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 TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (2021)

December 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The confounding part about screen adaptions of great and familiar literary works is that we have each already formed our mental images of characters and setting. Adapting Shakespeare’s 400 year old play is Joel Coen (4 time Oscar winner, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and it’s also his first time to fly solo as director without his brother Ethan. Filmed in black and white on a sound stage, this production may lack the frills we’ve come to expect in modern times, yet while its stark sets recall German Expressionism, the film still manage to deliver memorable visuals.

Denzel Washington (2 time Oscar winner, TRAINING DAY, GLORY) stars as Macbeth, while Mr. Coen’s wife, Frances McDormand (4 time Oscar winner, NOMADLAND) is a perfect fit as the scheming Lady Macbeth. The absolute best and creepiest sequences are thanks to terrific work from stage actor Kathryn Hunter, who plays not one witch, but rather the trio (plus, in true Shakespearian fashion, a fourth character later). Ms. Hunter’s work is a highlight as she contorts her body and rings out prophecy with an exceedingly disturbing voice. She is fantastic. It’s the witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will become King of Scotland that sets into action a chain of events familiar to most of us.

The reasons this didn’t work as well for me as it did for others include Denzel’s extremely low-key performance in the first half, and more crucially, the film lacks that unbridled lust for power that so attracts me to this particular story. It struck me more as a story of a disgruntled couple than the timeless themes of corruption and lust for power that Shakespeare so expertly crafted. Denzel’s performance does come alive in the second half and he’s quite something to watch. However, it’s Ms. McDormand who nails the Lady Macbeth role and ensures our attention doesn’t drift. Although obvious, it must be noted that these two renowned actors are a bit old for the roles, but interesting enough, this elements adds a different perspective to the characters’ ambitions.

Supporting performances include Brendan Gleeson (is he ever not a standout?) as the ill-fated King Duncan, and Harry Melling as Malcolm and Matt Helm as Donalbain, Duncan’s two sons. Corey Hawkins plays Macduff, Bertie Carvel is Banquo, and Stephen Root is the scene-stealing (and comic relief) Porter. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel treats us to some creative shots and angles … and plenty of birds. But of course, it’s Denzel and McDormand who will make or break this for you.

Director Coen does include the familiar lines: “Something wicked this way comes” inspired writer Ray Bradbury, Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot” still packs a punch, while Macbeth’s “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” remains my personal favorite. With the stark sets, Coen serves up a shadowy presentation – or is it a presentation of shadows? It’s a blend of stage and screen, yet never fully both. Despite some of my displeasures and the long-lasting curse, overall it’s a welcome version of “the Scottish play” … although I still prefer reading The Bard’s prose.

Opening in theaters on December 25, 2021 and streaming on AppleTV+ on January 14, 2022

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SAY YOUR PRAYERS (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The brothers have chosen to accept the mission they’ve been given, which is to assassinate outspoken atheist writer, Professor John Huxley. The deed is to be done during the Ilkley Literature Festival where Huxley is a featured speaker. Brothers Victor and Tim are Christian radicals, and not particularly clever. In fact, the terrific opening sequence shows us an execution on a hill – one that displays the tragic effects of mistaken identity.

Writer-director Harry Michell (he played Nick in YESTERDAY, 2019) and co-writer Jamie Fraser (his first feature film) deliver a strong first act that really gets our hopes up. Tom Brooke (PIRATE RADIO, 2009) plays Victor, the high-strung older brother to Tim, who is played by ski cap-wearing Harry Melling (the “Harry Potter” franchise). Victor is prone to violent outbursts, while Tim is the more sensitive type – and a bit slow at times. That contrast between the brothers is a fun element, as is the close bond they share.

Director Michell utilizes a recurring men’s choir (breaking the fourth wall) as a way to both drive the story and add a bit of humor. In the first half-hour, the two most obvious comparisons we make are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999) and IN BRUGES (2008). Unfortunately, that’s a standard that the film simply can’t sustain. It seems to be filled with any number of promising ideas that mostly just fizzle or fade out. A perfect example is the dynamic between the two investigative cops played by Anna Maxwell Martin and Flora Spencer-Longhurst. The banter between these two characters is just never quite as colorful or pointed as we wish.

The supporting cast includes Vinette Robinson as Imelda, one of the festivals organizers who has a close relationship with Professor Huxley. Imelda’s time with Tim works well at times. Roger Allum effectively portrays the arrogant atheist author, and Derek Jacobi plays Father Enoch, the priest who raised the two orphans, Tim and Victor, and now has them doing the church’s dirty work. The real standout here is the film’s editing by Xanna Ward Dixon and Dylan Holmes Williams. The pacing and quick cuts keep us engaged and minimize the shortcomings of the story … which certainly could have worked with more risk-taking and pushing of the envelope. Not going far enough is film’s downfall – and it’s quite disappointing given the promising start.

In theaters and On Demand April 2, 2021

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