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7/10
a man and his river
16 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Nutritionists consistently advocate for the consumption of more salmon for a healthy diet ... wild salmon, specifically. It's one of the few dietary recommendations that hardly anyone bemoans. Most of us really enjoy a tasty grilled salmon, and the fact that it's "good" for us puts it in the rare food category of 'yummy and healthy' (not an officially recognized category). It's what would be a perfect plan, were it not for the challenges in tracking down true wild salmon at the local supermarket. Salmon habitat and breeding grounds have been compromised and even destroyed through encroachment, and for the needs of the human race.

It's exactly this situation, and the decades-long efforts of one man, that are the focus of this documentary from co-directors Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham. Dick Goin lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest, and he is especially connected to the Elhwa River. The film opens with his recorded voice from 1983 as he discusses his memories of the river packed with 50-60 pound salmon taking advantage of the gravel river bottom, and then how they basically disappeared when the two giant dams were built to supply power to the area.

Mr. Goin describes the river as being broken from 1911 through 2014 when the dams were in place. He emotionally describes his personal conflict at working for one of the mills being powered by the dams ... even as he was fighting for their destruction in order to free the river. Working at the mill was a choice necessary for life - a difficult decision that required compromise. The dams, though engineering marvels, were the enemy of nature.

Clearly passionate, the elderly Mr. Goin speaks with humble respect and awe of the "madhouse" river. The underwater photography is effective, especially when blended with the archival footage from previous interviews Mr. Goin conducted. The video clips of the dams being destroyed are fascinating, but not nearly as gut-wrenching as the once vital Mr. Goin slowly and unsteadily makes his way back to the river, after the dam destruction, so he can personally witness the return of the salmon. As he describes the efforts of a struggling salmon as having done what she was here for ... we can't help but acknowledge the parallels with Mr. Goin's own life.
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Aamir (2017)
7/10
not so welcome in the jungle
16 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Snuggled in bed with the lights off is often when we feel the most safe and secure. One evening, 13 year old Aamir's peaceful sleep is rocked by a violent home intrusion. He hears gunfire, and we next see him being shoved into a getaway car by his frantic mother.

Director Vika Evdokimenko, her co-writer Oliver Shuster, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan (AMERICAN HONEY) use a creative technique to take us along on Aamir's rough and tumble journey. It's a journey that ends with him unaccompanied in Calais' "Jungle", the largest unofficial refugee camp in Europe.

Based on a true story ... this clearly happens all too frequently. Aamir is on his own, separated from whatever is left of his family in Mosul, surrounded by so many others who also dream of hitching a ride to freedom across the English Channel. The horrific conditions of the camp feed the desperation, and Aamir meets a British volunteer who provides a glimmer of hope with a hug.

The 15 minute film stars Alan Assad and Jasmine Blackborow, and has received a BAFTA nomination. The problem of unaccompanied, undocumented children who are disappearing - or worse - is one that deserves more attention and effort to find a better and more humane solution, and we assume this is why Emma Stone came on board as a producer.
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Paddington 2 (2017)
8/10
the kindest bear
12 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear's creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington's "aunt" and "uncle", and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that's with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story's two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You've likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning ... it's a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan's dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it's in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it's that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing - I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it's a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that's not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant's commitment to the mission.
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9/10
about greatness by those who are also great
12 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. There is a certain feeling that envelops me while experiencing exquisite filmmaking. It's a singular blend of peacefulness and excitement as an anticipation of greatness builds in those early scenes. That feeling has rarely swept over me as quickly as the opening moments of this new film from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, a six-time Oscar nominee.

We need only watch Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) go through his morning ritual to understand that he is a fastidious individual to the point that could easily be described as obsessive-compulsive. It's 1955 London, and this is the House of Woodcock. He lives and works in a home that serves as the canvas for his art, as well as a place to lay his head for sleep. His art is dressmaking. It's also his obsession and purpose for living. This is the story of a man with transformative talent, who, despite his stated lack of need for those outside his solitary realm, is dragged into the humanity of love and caring.

This is an odd film about odd people. It's about a dressmaker and it features people making beautiful clothes ... yet it's not a fashion movie. No, this is the study of a genius man and his muse - who is also his lover - and their unconventional saga of love. It's also a consistently funny movie (and surprisingly so). Evidence that that 3 will always be a crowd, Woodcock's devoted sister and buttoned-up business partner Cyril (a terrific Leslie Manville) runs a tight ship, while simultaneously using her near preternatural ability to read his moods and idiosyncrasies and respond accordingly. He refers to her as "my old so-and-so" in a way that reflects a lifelong bond unlikely to be broken.

The woman who prevents this from simply being a story of a reclusive genius is the aforementioned muse Alma (played by the effervescent Vicky Krieps). Is she his muse, a model, or his lover? Well, yes to all. And yet those labels fall short in describing the subtleties and nuances of their relationship. When does she play which role in order to maintain the balance so key to his work? Alma is often confused about the best approach in any moment, but she reaches him as none before. When she tells Woodcock that a certain client "doesn't deserve your dress", it strikes a chord with him that no one else has ever understood. It's as close to 'getting him' as one can attain.

Ms. Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes. He is simply the greatest living actor, and maybe the best ever at his profession. Her blushy cheeks and determined eye of observation bely an inner strength that isn't necessarily obvious at first glance. The twist in this "romance" is unlike any other love story from the big screen. While he is haunted by the memories of a cherished mother, Alma presents a more immediate force of reckoning. Is she his tender savior or a menace of danger? It's fascinating to watch this unfold.

Most know by now that Daniel Day-Lewis has announced this will be his final acting role. We can only compare this to the retirements of Sandy Koufax or Jim Brown. We feel cheated by the void of greatness left by their departures, and if this is truly his final role, the DDL legacy is supremely secure. His meticulous performance shines not only through the quirky OCD moments, but even moreso in the seemingly spontaneous moments of bickering and annoyance ... moments that come across ad-libbed instead of scripted - these sound (and feel) like real life arguments!

Supposedly, filmmaker Anderson based the character on Spanish-Basque designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and Day-Lewis research added other elements of authenticity. It's their first movie together since the fantastic THERE WILL BE BLOOD ten years ago, and theirs seems to be a synchronicity that few actors and directors ever share. Mr. Anderson shot the movie himself, and his use of close-ups - faces, fingers, sewing needles - capture the delicacies as well as the power. The final piece of this glorious puzzle is the orchestral score provided by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. It's both prominent and intricate, with stunning piano work that stands on its own. This is a movie about greatness by those who are also great.
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6/10
more blush than flush
8 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. There really isn't an age where one's level of horniness is of interest to the outside world. The topic is certainly cringe-inducing as we listen in on two old men bemoaning their current state of dysfunction, while simultaneously recalling their glorious past conquests. Were these two gents played by lesser actors than screen legends Martin Landau and Paul Sorvino, there would be no need to tune in.

Writer/director Howard Weiner (a Neurologist and Harvard professor - thanks Google) delivers his first narrative feature film as a statement on old age, pride and dying. In Mr. Landau's final film, he plays Dr. (not Mister!) Abe Mandelbaum (I'm giving credit as a "Seinfeld" reference, whether intentional or not), who, along with his dementia-riddled wife Molly (Ann Marie Shea), moves into Cliffside Manor - a Retirement Center and Nursing Home. Abe quickly bonds with fellow resident Phil (Mr. Sorvino) as the two exchange dirty jokes and tales of yesteryear.

The other story line involves a nurse (Maria Dizzia, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE) who has reason to believe the biological father she's never met is a resident at the manor. The obvious development is whether Abe or the notoriously womanizing Phil might be her father. Other minor story lines include the center's director (Alexander Cook) who admittedly hates old people as he searches for a miracle potion to prevent his own aging, Molly's struggle with dementia which can only be soothed with her fur coat or relief in bed, and a last hurrah field trip to a local sports bar with the nurse, Abe and Phil.

If not for the vulgarities and three of the most uncomfortable sex scenes you've likely ever witnessed, this would have been a textbook Lifetime Channel movie. Watching two pros like Mr. Landau and Mr. Sorvino go at each other is quite a treat - though you best enjoy old men talking about sex, as the subtleties of pride, masculinity and self-identity of men are mere afterthoughts here. Oscar winner Landau (ED WOOD) deserved a send-off more in line with Harry Dean Stanton's LUCKY, but fortunately he has a 60 year career as his legacy.
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Django (2017)
6/10
story behind the legend
4 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Don't mistake this for either the Franco Nero (1966) or Jamie Foxx (2012) movie. This latest from writer/director Etienne Comar centers on Django Reinhardt, one of the most talented and influential musicians of the twentieth century. Based on the novel "Folles de Django" by Alexis Salatko, the story follows the challenges of his escape from German-occupied France.

He is already a renowned (and enigmatic) performer when the film kicks off in 1943 Ardennes, as Django and his band are being contracted by the Nazis to tour and entertain the troops. Of course, he refuses to sign the contract and tour under their terms with limit the style of music he can play. Because of this, Django and his family must flee and disappear underground, while they plan an escape to Switzerland.

His musical influence proliferated the area, and his influence and respect is clear at each step of his travels. In fact, it's the musical pieces and segments that really stand out here. Reda Kateb (A PROPHET, 2009) gives a terrific and expressive performance as Django, but the musical portions are so outstanding, that we find ourselves not as engaged in the personal saga of escape as we should. Clearly, the war and Nazis are a threat, and when Django says "I'm a musician. It's what I do", that serves as his admission that he takes an apolitical stance and does not envision himself as a hero to the people.

As a driving force behind European jazz, and being such an influence on so many guitar players, Django's legacy is something other than as a war icon. The film certainly could have benefitted from more attention to either how his music gained popularity, or what drove him to avoid any political notoriety until it was too late for many of his fellow Gypsies. Admittedly, his escape was crucial and led to his 1945 score, "Requiem for Gypsy Brothers", of which his conducting leads to the most emotional moment of the film.
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5/10
one for the festivals
4 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Having been well received at film festivals throughout 2017, this film is journey of patience for both the characters and its viewers. Co-directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have expanded their 2011 short film into their first feature length film, and though some evidence of 'stretching' is present, so is a somber, moody style that provides an interesting look and feel.

It's more mysterious and atmospheric than it is thriller, and at times it even has a "Twilight Zone" vibe. Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) are traveling together as brothers, though we never really believe they are related. An impending dread hovers around each move they make, and the film tortures/teases us with unspecified relationships and connections. Nick and Sam are semi-desperate and clearly on the run, yet it's not until the end when things somewhat come together.

Young Freedson-Jackson is the key to the film, and his facial reactions are critical. His astounding blank stares seem to hold meaning. It's a bleak film with a gloomy tone, and while I'm all for slow and deliberate story-telling, the technique is usually more effective when there is a reason for it. This is a deep cut indie that lacks mass appeal, but for those patient enough to commit, the supernatural aura will likely keep you engaged for the run time.
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Hostiles (2017)
7/10
Slow burn western with a message
3 January 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. When a filmmaker is influenced by one of the all-time classics, that filmmaker best deliver a movie that not only stands up to inevitable comparisons, but also one that has its own identity, playing as more than a copy. Writer/director Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by the late Oscar winner Donald E Stewart) succeeds on both counts even as he tips his Stetson to John Ford's western classic THE SEARCHERS.

If you are familiar with Mr. Cooper's CRAZY HEART and OUT OF THE FURNACE, then you know his style is never hurried, and to expect minimal dialogue. You might think of him as the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Cooper's characters tend to only say what must be said, and prefer to communicate through subtle gestures and actions that define their character. In this latest, he re-teams with Oscar winner Christian Bale, who plays the quietly simmering Captain Blocker. It's 1892, and the legendary Army officer/soldier/guide is ordered to escort a Cheyenne Chief and his family through dangerous and unchartered New Mexico territory, so that the Chief may die in peace in his native Valley of the Bears, Montana. During a career of brutal warfare against the Native Americans, Captain Blocker has developed a deep-seeded hatred, and only accepts the assignment after his pension is threatened.

The opening sequence immediately immerses us in the constant danger faced during this era. Rosamund Pike watches as her homesteading family is brutally slaughtered by Comanche warriors. She survives only by escaping into the woods, although it's a bit of stretch to believe that this homemaker marm could outwit the Comanches. Circumstances find Ms. Pike's traumatized character (the actress's go-to wide-eyed look) joining and complicating Captain Blocker's convoy.

Wes Studi plays Chief Yellow Hawk, and the film's only weakness is in his not having a more substantive role, as we are teased a couple of times with nuanced exchanges between he and Bales' Blocker. The stellar supporting cast includes Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Jesse Plemons, Timothy Chalamet, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson. Ben Foster also appears as an Army soldier accused of murder ... another addition to the convoy, as he is to be escorted to prison.

The somber film follows this traveling party as they move slowly and methodically across the open plains and wilderness. There are no moments of levity, as death and danger are constantly hovering. No real reason for optimism exists, and surviving the day is the only goal. Despite the appearance of little happening, there is much going on here for the characters and in commentary on the times. At its core, the story is about Blocker's reclamation of his soul and humanity; although redemption may not be possible as he recalls Julius Caesar and getting used to killing, but not to losing men.

Political correctness is avoided in many scenes, though the message is clear that the hatred between the Native Americans and the mostly Anglo settlers and soldiers stems from the unethical seizure of land by violent force. Amends are not possible even with a change of heart. It's in these moments where we desire a more in-depth look at the various native factions.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi works with some amazing vistas, landscapes and rock formations. He deftly balances the breathtaking beauty of the land with the intimacy of the mission. There is a relentless undercurrent of simmering emotion throughout the film, much of which comes courtesy of Christian Bale. Sporting a mustache to rival Poirot, Bale is remarkably adept at silently expressing disgust, rage, resolve and resignation. His groans and grunts convey as much as soliloquies for many actors. While he feels remorse and seeks redemption, we are left with the not-especially-upbeat message that we are what we are.
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8/10
be a woman
28 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. "Be a dancer. Be a mother. Be a woman." It's a terrific and poignant moment in this short film from director James Bort and writer Stephane Landowski. That the line is delivered by screen legend Catherine Deneuve makes it all the more relevant, as we imagine the changes she has witnessed in her 60 year show business career.

Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" is the driving piece played throughout the story, as Emma (Dorothee Gilbert, the actual Prima Ballerina at Paris Opera Ballet) is on the brink of being named Ballerina at the Bolshoi. She has devoted her entire life to dance, and now carries a secret that could prevent her from attaining her goal. Her interactions with fellow dancer Victoire (Antonia Desplat) and their Ballet Master (Pierre Deladonchamps) underscore Emma's pressure and anxiety, but it's that scene with Ms. Deneuve and the final shot of the film that carry the most weight.

We get a glimpse of the pain and physical extremes required of these world class performers, and we also understand that the dance companies are the closest most get to real friendship and family. The stunning photography and bold use of colors and lighting are quite effective in helping us separate the woman from the dancer. It's a terrific message and especially on point today.
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8/10
it's the humanity that bonds
28 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. The Al-Shabaab Islamic terrorists have created escalating distrust between Christians and Muslims in eastern Africa. The border between Kenya and Somalia is especially treacherous. Director Katja Benrath brings us the harrowing true story from 2015 of the attack on a Mandera public bus where a group of Muslims stood in solidarity to protect fellow Christian passengers from a terrorist attack.

Writers Julia Drache and Brian Dunene show, in frightening detail, a slice of traumatic daily life that these folks face. This 18 minute gem follows a young woman as she takes the bus on a cross-country journey. We learn through her interactions with another passenger that her family was murdered by Muslim terrorists and she carries the anger with her on this trip to visit her sick mother.

It's an unfortunate aspect of human nature that we tend to condemn an entire group because of the actions of a few. This true story reminds us that in fact, it's the humanity that binds us, rather than tears us apart. Amazing strength and being committed to doing the right things in life, allowed these passengers to stand up to those committing atrocities under the same label (Muslims) that these folks hold dearly. It's a powerful story, and a terrific short film that reminds us that no matter how difficult doing the right thing can be, it's always worthwhile.
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9/10
a little attention goes a long way
27 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Few things are more disheartening and frustrating than seeing a child neglected by their parents. When that child is deaf or hearing-impaired, the actions of such parents cross over to infuriating. Such is the topic of this gut-wrenching short film from writer Rachel Shenton and director Chris Overton.

While we usually assume parents are focused on the best interests of the child, this expertly crafted film shows us just how easy it is for everyday life to impact our best intentions. Four year old Libby (Maisie Sly) is the youngest child in a typically busy home. Work, school and activities keep the others swarming around her - leaving young Libby in an isolated state of confusion. Libby is profoundly deaf, unable to communicate with her family, and rarely even interacts. Her mother (played by Rachel Fielding) is the on-the-go type who wants her daughter to be normal, and absent-mindedly yells "Bye Libby" as she heads out for her next errand.

When social worker/tutor Joanne (writer Shenton) is hired to prepare Libby for school, it isn't long before the two are conversing through sign-language and young Libby comes alive ... playing in the park and asking for orange juice. It's a beautiful thing to watch unfold.

Early on, the film addresses that Libby "does not qualify" for a cochlear implant, which apparently was the last bit of effort her mother expended in trying to make her "normal". The film is beautifully shot and carries the strong message that with a bit of support, deaf children can be mainstreamed into schools - though I do wish some more attention had been given to cochlear implants. Ending with a couple of sobering statistics, it's refreshing to know that Ms. Shenton is an activist supporting the deaf community.
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Coco (I) (2017)
8/10
yet another Pixar instant classic
27 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my two-decades long worshipping at the animated alter of Pixar, the trailer for this one just never struck a chord with me. Thank goodness there was a late night showing aboard my recent Disney cruise, or I might still not have caught this gem that ranks among Pixar's best ... and this is the studio that has gifted us the TOY STORY franchise, THE INCREDIBLES, UP, and INSIDE OUT - instant classics, each and every one.

Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina team up as co-writers and co-directors for the 19th feature film from Pixar Studios. It's the second Pixar film this year (CARS 3), but the first original (non-sequel) since 2015 (THE GOOD DINOSAUR, INSIDE OUT). This latest not only offers the most advanced visuals to date, it also features a complex story that touches on numerous topics: Mexican culture, family legacy, religious traditions, loyalty, following one's own path, respect for the elderly, and remembrance of those deceased. If all of that sounds a bit too heavy-handed and deep for kids, keep in mind that Pixar charmed us with UP, the story of a man whose wife dies - yet, they kept us laughing with one word ..."squirrel!"

The story focuses on young Miguel and his desire to sing and play guitar despite his long-standing family ban on music. Miguel is convinced he is related to the most famous Mexican performer in history, Ernesto de la Cruz, and he concocts a plan that corresponds to Dia de Muertos to convince his family that he must be allowed to play music. The film is respectful to this tradition as the living pay tribute to those who have passed. The deceased are invited back for this one night with beautiful flowers guiding them from the Land of the Dead to that of the living.

Miguel's adventure is quite a wild ride as he navigates the path between the living and the dead. Somehow the film is even a visual step up from the colorful beauty of UP and INSIDE OUT, with the city and the unique flying creature being exceptionally stunning. The Pixar charm and personality are evident throughout - even in Dante, the ever-present dog. Many Mexican celebrities and historical figures (including Frida Kahlo) are noted, but at its core, this is the story of a boy pursuing his dream, no matter the obstacles.

Pixar fans will be relieved to know that the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance, as does A113, and numerous other Easter eggs. John Ratzenberger keeps his Pixar streak alive, and though Anthony Gonzalez (Miguel), Gael Garcia Bernal (Hector) and Benjamin Bratt (Ernesto de la Cruz) all do fine work, this one is not so much about the voice acting as it is about the tremendous story and art work. Remarkably, Pixar has done it again ... an animated masterpiece that is among its finest yet. Parents should note that the film is rated PG, rather than G. There are talking skeletons and a couple of scenes that could frighten young kids.
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The Post (2017)
8/10
free press vs political power
24 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. It's the first time a movie marquee has read "Spielberg-Streep-Hanks", so expectations are sky high - and rightly so. The result is level of cinematic preciseness we don't often see. As an added bonus, it also features both historical and contemporary relevance - the type of relevance that forces us to consider where we stand and what type of society we prefer. So for the price of a ticket, we get Hollywood star power, a history lesson, and current societal commentary ... now that's a holiday bargain!

Meryl Streep stars as Katharine (Kay) Graham, the first female publisher of a major U.S. newspaper, and she delivers her most nuanced performance in years ... that of a conflicted woman coming to grips with her immense power at a time when many men believed she lacked the capacity for making such far-reaching and weighty decisions. Tom Hanks slides into the loafers of Ben Bradlee, the hard-charging editor of Ms. Graham's newspaper, The Washington Post. The role fits Hanks like a glove, and he even brandishes Bradlee's trademark growling speech pattern. Bradlee is laser-focused on what he believes is the right thing to do, and steadfast in his commitment to the cause.

Of course, the dilemma faced by these two involved the Pentagon Papers scandal of 1971. The film kicks off with a quick timeline of the political maneuverings that led to, and escalated, the Vietnam War. When Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) leaked documents from the Defense Department's study on decision-making during the Vietnam War, and the New York Times published some of the pages, the ramifications were numerous and the fallout was ugly. The complicated web of deceit and bad decisions spanned 5 Presidential administrations (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). It became obvious that those in power continued a war they knew we couldn't win. The cover-up was widespread and the string of lies were delivered by many. The government lost the people's faith, and then tried to crush the free press that had exposed its dirty secrets.

It's only been a couple of years since SPOTLIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture, and now that film's Oscar winning writer Josh Singer teams with Liz Hannah on a script that is elevated by an extraordinary cast and crew. We get the real feel of the organized chaos of a newsroom, and it's a thing of beauty. The clacking of typewriters, exuberant phone conversations, and a cloud of cigarette smoke all blend to create the fabric of an institution designed and intended to deliver the truth. As with all things, it's never quite so simple. We learn of the historical collusion between press and politics, as reporters and editors comingled with politicians, only to draw the line when deemed necessary. Both sides have flaws, yet as citizens, we simply can't tolerate the government manipulating and even quashing the free press - a free press designed to protect the governed, not those that govern (per the Supreme Court decision).

Spielberg has delivered a master class of ethics vs legalities vs political power, touching on not just the responsibilities of all parties, but most crucially on the conflicting objectives of a free press (making money) and the government system (getting elected) it is charged with holding accountable. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (two time Oscar winner, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER'S LIST) captures the authenticity of the newsroom, the intimacy of private discussions, and the fascinating look back at typesetting machines and a newspaper delivery system that silently forces us to recognize the power of today's internet.

As you would expect, the supporting cast is remarkable and deep. Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood (as Robert McNamara), Alison Brie (Kay's daughter), Carrie Coon (reporter Meg Greenfield), Sarah Paulson (as Bradlee's wife), Jesse Plemons (attorney Roger Clark), and Michael Stuhlbarg (as NY Times publisher Abe Rosenthal) all bring realism to their roles. Two particular standouts are Tracy Letts (Ms. Coon's real life husband) as Kay Graham's trusted advisor Fritz Beebe, and Bob Odenkirk as The Post reporter Ben Bagdikian who meets with Ellsberg.

Gender inequality of the era is front and center for many scenes - sometimes even a bit too showy or distracting. The prime example is the scene where Ms. Graham is leaving the Supreme Court through a sea of silently admiring women - an unbelievably disproportionate crowd make-up. The gender point is made clearly through the position of Kay Graham and her actions, and no further proverbial slaps upside the head were required for the audience to "get it". A rare Hindenburg joke is tossed in, and Bradlee is referred to as a pirate ... two attempts to lighten the mood on a story that deserves serious attention. Composer John Williams' score is never over the top, and perfectly complements the various conversations throughout. The film is quite clearly meant to impress how history repeats itself = those in power believing they are above all, while the free press tries to expose the abuses. It also makes the point that we as citizens must remain vigilant in our pursuit of the truth, as all sides have an agenda ... sometimes it's as complicated as covering up bad decisions, while other times it's as simple as driving up the stock price. With its cliffhanger ending, Spielberg's film could be viewed as a prequel to the fantastic 1976 film ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and that's pretty lofty company.
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Molly's Game (2017)
7/10
Molly and X and FBI
24 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin's dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to 'the fast and the furious'. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom's memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell ... which is right in Mr. Sorkin's wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide. The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don't mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly's story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly's brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn't be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt - even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn't name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly's games. Hints are provided such as "green screen", New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it's quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly's first boss, a very funny Chris O'Dowd, Brian d'Arcy as "Bad Brad", Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly's case, and it's likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it's one woman's journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" is used as a comparable for protecting one's own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey's young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It's designed to wrap up Molly's inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.
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7/10
your money or his life
22 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. The grandson of J Paul Getty, the wealthiest man in the world, was kidnapped while in Rome in 1973. That fascinating story holds more than enough drama for an engaging movie, and certainly did not need the notoriety or artistic challenges brought on by the Kevin Spacey scandal. With filming completed and a release date mere weeks away, director Ridley Scott made the decision to erase all evidence of Mr. Spacey's J Paul Getty, and replace him with Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. The "do-over" is nearly seamless and it's not a stretch to believe the second version turned out better than the first.

The precisely descriptive titled 1995 John Pearson book "Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J Paul Getty" is adapted by screenwriter David Scarpa, and it's the storytelling instincts of Mr. Ridley, and remarkable acting of Mr. Plummer and Michelle Williams that keep us engaged for the 132 minute run time.

16 year old John Paul Getty III is played by rising star Charlie Plummer ("Boardwalk Empire", no relation to Christopher), and though this is the story of his kidnapping and violent torture, the movie mostly focuses on the contrasting personalities of his devoted mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his miserly grandfather J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the wealthiest man in the world. She is a woman totally committed to her children while spurning the strings attached to family money. He, on the other hand, has devoted his life to money and winning, ignoring anything that might be construed as loyalty or compassion to family. Having just starred as Ebenezer Scrooge in THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS, this is just about the easiest transition an actor could hope for, given so little prep time for a new role.

The billionaire Getty refuses to pay the ransom, instead dispatching his security specialist Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate the boy's release. As a former CIA operative, Chase misreads both the situation with the abductors and the strength and determination of Gail. We get periodic looks at the captors and the environment where the grandson is being held. Romain Duris (THE BEAT THAT MY HEAR SKIPPED) is excellent as Cinquanta, the captor who spends the most time with the boy. The "ear" scene is explicit enough to elicit groans and shrieks from the audience, so be advised.

"We are not like you" is what the younger Getty tells us as narrator, and he's right. The ultra-rich live in a different world than you and I (assuming you aren't one of "them"), and that's never more clear than when the elder Getty explains his preference for things over people. While we never empathize with the rich miser, director Scott at least helps us understand what made him tick. To him, life was a negotiation and it's all about winning - though his definition of winning could be debated.

The two octogenarians, Mr. Scott (80) and Mr. Plummer (88) work wonders with the outstanding Ms. Williams to make this a relatable story and captivating movie. The elder Getty died in 1976, two months to the day after Howard Hughes, while the grandson Getty had a massive drug overdose in 1981, and died in poor health in 2011, leaving behind his son, actor Balthazar Getty.
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I, Tonya (2017)
8/10
a perfect landing
20 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember "the incident" in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn't the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan ... and that's only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it's a career-defining performance ... funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn't the expected bleak biopic, but rather it's a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding's abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya's husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and "current" interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a "Hard Copy" reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most "notorious" figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).
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7/10
an artistic lustful romance
20 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Although confusing the two is understandable, there is a difference between a story of romance and a story of love. That's not to say that the two can't overlap; in fact, they often do. In movies, romance is the dish most often served because it's usually more interesting. Watching the flirtatious dance and often awkward exploratory stage of what was once called the rituals of courting offers a writer, actor and director infinitely more possibilities than what we associate with the years of deep connection labeled as love. Andre Aciman's novel is adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame, and 3 times Oscar nominated for Best Director) and the script leans heavily on romance ... lustful romance, to be specific.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE) is an expert at making movies that engage our senses. His movies delicately tease us - they slowly absorb us into the emotions and feelings of the characters. Very few filmmakers have the skill to subtly seduce the viewer, and draw us into the story so that we are no longer merely observing. It's nuanced story-telling at the highest level.

Elio's (Timothee Chalamet) family spends the summer at their estate in northern Italy. You've likely never met a more cultured family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned professor, his mother (Amira Casar) a recognized translator, and Elio himself is a musical prodigy who whiles away the days by transcribing classical music and reading every book he can get his hands on. Oh, he also flirts with the local girls because he is, after all, a 17 year old boy. His intelligence and corresponding wit is of a much older person, standing in stark contrast to his innocence and childlike maturity level with all other pieces of life's puzzle.

Elio's world is rocked when his father's newest research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), shows up. An "Americano" who offsets his extreme politeness with an unrefined "Later" when departing any encounter, Oliver explodes on the scene like a Greek God. He and Elio have an initial passive-aggressiveness towards each other as they test the boundaries for weakness, and more importantly, interest. Things move very slowly as the passion and curiosity brews during their bike rides, walks through the apricot orchards (forbidden fruit), swimming in every watering hole, and competitive banters on intellectual topics. There is a sensuality to most every scene, though those same scenes are filled with unspoken tension.

The sunlit beauty as each summer day passes initially masks the emotions, and the stunning setting, people, colors, and music is accentuated by the camera work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Nature is on display in its full glory; not just through trees, sunlight, and water, but in that elusive and unexplained connection between two people so strongly drawn to one another.

Director Guadagnino's film easily slides into the romantic sub-genre of such films as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAROL, and the artistic approach provides a gentleness that even the peach scene can't undo. Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be everywhere these days) has an extraordinary father/son scene near the end which reminds us that each one of us has a story on how life may or may not have turned out as planned. The gut-wrenching pain with sharing that story usually means it remains untold; however, the invaluable lesson is not lost on Elio. First love and first heartbreak bring both emotional ecstasy and emotional devastation, and whether you believe the film's statement "We have less to give each new person", you'll likely agree that the use of Psychedelic Furs "Love My Way" is spot on.
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8/10
beautiful film, creature, performances
7 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Recent release THE JUSTICE LEAGUE is filled with superheroes, but filmmaker-extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro finds his league of misfits and outcasts to be much more interesting - as do I. The numerous possible descriptions of this movie are all accurate, yet alone, each falls short: a fairy tale, fable, monster movie, unconventional romance, sci-fi, cold war saga, and commentary on societal misfits. What is also true is that it's a gorgeous film with terrific performances, and it pays lovely tribute to the classics.

A government research facility in 1962 Baltimore is the setting, and "The Asset" being secured and studied is an amphibious creature that was captured in South America by a sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and his electric cattle prod. Now the military, and a 5- star General played by Nick Searcy, is in charge. The lead scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg certainly has a different agenda than the military, whose focus seems to be more on preventing the Russians (closer than you think) from stealing the asset than in actually seizing the rare scientific opportunity for advancement.

While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted, a member of the nighttime cleaning crew - a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) – makes a very personal connection with the creature through nutritious snacks, Big Band music and sign language. This is the enchanting portion of the story and is admittedly (by del Toro) inspired by the 1954 classic CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (a personal favorite of mine). Elisa and the creature experience a romantic courtship not unlike what we have seen in many other love stories … that is, if you overlook the amphibious being that makes up half of this couple. In fact, "going with" the story is crucial to one's enjoyment. Sit back and let the magic and wonder and fantastical nature of del Toro's imagination sweep you away – just as it has done for Elisa.

There are many elements of the film worth exploring, and it's likely to take another viewing to capture many of them. The band of misfits is comprised of the creature (Doug Jones), Elisa (Ms. Hawkins), Elisa's wise and wise-cracking co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa's neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay graphics design artist. These are the nice folks/beings who make up the world that seems to be run by bullies and predators (sound familiar?). There is even a religious debate here as it's mentioned that the creature was treated by a God in his natural environment, and a brief discussion is had over what might a God look like. All of the actors are superb, and Miss Hawkins delivers her second knockout performance of the year (the other being MAUDIE).

"The future" is a central theme of the story, though Elisa is most focused on now – how to find some happiness in a world that has been so challenging. Elisa realizes she and the creature are more similar than not, and she feels his pain each time the power-hungry Strickland (Shannon) pops him with the electric cattle prod. There is an ethereal beauty (and yes, sensuality) to the scenes with Elisa and the creature, and it even leads to a terrific song ("You'll Never Know" by Renee Fleming) and dance dream sequence. In addition, you'll notice many nods and tributes to classics such as Mr. Ed, Dobie Gillis, Betty Grable, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple, and Carmen Miranda singing "Chica Chica Boom Chic". It's also no accident that the apartments of Elisa and Giles are located directly above a palatial old movie theatre that is struggling to make ends meet. All of these pieces are tied together as Mr. del Toro honors the art forms he so adores.

For those who enjoy such detail, it should be noted that the color green plays a huge role throughout the film … the water, the creature, the uniforms, the furniture, the walls – even the Jello, the pie and Strickland's (teal) Cadillac. The use of color ties in the ever- present mythology, and the theme of meanness and power versus kindness and love.

Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds to the magical feel with his camera work and lighting that perfectly complements the characters and tone. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. Guillermo det Toro is one of the most creative and inventive contemporary filmmakers, and though this one may fall a tick below his masterpiece PAN'S LABRYNTH, it is sure to dazzle and mesmerize those who give it a chance … and let's hope there are many who do!
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Darkest Hour (2017)
7/10
a turning point
7 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.

It's May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he's the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendolsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill's adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision- maker in this crucial time.

Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation's freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.

We can talk all you'd like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman's Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it's actually kind of thrilling.

The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the "V" hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, "I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous." It's this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright's film.

We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It's an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.

Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan's masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill's most famous speeches: the "Never Surrender" speech to Parliament and "We shall fight them on the beaches …" prompted by the red glow of the "on air" radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman's performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that's worth a ticket and a gold statue.
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Wonder Wheel (2017)
5/10
nostalgic noise
7 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. It's worth saying again – Woody Allen (age 82), regardless of what you think of him personally, is remarkable in his ability to create, write and direct a new movie each and every year. That being said, after watching his latest, it should be noted that he is the one filmmaker who really shouldn't ever write a story with a step-daughter as a character … especially if romance is involved. Sometimes we just can't separate the art from the artist, no matter how hard we try.

The setting is Coney Island in the 1950's, and our narrator is a lifeguard recounting the 'one summer' story of a carousel operator, his beaten-down (and beaten-up) wife, and a surprise visit from the husband's adult daughter. The lifeguard is Mickey, a dreamer and would-be writer played by Justin Timberlake. The carousel operator is known as Humpty and is an alcoholic lout played by Jim Belushi, while his wife Ginny, disillusioned that life has crushed her dreams, is played by Kate Winslet. Humpty's daughter Carolina is on the run from her mobster husband, and seems to cause trouble without really trying. She is played by Juno Temple. Ginny's young son Richie (Jack Gore) also lives with them. He is a pyromaniac and movie fanatic – two pastimes effective at avoiding school.

Director Allen utilizes a beautiful color palette combined with nostalgic sounds and music to create a look that he then blends with a story and performances that seem to intentionally knock-off Tennessee Williams. Belushi, Timblerake and Winslet in particular come across as overly-theatrical in their approach to heavy dialogue – these characters are defined by what they say, not what they do.

Ginny plots to keep Humpty off the booze, so he doesn't hit her; all the while, she is sneaking off to enjoy the talents of a young lifeguard who lacks the fortitude to prevent her from falling too hard. Humpty is thrilled for a do-over with Carolina and reverts to treating her as his little girl … despite the mob contract lingering over her head. It's impossible to miss the similarities between the redheaded Richie and young Alvy from Mr. Allen's classic ANNIE HALL (who described living under the Cyclone).

As Ginny half-efforts parenting her troubled young son, she also juggles the guilt she carries from cheating on her first husband. Simultaneously, Mickey the lifeguard starts falling for Carolina, as the mobsters close in. Periodically Woody flashes his writing brilliance, as in this exchange between Carolina and Mickey: She says, "You've been around the world", and he responds, "Yeah, but you've been around the block." So despite the look and feel of nostalgia, the themes are timeless … cheating and abusive spouse, disillusioned adults, and youngsters dreaming of a better future.

The too-often blustery dialogue syncs with the too-often over- acting, yet cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (winner of 3 Oscars – APOCALYPSE NOW, REDS, THE LAST EMPEROR) keeps things visually appealing throughout. The only "quiet" moments occur as Richie is lighting yet another fire. Recurring issues of migraines, booze, stress, moodiness, and rain are prevalent, and perhaps the saving grace is that we are left singing Jo Stafford's "You Belong to Me".
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8/10
Indifference comes at a cost
6 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/Director Yang Qui's exquisite short film has performed very well at festivals, and even became the first Chinese production to win the short film Palm d'Or at Cannes.

The film opens on a stoic police officer filling out a report by asking two parents questions about their missing 13 year old daughter who never came home after school. While the father accepts the direction to "come back tomorrow", the mother is carrying some guilt along with the expected desperation and concern over her missing daughter. Remarkably, this is the screen debut of Li Shuxian. Her performance as the mother is at the level of a screen veteran, and we actually feel her pain and anguish.

Frustration with "the system" seems to know no boundaries by country or culture. The indifference and unwillingness to get involved spreads across the police, a teacher, other citizens, and a doctor – each who compounds the mother's feeling of isolation. The expert camera work and lighting provide an ominous tone, as we are reminded that although society as a whole may be cold and inattentive, individuals are very much involved and balancing emotions in an effort to get by. So, as this is one mother's worst nightmare, the excruciating and escalating intensity is a reminder that most of us have been more fortunate … and maybe indifferent in our own way.
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Thelma (2017)
7/10
a splash of Carrie
3 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Joachim Trier continues to deliver projects with his frequent writing partner and collaborator Eskil Vogt that cause us to take note of their intriguing and always (so far) interesting filmmaking. They may not be the fastest workers – OSLO, AUGUST 31 came out in 2011 and it has been over two years since LOUDER THAN BOMBS – but we can't help but appreciate their original stories and unique vision.

A chilling opening of a father/young daughter hunting trip sets an uneasy tone for the rest of the film. We then flash forward to that young girl heading off to college. Eilie Harboe is excellent as Thelma, a quiet young woman leaving home and her protective parents for the first time. Thelma has had a restrictive Christian upbringing and she's now a withdrawn, socially inept college student, simultaneously anxious to explore her new freedom and guilt-ridden with every new experience.

The school library is the setting for the first chance encounter between Thelma and Anja (Kaya Wilkins). We witness Thelma's blushing and uneasiness, and soon birds are crashing into the windows as Thelma writhes on the floor in full seizure. The girls cross paths again and the flirtations are followed by a heavy dose of Thelma prayers. This independence and sexual attractions leads Thelma down the ever-progressive road of dancing, booze, drugs (sort of), and sex – the only thing missing is rock 'n roll. An awkward dinner with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Peterson and Henrik Rafelsen) leads to more guilt and more seizures, as the two appear connected.

Director Trier's film is not easily categorized. It's part drama, thriller, romance, supernatural horror, and religious commentary. There are some supernatural similarities to two films from the 1970's – CARRIE and THE FURY, and the abundance of religious imagery leans heavily towards the former.

Some unusual camera angles and shots add visual interest to what for much of its runtime is an amorous courtship between the two leads. There is an always present cloak of uncertainty courtesy of the extreme helicopter parents and Thelma's unpreparedness in dealing with adult feelings. We instinctively realize there's more going on than the parents let on, but these are essentially quiet people who hold much inside. That theme carries over to the movie as a whole, which is a quiet, but sneaky film on the power of thought … both positive and negative.
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Kaleidoscope (II) (2016)
6/10
It changes as it's twisted
3 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Why is it that estranged mothers always seem to show up when we are frantically trying to clean up all evidence of a murder that took place in our apartment? OK, maybe that's not really a common occurrence, but it's certainly at the heart of this Hitchcockian psychological mind-bender from writer/director Rupert Jones. His brother, the very talented and always interesting Toby Jones, stars as the quiet ex-con attempting to get his life on track.

A pre-credit opening scene has Carl (Toby Jones) borrowing an uncharacteristically flashy (and quite hideous) shirt from a helpful neighbor for his date which was arranged online. After passing out on the sofa, Carl discovers his date Abby (Sinead Matthews) dead in the bathroom and flashes back to a brief moment of violence. Both Carl and we viewers are disoriented – a sensation that sticks with us until the end credits roll.

An ominous voicemail leads to a visit from Carl's mother, played by Anne Reid. What follows are Mommy issues galore (on par with PSYCHO in this department). Mother and son have irreconcilable differences over something in the past, but she clearly understands his 'tendencies' better than he does – especially those related to women, alcohol and violence.

Director Jones has a very interesting visual style, as well as a unique approach to story-telling. He expects commitment and attention from viewers, and rewards those who play along. Despite the claustrophobic feel of Carl's apartment, there are some creative camera angles to go with the imposing nighttime shots of the building's exterior.

The three main actors are all excellent. Ms. Reid is a screen veteran who has spent most of her career on British projects, and she excels as the slightly creepy, dominant figure in Carl's life. Mr. Jones and Ms. Matthews, as Carl and Abby, have one exchange that really stands out. Abby: "You're a sneaky snake" Carl: "What do you think that makes you?" Abby: "Nasty" It's such a raw moment, and a turning point (along with the voicemail) in their evening. Much of our effort goes into slowly assembling the pieces and clues that are doled out along the way, and it takes a sharp eye to catch some of them … while we are challenged by others to determine if they are dreams, or actual memories. A kaleidoscope changes color, shape and perception as it's twisted – just like this movie. It's a fun ride if you enjoy the twists and turns of determining which parts of a nightmare are reality and which parts are something else.
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7/10
Apollo funk greatness
3 December 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. Barely a year after the 1969 Woodstock festival, both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were dead. Fortunately, the movie cameras were rolling to capture their electrifying performances for generations to come. A few years later, director Martin Scorsese (an assistant director on WOODSTOCK) was there to capture on film the final live performance of The Band (and many famous friends) in THE LAST WALTZ. Jump ahead to 2014 and co- directors Cory Bailey and Jeff Broadway were at the historic Apollo Theater to capture the 3 night sold out shows honoring Daptone Records.

The Harlem venue and stage has seen many memorable performances from icons such as James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, but even according to historian Billy "Mr. Apollo" Mitchell, this was an event for the ages. Among those delivering the highest level of soul, funk, gospel and R&B music were The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, Naomi Shelton, Como Mamas, Antibalas, The Budos Band, and of course, the great Sharon Jones.

In addition to the energetic and energizing performances, the film mixes in some back story for many of the artists, plus insight from Daptone Records co-founders Gabe Roth (aka Bosco Mann) and Neal Sugarman (they know plenty about funk!). If the on stage dynamics weren't so amazing to watch, we might wish for even more history being told, but not much can compete with Sharon Jones kicking off her shoes for a rousing rendition of "Get Up and Get Out".

I promise you've never heard a cancer-free proclamation like the one from Ms. Jones, who was also front and center in the 2015 documentary MISS SHARON JONES!. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she passed away a year after the Apollo shows. It should also be mentioned that Charles Bradley, a centerpiece of Daptone Records passed away just a couple of months ago (September 2017). We can celebrate their performances just as much as the mixture of black and white who perform together on stage, while the cheering and dancing in the crowd comes from a surprising blend of the same. It's a stark reminder of how music can unify even while most of society fragments.
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Voyeur (II) (2017)
6/10
watching and watched
30 November 2017
Greetings again from the darkness. We are watching the final product of filmmakers watching a reporter watching a man whose hobby is watching those who don't know they are being watched. Lacking a single redeeming individual, the film's creep factor slithers towards 11 on the (SPINAL TAP) scale.

It's understandable if you assume this is the story of a pathetic and disgusting Aurora, Colorado motel owner who, for many years, quietly leered at his guests from a self-constructed perch in the attic. Gerald Foos methodically documented the sexual actions of the Manor House Motel guests, which numbered 2000-3000 per year. If his actions aren't remarkable (not in a good way) enough, Mr. Foos actually married not one, but two women who were complicit in his hobby.

In 1980, renowned reporter and author ("from age 15 to 80") Gay Talese received a letter from Gerald Foos, kicking off a three decade relationship culminating in a controversial feature article in "The New Yorker" and a book entitled "The Voyeur's Motel". Once Mr. Foos agrees to have his name published, co-directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury jump on board to document the final steps in Mr. Talese's writing and research process. It's here that we enter the oddest man cave you'll likely see. In the basement of Talese's immaculate Manhattan brownstone is not just his writing office, but also a lifetime of research and writing … boxes and shelves of material that will surely one day be part of a museum or university collection.

The unexpected parallels between writer and subject are made clear. Both are voyeurs and both are collectors. As a journalist, Talese observes the actions of people, while Foos is quite obviously the definition of a Peeping Tom. Talese collects the years of research for his writings, while Foos shows off his extraordinary sports memorabilia collection (also in his basement). Beyond these similarities, what stands out most are the unbridled egos of these two men. Both seemed most focused on getting or keeping their names and stories in the headlines. Of course, Talese has built a career on his name and reputation, while the aging Foos simply sees this as his legacy that somehow deserves historical prominence.

The filmmakers remain more focused on Talese than Foos, and that takes us inside "The New Yorker" where the editors are justifiably concerned about a single-source story – one that without Talese's name attached would likely have never made it past an initial perusal. The aftermath of publication reminds us that we've seen con men before, and there is little joy in being taken on a long ride of deceit. Perhaps the best description of what we see on screen is that it's a sideshow of ego and the need to be seen (watched).
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