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:

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THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

December 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting – as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it’s a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and “The Asset” being secured and studied is an amphibian man that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5-star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew – a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the fish man through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the amphibian man experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, “going with” the story is crucial to one’s enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro’s imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it’s likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the fish man (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa’s wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it’s mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

“The future” is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the amphibian man, and it even leads to a terrific song (“You’ll Never Know” by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you’ll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing “Chica Chica Boom Chic”. It’s also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland’s (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever-present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN’S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let’s hope there are many who do!

watch the trailer:


MAUDIE (2017)

July 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. As the saying goes, “opposites attract”. It seems the bond between Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis and her reclusive employer/husband Everett Lewis prove this so – at least at first glance. However, digging deeper, as director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White do so expertly here, we discover an abundance of subtle similarities and life events that connect these two … showing yet again that real life is often stranger than fiction.

Sally Hawkins delivers her best performance to date (and a slam dunk Oscar nomination awaits) as Maud. She somehow manages to look even smaller on screen and capture the twisted, painful posture and movements of one stricken with severe arthritis. Ethan Hawke is Everett, the local fish peddler who lives like a hermit in his one-and-a-half room shack on the outskirts of town. Our first glimpse of Maude has her sneaking a cigarette on her Aunt’s porch while she listens to family members argue about who has to care for her. We first see Everett has he stomps into the general store demanding the shopkeeper write out and post his job opening for domestic help.

Filmed in Canada and Ireland, cinematographer Guy Godfree captures the harshness of the seasons and, more impressively, the claustrophobic and sparse living conditions of Maud and Everett’s tiny home (nothing like the HGTV segments). Maud’s sweetness and never-ending ability to find joy in the moment contrasts with Everett’s cantankerous and even initially cruel approach. These polar opposites are both societal outcasts, but eventually develop respect and yes, even love (though such a word would never be exchanged between the two). Hawkins and Hawke share two especially fabulous scenes – their initial meeting in his house, and a many-years-later emotional exchange on a bench. Hawke’s character is a bit challenging for the audience, but Hawkins captures our heart immediately.

Supporting work is minimal, yet effective, as Zachary Bennett plays Maud’s brother Charles, Gabrielle Rose is her Aunt Ida, and Kari Matchett is Sandra – the New Yorker with the fancy shoes who first spots Maud’s talent. Much of the story focuses on Everett’s pride and Maud’s joy/spirit, while slowly they both gain a bit of fame thanks to her artistic talent and their living arrangement.

Ms. Hawkins has long been an underrated actress (despite last year’s Oscar nomination), and her turn in Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) was proof she could carry the lead. Here, seeing her hoist such a real life character and story on her hunched back is a thing of beauty and is not to be missed. It’s an artful movie about an artist and making the best of life. The film’s music is perfectly understated and features acoustic guitar, violin and piano. It should be noted that the end of the film features a clip of the real Maud and Everett, and their house has been preserved and displayed at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

watch the trailer:

 

 


A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (2015)

September 9, 2015

a brilliant young mind Greetings again from the darkness. Somewhat surprisingly, mathematics has been the basis for some pretty interesting movies, including Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind.  Equally surprising are the quality movies with lead characters struggling with Asperger Syndrome or Autism – Adam and Rain Man, to name a couple.  Also fascinating, albeit in a different way, are movies that have depicted child prodigies or geniuses. Examples of these are Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Akeelah and the Bee. However, it’s this film from director Morgan Matthews that is the first I can recall to combine all three elements.

Mr. Matthews’ directorial resume is filled with documentaries and he brings that no-nonsense approach to this story based on the life of David Lightwing, a young math genius with Asbergers. Asa Butterfield plays Nathan, a boy whose only love is mathematics. He lost his beloved father at an early age, and has since not connected with anyone … even his most devoted and long-suffering mother, played by Sally Hawkins.

Nathan begins studying under Rafe Spall’s Martin, himself a former child math prodigy, whose struggles with Multiple Sclerosis act as a defense mechanism that prevents him from having any semblance of a well-rounded life. The two are a perfect match, and within a few years, Nathan is competing to join the prestigious International Mathematics Olympiad held at Cambridge. Martin has his own personal history with both the event and the team’s coach, played by Eddie Marsan.

The film does a really nice job of illuminating the pressures on both loved ones (parents, teachers, etc) and the prodigies themselves. It explores the question of whether being “gifted” is really a gift or a burden. This is brought to life through the performances of Butterfield (and his many pained faces), Spall (as a man searching for meaning), and Hawkins (as a mother who yearns for nothing but a flash of reciprocity from her son). Also effective is Marsan as the coach, and Jo Yang as Nathan’s Chinese study buddy.

It’s a very touching story, and easily accessible for those of us who fall a bit short of the genius level. It also takes a shot at explaining love in math terms – not something previously featured on screen. And finally, it has one of the most heart-warming and sincere movie hugs one could ask for. In simple terms, it all adds up to a fine movie.

watch the trailer:

 


GODZILLA (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzilla Greetings again from the darkness. Sixty years after Godzilla made his initial screen appearance, we get a full blown Hollywood special effects blockbuster version that will eclipse the $100 million mark in its first weekend. This is director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film (Monsters, 2010) and he juggles the modern day re-imagining with the Japanese roots and a hand full of other tributes throughout.

The cast seems impressive: Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn. Unfortunately, most of these fine actors have little to do, and instead the dominant human presence (most every scene) is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who somehow keeps getting gigs despite lacking even a dollop of screen presence or acting ability. Of course, this movie is supposed to belong to Godzilla, and even he is usurped on screen time by two nuclear-feasting praying mantis creatures that share some attributes with the classic “Alien”. These screen hogs are called MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and are quite substantial … crushing skyscrapers by landing.

The 1954 original film was an anti-nuclear statement, though the re-edited U.S. version replaced the political statement with Raymond Burr. Mr. Burr also appeared in the 1984 sequel which included a storyline of feeding off a nuclear plant (borrowed in this year’s version). This film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston working at a 1999 nuclear plant is an unmistakable nod to the recent Fukushima disaster, and sets the stage for the collision of science (Watanabe) and military (Strathairn). Director Edwards clearly enjoys his Jaws-like teasing of Godzilla, who finally shows up after almost an hour. And despite the Jurassic Park roar by our titular monster, this doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s 1993 classic. We do get the quite familiar shots of bystanders running down the street, glancing back in fear – a must for any monster movie, and it should be noted that Godzilla films have a legacy of multiple creatures, as well as the man versus nature theme.

Having seen this one in 3D, I’ll mention again that the enhanced effects offered by this technology do not offset the darkened, dulled look. Add that to the almost total lack of color – it’s borderline Black and White – and there are simply too few breathtaking visual moments to consider this a monster classic.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a monster movie fan or a follower of the Godzilla legacy OR you need proof that a lead actor can be less engaging than Matthew Broderick was in the 1998 Godzilla film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe technological advances should produce a more visually stunning film than Jurassic Park from 21 years ago OR you happen to be a huge Juliette Binoche fan and expect to see her in a lead role.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BLUE JASMINE (2013)

August 15, 2013

blue j1 Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director Woody Allen returns to the United States for his latest and examines a topic he knows much about … how to handle a public life that gets blown apart. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Hal (Alec Baldwin) are living the extreme life of NYC power and luxury. It all crashes down around them when Hal is exposed and arrested as a Bernie Madoff type Ponzi-scheme white collar criminal, and Jasmine is tossed to the curb with no money or prospects.

Disoriented from this whirlwind personal tragedy, Jasmine heads west to San Francisco to live with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a blue collar single mom. The sisters haven’t been close for a couple of reasons. First, Hal scammed Ginger and her husband at the time (Andrew Dice Clay) out of their lottery winnings. Second, they are both adopted and Ginger constantly claims Jasmine got the “good genes” so it’s expected that she gets the breaks blue j2in life.

We quickly realize that Jasmine is bouncing between her fantasy of re-capturing her life of luxury and the harsh reality of her situation. She is not handling it well and falls back on things like going “back to school” to become an interior decorator. Additionally, she vocally disapproves of Ginger’s choices in men and poisons her thoughts that she (Ginger) can do much better than Dice or her current boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). That leads to an expected turn of events featuring Louis C.K.

While Jasmine is absolutely unpleasant as a person or character, Ms. Blanchett does a fine job of keeping us tuned in to this slow-burning breakdown. Her scenes with Michael Stuhlbarg are awkward and excellent. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and even Gena Rowlands’ remarkable performance in A Woman Under blue j3the Influence (1974). Is Jasmine a monster who refuses to face reality or a severely damaged soul incapable of thinking clearly? Our opinion varies from scene to scene.

The best and most insightful line of the movie comes courtesy of Ginger when she says “Jasmine has always had a way of looking in the other direction.” Her way of handling reality is to look away and pretend it doesn’t exist. The disgust at her sister’s working class environment and lack of empathy has us as viewers wishing someone would just slap her. Ms. Hawkins somehow manages to shine here despite the massive presence of Blanchett’s Jasmine. Woody Allen leaves us wishing we were all as strong as Hawkins’ character and thankful that we have no connection to a Jasmine.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the richest people deserve any and all possible comeuppance OR you never thought Andrew Dice Clay could recover from The Adventures of Ford Fairlane

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have no interest in seeing a spoiled princess make no effort to live like the rest of us

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FER3C394aI8

 


JANE EYRE (2011)

March 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. For a film to rate highly with me, mass appeal is not necessary. The requirements are an interesting story that is well cast, well acted and well directed. Though it is often required reading in high school, the novel by Charlotte Bronte is a timeless classic and among the most popular of all time. The key roles in this latest film version are played well by Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax), Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane). Cary Fukunaga directs. He was also responsible for the powerful 2009 film Sin Nombre (highly recommended).

There have been numerous film and TV versions of this classic over the years, with the 1943 version being the most famous. Orson Welles starred as Rochester and Joan Fontaine was Jane. While that version still works, this year’s model is the first that I believe surpasses that one in quality. The two keys are the performance of Mia Wasikowska and the direction of Mr. Fukunaga.

 The film surprises a bit with it’s flashback approach, but it works well in linking the older Jane with her early struggles. This version really rests heavy on Wasikowska’s shoulders and she does not disappoint. You will recognize her from her recent turns in Alice in Wonderland, and The Kids Are All Right. She quickly jumps to the head of the Jane Eyre class. Very impressive.

Fukunaga’s direction relies on art direction and spectacular lighting. He draws in the viewer to this dark and mysterious world where much goes unstated, yet so much is communicated. The good girl/bad boy battle is always fun and moreso when the good girl is a remarkably independent and brassy girl, while the bad boy is very dark and dangerous. Of course, this is Hollywood so the novel’s unattractive Rochester is played by the strapping Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds).  I even thought the “reveal” was well-handled and the fall-out simple enough to follow.

 What always attracted me to this story was the strength and perseverance of Jane herself. To find a girl with such fortitude and moral stamina despite her upbringing and longings means the central character is both fascinating and easy to pull for. She is what we would wish of our own daughters … self confident, full of character and observant of what is fair and just.

If you aren’t the literary type, don’t expect to enjoy this film. Watching it is truly like the visualization that occurs when reading a top novel. I was completely drawn into life at Thornfield Hall and the life of Jane Eyre.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the classic novel OR enjoy strong female characters OR appreciate an atmospheric approach to literary subject 

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the nuanced courtship of two polar opposite characters does not provide enough action, gun play or explosions for your taste