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dir-scr Michael Almereyda
prd Uri Singer
with Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, Stephanie Andujar, Hannah Gross, Hana May Colley, Azumi Tsutsui, Bill Walters, Leslie Lyles
release UK Jun.17 sffl, US 18.Aug.17
Making memories: Smith and Hamm
SUNDANCE FILM FEST
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A rather talky script, single set and lofty themes make it obvious that this film was adapted from a stage play (by Jordan Harrison). It's the kind of movie that holds the attention simply because it touches on so many big ideas in ways that spark thought. It's too brainy to be emotionally involving, but it's a bracing exploration of memory that carries a real wallop. It might even change the way you define your relationships.
As Marjorie (Smith) begins to show signs of senility, her daughter Tess (Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Robbins) arrange for a lifelike hologram in the shape of her late husband Walter (Hamm), at the age when she fell in love with him. This "prime" can learn details about Marjorie and Walter's relationship through conversations, helping stimulate memories and offering a familiar listening ear. While Jon helps with the process, Tessa isn't so sure about this. And she's also suspicious of her mother's carer (Andujar).
Where this story goes is quietly unexpected, as two more primes appear over the coming years, shedding light on key interaction within this family and also on the way each person chooses to remember events in their lives. One significant difference is in the way everyone refers (or avoids referring to) Tess' late brother, whose suicide as a child reshaped the family. But then, the idea is that each person's memory is only part of the story, and that together they create a whole new narrative.
Performances in this kind of film need to be extremely detailed, signalling subtle differences between a real person and a prime. This distinction keeps the audience on its toes while allowing actors to do some very clever work. Smith has the most fun as the loose and expressive Marjorie. Hamm is terrific as the slightly robotic Walter Prime. And Davis and Robbins find some remarkable textures in their darkly complex roles. It's easy to identify with each person, although there's never much emotional connection, because feelings are bottled up.
Filmmaker Almereyda only slightly expands on the stage play, keeping the action contained in a beach house living room, with picturesque architecture and the changing seasons reflected outdoors. Most scenes feature two characters engaged in a deep conversation that centres largely on sharing anecdotes, which shift quietly with each retelling. These are memories of memories, and the idea is that it's actually irrelevant what really happened. What's important is what it means to you and to the people you love.
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© 2017 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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