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Authors Posts by Richard Von Busack

Richard Von Busack

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New ‘Apes’ film honors originals

The film ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ includes multiple borrowings from the original sequence of five ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies.

By Richard von Busack

Comparing movies to food is the hack’s crutch, but Matt Reeves’ excellent War for the Planet of the Apes is like a parfait made of several delicious levels.

In their redwoods hideout, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes hold out against an attack by the humans. Gorilla scouts lead the way for the humans, in a skirmish of spears and arrows versus gun-power. After winning the battle, Caesar gets word of a possible homeland in the desert.

What starts as a war movie becomes a Western, complete with Caesar as a grim Chimp Eastwood on horseback. Caesar even acquires a Walter Brennan sidekick in the form of the piebald, cracked Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, demonstrating boggling synthespian skills). As they ride out to find a new homeland, they adopt Nova (Amiah Miller), a helpless mute girl; it’s like the version of The Searchers that film fans always dream about, told from the Comanches’ point of view.

Then to Spartacus as Caesar harrows a slave-labor camp. Woody Harrelson brilliantly apes Brando, as a bald, beyond-the-beyond Colonel in charge. Finally, War resolves itself as a hairier version of The Ten Commandments, complete with a twist on the Red Sea inundation.

Rather than looking like a dog-eared swipe-file, this terrific ape-opera honors the originals. It has the freshness of a story that you’re hearing for the first time. The apes have dignity and innocence, and are the kind of noble savages that few film viewers could possibly enjoy in human form. The political satire in this Apes movie is as timely as this film is, likely, timeless. War sets the stage for the astronaut Taylor’s arrival from the skies in the 1968 Planet of the Apes, and the shocking news he will bring—news as unbelievable as the theory of evolution is to the religious—of the apes’ long-ago subordination to humanity.

Sofia Coppola remakes ‘The Beguiled’

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled,’ a remake of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, is a thriller that takes place at a girls’ boarding school during the Civil War.

By Richard von Busack

In 1864, a wounded Union deserter becomes a fox in a henhouse. In both versions of The Beguiled (1971/2017) Corporal McBurney manipulates the Confederate ladies of a small finishing school. Is it Christian love or devilish lust that makes the half-dozen ladies conceal the enemy soldier from the patrolling Confederate troops? It’s unclear who the title refers to, unless everyone here is beguiled, and a self-beguiler.

In the thin, pretty-pretty Sofia Coppola redo, McBurney (Colin Farrell) tries to flirt the ladies into submission … for a time, the Irish accent, the melting glances and the outrageous compliments work. He’s always watching, seeing how his hostesses are taking his show of gentlemanly behavior. The easiest pickings would seem to be Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, playing the Elizabeth Hartman old-maid part), but she’s someone who can match McBurney’s almost periscopic side-eye: She’s not as weak as she looks.

Coppola’s Cannes-honored remake has a shorter running time than the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood original, and yet that original seemed like a speedier pulp version of D.H. Lawrence, with Geraldine Page excelling as the head witch in charge. Jo Ann Harris, a torrid-eyed wanton, is replaced by a more inwardly-neurotic Elle Fanning. Nicole Kidman replaces Page.

If the first Beguiled was a hothouse, this is more of a boutique, uncommitted to horror, effective melodrama or social comedy. This Beguiled has no dirt under its fingernails. Watching this Virgin “Homicides” of Coppola, it’s unclear whether the movie is a protest against the old-time women’s world of caged seclusion, or a celebration of those good old days when a lady sat, looked elegant and waited for stuff to be brought to her.

‘Maudie’ paints a colorful portrait of artist Maud Lewis

Irish director Aisling Walsh’s film ‘Maudie,’ with a script by Sherry White, is a portrait of 30 years in the life of Nova Scotia artist Maud Lewis and her husband.

By Richard von Busack

The endearingly gawky Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) stars in Maudie, and it’s one of the best portraits done of a character constrained by his or her body, up there with My Left Foot. The Nova Scotia outsider artist Maud Lewis (Hawkins) was bent over with juvenile arthritis, with hands so clawed that she eventually had to hold the brushes with her wrists. Maud made a small name for herself, painting her world—the pets she had or wished she had, and flowers for every season.

She lived in a 10-by-12 shack with her fish-peddling husband Everett (Ethan Hawke), selling her paintings by the roadside as souvenirs. Maudie shows how her life changed when she left her domineering aunt and took a job with Everett, a scowling, almost vicious grown-up orphan with a bad temper. Hawke has to stretch—he’s a tenor trying to sing bass. It’s clear why Hawke was cast; being a warm handsome actor, you forgive Everett for his meanness.

At the end of the film we see the real-life characters in a clip from a short black-and-white documentary made about Maud, and it doesn’t really reflect what we’ve just seen. Unlike the man who grudges the pictures painted on his wall, and who was reluctant to marry, the real Everett bought his wife her first paint set, and wed her after a six-week courtship. If Maudie Lewis was anything like Sally Hawkins, why wouldn’t he? Hawkins’ unguarded grin, the husky voice from too many cigs, the candidness and sidelong ways are disarming. There is a secret world inside her.

Someday I’ll go to the museum in Halifax, to see the 10-by-12 house the Lewises lived in, now preserved with all of the paintings Maud did over the years covering the walls. But my point is that the movie Maudie would be captivating even if the title character had never painted a lick.

‘Cars’ is back with no. 3

By Richard von Busack

After the spy movie satire in Cars 2, Cars 3 is back to letting the characters drive the narrative, instead of just having the characters drive.

Candy-apple-red sports car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) crashed and lost. Now he’s sulking in his garage in Radiator Springs in his primer paint, hanging out in his underwear. He’s mocked on television as a has-been, denounced by statistical analyst Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington), who flaunts metrics to prove that Lightning is finished, compared to “the next generation of high-tech racers.” The arrogant new favorite, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) calls out to Lightning: “You had a good run. Enjoy your retirement.”

Lightning faces his residual years selling endorsements for mudflaps. At his new office, the trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) pushes the aging car to overcome his post-crash nerves. Her own buried ambitions to be a race car emerge during their time together. Lightning and Cruz drive out to explore the southern dirt tracks where Lightning’s mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) once raced; it gives the background animators the chance to create some moody Smoky Mountains landscapes. Flashbacks to the first Cars show how much more visually sophisticated Pixar has become in the span of a decade.

Newman’s voice outtakes from the first Cars are used to underscore the theme of obsolescence: “There was a lot left in me … I never got the chance to show ’em.” Hopefully, these weren’t Newman’s feelings at the end of his career. It’s fair to speculate that there’s an autobiographical angle here, regarding the elders at Pixar’s feelings about the bitterly competitive field of animation.

Cars 3 is an endorsement of the craft of teaching, but that theme seems slight and secondary compared to the trauma of obsolescence. Time passing one by is a regular theme in Pixar, though it may never have been so strongly emphasized.

Children have a lot of anxieties. Is being old and surpassed really one of these traumas? Can this subtext be as interesting to them as the shiny talking cars with their big glassy eyes speeding around the track, as in the rote last 20 minutes? Strange, though, that there should be such personal elements in Pixar’s most impersonal franchise.

‘My Cousin Rachel’ a haunting drama

The film ‘My Cousin Rachel,’ a romantic drama starring Rachel Weisz, is adapted from a novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

By Richard von Busack

Made scaly by the filigree of the lace of her long black veil, Rachel Weisz stars in a role so right for her that it’s seemingly named in her honor: Director Roger Michell’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel. She’s no letdown to the actresses who previously assayed the role, Olivia de Havilland (1952) and Geraldine Chaplin (1983). Weisz’s Rachel is a seductive older woman, who perhaps learned the old craft of poisoning from her time in Florence.

In the middle of the 19th century, handsome Philip (Sam Claflin, Finnick in The Hunger Games) was raised by his cousin Ambrose on their sheep ranch on the Cornish coast. Ambrose has poor health and takes his winters in Italy—there, he encounters another cousin, Rachel, raised in that land. Ambrose marries her, and shortly expires … but not before sending letters in splattered ink. Ambrose claims that he’s been murdered by Rachel. When Philip goes to Italy to find out more about Ambrose’s demise, he learns that the supposed cause of death was a brain tumor.

Soon Rachel arrives in England to view her husband’s land, though Ambrose never changed his will in her favor. At 25, Philip will own the manor … but he’s taken by the comely widow, and charmed by her sophistication.

Avoiding “Masterpiece Theatre” syndrome, Roger Michell (Venus, Notting Hill) uses a handheld camera and quick editing; he also makes the farmlife notably coarse.

It’s an idea to take material this moonlit and foggy into the realm of the realistic. But Claflin, playing the most foolish property owner since King Lear, can’t convince us of his blinding passion. My Cousin Rachel withholds an extremely important bit of information until the last minute. And the denouement isn’t set up in a way that can be believed. It’s rushed, it’s abject.

Greek myth comes to life in inspiring ‘Wonder Woman’

‘Wonder Woman,’ an epic action adventure film by director Patty Jenkins, stars Gal Gadot as the title character.

By Richard von Busack

There is nothing an audience likes better than the sight of a woman with a sword. A long, long overdue movie, given our taste for superheroics, Wonder Woman deserves to be a hit. All of the things that go right here overwhelm the couple of things that don’t.  

The sexually bohemian psychologist William Moulton Marston’s comic book character emerged in 1941, rising in popularity as women took over previously male-held roles during World War II. His modern-day Amazon was derived from numerous legends of women warriors talked about throughout the ancient world. Female Spartans must have been a fearful idea to the ancients, given how women were kept in purdah in Greece and elsewhere.

But the inspired script, credited to Allan Heinberg, has the seemingly immortal Diana, Princess of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) arriving among men in World War I. The 1914-18 war isn’t just a theme park background, with No Man’s Land as the right place for this woman. Wonder Woman’s plot mirrors the real-life experience of the soldiers. The combatants are shipped in with the highest idealism about slaying war itself: Thus “the war to end all wars.” Through bitter experience in the trenches, the soldiers realized that it was just one more war, the worst yet, and perhaps an endless one.

Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) has a good feeling for a Greek myth coming to life. Diana is awe-inspiring in leaping freeze-frame, and the film stages ancient-time flashbacks to look like animated neo-classical paintings. Diana is coming, sword in hand, for man’s ancient enemy Ares, the god of war. The innocence of this mission bemuses the military spy Steve Trevor—Chris Pine, a good man in a reaction shot while he watches as Diana gets to know her own Olympian strength.

The idea of a great woman warrior is just as threatening now as it was to Herodotus.

‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ comes to the Rafael

‘Welcome to My Nightmare,’ a 1975 Alice Cooper concert movie, is full of visually pleasing special effects.

By Richard von Busack

Horror clown of ’70s rock Alice Cooper stars in a one-night revival of his 1975 concert movie Welcome to My Nightmare. On hand for a June 1 screening in San Rafael will be Tom Silberkleit, son of the film’s executive producer William B. Silberkleit, in conversation with the Pacific Sun’s own David Templeton.  

Today, Tom is the publisher of The California Directory of Fine Wineries, a bestselling guide now in multiple editions. Then, he was 17 and on break from school in Europe. Tom’s father worried about the cost of getting a courier to take the film’s negative to Hollywood, and Tom volunteered. As he recalled via phone from his home in Sonoma, “They pulled me aside, and said, ‘this is THE NEGATIVE, do you understand? It’s the only one.’ Put the fear of God into me. I took it with me to the bathroom on the plane so it wouldn’t be out of my sight.”

Cooper happened to be in Los Angeles when Tom arrived, playing a two-night set at The Forum. Tom was given free tickets to see the show. He was, and is, more of a John Denver fan. “I was not interested in Alice Cooper at first. In fact, I was repelled by him and some of his songs. I was asking myself, do I really want to see this? And it was awesome. The show was a visual feast.”

Cooper’s sedate life away from the stage—he teaches Bible classes now—was a valuable lesson never to mistake the mask for the performer. Though it’s sad to learn that Cooper doesn’t actually sleep in a pit of boa constrictors, the musicianship of this long-lived rocker endures the fading of the initial shock.

Welcome to My Nightmare, Thursday, June 1; 7pm; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

‘Long Strange Trip’ chronicles the Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead may have been the ultimate LSD band because of the way they catered to both sides of the trip: The shuffling exuberance of the rise, and the graveyard despair of the 4am comedown.

By Richard von Busack

Jerry Garcia is 22 years dead this summer—take that in. Long Strange Trip, Berkeley-raised documentarian Amir Bar-Lev’s monumental four-hour-long film about the Grateful Dead can neither be called indecently early nor rushed to completion. Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) explains the Dead as an enduring conduit between the Beat Era and the various countercultures of our own time.

