Tag Archives: indie

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A Ghost Story

[3 stars]

I truly admire what writer/director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) wants to do with his latest film. It is a devastating look at love and loss, and a musing on the fabric of existence. Very heady stuff for a small indie film that focuses on a single relationship. OK, yes, and a little Sophomoric too. However, it rises mostly above that due to the performances and quality of the execution. Rooney Mara (Song to Song) and Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) create a very believable pair whose lives are slowly exposed over the course of the tale. Both performances are quietly intense and subtle.

Frustratingly, far too much of the movie is too close to reality. It is easily 20 minutes longer than it need be to make its points. Frankly, you can only hold a shot so long before the value of the moment is gone and it begins to feel forced or more like a theatre “happening” rather than a specific moment in life intended to evoke empathy. We live in real life, we know the moment to moment is often boring and, sometimes, interminable. You can achieve that experience without adding explosions, quick cuts, or making an audience sit through all of it. In fact, we watch movies to avoid the bulk of the boring parts, so if you’re going to use those moments to make a point, you need to do it carefully.

The pacing issue is mostly through the first 2/3 of the film. And Lowery does find some very clever editing to overcome that criticism at points; even more so in the final third. After a long setup, this is where the film moves on to the meat of his vision and point (including one rather disturbing and long nihilistic diatribe by Jonny Mars in case you weren’t going to get there on your own).

There is a great deal to appreciate in this very different portrayal of a haunting. The cinematography is impressive, with some truly breath-taking shots. Though, personally, I found the forced 4:3 frame distracting. I think it was intended to elicit nostalgia, but it was too self-conscious for my taste, and already an out-moded frame of reference (if you will).

All that said, A Ghost Story is worth your time, but it isn’t quite the impactful and amazing movie I had been led to expect from the festival buzz it generated this past summer. You also shouldn’t start watching it if you’re tired or just looking for distraction. The film does eventually pay off and it is definitely something a little different from most of the offerings out there. Just be prepared to be a participant rather than just be an observer.

A Ghost Story

Lady Bird

[4.5 stars]

Coming of age stories have been around since, well, people were coming of age. Often they are fraught with hyperbole, grandiose dreams, heightened emotions, heroes and villains, and often triumph or tragedy on a large scale.

Lady Bird bucks all of that. There are no villains. It is quietly wonderful. Beautiful and painfully realistic. It is an unvarnished mother-daughter relationship told honestly from the their points of view, but with the maturity of an unbiased eye with the distance to see the truth.

Soairse Ronan (Brooklyn) holds this film up from its shocking beginning to its reflective end. She is utterly compelling and completely believable as a California teen in the early aughts; an era that is more different and distant now than you might realize till you see it recreated.

As her parents, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and Tracy Letts (The Lovers) are brilliant centers of love and stress for the teen. There is nothing simple about this family and no one pretends otherwise. But no one is really wrong or right either. There is a deep connection between these characters, however strained it may get. Must like life.

Ronan, as high schoolers are wont to do, has a couple of relationship interests. For this movie they take the shape of two very different, but very believable young men, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timotheé Chalamet (Love the Coopers). Hedges, in particular, gets to create yet another character boiling inside with secrets and desires.

There are also the girl friends, in two very different flavors. Odeya Rush (The Giver) and, probably the least known in the cast, Beanie Feldstein are great foils and supports for Ronan’s Lady Bird. Feldstein will certainly be getting more after this performance.

There are a couple smaller roles worth calling out as well, for both their humor and humanity. Bob Stephenson (Jericho), Stephen Henderson (Fences), and Lois Smith (The Nice Guys) are all great character actors and really bring it for this movie. They add texture to the tapestry that is Lady Bird’s life and humor in very unexpected ways.

Lady Bird is a brilliant sophomore outing directing for Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women) and continues her sharp writing career. She has a wicked eye and sure hand to bring out the truth of the characters lives and the world around them while keeping it all interesting and well-paced. It has earned huge respect by critics and audiences alike, despite it being a very small and quiet tale. It will certainly be nominated for many of the big awards, and has already gathered some festival fame (and an unheard of 100% on Rotten Tomtoes with 185 reviews in to date). Whether it can walk away with any of them is still an open question but Gerwig will unquestionably get more opportunities in future. Her characters have been igniting audiences for years now. That she has brought those same qualities and ability to bear from behind the camera is an unusual and welcome feat.

So, yes, it is as good as you’ve heard. Go, relax, and fall into Lady Bird’s life and world. It isn’t an explosion filled adrenaline ride, but I laughed out loud many times (I mean really loud) and connected with this film on many levels. You may be wondering, given all the praise I’ve heaped, why I haven’t given it a perfect score myself? The simple answer is that the quality of the photography knocked it down a notch for me. The framing and editing were both well done, but the stock or the projection I saw was grainy and a tad soft in a way that I found slightly distracting. I don’t know if it was purposeful on Gerwig’s part to elicit a sense of nostalgia or if it was simply my theater, but either way it had me taking it just a shade off perfect.

Lady Bird

47 Meters Down

[3 stars]

I’ll admit up front that this is a tautly constructed suspense tale, even when some of it is obvious. However, as a diver myself, I really cringed through a lot of the opening and cavalier stupidity of the choices Mandy Moore (This is Us) and Clare Holt (The Originals). It wasn’t unrealistic…people really are that dumb, especially when trying to prove something to themselves; it was just painful.

Matthew Modine (The Hippopotamus, Stranger Things) was a  surprisingly well done character too. His motivations and choices managed to avoid the expected at almost every turn. For a small role, his was an important one to keep the movie on track.

Co-writer and director Johannes Roberts’s crafted a good horror film out of a fairly simple concept that plays homage to Jaws, Alien, and dozens of other similar efforts but without feeling like a copy. The camera work and production also did a great job capturing the action and underwater world. I can see why it was such a surprise hit. I can’t say I’d need to see it again, but Roberts clearly has ability and a sense of how to hold an audience. I’d be curious to see what he manages next and if he can apply it to something a bit less cheap-genre.

47 Meters Down

Kedi

[3 (or 5) stars]

Is this just cat porn? Well, yes, to a point. But it is also an insight into the philosophy and soul of Istanbul and people generally. Following the various, and credited, furry characters around provides an incredible view into the society and sociology of the animals. We get a day-in-the-life view of the animals and their various free-range human companions.

The result is a heck of a first film by Ceyda Torun. Pulling together a documentary that feels like a story from 180 hours of raw footage, gained by chasing cats around the city, was impressive. Which isn’t to oversell this heart-warming tale. The result, while effective, is really just a step or two above kitten fail videos on You Tube, which could explain why it was financed by You Tube Red. But it does show talent and vision. I’d love to see what she and her crew could do with a serious subject.

But Torun and her partners aren’t unaware of the light nature of their story. They took their efforts seriously, but also recognize its place in the pantheon of documentaries. The disc has some great making of, extra footage, and commentaries. But is also has one commentary by the cats themselves (which is probably exactly what you think it is).

All in all, it is interesting for those who like nature programs and a must-see for feline enthusiasts (and thus the split star rating). It is also a nice tour of parts of Istanbul as well.

Kedi

The Beguiled

[3 stars]

Told from the reverse angle of the original film, this version of Beguiled looks at the arrival of a Union soldier from the women’s lives he invades. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) brings her strong sense of visual design and female strength to the screen and script, but I think falls a bit short in selling the intent despite a solid cast.

Colin Farrell (A Home at the End of the World), Nicole Kidman (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Kirsten Dunst (Hidden Figures) make a mighty trinity on the screen, at least individually. The interaction is a little stilted, in part due to the nature of the period.

The younger women are a bevy of talent that few directors outside of Coppola could have pulled together. Among them, Angourie Rice (Spider-Man: Homecoming,The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon) stood out nicely. On the other hand, Elle Fanning (3 Generations) while magnetic as ever, is still seeking the role that will make her a star. She is always interesting to watch, but rarely feels completely natural to me. Fanning has an otherworldly aspect, a detachment, to her performances that is haunting, but odd. And it is particularly off in period pieces such as this film.

But performances aren’t where this film feels weak to me, it is the directing and script choices. While Kidman and Dunst have some quiet moments of desire, and Fanning is pretty clear about what she wants, the conflict of jealousy is either too subtle for my blunt brain or it was just not strong enough to bring about the resolution. The women just never connect, either with each other or Farrell. Each is an island of desperation. Perhaps that was Coppola’s intention, but it made for a very distancing sensibility. I didn’t care for these women, didn’t worry for them, didn’t weep for their losses, nor enjoy their small triumphs. And the ending just sort of laid flat emotionally, though hauntingly beautiful in its presentation. That, to me, indicates the movie didn’t work or was, at most, a mixed success.

The Beguiled

The Glass Castle

[3 stars]

Watching Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but view it as a dark reflection of Captain Fantastic. Both tackle similar kinds of family, but Glass Castle is less simple and more realistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is based on Jeannette Wall’s real life.

Some excellent performances make this film solid. Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Brie Larson (Free Fire) and Ella Anderson (Mother’s Day), as Larson’s younger self, are the real standouts. Naomi Watts (3 Generations) has some moments, but her character is mutable and not easy to understand which diminished the performance for me.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) tackled the story as director and co-writer in a clever way. He used a lot of flashback; not because it was easy but because it removed a host of expectations about where the story would go. Told in order, you’d be expecting tragedy over and over. It isn’t an easy story of growing up, but if you believe the people telling the tale, tragedy isn’t the point nor the outcome. And that is the issue for me, performances and flimmaking aside.

The end implies a forgiveness I’m not sure the people earned, even though the post-film footage makes it clear that it is what occurred. So this is either a testament to the strength of people, and children in particular, or is suggestion that anything can be and should be forgiven. I don’t know if I can get behind that sentiment. You certainly need to get past aspects of life, but that doesn’t mean you forgive or stay involved with those that created the bad situation. To Cretton ‘s credit, you want to buy into that choice, making this a challenging tale from a good filmmaker. For that, and the performances, it is worth the time. And it is certainly a fascinating look into humanity and our own individual choices.

The Glass Castle

The Child in Time

[2.5 stars]

I completely get why Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Kelley MacDonald (T2: Trainspotting) tackled these complex and subtle parents working through tragedy. They are a different take on an all-too-common theme, and they have a different path to travel than you’d expect. Likewise, their mirror couple in the piece, Stephen Campbell Moore (Burnt) and Saskia Reeves (ShetlandThe Worricker Trilogy) had their own acting challenges that were probably irresistible.

For the acting and the sense of honesty in the tale, I enjoyed the trip till near the end. Director Julian Farino (The Oranges) navigates a layered story that isn’t very obvious and does what he can with Stephen Butchard’s (Falcon) adaptation.

But there’s the rub. You can see the beauty of the original book behind this adaptation. The story, ideas, and language are all what you’d expect in an Ian McEwan story. The problem is that as a movie, it just doesn’t quite work. It ends up feeling a little wrong and cheap by the end, even though you can see the intent.

Overall, I don’t think it really works, or at least it didn’t for me. Perhaps if the rest of McEwan’s five book series is done it would come together, but that’s no reason to give this telemovie a break; it should stand on its own believably, and it misses for me at the conclusion.

Beatriz at Dinner

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I know, that is a weird rating, but it comes down to how the movie paid itself off…or not. Salma Hayek (Sausage Party) does a wonderful job driving this film and navigating a journey of revelation and frustration. But the resolution took days to crystallize for me…and even after I finally got it to make sense, I wasn’t entirely sold on it.

The ending aside, there is a great dynamic set up, Led by Connie Britton (American Ultra) and John Lithgow (Miss Sloane). Britton serves as the uncomfortable bridge between Hayek and Lithgow’s worlds. Each brings a particular kind of tension to the screen.

Jay Duplass (Transparent) and Cloë Sevigny (Love  & Friendship), provide some distraction and a peek at the next generation coming up in the world. They are an odd couple, and come off with varying degrees of believability. In addition, Amy Landecker (Project Almanac) and David Warshofsky (Now You See Me 2) are side notes to the tale. Warshofsky is probably the most grounded and credible of the cast, outside of Hayek, but has relatively little screen time. Landecker is  her typical, crass, ugly person. She does it well, but it is rarely an approach I find sympathetic or engaging.

You can’t help but compare this to The Dinner, which released around the same time and has a similar sort of dynamic and pathway. And again, the path and story are intriguing in Beatriz, but it ultimately didn’t pay off for me. I will admit this is a huge leap above Mark White’s most recent script, The Emoji Movie. The level of maturity is an entirely different league. And Arteta’s direction of it is uncomfortably realistic while maintaining a sort of theatrical stage sensibility. Perhaps I wasn’t able to see the point or wasn’t ready to see the point, but either way, it left me (amusingly given White’s involvement) with a “meh” feeling.

Ultimately, you see this for the performances. So whether you seek this out or not has to be left up to you.

Beatriz at Dinner

Rocco

[3 stars]

Who is Rocco Siffredi? Well, if you don’t know (and I admit I didn’t), I’ll let his 30+ years and 512 film titles speak for themselves. When you see how his films are made, you’ll understand how he can have so many. I even expect the number is under-reported. But in short, Rocco is an Italian porn star, and this movie is his explanation, apologia, exposé, farewell note… one or more of those things, or something more. He is a legend bidding goodbye to his fans and an industry that reveres him.

You get the sense that this is the documentary counterpart to Nymphomaniac or, perhaps, the nicer side of Boogie Nights. Rocco has no illusions about what he does, even if his reasons are murky at best, even to himself.

At the same time, this is a different view and facet of the porn world than I’ve seen in the past. One that purports to be of choice rather than exploitation, if the performers are to be believed. If I sound a little dubious, read on…so were the filmmakers. It is also an oddly personal film, while remaining slightly detached.

The film is explicit, at times, which should be no surprise. It has to be in order to document this tale. The language and situations are also sure to be uncomfortable for a large group of viewers. Interestingly, I don’t think that is intended. Rocco and his colleagues would say they are just being honest and why should that make anyone uncomfortable? They know no other way to live.

From a cinephile point of view, this is a fascinating documentary. It is handled with a real attempt at being objective and respectful, but not unaware of its place in the action that is occurring. The filmmakers know that the camera is skewing responses. They even take time to hold, uncomfortably long in some cases, on people they feel are perhaps not being honest with themselves or the interviewers. You can see the facade as well as the moments of honesty.

Should you make time for this? Well, first you should check your comfort level with movies like Love, Short Bus, The Dreamers, or the others already mentioned. If discussions and depictions of explicit sex are not in your comfort zone, just run away. If you are OK with that, then make sure you are also fine with rather intense moments of domination (however seemingly consensual). If you’re still around then consider that Rocco is a story told well and with some nice subtlety and heart. How you parse the information you are provided by both the men and the women could probably fill a doctoral program in psychology, sociology, and sexology. Rocco himself, however, only asks that you make a 100 minute foray in that world and listen to his story.