Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Film roundup

We've been to see several films over the last few weeks.

1917

A powerful WWI film with the appearance of being shot in one take. The cinematography gives the film an immersive feel as you follow two Tommies on a mission to call off an attack on retreating German forces. Intelligence had shown the retreat was a ruse to tempt the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment to launch an attack in which they would have been vastly outnumbered. The Battalion risked being totally wiped out.

Added urgency is give to Lance Corporals Tom Blake and Will Schofield's mission, as Blacke's brother is an officer in the Devonshires. Will they get there in time? The are no flashbacks or fast forwards. The story is told straight, which adds to its power and immediacy. Famous faces pop up in scene stealing officer roles. Look out for Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch.  

Unlike 'Saving Private Ryan', there are no big set piece battle scenes. The brutality of war is shown in muddy trenches, booby trapped bunkers and the bombed out, corpse-strewn landscape of no man's land. There are touches of human kindness. Schofield finds a young woman caring for a baby in a French village overrun by German soldiers, buildings ablaze all around them. The baby needs milk. Providentially, Schofield had filled his water canister with milk discovered at a dairy farm earlier in the day.

The soldiers' longing for the love and comfort of home is a big theme. This becomes an expression spiritual longing when Schofield encounters a Tommy singing the gospel song, 'The Wayfaring Stranger' as his comrades prepare to go over the top.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Travelling through this world below
There is no sickness, no toil, nor danger
In that bright land to which I go

The supreme value of human life gives the film its compelling urgency. Blake and Schofield risk all to call off the doomed attack.

Little Women

As the wife accompanied me to a war film, I took her to see this. Enjoyed it more than I expected. Well acted, poignant and funny. With some real moments of grace. Like when, at their mother's prompting the sisters give away their lavish Christmas breakfast to a neighboring poor family. When Amy played by Florence Pugh spitefully burns her sister, Jo's (Saoirse Una Ronan) novel manuscript. Laura Dern's Marmee insists, 'forgive your sister'. Jo responds, 'She doesn't deserve it' and refuses. Precisely. But Jo finds it in her heart to forgive Amy anyway and helps care for her when she falls ill after falling into an icy pond. That's grace. Marriage is celebrated in all its romance and enduring value, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer. Tracy Letts is wonderfully grumpy as the shrewd Mr. Dashwood, Jo's publisher. The book on which the film is based is often regarded as an early feminist text, a protest against the restrictions placed on women in a man's world. Jo's writing enables her to earn her own money rather than depending on a man to provide for her. The making of Jo's book sequence at the end of the film is a delightful homage to the lost art of old fashioned printing and book binding. The story is told in narrative flashbacks and fast forwards, which was sometimes rather confusing. At least to me. Left me longing for the simplicity of 1917. But 'Little Women' as a one take first person shooter may not have worked quite so well.

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Love a bit of dramatised Dickens. This looked great from the trailers. The preview highlighted bits were indeed amusing enough. Sequences in between, maybe not so good. Beautifully filmed, though. Monty Pithonesque scene changes. At one point a big hand reaches into the film to relocate the action. I could cope with Dev Patel as an Asian in the title role. A brilliantly engaging portrayal. But other elements of 'colour blind casting' were a tad baffling. Steerforth, played by the lillywhite Aneurin Barnard had Nigerian born Nikki Amuka-Bird as his mum. And she looked old enough to be his big sis. Hugh Lawrie and Tilda Swinton were excellent as eccentric brother and sister double act, Mr. Dick and Betsey Trotwood. Ben Wishaw was suitably creepy and sneaky as Uriah Heep. Peter Capaldi was far too skinny for Mr. Micawber and didn't say, "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery." Seemed more like a freeloading sponger than an incurable optimist living beyond his slender means. I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped. I'll have to give it another go when it comes on the telly. Will probably help if I stay awake.   

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood 

This film moved me more than I'd expected. 

I grew up watching American imports on TV; Sesame Street, Banana Splits and the Muppet Show. Not as good as Trumpton, or Tiswas, admittedly, but enjoyable enough. Never heard of Fred Rogers, though, and his show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who became a children's TV presenter. His shows helped children deal with their emotional responses to the world with all its ups and downs. Rogers is played by Tom Hanks.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is a cynical writer for Esquire magazine with a name for reputation destroying profiles of famous figures. Seems he's always out peer beneath the facade to find the worst in people. His editor orders him to write a brief article on Rogers to accompany images of the TV personality taken for the magazine. Vogel protests he doesn't do puff pieces, but the editor insists. 

The film takes the form of Lloyd Vogel featuring as a character on Mister Rogers' show, where the lesson for the day is forgiveness and love. 

Fearing a hatchet job on Rogers, Lloyd's wife Andrea implores her husband not to destroy her childhood. Like many, she grew up watching him on TV. But the writer finds that the closer he gets to Rogers the more he sees that his sincerity and goodness are not TV affectations, but an expression of the man's true personality.  

On meeting Rogers, Vogel discovers he is more interested in finding out about him than the other way around. Rogers probing of Vogel's childhood makes the journo reflect on his broken relationship with his father. Jerry Vogel walked out on his dying wife, leaving Lloyd and his sister to look after their mother. Rogers helps Lloyd to deal with his anger against his dad though forgiveness and reconciliation. 

The TV personality never really stopped being a pastor. Rogers responded personally to letters sent to him by his viewers and took time to meet with sick children and their families. Each night he would read Scripture and pray for a long list of people who needed God's help, Vogel and family included.  

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is superbly acted. In an publicity interview Tom Hanks commented that Rogers, 'lived his gospel'. What a commendation. Hanks touchingly communicates Roger's pastoral goodness. Rhys does a great job in portraying Vogel's character arc, from hardbitten hack to something more human and loving. 

This gentle and reflective film packs a emotional punch, as it forces viewers to reflect on their own childhood hurts and shows the power of forgiveness as a means of resolving old grievances.  

The 400 word 'puff piece' commissioned by Lloyd Vogel's editor became something grander in scale and subject matter. Can You Say...Hero? took pride of place as cover article of the November 1998 edition of Esquire magazine. The Vogel character is based on real life journalist Tom Junod. The article that inspired this film in which Junod meditates on how Mister Rogers helped him understand the meaning of grace can be read here

That's a wrap.