SWEET COUNTRY (2018)

April 21, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For whatever reason, Australia and Westerns seem to go together quite well. Perhaps it’s the naturally beautiful vistas that seem to stretch forever. Maybe it’s the slower pace and the accent that provide the perfect blend of comfort and danger. What matters is that director Warwick Thornton has delivered another gem from the Outback genre.

That previously mentioned blend of slow pace and danger is evident in the opening scene. Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is napping in a rocking chair on his front porch until being startled awake by the snorting of a stranger’s horse only a few feet away. The new neighbor is Harry March (played by Ewen Leslie), an ornery war vet who drinks too much and is racist to his core.

The film is set in the 1920’s, although it doesn’t really matter when. It’s more about the what, the why and the who. The racism on display would be just as believable in contemporary times, though this Outback seems especially far out. Neighbors are rarely seen, and the town is so small, they watch silent movies (The Kelly Gang) and hold court outside on the dusty main street.

Co-writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter have created a story that likely has played out in real life, although hopefully not to this extreme. A series of events occurs: indigenous Australian Sam Kelly (played exceptionally well by non-actor Hamilton Morris) is coerced into helping March put up a fence, March crosses the line with Sam’s wife, a young boy Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) is always stirring up trouble and pilfering things, and a drunk March accuses Sam of hiding the boy and violence erupts leaving the “white fella” dead and Sam and his wife on the run.

Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is the local law – he even proclaims “I am the law” – and he forms a posse to track down Sam so he can stand trial. The posse includes March’s friend Kennedy (Thomas M Wright), Sam’s employer Fred Smith (Mr. Neill), and Archie (Gibson John), an indigenous Aussie employed by Kennedy.  Director Thornton uses this chase sequence to paint some extraordinary visions on screen. The natural land is beautiful, and then we come across a stunning and deadly desert in the salt flats. Mr. Thornton acts as co-cinematographer with Dylan River, and the result is a movie that’s a thing of beauty to look at.

Director Thornton uses an array of flashbacks and flash-forwards, sometimes in quick cut form. This approach keeps us on our toes, sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes filling gaps. Against the wishes of the locals, this is a developing country, and many of the locals feel it’s no longer their country – they are kept as laborers, and rarely treated as equals by the new inhabitants. In this world, for this man (Sam), doing the right and necessary thing places he and his family in instant peril. It’s better to run than surrender. The story is very good, though the dialogue is a bit lacking at times. The photography is world class. Though we would have preferred screen vets Bryan Brown and Sam Neill to have more scenes together, the panoramic majesty of Australia is certainly enough … with an added and fitting bonus of Johnny Cash singing “Peace in the Valley” over the closing credits.

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I FEEL PRETTY (2018)

April 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Comedians taking the leap from TV to movies sometimes find the going a bit rough. Amy Schumer hit it big with critics and audiences in TRAINWRECK (2015), and then flopped with both groups in last year’s SNATCHED (2017). This time out, she quells the raunchiness, and instead serves us a PG-13 message movie aimed squarely at adolescent girls. Ms. Schumer doesn’t abandon comedy, it’s now just a bit tamer and comes with a life lesson.

Renee (Ms. Schumer) is a mostly normal person who works in a computer “dungeon” as website support for a high-end make-up company named Lily LeClaire. Adrian Martinez plays her usually unresponsive co-worker who seems quite comfortable with the lack of human interaction that comes with the daily process. When not at her dead-end job, Renee hangs out with her also mostly normal friends Vivian (Aidy Bryant) and Jane (Busy Phillips, wife of the film’s co-director Marc Silverstein). Renee does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time hoping for her dream job (receptionist at Lily LeClaire headquarters) and her dream lifestyle (being beautiful and slim like the Lily LeClaire models).

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know what happens next. Renee gets conked on the head during a fitness class, and when she wakes up, she sees herself as the beautiful woman she always dreamed of becoming. Of course, her appearance hasn’t changed the slightest, but the way she carries herself certainly has. Where once there was moping and hoping, there is now confidence and daring. Her self-esteem cup is overflowing and she falls into her dream job, and lands a terrific boyfriend, while also being pursued by a dreamy one.

Her time at the company headquarters finds her interacting with CEO Avery LeClaire played with drop-dead perfect comedic timing from 4-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams. Yes, THAT Michelle Williams! It’s such a treat to see this talented actress step away from her usual dramatic characters and flat out nail a comedic role in which she seems to nearly flutter across the screen while sporting a voice that would typically only be heard in Saturday morning cartoons. The shared scenes with Ms. Schumer and Ms. Williams are the film’s best, but unfortunately are too few – leaving some unexplored humor to our imaginations.

