THE PALE BLUE EYE (2022)

December 23, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is Scott Cooper’s sixth film to write and direct, and I have found each of them interesting. He has a style that leans towards atmospheric with meticulous pacing, and this latest fits the mold. Cooper’s films include CRAZY HEART (2009) and this will make his third collaboration with Oscar winner Christian Bale (HOSTILES, 2017, and OUT OF THE FURNACE, 2013).

Cooper adapted this screenplay from Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel, and it’s set in 1830 in the early stages of the West Point Academy in Hudson Valley, New York. It’s a fictional murder mystery with a couple of intriguing characters. When a cadet is found hanging from a tree with his heart removed, Colonel Thayer (Timothy Spall sporting full Spall scowl) and Captain Hitchcock (Simon McBurney) summon retired constable/detective Augustus Landor (Bale) to quietly and discreetly solve the case to prevent unwanted attention on the Academy. Landor is renowned for solving tough cases, but as a widower, he’s also weary and has an affinity for the bottle.

It may seem odd for a West Point film to open with the Edgar Allan Poe quote, “The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague.” However, it doesn’t take long for this to make sense, as shortly after Landor arrives, he asks the inquisitive Cadet E.A. Poe (Harry Melling, Dudley in the Harry Potter movies) to assist with the investigation. That’s right, the infamous dark poet who wrote such classics as “The Raven”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and most fittingly, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, actually spent some time at West Point prior to focusing on his short stories and poetry. Cadet jumps at the chance to work with super sleuth Landor, and as you would expect, things get messy and complicated rather quickly.

Soon, Landor is consulting with occult specialist Jean Pepe (Oscar winner Robert Duvall), who fills him in on Henri LeClerc and the instruction guide to gaining immortality. By this time, Landor has interviewed Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) who performed the autopsy, and Cadet Poe has romantic leanings towards the doctor’s daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton, SING STREET, 2016), despite her cadet brother Artemis (Harry Lawtey) bullying him. Also in the picture is Julia Marquis (Gillian Anderson), the doctor’s quite bizarre wife who relishes her interaction with Poe and Landor.

Charlotte Gainsbourg has a small role as a barkeep at the local pub, but the first two acts of the film belong to Bale and Melling. That first hour and a half hooked me with the murder mystery and the strange characters, but I wasn’t prepared (or happy) for the sharp turn and the twist in the final act. Many of Cooper’s patented vista wide shots are included and cinematographer (and frequent Cooper collaborator) Masanobu Takayanagi excels with the eerie atmosphere aided by dark interiors lit by flickering candles. Though there are numerous references to Poe’s writings – the most obvious being a screeching crow and Landor’s name (Poe’s short story, “Landor’s Cottage”), but it’s the eerie atmosphere that is the film’s best asset. I did find it unusual for a film based on a U.S. military academy to feature so many Europeans in the cast, even if they are fine performers.

 Opens in theaters on December 23, 2022 and on Netflix beginning January 6, 2023

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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 JOURNEY (2017)

June 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Only the rarest of fiction can match the depth and intensity of historically crucial watershed moments. A list of such moments would certainly include the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that ended 40 years of violent civil war between the Unionist and Republican factions of Northern Ireland. Director Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman team up to bring us a speculative dramatization of the conversation that ‘might’ have led to the treaty.

Timothy Spall plays Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Unionists and an anti-Catholic evangelical minister. Colm Meaney plays Martin McGuinness, the rebellious former IRA leader (“allegedly”, he clarifies) who leads the Irish Republicans (Sinn Fein). These two extremists have been at war for most of their lives, yet had never met until circumstances brought them together for negotiations.

One’s take on the film will likely be determined by the level of need for historical accuracy and any personal connection to long-lasting war in Northern Ireland. Either of these traits will likely have you scoffing at the backseat verbal sparring and the plot contrivances that allow the two mortal enemies to slowly break down the ideological barriers. On the other hand, it can be viewed as a mis-matched buddy movie featuring a game of witty one-upmanship with political and historical relevance.

Either way, the dueling actors are a pleasure to watch. Mr. Spall surely has the more theatrical role, and he revels in the buttoned-up judgmental nature of Paisley – a man loyal enough to be attending his 50th wedding anniversary party, and sufficiently devoted to his beliefs that his last visit to a movie theatre was in 1973 as he led the protests against The Exorcist. In contrast, Mr. Meaney plays McGuinness as both determined to find common ground and worn down by the years of fighting and lack of progress.

Toby Stephens plays Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Freddie Highmore is the young driver charged with surreptitiously igniting conversation between the two rivals. He is fed instructions through his ear-piece by an MI5 director played by John Hurt, in one of his final film appearances. Unfortunately, this bit of “narration” came across as condescending to this viewer who surely could have done without such elementary guidance. Still, the sight of Mr. Hurt on film is always welcome.

The infusion of humor is nearly non-stop. There’s a comical exchange about Samuel L. Jackson, a joke about the Titanic, and a Paisley diatribe at a gas station over a declined credit card that would easily fit in most any Hollywood buddy flick. However, these elements undermine one of the early on screen interviews we see when a citizen states bombs going off as you walk down the street is “part of life”. “You can almost taste the hatred” is a great line, but unfortunately doesn’t match the script of what we witness on screen. The two men re-hash some key events such as 1972’s Bloody Sunday, and it’s these moments that remind us just how important this new agreement was to the country. It’s understandable (and relevant today) how 40 years of hate can become a way of life and difficult to end, and it also shows us just how far actual communication can go in finding common ground between folks … even The Chuckles Brothers.

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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:

 


MR TURNER (2014)

January 11, 2015

mr turner Greetings again from the darkness. Director Mike Leigh is one of the least celebrated expert filmmakers working today. It’s a shame more people aren’t familiar with his films, and it’s also a shame that his latest, a fantastic biopic of artist J.M.W. Turner, probably won’t generate much mainstream appeal.

The spectacle begins with Timothy Spall’s performance as Joseph Mallord William Turner, an artist known for his use of light and color in seascapes and landscapes. Turner communicates in three ways, sometimes blending all three for quite a unique sequence: 1. Artwork 2. Verbal eloquence 3, Guttural grunts. We get to know Turner and his unusual methods of conversation in environments such as: the high society gatherings of the London art scene, at home with his aging father and uber-loyal housekeeper, and at the inspirational seaside community of Margate.

Director Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope brilliantly use color, light and texture in an artistic and atmospheric manner to complement the style of Turner the painter. Rather than run through a catalog of Turner’s most famous paintings, the time is spent showing us his method for inspiration and his frequent sketching to capture a potential sight for later work.

This is a most unsympathetic presentation of a creative man. Turner’s commitment to hard work and diligence with his art often rubs wrong those who most admire him, including the mother of his two children and those who make the art world thrive. One of the most glaring examples is his treatment of 19th century art critic John Ruskin (Josh McGuire) who dares favorably compare Turner’s work to other artists.

Mr. Leigh brings back many of his usual and familiar acting troupe including Ruth Sheen as Turner’s angry and boisterous ex, Paul Jesson as Turner’s dad (Turner really was an SOB – son of a barber), Dorothy Atkinson as the heart-breaking housekeeper (who ironically also adds a dash of humor), and Leslie Manville as Mary Somerville – the scientist who shared Turner’s fascination with light and color. Of special note is Marion Bailey who brings extraordinary and welcome energy and warmth to her role of Sophia Booth, who dredges up an inkling of intimacy from Turner.

Timothy Spall’s performance is reason enough to watch the film a second time. He physically and emotionally embodies the being of Turner in a manner never before seen on screen. From his thunderous footsteps (reminiscent of Robocop) to his pained and telling facial gestures to the aforementioned grunts and groans, Spall delivers one of the most interesting and captivating performances of the year. If you are a Mike Leigh fan, you will surely be quick to see this one. If you are unfamiliar with his work, this is one worth seeking out.

watch the trailer:

 


THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

December 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. British royalty is such easy pickings for film. The pomp and circumstance, colorful characters and dress, excessive everything, and especially the scandals provide an endless supply of material that can be twisted every which way. Director Tom Hooper who was responsible for fine work in the recent “John Adams” mini-series, takes the story of Prince Albert in a much different direction than one might think by reading history books.

Collin Firth does a masterful job of portraying Prince Albert, who falls directly into the role of King after the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) and abdication of the throne by his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) when he, for some reason, must marry the love of his life – a thrice divorced woman named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Now from a perspective of scandal, Edward and Wallis aka Duke and Duchess of Windsor, would make a far more juicy movie. Heck, even the story of pending World War with Hitler’s Germany would have, and often has, made for a more juicy movie. But Mr. Hooper has chosen to deliver a human drama filled with frailty, doubt, tenacity and hope. Turns out, this was a very wise choice.

Prince Albert ascends the throne as King George VI, husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom we knew as the Queen Mother until her death in 2002. The two were the parents of a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth, the current Queen of England. Yes, we Americans do struggle with our Royalty and all the re-naming, yet remain fascinated by it. However, it’s important to note that this was a much different time. The film leads up to King George’s infamous 1939 speech in which he calmly and steadily explained to many nations that England was declaring war on Hitler’s Germany.

 What many do not know is that George suffered a severe speech impediment that caused him to stammer excessively under pressure. As you might imagine, this is a horrible affliction for a war time King! The guts of this story is the relationship between King George and his peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). There are so many dynamics in their relationship that each scene is like a skirmish between the two. Truly a fascinating progression to behold.

A deep friendship based on respect and trust develops and remains through the rest of their lives. More importantly for Britain and the world, Logue guided the King to a strong performance in the most crucial speech … thereby bringing strength to a nation and commitment from allies. Not sure which of these men was the better leader, but together they were proved very strong.

Firth, Rush, and Bonham-Carter are all excellent in their roles, and I also got a big kick out of Timothy Spall as a young Winston Churchill. Mr. Hooper does a remarkable job of creating a very human drama out of a historical period and event. The death march to the microphone is just excruciating in the climatic scene. We can feel the pain of the onlookers and supporters as they will their King to perform. I can only guess that the Queen Mother was instrumental in the development of Rolaids after so many trying moments!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true Oscar contender OR you are looking for an inspirational, historically based story

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your idea of Royalty is a Royale Burger with cheese OR you don’t mind missing out on one of the best lead actor and one of the best supporting actor performances of the year.