July 24, 2019

4-18-19

“Dumbo”

A Relevant Elephant
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

Here’s what drives me crazy. Mostly everyone you and I know has been brought up on a steady motion picture diet of morality tales like this latest version of Disney’s “Dumbo,” based on the studio’s 1941, animated delve into the wiles and munificence of human nature. All the good lessons concerning proper human behavior are therein contained. And yet, look at some of these uncaring, inconsiderate curmudgeons young and old sharing the planet with us. This week I’m particularly down on the 30-something, balding Wall Street dude, sunglasses-attired, who passes you on the right in his 3 series BMW and then celebrates his belligerence by giving you the middle finger salute.

I ask you. What did I do besides buy into the sweet lesson taught by a little elephant born with giant ears who, despite his divergence from the quote-unquote norm, overcomes his circumstances through the heroic attributes that reside within him? Huh? I estimate that said BMW malefactor, for reasons of genetics, upbringing or astral intervention, sees Dumbo as a sucker for not using his flying powers to wreak revenge on the humans who at first scoffed at his diversity. Is that how he’ll explain it to his kids when he takes them to consume massive portions of gummy worms and cheese-saturated nacho chips at a theater showing “Dumbo?”

Happily, that’s not how about 60% of the parents will explain it to the good future citizens they’re raising. While there may be halfhearted, mostly unsuccessful attempts to smuggle in carrot sticks, celery and yogurt as substitutes for those nachos, Mom and/or Dad will more than likely recap the tale in après movie discussion with the humanitarian bent that the filmmaker intended. And, just for good measure while they’re on the subject anyway, a note or two about gun control, curtailing global warming and not voting for obvious bigots when they reach their majority might also be in order.

Albeit etched with a caustic edge to grant it a realistic PG instead of a Pollyanna G, director Tim Burton makes sure his “Dumbo” remake contains all the elements necessary for the ethical considerations that have been an integral part of fairy tales ever since Oog first adorned the cave walls with his template for Animal Crackers. This includes an instructively funny performance by Danny DeVito as conniving circus owner Max Medici who, by his example, illustrates not only the rationalizations often a part of making a buck, but also the struggle of conscience that may or may not lead to redemption.

Natch, for little ones looking ahead to the future and accompanying parents who like a good love story, the spark created between Colin Farrell’s Holt Farrier, the circus’ horse trainer extraordinaire recently injured in WWI, and exotic French trapeze artist Colette Marchant, fits the bill. Holt, the very image of fine and upstanding, is in one handsome package a single parent, a worker displaced by his disability, and the personification of uncompromising integrity. But, subscribing to the theory that lessons are best learned from peers, the bulk of the story’s primer on benevolence and honor is taught by his kids, Millie (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), two wise little apples who haven’t fallen very far from the tree. Dumbo couldn’t ask for better allies.

Handling the villain and semi-villain responsibilities respectively are Alan Arkin’s J. Griffin Remington, dispassionate captain of investment, and Michael Keaton’s P.T. Barnum knockoff and manipulator of souls, V.A. Vandevere. Both make no masquerade about their desire to capitalize on Dumbo’s talent no matter how it impacts him, his mother and everyone else who grows to love him.

And then there’s what we’ve all come to this circus movie for in the first place. It’s a little bit of a physics problem rolled into a philosophical thesis. The idea of a baby elephant that can fly advocates in a delightfully Aesop-like way that not only can we overcome obstacles of nature like gravity, but that much of our survival, salvation and ultimately our happiness itself hinges on the exercise of mind over matter.

