I LOVED reading your review of This is 40, Glenn. Especially as right before choosing This is 40 on OnDemand, I'd been watching Schindler's List on Sundance (and have to admit I had to turn it off to look for lighter fare) ! LOL in light of what you wrote.
Sometimes you see films where it's downright obvious why it was made. The filmmakers show a burning passion that almost seems to leap off the screen and into your heart. You can tell that they would die to get their story told. Then there's TRACKS.
While beautiful to look at, this conventionally told story of a young woman trekking over 2000 miles through the Australian Outback doesn't seem to have enough of a story to truly captivate an audience. Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, who believes there's more to life than the big city, and walks through the desert with her dog and four feral camels to experience a different side of life.
There have been existentialist desert treks presented on film before, GERRY and THE SHELTERING SKY being two prominent examples, and they were able to find compelling ways to illustrate their themes. TRACKS isn't a total washout. Wasikowska has a quiet, understated sharpness to her character, a tough reserve which makes her survival instincts completely believable. In the early sections of the film, where she's learning how to train camels, she's completely convincing in her ability to get what she needs to begin her journey. As she gets more and more exposed to the sun and the elements, her face gets terribly sunburnt. This is a quiet yet rich performance, worth seeing despite the film's many shortcomings.
Set in the mid-1970s, this true story became a National Geographic article and a bestselling novel. Along the way, she's occasionally met by a photographer from the magazine (Adam Driver from GIRLS) for candid photos as well as just to make sure she's alive. One automatically assumes a romance will ensue, but this film has nothing more on its mind than to show one woman's quest for isolation. Picture an Aussie-accented Greta Garbo intoning, "I want to be alone, mate" and you'll get the idea. Driver is sweet and winning here, showing us a different side to him from his bizarre sociopath on GIRLS.
Director John Curran (THE PAINTED VEIL) and Screenwriter Marion Nelson don't instill many stakes or drama into the story. Every now and then, something random happens involving a snake, or a dog, or...well, that's about it. A woman walks across the desert, learns a simple moral lesson, and we see lots of pretty landscapes. I suspect the actual magazine article is the best format for this tale. I also suspect there will be those who get lost in the quiet beauty of this film. I don't want to begrudge anyone that, but all I can say is, if you introduce a feral camel in the first act, next time, let it bite the hell out of someone in the third!
Full Disclosure: My BFF Christopher S. Capp edited this film and I've met the writers and director at an early rough cut screening. Despite having had the privilege of seeing the film evolve over time, I'm very committed to reviewing the finished product and not allowing my connections to it influence my opinion.
If you're a fan of THE EXORCIST, ROSEMARY'S BABY, ALIEN, THE FLY, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and let's throw in FUNNY GAMES while we're at it, then HONEYMOON will creepily, eerily, and viscerally knock you out. Director Leigh Janiak and her Co-Writer Phil Graziadei, in their feature debut, have crafted a deceptively simple, low budget horror sci-fi film within the framework of an evolving relationship.
The story of Rose (GAME OF THRONES' Rose Leslie) and Paul (PENNY DREADFUL's Harry Treadaway), newlyweds who spend their honeymoon in a (where else?) remote cabin in the woods begins as a schmoopified look at young'uns in love. Its opening image of cans tied to the rear bumper of a car as they're pulled down the road sets the stage for a romantic comedy, yet it doesn't take long for things to feel a little off. Despite having palpable chemistry, there's something a little unctuous about the way they play out their trademark interaction. He calls her "honey bee" and she makes a buzzing sound as she touches his lips. With love talk that gooey in a film like this, it's only a matter of time before someone gets stung. The way Rose looks at Paul with almost pained longing almost feels too private for us, the audience, to see. All the beats are in place for a hot, steamy love story, which by itself may not be the most fascinating thing to observe. But don't tune this section of the film out, because every moment means something later. Besides, Janiak and Graziadei are smart enough to show us cracks in the relationship early on. An offhanded remark made during a discussion about having children, or a challenge unmet to go skinny dipping create little fissures between our perfect couple. It's not long before the act of preparing breakfast becomes uncomfortable. A visit to a local restaurant owned by a childhood friend and his wife proves disturbing in unexpected ways. Ben Huber and Anna Brown, the only other cast members in the film, make indelible marks in their extremely brief camera time.
Without spoiling anything, something deeply unsettling occurs that changes the rest of the viewing experience. Janiak beautifully calibrates this shift into horror while staying laser focused on the evolving relationship dynamics of the main pair. ROSEMARY'S BABY may have covered similar territory, but the evil here is far less explicit. Instead of over-explaining everything, Janiak chooses the far scarier route of allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. We're still given the icky, gooey, "I can't look at the screen" money shot (trust me, you'll know it when you see it), but the "why" of it all is up to you.
