Tag Archives: drama

Ophelia

27 Jun

A new feminist slant on a bard classic

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A feminist reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia” assumes the POV of Hamlet’s betrothed (the heroine of the title) and boldly begins with a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque opener; us hovering above the protagonist’s body floating in a body of water as their voiceover from beyond tells us how they got there and why. It’s an alluring grip, but not necessarily one that holds as tight as that 1950 classic starring Willam Holden and Gloria Swanson.

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the perspective pivot might tweak some Shakespearean loyalists but for others, it may also pique bard interest—after all look what Tom Stoppard did with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The burden of success for such a high dive attempt ultimately comes in the execution, and while Claire McCarthy’s production is big, lush and gorgeously shot (by Denison Baker) it doesn’t quite stick it. On the plus side, the tragic tale of deadly familial parlor games finishes with some smart, surprising twists and the whole feminine slant feels timely and appropriate given the state of sexual politics and equality these days.

The casting too is something of a minor coup, with Daisy Ridley (Rey in the current “Star Wars” trilogy) donning auburn locks in the title role, Naomi Watts as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude and Clive Owen as the snaky manipulator Claudius. George MacKay add a fresh face in the role of the Danish prince though it’s mostly in the corners of the frame, though the scenes with Ridley—and there’s not enough of them—posses the kind of rich ripe chemistry found in the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though the role of Claudious is deepened with more backstory here, Owen is mostly held in check by his character’s singular duplicitous mode. Ridley and Watt on the other hand, are gifted more full bodied characters that expand, bond together and lift what threatens to become a production over leaden with plot and expectation. To that end, MacCarthy and her screenwriter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) do keep all the pieces successfully (if precariously) in the air, and handle the flips from the known to the new, with respectful diligence.

Overall “Ophelia” delivers bewitching intrigue and charm. It takes bold chances and mostly succeeds—a big part of that being Ridley’s subtly sizzle. Her Ophelia’s not too far from Rey in “The Force Awakens” (heroines of ‘common’ origin forced to the center of an epic conflict spurred by greed and tyranny) but in a Shakespearean yarn you can’t hide behind massive CGI FX and Yoda speak, her range and confidence will have casting agents think of her for—just about anything. McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) too should likely see her stock rise, the composition is assuredly sharp and authentic, though the slight modernistic infusion into the period score, distracts more than it adds anything new.

American Woman

14 Jun

 

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Can you imagine being a grandparent at age 36? In this dark, cloistered drama, we meet Debra (Sienna Miller), who had a daughter at age 16 who did the same thing at the same age. When we first catch up with Debra, she’s working as a waitress and sleeping with a married man who’s pretty much paying for her time. It ain’t pretty, but in her working-class neighborhood it feels like part of the American way.

The film spans 10 years. During it all, Deb’s older sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) is across the street, disapproving of her sib’s lifestyle but giving out unconditional love and support.Not far away is their newly widowed mother (a dignified Amy Madigan) who, while compassionate and reflective, also harbors reservations. In short, we get three generations of women with the youngest, Bridget (Sky Ferreira, “Baby Driver”), rebellious and not all that great of a mom, often hitting the party scene and dumping her neonate, Jesse, on Deb. Funny how history repeats itself. The toddler’s fate seems sealed, but Deb holds it together as much as she can, clearly doing better than she did with Bridget. Then Bridget disappears, and the film shifts.

That abrupt changeup draws in the audience, going unpredictable places fast. Did the boy’s father Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), himself still a kid, have something to do with it? Is Bridget alive or dead? The not knowing almost literally kills Deb, but also forces her to be the mother to Jesse she wasn’t with Bridget. When we leap forward in time, Deb has changed and has a decent man in her life (Aaron Paul, from “Breaking Bad,” feeling a bit miscast), but the Bridget mystery remains, as does the fraught weight hanging on Deb. The film, directed by Jake Scott (Ridley’s boy), revolves around tropes about family and watching each other’s backs despite some wildly poor life choices. The script by Brad Ingelsby has Lifetime network written all over it as it ambles awkwardly out of the gate. Much is asked of Miller to hold it all together, and she responds with a gritty, emotionally deep performance. The rest of the cast is up to the task too, especially Will Sasso as Katherine’s protective husband (and perhaps the only decent man in the film), who saves Deb from more than one unsavory situation.

Digging around in the trivia trash heap, the film was originally called “The Burning Woman” and Ann Hathaway was set to star. (Hard to imagine her pulling this off any better than Miller, capable as she is.) There’s no question the film could have used a better title: Many will associate this with the indelible 1970 song by The Guess Who – not bad company, mind you, but also no way to distinguish yourself. “American Women” might have made more sense. Without Miller bringing the burning misery of uncertainty to the fore, “American Woman” would be just another generic American drama with a dusting of grit and woe.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

14 Jun

‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’: Occupying family home doesn’t get it back

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Given efforts to address the widening socioeconomic chasm in Cambridge and matters of diversity and affordable housing, there might not be a more apt fable to heed than that of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” – even if that city’s affordability and economic divide, with its long list of tech startups and horde of nouveau millennials, far outpaces ours. This Spike Lee-sque work about a forlorn young man looking to return to the stately family home where he grew up hits all the right (dis)chords, though. The house, in what was once known as the “Harlem of the West” (in the Fillmore District) is now a tony enclave perched quaintly atop a San Fran hill, streetcar stop and all, that looks right off the Travel Channel. The specter of gentrification is in every frame of this Sundance-winning film, though never directly named.

So what does Jimmie Fails (played by Jimmie Fails, can you dig the meta framing?) do to gain back the the periwinkle-gray Victorian manse? Well, he just shows up and starts cleaning, raking the yard and painting the windows sills – which doesn’t sit well with the current white owners, who themselves are in a financial pickle and forced to move out. That’s when Jimmie and his pal Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), who’ve been in a less desirable part of the city with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover – again this week after “The Dead Don’t Die”!), decide to move in. None of that is on the up and up, which gives the film its teeth; the stakes climb even higher when the “witch hat house” goes on the market for a cool four mil. Jimmie, a caregiver at a retirement home, and Mont, who works in the local fish market, don’t have a chance in hell of buying it.

The resolution is ultimately beside the point. It’s more about the subtle portrayal of race, the impact of gentrification and the grim prospects for young men of color who have either unwisely stepped outside the law or been passed over by the system. “Blindspotting”(2018) moved in similar waves, but not quite as engrossingly or with such inventive nuance. The film, directed by Joe Talbot (who is white) and conceived by he and Fails, swings for the fences, evoking at points Godard’s “Weekend” and Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and succeeds for the most part, even if the premise feels razor thin, contrived and unlikely.The gathering of tough lads who sit outside Mont’s grandfather’s house and drop the N-word more than the article “the” (if it’s ever even used) become a captivating Greek chorus (one’s a dead drop-in for Radio Raheem) and a reality check on the American dream, not to mention a harsh reminder of the irrational suddenness of street violence and the improbability of making it off the street once you’re there.

Fails–the character, not the actor–is saddled with a lot: mom and dad are absent (due to circumstances it’s hard to have complete empathy for) but remain present in the corners, framed as impactful forces. He’s also spent time in juvie. But somehow his mission and character profile, while palpable and moving, isn’t as intriguing as Mont’s, a complex, multilevel eccentric, an aspiring intellect in tweed, a younger, emotive David Allen Grier. It’s a mind-blowing performance that pretty much makes the film – or I should say, holds us in place. Some of the dreamlike, absurdist scenes orchestrated by Talbot are a wonder to drink in. Boots Riley went this way with “Sorry to Bother You” (2018, also starring Glover as the golden “white voiced” black salesman), and while not every one of that film’s surrealist experiments landed, the sum was visceral and far-reaching in ways far beyond that of a more conventional approach. Same can be said here, about a film whose title says it all. A title change to “Cambridge” would work just as well.

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate. 

Diane

5 Apr

‘Diane’: Mother has some issues of her own, and she’s taking the audience down with her

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Sin and redemption is an arduous process. For Diane (Mary Kay Place, knocking it out of the park and into the next city) it’s an endless ordeal. When we first catch up with Diane she seems something of a saint, doing her son’s laundry, visiting her terminally ill cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell) in the hospital, looking in on a convalescing neighbor and staffing a local soup kitchen with her friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin), whom she tells much over coffee and drinks throughout the film.

Over the slow-arcing – and emotionally aching – course of “Diane” we come to learn that part of the motivation in these selfless acts is atonement. Too, life at home in rural Western Massachusetts (though shot in Upstate New York) isn’t so tranquil. Diane’s mercurial adult son, Brian (Jake Lacy, who actually is from Western Massachusetts) is a recovering addict and in the throes of relapse. In such a state he’s content to wallow in his own squalor and drop the C-word should his mother threaten him with an intervention. Diane’s life is exhausting, to say the least, and then there’s that specter from her past that’s been driving her for years, the way Casey Affleck’s weary and remorseful dad shambled across the screen with the heaviness of the world on his slim shoulders in “Manchester by the Sea”(2016).

If the film sounds a bit like the Lucas Hedges and Julia Roberts tough-love flick “Ben is Back,” it is – in some ways. “Diane” is far grittier. It might sound as if Diane just needs a spa day; but she gets that, and then she goes out and gets a drink and another, and another after that, until she’s cut off. It’s arguably the best scene in the film, as Place’s tortured soul tries to find solace at the bottom of a glass while mouthing lyrics to 1990s classics on the jukebox. At some point Brian goes missing, and where the film goes from there is anything but predictable.

What director Kent Jones (of the 2015 documentary “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” making his feature debut) mainlines here is a sense of rue and how the present is shaped in crashing waves from small, rippling transgressions out of the past. The sense of fate, family and faith, let alone loyalty and betrayal, resounds. Jones goes about it all with subtlety, and has a talented ensemble (the great Estelle Parsons among the lot).

It’s impossible to sit through “Diane” and not get pulled by the strong emotional current or bold performances. If the name Mary Kay Place is a bit of a head-scratcher, she’s always been off to the side in films such as “Being John Malkovich” and “Girl Interrupted” (both 1999), but that’s now likely to change, and for many others in the cast as well. It may be early in the year, but boy, there’s a lot of gold prospects in “Diane.”

The Mustang

28 Mar

‘The Mustang’: Breaking horses as prison task builds powerfully for quiet man in a quiet film

 

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If “The Mustang” feels like something of a redux of “The Rider,” it is, especially if you consider the nucleus of a man trying to heal through bonding with a beast and the raw beauty of the tumbleweed-dusted valleys and plains that fill the screen. Both films deal with broken men. In the case of “The Rider,” Chloé Zhao’s beautiful second feature, it was physical as well as emotional, as a brain-injured horseman confronted the near certain risk of death should he mount a steed again. In the case of “The Mustang,” there are deeper and darker elements, namely that it’s set inside the razor-wired confines of a maximum security correctional facility in Nevada.

The broken man here is Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts), a transfer tossed immediately in solitary confinement because of an outburst at an anger management counselor (Connie Britton).Not a good start, but Roman’s mostly a quiet, keep-to-himself kind of guy (“I’m not good with people,” he remarks). You can tell there’s simmering rage and demons inside, yet also vulnerability and compassion in those perpetually narrowed eyes. Once out of the box, Roman is assigned to shit duty – literally. The prison, because of its location in the heart of wild mustang country, runs a program to break the bucking beasts and sell them at auction – ironically, mostly to the police. For some reason, and we’re not entirely told why, Myles (Bruce Dern) the old codger who runs the equestrian side of the prison, sees something in the way Roman scoops up manure and mandates him into the program.

The horse-whispering is pretty neat and drives the film as expected, but it’s Roman’s bond with a fellow inmate, Henry (Jason Mitchell),and visits from his pregnant daughter, Martha (Gideon Adlon), who harbors justified animosity for her father, that cast a longer shadow. Issues of racial division are clearly etched in the yard, and there’s an illicit drug trade that threatens to drag in Roman.

Thankfully nothing about “The Mustang” is heavy handed; Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has composed a quietly powerful portrait for her first feature, with a script so spare you almost wished people expressed themselves a bit more. Her real ace in the hole, besides the majestic beast that bucks its stall viciously (it too, gets tossed in solitary) is Schoenaerts, best known for his role as a Russian baddie in the silly and misguided J-Law spy thriller “Red Sparrow” (2018), but delivering a breakout performance here. With a shaved head and dewy eyes, he looks something like a mini-me version of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and casts a presence that is at once intimidating and resilient while remaining soulful and pained, imbued with the rue of past actions. It’s a film-winning performance that’s aided just the slightest by prodding barbs from Dern’s cantankerous mentor, the warning snorts from the mercurial steed and mostly, the cagey, sassy baiting from Mitchell’s hands-on, horse-wrangling instructor.The casting and arc of emotion couldn’t be more perfect, and the final frame will surely break you.

Destroyer

12 Jan

‘Destroyer’: Limping through the grit of L.A., Kidman’s cop intends to see an ugly job done

 

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“Destroyer” may be the bleakest cop drama to come around since Don Johnson puked up his guts as a booze-addled cop chasing after white supremacists in John Frankenheimer’s “Dead Bang” (1989). The boilerplate’s fairly similar, as we catch up with Nicole Kidman’s Erin Bell, a detective passed out in a dust-streaked car under an L.A. freeway. Gaunt and chalky, with hair matted and frayed, she looks like she’s been left in the desert to die. The radio squawks and Kidman’s trademark translucent blue eyes – encircled by bloodshot rims – open slowly. Erin can barely extricate herself from the vehicle, let alone stagger down a desolate throughway to a murder scene where she’s poorly received by the cops already on site.

Erin’s jarring wobble is so disjointed and pronounced you wonder if she’s wickedly hungover or maybe had the shit kicked out of her. The truth is a good bit of both, and it’s a regular way of life for Erin, who’s hard to like and hard to avert your eyes from. How did we get here, how can such a shambling wreck remain on the force? The answers come in carefully meted strokes, mostly in flashbacks. Seventeen years earlier, as a rookie, Erin partnered with an FBI agent (Sebastian Stan, the Winter Soldier in the “Captain America” films) to go undercover to take down a criminal cult leader named Silas (Toby Kebbell, who’s weak tea compared with Charles Manson). She also has a teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), and the two don’t get along whatsoever. Needless to say, back in the present Silas has resurfaced and Erin will do whatever it takes to bring him down, including giving a happy ending to an informant and hitting every dive watering hole the way other cops frequent doughnut shops. 

Director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight” and “Aeon Flux”) seems to be aiming for “gritty” in every frame. It feels heavy-handed from the get-go, but Kidman’s complex and nuanced performance and Theodore Shapiro’s edgy, haunting score score help sell it beyond its derivative trappings. It’s  amazing to drink in the tall, glamorous Kidman with such a dour, beaten-down countenance. Massive gobs of makeup must have been in play, because nowhere before has such natural comeliness been so sabotaged, aside from Charlize Theron playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster” (2003). That turn earned Theron an Oscar, and Kidman’s nearly as on target here as jumps into the middle of a shootout with semiautomatics cocked, akin to Patty Hearst in her now infamous SLA pose, or pistol whips a Beverly Hills ne’er-do-well with ties to Silas. The film’s not so much a drama about a rogue cop as a showcase for Kidman’s range. It barely fires on that first chamber, but hits the mark on the latter.