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

WATCH THE TRAILER


STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

WATCH THE TRAILER


HOSTILES (2017)

January 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford’s western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper’s CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper’s characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It’s 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it’s a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike’s traumatized character (the actress’s go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker’s convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film’s only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales’ Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder … another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker’s reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It’s in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.

watch the trailer: