Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird from Sacramento, California

By Moira Sullivan


Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in LadyBird

Saoirse Ronan gives an unforgettable performance as a young Sacramento woman from valley Catholic high school about to graduate and go on to college. The film directed and written by Greta Gerwig is nominated for best picture and screenplay at the Golden Globes next month. Lady Bird film has inventive and realistic dialogue with an engaging plot development. Credit must be given to the outstanding ensemble cast of the principle character Saoirse Ronan as Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson, and Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson and Tracy Letts as Larry McPherson, Lady Bird’s parents. Both Ronan and Metcalf have received Golden Globe nominations for their acting roles. It is their relationship that provides a dramatic tension that gives the film its luster.

The opening scene shows Lady Bird and Marion on the way home from a trip where they were scouting colleges which demonstrates growing tension in their relationship. Pushed to the edge by her mother’s comments, Lady Bird ends her discussion by jumping out the car much to her mother’s horror. Only a broken arm to mend, this is a coming of age film for Lady Bird who is at odds with many of the values of her teachers and classmates except for her best friend.

The opening citation in the film from Joan Didion proclaims that anyone extolling the hedonism of California has not spent a Christmas in Sacramento. From the point of view of a Catholic high school, that is certainly the case but what is also obvious are the class differences of the students. Lady Bird’s father has just been left go of his job and her mother works as a nurse. The capital of California has the reputation of being out of step with the progressive nearby Bay Area and is regarded as provincial and claustrophobic. Lady Bird longs to escape from this and go to school back east, much to the dismay of her mother who wants her to live close by and attend a college in Davis renowned for animal husbandry.

Gerwig’s film is rich with these kinds of details and characters. that paint a colorful picture of the town and young girl trying to find her way. Lady Bird candidly wonders when would be the right time to engage in premarital sex and gets counsel from her mother. Her teachers try to guide her suggesting she try dramatic arts and also help her with her college applications with her aptitudes in mind. What the film foremost shows is despite her restlessness with being in a nuclear family which includes an adopted son and his girlfriend she still has fondness for Sacramento. Her brother’s bedroom is also the computer room that Lady Bird must share and certainly reveals how cramped her family’s living situation is. She aspires to live in a big house and even tells one of her classmates that she does.

Lady Bird is a feel-good feature with an actress turned director from Sacramento that has made an excellent second feature.

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Airdate 12/27/17
Movie Magazine International

'Molly's Game' Jessica Chastain as high stakes captain

By Moira Sullivan
Jessica Chastain holds her own in a sea of male gamblers.
Based on the memoirs of by Molly Bloom and screenplay written by director Aaron Sorskin, Molly’s Game is one the best films of 2017 with two nominations for the Golden Globes next month as, best adapted screenplay, and best actress Jessica Chastain. Incidentally along with the report on Lady Bird set in California’s capital on this week's show - Chastain is from Sacramento California. Although she has recently been playing films as a woman in the midst of powerful men that can hold her own as in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Miss Sloan from last year, Molly’s Game is her most virtuous effort.

When Molly Bloom took a serious tumble in competitive skiing, her career as a professional athlete came to an end. With her name and reputation, she went on to create a high stakes poker game under her own rules and conditions. We discover this at the beginning of the film when she has been arrested and is being prosecuted by the FBI for illegal gambling. Acquiring a good lawyer is part of her plan to vindicate herself, and she is able to convince the brilliant defense attorney Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) to take on her case as an innocent clean and sober client. He is most persuaded however by his teenage daughter who has read about Molly Bloom’s games and considers her a feminist hero. The uncredited role of Jaffey’s daughter is important as it was at about this age Molly Bloom was forced to take a turn in a promising career. This young girl remains throughout the film with flashbacks and the process of coming to restitution with her formative years.

Kevin Costner plays a father who pushes Molly to excel beyond her abilities yet she is a worthy adversary to his browbeating demeanor. The script is brilliant in replicating past and present not only through images but engaging and thought-provoking dialogue. The rapport between Chastain and Elba is brilliant.

The cast of poker players in positions of power and wealth that Molly directs confirms why Jaffey's daughter holds her in such high esteem. The poker game turns out to be illegal although Molly is careful about operating within the scope of the law. Her access to large sums of money makes her a target later for underworld criminals and there is no one to protect her except her own wits fueled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. It is at this point after a vicious attack that she realizes she is over her head. Molly is an unattached woman who is desired and eventually used exploited and assaulted by men. When she resorts to counsel she is still the brilliant and astute woman she has always been, the woman her father could not bully or intimidate along with the other players except when she is criminally assaulted. Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom is a smart, vulnerable and humble player who comes to terms with her life in film that gives us reasons and explanations, illustrating numerous aspects of her game and how she is able to navigate a group of men including the FBI and stay in control.
© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Airdate 12/27/17
Movie Magazine International

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

French yuletide noir at San Francisco Roxie

By Moira Sullivan

Henry Baur as Père Noel
In Italy, December 13 is the day St. Lucia is celebrated who was murdered in 304 AD for refusing to be married. Her death on the Julian calendar was closer to the Winter Solstice on the darkest day of the year, but the Nordic countries kept the date when the Gregorian calendar was later adopted and solstice fell on the 20th of December. Lucia has long been celebrated in Sweden with a tradition of selecting a woman with candles in her hair to lead a procession of maidens, star boys and gingerbread children who bring forth the light.

In San Francisco, a French noir Yuletide double feature is being shown at the Roxie Theatre on December 13– L’ASSASSINAT DU PÈRE NOEL (Who Killed Santa Claus - 1941) by Christian-Jaque and LE MONTE-CHARGE by Marcel Bluwal (1962). Both films could hardly be claimed to be light entertainment and as crime fiction are associated with noir. The films do not evoke warm fuzzy feelings for Christmas but are dark and brooding plots involving intrigue, deception and murder. There are children in these films and Santa Claus but little joy for the them or the adults that try to make the best of the holiday.
L’ASSASSINAT DU PÈRE NOEL (Who Killed Santa Claus - 1941) has none of the stylistic of noir in terms of lighting. Most of the dark heavy gothic scenes without light are filmed indoors or are shot in the super bright snow on sunny days in the French Alps. The setting is a village near Grenoble where the town pharmacist Ricomet (Jean Brochard) goes to order medicine for the village, one of the many threads of the plot. 

Gaspard Cornusse dons his Father Christmas costume every year for the children played by Henry Baur, a rotund, jovial character with heavy drawn eyebrows in his early 60s. Gaspard makes toys such as world globes that light up. His acting style is steeped in a classical theatrical tradition. At times Gaspard's makeup seems like he will peel it off and another person will emerge. In the corner of his living room is a shrunken head of an Asian man, and as it is hanging he tells the village children the story of the bandit Fu-Xiyu who robbed for his daughter Princess Aurora. 

Henry Baur and René Faure
Meanwhile upstairs his daughter Catherine (Renée Faure) lives in a world of fantasy, raised on her father’s stories waiting for a romantic hero to carry her off on a white horse. Elsewhere in the film is a poor woman referred to as Mother Michel  (Marie-Hélène Dasté) who searches the village looking for her cat and was formerly married to Ricomet. Both of these female characters are not noir femme fatales but evocative women who are deeply disturbed because of the influence of the men in their life. Women serve the men of the village who wear large black berets and spend time drinking or gambling.  True to fairy tales, Catherine falls for a man she believes to be a prince with a hand covered by a black glove he claims has been deformed by leprosy, Baron Roland de la Faille (Raymond Rouleau). She is being courted by an annoying village teacher who threatens to punish wayward students by having them write about their grievances over and over. After meeting the Baron Catherine only has eyes for him. 

The film includes a Tiny Tim character, a young boy, who lies sickly in bed waiting for the gift he ordered from Santa Claus. There is also a thief in town who has taken St Nicolas’ ring from the village church and Santa Claus is found shot in the head in the Alps. Getting to the bottom of the mysteries in play involves calling in the territorial police and the townspeople and officials. 

Director Jaque brings out staid acting performances which border on overacting –children and adults alike, following the fiddle of Henry Baur, Father Christmas. During the time the film was made, France was under German occupation and the film was produced by the Nazi film company Continental Film. Director Christian- Jaque and screenwriter Charles Spaak were able to create a subtext to the film with subversive themes with allegories to the political realities. In real life Baur’s wife who was Jewish was taken away by the Gestapo and he was tortured and arrested the year after the film was made. After being released from prison he died in mysterious circumstances. 

LE MONTE-CHARGE by Marcel Bluwal (1962) starring Robert Hossein and Lea Massari has a noir stylistic with trains emitting billowy white smoke as they charge up a dark railway. It is set in a seedy looking Paris suburb - Courbevoie with notable signs pointing to and from Argenteuil on the other side of the Seine. Films featuring Hossein are often populated by districts of Paris, fictitious or real. On Christmas Eve, Robert Herbin (Hossein) has just gotten out of prison after seven years for murdering his boss’s wife. On his first night out, he takes notice of Marthe and her little daughter Nicole (Pascale Brouillard in a restaurant. Nearby is a movie theater and Robert follows Marthe and Nicole inside. During the screening Marthe allows him to put his hand on her shoulder and later to follow her home and come in for a drink. The apartment is big and spacious on top of her husband’s factory, nicely furnished with a sparsely decorated Christmas tree. In a series of attempts at passion followed by rejection, Marthe has the upper hand of Robert. She leaves with him to go to his apartment leaving Nicole alone, and then changes her mind and returns to her apartment again only to discover her husband dead. Robert must leave because he can’t be found anywhere near Courbevoie but is obsessed with Marthe. He follows her to Midnight mass where she faints, and then takes her home again assisted by another man who sells American cars.

Lea Massari, Pascale Brouillard and Robert Hossein
Christmas eve is robustly celebrated with last minute Christmas shopping, family get togethers in restaurants, fights in bars and a packed church of worshippers. Le Monte is a somber thriller involving murder, deception and a little girl dressed in a white fur parka whose step father hates her. Marthe’s attempt to leave a loveless marriage is well-planned where she uses men to help free her from her entrapment. Everything about the set design conveys this feeling of confinement from dark, shabby apartment houses to desolate streets of loneliness. Robert and Marthe cling to each other to free themselves from their circumstances yet wind up creating a complicated relationship that frightens them both.

Robert Hossein
© 2017 - Moira Sullivan- Air Date: 12/13/17
Movie Magazine International
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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Romance in the Cold War, against insurmountable odds - The Shape of Water

By Moira Sullivan

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is not one of his best films but it is a story that includes many of his themes. Tyranny over nature , inventions and technology that represent the future of man, and mutants that defy these standards. The Shape of Water is a time capsule from the American/Russian Cold War set in a US government laboratory much like the setting of Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy:The Golden Army (2008). The sadistic, predatory, misogynist and racist head of operations at the facility, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), has control of a mutant that he captured in South America, resembling The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). He is called “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones) and is not able to speak nor is as benevolent as Abe Sapien in both 'Hellboys' (played also by Doug Jones) and attacks in self-defense. The Russian scientist Dimitri is the only official at the plant looking out for Amphibian man. Later one of the cleaning ladies at the lab takes an interest.

Del Toro has written and directed several magical films besides the two 'Hellboys' including Pan Labyrinth (2006) and the bizarre television production The Strain. The largesse of the budget for The Shape of Water went to set design, which consists of a laboratory and an apartment over a movie theater and parts of the town that surround the government complex.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman and the victim of an unknown criminal assault that left her scarred. She works together with Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spenser) at the government lab. Elisa lives alone and has an interesting gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a commercial artist out of regular work. In their adjoining apartments, she looks out for him while Zelda looks out for her. Zelda’s commitment to Elisa is stronger than to her lazy ungrateful husband.

'Amphibian Man' is kept in one of the laboratory tanks and Elisa entices him out with eggs and music. The interiors of the lab are exceptionally created as well as Elisa and Giles’ apartments, a diner with a homophobic and racist owner, and Richard’s home with his dutiful high-heeled hairsprayed wife. All environments are filled with artefacts from the 1960’s – finned Cadillacs, trinkets and bric a brac, and clothing and vintage furniture. Television programs and film excerpts are displayed on TV consoles: a variety of Hollywood musicals, newsreel footage of police brutality against blacks, Henry Koster’s The Story of Ruth, Shirley Temple, Mr Ed - the talking horse and speeches by JFK. At Venice, the film received the Golden Lion for best film, and its visual effects, mise en scène and stunning cinematography have been praised ever since.

'Amphibian Man' is worshipped in the Amazons just as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Both humanoids are of interest to science and more importantly form an attachment to a woman. In The Shape of Water, the romance accompanied to French love songs eventually consumes the narrative. Elisa is crazy about Amphibian man who does not see her imperfection, whereas the perfect Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence in The Creature from the Black Lagoon was horrified at the prospect of the match.

Richard Strickland is antagonistic and cruel towards the creature who is in the care of the military. The employees of the lab are harassed with racist, misogynist and xenophobic comments. Strickland knows how to badger Eliza and her past as a survivor and makes references to 'Samson and Delilah' to humiliate Zelda.

The weakness and strength of The Shape of Water is its narrative evolution through the magic of discovery of this new environment, this time period, and the characters that live during this time. "The Creature"and Elisa and their passion ultimately guide the film towards its end . Romance and dance numbers from Golden age Hollywood movies eclipse the misogyny, homosexuality, racial discrimination , the brutality of the military industrial complex, the space race, class differences, and the vapid consumerism. Brushing this all aside for romance is not unique to film, since there is nothing new about 'Amphibian Man' since The Creature in the Black Lagoon other than a woman who is willing to follow him. However, in such a dark period of history, romantic love is a potent force, and as intoxicating as the dreams of Hollywood.

* Was Guillermo Del Toro's  Shape of Water influenced by the bathroom scene flooded with water in Paddington (2014) featuring Sally Hawkins?

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 12/05/17
Movie Magazine International