10 Best Movies That Touch On The Afterlife

It’s a theme that has occupied man from the dawn of civilization: what comes next? And if there is a “next” what’s it like. In fiction, the afterlife has appeared in stories for almost as long as there have been stories, such as Orpheus descending into the netherworld to rescue his love Eurydice. Dante tried to envision the Medieval Catholic view of judgment and the three-tiered afterlife in his Divine Comedy. Charles Dickens touched on it in his popular “A Christmas Carol” with its story of a second chance to change fate. There have been plenty of movies with afterlife themes since the creation of the cinema. Many of them have been bad or mediocre, but a few have handled the subject with insight or humor or heart-tugging drama. The following, in no particular order, are my choices for the best of the genre.

Warning: It’s unavoidable to have spoilers here since with some of these films the afterlife aspect is tied in with the climax of the film.

Heaven Is For Real (2014)

Sadly, the words “Christian” and “Movie” rarely are combined with “Good.” Too many are painfully simplistic with stick characters while some try to scare people into belief, such as the “Left Behind” series. Heaven Is For Real avoids those pitfalls and does a decent job communicating honest faith. Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly play the parents of a young boy who goes through a serious illness. When he recovers, he begins to describe visiting Jesus in Heaven during the illness. The movie doesn’t gloss over the struggles the family has, especially for Kinnear’s character who’s a minister having a crisis of faith. It likely helped that the movie was directed and co-written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask).

Field Of Dreams (1989)

“Is this Heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Iowa? I could have sworn this was Heaven.” Existential philosophy meets baseball, and magic is made. Through the filter of baseball the movie deals with the connections between our lives and the lives of those who have gone before us. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) spends the movie thinking he’s helping others, only to discover at the end he’s helped himself reconcile with his father. One interesting side note: Doc Archibald “Moonlight” Graham (played by Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) was a real person. There were some minor changes made – his lone game was in 1905, rather than the end of the 1922 season as stated in the film – but the stories about Doc Graham in the movie are based on interviews with people who actually knew him.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

What if you meet your soul mate after he’s dead? That’s the conundrum at the heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In 1900, the young widow Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) rents an oceanfront cottage only to discover it’s haunted by the previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). At first they’re antagonistic, but then it becomes growing respect and interdependent. Then a mistake drives them apart. But years later, when she’s old and frail, the Captain returns. When Mrs. Muir passes from this life, she’s freed from her broken-down body and we see her spirit, young and beautiful again. The afterlife is where they can experience together the joy that was denied them on Earth. That’s a decent description of Heaven.

Between Two Worlds (1944)

The play “Outward Bound” premiered on Broadway in 1925 and ran for 144 performances. It was filmed in 1930 with much of the original cast, including Leslie Howard in the lead role. The remake in 1944 was retitled Between Two Worlds and it incorporated WWII into the story. The main role went to John Garfield, though the supporting cast featured many outstanding Warner Brothers contract players, including Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, and Edmund Gwen. The story deals with several Londoners who are killed in an air raid and then awaken on an ocean liner on their way to either Heaven or Hell. Their stories are told in flashback. It is a product of its age, with the emphasis on judgment and fear of damnation. One interesting sidenote: the original version’s star Leslie Howard had volunteered for the British Army after the war started. It’s believed he was on an assignment for British Intelligence when a plane he was on, bound for Lisbon, was shot down by the Luftwaffe. Howard along with everyone else on board was killed, the year before Between Two Worlds came out.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Like Between Two Worlds there’s an element of judgment and damnation in What Dreams May Come, but it also incorporates an element of grace and reconciliation. With the death of Robin Williams, this movie has become quite poignant. It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who’d had a hand in 16 episodes of the classic “Twilight Zone” as well as numerous novels and short stories that were adapted as movies (including Duel, I Am Legend, and Stir of Echoes). Williams plays a doctor whose two children die in an accident. Later the doctor also dies and awakens in a Heaven that’s created from his favorite painting done by his artist wife. He meets two helpers as he adapts to Heaven, Albert (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Leona (Rosalind Chao). Later he discovers that they are the spirits of his two children. They chose how he’d see them based on offhand comments he’d made to them. But in an echo of Orpheus, Williams must leave Heaven and negotiate his way through Hell to save his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who has committed suicide in despair after losing her entire family and been condemned to Hell. The movie won an Oscar for its special effects including the painted Heaven (with wet paint), other visions of paradise that look like Maxfield Parish paintings, and a Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Ghost (1990)

Ghost could be viewed as Dante lite. When you die, you go towards the light, get dragged to the depths, or get stuck in between for a while. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin gave the audience a powerful love story – one that turned pottery making into an erotic exercise. But when Sam (Patrick Swayze) is shot in a robbery, he forgoes going to the light to stay close to his love Molly (Demi Moore). The life-and-death drama and some truly scary scenes are balanced by Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar-winning comedic turn as a medium who discovers she’s not as fake as she thought. Ghost became the worldwide box office champ of 1990, and such success guaranteed it would be parodied. However, it retains its power, and the ending gives an affirming and deeper view of Heaven than most movies. As Sam finally walks toward the light, his last words to his love Molly are, “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside, you take it with you.” That’s a desire for many people.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a good movie in its own right and could have qualified for this list, except that this remake which is superior. You have a script co-written by Elaine May (with Warren Beatty) along with an uncredited polish by the legendary Robert Towne. It became the 5th highest grossing movie of 1978. Along with co-writing the film, Beatty also produced, co-directed (with Buck Henry) and starred in this comedic fantasy about a saxophone-playing pro-football quarterback for the LA Rams who’s spirit gets pulled out of his body just before a serious accident by an overzealous angel (Henry). After an extended and hilarious search the head angel, Mr. Jordan, finds a millionaire who’s just died who’s body becomes a temporary vessel for Beatty’s soul until Jordan can find a suitable athletic body as a permanent placement. The cast is incredible, with Julie Christie, Jack Warden, Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. Like Ghost, the movie turns on Beatty’s connection with his love Christie that transcends his move to other bodies. Is love a glimpse of the eternity of Heaven?

Always (1989)

Steven Spielberg remade one of his favorite movies, the Spencer Tracy film A Guy Named Joe, but switched the story from World War II to a contemporary setting with aviators battling forest fires. Richard Dreyfus’ hotshot pilot dies while making a water drop. He meets a Heavenly messenger who gives him an assignment – help the pilot who has replaced him to succeed. It turns out he also has to help his beloved (Holly Hunter) move on as well. The movie was noteworthy as the final film appearance by Audrey Hepburn as the Heavenly Hap. Always is the opposite of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait because rather than undying love, the lesson here is you must let go of what was in order to be ready for the eternal. As Dreyfus’ character says near the end, “I know now, that the love we hold back is the only pain that follows us here.” In Always, holding onto what was corrupts and ruins our good memories.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

“I see dead people…They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” M. Night Shyamalan created a sensation with his first movie – unfortunately it was downhill from there. But The Sixth Sense remains a fascinating story of spirits caught in limbo and the young boy who can see them. It’s one of Bruce Willis’ best performances, and one of the best twist endings ever put on film, though when you know the see the movie again you see the clues salted through the script. It actually expands on the lesson of Always. To break free and move on, the dead must stop seeing only what they want to see. Their holding on creates a delusion in which they remain – they are truly haunted. The Sixth Sense would have been the top grossing movie of 1999 except for a certain movie called Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This is the second Bruce Joel Ruben screenplay on this list, and it’s quite different – and much more powerful – than Ghost. Strangely enough, both films were release in the same year. However it took 10 years for Ladder to get made, even though it was acclaimed as the best screenplay in Hollywood that hadn’t been filmed. That changed when Adrian Lyne chose to direct it after doing the hits Flashdance, 9½ Weeks, and Fatal Attraction. In Ladder Jacob Singer is a soldier wounded in Vietnam. Fast-forward to 1975 and he’s now a postal carrier in New York who’s separated from his first wife and family. Haunted by the death of his youngest son, Jacob finds his grasp of reality threatened by increasingly bizarre experiences and horrifying visions that revolve around his experience in the war. The movie wasn’t very successful when it was released, different from Ghost, but it became a cult hit and was a major influence on other movies. The cast was headed by Tim Robbins as Jacob, and also starred Danny Aiello and Elizabeth Pena, but it had several supporting actors in the cast whose careers took off after the movie, including Ving Rhames, Eriq La Salle, Jason Alexander, Patricia Kalember and S. Epatha Merkerson. If you’ve seen this movie, it stays with you forever. After increasingly horrific experiences, in the end Jacob becomes reconciled to what happened to him in Vietnam. When that happens his youngest son appears and leads his father by the hand up a staircase toward a brilliant light. We then discover that Jacob’s wounds in Vietnam were mortal and the years of life he seemed to experience was all in his mind as he fought to live – the years took place in days. Life will end for us all, but rather than viewing it as an enemy, it may come as a loved one to release us from pain and let us enter the afterlife with joy.

Honorable Mentions: Defending Your Life, The Others, Heaven Can Wait (1943)

 

On the Other Hand

I recently decided to stream a 2014 movie based on a well-received YA novel. I’d thought about seeing it in the theater on its first run but the word of mouth on it wasn’t great. So it took me a while to give If I Stay a chance. It starred Chloe Grace Moretz whom I enjoyed in Kick-Ass, Hugo, and Let Me In. On the negative side there was the remake of Carrie, though that misfire all wasn’t her fault.

The movie was the first fiction feature for R.J.Cutler, who is more known as a TV producer (Nashville, Flip That House) and a documentary maker (1993’s The War Room, The World According to Dick Cheney). The novel by Gayle Foreman was adapted by Shauna Cross, who’d done the screenplays for Whip It and What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Foreman did write a sequel  for “If I Stay” called “Where She Went” which kind of answers the original novel’s title right off the bat.

The caught-between-life-and-after-life genre has some good movies in it, but it also has some stinkers. The production is dealing with a universal moment for all humans; simply put, none of us gets out of here alive. You can’t get away from the profundity of the situation, even though it can be handled with humor. What you don’t want is a casual feel since, to use the cliché, this is a matter of life and death. You want to get down and dirty and struggle with the theme. The biggest problem with If I Stay is it keeps its hands clean.

The movie adaptation is straightforward, following the structure of the book. Mia (Moretz) is a 17-year-old High School senior who’s a talented cellist. She’s auditioned for Juilliard and is waiting to hear from them, and she’s also dealing with the end of a relationship with rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). On a drive with her mother Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and young brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), an oncoming car comes into their lane and hits them head-on.

Mia awakens on the snow-covered road with emergency service vehicles all around her. She sees what’s left of the family car, which isn’t much, and then she sees EMTs working on her body. She’s transported to the hospital where she watches the surgeons work on her body, but she slips into a coma and no one is sure if she’ll awaken. The movie flips back and forth from the hospital to events to show her family life, her development as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam. At the hospital, friends and family gather, including her grandfather (Stacy Keach), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and Adam.

The best parts of the movie are the depiction of the relationship between Mia and her parents and family. Enos is luminous as Kat, and was likely happy to do a much more passionate role after the two seasons of the AMC series The Killing. Keach is restrained and effective as he switches between stoicism when around others and emotional vulnerability when alone with his comatose granddaughter.

While it has a promising beginning, the love story of Adam and Mia fails to be compelling because of clunky writing that slips into clichés so badly you’re pretty sure you’ve already seen their scenes before. Adam is on the cusp of success in his rock band while Mia’s hero is Beethoven. The story plays up the difference in styles rather than understanding how they blend. The writers apparently nere listened to the Beatles (“Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” in particular), almost any Harry Chapin song, or Damien Rice’s “Volcano” among a host of others. For a movie that centers on music, its poor understanding of the art form is like a flapping flat tire as the story’s progresses.

If I Stay suffers in comparison to other YA book adaptations, especially The Fault in Our Stars, which came out a few months before If I Stay. With Fault the audience was drawn in completely to the relationship of Hazel and Gus, and the story went in surprising directions. With Mia and Adam, you don’t really care about them, so you also don’t care if Mia stays or passes on. For a fantasy like this, that’s a fatal flaw.

Still Powerful

I recently watched Atonement again for the first time since I saw it in the theater when it was released in 2007. I’d found it devastatingly powerful the first time I viewed it, and that power was still just as potent nine years after its release.

The movie is based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Ian McEwan. The adaptation by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons, The Quiet American) is remarkably faithful to the book. The one major change is the epilogue to the story, and Hampton improves on the book by making it more suitable for film. The story plays with perceptions and misconceptions, folding back on events to view them from different angles. It’s not exactly the untrustworthy narrator that’s recently gained popularity in books and movies like Gone Girl. If anything, it has some of the blood of Rashomon flowing through its veins.

The first part of the story takes place on a beautiful summer’s day in 1935 at the Tallis country estate in England. The central focus is on the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis, who wants to be a writer and has prepared a play for her visiting cousins to help her perform after dinner that evening. Briony’s older sister Cecilia is home from Cambridge, as is the housekeeper’s son Robbie, whose way is being paid by the Tallis family. Briony sees what she believes to be an argument take place between Cecilia and Robbie, and later intercepts a note that leads her to believe Robbie is a perverse sex maniac. When Briony’s cousin Lola is attacked that night, Briony denounces Robbie as the attacker and he’s arrested.

The remainder of the film deals with the repercussions from that event. For Robbie they include joining the army as a way out of prison, which finds him in Dunkirk with the retreating British Expeditionary Force in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940. He’d seen Cecilia before he was deployed, and now his focus is to make it back to England for her. Briony is older and wiser now, but testimony against Robbie has caused a complete break with Cecilia. She puts her education on hold to work as a nurse when the war breaks out, though she continues writing. Her great hope, though, is to be reconciled with Cecilia and Robbie.

The excellence of the casting has improved with age. Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy star as the star-crossed lovers. Knightly was well established by this point, having done Bend It Like Beckham five years earlier, followed by Love Actually and Pride and Prejudice. She’d also done the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, finishing it just before Atonement. It likely felt like returning to her roots after the temporary transplant to Hollywood. McAvoy was starting to make a name for himself in films after a decade in British television, including a role in the original English version of “Shameless.” He’d gained notice in 2005’s Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and then broke out with The Last King of Scotland the next year. There’s a definite, understated chemistry between the two that makes the story work.

The pivotal role is Briony as a child, and here the production lucked out by casting Saoirse Ronan in her first major role. She’s pitch perfect as the too-mature-but-not-mature-enough Briony, and the performance was impressive enough to earn her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She had a couple of missteps on her way to becoming a lead actress with The Lovely Bones and Hanna, two movies that weren’t so much bad as could have been a lot better, and we’ll forget about The Host (as most everyone has by now). With Brooklyn she showed her mature power as a performer, and I look forward to what she will do in the future.

The casting director, Jina Jay, found some excellent actors for supporting roles who’ve continued on giving fine performances. Brenda Blethyn was well known already and had an Oscar nomination for Secrets and Lies. She played Robbie’s servant mother, after having just recently played Kiera Knightly’s mother in Pride and Prejudice. There were three actors who were pretty much unknowns at the time of filming who have gone on to bigger careers. Juno Temple, who played Briony’s cousin Lola, hasn’t made as big a splash as she deserves, despite good work in films such as The Brass Teapot and Horns. A small role as a servant was played by Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones” and was recently in John Wick. But the biggest casting coup was that of candy magnate Paul Marshall, a guess of the Tallises that fateful night, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Atonement was directed by Joe Wright, who’d already worked with Knightly on Pride and Prejudice and would work with both Knightly and Ronan again, on Anna Karenina and Hanna respectively. He carefully moves his camera to capture scenes from different angles, first putting you into Briony’s mind, then changing the view. When Robbie gets to Dunkirk, Wright has his camera flow in one continuous five-minute long take that winds through the confusion and fortitude of the British awaiting rescue on the beach. It’s a tour-de-force shot with a thousand extras that was shot over two days – one day for rehearsal, the other for five takes of which the third was used.

It’s a bit of an injustice that Wright wasn’t nominated for a Best Director Oscar, even though he did received nominations for both the Golden Globes and the BAFTA awards. Atonement received a Best Picture nod, and along with Saoirse Ronan’s nomination the picture received seven. It only won one, for Dario Marianelli’s score that incorporates typewriter strokes like drum beats.

In the novel the epilogue is a 1999 letter from Briony as the author of the piece. Hampton changes it to a television interview with her on the occasion of the book’s publication, her 20th novel. Briony is now played by Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s interviewed by the late writer/director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain), who passed away the year after Atonement was released. The brief, memorable scene explains the name of the film, and it will stay with you long after you see this magnificent film.

Surprise!

Usually a movie is tied to the studio publicity machine. A teaser trailer may come out a year before the film is released, followed by two or three more trailers to build up expectations. However, producer J.J. Abrams turned that around by releasing a first trailer two months before a movie’s release and having it serve as the announcement of the production. He attached the trailer to the Michael Bay film 13 Hours, but not many saw that movie. The next trailer came out two weeks later and was shown on the Super Bowl 50 broadcast, so millions saw it. That opened a floodgate of curiosity about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

The movie was filmed under the script’s original title, “The Shelter,” and also had the name “Valencia” attached to it during production in Louisiana. The script was by first-time screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matthew Steucken, whose previous work in the film industry was as, respectively, an assistant editor and an assistant producer. Abrams brought in Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, to polish the script. He gave the directing duty to Dan Trachtenberg, who’d done a 7 minute short based on the game Portal that had caught Abrams’ eye. 10 Cloverfield Lane was filmed with a miniscule $5 million budget. The secrecy around the movie was such that two of the stars thought the movie had been shelved because they heard nothing about its release.

The movie is essentially a three-person play. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her boyfriend and drives off into the Louisiana night, just as a report on the radio talks about a large power outage on the coast. After a stop for gas, she continues on her way only to get into an accident. She wakes up on a thin mattress in a cinderblock room with a saline I.V. in her arm, a brace on her knee – and a handcuff securing the brace to the wall. She eventually discovers that she’s in an underground shelter that was constructed by Howard (John Goodman), a former Navy man who’s a doomsday prepper. Also in the shelter is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local guy who’d helped build Howard’s shelter and then talked his way into it when a strange thing happened.

What follows is a taut meditation on paranoia and suspicion that keeps on twisting the audience’s perceptions. I’d call it Hitchcockian, except Alfred had a much more sedate way of filming, even with Psycho. Here, Trachtenberg creates a claustrophobic mystery that also makes you feel like you’re riding on a roller coaster on which the brakes have gone out. He also manages to pay off the story in an amazing climax.

Goodman is top-notch as Howard. You don’t know whether he’s a psycho or a prophet, innocent or malevolent, until a moment that will shock even the most jaded member of the audience. The mystery of his nature keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout the film, even when things seem to be going well. Gallagher effectively portrays the wild-card in the hand. The key role, though, is Winstead’s performance as Michelle. The audience experiences the movie through her perceptions, so it can be a hostage drama, an action story of survival, or a cat-and-mouse thriller depending upon the moment, and she shifts between the iterations smoothly. One fun note: Michelle’s boyfriend, who shows up only as a voice on the phone, was performed by Bradley Cooper, whose first big role was on JJ Abrams’ “Alias.”

The movie is more of a second cousin than a direct relative of 2008’s Cloverfield. Abrams had marketed that found-footage film was also kept under wraps until just before its release as well (also attached to another Michael Bay film, the first Transformers). Cloverfield grossed almost twice its $25 million budget in its first week and ended up taking in $170 million worldwide. It was directed by Matt Reeves, who went on to direct Let Me In and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it was written by Drew Goddard who recently did The Martian as well as executive produced the Netflix adaptation of “Daredevil.” (Both Reeves and Goddard have executive producer credit on 10 Cloverfield Lane.)

In a sense the movie harks back to Cold War thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate and Fail Safe, but it keeps the focus much tighter than those earlier films. It also outshines the original Cloverfield. While it may be a cousin, it definitely lives in a much higher-class neighborhood.

Time Marches On

When it was recently announced that Nicholas Meyer has joined the production team for the new Star Trek TV series, the hearts of Trekkies everywhere glowed with hope. Meyer wrote the screenplays for the best original cast movies – The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country – and he directed Khan and Country as well. He first rose to prominence as a novelist, having penned the bestseller (and the best Sherlock Holmes homage) “The Seven-Percent-Solution.” When the book was filmed, Meyer did the screenplay, and then six years later he did Khan. But in between he wrote and directed a film that crossed science fiction with mystery, with a large dollop of romance as well: 1979’s Time After Time. It’s long been a favorite of mine.

The movie begins in 1893 London. A prostitute is tossed out of a bar. The camera views her from behind a wrought-iron fence across the street, but then it begins to move as you hear footsteps. It’s looking through the eyes of someone following her. When she finally turns around and sees him, she speaks directly to the camera as they make an “arrangement” to go into an alley. As she readies herself she asks his name. The camera is tight on her face when he says, “John, but most people call me Jack.” Then there’s the sound of a knife ripping through clothing as the woman’s eyes go wide before they lose animation. It’s wonderfully effective with little blood shown. Meyer restrains the obvious violence throughout the movie. He lets a drop of blood speak volumes, so different from many movies these days that show blood by the bucketful. When he does show a bloody crime scene near the movie’s climax, it’s more powerful for the audience because of his prior restraint.

The scene changes to a dinner party hosted by H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell). After his final guest, his friend Dr. John Stevenson (David Warner), arrives at the table, Wells announces he’s invented a time machine and intends to travel to the future which he imagines will be Utopia. (The scene mirrors the opening of Wells’ book “The Time Machine.”)  He shows the men to his basement workshop where he explains how the machine works. They return upstairs to continue their discussion, only to be interrupted by the police who found the murdered woman right after the attack and traced the killer to the area. The men then notice that Stevenson is no longer with them. When the police open his medical bag they find his gloves and a knife covered with fresh blood. Wells goes downstairs and finds the time machine is gone.

He’s built a fail-safe key into the system so that if someone else uses the machine it will return to its last position in time. It does, and the display shows Stevenson’s gone forward to November 1979, so Wells sets out to apprehend him. He’s knocked out on the trip and when he comes to he’s in the middle of a museum exhibit dedicated to him and his futuristic works, none of which he had written by 1893. (Interesting side note: a young boy who points out Wells in the exhibit is played by Corey Feldman, who’d go onto fame in the 1980s and infamy after that.) Instead of London, the machine has been moved to San Francisco for the exhibit. Wells realizes Stevenson will need money, so he checks the exchange desks at the city’s banks until he discovers Stevenson’s trail. The banker who helps him, Amy Robbins (Mary Steenbergen) finds herself attracted to Wells, and he to her, but first he must stop a murderer.

In some respects, you could view Time After Time as a dress rehearsal for The Voyage Home. Meyer even films on some of the same locations, and wire-rimmed spectacles like the present Bones gives Kirk in the later film also are a prop in Time. He also gives a shout-out to The Seven-Percent-Solution. Stevenson has continued hs murderous ways, and the papers call the killer now preying on women the Bay Area Ripper. Wells goes to the police to tell them about Stevenson, but afraid the police won’t believe him if he told them he was H.G. Wells, he tells them he’s a London detective named Sherlock Holmes – unaware of the timeless phenomena Sherlock became, since only the first couple of stories were published by 1893.

The triumvirate of McDowell, Warner, and Steenbergen was a fortunate choice for Meyer, and all three have had long and distinguished careers. Life imitated art a bit, in that following the movie McDowell and Steenbergen married. They didn’t have the full Hollywood ending, in that the marriage only lasted 10 years, but they did have two children and one of them, Charlie McDowell, is a director whose first feature was the well-received The One I Love. Meyer had better luck as a casting matchmaker six years later when he directed Volunteers. The comedy starred Tom Hanks, John Candy, and Rita Wilson. Wilson and Hanks had worked together once before (on the Bosom Buddies TV series), but their romance began on the movie set. They married three years later and are still together.

Meyer did fudge the dates a bit, since Jack the Ripper was active in 1888, not 1893. But that’s a small quibble, especially when it comes to such an enjoyable movie. The movie was well received and it was nominated for an Edgar award as the best mystery movie of the year. It lost out to another movie set in Victorian times directed by a novelist turned movie-maker – Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery.

Time After Time shows up on TCM now and again, and it’s available on Amazon to watch or purchase. It’s worth checking out.

The Long Crawl Home

It’s Oscar Sunday, and in a couple of hours the odds are that Leonardo DiCaprio will finally receive a Best Actor Oscar on his fourth try. He’s also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor when he was a child actor (for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) and he was in line for a Best Picture Oscar as a producer of The Wolf of Wall Street, but he’s O for 6 as I write this. It’s not the longest drought – Peter O’Toole was nominated 8 times in a span to over 40 years and never won. Paul Newman was on his seventh nomination before he finally won for, oddly enough, reprising a character he’d performed 25 years earlier for which he received his second nomination – “Fast Eddie” Felson (in The Hustler and The Color of Money). If DiCaprio does win, he will have something else in common with Newman, for his performance in The Revenant is not his best.

Revenant means someone who has returned from the dead, and the movie is loosely based on Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and guide who was mauled by a bear while on an expedition in 1823 in the territory that became the Dakotas. Glass was left for dead but managed to survive and make his way 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa. This isn’t the first major film to tell the story. 1971’s Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris and John Houston, was also based on Glass, though in the film his first name is changed to Zachary.

The Revenant began development in 2001, when producer Akiva Goldman bought the rights to Michael Punke’s book before it was published. As often happens, it was caught in limbo for many years with different versions of the screenplay and different actors attached to the project, including Christian Bale and Samuel L. Jackson. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu came on board in 2011, after directing Babel, 21 Grams, and Biutiful. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy signed on around that time as well. However, some of the financing fell through which caused the film to be put on hold. Inarritu instead did Birdman as his next film, which took several Oscars last year, including 3 for Inarritu (Picture, Directing, and Editing).

When the financing finally came together, Inarritu began filming in Canada, but a mild winter necessitated a move to the southern tip of South America. Inarritu eschewed filming with green screen, so the scenes had to be filmed in pristine wilderness. In the end the original budget of around the $65 million range had more than doubled, but the scenery in the film is spectacular.

What isn’t as spectacular is the screenplay which drifts over the course of the film’s 2 ½ hour running time. It’s the polar opposite of Birdman, which had some of the sharpest dialogue that’s been put on film. Large stretches of The Revenant take place with no dialogue at all. DiCaprio’s Glass is presented as a haunted man whose Pawnee wife was killed and who is now dedicated to his son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). When hostile Arikara warriors attack the expedition, the men are forced to abandon their boat and make for Fort Kiowa by land. Inarritu’s filming of the attack is a high-point for the film, capturing the confusion and brutality of battle in one long stylish shot with the camera doing 360 degree pans as the action flows around it.

The leader of the group, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), has the group hide the pelts they’ve caught and then set out for the fort. Glass is scouting away from the others when he’s set upon by a Grizzly. It is an extended, brutal scene with Glass fighting for his life. The others find Glass clinging to life and try to carry him with them, but the terrain is too difficult. Henry asks for volunteers to stay with Glass to bury him when he passes. Hawk stays, along with John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter).

Hardy disappears into his character as usual, and he is mesmerizing in the role. Poulter plays Bridger as youthful and inexperienced, which is historically correct. While Jim Bridger became a legendary mountain man who helped explore the West and was one of the first to describe what became Yellowstone Park, at the time of Glass’ attack he was 19 and new to the territory.

After the Arikara and the bear, the story focuses on Glass’ long struggle to get back, and that’s where the movie turns into a bit of a long slog for the audience. It would have been a physically taxing shoot for DiCaprio, and that has appealed to the voters this award season. Actors who play roles where the character dies or has a physical handicap have always had an advantage in the Oscar race, and DiCaprio has both of those covered in a sense. He is also deserving for his whole body of work, and that is considered by voters as well. But I wouldn’t rate this as his best performance. (I confess to a soft spot for The Aviator and The Departed, while others would choose The Wolf of Wall Street or one of his other memorable roles.)

The film has been nominated for 12 Oscars, mostly because it fits the place of a blockbuster with its scope. Different from, say, Titanic, it may not capture the majority of those categories. But I wouldn’t bet against Leo.

 

Classic Story, Timeless Style

In literary criticism, there is a story form called “Bildungsroman,” a German word that means a story of formation, education, and culture. It can also be called a “coming of age” story that involves the character’s journey into a wider world than they’ve experienced before. Its primary example is Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” from 1795, but many literary classics fit the bill, such as “Jane Eyre,” “David Copperfield,” “Of Human Bondage,” and “Sons and Lovers.” Recent examples include “Persepolis,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and “About a Boy.” These seven have all been adapted as films, some several times, since they tell classic tales. A movie to add to this list is Brooklyn.

Based on a novel by Colm Toibin and adapted by Nick Hornsby (who wrote “About A Boy”), Brooklyn tells the story of Ellis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who has no prospects in her native country. Ellis (pronounced AY-lis) works in a shop for a harridan named Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan) and goes unnoticed by the boys at the town’s dances. She’s given a chance by her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) to travel to Brooklyn where a priest originally from the town, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), has arranged for her visa, a job at a department store, and housing at a home for women run by Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters).

During the crossing she’s tutored by her cabin mate on how to handle the new world she’s entering, but it’s still a hard adjustment. Father Flood helps by getting her into a bookkeeping class where she excels, but the biggest help is when she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an Italian plumber who’s smitten by her. Tony has dreams of accomplishing more by forming a building company with his brothers to develop the open country of Long Island. But fate throws a wrench into the works when a tragedy pulls Ellis back to Ireland, where she meets Jim Farrell (Domhnail Gleeson) a young publican who will take over his father’s pub soon.

As is usually the case with bildungsroman, character is dominant in Brooklyn. While there’s the physical journey to the New World, there’s also the interior journey for Ellis as she grows in confidence and realizes who she is. This movie is also a coming-of-age for Saoirse Ronan. She first burst into films as the child who sets tragedy in motion in Atonement, for which she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. She followed with juvenile roles in The Lovely Bones and Hanna. Recently she was in The Grand Budapest Hotel as Agatha, Zero’s love of his life, but with Brooklyn she becomes an adult leading lady, and is mesmerizing in the role. She’s been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, and if she were to win it would be well-earned. (In case you’re wondering, Saoirse is pronounced Seer-sah or Sur-sah; please, oh please, Motion Picture Academy, do not have John Travolta announce the nominees in this category.) Strangely enough, Saoirse was born in the Bronx, but her parents moved back to their native Ireland when she was three.

The rest of the cast is pitch perfect in their roles. You’d expect no less from Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters, but a standout is Emory Cohen. It’s a role that could drift closest to stereotype, but Cohen is wonderfully sincere and comes across with an honesty that carries the performance. In smaller roles, the film also features a couple TV veterans: Jessica Pare (“Madmen”) and Emily Brett Rickards (“Arrow”).

Director John Crowley lets the camera observe the characters rather than interfering with stylish flourishes. Where he does show his hand is with color and light, assisted by Cinematographer Yves Belanger (Wild, Dallas Buyers Club), Production Designer Francois Seguin, and Costume Designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux. As Ellis grows more confident, the color palette of the movie becomes bolder with technicolor greens, reds, and yellows. It’s a journey from darkness to bright.

A couple reviews back, I expressed my disappointment with The Finest Hours for telling an old fashioned story in an old fashioned way. While Brooklyn takes place in the same year, 1952, it takes a classic story and tells it with timeless style. Along with the Best Actress nod for Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn has also been nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Each nomination is justified. I heartily recommend this fine film.