THE FAVOURITE (2018)

November 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Our biggest fear was that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos would one day soften the twisted edge he blessed us with in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017), THE LOBSTER (2015), and DOGTOOTH (2009). That day may yet arrive, but not today and not with his latest. It’s his first time to direct a screenplay he didn’t write, which likely explains this being his most accessible film – though labeling it “mainstream” would be a huge stretch. So brace yourself for an unusual and odd costume period piece unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Co-writers Deborah Davis (her first screenplay) and Tony McNamara (TV background) deliver biting dialogue and treacherous situations, and benefit from three staggeringly terrific lead actress performances. Olivia Colman stars as Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah Churchill, and Emma Stone is Abigail. The three combine for one of the strangest and most convoluted love triangles and power struggles in history.

It’s very early 18th century and Britain is at war with France. Queen Anne is frail and in ill health due to severe gout and who knows how many other ailments. Her erratic behavior and quick temper convey childlike behavior from an adult body with a crown. Lady Sarah (Winston’s great-great grandmother, if I’ve calculated correctly) has strategically become the Queen’s trusted political advisor and often governs in her stead, while also sharing moments of intimacy. Sarah pulls no punches and certainly doesn’t subscribe to the ‘kill ‘em with kindness’ approach, and instead frequently insults the Queen to her face. When Sarah’s cousin Abigail appears after her family’s fall from grace (her father lost her in a card game), Sarah takes pity on her due to Sarah’s fondness of Abigail’s father during her childhood.

Abigail’s naivety and kindness soon win over the Queen’s affections. Is her sweetness an act? Is it due to ambition or desperation … is there even a difference here? We soon learn Abigail treats conniving as a profession – she views it as her only path back to respectability, and she’s willing to take on many acts lacking in respectability to charm her way into the inner sanctum. We are plopped into the wicked fun, delicious cat-fighting, strategic backstabbing and crafty political and personal maneuverings … right up until the story turns to vicious bleak darkness in the final act.

It’s fascinating to watch three women hold the power during this era, as the noblemen are relegated to constantly playing catch-up (kind of like the real world) and struggling to figure out the rules of the game. Power struggles abound, as do director Lanthimos stylistic touches. Noblemen played by Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn are frequently dressed in frilly costumes, giant wigs and heavy make-up – quite the contrast to what we typically see in these period pieces. Other Lanthimos touches include royal duck races, pet bunnies representing deceased children, and fisheye lenses used from every conceivable angle.

Ms. Colman and Ms. Weisz were both in THE LOBSTER, and both have a knack for the Lanthimos style, and Ms. Stone surprisingly is also a natural with the twisted, vicious material. Each of the actresses have an extended close-up allowing them to show-off their immense and subtle talent … Ms. Colman’s is especially impactful. Extreme profanity (numerous c-words and f-words) is at times startling and effective, and the music is unique and diverse – as we would expect. As an added bonus, it requires little imagination to connect the dots to our contemporary political state, although that approach would likely stifle one’s enjoyment of the film. Mr. Lanthimos has quickly reached the ‘must-see’ list of directors, with a guarantee that we are going to see something unusual and interesting. It’s one of the year’s best, even if it’s not for everyone.

watch the trailer:

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DENIAL (2016)

October 6, 2016

denial Greetings again from the darkness. Guilty until proven innocent. It’s a concept that is inconceivable to Americans, yet it’s the core of British Law in libel cases. When once respected British historian David Irving accused American scholar and educator Deborah Lipstadt of libel, based on her book that accused him of being a Holocaust denier, the burden fell to Lipstadt to prove not just that Irving’s work was a purposeful lie, but that the Holocaust did in fact take place.

This is the first theatrical release in about 15 years for director Mick Jackson, who is best known for his 1991 L.A. Story and 1992 The Bodyguard, and for his Emmy-winning 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin. The script is adapted, from Deborah Lipstadt’s book, by playwright David Hare (The Reader, 2008), and the courtroom dialogue is taken directly from trial records and transcripts. Like most courtroom dramas, the quality relies heavily on actors.

Rachel Weisz plays Ms. Lipstadt with a brazen and outspoken quality one would expect from a confident and knowledgeable Queens-raised scholar. Timothy Spall bravely takes on the role of David Irving, a pathetic figure blind to how his racism and anti-Semitism corrupted his writings and beliefs. Tom Wilkinson is the barrister Richard Rampton who advocates for Ms. Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the libel suit brought by Mr. Irving. Andrew Scott plays Andrew Julius, the noted solicitor who also handled Princess Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles. Others include Caren Pistorius as an idealistic member of the legal team, and Alex Jennings as Sir Charles Gray – the sitting judge for the case.

Of course for any sane human being, it’s beyond belief that a Holocaust denier could achieve even a modicum of attention or notoriety, much less have the audacity to bring suit against a scholar who simply published descriptions of that denier’s own words. Rather than come down to fact vs opinion, a more fitting title would be opinion based on fact vs opinion based on a lie. If the words used against Irving in Lipstadt’s books are true, she would win the case. In other words, she had to prove that he was a racist, an anti-Semite and knowingly misrepresented the facts in his works as a Holocaust denier.

Mr. Jackson’s film begins with Ms. Lipstadt as a professor in 1994 at Emory University (where she remains employed to this day). In 1996, the lawsuit is filed, and in 1998, Lipstadt and Rampton visit Auschwitz. Though the courtroom drama and corresponding legal work takes up much of the film, it’s this sequence filmed at Auschwitz that is the heart and soul of the film. Very little melodrama is added … the scenes and the setting speak for themselves.

The trial finally started in 2000, and as always, it’s fascinating to compare the British court of law and process with that of the United States. The formality is on full display, but nuance and showmanship still play a role. The film and the trial ask the question … are you a racist/anti-Semite if you truly believe the despicable things you say/write? This is the question that the judge wrestles with (and of course, “Seinfeld” had a spin on this when George stated “It’s not a lie, if you believe it”).

It’s been a rough movie week for me with the Holocaust and slavery (The Birth of a Nation), but it’s also been a reminder of just what wicked things people are capable of, and how current society continues to struggle with such inexplicable thoughts. Kudos to Ms. Weisz, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Spall for excellent performances, and to Mr. Hale for the rare inclusion of a Chappaquiddick punchline.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS (2016)

September 1, 2016

light between the oceans Greetings again from the darkness. As the closing credits rolled, it seemed incredulous that Kleenex was neither a sponsor or even mentioned in the “special thanks”. Surely a tissue company was behind such a straightforward cinematic sob-fest (calling this a tear-jerker doesn’t do it justice).

Director Derek Cianfrance is accustomed to wallowing in movie sadness. His 2010 gem Blue Valentine was an expose into a fractured and challenging relationship. This time he tackles the M.L. Stedman novel and slows the pace to an excruciatingly slow crawl.

Michael Fassbender plays Tom, a tormented WWI veteran so intent on isolating himself from society and people that he accepts a job as the lighthouse keeper in some desolate area of Australia. The locals in the small town of Stanley in Tasmania welcome Tom and provide him a festive send-off. One of these locals is Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who, despite grieving for her brothers killed in the war, takes an instant liking to the handsome and mysterious Tom.

Soon enough Tom and Isabel are married and living a blissful life on the isolated rock. Emotional turmoil and tragedies follow as Isabel suffers numerous miscarriages. It’s then that the movie takes a wild turn. Rather than a message in a bottle, Tom and Isabel find a baby in a boat. Yep, unable to bear their own, the sea delivers a baby to their ocean front home.

Tom can’t help but notice that Isabel’s depression instantly disappears as she cares for the baby, and in the blink of a misplaced eye, the three become a family. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the baby’s birth mother wasn’t discovered, so Rachel Weisz as Hannah brings her own tragic story and mourning to the façade of Tom and Isabel’s make-believe happiness. What follows is a look at loyalty to spouse versus doing the right thing … a dilemma that isn’t as easy as it should be.

The lighthouse and surrounding coastline are extremely photogenic, as is the town and, of course, Fassbender and Vikander (both deliver excellent performances). It’s also nice to see Aussie screen veterans Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, 1980) and Bryan Brown (Cocktail), even in small roles. It’s a purposefully sad and gut-wrenching movie that evidently moves so slowly to ensure the viewers have sufficient time to utilize those Kleenex.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

watch the trailer:

 


YOUTH (2015)

December 17, 2015

youth Greetings again from the darkness. With a Best Foreign Language Oscar for his previous film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza), expectations were sky high for this one from writer/director Paolo Sorrentino. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi is also back and the two create yet another artistic entrée that is a visual extravaganza, worthy of the admission price even if no dialogue existed. Combine the visual artistry with a commentary on age and emotions, and the result is a film that will either enchant or stultify … with probably no middle ground.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a renowned Orchestra conductor, who is vacationing at a stunning Swiss Alps spa with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) and his long-time best friend, screenwriter Mick Boyd (Harvey Keitel). Fred, a self-professed retiree, is being pursued by Queen Elizabeth’s representative to perform one last concert. Fred is adamant in his refusal … for personal reasons we later learn are due to his nostalgic belief that his wife (no longer able to sing) is the only one who will sing his “simple” songs as long as he is alive. In the meantime, Mick is working with a group of ambitious young writers in an attempt to leave a legacy with his most important film ever. So you can already see that both men are working through their golden years in different ways.

Lena is devastated when her husband dumps her for a young pop singer (played by the real pop singer, Paloma Faith). Oh, one other detail … Lena’s husband is also Mick’s son (Ed Stoppard). This makes for some awkward (but entertaining) moments, and also leads to one of the film’s best scenes – Lena spilling her emotional guts to Fred while they are both covered in a mud bath. Director Sorrentino is a master at twisting these poignant moments with dashes of levity or irony. Another example is when Miss Universe (Romanian model Madalina Diana Ghenea) puts a condescending movie actor (Paul Dano) in his place with a devastating shift in tone and a comeback for the ages.

Sorrentino executes a couple of bizarre dream or fantasy sequences – one with Fred conducting a cow pasture (replete with cows and other bits of nature), and another with Mick being haunted in a meadow by all the female stars from his films (each in costume of their character). Suffice to say, this is not a conventional look at aging. What’s also clear is that Sorrentino believes our emotions drive our actions. The most jarring example is the aftermath when Mick’s long-time leading lady Brenda Morel (played by Jane Fonda) declines to appear in his latest film.

Even the most bizarre segments are presented with a visual artistry that forces our brains to process overtime. How about an obese Diego Maradona (played by Roly Serrano) repeatedly kicking tennis balls into the air? Or big time actor Jimmy Tree (Dano) struggling with his decision to sellout by appearing in a popular robot movie instead of pursuing his desire to be taken seriously as an actor? Or Lena bouncing back with a socially awkward mountain man? Or the seemingly minor role of a young masseuse (played by Luna Zimic Mijovic) who has us yearning for more? In addition to how each of these segments is startling to look at, Jane Fonda’s role has so many nuances that an entire movie could be made about her.

As with The Great Beauty, the film will have the most profound impact on those of us old enough to be looking through the binoculars and noticing how far away the past looks … and wondering just how long until “Life’s Last Day”.

watch the trailer:

 


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


OZ: The old and new

March 5, 2013

Director Sam Raimi has a quasi pre-quel to the classic 1939 The Wizard of Oz opening nationwide on Friday March 8.  Because of production rights, Mr. Raimi was limited to the source material from L Frank Baum’s book and not allowed to borrow from the film. His cast includes James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis and Rachel Weisz.  I won’t spoil the surprise of who is the Wicked Witch this time around, but just for fun, let’s compare the witches from the original to witches in this version.

The great Margaret Hamilton played the dual roles of the Wicked Witch of the West and Miss Gulch:

oz margaret hamilton

 

 

 

 

Here are the photos of the three witches in Oz the Great and Powerful

oz mila kunis   oz rachel weiszoz michelle williams

 

 

 

I’ll leave it to you to decide what the difference might be.

Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog