FAR FROM HEAVIN' - My Review of CAROL (4 Stars)
Somewhat of a sister… MoreFAR FROM HEAVIN' - My Review of CAROL (4 Stars)
Somewhat of a sister project to his 2002 film, FAR FROM HEAVEN, Todd Haynes' CAROL, written by Phyllis Nagy, looks at repression in the 1950's through a decidedly queer lens. It's a quiet, deliberately stilted look at the developing love between Carol, a New York suburban divorcee (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara), a young department store clerk. Still in the throws of a divorce and custody battle with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), which has got to be the WASP-iest character name I've heard in ages, Carol meets Therese while Christmas shopping.
The film opens, however, later on in the story, when Carol and Therese sit in a fancy restaurant and are interrupted by one of Therese's friends. The remainder of the film flashes back to their meeting and eventually fills us in on the importance of their dinner scene. It's a strange bookend device due to the fact that it's based on an emotional epiphany rather than a plot point. The great mystery of this film is whether or not these characters will ever be truly able to express themselves.
Haynes is swimming in very familiar waters again, making another twisted variation of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Mara is icy, interesting, and otherworldly, giving Therese a wide-eyed vacant stare that deftly hides her true feelings. She's like an eerily quiet Zooey Deschanel. It's a tricky, fill-in-the-blanks role, and Mara, resisting the tough bravado at which she typically excels, stretches herself with this minimalist approach. Chandler gives a galvanizing performance as the jilted, typically patriarchal husband who still manages to sympathetically show the hurt of losing his wife. Jake Lacy plays Mara's boyfriend, and like Chandler, he evokes sympathy due to the fact that society expected alpha male behavior from its men, even if the men weren't fully on board. Sarah Paulson plays Blanchett's ex-girlfriend, and in her very few scenes, she paints a vivid picture of a woman not afraid to be her own person, much like the actress herself.
Blanchett, however, has the toughest part, and she's grand and theatrical in a way we haven't seen since the great female stars of the 30s and 40s. The performance factor necessary to conform to 50s society reads loud and clear with every formal gesture and tight smile Blanchett gives. Carol often comes off as a predator in trying to ensnare Therese, lacing her polite conversation with subtle innuendos and not-so-subtle glances. Blanchett and Mara don't so much have chemistry together as they do an odd performance friction and a cohesive dedication to the subject matter. Neither character has the tools for self-expression, and at a time where one could go to jail on morals charges, it's easy to understand why their love story is so clandestine. When Therese requests Carol's address and subsequently mails gloves she left behind, it feels like a suspenseful, sexually charged endeavor. It's a risk that still could lead to jail time, torture and even execution in many parts of the world today.
It takes most of the film's running time for these women to even so much as kiss. They circle each other, speak in code, until they finally, FINALLY feel safe. Late in the film, there's a surprising turn of events that drives home the necessity for gay people to be quiet even behind closed doors. CAROL keeps things pretty chaste and at arm's length throughout. It's long been a signature of Haynes' work to play with these formalities and expose what's hidden just under the surface. If you love that style, you'll love it again in CAROL. If not, it's easy to see how some could find this to be a lifeless bore. Quite the opposite, I found the film to be achingly beautiful, sad, and swooningly powerful. The novel was the first of its kind to depict a same sex relationship that didn't end in suicide or some such tragedy. I won't spoil the ending to the film, however, but suffice it to say, Haynes and Nagy seem to delight in bringing all of the subtext usually buried in romantic storylines, and gradually laying it out on the table. This film remains true to its time and is a reminder of how far we've come as an American society, yet how far we need to go as a world community still.
Adding greatly to the mood of the film is Edward Lachman's gorgeously windswept, snowy cinematography and Carter Burwell's swirling, quiet yet memorable score. It's highly reminiscent of Philip Glass' work, yet Burwell maintains his own distinct voice. Sandy Powell's costume design adds to the beautiful color palette of this film, giving both Blanchett and Mara vivid, memorable looks. Mara's hat alone feels just right for her curious, observant character. It tells us she's an artist trapped in the social mores of her time. Like its source material, Patricia Highsmith's novel, THE PRICE OF SALT, CAROL is a romance that feels like a mystery thriller. If you don't mind its formal style, stilted chastity and the feeling that Todd Haynes has already made this film before, you're likely to fall for the lushness of the furs, the restaurant smoking, the poached eggs and creamed spinach dishes and the "love that dare not speak its name" nature of this little gem.
ALL THE RESIDENT'S BOYS - My Review of SPOTLIGHT (4 Stars)… MoreALL THE RESIDENT'S BOYS - My Review of SPOTLIGHT (4 Stars)
Investigative journalism seems like such a thing of the past in our current quick soundbite, click-bait culture, but SPOTLIGHT deftly and understatedly makes its case for slow, steady, methodical grunt work. Perhaps eclipsed by the events of September 11th, the film looks at how the Boston Globe's 4 person Spotlight Department worked their butts off to expose the sexual molestation cover-ups within the local Catholic church. In doing so, they ignited a worldwide scandal by clearly demonstrating an outright conspiracy to protect their priests while hushing the victims and their families.
Director Tom McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR, WIN WIN) is having Sandra Bullock's 2009, the year she won the Oscar for THE BLIND SIDE and the Razzie for ALL ABOUT STEVE. For him, he has one of the year's best with his latest film and one of the worst with THE COBBLER, further proving that you CAN win them all! Along with co-writer Josh Singer, SPOTLIGHT feels deliberately artless and unfussy. It opts instead for a large ensemble style of storytelling, drab settings such as government buildings and blue collar homes, and a laid-back, 70s style of framing.
Many films have tried to emulate ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, from ZODIAC to TRUTH, but SPOTLIGHT comes the closest to that understated masterpiece's aesthetic and passion. Having said that, I'm not sure it's a compliment to say there isn't one memorable shot in this entire film or that anyone gives a standout performance. Everyone does their job really well, ensuring that nobody pulls focus from the real story. John Slattery, Rach McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo make a cohesive team as the main reporters, and John Slattery, Live Schreiber and Michael Keaton ably carry most of the exposition as their superiors.
Only Ruffalo gets a loud, shouty scene, but it felt appropriate after the ridiculous amount of obstacles his character had to overcome just to gain access to a sealed file. I would have definitely had one of those "Let me speak to your Supervisor!" meltdowns too. For anyone who has ever rushed to get somewhere before they close and gets tripped up by slow drivers, pedestrians, or bureaucrats, these scenes will ring true.
What this film truly excels at, however, is its steadily building sense of dread. Despite the fact that we all know where the story's going, seeing it through the eyes of these reporters has its own power. About midway through, there's a stunning, jaw-dropping scene between McAdams and a priest where all of the cards get laid on the table. Because the entire film is told from such a specific point of view, I felt her quiet, perfectly calibrated reaction. This is one of McAdams' finest bit of acting in her entire career...ok, maybe with the exception of her MEAN GIRLS "I love your skirt!" scene. Eschewing what could have easily been an endless series of maudlin confessionals, the film favors phone messages, evasions, scrawled notes, microfilm, and lots and lots of closed doors.
Without hitting its audience over the head, we see children at play in the corners of frames, to subtly remind us of what's at stake. Sure, the journalists, while quirky or downright odd if you happen to be Live Schreiber here, come off as purely heroic, but it seems earned. Its quiet power may ultimately be unmemorable, but there's something beautiful and rare in seeing hardworking people professionally doing a good job.
YOU ONLY SEE ONCE - My Review of SPECTRE (3 Stars)
It's rare that an… MoreYOU ONLY SEE ONCE - My Review of SPECTRE (3 Stars)
It's rare that an opening sequence elicits applause from an audience, especially the oh-so-jaded Writers Guild of America folks, but that's exactly what happened when I saw SPECTRE, the latest Daniel Craig as James Bond film...and deservedly so. Opening on a Mexico City Day of the Dead parade, cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (the exquisite LET THE RIGHT ONE IN) and director Sam Mendes (AMERICAN BEAUTY) craft a hugely elaborate Steadicam shot that takes us up to apartments and beyond before careening back down to earth. I loved Craig's casual walk along a building ledge and his easy leap to another rooftop. From here, we get a spectacular helicopter sequence over the throngs of spectators below. Bombs go off, buildings implode, and against all odds (spoiler alert) Bond lives to see another inky, sexy opening credits sequence sung by the perfect male version of Adele, Sam Smith.
From CASINO ROYALE on, Craig has excelled as the darker, brooding Bond in the series. So often, his craggy good looks have been offset by scenes in which he's tortured, perhaps as punishment for his appearance? In SPECTRE, the torture sequence comes in the final act, and it's bizarre, excruciating, lacing in logic and at odds with the sometimes light camp tone this installment sometimes takes. All of the beats are here, the exciting chases, the gadget scene with Q (Ben Wishaw, the unspoken sexual tension between Bond and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), the actual sex with a Bond Girl (Léa Seydoux), and the wackadoodle villain (Christoph Waltz at his Waltziest) intent on destroying the world.
Like the beautifully-made but far superior SKYFALL, SPECTRE consistently changes its look from set piece to set piece, yet somehow it feels slightly drab, dull and lazy at times. I love watching characters like Bond getting painted into a corner to see how he will recover, yet here the resolutions seem too easy. Hit the eject button? Ok, sure! But really? That's nothing compared to Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a jet. Bond goes a little small and quaint at times here while the rest of moviedom has gone further.
Additionally, Craig seems to be struggling for the first time with the tone. The gravitas he has beautifully brought to the role seems replaced with a hint of fatigue and he seems at sea when delivering the comedic grace notes. He should stick to walking and looking great in a suit. Maybe only Roger Moore could pull off singlehandedly shooting everything in sight as he walks away from a fireball.
Now don't get me wrong. It's not a bad movie, in fact it's a perfectly acceptable programmer, but like its title, you'll barely know it's there...except of course for the first 15 minutes.
JESUS IS TRAGIC - My Review of I SMILE BACK (2 Stars)
Comedians often… MoreJESUS IS TRAGIC - My Review of I SMILE BACK (2 Stars)
Comedians often shine in dramatic roles, whereas the opposite is seldom true. Perhaps it's the ability to tap into their own darkness, which can produce the best comedy, translates well when things turn serious. The cinema has so many examples, including Jerry Lewis (KING OF COMEDY), Mo'Nique (PRECIOUS), Eddie Murphy (DREAMGIRLS), Jim Carrey (ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), Whoopi Goldberg (THE COLOR PURPLE), Lily Tomlin (NASHVILLE)and probably most astonishing of all and the least seen, Crissy Rock (LADYBIRD LADYBIRD). Into the fray jumps Sarah Silverman in her first leading dramatic role in I SMILE BACK and the results, however game she is here, are less than stellar.
Directed by Adam Salky (DARE) and written by Paige Dylan and Amy Koppleman, who wrote the novel, the film tells the story of Laney Brooks (Silverman), a suburban housewife struggling with addictions. On the surface, her life is perfect: beautiful house, adoring husband, cute kids. Underneath, however, she's falling apart, and her tightly coiled early scenes set us up for how much pain Laney is keeping to herself.
Told somewhat elliptically, the story meanders from scene to scene. Laney snorts coke, sleeps with other men, sneaks vodka wherever possible, flaunts her entitlement whenever she drops her kids off at school, and most shocking of all, dry-humps her child's stuffed teddy bear. You heard me. She's kind of the serious version of the asshole she's always playing in her comedic performances, and Silverman is trying very hard and not overdoing her performance for one second. In fact, she's very effective in many scenes, whether being physically abused, suicidal, or tipping into rage.
Unfortunately, it's all in service of a barely-there script. Scene after scene, the movie flatlines when it should be building. There's a "first world problems" veneer over the whole enterprise which could easily make one think, "Get over yourself! You've got EVERYTHING!" Now, I do understand that people from all walks of life have problems, but that doesn't mean you have to make a movie about all of them. I SMILE BACK feels like a film made to get Silverman an Independent Spirit Award Nomination...and she'll probably get one. She certainly has the goods, but what a strange, disconnected, lifeless, inconsequential experience it is watching this film. There are some good ideas at play, and the ending musters up some real courage, but DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE broke the mold on this type of film, Jennifer Aniston covered similar territory last year in CAKE. I guess I SMILE BACK proves that you can be really good in a bad movie and somehow make it worth seeing...maybe.
STUCK HOME SYNDROME - My Review of ROOM (4 Stars)
Don't let the… MoreSTUCK HOME SYNDROME - My Review of ROOM (4 Stars)
Don't let the bright wonderment of the poster fool you, ROOM is one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year, anchored by beyond stellar performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, a young Canadian actor whose focus and range rivals that of Tatum O'Neal in PAPER MOON. Prepare to be gutted.
It's almost impossible to describe this film without spoilers, but I'll do just that. If you've read Emma Donoghue's novel, of which she adapted for the screen, then you already know the basic premise of a mother (Larson) raising her 5-year-old son, Jack (Tremblay) in a tiny room. Shielding him from the world for reasons that become clear upon viewing, he doesn't know that any type of life exists beyond his four walls. Think of this as a much more emotionally vibrant and more honest sister film to LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which also explored the lengths a parent will go to in order to protect their child.
Much of the first half of this film is fraught with unbearable suspense, with the mother doing everything she can to resolve their situation. Danny King, whose work on LES MISERABLES did not make me a fan, employs a live camera and a lot of shallow focus to put the point of view squarely on the shoulders of our two protagonists. Yes, it's a claustrophobic experience, but to feel otherwise would be doing the subject matter a disservice. Director Lenny Abrahamson has made an intimate film about big ideas, and there's very smart economy in its storytelling. It's overlong by at least 20-30 minutes, however, and with such a generous running time of almost two hours, you would expect a little more to William H. Macy's lightly sketched in, barely there character. It's not that he's incapable, but he's given way too little to work with here. Not so of Joan Allen, who digs deep with limited screen time as well. Also tremendously effective in supporting roles are Sean Bridgers, who has a knack for keeping an audience on edge, Wendy Crewson as a journalist who prods just a little bit too much, and Amanda Brugel, as a woman who has to assert herself in order to cut through the muck.
I could have done without the tin can-style of recording the voiceover, which certainly feels unsettling, but was truly difficult to comprehend at times. The score by Stephen Rennicks is certainly beautiful and heartfelt, but he could have dialed it back a hair with the final music cue. There was so much sap in it, I was tempted to call the film MUSHROOM! Far from it, this is a challenging experience, often seen through tears, and not an easy sit for any parent who worries about their child. Larson and Tremblay should be firmly in the mix come Awards season. Larson continually surprises me with her performances. Looking like Reese Witherspoon's sister, I keep expecting her to act goofy and self-conscious, yet her instincts are so vibrantly attuned to the material, she seems incapable of making a false move. Whether he has natural abilities or was heavily directed, Tremblay is a highly sympathetic actor whose ability to annoy, infuriate and warm an audience's heart, sometimes within the same scene, is something special to behold. ROOM is very dark, sad, and sometimes without a shred of hope, yet this tale of a Herculean bond between mother and son is well worth all the sobbing you'll likely find yourself doing afterwards.
BLOODY INSANE - My Review of CRIMSON PEAK (3 Stars)
When I started… MoreBLOODY INSANE - My Review of CRIMSON PEAK (3 Stars)
When I started seeing billboards and bus stop ads for CRIMSON PEAK, the latest film from Guillermo del Toro, co-written by Matthew Robbins (THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS!), I didn't realize that his main four stars were all well-known, so obscured as they were by butterflies, skulls and angel wings. I assumed del Toro had returned to his native Mexico and to his roots after his odd encounters with high profile studio films. On closer inspection, I realized his stars were Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam, and chalked it all up to bad marketing.
What seemed to be screaming out to me from those ads as a creepy little indie is instead a grandiose, gothic horror movie laden with candelabras, bodice ripping, murder, poison, blind trust, mysterious backstory, and blood...literally buckets and buckets of it. A veritable mashup of THE HAUNTING, REBECCA, ROSEMARY'S BABY, REPULSION and any other film where a house crackles and snaps in the wind, CRIMSON PEAK, while on the surface is a ghost story, is ultimately about the dangers of love. It's not terribly deep and the buildup is slow, but once del Toro turns on the crazy, it's a mostly satisfying, gorgeously mounted diversion.
Set in late 1800s New York state, Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing (an homage to horror star Peter Cushing?), an aspiring writer who finds herself torn between her childhood friend turned humble physician (Hunnam in the Martin Balsam-type role) and a mysterious stranger, Thomas Sharpe (!) played by Huddleston. Hunnam's character is called Alan McMichael, which in this film is surprising. What? Dr. Halo was taken? Naturally she opts for the dangerous suitor and is whisked away to the aforementioned isolated, scary mansion. Did I mention she has experience with ghosts, having first encountered her late mother, who warns her at a young age to avoid "Crimson Peak"!! Should it come as a shock that she CANNOT AVOID CRIMSON PEAK???? No, but despite the utter predictability of the story, the journey is fraught with tension.
Waiting for her arrival is Sharpe's sister, Lucile (Chastain), who serves up a huge dollop of Hitchcockian/Mrs. Danvers realness, oozing with jealousy over her brother's new wife. It soon becomes obvious that incest and murder aren't far away. Chastain clearly has a blast with her severe, intense character. Watch how she scoops up oatmeal with a creaky spoon or constantly and ominously serves tea as examples of how she easily runs off with the movie.
Adding to the menace of the story is the blood red soil underneath its foundation. Thomas, an inventor, has concocted one of those cool industrial age excavators, and his efforts seem to agitate the status quo of his manor. That coupled with Lucile's simmering envy make it not so difficult to catch the subtext that technology and deep, unchecked love can lead to ruin.
With such a measured pace, I was beginning to doubt if del Toro was going to deliver the thrills. There are only a small handful of jump scares and the big reveal of long cons could be seen from a mile away, but the film's descent into Grand-Guignol horror delivers a type grotesque violence you expect from del Toro. This is a sumptuous, atmospheric pleasure, incredibly well-shot by Daniel Laustsen and outstanding production design by Thomas E. Sanders, yet ultimately, it's a studio programmer. It's fun while it lasts, but you won't remember a bloody thing come morning.