Movie Review ~ The World to Come

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Somewhere along the mid-19th century American East Coast frontier, two neighboring couples battle hardship and isolation, witnessed by a splendid yet testing landscape, challenging them both physically and psychologically.

Stars: Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Casey Affleck, Christopher Abbott

Director: Mona Fastvold

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  There’s something strange about the way that movies have treated the love affairs between women over the last few years (and probably longer) because it seems that they just can’t catch a break.  In films like Carol, The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite, etc. the passion and connection established is born in the midst of severe strife and is more often than not left unfulfilled.  This observance is nothing new to be sure and in fact it’s what many critics and even casual film fans have noted for a number of years as one of the chief rules of love between same sex couples onscreen.  There must be pain.  Loss is a given.  Happiness is rare.  It’s the guiding principle for screenwriting, it seems.

Here we are in February of a new year and already there’s another example to prove the case.  However, there’s a lot more problematic in The World to Come than the way it shows the relationship between two dreary farmer’s wives in the mid-19th century.  Unique in that it features beautiful cinematography that is at the same time strikingly dull to behold, the entire film feels like a quilt that’s been left outside overnight during a rainstorm that you now are asked to snuggle up with.  It’s chilly, musty, wet, and heavy, offering little in the way of comfort or care.  You certainly can’t see any intricates that went into the making of it because it has been overtaken by the elements.

Adapted by Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen from Shepard’s original short story, The World to Come creaks to life with Katherine Waterston croaking through stilted narration detailing farm life with her husband (Casey Affleck, Our Friend) in upstate New York.   Though meant to convey an old-tyme-y vibe, the dialogue often winds up sounding like an outdated script from a historical walking tour; a line about Affleck’s quiet farmer needing to fetch “calico” and “shoe leather” officially did me in.  This era of living was tough, to be sure, but Waterston’s (Inherent Vice) Abigail pitches her monotone line readings far too dreary from the jump, she’s so wrist-slittingly somber that you can’t blame Affleck as Dyer for withdrawing in favor of keeping his head down to work with the farm animals that at least acknowledge his presence.

A ray of fiery happiness arrives when Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, Me Before You) and Finney (Christopher Abbott, Possessor) rent the farm nearby.  Sensing a kinship with the outspoken woman, Abigail becomes fascinated with Tallie and the chance for connection at a deeper level.  That Tallie responds in kind makes each day a little brighter for Abigail and she finds a new reason for maintaining the farm and herself…even while Tallie struggles to keep her own husband happy.  Finney is different than Dyer in that the more Tallie retreats from him the more forceful he becomes, and the question gets to be how far can she pull away before he either lets her go one way or another?  As the women grow closer, the danger of being found out increases but they are emboldened by their newfound freedom of emotional joy.  It won’t last…and you know that’s not a spoiler.

Norwegian actor turned director Mona Fastvold seems to understand the key to the film is the bond between Abigail and Tallie but she forgets there needs to be some sort of knowledge of the men in their lives as well to make their clandestine relationship have essential meaning in turn.  Waterston is arguably the main character and there’s just a lot of her moping around the farm avoiding her husband and checking her invisible watch wondering where Tallie is.  That’s not the sweeping romance the ads for this movie are promising, let me assure you.  So it’s almost up to Kirby and Abbott to keep the fire of the film burning hot and they can’t stoke it all on their own.  They almost get there, almost, in a tense dinner scene near the end that tells us far more about their relationship in those few minutes than we’ve learned about Abigail and Dyer in the previous sixty.   Abbott’s character is quite the unrelenting pig of a husband and he’s gotten aces at playing these type of abhorrent men…maybe too good.  For me, it came down to Kirby as the one bright spot the film has to offer and it’s the single treasure The World to Come is entirely stingy with.  Whenever she’s onscreen, there’s some pulse to it, even if it’s faint.  However, when she’s absent the movie is cold as ice.

Filmed in Romania subbing for NY, cinematographer André Chemetoff gets some picturesque shots in but most of what we see comes off as less pastoral and fertile and more grubby and worked over.  Totally incongruous with the tone and images is musician Daniel Blumberg’s obtrusive score, giving off the feeling that the composer didn’t see the film he was contributing to.  It’s just another part of the overall puzzling nature of The World to Come, composed of a bunch of pieces that might work well in their own right but fail to form a complete picture.  More than anything, I’m just over these tortured love affairs for same sex couples…this feels like a construct that should be put out to pasture.  Let love win for once, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ The Secrets We Keep


The Facts
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Synopsis: In post-World War II America, a woman, rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband, kidnaps her neighbor and seeks vengeance for the heinous war crimes she believes he committed against her.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo, Ritchie Montgomery

Director: Yuval Adler

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In 1990, playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a charged play titled Death and The Maiden which centered on a former political prisoner that has started a new life with her husband in a remote part of the world.  Though it’s been years since her torture and rape at the hands of brutal guards, she remains haunted by her memories. When she believes she has run into one of her former captors by chance, she kidnaps him and enacts revenge…even though she isn’t totally sure he is the man who assaulted her those many years ago.  The play was a hit in London and Broadway before being turned into a 1994 movie from Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver.

I was reminded of Death and the Maiden often while watching the new drama The Secrets We Keep because it shares many plot points with Dorfman’s earlier work.  Though it strays from the 1990 piece is several key areas, it almost feels like a slinky remake, albeit with less of a politicized edge than Dorfman implied and Polanski capitalized on.  Director and co-screenwriter Yuval Adler and his screenwriter collaborator Ryan Covington actually wind up treading on a lot of familiar ground here, producing a film that has a meaningful message at its core but is hampered by a clumsy delivery system.  Instead of truly delving into the dark areas it hints at, it opts to keep the night light on and avoid confronting anything seriously horrific.

Adler sets the film in 1959 anytown USA where housewife Maja (Noomi Rapace, Dead Man Down) lives with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina, Live by Night) and son Patrick (Jackson Dean Vincent).  Their idyllic, post WWII town is thriving with a local refinery in full bore and an influx of returning veterans expanding their families.  The film has barely caught its breath when Maja hears a familiar whistle while lounging in the park with her son and follows the sound to a man that stirs a repressed memory.  A Romanian, Maja’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis and she was raped, along with her sister, by a gang of soldiers before escaping…the survivors guilt she harbors has been crippling and it all returns with that one whistle.

Convinced she has found one of the men that committed that heinous crime against her, she quickly puts together a plan to kidnap him and force him into confessing.  Turns out, Maja is quite resourceful and nabbing the unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and getting him set-up in her basement isn’t all that difficult…but getting him to admit who he is will be.  With Lewis involved and her desperation to get the truth becoming more important than ever, Maja will resort to anything to uncover the truth.  Yet the question lingers, has Maja accused the wrong man?  Hints at psychiatric trauma and recent therapeutic sessions suggest there’s maybe a reason to doubt her recall of the events or call into question her judgement where her family is concerned.

Though the film is filled with numerous moments of supposed tension hinging on the discovery of a man trapped in the basement of this otherwise picturesque couple, I was surprised at how little energy the movie spends to create any kind of spark in anyone or anything.  There’s this general somber tone throughout and a drained-out color scheme that makes everything feel it’s either just coming back to life or about to take its last breath.  Rapace in particular looks so suspicious, you’d think she was hiding an entire football team and their grandmothers in her basement…she always looks rattled.  When she befriends the wife of the man (played by She Dies Tomorrow director Amy Seimetz with the kind of interesting mystery the entire film needed  more of) I kept waiting for the wife to ask her to blink twice if she needed help at home.

While the production design is solid and the costumes are more than just your usual pencil skits and trousers look, everything else just seems to tow the line…and that’s too bad because there’s an important story here waiting to be told.  Messina seems to be the one that’s hopped on the right train and knows where he’s headed and Kinnaman does too, for a bit, until the character has a shift that doesn’t get to be explored fully.  I always want to like Rapace more in films but possibly with the exception of 2012’s Prometheus she’s just never been as good or well represented as she was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden that made her famous.  While she’s well suited for the role, it ultimately proves to be another wrong fit for the actress.

The atrocious crimes committed by German Nazis against Jews and other marginalized Europeans during WWII have been explored and exploited by the entertainment industry for years by now.  It’s gotten to the point that the horrific rapes and murders depicted in the flashbacks seen in The Secrets We Keep are easy to chalk up alongside everyday crimes we’ve been desensitized to by the television and movies we watch.  I say that not to condemn the filmmakers of this film or any other with similar themes but to put into perspective how commonplace the acts portrayed within seem to have become…and make sure we never truly forget the real lives that were affected.  That’s one key area where the film succeeds, in detailing how this trauma can infest your entire life and the lives of others if not dealt with.

Movie Review ~ Trumbo

trumbo

The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.