Tag Archives: indie

God’s Own Country

[3 stars]

Josh O’Connor (The Durells In Corfu) and, in his first major role, Alec Secareanu make an unlikely and wonderful pair in the harsh northern England countryside. The growth and challenge of their relationship is almost all internal, but completely obvious. O’Connor, in particular, takes us from not really liking him, to understanding him, to cheering for him all while his navigates a personal path that is barely mentioned.

In his first feature, acting as both writer and director, Francis Lee has created a painfully wonderful tale of first love. In fact, though mostly missed by audiences, it covers a lot of the same ground as Call Me By Your Name, but better highlighting a lot of the emotions I felt were missing in the Oscar contender.

Driving the story from the background are two well-known faces: Gemma Jones and Ian Hart as O’Connor’s parents. The interplay here is also subtle and almost entirely unspoken. Some of this is the culture of the north, but some is Lee’s respect for his audience; not forcing explanations and confrontations and trusting the viewer to understand. Both deliver solid performances.

Do be warned of one aspect. This film is not for the feint of heart when it comes to what it is to really be a farmer with livestock. There are a few moments that remind you why some people become vegans. It is all done with a purpose and, frankly, all fair and true to life, but not everyone will want to see it. The moments are short and you can avert your eyes and continue on if it bothers you, but the warning is necessary.

As a whole, this is a slow, intense film, but very well done, especially if you handicap it for the number of new roles its creators were taking on. It is touching and sad all at once, but ultimately uplifting as each character finds their place in the world, even if it isn’t quite how they expect to.

God

Maggie’s Plan

[3 stars]

The story of Maggie’s Plan is an odd, modern look at romance and love which somehow manages a sense of the romantic and a jaundiced eye at the same time. It feels wholly unreal and utterly believable given the characters involved.

And it is the characters that make this very NY love story work, not to mention the cast that brought them to life. Ethan Hawke (Maudie) and Julianne Moore (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) are a cantankerous couple who are as much in love with one another as they are frustrated as they pursue careers and raise children. Similarly, Bill Hader (Power Rangers) and Maya Rudolph (Idiocracy) navigate those waters, with a different approach and somehow better results.

But is Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 20th Century Women) who pulls this all together and makes it work. There is something wholly engaging and magnetic about her as an actor, and this performance is no exception. She comes across like real person that has wandered onto the film set and somehow became part of the story.

Maggie’s plan is romantic at its heart, but not in the typical sense. But you can’t leave it without feeling like love is both real and possible. Whether you survive it or not is the bigger question.

Maggie

The Breadwinner

[3.5 stars]

If you follow animation at all, you are probably aware of the beautifully fantastical Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the first co-directed by Nora Twomey and the latter she contributed to from the art department. These fantasies have a distinctive look of layered, cut paper and illuminated manuscripts which move like ancient puppets through incredible worlds rich in imagination and color. Breadwinner incorporates these signatures into aspects of its tale, but this film, directed by Twomey, is much more grounded in the real world.

In fact, the core of the story is very contemporary and disturbing, while still being appropriate for most audiences. And, though it is a chronicle of Afghanistan in 2001, it is just as upsettingly applicable today. The resulting film is is something like a combination of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir with a dash of The Patience Stone and Wadjda. All films worth seeing if you’ve missed any of them.

There is nothing brilliant about the voice talent in the film, but neither is there anything wanting. They all do quite well, but the star is the art and the tale itself. Shifting between the real world and the interstitial story-world that Parvana is telling to her brother and herself. Both stories serve to pull you along, however that split focus also has some issues. Primarily, Parvana’s bedtime story has an odd energy and flow. The fable is told episodically, but without a feeling of closure or chapter endings, though clearly that is the intent of each break in the tale. It makes every one of the transitions from fable to real world story less than smooth. Not bad, necessarily, but not as crafted as you’d expect given the previous two films. Each change leaves a residual, unresolved energy like an incomplete chord which follows you back into the next scene, keeping you from re-engaging quickly as the story shifts.

Any concerns around that aside, it is a movie you should make time for now that it is generally available. If it flowed better, I’d say it should also kick Coco’s butt out of the Oscar seat, but that isn’t going to happen. Despite its powerful message, insights, and wide-eyed hope for a broken world, The Breadwinner just isn’t quite good enough to pull off the win. But it is good enough to demand your time and adds to a catalog of work that is visually unique and wonderful.

The Breadwinner

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent

November Criminals

[2 stars]

While this flick starts off with an interesting premise, it quickly slides into vague mediocrity. It is a shame since the cast is really pretty solid. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) and Chloë Grace Moretz (The Equalizer) work well together, and David Strathairn (The Darkest Hour) and Catherine Keener (Get Out), as their respective parents, deliver too. Even the ideas, as it heads down a Vanishing sort of path, is full of possibilities.

However, the adaptation from director and co-writer Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) is overly compressed. All the interesting stuff that is hinted at bleeds out to the point that even the title is never explained (I had to look it up to figure it out–turns out Elgort’s character in the book loved dark, Nazi-tinged  humor; the term refers to those that involved with the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI which led to the Weimar Replublik and the rise of the jackbooted fiends). Even after learning the roots of the title, I can’t map it to the actions in the movie, which implies strongly that it failed. I imagine the title was kept only to try and draw in the book audience, even though much of the book’s core had been scrubbed out.

The overall movie holds together, in a sort of light way, but there was clearly a lot more there when it started. The locations were a lousy choice as well; trying to pretend Rhode Island is Washington DC was a deadly stretch. In the end, it feels like Gervasi ran out of shooting time and made of it what he could.

As a high school romance, with a bit of life thrown in, I suppose it could be diverting for some. For the rest, I’d say just skip it. All of these actors have better venues to be seen in and you have better ways to spend your time.

November Criminals

Brigsby Bear

[3 stars]

Director,  and fellow SNL alum, Dave McCary took Kyle Mooney (Hello My Name is Doris)  and Kevin Costello’s script and delivered a heart-felt, just slightly off, feel-good comedy about life. The support of Mark Hamill (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Greg Kinnear (Stuck in Love) helped give the movie some solid footing as well.

Brigsby is a tale in the spirit of Frank, Room, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and even a bit of The Disaster Artist all rolled into one. The first two thirds of it are wonderful and it had me solidly…before it stumbled. The story recovers from its blunder of bad story choice to accelerate the tale to its finale, but only because I decided to forgive it so that I could enjoy the final third of the film. Short of that moment, it was a delightful and fun bit of silliness with a beating heart you really can’t ignore.

Brigsby Bear

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

[1.5 stars]

The last film Yorgos Lanthimos directed and co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou was the oddly compelling and flawed The Lobster, which captivated a significant section of the film world and earned them an Oscar nod. Despite some early rumblings about Sacred Deer, it has nowhere near the sense of dark whimsy nor fascinating alchemy that The Lobster did. In fact, it is a bit of a boring mess that never pays off, though teases with many promises.

Much like The Lobster, the entire film is structured to get to the final moments, or final scene and coda in the case of Deer. It is a powerful couple of images, but they mean nothing because the previous two hours were spent laying out plots and ideas that went nowhere and had no support.

It probably didn’t help that Lanthimos prefers a presentational style of acting akin to pure Brecht; flat, stated rather than “acted,” allowing the ideas to be formed by the audience rather than manipulated or guided by the characters. It is a very intellectual approach to theatre and it is rarely as blank as Brecht probably wanted. However, if the ideas aren’t there to be formed, a lack of emotional connection simply distances and bores an audience.

[For a really good documentary and an interesting look at such a production done well, watch Theater of War that chronicles a production of Mother Courage starring Meryl Streep at the Papp.]

Given that Colin Farrell (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled) lead this cast, a lack of connection is near criminal. Scraping against them and their family is the creepy Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), who creates a twisted combo of Crispin Glover and Paul Dano to drive the story as best he can. Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), as the children of Kidman and Farrell, struggle in this film to make an impression. Cassidy gets more opportunity, but neither ever make sense of it all and so their performances simply fade away.

And that, in the end is the real problem. The Lobster certainly left audiences with questions and debates around its ending. But there was context for that debate; there had been a story, however weird, that latched into base, human needs and desires. You couldn’t not talk about that film for days afterwards. Sacred Deer reaches for something similar but misses the grab leaving the rest of the story  just a series of forced vignettes and actions that have nothing driving them. It is a credit to Lanthimos that I kept thinking there was something coming, which is what kept me watching for two long hours. But, having never paid it off, I left the movie angry and frustrated rather than contemplative or in the mood to discuss it.

Even though I finished it, I can’t give it my normal 2 stars in rating for getting me to the end, because there was no end there. However, it is beautifully filmed and with competent actors that delivered a clear and consistent (if pointless) vision, so it isn’t a 1 star film either. Suffice to say: skip it. I’m sure Lanthimos and Filippou will deliver something down the road, but this movie is better shelved and ignored, except by film classes who wish to dissect it for craft.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry

The Little Hours

[3 stars]

Medieval satire isn’t for everyone. The language, and even the spelling if you’re reading it, are a huge barrier to appreciating the humor. However, when updated, like this take on the Decameron by writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, I Heart Huckabees), it can open up. Why even bother? Well, because it reminds us that people were always just…people, regardless of how they spoke or lived. Life is about desire and survival. And we do still get a sense of the ribald satire, but in a Monty Python sort of approach. Mind you, writer/director Baena keeps it all a little more realistic than Python, putting it in a different category, but there is a similar senses of humor if not the same level of ability.

Aubrey Plaza (The Driftless Area), Kate Micucci (Don’t Think Twice), and Alison Brie (The Disaster Artist), as a trio of waywardish nuns, are entertaining. They each have a different sense of comedy and delivery, which often keeps the jokes from solidly landing, but they still manage to pull out a few belly laughs. Dave Franco (The Disaster Artist), as their unwitting center of attention, embraced his role as straight man and and gave them all a great sounding board.

Molly Shannon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), John C. Reilly (Kong: Skull Island), Paul Reiser (Whiplash), and Fred Armisen (Phantom Boy) were all nicely constrained as well, allowing the young women to carry the broader humor.

My favorite dark comedy about convents remains Dark Habits, but this evil little concoction certainly gives it a go. It is a particular kind of humor that won’t fly for everyone, but the story, such as it is, is amusing. I can’t say this is a must seek out and find entertainment, but it is certainly something different for when you might be in the mood.

The Little Hours