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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

11 Nov

Based on the book of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me marks director Marielle Heller‘s sophomore feature film, following up on 2015’s excellent Diary of A Teenage Girl. 

The film follows Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, an aged New York author going through a rough financial patch. Unable to write anything her publisher is satisfied with, Lee decides to sell off some her valuable memorabilia – mostly signed letters from famous authors she has collected over the years. The quick-and-easy cash she accumulates as a result soon gives her the idea of forging fake documents and passing them off as real collectibles. Soon, a distant acquaintance named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) enters the picture, and the two form a friendship over booze, writing, and fraudulent activity.

McCarthy, mostly known for her comedic work in films like Bridesmaids, The Heat, and 2016’s Ghostbusters remake, seems absurdly perfect to play the part of Lee; she absolutely steals up every scene she is in, giving a subtle but memorable performance as the depressed writer down on her luck.  Grant provides a nice counterpoint, and the two together make an endearing and engaging criminal couple. Most of Can You Ever Forgive Me? plays out like a great conversation with an old friend, complimented with good food and lots of alcohol. The strength of Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener’s script is evident here, and the nuanced way Heller brings in the emotional beats of the story is very remarkable.

Though the film gets bogged down a bit in its later half, McCarthy brings a welcome authenticity into her role which makes her character instantly relatable. Hardly comparable to anything with the “crime genre” label, Heller’s film never reaches the dramatic highs and lows a traditional true-crime hollywood movie would employ – opting instead for a quieter character study of loneliness and desperation.

Bottom Line: While parts of Can You Ever Forgive Me? drag a little longer than they should, Marielle Heller’s sophomore feature shines with plenty of emotion, humanity, and a stellar performance from Melissa McCarthy. 

 

Rating: 7/10

Film Recipe: Beginners + Certain Women + Inside Llewyn Davis 

 

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SUSPIRIA (2018)

5 Nov

Luca Guadagnino’s evocative, buzzed about remake of Dario Argento’s supernatural horror Suspiria is finally here in all its bloody glory. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth and Chloe Grace Moretz, 2018’s version – though almost more of a sequel of sorts than a direct remake – is very much a work that stands on its own; it’s something that strives to challenge both new audiences and diehard fans of the cult classic. Set in 1977, (the year the original Suspiria was released in Europe) the film opens on a rainy day in Berlin where Patricia (Grace-Moretz) stumbles into the home of her psychiatrist, Dr Josef Klemperer (one of Tilda Swinton’s many roles here). After some incoherent ramblings about witchcraft and her dance instructors (it’s fitting that one of the film’s first audible lines is “they took my eyes and now they watch me everywhere”) Dr Klemperer decides his patient is delusional. Cut to the mennonite home of our protagonist Susie (Dakota Johnson) who, over a series of title cards, is flown to Berlin to audition for a prestigious dance school. She gets the role, but not after catching the attention of the school’s leadership who have a sinister pact with an ominous supernatural being known only as Mother.

The first act of Suspiria plays out like some frantic fever dream; Guadagnino creates a rich and impressively detailed atmosphere from the opening and employees jump cuts and sound design choices that become more unnerving and disorientating as the film progresses. It’s a lot to soak in at first and we never get the chance to really connect with any of the characters or their entwining subplots. Nor do we need to. The camerawork in conjunction with the editing does most of the heavy lifting here, utilizing the its own cinematic language to establish an overwhelming sense of unease. Suspiria is a powerfully paradoxical work that manages to be playfully surreal and imaginative while simultaneously still grounded in its expression of visceral human emotion. Scored by the dizzying compositions of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, the aesthetic setup of Suspiria plays out like a love letter to the European psychodramas of the 60’s and 70’s that Guadagnino assumedly grew up on; almost a sort of romantic tribute to the kind of films that – in the age of the big budget Disney franchise – we just don’t see room for in American megaplexes.

Romantic notions soon give way to horrific displays of violence in Suspiria; it should be seen as more of an occult book of spells than any kind of possible love letter. Guadagnino, in contrast to Argento’s abundant use of vibrant blood, plays down the impact of color in the film’s lavish setpieces, but he does not skip out on the level of unease, anxiety and uncomfortableness from the original. I became physically ill during parts of Suspiria – the breathtaking art direction provides a clarity to details and even simple acts like the closing of a curtain feel weighted and ominous. Certain scenes doubledown on the grotesque factor as an outright assault to the audience’s senses – I haven’t seen something so provocatively disturbing since a particular scene from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (you know the one I’m talking about). However, Guadagnino is less inclined to play things for shock value more than he is interested in the juxtaposition between the obscene and the beautiful. Suspiria constantly maneuvers this exploratory space into a variety of unexpected places, right up to its cataclysmic and frenzied nightmare of a climax. Guaranteed to be divisive among audience interpretations, Suspiria is the kind of work that implants itself deep in your brain and begs you to make some sense of it. If that’s not the definition of engaging cinema then I don’t know what it is.

A sophisticated, enchanting, and disturbing take on the beloved cult classic, Suspiria creates and then deconstructs its own artful and hallucinogenic universe resulting in a profound viewer experience that pushes the limits of conventional genre cinema.

Rating: 9.1

Film Recipe: Black Swan + Eyes Wide Shut + Possession (1981) + Twin Peaks: The Return

Mid 90’s (2018)

30 Oct

Academy-Award nominee Jonah Hill takes a turn behind the camera with his directorial debut Mid 90’s, a nostalgia-soaked coming of age story about a group of teen skateboarders in southern California.

Sunny Suljic plays the lead Stevie, a lonely pubescent kid who befriends a group of older boys at the local skate shop. Desperate to escape the constant fighting between his 18-year-old brother (Lucas Hedges) and his fragile mom (Katherine Waterston), Stevie spends as much time as he can with his new friends, including following the group to a drunken party or two. There is the older leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), a pair who go by the nicknames of Fuckshit and Fourth Grade (Olan Prenatt and Ryder McLaughlin, respectively) and the younger Ruben (Gio Galicia) who becomes Stevie’s entry point into the world of skateboarding.

Mid 90’s never directly tells us what year the story is set, but the film is packed with a slew of references from the obvious musical choices to the costume design to the billboards strung along a Los Angeles highway.  The cinematography itself is also a sort of reference; shot on grainy 16mm and featuring a nifty 4:3 aspect ratio, Mid 90’s is a time capsule of a film that seems directly lifted from the VHS era. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross feels almost inappropriately irrelevant, given that just about every scene features some 90’s tune (everyone from Wu-Tang-Clan to Bad Brains to the Beastie Boys makes an appearance). Jonah Hill is a clever enough director to not let pure nostalgia be the focus here, and he naturally centers the story around Stevie’s emotional journey of friendship and discovery. Beautifully acted, the film’s strength comes from it’s breezy, (and at times hilarious) natural dialogue and youthful chemistry between the boys. The group of teens are all phenomenal and put just enough emotional weight into their performances to give the script a lively energy.

There is some unnecessary melodrama near the film’s end and things ultimately fail to wrap up in a satisfying way during its final moments. At a tidy 85 minutes, Mid 90’s almost feels too sleight and insufficiently empty by the time the credits roll. Still, the film marks a skilled accomplishment for Jonah Hill as both a confident director and promising screenwriter.

Bottom Line: Packed to the brim with teen angst and musical montage aplenty, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid 90’s is a breezy, endearing portrait of 1990’s youthfulness and counterculture. 

Rating: 7.6/10 

Film Recipe: Kids + The Florida Project + Boyhood Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 

 

 

 

 

Bad Times At The El Royale (2018)

25 Oct

Take a few strangers, a bag of cash, some heroin, a heavy rainstorm, a rifle or two, CIA operatives, domestic violence, PTSD, and alcohol – throw it all together with some 70’s Americana (complete with an abundance of disco soul) and you have Bad Times At El Royale. 

