REVIEW: A Quiet Passion

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A Quiet Passion
Directed by: Terence Davies
Written by: Terence Davies
Starring: Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Duncan Duff and Keith Carradine

In A Quiet Passion, writer/director Terence Davies and actress Cynthia Nixon see their subject, the American poet Emily Dickinson, with such disarming clarity that it can at times be difficult to watch. This is not only true of Dickinson’s declining health late in the movie, but of most of her interactions with other characters; how she latches onto a kindred spirit who shares her rebelliousness and fiery wit, only to withdraw further from the world when that woman marries, or her regular confrontations with priests and her own family about Christianity.

She knows in her bones that she does not share everyone else’s piety or the pressure to marry simply because it’s expected of her.  Dickinson defiantly accepts the label of “radical,” spending much of her life in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, defining exactly what that means. As portrayed here, she is an intellectual far ahead of her time, crippled by a reclusive despair because she knows how the world would treat her if she showed it who she really was. Traditional happiness is nearly always out of reach, something that Nixon, in one of the finest performances of the decade so far, displays on her endlessly crumpling face.

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REVIEW: Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman
Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Written by: Allan Heinberg (screenplay), Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs (story), William Moulton Marston (comic)
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis and Connie Nielsen

Patty Jenkins doesn’t think movies today have enough sincerity. “I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing,” the Wonder Woman director said in a recent interview in The New York Times. “It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.”

With Wonder Woman, Jenkins says she wanted to create a movie about a superhero who “believes in love, who is filled with love.” Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) wields sincerity as a kind of blunt instrument, course correcting her allies when she feels they fall short and destroying anyone who seeks to harm innocent people. Wonder Woman is a World War I drama infused with Greek mythology; humanity may have moved on from the likes of Zeus and Ares, but here at least one remains as a corrupting influence, whispering horrendous ideas, like a new gas mask-resistant mix of mustard gas, into German ears from the shadows.

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Short takes: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mommy Dead and Dearest & more

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sizable leap forward from the first installment, a movie that feels like its own beast and has a distinct visual personality that is so often absent from other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again following the planet-hopping exploits of a misfit group of reluctant heroes, director James Gunn doubles down on the ensemble’s comedic banter while refining the action set pieces. The generic, indistinguishable eyeball assaults that I’ve come to expect and dread from Marvel movies are mostly gone here, replaced with fun, varied fight sequences. Gunn also divides the team up so he can focus on different character dynamics rather than throwing everyone into a big, empty spectacle that flattens them.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen occasionally. There are times when the movie trips over its own feet, skipping between plot lines by awkwardly cutting up scenes that would be better had Gunn just let them play out a bit longer. This is especially true of the ones between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Guardians’ leader, and the father (Kurt Russell) who abandoned him and his mother for a life of space conquest. Right as their scenes start to find a rhythm, the movie skips back to see what other members of the squad, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), are up to while trapped on a space ship lightyears away.

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REVIEW: Moonlight

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Moonlight
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris

Moonlight, a coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins, is a moving, intimate epic. Told in three stages of his protagonist, Chiron’s, life — as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes)– Jenkins and the three actors who portray Chiron show his evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.

When we first see Chiron, he’s a frantic blur, a boy fleeing through grass from schoolyard bullies in Miami, his backpack thrashing behind him. To escape, he heads to a largely abandoned drug den and tries the doors until one opens. Locking it behind him, he’s finally alone and, temporarily, safe.  It’s not long before Juan (Mahershula Ali), a drug dealer who becomes a warm, caring father figure to the tormented boy, breaks off one of the wooden panels covering the window.

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REVIEW: Little Sister

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Little Sister
Directed by: Zach Clark
Written by: Zach Clark (screenplay), Zach Clark & Melodie Sisk (story)
Starring: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and Peter Hedges

Colleen Lunsford hasn’t been home for a while.  The young novitiate (Addison Timlin) made her way from her hometown of Ashville, N.C. to Brooklyn and hasn’t looked back for several years.  Little Sister, from writer/director Zach Clark, establishes her life in New York and the rift between her and her mother with quick, economical cuts showing her new routine as her old life gradually, forcefully seeps its way back in. It begins with her mom Joani (an excellent Ally Sheedy) emailing her to tell her that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) is out of the hospital and back home after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War.

The email, which she reads after ignoring her mom’s attempt to contact her by phone, spurs her to temporarily abandon her life of buying food for the homeless, reading to the elderly and attending anti-George W. Bush performance art shows and head South.  She asks the head nun if she can borrow her car for the trip; the nun agrees, but makes her agree to a time frame.  God created the Earth in six days, she says, so Colleen should be able to attend to her business in less than that. They settle on five, though Colleen doesn’t hold herself to that time frame.

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Short takes: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and more

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Arrival — Arrival feels like the more hopeful and optimistic prequel to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9, a movie about the destructive, Apartheid-like aftermath of an alien spaceship’s sudden presence on Earth.  As in that movie, the large, ominous vessels in Denis Villeneuve’s film loom large over an otherwise standard landscape.  A dozen or so of the big, black ships pop up around the world, in places like Siberia, Sudan and Montana, where much of the movie is set. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called there by the U.S. military to try and communicate with the aliens and translate their messages.

If it weren’t for the strategic establishing shots with the spaceship, Arrival would feel like a much smaller movie, one that largely unfolds in an ominously foggy room inside one of the ships or in the close quarters of a temporary military base just outside it.  Its use of practical effects and news footage widens its scope and enhances the drama rather than distracting from it.  The movie focuses on a select few characters, but their actions are seen to have a huge and wide-ranging effect on how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis. Arrival builds to a moving, surprising climax, one that is both hopeful and heartbreaking.  Grade: B

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REVIEW: The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Chung Seo-Kyung and Park Chan-wook (screenplay), Sarah Waters (novel)
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Jo Jin-woong

Though its narrative sleights of hand are many, what sustains The Handmaiden is its over-the-top eroticism and its twisted sense of humor. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a lavish and elaborate con movie set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea; the target, at first, is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress living at the villa. A con-man posing as a Count (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) to work as a handmaiden and help him persuade the heiress to marry him.

She’s instructed to talk the Count up after each of his meetings with Hideko, to make subtle, off-handed remarks, like how her toenails are growing faster than usual since he’s arrived (a sure sign of true love). Once married, the Count will have the power to have Hideko declared insane and thrown in the madhouse so they can steal her fortune.

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