Tag Archives: indie

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.

Final Portrait

[3 stars]

The lives of the famous and artists fascinate us. Whether it is the fictional as in A Star is Born, or the mysterious such as Loving, Vincent, or the brainy like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, or any of the many biopics about Oscar Wilde, the movies keep getting made. Perhaps we watch because we want to understand fame. Or maybe genius. Whatever the impetus, their lives are often, to be honest, fascinating.

While the artist Alberto Giaocometti probably isn’t one of the names that would jump to most people’s minds as possible subject, this true tale documented by the portrait’s subject, James Lord, is full of humor along with insights as to the nature of artistic drive. Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) brings the artist to life in a wonderfully funny and darkly intense portrayal that draws us in just as it did the world and Lord, played by Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name). We watch Hammer’s Lord get pulled into Gioacometti’s spell, torn between having his portrait completed and frustration with a process he had no understanding of prior to agreeing to sit. Through the unexpected several week process Lord becomes our eyes into Giaocometti’s life, joys, thinking, and fears.

Around the two swarm Tony Shalhoub (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel), and Sylvie Testud who each highlight different aspects of the household and the times. And each deals with the challenges differently. What keeps them in his orbit is all part of the story.

The insanely prolific actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) took on this adaptation of Lord’s book about the experience as one of his few writing and directing challenges. He’s only done a handful over the year; his first was the wonderful Big Night and you can see how that sensibility and love of character has matured. Tucci has a great eye and keeps the energy up, even during long silences, by making us invest in the portrait’s completion ourselves. Though more of a slice-of-life than a full story, it is a fun, funny, and fascinating 90 minutes, with wonderful performances worth seeing.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

[3 stars]

Talk about an unlikely pairing: Robin Williams (Absolutely Anything) and Mila Kunis (Hell and Back). And yet, it works. Both have great comedy chops and put them to solid use alone and together in what amounts to a black comedy with heart. The tale, essentially, asks: What do you want to do with your life and why aren’t you already doing it? It’s a simple and often asked question in movies, but this one has a nice layer of entertainment wrapping it up.

Supporting the antics, issues, and events are Melissa Leo (Equalizer 2) and Peter Dinklage (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Though they both server their purpose well enough, Dinklage has the more nuanced character of the two. Frustratingly, Leo never quite finds the right groove for the tone of the movie. Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight) and Sutton Foster (Bunheads) round out the main cast nicely, but without a lot of impact. In addition, there are some cameos that are pleasant surprises.

Writer Assi Dayan adapted this film from his award winning Mr. Baum for English audiences and trusted it to director Phil Alden Robinson (Good Fight). The story is a bit halting and odd at times, I suspect from the conversion, but it holds up. It is also part of the collection of final films from Williams who did four that year before hanging up his shoes, making this movie both bittersweet and not a little ironic.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn

Leave No Trace

[3.5 stars]

When this film kicked off I was afraid this was going to be a weird combination of Captain Fantastic and Short Term 12. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely; emotionally tight, but not a story of bad things happening. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a sad set of circumstances in play, but it isn’t about big bad nasty things surprising the characters. In fact, it is packed with people trying to do good things for one another, making this a very different kind of story than the majority out there these days. Ultimately, it is a quietly intense tale of family and the aftermath of trauma, done with a kind eye.

Ben Foster (Hell or High Water) and Thomasin McKenzie (Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies) make a wonderfully paired father/daughter team. Each is devoted to the other but also struggling, at times, to stay civil when things go poorly. The quiet internal tensions for these two are both different and very affecting. It is a beautiful exhibition of the battle between love and personal need.

Supporting them are some familiar faces, but these two should and do dominate the story. Enjoy the side characters for what they are: the periphery of life intruding into their bubble. It is ultimately a beautifully poetic film with both a story and, to a lesser degree, a message. That balance serves it well and director Debra Granik guides it with a delicate hand through the co-written screenplay with Anne Rosellini, who had previously paired with her for Winter’s Bone. This isn’t a fast trip through life and the woods, but it is a memorable one.

Leave No Trace

The Seagull

[3 stars]

Chekov is hard, possibly one of the hardest playwrights to do well. He is often seen as tragedy, when he is primarily dark comedy. Stephen Karam’s (Speech & Debate) adaptation juggles those aspects rather well, and reframes the play in interesting ways, starting near the end and then showing us how we got there. It was a very clever device to help set understanding.

Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) is solid in her Diva role. It isn’t a new character for her, but she sells it well. Similarly for Brian Dennehy. On the other hand, Corey Stoll (Cafe Society) and Jon Tenney (Radio Free Albemuth) each get to tackle new types of characters and both deliver layered and broken men of the times.

Billy Howle (Dunkirk) and Saoirse Ronan (Loving Vincent) as the central love story play well enough together, but are a tad wooden. Unfortunately, that leaves Mare Winningham (Philomena), Glenn Fleshler (Braindead), and Michael Zegen (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) at the periphery and without a lot of impact, though Zegen has his moments.

However, it was Elisabeth Moss (The Square) that really stood out for me here. She embodied Chekov’s sensibility in wonderful dark and funny ways. Even as a side character, she is unforgettable and funny, punctuating the story with humor and pathos at important moments.

Director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) does some very interesting things with the story to bring it home. In addition to his understanding of the material, he embraced Karam’s new framing to show us where the characters end up and then how they got there, before wrapping it all up. He also managed to keep the period setting feel current without sacrificing the roots of the tale. Chekov is so often just a specialty piece for a narrow audience, like Vanya on 42nd Street, that it is nice to see it tackled so well as something more mainstream for a broader reach.

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

[3 stars]

Without Mackenzie Davis (Tully), I can’t really imagine this film working. Thanks to her stark honesty, energy, and vulnerability what should be an uncomfortable tragedy of a life becomes an oddly compelling tale of finding yourself. It is still 90 minutes of a Greek Odyssey in modern Santa Monica without much of a connecting thread outside of the journey itself.

Davis goes through a sequence of challenges and encounters with some fun faces. Among them are Annie Potts (Young Sheldon), Haley Joel Osmet (Tusk), Lakeith Stanfield (Death Note), Alia Shawkat (The Driftless Area), and Carrie Coon (Kin). Each creates an odd character with a story all their own that intersects with Davis as she travels the SoCal landsacpe.

As a first feature film Christian Papierniak produced something surprising, if not entirely palatable at times. It is a dark and, occasionally, ugly look at life and choices. Davis is not a character you root for so much as sympathize with and, likely secretly, have felt like at some point in your life. The result is a little rushed toward the end, but follows the rhythm of what has come before. It isn’t so much a fun film to watch as intriguing. Davis is undoubtedly a train wreck, but there is something redeemable about her Izzy that keeps you invested and curious.

Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town

Brooklyn Castle

[4 stars]

Nine years ago, when this was primarily filmed, we were in the heart of the Great Recession and NY public school IS 318 was struggling to keep its funding. The story was one of struggle and unexpected excellence; a reminder that circumstances do not make the person, but can certainly affect their lives. But that is the undercurrent. The real story is watching these young mental athletes find their footing and ability as they try to make their way in the world, and it is riveting.

I expect that the school and documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore never envisioned the attack on education, and particularly for the poor, would remain under such siege in the heart of the recovery these 9 years later. And yet, here we are with a movie that resonates in very interesting ways long after its completion.

Brooklyn Castle