Amazingly, A Ghost Story works. It manages to be a little funny, a whole lot meaningful, and strikingly unpredictable. It's not like any ghost movie before -- it does not dwell on the scary although crockery is thrown to smithereens and lightbulbs do flicker -- as it explores mourning thoughtfully.

David Lowery directed the film with an artsy component. Rather than going high-tech, his ectoplasm is shrouded in a sheet, a long, white, voluminous sheet with childish eye-holes. The sheet has no name although it covers the male in the movie, a musician. The man caressed his wife, argued with her about moving, and had a car accident.

His widow, also unnamed, lives with his ghost for awhile, aware that someone else is in their rental house in the middle of nothing much. While sprucing up the house, Wife inserts a message into a door jamb before painting the opening closed. Sheet sees this and spends time trying to get at the message.

Ditto for movie goers trying to get at the message of A Ghost Story. If that is not immediately getable, there is plenty else to occupy the post-mortem period. Note, for example, how often Andrew Droz' cameras are locked down while characters move in and out of range or curtains breeze in. See, too, how the camera serves as our ghost. Listen to Daniel Hart's telegraphic music. Hear, too, how rarely dialogue comes along and, when it does, how mumbly it is.

The one time when words are spoken with force comes at a dinner party when a character, called the Prognosticator in the cast list and played by Will Oldham, waxes eloquently. The main characters are played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, who worked for director David Lowery before in Ain't Them Bodies SaintsA Ghost Story offers a new take on old themes of death and life and comes full circle.

 

The period drama Lady Macbeth is based not on Shakespeare's character but the one central to Nikolai Leskov's 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She is, however, appropriately named, a woman who becomes a single-minded killer without a discernible conscience. Set in 1865 in a remote, northern English estate, the film begins as seventeen-year-old Katherine weds Alexander Lester. 

On their wedding night and subsequent nights, Alexander has Katherine strip, though no sexual union follows. Humiliated, perplexed, and trapped, Katherine is forbidden to leave the quiet, dreary house, even to get some air on the heath. She's become an isolated prisoner, her only company her mute maid Anna. After Alexander and his equally cruel father-in-law leave on business, Katherine breaks loose with a torrid affair with the groomsman Sebastian. Succeeding events will involve several murders with a variety of complications not spoiled here.

It is beautifully lit and shot by Ari Wegner, who creates a pressure cooker atmosphere anchored exclusively on an expressionless Katherine centered in the frame. The dominance of symmetrical shots and the compositions with this corseted, constrained woman dwarfed by heavy wooden furniture adds to the feeling of an immutable world that offers no escape. No added music relieves the stifling intensity thus created. 

Director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch wisely choose not to sensationalize the killings, emphasizing, instead, their cold, dispassionate execution. Are we to infer this is the retaliatory excess of such complete subjugation of this woman? The return of the repressed? Katherine cannot even participate in the men's dinner conversation, though, ordered to sit quietly, she can't even leave the room. Are we to pity or root for her? Is this more than a plea for humane behavior and against class oppression? If so, should Katherine not treat her black maid Anna as more than a servant? 

Katherine would, in fact, be a more interesting character if there were some psychological complexity explored. Some have called this a nice change from the suffering female victim, but the other side of the coin shows a sociopath at work, not a great recommendation though Florence Pugh delivers a flawless, strong performance. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

 

Writer/director Christopher Nolan has a glorious gift. Unfettered by conventional narrative structure, he hit my radar with his second feature film Memento (2000), a mind-boggling story told backwards with overlapping events. Nolan has followed with the exciting Dark Knight trilogy and the astonishing Inception. But he has saved his most brilliant brainchild for Dunkirk.

Dunkirk doesn't relate the story of the May 1940 evacuation of up to 300,000 Allied troops from this French beach area. It viscerally immerses us in it with an immediacy almost beyond comprehension. With a few lines of introductory titles setting the scene, the rest of the film is experienced with men on land, in the air, and on -- and in -- the sea. With his signature playing with unshackled time frames, titles announce: 1. The Mole, one week (the jetty at the beach); 2. The Sea, one day; and 3. The Air, one hour. Liberally crosscutting among these three settings and times, Lee Smith's editing keeps the action clear and crashing forward with unbridled momentum. 

The only context we get, and it is sufficient, is a flyer that flutters down on the six soldiers walking through the town in the opening. Shot on location, with real Spitfires, battleships, and small boats, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema captures evocative (and often painfully beautiful) compositions: the empty beach as one soldier walks into the waves, lines of soldiers waiting for help who are instead sitting ducks for German planes, men thrashing in the water and trapped in enclosed spaces, a lone Spitfire burning in defiance of the Nazis. My sole complaint is the overuse of Hans Zimmer's music. 

The cast is superb. As Mr. Dawson, captain of one of the small civilian boats, the always exceptional Mark Rylance brings a steely resolve to his part in the rescue. Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton and James D'Arcy as Colonel Winnant speak volumes with reaction shots. Fionn Whitehead as young British soldier Tommy evokes empathy immediately and throughout an array of crises. And Tom Hardy as Farrier, piloting one of the British Spitfires, communicates his determination and decision for self-sacrifice with just his eyes, his face half covered by his radio mask.   

In both standard and IMAX presentations, the latter the most powerful way to experience Dunkirk, at area cinemas.

 

Contemporary French cinema excels in character studies, foregrounding the interaction between a few connected characters. In The Midwife two middle-aged women come back together in a reunion of opposites. The midwife of the title is Claire who receives an unwelcome telephone message from Béatrice, her deceased father's lover who just walked out on him one day. 

Recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, Béatrice expresses regrets about her previous behavior and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. Claire responds icily at first but, because of her good nature, gradually thaws. And yet, we see that Béatrice remains the kind of person who uses those around her, indulging her narcissistic predisposition, getting money from Claire, moving in with her, and taking advantage of her kindness.  

A study in dichotomous personalities, they present contrasting physical appearances as well. Béatrice gambles, drinks too much, smokes, and thinks of herself first. By contrast, Claire works hard, supports her patients, her son and his girlfriend, and sacrifices her time. Claire wears conservative, tailored, dull-colored clothes; Béatrice prefers bright colors, busy designs, and loose fitting styles. Claire's hair is pulled back in a ponytail; Béatrice's bleached blond hair is loose and free. 

Director/writer Martin Provost makes this all too deliberately designed to explore the yin and yang of one woman who is dying and the other who brings life into the world -- emphasized through a birth in the opening moments and several births in succeeding scenes. More gratuitous, Claire has a budding relationship with Paul who shares garden space as though this woman can't be happy without romance in her life. 

Nevertheless, The Midwife succeeds, to the extent that it does, because of the talented, legendary French actresses who inhabit these two characters. Catherine Frot as Claire and Catherine Deneuve as Béatrice interact and react effortlessly, delivering exchanges with poise. For Claire and for us it does invite reflecting on compassion, forgiveness, and what is most important in our lives. In French with English subtitles, at Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Two men openly said horrible things about each other during a historical period known ominously as The Troubles. The enemy leaders are forced to journey together in 2006 during the Northern Ireland Peace Accords. Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness and Democratic Party pastor, Ian Paisley, are chauffeured to the meeting.

Writer Colin Bateman imagines what transpired between the two, even in a funny scene in the men's can of a gas station. The result may not be history, verifiable and true, but it is drama, rich and rewarding.

The journey is not long, but it is bumpy, and it presages a change in Irish history. As the narrator/bureaucrat Harry Patterson says, "The hand of history is 'round my throat." He is wired to the chauffeur and awaits progress reports on the old boys' networking.

The Rev. Paisley is also on his way to his 50th wedding anniversary party, and that event provides an entree for the more flippant MacGinnis to wind up the old, coughing Presbyterian. The chauffeur, a complex character played well by Freddie Highmore of "Bates Motel," gets the two men to talk sports, part of the sport of diplomacy until the pronoun becomes "we."

Paisley, as interpreted so well by Timothy Spall, speaks as if cement were concreting in his mouth. Colm Meany plays the elfish MacGinnis.

Nick Hamm directed The Journey with an eye on art as well as history. He has the witnesses to this history, including John Hurt as Patterson and Catherine McCormack as Kate Elgar, act like a Greek chorus of commentators. Hamm includes the sound of an Irish drum, percussive and foreboding. The Journey offers moments of humor and waltzes of grace and anger in a film of an imagined journey.

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