Tag Archives: indie

The Wife

[5 stars]

It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.

First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.

And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.

Björn  Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction  and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.

And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.

Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.

Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears

[2.5 stars]

Let’s talk horror.

What makes a movie scary? Disturbing sound effects? Gore? Twisted sets? Violence? Creepy music? Dark scenes? Surprises? Sure, all of that can add to the atmosphere, but if you don’t have characters and a story to tell you might as well just make paintings with some ambient sound to accompany it. You also need to be able to identify and engage with the characters. Part of what has brought horror into the mainstream with massive blockbusters like Get Out and It is the characters we could connect with, not just the situations and the events. Even those that rely more on humor, like Cockney’s vs. Zombies and Happy Death Day, or even those that rely simply on cleverness like the Saw or Final Destination series, provide both shock and character with the laughs…but they would fail without the characters.

OK, with all that in mind let’s dive into the last two parts of The Three Mothers trilogy by horror icon Dario Artento (Suspiria).

Inferno

A lot happens in this midsection to the trilogy, but it doesn’t have any real impact. There are no characters to latch onto, no real story to tell, just exposition that explains a bit of Suspiria and what potentially may come. There are some interesting visual moments but the script is painful at times; so is the acting. It is also very much a film of its time, 1980, in look and feel.

What Inferno does do is set up an interesting framework for the bigger story of the Three Mothers…and it would take Argento another 27 years to attempt it in The Mother of Tears, but I’ll get to that shortly.

I can tell you that, as a curio, sure you can give Inferno time. Just don’t expect a good movie. Go for the splatter and the explanation. Honestly, some of that information may be in the original Suspiria, but I saw it so many years ago, I can’t recall. I can say that the remake of Suspiria certainly included some of the background supplied in Inferno.

Mother of Tears

This is probably the most polished of the trilogy. That isn’t a complete surprise as it was made in 2007, 27 years after Inferno; you’d hope that Argento had improved his abilities in that amount of time. Mother of Tears does complete the trilogy in much the way you’d expect given the previous two installments. Building on the information in Inferno, but tying it back to Suspiria, we get a suitable climax to it all. 

But no, it isn’t a wonderful film. There are moments and there are surprises (sound familiar?). There is also gratuitous violence at times, as well as story-serving violence at others. The gore gets extreme and characters, such as they exist, are sometimes just, well, stupid. In fact, the entire impetus that frees the Mother of Tears is based on actions that just wouldn’t occur. Sadly, it could have been easily worked around, but Argento simply took the easy way and decided that truth should be as damned as the world he creates.

At least some of the acting was slightly more believable than the other two films. Asia Argento isn’t brilliant in the lead, but Valéria CavalliCristian Solimeno and Adam James added some credibility to the cast (given the direction they were given). And a small role by Udo Kier (American Animals) was a gift to his fans.

Overall, am I glad I completed this sequence? Yes, but more from a filmography point of view rather than feeling entertained. My time could have been spent on better choices. I am not a huge splatter fan, but when it is done well and to a purpose, be it humor or commentary, I can get on board. Argento seems to use violence for no purpose other than to purge his own demons or simply to shock. He has his followers, and if you are one then you certainly should fill in any gaps you have in his opus. For general or casual audiences of horror, or those who prefer the more mature approach, steer clear. There is little meat on the bones and too few moments of entertainment to make it worth your effort.

Love, Gilda

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help thinking, through a good part of this biography, that Love, Gilda is exactly the kind of story Radner would have hated being told about herself. Ultimately, I changed my mind on that point, but she is very clear about how she wants to interact with the public for much of her career, and this kind of tell-all (or a lot) definitely was not her style. At least not when she started.

Much as you’d expect from the title, Lisa Dapolito has created a love letter to Radner from Radner’s own audio tapes, interviews, home movies, and notebooks. With some additional commentary by friends and family, we get a sense of what drove Radner and what, at times, broke her. And, most importantly, also what brought her great joy. It is, by the nature of its telling, also a love letter from Radner to her audience, but that aspect isn’t as clear at first.

Radner was a force in comedy and part of the modern female comedienne movement, even if unwittingly. She was magnetic and intense and, along with the original Saturday Night Live cast, part of an evolution in comedy and comedy history that has defined the industry for over 40 years.  Her life was complex and challenging and a story in its own right. If you’ve read her autobiography you may know a lot of the tale already, but this is now in her own voice and with archival footage to illustrate and explain.

However, while Dapolito did an impressive job of interweaving the various collections of media and molding their presentation into an interesting documentary, it isn’t a very emotionally compelling one. The result feels almost clinical at times, even if intriguing. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that, honestly. Perhaps it was the pacing or the reliance on frequently having the audience read Radner’s own writing that causes the movie to become more like research than a journey. But the result is that it is empty of some of the emotional impact I would have expected. It is still worth checking out, especially if you like Radner’s work or knew only a little about her.  She was an important figure that influenced many of the big female comedy stars today…some of which are in the documentary to declare just that.

So, give Gilda another 90 minutes of your time for a visit, or just come to get to know her a little better. However, to truly get the message that Radner and Dapolito want to tell you, stay through the credits for the final tag. It’s worth the moment.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

[3.5 stars]

Before you dive into this semi-salacious documentary, be aware that if you want to protect the fantasy version of Hollywood sold by the magazines and interviews, don’t watch this film.

That said, this many years on you’ve probably hear the rumors and the whispers about the stars from the early and middle years of Hollywood. At the center of the truth for a lot them was Scotty Bowers. As a companion to his memoir, Full Service, this documentary looks at the man behind the stories in a frank and, at times, explicit way.

Scotty Bowers appears to have no boundaries and fewer regrets. The stories he relates are both fascinating and sad, both for him and for the people involved. It is a reminder of what happens in the world when people aren’t allowed to be themselves. It is also a reminder that the picture of the world a lot of people hold up as the ideal, that mythical perfect America of the 40s and 50s, is built of utter falsehoods and hypocrites.

This isn’t a typical docu. There isn’t a real thread holding it all together, except a tenuous one around Bowers’ life and motivations. It is more exposè than narrative. But it is an interesting story that peels back layer upon layer, often in uncompromising ways. Identifying how you feel about both Bowers’ life and the fact that he is revealing all, outing the dead, and at least one of the living (watch for that), is far from simple moral math.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emporer) has captured glaringly honest, often shocking conversations with Bowers that, over the course of 90 minutes, provide answers, hope…or just simply some interesting yellow press, depending on who you are, what you know, and how you think. If you’re easily offended or don’t really want to know what your icons were up to, walk away and embrace the fantasy. If you’re at all curious about at least one aspect of the truth and why silence is never the answer, give it a spin. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is a fascinating one.

Mandy

[1.5 stars]

Often when I use the tag and term “unique” I mean it as a compliment. This is not one of those times. This is a misguided, lost, often laughable attempt at horror surrealism, with a nod to gaming, anime, and heavy metal cultures. In fact, it does come across as an uncomfortable mashup of Hellraiser, Heavy Metal, and Reefer Madness. It is not a pretty result.

While Nicolas Cage (Snowden) is a love him or hate him kind of actor, he certainly put his all into an impossible role. So did the rest of the cast. Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) and Linus Roache (Non-Stop) are of the better heeled talents in this outing that try to do what they can with their scripts.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmato had a vision. He probably got it on shrooms, or some similar hallucinogen. And that’s fine and has worked for plenty of artists in various media. However, if the result isn’t something that a greater audience can follow or connect to, they have failed. Admittedly, this film has a following, it is what got me to watch it and stick with it to the end…I had to see why it had such strong supporters. I still don’t know. It is, quite frankly, juvenile, predictable, absurd, and full of issues in plot and logic. Even the surreal has rules and awareness; this did not.

Honestly, if you are looking for a head-trip horror, see Suspiria (either version) or Hereditary. Or, if you’re looking for a movie about cults or charismatics, try MarthaMarcyMayMarlene. Otherwise, skip this ham-handed effort.

Boy Erased

[4 stars]

There are no breakout performances in this story, which is both its strength and its weakness. There aren’t breakouts because there are no forced moments and only a few intense ones. Much like life. I’m not suggesting this is easy to watch or not charged, but it doesn’t try to overly craft a climax or an epiphany. Boy Erased just lays out the events and lets them eat at you and, on occasion, shock you.

This is Lucas Hedges’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) film and journey. In some ways it expands on his recent Lady Bird turn, though that is a coincidence of releases rather than the intent. It is a quiet performance of personal struggle and is very tightly contained. At times it feels like it is too contained, but then the turmoil bubbles out, giving you a glimpse of the struggle.

Nicole Kidman (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) has the next most interesting character, as his mother. Her journey is probably the one that most gives us hope through the ordeal. But that doesn’t discount Russell Crowe’s (The Mummy) efforts as his father and local pastor who has his own struggles. It may sound strange to sound almost sympathetic toward him, but that is part of the impressive nature of this movie.

Joel Edgerton (Red Sparrow), as writer, director, and actor in this adaptation did an amazing job of presenting the tale, and doing so without demonizing people. There is a clear right and wrong, but generally people are doing what they do because they do believe and they do want to do the right thing. The fact that their world view is too twisted to see the truth is more of a tragedy than a plot. It would have been easier to make them look evil, but Edgerton chose to see them as people, however hateful they were (both of themselves and others). As a second time out directing, after The Gift, it is impressive. That said, he does bungle the penultimate moment of the film a little in an effort to maintain the energy levels he has created. It doesn’t fail, but it felt a bit off and it lost a little of its drive. The moment is still enough to propel us into the final sequence, so I won’t harp on it, but it is one of the main reasons this is a bit less than perfect.

Clearly this isn’t a “fun” film. It is the true story of a young man coming to terms with himself when the world around him is telling him he’s an aberration and damned. But, though this is obviously focused on a particularly frustrating issue, the lessons and message of this biopic apply to many aspects of life, making this pointed and general at the same time. It is an issue and story that everyone should see because it is, sadly, still a huge issue across this nation. And because, whether they admit it or not, we all have non-straight individuals in our circles and family. How you deal with that matters, and figuring out what is more important to you about those people (what you believe or who they are in your life) is a struggle for more people than we would ever like to admit.

Puzzle

[4 stars]

I so enjoy being surprised by a movie. You wouldn’t be wrong assuming this is a small, simple romantic comedy of sorts. However, it is much richer than that, with complicated relationships and less than obvious paths. I’m not saying it isn’t a bit oversimplified and a little over-structured, but it is a wonderful ride with lots of nice sharp turns.

Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) dominates this film from a position so unassuming you don’t even see her doing the driving. It is an odd role in that way, but one we’re seeing more often. Gloria and Shape of Water each come to mind for different reasons.

David Denman (Logan Lucky) and Irrfan Khan (Inferno) each play their roles well. Neither is breakout, but they are there for a purpose and they don’t overstep it. Likewise, Austin Abrams (Tragedy Girls) and Bubba Weiler (The Ranger), in much smaller roles. The collective whole the men around Macdonald form is essential and entirely real. And a lot of that sense is down to the careful directing.

Better known as a producer than a director, Marc Turtletaub (Gods Behaving Badly) tackled this very genuine story with confidence. The opening sequence, in fact, is inspired. With great economy he  sets up a wealth of relationships and history before the front credits have even completed. And while I haven’t seen its Argentinian original, Rompecabezas, this remake has no sense of hollowness to it the way some remakes can. It feels unique and solidly on its own feet. Turtletaub claims to have not viewed the original until his own final cut was complete; a smart move on his part that paid off.

Practiced remaker Oren Moverman (The Dinner) paired up with newcomer Polly Mann to adapt the script. I have some minor quibbles with aspects of the story and pieces that get lost (no pun intended), but it feels comfortable in its shift to NYC and Bridgeport from its South American origins.

This is a film definitely worth your time. It is sweet, but not saccharine. It is honest, but not preachy. It is simple, but not boring or painfully predictable. And, yes, it is romantic, but not palling. Watching the story come together into a complete picture is a wonderful experience.

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.

Bel Canto

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Paul Weitz (Grandma) has always enjoyed the unusual and quirky in stories. Bel Canto is certainly in that group, though a good deal darker than the rest of his opus. Unfortunately, it is also clear he isn’t very comfortable in that area. He was constantly dragging this story back more toward the lighter side, which diminished its tension and credibility.

Normally, Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars) would have overcome those issues and provided a performance to balance the lacks. Not in this case. Her Roxanne Coss is neither Diva nor wilting violet. And worse, she had no credibility as a singer. It is close, but her posture is all wrong, which ruined several key moments in the movie for me.

Ken Watanabe (Sea of Trees), as well, just never quite gains control of the story to give us someone to focus on, though he has nice interaction with Moore and Ryo Kase. Kase, more than these two, turns in a nice performance; perhaps the most believable of the cast.

The other half of the cast, the rebels, are all fine if not brilliant. The most interesting characters are Tenoch Huerta and María Mercedes Coroy who get to stand out by virtue of interactions with Moore and Kase.

In important side roles, Christopher Lambert (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and Sebastian Koch (Bridge of Spies) make an impression as well.

Most of the movie issues are down to script and direction. There are powerful and interesting ideas in Bel Canto, but to absorb them you have to let go of reality and treat it as a near-surreal play. To really succeed it needed to stay more realistic. Without that there is no sense of threat and danger, not to mention loss. Weitz’s script is clear about what the story is from very near the beginning. For that approach to work we need to invest in the growing sense of connection and recognition of rebels as people without losing touch of the underlying realities. Koch’s character is intended as that interlocutor, but it just never comes together, at least not fully.

This is a movie for completists, whether for the director or the cast. I can’t say it is worth the investment solely on its own merits despite its message and reflection of current society.

Suspiria (2018)

[3.5 stars]

While Dakota Johnson (Bad Times at the El Royale) does a passable job in her role, and Chloë Grace Moretz (November Criminals) helps launch the tale, they aren’t the reasons to see this movie. The reason to see this film is Tilda Swinton (Okja), who executes three roles in service to the story and the intent. Her main role is obvious, as the Dance Master of the troop. But the other two roles take a bit of effort to see. All three are done beautifully, with the complex emotions and physicality you’d expect from this wonderful performer. Her efforts alone were worth the price of admission for me.

Director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name) has taken Dario Argento’s original concept and, with the help of David Kajganich’s (A Bigger Splash) script, expanded on it as well as added meat to its bones. This remake is more of a real story than just a psychological splatter pic. The multiple roles for Swinton are just the tip of it. There are dualities and mirrors all over the story, from a divided Berlin to the  Baader-Meinhof connection (and even its subsequent psychological phenomenon) to male/female, high/low, etc. The layering is thick and fast; this is a movie that takes time to unpack.

Let me put it this way: Have you ever finished a film and feel like it came to a point, but have a heck of a time nailing it down? This remake of Suspiria is like that. There is a lot going on with metaphors upon metaphors not to mention just a darn good classic horror/suspense thing going on. But it doesn’t exactly spoon feed you (or force feed you) all of its intent. Some is obvious from the beginning, other aspects develop, and some will likely leave you pondering the purpose. The original was as much art house as it was horror as well, so building on that legacy isn’t a bad thing. It does mean that not everyone will be satisfied, especially when such a classic horror like Halloween is available in the theater next door.

Like the original, this movie is also violent. Whether it is violent toward women or in support of them is arguable. It is intensely weird and definitely dense and inscrutable at times. Guardagnino makes some challenging choices near the end that force you to shift your thinking. But it does feel complete, as I’ve said. The structure is there and, as I chipped away at it for hours after viewing, I made sense of a lot of it. Does that mean it worked or that, despite oblique choices, I was able to create sense out of a chaos? I guess you’ll have to be the judge.

If you’re a fan of the original or like horror that has a bit more going on, like Hereditary, then you should give this a chance. If you don’t want to go to theater, it will end up on Prime eventually, but it is visually impressive on the big screen.