Singin’ in the Rain (Fathom 70th Anniversary Presentation)

This will be a short post to remind everyone to add a little joy to their life now and then. Last year on my birthday, I finally committed to a top ten list of my favorite films. Number five on my list is this greatest musical ever made featuring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the delightfully young Debbie Reynolds. It feels like every five years it’s time to celebrate an anniversary by making sure this gem is on the big screen once again. I know I went ten years ago and had a wonderful time and this film made it onto my blog. Five years ago, just after the passing of Debbie Reynolds, there was also a screening I attended, again another Fathom Event. 

There is so much to appreciate about the film that you could spend a couple of thousand words on it before you even get to something new that you wanted to focus on. I’m not going that direction today, I just wanted to take a couple of minutes of your time to focus on one sequence. The “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” section of the film was something I had not seen in my original encounter with the film. Local TV stations in the 60s and 70s would cut a movie to make it fit a weekday afternoon slot, and that sequence was missing the first time I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” on TV. Watching it this last Sunday makes me wonder what kind of monsters they had working for those Stations in those days, who could take out the biggest, brightest and most creative section of the movie, simply to save some time. 

In the film, Don Lockwood is describing the scene to studio head R.F. Simpson, so it is a fantasy scene and it was being plugged into the disastrous “The Dancing Cavalier”. So I can see that it was convenient, because it has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, but boy does it look great on the big screen. Lockwood/Kelly showing us as a country rube, trying to make it on Broadway is funny. The montage sequences where each performance gets more elaborate as they go along, even though the song stays the same is pretty satiric without being mean spirited. It is the nightclub sequence with Cyd Charisse that makes the whole thing finally so memorable. Every costume of the flappers and hipsters of the day was outlandishly garish. Charisse in her bob haircut is enigmatic and beautiful. The grace and choreography that Kelly used in the ballet section with the long dress train is astounding. Even today, with all the technical wizardry at your fingertips, you would be hard pressed to find a way to make that work, Kelly, Stanley Donen and the craftsmen at MGM managed to do so 70 years ago.

Two recent and fairly modern references are going to close out this post. Rita Moreno, who is the last surviving cast member of this film, recently was in Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story”, which is the film she won the Academy Award for, This movie was almost a decade earlier, but she had a nice bit part which was a little more substantial than I had remembered. I was paying more attention to Rita in this film than I had in the past because of this recent history. The other thing that comes to my mind was a film I watched the day before at home. Hugo Speer, a prolific British TV actor, played Guy in “The Full Monty” a story about a group of working class men trying to put together a man strip review. In his audition for the troop, he wants to demonstrate his athletic dancing ability. He points to the wall and says. “There’s the wall, and I’m Donald O’Connor.” He then proceeds to prove that Donald O’Connor  is a dancing god and the rest of us are mere mortals.

There are so many great numbers in the film, you sometimes forget that the next thing you see will be even better than the last thing you saw. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Revisit)

The first two Harry Potter films had a lot riding on them, and Director Christopher Columbus is often criticized for lacking an edge to the films. In truth though, it wasn’t until the later books that the stories got deeper and the history started building on itself. This was a new venture and the book series was not complete when work on the first movies began. The kids in the story really are kids, not teenagers and so it seems appropriate to make these movies as children’s films and establish the universe that the characters will occupy for subsequent stories. This film came after “Adventures in Babysitting”, “Home Alone”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire”, all films that have a comic kids sensibility. He was the right choice to baptize Harry into films and the two movies he made are excellent. They may not be everyone’s favorite Potter films, but they are essential and vastly entertaining. 

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets “is the second film in the franchise and takes us to the second year at Hogwarts. It continues to build the history of the school, show us an elaborate environment for the story to take place, and gives us another mostly stand alone hero story before the more complex interweaving of the following films. The beloved character of Dobby the house elf is introduced and even though he is primarily a CGI character, he comes to life and endears us in a way that Jar Jar Binks never could. Although Dobby can be annoying, his personality is understood as part of a character forced into a the circumstances that created him. He also is redemptive by the end of the series and was not overused just for laughs. 

A character who appears only in this one film, but dominates the movie (although not the plot) is Gilderoy Lockhart, as depicted by Kenneth Branagh. When I first read the book, and thought of an actor to play this character, Hugh Grant came immediately to mind. The vain, slightly silly and lightweight nature of the character seemed a perfect fit. The trivia on IMDB says that Grant was actually cast but had to withdraw due to a scheduling conflict. Nothing against Hugh Grant, I really enjoy him as an actor, but Kenneth Branagh was perfection in this film. He had the same qualities I mentioned above, but he also plays an unctuousness that I’m not sure Grant could have brought. Lockhart is the real comic relief in the film and he is inserted just enough to justify his presence, even though the character is superfluous to the main story. This is the only Patter film with a post credits sequence and it naturally is a joke about Gilderoy Lockhart. 

While the film is a little more dark in plot line, the photography matches that pretty well while still managing to keep the mostly upbeat tone of the first two books. There are still kids style shenanigans.  and the young actors sometimes over do the mugging for the camera, Radcliffe is stronger in the role as he is moving into the other films, Grint and Watson are a little behind but still better than in the first movie. The maturation process of growing up seems to have worked on the actors because they get better with each subsequent film. 

This was the last film for Richard Harris who originated the role of Dumbledore. In the same year he played a part in a terrific version of “The Count of Monte Cristo”, where his character is quite aged and infirm. Harris was dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he made both movies and his delicate state was unfortunately obvious on film. I would never say it was a blessing that he passed on, but I will say that recasting was needed because Dumbledore, while aging, is still a vital and dynamic figure in the series, and Michael Gambon was more up to the task in the remaining films. 

One of the most inventive elements of the story was Tom Riddle’s Diary. The effect of Harry, entering the pages of the diary, foreshadows the magic of the pensive which will become essential later in the stories. The other element of this is that the diary turns out to be one of the Horcrux that Harry is searching for in the last two films and it really helps tie the universe together without making every new component feel like it is being retconned into the plot. “The Chamber of Secrets” is surprisingly, the longest of the Harry Potter films, but it does not feel that way because of the light touch Chris Columbus brought to assembling it and the brilliant insertion of Kenneth Branagh into the role of Gilderoy Lockhart.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (Revisit 2022)

When it was announced that the final Harry Potter book would be split into two parts for two final films, there was a lot of complaining. Cynics around the world saw it as a cash grab, merely a way to extend the series to an additional film and pull in some extra bucks. Harry Potter fans who read the books on the other hand understood immediately the need for this decision. While “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is not the longest book in the series (that honor goes to Order of the Phoenix) it is the one with the greatest number of incidents to visualize as part of the over arching narrative. When seeing the results of the final two films, it is hard to imagine how it could have been condensed to a single three hour film and still be comprehended. 

The majority of the film does focus on the battle of Hogwarts, but there are so many adjoining paths that need to be resolved, and yet it still feels like it is doing the minimum possible with some threads of the story. For instance, the information about Aberforth and Ariana is skimmed over quickly, just enough to keep the characters in the story, but with very little background (which may be the justification for the Fantastic Beasts Series of films). On the other hand, it was essential to get Lily and Severus in the story as students at Hogwarts and the time spent in doing so is one of the best moments in the whole series. So Screenwriter Steven Kloves and Director David Yates made some very sound decisions in choosing what to include and how much time to devote to those elements.

There are fans of heist movies that should really appreciate the way in which the jobs get taken care of in these last two films. The Poly Juice Potion does seem to get overdone a bit in the movies, but it is an effective technique and it is used in clever ways here. Helena Bonham Carter gets to be in the movie a bit more than would have otherwise been justified by her part, simply because Hermione is passing herself off as that vile character when the three leads are trying to infiltrate Gringotts. Carter is really terrific playing a character who is so uncomfortable playing the character that Carter actually is. Her shoulders slump like Hermione’s might if she was uncertain,. She hesitates with eye contact the way someone might when testing out an acting role. Rupert Grint  does not have to transform himself  except by disguising himself with a beard, but he gets the surly facial expression of Bellatrix Lestrange’s vassal, just right.  I liked that Harry and Griphook are using one of the Deathly Hallows in pursuing a Horcrux, although I am a little unclear if the curse Harry uses in one of the Unforgivable curses or if it is some other variation.

The Model used for the films at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Experience in the U.K.

The special effects in the vault sequence are pretty darn good, although I do miss the amount of practical work that made the mine chase in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom so much fun. The albino dragon who is nearly blind is a perfect match for my imagination when I first read the book, and the Goblin supervisor who is is entranced, shaking his empty hand as if he has one of the warning bells in it, is a very nice touch, both humorous and disturbing as it plays out. There is plenty of action and excitement in the sequence, but it does not hold back the story, it really does feel like the launching point.

         

Inevitably, the audience is going to have to fill in the blanks in a few places. When our three protagonists return to Hogsmeade after the raid on the bank, they are greeted with alarms that we don’t quite know are set off by. Seeing how it is a magical place, we can sort of assume that Harry’s mere presence would be enough to get them going. The explanation in the book is more interesting and clearer, but it would require more exposition and the film requirements mean we should be focusing on story rather than minutia. The same sort of choices are made with Aberforth, and with just a couple of slight references in the dungeon of Hogwarts, we move on past what was a whole chapter in the book. Fans of both the books and the films can appreciate the arrival of the remaining members of the Order of the Phoenix. We remember that you can’t apparat directly into the castle, so when they appear at the door of the great hall at the moment Harry is confronting Snape, we can fill in the blanks perfectly well.

The key emotional turning point in the film is not the confrontation with Voldemort at the climax, it is the sequence that comes before that, when Harry discovers that the man he has resented since his arrival at the school, the man he thought betrayed his beloved headmaster Dumbledore, is in fact a more important connection to his mother and the resolution of the conflict, than any other character in the film. Snape is revealed as the true hero of the story, having endured horrors on an equal level with Harry, but never able to show that to anyone and having to sacrifice himself so that harry can finally understand. It is Harry’s five minutes in the Pensive that clarifies everything and forces Harry to become a man, and not just the boy who lived. When taken together with the intrusion of Snape’s memories in “Order of the Phoenix, we have a very complete picture of Snapes motives and actions. That he has had to stand by while others suffered so that he can allow the trap to be sprung is a pretty good example of the kind of control a wizard would need to justify being called a Headmaster of Hogwarts. That Harry has to eat the words he only moments before threw at Snape, make this a story arc worthy of eight films. 

All of the major characters get a few moments to shine in the battle that ensues. The novel makes some of the losses more poignant with details, like the loss of Lupin and Tonks, but the visions we are given do them adequate justice. It is the moments of action that we really get our money’s worth out of here. McGonagal going off on Snape and then setting the guardians of Hogwarts loose makes us revere her even more. Mrs. Wesley battling Bellatrix and surprising her with a completely unexpected spell is a moment of ecstatic release. The best addition however has to be the elevation of Neville Longbottom to the status he always deserved but was denied him as a secondary character. He could easily have been the one who was in Harry’s place, and we discover that if that had happened, he would have been a worthy “chosen one” as well. 

The stars of the movie evolved into solid actors over the ten years that they made these pictures. At first, they were cute kids who played the parts well, since they were mostly cast as cute kids. As the series got more serious, so did their chops. Ron as a character matters more in the last three films, he is not just a sidekick. Grint does a good job being a stalwart follower who becomes a leader along the way. Emma Watson grew into her beauty in these films and that she sells us on Hermione’s relationship with Ron, is a testament to her skills as an actor. Daniel Radcliffe had the whole enterprise resting on his shoulders since he was eleven. He often got to have a few humorous moments in the films, but in Deathly Hallows Part 2, those moments are far fewer. Instead we get some great line delivery, like the slam at Snape, or the grasping of Voldemort and flinging himself off the parapet while calling him Tom. The most moving moment of the film is in the Coda, when grown Harry tells his young son that he is named after two headmasters of Hogwarts, and he can proudly say one of them was a Slytherin and the bravest man he ever knew. Radcliffe had his big boy pants on in that scene and he nailed it.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly hallows Part 2” is not just the conclusion of the last book, but also of the series that made a difference in real kids lives. There are still some who only know these characters from the movies, but to millions of children, reading became the wand that could open their imaginations. All of the Young Adult fantasy that dominates the film markets these days on Netflix, Hulu, Prime and similar platforms, all owe a debt of gratitude to J.K. Rowling and her imagination and skill with language. The film makers were smart enough to figure out that they needed to keep the movies as close to those kids imaginations as they could, and they succeeded.

Morbius

I almost skipped posting a trailer because in the last three years, probably everyone who comes to this site has seen a trailer for this film several times.  Surprise! the film is finally in theaters after being bumped from the schedule six different times. Many people have taken that as a sign that Sony had no faith in the film and as a result, there has been a high level of low expectations for the movie. This is a Marvel Film, but it is in the Sony  Galaxy of the Marvel Universe, you know, that part of the Multiverse where Venom lives and Spider-Man visits.  The film looks more like Venom than an MCU Spider-Man film, and that may be another reason that so many are skeptical about it.

There is no gentile way  of saying it, “Morbius” is not a very good film. In spite of the fact that it is not very good, that does not mean it is bad or garbage. For people who are looking for an hour and a half of mildly entertaining comic book action with a dark flare, it works well enough to justify your time. If you have no interest, you will not lose anything by skipping the movie, but if the idea of a living vampire, engaging in battle with evil forces while knocking holes in the city around them  is something you can get behind, then this is fine. 

Actually, the first half hour or so of the movie is a pretty good origin story that sets up the main characters for the story, the exigencies that lead to the scientific cross pollination of blood and DNA, and the setting that it all takes place in. Things don’t start to go off the rails until we get on the boat where the main transformation takes place. I can’t say it was intellectually sound, but it makes as much sense as the “Spider-Man” science. The problem with the story at this point is that it has to develop some place to go. Batman and Spider-Man have motivation, Superman has enemies, Iron Man and Captain America have political objectives. “Morbius” is a creature created without a reason for being. We get a Jekyll/Hyde figure who is not really conflicted so much as distracted. An enemy is created for him to be in opposition to, but that feels like a mechanical step to simply fulfill the expectations of the genre. 

In aesthetic and story, the film feels like a throwback to Spawn, The Fantastic Four, and Judge Dredd. Sometimes they look cool, but in a way that a drawing or painting holds your eye, rather than an organic story. The concept itself can’t be the movie, you have to have something to make the audience care, and this film for the most part lacks that spark. Jared Leto as the lead is perfectly fine, with the right look for a dark character and convincing in the early segments as the infirm doctor looking for a cure to his own blood disease. Frankly, the biggest drawback to his performance is the manbun he adopts to keep his long hair out of the way when he is in the lab or clinic. Matt Smith as his childhood friend suffering from the same disease, is never as convincing in that role, but as his part evolves, he is a lot more animated than the lead is, and that is not always for the best. The tone of his performance and the character arc might work well in a different movie, the question becomes which film are they making here? Is this a dramatic brooding vampire’s story or is it a comic book action film?  “Morbius” can’t quite make up it’s mind.

The film also feels like chunks have been taken out of it to make it lean, but those chunks contain exposition that might have clarified some of the things that are happening or they could have added more character to the lead roles. Either way it leaves the movie feeling undercooked, and the set ups in the end credit sequence make no sense in light of what we saw before. There is a desperation to the effort to connect this to the Spider-Man/Venom part of the universe and it does not do the movie any favors. Al Madrigal as Agent Rodriguez provides a little bit of humor, and Tyrese Gibson is trying to inject a little bit of gravitas to the proceedings, but those ingredients are not sufficient to lift this movie out of the classification of mediocre. 

Those of you who expect to hate this probably will, so stay away. Those who think it is going to be fun stupidity like the Venom films, be prepared for a letdown. But those of you, who like me have no preconceptions about the movie, will tolerate it at times, enjoy it for some moments and then forget about it until we stumble across it on cable or streaming and wonder what it is that we have forgotten. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

When I started this blog twelve years ago, most of the Harry Potter films had already been released, so they were not featured posts here, with the exception of the final film in the original series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2“. I did visit a 20th Anniversary screening of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” just last year, so even though it was a revival visit, there is a post on it. I continue to write about the Fantastic Beasts series, but probably with less enthusiasm as I go along, next months entry does not have me particularly excited. Today however, I saw “Deathly Hallows Part 1” and this gives me an opportunity to go back to the original series and fill in another entry for this blog.

Starting with “Goblet of Fire”, the Potter series grew grimmer with each episode. Of the last five films, this movie is the most despairing and saddest of the movies. It impressed me when it first came out in 2010, and I must have watched it at home four or five times over the last decade. Upon first viewing I felt it was a bit incomplete, but this is a movie that gets better with each additional visit. When the book of the Deathly Hallows came out, we complained about the three hundred page camping trip in the middle. It seemed long in the film as well, but on reflection it is handled extremely well by screenwriter Steven Kloves who did all but one of the original films. This is an adaptation that should have received awards attention because they ended up spitting the book perfectly into two films and each one got all of the essential information into the story, in spite of some of the complex written paths that had been laid out. 

It is true that a large segment of the movie is essentially the three main protagonists in a tent, it doesn’t feel that way. First of all, the movie starts with two great sequences, one of which is so sad it might bring a tear to your eye. When Hermione obliviates her parents memory of her and she walks away from her home, you know this will not be a happy story. The escape from Privet Drive with all of the Harry poly juice variations is thrilling and contains a great deal of humor. It is finished off however with the loss of a beloved animal and maybe my favorite character in the series. When the story transitions to more narrative and exposition moments, it does not linger over all the talk. The wedding scene has enough snippets of information without bogging down the story, that we will be able to follow some of the threads later in this film and in the next. 

The raid on Gringot’s happens  in part Two, but we do get a very effective sequence where Harry, Ron and Hermione, penetrate the now conquered Ministry of Magic, to recover the locket Horcrux. There is tension and humor and some great special effects moments in this segment, and it all happens before the camping trip. Even when they are hiding out in the woods, there are some good scenes. The dance of sadness between Harry and Hermione is a moment of relief from the doomsday scenario the characters are feeling. The trip to Godric’s Hollow is also in this part of the film and it is atmospheric as heck and just what the movie needed at that point, and finally, when Ron returns to the fold and he and Harry destroy their first Horcrux, it is visualized in a disturbing manner that also suggests how adult the story has become. 

Hogwarts is a memory at most in this film, we never visit there directly, although there is a brief moment on the Hogwarts’ Express. We are as isolated as the characters are from what is happening in the world, with the director and screenwriter deciding to hint at those events only through some headlines in the Daily Prophet and the radio signal from other outcasts from the school. The most beautiful moments in a bleak film are done in animation, telling the tragic story of the three Brothers and the origin of the Deathly Hallows, it is a terrific sequence that stands out for it’s creativity at exposition in an interesting manner. 

The most dramatic moments of the film come at the conclusion as a narrow escape is accomplished at an exorbitant cost. The antagonist of the film has achieved his goal and our heroes are dejected at the conclusion of the film. In spite of how dismal the horizon looks, the story still suggests there is a path to success and that is, the only thing the audience can cling to at the end. I will add that the score by Alexandre Desplat, who was new to the series, was amazing. The music matched the mood throughout the story and it often made some of the tougher sequences emotionally bearable. 

So this is probably a little late for most of you, but as I said, I did not get the opportunity the first time around. “Half Blood Prince” is my personal favorite of the original eight films, followed closely by “Order of the Phoenix”. “Deathly Hallows Part 1” would be next and as I wrote earlier, it gets better every time I see it. Next week, a second shot at “Deathly Hallows Part 2” .

The Lost City

This one should be short and sweet, it is a popcorn picture that for the most part succeeds and It’s not trying to do anything too innovative. This is a combination Romantic Comedy/Adventure film, and if you hear the title of “Romancing the Stone” in more than one review of the film, there is a reason why, the premise is exactly the same. A romance writer gets caught up in a real life adventure and finds the man of her novels in the real world. The pitch for this movie would be word for word the same as the 1984 film.

Instead of Kathleen Turner we get Sandra Bullock, who may be just a little too long in the tooth for this kind of film, but she gets a pass because she is talented, funny, and has a long history of Rom Coms behind her. Channing Tatum is turning into a great utility player who can be both a romantic lead and a comic foil, and he is both in this movie. If you watch the trailer, you might for a moment believe Brad Pitt is the hero of the film. Pitt is great, don’t get me wrong, he steals a scene with just his voice while doing his trademark munching,  but he is in the film very briefly. 

The big surprise is that Daniel Radcliffe, is a great villain and he has a wicked sense of comic timing in some key scenes. That’s right, Harry Potter is the Voldemort of this story, if Voldemort was a victim of sibling rivalry and had a sense of humor. Even the moments where he plays it straight are pretty effective so good on him. I don’t know why Da’Vine Joy Randolph is new to me, when I looked at her IMDB page, she worked in like eight TV series in the last couple of years, anyway she was very amusing as Bullock’s agent, who takes a serious responsibility for her client. 

A lot of the best bits of humor are spoiled by the trailer but there are a few additional moments that you can still be surprised by. One of the things that surprised me were the clever lines that came every few minutes, directed at our culture of Instagram addicted, barely literate, and now aging millennials. You may find yourself the target a a few barbs here and there. Speaking of sibling rivalry, the movie was co-directed and co written by brothers Aaron and Adam Nee, who look to be in charge of the Masters of the Universe movie that has been promised for the last couple of years. If you are looking forward to that film, you should probably check this one out to get a sense of how these two visualize a story and try to bring humor to it. 

Except for one brief bloody moment, the film is mostly cartoon violence and you can feel pretty safe taking your teens and your Mom to see it. Just be sure you get the refillable bucket of popcorn, because this will keep you munching throughout and enjoying a couple of hours of empty calories for your eyes as well as your stomach. 

X (2022)

If there are any other films that come out in 2022, that I enjoy half as much as this picture, I will count this as a good year, because this movie is awesome. The world is full of low budget horror films, but it takes something special to stand out and this movie has that “X” factor. Although it is filled with the tropes of a hundred other horror films, it manages to make them work and feel fresh. Some of this success is due to the great cast who work really hard to make this work, but a lion’s share of the credit will have to go to writer/director Ti West, who has taken this mash-up of genres and created something wickedly sly, fun, and creepy all at the same time. 

When you read about this film in other places, the two films that are likely to be referenced as the mash-up ingredients are “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Boogie Nights”. Those comparisons are completely understandable because the premise of both films are contained here. A group of young people in Texas, go to a remote location and bad things happen. It also so happens that the reason they are in that location is to make a pornographic film along the lines of “Debbie Does Dallas”. It’s perfectly fitting to nickname this movie the “Texas Boogie Massacre”. The most delightful element of the film is it’s fidelity to both the pornography of the era it is set in and the horror films of that time as well. The events in the story are set in 1979, and the film makers follow the rules of a 70s era film rather than a 21st Century movie. This is a slow burn that foreshadows for an hour before the crazy starts. There are no real shocks in the first sixty minutes, but a mood of anticipation, dread and sadness hangs over everything that does happen. This is a movie style that I can get behind and feel like my time has been well spent, rather than rushing me through the horror and trying to escalate it every ten minutes. The delayed gratification was tasty.

Most horror films that are memorable have a subtext that also stirs the audience. The slasher films of the 80s are often filled with sexual awakening being tied into the terror. Paranoia and identity were subjects of some of the great science fiction based horror of that time period as well.  Recently, sexually transmitted disease was transformed into monsters of terror for horror films. “X” has several subtexts that make it more than a simple slasher film. There are a couple of these which are so unique that the film will evoke horror at just a thought of those elements, when they get pictured on the screen they are even more horrifying. Let’s start with the first and most obvious of these subtexts, sexual inadequacy. This movie stares into our insecurities about our sex lives and finds ways to disturb us with key questions about libido, promiscuity, and sexual adequacy. The young crew of pornographers that are shown on the screen are tussling over morality on occasion, but also the question of when is the sex in their movie real and when is it acting. Kid Cudi, who had a memorable secondary part in “Bill and Ted Face the Music” a couple of years ago, plays a stud called Jackson who is hired for the movie because of the size of his equipment. That appendage intrigues one character, intimidates another and it is treated indifferently by his co star, which sets him up for doubt as well. Everybody in this tale is getting a bit of a comeuppance before the violence starts.  The choices the characters are making feel like echoes of the choices made by the elderly couple that they are renting a boarding house from as the set of their movie. This is the territory of the second big subtext of the film, ageism.

The elderly in our culture are often ignored or treated as a joke by the younger generation. In this case, an old couple is regarded with some distain by the young film crew. One of the justifications for making the sex picture, that is given by one of the principles, is that you need to use it before you lose it (although not said in those words). In discussing the old man, one character suggests the old man has probably suffered from ED longer than one of the young girls has been alive. However it is the wife of the old man who really pushes the boundaries of our expectations, and the film makers know that the audience will find revulsion in the image of sexuality involving the aged. The characters will ultimately determine whether or not that instinctive reaction is justified. There are moments of great sympathy interspersed with scenes of depravity and maliciousness.

Skipping past the other subtextual issues, we should talk about the story telling techniques used by     

director West. If you watch the trailer above, you will see that the movie jumps back and forth between a widescreen format in natural colors and a 16mm format with saturated colors representing the film they are shooting “The Farmers Daughters”. This clever alternating of the styles of photography allows some parallel story telling and a bit of foreshadowing as well. The filming of the sex scenes is less titillation than it is character development, as we learn how the players relate to each other and what they are doing. The elderly woman becomes a counterpoint to the story being told about the film crew, not so much the film they are making.  Outside of that trick, there were a couple of other very nicely planned shots, including the opening shot which reveals more information as the camera lens exits a barn and takes in a wider aspect of the scene at the start of the movie. Another sequence is shot from a very high perspective and it allows the audience to know fear that the character in the scene does not even realize exists. We also get a twist on the shower scene from “Psycho”, without physical violence but almost as brutal in it’s emotional impact. I liked that there was a moment in the film when one of the actresses makes a suggestion about how to shoot a section of film, it feels like something the director of this movie might have had happen to him several times in developing a plan for the cinematographer. 

The characters of Lorraine and RJ represent a portal between the sex workers/actors and the traditional world. At first we might see their naivete as amusing, but there are morality issues that get raised in the story, but the moral may not be what you anticipate. Jenna Ortega who plays Lorraine is in her third horror film that I have seen her in this year. She is the first victim in the “Scream” reboot and she has a small part in “Studio 666” from just last week. She is an innocent being changed by the experience of helping make the film in the story. Own Campbell is RJ, the University film student who wants to transcend the genre with his script and directors choices, but he can’t escape his sense of  tradition in his own relationship and it tears him apart. Martin Henderson is Wayne, the entrepreneur who has brought the group together to fulfill his dreams of riches. Brittany Snow is the older and wiser actress Bobby Lynn, who is happy to have Jackson as a lover but not willing to concede that there is anything other than acting in her technique. The star of the movie however is Mia Goth, who plays a double role as Maxine the coke fueled stripper with dreams of celebrity and Pearl, who lives on the memories of her sexual past. The make up on this film is astonishing especially for the character Pearl. Stephen Ure, who has made a career out of being covered by make up in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, once again is hidden behind layers of effects make up that renders his performance appropriately creepy. 

On a side note, I saw the first hour and a half of this film, and then an alarm went off in the theater and all the cinemas were evacuated and they did not restart the films that were interrupted. The false alarm caused us to miss the last twenty minutes of the picture, which is when everything is coming together in a movie. My daughter Amanda coined the phrase “Horror Film Blue Balls” to describe our circumstances. We saw the complete film, twenty four hours later, so this perspective comes from seeing the film twice. The last line of the movie made me laugh really hard and solidified my opinion that Ti West knew exactly how to work his audience. The film did well financially this last weekend, but it would not surprise me at all that it improves on it’s box office next weekend, the word of mouth on this should be really strong and it deserves to build an audience. By the way, if you stay past the credits, you will see a trailer for a follow up film that will be coming in November. I can’t recommend this movie enough and I also strongly endorse sticking around for the stinger trailer. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that I liked this film so much, but I’m not worried about that enough to keep me from singing it’s praises. 

The Quiet Man

I’m not sure there is a better way for a teetotaler like me to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than to spend two hours immersed in Irish  countryside with two great stars of the past. Skip the Blarney Stone and shamrocks, give me John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and I will feel like I have been transported to Ireland for a short time on this day.

John Wayne was the biggest star in movies for years and that is in large part due to his many appearances in Westerns. He made other types of films as well, War Movies, Historical Dramas but undoubtedly, his greatest  role outside of the oaters was as Sean Thornton, in this 1950 classic which is basically a romantic comedy. Paired with Maureen O’Hara for the second of their five on-screen performances, the two of them really manage to convey sexual chemistry in an otherwise staid setting. There is a moment when they are trapped by the rain in a ruin of a church, where she accepts his jacket for warmth and his white shirt clings to him as it gets wet, she seems to be doing the same thing.

While the romance is supplied by Wayne and O’Hara, the comedy is supplied by the cast of supporting players in a variety of ways. Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn, cabbie and matchmaker, has a dozen wisecracks that will make you smile and a sly take on all the romantic goings on. Ward Bond, Mildred Natwick and Victor McLagen all provide moments of laughter as well, and the dozens of townsfolk all add in their two cents here and there. It’s certainly not politically correct but it is funny when a local woman provides Sean Thornton with a stick that he can use to beat his wife. As usual, context is king, so watch the scene before you judge. 

This really is a cultural journey as well into the country traditions of Irish courtship. One of the big conflicts concerns Sean’s unwillingness to press the issue of Mary Kate’s dowry payment. It is a big enough issue of face to her, that she refrains from the marital bed in spite of clearly longing for the physical presence of Sean. That it is resolved by her chucking the cash away after it has been obtained shows that the money was not the point but her status was. Of course no one other than the Protestant Minister knows the reason that Sean is reticent to raise a fist to his brother in law, and that probably contributes to the culture clash even more. An American audience would probably see the issue Sean’s way, but he has to finally understand it from her perspective, which is what a real marriage is about anyway, and shows that they truly do belong together. 

John Ford won his fourth Oscar for Best director for this film and it is easy to see why. The romance, although nearly instantaneous in attraction, still plays out over the course of the film, letting us get to know the two characters really well.  There is just enough time with the townsfolk for them to be seen as charming rather than overbearing, and frankly the movie looks gorgeous. As Sean and Mary Kate escape their chaperone on a tandem bike and ride around the countryside, it is easy to see how someone could fall in love with a place and wish to be transported there. For the length of the film, that’s what Ford manages to do, put us in the Ireland of our imagination and make us fall in love. Happy St. Patrick’s Day all. 

Cyrano (2021)

An absolutely gorgeous film that is wasting away without an audience. Somehow, the studio has managed to botch the release of this film, and instead of having a solid adult hit, they have a shiny disappointment that someone should lose a job over.  “Cyrano” is a musical update of a classic tale with a variation on the main character that is reasonable and allows an actor who might otherwise never have had the opportunity, to take on a great role.

The film is based on a stage musical by Erica Schmidt, who is the screenwriter for this film. I found some reviews of this Off-Broadway version of the musical, but I did not see any information about it’s success other than it was nominated for some stage awards. The one thing that is noteworthy is that the star has been transferred to the film, so we get the chance to see Peter Dinklage in a role that he originated.  None of the other stage actors mentioned in the New York reviews, made it into the film, but Haley Bennett , supposedly did play the part on stage, and the rest of the film casting is quite excellent. The parts all require some ability to sing and most of the cast acquit themselves admirably. Dinklage as Cyrano performs the songs in a low register and narrow range, much of his singing reminded me of Rex Harrison talk singing in “My Fair Lady“. He is effective but it is not the musical moments that make him shine in the part. 

For most people familiar with the play, Cyrano de Bergerac, it is the language of the poetry that is memorable and makes us care about the character. That largely survives with one disappointing exception. The duel that contains Cyrano’s witticisms about his opponent and even himself is lost in a musical presentation that surprisingly diminishes the moment instead of enhancing it. The duel itself is effectively staged and the resolution is dramatic and gives Cyrano a bit more cryptic personality, although he does quickly return to the arrogance that he started off with.  Dinklage is affecting in the dramatic moments and his winsome longing for Roxanne is best seen in the moments leading up to her request that he befriend Christian and protect him, you see he thought briefly she might truly have seen that he was in love with her and she returned the favor, but the false assumption comes crashing down on his face and it is a moment of sublime performance from our lead. 

Set in France, but largely filmed in ancient towns in Sicily, the environment feels completely appropriate for a time period before the Revolution. The production design is detailed without being overly opulent, but there are several elaborate scenes that will take your breath away. I was particularly impressed with the opening sequence set in a theater, with a rowdy crowd, a claustrophobic stage, and authentic costuming and make up for all the extras. There are several dance moments in the movie that are also elaborately staged. I have written before about the ability of Director Joe Wright to manage complex sequences of movement in dance, he did it beautifully in “Pride and Prejudice” and it is also true in this film.  The choreography contains a lot of arm movement that feels like an elaborate pantomime, and I was more distracted by that than intrigued. Because such a style was repeated a couple of times in the course of the film, it also felt less distinctive and more like a crutch.

 Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ben Mendelsohn make up the rest of the cast as Roxanne, Christian and De Guiche respectively. Of the musical sequences they each get, I was surprised that Mendelson’s was the most effective, but that may be because it focuses entirely on his character in that moment. The best number in the film is “Wherever I Fall” which is performed by supporting players in the battle sequence near the end of the film. It was quite dramatic and I noticed that Glen Hansard from “The Commitments” and “Once” was the lead guard performing the number. I find it interesting that unnamed characters get the most effective moment in the film, but it is a tribute to the integrity of the story that no effort was made to force Christian and Cyrano into the musical aspect of the scene. 

This film opened in Los Angeles for an Academy Award qualifying run, but has not been widely available until the end of February. The only nominations it has received are for the costumes, for which the acknowledgement seems deserved. The absence of Dinklage from the nominees seems to be a glaring error in retrospect. Once again, Joe Wright might also have been deserving of some attention, but if Denis Villeneuve was going to be ignored, than this oversite is not a surprise.  The film is available for streaming, but you shold make an effort so see it in a theater, you will be taken by it’s beauty and the shared experience of the film with an audience, will make it more poignant. 

Dog

Channing Tatum has become a reliable presence in films and with this release he takes another step in his ascent to an essential Hollywood Player, he co-directs the film with his frequent producing partner Reid Carolin. Together they have crafted an affecting story of two wounded warriors who find a way to help each other through the battlefield scars that are holding them in misery. This is a military story with a dog, and that was enough to get me into the theater, but what can Tatum manage to do to make me happy that I showed up?

If you have visited this site before, tou may see that I have a fondness for films featuring dogs.  This however is a bit different because the dog that is featured is not a lovable mutt or a friendly golden retriever, Lulu is a Belgian Malinois, trained as a military dog working with Army Rangers in middle eastern conflicts. The dog has been wounded ant traumatized, most recently by the death of her handler. She is on edge and dangerous, and sensitive to a variety of triggers. Tatum plays Jackson Briggs, a fellow platoon member of the deceased, who is himself trying to return to service after head trauma suffered in war has put him on disability leave. Lulu is an animal, so doesn’t bother trying to hide her PTSD, but Briggs is all kinds of a mess and in denial that any real problem exists.

So this is a road picture, with the dog and soldier driving along the West coast to arrive at the funeral for their comrade in arms, and ultimately, Lulu will be assessed and likely put down because of the condition she is in. So it is no surprise that the film is really about how these two damaged creatures begin a healing process that is needed but was not being actively sought. The incidents along the road demonstrate that both of these warriors have skills that remain functional, but that they are also ill equipped to deal with their troubles on their own. Two sequences, one on a pot farm in Oregon and another in a hotel in San Francisco, give us some drama and a little humor. Each character dances around the other, setting off problems and adventures but ultimately bringing them closer to healing. 

Three different dogs are credited for the Lulu performance, and they do a good job showing her fierce personality, but also giving us glimpses of the companion and partner that she must have been to the deceased soldier. Between destructive moments, and fearful incidents, Lulu also shows us an animal who is well trained, capable of friendliness if approached correctly and even providing some lovable glances, in spite of her teeth being bared. Tatum is a natural as a soldier without portfolio, who is struggling with his place in the world. He exudes confidence but secretly is in turmoil and incapable of getting past some traumas. He is great with the comedic bits in the film, but he carries the drama also. 

At just over a hundred minutes, the film is paced well and it doesn’t linger over the story it is telling. The screenplay, by Carolin and Brett Rodriguez, who has been a crew member on some of the films Tatum and Carolin made together, does a good job of showing rather than telling us the story of these two soldiers. Maybe the best example of this are two nearly wordless sequences when Briggs tries to connect with family. We get the dog’s point of view, instead of a dialogue filled confrontation, and it helps keep the story focused on Briggs and Lulu. This film has been a success and that gives me hope because if a mid-level drama like this can pull in an audience, there may be hope for other films that are not Comic Book Spectacles.