“Maudie”

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke give humbling performances portraying a real life couple, who find happiness in each other. Finding happiness and how we frame it is the subject matter of this story based on the primitive artist Maud Lewis. Lewis ( 1903-1970 ) is Canada’s most famous folk artist. Physically, she suffered from polio and childhood rheumatoid arthritis. Emotionally, she suffered from a family who made decisions expediently that excluded, yet greatly affected, her.

The pace is slow. The cinematography lovely. Nova Scotia with its isolation and stark natural beauty surround the shack where Everett Lewis ( Hawke ) salvages materials and peddles fish. Cinematographer Guy Godfree frames everything like a canvas. Windows and doors, screened and otherwise, filter soft light as a way of being free to see the world as we choose. Filmed in Ireland and in Newfoundland, Godfree and Director Aisling Walsh give us juxtaposition between the small world of  Maud and Everett and the natural world at large.

The late 1930’s is our time frame, and “Maudie” ‘s writer Sherry White  has the late teenaged Maud seeking some independence from her Aunt Ida’s restrictions. Maud parlays her way into a housemaiden’s job with even more rules. How her spirit wins over the gruff, mono-syllabic Everett  is much of our tale.

Sally Hawkins’ wry smile and swinging legs, her constricted hands, and her unconstricted heart, get us ready for her seven-mile-walk on hobbled limbs and her easy “would not mind a cup of tea” as she introduces herself to the knuckle-cracking Everett. Hawkins is brilliant in capturing the emotionally delightful Maud. One of my favorite scenes is where she delights in the irony of being called his “love slave”.

Hawke is equally as fine in his brutal remarks and quick to anger ways: “You walk funny”, “I am the boss; don’t forget it”, and “Who told you you could talk to the dogs like that!”  “It is me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you.” He kicks the door when he can’t recall the words he needs on his help-wanted ad. He wishes his housekeeper to bring her own cleaning supplies. His tender side is shown, too, as he volunteers at the orphanage where he grew up and as he comes to show his love for Maud.

His coarse insecurity is understood until he slugs Maud across the face. Maud leaves him and stays with her vacationing, New-York-City friend, who admires her work and buys Everett’s fish. Smaller moments lead to bigger lessons. Everett wants her back, and Aunt Ida no longer believes Maud has “stained the family name”. In fact, Ida proclaims that Maud is the only one in the Dowley family who ended up happy.

Stay through the credits to see many of Maud’s pictures which capture her innocence in the unmixed color and true lines of her work. But best of all, learn to capture her joy.

 

 

 

“The Glass Castle”

Loved the book, “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. Did not care for the screenplay, which focused mostly on the alcoholism of the father and left a much more angry Jeanette Walls than the book left us. Trying to make complicated family dynamics simpler may have been the reason for cutting key elements of the Walls’ family story and adding others. Why leave the hidden candy bar episode of the mother out? Why have Jeanette leave her husband as she moves on to freelance writing? Why exclude a siblings loss? Why not show the children foraging for food as they spent so much of the book doing?

The film’s tone is much more judgmental than the book’s breezy spirit. Counter culture beliefs are made to look like they stem from mental illness or from “losers” who can’t hold a job. The acting is top knotch: it is screenplay that misses the mark. The back and forth flashbacks are ill-timed. Writer/Director Daniel Cretton also must deal with some poor sound quality. Cretton’s artful repetition of the water boiling scene was a symbolic plus.

The non-conformity of Jeanette Wall’s parents is played beautifully by Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson. “Turbulence and disorder” rule creativity, even if the basic needs of safety and nutrition are neglected. As artist mother Rose Mary’s (Naomi Watts) logic surmises, “food will be gone in an hour, but an oil painting will last forever.” For four children who have not eaten in three days, this misses the fact that they may not be around to gaze at canvases. Still Rose Mary’s yellow doors on every domicile will move you.

Woody Harrelson has never been better than he is as Rex, Jeanette’s father. His family wolf calls, his windowed-castle blueprints, and his tenderness toward Jeanette’s burn scars outshine his drunken recklessness. He puts Jeanette in harms way, yet believes she can fend for herself. His skedaddling if often a betrayal of nurture. He can be brilliant and then dastardly drunken-crazy within the same afternoon.

Brie Larson plays the adult Jeanette; Chandler Head plays Jeanette as a child; Ellen Anderson plays the teenaged Jeanette. All are arrestingly good. David, Jeanette husband ( Max Greenfield) weathers his part well. When Jeanette admonishes him with, ” When it comes to my family, let me do the lying !”, we cringe with him. Robin Barlett as the abusive, West Virginia gramma will keep people from naming their offspring Erma.

Yet, I loved being reminded of Jeanette’s story. I spoke with her for eight minutes during her Indianapolis book tour, and immediately liked her easy warmth and truth-telling. I did not get the same vibe from Brie Larson’s portrayal. I hold the screenwriters and the director at fault. Wall’s tale is one of acceptance and acknowledgement of lessons learned. Her hard-scrabble youth did not focus on forgiveness or the need for parental atonement. She did not see herself as a victim. Read her 2005 book and see what I mean.

“Lady Macbeth”

Wow! What campy fun. But, also, what a treatise on class and all its indignities. See “Lady Macbeth” if titilating sex, narcissistic murder, and innovative feline punctuation marks fuel your curiosity.

Exquisite acting and the debut of the much touted Florence Pugh are other reasons not to miss this disturbing tale retold. There is no “hurly-burly” here except in the master-bedroom. Our source material not so much Shakespeare as the Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”. This is an 1865 work by Nikolai Leskov. Other renditions on our villainous Katharine have been the 1962 film ” Siberian Lady Macbeth”, and the 1932 opera by Shostakovich. There is “no candlelight ballet of blood flow”, but there is lots of “to bed to bed”!

William Oldroyd as director is remarkable. The stifling control is palpable in the camera shots, held cage-like. Once the captured Katherine can open the door, the moors and the wild wind rustle her appetites. The film’s trailers are correct in ascribing a merger of Alfred Hitchcock and ” Wuthering Heights” to the film.

Screenwriter Alice Birch gives tyrannical power to the master of the house, Boris Lester ( Christopher Fairbank ) and to his son Alexander (Paul Hilton). Katherine has been sold at 17 by her father with a parcel of land. Her dispassioned husband is not interested in consummating the match. He already has a son who he has bequeathed his inheritance. Old Boris does not live long enough to be surprised. His explosive:” Resume your duties with more rigor, Madame!” are followed, but ironically with the stable boy. The cocksure Sebastian is even out of his league here. As stable boy,he will lose his life and that of their unborn child.

Katherine raises her chin like a shield as she is ignored, degraded and tyrannically told to stay inside. She has Anna, the housemaid, played beautifully by Naomi Ackie, forage for poison mushrooms. Anna, who also is attracted to the rough, take charge passion of Cosmo turns mute in her guilt. A conscience seems only to be possessed by the underclasses.

Enjoy Anna’s smoldering jealousy as she looks through the bedroom keyhole to keep a close eye on her competition. Likewise, Katherine’s cheeky come-backs to her father-in-law’s question, ” Where is your husband?” are smart. ” Where you put him!” rings in fury. He throws a plate at her and makes Anna crawl on the floor.

Katherine has learned from the Lester men. Her didactic “face the wall” and “stop smiling”, model her own past treatment. Now, with the masters gone, privilege wins out. Being “on the top of the heep” is what me lady wishes. Her soul long decomposed, she rises on its gaseous fumes.

Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, not only does a great job of capturing cat-catching poses:They are used as metaphors, asides, ironies, and just plain fun. Wide sweeps of heathered moors and wind-swept hair have us breathing a freedom that our murderer will sadly use only to her earthly benefit.

The young six-year-old Teddy’s demise is the most horiffic I have seen on camera. If you were making excuses for Katherine’s other sins, this scene yanks you back to my lady as devil.

Much else is gruesome, but not to the point of this
shock: poor Teddy and his clueless grandmother Grace, lover Sebastian ( Cosmo Jarvis), maid Anna ~ all betrayed or done in. But husband, his horse, and father-in-law came first. ” Does evil breed evil?”, seems to be the theme here. There is more than beautiful camera symmetry to this film. “How can someone so hot-blooded be so cold-blooded?”, may be the ultimate question. Pure malevolence in 1865 Northumberland is a brazen treat.

“The Ghost Story”

Coming from a late morning funeral mass where Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 was read by a dear friend, I found myself mediating on “there is a time for everything” ~even death.

” A time to be born and a time to die…A time to keep and a time to throw away” was still ringing in my ears, when I decided it was time to see the film touted for its own meditation on grief. “The Ghost Story” was more a meditation on place: its evocativeness, its history,its ultimate mystery.

Director David Lowrey uses the story’s circular structure to show us that ghosts reside in the place where they felt most real. Are ghosts nostalgic? This story tells us “yes”. Choir music emphasizes their patience, their somber waiting for a return. Letting go is not as hard as it is impossible when time has no real significance. There is ” no getting on with it”. The “gravitas” of the ennui is like studying the phenomenology of time.

With this said, the film works only as a means of bringing us to the awareness of Virginia Woolf’s world view:” Whatever turn you take, there is a door closing.” Some of the same ghostly tropes of light prisms’ wall-dancing and wisps of fog slowly rolling over terrain are seen, but forward action is confusing when ghosts don’t abide by linear moments.

A young couple, Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, are viewed in soft pillow talk and laughter. Breathing the same air, they drift off and a sound awakens them. They investigate, but yield nothing. A train sounds. Then we see them tugging bookcases and filing cabinets to the curb, moving old trunks. A slowly moving dolly-held-camera rolls the action at a snails’ pace.

Early morning work does yield a car wreck right outside the drive. Affeck’s dead head resting on the steering wheel tells us much will change. Rooney’s morgue scene is not as heart-wrenching as Affleck’s previous one in “Manchester By The Sea” ( reviewed December 3rd, 2016),but here we see an almost cartoon image of Affleck’s body rising from the morgue table to a sitting position and remaining the silent narrator for the remainder of the film.

Much has been written about Rooney’s whole pie-eating, succour-striving scene, but it is the ghost’s view of the the prairie family who once camped on his home’s land that draws us into grief. Skeletal remains and decomposed bodies out-rank white-sheeted sadness everytime. I was a tad disappointed with the lack of dramatic anguish. Numb goes only so far. I was content with the absence of any Terry Mallick pretentious pomposity when it came to life and its opposite. A brave, risk-taking treatise, if not the best movie.

“13 Minutes”

“How can a man fail so horribly as I have?” Angst driven drama even when based on a true story is never as fun to watch as drama driven by passion. In “13 Minutes”, the story of the methodical, politically conscience-driven Georg Elser is told. Here, is a young German who in 1939 sees that Hitler is bad for Germany, and decides to blow him up.

Christian Fieidel, the 38 year-old German actor who was nominated for best actor in this film, shows the proper amount of shock and fear once he is caught. And the excruciating torture scenes add a stubbornness and willingness to sacrifice for the common good to his name. The screenplay misses the mark in not giving Fieidel a means to show his hatred of the Third Reich’s leadership. We see him tense when the bigotry against Jews seeps into the provinces, and when he joins forces with a few friends, and defames Hitler with graffiti; but, more passion is required in this mastermind-of-a-resistance fighter.

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel does an admirable job with the use of flashbacks. We see Georg look at those twenty years younger than he parroting vile anti-Semitic chants. We see the ugly bullying, but we don’t see seething anger from our protagonist. For an hour and a half, we wait to see why this one German Folklore Society member, Georg Elser, worked so meticulously and so alone. We never see the spark of an answer.

History tells us that Elser’s dynamite box killed eight people and injured over fifty, but Hitler left the gathering thirteen minutes early and foiled his own death.

When the Gestapo finds implements to incriminate Elser, they can not bring themselves to believe that he acted alone. A conspiracy would elevate their investigation and their egos. As the Gestapo stated, ” It is highly unlikely that an apolitical person would commit these acts.” Though Georg’s work as apprentice clockmaker and carpenter honed needed skills for the undertaking, the boldness of his attempt struck a chord only with Resistance fighters. Hitler and his band, of course, were infuriated and embarrassed.

Elser is also a musician,who plays the zither, the accordion, and the piano. The flashback scenes tell us that he was a smart artist, who liked the beer hall, experienced girls, and a feeling of accomplishment. “13 Minutes” shows us a good German, who alone tried to do something to stop The Third Reich. The film also shows a German officer’s hanging in 1944 because he was part of another plot to kill Hitler. Secret service member and eventually, Hitler’s Chief of Interpol, Arthur Nebe, was hanged hanged using a piano wire and a meat hook. This is shown in the film, and Elser hears about it in Dachau. Is this film a response to the question of why Germans did not do more?

The provincial scenes of potato pickers, harvest festivals, and trampling boots amid the shepherds set the place evocatively. We hear talk of the 1937 bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica. Violation of International Law and German Panzer tanks mix with Georg building a cradle for his and the married Elsa’s child. Georg’s conscience seems to void any sexual qualms.

“Hitler is bad for Germany” is what we get. Georg’s personal life tells us very little other than that his father was a drunken bully, whom he hated. Even under hypnosis, Georg sticks to “I did it on my own. No one helped me.” He asks to see a priest, but is refused. Two separate scenes have him reciting The Our Father. We also here phrases from Hitler as he speaks: ” Destiny has assisted us…”, “We are aware…”, “We National Socialists have always been fighters…”.

A people’s court rules death for high treason, but not until 1945 is Elser removed from Dachau concentration camp and shot days before Dachau is liberated in 1945. Heinrich Muller ( Johann von Bulow ) gets the infamous credit for pure vindictiveness here.

Elser hums music in lieu of answering his interrogators. Images of his life float by: his mother doing washing, his father cider woozy, a Tango with Elsa. If Elser is “a country boy with ideological convictions”, we never hear them. His actions are in the forefront. The German film ” Labyrinth Of Lies” ( reviewed Nov 14th, 2015) did a better job of showing the intricacies of this inexhaustible subject. But for those who can never learn enough of the German experiment, here is another story of a little known man.

“Dunkirk”

Director Christopher Nolan uses all the elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire and immerses the audience in war, specifically WWII. Without using any computer-generated imagery, Nolan reenacts the rescue and the non-rescue of soldiers at Dunkirk.

The film, simply named “Dunkirk”, uses sound over dialogue, the mundane over the heroic, and patient waiting in constrast to spritely action. When hundreds of thousands of men and women are sitting ducks for the German war machine, we see the problem from three arenas: land, air, and sea.

The Hans Zimmer sound track is beautiful. The sounds of war totally deafening. The strings quicken the heart and create a-tonal suspense. The percussion beats repeat and terrify. We are there. Our ears are assaulted; our eyes field the battle.

Again, the elements are forceful, emotional, practical, and logical. There are 400,000 servicemen waiting for a transit miracle. Most are young. They must eat, drink, and poop. They must be lucky for screeching bombs and elementary target practice can spray more than sand.

No historical framework is given except for the place and the year, no one character moves the plot, no dialogue illuminates the scenes. We see men running with stretchers, life preservers doled out by nurses, and tea and peanut butter and jelly bread offered below deck. We learn that one stretcher takes the place of seven servicemen.

“Fish in a barrel” is another metaphor used to describe the situation found on the Dunkirk beach. Small boats are needed to ferry men to the destroyers. Mark Rylance plays the stalwart British citizen, who along with his son ( Tom Glynn-Carney ) and a neighbor boy rescue a shell-shocked pilot (Cillian Murphy) from the English Channel. Rylance and Glynn-Carney recross the Channel and carry back numerous survivors. Rylance shows the carry-on, stiff upper lip spirit like no other. Lies are told to give a weary soldier a few more hours of peace. Father and son are heroes in action and in psychology.

Here is suspense on all three fronts. Tom, played by Fionn Whitehead, is stable, moral and sound. A grounded boat becomes a hopeful vehicle for Tom and a dozen men. They just must wait until high tide carries them aloft the waves. Too much weight has a few demanding the sacrifice of others. Bullying ensues to devastating effect. Frantic swimming, flaying, and suicide, all are seen.

Tom Hardy’s realm is the cockpit. Running low on fuel, he masters the enemy and sacrifices his plane for the Allied cause.

There are successes. Kenneth Branagh is the Navy Colonel in charge. He understands that luck is in play. He organizes lines in quiet misery. Oil-soaked men are set on fire indiscriminately while others see Dorset and the White Cliffs of Dover.

Being immersed in war in a salvage operation is harrowing. Director Nolan crafts an evacuee thriller that puts viewers in the middle of a battle to retreat. Plugging holes on listing ships and cockpits filling with water are not as horrific as viewing fear in the faces of young, helmeted men. This film works as realism in a large-scale rescue operation. The cinematography is all blues, browns and grays. This French beach in the spring of 1940 will be remembered because of the faces that stood there, and Nolan who let us stand with them.

“Wonder Woman”

“Wonder Woman” may be a signifier of women power, but must the action film genre reduce dialogue to cliche after cliche ?
” Everyone is fighting their own battles, as you are fighting yours.”
” What I do is not up to you.”
” Maybe people aren’t always good.”
” There is not one bad guy to blame, it is all of us.” are mummifying examples.
“Man is everything you say, but so much more.” did me in as much as “I believe in love”. And the big bulletin: “Only love can save the world.”, well, you get my point. Alan Heinberg, screenplay writer, take note.

Yet, the worse understated line comes when Diana, our Amazonian goddess heroine, sees a caravan of wounded warriors some in wheelchairs and others on crutches. Her “It’s awful” seems a tad small.

Gal Gadot does play a lovely superhero as daughter of Queen Hippolyta ( Connie Nielson) and Zeus. Gadot knows how to keep her shoulders back, and she has power packed parries. Still, she succumbs to those between the legs shots that underscores the Wm. Moulton Marston history as her creator over 123 years ago.

But it is the eight-year-old Lilly Aspen who steals our hearts as the young Diana. Her ambitious running, wall climbing, and her almost innate understanding of the importance of the “god killer” weapon leaves no doubt that she will protect mankind while selling lots of Subaru-like embelmed headbands in her wake. In fact, ” headband it!” may be the next female call to action.

Likewise, Robin Wright as Antiope, sister of the Queen and trainer of Diana is serious in the Amazonian ordinance to stop war. Her performance is one of the film’s best, just the right mixture of savvy strategy, love, and betrayal for the bigger cause.

“You are stronger than you know” is the crux of this film. The first twenty minutes being my favorite. Diana, the only child on the island of Themyscira, has the teasing eyes of an immortal dynamo. We know she will fight to the finish be it Nazi General Erich Ludendorff or any “great darkness simmering within” the universe.

Director Patty Jenkins does an admirable job with the rogue elements: Nazi generals and psychopathic lab scientists. Jenkins was the award winning director of the tv series “The Killing” where she honed her skill at keeping us in suspense. The only suspense here will be how many sequels there will be.

Besides giving physically strong women their due, metallic embossed leather may be resurrected on runways by this film. Speaking several languages is given “cool” status and the sacred duty to save the world is lauded as noble. Not bad at all.

Chris Pine is the rescued World War I pilot whose “above average” remark is as ancient/modern as the twelve volumes on bodily pleasure. Enjoy Diana’s definition of the corsette, “armor in your country”, and the tongue in cheek banter of Germans drinking English tea and Brits drinking German beer.

The action is steady with shields, lassoes, swords, spears, and shells galore. Twirling legs and lighted ropes will keep little girls playing a new kind of purposeful hoopla hoop. Love is still in the air and sexual equality is in power despite Diana’s mother’s, “Be careful in the world of men- they do not deserve you”. This seems feminist enough.

If like Kate Parker’s book states in its title, “Strong Is The New Pretty”, this film will lead away from the authentic self concept. Not all girls need to be physically powerful: but all girls need to be fearless in the exploration of self. If “Wonder Woman” helps in supporting this kind of energy, it would be a classic. I think it misses this mark. My favorite line may be, ” my dear, you have so much panache.”