DIFF 2019 Day 4

April 15, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival – Day 4

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Scheduling conflicts meant I only had two films on the agenda for Sunday. With one of the films being an epic Danish film that pushed 3 hours in run time, I still managed to sit for more of the day than anyone should. The other film was a reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, so chuckles were expected to be few and far between.

 

 

Here is my recap of the two films watched on Day 4:

 

A FORTUNATE MAN (Lykke-Per)

 Turning the classic novel from Henrik Pontoppidan into a film project likely seemed nearly insurmountable; however director Bille August (PELLE THE CONQUEROR, 1987) was the perfect choice to handle the adapted screenplay written by his son Aders Frithiof August. Pontoppidan won the 1917 Nobel Prize for literature, and this novel offers a fascinating lead character and much commentary on class division and religious differences.

Esben Smed stars as Peter Andreas Sidenius, a young man from Jutland who, when we first meet him, as just received his acceptance letter to The College of Advanced Technology in Copenhagen to study engineering. Peter was raised in a pious Christian community by a respected clergyman father. Peter’s rebellion is viewed as a move against God by his father. As Peter begins his studies, we can think of him as a less compliant George Bailey from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. He’s a forward thinker who dreams of converting wind and water to energy to transform Denmark into an international power.

Once he crosses paths with the wealthy Jewish Salomon family, Per (as he now calls himself) at first appears as a smart fish-out-of-water, and slowly learns the nuances of high society. There is a great line about his ‘changing lanes’ as his attraction shifts from bubbly daughter Nanny (Julie Christiansen) to the more thoughtful and socially-conscious older daughter Jakobe (a terrific Katrine Greis-Rosenthal). His affiliation with the family leads to a realistic opportunity to see his energy dreams become a reality.

This is a period drama taking place sometime around 1900, and we quickly learn that Daddy issues and pride can affect one from any era. Though he has physically escaped the abusive, repressive father he had, Per is so convinced of his own genius that he simply can’t lower himself to traditional structure – whether it be social, familial or economic.

As with contemporary times, when arrogance meets arrogance, power prevails. Returning to his home roots humbles Per for a moment, and he is constantly haunted by a reappearing pocket watch tied to the previously mentioned Daddy issues. We see his childhood scars never heal and we hear ‘fortune favors fools’, and watch as pride brings the downfall of a man who continues to search for his true self rather than finding joy in life. It’s a beautifully shot film with terrific costumes and sets, and a wonderful lead performance (even if the film runs a bit long).

 

OPHELIA

 Well here we are more than 400 years later, and artists are still finding new ways in which to explore and adapt the writings of William Shakespeare. Some of these attempts are quite serious, others offer a bit more whimsy, and still others are quite creative. Director Claire McCarthy is working from Emmy winning writer Semi Chellas’ (“Mad Men”) adaptation of Lisa Klein’s 2006 Young Adult novel. The general structure is “Hamlet”, but the perspective is through the eyes of Ophelia (with some dramatic effect of course).

“You may think you know my story”. Those are the first words we hear … and we think to ourselves, “yes, we do.” But we don’t really know this story. Daisy Ridley stars as Ophelia, whose spunk as a young girl leads her to being chosen for Queen Gertrude’s court of ladies-in-waiting. Not being of noble blood, Ophelia is on outcast, but her reading skills put her in the Queen’s favor … especially for those bedtime stories that aren’t exactly scripture. Two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts plays Gertrude, as well as a second role that carries much weight in this reimagining.

Clive Owen plays Claudius – bad guy, bad wig, bad personality. Tom Felton plays Ophelia’s brother Laertes, Devon Terrell is Horatio, and George MacKay (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) portrays Hamlet. This Prince of Denmark is missing the familiar self-doubts he was cloaked in by the Bard, and is quite a romantic who doesn’t quite share the close bond his mother feels towards him. There is a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sighting, but of course, most of the focus remains on Ophelia – who is a strong and independent thinker, yet dutiful in her responsibilities to the Queen. Her “crazy” scene is actually quite strategic.

Screened at Sundance last year, the film now has distribution through IFC, and the Americanized dialogue should make it accessible to younger viewers … though some of the most familiar lines will be good for a chuckle from those in the know. Elsinore Castle looks terrific and the costumes are first rate … both crucial to period pieces. Unfortunately, outside of Ms. Ridley and Ms. Watts, the cast just doesn’t bring enough to pull off a new version. I found it difficult to avoid comparison to Franco Zefferelli’s ROMEO AND JULIET (1968), and we are reminded that it’s a foolish man (Prince or not) who chooses vengeance over love. Those familiar with “Hamlet” will see this differently than those who aren’t, but it’s certainly watchable for both sides of the castle.

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

November 9, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn’t love a good whodunit? Don’t we all find a bit of guilty pleasure in being the mastermind who solves a fictitious murder case? Has anyone ever been better at crafting an intricate murder mystery than Agatha Christie? Why all the questions? Well, that’s nothing compared to what “probably the world’s greatest detective”, Hercule Poirot, must answer amidst the foul play aboard the sleek, luxurious, and snowbound Orient Express.

This latest film version has Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) with the adapted screenplay and Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as the fabulously mustachioed Poirot (with his own take on the iconic super-sleuth). Like the near-perfect 1974 version, this latest adaptation succeeds in capturing the theatricality, while avoiding any stodgy staginess. Director Branagh shot on film and it pays off in both the stunning snow-covered mountains and landscapes, as well as the tight, precisely-blocked interior shots around the exceptional set designs.

Fans of the novel will notice some shifting of character names, professions and backgrounds, although the vast majority of the story remains intact … including the early murder that occurs not long after the film ingeniously introduces us to each of the characters. The cast is strong and deep, and in addition to Mr. Branagh, features: Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Dame Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. All are suspects – well, except the victim.

If you haven’t read the novel or seen a previous version, know that the fun is in ride. Follow along as Poirot dispenses zingers throughout, while maintaining a most precise commitment to balance in all things. He is an exacting and fastidious man, and as entertaining as he is skilled in crime solving. Note that the photograph he keeps of his one true love Katherine, is actually a photo of young Emma Thompson (Branagh’s real life wife). Enjoy keeping track of the clues and hints, while also tracking the widely diverse personalities, excuses and alibis. Most of the many characters only have a couple of key scenes, and it’s quite fun to see what these talented performers make of their moments. Daisy Ridley, Lucy Boynton and Derek Jacobi make the most of their time, while Penelope Cruz overplays hers. Other than Branagh, the star who shines the brightest is Michelle Pfeiffer (fresh off a killer performance in MOTHER!). She continues to remind us just how talented she is, and no, your ears aren’t playing tricks … that’s Ms. Pfeiffer singing “Never Forget” (lyrics by Branagh) as the closing credits roll.

Ms. Christie’s outstanding novel was first published in 1934, and is somewhat based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and her own train-riding adventure. It’s a wonderful and perplexing read … one that will have you changing your mind multiple times on who you believe to be guilty of murder. It’s obviously a personal favorite. There have been numerous movie versions over the years, and none have matched the excellence of director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film with an incredible all-star cast alongside Albert Finney’s Poirot. Though this most recent movie doesn’t reach the timelessness of that one, no movie can be expected to capture the detail and maze-like structure of the novel. It’s still quite fun – and a true joy- to see the pages come to life (irony intended) on the big screen.

watch the trailer:

 


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer: