Friday, November 29, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Klute (1971)

Klute (1971)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.
Written by: Andy Lewis & David E. Lewis.
Starring: Jane Fonda (Bree Daniels), Donald Sutherland (John Klute), Charles Cioffi (Peter Cable), Roy Scheider (Frank Ligourin), Dorothy Tristan (Arlyn Page), Rita Gam (Trina Guneman), Nathan George (Trask), Vivian Nathan (Psychiatrist).
The knock on Klute – among those who knock it – is that is a thriller that isn’t very interested in being a thriller. That somewhere along the way, the film became a character study – and not of the title character – and neglected its thriller elements that effect the film more and more as it goes on. That was kind of my opinion when I first saw the film – some 20 years ago as a teenager – who thought that Jane Fonda’s Oscar winning performance was one of the best I’d ever seen, and Gordon Willis’ typically brilliant, dark cinematography was great – but there was something off about the plotting of the film that kept it from the overall greatness of its individual elements. Watching it again for the first time in years, I have to admit I was right about Fonda – it is one of the best performances in movie history – and Willis’ photography, which is brilliant – but wrong about the film overall. At least, sort of.
As Mark Harris makes clear in his excellent Criterion essay on the film, while some films are the product of a single auteur – Klute was more of a happy accident of a lot of different people coming together at the right time. The director, Alan J. Pakula, was young – this was only his second film, and hadn’t made anything like this before. The screenwriter – Andy and David E. Lewis – were TV writers looking to make a movie. Their idea was a modern noir/western – with the classic story of the outsider besting the big city – which is why Klute (Donald Sutherland) is from small town Pennsylvania, who comes to New York, descends into a world of prostitutes, pimps and other unsavory characters and solves a crime the FBI couldn’t. But the screenplay was long, so as the Pakula cut it down to make a feature, it became clear who the most interesting character was – not Klute, but Bree Daniels, the prostitute Klute meets at the beginning of the investigation, and falls in love with – as she helps him solve the crime. Add in Jane Fonda – just discovering her political leanings, who tried to quit the movie several times, worrying she couldn’t do it – and you get one of the best female characters in screen history. Fonda dug deep here – making for inarguably the most complex portrait of a prostitute seen on screen up to then, and arguably, since. The thriller element stayed obviously – in part because you have to sell the movie. Even today, in something like Get Out, Jordan Peele had to smuggle in his message in the form of a horror film. In Klute, you have this complex character in the heart of a thriller – that doesn’t really operate as a thriller.
As a whodunit, Klute doesn’t really work. If you haven’t figured it out at the halfway point, you’re pretty dense. This isn’t to say the characters themselves are dense – we have more information than we do, and we also know we’re watching a movie, so the bad guy has to be someone we know – and really, despite how menacing Roy Scheider is in his small part, we know he’s a red herring. Gordon Willis’ amazing, shadowy cinematography gives the film the look of a thriller throughout – but does more than that as well, isolating Bree in darkness throughout the film. The fact that the never changed the name of the movie from Klute is odd in some ways – and in others not. Sutherland’s Klute is the character men in the audience will certainly relate to. Sutherland is smart enough to keep quiet throughout the film – he grows fascinating in Fonda’s Bree, and is mesmerized just watching her. It says something about Sutherland just how muted he allows himself to be here. He has done that throughout his career – which is perhaps why we have seen his female co-stars get nominated for and win Oscars, but he never does.
And then there is Fonda, who may have believed she couldn’t do the role, but could not possibly have been more wrong. The legendary scenes in the movie between her and her Psychiatrist lays that character bare in a way we don’t often see. It’s not just a portrait of a prostitute that we see there – but something that many women can relate to, in how she talks about men, and her own control over them, her own desires and fears. There is a reason that Bree Daniels has become an icon just for women – but also in the LGBTQ community as well. Fonda digs deep into a role in a way that even she I don’t think has ever done since – despite her brilliant career. This is the performance she will be remembered for.
And the ending should also be pointed out. The film has a “happy” ending in a way – as Klute saves Bree in two different ways – first from the bad guy (although it is left ambiguous as to what actually happened there) – and then from her life in the city. But in the final voiceover to her Psychiatrist, Bree wonders if it will last – if she can be the happy country wife, or whether she’ll be right back here in a week. It’s a rather daring ending – and reminds of The Searchers – or several films by Martin Scorsese or Paul Schrader, about the man who saves the woman who may not want to be saved. What this most recent rewatch of Klute clarified for me that it isn’t a good movie with a great performance its core – it’s a great movie, with a great performance at its core.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Movie Review: Marriage Story

Marriage Story **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Scarlett Johansson (Nicole), Adam Driver (Charlie), Merritt Wever (Cassie), Laura Dern (Nora Fanshaw), Wallace Shawn (Actor), Ray Liotta (Jay), Alan Alda (Bert Spitz), Julie Hagerty (Sandra), Robert Smigel (Mediator), Kyle Bornheimer (Ted), Mark O'Brien (Carter), Mickey Sumner (Beth), Azhy Robertson (Henry), Brooke Bloom (Mary Ann), Hannah Dunne (Agnes), Annie Hamilton (Becca), Martha Kelly (The Evaluator). 
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story opens with Nicole and Charlie each reading a letter they wrote about the things they love about the other person, accompanied by images of them doing those things. It is an exercise suggested by their therapist who is going to guide them through their separation – but also a quick way for Baumbach, and his two extraordinary stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, to establish Nicole and Charlie as real people, who do normal things and seem happy – who are about to spend the next two hours desperately unhappy. Marriage Story is an ironic title because the film is all about their divorce – all about how two well-meaning people who still care about each other can let things get away from them – and do things to deliberately hurt each other, even if they regret it right after. It is Baumbach’s best, most mature film to date – and contains two of the very best performances of the year – and an amazing ensemble cast.
There have already been many pieces written about “whose side” Marriage Story is on – and I suppose one could play that game if they so choose. I don’t think it adds anything to the movie to do so however, as for the most part, I do think that Baumbach strives for fairness in his portrayal of both of them – both of them either make mistakes, or do things you may well feel are unfair or cruel – and both of them are victims of the others mistakes and unfair and cruel things. The movie really is about how divorce does this to people – turns them into people they never thought they’d be. And so it goes.
Nicole and Charlie have lived in New York for 10 years, and have an eight-year-old son, Henry, who they both adore. He is a theater director of weird, off-Broadway plays – and talented enough to win a MacArthur Genius Grant during the course of the movie. She was a teen star who came to New York and met him, and then threw her lot in with his weird little theater company – growing as an actress, but also lending some name brand recognition to it, and contributing a lot of her own ideas. She is originally from L.A. – and always wanted to spend more time there during their marriage – her mother and sister live out there, they spend summers there, Henry was born there, etc. As their marriage is falling apart, she takes Henry to L.A. to film a pilot – and when Charlie comes to visit, serves him with divorce papers. This isn’t a surprise – they know its coming – but her plan to move to L.A. is. He always expected them to movie back to New York. And so the divorce proceedings begin in earnest.
So lawyers enter – on her side is Nora (Laura Dern, continuing her streak of amazing performances) – who is great at her job, and knows just how hard it is for a woman to go through this. On his side there is two – Ray Liotta as an asshole, willing to do anything, say anything and get nasty, and also Alan Alda, who seems to be more on the same page as Charlie – at least until he senses things are turning ugly. They all add something to the movie.
But the MVP’s here are Johansson and Driver – two great actors, arguably delivering the best performances of their career. You may feel early on that the film is being too hard on Johansson – and then comes an amazing monologue she delivers to Nora about just why she felt she had to leave, why she needs to do this for herself, and it’s an amazing and remarkable moment. The scene goes on a long time – way longer than most other directors would dare let it go – and Johansson holds every second of screen time. Driver will get his own moments as well of course – including the already much talked about rendition of Sondheim’s “Somebody” that is beautiful and heartbreaking. And, of course, there is eventually a fight sequence – where the two of them start out trying to be nice, and then devolving into nastiness pretty quickly – both saying absolutely awful things, but Driver taking it to another level.
Before Marriage Story, I would say that Baumbach’s best film was The Squid and the Whale (2005) – another film about divorce, but that one was from the outside – the perspective of a teenager watching his parents devolve into monsters. Now, 14 years and a divorce himself later, Baumbach tells the story from the outside in. It is very much in keeping with Baumbach’s style – the Woody Allen inspiration is still there, although Baumbach’s film is more complex than most of Allen’s stuff – more deeply felt, and fair. It is Baumbach’s best film to date – a film that is difficult to watch, because you like these people, and they are suffering so much you want to look away. But, of course, you can’t.

Movie Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood **** / *****
Directed by: Marielle Heller.
Written by: Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster.
Starring: Matthew Rhys (Lloyd Vogel), Tom Hanks (Fred Rogers), Christine Lahti (Ellen), Wendy Makkena (Dorothy), Chris Cooper (Jerry Vogel), Enrico Colantoni (Bill Isler), Susan Kelechi Watson (Andrea Vogel), Tammy Blanchard (Lorraine), Maddie Corman (Lady Aberlin), Kevin L. Johnson (Darin Scharf), Maryann Plunkett (Joanne Rogers).
It undeniably would have been easier to make a typical biopic of Mr. Rogers – one that makes you feel good about yourself and the world as you leave the theater. Whether or not the release of the wonderful documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor last year either inspired this film, or changed the plans for this film, I think it undeniably helped it – almost anyone interested in this film, probably watched that one, so a lot of that background information is already out of the way. What that allows A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to do is treat Mr. Rogers as a supporting character – and a strange one at that. He was undeniably a good person – and a force for good in the world. But the film also recognizes that he could be kind of creepy. There is something unnatural about him – his constant calm and good cheer, and during the course of the film, his kind of polite refusal to answer questions he doesn’t want – he simply glides over them like he doesn’t want to answer them. Mark Harris on Twitter said the film reminded him of The Silence of the Lambs – and as odd as that sounds, it’s also accurate. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a feel good movie – but it isn’t the cloying kind that you may expect it to be. It brings Mr. Rogers into the real world.
The main character in the film is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) – an Esquire reporter circa 1998, who is assigned to write a blurb about Mr. Rogers for the “Hero” issue – even though he normally does hard hitting news, and sees this kind of puff piece as beneath him. Still, he does his job – and heads to Pittsburgh to interview Mr. Rogers. Vogel is a cynic – his mother died years ago, and he’s barely had any contact with his father (Chris Cooper) since – and for good reason. He does love his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and newborn son though – and perhaps that makes him a little more open than he would normally be to Mr. Rogers. When he first meets him, and sees him film his show, he responds the way a cynic would – trying to figure out if Mr. Rogers is on the level or not. No one can be this kind, this patient, this caring – can he?
Tom Hanks was the perfect, perhaps only, choice to play Mr. Rogers. Hanks has done some of the most interesting work of his career in recent years – but this time, America’s Dad playing Mr. Rogers is quite simply great. But Hanks doesn’t settle for a mere impression, or even making Mr. Rogers just unbelievably nice and charming. There are times in the film where you will likely respond to Hanks’ Rogers much like Vogel does – with an exasperated sigh or an eye roll. Vogel is trying to get the person underneath the surface – and Rogers defiantly does not want to show that person. Still, Hanks does a good job of showing that yes, there is a person under there – that Mr. Rogers isn’t a saint, but a person – just one who, when with others, exercised complete control over himself. It’s is a fascinating and complex performance – and one of Hanks very best.
The film was directed by Marielle Heller, who has quickly become one of the most interesting directors working. This is the third time in a row – following The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me – where she has taken tricky material, and found a unique spin on it. It is a very odd film in many ways – more akin to indie films. There are even a few moments where she seems to be making a film like Synecdoche, New York – which is the last thing you would expect in a film about Mr. Rogers.
In many ways, I have grown tired of biopics – Bohemian Rhapsody was the nadir of the genre last year, and it was so celebrated that it drove me nuts. What Heller and company do in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood though is entirely different – it’s not really a biopic at all, but something altogether stranger, more unique. And the result is wonderful.

Movie Review: Frozen II

Frozen II *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.
Written by: Allison Schroeder based on characters created by Jennifer Lee.
Starring: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Josh Gad (Olaf), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Sterling K. Brown (Lieutenant Matthias), Evan Rachel Wood (Iduna), Alfred Molina (King Agnarr), Martha Plimpton (Yelana), Jason Ritter (Ryder), Rachel Matthews (Honeymaren), Jeremy Sisto (King Runeard), Ciarin Hinds (Pabbie), Alan Tudyk (Guard/Northuldra Leader/Arendellian Solider), Hadley Gannaway (Young Anna), Mattea Conforti (Young Elsa).
Frozen was the first film we ever took my oldest daughter – now 8 – to see in a movie theater, and in the years since it has been in constant rotation in our house for now both of our daughters. To be honest, although the film holds up to all those repeat viewings, I have to say that I’ve always thought that it is essentially a good film, elevated by amazing music. As a film, I don’t think it comes close to Tangled or Moana in the recent Disney Princess offerings – but that music goes a long, long way in making it more beloved among Disney fans – including the two little ones in my house. The sequel then suffers a little bit because once again, I think the film itself is just good – but this time, the music doesn’t elevate it all that much. Even the big song this time Into the Unknown – a fine song – doesn’t come close to Let It Go, and probably isn’t even as memorable as Do You Want to Build a Snowman, or several other songs from Frozen. The whole package is entertaining to be sure – the two little girls I saw it with were more than satisfied – but I have my doubts that it will be anywhere near as beloved as the original.
The plot of Frozen II involves our five main characters – Queen Elsa, Princess Anna, snowman Olaf, Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven – heading off into the Enchanted Woods – because Elsa can hear a voice from inside calling them. There are secrets in these woods – secrets that date back to their father’s childhood – and the woods have been engulfed with clouds for decades now, no one going in, or coming out. So they head in – because Elsa believes she must – and they have to discover those secrets, and set things right.
As a Disney animated film, Frozen works just fine – it follows the template you expect it to, and doesn’t really play around with it at all. Yes, this is the more modern Disney – which doesn’t necessarily believe in marrying off any eligible Princess like they’re Tracy Letts in the Little Women preview – and in particular Elsa has broken that mold wide open. It was clear that in the original Frozen there was either some subtext about Elsa’s sexuality – or elsewhere wishful thinking by people reading subtext that may have not been there – but it kind of feels like Frozen II has embraced it one way or another, and takes it farther – while still recognizing this is a movie for children of course.
The rest of the Disney template is there though intact – from Olaf as the lovable or annoying comic relief depending on your take (mostly, I find him lovable), to the cute animals – not just Sven, but they include a new adorable animal character in this film, for no discernable purpose other than to sell plush toys, but adorable they still are. You kind of have to admit at this point the template works – and as you watch the film, you will likely have a good time as long as you have patience for this.
And yet, I have to say it’s only been a few days since seeing Frozen II, and already most of the plot has faded from memory – and other than Into the Unknown, and Kristoff’ hilarious 1980s cheesy ballad inspired Lost in the Woods, all the songs have completely faded as well. That wasn’t the case with the original film – which was one wonderful song after another. Whatever logical and plot inconsistencies there may have been in the original film, there was always another great song just around the corner to get you through it. Not so this time – which is why while Frozen II is undeniably a fun Disney film – and will satisfy the films target demographic of little girls, and satisfy Disney’s chief economic concerns, by making a lot of money at the box office, and extending the life of Frozen toys and merchandise – it isn’t going to become the Disney classic the original already has become.

Movie Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jennifer Kent.
Written by: Jennifer Kent.
Starring: Aisling Franciosi (Clare), Sam Claflin (Hawkins), Baykali Ganambarr (Billy), Damon Herriman (Ruse), Harry Greenwood (Jago), Ewen Leslie (Goodwin), Charlie Shotwell (Eddie), Michael Sheasby (Aidan), Matthew Sunderland (Davey), Magnolia Maymuru (Lowanna), Christopher Stollery (Major Bexley), Nathaniel Dean (Stoakes), Claire Jones (Harriet), Luke Carroll (Archie), Dallas Mugarra (Lowanna's Husband).
Jennifer Kent’s debut film, The Babadook, was one of the best debut films of the decade – and one of the best horror films of the decade as well – the story of parental terror where the main character is a mother who has to come to terms with the fact that she may hate her son – and keep that monster at bay. Her follow-up film, The Nightingale, isn’t a horror film at all really – although it certainly is as horrifying and unrelenting as any horror film could be. It is a film set in 1825 Australia and it is a film about colonialization and exploitation made extremely personal, as it becomes a slow moving game of cat and a mouse. It is a difficult film to watch – the first act in particular is unrelenting – but it’s a brilliant one in many ways, as Kent fully establishes herself as an artist with a lot to say, and no fear of saying it all.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young, Irish woman sent to Australia to serve out an absurdly long prison stretch for some petty teenage crimes. She has served her time however – married another Irish convict, and given birth to a beautiful baby girl. All she wants is her freedom – and Hawkins (Sam Clafin) can give it to her simply by writing a letter. He keeps promising, but never does it. Hawkins, a British Military Officer, doesn’t like where he’s been stationed – in the middle of nowhere – or the men under him, all losers he thinks – and he was only supposed to be there for a year, and now it been three. When another officer arrives, apparently to rubber stamp his transfer, Hawkins is frustrated once again. When Hawkins gets frustrated, those around him suffer – in particular Clare who he been raping for years, but she just has to suck it up and move on. What happens this time however is not something she can just suck up and move on from. When she finds that Hawkins and a few of his men have fled in the middle of the night – apparently going to get that job that may not be his – she gets her own Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and heads out into the woods hell-bent on revenge.
The Nightingale is a long film at 136 minutes. After the harrowing opening 30 minutes, the film settles down, slow down, a little as it establishes the slow growing relationship between Clare and Billy. Both are treated as nothing by the ruling British class – but at first, Clare looks at Billy with the same racism as the other white people do – she may be Irish, but she’s not a “black one”. In turn, Billy looks at Claire with the same eyes he looks at every white person – the people who have victimized him and his people, killing them, stealing their land, their way of life, etc. As the journey continues, of course, they find that as a woman with no power and an aboriginal with no power, they have a lot more in common with each other than they think. They are slowing making their way to Hawkins – whose group moves slowly, and commits other horrible crimes along the way.
I do think if there is a flaw in the film, it’s that Kent doesn’t quite know where to end it. After the long middle stretch of the film in the forest, the distance between Clare and Hawkins closes, as they are both in town. From there, Kent keeps bringing them together, and tearing them apart – one, two, three times – and certainly too often. The individual scenes work wonderfully – in particular a scene where Clare sings to Hawkins in front of the other officers, bookending a scene near the beginning where he exploited her singing, this time taking the power back. It’s just that there are a few too many of the scenes that do essentially the same thing – each separated by another retreat by Clare and Billy, who will of course come back again.
But that is a minor flaw in a major film by Kent – who lays it all out on the lines with The Nightingale, and doesn’t back down. She has a lot of big ideas – too many perhaps to cram into one film, and perhaps some will complain it’s another story of a white filmmaker telling an aboriginal story she doesn’t fully understand. But it’s the kind of brutal and unrelenting film that shocks you with violence, but has a hell of lot more to say than that. It’s not a film you’d probably want to watch more than once – but it’s one you won’t soon forget.

Movie Review: The Good Liar

The Good Liar ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Jeffrey Hatcher based on the novel by Nicholas Searle.
Starring: Helen Mirren (Betty McLeish), Ian McKellen (Roy Courtnay), Jim Carter (Vincent), Russell Tovey (Steven), Mark Lewis Jones (Bryn), Laurie Davidson (Hans Taub – 1948), Phil Dunster (Young Roy), Lucian Msamati (Beni), Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Vlad), Spike White (Hans Taub - 1943), Stella Stocker (Frau Schröder), Daniel Betts (Herr Schröder), Nell Williams (Lili).
Spoiler Warning: I don’t really discuss spoilers here – although the movie is so easily spoiled, because the twists are easy to guess, you may just want to skip this if you hate spoilers.
One thing that usually completely blows thrillers for me – especially light thrillers that offer little beyond the twists and turns of the plot – is when you are ahead of the plot from the beginning. This was true for me walking into the theater to see The Good Liar, because I was pretty sure I saw the big final twist coming from the previews, and even if I couldn’t guess all of the details – all of the surprisingly dark places the film will go – it is mainly true that I did. When you add in a few other details – like the year the film takes place in, and the movie the elderly couple at the heart of the movie go to on their first date – and even if you don’t know the specifics, you get the gist of where this is all going – and it gets there.
The elderly couple is Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betsy (Helen Mirren) – two widowers, around 80 each, who are just looking for some companionship in their later years. They meet online, and have chemistry on their first date, and so they keep dating – and it seems rather sweet. That doesn’t last long though since the movie fairly quickly reveals Roy to be a conman – he is working a con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter) when we meet him, and he pretty much spells out what he plans to do to Betsy – essentially steal her money (nearly three million pounds) and disappear. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy from the start – although he really doesn’t have reason to be, even if we know he’s right.
From there, the film moves along at a brisk pace. The film was directed by Bill Condon – and I much prefer him in these types of films about older people (like two of his previous films with McKellan Gods and Monsters and Mr. Holmes) – then I do when he makes the blockbusters on his resume (a couple of the Twilight films, Beauty and the Beast, etc.). This one is pulpier than most of Condon’s films in this vein – and he’s surprisingly adept at it, including a wonderfully suspenseful sequence on a subway platform. He keeps the films moving at a brisk pace – and is aided great by the two leads, especially McKellan, who relishes every moment he gets to play this slimy character, who always has cons within cons going – and sees everyone as a mark.
Seemingly innocent revelations early in the plot give you an idea that the film is going to dive back into a dark past though – and it does so in some surprising ways. As the film progresses, I was quite taken aback by just how dark things in the film got – much darker then the first half of the film, which is light and nimble and fun led me to believe was going to happen. I don’t think the film quite handles the transition into that darkness very well – nor does it handle the transition back out of it, when the film gets to its denouement, which you probably see coming from a mile away.
Still though, The Good Liar is, for the first half, an entertaining little thriller with a wonderful performance by McKellan, and a tricky performance by Mirren, who does her best not to give the game away. Because that’s what The Good Liar is – a game. It’s the type of film that would make for ideal viewing on a lazy Sunday afternoon as you fold laundry – something to kind of half pay attention to (maybe then, the twists won’t seem so obvious) – to see that even at 80, McKellan can be devilish and clever and fun, and that Mirren can more than keep up – and when given the chance – deliver a knockout punch.

Movie Review: Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator

Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator *** / *****
Directed by: Eva Orner.
In 2018, ESPN’s 30 for 30 Podcasts did a five-part series on Bikram Choudhury – one of the biggest names in Yoga, who helped grow Yoga immensely in America, became a millionaire many times over because of it, and was a charismatic figure that inspired loyalty in many. It also documented Bikram’s downfall – as multiple women came forward with rape and sexual harassment allegations – which didn’t really destroy Bikram’s empire – he isn’t in jail, he’s never been even been charged and the one civil case he lost, he hasn’t paid the damages awarded, in large part because he just fled America, and good luck collecting when that happens. He still runs his empire, he still runs his “teacher trainings” – which was one of the places he used as his hunting grounds for victims, whom he would groom. It was a massive project from the podcast – which until then had just done standalone episodes – and it took a subject that honestly I knew next to nothing about (and didn’t think I cared at all) – and made it fascinating. Eva Orner’s documentary on the same subject is kind of like the Coles Notes version of that podcast (the two are not affiliated in anyway) – running a fleet 85 minutes, and basically trying to run through everything the podcast did in much more detail.

For people who listened to the Podcast – and it was a popular podcast – I don’t think you will really learn anything you didn’t already know watching the documentary – and yet, I still think there is some value to the doc, if for no other reason that you get to match faces to names and voices, and see some footage that of course you couldn’t have in a podcast. It isn’t as good as Alex Gibney’s The Inventor – which was kind of the Coles notes version of a book AND a podcast on Elizabeth Holmes – in part because the story isn’t as deep, and the footage isn’t as great – but it’s the same basic thing.
The film basically starts with a very quick overview of Bikram’s rise to fame – the story he told to become rich and famous, all the TV appearances he made. It also has a lot of his students singing his praises – singing the praises of what Bikram calls his specific style, which he argues should be eligible for copyright protection – as he had 26 specific poses, and two breathing techniques. The people who love Bikram yoga, really love it – even as they describe their first encounters with it – in scorching hot rooms, with Bikram both encouraging and tormenting them – as hell.
The title of the documentary though lets us know that this isn’t going to be a documentary about a success story – and so it isn’t. The film will eventually turn darker, and allow some of the women who Bikram abused over time to take center stage and tell their story. Bikram still has his supporters – hell, one of them is in this documentary, who says near the end the only reason why she agreed to be in the documentary is talk about the wonderful effects of Bikram’s yoga. Still, you can just watch these women tell their stories, and know they are true. And then what really seals Bikram’s fate is the depositions for a lawsuit, where he hangs himself over and over again – and that doesn’t even count the number of times he takes the fifth.
I’m not really sure what Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator really adds to the overall conversation though. The podcast was much more in depth, and we’ve seen many other documentaries in recent years about charismatic people, using that power to abuse women for years, and get away with it – and Bikram’s story is no different. You want it to go deeper – the podcast is proof that it could have – but this film is content to stay on the surface – be one of those docs you catch on Netflix that enrage you, before you forget about a week later.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Movie Review: An Elephant Sitting Still

An Elephant Sitting Still **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bo Hu.
Written by: Bo Hu.
Starring: Yu Zhang (Yu Cheng), Yuchang Peng (Wei Bu), Uvin Wang (Huang Ling), Congxi Li (Wang Jin), Xiangrong Dong (Dean), Jing Guo (Dean's wife), Zhao-Yan Guo-Zhang (Bu's father), Miaomiao He (Cheng's friend's Mother), Wei Kong (Jin's son-in-law), Yixin Kong (Jin's granddaughter), Binyuan Li (Scapler), Danyi Li (Jin's daughter), Suyun Li (Bu's mother), Zhenghui Ling (Li Kai), Jianmin Liu (Bu's uncle), Wang Ning (Ling's mother), Shunzi (Cheng's mother), Chaobei Wang (Cheng's friend), Xueyang Wang (Cheng's friend's wife), Xiaolong Zhang (Yu Shuai), Yanmanzi Zhu (Cheng's lover). 
It’s tempting to view a piece of art made by someone just before they decided to end their own life as a suicide note. It may be even more tempting in a case like Bo Hu’s An Elephant Sitting Still because we know the backstory of what happened – that Hu adapted his own novel to the screen, and delivered the cut we can now see – nearly 4 hours long – and know that he was feuding with the producers of the film who wanted him to cut out half the film and deliver a two-hour cut – something that put stress on Hu, who likely already had mental health issues. It’s more tempting still given that An Elephant Sitting Still has not just one, but two suicides in its runtime, including one where the character says “The world is a disgusting place” before shooting himself in the head.
Knowing the backstory of An Elephant Sitting Still makes the film all the sadder – but I don’t think it either makes the film lesser or more knowing it. The film stands on its own – and should stand on its own, the most respectful thing to do is to judge the piece of art on its own terms. An Elephant Sitting Still is a tough sit – it is a dark movie, about four interconnected characters over the span of one day, where all of them feel trapped, beaten down by life, with perhaps no possible escape. And yet, as despairing a portrait of modern China as An Elephant Sitting Still is – it isn’t one with no hope, and I would point out that neither of the people who commit suicide are among the four main characters the film follows. They all find a reason to keep going – at least at the end of the movie, which is perhaps the end of the worst day in all of their lives.
Hu doesn’t pull his punches in the film, and he also wastes no time in letting you know what kind of story this is going to be. In the first hour of the film you will have one of the two suicides, a dog being killed by another dog, and a dead grandma – and that’s just for starters. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the film is that it doesn’t simply devolve into misery porn – of simply piling one horrible thing after another onto its characters in a way that some movies do trying to convince you that they are “serious works of art”.
The four main characters in question are Wei Bu, a high school student (the one with the dead grandma) who has a horrible home life, who along with his friend is being picked on by a bully. Wei Bu will get into a fight with that bully over a stolen cell phone (he doesn’t know all the details of said phone, or why his best friend is so adamant about getting it back until late in the film) – and that fight goes too far, and the bully is seriously hurt. The bullies brother is Yu Cheng, a mid-level gangster, who doesn’t much care for his brother, but he is after all still his brother, so vengeance is inevitable. But he’s going through his own problems as well – he slept with his friend’s wife, and when he caught them together, he throws himself off his balcony, killing himself – making Yu question everything about himself. Then there is Huang Ling, a kind of would-be love interest for Wei Bu – but she’s already sleeping with the school’s Vice Dean, in an effort to get away from her own horrible home life, with a mother who doesn’t much care what she does. Finally, there is Wang Jin, a veteran and retiree, who is worried his daughter and son-in-law is trying to pack him off to a retirement home – essentially abandoning him, and he worries that he won’t be able to take his dog with him. He lives in the same rundown apartment complex that Wei Bu does.
In a way then, An Elephant Sitting Still is one of those movie about interconnections – but it’s not done in a cheap way like something like Crash, but something deeper. Hu slowly brings the characters together through coincidences, but the kind that make sense. You get the impression that he could focus on any four characters in this gray, industrial town, and the results wouldn’t be all that different. The title comes from an unseen elephant that all the characters have heard of (sometimes, from the other characters) – who lives in the far away city of Manzhouli – everyone comes to see the elephant, who refuses to eat or even move. The characters all relate to that sort of thing. Like the elephant, they are victims of this oppressive society – one that clearly doesn’t care about any of them, no matter who they are.
I cannot imagine a shorter version of An Elephant Sitting Still. It’s the type of film whose length is one of its assets – Hu allows conversations to play out over the span of many minutes – often with long breaks between the words being spoken, but shot in unbroken takes. You cannot really shorten any of these scenes down, without destroying them – and the cumulative effect of all those hours is very much needed. The film looks great – it is a grey, dull image throughout – but its appropriate for the subject matter.
It is sad that we will never see another movie by Bo Hu – who only got to make the one, before whatever drove him to end his life. This is a major statement by him though – and a lasting one. It’s the best debut film I’ve seen all year – which makes it all the sadder that we’ll never see what Bo Hu would have turned into as a filmmaker. There is a little bit of Jia Zhang-ke to him – also a little Bela Tarr. But he was a unique filmmaker, and I guess if you’re only going to make one statement as a filmmaker, it may as well be one as great as this.

Movie Review: Ford v Ferrari

Ford v Ferrari **** / *****
Directed by: James Mangold.
Written by: Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller.
Starring: Christian Bale (Ken Miles), Matt Damon (Carroll Shelby), Caitriona Balfe (Mollie Miles), Jon Bernthal (Lee Iacocca), JJ Feild (Roy Lunn), Josh Lucas (Leo Beebe), Ray McKinnon (Phil Remington), Noah Jupe (Peter Miles), Tracy Letts (Henry Ford II), Ian Harding (Jimmy), Wallace Langham (Dr. Granger), Rudolf Martin (Dieter Voss), Jonathan LaPaglia (Eddie), Marisa Petroro (Mrs. Henry Ford II), Jack McMullen (Charlie Agapiou), Adam Mayfield (Lloyd Ruby), Ward Horton (Burt), Brad Beyer (Wayne), Benjamin Rigby (Bruce McLaren), Christopher Darga (John Holman), Michael Gough (Le Mans Announcer), Remo Girone (Enzo Ferrari).
Ford v Ferrari is a period piece and a throwback in more ways than one. It wasn’t all that long ago – 15-20 years perhaps – when films like Ford v Ferrari were common place from Hollywood studios – mainstream, muscular filmmaking, aimed at an adult audience that wouldn’t challenge people per se, but would certainly entertain them with a film that simply fires on all cylinders. Now, of course, we rarely get films like this at all any more – and the ones we get are considered risky. I don’t necessarily think Ford v Ferrari is a great film – but it’s a very good one, and the type of film we should be seeing in theaters at least once a month, not once a year if we’re lucky.
The film streamlines its 1960s set true story to make everything more dramatic and tension filled – but it works. When the film opens, Carrol Shelby (Matt Damon) has had to give up car racing because of his heart, and now spends his time in car sales, race management and car design – and kind of barely making ends meet. One of his drivers, and friends, is Ken Miles (Christian Bale) – a British hothead, who may be a genius on the track, and loved by his wife (who for once doesn’t scold her husband for his dangerous job – but isn’t given much of a personality at all otherwise) and young son, but he’s also more than a little bit of an asshole. Shelby is approached by the head of Ford’s marketing department – Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) – about designing a car that can go up against Ferrari at the 24-hour race at Le Mans. Iacocca’s first plan, to simply buy Ferrari, ends poorly – with Enzo Ferrari insulting everyone, including Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), whose ego is hurt enough to dump millions into the program. But Shelby and Miles are rebels who go their own way – and that rubs Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) the wrong way – he’s a Ford Exec and toady, who wants things done the “Ford way”.
The film was directed by James Mangold, who isn’t the most exciting filmmaker in the world, but he is the kind who knows how to make these kind of big, mainstream films without superheroes and still make them entertaining on a large scale (and hell, even with superheroes – as his Logan is one of the best in the genre). He pulls that trick off again here. The racing scenes in the film are genuinely exciting – Miles wife talks about liking to feel the vibrations of the cars, and through the excellent sound work on the film, you’ll feel those vibrations as well. The film makes racing look fun, while all the time letting you know just how dangerous it could be at the same time. The entire last act of the film is set at Le Mans – with the various personal dramas playing out, at the same time as Miles is running the race of his life. It is genuinely thrilling.
And Damon and Bale are well cast, well matched leads. Christian Bale is excellent at playing driven assholes – and that’s what he does here. He has his principles, and he won’t compromise on them, consequences be damned. He softens a little as the film moves along – but only so much. Damon probably has the slightly more complicated role – he’s principled as well, but perhaps a little more willing to tow the company line until they push him just a little too far. Your tolerance for this movie will depend on your tolerance for the type of “boys will be boys” tomfoolery that dominates much of the movie. It’s lightweight, non-toxic masculinity stuff – but they lay it on a little thick.
And then it all comes down to the ending, and Ford v Ferrari completely and totally nails it. It nails it when the Le Mans race ends, it nails it in the tragic scene right after, and it absolutely nails it in the final scene. Yes, it is designed to get the men in the audience to cry – but it will work. Overall Ford v Ferrari is the type of mainstream film I really wish we saw more of. No, it doesn’t challenge you all that much – but it delivers exactly what it promises to, with everyone at the top of their game. Hollywood needs more movies like this.

Movie Review: Charlie's Angels

Charlie's Angels *** / *****
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks.
Written by: Elizabeth Banks and Carlo Bernard and Semi Chellas and Craig Mazin and Doug Miro and Jay Basu and Evan Spiliotopoulos and David Auburn based on characters created by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Sabina Wilson), Naomi Scott (Elena Houghlin), Ella Balinska (Jane Kano), Elizabeth Banks (Bosley), Patrick Stewart (Bosley), Djimon Hounsou (Edgar Bosley), Sam Claflin (Alexander Brock), Jonathan Tucker (Hodak), Nat Faxon (Peter Fleming), Chris Pang (Jonny Smith), Luis Gerardo Méndez (The Saint), Noah Centineo (Langston). 
I’m really starting to wonder if there is anything that Kristen Stewart cannot do. She held together the awful Twilight franchise, and since then has mainly done daring indies with a variety of great directors like Olivier Assayas. She has the kind of screen presence that you cannot teach – and has been one of the most consistently great actresses of her generation for a while now. Now, in a reboot of Charlie’s Angels of all things, Stewart delivers the kind of delightful, somewhat demented movie star turn that you didn’t quite know she had in her. It’s a funny, eccentric, genuinely weird performance – and it completely works in the center of this would-be franchise starter that won’t (it made no money opening weekend – which is a pity). The rest of co-star/co-writer/director Elizabeth Banks’ reboot is fun as well. It’s not deep in anyway, the plot is completely meaningless and instantly forgettable, and you will likely forget anything in the movie that isn’t Stewart – but as the movie plays, it’s a lot of silly fun – a corrective to the jiggle fest TV show and the male gaze of McG that had defined the franchise up until now.
In the film, Stewart is Sabina – an heiress turned criminal turned Angel, who is teamed up with former MI:6 agent Jane (Ella Balinska) to help tech genius Elena (Naomi Scott), who has created some sort of MacGuffin that can revolutionize energy, but could also be used to kill people without a trace. Her boss has it now, and she needs to get it back and fix it – but now there is an assassin on their tail, and they have to hop all over Europe to try and track it down, and there are a lot of people named Bosley (mainly, Banks herself) and the trio of women fight, quip and occasionally dance their way through everything, and look amazing while doing it – the clothing budget on this film must have been through the roof.
As a filmmaker, Banks doesn’t really try and reinvent anything here – but she certainly shifts the perspective of the gaze involved. There is no leering here, and while all three women (to say nothing of Banks herself) are of course gorgeous, and look amazing at every stage of the movie – it’s not the kind of thing that makes you feel guilty or sleazy for looking. It is about their own empowerment – or about playing men for the idiots we so clearly often are. It’s a nice change of pace.
The film moves along at a brisk pace – and for the most part is fun. I’m not sure I could tell you what the thingamajig at the center of the movie actually was supposed to do, but I don’t think anyone else could either – it was designed to fit in a suitcase for plot purposes, and it works. The performances, aside from Stewart, are all quite good in their own way. Scott, one of my favorite things in the otherwise poor Aladdin remake this year, makes a nice every woman – the woman who goes to work every day, and has to deal with the causal misogyny from everyone from her boss to the security guard, and do it with a smile. Ella Balinska as Jane is probably best when she is kicking ass – which she does well.
In short, Charlie’s Angels is goofy fun – and that is all it aspires to be. It doesn’t reinvent anything, but it does change things enough to make it somewhat refreshing. And every time Stewart is onscreen, you are seeing a truly bizarrely great performance in a movie that mostly plays it safe.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Movie Review: Harriet

Harriet *** ½ / ***** 
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons.
Written by: Gregory Allen Howard and Kasi Lemmons.
Starring: Cynthia Erivo (Harriet Tubman), Leslie Odom Jr. (William Still), Janelle Monáe (Marie), Joe Alwyn (Gideon), Jennifer Nettles (Eliza), Tim Guinee (Thomas Garrett), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Rit Ross), Clarke Peters (Ben Ross), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Reverend Green), Deborah Ayorinde (Rachel Ross), Claire Bronson (Rachel Garrett), Tory Kittles (Frederick Douglass), Omar J. Dorsey (Bigger Long), Mitchell Hoog (Vince), Zackary Momoh (John Tubman), Henry Hunter Hall (Walter).
Given that Hollywood seems to love to make biopics – so many biopics – it is remarkable, and rather sad, that they have never seen fit to give Harriet Tubman a biopic before 2019. The legendary freedom fighter – who escaped herself from slavery in Maryland in 1849, and then returned, at great risk to herself, again and again to slave country to free more and more slaves, becoming the most famous, and successful conductor on the Underground Railroad. When they passed the Fugitive Slave Act – basically meaning slaves weren’t even free if they could it make, now they had to make it all the way to Canada, she kept on fighting. Hell, as the end titles makes clear, the events covered in this film are only the tip of the iceberg to what an amazing life Harriet Tubman lived – and just how custom made it seems to be for a rousing, action packed biopic.
Thanks to Kasi Lemmons, we finally have a biopic for Tubman – and if it’s a little square and conventional, it’s also solid and rousing. Watching the film, you kind of wish that they had decided to make a miniseries on the life of Tubman rather than a two-hour movie. There is clearly enough material just in this movie that could have been expanded to a much larger runtime, a much deeper film – and that still doesn’t even touch on her actions during the Civil War, etc. This is especially true since the filmmaking her is solid – without ever when quite reaching rousing heights. In addition, when you have to cram all this into just over two hours, you inevitably end up making slavery seem more like an issue of individual bad actors (in this case personified by Joe Alwyn’s Gideon) – rather than a massive, system very hard to change direction.
The film is rather straight forward in terms of its structure. It spends only a small amount of time with Harriet – then called Minty – as a slave in Maryland, before she decides that he has to escape – if she doesn’t, she’s going to get sold down South, just like her sisters never to be heard from again. Even though she has “spells” – she escapes single handedly – making her way to freedom in Philadelphia. It’s there that she meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), from the Anti-Slavery League, and gets set up with a paying job, and a place to live in a boarding house owned by Marie (Janelle Monae) – a woman who was born free. But Harriet cannot just stay there and live her life – she wants her husband, she wants her family with her. And so she goes back – again and again and again, and keeps getting more and more people out. She becomes a legend in the Underground Railroad circles, and becomes a legend known as “Moses” in slave owner circles.
As Tubman, Cynthia Erivo is the one element of the movie that is truly great. She exudes confidence and bravery – a woman who is scared, but doesn’t act like it. The film does address Harriet’s unique beliefs – her spells that she interprets as messages from God. Erivo, the talented Broadway actress who was also great in two films last year – Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale – is a star in the making, and this performance shows just how great she can be.
The film was directed by Kasi Lemmons – who has never quite made a film as great as her remarkable debut, Eve’s Bayou (1997) – although, the realities of the movie industry have limited her opportunities. If nothing else, Harriet is her biggest production to date – a large scale historical biopic, with many characters and an historical sweep that she hasn’t done before. If nothing else, she shows that she can keep everything under control. The storytelling here is rather run of the mill, but still strong. The filmmaking is the same – a few striking images, but mainly rather by the numbers. The film never quite reaches the rousing heights that it could. It also makes the conscious decision to not get as brutal as something like 12 Years a Slave in its depiction of slavery. This film does feel like it was tailor made for high school history classes – and at least its better than most of those.
Harriet Tubman deserves her story to be told – she deserves to be on the $20 bill. As a first attempt to tell her story, Harriet is fine. Erivo is great, and everything else in the movie is solid. This film is long overdue – and honestly, does kind of feel like something made 20-30 years ago. That isn’t entirely bad – but there’s more here.

Movie Review: Bunuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles

Directed by: Salvador Simó Busom.
Written by: Eligio R. Montero and Salvador Simó Busom based on the graphic novel by Fermín Solís.
Starring: Jorge Usón (Luis Buñuel), Fernando Ramos (Ramón Acín Aquilué), Luis Enrique de Tomás (Pierre Unik), Cyril Corral (Eli Lotar).
Watching Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is to realize how much more ambitious the rest of the world is in terms of suitable subjects for animated films than Hollywood is. This Spanish production documents famed director Luis Buñuel’s production on his 1933 short documentary Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread) – a great little film in its own right, but basically a footnote in the film giant’s career. Why the filmmakers decided to tell this story at this time is, well, perhaps a little unclear. And the animation itself is relatively simple – and I do think the film dumbs down the Buñuel’s artistic intent here a little, to try and cram it into a feel good story about two friends. But there’s still a lot here to admire – perhaps no more than that it exists at all.
The film opens just as Bunuel’s second film, L’Age D’or (1930) is about to open, and become a scandal. He’ll receive a lot of praise for it, as well as scorn and ridicule, and basically made it impossible to find any more funding for his films in Paris – and led to a kind of split with Salvador Dali, who Bunuel was linked to earlier. At a loss of what to do next, and having no money, he eventually settles on making a documentary in Las Hurdes – one of the poorest places in Spain. He gets the money from his friends, Ramon Acin, when Ramon wins the Christmas lottery. He hires a couple of cameramen, and goes to this poor area to shoot the film.
There is tension right away between good friends Bunuel and Acin. Bunuel is too wasteful with the limited money they have to shoot the film. He goes to extreme lengths to get the shots that he wants – including the infamous falling goats. There is tension in that Acin, who truly cares about the poor, thinks that rich kid Bunuel is mocking the people of Las Hurdes in the way he films things.
As a film, Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is interesting. The animation isn’t particularly great – but it’s good enough. The film at times flashes between what we see Bunuel and his crew setting up, and the shots from the real film. I do wish the film had pushed a little deeper into Bunuel’s methodology – and reasoning – in the film, which is very complex, and remains debated in films circles to this day. Bunuel was mocking in the film – but not really of the people of Las Hurdes, but more of a style of documentary filmmaking that was akin to what today we would call “poverty porn” and of audiences who were not able to think critically of what they were seeing. The film doesn’t ever dive into that though – framing it more of a story of friendship between Bunuel and Acin – the latter of whom would become a target of the Franco regime in the years following the making of the film. The film is a loving tribute to him – but I think it would be interesting if it were more than that as well. Still, you cannot help but admire that someone decided that not only did the making of Las Hurdes needed to be a film – but an animated one at that. Call it Bunuel for kids – that is, if kids can handle a little animal cruelty with their films.

Movie Review: Them That Follow

Them That Follow *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage.
Written by: Britt Poulton & Dan Madison Savage.
Starring: Alice Englert (Mara), Kaitlyn Dever (Dilly), Walton Goggins (Lemuel), Olivia Colman (Hope), Thomas Mann (Augie), Lewis Pullman (Garret), Jim Gaffigan (Zeke).
When you say that Them That Follow is a drama set in Appalachia, in a sect of fundamentalist Christian snake handlers, who probably have a certain movie in mind – perhaps a film that looks down and mocks its characters for their religion and beliefs. A film about rednecks that mocks them. And yet, that really isn’t what Them That Follow is. There is an air of inevitability to the film to be sure – you cannot have a movie with this many snakes in it, where in the first half there are lots of conversations about the police coming to take their snakes – and by extension their way of life – away from them, and not get to a scene where a snake is going to bite one of the characters. There is some suspense over who it is going to be – but not much. You kind of know where the film is going.
And yet, Them That Follow still works, mostly because it treats its characters with so much respect. No one in the film is a one note stereotype – someone to mock, etc. These are people whose beliefs are different – backwards and dangerous sure, but they come by them honestly, and there is certainly a long history of this. The film is about this isolated community – and how hard it can be to escape a community when it’s the only thing you know – and even if you want to.
The main character here is Mara (Alice Englert) – the daughter of the Pastor, Lemuel (Walton Goggins). Her mother died years ago, and she’s now in her late teens, so it’s time to get married. She is engaged to the solid, rather boring Garret (Lewis Pullman) – while carrying a secret, that she is in love with Augie (Thomas Mann) – and is carrying his baby. While Augie’s parents – Hope (Olivia Colman) and Zeke (Jim Gaffigan) – are true believers and followers of Lemuel, Augie has strayed from the path, and as such is no longer a suitable match for Mara. Her best friend is Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) – roughly the same age, whose mother recently has run off on her, so she comes to live with Mara and Lemuel. She is the type of best friends that Mara believes she can trust – but probably shouldn’t.
You get no prizes for guessing what happened in Them That Follows. From that setup, you can probably guess what it will be. But the film is more about the way it portrays its characters – all with great sympathy and complexity. Mara really does believe in her father’s belief system – right to the end of the movie she seems to be a true believer. But like many young people, her hormones got the best of her – and that basically makes her question everything in her life. It would be easy to make Lemuel into a monster – but the film never does. Goggins specializes in this type of character – the type that you would think would be a one note monster, but isn’t. Even when the truth comes out – he handles it in the way he thinks is best (it isn’t, but it’s also not in the judgmental monster you expect). The film is generous in the way it depicts everyone – from Colman’s Hope, who truly does care but cannot quite see beyond her faith, Dilly, torn between wanting a family, and her friendship, Garret, who thinks he is getting one thing, and reacts horribly when that turns out not to be true, and Augie, who is willing to do anything for Mara. The one character who never goes beyond caricature is Jim Gaffigan’s Zeke – who never really comes into focus.
The film is debut film from writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. The film doesn’t do anything all that new or unique. It doesn’t hit the heights of something like Winter’s Bone – but it’s a generous film, that takes its characters and questions seriously.