Dumbo (2019)


Aren’t you glad that elephants can’t fly?

(2019) Family (Disney) Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, Lars Eidinger, Deobia Oparei, Joseph Gatt, Miguel Muñoz Segura, Zenaida Alcalde, Douglas Reith, Phil Zimmerman, Sharon Rooney, Frank Bourke, Ragevan Vasan, Michael Buffer, Sandy Martin, Tom Seekings, Heather Rome. Directed by Tim Burton

 

At first glance, Tim Burton would seem to be an odd fit for Disney (or vice versa). Still, his Frankenweenie was a nicely weird animated piece for the studio and he had one of his biggest hits in the Alice in Wonderland live-action version. He continues Disney’s recent trend of remaking animated classics as live-action films with this version of a 1941 classic.

Holt Farrier (Farrell) returns home from World War I minus an ar and also minus a wife, who had perished in the recent influenza epidemic. His children Milly (Parker) and Joe (Hobbins) have been raised by circus performers in the meantime – Daddy had been a show rider along with his recently deceased wife in the circus before being called up to go Over There. The children are happy to see him, of course, but they are clearly grieving.

Mrs. Jumbo, the star elephant of the circus – which has fallen on hard times since Daddy left for the War – has given birth to a new baby elephant, Baby Jumbo who has enormous ears, making the newborn the target of bullying. However, Milly and Joe are enchanted by the new arrival, even more so when they accidentally discover that when they use a feather to tickle the baby’s trunk until he sneezes, the pachyderm defies physics and actually takes flight. Word soon gets out and the kindly ringmaster and owner (DeVito) finally sees success come to the circus – which attracts the attention of visionary (but thoroughly despicable) amusement park owner V.A. Vandevere (Keaton), who wants the elephant, cruelly nicknamed “Dumbo,” for his prize park Dreamland.

The movie doesn’t quite achieve the pathos of the original except for one scene in which Dumbo, whose mother has been chained up and confined after attacking a cruel trainer, sneaks in and cuddles with his suffering mom. Some of the music from the original survives into the remake, in one form or another, although mostly as musical cues for the savvy viewer.

The movie, although set in 1919, is firmly rooted in 2019 with its attitudes towards animal captivity, which to be honest, although admirable, feels a bit out of step with the setting and is, I ust admit, more than a little jarring to those of us who grew up with the animated version. The movie is heartwarming enough to keep kids delighted, although older, more savvy kids will recognize that the CGI is a bit muddled in more than a few places, although the CGI Dumbo is well-done. Now part of the offerings at Disney Plus, it serves more or less as a curiosity. One has to wonder why watch this when the original is also available?

REASONS TO SEE: Heartwarming in all the right places.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity, action sequences (some featuring kids in peril) and some thematic elements unsuitable for smaller children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burton directed Keaton and DeVito together in Batman Returns (1992); DeVito also played a ringmaster in the Tim Burton film Big Fish (2003).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Disney Plus, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/14/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews; Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Water for Elephants
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Before

The Laureate


Robert Graves has more than Claudius on his mind.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Gravitas) Laura Haddock, Dianna Agron, Tom Hughes, Fra Fee, Julian Glover, Patricia Hodge, Timothy Renouf, Christien Anholt, Indica Watson, Edwin Thomas, Meriel Hinsching, Edward Bennett, Paulette P. Williams, Orlando James, Jamie Newall, Dee Pearce, Daniel Drummond, Ruth Keeling. Directed by William Nunez

 

Robert Graves was one of the greatest writers in England during the Twentieth century. He was renowned for writing classic historical novels (most notably, I, Claudius) but also for being a noted translator of ancient texts and a lauded poet as well.

But in the latter part of the Jazz age, in 1928, Graves (Hughes) was a man suffering from severe PTSD that was a leftover from the First World War (he was wounded so gravely at the Battle of the Somme that he was listed as dead, although he obviously clearly astonished the expectations of the field surgeons and survived). Suffering from writer’s block, he is cheered on by his wife Nancy Nicholson (Haddock), a progressive woman for her time. He is also adored by his daughter Catherine (Watson) who is still young enough to worship her parents.

But when Graves reads the poetry of American Laura Riding (Agron), he feels a kinship between them. Nancy suggests that they invite the American to their rural cottage World’s End to live with them, and Laura accepts.

At first, things seem to be going well. Laura awakens the muse in Graves. Catherine adores her and Nancy embraces her as a sister. But soon, things take a turn for the sexual. Owing to Roberts’ condition, the sex life between the couple has been on hold an Laura at first seems happy to see to Nancy’s needs. But then she sees to Robert, and soon they are not just a couple, but a trinity. And when Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (Fee) is added to the mix, jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, leading to tragedy…and scandal.

The films is a fictional take on an actual historical incident, and while there are some liberties taken with the facts (although Graves is depicted as suffering from writer’s block, it was nonetheless one of his most fertile periods as a poet) the main parts of the story are pretty much as seen here.

Like many British films, the style is very mannered, so much so that I was reminded of the Merchant-Ivory films of the Nineties – fortunately, in a good way. It helps that the three main leads – Haddock, Hughes and Agron – are extremely capable and turn in thrilling performances here. That’s a good thing because they do get the lion’s share of the screen time, although Fee when he turns up about two thirds of the way into the film, is also mesmerizing.

Part of the problem is that other than Graves, most of the character here are given little depth. The depiction of his PTSD can be a little bit over-the-top but considering the horror he lived through it is quite understandable. Riding is depicted as being severely narcissistic and manipulative, which seems to be a bit one-sided, as contemporary accounts of her also paint her as delightfully humorous and self-deprecating. In fact, humor is sorely lacking in the film overall; anyone who has ever read Graves will tell you that the man has a singular wit and an affection for the absurd.

It is somewhat ironic that the movie, in portraying a pair of women who were for their day quite progressive, doesn’t deign to give them much character development. I would have liked to have gotten to know Nicholson better; she seems to have had the patience of a saint here, and she most certainly had artistic ambitions of her own, many of which came to fruition after she divorced Graves.

In that sense the film might be deemed disappointing and I suspect lovers of Graves will probably be the ones most caught in disappointment, but it definitely has strong points that far outweigh the weak. The complex relationships between the three (and later, four) participants are interesting, and the production values are actually quite solid for a film that had a relatively small budget. And Agron gives a tremendous performance here, one that cinema buffs won’t want to miss. All in all, a very strong film to start out the new year.

REASONS TO SEE: A portrait of a deeply wounded soul preyed upon by a deeply narcissistic woman. Strong performances from the three leads. Recalls the Merchant-Ivory films of the 90s in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: The characterizations are paid scant attention to, particularly in the case of the women.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, adult themes and period smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although only one child is shown here, Graves and Nicholson actually had four children during the period the movie covers.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/2022: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
What Do We See When We Look Up At the Sky?

Maserati: A Hundred Years Against All Odds


An automotive definition of beauty and style.

(2020) Documentary (VisionNick Mason, Sterling Moss, John Surtees, Alfieri Maserati, Adolfo Orsi Jr., Giorgietto Gugiaro, Carlo Maserati, Harald J. Wester, David M. Williamson (narrator), Paolo Pininfarina, Nino Vaccorella, Alexander Fyshe, Bruco Male, Doug Magnon, Matteo Panini, Andrea Bertolini. Directed by Philip Selkirk

If you want to talk about successful branding, you have to talk about Maserati. The car company has come to symbolize sports car performance and luxurious elegance at once. Nothing quite says “you made it” like owning a Maserati…except owning a fleet of them.

This documentary feels less of a labor of love than corporate training film, something you would show to salesmen on the showroom floor on their first day of employment. It looks at the history of the company, starting out with their 1914 founding by four Italian brothers, only three of whom survived to lead the company into becoming one of auto racing’s most prestigious names. It wasn’t until industrialist Adolfo Orsi bought the company that they started manufacturing cars for consumer use.

Their early race cars were primitive affairs but gradually, the innovative Maserati brothers developed engines that would hurtle their vehicles at unheard-of speeds. An interesting fun fact; the chassis of their cars have never been designed in-house; Maserati has always relied on outsourcing design to independent car designers. It is a strategy that has served them well.

As the title implies, the company didn’t have an easy path to success. Financial woes and changing tastes put the company on the brink of bankruptcy a good half a dozen times, but they always seemed to rebound at the last moment and find an investor to lift them out of their doldrums, or a new design that takes the world by storm.

This is absolutely going to appeal to car enthusiasts, and for them this ought to be required viewing. The film is heavy on technical specs for the various engines and cars, and those who understand the minutiae of performance car engines will likely be sucked in. The movie is a little light on the human side of things; at one point, Maserati dropped out of auto racing because of a tragedy involving a Ferrari vehicle careening into a crowd and killing ten spectators, including four children. The incident, which deeply affected the company, is literally glossed over, mentioned in passing and the ramifications left unexplored.

It is also worth noting that of all the talking heads interviewed, not one is female which I suppose is meant to appeal to a certain audience but certainly ignores the fact that there are female auto racers, female car enthusiasts, female designers and female automotive executives. That’s a little troubling. Some of the interviewees are delightful; Formula One racing legend John Surtees and Sterling Moss, one of the greatest of all time, are entertaining storytellers; Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, one of the most intense Maserati lovers in Christendom, also talks lovingly about the cars and what they mean. Surprising to me, former company CEO Harald Wester is articulate and informative about the corporate aspect of the company.

This isn’t for everyone, but for those that the film is meant for it is a very rewarding experience. From the nearly century-old racing footage to the footage of the introduction of the Maserati Alfieri, one of their more recent models, there is plenty for those who delight to the sound of an engine revving to sink their teeth into.

REASONS TO SEE: Will certainly appeal to car enthusiasts.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmakers secured the cooperation of the Maserati corporation and was given extensive use of their archives.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Racing Scene
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Girl in the Spider’s Web

They Shall Not Grow Old


The Great War, made living once again.

(2018) Documentary (Warner Brothers)  No cast listed.  Directed by Peter Jackson

 

When we think of Peter Jackson, we mostly think of Middle Earth. Some of his fans are aware, however, that he is a World War I buff, a war that his grandfather fought in and who died of injuries sustained in the war before little Peter was born. So when the Imperial War Museum offered to allow him to make a documentary using their film archives he jumped at the chance.

What has resulted is nothing less than an epic documentary, but this isn’t a typical “How the War was Won” informational film with maps and narration. This is the stories of the soldiers who fought the war, in their own words (taken from audio interviews decades after the fact) on footage that has been restored from jerky 18-frames-per-second hand-cranked jerkiness to smooth 24-frames-per-second realistic motion. He has also digitally colored the film, bringing depth to the faces and making the war something less from the dusty history books and more real and immediate for audiences.

Initially released in 3D IMAX, it is available at home now and in a lot of ways, it is less distracting to watch it from your couch than in a big IMAX seat with all the overpowering sound, even though the sound is part of the realism here. To be honest, I got lulled a bit during the middle as the film stretches on. I like to think of myself as a history buff but at times even I found it tedious, although it’s possible that when I saw it I was on the tired side which may have impacted my enjoyment of it.

Still, this is a document that comes as close to making the viewer a part of history as I think it is currently possible to become. The faces even given the hair styles and period dress, could be anyone you encounter on the street, in church, at your local theater. Or at least, used to. Some of the images of corpses, of dead horses and of explosions disturbingly close by may be a little much for those who are sensitive.

One other thing; we are never introduced to any of the soldiers speaking; we only get a sense of their experience and not who they are. That’s a lot like reading a dust jacket and trying to get a sense of what the book is like. This was deliberately done by Jackson so as not to bog down the film and I understand his reasoning, but I think it backfired. I would have liked to have known these men a little bit better. At least, some of their names.

REASONS TO SEE: The footage is incredible and the technology that brings it to life breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too long, a little too tedious, a little too impersonal.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images from the war.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackson was given carte blanche by the Imperial War Museum to use their footage however he saw fit (so long as it was respectful). Some of the footage has never been seen by the public.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great War
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

Wonder Woman


Gal Gadot takes aim at stardom.

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey, James Cosmo, Wolf Kahler, Alexander Mercury, Martin Bishop, Flora Nicholson. Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

In a world where superheroes are nearly all men, the superhero movie reigns supreme at the moment. Audiences of superhero fans – also mostly male – have been streaming to these films for more than a decade, buoyed by advances in CGI technology which enable the deeds and superpowers to be rendered to live action. It’s a great time to be a fanboy.

But what about the women? While it’s true there are not very many female superheroes at either of the two major comic book houses – DC and Marvel – compared to male ones, there definitely are some and there have been few female-centric superhero movies, the not-well-remembered Elektra being the last one back in 2005. The most iconic distaff super heroine – DC’s Wonder Woman – hasn’t had a movie of her own, until now. Although her TV series starring Lynda Carter in the title role is fondly remembered from back in the 70s, there was a certain element of camp to it that gave it less serious consideration – which in many ways was true of all superhero TV shows until recently. Now it’s different for this is the age of the super heroine.

Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) lives on an island of all female Amazon warriors. Her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) is reluctant for her daughter to be trained in the arts of war, although her aunt Antiope (Wright) trains her in secret, recognizing that Diana is destined for greatness. When Hippolyta finds out, she is furious and Diana becomes frustrated, chafing at the bit to learn how to fight from her aunt who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all Amazon warriors.

The world of Themyscira has been hidden from the world of Men and for good reason but all this comes to an end when a biplane carrying an American spy, Steve Trevor (Pine), splashes into the lagoon of Themyscira. The First World War is raging in Europe and when a German flotilla of ships chasing Trevor manages to find Themyscira, an all-out battle rages on the sands of their beach. They manage to defeat the Germans but at great cost.

Diana finds out more about the conflict and immediately recognizes the hand of Ares, God of War, in the insanity. Bound and determined to go and kill Ares and thus save the world, she gets reluctant but tacit approval from her mother to go. Diana reaches the London of 1919 and it is a confusing place to her. However, Trevor reports to the war council that Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) is planning on unleashing a new poison gas perfected by the mad Dr. Maru (Anaya) – who is known among the rank and file as Doctor Poison – that could turn the tide of the war. Sir Patrick (Thewlis), a Parliamentarian who alone seems to take Diana seriously, sends Trevor and Diana deep into Germany to find and destroy the factory manufacturing the poison gas.

Trevor and Diana are accompanied by three of Trevor’s operatives; Chief (Brave Rock), Sameer (Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Bremner). The five of them pass beyond enemy lines to witness the horrors of war and of the world of men firsthand. Diana’s sensibilities are thrown into disarray but she must put that all aside if she is going to save millions of lives. In order to do that however she is going to have to confront a god.

There has been much critical praise here with some critics stumbling all over themselves to label this a feminist superhero movie. I don’t really know how to react to that; part of me doesn’t think that the term “feminist” has a very strict definition to be honest. There are all sorts of feminists believing in all sorts of ideals. I imagine you could shoehorn Wonder Woman into a category that believes that women can be superheroes and just as badass as men can and I would be okay with defining this as a feminist film from that standpoint.

One thing positive I think the movie will do is dispel the Hollywood myth that women directors can’t do big budget action CGI films, James Cameron’s criticisms notwithstanding. Clearly Jenkins proves here that she can handle the many facets that go into a production of this magnitude and in some ways comes out with a product better than that produced by a number of Hollywood heavyweights. No longer can women directors be ghettoized into smaller more intimate films about love, feelings and empowerment which seemed to be all Hollywood – and indie producers as well – were letting women direct. Who wouldn’t want to see a woman handling a Star Wars film or a war epic after seeing this?

Gal Gadot is one reason the movie succeeds. She has always had screen presence in her supporting roles; here she proves that she has more than enough to tackle a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. She handles the fight scenes convincingly (not true for all A-list Hollywood men) but then again she actually served in the Israeli army, an organization that knows a thing or two about kicking butt. She also does well with the comic overtones during her fish out of water scenes in London. In fact, I wish there would have been more of this element to the film – Gadot is that good.

There is a lot to be said about the set design here. Everything is terrific, from the imaginative Themyscira sets (shot on the Amalfi coast in Italy) to the note-perfect London of the Great War era. The world we see may be fantastic but it is always believable and there is much to be said for that. The action sequences are also imaginatively staged with one exception and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie falls down on two fronts; first, that irritating theme music first introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. We hear it again and again in this film and quite frankly it makes me want to stick a power drill in my ear. Secondly, the climactic battle is a nighttime set everything but the kitchen sink battle royal between Diana, Ares, the German army and Team Trevor. There is a lot of flying debris and dimly lit action sequences. It’s overwhelming considering the CGI overkill and I thought it almost came from a different movie, although there is a distinctly femme point of view to how the scene is resolved and that, I must admit, was much appreciated.

There was much buzz surrounding this film, which was heralded as a different take on superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters in the DC Comics pantheon was finally getting her own live action big screen extravaganza and the film was to be directed by – *gasp* – a woman. Never mind that eight out of the ten producers are men as well as all five credited screenwriters; the glass ceiling has been shattered at last.

As any woman will tell you – well, not really. Certainly strides are made here and there is hope for the future as Marvel has a female superhero film (directed by a woman) in the pipeline and given its impressive box office receipts there is definitely going to be a sequel to this film and Jenkins is in line to direct it, although if she passes it will likely give another female director a chance to shine. This is to my mind the best DC comic book film not directed by Richard Donner, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan and certainly a huge step for the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to establish itself as a contender to Marvel.

This isn’t the greatest comic book superhero film ever. It isn’t even the best one being released this summer. However, it’s plenty good enough to be a worthy addition to one’s home movie library whether you are a feminist or a fanboy – or both. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive.

REASONS TO GO: Gadot is absolutely sensational in the title role. There’s enough action to make the film palatable to superhero fans but the different point of view will be attractive to those tired of the same old thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The climactic battle is a bit of sensory overload.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some superhero and war-related violence, some sexually suggestive content and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first female-directed film to have a budget over $100 million, the first female-directed film to have a $100 million plus opening weekend and currently holds the title as the female-directed film to earn the most box office revenue ever.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: The First Avenger
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Baywatch

 

Brave New Jersey


Martians, Mexicans, it doesn’t matter: no illegal aliens!

(2016) Comedy (Gravitas) Anna Camp, Heather Burns, Tony Hale, Sam Jaeger, Erika Alexander, Evan Jonigkeit, Raymond J. Barry, Dan Bakkedahl, Grace Kaufman, Mel Rodriguez, Adina Galupa, Leonard Earl Howze, Noah Lomax, Matt Oberg, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Jack Landry, Bill Coelius, Blaque Fowler, Roy Hawkins Jr., Helen Ingebritsen, Harp Sandman. Directed by Jody Lambert

 

Older readers are probably familiar with the story of the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the World by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater ensemble on Halloween night, 1938. A precursor to found footage films of more recent times, the show was done in the style of a news broadcast of the time, leading many Americans to believe that Martians were really invading New Jersey.

In Lullaby, New Jersey – population 506 – life is pretty idyllic despite the Depression. Sure, there are many stores that are closed but it is a pleasant small town and most people take care of one another. The town may be in for a windfall as local entrepreneur Paul Davison (Jaeger) has invented the Rotolator, a machine that can automatically milk up to 15 cows simultaneously. It will revolutionize dairy farming and ground zero for this mechanical marvel will be Lullaby.

The town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Hale) is a sweet-natured, easy-going fellow who is taken for granted by his constituents and is a figure of some amusement. Nonetheless he gives much of his energy and passion to the town, although some of it is reserved for Lorraine (Burns), the wife of Paul Davison for whom Clark has had a secret crush on for years.

It’s Halloween and Lorraine’s daughter Ann (Kaufman) and adopted cousin Ziggy (Sandman) who fled Poland ahead of Hitler’s invasion (which wouldn’t take place until the following year for those following along at home) are dressed up as Greta Garbo and Abe Lincoln, respectively. Most of the townspeople are looking forward to the extravaganza unveiling the Rotolator which will be the highlight of Halloween, complete with fireworks. However, things are about to change.

People listening in on the radio are shocked to discover that there are reports of meteorites landing near Grover’s Mills – a town about a three hour drive from Lullaby. They are further shocked when Martians rise from the meteorites (which turned out to be spaceships) and turn their death rays on the good people of Grover’s Mills. As more and more spaceships land to their horror, it appears as if the human race is about to be wiped off the face of their own planet.

Former World War I soldier Ambrose Collins (Barry) takes command from the overwhelmed Sheriff (Rodriguez) and somewhat indecisive mayor and girds the town to arm itself to make a last stand. Going all gung-ho is schoolteacher Peg Prickett (Camp) who longs for a much more exciting life than being a small-town schoolteacher and is finally getting her opportunity much to the amazement of her fiancée Chardy Edwards (Oberg). Other members of the town turn to Reverend Ray Rogers (Bakkedahl) who hasn’t had his faith for a long time but finds it in this moment of crisis. Still, with lovers turning on one another and fathers leaving their family standing in the driveway as they drive away without them, can the town survive the invasion or it’s aftermath?

Apparently many of the individual incidents depicted in the film actually happened, although not all in the same town. I can’t speak to that personally; I do know that there was large-scale panic when the broadcast aired back in ’38. Some may have seen the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America which presented a much more realistic version of what actually happened that night.

The cast is mainly veterans of television and indie films and they acquit themselves well. Hale, one of the stars of Veep acquits himself particularly well; the role of the somewhat taken for granted mayor. It seems to be right in his wheelhouse. In fact, most of the actors don’t seem to be stretching all that far which is in some ways a tribute to the casting director for picking the right people for the right roles. It’s also a double-edged sword as none of the actors seem particularly challenged but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What is necessarily a bad thing is that the movie is riddled with anachronisms and errors in logic. For example, Collins is depicted in his 70s – yet World War I ended just 19 years earlier. Chances are he’d be in his late 30s or 40s if he had actually fought in the Great War. Lambert would have been better off making him a veteran of the Indian Wars of the 1880s which would have made him about the right age if he wanted to use Berry for the role.

There is also the use of words like “data” and “hustle” which weren’t in general usage in the Depression, as well as a song that the mayor is writing which sounds more apropos to the Greenwich Village coffee house scene of the 60s than the Big Band era. I would have liked to see some of that cleaned up a bit.

The humor is mainly gentle and low-key; this isn’t a movie for belly laughs. It pokes fun at the absurdities of human nature and particular how gullible we can be. It does so without being particularly political which in this day and age is a welcome respite.

The movie which I would characterize as reasonably entertaining but flawed loses steam towards the end of the second act, leading to a set piece that concludes the action. There are no real surprises here but the movie is inoffensive and has enough going for it that I can at least give it a recommendation. Not a hidden gem so much as a hidden sweater that you can wrap yourself in for an hour and a half and feel cozy and warm.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a gentle and low-key sense of humor. This is a treatise on human gullibility.
REASONS TO STAY: There are far too many errors in logic and anachronisms. The humor is a little bit cornball.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the town exteriors were filmed in Maury City, TN – a very small town that has the look of a Depression-era town and with many of the stores on the main street long out of business, the feel of one too.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Chronically Metropolitan

The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune

Letters from Baghdad


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost City of Z


Charlie Hunnam suffers some slings and arrows.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Edward Ashley, Angus Macfadyen, Clive Francis, Pedro Coello, Matthew Sunderland, Johann Myers, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Elena Solovey, Bobby Smalldridge, Tom Mulheron, Daniel Huttlestone, Nathaniel Bates Fisher, Franco Nero, Louise Parker. Directed by James Gray

 

As a species we have an urge to make known the unknown, to travel to uncharted places and make them charted. We also have a yen to leave a legacy, something that cannot be taken away from us no matter what life brings us afterwards.

Percy Fawcett (Hunnam) was such a man. A British army officer at the turn of the 20th century, he chafed in a career that was stalled due not to his own devices but because of his father’s indiscretions. Finding himself at a crossroads, he accepts a commission from the Royal Geographic Society to chart the area near the Bolivia and Brazil border to mediate a dispute between the two countries but not for nothing also to keep the flow of rubber to British industry.

Taking with him his assistant Henry Costin (Pattinson) he discovers a mysterious and alluring wilderness of rich culture and danger. The natives aren’t exactly pleased to see him and they show their displeasure with blow darts and arrows, forcing the intrepid crew into piranha-infested waters. More importantly for Percy’s future, he discovers some artifacts – pottery shards and such – of a civilization rumored to have been extremely advanced and from which the modern natives were descended. They inhabited a vast city which Fawcett referred to as Z (pronounced Zed by the English) and when he returned home he spoke about it. The results were not scientific curiosity but outright disbelief and ridicule. The British intelligentsia couldn’t believe the “savages” capable of any sort of advanced civilization.

Fawcett wants to return and find his lost city but World War I intervenes. When he finally goes a second time, he brings along James Murray (Macfadyen), a veteran of Arctic expeditions whose reputation allows the financing to fall in place but Murray is woefully unprepared for tropical conditions leading to a frustrating end of the expedition. Furious at the RGS for taking Murray’s side, Fawcett quits in disgust and raises the capital himself to mount a third expedition, this time taking his grown son Jack (Holland) with him. The results of that expedition would evolve Percy from laughingstock to legend.

Gray is a director with the kind of visual sense that characterize directors like Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog. The movie is beautiful, mysterious, and breathtaking. When the first expedition is under attack, Gray shoots it in a way that the audience can feel the arrows whizzing by and the panic setting in as the positions of their attackers are hidden by the dense forest. This may be the most beautiful movie from a cinematography standpoint that you’ll see this year or maybe any other; cinematographer Darius Khondji should be given all the praise in the world for his efforts.

The script is lyrically written and the characters are all fleshed out nicely, giving the actors a great deal to work with. Sienna Miller, as Fawcett’s ahead-of-her-time wife with feminist leanings does an amazing job; you can see her inner spark slowly dimming over the course of the movie as she realizes that her husband, who had encouraged her independence, didn’t fully mean it and that she had in many ways wasted  much of her time on a man who was never there, although to her credit the real Nina Fawcett never gave up hope for her husband and son even when the rest of the world did.

The one tragic flaw of the movie is Hunnam. On paper he seems an ideal choice for the role; dashing, handsome and patrician. He never really creates a sense of Fawcett’s obsession; he thunders like a bull elephant from time to time but he doesn’t really pack the screen presence needed to really make the part memorable. It is interesting to note that Brad Pitt was at one time attached to the role but couldn’t make it work in his schedule; I think Pitt might have realized another Oscar nomination (and maybe a win) had he gotten the part. Hunnam is merely adequate which is a shame. It also should be said that Pattinson, nearly unrecognizable in a full beard and an actor I’ve never really connected with, delivers a superb performance here.

The fate of Percy Fawcett has been the subject of much speculation over the decades and the book this is based on presents one theory which is hinted at (but not shown in too much detail) onscreen. It is also worth noting that in recent years evidence has been discovered, not far from where Fawcett was last seen, of a vast network of roads and settlements that might just be Fawcett’s Lost City of Z. I am sure that wherever Fawcett is, he is smiling. I think he is likely smiling about this motion picture about his life as well. It is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out on the big screen, where it most deserves to be seen. This is a real-life adventure worthy of Indiana Jones.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most beautifully photographed films you’ll ever see. The subject matter is fascinating. The era is nicely captured.
REASONS TO STAY: Hunnam is a bit too low-key in the lead role. The movie is a tiny bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a bit of violence (some of it involving war violence), brief profanity and some native nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Holland had to wear a fake mustache for the movie as he was unable to grow one of his own.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fitzcarraldo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: 2017 Florida Film Festival coverage commences!