SAINT MAUD (2021)

May 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This feature film debut from writer-director Rose Glass made the festival rounds beginning in 2019 and, like so many films, had it’s opening delayed due to COVID. So even though it officially opened in February, I’m just now getting around to seeing it.

Morfydd Clark (THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, 2019, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) stars as Maud, a nurse relieved of her duties at a hospital after a tragedy. She’s a recent convert to Roman Catholicism from a more free-spirited lifestyle, and is now convinced God not only speaks to her, but also periodically enters her body. Maud takes a new job as an in-home palliative care nurse for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle, ZERO DARK THIRTY, 2012), a former popular dancer/choreographer who resides in a large British seaside home as she waits for the terminal cancer to do what it does.

As Amanda chain smokes, guzzles booze, and entertains guests (both intimately and socially), Maud becomes more committed to saving Amanda from herself so that she might have everlasting peace in her soon-to-come death. Though initially enchanted by Maud’s pious dedication, Amanda ultimately rejects Maud’s role as savior in a most public and humiliating manner. This not only costs Maud her job, but kicks her into a faith-questioning, pain/penance/sacrifice mode that is painful to watch. We’ve witnessed her in a near-orgasmic state as God takes over, and now we see the solitude and extreme loneliness of a lost soul seeking direction. Is she possessed?  If so, by which “side”? If not, is she a religious zealot or is she mentally ill … is there even a distinction between the two?  Maud’s two different eye colors lend credence to two sides battling for control.

In addition to Ms. Glass’ screenplay and direction and terrific imagery, cinematographer Ben Fordesman contributes strong work with extreme close-ups of Ms. Clark, as well as creative shots of Amanda’s house that succeed in turning it into a character – a house on the hill that’s not the haunted one. The score from Adam Janota Bzowski adds just the right atmosphere to the uneasy feeling we have around Maud. The supporting cast includes Lily Frazier as Carol, Amanda’s online hook-up, and Lily Knight as Joy, Maud’s friend and former co-worker.

We are initially led to believe this is a story about the unlikely connection between Maud and Amanda, but in fact, this is Maud’s story and no one else’s. Has she been chosen as God’s disciple, or is she losing her mind? Filmmaker Rose, whether intentionally or not, seems influenced by some fine films, including: William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973), Scott Derrickson’s THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), and two projects from Paul Schrader – TAXI DRIVER (1976) and FIRST REFORMED (2017). The inclusions of William Blake’s religious paintings contribute to this as an example of the feelings non-believers have towards the overly religious and their often accompanying hypocrisy. Morfydd Clark’s performance is top notch, and this is arthouse spiritual horror at its finest … certainly not for the masses, but sure to tickle the fancy of a few.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime

WATCH THE TRAILER


ETERNAL BEAUTY (2020)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is an odd line early on in which the psychologist says, “Don’t fight depression. Make friends with it.” What makes this an odd line is that Jane is a paranoid schizophrenic, and depression doesn’t seem to be a driving force in her life. Craig Roberts wrote and directed the film (his second feature as director). You might know Mr. Roberts as an actor. He played the lead in SUBMARINE (2010). His approach as a filmmaker is one that keeps the audience off-balance; in fact, we can simply state this one is weird.

Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) plays Jane. She lives on her own thanks to medication. Her family is present, though not especially supportive. A flashback takes us to Jane’s wedding day where a younger Jane is played by Morfydd Clark (THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, 2020). Jane is spurned on her wedding day by her husband-to-be, and it pushes her over the edge emotionally and mentally.

An early scene gives us a peek at current day Jane. She brings wrapped Christmas presents to her parents’ house, and promptly hands over the receipts to each family member. She purchased her own gifts, acts surprised and grateful as she opens them, and expects her parents and sisters to repay her for the gifts. It’s quite a scene.

We follow Jane through her days as she seems to drift in and out of awareness and reality. She periodically hears her phone ring, and by answering she hears the voice of her former fiancé. The red phones match the phone she was on during her last conversation with him on her wedding day. It’s her most painful and visceral memory, and one that Jane can’t seem to overcome.

Relationships between the parents and the sisters are quite something to behold. Penelope Wilton (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, 2011) is the mother prone to cruelty and confusion, whereas the father (Robert Pugh, MASTER AND COMMANDER) nearly fades into the wallpaper, though seems more empathetic. Jane’s sisters Nicola and Alice are played by Billie Piper (“Penny Dreadful”) and Alice Lowe (GET DUKED!, 2020). Nicola envies Jane’s ability to collect free money (disability), while Alice is estranged from their mother, and claims her “normal” life is boring.

When Mike (David Thewlis from Charlie Kaufman’s latest, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS) enters the picture, it’s like a jolt of electricity from touching the wrong wire. Mike is somehow stranger than Jane, yet they manage to connect. As an example of the film’s odd dialogue, when Jane asks Mike how things are going, he responds, “Things were looking up for a few weeks, a couple years back.” That’s the type of exchange we deal with throughout, and it takes an inordinate amount of energy to process what we see and hear.

One shot from cinematographer Kit Fraser is a particular standout. It comes from inside a microwave, replete with rotisserie base and Jane’s face peering through the glass. There are numerous moments we’ve not previously seen or heard in movies … like the doctor clarifying if the patient is “fine or good”. Ms. Hawkins delivers another strange, but affecting performance … something she has mastered over the years. She always makes the character hers, and makes us care about her. An added bonus is hearing Ricky Nelson sing “I Will Follow You” … slightly more soothing than David Thewlis’ frantic electric guitar performance. It seems certain that filmmaker Roberts agrees that normal is boring, and he ensures his film and characters are not.

watch the trailer:


THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD (2020)

August 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. One need not be a Dickens expert to enjoy this re-imagining of his “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account)”. Yes, that’s the novel’s actual title, so there is little wonder it’s typically referred to by only the main character’s name.

The film opens with David Copperfield (Dev Patel, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) reading his autobiography to a mesmerized audience in a beautiful theatre. Yes, we hear the iconic opening line, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life …”, and then Copperfield turns and walks into the backdrop which comes alive as he, in fact, steps into his own life. The film is episodic in structure as we are presented with segments of Copperfield’s life that shaped his writing – from his birth at The Rookery, to his inquisitive nature as a young boy, through his cruel banishment to factory work, on to his life living with his eccentric aunt and his time at boarding school, and finally, with his time as a proctor, courting Dora, and focusing on writing. It’s a fascinating life, with many elements pulled (or enhanced) from Dickens’ own.

Director Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, creator of “Veep”) and co-writer Simon Blackwell are frequent collaborators renowned for their expertise in satire. Iannucci is an admitted fan and student of Dickens, and he’s assembled quite a sterling cast for his take on the classic story. In addition to Patel as the older Copperfield, we have Jairaj Varsani in his first film as young David, rising star Morfydd Clark (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2015) in dual roles including the enchanting Dora Spenlow, Hugh Laurie as the King Charles (and his head) obsessed Mr. Dick, Aneurin Barnard (DUNKIRK) as David’s friend Steerforth, Darren Boyd and Gwendoline Christie as the wicked Murdstones, Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”) as the dodgy Mr. Micawber, Daisy May Cooper as trusted handmaid Peggotty, Nikki Amuka-Bird as the concerned Mrs. Steerforth, Benedict Wong as the sherry-loving Mr. Wickfield, and Ben Whishaw is a standout as conniving Uriah Heep. And if somehow that’s not enough, the brilliant and eclectic Tilda Swinton shines as Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

Each of the segments brings something different to the party – some of it bleak, and some of it cheery. Of course the dialogue has dashes of humor, but much of the comedy comes courtesy of the talented cast. It’s been said of writers that they should write what they know, and David Copperfield literally writes what he lives … through piles of scraps of paper, each holding a moment of life or the essence of a character. Watching this is a bit like camping out in a writer’s head and twisting through their thoughts … Mr. Dickens would be proud.

Opens wide in theaters on August 28, 2020

watch the trailer:


THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

watch the trailer: