Brigsby Bear


Luke Skywalker trains a young Jedi in the ways of children’s television programming.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Kyle Mooney, Mark Hamill, Jane Adams, Greg Kinnear, Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Christopher Sullivan, Alexa Demie, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Chris Provost, Claire Danes, Chance Crimin, Beck Bennett, Andy Samberg, Kate Lyn Shell, Kiera Milan Hendricks, Ellery Davidson, Ashlyn Brooke Anderson, Marilee Crockett. Directed by Dave McCary

 

We are a product of our upbringing and so much of what we experience as children makes us into the adults we become. Those of us who grew up with certain children’s television shows bear the marks of the lessons they taught us, even if we only got them subconsciously.

James (Mooney) has grown up in an unusual situation. He has been isolated by loving parents (Hamill, Adams) who have encouraged him to watch Brigsby Bear, a sci-fi television show in which the titular character fights alongside the Smiley Sisters against the nefarious Sunstealer. While the lessons are a little unorthodox, James is completely enchanted by the world of Brigsby Bear and has every episode on tape. That is, until his world comes crashing down on him.

He finds himself in a different situation with the knowledge that the world he previously inhabited was not what he was led to believe it was. Even his beloved Brigsby Bear was fake – the show didn’t exist. Alone, rudderless, without any sort of anchor, James remains obsessed with Brigsby Bear. He decides that he alone can finish the show properly and he endeavors to do just that.

There is a lot going on in this movie. Part of it is a commentary on the obsessive fandom that dominates our pop culture at present. Some of it is about the power of imagination to change one’s circumstances. Some of it is a pure nostalgia rush. All of it works.

Mooney, a current cast member on SNL, has an off-beat charm that allows the character of James to be childlike without descending into mawkishness. Mooney manages to surround himself with a terrific cast; Hamill is at his very best in a brief but important role and then there’s Kinnear who plays a sympathetic policeman. Kinnear is one of the very best actors working today especially when it comes to being likable onscreen. I think Hollywood takes him a bit for granted; he hasn’t gotten the role yet that will take him to the next level but he has the capability of getting there.

The bargain basement SFX may look a bit primitive to most viewers but they work in the context of the story. Some critics found that the movie descended into sweetness but I have to disagree; it needed that sweetness, otherwise it becomes just another cynical stab at fandom. I suspect that most critics don’t understand the whole concept behind fandom simply because critics are supposed to be objective. Fans are most assuredly not. Yes, there can be a negative side to obsessive fanboy-ism but there is also a positive side as well. There is nothing wrong with believing in something when there is so little to believe in these days.

This is one of my favorite films of the year. Not everyone will agree with me – it may be a little too out there for some. Others, like the critics I referred to, think it might be a little too light and sweet for their tastes. Me though, this works to perfection. It hits every emotional note dead on. This is one of three films that I think is the best of 2017. Whether it will finish first, second or third will likely depend on my mood when I go to assemble my list. If I’m thinking about this movie however, you can bet my mood will be getting better by the moment.

REASONS TO GO: This is one of those rare movies that hit all the right notes. Those who grew up with 80s children shows will certainly get the warm fuzzies. Mooney has a real offbeat charm. Kinnear is one of the most underrated actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it a little too obscure.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some drug usage and teen partying, brief sexuality and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McCary is a writer on Saturday Night Live who is making his feature directing debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death to Smoochy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

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Novitiate


Melissa Leo looks ready to rap someone on the knuckles with a ruler.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Marco St. John, Joseph Wilson, Jordan Price, Kamryn Boyd, Lucie Carroll, Lucy Hartselle, Carlee James, Adele Marie Pomerenke, Lisa Stewart. Directed by Maggie Betts

 

“Get thee to a nunnery” doesn’t have quite the same punch it once did. These days, Catholic nuns are women who feel a calling to serve God but minus the brutal discipline and somewhat arcane rules that once governed convents around the globe. One of the turning points in this evolution was the ecumenical council known as Vatican II which in its day revolutionized the Catholic church virtually overnight. Not everyone welcomed the changes that it brought, however.

Cathleen (Qualley) is a young woman who has been raised by her mother Nora (Nicholson) after her booze addled dad (Zylka) left which, in the 1950s and early 1960s was a much more unusual situation than it is now. She is not Catholic but when free schooling at a private Catholic school is offered, Nora – who is not religious in the least – takes it, hoping that it will give Cathleen a better education.

However, Cathleen finds the Catholic religion intriguing and feels that joining the novitiate is where her future lies – to become a bride of Christ. She joins the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, the convent headed up by a conservative old school Mother Superior (Leo) who takes her vows very seriously and expects her charges to do the same. All of their devotion is to be channeled towards God and Cathleen and her fellow postulates – the first stage of becoming a nun – are only too glad to comply.

The 18 fresh-faced dewy-eyed charges who are preparing to be symbolically married to Christ are trained by the flinty Mother Superior and the softer Sister Mary Grace (Agron) to be perfect wives to their husband-to-be because Christ deserves no less than perfection. This leads to terrifying sessions where the Mother Superior gathers the novitiates – who have graduated from the postulate rank to the second stage of becoming a full-fledged Sister – in a circle and orders them to confess their flaws that keep them from being perfect, reducing most of the girls to sobbing wrecks. Mary Grace is troubled by the brutal tactics of her Mother Superior and the two clash on a regular basis.

However, despite her mother’s disapproval Cathleen is determined to be the perfect bride of Christ and while that wins her the admiration of the Mother Superior, the discipline and self-starvation that Cathleen puts herself through begins to worry her fellow novitiates as she becomes dangerously thin.

To the film’s credit, it dispenses of the usual nun stereotypes that Hollywood generally utilizes; the Sister Mary Discipline knuckle rapping (although the Mother Superior at times comes close) or the singing nuns of The Sound of Music and The Singing Nun. Betts is cognizant that these postulates (and later, novitiates) are mostly teenage girls with all that implies; the girls are emotional ranging from ecstasy (celebrating like giddy brides after the ceremony that elevates them to novitiate status) to agony (falling apart when the stern Mother Superior gets in their face about minor rule infractions). These scenes tend to be the most memorable in the movie.

Much of the praise has to go to Leo, an Oscar winner who has a good shot at another nomination here for Best Supporting Actress; certainly this is one of the finest performances in a career chock full of them. When she reads the changes affecting her order wrought by Vatican II – including one that essentially demotes nuns to the same status as regular parishioners, giving them no standing within the church which, as the film notes at the end, would lead to more than 90,000 nuns renouncing their vows. Qualley, who most will know from her HBO series The Leftovers is also very strong and shows some confident screen presence. Agron from Glee also is impressive in a smaller role, but this even though the movie is about Sister Cathleen it is very much Leo’s performance that drives it.

The movie, a scoosh over two hours long, does drag in places, particularly during the middle. There is also a scene where Cathleen, desperate for intimacy and human contact, demands comfort from a fellow novitiate which leads to what feels like a prurient and unnecessary make-out session which felt like it didn’t need to be there.

The Catholic Legion of Decency has condemned the movie and I can understand why; the Roman Catholic church is portrayed as almost cult-like in places and devout Catholics may be uneasy watching this, although it should be kept in mind that the film takes place more than 50 years ago and things were a lot different in the Church and in her convents then than they are now.

Nonetheless this is a strong feature film debut for Betts and even though there are a couple of missteps and could have benefited from a little more trimming, she shows herself to be an exciting new voice in filmmaking at a time when Hollywood can use more powerful female directors – well, it always can but now more than ever.

REASONS TO GO: There are some very strong performances here, particularly from Leo who takes it to the next level. Some of the scenes are extremely powerful. The filmmakers generally refrain from using stereotypes of nuns.
REASONS TO STAY: Some Catholics may have some issues with the film. The film runs a little bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, discussions of sexuality as well as brief nudity and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Doubt
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Paris Can Wait (Bonjour Anne)


Diane Lane by the river.

(2016) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Lane, Arnaud Viard, Alec Baldwin, Élodie Navarre, Elise Tielrooy, Linda Gegusch (voice), Cédric Monnet. Directed by Eleanor Coppola

Sometimes when one is feeling like life isn’t working out, a road trip is just what’s needed to clear out the doldrums. Of course when that road trip takes you through the south of France so much the better.

Anne (Lane) is the wife of Michael (Baldwin), a high-powered Hollywood producer. They are in Cannes for the film festival and she has developed a nagging earache. Fresh off of plugging his last project to distributors and, well, whatever it is that producers do in Cannes, Michael is headed for Budapest and bringing Anne along in the private jet. The pilot however recommends that Anne not fly given that the earache would make it excruciatingly painful. Michael’s French partner Jacques (Viard) offers to drive Anne to Paris rather than having her take the train by herself. She cheerfully agrees.

Jacques is not one to take the direct route; he must stop hourly for smoke breaks and to fill the radiator in his classic Peugeot Cabriolet. He also must stop to show her the Best Roman aqueduct, the best little bistro in Provence, the best inn in Burgundy, the best Museum of Cinema in Lyon (which, to be fair, was where the Lumiére brothers were based) and so on and so forth.

Jacques is also a bit of an epicure, and every meal becomes an event. For Anne who has been somewhat sheltered in her enjoyment of life, this is a bit of a revelation. She wouldn’t characterize her marriage as bad exactly, but she is at a critical time in her life. Her daughter is off at college and has elected to spend Christmas break with her friends. Her husband essentially ignores her and her career as a dress shop owner has been given up. She is lost in her own life.

Jacques is also a bit of a lost soul. Single at an age when most men are enjoying their grandchildren, he seems to know everyone but how well they know him is another story. He is flirtatious and there is maybe a bit of a spark between the two of them – Jacques knows the way to her heart is through chocolate – but where that spark might take them before they arrive at Paris days after they were supposed to arrive there is uncertain.

Coppola, the wife of director Francis Ford Coppola, has a keen understanding of the rhythms of life in the south of France. The movie unfolds at an unhurried pace which some critics found infuriating oddly enough, since most European films are similarly paced. With picnics set at the side of bucolic rivers and amazing meals in quaint bistros and fine dining establishments, one shouldn’t watch this movie while hungry.

Lane is an actress who has always spoken to me. Even in her mid-50s, she remains as sexy as she has ever been, albeit in a less obvious manner than what many starlets exude. Lately she seems to be cast most often as the forgotten wife and it seems difficult to understand why any husband would ignore her; she’s smart, funny and did I mention she’s sexy as all get out? In any case, she excels at playing women in the process of rediscovering themselves and that is what this particular movie is all about.

Viard, a well-known actor/director in France, underplays this maybe a bit too much. He’s charming sure but the role needed someone a bit more rogue-ish. The romantic sparks between Jacques and Anne are tepid at best and even though the ending, which has Lane winking at the camera, promises something more, it’s hard to believe that Anne would send Michael packing that way. One gets the sense that Anne is the type of woman who would end her marriage before she’d consider taking on a romantic partner. Of course, we could be talking road trip buddies here; that aspect is left for the viewer to decide.

I will say that the movie does meander quite a bit particularly in the middle. Coppola, who also wrote the film, doesn’t seem to have a firm destination in mind or at least if she does no clear way to get there. We end up with a lot of conversation that tries to be revelatory but doesn’t really tell us anything about the characters. If you’ve ever tried to have a deep, meaningful personal conversation with a person who doesn’t want to tell you anything about themselves, you’ll understand how frustrating the movie can be.

Overall, I was left with a warm pleasant feeling leaving the theater after the movie. It isn’t laugh-out-loud funny although there are some moments that brought a smile to my face. It’s not really high drama, although it is about a woman who is unsatisfied with where she is in life beginning to reassess what she wants out of it. Watching Lane’s Anne start to reignite her love for life is the best part about the movie – that and the food porn that pervades it. One has to love French gastronomy.

REASONS TO GO: Who wouldn’t want to take a trip like this one? Diane Lane is still as sexy as hell.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes, Jacques smokes like a chimney and some mild profanity in certain places.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coppola was 80 years old when she made this, her narrative feature debut (she released a documentary feature more than 25 years ago). She is not the oldest person to direct their first narrative feature – Takeo Kimura directed his first narrative feature Dreaming Awake at age 90 in 2008.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Trip to Italy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Deidra and Laney Rob a Train

The Comedian (2017)


Robert De Niro kills it in an entirely different context.

(2017) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Robert De Niro, Leslie Mann, Harvey Keitel, Edie Falco, Danny DeVito, Patti LuPone, Charles Grodin, Cloris Leachman, Lucy DeVito, Billy Crystal, Veronica Ferres, Lois Smith, Jessica Kirson, Jim Norton, Jimmie Walker, Brett Butler, Gilbert Gottfried, Hannibal Buress, Bill Boggs, Nick Di Paolo, Freddie Roman, Greer Barnes, Sheng Wang, Aida Rodriguez  Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

The life of a stand-up comic is nothing like you might think it is. Glamour is rare for one of those worthies; while someone like a Kevin Hart might work arenas and stay in first class hotels for the most part when stand-ups tour at all they play small clubs and stay in fairly cheap hotels or worse. Sometimes they get a sitcom and things get better but what happens when the sitcom is canceled?

Jackie Burke (De Niro) is living that particular dream. Once on top of the world in the successful sitcom Eddie’s Home back in the 80s, he is back to doing club gigs in his native New York and mostly what audiences want to hear are his signature Eddie catch phrases. At this point Jackie wants to distance himself from Eddie as much as possible but when hecklers push him into a corner and it turns out those same hecklers are trying to goad him deliberately for a vlog, Jackie loses it and ends up getting charged with assault and battery.

Jackie does 30 days jail time and then is given community service at a soup kitchen. The video of his blow up has itself blown up so his long-suffering agent (Falco) can’t get him a bar mitzvah let alone a paying gig. Still, things are looking up – he meets a young woman named Harmony (Mann) who is a co-worker at the soup kitchen. The two hit it off as friends and he takes her to a comedy show where he is asked to go on stage when a comedian cancels at the last minute; his set is one of the best of his career and that starts going viral. Suddenly, things are looking up.

Being Jackie Burke however means that if things are looking up, he must find a way to sabotage himself. It doesn’t help that Harmony has a father (Keitel) who wants her to come back to Florida and work at one of the homes for the elderly that he owns; dad is a bit of a jerk to put it mildly and, well, you can guess the rest.

In fact, that’s a big problem here; you can guess the rest and often do. De Niro remains one of the great actors of his generation and I don’t think he’s ever disgraced himself in a single performance; he is solid enough here and is convincing as a stand-up performer with an anger issue. He is almost always the best part of any movie he’s in and that’s surely the case here.

Mann is herself a capable actress whose appearance in her husband Judd Apatow’s films have been stepping stones to better and more noticeable roles. Some of her dramatic range is hinted at here and I sure wouldn’t mind if we saw her in a wider variety of roles than we’ve heretofore seen her in. Considering the age difference portrayed on screen, the romance feels a bit awkward and at times unbelievable but Mann’s a pro and you can see that there is some chemistry between her and De Niro. She performs more than capably in a movie where she deserved a little better; count me as a fan.

The relationship between colleagues in the stand-up community is very much love-hate. They are competitors often for the same jobs, but at the same time they have the bonds of going into the trenches together, the shared experiences of deprivation, disrespect and dysfunction. They can all relate to one another and there’s often mutual respect but they also heckle each other mercilessly backstage. The movie captures this bond (with a number of working stand-ups playing themselves) beautifully.

The movie falls apart at the end. I won’t go into details but all the good will the movie manages to build up through the first hour plus is wasted with an ending that is equal parts ludicrous and demeaning to the audience. When the lights came up I saw more than one gape-jawed expression on an audience member’s face and I’m sure my own expression wasn’t too dissimilar. Sadly, Hackford and company ignored one of the first rules of comedy; never ever squash your own punchline.

REASONS TO GO: A really terrific cast that for once isn’t wasted drives the film. The depiction of the lives of stand-ups is convincing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes feel a little bit awkward and overly familiar. The ending is preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity including some fairly crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: De Niro received stand-up comedy training from Jessica Kirson, whose signature move – talking to herself sotto voce – is one he adapted for the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: I Am Not Your Negro

Toni Erdmann


Where the wild things are.

(2016) Comedy (Sony Classics) Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn, Thomas Loibl, Trystan Pütter, Ingrid Bisu, Hadewych Minis, Lucy Russell, Victoria Cocias, Alexandru Papadopol, Viktoria Malektorovych, Ingrid Burkhard, Jürg Löw, Ruth Reinecke, Vlad Ivanov, Mihal Manolache, Radu Bȁnzaru, Niels Borann, Radu Dumitrache, Klara Höfels.. Directed by Maren Ade

 

We all know somebody in our lives who simply can’t take anything seriously. Who knows, it even might be you. Behind the occasionally inappropriate humor and unending stream of jokes however a little wisdom might actually show up even more unexpectedly than you might think.

Winfried Conradi (Simonischek) is a music teacher living in Germany, who has retired none too gracefully from his profession. At his final performance with his student chorus, he has them all dress like zombies and he as the Grim Reaper, a joke that has his colleagues and parents scratching their heads, not to mention family members who have gathered to celebrate his retirement. Among their number is his only daughter Ines (Hüller) who has just jetted in from Shanghai on her way back to Bucharest. She works for one of those corporate consulting firms that usually advise big companies to lay off great numbers of their staff. She has a new project with an oil company whose boss is eager to get the cost savings of a mass layoff but doesn’t want to appear to be the bad guy so Ines will do it by recommending it. In taking one for the team, she knows she might finally get that promotion she’s been promised over and over again – but has never received.

Ines holds off her father at arm’s length with her cell phone grasped firmly in hand; not all the calls she claims “she has to take” are actually there but whatever works to give herself some space with her dad with whom the relationship has been stretched to the breaking point as long as they can remember. Shortly after Ines leaves with a half-hearted invitation for him to visit, an event occurs for Winfried that convinces him he needs to connect with his daughter – somehow.

Without any prior warning he shows up at her office in Bucharest. She takes him to a party at the American embassy but things become awkward when she begins to realize that her dad is much more socially accomplished than she is. Worse still, most of the people she works with are men who are either dismissive of her abilities, attracted to her sexually or simply hostile towards women in general. The visit with her dad doesn’t go well and he heads back home.

Only he doesn’t arrive at his destination. Instead, he shows up as Toni Erdmann, a life coach with a rumpled appearance, a brunette wig with long flowing locks and outrageous false teeth with a distinct buck-toothed grin. Ines is horrified particularly when “Toni” claims he is the life coach of the oil company’s CEO that she is trying to woo to go with her company’s program. And the longer “Toni” hangs around, the more empty her life seems.

This was on the shortlist of the Foreign Language Oscars this year and was a critical hit at Cannes, although critics were absolutely mystified that it was virtually ignored by the juries there. I have to say that I’m not on board this film as some of my colleagues are; at more than two and a half hours long it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Ade apparently chose no to edit down further for the sake of pacing; on the other hand there are scenes that go on far too long. For example, there’s a scene when Ines sings “I Will Always Love You” – the Whitney Houston hit – from beginning to end that could have been shortened, as could a scene at one of many, many parties and social outings that it appears that Romanian workers have a far more party atmosphere than their American counterparts.

The humor here is more subtle and sometimes awkward; Americans of late have seemed to prefer more outrageous, over-the-top humor that is both raunchy and essentially brainless. This is by no means a joke fest – often the viewer needs to think about what he or she has just witnessed for a moment or two before the absurdity settles in. As Da Queen might characterize it, the humor here is quiet which is a nice change from the loud overbearing comedies that are in favor at the moment.

The performances by both Simonischek and Hüller are outstanding. Simonischek, a renowned Austrian actor, never lets the character get to be a caricature of itself. Because he plays things low-key the absurd situations that Winfried/Toni creates have more impact. Hüller is also a revelation, giving Ines an uptight frayed nerve tone that is a poke at the career-obsessed in general. She’s so busy earning a living that she is not actually living and her dad knows that and tries, in his own way, to point it out to her. Sometimes it can be actually touching when he hugs her near the end after a bizarre appearance at perhaps the most awkward birthday party ever caught on film.

We do see a change in Ines as the film progresses but not one so great that it beggars imagination. Instead, we see a subtle change in her as she starts to let the cracks in her façade open up and allow her true face to reveal itself. It isn’t always an easy journey here – some of the scenes go on far too long – but otherwise this is a terrific and occasionally brilliant film that may test your patience over its running time but is a worthwhile investment of that time nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is subtle which is a nice change of pace. Terrific performances by Simonischek and Hüller make this easy to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content of a very overt nature, graphic nudity, some brief drug use and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: An English language remake is on the way, with Kristin Wiig and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. If the casting holds, it will be Nicholson’s first onscreen appearance in more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nine Lives
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harmonium

Elle


Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

(2016) Thriller (Sony Classics) Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaél Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor, Hugo Ponzelmann, Stéphane Bak, Hugues Martel, Anne Loiret, Nicolas Beaucaire, David Colombo-Léotard, Loic Legendre, Eric Savin, Olivia Gotanégre. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

There are traumatic events in our life that shape us as people – sometimes making us stronger, sometimes making us more vulnerable. If there is something that truly defines us, it is how we react to those kinds of traumas.

As the movie begins, we witness the brutal and savage rape of Michelle (Huppert), the often prickly co-owner of a videogame company in France. When the masked assailant is done, he leaves her to literally pick up the pieces (of broken glass) and wash away (literally) the stains of her ordeal. She seems numb to it all, then goes about life as if nothing had happened – indeed until she mentions that she was raped almost casually at a dinner party, she tells nobody about the event, not even her son (Bloquet) who has a pregnant girlfriend (Isaaz) who is shrewish and almost psychotic.

Michelle begins to suspect that the person who raped her is someone employed by her, so she has one of the few people she trusts quietly hack into her male employees’ home computers to see what they’re up to. In the meantime we discover that Michelle has let her ex-husband Richard (Berling) know that she disapproves of his new choice of wives and her mother (Magre) her choice of boyfriends. As she is being judgmental she is carrying on an extramarital affair with Robert (Berkel), husband of her best friend (Consigny) and the company’s co-owner. She is also attracted to Patrick (Lafitte), the very married new neighbor across the street.

But she is receiving menacing texts apparently from the man who raped her and when he returns for a follow-up visit, she is strangely aroused. Now it has become a full-blown obsession – but who is the man responsible? And as Michelle begins to grow colder to those who work with her and who are her friends and family, inevitably something is going to have to give.

Huppert’s performance has already netted her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and let me tell you right off the bat that she has earned all of that. This is a searing performance that can be hard to watch – Michelle has all sorts of issues and not all of them are pretty – but at the same time one you can’t look away from. Huppert, a French sex symbol for decades has in her 60s become one of the Grand Dames of French cinema and this is perhaps her best performance ever. It is layered almost in ways that make her seem like she has multiple personalities; sometimes vulnerable, sometimes cold as ice, sometimes hot as lava, sometimes aggressive, sometimes bitchy and sometimes tender but always fascinating.

The veteran cast behind her excels particular Consigny (who I think is one of the most underrated actresses in France) and Lafitte whose character is not all he appears to be. Most of the characters here share that quality.

As thrillers go, there are moments here that are absolutely wrenching but this is by no means an “edge of the seat” affair and in many ways this is more of a slow burn than an intense flame. There are some twists as you might expect and as you also might expect they are not what you’d get from a Hollywood thriller which is quite pleasant particularly for veteran cinemaphiles who rarely get surprised with the genre anymore.

The rape sequences spare nothing as those who have followed Verhoeven’s career might expect. Verhoeven has a history of sexual explicitness in his films and the rape scenes here are no different. They are graphic and brutal and those who have survived sexual assaults or are sensitive to them in any other way should think really hard before seeing this as it might prove to be a trigger. Seriously, it is not for the faint of heart and not for those who are thin of skin. Take that warning seriously.

This is definitely Huppert’s show however and the big reason to see it is her. It is a triumphant performance for a woman who has had a distinguished career although here in the States she has not received the recognition she is due. Although she is up against some strong competition, she does have a strong chance at winning the statuette and that can only be justice for a career that deserves more attention that has been received from American audiences.

REASONS TO GO: An intense and riveting performance by Huppert. Several twists and turns that are unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexual assault scenes may be too disturbing, particular for survivors of sexual assault.
FAMILY VALUES: There are several graphic sexual assaults, some disturbing sexual scenes, gruesome images, nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be an American production, but Verhoeven was unable to find a lead actress willing to do the role. Huppert got a hold of the script and contacted the producers expressing her interest and even suggested that Verhoeven direct the film, unaware that he was already attached to it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes