The World to Come

Released: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD) 

→Sundance 2021 Premiere 

Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen 

Directed by: Mona Fastvold 

Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a beguiling romance set on the American frontier, is often literally perched on the edge of light and dark. Though its many contrasts are obvious they’re not always literal. This is a love story set in austere times yet delivered in a rather lyrical way, both through the language of its characters and the lens of André Chemetoff, whose rugged landscape photography is well-matched to the material.

The World to Come is an adaptation of a short story by Jim Shepard which tells of a clandestine relationship between two neglected wives and how their mutual attraction comes to threaten the patriarchal order in two households. In bringing it to the screen Fastvold prioritizes the characters and a gritty realism over groundbreaking storytelling. The resulting film, which uses a female perspective to explore its themes, certainly plots familiar footsteps. Yet with Fastvold’s detail-oriented approach and exceptional performances all around it remains throughout an engrossing and often tense affair.

A slow vertical pan down through the trees lands us on a farmstead somewhere in upstate New York circa the mid-1850s. Life here in this seclusion, where mail is delivered on horseback, on the outside looks quaint and peaceful. Fastvold wastes little time in ripping down that idyllic veil and apprising us to the immense challenges of settler life. What strikes you right away — beyond the silence — is the tedium (and amount!) of manual labor. However the setting is crucial in more ways than a convincing mise-en-scène, the central conflict far more complex than the physical.

Dyer (Casey Affleck) and Abigail (Katherine Waterston) are a humble farming couple who have suffered a tragedy on top of an apocalyptic winter that has wiped out nearly all their food. It does not take long to notice the lack of joie de vivre here. Little else seems to be shared beyond the toiling, the couple communicating with all the intimacy of complete strangers — brought together not as a match made in heaven but as a partnership of utility. Affleck’s Dyer may as well be on the moon emotionally as a devoutly pragmatic man who has known nothing but hard work and strife. It’s a very good performance that will catch you by surprise with its pitifulness and yet still have you questioning whether feeling pity is appropriate.

Abigail, on the other hand, is an intellectual who has become jaded with her rather plain existence. She’s realized through an arguably career-best Waterston whose soft-spoken mannerisms are most often heard in voice-over. In a rare example of narration actually contributing to the story rather than feeling like an unnecessary layer, Waterston reads entries from Abigail’s diary, largely a colorless record of the slow decline of a marriage that never seemed happy to begin with, as well as her own mounting frustration with her station as a housewife. Aside from establishing a crucial point of view these brief moments of introspection intimately connect us with the character in a way that makes us not observers but rather acquaintances.

Following a change of seasons — and a cacophonous storm sequence that remains the movie’s most vivid — those diary entries become ever more a testimony to what has been missing, or how much has been lying dormant under a façade of submissiveness. The arrival of spring brings with it a pair of fresh new faces in Finney (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), a well-to-do couple who move into a nearby (well, near-distant) farmstead. The free-spirited, enviably outspoken Tallie has an immediate affect on passive Abigail.

What begins as a neighborly gesture — donated fruit for a cobbler, for instance — soon turns into long afternoons spent under shady trees and entangled in philosophical conversation. It’s not long before the menial and the mundane are being forgotten, replaced by meaningful moments. A trend, of course, that does not go unnoticed by the men. The strength of the script, provided by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, is in subtlety and nuance even if the developments are mostly foreseeable. Affleck’s enigmatic to the bitter end, his masterful body language telling a story both of irrevocable change and permanent resignation. Abbott, on the other hand, isn’t as fortunate, playing an obvious cad who is easy to boo from the get-go.

Quite obviously though it is the women to whom The World to Come truly belongs. Kirby’s presence charges the scene with exciting energy, and with her waterfall of ginger hair she makes for a wonderful muse for Chemetoff’s camera. Waterston captures demureness in a way that’s equal parts charming and crushing. Together, and despite their different backgrounds, these leading frontier ladies have the kind of chemistry that keeps you utterly invested despite the misery that encroaches on all sides.

