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

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PIECES OF A WOMAN (2020)

December 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It happens sometimes, but rarely. A single sequence in a film is so profound or unusual or artistic or affecting, that it alone makes the film worth watching. Such is the case with the labor-birth-midwife scene in this film from real life partners, Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo and writer Kata Weber. Much of it is an extended single continuous shot, and it occurs within the first half hour.

The only set up we get is that the husband, Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is on the construction crew building a new bridge, and that his wife Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is extremely pregnant on her final day of work before maternity leave. A strained relationship with Martha’s mother is evident as she buys the couple a minivan. At home, the couple seems excited about the upcoming arrival of their first baby. When her water breaks, they are initially upset that their midwife can’t make it for a home delivery, but soon enough, Eva (Molly Parker), shows up as a replacement and takes charge. The remarkable sequence is filmed in tight shots that add to the tension and come across as ultra-realistic as Ms. Kirby’s strenuous performance.

The rest of the film follows the differing ways the couple, especially Martha, deals with the crushing emotional pain and unfathomable grief that comes with losing a child. It’s the kind of tragedy that can tear apart a relationship and change, if not destroy, a person. Martha becomes isolated as she tries to make sense of something where logic doesn’t apply. Sean is unable to connect with her, but falls into her mother’s camp of seeking to avenge the pain. Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn plays Martha’s domineering mother, and she is determined to make the midwife pay through jail time.

The rest of the film can’t match that birth sequence for tension, but the cast is superb in capturing the various faces of grief. Ms. Kirby is a revelation and she immerses herself in the role – something frequent movie watchers will immediately recognize. Whether she’s huffing with labor pains, sniffing apples in a grocery store, or floating through days and nights in a state of numbness, we feel every bit of what she’s processing. LaBeouf handles the initial pain very well, but he’s let down by the script through the balance of the story. Ms. Burstyn and Ms. Kirby each get another chance to shine as they face off at a family dinner in Act 3. Supporting work comes from Benny Safdie (actor-director known for co-directing offbeat films with his brother Josh), Iliza Schlesinger as Martha’s sister, and Sarah Snook as the prosecuting attorney (and family member).

Scandal surrounds the project, not because of anything that happened during production, but instead due to the accusations Shia LaBeouf is facing from a former girlfriend. Separating the accusations from the performance is a choice each viewer will have to make on their own, and it can be noted that he, while a significant player in the story, is not the main focus. Chapter headings by month are used to assist us with knowing how much time has passed, and the under-construction bridge from the first scene acts as a metaphor in the film’s final scene as the new reality is faced. Despite being a tough watch at times, and having a first act that sets an unsustainable bar, there is a lot to admire about the film. Martin Scorsese is listed as an Executive Producer and 3-time Oscar winner Howard Shore delivers a nice score. Living with loss is never easy, and at times seems impossible.

In theaters December 30, 2020 and on Netflix January 7, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

July 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome back Ethan Hunt, and the other members of IMF. This is the 6th film in the franchise born (not Bourne) from the classic TV series (1966-73) created by Bruce Geller (credited in each film). Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for this companion piece to his 2015 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION, as of course does mega-star Tom Cruise as the aforementioned Ethan Hunt.

Hunt’s team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) returns, as does really really bad guy Solomon Lane (a glowering Sean Hayes), and MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). New to the scene is Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, MAN OF STEEL), a hulking hunk of a man who doesn’t share Ethan’s belief in brainy strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was a bit tricky in inviting a friend to the screening who is in the midst of a years long boycott of Alec Baldwin movies. Although I felt a fleeting twinge of guilt, I believe the payoff was such that it lessened the impact of deception. Also appearing are Angela Bassett as a CIA toughie, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, and Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) as White Widow.

Most fans of this franchise have likely accepted that the stories are overly intricate – this one is unnecessarily jumbled – and they just enjoy the clamorous ride to an ending that typically has something to do with a bomb and saving the world. It’s the action and stunts that drive ticket sales, and this one has the most extreme and over-the-top action sequences we’ve seen yet. Even though there is a familiarity to some, the stunts are still quite impressive; and yes, Mr. Cruise, now in his mid-50’s, still performs his own stunts. This includes the leap between buildings where he actually suffered a broken ankle, shutting down production for a few months. The jump where he was injured is included in the film. And fear not, the Cruise Sprint is in full force on numerous occasions. Sadly, there is also a quick shot of a Ving Rhames jog – nothing but painful to watch.

The film opens with a wedding day nightmare, but quickly moves to what the fans want – globetrotting, chase scenes, slick advanced technology and wacky stunts. The streets, bridges and landmarks of Paris are on full and spectacular display, while the chase scenes occur on foot, on motorcycle, in cars, and in helicopters. Crazy stunts include HALO jumping, rock climbing and dangling from an elevator shaft. There is a relentless brawl scene in a men’s room where Hunt gets face planted into a porcelain sink and thrown through a wall … and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, five minutes later, he has nary a scratch and looks as debonair as James Bond ever has. However, it’s the final helicopter sequence through the mountains and cliffs of Kashmir that provide the signature moments of the film. Even with the nod to JURASSIC PARK, it’s a breathtaking scene.

Running nearly 2 ½ hours, this is the longest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and Ethan Hunt remains, along with Maverick in TOP GUN (sequel filming now), the best fit for Tom Cruise the actor and celebrity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Henry Cavill. He’s blessed with extraordinary genes – just not the thespian types. Filled with double and triple and quad crossings, whether you can follow the story or not, only the most stoic would claim you will find this anything less than an adrenaline rush … should you decide to accept. Plus, it still features one of the best theme songs ever – especially powerful with today’s phenomenal theatre sound systems. Thanks Lalo Schifrin.

watch the trailer: