Friday, January 6, 2023

Weekend Screen Scene: A Man Called Otto, Women Talking, The Pale Blue Eye

At first glance, A Man Called Otto feels like a predictably lovable story about a cantankerous old man who Learns to Live Again with the Help of an Unlikely Friend™, especially when you see that ultimate nice guy Tom Hanks is playing that cantankerous old man. But the story actually gets pretty dark pretty quickly, giving what appears to be a predictable story an uneasy edge.

Casting Hanks as a grumpy old man may seem like an odd choice, but it works. Otto is a grieving widower who's decided he's had enough of the idiots that seem to be taking over the world, and isn't quiet about it. Quite bluntly, he's an asshole, and watching an asshole for two hours would likely be intolerable. Tom Hanks knows how to balance the sweet and the sour. Mariana TreviƱo is also an absolute delight as that Unlikely Friend™ who gets under Otto's skin.

 A Man Called Otto is now playing in theaters.

Sarah Polley's Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews, feels very much like a stage play; instead of Twelve Angry Men, we have Eight Angry Mennonites. These eight angry women live in a religious colony and are coming to grips with the knowledge that for years, men in the colony have been drugging them and raping them in their sleep. They gather together to discuss their options: Leave. Stay and fight. Or stay and do nothing. 

Women Talking is indeed a talky movie, but what talking! And what women! The key thing Polley does to remove the film from the confines of its inherent staginess is to focus closely and intently on the faces of the women doing all of that talking. It feels as if all of the actresses, devoid of obvious makeup, hair under scarves, are able to convey the truth of their characters instantly. All of the cast is excellent, but Claire Foy as the angry Salome and Rooney Mara as the beatific Ona stand out. If I have one complaint it's with the distracting choice to completely wash out the film of any real color, without going full on black and white.

Women Talking is now playing in theaters.

At this point I'm not sure it's possible for Christian Bale to make a movie where he doesn't look like complete hell and The Pale Blue Eye is no exception. Set in 1830, Bale plays a detective who is hired to investigate a murder at the West Point Military academy. His grizzled and grieving sleuth pairs up with an academy student named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling), and at this point you can probably guess that things get weird. The film's eerie and atmospheric setting and cinematography does a lot of the heavy lifting until the ultimate twists that you will either go with, or roll your eyes at. Gillian Anderson and Toby Jones also star.

The Pale Blue is now streaming on Netflix.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Weekend Screen Scene - Blonde, Don't Worry Darling, Catherine Called Birdy

I was extremely skeptical Ana de Armas could pull off playing Marilyn Monroe after hearing her speak in the above trailer. She just couldn't mask that accent. But I'll admit my reservations were unfounded; for the most part, the voice works.

But her performance, which is excellent, deserves to be in a better movie than Blonde, a relentlessly bleak film that, while based on a "fictionalized" account of Monroe's life, may still have you coming away believing that her life was nothing but an endless series of traumas. It's no mystery at this point that Monroe had a tragic life, so concentrating on nothing but that is not bringing anything new to her story. 

Director Andrew Dominik does an amazing job recreating some of her most iconic screen moments, and it had me wishing there were more of them, because at least those scenes are kind of fun. Monroe's career is filled with way more comedies than dramas, and while she was a fine dramatic actress, she was a genius at comedy. But I can imagine someone who's never heard of Marilyn Monroe coming away from this film having no idea why she's supposed to be so famous, aside from her being pretty.

Which, again, is why it's a shame de Armas's performance, which really does, at times, capture some of Monroe's preternatural charisma, is wasted here. Trying to convey the magic of a cinematic icon with an actress that doesn't have anything near to that kind of magic is why so many Marilyn biopics have failed. Finally, we have an actress that is able to get closer to that than anyone before her, and she's forced to spend the majority of the movie crying.

That said, I was never bored watching Blonde, even at 165 minutes long. But I was frequently annoyed; by its nonsensical switches between black and white and color; by it's intrusive score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis); and by a story that turns the life of a multi-faceted legend into just another cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame.

Blonde is in select theaters now and will stream on Netflix starting September 28th.

I'm not sure Don't Worry Darling could ever live up to the drama that is its publicity tour, but if that somehow gets people curious enough to go to the theater to see it, I'm fine with that, because it's also not as bad as the surrounding buzz would have you believe.

If mid-century Palm Springs aesthetics are your jam, then you'll probably be sucked into it as instantly as I was. If you're a Harry Styles fan, I'm a little less sure how you're going to react to it, as I saw it in a theater full of Harry Styles fans, and they were laughing. A lot. It was very confusing! But if you're a Florence Pugh fan, I promise you'll still be one by the time the movie ends.

And yes, I'm avoiding talking much about plot here, because I don't want to give anything away, even if anyone who has ever seen any film set in a utopia can probably guess pretty early on that something is going on. Director Olivia Wilde definitely wants this film to speak to ideas of modern gender roles, toxic masculinity, and female autonomy, but she lingers in that perfect world just a little too long. Not that I can blame her.

Don't Worry Darling is currently playing in theaters

Speaking of female autonomy, let me present you with Catherine Called Birdy, the story of a teenage girl in medieval England who is doing all she can to avoid being married off by her desperate, near destitute father.

Lena Dunham, who has adapted the book by Karen Cushman, and also directs, may not seem like a natural fit to tell the story of a medieval teen, since her output until now has been firmly set in the now. And some may take umbrage with the use of modern pop songs peppered throughout, as well as the more modern sensibilities espoused by Bella Ramsey's Birdy. But, much like Don't Worry Darling, and, in a way, even Blonde, the film is using the past to comment on the present, and how much women have had to, and still have to, fight for the basic right to exist as they want to.

Catherine Called Birdy is currently playing in select theaters and will stream on Prime Video starting October 7th.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Weekend Screen Scene - I Want You Back, Blacklight

Romantic comedies are such a well-trod genre that, for the majority of them, it is less about the destination --we all know the destination; it's love--and more about the journey. I Want You Back owes a lot to the rom coms that have come before it (particularity When Harry Met Sally, which itself owed a lot to Woody Allen's oeuvre), but the cast and refreshingly uncynical screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger make this comedy the kind you won't regret spending the evening with.

Peter (Charlie Day) and Emma (Jenny Slate) are dumped by their respective partners, Anne (Gina Rodriguez) a dissatisfied with life school teacher, and Noah (Scott Eastwood), an anxious for adulthood personal trainer. When Peter and Emma meet-cute, both crying over their breakups in the stairwell of their office building, they decide to team up and try to break up their ex's new relationships in the hopes it will force them back into their respective arms. A series of awkward and amusing attempts at seduction and bromance follow.

Charlie Day can be an acquired taste. Sometimes his manic energy is so strong it creates a black hole that sucks in all the comedy around him. But he's blessedly restrained in I Want You Back, allowing his fellow castmates to share in the comedic spotlight. I find Jenny Slate immensely charming, and have loved her in everything she's done; someone please give her a series that lasts for several seasons, stat! That likeability is a tremendous asset because even when her character does some morally questionable things, you root for her, and have faith no one is really going to get hurt.

Laughs, tears, and the occasional inexplicable cameo make I Want You Back perfect Valentine's Day viewing, though perhaps a little more so for the brokenhearted than the happily entwined.

 I Want You Back is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Speaking of genres, Liam Neeson movies seem to have emerged as a genre unto themselves. They always, of course, star Liam Neeson. In them, Neeson has some kind of mission, issues with family, and he always possesses a very particular set of skills. Like a rom-com, you pretty much know what you're going to get with a Liam Neeson movie. And for some people, no matter how bad the movie actually is, it will be enough.

I'm not one of those people. Blacklight is cliched, silly, and, the biggest sin of all, boring. Opening with the murder of a politician who is very clearly and uncomfortably modeled after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, before moving on to the rescue of an undercover agent trapped amongst a group of backwoods white supremacists, Blacklight's political viewpoint just gets murkier as its conspiracy plot advances. 

Neeson's OCD FBI agent is there to help reveal the corruption in the bureau, while also, of course, resolving his family issues (strained relationship with his daughter), and using his particular set of skills (a more sadistic, or at least more deadly series of Home Alone-esque booby traps) to off the bad guys. But even a few good car chases and 'splosions aren't enough to make the movie even half-way enjoyable. I don't want Liam Neeson to retire, but perhaps the Liam Neeson genre should.

Blacklight is currently playing in theaters.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The Humans, Bruised

If you're looking for the perfect Thanksgiving movie to help you realize your dysfunctional family gathering could be worse, look no further than The Humans, Stephen Karam's screen adaptation of his Tony Award winning play. 

Karam makes his feature film directorial debut with this adaptation, and he does a masterful job of turning the dilapidated New York city apartment setting into a character all its own, with its increasingly dark hallways, dingy windows that never give a clear view of the outside, and seeping walls and ceilings. (Anyone who has lived outside of a big city may wonder "Why would anyone choose to live there??" I, instead, marveled at the apartment's space - two stories!--and wondered about the amount of closets.)

Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun play Brigid and Richard, the young couple who have just moved into the apartment, who are hosting Brigid's family for a bare bones Thanksgiving dinner. Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell are the parents, June Squibb is the grandmother, and Amy Schumer is the sister. As tends to be the case at many a Thanksgiving gathering, family tensions rise, secrets are revealed, and the home they are sitting in may very well be haunted. (OK, that last bit is perhaps a tad less common.)

The cast is universally excellent, and by creating such a vividly realized set, director Karam manages to keep the film from feeling too stagey. It's part family drama, part horror movie, aka...Thanksgiving.

The Humans is currently playing in select theaters and is also streaming on Showtime.

Bruised is another directorial debut, this time from Halle Berry, who also stars, as Jackie Justice a former MMA fighter who left the sport after a humiliating defeat, and is attempting to make a comeback.

If that sounds pretty cliched, how about a few more, just to add to the fun? She's also struggling with alcoholism, an abusive partner, and hello! What's this? It's the sudden reappearance of the child she abandoned as an infant! And believe it or not, that isn't the end of the cliches that pepper this predictable tale.

Berry gives a good performance, and the fight sequences are at least well staged. But there is nothing in Bruised that hasn't been done, and done better, in countless sports films that have preceded it.

Bruised is currently streaming on Netflix.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The First Wave, Zeros And Ones, Freeland

Watching a documentary about a recent traumatic event - and one that hasn't really ended yet - may not be everyone's entertainment of choice, but in some ways, the events in The First Wave almost feel like ancient history; a glimpse into the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, back when the political divide centered on the disease wasn't quite so endemic.

Director Matthew Heinema was given some pretty intimate access to some of the patients, doctors, and nurses in one of the hardest hit hospitals in New York, and the images and testaments are often difficult to watch. Doctors at the breaking point because everything they know about treating and saving lives too often just doesn't seem to work; patients struggling to recover and gain the most basic functions back, like breathing. It's heartbreaking, but also filled with life affirming moments that make the documentary bearable.

Seeing such images and stories now just makes me wonder if seeing them a year ago could have made a difference. If this country really saw just how horrible things were, over and over on their nightly news, could things have ended up different?

The First Wave is currently playing in select theaters.

Abel Ferrara's new film Zeros and Ones opens and closes with video messages from its star, Ethan Hawke. In the opening message (which was filmed before the movie was made, and was actually used as a promo to gather investors for the film), Hawke talks about being a lifelong fan of Ferrara's, how impressed he was by the script for Zeros and Ones, and how the movie is perfect for these times.

What follows is a confusing and murky mess that will probably only satisfy Ferrara's most devoted fans. Hawke plays twin brothers, a soldier and a revolutionary, both in a locked down Italy under terrorist threat. Filmed during the pandemic, Ferrara takes advantage of the abandoned streets and the real masked and armed military. Add in a relentlessly droning score, and he effectively manifests a genuine feeling of unease, I'll give him that. But the film as a whole is a bit of a headscratcher, and if Hawke's closing video massage after the credits roll is any indication, he feels the same way.

Zeros and Ones is currently available to rent online.

The legalization of marijuana across much of the country has certainly been a happy development for cannabis fans, but what about the small pot growers who relied on their own growing and distribution chains? It's not exactly easy, or cheap, to go legit. The indie drama Freeland is a portrait of one such grower in Humbolt County, Califorian. 

Krisha Fairchild, who was instantly memorable in the 2015 film Krisha, gives an equally impressive performance as Devi, an independent pot grower who is forced to make tough decisions about a future that she's just not prepared for. Directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean definitely capture the beauty of Northern California, and how idyllic it can be to essentially make a living off your land. But I also appreciated that they didn't shy from depicting the paranoia (that is certainly not helped by getting high on your own supply) just such a lifestyle can result in.

Freeland is currently available to rent online.