A Masterpiece It Is Not

Leo Da Vinci: Mission Mona Lisa

by Christie Robb and Emmy Clifton

During the recent heatwave as a bid to keep everyone entertained and out of the sun, I asked my upcoming Kindergartner, Emmy, to help me with my latest movie review.

Mom says…

Even a cup of ill-timed afternoon coffee was barely enough to keep me from nodding off during director Sergio Manifo’s animated adventure. The premise was interesting, centered around a teenage Leonardo Da Vinci who brings mechanical contraptions into being in  15th century Italy. But as we passed the 10 minute mark with no inciting incident, I realized we were in trouble.

Eventually we get it. Leo’s friend Lisa’s farm has been vandalized. The crops are destroyed. And without them, Lisa’s dad can’t pay the mortgage and she’ll have to be married off to the anemic son of their nobleman landlord.

The film has a little bit of everything: jokes that don’t land, phoned-in voice acting, questionable gender stereotypes (girls are described as “moody” and cry to get their way), characters who lack development, painful musical numbers that appear out of nowhere, exposition dumps delivered through dialogue, and a romance that makes Anakin and Padme’s in Attack of the Clones look nuanced.

But my favorite thing by far is the closing song. I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics:

When I am here with you

I’m a fish inside a creek

And I don’t know how to speak

Maybe a mobile phone would help

Kid says…

I enjoyed it more than the Little Mermaid, but less than Frozen. Leo was my favorite character. He did the fun stuff. Lisa, the girl, was ok. I’d watch it again. It was kind of scary in parts. Why does everything end up a skeleton in this movie?

Mom’s Verdict:

Emmy’s Verdict:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vzfSqCIZZg

Turtles, All the Way Down

Sword of Trust

by Cat McAlpine

On a hot summer day Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) walk into an Alabama pawn shop with a sword to sell. Shop owner Mel (Marc Maron) listens in disbelief as the women explain: This isn’t just any sword. This Union officer’s sword, and its accompanying documents, can prove that the South actually won the Civil War.

Sword of Trust pokes at what and who we believe in, and why. What leads people to believe that the world is actually flat or the deep state is actively erasing battles from history books? How many times can we forgive someone before we simply can’t anymore? Filmed on location in Birmingham, the pace of the film matches the speed of summer in the south. No one moves too fast, talks too loud, or quite gets to the point.

Penned by Lynn Shelton (who also directed) and Mike O’Brien, the dialogue is almost too natural, suggesting that most of the script was largely improvised. The frame work is a little choppy, with a focus on Cynthia and Mary at the start that suggests more of an ensemble focus than is delivered.

As the action picks up Cynthia, Mary, Mel, and pawn shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass, loveable) all warily agree to pile into the back of a moving van with an unknown destination.

“This is definitely how people die.”

“This is how individual people die. There’s four of us.”

Then, we’re hit with a momentum bait and switch. The longest scene of the film takes place in the back of the van where the characters explain exactly how they came to this point in their lives. This is when realize the real film is about Mel, and his ability to find satisfaction in life despite its disappointments.

As the emotional epicenter, Maron is a marvelous star. Not dissimilar from his performance in Netflix’s GLOW, Maron has the beautiful, stuttering delivery of a man who can admit his life is “tragic” without ever truly contemplating that reality. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t rise to meet his performance.

The action is predictable and anticlimactic. Mel is worrying over bad decisions and a woman he’s still in love with, but his only onscreen interaction with Deirdre (Lynn Shelton, again) is early on and devoid of context. There are bright spots, like Nathaniel’s patient diligence in trying to explain to Cynthia how the world is actually flat, but the film doesn’t quite shine.

The Sword of Trust skims over the top of conspiracy theories and their cult followers. Every believer is either a backwoods idiot or a loveable idiot, both easily dismissed. There’s an opportunity to explore the cultural black holes that create these communities, but Mel isn’t really interested in them, so the narrative isn’t either.

Ultimately, this is a worthy effort to highlight the people and stories that find themselves in small, southern towns. But the film would’ve benefitted from either more evenly distributing its focus on the lives of all of its players or narrowing the narrative sharply on Mel.

Need a Lift?

Luz

by Hope Madden

Fast, brave and baffling, Tilman Singer’s experimental demon thriller Luz enters hot, exits quickly and leaves you puzzled. In a good way.

The film begins with a nightmarish vision leeched of color, as battered young cabbie Luz (a letter-perfect Luana Velis) tumbles into a banal police station lobby shouting about how the receptionist wants to live his life. Soon she’s seated in an equally bland hallway, mumbling blasphemies to herself in Spanish as two German police officers—one who doesn’t understand and one who refuses to translate—look on.

Meanwhile, in a dive bar across town…

It makes little sense to summarize the plot because the fairly slight premise unfolds in front of you, offering as many questions as answers. To spoil that seems pointless.

There is something fascinating happening in this film, though, and Singer has no real sense of urgency about clarifying what that is. Seedy, lifeless places become environments where those as baffled as we bear witness—or don’t—to a patient if tenacious courtship of sorts.

It all begins in dehumanizing but fascinating wide angle shots. Slowly, clip by clip, Singer draws us in closer to the diabolical unfolding in our midst. It’s the deconstruction of a possession film, a bare-bones experimental feature that hangs together because of its clever turns, solid performances and Singer’s own technical savvy with sound design.

Running about 70 minutes and boasting no more than 6 speaking roles, Luz is surrealism at its most basic, storytelling at its sparest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOJNMF_qGVU

Screening Room: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Marianne and Leonard

Two big heroes of ours – QT and Leonard Cohen – on screen this week. We’ll also talk through what’s new in home entertainment.

listen to the full podcast HERE.

California Dreamin’

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Happy QT Day, everyone — that rare and special holiday where moviegoers love a movie made by an unabashed lover of movies. And this time, he’s made a movie about loving the movies.

It’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s clearest love letter to cinema both great and trashy. Spilling with nostalgia and packing more sentiment than his previous 8 films combined, Hollywood is the auteur’s most heartfelt film.

Not that it isn’t bloody. Once it hits its stride the film packs Reservoir Dogs-level brutality into a climax that’s as nervy as anything Tarantino’s ever filmed. But leading up to that, as the filmmaker asks us to look with a mixture of fondness and sadness at two lives twisting toward the inevitable, he’s actually almost sweet.

One of those lives belongs to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a one-time TV Western leading man who’s made a couple of poor career choices and seems to be facing obsolescence. This would mean, domino-style, the obsolescence of his best friend and stunt double with a sketchy past, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

But that’s not the second story, which instead belongs to the real life tragedy of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Set in the LA of 1969, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood uses the Manson family crimes (marking its 50th anniversary this August) as the thematic underpinning, a violent metaphor for the end of two eras.

Tarantino being Tarantino, though, he’ll use the movies to make everything better.

From the foot fetish (more proudly on display than ever) to the familiar faces (even one who made the cutting room floor and the credits), the hiply retro soundtrack to the inky black humor, Hollywood hides no Tarantinoism. But the film establishes a timestamp more precisely than any of his other works. And on the whole, he shows unpredicted restraint.

The film moseys through the first two acts, with long, deliberate takes full enough of pop culture as to completely immerse you in time and place. Tarantino again frames sequences with alternating levels of homage, but dials back the dialogue from his usual quick-hitting crispness to measured ruminations often thick with intention.

In strokes stylish and self-indulgent, Tarantino is bidding adieu to halcyon days of both flower power innocence and the Hollywood studio machine. Here, he’s looking back on the Manson murders as a dividing line, and again wondering what might have been.

For us QT aficionados, Hollywood may feel at first like an odd, overlong duck, but its wandering nature gives you ample time to adjust. The cast shines from top to bottom, propelling an entertaining vision of humor and blood and irony and bittersweet nostalgia.

Settle in, trust the driver and enjoy the ride.

Cry and Laugh Again

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

by Hope Madden

For fans, there is something endlessly fascinating about Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s because, regardless of the volume of his work—songs, novels and poems—or the intimacy of his words, it’s still impossible to feel as if you know him.

In Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, it’s clear that Cohen’s longtime companion and eternal muse Marianne Ihlen felt the same way.

Ihlen inspired the Cohen classic So Long, Marianne, obviously, as well as dozens of others including Bird on a Wire. The two had one of those Sixties relationships—open but committed, tumultuous but loving, and ultimately doomed.

For eight years they lived together, on and off, along with Ihlen’s son Axel in a humble cottage on the Greek island of Hydra. An artists’ refuge of sorts, it was the kind of pre-hippie paradise where eccentrics engaged perhaps too freely in freedom.

It was there that Broomfield first met Ihlen. Their friendship and the director’s clear fondness for his subject give the film a fresh and odd intimacy.

Though his personal connection to Ihlen is an interesting inroad into this story, the doc sometimes feels like two separate and uneven pieces sewn together.

That seems partly appropriate, given that Leonard and Marianne spent increasing spans of time apart as the years wore on. And there’s no question that—for Leonard devotees, at least—the behind the scenes footage of Cohen on tour in the Sixties, commentary from his bandmates, and snippets of background intel from close friends is as engaging as it is enlightening.

Unfortunately, we lose Marianne almost entirely by Act 2. The titular character becomes a bit of a ghost, and not even one who looms large over the material in the foreground.

Of course, as the film was made posthumously (both Ihlen and Cohen died in 2016), their own insights are limited. In this way, though, Ihlen’s presence outweighs Cohen’s in that Broomfield dug up audio conversations in which she discusses the relationship.

The lack of Cohen’s own thoughts on their pairing—outside of one or two rambling, drug-riddled onstage song intros—makes its absence known.

Still, there is a melancholy beauty in the way Bloomfield’s documentary—his love letter to Marianne and Leonard—follows Cohen’s song lyrics, telling of a fractured, unconventional but nonetheless loving connection.

Indeed, it is Cohen’s final words of love to Ihlen, a note sent to her hospital room as she lay dying, filmed at her request, that illustrates that very point.

A bit disjointed but never uninteresting, Words of Love is an often compelling look at the relationship between muse and artist. For Cohen fans, it’s required viewing.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of July 22

So, there’s this great animated movie that no one saw. It probably isn’t entertaining enough for the littlest kids, but everyone else should see it. There’s also a middling action flick and a sad, sad reboot.

Click the film title for the full review.

Missing Link

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

Hellboy

Rocking Behind the Curtain

Leto

by Christie Robb

Entrancing, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto layers a variety of stylistic flourishes over the relatively simple plot—a love triangle between a rising rock star, his mentor, and the mentor’s wife.  Set in 1980s Leningrad, I was thrown off-balance from the first.

When it comes down to it, I don’t know all that much about rock and roll. I know even less about the Soviet Union.

So, it was a bit of a surprise to see OG hipsters playing a show to a crowd of fans. But then I noticed that the fans were sitting politely in their seats and that men in suits patrolled the performance hall ready to put down any display of unruly behavior—piling on a sweet-faced girl who sedately held up a small poster with a hand-drawn heart on it.

This is a country where, if you are going to play, you first have to have your lyrics analyzed for ideological appropriateness.

The rising star Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo) and his mentor Mike Naumenko (Roma Zver) were both real people fronting the influential bands Kino and Zoopark, respectively.  A statement contained within the credits informs that the plot was based on Naumenko’s wife Natalia’s (Irina Starshenbaum) memories. However, there is also a character credited as “sceptic” who often breaks the fourth wall to explain to the viewer that “Sadly, this did not happen.”

 Shot in moody black and white, with emotional pops of color, periodically animation creeps in to punctuate the more fraught moments. There’s also the occasional song and dance number in what is roughly a biopic—featuring covers of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

Weird, occasionally wandering, Leto, provided a glimpse into the experience of artists living in a gritty, austere world that I’ve not thought much about before, but probably will now.