THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022)

December 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is Scott Cooper’s sixth film to write and direct, and I have found each of them interesting. He has a style that leans towards atmospheric with meticulous pacing, and this latest fits the mold. Cooper’s films include CRAZY HEART (2009) and this will make his third collaboration with Oscar winner Christian Bale (HOSTILES, 2017, and OUT OF THE FURNACE, 2013).

Cooper adapted this screenplay from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, and it’s set in 1830 in the early stages of the West Point Academy in Hudson Valley, New York. It’s a fictional murder mystery with a couple of intriguing characters. When a cadet is found hanging from a tree with his heart removed, Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall sporting full Spall scowl) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) summon retired constable/detective Augustus Landor (Bale) to quietly and discreetly solve the case to prevent unwanted attention on the Academy. Landor is renowned for solving tough cases, but as a widower, he’s also weary and has an affinity for the bottle.

It may seem odd for a West Point film to open with the Edgar Allan Poe quote, “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague.” However, it doesn’t take long for this to make sense, as shortly after Landor arrives, he asks the inquisitive Cadet E.A. Poe (Harry Melling, Dudley in the Harry Potter movies) to assist with the investigation. That’s right, the infamous dark poet who wrote such classics as “The Raven”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and most fittingly, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, actually spent some time at West Point prior to focusing on his short stories and poetry. Cadet jumps at the chance to work with super sleuth Landor, and as you would expect, things get messy and complicated rather quickly.

Soon, Landor is consulting with occult specialist Jean Pepe (Oscar winner Robert Duvall), who fills him in on Henri LeClerc and the instruction guide to gaining immortality. By this time, Landor has interviewed Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) who performed the autopsy, and Cadet Poe has romantic leanings towards the doctor’s daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton, SING STREET, 2016), despite her cadet brother Artemis (Harry Lawtey) bullying him. Also in the picture is Julia Marquis (Gillian Anderson), the doctor’s quite bizarre wife who relishes her interaction with Poe and Landor.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has a small role as a barkeep at the local pub, but the first two acts of the film belong to Bale and Melling. That first hour and a half hooked me with the murder mystery and the strange characters, but I wasn’t prepared (or happy) for the sharp turn and the twist in the final act. Many of Cooper’s patented vista wide shots are included and cinematographer (and frequent Cooper collaborator) Masanobu Takayanagi excels with the eerie atmosphere aided by dark interiors lit by flickering candles. Though there are numerous references to Poe’s writings – the most obvious being a screeching crow and Landor’s name (Poe’s short story, “Landor’s Cottage”), but it’s the eerie atmosphere that is the film’s best asset. I did find it unusual for a film based on a U.S. military academy to feature so many Europeans in the cast, even if they are fine performers.

 Opens in theaters on December 23, 2022 and on Netflix beginning January 6, 2023

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THE SUNLIT NIGHT (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The journey to find one’s self is not unique to artists, but for some reason, it’s more cinematically appealing when an artist is involved. In this quirky film from director David Wnendt, with a screenplay Rebecca Dinerstein Knight adapted from her own novel, artists (of varying types) are everywhere. Of course finding one’s self usually involves making peace with this quagmire we call life.

Frances (Jenny Slate, OBVIOUS CHILD, 2014) watches as three snooty art critics denigrate her latest work to the point of humiliation. Her long-time boyfriend dumps her, and she returns home to her parents, both artists. Instead of sympathy from the family, she’s bombarded with news that her sister Gaby (Elise Kibler) is engaged to a man her father loathes, and to top off the family dinner, her parents (Jessica Hecht, David Paymer) announce they are separating. Rather than deal with any of this head-on, Frances accepts an apprenticeship with an artist in north Norway. “Norway, Norway”. Where the sun never sets.

Nils (Fridtjov Saheim) is the personality opposite to talkative, upbeat Frances. He grumps around while escorting her to the trailer she’ll stay in for the summer. The project, seemingly uninspiring, is to paint a local dilapidated barn yellow – inside and out. Nils is under a tight deadline to finish the barn so it (and he) can earn a spot on the map of cultural sites. Close by is a Viking museum and community, where the folks, led by their Chief (Zach Galifianakis), re-create Viking life for tourists (or mostly themselves).

One day Yasha (Alex Sharp, HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES, 2017) shows up. He’s arranging a ceremonial Viking funeral for his beloved father (Olek Krupa). Father and son worked together daily in their bakery and developed a close bond. Sasha’s mother (Gillian Anderson), who left them years ago, unexpectedly shows up for the funeral, hoping to lure him to live with her.

Frances compares everyone she meets to subjects in famous works of art. It’s her way of connecting art to the real world, as well as helping her find a place for people in her world of art. Frances and Yasha are drawn together in their search for direction and meaning, and we are led to believe this connection, no matter how brief or random their crossing of paths might be, helps her in her personal quest.

The cinematography from Martin Ahlgren captures this rarely seen top-of-the-world wonderland, and the landscape is truly something to behold. Ms. Slate is once again top notch in her role. She’s likable and relatable, traits some actors struggle with, but which apparently come natural to her. And while we expect lives to be messy and complicated, we hope for a bit more from our movies. Frances’ home life is drawn straight out of a TV sitcom, and the whole Viking village never really makes sense. It seems Frances is short-changed on all of her relationships here, yet the trip still manages to help her discover something in her art. And that’s just about how life works – really messy right up until something clicks, and then back to messy.

Available on VOD July 17, 2020

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VICEROY’S HOUSE (2017)

August 31, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1947 Partition of India is personally important and influential to director Gurinder Chadha (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM), though we don’t understand exactly how until the closing credits roll. Until that point, we find ourselves questioning why Ms. Chadha and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges (her husband) and Moira Buffini attempt such an obvious crowd-pleasing structure for this historical saga. Perhaps the strategy was to educate as many as possible on the events from 70 years ago.

An opening quote tells us “History is written by the victors.” Is this true? If so, who are the victors in this story? The British Empire ruled India for three centuries and their last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (great-grandson of Queen Victoria), was charged with structuring a peaceful transition to independence. The near impossibility of this challenge should have been readily apparent given the deep divisions created by religious and cultural differences, plus the immense friction between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. “Giving a nation back to its people” is not so simple when dealing with 20% of the world’s population.

Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson play Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, respectively. Despite managing what history has proven to be a disastrous decision, he is treated quite kindly by the filmmakers. Seemingly with his heart in the right place, Lord Mountbatten is presented as a pawn for the real power broker in England. His wife, on the other hand, is quite progressive and appears sincere in her efforts to better understand the Indian citizenry. In fact, as the most intriguing figure in the film, more focus on Edwina would have been welcome.

Michael Gambon plays General Hastings Ismay, while Tanveer Ghani is Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) and Denzil Smith plays Muhammed Ali Jinnah (Pakistan’s leader). These are the key players in negotiations, while inexplicably, the filmmakers choose to veer from history and offer up the worst kind of cinematic melodrama: star-crossed lovers in the vein of Romeo and Juliet.

As a metaphor for the Partition, the two lovers being torn apart by forces beyond their control is quite simply an unnecessary distraction. Mani Dayal (so good in THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) plays Jeet, a Hindu servant (one of 500) at the Viceroy House, while Huma Qureshi plays Aalia, the beautiful Muslim daughter of Ali (the late great Om Puri). Furtive glances are about as close as the two come to an actual relationship, but the film spends an inordinate amount of time on their wishes to be together.

There are too many cringe-inducing moments for the film to be considered a serious historical epic. Gandhi gets some screen time and is absurdly described as “The British Empire brought to its knees by a man in a loincloth”. Other moments seem all too relevant today. The promise that “Muslims will not be treated as second class citizens” could easily be heard on a current newscast. The decision to split Pakistan and India seems motivated by Britain’s design on oil and geographic protection from Russia … both contemporary motivations for many decisions these days.

The closing credits highlight the effects of the Partition: 14 million people migrated with approximately one million dead. We also get actual newsreel footage of the key figures from the story, as well as the documented reasoning of why this was so personal for director Chadha … perhaps too personal.

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