In a tiny fishing hamlet on the harsh, rocky shores of Maine, two sisters (Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor) still reeling from their mother’s passing, get inadvertently caught up in the shady dealings of the town’s madam, Enid Devlin (Margo Martindale, in a role that seems like it could’ve been written for one of the fake movies staring her infamous self on Bojack Horseman). Written and directed by Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, Blow the Man Down has echoes of the Coen Brothers’ best work. But whereas similarly plotted films in similarly hardscrabble environs have typically had the shady dealings of the men at the forefront with women in the background as side characters (or in the case of some Coen classics, stepping forward in one key role), this crafy neo-noir puts all the women in the forefront with the men as side pawns.
Apart from Martindale, who is magnificent, the cast features the fantastic June Squib and Annette O’Toole. Will Brittain acquits himself nicely in the throw-away detective role. All of the acting is solid, and there’s a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of belllowing fishermen singing shanty songs on the docks and rocks to transition some key scenes.
Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film is moodily lit and shot on location by Todd Bhanzi. The score is note perfect from Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber. The look, the sound, and the editing were perfect. There’s not a wasted shot, line, or moment in this economic 90-minute film.
While it’s likely not going to blow you away, there is so much to savor here. I expect great things from Cole and Krudy in the future. In the meantime, we have this enjoyably nasty little ditty to satiate our appetite.
The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.
Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.
Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).
It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.
But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).
Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).
Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).
But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.
On the surface, A Hidden Life is a return to form for Terrence Malick after his oddly prolific period during which he appeared to have made twenty-seven experimental films starring Christian Bale in Texas.
The structure of the film is built like a visit to a cathedral and attending one very long mass: the tone reverent, the pacing like a pilgrimage, the cinematography of the Austrian mountains breathtaking, and the music heavenly.
It tells the simple tale of one farmer’s moral objection to fighting in WWII and refusal to pledge loyalty to Hitler, and it has all of the philosophical and religious pondering one would expect from Malick.
But I had two major objections of my own to Malick’s latest.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD
First, in being everything you would expect from a Malick film, there is no sense of surprise or delight to be found. I could’ve predicted every single framing of beautiful imagery and light. And at nearly three-hours long, the artistic images and music are on what seems like an endless loop with no end in sight. There’s no sense of the that cosmic chaos and fluidity that made The Tree of Life a masterpiece, or any of that earthy yet otherworldly novelty that made The New World astound the senses. The narrative also falls victim to some of the most grueling clichés of both rustic cinema verité (oh look, a pig being slaughtered and an innocent little girl observing the carnage) and “false imprisonment” films where the main character is always transferred to progressively worse institutions.
Secondly, and perhaps more damning, I couldn’t relate to the Christian concept of martyrdom. I understood the farmer’s original and courageous objections to war and Hitler’s worldview. There comes a point in time after he has already suffered (and made his point) where he was given a practical and sensible way out that would’ve spared his life and brought him back to his wife and daughters who so desperately needed him. Yet he staunchly refuses on principle. So he dies, leaving his family to suffer in his absence, and is executed as a traitor…and for what? The idea of dying for your beliefs (or in defiance of the evil beliefs of others) is just as senseless in my mind as the ones on the opposite end of the spectrum who are willing to kill to uphold the evil ideas of people like Hitler. Both extremes are willing to die in rebellion against the natural will to survive. Isn’t this perhaps the same brand of insanity?
Even Malick seems to concede that this is the central conundrum: one can nobly die for any cause…but when it doesn’t change the course of events and only causes your loved ones’ suffering, what was it all for? The farmer’s wife muses that one day (in the end), all that is unknown will be known. We’ll finally understand what it was all for. I’m all for mysteries, but that’s just a blind faith, and it’s that kind of blind faith that leads people down the extreme paths to play both the sinner and the saint, willing to die.
What kind of world would it be if we were all martyrs?
High school wrestling champ Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living his best life. He’s a star athlete with an eye on nationals and a college scholarship, the life of the party, has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), plays the piano, and lives in an upper middle class house in a Miami suburb with his successful and very present parents (Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface. Everyone has multiple sides, and Tyler is a ticking time-bomb – over-stimulated, over-worked and living in a pressure cooker of unjustly high expectations and toxic masculinity. Harrison is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal, playing for the second time this year an African-American high-schooler who seems perfect on the outside but is just one perceived slight away from blowing his top. In Luce, he was scarily in-control, while here in the emotionally seismic Waves, he’s hanging on by a thread. The tension builds in the first half of the film to shrieking, anxious effect.
I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know about Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, the better. I went in cold, riding high on the festival circuit buzz, and having been riveted previously by Shults’ ode to addiction and family, Krisha.
Waves is one of those films that takes a sudden turn half-way through and changes POV from Tyler to Emily and her attempt to recover from tragedy by finding love with a refreshingly non-toxic male named Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults self-analyzes the film in interviews as “a panic attack followed by a hug,” and he couldn’t be more apt. We are right there with Tyler in the midst of his breakdown, our hearts pounding, our emotions unchecked, and then the switch to Emily’s more sensitive POV is like a breath of fresh air. Shults handles the transition exquisitely. But there are no easy solutions on either side of his film of mirrors and psychological undulations. I loved the complexity of the characters and their sometimes tortured and sometimes beautiful relationships with each other. They are not always likable, but in some way they are always relatable. And every single cast member makes you feel their highs and lows, their pain and their joy.
Shults uses camera tricks (some of which I know I didn’t even
process – begging for the continuous cineaste visit hoping to catch something
new with each re-watch), music, light, and color to transition from scene to
scene, character to character, emotion to emotion. Everything physical in the craftsmanship
informs, shades, and mirrors the internal struggles of the souls aching to be
loved and understood on film.
Did I mention the screenplay? There were so many great, ponderous
quotes coming not just from our main characters but from peripheral influences –
teachers, coaches, and preachers offering words that both comfort and taint the
mindsets of the young people in the film struggling to find their way in the
world. I wish I had taken notes, but I was too caught up in the moment to peel
my eyes from the screen.
One quote stuck with me though, when Tyler’s father Ronald
tells him, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”
Shults in anything but an average filmmaker, and Waves is a shattering earthquake of a film whose aftermath will leave viewers with so many troubling, wondrous, humbling things to unpack.
When Robert Pattinson’s character finally “spills the beans” to Willem Dafoe’s character in Robert Egger’s grim, grimy and sea-battered The Lighthouse, he claims to be a former timber worker who killed his boss, wrestling now with his guilt at the remote coastal outpost of the film’s title. I thought, however, that he was more likely the soul of one of those dead sailors Dafoe claimed are living inside seagulls. A particular seagull, with one eye, is one of the key antagonists (along with Dafoe), but all three characters (young man, old man, and gull) might very well be one in the same in this Persona-like decent into male madness.
There are elements of The Lighthouse I admired: Dafoe’s over-the-top salty seadog ranting, the claustrophobic aspect ratio, the Nova Scotia setting, the bleak black-and-white cinematography, the seagull, and the surreal visions (a harpy of a mermaid, a slithering Neptune).
There are elements of The Lighthouse I could’ve done without: the focus on bodily functions, the insular white male insanity, the fate of the seagull, the seagull’s ultimate revenge.
There’s nothing that was particularly scary, but certain scenes and images were fittingly disturbing. Some parts were played so absurdly straight (a seemingly endless fall down twisting stairs) as to elicit laughter.
I could’ve used more story…more characters…more of the sea.
Much like Eggers’ first film, the equally grim The Witch, I can’t say I liked the film, nor would I recommend it to anyone. But I know there are many out there who would watch this and relish every stinking bit of it. So if you’re one them, enjoy.
With summer winding down, Hollywood is gearing up for their prestige film season. And with a one-year-old at home it has become increasingly difficult to get out to a movie theater, so this new trend started by Netflix to stream Oscar bait couldn’t have come at a better time for me. My thirty-year-old cinematic purist self would’ve screamed, “You’re tarnishing the purity of the experience!” but my almost forty-year-old self is like, “Let’s stream everything! Who’s got time to go to a theater?”
Here are my most anticipated films of the 2019 Fall Movie season:
The Irishman – Oh thank heaven for Netflix! I don’t think I could find the time to escape to a theater for over three hours, and I’ll likely have to watch this one in chunks. Scorsese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci all in their element and Anna Paquin primed for a mid-career revival. I have high, high, hopes for this one.
Marriage Story– the buzz on this one is strong, and the trailers have been excellent. Noah Baumbach is long overdue for a big popular breakthrough as his films have always been niche, and Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson look to be at the top of their game. This has the feel of Kramer vs. Kramer by way of Woody Allen if he had a millienial’s EQ. Again, thank heaven for Netflix, as I would otherwise not likely be able to get out to this one and its domestic drama looks well suited to emmerse yourself in at home.
1917– Sam Mendes looks to do for WWI here what Christopher Nolan did for WWII in Dunkirk. This looks like an immaculately shot, edited and staged piece of tick-tock wartime suspense with some big emotional payoff. This has Oscars written all over it, and will probably worth the trip to the theater for the experience.
A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick is back, and this three-hour biopic looks to be more like The New World in style than his more recent contemporary endeavors. The buzz on this is his best in years…but it’s still three hours long, and man, do I wish this was streaming, though arguably you’d want to see these images on the biggest screen possible.
Ad Astra – Of all the film’s on the list this one I am most skeptical about. Could it be an Interstellar style masterpiece, or a boring chore? James Gray is one of the best directors yet to make a great film. Brad Pitt is the star power. It’s nice to see Ruth Negga is also onboard, but the rest of the cast all seem a bit tired: Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones, and Liv Tyler. The trailers have been hit or miss, but there’s still tons of promise here.
In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.
While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.
Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading →
How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?
How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?
“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.
If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.
Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading →
There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma. There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast). The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way). We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism. It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.
But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec. Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose. The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer. The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film. Continue reading →