Posts Tagged Drama

Virginia Film Festival: ‘Last Days in the Desert’

Ewan McGregor in 'Last Days in the Desert'

Ewan McGregor in ‘Last Days in the Desert.’ Photo Courtesy of the Virginia Film Festival

It seems difficult to create a fresh perspective on Jesus, given all of the films and television specials that have been released over the years. However, director and writer Rodrigo García was able to do just that in his latest film, Last Days in the Desert. He focuses on a few days at the very end of the forty-day period that Jesus (Ewan McGregor) spent in the desert, fasting and praying before starting his active ministry.

García and producer Julie Lynn were both interviewed recently at the Virginia Film Festival by Harry Chotiner, a professor at New York University. The director, appearing on a large screen through video chat, summed up his film as a story about men “finding destiny under powerful fathers.”

One startling aspect of the film is a significant casting decision: Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Lucifer. “Lucifer uses human ways to destabilize Jesus,” García said. “He’s the least politically correct character.” Save for a couple additions of jewelry and his evil smirks, Lucifer looks the same as Jesus. His abilities in shape-shifting and mimicry are both entertaining and creepy at once.

There are accounts in the Bible about Lucifer’s efforts to tempt Jesus – asking him to turn stones to bread, jump from a pinnacle, and turn from God. These parts of Scripture are ignored in favor of a different plot. Coming upon a family in the middle of the desert, Jesus is challenged by Lucifer to resolve their problems. The family, which remains unnamed, has a father (Ciarán Hinds), a son (Tye Sheridan), and a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer). The son dreams of going to Jerusalem, but the father wants build him a house and remain in the desert. The major issue is communication, which places Jesus somewhat in the role of intermediary. Second to Lucifer, Ciarán Hinds as the father gets some of the best lines. “It doesn’t matter that we don’t talk,” the father says about himself and his son. “We’re not women.”

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner.

Rodrigo García takes questions from Julie Lynn and Harry Chotiner. Photo: Pat Cuadros

When other films depict Jesus at work, he’s not usually undertaking dusty and potentially backbreaking tasks like lifting huge stones, as he does here. That level of strain tends to be saved for the carrying of the cross. Additionally, survival itself in the desert is an arduous endeavor, as he copes with fasting, isolation, and the weather. The desolate sands and rocky outcroppings seem to dwarf McGregor as he walks along, his dark brown garb standing out amidst lighter coloring of the terrain.

It’s also interesting to note that the script, totaling to a mere 60 pages, is rather sparse in dialogue. “More than a couple of agents called asking, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’” García remarked. Thus the frames, artfully rendered by Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity), convey the moods in the silent moments beautifully and enable the film to be more of a psychological study of Jesus’s fears and doubts. It’s not a fool proof presentation though, leaving some moments hanging.

It’s not much of a spoiler to mention that the ending of Last Days in the Desert includes the Crucifixion. “I didn’t want people going out of the theater wondering, ‘Who was that?’” Garcia explained. There are, in essence, three possible endings running together that encompass the weakest part of the film. The overall conclusion feels disjointed, detached, and unsatisfactory. Nonetheless, Last Days in the Desert is a unique exploration of Jesus’s human side in way that is contemplative, creative, and respectful. It’s a version capable of stimulating discourse among religious and non-religious individuals alike.

This article was first published on Blogcritics.org, under the same title.

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Virginia Film Festival: ‘Mercy Street’

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tara Summers

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tara Summers. Photo: Pat Cuadros

PBS drama Mercy Street received a warm welcome on Friday at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va. Students, medical professionals, and Civil War history enthusiasts flocked to the University of Virginia’s Culbreth Theater for an advance screening. The first episode, “The New Nurse,” introduces Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emma Green (Hannah James), two volunteer nurses tending to the wounded at the Mansion House Hotel in Alexandria. Mary is a staunch abolitionist and widow, while Emma is a young Southern Belle. Both Union and Confederate soldiers arrive at this makeshift hospital for treatment, highlighting the regional differences and prejudices in 1862 about society and nationhood.

The series was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg, cities located over an hour away from Charlottesville. The local connections don’t stop there, particularly because the story is based on real people from history. After the war, Emma Green relocated to Woodberry Forest School in Madison County, only minutes from where actress Hannah James grew up. Members of the Green family were present at the event and greeted the cast later in the evening. Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Cromwell’s Situation Appears Uncertain in “Wolf Hall” with Looming “Crows”

Caution: This post contains spoilers from the fifth episode of “Wolf Hall.”

Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. Photograph: Giles Keyte/BBC/Company Productions Ltd

Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. Photograph: Giles Keyte/BBC/Company Productions Ltd

This coming Sunday, Masterpiece on PBS will air the final chapter of “Wolf Hall.” Take the opportunity to catch up before the big finale. The fifth installment of “Wolf Hall” from last weekend is aptly named “Crows” with a marked change in Thomas Cromwell’s (Mark Rylance) circumstances. He’s always had a few adversaries to contend with but this time they are gaining ground. It’s the first time in a while that the Machiavellian administrator is scrambling on a defensive position, rather than calling the shots.

Mark Rylance is always a standout performer, but Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) also came out strong last weekend as King Henry VIII: wrestling with impatience for a male heir and a burgeoning interest in Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips). The latter plot development derails Cromwell’s hopes of securing a union with Jane, which was nicely captured in the shot in the castle as the King’s “right hand man” watches her from the door. She’s bathed momentarily in the light from the window, yet the distance between the two marks the ever constant isolation of Cromwell the social climber.

Cromwell’s isolation and disruption of courtly hierarchy are themes that are hit upon constantly in “Wolf Hall,” even explicitly at times. He remarks on one occasion, “How many men can say, ‘My only friend is the King of England?'” Not many and yet it’s not a position to be envied, as he muses. The extra layer in such few words there is fantastic.

Queen Anne (Claire Foy) is frustrated in trying to get pregnant, resulting in the bizarre death of a dog. That ledge is awfully high off the floor for a dog just to jump by itself. Another strange and arguably exaggerated moment is the near death of the king at the jousting. Cromwell hits Henry in the chest as a sort of CPR, one might suppose. Jane Seymour’s family seems eager to gain favor with the king and push Anne out of her position. Cromwell is going to have to choose a side, but he gets shaken after the king shouts at him. The whole mix of these scenes made for an uneven episode that wasn’t as strong as the previous installments, yet still offers some of the intrigue and lovely artistic touches that comprise such a great program.

Sometimes it feels as though “Wolf Hall” is channeling a bit of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and the vengeance goal. Jonathan Pryce here as Cardinal Wolsey is like the dead King Hamlet, as Cromwell seemed to regard him as a father figure. Wolsey returns with a warning: “The trouble is, Thomas, the king wants a new wife; fix him one. I didn’t and now I’m dead.” These brief moments are extraordinary in their quietness, much in the same way as the Jane Seymour window shots. Wolsey’s words bring a nice symmetry with the beginning of the “Wolf Hall” series, as Cromwell’s fate teeters on an uncertain path. There may have been a remark early in the series about getting on the wrong side of Anne Boleyn. In the end, it’s the king who is the most dangerous figure. Make your move Cromwell, before it’s too late.

It seems almost effortless the way Peter Kosminsky directs “Wolf Hall” to pull you into Cromwell’s world and his point of view. There’s his use of the Steadicam as figures walk along and then the over-the-shoulder shots beside Cromwell during encounters with difficult characters. The edginess and discomfort from these shots work in tandem to the frames of Cromwell’s face and his reaction to what others say. Mark Rylance does brilliant work with the straight stare back, an expression that one might mistake as utterly neutral, but in the eyes reveals a man who is trying to read the situation. Every time, it almost leaves you waiting with bated breath, wondering what Cromwell will say next.

This series is adapted from Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy. Mantel has yet to release the final book, but one hopes there will be a sequel to this television show soon afterwards. Of course, it’s not a complete production without the virtuosity of both director Peter Kosminsky and actor Mark Rylance.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Review: Mr. Kaplan Returns on ‘The Blacklist’ While Liz Looks for ‘Leonard Caul’

Liz Keen handles big decisions while Reddington fights for his life. Photo: NBC

Liz Keen (Megan Boone) handles big decisions while Reddington (James Spader) fights for his life. Photo: NBC

Caution: This review contains spoilers on “The Blacklist.”

The typically unscathed Raymond Reddington (James Spader) took a bullet to the chest in last week’s cliffhanger of “The Blacklist.” His death would mean the end of the show, but with the news of a third season, that outcome seemed unlikely. there was still plenty of suspense to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Agent Keen’s call for help is interrupted by Dembe (Hisham Tawfiq), who gets her to dial *77. Their rescuer is none other than Mr. Kaplan, who is usually dispensed by Red to take away the dead bodies. In this case, she is at hand to gather the medical team at an empty warehouse. There’s also a sequence with a creepy fellow who has been keeping surveillance on Reddington, Liz, and Tom.

Red charges Liz with finding Leonard Caul (Ned Van Zandt), who can help with the Fulcrum. Dembe asks Liz to go to an apartment and find a metal case and a key. With Reddington out for most of the episode, Mr. Kaplan and Liz step in to fill that space. Susan Blommaert is quite brilliant as Mr. Kaplan and like Red, she is “prepared for all contingencies.” Additionally, her devotion to Red is clear despite her generally cool and calculating disposition. Megan Boone can sometimes be a hit or miss when the focus is on her. This week, however, she delivered a strong performance as Liz, making the tough, split second decisions sorely needed to protect Red after their secret locations are blown and a surgeon dies. She has to resort to assistance not from one ex this time, but two exes: predictably from Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) and bitter surgeon, Nick (Piter Marek). Liz was proposed to by a doctor before?!

Red’s lodgings are pretty interesting, with respect to his taste in art and furnishings. As an art history major, I couldn’t help but notice Pieter de Hooch’s “Woman Hands Over Money to her Servant.” It looks like there is a child on the far right of the Dutch domestic scene. The other important image in the room is a photo of a woman with a child. There’s a bit of sun glare but a perturbed Liz certainly recognizes the individuals and snaps a photo of it.

Liz Keen (Megan Boone) looks for a special key. Credit: NBC

Liz Keen (Megan Boone) looks for a special key. Note my blue arrows. Credit: NBC

Leonard Caul was a former government operative; how surprising, yet another secret task force! He arrives soon after with a gun on Liz. Thankfully, Caul is an ally of Reddington, there to reveal the contents of the Fulcrum: information all about the dirty work of the Kabal, the organization headed by the Director, and perhaps others. If it’s as big as everyone hints, is it another blacklist? They head back to Red’s location, only to find another deadly team ready to strike. However, it’s a very strong moment for Liz, when she asks Caul to drive her to Langley to interrupt one of the Director’s (David Strathairn) meetings with the President’s staff no less. The Director, like many others, has underestimated Liz Keen. Her big stunt forces him to call off the attack on Red just in time.

While the Director may has lost this round, he and the Kabal will likely hit back in full force next week. For starters, Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix) appears to have lost an ally: soon-to-be Attorney General Tom Connolly (Reed Birney) has been tapped for the empty seat at the Kabal. Connolly’s move is rather predictable here; he’s always come off as an opportunist rather than a true friend for Harold. It may pose some problems for the team, but Harold is better off without Connolly in the end.

Aside from taking on the Kabal, Liz will probably continue her search for answers. Tom has offered to help, but things never seem straight forward with both Tom Keen and Raymond Reddington in the picture.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Review: ‘HAPPYish’ Premiere is More of a Tragedy than Comedy

Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in

What’s the key to happiness? Steve Coogan plays the role of Thom Payne in “HAPPYish” in a new series. Photo: Showtime

Caution: This review contains spoilers on the first episode of “HAPPYish.”

There seems to be a fascination with covering the world of advertising and new marketing. Sure, there’s the social media obsession, but it’s more or less overkill to situate an entire television series in that world. 2013 brought us “The Crazy Ones,” which at least started well on CBS. Then last year, ABC brought “Black-ish,” which some may argue, adds the element of being African American to the mix; however, I find it often disintegrates to low humor and gimmicks. The most recent (and hardly improved) endeavor comes from Showtime in Shalom Auslander’s “HAPPYish.”

The comedy-drama focuses on Thom Payne (Steve Coogan), who has reached his 44th birthday. He’s got a great job as a creative director for MGT, a marketing agency. Two Swedes (Nils Lawton and Tobias Segal) are now his bosses, a move that leaves everyone fearful of losing their jobs. His immediate supervisor, Jonathan (Bradley Whitford), advises him to “rebrand” himself and follow whatever the Swedes say.

Thom is married to his lovely wife, Lee (Kathryn Hahn), and they have a cute son, Julius (Sawyer Shipman). Perhaps he should be happy, but he isn’t. That feeling isn’t being helped by the questions about his relevance. His friend, Dani (Ellen Barkin), insists that everyone has a “joy ceiling” and maxes out on happiness.

The name Thomas Payne seems to be a harkening back to the more significant man in history (albeit with a slightly different spelling of Paine), who penned “Common Sense” and inspired the American Founding Fathers. Auslander evokes those allusions right away by bringing Mount Rushmore and the head of Thomas Jefferson into the opening frames. Yet, this Thom Payne is of a different sort of mettle. A discussion leader at the local gym poses the question, “How many of you think Thom Payne is capable of revolt?” Unsurprisingly, that’s a resounding “No” by the group of young people. The references to Jefferson, Camus (listed in the opening credits), and others comprise perhaps the most clever aspect of this premiere installment.

Indeed, Thom’s frustration finally boils over into a workout enhancer-induced rant and a very bizarre (and graphic) dream featuring the Keebler Elves. Keebler really could have done better than “HAPPYish.” It all results in a show that is laden with the overused mid-life crisis theme, stereotypical career woes and personalities, and plenty of time for big brands to have their names dropped in rapid succession. “HAPPYish” offers a couple of promising moments, but it emits a sense of arrogance and anger that is more likely to chase away rather than draw in viewers before Thom even has a chance to engage in any substantive or game changing revolt.

The “HAPPYish” premiere was first released on Youtube. The series debuts on Showtime on Sunday evening, April 26, at 9:30|8:30c.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

‘Fortitude’ Season One Finale is Hardly a Buzzworthy Finish

Caution: This post contains spoilers. “Fortitude” is for mature audiences only.

After such a gain of momentum throughout the first season, “Fortitude” descends into quite a lackluster series of events in its finale. Many of you who have stuck with each installment may also be mourning the loss of arguably the best character, DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), in the penultimate episode. I’d been dreading that outcome, too, yet it was expected that Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon), another fantastic character, would eventually crack entirely and wreak havoc. When these characters, particularly the former, are not present, both are greatly missed. Meanwhile, the scientific investigations have led to another dissection, showing that the psychotic and murderous tendencies of some townspeople could be traced back to parasitic wasp larvae.

The finale picks up here, with Vincent (Luke Treadaway) in a desperate situation as wasps emerge from the body of Dr. Allerdyce. (Phoebe Nicholls of “Downton Abbey” never gets a break in this series, does she?) He formulates a plan of triggering a gas explosion to destroy the wasps. It’s a laughable scene though: how does he survive a huge blast that knocks Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) off his feet? Also, it appears that the Ichneumon wasps did not infect Vincent, but we’ll know for sure later on. Is it possible to develop a better weapon to use against the wasps? Flamethrowers are neat, but it doesn’t seem wise to set fire to all of Fortitude.

Unfortunately, Elena (Verónica Echegui) has been infected and acts strangely by smearing jam on her face. Her decision to handcuff herself is also unsettling; was she trying to protect Carrie (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips)? It’s not enough to stop her from attacking the young girl. Dan arrives and he is forced to shoot Elena to thwart her psychotic intentions, despite his vow in the previous episode that he would never hurt her. Will he ultimately kill himself for harming Elena? When Elena wakes up, will she try to harm herself for hurting Carrie? The cycle just continues on the downward spiral, as seen with Jason (Aaron McCusker), who couldn’t deal with the violence replaying in his head from what he unleashed on Ronnie (Johnny Harris).

The other relationships in this series do not feel as strong. There’s a bit of a happy ending for Hildur and Eric when he returns with the drill. It’s debatable whether that fits the tone of the show or if it’s believable, given how set Hildur (Sofie Gråbøl) was on cutting ties with Eric (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). It’s possible that she’s holding onto whatever she can, because the glacier hotel has slipped from her grasp. Her control over the town has also loosened as fear and panic have crept in.

The wasp explanation was not particularly astonishing in itself. (The actual wasps emerging from Dr. Allerdyce is an entirely different story.) There were hints dropped nearly every episode in everything from the repeated shots of the mammoth to the soundtrack complete with fluttering and buzzing noises.

More importantly, what makes “Fortitude” compelling and amazing to watch is the superb camera work that is used to bring the town and Arctic region to life as well as to make us squirm in our seats with trepidation. On the one hand, there are so many sweeping shots of the landscapes; Dan’s last words about his obsession with Elena might easily describe what one might say about the majestic mountains around Fortitude.

Photo Credit: Pivot

Photo Credit: Pivot

At the same time, there are also repeated sequences wherein nature dwarfs man and even isolates him from civilization. Take for instance, one of the last frames at the close of the finale. Even though Dan stands above the town, the haze and smoke almost seem to taunt him. Despite being in a position of authority as sheriff, he is still rather powerless to get things under control.

Dan surveys the damage in Fortitude. Photo credit: Pivot

Dan surveys the damage in Fortitude. Photo credit: Pivot

Such imagery also appears to be a play on the ruckenfigur, a visual trope made popular by the Romantic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. We’re invited to join Dan in his state of powerlessness, shock, and horror at what’s transpired in the past 12 episodes. In spite of its name, Fortitude has not weathered these storms well.

With the news of another season for “Fortitude,” one wonders what will come next, since many of the characters have died already. Richard Dormer is perhaps the next strongest actor in the cast, but I don’t think he can carry an entire season on his own shoulders. Both Hildur and Morton have said that others will come from London or the mainland; that casting decision may be pivotal in determining whether the second season will succeed. (Naturally, I couldn’t resist using the word “pivotal,” considering that distribution rights are held by the Pivot network!) Or will we end up with a situation like “Broadchurch,” where the first season was stellar overall and then the second season just left everyone scratching their heads? I am hoping that the creative team behind “Fortitude” will come through and deliver more surprises and “fun” next season.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

TV Review: Polar Bear Gives Answers in ‘Fortitude’

Caution: This review contains major spoilers on the eighth episode of “Fortitude.”

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in

DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) peers in a window in “Fortitude.” Photo: Sky/Tiger Aspect Productions

If you haven’t watched the new Arctic thriller “Fortitude,” you are missing an amazing and riveting series. Unfortunately, it’s not a program that airs on cable television in the United States, but rather through the millennial-targeted distributor Pivot TV or through streaming afterwards on the Xfinity service. UK viewers can watch on Sky Atlantic. I’d mentioned “Fortitude” before its premiere in an earlier post and it’s a relief that the series delivers the quality that the previews appeared to promise. It traces a series of murder investigations by outsider DCI Morton (Stanley Tucci) in the town of Fortitude, which hasn’t been hit by any murders before. As we might expect, the supposedly quaint but freezing locale is rife with secrets.

This week, the scientific research of Vincent (Luke Treadaway) and Natalie (Sienna Guillory) continues to grow as a convincing and alarming explanation behind the odd behavior of both Shirley (Jessice Gunning) and Liam (Darwin Brokenbro) in the attacks (and murder for the latter) on Dr. Allerdyce (Phoebe Nichols) and Professor Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston). Read the rest of this entry »

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment