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Films I Neglected To Review: Sheet Happens
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "A Ghost Story," "The Little Hours," "Manifesto" and "To the Bone"

In the wake of the success of last year’s surprisingly effective remake of ''Pete's Dragon,’'' writer-director David Lowery, who first gained attention with his critically acclaimed 2013 indie film ''Ain't Them Bodies Saints,'' presumably could have had his pick of studio assignments to choose from for his next project. Instead, in a movie straight out of the Steven Soderbergh playbook, he has returned to his indie roots and reunited with ''Ain't Them Bodies Saints'' co-stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for ''[ii]A Ghost Story,'' a micro-budgeted meditation on life, love and death that will probably divide viewers like no other film this season. Affleck and Mara play an unnamed couple (in the credits, they are listed only as C and R) living in a rambling home in Texas from which things can occasionally be heard to go bump in the night. Before long, C is killed in a car accident and when we next see him, his spirit rises from his body in the morgue and walks off, still wearing the sheet that was covering his body. He returns home and begins bearing silent watch over R as she goes through the grieving process and attempts to move on with her life. When she does, C continues to remain in the house for who knows how many years until time itself begins to lose all meaning and he eventually warps back in order to observe earlier incidents at the location ranging from an Indian massacre of settlers to seeing himself and R move in to begin what they presume will be a long life together.

Closer in spirit--no pun intended--to the recent output of Terrence Malick than to an ordinary spook show, ''A Ghost Story'' is an undeniably oddball exercise in trance-out cinema that will sharply split viewers between those who are willing to accept such unusual gambits as the lack of conventional narrative, the preponderance of extended takes in which little of import seems to be happening and the Charlie Brown-inspired ghost costume used to represent the central character and those who will dismiss it as pretentious silliness in which the sole dramatic highlight is the sight of Rooney Mara eating virtually an entire pie in real time before rushing to the bathroom to hurl it up. While I cannot deny that there are times when the film almost seems to be asking to be mocked mercilessly, I must admit that I was more intrigued than annoyed by Lowery’s lo-fi dramatic approach and by the number of haunting and moving effects that he is able to accomplish with only a minimum of obvious effort. In a season when nearly every film seems determined to blow out your eardrums, I also appreciated Lowery's appreciation of just how effective silence can be when used correctly--in fact, the only bum scene on display is a party sequence in which one loquacious guest prattles on at extended length about the meaning of man’s existence that would come across as an inspired parody if it weren't for the fact that we are clearly meant to take his musings seriously. (That said, the film does have a few decent laughs here and there to alleviate what might have become an overly self-serious work.) Perhaps not quite as revelatory as some critics have suggested and certainly not as pretentious as its detractors have claimed, ''A Ghost Story'' is a decidedly unique piece of filmmaking and I am certainly glad that I saw it, though I cannot state with any certainty that I would want to sit through it again anytime soon.

Although based loosely--hell, promiscuously--on Giovanni Boccaccio's ''The Decameron,'' ''The Little Hours'' owes a bigger debt of artistic inspiration to the cheerfully outrageous comedies of Mel Brooks--films where one laughed as much out of shock over what was being said and done as they did for the jokes themselves. Set in the Middle Ages, the film centers around a trio of repressed nuns--snobby Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), sneaky Sister Ginerva (Kate Miccucci) and snarky Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza)--who pass the time at their remote convent by chugging communion wine, talking about sex and viciously sniping at each other and anyone else who comes across their path. Meanwhile, in a castle in a nearby kingdom, horny servant Masseto (Dave Franco) is on the run from his former master (Nick Offerman) for sleeping with his wife when he comes to the assistance of the leader of the convent, the kindly and perpetually soused Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), he is repaid with an offer to come hide out while serving as the new handyman. As a ruse to keep the nuns away from him, Masseto is presented as being a deaf mute but that hardly stops his presence from riling up the already inflamed libidos of Alessandra, Ginerva and Fernanda, each of whom see him as a possible escape from their current stations in life. They wind up competing against each other for Matteo’s favors while he struggles to resist their charms--not much of a struggle on his part, as it turns out.

Considering the amount of comedic talent on display here (the cast also includes Molly Shannon as the Mother Superior, Fred Armisen as an unctuous visiting bishop and Jemima Kirke as a mysterious friend of Fernanda’s), it would almost be a sin--sorry--if ''The Little Hours'' didn’t score some laughs and indeed, thanks to the extremely game cast, there are a lot of amusing moments to be had here. And yet, even though I was laughing a lot while watching it, I still found myself thinking that it should be funnier than it is. I just couldn't help but feel, especially in the last third or so, that it began relying just a little too heavily on the conceit of having nuns dropping f-bombs and was lacking that last bit of comedic inspiration that could have put it over the top. That said, the stars are all perfectly cast--even the cheerful vacuousness that Dave Franco tends to project in his roles is nicely utilized here--and writer-director Jeff Baena keeps things moving along nicely and makes good use of the Italian countryside as the incongruously beautiful backdrop for the sordid goings-on. ''The Little Hours'' may leave some laughs on the table but it is still funny enough to warrant a look and, as cinematic raunchfests go this summer, it sure as hell beats the likes of ''Baywatch'' and ''The House.''

Seemingly produced more for art galleries than art-house theaters, ''Manifesto'' offers viewers the oddball sight of Cate Blanchett in a series of 13 sequences, each one featuring her in a different look ranging from homeless person to rock star to a society dame straight out of ''Blue Jasmine,'' in which she spouts off a series of monologues created from the writings of a number of philosophers, artists and thinkers running the gamut from Karl Marx to Werner Herzog. Obviously, a film like this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Some of the sequences are more effective than others--my favorite is probably the one in which she plays a schoolteacher relating Jim Jarmusch's theories of filmmaking to a classroom of young children--and the concept as a whole begins to run out of gas long before the film comes to an end. That said, Blanchett certainly commits to the somewhat freaky concept and she is pretty much spot-on throughout. I cannot completely recommend ''Manifesto'' as a whole--it never seems to quite know what it is trying to say or how it wants to say i--but Blanchett fans and those looking for something wayyyyyy off the beaten path may find it to be of some interest.

Loosely inspired by writer-director Marti Noxon’s own real-life struggles with anorexia, ''To The Bone'' is a film that combines elements of startling truth and honesty with others that are so bizarrely contrived that they seem to have been trucked in from another movie entirely. It stars Lily Collins as Ellen, a rebellious artist who has been in and out of treatment facilities for a long time--although she continues to deny that she has a problem, she has wasted away enough that her body is about to start burning muscle to keep itself alive due to the lack of available fat. Running out of chances to turn her life around, Ellen agrees to enter a treatment facility run by the highly sought-after Dr. William Beckham (Keanu Reeves) and goes off to live in a group home with a handful of other people at various stages of dealing with their own eating disorders. Although Ellen attempts to bullshit her way through things once again, Beckham sees through her gambits and eventually forces her to confront the issues that have driven her to where she is, especially in regards to the complicated relationships she has with her always-absent father, her self-absorbed mother (Lili Taylor) and a stepmother (Carrie Preston) who, for all of her own fumblings, is the only adult relation in her life that even comes close to showing a genuine interest in her needs.

When it sticks to the material involving Ellen and her attempts at recovery, ''To The Bone'' is effective--the scenes have a feel of real authenticity to them, the stuff involving the doctor-patient confrontations does not devolve into sub-''Good Will Hunting'' schtick and the performance by Lily Collins (who has herself spoken about her own past problems with an eating disorder) is strong and convincing. At the same time, however, Noxon has also included elements that are so jarring and unconvincing that they threaten to throw the entire film out of whack. Unlike most of the other characters, who are given varying degrees of emotional shadings, Ellen's mother--an ''artistic'' type who abandoned he family to go off and live on a run-down horse farm with her lesbian lover (Brooke Smith)--is depicted in the kind of cartoonishly broad strokes rarely seen outside of conservative propaganda videos and her final scene is so grotesque that it does nothing but inspire bad and incredulous laughs at the worst possible time. Even worse is the performance by Alex Sharp as the lone male anorexic of the group who immediately and irritatingly falls in love with Ellen while trying to be the most resoundingly colorful person imaginable--admittedly, this character is meant to be occasionally obnoxious and abrasive but Sharp pushes things so far in that direction that the film grinds to a complete halt whenever he appears on the screen. ''To The Bone'' has a number of good qualities going for it and never devolves into the kind of After-School Special-style mawkishness that one might expect from such a premise. However, there are enough flaws on display--especially of the mystifyingly unforced variety--to keep me from fully recommending it.

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originally posted: 07/15/17 00:38:40
last updated: 07/15/17 00:52:04
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