Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Diving Off The Deep End

Cate Blanchette Puts Her Old Life on Ice in Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Rating: PG-13
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Billy Crudup
Writers: Richard Linklater, Holly Gent, Vince Palmo, based on Maria Semple’s novel
Director: Richard Linklater

            It’s billed as a comedy, but the jokes in Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette are few and far between. In fact, the film is mostly funny in the ways life is funny — the way our meticulously planned decisions go haywire, the way our oddest quirks become our most endearing qualities, the way wildly misfired trajectories can land us precisely where we need to be. 

            Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Dazed and Confused), a meticulous observer of life, seldom bases his work on other people’s ideas. But he’s found a perfect vehicle for his profoundly humane sensibilities in Maria Semple’s best-selling novel, about an ingenious architect named Bernadette (Cate Blanchett) who walked away from her skyrocketing career in a fit of pique and a wave of agoraphobia. Now she lives in a majestic — if crumbling — former girl’s school with her adoring, if somewhat distracted, husband (Billy Crudup) and her best-pal daughter (newcomer Emma Nelson, whose voiceover provides the films narration). 

            Bernadette has everything she’s asked for, but very little of what she needs. She aches to exercise her creative muscles, but shrinks from the thought of returning to the spotlight. Rejecting traditional counseling, she turns to her old colleagues for solace and advice (Laurence Fishburne makes a welcome appearance as a warm and insightful friend). For Bernadette, there’s some therapeutic value in infuriating her next-door neighbor (Kristin Wiig, ringing her special brand of exasperated hilarity to the role), but even that satisfyingly antagonistic relationship takes one of those funny turns that neither party could ever see coming. 

            The significance of the film’s title doesn’t become evident until well into the second half, when Bernadette abruptly disappears — and flees to Antarctica, literally the last place on Earth she ever wanted to go. For the film it’s an abrupt shift: Until now we’ve been largely confined, with Bernadette, in the comfy if cluttered confines of her home. Suddenly facing the icy vastness of Antarctica, Bernadette begins to see her future spreading into the open, as well. 

            Fans of the novel may take umbrage at the considerable narrative streamlining Linklater and his co-writers have applied to the film’s third act, but the changes make for a thrilling and satisfying resolution. 

            The cast is uniformly perfect — especially, of course, Blanchett, her Australian accent nowhere to be heard, her character’s eyes darting about in a perpetual search for relief from the demons that torment her from within. Nelson, like so many young actors cast by Linklater over the years, is a real find — genuine and unaffected, just the type of kid in whom a troubled mother would find peace.


Rapid Eye Movement: Sleepless In Manhattan

Francois Anaud’s gotta stay awake in Rapid Eye Movement

Rapid Eye Movement
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
Stars: Francois Arnaud, Reiko Aylesworth, Danny Ramirez
Writers: Peter Bishai, Brennan Smith
Director: Peter Bishai

In Theaters and Streaming on Amazon Prime

            This nifty, efficient thriller has absolutely everything a small independent film needs: a clever premise, engaging characters, resourceful casting, and tight vision. 

            Director Peter Bishai’s movie is reminiscent of the late-1970s heyday of Canadian indies, when a breathtakingly diverse set of films — including The Silent Partner, Terror Train, and the Oscar-nominated Atlantic City— showed everyone just how much can be accomplished onscreen with a little bit of money and a lot of heart. 

            Francois Arnaud (The Borgias) stars as Rick Weider, a failing New York City radio jockey who hits on an ingenious idea to boost his ratings: He’ll broadcast live from a glass booth in the middle of Times Square, never sleeping a wink for 11 days, at which point he will have broken the world record for wakefulness. 

            Cynically, he ties his self-serving stunt to raising money for a rare childhood disease, and that’s his big mistake. He happens to have chosen a sickness that killed the daughter of a psychopath (gravel-voiced David Rhodes) who calls the station and orders Rick to earn an impossible $5 million from his wake-a-thon — or he’ll kill him. 

            Of course the cops don’t believe Rick. They’re certain he’s just upping the stakes for his publicity stunt. And his wife is going to leave him if he goes through with it. And he’s got jealous co-workers who just might be sabotaging the whole enterprise. 

            Arnaud does a nice job as the self-satisfied radio jock who steadily devolves into a paranoid, sleep-deprived mess. Director Bishai may well have cast Arnaud solely on the basis of his startlingly expressive eyes, which do more to convey mounting dread and panic than a multi-million-dollar CGI budget ever could. The best-known member of the consistently crisp cast is Reiko Aylesworth (24), who provides solid support as Rick’s producer. 

            By economic necessity, indie films keep a tight focus when it comes to their locale, and Rapid Eye Movement makes ingenious use of one of the best: Times Square in New York City. Filmed on location over a two-week period, the movie effectively channels New York’s uniquely gritty brand of street energy in a way we haven’t seen since Joel Schumacher stranded Colin Farrell on a Manhattan curb in 2002’s Phone Booth. Cinematographer Alex Craig pulls off a neat trick, simultaneously evoking the twin curses of life in the big city: naked exposure and suffocating claustrophobia.

            Full Disclosure: Cinematographer Craig and producer Aaron Craig are nephews of mine. 

For The Birds: The Beaking Point

For the Birds ****
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
Director: Richard Miron

If we’re brutally honest, we have to admit we all have our own particular place on the Crazy Scale. 

Of course, Crazy is in the eye of the beholder. For those on the outside looking in, the most infuriating thing about personal eccentricities is that eccentrics don’t think they’re eccentric at all. That odd phobia, that strange appetite, that unusual obsession is, to the person in question, as normal as butter on bread. 

For his often frustrating, always engaging documentary For the Birds, Richard Miron spent years filming the twisting, tortured story of Kathy, a woman who could never have enough ducks, chickens, roosters, and turkeys squawking around.  When we meet Kathy and her long-suffering husband Gary, their Upstate New York trailer home has become a glorified coop for some 200 flapping, fighting, defecating fowl. 

“You have to have something that you believe in,” she explains, sitting in the trailer — the smell of which we can only, thankfully, imagine.  “Something that gets you up in the morning.”

But that’s not good enough for the animal control people who show up, assess the situation, and leave shaking their heads. Soon some very nice people from a local animal preserve arrive. As they try to explain the need to remove nearly all the animals from her property — their close proximity is causing deadly fungi and the birds’ water is disgustingly befouled — Kathy nods enthusiastically. But we can see it in her eyes: No way will she agree to part with even one of her feathered friends.

Miron follows the ensuing legal tussle, casting a sympathetic eye on one and all — even on Kathy’s lawyer, a local tax attorney who takes up her cause with unfathomable gusto.

Most affecting, though, is Kathy’s husband Gary. Blinded by love, he stood by for a decade or so as his wife’s bird fixation took hold — first in their backyard, then from wall to wall in their modest home. As he listens to the animal control people, we can almost see him awakening from a self-induced trance: These birds, he declares, have got to go.

From this point, For the Birds follows a particularly painful trajectory as Kathy comes to terms not only with the prospect of losing her beloved birds, but also the support of the man she married. In time, the couple’s unfolding personal tragedy begins to eclipse the avian apocalypse that precipitated it. 

Moments of For the Birds are almost unbearably sad, and for much of the film it appears there can be no happy ending for Kathy. Yet, somehow, the film ends on a note of hope that, with the support of good friends and an understanding family, she can sustain a happy medium between bird lover and bird hoarder. 

Only after the credits have rolled does the film’s lone shortcoming occur to us: There’s a huge gap between crazed Kathy and reasonable, hopeful Kathy. For perhaps understandable reasons, Miron’s cameras failed to capture the process that got her from obvious obsessiveness to apparent accommodation. Did she get counseling? Is she on medication? 

We don’t know. And that’s cause for worry. After all, she’s still got some birds. And like the flock at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic, they’re roosting just outside her door, waiting for their next move.   

Charlie Says: Crazy Time

Former Dr. Who Matt Smith Stars as Charles Manson

Charlie Says
Rating: R
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
Stars: Hannah Murray, Merritt Wever, Sosie Bacon, Matt Smith
Writer: Guinevere Turner
Director: Mary Haron

Fifty years after Charles Manson’s “family” traumatized the world with the Tate/LaBianca murders, director Mary Haron (I Shot Andy Warhol) has found a surprisingly relevant way to revisit the grisly events: Through the eyes of the women Manson somehow hypnotized into carrying out the slaughter.

Set three years after the 1969 murders, the film follows a graduate student (Nurse Jackie’s Merritt Wever) who’s been assigned to teach women’s studies classes to three of Manson’s former acolytes, now serving life sentences in a California prison.

The women — Leslie Van Houten (Game of Thrones’ Hannnah Murray) Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) — are still blindly devoted to “Charlie.” But the instructor is determined open their eyes to the awful implications of what they’ve done — even if that means shattering their blissful delusions and dooming them to a lifetime of crippling guilt.

Former Dr. Who star Matt Smith seems an odd choice to play Charlie in the film’s difficult-to-watch flashbacks, but he admirably avoids revisiting the over-the-top Manson portrayals we’ve become used to. Smith’s Manson is disarmingly gentle and alarmingly reassuring as he woos these aimless young women into his orbit — and even when his black hole of evil becomes evident, this Manson remains undeniably charismatic. 

Breakthrough: Miracle On Ice

Chrissy Metz and Marcel Ruiz in “Breakthrough”

Breakthrough ***
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
Stars: Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas, Marcel Ruiz
Writer: Grant Nieporte
Director: Roxann Dawson

Emmy-nominated This Is Us star Chrissy Metz proves her big-screen acting chops in this powerful family drama, based on a true story.

Metz plays Joyce Smith, a Missouri mom whose teenage son John (Marcel Ruiz, costar of the One Day at a Time reboot) falls through a frozen lake, is fished out from under the ice 15 minutes later — and still has no pulse more than an hour after the accident. But an anguished prayer from his mom seemingly sparks a miraculous blip on the ER heart monitor, and pretty soon even the boy’s once-skeptical doctor (Dennis Haysbert) is using the “M” word. 

Metz doesn’t so much create a new character in Breakthrough as adapt her TV persona to different surroundings — and infuse her with a spiritual life that is notably absent among all the denizens of This is Us (but let’s face it, TV characters are seen in church about as often as Mike Pence takes the family to Hooters).

Josh Lucas is sweet as the husband who doesn’t want to see his wife’s heart broken twice by false hope, and Topher Grace — last seen as suit-and-tie Nazi David Duke in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman— has a comical and warm-hearted turn as Joyce’s sincere but insufferably hip pastor.

A subplot involves the search-and-rescue worker who rescued John: an avowed atheist who wants nothing to do with the “praise God” frenzy that surrounds the boy’s survival. His story threatens to become a distraction from the absorbing drama that’s gripping the Smith family, but Mike Colter (star of the Netflix series Luke Cage) is such an appealing actor we’re happy to have him along for the ride.

Director Roxann Dawson, whose edgy TV work includes episodes of House of Cardsand The Americans, draws a poignant picture of a family driven by faith, but not immune to the pain of crises. 

Missing Link: Beast Buddies

Missing Link
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Zach Galifianakis
Writer/Director: Chris Butler

The closest thing to Folk Art you’ll find in the movies is stop-action animation, where hand-made model characters — manipulated frame-by-frame by gifted puppeteers — walk, fly, and fret their way through elaborate, physically crafted sets.

The consensus worldwide leader in the art is British filmmaker Nic Park’s Aardman Studios, whose Wallace and Gromit films have won both hearts and Oscars for decades. But Aardman’s got heady competition in the form of Oregon’s Laika Studios, which has astonished audiences with the delicate artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings, haunted them with the eerie atmosphere of Coraline— and now brings the unqualified delight of Missing Link, a raucous high adventure buddy comedy. 

We meet Victorian-era British explorer Sir Lionel Frost (stuffily voiced by Hugh Jackman) as he sets out to capture photo evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. The wondrously thrilling scene cheekily establishes Frost’s relentless ambition, ingenious resourcefulness — and clueless disregard for the well-being of others. Soon he is off on another adventure: Traveling to the Pacific Northwest to find Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. 

You might think that quest would provide adventure enough for the film, but Frost encounters Bigfoot almost immediately after arriving in Washington State, and before long the pair are engaged in yet another endeavor: Uniting Bigfoot, who is the last of his kind and now goes by the name Mr. Link, with his distant cousins, the Yeti, who populate a hidden city in the Himalaya. 

What follows is a boats, trains, and stagecoach odyssey, made more urgent by the threat of a gun-toting hitman hired by a rival explorer to keep Sir Frost from succeeding. 

The presence of that gun, which makes more than one appearance, plus some Disneyesque falling deaths toward the end, may argue against bringing young children to see the film. But there are grownup delights aplenty in Missing Link, from its glorious color palate to the refreshingly angular character design (except for that of Mr. Frost’s love interest, voiced by Zoe Saldana, who seems unsettlingly like a throwback to those Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV quickies of the 1960s).

Best of all is the sparkling voice work of Zach Galifianakis, who breathes humor and innocence into Mr. Link. Writer/director Chris Butler paces his story perfectly, allowing Frost and Link plenty of room to develop a sweet if sometimes combative friendship. 

Transit: Yes, You Do Need Those Stinkin’ Papers

Franz Rogowski and Paula Beer Wait For Their Ship in Transit

Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
Stars: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese
Writer/Director: Christian Petzold

In an outlandish experiment that gets just about everything right, German writer/director Christian Petzold sets this pulse-pounding World War II drama in present-day Marseilles, France. 

The city is being flooded with refugees trying to escape advancing German fascists, hoping against hope to catch one of the last ships leaving for the Americas. But although the streets are jammed with 21st Century vehicles, the ships in the harbor are definitively modern, and the oppressive police are wielding the latest weaponry, it appears information technology has not advanced beyond the age of the copper-wire telephone line. The refugees clasp their passports and transit papers for dear life, waiting in long lines to have them rubber stamped by disinterested officials, whispering desperately to each other as they try to get hearsay news about the latest city to fall. 

Into this maelstrom, having jumped a freight train from Paris, comes a fugitive named Georg (Franz Rogowski), carrying the passport and transit papers of a Parisian writer, a stranger to him, who committed suicide. He also has papers for the writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer), who left her husband and fled to Marseilles to be with a world-famous humanitarian physician (Godehard Giese).  

In Marseilles, Georg happens to meet Marie, who doesn’t know her husband is dead, and with whom Georg falls almost instantly in love. He wants to give her the papers — she’s been waiting for her estranged husband to bring them — but to do so would require him to admit he’s masquerading as that guy.

You don’t have to be a cinephile to hear the echoes of Casblanca here, but Petzold has created an intriguing and deeply involving variation on the theme. In an era when Europe is being riven by mass immigration, he boldly casts Europeans themselves as the refugees, desperately seeking safety beyond their native shores.