Beautiful and bleak in equal measure, Fastvold’s period romance feels much more like a snippet of reality than a Movie Production. Prior to the Sundance screening* she described the shoot being challenging. That’s something that comes across in the texture of the film. The world feels entirely lived in, authentic and with no traditional script-y exit doors in sight. The mood is undeniably heavy and somber, perhaps trending more towards the dark than the light. But that makes the oases of comfort and warmth, however fleeting, such a delightful contrast.

* This film had its world premier at the 77th Venice International Film Festival on September 6, 2020, where it won the Queer Lion award for best LGBTQ+ themed film at the festival. it went on to screen in competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Recommendation: The film’s moral resolution may not be to every audience member’s satisfaction, and the themes of physical/emotional isolation and patriarchal oppression may be familiar but its the lack of force and politicization in conveying those ideas that make The World to Come an even more attractive period piece.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Meeting you has made my day.” 

“Oh, how pleasant and uncommon it is to make someone’s day.” 

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Photo credits: IMDB; Sundance Institute/photo by Vlad Cioplea 

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.

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Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

 

Palm Springs

Release: Friday, July 10, 2020 (Hulu)

→Hulu

Written by: Andy Siara

Directed by: Max Barbakow

Palm Springs, a buzzy new Hulu original starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti and J.K. Simmons, for me has an unusual distinction. This romantic comedy about two strangers stuck in a time loop at a wedding boasts one of the best post-credits scenes I’ve seen in a long time. It seems like such a small thing, not even worthy of mentioning in a review much less in the lede, but the closure it provides is just so satisfying it improved my opinion of the movie overall.

That might seem like a slam against everything preceding it. It’s not. Max Barbakow’s modern reinvention of Groundhog Day is far from perfect but it is very enjoyable and it ends in a way that sends the audience off on a high. Any movie that has the potential to get fresh eyeballs on that Bill Murray classic is okay by me. Palm Springs is perhaps even an homage to it, with lines like “it’s one of those infinite time loop situations you may have heard about” seemingly gesturing in the direction of the late Harold Ramis’ beloved 1993 comedy, or at least, toward a recent history of films inspired by it.

Harder to ignore is the fact the famously goofy 42-year-old positions himself as an intensely cynical, occasionally even unlikable leading man who has to get over himself in order to break free of the barely metaphorical cycle of living without purpose or fear of consequence. Samberg is Nyles, a drifter doomed to wake up on the same day in November ad infinitum. He takes the expression “going through the motions” to a whole new level with his presence at a wedding for Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Tyler Hoechlin). His only connection is his high-maintenance girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner), who is in the bridal party.

Groundhog Day fans already know the drill: Nobody else is aware of his situation, and nothing he does seems to change it, not even multiple, technically successful, suicide attempts. After being stuck here for an indeterminate amount of time Nyles’ ability to care has been worn down to a nubbin. Then, during one loop, he introduces himself to Sarah (Milioti), who sticks out like such a sore thumb due to her visible discomfort in seeing her younger, far more successful (and selfless!) sister get her happily-ever-after that it kind of amazes me how Nyles does not pick up on this any sooner.

Mostly this is because the script from Andy Siara prefers giving the former SNL star the space and time to do his sketches rather than worrying too much about internal logic. Not for nothing, there are some really creative inventions as the filmmakers play around with the character’s prescience. A memorable sequence early on has Nyles going through a dance sequence so bizarre no person would possibly be able to pull it off without his “experience.” It also is a really fun way to get the two main characters to initially hook up. Of course, just as things are turning amorous a series of crazy happenings causes Sarah to fall into the same trap Nyles has been stuck in. All I will offer is that it involves a crazy-eyed, face-painted J.K. Simmons wielding a bow and arrow, and a cave of glowing light.

Palm Springs not only asks you to suspend disbelief for a minute (or two, or depending on how cynical you are, maybe 90) but it also seems like one of those movies that would rely heavily on dramatic irony. However it moves surprisingly quickly beyond that, evolving into a quasi sci-fi adventure and thereby making Sarah a more interesting, smarter character. When she comes to accept what’s happened, she proves to be very (and darkly hilariously) solutions-oriented, especially when she learns a little bit more about the guy she’s stuck here with. Time loop movies can go to some dark places and Palm Springs, despite its tropical setting, is no exception.

For a story steeped in the tradition of two icy hearts gradually warmed by shared intimate experiences, we don’t really get a lot of character development. Interestingly Sarah feels like a more fleshed out character than does Nyles. That feels like a first. Generally speaking Palm Springs relies on actor personalities. For example, J.K. Simmons. Every time I see him in a movie — with the notable exception of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash — I just want to kick back with a stogie and a glass of whisky with the guy and just shoot the breeze. Less involved but also fun are Peter Gallagher as the father of the bride and the wonderful June Squibb as an older wedding guest. And though the conclusion is patently predictable, I just cannot deny the warm fuzzy it leaves you with.

I feel ya buddy

Recommendation: Andy Samberg plays one of his more “unlikable” characters that I can recall. I put quotes around that word because it’s just really hard to gauge where his attitude stems from — bad childhood? Too many loves lost? Parental issues? Wtf is his deal? The movie isn’t great on character development. But it is big on mood and ideas, and that’s plenty enough for me to give this a hearty recommendation to fans of smartly done romantic comedies. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t keep waking up in here. Everything that we are doing is meaningless.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb 

The Lovebirds

Release: Friday, May 22, 2020 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Aaron Abrams; Brendan Gall; Martin Gero

Directed by: Michael Showalter 

The entertaining but uneven The Lovebirds gives one the impression director Michael Showalter wanted to do something more laidback and lightweight following The Big Sick. While The Lovebirds has a few of the elements that made his 2017 romantic comedy such a success, it doesn’t appear to have much interest in providing the same level of emotional connection.

Chief among those elements is the film’s well-chosen pair of lead actors in the innately likable Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae. They play a thirty-something couple who, over the course of one wild and dangerous night, reevaluate themselves and their status as a couple, for better and for worse. For the second film in a row Showalter features a mixed-race couple who are imperiled somewhat by the judgment they face from others. Unlike The Big Sick, which used smart, cutting observational humor to broach difficult conversations, The Lovebirds relies more on broad, goofy humor to propel a familiar wrongfully-accused story.

It opens with a prologue detailing the halcyon days of a romance blossoming between Jibran (Nanjiani), a documentary filmmaker, and Leilani (Rae), an advertising exec. Everything’s perfect. All that’s missing is a dreamlike filter on the lens for this montage of the meet-cute. Cut to four years later and the once very happy couple are miserable tenants stuck in a longterm lease in Resentfulsville. Everything’s an argument, and competitive reality shows seem to be a source of epic blow-ups. (Leilani thinks they could win as contestants on The Amazing Race while Jibran . . . doesn’t even watch the show.)

During the drive over to a dinner party with friends and colleagues, it’s looking (and sounding) more like they are a thing of the past when a bicyclist suddenly, very suddenly, becomes the thing colliding with their present and their car windshield; the thing that ends up shaking up more than just an otherwise awkward evening. Not seconds after Jibran’s careless error they’re being carjacked by an angry man with a mustache (Paul Sparks) claiming to be a cop and that the biker is a criminal. A hectic pursuit ends with Leilani and Jibran left at the scene of a murder and looking anything but innocent when some passersby profile them and call the cops.

The resulting fall-out has the two running for their lives, simultaneously attempting to clear their names and doing some freelance detective work of their own as they track down Mustache. Along the way, the script has them engage in petty crime while donning costumes and pretending to be gangsta as they “intimidate” frat boys for info. Frustratingly only a few of these comedic sketches truly land with their intended effect. It’s important to note how, even as orgies break out before them and bullets whizz by their face, the two very much remain broken up. Yet it’s their being together that gets us through what turns out to be a rather sloppily executed narrative.

Though most of the time it’s simply silly fun, the story is at its most unbelievable, in the most literal sense of the word, when the pair stumble into an Eyes Wide Shut situation involving a connection to Mustache who could help clear their name. It’s a development that comes out of nowhere and registers as nothing more than a poor homage. Nanjiani and Rae for the most part are enough to elevate the poor writing, though Nanjiani was absolutely better in his first collaboration with Showalter. Then there are the dire moments they just can’t improve, such as when they’re forced into explaining their whereabouts to their friends after crashing the party.

It is still a fun little escapade, more so if you disregard the baker’s dozen plot contrivances and leaps in logic that allow the adventure to play out the way that it does. Natural-born comedians in Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae make that so much easier, riffing their way through from one farcical and forced plot point to another.  Their winning chemistry ultimately saves the movie as much as, if not more than, their characters save themselves.

Recommendation: I wish I could stop comparing this movie to The Big Sick, they’re clearly not the same movie and yet I can’t help but wonder what this amiable but silly action comedy might have been like if once again Nanjiani not just acted but wrote the jokes. The Big Sick definitely benefitted from what he brought as a writer. (It also benefitted from the fact it was based on a true story.) Still though, I think what the two movies do have in common is maybe something more important, and that’s a really likable pair of characters the audience can really get behind and want to see succeed. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 87 mins.

Quoted: “Look, I’m sorry I have to kill you guys. You seem like a nice, though somewhat annoying couple.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb

The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Yesterday

Release: Friday, June 28, 2019

→HBO

Written by: Richard Curtis

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Imagine all the people living day to day without the music of the Beatles. Imagine John Lennon aging into his 70s, living a quiet life with an un-famous instead of infamous significant other. And imagine being Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), the only one in the world who still has a recollection of the band and their indelible influence. These are the things the very silly but undeniably charming romantic comedy Yesterday imagines and then makes real.

Jack is in a bit of a pickle. Well, first he’s in a hospital bed and missing some teeth after getting struck by a bus when a global blackout hits out of nowhere. Up to this point his pursuit of his musical passions has not been going well. He struggles to get gigs and when he does he plays to dwindling crowds, some of them so small his mates and his so-obviously-more-than-friend/manager Ellie (Lily James) are the crowd. When he plays a classic Beatles tune for them one afternoon and they’re none the wiser, Jack sees an opportunity. The blackout has seemingly wiped away the collective memory of the band that redefined music not just for a generation but forever. It’s not all bad though because apparently Coca Cola, cigarettes and Harry Potter no longer exist either.

Provided he can remember the lyrics, why not start passing off ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as his own? We don’t have to go crazy here and exhume ‘Yellow Submarine’ or anything like that but, really, who is he harming if he claims authorship of some of the most popular songs ever written? So he does, and with Ellie’s hand gently on his back, guiding him in the direction of his dreams yet unwilling to abandon her post as a schoolteacher, he embarks on the path to superstardom. He brings along his very socially awkward friend Rocky (Joel Fry) as his roadie.

Along the way Jack meets British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran, for whom he opens at a big show in Moscow and later gets into a songwriting “battle” where the two are challenged to come up with a new song on-the-spot. I’ll let you guess as to how that works out. Jack’s situation becomes more complicated when he is introduced to American talent manager Debra Hammer (a deliciously nasty Kate McKinnon), who convinces him to dump bonny old England for the sunny coastlines of L.A.. Once there he faces increasing pressure to not only put together a collection of smash hits which will form “the greatest album of all time” but to overhaul his image into something that screams Success.

Yesterday is a fluffy bit of entertainment surprisingly directed by Danny Boyle. I say surprisingly because while it has the vibrant colors, fancy camerawork and busy mise en scène that make his movies so visually energetic and engaging, it is Richard “Love Actually” Curtis’s writing that ends up characterizing this movie. The fantastical premise is as littered with plot holes and contrivances as much as the soundtrack is with Beatles classics (the usage of which reportedly took up about 40% of the overall budget!). Yesterday is Boyle’s fourteenth directorial effort and it just may be his most formulaic.

Despite the flaws, none bigger than the fact the story never really delves below the surface of its complicated morality, it is hard to hate on a movie that is so amiable and so full of heart. That largely comes down to the efforts of the cast who make for great company at each and every step of the way. British-born actor Himesh Patel proves to be an impressive singer, and his genuine chemistry with Lily James had me smitten from pretty much minute one.

Recommendation: A bonafide cheesy, feel-good movie. I’m trying to decide if you’ll get more out of this thing if you’re a Beatles fan or a sucker for a good romantic comedy. As far as the music goes, Yesterday feels like a “Classic Hits” soundtrack. 2020 has been a rough year to say the least so far. Maybe “hunkering down” with a movie as familiar and ordinary as this is just what the doctor ordered. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Miracles happen all the time!” 

“Like what?”

“Like Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

Earthquake Bird

Release: Friday, November 15, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Wash Westmoreland 

Directed by: Wash Westmoreland 

I spun the Netflix wheel on a Saturday night and landed on this thing called Earthquake Bird. Turns out, it was the caliber movie that rewards in kind the minimal effort I put in to finding it. This slow-burn of a psychosexual thriller has reliable commodities on both sides of the camera, with Wash Westmoreland, one half of the duo behind such well-received dramas as Quinceañera (2006), Still Alice (2015) and Colette (2018) directing and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in the lead. Unfortunately the end result is nowhere near the sum of its talented parts.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of a 2001 novel of the same name by Susanna Jones. I haven’t read the book but it’s not hard to imagine it’s better, even just by browsing through a couple of critical blurbs. This desultory drama revolves around Vikander’s Lucy Fly, a Swedish expat living in Japan circa the late 1980s who gets swept up into a dangerous love triangle and is named a suspect in the disappearance of the other woman, a young American named Lily Bridges (Riley Keough). Written and directed by Westmoreland, the movie incorporates thriller, crime and “romance” elements but fails to make a good, frothy stew out of any of them.

It begins with Lucy being hauled away from her cubicle where she works as a translator — currently on subtitles for Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller Black Rain (a cute little nod to him serving as producer here) — and to the police station where she vexes the authorities with her evasive answers and soon thereafter the audience with her complete lack of personality. You get these movies all the time where the narrator is an unreliable messenger, but Earthquake Bird steps it up a notch by providing an unreliable narrator in an unreliable framing device. What begins as a focused (if not harsh) police interrogation soon gives way to an ocean of flashback. Any sense of narrative structure or cohesion gets abandoned in favor of pure mood and atmosphere, qualities emphasized by Atticus Ross’ foreboding score.

Lucy traces her steps back to the day she met the mysterious and oh-so-handsome Teiji (Japanese dancer Naoki Kobayashi in his first English-language role), a noodle shop employee who hobbies, somewhat obsessively, as a photographer. His fascination with puddles is soon replaced by a fixation on her pretty visage in black-and-white. She becomes his muse, they enter into a relationship wherein honesty and openness are valued above all else. Physical intimacy is much lower on the list. Their dynamic carries the emotional conviction of a stapler. Yet there’s a symmetry between their worlds of quietude and isolation that makes them kindred spirits. There’s logic to them being together but no feeling in the togetherness.

Enter Lily, who wastes no time ingratiating herself in the lives of these two lovely-looking and lonely people. Thank goodness for Keough, who kicks the movie into a higher gear with her energetic presence. Her character is also more interesting. She’s introduced at first as a nice but needy new acquaintance, then a romantic foe and possibly even destroyer of worlds. Lucy is in a very delicate place, her life a constant shuffle as she seems always to be outrunning something. She has this weird relationship with death, the grim reaper always trailing her. Initially the tension between the two women isn’t purely adversarial; there’s something free and uninhibited about Lily that Lucy wants and also envies. When the trio embark on a weekend getaway to the scenic Sado Island, the sexual tension builds. A strange development further destabilizes an already awkward situation.

Ever since the Swedish dancer-turned-actor blew up on the scene in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina in 2015 I don’t think I’ve seen a performance of hers I haven’t liked. Lucy Fly isn’t exactly vintage Vikander but I blame more of my apathy towards her on the writing rather than the acting. This is a very restrained performance that’s more technically impressive than emotionally resonant — her Japanese, at least to my untrained ears, sounds perfect. Her thousand-mile stare is unsettling. Still I find it pretty terrible that her most interesting, defining trait is the black eye she carries around. And her backstory, when it’s finally barfed out in a much-delayed expositional sequence toward the very end, isn’t nearly as interesting as one hopes it would be for such a protracted build-up.

As if to remind us the title means something, periodic earthquakes rumble through the story in a kind of motif. In the immediate aftermath, a shrill birdsong alerts the town the coast is clear. It very well could be my brain shorting out but I didn’t find any relevance between this and the story at hand. Undoubtedly there’s some deeper metaphorical meaning behind it but the movie doesn’t do near enough to warrant the amount of effort it takes to decode that. Never mind its human Rubik’s cube of a leading lady.

“Tell me all your secrets, like, yesterday.”

Recommendation: What starts out as a kind of Lost in Translation meditation on loneliness and isolation (d)evolves into a run-of-the-mill, Girl on the Train-type murder plot that really doesn’t go anywhere. The characters, save for Riley Keough’s, are totally uninteresting and not worth the effort it takes to understand what drives them. That’s really disappointing when you’re talking about Alicia Vikander and the very interesting-looking Naoki Kobayashi. Le sigh. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: ““If every time I took a photo it took a piece of your soul, would you still let me?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMP Awards; Polygon 

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #2

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. (If you are a newcomer to this series, here is a link to the original post).

Also this, from the first installment:

The idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skillsets and to see how they contribute to a story. This probably goes without saying, but I will be focusing on how they POSITIVELY affect an experience. It would seem counterintuitive to feature roles in which they weren’t very good, were ill-fit or the movie overall was just plain bad. Of course, there is always that rare occasion where a great performance can single-handedly improve a fundamentally poor movie, so I won’t rule out that possibility.

In this month’s installment I am going in the opposite direction by taking a look at a far more limited role. Indeed, this is a few steps away from being a cameo appearance, but there is no denying it has an impact on the main character and the direction the film goes in. First-time writer/director Joseph Gordon Levitt on what she brought to his movie: “Brie created a whole character who makes the audience laugh, but who also feels like a real human being. And she did it without saying anything. That takes a truly skilled actress.”

Brie Larson as Monica Martello in Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Comedy/relationship drama/romance

Premise: A New Jersey guy dedicated to his family, friends and church develops unrealistic expectations from watching porn and works to find happiness and intimacy with his potential true love.

Character Background: Monica is the younger sister of Jon Jr., a ladykiller played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. Though she may be seen more often than not glued to her phone, she’s not exactly oblivious to the goings-on around her, except maybe the worst of her parents’ arguments or the score of whatever football game is on. When Jon breaks the news of his break-up with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) — a girl he hoped and his parents hoped on top of that hope would actually be The One — we learn just how attentive to detail Monica really is.

It’s a small scene but a big gesture. On a broadly entertaining level it’s one of those “whoa, they actually talk!” moments — but her breaking silence isn’t played as a gimmick or just for laughs. It has a timeliness to it that suggests Monica just hasn’t had anything to contribute to the routinely hysterical family conversation. Most of the time she just wants to stay out of the squabbling and nagging but now that she sees a real rift dividing in the family — Jon and his father (Tony Danza) especially locking horns over the importance of family and long-term commitment — she does what any good sibling does and comes to her brother’s side, offering him her perspective on what she viewed as a one-sided, high-maintenance relationship. As we see later, when Jon finds more emotional intimacy with an older woman (Julianne Moore), it’s a bit of sisterly advice he clearly takes to heart.

Marvel at this Scene:

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.fancarpet.com; http://www.imdb.com

Widows

Release: Friday, November 16, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Gillian Flynn; Steve McQueen

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, master of the discomforting drama, is back at it again with Widows, an uncommonly menacing heist thriller that makes room for trenchant social commentary in between fits of short-lived but significant action. Given his past films, I guess I understand the sentiment but I still think it’s disingenuous to describe his brand of crime drama as purely popcorn-spilling entertainment. That’s what The Italian Job and Ocean’s Whatever Number We’re On Now are good at. Realized through some of the year’s most intense performances, Widows is SERIOUS (and seriously good).

The fun begins when a multi-million-dollar robbery goes awry leading to the deaths of professional criminals Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). As it usually goes, the amount stolen isn’t really the story, it’s from whom they’ve stolen and how badly the aggrieved party wants it back. That isn’t so much a problem for the men anymore, but it is for the wives they’ve abruptly left behind. It’s especially problematic for Veronica (Oscar winner Viola Davis), whose beloved Harry was the one who decided it would be a good idea to thieve $2 million in campaign funds from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss gunning, quite literally, for county alderman in Chicago’s South Side — a seat seemingly forever occupied by the notoriously racist Mulligan clan. Oscar winner Robert Duvall plays the incumbent Tom Mulligan.

With a disgruntled Manning breathing down her neck (also quite literally), Veronica finds herself with no choice but to attempt to carry on the work of her late husband, whose scent still clings to the pillows and bedsheets. When she comes across Harry’s notebook, in which lay detailed plans and building schemata for a future job worth $5 million, she rounds up two of the other four widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), with the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), keeping her distance. In two hectic weeks this crew, bound only by circumstance, will have to bring themselves to not only face the realities of what their husbands did to provide, but they must also make their tricks their own. They’ll also need a getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo).

On paper, that seems like the groundwork for your traditional heist plot. But McQueen’s films have always been complex works, the material rooted in the concept of freedom, whether that’s political (as in Hunger, wherein IRA member Bobby Sands led his fellow inmates on a hunger strike in an effort to be recognized as British POWs), sexual (such as we witnessed in Brandon Sullivan’s self-destruction in Shame), or civil (see Solomon Northup trying to untangle himself from the antebellum south in 12 Years a Slave). They’ve consistently been challenging viewing experiences as we’ve seen the things the suppressed and oppressed have had to sacrifice in order to gain said freedoms.

The kind of freedom Widows is concerned with is maybe less obvious. This is about what having money — a lot of it! — can provide (a new life maybe, but also political influence, the tools needed to change a current and possibly loathsome paradigm — precisely what the Mannings are aiming for here, albeit via morally bankrupt methods), and, conversely, the desperation that arises in its absence. By extension, having money means having the freedom of choice and McQueen (who wrote the screenplay with best-selling author Gillian Flynn, of Gone Girl fame) seamlessly dovetails the economic with the societal, making the crux of the action — indeed, the execution of the heist itself — about more than a matter of financial necessity. This is an emotional gauntlet that sees the quartet evolve from prized possessions to steely-nerved agents of their own liberation. They’ll use this robbery to simultaneously pay back a debt, make a little profit and break free from a past where not everything is as sunny as it once seemed.

Some trajectories are more compelling than others. Debicki’s Alice is a truly heartbreaking character, a pretty girl held hostage to abusive relationships and whose own mother (Jacki Weaver) compounds her low self-esteem by encouraging her to sell her skin as a way to support herself. See also the extraordinarily confident Veronica, whose arc is responsible for some of Widows‘ biggest moments. Davis is a dominant force, but what else is new? Sadly we don’t get quite as close to Rodriguez’s clothing store owner, which is a shame because this is a more mature role for an actress I will forever link (ironically) to the heist-driven Fast & Furious franchise.

Beyond its thematic textures, what makes Widows a cut above your standard procedural — get-in, get-out and get-away-for-good — is how large the threat of physical violence looms; how grave the situation is. The men in the film are almost universally antagonistic, imposing figures, whether that’s Brian Tyree Henry’s physical size or the omnipresence of his character’s younger, psychotic brother Jatemme (a nightmarish Daniel Kaluuya), or Robert Duvall leaning upon decades of dramatic clout to justify his slightly more histrionic outbursts. The complex political landscape of inner-city Chicago is brought to life by these excellent performances, a number of which are destined for awards consideration.

Ultimately Widows is grittily entertaining, but more importantly it sends a powerful message of what it can look like and how it can feel to be female and empowered in an era where the leader of the free world is boasting about grabbing his fellow Americans by the crotch.

Recommendation: Elegant in style, bleak in tone and often uncomfortable to watch, Widows is absolutely a product of British director Steve McQueen. That might be all the endorsement I need to give. This movie kicked my ass, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Rated: R

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

A Star is Born (2018)

Release: Friday, October 5, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Eric Roth; Bradley Cooper; Will Fetters

Directed by: Bradley Cooper

Bradley Cooper has been a star for some time, but alongside the inimitable pop star Lady Gaga he seems to burn even brighter. Legitimately honing another craft within the framework of one of his best acting showcases to date, Cooper, aided by a beard, a guitar and a mic, manages to hit all the right notes, on both ends of the camera.

With A Star is Born, the 43-year-old isn’t exactly stepping out on a limb when it comes to finding a subject for his directing début. Famously A Star is Born tells of two careers in showbiz trending in different directions — one star rising as the other fades. The luminous Judy Garland beat Lady Gaga to the role by more than half a century (that film, although about a woman yearning to become a Hollywood starlet rather than a world-touring singer/songwriter, is the template I’m told this one adheres closest to) while Cooper shares a similar arc with the likes of Fredric March, James Mason and Kris Kristofferson in years past. So yes, the story Cooper is telling has already been told several times before, but that doesn’t mean his version has nothing to offer. The craftsmanship and character work make the movie worth savoring. That Gaga and Cooper make quality music together is the cherry.

In the 2018 rendition Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a big time performer who sold out stadiums in his prime and whose tired eyes and gravelly, baritone voice have seen and sung it all. Years of demanding tour schedules have taken their toll on him physically and mentally. Drugs and alcohol have become better roadies to him than his older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott). Each successive gig finds Jackson deeper and deeper into a bottle, until one night there is no more and he’s compelled to scout local dives to quench his thirst. As fate would have it, he stumbles into the same drag bar Ally (Gaga) spends much of her free time singing and dreaming of a different life. Worlds collide when Jackson is permitted a meet-and-greet. A deep connection is formed and instantly.

Nowhere is the evolution of a classical romance more apparent than in Cooper’s casting of Gaga as the meteorically rising Ally, who has been told ten times too many how people like how she sounds but not the way she looks. Mother Monster, as her fans call her, is of course the embodiment of a modern culture and a modern industry, a chameleonic performer whose flashy stage presence often obscures reality. Not that all the colorful accoutrement tell an untruth, but there is certainly a sense of dressing down, or a veil being lifted both in terms of wardrobe and in her performance as she confesses her insecurities to a sympathetic stranger. And it isn’t just in this first intimate moment, some of her own numbers at the piano (“Always Remember Us This Way”) feel like revelations in their own right.

The film features an assortment of impactful performances, evidenced by smaller but still significant supporting turns from the likes of Dave Chapelle as Noodles, an old drinking buddy who has cleaned himself up but still finds himself having to help a spiraling Jack out of the gutter, and Andrew “The Dice Man!” Clay as Ally’s father who once imagined himself a knock-off Sinatra. Still does. But none hog the gravitas all to themselves like the mustachioed Elliot as Bobby who is helpless, like Ally, to do anything about the demons that continue to plague his younger brother.

Quite honestly Elliot deserves an entire paragraph dedicated just to him. He is that good here and that voice of his always deserves more press. But this isn’t his show. This is unequivocally Cooper and Gaga’s time. A Star is Born dramatizes aspects of the entertainment industry, namely the tug-of-war between artists and their vision and managers/producers who have their own agendas, as well as the stresses of not simply finding success but trying to make it last. More fundamentally though this is a love saga and the enduring power of love. If there is any justice, this movie too shall endure.

Recommendation: A Star is Born is given a modern facelift with the innately likable Bradley Cooper and a revelatory Lady Gaga, and the results are surprisingly powerful. Beyond the professional fakery, the music is genuinely good. Who knew Rocket the Raccoon had such pipes? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “Can I touch your nose?”

Song played most frequently during the writing of this review

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com