Séraphine


Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water...

Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water…

(2008) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviéve Mnich, Adélaide Leroux, Nico Rogner, Franҫoise Lebrun, Héléne Hardouin, Serge Lariviére, Léna Bréban, Sandrine Bodenes, Muriel Riou, Dominique Pozzetto, Josette Ménard, Xavier Pottier, Jean-Pascal Abribat, Anne Benoit. Directed by Martin Provost

 

This is a film about the French artist Séraphine Louis (Moreau), a doughty housekeeper by day who painted miraculous works of art by night. She believed herself to be instructed by angels to paint and she was indeed self-taught. Her work caught the eye of German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) who had also discovered Rousseau; he helped bring her work into the public eye and sold some of her paintings but her delusions eventually caught up with her and she would pass away in a French asylum in 1942. The movie is mainly about the years in which most of her painting was done, and depicts little of her early years, showing instead her abject poverty and her connection to the trees and flowers.

Moreau is brilliant here; she is one of the greatest actresses to ever come out of Belgium and this is one of her best performances; the film is worth seeking out for that alone. It is also beautiful to look at as cinematographer Laurent Brunet uses Louis’ own work for inspiration, as well as capturing the bucolic village life of Senlis (where Louis lived most of her life) near Chantilly.

WHY RENT THIS: Moreau’s performance is breathtaking. The cinematography is beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is a bit slow-moving..
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won seven Césars at the 2008 César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) including Best Film and Best Actress for Moreau.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a photo gallery of the real Séraphine Louis’ paintings.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.2M on a $3.6M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Begging Naked
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

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Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Tuck Everlasting


Tuck Everlasting

Into the fire from out of the fryer go the Tucks.

(2002) Family Fantasy (Disney) Alexis Bledel, William Hurt, Sissy Spacek, Jonathan Jackson, Scott Bairstow, Ben Kingsley, Amy Irving, Victor Garber, Kosha Engler, Richard Pilcher, Sean Pratt, Julia Hart, Elisabeth Shue (voice). Directed by Jay Russell

Many people yearn for eternal life, free from the terror of the unknown that is death. However, eternal life would be a mixed blessing at best, a curse at worst. How does one cope with remaining the same age forever; would eternal life mean the cessation of growth?

Winnie Foster (Bledel) lives a stultifying life in small town Tree Gap in 1914 New England. The daughter of a successful man (Garber) and a mother (Irving) who disapproves of anything that does not fit into her narrow world view, Winnie is rebellious and lively, aching to see the world and fearful that the societal conventions of Tree Gap will never let her venture far beyond her own parlor.

Being the anti-authoritarian sort, she ventures into the woods that border her home, property owned by the Fosters. There she sees a handsome young boy drinking from a spring that bubbles up from the roots of an ancient oak. The young boy is Jesse Tuck (Jackson). She questions him about what he’s doing there; he warns her not to drink from the spring.

Before she can do anything, she is swooped up by a man on horseback – Jesse’s brother Miles (Bairstow). He carries her to a cabin deep in the woods where they are met by the boys’ parents, Angus (Hurt) and Mae (Spacek). No, they’re not members of a survivalist organization; they’re just simple folk. Mae welcomes Jesse into her home, chiding Miles for being rude and frightening the young girl.

The Tucks are a family that doesn’t wish to be found but what they’re hiding from becomes clear when a mysterious Man in a Yellow Suit (Kingsley) comes around looking for the Tucks. When Winnie’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, he offers aid, providing a perspective nobody else can.

You see, the Tucks have a secret, one that has kept them isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time; about 90 years to be exact. Remember that spring that Jesse was drinking from? It grants eternal life to all those who drink from it, freezing them eternally at the age they were when they first drank. That’s a secret that people would kill for…people like the Man in the Yellow Suit, who has a connection to the Tucks that speaks to their dark past.

This is based on a popular 1976 children’s book by Natalie Babbitt. One would think that the dark themes of the book would be watered down and Disneyfied by the Mouse House but amazingly, they are not. This is not pablum that has been dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; this is meant to provoke conversation and thought.

Hurt and Spacek make a good couple, with Hurt playing a wise old man quite well. Bairstow and Jackson play hot-headed youths whose penchant to act first and think later begins the whole mess but also rescues their parents on at least one occasion. The dynamic between all four actors is marvelous is a highlight of the movie.

Bledel is an actress I’ve never particularly warmed to; she’s always seemed rather shrill to me, but she is more than solid here. She is literally the audience surrogate in the movie and it is through her eyes that we see events. Bledel shows a very deft touch here, something she doesn’t always show in other movies she’s done. I hope she has more performances like this one in her; she would rapidly move to be one of my favorites if that were the case.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of creating the pre-World War I rural America, from the settings to the atmosphere; Irving plays the uptight upper class mother who wants her daughter molded into the very model of a proper well-bred lady, and it’s not a role Irving has taken on in the past but she makes it work here. Garber is in my opinion, one of the most underrated actors ever; his work on “Alias” and “Eli Stone” on television is as strong as anything that’s out there, film or TV.

