THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS (2016)

September 1, 2016

light between the oceans Greetings again from the darkness. As the closing credits rolled, it seemed incredulous that Kleenex was neither a sponsor or even mentioned in the “special thanks”. Surely a tissue company was behind such a straightforward cinematic sob-fest (calling this a tear-jerker doesn’t do it justice).

Director Derek Cianfrance is accustomed to wallowing in movie sadness. His 2010 gem Blue Valentine was an expose into a fractured and challenging relationship. This time he tackles the M.L. Stedman novel and slows the pace to an excruciatingly slow crawl.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a tormented WWI veteran so intent on isolating himself from society and people that he accepts a job as the lighthouse keeper in some desolate area of Australia. The locals in the small town of Stanley in Tasmania welcome Tom and provide him a festive send-off. One of these locals is Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who, despite grieving for her brothers killed in the war, takes an instant liking to the handsome and mysterious Tom.

Soon enough Tom and Isabel are married and living a blissful life on the isolated rock. Emotional turmoil and tragedies follow as Isabel suffers numerous miscarriages. It’s then that the movie takes a wild turn. Rather than a message in a bottle, Tom and Isabel find a baby in a boat. Yep, unable to bear their own, the sea delivers a baby to their ocean front home.

Tom can’t help but notice that Isabel’s depression instantly disappears as she cares for the baby, and in the blink of a misplaced eye, the three become a family. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the baby’s birth mother wasn’t discovered, so Rachel Weisz as Hannah brings her own tragic story and mourning to the façade of Tom and Isabel’s make-believe happiness. What follows is a look at loyalty to spouse versus doing the right thing … a dilemma that isn’t as easy as it should be.

The lighthouse and surrounding coastline are extremely photogenic, as is the town and, of course, Fassbender and Vikander (both deliver excellent performances). It’s also nice to see Aussie screen veterans Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, 1980) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail), even in small roles. It’s a purposefully sad and gut-wrenching movie that evidently moves so slowly to ensure the viewers have sufficient time to utilize those Kleenex.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer:

 

 


INGRID BERGMAN IN HER OWN WORDS (2015, doc)

November 12, 2015

ingrid Greetings again from the darkness. A seven time Oscar nominee and three time winner. One of the best known and most beloved actresses of all-time. Fifty year acting career. Died at age 67, mere weeks after her final performance. These are all bullet points to highlight Ingrid Bergman, the cinematic icon. However, documentarian (and fellow Swede) Stig Bjorkman pays little attention to the icon, and instead focuses on the woman.

What sets this apart from many biographical portraits is Bjorkman’s access to Bergman’s diaries, journals, personal letters, photos, home videos, and most importantly, interviews with her four children: Pia Lindstrom, Roberto Rossellini, and twins Isabella and Ingrid Rossellini. It’s a treasure trove of memories, documentation and insight into a woman who lived life on her own terms … often in direct opposition to what societal norms dictate. The film neither defends nor celebrates her free spirit; it simply reports it and allows us to sit in judgment, should we be so inclined.

One of the best clips is young Ingrid’s screen test where her natural beauty radiates on screen, and her expressive eyes make it obvious why David O Selznick recognized her star quality. But there are numerous other clips and photographs which show her mostly involved with her family … one of her husbands and some combination of her kids. Not fitting into the typical “motherly” box, Ingrid spent an enormous amount of time away from her kids as they were growing up. She clearly loved them very much, as evidenced by the words in her diaries and letters, and the visuals from their time together. And the interviews with her children today make it obvious they viewed her as a fun friend, rather than the nurturing mom.

Another aspect that is crystal clear is the ambition and drive possessed by Ingrid. She even states “no one can have everything”, and her actions and words make it obvious that acting was what brought her to life – whether on screen or on stage. It never took long on the home front for her to feel the pull of her true adventurous nature, and soon enough she was back on a movie set … leaving the kids behind.

Specifics of her movie career are mostly glossed over. Casablanca has a quick segment, as does her time with Alfred Hitchcock. Instead, we get a broad perspective of the scandal that rocked the movie world … a pregnant Ingrid left her first husband (Petter Lindstrom) for her director-lover Roberto Rossellini. For the times, this was extreme impropriety and there were even boycotts of her films. No place was harder on her than the United States. Absolutely unapologetic and without remorse, Ingrid took her career to Europe. Ingrid and Roberto had three kids together, and since history has a way of repeating itself, it was only a matter of time before Roberto was with his pregnant girlfriend in India, and Ingrid moved on to producer Lars Schmidt (and his private island).

The most impact from the timeline comes courtesy of the four adult children as they recall the extended times away from their mother, followed by memorable and fun stints together. Of course, they have each had many years to come to terms with a mother who frequently chose pursuing her career dreams to spending time with them. Imagine having a mother who said “I belong more to the make-believe world of theatre and film”. It can make you tough and independent, or it can have the opposite effect. We hear each of them discuss.

This is the wrong place to look for a career retrospective of Ingrid Bergman the actress, but it’s an intimate and fascinating look at a woman who understood what was important to her, and refused to be ruled by societal expectations. Young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander provides voice-over for much of Ingrid’s written word, but it’s Ms. Bergman’s actions and the insight from Pia, Roberto, Isabella and Ingrid that complete the full portrait of a most unusual woman. Ms. Bergman died in 1982 (age 67), just weeks after her final role in the TV movie A Woman Called Golda… a fitting portrait of another woman who lived life by her own rules.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 22, 2015

man from uncle Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many of us left. I’m referring to fans of the 1960’s TV series who will always think of Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as the real United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – shortened to U.N.C.L.E. Of course, these days, the movie industry is committed to remakes, sequels and re-boots, and it’s not surprising that it takes “Superman” and “The Lone Ranger” to try and fill the shoes of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.

Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin join forces with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Gaby in a mission to thwart the sale of a nuclear warhead built under duress by Gaby’s estranged father. Also joining in the fun are Jared Harris as Sanders, Hugh Grant as Waverly (Mr. Carroll’s old role) and Elizabeth Debicki (she made quite an impression as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), who makes a very intriguing “bad guy” as Victoria.

A one word description of this movie would be pretty. Most EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are pretty. The clothes are pretty. The sets are pretty. The Italian locations are pretty, and Lord knows the people are pretty. Most of the lead actors have spent some time modeling: Cavill, Hammer, Vikander, Grant, Debicki, and Luca Calvana. Heck, David Beckham even has a cameo just to make sure every scene includes someone really pretty.

In the same year with the latest Mission: Impossible (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and James Bond (Spectre) movies, it’s understandable that the Sherlock Holmes writer/director team of Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach. Unfortunately, the comic chops are a bit weak on the leads, so while they look pretty … many of the punchlines come off pretty weak.

For any other surviving loyalists to the original TV series, the best advice would be to accept the movie for what it is, and avoid comparing to those classic memories. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme song only merits a few moments of airtime. Those unfamiliar with the original material will likely accept this as the Pirates of the Caribbean of spy movies, and understand that the current TV show “The Americans” handles the Cold War much more dramatically and intensely. However, if anyone is looking for pretty …

watch the pretty trailer:

 

 


SEVENTH SON (2014)

February 5, 2015

seventh son Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasy adventure films based on popular novels have certainly posted a track record of box office success … sometimes in record-setting style. However, not every entry into this genre need be a Goliath like the “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. There is always room for simpler and still-creative movie-making like The NeverEnding Story or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Based on Joseph Delancey’s “The Wardstone Chronicles” (17 novels), this latest from Russian director Sergey Bodrov strives to be something special. Though it falls short of such a lofty goal, it still provides an entertaining onslaught to the senses.

A release date delayed by two years is rarely a good sign for a movie, though the official word blames it on legal issues between studio and distributor. No matter to us viewers, as what we care about is seeing something new and exciting. The steady stream of 3D special effects have their moments, but it’s impossible not to notice the out-of-focus issues that abound in post-production 3D. Still the swooping camera work through the mountains, Grand Canyon, bodies of water, and very cool looking temples and walled cities, provide the “epic” look a film like this must offer. An extremely heavy dose of CGI must have kept quite a few programmers employed, and the effects bounce between quite impressive and totally flat. Personally, I never get tired of seeing angry dragons … even if it happens 3 or 4 times in the same movie.

Let’s talk about Jeff Bridges as Master Gregory, the town spook (creature hunter). Evidently Mr Bridges only accepts roles these days that don’t require a haircut … or even a shower. But what’s with that voice? The first time Master Gregory opens his mouth, I immediately thought it sounded like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit taking a big swig of bourbon and, before swallowing, delivering his lines of dialogue. This voice is a creative choice that crashes and burns. Dialogue is of little use if the audience can’t understand. As challenging as it was for me, it’s expected that most of the target market will be totally lost in Gregory’s exchanges with his apprentice or his sidekick or any of the wicked witches.

The obvious attempt to set up a franchise, or at least a sequel, suffers from another fatal error. Asking Ben Barnes (playing apprentice Tom Ward) to carry the torch is just not reasonable. His wooden approach in The Chronicles of Narnia reminded of Orlando Bloom (that’s not a compliment), and this outing just reinforces that original impression. The hulking sidekick Tusk is played by John DeSantis, and rather than stress his loyalty, we get a few lame jokes at his expense. Julianne Moore takes on the role of the powerful witch Mother Malkin, and though she gives it a shot, the role is simply underwritten and fizzles rather than sizzles. Other support work comes from Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as a young witch smitten with the apprentice, Olivia Williams as the mother-with-a-secret to the apprentice, while Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou each play talented, other worldly creatures.

It’s a bit surprising that the story isn’t more complex and the characters better developed given the screen writing team of Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, “Peaky Blinders“). We just never get a chance to understand the legacy of Master Gregory and his spurned girlfriend-witch Mother Malkin. We also are expected to take a huge leap of faith when the apprentice can’t accurately throw a knife in one scene, and shortly he is battling assassins, witches and other creatures. Perhaps the only explanation needed is that he is a “son of a witch”.

Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of seeing Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunited on screen, even if we wish their battles were fiercer. And while it’s nice to learn that four arms can really improve one’s swordplay, it’s a bit disappointing to miss out on the true power of a Blood Moon. Enjoy the visuals, duck from the dragons, and strain to understand the words coming out of the mouth of Master Gregory … there is some entertainment value here.

watch the trailer:

 


A ROYAL AFFAIR (En kongelig affaere, Denmark, 2012)

December 23, 2012

royal affair Greetings again from the darkness. I would venture a guess that most are as uninformed as I about this brief, but altogether impactive and fascinating period of history in Denmark. The story is bookended with the (late 17th century) letter that a seriously ill and deposed Queen Caroline sent to her children, the eldest who would later become King Frederick VI. Director Nikolaj Arcel co-wrote the script with Rasmus Heisterberg (the two also collaborated on the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and present insight into a most bizarre love triangle andpolitical power struggle that instigated national change … and then a severe reversal … and then change again.

We meet the luminous Caroline (Alicia Vikander from Anna Karenina) as she is traveling from England for her initial meeting with her new husband, King Christian VII of Denmark. Unfortunately, this intellectual and talented woman is stuck with a mentally unstable and childlike spouse. Once she fulfills her duty by delivering a son, the chamber visits are cut off and the two live mostly separate lives. The king is manipulated and controlled by the court and mostly just does what he is told to do, and signs royal affair2what he is supposed to sign. This keeps the aristocracy fat and happy, while continuing the harsh policies against the poor peasants.

A local doctor is arranged for the king’s European tour and we discover that this doctor has learned how to co-exist and gain the trust of the odd king. What few know is that this doctor … Johann Struensee is a revolutionary thinker and follower of Voltaire and Rousseau. He seeks social reform in Denmark and soon schemes with the idealistic queen to use Christian as their mouthpiece and gain control of the court.

It’s not long before Caroline and Struensee are sharing much more than ideas, and the big question is … will their downfall be their ideas for enlightenment or their dangerous love affair? Speaking of the love affair, it bears mention that this is one of those rare, royal affair3believable stories of true soul mates. Most movies, especially costume dramas, have us believe that soul mates are created by an exchange of glances across a crowded room. Here, the love between these two grows in step with their ideas for social reform. In other words, there is more than lust between Caroline and Struensee.

Sometimes the story gets a bit muddled between the love affair and the political maneuvering, but it’s not difficult to imagine that these conflicts actually occurred during this period. These are real people with real issues and it’s a pleasure to watch the tangled web.

Mads Mikkelsen is known to most as the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. Here he captures the nuances of Dr Struensee as both a revolutionary figure and an illicit lover. Alicia Vikander is clearly on the verge of stardom and is wonderful as the complex Caroline. The real scene stealer here is Mikkel Boe Folsgaard as Christian. This key role could have easily spoiled the film in the wrong actor’s hands. Instead he balances the mental issues with enough doubt that we viewers are left wondering how much is illness and how much is insecurity … just how much did he understand?

This is a very well crafted, if somewhat conventional film that tells a remarkable story from a turbulent time in Denmark. It’s a story that deserves a greater audience … despite it’s lame title … and this Oscar contender (Foreign Language category) should provide just that.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of costume dramas, especially when steeped in historical accuracies

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe all things are rotten from Denmark (see what I did there?)

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGXNQu3fpP8