A Quiet Passion


Sisters are doing it for themselves.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine, Duncan Duff, Jodhi May, Catherine Bailey, Emma Bell, Benjamin Wainwright, Joanna Bacon, Annette Badland, Rose Williams, Noémie Schellens, Miles Richardson, Eric Loren, Simone Milsdochter, Stefan Menaul, Maurice Cassiers, Yasmin Dewilde, Marieke Bresseleers, Barney Glover, Verona Berbakel. Directed by Terence Davies

 

Emily Dickinson remains, more than a century after her death, one of the giants of American literature. Little-known in her own time (only a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime, most of them heavily edited), she lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home, rarely coming out of her home and in fact rarely emerging from her bedroom. It was only after she passed away that her sister discovered a treasure trove of her poems and made it her life’s work to see them published and even then she didn’t get the acclaim she deserved until well into the 20th century.

So who was Emily Dickinson? As a young woman (Bell), she was dismissed from Mount Holyoke Academy (nowadays Mount Holyoke College) for her lack of piety. Rather than capitulate to the demands of the headmistress, she stood up for herself much to the bemusement of her father (Carradine). Emily returned home to live with him and her mother (Bacon) as well as her brother Austin (Duff) and most importantly her sister Lavinnia (Ehle), known to one and all as Vinnie.

Now grown into full womanhood, Emily (Nixon) asks and receives permission from her father to use the early morning hours when all else in the household are asleep to write. It is permission, she later explains, she would never get from a husband. Emily remains outspoken about the place of women in the society of the day and she finds a fellow traveler in Vryling Buffam (Bailey) with whom she exchanges barbs at the institutions of church, marriage and society in general. Twirling their parasols like nunchuks, the two make a formidable pair.

As the years pass, Emily maintains an increasingly faint hope of writing something important. She begins to get discouraged and as loss piles upon loss, she grows embittered and more withdrawn from the society in Amherst. Her brother’s infidelity causes a family schism that creates tension in the household, a tension that Vinnie tries in vain to mediate. Emily does get at least one persistent suitor (Menaul) but she is so cruel to him that at last he takes his leave of her. She develops a passion for the married Reverend Wadsworth (Loren) but when he is transferred to San Francisco she is devastated. Thinking herself too plain for marriage, she changes her wardrobe from nearly all black, as was common in the day to all white. As those closest to her die or get married (which Emily likens one to the other), she increasingly withdraws from life.

This is not the Emily Dickinson I had pictured in my head, which shows you how much I know about the great poet. I had always thought her shy and retiring but in fact it was not shyness that made her reclusive. She was forthright and blunt in conversation almost to the point of cruelty. She was an independent thinker as well which was not attractive to men of the era but Emily didn’t need a husband to feel complete in life.

Nixon gives a performance that may be the high water mark of her career, which is saying something. She’s one of those actresses who rarely gets much acclaim but has over the years quietly accumulated a resumé of distinction, one that would be the envy of any actress. Best-known for her work in Sex and the City, she really inhabits the role of Emily Dickinson, reading her poetry in voice-overs to help put context into the events onscreen. It is a forceful performance that only grows more powerful as the movie goes on.

She gets plenty of support, particularly from Ehle who is a marvelous actress in her own right and like Nixon doesn’t always get the acclaim she deserves. As Vinnie, Ehle is the embodiment of compassion and loyalty. Carradine also excels as the somewhat stiff-necked father, and Bailey almost steals the movie as the ebullient and outgoing Vryling who it is a shame is a fictional composite. I would very much like to believe that such a woman existed at that time – and perhaps she did – just not in Emily Dickinson’s world.

There is a definite Merchant-Ivory vibe her in the sense that we get a lush visual experience with mannered performances and dialogue that reflect the era. Especially early on in the film, the actors seem to struggle with the language and the overall effect is a little awkward but as the movie goes on it feels a little bit more organic, although the delivery is still somewhat deadpan.

This is definitely a movie for adults with adult attention spans. It might seem a little long (and definitely younger audiences will find it so) but in the end this is a movie to be experienced, to be allowed to envelop the viewer and bring them into the world of Emily Dickinson in mid-19th century Amherst. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to everybody – hence the somewhat middling rating – but for cinema buffs, lovers of history, lovers of poetry and those who have cinematic patience, this is a movie that will transcend its score and reel you in.

REASONS TO GO: Nixon gives a superb performance. Davies uses Dickinson’s own poetry to accentuate the various scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the actors sound uncomfortable with the language and style of 19th century New England. The movie is a bit on the long side and younger audiences may find it tough sledding.
FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene of sexual material, a disturbing image and some thematic material inappropriate for children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Davies used six different biographies of Dickinson as source material in order to get her character right. He believes that she was a legitimate genius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hours
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Wall

The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

The Finest Hours


Romance by storm.

Romance by storm.

(2016) True Life Drama (Disney) Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond-James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, Rachel Brosnahan, Benjamin Koldyke, Matthew Maher, Jesse Gabbard, Alexander Cook, Danny Connelly, Angela Hope Smith. Directed by Craig Gillespie

The men and women of the Coast Guard have a thankless job. In many ways they are the most overlooked of the armed forces, but they put their lives on the line every day to protect our shores from smugglers and pirates, and to rescue sea craft that are in trouble. They have been doing that since America was brand new.

In 1952 there is a Coast Guard installation in Chatham, Massachusetts. Barney Webber (Pine) is a Boatswain’s Mate First Class for the Coast Guard, a quiet and perhaps a bit socially awkward man who is liked but warily; during an attempted rescue mission years before, he had been unsuccessful in navigating the infamous Chatham Bar during a storm and a local fisherman had died because of it. People think he isn’t a bad guy, but there’s that distance between the town and Barney.

One townie who doesn’t feel that way is Miriam (Grainger), a feisty beautiful woman who meets Ray and instantly falls for him. The two begin going out and end up falling in love. But that last step is lacking and the forward Miriam finally asks Ray to marry her. At first he is very reluctant – what he does is dangerous and he doesn’t want to leave a widow behind. Eventually he relents and the two become engaged pending the approval of the Coast Guard.

On February 18, 1952, a massive Nor’easter slams into the New England coast. The S.S. Pendleton, an oil tanker, is on its way in when the old ship breaks in half. The aft section sinks almost immediately, leaving 33 survivors in the stern section with Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck) in charge.

Station chief Daniel Cluff (Bana) orders Webber to go an effect a rescue. Most of the Coast Guard’s bigger boats are in the midst of rescuing another tanker that had broken in half, the S.S. Mercer. All Barney is left with is a 36-foot motor lifeboat to go out into a squall that is producing 60 foot waves and high winds. With a small crew including Seamen Richard Livesey (Foster) and Ervin Maske (Magaro), he heads out resolutely into Chatham Bay to affect a mission that is almost surely suicide. With the compass wrecked and little or no navigation equipment, it seems like an impossible task, but little does anyone know that he is setting out into history.

Gillespie is a reliable director for Disney who has done movies based on fact before. This story because of how long ago it took place is essentially unknown today although there are those in New England who are thoroughly familiar with it. Most of the participants have since passed on (although Miriam is still alive apparently) so it is well that Disney is making this film now. While the tag lines tell us that it was one of the most daring small boat rescues in Coast Guard history tells us that because it is a rescue, we can assume that Webber is successful, we don’t know mainly how many got rescued and whether Webber himself made it home alive. We therefore have a sense of suspense as we watch the movie, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

The storm sequences are harrowing; if what the real crew went through was half as rough as this, it’s a wonder anyone made it home alive. Both the crew of the Pendleton and the rescue boat were heroic in extreme circumstances. It’s truly an inspiring story from that aspect. The CGI is impressive albeit not groundbreaking. Certainly it is enough to make that an integral part of the movie experience.

Pine is usually a lot more affable of a character than the one he plays here. Both Webber and Casey Affleck’s Sybert are a little bit socially awkward, somewhat reserved and not at all the types of characters we’re used to seeing from those actors and both do very well with them. I’ve seen it said elsewhere that Holliday Grainger already looks like she’s from that era and she does; the period dress and make-up only make her look more natural.

Because Barney is so awkward, the romance doesn’t have a lot of sparks. I don’t think it’s an issue of Pine and Grainger so much as how the characters are written. In many ways Miriam is forced to be the aggressor in the relationship which I don’t object to in and of itself but it just feels like there’s no chemistry, even though both actors are capable.

In fact in many ways that’s pretty much indicative of the film overall; it’s not anything that’s going to set the world on fire but it accomplishes what it needs to quietly and without fanfare. The story is certainly inspiring enough; however, you won’t go home thinking you’ve just seen a cinematic masterpiece.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mind-blowing storm scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Solid but not spectacular. The romance lacks fire.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of storm-related peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The boat the real Bernie Webber used in the rescue still exists and is maintained in pristine condition at the Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts – not far from Chatham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hotel Transylvania 2

Words and Pictures


Words and Pictures(2013) Romance (Roadside Attractions) Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, Valerie Tian, Navid Negahban, Bruce Davison, Amy Brennerman, Adam DiMarco, Josh Ssettuba, Janet Kidder, Christian Schneider, Keegan Connor Tracy, Andrew McIlroy, Harrison MacDonald, Willem Jacobson, Tanaya Beatty, Tosh Turner, Style Dayne, Mackenzie Caldwell, Eva Allan. Directed by Fred Schepisi

Florida Film Festival 2014

Brevity is the soul of wit. A picture is worth a thousand words.

In a sense, the war between images and verbiage has been going on for quite some time. Writers like myself tend to take the stance that words are the most important aspect of human culture; without words there would be no way to codify our thoughts, to take our greatest concepts and make them real. Artists like my sister tend to believe that pictures are more important; they are expressions of the human soul and can communicate at a glance what it would take pages of words to do. So who’s right?

At a tony New England prep school, that argument is being made flesh. The popular English teacher, Jack Marcus (Owen) whom the students affectionately call Mr. Marc, leads the charge of the word brigade. A well-regarded published author, he can be one of those affectionate curmudgeons, calling his students “droids” and privately despairing of their willingness to pull their heads out of their social media. He’s a scruffy sort but the kids love him.

On the other side is the new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Binoche), a very respected artist. She’s somewhat prickly and immediately puts up a wall between herself and her students – “I’m not here to be your friend,” she tells her students on the very first day, “and I don’t want to hear about your problems.” But, if they want to know how to paint, how to express themselves through art, they’ve come to the right place. She’s passionate about art in general and eventually, about her students.

But these people are very flawed. Jack has become a raging alcoholic, and hasn’t published anything in years. Some very public drunken spectacles have made the school’s board of regents extremely uncomfortable and there are some who want him gone, including other teachers although the loyal Walt (Davison) sticks by his side. Jack also has a very difficult relationship with his son which leads to a whole lot of self-loathing. Jack even appropriates one of his son’s poems and displays it as his own.

Dina on the other hand has severe rheumatoid arthritis which has prevented her from painting a workable piece of art in years. Her frustration at being denied a means of self-expression has resulted in her building walls around her, pushing people away and being generally disagreeable most of the time. And, of course, she looks at Jack as the enemy.

And, of course too she and Jack will soon develop feelings for each other, this being an American movie. But unexpectedly, the student body begins to become involved in the “war” as sides are drawn and debate is engendered. More importantly, they begin to use their minds for something other than figuring out how to beat a boss in the latest videogame, but the newfound relationship between Jack and Dina threatens to destroy them both. Can they inspire their students and each other to be better?

Veteran Australian Schepisi is given a pretty interesting concept to wrestle with, although writer Gerald Di Pego wastes it in a lot of ways by failing to flesh out most of the characters in the film other than the two leads. I find it a bit ironic that the two teachers in the film were supposed to be inspiring their students, but those students are little more than the walking dead – uncaring, mainly just present in their seats with almost nothing to offer during the film. That’s not the fault of the young actors in those seats; they’re given nothing to work with.

On the other hand when you have actors the caliber of Owen and Binoche, you don’t need much else. Their banter is so natural and genuine you have to imagine they are the best of friends off-set. Both of them pull the audience in not only to their viewpoint but to their characters, and both have their battle scars from life. Some are more obvious, like Jack’s drinking or Dina’s anger but much of their vulnerability comes through their eyes, in glances that they give each other as if to say are you going to let me down too? without saying a word. In that sense, I suppose pictures do say a thousand words.

Like a lot of movies over the past couple of years, Words and Pictures fails to learn from its own battle. The movie runs on too long going over the wrong things over and over again. Yes, we get that Jack is an alcoholic and apt to make a spectacular drunken ass of himself at inopportune moments. Yes, we get that Dina is bitter and has lost her inspiration amid the very real pain she’s suffering. We don’t need more than one or two instances to prove the point. If the movie is going to be that long, I’d have much rather gotten more of a look into what the kids were doing and feeling. Teenagers are people too.

I like the idea of a debate between words and pictures. After all, they’re two of the primary ways that humans use to communicate (music being the other). The filmmakers let the audience pick their own side and while writers like myself are naturally going to gravitate towards Owen’s impassioned speech near the end of the film, there is no shame in feeling more akin to Binoche’s own soliloquy. There is also no shame in finding a middle ground and deciding both carry equal importance.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting debate. Owen and Binoche make the film.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit too long. The kids are inane. A few too many rom-com cliches.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some mature thematic elements, some sketches depicting the nude human form, and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The paintings used in the film were all painted by Binoche, an accomplished artist for years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Minds

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Neighbors

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry get a glimpse of the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Keith David, Xun Zhou, David Gyasi, Brody Nicholas Lee, Raevan Lee Hanan, Alistair Petrie. Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski

 

Some movies are easily described, tackle relatively simplistic storylines and are therefore reviewed rather easily. Some have epic ambitions, attempt to tackle much more complex stories and modes of storytelling and give critics fits trying to describe them.

Cloud Atlas is such a film. Based on a much-admired novel by David Mitchell, the movie was taken on by the Wachowskis (auteurs of the Matrix trilogy) who first got their attentions captured by it when Natalie Portman gave a copy to them on the set of V for Vendetta. They decided to turn it into a movie shortly thereafter and brought in close friend Tykwer (best known for Run, Lola, Run) to help them with the writing and directing.

And it is a magnificent canvas. Six stories run concurrently across six different eras with actors playing multiple roles (and often multiple genders). In 1849, a young lawyer named Adam Ewing (Sturgess) returning home from the Pacific Islands to his home in New England after negotiating a slaving contract helps a stowaway slave (Gyasi). In 1936, a young man who dreams of composing (Whishaw) becomes an assistant to a fading composer with the delightful name of Vyvyan Ayrs (Broadbent) and writes a series of love letters to his lover (D’Arcy) at Cambridge while composing a piece of music that will go largely unheard but will have a major effect on other people as time goes by.

In 1973 Luisa Rey (Berry), an investigative reporter in the mold of her father (Gyasi again) is put onto the trail of a defective nuclear power plant by a physicist – the same man who the young composer was writing in 1936 – and goes after Lloyd Hooks (Grant), who runs the plant with what might not be altruistic motives. She will be helped by a physicist (Hanks) and a security chief (David) while stalked by a deadly killer named Bill Smoke (Weaving).

Meanwhile, in 2012 a dishonest publisher (Broadbent) finds himself with a hit book on his hands after it’s criminal author (Hanks again) throws a smarmy critic (Petrie) off a roof but is forced to seek help when the author demands more of a cut. He reluctantly turns to his brother (Grant) who fools him into committing himself in a retirement home that is something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest complete with its own version of Nurse Ratched (in this case, Weaving) and with a few fellow elderly inmates concocts a plan of escape.

In 2144 in the city of Neo Seoul, an artificial human being named Sonmi-241 (Bae) finds her life as a restaurant waitress turned upside down when a revolutionary (Sturgess) shows her an entirely new world as he teaches her philosophy and history and she soon realizes that the corrupt world she lives in needs someone to speak up for the downtrodden – and that someone might as well be her, despite grave risks by a nearly all-seeing establishment.

Far in the future after civilization has fallen, a goat herder named Zachry (Hanks) living on a Pacific island in a village of peaceful farmers and shepherds is visited by Meronym (Berry), a member of a technologically advanced society called the Prescients. She wants to be guided to a distant place but nobody will take her because in order to get there they must go through the territory of a vicious tribe of cannibals called the Kona who are led by a particularly ruthless, nasty chief (Grant). Zachry agrees to do this in exchange for Meronym saving his daughter Catkin (Hanan) from death by a nasty infection.

These six stories are told concurrently with the film jumping from era to era, sometimes after only a matter of seconds. Initially it is going to sound a lot more confusing than it is; once you get settled into it, it’s actually not that hard following the stories. And while there is a bit of the stunt casting element (all of the main actors appear in one form or another in nearly every one of the six stories, some in more than one role) you get used to seeing the same faces in different roles thanks to some pretty nifty make-up jobs.

The overall theme here is that someone is being repressed and must face a decision as to whether to accept the repression and imprisonment or to act to end it, whether for themselves or for others. People have the capacity to leap beyond their own needs and give selflessly for the sake of others; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do. People also have the capacity to force others into lives of servitude and reap the benefits of these actions; not all people act on that capacity but some clearly do as well.

The descriptions of the stories are actually fairly general and don’t really capture the whole magnitude of each vignette. Each story has an epic quality to it and while some are more personal than others (the Tykwer-directed stories in particular) there is certainly a sense that each story has ripple effects that magnify through time. While the stories don’t necessarily intersect directly, they often parallel one another with identical themes told in different ways. The stories aren’t necessarily meant to follow one another so much as complement one another.

It’s an ambitious work and without a stellar cast to carry it off it probably wouldn’t have worked as much. Not all of the roles work every time for the actors and often they are asked to move well out of their comfort zones but I suspect that they loved being pushed into places they hadn’t been or at least rarely go. Berry is intriguing in her 1973 and far future incarnations; Hanks does well in the far future and in 1849. Broadbent is fun in 2012 and more of a rotter in 1936; Whishaw does some fine work as the doomed composer in 1936 and Sturgess as the dying lawyer in 1849 and the somewhat guarded revolutionary in 2144.

Weaving also fares well as the 1973 hit man and as kind of a devil in the far future. Bae, whose work I wasn’t that familiar with to begin with, is magnificent in the 2144 sequence. She reminds me very much of Rinko Kikuchi in Babel. Not just from a physical standpoint but simply in the manner in which she acts.

Definitely this isn’t going to be for everyone. General audiences tend to want their science fiction to be action-oriented rather than thought-provoking (even Blade Runner wasn’t the hit Alien was); sure there’s a pretty sizable cult audience for thinking sci-fi but they don’t seem to be enough to really push movies such as this one into profitability which is a shame because work this ambitious and innovative should be rewarded.

I’m sure a lot of people were put off by the scope of the film, and by the reviews that placed it as cerebral. Not everyone goes to the movies to be intellectually stimulated and that’s okay. I like a visceral knuckle-dragging action movie as much as the next guy. I just like to have the part of me above the neck stimulated as much as my testosterone and this movie does both amply. Simply put, one of the movies that I will continue to debate and discuss with other film buffs for a very long time to come and clearly one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Thought-provoking and compelling. Awesome visual and make-up effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people are simply not going to know what to make of this. Cerebral sci-fi historically not a big box office winner.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some graphic nudity, a bit of bad language and some drug use (some of it involuntary).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Wachowskis and Tykwer each directed three time period stories apiece, sharing no crew other than the actors themselves. The Wachowskis filmed the 1849, 2044 and far future sequences, Tykwer the 1936, 1973 and 2012 sequences.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty mixed but leaning towards the good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Time Machine (2002)

DRAG LOVERS: Most of the main cast plays members of both genders at various times in the film.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: What’s Your Number

The Lightkeepers


The Lightkeepers

RIchard Dreyfuss has some shark stories he’d like to share.

(2009) Period Romantic Comedy (New Films International) Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Tom Wisdom, Mamie Gummer, Bruce Dern, Julie Harris, Jason Alan Smith, Stephen Russell, Ben Dreyfuss, Theodora Greece, Ellen Becker-Gray. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

When romance turns to heartache often enough, men sometimes are known to swear off of women. This is all well and good but mostly is an empty gesture; we need love at least as much as we need food and air. To deny any of the three is to kill the body and the soul.

And yet cantankerous old sea captain Seth Atkins (R. Dreyfuss) has done just that. He has retired from the sea and taken up being the lighthouse keeper near Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is getting on in years however and this being 1912 is in need of an assistant to help him run the lighthouse, which is still very necessary to help ships who are not yet relying on satellite navigation.

His deliverance is literally washed ashore into his lap in the form of John Brown (Wisdom), a young British subject who claims he fell off a tramp steamer. He is not particularly forthcoming about his past but seems eager to get away from the fairer sex; this looks like  perfect match for Seth who is precisely looking for a man who won’t be “sparkin’ on the premises” consarn it! And yes, this is pretty much how the characters (especially Seth) talk.

Their bachelor’s paradise is shattered when two women move into the adjoining cottage for the summer. Ruth (Gummer) is an heiress, chaperoned by Emaline Bascom (Danner), who has more to her than she seems. Of course at first the boy’s club is outright hostile to their new neighbors. But as you can imagine soon they are sneaking behind each other’s backs, Seth to see Emaline, John to see Ruth. And when the two boys find out that their roommates have been cheating on their agreement, sparks are going to fly.

Adams does a good job of creating the turn of the last century Cape Cod environment. He also does a good job of creating a story that’s not going to be offensive to anybody. The trouble is that there isn’t enough friction to really hold your interest. The story – which is kind of predictable to begin with – moves along at a majestic pace and I don’t mean royal. It’s slow. It’s ponderous. And while that’s not always a bad thing, it doesn’t give you the payoff here that makes it worth waiting for; the ending simply can be seen coming a good nautical mile away.

Dreyfuss has been one of my favorite actors since Jaws. I’ve always appreciated his work, even when he was in a turkey. This isn’t the worst movie he’s ever appeared in but it is far from the best; nevertheless he elevates it with his leonine performance. Danner, who has always been able to convey grace and class, ups that exponentially here. Her Emaline is a bit of a firecracker but never loses her inner elegance.

There are times when the scenes look a bit awkwardly staged, as if setting up for an avant garde stage play rather than a period family-oriented film. Despite the lush settings and the beautiful period costumes, the actors often look uncomfortable or directionless. On top of that the pacing is so slow and the story so predictable that left to its own devices the film would be a complete yawner. The presence of Dreyfuss and Danner alone give it a marginal reason to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Inoffensive and wholesome. Dreyfuss and Danner are welcome additions to any cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks inertia. Ending doesn’t resonate. Often seems stagey.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words and some of the themes might be a bit much for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Dreyfuss is Richard’s son by his first wife Jeramie Rain; Gummer is the daughter of Meryl Streep.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golden Boys

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Dredd

ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush