Seemingly there has been a slew of films lately with a broiling emphasis on shock and violence packaged in a polished, artistic sheen. Yorgos Lanthimos' (The Lobster) The Killing of a Sacred Deer, along with Darren Aronfsky'sMother!, are those rare occasions where the boundary-pushing vision of a filmmaker is put on display for cushy seated multiplexes. It's hard not to compare these two pictures as they both share a confounding plot with a nightmarish sensibility. They are also slickly made and seductive; the tastelessness of some of the horror elements are in the forefront but they are also juxtaposed with "tasteful," graceful film-making. In that respect, these pictures owe much to Polanski and Kubrick. Deer, in particular, is a riff of sorts on Kubrick's The Shining. We even have the shaggy-haired young son of the piece, Bobby played by Sunny Suljic, bearing a resemblance to Danny Lloyd.
Deer is a hollow picture that looks incredible (supple lighting work and photography--the cinematographer is Thimios Bakatakis), centering upon a hollow family. We are introduced to them in their beautiful, sprawling home in a dinner scene that highlights their wan, somewhat lifeless personalities and peculiar precision with their speech and manner. Steve is a cardiovascular surgeon (bushy-bearded Colin Farrell) at the head of this opus, whose previous carelessness is coming back to roost. Because the film--seemingly rooted in Biblical and mythological lore--takes its sweet, dread-infused time to get to the mysterious perils that befall the family, it's a difficult piece to surmise without giving much away.
Despite the movie's repetition and pace--a heavy touch that doesn't really create potential comedy or suit the already lugubrious material, the film has some strong assets. Especially accordionist Janne Rättyä's cutting score cues (in the vein of Mica Levi). The flat line deliveries which worked so effectively as humor in the more funny and intriguing The Lobster is more safe and banal here. The main players help galvanize the movie as well. Farrell does his usual sturdy work and as his steely wife, Nicole Kidman, whose done some of her best work ever lately, commands a sort of strength and palpable, visual energy. The camera adores her in close-up, simultaneously aglow and bitterly icy. She's solid at portraying her characters' drifty convictions. It's fun to see Alicia Silverstone too in a small bit. But really the erratic heart pumping the film (the human heart anoints the opening--I had to look away) is Barry Keoghan as Steve's mysterious younger friend, who figures as a squirmy, hovering presence. It's an acrobatic, unmissable turn that piques curiosity about the story that may have been completely lacking without him. **1/2
Sean Baker's Starlet and especially 2015's Tangerinewere funny, vibrant films with an exciting, engaging visual style. He returns this year with the sun-drenched and exquisitely shot (by cinematographer Alexis Zabe) The Florida Project--a summer in the life of 6-year old Moonee (a magnificently natural Brooklynn Prince). Moonee lives with her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a motel complex of marginalized people on the edge of Disney World. Halley is scraping by and Moonee--rebellious and smart-mouthed, is already becoming keenly aware of American class divisions and the limitations of lower-class adulthood (she can always tell when adults are "about to cry"). The motel is run by affable and quietly stern Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who seems to bear the weight of moral dilemmas he has faced over the years when making decisions for and against his tenants. Moonee creates her own universe, her own Disney World of sorts for her and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto)--an ordinary field of cows and a large twisting tree trunk becomes a safari adventure. Bobby too creates his own universe as well, as we see the ins-and-outs of maintaining the Magic Castle, sometimes banal like fixing a washing machine, sometimes agonizing like deciding the fate of whether or not a family will have a roof over their heads.
Even though the film looks slick and beautifully controlled, Baker seems to have just let the camera roll before his cast of prankster-driven children (not too far off from "The Little Rascals"). There is no stagy feel to Prince and her gang: they are authentic and quite funny. Movies about children can often be a mixed bag, but Baker shows a deft talent, akin to the work of François Truffaut in Small Change. The children here, in their free summer time, are explorers of areas that adults aren't as compelled by; we move through a shuttered housing development on the outskirts of the motel; we watch Moonee's daily trip to the back of a restaurant to collect free food from Halley's friend and waitress neighbor Ashley (Mela Murder). These little moments build up pressure to the point of bursting. And by the time we arrive to the heartbreaking coda, Prince and Cotto are there to deliver a wrenching moment of release.
Like the title itself, a nod to the original description of Disney World in its early stages of construction, the movie is paradoxical. The cast features seasoned vets like Dafoe and those plucked from the locale and from social media (the tale of Vinaite being recruited from Instagram has been mentioned often). Like Tangerine, there's something about the mix of acting styles makes the film feel effective and alive. There's a pulsing sadness underneath the rainbowy pastels and the lazy summer sheen. The movie begins ironically, with a brisk title sequence set to the Kool & the Gang chestnut "Celebration." A song from a time that seems far away from the lives of Moonee and even Moonee's mother. It's also a song which became an early 1980s American anthem after fifty-two hostages freed from Iran. Reaganomics still informs America's imbalances of wealth, perhaps even more harshly today, and is a prescient aspect of this film. As the tourists around them are in leisure vacation-mode, the inhabitants of this Magic Castle are just trying to survive. ***1/2
It seems that Washed Out's song of dreary life outlook placed within cheery tangy pop and quiet psychedelia has been making the rounds lately. Perhaps it's the kind of song that, like its title, goes along on and on.
Greta Gerwig's feature Lady Bird is a triumph for her as a filmmaker and writer. It's a coming-of-age tale of the final high school year of a young woman, the self-named titular character (Saoirse Ronan), from "the wrong side of the tracks" in Sacramento and her relationships with friends, family, and a few boys. Lady Bird often finds herself in tiffs with her mother (a poignant Laurie Metcalf) that are short-lived but also run with an emotional undercurrent that feels perhaps forever unresolved.
A skilled and charming actor, screenwriter and film aficionado, Gerwig also shows tremendous talent behind the camera. Reportedly broke at the time when she was on the red carpets for her major movie debut in Noah Baumbach'sGreenberg, it's beyond heartening to see her rise and receive deserved acclaim as a director. Gerwig hails from Sacramento and her emotional attachment to her hometown permeates the film. In a way, it feels like a movie that was decades in the making, a story bursting to be told. The piece is visually arresting, shot with affection by Sam Levy, and edited in a distinctive rhythm by Nick Houy (who recently won the Emmy for his work on "The Night Of"). In fact, many of the movie's laughs derive from Houy's sly and sharp work. The movie is a tight ship, coasting through the seasons and ardent events of a single year with both an inherent complexity and a seeming ease. It's also a movie that's acutely conscious of its time period, the rarely examined early aughts, particularly within the breakout of the American invasion of Iraq. The unnerving news reports and financial worries (money and class division is a big aspect of this picture), along with the stuttering Timbaland beat of the very appropriately used Justin Timberlake lament "Cry Me A River," thrums along in the background of a twilight time before cell phones were ubiquitous and blocky home computers still ran on dial-up.
Gerwig's keen eye must have played a part too in the wondrous assembly of the cast, with many who have deep roots in theater. Laurie Metcalf is an acclaimed stage actress and a character actor in films. As the by-turns giddy and glum Aunt Jackie, she played a big part in the comic mastery of TV's "Roseanne." It's exciting to see her with this sizable role which displays her subtlety (that head shrug when Lady Bird asks "what if this is the best version of me?") and dynamite physicality (the way she drives her car, which becomes ultimately symbolic, is miraculous stuff). As Lady Bird's best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein, who appears in Broadway's Hello Dolly!, is hilarious, emotionally engaging, and totally winning. As the father, Tracy Letts, a well-regarded playwright and actor who I usually find too ferociously "actorly," tones himself down and emerges as a tender and understated presence. It's his best film performance. Also great in smaller roles are Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Lois Smith and the magnetic Stephen Henderson playing the school's depressed theater director ironically steering a production of "Merrily We Roll Along." There's something a tad unsatisfying about the storyline of Lady Bird's brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), but that's not at fault of Gerwig's writing or the strong performers as it is perhaps a point of view issue: Lady Bird cooly distances herself from them. That could be said too of Lady Bird's fumbling relationship with the purposefully detached, blankly emo Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). Ronan has been around for years and is usually exceptional, with an expressive countenance. Here, I didn't even think of her as acting, she just sails through the film as this character.
It's hard to distill all the melancholy and joy I felt watching Lady Bird in a clinical film review. When a film is really cooking, it's working on multiple levels, sometimes in ways that are at odds with each other--"scary and warm," as one of the characters describes Lady Bird's mother. I don't think I've seen the quick breaks between lashing out and affection between mother and daughter done so well since James L. Brooks'Terms of Endearment. There's a smart, bittersweet sensibility these two films share, including the psychic pain brought forth by a loving yet continuously disappointed mother and the emotional ache of separation. Like Terms too, the movie is very funny, laugh out loud funny--something I don't find often, as comedies are quite broadly bland these days--and also deeply sad and moving. I cried through most of the movie, that uncommon laughter through tears experience, it hit a nerve that so few films do and the quietly devastating turn by Metcalf floored me. ****
Check out the collection of drawings of the unfortunate victims of Jason and his mother immortalized in Stacie Ponder's (of brilliant Final Girl blog) book Death Count. Available from Amazon here. I'll have to dig up some dollar bills for this one shortly.