Tag Archives: craft

Endless Poetry (Poesía Sin Fin)

[3 stars]

Endless Poetry picks up just about where Dance of Reality left off. In fact the overlap and reuse of actors and sets is so complete I thought I had started to rewatch Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film and had to stop to be sure. However, it quickly veers as we follow the young Alejandro from his childhood home to Santiago. This next chapter of his life story is not about his parents so much as about his creative blooming.

Much like the last (and all of Jodorowsky’s) work, this is in his unique voice. While highly biographical and personal, it is also surreal and experimental. Not quite film and not quite theatre it flows along leaving you with incredible visuals, intriguing ideas, and moments of beauty set off by disturbing scenes of ugliness. Though I will say that this film seems to find the beauty in everything it sees, no matter how base or fouled.

As the title implies, this is the path by which our intrepid artist learns to see poetry in everything in life. It is a hopelessly optimistic approach, but not an unfair depiction of a young poet. It echos a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s (The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet) early work. The rich colors, the odd characters, the fantastical approaches to life. The bottomless ability to find the positive amid the disturbing. And, ultimately, the core belief that the human spirit can not only survive anything but also use it to create art.

This is a film you watch for the experience. What you take from it will change depending on when you watch it. It is a stunning piece of vision making it worthwhile even when the story itself is so personal to Jodorowsky as to be inscrutable. But, of course, you have to like that experimental theatre feel and approach.

Endless Poetry

Ida

[4 stars]

Ida navigates a crisp landscape of grays with quiet tension. In fact the black and white filmed film goes to great pains to keep it all gray except for notable spots of deep black that are intended to draw our eye. It is a beautiful and painful film that focuses on personal choice and identity, despite being surrounded with many tales of morality.

The young Ida, given life by Agata Trzebuchowska in her first role, is as near silent and immobile as one of the idols she maintains in her convent. But it is a stillness that radiates information and emotion. She is brought into the greater world by her aunt, inhabited by a near equally quiet and complex Agata Kulesza. They know nothing of one another, for reasons that become plain, but are drawn together by the bonds of family as the only remaining survivors of WWII. The women make an odd combination, talking more in their silences than they do with their words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has an amazing eye and sure hand. His co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) and he kept paring down the script to its essentials in words and moments. The entire film comes in at 1:22, but it is like eating a super-rich cake. A small amount is filling and satisfying…and in no way feels like a small thing when you’re done.

Ida was massively nominated and won many awards. All deserved. Appreciate this film for the story, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent). It is very much time well spent.

Ida

Roar

[2 stars] or [5 stars]

No this isn’t about the Heath Ledger Celtic prince series. This is even a bigger oddity and, by far, the most outrageous, batsh*t crazy flick I’ve ever seen. Not because of the movie itself…there really isn’t much of one…but because it was done with untrained animals. A LOT of untrained animals. I was utterly spellbound watching the film due to the insanity of it all. It truly has to be seen to be believed, which is why this has such a wonky rating. It ends up more of a curiosity than a movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, in a carnival sort of way.

Roar was intended as a environmental flick masquerading (thinly) as a horror/suspense that pits Hitchcock darling Tippi Hendren (The Birds, Marnie) and her real-life family (daughter, Melanie Griffith (Automata), husband, Noel Marshall, and two of their sons) against a house of feral felines of the great cat variety. It is, in fact, the only screen credit for Marshall in front of the camera, who was more typically with producing credits. But this was a family labor of love in front of and behind the camera; Joel Marshall, another son, was doing the seamless art and production design.

There is nothing remotely believable about the acting or story in Roar, but that isn’t the reason to see it. The Marshall family personally raised well over 100 lions over the course of 11 years (five of those were during filming in the late 70s) in order to get a houseful of great cats for their vision. Honestly, you’ve just never seen anything like it (didn’t I say that already?). They even give the cats writing credit up front. The commentary and related Q&A on the disc are also fascinating and cover the background of the making of the film.

To be fair to the result, you know this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously by the music and opening credits. However, the final messages (subtle as a sledgehammer) are sadly still relevant, if not even more important, today.

While unrelated, it is worth noting that Hendren continues to work to this day, though it may still be her past we are all obsessed with. Her time with Hitchcock even inspired two different movies in recent years. Roar isn’t something she is going to be remembered for, at least for her acting, but it is a testament to her and her family’s determination and vision…and not just a little bit of crazy in there.

Roar

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

Terminal

[3 stars]

This beautifully designed Alice-in-Wonderland noir is a fever dream of dark delight. Rather than pretend there is a hidden agenda, everyone’s agenda is pretty much on the table from the beginning. The interesting bit is watching it all play out.

Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as femme fatale is perfect casting. She is magnetic on screen and has just the right level of crazy dancing behind her eyes. Imagine her Harley Quinn character with complete self-control or her Tonya Harding with a lot more brain power and focus. It is a salacious and undeniably disturbing performance.

Into her orbit drift a collection of folks. Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) provides a nicely down-trodden and quiet soul struggling with life. Dexter Fletcher (Cockneys vs. Zombies) and Max Irons (Dorian Gray) make an interesting pair, if more than a little cliché, for her to play with. And, finally, Mike Meyers was practically unrecognizable in his own fun and twisted role at the periphery of it all.

For his first major film as writer/director, Vaughn Stein delivered a strong vision visually and story-wise. The production design evokes Blade Runner, creating a not-quite-our-world sensibility but not a world that couldn’t exist here and now.  And the game of Lewis Carroll references is fun. The story rushes near the end and flies just a bit off the rails in intent, but was worth the ride completely. There is plenty to feast on, from a craft point of view as well. Though, admittedly, if you don’t like noir it will probably leave you wanting. Coming on the heels of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, this movie got a bit lost in the shuffle. Personally, I had a great time with it and I’m curious to see what Stein can come up with next.

Terminal

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Lear (2018)

[3.5 stars]

In the world of Shakespeare on film, there are many citizens, but only a few really stand out. Akira Kursawa’s Throne of Blood (nee Macbeth) and Ian MacKellen’s Richard III for their fascinating interpretations and performances come immediately to mind. And then there are Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Hamlet for their classic and down-to-earth depictions (not to mention full-text presentations). There are filmed stage performances as well, but those are a different discussion and, arguably, a different genre.

As Hamlet is a requirement for younger actors, Lear, like Prospero (or Prospera), is a right of passage for venerable actors. In fact, Glenda Jackson is joining that list soon as well. It would have been a great disappointment not to see Anthony Hopkins (Thor: Ragnarok) tackle Lear before he folded up his career…not that that seems to be coming any time soon. And Richard Eyre’s (The Dresser) adaptation and direction makes this an interesting Lear indeed.

One of the challenges of Lear is that it starts far into the story of this tragic family. We can intuit a lot, but it often starts with such a level of animosity from the children that it feels like a cheat. Eyre’s choices help us really see the fear and hatred build in Regan and Goneril, played by Emily Watson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Emma Thompson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) . We also see Lear change and deteriorate wonderfully through the piece. And though not quite as topically impactful as Ian McKellen’s Richard III, the modern setting also works nicely allowing it to resonate with the growing concerns of eldercare.

There are some wonderful side performances in the various houses as well from Christopher Eccleston (Unfinished Song), Tobias Menzies (The Night Manager), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Jim Broadbent (The Lady in the Van). However, you may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the two integral roles of Cordelia and The Fool, respectively played by Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and Karl Johnson. Both are serviceable in their roles, but neither really left an impact for me, which has something to do with the actors, but also with some burden on the directing choices in which Eyre’s approach has some intriguing shifts in focus beyond setting.

It is the Edmund/Edgar machinations which are made the center of the story for most of the movie. These mirrored relationships were always important, but wrenching the center of the play off the titular character was interesting. The bastard, played by John Macmillan, and the son, by Andrew Scott (Sherlock), are both powerful performers. However, despite the interesting effect on plot structure, their screen relationship is forced and never really gels…even at the end. Another interesting change is that the Fool is disposed of with scant comment (and probably without much import for most of the audience). It is done in set-up for the final scenes, which are always discussed dramaturgically as the substitution of Cordelia for the Fool (and after Lear and Mad Tom have each taken some ownership), but it has an incomplete impact and import the because it is executed so dismissively.

For all the solutions this production finds in bringing the motivations to life, the film exacerbates the problem of compressed time by virtue of its length. Despite good visual bridges, the plot is forced along far too quickly (115 minutes). Honestly, this tale could probably sustain a mini-series in length and thereby get places more believably. Shakespeare’s wonderful prose aside, the credibility of the choices has always been a challenge in this play. Huge leaps based on long-festering slights are necessary, but hard to digest for the audience given the scope of Lear’s travels and the evolution and impact of his story on an entire country.

I could keep dissecting this production, which is actually a good sign. There is much to chew on. Often you only get one or two interesting aspects to chew on…but Eyre and Hopkins provide a full meal, if not all the courses. If you enjoy Shakespeare, you must see this production. If you come to the Bard only on occasion, you may find this a bit different than what you expect, intriguing, and certainly shorter than your typical play. It is the magic of Shakespeare that his work continues to make sense and have impact in various conceptualizations, settings, and times, even when some of the specifics may be confusing as society changes.

Disobedience

[3.5 stars]

Sebastián Lelio has had a hell of a run on screen. His last few films have all been quiet, emotionally powerful stories of women finding their feet in the world. With Gloria, he looked at an older woman reassessing her life. With A Fantastic Woman, he took on a transgender woman accepting herself and the loss of her love. With co-writer Lenkiewicz (Ida), in Disobedience, he tackles the intersection of deep, fundamentalist beliefs, desire and, as with all his films, escaping the weight of the past.

This film boasts a triumvirate of powerful characters embodied by Rachel Weisz (Denial), Rachel McAdams (Game Night) and Alessandro Nivola (Selma). Each of these people must navigate a complex web of connections and expectations as well as their own inner demons to find a way forward. While the main focus is on the women, there is history to the three that is only slowly revealed. The less you know going in, the better to appreciate the work that Lelio put into the film.

Lelio is a patient director. He lays out stories and insists that they slowly reveal themselves and build, much like life. We only see so much at a time and, rarely, do we get explanations. We have to intuit the issues or wait for an inciting moment to get details, but the information is there. Disobedience is no exception. He presents a situation and hints at unspoken tensions, but doesn’t explain them immediately, driving tension into otherwise mundane and quiet situations.

When you have a couple hours and want to see some real craft, both on screen and behind it, put this on. It tackles a culture that is rarely depicted with care and appreciation, and it is packed with brilliant acting and direction.

Disobedience

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

[3.5 stars]

Here we go again, indeed. And why the hell not? Sure, it is treacly pointlessness with a beat, but it is certainly a welcome break from reality. This installment does suffer a bit from sequel-itis in that it is a bit less focused and not quite “new,” but the cast and production throw themselves into the story to bring it all nicely full-circle.

The original cast return, picking up where they left off, but the real focus is very much in the past. Lily James (The Darkest Hour) as the young Meryl Streep (The Post) is magnetic and wonderful. And Jessica Keenan Wynn, in particular, nails Christine Baranski (Into the Woods) beautifully.

What is most interesting, at least for me, was watching how director/writer Ol Parker (Now is Good) structured the movie to get the effect he wanted. The initial songs and performances are purposefully lack-luster to leave room for the bigger and better-known numbers and stars later on. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie is all about breaking down the happy ending of the previous film so the characters have something to fight for. The inter-cuts from past to present are expertly and interestingly woven together. And the drive to the finale is inevitable. The rhythm builds like Grand Budapest Hotel, compressing as we get closer to the ending.

But therein lies the rub. For me, the film never quite peaked. We’re promised a huge finale, and there is a nice emotional one on some levels, but we never quite have the musical finale we deserve. Think The Greatest ShowmanMoulin Rouge, or Across the Universe or just about any Broadway show. And I say this especially because Cher (Burlesque) was in the mix. The fault really lies with the music arrangements. In every case they seem to hang back or back off the blow-out ending. Whether that was to accommodate the actor’s abilities or to keep Cher from stealing away the film, I don’t know, but it was very palpable for me. The trailers had more showmanship for me than the movie itself.

All that said, the two hour diversion was welcome and entertaining. If you liked the first, you’ll like returning for the second. There is a sweet story, both romantic and personal, being told and ABBA’s music remains unavoidably foot-tapping. Just stay through to the end of the credits for a final, short scene.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again