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Posts Tagged ‘Ann Dowd’

Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimptgon

“MASS” My rating: B+ (AMC Town Center)

110 minutes | MPAA: PG-13

There’s no way “Mass” should work.

Or even if it works, the very premise sounds so unbearable that only masochists would show up for it.

But here’s the thing: Fran Kranz’s feature writing/directing debut (up to now I’ve know him only as the actor who nailed the comically stoned Marty in 2011’s “Cabin in the Woods”) is not only supernaturally well-written, but offers performances of jaw-dropping depth.

The squirm-worthy setup: Two couples meet in a nondescript church parlor to discuss a tragedy more than a decade old. One pair are mourning the death of their son in a school mass shooting. The other are the parents of the killer. This is the first time they’ve spoken to each other without the presence of cameras and reporters and lawyers.

The film’s first 20 minutes are a tease of sorts. Kranz devotes much time to the efforts of two church volunteers (Breeda Wool, Kagen Albright) to prepare a space for the meeting. A rep (Michelle N. Carter) of an agency that deals with this sort of reconciliation makes an inspection and offers suggestions (she’s concerned that the sound of a choir practice elsewhere in the building may drift into the room; also, a table full of refreshments makes it look too much like a party).

We meet the first couple, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton), sitting in their car outside. They’re not sure they can go through with this.

At this point in the proceeding we’re not sure if they’re the parents of the killer or of one of his victims: in fact, that uncertainty lingers for several minutes after the arrival of the other couple, Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney). It takes some uncomfortable small talk before they get down to discussing what haunts them all and we figure out who’s who.

Over the course of 90 real-time minutes they move from wary politeness to bitterness, fury, regret and eventually a sort of mutual conciliation borne of shared pain.

For while Jay and Gail finally have the opportunity to rail at Linda and Richard for ignoring the signals that their loner son was homicidal, it becomes clear that far from being neglectful, Linda and Richard watched their boy, got him therapy, and were relieved when it appeared (falsely) that he had finally found his place in high school society.

Ann Dowd, Reed Birney

And in the wake of all that horror, Linda and Richard have been dunned with lawsuits, hounded by the media. Their marriage has fallen apart. They’re so sorry, but don’t know what else they might have done.

A lesser writer than Kranz would have penned all sorts of declarative passages to delineate where these characters are coming from. Not here. We pick up most of the details of that tragic day and its aftermath tangentially, assembling a big picture from small reveals.

Watching this all unfold on a single set, one assumes “Mass” is an adaptation of stage play. Nope. Kranz wrote it for the screen. But even then he doesn’t gussie things up cinematically. His camera is mostly stationary (a couple of pans between speakers), there’s no musical track to speak of…the emphasis is on the characters.

And, Holy Shit, do his four lead players come through.

Isaacs nails the American male who nurses his pain within a shell of outward masculinity (you’d never know he was a Brit); Plimpton brilliantly traverses her character’s journey from resentment to generosity.

But the show is stolen by Dowd and Birney as the parents of the killer. Dowd will forever be known as one of the great villains for her turn as the tormenting Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale”; here she is devastating as Linda, pathetic in her attempts to please and crippled by grief and guilt.

And Birney (the least known of the four major players despite a Tony, an Obie and 45 years as one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors) damn near steals the show as Richard, a white-collar conservative (he shows up in suit and tie) whom many will initially see as perennially in denial. But just wait; before it’s all over Richard will reveal anguish to match that of anyone else.

Hard to believe this Kranz’s first turn behind the camera. I’m dying to see what he gives us next.

|Robert W. Butler

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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.)

(more…)

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Sandra Bullock and Joaquim Alameda

Sandra Bullock and Joaquim de Alameida

“OUR BRAND IS CRISIS”  My rating: C+ (Opens wide on Oct. 30)

107 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Truth is relative in politics,” observes campaign consultant “Calamity” Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) in the opening moments of “Our Brand Is Crisis.”

“I could convince myself of anything if the price is right.”

A catalog of the many dispiriting ways in which the electoral process has become an exercise in lying and slime-slinging, “Our Brand…” is grimly satiric and thoroughly depressing.

Dramatically it is undercooked, with outrage outscoring humanity.

The latest from chameleonic director David Gordon Green is a fictional remake of a decade-old documentary of the same name. That film followed a group of American campaign strategists — among them Clinton stalwart James Carville — working their black magic for candidates in a Bolivian presidential election.

The doc showed these Yankee fixers bringing their mercenary campaign marketing tactics to the developing world.

Gee, thanks, fellas.

Bullock’s Jane Bodine is a one-time terror of the campaign trail who, in the wake of a humiliating defeat, has spent the last six years in eccentric isolation in a Colorado cabin.

Now she’s offered a chance to get back into the game by working for a Bolivian presidential candidate. Jane is ready to reject the idea until she learns that her old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton with Carville-esque chrome dome) is working for the competition. This will be her chance for revenge.

Jane and her team (Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Scoot McNairy, Zoe Kazan) are working for Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida), a surly plutocrat and past president whose first term was marked by the crony-pleasing sale of Bolivia’s national resources to multinational corporations.

Now the Americans must figure out how to propel this unsavory character to the top of a six-candidate race.  Their plan is to emphasize crises for which their man offers the best solutions. That these “crises” don’t actually exist is beside the point . They will strike fear in the hearts of Bolivia’s various economic and ethnic voting blocs. (more…)

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