|It Comes at Night|
|The Book of Henry|
|Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe|
|Moscow Never Sleeps|
|Dawson City: Frozen Time|
My only four-star review of the year to date highlights a mixed mid-June at the movies:
Trey Edward Shults’ “It Comes at Night” is lean, economical, no-frills genre moviemaking, yet this young director (who debuted with last year’s Cassavetes-esque “Krisha”) continues to amaze with his command of technique and now his versatility. In the near future of the film, a virulent, Plague-like disease has wiped out almost all of humankind. Paul (Joel Edgerton) has a few inviolable rules for his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.): only go out of the house in pairs, always wear your gas masks outside, and never ever unlock the red door. When an intruder (Christopher Abbott) offers much-needed provisions if they’ll take in him and his wife (Riley Keough) and young son, Paul’s comfortable pattern yields to an outwardly friendly but inwardly uneasy entente. “It Comes at Night” gives the lie to so much of the current cinema, proving you don’t need a big budget, special effects and universally recognized comic-book characters to create thrilling entertainment. All you need is a compelling scenario, a uniformly first-rate cast and a director with vision and the talent to see it through.
From the sublime to the ridiculous with Colin Trevorrow’s howler “The Book of Henry,” about a child genius (Jaeden Lieberher) – and isn’t that theme growing tedious? – who looks after his perpetually distracted waitress mother (Naomi Watts) and younger brother (Jacob Tremblay from “Room”). Not only looks after; the kid calls in stock picks (from a pay phone!) that build Mom an enormous nest egg. But when Henry bites the big one from a brain tumor, he leaves Mom detailed instructions on how to kill their police-chief neighbor (Dean Norris), who’s (rather obliquely, from what we’re allowed to see) abusing his stepdaughter (Maddie Ziegler, given almost no lines). And Mom’s reaction? Sounds great to her! She goes through with it, all the while listening to Henry’s cassette tape, in which he guides her down to the second and anticipates every detour she takes. The level of contrivance and coincidence in this movie is, to borrow a line from “The Golden Girls,” like being struck by lightning in a house you won from Ed McMahon. Watts survives intact (barely); Lieberher is precocious but at least camera-ready; and I disagree with my friend Adrienne about Tremblay (I don’t find him especially charismatic). The overwritten “Book of Henry” takes place in an alternate universe of phoniness and fraudulence.
I admire Maria Schrader’s direction of the biopic “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” in certain respects. She’s made half a dozen vignettes, each twenty minutes in length, from the life (and untimely death) of the best-selling author’s exile, mostly in Brazil. (Zweig is well played by Josef Hader, whose background in comedy imbues the performance with a Chaplin-esque blend of humor and pathos). The set pieces are beautifully framed and several (especially the first) are breathtaking to behold. Too often, though, the film becomes a recitation of famous names and intellectual arguments that struggle to resonate against a homesickness and mourning for the fatherland that prove, for Zweig, insuperable… The precious few laughs in Lucia Aniello’s raunchy “Bridesmaids” wannabe “Rough Night” come mostly from Kate McKinnon, who continues to be the most interesting person in just about every movie she makes. Scarlett Johansson’s character – a congressional candidate – is too buttoned-up to be funny, while a lot of Jillian Bell (who was, in much more limited screen time, the best thing about “22 Jump Street”) proves to be way too much. Demi Moore shows off a still-rocking body as half (with Ty Burrell) of the oversexed couple next door to the glass-walled beach house where the wedding party kill, inter alia, a male stripper… Johnny O’Reilly’s “Moscow Never Sleeps” works best as a reproachful yet ultimately loving paean to the Russian capital and worst as a would-be Altman-esque mashup of stories involving a dying comedian who’s kidnapped by a gang of hoodlums; a developer who refuses to pay the government’s price of doing business; his aspiring singer girlfriend; the other man who loves her (who happens to be the comic’s son), etc. etc. No fewer than four (!) characters (including two creeps who try to rape a child hooker and her younger sister) are drugged with laced drinks. I guess that’s the only way Moscow ever sleeps.
Bill Morrison’s “Dawson City: Frozen Time” tells a number of amazing stories. Dawson City, a Gold Rush town in Yukon that reached its highest population of 9,000 early in the 20th century, was the last stop on the line for hundreds of silent films that Hollywood sent north, usually taking years to make their way up to the isolated hamlet. When the studios didn’t want to pay for their return carriage, many of them were thrown away on the ice floes, but over 300 ended up salted away under an ice hockey rink – which turned out to be, for these highly flammable and combustible nitrate films, an accidental stroke of genius. They survived – occasionally jutting out onto the playing surface – and were discovered in 1978, during construction of a rec hall behind “Diamond Tooth Gertie’s” casino. In virtually every case, the Dawson reel was the only surviving copy of the picture. But the story of Dawson itself – its main drag decimated year after year by fire, but always rebuilt – is equally fascinating. Sid Grauman started there. So did Alexander Pantages. Fred Trump owned a brothel! (The Trump name has always connoted the finest in…hospitality.) Morrison’s nearly wordless film – with a moody, ambient score by Alex Somers – casts the same hypnotic glow Guy Maddin achieved in “My Winnipeg.” Film lovers will want to seek it out.
Reminiscent of Bill Forsyth’s great “Housekeeping,” Aisling Walsh’s “Maudie,” a biography of the Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis, stakes claim to the highest in cinematic achievement thus far this year. Profoundly moving without a hint of the maudlin, it stands on the shoulders of Oscar-worthy performances by Sally Hawkins and, as Maud’s husband Everett, Ethan Hawke, and a Sherry White script that speaks volumes in few words. We first meet Maud when her brother, Charles (Zachary Bennett), stops by to tell her he’s sold their family home. Distraught, she chafes at life with her prudish Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). When Everett, a gruff and barely sociable fish peddler, places an ad seeking a housemaid, she gathers her few belongings in her red wagon and walks several miles to his house to apply. Everett can be prideful and verbally and physically abusive: “There’s me, the dogs, them chickens – then you.” But when he acts up, she picks up her paintbrush, painting primitives of flowers, birds and animals. They also share a bed upstairs – “That not fancy enough for you?” Everett asks, to which Maud replies, “Suits me.”
Over time, Maud makes a friend in Sondra (Kari Matchett), a snappily dressed New York transplant to Nova Scotia who recognizes Maud’s artistry first: “Name your price.” Eventually, her work lands in the office of Vice President Nixon, and Maud and Everett make the television news. This gives Everett, who’s happy to take the money, cause for further resentment (“There I am plastered on the TV for all the world to laugh at”), and what a daring part for Hawke to take. There is nothing warm or fuzzy about this manimal – let’s face it; today he’d probably be put away for some of what he does here – but Hawke maintains his integrity and locates his well-hidden humanity. The film, though, ultimately belongs to Sally Hawkins, who has been very good for a very long time but has finally – God willing – found a vehicle to stardom. Her work here surprises and delights at every turn, bringing out Maud’s humor and her indomitable spirit. (Contrast it with a stunt performance like Dustin Hoffman’s in “Rain Man” and you see the true cost of cheap gimmickry.) Like Forsyth’s work, “Maudie” is very much of the north – the harsh weather educing all of one’s resourcefulness, yet yielding luminous beauty – and as with “Housekeeping” few will be able to keep from sniffling or developing that telltale lump in the throat.
Walsh mounts scenes magnificently and returns frequently to Maud’s love for windows: “The whole of the world, already framed for you, right there.” When White does go for the heartstrings, she chooses her words perfectly, as when a now-ailing Maud reminds Everett how much he loves dogs (“You should get more of them”), or in her last deathbed question to him, which is so achingly poignant I won’t repeat it here. In a small, exceptionally lovely film, it’s as big a question as any we humans ever ask.