Military vet Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a makeshift shelter in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Will suffers from severe PTSD and wants nothing but to live away from the stronghold of society. He cares for Tom, by teaching her survival skills and selling his psych meds for cash to purchase supplies. Tom and Will are constantly training to keep their lifestyle a secret not only because they are living illegally on public lands but because Tom is a minor. When Tom and Will are caught by authorities, they must grapple with what will come next.
Leave No Trace is directed by Debra Granik and based on a true story that was fictionalized by author Peter Rock in his novel My Abandonment. It’s a truly superb drama that offers no answers and just takes viewers along for the ride. We don’t know the circumstances that led to Will’s PTSD and the lifestyle choices he made for him and his daughter. We also don’t know much about Tom’s mother other than the fact that she died many years ago. Some viewers might struggle with this but I find the movie does a great job revealing just enough to keep us enthralled. Foster and McKenzie give brilliant performances. They expertly keep their emotions at the surface, giving us visual cues that relate information that the story itself doesn’t provide. There is so much both actors convey in a look or an expression that keeps us thoroughly invested in their journey.
Leave No Trace is available to rent on DVD Netflix.
It all started with a green handbag left behind in a subway car. Innocent enough. Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) spots the abandoned bag and looks through its contents finding the ID for one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert) of Brooklyn. The Boston native has just moved to New York City after the devastating loss of her mother. Taking pity on the bag’s owner, she finds Greta, a lonely French widower and piano teacher who is very grateful to be reunited with her bag. The two become fast friends. Frances finds a mother figure in Greta and Greta dotes on Frances like she would her daughter who is away in Paris. Frances’ roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) thinks this is all a little suspicious but Frances shrugs it off as another of her roommate’s quirks. That is until one evening when Frances visits Greta, she discovers a cupboard full of green handbags, each with the name and phone number of other women. The realization of what she’s gotten into washes over Frances but it’s far too late. Greta begins to stalk Frances and the cat and mouse chase that ensues only intensifies the more Frances tries to escape Greta’s snare.
“The crazier they are the harder they cling.”
Greta is a psychological thriller that taps into the innate fear of intimacy gone wrong. The vulnerability of letting someone into your private world already exposes us to potential hurt. Frances is already in a weakened emotional state after the loss of her mother and her move to a new city. Her friend, the worldly Erica tries to be her support system but Frances has serious mommy issues that Erica can’t help her with. Relationships between women, whether romantic, familial or platonic, are a different beast and this film explores that on a surface level but could have gone much deeper into the psychology of those bonds. The relationship between Frances and Erica borders on the romantic and I wish it had explored that potential not necessarily for curiosity’s sake but as a potential threat to both Frances’ emotional wellbeing and fuel for Greta’s psychosis. Erica was only slightly at risk and even though she’s not our main focus, having her be in significant danger would have turned up the tension several notches.
With that said, the film is incredibly tense and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I was emotionally invested in Frances and what became of her and Moritz and Huppert play off each other beautifully. Huppert as Greta is absolutely terrifying. Greta is a great villain but we don’t know much about her. We get little hints about her background but the audience doesn’t get much insight into her game and her other victims. While Greta was written by two men and directed by a man, Neil Jordan, it didn’t fall into the usual trappings of a male POV and I was grateful that it wasn’t a man who comes to a woman’s rescue. In fact the men in the film are fairly useless (for example, Stephen Rea plays an investigator who is no match for Greta) and the woman have to support themselves and each other. The film had potential. By not taking a deep dive into the psychology of the characters it just remains in the shallow end leaving viewers wanting more.
As a DVD Nation Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Greta on DVD.com
“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Set in Colorado circa 1972, BlacKkKlansman follows the Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he navigates the racially charged atmosphere of his new job and community. Ron has a passion for police work but being the first black cop at his department means the odds are stacked against him. After he’s promoted to undercover work, he meets and becomes smitten with Patrice (Laura Harrier), a civil rights activist attending a Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. He’s then assigned to gather intelligence on a local chapter of the KKK. Caught between these two worlds, he devises a plan. He’ll inflitrate the KKK with the help of his white coworker Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who will do undercover work in person while Ron speaks to key figures, including Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) on the phone. The tension in Colorado Springs escalates as the Black Panther activists increase their activity and the KKK devises a bomb plot to take out protestors. Ron and Flip must find a way to save their community and themselves before their true identities are revealed.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman makes a bold political statement about racism in an effective way. The film is based on the true story of undercover cop Ron Stallworth. Lee and his writing team used Stallworth’s memoir as the basis for the script but made some key changes including a shift in the timeline and the addition of the bomb plot. The final chapter of the film directly links the events in the story to those of the Unite the Right Rally and the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, VA in 2017. By connecting the past and the present, Lee’s film is giving a clear warning to the future.
Stylistically BlacKkKlansman is stunning. It’s quite an achievement to make the 1970s, known for faded oranges, yellows and browns, look vibrant and colorful. I love how the film stayed true to the era but still finds a way to appeal to the modern eye. As a classic film enthusiast I’d be remiss not to point out how elated I was to see African-American performer and activist Harry Belafonte in the film. He has a small part as Jerome Turner, an elderly man who recounts his stories of witnessing atrocities. His scene is juxtaposed with a KKK initiation ceremony. That whole sequence packs a powerful punch.
BlacKkKlansman is nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (Spike Lee), Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver) and Best Film Editing. I highly recommend following up your viewing of BlacKkKlansman with the documentary Alt-Right: Age of Rage which I reviewed a few months back.
Lady Bird’s story is your story. But it wasn’t mine.
I don’t call myself a film critic. I call myself a film writer. Why? I can’t be completely objective about a movie. Emotions always get involved. When I watch a movie I feel things. I experience joy, sadness, enlightenment, confusion, anxiety, fear, shock or awe. I’m overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Some movies open my eyes to new experiences. Some unlock something within me that’s been dormant for years. Sometimes a movie makes me so mad I want to punch something. Sometimes a movie makes me so happy I want to share it with anyone who will listen.
Recently I asked myself the question, how does someone appreciate a film when they have no emotional connection to it?
Greta Gerwig’s critically acclaimed and award winning film Lady Bird (2017). Released to much praise, the story follows Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior living in Sacramento circa 2002. We follow her as struggles with her transitional year. She has a strong hate/love relationship with her home town, butts heads with her strong-willed mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), loses her close bond with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and pretends to live in a fancy house in the rich part of town to impress a popular girl at school. Then there are the boys. She falls for Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), two very different boys but both relationships offer the same potential for heartbreak. Lady Bird, whose real name is Christine, is opinionated, brash, and desperate to find some happiness in what she deems a bleak existence.
In one online review, a viewer pointed out that Sacramento could be any town and that Lady Bird could be any teenager. This is true. Lady Bird’s story is one many people could relate to. Many of us have complicated relationships with our hometown, with a parent, with a friend, with a teacher and with our first love. In the film Lady Bird goes through the whole gamut of life experiences from losing her virginity, to fighting with her mom, to watching her dad go through depression, to losing and regaining a best friend and to losing, finding and losing again that romantic connection with another person. And her name change to Lady Bird is symbolic; she’s a young woman who wants to spread her wings and fly away. And as for Sacramento, the hometown she thought she hated so much… It took her leaving for New York, shedding her self-appointed moniker and experiencing a new life to realize how much she actually loved that town and missed it.
When I was 17 years old, my experience was the complete opposite of Lady Bird’s. I hated my hometown of Milford, MA and still do to this day. Every visit back is filled with dread. In fact I despised Milford so much as a teenager that I attended an agricultural high school in another county. Mostly because I wanted to spend as much time away from my town as possible. In the film, Lady Bird who once joked about living on the wrong side of the tracks begins to feel peer pressure to please the popular crowd. I felt none of this pressure in high school and I thought the popular kids, barring one notable exception, were all idiots. I butted heads with my dad not my mom. I didn’t have a sibling growing up, Lady Bird has a brother. My parents didn’t have any opinions or influence on my college applications. I didn’t go to my prom. I didn’t have a best friend or boyfriends. While many of you were Lady Birds growing up, I was not. At all.
People talk about stories being mirrors (reflecting yourself) and windows (with a view to someone else’s experience). Watching Lady Bird was like looking through a window and not fully understanding what was happening on the other side. I had to break down this film into its parts. Great actors? Check. Well-developed characters? Check. A deep connection to a particular time and place? Check and check. Good dialogue, pacing and storytelling. More checks. Lady Bird is a brilliant film. Greta Gerwig, Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are a fierce female filmmaking trio. This movie is for many people even if it wasn’t for me.
As a DVD Nation Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Lady Bird on DVD.com
Station: Sports Biopic Time Travel Destination: 1933-1936 Ohio and Berlin, Germany Conductor: Stephen Hopkins
“There ain’t no black and white. Just fast and slow.”
One man can change the course of history. In 1936, that man was Jesse Owens.
Director Stephen Hopkins’ biopic Race (2016) explores the pivotal years when Owens begins his track and field career at Ohio State University in 1934 to when he won an four gold medals for the United States at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. The journey in between is a fascinating story of a talented young man given the opportunity to practice his talent while also facing the hardships of growing up black during the Great Depression. He faces prejudice at every turn. It’s through the support and tough love he receives from his coach that Owens is given a platform to shine.
Stephan James stars as Jesse Owens. We watch Owens progress from an unskilled runner with a natural talent for speed to a highly-trained master of short sprints and the long jump. Owens carries a big weight on his back. He has a big family to support as well as his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their daughter Gloria. He’s the first in his family to go to college. And not only that, he represents all his fellow African-American men and women through his glory as an athlete but to also fight against prejudice and racism not only in his country but also in Nazi Germany. This is no small feat. Owens has a monumental task in front of him and we are there to root him on.
“A man has to present an image to the world.”
The title of this movie Race has a double meaning. It represents Jesse Owens’ track and field career and also being African-American in a time of systemic racism. The film explores both aspects of Owens life and how running helped him transcend prejudice. Not only would Owens break records in his sport but he also paved the way for African-American athletes to come.
I was quite impressed with Race (2016). Star Stephan James did well by Owens in honoring his legacy and portraying a young talented man who had this overwhelming burden to bear. The portrayal is complex and James plays Owens in a highly sympathetic manner. I very much enjoyed the relationship between Owens and his coach Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. I’ve only seen Sudeikis in comedic roles so it was great to see him in a drama playing a mentor. Little is known about the actual historic figure so what Sudeikis brings to the table is what we all hope their relationship would have been. James and Sudeikis play off each other effectively on screen and I looked forward to each new scene with the two. I was also particularly taken with the real life Luz Long and Jesse Owens friendship as portrayed by David Kross and James. I immediately went to research this online and the portrayal in the film is very close to what happened in real life. Long was a German track and field athlete who helped Owens even though it went against Nazi ideology.
“God spared you for a reason.”
Jeremy Irons, one of my favorite actors who has frequently graced the screen in many a period piece, plays Avery Brundage, the US Olympic Committee chairman who negotiates with the Nazis. Barnaby Metschurat plays Joseph Goebbels as a cold, calculating Nazi who is annoyed by Germany’s need for having the United States at their Olympics. He draws the audience’s necessary anti-Nazi ire. I questioned the storyline about Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi filmmaker played by brilliantly by Clarice van Houten. I wondered in the filmmakers were too lenient with her portrayal as a more sympathetic figure.
Visually this film does it’s best to represent the mid 1930s as it would have looked. It’s history CGI’d with a sepia filter. Much of what we see is layered so it feels more fantastical than real. But because the story is based on true events this really doesn’t take away from the movie’s message. The 1930s style costumes are magnificent and I was particularly taken by the colorful wardrobes worn by Shanice Banton and Chantel Riley. Clarice van Houten dons finger waves, cloche hats, blouses and equestrian pants.
Race put me through the ringer emotionally. I went through the gamut of experiencing joy, anxiety and anger and I spent most of the final 30 minutes of the film streams of tears coming down my face. This is an amazing film because it’s an amazing story.