The Children Act was shown at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequent film festivals before finally being given a theatrical run in the U.K., France, and elsewhere in August 2018 and the U.S. in September. It has now been released on DVD only by Lionsgate with little fanfare, which is a pity because Emma Thompson’s award-worthy performance deserves to be seen by larger audiences.
Thompson plays a British High Court judge who deals with difficult cases involving children. In the opening segment, she’s dealing with an issue regarding the separation of conjoined twins. The doctors want to separate them which will cause immediate death to one of them. The parents want to keep both boys alive for as long as they can even though the life of the healthier one will be shortened if they remain together much longer.
The crux of the film, however, deals with a case involving a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness dying of leukemia whose parents are refusing to allow his doctors to provide him with a potentially life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. Before making her decision, she insists on visiting the boy, played by Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead who also turns in an amazing performance.
BlacKkKlansman is easily Spike Lee’s best film in decades. Taken from Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir of his experiences as an undercover black detective in Colorado Springs, who in 1979 posed as a white man in order to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, the action in the film is moved back to 1972 to encompass Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign, allegedly supported by the Klan.
John David Washington, who made his film debut as a six-year-old in Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X starring his father, Denzel Washington, has the lead as Stallworth. Adam Driver co-stars as his partner, a Jewish detective who stands in for Stallworth when he meets with the Klan, not only pretending to be a black cop pretending to be white but having to hide his own heritage from the dangerous, hate-filled Klan. Both actors turn in excellent performances, making this riveting drama totally believable from start to finish.
Robert John Burke as Stallworth’s supportive police chief and Topher Grace as the Klan’s Grand Wizard are also outstanding in their roles. The one scene that doesn’t seem real is the penultimate one in which Stallworth reveals himself to Duke on the phone. Factchecking reveals that this never happened. Duke didn’t learn until 2006 that he had been duped.
The Big Parade, the screen’s first great war film as well as anti-war film, was released just seven years after the end of World War I. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war to end all wars on November 11, 2018, let’s pause to remember and plan to watch at least one of the best films about the war and its aftermath available on home video.
As noted in my recent profile of director King Vidor, The Big Parade premiered on a reserved seat basis in November 1925 and went into general release in September 1927. By 1930 it was still drawing audiences as a spate of other, even more powerful anti-war films came along. John Gilbert had his greatest role as the privileged son of a Midwest banker who forgoes the officer title his father secured for him to join his buddies as an ordinary foot soldier who sees the worst of it first-hand in France. There he falls in love with a local farm girl while on leave. Wounded in the war, he returns home to find his fiancée in love with his brother leaving him free to return to France to reunite with his true love.
In the midst of the success of The Big Parade came William Wellman’s 1927 film Wings the haunting drama of fighter pilots in the war that won the first Oscar for Best Production. Although it’s best remembered for its powerful imagery of planes in battle that became stock footage for aviation films for decades, the film’s powerful message about the waste of youth in war was a potent one that still tings true today. Clara Bow, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Richard Arlen, and, briefly, rising star Gary Cooper, all give unforgettable performances.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is one of the year’s biggest surprises, a totally enjoyable sequel to a film whose popularity I never quite got.
While 2008’s Mamma Mia! from the Broadway hit was entertaining with its stolen plot from Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, it seemed little more than an excuse for its talented cast to sing songs from the Swedish singing group ABBA’s playbook. The sequel expands on the original plot to explain how Meryl Streep’s character met the Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard characters, one of whom is the father of Streep’s daughter, Amanda Seyfried. Here we go back in time as spirited Lily James winningly plays Streep’s younger self who meets and falls in love in quick succession with the younger versions of the three men played by Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan, all of whom prove to be excellent singers and dancers. The plot weaves back and forth between the past and the present as Seyfried gets ready for the grand opening of the hotel that Streep, whose character died sometime between the two films, had spent years planning.
Brosnan, Firth, and Skarsgard have all come for the opening as have Streep’s friends Julie Walters and Christine Baranski and Streep’s mother, played to the hilt by Cher. Streep herself appears as a ghost in the film’s finale in which she sings a ballad at the baptismal font of the church in which Seyfried and Dominic Cooper’s baby is being christened.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a prime example of a film whose word-of-mouth has long outlived its poor marketing. Officially released in February 1956, Don Siegel’s science-fiction masterpiece did not open in New York until Friday, April 27th of that year as part of a double-bill with World Without End at RKO and other neighborhood theatres where they were advertised as “horror” films rather than the science-fiction films they clearly were. Their five-day run was sandwiched between a three-day re-run of Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause and the incoming Carousel, which had a high profile opening at the Roxy on Broadway in February.
