Movie Review (DRACULA, from 1979)

After over forty years since its initial theatrical release, I finally saw what passed me by during my later childhood: DRACULA, starring Frank Langella in the title role. Having seen all of Hammer Studios’ DRACULA cycle, which spanned fifteen years (1958-1973) of nine continuous productions, I can’t help but compare this Mirisch Company project to that body of work.

The production values in this 1979 romantic horror version of DRACULA are a cut above Hammer fare, which generally had stagy– albeit campily fun– sets. The bulk of the movie takes place in and around two large buildings: the home and attached insane asylum owned and run by Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance) and Carfax Abbey, a run-down castle leased by Count Dracula (Langella), having just arrived in England from his native Transylvania. The sets are effectively old-looking, dark and, where needed, filled with requisite spider webs. I particularly enjoyed a bird’s eye view of camera work from the ceiling in Carfax Abbey, in which a large spider in its web looms directly above Dracula and his lone guest Lucy Seward (Kate Nelligan) below. It’s a touch of blatant symbolism and foreshadowing but an effectively foreboding one nonetheless.

A forty-year-old Langella makes for quite the suave, seductive Dracula. A young Ms. Nelligan as an initially slightly bored and willful, then soon lovestruck Lucy matches up well with him. I found the romantic and sexual chemistry between the two convincing, fun, and intriguing. It reaches an ecstatic peak during a certain scene of them in bed together, which is filmed with dramatic back lighting and shadow play, accompanied by energetic orchestral music by John Williams. I had never seen this more sensual side of the Prince of Darkness so played out in a film produced before the 1980s or 90s. We also get to see the Count’s sexy animalness as he scales up and down walls in slow motion, his thick 70s styled hair and black cape moving in the night wind. Undoubtedly, this particular special effect was simply accomplished by having the actor crawl along a side of outer building wall placed on the ground and then angling the camera vertically while actually filming or switching the film’s position of the footage afterwards. I did wonder if filming was done backwards for some or all of these brief action scenes. In any case, Mr. Langella is show-cased nicely with his intense stare, angular face, and full lips. I certainly understand why Lucy is so taken with him and not with her young, pretty, and eager but otherwise uninteresting fiance, Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve).

Grand thespian Laurence Olivier portrays a grieving, mysterious Professor Abraham van Helsing, who comes to Dr. Seward’s home immediately after the strange, sudden death there of his daughter Mina (Jan Francis), a close friend of Lucy’s. Having seen the lovely Peter Cushing play van Helsing several times in Hammer’s earlier DRACULA movies, I think Olivier does equal justice to the character, if not perhaps more so, with his nuances of ponderousness and sadness. A comparatively younger Cushing plays the same role with a business-like efficiency, which has its due place in such a campy-minded series than this comparatively serious screenplay about the cinema’s most popular vampire.

Where the screen drama falls apart for me is at the very end, which I won’t completely give away. Script writer W.D. Richter and director John Badham switched things up a lot throughout the story, which is quite varied in places from the original book, DRACULA, by Bram Stoker. Granted, I am fine with how most movie adaptations stray far and wide from the classic novel. And following the actual ending can be viewed as unoriginal and too predictable, I suppose, particularly given how frequently this story has been filmed over the past century. In this version’s ending, however, I find Professor van Helsing’s thunder to be pointlessly stolen. Just as cunning and determined as the dark Count himself, van Helsing is the other central figure of the narrative, the polar opposite to and powerful arch enemy of Dracula. Hence, he is the true main hero with the naive Jonathan Harker a supporting, secondary hero. Clearly, there was an attempt to appeal to a younger audience by giving a youthful Harker (Eve) a more central piece of the action here. What last minute, ageist nonsense.

Since it is largely public knowledge at this point in time that Dracula dies at the end of the story, a common question for viewers surely arises: “How will he actually die in this particular movie?” Well, rather awkwardly and ridiculously here in this Mirisch Company effort. How pathetic and annoying. But, hey, at least the movie sails along pleasantly enough before its denouement crashes and burns.

Movie Review (BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN)

I should have followed my initial gut sense and avoided BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN), the DC Universe sequel to SUICIDE SQUAD, which was not a good movie either. BIRDS focuses on Harley Quinn, one of the ensemble cast of 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD, a self-serving woman in Gotham City’s organized crime world. A former psychiatrist in Arkham Asylum, she has recently broken up with the Joker and sets forth wreaking havoc while fighting another crime lord, Roman Sionis (Ewan MacGregor). One main adjective comes to mind for me here: gross. Others quickly follow: vicious, cruel, and glorifying of crime, entitlement and sociopathy. I almost walked out of this hot mess of a show, with its intense, unrelenting violence and over-the-top crassness parading as humor. I was hoping that Ms. Quinn would get her comeuppance by, well, either becoming rehabilitated from her awful ways or getting imprisoned like a rabid animal that she seemed so much to act like. Her companion pet, not surprisingly, is a hyena, one of nature’s particularly vicious carnivores, inelegant and savage.

I did enjoy a few of the supporting ensemble cast members, namely Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in that order. All three were sympathetic and evolved for the better to some extent or other in the story. I see Black Canary having an interesting origin movie of her own, if it’s not too violent. But, in this film, her superpower of a forceful super-sonic voice seems to suddenly come out of nowhere, tacked on as an after-thought, with no explanation of how this developed for her or that she even actually had such an ability all along. There are other occasions in the narrative that Black Canary would have likely wished to use it sooner than when she finally does. Yeah, not exactly good script writing.

I get that women-focused action movies are on the rise, showing how they too can rightfully join the ranks of being kick ass and mean like men in movies (and real life) have been throughout history. Now, it’s a free-for-all of gratuitous violence for everyone, as BIRDS OF PREY affirms. Great. I left the theater feeling battered after watching so much frenetic, bloody mayhem and from the movie’s morbid message being that crime can actually pay.

This is part of a whole series I will definitely not be following. Margot Robbie in the leading role and producer of the screen drama rose to the occasion, but I think she surely has better projects to occupy her time and talent.

Movie Review (GRETEL AND HANSEL)

GRETEL AND HANSEL is a wonderfully dark little gem of a movie. And it’s about one of my favorite subjects: witches!

Directed by Osgood (Oz) Perkins (son of the late actor Anthony Perkins), this eery, atmospheric production stays close to the Brothers Grimm fairytale “Hansel and Gretel.” Added in are supporting characters, interesting stylized scenes, and some background about the evil Witch, played here by veteran screen maven Alice Krige (as the older/crone Holda) and Jessica De Gouw (the young Holda). Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is switched up to being a teenager, while her younger brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey, in his film debut) is around eight years old. The two siblings wander into a dark forest in search of work and food, their impoverished widowed mother having cast them out of the house.

The lighting is largely dim throughout, with Robin Coudert’s synthesizer and rock music score effectively rounding out the movie’s overall mood of dread and intrigue. The cinematography was beautifully done, with stark, often claustrophobic interiors juxtaposed with lush yet foreboding outdoor forest scenes. The look and feel to almost every frame is dreamlike, as fairytales generally are. This is also helped along by a script with stretches of brief dialogue coupled with ponderous camera work over scenery and people’s faces.

This is a purposefully ponderous yet active, at times hallucinatory, movie. The Witch and Gretel are the core, yin-yang characters whose psyches initially join in alliance and then become locked in battle. Gretel is the heroine who, with the help of portentous dreaming, comes into her own power as both a newly-menstruating woman and a novice witch, the implication being that these are one and the same. Gretel becomes Holda’s apprentice in hedge witchcraft, including herb and food sorcery. But, acting as protector and surrogate mother to her brother, Gretel is determined to avoid going the way of corruption as the lone, aged Holda has long done. Hansel becomes the central sacrifice and means for Holda’s devious plans over bringing Gretel over to the dark side. Gretel, the maiden, makes a conscious decision to use her budding power for good. This affirms that the eventuality and mysteries of motherhood and then crone-dom, when approached mindfully and with care, can and should be ultimately viewed as positive cycles in women and in nature overall. That said, sometimes power corrupts a few (such as Holda) along the way in the challenges of life and the world, and still even others can be born into darkness at the start. Both the dark and light sides of witches are thoughtfully, respectfully portrayed here, making them more human and accurate to real life. Such complex and nuanced treatment of an all-too-often maligned subject is refreshing for me, an eclectic Pagan, to see played out on-screen.

I am no folklorist, but I’m familiar just enough to recognize some references to folklore in GRETEL AND HANSEL. For example, during a lesson from Holda to Gretel in hedge magic/sorcery, the elder witch introduces the younger to a clear salve for rubbing on the hands. This salve or “flying ointment” then opens up one’s innate telekinetic powers, with Gretel soon able to move Holda’s nearby stang by concentrating her mind on the object. Later, the maiden goes outside to find she can mentally cause a large tree to rock to and fro. I grew up hearing about women in olden times using a hallucinogen-filled ointment to rub inside their vaginas with a stick in order to produce a sense of flying. This appeared to be a more G-rated and literalized reference to that old lore.

Cloth dolls, likely poppets (though I’m not sure), show up in odd places in the woods in one scene, such as a few in a tree. Gretel comes across another one by a stream where she is cleaning clothing soaked in her menstrual blood while she’d been sleeping. There is probably some old folklore reference here concerning the placement of such dolls in trees and by rocks for magical purposes. Regardless, the effect was intriguingly creepy and involved no dialogue. I had the sense that Gretel was perhaps symbolically finding a part of herself, such as her nascent female power or capacity for witch craft. Fascinating.

I am not sure what the meaning is behind that of Holda’s, and later Gretel’s, black (or deep blue)-stained fingers, which are likely colored by woad, an herb that produces a very dark blue dye. I suspect this may have been another ancient Germanic folkloric reference, with (possibly) woad indicating a witch/sorceress/master herbalist, i.e., someone unique and powerful who works with herbs and other plants. I do know that woad goes back to being used by the ancient Celts and Picts, who would paint their skin with it as part of preparing for battle. Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of the Arthurian fantasy classic THE MISTS OF AVALON, has her main characters in that novel painted up in woad as part of a magical rite. In any event, the darkly dyed fingers of the witch crone Holda and, later, of the maiden/young witch Gretel make for an intriguing mark of having acquired earthly, feminine, plant-based powers.

Yet another example of folklore in the movie arises in one of my favorite scenes in the film. Just before arriving at the Witch’s cottage deep in the woods, the starving Gretel and Hansel come upon a cluster of red-colored fly agaric mushrooms. Gretel proceeds to talk to the fungi, asking permission for her and her brother to eat them without dying from their possible poison. After then ingesting probably a handful each, the two children enter a hallucinogenic trance state, which both the indigenous Sami and Siberian shamans historically have also done from eating these same kinds of mushrooms. We the viewers do not actually see what Gretel and Hansel see. But, watching their dramatic facial expressions and noise-making, enhanced by a wonderfully strange sound track, make for an effective transition into the next part of the movie. For, the two wake up in the morning after an afternoon and night of entheogen-enhanced inner journeying and enter an alternate world of sorts, that of the Witch Holda’s house and surrounding property. In a sense, the children are unknowingly initiated into a shamanic state to then enter the Middle World, Dream Time, or any number of other ancient indigenous terms used to define the realm of the supernatural and/or place beyond what the naked eye sees in the day-to-day physical world. Very cleverly done.

Dream and reality intermingle throughout this movie, particularly right before and once the crone Holda enters the story. Gretel is frequently dreaming, only to wake up and find some aspect of her dreams to be somehow true– past, present, or imminently. The abundance of beautifully-prepared food by Witch/Holda is suspect to Gretel, given there are no farm animals around to produce the milk and meat placed on the long table before them. Is the food even real? What are Gretel and Hansel actually eating? After all, having entered a shamanic state en-route to Holda’s and having since drunk her mysterious milk and herbal tea concoctions and eaten her oddly perfect, unspoiled food, it is possible the two are continuously consuming entheogens, thereby hallucinating these seeming results of magic. Within Witch’s domain, is it all simply just a haunted dream? The implications are bizarre and gruesome. Again, fascinating.

I’m impressed by the acting of everyone in GRETEL AND HANSEL, particularly that of Krige, Lillis, and Leakey, the three primaries. Ms. Krige, with her dark beady eyes, bony body, and deliberate movements is a powerful mix of crafty, sad, scary, and dominating. Sophia Lillis conveys a believable and compelling complexity. In particular, she expresses a young woman’s inner struggle to keep her sense of innocence while experiencing a fast encroachment of deep suspicion of others, having been thrust too soon into learning how people can’t be trusted, especially when you’re poor, young, and pretty. Hansel’s presence keeps her grounded in valuing innocence and goodness. She grows confident and clear-thinking before our eyes, a wonderful character for mothers with their daughters to see up on screen. Lastly, Samuel Leakey is excellent, portraying a believably naive boy determined to live in his mind of fairytales and trust in the world no matter what, until even he too finally begins to mature and briefly question things, though not before enduring an ordeal of sorts.

Filmed mostly in Dublin, Ireland and then later for a time in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, this short and thoughtful supernatural horror movie comes in at at eighty-seven minutes. The screenplay is both Pagan and woman affirming as well as female centered without being anti-male. It taps into the currents of nature and shamanic and magical practices informed by the use of herbs and entheogens in particular. It honors the Brothers Grimm’s source text of “Hansel and Gretel” while building upon it in some creative and thought-provoking ways.

I enjoyed and deeply appreciated GRETEL AND HANSEL. It is fantastical and stimulating without being overdone, a very special work of cinema. This is largely not for those who always prefer a lot of fast-paced violent action in movies. Also, intolerant Christians (or any number of other rigidly-practicing followers of assorted religions) will find this film sinful and heretical. But, as I’ve always sensed, and this screen drama affirms, spirituality can be practiced in many forms, including as a witch.

On My Love of Different Movie Genres

I’ve been fascinated with movies since I was a young child. I’d be the one in 2nd grade at school watching a film all the way through, with rapt attention, while peers around me had long become bored and restless.

Having always loved this form of mass entertainment, there are different genres I don’t care to watch, such as combat-oriented war movies, which I used to tolerate viewing now and then when I was younger. I do occasionally enjoy a well-done war-time film that focuses on dynamics away from the actual battlefield. SCHINDLER’S LIST comes to mind here.

As with combat war movies, the same goes for Westerns with me. I’ve probably truly enjoyed no more than I can count on both hands, possibly only on one, and just when I was much younger. The cinema in general was still so novel an experience until roughly around my early 30s. Since then, it’s taken more for a movie to feel novel and, hence, interesting enough for me to want to see it. The old American frontier is a huge mythology of wonder for a lot of folks, particularly, it seems, for those older than myself, though many males in my age group also appreciate that world. But, it’s one to which I honestly can’t relate. All the gun-related violence and accompanying machismo turns me off. My being gay and not fully gender binary factors into this, I admit. I’m immediately an outsider to this onscreen universe. Even so, ultimately that genre tends to glorify the gun via having it be the central means of power and conquest, so tiresomely destructive in a raw, ugly way. We’re seeing these days what gun worship does in our culture. I also have no interest in spending my precious free time filling my physical vision and brain with more toxic masculinity. I already have to navigate it somewhat in my day-to-day life as it is. A certain very troubled man in power comes to mind. No thanks.

As an extension of Westerns, the modern, male-focused action films (including police-oriented ones) largely elicit the same response from me. They come across as Westerns placed in current times. The one exception and admitted guilty pleasure of this category I do watch are the James Bond films (*ducking for cover now from possible judgment by certain readers*). They are fantastical enough that they cross over into fantasy instead of just hard core action. That said, I’ve always viewed them with a mix of emotions, disliking their awful sexism and some of their violence. And the latest James Bond (Daniel Craig, himself a talented actor) is too much of a muscle-pumped brute for my taste. Gone is the suavity of Connery and Moore, the latter being so refreshingly funny, and the Bond I came of age watching. It is encouraging to hear that the next James Bond after Craig retires from one more upcoming film will be a female. Such a change is long overdue.

There is a rare exception I make for the martial arts sub-genre of action cinema: the small canon of Bruce Lee films. As I’ve written elsewhere, I watch him for his beautiful form and dance, which come across to me as artful and fantastical. Lee transcended the genre he worked within and I don’t know if anyone will ever accomplish what he did as a performer. CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON comes close, though that was all due to beautiful cinematography and costumes, interesting special effects, a good storyline, and competent acting. No single actor embodied the main energy or center of the world in that film like Lee did in his projects. And I have no interest whatsoever in watching what seems like overly-stimuli packed modern martial arts films. I find them too fast, busy, and even noisy. (Same goes for me with Anime in general, though I have enjoyed a few earlier produced exceptions, such as 1983’s BAREFOOT GEN.) Any graceful martial artist seems to get lost for me among all the mishegas of such pointless on-screen distraction.

I’ve rarely enjoyed violent horror films, particularly slasher ones, which, on the whole, I’ve never liked. The rare, well-done sci-fi fantasy horror productions, such as the first two and the fourth ALIEN movies, are watchable for their beautiful, dark aesthetics alone. But, then, I’ve always appreciated monster movies, which can artfully externalize the shadow sides of the human psyche, including our deepest fears and inner rage that all of us have surely felt in life as an initial, primal response to adversity.

I will sometimes take time to see early period dramas, depending on the historical period portrayed. Good acting and beautiful costumes also help me decide with what to watch in this category. However, if a lot of violent war scenes predominate in such productions, I tend to hesitate with consuming them. I’m not fascinated by war as I was somewhat when I was young. The less people at large give mind space to war, the more it will fade away as an overly repeated option to solving social and political problems. I’m simply committed to de-intensifying war images in my psyche as best I can because it feels like the right thing to do. Real life and non-movie media emphasize war to fill a lifetime, and then some, as it is. Still, I acknowledge the titillation war images elicit for so much of the public, including consuming them in their movie watching. Sigh.

Romantic and screwball comedies I enjoy on occasion, but they simply are far less compelling and interesting to me than the usually more imaginative, cinematic science fiction, fantasy, and, to a lesser extent, action adventure (e.g., James Bond) shows. Since I tend to see movies with the intention of being transported somewhere and inspired from aspects of my day-to-day life, I naturally gravitate towards these other-worldly performances.

I’ll sometimes see suspense and mystery movies if the storyline is intriguing enough and stars actors who I particularly admire. My imagination has to be captured by such projects, and that is hit or miss with this genre. It’s simply a cinema universe that doesn’t consistently interest me as much as the comparably more flexible fantasy and science fiction ‘verses do.

I used to enjoy many animation features, including most of the Disney ones. I still have yet to see some of those older productions, which I intend to in time. The Disney and Pixar cartoons from the last twenty years or so often annoy me with their puerile humor, which I’ve simply outgrown. Still, some are heart-felt, enjoyable, and imaginative all at once, such as WALL-E and ZOOTOPIA. What I personally experience as a loss in these computerized productions is the natural and subtly rough, unpolished aesthetic that hand-painted animation conveyed from earlier times. That look is more life-life compared to the overly clean appearance of these newer images on screen. The latter convey a certain mild sterility about them that keep me at a distance, ever reminded that I’m watching a movie.

Of worthy mention here are biographical movies. When done well, and if the subject is of interest to me (such as old-time movie stars and/or singers), these screen gems encapsulate the basic, beautiful essence of a fascinating, compelling life, this being yet another window into a very different world than my own.

Then, there’s the often quirky, off-beat indie art films. They are also hit or miss for me, but often hits. I’ll always have head room to view those, though time and convenience often don’t allow seeing as many of these as I’d like. There is no nearby theater where I live that regularly shows many indie (including foreign films) and arthouse productions, let alone for more than a day or two. Same goes for old-time classics, of which there’s a plethora that I treasure. Fortunately, in earlier years, I lived near movie houses that showed a lot of indie, art, and classic films, which I took advantage of. I’ll always be grateful for that. I’ve also viewed a lot of great oldies and indies on video, DVD, and YouTube over the years, and will continue to do so via the latter two means and, perhaps, streaming someday as well. But, none of these options quite replace the all-encompassing large screen medium I enjoy most for fully experiencing a movie.

I haven’t exhaustively covered all of the extant movie genres and sub-genres, the latter of which there are so many, including those that don’t quite fit into any particular category. But, I’ve discussed the ones that especially come to mind for me within such an often magical form of media. In this time of home convenience where small screen streaming is the zeitgeist for the masses, long live my first love of entertainment: the classy big, silver screen.

Movie Review (DOLITTLE)

The new movie DOLITTLE displays some interesting imagery here and there, but the overall pacing is incessantly frenetic and the script seems thrown together without much thought. Some of the CGI is good while some isn’t particularly impressive. Colors are too bright and clean on some of the talking animals. Many move too fast to seem fully credible as living beings. Also, I would have chosen a deeper voice for the perpetually fearful Chee-Chee the gorilla instead of Rami Malek’s overly-youthful one that had me thinking of a hyper-active, white American teenager. That is a poor match for a large imposing creature from Africa, even if he is scared, and what sounds his vocal cords would naturally emit.

One scene towards the end of the production has overly drawn-out puerile humor to the point that I found myself wondering if I’m simply getting old. Rather, I think it’s actually one of many instances of poor writing, whereby cheap laughs are emphasized over a missed opportunity to deepen an emotionally bonding situation for Dr. Dolittle (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the supporting characters of animals and humans around him. I longed for more lingering moments to give me, the viewer, a chance to connect further with what the players were seeing, feeling, experiencing. But, no, it’s quickly on to the next action or scene. It often feels like the film is actually speeded up.

The cast is mostly excellent (save Rami Malek’s voice) but not given much decent writing to work with. One actor who deserves special mention here is Harry Collett, who plays Tommy Stubbins, the self-appointed child apprentice to Dr. Dolittle. Not only is Collett good-looking, he is effectively emotive. His face quickly conveys feeling states, including tender ones, even with a fast-panning camera– though it does seem to linger on him at times, which is pleasant. I foresee Mr. Collett showing up in a lot more movies to come, though hopefully ones far better than this slap dash project.

The juxtaposition of a 19th century timeline with some supporting characters expressing very current terms and sensibilities comes across as awkward and annoying, even crass in one particular scene involving talking insects. If more real care had been put into DOLITTLE instead of doing such a rush job on it (and I heard from a local movie theater employee this is what it was) I think two or three good films could have been produced from out of this material. However, improvements on some of the CGI would also need to be made. Opportunities at being attentive to and more creative with character development and storylines were frequently missed and that’s sad.

Movie Review (STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER)

I finally saw STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. I thought it was actually pretty good, because the movie was simply a lot of fun. The storyline had some pat, thrown-together moments to it, but it remained easy to follow. And some of the writing was corny. But, I didn’t go see this film expecting genius writing or clever and consistent plot (which wasn’t always there in this production). I went for the fun, impressive spectacle and the sentimentality. I came away satisfied over having watched an entertaining, often cute, splashy movie.

I was impressed with how the late Carrie Fisher as Leia Morgana was able to be included into the story as much as she was. I imagine her image was occasionally CGI in places, this technique being ever more seamlessly honed into seeming just like live, on-screen actors/entities. (There was also some impressive, brief CGI of a young Luke Skywalker and Leia.) Apparently, her scenes were drawn from previously un-released footage for THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI. From what I could tell with my amateur eye, they were all effectively edited into this film, and then extended out as needed via using a double for over-the-shoulder shots. The writers must have had to consciously keep Fisher’s limited footage in mind the whole time they created the script for this final installment to the series.

I have to say, John Boyega as Finn has grown into quite the handsome young man since his appearance in THE LAST JEDI. He and Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) both pleasantly lit up the screen (and quickened my beating heart), especially every time they were in-frame together.

Overall, I think THE RISE OF SKYWALKER was worth seeing in the theater. I watched it in Dolby, which made the music and sound effects especially engrossing and powerful. I came away feeling like I had just enjoyed a very long attraction at Disneyland. And since this is a Disney production, that studio seems to have accomplished exactly what it set out to do: take us viewers on a fun fantasy ride.

Movie Review (ARRIVAL)

I watched the movie ARRIVAL (from 2016) last night, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. What a fascinating premise: A linguist assists the U.S. military to communicate with highly advanced alien visitors. I particularly enjoyed the weird atmosphere and vibe within the aliens’ spacecraft. Amy Adams is very believable as a grieving, open-minded yet freaked out professor trying to peacefully connect with enormous heptopod (seven-legged, seven-digited) beings from another world. The claustrophobic environments of the spacecraft and the military tents for much of the film lend an immediacy to the narrative. It also made me, the viewer, more readily able to empathize with Dr. Banks (Adams). Her past becomes interwoven into the story, making the drama a very personal one. The way time gets looped is purposefully confusing and intriguing. The primary shape of the circle is a key element in the story, symbolizing interconnection, the foundation of language, nonlinear aspects of time and space, and probably other things. Very clever. There is a lot to ponder in this contemplative film.

I appreciated the ultimate message of ARRIVAL that inter-cooperation among people and nations is vital in order to save humanity and the planet. I also valued the movie’s other main message: from one’s personal pain can come deep learning and even success. My hope is that it does not take an alien race catalyzing world peace to finally occur. But, I’m certainly open to this if that’s what it will require to accomplish such a dream. In any case, I enjoyed watching this thought-provoking, introspective, hope-inspiring movie. If you like this sort of screenplay, I recommend you see ARRIVAL.

Movie Review (BOMBSHELL)

I am not a close follower of any official news outlets, and I despise the slant of Fox News, but the movie BOMBSHELL intrigued me from start to finish.

Based quite loosely on actual events leading up to and surrounding the scandalous downfall of Fox News’ sexist, paranoid CEO Roger Ailes during the U.S. presidential election cycle in 2016, the movie focuses on three blonde women employees of Fox. Charlize Theron plays well-known, controversial top tier anchor Megyn Kelly so believably that I initially could not recognize the actress the first few times I watched a preview of BOMBSHELL. Nicole Kidman is the shrewd, risk-taking Gretchen Carlson, a middle aged show host whose star is fading, in no small part because of her overt concern for gender equality in the cut throat corporate broadcasting business. Well, that combined with her desperate need to keep her hard-won job status and not be relegated to irrelevance and unemployment. She spearheads what eventually becomes an avalanche of sexual abuse and harassment allegations against Fox’s founder Ailes, who is powerfully portrayed by John Lithgow. Margot Robbie as young and ambitious Kayla Pospisil is the third woman star in this drama, a fictionalized amalgam of associate producers for the conservative-focused news network. The rest of the cast, including Kate McKinnon as a closeted lesbian and secretly Democrat-identifying news producer, are terrific. Everyone was sharp and effective in their look and delivery, sometimes humorously so. An over-the-top, big-lipped Richard Kind as corporate attorney and former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani comes to mind. But, there are others, such as the smug, queen bee Beth, played by Connie Britton, wife of the corpulent, ultra creepy Roger Ailes. And then there’s the ever-impressive Allison Janney as Susan Estrich, Ailes’ salty and jaded legal counsel. Entertainment abounds.

Due to the large ensemble cast of real life characters, the periodic identification of each of them via quick on-screen titling was helpful for keeping track of who is who while also underscoring the film’s genre of docudrama. We viewers are smoothly moved along at a brisk clip from studio and office, place to place as if we too are right behind the camera. This all lends an intimacy and immediacy to a narrative about such public figures and issues.

