In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)


You just can’t keep Diane Kruger down.

(2017) Drama (Magnolia) Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Numan Acar, Samia Muriel Chancrin, Johannes Krisch, Ulrich Tukur, Ulrich Brandhoff, Hanna Hilsdorf, Yannis Economides, Rafael Santana, Karin Neuhauser, Uwe Rohde, Siir Eloglu, Asim Demirel, Aysel Iscan, Christa Krings, Hartmut Loth, Adam Bousdoukos, Henning Peker, Laurens Walter, Jessica McIntyre. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

Our lives can be turned upside down in an instant. One moment we are surrounded by a happy, content family. The next – everything is gone. Dealing with that kind of pain is almost inconceivable to most of us but it happens far more regularly than it should.

Katja (Kruger) has that kind of life. She married Nuri Sekerci (Acar) while he was in a German jail for dealing drugs. He has since turned his life around, having become a respected member of the Kurdish community in Hamburg as a tax preparer and translator. Katja and Nuri have an adorable young son Rocco (Santana). While both Katja and Nuri are still a bit rough around the edges, there’s no denying that they are devoted parents.

One rainy afternoon Katja drops off Rocco at Nuri’s office so that she can visit her very pregnant friend Birgit (Chancrin) and share a spa day together. Returning home after relaxing, she is horrified to discover flashing police lights and crowds gathered at the street where she had earlier that afternoon left her family. All that’s left of the office is a charred and obliterated shell. A nail bomb was detonated there and her family was in a microsecond reduced to filleted meat.

At first she is in shock. It can’t be happening and her eyes show her agony. Her mom and her mother’s boyfriend, Birgit and Nuri’s parents have gathered to lend their support and express their own grief. The police seem intent on investigating Nuri’s past indiscretions; Katja believes that neo-Nazis are behind the bombing. Her lawyer Danilo (Moschitto) tends to believe her and in a not-very-smart moment gives her some illegal narcotics to help her cope…and sleep.

Eventually things get sorted and the culprits are caught. Now it’s time for the trial, but the German legal system is much different than our own. For one thing, everybody’s got a lawyer – including the co-plaintiffs, which are normally the families of the victims. Will justice be done? Or will Katja have to seek it out herself?

Kruger, one of the most beautiful actresses in the world, has been a Hollywood fixture for years. Incredibly, this is her first German-language film and she capably demonstrates that she could well be one of the finest actresses in the world as well as being an attractive one. This is the kind of performance that should have been rewarded with a Best Actress nomination but inexplicably wasn’t. It was at least as strong a performance of any of the ladies who did get the nomination. Kruger poignantly shows the numbness of grief, the rage, the despair. Much of it is communicated through her eyes.

Katja isn’t a perfect wife, mother or woman. She makes mistakes and she’s a bit on the raw side. With her many tattoos, her own drug use and an explosive temper, she is flawed enough to bring our sympathy to the fore. She’s never so unbelievably pure that we can’t believe her. Rather, we don’t disbelieve her for a moment. Kruger is raw, authentic and powerful here.

The movie is like a raw nerve being scraped through the first two acts but in the third one it falters. I can’t describe why without really going into details that are best left unrevealed until you experience it; suffice to say that it shifts tone into something  that really the film shouldn’t have become. More than that I will not say.

Fortunately, Kruger’s searing performance outweighs the movie’s faults. This is definitely a bit rough to watch in places – anyone who has lost a friend or family member in an untimely violent way will likely be triggered – but it is honest in not only exploring cultural differences but also in finding the balance between the need to inflict pain and the need to expiate it. This is certainly one worth looking out for.

REASONS TO GO: Kruger delivers the best performance of her career. This is an emotionally wrenching film from beginning to end.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails a little bit during the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video segments were all shot on smartphones.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Killing Jesus
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Hunting Season

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Wind Traces (Restos de viento)


Grief can spawn its own demons.

(2017) Drama (Conejo Media) Dolores Fonzi, Paulina Gil, Ruben Zamora, Julieta Egurrola, Juan Carlos Vives, Diego Aguilar, Itari Marta, Claudine Sosa, Anajose Aldrete Echevarria, Martha Claudia Moreno, Catalina López, Lorenzo Costantini, Juan Carlos Tavera, Karla Rico, Erwin Veytia, Sofia Fernández, Lara Escalante, Mateo Lujano, Gisola Ruiz, Laura Morett, Ana Morgado. Directed by Jimenta Montemayor

We sometimes believe that life is linear; events happen in a progression from birth to death. That’s not how we perceive it, however. Life is a series of moments, some memorable but most not. Sometimes the most mundane of moments carry with them the most elegance, the most grace, the most meaning.

Carmen (Fonzi) is having trouble coping. She can barely rouse herself out of bed in the mornings and she doesn’t get her daughter Ana (Gil) and son Daniel (Aguilar) to school always. She tells the kids that their father has gone away and will come back but Ana, who’s a bit more world-wise knows instinctively that her mother is lying to her. Perhaps Carmen believes it herself.

Carmen has difficulty focusing on things other than getting dressed up and going to the local lounge. She looks amazing and catches the eyes of the single men (and many of the married ones too) as she struts around the bar but she really isn’t looking for company. She’s just doing something that makes her feel alive. She exists in the semi-twilight of alcohol, cigarettes and shock; she may as well be an extra in The Walking Dead.

Daniel copes as best he can; he imagines fantasy figures; one, a thick shambling creature with antlers and a raggedy cloak. Other times it’s an indigenous North American who appears to resemble more the Indians of American westerns more than the natives of Mexico. Either way the figure shows up regularly around Daniel.

At first Ana can’t see the fantasy figures but soon she begins to see them as well. Carmen eventually goes out on a date with a co-worker to a carnival which bothers Daniel immensely. All three of the family members exist as ghosts within their own lives, haunted by memory and haunted by the future without their beloved father and Carmen’s beloved husband. What can they do to begin living again?

This is not a feel-good kind of film nor is it meant to be. The people in this movie are undergoing some of the worst days of their lives and we’re right there in the trenches with them. Fonzi is one of the most beloved actresses in Argentina; this movie illustrates exactly why that is. Not only is she out-of-this-world beautiful, she is also a tremendous performer; Carmen has many layers to her and Fonzi explores them all. She can be sexy and flirtatious one moment, nearly non-functional the next. She tries to bake a cake for her children to brighten their spirits but only ends up dampening up her own in one memorable sequence. She doesn’t have the emotional resources to help her kids through the ordeal and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around her that she’s willing to call upon for support; in fact there are family members she avoids talking to so that she doesn’t have to tell them that her husband is gone and this is months after the fact.

The children do a lot of acting out which is to be expected. The actors playing them however act like real children in that situation would act and that is unexpected. A lot of times child actors have difficulty with negative and difficult emotions; Gil and Aguilar didn’t seem to have that problem and that’s crucial to the success of the film. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled right out of a movie in which the subject matter involves a family dealing with loss because the child actors were completely unconvincing.

Daniel has almost an obsession with native indigenous figures; he watches American westerns (the fantasy figures tend to resemble American natives rather than the Aztec and Mayan indigenous of Mexico. It does make for some jarring visuals but I can’t see why that wouldn’t be a thing in reality. Some iconic American images have tended to bleed over the border in certain respects.

Cinematographer Maria Secco shoots most of the indoor shots in muted colors; even the exterior shots have a less vibrant look to them than normal; everything is seen through a veil of tears and numbness. It’s very effective in setting the tone. The press material describes the film as atmospheric and that’s the most accurate description you’re likely to find.

Watching the pain all three of these people are clearly in can be excruciating at times. It’s like visiting a friend who isn’t that close who is suffering from intense grief and feeling helpless to do anything about it. I wanted to give all of them a hug but of course that’s impossible; all you can do is endure with them and empathize.

There is a visual poetry here that gathers from a variety of sources. I found the movie to be compelling but not always easy and sometimes those are the best kind there are. Be warned if you’re going to see this there is some work involved and almost expected but the reward is not necessarily insight so much as being put back in touch with your own compassion. That can be a worthwhile endeavor all of its own.

Tickets for the Festival can be bought here.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautifully atmospheric. The filmmakers handle grief in a realistic way.
REASONS TO STAY: Although it accomplishes what it needs to, the fantasy creature isn’t particularly impressive.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult (despite the presence of children) and as well there is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Montemayor isn’t making movies, she conducts workshops for girls recently rescued from sexual slavery to help give them marketable skills and reintegrate them back into society.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Monster Calls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
12 Strong

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)


Daniela Vega delivers an intense performance in A Fantastic Woman.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Catellana, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Roberto Farias, Christian Chaparro, Diana Cassis, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

It is hard enough to mourn the loss of a loved one. When we lose someone close to us, we want to be surrounded by others grieving that person. We need the comfort of the company of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to reach out and comfort us in our time of need.

Marina Vidal (Vega) finds herself in that situation. She has just moved into her boyfriend’s house. Orlando Ortillo (Reyes) owns a textile mill in Santiago. He left his wife Sonia (Kuppenheim) to be with Marina who is a waitress and a part-time lounge singer who specializes in salsa and other Latin dance music. After Orlando takes Marina out for a night on the town, he wakes up in the middle of the night complaining of a headache and feeling ill. Concerned, she means to take him to the hospital but he falls down a flight of stairs on the way to the car. The doctors determine he has suffered an aneurysm but he dies on the operating table.

But that’s just the beginning of the pain. Suspicious of the bruises and wounds on his body, the police question Marina about the incident. Eventually they assign a sex crimes detective (Noguera) to investigate, forcing Marina to submit to a humiliating interview and medical exam. Worse yet is Orlando’s family.

Sophia’s initial civility is quickly stripped away as she becomes a vicious, vengeful harpy who forbids Marina from attending the funeral and services for Orlando. Worse yet is her son Bruno (Saavedra) who sneers at and degrades Marina and wants her out of the apartment so he can move in. Marina doesn’t have any legal standing, but to make matters worse, she’s a transgender. In Latin America, that is no easy thing to live with. Through all the humiliations both petty and major, Marina tries to keep her calm, cool demeanor and if she plays things close to the vest, who can blame her?

Finally enough is enough – all she wants to do is mourn her dead lover so she can move on. She sees him, a kindly ghost haunting her wherever she goes. The more she is discriminated against however, the more her blood boils. The time is coming when she will stand up for herself against those who persecute her. What form will that take though?

This is a movie that tackles what is a controversial subject even here in the States – transgenders. Although our legislators seem to take a great interest in which bathrooms they use, there is little interest in dealing with the treatment they receive and the way they are perceived. They are often confused with cross-dressers and are often the targets of violence. It is especially more brutal in Latin America where the culture of machismo flourishes. That Lelio would even take on the subject is to be seriously commended.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the performance of Vega. At times she seems pensive, like all her thoughts are turned inward. She seems brittle and fragile and even a little bit intellectual. Then she is hot and passionate, her anger manifesting in a propensity for punching inanimate objects. Her frustration and grief are mostly kept to herself, even when her tormentors take her beloved dog Diabla from her. It’s only when she gets tired of being treated as a non-person that she finally shows her defiance and yes, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There are elements of fantasy here – sightings of the ghost of Orlando, strange winds that force Marina to bend nearly parallel to the ground, a trip to a disco in which individuals dancing turns into a choreographed chorus line with Marina in an amazing glittery outfit. Is this all in Marina’s imagination or are they hallucinations? Lelio doesn’t explain, leaving it up to the audience to decide which.

The disco scene actually went on for way too long unfortunately – because I liked what Lelio was trying to do. However the strobe lights became so intrusive, so overwhelming that my vertigo was triggered. Anyone who has epilepsy should be well-advised to take a bathroom break once the disco scene begins. I do like the color palate that Lelio uses; every scene is full of bright greens, reds and blues that suffuse the film in a kind of neon glow.

Da Queen and I checked this out the night before it would win the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Given the subject matter, this isn’t a movie that is going to pull in crowds of people at the box office; I suspect that we as a nation are still too intolerant for that to happen although one lives in hope that we will grow up eventually and realize that love is love, no matter what the genders are of the two people involved. This is a movie that is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring and while it makes its case for the drum it is beating, it doesn’t necessarily hit you in the face with bromides and broadsides. Strictly put, this is a film that is deceptively quiet and small-budgeted but it nonetheless packs an emotional wallop and gives voice to those who rarely get to use theirs. Definitely one to see when you get the chance.

REASONS TO GO: The film confronts dead-on the issues faced by transgenders not only in Latin America but globally. Vega gives an intense performance that should make her an instant international star.
REASONS TO STAY: The disco scene with the strobe light went on way too long and actually provoked a vertigo attack in this viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some violence, plenty of profanity and lots of adult thematic material
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vega was the first transgender to present at the Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laurence Anyways
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Mom and Dad

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Frances McDormand demands answers in this Oscar-nominated film.

(2017) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Zeljko Ivanek, Lucas Hedges, Kerry Condon, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Peer Dinklage, Amanda Warren, John Hawkes, Clarke Peters, Kathryn Newton, Sandy Martin, Jerry Winsett, Samara Weaving, Christopher Berry, Malaya Rivera Drew. Directed by Martin McDonagh

 

There is nothing that compares to the pain of a parent whose child has been murdered. It is the unthinkable, the unimaginable – what every parent has nightmares about. Some unlucky parents don’t have to imagine though.

Mildred (McDormand) is one of those. Nine months have passed since her daughter Angela was raped and then set on fire by some sadistic freak. No progress whatsoever has been made in finding her killer. To make things worse, the spot where her daughter spent her last tortured minutes was on the site of three dilapidated billboards near enough to Mildred’s house that she must drive past them every time she leaves the house, where she can see the burn mark where her daughter gasped her last.

Her fury has threatened to consume her. She has to do something, anything to help her little girl get justice. So she marches into the ad agency that services the billboards and plops down five thousand bucks for the first month of a year-long rental. The three billboards are painted red with copy in big black letters: RAPED AND KILLED, AND STILL NO ARRESTS? and finally HOW COME CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?

The billboards have immediate and profound effect. Deputy Dixon (Rockwell), a drunken and violent racist creep who’d much rather be arresting black folks, is the first to see the messages. He informs Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) who goes ballistic but after asking Mildred politely to remove the billboards, he confesses that he has pancreatic cancer and he doesn’t want his family to have to deal with another unpleasant thing.

It turns out Willoughby is actually a decent sort who is trying his damndest to solve the case but there simply isn’t enough evidence. Dixon, who owes a lot to the chief is much more direct; he goes after Red Welby (Jones) who runs the ad agency and gives him a terrifying beating. Things begin to escalate in the war between the cops and Mildred; her surviving son Robbie (Hedges) is caught in the crossfire. Yet all is not what it seems to be in Ebbing, Missouri.

On the surface it seems like a very cut and dried story but as the movie unspools you quickly realize you’re seeing a work of uncommon depth and complexity. While it appears that there are some villainous characters in the story, there are in fact none. Even Dixon ends up finding some sort of redemption although it is hard to justify his previous behavior.

The acting in this movie is nothing short of astonishing. Three cast members received Oscar nominations – McDormand, Rockwell and Harrelson – and there easily could have been more. While it is McDormand’s movie, it is not hers alone. Watching her tightly controlled rage which from time to time her humanity breaks through is simply a clinic. We eventually find out that Mildred’s pain isn’t just because of the incompetence of the police; her last interaction with Angela literally sent her on the road to her fatal encounter. It’s some powerful stuff and shows how a great actress can take a well-written character and create a classic performance. If the competition for Best Actress weren’t so stiff this year she might well be a shoo-in. Harrelson also plays a decent sort with rough edges who is facing the end of his life and not necessarily with the dignity he would like to. Rockwell, who won a Golden Globe, may give the best performance of all as the loutish Dixon who literally comes through the fire a changed man.

It is hard to believe this is McDonagh’s third feature and as good as In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths are, this is by far the best of the three. His background as a playwright shines through more in the writing than in the direction which is not stage-y in the least. However, the sense that the town is much smaller than it appears to be lingers throughout.

I would have liked to have seen less contrivance in some of the events; some things happen that appear to happen only because the plot requires them to. There is also a bit of a lull in the middle where it feels that the movie is hitting a plateau, but the ending is absolutely extraordinary. Making a great ending to a movie is something of a lost art but McDonagh seems to have mastered it.

Nearly all of the characters are dealing with some sort of pain, either physical or emotional. The movie is about that true but it is also about forgiveness, redemption and humanity in the face of intolerable grief. While this isn’t a perfect movie, it had the potential to be and if the second act had been a little better, this might have gotten a higher rating. Still, it stands out in a year of really great independent films as one that is going to be in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

REASONS TO GO: The acting is Oscar-worthy throughout the cast. The characters are all riddled with pain in one way or another. The ending of the film is sublime.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the events feel a little bit contrived. The film loses momentum in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence, plenty of profanity and some brief sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film directed by McDonagh that didn’t feature Colin Farrell in a lead role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fargo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
In the Shadow of Iris

D-love


Elena Beuca wonders where it all went wrong.

(2017) Drama (Cranky Pants) Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss, Christine Fazzino, Jason Esposito, Alessio Di Giambattista, Michael Monks, Tracey Graves, Giorgio Di Vincenzo, Victoria Palma, Charley Rossman, Angel Villareal, Tim Astor, Ray Ionita, Kerry McGrath. Directed by Elena Beuca

 

It is not easy being married. It’s a lot of work and that’s just if things remain relatively stable. Throw in some personal tragedies – the death of loved ones for instance – and it becomes positively herculean.

Dave (Rogers) and Stefania (Beuca) are returning from a vacation holiday that was meant to rekindle the passion between them but had been woefully unsuccessful. Dave has been wallowing in an unemployed alcoholic haze for more than a year after both of his parents had died within a few months of one another. Stefania had also lost a loved one – her older brother before he had even turned 40 – and was supporting the couple at a job where her bitchy boss Annie (Fazzino) torments her and insults her in what would be an HR specialist’s nightmare. She also wants to have a child but the attempts so far had been unsuccessful although one has to wonder why anyone would want to bring in a child to an environment of constant bickering and belittling.

At the airport on the return home the couple is exhausted and annoyed. The luggage has been lost including Dave’s wallet which included the parking tag to go pick up their car. Stefania is on the far side of enough at this point when they are approached by a handsome long-haired Dane named Ditlev (Darmakaya) who asks for a ride “East.” It’s a little vague but he seems nice enough and Dave, over Stefania’s objections is inclined to give it to him.

When it turns out that there are no buses running to Sedona (where it turns out he wants to go – Burning Man, to be exact) until the next afternoon, Dave offers to let Ditlev crash overnight at their place. However, Dave is having a real hard time pronouncing the Dane’s name so he takes to calling him D-love, which in turn amuses the young Dane. In return, Ditlev gives Dave some yoga lessons and imparts his philosophy about living with love in the moment. He offers to help Dave do some home repair projects that Dave has been avoiding for some time and that Stefania has been nagging him to do. When Stefania comes home from another abusive day at work, she is shocked to find Ditlev still there – and the home repair projects almost all done. She is frightened of being robbed and/or murdered by the stranger but as time goes by she begins to at least accept his presence. In turn Dave is beginning to return to the man he was before his parents died. He has resumed cooking – something he delighted in doing with his dad but had given up on when his dad passed.

Dave is definitely coming out of his funk thanks to the hunky Danish hippie guest but Stefania is reaching a crisis. Things at work are going from bad to worse, and her doctor has discovered something that is absolutely heartbreaking. To make matters worse, the camera that was the last gift to Stefania from her late brother has disappeared and she suspects that D-love has stolen it. She is ready to give up on her life, and certainly on her marriage.

Rogers wrote the film based on events within his own real-life marriage to Beuca who directed the film and took super-8 footage in her native Romania to supplement the L.A.-shot majority of the film. Darmakaya really did approach them at LAX and stay with them briefly. Unlike the married couple, Darmakaya isn’t a professional actor and his performance is a bit wooden but that’s okay; he really is playing something of an archetype – the benevolent stranger. Two of them show up in the film.

There is an authentic feeling to the marital problems Stefania and Dave are experiencing which is no doubt a function of the ones they faced in real life. That helps the movie resonate much more than artificial marital crises in a variety of rom-coms ever could. While Ditlev’s new age-y pronouncements and advice sometimes feel a bit like the love child of an inspirational meme and a Stewart Smalley affirmation, one gets the sense that they are at least heartfelt albeit some might find them preachy.

Despite this being based on real life, the plot feels a bit predictable and the ending a trifle forced. I guess from a certain light it’s a bit comforting that life really does imitate the movies. Beuca and Rogers are actually fine actors although at times their emotional portrayals tend to be somewhat over-the-top. They could have done with a bit more subtlety in their performances.

This is just now getting a limited theatrical run starting at the Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood although the film has spent most of the year on the festival circuit where it has been very well-received, winning numerous awards. Keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse or possibly on your favorite streaming channel in the coming months.

REASONS TO GO: This is an accurate portrayal of a marriage falling apart. There are some really good moments here.
REASONS TO STAY: Emotionally, the movie is a little bit overwrought. The writing tends to be a bit on the preachy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of adult themes as well as some profanity and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Howerdel was a founding member of A Perfect Circle and composed the score for the film as well as playing Sean, Dave’s best friend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Came to Dinner
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets

A Ghost Story


When I’m left alone, there’s a ghost in the house.

(2017) Drama (A24) Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, Dagger Salazar, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Kimberly Fiddes, Daniel Escudero, Kesha Sebert, Jared Kopf, Afomia Hailemeskel, Will Oldham, Brea Grant, Augustine Frizzell. Directed by David Lowery

 

Life inevitably ends with death. It is a defining factor of our lives; most fear death as the ultimate unknown, the cessation of things familiar. Some, those in pain or those who have lived too long, welcome it. Either way, we all eventually experience it.

This masterpiece of a film starts with a young couple – Affleck and Mara – moving into a single story ranch house. He’s a musician; the two are quietly, deeply in love. There are some strange bumps in the night but they seem content enough. Their happiness in their new home is short-lived; he dies in a car accident just yards from his front door. She goes to the morgue to identify his body, then attendant and wife leave the room. The body sits straight up in a parody of horror film tropes. The ghost, resembling an imagination-challenged Halloween costume of a sheet with eye holes cut out, shuffles out of the hospital, pausing before a bright light and then shuffling on home.

There the ghost observes the grief of his wife, watching her numbly eat a pie a neighbor left, slumping on the floor, tears falling as she eats. Eventually, she leaves but the ghost remains through different owners, even past when the home is leveled and an office building put in. Future becomes past. Time circles in on itself.

And that is all the plot you need to know. This is an elegiac film, melancholy almost to the point of heartbreak. A gorgeous score heightens the feeling. Affleck after the first few minutes must act entirely with body language and one can sense the sadness and longing coming from him despite the fact we cannot see anything of his face or body, he contributes to the emotional tone. Mara gets to put on a more traditional performance and she’s excellent. Everything is filmed in a kind of gauzy sepia with the corners of the screen rounded, like an antique photograph.

Not everyone is going to like this or “get” this. When it debuted at Sundance earlier this year the audience was sharply divided. Among my friends there are those who loved this film and others who didn’t like it at all. Some of you are going to find it boring and confusing. Others are going to find insights that will keep you haunted by this film for a long time to come. It likely won’t make a lot of awards lists this year but even so it may very well be the best movie of 2017 and should be seen, even just to decide whether you love it or hate it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautiful and melancholy. The score is lovely and atmospheric. Lowery lets the audience fill in the blanks. This is more of a cinematic poem than a traditional story.
REASONS TO STAY: The non-linear storytelling method may be confusing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a single disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lowery used profits from Pete’s Dragon to make this film. It was filmed in secret and the project not even announced until filming had already wrapped.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If I Stay
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
A Different Set of Cards

Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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A Murder in Mansfield