REVIEW: Maudie

25 07 2017

From the opening scene of Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” we’re painfully aware of how painful it is for Sally Hawkins’ Maud Dowley to make the art that brings her satisfaction. We see the intense exertion it takes for her arthritic hands to paint even the simplest stem of a flower. This isn’t “My Left Foot” or anything, but Maudie’s folksy creations are clearly a labor of love.

This type of art is sadly in keeping with the rest of her life in small-town Nova Scotia. Abandoned by her brother and ignored by her mother, Maude takes a thankless housekeeping job for Ethan Hawke’s Everett Lewis at his secluded cabin. He’s a brusque man of the house who needs someone to clean the house – and that’s it. At times, his grip on her activity borders on the abusive, an aspect of their relationship that Walsh handles (only with kiddie gloves on).

“Maudie” unfolds at a pace similar to its protagonist: belabored but simple and beautiful. Walsh takes her sweet time moving along Maude and Everett’s ever-evolving relationship, and she moves only slightly faster to show how Maude’s paintings became a quaint international sensation. Hawkins is, as usual, an exemplar of quiet grace; not unlike her Oscar-nominated turn in “Blue Jasmine,” her character is the only person blind to her own victimization. Had Walsh or screenwriter Sherry Walsh given her a scenery-chewing moment to release the film’s tension, it might play as tonally inconsistent. But a part of me did wish she got the chance to show more range than the relatively stable performance allows. C+





REVIEW: Person to Person

24 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Connection seems like an awfully vague term to declare a main thematic thread for a film festival – it’s a bit like “love,” deployed as a convenient catch-all in cursory analysis. But far more than 2016’s edition of the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw several films about protagonists trying to connect with themselves, many in 2017 showed a greater concern for how we connect to each other and the world around us.

This was most apparent in Dustin Guy Defa’s New York-set feature “Person to Person.” I made a conscious effort to avoid the kinds of films that might pertain primarily to the so-called “coastal elites,” which can present themselves as microcosms for America while only showing a narrow slice of existence. That’s not to say that these movies are meritless or rendered useless in this brave new world. But after the primal electoral howl of November, some perspective on the limited application of what Judd Apatow deemed “west-of-the-405 problem” films (and their East Coast counterparts) does not hurt. That said, I still had to see some. Forgoing them entirely would be akin to a cinematic Atkins diet, taking out an entire component of the pyramid structure for quick change.

“Person to Person” starts off feeling like a Jim Jarmusch-Noah Baumbach hybrid, a series of vignettes that send signals that they will converge in a manner we’ve come to expect from “hyperlink cinema.” Some of them do. The center of gravity is a murder case that involves the victim’s wealthy Brooklynite wife (Michaela Watkins), two clueless investigative reporters at a no-name tabloid (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), and a watchmaker (Philip Baker Hall) with the clue that could hold the key to the entire case. On the periphery, Defa also follows a vinyl collector (Bene Coopersmith) dealing with a dishonest client, a wandering boyfriend (George Sample III) who gets shaken down by the angry brother of his partner, and a verbose young woman (Tavi Gevinson) probing the boundaries of her toleration and sexuality.

Defa has built up high regard, making short films for several years, even earning a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015. (Take four minutes to watch “Review” instead of that Jimmy Fallon clip your friends have shared on Facebook.) That background does rear its head in “Person to Person,” which can play more as a compendium than an omnibus. Still, the old pan that something is “less than the sum of its parts” does not quite apply here. There is loose connective tissue for all the stories: violence, unseen but affecting all of the characters in significant ways. Not the cheeriest take on human relations, but it’s hard to deny given that many of 2016’s most fervent moments of collective emotion came in the wake of celebrity deaths. B

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Dunkirk

23 07 2017

In a typical war movie, the 400,000 men stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk would command the lion’s share of attention. Their rescuers who arrived by sea in small personal and commercial boats requisitioned for the war effort might get an extended arc in the final act. Their protectors in the air might get a few shots during a climactic battle scene as they fended off the German Luftwaffe.

Director Christopher Nolan, however, is anything but typical. (You probably already knew that.) In his take on “Dunkirk,” each of these three threads takes on an equal narrative standing. Though they span a week, a day and an hour, respectively, their experiences unfold in a simultaneous, but not parallel, manner. The lengths of their contribution might be different, yet their weights are equalized – and their fates are intertwined.

This isn’t immediately obvious from the start of the film. Title cards spell out the duration of each section, but it takes their individual narratives overlapping or colliding for that time to really resonate. Remarkably, the gambit never feels like a gimmick. Nolan pays tribute to each prong of the Dunkirk evacuation by sustaining their story for as long as their lives were on high alert … and then gently ratcheting things down a notch once the end is in sight.

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REVIEW: Landline

18 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” prominently features a 1995 speech where Hillary Clinton claims, “However different we may appear, there is far more that unites us than divides us.” Unlike many time capsule items in the film — CD listening stations at music stores, Blockbuster Video, payphones, floppy disks — 5this line doesn’t feel like it’s just been lifted out of a BuzzFeed listicle about “25 Things You’d Only Know If You Were Alive in 1995.” It’s a dictum simple to say yet difficult to practice, as shown by the family in the film.

Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm craft an indelible portrait of the women in the Jacobs family, each at different life stages yet all struggling to feel the love with important companions. Matriarch Pat (Edie Falco) puts so much effort into maintaining family structure and function that her relationships have frayed with everyone, especially her charming but wishy-washy husband Alan (John Turturro). Adult daughter Dana (Jenny Slate) waffles on a marital commitment to fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), even going to the extent of acting out an alter ego named “Bedelia” that indulges her pent-up desires. Teenage daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) takes to surrounding herself with drugs and dancing to dull her disinterest with the traditional roadmap laid out ahead of her.

If “Obvious Child” showcased that Robespierre could helm a character study, then “Landline” exhibits her talent with an ensemble piece. There are many complicated relationships to juggle in the film, each of which she handles with specificity and tenacity. (On a personal note, I found the tension between Dana and Ali spot on; as someone with a much younger sibling, Dana’s negotiation between being a quasi-parent and friend resonated tremendously.)

Robespierre is not afraid to have the tough, awkward conversations – and then dwell in the messy resolution, or lack thereof. For all the times I worried in the first 30 minutes that the film would be little more than a nostalgia-dripping scrapbook, she met them with incisive observations about how difficult it can be to connect with the people closest to us. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Presenting Princess Shaw

17 07 2017

If it were possible to present an Upworthy article in documentary form, Ido Haar’s “Presenting Princess Shaw” would be it. This fable of the social media heralds the virtues of technology that enables an Israeli music producer to connect with a New Orleans-based YouTuber. In reality, the story is just creepy when you really stop to think about it.

And you’ll have plenty of time to think about it, believe me. “Presenting Princess Shaw” should be one of those 3-4 minute videos you see in your Facebook news feed that a news site posts to play into the site’s algorithm. Instead, it’s an 83 minute slog extending a simple collaboration between two geographically distant people into a feature-length bore.

Samantha Montgomery, the real woman behind the golden-voiced Princess Shaw persona, is the main subject of the film. Haar gives us way too many moments of her plaintively pondering the changes to her life coming through her discovery by Kutiman, an international producer. She’ll just amble the streets, and one of her songs will play in the backgrounds. Then Haar will cut to Kutiman’s musical direction from afar, and the film just feels a little too “Catfish“-y for its own good. I can honestly say I don’t know if I’ve ever seen something meant to feel empowering come across as downright predatory. C+





REVIEW: War for the Planet of the Apes

16 07 2017

Though its title may lead you to believe otherwise, Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” shows precious little war. There are extended action sequences, but nothing rises to the level of a full battle. This is not a war movie, at least not in the traditional sense in which audiences are conditioned to perceive one. It’s not about the fights; rather, it’s about what we seek to preserve by fighting them in the first place.

Caesar (once again masterfully brought to life by Andy Serkis) and his band of apes that believe in their right to receive dignified treatment find themselves in an asymmetrical fight with the humans. The original intelligent inhabiters of earth, backed into a corner after the Simian Flu decimates their kind, do not exactly take kindly to sharing their planet with another sentient species. The apes are fighting a war of ideals – for peace, unity and solidarity. The humans are fighting a war of extermination, one where the only measure of victory is the complete degradation and eradication of their opponent.

As a viewer in 2017, I could not help but see parallels between the ape-human conflict and the current war against ISIS. The men who pervert Islam’s tenets can claim a win on their battleground when their actions force the western world to abandon their principles. If we choose to fight as they fight, responding to barbarity with inhumanity, we cede to their strategy and expose our own hollowness.

But as “War for the Planet of the Apes” drew on (and it does so perhaps more than it should), it became clear to me that Reeves had far more on his mind with the film than just the conflict du jour. This entire iteration of the franchise smartly avoids tying itself entirely to the events surrounding its making. Indeed, recent rewatches of 2011’s “Rise” and 2014’s “Dawn” already indicate the series’ malleability to the whims of the present; both films feel as if they refer to something entirely separate from what they did upon release. The “War” of Reeves’ film is not a war but all wars. It’s a rap sheet against human atrocity justified by armed conflict from, one could argue, biblical times to our contemporary ones.

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REVIEW: Baby Driver

12 07 2017

I saw Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” twice in the span of a month and fixated primarily on how it functioned as a new take on the movie musical. (If you want my full thoughts on that aspect, check out my piece on Little White Lies – I do far more heavy lifting with the film there.) It is that, but like any great movie, it’s so much more.

It’s a kickass action flick where, for once, the terms “balletic” and “choreographed” are not critical hyperbole but apt, justified descriptions. Wright’s tightly edited escapes, whether by car or by foot, fall in lockstep with their musical inspirations as they play diegetically through the headphones of Ansel Elgort’s titular driver. Is this what it felt like to watch the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence in “Apocalypse Now” back in the 1970s? “Baby Driver” is a giddy rush of cinephilia as Wright treats us to impeccable execution of a bold gambit.

It’s a film about how we relate to culture and to each other. Baby, an archetypal stoic stalwart, suffers from ailments both emotional (still traumatized from being orphaned in a tragic car crash) and physical (tinnitus leaves his ears constantly ringing). As such, he’s never one to communicate in a straightforward fashion. He signs with his deaf foster father. He pulls dialogue from the snippets of movies he sees on TV. He times his vehicular getaways to the music on his iPod (and one with a clickwheel, to boot). He’s more likely to block people out with his headphones and cheap sunglasses than let anyone in – until, of course, he catches a few bars from diner waitress Debra (Lily James).

I could sit here and bang out another few paragraphs trying to convince you of how much “Baby Driver” has to offer. But that might make you feel obliged to sit here and read my words, which will only serve to rob you of the experience of discovering the film’s ecstasy for yourself. There’s probably something you’ll find that did not even occur to me, and the film will motivate you to do so. Wright provides the perfect blend of originality, dazzling technical craft and emotionally invested storytelling to inspire a deeper dive into his movie’s pleasures. A-