SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Land” (2021)

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Robin Wright both stars in and steps behind the camera to make her directorial debut with “Land”. This solemn and subdued drama, written by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam, had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Wright describes her film as being about “resilience in the face of adversity“. It’s also a delicate study on the crushing effects of unchecked grief and an examination of both physical and emotional isolation.

Wright plays Edee Mathis, a middle-aged woman crumbling under the weight of sadness. The reasons are mostly left for later, but we do get hints in some brief scenes with her sister that someone incredibly close to her has recently died. “It’s really difficult to be around people“, she confesses to her therapist. When asked about her withdrawal from those closest to her Edee responds “Why would I want to share that with anyone“. In an almost prophetic warning the therapist replies, “But that means you’re alone with your pain.”

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s this crushing sorrow that drives Edee to leave the city, leave her friends, and leave every trace of her old life behind. In an elegant opening credits sequence we see Edee driving through the gorgeous Northwest, probably Wyoming or Montana. She’s purchased a rundown yet charmingly rustic cabin on the side of a mountain. Against the previous owner’s advice, she pays him to return her rental car and U-Haul trailer, leaving her isolated and disconnected from everything other than her pain.

It’s here that Wright shows a remarkable amount of restraint. With a striking simplicity both in front and behind the camera, Wright shows us Edee’s attempt to adapt to living in the wilderness. Wright’s camera sits quietly watching Edee clean up the cabin, tow water from a nearby stream, try her hand at fishing. From one angle it all looks like an attempt to run away and start over solely on her own. In a darker way it feels like she has sentenced herself to live out her remaining days in solitude. And content to let nature have its way even to the point of taking her life. It’s a means to end her pain while in a roundabout way keeping a promise she made to her concerned sister. “Don’t hurt yourself. For me.”

She nearly gets her wish when the harsh winter months hit. Out of food, with no fire, and no connection to the outside world, Edee  is about to succumb to the elements when she’s discovered by a passer-by named Miguel (Demián Bichir) who nurses her back to health. Soon he’s teaching her the proper way to fish, hunt, and trap. His visits are seasonal at first, intent on respecting her wishes to be left alone. But then they become more frequent and the two develop a quietly distinct bond. One built around mutual feelings of loneliness, loss, and a special shared affection for 1980’s music.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Watching the trailer my first instinct was to see Miguel as a ghost; a figment of Edee’s imagination to keep her company and to help her find her way. Or maybe he was an invention by the filmmakers to add more layers to her character. But Miguel’s presence is far more nuanced. He symbolizes the very thing Edee loses when isolated – kindness, compassion, and companionship. Miguel echoes the better side of humanity. And when we learn he’s a widower carrying the effects of a personal tragedy all his own, he evolves into a symbol of hope.

“Land” could have easily fallen into any number of narrative traps or taken one of many well-worn and more conventional routes. I admit there is a hint of familiarity to the movie’s premise. But Wright’s performance and direction pulls us into her character’s journey through a tight and intimate focus and a subtly affecting minimalism. And she never passing up a chance to show the majesty of nature. We end up with a story about finding peace and solace, not in isolation but in communion. And during time of so much division, it turns out to be an especially timely message. “Land”

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “La Llorona” (2020)

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Whatever you do don’t confuse Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” with 2019’s promising but ultimately disappointing “The Curse of La Llorona”. The two couldn’t be more different, their only real connection being the ubiquitous Latin American folk tale of “The Weeping Woman”. Bustamante has a much more sobering ambition, using the ghostly legend as a means of reckoning with the recent history of violence and injustice in his native Guatemala.

The film opens in the home of Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a sickly former General of the Guatemalan national army. He’s nearing the end of a highly publicized trial for war crimes, namely the genocide of the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people. The prosecution says that under his command the army killed an average of 3,000 people a month, equal to one-third of the Mayan-Ixil population. The General claims they were all insurgents. But evidence reveal that Mayan-Ixil people had been categorized as “State Enemies”. Even worse, 38% of all victims were children under 12-years-old. This earned him the tag “one of the bloodiest dictators of Latin American history” by local media.

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Image Courtesy of Shudder

He’s found guilty but the regime’s residual powers in government overturn his conviction sparking widespread public outrage. In response the people, specifically those deeply impacted by the atrocities, set up massive demonstrations outside of the General’s mansion. This is where the bulk of Bustamante’s film unfolds as the frail and feeble General holes up with his family, crippled by the affects of dementia and haunted by the sounds of protest echoing in the background. The steady chants are shrewd and ever-present reminders of the sins he refuses to own up to.

While it’s the General and his crimes that set up the story, the main focus is on the women of the house who are forced to navigate the consequences of the patriarch’s actions. They are his solemn yet faithful-to-a-fault wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), his conflicted daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and his inquisitive granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). Also in the house is Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), the General’s loyal soldier and family guard.

So where does the “La Llorona” story come in? When all but one member of his house staff quit, the family find themselves desperate for help. In walks the quiet and reserved Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young local with an air of mystery around her. Once she’s hired strange things begin happening in the home, from water faucets coming on by themselves to the faint luring sounds of a woman weeping in the night. You get the sense something otherworldly is going on, but Bustamante maintains a savvy ambiguity and never loses sight of his deeper aim – to lay bare his home country’s bloody and oppressive past.

Cinematically, it all makes for a fascinating genre blend – a crafty and textured mix of supernatural suspense and political drama. The script, co-written by Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez, doesn’t go for big scares although you can feel the eeriness and unease whenever the General roams the halls of his home in the dark of night following the soft chilling wails. At the same time, the story of a family cracking apart as they face an ugly reality is handled with an emotionally sensitive attention to the characters. And the performances are terrific throughout, with each well-constructed role representing different perspectives that cut to the themes at the film’s center.

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Image Courtesy of Shudder

Another star of “La Llorona” is cinematographer Nicolás Wong who highlights the film’s haunting stillness while creating a real sense of confinement and claustrophobia. There is also a lot of craft in his work. In one of my favorite shots from last year, Wong’s camera puts us inside of the ambulance with the General and his family as they arrive home from his hospital stay. As they approach the mansion the fists of angry protesters bang on the side of the vehicle but Wong’s camera stays inside. What follows is an intense tracking shot as the family and paramedics usher the General’s gurney through a sea of incensed citizens. It’s powerful and harrowing in large part due to Wong’s incredible technique.

At its heart “La Llorona” is a different kind of horror film. While it touches lightly on them, the movie isn’t interested in the genre’s normal ideas of terror and dread. It’s horror comes from a more personal place. “La Llorona” is just as much a revenge thriller, a family reckoning, a political exposé. Ultimately it’s an allegorical call to reflection and a very potent one. It’s meticulous and patient in uncoiling its story and it doesn’t really try to mask its deeper meaning. Instead Bustamante let’s things play out through his characters while ensuring his audience is aware of the more consequential themes he’s dealing with. “La Llorona” is now streaming on Shudder and VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Little Things” (2021)

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On paper the new psychological crime thriller “The Little Things” has all the ingredients for something special. It has Denzel Washington playing a deputy sheriff who arrives in Los Angeles to help hunt down a cunning serial killer. A supporting cast topped with fellow Academy Award winners Rami Malek and Jared Leto. A dark and moody David Fincher “Manhunter” vibe. And music by fifteen-time Oscar nominated composer James Horner. But having the best ingredients doesn’t guarantee a tasty dish.

“The Little Things” reunites director John Lee Hancock with Newman, cinematographer John Schwartzman and editor Robert Frazen. The four previously worked together on 2019’s underrated period crime drama “The Highwayman”. The two movies are similar in that both are character-centered slow burns. But “The Little Things” proudly embraces its gritty neo-noir flavor while leaving the impression that the film could have been plucked right out of the early 1990’s, back when crime thrillers were all the rave.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Speaking of the early 90’s, the story (written by Hancock) is set in 1990 and begins with an effective mood-setting prologue. A young woman drives down a rural highway late at night singing along with the B-52’s blaring on her radio. Suddenly another car quickly approaches, terrorizing her for the next four minutes and giving us a good sense of what to expect in terms of look and tone. Schwartzman’s use of darkness and light along with Newman’s slyly menacing score creates at atmosphere soaked in dread. It’s a good way to kick things off.

We’re then introduced to Washington’s Joe “Deke” Deacon. He’s a Kern County Deputy Sheriff who comes from a long line of tortured big screen law enforcement officers. His particular sins of the past still haunt him, lingering in his mind but out of our sight for most of film. They trace back to his days as a Los Angeles homicide detective and slowly comes into focus after he’s sent to LA by his Captain to retrieve evidence from his old department. There Deke is greeted with cold shoulders, some not-so-subtle jabs, and a general sense of ‘you’re not welcome here’. There’s clearly some history and hard feelings.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Before returning home Deke meets Sergeant Jimmy Baxter (Malek), a young but capable detective heading the homicide department. Baxter is described by others as “a good cop” and a family man from The Valley. He’s also the lead investigator on a stalled serial killer case. With four bodies and no suspects he’s facing mounting pressure from both the press and the public. When Baxter is called to a new crime scene that could be linked to the serial killings he invites Deke to come along. “Maybe you can even give me a few pointers.”

Hancock wastes no time steering away from the territorial chest-pounding and ‘my way vs. your way‘ storyline. You know, the one where the outsider from another jurisdiction comes in and clashes with the officer in charge only to win his or her trust and friendship over time. It’s been done countless times before. Here there is some early distrust (and for good reason) but not a lot of wrangling. Instead we get two cops who can actually work together despite one’s stress and the other’s baggage. For Baxter the pressure is weighing on him as is the fear of losing the case to the Feds. For Deke, it doesn’t take a lot of sniffing around to see it’s much more personal for him. He knows the routine, understands the obsession, and is well acquainted with the pitfalls.

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Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

All of this falls in line with one of Hancock’s biggest interests – exploring the minds of the cops more than getting into the mind of the killer. The film uses a lot of the genre’s dressing to explore how homicide investigation can consume an officer, grind them down, put them on edge, and even lead to a darker side of policing. It’s something Deke understands all too well. And it only intensifies when Leto shows up playing an eccentric loner and neighborhood repairman; a game-playing true-crime enthusiast who quickly becomes the prime suspect.

While some of the performances work better than others, they get the job done. From the subdued yet effortlessly convincing Washington to the stiff and mumbly Malek to the genuinely creepy and cryptic Leto. The patient slow rhythms of the storytelling may disappoint the action-starved, but they’re well-suited for this type of absorbing character study masked as a throwback crime flick from the 90’s. And instead of ending with the predictable iconic pop of something like “Se7en” or “Silence of the Lambs”, Hancock goes the subversive morally thorny route, looking at his character’s humanity through a lens of grace and critique. It’s a smart and satisfying choice. “The Little Things” opens January 29th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Lovers Rock” (2020)

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About midway through Steve McQueen’s compact “Lovers Rock” is a scene sure to be written about in nearly every review you’ll read. Let’s just call it the “Silly Games” scene, a long ten-minute slow dance that encapsulates the entire movie. A room full of young West Indian men and women intimately dance to Janet Kay’s reggae hit “Silly Games”. The camera takes a seductively observational role, slowly weaving between dancers, capturing the euphoria that keeps them singing and dancing well after the song ends. Clearly the characters and the filmmaker are lost in the freedom of the moment and the music. I wish I had been.

If the “Silly Games” scene works for you then I can almost guarantee “Lovers Rock” will too. The film, part two of McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology series for Amazon’s Prime, is all about observing and immersing. Its aim is to lose its audience in the sumptuous experience of the people we see. Not in a story or even the characters for that matter, but in the experience itself. It’s pretty audacious and at times intensely romantic. But if you aren’t fully in-tune with what McQueen is doing “Lovers Rock” may lose your attention despite only clocking in at a lean 68 minutes.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In its most basic form the story is about a group of friends who throw a house party. That’s it. But McQueen is a crafty filmmaker and he fills in the margins with meaningful subtext and a 1980 London setting that’s ripe for social commentary. Still the movie leaves most of that outside, instead focusing on the party as a place of freedom and release. It’s almost experimental in its disregard for plot or structure. Instead its focus is on simply moving from room to room, soaking in the atmosphere and swaying to the steady reggae beats from the DJ. At times McQueen’s camera creates such an intimacy that you can feel the heat on the dance floor and smell the pot of boiling curry goat in the kitchen.

The camera familiarizes us with several faces and checks in on them from time to time. A young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is about as close as we come to a lead character. Early in the film we see her sneaking out of her parents’ house and meeting up with her bestie Patti (Shaniqua Okwok). The two hit the house party where Martha meets a charmer named Franklyn (Micheal Ward). Several other thinly-sketched but intriguing partygoers come in and out of the roaming camera’s view, revealing just enough personality to leave you wishing you knew them better.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But fleshing out characters isn’t what McQueen is after. It’s not that he isn’t interested in them. Quite the opposite. But he’s content with implying certain things about them, both individually and communally, and leaving the rest to us. It’s a welcome trust of a filmmaker with his audience, but considering how little we’re given it’s a case where filling in the blanks isn’t as satisfying as it should be.

“Lovers Rock” is an easy movie for me to admire but a tough one for me to love. Sometimes it’s sweet and sumptuous. Other times it plays like a music video. The intense closeups and slow pans, the dance floor vignettes, the almost sultry love for hemp and harmony – it all helps create a realistic setting that’s almost tangible to the senses. And you have to appreciate the film as an exploration of cultural identity during a very distinct time in London’s history. But it reached a point where the “experience” began to wear off and the lack of plot grew more and more noticeable. It ended up being like the “Silly Games” scene, bold and heartfelt but stretched well beyond its limits. “Lovers Rock” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Let Them All Talk” (2020)

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Steven Soderbergh’s latest “Let Them All Talk” is about as unconventional as they come. I’m not referring to the story or even the characters. It’s unconventional in the way the ever-experimenting Soderbergh made it. Filming lasted just under two weeks with the majority taking place on a cruise ship as it crossed the Atlantic full of actual staff and customers. Soderbergh shot the film himself with his own camera using natural lighting and with only sound equipment present. And the cast improvised most of the dialogue with Deborah Eisenberg’s screenplay serving as an outline rather an actual script.

The film is based on a short story written by Eisenberg about three old friends reconnecting and eventually opening up about hurt feelings from their past. It is directed, shot, and edited by Soderbergh and anchored by three charismatic veteran actresses. With its small budget and limited setting, the film is fully focused on its characters, heavily relying on their frequent and immensely talky interactions. Let’s just say the film is appropriately titled, but it works thanks to a game cast with the talent to pull it off.

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Meryl Streep plays Alice, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who is set to win a major award from her peers. The problem is the ceremony is being held in England and she can’t fly. So her agent Karen (Gemma Chan) organizes a transatlantic cruise (oops, crossing) for her client. Karen has well-meaning motives of her own. With her boss breathing down her neck, she desperately needs to get details on Alice’s long-awaited next book. Her hopes are the cruise (errr, crossing) will give Alice time to finally finish her manuscript.

Alice agrees to go but her only condition is that she can invite some friends along. So she calls two old college pals she hasn’t seen in years in hopes of reuniting the “Gang of 3“. Both agree to come – Susan (Dianne Wiest), an easy-going women’s advocate from Seattle and the cash-strapped Roberta (Candace Bergen), a testy Texan who works in a Dallas department store selling lingerie. Alice also invites her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges), a university student in Cleveland. The final piece is Karen who secretly books herself a cabin to keep an eye on Alice and her writing progress.

Each board the Queen Mary 2 traveling from New York to Southampton, each with their own hesitations and expectations for the trip. The tightly wound Alice, the even keel Susan, and the surly Roberta finally get together for dinner in what plays like an awkward first meeting more than a reunion of old friends. Over the course of the voyage each slowly begins to unwind over an array of fine meals, boards games, and strolls along the deck. But along with breaking the ice comes the resurfacing of old wounds in desperate need of healing.

Meanwhile Tyler becomes the semi-reluctant go-between. Karen wants Tyler to keep an eye on Alice. Alice wants Tyler to keep tabs on her two friends. Roberta has Tyler running background checks on potential rich suitors, and so on. And Soderbergh often uses Tyler as our eyes and ears, observing finer details in conversations as well as noticing particularly usual behavior. For example who is that strange man who exits Alice’s room every morning at the same time?

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Image Courtesy of HBO Max

The performances are strong especially from the three vets who bring plenty of personality to their roles. Only Hedges has trouble with the improvisation, occasionally struggling to find his words. Some of his more dialogue-heavyscenes have a strange reality show feel to them, which I guess in a movie like this could be either a compliment or a criticism. I found it a little distracting.

There are stretches when “Let Them All Talk” loses any sense of progression either for the story or its characters. It simply stalls, heavy with conversations that do little to move things forward. But that’s actually by design. The film is all about how far we will go to avoid the conversations we need to be having and how waiting too late can have its consequences. It shows how easy we turn our attention away from problems that need dealing with even if it’s with someone we call a friend. Those are admirable ideas that Soderbergh does a good job exploring. But that doesn’t always make for the most compelling viewing despite the incredible and hard-working talent on display. “Let Them All Talk” premieres December 10th on HBO Max.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Last Call” (2020)

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Those familiar with Dylan Thomas would probably agree that the man was an enigma. Both in life and in his untimely demise, Thomas was a hard book to read. Look no further than the numerous biographies, many of which give very different accounts of the Welsh writer and especially of his death on November 9, 1953 in New York City. He was a brilliant but self-destructive wordsmith who fully embraced the ‘doomed poet‘ persona. The new film “Last Call” looks at him through that lens but with some added layers of complexity.

Steven Bernstein writes, directs, and co-produces this intriguing bio-drama that is all about digging into Thomas’ troubled psyche during his last day prior to his death at age 39. It’s said that late that evening Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and declared “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!” Despite eyewitness claims to the contrary, Bernstein’s film spends a lot of time imagining those hours in the White Horse Tavern leading up to his 18th and final drink as the poet slips further down the rabbit hole of depression and intoxication.

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Image Courtesy of K Street Pictures

Bernstein doesn’t get caught up sharing the full timeline of Thomas’ life. Instead he breaks up the bar scenes with a batch of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and several alcohol induced fantasies. The leaps back in time provide glimpses of his stormy marriage to Caitlin Thomas (Romola Garai) who he left in England to care for their three kids while he does readings across America. She writes letters that seemingly go unanswered, pleading for him to send back money to help clothe and feed their children. Meanwhile Thomas (played by a mesmerizing Rhys Ifans) wrestles with guilt and his true feelings for his wife.

Bernstein brings several other characters in who offer outside perspective on Thomas’ hard living. John Malkovich plays Dr. Felton who tries to warn Thomas about his out-of-control boozing. Tony Hale plays John Brinnan, a fellow writer and Thomas’ frustrated handler while he’s in New York. Zosia Mamet plays Penny who represents the gaze of adoring coeds Thomas would encounter during nearly every university stop. And Rodrigo Santoro plays Carlos the bartender, an enabler at first but perhaps the only person who truly understands Thomas.

The story arcs for all of the supporting characters revolve around Thomas, highlighting his dominating personality. Yet despite his success and unquenched bravado, there is an abject sadness that even a haze of alcohol can’t conceal. Ifans brilliantly captures both sides of the man through countless self-gratifying monologues that get more dour as the story moves forward.

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Image Courtesy of K Street Pictures

Several of Bernstein’s style choices are oddly implemented but work fairly well – the fractured timeline, the strategic cuts between black-and-white and color, the drunken hallucinations that almost feel plucked from another film. It amounts to a strangely unconventional yet satisfying account that disregards the tendencies of most current day big screen biographies.

It will be interesting to watch the reactions to “Last Call”. The movie forces you to get in tune with Thomas’ special brand of verbose communication which mainly consists of eloquent declamations full of self-centered grandeur. Admittedly it can be exhausting watching Thomas suck the air out of every scene. Yet I also found it fascinating in a grim, tragic sense and Ifans owns every scene much like his character owns every room he enters. It’s cemented by rock-solid supporting performances and a director willing to take risks even if they don’t always work the way he hoped. “Last Call” is now showing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars