Ghost with the Most: His Sad Story

DATELINE:  Haunted and Haunting

ghost story

One of the most original and singular movies we have seen in recent years is A Ghost Story.

Using the trite metaphor of a ghost in a white sheet, the main character gives his perspective as a ghost over time in the cosmos. He’s a ghost because he is tethered to the spot where he must haunt.

Along for the ride are Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as a married couple who live in the haunted ranch until tragedy splits them.

If you ever wondered whether a great performance could come from a white sheet with a couple of slits for black eye holes, you will have your answer in this film. The main ghost haunts you in ways you never expected: which means you can forget about the usual scare tactics. This is a serious commentary on death and the lingering presence of the departed among us.

The film is short and compelling as the ghost suffers mostly from being unable to affect human affairs of the living—and how time passes without any discernable force.

There is some heartbreak in what the ghost must endure for eternity—as well as the people who invade his space, driving him to try to scare them away.

Eerie, lyrical, melancholy, the film by David Lowery likely will “bore” your typical boorish audience who will want the usual chills and clichés associated with haunted house movies. You will not find those here.

Instead, you have a masterful, touching look at the agony of Death, faceless and ignored by most people around him.

If we could put this movie on a scale, it rises to one of the most powerful and affecting works of film art we have seen in a few years. We do not make such statements rashly. Such movie events are rare and deserve your full attention.

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Sam Elliott’s Hero within a Hero

 DATELINE:  Movies for the Older Audience

 Elliot & Ross The Hero    Katherine Ross & Sam Elliot

Film director Brett Haley seems to have cornered the senior citizen/golden-ager demographic with his latest film, The Hero.

It stars aged in wood cowboy actor Sam Elliot as an aged in wood cowboy star.

You couldn’t ask for a better representative of the old-fashioned saddletrap. Elliot relives part of his career with clips from a movie-within-a-movie called The Hero.

Whether he turns out to be the hero of his own life, the pages of Edna St. Vincent Millay may show. We are a sap when it comes to movies that use metaphors from Edna, as one of her bittersweet poems dominates the movie’s climax.

The film is partially based on Elliott and his career. Indeed, his wife Katharine Ross makes a rare film appearance as his ex-wife. She looks marvelous, but director Haley seems to give old stars a rebirth (see his earlier I’ll See You in My Dreams, with Barbara Bain, Mariette Hartley, and Elliott).

And, the plot revolves around his friendship with an old costar from a benighted TV series and his alienated daughter who is a bitter by-product of his past life.

Director Haley scores again with the geriatric performers. Max Gail shows up as the head of a Western fan movie group that honors the lead character with a ‘lifetime achievement’ award that no one has ever heard of. An aging fanbase hangs on for words of wisdom.

Silver-haired and silver-throated Sam Elliott’s Hero cowboy must face the grim diagnosis of his doctor and still maintain his star quality and prideful heroism. This is a masterful job of movie-making—but likely will be wasted on young viewers. It will resonate with generations of long ago.

 

Broken John Garfield in The Breaking Point

DATELINE:  Lost & Forgotten Movies

Garfield

Of the legendary Blacklist victims of old Hollywood, one of the most tragic is actor John Garfield, a star not much thought of nowadays. He died too young, but he would have been even bigger before another decade passed if only he had lived.

He had a career often playing tough guys with a conscience, often in socially redeeming movies. Clifford Odets wrote Golden Boy for him, but he never played it. Elia Kazan was a buddy, but never directed him. Garfield’s last role, before he was forced off the screen in 1951, was The Breaking Point, based on an Ernest Hemingway tale.

As you might expect, Garfield played an independent owner of a small fishing boat that rented out to corrupt businessmen on holiday.

Needing money, Garfield’s character succumbs to dealing in human contraband, bringing illegal aliens into the United States from Mexico. The story almost seems ripped from present-day headlines.

Featuring Juano Hernandez as his partner, a daring cross-color friendship in the middle of the McCarthy era, Garfield’s hero must deal with temptations of corruption. Patricia Neal, in her blonde vamp role, is hard-hearted nemesis, tempting the hero from his wife.

Garfield suffered from a rheumatic heart in the days before medications and procedures—and yet he often played the action hero. Throw in the stresses he suffered personally from the House on Un-American Activities, and you have a shortened life.

The film treads on noir ground, and it plays as cultural realism too. It seems a contradiction coming from the macho-Hemingway mode, but this is a tale of honor with filmmakers who wanted to be relevant as well as entertaining.

Today The Breaking Point stands as a movie way ahead of its time.

 

 

Poirot’s Murder Most Foul, Justice Most Brutal

DATELINE:  Another Remake on the Horizon

best orient express

Best Version of Murder on the Orient Express

The David Suchet version of Murder on the Orient Express is a completely different movie than the glitzy Hollywood all-star version of the 1970s. It is utterly dark. And it is far more cynical than the Christie novel, but is faithful next to the newest star-cartoon vehicle coming out soon with Kenneth Branagh as an unconvincing Poirot.

The teleplay version created a stunning, dank and dark 1930s. Perhaps this was what Agatha Christie intended in far more subtle manners.

From the opening scenes of  Belgian detective  Hercule Poirot being blood-splattered by a suicide to witnessing a stoning of an unfaithful wife in Turkey, the adapted version is far more than an entertaining murder mystery. It is a chilling morality play. It’s a play against films like Twelve Angry Men with a twist.

The Suchet version plays far more on the American nature of the melting pot of train travelers on the Orient Express. As one who defends the justice system, Poirot becomes alarmed, then horrified by the story’s unraveled mystery.

You won’t find the big names of the Albert Finney-Poirot movie. Here you will find Barbara Hershey, Toby Jones, and Hugh Bonneville, if you like name stars, but actors like Brian J. Smith as the victim’s secretary carry a heavy load.

Poirot loses all faith in humanity, and Suchet’s suffering face drives home the horror. In fact, his mustache does not turn off at the ends as much as the earlier shows.

A new version is forthcoming, directed by Kenneth Branagh who plays a flinty version of Poirot, rather unfaithful to the novel. Branagh’s mustache of Poirot is deplorable!

In the protracted series, the Orient Express episode was from the 12th season when the Belgian sleuth seemed bereft of all hope, as if a lifetime of dealing with murder finally sapped him of purpose and optimism. The original tale took its core from the Lindbergh kidnapping case, but became something else in the hands of Dame Agatha.

This compelling little Suchet film is brilliant, but a cold indictment of cruel justice among civilized people. The stark white snow drifts that stall the train on its journey contrast with the dark inner lives of the passengers.

If you want escapist fare, turn to the Hollywood version of Christie’s Orient Express. If you want catharsis, turn to David Suchet’s incisive portrayal of despair.

 

This blog entry is another in a series on Agatha Christie.

Whatever Happened to Agatha?

DATELINE:  1979 Vanessa Redgrave Movie

 agatha:vanessa Redgrave with Hoffman

The biopic movie about the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie remains a fairly puzzling non-explanation as can be found.

In Agatha, the Michael Apted movie is scruptiously produced and has big stars of the day in the key roles:  Timothy Dalton, fresh off James Bond, as Captain Christie, the unloving husband who drives his wife to distraction—and Dustin Hoffman as a no-nonsense American journalist who is hot on the trail of the missing mystery writer.

Vanessa Redgrave’s eyes steal the picture as the writer. Willowy, she is hardly like the real Agatha  who was a well-fed Miss Marple type. However, there are hints to indicate this is the same methodical writer who produced so many classics of fiction. Dame Agatha seems to apply her writing habits to orchestrating a disappearance that is inexplicable.

Mrs. Christie actually left her child for eleven days—and was dealing with her mother’s death at the time of her strange disappearance. Neither of these points is made in the movie.

All in all, the viewer is led to believe this was an insensitive publicity stunt, though the writer may have wanted to punish her husband who is having an affair—and Agatha may be researching how to do in her husband’s paramour.

Hoffman is physically dwarfed by the tall, elegant Redgrave, but he gives a sharp performance. However, he too seems to send mixed messages as to his real motives as Wally Stanton, a deceptive investigator. If the real Stanton looked like Hoffman, Christie would have seen her model for Hercule Poirot, a role Hoffman might have played with more relish.

Ultimately, this fictional theory about the incident of Christie’s weird disappearance is about as unsatisfying as you could give the audience.

Along the way, the performances are meant to distract and impress. Indeed, they do. If Christie had plotted this script, she would have done a better job.

(This entry is one of a series of blogs on Agatha Christie.)

Alfred Hitchcock & Agatha Christie: Never the Twain

DATELINE:  Giants in Separate Corners

   agatha       hitch

Recently the question came to us: Why did the two great forces of mystery and suspense never collaborate?

The answer may be surprising. They were both highly successful, popular and beloved: one in film and one in literature. They were both British, lived and died around the same time, and trod the same grounds of creativity.

A few claim Hitchcock was a misogynist: but his greatest collaborators were women (apart from his wife Alma). He enjoyed the works of Daphne DuMaurier (Rebecca, The Birds) and Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train).

Apart from that fact, both Hitch and Agatha loved to use the setting of trains for their greatest works! Hitchcock could have directed Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, his peak, and most think he did direct it:  but it went to Billy Wilder who used Hitch’s techniques to great effect. Hitchcock could have directed Ten Little Indians in 1945, but chose to avoid the Christie works altogether.

Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that he disliked the genre of the ‘who done it.’  He found it antithetical to his idea of what made for cinematic story-telling. He likened the genre to a crossword puzzle, with revealing clues as the main point of the story. It was bread and butter for Christie, but Hitchcock hated the notion and revealing the killer at the end of the story.

You may think two of Hitch’s intriguing films, at the least, were of the who done it school:  Psycho actually revealed who the killer was, but not in the way you expected it to be in the final reel. Stage Fright was one of Hitch’s least favorite films and he filmed it because he was told it was a Christie story, but turned out to be one of his weakest entries.

In Shadow of a Doubt in 1943, Hitchcock had two minor characters discuss how to murder each other—and referred to Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective of Christie, in less than flattering terms.

It’s almost tragic that Hitchcock did not direct Witness for the Prosecution or Murder on the Orient Express to see how he might have handled the material. Both films are brilliant stories and wonderful films, but the echoes of Hitch are omnipresent.

So, we were left without any collaboration between the two greats of 20th century murder mystery. It’s not much of a mystery, but it is a tale of audience misfortune.

Holmesian Logic Applied to the Las Vegas Shooter

DATELINE: The Third Man or Stephen Paddock?

Welles as Third Man Welles as Harry Lime

A few friends have asked us to apply Sherlockian logic to the Las Vegas shooter case that has baffled so many people—and confounded police.

Authorities find Stephen Paddock a conundrum that defies profiles created by criminologists.

We deduce, first of all, that investigators have been probing deeply beyond obvious facts. The obvious often is deceptive and will mislead investigators.

After all, it was Sherlock Holmes who famously said that you need to eliminate all the impossible factors—and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

We must ask ourselves, what is served by misery, violence, and fear?

Paddock’s actions justify a private revenge, making his secrets all the more imponderable.

So, what can we deduce about the man who had millions of dollars from life as a high roller? He was confident in the risks and his odds of beating them.

Paddock was a fugitive from the law of averages.

This was an angry man who felt disrespected by society, despite his success as a gambler. He felt his status as an older, white male gave him no advantage in terms of respectability. As the sands of life passed by, he was dissatisfied with his lot. He hated time. It was cheating him.

Over the years, he found the ease of beating the system put him above law and society. He won millions of dollars by playing games against those he felt were dolts of society.

Paddock mistrusted other people—and had no need for their assistance. He worked alone in his problem-solving. People were manipulated to serve his own goals.

Paddock was a coward. He could not face the people he loathed—those who found happiness in simple living. He preferred the edginess of risk-taking. Thus, like infamous fictional killer Harry Lime, he took up a high position to commit his crime.

If you recall, Lime looked down on people from the perspective of a Ferris-wheel where his victims looked like “dots.” The film is The Third Man. It was easy to dehumanize those who would die if they are merely squirming dots in a dark night.

The armaments at his crime scene suggest he knew this could be a “glorious” Waterloo for him, but the use of cameras indicate he planned for the possibility to beat the law of averages to kill again.

