Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala are the directing duo who in 2015 chilled the entire nation with their debut movie Goodnight, Mommy. That little horror movie, which initially made its New York premiere during New Directors / New Films, introduced a clever bit of storytelling about the tenuous love-hate relationship that can happen between a struggling parent and her twin boys. The atmosphere was packed to the gills with dread dripping from every frame and there were hints that there might be something… off about the mother, who during the most of the movie was acting rather strange. Adding to that a near complete isolation from the outside world (although that house the directors picked truly is gorgeous) and an impending sense that something terrible could happen to the two brothers you had a solid little chiller that made a lasting impact while also bumming the nation with its rather horrifying ending.
The premise of their follow up, The Lodge, a movie that made its premiere at Sundance last year, is almost identical at the bare-bones level. Here we have a family devoid of warmth entering a lodge located in the middle of nowhere. Husband and wife Richard and Laura (Richard Armitage and Alicia Silverstone in a striking cameo that suggests madness just underneath her placid features) enter the frame, and you already know something is off about their body language. They’re not happy to have come here, and the father has something he needs to discuss with the wife. What he discusses is pretty much the stuff that drove the wife of Lamb to the Slaughter to the extreme, but instead of applying all that pent up rage on the husband… she smiles, goes up to her room, and blows her brains out in one cold shot.
That sets the entire movie for the events that are next to unfold. With the wife not even cold in the grave, the Richard has taken up with Grace (Riley Keough), a young woman who as a girl was the only survivor of a cult of the likes that tend to drink the kool-aid in the false belief that they will ascend to heaven, their sins purged. His two young children, Aidan an Mia (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) accuse Grace of being responsible of their mothers suicide, and are distraught that she will not ascend to Heaven. In an effort to bond, Richard takes his soon-to-be-wife and two kids up to the same lodge where the previous events occurred, because that is what you do when you want your family to come together. Grace is already showing some signs she’s a bit ‘off’ herself and we realize she is heavily medicated. You really wonder what on Earth was Richard thinking when he decided to replace Laura with Grace with disastrous consequences.
At first, not much really happens, but hints are thrown that perhaps there is something supernatural afoot. The dog growls at something unseen in the night, and Grace almost falls through the ice while attempting to retrieve Mia’s doll replica of Laura. When Richard leaves for work, the simmering hostility that was hinted between the kids and Grace takes center stage and soon the movie turns into a perverse version of Turn of the Screw with the two terrorizing themselves and Grace as things go bump in the night, the house loses power, time stops, and she begins to start having nightmares about her father that have her awakening in the middle of the night outside in the cold, with no idea how she got there. For the most, the setup is solid, if a bit aloof, and I was perfectly okay with that because disorientation and isolation make for excellent horror (and if not check The Lighthouse). It’s when matters threaten to get out of hand (and then they do) that the movie somehow doesn’t quite know how to catch up to its own predicament. We’re then left with a story heading into a chilling third act, a rather lazy revelation, and then this sudden act of violence that is supposed to somehow be horrifying but instead feels tacked on.
For the most part, the movie is a solid watch and everyone is on point, particularly Riley Keough as the damaged young woman at the centre of the maelstrom. When she first appears we’ve received so much negative information about her that we really aren’t prepared for her character to emerge as a rather soft spoken person who is just trying to act normal in a rather tense situation. [Although, this could have also gone the opposite way and have her underplay her part until we got a big reveal; it’s been done before many times.] My only issue would be how her character goes so far off the deep end once the supernatural and her own mental instability (plus other factors) collide in a perfect storm. I could, however, see a parallel between Grace’s character and Laura’s: both are victims of religion, which festers all over the house, but the demise of the first seems to bleed into the slow meltdown of the second.
Franz and Fiala clearly have solid views on how to explore the topic of family units dissolving into madness and victims of perverse systems castigating themselves for sins they have no control over. However, the latter half of the movie wrings all the suspense and the dread out of its center, rendering a family tragedy a rather cold mess that doesn’t even feature an adequate, emotional pay-off. However, if you compare TheLodge with what’s on now, this one shines with flying colors.
On its own, The Lodge is effective, but not exactly logical or memorable.
BRIGHTBURN. Country: USA. Director: David Yarovesky. Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn. Language: English. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Runtime, 90 minutes. Release, May 24, 2019. Home Release: August 20, 2019.
Mostly Indies rating: B–
Earlier in May, a little movie called Brightburn suddenly showed up in several multiplexes (mainly AMC) and with next to no promotion, no commercials, nothing. It went to score rather respectably in the box office, making back its budget in its opening weekend and emerging quite the winner despite a lack of back up of seasoned critics. I will admit that I sometimes tend to avoid pictures like these because there is a risk that they will either be truly terrible and go straight to video merely a month later, and who wants to waste even 90 minutes plus promos to sit back and watch an atrocity play in front of you? Yeah, me neither. [It’s why there will be a conspicuous lack of Fs and barely some D ratings here at Mostly Indies because… well… I just won’t.]
So I did the logical and decided to wait for its release. Now that I’ve seen it in the middle of an insane film festival I can say that this one’s not that bad, not even close. Brightburn tells the story of Superman — or at least, it uses the blueprint of the Superman mythos — and flips it like an omelette. Let me explain. So at the start of the movie we get Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elisabeth Banks and David Denman), a married couple living in rural Kansas. Right from the start their lives are upended when a meteor crashes onto their property. Curious to see what it is, they go out, and soon we learn through home video that they’ve become the parents of a baby boy named Brandon (Jackson A, Dunn). Brandon is whom they found in the ruins outside their house.
Flash forward a few years, however, and Brandon, who’s at the threshold of puberty, starts to sleepwalk around the house and is attracted by something locked behind closed doors in the shed. Elements of violence start to emerge from nowhere in his personality and he begins to display unusual feats of strength. A crush on a schoolgirl yields incredibly creepy results, found drawings underneath Brandon’s bed paint a picture of emerging, disturbing attractions, and before you know it, Brandon seems to be morphing into a rather scary psychopathic young boy bent on getting what he wants and at any cost and he has the nascent superpowers to use them at will.
Much of the success at Brightburn depends on the fact that it is extremely economical and makes use of its budget rather well, to the point that you would think a lot more money had gone into it. [It only cost a little north of 6 million to make.] Its pacing is on the faster side, but not too much that you miss any character development. Banks and Denman create a believable couple facing something straight out of a nightmare and their reaction, from denial even at the face of evidence to eventual recognition works because most parents often believe their children, monsters or not, are the best. [And if you don’t believe me, take a look into another couple facing a son they soon start to realize they don’t recognize anymore in the outstanding movie Luce (now on home video). And in that one, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, actually hinders an investigation by hiding crucial evidence, a thing that comes to haunt her in the end.]
I just wish that Yarovesky would have allowed his movie to create a little more suspense in its scenes involving Brandon, once he starts stalking his neighbors. Some of the scenes happen in a manner that look a bit too flat and don’t leave for much tension. An early confrontation in a diner between Brandon and the mother of a girl he’s attracted to feels rushed (despite some gore). Yet another sequence, while unbelievably gory, also fails to have any build up but just “happens”. See, to me, horror movies in general should invoke a creepy buildup that places its characters in an increasingly arena of danger. The deeper they wade in, the more we realize they are in for a nasty surprise. Here, much of what happens does so in a prompt, efficient manner, and it made me feel a bit flat.
Other than that, Brightburn is a slick little horror film that can stand on its own without the Superman lore. If you took that away you’d have The Bad Seed with the gender flipped to male. Its just a bit too eager to get to the gore and that is what may take from its impact of a boy gone wrong.
DOWNTON ABBEY. Country, UK. Director Michael Engler. Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes. Based on the PBS series of the same name and characters created by Julian Fellowes. Cast: Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Tuppence Middleton, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Imelda Staunton, Harry Haden-Paton, Raquel Cassidy, Robert James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Michael Fox, Lesley Nicol, Brendan Coyle, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Max Brown, Susan Lynch, Simon Jones, David Haig, Philippe Spall, Douglas Reith, Perry Fitzpatrick. Language: English. Release Date: September 20, 2019. Runtime: 120 minutes.
Mostly Indies rating: A+
It had to happen. Even though it ended four years ago amidst much drama and fanfare and lots of Kleenex, the series we know and came to love, Downton Abbey, came to an end, and left us Anglophiles with not much to hold on to. While Masterpiece Theatre consistently has brought to life countless shows, some with their own spin-offs, none it seems has resonated with so much verve as Downton, an exploration of (what else?) upstairs and downstairs life at the turn of last century, something that R. F. Delderfield could write in his sleep.
This time, director Michael Engler pulls out all the stops. Even when every episode had the characteristic of a one-hour movie and often was treated with much care and cinematic attention to detail, when we see the movie that is Downton Abbey, we are in for quite the experience. A letter, a very important letter, is on its way to Downton, and its travel is treated with enormous suspense, with the music by John Lunn waxing and waning so beautifully you can’t but help but hold your breath, Once it is clear where it’s headed, cameras floating over the hills reveal the majestic castle, and thus begins the wistful, melancholic, rich theme we have come to know and love. The camera continues to move and pan and zoom in and out, giving us snippets of life at Downton, with Andy (Michael Fox) receiving the letter, Daisy and Mrs Patmore (Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol) going about in the kitchen, in and about the many, many rooms, where we see Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery) discussing business (as it’s clear she’s the one who runs the house). It is a remarkable way to introduce practically everyone who lives and works in Downton, and if you are new to the story, it probably doesn’t require you to have seen the series, as Fellowes has left his people intact, with some slight changes. Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) now runs the house as butler alongside Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and is actually a nice guy. Retired butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) tends to his garden. Other than that, it is business as usual: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) continue to exchange barbs (although, let’s be real, those two love each other in the same way Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), for once, happily married, don’t. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who had attempted life in the US, is back. Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? Absent, mostly. The Bates’ (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt)? Check. Lady in waiting Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy? Check.
Missing, but mentioned? Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond), and that’s okay, We have new people to introduce, and that letter I mentioned is precisely why Downton begins that way. It turns out that the letter is coming from none other than Buckingham Palace itself. The King (Simon Jones) and Queen (Geraldine James) are coming to visit, since they are performing a tour around the country’s royal residences as a move to espouse the importance of the monarchy. Man the harpoons! Everything has to be picture perfect down to a science. Not having it is Daisy, who voices her more modern opinion that this is all a colossal waste of time, and of course, we side by her, but of course, we don’t really care, because let’s face it, Downton.
Also not quite having it but willing to suffer is Violet. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is also Robert’s cousin once-removed and there has been a falling out over an inheritance that has left the families all estranged.
Interestingly, the real drama starts once the King and Queen’s staff arrive. Richard Ellis (David Haig), the Page of the Backstairs, behaves in a manner that is so offensive he reduces Barrow into absolute timidity. Lady Mary has no other choice but to bring the reliable Carson back, but even that has no effect on the Royal Staff who continue to act as if they own the house and none of the Downton staff even exist. This puts a monkey wrench in the plans of almost everyone involved: Mrs Patmore sees her cooking will not be put to service, Mrs Hughes finds herself relegated to the background, and basically everyone is forced into a corner. In the meantime, Anna Bates who really needs her own show where she plays a Miss Marple character, has put her sleuthing to good use, this time with a Royal Staff employee with a penchant for legerdemain.
Midway up the stairs, Tom Branson has been approached by a stranger with ulterior motives, and Branson finds himself somewhat out of place with the sheer spectacle of it all while he also serves as a counselor to Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) who finds herself trapped in a marriage to an abusive man and he also finds possible love with Maud Bagshaw’s maid Lucy (Tuppence Middleton). Busy man.
Interestingly of all is Barrow’s own storyline. Barrow is the only downstairs character who other than being basically a bitter bitch through the entire show never quite had a storyline that would be satisfactory. He makes friends with one of the King’s footmen (Max Brown). It’s only too bad that Fellowes doesn’t take the opportunity to make this meeting a bit more pregnant with some foreboding of times changing the same way he is so verbal with Daisy’s snarling against the attention to pageantry. But, perhaps had this been a three-part miniseries or an official sixth season, that would have been a bit more fleshed out.
There is not a thing I can really say against the movie version of Downton Abbey (other than some plots move at cannonball speed and everything gets touched with such a light tone as to leave the viewer as though he saw it all through an impressionistic fog, but caught only the most salient of the best of the menu. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount of attention to period pieces, detail, gowns, lighting, because again, this isn’t your average 40 inch screen. The writing is often on point and of course, the best and bitchy lines go, hands down, to Maggie Smith, Probably a minor quibble is the way Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville seem to have reduced their characters down to befuddled spectators on the side just enjoying a life of pure privilege, but that is just a side observation. Judging from box office receipts, it looks like America really, really loves royalty, castles, and intricate family plots involving heirs toe and whatnot that only serve to remind that this is a life that once was privy to a handful. Do not be surprised if we in 2021 or 2022 see a further iteration of Downton.
If there is any city on Earth that can offer more film festivals of all shapes and sizes for the movie lover than New York City can I would love to see it. And yes, I may be a tad biased because I’m from New York myself, but bear in mind, when you live in a city where film simply happens, all over, in the subways through the lens of the casual iPhone user with a penchant for short little scenes of the quotidian or self-referential; when you can walk into any neighborhood and spot a film crew rehearsing a scene; when you have not one or two but close to two dozen art-house theaters offering some of the biggest film events in the world, you begin to realize just how intensely, New York breathes cinema, all over, and how omnipresent cinema as a perpetually evolving story complete with characters, is.
For reasons of geography and commute issues that I won’t go into here, BAM Cinemafest had been one of the few film festivals that I had yet to experience. For some reason, the ghost of having to commute to Brooklyn, even when BAM Rose Theater is a couple of stops away from downtown even on local trains, refused to go away. I’d received an invitation to come see Diana Peralta’s debut (and World Premiere) film De lo mio, and upon checking the roster, I decided to on a lark try a couple more, one of them being The Farewell, which is playing now in theaters and made its NYC Premiere June 12th as the Opening Night selection, the other being Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence, which will receive its US release September 20th before heading to streaming platforms.
A little over a year ago, had anyone asked me who Awkwafina was, I wouldn’t have been able to give a reply. Not until her breakout supporting turn in Ocean’s 8 alongside marquee names like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett and her equally hilarious role in Crazy Rich Asians, plus her standout bonkers presentation at the Oscars earlier this year, did I take notice. And suddenly, there she is, a comedic force of nature that in her third movie, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, is giving a performance so lived in, so natural, so sad and full of angst that doesn’t draw attention to itself and she still manages to make you crack a chuckle even when the facade that makes the story’s foundation is threatening at every turn to implode at the seams, that it’s almost a wonder that she hasn’t been in movies more. In The Farewell, she plays Billi, a Chinese-American New Yorker who on hearing her grandmother, affectionately called Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer, drops everything to return to her native China to be with her during her last days. Billi’s parents, and by extension, the entire family, decide not to tell Nai Nai of her condition, and stage a false wedding between a cousin and his Japanese girlfriend as a reason to all converge together. It s a ruse that pays off as Nai Nai becomes fully involved in the preparation for this spectacular event. Meanwhile, Billi, neglected and moping around the corners, witnesses everything with a growing sense of unreality. Torn between the need to reveal this news to Nai Nai and her own sense of keeping with the family’s decision, she’s a tangle of tension just waiting to explode at the seams, and it in fact presents itself in some awkward family confrontations, most notably with her mother Jian (Diana Lin).
Despite the premise, The Farewell never descends into maudlin, and more often than not deviates from the premise of Nai Nai’s impending death to focus on cultural clashes. One that is played for laughs happens at the expense of the cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Han) getting married to his Japanese girlfriend. Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Another, a bit more true to the unspoken truths that exist in most families with relatives overseas, is the reality of Billi’s parents who left the Chinese mainland for a better life in the US. Billi’s mother is especially outspoken at times about her disdain for the country she left behind and a wonderful, tense scene develops when parents start comparing one country against the other. Most notably, the clash of cultures comes to full focus between Billie herself and Jian. Billi wants to comes back to China, a thing Jian is firmly opposed to. What kind of opportunities could China give Billi? Billi, on the other hand, feels that she has lost a part of herself, that having moved to the US stole this portion of her heritage that she is trying to figure out, and watch the performance of Awkwafina as she delves into these themes: it’s a revelation to see her carry this awful weight of displacement on her perpetually hunched shoulders.
Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is simply a beautiful love letter to her own China, a fragment of her own self, her past, and potentially, her future, seen through the eyes of a family coming to terms with the death of its matriarch. An assured hand makes it never venture close to manipulation but simply, let the story unfold itself at a natural pace, and reach its marvelous conclusion. I hope that it gets the expansion it most decidedly deserves as it’s only been playing at the Angelika since July 12.
Mostly Indies rating: B+
“The Sound of Silence”
This is an odd bird of a movie, and of course it would star Peter Sarsgaard, an actor that can pop up in mainstream feature films like Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, but stand out in minor indies like Michael Almreyda’s Experimenter, a role that is not too far removed from the one he plays in Michael Tyburski’s debut feature film The Sound of Silence. Here, Sarsgaard is the introspective, almost withdrawn Peter Lucian, a man whose career in music didn’t pan out, but left him scarred and eking a life as a professional sound tuner. The profession is as vague as heck, because it involves Lucian staying for hours on end in a client’s apartment, listening attentively for even the tiniest of vibrations, in order to find the source of discomfort for the tenant (or apartment owner) and fix it through tuning via either replacing a discordant appliance with another one that has more pleasing sounds, or simply removing the source altogether. For New Yorkers living in a city that never sleeps, Lucian has become the go-to commodity if a little eccentric — a 21St Century shaman for sound and sound comfort if you will, and his profession indeed has a link to the actual science of sound and sonic vibrations. He also hopes to publish a discovery he’s made about how the City is a network of these sonic tones and how each tone affects a neighborhood, and its inhabitants, a certain way.
In the midst of this, he encounters a new client, Ellen (Rashida Jones). What starts as another protracted, awkward dance of tuner meets skeptical client slowly starts to go out of its frame and into an outer layer of comfort. Ellen is an outsider herself, having moved only recently to New York City. His attentive nature towards resolving her issue — which turns to be coming from an appliance that he promptly and politely replaces — morphs into one that has the faintest glimpses of something romantic, but not quite physical. You see, his replacement doesn’t work on her, but she, nevertheless, becomes drawn to him, his demeanor, his quiet intensity bordering on the neurotic. This is an odd love story in which the characters have little chemistry to hold them, but they themselves can’t but escape each other, and Tyburski keeps them often together for several stretches until the cracks in what constitutes both Lucian’s passion (or obsession) for sound (and his discoveries), and Ellen’s attempts at drawing the person hiding inside Lucian start to come between them. This is a clever little story that never quite warms up on the audience and in fact, it is filmed in a tapestry of grays and browns, perhaps indicating the dullness that both characters (but mainly Lucian’s) is trapped into. If anything, the film is defined by sound, and the lack of it. Tyburski’s New York is almost pregnant with hums and drones and this makes for quite a view; however, the true story of a man trapped inside his own obsessions is the root of The Sound of Silence, and with Sarsgaard’s affected portrayal, one can only hope that by the end, he’s managed to escape his own shell and join the living world.
Mostly Indies: B+
“De lo Mio”
Diana Peralta’s De lo Mio, which roughly translates to “My Own” or in this case, “My Blood” is a gem of a movie that one could say forms a perfect parenthetical bookend to the opener, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Here we’re also introduced to the topic of alienation from your heritage in the story of two sisters, Carolina (Darlene Demorizi), and Rita (Sasha Merci), who have arrived to Santiago, Dominican Republic, to alongside their half-brother Dante (Hector Anibal, a dead ringer for a younger Denzel Washington and with the role with most depth), decide what of the belongings and family memories they will keep and which ones they will dispose. The property in question is a large, sprawling mansion covered in lush vegetation that has been sold to developers, and is worth nothing — only the land is. When the sisters try to raise an argument as to why does the place need to be bulldozed, Dante pretty much lays down the law and informs them that unless they can come up with the equivalent of 400,000 dollars, the destruction of the place will be inevitable because in Dominican Republic the land is the only thing that has value. What’s on it, can be replaced, anytime. The sisters would rather conserve the house due to sentimental reasons, and in a way, the house in which they grew up in becomes a silent fourth character that silently asks the viewer, what happens when the last living connection to the homeland and your own cultural identity is set to be destroyed?
Diana Peralta hasn’t any easy answers, and De Lo Mio doesn’t try to answer them in its short running time. As a matter of fact, much like The Farewell, the question of identity doesn’t present any kind of satisfying answer: all Carolina and Rita do is accept the situation for what it is, and while cleaning up the mess of items that paint a ghostly picture of a family that does not exist anymore in the traditional sense, do a little playacting and quietly skirt around issues involving Dante that Dante himself would rather not discuss. It’s clear that there is some unresolved tension between the siblings and their geographical separation is more than just a fissure in their relationship. Growing up in the US, I could relate to this: having a half-sibling myself who was largely raised in the Dominican Republic, there was a clear and distinct hierarchy in how we were raised. It seems that Carolina and Rita got the better shot at life and it shows in the somewhat entitled way they act. Dante, on the other hand, it seems wasn’t the father’s favorite, and suffered for it. While remaining behind, he has handled the family’s affairs and is really the only one who knows the ins and outs of a country and its laws, a thing neither Carolina and Rita do.
De Lo Mio packs a lot of character observation in a short running time; I almost wished that it had lingered on a bit more, perhaps centered just a tad more into the three siblings, leave a more satisfying resolution to their situation. However, and being a story firmly entrenched in realism, De Lo Mio doesn’t delve too deep in its hurts and scars and leaves that for its climax, which arrives in the most casual and natural of forms. The threesome’s acting is superb — you truly believe these could be brothers and sisters caught in a situation without a definite sense of closure, and Diana Peralta unifies their relation in almost every scene they are in, which is almost the entire film,. A standout sequence is one that also manages to insert the color of the Dominican people front and center. While it technically is a movie trope to have a musical scene, here it absolutely makes sense. For people to whom merengue is life, the usage of the classic “Compadre Pedro Juan” and how the siblings react by moving to the music is as natural as the country’s greenery.
There is not a shred of romanticism in De Lo Mio. Peralta let’s her story settle, breathe, and take its natural course without any force nor manipulation. She exposes the secrets and sadness of a house with an expiration date and a haunting legacy. Whatever the sisters take — we never do see the entire house cleaned up — will be of a symbolic nature. These are heavy themes for a director’s first feature film. I loved it, it resonated, and is the latest and strongest entry of films made in the Dominican Republic that have emerged from the indie scene.
IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (JUSTE LA FIN DU MONDE)
Director: Xavier Dolan
Runtime: 98 minutes
Mostlyindies’ grading: B+
Even though It’s Just the End of the World is based on the Jean-Luc LaGrace play of the same name, this could very well be yet another of director Xavier Dolan’s incursions into his own semi-autobiographical movies which deal with overbearing mothers and overall family dysfunction (and if you haven’t seen them you should; starting with his striking debut film I Killed My Mother and culminating in Mommy, he has amassed an impressive body of work based mainly on variations on a theme.
His seventh movie more or less delves into familiar Dolan territory: Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a famous writer, has returned home (pretentiously titled “Somewhere…”) to make an announcement. He hasn’t been home in 12 years, so when we see his family — punkish younger sister Suzanne (Lea Seydoux) arguing with her mother Martine (Nathalie Baye), while older brother Antoine (Vincent Cassel, vicious) glowers on and his wife Catherine (Marion Cotillard, cast against type playing a soft spoken bumbler of a woman) anticipates in quiet timidity — we know that something already is not right. The second Louis walks through the door they shower him with affections and praise and the occasional family banter, but it’s a set-up for something darker that makes its way rather quickly.
We never know why, but it seems there is some unspoken tension in the room between Antoine and Louis. Antoine is fast to turn not just mean but downright vicious at the very presence of Louis in the house and take every chance he has to sour the moments of happiness Martine and Suzanne experience. During all this, Louis ponders on his announcement — the right time to make it — while he spends time with his family, mostly in conversations about the past as they inevitably rehash and occasionally reveal some resentment in his success and his return to the house. These conversations invariably turn sour and it’s clear that perhaps returning was perhaps not the best idea, especially where are unhealed wounds that no one will talk about.
Xavier Dolan uses his technique of filling the screen with his characters’ faces to achieve a sense of claustrophobia and it works; I often felt repelled by almost all of the characters — Louis included — at one point of the other. While Louis emerges by far as the most sympathetic, he has no strength, it seems, and does next to nothing to stand up for himself; instead choosing to suffer in pained silence as his family prattles on in staccato rhythms about this or that, occasionally lapsing into spurts of verbal violence that sends them off in different directions, as if too afraid to even sit down together. As a matter of fact, there is a palpable sense of something terrible and unspoken just lingering underneath everyone’s mind, but neither the playwright nor Dolan explore it, leaving the viewer somewhat up in the air with a sense of “well, it’s clear the brothers hate each other, but no one knows why”.
Perhaps Antoine envies the life that Louis has been able to lead. He is the most antagonistic of them all, Martine being basically the mother in Mommy, redux, and Catherine the stuttering teacher in the same film. [The only one who seems to be her own creation is Suzanne.] Antoine, however, is an enigma — is he homophobic, or simply a man full of self-hatred and contempt that perhaps the younger brother made it while he marinated in a low-paying job making tools? We’ll never know; Dolan does not give us answers. In a way, this is closer to Woody Allen’s Interiors, in which that family was also on verge of destruction because of some inner fracture that has divided them all.
What is true is Dolan continues to deliver on his films (despite other critics’ negative reviews). The man knows how to tell a character study of people caught in a hell called home, unable to leave, as the people in Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel.
It’s Just the End of the World is available on Netflix.
IT COMES AT NIGHT
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Runtime: 91 minutes
(5 / 5)
Some Great Thinker once quoted, “Hell is other people.” Trey Edward Shults’ second feature after last year’s domestic drama Krisha doesn’t stray too far from its domestic roots, but plunges its central family into a horror that can only be called Hell on Earth. We don’t know what happened, or didn’t happen, or how things came to be as they are when the movie starts, but the world of It Comes At Night seems to have nosedived into complete societal chaos. Something is out there killing everyone it comes in contact with, and you have a chance to do two things: live by your own selfish wits or die. It is as simple, as brutal as that.
As a matter of fact, it’s so brutal that the film’s opening sequence is probably should set the tone for what we’re about to see: a family, wearing protective gas masks and gloves, gently but with an undertone of steely determination, lifting an old man with festering boils on his skin off from a bed and onto some sheets. The family — Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), Paul (Joel Edgerton), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison), then drag the moaning older man out into the woods, away from their house’s vicinity, throw him into an open grave, to where Paul proceeds to shoot the man point blank in the head using a pillow to mask the sound. We soon learn this was Sarah’s father, who contracted the feared virus. They return back to the house. Welcome to the New Normal.
Silence and isolation can’t, of course, continue for long, Someone breaks into their house believing it to be empty. Paul is more than ready to kill the intruder, who turns out to be Will (Christopher Abbott), a man with a wife and young son who’s been walking for 50 miles or so to find shelter and food, and after holding him hostage and at the mercy to the elements and whatever is making people sick, and at Sarah’s urging, he decides to accompany Will to search for his family and bring them back to the house, a task that doesn’t come without dangers — since now the law of the land is pure lawlessness.
Once both families come together, the tension eases only for a few scenes, but when one of Will’s stories doesn’t quite check out, Paul immediately reminds Sarah and Travis that they can, no matter how much they’d like to, trust anyone. This turns out to be a problem for Travis, who’s only 17 and strangely drawn to the new family (especially Will’s wife played by Riley Keough) while having stress nightmares of his own which seem to be eroding at his own sanity. And the sheer claustrophobic nature of this house doesn’t help matters. While outside shots indicate the house can fit well above six people, all we get are narrow as fuck hallways lit only by battery operated lamps and deeply shadowed rooms offering no warmth and a lot of enhanced paranoia.
As a matter of fact, the entire movie is a claustrophobic nightmare — the woods seem to creep towards you, roads are winding and sinister, and even daylight can’t seem to bring any sort of comfort. You can almost feel eyes all over the place, watching you from a distance, ready to pounce.
So, what is it that comes at night? We never truly know, and again, this is my kind of horror — the type that firstly, never tries to explain itself too much (although we do get a brief glimpse at a painting by Brueghel which drives the collapse of humanity home. Secondly, it is nihilistic to a fault. Every character is living solely out for there bare survival. Innocence has checked out, hope is merely a word, and even smiles on a face look furtive and nervous, and there is that awful door at the end of the hallway that Shults keeps panning towards and through. I’ve never seen anything like this, and it alone gave me chills.
I like my horror as esoteric as it can be — no Annabelle for me (It was shown as one of the coming attractions and I’ll gladly skip it’s sudden flourish of shrieking sound and the doll’s jerky movements, thank you). Nothing is as horrific as what man can do to another man through the terrors that live within his mind, and to be honest, This remarkable film comes at the perfect time in Trump’s governance, where society risks on becoming a savage rendition of every man for himself and kill anything that may seem to be a threat. If you don’t walk out of the theater with a knot to your stomach, then you must be a psychopath.
Director: Bart Freundlich
Runtime: 103 minutes
You know when you walk into an establishment, say, Mexican, and from the split-second you step in, everything — from the decor, the placement of the bar, the food, the service, down to minutiae like the water being served — looks and tastes and feels exactly the same as a dozen other places you’ve been to around the country? This is what I felt when I saw Bart Freundlich’s sports drama Wolves: so many other movies have come before it that depict much of the events that transpire in his movie that I felt like I was watching something of a greatest hits section of a family going through a crisis and a young man trying to score for the team even when the odds are stacked up against him.
The premise: a jock that’s really a good guy has a difficult father (Michael Shannon, totally in the wrong film) whose antics get out of control and threaten to derail his son from his ambitions. Luckily for them, this is at heart a feel-good picture that is set to the motions of delivering — and why shouldn’t it? Considering the level of turmoil that the cast is put through it’s only justifiable to give them a moment’s reprieve unless it would turn into a Manchester by the Sea type of film in which there really is no way out of pain and tragedy. If you’re a die-hard fan of Michael Shannons’ work as I am you will like this movie; if you hate sports, stay away; Wolves in short is the equivalent of a derivative story you’ve seen many times before, and because of that it’s also unremarkable.
I’m a little surprised at how many critics have been raving about Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was one who for a while was intrigued by it (and the fact that I missed it when it first came out) because of its grim topic of lone killers and the aftermath they leave. When I finally sat down to watch it, however, something about this movie, which in my opinion shouldn’t be on a bad movie article, didn’t resonate. Something was tonally, visually off from the get-go, and too much time was spent in framing Tilda Swinton (whom I normally love in anything she does, although she has appeared in a couple of clunkers like this year’s A Bigger Splash) in bold reds over and over and over again, and then having her act so arrogantly through the entire affair it was next to impossible to feel anything for her character.
For those who haven’t seen We Need to Talk About Kevin, this is the 2011 movie based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver. The story depicts a mother, played by Swinton, coming to terms with the devastation that her son (played by Ezra Miller) has left behind following a school massacre. For the initial portion I was hooked, wanting to know more about what could have made this privileged child turn into such a murderous, soulless monster, but the problem lay basically in casting. Swinton, for all her visual presence, is completely wrong for the character of a mother unable to control her preternaturally psychopathic son. When you see her, you think, “Oh, please. One cold stare and she’s got this by the horns.” Nope. It doesn’t happen. It never happens. We see the son manifest symptoms of early rebellion that will manifest itself much later as an outcry of sheer violence. We see Swinton react . . . but not much. She alternates between looking caught between two emotions, deer in the headlights and deer wondering the make of the vehicle that just struck her. So out of touch if her character that we wonder if there will ever be a conversation that spells out the title of the movie. A caveat, and it’s not a spoiler: don’t wait for it. instead, watch for Gus van Sant’s excellent, devastating Elephant.
I can say that many affluent families that I was associated with in my childhood had this thing where no problems of any kind were discussed or mentioned or even referenced. It just didn’t happen. If there were any issues, those involved suffered in silence. In time they could let the bile out of the bag and make those affected go to therapy. Who cares? So in a way, the fact that this family, uber chic, living in a fabulous home filled with contemporary sterility, has no soul. The father? He’s nowhere to be found. John C Reilly seems to have checked out and left it all to chance. That leave the story nowhere to go but into the red. Now, my other contention is, and yes, this is a spoiler, arrows? Really?
Look, I get it. Sometimes you want to lessen the bloody impact of a reality all schools must face in the light of Columbine and all that follow, but to make a bow and arrow a part of a tragedy and not have anyone on board — not guards, security, anyone — tackle this crazy down and somehow subdue him? That’s the most egregious example of a plot hole if I’ve ever seen one. There is no way — nope, not a single one — that Kevin would have been able to inflict as much harm the way he did before a couple of school jocks would have taken his shit down, all the way down. We live in a reality of guns, and guns do inflict almost unbearable harm.
But . . . .this is an artistic movie, I guess, based on an actual novel, and where there is an audience, there will be sales, so those who bought it and read it believed it and stand by it. And that’s okay. I personally loved a couple of artistic aspects of We Need to Talk About Kevin but it was probably a fraction of a whole. That doesn’t save it from me giving it the axe.
I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THIS HOUSE
(2 / 5)
Oh, boy. Shirley Jackson must be thrashing in her grave right now. Here we have a movie that shamelessly rips off her narrative style down to details — the dry humor with a wink, the stoic omniscience of the lead — and makes no attempt to create something new with it. Osgood Parkins, its director, has taken the well-worn story of the governess and the old, dark house and given it a modernist, minimalist spin. You can start going down your checklist as I type this: old house? Check. Things that go creak in the dark? Of course. Things that move on their own? Yes. Something invisible that seems to want more than one is willing to give? Bingo.
If you can, check a little horror movie called Darling by Mickey Keating. That’s all I’ll say here, because I won’t spend more than I have to wondering what was it that made this little experiment of a horror movie suck so badly. When you have atmosphere and nothing else there is only so much you can do before one wonders when one can change the channel or switch to a better, more dramatic film. Mind you, I’m not above slow burns with a pay-off. Those are the best. Even something more commercial as Don’t Breathe by Fede Alvarez and produced by Sam Raimi has only two jumpscares that make total sense to the plot instead of being there to make you jump . . . but nothing else. This one, with its long, elaborate title, looks more like a movie filmed for video only — you can see right through its seams when the horror appears, and all you are left are with ominous external shots of the house the events purportedly take place in. That doesn’t make this even remotely good.
I do hope that Perkins will come up with something better. This is a first film and mistakes happen. Maybe I saw it wrong, but I’ve seen a lot of horror since I was a child and this one made me irritable. Even names like Paula Prentiss and Bob Balaban, stalwarts from the 70s, helped not an iota. What a total waste of time.
When I saw The Family Fang in mid April when it came out after premiering at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival I flatly didn’t like it. That’s not right. I didn’t just dislike it; I felt it was too much of an unresolved bore and I had wasted just under 100 minutes of my time. I honestly can’t explain why I felt this way; perhaps it had to do with the parents who never seem to know when to stop with the antics that make up the Fang’s quirky fame. Alright, maybe it had more to do with this one aspect of the movie. I just couldn’t relate to this bizarre level of family dysfunction because it just seemed too constructed and just plain weird and cheapened its entire premise for naught. But because of that, I held out on writing anything. Something told me to wait for the DVD premiere and view it.
So here I am on a plane headed back from LA to NY and I have five hours to kill. I see that one of the many movies offered is Patrick Bateman’s The Family Fang. I figured, why not, this is my opportunity to see it again, cold, unbiased, and if I still didn’t like it, so be it, I didn’t and that was my final verdict.
So here it goes: The Family Fang is something of an implausible dramedy of family mechanics that manages to work based more on the strong performances of the lead actors (which also include Nicole Kidman and Patrick Bateman, playing siblings and Christopher Walken and MaryAnn Plunkett as the parents), and the way Bateman brings this rather odd fish of a story onto the screen, than the story itself. It’s a stronger film than Bateman’s previous Bad Words, and its topic, based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson, doesn’t allow for soft endings or even that you relate to the events on a personal level. The performance art that dominates the lives of the Fangs seems to be a motif for an inability to truly relate to one another. From the time Annie and Baxter were kids this is all they’ve known: dad Caleb and mom Camille (Jason Butler Harner and Kathyrn Hahn) stage surreal montages for the public to make a reaction, and usually end it with shock value. Caleb and Camille clearly love this sort of thing and it actually brings them a level of eccentric fame that critics either love or hate. However, Annie and Baxter, who grow up to be an actress and writer themselves, would rather distance themselves from these antics.
Early in the story Baxter finds himself having an accident that lands him in a hospital. When Caleb and Camille show up they’re in ruse mode and offer no real sense of support. Later on, in the Fang home, a dinner sequence turns a little queasy when Caleb continues to poke fun at his daughter’s topless sequence in a movie she was filming, a movie she almost walked out of because she didn’t care to do the scene to begin with. The fact that the elder Fangs seem to make light of the situation points at that neither of the parents are a) willing to get to know their children as grown adults and b) that they seem to be constantly living their lives as if it were a sketch for an invisible audience complete with shock reactions and maybe a laugh track.
So when Annie and Caleb are approached by local authorities that tell them their parents have disappeared and may be dead, the disbelief is palpable. In Annie’s mind this is another one of their performance art set pieces where now they’ve taken it up a notch (and the police take disappearances rather seriously). However, there is a creeping notion that perhaps the parents have become disillusioned with their children and have perhaps . . . taken off. We do continue to see the parents in archive video footage explaining their theories on art and life to the camera, and it almost takes the film into documentary territory. The movie loses some of its comic tone from here on and as it reaches its close it starts to feel like there is no resolve, and I think this is how I feel the story should end (and no, I haven’t spoiled a single thing). Bateman’s film is good even when the subject is a little off the wall and unusual and even a little bit dark.
The Family Fang is out on DVD and streaming platforms.
Bad Hurt is one of those movies where everything that can possibly befall a family does so, in groups, without a moment of rest in between. In fact, so much misery happens in such a short period of time it almost becomes numbing. You keep expecting the ground opening to swallow them up. Again, why I avoid many TriBeCa Film Festival movies. This is suffering porn.
So, let’s see. There’s this Irish family, the Kendalls living in Staten Island, and by living, I mean going through the motions while chaos, madness, sickness, and never-ending agony dances around them without an end in sight.
Elaine and Ed Kendall (Karen Allen and Michael Harney) head the household and provide 24-hour care to their severely, mentally disabled daughter DeeDee (Iris Gilad) who constantly seems to be on the verge of going deliriously manic and has to be taken out of the special needs school due to her violent tendencies. DeeDee, however, has made a friend in Willy (Calvin Dutton), and that friendship seems to have romantic overtones.
Kent (Johnny Whitworth) is the next son who once served the Gulf War and since then suffers from crippling PTSD — so much that his capacity to communicate verbally is impaired and he is dependent on pain killers and Elaine’s care to alleviate his crippling pain. And finally, there is Todd (Theo Rossi), the son with the least amount of baggage, whose problems are minuscule compared to the rest of the household. Todd is, as a matter of fact, the one who is the glue keeping the Kendalls from falling to pieces at a moment’s notice.
Kitchen sink events unfold rather quickly, often one on top of the other, and it becomes clear this is a family who needs a lot of healing. However, I’ve seen other movies about dysfunctional families and there is at least some levity in between the stories. Bad Hurt seems to have lumped together every possible combination of human suffering, so much that even a quiet tucking into bed or a funeral scene becomes a battlefield, and a conversation between father and son discloses a secret and unleashes bloody hell. I’m not saying this is a bad thing — catharsis is necessary in order not to end up like the family in the recent Louder than Bombs — but paring it down a little would have been better. Everyone appears to be carrying a massive burden and worse, unable to know when to stop, rest, and continue.