Weekend Movie Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

Spies, Spies, Spies!

You might with justification believe that John le Carré’s death marked the end of sophisticated spy fiction. Three reasons to take heart.

First up, le Carré may be gone, but his work isn’t quite finished. While I enjoyed what at the time was termed his “last” espionage novel—Agent Running in the Field—the posthumously published, rather slender, novel Silverview is also worth a read. Both are expert at focusing your attention in one direction, while all along, the protagonist is engaged in a much bigger, much more complicated game. It’s that combination of spywork and grifter that I find so intriguing.

Over his career, le Carré had done such a convincing job of peopling the various sides in the Cold War and setting their minions against one another, that I for one wondered what he would write about after the breakup. I shouldn’t have worried. Not only were there many more books, but the Russian menace was apparently just on pause. Too bad he’s not still here to probe its current-day secrets. (You’ll recall that in The Russia House, set in the Gorbachev years, le Carré’s premise was that the Soviet military menace was not all it was cracked up to be. Fast-forward to 2022.)

Second, let me introduce you to a 21st century spy novelist who I believe is a potential heir to le Carré’s mantle as chronicler of the cynical, conflicted, mistake-prone and sometimes baffling and baffled espionage agent: author James Wolff. A member of the UK government for fifteen years, he writes under a pseudonym. His two books—2018’s Beside the Syrian Sea, and 2021’s How to Betray Your Country—are a different breed than the usual spy story, more complex, like the people he portrays.

In Wolff’s work, you have a strong sense that the context and actions of the characters are grounded in reality, as the agents are, too, flaws and all. As Wolff said in an interview with the Harrogate Festivals, “I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real.” No need to amp up the energy with over-the-top, implausible situations and confrontations. I’ve lost patience with authors struggling to pack in yet another far-fetched idea or action scene.

And third, finally, Apple TV has finally started showing its original production of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, witty and quick-witted. As Apple describes it, the spy drama “follows a dysfunctional team of MI5 agents—and their obnoxious boss, the notorious Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman)—as they navigate the espionage world’s smoke and mirrors to defend England from sinister forces.” And Mick Jagger singing the theme song! What more can you ask? There are eight novels and three novellas in Herron’s series, so, fingers crossed, there will be lots of good watching ahead.

Hear the Beat — Those Dancing Feet!

Just when you think Big Dance Numbers have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along came Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, the Academy Award-nominated (and commendable) new West Side Story, and the disappointing, but innovatively cast, Cyrano, all of which displayed innovative dance sequences. (I still get dizzy thinking of the dance/fight sequence in West Side Story, in which it seemed Tony or Riff—or both—would fall through the broken pier into the Hudson.)

Film historian Max Alvarez recently hosted a program on “filming the dance,” and how that has changed over the decades. When films acquired sound, the studios made a lot of quickie musicals to take advantage of the new technology, and persuade audiences they were the new thing. These films weren’t always good. But the studios had made a big investment in converting movie houses and equipment to accommodate sound, and they were determined to recoup. As a result, in 1929, the studios produced 50 musicals and in 1930, an astonishing 78! You’ll recall that the Gene Kelly movie, Singin’ in the Rain, is about the difficulties of the conversion to sound, and Max says it’s pretty accurate. (That movie is having its 70th anniversary this year.)

After the initial blitz of so-so products, movie makers became more discriminating about the form. In Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” the studio system was in full sway, and not only actors and directors, but songwriters and choreographers also had studio contracts. This made musicals economical to produce. Of course, early producers remained a little nervous about musicals. For one of his films, Darryl Zanuck put all the musical numbers at the end, so he could lop them off if audiences didn’t respond. Finally, the success of 42nd Street (1933) did a lot to assuage their nerves. Treat yourself with this Busby Berkeley number from the show. Glorious! Thrilling! Unforgettable!

For a time, the orchestra played, the singers sang, and dancers danced. Big soundproofed boxes had to be built around the cameras to dampen their noise. Today, none of that happens simultaneously, of course, as songs and music are recorded separately. Photographing dance sequences is almost a lost art, Alvarez says, because directors don’t trust audiences to follow the action, so they do a lot of quick cuts. It’s lively, but all the editing sacrifices something. Gene Kelly maintained that the use of a lot of fast cutting was simply to camouflage bad choreography. Even the sound of “those dancing feet” is added in post-production. There aren’t any taps on their shoes. Sorry.

The Irish on Film

In past St. Patrick’s Day posts I’ve talked about some of my favorite books set in Ireland or with strongly Irish characters (See those here and here.) Here are a few of my favorite movies about that story-laden land, old and new. Is it because there are more stories there, or because the Irish are such good story-tellers? Cannot say.

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s highly personal elegy to his home town in 1969, at the beginning of “The Troubles” certainly deserves its Academy Award Best Picture nomination (trailer). It captures the joy of childhood, as well as the anxieties of the adults in a Protestant family, where the neighborhood around them is devolving into religious violence. What a nine-year-old boy thinks of as adventure, his parents see as is mortal danger. Outstanding, should-have-been-nominated performances by Caitriona Balfe as the mother and Jamie Dornan as the father, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents, and Jude Hill as the sunny boy.

Brooklyn

Remember Brooklyn? The 2015 film written by Nick Hornby about a young Irish immigrant , Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the 1950s (trailer). It’s an effective meditation on how all immigrants feel they have a foot in two places, that they are or could be living two entirely different lives. Compound that in Eilis’s case that the trip across the ocean coincides with growing up and starting her own life. Lots o  disruption for one spunky gal.

In the Name of the Father

Go back in time thirty years for this one, released in 1993 (trailer). Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his awe-inspiring star turns, plays Belfast petty thief and general layabout Gerry Conlon. Falsely imprisoned on charges he participated in an IRA bombing, he’s in jail for fifteen years before the dogged efforts of the lawyer for his father, also falsely imprisoned, provides any hope of release. Pete Postlethwaite plays his father, and Emma Thompson the lawyer. Though fiction, the story is “inspired by true events.”

2022 AA Nominees: Live-Action Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

Last weekend, our local movie theater showed this year’s Academy Award-nominated Live-Action Shorts. These do tend to be rather depressing, and this year’s nominees were no exception. Even so, we put ourselves through this, year after year, to see what talented filmmakers from around the world will come up with. Two are available for streaming using the links provided; otherwise, trailers are available.

You’ll have trouble believing this, but the most feel-good story was an end-of-life story from Denmark (which tells you something about the others). In “On My Mind,” a man (played by Rasmus Hammerich) wanders into a bar early one morning and seems determined to get drunk. He notices a karaoke machine and wants the sympathetic bartender (Camilla Bendix) to cue up “Always on My Mind” so he can sing it, and she can record it, for his dying wife. Alas, the bar-owner (Ole Boisen) is determined to complete work on his taxes, without distraction. Discussion ensues.

The satirical U.S. entry, “Please Hold,” (trailer) anticipates a future when law enforcement, incarceration, and legal aid are handled by drones and automated systems. The hero, a young Latino man (played by Erick Lopez) is arrested apparently for no reason and desperate to explain his plight to a human who can get him out of it. The film has quite a few funny bits, but overall it seems a cautionary tale of corporate technologists run amok. Kafka would love it.

“Alu Kachuu (Take and Run),” Switzerland’s entry (trailer), filmed in beautiful Kyrgyzstan, is the story of limited opportunities for women, made even more limited by forced marriage. Alina Turdumamatova plays the unwilling bride. Beautiful costumes! This film was shown last, and we were already so down in the dumps from two others that our mood colored reaction to this film, but it was excellent.

The Polish and UK entries (“The Dress” (trailer) and “The Long Goodbye,” respectively) were too depressing to revisit. Sorry.

Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

Weekend Movie Pick: The Courier

The Cold War spy film The Courier, which came out last year (I missed it totally), is available on Netflix. A “based on true events” tale that took place around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it describes how a British businessman was persuaded by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a Soviet scientist who appeared eager to share information about his country’s nuclear program with the West. As we now know, that cascade of events in 1962 came much closer to disaster than our leaders and the American public believed.

The film, directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor (trailer), stars Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life businessman Grenville Wynne. The Soviet contact, Oleg Penkovsky, is played by a sad-eyed Merab Ninidze. The cast is great and the story gripping, even though it follows a well-trodden path. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. For both Wynne and Penkovsky, it was either take the risk or total annihilation.

The film was originally titled Ironbark, the Brits’ code name for Penkovsky, but the star turn belongs to Cumberbatch, the courier. The touches of Soviet perfidy seem right out of John le Carré. When the MI6 crowd starts talking about exfiltrating Penkovsky, it seemed like an impossible long-shot. (I wish they’d make a film about Oleg Gordievsky, another real-life Soviet spy, whose story was told in Ben Macintyre’s The Spy and the Traitor, which gives a hair-raising account of how difficult saving Soviet spies really was.

The Courier is a cautionary tale and a solid bit of filmmaking about a period people under 60 weren’t alive to experience.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 95%

Hitchcock: Howdunit

If you’re like me, it was years after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho before you could take a shower without thinking of That Scene. I have a walk-in shower now, and I can always see who’s coming!

Film historian Max Alvarez in conjunction with New Plaza Cinema presented a Zoom program on Hitchcock last week that toured his audience through memorable moments from many of the director’s 57 feature films. We knew whodunit—Hitchcock—this was a howdunit.

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, Americans tend to pick films based on the actors. Hitchcock was one of the rare directors in Hollywood history who was himself a draw, like the Coen Brothers or Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino today.

Hitch’s fame did constrain the types of movies he could make without violating public expectation, however. His films tended toward the charismatic villain, the woman in peril, and a big conspiracy. The scripts came from his (sometimes brief) collaborations with some of the leading writers of the day: Thornton Wilder, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Anthony Shaffer (Sleuth), and many others.

Even though he made so many memorable movies, what catapulted him into prominence in the 1950s was the popularity of his television programs. And he was shameless about using them to promote his films.

Hitchcock’s steps in making the memorable movie Vertigo started with the “treatment,” eight to ten typed pages, resembling a short story, which described what happens in detail, beginning to end. After showing us the initial page, Alvarez showed the beginning of the shooting script. Hitchcock liked to have every camera angle and shot planned out in advance—close-up, medium shot, panorama, whatever. Next Alvarez showed the storyboards that a graphic artist created from the shooting script. They were a sort of (wordless) comic book version, showing the action in every shot. Finally, he showed the way the same scene looked in the final film, which in the theater looked so natural (of course he’d hang onto the gutter that way), but replicated the previous, meticulously planned steps almost exactly.

But even the best laid plans can fall prey to reality, and Hitch would change scenes and shots that didn’t turn out well or as expected. Occasionally, he’d fly by the seat of his pants—like the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. Also, he loved in-camera special effect. An example is the famous “purple dress” scene from Topaz, in which unseen stage hands pulled strings so that the character’s dress fanned out around her as she fell.

Alvarez attributes Hitch’s visual mastery to the large body of work he did in the silent film industry, taking on all kinds of jobs, up to the point when, in his 20s, he was allowed to direct. For him, the visuals told the story, and he always made sure there was a story to tell.

By the way, Hitch’s own favorite film was 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt.

Watch Shadow of a Doubt.

Read one great director interviewing another in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut from Amazon.

Read Richard Brody’s “The Greatness of ‘Psycho’” in The New Yorker, covering the films about Hitchcock.

It’s Shorts Season!

No, not the kind that guy’s wearing!

The short films nominated for Oscars are on view via various streaming outlets. We watched the five “live action” nominees over the weekend and while, year after year, all the films aren’t necessarily funny or uplifting, they’re almost always interesting.

Consciously or unconsciously, the creative teams behind this year’s nominees must have been immersed in the George Floyd aftermath, because four of the five deal with a character’s interaction with uniformed authorities–police, border guards, corrections officers, most of whom are frustratingly intransigent. The fifth nominee lacks cops, but deals with building understanding between people with totally different backgrounds.

“The Present” by Farah Nabulsi documents the struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, where even the simplest act leads to a morass of difficulties. Performances were good, but the story is predictable. (Tastes differ. IndieWire liked this one best.)

In “White Eye,” an Eritrean immigrant buys a used bicycle, which turns out to have been stolen. The bike’s owner wants it back. The police know only one way to react. Nice twist at the end.

“Feeling Through” involves a young, homeless black man who encounters a blind and deaf white man and helps him across the street. Produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, it’s a feel-good movie that shows the blossoming of an act of kindness.

“Two Distant Strangers” is an urban Groundhog Day with guns. A young black man repeatedly dreams about (foresees?) a dangerous confrontation with an older white cop. In any version of reality, can this ever turn out OK?

In “The Letter Room,” Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a surprisingly genial corrections officer who screens prisoner mail. (The film was written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind.) One of the death-row inmates receives numerous steamy letters from his girlfriend, and another begs Richard to make sure his daughter’s letters haven’t been lost in the system. Two nice reversals at the end.