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Carax and Sparks fly
Greetings again from the darkness. The anticipation of seeing a film directed by Leos Carax (HOLY MOTORS, 2012), and written and scored by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks fame, is derived from expecting the unexpected ... experiencing something we've never before experienced cinematically. And although the film is likely to be quite divisive - beloved by some, dismissed by others, confusing for all - the ingenuity, creativity, and risk-taking are quite something to behold. As for the narrative coherence? Well that's quite a different topic.
A mere six weeks ago I watched and reviewed Edgar Wright's excellent documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, where Ron and Russell discussed their affinity and vision for movies, despite a few near misses over the years. This particular material was originally conceived as a rock opera album, and it's probable that very few directors would even attempt the transition to the big screen. It would be equally challenging as an opera, a play, or a stage musical. In simple terms, this is a musical-drama-romance; however in reality, it's confoundingly difficult to define or describe.
The opening sequence begins in a recording studio with director Carax at the sound board as the Sparks band performs "So May We Start?" Soon they are marching the streets of Santa Monica, joined in singing the song by the lead actors of the movie we are about to watch. The narrator tells us, "Breathing will not be tolerated", which takes on a touch of irony during a pandemic.
Adam Driver stars as Henry, an offbeat stand-up comedian, and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as Ann, a popular opera singer. Henry bills himself as 'The Ape of God' and performs an abrasive comedy act that is interactive with his audience. He psyches up for each performance by shadow-boxing in a robe while puffing on a cigarette. Ann is often shown alone on stage (Catherine Trottman sings the opera parts, while Ms. Cotillard sings the rest). The couple is engaged when we open, and they later marry, have a child (the titular Annette), and take different approaches to their career. Henry and Ann are polar opposites and that's best exemplified by how they end their respective shows: he 'moons' his audience, while she gracefully bows in appreciation.
Henry is a man filled with love, yet clueless on how to love. He's a tortured soul - the kind that doesn't believe he deserves the life he has and finds a way to self-destruct. Henry and Ann are passionate lovers and their duet "We Love Each Other So Much" has the most unusual timing that you'll see in a musical; in fact, the musical interludes (with repeating lyrics) often arise at the most inopportune (or at least unexpected) moments. Ms. Cotillard's talents are never fully utilized, while much of the film's weight is carried by Mr. Driver.
After tragedy strikes, the story becomes quite bizarre with Henry and "Baby Annette". To say more would spoil that which should remain surprising. Simon Helberg's role as conductor increases in the second half, and his character's past with Ann lends itself to the complexity of relationships. This is a dark love story, and one that befuddles right up to the end. Director Carax and the Mael brothers could slide into the Avant-garde corner, but that might scare off even more potential viewers, so let's use 'fantastical' instead. Sometimes it tries a bit too hard to shock or agitate, and the stories are a bit discordant, but it's all for a good cause: provocation. The film, dedicated to Carax's daughter Nastya (who appears in the opening sequence), sometimes feels like the wild nightmares that you (mostly) don't want to end. And that's about all that should be said to preserve the experience.
This Musical opens in theaters on August 6, 2021 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 20, 2021.
Nine Days (2020)
what's your approach to life?
Greetings again from the darkness. The meaning of Life is an ambitious topic to tackle for any filmmaker, but certainly as a first feature film. Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda not only doesn't shy away from existential questions, he has found a creative way of exploring these, leaving us with plenty to discuss after viewing. His approach is often bleak and slow-moving, yet his film excels in pushing us to examine our own attitude and appreciation for the gift of life.
Winston Duke (US, 2019) stars as Will, a kind of guardian angel charged with selecting the replacement souls after deaths occur on his watch. Will has a wall of old-style tube TVs, each with its own VCR wired up. He spends his time watching folks go about their lives. He takes notes and maintains files. See, those he watches are the ones Will previously selected for life. He picks his team, but he no longer plays the game (although he was once alive). His job now is to tweak humanity in the right direction by selecting "good" souls who are tough enough to handle life - not overly sensitive types, and certainly not those too self-centered.
There is no denying Oda's film is high-concept, and some may outright dismiss his premise. What if pre-life was a competition to determine worthiness? Will sets up nine days of interviews for the next round of souls. Of course, some won't last the full nine days, but the process involves a series of quizzes as the candidates watch the wall of TVs and offer up their answers to Will's questions. Well, all but one, that is. Emma (Zazie Beetz, JOKER, 2019) is a free-spirited soul who sees Will for what he is and what he was. She answers his questions with her own questions, or simply states that she can't answer. He is intrigued and frustrated by her willingness to play this out in her own way.
Tony Hale ("Veep") and Bill Skarsgard (IT, 2017) are a couple of the other candidates, and each has their moments to shine. Benedict Wong (DOCTOR STRANGE, 2015) plays Kyo, Will's co-worker and the one who assists him with the interview process. Kyo also strives to make sure Will maintains some humanity, despite a recent event that shook him to his core, and now has Will second-guessing himself. As Emma slowly gets Will to open up about his 'alive' time, we also see how Will recreates a special moment for the candidates as they are dismissed ... providing them with a taste of life.
A 'taste of life' is fitting because the point Oda is trying to make is that the best parts of life are emotions and sensations - the intangibles that bring joy, fear, and sadness. It's not all cupcakes and unicorns, and being so tough to block out the senses is not the best way of living. Without him realizing, Emma helps Will re-connect with his inner-being of when he was alive. His re-awakening is a highlight.
The candidates are informed that, if chosen, their memories will be wiped clean, yet "you'll still be you". This conforms to the theory that much of who we are is inherent at birth. Again, some may disagree. Oda's film will inspire thought and debate. If each of us aced our pre-life interviews, let's make the most of it! This is a terrific film with a unique look and style, and a standout performance from Winston Duke. We can only hope enough folks take the time to watch and think about the message.
Infinitum: Subject Unknown (2021)
can I get a Wytness
Greetings again from the darkness. In 2015, director Sean Baker's use of an iPhone to film TANGERINE was viewed as experimental or rogue. Since then, other filmmakers have utilized this method, though it's only been during the pandemic when filmmakers, desperate to create, have used the iPhone out of necessity. Such is the case with Matthew Butler-Hart, who not only utilized the mobile device for the majority of scenes, but also directed a couple of cameos remotely via Zoom. Co-written with his wife Tori Butler-Hart, who also stars, the film takes full advantage of empty streets and the absence of other people during the lockdown.
Ms. Butler-Hart stars as Jane, whom we first see as she awakens alone in the attic of a house. She's gagged and bound to a chair, with no recollection of how she got there. She also experiences visions in flashes - some type of memories - as she looks for an escape route. She notices that she's under surveillance, but after her initial stage of fright, she becomes quite determined to free herself. And that's where things get really interesting. In the mode of GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) or HAPPY DEATH DAY (2017), only without Sonny and Cher music or a homicide, Jane is constantly re-awakening to find herself back in the same attic, in the same chair, with the same constraints.
Sir Ian McKellan plays the founder of Wytness Research Centre and Conleth Hill ("Game of Thrones") plays a scientist. These two talking heads (filmed via Zoom) serve up the Quantum science overview that provides the structure of Jane's situation, and also offer a couple of short breaks for Jane, who appears in nearly every other scene. The Wytness Centre holds the key to her situation, and we are informed that the work there is "propelling human evolution to a staggering new dimension." Jane stays focused on solving the puzzle that will allow her to escape the house (mysterious staircase and all) and track down what is causing her to experience these events time and time again. There is a video game feel to this as Jane frantically tries to reach the next level of escape, only to be zapped back to the starting point with each failure. Although time is relative and a parallel universe is in play here, we can't help but notice Jane seems to lack the food, water, and basic hygiene one would require. That point has little impact on the creativity of the story and situation. Rorschach tests appear in certain places, as does a mint condition VW van. What we don't see are people, though Quantum science does hold infinite possibilities.
Ms. Butler-Hart delivers a strong performance and keeps us interested in her character as she carries the film. Mr. Butler-Hart delivers excellent "camera" work, and the ultra-low budget film shows what can be accomplished. The lockdown has caused isolation and uncertainty for many, and mind games can certainly affect one's perspective. The Butler-Harts have plans to convert this little film to a graphic novel and TV series, and it appears the "time" is right for both.
Coming to Theaters and VOD on August 6, 2021.
M Knight keeps swinging
Greetings again from the darkness. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) and UNBREAKABLE (2000) created a movie bond with filmmaker M Night Shyamalan that will always exist. In other words, I continue to go into each of his projects with hopeful expectations of another classic. Of course, some have been pretty good (SPLIT, 2016), while others are barely watchable (THE LAST AIRBENDER, 2010). His latest lands somewhere in the middle, but does feature a stunning beach setting (Dominican Republic) - one whose tropical beauty hides a sinister reality.
The film's synopsis is captured in the trailer: tourists experience a mystifying and terrifying phenomenon while on a day trip to a gorgeous secluded beach. The director adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel "Sandcastle", written by Pierre-Oscar Levy and Frederick Peeters. Shyamalan specializes in one thing: big and creative ideas. He is a risk-taking filmmaker, but one not always focused on execution, coherence, or details. Especially awkward here is the dialogue. None of these characters talk like real people. Lending to the awkwardness is the attention given to each character's name and occupation ... except for the kids, where age is the significant data.
Due to the nature of the story (and the effects of the beach), the cast is significantly larger than the number of characters. We ride along with one family as they first approach the luxury resort. Insurance actuary Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his wife, museum curator Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are vacationing with their 11 year old daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and 6 year old son Trent (Nolan River). The couple clearly have a strained relationship and appear headed for a break-up. Encouraged by the resort manager to spend the day at a secret remote beach, they are joined by Charles (Rufus Sewell), a surgeon, his calcium-deficient trophy wife Chrystal (Abbey Lee), their young daughter Kara, and the doctor's elderly mother Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Another couple is there as well, nurse Jarin (Ken Leung) and his wife Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a psychologist. Already at the beach when they arrive is rap star Mid-sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre), replete with bloody nose and the corpse of the woman who accompanied him.
It's best not to go into specifics about the progression of things for these folks on the beach, but it can be noted that they frantically try to find a way back to the resort. When all attempts prove unsuccessful, that ridiculous dialogue fills in many of the gaps for us, though you should know the science doesn't hold up ... think of it as fantasy instead. As their day at the beach moves forward, other actors take over: Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie are teenage Trent and Maddox, Eliza Scanlen is Kara, and later, Emun Elliott and Embeth Davidtz become Trent and Maddox. It becomes frustrating for viewers as the professions are emphasized: Guy spouts statistics at every turn, Prisca discloses she's not a pathologist, and Patricia attempts to get everyone to bring their feelings to group. Ugh.
Despite the many missteps and the overall mess of characterizations, Shyamalan (who also appears as the driver who drops them at the beach) does serve up a creative idea - one that will likely get viewers questioning their own mortality. Mental illness is addressed in a crude manner with Rufus Sewell (a fine actor) bearing the brunt of a poor script, while physical afflictions and the effects of age come off a bit better. The strange looking woman serving up custom cocktails at the resort is Francesca Eastwood (Clint's daughter), and Shyamalan's patented plot twist ending does make sense and even has a contemporary feel to it.
oklahoma fish out of water
Greetings again from the darkness. It's understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he's a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.
Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he's on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She's been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case - she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina's murder.
You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda's roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the 'rich' entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.
Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who'll do anything for "his little girl". But he's no Jason Bourne. He's the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn't speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn't comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie's precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill's frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie's artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.
The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story's methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna's music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles ... though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.
Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make it Through the Night". I'm guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill's character (and Damon's performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, "life is brutal".
Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30.
The Green Knight (2021)
stylish medieval mind-bender
Greetings again from the darkness. If you are at all inclined to see this movie, then I would encourage you to do so ... and brace yourself for a surreal and mystical treat unlike any other medieval tale previously adapted for the big screen. Writer-director David Lowery re-teams with A24, the studio that also distributed his critically-acclaimed 2017 film, A GHOST STORY, to deliver a trip for your senses based on the tale of Sir Gawain - a tale that's been told in various and often contradictory ways over many years.
Dev Patel (LION, 2016) stars as Gawain, the nephew of an ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT, 2018) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie, THE WITCH, 2015). When not imbibing with his friends, shaggy Gawain spends his time in the throes of intimacy with his paramour, Essel (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander sporting a pixie do). Young Gawain feels unworthy when he's amongst the knights and dreams of becoming an important man, so that he too may regale the King with his tales of adventure.
Gawain's mother (Sarita Choudhury), in an attempt to facilitate her son's dreams, uses her witchcraft to conjure up his first opportunity for greatness ... and the film's first visually stunning moment. We are mesmerized as The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, THE WITCH, 2015) makes his entrance riding a great steed into the room where the Knights are gathered at their Round Table. The Green Knight, best described as a giant Groot (from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), puts forth a challenge that only Gawain is willing to take up. The scene is stunning and memorable, and allows Gawain one year of celebrity before the second part of the challenge must be faced.
It's at this point where Gawain sets off on his journey ... one that can be likened to Homer's "The Odyssey", in that it's filled with surprises and obstacles that defy logic and explanation. The surprises include: Barry Keoghan (DUNKIRK, 2017) as a garrulous, yet deceitful forest scavenger; the ghost of St Winifred (Erin Kellyman) requesting help locating her skull in the swamp; scantily-clad (CGI) bald-headed giants slowly roaming the forest; and a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his mistress who offer shelter and advice that may or may not be helpful. Also on his journey to meet back up with The Green Knight, Gawain is accompanied by a red fox that holds his own surprises.
Director Lowery's film is a surreal, hypnotic medieval becoming-a-man tale that is both epic and intimate. There is much to unwrap here, including the witches who clearly establish women's control of men, and the idea that some may view themselves as destined for greatness, but blink when the moment of truth arrives. We do get a glimpse of Excalibur, and Lowery's frequent collaborator Daniel Hart's excellent score expertly blends with the infusion of metal music. The film requires the heightened use of your senses, and the fascinating work of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo keeps us zoned in on each character and every scene.
In theaters Friday, July 30, 2021.
Dickens' name in vain
Greetings again from the darkness. This is billed as "a modern take on the classic tale of Oliver Twist". The problem with that is this feels neither modern, nor in line with the renowned Charles Dickins novel. Mostly it feels like a failed attempt at copying Guy Ritchie's SNATCH, or the KINGSMAN movies, or even the NOW YOU SEE ME movies. Directed by Martin Owen with a script by John Wrathall, Sally Collett and six other credited contributing writers (in addition to the inspiration from Dickens), this film simply lacks the entertainment value necessary for any type of positive recommendation. So I won't be writing much here, only addressing what we see on screen.
Raff Law (Jude Law's son) nabbed his first starring role as Twist, a street artist living on his own. One day he stumbles into Dodge (Rita Ora), Batesy (Franz Drameh), and Red (Sophie Simnett) who introduce him to Fagin (two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine), who presides over this group of criminal misfits. The offer of free clothes, decent housing, a team to work with, and a possible romance, is enough to entice Twist out of his rooftop tent.
This is really a simple art heist movie with multiple scenes of parkour included in place of real danger or creative thrills. David Walliams plays the target, and as a bonus, ripping him off would settle an old score for Fagin, and the over-the-top psychopath Sikes (Lena Headey). Somehow out of step in a movie with no real step is a recurring gag featuring a traffic cop played by Leigh Warden. It's unclear if this was held over from an early slapstick version of the film, or if it was intended to portray Twist as an outlaw.
Noel Clark maintains his dignity as Detective Brownlow, and Ms. Headey attempts to liven things up, but mostly the characters are forgettable due to an all too simple story and a lack of development. The annoying music doesn't help, and neither does the lack of any insightful social commentary (a Dickens specialty). It seems obvious the filmmakers were trying to create something edgy and modern, and go so far as to open with a jab at Carol Reed's 1968 musical OLIVER!, by having narrator Twist state there will be "No singing. No dancing. And no happy ending." If a filmmaker risks re-making or re-imagining a classic story, they must be ready for the comparisons. This one falls well short of that 1968 version, as well as David Lean's 1948 OLIVER TWIST, with Alec Guinness as Fagin.
In theaters and On Demand starting July 30, 2021.
the day the nineties died
Greetings again from the darkness. Character is revealed in the most unexpected places, and often at a time when one has a bit more freedom than usual. Like the mosh pit at a music festival. You may wonder why I'm disgusted and saddened at what stuck with me after this documentary. Unfortunately, it wasn't the music. Instead the takeaway from Woodstock 99 is that far too many young men easily succumbed to aggressive and animalistic behavior, and worse, seized the opportunity to abuse women who were simply trying to have a good time. Of course, this was 22 years ago. Maybe we feel better about young men today.
Garret Price, the film's director, begins by admitting Woodstock 99 played like a horror film, so we brace ourselves for what's to follow. If you've seen Michael Wadleigh's 1970 documentary about the original Woodstock festival, then you know it's a blend of some of the best live music of the era and a peek at the 'peace and love' counter-culture so prevalent in 1969. To really grasp this version of the 30th anniversary of that first festival, you should know that promoters John Scher and Michael Lang were coming off a very successful and smooth 25th anniversary Woodstock festival in 1994 (Lang was also behind the 1969 festival). 1999 was also the year of the Columbine shooting, we were on the brink of Y2K, and cell phones were quite scarce. The promoters thought was this would be the "last hurrah" for baby boomers. Instead, the festival is referred to as "the day the nineties died."
The miscalculation by the promoters was in demographics. The transformation of MTV had skewed to younger viewers, and the "Girls Gone Wild" mentality seemed to feed the fantasy of every young male. "New Rock" featuring bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit played up misogyny, homophobia, and aggression. This was the antithesis of where society is headed today. On top of all that, the sweltering heat and overpriced fluids affected behavior, and a water shortage combined with mud pits that were actually raw sewage turned the festival into a nightmare. And then things got worse.
The 1969 music corresponded to that festival's mission, but thirty years later, Kid Rock in a mink coat and Fred Durst inciting idiocy created a much different environment. Moby is interviewed throughout this documentary offering insight into the festival and how things went wrong. The lineup included only three female acts: Alanis Morissette, Jewell, and Sheryl Crowe, and they were scheduled one per day for the three day festival, meaning many of the other acts seemed to spur the aggression in the massive crowd of 400,000.
With nostalgia non-existent, commercialism booming, and what Jewell terms "fake rage" the calling of the day, rioting, looting, fires, and sexual assaults became the festival's legacy. Price's film (produced by former sportswriter Bill Simmons) allows us to watch how quickly things go sideways, and any thoughts of peace and unity disappear. It's quite a snapshot in time of a generation and culture that was spinning out of control.
Streaming on HBO Max beginning July 23, 2021.
Good Joe Bell (2020)
walking with thoughts
Greetings again from the darkness. Given his track record, Mark Wahlberg is not the guy that first comes to mind for a message movie about tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, he's perfectly cast as a macho Oregon dad struggling with his own prejudices when his son comes out as gay. Director Marcus Green (MONSTERS AND MEN, 2018) is working with a script co-written by Diana Ossana and the late, great Larry McMurtry, and though the film touches on some topics of conflict, it does so in a manner that plays comfortably for mainstream audiences. Mr. McMurtry passed away earlier this year, and the two co-writers shared an Oscar for their screenplay of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2015).
Wahlberg plays Joe Bell, and the film is based on the true story of Bell's decision to walk across America - from Oregon to New York City in honor of his son Jadin (played well by Reid Miller). Oregon was home, but the Big Apple was where Jadin dreamed of living - a place more accepting of him. We witness some of the relentless bullying and abuse Jadin endured at school and the Principal's appalling reaction, and we also see his home life: a dad who tries to avoid the issue and a loving mother (Connie Britton) who is not a woman of action.
While on his tribute walk, Joe stops at schools and community centers to tell the story of Jadin and express the importance of kindness and tolerance. Of course, this is also a time for some personal emotional cleansing for Joe ... an act of atonement, if you will. There is a twisty plot device that is evidently supposed to be a surprise, but there was no need to make it such - it would have still worked just fine. One of the best sequences occurs when Joe crosses paths with a small town Sheriff played by Gary Sinise. It's a cathartic few minutes that allows a fine actor (Sinise) to play the role of a father unloading the burden of guilt.
The past few years have inspired many of us to face our personal prejudices and perspectives, and this message movie reminds us that homophobia still exists and often overpowers the kindness of others. Jadin's essay describing being "surrounded by people that hate you" probably hits home for far too many.
Opening in theaters on July 23, 2021.
Greetings again from the darkness. With billionaires building their own rockets and blasting off into space, a film about the colonization of Mars doesn't seem as far-fetched as it did in TOTAL RECALL (1990), or even THE MARTIAN (2015). In his first feature film, writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller minimizes the science-fiction aspects and focuses more on human nature.
A family of three is making their way day-to-day in a compound. Father Reza (Jonny Lee Miller, "Elementary"), mother Ilsa (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY, 2017), and daughter Remy (an excellent Brooklyn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, 2017) have their own greenhouse to grow food, and even (somehow) raise their own pig. We learn they are living in some type of bubble which allows them to breathe without masks, and they have a water supply, though that's one of countless things that are never explained.
One morning the family awakens to find "LEAVE" scrawled across their kitchen window. It turns out Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova, "Ray Donovan"), has returned to reclaim what he says was his family's home. A battle ensues, and Jerry invites Ilsa and Remy to stay - as long as they don't bother (or attack) him. Everyone seems to have weapons, though again, we never learn "what's out there" as a threat.
Remy befriends a droid that resembles WALL-E. She names it Steve. Steve mostly lurks until one crucial scene which seems to come out of nowhere. This is after the 'last man and last woman' scenario is introduced with Nell Tiger Free ("Servant") playing older Remy. Director Rockefeller filmed in South Africa which proves to be an effective stand-in for the surface of Mars, but just leaves too many questions unanswered for this viewer. The human nature aspect is well-handled. We hear Reza tell Remy, "We left Earth because we wanted more." And later, "Someday it will be just like Earth", the latter statement seemingly contradicting the first. However, the actions and attitudes of people on Mars seem to be all too similar to Earth's inhabitants - and that's a shame.
Opening in Theaters and On Demand on July 23, 2021.
McCartney 3,2,1 (2021)
deconstrucing art and luck
Greetings again from the darkness. Remember when ... in 1993 ... Chris Farley interviewed Paul McCartney on "Saturday Night Live"? That was awesome. Mr. Farley passed away four years later, and Sir Paul McCartney is now 79 years old and truly a living music legend. This Hulu original consists of six 30 minute episodes directed by Zachary Heinzerling, who was Oscar nominated for his 2013 documentary CUTIE AND THE BOXER. Filmed in black and white from inside a recording studio, McCartney and famed hip-hop music producer Rick Rubin spend three hours talking music, history, and influence.
Many of the stories McCartney tells here are the same he's told numerous times over the years, however, he infuses each episode with some new tale or, even better, a peek behind the music he's created over the last 60 years. Of course, there is next to nothing about his private life which he has expertly protected for so long, but this environment is about one topic. A sound studio with a music producer talking music with a musician should only be about the music, and McCartney and Rubin fascinate us by deconstructing some of the most famous and popular songs ever written.
The stories in the episodes meander a bit, rather than go in chronological order, and each contains some color clips that correspond to McCartney's memory of the moment. Episode 1, "These Things Bring You Together" finds Paul recalling how Edith Piaf not only influenced his songwriting, but also his "French" phase (although Jane Asher is not mentioned). It's really mesmerizing to hear Paul discuss the "intercontinental rivalry" with the Beach Boys and how the Pet Sounds album motivated him towards "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band" (sprinkled with a humorous salt and pepper story). An incredible clip of Jimi Hendrix performing "Sgt Pepper", and Paul incessantly chomps on his chewing gum as he refers to "George's friend", who just happens to be Eric Clapton.
Episode 2, "The Notes That Like Each Other", has Paul discussing how Bach influenced his songwriting, and we get insight into "Eleanor Rigby" (and the Octet), "Penny Lane" (with Dave Mason's piccolo trumpet), "Band on the Run", "Blackbird", and the trip to Lagos. It's in this segment where Paul first acknowledges the importance of George Martin as producer, performer, and arranger. Episode 3, "The People We Loved Were Loving Us", opens with "Back in the USSR", and the Beatles first number one hit in the U. S.: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". Paul then reiterates the importance of seeing Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan perform, and how every musician is influenced by others. He re-tells the too-familiar "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" story, and recalls the band's trip to India.
Episode 4, "Like Professors in a Laboratory", is a bit of a hodgepodge, but may include the most new details of any. Rubin and McCartney discuss the process for pushing the treble on George's guitar for "Nowhere Man", the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night", and the band's fascination with having Robert Moog and his new invention at Abbey Road. We also hear "the Ringo moment", and Paul talks about penning his James Bond theme, "Live and Let Die", and the segment ends with "You Know My Name". Episode 5, "Couldn't You Play it Straighter?", and Episode 6, "The Long and Winding Road" find Paul and Rubin digging deep into creating some of the unique sounds within the songs - the bass line in "Something"; George telling Paul, "you play it" in regards to the guitar solo on "Tax Man"; John's impact and the famous bass line on "Come Together"; and George Martin's string quartet for "Yesterday". Episode 5 closes with "Helter Skelter", while Episode 6 ends, of course, with "The End".
Director Heinzerling has the camera track set up as if to film Rubin and McCartney performing in the round - with a couple of exceptions when Paul picks up a guitar or plops down at the piano to make his point musically. Rubin plays the roles of fan boy, music professional, and interviewer, and he does a nice job getting Paul to go a bit deeper than he typically would. As the two isolate fragments of songs, it's fun to see the joy on Paul's face as he recalls the "luck" (his word) involved with some of the band's quick work in the studio. McCartney does manage to give John, George, and Ringo brief moments of tribute, but make no mistake, this is Paul's show. For music lovers, this is an enjoyable 3 hours, and whether by design or not, it certainly ups the already high anticipation for Peter Jackson's upcoming, THE BEATLES: GET BACK for Disney+ later this year.
Premieres on Hulu on July 16, 2021.
something to chew on
Greetings again from the darkness. As the film begins, we understand there will be no happy ending. Anthony Bourdain committed suicide by hanging in 2018 at the age of 61. As it was reported, everyone was shocked. Oscar winning documentarian Morgan Neville (TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM, 2013) interviews those who knew him best, and by the end of the film, we are left wondering why these folks were shocked at how his demise.
Bourdain ... called Tony by those who knew him ... spent most of the last 20 years of his life with a camera focused on him, so director Neville allows Bourdain to tell much of his own story. "I got very lucky" is how he explains turning a dishwasher job into the position of Chef at Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue in New York, and then evolving into an author, talk show guest, and host of TV travel and culinary shows.
Perhaps you read Bourdain's first book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly", or maybe you know him from one of his four TV shows where he traveled around the globe eating strange food and exploring unusual cultures. Then again, to some, he'll always be known as the guy who was filmed eating a live cobra heart. All of those bits are discussed here, but the real interesting segments occur as others talk about the man they knew/loved/worked with.
Bourdain's second wife Ottavio, his brother, his friends, his agent, and his production crew are all interviewed here and are surprisingly forthcoming in their recollections and insight into Tony. We even see clips of Bourdain with his daughter, though she is not interviewed. The descriptions add up to a complicated guy. A natural storyteller who was a control freak and hard on those he worked with. Yet he was also charming, immensely intelligent and articulate, and eager to make satisfying TV. He also comes across a bit lost as a person most of the time, never more than when he's filmed asking Iggy Pop, "What thrills you?" There is even a segment with Tony in a session with his therapist.
The film, and Bourdain himself, don't shy away from his addictive nature. He admits to a drug problem when he was younger, and for the rest of his life he jumped from one non-drug related addiction to another. His personal life seemed to take a turn when he fell for Italian actress Asia Argento and he became an advocate for the #MeToo movement. His tragic end is discussed, and maybe those closest to him were simply too close to see what seems obvious to us now. Director Neville uses no shortage of archival footage and photos, but it's the personal interviews that strike the emotional chord here. Two films, APOCALYPSE NOW and VIOLENT CITY apparently had a dramatic impact on Bourdain, and though the end is tragic, his legacy as an adventurous storyteller lives on.
In theaters on July 16, 2021.
Max is Bleeding (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. It seems unlikely that an 8 minute short film can generate such tension while simultaneously filling us with hope and anger. However, that's exactly what happens here thanks to director-producer-editor Jordan Anstatt and writer Louis Lagayette.
Sam (Matias Bonino) and Courtney (Chloe Sirene) are driving their pet dog Max to the vet. You've probably guessed from the title that Max is injured. You might not have guessed that this story has little to do with Max. What matters here is the dynamic between Sam and Courtney, and both actors excel in their roles. Ms. Sirene's body language and facial expressions convey the strain, while Mr. Bonino (in a thankless role) exudes control and danger.
Julie Reifers handles the crucial role of the receptionist at the Veterinary Clinic, and the film serves as a reminder of how much courage it takes to escape an abusive relationship and how the rest of us must balance between minding our business and being observant to a situation that could have someone not just unhappy, but living in fear. The film ends with the actual security footage of the events that inspired the film, and the message is delivered loudly, clearly, and with meaning.
One is the loneliest number
Greetings again from the darkness. The old adage goes, "There's someone for everyone." Even for the outsiders and misfits. But what if there is only one? First heard by Navy research in 1989, "the Loneliest Whale in the World" has been named "52" due to his unique 52 Hertz call. He has never been seen and his song was last heard in 2003 ... so there is no guarantee he's still alive. Director Joshua Zemen has long been fascinated by the legend of 52 - a majestic creature assumed to be living in isolation since no other whales can hear his call.
It's a sad story and one that caused a social frenzy as so many related their own stories of loneliness, proving yet again how humans connect with the animal kingdom. Whales have long played a role in the bible (Jonah) and in literature (Captain Ahab from "Moby Dick"), but 52's unusual call was picked up thanks to the Navy's Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) which had been developed to track submarines during war time. It took the late Oceanographer Bill Watkins to recognize the call as biological, creating the origin of the legend and mystery. Watkins claimed we can hear more than we see in the ocean, and there's much to learn from those sounds.
When the 52 Hertz call was once again heard, director Zemen secured funding for a 7-day excursion off the Santa Barbara coast with the goal of locating the whale. He assembled a team of Oceanographers, Biologists, and researchers - each knowledgeable and passionate. Zemen is the outsider of this group, and in the film's only flaw, allows himself to be the focus a bit too often. Interspersed within the 7 day mission are history lessons regarding the hunting of whales, once commonplace. All of that changed with the 1970 best-selling record entitled, "Songs of the Humpback Whales". Hearing their calls and singing led directly to the "Save the Whales" era - and the hunting and slaughtering was cut by 99 percent.
Director Zemen is having quite the year, as his excellent docuseries, "The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness" was recently released. Here he works hard at instilling some entertainment into the science project by including the captain's 52 Lost Love music tape featuring Pablo Cruise, and a quick segment with the quirky and brilliant Kate Micucci ... plus a humorous moment informing us that single bunks are for one person. The film doesn't get the "tied up with a bow" ending Zemen and the researchers might hope for, but the mystery shifts a bit, and we realize how much we've enjoyed spending time with these smart, caring folks. Leonardo DiCaprio donated $50,000 to the project and is listed as an Executive Producer for the film that offers some close-ups and details that are likely new to many of us.
Bleeker Street will release the film in theaters nationwide on July 9 and on Digital July 16.
First Date (2021)
trouble in the trunk
Greetings again from the darkness. This is the first feature film for co-writers and co-directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp. Despite mixed reactions from its Sundance Film Festival premiere, it's safe to say that this madcap action-comedy-romance-crime drama provides enough to set the stage for additional projects from the filmmakers. It likely works best as midnight fare, but the film juggles multiple genres and tonal shifts well enough that most will find it at least watchable, if not quite entertaining.
Tyson Brown (his first feature film) stars as Mike, a meek teenager too shy to ask his kickboxing neighbor Kelsey (Shelby Duclos, also her first feature film) on a date. When Mike's boisterous good friend Brett (Josh Fesler) forces his hand, Mike is surprised when Kelsey accepts ... setting off a wild chain of events and comedy of errors featuring a whole host of looney characters. But first, Mike has to find a car to drive, or there will be no picking up Kelsey at 7pm.
Mike buys a $300 1965 Chrysler from a shady dude named Dennis (Scott Noble). Now, Dennis is a natural scammer, but there is another reason Mike's newly purchased clunker is attracting the attention of drug dealers and corrupt cops. Mike and Kelsey's first date gets delayed a bit due to all the chaos, and Kelsey briefly ends up in the front seat of the Porsche belonging to local stud Chet (Brandon Kraus). Two local cops played by Nicole Berry and Samuel Adamola have multiple run-ins with Mike, each with terrific comic flair courtesy of Ms. Berry. Walking the line between comedy and danger is the crime gang who spend less time chasing Mike's car and more time on their book club - "Of Mice and Men" generating quite the debate. It's like a bumbling character convention came to town.
Filmmakers Crosby and Knapp deliver a frenzied opening scene to try and prepare us for what's coming. There are a few scenes that drag a bit, but for the most part, the pacing is pretty solid and the mixture of laughs and danger is well managed. Calling 8-tracks the vinyl of car radio is pure genius, and once things go awry, it's no-holds-barred. The big shootout reminds of FREE FIRE (2016), while the zaniness recalls such films as ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), AFTER HOURS (1985), and TRUE ROMANCE (1993).
The supporting cast includes Jesse Janzen, Ryan Quinn Adams, Jake Howard, and Samantha Laurenti, and Nicole Berry is quite the scene stealer as Police Sgt Davis. Tyson Brown is spot on as the deadpan Mike whose only talents seem to be misplacing his phone and staying alive, while Shelby Duclos leaves us wishing her Kelsey had significantly more screen time. We can debate whether it's best to get caught by drug dealers or corrupt cops, and the comedy of errors is sometimes less funny and more dangerous, but that pinch of teen romance keeps the film grounded and personal.
In theaters and On Demand beginning July 2, 2021.
The Phantom (2021)
looking in a mirror
Greetings again from the darkness. Will the real murdering Carlos please come forward? Unfortunately it's too late for the other one. Store clerk Wanda Lopez was murdered in Corpus Christi, Texas one night in 1983. The recording of her 911 call is brief, but documents her identifying the assailant as Hispanic, and noting that he was brandishing a knife ... the knife the man would use to take her life.
After a short manhunt, the Corpus Christi police found a shirtless 21 year old Carlos DeLuna hiding under a car. He was identified by eye witnesses and immediately arrested on suspicion of murder. From the beginning, DeLuna was adamant about his innocence and claimed he knew the actual murderer, Carlos Hernandez, DeLuna's doppelganger.
Patrick Forbes is a documentarian whose previous topics included Brexit, the human heart, and WikiLeaks. This time he walks us through the steps of a criminal system that executed the wrong man. He uses interviews, archival footage, and documentation from the police reports and trial. We hear from the District Attorney, the defense attorney, Wanda Lopez's attorney, and the eyewitnesses. The original Medical Examiner (ME) even reads aloud from his report. Forbes presents the facts of the case so that we understand how such a travesty occurred.
The evidence that convicted Carlos DeLuna was limited to the eyewitnesses and a wad of cash in his pocket. No fingerprints. No blood on his clothes. No DNA. Somehow this was enough to not just find him guilty, but also sentence him to death. DeLuna testified at his own trial and claimed under oath it was Carlos Hernandez - a man the Corpus Christi police were unable to find, despite his significant (and violent) criminal record.
We hear from the reporter who received correspondence from DeLuna while he was incarcerated. She recounts their exchanges and notes that she was a somewhat green reporter who had no real idea how to handle this. We also hear from the Chaplain who details the issues that occurred during the execution, and from DeLuna's estranged brother who tried to assist. Mr. Forbes is efficient and precise in the structure of the documentary based on the Columbia Law School research paper, "Los Tocayos Carlos". Is the criminal justice flawed or outright broken - for those wrongfully accused and convicted, the answer is simple.
Opening in theaters on July 2, 2021.
The Tomorrow War (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. There are some great time-travel movies, some great Science-Fiction movies, and some great alien-invasion action movies; however, there are very few that successfully blend all of the above. Director Chris McKay (THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, 2017) and writer Zach Dean (DEADFALL, 2012) come up short in this attempt, and in fact, much of the movie is borderline ridiculous in story line, dialogue, and special effects. It's extremely rare for me to go two hours (or 2:20 for this one) and never engage with a character or story.
We open on Chris Pratt (and many others) falling from the sky and landing in a horrific war zone. Immediately we flashback 3 decades. Pratt plays Dan Forester, a high school science teacher and former Special Forces soldier in Iraq. He has a supportive wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, THE HUNT, 2020) and a whip-smart young daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong, "Anne with an E"). A glitch in the matrix occurs during the World Cup and a platoon of soldiers announce they are from the future and need help fighting aliens that are annihilating the human race.
Soon, a global military draft is put in place. Thanks to a "worm hole", those drafted can serve 7 days by bouncing from 2022 to 2051 and back ... well at least the 30% who survive get to come back. When Dan is drafted, he hopes to save the world for his little girl, and told her and his students that "science is how you resolve problems". Of course, big guns help too ... but not as much as you'd hope since these aliens are fast, strong, and terribly ugly to look at (with a bit of a throwback look to the 70's).
In 2051, Dan reports to Romeo Command played by Yvonne Strahovski ("Dexter"), and he works closely with fellow draftees played by Sam Richardson ("Veep"), Edwin Hodge (THE PURGE franchise), and Mary Lynn Rajskub ("24 Hours"). Romeo Command also happens to be a brilliant scientist concocting a potion to destroy the aliens. The hope is to take it back 30 years and prevent the alien invasion from ever occurring. It's a wing and a prayer plan and there's a bit more to the story that won't be revealed here.
Pratt is no stranger to action movies (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, JURASSIC WORLD), and he's at his best when cracking wise with one-liners. Unfortunately many of those fall flat when there are only 500,000 humans remaining on the planet, and the human race appears doomed. A crazy (and not believable) turn of events leads us to a segment that includes riding snow mobiles on a Russian glacier. The filmmakers try overly hard to work in serious topics like climate change, government incompetence, and anti-war demonstrations (why sacrifice for a war that's not yet happening?). On top of that, daddy issues abound with multiple characters, which is where a buff JK Simmons (Oscar winner for WHIPLASH, 2014) comes in.
If the film had received its originally planned theatrical run, there likely would have been a few refund requests. However, streaming on Amazon is a much better fit for lower expectations.
Available on Amazon Prime beginning July 2, 2021.
today's alternate universe
Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A'Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we'd prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm ... and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.
Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain "features" according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis' granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, "Succession"), Stefani's doofus boyfriend.
Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It's a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani's pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she's prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola's wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.
After the infamous Twitter thread, "Rolling Stone" writer David Kushner published an article entitled, "Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted". This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it's pulled from the "pages" of today's online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the "B-word" at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It's a case study in cultural appropriation - especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren't accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige's performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.
This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don't recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don't know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.
Now showing in theaters nationwide.
Mary J Blige's My Life (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. The project began as a way to document the 25th anniversary of Mary J Blige's enormously influential album "My Way" and her celebratory live performance to mark the milestone of the album. Vanessa Roth won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject FREEHELD (2007), and as director of this film, she turned it into a profile of the woman behind the music, resulting in surprisingly effective life lessons for those in need.
As if to caution viewers that this is more than a concert film, we are five minutes in before director Roth allows us to hear Mary sing. We learn of her childhood in poverty living in the Yonkers projects, and how singing was her escape - a way to feel free. It was Sean "Diddy" Combs who discovered her for Uptown Records. Of course, Combs is now a hugely successful producer, musician, and entrepreneur, and he's forthcoming in his recollections of those early years. "My Life" was Mary's second album, and she's credited with blending hip-hop and R&B and bringing a new music style to the masses. How successful has she been? Try 31 Grammy nominations (9 wins) and Two Oscar nominations (including one for acting).
Actress Taraji P Henson and multi-Grammy winning musician Alicia Keys both provide perspective on Mary's influence, not just in the music world, but also in helping women believe in themselves. Mary J Blige has had emotional struggles, survived an abusive relationship, and overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol. Sharing her story and how she has persisted through the years turns this into a story of feelings, truth, and heart. The music is impressive and provides the platform, however, it's the woman who shines through here.
Available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on June 25, 2021.
The Ice Road (2021)
a particular set of driving skills
Greetings again from the darkness. Somehow, it's already time for Liam Neeson's semi-annual macho thriller. In this one, he gets to drive a big rig. Over a frozen river. He also gets to wear flannel, chew on a toothpick, and punch two guys (but no wolves) ... all while doing the right thing in order to save some trapped miners. And it's not about the money. Well, it starts out about the money, but in the end, it's not about the money!
Neeson stars as Mike, a trucker whose spotty employment record is likely as much his own doing as it is that of his brother John/"Gurtie" (Marcus Thomas), who is not just a super mechanic, but also a war veteran with some mental challenges. The VA hospital quickly diagnoses Gurtie with PTSD and prescribes multiple pills for him. Mike tosses out accusations and the pills, as the two brothers head to Winnipeg for a rescue mission.
Jonathan Hensleigh also wrote and directed the 2011 film KILL THE IRISHMAN which I enjoyed. This time he serves up some nice opening shots that give us a real feel for the isolation and frozen tundra of the setting. When the mine collapses, trapping the workers, the oxygen clock starts, and Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) is charged with finding 2 other available and experienced truckers who can drive over the ice road and deliver the necessary equipment within 30 hours. Mike and Gurtie are chosen for one truck, and Tantoo (Amber Midthunder, "Legion") is chosen for the other. She has extra incentive, as her brother Cody (Martin Sensmeier, WIND RIVER, 2017) is one of the trapped miners.
We do get brief segments with the miners, including Cody and Lampard (Holt McCallany, "Mindhunter") who are focused on saving as many men as possible. Of course, all of this is the fault of yet another big, bad corporation led by a profit-oriented GM (Matt McCoy, known by "Seinfeld" fans as Lloyd Braun). Along for the ride with the truckers is Varnay (Benjamin Walker, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, 2016), introduced as an insurance actuarial. And yes, there's more to his story.
If you've ever seen "Ice Road Truckers" on the History Channel, you have some idea what's about to occur. Thrills, chills, and unforeseen obstacles come at a rapid-fire pace ... as if driving 75,000 pounds on 30 inches of slowly melting ice-covered rivers wasn't enough. This is a wild movie, so expect even more. The bobbleheads on the dash aren't just good luck charms, and everyone isn't who they seem. Big companies who cut corners and those who don't treat vets properly are the targets here, but it's to be enjoyed as a frigid and perilous rescue mission - and one more chance for Liam Neeson to prove he's a man's man.
Available on Netflix beginning June 25, 2021.
Greetings again from the darkness. If asked, the vast majority of movie lovers would name THE GODFATHER (1972), THE GODFATHER II (1974), and GOODFELLAS (1990) as the quintessential mafia movies. Sure, there are dozens of others, but that mob triumvirate has ruled the roost for many years. It's doubtful writer-director Eytan Rockaway ever gave one moment of thought that his second feature, written from a story by his father, author Robert Rockaway, might join the ranks of those top three, but that doesn't prevent it from being a quite interesting tale based on true events.
Sam Worthington (AVATAR, 2009) stars as David Stone, a writer who had some success a few years back with his Kennedy biography. Since then, he's struggled in both his personal and professional life. In 1981 when an elderly Meyer Lansky (Harvey Keitel) contacts him to write the true Lansky story, David jumps at the opportunity, seeing it as a solution to his many problems. The two men meet at a Miami diner that Lansky frequents. These diner meetings form the structure of the story, and director Rockaway uses flashbacks to the 1940's to "show" us what Lansky is telling his biographer from the booth.
John Magaro plays the younger Lansky, a man who is remarkably good with numbers and calm, yet forceful, in his demeanor. Lansky has partnered with Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (David Cade), who provides some muscle and flamboyance that Lansky lacks. We see the development of their business, and how Lansky's shrewd business acumen leads to a connection with Lucky Luciano, as well as providing the government with intelligence during the war. Lansky's story to David glosses over the bootlegging and other revenue streams to concentrate on gaming, which of course, is now legal in many states.
The supporting cast includes Minka Kelly as David's fling at the motel, AnnaSophia Robb as Lansky's wife Anne, Shane McRae as Lucky Luciano, and David James Elliott as the FBI Agent obsessed with solving the long-dead Lansky case and locating the $350 million supposedly hidden away. As you might expect, the story bounces from Miami to New York City to Cuba (a stunning Colonial Hotel in Havana) to Vegas to Geneva and even Israel, where Lansky attempted, unsuccessfully, to live out his life.
Lansky's biggest impact was facilitating the connection between the Italian, Irish, and Jewish mafia at a time when so such bond existed. We twice hear him answer, "I have no knowledge on the subject", when questioned about organized crime. On his death in 1983, Lansky had no convictions - all charges had been dropped. A doctor's diagnosis of terminal lung cancer led him to reach out to an author so that his story could be told. We don't learn much about "Murder, Inc." but we do understand Lansky's commitment to "control the game". Rockaway has delivered an intriguing profile of an enigma from inside the mafia ... and screen vet Keitel makes it all believable.
In Select Theaters & On Demand June 25, 2021.
Chasing Childhood (2020)
what's on the calendar?
Greetings again from the darkness. Yours truly is of the age where childhood presented an abundance of freedom to play unsupervised outside, parenting years were filled with coaching and volunteering for the various structured kid activities, and grandparenting is comprised of waxing nostalgic for a simpler time when kids could be kids and parents weren't so focused on their kids' achievements and pursuit of perfection. Co-directors Margaret Munzer Loeb and Eden Wurmfeld dig into the evolution of parenting and the banishment of "free play".
The topic is broached across diverse socio-economic classes in Wilton, Connecticut (a cluster of one-percenters), Patchogue, New York (a blue-collar, working class area), and Manhattan with its cross-section of race and class. The co-directors lean heavily on author and psychology researcher Peter Gray, who wrote "Free to Learn" and is considered an expert on "play", and Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the "Let Grow" organization. Ms. Skenazy received worldwide attention when she allowed her 9-year old son to ride the New York subway alone. For that, she was labeled "America's Worst Mom." Of course much of the societal shift can be associated with the concerns parents have of putting their kids in harm's way. "Stranger Danger" and the faces of missing kids on milk cartons, as well as the tragic story of Adam Walsh in 1981 should all be factored in to the foundation of what we now call "helicopter parenting." Instead of parents directing their kids to be home by dark, as the screen door slams behind them, the days and evenings and weekends of kids are structured and entered into the family calendar.
We hear directly from kids as they go through their daily commitments: sports, band, dance, tutoring, etc. Hanging out with friends is never mentioned. The film does a terrific job of detailing the consequences of this contemporary form of parenting. High stress and frazzled nerves for both kids and parents are commonplace. Free-play offers many opportunities for learning - especially the life skills that allow kids to grow into independent thinking adults, and hopefully, happy people. The film should resonate with parents, kids, and teachers, and this quote from the film will stick with many viewers (at least me): "All the worry in the world doesn't prevent death. It prevents life." Abramorama will release the film via a virtual live world premiere event screening on June 24th followed by a nationwide Watch Now @ Home Cinema Release on June 25th.
The Birthday Cake (2021)
quite a lineup of actors
Greetings again from the darkness. All it took was one look at the cast for me to agree to watch and review this mob film. It's the first feature film from writer-director Jimmy Giannopoulos, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Diomedes Raul Bermudez and Shiloh Fernandez (who also stars). Most will agree the world never really needs another mob movie, but gosh, when they work, they are quite fun to watch. Filmmakers Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorsese have figured this out.
And then there are those that try hard, but for whatever reason, it doesn't quite click. Sometimes too many characters are crammed in to execute (pun intended) as many familiar mob movie tropes as possible. Director Giannopoulos opens his film with a flashback scene from 10 years ago. The rest of the movie takes place in one evening - one that goes better for some than others. Gio (co-writer Shiloh Fernandez) is dressed in his suit as this is the night "the family" celebrates the death of his father 10 years prior. Gio's mother (Lorraine Bracco) has baked the titular cake, as she has done each of the previous years. She tells Gio she does this "for your father." Gio then sets out to walk the streets of Brooklyn in order to bring the cake to his Uncle Angelo's house for the celebration.
Gio is good-natured and prefers talking and smiling his way through confrontations, rather than the violent tendencies of those around him. Most of the movie revolves around his interactions along the way - with some friendlies and some not-so-friendlies. It seems his chocolate allergy comes up in conversation enough times that we know it will come into play at some point. If it's not his food allergy, then it's the whereabouts of his Cousin Leo (Emery Cohen) that makes up most of the conversations we hear. Leo is recently out of prison, but hasn't contacted his mother yet ... a real no-no in the family. Leo had previously crossed a Puerto Rican gang and now he's missing - hence all the questions.
If you come for the story, you'll likely be disappointed. This is more a series of vignettes featuring familiar faces such as Luis Guzman as a concerned Uber driver, William Fichtner as a man with a violent nature, and John Magaro, Aldis Hodge, Ashley Benson, Vincent Pastore (of course), Penn Badgley, Jeremy Allen White, and even Marla Maples (yes, the former Mrs. Trump). Once at the party, Gio meets with an ailing Uncle Carmine played by Paul Sorvino, and best of all, Uncle Angelo played by Val Kilmer. If you have not heard, Mr. Kilmer had throat cancer and now speaks through a voice box. Subtitles are utilized to assist viewers. Watching him act with his eyes and body language is a pleasure, and it's great to have him back on the big screen. The final big name to appear in the film is Ewan McGregor as Father Kelly, who has an early scene with David Mazouz ("Gotham") as young Gio, and a later scene with modern day Gio and his mother.
We follow Gio in his strange, messy night ... think AFTER HOURS (1985) ... only mob-related, and lacking most of the dark comedic touches. Other than Fernandez, most of the actors are only in a scene or two, so there's a novelty effect that doesn't seem quite right for this genre. Paul Sorvino has only a solitary two-word line of dialogue that starts with an F and ends with you. Still a well-executed crescendo of death and getting to see so many familiar faces in one film makes it worth sticking till the end.
In theaters and On Demand June 18, 2021.
The Sparks Brothers (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. Over the past 5 decades, the number of bands that have broken up is, well, almost all of them. For two brothers to write songs and perform together over that span, and still be at it in their 70's is remarkable. Sparks is made up of Ron Mael and younger brother Russell. They've published 25 albums with 300 songs, and performed thousands of concerts. Somehow they still like each other, respect each other, and work well together. As unusual as their music is and as strange as their stage show can be, it seems only fitting that their cinematic profile would be directed by Edgar Wright, who is best known for SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2002) and BABY DRIVER (2017). This is his first documentary.
Mr. Wright establishes the necessary unconventional start by having Sparks perform the opening credits. Not a song to open the film, but rather they actually perform the opening credits. We are then introduced to Ron and Russell, and we get some childhood family photos and an explanation about how their artist father taking them to the movies would later influence their work. And other than learning that Ron has a massive snow globe collection, that's the end of the insight into their personal lives. Normally that would be a mistake, but there is nothing normal about Sparks.
Instead of personal profiles, director Wright opts for a chronological discography - a walk through the band's timeline of recordings. Each step is punctuated with insight from fellow musicians or celebrities, and clips of the band performing their music from each era. The interviews are filmed in black & white so that the color of the stage performances really pop on screen. Some of those interviewed include producer Todd Rundgren, Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Go's), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Pamela Des Barres (a musician and, umm, certain other skills), and other musicians who played with Sparks over the years.
Often thought of as a novelty act, Sparks music and shows are filled with humor, but are not a joke. The two brothers have stayed committed to the music and the performances. To cover an extended gap in their career, director Wright utilizes 6 years of "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve", but more impactful is finding out that they worked on the music every day during those 6 years. The Mael brothers define persistence. The brothers' desire to break into film music fizzled a couple of times due to Jacques Tati and Tim Burton, but they do appear in the 1977 thriller ROLLERCOASTER.
Songwriter Ron is the brother with the Hitler/Chaplin mustache, while singer Russell was the matinee idol in the early years. They are referred to as the "Best British group to come out of America", and their musical influence can be traced to many more popular bands. A collaboration with Franz Ferdinand pushed their creativity, but it's an outlandish 21 shows in a row, each featuring a different album performed live that may best define their love of music and performance (and stamina). So while Mr. Wright offers zip in regards to their personal lives, the abundance of live performance clips and the quite funny Sparks "Facts" over the closing credits make this a documentary worth watching (even with its 140 minute run time).
In theaters June 18, 2021.
My Name Is Bulger (2021)
the good son
Greetings again from the darkness. Even those of us who aren't "Southies" know the name James "Whitey" Bulger. Johnny Depp portrayed him in BLACK MASS (2015) and Jack Nicholson's character was inspired by him in THE DEPARTED (2006). Of course, that's just cinema taking the legend and running with it. In the real world, we recall seeing the televised clips of the FBI capturing Bulger in California in 2011, after 16 years on the lam and being a fixture on the FBI's Most Wanted list ... and then seeing the reports of his being beaten to death at age 89 in a West Virginia prison mere hours after his transfer. Very suspicious - but who weeps for the mobster? Well, documentarian Brendan J Byrne offers some insight. It turns out, even mobsters have brothers and sisters and kin folk.
It's the family ... one brother in particular ... that is the focus of this documentary. Whitey's younger brother Bill, was the President of the Massachusetts Senate for 18 years, after which he became President of the University of Massachusetts. To hear multiple people, including two former Governors describe Bill Bulger as principled and smart is a bit disconcerting. Is it possible for one family to have a brother so devoted to public service and another brother who is a criminal mastermind that murders people? It's beyond debate that Bill Bulger was an enormously popular politician. However, the question remains - and will likely never be answered - is whether Bill was able to keep his political decisions separate from his brother.
The film begins with a family photo and we learn the faces and names of the Bulger clan, some who are interviewed in this film. When family loyalty is discussed, one says it shouldn't be tossed aside because one falters. Most of us would likely consider Whitey's criminal record as more extreme than a misstep or faltering, but the point is one to which most of us can relate.
Bill Bulger, now 87 years old, and his wife Mary have been married for more than 60 years. They have 9 children and 33 grandchildren. Many of the kids participated in the film hoping to salvage the family legacy created by Bill as opposed to the more headline-grabbing exploits of Whitey, described as "just another Uncle". In addition to family members, interviews are conducted with Catherine Greig, Whitey's longtime partner (she was captured with him in California, and served her own prison sentence), a juror from Whitey's trial, a journalist and author - where the difference between Bill and Whitey is described as visible versus invisible, and former Massachusetts Governors Michael Dukakis and Bill Weld, both of whom had their own candidacies for President of the United States. These two men speak highly of Bill's character and political astuteness, despite his ongoing rivalry with "The Boston Globe".
Bill is now retired and living a quiet life. There are still those in the family who claim his brother Whitey is "not the monster he was made out to be", although Bill's public statements seem to infer otherwise. Whitey's former Winter Hill Gang members were shocked at allegations that he had been an FBI informant, and the "Where's Whitey" manhunt is one that will likely be studied for years to come. Filmmaker Byrne does seem to have success in making the case that South Boston loyalty can co-exist with a family split by the polarized work of two members - brothers Bill and Whitey. It's quite fascinating to see how these contrasting elements fit together.