SUFFRAGETTE (2015)

November 5, 2015

suffragette Greetings again from the darkness. Most “issues” movies go big in their approach to society-changing events and those that led the charge. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007) and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, 2011) instead show us one little corner, a building block if you will, of the larger movement towards gaining women the right to vote in the UK. By focusing on the efforts of a small group of working class women in 1912, the struggle becomes one of flesh and blood, rather than granite statues.

Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a manual laborer at a commercial launderer. Her character is a composite of working class women of the time, and we come to appreciate her strength and the incredible sacrifices she makes for the greater cause. Maud seems to be a simple woman. She works hard, loves her son and is loyal to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). When first exposed to the civil disobedience of the suffragettes, Maud is caught in the crossfire of a rock-throwing frenzy. She recognizes faces and becomes intrigued with the mission. At first, Sonny tries to be supportive, but soon enough, he is confused, embarrassed and finally forced to take extreme measures. After all, no self-respecting man of the time could allow his wife to sneak about town throwing rocks, setting off bombs, and attending secretive meetings … all for the sake of some ridiculous notion of equality for women!

Helena Bonham Carter appears as the neighborhood pharmacist who is a key cog in the local movement – a movement that had been ongoing peacefully for decades. What’s interesting about her appearance is that Ms. Bonham-Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister of UK from 1908-1916. He was an outspoken opponent of the suffragette movement during its most critical time. Her appearance and role in the film is a bit of redemption for the actress and her family.

Deeds not Words. This became the rallying cry for these women thanks to their leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Meryl Streep makes an all-too-brief appearance as Ms. Pankhurst, but it’s a key moment in the film as it solidifies the cause for this group of women who needed to believe that they could make a difference.

Gender inequality seems such an insufficient term for what these women endured. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, unequal pay, hazardous work environments, and almost no child custody rights in disputes with men … these were all commonplace at the time, and the film does a terrific job of making the points without distracting from its central message. Director Gavron’s subtle use of differing color palettes is effective in distinguishing the man’s world from that of the women.

It’s clearly a snapshot of a society on the brink of a revolution, and a grounded yet emotional glimpse at those foot soldiers in the war on injustice. Though this story focuses on the UK, the end credits remind us that in the U.S., it took until 1920 to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote; and even more startling, Switzerland took until 1971 and the women of Saudi Arabia only this year obtained voting rights. The movie is a powerful personal story, and also an effective history lesson on the irrationality involved in bringing about humanistic change.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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THE LONE RANGER (2013)

July 6, 2013

lone ranger Greetings again from the darkness. The Western genre has always appealed to me. I love the clear division between good and bad. Heroes and Villains face-off and the good guys usually win, thereby protecting those too weak to protect themselves. TV had an impressive string of popular westerns: “The Rifleman”, “Maverick”, “The Big Valley”, “Rawhide”, “Bonanza”, and “Gunsmoke” (1955-75).

One of the most popular got it’s start on the radio in 1933: “The Lone Ranger“. When it hit TV in 1949, the great Clayton Moore donned the mask and badge, accompanied by Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Though they filmed a couple of movies, they were best known on the small screen. Then in 1981,  The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released in theatres. It was directed by William Fraker and starred Klinton Spilsbury. If you have never seen it … Mr. Fraker never directed another movie and Mr. Spilsbury never acted again. Enough said.

lone ranger2 Thirty-three years later, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and mega-star Johnny Depp have teamed up for a re-imagined Tonto and the Lone Ranger story. Yes, that is the proper order since this is mostly the story of Tonto, told by Tonto, with the camera focused on Tonto (Depp). There is very little respect for the roots of the story, and that’s probably because it would not be politically correct these days to have a subservient Comanche taking orders from a masked white man.

We first meet an aging Tonto as the “Noble Savage” in a 1933 Old West traveling museum. This approach reminds me of the far superior Little Big Man featuring Dustin Hoffman. Tonto proceeds to tell a young boy his version of history. We are never really sure if this is a tall tale or just a commentary on how our memory recalls events solely from our own perspective. Tonto’s character is given a full backstory, but John Reid, the square and square-jawed prosecutor who Tonto mentors into becoming the lone ranger4Lone Ranger (played by Armie Hammer) is presented as a naive buffoon. Reid’s courageous brother Dan is played by James Badge Dale, and the bad guys are played by Tom Wilkinson (Cole, the train baron), and William Fichtner (Butch Cavendish, the notorious outlaw who wiped out the Rangers).

It seems apparent that Verbinski was striving to create the next Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The template is familiar … lots of action and wise-cracking, replete with the newest caricature in the Johnny Depp repertoire. Though Depp has many critics, I am not one. To me, he is a modern day Red Skelton, and I admire the nuances of his Captain Jack Sparrow, Wily Wonka, Mad Hatter, and of course, Edward Scissorhands. Tonto is another feather in his cap (so to speak) and his decision to base the look on Kirby Sattler’s painting “I Am Crow” adds a stark look along with fodder for comedy.  Depp performs an impressive stunt featuring a tall ladder and two trains … it plays like a tribute to the great Buster Keaton.

lone ranger3 Many film critics have been bashing the production – some even before the film’s release. In this day of information overload, we all are aware of the battle between the filmmakers and the studio. The final product does in fact wear the scars of entirely too many writers and budget mismanagement and limitations that come with the Disney brand. What should have been a perfect fit (ultimate good guy Lone Ranger) turned into a jumbled mess at times. The 2 1/2 hour movie easily could have been a full hour shorter. Maybe building two new locomotives worked great for realism, but was tough on the budget. With so few young movie-goers even aware of the Lone Ranger, creative freedom to re-imagine the character makes sense, but making him a klutzy sidekick probably doesn’t. So what we get are pre-release headlines telling us the film is a bomb. I find that unfair. It certainly appeared that most of the audience I was part of enjoyed the movie, though there were cracks about how long it was.

There are some very impressive segments within the film and having Rossini’s William Tell Overture playing over the heart-pounding climax adds a level of fun that most movies don’t have. The use of Monument Valley in Utah put me in the mood for a John Ford movie marathon.  So while I fully agree that the movie is much too long, the script should have been tightened, and more respect paid to the main character, it seems highly likely that the movie will be remembered much more fondly than film critics would have us believe … at least by those who give it a shot.

**NOTE: if you are unfamiliar with the legend, Britt Reid who became The Green Hornet, is the great nephew of John Reid (The Lone Ranger).

**NOTE: I totally missed the significance or tie-in of the blood-thirsty rabbits in this movie, though they did remind me of Monty Python’s Killer Rabbits.  If you “get” this, please explain to me.

**NOTE: Helena Bonham Carter.  ugh

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can ignore the critics and accept this as another blockbuster summer fun flick OR you want to see the latest addition to the Johnny Depp Hall of Oddity

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the All-American hero as seen in the long ago TV series (this is really not his story)

Below are two videos.  The first is the 27 second opening to the TV series.  The second is one of the full trailers to the new movie:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Td4RHvyAFsM

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L5pbgKyWs4


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


DARK SHADOWS (2012)

May 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone ever asks “What was the name of that late 60’s goth, supernatural soap opera with the cult following?“, it’s safe to assume they mean the TV series “Dark Shadows“. It ran from 1966-1971 for a remarkable 1225 episodes. For those who remember it, the image they recall tends to be actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabus Collins … the first vampire most of us ever saw outside of a Friday night horror film. The series made quite an impact on two young boys in particular: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

There are many reasons that movies get made. Pet projects or labors of love are not as common these days because of high production costs. But that’s exactly what this movie is – a pet project for Burton and Depp. They clearly have fun with the characters, and the film dallies ever so closely to the parody line. The initial set-up is brilliant and dark and ominous, leading us to believe this film will be in line with Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. Instead, the rest of the movie is more in line with Beetlejuice. Definitely not a bad thing – just different than what we were prepped for.

 Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as Barnabus Collins, the rich young man cursed by Angelique, the witch he spurns in love. His curse is to be turned into a vampire and buried alive. When his casket is discovered 196 years later, the world of 1972 is quite different than the one he left. He comically struggles to fit in and make sense of it all … not the least of which is his remaining family. At his beloved Collinswood Manor lives Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the live-in child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and their recently hired nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote). While he was buried, the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green) becomes the most powerful figure in town.  Ms. Green holds nothing back in her over-the-top jealous witch fun.

 Burton does a nice job poking fun at the 1970’s with comedy that won’t mean much to today’s youngsters, but will hit home with those from the era. The art direction and sets are terrific, especially Collinwood Manor. The music of the 70’s is used to comic effect, including a live performance by Alice Cooper. Michelle Pfeiffer does the best job at capturing the look and feel of the original series, but her daughter’s character (Moretz) takes an unnecessary turn as Burton tries to cram as much in as possible. In fact, the film is actually quite fun to watch, but is lacking real substance in the story department … not dissimilar to the original series.

 This is the 8th film collaboration between Burton and Depp. They make a wonderful team, and Depp has added another entertaining character to his Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Mad Hatter legacy. His movements and speech pattern are especially entertaining as we are mesmerized by his milky white complexion. His dialogue (written by Seth Grahame-Smith) demands attention and is both comical and majestic simultaneously. Burton’s tribute to the TV series includes cameos by four of the original actors: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (pictured left) as guests at the ball. It’s a classy touch. Danny Elfman’s score is a bit overwhelmed by the use of numerous 70’s classics, and it was disappointing to hear The Killers version of “Go All the Way” rather than The Raspberries as the closing credits rolled.

Burton is one of the more visual directors and even though the story is a bit lacking, each scene gives us plenty to absorb. The ghosts are especially well done, as is the fishing town of Collinsport which was built just for the movie. It has many similarities to Bodega Bay, which film lovers will recognize as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Lastly, Burton gives us another scene with the great Christopher Lee – this time as a boat captain caught between Angelique and Barnabus. Good stuff.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original TV series OR you enjoy Burton/Depp collaborations OR you “get” 1970’s humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: in your mind, the 1970’s have as much relevance as 1870

watch the trailer:


THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

December 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. British royalty is such easy pickings for film. The pomp and circumstance, colorful characters and dress, excessive everything, and especially the scandals provide an endless supply of material that can be twisted every which way. Director Tom Hooper who was responsible for fine work in the recent “John Adams” mini-series, takes the story of Prince Albert in a much different direction than one might think by reading history books.

Collin Firth does a masterful job of portraying Prince Albert, who falls directly into the role of King after the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) and abdication of the throne by his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) when he, for some reason, must marry the love of his life – a thrice divorced woman named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Now from a perspective of scandal, Edward and Wallis aka Duke and Duchess of Windsor, would make a far more juicy movie. Heck, even the story of pending World War with Hitler’s Germany would have, and often has, made for a more juicy movie. But Mr. Hooper has chosen to deliver a human drama filled with frailty, doubt, tenacity and hope. Turns out, this was a very wise choice.

Prince Albert ascends the throne as King George VI, husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom we knew as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002. The two were the parents of a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen of England. Yes, we Americans do struggle with our Royalty and all the re-naming, yet remain fascinated by it. However, it’s important to note that this was a much different time. The film leads up to King George’s infamous 1939 speech in which he calmly and steadily explained to many nations that England was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany.

 What many do not know is that George suffered a severe speech impediment that caused him to stammer excessively under pressure. As you might imagine, this is a horrible affliction for a war time King! The guts of this story is the relationship between King George and his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There are so many dynamics in their relationship that each scene is like a skirmish between the two. Truly a fascinating progression to behold.

A deep friendship based on respect and trust develops and remains through the rest of their lives. More importantly for Britain and the world, Logue guided the King to a strong performance in the most crucial speech … thereby bringing strength to a nation and commitment from allies. Not sure which of these men was the better leader, but together they were proved very strong.

Firth, Rush, and Bonham-Carter are all excellent in their roles, and I also got a big kick out of Timothy Spall as a young Winston Churchill. Mr. Hooper does a remarkable job of creating a very human drama out of a historical period and event. The death march to the microphone is just excruciating in the climatic scene. We can feel the pain of the onlookers and supporters as they will their King to perform. I can only guess that the Queen Mother was instrumental in the development of Rolaids after so many trying moments!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true Oscar contender OR you are looking for an inspirational, historically based story

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of Royalty is a Royale Burger with cheese OR you don’t mind missing out on one of the best lead actor and one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.


ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

March 6, 2010

(3-6-10) 

 Greetings again from the darkness. A sequel?? How dare they? When I first heard that Tim Burton was taking on Lewis Carroll’s story, I was very excited. What better director to take on this most peculiar work than the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and others? The man is a visual genius. But a sequel??

Early in the film, we find an almost 20-year-old Alice being proposed to in front of a large crowd of Victorian high society types. She spots a rabbit in the bushes and excuses herself, chases the rabbit, and quickly falls down the rabbit hole. The wild ride begins.

Mr. Burton’s visual feast takes Alice (Mia Wasikowska) through many of the situations we (and she) are familiar with. The main difference is this is her “return” trip to Wonderland and she is no longer a little girl. She is told her destiny is to defeat the Jabberwocky so that the evil Red Queen’s ruling power can be assumed by her sister, the good white queen. This destiny takes Alice through many sites and characters we don’t often see.

Johnny Depp is cast as her friend the Mad Hatter and delivers yet another unique, full-bodied performance.  His “mad” look is achieved through a bird’s nest of red hair, giant yellow saucer-sized eyes and make-up that would make Lady Gaga jealous. The Red Queen, who captures the Hatter, is played wonderfully by Mr. Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter. She has marvelous voice inflections and is as quick with an “off with their heads” as she is a “I need a pig”. Her sister, the White Queen, is played oddly but beautifully by Anne Hathaway. The sibling rivalry is a hoot.

We are treated to voice work from three of the best ever: Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and Alan Rickman. Unfortunately, Mr. Lee and Mr. Gough have VERY limited lines, but it was nice of them to contribute. Also contributing are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Matt Lucas.

Once I adjusted to the fact that this was not a re-imagining of the original works, but rather more of a sequel or next step, the film worked fine for me. What I did miss was the amazing word play of the great Lewis Carroll. Of course, anyone who actually understood his writings will probably be a bit bored with this version. Luckily, that affects very few!

Mr. Burton’s visuals are successful and will probably appeal to most ages. The 3-D seems to have been an after-thought and is most effective with the really cool Cheshire cat. The youngest kids will struggle to follow the Mad Hatter’s accent-heavy dialogue, but the pictures and characters (Tweedle-Dee and Dum) should be enough to keep them entertained.