LET THE SUNSHINE IN France Director: Claire Denis Runtime: 92 minutes Language: French
Mostlyindies.com grading: C+
If there is something one can state about acclaimed French film director Claire Denis is that she definitely is unpredictable. Most directors tend to have a connected style in their storytelling, and that, one can say, defines the director’s body of work. With Denis, you can’t really say her pictures have a theme, a sense that one story somehow flows right into the other even when some of her greatest films (BeauTravail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have taken place in Africa. Her 2013 film Bastards (Les salauds) was a compelling black hole masquerading as film-noir; the movie reeked of pure, conscious evil that lay within its characters. It was almost a horror movie by way of the human exploitation (and particularly the subjugation of women to their masculine counterparts).
Her latest entry couldn’t be more divorced from the underbelly of society and is even more removed by anything she has done before. The poorly titled Letthe Sunshine In (technically, the title should read Bright Sunshine Inside) is a light as a feather character study of Isabelle (luminously played by Juliette Binoche), an artist going from one relationship to the next, each one ending in what seems to be an ellipsis. When we first see her, she’s in the middle of having sex with a married banker, That doesn’t end well, predictably so. She moves right into the arms of an actor, and then into yet an unnamed man who sweeps her off of her feet in a club to the sounds of Etta James’ “At Last“. [I sensed some perverse irony in the selection of this title, and Denis of course, delivered.]
My one problem with the movie stems from the fact that other than a leisurely paced portrait of a woman who’s basically clueless about herself and what she wants, Let the Sunshine In never quite manages to intrigue you about Isabelle’s misadventures in a way that Woody Allen’s female-centric studies do. It takes the very late entrance of a certain French actor posing as one thing, but being something completely different, to neatly explain Isabelle to us, even when she herself remains totally and tonally blind. Perhaps this is what Denis’ movie is meant to be: a snapshot of a ridiculous woman, on a love treadmill, going nowhere. Maybe I need to see this odd little film again when it reaches US cinemas (a thing that seems meant for next year). Directors love to play games on their audiences and remain one step ahead. For now, my impression is that of a movie that didn’t quite deliver despite having a brilliant star on scene for 90 minutes, living, breathing, and failing to love.
THE BIG SICK
Director: Pat Healy
Runtime: 85 minutes
Mostlyindies Grading: C–
Bad movies exist in all shapes and sizes and have only one purpose: to make you wonder what went wrong that they deserve to be considered such. Maybe it was the direction that was too flat, or too uninviting; perhaps the acting was so bad it bordered on camp; there’s a laundry list of possible misfires that could have contributed to the failure of a movie to deliver and be remembered in a good way. Tribeca, a film festival that often showcases films by new and rising directors, sometimes takes the word ‘new’ and runs with it; for a festival that showcases nearly 100 films of all shapes, sizes, and genres during its two week run in April, it can have the luxury to show several turkeys and still get away with it (and make a neat profit).
Take Me, an incompetent comedy-thriller-character piece directed and acted by Pat Healy, an indie character actor whose most notable credit was being the creepy-as-fuck voice of the ‘cop’ in the Craig Zobel indie thriller Compliance from 2012, falls under that nebulous category of bad film that makes it to Tribeca because, film, right? To explain: somehow, the movie gets selected, bows at Tribeca, and lands in VOD distribution (although it has a guaranteed slot at the midnight hour at IFC for a week or two). There, it thrives at a price of 6.99, a price much preferable than its 15 dollar tag in theaters, and people like me and you can watch without feeling cheated out of our hard-earned money and forget about it moments later. Not to digress about the film, but I guess it just shows that anyone with access to a camera can make a movie, but hey, what do I know. Let’s just say, this is one smelly turkey.
To keep it short, the premise is almost identical to the one Neil LaBute presented in his much superior Some Velvet Morning (a movie I highly recommend you watch on Prime for free if you haven’t; it’s that good). The crucial difference is that of subtlety. LaBute’s little film is a masterclass in restraint that threatens to explode between the two actors cohabiting a tense New York apartment and with dialog that melts from their viperous lips; Take Me offers no such gifts in dialog or performances and is basically blunt-force trauma masquerading as edgy cinema. From the word go we know what is happening; Healy runs an agency that pretends to kidnap people for a space of 8 hours as fetish — basically, an S & M company in which the person will be abducted, tortured, and released, all for a fee that Healy will collect. This time, however, he gets a call from a woman, Anna St Clair (Schilling) who wants to disappear for a weekend and is not afraid to get slapped around. She’s willing to pay him a plum sum upfront, mind you.
Healy takes the offer, and while the abduction sequence is still disturbing to see as it’s filmed dead on, and it’s followed by an interrogation sequence that while bizarre is still jarring, it never really makes us feel that this is something real (the movie has a lengthy prologue, and as if to nail it, another explanatory scene, with the intention of letting us know what we’re in for). Something starts to emerge in the fallout of the two actor’s encounter. It looks for a good while that Anna might not even know why she’s in the predicament and a news item seems to confirm that. Healy wonders if he’s in over his head, and tries to work things out with Anna, but Anna shifts from victim to temptress so quickly, and we never truly connect with Healy’s character, that it becomes impossible to watch except from a distance and look at the clock to see how much time there is left to this.
It is a shame because there are a couple of moments when Take Me adds little spark to its narrative: there is a side character, Healy’s sister (Alicia Delmore), who leaves a comic impression so strong that one would wish the movie had brought her in to complicate matters to a boiling degree. However, the two leads are so unsympathetic in every way that we just get to watch them go through the motions and attempt to out-guess where they’ll go next and what will the story turn into. A third act power reversal proves little cleverness in the plot procedures, and by the time the credits start rolling, I felt as though my time had been wasted by a story that didn’t quite pull it together. Take Me is not the movie you want to see if you like smart thrillers. For that, stick to The Game, or Some Velvet Morning.
HOUNDS OF LOVE
Director: Ben Young
Runtime: 108 minutes
Mostlyindies grading: B+
Inspired, it seems, by the Moorhouse Murders, a series of crimes committed by David and Catherine Birnie who abducted, raped, tortured, and killed four women (their fifth was unsuccessful) in the 1980s, Hounds of Love is a gritty exploration of the darkest forms of love between two psychopaths addicted to their own perversions. The opening is a shocker for its combination of slow-motion images of girls playing volleyball in a Perth high school, while a couple, John and Evelyn White (Stephen Curry and Emma Booth) stalk them in a vehicle. Cut to a scene later in the middle of the afternoon as the couple approaches one of the girls as she walks home and offer her a ride. The girl accepts. We later see shots of her, dead, in the White’s home. It’s all done in one short chilling series of takes, effectively laying out how matter-of-fact something as horrifying as snuffing the life out of a person can me under the right circumstances.
And of course, once is never enough. We’ll never know how many murders the Whites may have committed but it’s clear that where there was one, there will be more. And, sure enough, shortly after we get introduced to Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teenager angry over the split between her parents Maggie and Trevor (Susie Porter and Damian de Montemas), we see her on her way to a party while staying with her mother and getting lured into the White’s vehicle. The abduction sequence is so brilliantly done, because it starts out as casual conversation between neighbors, evolves into an offer that plays onto Vicki’s own innocence, then lands her into the nightmare hell that is the White house as they, in one static shot, chain Vicki onto a bed while she kicks and screams for help.
Luckily, Ben Young, the director behind this explosive debut picture, isn’t content to turn this into another version of exploitation or abduction porn. Vickie may be young but she’s not naive and look for her interactions with Evelyn to unsettle her and perhaps by doing so, secure her own freedom. Look for how delicate certain scenes between Vicki and John are handled — yes, they are perverse, but then again, how can one approach what must be suburban hell where death is certain without venturing into queasy territory? Where the movie plays strongest is in focusing on Evelyn and John and their twisted dynamics: Evelyn, implied to be a willing victim who’s allowed herself to be a puppet for John’s deviant passions, rants and rages at the very thought that Vicki could be a possible replacement in a scene where John takes Vicki into a room but locks the doors, leaving Evelyn the third wheel. John meanwhile, continues to deliver promises to kill the girl . . . when in fact he has no intention of doing so.
Hounds of Love won’t be for everybody due to its subject matter, a topic that has become almost ubiquitous on Discovery ID (if you follow some of their shows about evil women or twisted couples). There is always danger to overdo the sexual violence against a younger person and on at least one occasion it gets almost too hard to watch. However, this is a strong, muscular debut picture that is much more restrained even in its more harrowing moments. It’s to its success that it also has a trio of actors committed not only to the ugliness of the situation at hand but at their psychological make-up, Add to that a slight twist that builds to a remarkably suspenseful crescendo and you have yourselves one damn good movie and a director to pay attention to.
Hounds of Love is available on VOD via Amazon Prime. Take Me is on Netflix On Demand.
Director: Brett Haley
Runtime: 93 minutes
(4.5 / 5)
Superstardom somehow eluded him, and yet he’s still remembered as the lanky, grizzled cowboy from the 80s and 90s with the deep, resonant voice and powerful presence. A twist of irony now brings Sam Elliott back on the big screen in this intimate narrative as Lee Hayden, a man well past his prime, who’s become nearly forgotten as an actor who once had a huge hit movie in the 70s called “The Hero”, a picture that has since earned him a cult following. Now, older, withdrawn, divorced from his artist wife Valerie (a much welcomed appearance by real-life wife Katharine Ross), estranged from his daughter Lucy (Krysten Ritter), he spends time building pipe dreams with his neighbor and former co-star in a TV series, Jeremy Frost (Nick Offerman), a one-time promising actor who now sells drugs and does little else but collect old movies.
A call to appear in an obscure awards show that caters to actors who have starred in Westerns to receive a lifetime achievement award brings Lee back into the spotlight and into the attention of stand up comedian Charlotte (Laura Prepon), an occasional user who’s also one of Jeremy’s clients and has an attraction to older men. While accepting his award (and under some happy pills to coast the evening, thanks to Charlotte), Lee goes viral and begins to trend. Calls to audition for parts in big-budget movies start appearing, but Lee has serious doubts of his own self — plus, ever since the doctor diagnosed him with a dangerous form of cancer, and sensing time is closing in on him, it starts to affect him in ways he couldn’t have imagined. An attempt to rekindle with Lucy doesn’t go as planned, and he wonders where is this new relationship with Charlotte going.
I may have become a bit cynical because the cancer (or potentially fatal-disease) storyline has been done to pieces (and with much success among female-centric audiences looking for a good cry, but The Hero fires on all cylinders with the expertise of a grizzled gunslinger with a few surprises still underneath his sleeve. Never once does the story wring any emotion from you using his disease — a plus for me. In fact, Sam Elliott’s performance alone is solid gold. Here’s a man at the twilight of his years, a loner, quiet, not much of a husband it seems (a thing that he owns), even less of a father, drifting on old fame from a bygone era. The cancer-diagnosis turns up as a catalyst — but to an extent — to shake Lee up a little, make him dust himself off and see what repairs he might still be able to perform. Charlotte, a character that could have been written off as a one-scene only performance, grows on Lee in unexpected ways and boy, can Prepon bring in a grounded performance. In the end, however, this is a moving portrait of a man lost at sea trying to find his way back and perhaps, extend his chances at a second shot at life, if at all for a few. Highly recommended.
The Hero continues its run in NYC at the Village East as it moves into its second month in theaters. Go see it.