HER SMELL is Elizabeth Moss’ Primal Scream as she spins into butter.


Here is a movie that will assault you with so much bad behavior from its anti-heroine that you will just sit back, if at all to watch this train come to a screeching halt and implode before exploding, scorching everything that might be within striking distance. She may not have been considered for an Academy Award last year ( free algebra homework help buy kraft paper viagra precio en el peru follow link how to write cause and effect essay go to site natual alternative to viagra sample a resume thesis for lord of the flies follow site see url viagra experience women go to site download cover letter templates microsoft word go site usa pharmacy online viagra no prescription funny argumentative essay topics for middle school watch source link professional resume writer service usa click follow go to link order viagra pfizer online Her Smell was released to US audiences following its 56th New York Film Festival premiere in October of 2018), but Elizabeth Moss delivers what has to be one of the most electrifying, riveting performances committed on film. It is right up there with the brutality that Gena Rowlands exhibited in A Woman Under the Influence or Jessica Lange’s Frances. This I find interesting because all three movies focus on women who live on the fringes of reality, their minds expanding and imploding, their gestures unpredictable, their moods wild and unpredictable.

Moss stars as Becky Something, the lead performer of the punk/alternative band Something She. The movie proper opens in happier times when the band had achieved its first breakthrough success. In the present, things are different. Becky has basically lost the plot and is dangerously spiraling out of control, a tornado in a full demonic rage that has become dependent on yes-men posing as shamans who are leeching her dry while promising spiritual guidance. That she doesn’t choke on her own puke when she passes out in the first long take is a miracle, but the worst is still to come. Attempting to reclaim what little fame the band has left, Something She’s manager (played by Eric Stoltz) arranges that the band record with another rising band called the Akergirls. Becky, completely unhinged, lashes out at anyone who might even try to help her gain some control. Soon, one by one, her bandmates (played by Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), decide that they have had enough and walk out. On opening night with the Akergirls, Becky takes her rage a step too far, grinding her mother (Virginia Madsen) who has stood by her into a pulp before she blacks out.

Her Smell fast forwards a bit into the future and we get to see the fallout of Becky’s whirlwind unprofessional behavior. Lawsuit after lawsuit has landed at her front door and she’s basically lost everything. Here, Moss moves from the unbearable frenzy of her previous scenes into a much more subdued self, and lets us see a side of Becky that we weren’t privy to. While director Alex Ross Perry doesn’t seem to be judging or letting Becky off the hook that easily, he seems to be gleaning a deeper layer to his heroine. Free from the hell that was her fame, she can now collect the shambles that has come to her own horrifying behavior and dig her way out. Hearing Moss, her voice hushed but a bit off-key, sing Bryan Adams’ Heaven to her young daughter, is on its own, the most emotionally disarming scene in the entire film. Nothing will prepare you for this one moment, seeing a woman who’s self-destructed, lost it all, and still has the ability to love.

I honestly wish Perry would have ended his movie here but he has a larger coda in mind, and I get it. The journey Becky has taken has been difficult and she’s left a trail of debris and destruction. However, it seems that Perry chose to attach a coda to the end as if affirming that Becky will indeed come through and not revert back. It’s probably not the kind of ending that I would have expected — seeing her sing to her daughter was more than enough and I would have walked out happy — but of course, sometimes there are artistic choices that must be made in order to tie up loose ends. I personally loved this movie — I’m something of a fan of Perry’s singular style and work — and I highly recommend it only for Moss, who is clearly shaping herself to be a power-actress and deliver deep, dangerous performances that will both make you admire her in awe and also fear her.

Review: Noah Baumbach’s devastating MARRIAGE STORY

Image from Netflix

Before this movie will be over two lives and a family will be shattered. Noah Baumbach brings his most scalding portrait of a family headed by Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie Barber. From a couple filled with dreams and plans to Have It All — he’s a theater director; she’s an actress of some note who left her career to be a wife–, we have an early, key scene, a subway scene. One one end, Nicole sits, while clear across the car, Charlie stands. Both stare at seemingly nothing. Mind you, this is an empty car with plenty of seating. We wonder what is dividing the two of them… and once the inevitable split down the middle happens, we will get it under the form of a protracted separation sequence that by the end will have left you gasping for air and hoping this never, ever, happens to you.

A detour: how did I miss this? I tend to fling myself at Baumbach’s movies with the hunger of a rabid tiger hunting down its prey. Then I dig in, feast in on the rich story and characters, and leave, satisfied, only to throw praises shortly after to anyone who will listen. This time, the scene at the 57th New York Film Festival was too rich for me to choose and since Marriage Story was coming out on Netflix in November. I chose to focus on smaller gems like Vitalina Varela, The Traitor, Saturday Fiction, and Beanpole. Oh well. I don’t regret a thing.

Also, I didn’t really think that this would be that good. The Meyerowitz Stories was great, yes, but not explosively great — typical Baumbach narrative of a dysfunctional family who can’t quite fit in. As a matter of fact, the last movie of his that struck me this deeply was Frances Ha. Nothing could prepare me for the emotional impact Marriage Story would ultimately have on me, particularly on that awful, horrible scene in which Nicole and Charlie meet for one last time and… well, you have to see it to believe it.

Back to the movie. Baumbach was inspired by his own divorce to Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013 (at about the same time he was seeing Greta Gerwig, who was the star of Frances Ha). I don’t know the events that led to Baumbach’s split. I can, however, see a marked correlation between the movie that became Marriage Story and previous films like War of the Roses (minus the property damage), Scenes from a Marriage, and Kramer vs. Kramer. In all of these movies, the wife is the one who decides she cannot continue with the marriage and sees that the love once shared is and has been dead in the water for a while now. The husband, clearly dumbfounded, is left to collect the shambles and attempt either reconciliation or some form of closure that will probably not happen, at least, not before an enormous legal battle that will erode at the emotions and end with battle scars and a child torn in between.

That battle – the proceedings leading to their divorce proper. Once Nicole has decided to remain in Los Angeles after walking out on her New York-bound husband, she seeks legal advice from everyone she can, leaving Charlie with little options. Once she settles on Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, excellent) the legal war is on. Charlie, still not quite realizing what is about to ensue, stalls, but at Nora’s cold warning of what will happen if he does not heed the papers that have been served to him, forcibly relocates to LA to prove residence in order to claim custody of his son. He then rents out an apartment and first goes with a good but ineffectual lawyer (Alan Alda), only to settle with an aggressive attorney (played by Ray Liotta) once Nora throws everything on the table to make sure Nicole lands not just on her feet but with thick roots.

in the end, who wins? No one, really… Charlie has to now contend that his life with Nicole has ended, and she herself has moved on but has she really?

Marriage Story is a devastating piece of meta-fiction disguised as a drama that never overstates its emotions in a bombastic fashion. Instead, it lets scenes play out naturally, allowing us to get to know both sides of the story. We see two people who are competitive (the word tends to come out in their statements), who try to see each other, but simply, cannot. Sadly, as is often the case, it is the wife who often has to play subservient to the husband and let her ambitions glide by while he creates his empire. That is all fine and dandy… until it all comes crashing down, brick by brick. Johannsen and Driver never overplay their parts, and you constantly get reminded that while they never state it, there is the bond that even after the war is over, keeps them together. They go all out in complex, subdued performances that make their late confrontation so heart-wrenching to experience. Laura Dern has never been better in a part that is rich in feminist brushstrokes and is not afraid to expose her breasts in a scene in which her client (Nicole) is being slut-shamed for having bared hers in an indie movie. In many ways, she represents the aggressive voice most women going through a nasty divorce never get to have, and her scenes are magnetic. Liotta and Alda show up playing their parts in their idiosyncratic style, and there is Julie Hagerty in a small but comic part as Nicole’s dizzy mother.

Reviews: Disappearance at Clifton Hill, CROOKED HOUSE, and After Midnight

Working out childhood trauma is always a good topic for a character who has narrowly escaped some uncertain fate as a child. It essentially tills the soil for the adult version to tackle later this event with better, if imperfect, tools and perhaps solve the lingering puzzle that’s been haunting in the background ever since. Albert Shin is a director unknown to me, but his hand on the genre is pretty atmospheric in presenting a horrific event that marks the childhood of a young girl who later, as an adult (played by Tuppence Middleton), buzzes around a mystery like a buzzard seeking a dead body whose disappearance went cold. Instead of letting it go, she clings on to the idea that she can somehow come to terms with the boy’s disappearance and dives further into the murky waters of the seedy town where the incident took place, only to find her own sanity begin to unravel. Shin doesn’t quite have a full grasp of the entire genre per se, bringing an extended circus sequence that doesn’t quite fit in with the tone of the picture. Some of the acting is also a bit hammy, if at all to drive the point home that yes, this is a bad place with bad people. However, Disappearance at Clifton Hill manages to emerge mostly unscathed; as a thriller it holds itself well, has some nifty twists and turns, and maintains that frosty, cold atmosphere that has now become a staple of the genre in which shadows loom long and mistrust is everywhere, like a ghost.

The murder mystery has experienced a renaissance as of late with one successful adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel leading to a second. On the heels of that we were served with Knives Out, a murder mystery with social undertones that managed to make it onto several critics’ “best of 2019 lists and almost made mine had I not seen a few that won by a narrow margin. Crooked House came out in 2017 right on the heels of Murder on the Orient Express, but its release on internet platforms muddled its performance, and to be frank, seeing it nearly two and a half years later, it feels mostly inert. That is not a surprise; there have been several disappointing Agatha Christie adaptations done over the years, so another one is just a casualty of a project not quite working. The story is quite similar to that of Knives Out for those who have a sharp eye at narration, but Knives Out manages to use the concept and go to other directions with it and keep the story fresh, exciting, and above all, interesting. You won’t find that here despite the large ensemble cast headed by Glenn Close. Crooked House is basically dead on arrival. It’s as if the stance chosen by the director was to make an already flimsy story even weaker by inert direction, cardboard performances, and questionable events that seemed to have lifted in order to force the viewers into gasp mode once the killer was revealed.

It really pains me when I see as movie made for pennies within the indie community that I can’t recommend. That movie is someone’s project, someone’s idea of a story, and here I come, the Big Bad Reviewer, watch the entire thing (twice, may I add), cringe with every scene being offered, and give it a bad review. However, not everyone in the indie scene is made to make a good product and After Midnight, a film by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, is the result. The story concerns Hank and Abby (Gardner and Brea Grant), a couple living the life in the backwoods of America. They are, apparently, happy, Except that by the end of the extended scene in which both express their love, she has left the house, leaving a cryptic note, and left Hank in stasis, unable to move on. So unable to move on that the entire movie features a flashback sequence to when he and Abby were happy and in love every five minutes. Once is okay, but when your story has to venture into horror and we are still in washed out colors and puppy dog stares I started to wonder when the mess would start.

Spoiler alert.

Reader, it does start, but not in the way you would believe and I can’t believe I had to write a second paragraph to explain why. Any kind of horror involves a mood. We know that something bad has to happen, or at least, that there is a sense that something is not quite alright from the onset and is about to get slightly worse as proceedings follow. That never happens in After Midnight. Hank has a business; we never see him in that business. Hank goes to a bar to down some beer and the scene falls flat on its face when he meets a buddy (Henry Zebrowski) who is munching on peanuts. For some reason the camera decides to cut in, twice, on Zebrowski as he chews peanuts and almost chokes on a mouthful. Does this advance the story? No. Neither does a stop at a sheriff’s friend (played by Justin Benson, one half of the other directing duo who brought The Endless, another example of terrible horror). Finally, the horror arrives: someone (or something) is stalking Hank at night, leaving him terrified and shaken. While that should amp up the horror level, Gardner and Stella never change the tone and leave it as bland as an extended flashback into present scene when the much missed Abby decides to come back. And while I don’t want to reveal to the audience how this entire fiasco gets resolved, let’s just say, I might never listen to Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You).

Bad, bad film-making, terrible storyline, an incredibly cheesy guy in a monster suit, and flat acting: this is what in essence you will get if you sit back and watch all 75 minutes of the interminable After Midnight.

You were warned.

Horror in a Minor Key: The Wind and the Hold in the Ground

Here’s looking at you, horror genre: if I had thought that 20 years the genre itself was dead in the water, and the only ones making good horror were the Eastern Asians and the French, boy would I be in for a surprise when out of the blue, and stealthily, indie horror would be making quite a resurgence, eliciting chills and even shocking moments that have now made it into the nightmare fuel from which I will never recover (I’m looking at you, Hereditary, with your unspeakable scene).

So, without yammering too much, let me start with a striking debut picture by newcomer Emma Tammi, who directed it, and Tessa Sutherland, who wrote the screenplay. The Wind tells the story of two couples united in isolation and a horrific tragedy. The first scene we get is that of Lizzy (Caitlin Gerard), emerging, bloody and possibly deranged, with what we learn is a dead baby.

What a way to begin a movie which posits two women — the aforementioned Lizzy and Emma (Julia Goldoni), a married frontierswoman who moves into the abandoned house nearby — in positions of heightened friendship not devoid of its own problems. The fact that Emma gets introduced as having some marital issues with her husband Gideon (Dylan McTee) sets her up for this female friendship, but the introduction of a supernatural element that binds both women starts to take the story into a sinister path that unfolds as Lizzy’s own memories of losing her unborn child to an unseen entity mirrors Emma’s emerging nightmare of being pursued by one.

The Wind, lean on running time and characters but loaded with an arresting cinematography (by Lyn Moncrief) and some standout performances by the two lead actresses, represents a new voice in horror, one that doesn’t need to rely on jump scares or buckets of gore but an increasing sense of dread looming at every corner as its characters, ordinary people trapped in their own isolation, are hopeless to defend themselves when the unseen menace threatens to tear them apart.

Slightly less impactful but rich in imagery, setting, and dread is Lee Cronin’s debut feature The Hole in the Ground, a story that posits a young mother (Seana Kerslake) against her son (James Quinn Markey) much in the style of the mother-son duo of The Babadook.

Fleeing an abusive husband, Sarah (Kerslake) and her son Chris (Markey) move into the Irish countryside seeking a new life. As it is with unresolved issues stemming from unhealed trauma, it doesn’t matter where you go — trauma still follows, and it presents itself under the form of an old woman Sarah almost hits on the road. Sarah later learns that the woman, Noreen (Kati Outinen) faced an unimaginable tragedy with the loss of her son. And then there is an unrelated weird sinkhole deep in the woods that no one seems to be aware about, one that seems to be folding in on itself, drawing any passerby to come closer…

One night, Chris seemingly disappears from the house, sending Sarah into a panic as she calls the police. When he finally appears, it seems that all has been resolved. However, Chris isn’t who he seems to be, and Sarah has started to feel it.

Much of the tension and the sense of horror of The Hole in the Ground stems from the uncertainty that the Chris who came back from the forest where he ran into is not the same Chris. We are constantly at odds with Sarah herself — could she also be having her own progressive breakdown? Could there be unexplained forces at work, trying to drive a wedge between Sarah and her son? We are never sure, but while the premise is pretty good — except for the title, which seems to have devoured the story of much of its depth, leaving only a superficial sense of the creeps. I would have preferred a setting closer to that of The Ritual, but this one, for all its misses, is horror in a minor key, more storybook than flat-out fright-fest, and announces Lee Cronin as a director with solid potential to deliver the shivers.

When A teacup yields a storm: THE PLAGIARISTS, a Movie About Appropriation morphs into a question about race relations

I’m sitting here in the dead of night in the middle of a pandemic trying to recommend a movie that I first saw when everything closed, and then again only now, to see what I missed. You see, when I first heard of this movie which came out in New Directors New Films last year (March of 2019 to be exact), I somehow missed it through chance and availability. It’s again a curse in scheduling that I wish the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA would look into because two showings are not enough and with new releases in theaters and their compressed schedules it is easy to miss a hidden gem.

But I digress. I finally got a chance to see it through MUBI at the beginning of April, and I was… quite angered by what I saw. To explain: The thin story — which is more of a situation than an actual plot — concerns a man (Eamon Monaghan) and a woman (Lucy Kaminsky) on their way to visit a female friend who lives in upstate New York during the winter when their car breaks down. When a stranger named Clip (Michael “Clip” Payne) approaches them offering help, both are a bit unsettled, and to be honest, perhaps I would be too because this is a scenario that could easily go from innocent to violent. [But this isn’t a horror movie; instead, it is a somewhat bland comedy of manners.]

Their suspicions seem to point to the fact that Clip is African American, friends with their friend Allison (Emily Davis), babysitting a white kid upon their arrival to his house, which he owns, and it continues to manifest even it points to the fact that he seems well educated and worldly through extensive travel. [An exchange with Tyler will reveal that Clip has been to Norway when Tyler calls the Dogme 95 movement Norwegian when in fact, it’s Danish.]

As dinner starts getting prepared, Anna and Tyler exchange conversation with Clip separately while bickering constantly as if they were rehearsing for a well-known Albee play. Meanwhile, Tyler exhibits every annoying characteristic of passive aggressive behavior masked through a know-it-all facade and showing no manners in someone else’s house. It is this that leads him to uncover a room full of vintage cameras. On the spur, Clip gives Tyler, a small-time director on his way to an Evian commercial, an old gem of a camera. Back with Anna, she reveals she is working on a novel/memoir, and Clip opens up to her, revealing a childhood memory that moves her to the core. So poignant is this memory that director Peter Parlow’s movie stops cold, achieving a kind of magic that happens when something pregnant is about to be born.

Back in reality, Anna and Tyler depart the next day, and we see them next summer, yet again making the trek to their (as yet unseen) friend Allison’s upstate home. They are bickering even more so, and this time, it seems things have gone a bit south for them. While she reads a passage by Karl One Knausgard’s book My Struggle, Book 3, she has a double-take. It turns out that the story Clip told her has been lifted, word for word, from this rather obscure passage. How could this be? Anna’s reaction basically intensifies until she’s basically having a meltdown of sorts and making the annoying Tyler look rational as he has to look at her and wonder, and call her out on the fact that she is reacting because she is racist. However, both of them reveal just how racist they are when they jump at the sight of a black man who’s not even aware of them.

When they reach the house the much-mentioned but never seen Allison, Anna continues with her assertions that Clip is a plagiarist. Allison seems a bit unfazed (and vaguely irritated by the whole affair, and the movie really peters into nowhere, to reveal that after the last winter it seems that Anna and Tyler’s luck took a nosedive — she has not yet published her novel; he lost his Evian contract and they had to forfeit a vacation to Costa Rica. Who do they place the blame? On Clip. Yes, all of their misfortunes happened after they left Clip’s house and now, here they are.

Parlow doesn’t neatly resolve this situation, leaving Tyler the odd man out while Allison and Anna bond over better times. Meanwhile, we get what seems to be a flash forward – or flashback? – where Allison’s voice over reads an email she sent Anna. A reveal happens at the very end, which for the sharpest of eyes could be seen a mile away the moment Anna and Tyler, for the umpteenth time, bring the topic of Clip up, and it seems a bit of a cheat not for the audience but for the character itself.


So it gets revealed that Allison and Clip are a little more than friends, and the blond kid clearly is their son. It is telling that Allison towards the end seems to be fishing for a sperm donor even though she mentions having a boyfriend, when there is a home video of her, the boy, and Clip walking through the woods, happy. Why would she not reveal this to her friends seems to make me believe she is either ashamed she was involved with a black man and chose to leave this brushed under the rug.

I’m not sure I am getting the full gist of the joke of the movie. The Plagiarists is rather for an elite crowd that reads specific articles, believes petty arguments amount to a character building scene, and can identify text lifted from other text. Allison’s email is lifted word for word from an article in the Guardian, which mirrors Clip seemingly lifting a memory from a Norwegian author’s memoirs. Note that Clip states casually he has been to Norway. Could it be possible that Clip did have this experience and the author just happened to get inspired by it? His memory is not like reciting Shakespeare’s famous speech from Hamlet. This is extremely specific, and yes, it has happened where people struck upon the same pool of inspiration — Anna, stupid she, can’t understand that. Tyler later states in his one “redeeming” scene that Anna can’t understand African Americans can also have experiences and education despite “growing poor in the 70s”. The movie has much promise, much potential, but is so frustrating that even when it runs a little under the 75 minute -mark it seems like an uphill battle because it doesn’t know how to get past the roadblock that its heroine herself places due to her own sheltered whiteness.

EXTRACTION is Mindless popcorn entertainment, for the self-quarantined

I guess I’ll get straight to it. Just when you thought the action movie was over and done, along comes something like Extraction, unannounced, to give it some fresh life even when the plot is as recycled as as recycled could be.

Here we have Chris Hemsworth, rugged, soft-spoken but lethal, playing a free-agent soldier with some dim memories of a son, having to rescue and protect an Indian drug lord’s son from the nefarious hands of another drug lord.

There is nothing I can say about this movie to not recommend it, since it came without fanfare and reveals a rather strong hand at direction by Sam Hargrove, a sometimes actor who also does stunts. Clearly he knows his media, since he doesn’t go for a Michael Bay waterboarding of the senses with so much editing and splicing and shaking of the camera that you wind up not having a clue what just took place. His movie takes just enough time to start, and when it does, it is pretty breathless action pieces that lead into some quieter scenes, and if you are a fan of sequences, pay attention to a show-stopping ten minute chase scene through streets and buildings to culminate with Hemsworth and Randeep Hooda flying off a building. Some revelations will occur, as they always do. Some double-crossing will also take place, because that is a basic part of this genre. Hargrove keeps a fluid hold on his film, the action balletic, and the performances on spot even when every character fills a pre-conceived need. It is, however, nice to see Goldshifteh Farahani in a more action oriented character than her dramas with Asghar Farhadi.

I’d like to see action films that don’t depend on the drug lord plot thread to make it happen. The genre is tired as ever, and needs some new life. Hopefully, Hargrove will come up with some good films since Extraction is a solid debut and gives Hemsworth a chance to play something other than Thor for once,

Unfinished Business, transient lives, the story of BURNING GHOST (VIF-ARGENT)

Timothée Robart in Burning Ghost (Vif-argent) Image by Film Society of Lincoln Center

Some of the most poignant movies coming out of Rendezvous with French Cinema will never see the lights of an American audience enamored with the flash of Deneuve, Binoche, Ozon, Huppert, and Gondry. [Of this group Denueve and Binoche have the lion share of the francophile audience with Hirokazu Koreeda’s English language debut The Truth (which was set to premiere March 20 had COVID-19 not happened), and Who You Think I am, also starring Binoche.]

Burning Ghost (Vif-Argent), a debut film from Stephen Batut, features no known actors (with the possible exception of the films female starJudith Chemla, whom I’d seen earlier in A Woman’s Life in 2017), is a remarkable oddity and a hidden treasure if you can tolerate its lack of marquee names. I was able to catch this wonderful little ghost story via Festival Scope, a site that was hosting some of Rendezvous with French Cinema’s selections a little over a month ago.

Batut’s movie focuses on a young man, Juste (Timothée Robart), seen waking up from what seems to be a fall, wandering the streets of Paris, dazed, confused, and scared. No one who he approaches recognizes him; indeed, it seems that he is invisible to all of them. An older man of the name of Alpha (Djolof Mbengue) takes Juste in and after being unable to recount a single relevant memory to a female doctor (Saadia Bentaïeb), he is tasked with being an angel of death, to walk those who have crossed over to the other side, and guide them to their final destination.

Along the way, Juste will cross paths with a man reuniting with his son, an older Italian lady in her final moments, but none of his encounters will be as poignant as the one he shares with Agatha (Juliet Chemla), a young woman who recognizes him from someplace. Soon, Juste begins a tentative romance with Agatha, against his own mission, and just like that, soon, old memories of a life interrupted, and most importantly, a love cut short, will re-surface, threatening his newfound reconnection and his very sense of self.

Batut’s movie is remarkably poignant and brims with sensitivity to the displaced — both in life and in death — as he treats his characters, all migrants, rootless, with a sense of compassion, as he were an observer, a spirit from above, non-judging, but ultimately good. The movie never falls into missteps that most romantic movies featuring ghosts have fallen into — there is no sequence, for example, that points at Ghost, another movie about star-crossed lovers in which one of them lingers on in spirit. Some of the sequences, for example, where Juste must meet with his doctor, seem to border on the surreal, but it becomes all the more believable in the way the living and the dead seamlessly connect into one tapestry

There is a profound sadness in Burning Ghost, and it’s on Timothée Robert to project a sense that he never had a chance and his entire life, even now as he wanders the world in living death, is a massive black hole of regret. Homeless, rootless, friendless, and with the unwanted task of being the last person one sees in life, or the first that one sees post death, is heartbreaking. The Parisian backdrop makes this for a movie filled with longing and the sense of incompleteness. Highly recommended whenever it comes out digitally as there is still no release date scheduled for Batut’s movie.

The Story of the Unknown Soldier in Sam Mendes’ Riveting 1917

I hate to confess this, but I was purposely avoiding this movie like my life depended on it. I’ve nothing against a Sam Mendes movie — as a matter of fact, twenty years later, I still cringe at his searing look at the American Family gone to hell (and that Oscar snub for Annette Bening, the first of two). He came out of the blue, unannounced, presented his now classic picture, and in not time cemented himself as a director of cinematic power, scope, and breath, a feat he has achieved in films like Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, and Skyfall.

Because he returned to the war genre, I kept side-stepping it. I’ve seen many war movies all my life, all to various degrees of mind-numbing and harrowing, so I was apprehensive to see yet another war picture on the heels of Jojo Rabbit (admittedly, a satire, but one that took a vicious, punch in the gut of a hard left a little over halfway through and veered, kamikaze-like, headlong into a blond form of Germany Year Zero minus a harrowing, nihilistic ending). Instead I went to see new indie releases such as The Assistant and Color Out of Space and even managed to fit in Marriage Story in for good measure. [Review of the latter, pending]

You could write the storyline out in one sentence. On April 6, 1917, Two soldiers are assigned a task to cross enemy lines into Germany and deliver a message that will stop an army of 1,600 British men from walking into a trap. The concept, a hero’s journey, from start to finish, with the hero coming out potentially intact, if not traumatized. It’s a simple premise, and Sam Mendes’ choice to film this series of events in one “continuous” shot could be seen as a cinematic gimmick of the likes of the great Alfred Hitchcock when he filmed and delivered Rope.

However, Rope, much like Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s Birdman, feels less organic to the plot and more an exercise in technique. Yes, they make what would have seem a more static narrative look like a seamless transition, and that in effect keeps your eyes glued to what may happen next, but was it necessary? Not really.

In 1917, however, even when the action is not in real time — the plot covers the length of two days — it feels urgent, powerful. Additionally presenting the action in one continuous flow, Mendes automatically forces you to sit forward and pay attention. He never takes his gaze off the two soldiers (played here by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman). He allows us to see them making small banter as they are called into their mission. These are the two who are to play messenger bird and hopefully save thousands of lives. That their superiors even took a slight chance in them is a tall order; both MacKay’s and Chapman’s characters would have been essentially signing off their own death warrants. There would be no way for them to carry out such a thing. I felt it, the audience felt it, and I’m sure you felt it. The task… just seemed like climbing a vertical cliff with next to no gear and hoping to maintain footing.

The story of 1917, despite it being rooted in stories told to Sam Mendes about his grandfather, feels very much steeped in myth and the concept of the Everyman. Taking an aside from the cinematic world in which it inhabits, I want to go into this by briefly focusing on Blake and Schofield because it defines how the actions of both men will play out into delivering this message.

Chapman, the soldier who gets the perilous assignment, is naturally open and constantly seeks conversation with his friend Schofield (MacKay), who’s a more taciturn fellow, We get enough information about Blake because his is the mission that needs to get carried out immediately; plus, he has an older brother in the very front lines that must be alerted. That he selects Schofield is out of friendship, but as we later learn, also out of the importance of this mission.

Schofield is ambiguous for a reason. Without giving into any spoilers, his part is of a soldier who’s come back from the Somme, medal in hand, and all we know is that he traded in the purple cross he earned for a swig of wine. We only vaguely infer he has someone waiting at home, but not whom — it gets reflected in his eyes in one crucial scene, which has him almost divulging his own backstory. However, and this is where Mendes’ story excels, we don’t get any more information for a reason, and it will get shown much later.

Mendes’ movie is often harrowing and he never lets up the tension, even in one key pastoral scene where the boys discover milk left behind, or when one of them sings an Irish lullaby to a French baby as he hides out from the enemy, His exercise in the hero’s journey is gut-wrenching and at times, truly hard to watch, the performance MacKay gives is completely internal and integral to his character as he moves from one grim scenario to the other. Chapman is also of utmost importance; his character remains the heart of the narrative and lingers well into the final scene. Together, and through Sam Mendes’ gripping film, we have the story of brotherly love and the commitment it takes to honor the life and memory of a felled soldier.

Corneliu Porumboiu’s THE WHISTLERS (LA GOMERA) Channels neo-noir Through a fractured narrative

Corneliu Porumboiu, the man of short, meandering micro-dramedies like When Evening Falls on Bucharest and The Treasure returned last year to the 57th New York Film Festival with The Whistlers (La Gomera), and if you enjoy the films he makes, you will possibly enjoy his new outing. I don’t mind his rather cool, flat observational style, but when I am coming into a movie labelled Neo-noir, I assume I will see pools of shadows, tense narration, at least one plot twist or shocking revelation, an anti-hero serving as either an unreliable narrator and also a weak host bound to his own desires.

The Whistlers has a pretty convoluted story in which it becomes next to impossible to truly state who is double-crossing whom and will demand a second view to anyone coming into its perimeters. That I’ve no problem with. As a matter of fact I come to expect it that in any noir, a labyrinthine plot filled with untrustworthy characters will be the norm, just another day in Shadyville. The issue I had/have with this movie that, while well-made, it doesn’t quite know how to translate a glaring portion of its narrative which solely depends on an insular form of communication, and this might put anyone completely off. You see, La Gomera, one of the islands in the Canary Islands, has a sub-language that depends solely one whistling, hence the title. It is a perfect language for anyone working in the underbelly of society, and would render anyone coming in from the outside rather an incompetent hitting an unyielding brick wall, unable to report any discernible intel to his or her officials.

If you can get part of that detail you will wind up liking The Whistlers. It took a second view for me to truly grasp at the ambitions that Porumboiu’s movie is going for. I work in language and in today’s age, to be as covert as possible while working in broad daylight decides if a business will either succeed or fail. Because of the rise in cybercrime, and surveillance, The Whistlers goes back to the primitive in search for complete secrecy in light of what is clearly illegal activity. That is what Magda (Rodica Lazar), the head of police, is trying to do, and she’s not above bugging her officer’s home in order to do this while she herself is bugged in order to secure she herself will not fall prey to corruption. She sustains a meeting with Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) because her office received an anonymous call who tipped some intel. It seems, there is a mattress company run by a money-laundering cartel moving 30 million euros. Magda wants Cristi to go in as a mole to find out any incriminating evidence to make her move while planting some cocaine in a suspect’s place to precipitate a search warrant.

It seems deceptively simple. However, the stoic Cristi has tricks up his own sleeve. Before meeting Magda he is seen meeting with the appropriately named Gilda (Catrinel Marlon). Their meeting is pregnant with some subtle body language and trickery, since Cristi, aware his place is bugged, informs Gilda, who then plays the part of a high-class hooker to avoid detection. Gilda brings Cristi onto La Gomera where he learns the whistling language through her and her partner in crime Kiko (Antonio Bull). Kiko becomes aware of the anonymous tip to the police, a body turns up dead in the mattress factory, and like a magic trick, the elusive 30 million are gone. Soon after, Kiko himself turns up dead, and stakes get raised a notch when the cartel king Paco (Agusti Villaronga) starts to suspect something else is afoot,

So far, this is typical noir territory, but somehow, under Porumboiu’s flat visuals, his movie becomes bleached dry of real involvement, and any sense of trepidation and danger in which a web of deceit threatens to envelop everyone gets muddled and mired in objectivity. Ivanov’s cipher of a character never seems more than going through the motions when technically, he would be trying to both out-pace both teams he has played against each other. If any of the characters resonate, it’s the women, including the actress who plays Cristi’s mother, Julieta Szonyi. A character that would be completely out of place in this kind of story, her character proves quite adept at navigating power exchanges between women on both sides of crime. She suggests more than what she actually delivers, and she does manage to have a few lines of bone-dry humor, All in all this a rather conventional story complete with crosses and double crosses and a killer of a showdown, somewhat muted in tone because it doesn’t seem that Porumboiu knows the genre as much as the genre demands,

JUDY: Yes, it Begged for an Oscar, and it Won in more ways than anyone could hafve imagined

Judy premiered on September 27, 2019, and I deliberately missed it even though the Angelika was aggressively promoting it because all I could see was Renee Zellweger: her ten year career slump, and the obvious ruse that she was shamelessly busking for an Oscar, or at least, a career resuscitation. Turns out, the joke was on me: not only did Judy play to packed audiences — most of my friends, cinephiles to the core at varying levels — saw it, extolled its virtues, and egged me to go. However, at the time, I was deeply immersed in the 57th New York Film Festival. The aftermath following the NYFF placed me in visual overload in which unless the movie was particularly significant, or called my attention, I had next to no desire to go see anything.

So I wound up missing a great film, which sports a knockout performance by Zellweger, and only because she was up for Oscar consideration did I finally rent it, viewed it from the comfort of my own home two weeks before Oscar night (as the movie played, undeterred as it had now for 16 weeks, in select theaters, having peaked somewhere in the Christmas season), and realized that Judy, through the performance of Zellweger, had been resurrected.

However, thank goodness for a prompt DVD release, because it made me eligible to analyze Zellweger’s performance, and see for myself. Rupert Goold’s Judy focuses mainly on two time periods, The first period, the 1938 filming of The Wizard of Oz, a movie that has now cemented Garland as a Performer and has come to define her career, for better or worse. The latter period takes place during the last year of Garland’s life as she navigates a film career in the toilet, a singing career also seriously on the way south, poverty, the loss of her own children to then former husband Sid Luft, and a new opportunity to continue to make a living as a singer in London.

I’m going to have to disagree with most critics who have stated that the disparity of the two sequences blatantly omit the meat at the center and showcase an artist who was reaching an early career peak, countered by the startling reality that only 20 years later that same star would by then be a has-been. The disparity of these two sequences actually reinforce, rather than deny, the drama surrounding Garland, and zoom into the heights from which she fell into a state of almost unrecognizable neglect still propelled by her furious personality, itself propelled even more so by her unstoppable, unparalleled artistry. [Note: I do not worship at the Church of Judy; I don’t her recordings possess, and I only watch A Star is Born once every so often to remind myself of the power of acting when placed side by side with the tragedy of a performer’s own life, and how that can inform and make what would have been a correct performance something to look at in wonder. But I do recognize when a Performer arrives, and sorry, Meryl, you can sing, you have danced, and you can act in a multitude of accents and disappear into roles, but Judy is Performance.]

So, as I said, Judy the movie tackled the artist as a rising young performer and pits her against her almost unrecognizable, older, haggard self, months before her death from barbiturates. It’s a gut-punch of a move, because while she did have more than enough drama throughout the 40s while maintaining her status as a solid box-office draw, it’s in her formative years in MGM when the damage was branded into her as if she were a Holstein. The irony is that this is exactly how the industry and L. B, Mayer saw her, and yes, he did intervene with several of her future meltdowns, but let’s face it; he was the artifice and architect behind the assassination of Frances E. Gumm and the creation he threw against the world, the singing, acting, and dancing tour de force we know as Judy Garland. In a chilling scene following young Judy’s rebellion against the system who wouldn’t allow her to eat a burger, or celebrate her own birthday for fear she would gain weight, Mayer pretty much stabs her in the heart with this: “Your name is Frances Gumm. You’re a fat-ankled, snag-toothed rube from Grand Rapids. Your father was a faggot, and your mother only cares about what I think of you. Now do you remember who you are, Judy?”

Think of this; Garland was barely 16. Had she been even ten, fifteen years older, brought up with a strong sense of self-confidence, Mayer’s humiliating words would have stung, of course, she was only human. A stronger Garland would have either left the business or simply tossed his words over her shoulder and worked her way through it all until she could buy herself out of her contract. Never would she have tortured herself the way she did and in doing that, secured a lifetime of trying to please older men whom she married while addicted to pills to simply function.

One could blame the time Garland came into the world. Hollywood’s Golden Era was a time when actors were a franchise and studio property. Garland got the brunt end of it by having to compete against women like Garbo, Hepburn, Crawford, Bergman, and Garson. These were women whose identities had been effectively erased and who had been molded into the products that they were, corralled into a type. The already fragile Gumm became Garland and remade from scratch, her nose remade, her black hair lightened just a bit, and she emerged belting out huge big-band tunes that made her a hot commodity. We only get. glimpse of the grueling schedule Garland was placed through, but that is practically enough to make us cringe. No wonder her early need to rebel… and no wonder her need to perform made her stay, take the abuse, and carve out the grooves that formed her instability and would kill her career come A Star is Born.

Seeing Garland at the zenith of her life, still commanding a crowd in Swinging London, and under Zellweger’s powerful command, is truly something to behold. You don’t get much in the way of poverty-porn in seeing the neglected quarters where Garland lived in 1969, but you get the sense that this woman has nowhere to go, is approaching 50, considered unemployable by an industry that values youth and glamour (because of course it does, even today), and has to attempt to make something of herself just to secure time with her children. Zellweger might not even remotely have Garland’s unmatchable pipes, but when she sings “By Myself”, you realize Judy has arrived and exploded, pure, raw, masterful. I was sold.

So come Oscar night, I had high hopes for Zellweger, and I was glad that she took home the award. I couldn’t even vaguely see Cynthia Erivo win for the performance she gave in the terrible Harriet, which was included solely to negate the “Oscar so white” stigma. And if we want to go there, 2019 had some powerful performances by non-white actresses that the Academy just decided didn’t exist to the Academy’s standard: Alfre Woodard for Clemency, Lupita N’yongo for Us, and Awkwafina for The Farewell. It is inexplicable to me that they were ignored but Erivo was not, and worse, that Charlize Theron was included for playing a toxic white Barbie doll of no character, and even worse still, that Saoirse Ronan was also under consideration when she brought nothing new to Jo March. But, perhaps it did work for the better. Zellweger took home the award, and in a strange way, telegraphed the horrific snub Garland herself experienced when she lost the Academy Award in 1955 to Grace Kelly who won it for The Country Girl.

Does anyone remember that movie? Me neither. Now, Kelly I recall Kelly as a correct, poised performer that Hitchcock loved and whose superficial strengths he brought out in films like Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, and Rear Window. I recall her not in High Society, and even less in High Noon — the former a musical imagination of The Philadelphia Story, the latter being a Gary Cooper vehicle in which she was outacted by Mexican powerhouse Katy Jurado, never an Oscar darling while once nominated. Kelly’s win for The Country Girl was considered a slap in the face to Garland who was by the time she did A Star is Born considered un-bankable and too problematic. Hollywood of course wouldn’t want to award her the Academy, and why would they? They’d effectively destroyed her, and after A Star is Born, Garland would make no more pictures until 1961’s Judgement at Nuremberg in a key, supporting part. That year also proved to be against Garland as she was up against Rita Moreno for West Side Story. Moreno, the only Latina to ever get a nomination (and win), was the woman of the hour.

So in a twist of irony, Zellweger’s win somehow brings the Academy Award full circle to give Garland, in absentia, the award she was denied even as the very same industry had crushed her. And truth be told, Zellweger shows that she can act the crap out of herself and lose her very identity into that of another. Not once did it feel to me that I was watching an impersonation. She had the mannerisms down to the details of Garland’s flighty, bird-like walk down to a science; her talk, her overall restlessness. Again, no one can and will sing like Garland, but the aforementioned performance shows an artist in decline, still bravely trying. It is shattering. To compare the two is just impossible, and to me, if an actress can channel the essence of a person, even when the movie itself does not hit all the right notes, that is all I need. Now, all Zellweger needs to do is maintain that newly found momentum and not sit back and hope the buzz continues, because it’s already over.