It’s a record of the joy the Dead brought to listeners for 30 years, and an account of Garcia’s excesses of work and substance abuse. It’s also the story of a juggernaut band with a monster 100-foot-tall sound system, which was set up and pulled down 80 times a year for almost a decade. Even their own label didn’t quite get them at first—former Warner Bros. executive Joe Smith recalls the problem of trying to sell a record called Aoxomoxoa when he couldn’t even pronounce its name. The label had more success after they moved to Marin and created their most enduring albums, the Bakersfield countrified Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

This study of the band’s long voyage includes crisp montage, thoughtful interviews and informed commentary by Sam Cutler, a Brit who worked as the Dead’s road manager. A particularly well-chosen mix of some 60 songs by the band fits the history of this long-lived act, both in the the dawning and the ending of their time. The music is maybe sadder than you remember, but the Grateful Dead were the kind of fun that should have lasted a lifetime.

‘Long Strange Trip’ plays on Thursday, May 25 at 5:45pm and 6:30pm, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; 415/454-1222; rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.

‘A Quiet Passion’ examines the life of Emily Dickinson

The film ‘A Quiet Passion,’ about the life of Emily Dickinson, is like a version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ in which a Beatrice never finds her Benedick.

By Richard von Busack

The title A Quiet Passion is kind of lethal. Quiet is a risky word to put in a film title. The film’s pace is very deliberate—the first impression is of a game that went into extra innings. There’s a line here that any critic could take to heart: “All the best compliments are dubious.”

Praising the deliberateness of this movie’s pace may make it sound boring. When it’s over, it’s clear that the eminent director Terence Davies, a master of moody, immersive cinema, needed time to contrast the body and soul of his subject.

Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) focuses on Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), a lady of solitude and physical sufferings, tortured to an early grave at 55 by Bright’s disease. She was the middle daughter of a family in Amherst, Massachusetts. The father (Keith Carradine) was a stern patriarch of a lawyer, but he had the intelligence to let his daughter live her unmarried life, letting her rise at 3am to get some writing time in before sunrise.

This anchoress saint of poetry only published a few poems in her lifetime, and hand-stitched her verse into little chapbooks. The apparent lightness of the lines disguise its tensile strength; her telegraphic bursts of words, connected by dashes, are as light as a feather and as dense as a $6 loaf of bread. What was seen of her poetry was dismissed; one editor called it “Childish, like nursery rhymes.”

Dickinson’s struggle against lifelong underestimation had its light side. Sometimes wrenchingly sad, A Quiet Passion is by far Davies’ funniest film. The Sex and the City veteran Nixon captures the yeast as well as the starch of Dickinson. This vision of the poet as a keen epigrammatical woman is beguiling.

‘The Dinner’ doesn’t sit well

Aside from the visuals, director/writer Oren Moverman’s anti-comedy ‘The Dinner’ isn’t filling.

By Richard von Busack

Some films you watch, thinking, “This is seriously never going to end.” The Dinner is more like, “this is seriously never going to begin.” The third film based on an international bestseller by the Dutch novelist Herman Koch, director/writer Oren Moverman’s scolding anti-comedy stars Steve Coogan (as Paul). He’s a bitter crank of a former high school history teacher. He loathes his brother Stan (Richard Gere), a congressman running for governor.

The two and their spouses—Stan’s angry new wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall) and Paul’s patient wife Claire (Laura Linney)—are to meet at a hideously expensive restaurant that has a waitlist for months. It (eventually, very eventually) transpires that the fabulously pretentious meal is to talk over some bad trouble their sons got into together—a horrifying and unprovoked assault, now visible to the world on social media.

Paul is the kind of role that a Wallace Shawn or a Paul Giamatti could nail; Coogan’s accent is fine, but his angst doesn’t compel us—he’s a smaller-than-life kind of actor in a role that ought to have a little menace to it, a little unintentional humor to the whine.

The tirade against the goddamn kids and their goddamn cellphones flatters an older audience. And the subject matter matches the rancid, acrimonious politics of today. The great Bobby Bukowski’s photography keeps the movie from total enervation: Linney glows in a crimson gown in front of the restaurant’s fireplace, and the exterior walls of the restaurant glow in orange-bronze floodlights. Aside from the occasional eye candy, this is the most thorough-going bummer since We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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