Tag Archives: Director

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

@Suicide Room

[3.5 stars]

Suicide as a subject, even when the best intentions are observed as with 13 Reasons Why, often ends up exploitative. Writer/director Jan Komasa, most recently lauded for his Corpus Christi (including an Oscar nomination), managed to respect its realities and create an engrossing story.

Jakub Gierszal (Dracula Untold) is at the center of this gut-punch of a tale; a teenage boy who starts (over)confidently and then crumbles despite and because of everything around him. His performance is raw and, at times, uncomfortable, but always gripping. Roma Gasiorowska becomes his gadfly and external conscience as he withdraws from the world that is simultaneously pushing him away. She is as magnetic as she is mercurial. In a smaller but pivotal role is Bartosz Gelner (Floating Skyscrapers), providing the catalyst and lighting the fuse for Gierszal’s discovery of his online world and a group of lost individuals.

The story has a lot of interesting devices and tremendous amount of emotionally exposed nerves. It is at once a fable and plain look at broken people. And broken here has many levels for both the kids and the adults. Frankly, the story itself starts strong and then loses its thread and references, but pulls it all together at the end in a way that works, even if it is far off track from where you think it may go from the opening 20 minutes.

Don’t go into this one lightly. It feels light at the top, but that masks the currents in the depths that will eventually reach the surface. However, it is another stepping stone for Komasa’s body of work, which continues to impress me. And it is a peek into Polish culture and family that isn’t often seen.

Suicide Room

Faraway, So Close! (In weiter Ferne, so nah!)

[3 stars]

In 1987 Wim Wenders hit the international consciousness as a writer/director with Wings of Desire… a tale of isolation and revelation with the backdrop of the Berlin Wall as metaphor. And then, in 1989, the wall fell and the world changed. In 1993 Wenders revisited his characters in this new reality with this award-winning, if not as successful, sequel.

Wings was a wonderful film…after the first 20 minutes of philosophical setup. You can argue that the extended prologue was necessary, but it honestly kept the film from taking flight, which it did once we really got to Earth and let the story go. Faraway is structured much the same, but with even more philosophical musing and exposition (45 minutes). This time, however, the discussion is set amongst the world and it sets up a lot of the movie’s ultimate action. Of course, that isn’t clear for a long time and is, perhaps, one of the more surprising aspects of the film. A lot of very disparate threads and seemingly tangential moments all come together for the final sequences in some very unexpected and, in one case, hysterical ways.

All of the main characters from Wings return: Otto Sander (from a personal favorite: Killer Condom), Bruno Ganz (The House that Jack Built), Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin (Until the End of the World) to bridge the stories. However, other than Sander, they are all secondary to the new plot. Part of what makes this film so clever is that it really is a new story, even though we get to see what happened to those who were the focus of the first.

The new people in this tale are rather surprising…Willem Dafoe (Motherless Brooklyn) and Nastassja Kinski (Cat People) join the story, and there are even small roles for Mikhail Gorbachev and Lou Reed. Which brings up the soundtrack…loaded with Reed and other period greats. It doesn’t have the staying power of Until the End of the World’s soundtrack, but there are some interesting surprises in it.

Though Faraway is a direct sequel in many ways, I’m not sure you need have seen Wings of Desire first. I think the relationships and returning characters get explained enough. However, you’ll definitely have a different experience if you see them in the intended order. But Faraway is, ultimately, a better crafted film, if a little overwrought at times. It is a worthy sequel and cleverly crafted. But it is, in every sense, a very European film of its time. It is slow to build momentum, highly intellectual, full of poetry and grand gesture, and not quite reality, though very down to Earth (literally) in its grounding. If you enjoy Wenders’ work or just want to see something with very different pacing and approach than today’s hyper-kinetic fare, this is an excellent, if long, choice.

Battle Beyond the Stars

[3 stars]

To be a little oxymoronic, this decidedly low-budget Roger Corman (Extraordinary Tales) space opera is more interesting for its camp and historical aspects than it is for the movie itself, which is just as often unintentionally funny as it is intentionally so in John Sayles’ script. Part of that is, admittedly, the execution of story. While Jimmy T. Murakami is officially credited for directing, Corman was in there stirring the pot too. It shows in the choice to deliver much of the arch/stock dialogue in absolute earnest, keeping the movie on keel but making some moments delightfully absurd.

For context, this flick was released just two years after the original Star Wars. Everyone wanted to replicate that success and we were getting inundated with bad space opera. But it was even earlier that films began poking fun at Flash Gordon and its ilk with the groundbreaking Barbarella. There is more than a little of that kind of humor in Battle, even as it attempts to wrap it all in a serious struggle for the survival of a planetfull of people under siege by a galactic bully, in the guise of John Saxon.

Leading the charge against Saxon’s Sador is Richard Thomas (The Americans) fresh off The Waltons. He and his smart-mouthed ship spearhead the search for warriors to protect his pacifist planet. The motley crew he assembles includes George Peppard (Damnation Alley ), Robert Vaughn, and Earl Boen.

Importantly, working behind the camera was a young James Cameron who was earning his bones and seeing how it was all done. Boen would meet Cameron and, a few short years later, find himself in The Terminator and Cameron at the forefront of his long career.

Battle is, at best, diverting and, at worse, painful to watch. It is sexist, absurd, culturally white bread, poorly plotted, and ridiculously executed. Which is all part of what makes it popcorn fun. But a good movie this isn’t. You watch it for how bad it is at times, and at how impressive the effects are for the time and budget they were working with. It is really more a classic because of who was involved than anything else. Either you’re a fan of “so bad its good/fun” or you’re not. If you’re not, just run away now.

Battle Beyond the Stars

Red Joan

[3.5 stars]

Movies of political intrigue are often entertaining but, because they tend to concentrate on the action and suspense and lose the humanity, they are not typically great movies. Red Joan is all about the humanity, with enough suspense and intrigue (though no real action) to keep it riveting. Based on a true story, and a timely one in many ways, it’s a wonderful depiction of living with a moral ambiguity in a world that wants all things to be simple.

Judy Dench (All is True), who is far from a frail old woman, manages to crumble before us as Joan. She is clearly tired and, in her way, happy to finally have the truth come out rather than keeping all the secrets that have influenced the direction of her life. While Dench’s moments are powerful and essential, it is Sophie Cookson (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) as her younger self that carries the movie in the main. She does so as a woman in search of acceptance in a man’s world, though never giving into that aspect; she remains both strong and human throughout.

Tom Hughes (About Time), Ben Miles (Collateral), and Stephen Campbell Moore (The Child in Time) fill out the critical roles around Joan. Each brings a particular element and challenge. And each has their own contribution to the resolution.

Trevor Nunn (Lear) directed Lindsay Shapero’s first feature script with an honest eye. There are few, if any, histrionics despite the tension and stakes; but they aren’t needed. The story carries itself in quiet moments that are stretched to breaking. But this isn’t a Le Carre tale like Little Drummer Girl, the tension is in the characters more than the risks. The personal story itself is enough, especially when delivered by such a solid cast.

Red Joan

As You Like It (2006)

[3 stars]

Kenneth Branagh (All Is True) has been associated with Shakespeare since he burst onto the international scene in 1989 with Henry V. Though his career ranges wide, he has continued to circle back to the Bard, investing in and reinventing the canon as actor, director, and writer. This particular comedy is no exception, but it also marked the beginning of his departure from standard period presentations of the tales.

Branagh sets his As You LIke It in feudal Japan, though with a cast of British ex-pats in the main roles. And quite the cast he pulled together as well…frankly too long to list, but with a number of established as well as up-and-comers to enjoy. The important aspect of this transposition is that it provides a nice foundation for the initial coup and sense of danger necessary to get the tale rolling, and it adds a sort of magical aspect to the feeling of the piece.

The play itself, like all the comedies, is somewhat interchangeable with most of Shakespeare’s other secondary tales. It explores love in many aspects through four different couples and three sibling relationships. And thanks to Branagh’s deft directing and writing, those reflections and comparrisons stay crisp and interesting rather than just seeming happenstance as they often do in the longer play. He even shfits the coda to further embrace his theatrical audience and to remind the audience to not take anything too seriously.

There is little believable in the the actual story of As You Like It, other than the emotions and desires. It is simply a romp with reminders that our relationships and our hearts are more important than our possessions and power. It is a comedy, so despite any of the darker aspects, no one is left unredeemed or saved in some way. And it is, of course, funny (often laugh-out-loud funny). So for a light evening of entertainment in iambic pentameter, settle in for some pleasant escape and great performances.

As You Like It

5 Centimeters Per Second (Byôsoku 5 senchimêtoru)

[3.5 stars]

Like Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name., this much earlier film of his is a simple story of love and growing up that taps into universal emotions. But unlike his later global hit, the structure of this film is a bit more straight-forward. This tale is told in tryptic: three segments from three perspectives…and it sneaks up on you. You don’t even realize how deeply it’s sunk in its hooks till it has you by the chest  and reminds you of your own moments of revelation about the world.

Each episode in the movie focuses on a different aspect of a relationship between two children as they grow into young adults…and grow slowly apart, as the title and opening scene suggest. It’s profoundly beautiful and spare in how it rolls out that tale. At only an hour it’s worth the time for anyone who enjoys solid anime, or who wants to see what came before Shinkai’s explosion on the scene in 2017/2018.

5 Centimeters per Second

 

The House that Jack Built

[2.5 stars]

Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac) is never an easy artist to watch. And, of late, I’m not entirely sure he’s as capable of delivering a complete and cohesive message, as he did with films like Melancholia. But you can’t say he isn’t fearless in the material he tackles.

His latest film is a foray into the sociopathic mind by way of Dante, and it isn’t just a little self-referential at times. As Jack, Matt Dillon (Going in Style), spends 2.5 hours explaining his concept of art and his reason for his efforts to Bruno Ganz (Remember) in a wide-ranging and rambling dialogue. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the surface of it, but as metaphor for filmmaking it’s a message to von Trier’s audiences and critics. Whether you accept that message or not, well that’s up to you.

But, as always, von Trier pulled together a solid supporting cast to help make his point. Top among them are Uma Thurman (Burnt), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Wayward Pines), Sofie Gråbøl (Fortitude), and particularly Riley Keough (We Don’t Belong Here). Keough transforms for her role completely and is the most complex of the women in this offering.

So, do you need to spend time in Jack’s house? That’s pretty much up to you. If you’re a completist or truly love von Trier’s work, then you should settle in for the assault. If you are new to von Trier or are simply looking for a movie to make you think… you may want to look elsewhere. I’m still torn about it as there are moments and an overall shape and motion that was intriguing. But ultimately, I think, it is too self-conscious and takes too long to get to the point.

The House That Jack Built