by Philip Price
Director: Martin Krejčí
Starring: Jaeden Martell, Chris Messina & Sophie Giannamore
Runtime: 1 hour & 28 minutes
A modern fable of sorts, “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” feels like it's intended to largely be an allegory while in fact being a pretty straightforward story that seems to have been concocted for the sole purpose of delivering as broad a message as possible about acceptance. What's not curious is that a film with "wolfboy" in the title feels akin to the type of story that might have been told around countless campfires in the past, but what is curious is how a movie with "wolfboy" in the title comes away feeling as poignant and tender as Martin Krejčí's film does. There is a moment barely two minutes into the film after we're initially introduced to Jaeden Martell's Paul and his father, Denny (Chris Messina), as they stroll through a carnival on Paul's birthday that efficiently places us inside the perspective we're meant to inhabit for the rest of the story. Paul is a 13-year old boy whose biggest fear isn't the onset of puberty, but rather dealing with the fact his body has been covered in hair since he was a baby. This is actually the result of a rare disease called Hypertrichosis AKA Werewolf Syndrome and it has forced Paul to wear a ski mask for the better part of his life in order to conceal the congenital disease. Paul doesn't want to be at the carnival and in fact thinks that because it's his birthday he should have final say on what they do, but his father knows were it up to Paul he would spend all day in his room, alone. As Denny describes a ride to his son called "the dragon's dilemma" (which is not coincidentally also the name of the first chapter in Paul's saga) they are approached by three local boys around Paul's age. The boys claim to be Paul's friends - which brightens his father's face - but it quickly becomes apparent they're only bullies looking to get a rise out of Paul and Denny. They make their jokes and quickly run away, Denny immediately demanding their names as if already planning retribution via their parents, but it is Paul's response that highlights the moment and reminds the audience who isn't aware they even needed reminding that just because this is the first abusive encounter we've seen Paul endure it is far from the first or last time he will have to experience as much. When Denny asks for the names Paul simply responds, "They don't have names." Such provocations and badgering have been aimed in Paul's direction for so long now the enemies don't even have names or faces. They just exist, like weeds in a garden, and the moment you try to eradicate them twice as many take their place. This is heartbreaking, sure, and the interaction rings as such between Paul and his long-defeated dad, but this also tells us why - if we couldn't already surmise and sympathize with as much - we'll come to find out that Paul is kind of a jerk. Immediately dropping the expectation that our protagonist is a noble character who forges past life's biggest barrier to overcome the odds allows Olivia Dufault's (“Legion”) screenplay to take us on a rather dark, but simultaneously uplifting journey where the story beats and characters feel neither trite or absurd despite the outward facade that would have you believe as much by placing the word "wolfboy" front and center.
So, Paul is a young man who openly hates who he is and Denny is a father lost as to what to do next in order to help his son. There is some clear tension between Paul's father and mother who Denny doesn't like to talk about and who Paul has never met. This leads to Paul receiving a mysterious package on his birthday; a gift that contains only a map with the words "when you're ready there is an explanation" written on them and a charted course to an address in Pennsylvania. Paul quickly escapes he and his father's house in upstate New York and begins looking for ways he might make it to who he assumes is his mother. This leads Paul back to the carnival grounds where he encounters John Turturro's Mr. Silk. Silk is the ringmaster of this small production of carousels and tilt-a-whirls and immediately sees the potential in Paul. Like the circus sideshow performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Silk sees the dollar signs in advertising Paul as a freak. Paul isn't in love with the idea, but he needs cash to buy a bus ticket, so he succumbs to the pressure only to ultimately feel betrayed by Mr. Silk and exact revenge upon he and his carnival in ways that will place Paul on the run and Mr. Silk on his trail along with the detective who has now begun a search for the missing wolfboy after Paul's father realizes what has happened. It is this sequence of events and odd circumstances around Paul's existence that propel our hero into the archetypal road trip movie scenario where, while on the run from those chasing after him, Paul comes into contact with the people and experiences that teach him the lessons he desperately needed to be taught, but was never going to learn by staying cooped up in his room or under the thumb of his well-meaning, but dissipated dad. Chief among these new influences is Aristiana (Sophie Giannamore) who fancies herself a mermaid and even has the wigs and costumed fins to back it up. After sleeping in Aristiana's dog's house one night, this new friend - who more or less embodies everything Paul isn't when it comes to confidence and self-acceptance - indoctrinates our hero into her world and introduces him to fellow misfits like Rose (Eve Hewson) who wears a pink eye patch for reasons unknown and fancies the attitude the patch brings with it that allow her to embrace the more rapscallion-like tendencies of her personality. Place all of this into a brisk, but enduring eighty-eight minutes and what you have is a fairy-tale essence with some surprisingly grand significance.
It is in the character of Aristiana that we find the movie’s heart and soul for, if you'll recall when I stated that for an allegorical fairy tale “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” is actually pretty straightforward, this was in reference to how Dufault positions this character in her screenplay and how Krejčí uses her to not so much show Paul "the way", but more to show him "a way" in which he can lead a satisfying and fine life while also providing something both characters desperately needed: a genuine friend. All of that said, going forward this review will contain what some may consider spoilers, so...fair warning. Sophie Giannamore, the actor playing Aristiana, has been openly transgender since the age of 11 and plays to that experience in the film. As mentioned, Aristiana is completely confident in who she is and who she was meant to be even if her mother and the Gods disagree. She escapes from the world that consistently turns its back on her by concocting performances that seemingly allow her inner-most expressions and feelings to manifest in an act that she presents on stage at the bar that the aforementioned Rose also frequents. Upon initially meeting Paul one of the first things she asks him (and may I remind you that Paul is kind of a dick) is if she's supposed to feel sorry for him. There are no questions about his appearance or what or why it happened (though there is a nice jab involving a squirrel that's pretty funny), but instead Aristiana is most intrigued by why he's on the run and what has forced Paul into his current situation. There is some exposition in their dialogue explaining why Paul can't simply shave the excess hair, but even this is sustained by the juxtaposition of Aristiana's mom having just cut off all of her hair; an act that is just as tragic for her as Paul not being able to cut the hair from his face is for him.
Paul and Aristiana quickly form something of a fascination with one another as the way in which Krejčí slowly unpacks the truth of Aristiana's life and how far she's come to be who she is at the moment she meets Paul is done in a beautiful fashion. Even if an audience member were to typically be disheveled at the thought of someone's identity differing from their biological identifiers Krejčí's approach to the material allows room for sympathy and understanding in a way where there is no room for snap judgments or easy dismissals. Completely assured of her female identity, despite the cruelties of the world, it is Aristiana's self-worth that prevails. By making the supporting character rather than the lead the "noble hero" “The True Adventures of Wolfboy” doesn't ask for the sympathy Aristiana garners, but instead shows her as the strong, capable individual that teaches Paul to view his own condition differently and accept himself. The general thought would be that our hero would find someone he can relate to and they'd teach one another how to overcome the obstacles life will throw at them simply for being who they are, but by slyly making Paul's experience a metaphor for the transgender experience and then adding a strong transgender character in that supporting role the film not only works as a fable conveying a moral, but a fairly blunt (re)presentation of why - no matter what you believe is right - there's no reason to be a jackass to one another.
Needless to say, for such a compact running time Krejčí's film has a lot going on as we haven't even touched on the additional themes that emphasize the need for these characters to come to terms with who they were meant to be while having the strength to recognize that is not who they were destined to be. Because of the shorter run time and the inherent structure of the film though, it does feel as if Krejčí was forced to make some serious cuts which - while enhancing the fable element - does somewhat take away from the "grandness" of the adventures the titular character and his cohorts happen upon. This is largely made more apparent by the fact the film is broken down into seven chapters and while these begin in what are 20 or so minute intervals they become increasingly shorter and more concise as the film draws near its end. The cutting room floor also seems to rear its ugly face most egregiously in regards to Turturro's character whose antagonism is more present than the story seems to demand it be as the path Mr. Silk follows doesn't really add up or make sense in terms of his motivations. It seems as if Mr. Silk was meant more to be this character that haunted the mind of Paul, reminding him of the worst things that could come from his appearance rather than an actual, physically opposing force that remains in pursuit of him through to the third act. It's difficult to say what Turturro's arc might have been in the original script or cut of the film, but it has either been reduced so much or simplified so extensively that the character (and Turturro's fantastic crazy face) amount to little real impact here.
What does assist in the transition from one chapter to the next is Nick Urata's score as it balances the whimsical with the more venturesome sense of Paul's "quest" to find his mother. The score is also used effectively under Paul's voiceover that serves to also bridge the gap between one sequence and the next as we listen to Paul contemplating what questions he might ask his mother were he to ever meet her face to face. As an aside, while the score is certainly a facet of the film that works for it Krejčí also has this repeating motif where characters lip sync with these wistfully nostalgic songs playing on the radio. I don't know that it's meant to supplement any main ideas, but it's a distinctive touch and charming as hell; ultimately only serving to reinforce the dreamy nature of the film. Finally, if you're wondering why Chloë Sevigny's name is on the poster, but hasn't been mentioned in the review thus far I'll unsuccessfully attempt to conceal her role in the film by saying she only appears in the third act. Naturally, she brings something of a soothing tone to what is an otherwise anxious encounter ultimately exemplifying a line Hewson's Rose says earlier in the film about how, "runnin' around like this-it's probably all going to end in tears." Sevigny's Jen has lived with regret for a long time and hasn't forced herself to reconcile the fact that when she stopped running she didn't necessarily like where she ended up. And while this somewhat symbolizes one path Paul could follow this is not the most important thing Paul learns while in the presence of Jen. Instead, what we hope Paul takes away from this encounter is the pearl that, "the world's gonna be mean to us no matter what we do, so we can't afford to be mean to ourselves."
by Bryce Ratliff
Director: Glen Keane
Starring: Cathy Ang, Phillipa Soo & Ken Jeong
Runtime: 1 hour & 40 minutes
Coming of age stories are told in film all of the time – especially in animation. Disney in particular loves to make coming of age stories (with a side of tragedy to help make both kids and their parents cry). Take a look at “Inside Out” from a few years ago. It’s an incredibly unique film about the emotions in the head of a young girl, but at the center of it all is a coming of age story. Netflix’s “Over the Moon” is in a more similar vein to Disney’s “Moana” from a few years ago – though I’d argue it’s more successful in its emotional catharsis than that film was. This film is a coming of age story, so as the film started, I wondered how it would stand out in the crowd of similar films. I got my answer not too long into the movie, and that is incredibly gorgeous animation, great music and a story while familiar – is full of heart and humor.
I have to start with the animation because it’s simply a marvel. The incredibly original ideas found in just a simple frame of this film are astounding to me. Once the film takes off into the more fantastical portion of its story, I was in constant awe of the animation on screen. The colors are plentiful, the creatures are unique, and the experience is like a vivid fever dream. With everything from giant luminescent frogs to a motorcycle scene that feels like “Mad Max: Fury Road” with a neon candy-coating, “Over the Moon” is one of the more impressive animated features I’ve ever seen.
With all of the work put into creating such visual splendor, there is bound to be a weak spot for the film. That weak spot is definitely the story and at times, the script. Now, the story isn’t bad by any means, it’s just relatively generic. Despite not being a Pixar production, it fits the Pixar formula a little too well. I wouldn’t mind the predictability and sense of familiarity if the script were a little sharper, but you can often tell this film is written specifically for its younger audience. There’s not much for adults to cling to besides the occasionally funny joke (typically from Ken Jeong who does incredibly well in a role akin to Olaf from “Frozen”), a couple of emotionally relatable moments, or the stunning animation. Again, the story and script aren’t bad, they just don’t rise above standard children’s fare for the most part.
The music in the “Over the Moon” adds a nice spark to the film. The opening number reminds me sonically of a Disney Renaissance film (specifically 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast”). There’s some beautiful vocal work done to especially by star Cathy Ang. I will say, there are two songs in the film (one leaning toward rap and the other toward pop) that I found to be relatively generic but it doesn’t defeat the mood overall. They just don’t live up to the energy of everything happening in the scenes surrounding them.
At the end of the film, I wasn’t torn on if I was going to recommend the film, but I was torn on who to recommend it to. Kids everywhere will adore this film for sure. Adults on the other hand will probably be divided. If you’re a huge fan of animation, art, or visual effects – you should definitely check it out. If you require your family films to have more edge like Laika’s “Coraline” or “Kubo and the Two Strings,” more nuanced depth like Pixar’s “Inside Out,” or an rousing soundtrack like Disney’s “Frozen” – than “Over the Moon” may leave you a bit wanting. However, if you’re down to get immersed in a fun experience with visuals similar to James Cameron’s “Avatar,” than you should definitely give this a watch. You’ll never want to look away from the screen after seeing this visual masterpiece.
Check out Bryce Ratliff’s other reviews at Please Press Play
by Julian Spivey
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray & Marlon Wayans
Runtime: 1 hour & 36 minutes
Ever since I heard writer/director Sofia Coppola and actor Bill Murray were re-teaming for a movie it’s been at the top of my most anticipated movies of the year list.
Their first collaboration 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” Coppola’s second feature film and breakthrough, is one of my favorite films of the last two decades.
“Lost in Translation” earned Coppola an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and she became just the third female ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars at that time. Murray’s performance as a has-been actor in Japan to film a whiskey commercial who befriends a young and lonely new bride garnered him the only Academy Award nomination of his career.
I really identified with “Lost in Translation,” which truly captures the feelings of boredom, loneliness and just being a fish out of water. Some of these feelings Coppola captured once again in her 2010 film “Somewhere,” which I quite enjoyed as well.
The latest teaming of Coppola and Murray, “On the Rocks,” is certainly the lightest of the three Coppola films I’ve seen thus far, but nevertheless a really good watch – and because of the lighter quality toward it may be the most accessible to a wider audience than “Lost in Translation” and “Somewhere.”
Where as some viewers may have found the storylines to “Lost in Translation,” and especially “Somewhere” to be slow or boring there’s more of a chance that the fun father-daughter on a stakeout storyline of “On the Rocks” will appeal to more folks.
In “On the Rocks,” Laura (Rashida Jones) is a writer, mother of two and wife to a husband (Marlon Wayans) who’s away on business more and more lately. Their relationship has grown a bit stale and when he returns from a London business trip with a woman’s toiletry bag in his luggage, she suspects that he’s having an affair. To get a man’s perspective on it she asks her playboy father Felix, who definitely believes her husband is cheating on her.
Laura and Felix end up tailing Dean, the husband, to figure out the truth of whether or not he’s having an affair and truly sets up the best parts of the film. Murray is as charming as he’s ever been on film, likely even more so than his Oscar-nominated turn in “Lost in Translation.” The father-daughter chemistry Murray and Jones have is pretty terrific, especially because you can always feel the love between the two, while also Laura’s disappointment in her father’s philandering always hanging in the air through Jones’s performance.
I would really like to see Jones have more leading roles in films, especially dramedies of this sort. She’s mostly done television work (good work at that) throughout her career, but really belongs more on the big screen. There’s a realness to her performance here that just shows me she can really crush a mixture of drama with some humor thrown in.
Ultimately, “On the Rocks” is certainly worth watching for the onscreen chemistry of Murray and Jones and Murray giving one of the best performances of a now 40-year film career that definitely has many highlights. “On the Rocks” isn’t likely to be the awards darling that “Lost in Translation” was (although it appears to be a slight year for film with the pandemic doing so much damage to theaters and film releases) and it’s not at quite the substance level of Coppola’s earlier modern masterpiece, and it’s certainly a film that shows off a bit of an upper-class privilege to it that might not be of interest to some, especially this year, but the leads make it a breezy, fun watch.
“On the Rocks” is streaming on AppleTV+.
by Philip Price
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer & Stanley Tucci
Runtime: 1 hour & 46 minutes
Having no affinity for the 1990 adaptation of the 1983 Roald Dahl novel the hope in knowing Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis was going to direct and produce an updated and more faithful-to-the-source material version of the story alongside fellow Best Director winners Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro was that it would prove to be the project that gave Zemeckis his mojo back. Unfortunately, Zemeckis continues to taint his pre-2000 career with this re-imagining rather than restoring any faith that the same man who made “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Death Becomes Her” is still alive.
2020's “The Witches” isn't terrible, this should be noted. If this were made by a less prominent filmmaker and didn't have the precedent of Nicolas Roeg's original adaptation on which to base expectation this would maybe have more a sense of novelty to it, but given the context this largely feels like another excuse for Zemeckis to experiment with his interests in advancing the technical aspects of movie-making rather than tell a fun, entrancing story. Like all Dahl stories, “The Witches” makes no qualms about not softening the blow of life's truths to its young protagonists; forcing them to deal with the challenges hurled in their direction as there is no way of escaping them, but only dealing with them. While this trademark is evident throughout Zemeckis' film the frightening in pursuit of enlightening never feels as fundamental to the DNA of the proceedings as the order in which these events are doled out does. It's as if Zemeckis has replaced the intrinsic DNA of Dahl's characters, world, and circumstances with calculations rather than constructing them in a live-action fashion to better understand what the author was trying to relay ... and while I've only seen the 1990 film once and as an adult, I can say with absolute certainty that film captured the darkly comic shades of Dahl's work far better than this new one. I don't even know if I chuckled at anything here other than Octavia Spencer's sassy Southern grandma.
Speaking of Spencer, if Zemeckis had simply made a film about the relationship between a grandmother and her grandson and how that bond grew and evolved after the death of her daughter and his mother I think we and the director may have all been better off as the first half hour or so prior to any titular characters showing up is wholly charming and natural in a way that makes what follows feel all the more contrived. Spencer is fantastic as always, Anne Hathaway is having a blast, and Stanley Tucci doesn't deserve the GIF that will become of him from his mess of a part. “The Witches” isn't bad enough to cuss out, but it doesn't utilize all its potential to create something as wondrously weird as each individual aspect would suggest it could be. It's dust in the wind, but then again that's what critics said about “Hocus Pocus” in 1993 and we see the juggernaut that has become. So, don't ask me what the destiny of 2020's “The Witches” is, the kids know better.
“The Witches” is streaming on HBO Max.
by Philip Price
Directed: Jason Woliner
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen & Maria Bakalova
Runtime: 1 hour & 36 minutes
Fourteen years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen was largely introduced to the world via the titular Borat Sagdiyev. Borat - a man who by happenstance makes Americans look as idiotic as they perceive him to be - was born into a world and a country at a point in time (or maybe at a point in my life) where the world was maybe not less complicated, but certainly less chaotic. At that point in time, the revelations Borat came across in his "Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" were known, but not explicit. Did racism still exist? Sure, but it was mostly our grandpas who were halfway out the door anyway - or so we thought.
In “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” Cohen wears a Ku Klux Klan outfit into a Conservative conference and the most shocking part is how many people seemingly in attendance are also shocked by this. This also signals the main downfall of a decade and a half later ‘Borat’ sequel as hardly anything is genuinely shocking anymore. I mean, when the President of the United States has had an affair with a porn star the fact the former mayor of New York City is totally up for getting it on with a hot, young reporter during a global pandemic isn't exactly surprising.
That doesn't mean Cohen's antics are no longer funny as I laughed plenty - the genuine investment in our hero's plight by his new-found quarantine friends is hysterical - and Cohen hasn't lost the ability to push all the wrong buttons in just the right context either. Some of the edge is also lost in the fact Cohen can no longer exist as the character of Borat as widely or as boldly as he could prior to 2006. In this regard, largely unknown Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova will come away as the one who gets most of the kudos as her anonymity and status as a young woman help the film to expose America’s deep-rooted sexism (get ready for a debutante dance for the ages) among other things (fake news!). And so, while “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” may not be as initially outrageous as its predecessor or even equally as funny it certainly feels more necessary and by virtue of that necessity, all the more urgent.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
by Philip Price
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Lily James, Armie Hammer & Keeley Hawes
Runtime: 2 hours & 1 minute
First, some context: I haven't exactly been a big fan of director Ben Wheatley's films thus far. On the other side of this coin is the fact I've only seen two of the man's films in “High-Rise” and “Free Fire.” So, not a wealth of evidence on which to base my presumption that the filmmaker's take on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved 1938 gothic novel and the second major film adaptation after Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 version wouldn't live up to its acclaimed predecessors. Some further context: I haven't seen Hitchcock's film nor have I read du Maurier’s novel, so at the very least Wheatley's iteration of this story would not be viewed under the shadow of those former works. In turn, this works well for a viewer and viewers with the same circumstances given the mystery of the piece undoubtedly works better for those previously unaware of the specifics of the narrative. That said, the two films I have seen from Wheatley both very much fit into a small, very specific kind of niche genre in that both seemed to have been heavily influenced by the style and color palette of the ‘70s while carrying an equally sardonic tone if not admittedly varied when it came to themes and ideas. If nothing else, “Rebecca” would offer an opportunity for the director to branch out stylistically and tackle a different genre altogether in this very British, very romance-infused thriller as adapted by the likes of Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”) and screenwriting duo Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“Seberg”). The idea is certainly ripe given “Rebecca” purports to be something vastly different than that of anything Wheatley has made before, but would seem to take a turn into terrain that the director is not necessarily accustomed to, but is likely more comfortable in. It is in this hope that Wheatley's mentality and strong penchant for bringing an attitude and point of view out of his images and into the tone of his films might make “Rebecca” more than a by-the-numbers account of jealousy incarnate, but it is in this hope that this latest endeavor ultimately fails as it more often than not feels like this new adaptation of du Maurier’s work could have been made by anyone. Despite having not read the novel and not having seen any other versions of the work Wheatley's film moves along at a pace that fails to ever make viewers fully invest in either the characters, the drama, or the character's drama. This is an adaptation that is just enticing enough to pique interest in the source material yet couldn't feel more like a condensed version of the literature; the depths of Wheatley's film only reaching so far as Mrs. Danvers' compassion rather than that of Rebecca's grave.
We never find out our main character's name and we never see what our titular character looks like. Beginning with the very broadest of components there is mystery intertwined as these large omissions from what would otherwise be basic information give the story as much a sense of apprehension as it does the veil of secrecy it's chasing. Of course, these are both elements of the original source material and so, while the story is renowned as a classic and has been re-imagined countless times the aspect under the most scrutiny this time around is what Wheatley and co. might have done with the material to make it worth re-visiting and re-telling. Coming again from the perspective of a viewer where Wheatley's film is the first encounter with du Maurier’s story though, it is difficult to not simply give one's self over to the machination of the whole affair and the protagonist that becomes wrapped up in it all despite knowing that the craft of this version lies not necessarily in the story itself, but how that story is being told. That story continually being referenced follows our unnamed protagonist (Lily James) as she accompanies a rich American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd) on holiday in Monte Carlo. Our narrator, the one with no name, is young and pretty and sheepishly naïve, but she is also unassuming and earnest about her inexperience and lack of financial stability all of which make her appealing and rather charming to the handsome widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer), a man born into wealth, but whose reputation is currently overshadowed by the recent, tragic death of his wife - the Rebecca of the title. After a rather quick courtship and the impending threat of Mrs. Van Hopper whisking her companion back to New York, Mr. de Winter asks the young woman to marry him to which she agrees and after the wedding and honeymoon, she accompanies him to his mansion in Cornwall, the beautiful estate of Manderley. Upon arriving at Manderley, the trappings of her new life make themselves more and more evident as not only does the new Mrs. de Winter find herself battling with the ghost of her new husband’s first wife, but with Manderley’s sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who seems hellbent on keeping the former lady of houses' haunting legacy alive and present while ensuring her employer's new bride knows she will never measure up to the elegant and urbane Rebecca.
“Rebecca” is a film about both a woman living for someone who is no longer living herself and another woman competing with the ghost of that woman. This is a ghost impossible to measure up to, who one character even describes as being "one of those bloody annoying people who was irresistible to everybody." The impact of this dead woman on those left in her wake sends both of the key living female characters in the film spiraling out of control in opposite directions of confusion, anxiety and misery. James' character has a line in the film that states, "It's odd isn't it, some people seem perfectly happy alone while others just need someone to past the time with...doesn't matter who." If this dialogue was lifted from du Maurier’s story I'm not sure and so I definitely don't know whether or not the novel focused on this theme in particular, but it was this idea - this presiding need of Danvers to uphold Rebecca's legacy and the choice of James' character to either become or dismantle her completely - that comes to stand as the most fascinating aspect of Wheatley's interpretation.
Wheatley's film, as shot by frequent collaborator and cinematographer Laurie Rose, is first and foremost a gorgeously rendered and beautifully dressed film. There is no denying the intrigue of the brightly lit beaches of Monte Carlo and the period-specific clothing and cars that populate the naturally beautiful location, but it's the kind of beauty that feels like if one were to tear even the smallest aspect of it away that the entire facade would come crumbling down. It could certainly be that Wheatley's intent was to make this film, especially in the early scenes, feel as staged as possible - as if purposefully making it appear to have been shot on the backlot of a studio - in hopes of fashioning it in the vein of a classic Hollywood romance, but the darker elements of the story underscore this intent and instead force this approach to feel more false than stylized. This is a psychological thriller and it is in this predominant atmosphere presiding over the events of the film that the viewer should feel an almost cancerous presence throughout. This mood is certainly enabled by the fact the titular character's memory looms over everything once our newlyweds arrive at Manderlay, but prior to that it feels like a completely different movie in a completely different genre with little to no hint of the coming complications. That said, once it does reach Manderlay we're also already strapped with a central romance that doesn't feel fully justified or genuine. Hammer looks the part of a classic Hollywood leading man and more than has the chops to pull off the pristine facade versus inner-turmoil a character like Maxim de Winter requires. Still, it is supposed to be the naiveté and the "funny, young, lost look" she often possesses that attracts de Winter to James' character - which she plays perfectly well - yet it can't help but feel like the dynamic is partly established on some form of pity or necessary charity. It spins the aforementioned whirlwind infatuation and hasty marriage proposal in the opening 25 or so minutes and in that execution, which as was established earlier is the key to this fresh take on the material, there is a lack of effectiveness and impact contained within these moments. We don't ever fully buy into the fact that de Winter would view his new lady's situation in the do or die circumstances that he ultimately does. Of course, as soon as the decision is made and James' character gives into a deal that is absolutely too good to be true it immediately fulfills the prophecy of being as much as our narrator is frequently left in silence and confusion any time she confronts her new husband with questions of his past or concerns over his shortcomings.
It could be said these establishing issues are nothing more than a tiff and don't necessarily impact the narrative overall, but in a movie based largely in and around a property that is as significant as it is to the characters that reside within it because of the history the building contains one would imagine foundation is not just important, but vital to all facets of the storytelling. The contrary opinion might be that “Rebecca” is ultimately about leaving the dead behind and finding a real home; a home not defined by the portraits that hang along its excessive staircases, but the home where love transcends the physical walls. That may sound overly sentimental, but it is to this point that it's not the foundation so much that matters as it is what grows from and reinforces that ground it began upon. Whether petty or not, the quarrels with the first act of the film are largely forgiven by the time Thomas' Mrs. Danvers shows up on screen. Thomas, a Dame (DBE) and Oscar, BAFTA and Olivier Award nominee, inherits what is seemingly the juiciest role from the novel and creates a rather terrifying performance. Now, while this is a performance that can be seen just as easily through one prism upon an initial watch as it can another the second time all one really needs to do to understand the craft Thomas is putting on display is read her facial expressions. From the moment she welcomes the new Mrs. de Winter to Manderlay through to her final act there is a devastating sorrow to her tone lined with an ever-present hint of judgement that can be discerned through the arch in her eyebrow. It's at once completely devious while also being the type of anger and hostility that comes from heartbreak and depression and Thomas completely masters that balancing act. At the same time, as I assume is the case with du Maurier’s novel, Danvers never allows the presence of Rebecca to stray far from her heart as it's this unseen force that her character not only wallows in, but that drives her every action. Speaking of emotionally confused characters, one would be remiss to not also mention Sam Riley (“Maleficent”) who is growing into a terrific character actor as he shows up in less than a handful of scenes here to both give off some serious David Tomlinson vibes as well as embody something of a tease of a man grasping at any scrap of anything that might benefit him while never foregoing his own lifestyle. Furthermore, the entirety of the cast is very clearly apt at interpreting and conveying the material in potent ways as are each of Wheatley's departments, especially when it comes to reinforcing the presence of a title character we never see, but it simply never comes together in a fashion that feels as mythic as that of the one created around Rebecca.
by Philip Price
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne & Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
Going into a film so steeped in historical events, facts and undoubtedly some speculation it’s difficult to not want to feel both completely educated and entertained on and by the subject come the conclusion of the film. With the second directorial effort from “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network” scribe Aaron Sorkin being based on the violent clash between police and antiwar protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention it’s even more difficult - given the similar cultural landscape we presently find ourselves in - to not want to first and foremost pay attention to the precision of Sorkin’s pen so as to not be swayed one way or another by the dramatization of it all. That said, it’s also difficult to not want to abandon the real-life aspects altogether and instead simply escape to enjoy the piece for its expertly crafted dialogue exchanges and period-accurate set decorations with hopes that what is depicted on screen respects the institution of integrity enough that we trust what the film is telling us and what it’s trying to convince us of are both genuine and honest. That the film takes the position it does will be an easier pill to swallow for a viewer who stands firmly on one side than the other which raises questions about how those on the wrong side of history now can’t see themselves in those on the wrong side of history then, but while this idea might be an aside of Sorkin’s it would seem his primary objective is to illustrate the strong foundations of our institutions, but also the myriad of ways in which they can be taken advantage of and the vitality of intent if one cannot find a complete, impartial view of the bigger picture; in essence, Sorkin seeks to create something as close to primary material as possible and in large part-especially for the first hour-you want to believe he has. If “The Trial of the Chicago 7” hopes to make you feel any certain way though, it’s that type of “hurrah” mentality that no matter how evil the bad guys are the good and the just will eventually overcome it. Unfortunately, this take couldn’t feel more in contrast with today’s world despite the similarities in the challenges our protagonists are up against and the current assault our democracy is facing. Despite the stride toward a more triumphant rather than the more accurately sobering tone in the third act though, Sorkin has pieced together an airtight screenplay with an overwhelmingly impressive cast that executes the material in a substantial fashion giving the project the feel of something genuinely valuable.
Sorkin’s film begins with a cross-cutting of different groups prepping for the 35th Democratic National Convention in a manner so electric and so brimming with energy and hope that by the time we reach the title screen and slide into the less exciting, but never any less engaging conversations of those of the buttoned-up opposition it’s no surprise which party is which. As the title card fades we jump forward five months and are introduced to federal prosecutors Thomas Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, giving an ambitiously complex performance) as they “arrive at a moment in history” while waiting in the lobby of the U.S. Department of Justice just in time for Lyndon B. Johnson’s picture to be taken down and exchanged for the newly-elected President Richard Nixon’s. Newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) instructs the two prosecutors that they will be seeking an indictment for conspiracy to cross state lines in order to incite violence in regard to the riots that took place outside the Democratic Convention the previous summer. Mitchell wants this indictment brought against what Howard Ackerman (Damian Young), Special Advisor to the Attorney General, calls the “all-star team,” but who Mitchell likes to refer to as “the school boys” or the “rebels without a job” and he very clearly wants to make an example out of these men who he deems a “threat to national security.”
Who are these individuals that seem to give Mitchell such heartache he would go so far as to utilize a federal law that was created by Southern whites in congress to limit the free speech of black, civil rights activists? A law no one had ever been charged with breaking before, but the one Mitchell - the only United States Attorney General to ever serve a prison sentence for his eventual role in the Watergate scandal - decided to utilize in order to make an example out of these so-called “shitty little fairies” in order to demonstrate what happens when one threatens the America he grew up in? Well, it begins with the leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society in Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp). There are also the leaders of the Youth International Party or the “Yippies” in Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). This is where things begin to get interesting when talking about the seven individuals referred to in the film’s title though as husband, father and boy scout leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) who was the leader of the Mobilization to the End the War in Vietnam or “The Mobe” takes the fifth spot with the likes of Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty) being brought in to fill the final two spots for what are optical reasons and nothing more. Weiner and Froines have a great introductory bit in which they’re discussing their odd inclusion in the trial with Weiner noting that this is basically, “the Academy Awards of protests and he feels honored just to be nominated.”
The true sixth and final member in this trial though is Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the national chairman of the Black Panther Party – a man also only brought into the trial and perpetuated as being connected to the defendants only because of the color of his skin and stature among the Black Panthers. Seale, though he hardly knows any of his fellow defendants and doesn’t even share the same lawyer, is brought in to make the otherwise very white defendants appear more threatening and scarier. It’s a despicable act of racism and it’s not the first time in the mere half hour we are into the film when Seale makes this point concrete that viewers should be taken aback by the immediacy of the relevance to our modern world. Though we only meet Attorney General Mitchell briefly, it is his words that echo the sentiment that Sorkin seemingly hopes to expertly refute in how he handles the dramatization of the trial itself. Mitchell’s quest is to restore the America he believed existed during his youth. Just for perspective though, Mitchell’s adolescent America was that of the America from about 1918 or the end of World War I and the beginning of the Spanish Flu through to the Stock Market crash of 1929 and into the Great Depression. So, what a time to be alive, eh? If his rose-tinted glasses had ever been removed and allowed him the realization that a world existed outside of whatever Mitchell’s experiences were as a child he might have realized every generation has their challenges, their perspective shifts, and their own form of revolution in order to meet the needs of natural human evolution.
Rather, the only thing that apparently mattered to this, at the time, 56-year old man was that his predecessor – Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) – disrespected him in his exit from the office and in turn Mitchell planned to sink to sad levels of pettiness that he also apparently had no qualms in being up front about. This group that was protesting not the police brutality they fully expected to encounter in Chicago or even the continued struggle of police brutality against Black Americans, but in fact what would turn out to be the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War where, in those summer months, over 1,000 American troops would die every month are who Nixon supporters would refer to with such vitriol as “revolutionaries bent on the destruction of the government of the United States of America.” What “The Trial of the Chicago 7” comes to do with all its history, its first-hand accounts and court documents, its numerous players and all their conflicting motivations is embody a section of the population that were tired of seeing their friends being drafted and killed, their peaceful and non-violent leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (killed in April ’68) and Robert Kennedy (killed in June ’68) being shot in cold blood – not to mention the execution of the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton (portrayed here by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – to the extent the film ultimately provides both a look at the inner-workings of our justice system and the type of context for what ended up transpiring at the 1968 Democratic National Convention that said system controlled and manipulated in whatever way necessary to get the result the government sought.
The key word here is context and just as Sorkin, the writer, is intent on drawing parallels to the actions that transpired because of the thought processes of a few, fragile men Sorkin, the director, is keen on structuring his film so as to show the recounted actions of these riots with an emphasis on context so as the viewer understands how, without context, anyone can be gassed, beaten, arrested and put on trial simply for holding a different set of ideas than those holding the sticks. In the latter half of the film the climactic speech is given via a wonderful and very near groundbreaking performance by Cohen as Abbie Shaboysnakoff where he discusses Lincoln’s inaugural address and, specifically, the portion where the sixteenth President stated that, “when the people shall grow weary of their constitutional right to amend their government, they shall exert their revolutionary right to dismember and overthrow that government.” Abbie goes on to say how if Lincoln had given that speech outside the hotel where the convention was held in the summer of 1968, he would have been put on trial alongside the rest of them. Furthermore, Sorkin is sure to put the definitive period on his research paper by having Cohen give his thesis statement of how anyone “can do anything to anything by taking it out of context,” which he then emphasizes with an example from the Bible for good measure. Nothing hammers home a point like Jesus! Jokes not completely aside, Sorkin knows exactly what he’s doing here in both providing his argument, the basis around his position, and numerous examples that support said arguments while improving upon the pacing, character definition (I haven’t mentioned them yet, but both Mark Rylance’s Williams Kunstler and Ben Shenkman’s Leonard Weinglass who serve as the defense counsel here are fantastic), and intertwined moments of levity in his directing making “The Trial of the Chicago 7” a vastly superior film to that of his directing debut. It may not be a thousand percent accurate and it may devolve too much into manufactured drama as opposed to a biting commentary with hard-hitting truths and small moments that invoke a unified compassion, but it offers something like hope and as elusive as that feeling seems to be these days it is a reward we probably shouldn’t take for granted.
by Philip Price
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott & Rossif Sutherland
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 1 hour & 44 minutes
It's crazy how our bodies are just vessels, right? In looking at myself in the mirror the other day I felt, for a moment, as if I didn't recognize myself and the belief that what people saw is all they associated me with if they didn't know me further kind of took me off my feet. We attempt to craft our outward appearance as much as possible to give others the best, most accurate first impression of who we are and what we represent as an individual, but there is so much more going on beneath the surface - beneath the skin - that it's difficult to sometimes grasp that others will take not from what you believe you have to offer, but what they assume you are or are not capable of. This isn't a new idea of course, everyone over the age of six knows one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I'm talking more about distilling down the difference between the identity and the character. The identity being who we truly believe ourselves to be on a level so personal you feel only you yourself know who you truly are whereas the character is that of the one you've constructed based on the context of your life. Whether it be little indicators in your physical appearance that make you lean toward dressing a certain way, the interests of your friends that you don't mind taking a liking to that influence your verbiage, or the beliefs of your parents that convey their expectations and naturally impact how you shape your own perception-there are a thousand different reasons as to why one might have constructed the outward character they've become. As we grow and as appearances and inhabited character traits become more and more a part of who we are we begin to discover what we actually like and don't like and more importantly-who we want and don't want to be. It would be easy to say all of these previous words have accomplished is to break down the psyche of what it's like to brave the terrain of the brain during one's adolescent years, but as much as that may be applicable what was actually the catalyst for these considerations are the ideas at the center of writer/director Brandon Cronenberg's second feature film, “Possessor.” From the outside, “Possessor” would appear to be a film made purely in the vein of Cronenberg's father, David's "body horror" genre and while the movie certainly has some gnarly violence woven into its fabric its clear Cronenberg, also like his father, is more interested in intertwining the psychological with the physical and in this movie specifically-the idea of how everyday life has become more like a movie than the movies have grown to reflect everyday life themselves.
To even speak of genre feels futile as “Possessor” doesn't really fall into any one specific category despite that poster undoubtedly assuring the viewer it's a straight-up horror flick. Yeah, there are some horrific elements largely contained in the aforementioned violence, but mostly this is an adult drama with some action and mild sci-fi components to boot. This lack of a distinct classification does not hinder a definitive tone though and while some have stated the concept hues closely to James Tiptree Jr.'s 1974 novella, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, it's hard to comment on as much given I haven't read Tiptree's work. As for Cronenberg's film though, it feels very much-in speaking of appearance versus insight-like something as visually stimulating as a major blockbuster in many regards while having the mentality of a more independent spirit-a rather unconventional and somewhat sadistic spirit-but an independent one nonetheless. And so, while “Possessor” doesn't necessarily fit into any one genre it does concentrate on something as genre-specific as the tale of the long sought-after "perfect crime". In the film (and we're getting into spoiler territory here, so fair warning), Andrea Riseborough (“Birdman”) plays Tasya Voss who is a trained assassin in the highest form. Voss works for a company who have clients that seek out hit(wo)men that will not only get the job done, but do so in a way where the idea of foul play and/or involvement from anyone outside those explicitly involved in the murder is never suspected. These types of results are accomplished through Voss inhabiting the body of others through brain implant technology. As interesting as this all may sound Cronenberg's script doesn't spend a lot of time within the semantics of how this technology works and even leaves a dangling question that could either potentially undo the entire operation or be explained away in a single line of dialogue (and maybe it was and I missed it), but we won't harp on that here as the important part of what this technology produces and what Cronenberg's story is more interested in exploring anyway is that of not just committing the crime, but the shapeshifting Voss must constantly be performing in order to convincingly occupy the psyche of others. The catch here is that Voss has seemingly become so accustomed to becoming others that she is no longer tethered to her own identity thus leading to the question of how does someone who doesn't know herself genuinely become others?
“Possessor,” while giving the audience an example of the types of assignments Voss typically takes at the top of the film, more specifically focuses on a job that deals with a young man named Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). Tate is a recovering drug user and dealer who has somehow stumbled into a relationship and is now engaged to Ava (Tuppence Middleton), the daughter of a wealthy businessman (Sean Bean) who owns one of the largest data mining corporations in the world and who Colin now works for. Ava's step brother has hired Voss' company to enact the narrative that Colin can no longer deal with having zero power in the relationship and therefore relapses prior to killing Ava, her father and himself at a scheduled dinner party 48 hours or so after Voss' consciousness is transferred to Tate's body. There are a few scenes in between the prologue as it were and the beginning of the job including Tate where Riseborough is granted permission to be the person Voss actually is or at least attempt to remember her own character long enough to visit her ex-husband, Michael (Rossif Sutherland, son of Donald and younger brother of Kiefer) and their son Ira (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) for a short time before submersing herself in her work again. It is in this sequence, the only time in the movie that we see Voss in a setting of her own making, that Cronenberg intentionally mirrors the scenarios to that of what her experience as Tate will be. You'll notice guests who overstay their welcome followed by intercourse in both scenarios with the distinction that in the former Voss is detached and not present in the moment no matter how much it seems she would like to be, whereas, when in the body of Tate she is not only engaged and present, but seemingly getting off (in more ways than one) by being this infiltrator of strangers most personal moments. Within the film Cronenberg is sure to leave plenty of space for discussion around these types of ideas and the countless interpretations sure to come from them, but taking cues from the traits Voss displays and mainly her dependency on her job as a type of outlet for her own desires it seems there is a definite inability to feel in control of her own life. Control being the key word here as the ability for Voss to live out her desires by inhabiting the bodies of others for a limited amount of time allows her the freedom to construct a character without having to maintain an identity. Acting and building an identity are crucial parts of maintaining the character one wants to convey in society and the lack of control over those elements due to time and no guarantee of consistency in the real world seem to be what Voss wants to avoid, but can achieve in short, satisfying flourishes when becoming others.
It's a hell of a concept and one that could have taken any number of roads once it established the major point of conflict within the narrative. There is a sense that after the culmination of the second act though, that Cronenberg's script somewhat loses itself to that strong concept in a way that feels like he's no longer in control of the rules of the technology or the logistics of the ideas. It's difficult to say if the movie ever fully recovers, but by the time the credits have long since rolled and you've moved on with your life it's not the plot or the rules of the movie's world that will stay with you, but more it is the reoccurring ideas of identity and individuality that remain the most striking. So much of the nuance of the film comes from the two principle actors as they essentially must embody the same character-the same individual-while reminding the audience that they are in fact two separate entities. While Riseborough has proven herself an actor's actor time and time again she is enabled to do the most "actor-y" of things in this role as Voss must study who she'll be inhabiting and pick up on their ticks, quirks, body language, and speech patterns whereas Abbott is tasked with playing the character of both Tate and Tate as inhabited by Riseborough's character. Such roles call for each actor to apply slight differences in their performance at any given moment while being able to sync up their performances for the majority of the runtime. It's this achievement and recognizing how difficult it must have been to pull off, not to mention the amount of work that must have gone into it that would seemingly make how effortless it ultimately feels the biggest compliment one could pay the film; the only time the viewer being unsure of who's in control being when Cronenberg deems it necessary to hold tension over the audience. Abbott is certainly an up and comer to watch as it is his performance that doesn't necessarily establish the role of the degree of violence on display here, but it is he who reiterates through the repetitive stabbing featured in the film that our physical forms truly are just vessels that can easily be wrecked and broken and his performance as this psychologically wrecked and emotionally broken woman trapped inside a surrogate helping her seek what satisfaction she can't define is complicated, top notch craft. There's the turn of phrase about how it's not the body that has a soul, but the soul that has a body and it is in this simple reversal of perception that “Possessor” reaches its desired conclusion even if as a cohesive movie with a syncretic story and plot it somewhat fumbles at the one yard line.
As an aside, this film does contain one of the most striking editorial cuts experienced in some time. It is more the timing of the edit than that of what the images necessarily contain, but it absolutely sets up the best context for itself and then is executed in such swift fashion it is impossible to detach the two acts from one another from that point on. It's an edit so good that when Cronenberg and his editor saw it cut together for the first time they undoubtedly called themselves geniuses or-at the very least-performed a small, awkward dance in the editing bay together.