I just watched the 2014 French film YVES SAINT LAURENT. I enjoyed all the beautiful clothes, faces, artwork, music, and interiors. Actor Pierre Niney as fashion designer YSL was excellent, conveying a rare mix of ethereal elegance, nervous intensity, and coy sexiness. He looked a lot like Monsieur Saint Laurent. The rest of the cast was very good. I felt like I was partaking in a visual feast and party without having to deal with consequences of overindulgence like poor YSL did with drinks, drugs, and sex. What an imbalanced genius, a beautiful outsider who brilliantly created an elite insider niche for himself.
I finally watched WONDER WOMAN 1984 (released here in the U.S.A. last Christmas). I was prepared to be unimpressed, annoyed, confused, and disappointed. While the movie is certainly not as good as its 2017 prequel, which had a far more archetypal feel to it, I thoroughly enjoyed this newest installment of Gal Gadot starring as one of my favorite comic book super hero(ine)s. She looks as beautiful and poised as ever here, amidst a hair-brained storyline and fun 1984 time period props and settings. The latter two things were nostalgic for me. I graduated from high school that year, so I felt particularly demographically targeted as a viewer. Back in actual 1984, I admittedly enjoyed wearing clothes in the style of some of the outfits worn by a few of the male characters, including Chris Pine as Steve Trevor (come back from the dead due to some goofy ancient magic). The incidental ‘80s pop music and scenes in a shopping mall had me pleasantly reminiscing.
Comic actress Kristen Wiig is amusing to watch, ramping up the campiness of the film wonderfully (and I love camp). She is a good foil to the often earnest and proper Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. As the character Barbara Minerva when she is in villainess mode, Ms. Wiig is mostly not to be taken seriously (including in her final costume, which made me think of humanoid feline characters in the 2019 box office bomb CATS), except in a particular scene when she first embraces her dark side. That is believable and relatable, not only for many women abuse survivors, I imagine, but for anyone who’s ever been harshly mistreated in some way. Thoughts of revenge are natural to have, even though more people than not know better than to act on them.
There are a few actions that I found to be verging on nonsensical. Wonder Woman develops the ability of flight simply by finally believing she can combined, it seems, with the help of her magical golden lasso. I read some years worth of original Wonder Woman comics and watched the 1970s TV show with Lynda Carter. Nowhere in those narratives of the lovely heroine do I remember her ever having the ability to fly. I suppose the creators of this latest production wanted to make her even more superhuman/goddess-like. Perhaps I’m too attached to the old canon about this character, but I personally found this added on ability to be superfluous, unnecessary. That said, despite this inconsistency with how I’ve always known Wonder Woman to be, I didn’t actually mind seeing Ms. Prince fly because she looked so beautiful and graceful up in the clouds, her long dark hair blowing in the wind. And there’s likely the real reason she was portrayed flying: this was yet another way to showcase her lovely image. It’s all about appearances above all else.
The other occurrence that made little sense was how Wonder Woman’s invisible jet airplane comes to be. This is presented as a last-minute, all too convenient development done with seemingly little thought or effort. More magical powers are added onto the main character, more superfluousness. However, by not describing the actual scene I am referring to, I leave it to viewers to judge for themselves if I am on the mark here or not. Ultimately, it need not matter, since, as I’ve already implied, this film is simply meant to be visually fun and pleasing fluff, not a narrative with deep consistency or sense.
I was able to follow the story without confusion, though I’m sure it helped that I didn’t give the ridiculous, unoriginal plot much thought. I sat back and enjoyed all the slick sets, clothes, music, special effects, and Ms. Gadot’s goddess-like screen presence. The storyline about an ancient magical wishing stone getting into the wrong hands and eventually resulting in worldwide chaos hardly matters. It’s been similarly, repeatedly done in blockbuster movies anyways, very formulaic. This is a thrill-ride piece of cinema — exactly what I figured it would be. That said, I find myself in middle age becoming more of a softie in response to schmaltz and sentimentality, both of which are especially served up in a few scenes toward the end of the show. And that very schmaltz and sentiment redeems the film somewhat out of its often lame and silly narrative. Watching on screen how love and truth overcome crass materialism, narcissism, and unbridled power over others feels timely, encouraging, and refreshingly idealistic in this era of cynicism, selfishness, and lack of honesty by so many. I’ll take these feel good moments— even if unreal and fantastical— where I can, like breaths of fresh air. I’m thankful WONDER WOMAN 1984 could provide some for me. Sometimes, it’s good to just have a bit of mindless fun.
(Note: It’s important to watch the movie well into the end credits in order to see a special treat. At least it was for me and it certainly is/will be for many others.)
