Movie Review ~ TÁR

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the international world of Western classical music, an exceptionally detailed portrait of a Promethean artist eventually hoisted on her own petard
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Director: Todd Field
Rated: R
Running Length: 158 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The power is in the approach. Knowing Tár was created by writer/director Todd Field for Cate Blanchett helps to clear away all of the discussions going in and analysis after the fact centered around phrases that begin “If Tár were told from a male perspective,” or “Had Tár been played as a male.” Homing in on Field’s intent to tell and expressly communicate this perspective gives weight to his film, making it unique among his contemporaries. Further, it elevates the work Blanchett and her costars are doing.

It’s essential to keep this in mind when considering a viewing of Tár because it’s not one to be taken lightly. A commitment to focus on the words, sounds, and textures brought forth by the production will produce the maximum return for the viewer. I can understand why there’s been such a concerted effort to get critics into theaters to see it on the most iant screen possible, too. Like the top blockbuster, this is Cinema (yes, that’s with a capital “C”) but one that throws you for a loop in different ways than you could imagine.

The moment we enter the world of the film, it’s very good to be Lydia Tár. The first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, she’s an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning composer (one of the select few living EGOTs), author, teacher, shrewd businesswoman, and connoisseur of the finer things in life. She’s also an ego-driven narcissist who indulges in affairs with younger women while her partner looks the other way back home in Germany. Stringing along a devoted protégé with promises of a shot at becoming her assistant conductor, she’s not-so-secretly unwilling to let other women down the path she blazed.

As she prepares the Berlin musicians to record a final piece by Mahler during a period of heightened stress, her personal and professional life collides and begins to crumble. Accusations of impropriety, forever embedded in the public consciousness after the #MeToo movement, begin to follow her and eat away at the glass castle she’s formed around an empire that hasn’t come without tremendous sacrifice. Genius turns to obsession, and control becomes an unwieldy creature she can’t tame or keep time with.

If I’m being sincere, I found Tár to be hard to access for much of its first hour, and I started to worry that all of the good notices I’d heard had been the result of group festival fever. I’ll love Blanchett in whatever she does, but there’s a robotic emptiness to Lydia Tár at the beginning caught me off guard. Field runs the closing credits at the start of the film, purposely highlighting the art and artists involved first. That’s close to four minutes of blackness followed by an exposition of Lydia’s career backstory, delivered via an onstage interview with Adam Gopnick (the real one) from the New Yorker. Feeling more recitative than performative, Blanchett’s Tár was going to be a tough nut to crack.

After sitting with the movie long after it ended, you realize how intentional all of this is, how Lydia has given these same answers countless times, been asked about similar sources of inspiration, or her career trajectory. Reserving her personal life as her own, she saves the warmth and varied intonation of her speaking for those she deems worthy. As viewers, we know this because we see it over the next two hours. It’s in her tender moments with Sharon (Nina Hoss, The Contractor) and their daughter (Mila Bogojevic). It’s the small kindness she offers as a reward to assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and it’s in the flirtatious edge she imparts toward a new cellist (Sophie Kauer) that becomes a distraction and consequence on every other relationship she’s juggling.

Unsurprisingly, Blanchett (Nightmare Alley) is magnificent, and the role is another feather she can add to a cap ready to take flight by this point. The film reaches its peak slightly before she does, so we’re left to enjoy the afterburn of her work almost as an extended epilogue. Few actresses could hold onto an audience in this way, and it’s a credit to Blanchett that she does. As towering as Blanchett is, Hoss contributes mesmerizing work as her better half. It’s a quiet performance that’s scant on dialogue, but Hoss does so much with her silent expressions that an entire conversation often happens between the two actresses absent of speech.

At close to three hours, Tár is a bundle-up and hunker-down experience that is rewarding for more than just the art house crowd or those with a subscription to the symphony. It’s for anyone that has followed the political landscape of the last five years and is invested in future change. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot several visual cues Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Antlers) have included. Tiny slivers of fractions of glances that let you inside Lydia’s mind. I’ll see the film again for that alone to catch what I missed.

Movie Review ~ The Silent Twins

The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling isolated from an unwelcoming community, June and Jennifer Gibbons turn inward and reject communication with everyone but each other, retreating into their fantasy world of artistic inspiration and adolescent desires
Stars: Letitia Wright, Tamara Lawrance, Jodhi May, Michael Smiley, Jack Bandeira, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Delcan Joyce, Tony Richardson, John Hyat
Director: Agnieszka Smoczyńska
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  As an only child, I often wished I had a sibling. Mostly it was so I wouldn’t constantly be outvoted for what to do/where to go on family outings. Honestly, do you think I chose to see The Last of the Mohicans over The Mighty Ducks in 1992? No, though I know better now. A small part of me wanted to have a brother whom I could have the kind of bond with that I had seen in movies or through friends at school. Hey, a twin would be even better! I’ve always been fascinated with twins and the phenomenon of their sometimes near-psychic connection to one another.

The unique link between twins can have drawbacks, though, and that’s one of the areas explored in The Silent Twins. Based on Marjorie Wallace’s bestselling 1986 novel of the same name, it recounts the troubled life of June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins from Wales, and their struggle for independence even they can’t fully define. I’d never heard of these women before, so the film was an eye-opening glance back at history filtered through the creative lens of talented Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, making her English-language debut.

Born in the early ’60s to parents that immigrated from Barbados,  June and Jennifer began communicating only with each other at an early age. Refusing to engage with family, teachers, or classmates, the girls lived in a world of their own and often spoke the language of their creation. They would mirror the movements of one another and become catatonic if separated, which was an early solution attempted by medical professionals to break their silence. 

Left to their own devices, the girls grew into young women who expressed themselves artistically through craft projects and, later, creative writing. Their inexperience with the outside world and lack of socializing led them to act out and make unwise choices, such as sharing first love with Wayne (Jack Bandeira, Gunpowder Milkshake), a popular boy from the neighborhood, a decision their jealous hearts would come to regret. Spurned on by changing emotions they couldn’t control, they found themselves in trouble with the law and in the first of several adult mental institutions that would define the next decade of their lives.

Smoczyńska’s film follows Andrea Seigel’s screenplay through the high points of the Gibbons twins, adding alluring flourishes along the way. There’s barely a creative stone that doesn’t get turned over here, from stop motion animation to choreographed musical numbers, cooing voiceovers, and then actual singing by Jennifer. It all makes the film a beautiful thing to soak in, even if much of it represents complicated developments in individuals that continually try the patience of all around them.

Having not read the source novel this is based on, I’m not sure how much the work wants us to sympathize with the twins or be exasperated by how they shut out the people trying to help them. Often in these movies of people struggling with mental illness, the patient is seen as needing something that’s missing. Still, the Gibbons twins have a supportive family that desperately wants to connect and see them succeed. We see the two make the conscious effort to shut everyone out. Why? 

In that regard, it’s hard to warm to either twin even though they’re performed brilliantly by a quartet of fine actresses. As the twins when they are younger, Leah Mondesir-Simmonds & Eva-Arianna Baxter are fantastic introductions to the world the girls have created. Their fantasy lives are sunny and soaring, while the reality they have for themselves is sullen and withdrawn. Their elder counterparts are played by Letitia Wright (The Commuter) and Tamara Lawrance (Kindred). They take over at the right moment when the twins begin to experience the first genuine cutting-off ties with close family that won’t stand for their silence.

Running nearly two hours, Smoczyńska lets The Silent Twins wander too much around the Wayne sequence. It’s not only the roughest in terms of content but filmmaking. I would have liked more time spent in the final third when the twins are older and dealing with life in the hospital. That might have involved making Marjorie Wallace (the author of the book) a more prominent character than she already is, but Jodhi May plays her with such compassion I don’t think anyone would have minded. It’s a tough watch because of your feelings toward the main characters, but the moments of beauty and central four performances are enough to encourage viewing.

Movie Review ~ Vengeance

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist and podcaster travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
Stars: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron
Director: B.J. Novak
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: The time we find ourselves living in is so “now” that it’s going to be strange to look back on it in just a few short years. It’s not just the technology that will undoubtedly be dated; the ideas, concepts, and beliefs we hitch our rides on will evolve from where they have been idling for the past 24 months. Maybe even further back than that is the generational divide that has driven interaction into one-sided conversations through podcasts available through your phone, computer, or other streaming devices. I remember when these tiny nuggets of info launched, and I could not grasp what I would receive through my earbuds. It wasn’t music, and it wasn’t an audiobook. Instead, they were informative dialogues, deep dives, and op-eds we sought out because they were points of view we were interested in.

The writer/director/star of Vengeance, B.J. Novak, is keenly aware of this medium as a delivery tool and how it has progressed from its educational origins to a lucrative business model for the profit-minded. For a while, his film finds some intriguing corners to shine a light into, uncovering characters we don’t often meet. These surprisingly agile moments give audiences a quirky look underneath expectations before the freshman filmmaker throws it all away for one of the most uncomfortable displays of narrative wrongheadedness I’ve seen in some time.

As Vengeance opens, a woman dies on a small town Texas oil field in the middle of nowhere, trying to send a text begging for help. Meanwhile, out East in NYC, Ben Manalowitz (Novak, Saving Mr. Banks) and his friend John (singer John Mayer) are spending a typical night out discussing the trickier points of dating in the modern age. Later that night, Ben is awoken by a long-distance phone call letting him know a girl he used to date occasionally has been found dead and requesting his presence at her funeral in deep state Texas. The trouble is, while the deceased’s brother seems to know Ben well, Ben can’t place the girl as someone who has left much of an impression on him.

Curious to know more and riding a wave of guilt for forgetting someone who held him in high regard, Ben is on the next flight to Texas, meeting grieving sibling Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook, The Cursed) after landing. Vague recollections of Ty’s sister Abilene (Lio Tipton, Warm Bodies) emerge as Ben gets to know her family over the next few days. Soon, he’s investing his time in investigating her suspicious death. At the same time, he’s pitching his strange drama in real life to a podcasting producer wiz  (Issa Rae, Little) who agrees this odd tale might make for addictive listening. Armed with his agenda while purporting to be helping the Shaw’s serve theirs, Ben explores this tiny Texas town and its colorful characters, finding the case can only be cracked by unraveling a tricky knot of deceit.

If Novak was a true amateur, one might be able to forgive how lumpy Vengeance feels throughout. What begins as a mystery eventually curves into examining blue state/red state eccentricities that opens into a study of cultural justice doled out via social media. The lightest takedowns of toxic misogyny are peppered within, equivalent to a satirical send-up that only an Ivy League grad could get away with without losing sleep. The real issue comes with the ending, and let me be clear, it’s not merely a case of, “I didn’t like it, so, therefore, it’s bad.” This finale turns a central character around in such a head-spinning way that I halfway thought it was a dream sequence. Not only does it fail the rest of the movie in the course of storytelling, but it doesn’t make sense logistically or ethically. It’s a shocking torpedo that soured my opinion of the whole film because it made me go back and analyze it with much more scrutiny.

That’s all so disappointing because were it not for the ending, I think there would be much to recommend about Vengeance. I’ve never been on the Ashton Kutcher train, failing to find the charm (or, frankly, the star quality) that has set his star aflame. Novak’s film changed my mind on Kutcher (jOBS), though, because playing the role of a maybe-no-good record producer has given the actor something meaty to work with. Novak’s flair for dialogue to chew on works well with Kutcher’s delivery, and his two brief scenes are charged with an energy that’s markedly different than what we’ve seen before. Holbrook also has a nicely wired electricity to him, and there’s honestly nothing I wouldn’t like to see J. Smith Cameron (Man on a Ledge) do at this point. As the matriarch of the mourning family, the stage actress quickly takes control of the screen.

That ending, oof. I can’t forgive it, and while I would encourage giving Vengeance a look for Kutcher’s performance and the overall strength of some of Novak’s ideas he introduces, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it in the long run. Intelligent filmmaking also has to include being a responsible authority. Novak chooses an easy out based less on good ideas and more on what might be pleasing to the audience for a moment in time. That might be somewhat the point of it all, but it’s not a clear enough message of satire for the dark humor of it all to land correctly.

Movie Review ~ Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A seemingly ordinary British housekeeper whose dream to own a couture Christian Dior gown takes her on an extraordinary adventure to Paris.
Stars: Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Jason Isaacs, Anna Chancellor, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Rose Williams
Director: Anthony Fabian
Rated: PG
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I’m a person that regrettably tends to get those dreadful summer colds, and they often can lay me out for a week or more. Knock on wood, it’s nearly mid-July, and I’ve avoided any major maladies, but there is a faux ailment I do feel as if I may be coming down with: Blockbuster-itis.  While not officially recognized, this has been known to affect all age groups and target those who frequent the theaters for the latest and greatest in popular entertainment. The trick to being dragged down into the depths of this disease is finding a remedy fast. Nothing cures fussy franchise delirium better than a slam-dunk audience pleaser & the delightful Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is the medicine I needed.

Based on the first of four books by American Paul Gallico (who also wrote the novel on which The Poseidon Adventure was based), Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris has found life before in film. First seen as a 1958 TV special, the year the book arrived on shelves, it was followed years later by a German film, I vaguely recall the 1992 TV movie headlined by Angela Lansbury, and now, thirty years later, a sumptuous feature film starring the terrific Lesley Manville. As the titular character, Manville (an Oscar nominee for 2017’s Phantom Thread) steps into a leading role with a calm charm laced with elegance that gives the hard-working cleaning lady a true heart of gold.

As the film opens, Ada Harris has finally received confirmation her husband, an airman believed lost in battle, did indeed meet his end. After years of hoping for his return, reality sets in, but life continues. She’s right back to cleaning homes for clients that don’t notice her (Christian McKay, Rush, with an endless parade of ‘nieces’), rely too much on her (Rose Williams, as an actress always late for an audition), or never seems to have her pay ready (Anna Chancellor, How I Live Now, playing a socialite with no social skills).

One day, she’s at the society lady’s flat and sees the most beautiful gown she’s ever laid eyes on…a Christian Dior frock from Paris. For 500£, she too could have a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. Now, with a goal in mind, Mrs. Harris begins to save her earnings here and there and, through a series of lucky happenstance, finds herself in the City of Lights and the Dior showroom. Where she goes from there and how she gets tangled up with fussy Dior executive Claudine (Isabelle Huppert, Greta, refreshing to see in a comedy), a handsome Marquis (Lambert Wilson), and the affairs of two young residents within the House of Dior (Lucas Bravo and Alba Baptista), are for you to discover.

Director Anthony Fabian knew where to spend the production budget and doesn’t skimp on the good stuff. The classic Dior costumes that drift across the showroom floor (and our screen) are works of art and wearable, not the complicated creations meant for galleries they are today. Three-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (a winner this year for Cruella) pulled looks and recreates these gasp-inducing styles for the film, and they are nearly worth the price of admission. The outdoor production design can be slightly askew with too much reliance on CGI, but in a way that also adds to the overall feeling that this is one big dream.

So sweetly charming only a curmudgeon would hate it, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is one of those ‘just-so’ movies with barely a hair out of place. It’s got a gossamer sheen to everything that dials each visual up several notches, elevating the fantasy aspect of the tale. This glow makes it a pleasure to watch and easier to overlook some historical anomalies, like Ada telling Claudine, “You go, girl.” (in 1957? I don’t think so.). Then there are the tweaks to culture and casting to be more inclusive, though that cultural change wouldn’t be in place quite yet. Little quips aside, it’s a divinely decadent treat to encounter, and even if it weren’t such a visual feast, it would have survived on the energy put forth by Manville’s performance alone. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, and you should see her adventure in your local movie theater.

Movie Review ~ Brian and Charles

1

The Facts:

Synopsis:  After a particularly harsh winter, Brian goes into a deep depression; wholly isolated and with no one to talk to, Brian does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation. He builds a robot.
Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, James Michie, Nina Sosanya
Director: Jim Archer
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Watching a film like Brian and Charles gave me a serious nostalgia trip back to the days in the early 2000’s when I frequented our local art-house cinema. It didn’t matter what was playing (or what you wanted to see); you just showed up and hoped your movie hadn’t sold out. If it did, something often played around at the same time, and you could shift gears and see that instead. I’m not sure Brian and Charles is the movie I would have come to see at the Lagoon Theater in Uptown, MN, but it wouldn’t have been a title I would have been disappointed with being my second choice either.

Expanded from a 2019 short film, also directed and co-written by Jim Archer and the film’s stars David Earl (Brian) and Chris Hayward (Charles Petrescu), this is a seemingly simple story filled with apparently simple characters who gradually reveal themselves to be more than the sum of their parts. While it’s not filled with any tremendous moral you haven’t heard a million times over or ends up traveling in a direction you couldn’t have bought a ticket for 90 minutes earlier, there’s a rough-hewn grace to it all that makes the entire experience resolutely charming. 

A rural inventor lives a solitary life in North Wales and spends his lonely days tinkering away at creations that seldom do what they’re intended. Framed as a documentary of sorts, Brian speaks directly to the camera. He walks the audience around his farm, proudly showing off the gadgets with no actual use that have otherwise sprung from his wild imagination. Yet Brian’s growing need for a friend is starting to nibble away at him. While a local lass (Louise Brealey, Victor Frankenstein) shows interest in the eccentric inventor, he seems oblivious to her long-held admiration. It’s from his creativity (and a number of spare parts he gathers from ditches, dumps, etc.) that Charles is born. A robot that springs to life almost by accident, Charles may be Brian’s invention but soon becomes his own person. 

Watching the relationship between Brian and Charles develop provided a sweeter fulfillment than I had expected. Quickly, Brian realizes that he has to be more of a parent to Charles than a chum, which comes with a set of complications he didn’t anticipate. Charles may speak with the monotone synth voice of a robot, but his petulant attitude suggests a teen going through typical pubescent growing pains. Fixated on traveling to Hawaii and with a devoted love of cabbage (?), Charles gives Brian a run for his money. When the head of a local family of bullies sets his sights on obtaining Charles for his own, Brian will need to come out of his shell to stand up for his loved one.

There’s a quaint charm to the droll Brian and Charles that I appreciated, but I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. The humor is of a particular bent, and if you aren’t on board with it and can’t give yourself over to what it is selling, it’s best to move on. For all others willing to devote a short sit with some unfamiliar faces in a far-off side of the world, check out what this creative team has crafted. Oh, and do stay through the end credits for a closing song from Charles himself.

 

Movie Review ~ Downton Abbey: A New Era

2

The Facts:

Synopsis: The year is 1927. The Dowager Countess of Grantham inherits a villa in the south of France from an old friend at the same time a filmmaker gets permission from Lady Mary to shoot a moving picture at Downton Abbey
Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Froggatt, Michael Fox, Harry Hadden-Paton, Robert James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Elizabeth McGovern, Sophie McShera, Tuppence Middleton, Lesley Nicol, Douglas Reith, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, Penelope Wilton, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye, Dominic West, Jonathan Zaccaï
Director: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Length: 125 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Coming off its monumentally successful five-year run in 2015, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes promised its audience clamoring for more upstairs/downstairs tales surrounding the fictionalized titular manse that a movie was in the works.  It took four years, but the 2019 film Downtown Abbey was a perfectly filling bit of big-screen fun that ultimately felt like an extended television show episode.  The creators didn’t raise the stakes any higher than necessary, and while some hint of finality was suggested for a few characters that might not have wanted to return should another chapter be ordered up, the door was left ajar for any and all to return.

Return they all do a mere three years later for Downtown Abbey: A New Era, and this time Fellows and new director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) have done what the first one didn’t want to bother with, shake things up a bit.  With its production that seemed to drop out of nowhere amid post-pandemic start-ups, there was a nice amount of anticipation for this one because it targets the same group that has been an elusive get at movie theaters for the last several years.  After all this time, would this PG-rated continuation of the hit series coax them out of their homes and back into cinemas?

I’d wager a bet that the same audiences that turned out to make the first film reach nearly 200 million at the box office will venture out for a matinee of this one. However, they may first wonder why all the rainy English countryside inhabitants are so tawny and tan.  For a while, I thought they might want to call the film DownTAN Abbey instead because of actors like Hugh Bonneville’s (visibly slimmed down) golden glow. If you’re like me and didn’t take the time to re-watch the first film before showing up, Fellowes and Curtis have demonstrated good manners and included a nice recap narrated by Kevin Doyle’s Joseph Molesley. 

We’re nearing the end of the 1920s, and wedding bells are ringing for former chauffeur and current estate manager Tom Branson (Allen Leech, Bohemian Rhapsody) just as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, Quartet), receives the news she has been left a villa in the south of France.  Unable to travel to France herself, Robert (Bonneville, Paddington) and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People) accompany honeymooning Tom, his new wife, along with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and her husband to visit Violet’s new property, allowing the younger set to find out more about the mysterious inheritance in the process.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Non-Stop) reluctantly agrees to let a film crew make a movie in the family home after figuring she can put the money they are offering toward repairs the property desperately needs.  With Mary’s husband away (a convenience that is explainable at the outset but downright preposterous by the end), the director (Hugh Dancy, Late Night) takes an interest in their host, eventually getting her more than a little involved in the production. At the same time, the stars of the film (Laura Haddock, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Dominic West, Tomb Raider) each make different impressions on the dedicated staff at Downtown. 

Shifting directing responsibilities to Curtis (McGovern’s real-life husband) from Michael Engler was wise. While Engler oversaw the first film with an assured hand, he perhaps brought too much of a television eye to the feature film.  Having directed numerous episodes of Downton Abbey, Engler’s movie just felt like more of the same, however welcome it was at the time.  Curtis gives the film some stamina and speed, though if anything, it’s Fellowes that lets the audience down a bit with plotlines straight out of Singin’ in the Rain and more than a few strange detours that, in hindsight, are just emotional misdirects.

Downton Abbey: A New Era ushers in more robust filmmaking, script quibbles aside.  We’re getting close to periods in history when the glitz and glamour that made the series so appealing at first will need to come to an end, and that’s when the real test of audience devotion will take place.  Wartime dramas are a dime a dozen, but what made Downtown Abbey so unique was its dreamy days before war factored in.  You can be sure there are more Downton Abbey films on the horizon, and I wouldn’t rule out another entire series to come along one of these years either. 

Movie Review ~ You Won’t Be Alone

The Facts:

Synopsis: In an isolated mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, a young girl is kidnapped and then transformed into a witch by an ancient spirit.
Stars:  Sara Klimoska, Anamaria Marinca, Alice Englert, Noomi Rapace, Carloto Cotta, Félix Maritaud
Director: Goran Stolevski
Rated: R
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  A number of the light and airy-fairy tales that populate the Disney canon of animated films originate from much darker versions of German writers in the 18th century. While they maintained much of the original work’s outline and general moral intent, these sanitized versions essentially drained the bedtime stories of their cautionary messages for children and adults alike. In recent years, the restoration of, or modern twists on, these classics for audiences have been hailed as bold or brave and, in many cases, have earned those high marks with distinction. What interests me even more than these films is the storytelling going on from scribes creating original pieces with strong parallels with the types of spooky tales handed down from generation to generation.

A strong sense of storytelling is just one of the chief reasons why You Won’t Be Alone, from Macedonian director Goran Stolevski, is such a treat. Set in the 19th century in a remote hamlet on the broad side of an imposing mountain range, there’s a relaxed, naturalistic aesthetic that could easily classify it in the much-studied folk-horror genre. The isolation of the period and place are felt quite effectively from the start by the filmmaker’s dramatically impressive use of the gorgeous elements of the location surroundings. Throughout its run time, Stolevski’s film covers more ground than is typical or expected, asking striking questions about life, death, and our humanity even as we are gripped by not knowing what may happen next.

At first, you might think you’re watching some version of a tale as old as time. An overwrought mother turns her back on her newborn for a moment, and when she looks again, a horrific figure looms over the child. It’s Old Maid Maria (the excellent Anamaria Marinca, Europa Report), a witch cursed to roam the area, shapeshifting into various creatures she kills or comes upon. (How she does this is a process not for the faint of heart…) Maria’s curdled flesh and sharp fingernails crave the child’s blood, but the mother makes a bargain to spare the baby until she’s 16, after which Maria may return and take her as her own. After all, Maria can’t go through life alone. Requiring some sacrifice, the witch takes the baby’s tongue to stop her crying and from ever speaking. Though the mother tries to hide her child on holy ground, a witch’s bond will out, and after 16 years, Nevena (Sara Klimoska) joins her new guardian in a vagabond life, ostracized from the community.

Already isolated her entire life (ala Rapunzel), Nevena uses her shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate another community to learn how to be human first, a witch second. These experiences, as both genders, give her insight into the different feelings going on inside the bodies of men and women, children and adults. Nearly all her thoughts are communicated to us in voiceover, often in simple terms but gradually growing into whole ideas that encapsulate her complete understanding of a lived life. Conveying all of these discoveries is challenging enough for one person, and while Klimoska handles the bulk of it with wide-eyed amazement, she “shares” the role with Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep), and Carloto Cotta (Frankie), each is striking a somber balance in their cycles with the witch.

It could be that others come to You Won’t Be Alone thinking it’s an all-out horror film, and they’ll likely be disappointed it’s not some witch in the woods scare-fest. I still found elements of the movie quite frightening, but not for reasons you might think. There’s a lot of sadness here, like Rapace’s rather devastating but finely tuned performance, which starts feral but becomes more controlled as she’s taken under the wing of a kindly older woman. Cotta is strong too as the male the witch inhabits, first to find out what it’s like to experience pleasure but then to discover the more private and tender moments. 

I’ve been thinking about You Won’t Be Alone ever since I saw it; the rich characters (Marinca’s sinister witch has, like most witches, a tragic backstory) and invested performances coupled with the picturesque setting push this one far ahead of most of the other movies I’ve seen so far this year. You have to give it some space to get moving, but only slightly. Stolevski’s feature film debut is assured, and a can’t miss effort for filmgoers apt to enjoy a scary story before turning the lights off at night.

Movie Review ~ The Outfit

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: An expert tailor must outwit a dangerous group of mobsters to survive a fateful night.
Stars: Mark Rylance, Zoey Deutch, Johnny Flynn, Dylan O’Brien, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Simon Russell Beale
Director: Graham Moore
Rated: R
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Though movie theaters have been open for many months now, live theater is still an unsure thing for some people. Being in an enclosed space with a few hundred people for a 90-minute movie is one thing, but what about a 2,500 seat theater with a capacity crowd? Or how about a concert venue seeing a pop star and finding yourself shoulder to shoulder with someone sneezing their way through the opening act? It definitely gives you pause. I do miss live theater, and while my season tickets to the Broadway touring shows have been getting used regularly now that more protocols are in place, the smaller venues that house plays are struggling. I find myself craving these intimate shows with unamplified actors speaking so that you have to lean forward in your seat and tilt your head a bit to hear each word. That’s theater, to me.

I thought of that kind of theater I’d been missing while watching director Graham Moore’s The Outfit, which he co-wrote with Johnathan McClain. Taking place on a snowy winter night in 1956 within several rooms of a shop in Chicago owned and operated by Leonard Burling, this is one of those tight and taut mystery/thrillers that could easily have been adapted from (or, later, into) a stage play. The dialogue is so specific and focused that you must always pay attention to catch what’s being said. It all makes a difference in what happens as the night continues. Requiring the audience to be an active participant in The Outfit leads to the skilled movie being the first sign that spring moviegoing is revving its engines, breaking the silence of this strange period in movies released as awards season wraps up. 

Moore and McClain’s script involves Burling, a cutter (“I’m not a tailor.”) who worked on the famed Saville Row in London before he lost his family due to circumstances that will come to light soon enough. Now quietly making his sharp suits and wares alongside his secretary/would-be apprentice Mable (Zoey Deutch, Vampire Academy), Burling is a man that observes more than he speaks. Turning a blind eye to the organized crime dealings secretly exchanged via a mailbox at the back of his shop, he holds his head down, which keeps him in the good graces of the important families and surely secures his safety for his silence.

On this night, the son of the most powerful gangster in Chicago has arrived for his late-night pick-up with news that a mole has been discovered, and he has possession of a recording that will reveal information about the rat. Together with right-hand man Francis (Johnny Flynn, Clouds of Sils Maria), Richie (Dylan O’Brien, Bumblebee) plans to expose the snitch and allow his business to flourish with the assistance of The Outfit. A syndicate of crime families from all over the country, The Outfit has operatives everywhere and is the one that reported the mole. Who is the mole? What (or who?) is The Outfit? And is the mild-mannered cutter more involved than he claims to be? 

Having seen Rylance onstage playing Shakespeare, I’m aware of the kind of rapt attention he can command from an audience, and in all sincerity, that hasn’t been fully achieved yet on film. If anything, his roles tend toward the absurd, culminating with a nearly unwatchable turn in 2021’s Don’t Look Up. I was worried we’d be getting the same Rylance runaround here, but The Outfit represents maybe his best work on film so far, even better than his Oscar-winning role in 2015’s Bridge of Spies. The layers Rylance brings to the part, peeling them back at varied paces throughout so that you can’t get too comfortable, are brilliantly done. Once you’ve figured out the solution, Rylance sheds another veneer to reveal a sheen we never considered. 

The rest of the cast works hard to get to the same level of Rylance and uniformly succeeds, starting with Deutch as a woman Burling acts with some fatherly care toward but has more to offer than simply sitting behind a desk. O’Brien and Flynn are swell as the glorified henchman for the Big Boss, Roy (Simon Russell Beale, Into the Woods), who shares some wonderfully understated scenes with Rylance. Even those that make a minor pass through the film, like Nikki Amuka-Bird (Old), leave a pleasant waft of mystery in their wake. 

The Outfit is the kind of Sunday movie you’d have liked to see when it was a tad colder out, one with which you can hunker down. There’s not anything extra that doesn’t need to be there, with Moore making great use of the expertise of cinematographer Dick Pope (Supernova) and production designer Gemma Jackson (Aladdin). They’re both Oscar-nominated and well regarded in the industry for a reason. From head to toe, tie to laces, it’s just about a perfect corker of a film that keeps you surprised on the edge of your seat right up until the end.   

The Silver Bullet ~ The Northman

Synopsis: A young Viking prince embarks on a quest to avenge his father’s murder.

Release Date:  April 22, 2022

Thoughts: If you are wondering why the spike in previews for upcoming 2022 films, attribute it to my being won over by a nagging curiosity to take a quick peek at several titles coming down the pike with intriguing premises, interesting casts, or a mixture of both. Take The Northman, for a prime example.  Viking prince and hard-scrabble armies in bloody battles? Uh, yeah!  Cast roster that reads like a MN Movie Man must-see list? You better believe it. Director known for visceral projects that aren’t aiming to please the masses but firmly establish a sense of reality even in circumstances that lean toward fantasy? Bingo! Led by Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and featuring Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos), Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho), Ethan Hawke (Zeros and Ones), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and featuring a rare appearance by singer/sometimes actress Björk, The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) is already a much-anticipated title for many and you can add me to that list as well.

Movie Review ~ Wolf (2021)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man who believes he is a wolf trapped in a human body is sent to a clinic by his family where he is forced to undergo increasingly extreme forms of “curative” therapies at the hands of The Zookeeper.

Stars: George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, Paddy Considine, Fionn O’Shea, Eileen Walsh

Director: Nathalie Biancheri

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Learning new language about the world and the experiences people go through is one of the many benefits that come with seeing as many films as I do.  I may not understand it, agree with it, or believe it but exposure to these varying viewpoints is important and vital in becoming well rounded.

All that being said, I’m not entirely sure the universe wanted me to see Wolf and after making it through the thorny flick I think I should have paid more attention to the signs.  So many cosmic roadblocks popped up to stand in my way, not the least of which was a review copy that I was trying to watch through an internet link that kept freezing up, resulting in my having to watch and then re-watch large stretches of writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s sullen and faux-ny look inside the very real experience of species dysphoria.  More on that later though…

Despite my misgivings and troubles getting going with Wolf, I soldiered on like a good critic, though I truly should have heeded the call to turn around and find a way out of the woods.  The woods is where we start and end, though, so let’s kick things off by saying the first images we see are of a very naked human (George MacKay, 1917) prowling through the fauna in a feral state.  Like much of Wolf, the passage is seemingly random and left unexplained…the audience is obviously supposed to piece together as the film progresses that this is Jacob in the wild and he’s eventually been brought to clinic that specializes in the treatment of others that share his condition.

Species dysphoria is an experience “associated with the feeling that one’s body is of the wrong species”.  So, Jacob believing himself to be a Wolf would be a prime candidate for the program the clinic offers, with graduates leaving having exorcised their thoughts of being an animal.  Jacob arrives and is integrated with other patients that believe themselves to be, among others, a German Shepherd, a parrot, a squirrel, and a duck.  Often, these species will react toward each other like they would in the wild, keeping the clinic staff busy.  At first, Jacob doesn’t know what to make of the situation and holds back…much like a wolf would in new surroundings.

When Jacob is befriended by a girl who works at the clinic and is also a patient that thinks she’s a wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp, Silent Night), they form a bond that goes beyond the personal and into the primal. Watching others in their program fail and succeed, Jacob and Wildcat realize they’ll never conform to the clinic’s methods and hatch a plan to break out from under the tyranny of the head of the department, known as The Zookeeper (Paddy Considine, Macbeth).  However, with Jacob’s will being tested by those in authority, do they both have the strength to flee and live life on their own, as they really are?

It’s clear there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of the screenplay Biancheri has written but it’s sorely lacking from clarity onscreen.  Instead, we have weird sequences of “therapy” that come off more like tortuous abuse scenes between doctor and patient.  You can’t ever tell if Biancheri is playing some scenes for comedic effect to show how ridiculous those in power are to those that are different or if the goal is to expose prejudice in the medical profession toward people who have this condition.  I don’t doubt this exists and that the treatment is specialized, but what’s on display here comes off like a badly told joke.

It’s a shame that MacKay has taken so much time with the physicality the role demands because it’s sort of wasted in the entirety of Biancheri’s awkward and artsy-fartsy film.  Once we started getting patients dressing up like their, forgive the co-opted term, “spirit” animal, the movie began to tank for me because it’s too silly watching someone whine and pant like a dog.  MacKay’s physical transformation in Wolf is incredible but it can’t carry the picture, even if his acting is the highlight of the piece.  Rose-Depp is less successful in a role that is less interesting all around – even when she’s perched and hissing at others it comes off as the overly dramatic girl at a party wanting to get attention.  That’s what many of the patients in Wolf come off as, actually.  Desperate for attention instead of dependent on treatment.