Thursday, July 4, 2024

Film Reviews: Indie Cinema Tackles Themes of Old Age (“Thelma”), Young Age (“Janet Planet”), Indigenous Life (“Fancy Dance”), Grief (“Ghostlight”) and Whatever It Is Yorgos Lanthimos Dreams Up (“Kinds of Kindness”)

Kinds of Kindness (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Kinds of Kindness 
In Cinemas 

Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film gives us his version of the TV series Black Mirror with an unhinged Willem Dafoe personifying Mirror’s theme of technology gone awry. The film stars the same set of actors in three short stories, but they play different roles in each with only the tiniest of threads connecting them. In the first story, Jesse Plemons plays a successful businessman whose perfect life changes when he deviates from his boss’s (Willem Dafoe) prescribed life regimen. In the second, Plemons plays a cop whose wife (Emma Stone) is rescued months after crashing on a deserted island, but he has suspicions that he’s being duped. And in the third, Plemons and Stone are members of a cult (led by Dafoe and Hong Chau) in search of a prophet from God. Like many of his well-received features like Poor Things and The Favourite, these three shorts have characters who are already on the edge of sanity, then the plot throws them into an even more paranoid and hyper reality. The actors are all excellent, with Lanthimos veterans Dafoe and Stone, and newcomer Plemons (who won Best Actor at Cannes), connecting the most with the material in an off-kilter but still lived-in way. Kinds of Kindness (the most ironic title for a movie so far this year) is almost three hours long, so you might as well add Lanthimos’ 2019, 11-minute Nimic (starring a fantastic Matt Dillon and currently playing on MUBI) afterwards and it’ll be like you binged a whole TV season of his unforgiving, unknowable world view. 

Fancy Dance (c) Apple TV+

Film: Fancy Dance 
Streaming on Apple TV+ 

Even with Oscar-nominee Lily Gladstone in the lead, it took almost a year and a half since its premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival for “Fancy Dance,” writer-director Erica Tremblay debut feature, to make it to Apple TV+. The film focuses on Jax (Lily Gladstone), an indigenous ex-con who is trying to get both the tribal police and the FBI to help find her missing sister, Tawi. In the meantime, she is looking after her teenage niece Roki (a wonderful Isabel Deroy-Olson) by committing petty crimes together to raise money for to attend a national Pow Wow where Roki hopes her mother will finally show up for the Fancy Dance competition. The actual plot of the film follows the familiar beats of a by-the-numbers mystery-drama, but it’s the nuances of it being about indigenous women of the Seneca-Cayugan tribe that give the film its heart. This is the third movie in the last year in which Gladstone has been the lead, starting with Killers of the Flower Moon and maybe her best recent performance in another indie, The Unknown Country. Fancy Dance is fine, but it doesn’t have the gravitas of the former or the poetic vision of the latter. Still, to learn that at the annual Pow Wow there’s always a memorial dance for murdered and missing relatives is sobering. The film may have some rough patches, but its unique perspective is worth the watch. 

Janet Planet (c) A24

Film: Janet Planet 
In Cinemas 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker is a very intriguing playwright, but I have never been on her idiosyncratic wavelength whether it’s the movie theater workers in The Flick or the couple checking into a possibly haunted bed and breakfast at Christmas in John. For her feature film debut as both writer and director, Baker has, I believe, smoothly transitioned into this new medium with her signature style intact because I am just as in the dark here as I was with her plays. The title character, no explanation on her cutesy name, is an acupuncturist in rural Massachusetts in the early 1990s (played with cool contradictions by Julianne Nicholson) with a 13-year-old daughter Lacy (Zoe Ziegler, who seems to be channeling both Marcie and Peppermint Patty of Peanuts fame at the same time). Their loving but dysfunctional relationship is at the heart of the film, which shows the passage of time via the many people who come into Planet’s orbit, including former and future lovers. This is a quiet and slow movie that will infuriate some, as when Baker shows some blintzes being cooked in a microwave in real time (just because) or when her camera always finds the oddest angles to shoot what seems to be innocuous moments. Also, no fault of Ziegler, I did lose patience with Lacey (as written) real fast as she makes bratty declarations like “I’m going to kill myself if you don’t pick me up” and “Every moment in my life is hell.” But Janet is the more interesting character, and although she too seems remote with a side of hippy-ness (she doesn’t believe in antibiotics), the way Nicholson plays her makes Janet always fascinating, if still an enigma. This feels like the most A24 film indie film company A24 has ever released. 

Thelma (c) Magnolia Pictures

Film: Thelma 
In Cinemas 

If you were wondering why there aren’t any good superhero movies left, let me introduce you to Thelma. As played by the wonderful June Squibb, Thelma leads a simple life: enjoying the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible films, posting and commenting on Instagram and YouTube, and bonding with her adoring grandson Danny (a loveable Fred Hechinger). Oh, did I not say that Thelma is 93 years young? Her crime fighting origin story starts with a phone call: a man pretending to be Danny says he is in prison and needs her to send $10,000 right away (a similar plot starts off another action film from this year, The Beekeeper). When she realizes it was all a scam, she decides to take matters into her own hands with the help of her friend Ben (played by the late Richard Roundtree: yes, Shaft is her sidekick) and his motorized scooter. This is all done with great fun and humor mixed with a heaping dose of good-natured unbelievability, all because writer-director Josh Margolin’s feature debut used a true-life incident with his own grandmother as the jumping-off point (stay for the end credit scenes for a terrific Easter egg). The acting is enjoyable (including Parker Posey and Clark Gregg as Danny’s clueless parents) and the overactive action score by Nick Chuba keeps things humming along. Peppered along the way are themes of how society seems to ignore their elder members, but mostly it’s an amusing romp with the incredible Squibb always at the helm. Not all superheroes wear capes, sometimes they just need comfortable shoes and occasionally they crochet. 

Ghostlight (c) IFC Films

Film: Ghostlight 
In Cinemas 

Live theater is a healing force in Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson’s Ghostlight, a film that is both intellectually contrived and emotionally cathartic. Dan (Keith Kupferer) is a construction worker whose hotheaded temper gets him in trouble with his boss, but also catches the eye of an amateur theater actress (the no-nonsense Dolly De Leon from Triangle of Sadness), who recruits Dan to be in a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” He finds refuge with this group of misfits from a family life that includes his rebellious high school daughter Daisy (Katherine Mallen Kupferer, Keith’s real-life daughter) and an emotionally drained wife Sharon (Tara Mallen, Keith’s real-life wife). It is slowly revealed that this fractured family is dealing with a grief that has way too many similarities with the Shakespeare play, so much so that it feels forced and unsubtle. Yet, the film miraculously gets us to a satisfying conclusion, tying all the loose threads nicely. “The lines are the easy part,” says an actor to Dan, who is having trouble with the language, “the hard part is the emotional journey.” There is a harrowing, emotional journey in Ghostlight, which refers to the tradition of a single bulb left on in the theater at night to ward away the spirits, but there’s also humor and a celebration of life that is irresistible. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance and is slowly rolling out to arthouses across the country.

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