STONEHEARST ASYLUM (released in late 2014), directed by Brad Anderson, is a well-done Gothic suspense drama, taking place within an insane asylum in late 1899 and into the start of 1900. I finally learned what the obsolete term “alienist” means while watching this fun film. Young doctor Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) comes to Stonehearst Asylum in the English countryside to train as an alienist (a physician who attends to patients in an asylum). He discovers a disturbing shakeup of the staff there. Much intrigue ensues.
The cast (which includes Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine, and Ben Kingsley) is excellent, the setting wonderfully macabre, and the cinematography darkly beautiful. The talented acting effectively carries the melodramatic script. I appreciate how the storyline includes a mix of old barbaric treatment methods being eclipsed by more humane effective ones and how the concept of insanity is presented as relative and often even subjective. This film is solid entertainment as both old fashioned-style, reliable suspense and romance and as a modern screenplay about human psyches and overcoming long-held misunderstandings of them.
PEEPING TOM (1960), starring Carl Boehm and directed by Michael Powell, is right up there with PSYCHO (also 1960) in regards to being creepy, psychologically disturbing, and well-done— if not more so with all of those descriptors. Probably due to the film’s very harsh reception when first released, it’s not so generally well known as Hitchcock’s contemporary masterpiece. There is a scene I found especially memorable in which a blind, middle aged woman (Maxine Audley) confronts the main character (Boehm), a misogynistic voyeur and sociopath, while he watches silent footage of a murder he recently committed and filmed.
This is not a movie for everyone, including the particularly squeamish, though it’s artfully crafted and stylized, well acted, and intriguingly written. For those, like me, who especially enjoy the medium of film, this great cinema project plays with camera work, darkness, light, and both still and motion photography in clever and thought-provoking ways. All of these elements within PEEPING TOM serve as a powerful expression of the seemingly razor thin, often titillating dance between vibrant, fragile life and the finality of death. Profound impacts of child abuse and dark implications of voyeurism, such as objectification of women and how we, the film viewers, are also voyeurs, are all intuitively explored.
The Lebanese movie CAPERNAUM (2018), with its subtitle translation being “Chaos,” blew me away. I can’t remember the last time I watched more riveting, powerful acting than what twelve-year-old (now aged sixteen) Syrian refugee, Zain Al Rafeea, delivers here. Taking place in the slums of Beirut, the story focuses on a streetwise, impoverished boy who tries to protect his eleven-year-old sister from being married off to their family’s landlord. Surrounded by squalor and pain, Zain (also the name of the main character) bravely faces what life throws at him. Filmed in documentary, hand-held camera style, the sense of intimacy and immediacy is constant. I highly recommend this phenomenal film.
The Russian language movie I AM DRAGON (2015) is often a visual poem. It is that beautifully made. Based on a Russian fairytale, the story is quite simple: A nobleman’s daughter is kidnapped by a dragon on her wedding day, thus resuming a horrifying tradition the villagers had thought ended a few generations back. The young bride-to-be must then contend with living on an enchanted isle where she soon finds out there is far more to the hosting dragon than initially meets the eye. Emotional intrigue and opening of hearts ensue.
There are definitely parallels in this story with BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Cinematography and CGI weave gracefully together throughout this colorful production along with solid– often purposefully dramatic– acting by the two attractive leads (Maria Poezzhaeva and Matvey Lykov) and supporting cast. But, then, dramatic situations so often elicit dramatic responses. Well-crafted sets (CGI enhanced in places) and lovely costumes round out the exquisiteness of this film.
I’m humbly reminded here and by a few other recently-viewed productions that America is not the only producer of well-made high tech. movies, including those that excel in both style/look and emotional substance. I AM DRAGON is one such cinema masterpiece.
THE SHAMER’S DAUGHTER II: THE SERPENT GIFT (released in early 2019) is a fantastic sequel to the fabulous Danish movie THE SHAMER’S DAUGHTER (2015). These appear to be the first two parts of a trilogy. I was impressed with how a heroine and hero were each presented in both screen plays, especially in the second one, where the male protagonist (Jakob Oftebro as Nicodemus Ravens) matures and comes into his own, thanks largely to the young female lead, Dina (Rebecca Emilie Sattrup). Like her mother, Melussina (Maria Bonnevie), she has the innate power to see into people’s souls, namely over what they feel ashamed about.
The balance and tension of the sacred feminine and the sacred masculine are well-portrayed in these movies, which are set sometime in Medieval period (probably the 15th century) Dunark, a land where dragons and a giant serpent exist. I was often deeply moved, particularly over Dina and how she evolves, developing more psychic powers in the second installment.
These two films are exquisite pieces of cinema, from the beautiful outdoor cinematography– which there is even more of in the second film– to the great acting, sets, and costumes. The evil throne usurper’s aged mother (Dama Lizea, played by Stina Ekblad) is a top notch villainess, embodying sinister artfully and grandly.
Both movies are must-sees for anyone who enjoys a good story of both adventure and human transformation
The seventeen minute Australian movie MRS. McCUTCHEON (released in 2017) is a lovely little visual story. Directed by John Sheedy and filmed in bright colors reminiscent of many 1960s cinema productions, the screenplay shows some slices of life for a ten-year-old boy (Alec Golinger) who feels most natural and comfortable wearing a dress. He insists on being called Mrs. McCutcheon instead of his birth name Tom. We viewers eventually learn that he identifies as a she, expressing to her single mother Jenny (Nadine Garner) a sense that she was born in the wrong kind of body. Jenny enrolls the child in a third school within a single year, where a super perky teacher, Mrs. Clutterbuck (Virginia Gay), does her theatrical best to make Mrs. McCutcheon feel welcome in class.
A part white, part Aboriginal boy named Trevor (Wesley Patten) immediately befriends the trans protagonist, protecting her against intolerant peers, particularly from a group of three boys who proceed to steadily bully Mrs. McCutcheon. Trevor is a scrappy and talented athlete who loves his new classmate for who and how she is. He voices disappointment when his new friend is forced back into wearing boy’s clothes while at school.
The oppressive norm of compulsory conformity to birth-based binary gender expression and identity is upheld by Principal Parncut (Neil Pigot), a staid and constipated looking caricature of a man. He and the teacher Mrs. Clutterbuck are just two of several ways comic relief balance out the serious subject matter of the film. However, even uptight Mr. Parncut is overpowered by the positive, hopeful message at the very end, the final setting a balloon-filled dance in the school gym. The movie often has a dream-like quality to it, particularly this very last scene. Hence, idealism works well here, coupled with the narrative’s premise that diversity in every sense is a basic aspect of reality to be embraced for the good of humanity (however high a striving that may be in such a fear-filled world).
It is Trevor who so wisely, poignantly expresses the main point of the film in few words and actions. (Hint: It has to do with skin.) Wesley Patten’s acting hits the mark for sincerity and effectiveness. He should go places in his career, if he chooses to remain an actor, as the equally talented Grolinger should also succeed.
This short film was exactly what I needed to watch at the end of a work week peppered with ongoing news of intolerance around the country and the world. As long as clever, creative projects like MRS. McCUTCHEON continue to be made and released for the public (I viewed this for free via my basic Cable plan), there is hope that the world will perhaps eventually become a better place for everyone.
On the surface, DEPARTURE (released in 2015) is a summertime coming of age movie. The screenplay also falls into the broad category of film and television productions about repressed English people. It is far more than either of these. I appreciated how emotional and sexual repression in the story are intelligently explored by writer and director Andrew Steggall. In different ways, the three British and one French main characters struggle to be free of emotional pain each has been carrying prior to the start of the story.
DEPARTURE takes place in the South of France, where young teenager and aspiring writer Elliot (sensitively played by Alex Lawther) roams the countryside and village near his family’s summer home, carrying his journal and jotting down words whenever inspiration strikes. These are his final days in this house, which his parents are selling due to their marriage dissolving. Elliot and his mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) slowly, reluctantly begin to pack up and selectively dispose of the contents of the quaint, though somewhat cavernous dwelling. Lingering indoor and outdoor camera shots underscore the pensive, wistful mood throughout the movie.
Elliot’s father Philip (Finbar Lynch) spends the first part of the film being away on business. When we viewers do finally meet him, it soon becomes apparent that he is gay, having married a woman and fathered a child in hopes of avoiding his true orientation.
To get some space from his mother’s depression and their mutually sad, imminent closing of a large chapter in family life, Elliot initiates a friendship with the slightly older Clement (Phenix Brossard). The English boy initially spies the lithe teen swimming in the nearby reservoir. A triangle of sexual tension gradually ensues, with both mother and son longing for the attentions of Clement. The movie’s focus is largely on Elliot, who is coming into his sexuality. He does his best to sublimate libido and other powerful feelings by writing, yet he grows bolder in pursuing affection from Clement whenever possible.
Symbolism arises here and there, such as when Beatrice possibly (not at all for certain) runs over a deer while driving in a stormy night at the beginning of the story. Elliot spends the rest of the movie preoccupied with finding and burying this unseen roadkill. I could not help but think that the phantom deer is representative of Elliot’s parents’ dead marriage and the childhood he longs for both continuance of and closure over. Like the possibly dead deer whose existence is never confirmed, Elliot’s family life, now nonexistent as he had previously experienced it, was based on a false abstraction of love between his parents rather than something actual for them. In a sense, Beatrice kills off her own denial and avoidance of the truth about her sham marriage, though it still takes her a while into the narrative to finally face this reality. Hence, this nighttime incident is also a foreshadowing of what soon comes to a head for Elliot’s family. Her closeted, uptight husband Philip lived and perpetrated a lie in a heterosexual union, with the summer home purchased as both a distracting and distancing way of maintaining some common, primary pursuit (real estate purchases) between he and Beatrice. The remotely located house embodies the isolation and subsequent loneliness Elliot and his parents each feel.
