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An interesting alternative title might have been "Shame", 13 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2017. Its director and script writer Asghar Farhadi is celebrated throughout the world as a great talent. I can see why. He's original and he gets great performances from his actors. Nonetheless I had to force myself to stay with this. It was so depressing in a most annoying way. The fear and the nearly all-consuming self-loathing that Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) experiences after being assaulted in her own bathroom is in part culturally based, as is the plot of her husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini) for a secretive revenge.

Rana's fear is real because she doesn't know who assaulted her, and part of her shame is understandable since she carelessly opened her door of their apartment without knowing for sure who was coming up. But a significant part of her shame is because the more conservative interpretations of Islam (and other tribal religions as well, by the way) blame the woman if she is raped. This complexity of emotions is part of what no doubt fascinated many viewers.

But I stayed with the movie, or actually I returned to it the next day. I was surprised at the resolution; I was surprised at Emad's sense of guilt. Yes, a man should be there to protect his wife, and perhaps if had been quicker at the market nothing would have happened. And perhaps there is guilt because he didn't investigate the circumstances of the apartment rental more thoroughly. (Apparently the previous tenant was a prostitute.) So in a sense they moved into a house of prostitution, as it were. And it is not beside the point to realize that Emad is playing Willie Lohman in a small theatre production of Arthur Miller's acclaimed play, "The Death of a Salesman," a character who is ashamed because he sees himself as a failure.

Again we can see the complexities that Farhadi insists upon.

Okay here are my problems with the movie. First though I should say that viewers who are not Iranian and not Muslim including myself may very well miss some of the subtleties and preconceptions of the action.

1. Why the ambiguity about the rape? Or maybe it was clear and I wasn't able to discern that.

2. Why is the guilty party a character who almost certainly could not commit the rape? (He could barely get up the stairs.)

3. We know why Emad and Rana don't go to the police. (Only shame will result possibly without ever catching the perp.) However Emad's revenge plan of humiliating the assailant seems elaborate and slow to action. After all Emad has overwhelming evidence as to who did it. He just has to find him.

4. The culprit's truck just sits there and then they move it. Is would seem that best strategy would be to report the truck as being parked illegally (do that yourself if necessary since you have the keys), call the police and see who shows up.

But again I don't live in Tehran so I really don't know what would have been the best way to proceed. What I do know is that Farhadi might have guided the general viewer less opaquely.

Bottom line: definitely worth seeing, but I suspect Farhadi's "A Separation" (2011) which I haven't seen is a better film.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

Beautiful 1930's period piece film neatly directed by Woody Allen, 10 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I watched this more out of curiosity more than anything else and found it surprisingly good. I was surprised since Woody Allen was 80-years-old when this came out in 2016. It's rare to do such fine work in any artistic endeavor at such an advanced age. Of course the opportunity to direct Kristen Stewart was no doubt an incentive. It could be that Woody wrote this years ago and only decided to turn it into a movie when he got the very talented Vittorio Storaro to do the cinematography.

The co-incidence of uncle and nephew (unbeknownst to either one of them) falling in love with the same woman Vonnie (Stewart) was handled skillfully, especially the sequence of events that led to first Phil Stern (Steve Carell) and then Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg ) discovering their surprising rival.

In addition to this being a beautiful film with a lot of pleasing 1930's era atmosphere it is also very cleanly directed by the old master. There is no clutter, virtually everything in the plot is necessary and I was pleased with the realistic treatment of love sadly lost, and then the possibility of it being rekindled as an illicit affair, and then… Well, I won't say. See the movie. It's definitely worth watching.

One more thing: Kristen Stewart at 26 was as pretty as pretty can be.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

Heart-warming, heart wrenching, 7 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is an emotional story about human love in a rural American setting. As such it will probably bring tears to your eyes. I know it did to mine. The script by Jayce Bartok and the direction by Mary Stuart Masterson are carefully composed to create a celebration of love that defies convention.

Georgia (Kristen Stewart) is a 15-year-old girl suffering from Friedreich's ataxia. When her to-be lover, cafeteria worker Beagle (Aaron Stanford), asks if she is going to get better, Georgia says, "No, this is pretty much as good as it's gonna get until my heart gives out." She has invited him into her bedroom to help her with her homework. At one point she says, "You can kiss me if you want to." Stewart plays the part with limbs all askew and dangling almost helplessly. Yet her face is so, so pretty and healthy looking that the contrast is striking. The next day they go to a motel. She is determined to experience love before she dies. The idea is so touching.

Also sure to pull your heart strings is the older and mostly secret love affair between Easy Kimbrough (Bruce Dern) and Marg Kaminski (Elizabeth Ashley). Bittersweet is Guy Kimbrough's (Jayce Bartok) realization that his girlfriend Stephanie (Miriam Shor) has married and started a family in his absence.

All of this could easily go from pathos to bathos to the maudlin except for the careful direction by Masterson and the fine acting all around.

What I have been trying to figure out is why the movie is entitled "The Cake Eaters." What came to mind was Marie Antoinette's infamous, "Let them eat cake," but I couldn't see the connection.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

A sociopathic little darling, 5 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The curious thing about this movie set in a private Beverly Hills high school is that it is a satire on human sexual practices. Yes, a satire on sex. Usually we have sexploitation, sex titillation, etc., but making humans look ridiculous and a bit comical having sex…? That's a bit unusual. (Well, come to think of it, maybe not.)

Anyway, there is also plenty of sexploitation here and the usual hypocrisy about sex is woven in along with a surprising amount of honesty about what people do when they think no one's watching—or better yet WHEN someone is watching.

The script is clever with plenty of over the top raunchy dialog that I can't quote here. (You can go to the lengthy quotes page on IMDb and see for yourself.) But what I really liked about this movie was Evan Rachel Wood who played 15-year-old Kimberly Joyce, the sociopathic little darling. (Wood was 17 at the time.) She was so cute and so, so in love with the part. She delighted herself and me too.


Part of the comedic and bemusing effect throughout is achieved by contrasting one thing with another. For example Kimberly befriends innocent hijab-wearing Muslim girl Randa (Adi Schnall). Why? Because, Kimberly says, "when I'm standing next to you I'll look more attractive by comparison. Isn't that great?" Randa replies straight-faced, "Very nice."

Another example is when the teacher who is accused of sexual harassment by his students (and found innocent, by the way) gives a birthday present to his wife. It is a skirt very similar to the ones worn by his students. He has her put it on and he more or less drools, suggesting that maybe he isn't so innocent.

Finally I must note in passing that James Woods who plays Kimberly's father looked pathetic on the couch in his underwear as he receives titillation from his cell phone. That scene shows me that James Woods is a pure actor who cares not how embarrassed he's going to be when, yes, he actually sees the movie.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

One of the most disturbing films I've ever seen., 30 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

You will not be redeemed. You will not find catharsis. You may very well feel deeply depressed at the depravity of some human beings.

We can begin with Alex (Tom Arnold) who "loves" little Leslie (Ryan Simpkins) so deeply and tenderly that he deprives her of her childhood to satisfy his lust. And then there's his bud Frank (Kevin Zegers) who helps Alex drug the children.

Some years pass. Leslie (Gillian Jacobs) is now 17. She is living in San Diego sleeping under a life guard station or under the freeway with Donnie (as a child played by Jermaine 'Scooter' Smith and then by Evan Ross) the other child abducted by Alex and Frank. The viewer can guess that Leslie and Donnie were just dumped somewhere when Alex and Frank got tired of them. (And we can guess that Alex and Frank found other children to enslave and molest.) Leslie smokes, does drugs, prostitutes herself, and hangs out with lowlifes on the streets. One lowlife (I forget his name) wants Leslie to entice a 12-year-old girl into prostitution. She is told that he will give her to only the "best people" including a judge. Apparently he has a ring of enslaved girls that he shops around to the best people.

At this point the viewer is understandably waiting for Leslie and Donnie to find themselves, to break free of the hopeless life on the street. Enter Michael at the homeless shelter (John Malkovich in what is little more than a cameo). He discovers an old flyer with little Leslie's photo and the plea from her loving and distraught parents for the return of their missing daughter. Prior to seeing this Leslie believed from years of being brainwashed by Alex that her parents didn't love her and were glad to be rid of her. Michael says, "It's time for you to go home, Leslie."

And so Leslie does. And what happens is in some ways the most disturbing part of the movie.

The cast is outstanding. I was particularly impressed with Ryan Simpkins, Gilliam Jacobs and Evan Ross. Damian Harris, who wrote and directed, gives us a view of humanity that is unrelentingly debased. There is no doubt about his skill and dark vision. I just hope that next time out he does something positive.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge, or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Facing the truth would work better, 24 June 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Despite the fact there is something seriously wrong with this story I found the documentary very interesting, perhaps because (1) I wanted to find out how it ends. Does he stay with the water diet or give up or get hospitalized, or…? And how many pounds does he lose? (2) I wanted to find the fraud in the film, so to speak.

So I kept watching.

(WARNING: SPOILERS TO COME) Our hero Kenny Saylors not only manages to stay on a water-only diet for the planned 40 days, he re-ups for 15 more days in other to break the Guinness world record. He hooks up with a medical firm whose doctors and nurses weigh him, advise him, give him a physical and track his progress. (They get a little publicity from the film which Saylors directed with himself as the leading man.) He is seen again and again at places crawling with food, food, and more food: barbecues, restaurants, dinners with friends, etc. He even cooks. But he just smells the air and smiles, eating nothing.

He lost 44 pounds in 55 days. There are a couple of things fishy about this. (You should excuse the expression.) First, at his weight (something like 315 pounds to start) eating nothing for 55 days and only drinking water one would expect him to lose even more weight. Second, he said he only lost four pounds of muscle mass. That too is suspicious. Anyway he was denied the world record probably not because it would endanger others trying to break it (as claimed in the film), but I suspect because quite simply the Guinness people didn't believe him.

Addendum: sometime after the diet Saylors started gaining weight again so that in 2013 he weighed 465 pounds. But wait. On March of this year 2017 he weighed 473.4 pounds. His website Reinventing Kenny where he reports about and You Tubes his latest weigh loss adventures reads in part "Inspire. Motivate. Encourage. TRANSFORM!" Okay. I kind of like the guy. I like the way he has turned his weight problems into stories and apparently a nice enterprise. However extreme yo-yo dieting is dangerous and perhaps he should do his public a favor and guide them to professional people who can help them, if that is possible.

The truth is Saylors is a man who can go to extremes; in fact he apparently cannot live a normal life. I wish him the best and hope he can someday truly slay the dragon of insatiable appetite.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is No as We Think It Is"

Timbuktu (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Fascinating; heart wrenching, 10 June 2017

There's a lot of restraint and subtlety in director Abderrahmane Sissako's tragic delineation of what it's like to live under an ISIS takeover of a Muslim community. And there's a beautiful artistry in the way he shows the barbarism of Sharia law so horrifically played out while the subjugation of women is made clear. (Actually the women in the movie stand strong against the subjugation.) Thus the evil of the "jihadists" (ISIS is never named but a black flag is flown) is contrasted with the normal lives of Muslim people.

Sissako, who also wrote the script, is careful to make this distinction—a distinction that a good part of the world is currently working on. It is not Muslims who are bad; it is the extremists. Yet I could not help but think as I watched this with the incessant talk of God will's, etc., that maybe, just maybe, the tribalism of religion itself is at fault. How horrible it is to live with the constant thought and expression that it is all God's doing (with a little help from the forces of evil), and that we are just pawns in some absurd game played by a nearly omnipotent power that can send you to heaven or hell based on the very behaviors built into your psyche.

Well, such would apply to most other religions as well I suppose. So an indictment of Islam is not appropriate. Nonetheless the intense religious climate of the movie was for me almost tyrannical. I felt so sad for all the poor ignorant people and again was reminded of the saying "willful ignorance is the only sin" and again told myself that the only way out of the morass of the Middle East is education leading to enlightenment.

The film is in Arabic, French and a bit of English with English subtitles. A lot of what is said is not translated into the subtitles, but little is lost in the comprehension. There are scenes of great beauty contrasted with ugly violence. Beautiful music is played and sung, and there is a soccer game played without a ball. Such is the absurdity of life under the jihadists, who are really just thugs using a distorted vision of Islam in order to justify their crimes.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Religion and Ourselves"

Lucy (2014/I)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
"I am everywhere", 9 June 2017

The most stunning thing about this movie (aside from Scarlett Johansson) is the deep spiritual meaning that comes near the end. Yes, amid all the mayhem, the shoot 'em ups, the science impossible there is something very redeeming about this and it has to do with what it means to be alive and to be human.

What Lucy is able to do cannot possibly come about from taking substances into her system as in the movie. However the incredible power, knowledge and freedom she achieves is something that may be possible for humans some distant day--or rather possible for our intelligently designed descendants who will be cyborgs or something beyond that.

The story itself and the way French born director Luc Besson ("Léon: The Professional," "La Femme Nikita," etc.) moves the plot along with action that keeps us enthralled amounts to a first rate sci fi thriller. Johansson who plays Lucy and whose countenance dominates the film is wonderful. And I don't mean merely from the fact that her face is mesmerizing but also because she does such a great acting job in a demanding role.

I am giving this film only 9 stars because of the rather lame idea that we use only ten percent of our brains. That idea was disposed of decades ago. Of course as a metaphor it works okay. However it could be better said that we are currently achieving only ten percent of what we could achieve.

I also don't think Besson, who also wrote the script for the film, has the right notion about time. He has Lucy say, "Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don't exist." However, time like other units of measure really just compares two or more things, in this case events. Many scientists believe that time per se does not exist and is an abstraction, or as I see it time is a mathematical point.

But much of the philosophy and/or psychology in the film is if nothing else interesting and worth thinking about. For example Lucy says, "We've codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible, we've created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale." This is true in a practical sense but I believe it is also true in a philosophical and a spiritual sense.

I will be seeing this film again.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Original, daring, fascinating, 3 June 2017

Not to mention beautifully and cleverly directed.

This is the first of Chan-wook Park's films I've seen and if the others are half as good as "The Handmaiden" I'm going to see them all. Min-hee Kim stars as Lady Hikeko, a young Japanese woman of wealth and beauty living in an isolated estate with her sadistic uncle in Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. A gaggle of Korean thieves and con artists dream up a scheme to separate Hikeko from her fortune. The idea is for one of them to pose as a Count Fujiwara, seduce Hikeko and then marry her. Aiding this scheme is a pretty little pickpocket named Sook-Hee (played with great skill and charm by Tae-ri Kim).

That's all I can tell you about the plot. Rest assured it is fascinating with some very surprising twists and turns. This is also one of the sexiest movies I've ever seen. It is billed as a crime thriller but actually it is the story of a beautiful love affair. Again I will not elaborate since any more information might spoil the film for many viewers.

Bottom line: I plan on seeing this again and I seldom watch films more than once, only the great ones.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the movie review book, "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote"

No Way Out (1987)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
This is one of the best thrillers I ever saw, 20 May 2017

I didn't see this when it came out in 1987 which is just as well because I really enjoyed seeing it the other night. It's a political thriller with Gene Hackman as David Brice, U.S. Secretary of Defense. Brice employs the kind of political machinations usually seen in corrupt congresspersons as he tries to wiggle his way out of a terrible jam. At his side is the particularly sleazy sociopathic Scott Pritchard (Will Patton) who defends his boss with true devotion.

Okay what makes this so good? I mean Sean Young is to die for pretty of course and Kevin Costner is just the kind of guy few women can resist. So we've got good eye candy, but what makes "No Way Out" head and shoulders above almost all other thrillers is the oh so ingenious plot. Yes the plot in this movie is very clever—some might say too clever, especially the ending which some viewers may feel is unlikely or tacked on. It is a doozy of an ending and it follows some mesmerizing twists and turns along the way. I found most of them plausible, and I think the only thing wrong with the ending was Kevin Costner's accent! The screen play was adapted from Kenneth Fearing's novel "The Big Clock" which I haven't read. There was also a movie with the same title from 1948 starring Ray Milland, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Charles Laughton. I do know that while "No Way Out" is about the Pentagon and the intrigue centers around the secretary of defense and a naval officer, Commander Tom Farrell (Costner) "The Big Clock" was about a publishing tycoon. Apparently what is the same is some kind of similar action removed from the backdrops.

I find most thrillers have too many plot holes and implausibilities while relying too heavily on action and chase scenes, car crashes, etc. Here most of the chase scenes are on foot. What made me decide to take a look at this was to see the young Sean Young again. Who could forget all the close-ups of her face in "Blade Runner" (1982).

By the way, the title "No Way Out" is especially apt since it really does look like neither Brice nor Farrell have any way out. The plot is that diabolical.

--Dennis Littrell, author of "Dennis Littrell's True Crime Companion"

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