Movie Reviews

  • Louise Fletcher (1934-2022)
    by Dan Callahan on September 24, 2022 at 8:00 PM

    Sometimes an actor enters the pantheon because of one unforgettable performance, and surely there is no clearer example of this than Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in Miloš Forman’s film of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). With her soft voice and 1940s pageboy and slight smile, Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is devoted to a “calming bedside manner,” but with all-controlling steel underneath. Jack Nicholson’s rebellious Randle P. McMurphy, who finds himself in the mental ward she lords over, thinks he can handle her. McMurphy is a typical blue collar “bad boy” type of guy, a life force, a guy who is fun to be around, the center of attention. Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched sees that he is a problem, but both of them underestimate each other. Fletcher had her own subtext for Nurse Ratched’s relationship with McMurphy, which she revealed to the writer Michael Schulman in a very enlightening 2018 profile for Vanity Fair in which he asked her how she approached this role. “She had sacrificed her life for other people,” Fletcher said. “She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life, because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her.” Fletcher also thought that her Nurse Ratched was a 40-year-old virgin and was “very turned on by this McMurphy guy.” Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page, Angela Lansbury, Ellen Burstyn and quite a few other name actresses had all turned down the role of Nurse Ratched before Forman cast Fletcher, who was little-known in the mid-1970s. She had been born in Alabama to deaf parents, and Fletcher said later in life that her need to act had partly sprung from the way she acted out Bette Davis movies for her mother and father. Her father founded over 40 churches for the deaf. In her twenties, Fletcher made some appearances on TV, mainly in westerns like “Lawman” and “Maverick,” where her height (5 feet and 10 inches) wasn’t such a liability. She married a literary agent and producer named Jerry Bick in 1960, and she retired from acting in order to raise their two sons. Fletcher only returned to the profession when Bick asked her to play a role in Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” (1974). When Altman saw Fletcher using sign language with her parents, he was intrigued and asked her to work on a role for his new movie “Nashville” (1975) with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. Fletcher gave Tewkesbury a lot of material, and so she was very hurt when Altman gave her role to Lily Tomlin. Fletcher actively pursued the role of Nurse Ratched, but Forman wasn’t sure she was right for it at first. Nurse Ratched is described in the original Ken Kesey novel of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a very large and very obviously formidably evil woman, almost non-human, but Fletcher had a different idea for her. She wondered if Nurse Ratched’s evil, her need for control and her capacity for cruelty, wouldn’t be more frightening if she spoke in a soft way and gave encouraging little smiles when her rules were being obeyed. Forman saw what Fletcher was going for, but he wondered if what she was doing was right. On the first day of shooting, he told Fletcher not to tilt her head because it would read as weak, but Fletcher wanted to emphasize the soft and placating attitude this woman puts on for her inmates, and Forman eventually saw that she was right and re-shot this scene her way.  Even knowing some of Fletcher’s own back story for this character, her Nurse Ratched remains basically mysterious, and that is the value of this performance, which cannot be entirely rejected or shrugged off no matter what solid objections we might have to the gender imbalance or sexist basis of the material. It was Fletcher who saw this role as an opportunity to say something large about all the insidious people in this world, female and male, who are bureaucrats at heart and use the pointless rules of their bureaucracy to their advantage. Think of that face beneath the nurse’s cap Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched wears: steely, yet somehow soft, but is the softness weakness or is it a kind of moral decay that has started to show on her face? Think of the dated hairstyle Nurse Ratched wears, as if she has never felt the need to update it because to her it is always wartime, and she lives in the past and takes revenge on the present. Think even of the nasty humor she reveals when she tells Nicholson’s McMurphy that if he does not want to take his medication orally, then he can have it another way: “But I don’t think you’d like it, Mr. McMurphy,” she says, with that mild look on her face. And how can we forget the way Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched immediately says, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine” after finding the very bloody dead body of Billy (Brad Dourif), who has committed suicide after she shamed him for having sex and threatened to tell his mother about it. When McMurphy goes in to strangle Nurse Ratched, her eyes nearly pop out of her head, and it feels like we are finally seeing the non-human side of her that Kesey wrote about in his novel. In our final glimpse of Nurse Ratched, after McMurphy has been lobotomized, she wears a neck brace, and her manner is very soft, very “kind.” But we know what she is underneath. Fletcher has shown us. Anyone who has had to deal with bureaucracies knows that there are Nurse Ratcheds, both male and female, in every one of them, and their voices are “friendly” as they twist their knives. There is no other performance by any actor that shows this type of person in such a substantial and revelatory way. Fletcher won the Academy Award for best actress for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and she gave one of the most touching acceptance speeches when she thanked her parents in sign language. Her career didn’t work out too well after her Oscar win, but she had made her mark. See just one image of Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched and you know what it means: the face of petty authority, more machine sometimes than human, but human in some of the worst ways underneath.

  • Smile
    by Katie Rife on September 23, 2022 at 8:29 PM

    When the horror histories of the 2010s are written, the decade will be associated with trauma metaphors the way the ‘80s are with slasher movies. And although it comes on the cusp of a new decade, the new Paramount wide-release horror movie "Smile" fits right in with its PTSD-induced kin. The difference here is that the monster is barely a metaphor at all: The demon, or evil spirit, or whatever it is—the movie is vague on this point—literally feeds on, and is spread by, trauma. Specifically, the vague something that dogs Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) throughout “Smile” likes the taste of people who have witnessed someone else dying by suicide—gruesome, painful, bloody suicide, by garden shears and oncoming trains and the shattered fragments of a ceramic vase in a hospital intake room. That’s where Rose briefly meets Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who’s brought to the psychiatric emergency ward where Rose works, shaking and terrified that something is out to get her. “It looks like people, but it’s not a person,” Laura explains, saying that this thing has been following her ever since she witnessed one of her professors bludgeoning himself to death with a hammer four days earlier. At the end of the extended dialogue scene that opens the film, Laura turns to Rose with a psychotic grin on her face and proceeds to slit her own throat. This would unsettle anyone, but it especially bothers Rose given that Rose’s own mother died by suicide many years earlier. That lingering trauma, and the fears and stigma that surround it, form the film’s most intelligent thematic thread: Rose’s fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) admits that he’s researched inherited mental illness online, and harsh terms like “nutjobs,” “crazies,” and “head cases” are used to describe mentally ill people throughout the film. The idea that she might not actually be plagued by the same entity that killed Laura, and that her hallucinations, lost time, and emotional volatility might have an internal cause, seems to bother Rose more than the concept of being cursed. The people around Rose, including Trevor, her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinzer), certainly seem to think the problem is more neurochemical than supernatural—that is, until it’s way too late.  The only one who believes Rose is her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who’s been assigned to Laura’s case. Their tentative reunion opens the door to the film’s mystery element, which makes up much of “Smile’s” long, but not overly long, 115-minute run time. The film’s storyline follows many of your typical beats of a supernatural horror-mystery, escalating from a quick Google (the internet-age equivalent of a good old-fashioned library scene) to an in-person interview with a traumatized, incarcerated survivor of whatever this malevolent entity actually is. Brief reference is made to a cluster of similar events in Brazil, opening up the door to a sequel. “Smile’s” greatest asset is its relentless, oppressive grimness: This is a film where children and pets are as vulnerable as adults, and the horror elements are bloody and disturbing to match the dark themes. This unsparing sensibility is enhanced by Bacon’s shaky, vulnerable performance as Rose: At one point, she screams at Trevor, “I am not crazy!,” then mumbles an apology and looks down at her shoes in shame. At another, her wan smile at her nephew’s birthday party stands as both a bleak counterpoint to the sick grin the entity’s victims see before they die (thus the film’s title), as well as a relatable moment for viewers who have reluctantly muddled their way through similar gatherings in the midst of a depressive episode.  Sadly, despite a compelling lead and strong craft behind the camera—the color palette, in shades of lavender, pink, teal, and gray, is capably chosen and very of the moment—“Smile” is diminished by the sheer fact that it’s not as fresh a concept as it might seem. This is director Parker Finn’s debut feature as a writer and director, based on a short film that won a jury award at SXSW 2020. To spin that into a non-franchise wide-release movie from a major studio like Paramount within two years—in a pandemic, no less!—is an impressive achievement, to be sure.  But in padding out the concept from an 11-minute short into a nearly two-hour movie, “Smile” leans too heavily not only on formulaic mystery plotting, but also on horror themes and imagery lifted from popular hits like “The Ring” and “It Follows.” David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film is an especially prominent, let’s say, influence on “Smile,” which, combined with its placement on the “it’s really about trauma” continuum, make this a less bracing movie experience than it might have been had it broken the mold more aggressively. It does introduce Finn as a capable horror helmer, one with a talent for an elegantly crafted jump scare and a knack for making a viewer feel uneasy and upset as they exit the theater—both advantages for a film like this one. But fans excited to see an “original” horror film hitting theaters should temper those expectations.  This review was filed from the premiere at Fantastic Fest. It opens on September 30th.

  • Athena
    by Tomris Laffly on September 23, 2022 at 12:41 PM

    You aren’t likely to see a more rightfully angry film this year than “Athena,” a non-stop opus examining the racism, inequality, and police violence that wreak havoc on France’s banlieue communities of color. That palpable fury rages through the film’s opening sequence, one that director Romain Gavras shoots in a pronounced single take that emphasizes its impressive craftsmanship; perhaps a little too loudly. But mostly for good reason, as this sequence is simply one of the most challenging single takes we’ve seen in cinema recently, even when the technique is more accessible to filmmakers of all stripes these days (and emerged in mainstream TV discussions as of late, thanks to that crazy one-shot episode seven of the wildly popular “The Bear”). So let’s break it down, shall we? First, there's the murmur of the news reports in the background, helping us pick up on the fact that police violence has been on the rise. Then we see the defiant face of Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a French soldier freshly returned from serving in Mali, and brother of the 13-year-old Idir who had just fallen victim to one such senseless instance of cop killing. There is undeniable grief in Abdel’s stance, and he does want justice. But the military officer keeps it cool all the same, inviting his community surrounding a police station to follow his example. The camera doesn’t interrupt the movement and finds in the crowd Abdel’s brother Karim (Sami Slimane, a searing presence in his screen debut). His eyes burning with wrath, and his posture impatient, he lights up and throws a Molotov cocktail towards the door, starting a well-planned riot amid a rampaging crowd. Through that—and an overwhelming action sequence of smoke-filled chaos that follows—Karim and the protesters take control of the location as well as a hefty supply of guns, with cinematographer Matias Boucard’s unflinching and agile camera following them to their housing project, Athena: a place these revolutionaries proudly revere above all else, standing tall on its edges. Truth be told, Surkin’s pulsating score that spreads itself over this sequence (and many other similarly impressive ones thereafter) is big and exhausting. The dynamic between the music and visuals is one that brings to mind Hans Zimmer’s occasional overindulgence when composing for Christopher Nolan—competing against the magnitude of the filmmaker’s already grand images, instead of amplifying them. But apart from that, “Athena”—a Greek tragedy constructed by the son of Costa-Gavras with recognizable hints of “Z”—immensely satisfies as a fast-moving political thriller and urban drama that feels genuinely cinematic, with technical finesse to spare. Still, the film that essentially follows the late Idir’s three disparate brothers is more emotionally gripping in its rare moments that focus on small and quiet gestures and undercurrents. A realistically rendered (and recited) Islamic funeral prayer comes to mind, one that simmers with pain and familial grudges. Elsewhere, the third brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), gives "Athena" one of its more challenging and narratively tricky storylines, being the sibling who’s found a way to line his pockets in the midst of all the injustice his people are subjected to. Running a drug operation out of Athena, Moktar’s primary interest happens to be his own survival and he’s not afraid to go to dubious lengths for it. The astute and immersive script—written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly of the similarly themed “Les Misérables”—sees the brothers as representative pillars of the different ways immigrants and marginalized communities take on systems of power that are not designed for them to succeed. Abdel is something closer to a both-sides-ist, believing that there could be a harmonious way for the opposing ends to come together. Moktar is the opportunist, one who can look at a broken whole, see its cracks and muscle his way into those fault lines for financial gain and clout. Karim, on the other hand, is a young and scorching all-or-nothing radical, one who believes the system can’t be fair for anyone until it’s made to collapse and radically rebuilt. While some of these struggles are specific to the French communities the film follows, they are also universal, with recent echoes deeply familiar here in the US. And despite a morally ambiguous parting note, “Athena” incisively engages with these battles despite a brassy style that at times overpowers them. On Netflix today.

  • The Justice of Bunny King
    by Sheila O'Malley on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    Bunny King (Essie Davis) walks home after a long day squeegeeing car windshields at a busy intersection. She's made a couple of bucks. She puts the money into a big glass jar of coins and hides it in her closet. Then she gets undressed, taking off her bra. The bra's underwire has pierced through the frayed fabric. That underwire would have been cutting into her skin all day. But look at the jar of coins. You could get a second-hand bra for less than 20 bucks, but Bunny King doesn't even have that. A new bra is a luxury she cannot afford. Effective storytelling is usually grounded in detail. "The Justice of Bunny King," an amazing directorial debut from Gaysorn Thavat, is full of details like the bra. Details bypass condescension, and so many films about what is referred to as "the working class" stink with condescension. The recent "Holler" was a notable exception, as are the films of Eliza Hittman. It's refreshing when you don't sense the actors are only in the location for six weeks, with Los Angeles on speed dial right offscreen. Everything in "The Justice of Bunny King"—the clothes, the car, the decor, Bunny's sharpened eyeliner pencil, the plastic cake box, the worn-out bra—hasn't been carefully placed in the frame. They were there before the camera started rolling, and they will be thereafter. Bunny's kids, Ruben (Angus Stevens) and Shannon (Amelie Baynes), have been taken away from her, for reasons not revealed in full until near the film's end. The kids are in foster care, and Bunny is allowed short visits, all while a social worker hovers on the sidelines. Ruben is a teenager, and wary of his mother. Shannon is a small disabled child, clinging to Bunny, but young enough to call her foster mom "Mommy" too. Bunny cannot regain custody of her kids until she has a job and adequate housing, but how can she find adequate housing with just a jar of coins? In the meantime, she crashes with her sister Sylvia (Darien Takle), Sylvia's husband Bevan (Erroll Shand), and Bunny's niece Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie). There's tension. Bunny cooks and cleans, feeling like she is imposing on the family. There's a limit to her sister's generosity. Then, one day, Bunny witnesses something, something terrible. She calls it out, shattering the already fragile family dynamic. Bunny is tossed out of the house, her stuff (except for the coin jar) dumped out the window. It's obvious from Bunny's face that she is running on fumes: there's hysteria at play, an urgent and off-putting energy. People recoil from her. She can be a little bit scary, especially when she is angry or desperate. But her life is desperate. Even having time to think is a luxury. The social worker sets her up with a "dress for success" consultant, crucial to making a good impression when looking for an apartment or a job. Bunny staggers down the sidewalk in white platform sandals and a tailored blue suit, trying on a competent and confident personality. But people eventually see through it to the raw need underneath. When cornered or frustrated, Bunny makes big bold choices, and many of these choices are beyond the pale, putting her into a state from which she cannot retreat. Eventually, Tonya runs away from home to join up with her outlaw aunt, trailing along as Bunny barges into social workers' offices, filling out forms with impatience bordering on fury. Tonya has her own trauma but being with Bunny is better than being at home. Sophie Henderson ("Fantail," "Baby Done") wrote the screenplay, which is somehow taut and chaotic at the same time. Bunny's frantic energy is woven into the DNA of the script. There's a dedication to realism: a sequence where Bunny stays with the big boisterous family of her squeegee pal Semu (Lively Nili) is particularly well-observed: the elasticity of the family, their calm acceptance of her presence, but then, awfully, the moment Bunny realizes it's time to move on. A long sequence at the end involving Bunny, Tonya and a social worker (the excellent Tanea Heke) catapults the film into an almost "Dog Day Afternoon" arena. The aural texture of this world has been given pride of place by sound designer Bruno Barrett-Garnier. It's not pumped up artificially, but great care has been given to sounds: Venetian blinds snapping shut, the violent scratch of Scotch tape pulled off the dispenser, a gas-guzzling car roaring to life, even the agonizing sound of the phone ringing. Phone calls are never good in "The Justice of Bunny King." A couple of well-placed songs by The Mess Hall and 4 Non Blondes provide the only respite in the film's emotionally fraught atmosphere. The storyline, of a desperate working-class woman trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps, never giving up, even against tremendous odds, is well-worn and familiar. These stories are usually built to be inspirational. Cue swelling strings. "The Justice of Bunny King" allows for ambivalence and complexity, and, in fact, wouldn't be the movie it is without those things. It's not that Bunny is a bad person, it's that you can see the social worker's hesitation to allow visitation, you can understand why Ruben keeps his distance from his mother. He's been burned too many times.  Bunny is unpredictable, and she is capable of great violence, you know that just by looking at her. As the social worker reminds her repeatedly, it is their job to keep her children "safe." Bunny crumbles, setting off sparks of rage: "You mean safe from me." Well, yes. That is what they mean. In a cruel irony, she did try to "keep them safe," and that's why she's in this predicament in the first place. Her commitment to Tonya is not just a replacement for her kids. Tonya is in danger and must be saved. Bunny was the only one brave enough to confront this. Thomasin McKenzie showed an eerie calm maturity in Debra Granik's 2018 film "Leave No Trace," where McKenzie played a role similar to that of Tonya: she trails along after her father, fearful of what will happen to him, because she loves him but also because she is a child, she has nowhere else to go. Tonya is trapped. Her wild aunt Bunny offers her a lawless escape. Tonya can perceive Bunny's issues, but at least Bunny isn't tricky and duplicitous. McKenzie is such a centered young actress, easily tapping into Tonya's fear and trauma, but also her hunger for survival. In her own quiet way, she's as bold as Bunny. If anyone is going to come out of this with at least a shot at making a good life, it's Tonya. Essie Davis embraces complexity, as seen in her towering performance as the insomniac mother in "The Babadook" or the weird wealthy Helen in last year's "Nitram." Even her performance as the mother of a dying teenager in "Babyteeth" is complex, Davis emanating a deadpan (and very funny) resignation to the absurdity of life. In "The Justice of Bunny King," Davis' face, at times, looks like it's being flayed alive, pared down to the bone, her emotions quivering on the surface of her skin. Davis does not play Bunny as an inspirational figure. What she does play, with everything she's got, is Bunny's objective: to throw a birthday party for Shannon. Bunny may not be able to find a house or get a job, and she can't get her kids back, but she can throw a party for Shannon, and no one can stop her. By the end of the film, Bunny has been put through the wringer, and so have we. Davis outdoes herself. Now playing in theaters. 

  • A Jazzman's Blues
    by Glenn Kenny on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    The films of Tyler Perry have been proving themselves critic-proof since his 2005 debut feature “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” And yet outlets such as this one keep assigning writers to review them. Partially because it’s what they do. But he has always been a creator who demands critical interest. The populist appeal of the work, its sometimes-strident quasi-evangelical moralism, its occasional theatricality (which illuminates Perry’s artistic roots); it’s all worth considering. Even when the work doesn’t satisfy certain expectations. Perry’s canny moves into the Hollywood mainstream via acting roles in newsworthy pictures ranging from “Gone Girl” to “Don’t Look Up” may have expanded the audience for his directorial work. And with his recent deal with Netflix, that directorial work has gone into new territory. His new picture, “A Jazzman’s Blues,” in which Perry does not appear, is from a script he says he wrote 27 years ago. On a recent appearance on “The Today Show,” Perry said, “I had to be strategic in what I was doing before, so I had to make sure I had a hit after a hit after a hit, so this one I just wanted to take my time and do it at the right moment.” Telling this story now, he says, became imperative as Perry witnessed contemporary book banning, distortion of Black history, “the homogenizing of slavery and Jim Crow” being one aspect of that which troubles him particularly. From its very opening shots “A Jazzman’s Blues” shows that Perry has developed a genuine fluency as a filmmaker. The story’s setup is a frame, something right out of John Grisham maybe: sometime in the not-too-distant past, a Black woman watches a political pitch on television from the current Attorney General of Hopewell, Georgia, disdaining his racist views. Nonetheless, this old woman soon turns up at the man’s office, bearing a sheaf of letters and making a request. “You want me to look into a murder that happened over 40 years ago,” says the bureaucrat in disbelief. (As it happens the woman knows everything but intends the query as a lesson.) We flashback to 1937, and a rural Black community, and a lot of unhappiness. The sensitive, tentative young man nicknamed Bayou (Joshua Boone) comes from a family of itinerant musicians. Including a father who huffs “Boy got to learn to get tough at some point.” The fact that Boone can sing but can’t play makes him an object of contempt for that father and for Boone’s brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott); with the latter there’s a real Cain and Abel vibe going on. Good fortune smiles on Boone in the form of LeAnne (Solea Pfeiffer), an outcast of a different sort. “I can still smell the lavender and the moonshine,” Boone avers in one of his letters. For a short time the two share a secret love. She teaches him how to read. But she’s snatched away by her avaricious mother who takes her up North and marries the girl, who can pass for white, to a well-off-Caucasian. 1947 brings an unfortuitous reunion of Bayou and LeAnne. “What is wrong with these negroes down here?” asks a member of LeAnne’s new people when Bayou is so forward as to take a seat in a white family’s kitchen. “Oh, we keep ‘em in line,” responds a representative of local law enforcement. After a few twists and turns, and a not-secret-enough return to amorous activities between Bayou and Leanne, Leanne’s mom actively tries to get Bayou lynched. The issue thus forced, Bayou flees to the North. (He had actually been doing okay at the roadhouse founded by mom Hattie.) And as time goes on Bayou’s singing starts paying off. He is the jazzman of the title, but his success as a singer doesn’t compensate for the pain of losing his love. The tensions between him and trumpet-playing Willie Earl increase, especially as Willie Earl turns to heroin. And then there’s the matter of a baby. And of an ill-fated visit back home. While the direction maintains a smooth and often tense tone (while sometimes serving up peculiar juxtapositions, like a childbirth intercut with a “jungle”-themed nightclub dance), Perry’s script hits a lot of notes right on the nose (there’s a white jazz booker who’s a Jew who escaped the Holocaust), and why not. It also has a lot of astute observations on the psychology of racism. A scene in which LeAnne, living the life of a white woman, upbraids a dark-skinned “domestic,” is genuinely jarring. The star-crossed lovers of the movie are caught in a loop of American racism, and their existences are defined by a desire for escape. Escape is a romantic notion, and this movie has its romantic side, for sure. But underneath the trappings, including a lush score by Aaron Zigman and the near-dreamy cinematography of Brett Pawlak, there’s a genuine anger about the utter senselessness of the hate that’s defined our history. Some critics have compared Perry to Douglas Sirk. This is a fallacious analogy that, ultimately, is a kind of insult to both filmmakers. Each of these storytellers exercise social consciousness in styles that are entirely distinct from each other. And “A Jazzman’s Blues” proves that when Perry applies himself in a particular fashion, his work can stand entirely on its own.  On Netflix today.

  • Petrov's Flu
    by Glenn Kenny on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    To call something “a real Russian movie” might be a peculiar kind of honorific in these times. But the dank, mordantly funny, thoroughly saturated, well, Russian-ness of the remarkable “Petrov’s Flu,” written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov from an as-yet-to-be-Englished novel by Alexei Salnikov, is one of its signature qualities. It begins ordinarily enough: on a bus, in not-quite present-day Russia, a man named Petrov is sniffling and sneezing. The image is a very wide widescreen, the 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio some of you may recall from Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev.” (Yes, I know the ratio was not unique to that film but indulge me.) The bus is very crowded and the man’s coughing and sneezing does not endear him to his fellow passengers. Someone among them starts complaining about how Gorbachev sent the country to hell. Soon a mentally disturbed older woman, in the remnants of a festive costume that included a blonde braided wig, starts yelling about how everyone needs to cough up their fare. Poor Petrov seems to be only trying to get home, wherever that is. In a bit, a van cuts off the bus, and stops it. The back door opens and an animated man with a bald pate beckons Petrov to disembark from the bus and join him in the van, the back part of which has a coffin in it and is heavily decorated with roses. Once Petrov’s inside he’s shown the fancy lighting system for this not-quite hearse. His host, Igor, wants to take him visiting. Where? Well, that’s the question. Lest you take my four-star review as high praise intended for a general audience, I need to clarify. This very Russian movie is wholly phantasmagoric and non-linear, which is to say hard to follow. The experience is more like an interactive jigsaw puzzle than anything else, if you can imagine such a thing, and by the end you’ll not be sure whether all the pieces were finally put into place anyway.  In one synopsis of the movie I’ve read, Petrov is described as an auto mechanic. In another, as a comic book artist. I believe in the reality of the film he’s the latter, but I can understand why people might be confused. This is one hallucinatory flu, the extent of which you may not fully appreciate until the end credits when you see that each of the amazing actors in this, all unknown quantities in the States, plays multiple roles in this undulating, expansive universe. As Petrov (Semyon Serzin) wanders through his interiority, his estranged wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova) experiences her own endless stress. Working as a librarian, she’s obliged to stay late on Poetry Night, and when one of the participants blows a fuse, Petrova’s eyes go black, like Ray Milland’s at the end of “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes,” and she develops superpowers that allow her to bloodily wallop the offender. In the meantime, their son has a very real fever that causes them great concern. But the son is hell bent on going to a New Year’s Dance, and Petrov is determined to bring him. In a 1.37 frame, Petrov remembers his own experience of a New Year’s Dance, and how the young woman portraying a Snow Maiden, wearing a wig with blonde plaits, took his fevered hand and told him how hot it was, while he now remembers the snow maiden’s hand as icy.  In the movie’s final third, the format moves to a beautiful widescreen black and white, telling the story of a young actress, who wears a sweater from the same pattern that an older work colleague of Petrova’s is knitting in the present day. Her tale is of love, unwanted pregnancy, and being coerced into portraying the Snow Maiden at a New Year’s Dance. There’s also bloody assisted suicide, squelched literary ambition, sublimated and not sublimated homosexuality, arson, and a lot of drinking. All of it staged and shot with conscientiousness and ingenuity rarely seen in films from any country anymore. It is indeed a phantasmagoria, and perhaps an overload. The esteemed critic Todd McCarthy compared the experience of watching it to “having a load of garbage jammed down your throat and piled on top of you until you just can't take it anymore.” I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. The garbage is cultural detritus, memory, nostalgia, hopelessness, a system that never worked and never will work. The characters here don’t really have a choice insofar as “taking it” is concerned. At the film’s finale, Petrov, still ill but finally alone, simply opts to go on.  Now playing in select theaters. 

  • Nothing Compares
    by Nell Minow on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    We expect a lot from our celebrities. We want them to edgy enough to make us feel special. But we don’t want them to be so edgy that they offend someone. And if, God forbid, they do offend someone, we are quick to cancel them. Until we un-cancel them. The cheekily offensive Sex Pistols was a group so edgy they turned down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But front man Johnny Rotten provided the voice of an Acoustiguide at the ultra-establishment Metropolitan Museum of Art’s British fashion exhibit. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” song was so controversial that then-candidate for Vice President Dan Quayle denounced it. He is now beloved by the grandmothers who know him from “Law & Order: SVU.” Sinead O’Connor has not had a second act of that magnitude, perhaps because she was not just unprepared for massive pop stardom but not really interested in it. A new documentary about the Irish singer informs us at the end that her still-massively popular version of the song by Prince that gives the film its title was not played in the movie because the Prince estate declined to give them permission.  No problem. That song is in our bloodstreams, and if we want to see the iconic video again we can always add to the over 300 million views it has on YouTube. It is more illuminating to see some of the outtakes and hear about what went on behind the scenes, including the director’s insistence on a woman cinematographer, Dominique Le Rigoleur, because he thought O’Connor would respond with more vulnerability looking at a woman.  “You fell in love with that tear,” someone says about the video. Importantly, although the tear was real—O’Connor tells us she was thinking of her late mother—the words were someone else’s. The fans who loved the song and wanted to hear more of the same as the worldwide success moved O’Connor’s tour from theaters to arenas, found that performing the songs she wrote accessed the anger she was not able to express off-stage. She tells us about the repressive, church-controlled Irish culture she grew up in, with women told to be sweet and accommodating and everyone told they were sinners.  She also tells us about her unstable and abusive mother, who beat her daughter and locked her out of the house, forcing her to be out all night, begging to be let back inside. O’Connor first began to sing as a way to “make the devil fall asleep,” to mollify and distract her mother. But she then declared her daughter “unmanageable” and sent her to the horrifically abusive institution exposed in the film “The Magdalene Sisters.” The nuns punished her by making her spend the night with elderly patients moaning for help that never came. Her song, “Troy” was inspired by her mother, “a testament,” she tells us, to work through her feelings until she will not have to sing it again. O’Connor found success quickly. She had that extraordinary voice, with impeccable clarity and the ability to go from a whisper to a shout while staying in key. And she had that instantly iconic appearance, the androgynous contrast between her shaved head, leather jacket, and boots and her mesmerizing, long-lashed eyes.  She also became pregnant at 20, just as her album was released. The discussion of the label’s response to her pregnancy and the design of the album cover(s)—a less confrontational version for the U.S.—is one of the movie’s most powerful revelations.  This is not the typical “behind the music” documentary. It does not aspire to be comprehensive either as biography, as an overview of an entire artistic career, or as cultural commentary. There is no effort to cover O’Connor’s marriages, religion, name changes, her mental illness challenges, or even the last 11 albums she has produced. The focus is on what will be the first line of O’Connor’s obituary: on “Saturday Night Live” she sang a Bob Marley song about racism with lyrics based on a speech to the UN by Haile Selassie. And then she held up a photograph of the pope and tore it in half. The film reveals, as O’Connor did in her memoir, that her reason was as personal as it was political; that was the photograph that was on the wall of her mother’s home.  It caused a furor. The audience applauded when subsequent SNL host Joe Pesci says he would have smacked her. "Saturday Night Live" also had Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra calling Jan Hooks as O’Connor a “bald chick.” Radio stations swore never to play her music again, and protests included a bulldozer running over O’Connor’s CDs.  Director Kathryn Ferguson and her co-writers Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie want us to think about the way O’Connor’s influence is reflected in today’s outspoken female performers, a legacy they consider more significant than the Prince song about lost love. A compilation of quick clips at the end is not entirely persuasive about O’Connor’s impact, but her story and her voice are impact enough. Premiering on Showtime on September 30th. 

  • Sidney
    by Marya E. Gates on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    “If there were equality of opportunity in this business there would be fifteen Sidney Poitiers and ten to twelve Harry Belafontes. But there is not.” This truth is at the heart of “Sidney,” Reginald Hudlin’s new documentary about the Hollywood star Sidney Poitier. A chronological recounting of Poitier’s odds-defying breakthrough into the classic Hollywood system and becoming the first Black actor to win the Best Actor Oscar, this Oprah Winfrey-produced documentary does a wonderful job of maintaining the myth of Poitier as a trailblazer actor, director, activist, husband and father.  In a gorgeously filmed interview that will surely make fans of the late actor emotional, Poitier addresses the camera directly as he shares his origins on Cat Island in the Bahamas. Born two months early, his father was ready to bury him in a shoebox, but his mother sought out a soothsayer to assure her that her youngest son would have a bright future. This knowledge that he was supposed to die before he even lived pushed Poitier to live his life with gusto. Poitier attributes everything he became as a man to the foundation laid by his parents. His mother’s compassion and his father’s belief that the measure of a man is found in his ability to take care of his children. Along with Poitier’s oral history of his own childhood in the Bahamas, teenage years facing racism in Jim Crow Miami, and early days struggling to break into the American Negro Theatre in Harlem, the documentary features talking head style conversations with those who knew him and those who were inspired by him. This includes interviews with his daughters, his ex-wife Juanita Hardy, his widow Joanna Shimkus, historian Nelson George, biographer Aram Goudsouzia, and actors Morgan Freeman, Halle Berry, and Denzel Washington.  While it's refreshing to hear from Hardy and his daughters from his first marriage, the darker aspects of his nine-year affair with his “Paris Blues” co-star Diahann Carroll is highly sanitized, the implosion of which is only addressed by Carroll through a short archival clip. It’s disingenuous to not include more of Carroll’s point of view about their tempestuous relationship. Especially when compared to the raw honesty with which Ethan Hawke's recent documentary "The Last Movie Stars" explored the more complicated aspects of fellow “Paris Blues” co-stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s affair, one that blew up two marriages before resulting in their long lasting marriage. “Sidney” does a fine job outlining Poitier’s breakthrough into mainstream Hollywood movies and eventually into megastar status. Hudlin highlights the films—and filmmakers—who were brave enough to include a more realistic presentation of a Black man than previous decades in Hollywood, starting with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who handpicked Poitier to play a young doctor in his drama “No Way Out.” From there the doc navigates the ways in which Poitier’s roles in films like “A Raisin In The Sun” and his Oscar-winning performance in “Lilies of the Field” paved a path for more nuanced portrayals of Black life in mainstream Hollywood cinema. While the doc does explore the polarizing reception of Poitier within the Black community, especially in films like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” it does so only fleetingly. James Baldwin, who wrote critically of both films in his book The Devil Finds Work, is shown in an archival clip—but his words are never used, with Hudlin either assuming the viewer is familiar with how Baldwin criticized the works, or doesn’t want those words to spoil his thesis that the films need to be understood within the context of when they were released. This ignores that Baldwin was criticizing them when they were released.  There's also a lack of context around the other Black actors who did find some work in Hollywood. Paul Robeson gets a mention, along with the negative stereotypes portrayed by Mantan Moreland and Stepin Fetchit, but there's no mention of serious actors like James Edwards, Canada Lee, or Juano Hernandez. However, the interviews with Freeman, Berry, and Washington expressing just how deeply Poitier’s breakthrough as a star in a way these others were unable to helps contextualize what made Poitier’s career success such a watershed moment for Black actors in the industry. The doc fares best in its exploration of Poitier’s decades-long friendship with Harry Belafonte. The two met while working in the theater together, with Poitier getting his big break while filling in for Belafonte one night when he was called in for a last minute shift for his day job. Hudlin does an excellent job chronicling their friendship through those early days in the theater to their political work for civil rights in the 1960s to their collaboration together in Poitier’s directorial debut “Buck and the Preacher” in 1972. Archival clips of the two on talk shows like the "Dick Cavett Show" allows their deep admiration—and playful rivalry—to shine through even decades later.  Poitier's impact as a director is briefly explored in contrast with the Blaxploitation era films at the same time. Barbra Streisand explains why she, Poitier, and Newman created the production company First Artists in order to have more control of their projects. Not only did Poitier shine as a director of comedies, he also made sure those working behind the scenes in his productions were mostly Black. But again, the doc shirks exploring the more complicated aspects of Poitier’s directorial output. Namely, the many films he directed starring Bill Cosby.  “It’s difficult when you’re carrying other people’s dreams,” Poitier tells Oprah at her 42nd birthday party. Herein lies the challenge of telling a man like Poitier’s story. Do you print the legend or do you delve deeper into the flaws? It’s a balancing act for sure, and one that Hudlin doesn’t quite pull off.  “Sidney” works more as an explainer for why Sidney Poitier remains such an important figure in American history—not just Hollywood history—than it does as a warts-and-all biography of Sidney the man. It may be too soon for that kind of documentary about Poitier, whose impact looms large over a Hollywood that still doesn’t have the equity of opportunity he opined some 50 years ago.  This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 10th. "Sidney" will premiere in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on September 23rd.

  • Catherine Called Birdy
    by Marya E. Gates on September 23, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    Set in the 13th century, “Catherine Called Birdy” is a labor of love for writer/director Lena Dunham, who first read Karen Cushman’s 1994 Newberry-winning novel of the same name when she was just ten years old. But this incredibly loose adaptation leans a little too heavily into Dunham’s economically oblivious feminism, stripping the novel of much of its thematic heft, resulting in crowd-pleasing, bawdy comedy that’s more heart than it is head. Lady Catherine aka Birdy (Bella Ramsey), the rebellious 14-year-old daughter of Sir Rollo Lord of Stonebridge (Andrew Scott, oddly presenting himself like a flamboyant Bright Young Thing from the 1920s than a lewd Medieval Lord), spends her days rolling in the mud, playing with her best friend the goat boy Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), and shirking her chores.  When Birdy starts her monthlies, aided by her nurse Morwenna (Lesley Sharp), she hides the fact from her father as long as possible. Having seen her loving mother Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper, doing the best she can to save an underwritten role) go through six stillbirth pregnancies, the last thing Birdy wants to do is be married and become a mother.  However, due to the Lord’s extravagances, the only way to keep the estate above water financially is to marry Birdy off to the highest bidder. From there we follow Birdy as she outwits suitor after suitor, while secretly pining for her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), the only good man she knows. That is, until she becomes betrothed to a wily rich man called Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye, maybe the only actor who actually gets Medieval humor), who finds Birdy’s trickery alluring.  As she attempts to find a way out of her fate, Birdy witnesses her friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) become married off to a nine-year-old child Duke, while George makes a match with an eccentric, yet rich, widow named Ethelfritha (Sophie Okonedo). Dunham clearly understands that in this era, most marriages were a financial matter. Women were traded for titles, for land, or for cold hard cash.  Which is why it’s so strange that the rest of the economic realities of Cushman’s novel are universally discarded. Scott’s Lord of Stonebridge gets one scene where he briefly explains how when he was 13 he had to save the village by marrying Birdy’s mother, but is cut off by Birdy who calls him out for his own financial misdeeds. In the novel, Cushman elegantly weaves in the economic realities of Lords and villages and the renting of land, explaining the way they are all tied up together in an economic system that mostly only benefits the Royals at the very top.  Why then, does the village in which Birdy and her family live mostly exude a weird utopian Medieval Times vibe? Birdy comments on how her father’s Christmas feasts were more extravagant when she was younger, yet never once does she—or the movie—contemplate how worse off the rest of the village must be in the trickle-down economics of it all. Nor in all its girl power will Birdy get out of this marriage situation as she seems to realize that her fate is also the fate of the village. The money from her marriage will help them all, not just her father.  Cushman’s novel explored what it was like to be a teenager at the time of Medieval England, which is so different from our modern sensibilities that it would be like visiting a different planet. It takes a willful misreading—or disregard—of the book’s ethos to remove the economics from it all, or to strip Birdy from the strength and fortitude she shows in finding value in her ability to save her family, and her village.  One could argue all of this would make for a dour film, yet having read the book both as a child when it was first released and more recently in order to refamiliarize myself with the material, I found it inspiring how well Cushman blends these serious matters with the same bawdy humor that makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales still a hoot to read nearly a thousand years on. And it's this humor that Dunham most faithfully carries on in her adaptation, with flatulence jokes aplenty. Although, most of the film’s jokes do not align with Chaucer, but rather are rooted in wordplay that is funny for a modern audience’s ear only. However, Dunham is not Monty Python, and many of the jokes are either forced or don’t land at all. One sight gag with a pigeon arrives dead on arrival—literally.  Ramsey is indeed a find. Birdy’s spirit is like a wild, roaring brook whose nature is to keep flowing no matter what obstacles lay before her. Unfortunately, key changes from the book’s ending rob her of what should be a transformational coming-of-age. Instead of finding out the value of herself from within, she becomes a damsel to be saved by a man, her value ultimately stemming from her father’s realization of his love for her. While this makes for an emotional finale, especially for Scott, it deprives the character—and Ramsey—of a big moment of self-actualization. Every film adaptation has to pick and choose what elements of its source material to retain and what to jettison. It’s unfortunate then that for “Catherine Called Birdy,” Dunham sticks so closely to the surface, leaving behind its strong foundation. There is surely an audience for this kind of feel-good quote-un-quote feminism. But a book of such richness, with a heroine as complex as Birdy, deserves much more than this genial Renn Faire romp. This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12th. "Catherine Called Birdy" will release in theaters on September 23 and be available on Prime Video on October 7.

  • Lou
    by Brian Tallerico on September 23, 2022 at 12:39 PM

    When I told my wife that I had to watch “An Allison Janney Action Movie” for a review this week, she was a little startled (although interested in the concept, to be fair). I’m all for unexpected casting, and the truth is that Janney has the range to do just about anything, as she’s proven with her long, award-winning career. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Janney is easily the best thing about “Lou,” but watching this talented actress give so much to a movie that gives absolutely nothing back starts to get depressing. She’s constantly trying to pull “Lou” into more interesting territory, but the clunky filmmaking and silly script keep pulling in the other direction, with her talented co-stars Logan Marshall-Green and Jurnee Smollett stuck in the tug-of-war.  In what’s sort of a gender-swapped “Taken,” Janney plays the title character, a loner in a remote area of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. The film opens with Lou in a dark place. She kills a deer to establish her tough guy bona fides for the audience, withdraws all of her money, and writes a mysterious letter to someone about inheriting her home. She slugs some bourbon and prepares to take her own life when a woman renting a home nearby bursts through the door. It’s Hannah (Smollett), and her daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman) is missing. Oh, did I mention a storm is coming? It’s about to get ugly outside and there’s now a missing girl. Hannah knows who took her daughter—her ex-husband Phillip (Logan Marshall-Green), who we meet beating and killing a man who was silly enough to pick up a hitchhiker. It’s revealed that Phillip was not just an abusive husband to Hannah but faked his own death so he could get to his daughter under the cover of being presumed dead. Phillip is not your ordinary sociopath—he was a special forces soldier, and he even brought along a couple of his buddies to help with the kidnapping. All of them underestimated Lou. Of course. Once Lou and Hannah get out into the torrential rain, “Lou” should have had momentum as a survival thriller. And there’s a great action scene in a cabin wherein the title character unleashes her training on a couple of dudes who don’t see it coming. With some tight fight choreography that Janney completely sells, I was ready for the film to build from there. And then it just stalls out.  A ridiculous twist doesn’t help. Without spoiling, “Lou” has one of those suspension of disbelief character connections that requires robust writing and direction to push through it. When a movie takes a sharp, unbelievable turn, viewers are willing to set aside skepticism if the story keeps them entertained. But “Lou” can’t manage this trick, allowing us to question the logic of it all in a way that makes the emotional scenes later feel hollow. The minute you start asking whether or not someone would make that choice in a movie like “Lou,” it comes apart. Credit to Janney for never giving into the idea that Lou has to be likable. She’s a suicidal killing machine. If anything, I wanted the film to lean into her cynicism and nihilism even more but was impressed that Janney never softens her edges. She seems to be the only person involved who understands that this movie needs to be a no-fat, no-frills thriller. Her co-stars, the usually reliable Marshall-Green and Smollett, don’t fare as well with the former turning the crazy dial up too high and the latter being given almost nothing to play beyond panicked mother. Action movies that reshape the expectations of actors known primarily for drama can be a blast. I loved what Bob Odenkirk did in “Nobody,” for example. And Allison Janney proves with “Lou” that she could carry an action movie. If only she got one worth carrying.  On Netflix today.

    Feed has no items.