Dunkirk

Aug. 16th, 2017 03:14 pm
Sunday, August 12, we went to see Dunkirk, the World War II film by director Christopher Nolan. We thought it generally well done and interesting and very well worth seeing, although perhaps too dire at times to be entirely enjoyable. Yes, it’s a war movie, and there’s a lot of dying in it. However, a lot of the death, by drowning or burning, is too present.

The movie has an interesting structure, with three braided narratives that eventually meet. The first is titled “The Mole: One Week.” This follows the events on the Dunkirk beaches and nearby, focusing on a British soldier who isn’t necessarily an example of stoic discipline while trying to get off the beach and back to England. “The Sea: One Day” follows one of the British “small ships” answering the call to aid the evacuation, and its voyage to and from the zone of danger. “The Air: One Hour” deals with a sortie of three British Spitfire fighters whose mission is to protect the beaches and sea lanes, and drive away the Luftwaffe bombers. The film shift from narrative to narrative was of necessity not in overall chronological order, so it took me a bit to put things together, but, once I did, I was struck by admiration for the skill of the story telling. As the film nears its climax, the three stories come together in increasing tempo, and you see the same events from as many as three different viewpoints.

While the presence of masterful actors such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance enhance the picture, the compelling story is the main event, and the actions of the desperate soldier, the intrepid pilots, and the boys who go along to Dunkirk to “do something” predominate.

Military history buff that I am, of course there are a few quibbles. The beaches are attacked several times by Stuka (Junkers Ju. 87) dive-bombers. The Stuka, a pre-war design, at that time typically carried a single large bomb slung under the fuselage, and in a couple of scenes you can see one bomb separate from the attacking plane. However, on the ground, this results in a “stick” of eight explosions, as though the site was bombed by one of the larger multi-engine bomber types.

British shipping is also awfully fragile, at least for dramatic purposes. We see three British ships get sunk, one by a submarine, and two by bombing. All three capsized to the starboard side before sinking, which seems unlikely.

We always stay through the credits, and I got a substantial thrill seeing that twelve of the “small ships” that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation were used in the making of the movie.
On Saturday, July 22nd, we went to the Downer Theater to see the new French comic film, “Lost in Paris.”

The film was directed by, and starred in by, Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, and largely written by Abel, which may be an indication of why it sometimes (though seldom) seems a bit self-indulgent. Abel and Gordon are both skillful physical comedians, and if the plot plays to their strengths, it’s hard to argue with that.

Fiona (Ms. Gordon) plays a Canadian woman from a remote (and apparently, Arctic) village who is summoned to Paris by her aged aunt Marthe (Emanuelle Riva), who’s in danger of getting put into a nursing home against her will. By the time Fiona arrives, however, Marthe has disappeared. The mishap-prone Fiona manages to fall into the Seine while having her picture taken, and loses her backpack containing her ID, money and clothing. Dom (Mr. Abel), a homeless man, finds the pack and enjoys his good fortune until he and Fiona cross paths. Their fates then become entangled as Dom, in a bumbling but frequently effectively direct fashion, tries to assist the socially awkward Fiona as she alternately tries to disengage from him and to accept his help in finding her aunt in the strange city.

The result is a sweet, gently funny film that plays as though a low-keyed Carol Burnett were matched with a French-speaking Charlie Chaplin. It’s not outrageously funny, but it is charming and constantly interesting. We liked it a lot.
Early Sunday, we enjoyably killed some time by going to see Despicable Me 3.

In this outing, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are both working for the Anti-Villain League, trying to take down ‘80’s themed supervillain Balthasar Bratt (Trey Parker). Bratt had a TV show in which he played “Evill Bratt” (yes, spelled that way) in the 1980’s which was canceled when he hit puberty and wasn’t cute any longer. Now he’s taking it out on society and general and Hollywood in particular by committing crimes base on his old show. Bratt continues to evade capture, although Gru has foiled his theft attempts. This isn’t good enough for the new AVL director Valerie da Vinci, who gives Gru and Lucy the sack.

Things are rather dark for Gru: with no job, he’s resisting the call of villainy, which causes the Minions to abandon him. Then, he finds that he has a long-lost twin brother, Dru (also voiced by Carell).

Dru is well-off, having inherited a pig-farming business from the father Gru had thought dead. Dear Old Dad, it turns out, was also a villain, and Dru wants Gru to teach him the ropes so he can carry on the family tradition.

This is of course a troubling prospect for Gru, although it does give him a chance to strike back at Bratt. Meanwhile, Lucy is working on being a Mom to the girls, with mixed results. How all this works out is of course very funny, and a visual delight with all the over-the-top gadgets. The 80’s references are fun to catch.

A must-see if you have been following the series.

On Tuesday evening, June 6th, we went to the Downer Theatre to see a really fine production of Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which shows us the existential dilemma of two minor characters in a great play, and what they do, and do not do, between scenes. The play has a lot in common with Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but we like it better since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in debate about the meaning of it all, whereas Vladimir and Estragon in Godot are just overwhelmed by the meaninglessness.

The play had an excellent cast, lead by Joshua McGuire (mainly known for British TV) as Guildenstern, Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz, and David Haig as The Player. The little pre-show film mentioned that Stoppard himself had been involved in this production, and I do believe the script had been tweaked in comparison with earlier versions I had seen. It seemed to me that scenes with Hamlet, Polonious, Claudius, and Gertrude were cut or shortened, and The Player, who is Stoppard’s voice on stage, had a good bit more to say.

The play was set in a mostly timeless time, and a largely undefined space, which underscored the characters’ being adrift from reality. This didn’t really affect the performance much, but at least did not distract.

McGuire and Radcliffe in particular were very good, and handled Stoppard’s lightning-speed dialogs with alacrity. I was a bit surprised at first that the bigger name Radcliffe did not have the more intellectual role of Guildenstern, but found that he was wonderfully good as the frequently clueless Rosencrantz, being able to do an effective variety of blank, baffled, or just plain stupid expressions.

I’m not sure I would say that this was a definitive performance, but it was very, very good, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this play. (The 1990 film with Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss is also very good, in my opinion.)

On June 4th, we went to see Wonder Woman, the latest film in what is now being called the “DC Cinematic Universe,” and the first one we have seen since I declined to see Man of Steel. We were glad to see this one, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’m a bit bemused by the decision to set the story of Wonder Woman’s entry into the outside world in the final days of World War I. I liked it, and I can understand why WWI was chosen for purposes of plot, but I wonder if anyone has considered the profound changes this would make in the DC universe timeline. In the “standard model” Superman was the first superhero to come to public notice, either in the 1930’s (per the original comic books) or the 2010’s per the newest movies. However, now, Wonder Woman is first on the scene, by almost a hundred years? I expect that this will be glossed over for the future, but there would have probably been a very different approach to Superman’s advent, had Wonder Woman been around for a long time before that.

The opening sequences of the movie, portraying Diana’s youth and training on the island of Themiscyra are beautiful and wonderful. The island is fantastic, of course, but watching the Amazons train is fascinating, and in particular it’s great to see that not every Amazon has to be young and dewy-looking. Robin Wright as lead warrior Antiope, and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, show us that a woman can have some lines in her face, or edgy collarbones, and still be fabulous and powerful.

Gal Gadot, as Diana, is just great.  She looks wonderful in the role, and her background in the military and martial arts give her the bearing she needs to truly be a warrior princess. She’s well matched by Chris Pine, who is a smarter and edgier Steve Trevor than ever was in the comics or TV. The other “good guys” include Lucy Davis as Etta Candy. The character was originally part of Wonder Woman’s “comic relief” squad, the “Holiday Girls” in the 40’s comics. Here, she’s become a Brit, doing a WWI version of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing as a sort of Miss Moneypenny to Trevor’s Americanized James Bond. It’s a pity that we aren’t likely to see more of her. In order to foil the villains’ plot, Trevor puts together a particularly unlikely version of the classic “rag-bag team,” made up of Said Tagamouhi as a Moroccan actor turned con man, Ewan Bremner as a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American smuggler, all of whom are interesting characters and have things to say about the world of 1918.

The chief villains are Dany Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. Ludendorff, who really existed, is an interesting choice. The historical Ludendorff was Quartermaster General of the German Army until October 1918 (and so in position to make decisions about new weapons), when he resigned, a requirement of armistice negotiations. He went on to become a nationalist politician who promoted the theory that Germany was “stabbed in the back by Marxists and Jews,” took part in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and wrote a book called The Total War in 1935, arguing that peace was only an interval between wars.  Although he did break with Hitler by 1933, I think we can fairly say that his portrayal in the film does not malign him too much, and Huston’s portrayal makes him believably megalomaniacal and dangerous.

Dr. Maru, alias “Dr. Poison”, played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya, is a recycling of a WW2 Wonder Woman villain, who was a Japanese chemist specializing in sabotage.  The doctor as portrayed is rather generically European, unsettling with the creepy prosthetic covering her scarred face, and not so much a “mad” scientist as an obsessive one. Her new weapon, the so-called “hydrogen mustard” gas is truly horrific, though not much more so than weapons actually developed. (The arsenic compound Lewisite, not used in WW1, could penetrate clothing and thin rubber--.)

I wasn’t put off by Wonder Woman’s stated goal to destroy the war god Ares as I was by (spoiler in case you haven’t seen it) Superman’s killing of General Zod in Man of Steel. In the movie, Diana considers destroying Ares to be her major mission in life, so its rather a given, and it was established in the comic books years ago that Wonder Woman would in fact kill in defense of life if the need were great enough. (And I’d be pretty sure that not all the German soldiers she clobbered liberating a Belgian village probably survived, either, although, as in many of the comic-book movies, there’s little blood, and most death is off camera--.)

We liked the movie’s approach to combat. Wonder Woman fights with focus and with purpose, but never with malice, and revenge, a frequent “hero” motivation, plays little part.

Of course, I have some technical quibbles: The Fokker Eindekker Trevor steals is way obsolete by 1918 (although that could be the reason it was in Turkey, far from the active front--), whereas the giant bomber in the final sequence, which vaguely resembles one of the late-war Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, is somewhat futuristic. We can tell that Themiscyra must be within a relatively short air flight from the Turkish coast: so far, so good, it makes much more sense for it to be among the Greek islands than off the coast of North America, as in the early Wonder Woman comics. However, in our 1918, there were no Central Powers warships, let alone German, operating in the Mediterranean, to have pursued him there--. Oh, well, it’s not actually our world, after all. However, getting from the Eastern Med to London in the course of a sleep by sail, even with the aid of a tugboat, just isn’t possible--.

Seeing this film makes me much more optimistic about the forthcoming Justice League feature.

We went to the Downer Theater to see A Quiet Passion, the film about American poet Emily Dickinson. Although now regarded as one of the most important poets of the 19th Century, her work was largely ignored during her lifetime, with only a dozen or so of more than 1800 poems written published during her lifetime, and those were usually significantly “edited” by the publishers.

Most of Dickinson’s correspondence was burned at her death by her wish, so I expect that director and screenwriter Terence Davies had to invent most of the dialog, if not incidents, but if, so, he does a very good job of evoking a very particular time and place. The Amherst we see is genteel, puritanical, and self-critical. Manners are everything. Emily’s father reproaches her, and she sincerely apologizes, for having spoken brusquely to the servants while suffering a kidney-stone attack (or something similar).

Things start off well enough. Emily has the support of her revered father, who uses influence with his friend, Samuel Bowles, to get her poems published in his newspaper. She has the friendship of her attractive sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her adored brother Austin, and her vivacious friend, Susan Gilbert, with whom she can exchange “wicked” ideas. Her mother, whom she regarded as distant, nevertheless gently tolerated Emily’s growing eccentricities.

Frustration begins to build up as she sees even her publisher, Bowles, repeat the idea that only men have the spirit to be poets in an article in his paper. (Noted poets of the time all had names like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant--.) Her comfortable life slowly unravels as her father dies suddenly. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke and eventually also dies. Susan Gilbert marries and moves away. Austin Dickinson falls off his pedestal by becoming estranged from his wife and engaging in an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. There was tension between Emily, who was shocked and horrified, and Vinnie, who was more forgiving. (Ironically, Mrs. Todd was one of the people who helped get Dickinson’s poems into publication after her death.)

She gradually became more reclusive, declining invitations to visit elsewhere, and only speaking to visitors who came to the house from the other side of a door, but all the while continuing to write poems and letters. She died in 1885, at the age of 55, of what was diagnosed as kidney disease.

Cynthia Nixon plays the adult Emily, and does a very fine job of what of necessity must be an understated role. She’s supported by a cast of very skillful and subtle actors, including Jennifer Ehle as Vinnie, Duncan Duff as Austin, Keith Carradine as her father, and Joanna Bacon as her mother.

The film looks beautiful, capturing the period well, as the people act out their austere and reserved lives against a background of Victorian elegance in homes and lush beauty in gardens.

We were very glad to have seen this interesting movie about this very interesting person. (Georgie’s one criticism was “too much hard dying, too long,” referring to both Emily’s and her mother’s death scenes--.)

First, let me address one point: Casting Scarlett Johannsen as the main character is NOT a “whitewash”. “Major Kusanagi,” as she’s generally known, has never, ever been drawn as Asian-looking either in the manga or the anime. She’s always had round eyes, and, when in color, they are blue (or red, in one of the animes), and her skin is white. “Section 9,” the special law enforcement group she belongs to does not exist in any recognizable version of Japan, instead it’s “manga Japan,” which, in that, as well as other works, is populated by racially ambiguous people, many of which are pale-skinned, round-eyed, and have hair in Caucasian shades (when it’s not blue, purple, or other colors not occurring in nature). The director of the animated films, Mamoru Oshii said: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

That being said, we went to a preview of the movie at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night, March 29. I liked the movie a lot, and Georgie did, too, as it didn’t exceed her tolerance for violence and flashing/booming.

The movie looks great to my eyes. The long shots of the urban landscape are amazing, rife with gigantic advertising holograms, which Georgie called “Blade Runner all grown up.” The opening sequence of the creation of the Major’s cyborg body is pure science-fantasy, but beautiful, and almost mystical as her framework is levitated through the various stages of its “birth.” That life is not going to be quite easy for the new being is immediately apparent with the dialog between her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and the owner of the company that created her, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), in which he declares, “She’s a weapon.”

Flash ahead to a year later, and “the Major” is lead operator for “Section 9,” here described as an anti-terrorist unit, where her strength, speed, and ability to make herself virtually invisible, are of great use. Her ability to “deep dive” into cyberspace is less well understood, and her commander, Aramaki (veteran Japanese action actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), is uneasy with her using it. She has an uneasy comradeship with the other members of her unit, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Han (Chin Han), Ladriya (Danusia Samal), and Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere).

I was really struck by Ms. Johannsen’s abilities as a physical actress. Although her role as Marvel’s “Black Widow” is superficially similar, both being female super-agent action heroes, the characters are quite different. I was particularly struck by the Major’s walk, which is a heavy-looking flat-footed trudge, as though she indeed had a steel skeleton. She walks with her head pushed forward, sometimes “forgetting” to move her arms, subtly underlining that she’s only had this body for a year and is still learning to use it. Similarly, her resting expression is very neutral: you don’t see thoughts cross her face, except when she is speaking or taking action.
The plot has some similarities to the 1995 animated film, with the major antagonist having the ability to “hack” people’s minds, but goes in a very different direction, becoming the Major’s origin story, which is more detailed and dark than any version given before.

Ms. Johannsen is well supported by the cast, especially Pilou Asbaek as Batou, and Marion Cotillard as Dr. Ouelet, who are the human heart and mind of the movie, respectively. It’s also good fun to see Mr. Kitano “taking names” in a wonderfully no-nonsense style. Peter Fernandino as Cutter is a villain for the 21st Century, taking personal command of mayhem with a remote-control interface.
The film’s portrayal of “augmentation” is quite compelling, and a lot of ways evocative of what the “man-machine interface” might be like. In other ways, it is quite fantastic and dreamlike, with robotic arms repairing the Major’s damaged muscle fibers by painting on new material with brushes. It’s never explained how she can jump off the top of a skyscraper (her favored method of “tactical insertion”) without harm, but still be damaged in combat. Of course there’s lots of over-the-top combat, but shooting and exploding is at a tolerable level. There’s some blood, shown as the aftermath of being wounded, but not much. No bad language or sex. We do see quite a lot of the Major’s artificial integument, but it’s not what one would call sexual nudity (unless you are already a robot fetishist--).

Recommended for fans of anime, SF/action, and superheroes.
Just a quick note. We went to a preview of the new "Ghost in the Shell" film on Wednesday night. It was really good and fantastic to look at. The cityscape is, as Georgie put it, "Blade Runner all grown up!" Long review to follow--.
On Sunday, March 26, we went to see the new movie of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney (mostly) live action adaptation of their 1991 all-animated feature. I say “mostly” live action: Belle, her father Maurice, villain Gaston, Le Fou, and the other villagers are live-action. Dan Steven’s Beast form and all of the enchanted servants, Lumiere, Cogsworth, et al, are CGI until the curse is lifted from them.

The movie looks great. The village is beautiful, the Beast’s castle fantastic, costumes excellent and casting all very good.

There are significant changes from the original other than the medium. There are some “new” songs, brought in from the musical play version, and some minutes of new music specifically for the film, none of which are very consequential or memorable. Some, such as “Evermore,” a song for the Beast mourning Belle’s departure to rescue Maurice, seem strongly influenced by Andrew Lloyd Weber.

My major disappointment with the 1991 movie was that Belle had no “big song.” It was a letdown when the orchestral musical buildup following “Belle” (“Isn’t she a funny girl—“) peaking in her sung line “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere!” just stops. Brave, bookish Belle is my favorite Disney/fairy tale heroine, and I’ve always wanted her to have her own anthem, her own equivalent of “Let it Go,” but we still don’t have it. To be fair, the Beast doesn’t get a “big” song either: all the really memorable songs are for the ensemble or the servants: “Belle,” “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and that hasn’t changed.

The singing is very good, and on the film, you will hear the actual actors doing the songs, which shows that Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans (Gaston), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), and Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) all have very creditable singing voices. Frankly, I think they are preferable to some of the more professional singers that are featured on the soundtrack album.

There are some significant changes to the characters, which are mostly to the good. Maurice is played with more dignity and as less of a screwball, which makes him a more sympathetic character, but makes Gaston’s railroading him into the madhouse less credible.

Gaston, as played by Mr. Evans, initially comes over a bit more likeable. He seems humanly smitten/obsessed with Belle, and less just convinced of his entitlement to her. Ultimately though, he’s even more rotten than his cartoon counterpart, as his murderous streak comes out earlier in the film. He’s also a bit psychotic: LeFou (Josh Gad) heads off a berserk episode by saying, “Go to your happy place, Gaston! The war! All those widows!” “Widows!” murmurs Gaston in reply, with a glassy grin. Whether he’s remembering exploiting them or creating them is left unsaid--.

While I kind of miss the evil Monsieur D’Arque and the “Maison de Lune” song, it’s apparent they don’t fit in with the style of the new production. Instead, we have more dialog, particularly between Belle and the Beast which helps develop the growth of their relationship.

There were some bits that were overdone: “Be Our Guest” is always an over-the-top production number, but this version went ridiculously far. It’s a bit much even for magically animated crockery and flatware to improvise indoor fireworks and disco lighting effects on short notice.

So, it’s a really good film, and we liked it a lot. I still think I like the cartoon one better, though.
On Sunday, January 22nd, we went to see Hidden Figures, the movie that tells the story of three black women who, each in their own way, contributed to the success of, first NASA’s Mercury program, and then later projects up to and including the Apollo moon landings. We found it to be very well done, and truly inspiring.

In those days, much of NASA’s engineering and support operations were based in Virginia, which, pre-Civil Rights acts, was unrepentantly segregated. (Not that Florida or Texas would necessarily have been any better--.) I found it really painful to see segregated drinking fountains, segregated bathrooms, segregated bus seats, and to see that all those things existed at NASA, which should have been one of the most forward-thinking workplaces in the world. Instead, NASA employs a group of black women as their own “computing” unit, set off in a separate building except for when on particular individual assignments.

Gradually, the wall begins to break down, as Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) gets assigned to the unit engaged in orbital calculations. Johnson was a mathematical prodigy as a child, and as an adult can perform calculations in her head that make the male engineers’ eyes bug out. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) becomes NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) stakes a claim on the future by teaching herself Fortran and becoming an integral part of NASA’s new electronic computing division.

These events don’t necessarily happen smoothly, and a good part of the story deals with overcoming—or undermining, or working around—casual, institutional racism and sexism. Although racism is there—in one scene, someone anonymously brings in a separate coffee pot, labeled “colored” to the otherwise white office she is working in—I don’t believe I heard anyone at NASA say words to the effect of “black people can’t do that,” although, “women don’t do that” is a common theme.

The plot is interesting and engaging, especially to those of us for whom that history is also memory. I remember staying home from school to watch Mercury launches, and knew that it was a dangerous and daring thing at the time, but of course had no idea of how many people were required in how many ways to make it happen. The plot had drama, but wasn’t “juiced up”—I kept expecting one of the women to be menaced or roughed up, but that didn’t happen, although tension is there.
The Golden Globe award for best ensemble cast was well deserved. The three principal ladies were excellent, and very well supported by the rest of the cast.

I’m pleased and proud to report that my company, AT&T, along with other “tech” companies, is paying for school groups to see this inspirational and uplifting movie. Highly recommended.
Continuing my recent tradition of dissecting SF and fantasy films deviations from logic and common sense, I see no reason to spare Star Trek Beyond, although it’s less bad than some. Accepting that the Star Trek Universe is a science-fantasy one, though a step removed from outright pulp like Star Wars, I gloss over questions like how does it happen that Krall’s swarming drones happen to be warp-capable, and just what powers them? And, OK, Krall’s mad, so that excuses why he didn’t use the alien tech to escape the planet years ago, or use the fabbing equipment to build a regular starship instead of a swarm of drones that vastly outmasses the Enterprise. The alien bio-weapon doesn’t seem to work in any sensible fashion, but then, the aliens attempted to get rid of it because it was too dangerous--.

On the logic front, there is the question of why didn’t Kirk have the shields up approaching the unknown planet? They had to have been up getting through the rock-crushing debris fields of the nebula, so why turn them off?

On the tech front, the first appearance of Jaylah’s hologram technology is confusing. She uses a portable device to create hologrammatic, independently acting duplicates of herself, which, it seemed actually hit some of the bad guys. This presumably alien tech is superior to the Next Gen holodeck technology since it is portable and programmable on the fly. (Projection: Jaylah, who’s been accepted for Star Fleet Academy, finds that Federation sim tech is less sophisticated than hers, goes into business supplying what becomes Holodeck/emergency medical hologram equipment, and retires very rich--).

The design of Starbase Yorktown is wondrous, but nonsensical in a number of ways. Why should a starship be able to “drive” all the way to the center of the base when there’s no reason for it to, and many why it shouldn’t? The master ventilator node is located at the physical center of the spherical construct, but only accessible by a series of perilous ladders. The answer to that one, is so that there can be an exciting fight scene, but that’s pretty much the rationale for the whole film.
Wednesday night, July 27th, we went to the Avalon Theatre to see the latest installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. I was interested because this was a new story, having skipped Into Darkness, the Wrath of Khan remake.

Star Trek Beyond is big, flashy, and loud. After starting off with a bit of humor and some contemplation, Kirk (Chris Pine) and the Enterprise are detailed for a rescue mission: an alien (non-Federation) survey ship has been lost in one of the universe’s many uncharted nebulas.
When the Enterprise succeeds in reaching the mysterious planet at the heart of the nebula, the ship is almost instantly attacked by a swarming horde of drone craft, which chew the ship to bits, and provide cover for pirate boarding craft. After a lengthy sequence of combat and disaster in space, the largest relatively intact part, the saucer, crash-lands.

Most of the surviving crew, having taken to the escape pods, find themselves captured by Krall (Idris Elba), an alien who somewhat resembles both a “Reman” from the Next Gen movie Star Trek: Nemesis, or the alien talking head from the Original Series episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.”

Krall seems to have both a particular, though unaccountable, grudge against the Federation and a pipeline into Federation data resources.
Of course, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, and Chekov (Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, and Anton Yelchin) evade capture by various means, but not without mishaps. Scott encounters warrior Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who provides them a great deal of aid in rescuing the crew from Krall, and hindering Krall’s mad plan to bring war to the Federation.

I won’t go into further detail of the plot here: suffice to say that’s it’s pretty improbable, but not necessarily so much as to be jeering-at-the-screen stupid. Once the aliens attack the Enterprise, it’s pretty much non-stop action, to the extent that all the smashing, bashing, crashing, and flashing gets wearing. (Director Justin Lin was previously known for three episodes of the Fast & Furious auto race/chase/wreck movies--).
The particular good parts include the developing relationship between Spock and McCoy, and between Spock and Uhura, and the lines that Simon Pegg (one of the film’s writers) evidently wrote for himself as Scott. (I find it interesting that Kirk doesn’t seem to have any romantic impulses toward any characters. Even Yeoman Janet Rand, who used to cast longing looks at the Captain, didn’t make the cut into the new timeline. If this would have been a TOS episode, there would have been sparks of lust between Kirk and Jaylah. Instead, there’s a faint possibility of “geek love” between her and Scott--).

And of course, the movie looks fantastic. Special effects are up to par, with the destruction of the Enterprise being harrowing and effective. Best of all is Starbase Yorktown, an amazing concept of an artificial planet, which McCoy derides as looking like a “snow globe,” but which more resembles one of those Perplexus puzzle spheres, with interior buildings growing every which way, possible due to artificial gravity (an effect rather like the dream-sequences in Inception--). The design is “illogical,” but it sure is cool. Some things are a bit overdone, like the hostile planetary surface, a hell of jagged rock that makes the approaches to Peter Jackson’s Mordor look like parkland. The CGI designers must have been frustrated that so much of the action takes place on the planet or the starbase, because the end-title sequence includes some of the most beautiful renderings of nebulae and spatial phenomena I have seen, and is well worth sitting through.

Recommended for series fans with stamina.

Arriving at the Avalon Theater early, we were intrigued to find that, instead of the endless run of ads and promotional materials other theatres run between shows, they ran a couple of short subjects, which in this case, were both science-fictional. Rise, a highly produced short dealing with a developing war between humans and robots, starred well-known actor Rufus Sewell, and the late Anton (Chekov) Yelchin. It looked interesting, but we came in in the middle. Another was an extended music video titled “Holding on to Life”, by a group called Broken Bells, which appeared to be set in a version of the world of Logan’s Run. Neither the music nor the visuals were very compelling, I watched mainly to see if it would jell into something intelligible. It didn’t, but if it’s an extended trailer for some project, it wouldn’t have to.

And, speaking of trailers, we saw ones for a WWII movie, Anthropoid (it’s a code name--), Suicide Squad, XXX: Return of Xander Cage, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back; and Star Wars: Rogue One, all of which seem to be full of the old ultra-violence. Anthropoid looked well-made and interesting; I might see Suicide Squad on my own for the hell of it; Rogue One of course—ironically, it’s the least violent appearing; and give Xander and Jack passes. (Vin Diesel is getting a bit pudgy to be the action hero. On the other hand, I wager there is a seedy-looking portrait in Tom Cruise’s attic--).
On Sunday, July 23, we went to the Downer Theatre to see Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film from New Zealand made by the same director as What We Do In the Shadows, the quirky vampire movie I previously reviewed, Taika Watiti.

The Wilderpeople is almost entirely different from that earlier outing. Although also very funny, it is a sweet, sincere movie that we found charming. It also doesn’t hurt that much of the film is shot in New Zealand’s gorgeous wilderness, which makes it a visual feast for the eyes.

The plot centers on Ricky (Julian Dennison), a very urban juvenile delinquent whose on his last attempt at being foster-placed before being sent to juvenile prison. We see him being taken far out in the country to the home of Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill), on the not-all-that-bad theory that taking him out of his urban environment may bring about positive change.

Bella is a woman of native ancestry, who hopes one day to make a better connection with her roots. She gains great “cred” with Ricky when he sees her single-handedly kill a feral pig with her knife, whooping with excitement as she does. However, she’s also very tender-hearted, and wants Ricky as a child she hasn’t had, a warmth that Ricky responds to. (American viewers may not fully appreciate how caring a gesture a filled hot water bottle in bed is, in a house with no central heating--.)

Hec, on the other hand, is a dour man who doesn’t want Ricky, and barely tolerates his presence for Bella’s sake.

When Bella dies suddenly, both Hec and Ricky are devastated. When it looks like it will be juvenile prison for Ricky since no one else wants him, and he can’t stay with Hec alone, he lights out for the hills, relying on the woodcraft he’s learned from Hec and Bella.

He’s soon overtaken by Hec, a far superior woodsman, but Hec takes a fall that injures his ankle, forcing them to camp in the woods for weeks until he’s able to walk home. When they encounter a group of jerky hunters (hunters that are jerks, not hunting jerky--), they find out that they are “wanted” and that Hec is suspected of kidnapping and sexually abusing Ricky.

He, it turns out, has been in prison years ago, can’t face the possibility of going back, and won’t abandon Ricky to the juvenile version, so the two head back to the wilderness. However, the report that they have been encountered and escaped, sets off a serious manhunt fanatically lead by social worker Paula (Rachel House), who is about equal parts Miss Hannigan from “Annie,” and Inspector Javert from “Les Miserables,” with a dash of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” thrown in.

The pair manage to elude capture for months, becoming famous and romantic outlaws in the process. They have numerous adventures and hairbreadth escapes before being finally brought to bay.

The ultimate conclusion is both surprising and pleasing. While the plot might not be entirely new (I seem to recall other films with a similar premise, although I can’t think of a title now--), the handling is fresh and delightful. Highly recommended.
The second evening of the Festival had something rather unique for Early Music: a movie showing. David Douglass, co-director of The Newberry Consort, has assembled a “score” of Elizabethan music to be presented with a silent film, Les Amours de la reine Elisabeth, a 1912 feature film starring the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

The showing was preceded by a talk by co-director Ellen Hargis, who spoke about the historical Elizabeth and Essex. Then, before the showing proper, Mr. Douglass gave a very entertaining introduction to the film, including its making, the cast, and its significant effect on the American film industry.

Before the film proper, Ms. Hargis was accompanied by the Consort in presenting vocal versions of the songs “What if a Day,” “If My Complaints Could Passions Move,” and “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” which figured in the film score.

I can’t say that watching the film was easy: it has been digitized, but not restored or remastered: tops of heads are cut off in some scenes, and some are very washed out. For that, it was still interesting as showing examples of the demonstrative style of acting in use at the time, as presented by one of the premier acting troupes of the day. Of course, modern audiences find this humorous, but I found it very instructive to see.

The movie plot is very similar to the opera Roberto Devereaux, recently reviewed elsewhere in this journal, but with some changes that actually make the plot a bit more sensible. Elizabeth’s motivation for giving Essex the “get-out-of-jail-free” ring is shown as being due to a fortune-teller who utters the dire prophecies that Elizabeth (Ms. Bernhardt) shall die unhappy, and Devereaux (Lou Tellegen) die on the scaffold (i.e., be executed as a criminal). Besotted, the Queen gives him the ring which he is to send to her if ever he is in trouble.

Later, we see Essex romancing the Countess of Nottingham (Mlle. Romain), when they are discovered by her husband, the Earl (Max Maxudian). Rather than interrupting them, he decides to seek revenge by denouncing Essex as a traitor, with the help of Lord Bacon (Jean Chameroy).

Elizabeth at first refuses to credit the accusation until she, also, stumbles across the unlucky lovers. Believing that if Essex is false to her as a lover, he could be false to her as a liege man, she orders his arrest and execution.

Her anger cooling, she sends the Countess to the Tower to bring her the ring and justify her sparing Essex. However, the Earl of Nottingham intercepts her, seizes the ring, and throws it into the Thames. Grieving, Elizabeth allows the execution to proceed, accepting that Essex was too proud to appeal to her. But, when she later views Essex’ corpse, she sees that the ring is not on his hand. Having made the Countess tell her what really happened, Elizabeth takes to her bed, and soon dies. (Even I have to admit that Ms. Bernhardt’s “faceplant” into her featherbed as the dying Queen was funny--.)

Mr. Douglass did a marvelous job matching Shakespearean period music to the film action. Most of the pieces were new to me, and some I had heard of, but never heard played. One such was “Heartsease,” which is referred to in “Merry Wives of Windsor.” In the movie, the Queen and her court view a performance of “Merry Wives,” after which Essex presents Shakespeare to the Queen.
The Consort played the twenty-six pieces without discernible flaw, and in excellent synchrony with the music. Ms. Hargis sang again on Edward Johnson’s “Eliza is the Fairest Queen,” which was the “end title music.”
On July 4th, we went to see “Independence Day: Resurgence.” Having read reviews saying it wasn’t as good as the original, largely because of the absence of Will Smith, we didn’t expect much, but found it better than expected. (While I like Will Smith well enough, I think he’s overrated. I had forgotten he was even in the first movie. The performances that stuck with me were Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman, both of whom are back for this entry.)

It is twenty years after the events of the first film. Humanity on earth is largely united by fear of the alien threat, and has supposedly* worked out a cooperative world government—or at least a unified world armed force. There has been no major war since 1996. (*I say supposedly, since the United States is still an autonomous country, as apparently is an African state ruled by warlord Deobia Oparei ( Dikembe Umbutu), which is the only country other than the USA that plays a major part in the events of the new movie.)

The reverse-engineered alien technology has given Earth an updated infrastructure, made the restoration of Washington D.C. and other cities possible, and lead to the deployment of a space defense force with a major base on the Moon. Of course, the twenty-year celebration of the alien’s defeat coincides with the aliens’ reappearance, as a bigger, badder threat.

This time, we get to find out what the aliens want, as, after destroying the Moon base (and part of the Moon), the Mother-of-All-Motherships settles over the Atlantic Ocean central rift, and begins boring toward Earth’s “molten core.” (Supposedly they want this for “fuel” and raw materials, which makes very little sense, but this movie doesn’t pretend to hard science. I admit I found the reference to “Cold Fusion” missile warheads amusing--.)

The battle for the planet is on, with expectable setbacks for the good guys initially. Ultimate victory requires both the young and valiant new warriors and the veterans of the last campaign to come together and employ their various talents to improvise a new plan. How it all works out is of course spectacular and, all in all, reasonably satisfying.





Spoileriffic Critiques:
The 3000 mile wide alien space craft is sufficiently massive to have its own significant gravity, as we are shown. Accepting that this film is a science-fantasy one remove from Star Wars, I suppose it was deemed that the disaster effects attendant on the ship’s landing were sufficient, and they didn’t really need to go into adding the tidal effects on the earth’s crust, or the perturbation of the planet’s rotation and possibly orbit by contract with such a massive object. After all, if the Earth is going to be destroyed in less than 24 hours, why worry about long-term effects? (And then there’s the little fact that a sizeable hunk of the Moon got sheared off by the incoming monstrosity--.)

On another front, apparently the laws on Presidential succession have been changed. When the entire National Command Authority gets wiped out by the aliens, General Adams (William Fichtner) is sworn in as President. Now, in the first place, in this situation, there’s no way both the President and the Vice-President would be at the same location, let alone the Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate and ALL the Cabinet Members. I can see not wanting to add another character to the already large cast, but the Secretary of Defense (Patrick St. Esprit) is already a speaking role, and he could easily have been the one Cabinet member to be at an “undisclosed location.”

And, frankly, Adams isn’t that good a general. Advised that a defense post in the orbit of Saturn has gone off line, he actually has to think about it before ordering red alert. Then, celebrating victory over the supposed alien probe, the Earth forces are taken flat footed when the real threat appears near the Moon. The alien heavy weapons adapted for Earth’s orbital defense have a power-up period similar to “Death Star” weapons, and the order to power up isn’t even given until the alien ship is already inside the Moon’s orbit, and the orbital defenses are in range of the aliens’ much larger weapon. Since the aliens are coming in hot, the defenses are destroyed before getting off a shot.

Tactically, the defense force aerial attack on the mothership was just embarrassing. Satellites are off-line or destroyed, OK, but no attempt at reconnaissance by aircraft was referred to. No electronic countermeasures were mentioned, nor were any of the bombers detailed to suppressing defenses, all tactics that evolved during the Vietnam War, and that are standard now. The low and slow formation flying used by the attack force would have been scorned by any World War II veteran of Schweinfurt or Ploesti, although the carnage inflicted by the defenses would have been all too familiar.

Where were the cruise missiles or combat drones? Plus, the mothership appeared to be totally defenseless from the underside, where an ocean salvage ship remained unmolested while reporting on the aliens’ actions. A submarine could have launched a full salvo into the ship’s underside with no apparent difficulty.

I understand that some of these things were affirmative decisions on the part of the writers to add tension and set the situation, but it’s depressingly sloppy and unoriginal. The same effects could have been achieved with tighter writing, some actual professional military advice, and some more creativity.

On Wednesday evening, July 6th, we went to see The BFG, the new movie adapted from the book by Roald Dahl. We enjoyed it very much.

Set in 1980’s Britain, orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives an insomniac existence at an unlikely Dickensian orphanage on a back street. When she breaks her own rules about noised in the night (“Don’t get out of bed, don’t go to the window, don’t look behind the curtain,”) she sees The BFG (Mark Rylance) going about his business of distributing dreams. He sees her seeing him, and steals her away with him so that she can’t tell what she has seen.

Initially outraged at her kidnapping, she attempts escape, but finds that BFG’s cave is in the middle of Giant Country, which is the home of nine other much less civilized giants, all of whom are man-eaters and at least three times BFG’s size.  Eventually, she learns that BFG (Big, Friendly Giant, as he wishes to be called) is tender-hearted, and, even on short acquaintance, cares for her more than the orphanage keepers. He shows her the marvelous Dream Country, where he gets the makings for the dreams that he puts out to those that need them.

When she has a close call with the other giants, who have names like Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader), BFG decides that Sophie has to go back to the orphanage. However, this won’t do for Sophie, who has realized that the other giants are a deadly threat to other children. Together, they come up with an audacious plan that involves going to London to see the Queen.

We would disagree with the critics who say that The BFG is somehow lacking. Indeed, The BFG does not have the transgressive or satirical edge that shows up in adaptations of others of his works, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, or the explicitly anti-authoritarian Matilda. Instead, The BFG is a more pure children’s story, and is charming, sweet, and sentimental. It is also magical, beautiful, and tells a solid story of empowerment without doing harm.

It is also wonderfully funny, especially in the sequence of BFG’s visit to Buckingham Palace and breakfast with the Queen.  Penelope Wilton (“Isobel Crawley” from Downton Abbey) plays the Queen wonderfully. She’s open to new things, but never at a loss and always in control. Her place staff, lead by lady in waiting Mary (Rebecca Hall) and First Footman Mr. Tibbs (Rafe Spall), show us how the truly professional do it, when confronted with the requirement to provide breakfast for a thirty-foot tall unexpected guest. That the scene is also the set-up for perhaps the most elaborate “fart joke” in movie history is just lagniappe.

We became aware of distinguished actor Mark Rylance watching him play Henry the Eighth’s ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, and were most impressed by the subtlety and depth of his acting skills. His basic solemn expression is perfect for the giant, and his ability to portray wonder, awe, fear, and anger with fine nuance does everything that is needed to convey the Giant’s character, when combined with the marvelous voice characterization. Rylance’s skills provide an excellent setting for Ms. Barnhill’s Sophie, who is a very naturalistic yet forceful young girl. The BFG is a fine, fine piece of fantasy cinema, and should be seen by all who still have a sense of wonder.

 

A Bigger Splash is the new indie movie featuring Tilda Swinton, whom we will generally go to see anytime. We went to see it at the Oriental Theatre Saturday evening, June 4th. In this film, Swinton plays Marianne, a famous rock singer, who has just had throat surgery in an attempt to save her failing voice. She and her lover, Paul, (Matthias Schoenaerts) are living in seclusion on the Italian island of Pantelleria, in hopes of a peaceful and quiet convalescence. This dream goes glimmering when they are descended upon by Harry (Ralph Feinnes), Marianne’s former producer and also former lover. He is accompanied by an attractive young woman (Dakota Johnson), who Marianne and Paul are surprised to find is Harry’s recently discovered daughter, Penelope.

Marianne is not supposed to be talking while recovering; Paul is a reticent fellow, and Penelope is sulky, so Harry (Feinnes) has as much dialog as the other three put together. Harry is a manic personality, seeming determined to be the life of the party even if no one else wants a party. He’s also an incessant manipulator, wheedler and grifter. When you notice that his blizzard of verbiage includes frequent digs at Paul, and references to the “good old days” when, coincidently, he and Marianne were together, that his purpose becomes clear. Marianne and Paul think they know Harry, and think they owe Harry, and so are inclined to tolerate his presence. We viewers, not burdened with that baggage, can quickly tell that Harry is using his verbal tools to try to drive wedges between Paul and Marianne so that he can get Marianne back. Further, he’s brought Penelope along in order to try to distract Paul while he does it.

The movie is a complex and multilayered story of seduction, misdirection, and desperation. Lushly photographed, the film contrasts the austere beauty of Pantelleria, with the sensuous bodies and lifestyles of the characters. All of the main characters have nude or semi-nude scenes, tastefully done and in context, though definitely adult. Again, the narcissistic Harry has the most and longest scenes, including the “full Monty”. (Fortunately, Mr. Feinnes has a pretty good body, especially for a 52-year old man--.)

The plot works out to a tragic climax, redeemed by an ironic and timely twist ending. Highly recommended for adult viewers with a taste for drama.
Tuesday evening, May 31st, we went to the Downer Theater to see the new movie, Love and Friendship, adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished work, “Lady Susan.” The adaptation was done by Whit Stillman who is also the film’s director.

Unusually for Austen, instead of being set in the 18-teens, the story takes place in the late 1770’s-early 1780’s, as the “American War” is recently over. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is recently widowed and left penniless. Her primary mission in life is to find an advantageous marriage for her talented but shy daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), and secondarily for herself. She complicates matters for herself due to her due to her own desires, since, as the story opens, we see that she is being thrown out of the house of her friend, Lady Manwairing (Jenn Murray), who quite correctly believes that Lady Sarah has been too friendly with her husband.
She is able to take refuge with her late husband’s brother, Sir Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his family, which she uses as a base of operations to continue trying to make a match between her daughter and the wealthy but intractably stupid Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), while cultivating a relationship of her own with the young and handsome Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel).

The course of true love never did run smooth, and that of calculated matrimony even less so, as there are considerable complications before the plot works out.

Mr. Stillman is not quite up to Jane Austen’s level as a writer of dialog, and most of the wit and snark that we look for in adaptations of her novels is missing. This is mostly made up for by Lady Susan’s bottomless fount of invention. A master manipulator, she is never at a loss, even when nearly caught red-handed entertaining one man while keeping another on her string.

The plot works out in what we thought was the sensible fashion, although the denouement is brought about with some off-screen slight of hand, so a bit unsatisfying. On the other hand, the film is shot on location in Ireland, so both settings and costumes are fine to look at. Beckinsale gives a fascinating performance, and the cast of supporting characters, including Chloë Sevigny, Stephen Fry, and Jemma Redgrave, is just splendid, so it all adds up to a pleasant little movie.
Last night (May 3rd) we saw the new movie of The Jungle Book, and were very pleased with it. The CGI world is just gorgeous, and the animated animal effects, although subtly fantastic, are quite believable and easy to accept.

Neel Sethi, who, as Mowgli, is the only major character not animated, is amazingly good. He’s a charming kid, but not too cute, who looks about as much like the 1967 animated Mowgli as a human being could. He has a very expressive face, and acts very well, especially considering that most of the time he’s working with puppets and stand-ins for the other actors. He also has a good degree of athleticism, handing the character’s running and jumping quite credibly, although I suspect the more dangerous stunts were also computer augmented.

Despite the awesome cast of actors providing animal voices, I frankly wasn’t as impressed. Sir Ben Kingsley, inheriting the role of the reluctantly kind Bagheera from Sebastian Cabot, gave the role the right mixture of concern and annoyance, but many actors could have done that. Scarlett Johanssen didn’t really bring anything special to the role of Kaa. Idris Elba was unobjectionable as Shere Khan, but I remember George Sanders as bringing a greater menace to the vocal role in 1967.

The roles of Balloo and King Louie were re-written substantially, partially as part of the general updating of the script, and perhaps partly to take advantage of the talents of the assigned actors. Bill Murray’s Balloo is a wheedling con-artist, something Murray does very well, but which is quite different than the joyous loafer role given to singer Phil Harris. In the 1967 movie, the role of King Louie was also given to a performer best known for music, jazz man Louis Prima, who made the most of his musical number, “I Wanna Be Like You.” In the new film, King Louie is voiced by Christopher Walken, who does one of the things he does best, making the monstrous character quite creepy. Interestingly, the 1967 movie was noted for its edgy casting, not only in Sanders, known mostly for classy dramas, but Harris, who had invented the boozy entertainer character later patented by Dean Martin, and Prima, who, having been married five times, was not what one usually expected to be found associated with movies for children. (Both Harris and Prima went on to work with Disney on other projects.)

A word about the songs: the movie retains parts of the 1967 songs “Bare Necessities,” “Trust in Me,” and “I Wanna Be Like You,” but they are more integrated into the action and not done as set pieces. Murray is no singer and there’s no attempt to match Harris’ performance. Walken, who actually has a song-and-dance background, made King Louie’s song a megalomanical rant, which implies the question, if he wants to be (like) you, who do you get to be afterward? Johanssen gets to do a full-length and more seductive version of “Trust In Me” as part of the end titles, which are cleverly done and worth sitting through.

The updating of the script adds back some of the drama and darkness of Kipling’s work that had been sacrificed for humor in the 1967 film. In particular, the climactic confrontation with Shere Khan was exciting and satisfying. Other, more solemn elements, such as the “Law of the Pack,” and the awesomeness of the elephants, added gravity to the film.

Interestingly, the movie also departs from the 1967 version at the ending, in which Mowgli, despite having in many ways become a “man,” and no longer a “man-cub,” does NOT leave the jungle—which leaves the door open for a possible sequel.
The new French animated Steampunk movie, billed as April and the Extraordinary World, opened Friday, April 22nd, in Milwaukee. We saw it on Saturday the 23rd.

April and the Extraordinary World is the title used for English distribution. The French title, Avril et le monde truqué, more accurately translates to "April and the Twisted World." The "Twisted World" is a fair description of this Steampunk dystopia, which has its roots in France's Second Empire, which is on the verge of war with Prussia. Emperor Napoleon III has engaged a scientist to create a serum that will make his soldiers invincible. The serum has not had the desired effect, and the Emperor orders the experiments destroyed, which results in a catastrophic explosion, killing the Emperor.

This is the point at which history twists aside from our world. With the death of the Emperor, war is averted and peace made. However, leading scientists world-wide begin to disappear, which causes technology to stagnate. By 1931, reliance on steam power has not only exhausted Europe's supplies of coal, but deforested the continent as charcoal has become a strategic resource.

The movie is based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, creator of "Adele Blanc-Sec," and his character design style is quite distinctive. Scenery and backgrounds depict a fascinating Steampunk Paris, with the skyline defined by the twin Eiffel Towers, the cable-car railroad, and a colossal martial statue of Napoleon III dominating the world.

In 1931, the son of the original scientist, Gustave (French voice by Jean Rochefort), his son, Paul (Oliver Gourmet), daughter-in-law Annette (Macha Grenon), are attempting to continue the family work on the Ultimate Serum, while in hiding from the French police, because all available scientists are being conscripted to design new weapons for the Empire. Their young daughter, April (Angela Galluppo) assists where she can. They are raided by the police, led by Inspector Pizoni (Benoît Brière), who combines the persistence of a Javert with the ineptitude of a Clouseau. (Tardi typically depicts the French police as corrupt, brutal, and stupid. For some reason, many have Italian surnames--.) In the resulting debacle, Gustave escapes, Paul and Annette are lost in the explosion of a cable car, and April is sent to an orphanage, from which she escapes with the aid of her scientifically enhanced cat, Darwin (voice by Phillippe Katherine).

Then, we flash forward to 1941. April is grown up (now voiced by Marion Cotillard) and continuing her clandestine work on the family's serum project. The demoted Pizoni has her under unofficial surveillance by a parolee, Julius, (Marc-Andre Grondin), in hopes she will lead him to her grandfather, who is still at large. There is a war in progress between France and the United States over access to Canadian forests. Meanwhile, the mysterious force behind the abduction of scientists begins to close in on April and her work.

The story of how this all plays out is a grand adventure, with the settings, including the desert that is now rural France, well realized, and the Steampunk and other alternative technology creations depicted being worth the price of admission. I liked the fact that grown-up April is a rather plain-faced, square-shouldered young woman, not conventionally beautiful. Julius, the eventual and reluctant male lead, is a classic Parisian street youth, not conventionally handsome. Tardi's convention of drawing eyes with only black pupils but no irises is a bit unsettling at first, but one grows used to it. The characters as written are all very strong and well done, including April's grandfather, Gustave, who is the ultimate scientist.

One significant disappointment of the movie is that the ultimate crisis/climax very strongly parallels that of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. However, getting to that point, and, ultimately, past that point to a very satisfying conclusion, is very much worth the ride.

Recommended for Steampunks everywhere.

The main feature was preceded by two animated shorts, "French Roast," dealing with the embarrassment of a gentleman (drawn as sort of a French John Cleese) who, having had coffee in a café, discovers he hasn't got his wallet. Humorous complications ensue, in a beautifully drawn little movie. In the second one, "In Between," a young woman's social anxieties manifest as a cartoony blue 'crocodile' that follows her everywhere. This one was cute, sweet, and funny. These are both worth looking up, and can be found on YouTube.

French Roast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wbmsid57MXw

In Between: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xp22IYL2uU

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