Baby Driver is a stylish thriller that I thoroughly enjoyed. Like this year’s other surprise critical and box-office hit, Get Out, it is a film that breathes new life into a tired genre. With Get Out, it was the horror film, with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, it’s the heist and chase film.
Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) is the baby-faced would-be musical producer who acts as a getaway driver for master criminal Kevin Spacey as a means of paying off a debt. Suffering from tinnitus since the auto accident that killed his parents when he was a child, he is constantly listening to music from his iPod to drown out the humming the tinnitus causes.
Forced to drive teams of three, the music in his ears also helps drown out the absurdities coming out of the mouths of the bad guys, which include the likes of Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm who he is forced to drive on bank robberies and eventually the robbery of a post office while making moves to protect the lives of several innocents. Along the way, he falls in love with waitress Lily James (Cinderella) who, like him, loves to burst into song at odd moments. His come mostly in his scenes with his wheelchair-bound foster father, lovingly played by deaf actor CJ Jones.
The chase scenes are up-to-the-minute state-of-the-art and very well done, but the story is old-fashioned and charming in the style of a 1930s crime movie in which the bad guys get their just desserts and everything turns out OK for the good guys. The superb soundtrack is also an asset.
Baby Driver is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Book of Henry is one of the most unfairly maligned films of the year. Written by Gregg Hurwitz and directed by Colin Trevorrow, this character study of a three-person family comprised of a child genius, his impressionable younger brother and his fragile mother is an emotional tour-de-force even if the underlying plot leaves something to be desired.
Jaeden Lieberher, currently starring in the box-office hit It, adds his portrayal of title character Henry to the growing number of unforgettable child performances he has already given us in St. Vincent, Midnight Special, and The Confirmation. Jacob Tremblay proves that his startling performance in Room was no one-off, and Naomi Watts once again gives us a portrayal of motherly love equal to her Oscar-nominated work opposite Tom Holland in The Impossible.
Lieberher plays Henry as a normal kid who just happens to have an intellect that is superior to everyone else’s without making a big deal about it. For him it’s nothing to play the stock market so that his mother will have enough money to quit her job as a waitress in a diner to write the children’s books she’s always wanted to. When he observes the family’s police commissioner neighbor abusing his step-daughter, he calls child protective services, but they do nothing so he sets up an elaborate plan to take matters into his own hands. The problem is Henry is dying of a brain tumor and will not be able to carry out his plan, so he puts his detailed plan in a book that he gives to his little brother to give his mother after his death so she can put it into action.
The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke’s 2001 film from Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel, is his only film not based on an idea of his own. The story of a masochistic music professor looking for perfection in her student lover, while maintaining an untenable relationship with her mother, was also Haneke’s first commercial success.
Haneke’s controversial 1997 film, Funny Games, had made him famous, but it took the star name of Isabelle Huppert to sell his later film. Huppert had been his first choice to play the mother in Funny Games, but she turned it down because she didn’t think it would give her enough room with which to employ her actor’s imagination, whereas the many facets of the sexually repressed professor in The Piano Teacher gave her plenty of material with which to work.
Annie Girardot as her difficult mother, on screen since 1950, had her best role since 1960’s Rocco and His Brothers made her an international star. Benoit Magimel who plays Huppert’s student lover began his screen career in 1988, but for many years was best known as Juliette Binoche’s younger companion with whom he fathered a child in 1999. Huppert herself, who began her screen career in 1971, had already earned ten César nominations for Best Actress, winning once for 1996’s La Ceremonie. The Piano Teacher would bring her an eleventh nomination for the French equivalent of the Oscar. 2016’s Elle, for which she earned her sixteenth César nomination and second win, would be the first film in her long career for which she would be nominated for an Oscar.
Beggars of Life, not Wings, the first Oscar winner, was the film William Wellman always cited as his favorite among his silent films. It was the Oscar-winning writer-director’s last before turning to talkies, as well as the last Hollywood film made by Louise Brooks before she went to Germany to make the legendary Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl for G.W. Pabst.
Long considered a lost film, Beggars of Life resurfaced in the 1960s and gained cult status in the late 1980s after Brooks’ death. Kino Lorber has released a magnificent Blu-ray of the film, restored by the George Eastman Foundation, with two commentary tracks, one by William Wellman, Jr., and the other by Thomas Gladysz, founding director the Louise Brooks Society.
The film itself is a precursor of Wellman’s beloved 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road, as well as Preston Sturges’ 1942 masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels. All three films feature young girls riding the rails masquerading as boys. In this one, Brooks plays a girl on the run for killing her abusive guardian, with Richard Arlen as her protector. Wellman had given Arlen his first starring role in Wings and was at the time equally as popular as Brooks, but neither was as big a name as Wallace Beery who gets top billing for his supporting turn as Oklahoma Red, the king of the hobos. Beery, who would become an even bigger star in such early talkies as Min and Bill and The Champ, for which he won an Oscar, is a total delight as a heavy with a heart of gold. All three actors do their own stunts, although a double is used for Brooks’ several falls from the trains. It’s based on the memoir of real-life hobo Jim Tully, portrayed in the film by Arlen.
Beatriz at Dinner, which opened theatrically in June, was one of the most heavily promoted independent films of the year. The hilarious trailer made it seem like a modern-day version of Ruggles of Red Gap in which an English butler teaches a bunch of rubes what it means to be an American. Through much of the film, Salma Hayek’s holistic medicine practitioner is Ruggles infused with the old soul of Mrs. Moore from A Passage to India. John Lithgow’s money grubbing real estate mogul is no match for her wrath, just as she is no match for his cruelty. So far, so good. The film begins to feel like something of a minor masterpiece, but then begins to pile on too much political angst for its own good.
The film opens with Hayek’s character grieving for her pet goat, murdered by the man next door in her downtrodden L.A. neighborhood. Undaunted, she spends the day massaging cancer patients, some who will be cured, some who will soon die. Then she drives to swanky Newport Beach to give a private session to the mother of a former patient. It’s late and her old car won’t start. She’s invited to dinner by the patient (Connie Britton). The guests include Lithgow and his third wife, an up-and-coming state legislator and his wife (Chloe Sevigny), and Britton’s husband (Mark Duplass). The wordplay between the guests has an edge to it, but remains largely civil until Lithgow brags about his illegal game-hunting in Africa in which he killed a rhinoceros. This is the point at which the film begins to go downhill as Hayek equates Lithgow with the man who killed her goat as well as the real estate mogul who destroyed her hometown in Mexico years before. There will be no more clever lines, no more comedy. From here to the end of the film it’s all downhill for poor Hayek.
Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, was long disavowed by the director as “not a Hitchcock film”. That was because of his many disagreements with producer David O. Selznick, fresh from making Gone with the Wind. Time, though, sees it differently.
Although Selznick overruled Hitchcock’s many ideas to deviate from Daphne DuMaurier’s best-selling novel, the director nevertheless provided his trademark heart-in-the-throat suspense to both scenes taken directly from the novel and those imposed by the censors. His one key win over Selznick was in the casting of the film’s unnamed leading lady. Selznick wanted Nova Pilbeam, the star of Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, but Hitchcock wanted an American actress who would be an outsider in the otherwise mostly British cast. Many actresses were given screen tests, with the decision coming down to Margaret Sullavan and Anne Baxter, but Sullavan was vetoed as being too confident and Baxter for being difficult to photograph. Joan Fontaine, born of English parents in Japan but raised in the U.S., was a compromise candidate that almost no one was happy with. Her insecurity, perfect for the role, was undermined by Hitchcock who made her re-shoot scenes to the point of exhaustion and still had her re-record much of her dialogue. At one point, she complained that she was as English as anyone in the film, that her grandmother was the first lady of Guernsey, to which Hitchcock replied that that was like saying she was the first lady of Catalina.
My Cousin Rachel, like other famous films made from the works of the prolific Daphne DuMaurier, such as Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now, was first filmed immediately after the release of the printed work on which it was based.
The 2017 version, however, which has been newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, is the superior film. That said, the 1952 version was nothing to sneeze at. It received four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Richard Burton) and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design. Burton was nominated as Best Newcomer at the Golden Globes and star Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress.
Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin have the de Havilland-Burton roles in the remake with Holliday Grainger and Iain Glen in the roles previously played by Audrey Dalton and Ronald Squire.
The story centers around the death of orphaned Philip Ashley’s benefactor, his cousin Ambrose, and Philip’s belief that he was murdered by Ambrose’s new wife who he sarcastically refers to as “my cousin Rachel” until he meets and is dazzled by her. Philip (Burton, Claflin), against the advice of his young friend (Dalton, Grainger) and her father (Squire, Glen) who is also his godfather, turns his fortune over to Rachel (de Havilland, Weisz).
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, newly released on Blu-ray and standard DVD, is at its best when it sticks to the interplay between the main characters in the original as played by Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan. They are rejoined here in brief by Sylvester Stallone from the original film and Kurt Russell, new to the saga as Pratt’s father, aptly named Ego.
Pratt, previously best known for TV’s Parks and Recreation first gained recognition on screen for his voicework on The LEGO Movie, after which he achieved full stardom with the original Guardians of the Galaxy. Despite high profile leads in Jurassic World and Passengers, his affable Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord in the Galaxy series remains his most interesting screen character. Zoe Saldana, who has a blue face on screen in the Avatar series, has a green face in this one. In-between we do get to see her looking more like her normal self in the reboot of the Star Trek series. Vin Diesel, with his long-time association with The Fast and the Furious series, and three-time Best Actor Oscar nominee, Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper) have such distinct voices that we would know them anywhere, which makes their voicework here a pleasure to listen to. Of the lesser known actors, Dave Bautista, previously better-known as a wrestler, should be able to use the series as a springboard to greater fame.
Murdoch Mysteries: Season 10 has been released on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
It’s hard to believe that the innovative Canadian detective series, initially set in the 1890s, has been around for ten years, churning out thought-provoking murder mysteries week in and week out during its annual run. Retitled The Artful Detective on Ovation TV, the series can be first seen in the U.S. under its original name on Acorn TV’s streaming service.
Most series that last this long routinely undergo major cast changes and while Murdoch has added and lost major peripheral characters throughout its so far ten seasons, it has retained all four of its initial stars in the roles that have endeared them to the show’s large audience. Yannick Bisson, the show’s executive producer and occasional director, is the mostly unflappable square-jawed detective who uses the latest discoveries in forensic science to help him solve murders in late 19th Century and early 20th Century Toronto. Helene Joy is the coroner turned psychiatrist turned lecturer turned coroner again who he finally married two seasons ago. Thomas Craig is the blustery, yet good-hearted inspector who has Murdoch’s back, and Jonny Harris is the savvy constable who never seems to be able to find the right girl.
The Exception is an unexceptional title for an exceptionally fine film.
Filmed as The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, the far more interesting title of Alex Judd’s 2003 novel, the debut film of Tony-nominated stage director David Leveaux focuses on the love story between a good German soldier, “the exception” to the rule, and the Kaiser’s new Jewish maid, a young Dutch widow who is also a British spy.
The Kaiser is, of course, Wilhelm II, German Emperor and King of Prussia from the age of 19 in 1888 to the abolition of the monarchy at the end of World War I in 1918. A grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria and cousin of George V, he was banished to Holland after the war and pretty much forgotten until the Nazis took control of Holland in 1940. Vowing never to return to Germany until the monarchy is restored, a Nazi plot to force him to return on the false promise of restoring his position gives him hope that he will die on the throne, but that hope is short-lived. Instead, he aids in the escape of the British spy who gives him his last kiss a year before his death in exile at the age of 82.
What makes the film memorable are the performances of Jai Courtney and Lily James as the lovers, Janet McTeer as the Kaiser’s conniving second wife, Ben Daniels as his trusted aide, and above all, Christopher Plummer in another late career triumph as the Kaiser. If he didn’t already have an Oscar, he would surely be on the short list for his brilliant performance here despite the film’s dismal box-office which can be blamed on the asinine last-minute title change and lack of promotion from Lionsgate.
The Exception is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD.
The Circle is a cautionary tale set in the near-future in which social media has advanced to the next step. People are no longer content with just expressing their every thought on Twitter and Facebook and instantly sharing their pictures and videos with friends and family on their cell phones, they want to connect with everyone at every moment.
Emma Watson plays a young woman who goes to work for a company in which the CEO (Tom Hanks) is a charismatic leader whose company meetings are feel-good pep rallies in the tradition of Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple. She advances very quickly from customer service rep to guinea pig for the company’s new transparency in which her every move is followed via a device she wears on her wrist. At first, this seems non-invasive, then lifesaving when the company’s drones assist in saving her from a near drowning in a lake in the middle of the night. This leads to her agreeing to be seen on the internet around the clock except when she goes to the bathroom or when she turns off the cameras to sleep.
Critics and audiences alike, used to action-filled dystopian tales set against bleak landscapes that end in hopelessness and despair, gave the slow-moving film low ratings, but they were only seeing what was on the surface. The film, from a best-selling novel by Dave Ellers, with a screenplay by Ellers and director James Ponsoldt, needed the message to be deliberate if simple to get through to everyone for whom it is intended, which is all of us.
The Promise is an historical epic about the extermination of 2.5 million people in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 that deserves better than the 57,000 one-star ratings it received on IMDb.thanks to genocide deniers, bringing its overall rating to just 5.9.
The title refers in part to a promise of marriage a young Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) makes to a girl from his village (Angela Sarafyan) in exchange for the dowry that allows him to attend medical school in Constantinople in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. In Constantinople, he falls in love with another Armenian girl (Charlotte Le Bon), one who was educated in Paris. She has returned home with an American correspondent (Christian Bale), the new relationship forming an uneasy triangle.
The title also refers to the promise of the surviving Armenian people to never forget.
The dual love story is set against the background of the breakout of World War I in which the Ottoman Empire is on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Fearing that the Armenians secretly side with Russians and their allies, the Muslim Turks systematically round up the Christian Armenian men and either force them to join the Army or go on long marches with women and children, shooting the weak ones, resettling the survivors in holding centers from which they will eventually be executed as are any Turks who help them. Whole towns of Armenian people are also executed despite well-intentioned but empty promises from Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (James Cromwell) that help will come. It was this process that Hitler used to promulgate his “final solution,” asking in 1939, “who remembers the Armenians?”
Grantchester Season 3 continues the first-rate British mystery series about Anglican priest Sidney Chambers (James Norton) in the mid-1950s who aids his police inspector friend Geordie Keating (Robson Green) in solving local murders. In addition to Geordie, the series features his close relationships with his married soon-to-be-divorced girlfriend Amanda Hopkins (Morven Christie), his blunt-spoken housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), and his closeted gay assistant cleric Leonard Finch (Al Weaver).
The first episode on the home video Blu-ray and DVD release of the third season is a Christmas special that aired on Christmas Eve, 2016 in the U.K., but in the midsummer in the U.S. where the series is still running on PBS.
The episode is a critical one in that it establishes the groundwork of the six-episode season that follows. In addition to solving a murder, Sidney and Leonard must direct the annual children’s Christmas play and the pregnant Amanda must give birth to her husband’s child, which Sidney has vowed to raise. The season itself will test the Sidney-Amanda relationship as Sidney goes through a crisis of faith in which he must choose between remaining a priest or marrying a divorced woman. Anglican priest can marry, but marriage to a divorcée was still frowned upon at the time.
The Lost City of Z, pronounced “zed”, is based on the life of British explorer Percy Fawcett.
In 1905, British Army Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is asked by the Royal Geographical Society to act as a referee between Bolivia and Brazil and map out the border between the two countries. Fawcett agrees to the arduous journey because success would mean his vindication as the son of a disgraced ex-military man. He is joined by his appointed aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) on his dangerous mission to Amazonia, where apart from the starvation, infernal heat, hostile indigenous Indian tribes, and wild animals, they find evidence of advanced, non-white civilizations. Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment who regard indigenous populations as “savages,” the determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller) and Costin, returns time and again to his beloved jungle in his attempt to prove his case. His last trip is in 1925 with his now grown son (Tom Holland) acting as his aide de camp. He and his son disappear. Did they die or did they discover the lost city from which they do not want to leave?
The most ambitious film to date from director James Gray (The Immigrant), the film is a rather old-fashioned adventure of the sort that was popular in the 1930s (Stanley and Livingstone, Suez), albeit with the grander look of Werner Herzog’s 1970s epics (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcaraldo). You would have to go back to Bob Rafelson’s 1990 film, Mountains of the Moon about Capt. Francis Burton and Lt. John Hanning Speke’s 19th Century expedition to find the source of the Nile, to find a film of similar ambition and scope.
The Zookeeper’s Wife from director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) is the latest in a long line of films about the holocaust. Although not as compelling as either Schindler’s List or The Pianist, two other films about the Nazi invasion of Poland and the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, it is nevertheless worth seeing.
Jessica Chastain, eerily emulating Meryl Streep’s accent in Sophie’s Choice, plays the title character, a young veterinarian who along with her zoologist husband (Johan Heldenbergh), has built the city’s zoo into a world-renown showplace. After the Nazis invade, Hitler sends his own zoologist (Daniel Bruhl) to move the most valuable animals to Germany with the empty promise that they will be returned to Warsaw after the war. The remaining animals are shot and used to feed the Nazi troops.
Heldenbergh comes up with a plan that is approved by Bruhl, in which the now empty zoo will be used to raise pigs for the German soldiers’ consumption. Food for the pigs will come from the scraps in the Jewish ghetto. Heldenbergh uses the scrap gathering to hide Jewish refugees in his truck, who are then hidden by Chastain in the zoo’s basement until it is safe for them to leave. In all, they will save 300 Jews from extinction during the Nazi occupation.
The film is excellently acted, especially by Chastain, Heldenbergh, Bruhl, and the two young actors playing Chastain and Heldenbergh’s impressionable son, Timothy Radford and Val Maloku.