Co-writers and co-directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (first time directors, co-writers of HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU) work hard to deliver the type of humor that Amy Schumer fans expect, while also paying respect to the all-important female body image message the film strives to deliver. It’s a challenging proposal, however despite my finding much of the comedy predictable, the theatre was filled with laughter from what was very likely a group of loyal Schumer fans. The bikini contest sequence seemed especially effective in generating laughter and praise from the loyalists.

As for the boyfriend role of nice guy Ethan, Rory Scovel may seem like an odd choice. He’s the anti-Hollywood leading man type – generally laid back with no glimmer of Type A personality. A quiet guy who takes Zumba classes is actually the perfect straight man for Schumer’s dominating screen personality … she does talk incessantly through most of the movie. Other supporting roles are filled by Lauren Hutton as Lilly “Gram” LeClaire, the company founder and grandmother to Avery; Emily Ratajkowski as Renee’s fitness class acquaintance, whose sole purpose seems to be in convincing Renee that beautiful women have life struggles too; Naomi Campbell as a company executive; and Tom Hopper (“Game of Thrones”), as the required eye candy for a viewing audience likely to skew heavily female.

Ms. Schumer is surely to receive backlash on the movie due to utilizing a head injury to show her character the road to self-esteem and confidence. In my opinion she should be commended for using comedy and her celebrity to send this message to the girls out there. We never know what delivery method will work, and if a fake bump on the head in a movie gets a few girls to realize success in life is not about one’s physical attractiveness, then I’m on board. Of course, there are many who say I’m not qualified to review the movie since, being a male, I can’t possibly understand what girls go through. And on that point, they are likely correct.

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THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH (doc, 2018)

April 20, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1971, William Friedkin directed one of my all-time favorite films, THE FRENCH CONNECTION. He won the Oscar for Best Director. But of course that’s not the movie which entrenched him as a cinematic legend. Two years later he directed THE EXORCIST, a film that, 45 years later, still regularly appears at or near the top of most “Best Horror film” lists.

For most of his adult life (he’s now in his 80’s), Mr. Friedkin has been associated with exorcisms, and he kicks off this documentary by confessing that he will be attending his first ever actual exorcism … and will be filming the ceremony. It’s a ritual very few of us have ever witnessed, and we learn that more than 500,000 Italians seek exorcisms from a priest each year. The director seems very anxious to take us along on his journey.

We get interviews and footage from multiple associated folks: Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of “The Prince of Darkness” and other satanic novels; William Peter Blatty, author of “The Exorcist”; a young Los Angeles priest who simultaneously expresses skepticism while stating he wouldn’t want to get that close to the devil;  and a couple of Neurosurgeons and some Psychiatrists. There are also interviews with a brother and sister recalling her experience of having a liberating exorcism performed on her, and the titular Father Gabriele Amorth – one of the most beloved figures in the Catholic Church. He was Head Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome for more than 30 years.

Whether the movie works for you or not (whether you believe it’s real) likely depends on the interview we neither see nor hear. Mr. Friedkin’s build up is to the exorcism he attends as Father Amorth performs the 9th exorcism on ‘Cristina’. It’s May 1, 2016 and there are perhaps 12-15 people in the room, including Cristina’s parents and boyfriend. She has struggled with “demonic possession” for years, and the footage is quite startling – especially the audio of the guttural voice from such an innocent looking lady. It’s also Father Amorth’s 91st birthday and he literally thumbs his nose at the devil. It’s after this ceremony where Friedkin claims he was to interview Cristina in a local church. Inexplicably, he doesn’t have his camera, so we only hear him tell of the horrific events.

Mr. Friedkin directs the film (co-written with noted film critic Mark Kermode) and also acts as our guide through the rituals and beliefs associated with exorcisms. There is a bit of a “Dateline” vibe to the production, though it’s a bit surreal to hear Father Amorth proclaim to the evil spirits, “You are banned forever”. As has been the tradition for years, religion and science are at odds with the subject. Neurosurgeons label it “delirium”, while Psychiatrists call it “Disassociate Trance Disorder”. Is it merely a placebo effect caused by religious beliefs, or does Satan exist? Perhaps author Jeffrey Burton Russell says it best: “stay away from this stuff”.

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BORG VS MCENROE (2018)

April 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. For true sports fans, movies about sports tend to be disappointing. It’s not possible for actors to perform athletically at the same level of sports icons, and inevitably, the writer or director is simply unaware of the nuances and details that make an event or player memorable. The 1980 Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was not simply a marketing dream between two polar opposite personalities; it was also a bravura performance by two competitors fighting for their sport’s pinnacle. It was a transcendent event for those of us (including yours truly) who couldn’t take our eyes off the TV screen.

The debut narrative feature film from director Janus Metz and the script from Ronnie Sandahl never really grasp the impact of the match, and instead turn this into psycho-babble about how parents and coaches may damage the person as they create the player. Sverrir Gudnason plays Bjorn Borg and Shia LeBeouf takes on the John McEnroe role. With roots in Denmark, director Metz likely finds the Borg story more interesting and devotes most of the attention to the cool Swede superstar, and Gudnason performs admirably. However, it’s LeBeouf as Super Brat McEnroe that comes across as a much more intriguing character … and we are left wanting more (and better).

The psychological analysis shows a young Borg (played by his own son Leo at ages 9-13) as an uncontrollable hothead on the court. Sound familiar? Yep, we are informed that the young Borg was a mirror image of the McEnroe he would later face across the net. We see that Borg’s coach Lennart Bergelin (in yet another solid turn by Stellan Skarsgard) drives him to bury his emotions and use them as internal fire for intensity on the court. We also glimpse Borg’s legendary OCD tendencies with his rackets, room temperature and even his interactions with fiancé Mariana Simionescu (played by Tuva Novotny).

For McEnroe, we see how his parents pushed him and were never satisfied (a 96 on your Geography test?  What happened?). We see a young man obsessed with tennis and competition. He charts the tournament bracket on his hotel room wall and refuses to speak to a close friend who happens to be his opponent that day. And of course we witness the on court outbursts … some of which are memes almost 40 years later. His dad, played here by Ian Blackman, strikes the familiar pose in the stands of arms crossed while wearing the white floppy hat.

Presenting this as Muzak (Borg) versus Rock and Roll (McEnroe) is really unfair to both men. Cool and collected versus raging madman underscores the amazing tennis talent. Baseliner versus serve-and-volley was the on court battle. The prim and proper traditions of the sport being dragged into the contemporary world by a young up-and-comer is fascinating and was culturally important. It was a rivalry that rejuvenated professional tennis and it deserved better treatment that armchair psychology.

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YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t shy away from tough material. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. Following the emotional turmoil of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) she delivers her latest, which can best be described as brutal. The brutality here is not the on screen violence – we get mostly the aftermath or only see the ‘edges’ of terrible deeds. No, the brutality here is in a world that needs a man like Joe.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former military man who lives with his mother. Joe has a particular set of skills that fit into the narrow career niche of rescuing kidnapped girls and ridding society of their captors. Rather than a hired gun, Joe is a hired hammer … ball-peen hammer being his sentimental and strategic weapon of choice. Joe is also a bit mentally unstable, likely suicidal, and haunted by inner demons. Yet he is also patient and kind with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts).

Joe’s most recent job is to find and rescue a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underground sex ring run by some powerful political types. The job is a success right up until it isn’t. It’s at this point when Joe finds a reason to live … vengeance. It’s also when Mr. Phoenix becomes a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination. He’s a hulk of a man with a lumbering gait experiences and dozens of body scars. He has these flashbacks which are so short spurts, at times they feel like mere teases. Soon enough we assemble the pieces to know the baggage from a traumatic childhood event, and the front lines of a horrific war, have created this shell of a man with his own set of principles.

John Doman and Alessandro Nivola have minor supporting roles, but this one rides on the battered and no longer symmetrical shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, and the creative stylings of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. It is imagery combined with performance and the result is spellbinding. If you can handle it, the film provides a cinematic journey to depths not typically reached.

Best not to fill in many of the film’s specifics, but the comparisons to TAXI DRIVER are apropos. I found myself wondering if Paul Schrader was consulted in the adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ source material book. The city streets and dank hotel rooms scream gritty 1970’s thriller, and the recurring shots of plastic bags over the head emphasize the claustrophobia Joe experiences. This is doubtless meant to be commentary on politicians and the corrupt power they wield, but it works less as that and more as a glimpse at one man’s darkness. Add to that the pulsating score from Jonny Greenwood, and the creepy use of “My Angel Baby” by Rosie and Originals, and only one word can describe Ms. Ramsay’s film … brutal.

