Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Leave No Trace

Eight years ago, writer/director Debra Granik gained recognition with her first feature “Winter’s Bone” (2010), which was set among the marginalized folks of the Ozarks and made a star of Jennifer Lawrence. Granik has now completed her second fiction film, which shares with “Winter’s Bone” a stern outdoor setting and a central role for a promising young actress. And, while the new picture plays in a softer, quieter mode, the director has produced another winner.

Widower Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter, Tom (newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have lived undetected for years in Forest Park, a woods on the edge of Portland, Oregon. Their shelter consists of crude tarps and wet sleeping bags, their food is variable and often raw, but their bond is strong. There are hints about his troubled past in the military, but we gain little backstory. Tom’s world is utterly defined by her father, she never having known her mother. They dip into the outside world occasionally for food and supplies, but Will distrusts civilization and fiercely treasures his independent life, a value he projects on to his daughter. Yet their situation is illegal--trespassing on public land—and local police ultimately find and uproot them before turning them over to a local social service agency.

They must adapt to their new surroundings in a modest trailer, and though Tom is intrigued by their new setting and Will is offered a job, he still finds this more settled life confining. His frustration leads him to escape that community to return with Tom to the wilderness. But their situation, in a forest at higher altitude, is even more forbidding than before and leads to a serious accident. Helped by medical personnel, they are eventually taken in by a woman running a van and RV park for a motley collection of independent forest dwellers. It is here where Tom’s new sense of community is fostered and her relationship to her father finally tested. As she asserts near the end of the picture: “The same thing that is wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

The screenplay is by Granik and Anne Rosellini (co-writer of “Winter’s Bone”) and was adapted from Peter Rock's novel “My Abandonment.” It adopts the first-person perspective of the novel, taking Tom’s point of view, but without a narrative over voice, and that presentation from the child’s viewpoint—we see almost everything through Tom’s eyes--provides a large part of the film’s power. Thus, Will is seen from the outside, a man hard to read or comprehend, while we come to realize that Tom’s life in a community with others may offer promise of a different future.

The demeanor of “Leave No Trace” recalls Granik’s earlier film: rugged and palpably real locales populated by utterly believable actors. The cast simply inhabits their roles, such as the sympathetic social worker (Dana Millican), and the welcoming RV manager (Dale Dickey), who proves a kind of stand-in grandmother. Ben Foster’s Will is appropriately terse and tense, a tortured soul taking on the skittish life of the animals he lives among. Yet, even with his grimness and insecurity, you sense his love for Tom.

Young McKenzie is the revelation here. Aged 17 when the film was made, she comes from an acting family in her native New Zealand (her mom is a film actress), and this is her first starring role and the first time she has worked out of her country. Her presence, as a soft-spoken but ever aware young woman, captivates, with a wonderful mix of plain-faced naiveté and burgeoning curiosity. Granik has found just the right visage and voice to adorn another melancholic but worthy effort.

(The film is rated "PG" and runs 109 minutes.)

(July 2018)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie (left) and Ben Foster in “Leave No Trace,” a Bleeker Street Release
Photo Credit: Scott Green/Bleeker Street.


British actress Andrea Riseborough is hardly a household name, but she has proved in the last decade to be one of the most versatile and unpredictable performers in cinema. She came to people’s attention as the young Maggie Thatcher in a 2008 TV drama but since has played, among many others, a naïve waitress in “Brighton Rock” (2010), an IRA sympathizer in “Shadow Dancer” (2012), an ambitious actress in “Birdman” (2014), and just last year, Billie Jean King’s love interest in “Battle of the Sexes” as well as a feisty concert pianist in “The Death of Stalin.” Now, with the new film “Nancy” she has a film to herself.

Nancy Freeman (Riseborough) is a tough nut to crack. Thirty-something, and a bit of a moper with enormous, unblinking eyes, she lives uncomfortably with her sour, disabled (with Parkinson’s) mother Betty (Ann Dowd). Nancy has a temp job and a cat, but few prospects and no friends, and she fibs to enliven her life. Her literary ambitions only result in a welter of rejection slips. Still, Nancy has an itch to make some connection, evidence of which is her attempt to reach out online to a despondent man (John Leguizamo) who has read her blog. But Nancy cannot be straight with him as she pretends to a fake pregnancy that alienates him.

Then a break in her fortunes comes. A TV report tells of a five-year-old girl, Brook Lynch, kidnapped exactly 30 years before, whose parents are marking the anniversary by announcing a scholarship fund in her name. The story shows a prospective image of how the young Brook might appear at 35...and Nancy is captured by what she thinks is her own image. Surely she is this Brook, stolen away and mired in a family not good enough for her.

When her mother suddenly dies, Nancy calls the Lynches to tell them she believes she is their long-lost daughter. After some initial reluctance, Ellen Lynch (J. Smith Cameron) invites her to their home, where Nancy is smitten by their academic lifestyle. To heighten the effect of her life opening up, director Christine Choe films the opening section of the film in a 4x3 aspect ratio to further Nancy’s sense of being trapped and alienated, then she stretches the image to widescreen 16x9, as Nancy’s world is expanded, both literally and emotionally.

Ellen, a comparative literature professor, welcomes Nancy, finds ways to connect with her (they are both writers), and is filled with hope that her child has been found. She wants so to believe. Husband Leo (Steve Buscemi), a psychologist, is more skeptical of Nancy, starting with an online check of her, but he treats her decently and agrees with Ellen to let her stay with them until her identity can be verified. He calls the authorities to perform a DNA test for all three, and they await the results anxiously.

The above plot outline reads like a surefire downer, and the film could be viewed that way. Still, there is much that is poignant and moving once Nancy moves in with the couple. Director Choe (in her first feature) generates wonderful, pitch-perfect performances from Smith and Buscemi as the touching Lynches, with Smith particularly affecting as a long-grieving mother whose guarded stance stands ready to melt with the chance to thoroughly embrace what could be her long-lost child.

And what of the chameleon Riseborough? The actress’s performance is mostly one-note, a sulking woman, mumbling in a hushed voice, often with a spaced look; a woman that no one would likely notice, which may be the point of the character. Her smiles are few, as when she feels she is being accepted by the Lynches, and her emotions are ever in check, except for one episode of genuine panic when she thinks her cat Paul is lost in the woods. This dour stance is a choice that her director and she have made, and, for this reviewer, it appears the right one for this movie.

(The film, which opened June 29, is not rated and runs 87 mins.)

(June 2018)

Photo Credit: Andrea Riseborough is “Nancy.”
Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.


Any film fan going into this documentary on the work of the famed director Stanley Kubrick might assume that the title stands for the master himself, but they would be wrong, for “Filmworker” concerns Kubrick’s long-time shadow, factotum, and jack-of-all-trades Leon Vitali, an English actor who gave up his own career to serve all things Stanley for over 30 years—and continues to do so.

Vitali was an ambitious young film and television actor who became enamored of Kubrick after seeing “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), proclaiming: “I want to work with that man.” Then, in 1975, he landed the crucial role of Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s epic “Barry Lyndon,” based on the epic 19th C. novel by William Thackeray. Thrilled to get the part but even more fascinated by observing Kubrick’s work on that fraught production, Vitali then eschewed acting to pal around with and assist the director on other projects, starting with “The Shining” (1980), where he, among other things, became a kind of babysitter for the film’s child actor, Danny Lloyd.

Vitali’s commitment to Kubrick, and his general usefulness to the man, waylaid his career as a performer for a behind-the-scenes function—rarely precisely defined—but incorporating myriad roles as casting director, line reader, acting coach, general “assistant,” as well as stints as dogs body and go-fer. Whatever Kubrick needed, Leon was there to provide it. Working on “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), one commentator said that “every day was full of a lot of difficult jobs,” and Vitali sought ways to do them. The film’s lead, Matthew Modine, says in “Filmworker” he thought Vitali “was a slave to Kubrick” by making himself so useful.

To tell this one-off story, director Tony Zierra uses myriad interviews with miscellaneous production people, actors, and aides who worked with Kubrick, as well as sit-downs with two of the leads in his pictures, Ryan O’Neal (“Barry Lyndon”) and Modine. Still, the film finally depends on querying Vitali himself, looking like an aging hippy (gaunt, with head band and stippled chin) and making his quizzical case for his importance on the Kubrick sets. The commitment of Vitali to his muse is complicated, a mix, it appears, of both simpering dependence and overarching magnanimity.

Kubrick himself (who died in 1999) was always reluctant to do interviews, and there are none with him in the film; he appears in stills and in brief on-set sequences. Fans of the director’s oeuvre will get their kicks seeing some of the backstories of his elaborate productions from 1975 on, but the film is hardly a clip fest. However, one intriguing clip for Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), has Vitali returning to acting, though masked. He appears as “Red Cloak” in a decadent party scene at the end of this strange film.

Vitali also performed another important role in assisting Kubrick: helping to store and archive all of Kubrick’s film prints and memorabilia. It is a role he continues to this day, seeing himself as a standard bearer for the man’s legacy, as he works as a consultant for the Kubrick estate on definitive versions of the Great Man’s works.

(The film is unrated and runs 94 mins.)

(June 2018)

Photo Credit: Leon Vitali (far left) appears on the set of "The Shining" with director Stanley Kubrick (center) in "Filmworker."
Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

On Chesil Beach

Few contemporary British writers are as lauded as Ian McEwan, author of more than a dozen accomplished novels in the last 25 years. He has won a string of major prizes and has had several of his novels converted to the screen, including “The Comfort of Strangers” and “Atonement,” among others. One of his more distinctive works, “On Chesil Beach,” a novella from 2007, has now become a feature film.

The film’s location is a real—and most picturesque—piece of coastal landscape situated at the very tip of Dorset in southern England. The word “chesil” comes from an old English expression meaning “gravel,” or “stony,” the latter the principal feature of the extensive beach itself. That stony appellation could just as well describe the rocky marriage we witness in “On Chesil Beach.”

The time period—1962--is carefully chosen to straddle the end of the post-war recovery (and a more correct, reserved British milieu) and presage the coming of the “”Swinging Britain” of new music, new fashions, and a kind of youth quake. Two newlyweds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, personify this interim period, the first representing a proper, respectable life, and the second depicting a more boisterous, searching one.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) comes from a well-off Oxford family of formal style and means. Her father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a domineering and wealthy businessman and her mother Violet (Emily Watson) a stern taskmaster and believer in rules. Florence is prim in manner, diction, and dress and harbors a love of a most formal kind of music, the string quartet. Edward’s family is working class, with a reticent father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough)) and a vulnerable mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) who has suffered brain damage. Edward (Billy Howle) is rough around the edges, scruffy in manner and wardrobe, but bright, with a recent degree in history, and is a lover of the emerging rock-and-roll phenomenon.

Their honeymoon experience is the framing device for “On Chesil Beach.” Over the film’s arc, we see them settling into their room in a mediocre seaside hotel, plainly nervous and tentative about themselves and the night to come. They order dinner in but barely eat and are clumsy in conversation. Their move to the marriage bed is hesitant, awkward, and ends in an incident which drives Florence, disgusted, out to the beach, where Edward later finds her, troubled and chastened. The hotel and beach scenes are punctuated throughout with flashbacks to each one’s backstories, their meeting at a ban-the-bomb event, their growing infatuation, their lives within their respective families, and their personal passions and dreams. Such sequences sample both the genuine affection they have for each other and those elements that separate them.

Young Saoirse Ronan is on a role with a string of splendid performances, including this one. As the prim Florence, she exudes confidence as a musician while being poignantly squeamish about what marriage entails. It’s a tough balance to pull off, but she does. Her co-star Howle likewise balances a portrait of an eager young bloke who struggles to be a gentleman but doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. The two of them dancing on the edge of a sexual cliff is both tantalizing and heartbreaking to watch.

“On Chesil Beach” was directed by Dominic Cooke, an English stage director, who had the veteran US cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave”) at his side. McEwan himself was the screenwriter. They craft a handsome and touching picture, one which deftly guides a splendid cast, captures wonderfully the flavor of the period, and displays the magnificent strip of Chesil Beach itself from all angles. The filmmakers also realize the filmic equivalent of the couple’s sexual dilemma by selectively using telling close ups-–of hands and feet and limbs-- that effectively signal both the passion and the stress of their matrimonial encounter. Such parts make the whole the more affecting.

(This film is rated "R" and runs 110 minutes.)

(May 2018)

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Billy Howle in “On Chesil Beach,” a Bleeker Street Release.
Photo credit: Robert Viglasky/Bleeker Street.