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LOVE & FRIENDSHIP

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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love and friendship

When I first saw the promos for Love & Friendship at the Angelika in March I would have never thought that Jane Austen, the authoress of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, would also have penned something this delightfully wicked and gleefully sociopathic as Lady Susan, the novella on which Whit Stillman’s new movie is based on. If you can think of the most ridiculous characters in any of her books — many of them gratuitous social climbers of the day — and lumped them together into one cohesive screwball comedy, then you have the resulting movie which I was able to see last Friday.

The story goes as follows: Lady Susan Vernon, the recent widow of Lord Vernon (a character referred to on occasion but never seen as he has passed on) seems to sow trouble wherever she goes. As she doesn’t have a house proper, she’s like a vine, setting root wherever the bricks are naked. It seems she’s started some trouble with the Mannering family and has to leave in a hurry to go to Churchill Estate where her relatives live while the rumors of her own reputation as a flirt and a homewrecker simmer down. She isn’t even with her foot in the door when she’s already set her sights on the much younger and soon to be heir to the estate Reginald deCourcy, a matter that needless to say, preoccupies Sir and Lady deCourcy who clearly disapprove. What Lady Susan doesn’t anticipate is that her daughter Frederica also arrives at Churchill and of course, while she’s at it to find herself a husband to secure her position in society she also tries to find Frederica a match. In comes Sir James Martin, a man who really is an absolute idiot, and Lady Susan decides that’s the man for Frederica (while she’s spinning her web around Reginald, who is smitten with her, a thing not tolerated well by his sister Catherine). Sitting in the wings like a spider is Lady Susan’s good friend Lady Alicia Johnson, herself married to a man “too old to govern and too young to die”, who is as immoral as Lady Susan — they might as well be sisters, they are so alike and literally complete each others’ sentences. As Lady Susan plots, Lady Alicia abets and conceals, people suffer left and right, and we wonder how this entire mess will all end, or will it end well for anyone?

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Interestingly enough, Jane Austen must have liked the character enough and had a sense of humor that her novella didn’t go the way of punishing Lady Susan (or Lady Alicia, for that matter), but had them simply appear to stop communication (at least in the movie — I haven’t read the novella). Whit Stillman’s movie is a bubbling mass of comedic energy held up by pitch-perfect performances by Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, two actresses I would have never once considered more than “apt” who make the movie their own and then some, as Lady Susan and Lady Alicia, respectively. For its brief running time Love & Friendship whizzes along and it at times becomes almost a game of playing who’s on first with the sheer volume of participants and what one does to the other, but then again, Austen’s characters are well-written creatures who don’t just sit in the background but have something to add to the plot –or shall I say, multi-level plot. I believe it’s a first, however, to have a woman closer to Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (a novel that wouldn’t hit publication until the mid 19th Century), call the shots here. Either Austen was a visionary or she had some malice within her and decided to have fun for a while, truth of the matter is, this is a story that for the time was ahead of its time. Women — heroines, if one should say so — just didn’t behave in a manner closer to the Marquis de Sade without the attention to pain and sexual depravity. This is closer, much closer, to the epistolary novel by Chorderlos deLaclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, where the main character openly and unabashedly manipulates everyone within her reach to achieve her needs. It’s just lighter in tone . . . and less tragic.

VIVA

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

It may have a Welsh director and Irish budget, but Viva, Paul Breathnach’s movie and Ireland’s submission to the 2015 Best Foreign Language Picture (where it made the December shortlist) is all Cuba. Set in Havana, Viva will transport you, the viewer, to a place that looks and feels as though time stopped when Castro came to power. Havana is alive, crumbling, derelict, but with dripping with an exotic beauty all its own. It’s also where Jesus, the young protagonist, struggles to make a living both as a hairdresser to older ladies who can never pay him full price for his services and as a wig-assistant to Mama, the older drag queen who is the main attraction of a gay club.

When Viva kicks off (and it does so rather quick), Mama learns that one of her performers has run off with all her wigs and is in need of a last-minute replacement for a double act. Enter Jesus who can barely perform and looks unconvincingly female in make-up, wig, and a dress, who chooses the name Viva after a fashion magazine seemingly  modeled after Vogue. The other performers don’t offer much help and it seems as though this will be a retread of a young man trying to prove himself to other more seasoned drag queens (and having to confront a more bitter performer, or the Queen Bee herself once his reputation and marquee value rises. Viva offers a left turn right after Viva’s debut as a “new discovery”, and does so in the most clever of ways. An older man is seen sitting at the bar admiring the drag queens. Because it’s Viva’s turn to go out on stage Mama and the others advise her to be friendly with the customers, to get up close and personal to insure tips (and her own place onstage). Viva agrees, and when she gets up close to the older man at the bar he gets violent, punches Viva in the face, and has to be thrown out.

You see, Viva just met her own father.

Angel is a man who’s been in jail since Jesus was a baby. Jesus always wanted to meet him, just not in this way. Once he returns home Angel is belligerent, aggressive, even confrontational. A thorny relationship starts and stops several times before it finally seems to take a groove of its own. The catch is, Angel doesn’t want Jesus to be performing at a gay club.  He’s okay with Jesus being gay; he just wants him to be masculine. Jesus, wanting to have a relationship with Angel, rejects Mama’s offer to come back to the club and decides to wing it out. Perhaps he will eventually leave, and let Jesus continue with his life.

But Breathnach has several more tricks up his sleeve, and here is where Viva really opens up to the audience. A couple of subplots involving Jesus’ frenemy Cecilia seem tacked on at first but are crucial to the development of the plot: her sexual dalliance with a would-be macho boxer Javier lead Jesus to audition successfully, but once he demands she not use his place as a launchpad for sex she is the one who informs Angel of where he could find Jesus. Jesus himself, stripped of his drag persona, sees himself having to go to extremes to make money since Angel himself can’t find a job and is wallowing in self pity because of a failed life. It’s here where you really feel the sheer isolation Jesus feels, cornered and unable to find any work, and you long for him speak up for himself and take the stage once again.

Viva shines not just in the powerhouse performances of Hector Medina, Jorge Perrugoria, and Luis Alberto Garcia as Jesus, Angel, and Mama, respectively, but also in the emotional impact of the songs themselves, which become the driving focus of Viva’s message. The finale is overwhelming, shattering, and a total triumph of storytelling where everything comes together into one transcendental climax. Finding one’s place in the world and self-acceptance through the medium of art never looked and sounded more raw and compelling. Viva is a watershed LGBT movie that has to be experienced. It can all be summarized in a quote Mama makes late in the movie: “Why is everyone on this island addicted to this goddamn drama?” She should know. To experience drama is to live, and like all drag performers, they channel all the pain and anguish of life itself onto the audience for a couple of dollar bills.

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

 

At first glance The Man Who Knew Infinity would seem an unlikely movie dead on arrival. The very thought of making a biopic about an advanced Indian mathematician whose deep calculations are still being utilized today to calculate black holes doesn’t strike me as a topic that would make the masses rush to the theater, form lines, and eagerly await the opening credits.

But, surprise, surprise, this movie takes such a topic and dresses it in a little Merchant-Ivory and some new age metaphysics. In doing so, The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to create a rather masterful and even suspenseful drama of a man who had “all this in” (as he continues to mention throughout the picture), all these calculations. Srinivasa Ramanujian, a native of Madras, India, had been creating and annotating in notebooks for his own viewing — calculations that were literally begging to be revealed upon the world. Continuously rejected for employment in his own country due to the nation being run by severe Englishmen who looked at Indians as little more than savages, he lands a job as a bookkeeper. His ability to work without an abacus lands him in the eye of his supervisors who see great potential in him. Just as he is starting to form a family with his wife Janaki, Ramanujan finds himself on his way to London — and not just London, but Cambridge — to work under the tutelage of mathematician G. H. Hardy and publish his works.

Ramanujan believes the publishing thing is a cut-and-dry event that would have him back in India in no time. Hardy, while seeing his level of genius, also needs for Ramanujan to form proofs that his calculations work as he’s created them. Ramanujan for a while comes across as a man with an almost insufferable ego — he “sees” the calculations (which land him on the wrong side of a professor with a fragile ego who becomes a thorn on his side. However, the proofs have to materialize; otherwise, even when these calculations can be as revolutionary as stated, they’ll mean little to the math world.

This is a great study in contrasts of characters. Dev Patel as Ramanujan may be infused with an entitlement, but he eventually reveals to Hardy, his polar opposite, that he is attuned to an inner voice, the voice of the gods, and that they come to him in visions holding these pristine calculations in tow for him to materialize onto paper. Hardy, a confirmed atheist, resists for the longest (and Jeremy Irons is his usual good in portraying a stern father-teacher-turned friend). He can’t believe in Ramanujan’s perspective . . . but who is he to deny it?

The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to also expose the rather casual racism that Europeans have had towards people deemed of “an inferior race”. Ramanujan’s position at Cambridge shields him from going to war in 1914 when the story is set and this engenders some animosity from those who are fighting and see him with contempt. Professors sneer at him for being foreign and despite his discoveries deny him a place among the elite. He gets beat up, badly, at one point, and no one notices — again, because he’s “brown”. In short, London becomes more and more an alien place for Ramanujan to exist and it starts to affect his physical and mental health.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a good debut picture by its director, Matt Brown, a solid biopic that manages to engross and involve you in the plight of this one extraordinary man who, it seems, came for one purpose only — to leave his calculations for future generations. That it’s been playing for a solid two months now speaks volumes to the type of movies that the public wants to see instead of the popcorn  garbage that pollutes multiplexes in late spring. This is the kind of picture that was popular in the times of old Hollywood and I for one am glad that it’s become as successful. I would have wanted that the actor slated to play Ramanujan, R. Madhavan, would have remained as the prime choice, but Dev Patel is excellent in a role that places him onscreen for the entire picture. Devhika Bise, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam are very good in their respective roles.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Tom Hanks returns to the screen in this rather small, intimate affair as yet another businessman / negotiator having to travel to another country to present an offer to a person in power and hope they bite the bait. This time he’s not in any sort of danger as he was in Bridge of Spies or Captain Philips; if anything, the only thing he might be is sick, and then A Hologram for the King reveals another story underneath the surface, and in that I think, is where it succeeds.

A Hologram for the King starts with a clever scene: Alan steps in for David Byrne and becomes the performer for what seems to be a video for Once in a Lifetime, but is in reality the events of his own life: he’s lost his wife, his house, and is in the middle of a flight to Saudi Arabia where he will attempt to sell a communications system to the reigning king that uses holograms. That actual sales pitch keeps getting postponed due to a series of events that Alan can’t control. His office is located in a hot tent with no food and the bare minimum. No one seems to know where the king is. A Danish analyst (Sidse Babett Knudsen) offers a little breadth of freshness, but can’t really do much else. One morning, when Alan again is told that the king will not be in Alan decides to take the day off from work and alongside Yousef, a taxi driver he befriends (Alexander Black), go get a tumor he’s got in his back checked out at the nearest clinic. There he meets Zahra (Sarita Choudhury), who performs a biopsy. Their meet is pregnant with unspoken promise, but Alan is then seen trekking into Mecca and deep into the country alongside Yousef where he gets into a misunderstanding with a local man who takes a flippant comment very seriously.

Where does this all end? It doesn’t matter; the business pitch is more an excuse for Alan’s prolonged stay in Saudi Arabia, but it all works out for the better. If anything, I believe the true story happens when Alan and Zahra’s storylines come progressively closer, and then it all falls into place as Hologram turns into a romance — restrained due to cultural obligations, yes, but a romance nevertheless.

This is a rather gentle comedy that probably won’t make too much noise (it’s already left theaters in New York City and will probably play for the requisite one-week-only engagement throughout the country). Even so, A Hologram for the King is a subtle little movie about one man’s journey to love.

DARK HORSE

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Living in a city like New York can turn movie-going into a nail-biting challenge, With over 10 arthouse theaters catering to indies of all shapes and sizes and there being at times as much as 15 new entries in a single weekend it’s truly a  miracle that one can get to see any of them in time, at least before they hit VOD or DVD status (which on occasion in regards to the latter format can take forever). Today was one of those days where I had a small list of films to see and my plan was to finally catch up with the animated April and the Extraordinary World at the IFC. However, logistics outside of this plan threw me off and in a way, what almost became a personal disaster turned into a much needed cathartic blessing in disguise. I found myself at the Angelika almost in a dream-state and choosing a documentary that had never even entered my plans: ireland’s aptly titled Dark Horse.

When you think of horse racing you think of high-bred animals being groomed by people with money to spend. For ages it’s been like that in the UK. But for Janet Vokes, a Welsh woman living a hardscrabble life working in Asda, a chain market equivalent of our Walmart or Target, the idea of grooming such an animal and training him to run races became not just a dream but a reality, one she somehow managed to convince her husband and friends into crowdfunding in order to foot the cost of purchasing such a mare, and then a stallion, in order to breed her winning horse, one the town named Dream Alliance after much pondering.

Louise Osmond’s sweet as can be documentary charts the life of Dream Alliance from the moment of birth into young adulthood when he begins to win his first races. This of course puts Janet and others into a state of euphoria and they decide to see how far they can go. And mind you — none of these people are actually motivated by the money and the glory: they just want to say that they too had a share of a sport geared only for people of a certain privilege. Dark Horse might suffer from being just a teensy bit predictable — after all, this is the classic story of the Little Engine that Could — and its thick Welsh accent may prompt viewers to switch on subtitles. Other than that, the documentary looks gorgeous in lush, almost hyperreal greens and that perpetual fog hovering over the small town where Janet lives, and compounded by footage of the races Dream Alliances participated in as well as tiny bits of reenactment here and there, this should be a perfect crowd pleaser.

ROAD GAMES

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

Ever since B-movies like Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Hitchhicker directors have been trying to up the ante while telling essentially the same story over and over. In this case, we open to an unseen figure dragging a body covered in what looks to be tarp across a backroad. We have no idea who this person might be, but the sharpening of knives and a quick glimpse of a dead face shows it’s clear what’s just happened and what’s to come. We cut then to a young British hitchhiker (Andrew Simpson, last seen in Notes on a Scandal as the kid Cate Blanchett’s teacher seduced) who witnesses a car veer to a screeching stop in front of him as an argument between a young French man and a woman (Josephine de la Baume) balloons out of control. The man, Jack, essentially rescues the woman, Veronique, from what could have been an impossibly violent situation. After the would-be-assailant takes off, Jack and Veronique continue, making small, tentative talk, each unsure if to open up to the other.

Soon after a car approaches them and a couple offers a ride. Anyone who would see the driver would probably give that man a “hell, no” from the get-go — Frederik Pierrot just oozes a kind of cheery menace I personally wouldn’t want to venture even near to. And the wife (Barbara Crampton as nervously stiff as ever), while quiet, makes allegations of a serial killer on the loose in the French countryside and later on as they arrive at the couple’s isolated mansion for a stopover, all but becomes unhinged at the seams. What could be going on with this older couple? Director Abner Pastoll keeps his cards tightly against his chest throughout the entire nocturnal sequence as the foursome have what amounts to a nearly terrifying dinner and the wife continues to warn Jack to keep his door locked at all times.

I won’t say more about what happens in Road Games because while it’s little more than cardboard horror, badly acted, it has a clever third-act that I didn’t quite see coming. Safe to say it’s an above average late night fright fest without too much gore or blood but a pretty dark center that points at the possibility, if French cinema was like its American counterpart, into sequels.

MAGGIE’S PLAN

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

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She first charmed audiences in her splendid, devil-may-care turn in 2013’s Frances Ha, annoyed everyone with her haughty, faux-deep Manhattan socialite in Mistress America just last summer, and hot on the heels of that she’s playing another apparently slightly dim-witted part in a movie that offers a heck of a lot of complications from the very same people she not-so-inadvertently hurt through a sexual tryst gone riot.

It is my belief that Greta Gerwig is by far one of the greatest comediennes I’ve seen in recent years and she’s bound to get some kind of Oscar eventually, for A Performance. Her character, Maggie, a woman somewhat not too distant from her more endearing Frances from the aforementioned film finds herself after a mix-up in the billing department from the school where she teaches (she received a colleague’s paycheck, not that she’s complaining per her words) falling into a rather heated affair with him. That colleague, John, happens to be played by Ethan Hawke, a man trying to write a novel while living in hell with his much more intellectual and smothering wife Georgette (an over-the-top, hysterical Julianne Moore essaying a ridiculous French accent in bright pink colors). Before you can make a quick dash for the restroom, Maggie and Ethan have shacked in, he’s left his wife, and she, who had made a decision to become a single mother prior to all these events, now finds herself as being the breadwinner in this twosome while he not only continues to write, but keeps cloyingly in touch with the ever-present Georgette.

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So, one day she decides, she’d out, had enough, the bloom is off this rose if there ever was one. John is just sloppy seconds and needs to go. Ergo, a plan to return to sender starts to form . . . .

One of the things I loved about Maggie’s Plan is how sane it manages to look while the entire premise is just a little left of crazy. No one exactly blows their top — oops, wait, no, there is one scene where this happens, and it’s to die for — but it’s comedy that’s just bubbling under the surface waiting for moments to surface. Everyone in Maggie’s Plan is top notch and a little insufferable — I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the same room with any of these characters, but that’s what’s so great about screwball: no one is rooted in any sense of reality and neuroses fester like dangerous mold. Predictable, however, this movie is not, and if you can’t not only laugh at the mess Maggie and, well, John selfishly create, you’ll laugh at the backlash that is the film’s second half.

Maggie’s Plan releases May 20th.

Seen originally in October at the 53rd New York Film Festival.

LOUDER THAN BOMBS

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

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Nothing brings a family dysfunction to the surface like the departure of the glue that holds them together, and in Joachim Trier’s and Eskil Vogt’s new film Louder than Bombs it all rings too true. However, this is not a melodramatic film — it would have been easy to give actors scene after scene of loud arguing, emoting, and a finale of almost grandiose proportions. Trier instead has created a rather tender and quiet portrait of a father and his two sons coming to terms with the premature death of their mother who was a noted photo journalist and had a couple of secrets of her own.

The mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), hovers over the picture like a ghost who won’t rest in peace. When we first see her she’s getting some award for her body of work. Soon later we realize how it was she really died — in a car crash, possibly caused by her, which would make it suicide. However, no one ever truly speaks out that word and it starts a chain of avoidance between the surviving characters who now have to contend with this shattered new reality. Gene (Gabriel Byrne), Isabelle’s widow, has no idea how to reach his teenage son Conrad (David Druid) who has become withdrawn and aggressive, so he takes to either following him after school or playing World of Warcraft in order to connect. Gene has also been carrying on with Hannah (Amy Ryan), David’s teacher, in a movie that seems more out of loneliness than anything.

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In the meantime, in for a retrospective of his mother’s work, older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) shows up. He’s recently become a father and on the night that his wife borne him a son he ran into and reconnected with a former flame who’s mother was also dying in the hospital.

As I said before, this isn’t a movie with big revelations complete with an abundance of self-important dialog or all too camera-ready scene chewing. If at all the only moment that any performance feels completely naked even when it doesn’t reveal anything other than inner torment is a flashback sequence showing Huppert in a hotel, her face pinched and sad. It’s no wonder she’s this force that will not give away: Huppert has imbued her character with a world of inner pain that perhaps had no other solution than the way out. Everyone else is left to gravitate around her and try to fill in the void she has left.

Because of this, Louder than Bombs may disappoint viewers looking for that “a-ha!” moment when everyone comes into the foreground and sounds off. I actually preferred this somewhat elliptical turn, since let’s face it, this is closer how we tend to react to traumas such as these. It’s probably despite of this, where the film films incomplete, that one will appreciate its content more.

HOUSE OF HORRORS: Under the Shadow and The Invitation

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Whoever said horror was a genre gone South clearly hasn’t been paying attention. I mean let’s face it, for every Annabelle or Paranormal/Last Exorcism rehash that (allegedly) attempts to scare the living daylights out of you and succeeds only in either a) putting you to sleep, b) screaming a the television to characters too stupid to live or c) actually contemplating throwing your smart TV out the window in a fit of rage and rushing out into the night to commit some act of mayhem (inside your head, never in the flesh, we are all Walter Mittys at heart, heh-heh), there often comes one or two smaller ventures either straight out of Sundance, SXSW or other film festivals and sneaks into select art-house theaters. There these movies, dripping atmospheric dread to spare and leaving any CGI or green screen effect to a bare minimum (a throwback to Lewton and even J-Horror), singlehandedly manage to creep right under the skin and stay with you as if they were a cinematic version of Morgellen’s disease.

And that’s a good thing. No one wants to see a movie, no matter how good it is, and barely even recall it days later. If and when you see a horror movie that vanishes into thin air moments after the credits roll, call it a night and watch some creepy pastas on YouTube.

From Iran and currently showing at the Montclair Film Festival after having debuted at Sundance, SXSW and New Directors/New Films in March comes is Babak Anvari’s debut feature film Under the Shadow, a truly eerie story of an oppressed woman dealing with a mysterious force from outside in wartime Tehran. Shideh is an unconventional Iranian woman: she won’t use the chador in the house, she exercises to Jane Fonda VCRs (the story takes place in the late 80s), and she’s given support to a liberal cause. It’s the cause that has landed her in hot water when reapplying for medical school. Because of this, the doors to a higher education close on her. Her husband fares better, being called off to war to work as a doctor and leaves Shideh alone with her daughter Dorsa.

Once alone, whatever was out of kilter starts to manifest itself: Dorsa’s doll goes missing. Outside, missiles fall upon the city, leaving terrorized residents to seek protection from fallout in basement shelters. A missile actually manages to fall into Shideh’s apartment building, landing on the floor above, but ominously does not go off. It does, however, leave a crack in her ceiling . . . and with it, something invisible and ominous starts to manifest inside Shideh’s apartment, with unknown intent.

When it becomes clear that the must leave the apartment, Dorsa’s doll goes missing and Dorsa herself starts talking to an unseen person. It’s here when Babak Anvari ratches up the tension with some truly frightening jump-scares along the way, all the while keeping the story’s location grounded in Iranian reality (for example, an attempt by Shideh to leave the house with Dorsa from the unexplained presence which seems to be getting stronger within the minute lands her in the wrong hands of the law because she did not have her chador on. In many ways, Under the Shadow could very well, like The Babadook, be a horror allegory encompassing female oppression at the hands of forces outside her control. While the heroine in Babadook was fighting a metaphysical manifestation of her own grief, Shideh seems to be fighting against her country and it’s anti-woman laws itself. under the guise of a disembodied thing seeking to come in and wreck havoc.

Under the Shadow is a strong debut and a well-composed visual piece. Even at its brief run — a mere 80 minutes not counting end credits — and treading over familiar horror tropes, it doesn’t feel stale or go for cheap shocks, and takes its own time to get the wheels rolling. It’s amazing what lighting can do to a place: Anvari slowly turns Shideh’s apartment from a relatively safe haven into dark corridors, pools of shadows, and I on more than one occasion kept myself at the edge of  my seat waiting for something. I didn’t know what — I just knew something could appear, anywhere. That to me makes a horror movie memorable, and this picture is dread in the flesh.

[Under the Shadow as of this writing doesn’t have a release date.]

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Imagine you’re invited to go to a gathering with friends. Once you get there, you get a sense that despite how nice, pleasant, and polite everyone seems, something is not right. Imagine that your hostess also seems to be playing up the “everything is perfect” role — almost to a shrill fault — even when you can clearly see that it’s an act from a mile away.

Will and Kira (Logan Marshall-Green and Emayatzy Corinealdi) are en route to the Hollywood Hills to meet up for a dinner party thrown by his former wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michael Huisman). We get some backstory that Eden and Will lost their son and Will hasn’t seen Eden since, and even before he and Kira arrive he seems on edge. Almost as if summoned, they strike a coyote with their vehicle and Will has no choice but to beat it to death with a blunt object.

Once at the party, things proceed smoothly, but Will continues to be something of an odd-man out. It is understandable since this was his former home and memories linger rather vividly, but there’s an odd giddiness to it all that seems off kilter. A party guest unwittingly becomes the receiver of Eden’s out of nowhere violence early on, but she continues to behave almost in a state of a high. And then, David brings out a video that seems to be selling a concept of a cult and suicide. What’s going on here? Some are intrigued, and one guest who leaves early, upon seeing how intent David and Eden are into presenting this alternative belief to their guests, expresses her discomfort into what seems to be a cult belief. And there is a guest no one knows from, a man who charmingly tells everyone about his wife’s death.  And a girl who continuously tries to throw herself onto Will and looks . . . a little loopy.

Director Karyn Kusama keeps everything very much under control for a long stretch of her story but the sense of dread reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby permeates the entire mise-en-scene. As the party changes gears ever so subtly from simple to sinister and even we question if Will is all there or perhaps about to suffer some mental breakdown, Kusama suddenly yanks the rug from under you and the gloves are off. The Invitation’s slow escalation takes a hard turn left and as all the pieces fall into place, the real reason for them all being there explodes in everyone’s faces. This is a very good horror film that points the finger at the dangers of drinking the Kool Aid; it’s tense, moody, and equal parts terrifying because it presents a situation that could and has happened before.

L’ATTESA (THE WAIT)

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

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There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.

We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?

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No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.