SHIRLEY (2020)

June 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Thrillingly awful”. That’s how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” It’s also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker’s (MADELINE’S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.

As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson’s divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer’s block, and though she’s initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn’t take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley’s mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred’s ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel.

The new novel is “Hangsaman”, which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It’s about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it’s at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us … and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural?  Is she a good with or a bad witch … or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling – and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It’s an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.

Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in – domestic life in the era of “little wifey”, the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.

Sarah Gubbins’ first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel “Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson’s real life mixed in. Of course Shirley’s and Stanley’s four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young’s Rose is the perfect “opposite” for Ms. Moss’ Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols’ classic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred’s thesis as “terrifically competent”, and then adds in a disgusted tone, “There’s no excuse for that.”

Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous full-length work was “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise’s 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses … you know … those people who can’t find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley’s own.

Neon will release SHIRLEY on Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas and participating Drive-Ins June 5th, 2020

watch the trailer:

 


END OF SENTENCE (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The pandemic has put most blockbusters and mainstream releases on hold, allowing the projects of many first time filmmakers to jump to the front of the line for exposure to critics and streaming platforms. Director Elfar Adalstein’s first feature film stems from a screenplay by Michael Armbruster (BEAUTIFUL BOY, 2010) and covers familiar ground in an unfamiliar manner, enhanced by gorgeous scenery and a couple of terrific performances.

Frank Fogel (John Hawkes, WINTER’S BONE, 2010) and his wife Anna (Andrea Irvine) are visiting their son Sean (Logan Lerman, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, 2012) in an Alabama prison. Sean is serving time for stealing a car, and his mother is there to tell him goodbye. Frank and Sean are estranged, so there is no father-son visit. After the funeral, Frank shows up on Sean’s day of release to convey the mother’s death bed wish … father and son are to travel together and spread her ashes on her favorite lake in Ireland. Sean has no interest in traveling with dad and only wishes to get to California for a fresh start.

Of course there would be no movie if the two men didn’t eventually take the trip together, and we notice immediately that Frank, though a man of conviction, doesn’t appear to have a strong backbone. Sean, acting the jerk, clearly holds a grudge against the father he views as not protecting him from an abusive grandfather during childhood. These are deep wounds that may go deeper if there is to be a chance for healing. A wake in mom’s Ireland hometown reveals secrets of her past, and results in the men taking in Jewel (Sarah Bolger, one of the young daughters in Jim Sheridan’s excellent IN AMERICA, 2002) as a hitchhiker. Jewel has her own secrets and agenda, and seems to both further divide father and son, while also helping pull them together. This segment is very well written and acted.

The father-son road trip is really nothing new, though the setting of Ireland, with its stunning countryside captured by cinematographer Karl Oskarsson make it a visual treat. But more than that, the basic story is elevated thanks to the work of Mr. Hawkes (a previous Oscar nominee) and Mr. Lerman. The two excellent actors make the strained relationship seem real, rather than hokey or manipulative. We sense Frank’s pain in discovery, and Sean’s pent-up frustration that softens when he learns more of the history. On the downside, three musical/song interludes is two too many, but fortunately the performances overcome these storytelling shortcuts. Self-discovery, the acceptance of others, and the importance of family ties are all at play here, in addition to some quirky life philosophy: “Sometimes you’re the pigeon. Sometimes you’re the statue. That’s life.”

Available VOD on May 29, 2020

watch the trailer:


INDIGNATION (2016)

August 4, 2016

indignation Greetings again from the darkness. Quite often, Hollywood “period pieces” feel dated and somewhat irrelevant to our world today – as if they were a snapshot from an old magazine. But the best ones transport us to a different era while also serving up themes and characters that are just as interesting and germane today as then … and that’s what we have here.

First time director James Schamus (founder of Focus Features) is an Oscar nominated producer (Brokeback Mountain) and writer (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and he tackles the popular 2008 Philip Roth novel … one that the 83 year old novelist admits to being influenced by his own college years. Mr. Roth has been writing novels for more than 50 years and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 “American Pastoral”.

Taking on the lead role of college-bound Marcus Messner is Logan Lerman … an actor who has been on screen since he was 8 years old, and seems to have the eternal youth DNA so sought after by Ponce de Leon. While his looks haven’t changed much since the “Percy Jackson” films or the excellent The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman shines here as the working class Newark Jewish boy, smothered by his parents, and as naïve to the world as he is academically gifted.

It’s 1951 and too many neighborhood boys are arriving back home in pine boxes after serving in the Korean War. Marcus’ father (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher and is half of the hyper-cautious parental unit that is alternatively thankful and frightened that their son is avoiding serving in the military by heading off to ultra-conservative (and fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio.

Once on campus, Marcus discovers little of the hoped-for freedom. Mandatory chapel attendance, roommates assigned via religious leanings, and the expectations of joining the Jewish fraternity and hanging out with his own kind combine to be only a different kind of emotional stifling than what he had at home. A series of events serve to shake up Marcus and his beliefs. Date night with his dream girl from the library ends with him being both repulsed and enchanted by a sexually assertive Olivia (Sarah Gadon). An argument with his lughead roommates ends with his being given the worst dorm room on campus. Meeting with the College Dean (Tracy Letts) results in an exhilarating debate that will surely be treasured by all who adore wordplay and oratory sword-fighting. Finally, an emergency appendectomy brings a hospital visit from Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond), and a conversation that drastically alters the course of his life.

The conservative social mores of the 1950’s are on full display, as is the restlessness of the young who would change society forever. Fear would be replaced with daring, and the film does a terrific job of highlighting how revolution often comes at a high price. Bookended by war scenes that dramatize the fine line between civilized society and the brutality of war, it all comes together … bringing more power and poignancy to the two best scenes: as previously mentioned, Letts and Lerman go mano y mano in arguing the brilliance of Bertrand Russell, and their word battle highlights the age-old idealist vs. real world struggles; a mother-son scene towards the end is as heart-breaking as any we’re likely to see on screen this year. Mr. Letts, Ms. Emond and Ms. Gadon all work well with Logan Lerman in order to provide an excellent presentation of Roth’s novel and Schamus’ first film.

 watch the trailer:

 

 


FURY (2014)

October 18, 2014

fury Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker takes on WWII, he better have something new to say or a new way to show it. Director David Ayer (highly recommend his End of Watch, 2012) literally takes us inside a Sherman tank with its crew of 5 men, including their leader played by Brad Pitt.

Having the tank as a centerpiece brings a level of claustrophobia to the treacherous German war front. The battle scenes are excruciatingly tense, and actually beautifully filmed. This may seem an odd description for a war movie, but bouncing from inside the tank to the German countryside is done with such style that it provides contrast to the brutality and violence of war.

Pitt’s crew is made up of Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal (especially good). They are forced to take on a rookie with no tank training … but he can type 60 words per minute. Logan Lerman plays the rookie and he brings the natural sensitivity we’ve come to expect from his roles in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Noah. We buy off on the difficult transition since the others have fought campaigns together in Africa, Belgium and France. Jason Isaacs is also well cast as an Allied forces captain.

What works here are the battle sequences. What doesn’t really work are the numerous moments of personal drama injected to help us understand how war can change a man … no matter how hard he tries to hold on to his humanity. The sequence with the two German women, a piano and fried eggs seems especially drawn out and unbelievable. We understand the point pretty quickly, but the extended sequence becomes downright awkward.

The most interesting question the movie asks is whether a soldier can be so disgusted and sick of war, yet somehow addicted to the action. Mr. Ayers previously wrote U-571 (2000), so he is clearly interested in the mentality of soldiers in a claustrophobic setting. More of this approach would have been welcome here.

***NOTE: The film uses actual WWII tanks, and it’s the first time a Tiger I tank has been used in film.

***NOTE: Just a personal note here, but every time Brad Pitt said anything, I flashed back to his role in Inglourious Basterds. A change of inflection would have helped.

watch the trailer:

 


NOAH (2014)

March 30, 2014

noah Greetings again from the darkness. Since I am no biblical scholar, my comments are those of a movie lover. Tackling any part of a story from the bible is a journey filled with land mines and aggressive criticism – and that’s before your movie is released! Surely director Darren Aronofsky was prepared for backlash from those who forbid any interpretation of the Good Book. The story of Noah lasts but a few pages in the bible, meaning Aronofsky had to creatively fill some space to produce a 2-plus hour film.

Russell Crowe makes a fine Noah. He is relentless in his quest to fulfill The Creator’s request … and he flashes his “Gladiator” glare on a few occasions. Rather than an uplifting childhood bedtime story, this Noah carries the burden of God, his own family and the survival of all beings … his days are filled with moral dilemmas much larger than what you and I go through.

With all the miscommunication afforded by email and text these days, imagine if God conversed with you through images in your dreams. Maybe that process creates some areas of gray? Not if you are Noah. I guess he only dreams when God wants to show him something, so his decision making and mission is pretty focused. He is to build a giant floating warehouse to save two of every creature. Yes, that means a lot of death for those not invited. See, God is using Noah and his family to help cleanse the earth of mankind … God is ready for a re-boot. He is really not happy with how mean and nasty man has become ever since that whole apple debacle and the murder of Abel by Cain.

Some of the visual effects are spectacular. I especially enjoyed the high-speed montage showing the creation of life … you know, that first week. Also, the beginning of the flood is quite a spectacle, but the ark itself is actually quite stunning … constructed per the size noted in the Bible. The animals are all digitally created and we actually see little of them, though the on-boarding process goes remarkably smooth – considering this happens before the herbal sleep concoction is disbursed.

Most of the discussion will probably be on The Watchers … the fallen angels who once tried to help mankind, and for their efforts, God turned them into giant stone creatures. I will add that The Watchers need a new nickname since they did the bulk of the manual labor in constructing the ark and then protecting it … not much watching going on for these poor guys (voiced by Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, among others).

Noah’s wife is played by Jennifer Connelly and their sons are played by Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo McHugh Carroll. They welcome Emma Watson into their family in what turns into a very odd plot twist, and the villain, Tubal-Cain is payed by Ray Winstone. Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, is played to the hilt by Anthony Hopkins. All of these characters are pretty one dimensional, but it matters little since this is Noah’s story. The burden he carries is quite heavy and his decisions aren’t always popular.

If you are looking for the well documented story of Noah, it’s no mystery what book you should be reading. If you are after a pretty impressive visual interpretation, you could certainly do worse than Aronofsky’s take. And the best news … no Morgan Freeman voice-over!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see one of the most impressive set pieces ever built (the ark), plus some pretty cool fallen angels made of stones, a ferocious flood and a few trademark “Gladiator” glares courtesy of Russell Crowe.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are extremely particular about bible movies … you know it will annoy you.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (2012)

August 31, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Brace for gushing. Upon attending a screening that included a fascinating Q&A with writer/director Stephen Chbosky, I was reminded of how personal and intimate and observant and incisive a well-made film can be. A well written script is so refreshing, and an exceptional script can be truly breath-taking. Mr. Chbosky takes the most unusual step of directing his own screenplay based on his own novel (a 1999 bestseller), and he left me stunned and enthralled, both onscreen and off.

The popularity of the novel would typically make the film version a disappointment for its fans. Not so this time. Mr. Chbosky remains true to the spirit despite the need to edit for the sake of pacing and brevity. The key characters spring to life thanks to the outstanding script and the four strong performances from young actors: Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson, The Three Muskateers) plays Charlie, Emma Watson (Harry Potter films) is Sam, Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, City Island) is Patrick, and Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development“) is Mary Elizabeth.

If you have read the book, you know the story … you know the characters … you know the themes. If you haven’t read the book, I will spoil nothing. The brilliance is recognized only as you get to know these characters and slowly uncover their stories. What we discover is that, regardless of our age, we recognize these characters from our high school days. We know the introverted, observant Charlie who so desperately needs a support system. We surely recognize the attention-starved, lacking in self-esteem Sam who is the epitome of “We accept the love we think we deserve“. And we all knew a Patrick … the flamboyant one who sheaths his pain with an over-the-top act of public confidence. What Chbosky does is shine the spotlight on these characters to ensure that we really SEE them this time.

The themes reminded me a bit of a darker John Hughes film (that’s a compliment). There were also pieces of two other really good films: Stand By Me and Almost Famous. The formative years of a writer determine the depths to which his or her work will reach later in life. Admittedly, the film is substantially autobiographical, so when Mr. Chbosky says it’s a personal story, we begin to understand the foundation of his remarkable writing style.  He even utilizes music to help us get a better feel for this period of time … especially “Asleep” by The Smiths and “Heroes” by David Bowie.  Watching the impact of the songs reminds us just what a powerful bookmark a particular song can be at a given moment in our life.

Welcome to the island of misfit toys.” When this line is spoken, we realize that most every high school kid has thought the same thing at some point. These are painful and difficult times and as Mr. Chbosky stated, we should encourage kids to fight through this stage and get on to the next … then work to find their true self. Clearly, the film made a strong impact on me. My favorite reaction to a movie is profound thought, and this one caused it in waves. The decision to release as PG-13 was wise. There is no excess of profanity or nudity to divert attention from what really matters … the characters. I can think of no finer compliment to a writer and filmmaker than to cite them as the cause of my internal discussions related to their film. My hope is that you have the same reaction.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the book OR you believe that the high school years, in spite of how painful they might be, are formative years for helping us start the path to self-discovery

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you prefer teen movies be doused in slapstick rather than reality

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5rh7O4IDc0


THE THREE MUSKATEERS (2011)

October 25, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The trailer told me all I need to know, but my life-long interest in all things related to the Alexandre Dumas novel had me ignoring my movie gut instincts and heading out to catch this latest version of the Muskateer saga. Since then, I have been telling myself “I told you so“.

Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) plays the young, brash D’Artagnian, son of a former Muskateer. Lerman may develop into a fine actor someday, but right now he is as bland on screen as Orlando Bloom, who happens to play rival Duke of Buckingham. Athos, Aramis and Porthos are played, respectively, by Matthew Macfadyen (Pride & Prejudice), Luke Evans (Tamara Drewe) and Ray Stevenson (Volstagg in Thor). No need for me to go into character detail as none make any real impression thanks to a lackluster script.

 The boys are a bit out of sorts after being tricked by double-agent Milady, played by Milla Jovovich, who apparently is really working for the conniving Cardinal played by Christoph Waltz. Mads Mikkelsen plays Rochefort, the evil army leader and master swordsman, but somehow even with Waltz and Mikkelsen, this film is just lacking in bad guy substance.  How does that possibly happen?

Director Paul W.S. Anderson is known best for his Resident Evil film series and his love of special effects is on full display here. There were scenes that reminded me of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, and others that looked like Robert Downey, Jr’s Sherlock Holmes. If you love the Dumas novel, you just cringed after reading that sentence. The key to the Muskateers is swashbuckling and sharp, sarcastic wit surrounding wild and athletic sword play, all performed for an honorable mission.  There is just not much wit to enjoy and that’s compounded by a dearth of swords clinking.

 In addition to a more colorful script, some suggestions for improvement include casting Charlie Sheen (he is a Muskateer alum) as the Duke of Buckingham, easing up on the buffoonery associated with King Louis XIII, and more evil-doing from Waltz and Mikkelson.  It’s not the first movie in which I have disappointed, and it certainly won’t be the last. It’s just frustrating because … I told me so!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Muskateers and, like me, have a genetic need to see every film version of the Dumas story.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the idea of a lead actor matching the Bloom blandness is just more than you can possibly take.

watch the trailer: