THE SECRET GARDEN (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel was first published in 1911, “The Secret Garden” has become one of the most popular and oft-read children’s books. Previous film adaptations include the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, and the 1993 version with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith. Additionally, the novel has been adapted numerous times for the stage and television. Director Marc Munden is working with the screenplay adapted by Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017), and the two had previously collaborated on the BBC series “National Treasure”. Readers of the beloved novel will certainly recognize the changes and differences within this version, both in characters and theme.

As the film begins, we are told it’s “the eve of Partition”, which was the 1947 division of British India into two separate states: India and Pakistan. This timing is, of course, quite a bit later than Ms. Burnett’s setting, but the effect is the same – young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned when her parents die, and left alone when the servants desert her. She is shipped off to live with an uncle (Oscar winner Colin Firth) she doesn’t know. Accompanied to massive Misselthwaite Manor by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary quickly understands that Uncle Archibald Craven is a grieving widow (his wife was Mary’s mother’s sister) who is not to be disturbed, and his hunchback is not to be stared upon. Mary soon learns that her spoiled brat manner will not be tolerated, though her natural spunk will prove advantageous. The young girl is one who is accustomed to be waited on, while also wanting to prove her independence.

Mary’s imagination is extraordinary and she often asks, “Do you want to hear a story?” CGI effects allow us to see what she has envisioned, whether it’s the wallpaper coming to life, or her mother and aunt frolicking through the halls or swinging in the garden. Mary soon befriends Martha the maid (Isis Davis), and then happens upon “Jemima” the dog while wandering the estate grounds. It’s here where the fantastical and supernatural meet reality, and a helpful Robin leads Mary to the key that unlocks the gates of the gardens that have been locked away since Uncle’s wife died. Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) go on adventures through the garden – a garden which has mystical powers.

One evening Mary hears cries echoing in the halls of Misselthwaite. Despite being forbidden from exploring, she discovers her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) locked away in a far off bedroom. Colin is a sickly child, supposedly stricken with a spinal problem that keeps him from going outside. Mary continues to visit Colin, and soon she and Dickon are sneaking Colin into the secret garden, where the magical healing powers begin to take hold. The titular garden doesn’t make an appearance until about one hour in, but its beauty and wonder are on full display.

This is a story about the power of loss and grief and depression, and it offers the life lesson that the things we care for blossom and grow and thrive. This version has some elements of such classics as “Peter Pan” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” in that fantasy and magic play a much larger role than in the novel. Director Munden employs a darker approach and seems to emphasize self-discovery. Young actress Dixie Egerickx was a standout in the recently watched SUMMERLAND, and she is terrific here – despite the changes to the story that some fans might not embrace. The film seems a bit disjointed at times, but it’s always a feast for the eyes, and offers up one of the year’s best scores, courtesy of Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT, 2007).

Available Video on Demand August 7, 2020

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WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nobel Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee’s revered novel was first published in 1980, and renowned composer Philip Glass later adapted the South African writer’s work into a 2005 opera. It’s a fascinating piece of literature that, on the surface, doesn’t lend itself easily to the silver screen. Perhaps it works because Mr. Coetzee wrote the screenplay himself, and rising star director Ciro Guerra brings it to life. Mr. Guerra’s two most recent films were both excellent: BIRDS OF PASSAGE (2018) and EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (2015).

Mark Rylance (Oscar winner for BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) stars as The Magistrate of a desert outpost on the fringes of territory controlled by ‘The Empire’. The Magistrate is mild-mannered and non-confrontational. He’s a fair administrator, and Rylance’s outstanding performance ensures he’s a sympathetic figure, yet not a perfect man. The Magistrate’s approach is to maintain a peaceful co-existence with the local nomads, who are described as ‘barbarians’ by others in The Empire.

Things change quickly and severely when Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives at the settlement. We see his approach thanks to cinematographer Chris Menges’ beautiful wide shot of Joll’s horse-drawn carriage surrounded by desert and mountains. Depp plays Colonel Joll as a stoic man committed to a mission he never fully states. Instead he sermonizes about his interrogation process with such gems as “patience and pressure” are the key, and “truth has a certain tone”. It’s not long before we learn, right along with The Magistrate, that Joll’s definition of ‘pressure’ would be termed torture and brutality by any reasonable person. His ruthless ‘interrogations’ lead to the result he was sent to obtain: the local barbarians are planning an uprising.

Director Guerra provides sub-chapters for the various seasons through which the story progresses. The Colonel arrived in “Summer” sporting sunglasses, and proclaiming “Pain is truth. All else is subject to doubt.” It’s a mantra that plays out in various ways. “Winter” brings ‘the girl”, a native with two broken ankles and other signs of torture. The Magistrate and the girl (Gana Bayarsaikhan, EX MACHINA) have an unconventional relationship, one that doesn’t go over well with Joll’s police force or the other locals, including Mai (Greta Scacchi), one of the loyal outpost staff members.

“Spring” is subtitled ‘The Return’, and it includes The Magistrate returning the girl to her people, and his subsequent return to the outpost where Joll’s second-in-command, Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson), has him arrested and tortured for consorting with the enemy. Pattinson plays his role in wild-eyed contrast to Depp’s stoicism. When “Autumn” rolls around, it becomes clear that the real question is, “Who is the enemy?” or, perhaps, “Who are the real Barbarians?” The Magistrate is viewed as a traitor and laughingly referred to as “one just man”.

It’s frustrating at times to think about the modern day application of this story. What is an empire? The violence, narcissism, and lust for power lead to a loss of humanity that is painful to observe. Filmed in Morocco and Italy, the oppressive nature of the frontier makes this quite a downer, and one that requires effort and time to connect as a viewer. It also allows Menges and his camera to capture the details of the office and apartment, along with the sparseness of the jail … both in contrast to the vast frontier. This is a either a tale of morality or a cautionary warning shot that solidifies Joll’s adage. Perhaps pain is indeed required for truth.

Available On Demand August 7, 2020

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MADE IN ITALY (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Tuscan region of Italy is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It’s a terrific choice for the setting of one’s first screenplay and directorial debut. It’s also a marvelous spot for real life father and son actors to work together. All of that is in play here as noted actor James D’Arcy delivers his first feature as writer-director, and the father-son team of Liam Neeson and Micheal Richardson star as, yes, father and son. This is a story of estrangement and re-connecting amidst the glorious wonder of Tuscany.

Jack (Micheal Richardson) has delayed signing the divorce papers delivered by his wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle, “Marcella”) in hopes of buying her family’s art gallery, which he has been managing. Ruth gives him one month to come up with the money. Jack knows his only hope is to sell the Tuscan estate he co-owns with his estranged father Robert (Liam Neeson). Father and son have rarely spoken since the mother-wife was killed in a car accident while Robert was driving. Like most any parent under duress, Robert made decisions he thought were best for his son, but were actually made with self-interest. In the wake of tragedy, rarely is shipping the kid off to boarding school a better choice than pulling them closer. This prevented the development of any relationship, though it also created a block in bohemian artist Robert’s work.

When they arrive at the home, the men are shocked at the advanced state of disrepair. Sharp-tongued local real estate agent (and ex-pat) Kate (Lindsay Duncan) gives them little hope for a sale unless renovations are made. The manual labor drives yet another wedge between father and son, and Jack finds an attractive good listener in local restauranteur and chef Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She happens to love the house he owns and, in jest, offers a dish of her “amazing” risotto as down payment.

The challenges of home renovations coupled with the locked away memories lead Jack and Robert to a breakthrough, but Jack’s issues with his wife and Natalia’s troubles with her ex-husband mean nothing goes smoothly for anyone. Most of the movie is spent with each of these folks trying to come to grips with the personal waters they themselves muddied.

Micheal Richardson does a very nice job here, and actually holds his own on screen with his powerhouse father. Richardson is the son of Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, and the grandson of Oscar winners Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, and the great-grandson of actor Michael Richardson. It’s nice to see father and son working together, though the story line might have hit a bit too close to home, given the death of Natasha Richardson in 2009 (a skiing accident). Writer-director James D’Arcy is known for his fine work in front of the camera, including Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK. Thanks to the work of cinematographer Mike Eley in capturing Montalcino, Mr. D’Arcy’s first feature behind the camera is watchable, despite being easily predictable and formulaic.

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OUT STEALING HORSES (2020, Norway)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Contrasts are plentiful in this film. The bleakness of winter versus the greenery of summer. The resignation of old age versus the naivety of youth. Pet Petterson’s award-winning novel was released in Norway in 2003, and then in English version in 2005. Norwegian director Petter Moland tackles it with the best intentions, though the nuances prove too much for one movie. Mr. Moland is a fine director as evidenced by his excellent IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014) with Stellan Skarsgard and the English remake COLD PURSUIT (2019) with Liam Neeson.

Morland and Skarsgard reunite as the actor takes on the role of the elder Trond, who we first see as he has relocated to Norway from Sweden. Through his narration, we learn Trond has lived in Sweden for 42 years, and it’s a chance meeting with his new neighbor Lars (Bjorn Floberg) that triggers memories of one summer when he was 15 years old. It’s now 1999, and the impending new millennium has Trond self-isolating on top of the grief and loneliness he has carried since his wife was killed in a car crash. Skarsgard is an actor who can be either sympathetic or powerful, and he brings gravitas to a character who is mostly lost at this late stage in life.

Much of the film is spent in Trond’s flashback to 1948, when he lived the summer with his father, a “practical” man, at his cabin in Norway. Young Trond is played very well by Jon Ranes in his first role. He clearly admires his father (Tobias Santelmann, KON-TIKI, 2012) and enjoys working beside him and taking rain showers alongside. Over the weeks, Trond and his father become entangled with a village family after a tragedy involving Lars (the future neighbor) when he was very young, and Lars’ father and mother (Danica Curcic). What follows for Trond are the things in life that cause us to alter our view of people and the world. Lost innocence is rarely easy.

Cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek (A ROYAL AFFAIR, 2012) captures the beauty of nature during the 1948 summer, as well as the stark white stillness of 1999 winter. Some of the look and feel and symbolism reminds of the work of Terrence Malick. The stunning Norwegian landscapes play a role for us as viewers and for Trond. There are also some quiet moments that carry weight between the elder Lars and Trond, as the missing pieces of life slowly fall into place.

The elder Trond states his goal is “to sleep as heavily as possible without being dead”, but we see part of him may have already died. Flashbacks to that summer, and even earlier during the war, combine with some awkward conversations with Lars to fill in gaps that had blurred over the years. Childhood memories from old age are often not to be trusted, but coming to grips with one’s family and the past may bring peace – or it may not. Trond is an avid reader of Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and there are many references throughout. He’s even given life advice: “Don’t be bitter”, which is a worthy goal for all. It’s an odd film with multiple timelines and damaged characters at different stages. It may not reach the level of Petterson’s novel, but director Moland gives us plenty to mull.

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PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART (2020, doc)

August 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Alejandro Jodorowski is a long-time avant-garde and visionary director known for cult classics EL TOPO (1970) and SANTA SANGRE (1989). He’s now 91 years old, and this is his first film since ENDLESS POETRY (2016) – only categorizing this as a “film” is a bit of a stretch. More in line with what we see would be, ‘a procession of demonstrations of Jodorowski’s own trauma therapy that he calls Psychomagic’.

Fortunately, we kick off with Jodorowski himself explaining his therapy. He defines Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud, as being based on science and words. In contrast, he defines his Psychomagic as based on acts and touch. We then transition directly into an ongoing session – a sequence likely to be the last one many people watch, as only the most curious (or those charged with reviewing the film) will subject themselves to more.

The rest of the runtime is broken into “cases” distinguished by the specific reasons people are seeking treatment. Few can argue that treatments for emotional trauma can vary widely, and that not everyone will be affected the same, and that we should all be open to whatever works. However, I can assure you, Psychomagic treatment is unlike anything you have seen or experienced. These filmed sessions come off more like an acting workshop than therapy, though we are to assume they are legitimate.

Not to spoil anything, but rather to offer a taste of what’s in store, you should brace for full body shoe polish while dancing at night, the shattering of dinner plates on the patient’s chest in nature, pouring cold milk on an unclothed person, the simulation of birth for ‘grown ups’, sledgehammers on pumpkins decorated with family photos (OK, this one actually makes some sense!), sprinkling water on a massive tree to treat depression, burying a wedding dress, and participating in Mexico City’s Walk of the Dead. And I have skipped over the connection between menstruation and finger-painting and cellos.

Artists often thrive with great freedom, and the therapeutic effects of art have certainly been proven many times. It’s just that watching this, I became something beyond skeptical. It reminded me of the old-time healers, and the fine line between healing and scamming. Perhaps it was the regular inclusion of clips from Jodorowski’s films that put me on high alert, or maybe it was simply the progression of segments that each struck as more outrageous than the last. Jodorowski is an old man with a history of creating art, so I’m choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though it’s not an easy task after enduring this.

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SUMMERLAND (2020)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We get our first glimpse of Alice Lamb as an older woman in 1975 pounding away on her Royal typewriter before abruptly and rudely shooing neighborhood kids away from her door. We then flashback thirty-something years to World War II, and find a younger version of Alice still clacking away on the same Royal and still chasing off the local youngsters. Segments with the older Alice bookend the film, but most of our time is spent with the younger Alice in the first feature film from writer-director Jessica Swale, a renowned playwright.

Gemma Arterton (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) plays younger Alice, a writer and researcher based in the countryside of Kent. She’s not just a reclusive writer, but we learn she’s holding a grudge against the world ever since she was denied true love while at University. The townspeople view her as antisocial, while the local kids refer to as a witch. When the local school Headmaster (Tom Courtenay) refers to her “stories”, she quickly corrects him to “Academic Thesis.” It’s no wonder she’s earned the label, “Beast on the Beach.”

During the German Blitz, many London families sent their kids to live with families in the much safer countryside. One day an official brings young Frank (Lucas Bond) to Alice’s home for temporary guardianship, and she responds “I don’t want him” … yes, in front of the boy. Frank’s father is fighting during the war, while his mother is working with the ministry. Of course, we know that Alice’s iceberg of a heart will eventually thaw, and it begins when Frank expresses an interest in the legends and folklore at the center of Alice’s research. Of particular interest to Frank is Summerland, the pagan term for afterlife, and the corresponding images.

As an evacuee, Frank is a bit of an outsider at school, but he makes friends with Edie (Dixie Egerickx, THE LITTLE STRANGER, 2018), a spirited young lady who, like most kids, doesn’t much trust Alice. It’s interesting to watch as Frank and Alice reluctantly grow closer, but this is war time, and joy is sometimes difficult to come by. However, this odd couple seem good for a life lessons to the other.

Penelope Wilton plays the older Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights up the screen in only a few scenes, and it’s Ms. Arterton’s best work since TAMARA DREWE (2010). Young Alice experiences visions and memories of a past life not meant to be. The twist is quite obvious, yet no less effective. Ms. Swale’s film is sentimental and melodramatic, and probably employs a few too many clichés. Yet, although predictable, it does offer hope; and given the times we are in, a hopeful message is quite welcome – as is the reminder that “stories have to come from somewhere.”

IFC will release the film VOD/Digital on July 31, 2020

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REBUILDING PARADISE (2020, doc)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s November 8, 2018 and the film opens with the daily weather report. For the residents of Paradise, California, this will forever be their worst nightmare: ‘Camp Fire’, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. The first 9 minutes of film shows harrowing footage captured by dash cam, helmet cam, smart phones, news footage, and drones. As it begins, one resident says, “Honey, there’s stuff falling out of the sky.” Soon after, we hear a firefighter state “we are 100% surrounded by fire”, and as we ride in the car with a frantic family trying to escape, we hear their relief in the “clear skies” they finally glimpse.

This is a National Geographic production and it’s directed by 2-time Oscar winner Ron Howard. Mr. Howard is best known for his popular films like CINDERELLA MAN (2005), APOLLO 13 (1995), and yes, BACKDRAFT (1991). In the past few years, he’s directed documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti and The Beatles, but as best I can tell, REBUILDING PARADISE is his first step into Cinema Verite – letting the moments of reality unfold while capturing it with mostly handheld cameras.

By 11:38 am, the only light in the skies of Paradise is coming from the glow of the massive and intense fire. The aftermath can only be described as total destruction. Paradise is in ashes. We see the desperate attempt by first responders to ensure that all citizens are evacuated, and then we witness the search for bodies. Camp Fire killed 85 people and displaced 50,000 people, including all of Paradise (80 miles north of Sacramento). The challenges included finding shelter for residents, keeping folks out of town while the fire smolders, and figuring out what the next steps might be.

Director Howard structures the film with visits every 3 months, and to make it personal, a handful of folks are selected. These include Woody Culleton, a man who rose from self-professed town drunk to town mayor (now ex-Mayor), Police Officer Matt Gates, School Superintendent Michelle John, and School Psychologist Carly Ingersoll. Each of these people have their own personal struggles due to the fire, but they are also focused on assisting others, and helping the town of Paradise plan for the future.

It’s a full month before residents are allowed back to salvage anything possible from the ashes. At three months, activist Erin Brockovich gives a speech about the possible liability of PG&E and their equipment from 1921, while a logjam of dump trucks is used to clear debris from town. At six months, the high school seniors are given a graduation ceremony they will never forget, and at 9 months, healing and rebuilding is underway. We gain some insight into the struggles with FEMA and city government, and yet mostly what we witness is a community dedicated to remaining a community.

Mr. Howard chooses to end the movie with clips and warnings about global climate change, which may fit in a larger discussion, but here, the most effective segments are moments with folks simply trying to put their lives back together. That’s more powerful than anything else we can witness.

National Geographic is releasing this in Virtual Cinema and Digital on July 31, 2020

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THE FIGHT (2020, doc)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The American Civil Liberties Union has been around since 1920. That’s 100 years of striving to be the stewards of our nation’s liberties. Eli B Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg are the three credited directors who bring us a behind-the-curtain look at the dedicated and hard-working ACLU attorneys in the New York office.

The film picks up on January 27, 2017, just seven days after President Trump’s inauguration and subsequent immigration order, also known as the “Muslim ban.” We are shown a sea of volunteer attorneys set up to assist affected immigrants – especially those seeking asylum. The basic premise of the movie is to provide a glimpse of the challenges faced by the ACLU against the Trump administration.

Since there have been approximately 140 lawsuits filed since this President took office, the filmmakers wisely focus on four specific cases, along with the assigned attorneys:  Garza v Hargan, which involves the right to an abortion for an immigrant minor; Stone v Trump, the administrations military ban of transgenders; Department of Commerce v New York, dealing with the “citizenship” question proposed for the U.S. census; and Ms. L vs ICE, a family separation case tied to a child taken from her mother at the border.

The cases are presented in an easy-to-follow manner, and we get to know each of the attorneys and their individual challenges, both with their specific case and their own personal or family life. Each of the attorneys provide their unique “tour” of the ACLU offices, and we quickly understand how they are focused on their own specialties, rather than the organization as a whole. One of them remarks that there are more tattoos and piercings present than at the DOJ, which underscores not just the age difference, but also the attitudes of these crusaders.

A very brief history of the ACLU informs us that their mission dictates they support civil rights for all, which means not just the 1967 interracial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving, but also the Charlottesville Rally which resulted in the death of Heather Heyer. In keeping with protecting ‘everyone’s rights’, the organization has even defended the rights of Nazis. Still, it’s obvious where the organization stands when Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court is discussed … the attorneys admit it will make their jobs that much more difficult.

Despite attorney Lee Gelernt’s middle-age struggles with technology (somehow the dude can’t keep his cell phone charged), the dedication and commitment of these folks is on full display (they even celebrate with “train wine”). Court cases, by definition, have two sides, and since we aren’t allowed in the actual courtroom to witness the cases being presented, this film focuses on one side. Because of that, it often plays like a fundraising or recruiting video for the ACLU. Still, the behind-the-scenes view of what these attorneys go through to fight for liberty is fascinating and worthwhile.

Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios will release the film VOD on July 31, 2020

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GORDON LIGHTFOOT: IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND (2020, doc)

July 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We realize very quickly that octogenarian Gordon Lightfoot isn’t about to cater to co-documentarians Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni, or establish a new reputation as being a sweetheart at this stage of life. Instead he is filmed with his third wife Kim, watching clips of young Gord singing “(That’s What You Get) For Loving Me”. Despite his singing it with Johnny Cash, or having the song covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, Waylon Jennings, and many others, Lightfoot cringes and says. “I hate that song.” That’s what we get here – a man who speaks directly about his regrets, yet one who is appreciative of his life.

Lightfoot is thought of as Canadian Royalty, and is often referred to as the best ever Canadian singer-songwriter. He certainly played a key role in the popularity of folk music in the 1960’s, and we hear about his influence from many important Canadian musicians, including: Geddy Lee, Sarah MacLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Ronnie Hawkins, Burton Cummings and Anne Murray. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers include an interview with actor Alec Baldwin, who is neither Canadian, nor a musician – though at least he does seem to be a fan of Gordon Lightfoot.

The profile skips over much of his personal life to focus on the music. In fact, initially it seems like Gord is going to walk us through his songbook, one by one. With “Early Morning Rain”, we learn it was not only a hit for Lightfoot, but covered by others such as Judy Collins, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, and even Ian and Sylvia (a successful Canadian folk duo). It’s also at this point when Burton Cummings explains that it was Lightfoot’s songs that inspired The Guess Who to write their own songs. We also see a clip of a young Lightfoot being interviewed by an even younger DJ named Alex Trebek!

Anne Murray and Sarah MacLachlan discuss “Song for a Winter’s Night”, and Lightfoot explains how he isolates to write songs …and he “waters” his guitars (something that makes more sense seeing than reading). Gordon tells the story of how he quit a promising career in banking to take a chance on performing, and he relates how growing up in the country helped him when he moved to the city. He also tells the fascinating “behind the scenes” story of how the record company changed the name of his first album after “If You Could Read My Mind” became a hit on the radio. By the way, that song has been recorded by a slew of artists – so many that the filmmakers offer up a slide show to make the point.

Photographs give us a taste of some of Lightfoot’s infamous parties attended by various celebrities. It was this partying lifestyle that led to drugs and alcohol abuse, as well as his weight gain. Lightfoot talks about his 3 year affair/relationship with Cathy Evelyn Smith, a name you might recognize as the woman who injected John Belushi with the lethal “speedball” that killed him. It was his severe jealousy over Ms. Smith that led Lightfoot to write his biggest U.S. hit “Sundown.” There is also an entire segment on Bob Dylan, and how much respect each of the songwriters had/have for each other.

Yet another “behind-the-scenes” moment occurs when one of Lightfoot’s band members recollects the time they recorded “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” They had never even rehearsed the song, and yet it was the first take in the studio that ended up being the hit version. Also included is a segment where Lightfoot reminisces about his childhood in Orillia, and we get a brief clip of his mom and dad. Even more shocking is the included recording of Lightfoot as a kid, singing with the church choir. The high pitched soprano voice bears little resemblance to the soothing tones of an older Gordon.

As a poet-singer-songwriter, few have been better or had more success than Gordon Lightfoot. The film skims over much of his personal life and his severe health issue in 2002, but focusing on the music is what his fans want – and it’s a treasure trove of early performances, clips, and photographs. He’s now 81 years old, and the filmmakers don’t shy away from contrasting his singing voice on “If You Could Read My Mind” with  a ‘then and now’ edit. Lightfoot admits to regrets, and also states “I appreciate having been alive.” Still sporting that renowned attitude, he undoubtedly enjoys hearing Diana Krall and Sara MacLachlan open the film with the titular song. A Canadian national hero indeed. As a bonus, we southerners finally learn the meaning of “Gitche Gumee.”

Opening in Virtual Cinemas July 29, 2020

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CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) revisited

July 26, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. This is another addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about a classic movie. Why are “creature features” so appealing, and why was Universal so good at producing these movies that mesmerized me during childhood (and yes, still to this day)? The Universal Monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s included such classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. Many cinematic iterations of these characters/creatures exist including sequels, remakes and contemporary re-boots, and there is something magical about the mystique and legend and lore behind each of the monsters. By the 1950’s, Universal was looking to revive the genre.

William Alland is credited with the idea for CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It’s a twist on the 1740 fantasy classic “Beauty and the Beast” from French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Mr. Alland is the film’s Producer, and years earlier he played reporter Jerry Thompson in Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941). Maurice Zimm is credited with the story, and the screenplay was co-written by Harry Essex (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, a Ray Bradbury story) and Arthur A Ross (an Oscar winner for BRUBAKER, 1980).

Quite similar to KING KONG, the story from Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper, this movie follows a scientific expedition down the Amazon River where a prehistoric “Gill-man” (half man, half amphibian) is discovered and captured. The creature seems enraptured by Kay, the fiancé of one of the scientists – much like Kong was drawn to Ann Darrow. There is the expected battle between science and commerce: the value of marine life research vs the chance to make a pot of money. The feuding scientists also have to remain focused on the ongoing concern for the safety of those on the expedition … especially Kay.

Jack Arnold is remembered today as one of the great sci-fi movie directors of the 50’s. His work included THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) TARANTULA (1955), and the excellent Audie Murphy western NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959). He also directed many episodes of some of the top TV shows of the1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. For this one, he deserves a great deal of credit for generating sympathy for the creature, by positioning him, not as the villain, but rather as the victim of a home invasion by the humans. Director Arnold also does a nice job early on of teasing us with footprints and fossils, and letting us hear about the legend, prior to actually seeing the creature.

 For a movie that spends most of its time on a small boat named Rita, the cast is deep and talented. Richard Carlson (LITTLE FOXES, 1941) plays David Reed, the scientist engaged to Kay. Mr. Carlson dreamed of being a playwright, and had many guest starring roles on TV; however, “I Led 3 Lives” was his only starring role in a successful series. It was reportedly Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite show. Co-starring here was Julie Adams (billed as Julia at the time) as Kay Lawrence, personal favorite of both David and creature. In the film she is stalked by the creature, even while she’s out for a leisurely swim in the Amazon (not recommended). Ms. Adams was a favorite on the cult movie circuit, and she died in 2019 at age 92. Having been crowned Miss Little Rock at age 19, she acted regularly into her 80’s, and even had a role at age 91, the year before she passed.

Richard Denning plays Mark Williams, the money man behind the expedition, and David’s boss and nemesis. He’s the one who sees dollar signs while capturing the creature. Mr. Denning served on a submarine in the US Navy during WWII. He starred with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (1957), and then in the late 1960’s took an acting job as Governor on the original “Hawaii Five-0”, since he already lived in Hawaii. Mr. Denning’s wife, actress Evelyn Ankers, was known as “Queen of the Screamers” for her work as damsel in distress in many thrillers in the 1940’s (Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula movies).

Other cast members include familiar face Whit Bissell as Dr. Thompson. Mr. Bissell was a frequently working character actor from 1940 -1984 in TV and movies. He had over 300 credits, including I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1958) with Michael Landon. Nestor Paiva plays Lucas, the Captain of the Rita, as a kind of Walter Brennan type. Mr. Paiva also appeared in more than 300 projects, and his wife was once employed as personal secretary to Howard Hughes. Antonio Moreno plays Carl Maia. Mr. Moreno had a huge career from 1912 to 1959, and was a rival of Rudolph Valentino for many “Latin lover” roles. The film’s narrator, Art Gilmore, became known for his narration and voice acting in shows such as “Dragnet”, “The Waltons”, “Adam-12”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “The Roy Rogers Show”, and many more.

Of course everyone who watches the movie wants to know more about the creature. Well, two actors were involved. Ben Chapman, who was a Marine during the Korean War, played the creature on land, while Ricou Browning played the Gill-man we see in the water. Mr. Browning was also the co-creator of the popular TV series “Flipper” (1964-67), and directed the iconic underwater scenes in the James Bond classic THUNDERBALL (1965). Also involved here were a young Henry Mancini as uncredited composer and cinematographer William E Snyder. Mr. Mancini was a 4 time Oscar winner best known for his iconic “Pink Panther” theme, and Mr. Snyder achieved 3 Oscar nominations

 Director Arnold insisted on shooting the film in 3-D, despite its low budget, and over the years, it became quite a cult classic (with its’ own festivals). There is even a scandal associated with the film. For many years, Hollywood make-up legend Bud Westmore took credit for the design of the creature. It took more than 50 years, but Mallory O’Meara’s book, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick”, finally allowed Ms. Patrick (pictured, left) to receive due credit for her design work. Sequels to the film included: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955), and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956), but it was perhaps director Guillermo del Toro’s stunning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, that brought CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON back into prominence. This allowed a new generation of movie lovers to behold the classic sequence of the creature’s synchronized swimming just below Kay in the murky Amazon water. What a sight!

watch the original trailer: