BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

watch the trailer:

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PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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:

 


THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

watch the trailer:

 

 


CLOSED CIRCUIT (2013)

September 7, 2013

closed circuit1 Greetings again from the darkness. I try to spend very little time re-hashing movies that deliver very little … I prefer to move on to the next one with a clear head. This one frustrated me because it could have – even should have – been so much more.

Director John Crowley was responsible for the very entertaining Michael Caine film Is Anybody There? and writer Steven Knight penned three scripts that I very much enjoyed: Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, and Amazing Grace. The cast is very talented with Eric Bana, Jim Broadbent, Ciaran Hinds, and … well … also Rebecca Hall and Julia Stiles. So why does it feel so empty?

closed circuit3 The movie begins with a horrible act of terrorism – a suicide bomb in London that we view through a grid of 12 closed circuit screens. You would be incorrect if you think there is a payoff for frantically scanning all screens looking for clues. This device is nothing more than a reminder (over and over again) that we are constantly being monitored while in public.

The ensuing trial provides a peek at the British legal system, but the most interesting sub-plot … the young son of the accused terrorist … is minimized in favor of the generic romance between two legal defense attorneys (Bana and Hall). Additionally, Ciaran Hinds’ character is simply too easy to read and Ann-Marie Duff is totally miscast. My favorite moments were the all-too-rare exquisite verbal diatribes from the great Jim Broadbent.

Chalk this one up as a forgettable would-be/should-be political legal thriller that just doesn’t thrill. It’s of little comfort to know that I was probably being watched on the theatre security cameras as I longed for something worth watching on the screen.  They may be watching, but you shouldn’t.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have an ongoing wager with your friends that you must see every Eric Bana movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your political and legal thrillers to actually have some thrills and not concentrate on some absurd secret romance that everyone knows about

watch the trailer (just don’t be fooled):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktiMVKeA9QM

 


CLOUD ATLAS (2012)

October 27, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ambitious and mesmerizing. Those are the two words that best describe my reaction to this stunning film based on the David Mitchell novel. Hopefully, you have not come here for answers to the many mysteries offered up by this most unique film experience. If you are the type that loves to think, analyze and discuss complex movies, you will be challenged and satisfied. If you prefer your stories clean, straightforward and gift-wrapped, you will be like some of those in my audience who walked out of the theatre at various stages -not to return.

 While there are no easy explanations for what we see on screen, this is undoubtedly one of the more complex and multi-faceted and challenging movies to watch. There are six stories that span approximately 500 years (beginning in 1849 and going through 2346 or so). We see many actors playing multiple characters of various ages, crossing racial and gender lines depending on the specific story.  We track the progression/regression of their souls through time. This will prove more challenging to you than it sounds on paper, as the make-up work is some of the most extreme ever seen on screen.  Many will describe the film as messy or convoluted, but the argument can be made that those traits add to the fun. Certainly, this won’t be to the taste of most; however, if you thrive on life’s puzzles, the film will hit your sweet spot.

 The six stories are co-written and directed by Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run) and The Wachowski’s (Lana and Andy, The Matrix trilogy). These six segments are split evenly between the two director groups, yet then blend seamlessly thanks to the truly expert editing of Alexander Berner. You will recognize the influence and similarities of such films as Master and Commander, Cocoon, Silkwood and Blade Runner, as well as many others.

Filling the costumes, donning the make-up and spouting the dialogue in manners that you often won’t recognize are such disparate actors as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Donna Bae, Ben Whishaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. Especially entertaining are Hugo Weaving as a sadistic female nurse and Hugh Grant as a violent tribesman. The best laughs in the film are courtesy of the great Mr. Broadbent whose facial expressions are near clown-like in elasticity.

 As for the themes and points of the film, that is a topic for debate. A couple of lines of dialogue offer some clues. Hanks’ nasty ship doctor spouts “The weak are meat the strong do eat“, and we notice the recurring theme of the strong dominating the weak across all story lines. There is another line: “One can transcend any convention so long as one can conceive of doing so“, that provides the glimmer of hope in each story. Love and oppression are always present, but it’s clear to me that the human spirit remains strong and is capable of overcoming oppression in the past, present and future. You may disagree but our debates will be colorful … and may change after a second viewing!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy assembling the pieces of multiple storylines and numerous interconnected characters OR you just want to see Hugo Weaving play the toughest on screen nurse since Nurse Ratched

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movies to be short and sweet (this one is almost 3 hours and anything but sweet)

Watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQFAPeaJOf8


THE IRON LADY

January 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. So many are up in arms about what this movie isn’t, that they have lost sight of what it is. If you are expecting a political drama and biography detailing the finer points of one of the most impactful and controversial world leaders in history, you will undoubtedly be disappointed. If instead, you accept this as a creative way to tell a story and glimpse at a once powerful person struggling with her place in history, while simultaneously fighting the daily battle against Alzheimer’s, then you too will be satisfied with more than the towering performance of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

Lady Thatcher is one of most controversial political figures in modern history. Pundits fall to pro or con in regards to her 3 terms (11 years) as British Prime Minister. Writer Abi Morgan (Shame) and director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia) don’t take a side in the argument. Instead they offer us the viewpoint of an elderly Lady Thatcher struggling to avoid “going mad”. Her daily battle includes numerous flashbacks to specific moments and events. Through these episodes, we take a quick trip through history … almost a Cliff’s Notes version. Additionally, we witness how she regularly “sees” and speaks with her husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). Yes, he died years ago. It seems she realizes this, but enjoys the comfort of having him nearby.

During the flashbacks, we get a feel for her early onset political ambition, which evidently came from her dad the grocer (and small town politician). He encouraged her to work hard, be different and think for herself, while never backing down from her beliefs. This seems hard-wired into her personality through the years as she fights the male establishment and climbs the “greasy pole” of British parliament.

The brief segments on the Falkland Islands, Parliamentary debates, and tough Labor Union stance will probably leave you wanting more details on how she negotiated her way through some very unpopular decisions. The best suggestion is to read some of the endless stream of documentation in print regarding her time in office. But don’t let that distract you from an unusual and interesting film. Plus, you certainly want to catch another world-class performance from, whom I consider, the greatest actress in film history.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an accurate and insightful personal look at a once powerful world leader who is stuggling with Dementia/Alzheimers and her place in history OR you want to see yet another stunning performance from the great Meryl Streep

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a documentary style historical biography on Margaret Thatcher

watch the trailer: