LITTLE WOMEN (2019) – Innovative Adaptation by Greta Gerwig One of Best Films of 2019

0
little women

Eliza Scanlen, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019).

Greta Gerwig is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.

Her directorial debut was just two years ago with LADY BIRD (2017), a biting yet sensitive story of a high school girl’s turbulent relationship with her mother as she prepares to go off to college.  And before LADY BIRD Gerwig had already been enjoying a career as an accomplished actress and writer.

Now comes LITTLE WOMEN (2019), an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel that I liked even more than LADY BIRD. Simply put, LITTLE WOMEN is so good it’s one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

And I’m not really a fan of Alcott’s novel or the previous movie versions of this tale.

But I am an instant fan of this movie, and there are two major reasons why. The first is the way writer/director Gerwig frames the story, and the second is the film’s cast.

To keep a classic story fresh, sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what Greta Gerwig has done with this interpretation of LITTLE WOMEN. Gerwig made the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence.  The film begins with events that occur late in the story, and then rather than use simple flashback, Gerwig takes the movie viewer on a journey through events that make perfect sense even though they are not in chronological order.

To do this successfully, one has to have a command of the story or else the audience will be flat-out confused. Gerwig demonstrates full command of this tale. Events are linked through emotional connections rather than time, and so when a character is thinking or feeling a certain thought or emotion, the story goes there in time and those events play out. The result is an innovative take on a classic tale that in spite of not following a chronological order makes complete and perfect sense.

LITTLE WOMEN is the story of four sisters living in Concord, Massachusetts in the years during and following the Civil War. There’s Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the free-spirited writer who values her writing above all else, oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) who is more traditional and down to earth than Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), the artist who’s also the loudest and often most troubled of the sisters, and the youngest, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the quiet musician who is the least healthy sister.

They are being raised by their mother Marmee March (Laura Dern) since their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the war. Their young wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is infatuated with Jo, and as such becomes friends with all four sisters. He eventually proposes to Jo but she turns him down. Now, the film opens after this major event in the story has already happened, with Amy in Paris with her Aunt March (Meryl Streep) where she meets a forlorn Laurie traveling Europe on his own.

The story follows the plight of these four sisters, and in doing so remains remarkably timely as the film has a lot to say to modern audiences about the state of women in the 1860s, and it makes some interesting parallels to today. For example, there’s Jo’s conversation with her mother where she pushes back against the notion that a woman’s purpose is only to fall in love and get married. Jo argues that she wants to make something of her life, not just get married, but yet admits she his horribly lonely. And there’s Amy’s speech about marriage which outlines just how powerless women were in those years, that there was no way for her to make money unless she married into it, and even if she were wealthy, if she married, her wealth would immediately go to her husband, who also would have complete custody over any children they had. The details of what a woman’s life was like without rights resonates today when some of those rights are again being threatened.

It’s a superior script by Greta Gerwig that works on every level.

And what a cast!

The four leads are superb. Saoirse Ronan who also played Lady Bird in LADY BIRD is wonderfully captivating as Jo here. She captures the character’s fiery spirit and brings her to life in a way that seems far removed from the pages of a literary classic. She makes Jo a living breathing character. Ronan is one of the most intriguing actresses working today.

Likewise Florence Pugh is commanding as Amy March. She runs the full gamut from a young immature girl to a wise and worldly woman. Like Ronan, Pugh is another actress to watch. She made this movie right after filming the disturbing horror movie MIDSOMMAR (2019), and in interviews Pugh has said making LITTLE WOMEN served as therapy for her after such a traumatic experience making MIDSOMMAR.

I also really enjoyed Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Emma Watson, who I feel is underrated as an actress, also does a fine job as the down to earth Meg.

Laura Dern delivers her best performance in years as Marmee March, and that’s saying something because Dern is an excellent actress who has delivered a lot of phenomenal performances. She makes Marmee the glue that keeps her family together, even when she’s gone off to tend to her ailing husband.

Timothee Chalamet shines as Laurie. Chalamet and Ronan also starred together in LADY BIRD, and their familiarity with each other shows here in LITTLE WOMEN as they really have a strong on-screen chemistry together.

Tracy Letts, who was memorable as Lady Bird’s father in LADY BIRD, is memorable here again as Mr. Dashwood, the editor who buys Jo’s stories but is very particular about the kinds of stories he wants. Bob Odenkirk only adds to the acting depth with his portrayal of the patriarch of the March family.

And then if all this isn’t enough, the film has heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in the supporting cast.  Streep knocks it out of the park and has several scene stealing moments, albeit subtle ones, as Aunt March, and Chris Cooper, as he always does, delivers the goods as Laurie’s father Mr. Laurence. While Cooper here is playing an admirable father, we just saw him play a much less admirable daddy in A BEAUTFIUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD (2019).

The entire cast is flawless.

Greta Gerwig is every bit as successful behind the camera as she is writing the screenplay. The film is wonderfully shot and visually attractive. It especially captures the feel of a cold and snowy New England winter. There are also some neatly framed shots, like the scene where Jo rejects Laurie and then finds herself sitting alone in a field with a picturesque New England scene in the background complete with a church steeple in the distance which enhances Jo’s loneliness since she is so far removed from the symbol of marriage.

The dance scenes are lively, the script sharp, full of both poignant and humorous moments, and the pacing perfect. The film’s two-hour and fifteen minute running time never drags.

This version of LITTLE WOMEN is driven by its storytelling, by Greta Gerwig’s innovative script and her on-target directing, as well as by its superb ensemble acting. The result is a completely engrossing tale of four New England sisters who have hopes and dreams and like any family of modest means struggle to achieve them. Through it all, they stand by each other.

And while the main character of the story is Jo—it’s her story arc that frames the entire movie—the film also spends considerable time on Amy. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are both up to the task of putting this movie on their shoulders and with the help of a strong supporting cast they make it one of the best movies of the year.

—END—

 

 

THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019) – Costner/Harrelson Pairing Low Key and Lackluster

0

the-highwaymen

The pairing of Kevin Costner with Woody Harrelson immediately piqued my interest and had me tuning into the premiere of THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), Netflix’ latest original streaming movie release.

Costner and Harrelson play Texas Rangers who are called out of retirement to hunt down Bonnie and Clyde in this period piece drama based on a true story.

It’s 1934, and Texas governor Ma Ferguson (Kathy Bates) is fed up with the elusive Bonnie and Clyde. She accepts the advice of prison warden Lee Simmons (John Carroll Lynch) to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) to  do what the current slew of FBI agents are unable to do: track down and kill Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer agrees to take the job, and helping him is his former associate Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson).

To do the job, Hamer and Gault have to dust off the cobwebs of retirement and deal with being a lot older, but once they feel they are up to speed, they’re hot on the trail of the infamous outlaws.

I was really into seeing THE HIGHWAYMEN because of the pairing of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson, but surprisingly the two actors share little chemistry onscreen together.

Costner is very low-key as Frank Hamer, and as such, he just never really came to life for me. I never quite believed he was the infamous Texas Ranger who had killed so many people in the line of duty.

Woody Harrelson fares better as Maney Gault, and Harrelson’s scenes and lines of dialogue were among my favorite in the movie. But his character plays second fiddle to Costner’s and the story never really becomes about him.

And Kathy Bates, John Carroll Lynch, and Kim Dickens all have limited impact with very small roles.

There’s also not a whole lot that’s cinematic about this one. It plays like a mediocre TV movie of old, and watching it at home on Netflix only added to this substandard feel. Director John Lee Hancock even keeps the R-rated violence somehow tame.

Hancock’s previous film THE FOUNDER (2016), a bio pic on McDonald’s controversial “founder” Ray Kroc, which starred Michael Keaton in the lead role, was a much better movie than THE HIGHWAYMEN. In THE FOUNDER, Hancock pushed all the right buttons, including capturing the look and feel of the 1950s. Here in THE HIGHWAYMEN his take on the 1930s is less impressive.

Hancock also directed the critically acclaimed THE BLIND SIDE (2009).

The screenplay by John Fusco focuses completely on Hamer and Gault and strangely spends hardly no time at all on Bonnie and Clyde. In fact, the infamous pair are barely even seen here. It’s a decision that doesn’t really help the story, because even though Hamer and Gault continually talk about how monstrous Bonnie and Clyde are, and even though we see the pair commit murder, because so little time is spent on them we never really feel their menace.

As a result, Hamer’s and Gault’s quest is largely one-sided. It’s hard to join them in their passion when we never see the object of their manhunt.

The dialogue was average, with most of the good lines all going to Woody Harrelson.

I also was looking forward to watching these two characters deal with their advanced years as they hunted down the younger Bonnie and Clyde, but the script doesn’t play up this angle very effectively either.

All in all, I found THE HIGHWAYMEN to be lethargic and lackluster. It never really ignited any sparks, and the two leads surprisingly never really connected.

At the end of the day, THE HIGHWAYMEN was more roadblock than highway.

—END—

 

 

 

STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

0

stan and ollie

STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

—END—

 

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) – Meticulous Period Piece Romance Tells Unusual Love Story

0

phantom thread poster

PHANTOM THREAD (2017) puts an exclamation point on the idea that you have to work hard to make a relationship last.

Make that two exclamation points.

In 1950s London, dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the top of the food chain for dressmakers.  He designs dresses for the most important people in England, from the wealthy to celebrities to royalty. They all come to the House of Woodcock for quality dresses. Reynolds is firmly set in his ways, loves his routine, and avoids all distractions in order to remain completely focused on his work.

He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who sees to it that his routine is not disturbed any way. He is also a confirmed bachelor, and we witness early on a scene over breakfast, where his current young girlfriend laments that she no longer has his attention.  He admits that she is right, and Cyril promptly dismisses the young woman to live somewhere else.  Thus is the daily life of Reynolds and Cyril.

But when Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps) and brings her home, things are different. Alma is a strong-willed woman who, when inevitably asked by Cyril to leave, refuses. Alma loves Reynolds, she loves his work, and she’s not ready to leave him. And when she realizes the main problem with Reynolds is that he doesn’t need her, she takes it upon herself to remedy that situation.  She takes a drastic action, with the intention of seeing to it that when all is said and done, Reynolds will indeed need her, and she will be there for him.

And it works. But for how long?

PHANTOM THREAD is one strange love story. It takes several twists and turns where you’re simply not sure where the story is going to go, how certain characters are going to react, and in doing so it’ll make you uncomfortable as you are going along for the ride. But by the time it is over and you see how it ultimately turns out, you kinda nod your head and acknowledge “I kinda liked how that all turned out.”

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson sets the tone early on with meticulous scenes of Reynolds at work. The dressmaker is so focused on his craft watching him work is akin to watching an artist painting a portrait or a master chef in the kitchen. The attention to detail is second to none.

The entire film looks great, from the sets to the costumes, Anderson brings 1950s London to life.

But the strongest part of PHANTOM THREAD are the performances.

Daniel Day Lewis is masterful as Reynolds Woodcock. He brings this eccentric character to life, and better yet despite Reynolds being a complicated person, Lewis makes him someone who the audience understands.  You pretty much know throughout what Reynolds is thinking and feeling.

And while I also enjoyed Vicky Krieps as Alma, her take on the character is less clear, and this may be a fault of the writing more than Krieps’ acting,  because as Alma, she’s fantastic.  Alma is this quiet unassuming young woman who Reynolds meets waiting tables at a restaurant, and when she comes home with him, she seems to absolutely love him.  She’s also very strong-willed in her own quiet way, and as such, she is not intimated by Reynold’s eccentricities or Cyril’s cold orders.  She more than holds her own.

But what’s less clear is when things go south, and Alma decides it’s time for action, is she still in love with Reynolds, or is she fed up with him?  Now, the movie eventually makes this crystal clear, but for a time, her intentions are murky, and that’s because unlike Reynolds who the audience knows very well, Alma is less understood until later in the movie.

Lesley Manville is wonderful as the icy cold Cyril, and in Manville’s hands she’s more than simply a one note cold-hearted enabler of her brother.  She’s a three-dimensional character with her own thoughts and goals. In fact, one of the better sequences of the film comes when she admits to Reynolds that she’s “rather fond of Alma” and shortly thereafter shifts loyalties much to the surprise of her brother.

Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville have received Oscar nominations, Lewis for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, and Manville for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role.  Both are deserving.

Paul Thomas Anderson has also been nominated for Best Director, and the film itself is up for Best Picture.

That being said,  I can’t say I really enjoyed PHANTOM THREAD all that much.  I loved the costumes, the cinematography, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ exquisite performance as Reynolds Woodcock. But the love story didn’t exactly work for me.

For a long time, close to two-thirds of this movie, while I knew where Reynolds was coming from, I was far less clear about Alma’s motives and intentions. Did she really love Reynolds? What would she do when he pushed her away like all his other girlfriends? These questions are not answered until late in the film, and when they are answered, the film is better for it, but as a result of this ambiguity the movie is rather uneven.

It’s also a rather bizarre love story.  If you have to go to the lengths which Alma does to get your lover to pay attention to you, is it really worth it? In this case, the answer seems to be yes, but it seems so far removed from reality that admittedly I had trouble completely buying into this plot point.

Also, for a love story, it’s not really that emotional of a movie.  In fact, it does a far better job of getting you to think than getting you to feel.  It’s the thinking person’s love story. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s the best formula for a movie romance.

At the end of the day, PHANTOM THREAD is a meticulously crafted period piece romance that also happens to be a very unusual love story. It leans heavily on Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance as Reynolds Woodcock, much more so than on Vicky Krieps’ Alma, the result being an uneven tale that gets better when it finally decides to let its audience into the minds of both its lead characters.

—END—

 

DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Gary Oldman Brings Winston Churchill to Life

0
darkesthour_garyoldman

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017)

It’s always darkest before the dawn.

And in England in May 1940, it sure was dark. The Nazis were poised to invade, and there seemed to be no viable solution other than surrender.

DARKEST HOUR (2017) chronicles Winston Churchill’s first few tumultuous days as England’s Prime Minister during this frightening time.

It’s the early days of World War II, and Hitler’s Nazi machine is stomping through Europe, and nations are falling like dominoes. The British leadership expresses zero confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) whose peace policies allowed Hitler to get this far undeterred. When Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is selected as his successor.

It’s a controversial choice as Churchill is not well-liked and is viewed with skepticism. He’s known to speak his mind, drinks daily, smokes a cigar, and is marred by his own controversial decision during World War I at Gallipoli which led to the deaths of thousands of troops. But he’s chosen for political purposes, as he’s the only candidate the opposition party would accept, or as he himself surmises, perhaps it’s his enemies’ way of getting back at him, putting him in power just as the nation is about to fall.

Churchill is under tremendous pressure. He views fighting back against Hitler as the only solution, and refuses to negotiate, but this position leaves him alone politically. Both Neville Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), the man who many believe should be prime minister, view surrender and a negotiated peace as the only hope for their nation, and they have the support of not only their party but of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) who admits that he finds Churchill rather “scary.”

And with the entire British army trapped at Dunkirk, with no reasonable way to escape, it appears they are correct, and that Churchill has no other option than to surrender to Hitler.  But as we know, this is not what happened.  Churchill ordered a civilian fleet of small ships to mobilize and rescue the soldiers, something that was so outlandish it almost wasn’t done, but it was done, and nearly every British soldier was saved that day.

How Churchill withstood the massive political pressure to give in and how he somehow managed to get England to fight back is the incredible story told in DARKEST HOUR. And it’s one of those stories where if it wasn’t true, you probably wouldn’t believe it.

The main reason to see DARKEST HOUR is Gary Oldman’s phenomenal performance as Winston Churchill.  It’s as good as advertised.

Sure, the make-up department outdoes itself by transforming Oldman into the portly aged Churchill, but Oldman’s performance goes way beyond make-up. He captures not only Churchill’s eccentric personality and signature gait, but the unbelievable stress and pressure on the man, Oldman makes palpable.  He’s so effective that I found myself getting stressed out, just thinking about what Churchill was going through.

He so much wanted to fight, knowing that surrender would mean the nation would be at the mercy of a monster, Hitler, and yet, his position was seen by those in power as irresponsible. He was seen as a warmonger, someone who would get lots of people killed, when surrender would be a better option that would save lives.  And militarily his hands were tied.  When he tries to rally the French, he learns that they’ve already been beaten.  His own army, the entire army, is trapped without hope of escape at Dunkirk.

Oldman captures all of this emotion and completely brings Winston Churchill to life.

And of course, working behind make-up is nothing new for Oldman, who has made a living looking different in most of the movies he has appeared in over the years.

The rest of the film is a bit uneven. While it’s certainly interesting, it doesn’t reach out and grab you until its final emotional reel. Unlike Oldman, who’s locked in from the get-go, the rest of the film takes a while to get going.

For three-fourths of this movie, things are dark, dreary, and depressing, and it’s not until late in the film when the clouds of doom begin to lift.  There are several key scenes which effectively highlight the changing tide.  When King George realizes that he actually admires Churchill’s tenacity, and in a private meeting, when he whispers to Churchill that he has had a change of heart, that now “you have my support,” it’s one of the most satisfying rousing emotional moments in the movie.

The private conversation between Churchill and his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas), where she tells him that it’s because of his flaws and his experience dealing with them that’s he ready and able to deal with this impossible situation now is equally as powerful, as is the moment when Churchill learns that his young secretary Elizabeth Layton’s (Lily James) brother has died at Dunkirk, and he marvels at the bravery in her face when she tells him.

And my favorite scene in the film is where Churchill decides to ride the subway and talk to the people, gauging their thoughts and feelings about what to do about the inevitable Nazi invasion. And of course they tell him in no uncertain terms that they want to fight.

It’s moments like these where the script by Anthony McCarten comes alive. Earlier though, the story is much more low-key as it details the politics of Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister.  And that’s what DARKEST HOUR is mostly about, the politics of the time. The story of how Churchill would go on to lead England to victory is not told here.  This is the story of the days leading up to the time when Churchill would become that leader.   These political scenes never resonated as well with me as the more emotional moments later in the film.

This is the third film to come out in 2017 to deal with the battle of Dunkirk.  There was Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which happened to be my favorite film of 2017, and the comedy drama THEIR FINEST, which told the lighthearted story of the making of a propaganda film about Dunkirk to help encourage the United States to join the war effort.  Of these three films, DARKEST HOUR is probably the least emotionally satisfying.

Director Joe Wright captures the look of World War II England brilliantly. The cars, the costumes, the sets, all bring this moment of history to life.  In terms of an entire captivating package, however, as I’ve said, it takes a while to get going.

Oldman is helped by a solid cast.  I particularly enjoyed the two female performances here.  Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as Churchill’s wife Clemmie.  It’s Clemmie who’s constantly pushing her husband along, encouraging him when he’s consumed with self-doubt, and while at times it’s difficult to imagine her in love with such a cantankerous character like Churchill, the love they have for each other comes through loud and clear.

I liked Lily James just as much as Churchill’s very young secretary, Elizabeth Layton.  She seems to latch onto Churchill as a father or even grandfather figure, and she too constantly encourages him to continue to lead.

Stephen Dillane is particularly convincing as Viscount Halifax, seen here as the biggest thorn in Churchill’s side.  He’s the man who most in England wanted to be the new prime minister, and he knows it and wields his power accordingly.  He’s also the biggest proponent of peace talks, and it’s interesting because his take here is one that I think most rational people would agree with, while most would indeed view Churchill as a loose cannon.  It’s easy for us today to sympathize with Churchill because we know how cruel and crazy Hitler was, but back in 1940 the world didn’t know this. Halifax is also on the receiving end of Churchill’s memorable line in the movie, “Would you stop interrupting me when I’m interrupting you!!!”

Likewise, Ronald Pickup makes for a weary and worn Neville Chamberlain.  And Ben Mendelsohn, who STAR WARS fans saw last year as the villainous Orson Krennic in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016), is superb as King George VI.  He’s one of the few characters to change during the movie, at first seeing Churchill as a poor excuse for a leader, but later viewing the Prime Minister in a new light, when his own feelings of anger towards Hitler surface, and he suddenly wants a leader who’s willing to fight for his nation.

DARKEST HOUR is exactly what its title says it is: the darkest hour for all of Europe. It was a moment in history when the face of Europe was about to change, when a dictator was on the verge of conquering it all, and when the odds against this happening seemed so slim that the entire United Kingdom stood ready to surrender it all.  And yet, that’s not what happened, due in large part to the leadership and decisions of one man, Winston Churchill.

DARKEST HOUR tells the story of how that man survived his darkest hour to emerge as that rallying leader.

And Gary Oldman, through a remarkable performance, brings this unlikely savior to life.

—END—

 

 

 

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

2
murder_orientexpress_kenneth_branagh

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

1

victoria_and_abdul_poster

There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—