Movie Review ~ Ailey

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Alvin Ailey was a visionary artist who found salvation through dance. Told in his own words and through the creation of a dance inspired by his life, this immersive portrait follows a man who, when confronted by a world that refused to embrace him, determined to build one that would.

Stars: Robert Battle, Rennie Harris, Darrin Ross, Don Martin, Mary Barnett, Linda Kent, George Faison, Judith Jamison, William Hammond, Sylvia Waters, Hope Clarke, Sarita Allen, Masazumi Chaya, Bill T. Jones

Director: Jamila Wignot

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Though you may not know the name Alvin Ailey, you surely have seen some piece of his work over the years.  The revolutionary choreographer was an artist ahead of his time that saw dance as a language he had the power to translate, and his work is representative of that.  My own exposure to the works of Ailey has been quite limited and that’s why a documentary like Ailey is a rare opportunity to delve deeper into not just the history of the man himself but into what the dance brought to life in the time it was developed.  Each move told a story, and each step had a purpose, and as viewers of this documentary will find out, much of it was born from the pain (personal and professional) experienced by Ailey throughout his life.

Born in Texas in 1931 during the peak of the Great Depression, Ailey rose from picking cotton with his mother to living with her after moving to Los Angeles in 1941.  Beginning his formal dance with Lester Horton and the (now legendary) dancer Carmen De Lavallade, he started out in Horton’s troupe and eventually formed a nightclub act with future poet laureate Maya Angelou.  This led to numerous tours, club dates, and his Broadway debut but kept Ailey longing for a role that was more tailored to his choreographic interests.

Director Jamila Wignot’s film traces these early years and the eventual formation of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater using archival materials from Ailey and stock footage from the era along with Ailey’s own voice recordings recounting his life story.  Weaving through and helping to propel the narrative further are Ailey’s own choreographed dances, preserved forever on film and many of them captured with their original performers.  Not only do these represent the raw talent that Ailey was working with and who knew his style intimately, but it gives viewers a true taste of what an experience of seeing his pieces must have been like under the watchful eye of the man himself. 

Ailey’s most famous piece, Revelations, has entered the cultural lexicon as his calling card of sorts but it was this piece that would haunt him for the remainder of his life before his death of AIDS in 1989.  This extraordinary piece charts the black experience using the church and church music as its inspiration.  Given an extra bit of attention in Wignot’s documentary, Revelations is fairly stirring even now and along with a dozen or so other works, it can be easy to be swept away into any of the archival numbers presented throughout Ailey.  I’m so sorry for those seeing this in theaters, watching it at home I could rewind the film and re-watch the incredible Judith Jamison leave it all on the stage performing Ailey’s propulsive Cry in 1971. 

Where the documentary comes up short (feeling padded for time even at 95 minutes) is when it shifts back to the present and watching choreographer Rennie Harris piece together a new work honoring Ailey’s 60th anniversary for the company.  What Harris was putting together would, I’m sure, be wonderful but since we don’t get to see that final product it’s just random rehearsal footage and time I’d rather be spending with more of Ailey and his acolytes recounting the history.  That’s where the greatest wealth is to be found here.

Perfect for newcomers to Ailey or dance in general, it’s a primer that gives you nearly all the information you need and then encourages further exploration after.  While Ailey goes just to edge of some of the more personal aspects of his life, I can’t quite tell if Wignot didn’t want to turn over too many stones that have settled in a good place or if it simply wasn’t part of the story being told.  No matter, it’s filled with enough grace and style to catch your eye…most especially Ailey’s long-time stage manager recounting the first performance given after Ailey’s death.  Grab your Kleenex.

Movie Review ~ Pig

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A truffle hunter who lives alone in the Oregonian wilderness must return to his past in Portland in search of his beloved foraging pig after she is kidnapped.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I only heard about Pig but a few short weeks back when indie studio NEON started advertising the trailer for it on social media.  A Nicolas Cage movie about a man that loses his pig and is going to find the men that took her? Gulp.  The trailer looked bleak.  The prospects looked dim.  The film just didn’t look like it had a lot to it and while NEON is always known for producing, if nothing else, work that is challenging for the viewer, I didn’t know if I wanted to see Cage running around appearing disheveled looking for his swine only to find out she became last Wednesday’s BLT.  I mean, this was NEON after all, and they’ve released some pretty out-there stuff.   

While I’d heard some positive items about the movie, I’ve largely kept my head down until it came to me and by then, I was sort of nervous to watch it.  My feeling of discomfort had only grown, and I just struggled with not wanting to have a bad experience with anything animal related, pig or Nic Cage otherwise.  I’m someone that was a Cage supporter for longer than most.  I was there with him in the early years, even through the Peggy Sue Got Married kind of weird days and into his blockbuster Simpson/Bruckheimer box office boffo smash summers.  I stuck around for the dramatic reaches, into the Oscar win, the descent into Crazy Eyes Cage (did it start with De Palmas Snake Eyes in 1998?) and even for the decline of selection in roles, but I started to draw the line at the numerous titles that bypassed theaters and went straight to video.  While Mandy and Color Out of Space were fine examples of a director’s superlative vision holding Cage at bay, would a first-time feature director’s quiet and simple movie keep Cage’s zeal monster at bay?

A case where the stars aligned and good fortune shone down on many, Pig is one of those movies that come along rarely in the career of a number of actors and Cage happens to be the beneficiary of this gift.  Co-writer and director Michael Sarnoski’s film may have a brief, blunt, title but its lasting impact is felt long after the credits have completed.  Its success drives deep into using one’s own introspection as the thorniest weapon against your opponent instead of physical violence and the result is both a stunning film and the best performance Cage has given since his Oscar-winning turn in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas.  Many in the industry and critics group alike thought Cage would never again make it to reputable awards consideration again, this is the movie and performance to prove them wrong.

Living a solitary live in the woods of Oregon with only a small foraging pig to keep him company, Rob (Cage, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) spends the days roaming the forest digging up precious truffles that fetch a pretty penny in nouveau bistros specializing in the latest in haute cuisine.  From what we gather, the only interaction he has is a once-a-week visit with Amir (Alex Wolff, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), a restaurant rep trying to make a name for himself in the business and step out of his imperious father’s (Adam Arkin, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later) looming shadow.  Not that Amir is the kindest of souls. He drives a bougie car and has some choice words for the friendly pig that just wants to greet a new face.  A lone cassette with his name labeled on it that begins to play a song we barely hear tells us that Rob had a life before all this…but what, we don’t know.

This tranquil routine is disrupted when Rob’s precious companion is violently stolen, leaving him bloodied and even more bedraggled looking than before.  Barely taking time to gather his thoughts, he hoofs it to the nearest form of civilization and calls the one person he knows may have answers…Amir.  Together, the men enter into a search not just for the whereabouts of the pig, who stole it, and why, but eventually into the recesses of a complicated past Rob has spent a significant amount of time trying to bury.  Once an esteemed chef with a name that still carries weight in current circles, a tragedy caused him to retreat and withdraw, eventually finding a less interactive way to remain connected to his former profession through his truffle hunting.  A photographic memory proves useful when encountering old employees, rivals, and meals cooked, and the ability to read people is an effective method of getting the information he needs without having to exert much force.  

Cage being Cage, I honestly though Pig was going to be a lot more hard-boiled than it turned out to be.  Instead, Sarnoski and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Block have turned their story over-easy, allowing its gentle beats to gradually land as we learn more about Rob through small interactions with people he crosses paths with after years of separation.  I often found myself holding my breath, crossing my fingers the film could maintain its mood and thankfully it always stayed on track.  The crown jewel centerpiece of Pig is a restaurant scene in which Cage unravels the life of a man he seeks answers from in one haunting speech.  Make sure you are free from distraction during this sequence because it’s one that I swear Sarnoski has left a slight pause for at the end for audiences to recover with applause, a few deep breaths, or both.

It pleases me to no end that Cage is so finely tuned to the role, never going too big or even too small when Rob turns totally inward during moments of grief.  It shows you that when Cage really wants to do it right, he can, and when he’s only doing it for the money that lack of commitment is also visible.  For Pig, he’s firing on all cylinders and is backed by Wolff’s slick up and comer that finds himself in the middle of his own personal journey while tagging along on Rob’s.  Arkin’s brief turn is quite a departure for him but works all the same, it’s only two scenes but the weight placed on the first one adds to the nuances that must be offered in the second.

Frankly, I don’t care much for films that break things down into chapters and if there’s one element of Pig that I could lose it would be the screenplay quite literally making it a three-chapter melodrama.  That’s just one small quibble in what is a feast of delights being offered to us.  For Sarnoski, it’s a wonderful way to start a feature film career, a calling card that speaks to talent as a writer and a director.  With Cage, it demonstrates again why he’s an actor to be taken seriously, even when he has trouble taking himself seriously.  Right now, he’s in the zone and I hope he stays there.

Movie Review ~ In the Earth

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness, the forest coming to life around them. 

Stars: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero 

Director: Ben Wheatley 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 107 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  We’re officially over a year into this pandemic and while we’re marking a number of milestones in our own lives, we also look outside our own bubble for the lasting effects this global crisis has had on our previous normalcy.  If you’re reading this (and this review in particular), odds are you’re a movie fan that has felt the sting of not being able to go to the theater as much to see film and likely consumed a great deal of releases that were completed long before the lockdown began.  While we’ve already seen several movies filmed when the restrictions on the wide shut-downs were eased (Songbird, Malcolm & Marie), over the next few months we can expect to see a new crop of titles that were conceived, filmed, and released during the COVID-19 epidemic.  Some will have nothing to do with the virus or make mention of it at all while others, like writer/director Ben Wheatley’s new horror film In the Earth, will make it integral to their plot. 

I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Wheatley over the years, with the early high points (2011’s unforgettably cruel Kill List) giving way to harder to take lower points (2015’s cuckoo High-Rise), which led to 2020’s par-baked remake of Rebecca on Netflix that I sort of liked but was mostly dismissed by everyone else.  Before he jumps into his first big blockbuster film (a sequel to The Meg for Warner Brothers), Wheatley took the time during lockdown to write In the Earth and then went ahead and gathered the crew and made the thing.  The result is another uneven effort from the always off-balance director who demonstrates again that he knows how to start a film that sinks its hooks into you with a fierce force but can’t maintain his grip on the plot, allowing the narrative to go totally slack by the end.    

During a fierce plague that continues to throttle England, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Yesterday) arrives at a deserted forest lodge serving as the gateway to a larger area of woodland that has been made available for scientific study.  Intending to bring new equipment to a colleague, he needs the assistance of a guide to help him navigate the trails and terrain he is unable to cross himself.  Setting out with Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), an observant ranger who gets the feeling there’s more to Martin’s story than he’s letting on, the two don’t make it too far into thick before they are attacked during the night by an unseen presence.  

Without supplies (or shoes), they continue on, eventually meeting up with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, The World’s End) who has entered the park illegally but offers to help them in exchange for their silence.  Forgetting what their mothers always told them about going anywhere with a stranger, Martin and Alma agree to go back to Zach’s camp and it’s about then that Wheatley’s promising beginning starts to unravel, slowly at first and then quickly as time wears on.  There’s more to Zach than meets the eye and the same goes for the forest, which Wheatley has filled with Celtic lore and rumors about Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest said conjure all sorts of spooky what-have-yous and no-thank-you-whatnots.  These Blair Witch-y elements are all fine and dandy, it just depends on how you use them and how Wheatley chooses to weave them into the back half of the movie makes for a dizzying experience. 

Fair warning for anyone with light sensitivities, the final third of In the Earth features lengthy sequences of strobe lights and other visually intense moments.  It’s a stylistic choice that works in some respects (there’s a dandy shiver-inducing shot involving Zach and an axe) but fails in most others because it feels like a punishment to watch.  Even I had to look down or look away for a few seconds just to give my eyes a rest.  The arrival of a fourth character, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric), initially steers the film back to its mysterious origins with a lot of strangely welcome exposition (often a sign of script weakness but here actually a boon after an onslaught of obtuseness) but it isn’t long before we’ve drifted back to the not as engrossing side of Wheatley’s tale where it’s all shock and awe showmanship.  That kind of filmmaking seems a bit beneath the director at this point. 

This being a Wheatley film, you knew the violence isn’t going to shy away from gaping gashes, flayed flesh, or other various injuries incurred in this trek into terror.  Though he tries to temper some of the more extreme acts with some humor, it doesn’t necessarily break the tension of the moment because we always know that Wheately will see it through to the end anyway, somehow.  In that respect, the production design and special effects make-up is well done as is Clint Mansell’s (Noah) unsettling score that could almost be considered a fifth character lost in the woods.  While the camera work also helps in setting the mood, cinematographer Nick Gillespie (Stan & Ollie) allows it to get increasingly frenzied instead of the jarring which would be a more sophisticated approach and still in line with the attitude of the piece. Performances are generally solid, with Shearsmith achieving a tough to maintain balance of menace tempered with a fair dose of dark humor and Torchia proving a compelling lead. Only Squires feels out of place in the quartet, but she appears so late that her presence is meant to upset the balance so perhaps it’s all intentional. 

Horror speaks to people on many different levels so for you, In the Earth might be that nice mix of pandemic panic leading to horrors we never could have imagined.  Or, if you’re like me, you want more follow-through with your features and wish obviously talented people like Wheatley, who proves over and over again he can gather the right people and conceptualize an idea, would get out of their own way. While it has brief moments of flight at the outset, In the Earth mostly never leaves the ground to achieve something bigger. 

Movie Review ~ Gunda

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: Experiential cinema in its purest form chronicling the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens, and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy. 

Stars: Gunda 

Director: Viktor Kosakovskiy 

Rated: G 

Running Length: 93 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4.5/10) 

Review: I couldn’t have known it at the time but I’m sort of miffed at myself for busting out my whole argument about how you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear back in August for my review of the dreadful horror movie The Pale Door.  I thought (correctly) that it applied in that situation but oh, do I wish it was fresh so it could truly make its debut here and now for Viktor Kosakovskiy’s languid documentary Gunda.  It’s literally about a sow and one could argue the filmmaker has made a 93-minute dialogue-free, scoreless attempt at a silk’s purse that winds up awfully rough for those going in with the wrong expectations.  Set your expectations correctly and Gunda may sizzle your bacon just right.  Fail to know what you are undertaking, and you best gird your loins for a long sit. 

I actually thought I would be able to take Gunda and not just because I’m kind to animals, read Charlotte’s Web at least once a year as a child, and am not so sure Babe didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Picture.  I can take non-narrative documentary features just fine and honestly, who needs a score when you have the pleasant sounds of nature to make beautiful harmony throughout?  The use of black and white cinematography is always an intriguing choice and to be perfectly frank, after a series of loud and obnoxious movies lately I was looking forward to a step back from all that noise, feeling good and ready for a down on the farm kind of evening.  There was just one small thing about the film I failed to notice.  That I should have noticed.  That I regretted not noticing. 

You see, Gunda was directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy, the same Russian filmmaker who unleashed Aquarela back in 2018.  In case you missed that bore wonder, it’s another documentary without any spoken dialogue that explores water and ice around the world…and that’s about it. Just endless shots of water and ice and water and ice and water and ice.  You’d think from a production standpoint a movie like that would be impressive to look at, but it wasn’t even interesting enough to be distracting accidentally.  Amazingly, it has a high aggregator score which goes to show you pretentiousness wins out over everything else, including entertainment.   

I figured out Kosakovskiy was behind Gunda mere moments before it started and was prepared for a similar experience, wondering if I’d have to save Gunda a spot on my worst of the year list just like I had for Aquarela.  Happily enough, Gunda is more focused than its predecessor, with Kosakovskiy appearing more attuned to the subjects which have shape and some order to them.  Mostly about our titular sow and her new littler of piglets but occasionally drifting to other members of the farm like a one-legged chicken and some free-wheeling cows, all things that pass in front of the camera are presented at face value, nothing more and nothing less.  A shocking moment within the first five minutes feels like it needs some kind of visual coda, but Kosakovskiy frustratingly denies it to his audience for no real reason. 

Plenty has been made about the camera work being something to behold, but to me it didn’t feel any different than our highest level of nature photography.  Have any of these people even seen a program on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel in their lives?  I don’t need to see five minutes straight of piglets nursing, nor do I need a similar sequence repeated in random locations around the barn and acres of land they call home over the course of the picture.  One moment the young pigs are exploring their new surroundings stretching their legs and the next they are hungry and poor Gunda is on her side again.  If this were a film for young children, I could see some of the importance in guiding them through the growing process of baby animals as an educational tool. If Kosakovskiy had really considered his adult audience that would probably be undertaking his work, he’d understand most of us don’t need to see the same event over and over again to understand its significance. 

Everything in Gunda just takes time.  Lots of it.  Chickens walk s-l-o-w-l-y through a field, and you’ll feel each and every step they make as the camera follows practically each blade of grass they disturb along the way.  Again, in short bursts these are dazzling sights but nearly every sequence goes on twenty times longer than it must and that winds up robbing the original impressive awe of some of its magic.  The only passage that makes sense is Gunda’s effective conclusion which is stretched to an eternity…this time with real purpose.  It’s one of the main reasons why the movie is worth sitting through and will stick with you for a while after, bouncing around in your brain, unable to shake off its meaning and the part many of us play in it. Had the rest of the film justified itself likewise, Gunda could have been a valuable piece of art for all instead of a narrow-focused experiment for some.

Movie Review ~ Ammonite

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Acclaimed paleontologist Mary Anning works alone selling common fossils to tourists to support her ailing mother, but a chance job offer changes her life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, Fiona Shaw

Director: Francis Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In the realm of the blockbuster comic book franchise films, it was front page news when Batman did battle with Superman and the buzz was booming when top acting star Bradley Cooper joined forces with mega-watt recording artist Lady Gaga for their remake of A Star is Born.  Yet when two of the most respected actresses working today joined forces on a film for the first time it barely created a ripple effect in the film industry at the outset.  I mean, this should have been some kind of cause for cheers.  Look through most lists of best actresses (or just view the Oscar nominees from the last decade) and you’ll see the names Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan pop up often and there’s a reason for that.  Both are highly charged performers that invite audiences into the worlds they create, crafting blood and bone people who feel as if they could leap off the screen.

By all accounts, the joining of these two talents on Ammonite should have been big news and for a while, it was.  Here was a period drama featuring Winslet as real-life English fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning living in the chilly coastal Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and Ronan as Charlotte, a young wife who accompanies her amateur fossil-hunter husband to meet Mary and winds up staying behind.  A fictionalized account of their friendship and eventual romance by writer/director Francis Lee, Ammonite should have been a slam dunk of a film for all involved.  However, it has the misfortune of coming on the heels of two other movies, one directed by Lee himself, that have many of the same themes, and both play them with a richer sound.

There’s not much more to Ammonite than what I just laid out for you and what is etched out briefly in the synopsis…so you’re in for 117 minutes of rocks and frocks with little in the way of joy.  I’d have expected more from everyone, especially considering this is a completely fabricated work that takes the life of a neglected woman from history and basically gives her the opportunity to be seen for the first time by a larger audience outside of the scientific community.  Though Dickens supposedly wrote about her and rumor has it her dedication to excavating along the ocean line inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”, Mary Anning is mostly an unknown to the layperson.  So why would Lee take us into her small piece of the world in Dorset and make it so gloomy gus?

Perhaps it was a desire from Ronan to slough off some of the porcelain veneer she’s achieved these last years as the catch-all for every kind of inspired ingenue through the ages. Between receiving Best Actress Oscar nominations for the headstrong Jo in Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, as an Irish immigrant bravely making a go of it on her own in mid-century NYC in Brooklyn, or as a determined and misunderstood high school senior in Lady Bird, she hasn’t had much of a chance to find the cracks and crevices in female characters that simply don’t have the answers to function on their own. In that way, Ammonite succeeds in providing an outlet for Ronan to stretch and expose herself in spirt and, in several graphic sex scenes, body.

On the other hand, Winslet struggles with going through the motions of another troubled woman held back by or judged more harshly on the norms of society.  Similar to Iris, Jude, Little Children, and her Oscar-winning role in The Reader, Winslet knows how to work these sharp angles of women on the fringe that don’t care what people think but secretly are pained by their stares.  We know she’s a loner from the jump and that Ronan will find a way to break down her walls, but in Lee’s telling we never quite see why, aside from the attention being paid to her from the young beauty.  While Winslet and Ronan have an easy rapport, I never quite bought into their physical attraction to each other, though they do their best to help us get to some kind of acceptance by the film’s late in the game eye-opener of a bedroom encounter.  Let’s just say this…if you’re watching Ammonite with someone else make sure you’re comfortable enough with them to withstand some extreme awkwardness.  One of the best scenes in the film isn’t even between the two stars, it’s with Winslet and Fiona Shaw (Kindred) who makes a brief cameo in a role that is on one hand something new and different for Shaw to be seen in while at the same time playing in to her ability to give every character a nice little secret.

In 2017, Lee wrote and directed God’s Own Country, a superior film following the unlikely relationship that forms between two men and the contrast between that movie and Ammonite can’t be written off.  Both feature someone living a hard-scrabble life without much in the way of availability to express their true feelings of physical love and a chance encounter with a passing stranger that affords some kind of passion to enter their hemisphere.  Though the consequences in each film are different, knowing Lee is behind both suggests the filmmaker has more than a passing interest in telling stories of romance that blooms off the beaten path.  Ammonite also parallels 2019’s rightfully-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire – you can almost draw arrows between both plots/characters that point to one another.  The problem with this is that for both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and God’s Own Country, Ammonite is always seen as the lesser of the two so you find yourself watching a new movie and wishing it were as good as an older one.

It’s sad that this pairing has yielded such bland fruit as Ammonite.  I like both actresses and I quite like Gemma Jones (Rocketman) appearing here as Winslet’s long-suffering mother who has a porcelain figurine for each of the eight children she’s lost over the years.  Watching her clean the tiny curios daily as her only bit of happiness is devastating, the rare bit of true unique emotion Lee has for audiences exploring this dramatized tale he’s imagined.  I’d almost rather have seen a fuller version of Anning’s life that detailed how she came to find a passion for what she did, how she was originally rejected by members of the scientific community, and how her work provided the basis for a number of advancements over time.  There’s romance in science as well.

Movie Review ~ Shirley


The Facts
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Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Vinovich

Director: Josephine Decker

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems a little too easy to label Shirley Jackson a “horror writer” but that’s largely what many of the press clippings and mentions of the author have done over the years since her death in 1965.  True, a number of her works leaned toward the dark, supernatural, and unnerving, delving into psychological paranoia for good measure.  However, her short stories and novels have remained startlingly timeless because they regularly uncover the ambiguity of societies pleasantries and expose what’s underneath a pallid façade. I loved The Haunting of Hill House and it’s as much about the inner demons of the lead character as it is about any ghosts that may roam around the titular mansion.  Then, of course, there is The Lottery, a much discussed and oft-taught allegory of the deadly cost of following without questioning.

The Lottery is a good place to jump off for Shirley as well, as the movie begins just after Jackson’s short story was published in the late 1940s.  Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the issue of the New Yorker in which it appeared as she travels with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to Bennington, VT.  It’s here that Fred will serve as the teaching assistant to Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name)…who happens to be the husband of the reclusive and usually boozily bed-ridden Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man).  Rose and Fred wind up living with the older couple, with Rose tending to Shirley and the household duties as the men are teaching.  When a young girl on campus goes missing, Jackson is inspired to begin work on a longer piece which creates tension as her process is…intense.  The longer she writes, the more out of control the household becomes and the lines between reality and fiction are continually blurred.

It’s important to note that those approaching Shirley hoping to get a better idea of who the author was should look elsewhere for their fact-finding mission.  This movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, which fictionalizes the relationship between this younger couple and Jackson/Hyman.  From what I’ve inferred, the story has been further bifurcated by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins who changed the time, locale, and critical elements of Jackson’s family life to better streamline the story she and director Josephine Decker are trying to tell.  The result?  A movie that feels a lot like the author herself: initially interesting but eventually exhausting.

There’s always something intriguing about an alternative take on a real life figure and I think it’s curious that not only did Jackson become a character in Scarf Merrell’s book but that the same book itself had an alternative take.  That’s double (or triple?) meta for you.  The problem with digging down that deep is that somewhere you’re going to lose the focus and that’s what sadly happens about halfway through Shirley. No matter how many creative camera angles Decker’s cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen employs or how often the spikey music from Tamar-kali jangles us, it can’t keep our minds from drifting.  Instead of being swept up in the parasitic relationship that develops between Shirley and Rose (the sallow Jackson at the beginning seems to glow the more Rose’s complexion turns gray) the audience struggles to keep up with Decker’s paths that lead nowhere.

Jackson’s bouts with severe anxiety were well documented but they’re presented here as mental instabilities, given all the more strain by Moss’s mannered performance.  Though she’s made a career over the past few years of playing similar complex women proving there’s no tic she can’t tackle, she comes up short here.  The delivery feels like schtick, something planned instead of performed and while Moss working so awfully hard is to be commended, it leaves no room for anyone else to get a nuance in edgewise.  Not that it stops Stuhlbarg from trying, gnashing his teeth on the scenery as exactly the kind of pompous literate we think a collegiate professor worth his salt would be.  Lerman is mere set decoration so it’s up to Young to steal what moments she can from Moss and she takes what scraps are allowed and runs with them quite nicely.

I’ve a feeling there will be two camps where Shirley is concerned.  First are those that buy what Moss is selling and can forgive the film for its hazy gaze at history and eventual descent into drab psychological drama.  Then there are the others, like myself, who don’t mind a little revisionism…as long as its done with purpose or reflection.  The real Shirley Jackson wrote about things that scare us, the movie version doesn’t even know where to begin.

Movie Review ~ The Painter and The Thief


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova develops an unlikely friendship with the man who stole two of her paintings

Stars: Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland

Director: Benjamin Ree

Rated: NR

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: With the advances of media and technology, we can now capture so much of our lives.  From the very public to the intimately private, there’s opportunities to catch the tiniest moments and it’s led to rich advancements in documentaries over the last two decades.  So instead of a documentary filmmaker having to be with the subject 24/7 they can glean footage from iPhones or video cameras set to film conversations that go for the most realism as possible.  What began as frontline footage that was often dangerous to obtain by guerilla filmmakers shining a spotlight on injustice or showcasing an underseen population is now, maybe not easier, but different to compile.

I’m a sucker for documentaries and look forward to the announcement of the Best Documentary category about as much as I do the top prizes at the Oscars every year.  Of course I love the ones that feature the glitz and glamour of the entertainment industry but I also hold a special place for the docs about human relationships that evolve over time that aren’t set in one specific time period.  Seeing the subjects age and grow (not like in movies where they are aided by make-up/technology) is documentary in its most pure form and we’re starting to see more of these labors of love as the years go by.  Even better is that while so many Hollywood movies have plots that are recycled from the same three or four formulas, you never can predict where a documentary will take you.

That’s why I was so intrigued when I first heard about The Painter and the Thief.  Here was a documentary centered on an artist from the Czech Republic recently relocated to Oslo that has two of her prized paintings stolen out of a gallery.  The men are caught and the artist forms a bond with one of the men that winds up changing both of their lives in unexpected ways.  Sounds like something right up my alley and the perfect issues for a documentary.  Right?  So why did the movie and its subjects leave me so…cold?

What I’ve been trying more and more during this time is to read as little about the films I’m watching beforehand as possible so when approaching The Painter and the Thief I knew just the basics.  Watching the film directed by Benjamin Ree I was struck by how much it felt like a narrative project and I kept having to remind myself it was a documentary and not a work of fiction.  There’s something in the way that Ree has presented the work and how the painter (Barbora Kysilkova) and the thief (Karl-Bertil Nordland) carry themselves while on camera that it comes across like everyone has a distinct awareness of what’s going on.  That tends to rob some of the drama and revelation out of what transpires, though it must be said that I don’t think it was Ree’s intention to provide this kind of emotional journey at the outset.

What I can’t seem to get over is a nagging sense of being somehow manipulated throughout into a particular path and it becomes more over the longer the film runs.  This isn’t completely out of bounds for a filmmaker to add in their personal slant, however The Painter and the Thief manages to go beyond that so the audience tends to doubt some certainties along the way.  Aside from feeling like you can’t believe the developments that take place, there are some oddities you can’t quite shake.  If we know that Karl-Bertil is the thief, why on the security footage that is captured and presented as evidence in the court is his face blurred out?

The film finds its success in its thread of redemption and it’s not just for the thief.  The artist, seemingly quick to forgive the men who robbed her, goes through her own journey of forgiveness within herself that feels like a far more strenuous battle.  And the uphill climb Karl-Bertil takes is quite incredible, you see him come back to life through the copious amount of footage Ree has whittle down to the finished film.  The final shot is a bit of a magic trick, tying up a lot of loose ends with satisfaction while opening a whole new can of worms.

You can easily imagine this being turned into a feature film and I wouldn’t doubt we’ll see this story brought to the screen within the next several years.  While I question the full range of authenticity on display for the duration of The Painter and the Thief there’s little in question that the human connection found within its framework is captured with grace.

Movie Review ~ Spaceship Earth


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A true, stranger-than-fiction, adventure of eight visionaries who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2.

Stars: John Allen, Tony Burgess, Kathelin Gray, Linda Leigh, Jane Goodall,

Director: Matt Wolf

Rated: NR

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  When I first heard there was a documentary arriving called Spaceship Earth I’ll admit that as a Disney fan I was fully expecting it to be on the creation of the ride at EPCOT Center in Florida that occupies that iconic dome in the futuristic theme park.  While my original excitement was dampened a bit (hey, I’ll take a Disney doc any day of the week on the most mundane topic!) I was still intrigued to learn more about a group of established idealists that set out to complete an ultimate test of next-level global thinking.  Also, a movie about a group of people willingly sequestering themselves (or quarantining, if you will) for two years couldn’t come at a more prescient time.

Though director Matt Wolf’s documentary is, on the surface, about the experiment known as Biosphere 2 that launched in 1991, much of the film’s running length is devoted to its genesis, starting in the 1960s California when a motley group of creative forces were gathered by a fatherly figure to form a theatrical troupe, as so many did in those hey days.  Through a truly astounding amount of archival video (it seems as if every day was captured on film for three decades), we see how these individuals coalesced into more than just a communal tribe, morphing into a business-minded collective that started their own farm, built a ship from the group up, and lived a nomadic life across the globe.  What set this group apart is that they didn’t just create and run things to ruin before pulling up stakes as we’ve seen in other failed Utopian societies.  No, this group was smart in their model and set-up businesses along the way that funneled money into their coffers to fund future investments and projects – which leads us to Oracle, AZ and the project that became known as Biosphere 2.  Recognizing Earth’s resources were limited, the group wanted to see if it was possible to replicate our ecosystem on another planet and simulate that experience for two years.

Attracting national attention and a media frenzy, the training and eventual selection of the “biospherians” was closely watched…not so dissimilar to keeping an eye on astronauts preparing for their next mission.  I was only 11 at the time so I don’t remember all the hoopla, but the clips of worldwide news coverage shows just how much of a three ring circus the experiment devolved into.  As you would expect, with all the attention, it made the stakes of the experiment even higher and that’s when problems began to arise not just for the eight people within the dome but for their supposed support staff working outside.  The dramatic rise and fall of the Biosphere 2 is hard to watch, but it stands as an example of how a good idea can go bad the more people have a say in its creation.

At this point, I’m starting to feel like I’m living in my own Biosphere with only the occasional release into the outside world so I’m betting the experience of watching Spaceship Earth now is very different than it would have been had I seen it in theaters.  Yet, it was the earlier parts of the film that showed the group coming together that stuck with me the most.  Hearing the interviewed members discuss it now, they all found something important and meaningful when they joined this initiative and whether they were designing a ship to sail the ocean or picking the plants to go in Biosphere 2, all found strength and purpose in their task.  That it doesn’t feel cult-y or nuts and berries granola helps, too.  Sure, there is dissent and some questionable ethics at times…but what group (or family, for that matter) doesn’t have the occasional squabble?  The film starts to feel a bit long and stretched for length, with Wolf trying to find some dramatic tension in situations that don’t have much energy in them.  Still — it’s hard to deny the wealth of footage is not fascinating to watch.

You can watch Spaceship Earth now on Hulu (or at theavalon.orgsunscinema.comafisilver.afi.com, cinemaartstheatre.com) and I do suggest setting aside some time one of these nights after your work from home day is done to catch it.  It’s a great example of idealism at its most pure, though it may not have achieved its ultimate goal the experiment (and documentary) are well-intentioned and well crafted.

Movie Review ~ The Lodge

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote winter cabin. Isolated and alone, strange and frightening events threaten to summon psychological demons from her strict religious childhood.

Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Living in the Midwest, we take the cold and the snow very seriously.  When the temps drop and the white stuff piles up, there’s nothing more we love doing that hunkering down indoors and waiting for summer to arrive, all the while hoping the cabin fever keeps its distance.  So you’d understand why, for me, when a movie like The Lodge comes around it doesn’t spark the same kind of instant fear that someone in, say, Malibu might have if they could think of nothing so horrible as to be stuck in a wintery retreat cut off from the outside world with malevolent forces at work.  That being said, I’m always up for a spooky little horror yarn from an independent distributor and this one was arriving with a sharp snare drum of good buzz so I made sure to bundle up and see it at a recent screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse.

Usually, you can take the pull quotes from the marketing materials with a large grain of thick kosher salt because the studio is looking for the lines from advance reviews that will catch the greatest amount of attention.  Why call a movie “scary” when you can call it “the scariest movie I’ve seen in ages!”?  Thankfully, those smart folks at Neon aren’t out to overshoot things and have found a good one to describe this new horror film from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz: “Scary as Hell” and for once they aren’t too far away from spot-on.  This is a taut, largely unpredictable film that refuses to be put into a box early on and manages to maintain its mood and suspense far longer than it ought to.

Now, it’s going to be harder than usual to discuss this without giving away some semblance of spoilers because the set-up has some spoiler-ish elements but know that I’m weighing what I’m revealing against your overall experience.  Read on if you will – or if you truly don’t want to know anything that stop right now and come back and read this as you’re warming up after the movie.

For Aidan (Jaeden Martell, Midnight Special) and Mia (Lia McHugh, Hot Summer Nights) the holidays aren’t going to be the same as they were last year.  Their parents have split up and while their emotional fragile mom Laura (Alicia Silverstone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) works out her own issues they are spending more time with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) and his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road).  As is the case with many children of divorced parents, the teens aren’t taking too well to dad’s new squeeze and it doesn’t make things better when he invites her along to their family cabin weekend for the Christmas holiday.

On the surface, Grace seems like she should be a good fit with the family.  Though maybe slightly too young to be both in a new relationship with Richard and a possible future stepmother, she bares a striking resemblance to Laura and that only adds fuel to the fire of Aidan and Mia’s dislike for her.  When Richard leaves for a planned weekend back in the cities for work, he leaves Grace alone with the children and that’s when things start to get…weird.  You see, Grace was the only surviving member of a mysterious doomsday cult and her sanity begins to teeter on the edge when unexplained things start to occur.  Is it the children playing a practical joke, have shadowy figures from her past come back to continue their work, or is Grace simply losing her mind and imagining it all?

There was a Q&A after the movie with the directors and they seemed to revel in the fact that this movie is as twisted as it is.  Going off of their previous film, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, I definitely see why they would have been drawn to this as their follow-up because there are similar themes of children acting as possible manipulators on fragile adults and how their games can turn deadly.  What’s so intriguing about The Lodge is the way it builds its central mystery with such care that the solution could have been any number of outcomes.  I honestly had it in my mind it was going in one direction and had the scenes/dialogue to back-it up…only to have the directors pull the rug out from under me with another twist I didn’t see coming.

All the twists in the world wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans if they didn’t have a cast that was able to convince you to go in the wrong direction over and over again.  Martell and McHugh have tricky, tricky roles and for reasons that I can’t divulge will only say that what they are asked to do is pretty remarkable right up until the credits run.  I’m so glad to see Silverstone continue to take on challenging roles that couldn’t be further away from her Clueless days and while Armitage likely has the least interesting part of all, he manages to keep you wondering what he’s up to when he vanishes for long stretches of time. The film belongs to Keough, though, and her gradual descent into a calculated madness is well thought out and benefits from Fiala and Franz shooting the film in chronological order.  That allows Keough to chart her breakdown convincingly; giving her room to find the little ways her resolve begins to crack along the way.

For most of these types of movies, once the Big Twist has been revealed the rest of the run time gets a little tiresome as audience members just wait for all the edges to be rounded off.  In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz make good use of what comes after to instill even more disturbing outcomes, serving up real time consequences that are tough to watch.  You can tell Fiala and Franz have affinity for their characters in the way they see them through to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they let them off easily.  This one earns its stripes as a solid horror film but also benefits from strong film making at its core.

Movie Review ~ Clemency


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Years of carrying out death row executions are taking a toll on Warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares for another one, Williams must confront the psychological and emotional demons that her job creates.

Stars: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks, Wendell Pierce, Richard Schiff, LaMonica Garrett. Michael O’Neill

Director: Chinonye Chukwu

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When the Oscar nominations were announced there were a few titles and names I was hoping, but not necessarily expecting, to see.  Sure, I was crossing my fingers that Taron Egerton’s solid singing and dancing dramatic performance in the Elton John biopic Rocketman would sneak in and my heart was with previous acting Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen landing a songwriting nom for her lovely tune from the underseen Wild Rose, not to mention holding out a sliver of hope the Academy would see past the genre lines and give Lupita Nyong’o a nod for the dynamite work she did in the horror feature Us.  Yet there was one name I really wanted to see in the mix and even though it was a longshot I half-believed a surprise Best Actress nomination for Alfre Woodard in Clemency would turn up.  You can head over to my Oscar 2020 nominations page to see who landed a nomination instead of Woodard.

It’s a shame Woodard was left out of the big night for her career high work in Clemency, a small but mighty picture from writer/director Chinonye Chukwu that premiered around this time last year at the Sundance Film festival where Chukwu became the first black woman to win the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  Ever since it debuted, the buzz around Woodard’s turn as the warden of a maximum-security prison in charge of death row inmates was strong and that low hum continued throughout the rest of the year.  Here was an actress (a previous Oscar nominee in 1983 for Cross Creek, starring Steenburgen of all people!) that had worked steadily in Hollywood for the last four decades and built up a strong resume, appearing in projects with top directors and stars that was finally getting a lead role.  Certinaly, this was a role to be celebrated and rewarded.  Still, how did the movie match up to her performance?

The opening moments of Clemency are as gripping as they come.  Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard, Annabelle) and her small team of death row guards are accompanying a condemned inmate through the final steps of his execution and the audience is taken through the agonizing procedure with them.  What seems to be an unfortunately routine process doesn’t go as planned and it has a devastating effect on all involved, spurring a sort of awakening in Bernadine to reflect on her position and the emotional toll carrying out death sentences has taken.  Though she claims to her colleague (Richard Gunn, Dark Places) to just be doing her job, it’s evident from her increased reliance on alcohol and a disconnect with her husband (Wendell Pierce, Bad Moms) that a measure of uncertainty and roiling guilt is running just below her calm surface.

It’s with the delivery of an execution date for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge, What Men Want), a prisoner maintaining his innocence, that the cracks in Bernadine’s surface start to show.  Her marriage suffers, her once friendly relationship with a anti-death penalty lawyer (Richard Schiff, Man of Steel) is strained, and her own beliefs on what really is the correct punishment that fits the crime unavoidably start to enter into her life, blurring the once solid lines between the personal and professional.  It’s not all Bernadine’s story, though, with a good chunk of time in the middle devoted to Anthony and his attempts to be granted a reprieve from the governor for a crime he says he didn’t commit and a late in the game encounter with his ex-girlfriend (Danielle Brooks, Orange is the New Black) and mother of his young child.  This conversation between two people so close together physically and emotionally but so far apart divided by the glass of a prison visiting room starts one way and veers into a surprising direction.  Hodge and especially Brooks play it fantastically and for maximum effect without resorting to overly dramatizing what is already a emotionally heightened scene.

The film belongs to Woodard though and when some people say an Oscar is often won by one particular scene you could point to a long unbroken take on Woodard’s face where the actress takes you on a remarkable journey.  Everything you see informs you about what this character is feeling, thinking, harboring, and deciding and Chukwu hangs on it just long enough for you to realize you’ve been leaning far forward in your seat, holding your breath.  Much like Margot Robbie’s mirror scene in I, Tonya where she practices her “game face”, battling back her fears and aggression, Woodard does the complete opposite and lets her guard down. The results are chilling and that one scene alone should have bumped out at least one of the talented women that received a nomination over her.

Acquired by Neon distribution, Clemency was added to its already busy slate of 2019 films and I think Woodard’s nomination hopes suffered because of it.  Neon also distributed Parasite and the small but growing company likely could only put their efforts behind one film and obviously Cannes Best Picture Winner Parasite was it.  Note that in addition to Parasite, in 2019 Neon released the Oscar nominated Honeyland as well as the aforementioned Wild Rose and other well-regarded titles like The Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Biggest Little Farm, Amazing Grace, and Monos.  So you can understand why they may have spread themselves a little thin.  While Woodard should have received an Oscar nomination, I’m glad she was recognized by the Independent Spirit Awards.  Who knows?  Maybe she’ll pick up  a win there!

I saw Clemency in the morning before heading to the theater to see Just Mercy and it was interesting to see both movies back to back as they are dealing largely with the same social justice issues, just from different sides of the prison wall.  I found strength in both perspectives and might give the edge to Clemency only because it isn’t wrapping its tale in any crusade after the fact.  Both are clearly anti-death penalty and if I’m being honest I found myself challenging my own feelings about these sentences when presented with the numbers and facts of just how many people have been exonerated by evidence while on death row…and thinking of all those that didn’t get that chance.  I haven’t been exposed to it as much as the fictional characters in Clemency or the real live ones in Just Mercy so my eyes aren’t open as wide, but they are open.