DEFINITELY NOT DOWNTON ABBEY

For years now we’ve been suckers for costume drama (cue 1729 trumpet “Fanfare-Rondeau” by Moret –the Masterpiece Classic theme).  P&P, Sense & Sensibility, and yes, the endlessly foamy Downton.

But when somebody comes along with a wicked new twist on period drama, we love it even more.

 

Lady Macbeth 2
LADY MACBETH (2016)

Not Shakespeare – this is based on “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk” a novella by Dostoevsky contemporary Andrei Leskov.

Boris, a nasty but rich old man, buys young Katherine as a wife for his equally nasty son, Alexander, who lives at home.  On their wedding night Alexander reveals that he is both kinky and impotent.  Plus, they won’t let her leave the house.

But when father and son both leave town on business (bad idea) Katherine gets out and falls into passion with a stable hand named Sebastian.  The affair opens up depths of  passion and dark resolve in the heretofore meek Katherine; before long she has disposed of both the father and the son.    The film is reportedly a breakout for Florence Pugh (Catherine).  It’s also notable for breaking with costume drama conventions and casting of black actors in both the roles of Sebastian and Katherine’s maid.

 

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Wuthering Heights Arnold
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011)

Casting an unknown black actor in the “Caribbean” role once occupied by Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes is only one of the breaks with convention that make Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights worth watching.  There are also the Heath, which is both less inviting and more

Arnold has won the Cannes Jury Award three times for pointedly contemporary stories.  Here she worked to strip away the buffer of literary awe and invent a sort of proto-Wuthering Heights.  Her Heath is a brutal place, but teeming with life – we see a microscopic child’s eye view of the bugs and undergrowth.  The connection between the young Cathy and Heathcliffe is primal and childlike too — it knows no other way and no other world.

Very exciting and freshening.  Maybe the movie begins to take its mission to re-invent too seriously, throwing in a few too many “fucks”, “cunts” and off-kilter angles.  You still come away with the feeling that you’ve seen a vision of the book that makes you want to read it again.

If you loved the 1939 classic, you may hate this.  But we do and didn’t.

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THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT (1991)

 In many ways the opposite of Arnold’s film, Greenaway’s first feature imposes a surreal formalism and arch eroticism on a period that happens to be ideally suited to such an approach.

Set in 1694, the contract of the title is a commission from a rich wife to draw her absent husband’s country estate in meticulous detail – the specialty of the handsome and cocky draughtsman.

But there’s a rider to the contract.  In addition to room, board, and a small payment, the draughtsman gets to enjoy the lady’s favors whenever he desires.  After a token protestation the lady says yes.

The film is as methodical and meticulous as the draughtsman – but peppered with tiny anachronisms and incongruities.   After a while the stilted dialogue and measured pace begin to wear you down.

But then the (also married) daughter points out that tiny clues are creeping into the rigidly composed scene, and suggests that the draughtsman may be being set up as a patsy for the absent father’s murder.  She blackmails the draughtsman – by demanding the same intimate favors that he requires from her mother.

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 Angels and Insects 2
ANGELS AND INSECTS (1991)

This baroque delight was directed by sculptor Philip Haas and based on an A.S. Byatt novel. It seemed wonderfully perverse when it came out, but we just watched the trailer again and it comes off as so comically overwrought that now we need to revisit the film itself.

Roger Ebert (who liked it a lot) said it was the “dark underbelly of a Merchant-Ivory film”.

Yes, but — in an odd way, not really that dark.  What’s delightful about the film is that it takes the insect behaviors that entomologist William (Mark Rylance) has spent years studying in the Amazon, and overlays them on the hothouse manners of the aristocratic Victorian family of his patron.  Everything is brilliantly colored yet emotionally detached – until it’s punctuated by frenzied passion.

Which is exactly how blindingly blonde Eugenia Alabaster (Patsy Kensit) behaves toward William after she has astonished him by accepting his proposal.

But like Wuthering Heights it’s the brother you have to watch out for.  Douglas Henshall is Edgar Alabaster, as blond as his sister and enraged that a brunette Scotsman – penniless to boot – should lay fingers on her.  Kristen Scott Thomas is wonderful as the mousy maid whose drawings of ants eventually catch William’s eye.

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Young Doctors Notebook
A YOUNG DOCTOR’S NOTEBOOK (2012-13)

We’re still waiting for an English-language version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s posthumous delight Master and Margarita (it’s been optioned!) but in the meantime there’s this semi-autobiographical series based on the author’s short stories.

It’s a dark, dark comedy, with Daniel Radcliffe playing a young doctor graduates from med school in 1917.  It’s the middle of the Russian Revolution and he lands in one of the most backward parts of Siberia, where superstition is more credible than science and practice of the medical arts require a strong arm and an even stronger stomach.

John Hamm plays the older, wiser doctor who is not just looking back on his youth, but actually interacting with his younger self – even as he’s desperately clinging to his profession despite a rampaging addiction to  morphine.

It’s a short series, two seasons of 4 episodes each, shot on a shoestring by UK’s Sky Arts.  It’s uneven, but the draw here is the stars, especially Hamm, and a chance to get another glimpse inside Bulgakov’s mind.

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crimson-peak-wasikowska
CRIMSON PEAK (2015) 

As you would expect from Guillermo del Torro, this spooky romance out-gothics the gothics.

The movie starts in Buffalo, New York with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowski) receiving a visit from her dead mother, with a warning “Beware Crimson Peak”.

Fourteen years later, Edith falls for British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and despite warnings from her father goes to England to live with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in the family home, which is perched above a red clay mine.

When Edith’s father and childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) discover that Sharpe has been married and widowed three times before, Alan travels to England to save her.  By this time, Edith is seeing red ghosts and coughing up blood.  It’s then that Sharpe tells her the mansion is sometimes called Crimson Peak.

The movie is good, dark fun, brimming with dark symbolism, horror movie tropes, doomed romance, and allusions to previous gothic novelists and filmmakers.

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GHOSTLY

If there’s no such thing as ghosts, how come humans have been talking about them since the dawn of recorded history?  

When we were teens in Ireland, we used to hang out at a neighbor’s abandoned house – the brother and sister who lived there had passed away. One evening our candles extinguished en masse and the air went cold. After that, we stopped hanging out there….

But even if there were no such thing, it seems that authors and filmmakers would have had to invent them as a way for us to deal with mortality.

a-ghost-story 

A GHOST STORY (2017) 

With his latest film, director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) returns with an exploration of legacy, loss, and the human longing for meaning and connection.

Recently deceased, a white-sheeted ghost (Casey Affleck) returns to his suburban home to console his grieving wife (Rooney Mara), only to find that in his ghostly state he has become unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away.

Increasingly unmoored, the ghost embarks on a cosmic journey through memory and history, confronting life’s deep questions and the enormity of existence. A haunting meditation on love and grief, the film itself is a haunting experience that lingers long after the credits roll.

The ever inventive A24 Films have opened A Ghost Story in NYC’s Chinatown—you can get your own customized Ghost Sheet—here is the link: https://aghost.store/shop/welcome

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FILE - In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Demi Moore, left, and Patrick Swayze are shown in a scene from "Ghost." Swayze's publicist Annett Wolf says the 57-year-old "Dirty Dancing" actor died Monday, Sept. 14, 2009, after a nearly two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, file) ** NO SALES **

GHOST (1990)

The late, iconic Patrick Swayze returns as a ghost in an attempt to protect Demi Moore, his wife, from impending danger with the help of a reluctant psychic, played by Whoopi Goldberg.

This tearjerker is a staple for many women; but the compelling depiction of the afterlife (screenwriter Bruce Jay Rubin based it on theon the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and the comic relief of Goldberg’s Oscar-winning performance combined to make it the highest-grossing film of 1990.

The track “Unchained Melody,” originated as the theme to an obscure 1955 prison film. Multiple versions charted in the US and UK before the 1965 Righteous Brothers cover became a jukebox staple. But after Demi and Patrick’s romantic/erotic potting wheel scene, in the summer of 1990 it was suddenly everywhere again. 

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bjuice BEETLEJUICE (1988) 

Tim Burton’s dark comedy is about a married couple who die thanks to the carelessness of a cute dog in a freak auto accident. At the gates to heaven they discover they are on a long celestial waiting list and must return to their old home as ghosts for the next 50 years.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are horrified to see their home is now occupied by a rich, dysfunctional family who move in and begin to change everything. In an attempt to scare the new family from the house they engage the services of a veteran yellow haired and profane ghost, Michael Keaton, aka Beetlejuice.

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The-Sixth-Sense-1-1 THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

The indelible line “I see dead people” combined with the big reveal of M. Night Shyamalan’s film—that Bruce Willis’ Dr. Malcolm Crowe is in fact one of the ghosts that little Haley Joel Osment sees –to nail the film’s rank as one of the best modern ghost stories.

Amazingly Shyamalan’s first two features were an ethnic drama and a family comedy. Sixth Sense was a career-maker for him, so much so that he’s always struggle to top it.

The role of the sensitive therapist was a huge change-up for macho action star Willis — one of the best and most emotionally resonant of his career. While the ending is memorable, the chemistry between the film’s haunted boy and ghostly leading man is what makes the picture enduring, even after you’re in on the surprise twist.

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madly TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY (1991)

Anthony Minghella’s (The English Patient, The Reader) directorial debut is universally loved by the critics and was referred to as the British version of Ghost.

The charming love story of a woman, Nina, (Juliet Stephenson) who’s inconsolable with grief over the death of her partner and celloist, Jamie (Alan Rickman). Just when Nina thinks she’ll never recover from her loss, Jamie’s ghost returns and, much to her dismay, begins to muck about in her daily life, which includes bringing other ghosts along to watch, of all things, videos to pass the time.

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mrsmuir THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947) 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the improbable love story between a widow, Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) and the deceased Sea Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Being a penniless widow, Mrs. Muir, along with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood), move into Gull Cottage on the English coast only to discover that it’s haunted by the previous owner, a loud-mouthed ghost.

Reluctantly, the two form a friendship (Lucy is the only one who can see the Captain) and when seeing that she’s in need of money, the captain persuades her to be the ghostwriter for his memoirs—they end up falling in love.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz had already had an incredible career, but this is one of his earliest films as director. He’d go on to direct All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Suddenly Last Summer, and Cleopatra.

With a great, moody score from Bernard Hermann and the Oscar- nominated cinematography from Charles Lang, The Ghost and Mrs Muir is one of those incredibly entrancing ghost stories and a fan favorite – it gets one of the highest ratings we’ve ever seen on Amazon.

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