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LEAN ON PETE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his gut-wrenching 45 YEARS (2015) is “a boy and a horse” movie that is every bit as emotionally draining, and secures his spot as one of the best filmmakers at bringing characters we thoroughly believe to the screen. It’s based on the novel by Willy Vlautin and could be described as coming-of-age, slice-of-life, or even a road movie. While it’s each of these, it is also much more … though I fear it is one of this year’s indie gems that will likely slide between the cracks with far too few taking the time to experience it.

Charlie Plummer was most recently seen in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD as Getty’s kidnapped grandson. Here he stars as Charley, a 15 year old boy living a half-step from poverty with his caring, but unprepared single dad (Travis Fimmel). Charley goes for morning runs around town, and his polite mannerisms include effusive praising and expressing gratitude to his dad’s mistress (Amy Seimitz) for cooking a full breakfast – a rare treat for this growing teenager. Charley stumbles into part time work with has-been horse trainer Del (Steve Buscemi), a man whose career, health and demeanor have all seen better days. Horse trainer in this context is far removed from the glamour of the Kentucky Derby. Del works his horses hard for meager winnings on the county fair circuit, and when their time is up, the horses are shipped to Mexico for ‘processing’.

Charley and Del form a bond based on Del’s cheapness and Charley’s work ethic and love of the horses. When tragedy strikes, the movie shifts to a road trip vibe, with Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) joining on as a jockey. The three are a quasi-family but mostly they are each just trying to get along in a life that isn’t always kind. When Charley ignores Bonnie’s advice to not get too attached to the horses, he and the titular Pete are soon trudging across the backcountry.

Charley’s life on the streets provides many life lessons, but not much joy. He crosses paths with an initially friendly addict named Silver (Steve Zahn), and along the trip, his childhood memories provide some hope – especially as related to Aunt Margy (Alison Elliott). These all feel like real folks that we could meet at any time. Some are helpful, yet the biggest life lesson of all comes roaring through these mostly quiet scenes – people care most about themselves.

This most certainly isn’t a Disney-style horse movie like DREAMER, and in fact, it’s much less a horse story than it is Charley’s story. The core message seems to be that no matter how gentle one’s soul, human nature adapts in times of desperation. It’s pure cinematic pleasure to have both Mr. Buscemi and Ms. Sevigny in the same film, but the shining light here is Charlie Plummer. With little dialogue, he conveys so much about what he is thinking and feeling. His desire is to have some stability – someone or something that he can depend on. It’s the security many of us take for granted. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (A WAR, 2015) beautifully captures the endless Pacific Northwest landscapes, while also managing the intimate and thoughtful moments. Mr. Haigh’s two most recent films add him to my must-see list … I just wish there were more who would find pleasure in his displays of lack of joy.

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AARDVARK (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut from writer/director Brian Shoaf benefits from the talented cast he has assembled. I do wonder about his initial “pitch”. The film opens with barely-there lighting as we watch a zoo-based aardvark borough through his tunnels. We can only assume prospective producers were not clued into such an oddball opening scene. Of course as the film progresses, the tie-in becomes obvious – maybe too much so.

Zachary Quinto stars as Josh, a young man who tries to take ownership of his issues by scheduling sessions with Emily, a therapist played by Jenny Slade. See, Josh has a bad haircut, some type of undiagnosed psychosis, and to top it off, his very successful older brother is back in town – an event causing much consternation for Josh (and soon for Emily as well).

We are never really sure of Josh’s mental illness or affliction, but we do know he has visions and hallucinations. The most serious of these are when he imagines his brother has morphed into other beings/characters just to mess with him. Much of our time is spent trying to discern who is real and who Josh is imagining. When Craig, his polar opposite brother, actually appears, it turns out to be Jon Hamm. Emily then proves herself to be the world’s worst therapist as she begins sleeping with her patient’s brother – the source of his anxiety.

Emily admits to a history of man trouble and poor judgment in this area. It turns out she and Josh are both lonely souls, and charming actor-brother Craig may be the key for both of them. Along the way, Josh befriends Hannah (Sheila Vand from the terrific A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) and they seem to bond (in spite of Josh being Josh). Of course, we are left to ponder if Hannah is real or not – at least until the film’s final scene.

There is a running gag here that Emily is not a doctor, but rather a licensed practitioner. It appears to be the only real attempt at humor outside of having one of the Sonic commercial guys bump into Emily on her morning jog. Mental illness and loneliness are subjects that require a deft touch, and though director Shoaf seems to be striving for quirky, his film desperately needed to push the envelope much further. This one comes off just a bit too simple and clean. The best line in the movie, “I miss the things that weren’t there”, also sums up the feeling most of us will have after watching this one.

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