Films, in those days, almost always had their world premieres in New York or Los Angeles where good reviews bolstered their box-office potential as they fanned out to the rest of the country and the world. Films released directly to neighborhood theatres in New York were not always reviewed by the local newspapers and these two films were no exception. You won’t find a New York Times review of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers anywhere because there wasn’t one. The only way to track down its run is to go to the New York Times print edition or the online archival copy and look for the printed ads.
Despite its lack of support by Allied Artists whose big film of 1956 was Friendly Persuasion, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was fondly remembered by all those who were lucky enough to see it in its initial run. It later had a long life on TV and has been a home video staple since its initial VHS release in 1981. Olive Video, which released a Blu-ray version of it in 2012 has now released an Olive Signature edition to join the likes of High Noon, The Quiet Man, and Johnny Guitar as one of the films they have given extra special attention to. Extras include both archival interviews with stars Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter and a new two-part interview with Siegel’s son, actor Kristoffer Tabori.
Three Identical Strangers is an amazing documentary that plays like the best of fictional detective stories.
The story begins in 1980 when 19-year-old Robert (Bobby) Shafran begins college in a small town in upstate New York. Greeted by many young people on campus as “Eddy,” it is obvious that he is being mistaken for someone else. A friend of “Eddy” (Eddy Galland) deduces that Bobby is Eddy’s twin and that the two must have been separated at birth. They arrange an immediate meeting at Eddy’s house on Long Island. The story makes headlines in the local newspapers where David Kellman sees it and realizes that he is also Eddy and Bobby’s double. The overnight twins are now overnight triplets. Raised in different New York City suburbs, one (Eddy) is well off, one (Bobby) is middle-class, and one (David) is from a struggling family of immigrants. All three knew that they were adopted as infants but neither they nor their adopted parents were aware of any family relationships.
The boys became instant celebrities who were invited on every extant TV talk show. They moved together into an apartment in Greenwich Village where they became part of the New York party scene and eventually opened a popular restaurant of their own in the city. Despite their euphoria, however, there were questions that the boys’ adoptive parents wanted answers to.
Leave No Trace is one of the rare films to receive a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Debra Granik’s first narrative film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which made a star of Jennifer Lawrence, Leave No Trace has the potential to do the same for New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie.
Although McKenzie is 18, she is highly effective playing a 13-girl-old girl who at the beginning of the film is living with her father off the land in a large urban park outside of Portland, Oregon. We gradually learn that the father, expertly played by Ben Foster, is an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD. The two are rescued and brought to a Christmas tree farm where they are given a house in exchange for the father’s work on the farm, but will Foster’s reentry to civilization last?
The film is both esthetically pleasing with its lush landscapes and emotionally gripping with its depiction of a tortured soul and his impressionable daughter.
Leave No Trace is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The second film in a planned trilogy, Sicario: Day of the Soldado lacks the moral compass provided in the original Sicario by Emily Blunt’s character who was removed from the project by director Stefano Sellima when he was brought onto the project to replace Denis Villeneuve who had to withdraw from the project due to the scheduling of his films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049.
The Farmer’s Daughter has long been one of the most sought-after titles unavailable in the U.S. on Laserdisc, DVD, or Blu-ray, even though it has been widely circulated in other parts of the world.
Kino Lorber has come to its rescue with a stunning new Blu-ray and DVD release of the 1947 film from the Selznick library even though the film technically wasn’t a Selznick production. The famed producer had purchased the rights of the Swedish play on which the comedy is based for Ingrid Bergman but when she turned it down, he sold the rights to RKO. By 1954, when the film was re-released, rights to the film had reverted to Selznick. The rights, along with those for all other Selznick controlled films were later purchased by CBS which released the film on VHS in 1983, which is the last time it appeared on home video in any format in the U.S. Now, as with most other Selznick owned productions, such as Since You Went Away and Portrait of Jennie, Kino Lorber currently holds those rights.
Even though Loretta Young has the title role, she is largely missing from the second half of the film in which her character is discussed but doesn’t appear. Her role in the same year’s Best Picture Oscar nominee The Bishop’s Wife was larger, which is part of the reason her Oscar win for The Farmer’s Daughter was so surprising at the time. The other part was that Rosalind Russell, Young’s best friend, was considered the odds-on favorite for the emotionally draining Mourning Becomes Electra.
