Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in Last Night in Soho
Monster movies don’t have a “get-out-of-logic-free” card; if anything, they need to work harder
to make their world make sense. That sense is in short supply in co-writer/director Scott Cooper’s adaptation of a Nick Antosca short story, about a middle-school teacher named Julia (Keri Russell) recently returned to her rural Oregon hometown, where one of her students, introverted Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), is connected to a beast from local indigenous folklore. The screenplay waves briefly at the notion that this creature is some kind of avenging angel for desecrating the environment through extractive industry, which seems not at all relevant to the primary themes of children trying to survive abusive parents. But the far bigger problem is that the monster, although visually striking, isn’t given “rules” that create tension or a sense of the stakes: not about its eating habits, or its life cycle, or what holds it at bay. The result, while shot with an eye to emphasizing the perpetual gloom of the Pacific Northwest, is a mess that seems to be missing a whole bunch of important exposition—partly to give its subtext more resonance, but mostly so that the monster isn’t just a piece of cool concept art that the writers seem to be making up as they go along. Available Oct. 29 in theaters.
The French Dispatch **1/2
See feature review
. Available Oct. 29 in theaters.
In Balanchine's Classroom **1/2
It’s always going to be frustrating when a documentary seems to tell you what it’s about, then keeps darting all over the place so that it too rarely is actually about that thing. Director Connie Hochman mostly has on her mind the legacy of legendary choreographer George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet and—based on the information we’re given here—an almost cruelly rigorous teacher. As Hochman introduces profiles of some former Balanchine students who have gone on to teach themselves, including Merrill Ashley and Edward Villella, it seems like the film is going to explore people who feel the pressure of passing along Balanchine’s choreography, even as they’re not sure they have the personality to demand the same perfection. The problem with In Balanchine’s Classroom
is that it turns too much into a documentary about George Balanchine—and while some background information about his life and artistic philosophy is necessary to set up why he did what he did, he’s ultimately not the part of this set-up that’s most interesting. Pro athletes who were taught by disciplinarian coaches always talk about the tension between what you learned and how miserable you were in the moment; this opportunity to explore that dynamic in the arts ends up taking too obvious a route, and not teaching us enough. Available Oct. 29 via SLFSatHome.org.
Last Night in Soho **
Edgar Wright has certainly proven his facility over the years with stylish genre pieces, but here he often doesn’t seem to know quite what to do when trying to pair his style with some real substance. In contemporary England, country girl Eloise Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) moves to London to pursue her dreams of being a clothing designer, and her fascination with the big city’s music and fashions of the late ’60s. That fascination turns to obsession after she moves into a new flat, and begins having dreams about an alter-ego aspiring singer named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) circa 1967—except those dreams might be visions of the past, or manifestations of mental illness. McKenzie is solid at conveying a certain baseline fragility in Eloise, which pairs well with the glamorous confidence of Taylor-Joy, and it’s fun to see Wright nod to icons of 1960s England in casting Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp. Yet as effectively as Wright slides from mystery to psychological horror, including a terrific montage capturing the mundane repetitive nightmare of forced sex work, he always seems more interested in impressing the audience than confronting how truly unstable Eloise might be, which starts to feel exploitative. Not every horror movie needs to have deep subtext about trauma, but it’s potentially more awkward to try to make it only as much about trauma as you need in any particular moment. Available Oct. 29 in theaters.
Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan **
A 74-minute running time wouldn’t seem to leave time for a lot of filler, but Patrick Treyfz’s documentary consistently demonstrates how hard it is to profile someone who seems determined not to be profiled. That subject, on paper, seems endlessly fascinating: Jim Denevan, founder of the touring pop-up outdoor dining concept called Outstanding in the Field, as well as a creator of intricate, temporary art works on the beaches near his Santa Cruz home. One of the talking heads provides at least some connection between these two passions—the notion of Denevan being “attentive to place”—which might have been sufficient. Denevan, however, is simply a terrible on-camera subject who generally has little to say, so that we’re left to spend what feels like an eternity on his improvised dental hygiene regimen because he can’t find his toothbrush. Treyfz bounces between venues for Denevan’s dining events with little sense of flow or purpose, and offers only a few seconds of context for his artistic creations in the tradition of environmental artists (it seems inexcusable that Andy Goldsworthy isn’t even mentioned). By the time we spend a few harrowing minutes digging into Denevan’s history with multiple mentally-ill family members, Man in the Field has lost the thread of why it was worth spending any time with this guy. Available Oct. 29 via SLFSatHome.org.
Analyzing actor Fran Kranz’s writer/director debut is the emotional equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “refrigerator logic”—it’s too good at pulling all the right strings while you’re in the moment for you to be concerned that they’re being pulled. His scenario feels like the stuff of a stage play, chronicling a meeting one Saturday afternoon between four people whose lives were forever intertwined years earlier by a school shooting: Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son was one of the victims; and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), whose son was the gunman. On a filmmaking level, Kranz does little beside switch from steady camerawork to more jittery handheld as the tensions rise, though he has one great shot panning slowly across the table where the characters sit, emphasizing the space between them. But structurally he makes the interesting choice of bookending the meeting with the mundane details of the Episcopal church where the meeting is taking place, providing a sense of the simple moments these characters might never know again. And the performances are uniformly terrific, boiling with rage, guilt, self-recrimination and a desperate search for meaning in a tragedy that feels meaningless. The script at times feels like it’s hitting a checklist of expected points surrounding this sensitive subject, but the way performances hit those points might have you choking back tears regardless. Available Oct. 29 in theaters.
A Mouthful of Air ***
First-time director Amy Koppelman’s adaptation of her own 2003 novel comes complete with an audience warning about its themes of depression and self-harm, which is only one example of the sensitivity Koppelman shows toward her subject. Julie Davis (Amanda Seyfried) is a children’s-book author and new mother who survives an attempt to take her own life; less than a year later, Julie and her husband (Finn Wittrock) find themselves expecting again, leading to new anxieties and difficult choices. It would be easy to expect a work by a rookie writer-turned-director to lean into the dialogue, but Koppelman shows an intuitive visual sense as a filmmaker, from the moments where emotions are communicated through nothing but a hug, to the animation bringing some of Julie’s stories to life. And she’s just as adept at working with her actors, as Seyfried’s performance takes unexpected turns in the way she reads a line, or a counter-intuitive facial expression. The more overtly dramatic scenes of Julie experiencing anxiety attacks are a bit less successful than the subtler stuff, and it’s not easy to convey everything Koppelman wants to say about Julie’s relationship with her estranged father, which mostly emerges in flashback. But for a story dealing with a lot of tough concepts, it almost sneaks up on you with its sense of heartbreak. Available Oct. 29 in theaters.