The toxic environment of the Fox News network comes across as no less fascinating than an age-old unfolding of power struggles between a self-indulgent king and his nobles. On the surface, I found nobody to be particularly sympathetic in the movie, except for McKinnon as the lesbian news producer Jess Carr. She seems quite genuine right away, cynically and sadly compromising her principles to survive. Everyone else is also white but even more privileged, with the women competitively fighting by rules set by men in a patriarchal industry and culture. This is not at all a story about the 98%– i.e., most of us, including those of color and/or non-cis-genderedness or queerness (with Jess Carr being a closeted, token exception), and certainly all those who earn far less than the characters in BOMBSHELL do. Rather, it’s a peek into an emotionally and existentially dangerous world of politically and economically powerful people, all living within an ethos of self-centeredness and opportunism that I find quite foreign, yet is all too sadly real. To varying degrees, the three women stars grow increasingly more human and evolved, allowing for some sympathy and even empathy to actually develop within us viewers. This attests to the production’s decent, well-paced writing (by Charles Randolph), good directing (by Jay Roach), and solid acting.

The sociological and historical ramifications in BOMBSHELL are there to be found for the more discerning viewer. British actor Malcolm McDowall as Rupert Murdoch, billionaire owner of Fox News, felt to me like a colonialist or emperor coming from the “Motherland” to straighten out his large interests, or tribute country, in the “New World.” Of course, this is only one interpretation one can derive from that short segment of the movie. In part, this drama is a modern American allegory about the world of male rulers and their vassals, even though actual feudal times are supposedly long over (yeah, I’m not so sure about that). Looming in the background of the story is Trump, the up-and-coming petty tyrant “king,” cut from the same cloth as the fading, temperamental Ailes. However, a major, refreshing element is that the film is also about women pushing hard against the archaic sexual expectations, norms, and boundaries imposed on them by these very same men. The good fight goes on.

The movie evoked a nuanced response in me, one of hope for much-needed changes to finally happen for women in the workplace in modern society on one hand while also reminding me that, often, it can be like musical chairs. Out goes one old white patriarch to be replaced by yet another. This is how it’s been for millennia, no matter the time, setting, or governmental structure of a society. However, social movements, such as for women’s empowerment, do make waves, which slowly ebb and flow forward for the better, with BOMBSHELL ultimately being a product of artistic expression out of those very current and concerted, well-meaning efforts.

Movie Review (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD)

Having recently seen last year’s documentary on Fred Rogers, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, I was primed to view more about this American icon who lovingly affirmed me during my often troubled childhood. I had some initial reservations about Tom Hanks playing the main character in the movie A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. During the opening scene, he seemed like an impostor– for about five minutes. This sense soon melted away as I witnessed the skilled actor so effectively relay the mannerisms and facial expressions of someone I felt I’ve known since I was three or four years old, when I regularly watched MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD.

Inspired by actual events, the movie takes place in 1998, during which cynical investigative journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is assigned to interview Fred Rogers for his employer, the magazine ESQUIRE. Preoccupied with estrangement from his alcohol-abusing father and used to writing sensational exposes, Lloyd reluctantly accepts what he feels is a “fluff” project on a modern “hero.” What follows is nothing short of life-changing and poignant for Lloyd and those around him. He experiences being the subject as much as the interviewer. A deep relationship develops between him and Rogers.

Through Fred Rogers’s trademark soft-spoken voice, steady eye contact, small silences, and genuine interest in whoever he was talking with, Tom Hanks embodies this perpetually open-hearted man who touched so many lives. I felt myself buoyed along in an encompassing calm warmth, which often brought tears to my eyes. As I suspected there would be, an accompanying wistfulness arose as I recalled feeling this warm calm each time while watching Mister Rogers’s half hour show so long ago. One particularly succinct and powerful scene (among many) in the movie evoked these nuanced emotions so palpably. After dealing poorly with a family crisis, Lloyd goes with Mister Rogers to a restaurant for lunch. Fred asks the journalist to sit in silence with him for one minute while thinking of those who have “loved you into being.” The other patrons stop eating and talking, joining the two men in this quiet moment. The camera pans across the room, showing contemplative faces, including that of Joanne Rogers, Fred’s widow, who apparently was glad to lend her approving presence in this project. I also participated, thinking of my parents, grandmother, sister, and husband until the minute was up. I was willing to go longer.

The truth for me is that I often felt wistful at the end of an episode of MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Undivided, loving attention paired with music and creative, always understandable, imaginings (such as talking puppets) are a heady, soothing mix. Every time he was on-screen, Tom Hanks tapped right into that unique, genuine soothing presence of Fred Rogers, leaving me wanting it to never end, or at least not for a good while.

I think anyone who grew up watching Mister Rogers’s wonderful children’s show will likely come away feeling moved, possibly even inspired, after viewing A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. Personally, I’m now inspired to be more attentive to the moment, such as the one I’ll happen to be sharing with the next client sitting in my office. But, also, I am now more aware of the priceless moments with members of my family, blood and chosen. It is rare for me that a feature film is so positively affecting. Perhaps it will even be so for those who did not watch Fred Rogers in their childhood and are introduced to him through this screen drama, which comes across as nothing short of a labor of love.

Movie Review (KNIVES OUT)

KNIVES OUT was a fun diversion for me from dealing further with a cold, snow-filled day. A mystery and comedy hybrid movie, its ensemble cast delivered both laughs and intrigue, greatly assisted by a well-written script and some interesting cinematography, specifically of the mansion and its surrounding property, where much of the story transpires. The opening scene displays the ominous house, itself a main character, with two large dogs running along the grounds. This set-up is akin to imagery on DARK SHADOWS, a supernatural soap opera TV show produced from 1966 to 1971. From this exterior shot, we’re drawn inside to abrupt, melodramatic activity of its occupants. The screen narrative’s overall tone is set.

August Canadian actor Christopher Plummer plays murder victim Harlan Thrombey, a wealthy, set-in-his-ways, old writer of mystery novels. Not surprisingly, his grown children and in-laws resent him yet rely on his financial largesse, resulting in a handful of suspects upon Thrombey’s sudden death.

The author’s mansion is filled with what looked to me like papier-mache caricature figures posed in assorted dramatic tableaux. Additionally, books and other memorabilia abound, including a web-like, circular hanging display of knives. I found the overall aesthetic harkening me back to the Mystery section of any number of dusty used bookstores, their shelves filled with faded, descriptive paperbacks from the 1960s and ’70s. Such places evoke for me feelings of wistfulness, gloom, intrigue, and amusement. This nuanced reaction is what the movie seems to pull for, with extra fun added in for good measure.

Cuban actress Ana de Armas plays the ingenue Marta Cabrera, Thrombey’s private nurse, who finds herself caught up in the middle of the family and crime drama.
She is believably earnest and honest compared to Thrombey’s daughter, son, in-laws, and grandchildren. These all chew the scenery to varying degrees, in part determined by on-screen time each is allowed. I had difficulty deciding who my favorite drama queen was amongst the lot. However, Toni Collette as a New-Age, health-minded daughter-in-law and Jamie Lee Curtis as a dry, sarcastic, bullish daughter stood out for me among the crowd. I laughed at each of the two’s delivery right away. Coming in as a close second to these would be K Callan, who portrays Thrombey’s very elderly mother Greatnana Wanetta. She hardly has any lines, but her shifting facial expressions indicating an inner vacancy to jadedness and back again are amusingly impressive, their timing perfect.

British actor Daniel Craig as private investigator Benoit Blanc goes over-the-top with his thick Southern accent throughout the movie. Clearly, he’s enjoying himself in the role, I’m sure a nice break from playing an over-pumped, testosterone-filled James Bond.

Writer and director Rian Johnson surely had a lot to draw from for inspiration, Agatha Christie being a main source, no doubt. He self-consciously includes clips of an old TV show (MURDER SHE WROTE) and some on-line/streaming mystery series to remind the audience this is very much a murder drama unfolding on screen. A reference to old visual technology (VHS) paired with an aged security guard (character actor M. Emmet Walsh, especially prominent in the 1970s and ’80s) who attempts to show others its usefulness among the gathering clues is a clever plot device. This is also yet another display of old media mixing with new, leading to a film that’s both recycled yet tweaked, updated. The sense of ongoing insider fun and humor, coupled with a steady honoring of an old genre, was not missed on me. Factoring all this in with ornate sets and much scene-stealing, the end result is a movie of thoughtful, high camp.

I found the plot sufficiently intriguing but admittedly secondary to all the colorful characters and snappy dialogue. The script deftly manages to balance between a very contemporary sensibility and an older one from the 1960s, early ’70s, and ’80s. For example, on one hand, there is much cell phone texting and the very current, thorny political discourse about Latinx immigrants is explored. On the other, the main setting, past media references, and long-established genre lend a very retro look and feel to the production overall.

The age-range of the characters in KNIVES OUT is about sixteen to over a hundred years old. Clearly, this movie tries to capture a wide audience as much as possible. How successful it is in actually doing so remains to be seen.  My local theater has reported a “pretty good” box office draw for its first weekend. I’m not sure if there is enough there for Millennials to connect with, though one particularly mindful and well-educated associate of mine, aged twenty-seven, did enjoy the movie. In any case, I certainly did.