September 20, 2019

“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love”

A Fine Sadness

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” director Nick Broomfield’s studious documentary centering on the love affair between poet/songwriter/folk-rocker Leonard Cohen and his acknowledged  muse, Marianne Ihlen, is recommended here, but with cautious reservation. When my friend Benny texted just as I exited the theater, informing that he was at the iconic Frank Pepe’s pizzeria in New Haven, and wanted to know where I was, the details of my whereabouts triggered a request for my first review. Pressed into service, but kind of thinking a little about the contrasting happiness of the delicious white clam pizza that abounded where Benny sat, I blurted my first impression thusly: “Sad, but poignant and sociologically important.”

 

While educative and soulfully committed to a fair and respectful homage to the lovers in question, methinks Mr. Broomfield can’t help but entwine himself in the melancholia of the subject, which, by the way, is probably the best approach. Any varnishing of the truths emanating from his acknowledgedly accurate account would be to choose entertainment value over honesty. The thought is, possessing the temper and timber of something you’d expect from a seminar at a university, the amusement value is in the philosophical verities divulged, and in those ideas which may be engendered in the viewer.

 

Yet at the same time, there is a basic simplicity running concurrent to the headier meditations, the ability of Broomfield via Cohen to appreciate that which we can glean joy from without deep consideration: things like the beauty of a coastline or the warmth of a friendship. Still, any hope by intellectual sorts and dilettantes such as myself that “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love” might attract an audience beyond its obvious niche appeal would be both Pollyanna and a tad condescending. I mean, were they alive, I could see Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe digging the fatalistic view of Leonard and Marianne’s affaire de coeur, but not so, Marilyn and Joe D.

 

Hence, filmgoers who aren’t poetically inclined, and have no interest in literature, folk-rock or the socio-historical impact of the 1960s, need not apply. However, I have to tell you, in absorbing the interesting facets of Mr. Cohen’s life and how his Norwegian born afflatus, Marianne, influenced him, I couldn’t help but hope that some college sophomore, stumbling into the local art house, might get an epiphanic jolt of the education this film makes available. In the current climate of racism that has grabbed way too much of the American public by the throat, works of this sort are as important as ever, to spread the gospel of good, hope, peace, love and mercy

 

That established, in Broomfield’s filmic monograph the desire to scrupulously contribute, to lay down for posterity the facts as best they can be ascertained, is evident. We are moved…our consternation and occasional dismay in the face of stark divulgences be damned if we are to benefit from our better explorers of the human spirit

 

On a more personal level, this means also delving into the bittersweet angst and joys of Leonard and Marianne’s relationship, and perhaps in the process recognizing ourselves and our lovers in their challenging experience. You know… I should have said this… I should have done that.

 

But before I get too maudlin, here’s some quick notes, my Classic Comic Book encapsulation. Canadian born, his mother looney, after matriculation at McGill and a brief stint at Columbia grad, Cohen celebrated the ‘60s on the Greek island of Hydra where he met the eventually feted Marianne. Whether together, apart or with other partners, a lifelong love affair ensues. He writes a novel or two, unheralded, and, starting first with songwriting, wends his way into folk rock immortality. He dabbles in Buddhism and, for a time, becomes a monk. Yeah, really.

 

Incongruously, while a womanizer abetted and spurred on by the era of Free Love, he puts the women of his life and songs on a pedestal. The inherent anomaly will challenge his formidable intellect and vex his poetic idealism until the end of his days. Within in it all, giving and tolerant, Marianne tries to find herself in the romantic vortex of her adoring but conflicted lover. All of which gives us pause. We mull and meditate… the root DNA of humankind’s frustration thus evidenced by someone who sure tried his darndest to find the secret of life.

 

Postscript: In the 1960s and early ‘70s, while most of my friends were at concerts, I was at the movies. And so, while I was enamored of the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen somehow avoided my gaze. But now, with the elucidative “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” I am a fan late to the party, to which I must say, Hallelujah.

“Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” rated R, is directed by Nick Broomfield and features archived footage of Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen and Judy Collins. Running time: 102 minutes

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“The Spy Behind Home Plate”

Glove, Mask, Cloak-and-Dagger

3 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

‘Get your scorecards. Get your scorecards. Can’t tell the spies from the conspirators without a scorecard.’

 

Such was just one of my thoughts after seeing filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s fascinating, incredible and rather mind blowing documentary about Morris ‘Moe’ Berg, Major League catcher, Princeton (B.A.) and Columbia (LL.D.) graduate, speaker of 12 languages who studied Sanskrit at the Sorbonne and, oh, almost forgot, spy for the OSS. Psst….He was assigned to help undermine the Nazi atomic bomb program during WWII. But what drives you crazy as you partake of Ms. Kempner’s scholarly and entertaining treasure trough of the superbly assembled puzzle that was Newark, New Jersey’s, Moe Berg, is, how about all the stuff we probably don’t know about him?

 

It’s pretty nutty in its obscurity…that every schoolkid in America doesn’t know who this unsung hero was. OK…by the very nature of Moe Berg’s life outside the baselines, it was all hush, hush. But one would think as you witness the extraordinary unraveling of the many sides of the catcher who, by the way, once went 117 games behind the plate without committing an error, that his exploits would by now be legend. I mean, gee, one of the Kardashians has an affair with a pop star and we practically declare a national holiday. As I once heard an old philosopher sitting on a soda crate in front of a candy store back in the old neighborhood say, “Something is upside down.”

 

But that’s part of the awesomeness that is “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” the proof of the pudding that there is the surface world where everyone is just pretty much oblivious, doing the bread and circus thing, whereas in little known, unheralded nooks and hollers of the human experience, there are folks doing the heavy lifting for our species. I’m sure hoping some of them are hard at work right now. It’s certainly time for the brave figure on the white horse to enter stage left.

 

Moe once had tea with Einstein, and the scientist kidded that he’d teach him the theory of relativity if Moe taught him the concept and finer points of baseball. He also enjoyed a friendship with Babe Ruth when he was part of a goodwill tour to Japan, wherein our ballplayers volunteered to help teach the ins and outs of our national pastime to the college players there. But if anyone was really paying attention back then in 1934, perhaps they’d have given pause to Mr. Berg’s attendance in the Land of the Rising Sun.

 

You see, while I’ll forever be impressed by anyone who ascends to the Major Leagues, by baseball’s highly rigorous standards, Moe was just an average backstop. And when fellow Washington Senator, outfielder Dave Harris, was reminded that his teammate spoke several languages, he said, “Yeah…and he can’t hit in any of them.” Thus it only makes sense that anyone with a passing interest in both baseball and international intrigue would have seen the curiosity in Moe being picked to join the likes of future Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lefty Gomez, etc. Suffice it to note, this may have been Moe’s first assignment for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). Psst, again…he came back with pictures of important Japanese installations that were later used in the Doolittle Raid.

 

Director Kempner, who has previously treated audiences to documentaries such as “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009), “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (1998) and “Partisans of Vilna” (1986), may have been, in another life, a super sleuth herself…so astute is her sense of deduction. In cracking the code of the otherwise reserved, humble and handsome repository of knowledge that was Moe Berg, she once again proves she’s a connector of the dots extraordinaire. But it’s the stuff she pulls from the chasm of the unknown that best distinguishes her documentary creds. When she plucks a previously undiscovered plum out of the perplexing pie for the world to now know, it appears neither specious nor a stretch of the imagination.

 

Kempner’s erudite rummaging has us repetitively musing, “How many other anonymous and/or unhailed heroes who have lived and died do we have to thank for the freedoms we enjoy?” It’s a bit overwhelming.

 

On a personal level, considering how things ultimately turned out for Moe, we are a bit saddened by his astonishing tale, unsure if he nonetheless found lasting happiness. He wasn’t the type to complain. Hence, in decoding the big secret that was “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” we take the occasion to sing our own silent paean to him and console ourselves with the thought that, just as in baseball, there isn’t any crying in espionage.

“The Spy Behind Home Plate,” not rated, is an mTuckman release directed by Aviva Kempner, starring documentary footage of Morris Berg and a variety of people in the worlds of both baseball and international intrigue. Running time: 101 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6-6-19

“Rocketman”

Godzilla vs. Elton John

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

I actually wanted to see the new “Godzilla.” Not that I’m a big fan of the franchise. Maybe it’s the kid in me…or perhaps because the early stuff was so hokey and so terribly dubbed that it was entertaining. Composed of poorly constructed miniatures and the barest of plots, it was probably the hyper suspension of disbelief engendered in us moppets that stirred our imaginations more than the calamitous perpetrations themselves. My curiosity was up. Hence, as the time approached to decide if it’d be “Rocketman” or “Godzilla” this week, the Japanese nomenclature became my recurring word of the day. “Gojira! Gojira!” I repeated in anticipation of the monster’s approach. It would sort of be like going back to the old neighborhood to see how things may have modernized. “Gojira” I murmured. But then I punked out.

 

Yeah, the adult said to the adolescent, ‘Lose the indulgence. ‘Rocketman’ is more significant than a plastic behemoth that levels entire cityscapes with one giant wag of his tale. Who needs that, anyway?’ So I saw “Rocketman.” Such are life-changing decisions. While certainly not as important as whether to become a film critic or Secretary of State, choices do have their consequences and, serendipitously, this latest selection also worked out just fine. Harvesting edifying revelations and soulful divulgences galore, director Dexter Fletcher’s biopic tells you everything you didn’t even think to ask about Elton John …that is, unless you’re a devout aficionado of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite rocker.

 

The biggest surprise is that Elton John as most of us have perceived him, major songwriter and performer extraordinaire, is technically only one-half of the illustrious hit-making dynamo that gave us iconic tunes like the one for which this superbly entertaining film is titled. Think Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney. While “Rocketman” doesn’t delve into lyricist Bernie Taupin’s biographical details the way it so pervasively deconstructs Mr. John, it dramatically informs that this silent partner was the wordsmith and collaborating catalyst who made it possible for Elton to realize his musical genius.

 

Attaching the innumerable, chart-topping songs strewn throughout the screenplay to the often tragic path Elton John traversed on his way to international stardom, director Fletcher, working from a screenplay by Lee Hall, amazes us with the prolificacy of his subject. But while the traditional storytelling style oft used in movies about composers is familiar, there is an individualistic verve that cuts right to the nerve of who this film says Elton John is. Alas, the phenom is the once unloved little boy of absurdly selfish and clueless parents. Oh sure, you think, it’d be great to have all that money and fame, Gojira no longer on your mind. But assuming you had a great childhood, would you trade it for Elton John’s debatable consolation prize?

 

Sharing a bit of DNA from any and all motion pictures about the rocky road to rock-‘n’-roll eminence, there’s the required amount of limousines, disingenuous lovers, corrupt agents, booze, drugs and the ever-fearful insecurity that comes of sudden success. But while such is afforded compulsory lip service, the central theme is neither the wiles, joys nor seductive decadences of showbiz, but rather, the Rocketman’s relentless and dishearteningly unsuccessful search for love. All of which makes us give a hoot when he falls victim to the shiny temptations …which he does with as much masochistic efficacy as any of his peers. Taron Egerton is so award-worthy credible, both in voice and thespic impersonation, that we nearly forget it’s not Elton John playing himself.

 

Here’s the deal. Despite the global cynicism that’s concealing the better essence of humanity like the candy shell on a Jordan almond, our heartfelt interest belies the cold protective mechanism of the sardonic worldview foisted on us by misanthropes and profiteers. This film is a big hit. And what’s it about? Love! People liking and needing each other…a lot. Quite a commodity, you know. Gadzooks, man…the poets have been telling us about it for millennia. But the firmest truth of it was permanently jolted into my brain during that rare, memorable instance when I had a drink with Mom. Despondent over my recent loss of a battle in the war between the sexes, I questioningly agonized over the power of love. Intent on dispelling any uncertainties I held, Dora Goldberger looked me in the face and succinctly informed, “People kill for it.” Aside from wondering, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ I knew I was now playing in the majors.

 

Thus, because of its celebrated songbook and heartrending meditation on the search for love, I emphatically endorse “Rocketman” before setting my moviegoing trajectory for “Godzilla II: King of the Monsters,” and wonder if I’ll construe ‘tis also amour that motivates the beast.

“Rocketman,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Dexter Fletcher and stars Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell and Richard Madden. Running time: 121 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Aladdin”

Wishful Thinking

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Three wishes. It sure seems like a lot. One would think you could solve all the world’s problems as well as a few of your own if a genie granted them to you. But after mulling director Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the “One Thousand and One Nights” Arabian folktale Disney first treated us to in 1992, I’m still not certain how I’d proceed. Are you sure you can’t wish for more wishes? Yeah, I know, I know. That’s the way it has to be. You see, it’s all part of a built-in lesson about hopes, aspirations and the human condition, brought to the silver screen here in fine fettle.

 

Rated PG and boasting a bevy of positive beliefs, with special emphasis on the leadership roles it passionately affirms are rightfully waiting for the fairer sex to assume, it’s just the sort of film I’d want to take my daughter, Erin, to when she was little. Surrounding and intertwining the ennobling messages with engaging music, several wittily conveyed performances and bedazzling art direction, it all makes for a fulfilling experience at the Bijou. Plus, for folks like me who are always looking for parodic jabs at our current powers that be, replete with a happy path to extrication from their besmirching of all that is good and decent, like the commercials for Prego proudly asserted, it’s in there, too.

 

Fact is, this age old tale, with roots speculated to emanate from both Chinese and Arabian cultures, brims with political science theory that, alas and alack, never grows old. In this permutation, the elderly Sultan (David Negahban) bemoans having no male heir to his throne. Thus he falls vulnerable to the evil, inveigling spell of his Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who not only wants the old dude’s job, but the hand of his comely daughter, Jasmine, effectively portrayed by Naomi Scott. Making no bones about it, not just yet, except in melodic soliloquy which essentially intones ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ Jasmine is confident she’d be a sultan extraordinaire and a godsend to the good citizens of Agrabah.

 

Of course this Grand Vizier doing his Rasputin/Sherriff of Nottingham riff on government overthrow just won’t do…not if Jasmine and Aladdin, a clever street urchin masquerading as a prince courtesy of one rub of the magic lamp, have anything to say about it. Though at first led to believe that the apple of his eye is but her majesty’s handmaiden, our title hero, invigoratively played by Mena Massoud, soon agrees with the princess that she isn’t just chopped liver, and that there’s no reason why the royal succession should shun her. But as the Sultan reminds, the constitution says it’s a no-no. While you have to give His Majesty credit for revering the document before then convincing him to amend the chauvinist rule for the good of his kingdom, we can’t help but reflect on how our own grand document is being marginalized.

 

Whereas “Aladdin” has a brilliantly astute genie to intercede and direct wishful traffic, it occurs that we in the 50 states might benefit from some wise and altruistic intervention. And truth be told, I’d be all for Will Smith, who plays the genie with scene-stealing aplomb, to step from the screen, “Purple Rose of Cairo”-style, and give us a bit of a hand out here…perhaps toss his hat in the ring, and then, at an opportune moment during the Big Debate, flourish some of his genie powers. That’d give ‘em what for.

 

Such is how my mind wandered as I watched “Aladdin’s” richly filled treasure chest of enlightened dreams….each scene in one way or another aimed at convincing us that hope prevails. The idea is, once people make up their minds to do the righteous thing, it’s only a matter of time before they’re on the road to realizing their profound potential.

 

Note that history has been perennially punctuated with fables of every stripe to remind us of our inalienable rights, just in case some narcissist comes along and tries to convince us that we exist only to adulate him. The would-be oppressor invariably promises a great future as only he and he alone can provide, right then and there quashing any thoughts of a glorious destiny courtesy of our own self-determination. It is a dark part of human nature that must be battled regularly.

 

Hence, a cheery, uplifting illumination like “Aladdin,” both spiritually beneficial and a reminder of our civic responsibility, should be seen at least twice a year, or every 5,000 negative thoughts…whichever comes first. A knowledgeable populace with the commonweal at heart, appearing en masse at the polls, is ostensibly as powerful as any genie’s lamp. And there, as all tyrants fear, is the rub.

“Aladdin,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott. Running time: 128 minutes