Children of a certain age not yet jaded by the phantasmagoric kaleidoscope of whim and wonder that they’ve been inundated with ever since the mobile above their crib was sent spinning, will doubtlessly squeal with joy when Dumbo takes flight. And I suspect even that aforementioned, ungracious dabbler in stocks and bonds will agree that the movie magic employed to make the principal pachyderm soar majestically through the rafters of the big top is pretty darn good. But alas, unlike the prized offspring you may bring to the theater, the allegory of honesty and civility will be lost on him. Perhaps his kids will tell him that no matter the hurry, “Dumbo” would never pass someone on the right, let alone obscenely brandish his trunk in the process.
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“Dumbo,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios release directed by Tim Burton and stars Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito and Eva Green. Running time: 112 minutes

4-11-19

“Us”

It Takes Two to Terrorize

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Point of disclosure: Save for classics like “Dracula” (1931) and “Frankenstein” (1931), I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to horror films. I’m not simply afraid of them, but rather, in the parlance of childhood, ‘a-scared’ of them. That is, until now. Gripping my armrests in anticipation of a body-elevating jolt whilst viewing film auteur Jordan Peale’s “Us,” his unconnected follow-up to the highly praised “Get Out” (2017), the epiphany dawned on me. Having lived through the last two years of the real-life horror that has masqueraded as American politics, I am immunized. Any fiction purporting to be horror pales in comparison to what the genuine article bodes.

 

I’d have just as soon sailed along on the River Styx of frightening movie entrees, cowering in the dark with each film I opted to review. But I am now from innocence tossed, legitimately terrified. You may be familiar with the hackneyed but all the same ominous scene I’ve been relegated to play out these recent months. I see the monster, but despite all my frantic screaming about his treacherous presence, most of the burghers in the village pay no attention …some of them even trying to censure my exhortations: “He’s blinkin’ blimey crazy, he is.”

 

So, while I sat there in anticipation of involuntary launch, I appreciated the finely skilled dabs and streaks of the cinematic art with which Mr. Peale is so obviously gifted. But I saw the fiction for what it ultimately was…a baby rattle that might temporarily distract me from my discomfort. All of which suggested that the only thing left for me to do was to turn my attention to the multifarious metaphors Peale was actually crafting, as opposed to the ones I concocted.

 

In short, there is much to munch on here if the basic fact of doppelgangers terrorizing the Wilson family as they attempt to enjoy their summer vacation isn’t entertainment enough for you. For starters, you’ll want to figure out from whence these Bizarro-type doubles emanated and, as the Wilsons oft plead in high-pitched fright, what exactly do they want?

 

Although the catastasis and wrap-up kind of explain it, I found said recap even more confounding and, worried that I might do myself harm, have finally stopped scratching my head over the matter. Besides, the wise path here is probably to just take the surface cataclysms as the chaff, the action to keep our hearts palpitating, while the headier, philosophical propounding is for us to theorize après theatre at the local diner with the Glucksterns. It’s their turn to pay. You offer to leave the tip.

 

Interestingly, and perhaps a slight sign of social improvement in the American landscape, Peale never calls conscious attention to the fact that the Wilsons, Adelaide and Gabe, and their children, Zora and Jason, are African-American. Rather, they are, apparent from their trappings, simply upper middle class. The one exception, which also informs that Gabe has been to college, is the Howard University sweatshirt he wears throughout the harrowing proceedings. However, while those of an analytical bent may read more or less into it than Peale himself intended, the symbolism of the plot’s two entities, one fulfilled, the other deprived, lends itself handily to a cornucopia of sociological conjecture.

 

That said, whether frightened or not by the often gruesome goings-on as the duplicates invade the Wilsons’s summer manse, we are soon put in the uncomfortable, bloodthirsty position of rooting for our previously happy family to kill the interlopers by any means possible. All thoughts of political correctness go flying out the window when it comes to movie demons. You’re free to hate, hate, hate as much as your blood pressure will allow.

 

But of course, muddled as the message may be, the parable at play here suggests that guilt for being a Have in a world teeming with Have-Nots is in order. Whether you can do something about it aside from being a human sacrifice is another matter. The visitants’ steady, petrifying encroachment, oblivious to all beseeching, seems hell-bent on revenge and not remediation.

 

Making all this illusoriness as real as your suspension of disbelief deems acceptable, Lupita Nyong’o earns a gold star as both Adelaide Wilson and Red, while Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson and Abraham is also commendable in his double duty stint. And, doing their fair share of representing the typical American family and its evil alter ego, both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are aces as the kids.

 

Granted, the “scare me, scare me” crowd may be disappointed by the dearth of old-fashioned, unremitting shocks to body and soul. But if one gives serious thought to this feature-length affirmation of cartoon pundit Walt Kelly’s theorem that we have met the enemy and he is “Us,” it’s probably the scariest prospect of all.

“Us,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Jordan Peale and stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Shahadi Wright Joseph. Running time: 116 minutes

4-4-2019

“Gloria Bell”

For Whom the Loneliness Tolls
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

My mother was beautiful. Not just pretty, but beautiful. At family gatherings, it was inevitably brought up: Who is more beautiful, Dora or Elizabeth Taylor? It was Mom’s cue to blush, although she kept serving and rarely sat down. Intentionally or not, her splendor impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. Whether taken to the shoe store or a visit to the doctor, it was a given: A beautiful woman had just walked into the room. People like beautiful. It fascinates them, whether wondering what it must be like to be beautiful or intellectually deliberating just what it is that makes one beautiful.

Here’s why I raise the subject. Inarguably beautiful Julianne Moore stars in Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria Bell,” about a middle class, middle-aged divorcee who earns a living in a nondescript office job by day and hits the L.A. dance clubs by night in search of Prince Charming. While the makeup doesn’t accentuate Ms. Moore’s comely visage, neither does it purposely attempt to deter from it. The latter would surely be an awkward mistake. But that the fact of her exquisiteness is simply avoided, especially in light of a screenplay that is otherwise so commendably realistic, is perplexing.

My thesis here isn’t so Philistine to recommend that Gloria is liable to fare better in her eventual relationship with dance floor find, Arnold, also divorced, because of her pulchritude. It might just be my excuse for seeing how many synonyms I can find for beauty. But the thing is, Moore’s appearance can’t help but play in contrast to the regular gal she’s been assigned to portray. However, as we take it for granted that most movie actors, save for character types, are far more attractive than a random sampling of folks walking down any street U.S.A., most viewers won’t share my piddling reservations. Plus, that Julianne Moore is also as much a thespic talent as she is a Venus doubtless helps ameliorate the miscasting.

But whether because of her humanity or also for her loveliness, we like Gloria, and hope that John Turturro’s suitor turns out to be at least a reasonable facsimile of the gallant knight on the white horse come to rescue our gal from dying with her song still inside her. But again, leave it to me to also have a trifling problem with Mr. Turturro’s character.

While it’s completely understandable that we soon become impatient with Arnold’s sometimes quirky behavior, there just may be an unexplained answer that director Lelio should have at least broached. There’s something amiss…something happened here. A former Marine who runs an apparently lucrative paintball park, he is inordinately in the thrall of his ex-wife and two obnoxiously demanding daughters. And it just isn’t enough for me to simply recognize Arnold’s inability to compartmentalize his role as super breadwinner and emotional support extraordinaire. He is a main character and not a convenient widget or a mere sounding board to help delineate Gloria. I want to know just a little more.

All the same, attesting not only to Miss Moore and Mr. Turturro’s superb performances, but also to my status as a hopeless romantic, I nonetheless rooted enthusiastically for this pair of lovelorn souls. In a classic case of invoking that the end justifies the means, especially in the cause of something as sacred as amour itself, and lending dispensation over my detractions, I defer to Joe E. Brown’s wacky rejoinder in “Some Like it Hot” (1959) when Jack Lemmon’s Jerry tells him he’s a man: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

So, while “Gloria Bell” isn’t the definitive statement on a woman of certain years left in the lurch through the sometimes unkind vagaries of marriage, among the parade of middle-aged actresses who’ve taken their turn at this entranceway to roles for older ladies, it is one of the most genuine. Ms. Moore, especially when her character is expressing the seemingly endless hours of loneliness that can overtake every other aspect of singlehood, proves a master of evocative nuance. Although we all know, especially through the canons of the modern woman’s movement, that no one should be defined by whether or not they have a life partner, here we witness that there are challenges nonetheless to overcoming old modes and conventions.

I mean, there’s a reason why we’ve generally attempted to pair off over these vast millennia, whether to swing from chandeliers together, to have someone there in the middle of the night to call the EMTs, or for any number of those infinite proclivities that seem unfathomable to others. Before the current awakening to self-determination, folks who didn’t participate in the mating game were often considered either selfish or undesirable…termed old maids, confirmed bachelors and, only in the rarest of positive estimations, exonerated as free spirits. But of course there has always been much more to it, and in Moore’s “Gloria Bell” the savvy glimpse beyond the stereotype rings true.

“Gloria Bell,” rated R, is an A24 release directed by Sebastián Lelio, and stars Julianne Moore, John Turturro and Michael Cera. Running time: 102 minutes

Simple Strategies for a Larger Tomato Harvest

When growing tomatoes in container gardens, look for containers with built-in trellises and large reservoirs that help promote healthy growth and productivity. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Gardener’s Supply Company

by Melinda Myers

Nothing is more frustrating than investing time, money and energy in planting and growing tomatoes only to watch them succumb to disease.  We can’t change the weather conditions that support disease problems, but we can tweak our growing strategies to reduce this risk.

Select and grow the most disease-resistant varieties suited to your growing region. Consult your local University Extension Office for a list of recommended tomatoes and always check the plant tags before purchasing plants.

Plant tomatoes in a sunny location, that receives at least eight or more hours of sunlight, with rich well-drained soil. Your plants will be healthier and better able to fend off insects and tolerate disease.

No room – no problem.  Grow your tomatoes in containers filled with a quality potting mix and drainage holes. Many of the newer containers, like Gardener’s Victory Self-Watering Patio Planter are designed to increase success with less effort on your part. Look for containers with built-in trellises, large reservoirs and other features that promote healthy growth and productivity.

Properly space plants to increase airflow and sunlight reaching all parts of the plant. This reduces the risk of disease and increases a plant’s ability to produce more fruit. Leaving space between plants also helps reduce the spread of disease from diseased plants to nearby healthy plants.

Further reduce the risk of disease by lifting the plants off the ground. Supporting plants with strong tomato cages improves air flow and light penetration while keeping the plants and fruit off the ground and away from soil-borne insects and diseases.

Avoid flimsy tomato towers that tend to topple and bulky cages that consume too much storage space.  Consider investing in one of the stronger supports like the Gardener’s Vertex Lifetime Tomato Cage that stores flat and is strong, but flexible to encourage stouter growth. Another benefit is that it opens, so you can easily place them around larger plants; just in case you waited too long to set the cages in place.

Use soaker hoses or irrigation systems like the Waterwell Irrigation System that target water to the soil around the plant. Placing water just where it is needed – on the soil – conserves moisture while keeping the foliage dry. Overhead irrigation uses more water and increases the risk and spread of many common tomato diseases.

Boost your tomato plants’ productivity by as much as 20% with red mulch.  The USDA and Clemson University developed a red mulch that reflects far-red wavelengths upward into the plants stimulating growth and development.  For more help growing tomatoes successfully and boosting your tomato harvest visit gardeners.com.

Rotate plantings from one garden, or area within a garden, to another.  Moving related plants to different locations each year reduces the build up of insects and diseases, reducing the risk of future problems. Consider rotating your tomato plantings into containers if space is limited. Start with fresh soil, a clean container and disease-resistant plants.

With these few changes and a bit of cooperation from the weather, your new challenge may be finding ways to use and share your bumper harvest. Your surplus tomatoes and vegetables are always welcome at food pantries and meal programs in your community.

“Transit”

As in, Letters of…
3 popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
film critic

One has to be either a fool or a complicit coward not to recognize the mercilessness regularly perpetrated on humankind by immoral governments and their tyrannical leaders. Equally clueless are those who don’t realize that the worldwide, mass immigration being used as a scapegoat by said guilty-as-sin autocrats is in essence a product of their regimes’ greed, racism and ineptness. Ever notice that the really bad guys are never ever wrong? While Rick in “Casablanca” (1942) occasionally confesses to a lack of judgement, you’ll never hear good Nazi Major Strasser admitting a mistake. Civics Lesson #1: Rick is good; Major Strasser is bad.

What all this has to do with “Transit,” adapted by director Christian Petzold from Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel, is just about everything, albeit in an artistic, symbolic, poly-metaphorical way. Read the plot synopsis and it seems rather clear-cut: A man fleeing France from the invading Germans assumes, at first unintentionally, the identity of a dead author whose wife he falls in love with upon their chance meeting. She doesn’t know her husband is dead. However, in weaving his muckraking tale of turmoil and inhumanity in the world of borders, checkpoints and provincialism, leave it to Petzold to invariably take the more obscure path.

Perhaps it’s his form of audio-visual touch-n-feel in an attempt to make us appreciate the uncaring horror inflicted on those caught in the vice of tyrants playing at government. And just to make it a little more murky in an art house sort of way, especially for those watching it stateside with subtitles, while Ms. Seghers’s story takes place in the 1940s, when the Nazis are indeed invading and occupying France, Mr. Petzold asserts a current poignancy by setting it in the present day. To further complicate matters, subtitles or not, you can’t help but feel a tad disoriented by actors speaking German playing the French people who are being forced to flee from the Nazis who would “cleanse” them.

We are tossed headlong into the discomfort of the protagonist, Georg, ably played by Franz Rogowski, an everyman attempting to find some sort of mental and physical terra firma on which to stand in this never-ending upshot of a Babel toppled for its overweening vanity. Marie (Paula Beer), the starry-eyed wife who simply won’t believe that her famous writer spouse is dead, co-represents the face of immigrants. They weren’t born immigrants with DNA denoting that, but flung into it, putting a face on it. In short, people just like you and me. They once went to work, watched TV at night, rooted for Bernie at the little league game on Saturday and agonized about not being able to find a good, honest handyman. Now someone wants to see their letters of transit, and more often worse.

The film is a refresher course in what goes on if we blink too long and miss the signs alerting us to a democracy in jeopardy. Sadly, I know the story only too well, not because I am astute, but because I have been around for a while and those ignominious powers that be rarely take a break from their blatant attempts to evaporate our freedom. They are the bully in the playground who grew up without benefit of a life-changing epiphany. This isn’t happy viewing. Still, while it would be more enjoyable were I a college sophomore parsing the recently screened film in a coffee shop with my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cohorts, and planning how we will change the world, I’m grateful the discussion is still in progress.

Granted, it is esoterically embroidered. Yet even after we’re confident that “Transit” is like something Aesop may have written were he determined to challenge the wiles and wherefores of contemporary totalitarianism, we’re still at a bit of a loss. You can’t help but feel that there is yet another cryptic element of human psychology to be deciphered, that there is a gene in some folks that not only precludes them from calling out obvious tyrants, but actually causes them to vociferously side with them. Organisms in good health move toward pleasure and away from pain. Thus, one needn’t be Dr. Freud to understand that any aberration thereof is, well, aberrant, and in human beings specifically, downright unsociable.

Plopped atop all this highminded contemplation, director Petzold submits a mini thesis on bravery and sacrifice in the face of world upheaval. And, proving that brilliant minds do indeed think alike, one should note that while the windup in “Transit” bears heroic similarities to “Casablanca,” the two stories were written at about the same time. Both are primers of civic-mindedness that essentially ask, would that candidate you’re about to vote for give up his or her letters of transit so that Victor Laszlo and Ilsa could continue their fight for freedom?

“Transit,” not rated, is a Music Box Films release directed by Christian Petzold and stars Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer and Godehard Giese. Running time: 101 minutes

3-21-19

3-28-19