Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Review: "My Zoe"


I remember screening "Funny People" some years ago and 80 minutes in I was thinking, "This is one of the best movies I've seen this year." And then the film systematically flushed itself down a toilet in a way I'd never seen.

"My Zoe" doesn't start quite that high or end that low. But still, I was so incredibly engaged by this heartrending drama from writer/director/star Julie Delpy, a look at a fractured marriage that reaches crisis when their young daughter is injured. Then it becomes something completely else. Something that, while it has merits on its own, doesn't belong to the first part.

I'm in a bit of a conundrum on how to review "My Zoe," since I think hearing exactly what the second part is might push people away from giving it a chance, people who maybe won't find the disconnect as jarring as I did.

So the best course seems to write two halves of a review, and give you the option of reading just the first, or the second, or both. Ready? Here goes.

A ravishingly poignant family drama

Julie Delpy has been in a lot of movies about relationships, and started making her own some years ago. The French actress is best known in American circles for "Before Sunrise" and its sequels with director Richard Linklater and co-star Ethan Hawke, in which a couple flirt with the beginnings of a relationship.

Now she gives us "My Zoe," a wrenching family drama about a man and wife who are ending their marriage, and their titular daughter becomes another piece of collateral in the acrimonious split.

Isabelle (Delpy) and James (Richard Armitage) are middle-aged and well-to-do, living in Berlin despite coming from France and England, respectively. As the story opens they have recently separated and are working out a joint custody arrangement. 

Zoe, played by Sophia Ally, is a bright bundle of 7-year-old joy. She seems not to notice the way her parents subtlety dig at each other during their hand-offs. They constantly talk about "my time" with Zoe as if it is a fungible commodity to be bickered and bartered over. For example, Isabelle insists on accompanying James and Zoe to her soccer game, even though she must soon leave it for work, just because she doesn't want to surrender an allotted hour.

Armitage and Delpy are fantastic together, even though their scenes are hard to watch. We see the years of faded joy and pain etched in their every word and expression. Everything is an exchange of guilt and blame. We might first look unkindly upon her because Isabelle cheated on James with another man (Saleh Bakri), whom she sneaks into her apartment while Zoe is asleep.

But James has major creeper vibes. He's controlling and manipulative, seems incapable of accepting blame, and there's a hint of physical abuse in the past. At one point he refused intimacy for three years, which would drive any person into another's arms. James has a way of encompassing someone in a warm embrace, but we can't help notice his strong hand wrapping the back of their neck.

Things come to a fore when Zoe comes down with a strange malady. Isabelle thinks it's just a simple cold at first, but in the morning the girl won't wake. At the hospital the diagnosis quickly becomes more severe, and there are haunting questions about injuries and harm.

Sitting in the waiting room, James and Isabelle circle each other like wounded animals. They spit insults and question the foundations of their relationship. It seems James wants her back despite all this, but Isabelle has gained strength with her scars.

As Zoe's life hangs in the balance, can her parents ever put aside their hatred for each other to be a family again?

A disconcerting look at the quandaries of science

What would you do if your child was lying brain dead in a hospital, with no hope of recovery? What if you were a scientist who saw a slim but hopeful chance of bringing them back, even if it meant setting aside every ethical standard you'd ever striven for?

That's the quandary of Isabelle (July Delpy), a French immunologist whose life is upturned when her 7-year-old daughter, Zoe (Sophia Ally), suffers a freak accident that results in a brain hematoma. The doctors operate and are optimistic at first, but it soon becomes clear she will never recover. They bring up the aching question of donating her organs so other children in that same hospital will live. What do you do?

Compounding the situation is that her estranged husband, James (Richard Armitage), wants to let Zoe pass. Despite the poisonous end to their relationship, he insists they should reunite in their daughter's memory. But Isabelle won't let go of her daughter -- ever.

She travels to Moscow to consult with a controversial doctor, Thomas Fischer (Daniel Brüh). He's found a way to impregnate women well past the age previously thought possible, and is catering to an international clientele of well-heeled types. But can he clone Zoe?

He refuses, at first. Fischer has been hounded by the scientific community, setting up in Russia to avoid censure and even prosecution. But he's intrigued by the possibility of Isabelle's case, or should I say Zoe's. They initiate a quiet experiment, knowing the chances are low and the risks are high. As scientists, they develop a shorthand of communicating and something like a friendship begins to develop between them.

Fischer's wife, Laura (Gemma Arterton), is ardently opposed to the move. She knows what their family has to lose. But she meets with Isabelle to convey her concerns, and the women end up bonding over their shared experience as mothers. Laura can't help but notice the way Isabelle speaks about Zoe in the present tense. But can a clone really be the same person who was lost?

Eventually, James turns up again for one more try at a reconciliation. He's horrified when he learns what Isabelle is trying to do, seeing it as a theft of his own parenthood. They seem poised to reignite their long war, with their daughter -- or at least her ghost represented as DNA in test tubes -- treated as a prize to be divided.


OK, we're back. Depending on which part(s) you read, those both sound like promising premises. But Delpy turns so sharply from one to the other, we feel whiplashed and discombobulated. 

My take is she really wants the movie to be about the second part, but spends the bulk of the movie setting it up so well that she's made another, better story entirely. Like Isabelle and James, the two pieces each have flaws and attributes -- but are utterly incompatible. 


Review: "Crisis"

Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki had the idea to make his drama “Crisis” about the opioid epidemic as three parallel storylines. It’s not a new concept, but it can be an effective one when woven together artfully. Instead, the movie feels like three different tales rather than a gripping whole.

Individually, the pieces work. But two of them only intersect very late in the story and the third one… never does.

Armie Hammer plays Jake Kelly, a gruff, hard-charging DEA agent on the verge of a huge bust after spending a year infiltrating himself into the pill-mill trade. Evangeline Lilly is Claire Reimann, a suburban mom distraught over her teenage son’s death from overdose who decides to take matters into her own hands. Gary Oldman plays Tyrone Power, a scientist who’s been signing off on the big pharma’s studies in exchange for funding but undergoes an attack of conscience.

All three of these have enough narrative momentum, not to mention compelling performances, to merit an entire feature film. Together they are less than the sum of their parts.

It’s part cops-and-robbers, part revenge cycle and part corporate intrigue. I’m guessing the notion was to take a look at the opioid crisis from a variety of angles, but we actually see very little of the end effects on the users. Jake’s sister (Lily-Rose Depp) is an addict, which works to stoke his passions, but she only gets a couple of substantive scenes.

Tyrone is a chemistry professor at a small college that relies upon donations from a huge pharmaceutical company to fund his research, with Luke Evans playing the heavy. They believe they’ve stumbled upon a new form of painkiller that isn’t addictive, which will revolutionize the use of opioids -- not to mention rake in billions. But some lab technicians discover that the drug, Klaralon, is killing off their mice test subjects and needs to be pulled for more study.

He decides to go up against the big powers -- including his friend, the college president played by Greg Kinnear -- and progressively gets chewed up.

Claire insists that her son was not actually a drug user, and with a little digging and the help of a private investigator, she believes he was actually murdered rather than overdosed. She travels to Canada to look into the big pill operation behind it, which has recently moved into the even more deadly trade of fentanyl. It’s mentioned, but only lightly explored, that she used to be a user herself.

Meanwhile, Jake has set up his own front clinics where shady doctors dispense prescriptions to dangerous narcotics like candy (they hire homeless to obtain the pills, then immediately buy them back so they’re not putting more drugs on the street). With his new boss (Michelle Rodriguez) putting the pressure on, he has to set up a multimillion-dollar deal between his operation, the Canadian manufacturers and the Armenian distributors.

If that sounds like a lot of characters, that’s because it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the various supporting characters, spouses, friends, henchmen and so on.

I liked all three main actors in their roles. Claire is fragile but determined, Jake glowers so much he seems to positively steam, and Tyrone’s keening, high-minded oratories about doing the right thing pluck the heartstrings. It’s not enough, though.

“Crisis” is an ambitious movie that I think fails because of a lack of bigger ambition. I can imagine this as a trilogy or limited series that gradually sucks us deeper into an international epidemic, with each story showing the full breadth of every side. What we get feels like a CliffsNotes version of something bigger and better.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Review: "Crossroads of America"


It's been said the people you despise the most are sometimes the same ones you are closest to. That's the stark truth behind "Crossroads of America," a moody, contemplative drama about a dysfunctional family that is set and shot in Indianapolis. 

Laura Sampson Hemingway wrote the screenplay and stars as Sandy, the "trouble child" of the clan, though each of them has serious issues haunting them. Sandy's are just the most transparent as an alcoholic who's barely hanging on at nursing school and secretly making pornographic videos of herself.

It's a tough, fully invested performance that's hard to watch but never less than compelling. She and director Gabrielle Muller work together to craft a portrait of a family in crisis, a story without easy answers or concrete resolutions.

Indeed, there's an almost dreamy quality to the film, which is just 80 minutes long and currently playing on Amazon Prime Video. There are plenty of wordless stretches of the three women at the center of the story just by themselves and their own thoughts, smoking, wandering and wondering. I also was struck by several tableaus of them stretched out in a pose reminiscent of Biblical paintings.

Kaye Tuckerman plays the mother, Glenda, who's a minor celebrity as a psychic. A film crew drops in for part of the movie to shoot a video about her, which leads to some uncomfortable encounters. 

We get the sense that what Glenda most needs is attention, and in this way she and Sandy are much alike -- possibly explaining their constant enmity. Glenda also has a much younger son, Carlos (Mitchell Wray), a child of maybe age 8 who's usually off in the corner with his headphones on as the women thunder at each other.

Natalia Ortonowska plays the middle daughter, Ellie, who was rendered a paraplegic in a car accident while Sandy was driving drunk. She's forced to sleep in a little area in the living room roped off with bedsheets because her wheelchair can't get through the narrow doorways of their little bungalow. 

Ellie had her own apartment and job, and can't stand the way her independence has been snatched away from her. She yearns to resume something like her previous life, engaging in some online matchmaking and flirting with her physical therapist, David (Blaise Nally), who's kind and gorgeous.

The big unacknowledged gorilla in the room is Sandy's guilt over her sister's injury. It seems to haunt every scene they have together, though their conversation mostly sticks to staid topics like men, concern for Carlos and resentment for Glenda.

There's a few brief flashbacks to the sisters' grandfather, with the implication being there may have been some abuse or inappropriate behavior. It's just hinted at, like a dusting of bitter spice.

The film also does a lot of looking at the women's bodies. Glenda is striving against the invisibility often foisted on older women, and Ellie is up front about wanting to reclaim her place as a sexual being despite her newfound disability. Sandy, though, clearly has an unhealthy obsession with being gazed upon, playing with disguises and wigs for her videos, or just for her own amusement.

I liked a lot of things about "Crossroads of America." It eschews traditional narrative conventions and just sort of lingers with these women for a while, absorbing their energy and tuning in to their unique rhythms. I do wish it could have found something more like a resolution, or at least showing us the bridge that will take them to the next chapter of their lives.

Watching the movie almost feels like an unplanned day trip where you're not sure how you got where you are; the experience is a little discomfiting interesting enough to hang around for a bit.



CROSSROADS OF AMERICA (Dir. Gabrielle Muller) Official Trailer 2020 from Laura Sampson Hemingway on Vimeo.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Harry & Son" (1984)


"Harry & Son" isn't a great or even particularly good movie. It's very much an "actors' film," more focused on mood, dialogue and moments than any kind of coherent narrative, and suffers because of this. The story of a fractured father-son relationship, it wanders here, wanders there, and winds up right about where we expect it.

But the film -- one of six directed by Paul Newman and the only with a screenwriting credit -- has a couple of scenes of absolute pure perfection. The movie will just sort of amble along, one dialogue scene falling into another, our attention will stray, and then you'll get a moment that lands with a helluva emotional wallop.

It's like an aging boxer who can't move around very well anymore, but watch out for that haymaker. Let's talk about those two scenes. 

In the first, Harry Keach (Newman), a cussed widower who has lost his construction job for health reasons, is hosting his married daughter, Nina (Katherine Borowitz), her newborn daughter and her husband at his home, which he shares with his son, Howie (Robby Benson). Harry doesn't much like Nina's husband, solely because he sells insurance, and has been estranged from them to the point he's not even clear on the baby's gender.

Nina has dropped a hint to Howie that she'd like to have their mother's fine china set, since it's not being used after she passed two years earlier. During the visit they manage to drop enough hints to Harry that he offers it to them. But while fetching a box, he intentionally soaks the bottom with hot water. So the moment his son-in-law picks it up, all the china falls out the bottom, smashing to bits and cutting the guy's foot to boot.

Harry thinks this is a real hoot. "Got any insurance on that foot?!?" he yells as they beat an angry retreat.

Howie can't believe it. A smart, sensitive kid who's trying to make it a a writer, he's fairly indifferent to his brother-in-law and to the china. But he can't fathom why his dad would trash a family heirloom just to show up his son-in-law -- likely further pushing Nina away, possibly forever.

"This was my mother's. She cherished this!"

Nina returns, having forgot her keys. Howie helps Harry pick up the broken china into another box -- which then proceeds to fall out the bottom, the kid having just pulled the same trick as his old man. Nina can't help laughing at the juvenile hijinks as Harry playfully chases Howie into the yard. 

But then he pulls up, another twinge from the heart condition that's been bothering him, and for which he refuses to seek treatment. Harry leans on a tree, smiling as Nina and her husband enjoy a rare good laugh at his expense, trying to conceal his pain. Letting them have their fun is as close to apology as Harry is capable.

Howie sees it all, of course; Howie has made a study of Harry. Not just because he's writing about him for the submissions to publishers that are constantly rejected, but also because he loves his pa more than anything else in this world.

In just five minutes, "Harry & Son" lays out the entire dynamic of this family. We understand the pain, the anger, the resentment, the rare but spectacular moments of joy. 

Now to the second scene -- and I'll admit this one brought me to tears.

It's near the end, Harry and Howie are still going at it. Harry has kicked the kid out of the house, hoping the need for housing and shelter will spur him to give up the endless string of dead-end jobs he soon quits. They've gone out for a rare night on the town, and after a bit of fun Harry has fallen back into his default sullen mood as they drive home.

He's disappointed in his kid, who was high school valedictorian but is now a free-spirited bum, in his mind. He can't stand that he lost his job running the big crane wrecking ball, tearing down garish old facades of the Florida beach town where they live so they can slap up new, even more garish ones. (It was shot in Fort Worth.) 

Mostly, Harry is angry because he was robbed of the happy retirement with the woman he loved, which is what he deserved.

A piece of mail has arrived for Howie, which he has resisted opening because it's surely another rejection letter. So he offers to let Harry, who quietly peels the envelope with a check for $1,500 and an enthusiastic offer to publish more of Howie's stories.

And the moment just... lingers. Achingly, gorgeously. Harry's a blue-collar guy lacking a way with words, so he rubs a rough hand across the kid's bushy hair. Newman just sits there with his neck cocked, staring at this son he has struggled so hard to understand, and in doing so failed to take pride in for the wonderful young man he's become. 

Tears well in the old guy's eyes, and slowly -- as if being pulled in by an inexorable force that he can't and doesn't want to resist -- he leans over and cradles Howie's head in his arms.

We know, without being told, that this is probably the first time the two have embraced since Howie was a kid. What an utterly crystalline moment of cinematic grace.

The rest of the movie... well, not so much. 

Screenwriter Newman and collaborator Ronald Buck make the common mistake of not knowing how to pare down the elements of Raymond DeCapite's novel, and end up using the kitchen sink approach. There are too many supporting characters and subplots, meant to fill out the background of Harry and Howie's story but wind up pushing it aside.

Some of these pieces are just fine in of themselves. I liked the bit centered around Raymond (Ossie Davis), a man not unlike Harry who Howie takes a shine to. Howie tries to repossess Raymond's truck during one of his many job tryouts, and the old guy ends up inviting him in for a beer. Howie realizes he's not cut out for (legally) stealing cars, but gets them to hire Raymond instead, who finds his niche and is soon flush with money and purpose.

We also briefly meet Morgan Freeman in one of his early film roles as a hardcase foreman at a factory job where Howie lasts less than 10 minutes. 

I was surprisingly uninterested in Lilly, played by Newman's real-life wife, Joanne Woodward, who was Harry's wife's best friend. She runs a local pet shop, and there's a flirtation of something between Lilly and Harry. But the movie keeps misplacing the romantic thread. It's the sort of thing that needed to be front and center of a different story, not on the sidelines of this one.

Lilly's daughter, Katie (Ellen Barkin, age 30 playing about 20), used to go with Howie in high school -- along with every other guy, it seems. She's now pregnant with some guy's baby, and she and Howie wind up gradually easing back into each other's lives. The character of Katie is terribly underwritten and hard to fathom. She acts resentful of Howie for having dumped her, which is a strange emotion for a serial cheater to feel.

Wilford Brimley is similarly underused as Tom, Harry's brother, who runs a surplus store and still pines wistfully for that time he bought up a lot of army surplus junk and made 15 grand in a single day. We may find it hard to believe they're brothers, though Newman was actually nine years older than Brimley.

Judith Ivey turns up as Sally, an amorous secretary who takes Howie, and later Harry, into the sack for a tumble. 

Newman is solid in "Harry & Son," but really this is Benson's movie. With his big blue eyes and lean frame, he's believable as Paul Newman's kid. I liked how he used his voice in the performance, speaking mostly with a very soft, high tone but occasionally pulling out baritone snarls when required. (Which he also used to great effect in "Beauty and the Beast.")

Benson was a teen idol in the 1970s whose career never quite took off to star stratosphere. He spends a lot of time without much in the way of clothes during the movie, and the camera makes sure to leer over his physique, which is boyishly skinny without a lot of built-up muscle aside from an early cinematic example of the six-pack -- not terribly dissimilar from Newman's own body as a young man.

Like Barkin Benson was older than he played, 28 when the film came out. That same year he had the first of a several heart surgeries to correct an aortic valve birth defect, likely ending his days as a shirtless pin-up boy. Though he's remained busy to this day, including doing a lot of voice work.

No, "Harry & Son" isn't a particularly well-made movie. But it boasts two perfect scenes that will stay with me forever. That's more than most movies can say. 


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Review: "Blithe Spirit"

"Blithe Spirit" is one of those odd films that seems to have a lot going for it -- likeable cast of name actors, nifty production values, based on a play by Noël Coward that was previously adapted into a 1945 film starring Rex Harrison -- and yet it all can't save it from being a predictable, boring drip.

Set in 1937, it stars Dan Stevens as Charles Condomine, a successful Brit author who is currently at work on his first film screenplay, hoping to break into Hollywood so he can move there with his American second wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher). But through a series of events he comes to be haunted by the ghost of his first wife, also an American -- now there's trouble! -- named Elvira, (Leslie Mann), who died in a tragic horse riding accident five years earlier.

Only Charles can see and hear her, which leads to several scenes where he gets in trouble for saying terrible things to her which the alive people perceive as being directed at them. That should be a one-off joke, and then a smart guy like Charles would figure out not to be baited. But it gets milked for several more laborious scenes, such as with Ruth's big-shot movie producer father (Simon Kunz). 

We've seen a lot of dead-come-to-life movies over the years, and even though this technically was one of the earliest such stories all the jokes are retreads of stuff we've seen before: a piano that seems to play itself, Elvira scaring off the cook with sharp cutlery, etc.

I liked how Elvira turns up in a completely different outfit every time we see her, which mostly seems like an excuse to show off Mann in terrific period costumes. She looks great in them too, as she did in the similar-era "Motherless Brooklyn" as a femme fatale. Maybe she was born too late; she would've done swimmingly in a rapid-patter Howard Hawks comedy.

Fisher has less to do, growing increasingly irate at her husband spending so much time with his "ex," as he calls Elvira. Though she gets one fun scene when the ghost puts a mickey in her drink and she goes for an impromptu, shallow swim at her own party.

Elvira is excellent help with his screenplay, Charles having endured a killer case of writer's block of late -- along with other, more marital, impeded impulses. Turns out Elvira may have been more than just a muse for him.

Judi Dench turns up as Madame Arcati, a faux French spiritualist who is ruined when her levitating stage act goes south during a performance before a posh crowd including Charles. He gets the idea to have her do a private seance at his mansion so he can gather material to introduce a supernatural element to his script. But it ends up snatching Elvira from the great beyond.

Director Edward Hall and screenwriters Pier Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft work furiously to avoid delving into any stickier aspects of the film's metaphysical implications. Like, where exactly to these souls go, having no memory of having died? And why is Elvira initially insubstantial, but soon can touch Charles and do... other things? And is Arcati really a fraud or just a self-deluded kook who finally gets a spell right?

As Charles, Stevens basically just spends 99 minutes doing that flustered upper-crust British gentleman thing, a captive of his circumstances rather than the author of them. He never seems to have an original idea of his own, though in the end we see the reason why. (A bit of a modernist nod in the vein of "The Wife." Ghost girl power!)

In the end, "Blithe Spirit" is the story of a feckless chap who cheats on his wife with his ghost wife, knocking on the door of every obvious joke you can think of. I hate to say it, but if you wanted to remake this material it probably would've worked better as a broad contemporary comedy, maybe a little bit raunchy and crude. 

Adam Sandler and Kristen Wiig toiling in Jersey seems about the right speed. Surprisingly, I'd actually rather watch that than this DOA rehash.



Review: "Nomadland"

One of the worst feelings I’ve experienced in life is having circumstances imposed on me rather than having a choice. In my warped way of thinking, I’d rather have a mediocre outcome of my own choosing than a better one I was forced to accept. The trick, of course, is finding a way to embrace the lot you’ve been dealt and making it your decision.

In this way I’m a lot like Fern, the character played by Frances McDormand in “Nomadland,” an extraordinary film that should be a top Oscar contender in multiple categories. She is in her 60s, a widower, and has literally lost everything: her husband, her job, her home and even her very town. When the gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, closed down it became a ghost town overnight.

Packing most of what she owns into an commercial panel van, Fern sets off for a life on the road, rambling around the West, taking odd jobs for a season or two, such as a seasonal packer at an Amazon shipping center, but always on the move.

She lives in her van, which she has gradually converted from a steel box into a fairly comfy little dwelling. An RV would be more appropriate, of course, but even the small ones are pricey, so people like Fern of meager means are forced to become versatile DIYers.

“Nomadland” is a film in a newish trend we’ve seen in recent years: outstanding fictional films adapted from nonfiction books -- in this case, one by Jessica Bruder that looks at the newfound trend of vandwelling. It became popular in the days after the 2008 crash, as people cast aside by society, many of them older unmoored folks like Fern, took to the road and made it an ethos.

Connected through the web, they see themselves as modern pioneers, seeking new ground in the American dream that’s not tied to a piece of land, owning a bunch of things and holding down a good job. A relative newbie at this enterprise, Fern soon becomes an enthusiastic devotee, even as she occasionally struggles with staying warm or finding a safe place to park overnight.

Fern is not a real person, though several others from Bruder’s book do make an appearance playing fictionalized versions of themselves. There’s Bob Wells, a Santa Claus-like figure who’s the unofficial guru of the nomads. He organizes occasional meet-ups in the desert where hundreds of vanners will show up for a few weeks to share companionship, barter for goods and share best practices -- like what to do with your waste, human and otherwise.

No, Fern is a concoction of writer/director Chloé Zhao, who has in just a handful of films become one of Hollywood’s most confident and accomplished filmmakers. I am just astonished by the profound stillness of this movie, which often sprawls across long wordless stretches where we just follow Fern around and experience her life as she does. We are never less than enthralled.

Usually a young director feels compelled to fill any long silences or pensive pauses; Zhao embraces them with a poise that she and McDormand can build an ineluctable rapport with Fern that will carry us through. Fern is sweet-natured but not a saint by any stretch, and can be prickly and stubborn when she feels like her independence is threatened.

A few other characters wander in and out of the story. A friend, Swankie (played by herself), helps initiate Fern into the nomad life. She also meets Linda (Linda May), a strong, independent woman who reminds Fern of herself maybe 10 or 12 years down the road. May gets a terrific scene where she talks about the most memorable moment of her life, which is not what you’d think most people would pick.

David Strathairn plays David, a nicely creased fellow nomad who takes a shine to Fern. Something like a friendship begins to grow as they run into each other at various jobs or van rendezvous, and maybe something more. At one point both of them are forced by circumstance to return to their families, and David finds the allure of one place puling at him again. Will it be the same for Fern?

“Nomadland” is not just an indelible portrait of one person, but an unconventional way of life some have chosen as their identity after it was presented as their only option. What others might call bad luck becomes wisdom.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Review: "The World to Come"


I wasn't planning to write this review.

"The World to Come" was the last movie I saw this week, and usually that's the one I just talk about on "Indy Style" on WISH-TV, time constraints being what they are. If I feel like I can't give a film a thorough consideration in writing, I'd rather not do it at all.

Plus, my reaction falls into that very specific grouping of reviews that is the least favorite of the critic to pen: disappointed, but without any particularly strong points of contention or weakness. It's like trying to write about plain oatmeal -- it was consumed, and now it's done and soon will be forgotten.

But I found a few nagging points sticking with me. I think this could've been a very good movie and isn't, and am trying to figure out where it went wrong, or where I soured in receiving it.

Let's start with the obvious: thematically it's too similar to other, better movies I've seen in the last year: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" being the most notable, and even the relatively lackluster "Ammonite" played better than this. Even "Lizzie" from a couple of years earlier had more to offer. 

I'm not sure when period films about two women falling into a passionate affair, usually for the first time in their lives, became a rut. 

But what felt amazing and incredibly emotional in "Lady" and at least passably engaging in "Ammonite" registers as forced and hackneyed with "World." At times it plays almost like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch parody. It's the sort of art film that people who don't like art films would find too easy to mock.

Katherine Waterston and Vanessa Kirby play frontier farmers' wives circa 1856 who come to live near each other. Both feel trapped by their circumstance and the role women are expected to play as subservient laborers and bearers of children. They live in a time and place where females faced few choices, and had to either knuckle under to the patriarchal system or strive to break free of it, and be crushed.

We know instinctively from the first time Abigail (Waterston) looks at Tallie (Kirby) with an appreciation that goes beyond just banishing loneliness the couple is doomed. For the rest of the movie we're just counting the ticks until it comes.

Both wives are blamed for being childless. In Abigail's case, she did have a daughter who died a few years earlier, and she has resisted efforts to have another. Tallie is a different case, openly expressing her revulsion at the prospect of motherhood and reveling in her status as a quasi-rebel. 

She takes a sassy tone with her husband, Finney (Christopher Abbott) and is prideful about their wealth (relative to other local homesteaders) and long, wavy strawberry blonde hair. Finney, who likes to quote the Bible about a wife's duties, stews in the sort of way we know trouble is coming.

Casey Affleck plays Dyer, Abigail's husband, who treats his wife as just another asset to be accounted for in his ledger of the farm's business. He's less outwardly hostile than Finney, but is vexed by a wife who seems to have no space in her heart for him. A woman of literary tastes and ambition, Abigail has the soul of poet locked away in the pantry, peeling an endless pile of potatoes.

At first a joyous friendship, the relationship between Tallie and Abigail eventually takes a turn to the torrid, with all the usual corset-heaving fumblings we've come to expect. It's almost less a lustful desire than a needful clinging to something, anything other than the drudgery of work and submission.

Director Mona Fastvold's last feature was "Vox Lux," which I  could barely stand to watch. Screenwriters Ben Shepard and Ron Hansen craft a lot of beautiful language that feels like beautiful language written for a movie, rather than something that would actually flow from these women's lips or pens. 

"The sunshine streaming through the branches makes a tremendous farrago of light and shade," Abigail narrates. "We hold our friendship between us, and study it, as if it were the incomplete map of our escape."

The movie moves in exactly the direction we expect, towrad an ending that feels less inevitable than unavoidable. Its biggest problem is it does nothing to develop the two husband characters as anything other than one-dimensional antagonists -- primitive lumps who speak little and always seem to be occupied with some form of killing, as when Dyer calmly scrapes the guts out of a hawk he has shot with his fingers, no more bothered by the gruesome glob than if he was picking pebbles out of the tilled earth.

I actually ended up feeling a little sorry for him, this unloved fellow who is as held fast to his assigned place as Abigail is by hers. They actually discuss separating in an indirect way, and part of me wished they'd done so right there so she and Tallie could run away together, or be hunted as violators of natural law, or murder Finney and then run away, or anything other than doing exactly what I expected them to.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Review: "Land"


It's hard not to see the similarities between "Land" and "Nomadland." Both are spare, contemplative movies about mature women choosing solitude on the down slope of their life. The obvious difference is that one opts for a life of wandering the open road, whereas here she plunks herself down in a single place to confront her own humanity and take its measure.

Robin Wright stars and directed, her first stint behind the camera of a feature film. It's a bold, brave movie that embraces stillness while eschewing story. At 89 minutes it feels just long enough to burrow its way into your chest, but doesn't tarry overlong or try to overplay big moments.

If movies were speeches, "Land" would be closer to the Gettysburg Address than filibuster: terse, strong, direct.

It's really just a two-character story, with a handful of others that get perhaps a few minutes of screen time each. Wright plays Edee, a woman who has suffered some kind of unnamed tragedy in her life. There are photos of a man and a young boy, and we know instinctively they belong to her. In flashbacks we see her with her sister, Emma (Kim Dickens), who begs her not to hurt herself.

Edee purchases, sight unseen, a cabin in the remotest part of the mountains somewhere out West. This is the sort of place where you have to drive 40 minutes just to get to a tiny town. The place has a majestic view of peaks and valleys, but no electricity, running water or other amenities. It's literally like stepping back into the 1800s: firewood stove, outhouse, etc.

She does not even have a car to get back to civilization, and drops her cellphone in the waste before driving up in a rental. Colt (Brad Leland), the old hoss who handled the sale, warns her not to be trapped up here alone, which Edee ignores.

Things go badly for awhile. She doesn't know how to hunt or fish, and can barely swing an ax to heat her leaking shack. The snows pile in, and her food freezes in the can.

But there's a determination in her eyes. Edee has reached some kind of break point in the arc of her life, and finds she can't be around other people. This new existence, be it interlude or permanent shift, marks the before and after point in her existence.

She gets a hand from Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge), a nurse, and Miguel (Demián Bichir), a local who happened to pass by Edee's place while hunting in winter, and noticed the smoke had gone out. They nurse her back to health. 

Alawa returns to her job in the city, but Miguel hangs around. He teaches Edee survival skills. Even after she's capable he keeps coming back for visits, as something like a friendship grows.

Without anything being said, we know there is no chance of romance between the two, as a typical movie would feel compelled to explore. (Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam wrote the original screenplay.) Miguel is patient, asking for nothing, accepting and forgiving her bursts of piano-wire temper.

But gradually, Edee expands her list of people in the world she can stand to be around from zero to one.

The cinematography by Bobby Bukowski is just as good as you'd expect with all that natural beauty as backdrop, filmed around Alberta, Canada. The music, mostly minimalist strings, is by Ben Sollee and the group Time for Three.

"Land" is not the sort of movie to lay out all the answers for us... or even accept that any answers exist. The mystery of Edee's past soon ceases to be a puzzle we want to solve but simply accept as part of this woman who seems both so strong and so fractured.

I'm reminded of other singularly-focused films: "Straight Story," "Cast Away" and, of course, "Nomadland." How amazing it can be when a movie doesn't try to busy things up with lots of characters and places and things happening, but just stares with intent focus at one intriguing person. 

That's a satisfying journey in of itself.

Review: "The Mauritanian"

Twenty years is a long time -- a span in which a life can move from inception to adulthood, youth to middle age, and middle years to elder. It also seems like enough time removed to stare unflinchingly at the horrors of 9/11… not just the ones that were committed upon America, but the ones we inflicted in the time after.

No, “The Mauritanian” is not an anti-American screed by Hollywood liberals. It fits more into the courtroom/crime procedural genre, closer to “The Verdict” or “Reversal of Fortune” than anything else. The difference is here the accused is Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a young man from the unpresuming country in northwest Africa who was accused of being the top recruiter for Al-Qaeda despite a lack of any hard evidence.

Indeed, if you love the U.S. judicial system and believe the rule of law is central to the foundations of our country, this movie is as patriotic as it gets.

Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch, an Oscar winner and nominee, play opposing lawyers who do not meet until rather late in the story. Tahar Rahim should get his own Academy Award recognition for playing Salahi, a man who endured imprisonment, psychological abuse and -- there’s no other word for it -- torture at the hands of U.S. military while a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

You probably don’t know Salahi’s name; I didn’t. You may not be that familiar with the country where he comes from; I wasn’t.

But that actually helps the movie, by presenting his story without a pent-up backlog of biases or preconceptions. Director Kevin Macdonald (another Oscar winner for his documentary work) and screenwriters Michael Bronner, Rory Haines and Sohrab Hoshirvani attack the material as one man’s story, and then gradually broaden the scope as the legal implications grow deeper.

Foster plays Nancy Hollander, who takes the case on a pro bono basis, starting as a phone call for a friend to confirm that Salahi is a prisoner. She takes it on first simply because she wants to protect the right of habeas corpus; to her it’s almost immaterial if he’s guilty or not. But the deeper she scrapes, the harder the resistance grows to the truth coming out.

The feds are seeking the death penalty, so stakes are as high as they can be.

On the other side is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Cumberbatch), a gung-ho Marine prosecutor assigned the case. An old-school patriot with a personal stake in the case -- a friend of his was aboard one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers -- he attacks the case with relish, at one point expressing a desire to stick the injection needle in Salahi’s arm himself… if he’s guilty.

And yet, both attorneys run into the same buzz saw: a lack of real evidence of Salahi’s wrongdoing. There are reams of summaries of his countless hours of interrogation, but no direct notes. For a while their stories run parallel without ever intersecting, Hollander filing suits and petitions and Couch taking things up the chain of the command.

The best parts of the film are the interviews in a dank cell between Salahi, Hollander and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), a young lawyer brought in to help translate. They soon learn Salahi has learned English during his years in detainment, so her presence soon becomes more of a distraction. Woodley is basically left to just stand around asking counterfactual questions to help eke out plot information.

Hollander, a stern lawyer whose credo is “it’s not about what’s true, it’s what I can prove,” steadily becomes more invested in the case and treats Salahi as a person rather than just a set of facts. When she reads about his horrible treatment -- freezing cells, waterboarding, blasting music, forced sleeplessness, etc. -- we can see the human empathy grow in those icy eyes.

One of the things I like about Foster is that she chooses not to act in every movie that comes along, picking her projects so that Hollywood always needs her more than she needs Hollywood. It’s a good approach to life, and filmmaking.

This role is a good segue into “grand dame” parts a la Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. (We should be so lucky.)

“The Mauritanian” can be tough movie to watch. But it’s a sobering, and energizing, experience for those who do.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Elizabethtown" (2005)


It's not often you can lay low a bunch of careers with one movie. But "Elizabethtown" managed to do just that.

Consider that Cameron Crowe was one of the hottest, most original voices of the 1980s through early 2000s -- with the box office, industry clout and Oscar recognition that entails. Stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst were riding high off their recent participation in the Lord of the Rings/Pirates of the Caribbean and Spider-Man series, respectively, and would continue to do so awhile longer, being carried by those franchises rather than carrying them, their brief heydays as A-listers over.

"Elizabethtown," a tragicomedy/romance in the vein of "Harold and Maude," was panned by critics though it didn't do as badly at the box office as everyone thinks, eking out a mild profit with $52 million in ticket sales against a middling budget of $45 million. (Not accounting for distribution costs and  theaters' cuts.) And yet it sideswiped Crowe almost completely.

Other than a couple of musical documentaries, Crowe wouldn't make another feature film until 2011's ill-conceived "We Bought a Zoo" -- "I'd rather not go," audiences said just based on that title -- and seemed to reach his nadir with 2015's "Aloha," which had the dubious distinction of casting Emma Stone as an Asian-American. Other than a short-lived Showtime series, his IMDb profile is blank the last five years.

Usually for a big-name director (especially a white dude), it takes at least three bombs in a row to knock the off their privileged perch, though "Elizabethtown" managed to do that in one fell swoop. It's a quirky, offbeat film about a morose shoe designer who returns to his dad's Kentucky hometown for his funeral and finds unexpected romance with a inimitable flight attendant.

Here's the big twist: it ain't terrible.

Is this a good movie? It is not. The script is equal parts memorable and forgettable, with plenty of terrific dialogue that sticks with you and a lot of scenes that just sort of piss themselves away into nothingness. 

And yet, I couldn't bring myself to dislike it, even at times when I wish'd the movie would stop what it's doing and do something else. 

It's a mess, but it's an authentic one. 

With so many films, especially the romances, that are slick and facile, steering us right to every quick and easy emotional high or low, here is a movie that is more like life as it really is: inconsistent, not always making sense, sometimes filled with weirdness for weirdness' sake. It's not chasing a single story thread, but having a nice wander.

Its enduring charm is Dunst as Claire, a self-declared one-of-a-kind girl who sees herself as one of the "substitute people." These are the people other folks hang around with until they're ready to move on to the real thing. But she sees something in Drew (Bloom), a morose shoe designer who has just cost his company $1 billion on a horrific sneaker that looks like the creature from "Alien" swallowed an Air Jordan.

It's called the Späsmotica, which sounds less like something Hollywood is parodying than showbiz types being out of touch with an industry they don't understand. 

Drew has, not surprisingly, been fired by his boss (Alec Baldwin) and the news of his spectacular failure is set to hit the business world next week. His girlfriend, Ellen (Jessica Biel), the boss' right-hand woman, doesn't even bother to say she's breaking up with him since it's so self-evident that's what someone like her would do in that circumstance.

"I have recently become a secret connoisseur of 'last looks.' You know the way people look at you when they believe it's for the last time? I've started collecting these looks," Drew narrates. 

He resolves to kill himself, rigging up his expensive exercise bike to stab him in the chest with a butcher's knife, when he gets a call from his sister, Heather (Judy Greer): their father, Mitch, has just died of a heart attack while visiting his hometown, Elizabethtown, just south of Louisville. 

(Of course, he pronounces it loo-ee-vil, as is the way of Yankees, not the proper loo-ah-vul.)

Their mom, Hollie (Susan Sarandon), is so distraught she refuses to attend the services in Kentucky, not to mention she knows she's still seen by the people there as the harridan who stole Mitch away to California (nevermind they've lived in Oregon the past 27 years). So Drew is conscripted to go represent the family.

On the redeye flight there, Drew is the only passenger. Claire is the personable, overly familiar flight attendant who insists he be upgraded to first class, just because she doesn't want to have to keep walking to the back of the plane. She invades his personal space and asks all sorts of uncomfortable questions about his trip and pretty much violates every rule I'm guessing they have in the flight attendant training manual.

Claire believes many strange things, not unlike Sarandon's delightfully batty Annie Savoy. "I don't know a lot about everything, but I do know a lot about the part of everything that I know, which is people," she says, more truth than boast. Her signature "thing" is to make a rectangle of her fingers in front of her eyes, miming a camera, which she then depresses an imaginary button to take a picture of this moment. 

(This movie taking place in the day of flip phones, I wonder if anyone of Generation Z or under would even recognize this gesture.)

In Kentucky Drew is surprised to find himself the local celebrity, even though he hasn't been there since he was a kid. Mitch (Tim Devitt in the flashbacks) was the local favorite son who bragged all over about Drew and his incredible shoe. 

There's too many background players to name, but they collectively act as a sort of Greek chorus of energetic Southern hospitality. There is constantly food everywhere. Paula Deen, per-canceling, is Aunt Dora, always in or just coming out of the kitchen, and Loudon Wainwright III plays his Uncle Dale. Paul Shneider plays their kid, Jesse, a never-was rock star still adjusting to the role of father, as his kid is the local terror.

The great Bruce McGill turns up as Bill Banyon, a former business associate of Mitch's who... well, we're not really sure why he belongs in the movie, but we sure are glad having him around, per se. Gailard Sartain is Charles, the local mortician who regards people from California as puzzling curiosities, and thinks the word "cremation" is a foreign language.

Drew stays in the famous Brown Hotel, where a days-long wedding celebration between Chuck and Cindy results in a never-ending party all around. His head ready to explode, Drew gives Claire a call and they end up having an all-nighter conversation, finally deciding to drive for a sunrise meetup.

It's a classic movie magical moment, except real life usually isn't so magical, and neither is their meeting. "I think we peaked on the phone," Claire quips. But she ducks out of a flight to Hawaii and she and Drew give it another crack.

Things just sort of happen in "Elizabethtown," whether you expect them or not, or even if they make sense being in the movie or not. It can be dizzying but occasionally delightful, like stumbling onto an entire city block of street performers. It may not all go together, but you enjoy stopping here and there for a listen or a look.

For instance, Holly, having been absent for almost the entire movie, suddenly turns up at the end to give a big speech at Mitch's service, complete with a randy story about a neighbor giving her a comforting hug and getting an erection. She even breaks into a tap dance to the tune of "Moon River," which you'd not have thought was tap-able. 

There's a lot of music in the film, of course, and I admit sometimes it feels like Crowe constructs his screenplays around the songs he would like to play in certain spots rather than the other way around. But his ability to pluck the emotional heartstrings with a few seconds of a well-placed pop song is pretty magical. 

I'll admit that just a few bars, the refrain of Tom Petty's "Square One," got me welling up. How we miss him so.

Claire goes away again at the start of the last act, and I couldn't help thinking the movie would be better if she doesn't turn up for the inevitable reunion in a crowd at the end. Bloom's Drew is rather a sad drip whenever she's not around, and the movie tends to deflate without her presence.

Really, what would make the most sense is to have this be Claire's movie, and Drew is just a guy who wanders in toward the end. I'd love to see what made her turn into such a brilliant, self-confident, self-sware creature. 

Dunst, whose looks have been cruelly commented upon, is dazzlingly winsome here, and even a little bit unhinged and threatening. With her adorably imperfect teeth and piercing blue eyes, Claire seems just off-kilter enough to be distinctive but not merely some cool-girl concoction of Hollywood.

"I'm impossible to forget but I'm hard to remember," she says, which is a great line in a not-so-great movie.

If "Elizabethtown" were a recipe, it would be the kind where the list of ingredients is a page long and reading them you're not quite sure how it all goes together together. The best dishes, and I think the best movies, only have a handful of flavors at most. Crowe tries to include three-fourths of the spice rack and whatever's in the pantry, too.

Even when this soufflé deflates, though, there's some surprisingly good lickings around the edges.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Review: "Two of Us"


Imagine coming home one day to have your entire life ripped away from you. And nobody even knows about it.

You're barred from entering the place where you've lived for years, consigned to the shed in the back which was just used to keep your stuff. The person you've loved for decades is struck ill and kept from you, other than a few uncommunicative moments. Your long-held plans to move away together are dashed, instantly and maybe irrevocably.

Effectively, you've been robbed of everything that defined your existence.

That's the story of "Two of Us," the affecting romantic drama from France that is that nation's official entry for the Oscars. (Under the Academy's arcane rules, only one film from each country can be considered for Best International Feature.)

This is a quiet, intimate, and yet emotionally powerhouse movie anchored by two splendid performances by Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier. It's not often you get to see a passionate romance between two older women portrayed so unflinchingly, both emotionally and physically.

Madeleine (Chevallier) is perhaps in her early 70s, a French widow who raised her family in quiet anguish, married to a man she didn't love. That was reserved for Nina Dorn (Sukowa), a slightly younger German expat and retired teacher. They've carried on an affair for decades, first hidden from Madeleine's marriage and now from her two grown children. Today they live across from each other in opposite apartments, though Madeleine's is the real home and Nina's just a nearly furniture-less depository.

Nina is frustrated that they've had to hide their love so many years, and is pushing to sell their places and move to Rome, where they first met. But Madeleine, still feeling tied to this place and her family, is not ready to admit her sexuality to the world, and hesitates.

Disaster befalls when Madeleine experiences a stroke after the couple have a huge argument. After she returns home from the hospital, unable to speak or walk, Nina finds herself in an impossible situation and crushed with guilt. Although she has a key to the apartment, she can't come and go because a live-in caretaker, Muriel (Muriel Bénazéra), is always there.

Nina offers to watch over Madeleine but is rebuffed. Madeleine's daughter, Anne (Léa Drucker), is completely unaware of the relationship and subtly pushes away the woman she thinks is merely a friendly neighbor. Her brother, Frédéric (Muriel Bénazéraf), bears resentment for his mother's soured relationship with their father and remains physically and emotionally checked out.

Things go on. There is unavoidable conflict with Muriel and later his son, Theo (Augustin Reynes). Nina responds with less than stellar behavior herself, though we identify with her utter anguish at being locked out of her own life.

Meanwhile Madeleine, who has been as still as a mannequin, begins to show signs of recognition and consciousness. But circumstances transpire to keep her and Nina apart.

I was surprised how the film played out almost like a crime procedural, with Nina having to act as the thief, gradually stealing back pieces of her own identity. Filippo Meneghetti, a first-time narrative feature director, wrote the screenplay with Malysone Bovorasm, collaborating with Florence Vignon.

It's a very simple, spare story lacking in big look-at-me moments. And yet by underplaying, it tugs that much harder at your feelings than would something with syrupy string music and showy "Oscar clip" moments.

Sukowa, with her fierce lion's mane and proud features, gradually reveals herself as a formidable adversary to anyone who would try to deny her love for Madeleine. Chevallier obviously gets less to do, spending much of the movie sitting expressionless, but manages to give us little hints and winks about what's really going on beneath that deceptively placid exterior.

Taking place almost entirely inside just the two apartments, "Two of Us" is a film of interiors -- those we show to the world, and that which we keep hidden, sometimes against our deepest wishes.




Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Review: "The Wanting Mare"

I experienced equal parts fascination and frustration watching “The Wanting Mare.” It’s a film of extraordinary beauty and imagination, and a nigh-incomprehensible approach to the basics of storytelling.

I don’t believe writer/director/star Nicholas Ashe Bateman intended a standard linear narrative. It’s more of a dreamlike dance through wonderment and regret. The actors, almost all of them unknowns, acquit themselves with a level of authenticity and heft you don’t often see in the science fiction genre.

That’s how “Mare” is described in the press notes, though it’s more of a gritty dystopian fantasy. Set in a mythological time, possibly long after this one, it seems to consist of only two places: Whithren, a seaside hellhole in which people scrounge and scrap, and an unnamed northern place that everyone wants to get to.

The only way to escape the heat and rot of Whithren is by catching a cargo ship, which transports the wild horses caught in the south and taken north.

It’s a Casablanca-like scenario, though instead of Captain Renault’s letters of transit the only way out is a ticket aboard the ship. These aren’t things you can just buy, more like physical totems that people are willing to kill for.

Moira (Jordan Monaghan) comes from a line of women who seemingly came from the northern place, and every night they dream of how the world was before… whatever made it like it is now. With her cascading tawny hair, lithe frame and bold gaze, Moira is the picture if strength and independence.

Moira likes to go from her lonely house on the cliffs into the city to listen to music. The whole place is a thicket of buildings that have fallen down, and ones that are about to. There doesn’t appear to be any kind of industry, or trade, or agriculture. Just people killing time until they can get their hands on a ticket, or die.

(There are phones and automobiles of near-past vintage, so it’s hard to fix exactly how this world relates to our own.)

One night she saves Lawrence (Bateman), who has been shot up while attempting a robbery. As he heals, they begin a joyous love affair that is the high point of the film, carried out almost entirely without words.

Lawrence tells Moira that he knows where a ticket is, and promises to get it for her. But things go poorly, and he finds a baby girl abandoned on the shore -- much like Moira’s ancestor long ago -- and brings it to her.

The time shifts forward, inexplicably, and for a time we follow this little girl as an adult (Yasamin Keshtkar). She has somehow come into possession of one of the valuable horses, and forms an alliance with Hadeon (Edmond Cofie), a local crime lord, to keep the animal safe. Like Moira and Lawrence, they begin an affair (which the movie depicts so scantly it’s more implied).

Things go on. We meet more people, and try to puzzle out how they factor into the story. Another young woman (Maxine Muster), an older man and woman (Josh Clark and Christine Kellogg-Darrin), a few others.

How does it all fit together? I’m not entirely sure. A better question is: Was it ever meant to? Or is this film closer to surrealism, relying on imagery and mood to grant us an interesting experience?

Bateman seems to have a bright future as a filmmaker. He’s got an arresting visual style that reminds of a young Ridley Scott. Certainly he comes up with intriguing story concepts. “The Wanting Mare,” though, feels like a half-assembled puzzle that came with many pieces missing.