True History of the Kelly Gang


Ned Kelly, Australian icon.

2019) Historical Drama (IFCGeorge MacKay, Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, Earl Cave, Josephine Blazier, Thomasin McKenzie, Marlon Williams, Orlando Schwerdt, Ben Corbett, John Murray, Tilly Lawless, Ross Knight, Louis Hewson, Jillian Nguyen, Paul Rochfort, Andrew Wright, Will McNeill, Danzal Baker, Markella Kavenagh. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Ned Kelly is couldn’t be more Australian if he were a kangaroo singing “Waltzing Matilda.” He is the ultimate anti-hero; a horse thief, cattle rustler and murderer who became a symbol of the independent spirit of Australia by standing up against the colonial police who oppressed him. While there are some Aussies who see him as a hardened criminal who got what he deserved, others see him as a heroic martyr.

Young Ned (Schwerdt) lives in the wilds of Victoria in the mid-19th century with his feckless alcoholic Pa (Corbett) and his angry, bitter Ma Ellen Kelly (Davis) who is having sex with Inspector O’Neil (Hunnam) of the Victoria police who is at the same time, harassing Ned’s Dad. When Ned is given an opportunity to go to boarding school, the offer gets his mother’s Irish up and she turns down the offer flat, instead sending young Ned out with bushranger (outlaw) Harry Power (Crowe), who teaches Ned the ways of the bush.

Now grown up, Ned (MacKay) has become a bushranger in his own right. Yet another policeman, Constable Fitzpatrick (Hoult) has taken a liking to Ned’s comely sister Kate (Blazier). However, when Fitzpatrick takes liberties and sneers at Ellen, Ned shoots the Constable in the wrist and is forced to flee into the bush.

There, the legend of Ned Kelly is born and backed by his own gang that slowly grows into an army, he robs banks and shoots coppers whenever the chance arises. However, as corrupt as the police are, they still are better armed and even Ned’s homemade armor won’t save him from falling in a bloody shootout at Glenrowan and a final date with the gallows – cementing his place as a legend.

Giving lie to the title, the opening credits proclaim that “nothing you see here is true.” The connecting tissue of the movie is Ned, awaiting execution in the Old Melbourne Gaol, writing a letter to his daughter, telling her the truth of his life. As he pens the words “May I burn in Hell if I speak false,” screams of torment can be heard in the background. The film is full of clever little touches like that.

The movie is based on the 2000 Man Booker-award winning novel by Peter Carey, and is indeed a fictionalized account of the notorious outlaw, apropos of the title. While the events are essentially true to history, there are a lot of inventions here; I will admit that I’m not fully versed in Australian history, but I didn’t find any references to the Kelly gang wearing women’s dresses during the course of their crimes, as depicted here (Ned’s father is also depicted as a cross-dresser). There is also an encounter between Ned and Fitzpatrick that has homoerotic connotations and there’s no evidence that Kelly swung in that direction, so to speak. Kelly is also depicted as clean-shaven whereas photos of him clearly show a bushy beard, but Mackay was also filming 1917 around that time and may not have had the luxury of growing a beard for this film.

There is also some artistic license; rather than using period music, Kurzel blasts punk rock tracks to shock the audience out of complacency and uses strobe lights in a couple of different places including the climactic gun battle which is well-staged, incidentally. However, there are times that I get the sense that Kurzel is showing off as a director and it does take away focus from his film.

However, Kurzel and his cinematographer Ari Wegner do a magnificent job of capturing the immensity of the Australian bush; the bleakness of the impoverished Kelly home and the terrifying Glenrowan gun battle, in which bullets and beams of light pepper the shed. Kurzel has been watching a few Baz Luhrmann films of late, I suspect.

Kurzel has a good cast, with powerful performances by MacKay who is poised for stardom with this and 1917 under his belt, Davis who was captivating in The Nightingale and Crowe in a supporting role, showing the presence and chops that made him a star in the first place.

The script does a lot to humanize Kelly, making him a victim of poverty and of police prejudices against Irish convicts who were sent to the penal colony. He is no saint, but he really had no other options at his disposal other than to turn to a life of crime; essentially, he was just fulfilling expectations. If you’re looking for, as the title suggests, the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang, you have the wrong movie but there is insight to be had here. The true history is a tragedy, as it turns out.

REASONS TO SEE: Has a mythological feel to it, even as the filmmakers seek to humanize Kelly. Needs to be seen on the big screen.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little too artsy for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is a lot of violence, much of it bloody and graphic; there is also plenty of profanity, some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Earl Cave, who played Ned’s brother Dan, is the son of Australian rock legend Nick Cave who grew up less than 10 km from where Kelly’s last shootout with the police took place in Glenrowan.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mary Queen of Scots

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

The Aeronauts


Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…

(2019) Adventure (AmazonFelicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne, Tom Courtenay, Himesh Patel, Phoebe Fox, Lewin Lloyd, Vincent Perez, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front, Anne Reid, Robert Glenister, Julian Ferro, Gian Kalch, Mia Hemmerling, Kamil Lemieszewski, Thomas Arnold, Steve Saunders, John Taylor, James Daniel Wilson, Guy Samuels, Fran Targ, Zander James, Elsa Alili. Directed by Tom Harper

 

We sometimes envy the birds, soaring free above the bounds of the ground, winging their way on the currents of the atmosphere, seeing our planet from a perspective we could never really understand. We have sought to control the air, learning to fly with balloons before eventually creating the airplane and consequently shrinking our planet.

In 1862 that was far away. While balloonists regularly performed exhibitions, aeronauts (as they were referred to as back then) were not taken too seriously as much more than performers. James Glaisher (Redmayne), who believed that studying the upper atmosphere would allow us to better understand weather patterns and eventually allow us to predict the weather, wants to go up higher than any other balloonist ever has. The Royal Science Academy basically thinks he’s cracked but he does find a taker in Amy Wren (Jones).

Wren is about as unconventional as a woman could get in the Victorian era. She makes grand entrances riding on the top of carriages, stuns her onlookers by throwing her beloved Jack Russell terrier out of the balloon (don’t worry folks – the pup has a parachute) and is apt to do cartwheels on the stage. Glaisher finds all of this distasteful and distracting from the scientific endeavor he is undertaking, but he needs a pilot and Wren is, like it or not, his bird.

Once they get airborne, they realize that their task is going to be much more difficult than they first thought, particularly since they manage to soar right into a thunderstorm. They have already overcome much adversity to begin with – Amy dealing with the awful death of her husband, Glaisher with the deteriorating mental state of his father and the ridicule of his peers. If they can learn to rely on each other they might just figure out that they have the skills to survive.

This is (very) loosely based on real events – not a single ascent, but rather several ascents. However, a great deal of liberty has been taken with history, although that’s nothing new for the movies. While I love Felicity Jones as an actress, her character is extremely improbable for the times she lives in. On the way to the record-breaking ascent, she orders the carriage to stop and gets out, plopping her butt down on the curb with ankles and calves on full display – and nobody pays attention. In 1862, the sight of a woman’s calf would have been scandalous. Felicity accentuates the girl’s spunk, but she certainly doesn’t seem a product of her times which I suppose fits right in with modern narratives.

Redmayne, who the last time he was paired with Jones won an Oscar, is curiously restrained here. I realize he’s supposed to be a stuffy scientist but he’s almost inert. Given his usual on-screen charm, it’s almost shocking how leaden his performance is here. This is not the Eddie Redmayne that we usually get to see. I suppose everyone is entitled to an off-film.

The action sequences are for the most part well-staged and Jones holds her own as an action hero, just as she did in Rogue One. This is the kind of adventure movie that went out of vogue with the advent of the anti-hero 70s, and has never really come back. However, before you classic movie fans begin to celebrate, this isn’t nearly as good as some of the films you remember. However, this is a solid piece of entertainment that while it doesn’t hold a candle to such films as The African Queen, for example, it nonetheless should hold even a casual movie fan’s interest.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelously staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Nonsensical and anachronistic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences of extreme peril as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although James Glaisher was a real person who was a pioneer in meteorology, Amelia Wren is a fictional character albeit one based on actual women. Glaisher did indeed set a record for highest ascent in a balloon in 1862 but his partner, Henry Coxwell, was decidedly male.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Around the World in 80 Days
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
22-July

Big Kill (2018)


You can always tell the bad guys by their eccentric taste in fashion.

