REVIEW: “Waves” (2019)

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Three movies into his young yet impressive filmmaking career, Trey Edwards Shults has already showed a reoccurring interest. All three of his movies have the element of family at their center. His debut “Krisha” dealt with a deeply troubled and self-destructive woman attempting to reconcile with her family. “It Comes at Night” was a bit more opaque but dealt with a family trying to survive during a deadly outbreak. And now “Waves”, his most dense and thoughtful examination yet.

Right out of the gate you notice the confidence of the filmmaker and you quickly get the sense that “Waves” is going to be a movie full of ambitious choices. The unique visual language, the blossoming color palette, the entrancing score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor – it all speaks to a very precise vision Shults (once again serving as both writer and director) has for his movie.

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The story begins in a happy place. Tyler Williams (a terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has everything going for him. He’s a high school senior and an accomplished wrestler. He has a stern but loving father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and a compassionate, supportive stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). He has a great relationship with his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and he’s crazy about his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).

But “Waves” shows that even a life full of promise and security can change in a snap. For Tyler it starts with a serious shoulder injury that not only could threaten his senior season but his collegiate career. Instead of sharing it with his parents he starts popping pain meds, a bad decision that opens the door to several more. And when Alexis reveals she may be pregnant, Tyler crumbles and his downward spiral begins. Like a wave his seemingly perfect life crashes and the ripple-effect is felt throughout his entire family.

Through some brilliantly controlled pacing, Tyler’s unsettling decline intensifies before finally reaching an inevitable crescendo at the film’s halfway mark. Up to that point Shult’s gives us his best work to date before shifting to a much more subdued second half. With the exception of one scene Tyler vanishes and the focus moves to Emily. The effects of his story angle are still present, but the tension is dialed back considerably and the sudden change in direction is a bit deflating.

It’s not that the scenes with Emily are bad. Taylor Russell is a revelation and exudes the sweet and earnest qualities of her character. And in many ways what Shults is doing is impressive. In most of the film’s first half Emily is essentially lost in the background of her brother’s accomplishments, something that often happens to kids with a more accomplished sibling. But too much time is spent developing a not-so-interesting side relationship between Emily and her quirky new boyfriend (played by Lucas Hedges). While these scenes do open Emily up for us, they still left me longing for the far more potent fractured family moments.

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Despite losing some momentum, Shults manages to pull it all together in a final 30 minutes that could be perceived as schmaltzy in a lot of other movies. But here it feels completely earned and offers a welcomed glimmer of hope. It works because Shults does such a good job giving us deep, layered characters. All four members of the Williams family are fully developed and have their own set of complexities. It would be easy to single out Ronald as the antagonist, but Shults’ script is far too savvy and his character treatment demands more than a simple surface reading.

“Waves” leans heavily on the performances and this is some of the best ensemble work of the year. Brown, Goldsberry, Harrison Jr., and Russell are superb fleshing out their complicated family dynamic while also giving us compelling individual characters to connect with. Shults gives them some meaty material to work with while also using distinct visual and sound flourishes to enhance the atmosphere. Some second half plotting keeps “Waves” from being a truly great film, but Shults has once again shown himself to be a shrewd and audacious storyteller.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Bergman 101 : “Winter Light” (1963)

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The second film in Ingmar Bergman’s inadvertent Trilogy of Faith is “Winter Light” and it is easily the most pointedly spiritual of the three movies. The film centers on a tortured pastor in the midst of an existential crisis. And if you thought “Through a Glass Darkly” had a tight focus, “Winter Light” narrows its scope even further. Here the story revolves around one man and his struggle to find meaning in his life.

Bergman made nineteen movies with Gunnar Björnstrand and here the Stockholm born actor plays Tomas Ericsson, the pastor of a small rural church. The film begins with Tomas leading his minuscule flock in their Sunday morning church service. Only a handful of parishioners are present including a fisherman named Jonas (Max von Sydow) and his pregnant wife Karin (Gunnel Lindblom). Also there is Märta (Ingrid Thulin), a local schoolteacher and former love interest of Tomas who has essentially become a thorn in his side.

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Throughout this thirteen-minute opening we watch as the parishioners sing hymns and take communion. Bergman and his long-time cinematographer Sven Nykvist deftly use their camera to not only capture the solemnity of the service but also to reveal the burdened souls of the people. This is conveyed mostly through a series of intense close-ups which Bergman so often employed in his films. Frequent cuts move us from one somber face to another, only occasionally interrupted by shots of Tomas carrying out his ecclesiastical duties.

