always been revolted by the fact that Ted, after killing Mary Jo Kopechne, did not have the decency to do a John Profumo and retire from public life for the rest of his days - and I was even more revolted by the way Massachusetts voters did not have the decency to impose that choice upon him.
But utter contempt for your protagonist doesn't make for very interesting drama. So it is to the film's benefit that its director, writers and Jason Clarke in the lead role manage to locate enough humanity in the empty waddling husk of Teddy to make a compelling story. Mr Clarke is Australian, his director John Curran is American but has spent much of his career Down Under, and the screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan are two first-timers born a decade after Chappaquiddick and who'd apparently never heard the word until 2008. That combination of outsiders and neophytes may be one reason why this film is considerably more gripping and potent than a cookie-cutter limousine-liberal yawnfest like The Post.
In the shorthand of history, Chappaquiddick is a stand-alone event, but it occurred, in fact, on the July weekend in 1969 that Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon - and it arose from a reunion of the "Boiler Room Girls", the devoted young ladies who'd worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign of the previous year. So Teddy, the youngest Senate Majority Whip in history, is nevertheless staggering in the shadow of both his dazzling brother's recent assassination and the fulfillment of his other assassinated brother's most audacious challenge. He is there, ostensibly, to compete in the Edgartown Yacht Club's annual regatta, in the family sailboat Victura, which his other dead brother, Joe Jr, killed in the war, first sailed over thirty years earlier. One feels entirely confident that, if the Kennedy patriarch - old Joe, stroke-afflicted but still running the show - had expressed a preference over which of his four sons would be the only one to survive, Teddy would have been last on the list. We meet him early on, in his room at the Shiretown Inn, climbing into his swim trunks and checking himself in the mirror before heading for the beach and the girls. Pushing forty, he still seems to have his puppy fat, a soft and doughy middle-aged child.
There is, as it happens, another brother - or "brother": Kennedy cousin Joe Gargan, who lost his parents at a young age and was raised by Teddy's parents as (almost) one of their own. As played by Ed Helms, Joe is the conscience of the picture: he doesn't exactly do the right thing, but he's broadly in favor of others doing the right thing, which, in the moral universe of the Kennedys, gives him a sporting chance of winding up a couple of circles of hell further out from where the rest of them are headed. He's officially Ted's lawyer but more importantly his fixer. So we see him in the payphone outside the Shiretown Inn, on the line to the Senator in Washington, reassuring him that the bedroom for "the girl" has been taken care of.
Phone booths are a kind of motif of the picture and its milieu: 1969 is the pre-cellular age, and too many nosy desk clerks like to listen in on the room lines. Ted isn't good at a lot of things (he flubs the sailboat race after steering the Victura into a buoy) but he knows where the payphones are, and he knows how to work them. The Senator is married, of course, but it's understood by all that Joan Kennedy never comes to regatta weekend. When her husband gets into trouble, she's prevailed upon to show up, because it's part of the deal. But she's a prop, and in this film almost a non-speaking part: She has just one line, three words delivered to Ted when he climbs into the car and thanks her for coming. She responds by suggesting he, er, do to himself what he's done to her and almost every other woman he's used and discarded over the years.
Jason Clarke's is not exactly a sympathetic portrait, but it is rounded: his Teddy is self-absorbed and self-loathing, both aware of his weakness and cowardice, and yet unable to overcome the Kennedy family's sense of its own indispensability. You get a sense of the peculiarly isolating quality of American politics at its upper echelons, so different from the unglamorous parliamentary life of other countries. This Ted is a lonely man who's never alone, buffed and polished by a round-the-clock retinue. He's a brand, assumed to be a shoo-in for the '72 presidential nomination, though he himself seems to have no particular enthusiasm for it, and, by comparison to their love for Bobby, even the girls' encouragement seems pro forma and dutiful. His wheelchair-bound speech-afflicted father, in a gothic performance by Bruce Dern, manages to loose off one complete sentence in the picture, albeit a word longer than Joan Kennedy's: "You'll. Never. Be. Great." Forced through his slack, hanging lips to his last son, there must surely be, for a Kennedy scion, no more damning indictment.
But what if Ted doesn't want to be great? What if he'd just like twenty minutes away from it all sitting on the hood of his Olds parked on the edge of a deserted beach with a girl who seems to feel a connection to him.
