What To Watch: The Passions of Anna (Kendrick)

"Alice, Darling" is a straight dramatic role for this gifted singer-actress. Also: "When You Finish Saving the World."

What To Watch: The Passions of Anna (Kendrick)

Happy 200th Ty Burr’s Watch List posting to all who celebrate! Which is just me, really, but many thanks and immense gratitude to those who’ve been with this newsletter from the beginning and those who’ve signed up since. I truly hope you’re having as much fun with it as I am.

This will be a quick post, as I’ve just arrived in Park City, UT, for what will be my 25th Sundance Film Festival and my first in-person Sundance in three years. A lot of good movies to look forward to, many if not all of which will be appearing on big screens and home screens in the months to come – as always, Sundance has a way of setting the stakes for the rest of the movie year, even if no one who enjoyed “CODA” as part of the 2021 online festival expected it to go all the way to a Best Picture Oscar. Is it a coincidence that the buzziest title in the 2023 lineup is “Cat Person,” an adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s viral New Yorker short story that stars “CODA” lead actress Emilia Jones? (Sealing the deal is Nicholas Braun – Cousin Greg from “Succession” – as the other half of this queasy drama about sexual power dynamics.) I’ll be posting reports from the festival as I go and looking for that little miracle movie that always seems to come out of nowhere.

Speaking of little Sundance miracles, I remember coming across a teeny-tiny indie comedy called “Camp” at the 2003 festival, about a theater camp based loosely on Stagedoor Manor in upstate New York. The movie was pretty good, but you know how it feels when you see a fresh young performer who has it? “It” – charisma, presence, a refusal to let the audience go. In “Camp,” this young wannabe-actress nerd who’s been off on the sidelines plotting revenge against the Beautiful Kids gets a shot at her big stage number and proceeds to sing the ever-living theater-kid bejesus out of Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I mean, she just murders the thing. That actress was Anna Kendrick, and I was delighted when she turned up on the sidelines of the “Twilight” movies a few years later and even more cheered when she bagged a Best Supporting Actress nomination opposite George Clooney in “Up in The Air” (2009). The a cappella musicals “Pitch Perfect” (2012) and its sequels put Kendrick front and center and, more important, let her sing, which is what she was put on this earth to do.

But what place does someone born to musicals have in a mass-media culture that largely scorns the form? If she’d come around three decades earlier, Kendrick might have had Bernadette Peters’ career, but modern Hollywood has little idea what to do with her. In 2014 she played a heartsore Cinderella in the film version of “Into The Woods” – more Sondheim – and the female half of the time-twisted Broadway adaptation “The Last Five Years,” and if you’ve ever doubted this performer’s gifts as a singer and an actor listen to the opening number, “Still Hurting.”

And that, so far, has been the most she’s been able to do as a singing star. Otherwise, Kendrick is a reliably wry second-billed presence in non-musical movies, able to skillfully leaven drama with a little comedy or vice versa – see her in the certifiably bonkers action drama “The Accountant” in which Ben Affleck plays an autistic CPA hitman (no, really) and Kendrick is the corporate peon assigned to him, eyebrows raising above her scalp line at the absurdity of her predicament and the script.

Kendrick is in her mid-30s now – no longer a theater-kid ingenue and heading into the valley of the shadow of Hollywood neglect. What is a smart, talented, professional performer to do? Steer her own ship, I guess, and so we have “Alice, Darling” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐), a tense character piece opening today in AMC theaters and only in AMC theaters, with no plans as yet for a streaming release. (I’ll let you know when it comes to VOD.) Kendrick is the title character, a New York woman on a weekend country retreat in the country with two longtime girlfriends, Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku). What the friends know and what we quickly pick up on – and what Alice is doing her cuticle-shredding best to avoid facing – is that Simon (Charlie Carrick), Alice’s live-in artist boyfriend, is an abuser of the first rank: a control freak, a belittler, a gaslighter, a mind-fucker. Getting Alice away for even two days involves levels of subterfuge worthy of a spy thriller, and while the friends haven’t intentionally set up an intervention, the weekend becomes one anyway.

Directed by Mary Nighy and written by Alanna Francis (with Mark Van de Ven credited as story editor), “Alice, Darling” is a tight 90 minutes that hovers close to the three main characters, attentive to the shifting dynamic of female friendship in ways we rarely see in movies. Horn’s Tess is the bad cop and Mosaku’s Sophie the good cop for much of the running time, although there are points where the sides need to switch and do. Kendrick just reminds you of what a gifted dramatic actress she is; she’s a nervy, watchful performer by nature but uses that here to harrowingly convey the layers of self-loathing and paranoia Alice has buried herself beneath, pulling strands of her hair out as if to yank her former self back into view. The movie’s about little more than how the walls of the heroine’s denial finally buckle and crash, and that’s about enough – a side-plot about the search for a missing girl in a nearby town feels like padding and the film lays on the visual metaphors (paddling one’s own boat, resurfacing into life) with a heavy hand. The climax might feel a little anticlimactic, too, until you realize it’s more a psychological victory than a physical one and all the more precious for it. Again, that makes “Alice, Darling” unusual and worthy. And for the movie’s star, it’s a reminder that, in the words of St. Stephen, she’s still here – and she can do just about anything.

(N.B. Twenty years after “Camp,” one of the films in this year’s Sundance line-up is a comedy called “Theater Camp,” about an institution that sounds an awful lot like Stagedoor Manor. Are we ready for a new crop of theater kids when we still haven’t figured out what to do with the last bunch?)

Opening in limited theatrical release today, “When You Finish Saving the World”   (⭐ ⭐ 1/2) is almost a male “Lady Bird,” and, not surprisingly, it’s also from an actor turned writer-director: Jesse Eisenberg, the qualified mensch of “Fleischman Is In Trouble,” steps behind the camera for an acidic and darkly amusing comedy about an annoying teenage boy (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”) and his exhausted, self-absorbed mother (Julianne Moore). He’s a would-be rocker with an online following that allows him to forget he’s a social outcast at school; she’s a domestic-shelter director who allows herself to get too involved with a teenage boy (Billy Bryk) who, honestly, she’d prefer as a son. Worth seeing if you’re fans of the performers, and I’m curious to see what the adventurous, intelligent Eisenberg does next as a director, but, like many of his performances, “When You Finish Saving the World” is a study in narcissism that, unlike many of his performances, doesn’t lead to any greater statement about human nature. More troublingly, Eisenberg suffers from the screenwriting flaw that has long plagued Woody Allen: All of his character sound like him.

Not much going on in terms of new movies on demand this week. If you have Turner Classic Movies in your cable lineup, act fast and DVR the Friday 2:15 p.m. airing of Rene Clement’s “Purple Noon” (French title “Plein Soleil”) (⭐ ⭐ ⭐), the 1960 thriller that represents the first appearance onscreen of that slippery devil Tom Ripley, played in later films by (among others) Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon, John Malkovich, and here by an impossibly young and handsome Alain Delon. (If you miss it on TCM, you can also find it on The Criterion Channel and for $3.99 on Amazon and Apple TV.) It’s an adaptation of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the first of Patricia Highsmith’s five novels about this most dashing psychopath, and while the 1999 Damon remake is the better film, this one’s good enough to be recommended to more than Ripley completists like me. If you don’t like it, just turn the sound off and look at Delon’s face.

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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