A GHOST STORY a gimmick in search of a movie

David Lowrey’s minimalistic and minimally budgeted A Ghost Story is aimed squarely, and unapologetically, at the indy market and audiences looking for anything resembling a typical horror movie will be massively disappointed. The ghost in question here literally wears a bedsheet for nearly the entire movie – I wish I were making that up. The bedsheet is the point though, a gimmick in search of a movie.

Make no mistake – this is no remake of the similarly named 1981 Ghost Story based on the Peter Straub bestseller. That movie, directed by John Irvin and starring Craig Wasson, Alice Krige, Fred Astaire and John Houseman, among others, was a big budget affair marketed for a wide audience.

In Lowrey’s movie, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a young couple identified only as “C” and “M” in the end credits. That artsy little touch should be enough to the have the Saturday night popcorn movie crowd running for the door. The otherwise unnamed couple are apparently in disagreement over whether or not to move. M wants to move to somewhere more modern and less isolated, while C, a songwriter, feels a strong attachment to their current home, a painfully nondescript single-story that came with an old piano. Other than having their sleep disturbed once by a sudden (and unexplained) clang on the keyboard during the night, there’s no foreshadowing C’s sudden death.

Someone has to be the ghost

But someone has to be the ghost, of course, and C dies in a car accident fairly early in the movie. Lowrey doesn’t show us the accident – he doesn’t have the budget for it, for one thing. But that’s also not the way this movie functions. Instead he shows the aftermath in tedious slow motion. After a moment alone with her husband at the morgue, the M covers the C’s body, we are primed for the corpse to stir. When it does actually sit up, draped in a sheet, and steps off the gurney, the effect is undeniably startling. But soon Lowrey includes a nearly four minute scene, done in one shot, of M sitting on the kitchen floor, eating a pie alone in stark, solitary silence until she runs to the bathroom (seen in the background) to vomit.

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Courtesy A24 2017

The movie’s view is clearly that life is for the living, and the ghost, who increasingly seems to be channeling Charlie Brown in the Halloween TV special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, can do nothing but watch forlornly. He does lose his temper and knocks books off a shelf after an unidentified man kisses M in the doorway. Inevitably, she moves out, and the ghost is left to watch as future inhabitants, including a Spanish-speaking single mother, and a maddeningly pretentious amateur philosopher who’s kind of like the guy you dread getting stuck behind in line at Starbucks.

A meditation on love, loss and existence itself

Eventually the ghost, and the movie, are liberated from even a linear presentation of time, and we accelerate through the future and then nose dive (literally) into the past. A Ghost Story invites us to think of it as a meditation on love, loss and existence itself, but movies do not function best as meditations. This meditation, in any event, is singularly bleak, and clearly presents non-existence as the less painful alternative than an eternity of detached observation.

Are you sure it’s Casey Affleck under the sheet…?

It is also an open question as to whether or not audiences can really identify or empathize with bed linens. Once C dies, Casey Affleck’s face is not seen again in the movie, and the ghost’s only dialogue, with another sheet-wearing ghost, is delivered only via subtitles. One might be forgiven for wondering whether or not the Academy Award® winner was actually on set for most of the movie. Although the argument might be made that the ghost’s forlorn shoulder-sagging is distinctively Affleckian, it’s not convincing.

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Courtesy A24 2017

A Ghost Story has a one hour and thirty-two minute running time, but feels longer. The movie is shot in an antiquated, nearly square 1.33:1 aspect ratio – which is surprisingly distracting. Viewers who notice it may waste a fair amount of time waiting for the movie to transition to widescreen. It never does.

DUNKIRK: An Instant Classic

Dunkirk is an instant classic – a tight, well-constructed war movie that makes audiences appreciate, and even feel, the sacrifices made by veterans of conflicts past. Key to this movie’s success is director Christopher Nolan, one of the best craftsmen in a medium where epic scale and scope have become routine.

Nolan is best-known for his “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy, along with the science fiction epics Inception and Interstellar. As good as those box office hits were, Nolan has no doubt found you don’t get much Oscar gold for genre pictures, no matter how well done. (Although the Academy expanded the number of nominations for Best Picture in part to criticism that The Dark Knight was unfairly overlooked.) You do, on the other hand, stand a good chance at Oscar recognition for inspirational historical drama, and that brings us to Dunkirk.

The evacuation of Dunkirk in fact marked a military disaster for the British in the early days of World War II, but it undoubtedly preserved England’s ability to fight another day. Some four hundred thousand troops were trapped on the beaches of France, with the German army and air force closing in. A massacre seemed inevitable. Getting those men home was a logistical master stroke that rallied the British civilian population.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2017

Triptych story follows land, sea and air campaigns

Those who have seen Nolan’s early movie, Memento, or his more recent Interstellar, already know that Nolan likes playing with time and story structure. The sole credited screenwriter on Dunkirk, Nolan constructs his story as a triptych. Recognizing that the story took place on land, sea and in the air, he tells the story in three interwoven strands that actually take place over different lengths of time: land (one week), sea (one day) and air (one hour). Despite the epic scale, most of the sprawling story focuses on small groups of participants: privates on the beach, hoping for deliverance, a private citizen piloting his pleasure boat across the channel to pick up as many soldiers as he can, and a couple of Spitfire pilots, providing what meager air cover the RAF can risk.

The story lines are all fictitious, but based on the factual events of the evacuation of Dunkirk, and other than a little exaggerated derring-do in the aerial sequences, Nolan keeps his characters acting like real people, not two-dimensional, cardboard hero cutouts.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2017

The advantages of large format film

The result is both condensed and complex, expansive and intimate. Dunkirk is big, make no mistake. Nolan shot the movie on large format film stocks: 65 millimeter, the medium of choice for the huge, road show epics of the fifties and sixties like Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Ice Station Zebra, 2001: A Space Odyssey and IMAX, the biggest of the big. This was an unusual choice in this increasingly digital age, but dear Lord, is it justified by the results. Not only does film, particularly large format film, enhance detail, but it vastly enriches the texture of images, which is a massive advantage given Dunkirk’s minimalistic dialogue.

From the opening scene, Dunkirk makes us understood the danger the troops face, as German sharpshooters pick off a group of British soldiers mere yards from the beachhead. “We surround you,” reads an air-dropped leaflet that pretty much sums up the Allies’ position. Backed up to the sea, what remains of the British Expeditionary Force can practically see England, only 26 miles away, but it might as well be another planet. We follow much of this action through the eyes of a soldier played by Fionn Whitehead and billed as “Tommy,” though honestly this critic can’t remember actually hearing him addressed by name. In any event, Tommy, slim and handsome, looks as though he just graduated from high school, and serves as a vivid reminder that even the most morally defensible wars are fought by soldiers who aren’t far removed from childhood. Tommy makes a fine guide through the week long ordeal on the beach and eventually the evacuation ships.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2017

We do see some officers on the beaches, particularly Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy, but the land scenes are primarily seen from a grunt’s eye view. Pop star Harry Styles, who makes his feature film acting debut, is perfectly serviceable in his small role, reportedly expanded by Nolan during production. Whether he’s on screen long enough to satisfy his legions of adolescent fans remains to be seen, but he more than holds his own in a movie that’s marked by fine acting.

On the sea, in some of the film’s most compelling and suspenseful sequences, a wonderfully understated Mark Rylance shines as a private citizen piloting his own pleasure craft to Dunkirk, along with his teen son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend (Barry Keoghan) to bring as many soldiers as they can back to England. Their task is complicated when they rescue Nolan regular Cillian Murphy from a derelict ship. Murphy gives a heart-wringing performance as a shell-shocked soldier who is determined not to go back to Dunkirk.

In the air, the story largely revolves around an RAF flier played by Tom Hardy. Hardy apparently loves challenges, and he’s always up to them. Here, almost all of his screen time is in the confined space of a Spitfire cockpit, with most of his face covered by an oxygen mask most of the time and and he has nearly no dialogue. Okay, so he has no dialogue, no body language and pretty much only his eyes showing. And yes, he delivers one of the movie’s most memorable performances.

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Courtesy Warner Bros. 2017

Propelled by pure craft

As is typical with Nolan movies, the action is propelled by state of the art special effects, many of them practical, thunderous sound and an unrelenting Hans Zimmer score. Nolan also uses real planes, where possible, and even a couple of actual aircraft on screen blow away the Star Warsy CGI antics relied on by Michael Bay for Pearl Harbor. Relying on his large format cinematography and perfect editing, the action is impressively, even traumatically immersive. No 3D needed.

And as Daniel Day-Lewis never got to deliver the Gettysburg Address in Spielberg’s Lincoln, we do not hear Churchill deliver his immortal “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech – it is read from a newspaper by a young soldier. (Ironically, Gary Oldman’s rendition of the speech from the upcoming movie Darkest Hour is being heard in trailers being shown before Dunkirk.) We don’t get political oratory like that anymore – and if Nolan is making a point about the state of modern politics, he keeps it subtle. The fact that facism is a bad thing is taken more or less for granted.

Master class in craft of cinema serves the story

Dunkirk is certainly a master class in the craft of cinema, but the craft serves the story, and that story makes a strong statement about service, sacrifice and morality. One of the movie’s most compelling images is that of a burning plane, a plane set on fire by its pilot, who refuses to let it fall into enemy hands even as he himself is about to captured. As you stare at those flames blazing on a twilit beach, I defy you not to be reminded, if only for a second, that the fight against facism never really ended.

Lights Camera Jackson Sits Down to Parkinson’s Disease

Film critic Jackson Murphy (aka Lights Camera Jackson) has sat in hundreds of movie theater chairs throughout his career. On Tuesday, Aug. 8, he will sit in thousands. As part of LCJ Chairathon 2017​, Jackson will do the unimaginable by sitting in every seat in the Regal Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX Theater (Albany, NY) , non-stop.

The 18-year-old member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association is performing the feat to raise funds for The​ Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research​.

A Personal Cause

“I have a close family member who’s fighting Parkinson’s right now, so she’s my inspiration for this,” Jackson said. “Plus, I’ve always been a big fan of Mr. Fox and how he has lived and worked with Parkinson’s disease.”

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Courtesy Lights-Camera-Jackson.com

The Emmy-winning critic and entertainment reporter initially reached out to the General Manager at Regal Colonie with the idea. He liked it and passed the idea on to the execs at Regal Entertainment Group, and who also responded enthusiastically and signed-on.

Training for the Event

Jackson’s training regimen for the event involves a lot of stationary bike at home, but there’s no substitute for the actual venue. Jackson trains regularly at the theater itself. He started with the smallest theater, but has now moved on to more, and larger, auditoriums.

“I started training a few months ago. For a typical movie I spend at least two hours in the same seat,” says Jackson. “For this event I’ll be spending about two seconds in each seat, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge.”

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Courtesy Lights-Camera-Jackson.com

Working With Team Fox

Although Jackson hasn’t yet spoken personally to Michael J. Fox about the event, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is involved.

“I’m working with ‘Team Fox,’ which is the group that deals with the hundreds of individual fundraising events that people do to support the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research each year,” Jackson says. “Hopefully, Michael will hear about my event, because it’s different from anything anyone has done before for MJFF. I don’t think he’ll be attending, but a representative of MJFF may come to watch.”

Where to Watch, Where to Donate

LCJ Chairathon 2017​ will be streamed live on multiple platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), so people around the globe can follow Jackson as he goes row by row, section by section, auditorium to auditorium, sitting in every chair in the multiplex – all 2,740.

Jackson is asking movie fans throughout the world to donate a penny per chair ($27.40), though donations of all sizes will be appreciated. As a Team Fox event, 100 percent of the proceeds will go directly to The​ Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research​.

Donations can be made at: fundraise.michaeljfox.org/LCJChairathon.  Jackson Murphy is a contributor to numerous media outlets, including WGNA-FM, Animation Scoop, CT Style, The Morning Show (Australia), and Teen Kids News. His reviews can be found at lights-camera-jackson.com​.

 

Kathryn Leigh Scott’s THE HAPPY HOURS: Bringing Joy to the End of Life

Actress and author Kathryn Leigh Scott has written nonfiction before. Last year she published Last dance at the Savoy, an intimate memoir centering on her relationship with her late husband Geoff Miller as he struggled with the disease Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a neurological condition for which there is so far no cure and no treatment. He passed away on April 16th 2011. In that book, she poignantly discussed her role not just as wife but as caregiver to a loved one with a terminal illness. Scott had been encouraged to keep a journal during her husband’s illness by one of her husband’s first doctors which form the basis of the book. Her new, short work, The Happy Hours, centers on one specific aspect of Geoff Miller’s last days.

With Geoff’s health rapidly deteriorating, Kathryn couldn’t help but notice how small and isolated their world had become. Between caregiver and patient, medical equipment and medicines, they began to lose contact with friends, the outside world, and even each other. The road to goodbye had become a lonely one, she created “Happy Hour.” She transformed a sickroom into a place of healthy goodwill well-suited to socializing. For a few hours every day, their master bedroom became an intimate, lively space filled with drinks, food, laughter, and music. This proved to be healthy and uplifting for both of them, as well as their friends, and ultimately, helped lead the couple back to each other.

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In the book she says:

A quiet, intimate setting for friends and family members to say the things they wanted to say, to make amends or express gratitude, and sometimes to just hold hands in farewell—that was the most meaningful part of Happy Hour. The end-of-life transition is a spiritual journey not just for the departing.

The convivial surroundings she went to such pains to create helped greatly, but there was no way to make the situation completely normal. “Socializing with someone who has frailties requires willingness and patience,” she says, but she found that arranging the table and chairs in Geoff’s line of sight encouraged direct communication. She prepared visitors before going up to bedroom that she was willing to answer the questions they wouldn’t want to bring up in Geoff’s presence. His symptoms varied from day to day, and preparing guests ahead of time was a good idea. It was often beneficial to fight the urge to hover, and be willing to leave Geoff alone to chat with an old friend.

The regular happy hours also provided a degree of therapy for the couples’ relationship, which had been under increasing strain as a result of Geoff’s illness: “The lighthearted atmosphere and interaction also restored a degree of romance in our lives, reminding us of what had attracted us to each other other in the first place.”

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The hallmark of Scott’s writing is its candor and intimacy. Particularly in her nonfiction, you tend to feel like you’re sitting across a kitchen table from her, having a one-to-one conversation over coffee. The Happy Hours benefits strongly from this conversational intimacy, and you can almost hear the author’s familiar voice telling her story. “My Happy Hour with Geoff was a chance to enjoy every precious moment and make the most of the time we had together,” she writes. She was also making memories, memories she again shares in a personal and intimate way with her readers.

The Happy Hours by Kathryn Leigh Scott is now available at Amazon.com.

IT COMES AT NIGHT: Horror Movie Without the Good Parts

They’re selling a horror movie but don’t have one

The trailers for It Comes at Night are selling a horror movie the finished product never delivers. To be fair, it’s likely that neither writer/director Trey Edward Shults or star/godfather Joel Edgerton intended to make a conventional horror film. The fact remains that’s what they’re selling, and what. they don’t have.

It Comes at Night opens with a family, wearing gas masks and rubber gloves, saying goodbye to an obviously sick old man, covered with sores and barely able to speak. Any regular fan of The Walking Dead knows what’s coming next. They then take him outside in a wheelbarrow where Joel Edgerton put a pillow over his face and then shoots him in the head.

We soon learn that an epidemic as led to the wide-scale breakdown of civilization, and that Paul, played by Joel Edgerton, has taken his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) to a remote house near a forest. They observe an ironclad rule that no one goes out after dark, and there’s an insinuation that some mysterious danger is lurking outside.

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Source – A24 2017

Something goes bump in the night, but…

Early on the family is awakened by noises.

“Someone’s in the house!” Sarah says, getting Paul and Travis out of bed and armed.

Your heart will be in your throat at this point, but this is as good as it gets, so don’t get used to it. The intruder is just as scared of them as they are of him. Will (Christopher Abbott) claims to be just scavenging food and water for his own family, and just thought the house, which to be fair, is boarded up, was empty.

Does no one in this movie watch The Walking Dead?

Of course he was – does no one in this movie watch The Walking Dead? Paul, though, leaves Will tied half-naked to a tree for what seems like at least a day or two. We don’t have a lot of information to justify this kind of ruthlessness at this point and the audience could be forgiven for wondering what kind of a psycho we’ve gotten ourselves hooked up with. The Walking Dead didn’t have Rick Grimes do something like this until we’d gotten to know both the character and the desperate world he lives in.

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Source – A24 2017

We see little of the desperate world, though – in fact so little that we have to  take it on faith  that there’s no help out there – the police, National Guard and firefighters aren’t coming. But without that element, this is just a haircut on Deliverance. Without zombies, it’s also oddly un-entertaining. A sense of impending disaster hangs over the entire movie almost from the opening credits – and when Paul and Sarah decide to invite Will and his family to move in with them, assuming there’s strength in numbers, we know nothing good can come of it.

Short movie juggles more balls than it has time for

But this short movie (the running time is only an hour and thirty-one minutes) juggles more balls than it has time for and doesn’t really fully develop any of them. The alpha dog conflict which would seem nearly inevitable between Paul and Will never really comes to fruition. Then there’s the problematical power structure in the new commune. There’s little pretense of democracy here, as much as Paul tries to play good guy. It’s very much a case of “If you live under my roof, you follow my rules,” and that has to lead to tension and conflict eventually. It does, though again, that alone could have supported a movie by itself.

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Source A24 2017

Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough) is young and attractive and it doesn’t take long for us to realize that she is arousing to young Travis, whose dating opportunities are necessarily limited. That, however, is only one of the red herring in this well-intentioned independent effort. What could have been a juicy subplot never really goes anywhere. The plot is replete with false leads that never seem to go anywhere. Most irritating is the movie’s recurrent device of popping a frightening image up in front of the camera with a loud sound effect only to have it turn out to be one of Travis’s nightmares. That is the cinematic equivalent of throwing a cat at the audience. They used to do that all the time and 70’s horror movies, and it was usually a signal that the real killer/monster/menace was right around the corner.

Although It Comes at Night is titled like a horror movie, and is being marketed as a horror movie, it emphatically is not a horror movie. And that’s going to cost them. As well acted as it is, horror movie fans are going to be bored and frustrated by the movie Shults has actually made, and audiences who might have appreciated the movie’s bleak, claustrophobic meditation on the inevitability of human failings may stay away, thinking this is a zombie movie.

A zombie or two might have helped

And frankly, a zombie or two might have helped. It bears noting that there’s little here that hasn’t been dealt with on The Walking Dead. Writer/director Shults seems to feel he’s discovered this on his own, but he’s treading on post-apocalyptic territory that’s old news in horror and science fiction. Cable TV audiences already know that once society crumbles, people cannot be trusted not to behave badly. Yes, he’s presented a streamlined drama that deals with the themes without the special effects, and the attempt is laudable but in the end he’s made a horror movie without the good stuff.

And we never do get an answer to the question posed by the title: what does come at night, anyway?

MY COUSIN RACHEL: The Agonizing Art of Ambiguity

My Cousin Rachel may be narrated by a male character, but make no mistake, it’s Rachel, both the title character, and star Rachel Weisz who plays the part, who dominates the movie, and she doesn’t even appear on camera for twenty minutes. Sam Claflin plays Philip, the young narrator and protagonist of writer/director Roger Michell’s (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes, Venus, Morning Glory, Hyde park on Hudson) adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novel.

Philip has been raised by his cousin Ambrose, and as Philip himself admits, “the only women in the house were the dogs.” Philip grows up in a frat house-like, disheveled masculine paradise under Ambrose’s mentoring. And his complete lack of experience with women is the only way to explain some of the boneheaded stunts this boy pulls along the way. Redoubtable Scottish actor Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) as a family friend and lawyer is some source of adult supervision, but these boys are otherwise pretty much on their own. His slightly tomboyish daughter, Holliday Grainger, is virtually the only girl Philip knows.

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Source – Fox Searchlight Pictures 2017

Ambrose, however, is eventually compelled to winter in Italy for his health, while Philip pines and waits for letters. Soon those letters tell glowingly how he’s being nursed by his charming cousin Rachel, and soon that he’s married Rachel. The letters soon become paranoid-sounding, referring to his new bride as “Rachel, my torment,” and begging Philip to come to his aid.  Philip wastes no time traveling to Florence, a stark contrast to the green and gray cliffs of Cornwall, only to find Ambrose already dead and Rachel gone. Instead he finds strange Italian man, Guido Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino). The questions mount. Is he another of Rachel’s many rumored lovers?

Philip is quick to believe Rachel responsible for his guardian’s death, despite the fact that his condition seems to have originated in Cornwall, and vows revenge: “Whatever it cost him in pain and suffering before he died, I will return in full measure upon the woman who caused it.”

Michell’s script mother of mixed signals

Up to this point in his life, the only love Philip has ever known is toward his guardian and his hatred of Rachel inevitably manifests itself as misogyny. But it also bears noting that Michell’s script is the mother of mixed signals. As soon as damning, but always circumstantial evidence appears, it is balanced by something exculpatory. The movie to a large degree functions, and in fact thrives, by bouncing the audience between suspicion and relief. Although Rachel certainly doesn’t inspire our confidence, it isn’t easy to believe the worst of her either. The audience may well be aware that in 1830 England, a woman had next to no economic power on her own, and in many cases her options lay between charity and chicanery.

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Source – Fox Searchlight Pictures 2017

Hitchcockian meditation on guilt and jealousy

And insofar as this goes, My Cousin Rachel is a distinctly Hitchcockian meditation on guilt and jealousy, though Michell cannot lay claim to Hitchcock’s adroit talent for building suspense in an ostensibly leisurely first act. Hitchcock drew from Du Maurier’s literary well three times – Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963) – more than any other single author – probably because Du Maurier traded in themes and material close to his own Catholic sensibilities.

Michell certainly understands the dangerous emotions at play and milks them for all they’re worth, and Claflin, thankfully, is able to effectively play the agonizingly naive Philip as a drug addict of sorts, unable to give up Rachel no matter what the cost. But Michell cannot match Hitchcock’s sure-handed craftsmanship with the art of quiet suspense. It’s admittedly not easy to make a genuinely suspenseful drama out of an is-she or isn’t-she character like Rachel without tipping one’s hand too early. But Michell cheats, as the movie enters its third act, withholding information from the audience which the characters already have access to.

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Source- Fox Searchlight Pictures 2017

Rachel Weisz works with palette of subtle hues

He needed to have more faith in his leading lady, who here works with a palette of emotional hues of subtle distinction, much like the landscape itself. It’s pure pleasure to watch Weisz as Rachel, herself an actress, effortlessly adapting to suit the needs and desires of whoever she’s seducing. In Philip’s case, she nurtures first, morphing into the mother he has always lacked, then letting matters turn carnal, when Philip’s physical urges grow beyond his control. She certainly uses her sexuality as a tool, maybe even a weapon. But is she a murderess? Her herbal teas could be poison or medicinal. Philip’s growing paranoia filters his perception to the point of unreliability.

Conclusion

Eventually, of course, we have to resolve some of these issues, and My Cousin Rachel does. It’s probably inevitable that the answers, when finally uncovered, are less rewarding than the questions. The movie’s greatest pleasures are in the ambiguities. But when those are provided by an actress of Weisz’s talent, those pleasures are pretty great indeed.

WONDER WOMAN Gives Us the Superheroine We’ve Needed

Comic book giant DC has finally taken a giant step towards silencing naysayers maintaining that the home of Superman and Batman now holds a permanent second place position behind the Disney-owned Marvel. DC is also the home of Wonder Woman, the first comic book superheroine, and an iconic character in her own right. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, based on characters from DC, is an absolute triumph, by far the best entry to date in Warner Bros.’ DC Crossover Universe movies.

This should certainly prove that audiences are more than ready to accept a woman in a lead role in a comic book adaptation. And why shouldn’t they? Scarlett Johansson’s recurring role as the Black Widow in Marvel’s comic book adaptations has been very popular. But even more than that, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movies should be more than ample evidence that the glass ceiling in action movies has been effectively shattered. (It should have been accomplished by Geena Davis  in 1996 with Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, a movie that now seems well ahead of its time.)

After a thankfully brief, overblown and portentous prologue which establishes the movie’s continuity in the rest of the franchise, the script gets down to business telling an origin story. (The character was introduced in Batman VS. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but as a woman of mystery, with no exposition as to where she’d come from.)

Disney Princess childhood

It turns out that Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Connie Nielsen), played in childhood by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey, has a Disney princess upbringing on a craggy but lush Mediterranean island of Themyscira before growing up into Gal Gadot. The one difference of course is that a Disney princess’ mother would be long dead and she’d be getting raised by her father. Not here, where there are absolutely no men at all, which leads to an eventual Big Reveal as to Diana’s true origin. What we hear of the history of the Amazons reveals ambivalence towards man – both the human race in general and males in particular. Free-spirited and rebellious, like any good Disney princess worth her salt, Diana questions much of what she’s taught, and her loyalties split between two mother figures – her mother who forbids her to train in the Amazons’ warrior traditions, and her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who strongly believes Diana, like the rest of the Amazons, needs to know how to defend herself.

The Amazons ride horses, shoot arrows, swing swords and throw spears. In short, they’re totally bad ass. Remember how Brad Pitt moved in the action scenes in Troy? They all do that here. They’re a horse cavalry SEAL team and men need not not apply. But inevitably, a man does appear, when American flyer Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands, and has to be rescued from the surf by Diana. Steve is wearing a German uniform, right down to Iron Cross and Blue Max medals on his tunic. Why? He’s working for British Intelligence, and has acquired information that peace negotiations are about to be jeopardized by the development of a new poison gas.

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Source – Warner Bros. 2017

World War I comes to the beaches of Paradise Island

The Germans are on on to him, and invade the beaches of Themyscira before you know it. Hippolyta’s Amazon’s are tough, but not, we soon see, invulnerable, and Diana resolves to help Steve with his mission. That gets our heroine to London, and some genuinely impressive period production values, and some amusing, if predictable, fish out of water story material.

And Gadot makes for both a glamorous and entertaining fish out of water, which to its credit the movie is able to exploit without invoking comparisons to similar story fodder in Marvel’s first Thor movie. The movie also provides a Howling Commandos-esque group of misfit sidekicks – a Scottish sharpshooter (Ewen Bremner); a Native American scout (Eugene Brave Rock); a Middle Eastern fixer (Said Taghmaoui) – as well as a plucky British suffragette (Lucy Davis). Danny Huston,  who previously played a younger version of perennial X-Men villain William Stryker in X-Men Origins: Wolverine crosses over to the DC universe as a stock, ruthless German commander. Elena Anaya is better served as a diabolical chemist. David Thewlis, as a pacifist Member of Parliament, retains his trademark skill at dominating scenes without raising his voice.

Alistair MacLean adventure story looks like Saving Private Ryan

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Source – Warner Bros. 2017

Once on mission, Wonder Woman takes on the look of a war film, right down to the bleached color of Saving Private Ryan. The tone, though, is closer to the movies made in the sixties from Alistair MacLean novels like The Guns of Navarone. Jenkins handles the requisite action set pieces more than capably, frequently transitioning to ultra-slow motion mid-shot with a Guy Ritchie flair. Hans Zimmer’s exciting new theme, featuring soloist Tina Guo’s electric cello, is primal and electrifying, and certainly the most memorable character theme since Monty Norman’s James Bond leitmotif.

Wonder Woman’s creator an interesting guy

Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston, a very interesting guy, a psychologist who admired the suffragette movement, invented the lie detector, lived in a polyamorous relationship and modeled Wonder Woman’s costume on Vargas pin-up girls. There were always some kinky bondage overtones to the character, which the movie wisely eschews. The movie has no such issue with the pseudo-Greek mythology elements of Diana’s backstory, and the filmmakers make no attempt to introduce a faux science fiction rationalization for the references to classical Greek gods, as Marvel Studios has done with the Norse mythological characters in Thor.

WONDER WOMAN
Source – Warner  Bros. 2017

Like Captain America, Wonder Woman was first introduced during World War II. The film is set in 1918, at the tail end of World War I, which juxtaposes a  superhuman Amazon warrior against the suffragette movement – an interesting irony which the film does not fully, or over-exploit. It does place the character in the midst of the first modern war, in which technological advances like machine guns, flamethrowers and poison gas were used in combat for the first time, as well as the first meaningful combat use of airpower and submarines. And perhaps not incidentally, it helps distinguish Wonder Woman from Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the Marvel movie to which it would otherwise be most easily compared, other than Thor.

Breakout role for Gal Gadot

Ultimately though it is Gadot herself who makes the movie the singular triumph it is. This is a real breakout role. She plays Diana as a straight-up idealist – a rebel with a warrior’s spirit while maintaining the heart of a reformer. And she kicks ass in the action scenes. She also has good on-screen chemistry with Pine, whose casting as Steve Trevor was a damn good idea. Pine’s matinee idol looks belie a solid actor with old-fashioned Hollywood charisma. He plays the likable rogue well, not quite Gable-esque but you get the idea.

Conclusion

At 2 hours, 21 minutes, Wonder Woman runs a tad long, but audiences are likely to forgive that in favor of its charming combination of adventure, action, humor and romance. The CGI finale feels a bit de rigueur and also pales next to the practical action sequences, but that’s likely to be overlooked as well. DC is finally, solidly on the cinematic map, and it’s great to see Wonder Woman get the respect she deserves.

Memorial Day Movie Marathon

Memorial Day is commemorated with ceremonies, parades, barbecues and mattress sales. And cable TV marathons. War movies are everywhere on the tube for the long weekend, but which are actually worth your time, and just as important, which have anything to say about the sacrifices and service of our armed forces?

Saving Private Ryan:  Obvious, but appropriate choice

Saving Private Ryan is an obvious, but appropriate, choice. Steven Spielberg directed from a script by Robert Rodat, and the result was an instant masterpiece. Tom Hanks gives an unforgettable performance as a school teacher in civilian life, now a combat-hardened infantry captain who’s lost count of how many men he’s killed and worries that his wife won’t recognize him when he comes home. His unit storms Omaha Beach on D-day and then is given a mission: find Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper who landed behind enemy lines, and who doesn’t know that all his brothers were killed in separate theaters of action on the same day, and get him sent safely home in accordance with the Sullivan Act.

The script isn’t without plot holes, but is nonetheless a gripping, riveting emotional rollercoaster ride that depicts war as alternately dehumanizing men to their worst and elevating them to their best. Jekyll and Hyde are both on full display as men at war demonstrate the better angels of our natures and the inner demons of a truly Conradian heart of darkness.

The action sequences were revolutionary, with an unflinching, unromanticized and graphic approach to violence and it’s aftermath, and the 45 degree shutter cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, which gave the movie an immediacy and verisimilitude that knocked audience’s’ socks off and was to become one of the most imitated cinematic techniques in decades.

Saving Private Ryan features an eclectic array of dynamic and colorful performances from Tom Sizemore, an icon of modern war movies, as well as Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti, Dennis Farina and some guy named Vin Diesel.

Patton: Tribute to one World War II’s greatest generals

But there are other movies worth your attention. 1970’s Patton, starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden, is an engrossing cinematic portrait of one America’s most controversial and most successful generals, during the cumulative years of his career during World War II. Widely misunderstood at the time of its release, Patton is not a pro-war movie, but a movie about a man who loves war yet understands it’s a moral failing. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) from a script co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, Patton is fast-paced, exciting and dramatic. The movie won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score. And yes it’s true that Scott won the Oscar but refused to show up to accept it.

robert mitchum in the longest day
(Source: Twentieth Century Fox 1962)

The Longest Day: Almost as many directors as troops

Another strictly fact-based World War II movie deserves more attention and respect than it often gets. Based on Cornelius Ryan’s non-fiction book about D-Day, The Longest Day is a sprawling, star-studded spectacle. Veteran producer and studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck godfathered the gigantic production from its inception.

The international cast includes John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Eddie Albert, Sean Connery, Red Buttons, Richard Beymer, Fabian, Peter Lawford, Robert Ryan, Paul Anka, Roddy McDowall, Robert Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, Sal Mineo, Curd Jϋrgens, Rod Steiger, Gert Fröbe and Tom Tryon, among many others.

Interestingly, no one director is credited – Ken Annakin, an English second stringer with a long career, directed “British and French exteriors,” which comprise a large percentage of the film. Veteran second unit director Andrew Martin (Ben-Hur) helmed the American exteriors. German sequences were directed by Austrian actor and director Bernhard Wicki. Though uncredited, Zanuck directed some scenes himself, and journeyman movie and TV director Gerd Oswald shot the parachuting sequences uncredited.

Yes, it’s in black and white. Get over it. The Longest Day is thrilling, engrossing and really big. Well worth the three hour running time.

Romance in Korea: The Bridges of Toko-Ri 

There are more than just World War II movies that deserve inclusion in our Memorial Day movie marathon list. The Korean War inspired movies other than MASH.  One of those, a naval saga to boot, is an old-fashioned Hollywood epic. The Bridges of Toko-Ri is based on a James Michener bestseller about an embittered lawyer and WWII aerial combat vet (William Holden) who’s put back on active duty when the Korean War breaks out, as he’s building his practice and raising his family. Considering he’s married to Grace Kelly, his consternation might be understandable. Frederic March plays the paternal admiral whom Holden reminds of his own son, killed in action.

wholden the bridges of toko ri
(Source: Paramount Pictures 1954)

Mark Robson helmed the big scale picture, giving equal weight to the romance and the action, which is well-mounted with excellent special effects. Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman co-star.

The movie is often remembered for Frederic March’s line: “Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere on the sea. When they find it, they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?”

The line of course is inspirational, but it gained a little inadvertent notoriety when President Ronald Reagan quoted it, apparently believing he was quoting a real admiral. He wasn’t, but it sounded good when Reagan said it, too.

Before M*A*S*H there was Bogart in Battle Circus

Set and made during the Korean War, Battle Circus is little known to modern audiences, and well worth seeing. Humphrey Bogart stars as a hard-drinking and hard-bitten Army surgeon at a MASH unit, who falls hard for idealistic Army nurse June Allyson. The title comes from the “Mobile” part of MASH, emphasized neither in the movie or the TV show. The MASH unit has to be near the front, and so the tents come down, the unit travels, and they go up at a new location, just a circus. This is a comparatively early directorial outing by writer and director Richard Brooks, who would go on to direct the iconic Blackboard Jungle, as well Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Keenan Wynn co-stars and steals scenes as a good-hearted but thoroughly capable sergeant.

Hollywood shied away from Vietnam for years, until The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now broke the ice, although neither was strictly really about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter had more to do with loyalty between friends and its limits, community, family and every generation having its war, and what it costs. Apocalypse Now was a trippy, even hallucinatory allegory of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In 1986, Oliver Stone’s Platoon came out, followed in 1987 by Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Vietnam vet Stone had actually written Platoon years before he was hired to work on the script for John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Milius had written the first drafts of Apocalypse Now, and if you actually watch those three movies together, you’ll find common themes, dialogue and even some scenes that are eerily similar.

Vietnam: Hamburger Hill

Platoon and Full Metal Jacket garnered a great deal of attention between them, which actually buried another fine Vietnam movie, John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill, which also came out in 1987. Irvin, a British filmmaker, had made combat documentaries in Vietnam for the BBC, and knew the territory. The screenplay was written by Jim Carabatsos, who served with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam during 1968 and 1969. Hamburger Hill is a straightforward drama about men at war, and doesn’t delve into politics. Irvin, whose other credits include the BBC adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Dogs of War, Ghost Story, Raw Deal, and Mandela’s Gun, is known for an unflinching, gritty technique which served him well on the sometimes devastatingly violent Hamburger Hill. He had a good eye for casting here, featuring unknowns and up-and-comers like Dylan McDermott, Don Cheadle, Courtney B. Vance and Steven Weber in principal roles.

359899-we-were-soldiers
(Source: Paramount Pictures 2002)

Vietnam: We Were Soldiers

In 2002, Randall Wallace, who had written Braveheart, adapted and directed a movie based on Lt. General Harold G. Moore’s Vietnam memoir. Mel Gibson stars as Moore, and the movie follows his selection and training of the American soldiers who fought the first major battle of the Vietnam War. Like Hamburger Hill, it stays mainly apolitical, focusing on the sacrifices of men at war, and the sacrifices of their wives and families at home. Madeleine Stowe is superb as Moore’s wife. Greg Kinnear shines as a gutsy helicopter pilot. American treasure Sam Elliott plays a career Sergeant Major and Moore’s right hand man, and this is the sort of role no one has ever played better than Elliott. Other familiar faces include Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, Jon Hamm and Clark Gregg. The movie is also notable for its stark, frank treatment of combat violence, and its respectful treatment of the North Vietnamese forces.

sergeant-york-1941-classic-movies-4826353-1600-1204
(Source: Warner Bros. 1941)

World War I:  Sergeant York

World War I was actually a Hollywood staple until the Second World War started – King Vidor’s silent classic The Big Parade (1925) remains an impressive piece of work, and William Wellman’s 1929 Wings was the first silent movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (The second silent movie to win Best Picture was The Artist in 2011)  Wings was also the first glimpse most moviegoers got of Gary Cooper, soon to become one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. Cooper also went on to star in Sergeant York, the true story of Alvin C. York, a backwoods boy from Tennessee who went on to become one of America’s most decorated heroes of World War I. York, though raised by a very pious mother, was a hard-drinking, brawling bad boy, until he had a profound conversion experience. When first drafted, York actually claimed conscientious objector status, but was eventually persuaded that his church’s teachings didn’t actually forbid military service. York was a crack shot with a rifle, a skill which served him well overseas. He was apparently fearless under fire, was rapidly promoted to sergeant and eventually single-handedly killed some dozen German soldiers and took 130 more prisoner. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sergeant York, directed by pioneering filmmaker Howard Hawks, is unabashedly sentimental and patriotic (it was released during World War II) and was the highest grossing movie of 1942. Cooper’s performance earned him an Oscar.

denzel-washington-in-glory
(Source: TriStar Pictures 1989)

The Civil War:  Glory

The Civil War has been well-handled numerous times, but 1989’s Glory deserves a particular mention. Dramatizing the story of Robert Gould Shaw, a white Union officer who was born into a prominent abolitionist family and who accepted command of the first all black regiment in the Northeast, Glory tells a little-known, gripping true story that demonstrates that there was plenty of racial prejudice to go around on both sides of the war. Matthew Broderick plays Shaw, who encouraged his troops to refuse their pay until it was equal to that of white troops. Denzel Washington, fresh off the TV show St. Elsewhere, co-stars with Morgan Freeman. Neither were movie stars at the time. Cary Elwes, Bob Gunton, Andre Braugher, Cliff DeYoung and an uncredited Jane Alexander co-star. With superb direction by Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Last Samurai), Glory is alternately horrifying, moving, inspiring. The combat scenes are among the best ever filmed.