REVIEW: “The Bachelors”

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Kurt Voelker’s “The Bachelors” opens with a father walking into his son’s bedroom in the middle of the night. He sits on the edge of the bed and says to his groggy son “I can’t stay here anymore.” Even without context this simple line of dialogue packs the emotional heft that is threaded throughout this entire film.

“The Bachelors” is a movie about grief which is nothing spectacular or especially new. But Voelker (who both wrote and directed the picture) does something many of these explorations miss. He never loses sight of the human element or the importance of conveying truth in every relationship. Whether he’s juggling drama or comedy, his characters and their emotions always feel genuine.

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The father is Bill (J.K. Simmons) who recently lost his wife to cancer after 33 years of marriage. It’s an extraordinary performance by Simmons who maintains a steady heartbreaking tenderness. It’s not nearly as flamboyant or showy as his Oscar-winning performance in “Whiplash” but just as impressive in a much more measured way.

Bill packs up and moves with his son Wes (Josh Wiggins) to southern California where he hopes a change of scenery will do him good. Wes is equally sympathetic as a teenager who not only loses his mother but also his father to a worsening state of depression. On top of that he’s forced to move to a new town and a new school with new friends. There is an almost natural shyness to Wiggins that comes through in his acting. We saw in “Walking Out” from earlier this year and now here. His understated approach is serves his character which make later scenes when his emotions boil over more effective.

The coming-of-age side of Voelker’s two-headed story has its moments. Many of them are between Wes and a beautiful but troubled wild-child named Lacy. She’s portrayed by Odeya Rush who played a similar role in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”. The two are designated homework partners which allows their unconventional relationship to take form. Wes’ time with his two new outsider friends is a little more hit-or-miss. Some of their banter is funny but other times seems too contrived for the moment.

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The other side of Voelker’s story consistently surprised me especially in how deep it was willing to dive into the area of depression. I wasn’t expecting it. There are no soft perspectives or dulled edges. Simmons doesn’t ‘go big’ to add a dominating dramatic effect to the issue. His performance is mannered yet emotionally rich and always believable. There are some wonderful and revealing scenes between Simmons and Harold Perrineau who plays his therapist. And also with Julie Delpy who plays a math teacher who takes an interest in Bill.

The film’s ending could be misconstrued as too tidy, but I was never left with that impression. I think the struggles still ahead of this father and son are implied but Voelker offers us hope. And we want that for these characters. We want it to work out. We want them to heal. We want all of this because Voelker does such a good job making us care for them. That sympathetic and emotional connection he creates is more than enough to carry us through this delightful yet poignant story.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

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There are so many benefits to going into a movie blind. Such was the case for me and Sofia Coppola’s latest film “The Beguiled”, a movie that made her the second (ever) female to win the Best Director award at Cannes. I had no real reference point. I haven’t read Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. I’ve never seen the 1971 Clint Eastwood movie. I didn’t read a plot synopsis or a single review prior to seeing it. I’m glad for it and I’m sure it fed into the film’s hypnotic effect.

Set in 1864 Alabama and three years into the Civil War, Coppola’s vision for the aptly titled “The Beguiled” is far more focused and contained than expected. The war and its side-effects linger in the background mostly reminding us of its presence through the booming cannon fire in the distance. Instead the entirety of Coppola’s film is restricted to a remote girls school and the drama that unfolds there.

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The film’s Southern Gothic vibe is almost immediately noticeable. Both look and tone convey a subtle sense of isolation and unease. From the very start everything feels a bit off-kilter and Coppola’s management of her tight, tense little world keeps it that way.

The characters drive this deftly conceived drama. Nicole Kidman is the right actress to play the school’s wary and stoic matriarch. Kidman’s portrayal reveals someone firmly dedicated yet clearly drained by her responsibilities. Kirsten Dunst is equally good as the school’s doleful teacher who struggles to maintain a sense of belonging. Elle Fanning plays a young free-spirited Southern belle who is as cunning as she is charming. Each, along with four young girls under their care, go about their melancholy day following their same melancholy routine.

But oh how things change when one of the young girls (wonderfully played by Oona Laurence) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier and helps him back to the school. He’s played by Colin Farrell and his presence in the house immediately causes a stir as each woman is forced to deal with their own pent-up frustrations. As he is slowly nursed back to health the character dynamics between him and each individual woman takes their own sensuously wicked turns.

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Farrell fits his part well – a good-looking charmer aimed at survival. But despite being a key plot piece, he quickly becomes secondary to Coppola’s greater interest – the female perspective. It’s the women who are the most fascinating as they maneuver between empowerment and outright self-destruction. Coppola’s approach, both as writer and director, handles their emotions more through suggestion than laying things bare. And the slow-burning dramatic fuse makes it all the more compelling.

There are several other pivotal ingredients that Coppola utilizes to great effect. There is the haunting minimalist score from the French band Phoenix. Exquisite costume design from Coppola favorite Stacey Battet. And perhaps the biggest find, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Every frame he shoots features some interesting angle or technique. All of these talents join a stellar cast in realizing Coppola’s tense, simmering vision.

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I suppose I should mention the backlash from some who have problems with the film’s avoidance of the slavery issue and subsequent absence of any African-American cast members. There are certainly films where this is a valid gripe. This isn’t one of them. Not every Civil War era movie needs to address the slavery issue especially when the scope of the story being told is so precise. And if Coppola did try and wedge in the slavery issue would it be given the attention it deserves?  Truth is the subtly brewing war inside the walls of the school is far more in focus than the war outside. In fact the isolation of these women is a key point.

Serving as a refuge from the blockbuster-thick summer movie schedule, “The Beguiled” is a refreshing change of pace. Isolation, sexual repression, jealousy, and several other themes are handled with smarts, and Coppola’s understated approach makes it hard to take your eyes off of the film’s steady boil. The slow pace may not work for everyone (there was a moment when I wondered myself), but it never spins its wheels. It keeps moving forward to its fabulous finale which was just icing on the proverbial cake.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Blue Jay”

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Mark Duplass has found himself in an enviable position. He’s making the films he wants to make with complete creative control. And he’s doing so not by making it big in Hollywood. Instead he signed a four-picture deal with Netflix that offers him artistic freedom while also ensuring the financial backing that many independent filmmakers struggle with.

For the most part Duplass has steered clear of Hollywood’s courting, instead making small intimate films with miniscule budgets. His first movie for Netflix certainly fits that description. “Blue Jay” is Duplass completely in his element and it gives us a good idea of the creative leeway he has been given. It’s shot in black-and-white, it stars essentially a two-person cast, it took only seven days to film, and it was green-lit by Netflix without seeing a script. That’s a trusting partnership.

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Duplass not only writes the screenplay but stars in “Blue Jay”. He plays Jim, a 40-ish bachelor who returns to his small California hometown to renovate the house left behind by his late mother. While in the grocery store Jim bumps into his old high school sweetheart Amanda (Sarah Paulson) who happens to be back in town to visit her sister. Their meeting is bit awkward but a cup of coffee at the town’s diner loosens things up and before long they are reminiscing about the good old days.

We learn all we need to know about these two characters through their conversations and recollections. As we slowly piece together their deep connection it becomes clear that their entire lives have been effected by the past they shared. There’s also this neat bit of early 90s nostalgia that shows itself in the scenes where Jim and Amanda cast aside their present-day cares and playfully immerse themselves in their history together. But their memories aren’t wound-free which becomes evident the more time we spend with them.

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Director Alex Lehmann wisely keeps himself in the background and allows his two actors to carry the load. Duplass and Paulson have a convincing chemistry and there is an organic flowing rhythm to their dialogue. Much of it is due to a considerable amount of improvisation in place of a conventional script. While Duplass is a natural fit for his character, Paulson is the true highlight. Watching her navigate her character’s many emotional layers left me wondering why she doesn’t get more of these roles.

“Blue Jay” manages to be funny and playful while also taking an honest look at the insecurity and fragility of its characters. Later on it does get a touch melodramatic but it always remains truthful and feels plucked from real life experiences. The wonderful choice to soak the film in black and white adds a wonderful layer of nostalgia and melancholy. It’s a bold choice for a 2016 character drama, but again it demonstrates the audacity filmmakers can show when given creative liberties. That’s why I’m excited for what else this Duplass/Netflix partnership will deliver.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

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I’m not sure if any 2016 movie has drawn a more complex range of discussion than Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”. Right out of Sundance, many instantly christened it the next Best Picture Oscar winner and a direct answer to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Some have placed the entire weight of the Hollywood diversity cause on its shoulders. Such high expectations are hardly fair.

Adding another layer was the resurfacing of a 1999 Penn State rape charge. Parker and close friend Jean McGianni Celestin (who is given a story credit in the film) were accused of raping a fellow student. Charges against Parker were dropped but information about his defense (namely his definition of “consent”) and acts of intimidation towards the victim haven’t shed him in the most positive light. Celestin was convicted but the charges were eventually dropped on a technicality. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

Essentially this renews the age-old debate of separating the art from the artist, something I’m usually able to do (Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” remains a favorite of mine). But I don’t dismiss those who struggle with Parker and his film mainly because a brutal rape plays a big part in the story. Ultimately your experience with “The Birth of a Nation” could very well be influenced by how these events speak to you.

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Personally I feel better equipped to examine the movie on its own merits. Controversy aside, there is a powerful story at the center of Parker’s film – a melding of fact and fiction. It’s based on the life of Nat Turner, a slave in Southhampton County, Virginia who led an uprising against white slave owners in 1831. Many have viewed Turner’s rebellion as a heroic and justified act which is clearly the perspective Parker takes. But in doing so he softens the edges of Turner’s actions which misses out on some of the more fascinating complexities of his story.

Parker (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) first reveals Nat Turner as a young boy. A self-taught reader, Nat is given a Bible by the matriarch of his slave owning family (Penelope Ann Miller). Years pass and Nat becomes a preacher to his fellow slaves on the plantation which is now ran by Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). When a local white minister (played in a near cartoonish fashion by Mark Boone Junior) notices Samuel’s slaves are “well behaved”, he suggests that Samuel take Nate to other plantations to preach calming messages to their slaves (for a price of course).

As Nat visits other plantations the true brutality of slavery is brought into focus and he realizes he is simply a tool of the slave owners. This directly challenges his view of Scripture and soon causes him read the Bible in a new way. Feeling inspiration from God, Nat puts together a violent rebellion in hopes of freeing his people and pouring out judgement on their oppressors.

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“The Birth of a Nation” is told almost exclusivity from the slave’s perspective (mainly Nat’s) which offers some truly powerful moments. This allows for the ugliness to be seen without any (intentional or unintentional) gloss. At the same time Parker’s direction and storytelling is all over the map.

The early parts feel as though Parker is simply checking off plot points. There is little narrative flow. Once the film gets to where Parker wants it to be, he slows it down and more thoughtfully maneuvers from scene to scene. There are also these unusual bursts of otherworldly imagery which seem to be portraying Nat as a mythological spiritual figure of sorts. It’s an interesting idea but Parker doesn’t let it flow naturally from the story. It’s more or less forced upon us through much more conventional techniques.

There are several compelling things Parker touches on that I wish had been explored more. There is an undeniable spiritual element particularly when Nat begins to see Scripture through a different lens. I would have loved to see more of his struggle with interpretation since it eventually birthed his inspiration for the rebellion. Instead it (and several other story threads) feels terribly shortchanged.

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Then there is the rebellion itself. The uprising began with a surprise killing of 50+ slave owners. Parker doesn’t hold back on the graphic brutality, but in his version Nat and his fellow slaves targeted the male slavers who we see throughout the film doing all sorts of vile acts. In reality women and children were also killed. This fact could have subverted what Parker is going for, but the inner moral conflict it surely brought would have been fascinating to explore.

While several things would have made this better, that in no way means this film is without value. Again, there is a powerful story at its core, and while sometimes conventional, several of Parker’s images and scenes are indelibly etched in my mind. But perhaps its biggest strength is how it serves as a profound reminder of a nation’s past transgressions. From start to finish “Birth” keeps you locked in and focused. Parker never loses the potency of his subject matter.

It’s no accident Parker chose “The Birth of a Nation” as his title. It’s taken directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent epic – a film praised for its groundbreaking approach to filmmaking and excoriated for its depictions of African Americans and the KKK. Parker has “reclaimed” the title and attached it to a much different picture – not a perfect one, for sure. Its uneven direction, messy script, and some heavy-handedness of its own are legitimate frustrations and while “The Birth of a Nation” strives for greatness it falls just short. Yet despite its shortcomings, there is still important and thought-provoking material here, material that deserves to be seen and talked about.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Bonjour Tristesse”

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While writing an upcoming blog piece I was compelled to revisit the morally murky waters of “Bonjour Tristesse”. Otto Preminger’s crafty 1958 British-American drama was based on the popular novel by Françoise Sagan. At the time the film danced precariously close to the edge of early cinema standards, causing censors plenty of headaches and heartburn.

In some ways “Bonjour Tristesse” was ahead of its time. Its style of storytelling, its willingness to look at taboo subjects, its nonjudgemental perspectives. All of these were things that would begin showing up more in films shortly after. Upon release critics didn’t necessarily see it that way and the film wasn’t particularly well received. But one of its early champions was none other than Jean-Luc Godard who two years later would make his pivotal French New Wave classic “Breathless”, a film that in some ways found inspiration in “Bonjour Tristesse”.

Preminger loves to play with contrasts. Look no further than to the story itself. It swings back and forth between present day and the events of a recent two-week vacation. Both periods are told from the perspective of a young teen named Cécile (Jean Seberg). In the present we spend an evening with her and her wealthy playboy father Raymond (David Niven) as they hop from one expensive nightclub to another. With them is Raymond’s blonde flavor of the evening and several different suitors vying for Cécile’s attention. All of these scenes are presented in black and white.

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Contrast that with the vivid, bright colors of the vacation flashbacks. The beautiful French Riviera setting is where we get the meat of the story. Cécile and her father are staying at their oceanside villa with his latest fling – a younger, spacey beauty named Elsa (Mylene Demongeot). Their time of fun and frolicking gets a bit complicated when the cultured and proper Anne (Deborah Kerr) arrives. Ever the libertine, Raymond doesn’t hide his attraction to Anne. Meanwhile Cécile grows frustrated with the strict and starchy authority Anne imposes. The various conflicts that follow work together like clever, revelatory puzzle pieces.

The bright, colorful vacation sequences are nice to look at, but they offer more than just beautiful scenery. Through them we learn the reasons for Cécile’s obvious melancholy in the present day scenes. Hiding behind the façade of riches, parties, and the perfect vacation spot lies a subtle repugnancy and an undeniable sadness that slowly simmers to the surface as the movie moves along. Cécile’s emotions are the focus. In fact, the color and black-and-white contrast is directly tied to Cécile’s changed emotional state.

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“Bonjour Tristesse” takes the audience down several winding narrative paths. There are no jarring twists or sudden diversions. Instead it deliberately and patiently unfolds. Several of the characters take on slow, chameleon-like transformations. The characters are hard to read and various actions change our perception of them sometimes more than once throughout the film. The script lays this out nicely but the performances are just as important.

David Niven is solid as always, effectively selling us his hedonism. He will often carouse about seemingly unaware of his selfishness or the effects of it. We see it in his throwaway attitudes towards his mistresses as well as the oddly affectionate relationship with his daughter. Deborah Kerr is brilliant and her performance provides a pivotal shift in tone and narrative. But it is Seberg whose light shines brightest. She is magnificent as she maneuvers from an innocent, playful pixie to a jaded young woman drowning in disappointment and melancholy. Much like the movie at the time, there were several criticisms about her performance. Personally I feel they are failing to see her performance as a deliberate and cohesive whole.

It would be a mere two years before Seberg would set the French New Wave on fire, but in “Bonjour Tristesse” she and Preminger were playing with several elements that the New Wave filmmakers would take to new levels. It meanders a bit and at times feels a little soapy, but its intelligence, craftiness, and style can’t be denied. “Bonjour Tristesse” is and undervalued and underappreciated film. It holds up magnificently and its influence alone shows the value that many often overlook.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “The BFG”

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Some movies can’t be made until technology catches up to the concepts. I fully believe the “The BFG” is a prime example. Certainly attempts could have been made. CGI and motion-capture have been around long enough to bring some wobbly form of Roald Dahl’s children’s book to the big screen. But Steven Spielberg’s latest fantasy endeavor proved that now was the right time.

I won’t say “The BFG” is without a stumble here or there, but it is far more charming and delightful than I anticipated. That’s because Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who sadly passed away last November) have a very clear idea of how they want to tell this story. The two first collaborated on “E.T.” which released in 1982, the same year “The BFG” book was published. Here they’ve pruned certain elements of Dahl’s story and made a lighter, relationship-focused fantasy adventure.

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The key ingredient to the film’s success is Mark Rylance. Spielberg has called Rylance “transformational”. Last year they made “Bridge of Spies” which netted the stage veteran the Supporting Actor Oscar. They have two more films together coming soon. The two clearly have a creative chemistry which “The BFG” uses to its fullest advantage.

Rylance’s performance is sublime. You simply can’t turn away from what he is doing. And this is more than just motion-capture. Yes Rylance went through the process of wearing a black bodysuit covered with sensors that captured his every movement. But much like the very best Andy Serkis work, this truly visualizes a full performance. The amazing representation of this 24 foot tall gentle giant is equally due to the sensational visual artistry and the impeccable performance delivered by Rylance.

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We also get a fine performance from young Ruby Barnhill who plays a orphan girl named Sophie. Late one night Sophie looks out her window and sees Rylance’s Big Friendly Giant sneaking around her street. Fearing she will tell others of his existence, BFG plucks Sophie from the orphanage and takes her to his home in Giant Country.

Despite their glaringly obvious differences, the two develop an unlikely friendship and find they have much in common. Both are lonely and have no friends. Both struggle with a sense of belonging. Each fill a significant void in the other’s life. But things are complicated by the nine child-eating giants who also live in Giant Country. The nine, who feature such names as Childchewer and  Gizzardgulper, constantly bully BFG. But things get even worse when their leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) gets a whiff of young Sophie (if you know what I mean).

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The film occasionally flirts with the conventional, but it never fully falls into that trap. It doesn’t drown its story with silly slapstick. It doesn’t dumb itself down. It doesn’t numb your senses with hyperactive pacing. For the most part it steers clear of common clichés found in kids/family movies. I liked the slow build and the attention to character. I also thought it was very funny at times (although why do you find fart jokes in 99% of these things).

There are a handful of meandering moments and a few obvious gaps in narrative logic. But as a whole “The BFG” is a delightfully heartwarming movie that may push away those looking to have their senses set ablaze by nonstop action and rampant silliness. But for those looking for an intelligent and engaging experience, “The BFG” more than delivers. And if nothing else it’s worth seeing for Mark Rylance’s nomination-worthy performance.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars