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HOUSE OF HORRORS: Under the Shadow and The Invitation

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Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.

And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.

From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.

Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.

When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.

Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of  my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.

[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]

invitation

Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.

Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.

Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death.  And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.

Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.

L’ATTESA (THE WAIT)

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

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There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.

We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?

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No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.

THE MEDDLER

The Meddler:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

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She’s the friendly woman not averse to dispensing motherly advice to anyone who will listen. She’s often helping other people in need, even to the point of giving them expensive gifts that they could eventually use. She talks to anyone who will talk to her. She radiates a comfortable warmth, and yet, she’s alone. And lonely.

What a wonderful picture The Meddler is. It’s not often that I get to see a movie that will show me someone I could easily relate to, and also show me someone I could feel repulsed about, and that is what I experienced while at the Angelika. Susan Sarandon starts the movie in pure Earth-mother form as Marnie and stays there, warm, open, not a mean bone in her, a mass of smiles and open gestures, wanting the best for her daughter Lori (an equally excellent Rose Byrne) who’s trying to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. When the movie starts she’s apparently narrating the events of what will be the film, when in reality, she’s just leaving Lori a voice message, albeit a long, long, very long one. [I know mothers like that; I had a mother who did this to me on a regular basis. Yes, it drove me mad, but more about that later.]

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Lori, on the other hand, has just ended a relationship with her boyfriend Jason and doesn’t exactly want any kind of help from Marnie, but Marnie can’t seem to take no for an answer and is, as a matter of fact, completely oblivious to Lori’s need for independence. Another film might have made this a rather creepy picture of a clingy mother and her smothered daughter, but The Meddler is different. It presents to you, the viewer, a sense that this is what you will be witnessing — with the requisite blown-out argument somewhere near the climax of the film, something reeking of 80s sensibilities. Nope. The Meddler brings that event much closer to the start, and Marnie, while shaken, doesn’t let this get to her: she gets right back on her feet and while Lori is in New York securing a job, Marnie has her own adventures where she insinuates herself into the lives of others who see her as a blessing rather than a nuisance.

And then she meets a man (well, two, one played for laughs by Michael McKeon), a former cop who now moonlights on the set that one day she wanders into (of which she becomes a part of in a cute film within a film). Zipper, as he’s named, played by J.K. Simmons, openly flirts with her old-school style, and wait until you see how he later in a scene where he takes Marnie to his humble place and introduces her to his chickens (who have a penchant for Dolly Parton covers, go figure) expresses falling smack on his face in love for her. You would love her, too — she’s that kind of woman.

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Eventually, The Meddler manages to address that all this being nice to others is really just a ruse for Marnie to negate her own feelings, and here is where the movie starts to reveal layers that an ordinary sitcom-intensive plot would have avoided. Marnie is truly a helpful person, and wherever she goes she leaves an enormous smile on people’s faces, but she’s also lonely. She misses her husband. And she can’t seem to reach out to Lori.

This is a wonderful movie to watch and I could completely identify with it. Having lost my own mother five years ago to a heart condition, I now miss our arguments, one trying to up the other, how she would very much like Sarandon “meddle” with my life even though I would tell her, “Mom, for Christ’s sake I’m a grown man. I’m 40!” Nope–that would fall completely on deaf ears. To her, I was a kid, and I was her boy. How I miss that.

The Meddler is as gentle as it is deep and everyone has their moment to give performances that shine and shed light to others. It’s a wonderfully funny little picture that benefits from its three leads and never veers too far into sentimentalism. Sarandon has never in my eyes been better than she is here, playing the character I came to know as Mom and giving her a fully-blown personality, loving and carefree.  It’s a picture of finding love and acceptance within ourselves, finding the good within ourselves, a picture of helping others whom we encounter, and how wonderful is that when it happens?

FRANCOFONIA

Francofonia:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov's new film Francofonia.
Marianne, and Napoleon Bonaparte as ghosts wandering the Louvre in Sokurov’s new film Francofonia.

Walking into the Film Forum to see Aleksandr Sokurov’s newest docudrama, Francofonia, I was hoping to see something in the style or at least similar to his 2002 classic Russian Ark, a movie that in one incredible shot narrated the evolution of Russian culture through the ages while inside the Hermitage, itself a spaceship trapped in its own time out of time. Perhaps I needed to be aware that art directors tend to produce oeuvres of wildly different nature. Had that been the case I perhaps would have been more persuaded to enjoy Francofonia more.

With its introduction of Tolstoy and Chekov, Sokurov narrates Francofonia as a guide and an omniscient character. He is the cameraman slowly zooming in and out of Parisian streets, over the Louvre, inside the Louvre, showing us the Great Masterpieces of art, describing some of their history and how they and the Louvre are inexorably tied together into a massive artistic heritage. Flittering in and out of the frames are two figures, the symbolic Marianne from the liberation of France, her only line being “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!” while on the other hand, someone a little less selfless wanders the museum and points out only the works that feature him. That figure is none other than Napoleon, a ghost of his former self, still believing his greatness as something present, proclaiming, “C’est moi!” as a mantra.

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Two other narratives also come into play and tie into the greater picture that Francofonia attempts to present here — that of the preservation of art as a document of a culture (and there will be a subtle tie to the recent events in Syria, where its own works of art were destroyed by ISIS militants. The first narrative presents two men from two sides of World War II — Jean Jaujard and Fritz Mettenreich — who attempted to secure France’s artistic heritage before they could be forever pilfered by the Nazi’s as they threatened to advance into France. Lastly, there is Sokurov again, chatting with someone on Skype who seems to be with some cargo at sea in the middle of a storm. I’m going to make an educated guess that this is Sokurov’s symbolic way of narrating what would be the act of artistic theft and its consequences, but the sequence somehow feels as though it belongs in another picture and not this one. And of course, I would kill to see one made of both Jaujard and Mettenreich as they went through hoops to protect these timeless works of art.

In short, Francofonia is a strange documentary of sorts — not quite drama, not quite a recreation, not quite a history lesson, but rich with imagery if it still tends to feel somewhat flat around the edges. As a lesson on preserving culture from forces that would very much destroy it to finance their means, this is an important film to watch.

SING STREET

Sing Street. :

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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The 80s will be forever marked in my psyche as the decade that defined me, my taste in music, art, and what introduced me to the very adult feelings of love, hate, fear, courage, self-assertion, hate, all in incipient form waiting to be germinated. How curious for me to walk into the Angelika last week and see this movie which I knew nothing about and see that its main character, a young Irish boy living in Dublin, formed a rock band to impress a slightly older girl who lives across the street where he goes to school?

It could have almost been my autobiography, in a way. Seeing Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a kid who at the start of the movie we learn was placed in a cheaper — what we could call “public” school in the Caribbean — school where truants and skinheads ran amok and teachers (in this case, Irish Catholic priests) paid homage to bullying the student into submission, I could see myself at about the same age when the story starts, trying to survive in lieu of fitting in. Fitting in is not Conor’s thing: he’s too educated, to different in every step of the way, so by default he’s set to be the fall guy for every bully looking for a quick brawl.

Enter Raphina (Lucy Boynton), a girl who lives across the street from the school and could often be seen standing there in trendy outfits, almost posing if you will. Conor musters up the courage to go talk to her. He’s totally impressed by her and he barely even knows who she is, and as luck and teenage lust would have it he farts a band out of his own ass and tells Raphina he’ll be sending her a demo for his new song. The catch: he neither has a song, much less a band.

SING STREET
SING STREET

While Conor’s parents bicker constantly, his brother witnesses his first clumsy attempts at music and feeds Conor LPs of pop artists of the moment. It’s through here that Conor and a gaggle of classmates and neighbors form a band called Sing St., a band that could have very well existed in the New Romantic / Brit Invasion of the early to mid 80s (the story takes place approximately around 1985-86). They start playing cheap covers, but soon enough a synergy forms between Conor and band leader Eamon (Mark McKenna) and they start jamming on their own, coming up with some pretty sharp tunes that sound of the period. Raphina becomes their go-to model, but she has other ambitions — to get the fuck out of dodge and start anew in London as a model. She also has other problems, one of them, having an off-screen dysfunctional relationship with an older guy.

Despite the predictability of the story, I’m going to recommend it mainly because it’s every kid’s true coming of age via the catharsis of pop music not just of the 80s but of any period and time. Conor, and also his troubled older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, whom I recently saw in Glassland) have a wonderful symbiotic relationship that bolsters each other’s existence. Brendan seems to see in Conor the person he could have been and of course, pushes him to do his best and be authentic. While later events conspire to tear the brotherly fabric apart, this to me is the most solid relationship in the movie, because even when Conor and Raphina somehow become a rather unsteady item, I have serious doubts that it would last past their teen years.

Even so, much of the action is kept on a positive, upbeat note and this keeps Sing St. from becoming cloying and unbearably sad. It is a treasure trove of 80s pop tunes and the homages are all over the place, from Duran Duran to Spandau Ballet to The Cure, The Jam, Depeche Mode, but ultimately the film belongs to the kids who create and perform some remarkable tunes. It’s not exactly perfection, but I will say, I cheered when the credits rolled and even felt a dab of emotion when I saw how far these characters had come in such a compressed period of time. For the nostalgics, for anyone who lived and loved the 80s, this is the right picture to watch and play on repeat like a long MTV video.

THE MEASURE OF A MAN

Trumbo:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

The Program:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

The Measure of a Man:

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

In about 50 years, we’ll regard the events that shaped Hollywood during the Second Red Scare (also known as The McCarthy Years) and threw a bulk of its industry down the blacklist drain with pentimento. How many actors, screenwriters, directors, producers, et cetera, lost their careers, we’ll most likely never know. That others who stood accused but narrowly escaped ignominy were able to continue was nothing short of a miracle; others still would have to travel abroad or wait until the Seventies to re-establish their careers.

And then you have a group of screenwriters who resorted to the unthinkable: having to write screenplays under pseudonyms and get paid in cash in order to survive. One of them, Dalton Trumbo, already an established, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and novelist with a career dating back to the mid-thirties, was blacklisted and denied employment in 1947 after appearing before the HUAC and refusing to name names. He spent a year in Ashland jail. Once out, everyone was anyone in Hollywood shunned Trumbo. He couldn’t find employment anywhere. He was forced at one point to write a screenplay but receive no payment for it. Basically, Dalton Trumbo was ruined goods.

As a movie, Trumbo doesn’t go the typical biopic (and follows a recent trend of biopics that instead of telling a color-by-numbers chronology of events decide to focus more on the essence of a man, what his main conflict was, and the eventual outcome of it — see Steve Jobs, Born to be Blue, and Miles Ahead for other examples). Instead it focuses on his progressive struggle with the HUAC, his decision to survive in a world post-imprisonment by literally erasing his own credit from his screenplays, and his slow rise to retribution by the hands of Kirk Douglas who demanded that his name appear on the credits of the Stanley Kubrick movie Spartacus, a film that would glean Trumbo of a second Academy Award win for Best Screenplay. [His first was for Roman Holiday, a movie he wrote under a ghost name.]

One of the elements that I admired the most of the picture aside from the flawless acting from Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston who captures the flippant and indomitable spirit of a man is the archetype of the victimized hero that refuses to let his injuries define him. His decision to go into ghost writing is crucial to his character: he writes movies because he loves them, even when they’re essentially garbage. Writing, as opposed to performing, is self-effacing. A writer can be anyone and Trumbo knew that — and used it to his advantage. The fictional Arlen Hird (Louis C. K.), on the other hand, seems to represent the opposite — the writer who believes in greatness and ideologies and can’t remove that from his own self. To be reduced to working in King Films — basically a schlock studio churning grade-Z movies — was an insult. It’s probably why eventually, Hird seems to give  up and give into his disease, while Trumbo barrels ahead, even when it almost destroys his family.

Trumbo is a powerful slice of visual history that presents a slice of history where our own need to protect our freedom, ironically, curtailed it, until one man stood up and refused to be silenced.

A movie that passes a different sort of judgement is Stephen Frears’ The Program. Named for the doping program that Lance Armstrong put himself under in order to produce the stream of victories that virtually made him an unstoppable force, this is a muscular chronicle that presents Lance Armstrong as a man who starts out a competitor in a world of competitors and sees him, after a bout with testicular cancer at age 25, evolve into a superhuman monster without a conscience. Moving at a rapid-fire pace, Frears creates a frenetic, nearly ripped from the headlines retelling of Armstrong’s life, barely stopping to rest as it rushes at breakneck speed to the scandal that rocked the cycling world. Ben Foster channels Lance Armstrong to a chilling degree and is one of the principal reasons to see this movie. His Armstrong is a sociopath, a congenial monster who becomes enamored with the power of victories and his own lies. One chilling scene may reveal just how much he was driven by the need to win — as he practices the lie he will be telling the inquiring public, posing, repeating it over and over, revealing a hint of dramatic tension. It’s as shocking as, for example, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, asking us, the viewer, “You talkin’ to me? Are you talkin’ to me? ‘Cause I’m the only one here.”

I saw The Measure of a Man (La loi du marche) last year at the New York Film Festival on the heels that it was being presented as something that the Dardennes Brothers may have done. Having seen Two Days, One Night, and The Child already I jumped on the chance. The story of a man who becomes unemployed (and has to endure humiliating video interviews with younger employers who see him as either unemployable or overqualified), the slice-of-life story is almost documentary in its approach. Seeing Vincent Lindon as our Everyman going through the motions of hanging out with his wife, trying to sell their mobile summer home, and landing a job in a supermarket where he oversees attempts at theft is a treat in itself as the man acts ever so subtly, barely releasing any emotion. It’s when he realizes that his job is putting others at risk to getting fired in order to save the company money that one realizes the hypocrisy that his character is up against. It’s a cruel society, it seems, in France, and there is nothing one can do about it.

LEGENDS OF JAZZ: MILES AHEAD & BORN TO BE BLUE

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3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Born to Be Blue:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

Here you have two failed biopics that attempt to capture the most salient moments of two jazz legends, their essence, their art, and their demons. Miles Ahead, which made its US Premiere at the 53rd New York Film festival, is the better of the two just by a fraction of an inch: driven by an earthy sense of humor and gangster movie ethics, it tells a fragmented story of Miles Davis at his peak, falling in love with Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) and experiencing racism in the middle of his success, positioned against Miles Davis at his utmost worst, a ghost of who he was, turned junkie. Don Cheadle directs and stars as the the jazz master and is electrifying even when he’s a horrible human being, diddling when he should be composing, free-floating in a fog of his own doing. The whole premise of “trying to get a story for the Rolling Stone” takes a role as a Maguffin in what I saw as a crazy, near-psychedelic shaggy dog chase to get his music back from some music producers, reporter in tow, producing some truly funny stuff.

Born to Be Blue on the other hand, is mostly loosely inspired by the singular Chet Baker who was already in a bind with drugs rather early in his career while trying to attempt a movie comeback of sorts — which never materialized. Anchored solely by Ethan Hawke and Carmen Ejogo, it’s a mess, albeit a solid mess —  than one can view without cringing and it does have some visual style. . . but as of being compelling? I’d pass. Listen to the music instead and leave these legends be.

Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue are still in NYC theaters; however, you can see Born to be Blue streaming via DirecTV, iTunes, or Amazon Instant Video.

KRISHA

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

krisha

Much like the movie’s poster, which features a woman inside a bright red inkblot, Krisha is a wound about to be opened by forces she can’t control.

Invited to her sister Robyn’s Thanksgiving party, we see Krisha arrive and slowly make her way into the large family house, a place she’s clearly uncomfortable with from the word go. The meeting between this estranged character and her extended family goes with bouts of pleasant awkwardness, as they exchange hellos, short talk with that raised tone of politeness, show her around the house, the room she’ll be occupying where she meets one of the family dog, and so on, and so on. It’s a long sequence where Krisha, our main character, is seen in the edges of the frame, always, mute, a spectator in a party she may not revel in but has come to anyway, observing but vaguely lost as the hustle and bustle circles around her, restless.

Once these exchanges are over and Robyn is off to go fetch her mother, leaving Krisha with the sole task of overseeing the turkey, things start to unravel only slightly. Trey Edward Shults keeps the camera in almost constant movement while at the same time he plays some discordant music in the background that slowly begins to mirror Krisha’s own psyche (if telegraphing it a little too loudly). Interspersed in between scenes where she’s alone in the house (as other guests are huddled in their own corners, self-involved in television or small talk) are scenes with Krisha and her brother in law who seems to have been given the best lines in the picture and chews on them with gusto as he moves a conversation topic from having to tolerate his wife’s penchant for dogs (12 of them) to the topic of Krisha herself.

Which is something Krisha does not wish to share with him and thus with the movie goer. When that conversation ends, somehow, Krisha starts to progressively unravel. Moving around the house she becomes privy to a private conversation, but that’s not what interests her: we’ll come to know what it is, soon enough as she opens and closes cabinets with the stealth of a burglar.

Without disclosing what happens, it’s safe to say that Krisha morphs into the gaping wound it was always bound to be once she in desperation locks herself in the bathroom and does something unthinkable after meeting her mother, who is senile, and seeing how shut out she is from her family, especially her son. While the scene that unravels is extremely tense, it doesn’t, even then, complete the picture and leaves too many unanswered questions. All you manage to get from the movie is that the woman is clearly a walking disaster and that perhaps her sister is better off in shutting all forms of communication from there on. Other than that, this is a pretty stylish picture, with shots that draw you into the story, but leave you no closer to solving the riddle Krisha is. Where Krisha suffers the most I believe is in its dialog: too much reeks of indie dialog spoken on the improv, and how many times has one heard the “I’m just trying to find myself” in pictures like these?

Too many. Even so, Krisha is a striking debut from a young director who knows his way around setting a mood and enhancing visual suspense with even mundane elements and cutting in between time frames to present a final, broken yet intact whole.

ON DVD: THE DANISH GIRL

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

i’m going to have to admit to a pesky little secret. I’m actually glad Nicole Kidman — for all of the excellent actress she can be when she desires — didn’t get the part of Lili Elbe when she was lobbying for it a little under ten years ago. I recall after seeing her in Manderley she had become attached to the project where it languished and floated in the background until it seemed to fade away . . . that is, until it took on a new life under Eddie Redmayne and the rest as you have seen, is history. It’s not that I don’t believe she would have played the part well; I just think it was the entirely wrong project for someone of her essence.

Enter Tom Hooper, Redmayne, and Alicia Vikander, hot of a gaggle of good movies that gave her the clout to get the part of Gerda Wegener, the artist-wife of Einar Wegener who inadvertently introduces him to not just donning female clothes and posing, but discovering a greater reality — that he, in fact, was a woman trapped inside a man’s body.

The Danish Girl comes at a time where trans-visibility is making its mark in society and tells the story of the first recorded male to female transgender person with grace and sensitivity without becoming too melodramatic. On that note and many others, I would say it does a good job and there are a couple of rather striking sequences, such as when in search for a therapist to treat his ‘malady’ Einar almost finds himself committed against his will and uniformly considered to be insane and a pervert. Or the smaller moments when Einar, as Lili Elbe, smiles and lifts up her arms to cover up her chest in a coy pose, you can forget that it’s Redmayne that you’re seeing and realize this is a woman on the verge of being a fully realized creature.

Alicia Vikander, however, to me, makes the movie come alive. Much of what transpires gets displayed on her face and her character’s art: the subtle expressions of confusion and playfulness that she experiences when Einar, after attending a party, reveals he’s wearing her undergarments, for example. To that, followed by their frequent incursions into stores in what now is known as cosplay. Clearly Gerda could not know what was brewing undrneath the surface, and when she realizes just what’s happening . . . well.

There are portions of the movie that seem a little tacked on for an enhanced dramatic story, such as Lili’s fumbled romantic encounters with a male friend (Ben Whishaw) but other than that The Danish Girl as a whole is a well crafted vision of what could have been the real Llii Elbe as recorded (some events are compressed to create a more fluid storyline and technically, Gerda did leave her husband years before his transition although they remained in contact and maybe initiated a lesbian relationship, a thing left unexplored in the final film version), and I believe this movie will serve as a study for future generations on how transgender men and women would have been seen at the dawn of the XXth century.

ON DVD: CREED

Creed:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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If anyone would have ever told me that there was yet another story waiting in the wings within the Rocky Balboa saga I would have laughed out myself into a coma for reasons that are more than obvious. How many times did Rocky have to fight against an unbeatable opponent? All that was left was placing him in the ring against a cyborg, or an alien or worse, a spoof (which actually, did happen: I can’t but think Grudge Match was in some way a not so subtle jab at all the Rocky movies gone bad). No, by the end of 2015, the Rocky Balboa story had come to a close, end of the line, time’s up, shop is closing. EVERYTHING MUST GO.

But . . . of course, there is always a but. It’s a “but” that was probably born in the seeds of Rocky V. Somewhere the spirit of Sage Stallone lives on this film, but now the part of the surrogate son has been taken over by a one-time rival and later friend Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, a young man rescued from a life of possible crime and delinquency who learns of his origins and now watches his father on YouTube clips. When he leaves what seems to be a promising job in an LA firm to come all the way back East to where it all started — Philadelphia — we can sense a hunger in Adonis. He wants this, to get in a ring and fight . . . but he needs the guidance to get there. And that man is none other than Rocky Balboa.

But no, this is not another Rocky gets in the ring and fights movie — far from it, Rocky, now owner of the restaurant that memorializes his wife Adrian’s name (she has died of cancer, off-screen), is far from the passionate man he once was. He’s become a much more sedate person, speaking in quiet tones, and can offer but a meal to this kid who wants his help in training him. It’s only after some serious thought in a touching scene where Rocky visits Adrian’s grave that he relents to become the young Adonis’ mentor while keeping his identity a secret from other boxing gym owners who may want to jump in on the money bandwagon and make a quick buck off of associating with Adonis.

At its heart, Ryan Coogler has reinvented a tired old rags to richers / ignominy to fame story that made Rocky a household winner in 1976 and spun it into powerful life with some truly ferocious direction and acting from both Michael B Jordan and Sylvester Stallone that has to be seen. Jordan, much like the younger Rocky, is a reserved mask of tenacity hiding a bruised soul that needs to forgive himself before he can come into his own in the ring. Stallone now steps into the role made famous by Burgess Meredith, and I will say, his scenes are handled almost delicately — with measured weight, dignity, and the right amount of subtle pathos. Stallone’s Balboa is a tired man hiding a deeper secret, who still can “put ’em up and show a kid how it’s done. It’s his most elegant performance to date after years and years of playing uber-macho characters. Tessa Thompson is also a standout as Bianca, the girl Adonis falls for who has some issues of her own. Someone give this actress a  movie already–she’s been oozing presence now for three standout pictures starting with Dear White People and Selma.

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Creed is still a Rocky film at heart and isn’t afraid to show its somewhat manipulative streak, but you can forgive it for being so because of the near-perfect direction Ryan Coogler gets out of its story and performers. If you thought seeing Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum was the emotional peak of a man ready to get dirty, you need to see Creed’s biker sequence. It’s as operatic as anything committed to screen.

And shame on the Academy for shutting Creed out of directing, movie, and actor slots. Shame, shame, shame.