A dead bird the protagonist comes across in the woods symbolizes the actual death of his innocent childhood from within the context of his parents’ illusion of love for each other and the risky transition into adulthood, including sexuality, he now faces. (Consequently, there is no need for Elliot to find the killed deer, but, not surprisingly, he doesn’t figure this out right away.) To at least drive the particular points home regarding adulthood and sexuality, Elliot plucks a few feathers from the small carcass and places them in his hair. He soon spots Clement up ahead as the older boy strips down for a swim. In a brief solitary reverie, Elliot plays with the idea of being seen like a bird showing its plumage to display beauty, physical maturity, and confidence, and also, likely, in hopes of getting attention from a possible mate. However, he soon thinks better of wearing this added decor and removes the feathers for when Clement actually sees him. Actor Alex Lawther’s soulful eyes, thoughtful facial expressions, and deliberating movements powerfully relay so much pent-up adolescent passion.
A prescient, recurring dream image of Elliot floating naked underwater feels haunting to watch. The question is whether he will be drowned by his deep emotions and desire or learn to swim in life like all of us adults with a libido and intermittently intense feeling states must do. His gift of the ability to creatively write about feelings and observations hints at the hope we viewers can hold for him as he navigates a maturing, complex psyche.
As a gay man who was once a teenager, I certainly related to Elliot and the very limited options presented to him for sexual exploration with another male. Clement spends a lot of time trying to fix an old motorcycle to then drive on to Paris, where we eventually learn his ailing mother lies dying in hospital. He has basically been exiled to stay with an aunt in the country due to anger management issues, stemming from the helplessness he feels over his mother’s plight and his father’s lack of patience and understanding. He smokes cigarettes and sometimes wears a leather jacket, effectively portraying the trope of the angry loner male youth, though without seeming like a cliche. His mixed response to Elliot is painful yet believable to watch. On one hand, Clement clearly enjoys the admiration and desire from the younger peer, who welcomes his assistance with packing up the house and keeping Elliot company in the woods. On the other, the older boy’s internalized homophobia is expressed in his name-calling and insults, including of Elliot’s being a poet. Yet, the French boy flirts and displays himself just enough to help maintain some sexual tension between them. I found myself thinking how the protagonist could and will eventually do better with finding worthwhile, reciprocating love interests, his intelligence and sensibilities far more sophisticated than Clement’s. However, the intrigue of discovering sexual desire and pursuit of its fulfillment moves the narrative effectively along even with– and because of– the limitations presented for the English lad and, by extension, his suffering parents. The mother and father relay how repression, denial and avoidance are inevitably ineffective against hiding from the truth in matters of the heart and body.
I was surprised to learn that Alex Lawther was around eighteen years of age when he starred in this film. Casting older actors to play younger is common, of course, because wisdom and good acting ability often come with age. But, Lawther looks and acts so uncannily youthful (yet like an old soul) here that I thought he was surely no more than fifteen.
DEPARTURE is layered in meaning, cinematically beautiful, and superbly acted. The pacing is often a bit slow and ponderous, but not overly so. There were just enough emotionally and sexually charged interactions between the actors to sustain my interest throughout, which was also helped along by the movie’s intriguing visual appeal. The Southern French countryside and village setting come across as other main characters. And Lawther’s often subtle but rich range of facial and body expressions are quite riveting. I enjoyed this gem of a screenplay overall in spite of finding myself painfully empathizing with all four central players’ sexual and emotional frustrations, sadness, and anguish, especially Elliot’s and Beatrice’s respectively. But, I think we fellow human viewers are supposed to feel all this right along with them and glean some knowledge and beauty from out of the suffering wherever we can, like Elliot wisely strives to do.
GODS OF EGYPT (2016) was a fun, campy, and often silly movie I’m glad I saw on TV for free. I especially enjoyed the costumes and some of the sets, both of which were often enhanced by CGI. I liked the main fantasy premise of an ancient time in which Egypt’s gods lived and ruled among humans. Most of the deities looked fabulous to some degree or other, while a few were sloppy and not impressive, namely when in their combined human-animal forms. To be clear, there is no particularly deep character development in this visually splashy, flashy production.
The cast should have been entirely made up of Egyptians and people of other African descent. A few token Blacks and brown-skinned folks in the ensemble, such as handsome Chadwick Boseman, didn’t cut it. The flack this movie got for such poor ethnic/racial optics was well-deserved and why I refused to buy a theater ticket for it. Movie studio brass should know and do better by now than to cast largely white people in non-white, non-Euro/American roles.