Digging in the Dirt

The Dig

by Hope Madden

Indiana Jones made archeology look thrilling and dangerous. Director Simon Stone’s The Dig makes it look positively British.

Back in 1938, as England sat on the precipice of WWII, an informally trained excavator named Basil Brown unearthed an ancient Saxon ship in a mound around back of the widowed Edith Pretty’s land. Journalist/novelist John Preston’s aunt Margaret Piggott was part of the larger archeological crew at Sutton Hoo that would mine the site for its cultural riches. Many years later, Preston would mine that story for a novel.

Refined and marked by the proper restraint of the English, Moira Buffini’s adaptation of the source material remains keenly interested in the difference between what we unearth and what we leave buried. Stone’s film shadows two romances and the emotions they choose to excavate as well as those they do not.

Brown and Pretty are played by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, respectively. Fiennes finds a sweetly vulnerable center to Brown’s guarded stoicism. Meanwhile Mulligan reminds us again of her limitless range, playing essentially the opposite character of her bitingly brilliant Cassandra in Promising Young Woman.

Watching the gentle dance these two impressive talents engage in as their characters come to understand one another is hypnotic. There’s rarely an excuse to miss the opportunity to see either Mulligan or Fiennes act, and their delicate chemistry here is gorgeous.

Stone flavors his film and this relationship with notes of longing and melancholy that balance the overall theme of discovery. And then a sudden development—the arrival of Basil’s amiable and thoroughly loyal wife May (Monica Dolan, irresistible)—does more to sever their tale than complicate it.

This odd second act shift – just when we’ve really begun to invest in the primary relationship – turns Mulligan and Fiennes into supporting players in their own movie. Johnny Flynn and Lily James take it from here, he the attentive young RAF man in waiting and she the spunky archeologist/unsatisfied newlywed.

Both actors are solid, as is the entire and sizable ensemble of support, but the film feels out of sorts the moment the youngsters arrive.

It’s a lopsidedness The Dig never quite recovers from. Of course, had Mulligan and Fiennes not shone quite so brightly, it may not have been a problem at all.

Mrs. Mystery

Rebecca

by George Wolf

Let’s give credit where it’s due. Remaking a Hitchcock classic takes some stones. Beyond putting aside the inevitable comparisons, you’ve got to find a way to follow your own vision while honoring the elements that make the film worth revisiting.

A look at Ben Wheatley’s resume (Kill List, A Field in England, Sightseers, High Rise, Free Fire) suggests the promise of edge and/or sly wit. But Wheatley’s update of Hitch’s 1940 gothic potboiler Rebecca can never quite fulfill that promise.

Things start well enough. Armie Hammer cuts a detached and dashing figure as wealthy heir Maxim de Winter. Surrounded by luxury on a Monte Carlo holiday in the late 1930s, he still struggles to recover from the sudden death of his wife, Rebecca.

Max’s mood improves when he meets a young ladies’ maid (Lily James), who must sneak away from her employer Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) each time Max sends handwritten invitations for increasingly intimate meetups.

The whirlwind courtship leads to an impulsive marriage, with Max taking the new Mrs. de Winter back to Manderlay, his family’s sprawling estate on the windswept English coast.

The new bride’s welcome, led by Manderlay’s imposing head servant Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott-Thomas, icy perfection), is less than warm.

The memory of Rebecca permeates the house and haunts the new wife. But even as she struggles to compete with the ghost of a seemingly perfect woman, the second Mrs. de Winter is drawn into a growing mystery of what really happened to the first.

James is a natural at delivering the innocence and naïveté of the never-named proletarian suddenly thrust into aristocracy. Likewise, Hammer’s chisled handsomeness and graceful manner make Max’s required mix of societal etiquette and subtle condescension instantly identifiable.

But their character arcs – like much of Rebecca‘s stylish narrative – begin to crumble with each new breadcrumb. Wheatley, going bigger than ever with a veteran writing trio’s new adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s celebrated novel, checks off the revelations in a workmanlike succession that’s almost completely devoid of the suspense and sexual anxiety that propel the original film.

So when the seismic power shift strikes the de Winter’s marriage, it lands as a turn less earned and more like a matter of melodramatic convenience.

It’s all perfectly grand and respectable, but never memorable. And by the time Wheatley’s final shot suggests a haphazard attempt to re-frame all of it, this Rebecca, like the young Mrs. de Winter, has a tough time measuring up.

Ghost Writer

Yesterday

by George Wolf

Hey, baby boomers (yes, my hand is up), thanks for still buying CDs!

Now please enjoy the latest installment in your Musical Movie Memories Tour, Yesterday.

We’ve already jammed to Queen and Elton, Bruce is set for August, so how about remembering how much we love the Fab Four by envisioning a world where they never existed?

It’s a conceit so instantly charming director Danny Boyle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) passed on the project, thinking it had already been done. He was convinced otherwise and jumped on board, bringing the script from Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) to life with a breezy, unabashed fandom.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, easy to root for) is a struggling musician in Suffolk who’s ready to give up on the dream. His longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) protests, but Jack rides his bicycle off into the English night unsure of his future.

Fate intervenes with a brief worldwide blackout, which brings an accident, a hospital stay, and Jack waking up in a world without his two front teeth.

Or the Beatles.

That second one is pretty advantageous for Jack’s career, though the film is at its most likable early on, when Jack is trying to remember lyrics, getting nowhere on Google and chastising anyone who doesn’t instantly realize how life-changing “his” new songs are.

Of course, his protests only resonate because we’re still in the old world with him. It’s a credit to the simple genius of this premise that Yesterday can tell without showing and still pull us in. And surprise, it’s also a wonderfully organic way to strip down these songs we’ve heard for decades and remind us how truly great they are.

Jack’s star rises with a move to L.A, getting tutelage from Ed Sheehan (nicely self-deprecating as himself) and an apologetically shameless record label rep (perfectly slimy Kate McKinnon). It’s in America where Yesterday starts to drag a bit, wanting from the absence of spunky James and will-they-or-won’t-they rom that balances this com.

How that turns out, you can probably guess.

As for the musical fantasy, credit Curtis and Boyle for avoiding the easy cop out. Buy in and you’ll be rewarded with an entertaining take on life choices that’s fun to sing along with, occasionally slight but often downright fab.

American Pastoral

Little Woods

by Hope Madden

If you already know the name Nia DaCosta, the likely reason may be that Jordan Peele pegged her to direct the Monkey Paws-produced remake of 1992’s horror gem Candyman that’s due next year.

What had she done to so impress the new American emperor of horror?

Little Woods.

DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is not a horror film. It’s an independent drama of the most unusual sort—the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty.

Tessa Thompson anchors the film as Oleander. She has 8 days left on her probation for running drugs across the Canadian border and she means to get the F out of her dead end town the first minute she can. Her sister Deb (Lily James) complicates things.

There is a predictability in the setup that DaCosta uses to betray your preconceived notions. While the traditionally structured narrative does its job to elevate tension, the characters within that tale veer wildly—or, authentically—from the expected.

This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face—many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.

Films that honestly explore American poverty are scarce—The Florida Project, Frozen River, The Rider and very few others. Little Woods joins this list, all beautiful gut punch films that choose to present realistic tales with fully drawn characters rather than easy, noble tragedies.

The border crossing scene in Little Woods holds particular resonance, even more than it did back in 2008 when Courtney Hunt put Melissa Leo and her car on Frozen River‘s thin ice. Echoes of images from our own Southern border help to contextualize the nation’s narrative about saving society from the poor families and the criminals out to exploit our riches.

But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.

See it because it’s what American actually looks like.





War and Peace and Poltergeists

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

by Hope Madden

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – there’s not a lot of grey area there. If this is your bag – if you’ve always wanted to see Lizzie Bennet (Lily James) prove her inner badassedness with a katana to an undead skull – you can’t go entirely wrong here.

You will find all the old familiars: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, their many marriageable daughters, the scoundrel Wickham (Jack Huston), the dashing Bingley (Douglas Booth), the haughty but lovestruck Darcy (Sam Riley). The main difference is England, which has been overrun by “unmentionables” for some years, making that foul weather trip from the Bennets’ to the Bingleys’ dangerous for more reasons than a simple flu bug.

In 2009, writer Seth Grahame-Smith found himself with a surprise success in his novel, co-written by Jane Austen (whose original text is firmly in the public domain). Given that someone adapts her novel for the screen about every 25 minutes, it is no surprise that Grahame-Smith’s version has made its way to the cinema. And just in time for Valentine’s Day!

I don’t say that ironically. Like Shaun of the Dead, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies would make a fine date movie for a very specific crowd.

Director Burr Steers keeps the violence mostly off screen and the blood to a relative minimum, preferring to focus on the heaving post-fight-scene bosom. Which, let’s be honest, gets tiresome. He’s probably more intrigued by the image of gorgeously appointed young unmarrieds who hide daggers in their garters than he should be – these are the Bennet girls, for God’s sake – and herein lies the problem.

Burr seems unclear on the film’s audience. He’s unsure just how much action to pack into an Austen narrative, fuzzy on the amount of blood that’s appropriate to the tale, blurry on the balance of levity versus seriousness versus gore.

Lucky for him, this is a very proven story of delayed gratification and all the longing that accompanies it. Plus, zombies. It’s hard to go wrong here, and for the most part, PPZ doesn’t go too wrong. It’s an entertaining if uninspired retelling of a retelling of a tale you’ve heard, read, and seen a dozen times. But this time, Lizzy Bennet’s packing heat, which just seems right.

Verdict-3-0-Stars