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%.

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.

Let the Oscar Countdown Begin!

Only three days until this year’s Academy Award ceremony, and if you haven’t seen all the movies in the overstuffed “best picture” category, there’s hardly time. This category needs to be broken up in some way so that viewers and voters are comparing apples to apples or at least to other fruit. Which is better, political commentary or pure entertainment? A film with a mega-million special effects budget or a small gem? A star-studded romp or exciting new talent? Ten choices are about twice too many. At the very least they should separate musicals from dramas, but of course that may just be my advocacy of West Side Story showing.

Let me admit up front I’ve seen only seven of the “Best Picture” nominees. No Don’t Look Up (sounded too baldly polemical), no Dune (though I loved the book), and no Drive My Car (too depressing and long). And here’s where they could pare the list further. Why is Drive My Car both a “Best Picture” and a “Best International Feature” nominee? Pick a category, please.

Tastes vary, and viewers who like one genre of movie may not resonate with another. In my pair of films in the “why was this nominated?” category, you may have a favorite Sorry! My mystery nominees are Nightmare Alley (though people tell me the 1947 original was better) and Licorice  Pizza. The corollary to the “why?” question is “why not?” Why wasn’t the awesome The Tragedy of Macbeth nominated?

One thing I’d say about all seven nominees I saw, is that the acting this past year has been great. Another thing that can be said about many of them is, they’re too long. Some judicious editing would have helped.

Here are my five top Oscar contenders, in reverse order:

Coda – one of those small sweet films that will never win, and, anyway, the plot was disappointingly predictable; loved the fish stuff
King Richard – great characters and great acting (yes! Aunjanue Ellis), and if I could ever remember how tennis matches are scored, I would have gotten more out of the looong, decisive match
West Side Story – perfection; loved that sly Riff (Mike Faist)
The Power of the Dog – a mystery; haunting music, beautiful scenery, horses!; too long
Belfast – beautiful acting, well directed, powerful historical story

Image by Gia Knight for Pixabay.

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.”

Weekend Movie Pick: Death on the Nile

If you’re hesitating to see Death on the Nile because you remember Kenneth Branagh’s previous expedition into the world of Dame Agatha—Murder on the Orient Express—and its tepid reviews, reconsider. The new film is enormous fun (trailer). You also may remember that many viewers couldn’t get past the super-sized mustache worn by Branagh (who plays Hercule Poirot)—such a contrast to David Suchet’s neat, restrained, Poirot-like pencil-line.

The extravagant facial hair just didn’t seem to fit, but the producers aren’t giving up. Instead, they give Poirot a touching back story that explains not only why he has the mustache, but links his adoption of it to his own heroism. Regardless, they’ve attracted a stellar cast to this new film, which includes Annette Bening, Tom Bateman, Dawn French, Sophie Okenedo, and a whole array of memorable supporting players.

There’s been a British society wedding. A beautiful young woman of great wealth (Israeli actor Gal Gadot) has married a man well below her financial station (Armie Hammer). His vengeful ex-girlfriend (Emma Mackey) follows them throughout their Egyptian honeymoon, making the new bride increasingly uneasy. To escape their pursuer, the couple entice the whole party of hangers-on to board a luxury Nile cruise boat where, as one gleefully anticipates, mayhem ensues.

Christie was a master at creating a closed world—a stranded railway car, a party on a remote island—throwing people with barely-masked resentments together, and letting audiences anticipate what happens next. In this film, the unraveling of motives, opportunity, and nerve doesn’t disappoint.

Loved the CGI scenery though, as you probably know, the Nile River does not run alongside the pyramids, but more than five miles west. A bit of geographic and artistic license, but gorgeous throughout. The scenes of the sun rising over the river were spectacular, bringing back memories of my own Nile cruise with my friend Nancy in 2019. Memorable, but many fewer dead bodies.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 64%; audiences 82%.

Weekend Movie Pick: Parallel Mothers

Seeing Penélope Cruz in a movie’s cast-list is enough to make me want to see the film, and that decision-rule works flawlessly in Parallel Mothers (trailer), her latest work for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a moving tale about what’s lost and what’s found, about the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from (coincidentally, the theme of yesterday’s post about genetic genealogy).

In this film, Cruz plays Janis, a professional photographer who, after a photo session with a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) asks about the exhuming the graves of her great-grandfather and several other men murdered by the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Such excavations take place under Spain’s 2007 Law of Historical Memory, but Arturo says the arrangements will take time.

He and Janis begin an affair that, months later, leads Janis to a hospital maternity ward. She’s very happy to be pregnant and about to give birth. Not so, the frightened teenager Ana (Milena Smit), her hospital roommate. Janis gives Ana a lot of support that is not forthcoming from Ana’s mother, and they promise to stay in touch.

Arturo isn’t wild about the baby, and the future of his and Janis’s relationship is uncertain. Janis reconnects with Ana and engages her as a nanny. Soon she’s faced with a powerful moral dilemma, and both their lives are about to change profoundly.

When the film returns to the question of the exhumation, it can feel like someone in the projection booth switched up reels, but again, the subject is knowing where you came from, which Almodóvar illustrates in two completely different ways.

Cruz and Smit are wonderful as the new mothers, and the rest of the cast does well too. Quite entertaining, especially after recent disappointments (Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley). In Spanish, with subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 83%.

The Tragedy of Macbeth

If you’re thinking “The Scottish Play” is so familiar, why sit through yet another production of it, even one directed by Joel Coen (trailer)? Well, think again. This is a story that greatly benefits from all of Coen’s noir sensibilities—from the dark portrayals by the protagonists to the look and feel he gives to the Scottish highlands and its stark castles. (Available on streaming)

Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as his wife are in equipoise, as if personal strength were a zero-sum game. In the beginning, she’s strong and he’s weak, then he becomes strong in madness and she diminishes. In an exemplary cast, special mention must be made of Kathryn Hunter’s phenomenal work as the Witches. She is ungainly, crude, and sly. At one point the camera seems to capture her in the process of transforming into one of the ravens circling ominously overhead.

A striking moment occurs early in the film when Macbeth and Banquo approach the witch through the fog, and she stands on the other side of a pond, a black pillar with no reflection. The other two witches are invisible, but their reflection does appears in the pond. (this moment appears briefly in the trailer). It’s an image that shakes you out of your expectations. All is not as it should be. And then some.

This film is the product of a powerful artistic vision, from shooting it in an almost-square format (1.37:1 aspect ratio), to eliminate any distracting elements cluttering the periphery, to choosing stunning black and white, to Carter Burwell’s dark score. The castles are devoid of decoration and seem as cold as the hearts of their occupants. The mist-obscured crows, the dripping water, the knocking. Is that the sun shining through the fog, or is it the moon? Is it day or night?

Near the end, when Macbeth is on the battlements of Dunsinane, and Birnam wood is indeed about to come to him, fulfilling the Witch’s prophesy, he’s surrounded by fallen leaves, a visual reminder of his heart-wrenching speech about what might have been: “My way of life is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf.”

Rotten Tomatoes  critics rating: 93%; audiences 80%.

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!

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I suppose at some point I must have known more about the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker other than the broad outlines I remember: wildly popular televangelists who fell from grace in a financial scandal. Tip of the iceberg, it turns out.

The one specific I remembered was that I went cold-turkey on the blue eyeshadow. The new movie, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (trailer) is unexpectedly moving, as you realize many of the couple’s difficulties are the result of Tammy Faye’s own blind spots.

Televangelists are not top-of-mind for me, and my default opinion is that they’re all con men. Jessica Chastaine as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim do such a good job that, OK, yes, they’re making money hand-over-fist, but there seems to be some sincere belief under all the trappings and on Tammy Faye’s side, real compassion for others. You can’t say the same for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In interviews, Chastain said that in her decade of research for the film, “I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true, and I just couldn’t find it.”

From humble beginnings in Michigan and Minnesota, the Jim and Tammy Faye built an empire on Jim’s preaching and Tammy Faye’s singing that included a satellite broadcasting network, their PTL (Praise the Lord) headquarters, and a theme park in South Carolina. These expansions and the couple’s lavish lifestyle were funded by an estimated $1 million a week in contributions from viewers of the PTL club worldwide.

The movie is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Massive credit needs to go to the make-up department and the magicians who made Chastain go from slender to zaftig as the film’s time passes. While televangelism may make many viewers shake their heads in puzzlement, and, while it trods a path well-worn by other biopics, the fantastic performances of the two principals make it well worth seeing. “this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today,” says Alissa Wilkinson of Vox.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 65%; audiences 88%.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.