Tag Archives: actors turned directors

Sundance 2021: Land

Bereft from some ambiguous tragedy, some half-crazy white lady drops everything to go live on a mountain, totally alone, without being adequately prepared. No phone, no car, nor running water even, this scenario spells disaster to absolutely everyone except her, who persists against all common sense.

Edee (Robin Wright) seems not to have thought of pretty obvious things, like cold, and like bears, which are both pretty big threats to isolated cabins in the woods. This is shaping up to be a pretty short movie. Lucky for Edee a hunter (Demián Bichir) happens by and thoughtfully notes the absence of smoke from her chimney (Edee having lacked the skill to chop wood and the sense to stack it inside). He saves her from the brink of death, and when she’s finally healthy enough to speak, she tells him to get the heck out. She’s come up here to be alone, you know. Grudgingly she consents to semi-regular visits as long as he brings no news of the outside world. He teaches her all the survival skills that she had no business living up here without, and in exchange she’s barely grateful. Because she’s sad! And because she doesn’t consider that others might be sad too.

Land isn’t a bad movie – how could it be? It’s been made so many times there’s a tried and tested blueprint to follow, and as a first time director directing herself, Robin Wright follows it pretty closely. There’s some very pretty scenery and a quietly commanding performance from Wright, but nothing we haven’t seen before, no new insights, no new tricks. It’s hard enough having empathy for a woman who’s so cavalier and careless, but truth be told, neither character is well-developed and we need more to get a true connection.

Wright is a competent director but Land is a retread of places we’ve seen, people we’ve known, emotions we’ve explored. It’s safe and it’s familiar and it probably didn’t need to get made.

Sundance 2021: Passing

This film is based on the electrifying 1920s novel by Nella Larsen depicting two former friends who run into each other randomly in New York City. Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga) were friends in high school but haven’t seen each other since. Both women are biracial; Irene lives in Harlem with her husband and sons while Clare lives in Chicago with her own husband and child. The major difference being that while Irene lives authentically, Clare is passing for white. Even Clare’s husband John (Alexander Skarsgard) believes her to be white. In fact, needs her to be white, since, as he tells us, the only person who hates Black people more than he does is Clare herself. He’s even given her a “cute” racially-charged nickname that he loves to boast about. Clare lives deep, deep under cover. Irene sees the danger in the situation and resolves to stay away from her, unwilling to keep denying her own race to hide Clare’s.

However, when Clare and John move to New York City themselves, the two women reignite their friendship, despite Irene’s reluctance. Clare has been desperate for the unique comfort of being among her own people, but Irene is terrified of John, and of what might happen should he find out. But a mutual obsession grows the more time Clare spends in Harlem; they seem almost unable to untangle from each other even as their friendship threatens their carefully curated Truths.

Passing isn’t just about race. It takes on gender, sexuality, and importantly, class. Clare’s constructed identity revolves around her passing as white, but Irene’s identity is more wrapped up in her status. As the wife as a doctor, she strictly maintains her middle class boundaries, going as far as to isolate herself in order not to be mistaken for someone of a lower class, while Clare is much more comfortable straddling the lines and treating class as more fluid. Writer-director Rebecca Hall paints a beautiful portrait in which these two women exist, and develop, and she allows Negga and Thompson the space to explore who their characters are and why. Through lenses of happiness, jealousy, security, fear, and desire, we come to know these women and what guides them in their choices.

This is a fertile character study where psychology and motivation are layered in richness and depth. With its deliciously ambiguous ending, Rebecca Hall honours the masterful source material while also creating something impactful of her own.

Palmer

Fresh out of prison after serving only 12 years of his sentence, Palmer (Justin Timberlake) rolls up at his grandma’s house with nowhere else to go. Grandma Vivian (June Squibb) is the one who raised him after his mom split and his dad died and she’s there for him again when he needs her.

