The Sunlit Night


Onward to Norway and adventure! Or whatever…

(2019) Romance (QuiverJenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridjov Såheim, Gillian Anderson, Zach Galifianakis, David Paymer, Jessica Hecht, Elise Kibler, Justus von Dohnányl, Olek Krupa, Dan Puck, Ginna Le Vine, Malachy Cleary, Anne Carney, Chris Carfizzi, David Corenswet, Stephanie Mareen, Seth Barrish, Michael Kostroff, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Daniel Wnendt

We are often under a microscope that family and friends peer through. They have their expectations and sometimes we work to meet them; others, we defy them in an effort to be our own person. But being under that microscope can be traumatic and depressing. Sometimes, the only way to find ourselves is to run away.

Frances (Slate) is a budding artist in New York City that is struggling to find her voice. Her instructors harshly critique her work as derivative. She lives in an incredibly cramped apartment with her father (Paymer), a well-known artist of anatomical drawings who has a penchant for speaking his mind and is, to put it bluntly, a bit of an asshole. Her mother (Hecht) is a textile artist whose success has been overshadowed by her husband. Her sister Gaby (Kibler) has gotten engaged to her boyfriend whom her father hates with a passion. Frances’ own boyfriend has just unceremoniously dumped her. And her parents are splitting up.

Frances, with these compounded issues, is reeling. She decides to take an internship in Norway with Nils (Såheim) a notoriously reclusive artist. He is working on a project on an island above the arctic circle where the sun never fully sets in the summer. The project – which involves painting an old barn a variety of shades of yellow – is, Nils hopes, going to be included on a map of art-related tourist spots that the Norwegian National Museum is compiling. He doesn’t handle people very well, and expects Frances to work like a mule, leaving her little time for her own art, which she was hoping to work on during her internship.=

She spends time at a local Viking village recreation whose chieftain (Galifianakis) is actually an American from Cincinnati. Also visiting the island is Sasha (Sharp) whose father just passed away and requested a Viking funeral on this island where he had chosen to live out the remainder of his days. Sasha is a New Yorker whose parents were Russian immigrants, and his estranged mother (Anderson) is there to throw a monkey wrench into things. For Frances’ part, she finds the vulnerable New Yorker fascinating. Is there a romance blooming in the land of reindeer and snow?

Most of the movie reference sites online list this as a Romance, so I have done the same, but it isn’t really accurate. This isn’t about the relationship between Frances and Sasha; it’s more about the romance between Frances and herself. In a lot of ways, this is more of  coming of age film than a romance. We see Frances growing from someone lost and adrift into someone who has something meaningful to contribute.

There’s a bit of the manic pixie dream girl to Frances, although one could never use the term “manic” when it comes to Jenny Slate. She is not everybody’s cup of tea, with a voice that sounds like Jennifer Tilly voicing a toddler, but she is a capable actress and tends to shine in these indie films when she’s given the right material. She also gets to do the voiceover narration (which isn’t intrusive, thank the Great Gahoo) but she gets to say things like describing her New York apartment as “A Mondrian of claustrophobia” and referring to her internship as “Arctic detention.”

Also worthy of note is the cinematography which is borderline breathtaking. What isn’t is the infestation of indie tropes and clichés that make me wonder at times if this wasn’t filmmaking by check box. That gives the movie what I believe to be an unintentionally retro feel. There’s also an over-reliance on the use of masterwork paintings to explain the action or various characters in it.

Still, it’s solid enough to check out. Slate should already be on the radar of a number of indie film aficionados and the lovely Norwegian countryside as well as the strong dialogue make this worthy of notice. Still, if indie films of the last 15 years have gotten you wary of the same old thing, this might not be the film for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty snappy. Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of indie film tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rebecca Dinerstein Knight wrote the screenplay, adapting her own novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady Bird
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Wandering Earth

Write When You Get Work


This is what “kissyface” looks like.

(2018) Dramedy (Abramorama) Finn Wittrock, Emily Mortimer, Rachel Keller, Jessica Hecht, Hermione Heckrich, James Ransone, Andrew Schultz, Isabella Blassingame, Afton Williamson, Jennifer Mudge, Mitchell Slaggert, Gregory Isaac Stone, Jeffrey Butler, Robert Eli, Scott Cohen,  Sam Gilroy, Rosa Gilmore, Adele Kader, Ava Capri, Tess Frazer. Directed by Stacy Cochran

 

Sometimes people get off to a bad start. They get involved with the wrong people, get involved with the wrong drugs, or just plain lose their way. Some people stay that way while others make an effort to make a change. After all, it’s not how you start but how you finish.

Jonny (Wittrock) and Ruth (Keller) had that kind of start. The two were high school sweethearts if that’s what you can call a couple who share hurried beach couplings and shoplifting sprees. Nine years later, both have graduated on gone on to different lives. Jonny remains pretty much in the same juvenile pattern, unable to keep a job and forever on the hustle for whatever score he can manage.

Ruth on the other hand has landed a job in the admissions office of an exclusive girls school on Long Island. While it is very much an “interim” position, things are looking up for her. A chance meeting at a funeral for a track coach for the both of them leads Jonny to infiltrate her life, much against her will, involving occasional breaking and entering.

When he finds out about Ruth’s new gig, dollar signs light up his eyes. He looks at the school she works at as his own potential fishing hole. He lands on a particularly vulnerable guppy; Nan Noble (Mortimer) who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her douchebag of a husband (Ransone) is being investigated by the feds for financial chicanery and she is very much worried that her own assets will eventually be seized. Enter smooth-talking Jonny and soon the two hatch a convoluted plot. At first, Ruth is trying to separate Jonny from Ruth but soon gets sucked into the scheme. Things begin to escalate, one double-cross follows another and soon nobody knows who to trust.

I don’t mind a good heist movie, no matter how complicated but you need to have a rooting interest in the con artists. Jonny is just so slimy and so without conscience that you can only root for a quick arrest. Wittrock is a decent enough actor and he is certainly a good looking man but he doesn’t pull off the charming rogue here. Mortimer though is fun to watch; you get the sense that she is one bad day away from cracking and she does high-strung as well as anyone.

There are some moments that are borderline brilliant – the cinematography can be magical – but the plot is so convoluted and relies on people acting in ways that people don’t ever act. Cochran has made a couple of solid movies but this one is a step backwards. By the time you get to the end of the movie you may have already checked out which is a shame because that’s the best part of the movie. File this one under near-miss.

REASONS TO GO: There are flashes of something interesting here. Mortimer does her best with  bad hand.
REASONS TO STAY: Wittrock’s character is completely despicable. The script is convoluted and sometimes not believable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some drug use and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Robert Elswit has worked frequently with director Paul Thomas Anderson
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thief
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Invisible Hands

Submission


Stanley Tucci clearly has a position of power over Addison Timlin…or does he?

(2017) Drama (Great Point Media) Stanley Tucci, Addison Timlin, Kyra Sedgwick, Janeane Garofalo, Peter Gallagher, Jessica Hecht, Ritchie Coster, Colby Minifie, Alison Bartlett, David Pittu, Henry Stram, Juan Castano, Matt Ballard, Ashley Trawinski, Stephanie Berry, Devin Norik, Kenneth De Abrew, S.J. Son, Nicole Orth-Palavicini, Malika Samuel, Deaven Brooks, Barbara Spiegel. Directed by Richard Levine

 

In an era which has seen the #MeToo movement grow into a national tidal wave of women standing up to name those who have raped, harassed or committed sexual misconduct against them, movies like this one stand out as a bit of a dinosaur.

Ted Swenson (Tucci) toils at a bucolic college campus in Vermont teaching creative writing courses which mainly consist of students reading their works aloud in class and the other students criticizing them, generally with banal cruelty. Ted is married to Sherrie (Sedgwick) who as a medical doctor is likely responsible for their beautiful split level home, although Ted had a bestselling novel years ago based on his own experiences growing up with a radical father who self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war.

The follow-up however has yet to surface and his agent (Gallagher) has more or less given up on him, so Ted lives in this kind of literary hell in which he listens to badly written purple prose week after week without any let-up. The, one of his students – Angela Argo (Timlin) who has been one of the most vocal and vicious critics – finally after some liberal ego massage gets Ted to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and he realizes at once he is looking at genuine talent.

Her novel is insightful and extremely erotic, a tale of a student who has become sexually obsessed with her teacher. Of course, Ted surmises that the teacher character is based on him and the student on her – Angela makes it perfectly clear that it is the case. However, Ted makes some ill-advised decisions after Angela continues to shamelessly manipulate him and puts everything at risk – his job, his reputation, and his family.

I guess in a way we can see this film as a way the patriarchy thinks about these sexual misconduct cases. We’re supposed to be sympathetic to Ted and yet he puts himself in a position where he can be seduced and doesn’t seem to realize that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Angela as a means of getting Ted to submit her novel to his agent. She seems sweet at first but sweet turns into demanding turns into seduction turns into accusatory. Angela is supposed to be the villain here but quite frankly, cases like this are far more rare than male authority figures using their power to manipulate vulnerable women into situations where they feel forced to have sexual relationships they don’t want.

The movie is based on a novel written back in 2000 by Francine Prose called The Blue Angel which in turn is loosely based on the Marlene Dietrich film of the same name which Angela is watching during the course of this film in a charming meta move. Movies of this sort are not uncommon – anyone remember the Demi Moore/Michael Douglas film Disclosure? – in which women are shown to have the upper hand in sexual politics although clearly that isn’t the case. It is the type of attitude that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to flourish.

While the subject is accidentally topical, the plot is predictable and cliché. The movie is saved by Tucci who gives his usual strong performance, although his voiceover narration particularly in the beginning of the film is particularly grating. The collegiate setting particularly in the beautiful countryside of New England is somehow comforting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s the college I’d want to have tenure at.

Watchable mainly because of the strong cast, Submission fails on a number of levels. From a political correctness standpoint, it comes off as somewhat of an anachronism in an age when we are beginning to stand up and take notice of the treatment that women have had to endure in relative silence for decades. Moreover, the way the story is told is rife with clichés and worse yet doesn’t particularly add anything to the narrative. I’m not against the idea of a story about an amoral seductress manipulating a naïve professional for her own ambition but this is the wrong time for that kind of story to be told. I’d much rather see movies that illustrate the reality of what women in the workplace have endured and continue to endure even today.

REASONS TO GO: Tucci is always a treat to watch. As it turns out the plot is very topical. The collegiate vistas are oddly comforting.
REASONS TO STAY: Viewers may get the sense that they’ve seen this all before. Cliches abound throughout the film. The narration is a bit grating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual content, nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angela watches the classic Marlene Dietrich film The Blue Angel which gave the source novel its title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Elegy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Chasing Great