WHISKY GALORE (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There’s good fun to be had in watching director Gilles MacKinnon’s and writer Peter McDougall’s remake of the 1949 comedy from director Alexander Mackendrick and writer Angus MacPhaill, based on the novel from Compton MacKenzie. Whew! Is that enough ‘Macs’ for you? The story takes place on an isolated Scottish island of Todday during WWII, and is loosely based on true events of 1941.

Not only is the community geographically isolated, it’s also mostly insulated from the rationing and hardships caused by the Great War. All that changes when the last bit of whisky is guzzled, leaving the locals “in terrible shape” with nothing to drink but tea (uttered with equal parts disgust and disappointment). Even though it was Irish and not Scottish, if you’ve seen Waking Ned Devine (1998), then you’ll have an idea of the comedic style – mischievous wry humor rather than hysterical slapstick.

The key locals include Gregor Fisher as Macroom, single father to two grown daughters Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) and Peggy (Naomi Battrick). Of course, where there are two lovely daughters, there is likely to be love in the air. Filling these roles are returning war hero Sergeant Odd (Sean Biggerstaff) and George (Kevin Guthrie), the son of a local ultra-Calvinist mother. Eddie Izzard plays the all too serious Home Guard Captain Wagget, while Fenella Woodgar spouts some of the film’s best one-liners as his wife.

When a cargo ship carrying 50,000 cases of whisky crashes just offshore, the locals begin plotting how to rescue the bounty and return normalcy to their daily lives … all while observing the Sabbath and gazing wistfully at the ship from dry land. There is also a funky sub-plot that ties into the story of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Spencer, but this is mostly a story of local ingenuity and inspiration set to the beautiful music of Scottish bagpipes and violins (from composer Patrick Doyle). The quaint setting and predicament make for whimsical fun and some nice laughs … just remember to change the password if you are guarding the road.

watch the trailer:


THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

April 20, 2017

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues (similar to Out of Africa) that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our true to life hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us pining for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Although the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

watch the trailer:

 


TRUMAN (2017)

April 20, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a cancer movie? A dog movie? A buddy movie? Well, the answer is yes – at least somewhat – to all three. Writer/director Cesc Gay and co-writer Tomas Aragay offer up an unusually paced and uniquely focused film that is likely to strike a chord with many viewers, while leaving some others thinking, what’s the point? For those of us in that first group, it’s an absorbing ride-along with a not overly likeable character who is out to put his proverbial “affairs in order”.

Two exceedingly talented actors take the lead here and draw us right in. Ricardo Darin (terrific in The Secret in Their Eyes, 2009) is Julian, and Javier Camara (an Almodovar regular, so shuddersome in Talk to Her) is his long time friend Tomas. Knowing his friend is dying, Tomas hops on a plane back to Madrid, from his new life in Canada, in order to spend four days and yes, to say goodbye.

The surprise visit sends the two long-time buds on a kind of (mostly) inner-city “road trip”. Their daily outings include: a trip to the veterinarian so Julian can prepare his dog Truman (a non-puppy Bullmastiff) for the coming change; a doctor visit to convey the desire to cease treatment on the tumors; a bookstore to search for material on pet psychology; a diner where Julian confronts old friends – a lunch that provides significant insight into Julian’s mindset; an in-home visit to a potential pet adoption family; a direct chat proving ‘the show must go on’ with the owner (Jose Luis Gomez) of the theatre where Julian works as an actor; a spur of the moment flight to Amsterdam for lunch with Julian’s estranged son Nico and wife Sophie; and a meet on the street with Julian’s ex-wife. In between, there are exchanges with Julian’s cousin Paula (a very good Dolores Fonzi) who can’t hide her frustration despite offering unwavering support.

There are many wonderfully subtle moments that keep the story grounded and prevent anything approaching the typically over-dramatic movie that we have become so accustomed to. Death and comedy don’t tend to blend well, but there are some charming and even comical moments that sneak in … sometimes during the moments that Julian is expressing regret for things said or done, or not said or done. He attempts to make amends, but this isn’t about the profound moments – no, it’s about the small ones. When Julian mutters the brilliant line, “I used to be a romantic hero”, we know exactly what it means. This isn’t the usual tear-jerker, but it will likely tug at the heart strings, even as it touches on death on one’s own terms (a common cinematic theme these days).

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


FRANTZ (2017)

April 20, 2017

Dallas International Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Francois Ozon won me over as a fan for life with his 2003 writing-mystery Swimming Pool. His latest stands in stark contrast to that gem, as there are no mind games for the viewer, other than those the characters play on each other. Actually, this is quite a straightforward story of romance, loss and hope; and it’s an example of expert filmmaking from a director in full control of story, setting, character and camera.

It’s 1919 in historic and ancient Quedlinburg, Germany. WWI has recently ended and the loss of her soldier fiancé is still so fresh for Anna (an excellent Paula Beer) that she makes daily treks to lay flowers on the grave of Frantz. She spots an unknown foreigner paying respects to Frantz, and since it’s a small town, the two are soon enough sitting together in the parlor of Frantz’ parents’ house where Anna lives. It’s an awkward encounter between a grief-stricken German family and a Frenchman paying respects to the family of a fallen “friend”.

That these folks are so quick to accept and encourage these recollections of Adrien (Pierre Niney) speaks loud and clear to human nature in times of grief – we desperately cling to any connection, positive memory, or new strand of information. Then again, Adrien’s perspective is every bit as interesting as that of the parents and Anna. He seeks forgiveness and inclusion, yet is unable to come clean on his motives and past.

More human nature is on display as we initially see how the Germans treat the (outsider) Frenchman, and then later as Anna travels to France, we see how the French treat this (and presumably all) German. Anger, mistrust and deceit are ever-present amongst this group of people who seemingly only want a touch of happiness, and it’s fun to note the parallels between the initial story in Germany and the later time in France.

Director Ozon flips between black & white and the periodic use of color when hope and new direction exists. It provides a personal and dramatic look to the film, along with visual clues as to what’s really occurring on screen, and is nicely complemented by the flowing score from Phillipe Rombi (Swimming Pool, Joyeux Noel). Ozon also selects one of Manet’s lesser known paintings, Le Suicide, as a link between the past and the terrific ending that reinforces the movie’s message, “life goes on”.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DIFF 2017: Day Eight

April 9, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s the second Friday of DIFF which means a high profile new release in the prime time slot. This year it’s The Lost City of Z. The epic and historical tale hit theatres nationally next week, so it’s nice to get an early peek. Below is a recap of the 2-and-a-half films I watched on Friday April 7:

 

THE LOST CITY OF Z

We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji’s (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us wishing for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Though the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

 

CHEER UP (documentary)

Well I was due for my first major disappointment, and it came courtesy of a documentary with an interesting synopsis. The leader of Finland’s “worst” cheerleading squad travels to Texas to gain tips and training ideas to improve her squad’s performance. I only lasted 40 minutes of the listed 86 minute run time, and I’m still not sure if this is director Christy Garland’s final version of the film, or if this was simply a rough cut rushed for a festival screening. And that’s where I will leave my comments

 

SKY ON FIRE (Chongtiang Huo)

A late night screening of an action movie from China/Hong Kong has a responsibility to the genre to check certain boxes, none of which included thought-provoking or socially conscious issues. Instead, success depends on a visual onslaught of explosions, car chases, helicopter flights, sleek and modern tall building sets, loud and massive gun battles, and confined area martial arts duels.

Writer/director Ringo Lam and his cast (Daniel Wu, Hsiao-chuan Chang, Amber Kuo) subject themselves to all of the violent perils listed above, and even toss in cancer and the battle for revolutionary healing drugs to ensure there is never a moment of peace and quiet during the film.

The “ex-stem cells” are the McGuffin that creates the good guys vs bad guys scen ario. Will this medical breakthrough be used to cure cancer and other diseases, or will they be weaponized for power? So while that’s the question asked in the film, my movie-buddy JJ asked the real question … has Michael Bay already begun work on an Americanized version? Surely that mammoth skyscraper explosion is already on his Bay-splosion radar.


I, OLGA HEPNAROVA (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most youngsters have executed a perfect eye roll on at least one occasion after receiving a dose of parental advice that seemed irrelevant to them at the time. An early scene in this biopic finds teenage Olga listening as her mother says, “To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.” This is a warning shot fired at the audience to be cautious when judging the actions of the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia.

Co-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinred seem to believe that most viewers will be familiar with Olga’s story, and presume the film’s austere look, lack of flow, and structure of seemingly unrelated scenes will provide a sense of the choppiness and isolation that might explain her otherwise inexplicable actions. Based on Olga’s true story and the book from Roman Cilek, the film will have you questioning whether her behavior was the result of horrible parenting, or more closely related to her psychological issues – perhaps even schizophrenia.

Michalina Olszamska (The Lure) delivers a committed performance as Olga, the 22 year old woman who in 1972 drove a truck into a group of people in Prague, killing 8 (all between the ages of 60 and 79). A year later she was hanged, becoming the last woman executed in Czechoslovachia.

The movie focuses on the various elements and key moments of her life – father’s abuse, mother’s iciness, attempted suicide, treatment in asylum, rejection by a lover – that led to her isolation and feelings of alienation. We sense her internal rage building over time, and her inability to cope or even connect with others; though at times we question whether her troubles are by choice or a result of her treatment … it’s kind of a twist on the nature vs. nurture debate.

There have been other fine movies that have dealt with a similar theme: There’s Something About Kevin, The Omen, The Bad Seed. Each of these deal with the whole good vs evil idea … are some kids born “bad” or are they pushed that way? Either way, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare. This black and white presentation allows us to keep our emotional distance from Olga, and the no frills approach provides a quite chilling reenactment of how Olga ended up sending a letter to the local newspaper announcing her intention to seek “revenge” for the hatred that society had heaped upon her for years.

watch the trailer:

 


THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)

March 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1967 Cat Stevens wrote “The First Cut is the Deepest” and the song has since been recorded by many artists (including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crowe). The song’s title is also an apt description of director Ritesh Batra’s film version of the popular 2011 novel from Julian Barnes. It’s one man’s look back at the impact of his impulsive actions more than 50 years ago.

When we are young, we want emotions to be like what we read in books”. So says the narrator and lead character Tony Webster (as played by Jim Broadbent). Tony runs a tiny second hand camera store (specializing in Leica models) while leading a mostly benign life – rising daily at 7:00am, coffee with his ex-wife, and periodic errands for his pregnant daughter. One day a certified letter arrives notifying him that he has been named in the Last Will and Testament of the mother of a girl he dated while at University. And so begins the trek back through Tony’s history and memories.

Of course, a film version can never quite cut as deeply as a novel, but this preeminent cast works wonders in less than two hours. Curmudgeonly Tony is accessible and somewhat sympathetic thanks to the stellar work of Mr. Broadbent, who always seems to find the real person within his characters. Harriet Walther (“The Crown”) turns in a tremendous performance as Margaret, Tony’s most patient and quite wise ex-wife. Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) is their pregnant 36 year old daughter Susie, and just these three characters could have provided a most interesting story. The film’s best scenes feature the comfort and familiarity of a once-married couple, as Tony and Harriet talk through previously never mentioned topics. However, there is so much more to explore here as Tony’s thoughts bring the past splashing right smack dab into the present.

Billy Howle does a nice job as young Tony, an aspiring poet, who falls hard for the enigmatic Veronica (Freya Mavor). Complications arise when Tony spends a weekend with Veronica at her parents’ estate. It’s here that Emily Mortimer energizes things (and clouds thoughts) with minimal screen time as Veronica’s mother. It’s also around this time where new student Adrian Finn (played by Joe Alwyn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) captures Tony’s imagination and a friendship bond is formed … only to be later shattered in a most painful manner.

There is so much going on that director Batra’s (The Lunchbox, 2013) low-key approach is often misleading. Looking back on one’s life can lead to the twisted version that our mind has edited/revised in order to make things seem better or worse – definitely more colorful – than they likely were at the time. Tony’s distorted view of history crumbles when documented proof of his actions is presented at his first face to face meeting with Veronica (the great Charlotte Rampling) in five decades. It’s at this point that regret and guilt rise up, and the only question remaining is whether this elderly man can overcome his repressed emotions and self-centeredness in order to make the best of what time he has left. Each of us has a life journey, and though few of us ever actually tell the story, there are undoubtedly numerous lessons to be had with an honest look back.

watch the trailer: