The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

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Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is a number of things: a political cautionary tale, a feminist manifesto, a powerful science-fiction story. That it’s been turned into a 2017 television series on Hulu says much about its universal themes of human subjugation, freedom, and the abuse of power. Thirty years ago the book might have read as a frightening but merely imaginative vision—the evils of a fundamentalist patriarchy taking over the government—yet in today’s unstable political climate it seems chillingly prophetic.
     Volker (The Tin Drum) Schlöndorff’s film version was overlooked in 1990; its box office returns were minimal despite—or perhaps because of—its being marketed as an erotic thriller. Who knows how it might have fared had its distributor utilized the first edition’s cover art, a disturbing, surrealist image by Tad Aronowicz that skillfully articulates the horrors of misogyny politicized.
     The film certainly sports a top-shelf cast. Natasha Richardson plays Kate, one of the few fertile women left in the Republic of Gilead, forced to work as a handmaiden bedecked in flowing red vestments symbolizing fertility. Her mistress, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway), is one of the elite (they wear blue) who is unable to bear children and needs Kate as a surrogate. Serena Joy’s husband (Robert Duvall) is known simply as The Commander; he’s partial to Scrabble, games of skill, and state-sanctified rape. Rounding out the name performers are Elizabeth McGovern as Moira, Kate’s tough-talking, “gender traitor” confidante, Victoria Tennant (All of Me) as a futuristic Nurse Ratched, and a scrubbed-and-ready Aidan Quinn in a beret, who helps fuel the misplaced eroticism those marketers were going for.
     Despite the intriguing and competent company, Schlöndorff’s treatment is idly drab and antiseptic, indifferent almost, as though he felt Atwood’s vision was cinematic enough. We aren’t nearly as engaged as we ought to be; the film feels passive and sterile, with Harold Pinter’s stark and abbreviated screenplay weakening Atwood’s passionate warnings. Hulu, it would appear from early feedback, sensibly seems to have gone the “haunting and vivid” route instead.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

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Shaun the Sheep, the beloved British stop-motion animated children’s television series from Aardman Animations (Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Flushed Away), finally has its very own movie, the economically-titled Shaun the Sheep Movie. And it’s every bit as delightful as its small-screen counterpart.
     Unlike most big-screen, zoologically-inclined fables, nothing and nobody speaks in Shaun the Sheep. Instead, the dialogue is provided through a series of bleats, barks (the latter courtesy Bitzer, a long-suffering canine), moans, and groans, plus a plethora of strategic sound effects.
     Fed up with the ram-battering predictability of each identical day at Mossy Bottom Farm (depicted in a predictably wacky montage of repetitive roosters and advancing calendars), Shaun, the de facto leader of the farm’s good-natured flock, devises a plan to mix things up a bit. But the best laid schemes o’ ewes an’ hens “gang aft agley” and their farmer, trapped in a runaway caravan, winds up lost in The Big City, geographically and mnemonically-speaking. Shaun and his fellow sheep’s day off therefore becomes a search and rescue mission, leaving three typecast pigs to make a piggery of the place.
     Rated PG for “rude humor” (perhaps rude, never crude), the film is as much fun for adults as it is for kids, with Aardman’s tried-and-true combination of in-jokey references, chiefly-British humor, and meticulous attention to detail ever charming—I love how the sheep’s mouths jut out the side of their heads when they emote. The TV episodes ran a mere seven minutes each, so you’d think writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak might have struggled to expand the concept (based on Nick Park’s original creation) to feature length. But Shaun the Sheep Movie feels just right—warm and fuzzy and comfortable, like a natural fleece blanket.
     Some farm-loving Yanks may miss a few jokes, like the pun in the title, but they should still find the film to be shear [sic] entertainment.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Baby Driver (2017)

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Baby Driver is hell on wheels. And I do mean hell.
     Do not follow this vehicle; it’s prone to making sudden stops and turns even if it does always signal beforehand (or wink as we say in the UK, appropriately so).
     If you’re willing to suspend disbelief for two earsplitting hours then you might just enjoy writer/director Edgar Wright’s cacophony of wall-to-wall car chases writ large with floor-to-ceiling selections of hip party tunes, since that’s pretty much all Baby Driver is—screamin’ wheels, burnin’ rubber, and stock car smash-ups orchestrated to the likes of Queen, The Damned, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But I wasn’t and I didn’t, because I know Wright to be bigger than this.
     The source of all the tuneage? Our titular Baby—that’s B.A.B.Y. Baby of course—played with adolescent disinterest by Allegiant’s Ansel Elgort, a pair of earbuds forever planted in his golden auricles. Miraculously, he can still parrot back everything he’s supposed to be listening to, like every step of each One Last Heist. He also wears retro sunglasses so he must be cool, right? Baby’s crime boss, Doc, to whom the young pup is interminably indebted, is played by a meanypants Kevin Spacey, who talks in a clipped, arty way to remind us that, while he might be a bad guy, at least he’s a cool bad guy. Apparently Jamie Foxx, who plays an off-kilter crew member called Bats, stayed on set to listen even when he wasn’t required for the scene, so clearly Spacey’s affect wasn’t wasted on everyone.
     Doc reminds Baby that he never uses the same crew twice… and then uses the same crew twice (Foxx, Jon Hamm, and telenovela star Eiza Gonzalez likely wanted more action than just that opening scene). Baby, while youthful, is the best goddamn wheelman in the business, yet the Atlanta police force has little trouble in tailgating his various rides all over The Big Peach and back again. And in all of those car chases there’s only one scene that’s anything approaching original—kinda cool, almost—but it requires the viewer to suspend disbelief even further. Illogic breeds contempt here… unless you’ve already opted to Just Go With It.
     Baby has a hearing-impaired African-American foster father played by CJ Jones—how cool is that!? There is sort of a sweet love thing going on between Baby and Lily James’ Debora (cue T-Rex’s “Debora,” Beck’s “Debra”—you get the idea), who waitresses in the same sad-sack diner in which Baby’s (dead-by-auto) mom used to work, but they have nothing interesting to say to one another. Not one thing.
     Lazy, noisy, and calculated to appeal to fanboys who wonder how their engines feel (ba ba ba ba), Baby Driver is 100% devoid of the wit, charm, and creativity abundant in Wright’s earlier films—the wonderfully entertaining Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, for example, both of which he co-wrote with Spaced’s Simon Pegg. (Even the more recent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which he didn’t, had its moments.) Perhaps Wright should consider re-employing Pegg for his next project, since the writing in Baby Driver stalls out in the driveway.
     Maybe Wright was listening to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Baby Driver” one day and, in the absence of anything more substantive, decided to turn it into a fast and furious summer movie hit! With classic tunes! Fast and furious, sure. And if you groove to the likes of the “Harlem Shuffle,” “Tequila,” and Martha & The Vandellas doing their signature “Nowhere to Run,” then why not? But by trying too hard to be cool, Wright comes across as self-satisfyingly smug. And that’s not cool at all.
     I’d have gone to see Baby Driver even if it didn’t have a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, because I like Wright’s work. But I would have been a lot less disappointed.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Denial (2016)

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To the untrained ear, English actress Rachel Weisz’s New York accent—her character hails from Queens—is entirely convincing in Denial. Streep-worthy one might say. She also looks quite the part, as academic author Deborah E. Lipstadt, Ph.D., a positive shock of bright orange hair boldly announcing the acclaimed historian before anyone has so much as shaken her hand. But it’s Weisz’s complete and deliberate characterization—impassioned, tightly wound, a little bit unsure of herself—that makes Denial another memorable showcase for the talented star of The Lobster, The Deep Blue Sea, and The Constant Gardener (for which she won her Oscar). Lipstadt’s 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, provides the material for Mick Jackson’s somber courtroom drama: In 1996, English writer David Irving (a scarily incendiary Timothy Spall, hair slicked over and cheeks puffed out) brought a libel lawsuit against Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, claiming defamation of character. In her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt refers to Irving as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” As English libel law puts the burden of proof on the accused, it was up to Lipstadt and her legal team, fronted by solicitor Anthony Julius (played by Andrew Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton QC (Tom Wilkinson; barristers are the ones who get to wear the powdered wigs), to prove less that the Holocaust actually happened and more that Irving’s writings and research were essentially, consistently, and purposefully flawed. Going up against the repellent Irving (Spall creates a bona fide monster in the dock) proves tough enough, but Lipstadt’s counsel’s insistence on not putting any Holocaust survivors on the stand—since Irving’s Hitler-loving antisemite would humiliate them—causes some additional intra-team conflicts. The film’s ending feels a little sedate and somewhat truncated, since David Hare’s restrained script downplays theatricality in favor of process, but it’s an intriguing watch nonetheless, with Weisz, Scott, and Wilkinson all solid in defense.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Tower (2016)

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Rotoscoping—an animation technique by which motion picture footage is drawn or painted over—was invented in 1915 by pioneer animator Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye, Superman). It’s not clear what the first feature-length rotoscoped movie was, since definitions of “feature film” vary and many rotoscoped works (among them China’s very first animated movie, Princess Iron Fan, from 1941; Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards (1977), American Pop (1981), and Heavy Metal (1981); and South Korea’s 2008 romance Life is Cool) all claim to use the technique “extensively” rather than “exclusively.” The first digitally rotoscoped film—using MIT computer scientist Bob Sabiston’s computer-assisted “interpolated Rotoscoping” process—was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life in 2001, and the results are generally amazing (Linklater would use the process again five years later with A Scanner Darkly). Equally amazing is Tower, directed by Keith Maitland, which uses a combination of rotoscoping, live action, and historical footage to revisit the tragedy that unfolded on August 1, 1966 when Charles Whitman took the elevator to the observation deck of the University of Texas clock tower and began shooting people indiscriminately, killing sixteen and leaving three dozen wounded. This dark chapter in American history is brought to life using first-person accounts of survivors and eyewitnesses, as well as of those who risked their lives to save others that day. Maitland massages his material seamlessly, with the juxtaposition of the vibrant rotoscoped footage with the archival material especially powerful, delivering flesh and blood characters we care about, despite the two-dimensional rendering. Tower mourns the dead as much as it heralds the heroes, without whom there would have been an even greater loss of life. It’s a vibrant and compelling document, one which takes the art of rotoscoping to dizzying new heights.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

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Clocking in at a little over 17 hours, Transformers: The Last Knight is so unnecessary a motion picture that even the good folks at Rovi (“the most important company you’ve never heard of,” according to the Business Insider) were hard pressed to generate a palpitating plot synopsis. Here’s the best that regular contributor Jason Buchanan could come up with: “The Transformers leap into action once more in this sequel from Paramount Pictures and director Michael Bay.” Lose the production credits from that already thin description and you’ve got a perfectly underwhelming seven-word précis cum promotional campaign: “The Transformers leap into action once more.” Sort of makes you want to miss the whole metal fatigue-a-thon, doesn’t it? Perhaps now would be a good time for me to mention that I gave Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) the full complement of stars (out of four) and I rarely give a movie that many—just eighteen four-star movies in some 840 reviews, in fact. Anyway, Hasbro’s “robots in disguise” franchise has had its ups and downs in the ten years since the original film debuted, of course. The first one in the series was a real surprise, the perfect popcorn movie, a bubblegum blockbuster that sported wonderfully-drawn characters (including a runcible chihuahua!), crackerjack special effects, and a director in complete control of his medium. By comparison, 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was always going to pale (and pale it did; ‘Fallen proved to be right). Compared to T:ROTF, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) could only look good (i.e., better) and look good it did. I believe I bagged Transformers: Age of Extinction (from 2014) after half an hour due to colossal boredom. Age of Exhaustion you mean. So, how does Transformers: The Last Knight (hereafter referred to as T5) stack up? Does T5 prove to be a satisfying conclusion to all this metallic mayhem? Nope.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

My Cousin Rachel (2017)

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“Did she? Didn’t she? Who was to blame?” The opening lines of Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel are voiced over a dramatic helicopter shot of a craggy Cornish cliff face by English actor Sam Claflin.
     Claflin plays Philip, a young and naïve Englishman who comes to suspect that his older cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) might have murdered his wealthy guardian for the spoils of his sizable estate. Then he meets Ambrose’s “torment” and is instantly smitten… but his suspicions remain. At the film’s conclusion, however, these questions—did she or didn’t she—remain unanswered… but you’ll know that if you’ve ever read the book by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, and the short stories “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now”) on which the film is based, or seen the earlier 1952 screen version which starred Richard Burton and Olivia DeHavilland.
     Like Philip, we’re left guessing as to whether or not the herbal infusions—or “twig soup” according to his leathery housekeeper—cousin Rachel regularly brews up contain deadly laburnum seedpods. Writing from Philip’s point of view, du Maurier admitted that when writing the novel she became so beguiled by her female protagonist that “…she could have poisoned the entire world, I would not have minded.”
     The film’s most dramatic, heart-stopping moment comes when Philip is galloping along the cliff path that winds and weaves a little too close to the edge of those imposing Cornish bluffs. Otherwise the drama is more of the mood-driven, cat-and-mouse variety—creaking floorboards, skulking at keyholes, suspicious absences and illicit rendezvous, quickly changing weather patterns, black lace veils and Irish Wolfhounds, and much smoldering passion, not all of it reciprocated (Philip’s strong feelings of sexual entitlement are particularly uncomfortable, especially in the bluebell bedding scene).
     Beautifully photographed locales and a delicate piano score highlight Michell’s deliberately ambiguous, finely-acted film, which also stars Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen as Philip’s godfather and Holliday Grainger (The Finest Hours) as his daughter, Louise Kendall, who has long carried a torch for the foolish Philip. Weisz’s performance is spot on as the inscrutable Rachel, shadowy and bewitching, with Claflin convincingly besotted.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com