Now, I do have one bone to pick with the movie – there is a theme tune that is used over and over again in the movie – you hear it constantly and I believe it is there to signify the mystery of eternal life. They could have done without ramming it down our throats.

The point of the movie is not necessarily that eternal life is either good or bad (although the general consensus is that it is bad) but rather the unfulfilled life is the worst of all choices. Winnie’s outlook of being doomed to a life that has no resonance with her, that leaves her gifts unutilized, her potential unrealized – that is the true tragedy. The Tucks may have longevity but they are hiding from life (although the boys have seen much of the world, they are now living with their parents…even when they’re 107 they always come back to mom and dad). Winnie, who has a short lifespan compared to theirs, embraces life and all it has to offer both good and bad. Truly, there is more value to quality of life than quantity.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written, well-acted and the world of the Tucks is set up nicely, as is the world of turn of the century rural America.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Theme music is used ad infinitum until a pleasant tune actually becomes tedious.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and some images and situations that might be scary for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Bledel’s feature film debut after establishing her name in “The Gilmore Girls;” the part of Jesse was originally offered to her Gilmore co-star Jared Padalecki but he declined in order to work with different co-stars.   

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with author Natalie Babbitt, and an interesting “Lessons of the Tucks” feature which examines themes and issues brought in the movie which is used in a similar manner as a standard trivia track.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was unsuccessful.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Fountain

The Crazies (2010)


The Crazies (2010)

Radha Mitchell finds that working in a horror remake is a scream.

(2010) Horror (Overture) Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Danielle Panabaker, Joe Anderson, Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, John Aylward, Preston Bailey, Joe Reegan, Glenn Morshower, Larry Cedar, Mike Hickman. Directed by Breck Eisner

It is one thing to live in the perfect small town. It is another to live in a small town full of homicidal maniacs. It is absolutely unsettling to watch one turn into the other.

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is one such perfect small town. Its springtime, the first day of the baseball season and the local team is playing one from a neighboring town. In the stands cheering away are Sheriff David Dutten (Olyphant) and his trusted right hand man Deputy Russell Clank (Anderson). What could be a better situation than that?

That’s when Rory Hamill (Hickman), the town drunk, steps onto the playing field with a loaded shotgun. Rory has never been a particularly violent man so it is something of a surprise. Then when he brings it up to bear, Sheriff Dutten is forced to shoot Rory dead.

Things go from bad to worse. Other people in town are beginning to show signs of strange behavior. Sheriff Dave’s wife Judy (Mitchell), the town doctor, can’t find anything wrong with anybody, they’re just acting robotic. Then they go crazy – violently crazy. One of her patients, Bill Farnum (Rickaby) sets his own house on fire – with his wife and son locked inside of it.

Sheriff Dave calls for help and gets it, but not the kind he expects. The army comes in and cordons off the town. Nobody can enter or leave. Those that attempt to escape are shot dead. Those inside the town who exhibit signs of a fever (as Judy does since she’s pregnant) are separated from the rest of the population. The fevered few all start to go crazy. Dave and Russell, both feeling fine, affect a rescue of Judy just as crazed townspeople storm the gates. In amidst the chaos and frenzy of crazed townspeople killing one another, Dave and Russell free Judy and her receptionist Becca (Panabaker) and try to find a way out of the stricken town – while outside, the military makes its own ominous plans.

This is based on a 1973 movie by horror legend George A. Romero. That movie was much less slick, much sparer in its design and in many ways, much more disturbing. The new one is chock full of scares and works more as a traditional horror movie while the original was a bit of an allegory about Vietnam war-era paranoia and general distrust of anything that resembled what we think of as normal. Romero was all about sticking it to “The Man.”

Eisner, whose last film was the box office bomb Sahara, shows a surprisingly deft hand here, keeping the horror coming at a breathtaking speed once things really get out of hand. Much of the horror doesn’t derive from the gore and the vein-y faces of the infected but from the situations where parents kill children, children kills parents and everyone hates the doctor.

Olyphant is one of those leading men who always seems like he should be getting much better roles than he does but for whatever reason hasn’t connected with an audience quite yet. This probably isn’t the role for him to break out with – the character is a by-the-numbers horror hero who in most regards doesn’t have a whole lot that’s special about him. Veteran genre performer Mitchell (Pitch Black) does solidly in her role as the town doctor but Anderson plays the twitchy Russell very memorably. He is the character that you’ll most likely remember with the most clarity.

This is a solid horror movie with nice scares delivered well. Eisner, who seemed over his head for much of Sahara, seems much more comfortable here. To my way of thinking, this is one of the better horror remakes of the recent rash of them to date and if Eisner wants to do more along this vein, I say let him. He’s certainly got the right touch for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice build-up and some really disturbing images. Olyphant, Mitchell and Anderson all do bang-up jobs.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There are a few too many horror clichés here and could have used a little more attention to character.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, plenty of love and appropriately foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lynn Lowery, who co-starred in the 1973 version, cameos as an infected local riding a bicycle through the deserted center of town.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a motion comic summarizing events prior to the movie, as well as a nice little feature on George A. Romero, director of the 1973 version, and his effect on movie horror.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $54.6M on a $20M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sorority Row

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies