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Greetings again from the darkness. It's pretty simple. If you are a fan of UNBREAKABLE (2000) and SPLIT (2016), then you need to see this finale to M. Night Shyamalan's trilogy. If neither of the two previous films tickled your creep fancy, then you'll likely find nothing of interest here. The biggest fear is that fans of the first two (like me) will be disappointed and frustrated (like me) by the missed opportunity. Rather than real world super abilities clashing, we get what is mostly a silly letdown.
The set-up is outstanding. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and his now-grown son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) have teamed up for years in tracking down lowlife societal scumbags and teaching them a lesson. Mostly avoiding cameras (more difficult now than when he first realized his power), Dunn now has a nickname, The Overseer, and still dons his green poncho - though it's now equipped with a headset for communication with Joseph.
The Dunn men have been tracking Kevin Wendell Crumb (with a Beetlejuice twist), who has kidnapped more teenage girls and is holding them hostage. James McAvoy returns as Kevin, and his 23 other personalities (referred to as The Horde), and early in the movie we get our first Dunn vs. The Beast battle. Unfortunately, it's brief and ends in their capture and being locked away in an institution. And this is where the fun comes screeching to a halt.
It's at the institution where we discover Elijah Wood/Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson) is also being held, and Dr Elle Staple (Sarah Paulson) is the psychologist specializing in treating those who believe they possess super human traits, be they good or evil. This misdirected plot line is our first real frustration, as we have already seen the super strength of Dunn, the massive transformation of The Beast, and the villainous mastermind of Elijah. By definition there is no suspense when we know the answer. Because of this, the entire treatment segment drags on far too long, and features entirely too much of Ms. Paulson, and too little of those we came to see.
Also reprising their previous roles are Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the only surviving former captive of Kevin, and Charlayne Woodward as Elijah's mother. Ms. Woodward is given little to do, and Ms. Taylor-Joy's strong acting almost saves her from the ludicrous script ... a development we intellectually understand, but emotionally refuse to accept. In fact, the script is to blame for most of our frustration here. McAvoy is again tremendous in his ability to convey multiple personalities, and Jackson, once he is no longer catatonic (never a good use of a dynamic actor), relishes his return to evil. There is an interesting use of color for the three main characters: Dunn - green, Kevin - yellow, and Elijah - purple, and the cinematography of Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS) contributes some unusual angles and views.
Disney and Universal are to be commended for a rare rival studio collaboration, and M Night Shyamalan certainly deserves credit for being on the front end (with UNBREAKABLE) of the serious, dark, atmospheric superhero movie perfected by Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but this film is nothing to be proud of. The film's twist is easily predictable (and dragged out), and some parts are disappointing while some are an insult to our intelligence ... and downright silly (the ending). Still, there is a certain value to closure, even if it's a letdown.
Adult Life Skills (2016)
Ozzy and Jodie
Greetings again from the darkness. Each of us deals with grief in our own way, and often it's even more challenging to help a grieving loved one. Loss and grief are at the core of writer-director Rachel Tunnard's feature length film developed from her award winning short, EMOTIONAL FUSEBOX (2014).
When first we meet Anna, she is creating a space-oriented home video using aluminum foil and her thumbs. Yes, Anna is an adult - mere days from her 30th birthday. She's not the type to live in her mom's basement ... no, instead she lives in the cluttered garden shed in her mom's backyard. The play on words for the shed clues us in to Anna's quirky personality (as if the foil spaceship and thumb faces hadn't already done so). The Anna we see currently has no place for humor in her life.
Anna is struggling with the grief associated with losing her twin brother - a brother she was extremely close to. She's challenged daily by the fine line between sorrow and depression, and is regularly late to her job at an outdoor camp for kids. Her morning routine includes drying her clothes in the microwave and bickering with her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) over finding a boyfriend and new place to live. Mom has demanded Anna move out of the shed by her birthday.
Others in Anna's life include her grandmother (Eileen Davies), Anna's close friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), and local real estate agent Brendan (Brett Goldstein) who may or may not be on the spectrum, is constantly refuting assumptions that he is gay, and undoubtedly has an unrequited crush on Anna. Each of these folks tries in their own way to pull Anna from her funk and get her back to living. Surprisingly, the turn occurs when she is forced to look after a neighbor boy named Clint when his mother gets rushed to the hospital. Clint is an odd kid who wears cowboy attire and proclaims his desire to be like Anna ... and they are more similar than she would care to admit initially.
Jodie Whitaker plays Anna and newcomer Ozzy Myers is Clint. Young Mr. Myers excels in his role, never going over-the-top with his offbeat tendencies. Ms. Whitaker ("Doctor Who") first charmed us on screen with her role in VENUS (2006) and she proves yet again what an accomplished actress she is ... likable and relatable. Here she turns an arrested development 30 year old hermit into someone we pull for. The film is filled with awkward interactions, each grounded in reality.
Of course, there is really nothing cute or charming about a 30 year old who hasn't yet grown up, but slack and understanding is due here because of the grief. And it's difficult to name another film character who could count mole hills daily and make it seem natural. Just remember that when a kid says they want to be like you, take it seriously - even if it's because you are sad and lonely. Ms. Tunnard's film is a bittersweet comedy that's not too bitter, not too sweet, and not overly funny. It's simply a fine little indie movie with a terrific performance from a talented actress.
Greetings again from the darkness. In what would likely be more effective as a stage play than a film, director Marianna Palka (GOOD DICK, 2008) subjects us to first four, and then five adults, each participating in what is mostly a 90 minute exercise in passive-aggressive bickering. There are absolutely some moments of pure movie gold, and the premise is quite promising, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie experience is simply watching annoying people and listening to their irritating banter (courtesy of the first screenplay from Risa Mickenberg).
In defense, annoyance is the goal here. Former art school classmates Karen (Christina Hendricks) and Tina (Alysia Reiner) have arranged their first get-together in many years. Karen brings her wealthy snob husband Don (David Alan Basche, Ms. Reiner's real life husband) to Tina's bohemian loft which she shares with Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Karen is 8 months pregnant, Don is worried about his Cadillac in this neighborhood, Tina is a conceptual artist, and Wayne adamantly refuses to be defined by his work - of which he seems to have little.