(2018) Western (Cinedigm/Archstone) Christoph Sanders, Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Parė, Danny Trejo, K.C. Clyde, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Audrey Walters, Jermaine Washington, Dennis LaValle, David Manzanares, Sarah Minnich, Paul Blott, Stephanie Beran, Toby Bronson, Bob Jesser, David Hight, Itzel Montelongo, Tsailii Rogers. Directed by Scott Martin

 

Part of the reason Westerns were so popular 50 and 60 years ago is that once upon a time, they were fun. The hero was always an easy-going sort with a code of honor not unlike a knight of old, the shopkeeper was as honest as the day was long, the villains were shoot first and don’t ask questions at all, and the saloon gals had hearts of gold.

Along came the ‘70s to turn the heroes into anti-heroes, the shopkeepers to be racists, the villains even more despicable than the heroes but only just so, and saloon gals who were hookers whose bustles came off at the drop of a cowboy hat.  The audience became somewhat more sophisticated and Westerns all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape.

They’ve begun to slowly come back only recently and there have been a few really good ones in and among the mix with even the occasional big budget Hollywood western making an appearance every so often. The hallowed B Western, once the province of actors like Dean Martin, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, have remained in the background although from time to time an indie western surfaces, generally on the ultra-violent side (Bone Tomahawk).

Big Kill opens up with a pair of ne’er do well gunfighters – Travis (Hummel) who never met a woman he couldn’t seduce, and Jake (Martin), a gambler who if it weren’t for bad luck wouldn’t have any luck at all – being run out of Mexico by a general (Trejo) whose daughter Travis defiled. While under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry in an outpost so forlorn and isolated it can barely be called a fort, they meet up with Philadelphia accountant Jim Andrews (Sanders) who is on his way to the Silver mine boom town of Big Kill, Arizona to meet up with his brother who wrote Jim glowingly about the saloon he owns and how successful the town is.

When they get there, nobody has heard of Jim’s brother, the town is nearly deserted and those who have remained are intimidated by the nefarious Preacher (Patric) who believes in handing out his brand of justice on the end of a gun and salvation, as he administers the last rites to those he guns down, as well as the Preacher’s enforcer, sociopathic gunslinger Johnny Kane (Phillips) who looks like Wayne Newton playing a gaudy 50s cowboy in a red suit.

Travis and Jake are all for leaving while the leaving is good but Jim needs to find out what happened to his brother. He meets shopkeeper’s daughter Sophie (McLaughlin) who is sweet as pie but a real pistol. She gives Jim another reason to stick around; however, you know that a confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys for the soul of the town is just around the corner.

This is a fun little movie that has some really nice touches; the final gunfight between Jim and the Preacher involves the two mostly circling around each other and firing off wild shots that don’t hit anything except, maybe, a cameraman on the movie filming over at the next butte. Despite the fact that the Preacher was earlier shown to be a proficient gunfighter, Jim being an Eastern tenderfoot and proud of it likely would be hard pressed to hit the broad side of a barn door. Sanders, best known as lovable dim bulb Kyle in Last Man Standing, is perfectly cast for the role and does a pretty credible job of holding our interest.

Patric, a veteran of some really good movies back in the 90s, does a fine turn as the charismatic villain that makes me wonder why he doesn’t get cast more often. Phillips doesn’t play a mustache twirling villain all that often but he does a good job of it here, sans the mustache twirling.

Like most westerns, there are some beautifully photographed vistas and a soundtrack that mixes soaring themes with the occasional twang twang twang of the Jew’s harp to lend color. Where the movie falls down is in the editing; some of the exposition is drawn out too much and some of the scenes could have used some tightening up. Still, there is a lot to like here. This is the kind of Western I used to watch regularly on TV and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A little nostalgia is good for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: This really isn’t half-bad. Sanders is inspired casting.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the exposition is excessive and would have benefited from tighter editing. It’s a little bit derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a good deal of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magnificent Seven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The Wind (2018)


Some books you CAN judge by their cover.

(2018) Thriller (IFC Midnight) Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zuckerman, Dylan McTee, Miles Anderson, Martin C. Patterson. Directed by Emma Tammi

 

When we think of the early settlers of the West, we think of covered wagons, saloons, small towns with good hard-working people in them and undoubtedly all of the above were there. However, many pioneers were on their own, alone in an unforgiving land, relying on what they themselves could accomplish in order to survive.

Isaac (Zuckerman) and Lizzy Macklin (Gerard) are just such pioneers. They live alone on a deserted prairie with town more than a day’s ride away. The journey to town wasn’t without peril, so generally Isaac would go, whether to pick up supplies or to bring in what produce and animals he could sell. While Isaac is gone, Lizzy is alone; in fact, Lizzy is alone much of the day. She doesn’t seem to mind much, other than the whisper of the ever-present wind which some nights grows to a deafening howl.

Into their world comes Gideon (McTee) and Emma (Telles) Harper; they are “neighbors” if a walk of several hours can be called a neighborhood. They are young and perhaps a bit green; Emma’s skills as a cook are pretty weak and the more “worldly” Lizzy offers to teach her how to improve. In turn, Gideon has a lot to learn about working a farm and the generous Isaac is often at the Harper place helping Gideon get by.

Naturally Lizzy and Emma become friends, and when Emma becomes with child, Lizzy promises to help in every way she can. Emma though is growing frightened; how is she going to give birth and raise a child so far from civilization? And in the sound of the wind she begins to hear other things and she becomes absolutely convinced that there is something out there. Gideon is sure that Emma is imagining things and at first Lizzy is too. Then she begins to hear them.

After tragedy strikes the Harper family, Lizzy is more alone than ever but now she is sure that there is something out there too. Isaac is as skeptical as Gideon was but Lizzy is adamant. While Isaac is away returning Gideon to civilization, things come to a head with Lizzy and the dweller of the prairie but is it real? Or has Lizzy gone mad?

Tammi, heretofore a director of documentaries, acquits herself honorably on her first narrative feature. She manages to create a real sense that there’s something not quite right going on, that the environment is far from benevolent and that the people in it are highly vulnerable. She also does a great job of realistically portraying the pioneer life; the women work as hard if not harder than the men (I’d wager most women would agree with me that some things haven’t changed).There are no modern conveniences; laundry must be hand-washed and hung to dry in the wind; if she wanted bread with dinner, she had to make it and often meals consisted of whatever they had on hand which was often not much.

The heart and soul of this movie is Lizzy and Tammi cast Gerard wisely. The actress isn’t a household name – yet – but she carries the movie effortlessly, her haunted eyes and stretched face telling the story. The movie begins moments after the Harper tragedy occurs and we see Lizzy emerging, zombie-like. It’s a powerful moment and we have no explanation as to what happened. Gradually, through flashbacks, we learn what happened in the cabin until the audience catches up with the story, after which we resume with Lizzy’s own ordeal.

Although many are categorizing this as a horror film, I’d prefer to describe it as a psychological thriller with elements of horror. There’s enough gore and disturbing images to satisfy horror fans as well as some fairly interesting special effects that give us some insight as to what Lizzy is imagining (or experiencing – we’re never really sure). The budget on this probably wouldn’t cover the electrical tape budget on any of the Conjuring series movies but Tammi makes effective use of every penny.

On the technical side, the movie makes a wonderful use of sound, from the whistling, howling and whispering of the wind to the unearthly shrieks that emanate from the prairie, helping to create that atmosphere I referred to earlier. Cinematographer Lyn Moncrief makes excellent use of light and shadow, keeping that feeling of something menacing in the darkness. There aren’t really any jump scares here so the horror comes honestly.

There are a couple of drawbacks. The editing is at times ragged and jarring. Also, some of the performances (other than Gerard) were a mite stiff at times. However, those are largely sins that don’t disrupt the overall enjoyment of the movie and it is enjoyable, not just for horror fans. The last 20 minutes of the movie incidentally will have you white-knuckled and trying not to jump out of your own skin. The “twist” isn’t a game-changer but it does fit nicely.

All in all, this is the kind of movie that should be celebrated by cinephiles and horror fans alike. Indie horror movies have been extremely strong of late and The Wind is right up there with some of the best of them, even if strictly speaking it’s not completely a horror movie. Still, this is a movie well worth your time and effort.

REASONS TO SEE: The last 20 minutes are gut-wrenching. Tammi elicits a real sense of unease, that something is off. The filmmakers use light and darkness effectively as well as sound effects and the soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is a bit stiff in places and some of the editing is a bit abrupt.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images, gore, violence, partial nudity and sexuality,
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is based on the 1928 silent film The Wind which starred Lillian Gish.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centennial Episode 11: The Winds of Death
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Storm Boy

The Greatest Showman


Hugh Jackman knows this movie is a snow job.

(2017) Musical (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge, Radu Spinghel, Yusaku Komori, Daniel Son, Paul Sparks, Will Swenson, Linda Marie Larsen, Byron Jennings, Betsy Aidem. Directed by Michael Gracey

 

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” The fact that this movie has done the kind of box office it has is proof of that.

Barnum (Jackman) is a penniless dreamer who has married a beautiful rich girl named Charity (Williams) whose family his father once worked for. Her father most assuredly does NOT approve of the match. Barnum has big plans to buy a specific mansion near where they grew up but no means to get there but after losing yet another low-paying job disappears on him, he decides to go into business for himself, using a little financial chicanery to secure a bank loan to open up his Museum of Oddities.

At first business is slow but his wife believes in him. It’s just when he begins to add human acts – bearded ladies, Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb a performing little person, trapeze artists and acrobats does his business begin to thrive. Upper class playwright Philip Carlyle (Efron) is taken by the show and by a trapeze artist name Anne (Zendaya) in particular but it still takes Barnum some fancy talking to get him to invest in the Museum as a partner.

While on an overseas trip he hears the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Ferguson),, then the most famous singer on Earth, perform at Buckingham Palace and is completely taken by her voice and her beauty. He offers to bankroll her tour of the United States as her manager for which she would get an unheard-of (at the time) guaranteed sum. The tour threatens to bankrupt P.T. but it also threatens his marriage as Lind tries to seduce him and leave his wife for her.

.A suspicious fire burns down the Museum and all of a sudden Barnum is left with nothing again; furthermore his family of unusual acts is no longer feeling the love, having seen him turn their backs on them and treat them like unwelcome guests. Can this dysfunctional family reunite and rebuild?

I had high hopes for this, particular given that Jackman is in the title role. It’s perfect casting and Jackman who cut his show biz teeth on musical theater in Australia is more than up to the task, being the big reason to see the movie. His natural charm and likability shine through and even when he’s acting like a jerk you still like the guy and like me were pretty sure he would come around to his senses.

Unfortunately after that it’s a very short list of reasons to see this. While I like the theme of inclusiveness (although they tend to bang the audience over the head with it), after that there are some key components to the film that simply aren’t up to snuff. First and most glaringly is the songs. They are absolutely dreadful; all of them sound pretty much the same and none of them really are the kind you’ll be humming after you leave the theater; as I write this I can’t remember the tune to a single one of them. That’s very bad news for a musical.

The writers for whatever reason seem to stick a song in even where one isn’t needed and in fact the musical number ends up disrupting the flow of the film. Personally I loved the idea of a musical about Barnum but it needed a capable songwriter to write the music and lyrics. This sounds like it was written by Broadway hacks which it certainly wasn’t; the folks involved wrote the music and lyrics to La La Land and did a much better job with that property. There is not one song here that is anywhere near as memorable as “City of Stars.”

The writers also play fast and loose with history (for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the relationship between Barnum and Lind was anything but a business one) which isn’t an original Hollywood sin but there are so many characters here that were invented out of whole cloth – certainly Barnum had plenty of interesting people in his life that could have made appearances here. Poor Michelle Williams has so little to do that her smile begins to look awfully strained by the end of the movie. Even CGI couldn’t save it – except that the CGI that the movie does utilize is uniformly terrible.

I could go on and on. Barnum’s children here are essentially perfect movie kids whose presence is superfluous and disruptive. There are too many anachronisms in the dialogue to shake a stick at – but why kick a horse when it’s already down, except not only is this horse down it’s also been lit on fire, stabbed through the heart, shot, beaten with a crowbar and drowned in a vat of acid before being miraculously resurrected and buried alive. Actually, the horse has it better than those who must watch this movie. See it for Jackman if you must but see it at home so you can turn it off when you start to feel yourself beginning to need to do whatever it takes to stop the torture.

REASONS TO GO: Hugh Jackman is charismatic and charming. The “different is okay” theme still resonates.
REASONS TO STAY: The songs are generic and awful. There are too many historical liberties taken and the children are an unnecessary distraction. It feels like the writers were flailing around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the costumes used in the film are the property of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and have been actually worn by performers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/518: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago
FINAL RATING: 4/10 (all Jackman)
NEXT:
Off the Menu

Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd

 

In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.

Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.

When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.

Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.

Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.

The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.

This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.

The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is  meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.

It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.

That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey

Letters from Baghdad


Gertrude Bell, the iconic woman you’ve never heard of – but should have.

(2016) Documentary (Vitagraph) Tilda Swinton (voice), Eric Loscheider, Pip Torrens (voice), Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann (limited), Rachael Stirling, Helen Ryan, Christopher Villiers, Rose Leslie (voice), Adam Astill, Ahmed Hashimi, Simon Chandler, Anthony Edridge, Andrew Havill, Zaydum Khalad, Mark Meadows, Elizabeth Rider, Hayat Kamille, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Lucy Robinson. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

 

There are people who have made enormous contributions to history that have gone largely unnoticed. Not because their contributions have been any less important but simply because of their gender. Women who have been instrumental to shaping our modern world are often lost in the mists of time simply because they weren’t taken seriously by their contemporaries, particularly those uncomfortable with the thought that a woman could make more of a difference than a man.

Gertrude Bell isn’t a household name but she should be one no less than her contemporary colleague T.E. Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia. Bell helped shape the modern Arabic nation-state, particularly Iraq but she did labor with Laurence in creating the map of the Middle East that we see today, largely helping various countries achieve their independence from colonial powers following the Great War.

She is largely responsible for the foundation of the state of Iraq which might not make her popular nowadays with a certain segment of our society, but she is actually well-regarded by the Iraqi people. She had a special affinity for them as well as the Arabs, speaking both fluent Persian and Arabic. She regarded them as equals, which was not the general case with the British diplomats and bureaucrats they had contact with.

She was an avid letter writer and also a published author; although these days she’s not as well known as her contemporary Laurence who was an EXCELLENT writer, she was an accomplished writer in her own right and even today her words are evocative, bringing the desert and those who live here to life. Swinton reads the writing with a natural flair, making the penned words sound naturally spoken. She does a wonderful job of giving the not so well known historical figure depth and humanity. Bell was a formidable woman in her time (and would be considered so today) although she was also a victim of some of the less admirable qualities of the time; she speaks of “the better classes” when referring to those few she admitted to her inner circle, by which she meant the educated and mannered. I suspect if she lived in contemporary times her attitude would be a bit more progressive.

The filmmakers utilize archival footage, a good deal of which hasn’t been seen in almost a hundred years and some likely never exhibited publicly. The footage is quite amazing, evoking an era long past but lives on in romantic memory. There are also plenty of still photos as well, many of which were from Bell’s own collection. One of my favorite sequences in the film was a collage of photos showing Bell’s maturing from a young girl into a young woman. It’s only a few seconds of screen time but it is memorable; keep an eye out for it.

There are also actors reading from various missives, reports and personal letters about Bell; strangely enough they are attired in period costumes and appear onscreen (whereas Swinton doesn’t). The effect is less than scintillating and I think the film would have been better off having the actors read the lines in voice over and utilizing more of the footage and still photos.

This is a marvelous documentary that redresses a wrong in relegating Bell to the forgotten pages of history. Regardless of what you might think of her – and to be fair there are modern scholars who thought her a raging colonialist although I have to disagree with that – she was a mover and a shaker in a time when women were expected to be quiet and subservient. Her story is an incredible one and shows someone of great character, fortitude and courage who should be an inspiration to young women everywhere. Thanks to this documentary, now she can be.

REASONS TO GO: The still photos and archival film footage are marvelous. Swinton breathes life into Bell. The photo collage that captured Bell aging from young girl to young woman was nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The dramatic recreations and actors playing talking head interviewees work less well.
FAMILY VALUES: While some of the themes are a bit adult, generally speaking this is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In her lifetime, Bell wrote more than 1,600 letters which the filmmakers had exclusive access to.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of the Desert
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Paris Can Wait