‘Carmilla’ Review: Gothic coming-of-age drama echoes the highs of modern horror without finding its own path

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

One of the most cathartic developments the movies can bring us when a protagonist has broken free from the social systems keeping them shackled, whether they’ve realized it at the time or not. Think of Dani’s face at the climactic final moments of “Midsommar,” where agony and ecstasy finally come to a head. Or, to find an example in a (much) more mainstream movie, Neo’s eyes being opened to the realities of a machine-run world—a grim discovery matched by newfound capabilities that can now be uploaded directly to his organic hard drive.

Taking cues from the supernatural-tinged romances of Emily Brontë and the gauzy visual syntax of contemporary period horror, “Carmilla” is an atmospheric, largely uninteresting slow build of and to moments of emotional liberation for its protagonist when an unexpected guest (and the title character) steers her onto the path she’s been searching for. Like the teenaged Justine in Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” – another recent horror-adjacent coming-of-age tale – “Carmilla’s” Lara slowly begins to indulge sensual pleasures in macabre scenes of self-actualization.

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Review: “Yesterday” is a vapid excuse to listen to pop’s greatest songs

If the works of The Beatles are integral to a movie’s narrative, but the movie doesn’t acknowledges it, do The Beatles make a sound?

That ends up, unintentionally, being the thought-experiment driving the vastly underwhelming “Yesterday,” rather than its elevator pitch for the ages: What if you, a struggling musician, woke up to a world in which The Fab Four never existed? Directed by the typically-reliable Danny Boyle, “Yesterday” is a two-hour long and winding road through two stories with clashing styles and sympathies, yet the most confounding thing about this project – one that would’ve worked better as either a 3,000-word experiment in “The Atlantic” or an 8-episode Netflix experience – is that neither justifies the existence of the other. Continue reading →

Review: Theron stunningly powers ‘Long Shot,’ in which politicians try to act their age

There’s a lot of unsubtle implication in “Long Shot.” So very many will be turned off by it. I rather think it works in its favor.

The comparable presence of things said and unsaid – many times they’re one in the same – powers the movie’s comedy, its sweet core and the unexpected veracity of its progressive commentary, which provides the political rom-com a greater degree of substance than initially expected to the first third of that trifold description.

The movie is funny. Really funny. And the high levels of enthusiasm forming the foundation of its jokes and romance over roughly two hours, the stuff that makes watching “Long Shot” akin to peering into a warped alternate timeline of our own political reality, ensure the movie is simultaneously a time capsule of starkly 2019 window dressing and an evergreen suggestion of accountability on the part of those whose steady gaining of influence correlates with a slow drying-up of conviction at the well of power. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Cold War’ matches lush cinematography with dose-of-reality romance

You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Cold War”is a happy love story.

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski puts you in an illustrious trance with such sensual storytelling, painting the world of discordant lovers Zula and Wiktar with such visual decadence that he makes us want to live in it. It harkens back to a traditional kind of black-tie moviegoing experience where the film is experienced through an air that is always a bit hazy. Jazz music plays in the lobby. A waiter asks if you’d like some champagne beforehand.

It’s a delicious story for our senses to absorb, the foreign-language “Cold War” is. Which is why it makes the contrast all the more haunting one we comprehend the narrative playing out in this magnificent and magnificently devastating opus.

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Review: Young black love battles oppression in Barry Jenkins’s ethereal “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Barry Jenkins’s latest piece of cinematic fantasia begins in sensual fashion, but considering the sensibilities at play, that’s to be expected. We sweep and glide and spy on two young, black lovers strolling through a city park, approaching ever closer without knowing it until the camera is right up alongside them.

“You ready for this?” Alonso asks, to which Tish replies she’s never been more ready for anything.

Perhaps it’s because of modern, continuously evolving ruminations of love and relationships that we’re tempted to overthink what exactly “this” is. Is it marriage, a child or another otherwise drastic change to come that will test the couple? Is he going off to war? Is she leaving town, him unable to follow? Are they somehow aware of what’s to come—that Alonso, or “Fonny” as he’s called, will soon be arrested for an alleged rape he denies he committed? Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Juliet, Naked,’ a delightful (if unfinished) updating of the love triangle trope

We all have idols. Human monuments – whether in the public’s consciousness or merely our own individual headspaces – who we venerate in blogs or by internal means.

But in those obsessions, do we ever stop to monitor ourselves, and consider how we believe they influence the world don’t mirror how they perceive themselves? Have we ever thought about what we’d say if we ever met them, or worse, if they alleged our perceptions are off-target?

That’s one of a few simultaneously interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts explored in Jesse Peretz’s “Juliet, Naked.” It’s also arguably its most interesting, interweaving adoration and comically exaggerated (or perhaps not?) reverence, though the one Peretz spends the least amount of time deconstructing. Continue reading →

Review: In ‘Shape of Water,’ beauty saves the beast. No verbiage necessary.

For 20 years, Guillermo Del Toro has found success in the bizarre and carved himself a niche in the eclectic. He’s done more than anyone (not named Peter Jackson) to create a spot for fantasy in contemporary cinema, with 2006’s piercingly original “Pan’s Labyrinth” serving as the crown jewel of his catalog.

The imaginative Mexican director’s latest effort, though, makes a strong claim for the crown. A more character-driven story than anything he’s undertaken before, “The Shape of Water” is simultaneously a departure from Del Toro’s unfettered imagination and a showcase of the filmmaker at the height of his technical powers.

The fantastical has always been Del Toro’s forte, but “Shape of Water” operates as proof that he can tell a spellbinding story while leaving nightmarish creatures on the bench, while also trading mysticism for a previously untapped amount of realism. Continue reading →

Through masterful directing and powerful performances, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby presents a hell worth experiencing

The conventional love story is a genre that can be told a multitude of ways. Most of them are tales of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, a la When Harry Met Sally. Others are stories of romances that for some reason or another, can never be, like Titanic.

And then some are movies which focus on two people beyond their happily ever after, which make for some of the most powerful entries in the genre. Blue Valentine. Juno. Even Pixar’s Up. And now The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, written and directed by Ned Benson.

Rigby tells the story of Conor and Eleanor (yes she is named after that Eleanor Rigby) as they deal with the aftermath of what the audience can only assume was the fallout of their previous relationship, which we only get glimpses of throughout the film.

It should be noted that Benson originally made two films for Rigby, one from Conor’s perspective and one from Eleanor’s, which have received nothing but rave reviews at movie festivals since its debut. Benson made one film, edited together from his two films, for wide release, and consequently we have The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. 

But in no way is it a lesser product than Benson’s duo of films. Rigby is one of the most brutally honest and bleakly  hopeful films of the last few years. It is in itself a paradox which raises lots of questions about romance and rediscovering oneself beyond the breakup in which both parties are innocent of any wrongdoing.

Rigby starts off in a rather jarring way, with both Conor and Eleanor forced to cope with a newly fragmented relationship they both thought would never end. Conor is doing whatever he can to get Eleanor back; he is relentless almost to the point of recklessness. Eleanor, on the other hand, is confused as to what distraction will prove to be her next step in life.

They’re essentially lost souls trapped in another time and place.

Both are confused about their roles to the point that they don’t know why they do certain things while they’re in the middle of doing them. Conor at one point follows Eleanor around New York, but decided to break off without talking to her. Eleanor goes to classes just for the sake of doing something. They try to search for the people they were before, but Conor is the only one who realizes that being with Eleanor permanently changed him.

The concept sounds dreary and, frankly, depressing, but Benson’s excellent direction makes us believe there is some thread of destiny still connecting them. Even Eleanor sometimes yearns for the piece of herself she left in Conor.

The most emotionally charged moments come in the few scenes where Conor and Eleanor are together, not trying to work things out but trying to figure out what went wrong. Darkly contrasting them are the sparse peeks we get at their “happily ever after”, when they were young and innocent and didn’t think they would change. Essentially the film’s theme is summed up when Conor’s dad says, “A shooting star lasts only a second, but aren’t you glad to have at least seen it?”

The tone Benson employs justifies that statement to impressive effect. It’s an emotionally exhausting film; the audience is forced to go through the same ordeal as Conor and Eleanor. But we like being in their company, because Rigby isn’t about one person trying to redeem themselves from cheating or some other blow. It offers a different type of problem, one that may be incapable of being fixed.

The biggest reason for Rigby being so effective, by a long shot, are the dynamic, torturous performances of James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. It’s easy to say that their portrayals of Conor and Eleanor are their best to date. And that’s saying something for Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life), who has a Best Actress Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty. She continues to add to her superb resume as someone who should be talked about much more than she is. 

McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, First Class, Wanted) also turns in a believable and supremely gloomy role as someone torn between going after lost love and moving on. He excels at balancing his hopelessness with the shock he goes through when he realizes the most important thing in his life is gone.

rigby hah

Bill Hader (SNL, Superbad) and Viola Davis (The Help) turn in great supporting roles as friends helping the couple to cope. The venerable William Hurt also appears in the film, and he is as fantastic as ever.

The film’s writing, also done by Ned Benson, is a thing of beauty. Conor and Eleanor never have too much to say because they’re too busy keeping to themselves, but when they do engage in conversation it is easy to see how transparent their lives have become. There is a melancholy tone in what they say which suggests that they both know they can’t fix things, but it still might be worth a try.

And that’s the main point that The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby gets across. Sometimes happily ever after lasts only a short while, and though something may end too soon, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cherish it.

In a Nutshell

Benson, a relatively as-yet-unknown, invents a superb effort of a broken relationship as viewed by both parties. Even though this is just an edit of the two original films he created, the message and impact is still prevalent and as powerful as ever, thanks in large part to two rising stars in McAvoy and Chastain. It is the anti-social twin of The Notebook, and that is in every way refreshing.

9 / 10 or If you’re tired of the conventional and cliched romance, and even if you’re not, check out this unique and pioneering film.


The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is rated R for language 

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain

Directed by: Ned Benson