STRONGER (2017)

September 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is a fine line between getting chewed out by your Costco supervisor one day and having the country claim you as a hero the next. Just ask Jeff Bauman. On April 15, 2013 Jeff was near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, holding a handmade sign in support of his runner-girlfriend Erin. When she was still about a mile away, the two bombs went off, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Mr. Bauman lost his legs that day.

When Jeff regained consciousness in the hospital (after two surgeries), he was able to provide the FBI a detailed physical description of one of the bombers. His information led directly to the identification of one of the scumbag brothers responsible for this atrocity. Immediately, Jeff was hailed as a hero – both locally and nationally. The film does a nice job of telling Jeff’s story and how his life unfolded over the next few months.

Director David Gordon Green is responsible for such disparate film projects as OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, MANGLEHORN, and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. He may seem an odd choice to adapt the film from the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (screenplay by John Pollono), but the story is so moving and heart-warming, and the three lead actors are so good that we immediately connect with each of them.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff, Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) plays Erin, and Miranda Richardson tears up the screen as Jeff’s mother, Patty. Mr. Gyllenhaal is remarkable (as usual) as the working class local boy who truly believes his lucky seat and beer determine success or failure for his beloved Bruins and Red Sox. His initial portrayal is spot on for the normal guy who seems caught in the web of eternal teenage mentality so common in the male species. As he struggles with his new life challenges, he strives to do better, but simply doesn’t understand why he is viewed as a hero … and doesn’t particularly embrace what comes with the label, at least early on. Ms. Maslany is terrific as the guilt-ridden, confused-yet-strong, on-again-off-again girlfriend to Jeff. She fights through being treated as an outsider by the family, and the daily grind of caring for a guy who needs constant help. The twice Oscar nominated Miranda Richardson is unlike we have ever seen her on screen. Despite being a Brit, Ms. Richardson captures the Boston sauciness (in more ways than one) and takes no ‘stuff’ from anyone. Her performance is stunning.

Of course, at its core, this is an inspirational story about how a normal guy became a hero after a tragic event. The recent Mark Wahlberg film PATRIOTS DAY focused on the aftermath and investigation, while here the attention is on the emotional story of one man and one family. We see the recreation of the flag-waving at the Boston Bruins game, and the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park. We also see the obstacles faced when rehabilitation and care-giving becomes too much to bear. Carlos Arredondo and his cowboy hat and heroics are also given much-deserved space here. His back story is heart-breaking, and a reminder that everyone has a story, and each of us can be a hero in some way. Since life isn’t a movie, the realities are that Jeff and Erin have since divorced, but that in no way reduces the impact of their touching story that inspires each of us to be stronger.

watch the trailer:

 


CHURCHILL (2017)

June 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Well, well. The image to most of Winston Churchill is epitomized by his nickname, The Lion of Britain. Undeniably one of the most iconic historical figures of the last 150 years, there have been volumes of articles and books and movies documenting his important role in so many moments that shaped our modern world. Director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Railway Man) and writer Alex von Tunzelmann (she herself a British historian) take us behind the public façade and into the personal doubts and fears … even literally into his bedroom and the middle of his marital spats.

Brian Cox takes on the role of Churchill, and seems to relish more than the ever-present stogie and its lingering smoke. He captures many of the physical traits and movements, while employing his stage-trained voice in an exceptional reenactment of the infamous and impassioned D-Day radio speech. Complementing his performance is Miranda Richardson as Clemmie Churchill, the strong and diligent great woman behind the great man.

Most of the film takes place in the four days leading up to the June 6, 1944 Allied Forces invasion of Normandy, known of course as D-Day and Operation Overlord. At the time, Churchill was almost 70 years old, and what we see here is man teetering between past and present while cloaked in an almost paralyzing fear stemming from the 1915 Gallipoli debacle. He is presented as vehemently opposed to the Normandy invasion, though most documentation shows his initial resistance from (1941-43) had subsided, and he was fully on board by this time.

Although the ticking clock throughout the film leads to the invasion, this isn’t a war movie per se, but rather a peek at the human side of leadership in a time of crisis. Ask yourself if you could readily order tens of thousands of young soldiers to face slaughter, especially after you had experienced such tragic results a still-fresh-on-the-conscience 29 years earlier.

John Slattery (“Mad Men”) plays General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander (and future President of the United States) and he more than holds his own in scenes with Cox/Churchill. Julian Wadham plays Bernard Montgomery, the Spartan General. He was over all Allied ground forces and accepted Germany’s surrender in 1945. Taking on the role of British Field Marshal Jan Smuts (also the Prime Minister of South Africa) is Richard Durden. Having the thankless job of trying to keep Churchill on track, Smuts was the only person to sign the peace treaties for both WWI and WWII, and later established the League of Nations. James Purefoy does a really nice job as King George VI (replete with minor stutter), and Ella Purnell (Emma in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) shines as Churchill’s bright-eyed new secretary, and invested British citizen.

The best scenes are between Winston and Clemmie, and those where he fine-tunes his remarkable speeches. At times the film veers into near-caricature mode, but manages to right itself thanks to the counsel and wisdom of two strong women. Later this year, Atonement director Joe Wright will present Darkest Hour, with the great Gary Oldman as Churchill, and it’s likely to feature more politics and acts of state. Despite the blustering and sense of “losing it”, all is well when the D-Day speech is delivered. It’s so much more than words on the page. Well, well.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting

 

 


MADE IN DAGENHAM

January 1, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first thing that strikes you about this movie is that it looks and feels like ancient history. In fact, it is based on the real life happenings in 1968 – only about 40 years ago. Sally Hawkins (so wonderful in Happy-Go-Lucky) portrays Rita O’Grady, the Ford sewing machinist who reluctantly takes on the leadership role in the battle for equal pay for women in Great Britain.

Director Nigel Cole tells this story minus the heavy-handedness of the times. In fact, it’s a very entertaining tale of right vs wrong (but, “that’s how we have always done it”). He uses actual archival footage of Ford plants, cars and workers, as well as general footage of England circa 1968. These cuts give the film a feel for the times and prevent any over-analysis of wardrobe and sets in the movie. Mr. Cole clearly has an understanding of women based on this film and his previous work in Calendar Girls.  He also pulls no punches on his views of unions of the day.

The cross-fire between the unions, Ford Motor, the workers and the government really bang home the notion of just how ridiculous this entire argument was (and is). Rita O’Grady was so effective because she cut through the muck and made it what it  really is … a simple case of right vs. wrong. Rights vs. privilege. This was never more apparent than in her meeting with Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson). Madam Secretary is attempting to negotiate a settlement that will keep Ford happy, but quickly realizes … with help from O’Grady … that there is really only one correct course of action.

Supporting work is excellent from Bob Hoskins, Ms. Richardson, Daniel Mayes (as O’Grady’s husband), Rupert Graves and Rosamund Pike (husband and wife on different sides of the debate) and the rest of the cast of women, as well as the Ford executives and Union leaders. The film mostly rests on the shoulders of Sally Hawkins, who breezes through with a natural energy that just makes you want to pull for her. She was terrific in Happy-Go-Lucky, and even better here.

The film stops short of detailing the massive battle that escalated the following year between Secretary Castle and the Labor Unions. Most attribute these fights to the downfall of the Labour Party in 1970. However, Ms. Castle’s contributions are very clear in these all-important topics and led directly to England’s Equal Pay laws of 1970, which in turn paved the way for most other countries to follow.

This is a very uplifting film and shows the bravery and determination required of those who change the course of history. Whenever you hear talk regarding the lack of strong female movie roles, this film is exhibit number one that fact is often more powerful than fiction!  And it helps when told in a jolly good fashion.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed Norma Rae OR you agree with the old saying “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander”

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer serious social issues be confined to CNN – even if presented in an entertaining way


THE YOUNG VICTORIA (2009)

February 8, 2010

 (2-8-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Emily Blunt would have stolen The Devil Wears Prada if not for the queen of screen, Meryl Streep. Here she competes with no one and does a nice job of carrying this film based on the early years of Queen Victoria. If you are rusty on your British sovereign history, she ruled from 1837-1901.

For 20 of these years, she was married to her true love, Prince Albert (played well by Rupert Friend). While the two meet as youngsters, the bond between them comes from their letters … an early precursor to eHarmony?? We know Victoria mostly from royal portraits, so it’s nice to see her as a rebellious youngster trying to learn the tricks of the trade, even while being manipulated like a pawn by her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother’s lover (Mark Strong). We get to see her tenacity blossom as she matures and literally grows up into the monarchy.

While Ms. Blunt’s performance is strong, Julian Fellowes’ writing is not at the level of his previous work in Gosford Park. We do get some of the same power plays, but it is missing the nuances of that much better film.