Back what seems like a million years ago I attended the Sundance Film Festival. While there I heard about a film getting some buzz entitled Judy & Punch. As a lover of costume dramas its premise of a ‘anachronistic take on the origin of Punch and Judy shows’ sounded intriguing and I was disappointed I didn’t get to see it at the festival. Now I have seen it and must own to being disappointed by the film. I didn’t hate it but its script is very uneven.
The first 30 minutes of Judy & Punch are its strength. Watching Mia Wasikowska’s Judy and Damon Herriman’s Punch travel around 17th century England putting on puppet shows is entertaining. The costumes, spectacle and relationship of the couple feels fresh and new. Waikowska does a great job as usual and makes for a compelling empowered woman and Mother doing an unusual job for her time.
Then something happens which I won’t spoil, and the movie becomes a simmering revenge tale with Herriman playing our greedy villain and it’s a lot less interesting. We rarely hear any more dialogue from Wasikowska’s character for the rest of the film as she wins her revenge from her evil husband. I wanted to yell out ‘I liked the earlier Judy best!’. In the desperation to make a feminist film the creators seemed to have abandoned a compelling woman and in her place put a bland archetype.
That’s not to say the movie is bland, just the character. It’s a strange film with a cool look and aesthetic about it. I didn’t hate watching it. I just resented the turn the script took when I was enjoying the unusual story it started with.
Probably the most impressive aspect of the production in Judy & Punch is how dirty everything looks. Everyone appears like they haven’t had a bath in weeks and even the hair on the horses looks long! The puppet shows are also a ton of fun and very creative. Nevertheless, the tone is too jumbled and the story’s message too heavy-handed and simplistic for me to recommend. They were close to making something really cool but didn’t pull it off. Too bad!
I’ve mentioned before on this site but over the last 2 years an interesting trend in film has been the frequent portrayal of platonic male friendship, usually an unlikely friendship. We saw it with Green Book winning best picture and then films like To Dust, Papi Chulo, Missing Link and even Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now we can add another entry to this list with the indie film The Peanut Butter Falcon.
This film is directed and written by the team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen) a young man with down syndrome who while stuck in a nursing home by the state dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. One day he escapes and meets a man named Tyler played by Shia LaBeouf who is on the run and a bit of a vagabond. His case worker Eleanor played by Dakota Johnson wants what’s best for him but doesn’t understand his need to be a free person outside the nursing home. We even get a fun cameo from Bruce Dern as a resident of the nursing home who helps Zak break free.
I don’t know how anyone walks away from this movie unmoved. It’s such a sweet story and the performances are from the heart. I particularly liked the chemistry between LaBeouf and Gottsagen. This is one of the first movies to hire someone with down syndrome in a lead and Gottsagen holds his own. It’s not a movie like I am Sam where the special needs characters are patronized to and treated like they have special magical powers. No, this treats Zak like anyone else to the point where he gets taken seriously as a competitor in the wrestling matches, and I got a little nervous for his safety.
The only part that felt a little unrealistic is some of the choices Johnson’s character makes. I don’t know if she would go along with Tyler and Zak’s plan even with how it is presented to her in the narrative. I also didn’t feel much chemistry between her and LaBeouf or buy their romance. Still, the main thrust of the movie is the relationship between Tyler and Zak and that really worked.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is also beautifully made with wonderful cinematography from Nigel Bluck. The coast between Georgia and Florida looks stunning and adds to the sense of freedom Zak must be feeling on the open sea. It’s one of those movies that captures a sense of time and place very well and we enjoy spending time with these characters.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is rated PG-13 for some wrestling action, fighting, language and Zak in his underwear for stretches but it feels like a family film. It has a lovely message with big-hearted performances from all involved. You will leave watching it wanting to be a better person and friend, which are the best kind of movies in my book. I definitely recommend hunting it down if you can.
Today I recorded a podcast with 2 of the ladies at the Filmotomy Podcast. The topic was a ‘Film Festival Survival Guide’ and we had a great time discussing all of the tricks of the trade for getting the most out of your festival experience. It all made me a bit nostalgic for my time at Sundance, so I decided to head out to my local arthouse theater (Broadway Centre Cinemas) and watch 3 independent releases. Here are my quick thoughts on all 3:
First up is The Souvenir by director Joanna Hogg. It stars Honor Swinton Byrne as a young film student named Julie who gets caught up in a toxic relationship with an older man named Anthony played by Tom Burke. Anthony is a deep thinker so of course he is also a heroine addict and extremely manipulative. Julie is a naive young girl who gets caught up in the mystique of Anthony and enables his terrible behavior because it feels dangerous and exciting. The Souvenir also stars Tilda Swinton as Julie’s mother and she is in fact Honor’s actual mother so that’s kind of fun.
This film has received huge acclaim from critics and is already scheduled for a sequel shooting this year. All I can say about this film is it is not for me. There are some stunning bits of cinematography (I particularly liked a sequence where we see Anthony and Julie talking not up-close but through a mirror across the room). I also liked Honor and Tilda Swinton’s performances. However, the couple have no chemistry and the story is extremely repetitive. The film is 2 hours long, and I felt every second of it. I didn’t care about either Anthony or Julie and their cycle of abusive behavior was not interesting. I can see how it would be appealing for others but for me it was a piece of indie slog.
4 out of 10
Next up we have the drama American Woman directed by Jake Scott and written by Brad Ingelsby. This film stars Sienna Miller in one of the best performances of the year. She plays a woman named Deb who is grinding out her life in suburban Pennsylvania with her sister (Christina Hendricks- who is also strong) living across the street.
For some reason the working class woman seems to be challenging for the movies to portray accurately. They are usually all damage and no joy. In American Woman they avoid this by showing over a decade of Deb’s life with all the joys, sorrows and all the in-between. Some pain is self-inflicted and some is caused by others, but either way it is gripping, and we feel empathy for her.
There were so many times I worried the script was heading into tired twists and then it didn’t, which made me very happy. This is the kind of script and lead performance that will be ignored come awards season and that’s a real shame because it’s great. In my opinion, this is MUCH better than the similarly themed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which won all the awards. Oh well.
8.5 out of 10
All is True-
My last film of the day is the fictionalized look into the latter part of William Shakespeare’s life entitled All is True. There is perhaps no human being on earth more qualified to play the Bard on screen than Kenneth Branagh. He also directed the film and it hopefully won’t put an end to his long career of adapting the works of Shakespeare because this film is an entertaining mess.
If your brand of historical drama is fluffy films like The Other Boleyn Girl or Tristan and Isolde than this might be the movie for you. The actors deserve awards for elevating such hammy dialogue and selling it as if it was one of Shakespeare’s great soliloquies. Judi Dench is particularly great as his humble wife who can’t read and Kathryn Wilder is big and boisterous as their rebellious daughter Judith. They all do what they can with this inane material.
Honestly there were times when it seemed a half step away from a Monty Python or Blackadder sketch. Even Branagh’s ridiculous hairpiece and beard made me laugh. I was entertained by All is True but probably not for the reason the creators intended.
If I was going to subtitle this review I would say 3 Billboards: Voyeurism in 2017 Film. What I mean by voyeurism is the sense of glee we feel in watching the pain or difficulties of another person. This can be in dramatic or comedic form and it has long existed on television in shows like Snapped or sensationalized murder dramas. I personally felt there was a sense of voyeurism in Martin Scorsese’s Silence- that watching these Christians suffer for nearly 3 hours was somehow cathartic for some (I found it repulsive). The Glass Castle, which I hated, also had a sense of voyeurism and false heroism in the father and the treatment of these children. In comedy it has taken a different turn where the voyeurism is focused on a particular class of people- Middle American Trump voters.
There’s no doubt that most in Hollywood are angry at anyone who elected Donald Trump. Meryl Streep in her Golden Globes speech described the attitude of most when she said:
“So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if you kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing else to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
It’s kind of ironic because Hollywood has been doing a pretty good job lately of kicking themselves out with all these sexual abuse scandals! But listen to the disdain she holds for the middle America, average American with their football and mixed martial arts “which are not the arts”. She doesn’t care about mixed martial arts. It was her way of taking a dig at a class of people she finds beneath her and is repulsed by.
Many who feel this way are angry and want revenge and since marching doesn’t seem to be doing much good they work it into their art, which they have every right to do. However, I don’t have to like said art! Earlier in the year we got Beatriz at Dinner, which actively irritated me. There is literally a dream sequence in that film where the character gets to murder the Trump/1% clone. If that’s not voyeurism in film then I don’t know what is.
The latest journey into voyeurism is from writer and director Martin McDonagh called The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. In the dark comedy Frances McDormand plays a grieving Missouri mother who is angry at the lack of progress in her daughter’s case, so she buys 3 billboards outside the town.
Without giving too much away the film becomes a revenge piece with McDormand as the supposed anti-hero. She reams out the clergy, police (literally setting the station on fire), her ex-husband and even young teenagers. The sheriff played by Woody Harrelson is supposed to be her antagonist, but he’s pretty unlikable too. He’s the heart of the movie but then does distasteful stuff, which make him hard to root for.
The anger at cops continues as Sam Rockwell plays a loveable racist cop if there is such a thing. He is an angry character who commits an act of violence against a gay character I had a hard time chuckling along with. The only character I liked was played by Peter Dinklage who is a little person who doesn’t care what others think about him. Lucas Hedges was also solid in the few scenes as Mildred’s son.
It’s not that every character needs to be likable for a film to work, but even an anti-hero needs to have moments of warmth that draw you in. There’s a scene in this film where Mildred kicks young teens in the groin and that is supposed to be funny. It felt more uncomfortable to me.
If you look at many of the reviews you can see this kind of voyeurism. One critic, Katie Walsh, who gave the film a perfect score said ”
“…a cathartic wail against the zeitgeist of rape culture and state brutality. It’s a rallying cry, a right hook to the jaw, and wow, does it ever hurt so good.”
There’s a catharsis in seeing police, religion and other institutions assaulted and torn down. That feels good to people that are angry at said institutions. It’s not helpful or entertaining in my opinion but it feels stimulating for some. Faith based communities have a similar catharsis when institutions and people they hate are torn down in their films. It’s stimulating and even arousing but not what I want out of film.
To be honest Three Billboards wasn’t made for me. In fact, I’m one of the people the movie is mad at with my conservative values and traditional religion. So people would probably get a kick out of seeing a revenge piece against me. More power to them but it didn’t work for me. The performances were all strong and it is well made but I didn’t care for it. They try to tag on a redemptive ending but it didn’t feel earned to me and didn’t work.
I didn’t find Three Billboards to be funny, insightful or have anything interesting to say about religion, politics, art, crime, police brutality or anything like that. I didn’t laugh much; although most of my theater was in stitches. I guess some find repeated assault on characters and on Middle American values to be funny.
It’s late but I wanted to quickly let you guys know about a delightful movie I just saw called The Big Sick. I’d heard good things about it but it honestly exceeded my expectations and is without a doubt one of my favorites of the year and one of the best comedies (not just romcoms) I’ve seen in a long time. It’s one of the few movies of recent memory that I have no negatives on.
Part of what makes The Big Sick work so well is it is based on a true story of lead actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani’s relationship with his wife Emily Gordon. This gives a warmth and heart to the movie that makes it feel very special. Zoe Kazan steps in to play Emily and the chemistry is effortless and easy to believe.
The script is a real star. There is a bit of profanity but it feels natural to the characters and how they would talk. Kumail is trying to be a stand up comic and at the same time deal with his strict Pakistani parents who are constantly trying to match him with a bride. The dialogue between all involved feels natural and hilarious while never being crass or vulgar.
I loved all the supporting performances but I honestly think Ray Ramano and Holly Hunter are nomination worthy as Emily’s parents. I wouldn’t mind seeing a whole movie just about their characters. There are so many ways they could have been cliches but they felt like actual unique human beings.
I also loved how it handled Kumail’s family and didn’t patronize them or turn them into caricatures as would have been easy to do. Coming from a strict religious family I related quite strongly to them and the situation Kumail was going through. It was handled just right! His stand up friends were also great. It was simply awesome!
There obviously is an illness involved but I will let you find that all out on your own. This movie made me laugh. It made me cry and it was a very late showing I was engrossed the entire time. I LOVED it!!
Check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.