SPENCER (2021)

December 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. “A fable of a true tragedy.” Such is the cautionary sub-heading that director Pablo Larrain begins his latest film. As in his 2016 film, JACKIE, the director turns his lens to an icon of which both too much and too little is known. The screenplay is written by Steven Knight (DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, 2002), and it takes place in the early 1990’s not long before the official marital break of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Much of this movie occurs in the muddled mind of Lady Diana through surreal dream sequences and imagined internal mental imagery.

You may find the holidays to be a stressful time, but what we see in Diana are the results of unrelenting pressures: media, royal family, a husband’s not-so-secret relationship with another woman, and yes, the somewhat absurd Christmas traditions of the institution into which she married. Kristen Stewart plays Diana, and we first see her lost on the back country roads trying to drive herself to Sandringham Estate, the site of the festivities. Arriving late (as she does throughout the 3 days covered here), Diana is confronted by Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), a military man hired by the royal family to keep the media at bay and to ‘spy’ and report on Diana’s every move … including the traditional holiday “weigh-in”, a particularly discomforting event for the Princess with an eating disorder.

It seems the only ones happy to see her are the kids: William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). Their relationship is much how we have imagined – lots of mommy time with some royal lessons thrown in for good measure. A book on her life leads to Diana’s encounters with the ghost of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, whose path is one Di would prefer to avoid. Her only confidant is her dresser Maggie (Sally Hawkins), the lone adult she can trust with actual thoughts and conversation. We quickly realize that, regardless of the size of the castle, Diana feels very much as if she has been caged by her situation.

Her emotional pain and anguish seems to multiply by the minute, right down to being forced to wear the pearl necklace – identical to the one Charles (Jack Farthing) also gave Camilla. Grasping for freedom, Diana tries to explore her nearby childhood home, now a relic of the past. The coat removed from a dilapidated scarecrow is yet another attempt for Diana to escape back to her simpler and happier life, and of course, we watch this knowing how her story ends.

The head chef, Darren McGrady (a terrific Sean Harris) is one of the few who holds a soft spot of empathy for the Princess, but her paranoia is only enhanced by such things as the sign in the kitchen that states, “They can hear you”, and a reminder from Maggie, “Everyone here hears everything.” Cinematographer Claire Methon complements the surreal feel with matching camera work, and Jonny Greenwood (PHANTOM THREAD, 2017) delivers one of his most unique and distinctive scores – both matching the oddity of the film and the captivating performance of Kristen Stewart. More psychodrama than biopic, director Larrain’s film is both interpretative and a bit sad.

available VOD (Amazon)

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THE GREEN KNIGHT (2021)

July 28, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are at all inclined to see this movie, then I would encourage you to do so … and brace yourself for a surreal and mystical treat unlike any other medieval tale previously adapted for the big screen. Writer-director David Lowery re-teams with A24, the studio that also distributed his critically-acclaimed 2017 film, A GHOST STORY, to deliver a trip for your senses based on the tale of Sir Gawain – a tale that’s been told in various and often contradictory ways over many years.

Dev Patel (LION, 2016) stars as Gawain, the nephew of an ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, 2018) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie, THE WITCH, 2015). When not imbibing with his friends, shaggy Gawain spends his time in the throes of intimacy with his paramour, Essel (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander sporting a pixie do). Young Gawain feels unworthy when he’s amongst the knights and dreams of becoming an important man, so that he too may regale the King with his tales of adventure.

Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), in an attempt to facilitate her son’s dreams, uses her witchcraft to conjure up his first opportunity for greatness … and the film’s first visually stunning moment. We are mesmerized as The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, THE WITCH, 2015) makes his entrance riding a great steed into the room where the Knights are gathered at their Round Table. The Green Knight, best described as a giant Groot (from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), puts forth a challenge that only Gawain is willing to take up. The scene is stunning and memorable, and allows Gawain one year of celebrity before the second part of the challenge must be faced.

It’s at this point where Gawain sets off on his journey … one that can be likened to Homer’s “The Odyssey”, in that it’s filled with surprises and obstacles that defy logic and explanation. The surprises include: Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, 2017) as a garrulous, yet deceitful forest scavenger; the ghost of St Winifred (Erin Kellyman) requesting help locating her skull in the swamp; scantily-clad (CGI) bald-headed giants slowly roaming the forest; and a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his mistress who offer shelter and advice that may or may not be helpful. Also on his journey to meet back up with The Green Knight, Gawain is accompanied by a red fox that holds his own surprises.

Director Lowery’s film is a surreal, hypnotic medieval becoming-a-man tale that is both epic and intimate. There is much to unwrap here, including the witches who clearly establish women’s control of men, and the idea that some may view themselves as destined for greatness, but blink when the moment of truth arrives. We do get a glimpse of Excalibur, and Lowery’s frequent collaborator Daniel Hart’s excellent score expertly blends with the infusion of metal music. The film requires the heightened use of your senses, and the fascinating work of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo keeps us zoned in on each character and every scene.

In theaters Friday, July 30, 2021

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

August 16, 2015

MI rogue nation Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 20 years since the beginning of the MI movie franchise, and in that time, Tom Cruise has aged at least 3 months. Perhaps the prank is on us and Mr Cruise actually filmed his scenes for all 5 Mission: Impossible movies in 1995. Of course that didn’t happen, yet somehow each entry of the series manages to get bigger and louder and wilder, so that we may continually marvel at the fountain of youth and physical prowess of the actor seemingly born to play Ethan Hunt.

Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) becomes the fifth different director to helm a film in the franchise, and he kicks things off with the stunning pre-credit action sequence you have probably already heard about … Cruise tackles an Airbus A400M (aka a huge cargo plane). It’s a short, but incredibly impressive stunt sequence that sets the stage for a movie filled with action, fighting, stunts, comedy, and intrigue – all with minimal CGI.

Alec Baldwin appears as the head of the CIA and the guy trying to permanently shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), while Jeremy Renner does his best to prevent this from happening – without officially confirming or denying any specific action of Ethan Hunt’s team. When Baldwin wins, Cruise goes rogue in an attempt to track down Soloman Lane (played by Sean Harris), the sinister leader of the terrorist group known as The Syndicate (mentioned briefly at the end of the last MI movie).

As spectacular as Cruise is, the real flavor of the movie comes courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa – a spy, double spy, or something else. Ilsa is smart and exceedingly well trained, and the perfect partner/adversary for Hunt … depending on the moment. Admittedly, this viewer knew nothing of Ms. Ferguson prior to the film, as her best known work as come on TV’s “The White Queen”. While I couldn’t help but chuckle as Ilsa made her way through Casablanca, it seemed apropos since fellow Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made cinematic history there some 73 years prior.

Simon Pegg returns and as a bigger role this time alongside Cruise. Pegg plays gadget-dude Benji Dunn, and as you would expect adds a welcome dose of comical dialogue along the way. Joining Cruise as the only actors to appear in all five MI movies is Ving Rhames as Luther. He is given little to do this time, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Rhames has not adhered to the same workout program as Mr Cruise over the years. Alec Baldwin seems to be parodying Alec Baldwin these days, and he has become a real on screen distraction – seriously in need of a change-of-pace role. Sean Harris uses his voice to generate an unusual coldness to his role as villain, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander deliver the expected steady turns.

With a nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, there is a wonderful sequence at the Venice Austria Opera House … in the background to Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the Opera and the opening aviation-based fun, we also have an exhilarating motorcycle chase, some new and tricky high-tech gadgetry, an unusual car chase through the hairpin turns of Morocco, the patented MI “mask” trick, and plenty of fight scenes involving Cruise and Ferguson.  Even if none of that existed, fans like me would still buy a ticket just to hear the theatrical version of one of the most iconic theme songs ever written (by Lalo Schifrin).

If you are a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome and fun addition. And since Cruise has already signed on for another, the most impossible mission may be in determining whether he gets any older prior to its release.

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