Breathe (2017)


Hollywood still knows how to capture romance in a single frame.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Andrew Garfield, Claire Foy, Edward Speleers, Tom Hollander, Hugh Bonneville, Miranda Raison, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Amit Shah, Jonathan Hyde, Diana Rigg, David Wilmot, Emily Bevan, Stephen Mangan, Marina Bye, Dean-Charles Chapman, Sylvester Groth, Steven O’Donnell, Penny Downie, Camilla Rutherford. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

As a disabled man, I’m keenly interested in depictions of how the disabled were treated in years past. The picture is not a pretty one; often, those who had any sort of deformity or disability were warehoused, shut away from public view as much as possible. Those in extreme situations were often left to await death in depressing, grim hospitals with doctors who felt their job was merely to keep them as comfortable as possible until the end inevitably came.

This is not even on the radar of young Robin Cavendish (Garfield) in the early 1950s however. Young, healthy and exuberant to a fault he is a British Army veteran who is almost ridiculously athletic; he seems to excel at every sport he tries his hand at. Now that the war is over, he works as a tea exporter, travelling around the world.

But he runs into the beautiful Diana Blacker (Foy) at a cricket match and everything changes. He falls deeply, madly in love with her and she with him. He isn’t wealthy (she comes from privilege) but he gets by and it isn’t long before the two get married and she is joining him on his adventurous life, going on safari with him in Kenya while he hunts down tea leaves for English tea drinkers. It isn’t long before she is, as they used to say back then, with child.

But their idyllic life comes to a screeching halt when he gets ill and collapses. He is diagnosed with adult onset polio and is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He is unable to even breathe on his own. Kept alive on a respirator, Robin is flown back to England and put into a hospital where he can be properly cared for which in this case means waiting for the Grim Reaper to come knocking. Robin sinks into a deep depression, knowing the prognosis is death after two or three months of waiting. He doesn’t want to wait, in fact.

But Diana will have none of that kind of talk. Keep Calm, and Breathe is essentially her message. Robin wants to die at home; Diana has other ideas. She wants him to live at home. So she purchases a Regency-era home in the country and a respirator and her old nanny (Raison) is there to help nurse her husband.

This is a great improvement and Robin is infinitely more cheerful but he wants more. With the help of a mechanic friend (Bonneville) he helps design a wheelchair with an attached respirator. The world begins to open up a little. Soon he figures a way to outfit a car so that Robin can travel further afield. Slowly, it becomes clear that Robin isn’t about quality of life anymore; he’s about life itself.

This is a somewhat rose-colored version of the real life story of Cavendish and his family. Many innovations that help the disabled be more mobile (like car lifts) have come as a result of innovations that Cavendish and his friend Teddy Hall created. I wasn’t familiar with Cavendish before seeing this but the disabled community owes a great deal to his advocacy that even those who are severely disabled as he was could lead fulfilling, productive lives.

Garfield captures both sides of Cavendish beautifully; the dark depressed side and the upbeat, never-say-die side and he does it while spending most of the picture flat on his back and unable to move his limbs. Garfield manages to get a great deal across with just his face; he also manages to stay still which is never an easy task. Considering his performance here is at least the equal to his last one in Hacksaw Ridge which netted him an Oscar nomination, it’s not out of the range of reason that he might get another one here. It’s the kind of role Oscar tends to like.

Foy, so good in the Netflix series The Crown ups the stakes here and shows she has big screen potential as well. Her Diana Cavendish is heroic and if the screenplay makes her a bit more saintly than she likely was, it’s certainly understandable. The real Cavendish lived longer with polio-related total paralysis than anyone in the history of Great Britain and while that is admirable, it can’t have been easy on his wife. Watching over someone who is that disabled is a full-time job and one of the most stressful ones that you can have.

First-time director Andy Serkis (yes, the motion capture king) doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel but he does have a good eye for the English countryside, turning it into an almost Bronte sister-like look. The supporting cast isn’t super well-known here in the States but they are all excellent and there isn’t a misstep among any of the performances that I could detect.

The movie does get a little bit maudlin towards the end and the last fifteen minutes seem manipulative enough that I think that a lot of critics who tend to hate that kind of thing probably gave the film a worse review than it deserves because of it. Nonetheless this is an uplifting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that is tonic in a time where we seem to hear nothing but bad news about the negative aspects of the human spirit nonstop.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield could net another Oscar nomination for his work here. Lovely cinematography and Bronte-like vistas elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The film gets somewhat maudlin towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mature thematic subjects including discussions of suicide, some bloody medical images and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jonathan Cavendish, Robin’s real-life son, went into film production and is one of the producers on this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gleason
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Florida Project

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Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

The Mummy (1999)


Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in a sticky situation.

(1999) Adventure (Universal) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, John Hannah, Kevin J. O’Connor, Oded Fehr, Jonathan Hyde, Erick Avari, Bernard Fox, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Patricia Velasquez. Directed by Stephen Sommers

 

Note to Hollywood filmmakers: now this is how to do monster movies in the 21st century. Something old (the setting), something new (the effects), something borrowed (the premise), something blue (a couple of racy outfits). Even 13 years later this still remains a standard.

Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is an adventurer in the tradition of Indiana Jones. He’s smart, strong, a crack shot and as it happens, one of two survivors of an ill-fated expedition to Hamunaptra, the legendary (some would say mythical) Egyptian city of the dead. It’s reputed to be the resting place of the treasure of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It’s also the resting place of Im-Ho-Tep, the high priest of the dead and murderer of Pharaoh Seti II. Even back then they frowned on regicide a little; ol’ Im-Ho-Tep got the nastiest Egyptian punishment there is which is to be slowly devoured by flesh-eating scarab beetles after being entombed while still alive. That definitely leaves a mark (those Egyptians could be pretty nasty when they wanted to be).

Cut to the 1920’s. After Evy Carnahan (Weisz), a sweet-natured librarian discovers a map to the legendary lost city, she enlists O’Connell, Jonathan (Hannah) her ne’er-do-well brother and a corrupt Warden (Djalili) – read designated victim – to help find the site, where the Book of Amon Ra, which contains the secrets of Egyptian magic, is also said to reside.

What they do find when they finally get there is the Book of the Dead. This awakens Im-Ho-Tep, who is mighty steamed – as you would be if you had been buried alive with flesh-eating beetles. He brings with him the ten plagues of Egypt (the ones in Exodus – check out The Ten Commandments if you aren’t up on them) and the ability to control the elements.

He wants to re-animate his dead lover (after 2,000 years, a fella’s got needs) and kidnaps the librarian to do so. From here on in, it’s a roller-coaster ride of dazzling special effects, spine-tingling thrills and daring escapes.

This is one of the best movies — in terms of sheer entertainment — that’s come down the pike since, say, Aliens or at maybe even the aforementioned Raiders of the Lost Ark. It moves at breakneck speed and visually is superb eye candy. Director Stephen Sommers took a fairly hackneyed monster movie and turned it into a franchise for Universal, which sorely needed one.

And Brendan Fraser as an action hero? Who’da thunk it, but it works. Fraser is very likable, in the tradition of Jimmy Stewart. Weisz, then at the beginning of a career that has brought her an Oscar to this point, did a good job as the plucky heroine and Hannah set the bar for the comic relief. Fehr, playing a kind of Guardian of Hamunaptra, shows some Arabic hotness for the ladies and makes a credible action hero in his own right but you’re not watching the movie for the acting. It’s all about More and Bigger and Louder, and The Mummy delivers.

While some of the scenes are a bit too intense for younger children in general, this is one fine family entertainment that you’ll want to add to your video library. particularly if you have teenagers in the house.

WHY RENT THIS: Fun and entertaining. Re-invents the classic movie monster film. Great CGI effects for their time. Weisz and Fraser make an attractive heroic couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes are a bit grisly and may be too scary for smaller kids.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of violence and a bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Ardith Bay, the character Fehr plays, is an anagram of Death By Ra. It is also the name of the character played by Boris Karloff in the original 1932 version.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: In the original DVD release there was a  text Egyptology feature that is actually quite informative. The 2001 Ultimate Edition includes a timeline of the reiging Pharaohs of Egypt. The 2008 Deluxe Edition included a storyboard to film feature. All of these are available on the DVD version as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $415.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Outsourced

 

Titanic


Titanic

The great ship on it's last night of it's life.

(20th Century Fox/Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, Suzy Amis, Danny Nucci, Bernard Fox. Directed by James Cameron

When Avatar was released, few would have predicted that it would overtake Titanic as box office champion but it did indeed. When Titanic was released, there were many who were predicting that the film would be one of the most expensive failures ever.

Brock Lovett (Paxton) is part of an expedition that is tasked with retrieving artifacts from the most famous wreck of all times, the Titanic. It becomes evident that he is searching for something specific; he sends his remote vehicles into a specific cabin and is thrilled when he retrieves a safe, sitting on the bottom of the ocean for 80 years. When he opens the safe, however, the prize isn’t in it.

They do find a portfolio of pencil drawings (how these would have survived immersed in sea water for 80 years I have no idea), one of which depicts a nude woman wearing a necklace with a large stone on it. It turns out this stone is the Heart of the Sea, cut from a larger diamond owned by Louis XIV. It had been purchased by a wealthy industrialist and was presumed to have gone down with the ship he had been sailing across the Atlantic on in 1912 (you guessed it) and would be nearly priceless on today’s market.

When images of the drawing are shown on television, an old woman named Rose Dawson (Stuart) is startled. She makes a call that is transferred to Lovett aboard the Russian research vessel hovering in the sea above the wreck and tells him that the drawing is of her. Seeing as she is Lovett’s best lead to finding the diamond, he flies her aboard. As she watches footage of the deep sea rovers filming aboard the silent, dark wreck in the endless night of the bottom of the North Atlantic, she tells him her story.

Rose deWitt Bukater (Winslet) is preparing for the trans-Atlantic crossing on board the newest and most heralded ship of the White Star line, the RMS Titanic. She is accompanied by Ruth (Fisher), her mother and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Zane), a wealthy industrialist and his manservant Lovejoy (Warner). While most of them are looking forward to a crossing aboard the most luxuriously appointed ship of its time, Rose sees it as a prison ship taking her to a life of endless boredom.

Unlike many women of her era, Rose has a spark of curiosity and adventurousness, curious about the world and in love with life. She dreads being the meek and mindless mistress of a household, caring only for her husband and children’s needs and never spreading her wings. She may look calm and serene on the outside but on the inside she’s screaming.

Jack Dawson (di Caprio) lives by the seat of his pants. He wins his steerage tickets for the great ship in a poker game and looks at the Titanic as a means of transportation only, of getting back to the United States after years of knocking about Europe (and Paris in particular) as an artist, getting by on what drawings he can sell for pennies.

Rose, desperate and looking for a way out, sees only one. She runs to the bow of the ship and intends to throw herself off. Jack, stargazing on the bow sees her and manages to talk her out of carrying through with her plan. She nearly falls climbing over the railing but Jack rescues her. A couple of crewmen come upon Jack and Rose crumpled in a heap and mistakes it for an assault on a first class passenger by a third class passenger. However, as Cal and Lovejoy are summoned along with acquaintance Colonel Gracie (Fox), the misunderstanding is quickly sorted out and Jack is revealed to be a hero. Cal wants to give the boy $20 for his trouble but this displeases Rose and so Jack is invited to the first class passenger’s dining room for dinner the next evening.

The next day Rose spends some time with Jack and they begin to get to know each other better. Rose is at first a bit put off by some of Jack’s vulgarities but as Jack shows her some of his drawings, she realizes that he is a talented artist with a rather sensitive soul. She realizes that she really likes this young man.

Jack is completely unprepared for the dinner, but fellow passenger Molly Brown (Bates) takes pity on him and supplies him with a tuxedo that her son wore. Jack arrives at the dinner self-possessed and unflappable, utterly calm in a sea full of sharks. Rose becomes more intrigued and when the men adjourn from the dinner table to go to the lounge for cigars and brandy “and to congratulate themselves on owning the world” as Rose puts it, Jack invites Rose to a party down in steerage. She is very much taken by the wild lively dancing, the drinking and the frivolity.

The next day, Jack can’t get Rose out of his mind and attempts to go see her again, but is rebuffed. He finally corners Rose, pulling her out of a tour led by ship designer Andrews (Garber), but she tells him that their romance is impossible. He counters that he just wants to make sure she’s all right, because her lifestyle is snuffing out her spirit and will eventually kill the woman she is. She sends him away, but realizes he’s right.

The Captain (Hill) is aware of icebergs in the North Atlantic at this time of year and wants to be cautious, but the ship’s owner, Ismay (Hyde) is more interested in publicity and wants to arrive in New York ahead of schedule. Captain Smith orders all the boilers to be lit and the Titanic sails full steam into destiny. Who will survive? Can Jack and Rose survive the sinking and end up together despite all the obstacles between them?

The voyage of the Titanic holds a fascination for nearly everybody. Deemed unsinkable at the time it was built, it has become a symbol for man’s hubris, as well as for the class structure that dominated society at the time; nearly everyone in steerage drowned and there are reports that crew members kept the steerage passengers behind locked gates while the 1st class passengers were loaded aboard half-full lifeboats that there were not nearly enough of.

Some say the definitive Titanic movie was the A Night to Remember (1958) which had more of a documentary feel to it but this one at least keeps most of the salient facts correct. While much of the vessels last minutes can only be conjecture, Cameron uses legends and intelligent guesses to fill in many of the blanks. He wisely doesn’t try to include the entire Titanic mythology (the movie was three hours long as it was) but instead focuses on the romance between the fictional Rose and Jack (a trivial aside here – there was in fact a J. Dawson that died on board the Titanic, a fitter named Joseph, and his grave in Halifax is now one of the most visited in the cemetery since the movie was released). Fortunately, the chemistry between di Caprio and Winslet is marvelous and we wind up caring that they wind up together, and feel concern that they both survive the disaster (in fact, we know for sure that Rose will since her character is seen in the opening modern day sequence).

This was the movie that made stars of di Caprio and Winslet, and even seeing it as many times as I have I never get tired of their performances. In fact, in Love Actually Liam Neeson uses a video of the movie as a tonic to cure his lovesick son and I’m sure that in reality many a lovelorn sort has done the same.

The recreation of the great ship was painstakingly executed, with many of the original providers of furnishings used to make new versions based on the original plans. As a result, the sets on board the Titanic are magnificent and historically accurate for the most part (there are some subtle differences – the Grand Staircase on board the original was a bit less grand, simply because people in that era were actually a little smaller than they are today).

A movie like this almost by definition has to be special effects-heavy and indeed it is, but they are rarely intrusive. There were some primitive computer animated shots of the vessel sailing the sea, some of which are crude by today’s standards (one such shot that was more or less a helicopter shot looked patently fake, even in 1997) but for the most part the movie holds up more than a decade after its release.

This was a movie that became an event. Nearly everything is iconic, from the image of Jack Dawson standing at the prow shouting “I’m the king of the world!” to Celine Dion’s Oscar-winning theme song. It is the only movie I’ve ever seen more than twice in a theater, and maybe one of the few I’d still go see again. On a personal level, the movie has a great deal of meaning to me – Da Queen and I saw it while we were dating, and less than three months before we were married. It holds significance on that personal level and of course on a historical level for the film industry.

In many ways it was the perfect movie. It attracted nearly every niche audience; women loved the romance, men loved the disaster and everyone loved the scope of it. It works on nearly every level and even though it is in some ways a standard Hollywood romance on an epic scale, it still remains one of the movies that will be a standard other movies are compared to for decades to come.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a modern classic and some of the action holds up well. Di Caprio and Winslet have a great deal of chemistry as a couple.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the digital effects are a bit crude and didn’t work even in 1997. It’s quite likely you’ve already seen this movie a number of times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality and violence, but the disaster epic has some horrific images that may be too graphic for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The most expensive film made during the 20th century, the production cost more than it did to build the original Titanic.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is no Blu-Ray edition yet for this film, but there are three DVD versions available; a bare-bones 1999 release, a 10th Anniversary release from 2007 that has a number of features and the three-disc Special Collector’s Edition from 2005. Most of the features are fairly mundane, but there is a commentary track by two historians that gives a great deal of insight into the historical accuracy of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Green Zone