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Archive for the ‘Art house fare’ Category

Thomasin Mckenzie, Ben Foster

“LEAVE NO TRACE” My rating: A- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Literature tells us.

Cinema shows us.

And few films are better at showing us than “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s second feature (after 2010’s flabbergastingly good “Winter’s Bone”).

There’s little dialogue in this film, and most of that is of a matter-of-fact nature. Situations that other movies would take pains to explain here  go unaddressed.

But far from diminishing the experience, this oral reticence makes  “Leave No Trace”  a rewardingly rich viewing experience.  Nobody tells us what’s going on; we simply watch…and then we know.

As the film begins 15-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) appear to be on a camping trip. They’re foraging for food, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under a tarp.

But at certain points Will announces that they’re having a drill. Dropping everything, Tom races into the thick forest undergrowth.  If her father can find her, she’s flunked.

Clearly,  this is no suburban father and daughter on a weekend retreat. The two are living in the woods, evading hikers and a groundskeeping crew of prison convicts. Periodically they go into town — they’re squatting in a park just outside Portland — where Will picks up his cocktail of psychotropic drugs from the V.A. and resells them to other veterans in a hobo town.

How did father and daughter end up hiding out in the woods?  What happened to Tom’s mother? What is the nature of Will’s mental illness? (A big clue is the way he involuntarily flinches whenever he hears a helicopter.) And is he dangerous?

The screenplay by Granik and regular collaborator Anne Rossellini (based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment) lets those questions hang. But no worries…everything we need to know about these fugitives is there if we pay attention.

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Andrea Riseborough

“NANCY” My rating: B

87 minutes | No MPAA rating

Brit actress Andrea Riseborough is a human chameleon.

She played Michael Keaton’s actress girlfriend in “Birdman,” Billy Jean King’s hairdresser and lesbian lover in “Battle of the Sexes,” and Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana in “Death of Stalin.” In each of these supporting roles she was hard to recognize as the same actress.

Now Riseborough gets a leading role and, not unexpectedly,  nails it.

In the title role of  Christina Choe’s “Nancy” she delivers a performance that is simultaneously heartbreaking and scary.

Nancy is a pale, mop-headed weirdo who lives with her demanding invalid mother (Ann Dowd). More accurately, she lives on the Internet, always peering into her cel phone or computer screen.

A social misfit, Nancy only really feels like a person when she assumes a false  identity and goes trolling for new friends/victims.  One such individual is Jeb (John Leguizamo), whom she met on a site for parents mourning dead children.  They arrange a face-to-face and Nancy (he knows her as Rebecca) shows up heavily padded to give the impression that she’s pregnant. Creepy.

She works as a temp, showing the other employees at a dental clinic faked photographs of herself touring North Korea.

When Mom dies Nancy is left to her own devices.  She catches a TV news report about a couple whose little girl Brooke vanished 30 years ago.  Forensic cops have used age progression software to create a “photo” of what the missing child would look like today…and Nancy is floored: “It’s like looking into a mirror.”

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Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters

“AMERICAN ANIMALS” My rating: C+ 

116 minutes | MPAA rating: R

In “American Animals” four college-age doofuses  rob a university library of a priceless copy of Audubon’s massive Birds of America.

Based on real events, the film is as much about these losers’ deluded dreams as it is about the planning and execution of the heist.

Writer/director Bart Layton attempts to add perspective to this shambling crime story by alternating between fictional recreations of the robbery and interviews with the actual participants. Now in their mid-30s, these men sometimes contradict one another…when that happens Layton will often replay a scene “Rashomon”-style, now altered to reflect a different individual’s memories (or inventions).

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and Warren (Evan Peters) are childhood friends attending different colleges in Lexington, KY.  They are bored, unfulfilled children of Middle America, and when they learn that the Transylvania University library has a locked-down room displaying  the Audubon book and other treasures (like a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) they begin to consider if they could rob the place. (more…)

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Fred Rogers

“WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?” My rating: B+

94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. (more…)

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Annette Bening

“THE SEAGULL” My rating:B-

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the new movie version of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”…save that it is a movie.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe Chekhov was meant to be seen on the stage, where the only thing between the audience and the storytellers is air.  By its very technological nature, film has a way of distancing us from the immediacy of Chekhov’s characters.

That said, this “Seagull,” directed by Michael Mayer and featuring an impressively strong cast, will serve as an introduction — a  limited introduction that hints at the greatness revealed when one views this play in the flesh.

Set on a wooded Russian estate at the turn of the last century, Chekhov’s tale studies a handful of individuals engaged in a round robin of romantic frustration.

Irina (Annette Bening) is a famous stage actress whose current lover, Boris, is a rising literary star a couple of decades her junior.  Vain, pompous and absolutely terrified of aging, Irina is nearly undone by Boris’ obvious attraction to Nina (Saoirse Ronan), the fresh-faced daughter of a nearby landowner who has her own thespian ambitions.

Nina, meanwhile, is loved by Irina’s neurotic son Konstantin (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright and short story writer so sensitive that he appears to be in a constant state of depression or anger.

Konstantin is worshipped from afar by Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who wears black because “I’m in mourning for my life” (she’s a real barrel of monkeys) and nips steadily from a tiny flask.

Masha is loved by Mikhail (Michael Zegen), an impoverished local school teacher.

Then there’s the good-hearted Doctor Dorn (John Tenney), who has long carried a torch for Irina; he’s the unattainable love object of the housekeeper Polina (Mare Winningham).

In other words, just about everyone in sight is in love with someone who doesn’t return the sentiment.

There are other characters blessedly free of the these romantic entanglements, especially Irina’s aging bachelor brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and the chatty estate foreman Shamrayev (Glenn Flesher). (more…)

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Ethan Hawke

“FIRST REFORMED” My rating: B+

113 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“First Reformed” doesn’t always work, but even as a partial failure it packs more mind- and soul-shaking punch than any other film yet released this year.

This simultaneously beautiful and desolate drama from Paul Schrader isn’t shy about borrowing from its antecedents, foremost among them Ingmar Bergman’s early ’60s religious trilogy (“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence”) and Robert Bresson’s 1951 “Diary of a Country Priest.”

But thanks in large part to what may be Ethan Hawke’s finest performance, “First Reformed” finds its own voice, one that uncomfortably weighs conformity against concern for God’s creation.

Our protagonist, Reverend Toller (Hawke), is pastor of First Reformed Church in a picturesque New England Town.

Established before the American Revolution, First Reformed has hardly any parishioners; its doors are kept open through the financial support of a local megachurch whose ambitious and charismatic preacher (an excellent Cedric the Entertainer) views it as a curiosity, a sort of historic religious theme park.

It’s immediately obvious that Toller has hit bottom. A former military chaplain, he urged his son to enlist; when the boy died in combat Toller’s wife left him.

Now he spends his days writing sermons nobody hears and scribbling in a journal — he calls it “a form of prayer” –that he hopes will provide insight into the tailspin that has become his life (“When writing about oneself one should show no mercy.”)

Physically he’s slowly becoming a wraith, thanks to digestive issues — cancer? — which limit him to a diet of bread and broth.

Occasionally, though, he actually does a bit of ministering. He’s approached by a young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who requests counseling for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger).  Mary is pregnant and Michael wants her to abort the baby.

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Toni Collette

“HEREDITARY” My rating: B 

127 minutes | MPAA rating: R

No one expects world-class acting from a horror movie. So when you get precisely that, it comes on like a sucker punch.

“Hereditary” is a ghost story — I think — featuring Toni Collette in an emotional performance that will leave audiences limp and exhausted.

Writer/director  Ari Aster’s film is hard to pin down…it may be about ghosts, or it may be a psychological study of mental and spiritual anguish manifesting in very creepy ways.

As the film begins Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her mother, from whom she was estranged for years before finally taking in the old lady at death’s door. Annie isn’t sure whether to react with sobs or cartwheels…Mom was a notoriously difficult personality.  (In her eulogy, Annie says she’s gratified to see so many new faces…she didn’t know this many people cared about her mother. It’s the film’s first subtle clue that Mom had a secret life.)

In the wake of the funeral Annie and her family try to get back to normal.  Husband Steve  (Gabriel Byrne) is an understanding intellectual type. Son Peter (Alex Wolff) is a teen pothead. Daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) is something else again, an elfin misfit who, unlike other members of the family, really loved her grandma. In fact, she starts seeing apparitions of the dear departed.

One cannot say much about the plot of “Heredity” without ruining some major surprises.  Let’s just say that Grandma’s death is only the first tragedy to befall the clan; a far more traumatic one is yet to come.

And in the wake of that an emotionally shattered Annie finds herself turning first to a grief support group and then to a fellow mourner (the great Ann Dowd) who claims to have found a way to communicate with the dead.

Aster plays his cards very carefully,  dealing big plot points so matter of factly that it’s only in retrospect that we understand their importance.  There’s no big reveal until the end (and even then it’s a bit ambiguous); mostly he builds a nerve-wracking tension from small moments and observations. (Although there is a dramatic seance scene guaranteed to make every hair on your body stand up and salute.)

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