Movies Under 90 Minutes: Notes on an Appearance, and Grass

Hello, and thank you for stopping by. I hope you find your time reading these little entries as time well-spent, and if not, that’s also okay, I only aim to express my thoughts on film and hope that at least one person will agree with me, or disagree enough to start some interesting dialogue,

The indie world is full of shorter than average films because this is where many directors usually take their first steps before striking it big, hitting the spotlights of prestige, and returning not a chance in hell again, Notwithstanding, I prefer to see these ultra short films because they present themselves as neatly packaged stories that aim to observe and simply, give you a sliver of someone’s life experience which sometimes may end in a satisfying conclusion, and sometimes, in a question mark.

Notes on an Appearance

There is a subtle irony in the title of Ricky D’Ambrose’s hour-long film because it contains not one, but two disappearances, both of which occur off-screen. Stephen Taubes, a controversial theorist makes his exit quite literally from life itself in a rather unresolved manner, leaving behind, it seems, broken acolytes and followers to wander in and out of frame like the walking wounded, One of them is David (Bingham Bryant), an ex-pat who travels from Milan to Brooklyn, New York to assist a friend, Todd (Kevin Paulson) into a project attempting to not only research but re-establish the reputation of the aforementioned theorist. The conflict, and the story proper, start when David begins perusing through notes, letters, and news items, and then, without saying a single word, literally walks away from the entire movie, his back to the camera, in what seems to be a rather uninhabited New York.

He is never seen again.

Image by Kicktarter

David’s disappearance seems to be a dream, since other than the missing persons’ report, we never see a follow-up to it again other than a cursory, unsatisfying mention later on. A female colleague of Todd, who from the word go seems to be hostile to David, clearly wants no more talking or references about him. We are left to see Kevin and another female friend (played by Tallie Medel of Dan Sallitt movies) become the audience, mourning the loss of a man too young to die. As a matter of fact, neither seem to want to really admit to themselves that David may very well be dead, and both continue to float throughout the movie like spirits who have not yet been allowed to cross over.

D’Ambrose’s movie is quite an interesting watch because it doesn’t take the approach of a regular film. Subway maps take the place that an establishing shot would occupy. Notes scribbled by the absent David fill the screen, often leaving the audience to decipher their meaning. Conversations are heard just barely from over the ambient noise in what seems to be coffee houses where hipsters, coffee aficionados, and writers-in-training congregate. And most interestingly, we get to become privy to home movies — one, a train ride from Long Island to New York City, recorded it seems in the early 90s. The other is a ferry ride from Staten Island in which the Twin Towers get prominent exposure for a short moment. The subject, both in front and behind of the operating camera remains a mystery,

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Image from Cine Maldito

Grass

Can a protagonist be a passive observer to other people’s foibles and conversations? Hong Sang-soo seems to believe that, and in fact, let’s be honest, how many of us have gone into a cafe to either meet someone or sit in silence while time goes by and managed, through coffee and tapping away at our computers, overheard fragments of people’s lives? How many of us have then delved into passing silent judgement on them as if we were a character in a slim Marguerite Duras tome?

This is the entirety of Sang-Soo’s Grass. Kim Min-Hee, his actress of choice, returns yet again to portray a young woman who sits by herself in a corner of the unnamed cafe. In essence, she is the audience, observing the micro-dramas unfold.

There is a recurring theme of transition from a life-changing event. The first conversation concerns a woman (unseen, but referred to) who has met an unfortunate end, causing a rift between the man and the woman sitting at the cafe. The second and third conversations concern older actors making inappropriate advances to their female friends. One of them makes an even more inappropriate pass at Min-Hee Kim’s character, which veers on the creepy.

However, Sang-too turns the tables on us and then lets Kim gets rescued by her brother who wants to introduce her to his girlfriend. Kim then morphs from silent witness to exacting judge and executor, hurling a volley of verbal attacks at the happy couple. We get a vague idea that she herself may be desperately unhappy — so many of Sang-Soo’s recent movies starring Kim have placed her in various stages of abandonment.

Grass is a bit frustrating in how impassive it can be. Much of its scenes would function by themselves in their own separate drama, but get compacted into mini-scenes that seem to have a feeling of dress rehearsal. Even so, Grass is at its best when letting the actors improvise and weave into their own manufactured scenes, while Kim, as the audience substitute, simply types away, noticed but unnoticed,. and ruminates in uneasy peace.

Women in Film: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always [image from Amazon]

Hello again, and thank you for reading me. Given the dramatic rise of women in film — be it on the director’s chair, as producers, documentarians — I’m going to start a little something called Women in Film, and it’s going to spotlight women who have made or are currently making contributions to the art of film making in positions behind the camera. Considering how the Academy consistently fails to include them even now in prominent categories (where were Lulu Wang and Greta Gerwig in last year’s Oscars? Oh, right, they weren’t) and the fact that ten, fifteen, twenty years ago you had to really scavenge through piles of videos and theatrical offerings to find anyone female (aside from the few prominent ones — Claire Denis, Kathryn Bigelow, Jodie Foster, Agnes Vardá, and Chantal Akerman, to name a quick few off the top of my head, I think it’s time to create a running theme that will focus on women.

Those of you who know cinema will agree that since the dawn of cinema as an alternative hobby in the 19th Century, which soon evolved into larger, longer forms that eventually became the Silent Film, women have been present as directors, screenwriters, and producers in their own right, and only because a group of men decided to put the lid on this did we, after Dorothy Arzner, not see a prominent woman director until Ida Lupino came along and brought her gritty noir classic The Hitcher. It’s a shame, because when you come across some of the movies directed or written by women you will notice that it is they who can create the most memorable narratives I have seen.

Below, I will review two superhero movies and one indie drama, all directed by women, with strong female leads as players.

Superhero Movies

One of the reasons I never review superhero movies is because they’re frankly, un-cinematic, and represent the worst of movie-making. It’s pretty stupid to think that stories like these have any worth other than perpetuating a comic-book mentality. I just can’t walk into a movie theater, or now in the days of Covid-19, hit click on a title, and expect to see a coherent, intelligent narrative that doesn’t devolve into a CGI atrocity complete with the now ubiquitous use of martial arts as the one form of conflict resolution. I just don’t know what to make of these films. Maybe I’m not with the times, but frankly, I’ve never cared for canned entertainment.

Now, this opening paragraph might sound like I truly hate superhero movies down to the last one. I don’t: Patty Jenkins’ epic Wonder Woman, for example, announced that women can also create complex universes with elaborate set pieces, direct complicated battle sequences, and include topics of sisterhood, altruism, and especially, a hero’s journey all in one –, at times better than men. Someone who would fit that niche nicely is Claire Denis, for example. Had she been brought in to direct Joker, I can guarantee it would have been even darker and more twisted still and managed to deliver one of the most complex supervillain origin stories ever. It would have been memorable. But… c’est la vie, and I digress.

The Old Guard. Image from Netflix.

The Old Guard

The Old Guard is based on the graphic novel of the same name and its DC comic origins can’t be ignored as its writer, Greg Rucka, is also a comic-book writer. Stepping away from the convoluted storylines present within every superhero biography, he presents a small group of renegades led by Andy/Andromache (a muted Charlize Theron, again sporting what seems to be a trademark asymmetrical haircut). This group has been on the fringe of society for as long as they know; Andy herself may as well be over 6,000 years old and at one time was a goddess worshipped by the Greeks who then traveled, alone, around the world only to meet Quynh (Veronica Ngo), another immortal like herself, who suffered a cruel fate and whose whereabouts are unknown at the moment.

Accompanying Andy are Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), the terribly named Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). The latter two are former soldiers who fought each other on enemy lines ages ago and quite frankly, met cute in a time when there were no labels, and have since been together and thus becoming the planet’s first gay superhero couple.

The plot, however, doesn’t yet concern this group (other than introducing them), but instead, focuses its attention on a young African American soldier, Nile (Kiki Layne), who gets mortally wounded in Afghanistan. When Nile not only fails to die but also recovers miraculously, she starts experiencing vivid dreams in which she sees the aforementioned band of renegades, who also happen to be dreaming about her. Andy, clearly the band’s leader, decides they must seek Nile out and recruit her.

What these immortals don’t know is that they’re about to get sold down the river by an unscrupulous individual named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has long been observing them pop up in all kinds of historical news items dating back millennia (and how he was able to come into contact with so much of this information is debatable, but in true comic-book sense, no one is really counting).

Copley wants to trade the immortals in to study their powers of regeneration so he can do some good himself for humanity after experiencing the tragic loss of his wife. The problem is, who he is dealing with has ulterior motives and usually, in narratives such as these, this involves a megalomaniac villain (here portrayed by Harry Melling with insane gusto; he does a sadistic coward beautifully) with unlimited access to all sorts of things.

The Old Guard takes a somewhat meandering pace during its own early run time, and that in a way is pretty effective in keeping the story itself moving forward but also taking some asides. One large chunk of the movie involves Andy as she tracks down a very resistant Nile who fears she may be dishonorably discharged from the military. Theron and Layne operate well in both their verbal spats and their balletic fights; Layne is particularly a potent foil to Theron’s world-weary unwilling heroine. Once Nile is incorporated into the band of renegades she finds out that being an immortal comes at a heavy price: she will outlive everyone she loves. A scene with Layne and Schoenaerts feels reminiscent of some of the more poignant scenes of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire as seen and experienced by Brad Pitt’s doomed character.

Something I noticed, and perhaps this is unintentional but I’ll throw it in for good measure. There is a running concept that your work during an incarnation is not done until it is done for good. Because these immortals have been “standing up to what is wrong” all their lives, it seems that they have been offered a heavy task or series of tasks to balance out karmic debts.

However, I don’t want to go into too much New Age blathering. While not memorable by any means — I had trouble connecting with The Old Guard once it was done and it will not surprise me, from the final scene, that there will be a sequel — Gina Prince-Bythewood’s movie is a solid piece of good old fashioned entertainment featuring a multi-cultural cast complete with high-caliber performances that elevate a silly, and frankly, overdone origin story into pure fun. Cinematically, it’s a bit flat and often seems to be a work for hire, but who cares? Had this been released in movie theaters it would have struck gold at the box office for sure.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Someone must have seen Cathy Yan’s debut feature film Dead Pigs at Sundance or AFI (the only venues where her movie has played) in 2018 and been impressed enough to warrant giving her the helm at directing the female-centric superhero movie Birds of Prey, the spin-off to Suicide Squad, and it shows. Now, I have not seen Dead Pigs and am awaiting either the Film Society of Lincoln Center or some art-house distributor to release it online, so I don’t have any platform on where to judge Yan’s first movie and how it correlates to her sophomore feature. What I can say, and I will keep it short only for reasons that again, this is a superhero movie and I don’t want to impose a War and Peace type article because I have yet another movie to review, Cathy Yan is an electric director with her hand on fast narrative, razor-sharp humor, and a lead performance by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn who gleefully embodies the energy of a psychopathic Tazmanian devil with so much abandon you can practically feel her sinking her teeth in what seems to be a massive pile of rich velvet cake. With a script penned by Christina Hodson (who also penned the derivative Shut In and can be forgiven for it), Birds of Prey is supremely fast-paced, offers equal opportunity for its group of female actresses (Rosie Perez, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Allie Wong, and Ella Jay Basco) to shine and burn a path of mayhem on their own as they ferociously assert their own brand of girl power. If the producers and whatnot can keep these two on board for what will be a necessary sequel come 2022, I’ll be easily sold into watching it.

Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Never Rarely Sometime Always

Here we have one of the best movies of the year so far, if not the best. Eliza Hittman’s poignant, observational Sundance breakout hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, should you see it, will haunt you for a long time after the credits roll.

The movie stars newcomer Sidney Flanagan in a role I am sure will garner her numerous praise and award nominations within the independent crowd (and of course will be ignored by the Academy as this is not their cup of tea, wasn’t made with pomp and circumstance in mind, and is frankly, too left of commercial to be widely accepted). Flanagan plays Autumn Callahan, a 17-year old from a small town, Pennsylvania, who discovers she is pregnant, But before we get there, we are introduced not to her situation, but what may have led to it, and thus, the film’s remarkably astute title.

Following some high-school performers singing 1950s tunes — all boys, mind you — Autumn enters the stage, guitar at hand. Listen to the song she is singing; it in itself drives the entire plot and it’s all you need to know to appreciate what she is going through, Mid-way through, a boy cat-calls her from the audience, calling her “Slut!” [Incredibly, no one bats an eye; no one intervenes to call him out, which is the film’s first exclamation point that points out how men even at a young age get away with atrocious behavior that will, of course, lead to more troublesome behavior along the way.]

Undeterred, Autumn lashes back, singing as if this is all she has. She will later get back at the boy, but for now, she has more issues that are starting to take form. In a move that defines just how innocent she is about practically life in itself, Autumn goes to a clinic to get a pregnancy test. She gets the test done and realizes she could have simply bought it at a local CVS Pharmacy. When the test comes back positive, almost immediately the kind doctor handling her case makes a point that Autumn should not have an abortion but should instead put it up for adoption.

However, for Autumn, who lives home with her distant mother and unsympathetic father, this is not an option. Her perceptive older cousin Skylar (and excellent Talia Ryder) reaches out and in a wordless montage realizes that Autumn is indeed in trouble. Without any hesitation, the two young women make an unplanned trip to New York to have an abortion, come back, and resume their lives with a secret only the two of them will share.

Imager from No Film School

Eliza Hittman’s movie is a masterpiece of narration because it never gives the girls an easy way out. We who travel take for granted that big cities with mass transit, for example, offer perks for visitors like a one-day subway pass. Such minor detail is essential for the story because neither girls know this bit, and with the money that they’ve stolen from the pharmacy, which they have erroneously thought should be enough to carry them through an extremely expensive city like New York, they begin to use it for the simplest things like buying subway tickets.

This, and many other details, make even the slightest wrong turn, crucial for Autumn and Skylar who simply want to get through a quick appointment and return to their small Pennsylvania town and forget this ever happened. When the first clinic they go to, located in the middle of Brooklyn, informs Autumn that due to the advanced stages of her pregnancy she will have to go to the clinic’s Manhattan location for assistance, she is dismayed but makes the best of it. Because you cannot stay overnight at Port Authority, they elect to ride the D train all through the night. [Again, it is important to signal that these aren’t savvy travelers; they could have stayed at Penn Station, for example, with no problem at all, but then we wouldn’t have the story we have now.]

The situation gets only worse for the girls — but mainly for Autumn — when she then gets the unwelcome news from a kind female counselor that her procedure will take two days. The counselor offers help via a shelter, but Autumn, who plays her emotions as close to her chest as she can until she reveals them in the most heartbreaking manner possible — and that is a gut-wrenching scene that threatens to swallow the movie whole–, chooses again to spend it with Skylar wandering about the city, traveling the subway until the following day, where they meet a boy (Thèodore Pellerin) who will help them financially… for a price.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an emotionally shattering little movie that must be seen to understand the plight of teen mothers — and women in general. It is in its own way a cry against the way women get treated by men — even young men — and the society that while seeming to want to do the best by them, often fails. Practically all the men in the movie are seen at some level of hostile to the two girls — ranging from a lecherous boss to an uncaring information agent to a lewd subway rider. Now, note that it is not a movie that hates men per se — but when you think that in many states abortions are illegal and women are still unprotected against the abuses of men, then you will totally understand the theme of Hittman’s powerful story.

Watch it and discover a strong director in Eliza Hittman who pulls back no punches and while remaining on the side of restraint, she actually intensifies the power of the female voice that never gets heard or told except in the shadows. I promise you this movie will linger Sith you for a while as it did with me.

Two Films by Dan Sallitt: The Unspeakable Act and Fourteen

Imager from Amazon

The Unspeakable Act

Taboo relations often get depicted as salacious and macabre on film, so for Dan Sallitt to come out and do a low-key drama about a young woman (Talli Medel) having an unrequited and unresolved crush/fixation on her brother definitely caught my attention. I always like a more detached, intellectual approach to subject matter that might be a bit sordid because it allows the characters on display to behave rather unpredictably and not according to what one would want from them. In Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, we get introduced to an extremely laid-back family where it seems arguments and confrontations do not exist. The only drama that exists is the one binding the two siblings at the center, Jackie (Medel) and Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) and even that involves them only as it’s mostly an abstract concept narrated by Jackie in voice-over.

It turns out, Jackie has harbored an unusual and borderline unhealthy fixation towards Matthew. It also becomes clear that he is aware of it because he sets clear boundaries between himself and Jackie. When he brings home a girlfriend she is so inwardly upset (while acting completely against how she feels) that she becomes unable to eat until Matthew breaks up with her. Hope sets in and Jackie conspires to have her feelings met, but it’s clear this is not an option. Somewhat resigned, Jackie then goes see a therapist and persists in being rather passively hostile, almost as a defense mechanism in which she both hurls words as sharp as knives towards the therapist, which is in reality, Jackie attempting to equal parts diminish her unhealthy attraction and perhaps self-punish herself for feeling this way.

Sallitt never ratches up the tension in Jackie’s family and the most one will see is both siblings meeting for what may seem one last time before diverging, and Matthew informing that she has finally crossed that unspoken line, This is the type of movie I love; it may not be perfect — both the mother and the other sister were underwritten and sometimes Jackie’s narration can go into too much exposition (as if Medel’s performance, equal parts alienating and intriguing were to get lost in translation somehow), Sallitt dedicates his work to French director Eric Rohmer and I can definitely see some influence without it taking away from Sallitt’s own style. Too many directors who have been influenced by other more established directors tend to emulate their style in a way that seems imitation. Sallitt, on the other hand, drops references but never steals. That, in essence, is what a narrator wants — he can wear all the influences he ha on his sleeve but they shouldn’t scream imitation or worse, reenactment down to scene selections.

And with that, I was ready to see his latest film Fourteen.

Image from Cine-Vue. Talli Medel (left) and Norma Kuhling (right in Fourteen

Fourteen

Some bonds are stronger than family. You meet that person and they become linked to you for better or worse. In Dan Sallitt’s fourth feature film Fourteen, he presents two young women who may as well be sisters from another mother. Mara (Talli Medel) and Jo (Norma Kuhling) couldn’t be any more different if they tried… but that is precisely the unseen glue that has held them together since they were fourteen. The incident that sparked their friendship was when Jo intervened in a situation where Mara was being bullied at school. From then on, they’ve been inseparable, even linked through the other’s absence.

The problem is that childhood friends grow up and with that, they grow apart. That they may not acknowledge it is contingent on how aware they are, and it seems that now the roles have progressively reversed. Mara has gotten her life together as a teacher’s aid who aspires to be a writer and is dating a great, stable guy. Jo, on the other hand, seems to have her own life in shambles… and it’s about to go from bad to worse.

Sallitt never indicates a precise timeframe to tell his story. We get no subtitles or title cards announcing a transition but infer, from the friend’s reunions, how much time has transpired. After the first scene in which both Mara and Jo and their respective boyfriends hang out and make small talk, we move to a progressive separation. Mara is married; Jo is not, and has started to become dependent on drugs to survive. A frantic call leads Mara to rush to Jo’s aid only to be cooly rebuffed by Jo’s enabler boyfriend. Jo later calls Mara in the middle of the night (after having canceled a dinner event) and shows up, ostensibly to vent out her multitude of problems. That Mara allows Joe to essentially ruin her marriage is toxic in itself, but speaks volumes for those who have been caught in that kind of friendship devoid of boundaries when one friend clearly has mental and emotional disturbances.

I kept thinking of another film in which two women — sisters, this time — sustained a friendship in which one of them slid into depravity while the other attempted to help and eventually got her own life in order: Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Now, hear me out: this is not that movie for obvious reasons. Goodbar was a movie in which two women diverged in life and the more tragic one spun into butter, essentially getting murdered viciously in the end. Take away the violence and focus the movie on a more restrained approach and you have a different rendition. Fourteen presents both women as equal, although this time Medel carries the less showy part and lets Kuhling move from false poise to defeat in 90 minutes. Kuhling’s performance is on-target for anyone with a Borderline Personality Disorder, and it is truly a wonder to see how much tragedy she conveys while on screen. The shame is that while she implicitly seems to be crying for help, a person like Jo would never truly accept it and only return to the festering wound that is killing her slowly.

Fourteen is, to put it bluntly, Sallitt’s best work and as close to a masterpiece in presenting two fully formed women interlocked in a codependent relationship. It is so far one of the best that I have seen this year in transit — rent it, and experience its universe. It is available to stream on Grasshopperfilm.com and you should see it.

When Fashion Becomes a symbol for the irresistible feminine to Manifest itself: a (Humble) attempt to understand Luca Guadaguino’s THE STAGGERING GIRL

Image from The Playlist

One of the reasons I love the short form is that it allows for a director or writer to paint scenes that don’t aim to expound on a topic In a detailed, didactic manner, but instead prefer to dispense enough information to allow you, the viewer, to still follow a (somewhat cohesive) story, a character’s journey, and arrive with that character to a moment of recognition. It doesn’t have to satisfy as a whole, but it should make one feel as though one saw an experiment, a dream, perhaps time blended into and outside of itself.

Guadagnino, the Call Me By Your Name director, teams up with fashion designer Valentino to use the famed designer’s 2018/2019 collection of sumptuous, dreamy gowns as a motif for memory, loss, and the reconciliation with a woman’s inner goddess. He focuses on two opposing characters linked by a fragile whiff of sensuality that comes in the form of a stranger’s confession overheard through the thin walls of a New York apartment. Francesca Moretti (Julianne Moore) becomes the witness to this confession in which she eavesdrops on a woman (played by Kiki Layne) telling a story to an unseen (listener? therapist?) person. Disturbed, perhaps haunted by this confession as it stirs images of a large blue and red fabric she wore once as a girl, a fabric that becomes almost a character in itself, Francesca starts her own voyage of exploration.

That voyage lands her in Italy, where her ailing mother, renowned artist Sophia Moretti (Marthe Keller) lives. Sophia has been having eyesight problems and is at an age where she cannot oversee the house where she basically grew into, and created roots. The mother/daughter reunion is prickly at best with references to Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata or Almodovar’s High Heels. Francesca feels Sophia should move into a smaller location, or (unstated but inferred) an older person’s home, or to New York with her. She could still paint as much as she’d like. Nothing, other than location, would change.

But what is a person, if not the location, the place where they grew up in? I consider myself a staunch New Yorker, born and raised, and of course the opening scene in which we see Moore judiciously cast as Francesca, clad in black, making her way across the Upper East Side neighborhood where she lives, gave me an immediate sense of memory, identity, down to her small, spartan apartment that has next to no decor, no signs of renovation, and incredibly for 2020, a beige rotary phone. Just seeing this short opening scene in which Francesca both grapples with a husband (voiced by Kyle McLachlan) who wants her back and the aforementioned stranger whose voice seeps through the walls of her old apartment, gave me a sense of familiarity.

Then we have Sophia, tied as she is to her own surroundings. Guadagnino never explicitly resolves the budding drama if Sophia manages to remain in Italy, but when we hear her plead, “But this is my home!”, the emotions hit hard because we infer she will not remain there. It would be difficult for someone like Sophia, with her failing eyesight, to adapt to a new location. The house used for Sophia’s home, as old as it looks, surrounded by lush vegetation and fountains, is her place, for better or worse.

But what if all this push and pull is merely a MacGuffin? I kept wondering about this after a second, then a third viewing.

Throughout the short movie, Francesca as been unable to write her memoirs. Her memories of her father, her lover, and the man who takes care of Sophia seem to have become a blur who comes in the form of Kyle McLachlan. In every case, this male figure departs, and only one, Bruno, the man who selflessly (and with hints of unrequited love) takes care of Sophia, remarks, upon discussing Sophia’s paintings of swans which have become abstractions, “I suppose this is the journey we are all on, from the literal to the abstract.” In a way, Francesca has become just as blind as her mother. This is why “everything seems so different!” when she arrives to her mother’s home, why she can’t quite connect with herself. And it’s the sole reason why, that omnipresent cape will become the symbol that will link Francesca to her own goddess-self.

Image from Tumblr

This is the kind of film that could pass as too artsy for its own good. You have a blatant Woody Allen homage in the opening titles and an entire scene almost lifted verbatim from Allen’s Another Woman. The plot is maddeningly confusing and requires at least a second viewing, but perhaps that is Guadagnino’s intention. One view is not enough to appreciate the density and depth of the story that seems both a sketch and a fully finished work of art flanked by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s stirring, transcendent score. I’m one of these people that don’t need everything to explained to me in bullet points. To watch The Staggering Girl was both a challenge for me to interpret it to the best of my ability, or to take it as it is, and leave it at that without too much analysis (and that’s also, not including spoilers). However, haunted I was by these dreamy images of Kiki Layne pouring her heart out and being almost a ghost, or Mia Goth and the great Marthe Keller playing two different versions of themselves when Goth is British and Keller is German. Even more daring, to see Moore playing herself as a girl and practically making you believe it. I don’t think it all quite comes together as a whole, but that’s not the intention. Dreams are never complete, memory can be failing, but impressions of a life lived and enjoyed are timeless.

It is safe to say for me that The Staggering Girl, surrealist, ambitious, and one that also pays homage to womanhood in all its ages (especially in that soaring, ecstatic finale! The image of a warrior-like Marthe Keller, a vision in magenta and flowing, white hair, charging towards a group of women remains burned in my mind) will be studied and talked about. I’ve already been touched by its magic, it’s sheer canvas of emotion, of impressionist memory, and Julianne Moore sitting regally in her mother’s garden, joyously opening, giving in, and finally, celebrating the rediscovery of her own heart.

The Staggering Girl is available on MUBI, Amazon Prime Video, and iTunes.

On the 30th Anniversary of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY…

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… Country: USA. Director: Rob Reiner. Screenwriter: Nora Ephron. Language: English. Cast: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan,, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby, Harley Jean Kozak, Steven Ford, Lisa Jane Persky. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rating: CLASSIC.

Jane Austen once wrote how difficult it is for a man and a woman to establish a relationship not based in sex with her timeless classic Pride and Prejudice. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, or plain skipped every literary assignment you were given in high school, you’ll definitely know at least the bare-bones premise of the story and the development of its characters who for the most part remain blind around the fact that they love each other.

Flash-forward almost two centuries later and Nora Ephron, an author known for her acerbic, razor-sharp wit, developed, in conjunction with director Rob Reiner, a movie based on themselves to a degree (even when neither of them had been in a relationship with each other, which makes me wonder how that would have ended). The result… well… it’s made cinema history, thirty years later, as it gets re-released to either new audiences who might walk into theaters and watch it out of hearsay or moviegoers suffering from a case of nostalgia who, like me, saw it when it came out on cable in 1990, and want a shot at experiencing it — love in New York! oh, so romantic — on the big screen.

Who would have thought that this little movie which was a surprise hit back when and would have garnered more had it been considered for Oscar nominated performances by its two leads (who anchor the movie with their chemistry and those lines written by Ephron), would by now have entered our lexicon with that the line, “I’ll have what she’s having?” If only anyone knew back then, what comedic material they had in their hands. This is why you owe it to yourself to experience this movie. Rent it, buy it, or go check it out again in any retrospective near you. It’s that good of a film, you can watch it over and over and the entire film feels fresh and up to date. Much of what was true then rings true now, as men and women continue to circle each other and attempt relationships with each other.

[Heck, entire series have been created based on this “let’s be friends only” rule. Most of “Friends” was angled at this type of dynamics, and “Seinfeld” offered yet another example of a woman and a man being friends with no interest in each other whatsoever. “Sex and the City” brought this setup to the late 90s and the start of the new millennium, and “Will & Grace” took it a whole other direction by flipping sexuality and establishing a solid friendship with hints of sexual tension not just in its two main leads (Will and Grace) but in its two other leads (Jack and Karen).]

In short, When Harry Met Sally is timeless and the best movie Woody Allen never made (although it does bear some slight relation to Allen’s Annie Hall). With not only Carrie Fisher and the criminally underrated Bruno Kirby on board to produce a solid foursome, but also, as I mentioned earlier, the brilliance of New York City a its own character, to provide ample scenery for the clueless couple at the center to fall in love. And with a killer view of the Empire State Building (as seen in Harry’s character’s loft apartment), or with those walks both Harry and Sally take throughout the Upper West and Central Park, who wouldn’t want to meet someone and fall in love?

NEW YORK STORIES

MENASHE
USA
Director: Joshua Z. Weinstein
Runtime: 82 minutes
Language: Yiddish, English, Spanish

Mostlyindies rating:

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

I love when I discover hidden treasures amidst the barrage of big-budget movies and higher profile indies all flying at me like a wall of tennis balls spat out from an insane ball-spitting machine, and Menashe, a film that made its debut in both Sundance and New Directors – New Films, is one of them. A big plus of the reason I liked Menashe was its location — the less glamorous section of Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York, where a large Hasidic community resides in insular, closed off tradition. [Plus, it just makes an New York City-based movie more realistic than films that focus only on those who live in Manhattan and have White People Problems and while I don’t mind those films, I do like to see other communities represented.]

In this Brooklyn community, Menashe (Menashe Lustig) emerges as our lovable Sad Sack, the bear-sized gentle but awkward giant. A widower who resides in a small apartment by himself, he attempts to make ends meet as a grocery deliverer,  and wishes to get his act together so he might be able to gain full custody of his son Rieven. Unfortunately, tradition demands he find a wife, and on top of that, every time he encounters his tight-ass brother-in-law who evidently is better off financially (and makes no bones of his dislike of Menashe), he ends up humiliated and disillusioned. However, fate would have it, Menashe in a somewhat borderline creepy way manages to lure Rieven to stay with him, and for a block of time Menashe the film turns into an exercise in things going wrong for both him and Rieven.

At a little more than 80 minutes Menashe finds that right tone between kitchen-sink dramedy and subtle documentary devoid of a voice-over and pulls together a sympathetic character out of a man who can’t seem to get ahead and despite sincere intentions, remains floating in uncertain territory. This is a thing that makes Menashe a fully fleshed out person; flawed, but hopeful and someone to root for. Director Joshua Weinstein clearly respects the Orthodox community enough to present them as positively as possible (usually Hollywood has botched it up in the past by showing them in a more unflattering light, or as caricatures). And i love the moment when Menashe has an exchange with two Latino coworkers who invite him to drink and therefore live a little. It’s a wonderful little scene that briefly brings together two vastly different cultures together in a singular moment. That to me made the movie and shed a wonderful light onto the poor schlemiel that is Menashe. This is what to me, true storytelling is about.

Menashe is playing at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in NYC. Go see it.

LANDLINE
USA
Director: Gillian Robespierre
Duration: 97 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies rating:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

If there ever was a successor to the type of cute and bubbly comedy that made Goldie Hawn at star it would have to be Jenny Slate. I’m sure there’s a slightly deeper actress just waiting for the right part and the right movie but so far, every one of her appearances since she broke out in Gillian Robespierre’s debut film Obvious Child have been variations of quirk and that’s fine with me. Landline is not meant to be a deep analysis of interconnected relationships and family dysfunction but a humorous glimpse at Manhattanitee Having Problems… with a 90s retro vibe. In it Slate plays Dana, a young professional who’s dating a wonderful and sensitive guy named Ben (Jay Duplass). She reconnects with former schoolmate Nate (Finn Wittrock) and is soon seeing him on the side. Dana’s younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn, a standout in her role) is also involved in a no-strings-attached relationship with Jed (Marquis Rodriguez). One night Ali discovers that their father Alan (John Turturro) is having an affair with an unknown woman to whom he writes some powerful, deep poems he saves on the family computer. Largely at the fringes of the story is mom, played by Edie Falco, who’s consumed by her career (and models her professional wardrobe on a certain Nasty Woman) and routinely puts Alan down without realizing it. Robespierre deftly keeps the situation from devolving into the predictable (even when we keep expecting it). Once that moment arrives, however, she seems to hold back a little as if afraid of making Landline a bit too messy. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable–much of it is genuinely funny and complicated at the same time–but it’s as if Robespierre and her actors played possum when they should have played out their confrontations.

PERSON TO PERSON
USA
Director: Dustin Guy Defa
Runtime: 84 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies rating:

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

I really wanted to like this expanded version of Defa’s 2014 short which I saw at the MoMA’s New Directors/New Films because the original showed an uncomfortable encounter between a music guy (Bene Coopersmith) and a girl (Deragh Campbell). That scene is nowhere to be found in this expanded version. Instead, were treated to four vignettes varying from super-verbose (and in which Tavi Gevinsom stands out as an androgynous, neurotic teen who finds herself in an awkward situation) to outstandingly boring (the other three). The appearance of Coopersmith in a different storyline involving a rare jazz record shows that the man is not an actor and needed to be played by one. If anything can be said is that the movie does have a sort of cool late 70s vibe, but that alone doesn’t make an interesting feature length film.






TWO BY GERE: THE DINNER AND NORMAN

Steve Coogan, Laura Linney, Richard Gere, and Rebecca Hall star in the darkly funny The Dinner.

THE DINNER
USA
Director: Oren Moverman
Runtime: 120 minutes
Language:  English

B+

There’s nothing as lurid as watching four grown people get together for an uncomfortable night together in which they progressively set aside the pleasantries and start revealing the ugly hidden just underneath the smiles, the gestures, the light exchanges, and the occasional snap of a misinterpreted question. It’s been done to death — think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, September, Closer, and most recently, August: Osage County — and it still manages to draw you in like that train wreck you absolutely do not want to miss even if it means holding it in until your bladder or something more . . . backdoorsy can stand it no longer.

The Dinner is the newest in this branch of dark comedies, a movie that is already bristling from the first handful of scenes as Paul Lohman (an acid tongued, quick-tempered Steve Coogan, totally against his more comedic type), a history professor with who treats life as the Battle of Gettysburg who clearly has resentment issues towards his politician brother Stan Lohman (Richard Gere, understated) and would rather not sit down at a too-posh for his ilk restaurant, order over-the-top fancy food and drinks, and talk. However, a talk has to happen, and their future and the future of their two sons depends on it. You see, both Lohman’s sons have committed a crime. They’ve killed a homeless woman by lighting her on fire inside an ATM booth, but so far, surveillance cameras haven’t captured their faces in full. So what are they to do?

While Moverman’s 2014 entry, Time Out of Mind, tackled the forgotten from a point of view of the downtrodden (and gave Gere one of his finest, most moving performances as a man that society forgot), here he goes the opposite direction. He exposes that very same society — the haves vs the have nots — and presents every scene as part of an elaborate dinner complete with its courses, every segment revealing just how ugly the four of them (which also includes Laura Linney as Coogan’s wife and Rebecca Hall as Gere’s wife and both are a delight to watch) can and will go in order to either one-up the other, bring blame, and finally, reach no real agreement on how to act. Moverman’s movie is appropriate for its release as it depicts the excesses of affluenza and what can happen when indulgence and money get in the way of morals and scruples.

The only part that I personally didn’t really care for was some of the exposition leading to the dinner itself. Some of the backstory involving Chloe Sevigny as a family member who exists as a part of a subplot involving her adopted son Beau Lohman (Miles Harvey) serves little purpose as to open up the story from the confines of the restaurant. I would have preferred to keep the events of Moverman’s movie within its increasingly claustrophobic interiors to enhance the savagery rising from beneath the foursome’s distress and harshness towards each other. Still, The Dinner — the American version of the Danish novel by Herman Koch, filmed twice as the Danish movie The Dinner and the Italian movie I Nostri Ragazzi — is a nasty piece of work that offers no easy answers and four great actors behaving deliciously awful towards one another.

NORMAN, THE MODERATE RISE AND TRAGIC FALL OF A NEW YORK FIXER
USA
Director: Joseph Cedar
Runtime: 116 minutes
Language:  English

B

It’s criminal to me to see that Richard Gere is approaching 70 and has never even once received a single acknowledgement from the Academy for any of the complex characters he’s played on screen since American Gigolo almost 40 years ago. And yet, he continues to work, to bring something unique into his roles, and with the advent of indie films, he can now work on quality pictures that don’t necessarily have to be commercial successes as long as the performance onscreen remains intact and his best. In Joseph Cedar’s movie Norman, Gere plays a character that exists, and is a chameleon, even when we never get even as much as a glimpse of who he is underneath the perpetual beige peacoat, Burberry scarf, and cab driver’s beret he wears while haggling people for a deal. He may as well he homeless for all we know, but somehow, the man, larger than life, insinuates himself into the lives of Upper Crust Manhattan, makes his mark, and disappears without as much as a trace (although his repeated calls to associates . . . not so much).

To discuss about the quixotic twists and turns that lead Norman into morphing from being a small time dealer (okay, con-artist, let’s say it) to be all but the toast of New York is to spoil all the fun. Norman might as well be distantly related to the aunt in Travels with my Aunt with the difference that we never meet a son or daughter and Norman’s only apparent ambition gets revealed in the end in a poignant shot. I would say that it is safe to call Norman a noble opportunist, albeit not a clever one — had he been clever, he’d have turned into a Madoff for sure — and Richard Gere tackles this character, sheds every last piece of vanity, and becomes this mousy little Jewish man that might be charming in small — very small — doses. And perhaps, now that I think of it, it’s probably for the best to never reveal where Norman actually lives, who his family is, who is roots are. The choice to avoid these questions elevates Norman the man from little more than a potentially pathetic creature and turns him into almost myth.






BETWEEN US

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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

[On Amazon Instant Video and other VOD platforms.]






ANESTHESIA

Anesthesia_web_2

Hooked on Film rating:

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Here is an ambitious movie that wishes to present unto you, the viewer, an overreaching, multi-leveled series of story-lines designed to present a cohesive, thematic whole not too dissimilar to the likes of greater ensembles of the likes Robert Altman and Woody Allen directed (i. e. Nashville, Gosford Park, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters), and almost succeeds. I say almost because when we’ve seen these pictures one too many times, the freshness of the material becomes a bit stale and staged. If anyone recalls a little movie called Crash that inexplicably won the Oscars in 2006, then that is the one that this movie seems to pay homage to. It didn’t work well (for the most part, except in some isolated circumstances), and it doesn’t quite deliver this time.

Anesthesia opens rather dramatically: on an Upper West Side corner, Walter (Sam Waterston) crosses the street to buy some flowers at a deli. Moments later a couple, Sam and Nicole (Corey Stoll and Mickey Sumner) get jolted out of their sleep and rush downstairs to find out that the man we just met has been brutally stabbed in what seems a random attack. Suddenly, Anesthesia goes back in time to about a week prior to its opening scene, and we’re introduced to Walter as a philosophy professor at Columbia, delivering his final classes before starting a life of retirement alongside his wife Marcia (Glenn Close). Everyone that he has met or will encounter within this space and time has some form of isolation in the form of escapism.

For instance, there is Sophie (Kristen Stewart, essaying another complex role). When we first meet her she’s sitting in the college cafeteria when she has a rather unpleasant encounter with a guy who wants her chair, to which she refuses. It turns ugly, and then we see that Sophie seems to be at odds with the world around her, a thing she copes with by injuring herself. Sam and Nicole, who encounter Walter at the opening of Anesthesia, are in the middle of an affair. Sam, allegedly, is in China, his wife (Gretchen Mol) in Northern New Jersey, drinking her pain away, suspicious that he is lying to her. Walter’s son Adam (Tim Blake Nelson) and his wife (Jessica Hecht) are coping with a lump on her breast while their kids get high to cope with their parents’ tension. And adding to this mix are two unrelated characters: Jeffrey (Michael Williams), a high-powered African-American lawyer who is trying to force his childhood friend Joe  (K. Todd Freeman) out of his drug-addiction and back to sobriety.

So, as this stands, there are a lot of characters to cover in the barely 90 minutes of running time. For the most part, Tim Blake Nelson succeeds without making the entire premise look too affected. What bothered me a little was the fact that Anesthesia seemed to, yet again, be mostly a front to present White People’s Problems under the guise of racial tensions that happen rather unexpectedly late in the film. Everyone has a certain degree of self-absorption, so it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the characters that surround Walter, although the one character that does come through is the one who couldn’t be further from this circle of over-privileged White people living in the clouds of Upper West Side domesticity: Joe.

Beyond Joe’s addiction there are gears and cogs turning. There is a character — a real person — trying to come out. Sadly, Anesthesia relegates Joe to a hospital bed, yelling into thin air, completely dependent on the phone call from Jeffrey that fails to arrive (Jeffrey’s met a female lawyer of probably White, but ill-defined ethnicity, for a tryst). Joe’s biggest scene comes late, and is as mysterious as it is pregnant with possibilities. It’s again, inexplicable to me why it’s also left unexplored and instead goes for something that seems to be a necessary cop out that brings the story back to its opening scene.

Anesthesia is a story enamored of its own concept that has moments of humor, moments of pathos, but ultimately doesn’t know where to go once the moment that it — and we — go “Aha!” arrives. That n itself is a crying shame.