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

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Observance


Oh black water, keep on rolling...

Oh black water, keep on rolling…

(2015) Psychological Horror (Artsploitation) Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Brendan Cowell, John Jarratt, Benedict Hardie, Tom O’Sullivan, Roger Ward, Gabriel Dunn, Joseph Sims-Dennett, Ash Ricardo, Louisa Mignone. Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

 

Grief does some disturbing things to our perceptions. It changes how time reacts to us, making it stretch out interminably. It sometimes causes us to see things that aren’t there. It makes us feel as if we are dying ourselves – even though we aren’t. We just wish we were.

Parker (Farris) is a private detective, but he hasn’t been doing much detecting lately. His son passed away recently, and he has been devastated by it. His marriage has disintegrated because of it and he is deeply in debt due to his boy’s medical bills. He takes a surveillance job which involves staying in a derelict apartment, filled with garbage and barely inhabitable, and keeping an eye on Tenneal (King), a beautiful blonde girl who lives across the street. He taps her phone, sets up a camera pointing into her apartment (which she conveniently lives in without drapes) and sits back to observe.

At first things seem fairly normal but as the days go on it gets more sinister. Things begin to happen that Parker can’t explain. He becomes unnerved and contacts his employer (Cowell) to find out what to do if someone attacks the girl, but he is told to sit back and relax – just report what he sees. Parker agrees, but is getting more reluctant by the minute. If he didn’t need the money so badly, he’d be so out of there.

The visions begin to get worse. He finds animal corpses in disturbing places. A strange black fluid is leaking from just about everywhere, including from Parker himself. His dreams – or rather nightmares – are terrifying. He has a real fear that something terrible is about to happen, but he can’t bring himself to warn the girl – or leave. One way or another, things are going to play themselves out and when it’s all over, the results will not be pleasant.

This is a movie that plays with your perceptions. Unrelated images are inserted from time to time and the film shifts from black and white to color to a mixture of both seemingly at random. We’re meant to be getting into Parker’s mind and it is rapidly disintegrating. We see images of his child with the black goo pouring out of every orifice, and images of the sea pounding the shore – and of dead things in every nook and cranny. We’re never sure what’s real because he isn’t.

A movie like that requires a really strong lead and independent films, particularly micro-budgeted films like this one, can be really hit and miss with the actors that are available to them, but fortunately the filmmakers lucked out in Farris, who is a good find. Matinee idol handsome, he has a definite presence and while occasionally he errs on the side of scenery chewing for the most part he gives a subtle nuanced performance that bodes well for his big screen future.

There are some fairly disturbing images here and a few genuinely horrific ones but most of the horror will be inside your imagination and while that’s always a good thing for the most part, you may end up being somewhat perplexed at the barrage of images that seem to be there for their own sake rather than to serve the story or the film. Cinematic masturbation is what I call it, and there’s definitely some of that going on here.

This is an Aussie-made film which has to it’s advantage the reputation of Down Under as a hotbed for amazing horror film directors; this isn’t one of the better films to come out of there in recent years unless you like your horror on the surreal side. From that point of view, most mainstream horror movie fans aren’t going to like this much, and for that reason it’s getting a mediocre rating – but those who love cult films and don’t mind a little thought to go with their viscera will find this a worthy addition to their film library.

WHY RENT THIS: A movie that bears repeated viewings.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too art house for the grindhouse crowd.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing and occasionally bloody images, brief foul language and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released first in Australia, the movie is available there on iTunes. Exclusively available on Vimeo in the States (see below), it will expand to most VOD streaming platforms beginning in October.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The film is preceded by a three-minute preface.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes, Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

3 Backyards


3 Backyards

Edie Falco clearly misses her days on “The Sopranos.”

(2010) Drama (Screen Media) Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe, Rachel Resheff, Wesley Broulik, Danai Gurira, Ron Phillips, Dana Eskelson, Randi Kaplan, Louise Millman, Pam La Testa, Antonio Ortiz, Nicole Brending, Kathy Searle. Directed by Eric Mendelsohn

 

The suburbs are quiet, peaceful places where we go to raise our children in an environment that is far from urban. Away from the noise and the hectic place, it is a place of lawn mowers, shopping malls and chain restaurants. Still, the peaceful facade can sometimes disguise the most painful of hearts.

Long Island is maybe the ultimate suburb. Being so close to New York City, it offers a respite from the concrete and asphalt, a bit of greenery and wildlife within shouting distance of skyscrapers and taxis. But for all the manicured lawns, the sweet songs of robins and blue jays, all is not perfect here.

Take John (Koteas). His marriage is far from perfect; he and his wife (Erbe) are always fighting and finances aren’t so good. He is going on a business trip but his flight is canceled. Instead of going back home, he checks into a hotel provided by the airline. Instead of staying put, he goes back home and stalks his own family and home. When he calls his wife, he pretends he’s on the plane instead of watching her from the shrubbery. What is he looking for? What does he expect to see? He retires to a diner where he overhears a young woman (Gurira) applying for a waitress position. He follows her out of the restaurant and becomes witness to tragedy.

A little girl (Resheff) impulsively steals some of her mom’s jewelry. Her inexplicable action causes her to miss her school bus. Scared of her crime being discovered (which it surely will if she is late for school), she determines to walk the distance via a shortcut she knows. She comes upon an intimidating young man (Broulik) masturbating in a shed. She also frees a stray dog tied to a tree. Both of these events will have consequences later.

Peggy (Falco) lives a life of quiet unfulfillment. She yearns for recognition, glamour, acknowledgement but instead must settle for a suburban existence of gossip and shopping. She paints as a means of expressing herself, but when a well-known actress (Davidtz) moves into the neighborhood, her imagination is excited. Then when the actress needs a lift to the ferry, Peggy volunteers to drive her, leading to a conversation that is much more revealing of Peggy than it is of the actress.

These three tales are not so much interconnected so much as parallels within the same environment. Mendelsohn’s first film, Judy Berlin, was made very much within the same kind of suburban purgatory as this, his second which follows ten years after the first. Notably, Falco stars in both films and is really the chief reason for seeing both.

All of the characters are for the most part drifting through their own landscapes, powered by their yearnings and melancholy. That pervasive aimlessness colors the movie and prevents it from really taking hold in the imagination, or at least mine – the movie has been well-reviewed and obviously it is connecting with critics other than myself, so take my own lack of connection with a grain of salt.

Falco, who most will remember from her television roles in “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie” is one of the best actresses working today. That she isn’t doing more movie work is most likely due to her heavy television schedule, but she always puts on a marvelous performance and this is no exception. Her story arc is the most compelling of the three and she and Davidtz work well off of each other and even though much of her storyline puts her in a car having a conversation, it nevertheless has the most dramatic tension.

Koteas, a longtime character actor who has had moments of brilliance throughout his career, turns in another fine performance as John. While it is at times difficult to understand what is going on inside his head (which to be truthful is true of most of us in real life), we get a sense of his frustrations thanks to Koteas. John’s not getting what he needs in his marriage and career so he plays hooky one day, probably not understanding why he’s doing it himself.

There is a lot of passive-aggressiveness in the movie, if I may do a little armchair psychoanalyzing and that’s okay although it gets a little bit tiresome here. The dialogue sometimes doesn’t ring as true as it might – I get a sense of a writer trying to be clever rather than real people talking.

I also get a sense that there is a good movie here and I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood that day to absorb it properly, or for whatever reason I just couldn’t find a place to latch myself onto. That happens sometimes. I can’t really recommend the movie – I can only go by how I react to it and as you can probably guess, my reaction is fairly negative but those who like Edie Falco should see it and if any of this sounds appealing to you (particularly if you are looking for a suburban-set slice of life) do feel free to disregard my un-enthusiasm and give it a whirl.

WHY RENT THIS: Superior performances from Falco, Davidtz and Koteas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit too much. Dialogue  a bit stilted in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is one scene that has some sexuality involved but most of the rest of the film carries some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mendelsohn is the only director to have won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice; for this film and also for Judy Berlin in 1999.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43,073 on an unreported production budget; might have broken even but it probably didn’t.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Mission: Impossible 2

Police, Adjective (Politist, adjectiv)


Police, Adjective

Apparently Ion Stoica didn't get the direction for everyone to face the window, or he's just a maverick at heart.

(2009) Comedy (IFC) Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov, Irina Saulescu, Ion Stoica, Marian Ghenea, Cosmin Selesi, George Remes, Dan Cogalniceanu, Serban Georgevici, Alexandru Sabadac. Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

When confronted by conscience, the expression of our actions can sometimes be as important as the actions themselves. It is not only important to do the right thing, it is also important to express why the thing you’re doing is right.

Cristi (Bucur) is a cop in the provincial Romanian city of Vaslui. He has been given orders to keep an eye on a young teenager who smokes hashish with his friends on a daily basis; one of them has snitched on the teen, claiming that he has been supplying them with dope. It is a dreary and boring job as Cristi spends hours just watching the teens smoke.

His wife Anca (Saulescu) is a schoolteacher who is a bit stuffy about grammar and syntax. The two debate the literary interpretation of an inane Romanian pop song one evening after dinner; the wife listens to the song over and over again obsessively while Cristi’s nature is to analyze what the song means, but in a more rational matter; he doesn’t have a lot of room in his world for interpretation.

But apparently this conversation opens his eyes to the idea that he does have room, and he begins to make it when it comes to the teenager. If Cristi arrests him, the boy will be put in jail for a minimum of five years and more likely eight. The boy’s life and future will be utterly ruined. To further complicate matters, Cristi strongly suspects that the law governing this misdemeanor will be changed a few years down the road when Romania joins the European Union. He also believes that the teenager was snitched on so that the informant could make a move on the boy’s girlfriend. There seems to be a great deal of injustice happening in this small, insignificant crime.

When Cristi’s superior officer, Anghelache (Ivanov) pressures him for an arrest, Cristi flat-out refuses to arrest the boy. He simply doesn’t want the ruining of the boy’s life on his conscience. Anghelache, a somewhat fatherly figure, doesn’t hesitate. Out comes the dictionary in a scene that is at once gripping and droll as the two debate the meanings of words like “police” and “conscience.”

I know this all sounds a bit cerebral and maybe even boring but the movie is anything but. This is a fascinating slice of life that masquerades as a police procedural. Here in the States, we think of cop shows mostly as CSI-like, or like “Law and Order,” with brilliant detectives out there catching bad guys in a very black and white milieu.

Here, there isn’t necessarily a bad guy, just a kid who is making a bad life choice. When Cristi’s conscience comes into play the movie elevates into something else completely. Who knew that a scene in which two people essentially debate the meanings of certain words could be so riveting?

Not everyone will agree with me on this. I will grant you that the pace is exceedingly slow, maybe too much for American audiences to really tolerate. Much of the movie is dialogue-free, but when the characters do talk they all have something to say. Even the inanities like the bureaucrats who make excuses why files can’t be delivered to the cop’s desk in a timely manner, or a fellow cop (Stoica) who is offended at not having been invited to his partner’s home for a meal, have a richness to them that fill up the palate of real life, something that Romanian films have been extremely successful at doing over the past decade as their film industry has become one of the finest in the world in terms of consistent quality.

Bucur has a sad sack quality to him and is in many ways the most loosely drawn character of the lot; he is a bit of an everyman who I think is a means of representing the audience in a somewhat absurd situation. Ivanov, who played the sinister abortionist in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is superb as the fatherly but officious police captain who not only wants his officer to enforce the law but to understand why it is important he do so without question. It’s an interesting debate that you want to take part of yourself as you watch, always the sign of a movie that is succeeding in its goals.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting look at the other side of police work and the value of conscience in law enforcement. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace is snail-like to the extreme and impatient audiences who tire of reading subtitles might give up on it quickly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some depiction of teen drug use as well as a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Romania’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar of 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Pirate Radio