Movie Review: Cate Blanchett Brings Us All Along to Antarctica in the Low-Key Unique ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Arguments Between Neighbors and Family Members

Release Date: August 16, 2019

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the sort of movie that I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad. I’d rather just talk about what makes it unique. Because when you see more than a hundred movies per year like I do, uniqueness can seem like an endangered species, so when I come across it, I feel compelled to deconstruct it. First off, this movie doesn’t fully realize its premise until about two-thirds of the way through its running time – and that’s not a criticism! The title would seem to suggest that architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) runs right off from her family as fast as she can, but it actually takes quite a while until she is on her own in Antarctica. And get this – that destination was originally meant to be a family trip with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), so it’s not exactly like it’s supposed to be the most unpredictable hiding place.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that Bernadette is an architect, and that’s significant because this is a movie that cares A LOT about architecture. Director Richard Linklater apparently has a hidden passion for construction. Either that or he did his homework, because significant chunks of Where’d You Go, Bernadette could pass for an architecture mockumentary. The other major upending of expectations comes in the examination of Bernadette’s mental breakdown, or lack thereof. Everyone in her life is a little worried about her, but it turns out that the best solution is much less drastic – and much more fulfilling – than this genre has us conditioned to anticipate.

Pretty much everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is both slightly off-key and generally pleasant. A marriage that looks like it’s on the brink of disaster is actually quite healthy! Kristen Wiig plays a queen bee suburban mom who it turns out is actually a genuine human being! There’s a dog named Ice Cream! Anyone who is mildly adventurous will find something to enjoy.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is Recommended If You Like: Crucial James Urbaniak Supporting Performances

Grade: Not Applicable out of 5 Russian Identity Thieves

This Is a Movie Review: Sequel-Prequel ‘Alien: Covenant’ Follows the ‘Prometheus’ Template and Adds a Few Bizarre Details of Its Own

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz

Director: Ridley Scott

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: R for the Usual Chest-Bursting Shenanigans

Release Date: May 19, 2017

When horror movies are successful enough to merit sequels, the follow-ups can either repeat the same scares or expand the mythology. They usually do both, with the latter generally growing in prominence as the series drags on, with the diminishing returns on the former become clearer and clearer. (They can also try to summon entirely new scares, but that is one of the most difficult tasks in all of moviemaking.) Ridley Scott’s Alien is pure horror, despite its sci-fi setting. When other directors took over for the first batch of sequels, their genres may have tended more towards action, but the mythology certainly blew out as well, what with cloning Ripley and hurtling hundreds of year into the future.

Now that Scott has taken back the reins, he has apparently decided that if crazy ideas are going to be the name of the day, he might as well underpin the franchise with his own peculiar philosophizing. Because otherwise, this would just be a rehash of intrepid spacefarers treading too far on the edge and getting ripped apart by lethally invasive extraterrestrials. That approach is not necessarily terrible, and Alien: Covenant does not avoid it entirely. Chest-bursting can no longer be as iconic as it was the first time, but it still packs a sickening kick, and there are other body parts to slice off and wear away with acid blood. And there are also some larger-scale action sequences, demonstrating Scott’s still vibrant eye for scale and knack for properly calibrating tension.

But Covenant truly excels when it gets weird. It bridges the gap, both temporally and thematically, between the original Alien and 2012 prequel Prometheus. The latter film started to answer the question of what made the original attack on the Nostromo possible, a question that nobody really ever asked. Covenant continues to answer the question, and while it is still unnecessary, the backstory on display is fascinating enough to justify itself.

The actors playing the human crew of the Covenant fulfill their duties, but it is android Michael Fassbender who is pulling the strings. Prometheus and Covenant are explicitly about creation myths and the limits of human ambition, and these fundamental themes of existence are represented and mercilessly toyed with by humanoid beings created by humans. Certain revelations come out squarely tsk-tsking against hubris, while other moments are more impenetrable with their messages. But that is no criticism. Traversing across the universe should be stunning, humbling, and mysterious, perhaps even to the point of incomprehensibility. What is the purpose, for example, of Fassbender teaching himself to play the flute? I cannot genuinely say that I know, except that it makes Alien: Covenant unforgettable.

Alien: Covenant is Recommended If You Like: Prometheus But Wish It Had Been Better, Even If You Thought It Was Good

Grade: 4 out of 5 Fingers

This Is a Movie Review: 20th Century Women

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This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Director: Mike Mills

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Frankness When It Comes to Sexuality and Drug Use

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)

In this semi-autobiographical effort from writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mom struggling to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) by herself in 1970s Southern California. The idea that she is struggling mostly comes from her own neurotic self. But regardless of how accurate her worries are, she decides to enlist the help of some of the women in her life in the making of Jamie into a man. Her cadre includes Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a wayward boarder at Dorothea’s house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a plainly independent teenager prone to sneaking into Jamie’s bedroom (but not doing much else once she gets there). Also on hand is the rugged and sensitive William (Billy Crudup), another boarder.

Your appreciation of 20th Century Women will likely depend on how much you can relate to this living situation, whether via experience or imagination. For me personally, I could not connect with it too deeply because I found the relationships between the main characters ever-so-slightly off-putting. They do not lack for affection, and they are thoroughly observed, but they are uncomfortable in a way that makes this film easier to merely appreciate rather than embrace.

There are a couple elements that I do want to praise without qualification. The film often evokes a dreamy, hazy quality that evokes the liberal atmosphere of the time. Splashes of vibrant color are strewn across the screen, and montages of major incidents ramp up the intensity via manipulation-of-time editing techniques. Then there is the dinner scene, in which everyone in attendance suddenly finds themselves tasked with teaching Jamie the proper way to sexually please a woman. Crudup delivers a soon-to-be-classic line of sage wisdom on that topic (don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to be spoiled), and those who see 20th Century Women will never be the same again.

20th Century Women is Recommended If You Like: Beginners, The Kids Are All Right

Grade: 3 out of 5 Billowy Shirts

This Is a Movie Review: Jackie

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This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt

Director: Pablo Larraín

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for an Alarming Recreation

Release Date: December 2, 2016 (Limited)

The strongest biopics often take the most intimate approaches, and it does not get much more intimate than Jackie. In terms of chronology, cinematography, music, dialogue, and everything else, Pablo Larraín’s portrait of the iconic Mrs. Kennedy is razor sharp in focus. The opening shot, and essentially every shot thereafter, is a tight close-up of Natalie Portman as the First Lady. She is told, in the wake of her husband’s assassination, “the world has gone mad.” But this has been so ever since she has taken residence in the White House. The relentless gaze she endures in such an existence makes it so.

Jackie is constructed around four key relationships. The framing device is an interview conducted by a persistent, but plainly frustrated Billy Crudup (supposedly playing historian Theodore H. White, but credited only as “The Journalist”). Jackie welcomes him into her home, but insists that he is prohibited from printing basically everything she reveals to himHe seeks truth, whereas she only offers stories. Yet, her film is filled with details, and in the wake of tragedy, she latches onto them for some semblance of survival.

Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is in full-on family mode, as he attempts to anchor his sister-in-law back to reality. Does our knowledge of the tragic fate that awaits him suggest that her buzzing, restless psyche is the better response to all this madness? Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) is a constant, near-silent presence, practically a friendly neighborhood specter propping up Jackie’s decorum and fabulousness. And then there is a priest (John Hurt), who only offers answers wrapped in ambiguity. (Or is it the other way around?)

The teams on sound and design assemble it all to give you the front-row seat that is almost too disturbing to bear. Indeed, its boldness in key moments may in fact be too much for some audiences to handle. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine understands that the medium is the message. His Super 16 photography is a mix of grainy distortion/clarity and that old soap opera-style intimacy. Mica Levi’s avant-garde score is unnerving, yet somehow comforting, and therefore unnerving to think that such a tragedy could ever be comforting. A constant string phrase sounds like the THX theme being drained of life. Like all of Jackie, it is indelible.

Jackie is Recommended If You LikeThe Tree of LifeUnder the SkinBlack Swan

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Bloodstains That Are Hard to Wash Off

 

This Is a Movie Review: Spotlight

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SpotlightNewsroom

There is an inherent drama and urgency in the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal that a film about it does not need to do any work to tease out. But just perfunctorily putting the Boston Globe’s investigation of this story does not automatically make for a great movie. Luckily, director Tom McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer make plenty of astute filmmaking decisions alongside their similarly tuned-in cast and crew.

Recognizing that the story itself is plenty powerful (the epilogue text detailing the extent of the abuse is perhaps the most overwhelming moment in any movie this year), the actors on the Spotlight team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James) keep it understated. As victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, Stanley Tucci is labeled eccentric, but he is actually also low-key. The production design, cinematography, and costumes are all also appropriately drab.

The plot manages to legitimately earn the descriptor “action,” with the editing favoring cross-cutting between various story threads. This plays out as such: Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) tracks down evidence at the courthouse, and before we find out if he uncovers the right puzzle piece, we check in on Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) interviewing a victim, but before she gets out all her questions, it cuts back to Mike, and then it cuts around to the rest of the team. This is just Filmmaking 101, creating tension and establishing engagement. Spotlight makes a difference, and it is thrilling.