Technically, this film is a model for what you can accomplish on a tiny budget. Cinematographer Kyle Klutz gives the movie a sun-dappled sheen that shifts subtly into scary, inky darkness. To go from body fetish (our two leads are gorgeous) to body horror over the course of 87 minutes is no small feat. Composer Heather McIntosh has to cover a lot of ground as well, from almost 70s TV Movie love themes to screeching strings straight out of THE EXORCIST. She doesn't make obvious choices and the breadth of her work is impressive. Same goes for the Editor, Christopher S. Capp, who has managed to navigate this jumble of genres and still make it feel like one complete film experience.
HONEYMOON perfectly builds its sense of dread. By the end, I was spent. While so little is explained on a horror level, so much is said about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve a relationship. There will be those who will wonder why one of our main characters doesn't cut and run. HONEYMOON, however, supports its premise that if you love someone, you will do whatever it takes to protect them, even if that sense becomes horribly, irrevocably skewed. I look forward to what Janiak and Graziadei do next with orifices. Long live the new flesh.
Maddeningly pretentious at times yet artistically daring, THE CONGRESS is sure to divide audiences due to its strange tonal approach, but nobody can deny that this is cutting edge cinema. Ari Folman loosely adapting the late Stanislaw Lem's novel, THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS, likes to upend genres. In his prior film, WALTZ WITH BICHIR, he blended documentary and animation. With THE CONGRESS, he has created a non-fiction/science fiction/animated hybrid. As the movie opens, Robin Wright, playing a version of herself, is having a career crisis. Her agent, played by Harvey Keitel, rehashes all of the bad choices she has made since her PRINCESS BRIDE/FORREST GUMP heyday. It's harsh because it's true (this film was made before her spectacular HOUSE OF CARDS comeback) and Wright is truly a brave actor to allow such scrutiny.
The two then meet with the head (Danny Huston) of the cleverly named Miramount Pictures, who wants Wright for one last performance. He wants her to get scanned so that the studio can use her however they want to for a significant period of time. She would be expected to not perform during those years, and for that she would be paid handsomely. With her career dried up, the money would come in handy, especially since her son, LET ME IN's remarkable Kodi Smit-McPhee, is ailing. Huston's scenes crackle with such audacious wit - its speeches reminiscent of NETWORK in their cruel harsh truths.
It should come as no surprise that Wright agrees to the contract, or else there would be no movie. What surprises is her naked, bold performance. The scanning scene especially is masterful as she experiences an awe-inspiring range of emotions. Wright is brilliant here. From this point forward, however, the movie goes off the rails. Without spoiling anything, Folman switches gears entirely and takes viewers into a strange new world. Unfortunately, there's a flatness to the experience, much like there was with BICHIR. Despite the highly provocative material, it feels as if it were at arm's length because of his excessively dry approach. Perhaps it's because we've experienced such a raw performance from Wright in the first act, that the second act, by its very nature, can't surpass it, but it's a bit of slog. Sure there's cleverness and beauty in almost every frame, but without a human element, it runs cold.
Regardless, I applaud Folman's efforts. This is highly provocative, prescient material. He's addressing the future of entertainment and how that may be delivered, and I'm willing to bet he's not that far off the mark. He has a lot to say here and he crams it all in, from the choices we make in our lives to how our egos need stroking no matter how much we may protest otherwise. There's always something in the frame to hold your interest, and the cut to the third act is simultaneously stunning and horrifying. There may be no limit to the imagination, Folman seems to be saying, but I wish he had tested those limits with less brains and more verve.
Craig Johnson (TRUE ADOLESCENTS) has directed and co-written (with BLACK SWAN's Mark Heyman) the highly affecting THE SKELETON TWINS, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival this year. I came to this film with great trepidation, as its story sounded like YOU CAN COUNT ON ME 2.0. Estranged crazy brother is reunited with perfectly imperfect sister to work out their troubles. While similar in basic themes, they are so tonally different that I swear I won't bring up the former film again.
SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig play Milo and Maggie, damaged twin siblings who find their lives have hit an all-time low when they reunite. Aspiring actor Milo is gay, but it's a testament to Hader's talent that you'll think of his character's dark, biting edge first before ever considering his sexuality, despite the fact that it plays an important part in defining him. Dental hygenist Maggie is seemingly getting her life together with her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), but the audience knows her happiness is a thin veneer.
Bringing the suicidal Milo back to their hometown, Maggie tentatively approaches her brother. The chemistry between Wiig and Hader is what makes this film soar. You completely believe their history, their rhythms, and the way they can cut each other to the core one minute and make each other laugh out loud the next.
Milo, a bit of a third wheel with Maggie and Lance, starts to branch out, especially in a hilarious scene with Wilson in which he feebly attempts to clear twigs and branches. Wilson, often underrated, shines in his role as the happy-go-lucky man who starts to realize he's surrounded by more darkness than he anticipated.
Milo eventually revisits what appears to be an old boyfriend, Rich (MODERN FAMILY'S Ty Burrell), but their history is far darker and much more nefarious than it first appears. Burrell flips his television image in a small but highly effective, creepy performance.
As touching and strong as this movie is, and as gently calibrated its screenplay is, you're likely to walk away remembering the set piece, when Hader and Wiig lip sync to STARSHIP'S 80's power ballad "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now". Their complete lack of abandon and total love for each other is indelible and will surely remain one of the top movie moments of 2014. Both Hader and Wiig are given a chance to show many sides to their characters, from tragic, to quietly desperate to the wonderful chemistry on display when they cut loose with farting noises. Yep, even 2-year-olds will find something to love there! When Hader dons drag in a Halloween scene, it's completely devoid of camp. This is a movie about siblings helping each other through tough times, and any "hey girl!" moments would have felt highly disruptive. I'm impressed by how Johnson and Heyman were able to stay true to their tone.
Reed Moreno, who is quickly rising to the top ranks of cinematographers with stellar past work on FROZEN RIVER, and KILL YOUR DARLINGS) shows off her range here with work that is so connected to its characters. Her underwater photography alone is truly memorable and gorgeous. The film also features a lovely score by Nathan Larson (BOYS DON'T CRY and THE MESSENGER among many others).
This is a small film. I'd rate it higher, but its ambitions aren't grand. It's a simple story, simply told. I don't think I'm going to remember this film for anything but its big moment, but I'm glad to have seen Hader and Wiig reach new heights nonetheless. SNL may have turned Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader into comedy legends, but THE SKELETON TWINS makes them great dramatic actors.
You want to have a blast at the movies? You know you do. Want to catch something completely off the radar that'll bring sheer joy and an anarchic spirit into your lives? WE ARE THE BEST is that film, the kind that'll make you wanna get a mohawk and bash the sh*t out of the nearest guitar.
I've enjoyed the films of Lukas Moodysson (TOGETHER, SHOW ME LOVE, and LILJA 4-EVER), and here, adapting his wife Coco's graphic novel, he uses his populist story-telling sense and keen grasp of the absurdities of life to tell the story of 3 thirteen-year-old girls forming a punk band in early 80's Stockholm. Our main characters are Klara (hilarious, saucer-eyed Mira Grosin) and Bobo (the droll Mira Barkhammar), two best friends who are out of control in that believable young teen way. They skip out on their parents to go drink and smoke at a party or pull pranks at the local community center. It's here where they eject a legitimate band from the music room and start thrashing away on the available instruments.
Almost completely lacking in talent, the girls enlist their serious, Christian classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who has genuine musical talent and an unruly mane of hair just waiting to get SID AND NANCY'd. What I loved about Klara and Bobo is the enthusiasm and slight lunacy in which they form their friendship with Hedvig. One minute they're learning chord progressions and the next they're almost assaulting their new friend. Even when things go wrong, you're reminded how young they are, and like infants, they bounce back mighty quickly from their boo-boos.
It's this resilience of spirit that drives the film and makes it shine. Moodysson shoots the whole thing Cinéma vérité style, giving the film a true documentary sense of immediacy. There isn't a moment in this film that feels like he's fetishsizing the 80s with overly composed frames or garish pops of color. This is closer to how the 80s really felt with its internet-free, dial telephone levels of boredom. It's the true atmosphere in which a young kid would want to rebel.
While simple to adult viewers, you get the sense that every adventure the girls take is monumental to them, whether it's flirting with young guys from another band (a great sequence on a rooftop with haunting, wintry imagery) or playing their first gig. I fully believed that this is how young girls actually speak and interact. Grosin and Barkhammar form such a delightful bond, that you just want to listen in on their phone conversations forever. Looking like little boys, they're two sides to punk - one is outrageous and the other is eternally annoyed. Writing songs like "Hate The Sport", because, well, they hate their gym teacher, the girls' point of view is perfectly captured.
The character of Hedvig is tricky, as she evolves from an almost puritanical figure to something quite lovely. She grows on you in a wonderful way. Same goes for the film. It doesn't matter that they never really improve as musicians. They're too busy making lifelong memories to care. Kinda makes you want to form your own band, eh?