1922

1922

Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella 1922 (2017, directed by Zak Hilditch) is a tale of murder, guilt, and retribution.

Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) and his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) live with their 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) in Hemingford Home, Nebraska on their farm, but it’s not a happy home. Arlette has never taken to the farming life and is unhappy, wanting to sell off the 100 acres she received from her father and move to Omaha, where she has dreams of opening a dress shop. Wilf, on the other hand, scorns city life, and feels that a man has two things that gives his life meaning: his land and his son. He covets his wife’s 100 acres, and her desire to sell, divorce him and abscond to the city with Henry puts dark thoughts into his head. He’s come to hate his wife, and works to turn Henry against against her, mostly by suggesting that he’d never see his girl, Shannon (Kaitlyn Bernard) again.

His poisonous whisperings into his son’s ear convinces the boy to help him put an end to Arlette. One night Wilf lies to his wife and tells her he’s changed his mind; she should sell her land and they’d all move to the city. A jubilant Arlette celebrates by drinking, and while she sleeps off the alcohol, they do the deed. Henry holds a canvas bag over her head while Wilf attempts to cut her throat with a knife, but he botches it and it’s far from clean and quick. After a bloody struggle, they dump her body into the empty well behind the house and spend the rest of the night cleaning up the blood.

Wilf promised his son that once Arlette was gone, they could go on and live the life they wanted, but naturally this was not to be. In horrific Stephen King fashion, a tragic series of events unfold leading to Wilf losing everything he holds dear.

Thomas Jane is an actor I’m not familiar with, but he’s a revelation in this movie. His subtle and understated portrayal of the laconic, intense Wilford James was impressive, as was the rest of the supporting cast. The real horror is the psychological implications of murder, but there’s just enough guts and supernatural gore to give you the willies and remind you you’re watching vintage King.

I first came across 1922 in King’s book of novellas, Full Dark No Stars, a couple of years ago, and can’t sing its praises enough. I’ve always felt King is strongest with short fiction, and 1922 is a great example of what he can do with the limits of the short form. This film version perfectly captures the dark heart of the story, of a man turning to evil to hold onto his version of heaven, only to find hell instead.

 

 

 

Dracula Untold

draculauntold

This movie has been languishing on my DVR for quite a while, so I finally grabbed some popcorn and settled in.

I’m always interested in new interpretations of the Dracula myth. I’ve read the book a few times, and enjoyed the 1992 movie “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”. This one plays on the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince who lived in the fifteenth century, known for his cruelty and impaling of enemies.

In Dracula Untold (2014, directed by Gary Shore), Vlad (Luke Evans) is a loving husband and father, who will do anything to protect his people. Taken hostage by the Turks as a child to ensure his father’s loyalty to the Sultan, Vlad now rules his kingdom and pays tribute to the Turks to keep the peace. On a scouting trip, he and his men encounter a terrifying supernatural creature in a cave atop Broken Tooth Mountain. Vlad learns that centuries before, a man had made a terrible bargain with a demon; he got the demon’s powers but became stuck in that cave forever until someone else comes along to take up the burden.

During an Easter celebration, the Turks barge in and demand 1,000 boys for their armies. They also demand Vlad’s young son (Art Parkinson) as a hostage, just as he had been held captive years before. At first, he feels compelled to acquiesce, but at the last moment changes his mind and slaughters the Turks sent to bring his boy back. Now he’s in big trouble and needs a miracle to save his people.

He races toward Broken Tooth Mountain to face the demon-like creature he had encountered earlier–he wants his powers, and sees it as the only way to defeat the Turks. He faces the vampire (Charles Dance) and agrees to his deal: he’ll get the powers, and if he refrains from drinking human blood for three days, he’ll go back to normal. If not, then he’ll be a monster for eternity, and agrees to help the present vampire get revenge on the demon who tricked him into his present state.

Simple enough, right? Right. It’s fun watching Vlad take on the entire Turkish army by himself (with his millions of bats), but you just know things are going to go terribly wrong. He’s pretty much useless by day, his own people start to distrust and fear him, the thirst for human blood becomes unbearable, and personal tragedy isn’t far behind.

