Friday, September 30, 2022

Film Reviews: The Only Thing Scary in “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Goodnight Mommy” Is the Missing Comma, but It Inspires Lena Dunham’s “Catherine Called Birdy”

Don't Worry Darling (c) Warner Bros Pictures

Film: Don’t Worry Darling 
In Cinemas 

One of the craziest promotions of a film in 2022 has to be Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling,” with all the backstage shenanigans starting with divorce papers-gate and continuing with LeBeouf-gate and spit-gate (google it, it’s amazing). So, it’s almost an afterthought to wonder if the movie is actually any good. Alice (Florence Pugh) is the perfect housewife in this late 1950s milieu in what looks like an ever-sunny Southern California city of Victory. Her husband Jack (Harry Styles, who fits the suit) works for a cult-like leader of the Victory Project named Frank (Chris Pine), but it’s unclear what they actually do, except that it’s revolutionary. During the day, the wives shop, clean, take dance lessons, gossip and just wait for their husbands to come home. But Alice is starting to doubt this utopia, which soon puts her marriage and their status in the community in jeopardy. There’s a lot to like in the film, including the wonderful production designs by Katie Byron and the beautiful cinematography of Matthew Libatique, but its biggest asset is Pugh, especially as she questions her sanity and what her life is amounting to. But once we get the twist, the audience is left with a lot of questions (like why the earthquakes and what’s the meaning of the plane (as seen in the poster)?). The movie feels like rip-offs of many better movies, including “The Stepford Wives,” “The Village,” “The Truman Show,” “Mulholland Drive” and even “Susperia” (there’s a lot of crazy dancing going on, including one involving Harry Styles that you wish he would just drop character and sing). If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve more or less seen all the creepy “Twilight Zone” moments. The movie isn’t scary at all, with its only disturbing moments involving Alice’s neighbor, Margaret (played effectively by Kiki Layne in what is essentially a cameo). Like the many iterations on Bravo, “The Real Housewives of Victory” ironically feels unreal and frustratingly unsatisfying. 

Goodnight Mommy (c) Prime Video

Film: Goodnight Mommy 
Streaming on Prime Video 

Based on an Austrian 2014 thriller film, director Matt Sobel has Americanized “Goodnight Mommy” and it seems stripped away from everything that made the original scary. I never saw the Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala original, but based on the trailer and the reviews, it fully went into the horror aspects while this version relies more on mood and tension. Preteen brothers Elias and Lucas (Cameron Crovetti and Nicholas Crovetti) have been staying with their father while their actress mother (Naomi Watts) has plastic surgery. But the minute they enter her house (their parents are divorced), they believe something is amiss, with their mother acting erratic and aloof and not doing things she usually did with them. Of course, her bandaged head, which looks very “Invisible Man,” only fuels the boys’ paranoia, and it really doesn’t help to hide Watts’ face from the audience for half the movie. Once the bandages come off (literally and figuratively), we finally get to have Watts fully embody the mother (no name given), especially when things really go south in the house, paralleling the film itself. Movies like these seem to rely on the fact that no one has friends or family or the internet to answer questions any normal person would ask. But unlike similar recent movies like “You Should Have Left” and “The Night House” and, of course the gold standard, 2001’s “The Others,” directed by Alejandro Amenábar, “Goodnight Mommy” is just too tepid, with a lot of the heavy lifting falling on the shoulders of the real-life Crovetti brothers, and while they are fine moment to moment, they can’t bear the weight of the plot twist (one that I thought would have been retired after being used in another more popular and effective thriller). And the generic title portends to how unexciting and style-less this film is. 

Catherine Called Birdy (c) Prime Videos

Film: Catherine Called Birdy 
In Cinemas and streaming on Prime Video on October 7 

Nothing that writer and director Lena Dunham has done before prepared me for her adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 YA novel “Catherine, Called Birdy.” Dunham, who is most known for her groundbreaking HBO series, “Girls,” has mostly focused on contemporary issues. “Catherine” the movie, sans comma, takes place in 13th century England, where our titular heroine (Bella Ramsey), the 14 year-old daughter of Sir Rollo Lord of Stonebridge (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), is breezily enjoying her days rolling in the mud with friends and enjoying her pets, which gives her her nickname, Birdy, when her “monthly visitor” starts, which means she can know be married off to a wealthy suitor who can rescue the family from debt. While the film feels very reminiscent of Pixar’s “Brave” (minus the bears), its tone fluctuates between the more farcical, Medieval elements of Monty Python (there are plenty of fart jokes) and a genuinely endearing look at a young girl’s life during this time and how powerless of her fate she really is. Ramsey as Birdy is both adorable and insufferable (I did say she was 14). She looks remarkably like a younger Dunham and makes the movie work with her sly looks and knowing narration. The large ensemble is a mix of fine British actors as well as some unknown character faces who do a good job selling the time period with the occasional wink to some minor, anachronistic, directorial choices. There are some interesting side plots, including Birdy’s mother’s pregnancy, her crush on her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn) and her bond with her favorite brother, Edward (Archie Renaux), a monk, whose fellow monks seem to be out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. All this is done with a breezy quality, even though some of the topics are rather serious. The only misstep is the climax, which, of course, ends with a duel that seems both too ridiculous and severe at the same time. Regardless, I had fun spending time with Birdy and the world that Dunham creates.

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