Truly a show about nothing, Four Letter Words takes place at the end of a house party in suburban Los Angeles. It’s 3:30 a.m. Art (Fred Berman), who’s in his second or third year of college — and on his third or fourth major — is home from school and threw a get-together at his parents’ house, inviting his BFFs from high school. It’s clear that it’s time for everyone to go but he doesn’t want to be alone.
Baker’s style is very much ‘90s DIY. Four Letter Words feels a lot like early Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith, loaded with naturalistic dialogue and rants mostly about sex, slacker characters, dumb antics, and mundane events that transpire over the course of an hour or so.
Baker explores the outlook of suburban men in their 20s. Four Letter Words isn’t revolutionary or terribly insightful. It’s neither a major work nor required viewing, but it’s mildly interesting because it shows what draws him in.
With David Ari, Henry Beylin, Darcy Bledsoe, Edward Coyne, Matthew Dawson, Thomas Donnarumma, Loren Ecker, Karren Karagulian, Robyn Parsons, David Prete, Matthew Maher, Vincent Radwinsky, Susan Stanley, Jay Thames, Artyom Trubnikov, Paul Weissman
George Clooney’s Suburbicon probably isn’t going to end up on anyone’s “best” list, nor should it. Too bad, because it’s got all the right elements: an experienced director with a strong point of view and his heart in the right place, a story by Joel and Ethan Coen, and a solid cast. The trailer sold me.
I guess I can see where this was headed. Unfortunately, though, some bizarre calls from the director’s chair drive Suburbicon into the ground. What could’ve been a biting and clever comment about race and the postwar American Dream, isn’t. Instead, Suburbicon is a confused jumble of ideas that don’t seem thought out or placed very well.
Suburbicon, which gets its name from the fictional suburban housing development where the film takes place, involves two concurrent stories that play out separately in late ‘50s suburbia. The main story, the one that the Coen brothers developed over 30 years ago, follows the boneheaded attempts of daft Suburbicon resident Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) at covering his tracks in an insurance scam he perpetrates with his sister-in-law, Margaret (Julianne Moore, who pulls a Patty Duke and does double duty also playing Gardner’s wife, Rose). Gardner is also dodging two amateur hitmen (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) who are trying to reach him. To make matters worse, his grade school age son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), inadvertently threatens to blow his cover. It isn’t long before it’s clear that Gardner’s in way over his head.
Meanwhile, the Mayers, a black family, move into Suburbicon, right next door to the Lodges. This subplot is based on an actual event that happened in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 (http://ushistoryscene.com/article/levittown/). In fact, the film uses what appears to be real-life footage from it. The residents don’t want a black family living near them, apparently because they think it will cause the neighborhood to go to hell. So, they stage a protest outside the Mayers’ house, chanting, playing instruments all night, and eventually trespassing and vandalizing. In the midst of this brouhaha, Nicky befriends the son, Andy (Tony Espinosa), who’s about the same age.
The residents get louder and more violent as the Coen plot develops into something darker and more violent.
Suburbicon has a few big problems. First, it clearly wants to make a grand statement or observation. It fails because it doesn’t integrate the two plots. We don’t get much about the Mayers. Whatever point this subplot was supposed to make is completely overshadowed by the main plot, and it comes off as merely an ironic parallel. It’s weird, manipulative, and simply doesn’t work.
Second, I have no idea how all that happens inside the Lodge residence does so with the huge mob next door. How does no one notice what’s going on right outside the door? How does everyone in that huge mob miss the people coming and going from the Lodge residence? Some of them are bloody. Hello?
Third, the plot twists are evident a mile away.
Fourth, neither Damon nor Moore pulls off the sinister vibe their characters call for. Somehow Clooney misses the mark on the sheer weirdness of the plot and the characters despite the sharp, exaggerated dialogue you usually get from the Coen brothers. Oscar Isaac is the only actor who nails it; his small part as an insurance investigator, regrettably short, stands out as the only bright spot here — although both Jupe and Nancy Daly as Gardner’s secretary deserve an honorable mention. Overall, though, the end result here is hopelessly flat and surprisingly lifeless. It’s frustrating to see.
I didn’t hate Suburbicon, but I didn’t love it. Its points are muddled. I expected a lot more, and there was so much to work with here.
With Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke, Megan Ferguson, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba, Michael D. Cohen, Steven Shaw, Don Baldaramos, Ellen Crawford, Cathy Giannone, Allan Wasserman, Mark Leslie Ford, Richard Kind, Robert Pierce, Pamela Dunlap, Jack Conley, Frank Califano, Lauren Burns
Production: Paramount Pictures, Black Bear Pictures, Silver Pictures, Smoke House Pictures
Ferenc Török’s excellent 1945, which he says took over a decade to finish, doesn’t end up where it looks like it’s going. The story takes place on a hot summer Saturday in August 1945 during a transitional time in Hungary — after the Nazis surrendered but before the Soviets left.
Two men in black, one old (Iván Angelus) and the other young (Marcell Nagy), arrive at the train station of a small rural village. They have two large trunks in tote, which they are bringing into town. They walk in silence behind the wagon as the hired driver (Miklós B. Székely) and his son (György Somhegyi) lead the way.
The stationmaster (István Znamenák) alerts the town clerk, István Szentes (Péter Rudolf), who’s in the midst of preparations for his son’s (Bence Tasnádi) wedding. The two visitors are Orthodox Jews who survived the Holocaust. The villagers are thrown into a state of paranoia, fearing the purpose of this unwanted intrusion.
Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” Török effectively sets up the narrative using the construct of a Western: an ominous sky, strangers in black, and nervous lawmen and townsfolk all ready for a conflict to erupt.
The conflict in 1945, however, started long before this day: it started when the apparently all Catholic residents betrayed their only Jewish neighbor, the owner of the local drug store. István’s wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), turned him in to the Nazis. István took over his store and moved his family into his house. Everyone, from the police to the village priest (Béla Gados), looked the other way.
Török shows the conflicted villagers struggling to rectify their personal gain with the dishonorable way they achieved it. Török’s pacing is perfect, unfolding slowly with an ever-increasing sense of unease and doom. It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble case is tops. Elemér Ragályi’s gorgeous black and white cinematography emulates the look of films from the 1930s and 1940s:
1945 is one of the more memorable films I caught at this year’s festival.
With Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Ági Szirtes, József Szarvas, Sándor Terhes, Tünde Szalontay, Mari Nagy, János Derzsi, Tibor Mertz, Bálint Adorjáni, Vivianne Bánovits, Rita Kerkay, Zsolt Dér, Gergö Mikola, Máté Novkov
Production: Katapult Films
Distribution: Menemsha Films
Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ferenc Török
During a post screening Q and A, writer and director Ofir Raul Graizer said he “love[s] question marks in cinema.” Well, that shows: with his first feature film The Cakemaker [Der Kuchenmacher], he excels in raising questions that he lets his audience answer. Many people don’t appreciate this approach. I’m not one of them.
Tomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a thirty-something baker who runs his own one-man pastry shop in Berlin. Oren (Roy Miller), a married Israeli man, comes in one morning — maybe he’s really there for breakfast, or maybe he’s cruising.
Turns out, Oren is in Berlin on business, a lot. They begin an affair. Tomas knows about Oren’s wife and son in Jerusalem. Oren has a habit of bringing Tomas’s cinnamon cookies home to his wife as a kind of souvenir. It’s weird.
WARNING: Potential Spoilers Ahead!
After an unsettling visit, all communication with Oren stops. Confused and upset, Tomas tries to reach him at his company’s office in Berlin. A perplexed receptionist (Tagel Eliyahu) informs him that Oren died in a car crash.
Tomas does what any sensible red-blooded German gay guy would do: he closes shop and heads to Jerusalem to find out what happened — and maybe spy on Oren’s family to get an idea of what his life there was like.
He starts by tracking down Oren’s wife, Anet (Sarah Adler), who’s struggling to get a kosher café up and running. More by omission that outright lies, Tomas slowly works his way into her life, getting closer and more entangled without ever letting on that he knew her husband. Anet’s brother-in-law (Zohar Strauss) is dismayed, particularly when Anet hires Tomas, a gentile, as a baker. Things get complicated when his pastries attract a steady clientele to her café.
The Cakemaker isn’t exactly a thriller, but it’s suspenseful. A clear dread hovers over the whole story because it’s apparent that it’s not going to end well. It can’t, not with Tomas’s deceptions. Graizer’s pacing, slow and deliberate, steadily builds to an effective climax that might not be surprising itself but is still more intense than I expected. This is a quiet movie with some real nailbiter moments.
Graizer does a fine job enshrouding Oren in mystery — or maybe it’s shadiness. Anet reveals a zinger or two about their relationship. Sandra Sadeh as Oren’s mother, Hanna, steals each scene she’s in, a total of three. She subtly lets on that she’s wise to her dead gay son — and Tomas.
With Tamir Ben Yehuda, Stephanie Stremler, Iyad Msalma, David Koren, Gal Gonen, Eliezer Shimon, Sagi Shemesh
Production: Film Base Berlin, Laila Films
Distribution: Films Boutique
Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ofir Raul Graizer
Justice, like morality, is ambiguous. Accordingly, determining exactly how justice should be meted out is mired in a lot of grey. Translation: life is not black and white.
This old adage makes people uncomfortable, and it’s exactly the concept that colors Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It works so well because it acknowledges that there is no one right answer. Thankfully, as luck would have it, it’s also kind of funny.
Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is pissed off and tired. Seven months ago, her daughter was raped, murdered, and set on fire, though not necessarily in that order. The police have made no arrests, they have no suspect, and they haven’t uncovered a single lead. The case is precariously close to cold.
Driving down a rural road one morning, Mildred spots three abandoned billboards and gets an idea: she’ll shame Chief of Police Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. She rents the billboards for a full year and posts ads that attack him. The problem is, her idea doesn’t pan out as she plans — in fact, it works against her cause.
Not far off from a Coen Brothers venture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a twisted and twisting nailbiter. Writer-director Martin McDonagh has a sharp wit, a warped sense of humor, and an impeccable grasp of human nature. The cast is outstanding, with not one subpar performance. At times heartbreaking, this is all around a tightly assembled and enthralling film.
With Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Sam Rockwell, Alejandro Barrios, Jason Redford, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Abbie Cornish, Riya May Atwood, Selah Atwood, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek, Amanda Warren, Malaya Rivera Drew, Sandy Martin, Peter Dinklage , Christopher Berry, Gregory Nassif St. John, Jerry Winsett, Kathryn Newton, John Hawkes, Charlie Samara Weaving, Clarke Peters, Brendan Sexton III, Eleanor Threatt Hardy, Michael Aaron Milligan
Production: Blueprint Pictures
Distribution: 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Warner Brothers
With the title of his new film Charleston, writer and director Andrei Cretulescu seems to play on late actor Charleton Heston, who comes up during a dinner conversation between recently widowed Alexandru (Serban Pavlu) and his gay brother, Ludovic (Gavril Patru), while the latter’s silent and vacant German boy toy (Vlad Galer) plays a video game. It’s fitting for a movie that explores grief and masculinity.
It’s Alexandru’s birthday. His wife, Ioana (Ana Ularu), was just killed, run down as she crossed the street. A cut to him lounging nonchalantly at her grave, wearing earphones and big sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, raises doubt about how bad he’s taking it.
After his dinner with Ludovic, a surprise knock on the door brings Alexandru face to face with Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), a stuttering hipster metrosexual wimp who introduces himself as Ioana’s lover. A punch in the face starts a strange partnership in which the two men pair up to commiserate separately.
Cretulescu’s premise is promising, and it gets some solid mileage for most of the film. Alexandru’s cynicism and derision contrasts sharply with Sebastian’s unsophisticated neediness and angst. Drinking, stealing, playing records, and constantly bickering, the two lonely men get into some marvelously absurd situations. A certain dance during the “intermission” is out of nowhere. They also learn a few things about the woman who left them behind.
Unfortunately, the story peters out about two thirds of the way through, starting with a plainly weird road trip to a town on the sea that both associate with Ioana. The climax isn’t exactly satisfying. I wish Charleston ended up somewhere as interesting as it seemed to be headed.
With Victor Rebengiuc, Ana Ciontea, Gabriela Popescu, Dorian Boguta, Andreea Vasile, Adrian Titieni, Sergiu Costache, Claudiu Dumitru, Alina Berzunteanu, Letitia Vladescu
Production: ICON, Les Films du Tambour, Kinosseur, Digital Cube, Mille et une Films, WAG Prod, Wearebasca
“We must get rid of that bitch of an American girl. Vanish! She must vanish! Make her disappear! Understand? Vanish! She must vanish. She must die! Die! Die!”
— Madame Blanc
Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria is a perplexing film, and not because it’s scary. It’s pretty ridiculous, tongue and cheekiness aside.
Cowritten by Argento with Daria Nicolodi from Thomas DeQuincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis,” the plot is prosaic: American ballet student Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) enrolls at “the most famous school of dance in Europe,” the fictitious Tanz Dance Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Suzy notices immediately that something about the place isn’t quite right — maybe it’s the two students who are murdered the night she arrives. It doesn’t take long for Suzy to discover that the school is a front for something far more nefarious. Except for a few good lines here and there, the writing is terrible. The acting is even worse. The two exceptions are Alida Valli as Miss Tanner and Joan Bennett as Madame Blanc, both of whom deliver fabulously campy performances as women of power at the school.
None of this matters, though, because this isn’t Suspiria’s raison d’être. No, Suspiria is a sensory masterpiece that places style way ahead of substance. In other words, it’s eye candy.
Argento expresses his vision through his imagery, and it’s unforgettably dazzling and unique. From the opening titles to the last scene, Argento shocks, thrills, and seduces with color, light, shadow, and surreal imagery. His sets are elegant and fake, and his blood is even faker. He lights the screen with bright reds and glowing blues (when it’s not all black from night), and he keeps the perspective distorted to create a trippy dissonance. Plus, he throws in a number of creepy psychological menaces, from maggots to a dog attack to a treacherous room-size wire dustbunny. Luciano Tovoli’s camera work perfectly articulates Argento’s vision.
This is what Suspiria is all about:
The soundtrack by Goblin is a nice touch, and it goes far in creating the mood here.
For all its flaws — and there are many — Suspiria is a memorable film. We caught a digital restoration of the original print, which is five or six minutes longer. A zealous audience member engaged us in a discussion as we left the theater. He told us that Suspiria is the first of a trilogy known as “The Three Mothers,” and he enthusiastically recommended the second film, Inferno. I’ll see it someday, but it’s not a priority.
With Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Susanna Javicoli, Eva Axén, Rudolf Schündler, Udo Kier, Margherita Horowitz, Jacopo Mariani, Fulvio Mingozzi, Franca Scagnetti, Renato Scarpa, Serafina Scorceletti, Giuseppe Transocchi, Renata Zamengo
After The Florida Project wowed me even more than Tangerine did two years ago (I liked that one a lot, too), I decided to check out what else Sean Baker has done. I didn’t know about Starlet. Written by Baker with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, it’s the first of three from them so far. It came out before Tangerine, so it seemed like a good place to start. I’m happy to report that Starlet is another winner.
In Starlet, Baker and Bergoch explore morality and female bonding in the context of a cross generational relationship. Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a nihilistic or simply oblivious 21-year-old aspiring actress who just moved to the Valley — the one on the other side of the hills from Hollywood — with her unnamed chihuahua (Boonee). She’s kind of a slacker, spending her days not unpacking her shit but getting high and playing video games with her housemates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), a young couple not exactly in tune with each other. They let her stay with them in an extra bedroom that Mikey occasionally uses for “work.”
Jane is likable: she’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies but she isn’t helpless, she takes care of her pooch, and she seems like a nice person despite her aimlessness, lack of planning (like, anything), and the questionable career path she’s chosen to get her foot in the door of the film industry. I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that she makes porn under her stage name Tess. One name, like Cher or Madonna (or Prince, for that matter). A few real life porn actors (Manuel Ferrara, Asa Akira, Jules Jordan, Kristina Rose) even appear as themselves.
Jane hits a yard sale at the home of crusty old lady Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who can barely be bothered to answer Jane’s questions about a thermos she spots and wants to buy (she thinks it’s an urn). Jane takes it home and is befuddled when she finds multiple rolls of cash stashed inside it.
Jane tries to return the money — after she spends some of it on a blingy harness for the dog (incidentally, it says “starlet,” which becomes his name). The problem is, Sadie doesn’t give her a chance; she won’t even let Jane talk, dismissing her with a “no returns” shutdown. So, Jane does what any reasonable person would: she stalks Sadie at the grocery store, in the diner, in her garden, and at her bingo games to become her friend and spend the money on her.
Starlet is unique in its pace and its narrative, perhaps even moreso than Tangerine or The Florida Project. It’s offbeat yet warm, and it beautifully captures the tempo of real life: mostly mundane stretches peppered with moments of excitement. Both Hemingway (yes, her great grandfather was the notable author) and Johnson in her only role are both mesmerizing. Radium Cheung’s cinematography is gorgeous; all sunbleached and perfectly framed, it gives Starlet a sunny hue that belies its melancholic sense that this is as good as it gets for these characters, not that anything — fame, fortune, love, a pornstar sex life, retirement, Hollywood itself — is as thrilling as the fantasy.
Starlet lacks the impact of the aformentioned films that follow it — the big reveal at the end is a bit of a dud. However, its real surprise is how damned sweet it is. Hemingway and Johnson interacting with each other are a joy to watch. My big question: what’s in the suitcase?
With Zoe Voss, Krystle Alexander, Jessica Pak, Jackie J. Lee, Dean Andre, Dawn Bianchini, Edmund C. Pokrzywnicki, Dave Bean, Eliezer Ortiz, Andy Mardiroson, Cesar Garcia, Heather Wang, Helen Yeotis, Dale Tanguay, Patrick Cunningham, Karren Karagulian, Michael O’Hagan, Amin Joseph, Cammeron Ellis, Nick Santoro, Joey Rubina, Cassandra Nix, Liz Beebe, Tracey Sweet
I’ve started a few Stephen King novels during my life, but I’ve never finished reading any of them. I have, however, seen enough movies based on his books to know what I’m getting into.
It is director Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s 1986 novel, which incidentally came out on my 16th birthday. Scary. It tells the story of a group of bullied junior high outcasts who go after a deranged clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one summer, the Summer of 1989, after he kills stuttering Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the fall before.
Pennywise lives in the sewer of their small town (Derry, Maine) and resurfaces every 27 years to prey on children through their worst fears.
The screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is only part of the book — presumably to allow for a sequel. It starts out well enough in the same sweet nostalgic way as, oh, Stand by Me. Muschietti gets deatils of the time period mostly right: the Cure and New Kids on the Block were big in ’89 (even though the former’s “Six Different Ways” was two albums and a compilation earlier), and the reference to Molly Ringwald fits. He goes full on Steven Spielberg, however, about halfway through, turning It into The Goonies with the kids’ “losers club” and all the action switching to a dark cavernous underground sewer. This is to say, It gets cheesy after awhile.
The kids are all decent actors, and they keep It moving along. Sadly, though, there aren’t any real surprises here. More creepy and icky than outright frightening, Muschietti relies greatly on special effects; they’re good and a lot of work went into them, but they get tiresome after awhile. Plus, some editing would’ve been a good idea; It is too long.
As It is, it’s not a stinker. However, I wasn’t moved by It, either. It is a big budget Hollywood movie aiming to be a blockbuster, and that’s It.
With Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Beverly Marsh, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Elizabeth Saunders, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee
Production: New Line Cinema, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, KatzSmith Productions
Ah, the early ’90s: I was in college, jeans didn’t fit right, George H.W. Bush was president, MTV was relevant, and AIDS was as deadly as ever. In the United States, the number of new cases peaked around 1993 (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm). During the 1980s, a slew of activist organizations sprung up in response to government indifference and inaction, largely but not exclusively that of the Reagan administration, and Big Pharma shadiness — organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Queer Nation, and perhaps most famous (or infamous) ACT UP.
This is the backdrop of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), an imperfect yet captivating and rich period piece that portrays the AIDS crisis with accuracy, drama, a little humor, and the slightest bit of nostalgia — ill-fitting jeans be damned. BPM puts us smack in the middle of the Parisian chapter of ACT UP, which seems constantly on the brink of self-destruction with all the debating, infighting, and struggling for control among its members.
Campillo starts with a broad picture, introducing us to the group through hunky Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who joins ACT UP for reasons that he keeps guarded. Right up front, members of the group confront radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a scrawny firecracker who favors the back of the room. He went off script during a botched protest involving balloons filled with fake blood.
Sean’s motive is soon clear: he’s running out of time and has none to spare for diplomacy. His impatience and prickliness are particularly acute when he’s dealing with the chapter’s leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), and elder comember Sophie (Adèle Haenel), who tends to be the voice of reason.
Those in the group don’t shy away from saying what’s on their mind, and their debates are vigorous to say the least. Interestingly, there’s a lot of flirting and cruising going on. Nathan encounters some attitude, particularly from the poz members — he happens to be HIV negative. He and Sean hit it off, though. Campillo zooms in on them as they get intimate, letting their relationship take center stage. We get their backstories over pillow talk, and it makes for some of the finest moments in this film. They get closer as Sean’s health deteriorates. Campillo brings the group back to the fore by the end, displaying the strong sense of community that has been there all along. It outshines all the bickering and dysfunction.
BPM is an accomplishment on many levels. The historical perspective is solid, giving the whole thing an authentic feel, almost like a documentary. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie’s faded color palette and lighting actually look like the ‘90s. Campillo and Philippe Mangeot’s screenplay is smartly written, loaded with sharp dialogue that engages even when the activity level drops. The narrative arc here is terrific. The end could use some minor editing, but otherwise the long scenes and slow pace work because we’re getting a lot of information. While each actor carries his or her own weight, Pérez Biscayart easily emerges as the star.
Politics, ideology, and HIV status all draw lines in this group, but its members are united by a shared mission. Plus, they’ve got lives to lead, however much time they have left. BPM is a gentle — and somehow very French — reminder that life goes on.
With Felix Maritaud, Médhi Touré, Aloïse Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Catherine Vinatier, Saadia Ben Taieb, Ariel Borenstein, Théophile Ray, Simon Guélat, Jean-François Auguste, Coralie Russier, Samuel Churin, Yves Heck, Emmanuel Ménard, Pauline Guimard, François Rabette
Production: Les Films de Pierre, France 3 Cinéma, Page 114, Memento Films, FD Production