I thought this was an entertaining movie for what it was, dark and sweeping and wrenching, and the ending promises a sequel at some point (remember the bargain with the original vampire?). I’d go see it.

dracula untold montage

Lady Macbeth

lady macbeth

Lady Macbeth (2017, directed by William Oldroyd) looks, on the surface, like a period costume drama, but turns out to be a psychological horror replete with sex, murder, and the utmost cruelty.

The story takes place in 1865 in rural England, and begins with young Katherine (Florence Pugh) marrying older Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton). One gets the feeling it is not a joyous union of love, which is further proven by her husband’s cold and resentful treatment of her. He can’t or won’t consummate the marriage, expects her to stay inside the house at all times, and is generally derisive and dismissive. Even worse is her husband’s father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) who rules the roost, and is actually the one who “bought” Katherine to marry his son and expects her to bear him an heir. It’s clear father and son cannot stand each other.

Katherine is presented as a sympathetic figure, and we buy right into it, witnessing her near suffocating boredom and isolation. It’s clear early on that she’s tough and intelligent, but there’s also something cold about her as well. Her maid Anna (Naomi Ackie), timid and subservient, is not someone she chooses to bond with, preferring to snap and condescend instead.

Finally, her husband leaves the estate, apparently on business, and his father leaves not long after, leaving Katherine gloriously alone. She revels in this newfound freedom, taking long walks outside on the moors, corset-less, long hair unbound, answering to no man.

But then she meets another man: Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), the new groomsman. They meet under strange and disturbing circumstances–he and the other men have strung up the housemaid Anna in some cruel game, teasing and tormenting her. Katherine confronts the men and demand they let her down, not out of any concern for Anna but simply to regain control of the men and assert her authority. The fact that she feels an attraction to this man, and shows no concern for Anna’s welfare whatsoever, hints that there is something terribly wrong with Katherine, a selfishness of sociopathic proportions.

katherine and sebastian

She and Sebastian start up a passionate affair which quickly turns obsessive. They have their fun, but inevitably her father-in-law returns, and her lover is banished back to the stables. This does not sit well with Katherine, and it’s at this point in the film when events begin to spiral out of control.

Lady Macbeth is based on Nicolai Leskov’s Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, which illustrates the ways in which a woman’s spirit could be crushed in the 19th century. Apparently its repressive ways could turn a woman into a monster, for that’s what Katherine becomes: a creature not willing to let anything or anyone get in the way of what she wants. Having tasted freedom long denied and forbidden, she’s not willing to give it up, and will pay for it in blood.

Florence Pugh, at only 21 and in her second film role, is impressive in bringing Katherine’s cold and calculating rage to life. The starkness of the film (there is no score, only the sound of Katherine’s footsteps echoing off the floors of the house) brings Katherine into greater relief; she is the vicious beating heart of the story, one that thumps with I want, I want, I will, I will. 

 

 

 

 

The Beguiled

the beguiled movie

I’ve been a fan of Sophia Coppolla since “Lost in Translation”, as well as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides”. If you take her and add one of my favorite actresses (Nicole Kidman) and mix it with Civil War-era Southern Gothic, you’ve hooked me.

Kidman plays Miss Martha, who runs a finishing school for girls in the battle-ravaged South. In its heyday before the war, it turned out elegantly poised and intelligent young ladies, but during the war the handful of students (ranging in age from 9-17 or so) seem more like prisoners in their crumbling mansion, and the locked gate acts as an attempt to keep out the horrors that are happening all around them. Often, the sounds of battle can be heard nearby; otherwise, the buzzing cicadas are the only sound, deepening the eerie (and menacing) sense of their isolation.

One day one of the younger girls finds a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) outside their gates–a Union soldier. Miss Martha decides to bring him inside and tend to his wounds out of Christian charity, with the admonition that once he heals, he must leave.

The younger girls are fluttery and excited at having an “enemy” in their midst. The older ones–17 year old Alicia (Elle Fanning), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Miss Martha’s former student and helper, and even Miss Martha herself–are unsettled and disturbed at having a handsome, charming man among them.

farrell and dunst

And Corporal John McBurney does charm them–making friends with the young ones, and flirting with the older. He’s certainly come to understand the great fortune of his situation: if he can convince them to let him stay on as a gardener after he heals, he can escape the nightmare that is the war. An understandable motive, but this stranger’s true character remains elusive. Is he truly a good man in a bad situation, or is he merely trying to serve his own ends in whatever way he can?

Soon, the sexual tension comes to a head, and violence erupts. Miss Martha and her charges must deal with their suddenly dangerous guest on their own, with no help from the outside world.

Kidman  never fails to disappoint, bringing the nuances of Miss Martha’s predicament and mixed feelings to light, and Farrell’s smoldering volatility serves his character well. It’s a quiet film in which the tension mounts incrementally; the explosion that follows shocks the characters into actions they perhaps never imagined they could do. This movie beguiled me, from start to finish.

Wind River

wind river movie

Wind River (2017, directed by Taylor Sheridan) is an understated yet absorbing crime drama that takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fisheries and Wildlife employee who finds the body of an 18-year old woman in the snowy mountains of the reservation. She is barefoot and seems to have died from exposure, but when the medical examiner reveals that she had been raped, the FBI is called in. Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is the rookie agent sent to deal with the situation. In a harsh environment that is routinely neglected or ignored by the federal government, Jane enlists the help of Corey, as well as the local Sheriff (Graham Greene).

The victim turns out to be Natalie, a Native of the reservation, who happened to be friends with Corey’s daughter, who had died several years earlier in an unsolved crime. Corey carries the weight of this tragedy, which led to the dissolution of his marriage to Wilma (Julia Jones), a Native with whom he also shares a son. Corey considers himself a hunter, of wildlife up to this point, but is willing to use his tracking and hunting skills to find who is responsible for Natalie’s death. He promises Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham) to bring the perpetrator to justice.

corey and martin

Jane is dropped with some bewilderment into this rather desolate situation and realizes early on that some aspects of the investigation cannot be strictly by-the-book if she wants to solve the crime. Her passion and bravery, balanced by Corey’s grim determination and knowledge of the land, bring them closer to answering the riddle of what happened to Natalie.

This isn’t your usual shoot-em-up crime drama, although there is violence, of a rather sinister kind. The despair of reservation life is keenly felt here, from rampant drug problems to the lackadaisical response from the feds to the undeniable sadness at the devastation of a once proud culture. The harsh beauty of the landscape remains, and it’s in the mountains that the final justice is played out to satisfying effect.

Wind River is sad and disturbing, almost hopeless in its tone, but well worth your viewing time if you enjoy a grittier sort of crime drama.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

zookeeper's wife

Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017, directed by Niki Caro) recounts the true story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, keepers of the Warsaw Zoo during World War II.

The zoo flourishes under the care of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenberg) . But in 1939, Poland is invaded by the Nazis, and the zoo is nearly destroyed by bombs. The zoo falls under the control of Hitler’s chief zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a former acquaintance of the Zabinskis. With his permission, they transform the zoo into a pig farm, under the guise of providing the Nazi soldiers with meat; they also secretly use it to take in and hide Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. By the end of the war, they help nearly 300 people escape the Ghetto and certain death as the trains roll out of Warsaw toward the concentration camps.

With the help of those sympathetic to the cause, Jan drives into the Ghetto to retrieve the garbage to feed the pigs; he smuggles people out under cover of the refuse, risking detection and arrest. He eventually finds a way to get passports for those he hides, and later fights in the Resistance. Antonina must stay at the zoo to care not only for their young son, but the people hidden in the rooms beneath her home, all under the nose of Herr Heck, who frequents the zoo to conduct his breeding program to bring back the extinct German bison, or aurochs (another hare-brained Nazi project to bring back their old glory).

Antonina must diplomatically fend off the advances of Heck, while defending her actions to a jealous Jan, who thinks she doesn’t understand what he’s going through, watching the trains fill with doomed men, women and children. They survive the stresses of virtually being owned by the Nazis, only to have Jan disappear while fighting in the Resistance, shortly after she gives birth to their daughter. Antonina must make a desperate bid to find her husband and save the Jews under her care.

Antonina and friends

Chastain in luminous as Antonina, communicating both her vulnerability and her strength, and the supporting cast is superb. There are many wrenching images in the film: the animals of the zoo being shot in cold blood by the Nazis; the shell-shocked face of a girl after being raped by two soldiers, blood running down her inner thighs; Jan’s heartbreak while helping innocent-faced children up into the trains that will bring them to their deaths.

This is a deeply moving film, reminding us of the harrowing experiences of those who lived through the war, and the sacrifices that were made to survive it.

zookeeper quote
Antonina Zabinsky