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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 21, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 29
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Delicately complex Ghost Story an otherworldly dream
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

A GHOST STORY
Now playing


C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a young married couple living in Texas. They are pondering a move, and it's caused some arguments as they aren't entirely in agreement. But before they can iron out those issues, C dies in a tragic accident, leaving M to deal with the prospect of what life is going to be like without him. Grief is palpable, but she soldiers on, holding onto the memories of their time together as she picks up the pieces and attempts to move forward as best she can.

Writer/director David Lowery's A Ghost Story is not the movie that plot synopsis would likely lead most audiences to expect. There is minimal dialogue. The central argument between C and M is shown in snippets, flashback and montage. The longest stretch of expositional chit-chat is delivered by a side character at a random party filled with strangers that takes place in the house long after our heroine has moved someplace else. At one pivotal point, Rooney Mara spends an entire five-minute shot eating a pie. This is a movie that defies convention at every turn, Lowery entering into the esoteric realm of European masters like Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais (just to name three) with his latest idiosyncratic creation. Make no mistake, Ain't Them Bodies Saints or Pete's Dragon this odd, methodically paced and utterly fascinating drama is anything but.

Everything is seen from C's point of view. As a ghost. As visualized as a body under a white sheet. With two cut out black spots for eyes. It's like something out of an old Scooby-Doo cartoon or a Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy from the 1940s, the absurdity of this depiction of the supernatural so silly there just aren't the right words to describe the sight of it. Yet it works, the haunting nature of this representation of an observer stranded between worlds for reasons as nebulous as they are important striking an unimaginably deep emotional chord that reverberates deep into the soul.

That aforementioned pie scene is key to understanding what it is Lowery is attempting to accomplish. It will also likely be the singular moment where the viewer falls under the filmmaker's spell and becomes consumed with discovering how events are going to play themselves out. If that does not happen, they'll likely roll their eyes with incredulous disdain wondering what all the fuss has been about and want to get up out of their seats and leave the theatre that very second. It's an almost either/or proposition, and having watched the film twice I'm fairly certain Lowery is just fine with that.

It's a mesmerizing sequence. Virtually all one continuous take, almost ten minutes in length, this is as raw a depiction of inconsolable grief as anything put to the screen in quite some time. The gamut of emotions Mara goes through while she consumes this entire pie, what I found myself feeling as the scene played itself out, the level of anguish, anger, regret, loss, determination and love washing over the character, all of it was marvelous. The sheer physical ferocity of what the actress accomplishes in this brief, quietly tender little moment was mind-blowing, and from that point forward a movie I was moderately intrigued by became one I wouldn't have been able to pull my eyes away from even if I had wanted to.

Lowery plows through the years with dexterous simplicity, the world of this house, this place our ghost refuses to leave for reasons that remain a mystery until the last possible second, becomes its own sort of time machine. M moves away. A new family moves in, and C's reaction as they attempt to change things about the place are hardly benign. But, like its own force of nature, change inevitably continues to march on no matter how much this apparition might wish otherwise, other tenants coming and going, the arrivals and departures, like all things in life, having little in the way of rhyme or reason.

What happens should be left to the imagination, Lowery's story never what it looks like it is going to be, all of it building to a revelation where the answer to a question isn't nearly as important as the effect it has upon the entity who has spent incalculable lifetimes searching for it.

A Ghost Story is about patience, it is about resilience, it is about who we are as human beings on levels physical, spiritual, practical and metaphorical, about how we drift through the minutes of our lifetimes not ever truly realizing how precious a single second is until it is possibly too late to matter. Most of all, it is a movie where the observer is us while we are also the ones under observation, the difference between life and death a mirror image where up and down trade places and knowing truth from fiction is as trivial as it is all-consuming.


Nolan's Dunkirk finds victory in survival
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DUNKIRK
Now playing


In May of 1940, German forces pushed roughly 400,000 British, French, Belgian and Canadian troops onto the beaches of Dunkirk in France. Large naval vessels that could be utilized to rescue the men could not dock at the shallow-drafted beach. German U-Boats patrolled the waters sinking everything they came into contact with. German planes controlled the sky, randomly strafing the beach while dropping bombs on the few ships that could be utilized for mass evacuations. Only 26 miles away from the English coast, survival for these soldiers felt nothing short of impossible, fear and paranoia gripping hold of even the stoutest heart as this realization started to sink in.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk might be a masterpiece. Told in three intercutting pieces depicting the fight for survival on the land, on the sea and in the air, the movie tackles this important piece of WWII history with an intimate eye for detail. Yet it is the human drama that makes this film extraordinary, the filmmaker tapping into the fear, resilience, heroism, paranoia and sacrifice that was an integral part of this massive rescue operation. Unrelentingly tense from the very first scene, building its myriad of layers with tenacity and focus, featuring a crackerjack cast filled with veteran British character actors and a bevy of fresh-faced newcomers, I was enthralled by Nolan's latest in ways I'm still barely able to process let alone talk about, this movie nothing less than an absolute marvel.

The two core stories couldn't be more different. One involves the captain of the Moonstone, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a British sailor who, along with countless other small boats and their crews, makes the trek to Dunkirk after their assistance is asked for. He is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and family friend George (Barry Keoghan), the two teenage boys feeling it is their duty to assist no matter what the danger.

The other involves British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), trying to do whatever he can to get off the beach before the German's can massacre everyone at Dunkirk. He attempts to get on an escaping vessel as a stretcher bearer, overhears the naval officer in charge Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) discuss their meager prospects with his trusted second Colonel Winnant (James D'Arcy) and finally ends up on a different ship only to see it attacked by a U-Boat, in the end choosing to hold up with a number of fellow soldiers in an abandoned Dutch merchant vessel waiting for the tide to come in so they can all hopefully drift out to sea unnoticed by the Germans.

The third part of this triptych is a little more ephemeral than its counterparts, yet it is no less important. It is the battle going on in the air, most notably how it involves a pair of British Spitfire pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), both low on fuel and outnumbered yet each still determined to stop as many German bombers from releasing their payloads on escaping ships as they can. Their dogfights are ferociously angelic interludes of carnage and beauty, the quiet peacefulness of the world above the clouds frequently shattered by the roar of a German aircraft engine and the piercing crackle of machine gun fire.

Nolan wraps these stories into one, focusing the majority of his energies on the journey of the Moonstone and its tiny crew as well as Tommy's attempts to get off the beach. He then intercuts the happenings going on with the Spitfires, showing how all three facets of the battle crisply mingle together, creating a mesmerizing tableau of survival and sacrifice that is as heartbreaking as it is without pity. The director showcases all facets of the emotional spectrum no matter what they might be, never pulling punches as heroes meet senselessly tragic ends, cowards are saved from certain death and those just doing their jobs as best they can survive as hellfire shatters the calm around them - all are treated with the dignity they deserve.

It's difficult not to think that this monumental undertaking of Nolan's would not have been possible without first honing his narrative and visual style on motion pictures like Memento, The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar. In retrospect, each one of those features were obvious building blocks for what he is attempting to do here. The way Nolan utilizes time, how he assembles each of the film's three overlapping stories into one singular saga, his deft, confident control, likely none of it would be on such vibrant display if he hadn't made those preceding films first. It's all awe-inspiring, the technical and creative virtuosity frankly stunning.

But like Terrence Malick's 1998 masterpiece The Thin Red Line, for all the astonishing sights and sounds, for all the ways he manufactures suspense that snaps the spine and sends the heart into uncontrolled palpitations, Nolan never loses sight of the human drama. These soldiers, whether they be the fighter pilots in the sky, the civilians piloting those boats rushing to the French beach or the soldiers themselves huddled on Dunkirk's shores waiting for the end to come, all of them matter. Their pain, their fears, their apprehensions, it's all here. But so, at the same time, is their resilience, their willingness to give as much of themselves as they can in order to see others rescued. Even with so many characters vying for screen time, Nolan makes us understand exactly what it is that is at stake and what accomplishing this task will mean for all involved, making this an authentically passionate WWII drama where spectacle and emotion walk in constant tandem.

As to that spectacle, not since James Cameron's Titanic has the horrifying sight of ships sinking into the sea with all passengers still aboard felt so visceral. Not since classic Hollywood epics of yore, films like Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day or Battle of Britain, have the mechanics and machinery of combat utilized during WWII felt so tactile and concrete. Eschewing digital effects wherever possible, going the practical route more often than not, utilizing real planes, real ships and, most importantly, real actors and extras whenever he can, Nolan's story overflows in realistic detail, all of it propelled forward by composer Hans Zimmer's (Hidden Figures) devastatingly evocative score.

There's no way to know for certain if Nolan's latest will stand the test of time, be thought of in the same breath as WWII classics like Battleground, Patton, Das Boot or The Thin Red Line. There's no knowing if it will hold up to scrutiny when watched again, or if it will have the same sort of powerful resonance outside of a theatrical presentation. What I do know is that Dunkirk feels at first blush like an all-timer, and I have difficulty believing that initial assessment is going to change on my part anytime soon. This is a magnificent achievement accomplished with staggering buoyancy and grace, the victory of survival its own form of heroism worthy of celebration.


A BEAUTIFUL THING:

David Lowery on eating pie, existential mysteries and crafting A Ghost Story
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

David Lowery exploded onto the scene with his effortlessly ethereal throwback Ain't Them Bodies Saints in 2013, a dreamy 1970s-set Texas thriller with Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck as young lovers reuniting years after a bank robbery gone bad. He followed that up with last year's stunning, surprisingly passionate Pete's Dragon remake for Disney, the talented writer/director delivering an enthralling, emotionally pure fantasy fit for audiences of all ages that played deft homage to the 1977 original yet still surpassed it as far as its storytelling confidence and emotional resonance were concerned.

Lowery now returns with A Ghost Story, a moody, naturalistic and minimalist drama about a Texas couple who finds their marriage suddenly shattered when one of them dies in a tragic accident. But the dearly departed member of this pairing refuses to disappear, returning to their family home as a ghost shrouded, quite literally, in a white sheet, floating from room to room as it surveys the life of its mourning partner and, after they leave to parts unknown, the home itself as it changes hands over an undisclosed number of years. It reunites the filmmaker with Mara and Affleck, the former playing the distraught wife while the latter huddles under a sheet as the observational spirit of the husband whose human life was cut short at an early age.

A critical smash at this past January's Sundance Film Festival, A Ghost Story also played this year's Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) in early June. Making his first trip back to SIFF since introducing Ain't Them Bodies Saints here back in 2013, I had the chance to sit down with Lowery for a half hour or so to discuss the ins and outs of his latest minimalist triumph. Here are some of the highlights from that conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: What's the rollercoaster ride been like? Post Ain't Them Bodies Saints?

David Lowery: It has been a rollercoaster for sure. It's got its ups and downs, and its lulls and sharp curves, and its turns and loops, but by and large it has been a great couple years. I feel like 'Has it been four years?' I guess it was four years ago because [Ain't Them Bodies Saints] came out in 2013. [laughs]

Sara Michelle Fetters: When were you struck with the inspiration for A Ghost Story? Was it while you were making Pete's Dragon?

David Lowery: We were finishing Pete's Dragon, and we were in the final stages of the edit and moving into things like color correction, sound mixing and scoring. I don't remember the exact date, just the general time. It came to me all at once, and when I say it came to me all at once, that means that a lot of ideas that had been circling around in my brain for a while had finally accumulated enough mass to generate, in this case, a 10-page outline. I just sat down and wrote it. The next day I kept working on it and turned it into a 30-page script. I sent that to my producing partners and said, 'Hey, let's make this in the summer.' It was a very spontaneous generation. It was probably late February, early March of last year that it [the script] happened, and we shot it in June.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Where do you think the inspiration came from for this? The film in many ways is a sort of Antonioni-esque or Bergman-esque meditation.

David Lowery: It came from a number of things, one of which is my continued obsession with physical space, particularly represented in old houses in Texas. I keep making movies about old houses in Texas. There were a couple other things, though, one of which was a fight that I'd had with my wife about where we were going to live, and that fight felt like a scene from a movie. I remember telling her in the moment, 'This feels like a scene from a movie,' and ultimately it became one because I wrote it down and then we shot the whole thing. That was there. The idea that we were thinking of moving or we knew we had to move because we were making Pete's Dragon and needed to be in LA, and she was excited about moving to LA, but I really didn't want to leave Texas, and so we were just debating do we stay in one place? Do we have two places? What should we do? It was one of those simple decisions that just got way too emotionally complex and it led to me laying awake the night before we drove to LA, just on the floorboards of our old house wondering why I was so attached to [it], a house which we didn't even own. It was just a rental. But I really was attached to it. I've been attached to every home I've ever lived in. I really, when I find a home, I just lay my roots down instantly and get very ingrained in that space. I was just wondering why I do that and how that always happens, and those questions were one of the things that led to this movie along with my longstanding desire to make a horror film with a guy wearing a sheet.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I was going to get to this later, but as you brought it up, for such a stripped-down, minimalistic film, I think you do take a couple of big risks as far as the audience is concerned. One being that you have your main character walking around in a sheet like they're out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.

David Lowery: [laughs] Yeah. Totally. That was a bit of a risk.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Another major item is that you have a five-minute scene where a woman eats pie, which I'm sure you've talked about to death at this point. Did you know that would become such a hot topic of conversation? Rooney Mara eating an entire pie? Were you excited about challenging an audience like that? With the pie? With the pacing? With the ghost? All of it.

David Lowery: Absolutely. I always am excited about challenging the audience. Even in something like Pete's Dragon, there are things in that movie that were exciting to me because I knew they would provoke people in a certain way, so that's always part of what I'm after as a filmmaker, and that desire takes different forms depending on what the movie is and what the needs of the movie are.

Oddly enough, the ghost aspect of it never felt like it was going to be crazy. I always had complete confidence in that until we were shooting it, and then I lost all confidence completely, which is a whole different story. In the conception of it, that was something I just felt would work. It just made sense to me, and I didn't think it would throw anyone for a loop. I just knew that if we did it correctly and did it properly, it would function as I intended it to.

As to the pace of the movie, I like movies that have really long shots, have a lot going on in them and that let you meditate on them, often lasting long enough for your brain to wander off in a million different directions and make their way back eventually. Those types of mental digressions are great when the movie facilitates them, and I love films that do that. I was excited to take the opportunity to make a film like that because I knew that I wouldn't be able to do that at Disney by any means. You can't hold a shot for five minutes on a Disney movie.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Although you do hold them for longer than Disney normal in Pete's Dragon.

David Lowery: True. Yeah. Definitely true. [laughs] I knew with [A Ghost Story] it would challenge audiences. I know if you're going to see this movie, you're not going to necessarily be ready to sit still for that long or to just focus on a quiet moment for as long as we ask you to focus on it, but that's okay. Obviously this is a quote unquote 'art house' movie, so I think audiences who go see it will kind of be conditioned. They'll know what to expect. They'll know at the very least they're in for something different, and if you can get through that scene with the pie, then I think you're home free because that scene sort of is like the litmus test. The shots are getting longer and longer until you get to that point, and that's the longest one. That scene is almost 10 minutes long and that one shot of Rooney eating the pie is five minutes long, so if you can get through those two shots in that scene, and that one in particular, then I think you're home free. If you accept it, then you're great. You're going to love the rest of the movie.

If you reject it, you are free to leave or just sit there grumpily waiting for the movie to end. For me, that scene is my favorite thing I've ever made. It is one of the few things I've made where I just feel like we nailed it. Usually I'm like, yeah, we almost got there. We almost did it. We had a good idea. We almost pulled it off. In that case, we pulled it off. It does challenge you, but if you meet it on its own terms and kind of take the time to get caught up in it, there's a whole lot going on there.

When you're making a movie, you have to watch it over and over and over again, and I get so tired of watching my films. When they're finally done, I never watch them again. But that's the one scene that I just, every time I watch it I'm just hypnotized. I'm like, I wasn't ready for it to be over yet.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I know you've answered this, and you're probably tired of doing so, but everybody always wants to know, how many times did you make Rooney eat that pie?

David Lowery: Just once.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Just once?

David Lowery: Yeah.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Wow.

David Lowery: Yeah. 'Wow' pretty much covers it. [laughs] The first shot we did two takes of. That's the one where she takes the first bite. Then the second shot where she eats it, we just did it once, and we knew that even asking her to do one take was a lot. Asking her to do two was too much. It was just like, if you do this, if we get the camera in the right place and if [Rooney] knows what the emotional arc of that scene is, and she's a great actress, she'll do it, and we would only need to do it one time.

An interesting factoid is we shot the ghost separately because it's really hot in that outfit and I didn't want him to faint and screw up the take, or to just trip. For anything to happen, really, so we shot her side of the scene and then we brought in the ghost. Then we did a plate of the ghost and composited the two together.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, there's a seamless visual effect I had absolutely no idea about.

David Lowery: There's a lot of them in the movie. I think we did a fairly good job of concealing them. Until the end, of course.

Sara Michelle Fetters: What was the conversation like with Rooney and Casey? Did they understand what you were going for right away? How did you explain these characters to them to get them on board?

David Lowery: Well, I'm in a lucky enough position to where I was able to just send them a text message each and say, 'Hey, I'm making a weird movie this summer. Do you want to come be in it?' Casey was just like, 'Sure, I'll be there.' I'm sure there was some other responsibility that he was eager to get out of, so he was like, yeah, count me in. [laughs]

I don't know if he even read the script until he got to town the day before we started shooting. He knew that he was going to be wearing a sheet, but I don't think he knew much more about it than that, and that's just the way he rolls.

Rooney definitely read it [the script] and we had a couple of long conversations about how we were going to shoot it. I remember her asking me, 'Is this going to be a short film? Do you think it'll be feature length?' Because the script was only 30 pages. I was like, I know it is short, but here's how long this pie scene's going to last. It could be as short as two minutes, it could be as long as 10 minutes. Here's how long the scene in the hospital is. When it says that you walk out of the morgue and then time passes, that's going to be like eight solid minutes. That's like two eighths of a page in a screenplay, but we're going to spend a long time on that. We didn't talk so much about the characters because there wasn't much to talk about. There's not much on the page. There wasn't that much.

There was the big argument that was 10 pages long, and we shot that whole thing. Not all of it is in the movie. Very little of it's in the movie, but I wanted to shoot it. Beyond that, there wasn't much there for them to go off of.

But the reason I wanted them on the film partially was because we're friends, and that makes everything easier, but also because they just have such great chemistry together and I knew it wouldn't take much to establish a sense of them being deeply in love and caring for each other. Of having that connection that is strong enough so that when it is broken, you would really feel a profound sense of loss and in particular, that Rooney would be able to convey that. Because she really does care for Casey, and when she was doing the scenes after he was dead, there was that sense of something missing in her life. I knew that they would be able to sell that. I didn't have to write it. I didn't have to talk to them about it. I just knew that by virtue of having them in the movie that would all be there.

Sara Michelle Fetters: With that in mind, do you have something against Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara having a happy ending?

David Lowery: [laughs] You know, it's funny. There's like a bunch of different things because it related to my feelings towards them as a couple onscreen, because in Ain't Them Body Saints, in the script, [Rooney] and Ben Foster were far more romantically inclined. They had much more of a romance. When we were shooting, I just fell in love with her and Casey so much. I was like, she would never turn her back on this love that is now gone for someone else, and we changed it as we were shooting. It was a good choice because I didn't expect them to have so much chemistry.

In this case, there was a scene where as [Rooney's] moving on in her life, she brings another guy home, that time has passed. That's totally fine. That's totally acceptable. But none of us wanted to see that happen.

It was supposed to be a much more physically intense scene between the two of them, and I was like, that's just heartbreaking. Let's just focus on the ghost. Let's focus on Casey and not see what he's seeing because I don't think the audience was going to want to see that because they still feel too attached to these characters and their relationship.

I do think the next step is indeed to make a movie where they can at least be on screen together for more than 10 minutes and where maybe they have a happy ending. [laughs]

Sara Michelle Fetters: This is totally silly, but can I tell you how much I wanted that guy in the doorway to be Ben Foster?

David Lowery: Wouldn't that have been amazing? That would have been spectacular. I would have loved it. I love meta continuity from one movie to the next, and it would have been such a nice little thing. I don't know. It would've meant something for the people who catch it, because he's mostly off-focus. For the people who catch it, it would've been really interesting. But this [A Ghost Story] was such a spontaneous last minute thing that, the whole production, that it somehow never occurred to me do that. To ask Ben. I wish I had. Now that you mention it, I wish I had.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Talk to me about the party sequence and our gentleman&

David Lowery: The prognosticator!

Sara Michelle Fetters: Yes. Him. He basically puts the movie in perspective for people that aren't paying attention. Were you ever worried that you were spelling things out too much? Were you worried you were being sort of psychobabble-ish?

David Lowery: I was worried about it being psychobabble. He is that guy at a party who kind of just holds court and monopolizes everybody's time, who has a sense of self-importance that perhaps isn't warranted. I think we've all been to parties and met guys like that. At the same time, what he is saying kind of adds up. There's a lot of inconsistencies. There's some logical fallacies. But it does represent my own feelings about how I justify what I do every day. It represents me fumbling for a reason to get up every day and the justifications I've gone through in my life to make sense of things and to give myself hope and optimism in a world that so often feels like it doesn't have any whatsoever in a very physical sense. There's truth there, which is good. There is a sense that it is paving the way for a change in the film. It kind of sets the stage for the ghost and where the movie as a story is going next.

Then on another level, it is a breather to the audience because you've, at that point for an hour nearly, you've been sitting there watching this very, not abstract, but a very elusive film that doesn't have a lot to grab onto, at least not at first blush. You might not have a lot to grab onto and you've been sitting in silence for a long time, and so it gives you something to grab onto. It allows you to just kind of take a break, hear some noise, listen to some dialog, engage on a level that you've not been able to engage with the film on for quite some time, and then leave that sequence ready for everything else that happens in the movie next.

It functions on all those levels. There is the fear on my part, or there always was and still is [the fear], that people will take it too seriously and presume that I think this is the deepest thing and that I'm laying bare the truths of the universe. It's not. This isn't that scene. It's someone fumbling for answers, and that fumbling is what's important. The striving for truth and for meaning is more important than the truth and meaning that he is suggesting exists.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Ain't Them Bodies Saints was a pretty sizable critical hit. Pete's Dragon was a sizable critical hit and did very well at the box office. This movie was exceedingly well-received at Sundance and seems to be doing the same everywhere else it's played so far. Do you feel that pressure now? It's rare when a filmmaker goes out three-for-three like this, and with wildly divergent films.

David Lowery: Totally. They couldn't be more different.

Sara Michelle Fetters: So, do you feel that pressure, then? Or does this critical and audience acclaim just give you validation that you're doing the right thing?

David Lowery: It's interesting. It does give me a little bit of pressure. I didn't expect any one of these movies to do as well as they did, and they keep doing better. Saints was pretty good. Pete's Dragon was exceptionally well-received, and I stopped reading reviews after Saints because I just realized that it isn't good for my psychological well-being, but I still understand that Pete's Dragon was incredibly well-reviewed.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Well, maybe I shouldn't say this, but it made my 2016 top ten.

David Lowery: Oh, my. Thank you. I'm very proud of it; so I'm glad that it resonated with people.

A Ghost Story, I had no idea what people would make of it. I was ready for anything. I was ready to be pilloried for this movie, and so the fact that it's been so well-received has been incredibly gratifying. It does in some ways keep that pressure going because I always want, you know, I used to write film criticism. I want people to critically respond in a positive way or to at least engage with the movie. I want audiences to like it, too. Sometimes those things don't go hand-in-hand, so it's a weird balance you have to kind of strike.

With the film I just finished shooting that I'm editing right now, I'm worried sick about all of this. I'm like, this one might be the disaster. This one might not work, because I'm always trying new things and I'm always trying to push myself in a different direction. With this one I tried to do comedy. I might not have pulled it off. I don't know. We just started editing, so we'll find out, but I'm in that stage right now where I was in the same place I was in with A Ghost Story last year, that place where I was just like, I don't know if this is going to work. This might be it. My career might be over. I feel like I'm always there and I'm always trying to make it as good as I can. But I'm also incredibly worried that, whether it's critics or audiences or a combination of the both them, I'm worried that the next one's going to be the one that jinxes everything and that proves to be the first failure.

But being scared is good. Being scared is great because that means you're trying something. I'm content to remain being scared, having those worries, having those long nights where I just can't sleep because I'm worried I screwed everything up if that means that I'm consistently pushing myself. I hope that if the critics and audiences stay on board, that's going to be a beautiful thing and make me very happy. But it hopefully won't get me too comfortable because I want to always be striving for something different with every film I make.

Sara Michelle Fetters: With that in mind, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?

David Lowery: I think, more than anything, a sense of comfort and peace. That's what I wanted from it. For me, it's a film about finding comfort in our place in the universe or with the passage of time specifically. I made the movie so intuitively and so quickly and organically that I never had a thesis statement prepared when I went into it. I still don't. I still watch the movie when I see it as an audience member. I still am kind of amazed and befuddled by it, and yet it leaves me every time with a great feeling of solace and peace and comfort. It feels like it's a movie that's tucking you in at night in a very cozy fashion, and so that's what I hope people get out of it because that's what I get out of it. But I also know that so many audiences are getting different things out of it.

People are talking to me after screenings or Q&As and they all get different things from it, so the fact that I went into it with some degree of just operating on gut instinct and made something that surprised me in the manner in which it functions. The fact that that [A Ghost Story] can also encompass so many other different feelings and so many different reactions that are all 100% sincere and all 100% true, that's a beautiful thing to me.


Uninspired Darkness a forgettable ghost story
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

DARKNESS RISING
Now playing


On the eve of its demolition, Madison (Tara Holt) returns to the home of her youth, the scene of a horrifying tragedy. She is joined by her boyfriend Jake (Bryce Johnson) and her cousin Izzy (Katrina Law), the three of them breaking in late at night in order not to be noticed by any next door neighbors. Madison isn't sure why she needed to return, she just knew she needed to visit before the house was razed, almost as if some unseen force was drawing her there, a mysterious entity determined to finish what it started all those years prior.

Darkness Rising is as cryptic yet also as rudimentary a haunted house thriller as any lesser B-horror tale I've likely ever seen. Madison, Jake and Izzy are in for a rather typical night of scares and bloodshed, the ghostly force that led the young woman's mother to murder the rest of her immediate family now ready to finish the job while the house it patiently resides in still stands. So it plays with the three young adults, menacing them psychologically and physically, everything building up to the big payoff where getting out of the house in one piece is likely impossible and the line between life and death vanishes almost entirely.

It's all fairly paint-by-numbers, director Austin Reading and writer Vikram Weet (Devil's Pass) not exactly breaking the supernatural rulebook as things work towards their rather overly familiar climax. There's a lot of screaming, we get some evil dogs guarding all the exits, people get bonked on the head and a victim or two might even find themselves possessed by an ancient evil looking to do serious damage. At the center of it all is Madison and what she means to the entity, her return the obtusely ephemeral last piece of a nonsensical puzzle that turns out not be all that worthy of being put together.

The problem is that Reading can't even develop a reason to care about any of the characters. We don't get to know them well enough, each just a standard horror archetype thrown into a meat grinder before they've had a chance to establish who they are, making it impossible to care if a single member of the trio makes it out alive. Johnson and Law, both of whom do not do much more than look scared or make a snarky comment, are particularly unremarkable through no fault of their own, Weet's script doing nothing with them that could be construed as unique or worthwhile. As for Holt, I could never make out how I was supposed to feel about her character, Madison seeming to be under some sort of trance long before she even steps foot inside the house. While the actress does what she can, there were precious few instances where I actually cared about what was going to happen to her, making the events that transpired during the last third far less interesting than they by any rights should have been.

Not that it's a total loss. The film is nicely shot by Adam Biggs, and some of the stuff involving the aggressively psychotic dog keeping everyone trapped in the house is gruesomely effective. I'll also say some of the flashbacks detailing what happened to Madison's family the first time the presence inside the house went berserk are pretty decent, and it's not until there are suddenly way too many of them that they begin to lose their potency.

None of which makes Darkness Rising worthwhile. It's too tame, too unoriginal and far too forgettable, none of the three characters at the center of all this ghostly chaos worth caring about as they attempt to survive the night. While there's no reason to hate this effort, I can't say there's any reason to like it, either, and like a ghost in the night transitioning into the unknown by the time I finish writing this review it's highly likely this film will have disappeared from my memory altogether.


Bawdy Hours an impressive 14th century comedy treasure
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE LITTLE HOURS
Now playing


After Life After Beth and Joshy, I can't say I thought the next thing on writer/director Jeff Baena's agenda would be to adapt Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th century masterwork The Decameron into a ribald, R-rated comedy. After all, neither of those previous efforts would lead anyone to believe the filmmaker was the second coming of go-for-broke Italian maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini. Yet, Baena proves to be someone more than willing to break convention and attempt the unthinkable, his gloriously silly, unapologetically lewd, sexually-charged The Little Hours ample proof of that.

In a remote Italian monastery, nuns Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Sister Ginerva (Kate Micucci) are exceedingly good at making life miserable for their Mother Superior, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon). Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) cannot believe the audacity of these women either, the way they find ways to circumvent their vows and then come to him for forgiveness impossible to believe.

Not that he is entirely above reproach. After meeting a stranger, Masetto (Dave Franco), out on the road, after hearing his tale of woe involving a local landowner, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), and the man's adulterous wife, Francesca (Lauren Weedman), he decides to bring him back to the monastery for safety. But he lies to the Sisters, telling them Masetto is a deaf mute who is there to work the grounds, a secret bit of deception he reconciles the Heavenly Father will forgive him for as it's made with the best of intentions. None of which stops Alessandra, Fernanda and Ginerva from making the young man's life difficult, however, and not just because of the high volume of verbal abuse they throw his way. No, they want his body as well, and not just to look at with chaste appreciation.

Is The Little Hours great? No. Is it consistently funny? Heck, yeah it is, the movie an anarchic fit of physical, sexual and verbal madness that only gets more explosively hysterical as events progress. Even better, Baena does a fine job of exploring gender relations within the confines of a 14th century absurdist comedy, and as good as the likes of Reilly, Franco and other male members of the cast might be, make no mistake, the women are undeniably the stars of this particular show. Shannon, Plaza, Micucci and especially Brie are all terrific, ferociously tearing the film apart as they brazenly make their respective ways through all this wacky peculiarity.

So many bits make me chuckle when I think back on them, notably a third act revelation involving a few of the nuns and a witches bacchanal that's every bit as demented as one imagines it would be. But there is sweetness amidst all the debauchery, honest human truth laced within the corsetry of the sex and abuse Boccaccio's source material revels in. I was taken aback on more than one occasion by the emotionalism that fueled much of this story, Brie's pained, pent-up aggression as she listens to her merchant father (Paul Reiser, in a delightful cameo) deliver heartbreakingly callous news simply sublime.

Baena orchestrates events with confidence and flair, allowing his amazingly talented cast room to frolic as they all work in tandem to make the material come alive with a rebellious zeal that's ingenious. If Joshy was a noteworthy improvement over Life After Beth, then The Little Hours is an even bigger leap in storytelling expertise on the director's part. Baena looks to have been so inspired by Boccaccio his enthusiasm is infectious, and while I'm not about to compare the director with the likes of Pasolini, that does not make his accomplishments here any less impressive.


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Making weird stuff

Jeff Baena and Aubrey Plaza on tackling Boccaccio with The Little Hours

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Letters
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Delicately complex Ghost Story an otherworldly dream
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Nolan's Dunkirk finds victory in survival
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A BEAUTIFUL THING:

David Lowery on eating pie, existential mysteries and crafting A Ghost Story

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Uninspired Darkness a forgettable ghost story
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