The name Sophia Takal may not be familiar to many, but for those following ultra-low-budget indie works (such as Joe Swanberg’s 24 Exposures and All the Light in the Sky), she’s a familiar actor, who has turned to directing in recent years (including her 2011 debut Green). Her latest, Always Shine, is especially interesting because it tackles the subject of a friendship this is in crisis between two young actresses when one of them begins to become successful, while the other continues to struggle.
Caitlin FitzGerald (“Masters of Sex”) plays Beth, who has done a string of low-budget “erotic” horror films and commercials that have finally gotten her noticed as a performer in more high-profile works. She has a boyfriend and a decent place to live in Los Angeles, and it has been a while since she’s spent any quality time with her best friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis from “Halt and Catch Fire”), whose hair-trigger temper has often cost her work, despite the fact that she’s the better actor. Anna has a family member with a house in wood of Big Sur, and she and Beth decide to spend the weekend there reconnecting. But it doesn’t take long for Anna’s barely contained resentment of Beth’s success to seep into the conversation and turn the weekend into a living nightmare.
Working from a screenplay by Lawrence Michael Levine (the director’s husband and frequent on-screen partner in her acting work), Takal does a wonderful job tapping into the insecurities of both women. Anna is so desperate for work and attention that when the pair go to a local bar, she immediately begins to flirt with a man there and seems more than prepared to ditch her friend if he takes the bait. Beth is so worried about upsetting Anna that she keeps certain work she’s considering quiet. When Beth reveals that she’s considering an Icelandic horror film in which she would be the lead, the pair run lines, and it becomes clear that Anna has a better handle on the material and the role than Beth likely ever will.
My biggest issue with Always Shine is that we don’t really get a sense of what this relationship was like when it was good, when these two were more or less on equal ground in terms of their lack of success. It might have been interesting to allow that contrast to really serve to fuel the tension between them and underscore just how badly the relationship had deteriorated.
After an especially brutal night between the women, something happens that I don’t want to give away, but Takal has a great deal of fun with the idea of actors losing their identity, dignity, and sense of self worth in the hope of becoming something casting directors will find appealing—talent notwithstanding. At one point, Beth casually dismisses her string of recent work as her simply having a look that people like for the moment. It’s almost a throwaway line, but it stings to hear her almost completely dismiss whatever talent she may possess just to placate her envious friend.
This small moments speak volumes as to the power of Always Shine as a testament to the destructive power of both Hollywood and the inherently narcissistic need of many actors to be recognized and successful. The film is an indictment of the system and a condemnation of the people who allow themselves to be corrupted by it. Always Shine builds to a powerful gut punch of an ending and brings with it the message to hold onto yourself and your better qualities if you decide to enter this way of life.
While nature films are a dime a dozen, especially on television, great strides in technology have made them feel far more intimate and impressive, thanks to improvements in clarity and the filmmakers’ ability to gain access to various wildlife. For many years, Academy Award-nominated directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud (Winged Migration, Oceans) have been leading the charge to make wildlife films like no other, and their newest film, Seasons, certainly fits the bill. Not only is the access the filmmakers have to their subject miraculous, it’s almost anticipatory—the cameras seem to know exactly where to be to capture crucial, dramatic moments. Using everything from micro-cameras and drone-mounted ones, the directors do not just show us animals in their natural habitat, they also provide a glimpse of thousands of years of history in that environment.
Seasons is set in the “forests of Europe,” and the goal here is to track the history of animals and man in this shared space. The film picks up as the Ice Age is ending and the cycle of seasons is introduced to the modern world with animals dominating the landscape, and Perrin and Cluzaud attempt to give us a sense of what it was like when Europe was little more than wildlife and thick, green forests going through an environment that moved from hot and freezing and all points in between. The only thing animals had to worry about where other animals, finding food and not freezing to death.
Using an ever-growing number of actors, the filmmakers also track the introduction of human into this world—first as onlookers, peering at how these superior beasts live, and then as settlers, chopping down trees, growing crops, hunting, and eventually turning these vast stretches of green into fields of industry and conflict. Seasons never loses sight that it’s primary objective is to observe the behavior of these fairly commonplace mammals and birds (with a few insects and lizards tossed in), but part of what impacted the way these creatures lived was have human encroach on their way of life in a remarkably short time. To paraphrase the narrator, at some point, animals were put into two categories by humans: useful or menace.
Seasons is brings us to the present day, and while the idea of global warming is glimpsed, it isn’t dwelled upon. The movie is about the shared history that humankind and wildlife have on the planet, and while the re-created historical moments (and even some where I’m fairly certain animals are treated as actors—albeit they are improvising) may seems less than pure from a documentary standpoint, the end result of the spectacular photography and inherent drama of nature is undeniably powerful and thought provoking.
Seasons is safe for all ages, although there are a few bloodless predatory moments among the woodland creatures, as you would expect. But the chance to see a new film by Perrin and Cluzaud pretty much outweighs any small issues I might have with their non-wildlife performers. The execution might be slightly flawed, but the final product will steal the air from your body with its beauty, humor, suspense, and patience.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
The Eyes of My Mother
The parade of impressive new horror titles and filmmakers continues with first-time writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother, a deeply lyrical, troubling, black-and-white fable about young Francisca (Olivia Bond) growing up on a farmhouse in middle America under the eye of her Portuguese-born mother (Diana Agostini), who used to be a surgeon and seems hellbent on teaching her daughter the intricacies of anatomy. As a result Francisca seems largely unmoved by blood or even death.
One day a stranger comes to their farm and a horrible tragedy befalls the family, leaving Francisca under the care of her mortified father. Francisca grows up to become a young woman played by Kika Magalhaes who is isolated, lonely and somewhat eager to connect with someone in the outside world for reasons that may seem obvious, but are actually quite nebulous and ultimately quite dark and ugly. The Eyes of My Mother works because it presents itself as a quiet, unstated piece but effortlessly transitions into a true horror show exploring the depths of the lead character’s altered mind, likely the result of what happened to her mother.
Divided into three chapter—“Mother,” “Father” and “Family”—the film’s final act is perhaps its most upsetting because it does involves Francisca attempt to build her own family by violating the sanctity of another. As horrible as Magalhaes’ character behaves, we get a sense from her that she’s largely unaware that what she’s doing is wrong. She is not evil in the classic villainous sense; she has simply lost her gauge for determining right and wrong, making her a character we can actually sympathize with, even if her actions are deplorable and deeply grizzly.
Director Pesce and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein use the deeply contrasting black and white to create an otherworldly feel, but the production design on the farmhouse and adjacent, haunting barn grounds the movie squarely in the American Gothic tradition. The Eyes of My Mother is absolutely not for everyone, but if you’re always on the lookout for something strikingly different in your horror selections and aren’t easily bothered by troubling violence, I can’t think of a more original approach to the genre this year than this.
Shia LaBeouf gets a lot of grief, mostly for what he does off screen, and that’s actually too bad because what he’s been doing on screen of late has been pretty fantastic, including meaty roles in Fury, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac films, American Honey, and now Man Down, which re-teams the actor with director Dito Montiel (Fighting), who directed LaBeouf in one of his earliest mature roles in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Man Down is sometimes a difficult film to pin down, but LaBeouf’s performance is hardened and raw, playing a Marine returning home from Afghanistan suffering more than even he realizes from PTSD.
The structure of Man Down is all over the place, but that nicely reflects the condition of Gabriel Drummer’s (LaBeouf) state of mind. We see him at various stages of his young life, all within a fairly compact time period. We see him with his wife (Kate Mara) and young son (Charlie Shotwell) before he leaves for boot camp with his lifelong best friend Devin (Jai Courtney from Suicide Squad); we see him in the field in Afghanistan, constantly in danger and worrying about his family back home; we also see him after he’s returned from the war and meeting with a military man named Peyton (Gary Oldman), who we assume is interrogating him about a troubling incident in Afghanistan; and most jarringly, we see Gabriel and Devin back home, in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic America, surrounded by bombed-out buildings as far as the eye can see as they search for Gabriel’s family. As they do this, they run into a mysterious man (Clifton Collins Jr.), who seems to know where they might be.
As scripted by Montiel and Adam G. Simon, Man Down is a puzzle box, psychological mind-fuck of a movie that holds together on the strength of LaBeouf’s complete commitment to the role. We’re willing to be patient, to wait and see how these bizarre settings and circumstances fit together (assuming they do) because it’s wildly apparent that the actor cares deeply about the health and well being of the character he occupies. As the various stories move forward, a clearer picture takes shape of how they are connected and one piece fuels the events of the next. In the process, the full scope of the tragedy that is Gabriel’s life comes into view.
As is often the issue with many of Montiel’s films, the emotions are amped up well beyond the point of believability at various points, and when all is revealed (especially about the apocalyptic scenes), some people just aren’t going to buy it, which is a perfectly reasonable response. But something about LaBeouf’s work here pulled me through every aspect of this wildly uneven film, and if you haven’t written him off as an actor at this point (and why would you, if you’ve been paying attention?), I think you’ll find a lot to appreciate in Man Down, particularly in the more subdued moments between Gabriel and his son. It’s frustrating how close they got this one; it’s not quite there, but I’ll give it a mild recommendation for the acting and ambitious ideas.
The film opens today in Chicago exclusively at the Regal City North 14.