Ah, but even then the talk is only of politics and destiny...
What happened is well known: The party to thank the Boiler Room Girls of his late brother's campaign is well lubricated. He leaves with a blonde, and then, instead of turning left for the ferry to Edgartown, he swings right onto a dirt road leading to a deserted beach. At a wooden bridge with no guard rails Teddy makes his own personal moon shot: the car sails through the air and lands upside down in a dark tidal pond. The guy gets out and makes it to the surface. He leaves the girl down there. All this has been the subject of innumerable books and magazine articles and newspaper columns, but it is shocking to see it, in prosaic, unsparing, heartless detail. The sodden Senator walks all the way back to the party, past houses with lights burning, full of people who could have called for help, who themselves could have helped. Instead, he totters on to his fixers, and tells them, self-pityingly, "I'm never going to be president."
Mary Jo Kopechne is something of a cipher in her own story: She led a short, varied life, but, as played by Kate Mara, she's mainly there to look the part, "the girl". John Curran, directing with unflashy efficiency, nevertheless conjures the horror of her final hours: We see Mary Jo in the car at the bottom of the pond, then Ted back in the inn soaking in the tub; Mary Jo pressed up against the shrinking air pocket, Ted adjusting his tie and combing his hair; Mary Jo sobbing and gasping out her last "Hail, Mary" at the hour of her death, Ted heading down to breakfast with supporters in the hotel dining room - until he's interrupted by Joe Gargan, aghast to discover it's the morning after and that Kennedy still hasn't reported the accident. And yet Joe too slips reflexively into damage-control mode.
The normal reaction is that of the Chappaquiddick fisherman and his son rounding the bend. The kid is first to spot the upturned Oldsmobile: "Dad!" And the guy tells him to run, run to the nearest house, and the boy pounds the dusty road as fast as he can. But that's why he's a fisherman, not a fixer man. Even before the body's brought up, Mary Jo is fading from the drama: She's no longer a flesh-and-blood human being, no longer "the girl"; she's just a problem, to be fixed - permanently. Ted returns to Hyannis Port for what he assumes will be a spot of afternoon tea with his dad, but, when the nurse motions him into the sitting room, he discovers a vast army of Camelot courtiers lined up behind the chintz sofa - Ted Sorensen, Sargent Shriver, and pre-eminently Bob McNamara, irresistibly conjured by Clancy Brown and smoothly transferring his talents from the Bay of Pigs to a bay with only one pig. Joe Kennedy's called in the heavyweights, A-list fixers who despise Ted's fixers as Z-list fixers.
This is a more sophisticated and blackly comic view of the nature of politics than, say, George Clooney's Ides of March. The acidic glamour of power corrodes even Mary Jo's fellow Boiler Room Girls. No sooner are they informed that their friend is dead than one of them steps forward to volunteer: "What can we do to help the Senator?" The ladies themselves, having kept their silence for half-a-century, are said to deny this version of events, and the words themselves are put in the mouth of a fictional Boiler Roomer created for the movie: "Rachel" (Olivia Thirlby). But, whatever their motivations, the actions of almost everyone in this tale facilitate the replacement of one victim by another: Edward M Kennedy.
Chappaquiddick is an excellent film that deserves to find an audience. John Curran tells his tale in a matter-of-fact semi-procedural style, punctuated by moments when Teddy seems to be, so to speak, floating dreamily through his own drama: At the height of the crisis, the camera alights on him flying a kite, blank-eyed and beaming and far away from dad's schemes of greatness. The film's visual language subtly underlines the journey he's on: the Edgartown scenes are bright and airy, all sun-dappled porches and spacious vistas, innocent and optimistic. Back at Hyannis Port, the sitting room is literally smoke-filled, the airless, darkened corridors and landings have turned their faces from the world, the better to construct an alternative reality and impose it on the actual facts. In Jason Clarke's performance, Teddy's self-doubt is his most (only?) human quality. But the aim of Joe's fixers is to get the last son to the point where he stops feeling conflicted and unsure, and understands that he's a Kennedy and that that trumps all. As I wrote way back when:
Ted's the star, and there's no room to namecheck the bit players. What befell him was a thing, a place. As Joan Vennochi wrote in The Boston Globe:'Like all figures in history – and like those in the Bible, for that matter – Kennedy came with flaws. Moses had a temper. Peter betrayed Jesus. Kennedy had Chappaquiddick, a moment of tremendous moral collapse.'
