MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The history of monarchs goes back more than a thousand years. These days we view British royalty as little more than telegenic subjects for gossip sites, though for hundreds of years, the crown carried real power. Of course, the system never made any logical sense. Why should a baby born to the “right” family be pre-ordained to rule the country? These birthrights even caused much confusion and debate … and wars … when there was uncertainty about which kid was the most important. And yes, kids is the proper term. Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots), was six days old when her father King James V died, and she ascended to the throne (though the actual ruling was done by regents until she was older).

Saoirse Ronan stars as Mary and Margot Robbie is Queen Elizabeth I (daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). The two were cousins (not sisters), and the film examines many aspects of this era: the struggle for the throne between the two, the unusual circumstances that found two women in power, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering by men in an effort to wrestle power from the women, the importance of marriage and heirs, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and the bizarre arrangement that caused Mary to spend nearly half her life in custody.

Director Josie Rourke is best known for her stage productions, some of which have been broadcast live in cinemas. This is her debut feature film, and her talent is quite obvious. She gets “big” with stunning sweeping vistas, and intimate with dark chamber meetings. The castles look and feel like castles, and not the sound stage sets we often see in costume productions. The film is a thing of beauty and the two lead actresses are sublime … and with much more screen time, Ms. Ronan delivers a ferocious performance.

The screenplay from Beau Willimon (creator, producer and head writer of “House of Cards”) is based on the John Guy book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart”. This matters because Mr. Guy theorizes that the two sovereigns actually met in real life, something very much doubted by historians. Either way, it makes for an interesting (if not a bit hokey) segment in the film, as Elizabeth and Mary wander through billowing curtains in a clandestine spot. The costumes from Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne are so beautiful, they are nearly a character altogether.

Beginning at the end, we get an early look at Mary’s “martyrdom” march to her execution on 1587 at age 44. If you’ve ever read about the actual execution, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not shown on screen. Supporting work comes courtesy of Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, and an explosive David Tennant as a fire-breathing priest. This version plays up the inner-turmoil and challenges in power faced by the women – more so than the 1974 version starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson (the film received 5 Oscar nominations). Ms. Ronan and Ms. Robbie really help us understand the challenges these women faced – challenges that men on the throne wouldn’t have faced.

watch the trailer:

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ON CHESIL BEACH (2018)

May 30, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those movies that has the look and feel that leaves me believing I should like it more than I do. Ian McEwan (the excellent ATONEMENT) adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and it’s by no means a cookie-cutter story. The feature film debut of director Dominic Cooke features one of today’s most talented leading ladies, a strong supporting cast, and some stunning outdoor scenery from a very beautiful part of the globe.

The story kicks off in 1962 England with a setting that could easily be a one-Act stage play. We are in a hotel room immediately after the ceremony of a newlywed couple. Awkward movements and forced conversation are interrupted by a formal dinner being served in the room by two waiters. The expected post-dinner gawkiness leads to a bedroom scene ravaged by emotional trauma that goes far beyond inexperience. It’s disastrous and leads to full disclosure along the shoreline of Chesil Beach, Dorsit.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Florence and Billy Howle is Edward. Through flashbacks we witness both their budding romance as eager youngsters, as well as pervious childhood moments that now seem to matter. We learn Florence is Mozart, while Edward is Chuck Berry. Maybe opposites do attract, however, the class differences become more obvious as we meet the respective parents. Florence’s mom (Emily Watson) and dad (Samuel West) are upper crust types who don’t take kindly to her infatuation with one not of their ilk. Edward’s dad (Adrian Scarborough) is a school teacher and his mother (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) is an eccentric artist, “brain-damaged” in a freak train accident.

Florence and Edward are victims of their time … a time of sexual repression, where such conversations simply did not occur. It’s not so much a story of rejection as it is of being not accepted, though it’s clear how childhood led each down their path. Had the film remained focused on this fascinating story line, it likely would have been better received by this particular viewer. Instead, we are subjected to an ending that crashes and burns as it attempts to provide resolution for characters that should have none. A flash forward to communal living in 1975 and a 2007 farewell concert at the beautiful and historic Wigmore Hall (opened in 1901), are little more than a show of disrespect to those viewers who invested in the unfortunate tale of Florence and Edward.

watch the trailer:


LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

watch the trailer:


LOVING VINCENT (2017)

October 13, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those skeptics who scoff when filmmaking is described as an art form and labor of love, co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman invite you to take in their nearly decade-in-the-making project. It’s the first fully hand-painted on canvas feature film – experimental filmmaking crafted by more than 100 artists and including an estimated 130 paintings, with 65,000 individual shots/frames.

The spectacular visuals were created by painting over the images … both of actors performing scenes and van Gogh’s paintings. By adding to and amending images, even 10 times or more, the scenes come to life with movement and a pulsating psychedelic feel. The familiar colors of his paintings create a level of connection, while black & white images are used for flashbacks and reenactments.

Though we have never seen this look on screen before (this goes beyond Linklater’s WAKING LIFE), the stunning visuals are accompanied by what can be described as a detective story or murder/suicide mystery. It picks up in 1891, one year after van Gogh’s suspicious death. A local Arles postman holds one last letter from Vincent to his beloved brother Theo. Having held onto it for much too long, he asks his son Armand Roulin to hand-deliver the letter to Theo. Sporting the yellow blazer so recognizable from his portrait, the angry and skeptical Armand heads to Paris. Little does he know, this is only the beginning of his journey … a journey that finds him researching Vincent’s life and a journey that helps him discover more about himself.

There have been many movies made focusing on this amazing artist: LUST FOR LIFE (1956), VINCENT (1987), VINCENT & THEO (1990), and VAN GOGH (1991). This one is filled with contrasting and conflicting stories, theories and recollections, and descriptions of events from those who crossed paths with the artist on a daily basis. We listen right along with Armand as he spends time in Avers-sur-Oise … where Vincent lived, painted, and died.

Many of the actors involved are recognizable even in this artistic format: Chris O’Dowd is the postman, Douglas Booth is Armand, John Sessions plays art supplier Pete Tanguy, Eleanor Thompson is the innkeeper’s daughter Adaline, Jerome Flynn is the controversial Dr. Gachet, Saoirse Ronan is Gachet’s daughter Margarita (recognizable from her piano portrait), Helen McCrory plays the disgruntled Gachet housekeeper, Aidan Turner is the boatman, and Robert Gulaczyk is Vincent. Since these folks were all part of van Gogh’s artwork, we are fascinated to see them come to “life”.

Vincent van Gogh picked up a brush for the first time at age 28. He was dead at age 37, and left behind approximately 800 paintings of portraits and landscapes – many among the most famous pieces in the world today. Did he try to commit suicide as he claimed or was there a more sinister explanation for his death? Of course the filmmakers only hint at possible answers and can’t solve a mystery that is approaching two centuries. Understanding the man is challenging, and perhaps our best hope is through the work he left behind. This is a compelling cinematic experience and we have certainly benefitted from the filmmaker’s labor of love. Clint Mansell’s score leans heavily on strings and piano, and is perfect accompaniment for the story. One could question the closing credits use of Lianne La Havas’ version of “Vincent” (renamed “Starry Starry Night”) rather than Don McLean’s, but one mystery per day is plenty. Spot the paintings, play detective, and mostly enjoy the visuals built on the works of a complex, talented, and tragic figure.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BROOKLYN (2015)

November 19, 2015

brooklyn Greetings again from the darkness. A popular proverb “Home is where the heart is” is filled with truth … unless the heart belongs in two places. Such is the case with Ellis, an Irish girl who leaves behind her family and homeland to discover the new world opportunities afforded by 1950’s America. The film is based on the popular and critically-acclaimed novel from Colm Toibin, and is directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There? 2008) with a screenplay from Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education). It’s a blend of romance, drama, and self-discovery, while also examining a couple of diverse cultures from lands separated by more than 3000 miles (and a big ocean).

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis in a performance that is sure to garner much Oscar talk. It’s only been 8 years since Ms. Ronan exploded onto the screen as 13 year old Briony in Atonement. In this current role we watch her blossom like a flower as she grows from a timid and reserved shop girl with a bleak future in Ireland, to a fully-realized woman with much spirit and hope. On that journey, she experiences many life obstacles including seasickness, homesickness, catty and envious housemates, heartbreak and romantic awkwardness … all while dealing with the overwhelming nature of her new world.

Director Cowley makes some interesting visual choices. We begin with a muted color palette and mostly close camera shots of Ellis’ life in Ireland. This “closed in” feeling continues through her crossing of the Atlantic. However, once she steps through the blue doors of Ellis Island, the world opens up with wide shots and shocks of bright colors. These contrasts blend together in the third segment where Ellis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy. The look of the film at any given time mirrors the mood and circumstance of our lead character.

Ellis struggles to adjust to the United States, both in the bordering house run by the colorful Ms. Kehoe (a terrific Julie Walters), and in the ritzy Bartocci store where she clerks for a demanding supervisor (Jessica Pare’, “Mad Men”). Ms. Kehoe provides her girls with such life guidance as “Giddiness is the 8th Deadly Sin”. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to meet Tony (a breakout performance by Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a pleasant and polite local Italian plumber who is enchanted by her. Their time together provides a wonderful comparison piece for today’s courtship vs. that of the 1950’s.

The movie is beautifully paced, filmed and acted; however, there are some issues to fight through with the story and details of the main character. Her return to Ireland introduces Jim Ferrell (solid work from the ever-evolving Domhnall Gleeson), and just like that, Ellis is confused about Tony’s line: “This is where your life is”. This time of confusion for her, creates similar type confusion for viewers as we either understand her uncertainty, or question it. This distracts a bit from some of the impactful elements like her transition from clueless fish-out-of-water on her first cruise, to strong mentor for an Irish girl much like her younger self on a later trip. The script has more than a few of these moments of gold, and Saoirse brilliantly nails each.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

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

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


HANNA

April 9, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I am struggling a bit with how much to say about this one. It is such a different type of film that it’s difficult to categorize. Yes, it is definitely an Action-Thriller (in the Bourne vein), but it also has some dark comedy, as well as some commentary on parenting, governmental agencies and coming of age.

Let me first say that I highly recommend the film if you are a fan of thrillers and/or action films. It succeeds well on both fronts. However, there is much more to this movie, particularly the fantastic talents of Saoirse Ronan. You will remember her stunning turn in both Atonement and The Lovely Bones. Here she plays Hanna, a girl raised in the deep forest by her father (Eric Bana). His sole purpose in raising her was to train her to be a deadly weapon in any situation. Oh and he also “schooled” her with some generic encyclopedia that has the look of a gas station giveaway. Her head is filled with facts, figures and data on all parts of the world, and somehow she speaks an infinite number of languages.

When she finally tires of gutting deer in the wild, she tells her father she is “ready”. We then find out that her father is some type of former CIA agent and with the flip of a sonar switch, the two separate and the CIA moves in to capture her. While sitting in a secured bunker in the desert, her “mission” becomes clear. She is to kill the CIA agent played by Cate Blanchett, who is connected to Hanna’s “birth” and the death of her mother. That’s when the movie kicks into gear.

 What follows are some terrific action and fight sequences, a wonderful segment where Hanna hangs out with a traveling British family led by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng … and their daughter Sophie, played exceptionally well by Jessica Barden. The “friendship” that Sophie and Hanna create really brings into focus how sheltered from society Hanna has been.

The cat and mouse chase with Blanchett and her thugs would have worked even better if Blanchett’s character had been better defined and she wasn’t just god-awful in it. Usually Ms. Blanchett is a strong actress who adds much to a film. Here, she is the dead-weight keeping it from reaching even greater heights.  And what’s with her dental hygenic practices?

 The film is directed by Joe Wright, who has also provided Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and The Soloist. The man knows how to make a movie … and that’s why this is so much more than an action flick. I must also mention that the Chemical Brothers are standouts with the film score, and though it catches you off guard at first, it really adds impact and effect to the film. There have been a few recent films with young girls in action/fight films. And while Chloe Moretz was excellent in Kick-Ass, this film is far superior. Get to know Saoirse (pronounced Sur-Shuh) Ronan. She is a real talent!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the action-thriller genre … especially those with a twist

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve had your fill of fight scenes OR anytime you see a female field dress a large mammal, you think of Sarah Palin