Many esteemed stage directors have successfully made the transition to movies, but at least as many have not. It’s an unpredictable thing, with some of the most innovative theatrical talents proving to be surprisingly flat-footed and graceless behind a camera, while others translate their established strengths to the new medium with ease, finding new ones en route.
Phyllida Lloyd has been a renowned British director of plays and operas for decades now, but she only braved cinema in 2008 with the very safe choice of her West End, then Broadway, then everywhere-hit Mamma Mia! On screen, that romcom with ABBA songs was a box-office smash all over again—but at the same time one of the worst-reviewed such success stories in recent years. Likewise eliciting mixed emotions three years later was The Iron Lady, which won Meryl Streep yet another Oscar. Beyond that performance, however, few found much to praise in that strangely clunky, middle-of-the-road biopic of one of Britain’s most controversial politicians, Margaret Thatcher.
So, those were two starry, big-deal movies that nonetheless weren’t very good, and which did not very effectively convey whatever has made Lloyd an acclaimed interpreter of everything from Shakespeare to Orton to Verdi. Much smaller is the new Herself, which begins streaming via Amazon Prime Video this Fri/8. This drama is somewhat reminiscent of 2018’s Roddy Doyle-written Rosie, about one working-class family rendered homeless by Dublin’s extreme housing crunch, and Ken Loach’s recent Sorry We Missed You, in which a similar clan in northern England is squeezed to desperation by “gig economics.” But the role of domestic violence in this narrative (written by star Clare Dunne, along with Malcolm Campbell) lends it a distinctive intensity.
We meet prominent Irish stage actor Dunne’s character Sandra at the tipping point she’s dreaded, but also prepared for: When husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) arrives home, accuses her of planning to leave him, and brutally beats her to a pulp. This is clearly not the first such abuse, and Sandra has anticipated the worst by instructing the elder of her two young daughters (Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara) to run for help. Thus the outcome is at least a semi-clean break, in that Gary now has a police record of battery, while she and the girls are given emergency government shelter in a hotel.
But the latter is a temporary solution that is far from ideal. And Gary is granted regular child visitation rights while fully expecting the family will reunite, though his claims that he’s “changed” are none too convincing. A stable future for herself and her kids seems impossible without a home to call their own. But for myriad reasons, Dublin’s rental market is a horror, and Sandra’s part-time jobs (at a pub, as a house cleaner) couldn’t pay for a decent place even if she could find one. Thus she fixates on getting a big boost when her housekeeping client (Harriet Walter as retired doctor Peggy) offers to let her do just that in the rear of her own spacious back yard.
Herself takes on a somewhat formulaic inspirational tenor as the narrative focuses on the house construction. It’s accomplished by volunteering acquaintances under the supervision of a crusty construction professional (Conleth Hill) Sandra begged to come on board. But the film’s strength lies in conviction rather than originality. We can forgive its somewhat predictable melodramatic beats because the performances ring true, and the characters are not drawn in simplistic terms. Though it might seem a modest achievement in another career’s context, Herself is actually a considerable step forward for Phyllida Lloyd as a movie director—if her prior efforts in the medium were overblown and artificial, this one has all the unpretentious virtues of kitchen-sink realism.
Very different crises of motherhood figure in two much, much more problematic new releases, both of which merit the terms “overblown and artificial,” albeit in very different ways. Pieces of a Woman (now on Netflix) is the first English-language feature by Hungarians Kornel Mundruczo (White God) and his screenwriting collaborator Kata Weber. Evidently their understanding of America was gleaned from Cassavetes movies, since the characters seem primarily a vehicle for the kind of Method-y histrionics that turn nearly every scene into a shouting match. After a nearly 30-minute, single-shot opening involving a difficult home birth, tragedy wedges apart the already quarrelsome marriage between Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf, whose loutish turn here does not help his current off-screen image problems).
Protracted, over-emotive yet psychologically depth-free, with story aspects that just seem kinda weird for the suburban Massachusetts setting (class conflicts, a midwife character), Pieces seemed to me a perfect, terrible example of transplanted filmmakers failing to grasp an unfamiliar culture. Yet it has its supporters, presumably among those who trust that the more yelling and crying it contains, the more “real” a movie is.
For hysteria on a more unapologetically improbable genre plane, there is New Zealand director Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Clouds, which like guilty-pleasure flop Overlord a couple years ago manages to mix up WW2 Allied troops and, well, monsters. Chloe Grace Moretz plays a woman who clambers abroad a bomber flight just before takeoff in 1943 Auckland, claiming to be carrying out a top secret mission for a general.
The all-male crew receive her with hostility (and crudely sexist banter), sticking her in the gunner’s turret, where she spies an alien presence on the plane’s exterior. Of course no one believes her … at first. Shadow is inevitably reminiscent of the famous Twilight Zone episode in which passenger William Shatner (then John Lithgow in the later TZ movie) was panicked by a gremlin only he could see, tearing at the commercial flight’s wing.
Once we first see that nasty little bugger at about the one-third point, the film starts getting a bit silly. Once it springs a soap-operatic twist (here’s where motherhood comes in) a while later, Liang and (uh-oh) Max Landis’ script completely loses its marbles. One crisis gets piled on another, with attacking Japanese planes the most mundane among them. Released on January 1 (and currently playing Roxie Virtual Cinema), Shadow in the Clouds may remain the movie to beat as 2021’s most ludicrous. I’d like to think it’s deliberately over-the-top, and it certainly is energetic. Yet despite eventual Sharknado-level degrees of absurdity, the film doesn’t seem to be reaching for conscious camp—indeed, I’m not quite sure what the aim is.
At least there’s no mistaking the subversive intent in I Blame Society, a black comedy in faux-found-footage guise by Gillian Wallace Horvat. She ostensibly plays herself, an LA-based filmmaker who can’t seem to get anyone to greenlight her scripts, despite the condescending interest of buzzword-juggling producers cluelessly seeking to fill diversity quotas. When friends tell her she “would make a really good murderer,” she takes that advice a little too much to heart. Soon she’s building from small transgressions to much bigger ones for her new “project.”
This horrifies her live-in boyfriend (Keith Poulson). But that’s nothing compared to the impact on her friend Chase Williamson (who co-wrote the script here, and also plays himself). Once she’s semi-accidentally crossed a certain line with him, Gillian’s already faint grasp on other people’s boundaries dissolves into full-on homicidal glee.
Macabre but deadpan, I Blame Society (which is now available for streaming through CinemaSF, then gets released to VOD Feb. 12) sends up the extreme self-absorption and lack of empathy that increasingly passes for self-assertion in our era … and perhaps always has in parts of the entertainment industry. Like the films of Rick Alverson (The Comedy, Entertainment), this debut feature trades in the humor of our acute discomfort at the actions of a most unsympathetic protagonist. What Horvath is going for may be too off-putting for some viewers (even those who’d be fine with a straightforward serial-killer thriller), but her risk-taking and confidence in pulling it off are impressive.
For something entirely different, there’s Latvia’s Oscar-submission feature Blizzard of Souls, which has been retitled from The Rifleman, and is also reaching virtual cinemas this Fri/8. It features a whole lotta dead people, too, but hardly in service of satire: This sprawling war saga is based on Aleksandr Grins’ thinly-veiled roman à clef novel about his own World War I service fighting the Germans and, later, for Latvian independence. The historical frame has invited comparisons to 1917, but this is nothing like that film in narrative structure or technical approach. Instead, it’s much more akin to something like Gallipoli or the nearly century-old silent The Big Parade, being an epic of a soldier’s odyssey during that conflict from greenhorn naivete to prematurely disillusioned adulthood.
Baby-faced 16-year-old Arfurs (Oto Brantevics) eagerly signs onto service alongside his combat-veteran father (Raimonds Celms) after German soldiers senselessly kill his mother. His steep learning curve ascends through numerous battles and skirmishes that ultimately overlap with the Russian Civil War. En route, he’s repeatedly wounded, as numerous comrades die; his incredible survival pays tribute not just to shooting skills and focus under pressure, but considerable dumb luck. (Fully half of Latvia’s population perished during these war years.)
A first narrative feature by documentarian Dzintars Dreibergs, Blizzard is handsome, well-acted, and expansively produced. It has some very impressive scenes, notably a big action setpiece that begins with protagonists creeping across a slowly landscape in white camouflage. But it’s also uneven, sometimes sentimentally conventional (there always seem to be pretty young blonde women available to comfort our hero) and drawn in broad strokes. It’s the kind of film that reaches too self-consciously towards “classic” status to actually achieve it. Still, it’s a good large-scale war drama in a traditional mode whose satisfactions are no less sturdy for feeling a bit old-fashioned.