Our Philadelphia Film Festival coverage continues! We are excited to be able to bring you several reviews from this year’s festival. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!
Chappaquiddick (Dir. John Curran)
Lately it seems that American media has gone into a full time re-evaluation of the Kennedy mythos. From films like Jackie to the upcoming LBJ biopic, even to the Stephen King Hulu miniseries 11/23/63. Surprisingly though, we have never gotten a film about the Chappaquiddick incident of 1969, where last remaining brother Ted Kennedy got in a car accident which resulted in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former staffer for his brother Robert. Perhaps because, compared to other Kennedy dramas, this one seems like small potatoes. Chappaquiddick is not just the story of the tragic incident, but the story of how we came to view it as small potatoes.
Director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) brings a former black list screenplay to life as if it were a political thriller- but one that is grounded in the humanity of its characters. It’s a rare treat when a political film feels so personal- not just a by the numbers biopic, but one that really gets us in the room with these larger than life icons. In a brief discussion with Curran, he reflected on how his goal was to show these people as the human beings that they were, as opposed to further propagating their fable. Ted (an excellent Jason Clarke) was clearly a compassionate man torn apart by trauma and familial expectations, who handled the immediate aftermath of the crash (he was drunk while driving) about as poorly as one could. Yet we know exactly why he did what he did, and it is made all the more clear when he visits his father (Bruce Dern) and is ambushed by a room full of the family lawyers who are determined to make the incident go away, regardless of Ted’s wishes. These men are there to protect the Kennedy legacy, and their own- not to help Ted use this as a growing opportunity where he finds his integrity. These scenes are the best in the film, as we see how the political sausage gets made, and how human tragedies get squashed in the name of a supposedly greater good.
Ed Helms co-stars as Joe Gargan, the Kennedy cousin who like Ted struggles with inadequacy in the shadow of the family. He isn’t even granted the famed surname. Yet this allows him to see the incident more clearly, as he becomes the film’s moral compass and tries several times to exit the situation altogether. Through his eyes we see the true moral justice that should have been carried out but never was, as Kennedy continued to serve as the “lion of the senate” until his dying day fifty years later. Yet as a viewer with the knowledge of all the good he would go on to achieve, we might find ourselves in the precarious position of hoping this all just goes away too. At Mary Jo’s funeral, a staffer played by Olivia Thirlby is talking with Ted while looking at the deceased’s grieving parents, and offers an insight that is quite telling- “Her parents have forgiven you. Why shouldn’t the rest of America?”
Kennedy was a man who was famous for being able to take a few punches and, eventually, having a great deal of integrity. I imagine were he alive today, he would have approved of this unflinching look at his political legacy. Chappaquiddick doesn’t come out until 2018, but it already has a tentative spot on my top ten list for the year.
The Endless (Dir. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)
Any film about surviving a cult is an automatic must see for me- the subject has always fascinated me. When considering it a film made by the creators of Spring and Resolution, two of the better indie genre films of the decade, then it’s an even greater priority. The Endless, the third film from this directing duo, is a fascinating movie, as it plays around with worlds they have already created, looping back around to characters we have met before in their previous films. For a movie that eventually deals with sci-fi concepts like being stuck in an actual time loop, it’s quite appropriate.
Benson and Moorhead star as brothers Justin and Aaron (surprise), who have decided to return to a cult they escaped from ten years ago. They were raised in it, and they seem to have left not long after their mother was killed in a car accident that nearly claimed their lives as well. It seems like a good rule of thumb to never re-visit a cult you have left, but this seems like a pretty low key, good humor kind of cult (“mind if we get a little culty in here?” is one of many great lines). Regardless, Aaron is depressed and stuck in his new life, thinking about the good deal they left behind- so Justin is hoping a visit could at least get him to see why they left in the first place.
The Endless soon becomes an unnerving world of Lovecraftian horror, where the greatest monster is the unknown, howling dark void of the starless night sky. Irregularities continue to mount as we simultaneously discover that Justin is less sure about what’s going on than we first thought. The scariest things in this film are what we don’t see, and fortunately for a film with a low budget, there is a whole lot we don’t see. This is absolutely one of its strengths- and the two are masters at utilizing a DIY filmmaking approach to garner sci-fi thrills.
In the end, The Endless is a shaggier, scrappier film than Spring, which is great because it shows they haven’t gotten too big for their britches yet. But it’s also a little disappointing to see them take more of a lateral or downward step, as it was starting to feel like they had a couple imminent masterpieces up their sleeve. This does not at all make The Endless a bad film- and in a Q&A the brothers shared that this film came out of a desire to get back to raw filmmaking while they were stuck in meetings and negotiations over future projects that were a bit more complicated to get off the ground. This seems to be their Barton Fink– a film they needed to get out of their system as a sort of creative jumpstart as the industry was wearing them down. I can’t wait to see what these guys do next.