Be Still


Tea for two.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Ceroma) Piercey Dalton, Daniel Arnold, James McDougall, Amber Taylor, Meredith Hama-Brown, Sophie Merasty, Anja Savcic, Cameron Grierson, Brendan Taylor, Dakota Guppy, Ariel Ladret. Directed by Elizabeth Lazebnik

 

Back in the days where photography was a novelty, just taking a picture was pretty much a big deal. Eventually, adventurous souls discovered that images could be manipulated and a capturing of image became art. So had paintings progressed from imagery to impression, so did photography.

Hannah Maynard (Dalton) was a bit of an oddity; living in the 1880s in Victoria, British Columbia, she operated a photography studio with her husband and was much in demand as a portraitist. Her husband Richard (Arnold) was known for landscapes and natural photography, but Hannah was a wizard in the studio. She took hundreds, thousands of photos of newborn babies in British Columbia. As she took the daguerreotype, she would murmur “be still” to her subjects, because the old photographic plates required several moments for the image to be imprinted.

But of late Hannah wasn’t acting like herself. She was prickly and sometimes downright rude. She threw herself into her work, spending hours upon hours in the laboratory, coming out with her clothes stinking of chemicals. She couldn’t treat anyone with decency; not client, not her husband, not even her adorable little daughter Lillie (Taylor), who often pestered her. Her husband was beginning to fear for her sanity, consulting Dr. Fell (McDougall) who prescribed all sorts of strong pharmaceuticals.

But Hannah was becoming obsessed with multiple exposures, something that cinema’s Georges Melies would eventually become famous for. She had pictures of herself, sitting in three different places serving her other selves tea. Herself, in an impish portrait, was about to pour milk over her own head.

But as she and Richard were drawing further apart, it was clear that something was terribly amiss, something that was messing with her mind. Would it succeed in tearing her sanity into shreds, or would she find the strength to resist?

What’s going on may not become readily apparent, particularly if you don’t know the story of the real Hannah Maynard. I didn’t, and that’s not surprising; she has mostly been lost to history, despite the compelling and groundbreaking nature of her images. Had she been a man, it is likely everyone would know the name, but because she was a member of the fairer sex, for some reason that means her accomplishments have to be discounted. It’s something of a travesty and also something the film doesn’t deal with except in an oblique way.

Dalton bears a striking physical resemblance to Maynard, albeit minus the Victorian penchant for stern, unforgiving countenances. She has a difficult role to tackle; the Hannah Maynard portrayed here is snippy, and often argumentative. But she is a troubled soul, and Dalton gets that across beautifully.

The big problem here is that Lazebnik, who has made a number of short films including a previous one on Maynard, in her feature debut tends to overuse visual and audio effects. There is a constant industrial buzz that sometimes becomes overbearing, and the optical effects soon become tiresome. I understand the rationale in trying to portray the world as Maynard saw it, but Lazebnik should have trusted the story to do that and less on the camera tricks. It’s not that she shouldn’t have used them, it’s just that she overused them to the point where it became too noticeable. A little more nuance would have been more effective.

Nevertheless, she does a great service in presenting the story of a woman whose name should be better-known, but isn’t. Maynard’s actual photographs are shown during the closing credits, and they were very much ahead of her time. When you think of those big special effects-laden Marvel movies that we all seem to love so much, we should give a silent thank you to Maynard, whose innovation made movies like that possible.

The movie is making it’s world theatrical premiere Wednesday at the Vancouver International Film Festival, although it is currently available online at the Festival website in Canada through October 11. It is likely to make the rounds at various film festivals in the winter and spring; keep an eye out for it at your local festival.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story with a fine performance by Piercey Dalton.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overuses the optical, lighting and audio effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:T he film is based on a stage play by Janet Munsil.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: VIFF online site (Canada only – through October 11)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Modigliani
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Old Henry

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles)


Talking to yourself makes for better conversation.

(2020) Drama (Amazon) Mélanie Laurent, Lou de Laáge, Emanuelle Bercot, Benjamin Voisin, Cédric Kahn, Lomane de Dietrich, Christophe Montenez, Coralie Russier, Alice Barnole, Lauréna Thellier, Martine Schambacher, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon, Valérie Stroh, Grégoire Bonnet, Pierre-Antoine Deborde, Morgan Perez, Pierre Renverseau, Laura Balasuriya. Directed by Mélanie Laurent

 

With the draconian abortion law enacted by Texas (and eyed eagerly by other Red States), the assault on the bodily autonomy of women continues unabated by a vicious patriarchy intent on turning women into Stepford Wives, barefoot and pregnant, mindless and opinion-free whose only role is to squeeze out more white males to perpetuate the patriarchy. These are the headlines of the 21st century.

They aren’t anything new. In the 19th century, women were expected to conform to societal norms and France was no different than anywhere else. Women who were “difficult” (read as “having opinions of their own”) who longed to enjoy the same rights as men were often diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. In Paris, they’d be sent to the notorious Salpêriére asylum where they were subjected to abominable “treatments” that were little more than legalized torture.

Young Eugénie (de Laáge) is the daughter of a wealthy, controlling man (Kahn) who is at his wit’s end with his daughter who often says and does things that scandalize the family. She wants nothing more than to hang out in Bohemian Montmartre, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry – what the chic set does. She keeps her brother Theophile’s (Voisin) homosexuality a secret in return to being smuggled to the cafes she so loves.

But Eugénie has a bit of a problem; she is able to communicate with the dead. Contact with them puts her into a convulsive-like state, although she is learning to master the situation. However, it only adds to her already tenuous reputation and when her father finds out about it, he commits her to Salpêriére. There, she will be under the treatment of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Bonnet) whose methods are brutal, to say the least; he forces women to sit in ice baths for hours, locks them up in solitary confinement in darkness, conducts examinations with medieval-looking instruments.

Eugénie however manages to befriend head nurse Geneviéve (Laurent) particularly after telling her that her deceased sister is aware of the hundreds of letters that the nurse has written her after her death. Despite falling afoul of nurse Jeanne (Bercot), Eugénie is able to against the odds maintain her spirit, but how long can it survive in a place like this? The upcoming ball in which the madwomen of the asylum are permitted to socialize with the citizens of Paris may provide her that opportunity.

This is the sixth film Laurent has directed in the last ten years (in addition to a busy acting schedule), and her confidence and assuredness is obvious. As an actress herself, she is able to coax some amazing performances from her charges and de Laáge, who previously worked with Laurent in Breathe, is the beneficiary. Her large doe-like eyes glisten with excitement and intelligence, as she is eager to experience all the wonders of life in 1880s Paris for herself. Watching that fire slowly being leeched out of her eyes is a master class in cinematic performance.

But de Laáge isn’t alone as the cast is uniformly strong in their performances. This is Laurent’s first period piece as a director, but you’d never know it; she captures the misogyny and brutality of the era quite well. And despite the fact that the action takes place nearly 140 years ago, its relevance to our own era seems quite clear.

The movie does move at it’s own pace which some American audiences will find slow; it is also not a short, easy viewing. It will require some attention from the viewer and that’s not always easy to supply when watching at home where the distractions are often overwhelming when watching movies in your bedroom or living room.

There are definitely some scenes that are hard to watch, but as The Wrap’s Marya Gates put it, this is a love letter to the power of women. The resilience of Eugénie in the face of hardship, abandoned by those who should have loved and protected her, is inspiring. It reminds me of what some of the activists in the Pro-Choice movement in Texas are accomplishing, fighting the ongoing battle against aging white men who do not have their best interests at heart.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong acting performances all around. A look at 19th century feminism and misogyny and relates it to modern times.
REASONS TO AVOID: Slow-paced and a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity and sexuality, some brief profanity, violence and a rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel by Victoria Mas, a 34-year-old Sorbonne graduate who has lived in the United States for the past eight years.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hysteria
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Heval

The Mark of the Bell Witch


There are some darknesses even candles won’t light.

(2020) Documentary (Small Town Monsters) Brandon Barker, Timothy Henson, Forrest Burgess, Heather Moser, John Baker Jr., Beau Adams, Pat Fitzhugh, Dewey Edwards, Brenda Moser, Tyler Estep, Lauren Ashley Carter (narration), Cara Tobitt, Kayethel Dickerson, Thomas Koosed, Amy Davies, Aaron Gascon, Grayden Nance, Adrienne Breedlove. Directed by Seth Breedlove

 

Adams, Tennessee, was a rural village on the western frontier of the newly minted United States in 1817. Those who lived there worked the land and had few amenities. The Bell family, led by patriarch John Bell Sr. (Koosed) were a little bit better off than most, but that wasn’t saying much.

Their farm became an epicenter for a supernatural event that remains to this day the local equivalent of such famous American supernatural presences as the Jersey Devil, the Mothman, Bloody Mary and the Amityville Horror. It started off as loud knocking sounds in the middle of the night, followed by attacks on daughter Betsy (Davies) – first having her blanket yanked off of her at night, then having her face slapped by an unseen entity.

Finally, the entity began to communicate with the family, calling herself Kate and announcing her intention to murder the family patriarch. She had conversations with visitors who independently verified the family’s story – among them Tennessee’s favorite son at the time, future president Andrew Jackson who was then the Hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The story ended with the premature death of John Bell Sr.

This documentary examines the story of the Bell Witch – the term “witch” referred to spirits of any sort; we would today call it the “Bell Ghost” – through re-enactments of the events described by the Bell family, through analysis by local historians, folklorists and paranormal experts and other assorted talking heads. A lot of information is revealed here, from the common conclusion that the spirit may have been the ghost of Kate Batts, an older woman who had a conflict with the elder Bell when she died, to the role of the Great Awakening spiritualism might have had on the events of the haunting.

The results are remarkably informative and a testament to the power of folklore and how it can take on a life of its own. We are seeing that in modern times with creepypasta tales of Slenderman, Jeff the Killer, Ben Drowned and other entities that have become cultural phenomena; while it is too early to determine how those types of stories will eventually become part of the American fabric, certainly decades from now there is no doubt that those sorts of stories will become part of local or national consciousness. I would have liked to have seen this comparison addressed as it might have made the point more relatable to younger audiences, but that’s just me.

The recreations, filmed in black and white, are generally pretty creepy for the most part, although Breedlove from time to time tries a little too hard to be atmospheric and ends up making the vibe a little bit forced; a little more subtlety would have gone a long way. However, what he does get right is that he doesn’t take sides in the debate of whether this happened or not; he simply presents the information and leaves it to the viewer to decide what to believe.

REASONS TO SEE: Very informative.
REASONS TO AVOID: Tries too hard to make a spooky atmosphere (and doesn’t always succeed).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The property where the events of the haunting took place is now a tourist attraction in Adams, Tennessee. While the original cabin in which the Bells lived has been torn down, a recreation of the cabin has been rebuilt elsewhere on the site; artifacts of the original inhabitants are also on display at the attraction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mothman Legacy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Paint

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