Actually, Peter denied Jesus, rather than 'betrayed' him, but close enough for Catholic-lite Massachusetts. And if Moses having a temper never led him to leave some gal at the bottom of the Red Sea, well, let's face it, he doesn't have Ted's tremendous legislative legacy, does he?
As I mentioned the other day, that bit turns up in the new movie. Joan Vennochi's words are put in Ted's mouth: He says defensively that all men are flawed - "Moses had a temper, Peter betrayed Jesus." And my cheap riposte - "Moses didn't leave a girl at the bottom of the Red Sea" - is given to the outraged Joe Gargan, already on his way out, supplanted by better, colder, harder fixers. When the guy gets out and leaves the girl at the bottom of the sea, it offends the natural order: Joe is telling him he's not a man.
And Ted barely reacts: The angry words fall off him like water off a Chappaquiddick duck's back. Because human feeling is for humans. And he doesn't have to be a man; he's a Kennedy.
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Saturday, April 14, 2018
“The Death of Stalin” Dares to Make Evil Funny
By Anthony Lane
March 19, 2018 Issue
There is a scary moment, in “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), when Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) jumps ashore from a stately barge. His feet sink deep into the mud, up to the royal ankles. We get a closeup of the King as he looks around, jutting his ginger beard and seeking someone to blame for this indignity. His glare is as hot as a branding iron. Every lackey quails, expecting to be whipped, or worse. Then Henry laughs. The threat has passed, but, for an instant, we glimpsed both his temper and his power, and saw that they amount to the same thing. Now imagine a whole empire run along such lines. Imagine a movie where the moment never stops.
And so to “The Death of Stalin,” a startling new film from Armando Iannucci. The title does not lie. Less than twenty minutes into the movie, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is found lying on a rug in his dacha, outside Moscow. It is March, 1953, and breakfast is ready, but the great leader has been felled by a stroke. Steeped in urine, he is soon surrounded by a small horde of henchmen from the Central Committee. First to arrive is Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s fellow-Georgian and the head of the N.K.V.D., the security service, followed by Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)—next in line to succeed Stalin, and dreadfully pale at the prospect—and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), still wearing his pajamas under his suit. Then comes the rest of the gang, including Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Bulganin (Paul Chahidi). Notable by his absence is Molotov (Michael Palin), whose wife has been arrested. His own head could be on the block.
The problem, for all concerned, is the idea of a Stalin-free land. If they must jockey for his throne, which of them will be bold enough to start the fight, with their lord and master still breathing? What will happen if, by some miracle, he rallies and learns that certain underlings presumed to step into his unfillable shoes? Meanwhile, he needs the finest professional care, but regrettably most of the doctors in Moscow have been purged at Stalin’s command. (This is the sort of irony in which the movie delights, and it’s far from fanciful; an article inPravda, that year, had indeed denounced “assassins in white coats.”) The only medics still at liberty are dodderers and greenhorns; later, when Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend), a barely controllable drunk, gets to the dacha and confronts them, he is incensed. “You’re not even a person, you’re a testicle,” he shouts at one, and, at another, “You’re made mostly of hair.”
Vasily is too late, for his father has passed away. Not that death decreases his talent for terror. The hapless doctors are shipped off in a truck, presumably to their doom; they know too much. Stalin’s look-alikes, retained as a safeguard, are now expendable. Mourners, thronging to the capital, are shot on the streets. As for the Central Committee, it seethes with plots and counter-plots. When Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), turns up at the dacha, Beria, Khrushchev, and the others run out of the woods, where they’ve been muttering in mini-factions, to press their condolences upon her. In the scrap for lamentation, everyone wants to be top dog.
If that sounds unseemly, just you wait. The dumbfounding thing about “The Death of Stalin” is that it’s a comedy—the broadest and often the bloodiest of farces. It is grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless. No sooner do the characters stand on ceremony than the movie pushes them off. As Stalin lies in state, his ministerial minions furtively swap positions around the open casket, with one of them exclaiming, “Jesus Christ, it’s the bishops!” To be put in charge of the funeral arrangements, as Khrushchev is, means having to pick out curtains for the catafalque—ruched or non-ruched? You can feel Iannucci working his way through a list of insultables: the holy Church, the pride of the motherland, the need for grief. Not even Marshal Zhukov, the glorious veteran of the Second World War, whose stature remains untarnished today, is spared; Jason Isaacs plays him as a bully with a thick Yorkshire accent. Yet he’s the only man who shows not a shiver of cowardice, and nobody else has the nerve to stand up to Beria. As Zhukov says, “I fooked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.”
Let us look at the lump. Not all the actors in Iannucci’s film are at ease with his corrosive tone. Jeffrey Tambor, for example, seems a little uncertain as to how weak and uncertain Malenkov should be, though I liked his bumbling admission “I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.” On the other hand, Simon Russell Beale, as Beria, gathers the story into his clutches and deploys his entire frame; portly though he is, with a creased roll of fat at the back of his neck, there is nothing warm or comforting about Beria’s bulk. He is more beetle than bear, scuttling to and fro with a devilish purpose that Kafka would have noted, and peering at the treasonable world through rimless pince-nez, the better to anatomize its sores and flaws. To inspect is to suspect.
How did Beale, a stalwart of the British theatre who has made a mere pocketful of films, achieve this suppurating portrait of malice? I first saw him onstage in 1990, when he played Thersites—no Shakespearean role is more flecked with spleen—in “Troilus and Cressida,” and latterly, in 2014, as a choleric King Lear, sliding into the cracks of early dementia. In the intervening years, his résumé has included a generous dose of brutes and creeps: Richard III, Iago, and Malvolio, whose parting shot, “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you,” at the close of “Twelfth Night,” is echoed by Beria, in the new film, as his colleagues finally muster against him—“I have documents on all of you.”
In short, no actor has been more thoroughly trained in the stewing of slyness and bluster that we smell in Beria, who was as baneful a human as has ever breathed. (He was a serial rapist of young girls, but the film, thank heaven, chooses only to glance at that habit; picture someone so morally squalid that his pedophilia counts as a sideline.) When torture is required, he issues instructions with the relish of a gourmet ordering a meal: “Have his wife move into the next cell and start working on her until he talks. Make it noisy.” Or, “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.” What the hell is there to laugh at, you may ask, in this sump of depravity? Should we be surprised that “The Death of Stalin” has been banned in Russia, where one Moscow cinema was raided and fined for screening it? Is it not, as a filmmaker there described it, “a tremendous abomination”?
Well, yes. The damnable problem, however, is that it’s funny; ten times funnier, by my reckoning, than it has any right to be, and more riddled with risk than anything that Iannucci has done before, because it dares to meet outrage with outrage. The hit TV shows that he created—first “The Thick of It,” in Britain, and then “Veep”—bristle with satirical zeal, but you do wonder, after a while, whether the everyday dysfunctions, enraging as they are, of an essentially functioning democracy are not too easy a bull’s-eye for his scorn. It’s hardly news, for instance, that the American Vice-Presidency is kind of a halfway job, and, when the worst that can befall a person is demotion, or an online roasting, how much is honestly at stake?
No such doubts attend “The Death of Stalin,” where every gag is girded with fear. The humor is so black that it might have been pumped out of the ground. To defend the film as accurate would be fruitless; the episode that kicks it off, in which a pianist, having played a Mozart concerto on the radio, is forced to reprise it at once because Stalin desires a recording, occurred in 1944 if it occurred at all, rather than—as here—on the eve of Stalin’s demise. Yet the compression of time is allowable, because the panic and the fawning dread that are instantly triggered by his name, in these opening scenes, ring all too true. Here is a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The question of how many million souls were extinguished either at Stalin’s bidding or as a result of his policies will never be settled. Documentaries can and should engage in that dispute, but no feature film, however sombre and responsible, could begin to dramatize such boundless suffering. Perhaps comedy, far from being disqualified for so unhappy a task, is the only genre that can tackle it. Behind “The Death of Stalin” stretches a long tradition of British grotesquerie, from James Gillray’s scabrous cartoons of Napoleon back to Christopher Marlowe’s two-part “Tamburlaine,” another litany of mass murder. As Beria pursues his sulfurous trade, you don’t know whether to weep, shriek, snigger, or look away, and what goes through your mind is not “This is exactly what happened, in 1953,” but “Yes, here is a man who could do such things. I wish I didn’t believe in him. But I do.” He is a monster for all seasons.
Anthony Lane has been a film critic for The New Yorker since 1993. He is the author of “Nobody’s Perfect.”