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.
“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.
It’s the last week of eighth grade for Kayla May (Elsie Fisher), a shy teen who dreams of attaining the confidence that seems just out of reach. In her spare time she films and uploads motivational videos for her YouTube channel. She’s talkative on screen but at school she says very little and has no real friends. She lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton), and Kayla, like many kids her age, is overly concerned with how her dad’s behavior affects her social standing. We follow Kayla over the span of one week as she gets voted most shy, examines the contents of her 6th grade time capsule, gets invited to a popular kid’s birthday pool party, lusts after the hot kid in her class, befriends a high school girl and hangs out with a new friend and possible love interest, Gabe (Jake Ryan). Every single event, no matter how big or small, is fraught with tension, excitement, and fear. It’s clear that the advice that Kayla gives in her YouTube videos and the life she leads online is very different from her day-to-day reality.
Eighth grade is a pivotal time in the life of a young teenager. They are on the brink of a big shift in their lives both socially and academically with high school just around the corner. Still in the throes of all the changes that come with puberty, everything is new, different and constantly in flux. Every social situation to them is life or death. Their status in eighth grade sets the bar for what’s to come.
Director Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is an ode to coming of age in a world where social media is part of our every day lives. But for adults watching the film, it’s also a story about anxiety and its overwhelming effects. As someone who was as timid as Kayla was at her age and as an adult who deals with social anxiety every day, I found this film and Kayla’s character endlessly relatable. Just watching the film brought up those feelings of anxiety as I was embarrassed on Kayla’s behalf. I know those situations so intimately and the memory of them is so vivid. That moment when Kayla is at the pool party, looks through the pane of glass to the kids outside, takes a deep breath and walks out, I felt that moment because I’ve lived it so many times. Burnham’s film was therapy for me. Allowing me to process a lot of these emotions as I followed Kayla on her journey.
The best scenes in the movie are the interactions Kayla has with her dad, played by Josh Hamilton. When Kayla explains to her dad he’s being silent wrong, or when she catches him staring at her and her friends at the mall, or the loving conversation by the fire, those moments all reminded me of moments I had with my parents. They’re raw, real, hard to watch but necessary too.
In an interview with Alicia Malone on the FilmStruck podcast, Bo Burnham said he auditioned many kids for the lead role and he saw something in Elsie Fisher that he didn’t see in the other kids. The other actresses were confident kids pretending to be shy. Fisher is the real deal. She brings so much authenticity to her performance. And I love that she’s the character’s age, she has the body type and skin type of pretty much any young girl that age. If you gave her dark eyes, dark hair and an olive skin tone, she’d look exactly like I did in junior high. I could relate to Eighth Grade in a way I couldn’t with Lady Bird. Burnham’s feature debut is a winner and I can’t wait to see more from him.
As a DVD Director, I earn rewards from DVD Netflix. You can rent Eighth Grade is available to rent on DVD.com
Stations: Historical Drama Time Travel Destination: early 1950s Ireland and Brooklyn, NY Conductor: John Crowley
I’m the daughter of immigrant parents. My father traveled across the Atlantic from Portugal to Brazil before heading north and settling in the United States. When he married my mom, he brought her from the tropical climes of the Dominican Republic to wintry New England. For both of my parents the adjustment to their new lives must have been difficult. But they had to leave everything and everyone they knew behind to start a new and better life. While their sacrifice was ultimately worth it, they left a big piece of themselves behind.
Based on the novel by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (2015) tells the familiar story of immigration but through the lens of young woman in the early 1950s. We follow the story of Eilis (Soirse Ronan). She lives with her sister Rose (Fiona Glacott) and mother (Fiona Glascott) and works a thankless job at the local market under the management of the tough-nosed Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). Her sister arranges with Father Glynn (Hugh Gormley) for Eilis to make the journey to Brooklyn, NY where a room, a job and the chance to go to school for book-keeping awaits her. The adjustment is more difficult than Eilis imagines. Soon she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), a young Italian man with an eye for Irish gals. They quickly fall in love and Eilis starts planting roots. When a major event happens back in Ireland and she travels back, she quickly settles back into her old life. Torn between her two homes, which one will Eilis chose?
Brooklyn is a story about what it means to leave your home and make a new one in a strange and far away new world. We see Eilis’s struggles; the long and difficult boat ride over the Atlantic, the crippling homesickness, prejudice, adjusting to a new lifestyle, new people and new work. There is a touching scene when Eilis helps Mrs. Keho (Julie Walters) and Father Glynn feed the poor and homeless of the community. Everyone in that room is Irish and there is a poignant sense of togetherness. One of the men stands up to sign an Irish song in the traditional Gaelic and I couldn’t help but shed a tear. There is a palpable sense of mourning for the lost country.
This film is also a love story. It’s about the inherited love of one’s family and homeland but more deeply it’s about the joy of finding love in a new relationship. Eilis and Tony’s budding romance is so tender and sweet. It made me want to revisit those early days when I was falling in love with my husband. All those feelings are so new, so fresh and so electrified.
