Maudie: a film based on the Canadian artist Maud Lewis. The film commences during the mid-1930’s. The location is Nova Scotia. Maud (Sally Hawkins) is in her early 30’s and lives with her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) but wants to return to the family home. Maud sees her brother and only sibling, Charles (Zachary Bennett), speaking with Ida. She begins pestering Charles about returning home. We learn from Charles’ remarks that Maud has a disability which, in Charles’ view, renders Maud incapable of caring for herself. Charles tells Maud he sold the family home and leaves. As the film unfolds, we learn more details about Maud. Contrary to the impression we’re given by Charles, Maud’s disability is physical, not mental; she has rheumatoid arthritis. To escape from the control of Aunt Ida, Maud takes a job as a housekeeper to a loner named Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). Everett grew up in a male orphanage. He has a temper and lacks basic social skills. With these two very different characters, director Aisling Walsh weaves an entertaining and surprisingly romantic tale based upon the screenplay by Sherry White. The 116- minute film works because of the Oscar quality performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. From the outset, it is obvious that Maud has grit and will somehow prevail. Everett grows on you. Based upon very quick and selected shots of the real Maud and Everett at the end of the film, you learn that Maud was far more handicapped than she is portrayed, which makes her success as a painter that much more remarkable. The film shows Maud painting for the sheer pleasure it brings her. The postcard size pictures are noticed by a summer resident from New York named Sandra (Kari Matchett). Although the film does not offer details, we learn that Maud’s drawings are becoming well known, presumably through Sandra. Maud’s fame explodes. Even Vice President Richard Nixon contacts Maud by mail asking to purchase one of her pictures. The film takes you up to the time of Maud’s death in 1970. As the film credits run, her paintings are shown. The characters’ lives are hard but they endure. The film may treat Everett more kindly than he actually was, but as you watch the relationship between Everett and Maud grow, the story becomes inspirational. The opening of the film is a bit weak, however, if you stay with it, you will be rewarded. This film has no special effects and can easily be enjoyed at home with a bottle of wine.
Monday, July 31, 2017
Churchill & Orwell, The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks: a book I read one week prior to seeing Dunkirk. If you’re a fan of either Winston Churchill or George Orwell, I think you will enjoy this book. It is a very readable 270 page account of these two men. Although both made their historic marks during the 1940’s, Churchill and Orwell never met. The book devotes a short chapter to each man’s life prior to the 1930’s. We then pick up with Churchill being politically ignored prior to 1939 and Orwell’s education by way of his brief participation in the Spanish Civil War. Each man is given separate chapters as world events leading up to WW II unfold and the subsequent fight for freedom. The author points out the commonalities that existed in Churchill and Orwell’s lives, notwithstanding the fact that they had completely different upbringings. Both men were capable of looking directly at reality; both were seekers of the facts. The chapter relating to Orwell’s experience during the Spanish Civil War and his reaction to what actually occurred versus Hemingway’s version, is reason enough to read this book. The chapter about the German air blitz and the reaction of the British people, including Orwell’s personal observations, is excellent. There are 50 pages of notes and citations at the end of the book. A recurring theme throughout the book is the importance of language and the fact that words truly mattered to both men. Ricks was a journalist for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; Ricks is not an academic. His account of two of the most famous British men of the 20th century is presented in a very engaging manner. I highly recommend this book.
Dunkirk: the film expertly depicts what occurred at Dunkirk in late May 1940. The city of Dunkirk is located on the coast of Northwestern France approximately 10 kilometers from the Belgium border. A significant portion of the film takes place on the beach where as many as 400,000 British and French troops were stranded as a consequence of Germany’s successful blitzkrieg through France. Rather than having his tank force continue their push to the sea, Hitler chose to have his air force finish the campaign. This allowed Britain time to evacuate approximately 300,000 men. Had Hilter chosen to continue the push westward using his ground troops, the allied forces at Dunkirk would have been decimated. This film by Christopher Nolan tells of the British evacuation. At the beginning of the film, we are told that “The Mole” (the jetty protruding into the Atlantic Ocean from the beach) lasted for one week, “The Sea” (the military ships and civilian boats involved in the evacuation) lasted for one day, and “The Air” (the aerial battle between British and German planes) lasted for one hour. During the course of its 106 minutes, the film weaves these three campaign narratives into a single cohesive tale about the evacuation of Dunkirk. Most of the characters remain nameless, and you never see a German soldier until the closing scene. The aerial sequences are outstanding, starting with the three British spitfires and their subsequent confrontations with German fighters. Tom Hardy does a magnificent job as the lead pilot. The British soldier who has the most on-screen time is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) but you learn his name only by looking at the credits at the end of film. The major character who is clearly identified is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), the officer in charge of the embarkation. The evacuation was successful due to participation by British civilian boaters who answered the call for assistance in rescuing the Dunkirk soldiers. Of the civilian boaters, the film highlights a father (Mark Rylance ), his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and the son’s schoolmate (Barry Keoghan) who happened to be at the dock when the call for help came. Of the film’s large cast, these three characters are among the most developed. Because the film stays tightly focused on the goal of getting the men off the beach and back home, there is no back story for any of the individual characters. From the opening scene, it is clear that you are at war and war’s consequences are constantly present. The typical scene of war room strategizing is omitted. Instead you are shown men waiting on the beach, men struggling to across the channel, and the superb aerial scenes. My father refused to attend war movies because he said they never showed the horror of what was truly occurring. This film, with its three pronged narrative, is one of the rare exceptions. Dunkirk concludes with a reading of a portion of Churchill’s famous speech that rallied the British people once the majority of the soldiers were safely back home. Most films would have included a shot of Churchill speaking but, to the end, Nolan remains true to his storyline. Dunkirk is a film about how one saves lives in war. With its expert cinematography, this is a film that should be seen on the big screen with full capacity audio. The film’s musical score by Hans Zimmer also deserves praise. The major Oscar winners are usually films released towards the end of the year. Dunkirk should prove to be the exception.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Beatriz at Dinner: an entertaining movie that speaks to the present social, economic and lifestyle divisions within American society. Beatriz (Salma Hayek), who was born in Mexico, is a massage therapist. In the opening scene, she is dreaming about rowing a boat through a mangrove swamp where she encounters a white goat on the shore. In the next scene, Beatriz is caring for her animals, including a goat, before going to work. Although she treats most of her clients at a medical center, Beatriz also does house visits. One of her house clients is Kathy (Connie Britton), a very wealthy woman with an elaborate home in Orange County, California. During the massage session, we learn that Beatriz and Kathy became close while Beatriz was providing massage therapy to Kathy’s daughter to help the daughter regain her strength following cancer treatments. We also learn that Beatriz’s neighbor killed one of her goats simply because it was making too much noise. Upon leaving, Beatriz learns that her car won’t start and she needs to wait for a friend to pick her up. Kathy invites Beatriz to join her for a dinner party at the residence. The guests are Kathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky), Grant’s boss Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), Doug’s third wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny). Alex scored a major political lobbying victory, which will produce a substantial income for Doug’s company. The dinner is in celebration of Alex’s success. This 83 minute film becomes truly interesting when Doug, a Trump-like entrepreneur, and Beatriz start interacting. Doug is a multi-millionaire with a history of legal entanglements and is often in the news. Lithgow’s performance is excellent, and part of the reason this film works is because Lithgow’s character is presented as a complex person with a humorous side. The first hour has some very funny scenes, especially when Doug and Beatriz are involved. Miguel Arteta is the film’s director and Mike White wrote the screenplay. None of the main characters are stereotypes and the dialogue has a very entertaining edge to it. The downside of the film is that once the issues of class, wealth and life style are laid out via the dinner dialogue, it seems that Arteta and White are at a loss as to what to do with the characters and how to finish the story. As is my policy, I will not reveal the ending. I would categorize the ending as “artsy” but it left me feeling very unsatisfied. There are no special effects in this film, just excellent acting. This is a film to see at home to take advantage of the ability to rewind and re-watch the interactions between Doug and Beatriz, two people with very different backgrounds. Except for the inadequate and unsatisfying conclusion, Beatriz at Dinner has a significant level of positive energy and is worthwhile seeing.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
My Cousin Rachel: a gothic drama based upon the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name. The story takes place in the 1830’s primarily on a estate in Cornwall. The principal male character is Philip Ashley (Sam Claflin), who was orphaned as a child and raised by his older cousin, Ambrose Ashley (also played by Claflin). A key to the unfolding story is that Philip is raised without the significant presence of any women. Following a brief foray into the characters’ background, we meet Philip as a man in his early 20’s. We learn that he is entitled to receive his inheritance on his 25th birthday. Due to health concerns, guardian/cousin Ambrose is residing in sunny Italy. Through Ambrose’s letters to Philip, we are introduced to Rachel (Rachel Weisz), whom Ambrose has met in Italy, and learn that Ambrose and Rachel have married. After the marriage occurs Ambrose’s correspondence with regards to Rachel turns dark. Ambrose summons Philip to Italy, however, by the time Philip arrives, Ambrose is dead. The Italian lawyer advises Philip that Rachel has left the villa and given the lawyer instructions to liquidate the Italian assets. Philip, in anger, returns to Cornwall. Then Rachel arrives. The film hints that Rachel is a “Black Widow” but, as the tale unfolds, ambiguity takes center stage. Almost upon first sight, Philip’s anger towards Rachel melts as he falls in love with her. Rachel’s feelings are far more complex. There are other people at Cornwall – house and field servants - but they are clearly secondary characters. The cinematography is outstanding and brought to mind another British period drama, Barry Lyndon. The directorial talent of Robert Michell, Weisz’s excellent performance and the spectacular camera shots make this 106 minute film worth seeing. The degree to which you enjoy the film will depend, I think, on your reaction to Philip. Personally, I could not relate to him. He is an upper class man-child of 1830’s England whose world and lifestyle is totally foreign to present day sensibilities. While I understand that Philip is smitten by Rachel, it is hard to empathize with his behavior. I note that my comments are shared in the context of Weisz dominating every scene in which she appears. It is admittedly a bit early in the year, but Weisz’s performance is definitely Oscar worthy. In fact, both Weisz and the film’s cinematographer are deserving of nominations. This version of My Cousin Rachel is a remake of the 1952 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton who, I understand, played Philip with a touch of madness. I’ve not seen the 1952 film, but seeing a deeper, more complex version of Philip would have elevated this film’s rating to four stars.
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Megan Leavey: not your typical soldier flick. This one is for dog lovers. The film is based upon the actual experiences of a Marine corporal who was deployed to Iraq with a bomb sniffing dog named Rex. At the beginning of the film, we meet Megan (Kate Mara) and get a glimpse of what her life was like prior to joining the Marines. She is living with her mother (Edie Falco, who is probably quite unhappy with her one dimensional portrait) and stepfather (Will Patton, whose scenes are brief). Once the film makes its point that pre-Marines Megan was adrift and having problems connecting with people, the story moves forward to boot camp. Because Megan continues to mess up, she is assigned to kennel cleaning duty. When we first meet Rex, he is an aggressive German Shepherd. Rex is assigned to Megan after he disables his handler. The storyline then progresses to Iraq. The war scenes are well done and the film remains on track as to standard war storytelling. If you’ve seen The Hurt Locker, this film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, offers a similar perspective on a very dangerous job. However, the focus of this movie is on the developing relationship between Rex and Megan and their work together seeking out improvised explosive devices (IED). It tracks Megan’s efforts to have Rex retired and transferred to her care following an incident in which Rex saves Megan’s life but Rex is also injured. While Megan gets to retire, Rex is shipped to Afghanistan with a new handler. It is the second half of this 116 minute movie that makes it worth your time to see this film. Kate Mara is excellent throughout the film and is particularly believable in her pursuit of saving Rex. Woven into the storyline is Megan’s relationship with a fellow dog handler (Ramon Rodriguez). At the film’s conclusion there are snapshots of the real Megan and Rex. An interesting side note is that in 2011, Rex’s first handler , Marine Corps Sgt. Mike Dowling, wrote Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog. Throughout the film, the primary focus remains on Megan and Rex as one of the first female led canine IED seeking teams in Iraq. This is a well done tear jerker with a true story happy ending.
Sunday, June 11, 2017
Wonder Woman: the DC Comics character is brought successfully to the big screen. For a movie based on a comic book character to succeed, the person portraying the super hero must be believable. In far too many of the recent comic based films, that has simply not been the case. Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, the Wonder Woman, is the exception. The success of the Wonder Woman character, coupled with the directing skills of Patty Jenkins, results in an enjoyable 141 minute movie. Notwithstanding these positive comments, the film’s opening scenes are weak; you become leery that the same tired format used by most of the recent DC/Marvel-based character movies will be repeated. The opening includes scenes of Diana as a child, then moves to her training as a warrior while simultaneously telling the Amazon Greek mythology storyline. Allan Heinberg’s story becomes more interesting upon the crash landing of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) near Themyscira, the Amazons’ island home, and Diana showing up to save him. This opening sequences could have shortened. By the time the real action begins it is 1917 when Diana and Steve depart Themyscira to fight the Germans in WW I. From this point forward, the film is interesting and entertaining. The Germans seem to be derived from some campy propaganda film about “The Enemy”. However, due to a good supporting cast and a healthy helping of “suspension of reality”, the film keeps you entwined. Ewen Bremner as a singing Scottish sharpshooter, Said Taghmaoui as a fixer and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American trader are all wonderful. These three characters play off superbly against each other and with Steve and Diana. There are some light comedic moments reminiscent of 1930’s film making where jokes are made about Wonder Woman’s clothing and there having been no men in Diana’s life prior to meeting Steve. Most importantly, the action scenes work because they remain focused on the individual characters. The Wonder Woman character is refreshing and a pleasant contrast to the male comedic characters. She is an optimistic person with a positive viewpoint despite the horrors of war and mankind’s bad behavior. In Gal Gadot, we are seeing a super star. In this current political atmosphere, this film’s outlook is refreshing. The movie offers an enjoyable escapism and that is a definite positive.