In writer-director Matthew Ross’ feature filmmaking debut about a middle-aged Las Vegas chef's obsessive relationship with a recent college grad (played by Imogen Poots), Michael Shannon plunges headfirst into a psychosexual Noir fueled by male jealousy and old school notions of revenge.
Driven by its performances, although at times it feels like an atmospheric update of
era Marlon Brando, it's Shannon whose eerily calm, controlled rage beneath the surface reigns the film in whenever it begins to spiral off course.
Quickly establishing the rocky, self-conscious start to their relationship and the 747 size baggage both Shannon's Frank and Poots’ world-weary Lola carry everywhere, Ross paints a picture of budding love as much as pain.
Amid the Michael Mann like backdrop of the lights of Las Vegas in the film's opening bedroom scene, Ross heavily foreshadows the turbulence ahead with a moment that starts out romantically but gets dark fast both in not only a startling first sexual request by Lola but especially just how quickly Frank is ready to fulfill it.
A chronicle of the push and pull between truth, deception, and confession, the film wears its Franco-American influences proudly on the screen as Frank journeys to France under the guise of a professional opportunity.
However, like the omelette he makes for Lola early on which hides caviar beneath the surface, behind Frank's professional exterior is a furious masquerade of Travis Bickle like proportions as he uncovers more about his cryptic lover’s past.
Voyaging deep into the heart of darkness of Frank’s sexual jealousy (obviously a recurring theme in Neo Noir that is on steroids here), the sense that his quest is less Arthurian and more ego driven becomes increasingly palpable.
For all of its modern day frank — no pun intended — sexuality and a few straight out of Hollywood plot contrivances, the film's gender stereotypical roles of man as either vengeful tormentor or protector of a woman's sexuality is as outdated as it is inescapably authentic as the worst and best sides of Frank, played throughout with equal abandon by Shannon.
He looks and walks and speaks with purpose. In a tense scene where he meets a man from Lola's past, you know he wants him gone in the worst way, deep down more for having existed before him in her life than anything else.
We know those guys. We've met those guys. Maybe there's part of those guys in all of us and Frank is losing the battle at suppressing it or maybe it was there before he even arrived in Vegas.
And after the narrative surrounding Lola's past changes once again — or appears to as the story is told to him by a man vs. a woman — Ross infuses the film with flashes of
like hatred. Opting to believe not his own true love but a male stranger he's just met instead, the implications of Frank's self-loathing, misogyny, inadequacy, and mistrust are never fully explored to the level required for it to really pay off the way that it should.
Yet while Shannon is potent enough as an actor to hide the film's flaws (at least for a little while) and still make you want to know more, with Ross uncertain where to go from there in his script,
begins to lose its hold on us as a result.
(which come out of the shadows as the film continues on into its second act), the supporting character of Lola isn't nearly as complex as not just Nabokov's enigma but Shannon's Madonna-Whore obsessed lead as well.
No stranger to making underwritten women sing, the underutilized Poots adds an extra layer to her scenes. Punctuating a word or a beat with a certain look in her eye, she makes you understand just how and why so many men have fallen under her spell, even if none of them — and Lola most of all — know precisely who she is from one moment to the next.
alienates viewers whenever Frank trades Vegas for France as we feel as though we've wandered away from a dark romance and straight into a foreign, erotic B-movie version of
Thankfully however, it manages to right itself in time for its pitch perfect ending. Using mirrored surfaces brilliantly to reinforce the idea that these two people — like anyone in love — long to be seen, here Ross is smart enough to know that in the end, their reflections depend on the secrets and lies hiding behind even the best of intentions in their lover's eyes.
Anchored by the unexpected chemistry of Shannon and Poots, this flawed if worthwhile character study of sexual jealousy features a tour-de-force performance from Shannon, which will make you question just what more it will take for A-list filmmakers to make him their leading man at last.
Ultimately more successful for its ideas and the dream of what might have been with a stronger narrative arc, in its intoxicating blend of old and new Noir, just like Lola fascinates Frank,
is sure to do the same for viewers eager to see what writer-director Matthew Ross will do next.
Coming right after Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's groundbreaking experiments with jump cuts and location shooting in On the Town
, the last thing that actor, dancer, choreographer, and director Kelly wanted to do in 1950 was make the same old-fashioned Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland style "let's put on a show" musicals that MGM had produced with assembly line efficiency a decade earlier.
But with Mickey Rooney no longer the box office titan he was back in his Andy Hardy
days and Kelly's friend and former co-star Judy Garland going through one of the most difficult personal and professional periods of her life, Kelly happily signed onto Summer Stock
alongside director Charles Walters to support the actress.
Although producer Joe Pasternak tried to convince Louis B. Mayer to cut his losses and shut down production as Summer
ballooned toward an eventual six months shoot, much like Kelly and Walters, Mayer held fast out of loyalty to the woman who had made their studio synonymous with its most successful genre.
And it's a wise decision indeed as, from the film's breathtaking first shot which travels from the exterior of a farmhouse on up into Garland's second floor bedroom where she belts a song to her most famous Stock
number "Get Happy," (which has been paid homage to countless times over the years), Summer
is much better than its reputation would have you believe.
A delightful yet admittedly thinly plotted trifle, the film finds Garland's headstrong Jane Falbury struggling to keep her late father's failing farm afloat.
When Jane's spoiled kid sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) arrives with an entire theater troupe in tow headed up by boyfriend Joe Ross (Kelly), Jane forms an uneasy alliance with the group by agreeing to let them stage their musical in her barn if they'll help out around the farm.
Filling her songs with startling emotion, Garland's vocals are heightened all the more by veteran cinematographer Robert Planck's floating camera that — in one mesmerizing shot — swirls around a romantically conflicted Garland only to reveal Kelly sitting nearby in a scene sure to appeal to fans of Russell Metty's work on Douglas Sirk's 1954 masterpiece Magnificent Obsession
And it's the surprisingly lush visuals that command a great deal of our attention in this vibrant new Blu-ray transfer from the Warner Archive Collection, which serves up animated shorts and shortcuts to all of the film's songs right from the menu.
Yet while the film is known as a labor of love for Garland, in the end, it's the innovative Kelly that makes Summer Stock
one of my favorite underrated musicals.
Unable to shoot with his costar as often as expected as she struggled both onscreen and off, Kelly worked on a handful of numbers sure to make jaws drop, starting with the physically demanding group tap number "Dig-Dig-Dig Dig for Your Dinner," which showcases his athleticism and ups the film's energy level when it needs it the most.
However, it's in one of the star's best solo efforts, "You, Wonderful You," which finds the dancer doubling as his own choreographer and creating the beat of the song — which will eventually ease into the background — with only the sounds of his tap shoes, a creaky board, and a discarded newspaper onstage to guide him.
A great wistful Gene Kelly number, "You" is a reprise of an earlier scene with Garland. Beginning casually, much like his performance of "Singin' in the Rain," "You" eases into an awe inspiring middle section where it's clear to see how much joy he's getting out of blowing everyone's minds before he adds in a sentimental Chaplinesque close.
Yet although Kelly's "You, Wonderful You," number might look laid back, it required a painstaking search from the prop department to find a certain set of newspapers published several years earlier to achieve the precise sound and tear needed for perfectionist Kelly's musical execution.
Featuring fun supporting turns by Phil Silvers, Eddie Bracken, and Marjorie Main, while the last act of Summer Stock
forgoes the plot by devolving into another great collection of mini numbers for its predictable big show finale, it's easy to overlook the contrivances when you have Kelly and Garland ready to keep things "Wonderful" and "Happy" in two of the strongest musical numbers of their careers.
Lasting roughly as long as it takes for street vendor photographer Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to snap and sell pictures of tourists at the Gateway of India, there's a tentative seven note refrain that plays throughout award-winning filmmaker Ritesh Bantra's Photograph
Heard whenever our protagonist is about to put his heart and ego on the line to risk making a human connection, as just one subtly symbolic touch in a film that's full of them, the delicate sound of those seven keys highlights onscreen what seems to be the writer-director's favorite theme off-screen as well.
Another lovely ode to our need for companionship in an increasingly far-flung, lonely, and chaotic world, Photograph
marks Batra's return to India after two English language forays following the breakout success of his smash hit, The Lunchbox
When Rafi's dominant grandmother Dadi (the scene-stealing Farrukh Jaffar) lays the grandmother of all guilt trips on the hardworking middle-aged man by refusing to take her medicine because he has yet to get engaged, he decides the fastest way to remedy the situation is to invent a fictional fiancée.
Hoping to put an end to Dadi's concerns which have spread throughout the streets of Mumbai, he encloses proof of his attachment in the form of a gushing letter as well as a photo he'd taken of a beautiful young woman who'd posed for the picture on a whim but rushed off before she could collect it and pay. Unfortunately, just as his best friend and the audience predicted, Rafi's lie is put to the test when he gets word that Dadi is coming to meet the couple right away.
Managing to track down the woman he'd dubbed Noorie after a Bollywood heroine from a song that had been playing nearby, it's only when Rafi tries to work up the courage to speak to the shy, studious, middle class twenty-something we know as Miloni (Sanya Malhotra) that composer Peter Raeburn's seven note query kicks into gear.
Settling into something more melodic once she agrees to pose as Noorie, the strangers embark upon a courtship that, much like Raeburn's notes, starts tentatively before their friendship strengthens and the two begin to bond — meeting up on a daily basis — with or without Dadi in tow.
And although the old romcom trope of a fake fiancée is usually played for laughs in America, Batra opts for realism in his Mumbai set love story, letting us into the lives of the characters away from one another to focus not only on their similarities and differences but most importantly the effect that they have on each other when apart.
Centered on a relationship we fear might be as fleeting as a photograph taken by a stranger that reminds us of that one perfect day (or piano notes striving to build to a song that isn't there), Batra's film is as hopefully yearning as it is melancholic and bittersweet.
Hindered by a rushed, staccato final act and some clunky edits, while it isn't as narratively successful or as palatable as The Lunchbox
, it's still a moving look at two introverted strangers who strike a chord by accident and strive to stay in tune.
Say what you will about Dane Cook — if you've seen Mr. Brooks
where he managed to not only hold his own but actually steal a few scenes away from Kevin Costner — you know that with the right role and the right material, this guy can act.
And while we never buy him as an influential art dealer, Cook is quite good in a key scene late into American Exit
where he takes his estranged son to his late mother's favorite place to paint and delivers a heartfelt monologue about art and life that's so strong, it's probably why he accepted the role in the first place.
I say "probably" because at some point he would have had to have read the rest of the script, which somehow takes a premise involving the theft of a million dollar painting originally stolen by the Nazis in WWII and uses it as a mere two minute long inciting incident for a half-baked melodrama.
Heist wise, watching Cook pull one over on his shady boss Anton (Udo Kier) is about as exciting as watching a kid try to steal a candy bar from a gas station. And while there's no gas station in sight, a kid is indeed involved as, before he boosts the painting, Cook's Charlie does the same to his teenage son.
A father at the end of his rope — plagued with crippling health problems and debt — in writer-directors Tim McCann and Ingo Vollkammer's Exit
, after Charlie picks up Leo (Levi Miller) at school without his ex's permission, he uses him as a distraction with Anton before heading south on a road to nowhere.
Neither thrilling as a genre movie nor compelling as a drama, the film veers wildly from one moment to the next, unsure of not only what it wants to be but also who its main characters are. Asked to swing for the fences, within his first thirty minutes of screen time Miller inexplicably moves from hating his father on behalf of his mother to getting excited about thrift store clothing to insulting strangers to asking Charlie if he can drive with little to no warning.
It's so ridiculously uneven, it's like they told the kid to watch Three Faces of Eve
about three hundred times in preparation for a character revelation that is never expressed on the screen. Although undoubtedly used to help drive not the car this time but the aimless film forward, the histrionic hoops that Miller is asked to jump through are so annoying that as a viewer, you actually get to a point where you wish Charlie would just leave the kid on the side of the road.
Trying his best to bond with his son amid the chaos (and what we quickly gather is his own failing health), the screenwriters build a fascinating backstory in Charlie's past centering on his own relationship with his parents and his ex that would've made a far more interesting tale than the one we see here.
Interrupting any attempt at dramatic momentum in a series of cliched mini showdowns with Anton and his fellow art goons, although Cook fares better than Miller (who deserves hazard pay for playing a new role at the drop of a hat), Exit
continues its series of starts and stops for the rest of its eighty-six minute running time.
Unable to change lanes for longer than a few minutes at a time, sadly by the time we reach Cook's moving speech, most viewers will have already longed for a real exit and turned the damn thing off.
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