A Covenant with Alien

DATELINE: Another Prequel

Tea for two Tea for Two?

Ridley Scott is back is one of his better entries in the Alien series. Now in prequel mode, he is midway through the Midway. Alien Covenant is nothing new under the alien sun.

If you haven’t caught on to the old Agatha Christie chestnut, Ten Little Indians, you may be surprised that this latest Ridley film has an ever-diminishing cast.

Two of our favorite performers—Guy Pearce and James Franco—made their exits early, about ten minutes into the film.

That left an uninspiring cast to face-off against two, count’em, two versions of Michael Fassbender as the automaton android/synthetic biolife force—or whatever the hell he is. Regardless, he doubled our fun in this movie.

David is the older model from Prometheus—and the updated robot is Walter, serving on ship Covenant, ten years later. It’s actually only been five years since the first movie prequel, but Fassbender still looks good as the ubiquitous pal of budding aliens, hatching the plot.

All your favorite moments are here again: emerging aliens from the chest, neck, and mouths, of the benighted crew.

If you have a sense of having been there and seen that, Scott still can give you an entertaining countdown to the next prequel. We presume Michael Fassbender will be ageless and sociopathic yet again. We always enjoy an actor making love to himself. How delicious.

 

 

 

 

Nick Ray’s Auspicious We Live By Night

DATELINE:  Trite Rises to Fascinating

They Live

Though it may sound like a sequel to the Twilight vampire stories, the 1949 film noir They Live by Night is important as a marker of the start of director Nicholas Ray’s career.

As one of the new wave of Hollywood figures in the post-war years under Dore Schary, They Live by Night has an impressive pedigree: John Houseman produced it and gave Ray on location camera angles that must have been striking in their day.

Ray could direct both sensitive young men types and older tough guys were equal power. Actors repeated showing up in his films because he gave them memorable roles. His young men ran the gamut from James Dean’s rebel and John Derek’s ghetto thug to Farley Granger in this picture.

No one ever again filmed Granger with such adoring and flattering care. Farley’s two Hitchcock movies, well known Rope and Strangers on a Train, used the actor effectively as stalwart character of moral duplicity, not innocent victim of fate.

Ray directed his life with more elan in later years—and his films remained archetypal, but less powerful.

Cathy O’Donnell and Granger are bland, sweet young people crushed by the societal forces that put them into a crime world.

The film is less interesting as a story (adapted by Ray himself) and less compelling than his next films, Bogart’s two classics (In a Lonely Place, Knock on Any Door).

If there is another reason to watch, it is familiar faced, ugly actor Jay C. Flippen, whose roles as menacing villain and paternal pal dominated the 1950s.

flippenJay C. Flippen

Frantz: Elegiac Film Experience

DATELINE:  Rare Gem

frantz

Sensitive, intelligent, cultured films like Frantz manage to be amazing discoveries for those who find such an artistic gem. It’s beautiful, with hints of classical sounds from Rimsky-Korsakoff to Mahler. It is in both German and French, with English subtitles.

It’s black and white, with occasional bursts of faint pastel.

That said, the audience is down to a handful of discriminating aficionados of movie-making.

This film manages to be fascinating in its plot and full of surprises. In 1919 after the war, a lovely German woman discovers a Frenchman leaving flowers on the grave of her dead fiancé. It is a mystery that never fully unravels until the turn of events is a reversal of fortunes.

The story is one of serene melancholy, elegiac in its mourning and works for anyone who loses a soldier to war.

A Frenchman in Germany after World War I encounters cultural hostility—and when the German girl goes to Paris, the reverse holds true. In the beginning, slowly the dead soldier’s parents appreciate the Frenchman who claims to be a friend to their son, meeting him in Paris before the war where they both shared an interest in the violin.

You may rightfully be suspicious of what is behind the obvious facts. You might also be quite wrong when you jump to conclusions. The dead soldier story can be traced back to a 1932 film made by Ernst Lubitsch called Broken Lullaby.

Pierre Niney is so peculiar as Adrien, the French ami of Frantz, that you may find his performance is, in itself, a red herring—and Paula Beer is so enchanting as the dead man’s heartbroken fiancee that the audience must feel her tragedy.

Yet, it is director Francois Ozon who is the mastermind behind the pieces so beautifully woven together—music, images, emotions.

You might encounter such a film experience rarely nowadays. Frantz is a haunting masterpiece.

Fences: Trite Metaphor Aside

DATELINE:  Denzel Directs

denzel & viola

Viola Davis & Denzel Washington: Superb Performances

Denzel Washington’s double duty in the movie version of August Wilson’s play Fences pays overtime.

Playing against heroic type, he comes across in the early scenes as an affable trash collector named Troy Maxson, living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. His demeanor seemingly hides a disappointed life, as his great talent as a baseball player was over before desegregation of the major baseball leagues.

As a result, he is deeply bitter that his life did not conjoin with the times. Though he seems to take the losses in life well, with easy banter with his wife, brilliant Viola Davis, we begin to see there is far more below the surface.

His family bristles under his demand for respect, compensating for what he feels is missing as his due from society.

He has spent time in prison and has sons by different women, though his younger son with Rose (Viola Davis) also wants to play football in college, which he irrationally refuses to allow.

His friend Bono (Stephen Henderson) witnesses the behavior helpless, until he too gives up on the missing humanity in his friend.

Under Washington’s direction, the film seems bigger, but he does it with a narrow play-like focus to reveal what a heel, misunderstood, Troy truly is.

When, ultimately. he betrays his long-suffering wife, Viola Davis is able to provide a powerhouse performance.

Perhaps he is a victim of harsh social conditions, especially racism in baseball, but what he demands of his family may be cause for true alienation, though they bear with him.

Thoughtful, well-acted films are usually from the 1950s when socially-conscious dramas were common. This film is set back then and matches the quality of old-fashioned movie-making.

Environmental Hottie: Leo DiCaprio

DATELINE:  Floodgates are Now Open

With flooding and natural disasters occurring now three and four times a year instead of once per century, we thought it was time to take a look at it Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary called Before the Flood.

We are already way ahead of you. We also laughed at the notion that DiCaprio, a semi-self-educated actor, is an expert in global warming. Yet, because of his fame and celebrity, the United Nations made him a special Messenger of Peace on the issue.

AT the UN, they listened to his speech with more rapt interest than at global warming scoffer Donald Trump.

DiCaprio begins his documentary with a litany of FOXNews expert ridiculing him for his so-called expertise. So we give him credit for recognizing that one. However, he follows it by a notorious plug for his movie The Revenant.

What can you expect from a child whose parents put Hieronymous Bosch’s notorious painting of hell  and paradise over his crib?

DiCaprio is no newcomer to the issue of climate change. He goes back to video clips over 20 years ago in which he meets with Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and shows his interest in the environment, using his fame as a passport to open doors.

With Irma and Harvey and Maria and earthquakes, DiCaprio is beginning to look like a prophet in the wilderness.  He says the real profits are from billionaires with fronting organizations like the fake news-media and politicians who deny global warming. Yep, that’s called biting irony. Fake media cuts two ways.

The entire term “global warming” is a misnomer. Actually, it is not warming; it is extremes in the weather.  And there’s no denying we have that lately in Irma, Harvey, or Maria.

The question is whether it’s caused by man made fossil fuel, or by forces of the universe yet unknown. Blame it on ancient aliens.

With the concept of expertise getting the short shrift in American culture for the past half century, it’s not surprising that experts are denigrated. It’s not popular to be one of the elite intelligentsia in a democracy of boors.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a scientist, an artist, or just an ordinary PhD.

You will be ridiculed for being different.

In 21st century America, you are persona non-grata. You might as well go out into the wilderness and start crying.

The people for whom this documentary is meant to educate have already Hit the remote button to shut off the screen.

In that sense, this is all a waste of time.

Silver Skies: Old Stars Return 

DATELINE: Yesteryear

George Hamilton

Hamilton with director Rodriguez
 

If you want an opportunity to see a bunch of your favorite 1960 stars, Silver Skies is the movie for you. It’s the tale of our group of elderly people living in an apartment complex for a come face-to-face with eviction when their homes are converted to condos.

 
Looking marvelous, George Hamilton does not look anywhere near his age, but the biting irony of this character: he is the only one of the residents with Alzheimer’s. Former mobster actor, Alex Rocco has turned into a softer grandfather figure.
The women stars include Barbara Bain, formerly of Mission impossible. There is Valerie Perrine, like Hamilton, extremely youthful still. And, in a major role, Marietta Hartley, best known for her TV commercials with James Garner.

Even Dick Van Patten shows up for a cameo.

Though this film is billed as a family drama, that is entirely deceptive from writer director Rosemary Rodriguez. The film is quite dark and bleak at times, dealing with elderly abuse and sexual issues among senior citizens.

The old residents and stars try to organize to fight back against greedy forces that have no respect for old age. For fans, this may be a glorious last chance to see those old familiar faces at again in the limelight. There’s no professional like an old professional.

Set in Sherman Oaks, California, where many former Hollywood types reside, the characters are all basically small time workers in the movie industry. It doesn’t really save them from the ravages of old age.
The film is ultimately done in by a saccharine ending under the credits. It is interesting to see a film entirely directed to the senior audience.

Endeavour S4 Finale

DATELINE:  PBS Masterpiece

Shaun

 

Each season of Endeavour, the continuing prequel saga of Detective Morse, now in reverse order, has one superb episode that towers over the other excellent mysteries. The finale of S4 is top-drawer.

Endeavour is a prequel, of course, taking John Thaw’s original Morse back to the 1960s when he was a young investigator. The latest called “Harvest” starts with a 1962 murder that he opens as a cold case in 1967.

As usual, Roger Allam and Anton Lesser are around as Morse’s supportive superior officers.

In many ways this is the most modern episode so far: it deals with the red herring of an atomic energy plant emitting radiation. The tie to the murder of an Oxford botanist muddies the waters in a small town near the nuclear plant. Cleverly planted clues abound.

As a tarot card relates during the investigation, Endeavour (Shaun Evans) is facing “death,” in some form. He scoffs as that is his line of work, and the other insight is that he is unlucky in love. Yes, we’ve seen plenty of that over the four seasons.

This one hinges on autumnal equinox, which Morse notes is a scientific time, though cultists and local Stonehenge followers seem particularly in a state of high anxiety.

Entwined with the case, we have Morse’s complicated relationship with his superior’s daughter, which seemingly comes to a head. Alas, more information must await S5, which promises more episodes as this cast and storyline sharpens. We await more murders.

No Crying Jag for Crying Game

 DATELINE:  Sexual Politics in the IRA

 jaye

 

Twenty-five years ago, The Crying Game was nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture and co-star Jaye Davidson was a nominee for supporting star. Davidson stayed in movies a few more years before deciding to drop out, disliking the attention.

Director Neil Jordan made his reputation with the movie and worked deliberately since, with Interview with the Vampire standing out from his oeuvre.

The Crying Game uses the terrorism of the Irish Republic Army as a backdrop for sexual politics.

The impressive cast is so young and fresh: Forrest Whitaker as a British soldier, Stephen Rea as his abductor, Miranda Richardson as a firebrand radical, with Jim Broadbent—and, of course, Jaye Davidson as the striking main squeeze of Forrest Whitaker.

The film is two distinct halves: the capture of the victim and his ordeal, and Rea’s escape to England to find Whitaker’s paramour (at the request of the prisoner).

Twists of the plot and turns of the body politic make for Jordan’s unusual take on how radical agendas may be dwarfed by the personal foibles of the participants.

If someone spoiled the story-line for you, curses on them. You need to see this to figure it out—and the clues are omnipresent from the easy friendship between Rea and Whittaker, to the odd Metro bar where Dil sings after daywork as a hairdresser.

Where Rea’s IRA escapee seems too easily manipulated by the women around him, the women are forceful and willing to take charge.

Jordan throws pop music handily into the plot—from Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” to the ultimate, “Stand by Your Man,” sung by Tammy Wynette. There is subtext here, mostly found in the song of the movie title, lip-synched by Davidson effectively in one scene.

Watching the film, you will know why it was all the rage a generation ago—and remains topical and effective today.