My Man Godfrey has been given a beautiful 4K restoration for its Blu-ray debut by Criterion. The look of it is leap years beyond Criterion’s previously released DVD which was itself a marvel considering that the film had been a victim of public domain hell after Universal goofed and failed to renew its copyright in 1974.
This is the classic for which the term “screwball comedy” was coined. It was also the first film that was nominated for Oscars in all four acting categories. It was nominated for six Oscars overall, including Best Director and Best Screenplay but ironically failed to win a nomination for Best Picture. Film scholars and historians still bristle at Carole Lombard’s Best Actress loss to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld, 1936’s Best Picture winner which, like My Man Godfrey, was one of that year’s five smash hits starring William Powell.
Released in April 1936, MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld starred Powell as the legendary Broadway producer with Myrna Loy as his second wife, actress Billie Burke (The Wizard of Oz), and Rainer as his first wife, stage star Anna Held. A month later came MGM’s comedy-mystery The Ex-Mrs. Bradford in which Powell starred opposite Jean Arthur in lieu of Loy in a film in the same vein as their beloved 1934 masterpiece The Thin Man.
Powell leaped at the chance to make My Man Godfrey for which he insisted on the casting of ex-wife Lombard over director Gregory La Cava’s choice of Constance Bennett on loan-out to Universal. Although the couple had been divorced for several years, they remained friends with Lombard now romantically linked to Clark Gable who she would marry in 1939. Powell, himself, was now linked romantically to Jean Harlow with whom he would make his fourth film of the year, MGM’s Libeled Lady, also starring Loy and Spencer Tracy, released in October. His fifth film of the year would be MGM’s After the Thin Man opposite Loy, released to both critical acclaim and box-office success on Christmas Day.
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood was easily the best classic Blu-ray release within the last twelve months, but what were the other “bests” of this period?
Looking back and slightly ahead, here are my top picks from October 2017 through September 2018:
Best New Release – Baby Driver (2017)
Best Classic Release – The Old Dark House (1932)
Edgar Wright’s high adrenaline thriller Baby Driver was one of last year’s most exciting films while James Whale’s The Old Dark House is more a comic gem than a genuine horror classic given class A treatment by Cohen Media.
Best New Release – Wind River (2017)
Best Classic Release – The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River was one of last year’s best films, one that was both a taut thriller and contemporary social drama. George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is an ageless comedy of manners given deluxe handling by Criterion.
Woman Walks Ahead is a well-intentioned though historically inaccurate film of the events leading up to the assassination of Sitting Bull at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Grand River in the Dakota Territory on December 15, 1890.
Portrait painter Susanna Carolina Faesch Schlatter, called Catherine Weldon in the film, was the short, plain-looking Swiss-born wife of a fellow Swiss, a doctor, living in Brooklyn, New York who had an illegitimate child with another married man who eventually abandoned her, forcing her to live with her mother and stepfather while raising her son when her estranged husband divorced her. She became an advocate for Native Americans in the late 1880s and changed her name to Caroline (not Catherine) Weldon. In 1889, not 1890 as depicted in the film, she traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with her then-12-year-old son to act as secretary, interpreter, and advocate of Sitting Bull, the Lakota holy man and leader who had returned to the reservation after leaving Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In the film, Weldon is portrayed as a much younger woman, a widow with no children albeit with long, lovely flowing red hair who looks and sounds like Jessica Chastain with a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes. Her purpose in coming to the Reservation is to paint Sitting Bull’s portrait, which is an odd premise since many famed earlier portraits had already been made. Although she is seen making one such portrait in the film, Weldon made four before being asked to leave the reservation by Sitting Bull with whom she had a falling out. She was not present at the time of his assassination as depicted in the film.
Book Club is a film for women of a certain age. That age is somewhere younger than 67, the age of the four lifelong female friends who are the main characters in the film. Anyone that age or more, and anyone who knows women of that age or higher, will know how fake this movie is.
The four 67-year-olds who decide to spice up their lives after reading the trashy 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels in their book club are played by two 72-year-olds, a 65-year-old, and an 80-year-old.
72-year-old Diane Keaton is top-billed as the addle-brained widow of an accountant. On a plane to Arizona to visit her 40-ish daughters, she meets 62-year-old Andy Garcia, a pilot and self-made millionaire with a magnificent home in beautiful Sedona, who falls madly in love with her. She has a choice to make between moving in with her daughters or going for the gusto with Garcia. In real life, the Garcia character wouldn’t give her a second look, or if he did, would get away from her as fast as he could after the plane landed.
80-year-old Jane Fonda is second-billed as the never-married wealthy owner of a thriving Los Angeles hotel who reconnects with a lover of forty years ago, played by 68-year-old Don Johnson. Her story is that although she has had sex with many men, and continues to do so, she can’t fall asleep in a bed with any man until her second go-around with Johnson. After wooing her unsuccessfully, Johnson gets on a plane to return to New York but comes back. In real life, the Johnson character would have kept going.
First Reformed is the latest in writer-director Paul Schrader’s long list of thought-provoking films.
Schrader has said that no matter what he does, the first line of his obituary will be that he wrote Taxi Driver. Probably so, but he also wrote the screenplays for two of Martin Scorsese’s other most acclaimed films, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Like those three films, most of the films he has written and/or directed were about men who fall into desperation as their worlds fall apart. First Reformed is no different.
Like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, George C. Scott in Hardcore, Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Ken Ogata and the other actors who shared his character in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Willem Dafoe in Light Sleeper, and Nick Nolte in Affliction, Ethan Hawke is a complicated protagonist, a flawed but interesting man in Schrader’s best film in more than twenty years.
Hawke, who began acting in films as a teenager, has his best role ever as the upstate New York minister having a crisis of faith in the film, A four-time Oscar nominee, two for writing (Before Sunset, Before Midnight) and two for acting (Training Day, Boyhood), submerges his trademark affability to play the reticent man of God who says little besides what is expected of him.
The House of Tomorrow is an unusual coming-of-age film about two rebellious Minnesota teenagers who form a punk rock duo. One, played by Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Hugo), is a naïve kid who was home schooled in Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s domed house of tomorrow by his former hippie grandmother, played by Ellen Burstyn. The other, played by Alex Wolff (The Naked Brothers Band), is a more worldly-wise youth recovering from a recent heart transplant. They meet when Wolff, his father (Nick Offerman), and sister (Maude Apatow) are part of a group touring Burstyn and Butterfield’s unique home.
First-time director Peter Livolsi wanted the best for his film, so he figured he’d start at the top and work his way down. He sent the script to Burstyn, not sure she’d accept, and not having the faintest notion that she had known “Bucky.” It turns out she had attended one of his lectures while she was filming The Exorcist and flew to Chicago to interview him during a five-hour stopover at O’Hare. They became friends and she has the home movies to prove it. She not only leaped at the chance to make the film but provided a delightful home movie of her and “Bucky” riding in a car.
Burstyn and Offerman are quite good in their roles, but the film belongs to the three young actors. Apatow, the daughter of Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann, grew up with Wolff and the two make a very believable brother and sister. Britisher Buttterfield, as he proved with The Space Between Us, does an American regional accent flawlessly.
On Chesil Beach is about a 1962 marriage that lasted six hours, the events that led up to it, the events of the afternoon and evening following the wedding, and its aftermath. It’s from an acclaimed novel by Ian McEwan (Atonement) who also wrote the screenplay. Directed by Dominic Cooke (TV’s The Hollow Crown), it stars Saoirse Ronan fresh from her Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Lady Bird.
Ronan once again proves herself to be the Meryl Streep of her generation, giving us both a different accent and an unforgettable character with each film she makes. Here she is the upper-middle-class British daughter of socially prominent Samuel West and Emily Watson, who is a classically trained cellist and member of a local musical quartet. On holiday after her college graduation, she has met and fallen in love with a young man whose family is not in her social circle, although she assuages her parents’ concern by informing them that his father is the headmaster of a primary school in the country. The boy is played by played by the equally gifted Billy Howle (TV’s The Witness for the Prosecution). His father is played by Adrian Scarborough (Notes on a Scandal) and his brain-damaged mother by Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy).
The two are clearly madly in love, but things do not go well in their attempt to have sex for the first time after their wedding. Will they work things out or will their wounded pride keep them apart for the rest of their lives? Reminiscent in style with the great British films of the era in which it takes place, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, and The Go-Between, although dramatically quite different, it is, like them, a very special film. Not a great success at the box office, it nonetheless will be remembered in years to come as one of the great early showcases of a legendary actress.