BENEDETTA (2021)

December 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has long made his cinematic living on the fringes: the brutality of the Middle Ages in FLESH + BLOOD (1985), the violence and thirst for power through technology in ROBOCOP (1987), the buried dark side (and other uses of ice picks) of our personality in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), more thirst for power combined with a baffling lack of sex appeal in SHOWGIRLS (1995), and the unbridled desire for revenge in ELLE (2016). This latest displays his mastery of ‘nun-on-nun’ eroticism and the duplicity of religious faith. Verhoeven’s usual goal is to provoke, and along with his co-writer David Birke, this ‘based on true events’ story (adapted from the 1986 Judith C Brown book, “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”), is a natural fit.

Benedetta Carlini is delivered to the convent at a young age by her well-heeled parents. The girl claims to have a direct line to God, who delivers well-aimed bird droppings when called upon. OK, that’s just the first somewhat comical event in this film that seems less interested in the documented antics of the real Sister Benedetta, than in tantalizing today’s viewers with the behind closed doors sins of the flesh between she and fellow nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Portraying Sister Benedetta, Viginie Elfira never shies away from the material, whether it’s the stigmata, bedtime play with a specially carved Virgin Mary statuette, or channeling the voice of God during outbursts claiming blasphemy.

Felicita, the abbess of the convent, is played by the always interesting Charlotte Rampling. Sister Felicita’s real talent seems unrelated to issues of God, and instead lies in matters of money. Because of this, she capitalizes on Benedetta’s visions as a form of fundraising, while turning away (except during moments of voyeurism) from her other activities and claims. Our early caution comes from Benedetta being told upon arrival that, “Your body is your worst enemy”. After more dreams and visions, and a possible miracle or two, we understand that nuns are to believe that suffering is the road to salvation and redemption … a theory that leads to one of the more humorous moments as a sword-wielding Jesus saves Benedetta from a gaggle of attacking serpents.

Is there such thing as erotic religious satire played straight? We must assume that Verhoeven has his tongue planted firmly in cheek for this one, as it goes beyond skepticism of religion and directly to the morally adrift. Whether Benedetta’s claims of visions are/were true or fake, Verhoeven is a filmmaker who takes pleasure in the pleasure of nuns, no matter how prohibited it might be. We can just never be certain whether his objective is to expose religion, or simply expose.

Available in theaters on December 3, 2021 and On Demand beginning December 21, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DUNE (2021)

October 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been nearly 40 years since David Lynch directed DUNE (1984). The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound, and has since been a cult favorite, though not one I’m particularly drawn to. All these years later, Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel (there are 5 sequel novels) has been re-made by acclaimed writer-director Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL, 2016) and his co-writers Eric Roth (Oscar winner, FORREST GUMP, 1994) and Joe Spaihts (PROMETHEUS, 2012). The new version looks absolutely fantastic, even if the story is a bit convoluted and the characters don’t always make the best, or even logical, decisions.

The year is 10191, likely the most futuristic movie we’ve seen. Oscar Isaac is Duke Letto Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson is Lady Jessica Atreides, though the story mostly focuses on the son, Paul, played by Timothy Chalamet. The story revolves around the protection of spice, the most valuable resource in the universe/galaxy. However the real focus is on politics and power plays … so I guess not much really changes over the next 8170 years – except, of course, the colonization and travel between multiple planets (surprisingly, none of these planets is named Elon or Bezos). There is much talk of “the plan” with emphasis on whether young Paul is “the one” mentioned in their legends. Paul does have some special abilities, but Chalamet’s understated (and mostly monotone) portrayal makes everyone, even Lady Jessica, a bit unsure of whether he’s the leader they need.

The supporting cast is impressive and all do their part to drive the action and story forward. Jason Mamoa is Duncan Idaho, the warrior who humorously belittles Paul’s fragile physical frame. Josh Brolin is Gurney Halleck, the bodyguard to the noble family, and Charlotte Rampling plays the Reverend Mother (a creepy nun). Oscar winner Javier Bardem is under-utilized as Stilgar, while Zendaya shines as Chani, one who bonds with Paul. Of course the most outrageous role finds Stellan Skarsgard (with some heavy make-up and special effects) as the grand emperor of Harkonnen, with Dave Bautista as his brother, the Beast.

For me, the movie’s technical aspects are what stand out. It deserves awards consideration in multiple categories, especially Sound, Visual Effects, Cinematography, and Score. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer really delivers a score that compliments and enhances what we see on screen. Cinematographer Greig Fraser has been involved in numerous high profile projects, like ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) and the highly anticipated THE BATMAN (coming in 2022).  The effects are special and include the sandworms, as well as dragonfly choppers that are quite impressive. It was a bit annoying to see the desert sand blowing constantly, yet goggles and masks are hardly ever used. I guess these faces are too expensive to cover up!

Familiarity abounds as some bits recall MAD MAX, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, STAR WARS, and THE MATRIX. Director Villeneuve shot the film in Norway and Jordan, and to answer the question from fans of the original … no, Sting does not make a cameo appearance. The film looks stunning and will likely satisfy the target audience. Whether it’s enough to expand the audience is something we will know soon enough. The film ends with “This is only the beginning”, and Mr. Villeneuve has Dune Part Two in the planning stages.

The film will be released October 22, 2021 in theaters, on IMAX, and streaming on HBO Max

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

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:

 


45 YEARS (2015)

December 22, 2015

45 years Greetings again from the darkness. Relationships are messy and complicated. Even the best ones. Even those that last 45 years. Writer/director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 2011) understands this and delivers a film not about older people, but instead about the secrets, the doubts and the regrets experienced by anyone and everyone who is part of a committed relationship. His message is delivered through the extraordinary performances of Tom Courteney and especially Charlotte Rampling.

Just four days prior to a planned party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, the stillness and quiet of Geoff’s and Kate’s long-established familiarity is disrupted by the startling news that his girlfriend of 50 years ago has been discovered preserved in a Swiss glacier.  What could have been a simple blip on the radar turns out to be a slow revelation of true emotions that have clouded this marriage. Kate’s realization that her seemingly fine life is now undeniably tainted is gut-wrenching to behold.

Ms. Rampling’s performance is subtle and brilliant. The camera captures the whirlwind of emotions through her facial expressions and telling body language. She carries herself with grace and dignity, even as she emotes devastation. A scruffy Mr. Courteney seems oblivious to how deeply his reaction has wounded his wife, even as he dives more and more into the past … a journal, a slideshow, smoking cigarettes, a trip to the travel agency.

Haigh’s script and direction are such that the intimacy and personal pain is evident even in scenes that feature only one of the two leads. The lack of raised voices or outbursts belies the pain felt by both Geoff and Kate, and the pain is never more evident than when we finally reach the anniversary party. As Geoff delivers a rambling speech about the ups and downs of marriage, the camera equally captures the face of Kate as she expertly dons the façade required in public for those who are lost emotionally. The couple then dances to The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and Kate’s faces hides little of her internal turmoil. Haigh ends with one of the most soul-crushing final shots one could ever expect to see. It’s the perfect ending to a dose of reality most of us hope to never experience.

watch the trailer:

 

 


MELANCHOLIA

November 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who walks into this film having not seen the trailer or being unfamiliar with the previous works of writer/director Lars von Trier has my sincere sympathy. He is a unique and ambitious filmmaker with a touch of expressionism, abstractness and a unique visual style. His movies are seen by a small audience and appreciated by even fewer. And on top of that, he may be the least politically correct celeb working today.

The film begins with a most unusual prologue backed by an ominous Wagner composition and numerous visuals that play like slow moving paintings come to life. Clearly, the end of the world is at hand. After that, we get two parts: Part 1 Justine, and Part 2 Claire. Justine (Kristen Dunst) is first seen in her wedding gown heading towards the reception with her new husband (Alexander Skarsgard). Normally, this is one of the happiest times of anyone’s life, but here something is just not quite right. Once inside, we begin to understand. Justine’s family and friends are all a bit off-center, and she is the worst of all.

 I won’t go into the details because what really matters is that Melancholia, a large blue planet, is headed directly towards earth. Kiefer Sutherland plays Justine’s rich brother-in-law and he assures everyone that the “pass by” will be a special moment and no need to fear a collision. His wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) believes her husband and tries to comfort her sister Justine.

The supporting cast is outstanding and includes not only Alexander Skarsgard as the groom, but also his father Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s over-bearing employer; Charlotte Rampling as Justine’s beyond bitter mother; John Hurt as the take-no-responsibilty father; Jesper Christensen as the faithful caretaker; and creepy Udo Kier as the wedding planner. It’s quite a cast and the only real point of their existence seems to be having Justine and the viewer question if this existence is better than no existence … which could happen in 5 days.

 This year has provided quite a metaphysical buffet at the theater. We have had The Tree of Life, Another Earth, Take Shelter and now this entry from von Trier. This group will have you questioning many things in life, and beyond. The other similarity between the three is the artistic craftsmanship with which each is made. Clearly two famous paintings play a key role for von Trier, and his final shot is done with such a deft touch that only guys like Tony Scott and Michael Bay will feel let down.

I certainly can’t recommend this one to all. It is somewhat slow moving and filled with symbolism and characters bordering on depression. It is beautiful to look at, but tough to watch. My guess is you already know if this is one for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy risky, creative filmmaking designed to initiate thought in the viewer … even if that thought might be questioning how one would handle pending doom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you look to movies to be uplifting and funny – a way to take your mind off the heavy stuff

watch the trailer:


NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

September 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let me say that it’s great to have Mark Romanek back directing films. His most recent feature was 2002’s One Hour Photo which I found masterful. Here he has source material from the acclaimed novel of Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) and does an admirable job depicting this underground world of test tube-grown replacement parts. Despite the numerous opportunities for moral and philosophical statements, the film does a nice job of staying true to the novel and avoiding the soapbox.

We are introduced to Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. They are 3 friends being raised at Hailsham – a cross between an orphanage, boarding school and laboratory. The kids have no idea of their purpose in life and just go about their days as instructed – never really finding a need to question their existence … though many “stories” of the place have evolved over the years.

One day, a teacher played by Sally Hawkins breaks the code and explains to the children that their sole purpose in life is to be harvested for body parts. Sure this theme has been explored previously, but not really from the kids’ perspective. Ms. Hawkins’ character is instantly relieved of her duties by the cold-natured head mistress played perfectly by Charlotte Rampling.

Flash forward a few years and the three are played by Carey Mulligan (Kathy), Andrew Garfield (Tommy) and Keira Knightley (Ruth). We see a romance develop between Ruth and Tommy, though it’s obvious the real connection is between Kathy and Tommy. As they move to “the cottages” (a middle step in development), they learn a bit more about the curious real world.

It’s not until a few years later when we see how two of them have fulfilled their obligation, while one has delayed by playing a “carer” to donors, that we see just how bleak this existence is. The real questions are raised by Kathy as she wonders just how different their lives are than those in the real world. It seems both sides have regrets, unrealized dreams and a shortage of time. Here endeth the lesson.

This film is gathering a bit of Oscar buzz from the critics, but I must admit that I found it leaving entirely too much up to the audience. There are too many gaps to fill and not really much conflict or drama. It is finely made and well acted, but comes up short of what I would expect from a true Oscar contender.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the novel and/or are intrigued by the idea of creating replacement parts for humans OR you just want to see the guy replacing Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your films on the cheery side of the emotional scale