He’s not the only one she pinch-hits for. Shelly (Juno Temple) next door is often… indisposed. By drugs and an abusive boyfriend. Which is already a pity, but Shelly’s also got a young son named Sam, who comes to stay with Vivian whenever his mother disappears, which is often. Life at Vivian’s is the only real stability Sam (Ryder Allen) has ever known. He eats regularly and sleeps in a real bed and gets to class on time. And now Palmer is a bonus father figure, something Sam has been craving.

Palmer is a convicted felon who’s lucky to find work as a janitor and Sam is a little boy who likes to play princesses. You wouldn’t have guessed that they were each exactly what the other needed but they do form a friendship, one that empowers Sam and gives Palmer’s life meaning.

Is Palmer cute and kind of sentimental? Yes it is. You’ll feel you’ve seen this kind of thing before because you have. Such is the redemption drama. And yet admittedly the performances are compelling, and the kid is charming as hell. Justin Timberlake shows some surprising range leading a strong ensemble cast. Palmer sees himself in this young abandoned boy, and his charity toward him is an opportunity to absolve some of his past sins. Together they are building a life, and yes it’s trite but it’s also very watchable.

The Vanished

Well that was a hot mess.

Paul (Thomas Jane) and Wendy (Anne Heche) take their ten year old daughter Taylor on a camping trip over the Thanksgiving weekend, But Taylor doesn’t make it to the holiday. She disappears on the very first day, while mom is away and dad is flirting with the hottie next door.

Over the next week, as the cops try and fail to find their daughter, Paul and Wendy unravel. Almost anyone would, in their shoes. It’s a terrible thing to lose your child, and to sit helplessly by while search and rescue continues to turn up nothing. But it’s also terrible to disregard official police “advice” and take things in hand themselves. People under incredible emotional duress don’t make the best decisions. Wendy and Paul make particularly bad decisions, but it turns out they’re not the most stable people.

Peter Facinelli writes, directs, and appears as one of the inept cops, and should be deeply ashamed of all three. This movie is so out of this world improbable that, at times, it feels like the writer meant it as a comedy but the director wildly misinterpreted everything, except that Facinelli is of course both the writer and the director and very very bad at both. The entire movie is built around a terrible twist ending that takes a page from the very worst of M. Night Shyamalan and actively seeks to one-up him in a competition of awfulness. Even Anne Heche and Thomas Jane, neither of whom was ever mistaken for a good actor, do their best worst acting in this.

My very best advice: try your damnedest to avoid this one on Netflix.

My Little Sister

My Little Sister is Switzerland’s official entry for the Academy Awards’ International Feature Film category this year, and its unofficial selection for Biggest Bummer of 2020, which is saying a lot.

Not that it’s a bad film, not at all. It’s just the opposite of cheery. Gloomy. Depressing. Upsetting. It’s about grown up twins Lisa (Nina Hoss), a playwright, and Sven (Lars Eidinger), a stage actor, who are dealing with his cancer diagnosis and resulting transplant. Even on the mend, Sven is still very unwell, and since their mother is a flake, Lisa’s been doing the caring. Lisa already put her life and career on hold once, to follow her husband to Switzerland where he runs an international school and she raises their children. Desperate to get back to the Berlin arts scene, Lisa isn’t happy to learn that her husband’s been contemplating extending his contract, but she’s already got more on her plate than most people can handle. Again she puts her life on hold to care for her “big brother” (born 2 minutes earlier) as he struggles to get back on his feet.

Sven’s illness is quite severe but Lisa can’t really face that. She has appointed herself the perpetual fountain of hope, and even goes back to play writing to make sure he has a meaty role to inspire his recovery. She is so committed to his recuperation she’ll even neglect her marriage to be at his bedside. Nina Hoss is nearly equally committed to the role, playing Lisa with sensitivity, and a naturalness that really helps to bolster the relationship between the twins. Clearly they are close, the kind of bond that can always be relied upon, as illustrated by Eidinger’s performance. Sven has bravado for everyone else, but in front of Lisa, he is vulnerable, he is weak. And though Hoss shows us how scared Lisa is, for him she is strong, sure, and optimistic.

Cancer dramas are a dime a dozen, but this one manages to detour away from the genre’s deepest ruts and treads new(ish) ground with intimate and instinctive performances from the two leads. Directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond give us a story that’s emotional without trying to be. It simply presents truth, unadorned. The death of a loved one can force us to reevaluate our own lives; Lisa’s certainly reassessing things, even with so many balls still up in the air. It’s a resonant reminder that life never stops, not even while you’re losing the person you hold most dear.

The Midnight Sky

We meet scientist Augustine (George Clooney) on a very bad day for humanity. The inevitability that climate change has been predicting for years is finally here, and in the end, it goes so much more quickly than we ever imagined. Augustine works at an Arctic station that is being frantically evacuated on this particular day, people rushing home to be with loved ones as they wait to die, and in a matter of just days, they do. The toxic air will take a few days more to reach the Arctic, so Augustine stays behind, alone. At least he thinks he is until he discovers a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) who’s been left behind, but by the time she’s found, Augustine can no longer reach anyone else. These two may be the last humans alive on Earth.

BUT. There are 5 more humans still alive in space, astronauts that have been on a 2 year mission to assess a newly discovered planet for viability. And indeed it does appear to be the promised land, able to sustain human life. Except for everyone on Earth, it’s too late.

With his communications down, Augustine makes the difficult decision to try to reach another station. On foot. In the quickly melting, deteriorating Arctic landscape. Racing against toxic air. With a little girl in tow. Easy journey, you say? It is not. But Augustine’s got an urgent message for those aboard the starship: don’t come home. Turn back.

The five people aboard that starship are Sully (Felicity Jones), who is pregnant in space, her baby daddy and boss Adewole (David Oyelowo), plus Sanchez (Demián Bichir), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler), none of whom knew they were signing up to be the last earthlings/the ones who would need to repopulate humanity. What an awful burden to put on anyone, but it’s either that, or death. Which would you choose?

Sean didn’t love this movie because he found it cold, and I don’t think that’s just a temperature thing (although poor George had to limit takes to 1 minute, and use a hair dryer to thaw his eyelashes between takes). There’s no room in the movie for recriminations but thanks to a subtle and clever script by Mark L. Smith (based on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book, Good Morning, Midnight), we know that Augustine is disgusted by humanity, by the fate we chose for ourselves. The movie very quickly divorces itself from Earth, which is over, and I can understand feeling untethered by that. I myself found it a fascinating corner of the human psyche to explore and discover.

Who are we at the end of the world? Augustine’s life’s work revolved around solving this problem, and now he’s watching it all come to naught. Were his sacrifices worth it? It is a powerful accounting of one’s life that takes place when it can be so starkly measured, and through flashbacks we sense that he’s feeling some regret. The astronauts too are facing a similar hardship. Imagine having come so close, having landed on a planet that could save humanity only to learn that they’re just a little too late. Oh, and that everything and everyone that they knew and loved are dead. And that they can never go home again, in every sense of the expression, that their fates now lie on a strange and unpopulated planet where, best case scenario, their kids will be committing incest for generations.

I love a movie like this that has me trying on so many different shoes to see how they feel. How it feels to fail on such a devastating scope. How it feels to actually face the extinction of the Earth, which seems like such a theoretical concept until the reality is burning in your lungs. And yet to also be in a place where guilt and regret no longer matter. Where not even grief and tears matter because we can only mourn what we have lost, or what we are leaving behind, and neither of those things apply when everything is blinking out at the same time. There are no legacies, no one to carry forward your story, everything will be forgotten, so none of it mattered.

Okay, I can sort of see why you might find this bleak. Yet I am choked with awe reconsidering it all again. George Clooney directs, and he correctly identifies that the end of the world will be markedly emotionless. We humans have no concept of an extinction level event. In 2049, when this movie takes place, we’ll have had – what, 70, 80 years? – of warning, and yet we still won’t see it coming, we still won’t be prepared, and we still won’t believe it until it’s too damn late. I can’t help but admire a movie that is willing to punch you in the gut like that.

The Midnight Sky streams on Netflix December 23rd.

TIFF20: One Night In Miami

One night in Miami, Cassius Clay, not yet Muhammad Ali, is celebrating his heavyweight world boxing title rather quietly, in a seedy motel room, with a few of his friends. This is a fictional account, the way screenwriter Kemp Powers (who adapts it from his own play) imagined it, of one remarkable night where four Black icons – Clay (Eli Goree), soul man Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), NFL star turned movie star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) got together and inevitably discussed their roles in the civil rights movement, what they did or did not owe their people, the cost of their success, and the general cultural upheaval of the 1960s.

Of course, Malcolm X’s idea of a good time is vanilla ice cream and a lecture. He wants and expects his friends to be weapons in the cause. His expectations are sky high and everyone around him invariable feel as though they aren’t measuring up. They were young, black, famous, and unapologetic, but they had one thing that Malcolm X felt they took for granted, that he wanted for all his people, not just a few lucky exceptions: power. Black power.

One Night In Miami does an exceptional job of putting us in the mind frame of Malcolm X shortly he was martyred for his cause. His idea of brotherhood was strong if unconventional, and he was willing to push the Black compatriots who were positioned to effect change just as much as he was challenging the white people invested in keeping them down. This was not the time for people to sit on the fence, he believed, not with Black folks dying in the street. And with so simple a phrase, screenwriter Powers reminds us how timely this movement still is, even 60 years later.

Regina King choose this as her feature-length directorial debut, and what a time and place for her to come out swinging. Making full use of Malcolm X’s last days and last words, she pins us to the moment while tethering us to the movement at large, to its consequences and to the work still to be done. King and company reframe was at the time attributed to “militance” to passion, urgency, and prescience.

Regina King describes her film as “a love letter to the Black man’s experience in America.” Four cultural icons who may not be living the average Black experience, but who are open and vulnerable with each other, expressing fears and concerns. Knowing her film had a valuable contribution to make in the current conversation, King pushed herself to get the film made despite this year’s many obstacles, and made history on Monday night as the first African American woman to have her film be selected by the Venice Film Festival, notorious for its lack of diversity and gender parity. Her film is pushing more than one needle in the right direction, and TIFF audiences should be grateful to participate.

Random Acts of Violence

Todd (Jesse Williams) writes a comic book inspired by a real-life serial killer known as Slasherman. The murders took place in and around the small town where Todd grew up and caught people’s interest because of their brutal and seemingly random nature. The killer was never caught but Todd has made him the hero of his graphic novels. Slasherman doesn’t just kill, his murder scenes are the canvas to a very bloody work of art.

The Slasherman comic books are coming to an end. Todd’s publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) has arranged for a little book tour of sorts, through small town Americana, where Todd can draw inspiration and push through the writer’s blog that’s plaguing his last issue. Joining them on the road is his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) and his girlfriend Kathy (Jordana Brewster). Kathy’s got a mission of her own. She’s interviewing anyone with ties to Slasherman’s actual victims. She’s worried that Todd’s work fetishizes horrific crime and glorifies the perpetrator. She wants to keep the victims in people’s memories, but to Todd, and from the story-teller’s perspective, the victims’ stories are finished but Slasherman lives on. As you can imagine, it’s a point of contention between them.

But ethical debates are soon going to fall by the wayside because this little press tour is going to attract more attention than they’d planned for. Someone is committing the exact same murders Todd has illustrated in his book. Shit’s about to get real, boiiiiii.

Jay Baruchel turns director for this film (he cowrote it as well, with Jesse Chabot, based on the comic by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray) and clearly has a handle on what a slasher flick should be. He plays around with colour in an interesting way, he fleetingly touches on themes like our fascination with anti-heros and whether they legitimize violence, but ultimately, it styles itself a horror film and it delivers the goods: dread and gore.

This is a movie based on a comic book about a guy who writes a comic book about a serial killer protagonist who then gets stalked by a serial killer himself. There are so many levels of meta it’s best not to do the math. It wants to say something about the implications of consuming graphic violence while also presenting graphic violence. It has a brain, but most of all it has guts. Guts galore. The violence may or may not be random, but it is brutal and it is varied. Enjoy.

Arkansas

Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Clark Duke, who also directs) are bottom-tier drug dealers who are glad to be promoted to wholesale distribution by their kingpin (a man they’ve never met).  They are on their way to their first wholesale dropoff when they’re suddenly rerouted by Ranger Bright (John Malkovich) to his trailer park in Arkansas.  Bright also works for the same kingpin, who apparently has reconsidered Kyle and Swin’s promotions.  Kyle and Swin try to settle into the Arkansas chapter of this drug ring, but things soon go sideways when a rival lowlife follows them back to the trailer park after their first drop-off, and his robbery attempt leaves two people dead.

arkansasVince Vaughn and Vivica A. Fox also make appearances in Arkansas as Kyle and Swin make enemies at every turn.  The saddest part is that their attempts to lay low end up creating, then escalating, a conflict between them and Frog, who can’t figure out whether the two are trying to steal from him or whether they are completely inept.  As with most things, the answer ends up being a bit of both.

For the most part, Arkansas is a character study, which is highly problematic when the lesser Hemsworth is your lead.  Liam’s brother Chris clearly got all the family’s charisma, and Kyle’s only observable character trait is an unexplained limp.  All in all, there’s really nothing coming from Hemsworth to keep the viewer interested.  Swin is not worse but he’s hardly better, as he remains a complete mystery through to the end, leaving Hemsworth to carry most of the load.

Casting better lead actors may not have saved this one, because the film’s ending is a jumbled mess as all those left standing must fight for control of Frog’s drug ring.  But with better leads, Arkansas would at least have been a more interesting journey.  As it stands, Arkansas is a boring film with no real payoff.  I would much rather have followed the supporting characters’  stories (especially Ranger Bright) than have to spend so much (or really, any) time with Kyle and Swin.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Old Bosley (Patrick Stewart) out, new Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) in; turns out, Bosley wasn’t a name, it was a rank.

Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Elena (Naomi Scott) are fellow Angels and kind of frenemies but not only are they going to need to get along for this next mission, they’ll also be training a newbie on the fly as mild-mannered, law-abiding layperson Jane (Ella Balinska) gets swept up into the fray.

Jane is a systems engineer who blows the whistle on a piece of tech that sounds revolutionary and life-changing but also dangerous and possibly weaponized. So of course the Angels are called upon to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, and believe me, several grubby, evil little hands are doing the “gimme gimme” gesture in its direction. The Angels are willing to risk their lives to save us all, but they more they uncover the more their own agency seems compromised and nobody knows who to trust.

The movie got off to a rocky start for me because it was a little too “girl power!” And obviously I’m all about strong, capable women but let’s just show rather than tell. We don’t always need banners and slogans. But the movie seemed to get that stuff out of the way pretty early on, and then we hurtle through action sequences like it’s against the law to slow down.

The movie isn’t as bad as you likely heard from early reviews, but it never quite manages to be all that you want it to be either. If you’re remaking this particular movie in 2019, maybe make it subversive? Maybe challenge the status quo? Definitely justify its existence by updating some of the more dated concepts and definitely, definitely have fun with it. That’s its biggest problem: a lack of identity. It’s never really sure where on the spectrum of action movies it wants to fall and it never dazzles us with any distinguishing features. When the Angels’ closets are revealed, containing a to-die-for wardrobe, heavy weaponry, and a plethora of beautiful bobbles and accessories all hiding James Bond-type gadgets, there’s no zeal. I wanted pageantry. I wanted at least as much fun as the boys in the Kingsman movies, combined with the snappy chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Miranda Hart in Spy.

Kirsten Stewart appears to enjoy showing off but otherwise there’s little fizz on the screen. It feels like work for them, and indeed I admit that I don’t appear to be having fun at my job either, and it would also make for a rather boring movie. But if you’re bothering to make this a movie, then I want glamour and I want fun. I want you to either embrace the silliness and really go for it, or I want you to skewer the concept and serve it on a silver platter with so much garnish I don’t know what to do with it. I do not want you to take the well-traveled, extremely trampled middle path of been there, done that.