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Updated: 2018-01-22T12:28:00-06:00


Sundance 2018: “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Tyrel”


A pair of interesting auteurs debuted films this weekend in the U.S. Dramatic Competition portion of the Sundance Film Festival 2018, and they were two of my most anticipated films coming into this year’s celebration of independent cinema. Reed Morano and Sebastian Silva always bring something interesting to the table—Morano with her striking visual sensibility borne from her remarkable skill as a cinematographer and Silva with his storytelling verve that makes everything he does unpredictable (after the turn his 2015 Sundance film “Nasty Baby” took, one can never take for granted they know where his films are going ever again). Sadly, neither film worked for me, even if I’m still eager to see what these filmmakers do next. The more rewarding of the two films, purely for its visual language, is Morano’s “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which was directed and lensed by the on-the-rise filmmaker who won an Emmy last year for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It’s impossible not to wonder if that experience didn’t color her approach to this production as it also details a dangerous and confusing future. Morano’s visual acumen is on full display, and the film’s sound design is undeniably accomplished, but the script here by Mike Makowsky gives its characters absolutely no room to breathe, turning the exercise into an airless exercise in pretty pictures that amount to far too little in the end. The great Peter Dinklage stars as Del, an employee of a library in a small town in upstate New York. He’s also the only person left in the world. Without any explanation as to why everyone else is dead or why Del is not, the film drops us right into Del’s bizarre daily life as something of a human WALL-E. He spends his days in silence, going through the town house by house to clean them out. He removes the bodies, buries them, and takes anything that can help him, particularly batteries as there’s no power otherwise. Why bother with the bodies or cleaning out the refrigerators? Del clearly likes a sense of order, and even without dialogue it seems like he has developed something of a comfortable routine. He eats the fishes he catches in a nearby lake, reads books, drinks wine, and watches old movies on laptops he finds in his daily housecleaning. And then Grace (Elle Fanning) shows up. Grace is the extrovert to Del’s introvert. He immediately tells her to leave, realizing he’d be happier alone, but he gives in to her pleas to stay. She opens Del up a bit, and Makowksy carefully draws the differences between the last two people on Earth. In one of the best-written scenes, Grace details how much she lost when the world basically ended. There’s an interesting subtext to the idea that Del was always alone, the kind of guy that no one noticed even when the planet was populated, but Grace was not. However, it’s also clear that Grace has some secrets, and the final act pivots tonally to reveal them. Some will love the twisty ending. For me, it took a film already wobbling on the edge and sent it careening. The bigger problem is that “I Think We’re Alone Now” is one of those films that imagines the apocalypse would also kill almost all humor and heat. It’s somewhat laudable that Grace and Del don’t instantly fall in love, but there’s a self-consciousness to the storytelling here that too often keeps these characters in a pretty bubble when they needed to be relatable to be resonant. The film’s best scenes are the ones in which Grace is allowed to behave in a way that feels joyously human—headbanging in Del’s car or playing with a stray dog she finds and brings home. But too often, “I Think We’re Alone Now” feels like an undercooked metaphor, which then loses most of its power with what could be called a twist ending. When it was over, I felt cheated by a film that should be about relatable issues like loneliness and difficult connections between different personality types but never lets viewers into its world in a way that feels organic or enjoyable—ch[...]

Sundance 2018: "Blaze"


Returning to Sundance as a director almost 25 years after he had a short film play here in 1994, Ethan Hawke debuted a gem of a country musician movie on Sunday afternoon with “Blaze.” Competing in the US Dramatic Competition category, Hawke's film is a gorgeous portrait of a true-life, tender songwriter whose proper recognition is profoundly overdue. As someone completely swept away by its storytelling and moved to tears by its images of romance and songs I was nonetheless already very familiar with, I can't imagine a better way for the world to meet Foley than Hawke’s film.  “Blaze” is hands down the best movie of its kind since “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and largely in part because it shares the same values and integrity as that Coen brothers' masterpiece. As it expressively tells of Blaze Foley (who died in 1989) and shares his existence with the world, it never registers as a typical narrative. As intimate as listening to one voice and one guitar tell a story, the film genre of “Blaze” could best be described as “a Blaze Foley song.”  The music of Foley has long been a treasure for fans of old country songwriting, and he’s perhaps best known for his song “Clay Pigeons,” or writing a similarly captivating tune that Willie Nelson once covered (“If I Could Only Fly”.) Director Ethan Hawke and co-writer Sybil Rosen (she was his muse, she calls herself, and this movie is based on her memoir) recognize the beauty in these ballads, but relish how much Foley was an enigma: a sensitive songwriter who didn’t refrain from starting a fight, a man with a heart full of love for a woman named Sybil (Alia Shawkat) but no full grasp of it, a wise young man with a whole lot to learn. Ben Dickey brings Foley to life with no fuss, nailing Foley’s raspy voice and even the fingerpick guitar-playing, creating a sweet, complicated man on and off the stage. The film is primarily built from Foley’s songs, stories and jokes (this movie’s sense of humor is a secret weapon) and Dickey offers a full, complicated image of a soul we always want to listen to.  In an ambitious non-chronological choice that proves to not be confusing, the movie tries to capture Foley’s essence by jumping around to different time periods: sitting on a porch playing “Clay Pigeons” for friends; months of bliss with Sybil; and the last performance he had in a bar called the Outhouse, where a two-hour recording was made from various songs and plenty of his banter. Hawke even boldly takes his camera to various patrons of this bar, cluing us in briefly into their lives but composing a feeling of universality, of which Foley is a poignant center.  Even the screenwriting tactic of interviewing characters about the focal subject charms here, as musician Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) and a collaborator (Josh Hamilton) talk about Foley not to provide exposition, but to stir up Foley's mythology, and give a feeling of the country music he loved so much. Asking them questions is Hawke himself, his back (with an image of Hank Williams embroidered on his jacket) always to us. These passages also bring great performances out of Sexton and Hamilton (the latter also great in fellow competing title “Eighth Grade”), as they speak matter-of-factly about a man who was larger than life.  The greatest magic of “Blaze,” however, comes from the romance it presents between Foley and Sybil, which is articulated with such genuine chemistry by Dickey and Shawkat that it’s the best on-screen relationship I’ve seen in many a moon (it’s certainly a highlight for all of this year's festival). They spend a good chunk of the movie building their own type of paradise, initially in the woods completely away from "real life," and later in a tiny apartment. In one very moving yet typically understated scene, Dickey is playing a ballad while sitting in the bathtub. Shawkat enters the bathroom, sits on the t[...]

Sundance 2018: "Yardie," "The Catcher Was a Spy"


Sundance's World Cinema section this year features one of the most celebrated actors working today, but not in front of the camera. Idris Elba makes his directorial debut with the film "Yardie," based on the 1992 novel by Victor Headley. It tells of a young man from Jamaica named Dennis, who also goes by D. In the beginning of the movie we see him as a young boy witness the murder of his brother Jerry, during an impromptu music party meant to bring peace to a violent neighborhood. One of the group leaders, King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) becomes a mentor in Jerry’s place, and eventually makes D into a devoted worker, but someone getting into what Jerry would call “the wrong path.” Ten years after the movie’s original events in 1973, King Fox sends D to London with a bag of drugs to be turned into a business deal with a gangster named Rico (Stephen Graham). Things go south quickly when D arrives in London, causing Rico’s men to chase him out of a club, but D quickly finds sanctuary with his childhood love Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), of which he had a baby with back in Jamaica. D tries to nurture his relationship with Yvonne while Rico’s men drop off his radar, until the script needs them to come back. And soon enough, D realizes that one of the men in Rico’s group is the person who shot his brother, which has D seeking revenge. There is a scope to "Yardie," a wannabe gangster movie of complicated morals, that is underwhelmed by Elba's faint vision.  Though a lot has happened to D by the halfway point of “Yardie,” there is still a sense that things operate most of all in whatever gets the story to where it wants to be. Take for example how D is quickly forgotten about by Rico’s men, who had just been chasing him, allowing the story to then focus more on D's repairing his relationship with Yvonne. The script (by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman) deflates the tension meant to come from his presence in London, while overcomplicating his drug business that he later starts with a Turkish gang without King Fox knowing. Later, the storyline of revenge lacks a type of grounded nature to make it emotional if not tragic, and seems like a clunky add-on to D’s other business in London.  “Yardie” has numerous gritty characters and some solid performances but no sense of filmmaking texture to complement most of it. Elba uses too many lazy storytelling crutches to hold a viewer's attention, like select voiceover that also freeze-frames to introduce people, and literal visions of Jerry as a ghost watching Dennis, or later cutting directly to a teary close-up of Ameen in an attempt to present sadness. And there are too many scenes where the script forces things to happen in order to create a sort of tension (guess what happens when Dennis randomly plays hide and seek with his daughter), with none of it at least backed up by style. The editing in the film is consistently sloppy, scattering action moments, and making the film's moments of killing more tonally ambiguous. Throughout the messy experience of “Yardie,” Elba’s interest in storytelling gets ahead of his lacking visual instincts. Though I'm curious to see what story he tells next, Elba proves to not yet have an original voice behind the camera. Ant-Man becomes a real-life Captain America in Ben Lewin’s “The Catcher Was a Spy,” which premiered this weekend in the non-competing US Premiere section. Serviceable but out of place when compared to the much more challenging work found at the fest, watching the film is like taking a brief respite from what Sundance can offer.  Paul Rudd stars as Moe Berg, who famously went from really smart professional baseball catcher to spy for the Americans during World War II. In the case of this script by Robert Rodat (adapting from a book by Nicholas Dawidoff), Berg was hired to assassinate physicist Werner Heisenberg (played here skittishly by Mark Strong), who was believ[...]

Sundance 2018: "306 Hollywood," "Our New President"


“306 Hollywood” has a unique place in Sundance history by being the first documentary to ever premiere in the forward-thinking NEXT category, which is often the place for filmmakers who take decidedly different approaches (two of my top 10 films from last year, “Menashe” and “Lemon,” came from this category). The categorization of the documentary was enough to make it of specific interest, which heightened when the introducing filmmakers, Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin, even spoke about how the film strives for “magical realism” within the documentary form.  In their debut, the brother and sister visual artist duo focus on something very personal, the passing of their Grandma. They saw her every Sunday for 30 years, and filmed her for many years (in their precise manner, they reveal that they asked her exactly 87 questions). Along with an affection for family they also have a shared fascination with her stuff in her house, and the history that even the smallest items hold. When the house is set to go on the market, they decide to keep it for eleven months, to excavate it emotionally and poetically. Going through her dresses, nicknacks, schedules, and more, they document their collective approach, where items are meant to be full of life in more ways than one.  There is a commendable boldness to this story in how it plays various documentary storytelling instruments, such as voiceover, reenactments, or using archival material. With the brother and sisters’ voices alternating as they talk about memories of their grandmother, it becomes a type of joint diary between the two, welcoming us into their collective heart. And the meticulous “reenactments” show people who’re committed to visuals with vintage costume design and dreamy ideas. But the idea of archival is taken to the very next level, as they collect parts of the grandma in ways they speak of whimsically, dressing up like archaeologists and later calling themselves time travelers. Many neatly composed images of Grandma’s belongings follow, their purpose heightened within their dedicated but twee style. The visual ambition of “306 Hollywood” is commendable, especially when documentaries can easily try to get away with alternating between talking head interviews, B-roll and various archive images. But it’s the manner in which this is story is told—the tweeness is polarizing, if not teeth-rotting. Entire montages are composed with title cards and item neatness as if straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. A dreamy dance sequence on the lawn of the titular location is elaborate but doesn’t add to the story, it only brings whimsy. The experimentation with magical realism starts out with promise, such as when their voiceover talks about dreams of a portal in a kitchen as if it were a fact that is then visualized, but later the expressiveness just becomes hammy.  “306 Hollywood” succeeds at being a unique project, but that distinction only goes so far. In the world of documentaries, it is bold, if not a landmark. But considering how many narrative movies look just like it, this film is just more wholesale indie quirkiness.  The key word to the documentary “Our New President” is the first one, “Our.” In the mind of Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin, the president is not just America’s in this case, but that of Russia, if not more so. His documentary is a like a nervous video essay comprised strictly of Russian media images, related to Trump and the biased media seen widely throughout Russia. Pozdorovkin uses the footage to create a horrifying mirror, showing us that things are much worse and not as different as we may think.  Expanding upon his short (which you can now view on Vimeo to get a feel), he makes it about the type of media industry values that created the ideas and popularity of a Trump. In the case of Russia, it’s government-run media like the global RT (Russia Today), in which one of the[...]

Sundance 2018: "Time Share," "The Queen of Fear"


Like a horror movie with the third act taken out, Sebastian Hofmann’s “Time Share” throws pebble-sized commentary at a Disney-like conglomerate called Everfields, imagined here as a soul-sucking resort in Mexico. It begins with an unsettling image, of a resort activities coordinator initiating a sack race for a group of happy families, only to collapse in a state of trauma. Jump to five years later, inside a shuttle bus taking family man Pedro (Luis Gerardo Mendez) and his wife and child to the same resort. The title appears in bright letters, as if it were more than just a title but also a punchline.  “Time Share” takes a less immediate tone after this, despite a periodically creepy string score, ominous shots of a real, massive hotel, and the general air that something is off. A lot goes wrong here for Pedro in contrived ways: his villa has been overbooked with a family of four meant to look comically trashy and gross, and he can’t get the type of respect he paid for when giving this resort his special time with his family. The movie is like the fleeting nightmare of a person who had a terrible experience at a resort, and then was mortified when they were offered a time share.  Scene by slower scene, “Time Share” unravels all of its promise, with a scope that is unclear (we’re not really sure what the resort really offers, if this is a Disney kind of behemoth or what) and a metaphor about time share soul-sucking that alternates between weak and heavy-handed. Tackling the story from both Pedro’s perspective and that of a worker named Andres (Miguel Rodarte) provides little momentum, as if the script opted to lose a tighter, singular POV so that it could double-down on how evil Everfields is to workers and tenants alike. While some odd visions occur (such as flamingos, or a blood-soaked laundry machine in the basement), the narrative struggles to build. The movie peddles in paranoia, but is too tedious to make a lasting effect; even the resort itself seems too poorly operated to be worried about.  This steady decline is all the more disappointing because of the solid filmmaking and acting, of which there are inspired moments throughout. The camerawork expressively boxes in monotonous worker Andres whenever it can, and Mendez depicts a palpable idea of a world gone mad except for him, even though the plot stretches to make his vacation even more awful. Even RJ Mitte is a nice surprise as a type of resort figurehead, his casting underused despite a couple of monologues. The movie itself tries to sell you on something that it is not, making for an experience with little positive memories to take with you. Coming from Argentina, “The Queen of Fear” is an artistic crisis project, in which an actress is putting on a one-woman show, of which she does not know what it will be about, even though the premiere is days and then hours away. That’s a skin-crawling enough concept, a type of high stakes venture that seems reckless and curious, but the mind of Tina (writer, co-director Valeria Bertuccelli) is clearly elsewhere. When her weepy housemaid calls her right before rehearsal she dashes off; when a long-lost friend is recovering from cancer she travels to see him; when a power outage problem persists and makes her think that she’s broken into, she gives someone a key to protect her. Her life is in flux, seemingly mostly by her own inability to grab hold of her responsibilities and stay focused. It’s a relatable idea to be certain, but in this case it doesn't add up to a particularly interesting film.  Written and co-directed by star Valeria Bertuccelli, the movie takes on a tedious nature as it provides little for the audience to hang onto. Her character Tina is shown to be a powerful actress, so much that she can open a one-woman show without anyone knowing what it’s about, but we don’t get the sense that she is a great artist, or that her crea[...]

Sundance 2018: “Sorry to Bother You”


There’s been an energy that’s been somewhat lacking at Sundance 2018 so far. The buzz among critics is that there’s no “The Big Sick” or "A Ghost Story" or “Call Me By Your Name” this year, and people feel like they’re anxiously waiting for that film to explode into the public consciousness like great ones have from this platform in the past. You could literally sense that anticipation in the room before Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” premiered on Saturday night. People were laughing and chatting and buzzing. The promise of something unexpectedly groundbreaking, starring two of the best young performers alive, hummed in the air. And then the film unfolded...and it's not exactly like anything that anyone there had ever seen before. It is a hilarious, moving, crazy, ambitious piece of satire, a film that’s inspired by visual artists like Michel Gondry and the visual language of music videos with a mind-blowingly daring sense of satire that recalls the extreme nature of someone like Jonathan Swift. It’s definitely a cultural commentary on the working class, especially the minorities within it, but it’s also about a dozen or so other things at the same time. It is a loud, passionate pronouncement of a major talent in writer/director Boots Riley (from the great The Coup), and it’s something you need to see to believe exists. The increasingly phenomenal Lakeith Stanfield gives his best performance to date as Cassius Green, a 30-something Oakland resident who lives in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage. Cassius is like so many men in this world, just trying to make ends meet and getting tired of that numbing pursuit defining his life. He openly wonders to his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) if any of it really matters. Who will remember him when he's gone? What impact could he make? And it certainly doesn’t seem like his societal relevance will be on the upswing when he gets a horrendous telemarketer job at a company called RegalView. But things change for Cassius when he learns how to master the use of his “white voice” when making calls, allowing him to move up the ranks in his company to the “power callers” who work upstairs, selling, well, things people really shouldn’t be selling. The story of a young man who sells his soul for financial stability would be enough to propel most movies but it’s literally just the skeleton here on which Riley hangs so much other cultural commentary that it’s nearly blinding. Detroit is a part of a Banksy-esque collective called Left Eye, a group that is vandalizing corporate billboards every night, and her increasing rebellion offers a counterpart to Cassius’ deconstruction of who he really is. It’s almost as if as he tamps down more of his personality, she feels an obligation to express more of hers. At the same time, there’s a union movement underway at RegalView (led by Steven Yeun, finding a different, more adult register than he has before, and including the always-welcome Danny Glover), and Cassius catches the eye of the coke-snorting, gun-waving, sarong-wearing, maniacal Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the CEO of a company called WorryFree. What do they do? They encourage you to give up on things like worrying about rent or car payments, and just live where you work in bunks where you get what looks like prison food. In other words, they advertise and sell to corporations slave labor. “Sorry to Bother You” is a visual feast as Riley balances the relatable human story at the center with unforgettable, daring imagery. It could be something as simple as the way he portrays Cassius and Detroit’s financial rise (their garage room literally deconstructs and reforming into a fancier one) or the almost Terry Gilliam-esque approach to a world not exactly ours but not far off that defines the entire film. Like Gilliam or Gondry, Riley is constantly drawing attenti[...]

Sundance 2018: “Bisbee ‘17”


Robert Greene’s beautiful and haunting new film tells a story that isn’t often taught in history classes, not even in the city in which it took place, but it couldn’t be more resonant an entire century later. There are a great number of films this year that were clearly chosen because of how they comment on the incredibly complex current cultural moment (“The Tale,” “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You,” more), but there’s something about “Bisbee '17” that feels especially resonant given the way it addresses facing our dark pasts to achieve a more empathetic present. As he did in “Actress” and “Kate Plays Christine,” Greene plays with the form of non-fiction filmmaking, weaving interviews with recreations being staged by the people of the town of Bisbee, Arizona. The result is a lyrical, powerful piece of work that will certainly stand among the best documentaries you’ll see this year. In 1917, Bisbee, Arizona did something absolutely horrific: 1,200 striking miners were rounded up from their homes at gunpoint, put on cattle cars, and taken out to the middle of the desert, where they were left to die. The workers had been threatening one of the most vibrant mining towns in the country, and the company wasn’t going to let them disrupt the system. So, they essentially murdered them. And, of course, many of these men were migrant workers from across the close-border with Mexico or other regions. In 2017, Bisbee, Arizona hasn’t really addressed this pitch-black chapter in their history. The people who remained in Bisbee were allowed to craft the narrative and they either buried it completely or rewrote it as a necessary sin. It’s fascinating to hear a person who describes himself as a “company man” continue to defend the deportation because of the stories his grandfather told him. The men were told to go back to work, and they didn’t. They lost the right to be in Bisbee. There are others who have tried to keep the story alive, so people can learn from it, but it’s the arrival of the anniversary and Greene’s film that really stirs up the ghosts in Bisbee. He interviews a few local experts, but his masterstroke is the way in which he stages recreations of what happened in 1917 using the townspeople of 2017, letting their personal stories and impressions of the deportation influence the recreations. One in particular, a young man named Fernando Serrano, is simply unforgettable. He didn’t know about the deportation, and he ends up playing a major role in the recreation. You can see him go from a relatively average young adult to someone bearing witness to history and realizing its relevance to present day. His eyes are unforgettable; it's impossible to miss what looks like sadness creep into them—especially when he’s relaying the parallel to the fact that his mother was deported when he was young, missing most of his childhood—and then they turn to something akin to righteous anger. In a way that it feels like only Greene could pull off, “Bisbee '17” kind of becomes an essay on education—and there are a lot of us who could use some of that. And, of course, that anger, while never being explicitly stated, is a commentary on our current situation, not only for worker's rights and the danger of protest, but Trump's war on immigration and the daily stories about ICE literally rounding up people who have been here for decades. And Greene uses his form-breaking approach to amplify the relevancy without ever saying the name of our 45th President. For example, he’ll include footage of a woman listening to interviews she did about the Bisbee Deportation in various locations around town. It is process (the interview) placed within explicit process (kids nearby ask if they’ll be in the film). Life is still going on. The past is layered on the present. Finally, “Bisbee '17[...]

Sundance 2018: “The Tale,” “The Kindergarten Teacher”


Two phenomenal actresses drive the narratives of a pair of films that screened today in the U.S. Dramatic Competition program at Sundance 2018, and their work will be on lists of the best of the year, even if both films struggle at times to match the fearlessness of their lead performances. Both films are designed in a way to challenge viewers and make them uncomfortable at what’s unfolding in front of them. They’re the kind of movies we so often want from independent filmmaking in that they take actual risks with their storytelling and their form, challenging preconceptions and confronting viewers. And one of them couldn’t possibly be timelier. “I am not the victim of this story, I am the hero.” This line could be the motto of the #TimesUp movement, and the real-world relevance of the film in which it's spoken, Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” reverberates through every frame of this emotionally raw look at abuse, trauma, and the power of memory. Fox’s decades of experience as a documentary filmmaker greatly influence the way she approaches this story of buried tragedy in a way that feels refreshing and new. Her film pulls absolutely no punches, presenting a story of child abuse in a way that had some viewers heading for the door. This is certainly not a film that everyone will be able to take, but it’s rare to see a film that’s this fearlessly confrontational and emotionally complex when it comes to the issues at play within it. Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a famous journalist and professor who lives with her boyfriend (Common) in New York City and seems to have a happy, stable life. That stability is shattered when her mother (Ellen Burstyn) finds a story that Jennifer wrote for a class project when she was only 13. The story is about two coaches that worked with Jennifer at that age (played by Elizabeth Debicki and Jason Ritter in extensive flashbacks) and it details a physical love. Jennifer remembers having something special with these adults, but she’s convinced herself over the years that it was no big deal. Her first time was with an older man. That’s true of many girls. But she begins to look deeper into the truth about what happened back then, as well as how it’s shaped who she is today, and she realizes she has some questions that need answering. In Fox’s most daring narrative move, Jennifer asks some of those questions directly to the past versions of her abusers, almost as if they’re interview subjects in a documentary. The fourth wall is constantly being broken, and current Jennifer converses regularly with the teen version of herself, played delicately by Isabelle Nélisse. Jennifer turned the narrative of her abuse into an empowering one—she was taking control of her life and being seen by someone for the first time instead of just a part of a family that too often ignored her. However, the adult Jennifer is only now realizing the damage that was done at the same time. And she’s trying to reclaim the truth. “The Tale” is one of the most graphic films you’ll ever see regarding child abuse—and Ritter deserves a great deal of credit for taking a role so loathsome given how much the film could have gone wrong—but it’s a strength of the movie in that Fox doesn’t sugarcoat anything. At one point, Jennifer confronts one of her students about when she lost her virginity and snaps at her when she hesitates, telling her that she has to be able to reveal herself if she’s going to ask the same of others. “The Tale” is similarly vulnerable and harrowing in the details it reveals. There are times when it feels like Fox’s film is violating the “show don’t tell” rule in that it externalizes a great deal of emotional tumult through dialogue, sometimes in ways that don’t sound completely realistic. There are scenes of Jennifer talk[...]

Sundance 2018: "Mandy"


Just being the second movie from Panos Cosmatos, the director of cult favorite “Beyond the Black Rainbow" would make "Mandy" a noteworthy Sundance film by its very selection alone. And Nicolas Cage adds to the buzz factor instantly. The two have combined their powers, and it’s like watching two very extreme filmmaking forces find each other and create something beautiful (and uber gory and wild as hell, of course). For all of the endless feral performances that Cage has given, in movies good, bad and forgettable, Cosmatos’ style-driven, ‘80s-tastic passion for weird worlds and characters takes full advantage of Cage’s greatness, and then some.  The story is simple enough. Cage plays a man in 1983 who, to put it lightly, seeks vengeance. There’s a lot of weird, then quiet, then loud stuff that happens before this quest for vengeance, and it's all expressed by Cosmatos with his heavy color filters and a new appreciation for extra wordy dialogue, all in service of an atmosphere that’s potent with the likes of Jodorowsky and Lynch. For better or worse, Cosmatos is the dominating force for "Mandy"'s avant-garde horror first half, relishing demonic synth music cues (from Johann Johannsson) and establishing many characters as mysterious, rambling beings of an insidious universe.  His script, co-written with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, starts with a peaceful existence that Cage’s Red has in the woods with his titular wife (Andrea Riseborough). Eventually, this is all destroyed by Jesus freaks, led by a man named Jeremiah (Linus Roache). The two are captured and brutally tortured by cartoonish cult members and spiky demonic beings who ride in on ATVs, accompanied by more ethereal, gibberish conversations. It's those latter moments in which the film started to lose me, where even Cosmatos’ extensive bits of dialogue felt like his definitive interest in style over substance, complemented by his various post-production masturbatory visuals. And even though Andrea Riseborough is quite good as Mandy, presenting an innocence that is all the more tragic, this movie is all atmosphere. But this reveals itself to be an expressive, very worthwhile slow burn.  By its second half, “Mandy” offers supreme genre excitement as Cage takes center stage; Cosmatos' accomplished, stylized action makes for a roller coaster ride into hell with the specific type of ridiculousness that will more than exhilarate members of his own cult. There are many gems within his performance: First, it’s Cage’s fluctuation between full-out screaming and traumatized crying, running up and down the emotions like a music scale; later it’s the crazed faces he makes, covered in blood, when fighting demon men with massive chainsaws or a super axe that he makes himself. Cage reminds us, if we had even forgotten, of his serious action abilities, but also of his dramatic potential. He creates a full journey for a nightmarish character who may not have worked being played by a less iconic genre fixture.  As if its sole goal was to take the heavyweight title of Nicolas Cage’s Craziest Movie Ever, “Mandy” exhibits what Shakespeare called “vaulting ambition” in producing the nuttiest ways for Cage to get into one phantasmagorical showdown after the next. Cosmatos’ full-out stylization complements it all, the director's interest in scope and detailed production design leading to costumes, weapons and locations that elicit their own sense of wonder. “Mandy” shows an actor in his element and a director growing into his own, and we merely bask in this union in all of its cuckoo crazy glory.  [...]

PBS Press Tour Spotlights "Little Women"


Two inspiring women caused a stir at the recent two-day PBS Press Tour in Pasadena, CA. The diversity-rich PBS winter-spring schedule promises "Little Women," great men and women, nostalgic remembrances and people who reached for impossible dreams. To see those two women, Dolores Huerta and Angela Lansbury, you'll have to wait until spring. The New Mexico-born Huerta remains an activist even at 87. She commemorated Martin Luther King Day by marching. Last year's documentary on her, "Dolores," was featured in a nine-day (Jan. 13-21) activist festival in downtown Los Angeles and will come to PBS on March 27. Series executive producer, Lois Vossen said it's time for a "new generation to know who Dolores is." After all, the FBI knew how dangerous she was and she originated the phrase, "sí se puede." Vossen noted, "We're knee deep in sexism when it comes to why people don't know her. Huerta admitted that growing up in the fifties and sixties, "people just assumed that men had to take the leading role," so when César Chávez (1927-1993), co-founder with Huerta of the National Farm Workers Association, asked to become the spokesman, "I said, 'Well, of course.'" Huerta commented that "People are afraid their voices don't count, that they can't make a difference" and she remains active to help empower people. "Everyone has personal problems. Once one gets engaged in helping other people, your personal problems are diminished." Producer, writer and director Peter Bratt noted that PBS is the perfect venue because Huerta always fought for equal access and, as his brother, consulting producer Benjamin Bratt noted, "to get eyes on the screen is the number one objective." Growing up, Benjamin, his brother Peter and mother were well aware of Huerta because they too were activists and had participated in the 1969 Native American Occupation of Alcatraz, something Huerta supported. Lansbury, 92, was part of the second panel on Masterpiece's "Little Women." The first panel featured the executive producers Colin Callender and Rebecca Eaton and screenwriter/executive producer Heidi Thomas ("Call the Midwife") while the second panel brought in the actors who played three of the four March sisters--Annes Elwy (Beth), Willa Fitzgerald (Meg), Maya Hawke (Jo), Emily Watson (Marmee), Jonah Hauer-King (Theodore "Laurie" Laurence) and Lansbury (Aunt March). You probably haven't heard of most of the actors, but that's intentional. Callender explained that in creating a convincing March family they purposely looked for "actors starting out in their careers" so that the audience would be "seeing them as the characters rather than some young starlet." This two-part adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel, "Little Women," is supposed to take place in Massachusetts but was filmed in the late summer and early autumn in Ireland. Because Lansbury was raised in England, she hadn't read the book, and admitted that initially she found Aunt March "very one-sided, but I discovered over the course of the scenes that she has a heart that was beating." She added, "I found it a very fascinating role to play and was glad that I had the opportunity at my age." While Lansbury said the biggest life lesson from the series was the importance of family. On advice to young actors, Lansbury commented, "Learn everything you possibly can about your character...really know who you are playing and don't just go out there and spout words. It's a heck of a difference." "Little Women" premieres May 13. You don't have to wait until spring to be inspired by other PBS programs. In the 1930s, a black family having a home in the Washington Park seemed like an impossible dream and it took a 1940 Supreme Court decision and years of harassment for Hansberry's family to claim their home in the Woodlawn neighborhood. Lorraine[...]