Wilson (2017)


A dysfunctional family portrait.

(2017) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer, Cheryl Hines, Margo Martindale, Brett Gelman, Mary Lynn Rajskub, James Saito, Bill McCallum, Alec George, Nate Mooney, Paul Cram, Tom Proctor, Katie Rose Law, Roxy Wood, Bruce Bohne, Greta Oglesby, Rachel Weber, Toussaint Morrison, Tonita Castro. Directed by Craig Johnson

 

We all know someone like him; a person with the social skills of a charging bull. Someone who generates awkward silences like our president generates Tweets. You know, that person who stops every conversation dead in their tracks with pronouncements that defy reason or rudeness that defies civility.

Wilson (Harrelson) is that guy. He lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his dog that he adores but who pisses him off regularly. His only friend is moving about as far away as he can get and taking his shrewish wife with him. Wilson’s dad passes away from cancer soon afterward. With all this going on, Wilson decides he needs to reconnect with the world.

Doing that, he decides, means reconnecting with his ex-wife Pippi (Dern). She’s no saint either, owning what could charitably be charitably described as a checkered past including prostitution and drug abuse. When Wilson finds her, she’s trying to get her life back together working as a waitress. But that’s not all.

When Pippi originally left, she’d told Wilson that she’d gotten an abortion – but psych! It turns out that she’d put the baby up for adoption instead. Claire (Amara) has been raised by wealthy parents but has plenty of issues. Wilson is determined to reach out to the child he never knew he had and establish a connection, dragging a reluctant Pippi along in the process. It could be a good thing but as Wilson is wont to do, he messes things up instead.

This is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay) and it plays in a lot of ways like a Clowes book; simply drawn and not terribly sketched out. However, I have to admit I went in with low expectations based on a trailer that felt like something I’d seen plenty of times before. In all honesty I was pleasantly surprised; I thought this was going to be one of those social experiments to find out how unlikable they can make the main character and still get some critical acclaim.

Frankly, the critical response has been surprisingly low on this one; the general consensus seems to be that the film is predictable and in some ways it is – Wilson’s journey is pretty much by-the-numbers and yet I left the theater feeling a bit of catharsis. That’s not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

It is definitely a movie that builds. Early on my low expectations were essentially being me and I remember leaning over and whispering to Da Queen “Oh, now I remember why Woody Harrelson is mostly playing support roles these days.” Well, more fool me – as the film progressed, Harrelson took over and while he was still playing a pretty much unlikable no-filter kind of guy, I felt myself beginning to root for Wilson. Hey, a guy that much into dogs can’t be all bad, right? In any case, I was reminded why Woody Harrelson has a filmography that a whole lot of actors in this town would envy. Okay, in Hollywood. EVERY actor in Orlando would envy Woody Harrelson’s filmography.

Yeah, there are places that the film gets a bit sentimental and yes, when Wilson hits rock bottom it’s hard not to get emotional. One thing though that differentiates this from other films of this ilk is that it has a superior cast. Laura Dern, Judy Greer, Margo Martindale (who’s essentially only in one scene) and Cheryl Hines are top actresses who take a back seat to nobody in terms of consistent performances. They add depth to the film and give Harrelson plenty of places to play off of – Dern in particular makes an excellent foil for Harrison. The young Isabella Amara does some fine work here as well; her character is certainly complicated and troubled but is basically a decent girl who hasn’t gotten a ton of love in her life.

The ending is a little schmaltzy but all in all, I did end up liking Wilson more than I expected to. I’m not a big Clowes fan by any stretch of the imagination so that’s a bit of an accomplishment but I’m now very interested in picking up a couple of the man’s graphic novels and giving them another chance. Sometimes, changing your perspective is a right place at the right time kind of thing.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of film that grows on you. Wilson does in fact grow throughout the film which is a bit of a shocker.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too many neuroses on display for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of profanity and a smidgeon of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The jail scenes were filmed at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility in St. Paul, Minnesota which is a working prison.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Barry

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A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

Jackie (2016)


A White House isn't necessarily a home.

A White House isn’t necessarily a home.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson, Beth Grant, John Carroll Lynch, Max Casella, Sara Verhagen, Héléne Kuhn, Deborah Findlay, Corey Johnson, Aidan O’Hare, Ralph Brown, David Caves, Penny Downie, Georgie Glen, Julie Judd. Directed by Pablo Larrain

 

One of the most iconic women of the 20th century was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onasis. She epitomized elegance, grace, charm, culture and beauty in her era. To many, she epitomized the ideal of what a First Lady should be. Fiercely private, she rarely discussed her innermost feelings with anyone, even her most intimate confidantes. Riding in a motorcade in Dallas at her husband’s side, she would be the closest witness to one of the most singularly dramatic events of American history and yet she spoke very little about it after the fact.

This biopic mainly covers three separate events in the life of Jackie Kennedy (Portman); her 1961 televised taping of a personalized tour of the White House, for which she led an important restoration work; the assassination of her husband (Phillipson) and the events of the following week leading up to the funeral procession and an interview a week later with an unnamed journalist (Crudup) but who is mainly based on Theodore White of Life Magazine.

Portman nails her unique voice, a combination of New England patrician and breathy Marilyn Monroe sultriness. She portrays the First Lady as a woman knocked completely off-balance by the murder of her husband, and somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. During the taping of her show, she is urged by her assistant Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) to smile which she does, somewhat shyly but she seems unsure of herself, as if she hasn’t quite memorized the lines she’s supposed to say. In the week following the assassination, she shows a hidden core of steel to Jack Valenti (Casella) who is LBJ’s (Lynch) chief of staff, as well as to her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Sarsgaard).

She realizes her husband’s legacy will be incomplete and that if he is to have one, she will have to orchestrate it. It is she who comes up with the Camelot analogy, based on the hit musical of the time which she claimed her husband was quite fond of (and he may well have been – he never commented on it during his lifetime). While most believe that she made the reference off-handedly, the film (and writer Noel Oppenheim) suggest it was a deliberate attempt to give his presidency a mythic quality. If true, it certainly worked.

Portman is brilliant here; she is quite rightly considered the front-runner for the Best Actress Oscar and a nomination is certainly a lock. She has to tackle a great number of emotions; grief, frustration, anger, fear, self-consciousness – and hold it all under that veneer of charm and civility that Jackie was known for. The First Lady we see here is vastly different than the one that history remembers. In all honesty, who’s to say this version is wrong?

Larrain gets the period right from the fashions to the attitude of the people living in it. The Presidency at the time is not something that is bartered to the highest bidder; it is a position of respect that is won by the will of the people. The Kennedy clan understood that quite well and Larrain also understands it. The Presidency was held in a higher regard back then.

We get a Jackie Kennedy here who is much more politically savvy than history gives her credit for; she knows exactly what the right thing to say is and she holds herself in a way that reflects positively on her husband more than on herself. It is forgotten now but while her husband was President Jackie was considered to be a bit of a spendthrift. Much of her standing was achieved after she was no longer First Lady, but then an assassination of one’s husband will do that.

I do have a bone to pick with the film and that is its score. While the music of Camelot is used liberally and well, the score penned by Mica Levi is often discordant and sounds like it belongs on a European suspense thriller rather than a biography of the widow of President Kennedy. When the music becomes intrusive, it takes the viewer out of the film and that’s exactly what this score does; it gets the viewer thinking about the music rather than the film as a whole. Larrain also jumps around quite a bit in the timeline, showing the movie mainly as flashbacks and flash-forwards. It isn’t confusing so much as distracting and once again, the viewer is often taken out of the movie by being made aware that they are watching a movie. Good movies immerse their viewer and make them part of the experience and at times, this movie does. Then again, at times it does the opposite.

While this is essentially a biography, it is also very much conjecture. Most movies about the Kennedy assassination see it from the eyes of the President or from the witnesses; none to my knowledge have even attempted to view it through the First Lady’s perspective. I would imagine that largely is because we don’t know what the First Lady’s perspective was; she kept that well-hidden and knowing what I know about her, that isn’t surprising. I don’t know what she would have thought about this film but I suspect she would have been appalled by the rather graphic scene of her husband’s assassination and perhaps amused by what people thought she was thinking. I don’t know that Larrain and Oppenheim got it right; I suspect they got some of it right but we’ll never know. And perhaps that’s just as well; we need our myths to be inviolate. When Jackie, portrayed as a chain smoker here, icily tells the journalist “I don’t smoke,” when he wonders aloud what the public would think of her smoking, she’s making clear that she understands the need for mythological figures to be pure and that she has accepted her role as such.

Just as Lincoln, whose name is often bandied about in the film, belongs to the ages, so does John Kennedy – and Jackie as well. This is a strong film that your enjoyment of is going to depend a great deal on your opinion of the Kennedys to begin with. Some will be irritated that her carefully manicured persona is skewered here; others will be irritated that she is given a certain amount of sympathetic portrayal. In any case, anyone who loves great performances should make sure they see Portman’s work – it is truly worth the price of admission.

REASONS TO SEE: Portman gives a tour-de-force performance that is justifiably the odds-on favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar. The era and attitudes are captured nicely.
REASONS TO MISS: The soundtrack is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity and a scene of graphic violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Producer Darren Aronofsky (who at one time was set to direct this with Rachel Weisz in the title role) also directed Portman to her Oscar win for Black Swan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Manchester by the Sea

The Birth of a Nation (2016)


Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

Aja Naomi King comforts Nate Parker.

(2016) Historical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Mark Boone Jr., Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union, Colman Domingo, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, Jason Stuart, Chiké Okonkwo, Katie Garfield. Directed by Nate Parker

 

It has been more than 150 years since slavery ended in this country and still it is necessary for the descendents of those in bondage have to remind us that Black Lives Matter. It is sadly evident from the shenanigans of the followers of Donald Trump, from the evidence that the KKK is still alive and well and for the institutionalized racism that allows people to think that flying a Confederate flag isn’t offensive to a sizable percentage of the population that we still have a long way to go.

However when Nat Turner (Parker) was alive slavery was in full force and there was no end in sight. He lived in Southampton County, Virginia and as a boy (Espinosa) played with the scion of the plantation owner. The owner’s wife (Miller) saw something in the young boy and sought out to teach him how to read – although only the Holy Bible, because she felt that would be the only book useful to him. After the plantation owner passed away his son Samuel Turner (Hammer), now grown, orders Nat back to picking cotton much to his mother’s disappointment.

However, it turns out that Nat has a talent for preaching the gospel and it seems to calm down the slaves – it might not hurt that Samuel was, as owners go, fairly reasonable and less cruel. The local parson (Boone) witnesses Nat’s testimonial and suggests to Samuel that he send out his slave to surrounding plantations to placate the workers by preaching to them the Gospel. As this would put direly needed coin in Samuel’s pocket, he agrees and Nat begins to see first-hand what the conditions on other plantations are like.

He also meets Cherry (King), a comely house slave that he urges Samuel to buy. Eventually he lets her know that he’s smitten by her and she eventually relents to his charms. The two are married Gullah-style but as Cherry is now working on a neighboring plantation, they see each other rarely.

But tensions between slaves and whites are growing exponentially and after Cherry is brutally raped by white slave catchers led by the despicable Raymond Cobb (Haley) and soon thereafter his friend Hark’s (Domingo) wife Esther (Union) is raped by a lusty slave owner from a neighboring plantation. Nat begins to realize that the entire institution of slavery is unjust and that it is his duty to help the Lord strike it down. In August of 1831, he and a group of his fellow slaves, pushed beyond their limits, go on a spree, attacking plantations and killing the owners and their families. The first blows of a civil war have just been struck, although none will know it at the time.

Some (including myself) will compare this to 12 Years a Slave and there are some things that do make the comparison palatable. Both films show the brutality of slavery and both films show how unjust it was. However while 12 Years was a lot more intellectual an endeavor, this is from the gut. It captures the rage of angry black men who certainly have a great deal to be angry about.

This is clearly a passion project for Parker who produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in and likely sold tickets in the box office for. Passion projects can be double edged swords when it comes to doing biographies. There can be a tendency to mythologize the subject and I think Parker indulged in that a little bit here. The Nat Turner that is depicted here is almost saintly until the sexual assaults drive him to lead a bloody uprising in which women, children and even infants are murdered. One has to deal with some of the gruesome deeds that occurred at the hands of Turner and his followers, however justified they may have been. I don’t believe I’m being racist when I say that Turner, about whom little is really known from a historical perspective, was likely not that nice; what we do know about him suggests that he had hallucinations – or visions if you like – of angels and divine beings (which to be fair are depicted in the film) and that he himself felt that he was being called by God to dispense justice to the slave owners and lead his people out of bondage as a modern day Moses.

Parker is at a bit of a disadvantage, truth be told; Turner was a rarity among slaves in that he could read but most of what we know about him comes from Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia written by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray and supposedly based on his actual confession, although many historians question its validity. Parker had to fill in a lot of blanks and does the best he can. Even William Styron, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968, had to essentially invent Parker as a fictional character, which brought a lot of outrage from African-American intellectuals and civil rights leaders at the time.

The depictions of the horrible things suffered by slaves at the time may be among the most graphic ever put to film and may be too much for sensitive viewers. For my own part, I’m glad that Parker chose to go this route; too often Hollywood has portrayed slaves as sad people in chains singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and wondering when oh when Lord will we be free. The reality of their existence was brutal and inhuman and while there were slave owners who were compassionate, there were many who were not.

Parker gives a searing performance as Turner and he shows a ton of screen presence here. He is supported by Hammer, whose character is a borderline alcoholic and certainly not always a kind and gentle man towards his slaves. Domingo is a tower of strength in his role as Hark, one of Turner’s confidantes and closest friends.

I do think that Parker would have benefitted with a little more objectivity in the script; it feels like the storytelling here is a bit rote and a bit too linear. That’s more or less just quibbling over grammar in a sense, and shouldn’t deter that many from going to see this.

Some right wing sites have drawn parallels between the film and the Black Lives Matter movement and perhaps that was intentional, but to be honest I don’t think Parker is advocating that black men rise up and start slaughtering white people indiscriminately; after all, that approach didn’t end very well for Turner or the others that rose up with him.

The film has generated some controversy based on Parker’s past legal issues. You can read about them elsewhere. I find it a shame that they have likely had an effect on the attendance for a very good movie about a very worthy subject. That’s not to vindicate Parker or what he allegedly did, albeit he was acquitted of all charges against him. I’m not a big believer in punishing someone for something they’ve already been acquitted of not doing. While the guilty sometimes get wrongly proclaimed innocent, more often people are acquitted because they are innocent.

This is an intense cinematic experience that is sadly mostly out of theaters. It should soon make its way to home video and who knows; if it gets any Oscar attention it might well get a theatrical re-release. Either way this is a movie worthy of your attention for both historical and cinematic reasons alike. It’s most definitely an angry young black man film, but it behooves all of us to listen to what angry young black men have to say.

REASONS TO GO: The Nat Turner story deserves to be told. The depiction of slavery is as brutal as any film has ever shown it to be – which is a good thing. Strong performances by Parker, Hammer and Domingo elevate the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those with right-leaning tendencies may find the film to be polarizing. Muddies up history a little bit and makes safe storytelling choices.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is brief nudity and some fairly disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film depicts the turning point in Turner’s decision to revolt as a brutal assault on his wife, in reality his writings don’t acknowledge that he was married, although there is evidence that there was a marriage. Contemporary accounts do mention that he trusted her with his plans for the uprising but whether or not they were actually husband and wife still remains a mystery. Most historians regard the reason for his rebelliousness as spiritual visions and consider it unlikely that he felt his marriage, if it did indeed exist, was a valid one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Years a Slave
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Girl on the Train

Beasts of the Southern Wild


The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

The storm is coming and so are the aurochs.

(2012) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, Amber Henry, Jonshel Alexander, Nicholas Clark, Joseph Brown, Henry D. Coleman, Kaliana Brower, Philip Lawrence, Hannah Holby, Jimmy Lee Moore, Jovan Hathaway, Kendra Harris, Windle Bourg, Jay Oliver, Roxanna Francis, Marilyn Barbarin. Directed by Benh Zeitlin

2013 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Director – Benh Zeitlin
Best Actress – Quvenzhané Wallis
Best Adapted Screenplay – Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
WINS – 0

Oscar Gold 2016

There is something precious about a child’s imagination. It is untamed, full of beasties and monsters but also full of beauty and innocence. Our worldview as adults is well-informed by our daydreams as children. I, for one, wish I could have held on more to those dreams.

Hushpuppy (Wallis) is a resolute 6-year-old girl living in the Bathtub, a (fictional) part of the Louisiana bayou that rests on the “other” side of the levee. Whenever it rains, the Bathtub floods. The people who live there are rough and tumble, really recognizing no authority but their own. Their lives are hardscrabble and they eke by on whatever they can manage.

Hushpuppy has a daddy named Wink (Henry) who is prone to disappearing. After one such disappearance, he returns home with a hospital gown and ID bracelet. He has a rare blood disease and it is slowly killing him. He means to make his daughter as self-sufficient as he can in what time he has left.

Her somewhat prescient teacher Miss Bathsheba (Montana) tells her and her classmates about global warming and the polar ice caps melting, adding that this would release prehistoric beasts called aurochs that would rampage across North America, devouring everything in their path. She also warns that a gigantic storm is coming. When it hits, Wink and Hushpuppy try to ride it out but when all is said and done the devastation is catastrophic. Worse still, the aurochs are on the loose.

First-time feature director Zeitlin has crafted an impressive debut that takes its visual cues from Terrance Malick. He co-wrote the movie along with Lucy Alibar, loosely based on her play. This feels far from the average stage adaptation because those often feel like you’re seeing a filmed version of a stage play with little depth of field so to speak. Almost all of this is outdoors and not just any outdoors but the somewhat wide and endless bayous of south Louisiana where the Gulf and the land are almost one entity.

Wallis won her Oscar nomination deservedly and it is a performance that will startle anyone who has seen juvenile actors “act.” Most of them are fairly unbearable with occasional exceptions but Wallis blows all of them out of the water here. Her Hushpuppy is primordial and wise at the same time, seeing the world with innocent eyes yet with a certain amount of world weariness that comes from living a difficult life. It’s a deep and layered role that would hopelessly stump even veteran actors but Wallis is so natural it’s like it was written for her, which it surprisingly wasn’t.

Most of the rest of the cast are locals; that makes for predictably varying performances although for the most part they are adequate enough. The aurochs are nicely rendered, considering the tiny budget the movie had and there are some moments of real beauty. Zeitlin doesn’t always connect things together real well but it can’t be denied that he has a really uncanny eye. This is a beautiful film.

The movie does move slowly in the middle as the residents of the Bathtub prepare for the storm. And like many movies that dry to depict the imagination of a child, it sometimes isn’t clear what’s real and what isn’t. Overall though this is a gorgeous movie, somewhat bittersweet about the process of growing up and how sometimes, the fantasies of youth are preferable to the realities of adulthood.

WHY RENT THIS: Wallis is a force of nature here. An imaginative story imaginatively told.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of children in peril, brief profanity, disturbing images, some sensuality and adult themes are the order of the day.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At nine years old, Wallis became the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, a record that still stands through 2016.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are audition tapes, a featurette on the Aurochs, and a short film that Zeitlin previously made.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $21.1M on a $1.8M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eye of the Hurricane
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold continues!

Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight

Brooklyn


The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

(2015) Romance (Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jane Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Brid Brennan, Hugh Gormley, Jenn Murray. Directed by John Crowley

There comes a time in the lives of some people – a lot of people, actually – in which the realization that they have no future sets in. At that moment, they may choose to accept that fate or they may choose to pack up and leave and try to make something of themselves elsewhere.

Eilis Lacey (Ronan) had that decision made for her, by her fiercely protective big sister Rose (Glascott) who wrote Father Flood (Broadbent) in New York to help find Eilis lodging and a job in the Big Apple and so he does, in Brooklyn which in 1951 (when this is set) was full of a rainbow of different cultures, including the Irish. Leaving Rose to care for their widowed mother (J. Brennan) and leaving the employ of a miserable harpy (B. Brennan), she sets sail for the Land of Opportunity.

Once in Brooklyn, she is given lodging at a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) who tries to keep Patty (Rickards), Diana (Macklin) and Sheila (Noone) in rein which given their Irish high spirits is no easy task. Desperately homesick, Eilis tries to fit in at the boarding house and tries to fit in at the high-end department store where she works under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Paré).

At a dance put on by the local Church, she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen) who has a thing for Irish girls. His soft-spoken geniality and gentle self-deprecating humor appeals to her and slowly she starts out liking her new beau to falling in love with him. However, a family emergency calls her home to Ireland where she ends up facing a new wrinkle there in the form of a new suitor who is equally kind-hearted and quite the catch, young Jim Farrell (Gleeson) who by the standards of Enniscorthy in County Wexford is well-off. Now the young woman’s heart is torn between two continents and two very different lives. Which will she choose?

Da Queen is fond of describing acting performances that she admires as “quiet,” a trait I find curiously endearing. It means something much different to her than to thee and me and yet in this case, I think she might have something. Ronan is absolutely outstanding here, almost certain to get a nomination for Best Actress at the forthcoming Oscars. Much of her acting takes place in her eyes and on her expressive face; her lilting Irish accent is easily understood, and her longings and yearnings are written in her expressions. Any critic who dismisses the role as bland and unmemorable clearly hasn’t been watching this actress closely, and they are well-advised to – methinks she will be one of the industry’s outstanding actresses for decades to come.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the lush greenery of the Emerald Isle to the windswept barrens of the Long Isle (Long Island NYC) to the brownstone comforts of Brooklyn. Much of the movie takes place in the latter location, a Brooklyn where the Dodgers are still Dem Bums, the streets are alive with color and vitality, Coney Island is still the working class escape and the world is full of possibilities. Sure, this is an idealized Brooklyn because it is largely the Brooklyn of memory and memory makes fonder the places we’ve lived in. The Los Angeles of the 1960s was far from perfect but in my own memory, it is an idyllic place and probably nothing like what it really was and certainly nothing like what it is now. That is the nature of places; they change, often faster and more profoundly than we do ourselves.

While the love triangle between Jim, Tony and Eilis is a bit of a stretch (finding two really nice guys who are actually gentlemen is damn near impossible as any woman will tell you), the relationships that Eilis works out with the two of them feel authentic. Eilis is at times too good to be true – a little naive but with an absolute heart of gold (in fact, the movie has no real antagonist other than the harridan Miss Kelly at the grocery where Eilis works at the movie’s start) and a sweet nature that is straight out of a 50s romance movie.

The world has changed a lot since the time Brooklyn was set in and much of the innocence of that time is long gone. It is not uncommon for those who remember that era to long for its simplicity. Don’t discount the value of nostalgia in marketing a movie – as fellow critic Roger Moore correctly pointed out, the movie seems to be consciously aimed at those who like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with going after that demographic either; certainly the audience we saw at our screening skewed older. However, nostalgia isn’t all this film has going for it; Ronan’s star turn is likely to get that Oscar nod and could well attract more film buffs here than nostalgia-seeking retirees. This is a contender for my year’s best ten list; go give this one a watch and it might end up on yours too.

REASONS TO GO: Ronan is magnificent. Beautifully shot. Well-written. A lovely slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little too idealized.
FAMILY VALUES: Some brief profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Ronan was born in The Bronx, she was raised in Ireland by her Irish parents; this is the first time in a movie that she’s used her native Irish accent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avalon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Ridiculous 6