Mighty Neighborly

The Woman in the Window

by George Wolf

The Woman in the Window is a testament to the power of “all in.”

Like if you’re spying on your neighbors, get a zoom lens, take pictures! And if you’re modernizing Hitchcock, embrace that shit from the opening minutes and don’t f-ing look back.

For director Joe Wright and screenwriter Tracy Letts, that’s the play as they adapt A.J. Finn’s bestselling novel. And it’s a smart one.

Psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, fantastic) has a shrink of her own these days (Letts), and plenty of prescriptions. Suffering from crippling agoraphobia, Anna will not leave her spacious Manhattan townhouse. She’s got her cat Punch and her downstairs tenant David (Wyatt Russell), but outside of occasional conversations with her ex-husband (Anthony Mackie), Anna spends most of her time watching her neighbors and old movies.

Then the Russells move in across the street.

Jane (Julianne Moore) comes over for an enjoyable visit, has some wine and admits that Alistair (Gary Oldman) can be angry and controlling. A later conversation with the teenaged Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger) seconds that.

So when Anna sees Jane stabbed in her apartment, she’s sure Alistair is to blame. But with detectives (Brian Tyree Henry, Jeanine Serralles) looking on, a different Jane Russell (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears, swearing that she’s never even met Anna before tonight.

For the entire first hour, Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour, Hanna), Letts (Pulitzer winner for writing August: Osage County) and this splendid ensemble put the hammer down on a delicious mystery ride. Putting stairwells, doors, railings and more in forced perspective, Wright intensifies our relation to Ann’s small world while Letts’s crackling script draws us into the mystery and Danny Elfman’s staccato score hammers it home.

Is any of Anna’s story even real, or is it her meds and fragile psyche talking? This question allows the direct homages to classics like Rear Window and Vertigo to be filtered through a movie-loving unreliable narrator, becoming a wonderfully organic device that feeds this intoxicating noir pot-boiler.

As events escalate and Anna’s plight becomes more overtly terrifying, the novel’s pulpy seams begin to show, and the film stumbles a bit in transition. But Adams is strong enough to keep us rooted firmly in Anna’s camp, long enough for the darker side of Hitchcock to wrestle control.

Taking a story like this from page to screen successfully requires a strong, confident vision and a committed, talented cast. The Woman in the Window is overflowing with riches on both counts, landing as immensely satisfying fun.

Exit Stage Gauche

French Exit

by George Wolf

So, it seems your quick, stealthy exit migrates from Irish to French when excess alcohol is not involved.

Good to know, I had to look it up.

Francis Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) certainly enjoys a good martini, but her exit plan is a bit more serious than just ducking out of the local bar unnoticed.

After years of living high as a Manhattan socialite, Francis’s inheritance is nearly gone. So after selling off what they can, Francis and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) head to Paris to stay in her best friend’s empty apartment. When the last dollar is finally spent, Francis plans to kill herself.

It sounds pretty dramatic, but writer Patrick DeWitt (who also penned the source novel) and director Azazel Jacobs start peppering in the absurdity and black comedy as soon as mother and son are aboard a ship to France.

Malcolm leaves his fiancee Susan (Imogen Poots) behind, and hooks up with Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald) en route. Madeleine is a medium, and she soon becomes Francis’s conduit for summoning the late Mr. Price (Tracy Letts) when his soul returns in a cat.

Pfeiffer is cold, condescending perfection. Francis’s words for nearly everyone she encounters practically drip with contempt, and Pfeiffer is always able to keep the film’s tricky tonal balance from toppling toward either maudlin or silly.

She enjoys a wonderful chemistry with Hedges, who impresses yet again as a young man who is still coming to grips with the lack of affection in his upbringing, his mother’s icy worldview, and how they’ve both affected his ability to relate to other people.

And soon, there are plenty of other people to relate to in the Paris flat. There’s the neighbor who desperately wants to make friends (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey), Madeleine the medium, a detective hunting for the runaway cat (Isaach De Bankole), ex-fiancee Susan and her new man (Daniel di Tomasso), and Joan, who actually owns the apartment (Susan Coyne)!

You’d be quick to label the entire affair a Wes Anderson knockoff if Jacobs (The Lovers, Mozart in the Jungle, Doll & Em) didn’t fill the center with such unabashed heart. The affection between mother and son is never in doubt, and Pfeiffer’s delicious turn makes sure Francis never becomes a villain, just a fascinating and darkly funny mess.

With its self-conscious quirks and surface-level satisfactions, this is a French Exit more obvious than most. But thanks to Pfeiffer and a sharply drawn ensemble, it’s never less than wicked fun.

Birdhouse in Your Soul

Lady Bird

by Hope Madden

Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, may be the most delightfully candid and refreshingly forgiving coming-of-age film I’ve seen.

The great Saoirse Ronan—because honestly, is there now or has there ever been a more effortlessly talented 23-year-old?—plays Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Uniformed senior at Sacramento’s Immaculate Heart, Lady Bird is a work in progress.

Ronan is surrounded by talent. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) shines as a sweetly gawky budding thespian while, as Lady Bird’s devoted bestie Julie, Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) is heart-achingly wonderful.

Tracy Letts, playwright turned go-to character actor, proves again his natural ability in his newer profession as LB’s softie father. But it’s Laurie Metcalf who matches Ronan step for step.

As Lady Bird’s tough, even scary, mother, Metcalf is near-perfect. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rosanne star nab her first Oscar nomination for a turn that’s brave, funny, hard to watch and painfully authentic.

Lady Bird’s greatest desire is to escape Sacramento—“the Midwest of California”—in favor of someplace, anyplace, with culture. Preferably a liberal arts college in NYC. But her grades, her mom and her family’s financial situation present some (often hilarious) obstacles.

Though the film is hardly a straight-up comedy, its irreverent humor is uproarious. I laughed louder and more often during Lady Bird than any film this year.

The plot and the comedy are less the point here than you might expect. They are really just a device Gerwig uses to explore adolescence and its characteristic stage of reinvention. She throws in the surprisingly accurate image of a family’s financial struggle to boot, just to make sure we never mistake this for a John Hughes film, or, God forbid, Perks of Being a Wallflower.

No, this is not a cheese-clothed indictment of all the ills facing adolescents. It’s Rushmore with less camp and more authenticity, and that’s got more to do with Gerwig than her formidable cast.

Though Lady Bird’s landscape is littered with coming-of-age tropes, there is wisdom and sincerity in the delivery. Gerwig offers genuine insight rather than nostalgia or, worse yet, lessons to be learned. The result ranks among the best films of the year.





Isn’t It Romantic?

The Lovers

by George Wolf

Just who are The Lovers?

Michael and his mistress Lucy? Mary and her boyfriend Robert? Or, could it be Michael and Mary, even after all those years of marriage?

Credit writer/director Azazel Jacobs for turning the romantic dramedy inside out, weaving sly writing and touching performances into a thoroughly charming take on the resilience of love and the frustrating struggle to pin it down.

Tracy Letts and Debra Winger are both wonderful as Michael and Mary, a dispassionate husband and wife who have grown to give each other only slightly more regard than the pieces of furniture in their suburban home.

Lucy (Melora Walters) is impatiently waiting for Michael to ask for a divorce, while Robert (Aiden Gillen) is expecting the same from Mary. Both are assured the time will finally come after the upcoming visit from Michael and Mary’s son Joel (Tyler Ross).

But when an old spark is reignited, suddenly it’s the Mr. and Mrs. who are sneaking away from their side pieces for some passionate alone time.

Such a premise could easily crumble into sitcom-ready zaniness, but Jacobs isn’t mining for cheap laughs. His script does have moments of effectively dry humor, but The Lovers is just as likely to uncover truths through a heavy silence.

Both Letts and Winger effortlessly wear the weariness of their characters. We may not know exactly why they’ve drifted apart, but the actors convey such a reliable authenticity we are rooting for Michael and Mary almost immediately.

The Lovers is sneaky in its casual nature. Through subtle storytelling and stellar performances, it finds meaning in places rarely explored this effectively, and a gentle confidence that frayed emotions can still bond.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1o-XSHgypE





Pass the Salt…Bitch!

 

by George Wolf

 

So, how was your family get-together over the Holidays?

If secrets and dinner plates weren’t tossed about like a salad dressed with obscenities, you’ve got nothing on the Westons, the dysfunctional brood at the heart of August:  Osage County.

Screenwriter Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and the sublime wordplay in his dark, rich comedy is brought to life via an exceptional ensemble cast. Only tentative direction from John Wells holds the film back from its full potential.

Meryl Streep rules the roost as family matriarch Violet Weston, who..ahem…”welcomes” her children, siblings and assorted other team members back home after a family crisis.

There isn’t much time spent on niceties before the barbs start flying. Old wounds are exposed, and new secrets are uncovered as the family struggles to deal with the effect their past has on their present.

At the heart of the conflict is Barbara, the oldest Weston daughter, fully realized by Julia Roberts in, hands down, the performance of her career.

Barbara’s contempt for her mother is on hilariously full display, while bubbling underneath is the fear of becoming her mother, a fear she tries to hide through angry outbursts. Stealing a movie from Meryl Streep is no easy feat, but damned if Roberts doesn’t do it.

In fact, the film is wall to wall with fine performers, including Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis, Ewan McGregor, and Margo Martindale (who shows a fantastic chemistry with Streep, giving their scenes together an added air of mischief).

The problem is, director John Wells seems a bit intimidated by who, and what, he’s working with. The characters are too often on their own island, as when a soap opera cuts from a close up of one deep sigh to a completely different storyline.

These characters are under one roof for much of the movie, yet we don’t feel the cohesiveness of any shared connections, just a series of histrionics often left swinging in the venomous breeze.

It’s not the material. Letts also wrote Bug and Killer Joe, both adapted into brilliant movies by the skills of legendary director William Friedkin. Wells, a veteran TV director, doesn’t provide the nuance needed to make a successful cinematic leap.

August:  Osage County boasts all the ingredients, and is certainly entertaining, but ultimately feels like a missed opportunity for something special.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars