Nov 13

“Alias Grace”: Highly Relevant Series Set in 1800’s

As with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Alias Grace” manages to be a drama set in another time, written in another era by Margaret Atwood, that speaks specifically and almost uncannily to today’s audience. “Alias Grace” manages in its six episodes to address such issues as the reception of immigrants, the dangers of illegal abortion and, most of all, the predatory nature of powerful men and how others can conspire to keep their crimes hidden. David Bianculli, NPR

To call this series “of the moment” feels right. But it’s also incredibly depressing to do so. Acknowledging that Alias Grace taps into the Zeitgeist is essentially admitting that North American society in 2017 still has a lot in common with the North America of the mid-to-late 1800s.  Jen Chaney, Vulture

The creators of this remarkable series are also, notably, all women. Gwen Ihnat, AV Club

Six-part series Alias Grace, starring Sarah Gadon, has made its debut on Netflix and is winning high praise. As summarized on Rotten Tomatoes:

…Alias Grace tells the story of Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a young, poor Irish immigrant and domestic servant in Upper Canada who – along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) – finds herself accused and convicted of the infamous 1843 double murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross), and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin).

How we the audience hear Grace’s story is accomplished via both her own narration and her daily talks with a particular gentleman. Patrick Schmidt, Netflix Life: “Grace is speaking with Dr. Simon Jordan, played by Edward Holcroft, who is more or less a therapist for Grace to speak about her involvement in the murder and the contradictory testimony she gave…”

Here’s how Dr. Jordan, who’s been hired by a group interested in gaining a prison pardon for Grace, explains his role: “I am a doctor that works not with bodies, but with the mind. Diseases of the mind and the brain, and the nerves.”

Jen Chaney (Vulture) reports that Grace’s sessions with Dr. Jordan “immerse us in the seemingly credible moments surrounding her mother’s death, her friendship with a vibrant fellow servant named Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), and her life at Kinnear’s farm, where Nancy’s dark moods foster enough strong resentment in both Grace and surly fellow worker James McDermott (Kerr Logan) to put killing on their minds.”

Hank Stuever, Washington Post: “The story comes to the viewer in complex chunks and unsettling layers…Innocent or guilty? There’s much more to it than that.”

Viewers won’t know for sure what really happened and to what extent Grace is truthful, it seems. Allison Shoemaker, rogerebert.com: “The ambiguities of Alias Grace are among its greatest strengths, and they’re handled with remarkable finesse by director Mary Harron and her top-flight cast.”

Get a glimpse of Alias Grace in the following trailer:

Selected Reviews

Sonia Saraiya, Variety: “In most of the ways that matter, Netflix’s Alias Grace presents an adaptation that delivers the gothic horror, social commentary, and domestic investigation of the novel.”

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times: “It’s so heavy throughout the first installment, you might wish for at least one of the characters to open a parlor window and let in some air, but as the story progresses it becomes too engrossing to turn away.”

Johanna Schneller, Toronto Star: “It feels right that The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace both aired in this, the year of Trump. The former shows what could happen to women. The latter shows what did.”
Sep 26

“Indignation”: College Guy Meets Troubled Gal

James Schamus‘s new Indignation is a film adaptation of author Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. And David Edelstein‘s review title, “Indignation Is the Best Philip Roth Film Adaptation By a Mile,” is a sentiment echoed in various ways by other critics as well.

The plot summary on Rotten Tomatoes:

Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.

Some family background, per David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter:

Back in Newark, funerals for local boys are fueling the spiraling anxieties of Marcus’ father, Max (Danny Burstein). ‘The tiniest mistake can have consequences,’ he says, fearing that his straight-A student son will be led astray in pool halls and gambling dens. Max’s paranoia is scaring his levelheaded wife Esther (Linda Emond) and pushing Marcus away.

Sexually inexperienced, Marcus is at first conflicted about his attraction to the more open and emotionally fragile Olivia. Stephen Holden, New York Times:

After a separation, they warily reconnect, and Olivia, who has scars on her wrist, confesses to Marcus that she had a breakdown and attempted suicide. In Ms. Gadon’s sensitive performance, you can feel the vulnerability just beneath the surface of her apparent poise. Marcus isn’t worldly enough to understand fully the implications of her instability. But when Esther visits and meets Olivia, she immediately notices and pleads with her son to discontinue the relationship.

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Very much a character-driven film, ‘Indignation’ focuses on its young protagonists as they movingly attempt to determine who they are both as individuals and as a possible couple.”

The movie’s 15-minute “grueling centerpiece,” according to Edelstein (Vulture) (and others), is the one “in which Marcus is summoned to meet Dean Caudwell [Tracy Letts] and finds himself literally — and, folks, I’m not misusing that word — fighting to hold his insides together…Caudwell is the embodiment of right-wing, Christian authority and its penchant for hypocrisy (the charge against Marcus is a refusal to compromise), and Marcus’s attempts to assert religious and philosophical independence only tighten his own noose. Caudwell leaves Marcus in ruins while barely raising his voice.”

You can see the trailer below:

Selected Reviews

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “’Indignation’ might be dismissed as a small, exquisite period piece, but it is so precisely rendered that it gets deeply under your skin. There are a lot of words, and every one counts. You feel the social pressures bearing down on characters who, in accordance with the reticence of the times, tend to withhold their emotions and suffer in silence.”

Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he story and treatment keep inviting us to circle back to it and wonder what the characters might have done here or should have done there. Like the best wines and the best films, there’s a complexity to the finish, so that it reverberates with meanings beyond the obvious. ‘Indignation’ has the disconcerting quality of truth and is an altogether adult piece of work.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “The beauty of ‘Indignation’ can be found in how it builds, growing from a garden-variety coming-of-age story into a poetic, even prayerful, meditation on the pitiless vagaries of character and regret. Thoughtful and reserved, perhaps even to a fault, ‘Indignation’ winds up packing a wallop far greater than its modest parts might suggest.”

Mar 13

“Maps to the Stars”: A Wacky Therapist and More Dysfunction

Most critics agree: fans of Julianne Moore will like her performance as actress Havana Segrand in the new film Maps to the Stars, directed by David Cronenberg.

Other tidbits about Maps that have gotten my attention? In addition to loads of family dysfunctional issues, there’s also John Cusack as a wacky therapist. From Focus Features:

Meet the Weiss family, who are making their way in Hollywood rife with money, fame, envy, and relentless hauntings. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a famed TV self-help therapist with an A-list celebrity clientele. Meanwhile, Cristina Weiss (Olivia Williams) has her work cut out managing the career of their disaffected child-star son, Benjie (Evan Bird), a fresh graduate of rehab at age 13. Yet unbeknownst to them, another member of the Weiss family has arrived in town – mysteriously scarred and tormented Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), just released from a psych ward and ready to start again. She soon works her way into a friendship with a limo driver (Robert Pattinson) and becomes personal assistant to unraveling actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is beset by the ghost of her legendary mother, Clarice (Sarah Gadon). But Agatha is on a quest for redemption – and even in this realm of the artificial, and the unearthly, she’s determined to find it, no matter what it takes.

And, a critic’s view from Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:

“…a macabre ensemble comedy of cruelty, insecurity and self-hate…a satire of contemporary Hollywood, with echoes of Sunset Boulevard and Postcards from the Edge, depicting a communal nervous breakdown in a town so enclosed and incestuous that everyone is part of the same symbolic sibling-hood of fear. This is one, big, unhappy dysfunctional family, in which guilty souls are afraid of failure and haunted by the return of the repressed. Every surface has a sickly sheen of anxiety; every face is a mask of suppressed pain.

You can see the trailer below:

Havana Segrand and Her “Therapy”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: Described both as “…an actress perpetually on the verge of coming apart” and “a Santa Ana wind of need, neurosis and solipsism,” Havana uses several types of therapy: “a combination of massage, est and California Freudianism — with Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a self-help guru who happens to be Benjie and Agatha’s father.”

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “Taking her self-esteem to a new low, she is auditioning for a remake of a 50s melodrama starring her late movie-star mother Clarice – whom she now believes abused her, thanks to sessions with creepy new-age therapist Stafford…”

Matt Zoller Seitz, rogerebert.com: “Havana’s regular therapist/masseuse/TV psychologist…presents himself as selfless and caring, but seems determined to crack open repressed minds mainly so he can root around and provoke extreme reactions. (When Stafford manipulates Havana’s body on a yoga mat, Cronenberg’s staging suggests sex, sometimes rape.)”

Various Themes

Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “…clearly intended as a sharp satire of Hollywood ambition, vanity, avarice, and emptiness…”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…[Bruce] Wagner’s script is content to go after easy targets: child actors, Scientology, revolving-door rehab programs, New Age-y pseudo-spiritualism. With all due respect to the fine work they do, acting is a line of work that tends to attract broken people: those who thrive under false identities, forever seeking public reinforcement.”

(The Mixed) Overall Reviews

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “With its muddled plot twists, ridiculous dialogue (by Bruce Wagner), easy targets (Scientology is always good) and preposterous view of La La Land, Maps to the Stars is part satire, part soap opera, part ghost story, and totally moronic.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “…Part showbiz sendup, part ghost story, part dysfunctional-family drama, the movie instead comes across as so much jaded mumbo-jumbo.”

Dave Calhoun, Time Out: “Some of this creepy portrait of Beverly Hills screw-ups is deeply silly – here’s looking at you, John Cusack as a self-help guru with a nasty past – but it has just enough venomous bite to leave you feeling poisoned simply from being in the company of these gargoyles for two hours.”

Jon Frosch, The Atlantic: “…Maps to the Stars is so crisply directed, furiously paced and gleefully performed, that you go along for the ride.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “‘Maps to the Stars’ is a strange, sometimes intoxicating mix of satire, ghost story and family melodrama, with a plot and point that remain hazy to the end.”