Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Review: "End of Sentence"

If you're a follower of indie cinema then the name John Hawkes is well familiar to you, though if you're not it's entirely possible you never heard of him. He was robbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his transformative performance in "The Sessions" a few years back, and continues to do consistently excellent work, mostly in little films most people don't get to see.

His newest, "End of Sentence," is another terrific turn for Hawkes. He's playing a very closed-in character, the sort of person where most of the emotional concerto is taking place on the interior. Frank Fogle seems like the kind of guy where there's not much there, until you gaze long enough to see past the still waters to the roiling depths beneath.

Frank is the father of Sean, played resonantly by Logan Lerman, and despite being blood relatives are as different as two men can be. As the story opens Sean is being released from prison after a stint for various crimes, car theft chief among them.  Frank's wife and Sean's mother, Anna (Andrea Irvine), has just passed away, and it seems like the last cord tying them together has been severed.

However, she had one last dying request: that Frank and Sean travel to her ancestral homeland in northern Ireland and scatter her ashes at a remote lake. Thus begins a prototypical cinematic road trip story.

Frank is an odd duck. He dresses primly, doesn't drink or swear, is painstakingly polite and deferential to everyone he meets. Sean considers him a pushover, who lets people walk all over him -- and the people he's supposed to protect. There's a family history of violence, and Sean blames his dad for not protecting him.

Sean has a job lined up in Los Angeles, but agrees to go to Ireland in return for a plane ticket to the West Coast. There's also the matter of some property his mother owned, which will become his if he complies. It is understood by both men that the culmination of their mission represents the end of their relationship.

Of course, events transpire to delay their progress, dig up buried feelings and renew old conflicts -- but also open up opportunities for rapprochement. The primary vehicle for this is the entrance of Jewel, a local Irish girl played by Sara Bolger, into the story. Sean makes eyes at her at a pub, they  hook up for seemingly a one-night stand, and she winds up accompanying them on their journey.

Bolger is terrific at displaying a woman who has tremendous stores of vulnerability but also steely armor. She says upfront that she's running away from an abusive boyfriend. Sean, with his brusque exterior but little-boy-lost soul, appeals to her in a way that surprises her. Bolger also gets to sing a couple of tunes during the movie, and has a lovely plaintive quality to her voice.

Things go on. Attending a wake for his wife's Irish friends who couldn't make the trip for the funeral, Frank is surprised to learn of her having a wild past, including running off with a handsome fellow on a motorcycle. His curiosity soon becomes an obsession in plumbing the depths of this mystery, causing more detours and delays.

Frank is man full of fears who has been kept upright for the last 30 years by the love of a good woman. Now his only support is gone and he is unmoored in life, so he finds it difficult to throw a lifeline to a son in search of his own identity and home plot.

Elfar Adalsteins, directing his first feature film, and screenwriter Michael Armbruster have given us a beautiful film that is both familiar and novel. It is a story of loss, isolation and betrayal. And yet, when this yarn is all wound up we feel a sense of calm and even joy.

Just as hurt is unavoidable in life -- "Sometimes you're the pigeon, sometimes you're the statue," Frank says -- it's never too late to start the healing process. Scar tissue is tougher than unmottled flesh.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Video review: "The Invisible Man"

A lot of remakes of old movies say they’re “putting a twist on an old tale,” but in the case of “The Invisible Man” this is legitimately true.

Start with the fact that the titular character is not the center of the story, and in fact is a tertiary character. The real protagonist is Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), the kept girlfriend of Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a young optics technology tycoon. As the story opens she is fleeing from his beachside mansion because their relationship has grown abusive.

Curiously, writer/director Leigh Whannell never depicts any of Cee’s life prior to the split, so we’re left to guess at the nature of their dysfunction. Mostly it appears to have taken place on a psychological level, as Adrian tried to control every aspect of her life.

She hides out with the help of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), and police detective friend, James (Aldis Hodge) and his preteen daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Cee is shocked when Adrian soon commits suicide, and even more surprised when his brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), reveals that he has left her $5 million in installments.

But, as they say, strange things start to happen. Invisible forces begin to move objects around, and gradually grow more invasive and hostile. Cee is convinced it’s Adrian, who has somehow made himself invisible to torment her. Of course, no one believes her, and much of the film’s energy is spent probing the question of whether the harassment is real or all in her mind.

As is often the case with modern horror films, or horror-adjacent ones like this, “The Invisible Man” could have benefited from some judicious editing. At 124 minutes, it drags a bit here and there. I got a bit tired of repeated scenes of Cecilia wandering around the house, looking at empty open doorways, etc. Instead of building tension, the sprawling nature of these sequences drained it away.

Moss gives her usual solid performance, though I’ve always found her somewhat emotionally remote as a performer. She’s a very good actress, but in a very self-conscious way -- “Wow, what great acting!” The roles disappear into her, not the other way around.

Still, “The Invisible Man” succeeds as a genuinely creepy film that stands an ancient tale on its head with a modern #MeToo framing.

Bonus features include a feature commentary track with Whannell, deleted scenes and the following documentary shorts:

  • “Moss Manifested” -- Moss talks about playing a woman who is not believed.
  • “Director’s Journey with Leigh Whannell” -- A tour through 40 days of shooting.
  • “The Players” -- A look at the cast.
  • “Timeless Terror” -- Re-imagining an iconic character.



Thursday, May 21, 2020

Review: "The Painter and the Thief"

"The Painter and the Thief" is a curious and curiously affecting documentary about the most unlikely of friendships. Perhaps even... too unlikely?

Barbora Kysilkova is a youngish, established Czech painter living in Norway. She produces large, arresting photo-realistic paintings with unsettling images of death and decay. As the film opens she has just produced two amazing new works that are put on display in a gallery. They are stolen by two mysterious thieves who break in, roll up the canvases, tie them up expertly in rope and disappear.

They are soon caught and put on trial, though the paintings are not recovered. Barbora attends the trial of one of the criminals and feels compelled to speak with him. Mainly she's trying to find out where her paintings are, and is disappointed to learn that he has no memory of taking them or where they went -- sold, abandoned, destroyed, etc.

Clearly, she is intrigued by this man. His name is Karl Bertil-Nordland and he is a self-described gangster and drug addict who frequently wanders about in a fog. He remembers walking by the paintings regularly and being taken with them, but not stealing them or what he did with them. He is given some minor punishment, but their discussion continues after she asks him to pose for her.

Karl strikes a figure as intriguing as one of Barbora's paintings. In his 30s, lean and muscled, tattooed from stem to stern, his hair worn in a Viking-esque topknot with shaved sides, he nonetheless wears nerdy glasses and a sensitive, almost shy demeanor. Karl is fascinated by art and has collected a few small pieces himself here and there, and has a creative background as a old-school style carpenter.

The posing sessions give way to coffee and conversation, which soon move past the subject of the missing paintings, as they open up and find a lot in common. There's no mistaking the attraction between them, though both Barbora and Karl are in relationships with other people. The settle for the title of friends, and things go on.

Director Benjamin Ree hops around in time, showing their intimacy together, then rewinding to follow just one of his subjects in the period before, then fast-forwarding to months or even years later. They lose touch, reconnect, share food and intimate secrets about themselves, and so on.

We see the terrible urge that keeps pulling at Karl, and his almost pathological need to seek ways to harm himself. His favorite is to steal cars and crash them, and finally this pastime lands him in the hospital, and then in prison, for a considerable amount of time.

Still, Barbora is there for Karl, though she has troubles of her own. Her boyfriend is vexed by the friendship with Karl, without ever saying so, and Barbora's pathological need to constantly be painting. She'll spend money on paints and cigarettes but ignore the rent three months overdue.

Despite her calm, Earth-mother manner, there's a deeper layer of self-destructiveness in Barbora that mirrors Karl's.

It seems both Barbora and Karl are continually caught in spastic cycles of up and down, and they can't ever be up at the same time. It's a fascinating, slightly disturbing look at two seemingly very different people who share a lot more than either might care to admit.

I have to say I'm a bit skeptical of how this film was produced. It contains footage of things that Ree couldn't possibly have been around to shoot, such as the creation of the two paintings that will be stolen. Presumably Barbora filmed herself painting. Is this part of her normal process? If so, that needs to be shown and explored.

We also have a scene of her buying groceries and having her card declined for lack of funds. How could the director happen to be there to film this? Was he in the habit of following her around on mundane tasks to see if something interesting would happen? Is there footage of 40 other grocery story runs where she paid without incident?

It's all a little too neat.

I'm not sure what I'm alleging. I won't go so far as to say I think the entire documentary is a sham. But I wouldn't be surprised if Barbora and Karl's meetings were scheduled precisely so they could be filmed. My guess is their odd relationship is entirely legitimate, but the act of watching it unfold feels like a deliberately self-reflexive act.

Still, hoax or not, it's a compelling cinematic journey. Could we be friends with someone who callously struck at the heart of the thing we love most? If a person destroyed the last two months of movie reviews I wrote, would I have the strength of soul to offer curiosity and understanding instead of anger?

I'm not sure, and the unknowable mystery of this question is why "The Painter and the Thief" is such a compelling vision.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Video review: "The Way Back"

You’ve probably heard that “The Way Back” is a sports movie, but that’s not really the best description. Certainly basketball is at the heart of the story, but that’s not what it’s about.

The meat of it is a tale of redemption, in which Ben Affleck plays a miserable drunk at the end of his string asked to return to the Catholic high school where he was a legend a quarter-century ago and take over as coach of the misfit team.

We’ve seen this sort of sports movie before: at first, the team is miserable and clash with their new coach. But they gradually start to put their doubts and acrimony aside, and start winning games. This all leads to the Big Game at the end.

It’s a story arc that’s been around forever, perfected by “Hoosiers,” replayed countless times since.

But as I say, Affleck, director Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”) and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby really do focus on the coach, Jack Cunningham, more than the team. Jack works a mind-numbing construction job during the day and drinks himself into a stupor at the same crappy bar every night.

He’s still the same guy after taking up the coaching job, but it leaves less time for drinking, so he drinks less, and finds he’s a little better. He’s able to open up a little more with his sister and his ex-wife, and face the tragedy that weighs so hard on his life.

Even the “back” that he gets to probably isn’t going to be what you think it is.

There is plenty of basketball action and we do focus for a little while on one or two of the kids. Brandon (Brandon Wilson) is the quiet point guard who needs to step up and be more vocal. Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.) is the heart of the team who cracks them up with his antics. Marcus (Melvin Gregg) is the most talented player but also a major head case.

This is one of Affleck’s best performances. There’s no young man’s pride here: he’s playing a middle-aged guy without much to show for his life sliding down a dark path. We see his self-hate, but also the drowned proud that lies underneath all that blackness, waiting for a chance to rise again toward the light.

Plus, the sports action is quite good.

Bonus features are a mite slim. There are only two making-of documentary shorts: “The Way Back: This Sporting Life” and “Every Loss Is Another Fight: The Road to Redemption.”



Monday, May 18, 2020

Reeling Backward: "La Bamba" (1987)

Ritchie Valens did not speak Spanish. He sang the lyrics to "La Bamba" phonetically -- which is ironic for the first major Spanish-language rock 'n' roll hit, and one credited with helping launch the Chicano rock movement.

Somehow I grew up in the 1980s without ever seeing the eponymous biopic written and directed by Luis Valdez that launched the career of Lou Diamond Phillips in his first major role. The credits list him as "Introducing," though he'd actually had bit parts in small films and on TV, including playing a detective on "Miami Vice," going back several years.

It's an energetic picture filled with light and music, and Phillips is an easygoing charismatic presence as Valens, who's so sweet-hearted he's almost angelic. He perished at age 17 just eight months into his recording career on the infamous plane flight that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, aka "The Day the Music Died."

Phillips does not sing in the movie, which also does not use dubbings of Valens' original vocals but instead contemporaneous covers by Los Lobos. They also supplied updated versions of Valens' other hits, "Come On, Let's Go!", "Ooh My Head," "We Belong Together," "Framed" and the sugary-sweet heartbreaker, "Donna."

"Donna" was actually Valens' highest chart-topper at No. 2. "La Bamba" only ever made it into the Top 40 for Valens, but Los Lobos' version hit No. 1 in 1987.

Another thing I learned after watching the movie: Phillips is not Latino but Filipino, with some European and Native American ancestry. Nowadays there would have been quite an outcry about a non-Latin playing an iconic Mexican-American.

The story plays it very straight. It starts with Ritchie as a teenager in Southern California, strumming his guitar and dreaming of the big time. Family and friends joking call him "High Tone," maybe as much for his soaring tenor as his goody-two-shoes ways. He falls for the new blonde girl in school, Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), but her dad doesn't like him because he's Mexican-American.

Yes, this is the girl who inspired the song "Donna" after one of their breakups, and from what I've gathered the depiction of their relationship is pretty accurate to real life.

Ritchie gets into The Silhouettes, a fairly awful rock group, and is relegated to strumming on the sidelines by the egotistical lead singer. Ritchie basically steals the band from him, plays a few local gigs and gets noticed by Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), who runs a small record label, Del-Fi. Soon enough he's got a few hit records and is touring the country.

I enjoyed the scene where Ritchie tries out for Keane in the man's basement recording studio. He's put off by the amateurish digs, but is eager to do anything to get noticed. Usually in these movies the managers/producers play the louts -- see "Rocketman" for a particularly nasty example -- but here Keane is a straight arrow who knows how to work the angles without sacrificing the talent to the wolves.

The movies glosses over any unseemly aspects of Ritchie's stratospheric rise. For instance, it's mentioned but never really addressed that he dropped out of high school to go on the road. Or the minute that Keane tells Ritchie he's got to drop the Silhouettes if he wants to make it, he doesn't hesitate to do so. And we never get a scene revealing that confrontation.

He also doesn't make a fuss over adopting the stage name Ritchie Valens from his given one of Richard Valenzuel, even adding the WASP-y "t" to his nickname to help fool the DJs who largely controlled what got played into thinking he was another white boy from the surburbs.

Rosanna DeSoto is a lotta bit over the top as Connie, Ritchie's eternally enthusiastic mother. She doesn't even seem to notice the barely concealed way she favors him over his older half-brother, Bob, played by Esai Morales. Morales was the bigger star at the time after his breakout as the heavy in "Bad Boys" opposite Sean Penn.

I was surprised and slightly dismayed by how much the film features Bob, a drunken motorcycle-riding rebel in a black leather jacket whose open jealousy toward Ritchie colors all of the family dynamics. These scenes play out with a dread sameness: Ritchie's getting accolades for his latest accomplishment, Bob shows up soused and makes a scene, everyone dumps on him and then he leaves in a huff.

Bob impregnates Rosie (Elizabeth Peña), a girl Ritchie had been sweet on, and their non-marital strife plays out constantly in the trailer home next to Ritchie's. There's a couple of uncomfortable scenes where Bob basically forces himself on Rosie, and even uses the word "rape" to describe their love life. Eep.

I get the idea behind contrasting Ritchie and Bob. Valens only was a star for a few short months, and thus there's little built-in tension to give the movie any dramatic momentum -- he sings, he woos a girl, he dies. So Valdez, making his second feature film after starting out as a playwright and stage director, whipped up a classic sibling rivalry.

The instinct is solid but it's just overplayed too much -- to the point Bob is almost a co-lead character. I can just see the conversation at the studio:

"Hey! Let's make movie celebrating the life and music of Ritchie Valens!"

"Awesome idea! But let's devote half of it to his mopey loser half-brother! We can have like 37 scenes of him being drunk and resentful!"

I kid, I kid.

Speaking of the music, it really is the reason to see this movie. I'm not sure how much the name of Ritchie Valens resonated in pop culture before "La Bamba" came out.

In addition I also enjoyed the performances by contemporaneous musicians as other acts of the late 1950s, including Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran and Howard Huntsberry as Jackie Wilson. Ghost voices from the radio, brought vividly back to life.

Stephen Lee also shows up as The Big Bopper, though he doesn't sing.

There's a recurring theme in the film of Ritchie having dreams of dying in a plane crash. He says a friend of his was killed at the school playground when the wreckage from two colliding planes rained down on a day he was home sick. (I've no idea if this was actually true.) His guilt is parlayed into the idea he escaped death's grip, but only temporarily.

There's also a strange sequence were Bob takes Ritchie down to Tijuana to "make him a man," although he gets distracted by the musicians performing at the whorehouse and ends up not consummating the deal. The implication, along with the barely-a-kiss relationships with Donna, suggest Valens died a virgin.

He wakes up the next day in the shack of an old Mexican shaman, who gives Ritchie a necklace that's supposed to protect him from bad visions. Later Bob rips it off during one of their tussles, and it's shortly thereafter Ritchie climbs aboard that fateful flight. It plays as a bunch of amateur-hour pseudo-spiritual hooey.

About that plane: Ritchie was on a winter tour with Holly, Bopper and some other stars, consigned to an old bus with no working heat. Many of the musicians, including Ritchie, became sick and a drummer even had to leave the tour because of frostbite(!). Holly was fed up with the conditions and chartered a four-seater plane ride to their next gig.

Waylon Jennings, who was a member of Holly's band, lost his seat to the Bopper, who was among those with the flu. Jennings joked to Holly about hoping his plane crashed, and was haunted by it for the rest of his life. Ritchie won a coin toss for the last seat, sealing his fate.

It really did happen as depicted in the movie that Valens' family found out about his death from media reports, as did Holly's wife. This event, as much as anything, led to the now-ubiquitous policy of civil and law enforcement authorities not revealing the names of the dead to the public until families have been notified.

"La Bamba" is a knockout whenever it focuses on the music of Ritchie Valens (and his contemporaries), though it loses its navigation a bit when it's not.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Video review: "Emma"

For my money “Emma” is just about the best movie I’ve seen this year, though that of course comes with bountiful caveats. We basically lost the second quarter of the movie year; it’s strange to think that right now we’d normally be hip-deep in superhero flicks and bald-headed surly protagonists.

Personally I’m enjoying this period of indulging in smaller flicks and streaming movies I’d normally never get to. In this space, “Emma” sits quite comfortably as a ravishingly good adaption of Jane Austen’s 1800s novel.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma Woodhouse -- “handsome, clever and rich,” in Austen’s iconic opening lines. She is the daughter of a wealthy widower (Bill Nighy) who eschews socializing, permitting only the friendship of their neighbor, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who comes round to argue good-naturedly with Emma.

Her main occupation is as match-maker to the local gentility, encouraging assignations and declarations of love. Conspicuously, she bats such things for herself aside.

Various romantic intrigues develop and abate through the course of the story. Emma pushes her friend, Harriet (Mia Goth), toward their social climbing vicar (Josh O’Connor), despite the poor thing being an orphan with no means. Meanwhile, the chap who adores Harriet, Robert Martin (Conor Swindells), is shunted aside.

Later Frank Churchill (Callum Tunrer) shows up making quite a fuss in the local society, dashing and handsome, and Emma finds herself pushed and pulled in much the same way she has done to others. She’s jealous of Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), another mysterious late character to enter the story.

Directed by Autumn de Wilde from a screenplay by Eleanor Catton, “Emma” is a colorful, vibrant rendition filled with snappy dialogue and barely restrained emotions. It’s a fun film to watch with deeper meanings underneath worth pondering.

Bonus features are quite splendid, anchored by a feature-length commentary track by de Wilde, Catton and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. There are also deleted scenes, a gag reel and the following documentary shorts:
  • A Playful Tease -- interviews with the cast.
  • Crafting a Colorful World -- locations, costumes and set dressings.
  • The Autumn Gaze -- The director’s filmmaking process and photographic eye.



Friday, May 15, 2020

Review: "The Vast of Night"

"The Vast of Night" is a weird, moody, slow-moving but often mesmerizing science fiction thriller. Made for a tiny budget with unknown actors, it's an ambitious piece of work by director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters Craig W. Sanger and James Montague, all of them making their feature film debut.

I got the same sort of feeling watching this movie as I did after seeing Trey Edward Shults' debut film, "Krisha" -- clearly, these people are going places.

Set in the late 1950s in the tiny New Mexico town of Cayuga, it's essentially a two-character story about a pair of young people exploring a deepening mystery. Virtually everyone in Cayuga is attending the high school basketball game, leaving local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and 16-year-old part-time telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) essentially running things.

Everett doesn't seem much older than high school age himself, but with his geeky swagger, perpetually dangling cigarette and sharp patter on the air, it seems clear he's not long for Cayuga. California's where they're doing cool stuff on the radio, so that's where Everett is aiming.

Fay is just as smart as he, but is more embedded into the roots and rhythms of the city. You see her going on to be the head librarian or the first woman city council member or something. She has just bought her own tape recorder and starts out the story following Everett around like a fangirl, looking for tips and maybe open to a little flirting.

With her pulled-back crimson hair, huge slanted glasses and saddle shoes, Fay is very much the picture of a mid-century brainy girl.

Things start to get weird when Fay encounters a weird noise during a phone call -- this being the day when everything went through an operator working a switchboard, sticking and swapping big plugs into an impressive array of jacks, one for each phone in town. Later a woman calls reporting mysterious sights and sounds in the sky before she's cut off.

She gets the noise to Everett who puts it on the air, eliciting a phone call from Billy (voice of Bruce Davis). He's an old black man who spins a tale of the Army sending him and a bunch of others to a strange place long ago to build a mysterious facility where he often heard sounds like that. Now he and many of the other soldiers are sick.

This radio conversation leads to another caller, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who insists Billy come to her house and hear her tale. As a young woman who bore a son out of wedlock, she was shunned by the townsfolk and was astonished to discover her baby son speaking in a strange tongue -- much like the woman on the air.

The mystery deepens from there. Are the Russians about to attack? Is it little green men from outer space? Is anybody else going to emerge to help unspin this tale?

Two things that work strongly in the movie's favor are the music (by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer) and the cinematography (by M.I. Littin-Menz). The screen will sometimes go to all black for several minutes at a time, and we're carried along by the voices and the music score. Or it will transition to a 1950s-style television image, monochrome and squarish with curved edges

The camera will also go off on trips of its own, spiraling through long journeys across town, through the gym where the game is still going on, out the window and then on again until we rejoin Everett and Fay. It's really arresting imagery, and some of it I genuinely scratched my head in wonder at how they achieved it.

The film also has a very authentic period look with vintage cars, costumes and set decoration. Aspiring filmmakers should take a look at this movie for points in how to achieve a terrific, polished look without a lot of resources.

Story-wise there's not a lot of depth to "The Vast of Night" -- it very much relies on the sharp performances, haunting visuals and disturbing tone to gradually stir up feelings of fear and elation. But it's an extremely watchable flick that combines old-school nostalgia with impressive storytelling technique.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Video review: "The Photograph"

You probably missed “The Photograph,” as it dropped in theaters in mid-February in The Before Time. It stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield, respectable young African-American actors but not exactly household names. It’s got some nice performances and a slow-burn form of storytelling that works well for home viewing.

The structure of this romantic drama reminded me a lot of “The Notebook,” in that it’s a time-shifting story in which we’re not entirely sure of how the various characters and stories will synch up. Writer/director Stella Meghie has a good nose for pacing and teasing out the important story elements.

Stanfield plays Michael, an ambitious journalist for a New York magazine whose life is in a state of flux. He recently had a bad breakup and is considering ditching everything for a new job in London. While chasing an unrelated story in New Orleans, he interviews an old fisherman, Isaac (the always-terrific Rob Morgan), sees a photograph by well-known photographer who recently passed away, and eventually the trail leads to her daughter, Mae (Rae).

She’s at her own precarious waypoint in life, assistant curator of a Big Apple museum. The two find an instant connection, but of course have to slow-dance around their feelings. They’re wounded people who don’t want to get hurt again, so they resist the pull they both feel.

This tale is told in parallel with Mae’s mother as a young woman (Chante Adams) and her lover (Y’lan Noel). We sense that the wayback romance will somehow link up with the new one, but strangely we don’t find ourselves in a hurry to get to the revelation.

Stanfield and Rae are serious eye candy as a couple, and there’s an almost film noir-ish way Meghie shoots them. “The Photograph” is a grown-up movie that views love as a two-edged sword that holds as much potential for pain and regret as joy.

Bonus features are nice but not terribly expansive.

There’s a making-of documentary featuring interviews with the key cast and crew; “Culture in Film,” a featurette on the importance of representation in the film industry in front of and behind the camera; and “The Film Through Photographs,” which looks at how the movie uses still images to delve into its narrative and characters.



Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Review: "A Good Woman Is Hard to Find"

"A Good Woman Is Hard to Find" is being marketed as a bloody revenge thriller, sort of a Cockney "I Spit Upon Your Grave." But it's more a slow-moving character study than a horror flick.

Star Sara Bolger is a vibrant presence, but this revenge drama spends too much time on the existential threat and not on the backstory of the woman at the center of the tale. She plays Sarah, a mother to two adorable moppets, Ben (Rudy Doherty) and Lucy (Macie McCauley), who was widowed the previous year when her husband was murdered in broad daylight.

Ben witnessed the event and has not talked since, despite therapy and loving exhortations from Sarah. The police dismissed the killing as a rivalry between gangs and her husband dismissed as a drug dealer, so they're not exactly sympathetic to her plight. Plus they live in "The Estate," a cramped collection of "council houses," aka publicly subsidized housing that is riddled with poverty and crime.

There's a scene where two coppers are summoned to her apartment because of a disturbance, and they practically drip with disdain. A cad working at the grocery store assumes Sarah is a prostitute. Even her own mother (Jane Brennan), is constantly disappointed in the life her daughter chose, seemingly throwing away her smarts and talent to a man who did not deserve her.

So when Sarah actually find herself in need of help, it's not there. Tito Riley (Andrew Simpson), a dimwitted local street criminal, crashes a car into that of two dealers and makes off with their stash. He breaks into Sarah's apartment to hide out, and realizes it's a perfect base of operations. He'll keep the drugs at her place and give her a cut, and nobody will think to look in the flat of a hopeless young mother.

Tito doesn't really give Sarah any choice, threatening her and her children to get her to comply, and soon they have an ersatz little family unit. Tito starts dropping buy to have a few beers and watch the telly. You can see the panic in Sarah's eyes, not knowing how to get out of this predicament -- while enjoying the extra cash the arrangement brings in.

What neither of them know is the dealers worked for the local kingpin, Leo Miller, in an icy, memorable performance by Edward Hogg. He has an incredibly high-pitched, almost feminine voice. Somehow this makes his teasing malevolence toward others, punctuated by demands for proper grammar, even more frightening.

You kind of know where it all will lead, though the denouement doesn't disappoint.

My biggest quibble with the movie is how little information is given about Sarah herself. Bolger has big, transparent eyes and is quite good at communicating her character's intellectual and emotional state. Still, I would've liked a little information about her life before marriage, or at least before becoming a widow.

We're seeing a lot of these sorts of stories on the screen lately: put-upon women who are abused or controlled by men and gradually find they have grit inside them they never knew. See "The Rhythm Section" for a superior example.

"A Good Woman Is Hard to Find" has a strong central character, but keeps letting her be overshadowed by tough guys doing the tough guy thing. It's hard out here for a gal when she has to fight for the spotlight in her own movie.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Reeling Backward: "The Wicker Man" (1973)

I somehow never got around to seeing "The Wicker Man," even though you'd think it was right up my alley as a kinky/kooky '70s horror flick with a strong cult following. I mean, the man who reveres "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" would have to hold "Wicker" close to his mildewed heart, yes?

It's arguably been overshadowed by the 2006 remake directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicolas Cage, which despite being a commercial flop has come to be appreciated as part of the "Nic Cage going batshit" oeuvre, of which I am not a devotee.

For me, that sort of thing pretty much peaked around "Vampire's Kiss."

The first thing I was struck by was how musical the 1973 film is, directed by Robin Hardy from a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on the novel "Ritual" by David Pinner. It's virtually a non-stop song, segueing from one piece of music to another driving the story, with certain sung refrains repeated several times.

Mostly it works, though I'll say I could gladly see the end of my days without again encountering, "Corn rigs and barley rigs, and corn rigs are bonny; I'll not forget that happy night, among the rigs with Annie." (Sung by Paul Giovanni, adapted from the song by Robert Burns.)

Many of the songs are overtly sexual in nature, befitting the residents of Summerisle off the west coast of Scotland, who are gleeful phallus-worshiping pagans. It seems the family of noblemen who own/rule the island -- Christopher Lee plays the latest Lord -- stumbled open the old gods as a way to control and motivate the locals, and after more than a century the ploy became part of their culture.

Edward Woodward plays Neil Howie, a police sergeant sent over from the mainland to investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). He received this tip in the form of a letter, there apparently not being any phone service to Summerisle, even though they have electricity and modern machinery.

Howie is an ardent Christian, and supposedly a virgin who is engaged to be married. (A bit of a stretch, as Woodward was in his early 40s at the time.) He is put off by the passive belligerence nature of the islanders, who insist they don't recognize a photo of Rowan. Even her own supposed mother (Irene Sunter) disavows ever having such a child.

Consternation gives way to mortification when he encounters their promiscuous ways, with couples openly coupling in the park next to the inn at night, women cavorting nude in the graveyard and similarly unclothed girls performing ritualistic dances at a Stonehedge-like structure in broad daylight. A local shop stocks pickled brains and foreskins along with other gulp-including oddities.

The townsfolk seem genuinely puzzled by the policeman's reaction, since to them Christianity is the moldy old religion and their own beliefs are vibrantly in the present. The Summerisle residents are basically free love hippies in their beliefs, though they speak and dress (when they're dressed) like regular Scottish folk.

This goes on for about an hour of screen time, as Howie continues his investigation despite running into one dead end after another. It gets rather old after while, as the same dynamic -- "I'm so shockingly shocked!" -- repeats over and again.

Certainly the most memorable scene is Howie's first night on the island at the Green Man Inn. The innkeeper, MacGregor (Lindsay Kemp), introduces the sergeant to his daughter, Willow (Britt Ekland), and the entire pub spontaneously launches into a song about how everyone has bedded her. Rather than being affronted, Willow delights in the attention.

That evening she strips off her clothes and begins rhythmically pounding on the walls adjoining Howie's room as yet another musical interlude begins playing to assist her siren's call. The policeman feverishly cringes and moans on the other side, as if his own lust is a spell that he must resist.

The sight of Ekland writhing and dancing to the music is quite... enervating, climaxing with her slapping her own ass several times to the beat. Fairly freaky stuff for 1973.

Interestingly, though Ekland plays the physical part of Willow, Annie Ross supplied her voice and yet another actress, Rachel Verney, dubbed in for a bit of singing.

I'll skip ahead to the spoiler-y part and reveal that Rowan's disappearance is just an elaborate ruse so Howie could be lured to the island and sacrificed to the old gods. It seems their crops failed the previous year, and instead of the usual pigs and chickens a more substantial offering is required to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Of course, this begs the question of why the villagers would strive so hard to bed the sergeant with Willow, since they supposedly need a virgin for the sacrifice.

Lee is quite evidently having a grand old time in this role, which he and screenwriter Shaffer cooked up together as an effort to break out of the cycle of cheap Hammer and similar cheapie horror films he was then trapped in. His Lord Summerisle is effete and haughty, dressing in baroque clothing and making stern pronouncements from on high.

Notably, he does not himself indulge in any of the fleshy delights he continually encourages. At one point he is seen playing music with Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), the school teacher with whom Howie had earlier clashed.

Woodward is quite a stiff neck, though that's the way the part is written. The last bit, where he's placed inside a giant wicker man statue that's set ablaze, raining down psalms and curses with a vigorous spray of rolling Scottish R's, plays as hammy unintended comedy.

Google-eyed character actor Aubrey Morris, best remembered as the conniving Mr. Deltoid from "A Clockwork Orange," turns up as the local gravedigger, constantly sniggering at a joke only he knows.

"The Wicker Man" was the first film directed by Hardy, who would only go on to make two others many years apart: "The Fantasist" in 1986 and 2011's "The Wicker Tree," which shares thematic elements with "Man." It went through several title changes before settling on one to piggyback on nostalgia for the original and then-recent remake. (At one point the title was "Cowboys for Christ," and Hardy published a novelization of his screenplay using this title.)

Reputedly Hardy was trying to crowdsource funding for a third film to complete a haphazard trilogy, but he died in 2016 before it came to fruition. He spent much of the intervening years between his few film projects writing novels, making TV commercials and even helping create historical theme parks.

There's surprisingly little violence in "The Wicker Man" for a horror film -- it doesn't even show Sergeant Howie being consumed by the flames. I think one scene where he beats up the innkeeper to disguise himself in the man's costume is as gruesome as things get.

It's more an intellectual and mood thriller, slowly building up its boiling pot. All in all, Summerisle seems like a pretty good place to live, what with all the free sex and dancing and such. If all such bliss requires is one obdurate policeman burned to a crisp once every century or so, I think many people would call that heaven on earth.

At least, it makes for a slow-moving but delightfully original flick that's still burning up people's imaginations a half-century on.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Video review: "Greed"

“Greed” is the sort of sharp-clawed satire that ends up scratching its target more than goring it. It’s a send-up of the billionaire class, the ultra-wealthy who make piles of dough by cheating other people, then cheating the government out of their taxes.

Steve Coogan plays Sir Richard “Greedy” McGreadie, who made his fortune in the high-fashion world of High Street, where all the tony British labels make their way. He’s a classic climber who came from good stock but poor finances, and quickly learned that you have to take chances and twist some elbows if you’re going to make it.

Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom, the story is framed around Richard preparing for a lavish 60th birthday party for himself. It’s to be held on a remote Mediterranean tax shelter, a land of yachts and self-entitlement.

Richard is divorced from Samantha (Isla Fisher), though they’re still very connected in a business sense and their spoiled children, Lily (Sophie Cookson) and Finn (Asa Butterfield). Also tagging along for the party are Richard’s hired biographer, Nick (David Mitchell), a meek sort who acts as the audience’s eyes and ears, and Amanda (Dinita Gohil), who’s organizing the party but has family back in India working in the very sweat shops Richard benefits from.

There’s a lot of funny stuff in the movie, from Richard’s orange-hued fake tan and blindingly white teeth veneers to the overstuffed way he’s constantly moving about, yelling at everyone and expecting the world to cater to his whims.

Unfortunately, the film takes a turn toward the serious in the last act that doesn’t really work. You can’t spend an hour-plus laughing at the buffoonish rich man and then suddenly turn him into a credible villain.

Trying to provoke your audience to both laughter and anger is just, well… greedy.

Not much extra in terms of bonus features. There’s a single deleted scene and a making-of documentary short. That’s it.