THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
The long-delayed new film from Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Valentine) is actually two films—the first is about falling in love, the second concerns testing the boundaries of that love. Adapted by Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans is set just after World War I in a remote coastal area of Western Australia. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned home from the war a somewhat shattered man, looking for a place to live an isolated, quiet life after four years of battle. He gets a job as a lighthouse attendant on the small island of Janus, off the coast of a village that sends him supplies every couple of months via a small boat (captained by the great Australian actor Jack Thompson). The previous attendant apparently killed himself, but Tom thinks he’ll take to the job better.
Before he takes up residence in the lighthouse, he meets the town’s prominent Graysmark family, including daughter Isabel (Alicia Vikander), and the two can’t stop staring at each other over lunch. On his next visit to shore months later, he begins to court her, and before long the two are married and living happily together on the island. The first real trouble the couple has involves her having children, and after two late-term miscarriages, Isabel is a complete wreck, and Tom can do little to console her. Depending on how you look at it, this was either the perfect or the worst time for a rowboat to suddenly float onto their island carrying a dead man holding a very alive newborn.
Against his every instinct to report the incident, Tom is convinced by Isabel to raise the child as their own, since no one knows about her second miscarriage. He buries the man’s body, disposes of the rowboat, and they two treat the little girl like she’s their own. But at the child’s christening, Tom spots a woman (Rachel Weisz as Hannah Roennfeldt) kneeling at a grave in the church cemetery, and when he investigates, he discovers the woman is their child’s real mother mourning the disappearance of her husband and baby. In an effort to comfort her, he leaves an anonymous note in her mailbox saying that their child is fine and her husband is “with the angels,” but Hannah takes the note to the police and insists that they begin an investigation.
In addition to love, The Light Between Oceans is also about the absolutely crushing power of guilt. Tom is the kind of man who cannot stand to see someone suffer just so he can live an easier, happy life with Isabel. At the same time, he couldn’t stand the idea of his wife suffering by having to give up the baby. And while to the outside observer, the right choice may seem clear, if you get wrapped up in the emotions of this couple’s dilemma (as you likely will thanks to the staggeringly great performances), you’ll feel equally torn as to how you’d like to see this drama play out.
It is only after we have a clearer picture of who Hannah really is that we discover how her husband Ralph (seen in flashback and played by Leon Ford) and his daughter ended up in that boat. He was of German descent, which was not taken to well by the townsfolk after the war, especially not when one of their local girls fell for him. Her father (Bryan Brown) disowns her for a time for marrying a German, but comes back into the fold as a good father should when the baby goes missing. As you can probably tell, there are distressed emotions in every corner of this film.
The world seems to get impossibly small once Tom realizes Hannah’s plight, and he keeps running into her whenever he’s back from the island. Eventually, he realizes that he has tot tell Isabel the truth, which sends their happy home into a panicked frenzy. In he final third of The Light Between Oceans, director Cianfrance settles down on an exposed nerve that is the entire community and never steps off until every character feels some degree of suffering. Sounds like a great time at the movies, right? But in the right hands, this degree of period-film melodrama can be both agonizing and glorious. I’ve never understood people who can’t handle this degree of unfiltered emotion on the screen. Characters in so many movies do their best to be cool and collected, it’s actually a relief to see people unleash their feelings as they do here.
The true standout here is Vikander, who goes from warm and subtly flirtatious to wild-eyed, protective mother at the very hint of Tom suggesting they return the child to her biological mother, believing fully that this baby coming to them was meant to be in their time of heightened grief. There are no easy answers or solutions in The Light Between Oceans. It’s a complicated mess that makes the journey to the screen thanks to some stellar photography by Adam Arkapaw, who manages to make the landscape look washed out and lush simultaneously. You will likely shed tears for both sides of this situation, and if that’s the case, it means your heart is fully functional. It’s quite all right to see a film because it’s front loaded with great-looking actors and leave feeling like you’ve experienced a film of true substance; it’s the best of both worlds, really.
All the pieces are there; they just never quite come together in a way that feels fresh or original or scary or interesting or anything that a film with limbs in both science fiction and horror could strive for. In the end, the feature debut from director Luke Scott (son of Ridley) just sits there like a well-filmed blunt instrument. From writer Seth W. Owen, Morgan has a great setup. Kate Mara stars as Lee Weathers, a corporate “quality control” expert for a tech company, arrives at a secret lab owned by her employer to assess a very special, very secret project that has recently resulted in one of the location’s scientists getting badly hurt by…something. Lee is greeted agreeably by some of the staff, but we quickly figure out that they are being nice to her primarily because she has the power to shut down the entire project, in which they are all emotionally invested.
The cast of Morgan borders on exceptional, with the likes of Rose Leslie (“Game of Thrones”), Toby Jones (“Wayward Pines”), Chris Sullivan (“The Knick,” “Stranger Things”), Boyd Holbrook (Gone Girl, “Narcos”), Vinette Robinson (“Sherlock”), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) making up the team. I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that what the researchers are attempting to develop is a form of artificial life that can function like a real human. To what end, we’re not exactly sure. But this being a film about a corporation’s rights to potentially end this program going head to head with a group of scientists who see themselves as something resembling life-giving artists, you can probably guess one side of this equation is up to no good.
The first part of the film is about build-up and background. We learn about the failed attempts to bring this being to life, and then we meet Morgan, a human-looking intelligence (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who gave a career-establishing performance at the beginning of the year in The Witch), who is growing into adult form at an accelerated rate and has a tendency to get violent when she gets emotional or feels threatened. The incident that brought Lee to the compound involved Morgan gouging out the eye of Leigh’s character with seemingly little provocation. Morgan can talk, express, analyze and approximate emotions with an alarming clarity, but she has difficulty establishing who is her friend and who means her harm. Lee’s job is to observe a psychological evaluation and decide whether to continue with the project or bring it to a close. As one scientist states to her, “You’re an assassin.”
In the film’s best extended sequence, psychiatrist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti, in full curmudgeon mode) sits across a table from Morgan and practically dares her (it? The proper pronoun to attach to Morgan is brought up more than once) to lash out. She’s smart enough to know that if she does, she’ll likely be put down. Taylor-Joy’s work here is actually quite nuanced; she balances the approximation of emotional responses with a concerted, strained effort to hold back from expressing them. She’s no robot (like Ava in Ex Machina), but we get a sense she is programmable to a degree. And it’s that struggle to defy certain protocols versus reacting as is her nature that makes Morgan such an interesting creation.
Morgan’s second half is where things begin to crumble, both in the plot and in the manner in which it is executed. Rather than create a slightly challenging story that allows us into Morgan’s fractured thought processes, the movie devolves into a brutal bloody mess and a waiting game to find out who lives and who dies when Morgan escapes. I have to wonder, if that’s all this work was going to become, why bother getting us to care so much about how Morgan sees the human world—none of which comes into play as things play out. An 11th-hour reveal involving the project’s real leader (Brian Cox, a welcome addition at any point, in any film) doesn’t really do much for the proceedings either, and I had figured it out much earlier in the surprisingly short running time (92 minutes).
There are few things more frustrating as a moviegoer than seeing a strong premise betrayed by the inability by the filmmakers to stick the landing. Hell, I wish the landing were the only issue here. And while Morgan looks sensational (all credit to cinematographer Mark Patten, a second unit director of photography with several recent Ridley Scott films, including The Martian), it feels unfinished and underdeveloped. None of the actors falls short, but at a certain point, they have virtually nothing to work with. All of that being said, I think when director Luke Scott gets his hands on a better script, he might really be able to pull together a film more worthy of his abilities.
THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX
For the briefest of moments, I thought The 9th Life of Louis Drax was going to be a dark, modern fairy tale about a young boy (played with a blend of creepy and precocious by Aiden Longworth) who is prone to near-fatal accidents. Chronic bad luck causes the mishaps; good luck keeps him alive. But as the title indicates, young Louis’s good luck may have run out as his succession of bad luck culminates with a tumble off a cliff that leaves him in a coma. His mother, Natalie (Sarah Gadon, recently seen in Indignation), and brain specialist, Dr. Pascal (50 Shades of Grey lead Jamie Dornan) look after the boy in the hospital.
In an effort to unlock the boy’s shutdown brain, Dr. Pascal ends up tapping into something that could be looked at as Louis’ extra sense, one that seems to mix (or confuse) fantasy and memory, and even sometimes bring the dark forces of his mind into the real world. When the accident becomes the center of a police investigation (led by the great Molly Parker), Louis’ fall looks more like he was pushed by his father (Aaron Paul), who has been missing since the event. At the helm of this mixed-tone mish-mash is French horror maestro Alexandre Aja (High Tension, Mirrors, Horns), working from a script by actor Max Minghella (whose late father, director Anthony Minghella, was in the early stages of adapting the novel by Liz Jensen when he died in 2008).
Trips into the boy’s brain have been attempted before by his former psychiatrist (Oliver Platt), who is not eager to recall the session with Dr. Pascal. More curious (for very different reason to the good doctor) is Natalie, who spends a great deal of time with him as they discuss Louis’ prognosis. Gadon takes on the look of a Hitchcock blonde here, complete with all of the underlying danger. Pascal is in a strained marriage, which may account for his being open to Gadon’s charms.
As the film takes us on a tour of Louis’ past, he becomes a more disturbing subject for the doctor, and it becomes clear that his mother is an enabler of the highest order. And if he was pushed from that cliff, was someone trying to kill Louis or protect others in the process? Aja’s blend of tones and genres might make your head spin as he goes from Grimm’s fairy tale to dark comedy to (largely bloodless) horror to police procedural, with a few other stops along the way. None of the characters is written deep enough for us to get a sense of what they were like before these events, so I never found myself caring much when someone became endangered, including Louis. On the plus side, Louis Drax also has a terrific retro vibe to its look and plot machinations.
The film’s few truly scary moments seemed shoehorned in, as if Aja didn’t trust the plot to keep us interested. His instincts were correct, by the way, but that doesn’t make the scares are less cheap. If any of this sounds confused, then you have some idea of what it’s like to watch The 9th Life of Louis Drax is a collection of ideas thrown into a blender and made into a genre shake that is either missing a vital ingredient or simply has too many. As far as I can tell, the only place the film is opening in Chicago is at the Kerasotes ShowPlace ICON Theatre.
When actor John Krasinski first tackled directing with the dark 2009 ensemble Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (based on a story collection by David Foster Wallace), the film felt like such a far cry from the types of film and television work he’d done up to that point (such as parts in films like The Holiday, Leatherheads, License to Wed, It’s Complicated, and his best acting work in Away We Go) that it may have startled some fans. For better or worse, his latest directing effort, The Hollars, is exactly the kind of film you’d expect from the guy who played Jim on “The Office” for nine seasons.
At its core, the film is about a dysfunctional family from somewhere in the middle of America, somewhere where Krasinski’s character, John Hollar, escaped from years earlier to go to New York City to pursue his career as an artist. In those years, he hasn’t visited home and doesn’t call often enough, as far as anyone is concerned. He’s in the midst of a long-term relationship with Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), who just happens to be pregnant but whom he’s afraid to actually marry for who knows what reason. And in case you needed to ask, yes, he’s also afraid of becoming a daddy.
But John rushes home when he gets word that his mother Sally (the magnificent Margo Martindale) has collapsed and is in the hospital. At the hospital, John is reunited with his father (Richard Jenkins), who is almost paralyzed with worry, and brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), who is still very much fixated on his ex-wife (Askley Dyke), now dating a youth minister (singer Josh Groban). It should be noted that The Hollars was written by Jim Strouse, who has a history writing about fractured but strangely functioning families with such works as People Places Things, The Winning Season, and Grace Is Gone, but this one is largely saved by the performances and not an especially enlightened or insightful script.
There’s also nothing particularly remarkable about Krasinski’s visual prowess either. The Hollars is effectively a point-and-shoot film, anchored by a better-than-average cast that also includes the likes of Charlie Day, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Randall Park. What is remarkable about the film is the way it sells the family, who certainly have their fair share of communication issues but we always know they’ll come back together no matter how nasty the fighting gets. Each character is assigned their quirks, and they are sent into the world to bounce into the other characters in various combinations. It’s the stuff of network television dramas, but it also plays well with a lot of audiences, including one I saw it with recently.
There’s a moment in the middle of the film, after Sally has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is about to go into surgery when Krasinski takes over from the nurse shaving her head. It’s a beautifully intimate and delicate moment that will likely result in a theater full of people openly weeping. The are a handful of moments like that peppered throughout The Hollars, but there are just as many (if not more) scenes that feel like either lame slapstick or overplayed drama, which seem more the order of the day than addressing the film’s central crises head on. Even John’s stress about becoming a father isn’t dealt with directly. When the time comes, he just seems to push his concerns under the rug, never to be addressed again.
The film’s saving graces are Martindale, Jenkins and Kendrick, the three best actors in the piece. Conversely, every scene with the brother character could have been written out, and I never would have missed him. He’s not a complete asshole, but he grates on us by never behaving like an actual person in turmoil, which is what we’re led to believe he is. The Hollars is one of those rare movies that is not particularly great, but it’s still an easy film to like, and if you’re in a particularly forgiving mood, it may actually move you. And after the summer we just had, I’ll take what I can get, I suppose. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To read my exclusive interview with The Hollars director-star John Krasinski, go to Ain’t It Cool News.
When a film treats its details on real estate law with the same level of accuracy as the inner workings of the interpersonal relationships contained within, then you know you have something special to look forward to. The latest from writer-director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Keep the Lights On, Married Life), Little Men begins as a story about a squabble over a piece of property but morphs into a far more heartbreaking account of how squabbles between parents can truly screw up the close friendships that their kids form, which is especially tragic when the kids in question don’t always have the easiest time making friends.
Co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, Little Men begins with an old man passing away. He’s the grandfather of 13-year-old Jake (Theo Taplitz), whose family moves from Manhattan into the grandfather’s Brooklyn home, which is located above a small dress shop run by Chilean-born single mother Leonor (Paulina Garcia of The 33 and Netflix’s “Narcos”). Jake becomes fast friends with her son Tony (Michael Barbieri), a more outgoing boy who draws Jake out of his shell and even looks out for him at their school.
As Jake’s parents, struggling actor Brian (Greg Kinnear) and psychotherapist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), begin to look over the lease agreement Leonor had with the grandfather, they realize that she’s paying next to nothing for the space. With pressure coming from Brian’s sister (Talia Balsam) to make the space financially viable for both of them, they propose a much higher price for the space, which of course Leonor can’t afford. It becomes clear that Brian’s late father just liked having Leonor and Tony around and didn’t care about the money, but with that arrangement now a thing of the past, a feud erupts among the adults, which spills over into the lives of the kids.
Sachs has a real gift for capturing the humanity of even the least human circumstances—i.e., real estate disagreements—and for a time, it’s wonderful to watch as the boys simply go about their business, basically ignorant of the pot boiling over beneath them. Once they have figured out what’s going on, they even agree on a plan to remain silent around their parents until the issue is resolved to everyone’s liking; needless to say, that doesn’t fly. Even worse, it’s clear that Brian and Kathy don’t want Leonor out, but with his sister threatening legal action, they can’t do much to protect her; Leonor, on the other hand, is quick to judge them and loses her temper much too quickly. There are no real villains in this scenario, but that doesn’t stop good people, especially the children, from getting hurt unnecessarily. Little Men isn’t necessarily the kind of film that results in tears, but that doesn’t mean that your heart won’t be crushed just a little as events hurtle toward their almost inevitable conclusion for the simple reason that adults can’t take a step back, admit they acted hastily, and look for a better resolution that doesn’t break up what could be a friendship for the ages. Director Sachs continues to search for the good in all of his characters, and usually he’s successful, which almost makes the situation worse. This is truly one of the most human films of the year. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Floating around the festival circuit since the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, writer-director Nanni (We Have A Pope, Caro Diario, The Son’s Room) Moretti’s Mia Madre is meant to feel like a peek into not only his process as a film director but also the personal toll that dedicating one’s life to the arts can have. In this thinly veiled autobiographical tale, Moretti’s stand-in is actually the great actress Margherita Buy, playing Margherita (go figure), while Moretti himself plays her brother Giovanni, who is portrayed as the more level-headed, sensible sibling, which only makes her feel worse about herself.
Their mother Ada (Giulia Lazzarini) is in the hospital with heart issues right as Margherita is beginning to shoot her new movie about the Italian labor movement, starring the rather pompous and self-aggrandizing American actor, Barry Huggins (played with a blowhard’s enthusiasm by John Turturro), who loves to brag about his past achievement, even if he never actually experienced them (his stories about working with Stanley Kubrick are extraordinary, even if they aren’t true). The fact that he’s completely incapable of acting well without a whole lot of handholding and his command of the Italian language is sketchy at best makes things all the more stressful for the director. Turturro is a complete scream in this part, and that’s good because a great deal of Mia Madre is quite melancholy.
To add to Margherita’s neurosis and stress is a breakup with her actor boyfriend (Enrico Ianniello). The crew is ready to jump ship (echoing the drama of the movie within a movie), and her daughter (Beatrice Mancini) is doing poorly in school, possibly the result of a chasm that has grown between them. All of this is causing the filmmaker to have unsettling dreams that we are privy to in some disturbing sequences. I’m not sure how much I actually learned about the mindset of a talented director or about the Italian film industry by watching Mia Madre, but the self-reflective Moretti keeps things at such a frenzied pace that at least things never get boring; I’ll take that most days of the week. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The weird thing about writer-director Kevin Smith’s followup to Tusk is that I get what he’s going for, even if he doesn’t quite get there, and that makes it all the more frustrating a watch. Yoga Hosers (which is tangentially connected to Tusk, as well as his next film, Moose Jaws) concerns the two teenage female Canadian convenience store clerks from Tusk (both named Colleen, played again by Smith’s daughter, Harley Quinn Smith, and Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp.
Unlike Smith’s first film about clerks, these girls are especially interested in having in-depth conversations about sex and all manner of geeky topics. The Colleens have effectively checked out from the world around them by burying their faces in their cell phones and making snarky (although not especially funny) comments about everyone they come into contact with. What’s strange about the performances is that, in the few scenes where the girls do engage with others in somewhat pleasant ways, they’re far more interesting. But it feels like they simply get tired faster when they’re nice, so they immediately snap back to cynicism and social media.
As bizarre as it might sound, the plot of Yoga Hosers involves a string of killings in this small corner of Winnipeg that seems to involve tiny creatures burrowing their way into the asses of their victims, all of whom turn out to have something in common. In fact, the intended victims of these murders are critics—art critics to be specific—but I will admit that the killing of critics felt a little…ominous, even if the end goal of our heroes (the girls, along with returning sleuth Guy Lapointe, played by Johnny Depp in heavy makeup, which includes moles that move around his face with each new camera angle) is to stop these critics from their untimely deaths.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Yoga Hosers is that it finds Smith attempting something resembling family-film mode. This is a PG-13 affair, which means those who normally turn up for Smith’s films to hear characters practically invent curse words are in for cold water to the face. Instead we get insults from the girls like “basic,” which doesn’t carry quite the punch of a typical line of dialogue from Jason Mewes.
I liked the seemingly random inclusion of real-life Canadian führer Adrien Arcand (Haley Joel Osment) as a jumping-off point for this story of creatures known as Brat-zis (all played by Kevin Smith). But for every somewhat inspired idea like that, we get three or four cliché-riddled elements and performances from the likes of Natasha Lyonne and Tony Hale, as Depp’s parents. Admittedly, I did giggle a bit at some of the names of yoga poses dreamed up by the girls’ guru, Yogi Bayer (Justin Long)…get it?
There’s a free-floating, chaotic tone to Yoga Hosers and you almost wish Smith had taken a little more time to have the film make a modicum of sense. Characters appear and disappear with a randomness that feels more like plot elements drawn out of a hat (the inclusion of two older boys, Austin Butler and Tyler Posey, in this story is such a time suck), and actor Ralph Garman’s German villain, who also does impressions, has a scene that goes on for roughly a month; his impressions are good, but don’t qualify as funny.
As someone who likes almost all of Tusk—with the exception of every drawn-out second that the elder Depp was on screen—it was particularly disheartening to see that his role has been expanded in Yoga Hosers. Lapointe is now the worst character in two movies, so there’s that. Of course there are laughs; Smith can write snappy, funny, even clever dialogue when he sets his mind to it. But Yoga Hosers feels like a half-baked script (which may not be far from the truth). And while the two young leads certainly have a personable quality that may serve them well if they choose to pursue acting in the years to come, they aren’t there yet, and their work here feels flat.
To read my exclusive interview with Yoga Hosers writer-director Kevin Smith, go to Ain’t It cool News.
MISS SHARON JONES!
I was fortunate to catch this glorious profile of singer Sharon Jones, the anchor of the Daptone Records label, at its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. The doc begins just before Jones goes through a round of excruciating cancer treatments in 2013, which sidelined her career and her life. As told by masterful, Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream, Shut Up and Sing), Jones’s struggle managed to fortify her spirit even as it weakened her body, and to say the film is an inspiration doesn’t even begin to cover its enriching impact.
Miss Sharon Jones! isn’t just about the singer’s cancer bout, but it sets the rest of the film in a context that it might not have otherwise achieved. Certainly showing Jones in so much electric concert footage with her band The Dap-Kings goes a long way to establishing just how much energy she generates on stage, but it also serves as an eye-opening contrast to how depleted she feels while getting chemotherapy. Still, I love that she progressed through the treatment without a doubt in her mind that she would recover, so much so that she started booking shows and scheduling promotional appearances for a new album shortly after the treatments were supposed to be done, as if by giving herself these deadlines, the cancer would have no other choice but to yield to her will.
Outside of the cancer aspect of Jones’s story, Miss Sharon Jones! offers a remarkable tale of a woman who became famous in her 40s after being discouraged by a record company executive for being “too short, too dark, too old.” But her resolve bursts through every frame of the movie, and watching her and her closely knit family of musicians and management will likely bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart for every big and small triumph during this period. I particularly appreciated director Kopple including details about the band and their individual financial struggles during Jones’s downtime. The realities of being in a moderately successful band are brought into startling focus in ways I’ve never seen addressed in a music doc.
Throughout the film, what always rises to the surface is the music. There’s a moment in the film where Jones goes to church for the first time in quite a while, and she is positively possessed by an unseen force that suddenly has her singing and dancing in ways she hadn’t in many months. It’s enough to make you believe in a higher power if you don’t already. But her music with the Dap-Kings is paramount. I’ve been buying the group’s music since day one and have seen Jones perform many times over the years (as I did earlier this summer), but there is something about seeing footage of her first show at the Beacon Theatre in New York City after going through months of cancer treatments that is so special that it gives you hope that good things actually do happen to good people. Prepare to get out of your seat during the film, both to dance and to bow down to a woman whose story will move you deeply. The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
To read my exclusive interview with Miss Sharon Jones! director Barbara Kopple, go to Ain’t It Cool News.