Tag Archives: 4.0 Star Movies

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies (2014)

losthonour

I have somewhat mixed feelings about tabloids. While I like magazines such as the Weekly World News with such truths in their headlines as ‘Bigfoot stole my baby!’ and ‘Al Qaeda Vampires Run Amok in Iraq,’ I loathe these kinds of brainless entertainments’ shameless exploitation of tragedies such as Robin Williams’ suicide and the Sandy Hook Massacre. And I can fully see how such media can run rampant and derail someone’s life. I honestly believe the media is a sizable part of what drives many actors on downward spirals. And then there’s Christopher Jefferies. What didn’t break him made him stronger, and this film tells his infuriating and enlightening story.

Christopher (Jason Watkins) is a man of whom I’m convinced of two things, based on this movie #1) that he was gay, and #2) that he was somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, probably mild Asperger’s. Alternately blunt, socially inappropriate, and downright rude, Chris lived a somewhat hermetic existence and was the landlord of a couple of flats in the small English village of Failand. Watkins plays him in a thoroughly believable and compelling manner, every infinitesimal tic and twitch duly perfected. Christopher is a retired schoolteacher and anti-social lone wolf who finds himself in the middle of a police investigation when one of his tenants, Joanna Yeates (Carla Turner) is found murdered outside his place.

Lost_Honour_of_Christopher_Jefferies

Suddenly, everything about Christopher seems suspect- his ‘to catch a predator’ wardrobe, his odd inflection and apparent lack of empathy, even the fact that he is an older man living on his own, and such men must, by extension, be pervs. Of course, correcting the cops’ grammar during questioning doesn’t help Jefferies look like an innocent man, and with no further ado, the police make this assumption: odd old man + suspicious circumstances= killer. They hardly have anything on him that isn’t circumstantial, but suddenly the entire country is in an uproar over this man’s presumed guilt. The thing is, Jefferies didn’t do it, and his lawyer, Paul Okebu (Shaun Parkes) is determined to bring his innocence to light.

Honestly, this movie didn’t end nearly as tragically as I thought it would. I knew almost nothing going in, and I was tense throughout the film, expecting something terrible to happen not only to Yeates, but to Jefferies too (being unfamiliar with the case as I was.) However I was immediately sucked in by the lead character and performance. If the police understood Autism-like behavior more, they would see that this man was not a monster, just a harmless oddball. Watkins does an amazing job of playing someone who is ‘on the spectrum’ who just happens to be gay without reducing his character to a gay or aspie caricature. Some people might find this story slow, but if you like British dramas and the feeling of heightened realism they create, you’re sure to like this film.

Note- Frankly, I’m a little confused because this film is described on Imdb as a ‘mini-series,’ but the version I saw on Netflix Streaming was a movie just under two hours, and distributed by Universal. If I missed some footage of the original cut, I would definitely like to see the whole thing straight through. Any help on this would be much appreciated, and I hope you get a chance to see this film; it’s fascinating. For me, British cinema holds a kind of appeal that American movies just don’t, and I would love to discuss the themes of this obscure gem with anyone who wishes to partake.losthonourof

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

rabbit-proof-fence-movie-poster-2002-1020232391

Most children can’t refrain from doing some whining and complaining on their weekly excursion to Wal-Mart. So when you see these little troopers trekking across the country, you can’t help but be uplifted a little. And have things placed in some serious perspective.

In Australia in the year of 1931, white settlers are extremely concerned that the half-caste aboriginal children of the bush will procreate with partners of the darker persuasion and stamp out sacred whiteness from peoples’ lineage. So concerned are they that they recruit an expert at white bigotry by the name of A.O. Neville (Kenneth Branagh) to help send mixed race children to grim work camps. Their intention is to ensure the children will learn to walk the walk, talk the talk, and worship the higher power of white Christians, and, God willing, pair up with white mates, gradually easing the aborigine lineage out of their family tree. Because everybody knows that the more whiteness you put in someone’s genealogy, the whiter the descendants will look. And white is might, apparently. But what these people didn’t count on intrepid youngsters Molly, Gracie, and Daisy.

Molly (Evelyn Sampi) is the oldest of three aborigine girls, and she leads her younger sisters Gracie (Laura Monoghan) and Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) on an epic escape from the camp in which they’ve been placed. Using the tracking techniques of their ancestors, the girls manage to evade detection for days while attempting to follow the ‘rabbit-proof fence’ to freedom, and ultimately to their much-beloved home and family. Unfortunately, Neville has other ideas, and his determination combined with the girl’s gumption leads to a cross-country chase that will test all four people’s willpower. Because Molly and her sisters aren’t just three little girls on the lam anymore- they’ve captured the hearts and attention of the disfranchised aborigines wheedling away their days in labor camps. They stand for something- and that’s the one thing Neville won’t allow.

Although the film version of the real story of Molly Craig and the book that ensued is probably a rather sugarcoated account of the horrors the Craig girls endured and their harrowing escape from captivity, it still captures the imagination and sympathy of viewers with very little understanding of these events. I personally knew nothing about the racial issues between the white settlers and the natives in Australia, although I know that the white man has tended to conquer wherever hew saw an opportunity to do so, from the Native Americans, to Africa, to even this. The filmmaker, Philip Noyce, chose a trio of good little actresses and although their inexperience sometimes shows they manage to carry the film for the most part on their small shoulders.

rabbitproof

Kenneth Branagh is despicable without being extravagantly and exaggeratedly evil, and the horrors of the camp where Aborigines are trained as domestic servants and have their culture systematically stamped out are shown with harrowing restraint. I think Neville (or ‘Devil,’ as the native children not-so-charitably call him) believes he is doing the right thing by attempting to ensure the preservation of the white race; it’s just that what he sees as right is in reality so very, very wrong. His character reminds me of a quote I once heard (I don’t remember who it’s attributed to, though,) that ‘every villain is a hero in his own mind.’ I’m sure Neville thinks he’s just dandy and righteous with the Lord and doing right by his countrymen, but it just so happens he’s an asshole- a big one.

The set-up of Rabbit-Proof Fence is kind of standard, not particularity innovative or new for the genre of dark emotionally charged biopics, but there are moments of genuine heartbreak and legitimate darkness. In one harrowing scene, a Aborigine maid hides the runaways in her bed because she believes if they’re in the room, it will prevent her white boss from raping her. It is scenes like these when you get a glimpse of how screwed up these events in history are. It also proves that you can leave some things to the imagination (where they are often just as scary, if not even scarier) when you’re making a movie about bleak historical events. At times I thought this movie could have benefited from showing a bit more of it’s horrific content; it’s not that I get jazzed up by child abuse and racism, I don’t; it’s just that there could have been a little more impact if it hadn’t stayed within the confines of the PG-13 rating. But in a way, they showed enough- enough to give you the idea of what Australian Aborigines went through during this time, the aftereffects of which their still grappling with today.

While Rabbit-Proof Fence is a meditation on a tumultuous time in history, it’s not a bore- slim at just over 90 minutes and compelling for it’s entire runtime, it’s probably a more arresting experience if you know nothing about the film’s social and political events beforehand. I suspect if you know a lot about the period the movie describes, it’ll seem a little lightweight and unsubstantial. It’s one of those movies that, while not hugely original, does hold the viewer’s investment and sympathy throughout and achieves the single greatest thing a film can achieve- it tells a great story. My guess is that if you like these kind of heart wrenching biopics, you, as I did, will be rooting for the girls all the way; and you, too, will have shed a tear by the closing credits.

rabbit1.tif

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

howl

    -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

Witches, wizards, magic, and wondrous happenings. Hayao Miyazaki has done it again. It took me a couple of viewings to really grasp the wonderful themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book for children by Diana Wynne Jones. I fancied it ‘confusing’ and ‘convoluted,’ and was all set to write a skeptical review when I saw it again,  open-minded and unpreoccupied. It was like a whole different experience. So if you’ve seen this movie and found it slightly underwhelming or overhyped, I urge you to watch it again. It’s a bit more complex than Miyazaki’s other movies. But that’s not in of itself a bad thing.

The heart of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in the character of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer,) a shy young woman who works at a hat shop. Sophie starts out as a timid, self-effacing Mary Sue,  but when the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) transforms her into an elderly woman Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) must grow some cajones and learn to look after herself; with a little help from a brooding and magnificently eccentric wizard named Howl (Christian Bale.) The Witch of the Waste resents Howl because he spurned her affections as a fickle young sorcerer, and a witch who holds high position in political power (Blythe Danner) wants to recruit him to use his abilities in a long, bloody civil war.

But Howl’s real concern lies in self interest; namely, recovering his heart, which was stolen from him as a boy. Can Sophie help Howl, even trapped in her hunched, geriatric form? Along their adventures, Howl and Sophie meet many interesting characters, including an animate scarecrow with the head of a turnip, The Witch of the Waste’s malevolent, amorphous henchmen, and a deeply odd but adorable little dog who makes a sound vaguely akin to a asthmatic rodent. Not least of all, the viewer is introduced to Howl’s titular ‘moving castle,’ which, like The Overlook in The Shining, really stands as a  character in it’s own right.

howls moving

The castle, a massive Hodge-podge of gears and piles of scrap metal, is kept fully functional by Calcifer (Billy Crystal,) a wise-cracking fire demon, and between Calcifer, Sophie, Howl, and the boy apprentice of magic, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), they make sort of an odd little family. It’s going to take loyalty, friendship, magic, and faith in each others abilities to survive this crazy war and Howl’s equally crazy personal demons. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a colorful steampunk world which resembles early 20th-Century Britain, but includes creatures and spells the likes of which no person of our world has ever encountered. If you know Miyazaki, you know that every film of his is an intensely visual experience, and besides Billy Crystal (who’s not as funny as he thinks he is,) all the English dub actors are fine in their respective roles.

Sophie, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier effort Spirited Away,  grows incredibly as a character throughout the film, but rather than developing from  entitlement to self-possession and maturity, she becomes much more assertive and builds her self-esteem exponentially. Sophie is a good role model for young girls, because although she starts out very Mary Sue-ish and ineffectual, she gradually becomes a more powerful character and is certainly not the average damsel in distress. While Sophie develops as a person throughout, Howl stays much the same, existing as both a powerful wizard and an incurable dandy, throwing a temper tantrum when Sophie mixed up his hair dyes and made him tint his hair the wrong color.

The characters in this are quite magical, so it would be a shame for anyone with a taste for the colorful and imaginative to miss it. Although I like Spirited Away marginally better, and admire My Neighbor Totoro for it’s boisterous innocence, Howl’s Moving Castle comes as a close third, and should be viewed even by people without the most rudimentary understanding or experience with anime.

howls

Changeling (2008)

changeling-poster

Not to be confused with the 1980 George C. Scott haunted house thriller The Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s wrenching drama belongs in the category of ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Christine Collins (wonderfully portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is a fairly ordinary woman and devoted single mother bringing up a little boy named Walter (Gattlin Griffith) in the roaring 20’s. Of course, in that era single motherhood  wasn’t exactly looked up to, so Christine suffers some adversity from people who think she’s an unfit mom and that little Walter needs a father, but she pretty much keeps on keeping on until her son vanishes from their Los Angeles home.

Hours turn to days turnmonths, and Christine’s fear that she’ll never see her son again turns to abject terror and finally, despair. Then, a miracle (?), a boy matching Walter’s description turns up in another state and is handed over to Christine. But this boy is not her son. The LAPD desperately try to convince her that yes, this doppelganger is Walter, and she will adjust to his somewhat changed manner and appearance; but Christine knows better. And she finds an in fiery minister Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), who is convinced that the Los Angeles Police Department is a corrupt organisation with a multitude of dirty secrets, But what are they hiding from Christine?

You can pretty much count on a film directed by Clint Eastwood to be good, and this movie is no exception. Changeling explores the extent of familial love between mother and son, in the midst of an epic instance of gaslighting of a confused but strong-willed woman. Christine becomes a stronger and stronger character throughout the film, but to the price of her innocence. Angelina Jolie does a great  job here, but I was also surprised by Jason Butler Harner’s inspired performance. I won’t tell you what Harner’s role in this story is for fear of spoiling it, but I will say he has a David Tennant-like flair for eccentricity and villainy (think Jessica Jones,) and proves that incorporating a spark of madness while flirting with being over-the-top is not necessarily a bad thing.

For most of it’s duration, Changeling is as immersive as a good page-turner. It only falters and seems a bit overlong in the last thirty minutes, when it wanders into standard courtroom drama territory. Regardless, it is surprisingly emotionally arresting and tragic, especially considering the lukewarm reviews it received.

    Changeling plays on the human fear of not being believed, of being thought crazy and incompetent. When the corrupt cops lock Christine in a mental institution for not heeding their words and keeping her mouth shut, a hospitalized prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold (Amy Ryan) tells Christine that women are naturally assumed to be a bit insane, irrational and unstable, and what’s to keep them from taking anything you say as a sign of unreliability and keeping you there forever? That’s the catch-22 Christine finds herself in- if she plays it safe and insists she’s well, the doctors will try to draw tell-tale signs of insanity out of her. If she stands by her story, she’s fucked. If she goes either way, she’s fucked. Unless she can be stronger than she’s ever been in her life and find a way to fight the corruption ensnaring her.

changeling14

Monster (2003)

monster-movie-poster-2003-1020189471

Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) always knew she’d be famous for something. Who knew that her claim to fame would be as America’s first female serial killer? Life pisses all over Aileen, she’s a sexual abuse victim from a crappy home and a crappy family who turns tricks as a cheap roadside whore for a living. About as white trash as it is possible to get, Wuornos is played by Theron with prosthetic teeth and excess flab in a Academy Award-winning performance born of pure grit.

Monster is a rather eerie and disturbing movie that forces you to sympathize to some extent with a beastly human being with little to no compassion for her victims. Monsters are made, not born. I really believe that 99.9% percent of the time, that’s the case. A woman of limited resources, low intelligence, and poor self-control, Aileen’s first murder is self-defense; shooting a sexually abusive john who tries to rape her. When she gets a taste of that power, though, she embraces the life of a killer.

Aileen has a girlfriend named Selby (Christina Ricci,) a pixyish young lesbian with a crooked smile and an easy way about her. Maybe Aileen is gay. Or maybe she’s just sick of men treating her like shit. Aileen’s only friend is Thomas (Bruce Dern,) a homeless war vet who offers her half a sandwich and doesn’t ask anything in return. This is Aileen’s life. It’s not pretty, but that doesn’t mean it’s a side of America that doesn’t exist. Selby wants to be treated like a princess, and Aileen offers that in the form of murdered johns’ money. Selby doesn’t know, or pretends not to know, about Aileen’s murderous nighttime habits. Aileen wants to quit the life, but every opportunity seems to lead to a dead end for this dim, volatile nut bag of a woman.

monster_blu-ray5

The first thirty minutes or so are oddly touching, a mix of hopeful and even unexpectedly sweet emotions that make the film’s plunge into the abyss of murder and misery all the more jarring. We get to see the halting baby steps in a love affair, one that is skewed but still real and heartwrenching.Theron looks like shit but this lends her some credibility as an ‘ordinary,’ ‘blue-collar’ person. She looks like one of those dodgy types lurking outside of Wal-Mart with a cigarette and a tattoo, and she sells it, too. Christina Ricci also impresses with a deft mix of vulnerability and manipulation. In the end, we don’t know which one is a more fucked-up or unlikable person; and yet we can’t dismiss them entirely. We go on a trip into utter desolation and horror with them, and we cannot hate them as much as we want to; and probably should, their descent into hell seems all too plausible.

As Aileen wreaks destruction on those around her, I admired the film’s refusal to justify or condemn, Aileen’s such a sad little creature that her descent into psychopathy doesn’t shock us as much as it probably should. This is the kind of woman we ignore. This is the kind of woman we avert her eyes from. This is the kind of woman we don’t notice until she turns up on headlines all over the country and we shake our heads in disgust and say, there are some crazy people in this world. We can’t understand Aileen unless we’ve been in her situation, but at the same time, we can’t justify her actions, especially her murder of the particularly unfortunate final victim (Scott Wilson.) This is the kind of movie you view as an outsider, and then you thank God you’re just that.

This movie doesn’t paint a pretty picture of men, women, or society in general, it attempts less to draw a social or moral conclusion and more just to paint a character portrait of some very screwed up people; a woman ugly inside and out, and her manipulative enabler/lover. When Aileen tries to get a job, we see a woman of low morality and intelligence getting by the best way she can. You can’t spin crap into gold, but at the same time, you see a little of the girl who couldn’t do anything right in this broken woman. She wanted to be a star. She got her name out to the press in the end, but not in the way she expected. As Aileen herself says, Life’s funny. Basically, if you like dark psychological character studies starring characters with severe mental illnesses/ personality disorders, this is the movie for you. If you don’t like the idea of a disturbing movie about a sexually abused hooker waxing her johns, you’ve been warned. There’s plenty of crazy to go around here though, for fans of intense character-driven storytelling and abnormal psychology.

Monster-2003-film-images-5ab7e075-2256-4b7a-a262-7f6492957cf

Alien (1979)

Alien-1979-poster

Seven intergalactic travelers. One fucked-up alien antagonist. Apart, they don’t stand a chance. Together, they’re still pretty much screwed, unless the intrepid Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) can find a way out.

    Alien is a hugely influential, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller which makes fantastic use of practical FX. Director Ridley Scott (who would later helm one of the other all-time sci-fi greats, Blade Runner) creates a irrepressible heroine in Ripley, who exudes coolness and confidence but has enough of a soft spot to make a mad dash to save the cat when shit goes down. She also makes a mean science fiction-horror ‘final girl.’

Ellen wasn’t always in a position where she was forced to be a hero. A passenger on the spaceship Nostromo, her job is is help the crew mine ore on friendly planets. However, when Kane (John Hurt) crawls into some kind of hatchery on a downed ship and gets an unidentified creature glued to his face, his unwise and ultimately fatal misstep gets the rest of the crew into a whole lot of trouble. Stalked by an alien of superior intelligence and an aptitude for hunting prey, the film’s desperate band of characters must overcome their differences and their power struggles and attempt to survive an overwhelmingly dangerous entity. On top of that, one of the passengers is hiding a secret- one that could potentially get them all killed.

alien

People get the impression from the much talked-about and riffed-on ‘chest-burster scene’ that Alien is a big gorefest, but they would be not entirely accurate to assume this. In fact, Alien is less a schlocky splatter fest and more an atmosphere-filled, even subtle thriller which is also a bit of a slow burn. People are picked off one by one and try to pull together and overcome helpless terror in a pretty hopeless situation. Moreover, the Nostromo is not a overly friendly place for women passengers to begin with; there are only two female passengers among a group of men with big mouths and big egos. In a way, Alien can be seen as a feminist allegory; it is only when Ripley decides to shed her anxieties and her clothes, believing the creature to be dead, that it viciously tries to bring her in particular down.

Ripley is a strong protagonist in (a she doesn’t scream and fret a lot like many heroines. (b she doesn’t need a man to save her, (c she doesn’t amble around clad like a prostitute while strangling men with her legs/inadvertently turning on the  fanboys who watch and (d she doesn’t have an unnecessary and poorly defined love interest. She does have one gratuitous pantie shot to please the gents who are watching but she mostly doesn’t fall into any of the traps of science fiction heroines. Although Weaver is very good, it should also be mentioned that all the actors do an outstanding job in their respective roles.

The design of the monsters is very good, the film ratchets up the suspense masterfully as the body count makes a steady rise, and Ridley Scott manages to keep this tale grounded in reality. Sure, the spaceship setting and face-hugging creatures are fantastical, but the ongoing barrage of fear and squishy sound effects- and the reactions of the characters- feel all too real. Alien is an effective scare flick that created an innovative world for the spin-offs and sequels to follow and leaves you feeling satisfied at the end. Tune in to The Cinematic Emporium for my follow-up review of the film’s sequel, Aliens, coming soon.

alienfacehugger

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

johnny-got-his-gun-movie-poster-1971-1020464071

Johnny Got His Gun is a cinematic rarity- a motion picture featuring a perfectly likable and sympathetic protagonist who you desperately hope will die by the film’s conclusion. There are some fates worse than death, the filmmaker reminds us. Although novelist/screenwriter/first-time director Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 classic is bound to be controversial for it’s strong pro-euthanasia and equally fierce anti-war statements, it is as important a movie as it was when it first came out over forty years ago, even partially due to the fact that it is willing to make you squirm and think about time-worn issues of patriotism, God, and man’s duty to himself Vs. to his country, In other words, not a light watch. But worth seeing and discussing by serious film goers.

Joe (Timothy Bottoms) is a good looking, All-American kid with his entire life ahead of him. That is, until he fights in the trenches of the first world war and gets mangled beyond all recognition by a grenade attack. An undetermined amount of time later, Joe is trapped in a kind of living death; a blind, deaf, horribly disfigured quadruple amputee imprisoned in his own head. With absolutely nothing to do set out on a steel table like a slab of meet and  confined to a sterile hospital, Joe drifts in and out of a drug-fueled haze and dreams of his past life; his parents (Marsha Hunt and Jason Robards,) his high school sweetheart (Kathy Fields) and his own expansive helplessness and misery.

Johnny Got His Gun is Trumbo’s directorial debut, based on his novel by the same name, and it is notable for trying to get into the main character’s head through dreams, hallucinations, and memories. In this way, it is as interesting and immersive as a novel. Timothy Bottoms plays the doomed soldier, and although I don’t necessarily think he was the best man for the job (he seems to flounder at times in an exceedingly difficult role,) he has a innocent quality that lends credibility to his character. The message is sort pf obvious and states itself in a somewhat didactic way, there’s a not a huge amount of subtlety to a script that all but outright tells you that ‘war is hell’ in a dark and thoroughly depressing manner. That said, the movie has not lost it’s power since it’s release in 1971 and it’s intelligent stylistic choices and primal sense of horror (the horror of being trapped within yourself. unable to see, hear, or communicate and treated by your doctors as brain-dead) still rings true.

Johnny Got His Gun will make you think about a state between life and death where suddenly, being alive isn’t worth the trouble anymore. We see a decent, clean-cut, likable kid in a harrowing situation that God willing, none of us will have to face, and we see the bullshit of war and the hypocrisy of  warmongers and politicians who send kids in to die for a conflict most of them don’t fully understand. In one of the film’s earlier sequences, Joe and his girlfriend Kareen share a sweet moment while a enlistment officer talks a line of bunk about the glory of war.

The scene of the couple’s genuinely sweet moment juxtaposed against the officer’s never ending speel is particularly memorable. For a boy going to war, what is gained? More importantly, what is lost? Potent, raw, and sometimes downright eerie, this movie is worth watching when considering both the Euthanasia and wartime debate. If I myself was in Joe’s position, there’s no question about it. I’d want to be put out of my misery as quickly as possible.  Living for the sake of living, despite horrible quality of life, just isn’t worth it. This isn’t a rousing movie with lots of hyper kinetic battle scenes. It’s a quiet, serious kind of film, and should be viewed as such. It is also one of the most effective ant-war films I’ve ever seen.

JOHNNYGOTHISGUN1