Quick takes on The Menu and other films

She Said is the based-on-a-true story about the two New York Times reporters, Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) who were pivotal players in ushering in the #metoo movement. The film follows them as they research and build a case against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Rumors have been rampant in the movie industry for decades about his behavior towards young women, but finally pieces start falling into place when Megan and Jodi start pulling at threads. If you followed the news about him, the movie won’t show anything really new, but the information is given in an emotionally charged way that will disgust you, as was the intent. Unfortunately there’s so much information to give that it bombards the viewer in an overwhelming way. The two reporters are constantly going to this or that person, making this or that phone call, in a breakneck speed, that little room is left for either actress to show her acting chops. I do think Kazan is a bit miscast, because I’ve always enjoyed her more in her quirky roles, and obviously there’s none of that here. There’s some emotional moments, as to be expected from the source material (an interview with Weinstein’s once-assistant Zelda Perkins, portrayed by Samantha Morton, will boil your blood; she’s amazing in everything she’s ever been in), but often the movie is just data/information overload. I don’t dispute the movie is important, and the result of the true-life revelations of these two reporters is paramount, but a movie is probably not the best way to do it (this film is based on a book, which I have not read, which is probably a better medium). ★★★

The extremely dark and morbid existence of the survivors in the post-apocalyptic world of Vesper is set with the opening title sequence: typography tells us that the world is living in a “new dark age.” In the far distant future and facing an ecological crisis, humans turned to genetic technology for its survival, but engineered viruses backfired, wiping out all edible plants and animals. Now, the elite few live in technologically advanced cities called citadels (which we never see), and the rest are scraping by as they can in the mud. The film’s main character is Vesper, a 13-year-old girl living alone with her paralyzed father. Her father is bed-ridden and can only communicate through a flying drone that follows Vesper around, which her father can talk through. Vesper, a brilliant young girl, has a lab where she is trying to break down the code in the wild (and often dangerous) plant life that now thrives in the world, hoping to make something edible again. Vesper’s mom left them a few years ago, to become a “pilgrim,” a mysterious group that salvages junk to build massive structures in a very cult-like way. The only other family around is Vesper’s uncle Jonas, who is the only person who can communicate with the citadels with his transceiver, and he trades his children’s blood for food with them (and wonders why they want young blood). However, the food he does get is very limited; food seeds given by the citadel have been engineered to only yield a single harvest, thus everyone is dependent on the citadel in perpetuity. Jonas is very much a bad guy, wanting Vesper to join his clan, as she is nearing fertility and he can use her to get more young to increase his riches. Into this volatile environment comes Camellia. She was traveling in a saucer from the citadel when it crashed, and Vesper, against her father’s wishes, nurses her back to health. Camellia has a secret though, one that will put them all in danger, and one that Jonas can use to further his ambition. This is a remarkable movie for its ideas and visual presentation, and while I thought it was really good, it could have been really great. Unfortunately it is one of those where its reach exceeds its grasp. It brings amazing, thought-provoking ideas to the table, but with a fairly thin plot, it doesn’t reach the awe-inspiring moments that it desperately wants. I feel like it could have been a genre-defining Matrix-like movie in the right hands, but it never gets there. ★★★½

The Menu is one of those quirky genre-bending films that is hard to define, with equal parts horror and dark, almost absurdist, comedy. The premise is simple: an elite chef, Chef Slowik, hosts the powerful and rich at his exclusive island restaurant, charging $1250 a person for the privilege of being served his premium cuisine. The cooks serving under Slowik are completely obedient and follow his strict regimen: they sleep together in a barracks, rise early to harvest the local fauna and edible flora for the evening’s meal, and begin meal prep. On this particular evening, the guests include the food critic who first discovered Slowik many years ago, a has-been actor still holding onto delusions of grandeur, a trio of privileged businessmen, an older couple who are regulars at Slowik’s island, and Tyler, a food lover and sycophant of Slowik’s. Tyler has brought his (seemingly) new girlfriend, Margot, who is just along for the ride. They all are in for a night they’ll never forget, if they survive it, because Slowik has a new “menu” prepared for these particular guests. Each of the guests, all expected by Slowik because of his reservation system, has a terrible secret or unfortunate event in their past, and Slowik will confront them tonight, with gruesome results. Each guest that is, except Margot, who replaced the woman Tyler was supposed to have brought. She is the one wrinkle in Slowik’s dastardly plans. The film is hilarious in its depiction of a high cuisine: when Slowik serves a bread-less bread plate for the second course (various sauces for bread dipping, with no bread), Tyler calls it a genius method of deconstructing the idea of bread as a meal, whereas others obviously think it is a joke. But the real joke on them comes when one of the cooks under Slowik kills himself in front of them, and his body is offered as a course. And even then, the night is still young. Never very scary but always very funny, this movie is engaging to the end, and you can’t help but laugh at the over-the-top machinations of Slowik and his team. Great cast too, including Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, John Lequizamo, Judith Light, among others. ★★★★

Till is one of those movies which is based on an important moment in history, but which doesn’t translate well to a full motion picture. The film follows Mamie Till, mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Raised in Chicago and unaccustomed to the way of life in the south, Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he whistled at a white woman one day. This led to a few men showing up at his uncle’s door one night, pulling Emmett out of bed, and driving away with him. Emmett’s body was found in the water a couple days later, bludgeoned beyond recognition and shot in the head. His body was sent back to Chicago, and to make the world aware of the persecutions of black people in the south, his mother Mamie held an open casket funeral, with pictures of Emmett’s disfigured face splashed across newspapers across the country. The film continues from there, with the trial of his murderers and aftermath regarding the civil rights movement. It was definitely a turning point in civil rights and Emmett’s story should be known and taught, but as much as it pains me to say, the movie was just ok. It’s more of a feature for Danielle Deadwyler’s considerable talents in the lead as Mamie, and she is remarkable, but the movie goes on a bit too long, and the climax comes halfway through rather than the end. Skip the movie, and instead, go do some research on Emmitt Till, Mamie Till-Mobley, and Medgar Evers. ★★½

Lighting Up the Stars is a lovely film out of China, and one of the quiet, unassuming kinds of films that often come out of that country, though it has a bit more humor than I was expecting, which was nice too. The film follows a young man named San, who is set to inherit the family business, a mortuary. He doesn’t care for the business, just as it seems he doesn’t care for his old and frail dad (there’s mutual animosity there, which will get explored as the movie goes along), but San does want to get the business so he can sell it and move on. Those plans are put on hold from his latest “client.” A woman dies in her sleep, leaving an orphan, her granddaughter Xiaowen. Little Xiaowen, no more than 5 or 6 years old, is supposed to go to her uncle, supposedly her only living relative, but the man’s wife (a bit of a shrew) initially refuses. Xiaowen chases down San, demanding to see her grandmother. The brusque San doesn’t handle Xiaowen well, but he’s her last tie to her grandmother, so she refuses to go away. San ends up taking her in, and the two develop a bond. San helps Xiaowen deal with her grief, even as the girl helps him in turn mend his relationship with his father. But will it all come apart when Xiaowen’s mother, long thought dead, turns up? At turns hilarious and heart breaking, this is a lovely film for families (if your kids can handle the subtitles) and one that will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy. Having recently spent a whole lot of time with my granddaughter (babysitting, while her parents were in the hospital for a few days having my second grandchild), I laughed hard at her antics and cried when she was upset. I’m usually not a fan of child actors, but the tiny Yang Enyou is a revelation. ★★★★½

  • TV series recently watched: The Boys (season 3), Reacher (season 1), Willow (season 1), Handmaid’s Tale (season 5), Hell on Wheels (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: The Second Generation by Weis & Hickman

Quick takes on TÁR and other films

When Knives Out was a huge hit in 2019, you knew a sequel would be on the table, and that sequel finally came out, with Daniel Craig returning as offbeat sleuth Benoit Blanc (similar to Agatha Christie’s famous Poirot character). There are similarities from the first Knives Out film: once again, Blanc doesn’t know who hired him, and once again, he arrives to a rich soiree, though this time, the murder has yet to be completed. Billionaire investor Miles Bron (Edward Norton) has gathered some of the people he is most invested in for a weekend getaway and “murder mystery” dinner on his private island off Greece. Miles has his hooks in each of them, so they each have a reason to hate him, and a real murder is definitely in the cards; good thing Blanc is there to solve it. The film is highly entertaining (like the first film, an all star cast helps, this time including Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Kate Hudson, and more), and the twists keep coming to keep you on your toes. Unfortunately, as a whole, the twists sometimes feel forced, like director/write Ryan Johnson is doing his damnedest to one-up the first film. I thought that one was nearly perfect (didn’t help my feeling for this sequel that I recently rewatched the first and was reminded of its brilliance); according to my review, I gave it 4 1/2, so I have knock this one down a notch to ★★★★

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (don’t let the wordy title scare you off) is a film adaptation of the popular musical, itself based on the popular child’s book. I saw the touring production of the musical at St Louis’s Fox Theater a few years ago, not knowing anything about it at the time (never read the book as a kid), and really enjoyed it. The film version is solid too. The story revolves around Mathilda, a young girl born to parents who, not only don’t appreciate her, they downright loathe her (her dad always refers to her as “a boy” since that’s what he wanted, to humorous effect in the film but which obviously bothers Mathilda). Her only escape is through books, and she reads everything she can get her hands on, and makes up her own stories when she doesn’t have something to read. Mathilda’s life changes when the local authorities realize she’s never been in school; her parents didn’t bother enough to send her. Mathilda starts school with dreams of learning new things, but those dreams too are dashed when she meets the school’s headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull. Ms Trunchbull calls the children at her school maggots, and rules with an authoritarian iron fist. Laughs and smiles are all-but forbidden. Mathilda’s only bright spot is her teacher, Ms Honey, who loves her kids and inspires them. There’s a secret at this school between Trunchbull and Honey, a secret that Mathilda will unravel as the film goes along. The movie starts great, with catchy songs, bright colors, and a fun atmosphere despite the dreary life Mathilda lives. The spunky Alisha Weir makes the most of her opportunity as Mathilda, portraying it with zest and a don’t-quit attitude, but it is Emma Thompson’s completely unrecognizable turn as Agatha Trunchbull that steals the show. How can the likable and attractive Thompson transform to such a despicable person?! If she doesn’t net an award or two this season, it’s a travesty. A lot of the jokes are for adults, but I think kids will like this one the most, with its memorable soundtrack sticking with them. ★★★½

White Noise is the newest film from writer/director Noah Baumbach, whose last picture, Marriage Story, was my favorite film of 2019. I read the book this film is based on back in 2016, and enjoyed its quirky and off-beat comedic style. This movie, recently released on Netflix, is getting middling reviews, but I like the director, I liked the book, so of course I was going to watch it. And thankfully, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation (big change at the end, but it works in the movie). The only knock is that the book is written from main character Jack’s perspective, so as a film, we obviously can’t get in his head. Even so, Adam Driver does a great job of giving Jack Gladney’s mannerisms life. If you’d like the gist (with some spoilers, so maybe only read the first half), read my review of the book. My thoughts on the movie: The comedy is definitely absurdist, as it was in the book. This may turn some viewers off if you aren’t expecting it, because other elements of the film (drama, even some thrills when the “Airborne Toxic Event” throws the town into a very real fear of impending death) don’t always mesh with the laugh-out-loud comedy, but it all comes straight from the pages of the book, and Baumbach expertly handles it all. Driver is the star; how he hasn’t won a major award yet is beyond me. Baumbach’s wife Greta Gerwig plays wife Babette Gladney, and she’s serviceable, though in my opinion she’s always been a better writer/director in her own right than an actor (and we’re all looking forward to her film Barbie coming out this year). I really enjoyed this film, but I can say with confidence that the majority of watchers will absolutely hate it. To each his own. ★★★★

Despite not doing well at the theaters, critics have been high on TÁR since its release, and it seems to be a dark horse favorite for multiple awards this season. I have to be honest, it takes awhile to build, and a good 30 minutes in, I was wondering if it was all hype, but stick it out and you will be rewarded. Cate Blanchett gives a tour-de-force performance as Lydia Tár, a world renowned conductor and composer, in a field that has traditionally been dominated by men. The film opens as she is being interviewed, and her list of accomplishments is staggering. Upcoming is a live recording of her conducting of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, which is generating lots of hype in music circles. Outwardly, she has everything, but as the film goes along, her carefully crafted persona begins to crumble, entirely through her own fault. First, a former protégé commits suicide, and immediately, whispers begin that the young woman was groomed and later cast off by the powerful Lydia Tár. At home, Lydia butts heads with her wife Nina, who also happens to be lead violinist/concertmaster in the orchestra, because Nina sees that Lydia is already eyeing her next fling, a young and brilliant cellist from Russia, new to the orchestra. There’s also the ousting of the group’s assistant conductor, a move orchestrated by Lydia, due to a perceived infraction, and when Lydia’s longtime assistant Francesca doesn’t get the job, more sparks flare. The narcissistic and power-hungry Lydia Tár refuses to see the cracks in her world, until by the end, those cracks are gaping chasms. It’s a brilliant film, made more interesting because, for myself coming from a musical background, I could definitely see characteristics of some of the musicians and the egos involved, and applaud the meticulous amount of research that went into making this film authentic. It’s a sharp look at how a person in a powerful position can use that capacity to bulldoze others, but how that way of life may finally be coming to an end in today’s post- #metoo world. ★★★★★

Another great film today; I can’t remember the last time I had some many good ones in a row! Hold Me Tight is not a film you’ll find easily, as it is an indie French film from 2021 that seems to have flown under the radar. I can’t talk about the movie at all without giving away a couple spoilers, so I urge you to stop here and go find it to watch. Those who don’t care to read subtitles can continue on. This film follows a woman named Clarisse who, in the beginning of the film, abandons her husband and two kids for an unknown reason. As the film progresses, we see Clarisse out on the road, while her husband Marc raises Lucie and Paul on his own. However, Clarisse has conversations with them from afar, in her head, and they answer back, and it takes awhile to know what exactly is going on. Much is explained 30 minutes in, when we learn that the family was vacationing in the French Alps one winter, when Marc took the kids out, and they were overtaken by a series of avalanches. With that particular area snow-covered now, the authorities have to wait until spring to retrieve the bodies. The whole movie so far, and the rest from here on out, is a fabrication in Clarisse’s head. Unable to confront her family’s death, she has concocted this notion that it was she that left them, so in her mind, she can pretend they are still alive at home, and their lives are continuing without her. The movie blends past and present, with scenes cutting between reality and Clarisse’s fiction, all on a dime, so you’ve really got to pay attention to keep up. And don’t forget to notice that the actors playing her kids change at one point too, and not just because they are getting older in the “years” that have gone by while Clarisse is away. It’s a beautiful and often heart-breaking film about grief and trouble letting go, and though the big surprise comes at that 30 minute mark, there’s still plenty to unwrap before the end. ★★★★★

  • TV recently watched: The Witcher: Blood Origin (miniseries), The Empress (season 1), Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (season 1)
  • Book currently reading: The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

Slowing down (just a bit)

When my blog switched over from reviewing books to movies, I never envisioned that movies would become my passion. In 2019, I was super excited when I watched over 365 movies in one year; little did I know at the time that this would become the norm for me. According to my Letterboxd, I saw 401 in 2020, 380 in 2021, and 410 in 2022. That’s a lot of movies. Unfortunately, lately, it has started to seem like work, always feeling like there’s more to watch and “keep up on.” Having said that, it is time to take a “small” step back. I’m not going to disappear (in fact, I’ve already got a couple movies in the bag that I need to sit down and put thoughts to and post), but I’m definitely going to start 2023 watching less. I’ve got my second grandchild coming in January, and spending more time with them as well as re-visiting my own childhood by playing a couple video games that have been sitting on my shelf for a few years (yes, actual discs!) will give me a chance to reset. Please subscribe to my blog if you stumble across here, as I will still be posting a couple times a month, but I may watch half my “average” yearly total of films in 2023. I hope everyone has a good year!

And, as I always finish my blog posting what I’ve been watching/reading, here’s what I’ve been up to in the last week (had a lot of holiday time off!).

  • TV series recently watched: Jack Ryan (season 3), Dahmer-Monster (miniseries), Wednesday (season 1), Squid Game (season 1), Peaky Blinders (seasons 5+6)
  • Book currently reading: The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

Quick takes on The Banshees of Inisherin and other films

The Woman King is a fictional film based on the real-life warriors known as the Agojie, an all-female fighting group of the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Taking place in the 1820’s, it follows a girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) who is turned over to the palace by her father after she refuses to marry. On the king’s grounds, Nawi is trained to be an Agojie, an elite fighter, whose current leader is General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Nanisca is a brutal fighter who demands perfection from her fellow combatants, as the kingdom of Dahomey is facing threats on all sides. Its king, Ghezo (John Boyega) is starting to openly rebel against the Oyo Empire in the area, much to the consternation of the European slave traders. Nawi has to do some quick growing up in this tough environment, and she’ll learn a lot about herself and the cruel world on the way. It’s a tough film to watch at times, as life in that time and place was not easy, but the acting by Davis and the others is superb, and the action/battles are fantastic. The movie isn’t entirely accurate, as while the real King Ghezo did outlaw selling Dahomey residents as slaves, he still profited greatly from selling captured enemies as slaves, something that all African Kings did in the day, which obviously wasn’t shown in the movie (they make sure we want to root for Dahomey as “the good guys”). But it is a stirring and emotionally exciting picture, and one with a high re-watchability factor. ★★★★

When the amazing trailers first hit for Amsterdam, showing the laundry list of A-list stars in it, I was all ready to get my tickets for opening night at the theater. Then the preview reviews hit, and I hesitated. Then viewer reviews hit, and I dropped it until I could watch it for free. Glad I didn’t spend money on this mess. It starts well enough: two war buddies (from WWI) come together in 1933 after their platoon sergeant dies suddenly. The dead man’s daughter wants one of the men, a doctor, to perform a fast autopsy, as she suspects foul play. They open the man up, and sure enough, find liquids in his stomach that would suggest poisoning. The group goes to meet the daughter afterwards, but suddenly she doesn’t want to be near them, stating that she’s in fear for her life. This comes just before she is pushed by a hitman in front of an oncoming truck, killing her instantly. Now the war buddies are suspected of her murder, on the run from the police, while they need to find out what greater conspiracy is going on. However, just when it should be getting good, the story is interrupted by a flashback, and the tone changes from serious to silly (even though it takes place in World War I). The movie nose dives from there. Absolutely inane dialogue, silly offshoot plots (and even the main plot is so convoluted that you’d need a map to keep track of it all), and a ton of characters I just didn’t care about. How far director David O Russell has fallen; it’s been 10 years since his back-to-back triumphs of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. It’s easy to see that the stars are having a great time making the movie (maybe he’s put his “yelling” days behind him), I just wish the viewer was in on the fun. Twenty minutes into this film, Christian Bale’s character laughs, “I don’t know what is happening!” I’m right there with you. ★

Nanny is a decent drama/quasi-horror film about a woman from Senegal, Aisha (Anna Diop), who is here illegally, chasing the American dream. Her ultimate goal is save enough money to bring her 7-year-old son over too. To that end, she’s landed a cash-only job as a nanny for a wealthy New York couple and their young daughter. It seems like an awesome opportunity for Aisha, but things turn south pretty quickly. The mother, Amy (Michelle Monaghan), always keeps Aisha later than agreed, and never pays her the proper agreed-upon wages. Amy’s husband Adam (Morgan Spector) is often away for business, and while he is often kind to Aisha’s face, you definitely get that “good cop” vibe from him, that he doesn’t necessarily care much one way or the other. The only person that really loves Aisha is the daughter, but she obviously doesn’t have a say in matters. As time goes on, Aisha starts to have troubling visions, first in her dreams, and later in her waking moments. Some of these visions begin to interfere with and disrupt Aisha’s life, putting her job and even her life in jeopardy. I really loved the tense feeling of the family life in the high rise New York apartment, but I could have done without the increasingly esoteric visions/nightmares that Aisha goes through as the movie reaches its conclusion. ★★★

The Banshees of Inisherin is, in my opinion, one of the best movies of 2022 (though there are a handful of Oscar favorites I’ve yet to see). From director Martin McDonagh, whose last film (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) also rocked, this is a dark tragedy with strokes of laugh-out-loud comedy. It takes place on the tiny fictional Irish island of Inisherin in 1923, as mainland Ireland is tearing itself apart in civil war. In fact, the gunshots and explosions can be heard just across the bay. On Inisherin though, life is going along as it always has, with the tiny community all knowing everyone else’s business. Pádraic (Colin Farrell) is a simple, happy-go-lucky man, who enjoys having a beer with his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson) every day at 2pm. But one day, when Pádraic visits Colm’s house, Colm refuses to go to the pub with him. Shortly afterward, Colm announces he no longer wants to be friends with Pádraic, giving the somewhat lame excuse that he’s tired of just hanging out and drinking every day and never doing anything. Colm, a fiddler, wants to write a tune that will be remembered long after he’s dead, and condescendingly tells Pádraic that no one will remember him, no matter how nice he is. When Pádraic won’t leave him alone, Colm states that he will cut off his own fingers every time Pádraic talks to him, a threat he later follows through on. Pádraic, not exactly an intelligent man (at least not “book smarts”), doesn’t get Colm’s change of personality, and Pádraic’s sister, a very intelligent woman named Siobhán (Kerry Condon), who only stays on the island because a better opportunity has never presented itself, has a hard time making him understand. Viewers find it easy to root for Pádraic, a nice guy without a mean bone in his body (until Colm’s repeated rebuffs change him), but you have to also look at the other side of the coin and see that Colm just wants to leave something of a legacy when he is gone. As dark as the movie gets, there’s so much humor that you never get lost in the gloom. If you want to delve into symbolism, there’s plenty of that too, with comparisons between these 2 former friends and the civil war being fought just across the bay. Outstanding performances by the three mentioned actors as well as Barry Keoghan as a young man on the island who faces his own demons. One of those rare films that, when I finished it, I immediately wanted to watch it again. I feel there is meaning in every action and every spoken word. ★★★★★

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is one of those movies which, to the right viewer, probably really hits it out of the park. Unfortunately that viewer isn’t me. It’s about a young woman of Korean descent who’s been locked in an asylum for 10 years in a near-vegetative state. One day she just wakes up though, and uses mental superpowers to overwhelm the nurses and guards and escapes. Mona Lisa Lee is able to nonverbally command people to do her bidding, as long as she makes eye contact. Fortunately for her (or maybe unfortunately, as it turns out), she comes across a stripper named Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who puts Mona Lisa’s powers to her own nefarious uses, such as getting men at the strip club to hand over all their money, or coming up to people at an ATM and making them withdraw huge amounts of cash for them. The whole time, Mona Lisa is being pursued by a cop (Craig Robinson) who was forced by her to shoot himself in the knee when he first attempted to apprehend her. It’s a silly caper with some thrilling elements, and the only thing that really sets it apart is an ultra-cool soundtrack of electronic dance music, which creates a unique vibe throughout the film. Parts of the film I really dug, but as a whole, it’s just not my cup of tea. A little too much a B-movie feel, and that’s not my game. But I definitely see others really getting into it. ★½

  • TV series currently watching: Yellowstone (season 5)
  • Book currently reading: Test of the Twins by Weis & Hickman

Quick takes on Ingrid Bergman’s early Swedish films

Over the last few years, I’ve seen many films starring Ingrid Bergman. In her long career, she’s headlined films by the best, directors you know from only their surnames: Renoir, Hitchcock, Lument, Rossellini, and Bergman (Ingmar that is! Maybe that’s a bad example here…). Many have seen those blockbusters, but fewer have seen her humble beginnings in Sweden, so up today are 6 of her films made in her home country, all but the last made before heading to Hollywood in 1939. The Count of the Old Town (1935) was her first credited role. This movie is (I guess?) a comedy, but laughs are few and far between. In a little corner of a city where all the residents know each other, an unknown thief has been plaguing the local businesses. The inept cops think it is one man, but he somehow always evades capture, even while the local hotel’s maid (Bergman) falls in love with him. Some silly subplots about the old guys in the area and their drinking games, as well as their attempts to find love with the aging ladies nearby. Pretty silly movie, but the highlight is Bergman sings a song halfway through. She’s young, but the talent is already there, and she’s really the only reason to watch this bore. ★

Know the old phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn?” It’s damn near bleak at the beginning of Bergman’s career. Walpurgis Night isn’t any better than her first film. In fact, if I rated that one a single star, this one should somehow be in the negatives. A completely inane movie about a secretary who’s in love with her boss, but he’s married to a shrew who won’t bear his children. The film starts with a solid 5-10 minutes of dialogue around the newspaper office about the country’s birthrate problem, with contrived arguments as to the causes of the low birth numbers, almost had me give up on the film before it had even begun. Even so, I only made it maybe 25 minutes in before calling it quits. Terrible editing, no flowing plot, it was sort of like watching a movie made up of quick, seemingly random acts strung together in no particular order. And the acting? For the most part, you’ll see better at your local high school. Many actors were carryovers from the silent era, and sound film doesn’t do them any favors. ½

Intermezzo, from 1936, gets a little better, mostly because we finally see more Ingrid Bergman, for its her first leading role. She plays Anita Hoffman, a pianist who begins the film as a teacher to acclaimed violinist Holger Brandt’s daughter. Holger is moved by Anita’s playing, and asks her to accompany him on an upcoming tour. On the trip, the two become romantically involved, and that secret isn’t kept. Holger’s wife demands a divorce, and while Holger is happy with Anita, he does greatly miss his daughter, leading Anita to make a decision that is best for her love. It’s all a bit over the top, but Bergman does finally get her chance to shine, and she makes the most of it. The film drew the attention of American producer David O Selznick, who brought Bergman over to Hollywood for her first American film, a 1939 remake of Intermezzo. For the male lead, Selznick got Leslie Howard, who only agreed to be in Selznick’s Gone With the Wind in exchange for a producer credit on Intermezzo. Can anyone imagine that film with Howard’s Ashley Wilkes? Oh what may have been! ★★

The American version of Intermezzo was still a couple years away, so in 1938, Bergman was still in Sweden, and made a couple films, starting with Dollar. A comedy, it follows a trio of married couples, each of which is unhappy in marriage, and enjoy flirting with one of the other spouses in their circle of friends (much to the chagrin of the spouse left on the outside, until they go and flirt with someone else on their own). All these (mostly harmless) dalliances lead to jealousies, which lead to angst in the marriages, which lead to more flirting. The movie is humming along pretty well until the sextet go on a skiing trip together, which one of the husbands, a doctor, eyes as a business trip. Also coming to the ski resort is a wealthy American, who the doctor wants to hit up for investing in his clinic. The American though comes crashing through the door and upending the precarious status quo between the couples. The movie falls off the rails there for awhile, and becomes overly melodramatic, losing the comedic elements that made the first half so entertaining. In the end, I was left wondering, regarding their marriages or even their flirting, how much these people even cared about any of it, which made me guess how much I should care about the film in general. ★★½

A Woman’s Face was also released in 1938, and, finally, I get a good one. Bergman plays Anna Holm, a disfigured woman with half her face marred by a burn scar. Looked down upon her whole life and with no family or friends, she’s turned to a life of crime, running a blackmail ring with a couple thugs. When the movie begins, they have 2 scams going. One involves love letters from a doctor’s wife to her boyfriend; Anna is using the letters to blackmail $10k from the wife so the letters don’t go public. However, when going to the doctor’s house for payment, Anna is surprised when the man arrives home early and she is caught trying to flee through a window. When his wife says they shouldn’t call the police (for fear that Anna will reveal the love letters), the doctor is moved to help Anna pro-bono, and does surgery to remove her scars, for which Anna returns the letters to the wife. With a newly made beautiful face, Anna is free to act on scam # 2. A man named Torsten is already deeply in debt, but he has hinted that there is a single obstacle to him coming into a fortune. He previously said he needs a beautiful young woman to get close to Torsten’s uncle, the head of a vast company. Anna (and we viewers) suspected Torsten was hinting at some sort of affair, but when Anna takes the role and gets close to the family, we find that Torsten’s goal was much more sinister. Torsten will inherit his uncle’s fortune if his nephew, the wealthy owner’s orphaned grandson, is eliminated. Anna, who has turned over a new leaf and has become attached to the boy as his governess, balks at the dastardly deal, but Torsten will not let things settle when he’s this close to the money. Fantastic film, with awesome twists and superb storytelling, and Bergman shows that she has started to hone her craft into the star she was on the cusp of becoming. FYI, this film was also remade 3 years later — directed by George Cukor and starring Joan Crawford in the lead. ★★★★

After the American Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman returned to Sweden for one more film, 1940’s. June Night, where she gets to play a noir-style femme fatale. In the beginning of the film, Kerstin Nordbäck gets into an argument with her boyfriend, Nils, and he pulls a gun out and shoots her in the chest. Kerstin survives, and Nils is charged with attempted murder. At his trial, Kerstin begs for leniency for him, saying his actions were her fault. We don’t know what she means by this until the very end of the film. The trial is a sensation, and tabloid journalist, Willy, splashes the story everywhere. Once Kerstin is healed, she wants to start anew, somewhere where she won’t be recognized, so she changes her name to Sara Nordanå and moves to Stockholm. In a strange twist of fate, one of her flatmates at her new home is dating Willy. Also, “Sara” catches the eye of a young doctor at her new office (who is supposed to be dating one of her friends), and we start to see why Sara blames herself for Nils’s attack. Apparently wherever she goes, men are captivated by her. Like the above film, Bergman gives a tour-de-force performance, commanding the viewer’s attention in every scene she’s in. I loved the ending of the movie, where we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Clark (miniseries)
  • Book currently reading: Test of the Twins by Weis & Hickman

Quick takes on Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and other films

After being pushed back 6 or so months after Will Smith’s controversy at last season’s Oscars, Emancipation finally hit theaters and Apple TV+. It is based on the true story of a slave named Gordon (named changed to Peter in the film), a man whose picture depicting the criss-crossed scars resulting from life-long whippings and abuse stirred a nation and the world. In the beginning of the film, Peter is being removed from the plantation in Louisiana where he’s lived for many years, because the confederate army is conscripting slaves to work on a nearby railroad for the war. Peter is torn from his family, and we immediately see his defiant nature. Peter was not born a slave; he and his wife are from Haiti, and he’s never lost his spirit nor his desire to be free. Life at the confederate army camp is brutal, with slaves being worked literally until they die, if they aren’t killed sooner for not working fast enough. Some time later, a rumor comes through from a returned runaway that the north is freeing slaves, and that the northern army has gained a foothold at Baton Rouge, just 5 days journey away. Peter is willing to take this chance to get away. He and 3 other slaves make a run for it at the first opportunity, but a slave hunter (played devilishly by Ben Foster) sets out after them. Peter never learned to read or write, but he knows the swamps of Louisiana, and uses all of his cunning to evade the hunters. I’m sure director Antoine Fuqua wanted a deep, resonating film, but it comes off as more of an action flick. As far as war films go, the end result is more The Patriot than Glory, but that’s still not too bad (who doesn’t like The Patriot?!). It desperately wants to be more, but its contemplative moments seem more like small diversions from the action, rather than true moments of clarity. The director is still trying to match the critical success of his breakout Training Day 20 years ago; since then he’s had good movies, but nothing stellar, and several downright bad movies. For every Training Day and The Equalizer, there’s The Equalizer sequel or The Magnificent Seven (or, worse, Southpaw or The Guilty). ★★★½

Warriors of Future is a Hong Kong film that took a very long time to get made. Three years in development before production finally began in 2017, and then post-production and VFX taking forever (especially after COVID hit), the film finally saw release this year. It’s a sci-fi film in the vein of Space Sweepers, a movie I quite enjoyed. Don’t expect anything more than great special effects and you won’t be disappointed. Taking place just a couple decades in the future, the Earth is on the cusp of environmental collapse, pushed to the edge by pollution, global warming, and advanced warfare between nations. Cities are only surviving thanks to large biodome ceilings erected over them to protect their inhabitants. To make matters worse, a meteorite crashed in Hong Kong, carrying an alien plant species which grows at breakneck speed whenever it is exposed to moisture. However, a scientific breakthrough may solve both problems. A virus has been built which, when inserted into the alien plant, causes it to go dormant, stop growing, and also release air-purifying gases, lessening the pollutants that are endangering the planet. A team of military veterans must get to ground zero, where the plant’s center is, to insert the virus, and it must be done before a big rain storm comes in, which would trigger the plant to destroy all that’s left of the nation. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to see the plant destroyed, and the soldiers must battle the plant, it’s alien protectors, as well as super robots sent in by their own military commanders. Dialogue’s not great, the story is flimsy at best, but the film delivers heart-pounding action and (mostly) fantastic sci-fi effects. Turn your brain off for 90 minutes and sit back and enjoy. ★★★½

There’ve been a couple Pinocchio stories released over the last couple years, one great and one not-so-great. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the latest. Another film which took a very long time to get made (the director first announced it way back in 2008), it is a stop-motion animated film, reimagining the original story to 1930s fascist Italy. During World War I, popular local carpenter Geppetto loses his son Carlo when bombers hit his city. 20 years later, Geppetto has never recovered; he never returned to working, and spends his days drinking at the site of his son’s grave, looked over by a tree planted in his memory. One night, in a drunken fit, Geppetto cuts down the tree and puts together a wooden boy in his grief. Over the night, a wood sprite visits the shop and gives Pinocchio life, and tasks a sentient cricket (Sebastian “J” Cricket, *ahem*) to look after the boy. The sprite promises Sebastian that if he does his job, the cricket will be granted one wish in the future. And so the story begins. This is definitely not your family Disney version. Geppetto doesn’t immediately embrace this strange wooden boy in his house, and Pinocchio isn’t imbued with the desire to be a “real boy” (and thus doesn’t even attempt to obey directions in the beginning); he only wants to explore and experience new things. The film is also very dark and even scary at times. However, the sense of magic permeates, and while parents of the youngest of children should stick to the cartoon, older (maybe 10-ish?) kids will be fine and probably really enjoy it, and adults may be reminded of plenty of lessons that should never be forgotten. A heart-warming story of love and sacrifice, gorgeously told. ★★★★★

OK, I couldn’t help myself. Had to watch Clerks III. I’ve been (mostly) a Kevin Smith fan since the very beginning, and even those films that most people love to hate, I still (mostly) enjoy. If you think you are going to find anything different in Clerks III, you’re kidding yourself. Much like Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was a rehash of their first road film, Clerks III is a rehash of the first Clerks picture from way back in ’94. They even tell some (many?) of the same jokes. Dante and Randall are now co-owners of the Quick Stop, with Jay and Silent Bob running a (legal) marijuana dispensary in the old video store next-door. In the beginning of the film, Randall has a near-fatal heart attack, causing him to second guess his life. He randomly decides to make a movie chronicling his life, the script of which is, of course, the script from the first Clerks movie. They bring all the (now much older) actors back to recreate their scenes, so it becomes a big walk down memory lane, even with some love for the universally-panned Clerks II, as well as easter eggs for all of Smith’s other films. The end of the film strays a bit too far into sentimentality for me, but I’ll allow it. Lots of cameos as we’ve come to expect from Smith, which are fun (and short). I think this film is really just for the fans though. If you are, you’ll find plenty to laugh and reminisce about. If you aren’t, you should save your time. ★★★½

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the newest film version of the once-banned book by oft-censored author D.H. Lawrence. The film begins with Connie’s marriage to the Lord Clifford Chatterley, just before he heads off to fight in the Great War. He returns a paraplegic, and becomes entirely dependent on his young wife for care. Initially, he refuses any other help, so Connie is at his side day and night, and everything in their life revolves around him; they even leave London, where Connie enjoys her family and friends, to go to his familial estate out in the country, where life is less hectic for Clifford. He seems a nice man, caring about his wife’s health and well being, even going so far as to suggest she seek male companionship elsewhere, since he no longer works “down there.” He hopes to get something out of her tryst too: an heir, to carry on his name, as long as no one else knows about the paternity. At first, Connie is aghast, but only until she starts hanging around the estate’s gamekeeper, Oliver. A strong everyman who is everything that Clifford is not, Connie is quickly swept off her feet, and once she insists that Clifford allow others to help care for him besides herself, she has even more time to run and be with Oliver. But Clifford has a dark side that has until now been mostly unknown: he doesn’t care that Connie finds a man to impregnate her, as long as the man is still of their station, and not “beneath them.” He will not take well to learning of her dalliance with the help. As a period drama, the film is just a notch above “ok.” Lots (and lots) of sex, just like the book, but I do feel the modern telling of it was easier to follow than the long-winded Lawrence novel, and the performances of Emma Corrin (from The Crown) and Jack O’Connell (from, well, everything) as Connie and Oliver are quite good. ★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Peaky Blinders (seasons 3+4)
  • Book currently reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Quick takes on 5 American films of the 30s

I’ve got an eclectic mix of 1930s American films today, including a couple pre-code movies and a couple musicals, including one with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We’ll begin with 1932’s Merrily We Go to Hell. Pre-code refers to a short window of movies made from 1929 (the introduction of sound in film) until 1934, when the “Hays Code” became standard, after which a whole lot of stuff couldn’t be shown (or even hinted at) on screen, because it wasn’t proper (i.e. went against our Christian values). Even the title of this film wouldn’t have passed, much less its content! Jerry Corbett is a Chicago reporter by day, an alcoholic by night, but he’s a “fun drunk,” and thus catches the eye of Joan Prentice, an heiress to a tin-can manufacturing company. Joan is swept off her feet by the dashing and good-natured Jerry, and while he stops drinking after their marriage, he begins again after awhile, which leads to problems. When Jerry reunites with an old flame, a stage actress who inspires Jerry to write a new play, the two begin an affair. Not to be outdone, Joan announces that if it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander, and she too begins going to parties and hanging around other men. This open marriage may be good with Jerry, always in his bottle anyway, but it’s a front that Joan can’t keep up, as she does truly love her husband. Portraying drunken partying and infidelity, this movie wouldn’t have been made a couple years later, but it’s a fun comedy with a serious side, made well ahead of its time. ★★★½

The above film may have been considered racy for its day, but it’s got nothing on 1933’s The Story of Temple Drake, based on the William Faulkner book Sanctuary. Temple (portrayed by Miriam Hopkins) is a partying woman and the current black sheep of the family, her grandfather being a prominent judge. The judge wants to see her settle down and marry her boyfriend, lawyer Stephen Benbow, but Temple isn’t ready to stop having a good time just yet. At a party, she leaves with another man, a drunk named Toddy Gowan, but the couple crash his car out in the boons, and stumble upon an old farmhouse, currently being run as a speakeasy. The place is full of surly types, and Temple is afraid for her life, but a kindly woman there tells her to sleep in the barn for safety, and sets a simple minded man, Tommy, to guard her sleep. Unfortunately for both, a gangster named Trigger will have his way; he shoots Tommy and then rapes Temple, taking her back to Chicago as his woman. It isn’t until her old boyfriend Stephen, investigating Tommy’s death (another man has been wrongly accused, but fears implicating Trigger to put his own life in danger), comes knocking that Temple is able to get away. But can she tell her story, knowing it will ruin her? A scandalous film upon its release, it is said that it spurred Will H Hays to hurry along his attempts to enforce the motion picture code that would stay in place until the 1950s. It’s a dark film to watch for sure, but well acted, and shows Temple coming through her ordeals as a strong woman, fighting her way out on her own. ★★★★

1936’s Show Boat, based on the musical of the same name and starring several of the original Broadway cast members in their roles, shows the interconnected lives of the performers on the eponymous boat, working its way up and down the Mississippi to delighted crowds along the way. With book and lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein (and music by Jerome Kern), I thought I’d be in for a treat, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark, and unfortunately is extremely dated. It begins as the boat sets up shop at a small town in the south, and trouble is immediate. First, the boat owner’s daughter, Nola (Magnolia), falls for a no-good gambler named Gaylord. Nola’s mom wants to keep them apart, but after the show’s two stars, married couple Julie and Steve, have to quickly flee (it is revealed that Julie is “passing” for white, as she had one white parent and one black, and at the time, any ounce of “black” blood means you are black, and thus illegal to marry a white man), Nola and Gaylord are thrust onto the stage as the new stars. Eventually they get married and head off to Chicago to start a new life, but Nola finds it is not what was promised. Gaylord continues his ways, finally leaving Nola and their daughter Kim. Over the ensuing years, Nola carves a path for herself, becoming a famous stage singer and performer, as does Kim when she grows up. The whole story takes place over several decades obviously, which should leave the viewer feeling a sense of epic time and progression, but it was lost on me. The beginning is quite good, with the better songs too (including the show’s one big hit, Ol’ Man River, sung by Paul Robeson), but the second half is rushed and a bit of a mess. The film is chuck full of unfortunate racial stereotypes (including Julie in blackface in one performance; though obviously we later learn than she is multiracial, but still comes off poor). I’m not one to “cancel” a whole slew of films though, just because of when they were made. A film can acknowledge the racism of the day; doesn’t mean it is a racist film. And Show Boat does do a lot of things right: it was the first racially integrated musical, and had a whole black chorus for the first time, and the marriage between Julie and Steve shows a true interracial relationship, a rough notion to sell in 1936. From a personal note, I enjoyed seeing Hattie McDaniel and her bubbling personality, 3 years before her Oscar-winning performance in Gone With the Wind. ★★

How can I watch some 30s American films without including one with Astaire and Rogers? In Swing Time, John “Lucky” Garnett is an established dancer with a penchant for gambling away every penny he makes (that is more true than you can guess, as we soon see). He even gambles away his marriage, as he loses track of time while betting with this friends and is late to his own wedding. The bride’s father says he will now only allow this marriage if John can show that he can save some money and be respectable. John and his sidekick Pop (along for the ride for his comedic value) head to New York with just John’s lucky quarter in his pocket, and upon landing, they run into Penelope “Penny” Carroll (“Lucky” and “Penny”…). Penny is a dance instructor, and John pretends to not know how to dance to get in with her. They develop a relationship, but John’s gambling problem may still come between them before the end, as may that fiancee he left back in his hometown. The story is solid, the comedy funny, and the dance numbers are absolutely incredible. One rough moment when Astaire comes out in blackface (again with the blackface) for a performance, though in the movie, he’s doing it out of respect to honor the famous Bojangles, or Bill Robinson. ★★★★½

Finally, a romance/comedy/drama, the type that was hugely popular in this era. This one feels a bit different though. History is Made at Night stars Jean Arthur as Mrs Irene Vail, who desperately wants out of her marriage with controlling and jealous husband Bruce, a shipping magnate. Bruce has, for years, been falsely accusing Irene of infidelity, and she’s tired of it. While in Paris, Bruce even hires a man to pretend to be her boyfriend, in order to invalidate her intended divorce proceedings (some weird French law). While the man is in her apartment attacking her though, a passerby, a French head waiter named Paul Dumond (the dashing Charles Boyer), steps in and saves Irene by hitting the man over the head. When Bruce shows up, Paul pretends to be robbing Irene and then “kidnaps” her. When Bruce’s thug wakes up, Bruce kills the man, in order to tap Paul as the killer. After Irene and Paul’s one night out, in which they basically fall in love right away, Bruce finds her and bribes her to return to America with him, or he’ll get Paul arrested and executed for murder. Paul later learns the couple returned to America, but not knowing why, he follows her there, and concocts a plot to finally separate the couple and win Irene over for good. But Bruce, who obviously didn’t stop at murder, will do anything to get his wife back and keep her. The final act is a bit too sensational and jumps the shark a bit (err… an iceberg that is…), but the rest of the movie is near perfection. It’s just different enough from all the other “woman leaves a bad marriage for a better man” stories to stand out on its own. ★★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Cobra Kai (season 5)
  • Book currently reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Quick takes on The Wonder and other films

I sought out Emily the Criminal solely for its lead. I was late in appreciating Aubrey Plaza (never saw Parks and Rec; I first remember her in the criminally underrated show Legion). In this film, she plays a woman having a hard time getting any kind of solid job, due to a felony assault on her record. Her entry level, low paying job hardly covers day-to-day living, much less her massive student debt. One day, a coworker gives her a number to call, where she can make $200 in an hour. She follows up on it, and turns out it is a credit card fraud scheme, where people are sent into stores with stolen card numbers to buy goods (in her case, a big TV) for which she is paid for her time. $200 won’t help her situation much, so she goes back for more, this time $2000, but the danger goes up too. With a “black card” (unlimited credit) in hand, she is tasked to buy a car. Her handler, an immigrant from Lebanon named Youcef (played by Theo Rossi, Juice from Sons of Anarchy), tells her that with such a large purchase, the bank will definitely call the car seller to verify Emily is the legitimate card holder, so she’ll have 8 minutes to get out from the time the card is swiped. She almost doesn’t make it, getting assaulted by the car seller on her way out. But she does get out, and earns Youcef’s trust for future jobs. The life of an underground thief, who carries around a lot of cash, is dangerous though, and she’ll be in jeopardy many times before the end of the film. The movie bounces around a bit too much in the end, but the whole thing is undeniably thrilling. How you feel about Emily and her actions will greatly depend on your political leanings, but the movie taken at face value is very good. Plaza’s acting chops are in full force. ★★★½

Monica, O My Darling is a Hindi language film from India. It is one of those quirky movies that defies labels: it is part comedy, part thriller, part crime film, all rolled into one. At a robotics company, 3 months after a man is killed by a robot (called an accident, but the viewer is led to believe differently), the man whose technology behind the robots, Jay Arkedkar, is promoted to the board of directors. His promotion is not taken so well by others in the company who were expecting that job themselves, including Nishi, the company’s owner’s son. However, Jay is dating Nishi’s sister, so nepotism seems to be skipping a son for a son-in-law. Jay though, has a woman on the side, Monica (who announces that she is pregnant), and shortly after his promotion, photos show up on his desk showing Monica and him together. A note tells Jay to come to a meeting or they will go public. When Jay goes there, he finds Nishi and Arvind, the company’s CFO. They don’t want to humiliate Jay, they want Jay’s help in murdering Monica. Turns out she’s been sleeping with each of them, and has told each that she is pregnant, and promises future blackmail. The trio decides to work together to kill her: Nishi is supposed to murder, Jay will transport the body, and Arvind will then get rid of it. When Jay picks up the truck left by Nishi, the body is indeed in the back, and after a quick adventure, the body is dumped. Imagine Jay’s and Arvind’s surprise the next day when Monica walks into work. Of course, shortly after, Nishi’s body is found to be the body they thought they were dumping. More murders come, and Jay is left wondering how Monica is doing it all. Suffice it to say, more surprises come before the end. In these kinds of movies, the suspense is supposed to ratchet up with the body count, but I found the opposite effect unfortunately. The movie is a lot more exciting (and funny) in the beginning, and loses luster in the second half. The end is way too predictable, though there are still chuckles along the way, especially from the over-the-top detectives tasked with the murder investigation. Still, not a bad film, and definitely worth your time on Netflix if you like off-beat international comedies. ★★★

Regulars readers of mine will know I love a good story. Three Thousand Years of Longing is made up of bunches of stories, each richly and beautifully told, so you know it’s going to be good for me. Tilda Swinton plays Alithea, a scholar interested in how today’s fables and legends grew from stories centuries ago. She doesn’t believe in magic, and knows that any fantastical story came from some logical explanation in the beginning. Imagine her surprise when, during a trip to Istanbul, she finds a djinn imprisoned in an antique glass bottle. The djinn, played by Idris Elba, tells Alithea his tale: his life and 3 imprisonments, sometimes for centuries at a time. Alithea is hesitant to make any wish when it comes time to do so, knowing the legends of djinns/genies, and how wishers often have their wishes turned against them. But as the movie goes along, we learn this djinn’s tragic story, and know he is not of that kind. When Alithea makes her wish, it takes the viewer by surprise, but that’s not yet the end of her story quite yet. The biggest surprise isn’t automatically revealed to the viewer, but through hints dropped throughout the movie. Not perfect, but damn close for my tastes. ★★★★½

The Wonder is based on a book by Emma Donoghue, a book I read maybe 3-4 years ago. Really enjoyed the book, and thus have been looking forward to this movie, especially since it stars Florence Pugh, who never disappoints. She plays Liz Wright, an English nurse, who is hired to a rural Irish village to observe a girl for a period of 2 weeks. The girl, Anna, supposedly has not eaten in 4 months, and Liz and one other, a former nurse-turned-nun, will spend shifts with the girl continuously, to verify she is not eating (or expose her if she is). The church wants to believe it is a miracle. The local doctor wants to believe it is an advancement of science. Liz of course knows it is impossible, and she is determined to find out what’s going on. Anna’s family is extremely religious, and thus so is 9-year-old Anna, and no one is talking. Liz is smart though, and she will get to the bottom of this mystery, though the answers will shock you. The movie is a faithful adaptation (the screenplay was cowritten by the original novel’s author), so there were no surprises for me unfortunately, but it is gorgeously shot and Pugh delivers a commanding performance. ★★★★

I have nothing good to say about Silent River. I put it on my list because it was described as a David Lynch-ian style mystery about a man coming unraveled in a remote desert motel. Sounds great in theory, comes off terribly in practice. I got one hour into this 2 hour film before throwing my hands up and giving up. At the halfway point, I still had no idea what was going on (and honestly, not much was). The man would have one-sided phone conversations with some unknown person, would drive out in the desert and come back, and had started to see some mysterious woman who was staying in the adjacent room. But no hint of a plot yet, and my patience had run out. ½

  • TV series currently watching: Star Wars Tales of the Jedi & Zootopia+ (miniseries)
  • Book currently reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Quick takes on 5 films from 1930s Japan

Today I’ve got 5 films from 1930’s Japan, 4 from director Hiroshi Shimizu. Despite a very prolific career (160 films!), Shimizu isn’t a household name today. He started in the silent era, and I’ll be starting with one of his silent films, though it was released well into the “talkie” era, in 1933. Japanese Girls at the Harbor is a beautiful film telling the lives of a two young ladies. Sunako and Dora are best friends in school when a man comes between them. Henry flirts with each before settling on Sunako; unfortunately he has another girl, Yoko, on the side, and when Sunako learns of this, she shoots Yoko in the chest. Fast forward a few years, and Sunako has left the area and is now a prostitute in another city when Henry spots her. Henry, having long since married Dora and expecting a child, can’t help himself, and starts hanging around Sunako again. After seeing what her previous actions have done to her life, she doesn’t want to ruin another, and urges Henry to return to his family. Following Sunako around is an itinerant painter who has feelings for her despite her profession, who happens to also be friends with Yoko, who Sunako doesn’t know survived the attack years ago. It’s an ever-tightening circle of connections, told as a story by a “narrator” through the intertiles, and a very compelling one. No newcomer by 1933, Shimizu knows how to set a scene, and the camera work is lovely. I wish I could see him work in a more modern film; his lush landscapes scream for a widescreen color shot. ★★★½

Mr Thank You, from 1936, has a couple introductory intertitles, but it is a sound film. An unnamed young bus driver is called “Mr Thank You” by everyone on his route, for his politeness in greeting every passerby. His route takes him through tiny mountain villages from rural Izu to Tokyo, and all the smalltown folks along the way know to look for Mr Thank You’s bus. Today, his travelers include a surly mustached man whom everyones loves to tease, some day workers, students, a girl mourning the death of her father, and, unfortunately, a woman with her 17-year-old daughter, a girl who is being sold in Tokyo to help the financially strapped family. The film presents a start look at depression era Japan and shows a practice that lasted for a very long time. Though the premise is great, the film ultimately becomes too predictable by the end, and though a short movie at 76 minutes, it even started to drag. Does have some heart-wrenching moments though. ★★½

The Masseurs and a Woman is a drama/comedy, and again, a very short picture at just 67 minutes long. It gets you right into the “action” with two blind friends walking up a mountain towards a spa town, where they work as masseurs. Toku and Fuku settle into work immediately, massaging hikers and a woman passing through from Tokyo. Toku is instantly smitten by the woman, as is another visiter in the area, a man traveling with his nephew. Before the woman can pursue either relationship, money is stolen from the hikers, and people start whispering that the woman was the only other person around that day. Toku wants to protect her as much as he can, but his fears may be ill placed. The movie is pretty ho-hum and not all that memorable, outside of its humor, and unfortunately not in a good way. In 1938 it may have been funny to make fun of a blind person by making noises or tickling their noses with a feather; if it was funny then, it isn’t now, and that’s about all I took away from this picture. ★½

Unfortunately these films just keep getting worse. Ornamental Hairpin again takes place in a mountain spa, and the setup is a group of “regulars” who keep getting annoyed by hikers and visitors who come in and make a big ruckus. One young man, Nanmura, hurts himself by stepping on the title hairpin while in the pool; it must be pretty bad because he spends the rest of the movie limping along. The man dreams that only a lovely young lady could leave such a piece behind, and there’s a big (i.e. very long) brouhaha over if the girl will be a beaut or a hag. When she hears that her missing hairpin caused harm, Emi returns to the spa to mend Nanmura along, befriending a couple young boys and the other regulars as well. Turns out, Emi is a kept woman in Tokyo, and she doesn’t want to return to her life there. The movie has so much hemming and hawing that, while the total runtime is just 80 minutes, it could easily have been halved if they just cut out all the repeated dialogue and stale jokes. Watching Nanmura take (long) trips over and over again on his bad foot, hobbling along while Emi and the boys root him on, happen too frequently in the final half. The very final scene is actually very nice, if you have the patience to get there, but by then, it was too little, too late. ★

I was going to watch one more Shimizu film, but I can’t take it anymore, so to finish up, I went back to Yasujirö Ozu. I’ve seen a whole bunch of his films, and am rarely let down. This is What Did the Lady Forget?, a comedy from 1937. Right away, there’s a joke, and unlike my recent films from above, I actually laughed! Three friends, women, are talking and one tries out her “new laugh,” where she’s trying to laugh without scrunching up her eyes, because of her new wrinkles there. This, and the general banter between the women, is genuinely funny, and so typical Ozu. Anyway, onto the plot! It unravels as most Ozu films do: a quiet, simple family drama. One of the above women is Tokiko; she and her husband Komiya are hosting their niece Setsuko. Setsuko is a modern young woman: she smokes and drinks and likes to hang out late with friends. Tokiko is having none of that, and wants to clamp down hard on the girl’s free spirit. Komiya, however, clandestinely goes out with Setsuko and doesn’t discourage her from her habits. The viewer definitely gets the idea that he wants out of the house as a breather from his overbearing wife too. When he is caught in a life though, Tokiko starts to whirl on him, but Komiya is going to have to finally stand up to her. It’s a nice little film, with some very good laughs here and there, and Ozu’s style is easily seen. ★★★

  • TV series currently watching: Harley Quinn (season 3)
  • Book currently reading: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Quick takes on Don’t Worry Darling and other films

I don’t usually hit up documentaries, but something about the premise of Good Night Oppy tugged at my heartstrings, and I’m glad I watched it on Prime this weekend. It is the story of the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity: their planning, launch, and long missions exploring our sister planet. The movie does a great job of making these little robots feel alive, with NASA and JPL staff, those who built the robots and operated them, openly talking about how they felt like parents to these little engines that could. Shot into space 3 weeks apart in 2003, at a time when 75% of previous missions to Mars had ended in failure, there’s jubilation that the rovers even made it there and landed successfully. Spirit, who even during testing on Earth was always a bit more troublesome, proved just as finicky on Mars, but “Oppy” always just chugged along. The mission was supposed to last 90 days, that was the “warranty” on these machines, at which time the engineers suspected that they wouldn’t have enough power to keep going. Spirit ended up going over 6 years (Earth time), and Oppy went over 14 years before finally not waking up after a 6 month dust storm. The film is at times exhilarating and heart aching, and ultimately you come away with profound respect for these tiny, plucky robots who explored a planet alone, teaching us a lot about our closest neighbor, and giving hints about possible life outside of our planet. ★★★★★

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is the second Marvel special available via streaming on Disney+. As the title says, it brings the popular Guardians in for a Christmas movie. After the death of Gamora in Avengers Infinity War, Drax the Destroyer and Mantis want to bring some joy to Quill, and they get the idea to bring a piece of home (Earth) to him. The two make the trip to Earth at Christmas time and go to kidnap one of Quill’s childhood heroes, Kevin Bacon, and take him back to Nowhere as a gift. Hijinks ensue. Like the other Marvel Special, it’s a short film at 44 minutes, and it is a typical holiday film, i.e., lots of fluff (albeit in the Marvel setting), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Drax is always funny, and the whole team makes at least a cameo too, including Nebula, Rocket, and Groot. Disney doesn’t mind paying out checks to bring the stars back, even for a short like this, I guess. For those that say the Marvel films are feeling stale with formulaic plots, these Specials have really set a standard for something different, and both have been fantastic so far. I can’t wait to see what else Marvel cooks up in the future for this platform. ★★★★

Murina takes place off the coast of Croatia and focuses on Julija, a 17-year-old girl living with her parents on a remote island there. Despite the idyllic setting, Julija dreams of other places, and is fascinated by a sailboat docked close by, full of college kids partying day and night. Her dad Ante is domineering and often verbally abusive; Julija doesn’t know why her mom Nela, a local beauty, takes it. The family is visited one weekend by Javier, a wealthy investor who once employed Ante and dated Nela. Ante is attempting to sell his land to Javier with the intent to have it developed into a resort. As the weekend progresses, we learn more about the past relationships between the adults, all while Julija succumbs to Javier’s charms. Javier drops hints that his kids go to the best private school in Switzerland, and that if Julija were his daughter, she’d realize her dream of going to Harvard. Julija believes that when he leaves, he will take her with him so that she can finally escape this tiny island where nothing ever happens. Ante warns Julija that Javier is a typical rich playboy, and that he’ll use any resource presented to him but cast it (her) aside as soon as he grows bored. The film does a fantastic job of showing there is no clear black or white, good guy or bad guy, but instead varying shades of grey (though Ante’s behavior, especially towards his daughter a the film goes along, makes it hard to root for him in particular). Strong acting from the 3 elder actors, all experienced (including Cliff Curtis as Javier), but unfortunately the lead, Gracija Filipović as Julija, is not a star yet. She often delivers her lines emotionlessly, with dead eyes that star off to nowhere, and with the camera focused squarely on her so there’s no place to hide. It’s the sole weakness (and a glaring one) in an otherwise gripping international indie film. ★★★

Don’t Worry Darling looked so, so good in the previews, and I was excited to see it from day 1. Unfortunately upon release, reviews were rough, so I shelved it until it hit streaming. Now having seen it, it does have its problems (a real lack of originality being the biggest), but it’s not all that bad. It helps that you have Florence Pugh, a powerhouse young actress, in the lead. In the film, her character, Alice, is living in a quaint 50s small rural town with her husband, Jack (Harry Styles). Jack and all of the men in the town are employed by a company called Victory, located outside of town in the middle of the desert. Only the men are allowed there, the women cannot leave the town, and spend the day cleaning and shopping, à la stereotypical 1950s. But there’s something very wrong here. One wife, Margaret, starts having problems. She went into the desert with her son one day, and returned without him; the story is the boy died, but Margaret says he was taken as punishment for leaving the town. At a neighborhood party, Alice witnesses Margaret kill herself, but the official story later states that it was an accident. After awhile, Alice too begins having troubling visions, and begins to suspect a larger menace. When she tries to ask Jack what it is that he and the men do all day, he gives the company answer that they can’t talk about it. All of this is leading to the big reveal, which I’m not going to spoil. Unfortunately it isn’t as surprising as you’d hope, borrowing heavily from other sci-fi films (and some iconic ones at that), but while the ending is a bit of a letdown, the journey there is pretty fun. Pugh is fantastic as a woman losing her grip on the reality around her, though director Olivia Wilde did better with a small comedy than with a bigger budget. ★★★

Disenchanted, the followup to the massive (and surprising) hit Enchanted, picks up 10 years after the first film. Giselle (Amy Adams) and husband Robert (Patrick Dempsey) are moving from New York out to the suburbs, to find a quieter spot for their happily ever after. After the move, they are visited from Andalasia by King Edward and Queen Nancy, who bestow Giselle’s and Robert’s baby daughter with a gift: a magic wish-granting wand. The rules states only a true son or daughter from Andalasia can use it, so just Giselle and the baby. Initially, Morgan (Robert’s daughter from the first film, now a teenager) has problems at her new school, and overwhelmed with problems settling in, Giselle picks up the wand and wishes that life could be easy like a fairy tale village. That’s what she gets, with Monroeville becoming Monrolasia overnight, unfortunately it isn’t what she expected. The town’s “queen,” Malvina (Maya Rudolph), becomes its evil queen, and Giselle herself, a stepmother to Morgan, starts showing “cruel stepmother” traits. She has until the stroke of midnight to undo the wish, but the wand has been stolen by Malvina’s minions, though she herself can’t use it since she’s not from Andalasia. As Giselle becomes more wicked with each progressing hour, it falls upon Morgan to fix the problem. The movie starts slow, but definitely picks up in the final half. Though it lacks some of the wonder of the first film (which I absolutely loved), and the songs aren’t quite as lasting, this one is still an entertaining trip full of magic. ★★★½

  • TV series currently watching: Peaky Blinders (seasons 1+2)
  • Book currently reading: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë