Tag Archives: Sundance

THEM THAT FOLLOW: 2019 Chicago Film Festival

Two young adults stand up to religious extremism in the backwoods of America.

Alice Englert in Them that Follow.

THEM THAT FOLLOW, USA. Directors: Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. Starring: Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Thomas Mann, Olivia Colman, Lewis Pullman, Jim Gaffigan. Language, English. Runtime: 98 minutes. A Sundance premiere. Release date: August 2, 2019. Rating: A—

If anyone had told me that I would go to the movie theatre to watch a movie about an extremist Pentecostal community existing in the backwoods of America and following the mandates dictated by a preacher hell-bent on exacting control over his subjects I would have laughed out loud. It’s not that I don’t have any respect for this underbelly of society. It’s that these people have for so long been lampooned in film and serials, and their leaders born the stamp of amoral, self-righteous charlatans, that to tell a compelling story equal parts coming of age and moral outrage seems an impossible task that could devolve into cheap melodrama at any moment.

Directors Savage and Poulton waste no time in setting up the scenario complete with its own Chekhov gun, and that is a good thing. The introspective and subservient Mara (Alice Englert) lives in an isolated community with her widower father Lemuel (Walton Goggins, giving a performance that is the right amount of control-freak without going over the edge). Lemuel is the clear leader of the community and it’s “moral” center; a pastor, he conducts sermons that instill the Fear of God onto his devoted, performs exorcisms on those believed to have the Devil inside while speaking in tongues, and also engages in snake handling. While illegal, he continues to follow practice in order to reenact the ultimate test of faith.

Right off the bat the community shows signs of cracks (and who else but a blind person would want to live in this much medieval dark?). Mara enters a convenience store with her friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever). The store is run by townswoman Hope (Olivia Colman). She is the mother of the guy with progressive ideas Mara has been seeing, Augie (Thomas Mann). She doesn’t see Mara deftly stealing a pregnancy test. What she does know, is that Mara is to be betrothed to Garrett (Lewis Pullman), a bit of a possessive creep who fawns over Mara’s purity and confesses the lengths that he will go to prove his love for her. Meanwhile, Mara? Not that impressed, but cornered into the cul de sac of an arranged marriage, a helpless victim of a society steeped in religious patriarchy.

With this set of cards, both Savage and Poulton lay out a game that starts to gain momentum without overreaching or getting ahead of itself. We know the basics, we know there is a delicate situation at hand, and that somehow this festering psychic boil, much like the physical boil that manifests on the arm of an innocent victim seeking some form of answer, must explode and reveal its poison for better or worse. Them That Follow is a terrific buildup of sheer tension, a juggling act that the directors handle extremely well. Nothing in the movie—even and especially its characters’ decisions to let faith alone guide their actions—seems out of place (although the rational part of me kept yelling inside my mind, because of course I know better).

Of all the characters I’m going to single out Olivia Colman’s pPerformance. While she may have won an Oscar for her wild and volatile turn as Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, here she plays a part where she always seems to know more than she let’s on. That her character carries the ironic name Hope can’t be just a coincidence. Of the ensemble, she is the one who manifests equal parts hope and hopelessness in a single range of expression. It’s almost as though her faith is so strong it almost drives her into a very dark place, but she is also acting not out of self-righteousness like Goggins’ Lemuel, but of a want to save her son.

This is a solid debut that will definitely please anyone seeking compelling stories of people caught in traps of their own design. It is a definite watch; catch it when it comes out this August.

BEFORE I FALL

 

BEFORE I FALL
USA
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Runtime: 99 minutes
Language: English

2.5/5

Normally a movie that presents a plot that repeats itself in an  endless Moebius loop would be enough to entice me to go see it and this was the case with Ry Russo-Young’s movie Before I Fall. Samantha Kingston (Zoey Dutch) is one of a foursome of mean girls who, if you stuck in a blender and attempted to create an actual human being, you would come out with filth and empty handed. Her voice over basically gives the plot away: February 12th will be the last day of her life and she’s about to experience something extraordinary. That thing, if you will, is the none-too subtle revelation that, like the Ray Stevens’ song Everything is Beautiful. Of course for us to get there we have to go through the tried-and-true formula in which the aforementioned mean girl undergoes a progressive transformation and emerges renewed, and enlightened.

That in itself is okay in my part — you can thank Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for that. The issue that presents itself, which becomes increasingly annoying to the point of aggravation as the movie progresses, Samantha realizes she’s trapped in a loop, reliving the entire day down to details, only to wake up the following morning as if none of the preceding ever took place. And I get it — much in the same way we go through moments of deja-vu and wonder, “Have I been here before? Did I just go through this only to go through it again?”, we do little if anything to analyze, let alone remedy it. There is, perhaps, a potential lesson to be learned and we don’t really do so until we’re forced to by an act of violence. In that sense, I can completely buy into the metaphysical elements of this film.

However, we have a situation of four girls, all of them spoiled rotten, privileged, condescending to a fault, glued together by a common thread of continuous bitchery and dominated by the Queen Bee herself, Lindsay (Halston Sage). None of them–except perhaps Samantha, who comes across as an updated version of Brian De Palma’s Sue Snell of Carrie–has a personality that extends past this narrow definition; all of them believe the hype that they’re the shit, and that is all there is to it. Lindsay, a Chris Hargensen clone, has an especially nasty streak and belittles an outcast again straight out of Carrie, Juliet (Elena Kampouris). Again, it’s not that schools don’t have bullies and outcasts, but Juliet is such as an extreme version of one that it renders her almost a target by proxy. And why the story has her be the plot point no one in the movie manages to see is beyond me, but then, this is a young-adult product and that market doesn’t necessarily cater to deep characterizations.

So on and on, Samantha  goes through variations of her day, which also includes the anticipation of losing her virginity to the school hun Rob (Kian Lawley) at a party another romantic hopeful (Logan Miller) throws, where a lesbian classmate utters only one line (“I’m in heternormative hell!” ) when Valentine’s Day roses are disseminated and she gets none, and interactions with her family slowly creep in to signify something bigger than her limited teen reality. [And as the only adult in the film, Jennifer Beals delivers a well-modulated performance.] In a broad comedy Samantha would probably act and react at the sheer absurdity of it all in the same way Bill Murray did in the much better Groundhog Day. Before I Fall presents a character arc that whose growth is as fabricated and artificial as a wax museum statue. It’s all posture, pretense, and perfunctory.






HUMOR IN GRIEF: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA AND OTHER PEOPLE

Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






DVD-BOUND: BIRTH OF A NATION, CHRISTINE, AND COMPLETE UNKNOWN

BIRTH OF A NATION

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

I have never seen D. W. Griffith’s epic of the same title released  a century ago or its companion Intolerance; it’s unlikely that other than as the inevitable lesson, I won’t go out of my way to see it. And if it means anything, Ava Duvernay’s scorching documentary 13th features ample footage from Griffith’s movie for me to feel repulsed by it. That this is how white people thought and felt about a race that their ancestors dragged in chains and against their will out of their African homes and condemned to a life of indignity that still pervades today is incomprehensible to me. I will never understand how this propagandist film would have ever received the adoration of the critics and thinkers of its time, but there it is, in black and white, its proclamation of an instant classic, or as someone said, “history written in lightning.”

Watching Parker’s version — a revolt from the opposite of the race barrier led by Nat Turner whom Parker plays — one has to come in with a little distance and an enormous sense of objectivity. While not a savagely violent as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, we do get scenes of African Americans being debased and humiliated in ways that McQueen’s movie never touched. Some of them are subtle — at one point, Turner witnesses a girl playing with her slave whom she is holding on a leash as if she were a dog; in another, he witnesses a slave  unwilling to eat having his teeth pried out of his mouth by his master while another pushes food into his mouth. There is the brutal rape of Turner’s wife, done off-screen,. Then there is the subtlest of all, when early in the movie, Penelope Ann Miller,  the Turner matriarch who takes pity on Nat Turner, informs the young boy he can’t read books that are out of his range, but instead gives him a Bible to read. It’s a cry of outrage if I have ever seen one, one that demands retribution.

Reader, you need not wait more, because there is the well-documented revolt, and when it comes, it’s nothing short of a coup de grace comparable to a simmering pot of boiling water exploding because it cant contain its pressure. Nate Parker may have condensed certain elements of Turner’s life to make a more dramatic point. but the essence remains: here is a man who, by reading the only book he was allowed to, moves from being someone not even sure why they landed here in the first place, submissive to a fault, to a leader of vertiginous power guided by voices and his own spiritual convictions. Parker doesn’t shy away from presenting Turner’s rebellion in its gruesome sense; it arrives at a point when we as an audience can’t bear it no more than he can — and he gets a plentiful of punishment by his former friend/master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer, in a somewhat underwritten role), who sells his soul to the promises most poor whites back then did: the promise that their status would be elevated as long as they didn’t interfere with slavery.

Almost 200 years have gone by since Turner’s rebellion in which he spared no one in order to make a point [History has him and his followers killing both the innocent and guilty alike.] That this created an even bigger wave of anti-black sentiment further explored as convict leasing, segregation, and the subsequent propagandist film of the same name, almost makes it sound as though next to no progress has been made. Parker’s Birth of a Nation tries to present not what white revisionists would like you to see but a close rendition of this nation’s dark and difficult role in creating slavery not just as a concept but a state of mind. Some may think Turner was too radical for his time; I believe radicals are sometimes the only chance anyone has if there is ever to be any change at all.

 

CHRISTINE

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Something about Christine Chubbuck’s short life which led to her on-air suicide in a Sarasota news channel must be still demanding for more stories to be told. First there was Kate Plays Christine, a documentary-movie that depicted Kate Lyn Sheil doing her research for the role of Christine Chubbuck and seeing bits and pieces of her own self start to disintegrate as she got closer and closer to the dark black cloud that was Chubbuck’s own tragedy. Antonio Campos’ Christine presents a woman falling apart at the seams from the moment we first see her. In a moment that screams help early on in the film we see her approaching a young couple, and in what amounts to a short, unwelcome, and uncomfortable interview on the spot she can’t help but remark how much in love they seem. You see, Christine walks through life almost as though she was an alien in a foreign land. It’s the very unremarkable nature of her life that makes her progressive, internal collapse the more poignant. She can’t stand her mother seeing another man; she has no clue her own co-worker (Michael C. Hall) likes her and pushes him away, citing her work as an excuse. Clashes with her boss (Tracy Letts) are the topic of the day. Her search for news topics almost always amount to a failure to connect and communicate — even the way she interviews draws a picture of a woman not really trying to engage her guest as much as going through the motions, eyes perpetually downcast, voice hushed and measured. Her unraveling is only a matter of time, and it’s a shame that this is what Christine Chubbuck is known for: her final meltdown at the hands of a gun and little information as to what were the causes of her depression. Rebecca Hall may have found her breakthrough role after several years being little more than a decorative figure in film; she fully embodies a scream for help that just never gets the attention it needs, or at least, until it’s too late and she’s become another statistic.

 

COMPLETE UNKNOWN

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Another woman who seems to be falling at the seams is the one  — or many — that Rachel Weisz portrays in Joshua Marston’s Complete Unknown. It’s a fitting title. Weisz plays Alice, a woman who it seems, may have been familiar with the works of Anais Nin — most notably, Spy in the House of Love. When she appears in the home of her former flame Tom ( Michael Shannon) who’s celebrating his birthday party, we wonder what her intentions may be. Snippets of conversation indicate they were an intense item at one point 15 years ago when she suddenly disappeared leaving no trace. Now she’s returned, a glamorous older woman with the gift of witty stories that completely win over everyone . . . but Tom. Tom is no fool;  he instantly recognizes her and sees through her veneer. Later as they leave the premises with a couple of friends to continue to celebrate, Alice makes a crucial mistake in one of her many stories. This leaves Alice with no other choice but to give up the mask she’s been hiding in, and as she and Tom are left alone in the city, they initiate an epilogue of a relationship where the question of Alice’s behavior isn’t so much that she does what she does — change identities as often as she can and essentially move across the world in a constant state of a chameleon — but the why. This doesn’t come so much as clear, but it seems that Marston’s interest lies less in explaining a mystery inasmuch as showing it. Complete Unknown is bittersweet — both Weisz and Shannon fully make you believe they once had a Great Passion — but it’s too short of a psychodrama to even grant closure to something that wasn’t even reciprocal to begin with because the female half was absorbed in her own selfishness and the glamour of her wispy persona.






The Witch

the witch

Hooked on Film grade: A

One of the most anticipated and talked about horror movies shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival finally gets its due release and boy, does it deliver chills in spades. First time director Robert Eggers clearly did his research. His picture is not just a frightening work of art, but also, a remarkably accurate period piece that opens up as a time-capsule and gives us a glimpse of the religious death-grip people were in.

Eggers’ setup is outrageously simple: because of a vague religious conflict, William, a man of fervent faith who desires to live closer to God’s will, gets banished from the English settlement and now must make do with his wife Katherine, and five sons. Off into the unknown they go, resettling at the edge of some thick woods, but you would believe life would be much better. As a farmer, William is a mess, and as a hunter, he’s completely useless. Katherine, even in stillness, seems to be on the border of some great hysteria. The younger twins haven’t a care in the world (and God, are they creepy!). Their older sons Thomasin and Caleb are close, and as an added dose of tension, Caleb has begun to notice his older sister’s entry into puberty.

The Witch takes off the moment the youngest child, William and Katherine’s newborn baby, disappears while Thomasin is watching him. The swiftness in which this occurs is disorienting indeed (as are Katherine’s painful cries of agony that begin a slow unraveling of her personality), but then the story reveals that it wasn’t an animal who took the baby from Thomasin’s care . . . but a woman.

It’s here where the first truly disturbing images start to bleed into the mostly gray picture. In chiaroscuro shots, we see a naked woman covered in blood, reducing something to liquid on a mortar and pestle. It doesn’t take long for us to realize what has happened, but the story has some rather nightmarish detours that creep into the fabric of this already fractured family — including a joke that Thomasin plays on her little sister where she calls herself a witch that will come to backfire on her, badly, after Caleb has a surreal encounter in the woods.

Eggers manages to create an almost unnerving sense of dread and suspense at every turn, and you don’t notice how deep you’re into the story until you start witnessing some truly horrific imagery, tainted and near-perverse. Because of the Salem Witch Trials, The Witch has an almost chronicled feel, and in a way, could serve as an allegory on what happens when society crumbles at the foot of chaos and anarchy and people quickly start turning on each other. One is never truly sure if Thomasin is or is not as innocent as she seems to be, but that’s the entire point of this engrossing picture. One could even state that there are no witches, and all this is just women on the verge yet rejecting their very natures.

Whatever one will make of it, The Witch is a slow-burn art-directed horror movie that is sure of itself and never gives into cheap scares, sudden, screeching violins, and the rest of the trappings of modern horror. This is a long days’ journey into the dark night of the soul, a love letter to stories like The Crucible and The Shining and even Cries and Whispers. This is what a horror movie should be about.






The First Post…

…is always the most difficult. How do you begin? Welcome to my blog, hope you like what I have to say, grab a coffee, take a sip and peruse through? I don’t know. I barely even know my name at the end of a long day and it’s still Monday evening in New York. Winter seems to be thawing prematurely but as is its wont, December holdovers are all over the place. Even films that have no nominations in any award show are still going strong (I’m talking to you, Lady in the Van. I loved your wit and that thing you did with Alex Jennings playing playwright Alan Bennett, twice, as if he had an invisible twin, or the voice of his own conscience. I thought that there was room in the Best Actress category for Dame Maggie Smith but the academy, it seems, disagreed.)

the-lady-in-the-van
Dame Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van

Youth is still playing. One theater, a few showings, which tells me it will probably exit come Thursday. If the  Quad Cinema were open that is where it would go for a second run among tinier indies. However, I’m afraid this is the last NYC will see of it. Next stop: Netflix, Amazon, et. al.

In a way, all these holdovers aren’t a bad thing: many movie goers don’t want until they know a film is “Oscar Nominated” to go see it and be the judge for themselves if it deserved its accolades or not. They also want and need to be fresh in people’s minds so that cancels any significant new entry. I personally long outgrew that phase. I can’t recall when was the last time I saw a movie for awards it received. Now, its participation in certain film festivals can’t hurt–quite the contrary, the sole mention of Cannes  (in its main or tangential lineups), Venice, Locarno, SXSW, Tribeca, Sundance, Berlinale, New York Film Festival, or New Directors/New Films is more than enough to spark an interest.

Even so, I totally get it. The vast majority seeks out only what has been recognized. That’s where they measure a movie’s quality, an actor’s performance, a director’s choice in light, shadow, and camera movement (or lack thereof). And that’s perfectly fine.

For me, it goes much deeper than that. Year after year I see tiny movies that go completely unnoticed or play under the radar of “what’s hot” in arthouse theaters for months on end. Those are the pictures that I like. Those are the pictures that move me. Sometimes I will be disgusted, or left somewhat perplexed, but seeing an indie or a foreign or a documentary is akin to venturing into another man’s skin. Another time and place. Yes the story may be archetypal, or it might not possess the flair that a 300 million dollar budget would allow, but for me, it’s the journey. Seeing a story told in a smaller scale, reaching the same emotional impact a larger enterprise can give with enough retouching.

Phillippe Garrel's In the Shadow of Women
Phillippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women

January saw a couple of good releases –nothing mind-blowing–but smaller events that still carry a big punch. Both IFC and Lincoln Center played two New York Film Festival selections: Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, and Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure. Both films couldn’t be more different: the former is a story about a couple in trouble, the latter about a man who gets an offer he can ‘t refuse. While I could see both of them in one sitting (combined, both movies total  about 165 minutes), the stories proper are told with so much restraint and deadpan humor i found them somewhat heavy  to endure, even when the end result leaned towards a positive outcome. Perhaps a second view on DVD will bring the scale closer to home. That of,  course, remains to be seen. Both directors have a rather droll visual style, but exert a certain pull for the fabric that composes their stories and I enjoy that very much.

At the moment, I’m looking forward to this lull, then catching up with last week’s premiere of Aferim!  (Romania’s entry to the 88th Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture), and upcoming releases like Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Pablo Larrain’s El Club (Chile), and Atom Egoyan’s Remember, followed by the February festival Film Comment Selects which runs February17  – 24 at the Lincoln Center.