WOMEN TALKING (2023)

January 12, 2023

Greetings again from the darkness. Do nothing. Stay and fight. Leave. Those are the three options a group of women debate in the loft of a barn on the edge of their religious commune. The true story that inspired Miriam Toews to write her 2018 novel is horrific. Between 2005 and 2009, there were more than 150 cases of females being drugged (with livestock tranquilizers) and violently raped. They ranged in age from three to sixty-five, and this occurred in a deeply religious Mennonite community in Bolivia. The great writer-director Sarah Polley has adapted Ms. Toews’ novel for her first feature since STORIES WE TELL (2012), and we welcome her back as a voice always deserving of a platform.

When two girls spot a rapist running away one evening, an emotional fire is lit. The man is charged, and this leads the women to organize their own meeting to discuss the three options noted above. Rooney Mara plays Ona, the good-hearted optimist. Claire Foy plays her sister Salome who spends much time in rage mode. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, the often brutally abused woman who has her own strong ideas. If you are a movie lover, you immediately recognize that these three are among the best young actresses working today. What a pleasure to watch them do what they do … despite the material often being extremely uncomfortable and stress-inducing. This new generation of community women are joined in debate by the elders: Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), who both carry the burden of shame having raised their daughters in this environment. Scarface Janz (Oscar winner Frances McDormand, also a producer on the film) only has a couple of scenes, as she is stays strong in her ”do nothing” stance.

As the dialogue continues in the loft, we learn much about what these women, as well as the generations before them, have endured. Over the years, whenever victims have spoken up about the horrible abuses, their accusations have been dismissed as “wild female imagination.” The religious patriarchy has led to many years of submission and resignation to a lesser life – one that includes manual labor and a lack of education. These women cannot read or write, so they have asked August (an excellent Ben Whishaw) to take notes and list the pros and cons of the options. August is a gentle soul and the local schoolteacher who has an eye towards Ona.

Revenge, forgiveness, protecting one’s self and their children is all part of the discussion, as is the difference between fleeing and leaving. These women are finding their voice through the strength of each other. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier uses mostly black and white with some subtle color gradation for effect, as well as a contrast between interior (barn loft) shots and those of the outdoor vistas and fields (representing the outside world). The score from Hildur Guonadottier is heavy on strings and works perfectly for the story, and the inclusion of “Daydream Believer” from The Monkees is a welcome inclusion.

We don’t normally think of cinema as watching people sit around and talk. One of the best ever movies showing debate among adults is 12 ANGRY MEN, and this film takes a similar approach and is not far off from the level of that all-time classic. The courage of those real women from Bolivia was staggering, and Sarah Polley offers up this intellectual and thought-provoking approach to these women taking stock of their situation. It’s a gut punch, yet somehow inspiring.

Opens in theaters on January 13, 2023

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THE SAME STORM (2022)

October 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. When is it too soon to look back? We all experienced the pandemic, and yet, things aren’t quite normal again … at least not the ‘old’ normal. Talented writer-director Peter Hedges (the underrated PIECES OF APRIL, 2003) shows us the various ways in which the pandemic affected folks, and how zoom and other virtual connections became the lifeline to the outside world for many.

You will surely recognize many of the faces being filmed by smart phones and zoom recordings. These include: Mary-Louise Parker, Sandra Oh, the great Elaine May, Rosemarie Dewitt, Ron Livingston, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr, Noma Dumezweni, Judith Light, and many others. Twenty-four characters in all (according to the synopsis), and we see most of them in two different scenarios. We see young people worried about old people, and vice versa. We see parents worried about kids, and kids worried about parents. Significant others check in on their “better half”, while a ‘ground zero’ nurse searches for a different kind of companionship and escape. We see the struggles of teachers and parents, and witness the loss of loved ones. There is even an online yoga class, a virtual AA meeting, and the challenges of Tele-doc.

You will recognize most of these situations and exchanges, whether you went through them yourself, or heard about them from friends or family members. What’s obvious is the heightened stress level of every person during this unique time period. The effects of isolation and loneliness are expertly portrayed here, and we should all be quite appreciative of zoom meetings, Facetime, and all other virtual connection applications. Only you can decide if it’s too soon or not, but either way, we can tip our caps to Peter Hedges and the actors.

Opening in theaters on October 14, 2022

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TICK, TICK … BOOM! (2021)

November 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson’s name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, “Rent”, but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson (“Fosse/Verdon”).

Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson’s “30/90” song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It’s important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene – people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical “Superbia”, which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.

Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon’s writer’s block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren’t sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it’s the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it’s clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.

Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon’s dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against ‘selling out’ that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write “Rent”, but this film doesn’t cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.

Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon’s agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda … with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It’s an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.

Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DIFF 2019 Day 3

April 14, 2019

2019 Dallas International Film Festival 

 Greetings again from the darkness. A stormy Saturday sets up perfectly for a full day of watching movies during a festival. Unfortunately, the DIFF scheduled lineup only allowed me to watch 3 today, which is likely my shortest ever Saturday at any film festival.  A short day would have been even shorter had any of the movies actually started on time. On the bright side, all three played to packed theatres … just the way it should be for a festival; and, I saw two terrific and memorable lead performances from (nearly) first time actors. Remember, DIFF runs through April 18, and you can find more information at www.DallasFilm.org

 

 

Here’s the recap of what I watched Day 3:

 

BEFORE YOU KNOW IT

 The world of cinema has been slow to evolve, but these days we are getting more projects with women telling stories about women … and few have done it better than this one from director Hannah Pearl Utt, who co-wrote the script with Jen Tullock. Both also star in the film, and casting themselves proves very effective at delivering the message.

“Stage Manager” (and writer) Rachel (Ms. Utt) and actress Jackie (Ms. Tullock) are sisters who live a kind of bohemian lifestyle above a community theatre with their playwright dad (Mandy Patinkin) and Jackie’s 12 year old daughter Dodge (Oona Yaffe). There are daily struggles with this family. Money is always scarce. Dodge is growing up fast. Jackie and Rachel have very few career options, and Dad is a stubborn man who had one successful play and many that were, umm, not so successful.

An unexpected development has the grown sisters accidentally discovering their mother is not deceased (as they had lived most of their lives believing), but rather a famous soap opera actress (a terrific Judith Light). The rest of the story has this broken family trying to connect, while overcoming the assumptions that had been made based on a family history created by trying to protect kids from the truth.

Humor is injected to help soften some of the more emotional and dramatic moments, and there is a sense that the story-telling of Woody Allen films was an influence … plus there’s a visual near the end that evokes memories of MANHATTAN. Supporting work is provided by Mike Colter (“Luke Cage”), Alec Baldwin, Tim Daly, Peter Jacobson and newcomer Arica Himmel. The film also tosses in a hilarious ‘caterer’ line in regards to fashion, a singing Manny Patinkin, and most importantly, some terrific insight from two talented filmmakers.

 

PREMATURE

 While watching this latest from writer-director Rashaad Ernesto Green and co-writer Zora Howard, I kept flashing back to the strong reaction I had to IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. That’s high praise. Co-writer Howard delivers not just a touching and realistic screenplay, but also a stunning debut as a feature length film actress. She plays Ayanna, a sharp young woman with a bright future – she’s headed to university after graduation, a rarity for her community.

Life often throws hurdles in our path, and Ayanna falls hard for handsome Isaiah (Joshua Boone). It’s a whirlwind romance that builds quickly over the summer. The first shoe drops when Isaiah’s ex-girlfriend shows up, which is soon followed by two much bigger and more impactful proverbial shoe drops. Through it all, Ayanna’s reactions come across as so real (and so atypical for Hollywood), and much of that is due to the expressiveness portrayed by Ms. Howard.

Filmed in Harlem, there is an organic quality to the interactions with the girls in this close-knit group. They may bicker and prod, but when support is needed, true friendship reacts quickly. The same is true for Ayanna’s mother (Michelle Wilson). Many parents can relate to their relationship between parent and kid ready to leave home. However, tiger mom emotions rear up at the time of need, and Ms. Wilson and Ms. Howard both have scenes that are seared into my brain.

Isaiah is into music, and Ayanna is a talented writer. Some of her poetry and lyrical philosophy is delivered as narration, and music also plays a key role in the tone of the film. This is an ultra-rare realistic relationship film and it also carries a “my body, my choice” message that rings true. In this community, many young women’s lives are altered by becoming mother’s at an early age, and the words that stick are “we were too young to live this old.”

 

THIS WORLD WON’T BREAK

 It’s easy to believe this is a Texas film through and through; however, it’s incredible to think it was made for only $36,000. Writer-director Josh David Jordan presents his feature film debut as the story of Wes Milligan, a 40 year old troubadour questioning his lot in life. We’ve seen music films about rising stars and we’ve seen them about falling stars, but it’s unusual to see a profile of a guy just plugging along.

Greg Schroeder plays Milligan and it is a terrific acting debut. Yes, he’s a very talented singer-songwriter, but somehow Mr. Schroeder is even more impressive in the humanistic and personal moments in the film. It’s interesting to note that as important as music is to Wes, we never actually see him perform on stage in front of an audience. Each song he sings is a personal moment, usually for just one other person: his fishing buddy Catfish (Mitchell Parrack), young neighborhood boy Sonny (Sonny Jordan), his widower Pops (Matthew Posey), or a local woman performing a hula hoop routine (Roxanna Redfoot). Oh, he also sings a very touching one over an answering machine for Roxanna – it’s his best attempt at flirtation.

The film looks great courtesy of cinematographer Chris Bourke, and it should be noted that director Jordan co-edited the film with his 17 year old son Julian. Kicking off with a couple of quotes from Lightnin’ Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt, many life lessons are served up for those paying attention. We feel Wes’ pain when he states, “I’m still here and nobody knows it”, and when he defines “don’t take any wooden nickels” for Sonny, we understand what he’s saying.

Many Dallas sites and architectural highlights make appearances, as does George Dunham from radio station The Ticket, who plays a country music DJ. Despite all of that, this is mostly about coming to grips with life … how crucial a support network is, and how alcohol (and lots of it) contribute to self-doubt and unclear thinking. Above and beyond, regardless of one’s situation, there is so much truth to the adage, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”.


DIGGING FOR FIRE (2015)

August 26, 2015

digging for fire Greetings again from the darkness. If one is evaluating the most misleading movie trailers of the year, this one would definitely be a contender. Rather than the carefree, laugh-a-minute, hanging with buddies, offbeat comedy it’s presented to be, it’s actually a rather dramatic observation piece on adult responsibilities and the changes we go through with marriage, kids, jobs, and so on. Think of it as an adult-coming-of-age weekend.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg has become a festival favorite with such previous films as Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. He co-wrote this script with Jake Johnson, who also stars as Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt). As the film begins, we quickly realize Tim and Lee are terrific parents to their young son Jude (director Swanberg’s real life son), but are also a bit emotionally-strained with the whole marriage and adult responsibility thing.

A pretty amazing ensemble cast delivers a 90 minute acting seminar based not so much on plot, as two separate spousal adventures. Using a client’s beautiful home as their own family retreat, Lee and Tim quickly decide to spend a weekend apart – so that Tim can finish their taxes, and Lee can hit up her parents for Jude’s pre-school tuition. Of course, watching Tim work on his taxes wouldn’t be much of a movie, so instead, he finds a rusty revolver, and what appears to be a human bone, in the backyard. With Lee and Jude gone, Tim invites his friends over for beer, snacks and help with the gun/bone mystery. This leads to appearances by Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick.

Lee’s trip home permits quick exchanges with both of her parents (Judith Light, Sam Elliott), an ego-boosting interlude with Orlando Bloom, and a visit with old friends played by Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey. Ms. Lynskey’s appearance seems especially fitting, as the tone of the movie is very much in line with her TV show “Togetherness” with Mark Duplass. The “tone” is related to people who aren’t so much unhappy being married as they are curious as to what they are missing. These people haven’t adjusted to the fact that life isn’t always a party, and it’s not really possible to recapture the carefree days with your old friends. Sam Rockwell’s character is a stark reminder of this.

The book “Passionate Marriage” makes multiple appearances in the movie, and it’s clear that the lead characters believe they are losing their self, rather than evolving. It asks the question about what is “happy”, and just how crucial it is to be open to the changes life brings.

The classic song “Li’l Red Riding Hood” from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs gets a prime spot during the film and is much more enjoyable than the slightly annoying New Age score that is overused through many scenes. This isn’t really a mystery about the gun and bone, and it’s not really about old friends or saving a marriage. It’s mostly about coming to grips with life and taking joy in the good things … like a cute little boy and a trusted partner with whom to share each day.

watch the trailer: