The Little Stranger – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s difficult to determine which takes precedence in this supernatural thriller – the creepiness or the creakiness. Set in a crumbling old mansion on the English countryside, the film provides the house with its own monologues consisting of mysterious knocking, thumping, ringing, banging, and lots of creaking.

Domhnall Gleeson stars in The Little Stranger. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The story concerns Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a caring country doctor, who has maintained a lifelong fascination for Hundreds House and its wealthy inhabitants, the Ayres family. His mother worked there as a maid in his youth, and she later took on multiple jobs to support his desire for a medical education. She died an early death from overwork, and the good doctor now seeks a family of his own.

The Mystery of Hundreds Hall

It’s 1948, and Dr. Faraday is now working with an established doctor in the area and receives a call from someone at Hundreds Hall regarding an ailing young maid (Liv Hill) who suffers from an unknown malady. While there, he encounters the Ayres family again, the secretive mother (Charlotte Rampling), the shell-shocked and horribly disfigured war veteran son, Roderick (Will Poulter), and the chronically depressed grown daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).

While treating the patient and later returning to try electro-stimulation on Roderick’s burns, and eventually to court Caroline (who appears to prefer women to men), Dr. Faraday has frequent flashbacks recounting his one visit to Hundreds Hall for a festive party in the mansion’s glorious heyday back in 1919. He remembers another Ayres daughter being at the party, a pretty young girl who died while still a child. He also relives his other experiences of that day, including eating with other maids in the kitchen and breaking off a stone acorn from one of the elaborate wall fixtures.

A Slow-Moving Thriller

Now creaky, dilapidated, and possibly haunted, the sprawling three story mansion still represents an elusive lifestyle to Dr. Faraday. By proposing marriage to Caroline, he thinks he can help her family with their health problems, ease his own loneliness, and finally gain full access to the house he has always admired. Surrounded by secrets, lies, delusions, dysfunction, and supernatural forces, what could possibly go wrong with his plans?

This slow-moving thriller (based on the Gothic novel of the same name by Sarah Waters) offers no concrete explanations, but presents an interesting twist on the typical ghost story and haunted house scenario. The oppressive atmosphere within the house grows steadily as the movie progresses, shifting from uncomfortable at the beginning to terrifying at the end. The sound effects team must have thoroughly enjoyed themselves giving the house its own distinctive “voice.”

As in the 2017 period piece, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson delivers a solid performance as a man struggling with inner turmoil while attempting to retain an outer calm. As a man of science, he’s the last to admit that something supernatural is going on at Hundreds Hall. The mystery isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film, but even then – like any good horror story – questions and doubts will remain in the mind of the viewer.

The Little Stranger

  • In 1948, a young country doctor attends to a strange family living in an old mansion that appears to be haunted.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
  • Director: Lenny Abrahamson
  • Genre: Mystery/Horror
  • Run Time: 111 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing bloody images)

Juliet, Naked – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Let’s begin with a clarification: The movie’s title is not what you think. There’s no Juliet and no nudity. “Juliet, Naked” refers to the title of a long-lost acoustic demo song that was never released on obscure American singer Tucker Crowe’s (Ethan Hawke) first record album.

Juliet Naked stars Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

The legend of Tucker Crowe – which includes that first album, his music, his fans, his family, and his mysterious disappearance from the limelight – is the central energy around which everything else vibrates in this film. There’s his obsessive fan base in England, headed by a middle-aged professor named Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) who runs a website and video podcast devoted to the reclusive singer he’s never met. There’s Duncan’s longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), a museum curator whose growing unhappiness in their relationship is due to Duncan’s selfish focus on his idol, instead of on her need to settle down and have children.

A Disjointed Family

Tucker’s large disjointed family of ex-wives, ex-lovers, and ignored children view him in an entirely different light. They’re angry at his lack of commitment, lack of interest, and abandonment of family. The only exception is Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his youngest son. As far removed from the public eye as possible for the past 25 years, Tucker currently lives on his latest ex-wife’s property so he can do a better job parenting Jackson than he did with his other children.

Annie’s disdain for the unreleased Tucker demo (recently discovered by the recording studio) places the final wedge between her and Duncan, and coincidentally provides the link needed  for a new romantic relationship to develop. After she posts a negative review of “Juliet, Naked,” Tucker sends her an email saying she “nailed it.” From there, they begin online communication that leads to a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately that meeting ends up being in a hospital after Tucker suffers a heart attack. Their potential romance seems possible, but there’s plenty of baggage from the past for both to overcome.

Book by Nick Hornby

Based on the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, the story examines the need for family, the search for meaning in life, and the power of forgiveness. The film contains plenty of humor as well, with Annie’s insecurities, Tucker’s humility, and Duncan’s absurdities. Shot on location in England, Juliet Naked comes alive through the three main actors — Byrne, Hawke, and O’Dowd, who beautifully portray their multi-dimensional characters.

Even though Annie and Tucker have significant flaws, there’s something to admire in both of them. When Annie finally wakes up to reality and learns to speak her truth, she boldly goes forward, inspired in part by an elderly woman who attends an opening at the little museum she inherited. Tucker tries repeatedly in multiple ways to make amends for his earlier drinking, promiscuity, and irresponsibility, despite resistance from his family.

Duncan (whose ridiculous Tucker Crowe web show provides the opening and closing framework for the film) is generally more pitiable than admirable as an academic who lives vicariously through the music, film, and television that he researches. Even so, by the end of this fresh romantic comedy, Duncan undergoes some change. He appears to have replaced one passion for another – a horizontal progression at least.

Juliet, Naked

  • A lonely British woman begins dating the music idol of her former boyfriend.
  • Stars: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart
  • Director: Jesse Peretz
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy
  • Run Time: 105 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language)
  • Other books by Nick Hornby: About a Boy  and  High Fidelity.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of 200 Love Lessons from the Movies and the newly released Scantily Clad Truths.

BlacKkKlansman – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Easily one of Spike Lee’s most entertaining and accessible films, BlacKkKlansman depicts a true story from more than 40 years ago that’s still relevant today.

Adam Driver and John David Washington star in BlacKkKlansman. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

Based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, this film focuses on his time as a rookie cop with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s as its first African-American officer. Young, ambitious, and college-educated, Stallworth (John David Washington) despises his assignment in the records room and longs to be a detective. To his delight, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) soon promotes him to work undercover when a former Black Panther speaks at a local college.

Plan to Infiltrate the KKK

Stallworth immediately forms a bond with the attractive student union organizer (Laura Harrier) and uses her to gain more information about the speaker’s possible threat to the community. His subterfuge and their romance become important subplots that tie in with the main storyline, which is Ron’s bold plan to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan organization by using a white undercover officer (Adam Driver as a Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman) to physically represent him, while he manipulates local Klansmen and even Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the telephone.

After being threatened at gunpoint by a Klansman, Flip has had enough. He angrily tells Ron: “To you it’s a crusade, for me it’s a job.” As the case continues, however, it becomes less of a job for Flip and less of a crusade for Ron until the two meet somewhere in the middle. Unexpected humor weaves its way throughout the film, as does the theme of parallel marginalization of and prejudice against African-Americans and Jews.

Powerful Storytelling

Lee does an excellent job building suspense as the black/white, police/civilian tensions come to a climax. One particularly effective example comes near the end of the film as scenes compare and contrast Klansman watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation at a rally, and black students listening to a guest speaker (Harry Belafonte) describing a lynch mob’s horrific torture and murder of a mentally disabled black man accused of a heinous crime against a white woman.

The film’s most powerful moments are in the actual storytelling (based on Stallworth’s book) and the fine performances by Washington, Driver, and Grace. Lee takes the morality lesson too far with a hate-filled introduction by Alec Baldwin portraying an actor in a propaganda film and a clip from Gone With the Wind depicting the aftermath of war, and ending the movie with disturbing news footage from 2017 about race riots and white supremacy marches across the United States. The message in Ron Stallworth’s story is loud and clear without these unnecessary directorial flourishes.

BlacKkKlansman

  • Based on a true story, the first African-American police detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department leads an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Stars: Adam Driver, John David Washington, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Genre: Biography/Crime
  • Run Time: 125 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, including racist epithets, disturbing material/violent material and some sexual references)
  • Watch the trailer for BlacKkKlansman.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Betty White: Myth, Mirth, and Merch

By Leslie C. Halpern

Although she has detractors, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has evolved into the Betty White of the legal system. Most people – even young people – lovingly embrace this living legend. Now 85 years old, the diminutive Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States is the subject of the documentary RBG, a full-length feature directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Tickets for the one-time screening at the 2018 Florida Film Festival on Saturday, April 14th sold out quickly after going on sale a couple of weeks before the show.

Myth

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in RBG. Photo courtesy of Florida Film Festival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a life-long crusader for women’s equality and basic human rights for all, and has a reputation around Washington D.C. as an outspoken liberal queen who, though reviled by many conservatives, is adored by nearly everyone else. It’s often assumed that she has an opinion on everything and sits on the edge of her chair eager to give the dissenting vote. In reality, her children and late husband, Marty, (interviewed in RBG) describe her as quiet, reserved, ladylike, and serious, not prone to emotional outbursts. In the documentary, she comments on her often-quoted observations about politics, “Never respond in anger because it’s self-defeating.”

Likewise, Betty White (now well into her nineties) has myths surrounding her. Although Ms. White gives the appearance of being the same adorable eccentric off-screen that we see onscreen, she’s actually an intelligent actress, comedian, and businesswoman who has proven herself willing to take on vastly different roles during a television and film career spanning more than 60 years. She’s also adaptable enough to change with the times in order to remain relevant with her loyal fans and younger generations just discovering her.

Mirth

RBG meme

According to the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg rarely cracks a smile or makes a joke. That was her late husband’s job – in addition to the cooking. Though she’s known for being erudite and articulate, there’s also something inherently amusing about the feisty 5’ 0½ ” octogenarian in her over-sized glasses and drab black Justice robes adorned with frilly collars.

Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is a popular character who shows up frequently on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live. McKinnon’s over-the-top version depicts the same philosophies of Justice Ginsburg, but the opposite personality, expressing sexual innuendo and biting barbs, often punctuated with an energetic dance and the taglines: “And that’s a Ginsburg” or “He just got Ginsburged.”

Betty White meme

Betty White also has a strong connection to Saturday Night Live. Older audiences grew up watching her on television, but younger audiences became aware of her after she starred in recent television series, such as Hot in Cleveland and Boston Legal, and films (The Proposal and You Again), and perhaps most notably in a Super Bowl commercial for Snickers.

Her newfound popularity with the younger generations of fans included a successful Facebook campaign launched to have her host Saturday Night Live. She claims to have been asked several times to host the show, but feared performing in front of a live audience. She eventually hosted the show in 2010 after the Facebook campaign.

Merch

Another similarity between the two women is the merchandise – the mugs, the tee shirts, the socks, the DVDs, and other items. Amazon.com even offers a “Dissent Collar Necklace” for sale in Justice Ginsburg’s honor. And books, there are lots of published books. There’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong…and You Can Too by Bryant Johnson, The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Coloring Book by Tom F. O’Leary, and others, including her best-selling memoir My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mary Hartnett. Try Googling Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you’ll get more than 467,000 results.

The Golden Girls

Ms. White is no literary slouch either with several published books to her credit including her New York Times bestselling memoir If You Ask Me: (And Of Course You Won’t) and dozens of other books written about her by others, including the comic book, Female Force: Betty White by Patrick McCray and illustrated by Todd Tennant. Her image also is represented in a Funko POP TV action figure, mini cutout standee, celebrity mask, and posters, plus many more items where she’s joined by fellow cast members from The Golden Girls, Hot in Cleveland, You Again, and other productions.

Youth-Oriented Culture

With our youth-oriented disposable culture that promptly dismisses obsolete celebrities after their 15 minutes of fame, it’s amazing how these two significantly older women have captured the imaginations of so many and maintained this public interest over the long term. Perhaps even more curious is how the two women have overcome the initial surprise of their late-in-life popularity and accepted their status with grace and humor. In the documentary RBG, Justice Ginsburg (who recently celebrated another birthday) notes in disbelief: “I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.”

It’s anybody’s guess who’ll become the next non-traditional, over-age American icon who serendipitously captures the fluctuating zeitgeist.

For More Information

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg on IMDB
  • Betty White on IMDB

 

The Death of Stalin – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the graphic novel The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, this satiric film looks at the power-grabbing aftermath following the unexpected death of brutal Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The Death of Stalin. Copyright 2018. IFC Films.

Set in Moscow in 1953, Stalin’s most trusted political comrades, the sadistic Beria (Simon Russell Beale), conniving Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and bumbling Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), immediately begin jockeying for positions in the new regime. Attempting to win back favor among the populace who had previously been impoverished, incarcerated or had beloved family members executed, the men go to outrageous lengths to give the appearance of supporting each other and their country, while secretly plotting in the shadows.

Devious Power Plays

Although each man schemes to make a smooth transition that places him in the role of the newly appointed leader, unexpected complications arise every step of the way. Even getting a confirmation of Stalin’s death is difficult, because every competent doctor has been executed or imprisoned, leaving only the very young, very old, and otherwise incompetent to administer care to the people.

Other members of Stalin’s Council of Ministers have their own power plays, and Stalin’s two adult children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend) show up for the funeral and complicate matters. Svetlana’s main concern is her own safety now that her father is no longer alive, and Vasily (depicted as an alcoholic narcissist) is focused almost exclusively on the nonsensical speech he plans to deliver at the funeral.

Dark Comedy

Although the oppressive times and grave injustices inflicted on the people make a tragic backdrop, the darkly comical story of the political insiders satirizes their ineptitude and lack of vision caused by overriding selfish interests. The humor comes in different forms, from physical comedy to one-liners to over-the-top characterizations, and presents the story in a surprising way.

Buscemi (who like most of the other actors makes no attempt to adopt a Russian accent) depicts one of the few likable characters, despite his own long list of crimes and misdeeds against his people. Amid the panic, desperation, chaos, and machinations following Stalin’s sudden demise, Buscemi’s mesmerizing portrayal of Khrushchev is the one to watch. In noteworthy supporting roles, look for Michael Palin as a weak-willed comrade and Jason Isaacs as a ferocious general. For those who enjoy historical rewrites and the dark comedy of political satire, this film does an excellent job of both.

The Death of Stalin

  • Following the sudden death of Joseph Stalin, his Council of Ministers goes into a panic scurrying to secure their individual futures.
  • Stars: Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine
  • Director: Armando Iannucci
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Run Time: 97 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references)
  • Additional Information: Watch a trailer for this film.