THE WORLD TO COME (2021)

February 11, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’d be hard-pressed to name a movie that is more somber, front beginning to end, than this film from director Mona Fastvold (writer of VOX LUX, 2018) and co-writers Ron Hansen (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, 2017) and Jim Shepard (based on his short story). Allowing only a few sparks of hope in the second act, the film’s ending finds us nearly as beaten down as the four main characters we’ve just watched.

Structured as though Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is reading her own journal entries as they play out in real life, the film captures the brutal conditions of working a hillside farm in upstate New York during 1856. But more than that, it conveys the price of a joyless existence on the frontier, when days were spent adhering to chores. For everyone, this meant little social interaction; and for women this meant cooking, cleaning, and giving birth. Abigail mesmerizes with her balletic poetry in describing the drudgery of her life and marriage to Dyer (Casey Affleck). Dyer is a sullen man who says little, but remains dutiful in his responsibilities. He is attuned enough to allow Abigail her space after diphtheria claims their young daughter … though he seems mostly unchanged by the tragedy.

Abigail’s emptiness and unrequited quest for meaning seem her destiny until the day that new arrivals rent the next farm over. As Finney (Christopher Abbott) guides the wagon by, Abigail and Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) lock eyes, signaling to them (and us) that life on the frontier is about to become more exciting than collecting that day’s eggs from the chicken coup. This moment arrives mere weeks after Abigail as narrator has informed us, “With little pride and less hope, we begin the new year.” And just like that, she has hope.

The two women begin to spend days together building a connection first borne from isolation and loneliness, and soon growing into a true relationship. Dyer deals with his wife’s affinity for the new girl with a nonchalance that masks his agitation. Finney, on the other hand, is a quietly simmering man of anger that wreaks of a violent nature just below the surface. These are combustible elements in a world where this type of relationship between women is simply not discussed or admitted.

We witness the beginning, middle, and end of the relationship between Abigail and Tallie. We see how each lights up around the other … although Tallie’s well-coiffed auburn hair always seems out of place in an environment where showers and shampoo would be scarce. It’s really Abigail’s narration and lyrical use of language that propels the story, and as lovely as her words are, the actual pacing of the film is a bit slow at times. Of course, that corresponds to the oppressive bleakness of this world, adding to the challenge for viewers.

The four lead performances are all terrific. The two men have less screen time and certainly less dialogue, but we never once doubt where they stand. Ms. Waterston has been a standout with her work over the past few years, and Ms. Kirby recently posted one of last year’s finest performances in PIECES OF A WOMAN. She’s clearly a star in the making. Composer Daniel Blumberg’s work is a good fit, and cinematographer Andre Chemetoff works wonders with the muted color palette. Bucharest is the stand in for 19th century upstate New York, allowing us to see the harshness. Period lesbian romances are rare, though this is the third in a short period of time along with AMMONITE (2020) and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019). Just prepare yourself for an hour and a half of anguish.

In theaters February 12th, 2021 and on digital March 2nd, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


KATIE SAYS GOODBYE (2017)

June 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This little gem played at the 2017 Dallas International Film Festival, and at that time, I wrote about how writer/director Wayne Roberts was one of the new and most exciting filmmakers to burst on the scene. Now, more than two years later, the film is finally getting the distribution it deserves, and I still worry there will be those who decry another film exploiting women as a victim of society. I also still stand behind my case that there is another way to view the story of Katie, a good-hearted dreamer played beautifully by Olivia Cooke (“Bates Motel”, THOROUGHBREDS, READY PLAYER ONE).

Initially, Katie’s unflappable optimism seems unlikely, if not impossible. She walks miles to work along a dusty highway. She lives in a trailer park with her deadbeat mother (Mireille Enos), whom she supports both financially and emotionally. She works double-shifts as a waitress at a truck stop, where she’s known to toss in a couple extra bucks when a particularly frugal customer stiffs the other waitress. She also works a side job as a prostitute for locals and a regular trucker named Bear (Jim Belushi). Despite a life filled with *stuff*, Katie doggedly pursues her dream of saving enough money to move to San Francisco and become a hair stylist. Of course, since she’s cursed with a heart of gold, she has to save enough money for her own trip AND for her mother to live on. Her dream seems lofty, yet almost achievable.

When Katie falls for Bruno (Christopher Abbott), the new guy in town, she tries her best to fall in love and pull him into her dreams for a better life. It doesn’t take long before Bruno is made aware of Katie’s side job, and her fantasy world begins to crumble. On a daily basis, Katie happily (of course) drinks up the truck stop wisdom of diner owner Maybelle (Mary Steenburgen), who spouts such gems as “A man with a smile will hurt you”. Good intentions abound here, but we realize … even if Katie doesn’t … that the reality of people’s self-interest is the immovable object that so often tears down the dreamers of the world.

As with much of life, one’s enjoyment of the film is likely contingent upon the perspective you bring. A caustic, cynical view will have you waving off Katie’s lot in life as exploitive movie-making; while those who can share even a spoonful of Katie’s spirit, will find themselves rooting exuberantly for her dreams to come true … or at least to sustain her refreshing outlook on life and people. Director Roberts recently released his newest, THE PROFESSOR, starring Johnny Depp. He remains a filmmaker to follow.

watch the trailer:


FIRST MAN (2018)

October 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Every junior high student learns that Neil Armstrong spoke those words when he became the first person to walk on the moon’s surface in 1969. So while his words are etched into our minds and the televised visuals of the historic event are seared into our corneas, most of us know little of the man who is renowned as an American hero. Director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, WHIPLASH) finds a way to personalize a man’s story without sacrificing the corresponding grandiose theatre and immense danger.

Kicking off with one of the most intense cinematic sequences ever, the film puts us inside the cockpit of a test flight with Armstrong in 1961 as he bounces off the atmosphere and rockets towards near certain death. This opening makes the statement that this is no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary movie … and we are now prepared to hold on tight! Based on James R Hansen’s book, the only biography Armstrong authorized, the script from Oscar winner Josh Singer (SPOTLIGHT) expertly balances the test pilot/astronaut portion with the character study/personality of the man. Intensity is on display throughout – whether in a capsule or during family time.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, and the story tracks him from 1961 through that famous moment in 1969. What we see is a man who was first an engineer, and then a pilot. A man whose intellect and nerve allowed him to be part of the second group of pilots selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1962. The first group was the Mercury Seven. He was also a man emotionally devastated by the death of his young daughter Karen (from a brain tumor) and the numerous deaths of friends and associates in the space program. The film clearly shows how he was impacted.

Proving true JFK’s proclamation that the driving force wasn’t that it was easy, but rather that it was quite hard (and dangerous), we glimpse some of the inner workings of NASA, and what becomes clear that the space program was high stakes gambling filled with huge risks – all for a space race against the Russians that was motivated by ego and national pride. Daily danger was part of the job, as was the claustrophobia that comes with sitting in tin can space capsules being monitored by computers far less powerful than the cell phone you are likely using to read this.  Armstrong’s claustrophobia somehow seemed less apparent during his flights than during press conferences or sitting at the kitchen table with his family – providing even more insight into the man.

Claire Foy (“The Crown”) plays Janet Armstrong, the strong-for-the-kids while suffering-in- (mostly) silence homemaker wife. Ms. Foy does a nice job of conveying the emotional turmoil that goes with being an astronaut’s wife, and having no one to share the uncertainty and worry with. Jason Clarke plays Ed White, the first American to walk in space (Gemini 4) and Armstrong’s neighbor and close friend. Olivia Hamilton plays his wife Pat, while Kyle Chandler plays Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll offers up a not so complimentary portrayal of Buzz Aldrin. Other familiar faces in the cast include Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in APOLLO 13), Ethan Embry, Ciaran Hinds, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian D’Arcy James, and Leon Bridges.

Meticulous attention to details of the era include kids that actually ask to go play outdoors (and aren’t overly impressed with astronaut dads). The sound design and set designs are phenomenal and complement the outstanding cinematography of Linus Sandgren (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND). The abundance of close-ups allow for an intimacy that makes the awe-inspiring space sequences even more breath-taking. Actual historic space audio is used whenever possible, and director Chazelle doesn’t shy away from showing us the “other side” of the space program: Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon”, writer Kurt Vonnegut publically questioning the program, and many citizens wondering why so much money is being spent on rockets while there were so many other areas (including Vietnam) in need of attention.

The humor is often quite sly, including a scene where his competitive applicants shrug off Armstrong as only a “Civilian”, unaware of his remarkable service and record in the Korean War as a Navy Fighter Pilot. Gosling’s quietly intense portrayal of Armstrong could be termed constrained, but it’s quite fitting given his subject. Composer Justin Hurwitz (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) delivers and unusual but fitting score, and we can’t help but realize this would make a terrific trilogy bookended by THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and APOLLO 13 (1995). Chazelle presents a fitting bio of a true American hero (and yes, we can see the flag on the moon), while also giving us a look at the harrowing process of putting folks into space. It’s on us to decide if it’s worth it, but leaves no doubt that President Kennedy was right … it is hard.

***On a personal note, I attended the first year of Edward H White Middle School in San Antonio, and his widow Pat White came to the Grand Opening. I vividly remember what a classy lady she was and how proud she was of her husband.

watch the trailer:


SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

watch the trailer: