⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Intelligence is more valuable than money. Anyone doubting that should see this micro-budgeted wonder, part indie coming of age drama, part mind-distorting experimental film, utterly invigorating and original. For less than the catering costs of a major multiplex release, running on little more than artistic innovation, writer/director Josephine Decker has created one of the outstanding films of 2018.
In a breakthrough performing debut, newcomer Helena Howard plays a tempestuous teenage member of a theater dance troupe, just reaching the cusp of adulthood. Remarkably skilled in physically demanding movement and expression, Madeline is a rising star of the troupe, able to improvise poetry from thin air. At times she wears a mask during performance, and metaphorically during regular life, as well.
As a beautiful biracial adolescent in New York City, she’s surrounded by amplified anxieties and uncertainties. As the film slowly reveals, she has also been hospitalized for an unspecified mental illness. Which explains her sometimes violent outbursts as well as the film’s moments of kaleidoscopic visual invention and deliberately erratic editing. She sees the world through an alien and sometimes troubling lens.
Madeline divides her attentions between her controlling mother, Regina (Miranda July), and her supportive theater director surrogate, Evangeline (Molly Parker). The dark side of Madeline’s creativity finds expression in the competition and conflict she creates between the women, which escalates into difficult, unexpressed conflicts of racial and sexual identity. Howard is a vision in her role, operating on a remarkable level of psychological intensity. Now jealously romantic, now ferociously protective of her independence, her Madeline is a visceral, ground-shaking accomplishment. Watching a once-in-a-generation talent like Howard work at this early point feels like entering a tall building on the ground floor. There’s little doubt she will escalate from here.
The Little Stranger
⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R, some disturbing bloody images.
If your appetite for tweedy period films about emotionally repressed Englishmen is famishing, here’s another serving of thin gruel, served with an exceedingly thin slice of the supernatural.
This ploddingly orchestrated affair adheres to the stuffy and dull template of Merchant Ivory productions, with stiff propriety battling unruly passion ever so quietly in the dimmest shades of brown.
In a postwar atmosphere of gloom and rationing, solitary Dr. Faraday (Domnhall Gleeson) makes house calls across drab Warwickshire, where the last event of excitement was Shakespeare’s birth.
On one such call he encounters the occupants of Hundreds Hall, a gone-to-seed mansion with a population of just three, the once wealthy Ayres family. The matriarch, rather threadbare but still snobbish, is Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday’s patient is her adult son Roderick (Will Poulter), badly wounded and stressed near the point of madness by his service in World War II.
His sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson), graceless but hale and hearty country stock, strikes Faraday as a potential romantic interest. Could she be his route away from lonely and financially needy middle age? His apprehensiveness about embarrassing himself with unrequited love places a significant hurdle on his hopes. Perhaps even more so does the skeptical doctor’s growing concern that drafty Hundreds Hall may be haunted. And it may be his fault.
As a child, Faraday received a rare moment of access inside the big house and snapped off a plasterwork acorn for a souvenir. His indiscretion was seen, and his ongoing shame rivals the pain of Roderick’s battlefield stress. With the downstairs servant’s bells jingling from pull chains in deserted rooms, mold creeping up the walls, and Roderick going mad, is it possible that Faraday’s recklessness left the Ayres home cursed?
From a social perspective, the story is a genteel Gothic commentary on class resentment. Then again, it could be inspired by the established fact that Englishmen can’t express their feelings without a Valentine’s Day card. I did not make this up: In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the country’s first “minister for loneliness.” My advice would be to produce cheerful, charming films as a start.
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: PG for thematic elements
Within this staid snapshot of aspiration vs. tradition in small-town, postwar England lies a profoundly resonant parable about words and suppression. That the erstwhile themes prove so vital at this point in time speaks volumes.
Based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, it’s the story of Florence Green (Emily Mortimer), an idealistic, quietly resolute widow whose soldier husband died in World War II. Moved by her love of literature, she decides to open a bookstore in a lovely, if rather hermetic and gossipy coastal community. Florence encounters a series of legal, financial and societal obstacles, but the more local opposition she meets, the more she digs in her sensible heels, especially after a reclusive bibliophile (Bill Nighy) becomes an ally.
Written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (“Learning to Drive”), the film is at times a bit too mustily mounted and told to keep us as fully immersed as we might like. But despite its flaws, the film possesses such a clear passion that it emerges as a largely worthy and poignant accomplishment, especially given the vanishing state of that beloved institution known as the bookstore.
Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13, gun violence and intense action, suggestive material, language, thematic elements and drinking.
This dark and confounding young adult thriller is based on a short film by brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker called “Bag Man.” It follows a 14-year-old boy from Detroit, Eli (Myles Truitt, in his first feature film role), as he goes on the lam with his adopted ex-con brother, Jimmy (Jack Reynor). Eli’s brought along a mysterious gun, a large, box-shaped weapon he picked up in an abandoned building while scrapping to make extra money.
In pursuit is Taylor (James Franco), a psychopathic drug dealer out for vengeance after a robbery leaves both his brother Dutch (Gavin Fox) and Eli and Jimmy’s father Hal (Dennis Quaid) dead. Franco’s Taylor sports a ratty mullet, and many misguided tattoos, signifying his impulsive and reckless nature.
Eli and Jimmy are also being followed by a mysterious pair of futuristic soldiers on a mission to repossess the weapon. Eli discovers how useful the “ray gun” can be when they find themselves in a brawl at a Midwestern strip club. The gun shoots blasts that can vaporize anything. After escaping evil club owner Lee (Romano Orzari), dancer Milly (Zoë Kravitz) joins the brothers on the run.
“Kin” is a movie about the bond between brothers, whether biological or forged in a blended family. After so many years in jail, Jimmy’s happy for the time he gets to spend with his little brother. But the reunion is contrasted with Taylor’s rage and grief at the loss of his own brother. That explodes into a tsunami of blood and death as he and his posse storm the Nevada police station where Eli and Jimmy have been detained.
The violence is shocking, and it strains both the suspension of disbelief and the laughable, honestly shameful PG-13 rating. It’s a devastatingly sad and terrible story about brothers who make bad choices, suffer the consequences and lose the last shreds of family they have left.
KATIE WALSH, Tribune News Service