“Columbus”

 

Heel steps sound the beginning of the much hyped first feature by visual artist Kogonada ( a moniker he chooses to use ). We see Parker Posey ( Eleanor) on a cell phone in front of a post-modernist building. She turns in time to see her companion in a gray suit and white fishing hat move on around the facade without her. She runs to catch up. Red umbrella, soft rain, bell tolls : lots of homage to the art film.

Later, we learn he was about to give a talk on his theory of architecture. But he never makes it. A stroke fells him.  Having  never seen his face, we will only see his up-turned toes, sheeted and comatose-still for the remainder of the film, so named after the Indiana city known for its 1950’s style, “Columbus”.

Our main characters meet by walking on opposite sides of an iron fenced walkway. Cigarettes , boredom, and curiosity play a role. Jin ( John Cho ) is the semi-estranged son of our dying eminent architect. Jin is a curiosity to the whip smart 19 year-old library worker, Cassandra. ( Haley Lu Richardson ).

“Columbus” is a situational film about place and circumstance. Two people waiting for parents, who have in some way been neglectful of them. For Jin, his Dad’s homage to place and space have left him feeling resentful. For Casey, lonesome and floundering, buildings have the power to restore. As her meth mother’s keeper, she watches her fall for weirdo boyfriends. Casey has become the worried parent, sacrificing career  preparation, while she prepares meals and watches tv with mom.

So why does “Columbus” disappoint ? Something is akimbo, and well, off. We are asked to experience emotions that seem as contrived as the two paper weight images and the silhouette mouthings of words we can not hear.

At one point, Jin says, “You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.” Jin may be talking about architecture, but it is extinsically linked to his dying father. The film’s most touching scene is of Jin touching the white hat and suit so ceremoniously hung on the closet door of the Irwin Gardens Inn. He drinks and talks to the garments, like, we intuit, he has never done with his father. We know his South Korean roots and mythology herald “ghosts”, who roam if one dies alone. Intellectually, he mocks this as Asian drama, but he picks up his camera and is off to experience buildings where attention has not been overtly paid.

Casey, for her part, seems to almost stalk Jin. Her “tour guide mode” causes him to emote; “My dad would have loved you.” He draws her out by asking,” What moves you about this building?” Then, more personally: “Please tell me about this miserable time in your life?” Casey responses with “Shitheads were her ( mother’s ) addiction”. We are happy that Jin is not one of these!

I hate the scene where she drinks beer with Jin, and she dances with abandon in the car headlights. The somewhat copied “Tree of Life” ponderous sound track is equally annoying. Can a movie’s phoney, self-important tone make your teeth hurt ?

Buildings that ellicit mindful meditation, like nature does, is an artful idea, like the water flow and spray and the light illumined foliage; but what this film ironically does best is show “small town” life. The smoking, the gossip, the loyalty of friends, the “get out of town” stirrings all are  rendered in library book sales, home town crushes, colleague’s lies, children fenced in backyards, and jobs.

Will Casey have a promising career as an architectural  intern with Yale prof. Debra Berke? Will Jin find his father in modernism’s soul ? Will viewers find Koganada’s attempt to be so profound that they are annoyed rather than heartfelt ? Comments encouraged.

 

 

“Menashe”

There are very few moments of joy in director Joshua Weinstein’s ninety-two minute film “Menashe”. And, I imagine there were even fewer joyous moments in the the arranged Hasidic marriage of Menashe ( Menashe Lustig ) and his wife, Leah. The backstory is given late in the film. Married at twenty-two, Menashe is somewhat of a “schlemiel”, an awkward and unlucky person for whom things never turn out right. Their one son, Rieven ( Ruben Niborski ) was not enough for Leah, who died of a blood clot as the result of an invitro procedure. The first rule of the Torah given to Adam was the directive: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The drugs used in aiding fertilization are therefore allowed.

A year later, we see that Menashe will lose his son if he does not see a matchmaker and remarry. Rieven will not be allowed to attend his school unless he resides in a two- parent home. He is now living with his mother’s brother and his family. All this we learn slowly as we watch Menashe disheveled and guilt-ridden try to be loving and joyful for his son.

The setting is in the ultra- orthodox Borough Park, NY. We get to hear Yiddish spoken and sects within sects of rabbI-ruled enclaves decide how Menashe should proceed. The slice-of-life format follows our widower throughout his day. We see him in his ritual morning ablutions; we see him rushing his son to school; and we see him offering the ten-year-old Rieven a hastily thrown together breakfast of pop and cake. Clearly, Menashe does not have his household together.

While the Talmud is said to address three rules: nice wife, nice house, nice dishes; there is sparse comedy in this melancholy film. Like a sad clown, Menashe is disrespected by his brother-in-law, and his son is observant of this. One of the most emotional scenes is when Rieven is slapped across the face for repeating what he has heard: that his father has not taken proper care of his ill mother.

“Stop banging on the teapot” , Menashe meekly says to his son’s uncle and his biggest critic. Now Rieven’s custodian, his uncle does not let up. Menashe responds  by purchasing a pet chick and by telling his son that, “Babies are sweet. They don’t have to be big shots.” Religious community status presses on, and his Hispanic clerk mates offer alcohol and commaradery. In the midst of this bonding, the chick dies. I found this all sadder than humorous.

Next, Menashe attempts to hold Leah’s memorial dinner. His noodle kugel burns. The fire alarm goes off. In a ritual-like baptism, Menashe conforms. The ending shot shows him in his sect’s traditional hat and coat walking down the street. Called inconsiderate and excuse-prone by the rabbi, Menashe shows that men can suffer in the aftermath of an arranged marriage, too.

This film is not for everyone. Non-Jewish viewers will ask as does Menashe, ” Must the rabbi meddle in everything?”  Like a very different Israeli  film, ” Gett: The Trial of Viviana Amsalem” (reviewed March 31st, 2015 ), the issue of individual freedom and external religious control brings up philosophical and existential issues much deeper than rules in respecting cemeteries, which are, by the way : no eating, no drinking, and no doing business! This is a film that needs to be mulled over for a few days. Quiet father/son moments like when Menashe wipes dog poop  from  his son’s sole will resonate. We hope Menashe does not co-opt his joy in trying to bring joy to his son.

“Good Time”

Robert Pattinson has morphed from vampire to brother-loving bank robber, and New York City has never looked grittier. “Good Time”, an odd title, begins with zooming in on NYC.

The first scene ~a building housing a psychologist ( Peter Verby), who is gently  testing an impaired, young man by having him translate idiomatic phrases. The “squeaky wheel”  flies by our more literal Nick Nikas ( Benny Safdie), and our tester/counselor moves to  word connection technique. What do a pair of scissors and a cooking pan have in common? Is there a connection? Nick responses with ” you can hurt yourself with both”. The viewer intuits that this is a story about survival.  And though our examiner is affirming, tears roll down Nick’s cheeks.

Grandmother abuse is mentioned, and older brother Constance ( Robert Pattison) bursts through the therapist’s door yelling,” How would you like it if I made you cry?!” Connie grabs Nick’s arm and tells him that it is just ” you and me. I’m your friend.”  The therapist calmly says, ” shame on you, kind brother. You are not helping.” But the die is cast.

Connie drags his mentally challenged brother into his bank heist scheme in the hopes that money by ill-gotten means will solve their problems. His ability to gage situations and people , and to adjust reality for his own benefit is uncanny. Without blinking he manipulates policeman, old ladies, bus drivers, hospital attendants, sixteen-year old girls, and his druggy girl friend ( Jennifer Jason Leigh ).

The heist is a screw-up thanks to explosive red dye and the ” this is all I have” bank teller policy.

Brother directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, somehow get us to empathize with these characters. Pattison’s ” I-did-it smile” dissolves in a great chase scene. Nick ,stymied  by an automatic door, ends up in Rikers. The holding cell scene is as wild and scary as any I have seen. And I watched “Prison Break”.  We feel for these small time criminals; we understand misplaced brotherly love. Nick in his innocence whines: ” We was going to live in the woods, and I was going to be able to do what I wanted.”

The directors know how to ramp up the tension. Dogs, drug dealers, the amusement park ( so loved by thirty-somethings ) keep us as desperate as the bail seeker and the two-bit crook he mistakenly frees from his hospital bed. It is here where the film veers slightly toward comedy. The story of Ray leads us away from our main character. We miss Connie’s “God bless you’s” and his articulate fast lies. Ray ( Buddy Duress) is a drunken dull crazy. We know we should not laugh. His flashbacks of his past life are extraneous to our main character, ( just another example of the underclass): too many for one film. My favorite line is Connie’s directed to Ray, ” You are drunk as shit, and you are trying to get real with me.”

White Castles, underclass hustles,  taxi cab drivers, car mats as barbed wire protectors, and mummy tombs as stash receptacles  all play with modern flair. The Somali security guard ( Barkhad Abdi ) updates urban struggles and shows us immigrants working hard to live by the rules. His treatment at Connie’s hands is brutal. Unhinged anger Pattinson can do.

“Stay Calm” seems to be Connie’s mantra, but chaos reigns even with his white privilege glowing. Krystal ( Taliah Lennice Webster  ) with her performance as a used teen, so  life real that she doesn’t  need to act at all, adds to Connie’s casualties.

The camera work is stunning. Lots of close-ups, but bodies tumbling from far off high rises, too. Street scenes and scramble escape mazes  amid  fierce , pounding beats ramp up our emotions. Even when our two punks are watching Spike tv, it is police violence we see. Neon, almost psychedelic light, pulses.

The end is a paen to the unfairness of life. The final scene is Nick’s. The circle has been painfully closed, and it hurts. Therapists, teachers, try to make life better, but the last image of people aimlessly crossing from one side of a room to the other with no follow-up is devastatingly real. How much of form over substance can a society hold? This film should burst some bubbles. The original sound track and song, ” The Pure and the Damned” says it all.

 

 

 

“Landline”

“Landline” is a smart comedy with a clever title. Landlines are connected to home, and home and familiar relationships ground us. The setting is the big city circa 1995. Sisters, Dana (Jenny Slate) and Ali ( Abby Quinn), have Jersey mouths on them. We begin on Labor Day with mom and dad ( John Turturro and Edie Falco) and girls singing in the car. Sister spats ensue. Dana is living with her fiancée Jed, and they have just had “tree sex”. Younger sis spots telling stains and shows her distain and knowledge for all to hear. Thus we begin.

Ever since, “What About Mary” modern comedy strives to “gross out” viewers for humor’s sake. Here, screenwriters Elisabeth Holm and GillinRobespierre have Jenny Slate with poison ivy ( the aftermath of sex against a tree) in the shower with Jed ( Jay Duplass ), who decides it is beneficial to pee on her pustules. She likes it; they laugh, and the play goes on. But not before Dana slips up with an old flame ( Finn Wittrock), and is told by her younger sis that their Dad (John Turturro ) is also having an affair. Now, the sisters must bond to protect their mom ( Edie Falco). All the time Dana questions: Is every member of the Jacobs family deigned to be a cheater ?

“Landline” is fresh and smaltzy at the same time. All the characters are extremely likeable: stalwart and fragile, wise and silly. Paradoxes in theme abound, too. In one scene,Jenny muses on adult choices. She tells Jed that one of her girl friends wanted to go on a ski-mask date:”I want to know your personality before I know your face.” kind-of-thing. Jed intuits Dana’s qualms, but nervously hangs in there. Journalist Dana plays hooky from her lay-outs and ends up in the music store where she ran into old-lover Nate. He is a charmer, and well, music is a big part of the Jacobs family life. “You dance to world music” brings on more than Jenny’s belches and snorts. Meanwhile, Jed reads the Hammacher-Schlemmer catalogue.

“Landline” certainly captures the decade before cell phones. The acting is memorable on all fronts. No weak links here. When Dana moves back home to both examine her choices and to look after mom, Falco sadly muses:” I am supposed to be planning her wedding, not feeding her Lucky Charms.” John Turturro on a rowing machine is funny,too. His “orgasmic poetry” less so. Abby Quinn is the daughter who calls her mom a drug sniffing dog and leaves lies like ” left early for student government meeting” on her pillow. Yet, as Ali, she never seems to have to ask “What just happened?”. She,the youngest, asks her unfaithful Dad,” Did you ever think that Carla ( the mistress) is filling a void you created?”

In a film of 97 minutes, fidelity is defined as ” loving a life where we are always choosing one another.” Heartfelt performances from people flailing with their choices. Healthy self -interest and few tailspins.

“Wind River”

Inspired by actual events, “Wind River” is riveting. The action is fast and surprising. The character connections are made early, and the message of loss and life’s cheapness hang heavy in the Wyoming chill.

This is is more than a revenge film. Director Taylor Sheridan uses a poem written and recited by one of the murder victims to give a lesson on controlling grief. He uses the film to highlight a horrendous flaw in our system of equal justice for all: no statistics are reported for missing Native American women in this country. This is not a preachy film. Morality here is deeply flawed; and, Sheridan keeps the realism of the story’s events believable and our hero understandable. Like Sheridan’s earlier films, ” Sicario” ( reviewed glowingly Oct.4th, 2015 ) and “Hell or High Water” ( reviewed August 19th, 2016 ), all Sheridan’s work whether writing, directing or both is ruminative and suspencefully chilling.

One  of the ways this is done in “Wind River” is through the characters of Cory Lambert (  Jeremy Renner ) and the seasoned law enforcement officer Ben ( Graham Greene). The veteran fish and wildlife manager and the sixtyish law enforcement chief do their jobs with practicality and know-how.

Gil Birmingham is wonderful as the Native American friend, who has lost his daughter to homicide, too. Elizabeth Olsen as rookie FBI operative Jane Banner is professional, willing to learn, smart , passionate, and thank you, screen writers, does not have a sexual relationship with our wildlife officer. He sees her as a daughter-figure and this adds to the intensity of his loss. The poetic lines: ” Taking solace in the perfection of knowing you and guarding every memory”,  herald the film’s tone.

Cory’s (Renner’s) ex- wife Wilma and his eight-year-old son, Casey, and his grandpa add a layer of cultural awareness in the respect for nature and familiar ties. I loved the line when Casey successfully took his horse through his paces:” That was Arapaho not cowboy.” , his father tells him with a twinkle in his eye.

The cinematography with its blue-white snowy terrain, green-black pines and prayful birches harken blizzards that come in cold waves. We understand twenty-below at night will burst lungs, and give stage four frostbite. Wyoming is stone cold. Film-goers will feel it. As Jane learns there are six officers for a territory as large as Rhode Island. ” Ben recites: “This is the land of ~ you are on your own.”

Sex, drugs, and violence are on screen, as are sled mobiles going eighty-miles-an-hour around trees. When the trees are too thick for snow mobiles, our trackers snow shoe through human carrion picked clean.

Fast camera spins are thrilling. Ben Richardson’s cinematography stellar. Silence and snow named as the two things not taken away from Wyoming’s Native People.

 

 

 

 

“Maudie”

Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke give humbling performances portraying a real life couple, who find happiness in each other. Finding happiness and how we frame it is the subject matter of this story based on the primitive artist Maud Lewis. Lewis ( 1903-1970 ) is Canada’s most famous folk artist. Physically, she suffered from polio and childhood rheumatoid arthritis. Emotionally, she suffered from a family who made decisions expediently that excluded, yet greatly affected, her.

The pace is slow. The cinematography lovely. Nova Scotia with its isolation and stark natural beauty surround the shack where Everett Lewis ( Hawke ) salvages materials and peddles fish. Cinematographer Guy Godfree frames everything like a canvas. Windows and doors, screened and otherwise, filter soft light as a way of being free to see the world as we choose. Filmed in Ireland and in Newfoundland, Godfree and Director Aisling Walsh give us juxtaposition between the small world of  Maud and Everett and the natural world at large.

The late 1930’s is our time frame, and “Maudie” ‘s writer Sherry White  has the late teenaged Maud seeking some independence from her Aunt Ida’s restrictions. Maud parlays her way into a housemaiden’s job with even more rules. How her spirit wins over the gruff, mono-syllabic Everett  is much of our tale.

Sally Hawkins’ wry smile and swinging legs, her constricted hands, and her unconstricted heart, get us ready for her seven-mile-walk on hobbled limbs and her easy “would not mind a cup of tea” as she introduces herself to the knuckle-cracking Everett. Hawkins is brilliant in capturing the emotionally delightful Maud. One of my favorite scenes is where she delights in the irony of being called his “love slave”.

Hawke is equally as fine in his brutal remarks and quick to anger ways: “You walk funny”, “I am the boss; don’t forget it”, and “Who told you you could talk to the dogs like that!”  “It is me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you.” He kicks the door when he can’t recall the words he needs on his help-wanted ad. He wishes his housekeeper to bring her own cleaning supplies. His tender side is shown, too, as he volunteers at the orphanage where he grew up and as he comes to show his love for Maud.

His coarse insecurity is understood until he slugs Maud across the face. Maud leaves him and stays with her vacationing, New-York-City friend, who admires her work and buys Everett’s fish. Smaller moments lead to bigger lessons. Everett wants her back, and Aunt Ida no longer believes Maud has “stained the family name”. In fact, Ida proclaims that Maud is the only one in the Dowley family who ended up happy.

Stay through the credits to see many of Maud’s pictures which capture her innocence in the unmixed color and true lines of her work. But best of all, learn to capture her joy.

 

 

 

“The Glass Castle”

Loved the book, “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. Did not care for the screenplay, which focused mostly on the alcoholism of the father and left a much more angry Jeanette Walls than the book left us. Trying to make complicated family dynamics simpler may have been the reason for cutting key elements of the Walls’ family story and adding others. Why leave the hidden candy bar episode of the mother out? Why have Jeanette leave her husband as she moves on to freelance writing? Why exclude a siblings loss? Why not show the children foraging for food as they spent so much of the book doing?

The film’s tone is much more judgmental than the book’s breezy spirit. Counter culture beliefs are made to look like they stem from mental illness or from “losers” who can’t hold a job. The acting is top knotch: it is screenplay that misses the mark. The back and forth flashbacks are ill-timed. Writer/Director Daniel Cretton also must deal with some poor sound quality. Cretton’s artful repetition of the water boiling scene was a symbolic plus.

The non-conformity of Jeanette Wall’s parents is played beautifully by Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson. “Turbulence and disorder” rule creativity, even if the basic needs of safety and nutrition are neglected. As artist mother Rose Mary’s (Naomi Watts) logic surmises, “food will be gone in an hour, but an oil painting will last forever.” For four children who have not eaten in three days, this misses the fact that they may not be around to gaze at canvases. Still Rose Mary’s yellow doors on every domicile will move you.

Woody Harrelson has never been better than he is as Rex, Jeanette’s father. His family wolf calls, his windowed-castle blueprints, and his tenderness toward Jeanette’s burn scars outshine his drunken recklessness. He puts Jeanette in harms way, yet believes she can fend for herself. His skedaddling if often a betrayal of nurture. He can be brilliant and then dastardly drunken-crazy within the same afternoon.

Brie Larson plays the adult Jeanette; Chandler Head plays Jeanette as a child; Ellen Anderson plays the teenaged Jeanette. All are arrestingly good. David, Jeanette husband ( Max Greenfield) weathers his part well. When Jeanette admonishes him with, ” When it comes to my family, let me do the lying !”, we cringe with him. Robin Barlett as the abusive, West Virginia gramma will keep people from naming their offspring Erma.

Yet, I loved being reminded of Jeanette’s story. I spoke with her for eight minutes during her Indianapolis book tour, and immediately liked her easy warmth and truth-telling. I did not get the same vibe from Brie Larson’s portrayal. I hold the screenwriters and the director at fault. Wall’s tale is one of acceptance and acknowledgement of lessons learned. Her hard-scrabble youth did not focus on forgiveness or the need for parental atonement. She did not see herself as a victim. Read her 2005 book and see what I mean.