Just like “Through a Glass Darkly” this story unfolds within a 24-hour window. The opening church service scene sets things in motion and does more than just convey the troubled state of the congregation. It also serves as an introduction to the people Tomas will encounter on more personal levels throughout the film. Bergman uses those interactions to dig deeper into Tomas’ psyche which is in many ways a mirror of his own. Bergman is essentially wrestling with the very same questions, uncertainties, and isolation.

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Tomas is in a miserable state. He is physically ill (it’s said Björnstrand actually had the flu during filming). He is emotionally detached. And he is as spiritually cold as the snowy Scandinavian winter. But Tomas isn’t necessarily a sympathetic figure. At one point he is asked what’s troubling him. His two-word response, “God’s silence.” Yet he too is silent when it comes to speaking grace and guidance to those who seek it. Instead he greets all with an icy indifference.

Take Jonas, deeply distressed over specific world events, who comes to the pastor seeking counsel. Yet all Tomas does is speak of his own misery and inner-tumult. Could it be that he too is crying out for help? Perhaps. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jonas is left a victim of Tomas’ self-absorption. And his treatment of Marta reveals even more about him. Despite her annoyances, Marta truly loves Tomas and shows genuine concern. But his bitter, spiteful responses to her shows an antipathy completely at odds with the compassion of his calling.

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It would be tempting to look at “Winter Light” through a broad lens – as simply a movie about a pastor who has lost his way. But anyone familiar with Bergman’s catalog knows he doesn’t work strictly on a surface level. That’s why this is such a fascinating film and one of my favorite Bergman pictures. There are innumerable ways you could interpret this film and its characters. Is it a movie about a wayward soul suffocating under the weight of depression? Is the film challenging what it sees as strict tenets of the Christian faith? Is it Bergman’s portrait of his father, a Lutheran minister to the masses but harsh disciplinarian at home?

With “Winter Light” Bergman has made something that has all the exterior markings of a slow, uneventful drama. But underneath its austere finish is a provocative think piece; a movie with the sheer depth of meaning to challenge any thoughtful viewer. It’s bleak and dour perspective won’t be for everyone. Nor will its ruminative pacing. But it’s far from aimless and what you get out of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

 

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5star

REVIEW: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”

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Over a year ago I was at a very special event that featured a Q&A with none other than Richard Linklater. It was a great evening listening to a favorite filmmaker of mine talk about making movies. Close to the end of his session he hinted at his most recent project, a movie starring Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. That’s all he said, but it was enough to spark my interest.

It turns out the movie was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”, an adaptation of the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple. In it Blanchett plays disillusioned misanthrope Bernadette Fox. She pretty much hates everyone save her daughter Bee (newcomer Emma Nelson) and her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup). In fact her general negativity and social anxiety leads her one friend and mentor (Laurence Fishburn) to label her a “menace to society”.

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Bernadette is a character perfectly tuned for Cate Blanchett. She’s smart, neurotic, and a ticking emotional time bomb. These are characteristics Blanchett can convey in her sleep. It’s a vibrant, even dominating performance that may be a little too big for some tastes. I found her to be captivating and an essential reason the movie works as a whole.

At first the trajectory of the story is a little confusing and there are early moments when it’s tough to figure out what kind of movie Linklater wants to make (he co-wrote the script with Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo Jr.). But I realized I had made the mistake of approaching the film as a straight comedy when it really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly get dashes of humor scattered throughout. Some of it lands well, some of it not so much. But this was far more dramatic than I expected and once I had a grasp of that the movie began to speak a much more satisfying language.

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Bernadette is an intriguing character from the start and a hard nut to crack (absolutely no pun intended). Her struggles stem from a wide range of personal issues. She was once a famous architect known for her aggressively modern vision and willingness to trust her creative instincts. But when she and Elgin moved to Seattle from LA, his career took off while her fire to create was all but extinguished.

But Bernadette’s descent into cynicism and melancholy isn’t one-dimensional. There are numerous influences and conflicts, both internal and external, that are revealed and play roles in her sometimes fragile state of mind. It all adds a welcomed complexity to the character and keeps Bernadette from becoming some by-the-books stereotype that we often see in movies exploring this same territory.

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Bernadette’s many layers show most through her relationships. This includes her tepid marriage to Elgin, the devoted mother/daughter dynamic with Bee, the testy back-and-forths with her next door neighbor (Kristen Wiig), even her one-sided rants with her online secretary and virtual confidant. But when it all begins to overwhelm her, Bernadette sneaks off on a journey of rediscovery. I’m oversimplifying it for the sake of spoilers, but she vanishes leading Elgin and Bee to pop the question asked in the movie’s title.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a unique and quirky thing that won’t be for everyone. Then again Linklater movies never score big at the box office. And considering it goes up against a brand new animated film, a shameless publicity-hounding raunchy comedy, and a big-budget blockbuster holdover that trend should continue. But I liked a lot about “Bernadette” – Blanchett’s performance, Emma Nelson’s debut, the film’s big heart. I even liked its messiness. That may be a weird compliment, but this is a weird movie, and I guess I like that about it too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

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Lately we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the works of American horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson. Much of the thanks could go to Netflix and their popular television adaptation of Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. Now we have a feature film based on Jackson’s final novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.

Stacie Passon directs and Mark Kruger writes the screenplay for what is essentially a gothic family drama and mystery thriller mash-up. Set in 1960s New England and with a healthy air of gloom and dread, the story follows two troubled but tight-knit sisters. They live on the huge estate where six years earlier a terrible family tragedy shook them and the nearby village.

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Since then the Blackwood sisters mostly stay isolated within the walls of the mansion left behind by their deceased parents. Constance (Alexandra Daddario) never leaves and a cloud of speculation and rumor hangs over her. Was she responsible for horrible event that struck her family? The prattling, gossipy townsfolk certainly think so. And they let the younger sister Mary Katherine (Taissa Farmiga) know it during her weekly trips for supplies.

The villagers are a major influence on the psychology of the story. Their mean-spirited and scandalous hearsay pushes the sisters to stay in isolation, living alone with their tragedy, their secrets, and their disabled Uncle Julian (Crispen Glover). His semi-coherent ramblings are a mixture of utter nonsense and tiny nuggets of revelation – keys to understanding the mystery behind what happened six years earlier.

While far from ideal, the Blackwood girls have carved out a life for themselves in seclusion. But it’s turned on its head when out of nowhere their cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pays a visit. He immediately sets his eyes on Constance which puts him at odds with Mary Katherine who is willing to protect her sister at all cost.

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As the story unfolds we end up with multiple layers of mystery. What is Charles’ motivations? What’s with Mary Katherine’s fascination with magic spells (even though there’s no evidence any of her spells work)? And what really happened in Blackwood Manor six years prior? Passon explores these questions by leaning into the characters and the individual strengths of her cast. She provides plenty of atmosphere, manages tone well, and keeps things moving at just the right pace. She then allows room for the performances to shine.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a well-made gothic thriller with a surprisingly rich human element. Much of that can be attributed to Jackson’s novel which was influenced by her own personal experiences. It may be a little light on the thriller side, but it does wrestle with some interesting themes and the overarching air of mystery is quite satisfying.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “The Wandering Earth” (2019)

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The Chinese science-fiction mega-hit “The Wandering Earth” is quite the movie. It’s a massive visual spectacle that stands as China’s second highest grossing film of all time. Just as impressive, it sits among the top 25 highest grossing science-fiction films ever made. That’s quite an accomplishment for director Frant Gwo. Now Netflix has picked up the global streaming rights making it accessible to a broader audience around the world.

“The Wandering Earth” is based on the 2000 short story by Liu Cixin. It’s set in 2061 and follows the desperate attempt of mankind to avoid having the earth incinerated by an aged and overactive sun. Scientists declare the catastrophe unavoidable and estimate the Earth will be gone in 100 years, the entire solar system in 300. Needless to say the situation is pretty grave.

So what do the citizens of earth do? Every nation joins together to initiate The Wandering Earth project. The idea is to build a huge network of massive thrusters (called Earth Engines) along the planet’s surface to essentially push the earth away from the sun and eventually out of the solar system before its all destroyed. Large underground cities are built to house a portion of the world’s population. Many of the rest die from cataclysmic tides and freezing cold, a result of the earth ceasing to rotate and pulling away from the sun.

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All of that is basically the setup for the film’s story and as you can probably tell your first and unquestionably biggest challenge will be getting past the preposterous central conceit. Let’s be honest, it’s utterly ridiculous. But Gwo and his team of seven (yes seven) writers do something kind of amazing. They make this batty and fairly basic disaster movie idea into something exciting and thoroughly entertaining.

The story is told from two different locations. The first is aboard a navigational space station where an international collection of scientists and astronauts monitor the earth’s progress as it pushes across space. Liu Peiqiang (played by Jing Wu) has been on the station for 17 years and nearing the end of his stint. His hopes are to head back to earth and pick up his relationship with his son Liu Qi who was 4-years-old when his father left on his mission.

On earth an irreverent Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and his adopted sister Han Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai) sneak their way to the surface by using their grandfather’s security clearance. Their mischievous antics lead to them being arrested and thrown into jail. Then things really take a bad turn.

As the earth approaches Jupiter scientists plan using the gravitational pull of the bigger planet to propel ours past it and beyond. But when Jupiter experiences a gravitational spike, it throws off calculations and begins pulling the planets together. Earthquakes break out across the earth’s surface resulting in numerous malfunctioning earth engines. Humanity on both the space station and earth scramble to reignite the engines to avoid a catastrophic collision.

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The film features several things that are easy to pick apart – tons of information dumps, cheesy rah-rah moments, a garden variety of typical disaster movie characters. Yet somehow, despite routinely treading on familiar ground, “A Wandering Earth” never feels like a rip-off or becomes a punchline. It clearly and unashamedly borrows ideas from “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Gravity”, and even Michael Bay’s “Armageddon”. But it’s pacing is so snappy you never have time to dwell on it, only to enjoy the ride.

And then there are the digital effects. I don’t know if there is ever a scene where I wasn’t in some way wow’d by what I was seeing. It’s literally one scene after another of digitally rendered locations and set pieces all of which look absolutely stunning. This may be the biggest reason the movie works. It sucks you into its world through the sheer strength of its visuals.

“A Wandering Earth” is both ludicrous and routine yet I had an absolute blast with it. It’s truly a wacky concoction that’s hard to even describe. It’s impossible not to mention the familiar tropes and second-hand characters. But this is science-fiction escapism at its very best and can easily get behind the fun and craziness this movie provides.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “What They Had” (2018)

whattheyposterChicago native Elizabeth Chomko’s bittersweet debut “What They Had” takes a look at a delicate subject but does so in a way that is sure to speak to the hearts of many who watch it. Chomko pulls from her personal experience of having a grandmother diagnosed with dementia and being part of the family struggling to deal with it. Her film captures the heartbreak while also showing a warmth and sense of humor that gives it a stamp of reality.

Chomko wrote and directed the film which instantly gets off on the right foot by putting together a superb cast. The film opens with Ruth (Blythe Danner) putting on her coat, leaving her apartment, and then vanishing into the cold Chicago night. Turns out Ruth has entered a new stage of her dementia that could end up being more than her husband Bert (Robert Forster) can handle.

Their son Nicky (Michael Shannon) calls his sister Bitty (Hillary Swank) to let her know their mother is missing. They find Ruth but the incident convinces Nicky that their mother belongs in a nursing home. He convinces his sister to help persuade their father who is vehemently against it.

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The bulk of Chomko’s film centers around this family and their attempts to reckon with the reality of Ruth’s condition. Bert, a no-nonsense devout Catholic, wants no part of “the best memory care place in Chicago” (as Nicky sells it). This adds to the already present tension between father and son. Bitty takes a more middle-ground approach which draws the ire of both Nicky and Bert.

An intertwined family drama with such a sensitive subject at its core is tricky ground. It’s even trickier when you approach it with a sense of humor. Chomko has spoken about the joy of laughter and how her family’s willingness to laugh helped them cope. Her movie gives us a really good image of how that works. “What They Had” makes you laugh in a way that can feel wrong at times but makes sense when considered in its narrative context. And Chomko deserves a ton of credit for having such a sensitive touch.

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The one place the film suffers is in its well-intended effort to dig deeper into the characters. Several subplots intersect with the central story but none are really given the time and attention they need. The biggest is centered around the strained relationship between Bitty and her college-weary daughter Emma (played by a very good young actress Taissa Farmiga). The two actresses share several good scenes but you never get a good handle on their relationship. There are a few others that leave you wanting to know more.

It’s hard to not be moved by “What They Had” and its tender but true handling of its difficult subject. Perhaps most impressive is Chomko’s ability to capture the heart-rending helplessness of both Ruth and her family. You feel it in every character and every performance (again the cast is so good). But you sense it most in Chomko’s writing and you never doubt its deeply personal origins.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars