The World to Come

Release: Tuesday, March 2, 2021 (VOD) 

👀 Sundance 2021 Premiere 

Written by: Jim Shepard; Ron Hansen 

Directed by: Mona Fastvold 

Starring: Katherine Waterston; Vanessa Kirby; Christopher Abbot; Casey Affleck

 

 

 

 

***/*****

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.

You’re my sun.

Moral of the Story: 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.” 

Check out the quietly explosive trailer here 

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

Photo credits: imdb.com; Sundance Institute/photo by Vlad Cioplea 

Short, Sweet and Screamy: “Huluween” Reviews

There’s no denying short films have gotten short shrift on Thomas J. I’ve got a few stashed away here and there (and here, too) but the overwhelming majority of my total output has been focused on feature-length productions. And why not? It’s very difficult to review a short film and not spoil it!

I’ve been given an opportunity to try my hand at it (again), what with the recent advent of Hulu’s “Huluween” Film Fest. (Apparently they did this last year, so this isn’t exactly news.) In the spirit of ultimate customer satisfaction, the streaming platform has inundated us with over 800 Halloween-centric titles, movies and shows alike, and have also curated a collection of seven short spooky stories made by up-and-coming indie filmmakers to get viewers in the spirit of Halloween. What follows are some brief thoughts of those offerings. I’ve sorted the reviews in the order in which I viewed them. See what you think. Have you seen any of them yet? What were your experiences? Which was your favorite?


Undo · 7 mins 9 sec · Directed by Nicole Perlman · An interesting moral conundrum — if you could reverse the flow of time and prevent bad things from happening, would you? I’m off on the right foot with this tense, atmospheric piece about a physicist who is celebrating a major breakthrough with his experiments when suddenly fate comes a-knockin’. Set almost entirely in the confines of his swanky urban home the premise is intriguing, the main character is appropriately strange and a little off-kilter, but some shaky CGI and pretty iffy acting in the moments that matter most take this one down just a peg. (3.5/5)

Swiped to Death · 7 mins 28 sec · Directed by Elaine Mongeon · Here’s a film that provides a surprisingly engrossing build-up — especially for me, he who doesn’t do the whole Tinder thing (and now I really won’t!) — and a duo of convincing performers making nervous/awkward/dark jokes prior to their late-night meet-up IRL. The story twists and twists again, rendering you occasionally psychologically disoriented but annoyingly the execution of its denouement really left me flaccid. (3/5)

The Ripper · 5 mins 49 sec · Directed by Calvin Reeder · Unfortunately there isn’t much going for this clearly low-budget short from Calvin Reeder. The premise finds one of the guitarists in an amateur metal band pressed to perform a solo, something his bandmate demands as they’ve already got a rhythm guitarist. Things take a nutty turn, the band’s superfluous second rhythm guitarist proving he indeed has some hidden talents but none that are particularly useful. The acting is bad, the special effects are even worse. I can’t even really say the “otherworldly” ideas driving the story are worth your time either, and at five minutes that’s rather pitiful. (1.5/5) 

Ride · 6 mins 46 sec · Directed by Meredith Alloway · Spin classes take on a sinister quality in this intense, colorful and energetic short about a young girl who, in trying to make new friends in a strange city, unwittingly signs up for the ride of for her life. Among the more effective shorts in this year’s crop, Ride pummels you with its style, the blaring music engulfing the viewer in a heady trip into the cult-like obsession of one scarily committed group of fitness junkies. Hey, if you can’t keep up, all you’re doing is slowing us down. A dark parody that’s a pure adrenaline rush. (4/5) 

Hidden Mother · 5 mins 21 sec · Directed by Joshua Erkman · Subtlety is key in this highly effective and expertly crafted short film about a recently widowed mother receiving one of the creepiest gifts a sister could ever give you — a photo frame that apparently harbors the presence of a sinister spirit. If the conclusion is the measuring stick by which we judge a short film, Hidden Mother is indeed masterful. However practically every minute here is worth its weight in gold, the atmosphere and tension and the rhythmic, labored breathing making this easily the best of the bunch. (4.5/5)

Flagged · 7 mins 16 sec · Directed by Chelsea Lupkin · When a young woman takes a new position as a moderator for a major social media platform called FriendFollowers, she quickly realizes the job description may have left out some deadly details. Though professionally mounted — the effects here are certainly better than The Ripper — and the multiple locations give the impression the filmmakers are playing with a bit more money than their Huluween ’19 peers, ultimately the film collapses due to its muddled message. I think it’s meant to be a cautionary tale about blindly accepting jobs that seem “too good to be true,” particularly feeding on the insecurity of millennials desperate to secure that reliable 9-5 paycheck. But it could just as easily be a broad swipe at the internet and what it’s doing to us. I dunno. Next, please. (2/5)

The Dunes · 6 mins 21 sec · Directed by Jennifer Reeder · Gorgeously shot and cast with Hot Actors, The Dunes I can only pray to Pennywise was pitched as a comedy because that’s the net effect of this silly little romp. A young couple’s beach date gets interrupted by a disturbing presence, something pulled from The Conjuring universe but sans the creepy veil of shadows and darkness. In that way, the film does a decent job of creating and sustaining a sense of dread in the golden light of evening, but really there’s not much to see (or be scared by) here. (2.5/5)


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Photo credits: http://www.bloodydisgusting.com; http://www.indiewire.com; http://www.syfy.com

Assassination Nation

Release: Friday, September 21, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Sam Levinson

Directed by: Sam Levinson

With a title like Assassination Nation, you probably shouldn’t go in expecting a film of subtlety and nuance, and that is exactly what you do not get in director Sam Levinson’s sophomore feature. In fact, a lack of subtlety and nuance is the entire point of this little social experiment. Seven years after his début Another Happy Day and Levinson’s imagined a sort of Salem Witch Trials for the Twitter generation, a vicious American satire that finds four teenage girls becoming the collective target of a town gone mad when a malicious data hack exposes everyone’s sordid little secrets and floods the streets with violence.

In the town of Salem (state unspecified), Lily Colson (Odessa Young) is just another normal high school student with a tight-knit group of friends in Bex (transgender actress Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (ABBA), and they do pretty normal teenage things — finding that sweet selfie angle, partying, blowing off studying. When a casual hacker (Noah Gavin) stumbles upon a video of the town’s staunchly anti-gay mayor cross-dressing and engaging with male escorts, he can’t help but share the hypocrisy with the rest of the townsfolk and posts it to an online forum, leading to public outrage and an inevitable suicide. But Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) won’t be the last to be outed. Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo)’s phone is the next to be hacked, precious photos of his young daughter presumed to be damning evidence of a pedophile.

In a movie that gets progressively more uncomfortable this awkwardness is merely the first drops of rain before the deluge. Still, there’s something really disconcerting about the way the chaos begins, the adults being the first to fall victim to their own indiscretions. But then it gets REALLY personal, with a major data breach exposing Bex’s identity as a transwoman and that of Lily’s secret contact ‘Daddy.’ Nude photos go viral, causing friendships to sour and intimate relationships to end in bitterness and violence. Locker room jocks are outed as homosexuals, then beaten down with the baton of Proper Masculinity, while computer geeks are tortured into becoming snitches, then murdered on camera anyway. “For the lolz.”

Aesthetically, Assassination Nation is what you get if you dropped Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers into the middle of The Purge. This is a very stylish presentation that revels in bloodletting as a holy war is ignited between the people of Salem. And on the matter of style, for me this film is also a tale of two halves, the first sluggishly paced as Levinson sets about establishing key relationship dynamics, like Lily and her envious, big-eyed beau Mark (a nasty Bill Skarsgård). Cut to the second half and the film really livens up. Despite the generally unpleasant characters it took all I had not to marvel at Levinson’s audacity as he turns the fall-out into an allegory for the most offensive aspects of social media — sanctimonious opinion-shoving, ad hominem attacks and baseless speculation.

Assassination Nation isn’t your typical high school drama. Lily isn’t your typical teen protagonist, and she and her friends aren’t your typical ‘Witches of Salem.’ Style and substance combine to form an explosive, invariably controversial package. Levinson throws down the hammer when it comes to expressing his thoughts on what life on the internet is doing to our life outside of it. Unfortunately he does this often to the detriment of our entertainment, with the coda about society’s double standards when it comes to gender roles tacked on at the end being particularly on-the-nose. Levinson’s forceful execution doesn’t always pay intellectual dividends, but it does succeed in creating an experience that isn’t easily forgotten.

Everybody gun-ho tonight!

Recommendation: In defense of Assassination Nation, it gives you fair warning up front about what it plans to do to you, opening with a list of trigger warnings in brilliantly colored font describing everything from teen drug/alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity, homophobia, rape/murder and even giant frogs. If any of that stuff actually does trigger you, I would actually take that message to heart and attempt getting a refund. Like, totes for realz. This is a film not for the squeamish (or fragile male egos, for that matter). 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “This is the 100% true story of how my town, Salem, lost its motherf**king mind.”

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

Three Identical Strangers

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018 (limited)

→Theater

Directed by: Tim Wardle

Significant spoilers follow.

Documentarian Tim Wardle stunned the Sundance crowd earlier this year when he premiered Three Identical Strangers, the remarkable true story of a set of triplets separated at birth who by sheer chance were reunited at the age of 19. Call it one of life’s greatest plot twists. You might even call it a real-life fairytale. But do all fairytales have a happy ending?

Level One

It all began when a curly-haired Robert “Bobby” Shafran stepped foot back on campus at a community college in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. It was his sophomore year. A day that started as any other quickly turned surreal when seemingly everyone kept mistaking Bobby for some guy named Eddy (last name Galland), a former high school football star who was attending classes there the semester prior but had since transferred. It wasn’t until Bobby met his roommate that he would get an answer as to why girls he had never met before were walking right up to him and kissing him. The roommate, a Michael Domitz, knew Eddy had left the college and yet Bobby was so strikingly similar looking he had to ask a couple personal questions to potentially satisfy a theory. Were the two related in some way?

Turns out, both of Michael’s roommates shared the same birth day and year, and both were adopted — through the same adoption agency, no less. How many instances of coincidence does it take for someone to become convinced they aren’t coincidences? After an eerie phone call to someone whose voice was a perfect echo of his own, Robert took off for Long Island in the middle of the night. He had to meet this Eddy and immediately. Michael tagged along too. Four hours later, Robert found himself staring into a mirror — minus the actual mirror. The two had the same smile, the same bearpaw-like hands, the same curly hair. They spoke with the same cadence and laughed each other’s laugh. They instantly knew they were brothers and they acted like it. It was if those years, all that time spent in ignorance of each other’s existence, never were.

Level Two

Their story quickly gained national attention and the pair toured the country, making appearances on all the major talk shows. Meanwhile, a 19-year-old David Kellman happened upon a picture of the two in a local paper and was struck by their resemblance not just to each other, but to himself. America was already falling in love with this saga about long-lost twins being found. When it was learned there was actually a third, the narrative shifted from heartwarming to truly unbelievable. In this film there are so many things you will try to deny even as the subjects themselves graciously invite you into their lives. And as they explain more, it paradoxically becomes harder to accept.

Three Identical Strangers is a pure joy to behold, a spectacle of families coming together and expanding under the most unlikely of circumstances. It really is like a fairytale, until it isn’t. That isn’t an indictment on the way Wardle handles the material. There is a reason he considers the triplets the “single greatest story” he has ever come across. The structure of the film is critical. The upswing in the first half has a power only matched by the crushing revelations of the second. In that way, there is this bipolar quality to the film’s emotional trajectory, going from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.

The triplets, along with their respective foster parents (one an upper-class couple, another comfortably middle class and the third blue collar) had more questions than they had answers — the most pressing of which were directed at the adoption center that split them up at birth and irrevocably altered their lives.

Level Three

The jaw-dropping revelations don’t end with the three brothers finally together and taking Manhattan by storm. In fact I’d argue this is where Wardle really goes to work. And where Three Identical Strangers goes from feel-good to “I feel sick.” As it moves into its unforgettable third act, interviews with curious journalists and scientists alike begin steering the narrative in a direction that is altogether surprising and deeply disturbing. What was before a celebration of life and love curdles into a desperate search for the truth and, ultimately, an infuriating ethics debate.

How were the three boys never told by their foster parents they were triplets, separated at birth? Did the parents themselves know? What about their birth mother? Why were they put up for adoption in the first place? I really want to answer some of those questions right here, right now. But you probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Believe this though: Three Identical Strangers is one of the most breathtaking documentaries you will ever watch. It exposes an existential crisis the likes of which you and I will never experience, while questioning the nobility of scientific experiments in which the lab rats look alarmingly like us.

the triplets star in a brief cameo in the Madonna film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

Recommendation: Three Identical Strangers is the epitome of a film best experienced going in as cold as possible. Ideally, you’ve read my spoiler warning up top and skipped right down to this section. I guess it doesn’t matter when words don’t really do this story justice. It is just an insane true story and you have to check it out to draw your own conclusions. And please do so before Hollywood botches it by turning it into a narrative feature. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

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.unz.com

Brigsby Bear

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017 (limited) 

→Theater

Written by: Kevin Costello; Kyle Mooney

Directed by: Dave McCary 

THIS REVIEW INCLUDES DETAILS THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS

Like last year’s gloriously weird Swiss Army Man, Brigsby Bear is a film guided by its own compass. Granted, not a penis, but rather the element of human empathy and compassion. It’s one of the year’s bona fide feel-good films, one that consistently offers surprises and subverts expectation at almost every turn. Given the times in which we are living, it’s an experience you really shouldn’t miss.

There are a few fleeting moments early in the film during which you feel the heat of a potentially mean-spirited drama beginning to rise. But that discomfort is soon assuaged by the stunning direction taken by Dave McCary, best described as the result of a choice between ostracizing his oddball protagonist and making him the hero of his own story. To that end, Brigsby Bear is a celebration of weirdness and individualism handled with maturity and grace — so much so, it begs the question why more movies can’t set this kind of example.

Brigsby Bear is an educational television show geared towards children, a Barney and Friends featuring a man dressed as a bear instead of a purple dinosaur. It’s a program to which James (Kyle Mooney) is completely dedicated. As a full-grown man he’s the show’s biggest fan. He’s . . . kinda the only one. Living in an underground bunker with his parents Tim (Mark Hamill) and April Mitchum (Jane Adams), the show is the only impression the apparent man-child has of the outside world. When the curtain finally falls on Brigsby, a confused James is challenged to find a way to keep it alive, as well as his sense of identity.

Brainwashing and child abduction aren’t subjects that strike you as comedic material, yet McCary embraces the opportunity to turn a negative into a major positive. Besides, the goal isn’t to seduce audiences into uncontrollable giggling fits. Think Napoleon Dynamite stuck in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. James’ transition into the real world could have been difficult to endure. I suppose it is at the very least disturbing. Notes of melancholy occasionally bubble to the surface, particularly in scenes featuring his biological parents (played by Matt Walsh in what feels like a long time coming for one of my favorite character actors, with great support from Michaela Watkins).

But why waste time manufacturing more hatred when you can provide audiences this kind of uplift? The comedy is never left untainted by some degree of sadness, but it’s the choice to look beyond the pain that defines McCay’s directorial debut. What’s more surprising than the quality of the material — an original collaboration between Mooney and Kevin Costello, inspired by the former’s fascination with ’80s children’s programming (and VHS tapes) — are the names who have helped nurture its transition from page to screen. Brigsby Bear has the backing of a number of SNL alums, including its director and lead actor (who, by the way, is nothing short of revelatory), as well as the members of American comedy trio The Lonely Island — with Andy Samberg taking a small part as a patient at a psychiatric ward, a cameo that is going to elevate his street cred as an actor not inconsiderably.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it occurred, but I knew that when it happened I was watching something special. Maybe it was that party scene, a sequence that turns almost every single stereotype associated with hard-partying millennials on their heads and boots them to the curb. What happens to James is never quite what you expect. Yet, morally, it’s not something you should be surprised by. With the events of the last few weeks alone, Brigsby Bear reminds us that the smallest acts of kindness, of supportiveness and cooperation should not go unappreciated or unnoticed. In that way, this feels more than just another Sundance darling familiarly outfitted with a funny name and quirky characters.

Recommendation: Richly emotionally satisfying, morally upstanding and winningly geeky (with hints of hipsterdom and a touch of creep to really spice things up). There are only moments where the film tips over into sentimentality but the trump card is the film’s earnestness. This is a tribute to the creative process insofar as it is an exploration of the people who help make their dreams realities. If you only see one movie a year, choose this one. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

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 

Wiener-Dog

wiener-dog-movie-poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Todd Solondz

Directed by: Todd Solondz

This review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. Please feel free to leave a comment here or on the original article. Thanks as always for featuring me, James! 

Wiener-Dog is a tough film to like. You certainly can’t, or maybe aren’t supposed to, love it. I’m actually pretty sure you’re just supposed to be shocked by it. It’s about a dog who gets shuffled from weirdo to weirdo who in some way or another finds their life affected by its presence.

Put that way, it kind of sounds like Air Bud or any other Disney-like movie about someone befriending a lovable canine.  Put that way, it sounds fun. This movie is neither of those things.

Wiener-Dog is an unrelentingly dark, bleak comedy peppered with unlikable characters and some sequences that are just begging for animal rights groups to petition and denounce Todd Solondz’ work à la Heaven’s Gate. Yes, a dog may be man’s best friend but in Wiener-Dog he is also man’s metaphorical punching bag. The film isn’t interested in subjecting the animal to physical cruelty but it surrounds the poor thing in a world of misery, disappointment, regret and general negativity.

That the dog often serves as our most relatable character says everything about Solondz’ disdain for the human race. He thrusts the dog (the audience) upon the kinds of dysfunctional individuals you only ever encounter in the movies, while insidiously breaking the spirit of dog lovers everywhere who were foolish enough to think this movie might be cute.

The innocence and naivety of animals subservient to man offers a point of view that over time becomes increasingly absurd. You’re meant to be experiencing the film through the eyes of the dog — at various points appellated ‘Wiener-Dog,’ ‘Doody’ and ‘Cancer’ — but it’s confusing because the movie isn’t so much about the day-in-the-life of man’s best friend. It’s more interested in using the dog as a vessel to transport us through the wreckage of these ‘ordinary’ lives.

The dog begins her journey with a wealthy family. Patriarch Danny (Tracy Letts) has brought home a puppy for son Remi who has been battling cancer. Dina (a loathsome Julie Delpy) isn’t a fan of the idea. She goes out of her way to tell her son that spaying a dog is the only way to prevent the dog from suffering various horrible fates. Everyone should have a mom just like her. After some time Remi’s lone source of happiness proves to be a pestilence and Danny decides it’s time to put it down.

Luckily for Wiener-Dog a sympathetic nurse snatches her out of the veterinary clinic. This saint is Dawn Wiener, an introvert to the extreme. Greta Gerwig plays the character who has been reprised from an earlier Solondz film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. She one day runs into an old acquaintance named Brandon (Kieran Culkin) and they embark on a road trip to Ohio to see Brandon’s family, to whom he must deliver some bad news. His brother and his wife — both with Down Syndrome — soon find themselves in possession of the dog when Dawn feels their home is a better place for her briefly beloved ‘Doody.’

Your commitment to oddball black comedies faces its toughest test when the dog inexplicably falls into the lap of depressed screenwriting prof Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). This bucket of pure misery epitomizes the film’s agonistic, misanthropic tonality. He is also Solondz’ most obvious middle-finger to his fellow man, in this case, prospective filmmakers who think they have the right stuff to launch a career. “It’s not that easy to be a creative genius. You have to be daring,” Solondz says with a bomb strapped to the titular dachshund in a scene you will have to rewind and watch again to believe.

Last and absolutely least the dog finds its way into the house of elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn). The poor old thing can’t catch a break! Nana is visited by her awful granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) who expects her Nana to relieve her bank account of 10 grand so her beau Fantasy (Michael Shaw) can get his latest art exhibit up and running. You’re at a point in the picture where caring is so optional it’s not really even an option.

At the end of the day, Wiener-Dog is meant to inspire us to continue taking life as it comes to us, the good and the bad. If you aren’t as cynical as Solondz and you’re trying to make it to the end of his movie, you might find yourself having to be your own cheerleader. Keep telling yourself it isn’t always going to be this bad. You’ll eventually get to the end.

wiener-dog

2-0Recommendation: This is apparently Todd Solondz’ eighth feature film, and it’s my first time watching his work. It has a style and tone that gives me the impression he has his own cult following. If you count yourself among those people, you’ll probably lap up Wiener-Dog in all its weirdness. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “A dog is not human. It’s an animal. Nature doesn’t care about them. It’s sad, but true. We’re dogs’ only friend.” 

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 

The Birth of a Nation

the-birth-of-a-nation-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

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Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

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

Swiss Army Man

'Swiss Army Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

There are some movies that just simply take your breath away. Ones where you’ll remember what theater you saw it in, where you were sitting, how many people were in there with you when you experienced THIS movie. Swiss Army Man is that kind of movie. It’s not even really a movie, it’s a religious experience . . .

. . . for those who appreciate a good arthouse picture.

I say that not with the slightest bit of remorse but rather with an air of caution. There’s a caveat to enjoying what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels,’ the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit music video ‘Turn Down For What’) have conjured here. I say that because the warning label should be clearly on display. When early word pegged their debut feature as the most surreal, offbeat adventure audiences are likely to ever experience it was hardly a hoax. Here is a narrative quite literally powered by flatulence and guided by erections. Absurdity. Madness. Despair. Love. Weird, sweet, de-sexified love.

Shifting the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry several feet closer to neutral on the Scale of Quirkiness, Swiss Army Man wastes no time as it opens with the striking image of a young man, Hank (Paul Dano), preparing to hang himself on a desolate island. Perched atop a small cooler with the fraying rope running to the top of the small cliff, he’s all but ready to commit to his decision when he suddenly spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It looks lifeless but Hank’s curiosity is piqued when he hears it farting. A lot.

Approaching the body with caution he notices, unsure if he’s hallucinating, that the gastric releases are only intensifying. He’s not hallucinating; this thing is literally sputtering to life like an old car. That’s when Hank discovers he can actually use this to his advantage, converting the bloated corpse into a kind of water vessel that will allow him to get back to the mainland. But it turns out methane-powered human jet-ski is only one of the ‘corpse”s many functions. He can also produce clean drinking water, and his seemingly jointless limbs come in handy for slicing and dicing things. He can also be used as a rocket and a grappling gun, and his erection functions as a compass, too — how fun!

Dismissing Swiss Army Man as little more than crass comedy is going to be too easy but that’s the same sword wielded by those who view the indie/arthouse crowd as nothing but hipsters. Or those who presumed everyone who went to see the Harry Potter movies were all bookworms. Despite frequent trips into puerile territory, this movie politely and perhaps all too quietly requests to be taken a little more seriously than the average Adam Sandler fudge pile. (In reality I’d compare this more to Rob Reiner’s timeless buddy-adventure Stand By Me.) Underpinning all this crudeness lies an aching despair to return to normalcy, to reconnect with what most of us would consider civilized society, to feel alive again after inexplicable bouts of being marooned delete you from existence.

The journey to get back home will be fairly easy in physical, practical terms given the endless supply of miracles “Manny” (as he apparently self-identifies) seems to provide. Even though he propelled them both back to shore with his ass, they’re still a far cry from home, and there are more complicated ideologies and dynamics to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long for Manny to question whether Hank is just using him for his own personal gain or if he actually cares about him, and for us to ponder just whether the two are fated for a really awkward fairytale ending, or something . . . darker.

Swiss Army Man is a movie in pain. Dialogue is sparse but it often delivers hard blows from which we take some time to recover. Conversation is often confronting and unnatural, yet it’s this entrenchment in brutal honesty that saves us from pretense. Primitive discussions about why people masturbate eventually find their place in the greater narrative. While conversations may start trending intellectual a little too prematurely for those who view proceedings as a more cut-and-dry buddy adventure, those conversations open up endless avenues for discussions of our own.

Hank is worried he’ll never have the confidence to make an impression on the woman he sees every day on the bus. Manny doesn’t understand why he is so pathetic, but then again, why would he? After all he’s just an undead, farting, bloated, water-logged dummy who washed up on shore, probably on accident. He once had a life too, but he can’t remember it. Presumably it too was filled with glorious tales of how he once masturbated.

As the adventure evolves we’re pulled further into a strikingly intimate world by a pair of mesmerizing performances. Dano is again in top form here but Radcliffe truly soars, creating a character for the ages. It doesn’t exactly announce itself as such, but Manny represents an achievement in acting and the Brit deserves to be considered in the discussion of best performances of the year. Never mind the fact Radcliffe had a stunt dummy doing most of the heavy lifting. The psychological and emotional components far outweigh the physical, and it’s in the quieter moments — around a campfire, up in a tree, face-down near a pile of animal feces — where we see a soul (and the occasional butt-cheek) exposed.

Dano is reliably weird, though his greatness is more expected as the actor continues defining his niche as an off-kilter, often unlikable enigma plagued by social outcastism. For his peculiar acting sensibilities Hank is, in a word, perfect. Much like this gloriously, obstinately, unabashedly strange little film. The farting corpse movie you’ll be telling your children all about years down the road.

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Recommendation: An absolute must-see movie! Thematically Swiss Army Man isn’t a movie you haven’t seen before, but in execution, I feel pretty confident saying you won’t find a thing like it this or any other year. It’s simply a marvel and a joy to watch unfold, offering up one of the finest performances of the year in Daniel Radcliffe, the poor lad who just can’t ever get away from having to make some comment on his latest role’s relation to his days in Hogwarts. This oddity, however, just might do the trick. For now. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” 

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.awardsdaily.com 

Finders Keepers

'Finders Keepers' movie poster

Release: Friday, September 25, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Bryan Carberry; J. Clay Tweel

A man wakes up. Man goes to a local auction at an abandoned storage unit; places the highest bid on a smoker. Man opens up said grill only to find part of another man’s leg inside, as if waiting to be barbecued. Man freaks out and calls the authorities to have it confiscated, only to later realize this find could be his ticket to an entirely different kind of life. Man goes on a crusade to fight for ownership of the body part. Man, what the hell . . .

In the backwoods of North Carolina, Shannon Whisnant, an enterprising but surly Southerner — the Man — meets up with John Wood in the parking lot of a Dollar General, hoping to find a way to negotiate with the equally obstinate man who had lost his left leg in a plane crash that also claimed the life of his father, a successful businessman with a lot of clout in the community.

Wood isn’t having any of it though. No sir, not today. Despite never having met Whisnant he harbors a lot of ill will towards him, and it’s sort of understandable. The bitterness between the have’s and the have-not’s manifests as a redneck version of the ideological disputes between the Capulets and the Montagues, sans the romance of course. And despite a bizarre chain of events that saw Wood transferring the leg from the hospital (yeah, they let him take it home) to a freezer in the back of a Hardee’s restaurant and finally to a storage unit he would ultimately relinquish due to nonpayment, Wood’s confident he’s getting the damn leg back.

Finders Keepers is merely the latest inquisition into this beyond ridiculous backyard fiasco. Front-and-center is this battle over who should be awarded legal ownership of the limb — one that plays out both in reality and on reality TV shows and in the tabloids, the likes of which earn the attention of national media outlets, even if they’re more interested in making jokes. But this isn’t the entirety of what Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s strange project represents.

Finders Keepers represents a kind of tug-of-war between two very different social classes. Whisnant, coming from a much poorer background than Wood, recalls childhood memories that cause him to tear up, citing his lack of inclusion at parties thrown at the Wood estate and his many “whoopings” at the hands of his father as low points in his life. We get to know John on a much more personal level as well. His story is similarly one of redemption, and not simply because he manages to get fitted for a prosthetic leg. His battle with drug addiction is embraced head-on, with interviews with relatives providing a strong emotional pulse. The catalyst for his dependency — a morbid fear he would never measure up to his dad’s success — is rather heartbreaking.

There’s a lot of beauty in the bizarre, apparently. As the narrative develops into something more than just another example of why southern stereotypes exist, the more we see how Whisnant’s bizarre discovery has shaped both the lives of the individuals and the lives of their families. Some of the results are surprising while others are, sadly, more predictable. There’s a clear winner and a clear loser here, and the sheer number of sacrifices and poor decisions made on both sides can be difficult to comprehend.

It’s less white trash fodder for the likes of Jerry Springer and Judge Judy than you might think (although funnily enough Judge Mathis‘ gavel becomes a pivotal plot point in the resolution of this custody battle, and Jerry Springer is part of that reality TV charade Whisnant involves himself in). This is a documentary that requires one to set aside personal judgment and biases in order to access the fundamentally human story that exists at the core.

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Recommendation: Finders Keepers features an outrageous true story that has to be seen to be believed. The brilliance in the design is that neither party is demonized or put upon a pedestal, but rather uses the objectivity of documentary filmmaking to tell a human story that might be easier to identify with than one might first assume. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

Rated: R

Running Time: 82 mins.

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

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

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Release: Friday, June 19, 2015 (limited)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Marc Silver

Directed by: Marc Silver


This review marks my first contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings, which I am happy to announce will be an ongoing process where I will publish a review or two each month. I’d like to thank James for this opportunity and for introducing me to this film.


3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets is a quietly devastating, award-winning documentary that tells a story no other genre nor filming style could. It follows the trial of Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old software developer who was involved in an altercation with a group of black Jacksonville, Florida teens in which he fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The November 23, 2012 slaying only added fuel to the public outcry fire as it marked the second high-profile case (the February shooting of Miami teen Trayvon Martin being the first) in which self-defense and bigotry created confused situations that both ended in tragedy.

In the case of Davis, he and three friends were listening to rap at a fairly loud volume in the parking lot of a Gates gas station when Dunn approached and asked them to turn it down. The situation soon escalated as Dunn claimed that Davis began threatening his life and that he saw what appeared to be a barrel of a rifle or a large gun pointing out of one of their SUV’s windows. Dunn grabbed his pistol and fired ten shots at the red Dodge Durango, fearing for his fiancée’s life (she was in the convenience store and could have walked out at any moment). The boys left the gas station and quickly noticed Davis had in fact been hit three times.

The film does not include any footage of the confrontation, but the scene is painted vividly thanks to the testimony of key witnesses as well as the defendant himself. Marc Silver brilliantly assembles footage of the ensuing and rather protracted court case that implicated Dunn in first-degree murder, with three counts of attempted murder and one count of firing into a vehicle tacked on for good measure. These four counts alone carry a sentence of 75 years (20 per attempted murder charge and 15 for firing into a vehicle). With a camera fixated on the witness stand, Silver uses these moments to color in the lines while he sketches out the shape with interviews with Davis’ parents as well as Jordan’s friends Tommie, Leland and Tevin.

It’s an emotional scene, which might be too obvious of a statement to make, but then not mentioning it would largely ignore the art of this particular craft. The omnipresence of the camera perpetuates this feeling of privileged access — even though we have read these headlines and may have even seen it on the news (I haven’t, sorry to say, as these situations are becoming far too common and can often get lost in the media), we feel like we’re on the ground-floor of this process. Perhaps what 3 1/2 Minutes does even better than establishing the passage of time — shots of field reporters seconds before they go live to report on the case reveal fidgety people consumed by thought; court officers shuffling feet from having standing in one place for a lengthy period of time — is relaying the emotional and even physical toll these legal proceedings must take on those involved.

Once again I might be stating the obvious, but Ron and Lucia Davis appear visibly worn out from the opening shots, well before the trial gets under way. The documentary is very much of the moment, conscious of the urgency with which this family needs to find closure in this unimaginable situation. While the first trial doesn’t quite provide the ruling the Davis’ seek — that particular jury could not reach a verdict on the count of first-degree murder, though they found Dunn guilty on all others — they try again (in September) to find justice for Jordan. Meanwhile, a scene outside the court finds protestors gathering, pleading that the right decision be made. Indeed, an atmosphere of despair and sorrow hangs heavy over proceedings. If you have a pulse you will find certain revelations difficult to listen to, much less accept as fact.

And though some parts of the film wade around in a fair amount of legalese and Silver dedicates at least half of his time within a court house where not much transpires other than cross-examinations, 3 1/2 Minutes often engages the adrenaline system. Given that we are only now two or three years removed from these incidents, there’s a great tension in watching the drama unfold. Was Dunn a racist man? His fiancée’s testimony is quite telling. Did Davis provoke him? Was there actually a weapon in their vehicle? What can the state of Florida do to un-muddy the waters when it comes to describing ‘stand-your-ground’ as it relates to self-defense laws?

Wisely Silver allows the outside world to weigh in on the sociopolitical commentary: a variety of news sources, public officials and radio show hosts (and their guests) are interspersed throughout in measured soundbites that give significance and context to the potential verdict. Most voices are those of dissent, almost unanimously damning Dunn’s actions. What happens if he is found guilty? Or, what happens if he’s not?  If he gets acquitted has the legal system yet again failed those who looked to it for some modicum of peace and resolution?

If nothing else, the documentary is a barometer of the racial tensions that continue defining one of humanity’s great flaws. The senselessness of each violent act that ends up having tragic consequences is painful to recognize, but this is where we still are, apparently. We’ve certainly had this conversation before in dramatic, fictional cinema but the pairing of trial footage with interviews concerning those closest to the victim lend a perspective that is simultaneously heartbreaking and powerful. The whole package amounts to essential viewing that will remain so years down the road.

Recommendation: Packed with emotion and fascinating, revealing glimpses into a painful and costly legal proceeding, Marc Silver’s work here must be seen by as many people as possible. In an era where the public has unprecedented access to information, 3 1/2 Minutes really ought to factor prominently in any conversation about race-related violence going forward. I can’t rate this one highly enough. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 85 mins.

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