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods), the film details the events bestowing a group of unfortunate strangers who happen to be at the same hotel over the course of a stormy night along the California/Nevada border. In fact, the hotel itself straddles the boundary, with half the rooms being in the “sunny and relaxing” California section and the other half in “glamourous and indulgent” Nevada – or so the marketing pitch goes – with a bright red line dividing up the property. It’s in the El Royale’s lobby where we are introduced to a trio of travelers looking for a room. There is the priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a single woman named Darlene (Cynthia Erivo) en route to Reno, and a vacuum salesman with a southern drawl named Mr. Sullivan (Jon Hamm). After some chit-chat, the hotel clerk finally shows up in the form of a boyish young man named Miles. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed, and a few surprise guests arrive at the hotel throughout the course of the night.

Bad Times is the kind of film that invests itself heavily in plot. It’s the sort of grounded, single-location storytelling that you see with movies that also work well as theatrical pieces like Wait Until Dark, 12 Angry Men, or August: Osage County. With a film like this, having a character-driven narrative is absolutely essential – especially so when the thing is over 2 hours. Unfortunately, Bad Times collapses under its own weight about halfway through and doesn’t have enough dramatic prowess to justify its lengthy runtime. Goddard is a much better director than he is writer; most of the characters in Bad Times feel stale and onenote. He gets away with it just fine in Cabin In The Woods, a horror venture co-written with Joss Whedon, where the leads are intentionally variations on common genre tropes. Here, Goddard tries to substitute unnecessary flashbacks as a proxy for fleshing out complex character motivations. What he fails to realize is that providing already-thin characters with their own backstory only reinforces their one-dimensional traits.

While I appreciated the overall narrative beats that makeup Bad Times, the characters’ behavior simply does not make enough sense to propel the script along like they need to. The best (worst?) example of this is with Billy (played by Chris Hemsworth), who is the biggest fruitcake-of-a-bad-guy to come along since Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Hemsworth chews up every line with a portraly that veers on the edge of camp but whose role is essential enough in the story so that Goddard demands we take him seriously (one can’t help but wonder if this character’s most effective contribution here is the image of a shirtless Hemsworth to use in the film’s marketing).

There is a lot to admire with Bad Times – a lot more than there is to dislike. I particularly dug the noir-infused tone and beautiful interior set design. The post-modern story structure (complete with title cards!) is an admirable but obvious attempt to try and emulate Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a film which Bad Times owes a lot to. But unlike that film, (Tarantino is a master at understanding the brevity of writing nuanced, complex characters) Goddard’s work trails off around the third act right when the script should be picking up steam. In retrospect, I liked the film’s first act the best simply because I knew the least about all the players at the hotel and appreciated the intrigue. Most of the second half becomes a prime example of style-over-substance and some parts of Bad Royale end up feeling like a music video that goes on for way too long.

Still though, the film showcases Goddard’s skill as a director who can effectively use the slow-burn to ramp up tension. There are enough clever stylistic choices in the film to keep most viewers happy – including some surprising plot elements that caught me off guard in a give-you-goosebumps kind of way. Bad Times At The El Royale is good. So frustratingly good that its biggest sin might be in exposing the possibility of how much better it could have been.

Bottom Line: Bad Times At The El Royale is a nifty piece of dramaturgical theatre that unfortunately relies too often on underwritten characters as its crutch. 

Rating: 6.5/10 

Film Recipe: The Hateful Eight + Identity + Wait Until Dark + Suburbicon 

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

20 Oct

Acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and BoneA Prophet) marks his first entry into American territory with The Sisters BrothersSet in the old west (specifically, 1850’s Oregon), Charlie and Eli Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly respectively) are a pair of contract killers employed by a government official known as The Commodore to track down a particular immigrant worker named Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed) who has become embedded in a caravan of gold prospectors near San Francisco. We also learn of a mysterious detective Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is chasing the same man, albeit for slightly different reasons. The four cross paths in all sorts of ways over the course of the film, and we get various perspectives on certain events along the trail south from Oregon to California – usually with bloody results.

While the film starts off with some pacing issues, we gradually begin to piece together the various narratives, characters, and their ever-shifting motivations. One of the great themes across the western genre is how one’s personal lines of morality become blurred when faced up against survival on the frontier. Audiard pays attention to this idea and makes us care about everyone we are introduced to – regardless of their ethical standing. This kind of characterization helps cement the film as one of the year’s best, and it wouldn’t work if not for the incredible chemistry and talent of all actors involved. Phoenix and Reilly make a fascinating dramatic pair, and seeing the thespians interact in a western setting is constantly engaging. Audiard seems just familiar enough with the genre to make certain scenes feel nostalgic and endearing (the landscape cinematography and detailed production design deserve an enormous amount of credit here) but just when you think you become familiar with what’s going on, the screenplay has numerous ways of surprising you.

Not all surprises are welcome though, and there are a few scenes that just “don’t work” and bring a jarring interruption to the narrative flow. Nevertheless The Sisters Brothers tastefully blends romanticized notions of the genre with historical realism and the occasional touch of Coen-esc humor.

Bottom Line: An absolute adventure film in every sense of the word, The Sisters Brothers is a dark take on the classic American West, boasting an impressive collection of performances and a consistently entertaining screenplay.

Film Recipe: True Grit (2010)The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford + the nihilism and violence of HBO’s Westworld 

Rating: 7.8/10

Mandy (2018 Sundance)

15 Sep

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but somewhere in the 2000’s or perhaps 2010’s there was a collective cultural reawakening and renewed appreciation for the actor Nicolas Cage. Perhaps it was due to the broadening of meme culture and prevalence of GIFs as a viable communication tool. Perhaps it’s entirely due to the infamy of Neil LaBute‘s unnecessary remake of The Wickerman which is often cited as being one of the best (worst?) of the so-bad-it’s-great horror collection. Or maybe it had something to do with fan-made “greatest hits” video mashups of the thespian’s most outlandish moments. Whatever the reason, the Chuck Norris of the internet age had gone from acclaimed dramatic actor to C-movie superstar with roles in such abysmal works like Knowing, Drive Angry, and Left Behind.   

And then we get to Mandy, the follow-up from the elusive director of Beyond the Black RainbowPanos Cosmatos. Premiering in the Midnight section at the Sundance Film Festival, Mandy is exactly the sort of thing that the best midnight movies are made of. Cage stars alongside Andrea Riseborough (playing the titular character Mandy) as a woodsman hauling trees somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The two appear to be husband and wife, and have settled themselves comfortably away from civilization in a remote mountian lodge.  One day as Mandy is out for a morning jog, she crosses paths with an eclectic group of self-identified “Jesus Freaks” who then kidnap poor Mandy to be used as some sort of cosmic, ritualistic sacrifice.

Mandy is essentially two separate hour-long films; the first half being the more surreal, psychedelic, visually-impressive storytelling that we are familiar with Cosmatos doing so well in Beyond the Black Rainbow. Scene by scene, the pulsating music, visuals, and 80’s aesthetic become so overwhelming that one becomes simultaneously distanced and hypnotized by the dreamstate that unfolds.  Characters ramble on and on about cosmic deities and philosophical musings and destiny and the nature of good and evil. Things make absolutely no narrative sense but you don’t really don’t care because Cosmatos believes so intensely in his unique drug-fuelled vision and the vivid details carry the film far above its C-level script. One becomes increasingly less-concerned with why and more transfixed with how things happen as the film progresses.  This part of Mandy looks and feels like a painting lifted straight out of a 1992-era Dungeons & Dragons game manual and the scenes are crafted with such Kubrickian-like artistry rarely seen in cinema today.

Eventually one part of the story bleeds into the next and the hallucinatory effect of Cosmatos’ cinema-drug starts to wear off as various images emerge and dissipate. A burned body….. cloaked figures chanting in a circle…. and….. is that Nicolas Cage forging a battle axe?!? Suddenly the lucid dream we were experiencing comes to halt and we are snapped into a vicious action story centered around a vodka-infused character (Nicholas Cage) out for blood.  Here the film completely embraces Cage’s legacy as the gaudy cult-icon he has become and events go from mildly absurd to full-bore bonkers as Cosmatos turns the Outrageous dial up to 11.  Mandy never enters full on camp territory however, even as Nic Cage breaks the fourth wall to stare directly into the camera and give his signature “You Don’t Say” face (soaked in blood this time, of course); Cosmatos is so committed to his vision that things still feel cemented in a serious story – even when moments become outlandishly bizarre.

By the end of Mandy, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted. This film takes you on a journey and steeps its way deep into the subconscious long after viewing. It’s definitely not for everyone, but those inclined toward midnight genre fare are in for a treat.

Bottom Line: While some might have a hard time with the film’s slower, more metaphysical first half, Mandy rewards patient viewers with an all-out assault on the senses that culminates into a truly original and exciting viewing experience. 

Rating: 7.6 / 10

Film Recipe: Enter the Void + The Evil Dead pt II + Beyond the Black Rainbow + The Visitor 

Puzzle (2018)

26 Aug

Married housewife and mother of two teenage boys, Angus (Kelly Mcdonald) is having an existential crisis. She has spent the last 25 years married to Louie (David Denman), a kind-hearted father and husband but one who is completely oblivious to his wife’s internal struggles and desires.  Directed by long-time indie producer Marc Turtletaub (Little Miss Sunshine, Loving), Puzzle follows Agnus’ personal struggle as she tries to self-assess her future and cope with the anxieties of her marital relationship by becoming obsessed with jigsaw puzzles.

Angus’ life is one of complacency. She spends the days tediously cleaning house, shopping, and attentively participating in her local church group’s social activities. Drifting aimlessly in the mundane space between depression and contentment, the film opens on her birthday where she receives two items that change the course of her life. The first, a smart phone completely overwhelms her; “Why can’t I just call them on my home phone like I’m used to?” she asks he children. The second, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which captures her attention almost immediately and sets her on a course to meet Robert (Irrfan Khan), a competitive puzzle-solving enthusiast.  The two form an odd, but endearing relationship which serves at the catalyst for Agnus to begin questioning her constraining domestic life.

Taking cues straight from indie-dramas playbook, Puzzle disappointingly is a bit too predictable in its narrative. While we might have seen shades of this movie many times before, Turtletaub brings enough power to the film though quiet, nuanced moments that begin to compound on one another as the film progresses (more drama is revealed through facial expressions of one particular moment where Angus examines herself in a mirror than can be found in any Marvel movie). Of course, a film like this would disintegrate if not for MacDonald’s stellar portrayal of an imperfect but still deeply likeable protagonist. She fits the role like a glove and brings nuance to her character even when the screenplay demands to be overly saccharine.

The same can not be said for her husband Louie. As good as a performance Denman gives, he is deeply typecast and envokes nearly every lousy-husband trope imaginable complete with contrived one-liners like “puzzles are for little kids Agnus” or “cooking isn’t a man’s job to do.”

Still, Puzzle is more that the sum of its separate parts, and the film manages to make a successful U-turn from its rocky first act into a nicely quiet and mature examination of a woman in crisis. All without any unnecessary chutzpah of high-stakes melodrama.

Bottom Line: Though it leans a bit too much into its unearned sentimentality, Puzzle eventually embodies a subtle and affecting story about self-assessment complete with a superb performance by Kelly Macdonald. 

 

Rating: 6.2

Film Recipe: LaggiesThe Ice Storm