Movie Review ~ Shirley


The Facts
:

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
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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


The Facts
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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
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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.

Movie Review ~ Honeyland


The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman utilizes ancient beekeeping traditions to cultivate honey in the mountains of Macedonia. When a neighboring family tries to do the same, it becomes a source of tension as they disregard her wisdom and advice.

Stars: Hatidze Muratova, Nazife Muratova, Hussein Sam, Ljutvie Sam

Director: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov

Rated: NR

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Anytime the Oscar nominations are announced, it sets into motion a very different type of movie watching.  Before that, you are shooting in the dark a bit and hoping you’re choosing correctly so that come nominations day you have that many fewer movies to see before the big night.  In recent years, I’ve gotten better at keeping an ear to the ground and picking up on the more obscure films that may populate the less mainstream categories because those may be harder to track down in the short period of time between the nominations and the ceremony.

When John Cho and Issa Rae announced the unsurprising nominees for the top categories for the 92nd Academy Awards on January 13, I was able to breathe a little easier that I didn’t have a huge mountain to climb if I wanted to clear the board again this year.  Last year I was able to see all the movies nominated in every category and by the time all the nominations were read and removing the short features that I already knew I’d be seeing I was left with a list of seven movies I’d need to make time for before February 9th.  Sounds easy, right?  Wel…then again… Now comes the hard part…actually tracking them down and watching them.

The first one was easy because I already had it; the screener had been looming large on the shelf just waiting to be popped in for a month or so but never made it to the top of the pile until now.  Only the second film from Macedonia to be nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar (formerly Best Foreign Language Film) and the first film ever to be nominated in Best International Feature and Best Documentary Feature in the same year, Honeyland was a fine place to start and an interesting jumping off point.

Likely to be referred to less eloquently as the Macedonian Bee Keeper Movie, Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a beekeeper in northern Macedonia that cares for her ailing mother while earning a living cultivating honey from her wild bees.  Directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov provide no narration or text to introduce audiences to Hatidze or her world; we’re just dropped into her daily routines and interactions with her mother, neighbors, and denizens of the city market.  With skin grown tough from the exposure to the harsh elements of the Macedonian climate and other key indicators that show up physically and emotionally suggesting she grew up largely fending for herself, Hatidze is still worldly-wise even though it’s unlikely she’s rarely traveled outside her small village.

The arrival of a family who set-up shop next to Hatidze and her mother is at first a welcome change of pace for the women.  Instead of being isolated, they now have two adults and multiple children running around, not to mention the animals they brought with and the cows they intend to breed and use for milk.  Hatidze and the patriarch Hussein form a neighborly friendship, with Hatidze eventually giving the man advice on how to start his own bee business, an act of kindness that will come back to sting her in more ways than one.  We’re not quite sure where Hussein has come from with his family but you soon get the impression they wore out their welcome because it isn’t long before the household runs amok, threatening to upset the delicate balance Hatidze has maintained for so long.

It’s reassuring to see that two separate branches of The Academy voted Honeyland into the Top 5 movies of the year in very different categories…but it really does have its feet planted firmly in both genres.  On one hand, it’s a striking representation of a slice-of-life documentary in that it brings audiences from another part of the globe to a population most don’t know about.  Speaking for myself, I enjoyed the bits and pieces of culture that are represented.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Kotevska and Stefanov deliberately attempted to create as remote of a location as possible so the film would have a “this could be anywhere” feel to it…and it works quite well.  Watching Hatidze and her neighbors suffer setbacks is difficult and one thinks how hard it must be for the filmmakers to sit back and watch these painful moments occur and not interfere.

I can also see how the documentary auteurs in charge of selecting the nominees found their way to recognizing Honeyland.  There were key moments and some interesting twits that felt like plot points out of a pre-planned movie, with villains both unintentional and rogue who pop in to cause trouble.  If I hadn’t known this was a documentary, I may have easily been convinced this was a straight narrative feature in a foreign language.  Though it starts a little slowly, I’d urge you to stick with it because the action takes a bit of time to settle in and you may find yourself wondering what all the hype was about…yet there’s a tipping point where you realize just how involved you’ve become in the lives of these people halfway across the world.

I wish as many people that line up to see the nearly three hour Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would also take the 86 minutes to watch Honeyland but I’m realistic enough to know that not even 1/10 of those watching that (also excellent) Quentin Tarantino flick will take this journey.  Still, no matter where Honeyland finishes at the end of the Oscars telecast, I know that it accomplished what few films can really do anymore – take you somewhere real that is completely foreign and open your eyes to a new experience.  That’s something to create buzz about.

Movie Review ~ Parasite

1


The Facts
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Synopsis: All unemployed, Ki-taek’s family takes peculiar interest in the wealthy and glamorous Parks for their livelihood until they get entangled in an unexpected incident.

Stars: Song Kang-ho, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, So-dam Park, Seo Joon Park, Hye Jin Jang

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: We’re at the point of the yearly movie cycle when you’re going to be bombarded with a lot of pull quotes that proclaim every movie to be the “best” thing you’ll see featuring the “greatest” performances and the most “revolutionary” filmmaking and frankly, they can’t all be winners.  Each studio hopes to hang their hat on at least one movie that will generate the good buzz that can carry their film, or even key players in their film, through to the awards season that is advancing at us at a rapid rate.  Audiences can look forward to new work from old masters as well as sophomore films from festival darlings that will surely garner the popular vote and net some admirable box office returns.  Yet there’s one film that’s bulldozing them all…and it isn’t doing it quietly.

Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in May and winning the prestigious top prize by a unanimous vote (a rare feat), the Korean film Parasite has been knocking the socks off critics as it gears up to a tiered release around the country.  After Cannes, it continued to play well at subsequent festivals and its entire opening weekend in NYC sold out before the first showing.  Early reviews touted the film as the new surprise front runner for Best Picture and its slick trailer enticed the viewer without giving too much of the plot away.  The hype machine on this one was gassed up and ready to go without going into overdrive…but could it possibly live up to all that advance praise?

I’ve been to this rodeo before where I’ve heard nothing but cheers for a film only to finally see it and not get what all the fuss was about.  The same thing happens when general audiences see the movie as well and the box office reflects it too when a film that scored a bunch of awards at a supposed award precursor is finally released and flattened by less than enthused mainstream media and viewers.  While I was excited to see Parasite and thrilled my city was on the list to be in the first wave of release, I took my seat with more trepidation than usual because this was one I truly wanted to meet the expectation I had for it.  It didn’t meet my expectations…it exceeded it.  And then some.

Director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is such a tight knot of a film that I feel as if I have to be careful with what I say for fear I’ll somehow assist in unraveling it.  There is so much surprise to be had in the performances and so many unexpected turns in the plot that there’s no way you can say at the beginning you’ll know where the movie will wind up by the time the credits roll.  There’s just no possible way you could do it.  It takes a true master storyteller to weave this kind of complex tale of social commentary and still manage to make it a lively, nail-biting, funny, incredibly entertaining piece of cinema.

Living in a run-down sub-basement apartment and taking odd jobs to make ends meet, Kim Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) and his wife Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) have raised their son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and daughter Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to make the most out of any opportune moment.  When Ki-woo’s friend turns up and says he’s leaving to study overseas, he offers Ki-woo the chance to take over his job as an English tutor for the daughter of a rich family.  When Ki-woo arrives at the pristine mansion of the Park family, he’s instantly taken by their deluxe lifestyle and the relative naiveté of Mrs. Park (Park Yeon-kyo) who he soon begins to manipulate.

With the rest of his family looking for work and possessing a knack for filling a certain gap that exists (whether it already it exists or is cleverly manufactured), it isn’t long before Ki-woo’s parents and sister are employed at the Park villa and that’s when the lines between the haves and have-nots become disturbingly blurred.  As Ki-woo continues to teach the daughter and his sister becomes an art instructor for the son, Ki-taek takes over chauffeur duties for Mr. Park who is your typically detached husband.  It’s an easy family to insinuate themselves into.  While the Kim’s aren’t necessarily bad people, they are extreme opportunists who seize upon every advantage presented to them, whether it will ultimately provide value to them or not.  Only realizing the consequences later, the Kim’s abandon any measure of caution as they are swept away by the allure of the Park’s lavish lifestyle. Right about the time you think you see where the Kim’s might be heading, a doorbell rings and changes everything.

What I so enjoyed while watching Parasite was a genuine feeling that anything could happen.  Around every corner was the unknown and down each staircase was a new twist waiting to be discovered – I can’t remember the last time a movie held such interest for so long.  In the past, writer/director Bong Joon Ho has delivered some impressively detailed films with a strong familial core like Snowpiercer, Okja, The Host, and Mother (not the awful Jennifer Lawrence movie) and he’s focused his eye once again on a family that has a lot going on under the surface.  As the head of the family wanting to provide for his wife and children, Kang-ho Song is wonderful trying to navigate keeping up appearances not only with the ruse he’s pulling on the Park’s but in saving face in front of his loved ones.  I also found Jeong-eun Lee to be dynamite in a tricky role playing the Park’s first housekeeper, a genial if all business woman that learns too late not to underestimate the new hires the lady of the house has taken on.  The entire film is well cast, down to the Park children who are just the right amount of cluelessly spoiled.

Shepherding the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes is a high honor and well-earned bragging rights for director Bong Joon Ho but the commercial success of Parasite will be the truest test of all.  I can see good word of mouth elevating this one, and with good reason.  For once, the preview hasn’t ruined any of the surprises or given any more clues than I have at what may be going on in the latter half of the movie.  Subtitled films are a tough-sell for audiences that like their movies loud and with impressive special effects but this is one that would be wholly enjoyed with a full theater.  That way, you can all share in the experience of discovery at the same time – and what a find this excellent film is.  Don’t miss it.

31 Days to Scare ~ Revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: Never take your mistress on an annual guys’ getaway, especially one devoted to hunting.

Stars: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède, Avant Strangel

Director: Coralie Fargeat

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s often a stereotype that horror films are made solely for men, but it’s hard to deny that a great number of them are definitely constructed from a male perspective.  Though the concept of the “Final Girl” has been cemented as one of the classic rules of a horror film, just as many nubile women meet gruesome ends before the last female standing finally defeats whatever has been hunting down her friends.  Women are often treated as set pieces even when they are the heroines of their own stories.  It’s sad, but true.

In 1978 a landmark movie originally titled Day of the Woman arrived to little fanfare.  The story of a woman raped and left for dead who returns to wreak vengeance on her perpetrators was a micro-budgeted stomach-churner that was eventually re-titled I Spit on Your Grave.  With a title like that, it caught more attention and quickly became a late-night cult classic that spawned many imitators, all with a similar (bad) taste level.  Remade in 2010 and getting three more sequels, its infamy lives on.  I’ve seen the original and the remake and…that was enough for me thank you very much.

When I first heard about the French movie Revenge, it was hard not to think about I Spit on Your Grave because they share similar plot elements.  A woman is brutalized and returns with full force to repay the men that think they’re smarter than her.  I resisted the film for a time because I know how extreme European (especially French) filmmaking can be but once I read the movie was written/directed by a female I was intrigued to see how a story like this would play out as viewed through the female gaze.  How would a female approach the violence?  How would she treat her victim?  Would this be any different than the skeezy schlock that had come before it?

Boy, am I glad I gave this one a go because, as difficult as it is to watch at times, Revenge is a sizzling jolt that starts out slowly and builds to a crazed crescendo.  It’s a movie in full control of its narrative and intentionality, always raising the stakes for its victimized star and often putting obstacles that have nothing to do with her tormentors in her way.  Writer/director Coralie Fargeat doesn’t create a reborn Rambo that suddenly develops skills to assist her in her revenge, but lets the woman discover her own strength naturally surprising herself and the audience in the process.  Feeling like it’s happening in real time, we are right there with the protagonist each painful step of the way as she comes back from the dead, brusied and bloodied, and with a necessary score to settle.

Arriving for a long weekend of hunting at his extravagant retreat in the middle of a desert (we never know where this location is but the movie was filmed in Morocco), Richard (Kevin Janssens) has brought along his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz, Rings) for some extra fun before his friends arrive.  They don’t get much alone time, though, because Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up soon after and it’s just the boys and Jen partying into the night.  Jen is a flirty but friendly, obviously only having eyes for Richard but still being welcoming to the attentions of his friends.  Though she thinks she’s in control of the situation, as observers of the situation we can see how it’s getting out of control. The next morning is when things take a terrifying turn for Jen and when she stands up for herself she’s betrayed by Richard…and that’s all I’ll say about the last half of the film because you have to experience it yourself.

Turning in a truly revelatory performance, Lutz goes from tart-ed up Lolita at the beginning of the film to blood-soaked avenging angel at the end.  The woman we see 90 minutes into the film looks like a completely different person than the one that we started out with. It’s a credit to Lutz that she believably transforms the character so fully from a trusting bombshell to an activated creature unwilling to be tossed aside like garbage.  She begins her journey back just wanting to stay alive but, when it’s clear the men won’t/can’t let her live, she decides to beat them at their own game and learns the tricks as she goes.  It’s a fantastic performance.  Janssens is also slyly good as her lover without much allegiance to anything/anyone and it’s fitting Fargeat asks him to be so exposed in the film’s most memorable sequence.

Fargeat stages the first act of Revenge with such a luxe vibe with glamour shots of Jen, Richard, and their swanky surroundings.  Seeing beautiful people in a beautiful setting is easy to relax into.  It’s when his less refined friends arrive the cinematography starts to get less shiny and more gritty, leading up to the latter half of the movie set in the stark blaze of exposed sun standing in high contrast to the opening.  That’s nothing compared to the bonkers finale Fargeat has worked up…and it’s a marvel that she pulls it off so well.  This isn’t an easy watch, to be sure, and those with issues on rape and violence toward women are advised to be cautious on exposing yourself to this film.  The main violation does occur mostly off-screen but just the fact that it happens is enough to warrant consideration for those who might be affected by seeing this action.  As a film, though, I recommend it highly as an example of taking a subgenre of horror infamous in the way it handles women and giving it a fresh (and exceptionally well-made) perspective.

Movie Review ~ Luce

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

Movie Review ~ Wild Rose


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician from Glasgow dreams of becoming a Nashville star.

Stars: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness, Jamie Sives

Director: Tom Harper

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As is often the case more and more with movies, it’s the films that you know the least about the tend to provide the biggest surprises. I’d seen the preview for Wild Rose a few times here and there and didn’t give it much of a second thought, feeling like it was something that I’d catch later when I had extra time to spare. Then the soundtrack made its way to my playlist and proceeded to sit there for another month or so, gathering digital dust. With a release date looming and an opportunity to get an advanced look at the movie presenting itself, I figured I’d give it a listen and…I was just not prepared for what I heard.

The name Jessie Buckley was only familiar to me because of the buzz generated from her work in a little-seen but much loved thriller from 2017, Beast. What I didn’t know was that she possessed the kind of voice that could blow the roof off the joint one moment and soothe you to sleep the next. Comprised of sixteen songs, the soundtrack was mostly covers but included one original song written expressly for the film (more on that later). I listened to the whole thing in one setting. Then I listened to it again. And then one more time for good measure just to make sure it was as fantastic as I thought it was. Then I began to worry, would the film live up to the soundtrack? It’s a rare problem to have but I honestly had a fear seeing the movie would somehow break the magic this impressive soundtrack had conjured.

Thankfully, while Wild Rose may seem on the surface like a carbon-copy of every other girl with a guitar and dreams of stardom film that has been done to death (and just done exceptionally well last year with A Star is Born), it doesn’t pivot where you think it will and resists the urge to bend when you feel like it will break. Anchored by a superstar making performance by Buckley and overflowing with the kind of truthful heart you just don’t get in films these days, this is a real authentic winner.

In Glasgow, Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley, Judy) is returning home after serving time in jail for drug possession. Leaving her two young children in the care of her mother (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) we get the impression right away being a mother isn’t her first priority because instead of running home to see her kids she first stops off for a roll in the hay with her boyfriend (James Harkness, Macbeth). Possessing a thrillingly soulful singing voice and an equally fiery personality, Rose-Lynn lives life big and loud and everyone and everything else better stand aside. Faced with being a mom to two kids that barely know her and don’t trust her, she only half tries to parent them while attempting to reignite her singing career with the hope of making it to Nashville.

Taking a job as a house cleaner to the wealthy homemaker Susannah (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) who isn’t aware of her past or her children, Rose-Lynn isn’t in the house a day before she’s sneaking liquor from the cabinet. While she may not be the best maid, the children of the house overhear her signing (in a creative fantasy sequence where the odd bandmember pops up around the house as Rose-Lynn is vacuuming) and pass that information along to their mother. Now fixated on Rose-Lynn as her new project, Susannah offers her an opportunity to meet influential people and get to the place she’s been longing to be…but at what cost?

Surprisingly, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and director Tom Harper (The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) answer these questions in a different way than I was expecting. Where one film might find a climax in the friendship between Susannah and Rose-Lynn, Taylor and Harper use that merely as a mid-way jumping off place for something more robust and fulfilling. It’s a tribute to the talented supporting players that they support the script and don’t let us get too far ahead of the action. Several times, I thought I knew where a certain scene was going only to have it come out in quite a different way.

Before it builds to its deeply satisfying finale, there’s some thorny emotional terrain to navigate and Buckley has us in her pocket from the moment she appears onscreen. I’m fairly sure she’s in every scene of the film and she’s a captivating presence throughout, even when she’s doing things that are self-destructive and counter to everything we know to be the “right” step to take. When she has her first true moment to just sing while making a video recording, it’s a transformative experience for her and the audience. It’s a flawless, note-perfect performance.

She’s matched well with two formidable actresses playing two very different mother figures. Walters yearns for her daughter to grow up and take responsibility for her children and her life, now fully at the point where she can’t hide her disappointment any longer. Okonedo comes from privilege and perhaps has some blinders on to the uphill climb Rose-Lynn is on. Yet she is still her champion, looking for ways to help her succeed by earning it and not just giving it to her on a silver platter. Both women see the talent and want her to achieve her dreams, but only one understands the extra personal sacrifices she would be making if she does.

The one original song composed for the film is performed at a key point and, paired with Buckley’s from-the-gut vocals, will likely have you grabbing for some tissues. Listen to the lyrics and how perfectly they reflect the journey – and then note the song was written by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen (Book Club) who may just add another Oscar nomination to her list for her work on this track. If we’re lucky, Buckley’s performance will get a push from its distributor and remembered when the end of the year rolls around. So far, this is one of the best performances I’ve seen in 2019. And if she ever decides to retire from acting, she could go into the studio tomorrow and make a hit record – I’m sure of it.