BETWEEN US

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Upon watching Rafael Palacio Ilingworth’s micro-drama Between Us I kept getting snippets here and there of John Cassavetes’ Faces played in a hipster key for today’s younger audience not used to close-ups and long, drawn-out sequences of banter. Indeed, there is a similarity borne perhaps from the need to tell urban stories of marital woes (and I’m not even going to reference Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, which yell at me or not, is also at the root of this cute little movie). A couple of thirty-somethings, Dianne (Olivia Thirlby) and Henry (Ben Feldman) are starting to go through the aches and pains of being together for six years and wonder why they’re still together. [Reader, if you’re in this situation, chances are, you shouldn’t be, but then you wouldn’t have a movie.] A simple visit to one of these overprices minimalist apartments provides ample room for all their fears to surface up like a wound that was once thought healed. Dianne wants it for practical reasons and plus, the market. Henry fears it’s too cold for his more eclectic style. Me, I just kept thinking what do both of you do to afford something that surely must cost a fortune? But I digress. It’s the jumping off platform to subsequent scenes that display how different they are, how much farther apart they are drifting, and how unwilling either one of is to confront the other. After a nasty fight both seek the company of others; Dianne drifts off to a tentative flirtation with a colleague and winds up with a performance artist (Adam Goldberg) and Henry strikes it up with a student (Analeigh Tipton, a dead ringer for Michelle Williams and probably the brightest note in this movie) who appears as a free spirit straight out of the swinging 60s. Ilingowrth’s Between Us is a bit too loose and casual despite strong performances. Even so, it does deliver the difficult premise of two people who can’t seem to be together but also don’t seem to know when it’s time to call it quits.

[On Amazon Instant Video and other VOD platforms.]

MOSTLY INDIES’ BEST OF 2016

[Originally written 1/15/2017.]

So, another year is over, and in that year I’ve seen a grand total of 392 movies. That’s a lot of cinema to sit back and spend time with. Even so, I love the action of delving into a story through visual means and just taking back its images, letting me feel emotions, letting me discover truths hidden within its layers, and appreciate the power of emotions conveyed through the art of acting.

This was the year horror movies arrived in theaters carrying a certain complexity that until recently had been lacking. Films like The VVitch, The Wailing, Under the Shadow, and The Eyes of My Mother — to name a few as there were many — are a prime example that a genre film can transcend its limitations and not just deliver the scares, but also look and feel rich in striking visuals.

It was a year that gave us four stellar performances by celebrated French actress Isabelle Huppert, who just this past weekend won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her pitch-perfect performance in Paul Verhoeven’s “rape comedy/thriller” Elle, which no doubt will receive a boost in theaters following this win as possibilities of an Oscar nomination have grown. From her tortured photographer grappling with haunting images in Louder than Bombs, her portrayal of grief following the death of a son who asks one final thing from her in Valley of Love, and her nuanced, newly single woman dealing with a ton of shit that falls on her back in Things to Come (still playing in theaters as of this writing), Huppert is to France what Streep is to the USA. [I had the chance to see her three times in person talking to the crowd about her craft, both at the Rendezvous with French Cinema and New York Film Festival, and the woman truly is a ball of manic energy, just boundlessly opening up to answer anything the audience would ask her about her roles and her craft.]

It was a year of the unusually strong “little films”. You might not know about these because they play in all but one theater per city. Such was the case of Anna Rose Holmer, who burst onto the indie movie scene with her tiny gem The Fits, a 2016 Sundance premiere which made its way to New Directors/New Films. The Fits, a story about an eleven year old tomboy grappling with her sense of feminine self while girls around her start to have seizures, features a striking debut performance by Royalty Hightower, my personal choice for best performance by a female in any category. For 74 minutes, we are focused on her character as she grapples with trying to be a part of a dance troupe while her more masculine side battles inside of her. She visually dominates the entire movie from the first scene when we see her doing sit ups, to its outstanding, lyrical, gorgeous finale.

A couple of other “little films” that left me thinking long after the credits rolled were Rodrigo Pla’s A Monster with A Thousand Heads (think of a Mexican take on Money Monster, but in Spanish and more restrained but no less powerful), Lorenzo Vigas’ From Afar (Desde Lejos), and Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call me Son. Because of them, I can find solace from the barrage of processed fat that multiplexes continue to throw at me at a relentless pace. I’m not their intended crowd; I’ll never be whom they want to entice. But these alternative pictures? I’ll sit back and watch them anytime until my eyeballs roll out of their sockets and fall to the floor.

2016 was also the year all the greats came out in droves to present what could be their best work to date: From the aforementioned Paul Verhoeven, who hadn’t done a movie in ten years and brought us Elle, to Almodovar who returned in top form with his restrained mother-daughter melodrama Julieta, and others like Ken Loach, Andrey Konchalowsky, Andrej Zulawski, Park Chan-Wook, and Pablo Larrain, who released a record three movies back to back, there was cinema for days and nights to feast upon. [As of this writing I haven’t seen Konchalowsky’s movie Ray, which premieres later this year and has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language picture, or Ashgar Farhadi’s The Salesman, opening January 27.]

2016 also brought us standout pieces like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (that for once, as a German film, did not explore Germany’s history, but instead, focused in a father and a daughter’s complex relationship while making you laugh until you split your sides). Also featured, Nicholas Winding Refn’s visual tripfest The Neon Demon, Jim Jarmusch’s meditative and haunting Paterson, Japan’s re-release of Belladonna of Sadness, Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (a film I saw originally at the 53rd New York Film Festival in September of 2015), and Ava Duvernay’s continuation of her spotlight on Black history and its repercussion in the prison system (and our overall political system) in her searing documentary 13th, which I urge people to please, please, please see.

So without further ado let me start with the movies that for me resonated the most.

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1 – LA LA LAND (Damien Chazelle, USA)
2 – ELLE (Paul Verhoeven, France)
3 – AQUARIUS (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil / France)
4 – TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade, Germany)
5 – MOONLIGHT (Barry Jenkins, USA)
6 – THE LOBSTER (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece / Ireland)
7 – JULIETA (Almodovar, Spain)
8 – THE HANDMAIDEN (Park-chan Wook, South Korea)
9 – THE FITS (Anna Rose Holmer, USA)
10 – THE NEON DEMON (Nicholas Winding Refn, Netherlands)
11 – PATERSON (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
12 – JACKIE (Pablo Larrain, Chile / USA)
13 – THE VVITCH (Robert Eggers, USA)
14 – THE WAILING (Hong-jin Na, South Korea)
15 – A MONSTER WITH A THOUSAND HEADS (Rodrigo Pla, Mexico)
16 – 13TH (Ava Duvernay, USA)
17 – SING ST (John Carney, Ireland / UK)
18 – I DANIEL BLAKE (Ken Loach, Ireland)
19 – FROM AFAR (Lorenzo Vigas, Venezuela)
20 – THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Love, France / Germany)
21 – CAMERAPERSON (Kirsten Johnston, USA)
22 – MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (Zhangke Jia, China)
23 – MIA MADRE (Nanni Moretti, Italy)
24 – THE WAVE (Roar Ulthaug, Norway)
25 – EVOLUTION (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France)
26 – LES COWBOYS (Thomas Bidegain, France)
27 – NERUDA (Pablo Larrain, Cbile)
28 – RAMS (Grimur Hakonarson, Iceland)
29 – EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)
30 – UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari, Iran / UK)

BEST UNRELEASED MOVIES of 2016
1 – PERSONAL SHOPPER (Olivier Assayas, France)
2 – I AN NOT YOUR NEGRO (Raoul Peck, USA)
3 – THE REHEARSAL (Alison MacLean, New Zealand)
4 – SIERANEVADA (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
5 – THE UNKNOWN GIRL (The Dardenne Brothers, Belgium)

BEST ANIMATED MOVIES OF 2016
1 – THE RED TURTLE (Michael Dudok de Wit, Japan / France / Netherlands)
2 – KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (Travis Knight, USA)
3 – FINDING DORY (Andrew Stanton – Angus MacLane, USA)
4 – APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (Christian Desmares – Frank Ekinci, France)
5 – BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (Eiichi Yamammoto, Japan)

BEST HORROR MOVIES FROM 2016
THE WITCH, Robert Eggers
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, Nicholas Pesce
TRAIN TO BUSAN, Sang-ho Yeon
THE WAILING, Hong-jin Na
DARLING, Mickey Keating
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, Dan Trachtenberg
EVOLUTION, Lucile Hadzihalilovic
GREEN ROOM, Jeremy Saulnier
THE INVITATION, Karyn Kusama
UNDER THE SHADOW, Babak Anvari
ALWAYS SHINE, Sophia Takal
THE MONSTER, Bryan Bertino
DON’T BREATHE, Fede Alvarez

MOST OVERRATED MOVIES
Every year brings movies that get way too much praise and positive reviews that when you go see them you wonder if either the reviewers were paid well, were high half the time, or simply went with what the “elite” decreed whether they themselves agreed to or not. Personally, I tend to believe the latter two: while some films are genuinely good, once the praise becomes adulation I tend to take a step back and assess the film with an objective eye. Usually the result is, I wind up disliking it. Am I wrong? Nope — but when a film that’s hailed a “masterpiece” fails to resonate with me, you can’t expect me to follow suit and play nice. So here they are, some of the ones I think were over-hyped to death.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Ken Lonergan
A BIGGER SPLASH – Luca Guadagnino
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC – Matt Ross
CERTAIN WOMEN – Kelly Reicherdt
AMERICAN HONEY – Andrea Arnold

PLEASE SEE THESE UNDERRATED MOVIES!
DON’T THINK TWICE, Mike Birbiglia
THE HOLLARS, John Krasinski
EQUITY – Meera Menon
KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE – Robert Greene
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU – Richard Tanne

WE get a lot of French releases during the year and 2016 saw well over 20 of them, which is unusual (in a good way). During the month of July alone there were at one point five of them all over New York City, all of them remarkably good. I’ll include a short list of what I think were the best that played last year (not including any I’ve mentioned already in my Best of 2016 list).

DHEEPAN – Jacques Audiard
FATIMA – Philippe Faucon
DISORDER (MARYLAND) – Alice Winocour
NEXT TIME I’LL AIM FOR THE HEART (LA PROCHAIN FOIS JE TE VISERAI LE COEUR) – Cedric Anger
MICROBE ET GASOIL – MIchel Gondry
THE INNOCENTS (LES INNOCENTS) – Anne Fontaine
BANG GANG, A MODERN LOVE STORY – Eva Husson
SUMMERTIME (LA BELLE SAISON) – Catherine Corsini

And then you have directors who whether they create hits or flukes march at the beat of their own drum and continue to bring solid entertainment.

WOODY ALLEN – Cafe Society
TERENCE MALICK – Knight of Cups
MARTIN SCORSESE – Silence
JODIE FOSTER – Money Monster
THE COEN BROTHERS – Hail, Casear!
SULLY – Clint Eastwood
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS – Stephen Frears

CLAIRE IN MOTION

[A review of one of several micro-indies hitting NYC theaters for their requisite one-week run, who are also available on VOD platforms.]

 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

When you see the poster, you’re apt to think that Claire in Motion is bound to be a compelling thriller about a woman trying to find out what happened to her husband who’s gone missing. That would have made a much more interesting movie than the disappointing product that ultimately got made. Claire in Motion is a restrained, static drama about grief and how a woman handles it, and while there are moments in which it seems it will evolve into a mystery, particularly that involving her inquiries at a police station and a woman Claire’s husband had gotten close with, it remains curiously static, un-involving, and doesn’t even seem to empathize with its lead. Its palette remains pale and there is nothing that stands out of its presentation (well, maybe a couple of fantasy sequences where Claire gets a visitor at night, a slight reference perhaps to Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand, another movie about the loss of a husband). That in itself is a problem because Betsy Brandt as Claire is very appealing to watch as she tries to pick up the pieces and move on, Claire’s grief evolves in a fashion that recalled, to a deegree, Olivia Wilde’s work in Meadowland (yet another movie about loss that doesn’t attempt to truly delve into a mystery and leaves its characters with unresolved pain). The issue I had with Claire in Motion was that it remains in start: never does it bother to sink itself deeper and deeper, and while we do have a scene where her anguish explodes in a moment of catharsis, it’s also packed with indie tropes — rocks piled on top of each other in a dense forest, really? — that it essentially took me out of Claire’s suffering and left me hanging. If you want to see a movie about a woman searching for answers following the sudden death of her husband, go to Krzysztoff Kieszlowszki’s Trois Couleurs: Blue (1993), a movie that also features a wife (a luminous Juliette Binoche) and her husband’s mistress having a fated encounter or the aforementined Ozon movie from 2000 featuring the recently Oscar-nominated Charlotte Rampling in a powerful, stellar performance.

Claire in Motion is available in Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes following a one-week run at the Cinema Village.

SILENCE

 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Martin Scorsese every so often veers away from his gangster-intensive based scenarios dripping in urban corruption, outrageous masculinity, and flanked by tough-talking women caught in the middle to construct movies that are so unlike him, they seem as though there was another Scorsese lurking  just underneath, hiding in plain sight but semi-sentient. His adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence is my personal favorite. For over two hours I was transported into another time and place — a New York I never knew — where everyone had his or her place in society, spoke in practiced, well-modulated tones, and dared not cross the line into gossip for fear that this could ruin a reputation (which it could). Had it been done for television it would not have been out of place in Masterpiece Theater, so elegant it was, with enormous visual cues to Merchant-Ivory productions (or if you will, an American cousin to Downton Abbey.

And yet, if you look closely, The Age of Innocence is not that much different than GoodFellas or Casino. The violence in that movie is so subtle — essentially, delivered in knowing smiles and well-timed revelations — that it breaks down a man who would rebel against his duties and live off happily with a marked woman.

Silence, Shizuko Endo’s 1966 novel which Scorcese has turned into a cinematic epic, for all its themes about Japan’s clashes with Christianity in the 1600s, is in appearances, a clash of cultures, wills, egos, and religious beliefs. Its premise, where two Jesuit priests,  Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) voluntarily travel to the mysterious, exotic Japan to report back what happened to a Jesuit priest (Liam Neeson) that has gone missing. What Garrpe and Rodrigues find there is not Ferreira, but a small group of Japanese converts within the lush greenery who view them as saviors and hide from the world that would torture them to renege their faith or die. [Scorcese films these sequences in some impressively muted colors that even then reveal so much sensuality it’s almost dizzying.]

As they continue their search, they face the constant threat of discovery by the local autocrats led by Issey Ogata who aren’t too happy that outsiders are attempting to bring, well, something alien into a nation that has thousands and thousands of years growing into and out of itself. So, it’s a shocker when an early showdown presents some of the converts having to commit apostasy in order to save themselves, and that act leads to an impressive scene of crucifixion at the sea. More intriguing is that in and out of these scenes is a Japanese man, Kichijiro (Yazuke Kubozuka) who serves at Rodrigues and Garrpe’s guide but commits acts of betrayal only to come back for repeated confessions.

Ultimately, Silence builds up to a fated encounter between Rodrigues, Garrpe, and Ogata’s character, and here is where the film comes alive: a long sequence where Ogata’s Inoue and Rodrigues face off, each stubbornly (and egotistically) disclosing their points of views on religion and what makes a man a good priest. There is clearly a point to this tense chess game, and it gets revealed later on in a scene so pregnant with meaning it threatens to overwhelm the movie. You see, the ultimate objective in Silence is not just to reveal the pointlessness in giving value to religious artifacts, but that sometimes one must make the ultimate choice on the outside but keep the flame alive, even when an entire culture doesn’t ascribe to this. Here is where Scorcese’s theme, of the man facing another version of a mafia (this case, it’s autocrats out to protect their own heritage, and justifiably so), resonates through. There will be no easy way out of this encounter, and it will most likely, as in other Scorsese efforts, leave a man broken, his faith mute in all but spirit.

SPLIT

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

And here we are, into the second half of January already and not a single new release in sight. You’ll have to go to your smart TV for that — January is usually a dumping ground for all these tiny indies that either never got a proper release in theaters and thus went straight to VOD or got them in your local arthouse theater, but also got sent to Amazon, VUDU, iTunes, and the like.

So because of this, we get either leftovers from December releases playing on autopilot for another month as they try to entice themselves into awards season, or expansions like 20th Century Women, a movie I saw at the New York Film Festival on October 8th which expands to the rest of America after a limited, late-December run. If you  miss anything in January, including the movie I will review next, don’t miss this one. It’s a fierce ensemble headed by a note-perfect Annette Bening as a family matriarch trying to secure a future for her teenage son in the twilight hours of the 1970s. I secretly hope she gets an Academy Award for her performance; she’s one of these horribly overdue actresses who have had the misfortune of competing with other, more likeable actresses who have, like Trump to Hillary, whisked the gold statuette right out of her hands, often to never measure up to that moment ever again (I’m talking to you, Hilary Swank).

Split is M Night Shyamalan’s newest film that gets dumped into the January graveyard presumably to make a quick buck during the calendar month and be well gone by the time the sequel to the horrifying 50 Shades of Grey arrives. If you’ve ever seen Discovery ID’s shows on abductions — namely House of Horrors, or Evil Lives Here, among others — you will know the premise of this, his new film. Three girls get abducted in a swift but terrific opening act that is as brutal as it is casual. And you realize, holy shit it really is that easy to dominate not one but four people in an act of sudden appearance into the fabric of their ho-hum lives and just turn everything upside down in an instant. Shyamalan keeps the camera off the abductor during these scenes, relying more on movement and tension focused on the victims.

What happens later is something straight out of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but without a John Goodman acting as a bearish captor. Instead, we get a muscular yet lean James McAvoy who looks and feels like a man you do not want to cross, ever. All these shows of psychopaths keeping their victims captive for weeks, or years, before disposing of them in an unspeakable way, and you get where three girls, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula would be scared half out of their wits but also thinking on overdrive how to potentially overpower them. I can’t blame them — with so many forensic shows on TV the insane has become, in one fell swoop, normal. You can sit down in a moment of insanity and wonder how are you going to stun that fucker who just abducted you and manage to escape with nary a fracture and your life intact.

Turns out, their captor isn’t  just a psychopath. Dennis, who goes by Barry and other aliases, has 23 personalities inside of him, all vying for control. [We don’t get to meet them all; just the necessary for this story.]  As Dennis he’s more the psychopathic creep who would do what he does to these girls, but as Barry, he’s a mild mannered metrosexual wondering where the hell is his life going that he can’t remember days and weeks on end and still thinks it’s 2014. Meanwhile, the girls try all they can to out-maneuver Dennis and escape. Richardson and Sula both wind up locked separately, while Taylor-Joy manages to do the unthinkable: befriend Dennis as a young boy, make him take her into his makeshift room, and allow her to use the radio to call out (unsuccessfully) for help. [We later in an ironic turn learn why and it makes sense.]

For a solid hour and ten minutes Split slowly ascends, tightening the knot more and more, until we come to realize that somehow,in one shape, sense, or another, these girls have to escape. We get little real interaction between the girls (who become separated anyway, and then the camera focuses only on Anna Tqylor-Joy, who following her turn in The VVitch, is very good as your Final Girl). Taylor-Joy’s character gets her own backstory, and this flashback  sequence starts revealing little bits and pieces of her character.  Interspersed within the narration is Betty Buckley (the gym teacher in Carrie) who is Barry’s psychiatrist. Buckley for the most plays her part straight, but a third act cry for help lands her in a place she’d rather not be (although even then she does manage to serve the plot developments to a T).

It’s right after the 60 – 70 minute mark that the story, which has been so far good, somehow slips its clutches and grasps for something greater. I don’t want to say any more that would amount to a spoiler. However, because I like well-made thrillers and horror movies, I believe that if you’re going to devote a lot of time to backstory that seems to be heading into something greater, you should deliver. I also am of the belief that once the story has nowhere else to go, it should end, and end there. There’s no need to escalate a climactic showdown into something quasi-operatic filled with ruminations that frankly make as sense to me as the math Ramanujan believed in. Horror doesn’t need that much, really. De Palma’s Raising Cain — a movie that Shyamalan’s Split clearly borrows a lot from — also did this to a lesser degree. If it weren’t for McAvoy, who is truly menacing — even more so than Lithgow in the aforementioned movie — I would have shut my eyes and gone to nap. He alone makes this movie work.

My advice to anyone going to Shyamalan’s movie is, go, sure, why not. It’s January Graveyard, folks: nothing to see here, come, enjoy the spoils, whatever. Just don’t expect anything more than an above average chiller curiously sterile of real horror and a rather bland pay-off.  The man who made The Sixth Sense has long, long left the building.

STILL IN THEATERS: LION AND THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

Yes, I admit it; I’ve been a shade lax in getting to the movies I saw during the Christmas holidays, but sometimes, even while sitting back and seeing picture after picture during the week one should also be gifting and mailing and preparing everything for the event on Christmas night, the last thing one thinks of is sitting down to type several hundred or a thousand words and describe how one felt during a sitting. The only new releases I saw were Garth Davis’ debut feature film Lion and the indie horror movie The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by Andre Ovredal (Trollhunter). It might seem as though I missed a lot, but having seen all of the December releases via the New York Film Festival, I felt it was okay to take a break and start mulling over an entire year’s worth of cinema, what worked, what didn’t, what was intriguing, and what was disappointing. And because I still have to complete my 2016 lists, I’ll leave these reviews brief and to the point.

LION

 

Dev Patel stars in Lion.

I’m at a loss when reading some viewers’ reactions that were in the negative to this solid debut film by Garth Davis. Lion technically should be a work of fiction. If you didn’t know anything about it or stayed during the end credits you would state it was a rather good exercise in Dickensian storytelling. However, it is not: it’s based on the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, in which the young Saroo somehow found himself in an unbelievable situation. He had gone with his older brother Guddu to scavenge for food at the train station near his village to bring home to his mother with whom they lived in abject poverty. While Guddu went searching for food into the night, Saroo fell asleep on a bench at the station. When Saroo woke up Guddu was nowhere in sight. Thinking Guddu might have gone into a parked train at the platform, Saroo went in looking for him, but got tired, fell back asleep. When he awoke, he was thousands of miles away from home in a decommissioned train, screaming for help. Not speaking the Hindi language, he found himself lost in Calcutta in a situation straight out of a novel, with twists and turns at every end, until providence or luck had him adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, both very good) who gave him a life far beyond his wildest dreams. Only that the knowledge — even that faint tug — that something was amiss kept nagging at him. Now an adult (Dev Patel), Saroo commits himself to finding his roots in India.

Lion is the visual equivalent of a page-turner that you can’t stop reading; even wen you reach the end you wish there was more. It’s also a wonderful character piece for Dev Patel, who dominates the film’s second half and speaks in hushed, haunted tones, as he delves into the mind and soul of a person who feels like a wallflower in a culture that doesn’t truly belong to him. [Patel also played a similar part in The Man Who Knew Infinity, but his role here is more subtle, but no less tortured.] Lion treats Saroo’s search with the force of a mystery and we can’t but remain riveted at the camera as Saroo tries to search, station for station, using extrapolation, the site where he may have lost his way. So focused it is on its quest that it sidesteps a budding romance with a college classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara, stuck in the thankless role of the girlfriend who suffers) and a relationship with his adopted brother remains a little more than  sketch played out in two scenes. Even so, it’s a crowd-pleaser and a sincere drama that twists and turns until it aims for an emotional payoff that will leave the viewer in tears.

 

THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

It’s pretty tough to stage a horror movie involving a corpse where all the action (well, 90% of it) takes place in one location. The final segment of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds puts a family inside their home and we, for the most part, never see as much as a bird pecking through the wood, trying to get in, but boy, do we hear them! Ovredal offers less in creepy sounds but plenty in visuals and ambiance. Somehow, every shot of his Jane Doe, a corpse of a young woman that gets delivered to the morgue where father and son (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) work. As they continue to make increasingly disturbing discoveries about the possibilities of Jane Doe’s cause of death, a sense of unease starts to fill the frame and I’d be damned if the body itself didn’t appear to become somewhat more . . . sinister, shall we say? And it’s doing literally nothing. Other than lying still, Jane Doe doesn’t display the shifting unease that other corpses have done in films like The Thing or The Blob. Nothing of note emerges from her other than a fly from her nostril. And yet, a sense that something truly evil exists in direct relation to Jane Doe prevails and continues to place both men increasingly on edge as they anticipate the unexpected. If The Autopsy of Jane Doe slips it’s because instead of continuing to dial up a sense of impending doom, midway, it goes full on crazy, effectively slipping its clutches late in the game and going for an easy way out towards the end. [And no–I’ve revealed nothing.] Even with this minor slip, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a nifty little horror movie that delivers its scares and eventual third act Final Girl without as much as a Big Reveal or an  unnecessary twist. The new thing here is, the Final Girl won’t be whom you think it is, and sets the stage for a possible sequel.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe is available On Demand through Amazon Instant Video or Netflix.

HUMOR IN GRIEF: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA AND OTHER PEOPLE

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Ever since I saw what I consider to be the best movie about grief ever made, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1988 melodrama The Accidental Tourist, I’ve been waiting for a film of this caliber to register and resonate with me. If you haven’t yet seen it or worse, you can’t remember it since it came out nearly thirty years ago, do so. It’s a movie rich in restrained performances from everyone, especially William Hurt. Here he plays a father separated from his wife (Kathleen Turner, also a walking facade of buried emotions) following the terrible death of his son. A chance meeting with a quirky dog trainer (Geena Davis, in a role that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) who has her own drama brewing in the background takes Hurt into places his character would have never gone to had he remained with his siblings. Even when Tourist veers somewhat shy of devolving into a muted soap, there’s a complete arc within the players and even minor characters, such as that of Hurt’s character’s sister played by Amy Wright) who also find their own balance.

Movies have become less straightforward in presenting their plots as of late and often wander along, letting characters present themselves, interact, and breathe. Often scenes tend to end either in a completely unexpected place to where they should have, or have no apparent resolution at all. Chris Kelly’s debut feature film Other People, which alongside Manchester by the Sea had its premier last year at Sundance, is the funnier of the two as it navigates a parent’s cancer and a family dysfunction with laugh-out-loud moments that only foreshadow what’s to come. Already we know what has happened at the first scene as the family Other People focuses on lies crying in a bedroom after some devastating  news, but Kelly takes you back to the previous year to focus on how we got here.

David (Jesse Plemons) has had a series of unfortunate events that have led him back home to Sacramento. First off, a breakup with his boyfriend, followed by a pilot for a TV show that has not been picked up. The news that his mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) has been diagnosed with cancer is the cherry on top, and while she continues to live her life at the full, David has to pretend that all is going well to keep her spirits up.

As Joanne’s cancer moves into the forefront and starts picking at her body, Kelly maintains the tone light even when it’s clear that we’re headed for the worst: the best moment in the film arrives when Joanne decides not to continue with her chemo and allow the cancer to take her. Shannon’s scene could have been played for retro-80s maudlin (the same way Shelby’s diabetes was in Steel Magnolia’s), but Shannon plays it against tears and all for inner strength and even gets laughs when she can’t decide how she’d like her body to be treated when she herself is gone. In fact, I would have preferred more of a focus on Joanne than David. While Plemons as David demonstrates he’s capable of playing a believable gay man navigating single-hood, David’s troubles compared to his mother’s pale a bit and seem to belong in another film altogether.  Shannon, in her brief scenes, becomes the reason to watch this touching little film. She owns it. [B]

Manchester by the Sea is by doubt a critic’s darling. Just go to Metacritic to see how high it rates and you’ll see. Even the lowest rating still manages to praise the film for its restraint that builds up to moments of powerful revelations of grief that speak about the nature of suffering and attempting to pick up the pieces, an act that is marred only by its central character’s mute nature. When you’re up against half a planet raving about something like this, it’s hard not to get sucked up by the vortex of  praise for the sake of it, if at all to be one with the agreeing crowd.

Reader, I really wish I could like Manchester by the Sea more. I wish I could rave about it, go over and over the way its story evolved. I wish I could feel just what the characters themselves were feeling. Something that I can’t explain distances me from Kenneth Lonergan’s movie and I think that it’s how heavy handed it is, how long it stretches out a narrative of potential healing, and how a secondary story almost took me out of the film too many times that it felt as though I should be watching something else entirely instead of a focused, tighter tale of familial woes.

If there is anything to be said in the positive about Manchester by the Sea is the fact that it’s led by Casey Affleck who as Lee Chandler anchors the film with his rock of a character. He’s unyielding to his own grief and can only seethe quietly. This is an act that starts almost too quietly: you see him in the first scene of the film going throughout his business, from apartment to apartment, performing his job in total silence even when he overhears a client practically hitting om him. A demanding customer pushes Lee’s buttons too hard, he lashes out, and then gets into a bar fight. This pretty much defines the character to a fault: this is a man who is so tightly wound he can only drown his anguish in sorrows and let loose when a perceived slight crosses his path.

We don’t know yet what happened, but much like William Hurt’s character in Accidental Tourist, we learn not only about the tragedy but how horrific it was, how it destroyed his family and even expanded to also take his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) away and drive his sister-in-law (Gretchen Mol) to drink. The only salvaging hope, which also arrives with the quality of an unwanted responsibility, comes in the form of Joe’s last will and testament. In the event of his death Joe had wanted Lee to take custody of his16 year old  son Patrick. Patrick comes with his own set of personality quirks — he’s dating two girls and has a temper issue that often clashes with Lee. Patrick’s storyline seems a bit too separated from Lee’s and seems to fill the narrative with images from a sex romp with comic overtones. I can only surmise that Lonergan felt bringing Patrick’s own comedic troubles would lift the movie from its heavier themes, but this is where I felt removed a tad.

However, the meandering plot, it eventually arrives to the scene that has to happen: the meeting with Randi (Michelle Williams) and Lee. It happens twice, but the second time around it reveals just how much of an acting powerhouse Affleck is. It is an emotional climax that offers no solutions, no comfort, only tears that go on and on. It’s a shame that much of what should have been a finer film gets lost in teenage muck that adds nothing but time to an emotional bomb that has to go off sometime. Had Manchester by the Sea been trimmed by at least 20 – 30 minutes, I would have enjoyed it more. A shorter road to a potentially hopeful future would have made this the masterpiece critics rave about.

Me? It’s a good movie trapped by a meandering sense of time and space, held together at the seams by the performances of Affleck and Williams.  [B-]