Saoirse (pronounced Sur-sha) Ronan is mesmerizing in Brooklyn. She is so enigmatic and has such an inviting face that I couldn’t help but get lost in her beautiful eyes. Ronan reminds me very much of Ingrid Bergman. Both are incredible talented actresses but are also alluring on screen. Ronan is only 23 years old but already has an incredible resume including 3 Academy Award Nominations, including one for Brooklyn and another for her performance in last year’s Lady Bird.
This film has an eclectic mix of familiar faces and many relative unknowns. Fans of Mad Men will spot Jessica Pare who plays Miss Fortini, Eilis’ boss at the Brooklyn department store.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the exquisite detail that went into this period picture. Especially the costumes, oh the costumes. I wanted to steal practically every outfit costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux dressed Saoirse Ronan in. The palate is colorful and vibrant. The tones match the different seasons. Ireland and Brooklyn are steeped in rich hues which make the 1950s of both look like veritable dreamlands. It may not be the most realistic but for someone like me who revels in mid-century modern aesthetic, Brooklyn is a feast for the eyes.
I had one small quibble with Brooklyn. I felt like it took too long for us to fully appreciate why Eilis left Ireland for New York. Her situation didn’t seem dire enough for her to give up everything she knew for an opportunity with big unknowns. I wish that had been established a bit more early on in the story.
“One day the sun will come out. You might not even notice straight away it will be that faint. Then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone who has no connection with the past. Someone whose only yours. And you’ll realize, that this is where your life is.”
Time Travel Destination: 1840s-1880s
Stations: Literary Biopic, Costume Drama
Conductor: Terence Davies
“Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.”
A motion picture about the life about poet Emily Dickinson has never been made until now. How does one make a captivating biopic about a recluse? Director Terence Davies took on the task brilliantly with his feature film A Quiet Passion (2017).
The movie stars Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, a rebellious poet who forsakes the prospect of love to focus on her art and family. Her world centers around her home in Amherst, MA and as the years progress she retreats further and further into her home sometimes not even venturing down stairs. We watch her progress from a feisty outspoken teenager to a deeply sentient genius who translates emotions and ideas into beautiful poetry.
“My soul is my own.”
The viewer steps into the intimate space of Dickinson’s life and the players who inhabit her world. Her father (Keith Carradine), the stern patriarch who never understood his daughter’s rebellious spirit. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) who retreats more and more from life with each passing day. Then there is her sweet sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) who cares for Emily even when she doesn’t quite understand her motivations. Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), the pride of the family who loses Emily’s trust when he betrays his wife Susan (Jodhi May), one of Emily’s closest confidantes. And one of the few outsiders able to break through Dickinson’s small world is the Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) whose larger-than-life personality threatens to be contained by societal expectations.
The film wonderfully captures the many aspects of Dickinson’s era: the religiosity, deprivation, isolation, deep brooding, heightened emotions especially sadness and the almost painful simplicity of life and death. Terence Davies read numerous biographies on Emily Dickinson and steeped himself in the era and it shows. The attention to detail is astounding. A replica of Dickinson’s home in Amherst, MA was recreated in a studio in Belgium. Exteriors were shot on location in Amherst. The viewer will feel like they traveled to the era and not just a representation of it. Davies selected Nixon for the role of Emily Dickinson because of her remarkable resemblance to the poet. In one of the scenes of the film we watch as the family members have their portraits taken. Age progression shows the passing of 20+ years. Emma Bell, who plays young Emily, and Cynthia Nixon pose in the style of the famous portrait of Dickinson.
“My life has passed as if in a dream. As if I had never been part of it.”
I connected with this movie on a deeply personal level. As a lonely and angst ridden teenager I clung to writers such as Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, etc. With Dickinson especially I was drawn by her deep sense of isolation and how desperately she tried to make sense of the world.
Besides the incredible attention to historical accuracy and setting, I love how Davies and his crew imbibe the film with so much color. Many of us think of this era in American history as drab, steeped in sepia. There is so much color and vibrancy in this movie. It makes us understand a bit how overwhelming and heartbreaking beautiful the world was to Dickinson. In addition to the age progression scene, another element that stood out was the Civil War slideshow which featured colorized photos of Lincoln, soldiers, the battlefields, etc.
Cynthia Nixon delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful performance as Emily Dickinson. When she uttered these words, I felt like someone had just punched me in my gut:
“For those of us who live minor lives and are deprived of a particular kind of love, we know best how to starve. We deceive ourselves and others. It is the worst kind of lie.”
There are many great performances in this film but I was particularly drawn to Keith Carradine as Edward Dickinson. He perfectly captures exactly what I would have imagined a stern, religious father of the 19th Century to be. I was also drawn by Catherine Bailey whose performance as Vryling Buffam imbues life into the story. I definitely want to see more of her work.
A Quiet Passion (2017) stirs up a lot of emotion. Davies delivers a powerful biopic about an elusive figure whose poetry has transcended many generations.