THE FULL MONTY spawned an entire category of films I like to call the… MoreTHE FULL MONTY spawned an entire category of films I like to call the QUAINT ENGLISH VILLAGE MOVIE. It started out great, but then one after the other just kept coming - WAKING NED DEVINE, THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL BUT CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, CALENDAR GIRLS, BILLY ELLIOT - and while individually good, enough already! So I came to PRIDE with crossed arms and a bitter attitude. Man was I being a dick. This is just a terrific movie, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Based on the remarkable 1984 true story of the infamous Miner's strike in Thatcher England which found unlikely bedfellows in the form of support from a London-based LGBT group, PRIDE is better than its terrible title. Initially I thought it was a documentary about gay pride parades. The actual story is far more compelling than my assumptions. Identifying with the bullying tactics inflicted on the strikers, a small group of gay men and one lesbian take to the streets with buckets to collect spare change.
They are led by Mark (Ben Schnetzer), a very strong-willed, politically astute young man who makes the connection between the two oppressed groups. Although the miners were notorious homophobes, he pushes forward and enlists the aid of his community. They encounter initial resistance from the Union, so instead they engage a small Welsh mining village directly and work hard to bond with the locals.
This is a very large, unwieldy cast and the screenplay by Stephen Beresford is overstuffed with incident, but director Matthew Warchus masterfully juggles all of the balls in the air and creates an emotionally overpowering and lovely cinematic experience. Along with Mark, there's George MacKay as Joe, the closeted newbie who goes on an inspiring hero's journey throughout. Andrew Scott is a true find as Gethin, a gay bookstore owner who must face his Welsh heritage. Closely resembling Mark Ruffalo, Scott gives a fantastic performance as a man who has lived in fear and shame for too long. Dominic West, best known for THE WIRE, shines in a small but crucial role as Gethin's partner.
On the village side, there is none other than the legends, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy, who are all very strong, but the heart and soul of this film belongs to Jessica Gunning as Sian, a fierce advocate for her new friends and a force of nature whether she's stomping into police stations or reprimanding her husband for showing any hint of homophobia. I have the feeling, much as I did when I saw TRAINSPOTTING, that PRIDE has the potential to launch major careers with Schnetzer, MacKay and Gunning. These are immensely appealing actors whom you can't help but cheer.
It's not perfect. Not every storyline is resolved. In fact a major one concerning a bitter matriarch and her two gay-bashing sons doesn't even come close. Also, I found it a bit odd that some characters were given WHERE ARE THEY NOW cards at the end, while others didn't get a mention. No matter, as this is a rousing, spirited call to action. There's a non-profit group in existence right now called GAY4GOOD, where its volunteers reach out to other communities to help bag groceries, clean parks, etc. This organization stands on the shoulders of these brave, colorful, vivid activists from 30 years ago. They risked their lives and reputations to stand beside others in need. PRIDE is a crowd-pleasing rallying call. It won't change cinema, but in this troubled world we find ourselves in, changing hearts and minds is more important.
There's a genre of film I like to call the "Giant Kitchen Island… MoreThere's a genre of film I like to call the "Giant Kitchen Island Movies" in which first world problems are explored inside the hallowed suburban walls of upper middle class families. Think Nancy Meyers' oeuvre - SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE, IT'S COMPLICATED - as a prime example. It's a type of film you don't see much of anymore, and critics have been especially tough on the latest installment in this genre, THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. Adapting his own bestselling novel into a screenplay, Jonathan Topper along with director Shawn Levy (DATE NIGHT, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM) certainly fall into the same traps as their predecessors - lush house, overstuffed cast of characters with the requisite secrets and reveals, lots of overly dramatic yelling and tears, and the assumption that their issues are way more important than your average Joe Schmo - but damn if I didn't find myself engaged and laughing the whole time. I definitely did not have this reaction to AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY, of which this film bears a passing resemblance down to its portrait poster art.
Jason Bateman is Judd Altman, who is having a terrible year, what with his wife sleeping with his boss and his father passing away. He's our entryway to a family reunion in which he and his siblings join his mother (Jane Fonda) in sitting shiva for seven days, this despite the fact that Mom's not Jewish and their Dad was born as such but was an atheist. Bateman is a terrific anchor, flawed yet soulful, and is helped by a stellar cast playing his siblings (Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, and Adam Driver). Everyone is struggling with something here, be it infidelity, fertility, maturity or the need to just be happy. The cast also features strong turns by Connie Britton, Kathryn Hahn and especially Rose Byrne, who has been coming on strong is recent roles, as the women in the lives of our three main male characters. Aaron Lazar and Timothy Olyphant are given precious little to do with their roles opposite Fey, but have enough skill to pop, however briefly.
This is the type of film that would have been lauded in the 80s (STEEL MAGNOLIAS, ORDINARY PEOPLE, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT) but gets trashed these days. There's nothing particularly memorable about it. In fact, I saw it yesterday and most of the details have slipped away. Still, I managed to care about these people. Sure, there are too many references to Fonda's giant boobs, too many petty fights, and there's an eleventh hour revelation that could have used one more connective scene to avoid coming out of nowhere, but I felt a genuine passion at play. Fey does well with drama, giving her character a Debra Winger-esque quirk and Driver, eschewing the anti-social tics he gives us on GIRLS, knows how to find the joy in an overgrown kid. I loved seeing Jane Fonda, who at 76 still has a killer body, and a true star's command. I'm so glad she came out of retirement to show everyone that smart women in film is something to celebrate. But the true star here is Bateman. I truly rooted for his happiness, and that final scene, a callback to an important speech he gives earlier, was truly exhilarating.
People can say what they want about the dated feel and smugness of the entire enterprise. They can cry foul at the escapist b.s. Hollywood inflicts on us with perfect fall leaves and white picket fences to distract us from the terrors and grit around us. All reasonable. But I'm willing to bet that critics would have been kinder to this perfectly entertaining film had they lived in a shittier house.
Sometimes a not-quite-good movie comes along and wins you over,… MoreSometimes a not-quite-good movie comes along and wins you over, despite it's many obvious flaws. GOD HELP THE GIRL is one of those films. What began as a concept album by Stuart Murdoch, co-founder of the Scottish indie pop group, Belle & Sebastian, has become a twee British musical about a troubled girl finding her voice. For those unfamiliar with the band, they produce ethereal , string-laden music highly reminiscent of 60s pop, with some of their projects emulating the sounds of girl groups and the quiet productions of the late Kirsty MacColl. One could easily call them precious if it weren't for their staggeringly beautiful melodies. Murdoch, who wrote and directed, has been working on this film for the better part of a decade, and the results are best described as maddeningly indelible.
As the movie begins, Eve (Emily Browning) escaped a mental hospital where she's being treated for anorexia and other issues. She eventually meets up with James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray) in Glasgow and forms a band. This trio may appear to be sullen trust fund babies, but the music that comes out of them is quite lovely. Filmed on a Kickstarter low budget, GOD HELP THE GIRL works best as an evocation of the wistfulness of a great song. As a character study, however, it's severely lacking. Despite her many problems, I never felt truly connected to Eve. Perhaps it's her hipster presentation, but her performance, while terribly sweet, feels a tad remote. There's a wise statement James makes about artistic genius at the film's end, where I thought things almost came together, but it never got there entirely. I can't say I cared what happened to Eve or her friends, but I couldn't wait to hear them sing another song.
Lyrically, things are problematic. They couldn't be more on-the-nose if they were literally written ON MY NOSE. Eve simply sings her thoughts, or what she's doing at any given moment. A wonderful exception is the song COME MONDAY NIGHT, which is a true musical masterpiece. As a film, there are many music video style interludes and sun-dappled Super 8mm shots which add to the woozy rush of it all, but I wish a little more care had been taken with the main characters. Everything feels too light, even when dealing with serious mental and physical issues, and the pacing turns plodding at times. A similar musical, 1982's Starstruck by Gillian Armstrong, mined similar territory but succeeded in forging a connection between its main character and its audience all wrapped up in a driving, new wave energy style.
Still, GOD HELP THE GIRL is an original, perfect realization of the Belle & Sebastian aesthetic. If you want to experience a homespun singing-in-the-streets musical that'll remind you of a simpler time where daydreaming at album cover art or creating memories with your friends was your life, you could do much worse.
Sometimes you see films where it's downright obvious why it was made.… MoreSometimes you see films where it's downright obvious why it was made. The filmmakers show a burning passion that almost seems to leap off the screen and into your heart. You can tell that they would die to get their story told. Then there's TRACKS.
While beautiful to look at, this conventionally told story of a young woman trekking over 2000 miles through the Australian Outback doesn't seem to have enough of a story to truly captivate an audience. Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, who believes there's more to life than the big city, and walks through the desert with her dog and four feral camels to experience a different side of life.
There have been existentialist desert treks presented on film before, GERRY and THE SHELTERING SKY being two prominent examples, and they were able to find compelling ways to illustrate their themes. TRACKS isn't a total washout. Wasikowska has a quiet, understated sharpness to her character, a tough reserve which makes her survival instincts completely believable. In the early sections of the film, where she's learning how to train camels, she's completely convincing in her ability to get what she needs to begin her journey. As she gets more and more exposed to the sun and the elements, her face gets terribly sunburnt. This is a quiet yet rich performance, worth seeing despite the film's many shortcomings.
Set in the mid-1970s, this true story became a National Geographic article and a bestselling novel. Along the way, she's occasionally met by a photographer from the magazine (Adam Driver from GIRLS) for candid photos as well as just to make sure she's alive. One automatically assumes a romance will ensue, but this film has nothing more on its mind than to show one woman's quest for isolation. Picture an Aussie-accented Greta Garbo intoning, "I want to be alone, mate" and you'll get the idea. Driver is sweet and winning here, showing us a different side to him from his bizarre sociopath on GIRLS.
Director John Curran (THE PAINTED VEIL) and Screenwriter Marion Nelson don't instill many stakes or drama into the story. Every now and then, something random happens involving a snake, or a dog, or...well, that's about it. A woman walks across the desert, learns a simple moral lesson, and we see lots of pretty landscapes. I suspect the actual magazine article is the best format for this tale. I also suspect there will be those who get lost in the quiet beauty of this film. I don't want to begrudge anyone that, but all I can say is, if you introduce a feral camel in the first act, next time, let it bite the hell out of someone in the third!
Full Disclosure: My BFF Christopher S. Capp edited this film and I've… MoreFull Disclosure: My BFF Christopher S. Capp edited this film and I've met the writers and director at an early rough cut screening. Despite having had the privilege of seeing the film evolve over time, I'm very committed to reviewing the finished product and not allowing my connections to it influence my opinion.
If you're a fan of THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY'S BABY, ALIEN, THE FLY, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and let's throw in FUNNY GAMES while we're at it, then HONEYMOON will creepily, eerily, and viscerally knock you out. Director Leigh Janiak and her Co-Writer Phil Graziadei, in their feature debut, have crafted a deceptively simple, low budget horror sci-fi film within the framework of an evolving relationship.
The story of Rose (GAME OF THRONES' Rose Leslie) and Paul (PENNY DREADFUL's Harry Treadaway), newlyweds who spend their honeymoon in a (where else?) remote cabin in the woods begins as a schmoopified look at young'uns in love. Its opening image of cans tied to the rear bumper of a car as they're pulled down the road sets the stage for a romantic comedy, yet it doesn't take long for things to feel a little off. Despite having palpable chemistry, there's something a little unctuous about the way they play out their trademark interaction. He calls her "honey bee" and she makes a buzzing sound as she touches his lips. With love talk that gooey in a film like this, it's only a matter of time before someone gets stung. The way Rose looks at Paul with almost pained longing almost feels too private for us, the audience, to see. All the beats are in place for a hot, steamy love story, which by itself may not be the most fascinating thing to observe. But don't tune this section of the film out, because every moment means something later. Besides, Janiak and Graziadei are smart enough to show us cracks in the relationship early on. An offhanded remark made during a discussion about having children, or a challenge unmet to go skinny dipping create little fissures between our perfect couple. It's not long before the act of preparing breakfast becomes uncomfortable. A visit to a local restaurant owned by a childhood friend and his wife proves disturbing in unexpected ways. Ben Huber and Anna Brown, the only other cast members in the film, make indelible marks in their extremely brief camera time.
Without spoiling anything, something deeply unsettling occurs that changes the rest of the viewing experience. Janiak beautifully calibrates this shift into horror while staying laser focused on the evolving relationship dynamics of the main pair. ROSEMARY'S BABY may have covered similar territory, but the evil here is far less explicit. Instead of over-explaining everything, Janiak chooses the far scarier route of allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. We're still given the icky, gooey, "I can't look at the screen" money shot (trust me, you'll know it when you see it), but the "why" of it all is up to you.
Technically, this film is a model for what you can accomplish on a tiny budget. Cinematographer Kyle Klutz gives the movie a sun-dappled sheen that shifts subtly into scary, inky darkness. To go from body fetish (our two leads are gorgeous) to body horror over the course of 87 minutes is no small feat. Composer Heather McIntosh has to cover a lot of ground as well, from almost 70s TV Movie love themes to screeching strings straight out of THE EXORCIST. She doesn't make obvious choices and the breadth of her work is impressive. Same goes for the Editor, Christopher S. Capp, who has managed to navigate this jumble of genres and still make it feel like one complete film experience.
HONEYMOON perfectly builds its sense of dread. By the end, I was spent. While so little is explained on a horror level, so much is said about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve a relationship. There will be those who will wonder why one of our main characters doesn't cut and run. HONEYMOON, however, supports its premise that if you love someone, you will do whatever it takes to protect them, even if that sense becomes horribly, irrevocably skewed. I look forward to what Janiak and Graziadei do next with orifices. Long live the new flesh.
Maddeningly pretentious at times yet artistically daring, THE CONGRESS… MoreMaddeningly pretentious at times yet artistically daring, THE CONGRESS is sure to divide audiences due to its strange tonal approach, but nobody can deny that this is cutting edge cinema. Ari Folman loosely adapting the late Stanislaw Lem's novel, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, likes to upend genres. In his prior film, WALTZ WITH BICHIR, he blended documentary and animation. With THE CONGRESS, he has created a non-fiction/science fiction/animated hybrid. As the movie opens, Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, is having a career crisis. Her agent, played by Harvey Keitel, rehashes all of the bad choices she has made since her PRINCESS BRIDE/FORREST GUMP heyday. It's harsh because it's true (this film was made before her spectacular HOUSE OF CARDS comeback) and Wright is truly a brave actor to allow such scrutiny.
The two then meet with the head (Danny Huston) of the cleverly named Miramount Pictures, who wants Wright for one last performance. He wants her to get scanned so that the studio can use her however they want to for a significant period of time. She would be expected to not perform during those years, and for that she would be paid handsomely. With her career dried up, the money would come in handy, especially since her son, LET ME IN's remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee, is ailing. Huston's scenes crackle with such audacious wit - its speeches reminiscent of NETWORK in their cruel harsh truths.
It should come as no surprise that Wright agrees to the contract, or else there would be no movie. What surprises is her naked, bold performance. The scanning scene especially is masterful as she experiences an awe-inspiring range of emotions. Wright is brilliant here. From this point forward, however, the movie goes off the rails. Without spoiling anything, Folman switches gears entirely and takes viewers into a strange new world. Unfortunately, there's a flatness to the experience, much like there was with BICHIR. Despite the highly provocative material, it feels as if it were at arm's length because of his excessively dry approach. Perhaps it's because we've experienced such a raw performance from Wright in the first act, that the second act, by its very nature, can't surpass it, but it's a bit of slog. Sure there's cleverness and beauty in almost every frame, but without a human element, it runs cold.
Regardless, I applaud Folman's efforts. This is highly provocative, prescient material. He's addressing the future of entertainment and how that may be delivered, and I'm willing to bet he's not that far off the mark. He has a lot to say here and he crams it all in, from the choices we make in our lives to how our egos need stroking no matter how much we may protest otherwise. There's always something in the frame to hold your interest, and the cut to the third act is simultaneously stunning and horrifying. There may be no limit to the imagination, Folman seems to be saying, but I wish he had tested those limits with less brains and more verve.