Judging others seems to be the point of this little party, and as Karen calls giving birth "one of the most beautiful things in life", she has to stop every 5 minutes to pee and eat, and repeat the cycle - all while being unable to sit comfortably. Riffing on how decisions are made on whether to become a parent, and how contemporary gender roles are defined, an abundance of societal commentary leads to a never-ending soft core argument. The bombshell hits when Tina announces she and Wayne are having a baby via a surrogate. Things get really interesting when Kiki (Anna Camp), the surrogate, joins the group.
The wheels go flying off when Kiki reveals she has been in a 5 year relationship with a married man, and that man's wife is now pregnant with their 6th child. Kiki also talks about the 5 stages of womanhood ... each seeming to be in service to man. The conventions of motherhood, and contrasts in suburbia vs. bohemian lifestyles are a central theme here, but none of these folks are the type from which we can draw any inspiration or insight. They are self-centered, insecure types with each trying to prove their high level of enlightenment to the others.
Mostly it's 90 minutes of whiny women and whiny men, in what could have been a fascinating look at motherhood and the evolution of friendship between two women who chose different paths. There is a bitterness to the story and the characters, and uncomfortable discussions handled in such a way that the biting humor rarely hits its mark. Even the ending, which is totally believable, is unsatisfying given what we've been through with these characters.
nostalgia and abuse
Greetings again from the darkness. This is established Visual Effects artist John J Budion's first feature film as writer-director, and he likely exorcises some personal demons with a semi-autobiographical look back at his childhood. Set in the summer of 1994 in East Rockaway, New York, the story is told from the perspective of an adult John (Frankie J Alvarez), who narrates his recollections of that year.
Young John (played by Maxwell Apple), a somewhat withdrawn kid, hero worships brash New York Knicks guard John Starks to the point that he wears a Starks jersey almost non-stop. The two are polar opposite personalities, and the only one who really understands John's obsession is his protective older brother Anthony (Keidrich Sellati, Henry from "The Americans"). Why does John need Anthony's protection? Well that's due to their abusive father (Wass Stevens, THE WRESTLER) who is bitter and angry most of the time - and takes it out on the boys and their mother (Marjan Neshat).
The brothers share two wishes: a championship for their beloved Knicks and a more peaceful living environment without their abusive father. They are so focused on the latter that they've created a scheme to "off" the angry dad - this despite their mother's promise to take them away from it all as soon as she finds work in another city.
It's about this time when John and Anthony meet some other neighborhood boys, and what follows is the easy camaraderie of kids when no parents are polluting the moment (an ideal that seems quite antiquated in this day and age). Billy (a standout Harrison Wittmeyer) is the mature-beyond-his years leader, Dom (James DiGiamcomo) is the unathletic jokester, Brian (Tanner Flood) is the brainy one, and Sal (Colin Critchley) is the motor-mouthed preener. The boys share a love of sports and the fine art of needling each other with sharp cut-downs. In other words, they are kids being kids, and this escapism opens up a new world for Anthony and John.
It's a coming of age story with obvious comparisons to STAND BY ME and THE SANDLOT, and though not at the level of either of those classics, it does feature some fine nostalgic moments of childhood. The film suffers a bit from an ending that's overly sappy and clean, though kudos to all involved if this is true to their life. It's certainly a stretch for most. Adults are more likely than kids to find appeal here, and the film might have benefited from a better exploration of what drove the dad to such extremes.
The Upside (2017)
not in line with the original
Greetings again from the darkness. Frequent movie goers often complain about the lack of originality in American movies. It sometimes seems as if most are sequels, remakes or reboots, or simply pulled from the panels of a comic book. There is another source that is particularly irksome to yours truly, and that's the Americanization of an outstanding film from another country - World Cinema, if you will. Seven plus years ago, while watching the crowd-pleasing (though not so critically acclaimed) and exceptionally performed 2011 French film THE INTOUCHABLES, there was little doubt that it would, at some point, be subjected to an American "enhancement". Sure enough, director Neil Burger (THE ILLUSIONIST) perfectly captures why this transition is sometimes so painful to see.
Based on a true story, filthy rich quadriplegic widower Phillip Lacasse is played by Bryan Cranston, while Nicole Kidman (her 4th film in 8 weeks) plays Yvonne, Phillip's wound-too-tight, ultra-loyal chief of staff (she handles his many business affairs and calendar) with an obvious ulterior motive. Kevin Hart (he of recent Oscar-hosting drama) plays Dell, an unemployed ex-con street hustler. While searching for employment to appease his Parole Officer, Dell stumbles into a Park Avenue penthouse where Phillip and Yvonne are conducting interviews for a full-time caregiver to Phillip. Though he is woefully unqualified, and Yvonne protests mightily, Phillip chooses Dell. The undercurrent here is that Dell's self-centeredness corresponds nicely to Phillip's DNR and lack of will to live since his wife's death from cancer.
The opening sequence has Dell racing through downtown, evading police, while driving a Ferrari with Phillip in the passenger seat. This is followed by a promising "6 months earlier" flashback introducing us to Dell's ex-wife (Aja Naomi King) and their teenage son Anthony (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), both of whom are fed up with the lack of support and trustworthiness of Dell. Basically, Dell is a deadbeat dad with little ambition - other than to avoid returning to prison.
The tone of the film changes once Dell has the job as Phillip's carer. The bulk of the remaining run time (which is 20 minutes too long) becomes a comedy skit showcasing the punchlines of Kevin Hart. Mind you, the full house I watched the screening with seemed to love every bit, as laughter filled the theatre. For me, I could only long for the soul and spirit of that beloved French film from years ago ... and the amazing chemistry between the charismatic Omar Sy and the talented Francois Cluzet. This version isn't about chemistry - it's about comic timing. The only real exception to that is a terrific and psychologically deep scene with Julianna Margulies playing Phillip's pen pal, as they meet for the first time over lunch. The scene is played beautifully, but is a complete tonal change from what comes before and after. Contrasting this scene with Kevin Hart's over-the-top antics in the high-tech shower, magnifies the contrast in concepts.
Jon Hartmere is credited with the screenplay based on the original film's screenplay by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. For some reason, Phillip Pozzo di Borgo's autobiography doesn't make the credits for this version. A bit more attention to Dell's ex and son could have worked to humanize him, and soften the caricature on display. This comes across as an interracial odd-fellow buddy flick, where yet another black man (often in a subservient role) rescues an entitled white person (even if they're disabled) from lack of hope and leads them to a life worth living. Is it possible to make a movie based on race and class, and even romance, and still offer no real insight? Apparently the answer is yes, if one chooses to go for easy laughs. Perhaps you'll join the audience in rolling along with Dell's first trip to the opera, or the disrespect to art collectors - or that seemingly never-ending catheter scene. Or perhaps you can be persuaded to track down THE INTOUCHABLES for a more emotional and inspirational telling of this story.
Ashes in the Snow (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. Most World War II films focus on the atrocities committed by Hitler's German forces, but this adaptation of Ruta Sepetys' novel ("Between Shades of Gray") reminds us of the evils under Stalin and the Russian seizure of the Baltic States. Director Marius A Markevicius delivers a feature film debut that is both historical drama and tale of human perseverance.
We have long since been educated on just how cruel humans can and have been to other humans, and director Markevicius - with a script from Ben York Jones (LIKE CRAZY, 2011) - doesn't shy away from the cruelty or atrocities, but he and cinematographer Ramunus Greicius capture the harshness and brutality of the Siberian environment, as well as the brief moments when those being held captive feel sparks of life.
Bel Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, 2015) stars as Lina, a young Lithuanian artist who lives with her family: mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEUR) and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet). The father/husband is played by Sam Hazeldine and we learn of his secret agenda and activism later in the film. When Russian troops forcibly remove mother and the two kids from their home, a long train ride ends with their working the fields in the Altai Labor Camp in Siberia.
Martin Wallstrom is excellent as Kretzky, a conflicted Russian soldier from the Ukraine. He's kind of persona non-grata on both sides, and as an outsider to the troops and the "devil" to the prisoners, he is somewhat of a sympathetic character. A year later (1942), the family and Officer Kretzky are shipped off to Laptev Sea in the Arctic Circle. This frozen tundra is no place for human beings and death seems preferable to freezing in misery. When giving the relocation order, Kretzky's commanding officer calls them "one big happy family in frozen hell". It's a great line. An acutely descriptive line.
Young Lina's childhood innocence has been shattered, but she possesses an inner strength that only such miserable circumstances could unveil. She carries on finding brief respites in her art and in fleeting romance with fellow prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King).
There is a story told, a legend really, about a fishing boat and its survivors - the correlation made late in the film. The devastating circumstances and desolate landscape are accompanied aptly by German composer Volker Bertelmann. But let's face it, war crimes against the innocent are tough to watch even in movie form, and this film, regardless of how expertly it's crafted, is relentless in bleakness - though heartfelt and sincere.
Nicole sans glamour
Greetings again from the darkness. The rogue/burned-out cop obsessed with an old case or particular criminal nemesis is something we have seen many times before. Ordinarily there would be no reason to seek out yet another movie on the subject; however, this time the reason is obvious ... Nicole Kidman.
Ms. Kidman, an Oscar winner for THE HOURS (2002), is an excellent actress and has had a wonderful career, but this is something altogether different for her. She plays LAPD Detective Erin Bell, a worn-down, emotionally shattered shell of the idealistic cop who, 17 years earlier, was part of an undercover operation that went tragically and violently wrong. Director Karyn Kusama (JENNIFER'S BODY, 2009) bounces back and forth on the timelines - sometimes we are viewing Erin's undercover work with her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan), and others we get the haggard Erin of present day. The contrast is stark.
The ghost of case past has returned, and we witness what has haunted her these many years. Past decisions and actions have rotted her spirit, while alcohol has since destroyed her body. She is a wreck - physically and emotionally, and her reputation within the force is shot. It wouldn't be totally accurate to describe her as self-destructive since she has already destructed. The only thing keeping her going is booze and a desire for revenge.
Flashbacks take us through her early work with the crime gang led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a master of psychological manipulation (think Charles Manson). We also see Erin's too-close connection to partner Chris, and a terrific bank heist scene explains how things went down. Now it's 17 years later, and Silas has resurfaced. Erin wonders why. We also see Erin's feeble attempts to be a mother to her 16 year old daughter (do the math) Shelby, played by Jade Pettyjohn. The two have only a sliver of a relationship as Shelby lives with Erin's ex Ethan (the eternally underutilized Scoot McNairy).
Other support work is provided by Tatiana Maslany as one of Silas' gang, and Bradley Whitford as a scummy defense attorney. Erin has a sequence with the latter that emphasizes just how alone she is. When asked where her partner is, we realize she has no partner with her and no back-up on the way ... she is a lonely, desperate, rogue cop with a murky plan and a head clouded by booze.
Writing partners Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (known for CLASH OF THE TITANS and RIDE ALONG) deliver very few surprises with the script, leaving the burden on Ms. Kidman to keep us interested. And despite her character's train wreck of a life, the performance is quite something to behold ... her look, her gait, and even her whispered voice - all point to a woman hanging on by a thread and lacking basic daily energy to show any signs of hope. Director Kusama adds texture by showing many non-touristy areas of Los Angeles, and filming the two timelines in such a way that the structure works - although the Erin in shambles is far more intriguing than the younger one. On a separate note, there should be a special Oscar for the make-up team that managed to make the usually glamorous Ms. Kidman look realistically shattered.
Leave No Trace (2018)
doing your job, saying goodbye
Greetings again from the darkness. It seems like many more than 8 years have passed since filmmaker Debra Granik's outstanding film WINTER'S BONE exploded onto the indie scene and introduced most of us to Jennifer Lawrence (although she had been acting for 5 years prior). The talented Ms. Granik has chosen to adapt another book as her feature film follow-up, and once again nature and an independent spirit play a key role. Based on the novel "My Abandonment" by Peter Rock, it's the story of a father and daughter who live off the grid ... until society catches up to them.
Ben Foster (always exceptional) plays Will, a war veteran and father to Tom, his teenage daughter played brilliantly by Thomasin McKenzie. The two live off the grid in the forests outside of Portland. An extended opening sequence with very little dialogue shows us their daily life: capturing rain water, cutting trees for firewood, hiding their camp site, and drilling on making themselves 'disappear' in the foliage. It's in these scenes where cinematographer Michael McDonough shines. His camera work allows us to feel as if we are in the damp forest as the sun rays peek through the trees. It's a beautiful sight despite our uneasiness towards the father-daughter situation.
When Park Rangers discover them, the two enter the Social Services system, but rather than treat us to yet another uncaring and incompetent bureaucracy, director Granik allows human kindness and reasonableness to play its part. Will and Tom are moved onto a farm where she will enroll in school and he will work on a Christmas tree farm. Of course, we know that Will is not cut out for this life, though we begin to see Tom show signs of true independence and her own dreams.
They make their way back into the woods and an injury - and more human kindness - has them end up in a camp with other outliers. The story really captures the conflict between a society that is obligated to educate and protect children, and the same society that has little clue how to assist veterans of war. We see folks who just want to be left alone, and others who maybe can't fit in to society - or have no interest in trying.
Supporting work is provided by Dana Millican, the great Dale Dickey, and Isiah Stone (one of the kids from WINTER'S BONE). There is a believability here rarely seen on the big screen, and the love between father and daughter is something to behold. Ms. Granik says so much by saying very little, but what could be such a bleak story actually revels in the kindness to fellow man - the type of kindness which seems all too rare these days.
The Mule (2018)
just know going in
Greetings again from the darkness. When a film is inspired by a true story detailed in a 2014 New York Times article entitled "The Sinoloa Cartel's 90 Year Old Drug Mule" written by Sam Dolnick, we should expect a message delivered with a certain amount of tension. Unfortunately, tension is somehow lacking throughout, and the only real message delivered is the same of most every elderly person (even those who aren't drug runners) - they regret not spending more time with family. That's not to say the movie doesn't have its moments (it does), but know going in that the terrific ensemble cast is given little to do in a script painted with such broad strokes that no other message or image ever emerges.
Clint Eastwood directs his second movie of the year (THE 15:17 TO PARIS being the other) and stars in his first acting role since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE in 2012. Here he plays Earl Stone, a popular horticulturalist who admittedly devoted more time and love to his prize-winning daylilies than to his family. A flashback to 2005 shows us Earl in his element at a convention where he is treated as a celebrity, and as a man who would rather buy a round of drinks at the hotel bar than show up to his daughter's wedding and walk her down the aisle. The family has grown weary of and accustomed to his no-shows, and Earl displays little remorse.
Pushing forward twelve years, we find Earl's house and farm in foreclosure - and him blaming the internet (just one of many 'good old days' syndrome bits). When his appearance at his granddaughter Ginny's (Taissa Farmiga) engagement party causes turmoil with his ex-wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (the aptly named) Lilly (Alison Eastwood), he is approached by one of the attendees who tells him he can make money 'just driving'.
Being hard up for cash, Earl takes the job driving his truck and dropping off his unknown cargo. In one of numerous convoluted moments we are supposed to accept, Earl is shocked when he discovers the cargo he's been toting is bags of illegal drugs. Now mind you, this is a Korean War veteran who has spent his life on the road running his own business. The naivety is a bit too much for us to swallow. Comparisons are expected to Eastwood's turn as Walt in GRAN TORINO (2008), but here his being an off-the-cuff racist is seemingly excused by his age and generation ... plus it's meant as comic relief quite often. Earl becomes a trusted mule for the cartel led by a kingpin played by Andy Garcia, and transports record amounts of drugs valued at millions. Still, Earl is a cranky old geezer who does things his own way, whether that's stopping for the world's best pulled pork sandwich or helping a stranded family change a tire. He's also a 90 year old with the libido of a 28 year old gigolo (which given Eastwood's real life track record, may or may not be fiction).
While Earl makes his commutes through the picturesque Midwest (including White Sands National Park) singing classic country songs and ballads, the Chicago DEA is busy tracking the cartel. Two partner agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) report to the Station Chief (Laurence Fishbourne) and are under pressure for drug "busts". It's this segment that truly causes the story structure to crumble. Cooper, Pena and Fishbourne are all excellent actors and it's a bit embarrassing to see them with such limited and basic roles. Fishburne especially seems relegated to intricate dialogue such as "get it done" and "do it". There is also a Waffle House scene shared by Cooper and Eastwood that so unreasonably requires us to suspend all disbelief that it ends up just being an eye-roller.
One's expectation for the film should be tempered by the knowledge that Earl's line, "For what it's worth, I'm sorry for everything", is really the crux of the film. An elderly drug runner's life regrets and attempts to make amends and re-connect with his family somehow plays like a disjointed soap opera than a real life drama. That said, even at age 88, Mr. Eastwood still has a strong screen presence, and we can't help but find it interesting that both he and Robert Redford (THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN) had roles this year as criminals with a certain appeal.
American Hangman (2019)
everyone gets a vote
Greetings again from the darkness. Two men are kidnapped, bound and gagged, and dragged into a secure basement. Soon enough, the disoriented men (and we as viewers) realize this is to be a trial conducted via social media - and the stakes are very real. Writer-Director Wilson Coneybeare presents the kidnapper as a quiet dude with an intricately well-designed, though quite demented, set-up.
Ron (Paul Braunstein) and the ironically named Judge Straight (Donald Sutherland) are the two men held captive, while Henry David Cole (Vincent Kartheiser, "Mad Men") is their captor. Ron is the high strung type who constantly threatens Cole despite being handcuffed and otherwise tortured. The Judge, on the other hand, remains calm and composed as he tries to reason with his captor ... and even talk some sense into Ron. Despite the circumstances, we find a bit of humor in Ron's bull-headedness and his frantic comparisons to the movie SAW, which of course the Judge has never seen. On a side note, Paul Braunstein actually appeared in JIGSAW (one of the SAW sequels).
Cole begins the live broadcast via social media and we periodically see the graphics for time (go live at 1:11pm) and counter of viewers tuned in. Also tuning in are the local cops led by a retiring police lieutenant (Oliver Dennis) and a detective (Joanne Boland), and a top notch hacker (Jess Salguiero). Cole's basement set up includes numerous computers and cameras strategically placed around the room. His own moves are choreographed in a manner that keeps his face from being seen on social media. The Judge and Ron see him (and his awful haircut), as do we as viewers.
An ambitious news reporter is working her own contacts, but much of the suspense occurs inside the basement. It takes a while to unfold, but we soon understand Cole's thought process and why he believes a publicly broadcast trial makes sense. Some of the issues touched upon include a justice system that is "ignorant, corrupt and blood thirsty", as well as the power and peril of the news media and social media. As the public "votes" online for guilt or innocence, all parties end up in full-throttle CYA mode by the end of the film ... and that may be the biggest statement here. It's a decent little thriller that surprisingly generates some thought.
Manbiki kazoku (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. We typically think of family as blood relatives, those affiliated by marriage or adoption, and those funky cousins (sometimes 'removed') that, according to the family tree, are supposedly related to us. Expert Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, 2013) presents a story that will have you questioning whether the strongest connection is blood, heart, or money.
We first witness 'father' Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky) and adolescent 'son' Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a well-coordinated shoplifting maneuver at the local grocery store. On the way home they stumble across a shivering child, maybe 4 or 5 years old, who has been seemingly abandoned by her parents. They take her home to warm her up and feed her, and it's here we discover the multi-generational family living in a tiny apartment. This family also consists of 'grandmother' Hatsue (an excellent Kirin Kiki), 'mother/wife' Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and teenage daughter Aki (rising star Mayu Matsuoka).
When the family discovers signs of abuse on the little girl Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), they decide to keep her - less an informal adoption than an admission to the club. See, this family lives in poverty, and finds comfort in working odd jobs and shoplifting. They do bad things out of necessity, in a kind of twisted 'honor among thieves'. Each person, regardless of age is expected to contribute to the team. The eldest provides a steady income through her deceased ex-husband's pension, and by scamming mercy money from his second family. Osamu and Nobuyo have regular part time jobs, while Aki works in a sexy chat room. Shota polishes his shoplifting skills and even tiny Yuri begins to learn by watching him. Everyone contributes in what can be described as a pyramid scheme of petty cons.
As the film progresses, we get to know each of the characters and begin to care about them ... rooting for them to find success. Writer-Director Kore-eda draws us in with subtle scenes of interaction between the characters, each willing to sacrifice for the other. He raises the question on whether choosing one's family might create a stronger bond than those blood ties. What really seems to matter is where we feel we belong, and where are accepted.
The film won the Palme d'Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and it's likely due to the devastating and expert final act. In a dramatic shift in tone, true character is revealed - it's a shocking revelation on some fronts, and fully expected on others. Each family member has a backstory that slowly unfolds through the first two acts, and then abruptly slaps us upside the head as the film nears conclusion. There are many social aspects to be discussed after this one, including how the child welfare system (seemingly regardless of country) sometimes works against a child's best interest, even with the best intentions. This is one that will grab your heart and then stick with you for a while.
Zimna wojna (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. Who doesn't enjoy a good love story? The wonderfully talented filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski proves to us the massive difference between a story of 'good love' and a 'good story' of love. With two lead characters based (somewhat) on his own parents (and named after them), we witness how two people can be simultaneously meant for each other AND not meant to be together. It's the story of a man and woman forever connected, yet painfully mismatched.
Director Pawlikowski's extraordinary last film, IDA (2013) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, and this time he starts us off with a curious montage of Polish folk musicians (including bagpipes and violins) performing their songs ... each in stark and static close-ups. This strange opening only makes sense to us much later, as we realize what a key element music plays in the numerous shifts in tone - the chapters - of the story.
Former lovers Wiktor (Polish star Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza, IDA) are co-directors of a Polish song and dance performance team, and as they are conducting auditions, Wiktor is immediately drawn to Zula (Joanna Kulig), one who has a pure singing voice but a questionable past to go with no previous dancing experience. Irena recognizes lust when she sees it, but Wiktor stands firm that he perceives Zula's stage presence as something special. The film covers the period of 1949 through 1964, and in that time we watch as Wiktor and Irena are both proven right. Mr. Kot and especially Ms. Kulig deliver extraordinary performances ... truly captivating.
Director Pawlikowski offers up a love story unlike anything we've ever seen on the big screen. Wiktor and Zula experience the most tumultuous and romantic ride through Poland (the company first performs in Warsaw), East Berlin, Paris, Yugoslavia, back to Paris, and back to Poland. There were likely some other stops along the way, but those are the ones I made note of. Sometimes they are together, other times they are separated. It's 1952 East Berlin where they formulate a plan to defect ... only Zula is a no show, and they don't meet up again for a couple of years. In one Paris rendezvous a few years later, Zula explains to Wiktor that she married another man "for us". Somehow this makes sense.
It's best to know no other specifics of this relationship. Star-crossed lovers is not a phrase used much these days, and perhaps even that description falls short. What causes someone to sell their soul for another - or sacrifice so much? How can so much pain and humiliation be accompanied by so much longing and yearning? What's fascinating is that the film's music styles shift in tone right along with their relationship. Sometimes the music is political (with a Stalin poster) - as that is the wall between them, and then later Zula is dancing totally free to "Rock Around the Clock".
There are no wasted words here. The black and white images of cinematographer Lukasz Zal complements each segment with the appropriate softness or harshness depending on the characters' emotions of the moment. Certainly at the heart of this story is the role of memories ... how snapshots in time can impact our feelings, at times causing us to be oblivious to rational thought. As viewers, we experience a constant feeling of impending doom - even during the good times for Wiktor and Zula. The unusual editing style of extended cuts to black signal shifts in time ... the blackness held for an extra beat or two, allowing us to brace for the next chapter. Polish jazz pianist Marcin Masecki scored the film - a crucial element not just because our two main characters are musicians, but because the music guides us through the lives we see. The film recalls the crown jewel of mismatched lovers in CASABLANCA as two lovers apparently meant to be together, but real life circumstances prove too much. Yet another excellent film from Pawel Pawlikowski.
Stan & Ollie (2018)
a warm tribute to comedic giants
Greetings again from the darkness. Any list of the all-time great comedic teams would surely include Laurel and Hardy at or near the top. Influenced by pioneers such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (the rotund one) rose to the top of the comedy world through their films and shorts produced by Hal Roach Studios during 1926-1941. In later years, we recognize the Laurel and Hardy influence in hugely popular acts such as Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. Director Jon S Baird (FILTH, 2013) and writer Joe Pope (PHILOMENA, 2013) deliver a warm tribute to the comedy giants by giving us a peek on stage and off.
The film kicks off in 1937 when the duo are the height of their popularity, and a wonderful extended opening take allows us to follow them as they make their way across the studio lot and onto the set of their latest film, WAY OUT WEST. Before filming the scene, they have a little dust up with studio owner Hal Roach (Danny Huston) over the money they are being paid per their contract. Stan thinks they deserve more, while Oliver, racked with debt from a stream of broken marriages, prefers to not rock the boat.
It's this early scene that acts as a precursor to the challenges we witness in the business partnership side of the duo. Imagine if the work of you and your business partner were on display for the world to judge. And how does friendship fit in? The film flashes forward to 1953 when the popularity of the comedic duo has faded. They find themselves on a United Kingdom tour arranged by smarmy booking agent Bernard Delfont (played well by Rufus Jones). The purpose of the tour is to convince a film producer to back their Robin Hood parody idea. The early gigs are very small music venues and the crowds are even smaller. But these are true pros, and soon Stan and Ollie hustle up their own growing audiences, and by the time their wives join them on the tour, they are filling the best venues.
As Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Laurel (Nina Arianda) make their appearance, we soon find ourselves with two comedy teams to watch. The chemistry between the ladies is so terrific, they could be the featured players in their own movie. Lucille is a strong and quiet former script girl who is quite protective of her Ollie, while the outspoken Ida is a former Russian dancer who, in her own way, is also protective of the gentlemen performers.
The suppressed resentment over the (much) earlier Roach negotiations finally boils over in a heart-wrenching scene. The grudges and feelings of betrayal are voiced - alongside Ollie's physical ailments. As they air their grievances, it cuts to the quick. Not long after, Ollie's heart condition finds the two mimicking their "hospital" skit in real life ... it's a show of ultimate friendship that can only be built through decades of working closely together.
John C Reilly plays Oliver Hardy (the American) and Steve Coogan is Stan Laurel (the Brit). Both are extraordinary in capturing the look and movements of the comic geniuses. Mr. Reilly and Mr. Coogan are such strong actors, that it's difficult to decide which segments are best. Is it the reenactments of some of Laurel and Hardy's iconic skits, or is the off-stage moments when they are dealing with the human side of these entertainment giants? Reilly benefits from excellent make-up and prosthetics (that chin!) and Coogan has the hair and determination needed for his role.
Director Baird's film is sweet and sad and funny. Stan and Ollie deserve this warm tribute, and it's a reminder of all the stress and hard work that performers put in so that the show looks "easy". This is what's meant by honing the craft ... even if it's "another fine mess" accompanied by the trademark "Dance of the Cuckoos" music. Let's hope the film attracts some youngsters who might gain an appreciation for the good ol' days of Classical Hollywood.
Greetings again from the darkness. While it's happening, we don't always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It's at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (STEP BROTHERS, ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY) to full bore political satire, first with his "Funny or Die" videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with THE BIG SHORT (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay), and now to the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration ... and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.
In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale's Batman), the asymmetrical smirk - Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events - many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.
Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney's time as Donald Rumsfeld's (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970's (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford's loss to Carter, and the campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney's wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it's not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.
The story really gets interesting once George HW Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to 'beware the quiet man', and most fit the Cheney on display here. You've likely seen in the trailer where a finger-lickin' George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbeque as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven't figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here ... his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation's leaders during this time.
Supporting work is provided by a deep cast including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator whose true role is held at bay until near the film's end.
September 11, 2001 brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority ... at least that's how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power "like a ghost", and it's this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney's lust for power, and how 'right and wrong' are secondary to him.
Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney's heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complementary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.
Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar nominated for THE BIG SHORT) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works. "America" from West Side Story is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk - depending on your politics.
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
love and injustice
Greetings again from the darkness. Humiliation and disgust register when we acknowledge that James Baldwin's 1974 book is as relevant today as it was when published. Though the book hardly lends itself to a big screen presentation, writer-director Barry Jenkins (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner for last year's Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT) brings his cinematic artistry and deft touch to a story that is a touching love story wrapped in a tale of social injustice.
Filmmaker Jenkins has succeeded in delivering the rare film that is filled with both tender, warm, smile-inducing moments and moments of absolute frustration that fill us with outrage. It's a beautiful film with a sweet story of love between two soul mates, and it's also a story of race, class, and Harlem in the 70's. The film begins with a Baldwin quote informing us that "Beale Street" is born from black roots - it's not geographical, but rather cultural. He's certainly not referring to today's tourist destination in Memphis.
Tish (terrific newcomer Kiki Lane) and Fonny (Stephan James, played Jesse Owens in RACE) have been best friends since early childhood. They are now ages 19 and 22 respectively, and that friendship has blossomed into romantic attraction. Their fairy tale love story is shattered when a racist cop (Ed Skrein) falsely accuses Fonny of rape, and Fonny goes to prison. And if that's not enough, we witness the scene where Tish and her family invite Fonny's family over to announce she is carrying his baby. Fonny's judgmental and religious zealot of a mother reacts with indignation and is beyond cruel to Tish. It's one of the most emotionally explosive scenes of any movie all year. Regina King gives a powerhouse performance as Tish's mom, and she goes toe-to-toe with Fonny's mom played by Aunjunae Ellis (Yula Mae from THE HELP). Fonny's dad (Michael Beach, AQUAMAN) and Tish's dad (Colman Domingo, SELMA) are stunned by the situation, and wisely take their discussions to the corner bar.
That incredible scene of families clashing is offset by the tenderness and soulfulness of the scenes showing Fonny and Tish together ... whether on the neighborhood streets, in their apartment, or talking with a glass barrier between them. As the timeline gets bounced around, we see Fonny and his old buddy Daniel (Byron Tyree Henry) in one exceptional scene, and we also see the bond between Fonny and his café manager friend played by Diego Luna. The depth of these scenes is difficult to relay, and the film acts as both a character study and social commentary relevant to today's issues. There is so much precision and attention to detail in the story-telling and acting. The color palettes transition depending on the mood of the scene, as does the music - the strings used by composer Nicholas Britell are very much a part of the Tish-Fonny love story, and the brassy jazz music cover the rest.
We get to know Fonny as an artist and charming young man smitten with Tish, who is a gentle and angelic soul. We see his changes while in prison, and we see how others react to her (based on their race, gender and age) as she works the perfume counter at a department story. Baldwin's writing is spot on as Tish (in her role as narrator) says "I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass."
Director Jenkins has delivered a special movie that is brilliantly constructed. It's a story of love and family and the impact of racism without any of the preachiness we often get. Cinematographer James Laxton expertly captures the tone changes, and having the actors periodically look directly into the camera (at the viewer) proves quite powerful. This is romanticism vs. reality, and speaks to the power and beauty of love ... and the strength to carry through even in an unjust situation brought on by a fractured society. It's a beautiful film.
Science Fair (2018)
there is hope
Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the island of misfit High School geeks. Co-directors Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster introduce us to a few of the kids from around the globe who are striving to compete in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. More than 1500 students from dozens of countries qualify each year to present their ideas for a $75,000 grand prize. There are many rules, but the key is that the project must have "global impact". Does this sound more important than a football game? Well, not in South Dakota!
The film opens with the viral clip of a previous winner who literally ran onstage screaming and crying when his name was announced as a winner. We then meet Jack Andraka today, and in his interview, he explains his guttural response and the impact of the fair both for individuals and idea advancement. Jack, now in his 20's, works as a researcher. We follow 9 students from various parts of the world - each with different backgrounds, interests, expertise, and motivations. The support they receive from parents, teachers and schools also varies, as do the resources available.
Students being followed are from a Kentucky, South Dakota, Brazil, West Virginia, Germany and New York state. The systems range from a magnet school to a public school without a science lab. In South Dakota, a Muslim girl named Kashfia bluntly states that athletics are the focus of her school (their football team went 0-9), and her science teachers had no interest in being her faculty sponsor ... so the football coach agreed to fill the role. This is contrasted to a New York teacher who commits her off-hours to mentor and push students to participate and compete, and she regularly sends multiple students to the fair. In West Virginia, a frustrated math teacher discusses how one student had no interest in homework or tests, then we hear the student explain his advancements in artificial intelligence. A German student diligently works on improving the aeronautics on single wing aircraft. Other projects include detecting arsenic in water, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and preventing cancer rather than curing it. It's an impressive lot.
Quite a few of the students hail from immigrant families, and each student is inspiring, intelligent and ambitious. Given the political climate in the U.S. these days, it is heart-warming to see so many youngsters who want to make the world a better place. The directors also interview past winners, but are not allowed in the exhibit hall once the judging begins. National Geographic has sponsored this documentary which won the Audience award at both Sundance and SXSW. These students are the ones that give us hope for the future, and remind us that sports are a nice pastime, but it is intelligence and technical advancements that will sustain the species. The film should be used to recruit more students into working towards the Olympics of Science Fairs!
Cuaron's personal gem
Greetings again from the darkness. It is possible for a filmmaker to be "too close" to the material when undertaking a story that is somewhat autobiographical. It's also possible, in that situation, for them to catch lightning in a bottle and magic on the screen - and that's exactly what writer/director Alfonso Cuaron has achieved with this look back at his childhood home life. In his follow-up to GRAVITY, for which he won the Best Director Oscar, Mr. Cuaron has dedicated the film to Libo, his family maid/nanny during his youth in Mexico City.
Balancing artistry and everyday humanity like few other films, it takes us inside the home of a well-off family: Antonio (Fernando Gredigaga), the father-husband-doctor; Sofia (Marina de Tavira, the only experienced actor in the main cast), the mother-wife; Teresa (Veronica Garcia), the grandmother; the four kids; and two live-in maids, Adela (Nancy Garcia Garcia) and Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). There is no separating the human emotions from the near-poetic art form of Cuaron's movie. It is unusually quiet, filmed mostly at midrange, and with no musical score. Yet, in the stillness and quiet, so much is happening.
The focus here is on Cleo. We hear many times how she is considered part of the family. Of course, she (and we) are reminded that's only true to a certain extent as she is admonished for not cleaning up after the family dog or 'wasting' electricity in her living quarters by using the light in her tiny living quarters at night. First time actress Yalitza Aparicio brings a realism and accessibility to the role as the quiet, perpetually-in-motion maid/caregiver/nanny and she is mesmerizing to watch. Her duties include keeping the house clean, cooking meals, getting the kids up in the morning, getting the kids to/from school, and putting the kids to bed at night. What little scraps of time she has for a personal life are spent going on a date with the cousin of Adela's boyfriend. Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is a martial arts fanatic and just prior to their intimacy, he demonstrates his skills to her with a shower rod and literally nothing else.
When Antonio and Sofia announce to the kids that dad will be attending a conference in Quebec "for a few weeks", we as viewers understand what this means, even though the kids don't. Spending time with his mistress means Sofia and Grandma Teresa must manage the house ... but of course, as always, the bulk of the burden falls to Cleo. When Cleo finds out she's pregnant, Fermin dumps her - leaving both Cleo and Sofia as abandoned by men. It's fascinating to watch this unfold, and contrast how the two women react and cope. The dialogue is secondary to the situations in the film, but there is a great line of dialogue after the men leave: "We women are always alone."
From a cinematic aspect, Cuaron's film is a delight to watch - reminding at times of the classic Italian and French films of years past. Since his first film in 1995, Cuaron has frequently collaborated with (3 time Oscar winning) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, but this time Cuaron wears multiple hats as writer/director/cinematographer/co-editor/producer. This is his movie - and his most personal one - from top to bottom. Working closely over the years with Lubezki has influenced Cuaron's camera work ... it's stunning. He uses wide, initially static shots with slow pans - just the way we see in real life. And just like in real life, what he shows us is sometimes mundane and at other times various degrees of emotional. The remarkable opening credit scene could be quickly described as Cleo mopping the dog mess from the garage floor. But of course there is much more. We also see the reflection of planes flying overhead and hear only the sounds of everyday life. It sets the stage for the entire film.
This is 1970-71 Mexico City, so in addition to Cleo getting the kids to and from school, the street riots - some quite violent - play a role, as does the incessant sound of dogs barking in the background. Cleo's trip to the delivery room is filmed with real doctors and nurses, while a later trip to the beach offers yet another gut punch ... and both sequences maintain the overall feel of authenticity. Lest you think this is just another "small scale" indie, Cuaron goes big a few times - the street riot, a mass martial arts training session, and the beach trip. His film is a story of class and family, making it more than just a thing of celluloid beauty. It also brilliantly captures the essence of life's emotions: the "bad" with two men who ignore their responsibilities, the "normal" with kids being kids, and the "good" with seeing Cleo become such a vital and beloved part of the family.
Welcome to Marwen (2018)
discomforting, yet captivating
Greetings again from the darkness. The main thing to keep in mind while watching this movie is that it's based on the true story of a real guy - Mark Hogancamp - and it's also a dramatization designed to entertain, enlighten and even inspire. Most of the time it's pretty discomforting to watch, but what would you expect with a grown man who spends his time creating and photographing fictional and fantasy-laden WWI scenes in the model-scale village he built in his backyard? And he frequently does so while wearing women's shoes.
When we first meet Mark Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell), he is three years removed from a brutal and savage attack by a group of men outside a local bar. While intoxicated, and after having been called a derogatory term, Mark confessed to the men that he sometimes wears women's shoes. Not long after, he was being pummeled to near death in the parking lot. When Hogancamp awoke from the coma, he had no memory of his past, no taste for alcohol (he had been an alcoholic), and a shaky hand that prevented him from continuing to earn a living as an illustrator.
In his new world of mental and physical challenges, Mark does manage to tap into his artistic side and deal with his trauma in quite an unusual manner. He creates a WWII era Belgian village named Marwen - fused by his first name and that of Wendy, a neighbor he was quite fond of. Using dolls and action figures and other accessories found at the local hobby shop, Mark sets up elaborate battle sequences that feature the German SS standing in for his attackers outside the bar, and a battalion of courageous machine-gun toting ladies who protect US Air Force Captain Hoagie (a stand-in for Mark himself). He is also haunted by Deja Thoris, who he calls the Belgian Witch of Marwen.
Director Robert Zemeckis has long capitalized on unusual visuals and special effects in his films such as FORREST GUMP, BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE POLAR EXPRESS, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, and here he uses motion-capture for his excellent action sequences. Rather than the lifelike images we've come to expect with motion-capture, Zemeckis and his team allow the figures to keep a touch of their doll-like attributes, so that we easily distinguish between reality and Mark's fantasy escapes.
Opening with an action packed and vivid battle sequence, we slowly pull back through the viewfinder on Mark's camera to see him and get our first glimpse at Marwen and its inhabitants. In time, each of the characters is unveiled - real life person and the Marwen counterpart (doll). The tough-as-nails women are Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris (Belgian Witch), Gwendolyn Christie as Anna the visiting nurse, Janelle Monae as Julie the physical therapist, Merritt Weaver ("Godless") as Roberta the hobby shop owner, Elza Gonzalez as Carlala and Mark's meatball-making co-worker, Leslie Zemeckis (the director's wife) as Suzette, Stephanie von Pfetten as Wendy (of Marwen fame), and Leslie Mann as new neighbor Nicol.
The screenplay was co-written by Caroline Thompson and director Zemeckis, and the dramatization effects could be noted if compared to the 2010 documentary MARWENCOL (the doc explains the truth behind the full town name) which details Mark's story. It was a 2000 attack that left him in a coma for 9 days, and resulted in his transition to photography and war reenactments as a form of therapy. His photography is so exceptional that Mr. Hogancamp is featured in gallery showings and publications. In the film, we see his attempts to face his accusers in court, and how he was finally able to personally come to grips with his own shame and guilt in regards to the hate crime that changed his life.
As if the actual story doesn't provide enough strange elements, director Zemeckis adds a few dashes of bizarre by having Nazis that come back to life, a time machine so similar to the BACK TO THE FUTURE Delorean that we can't help but smile, a bell tower scene seemingly taken straight from Hitchcock's VERTIGO ... including a fall and landing that recalls THE OMEN. There is also Julie London's surreal version of "Yummy Yummy Yummy", and enough women's shoes to stock a department store. Mark's story is simultaneously tragic, unconventional, deserving of empathy, romantic, heart-breaking, redeeming, twisted, and uplifting. It's rare for a feel-good movie to leave us feeling so 'not good' due to its nature, but I am still not sure I've fully evaluated what was presented.
They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Inside The Great War
Greetings again from the darkness. I've noted many times how World War II has been mined for cinematic purposes over the years, even to this day. It's always seemed a shame that World War I - 'The Great War' - has so few big screen projects in comparison. Obviously, timing is a major reason. World War II ended in 1945, which means during our lifetime, many of those veterans have been able to record their experiences and memories. In contrast, 2018 marks the 100 year mark of the end of World War I, so the archival footage and documentation is significantly reduced - and sadly, much of it lost or destroyed over time. Because of this, we should treasure this latest from director Peter Jackson as he allows these WWI participants to come alive and tell their stories. But it's more than historical significance ... it's truly fascinating to hear the words from those that were there.
Director Jackson is best known for his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, as well as his version of King Kong (2005) ... all "large scale" movies with ground-breaking CGI effects. For his latest, he gets much more personal and intimate, though the technical achievements are equally impressive. The first thing to note is that this film is not presented as a historical timeline detailing the political motivations or battle strategy of the various countries involved. Instead, we hear archival audio from dozens of soldiers who fought, and we see actual video clips and photographs - many we've never seen before. Mr. Jackson's grandfather was a soldier in WWI, and the film's focus is on the experience of the British soldiers.
Fittingly, the film begins with soldiers' words playing over some of the faded and tattered war footage. These soldiers go unnamed as the goal is to have us understand the experience - what motivated them to enlist, and what it was like to serve on the battlefield. As we hear the words, the scale and clarity of the video transitions to full screen in vivid color ... it's breathtaking to see these figures become living, breathing, smiling young men from a century ago.
The words of these men fill us in on aspects of the war that most history books gloss over. Many of them "exaggerated" their ages so they could join their friends or relatives in the war. We learn about 'plum and apple' jam, stew, sipping water from gas cans, and the challenges presented when the special purpose pole gets overloaded. The trenches are seen up close as mazes of mud (when not fully flooded) with cutouts for sleeping and cooking. We see proof of trench foot/gangrene due to the impossibility of proper sanitation, and we hear and see the constant threats of green gas, snipers and artillery shelling - and that's on top of the relentless smell of death and infusion of rats.
This is about being a soldier ... the ramifications of leaders deciding war is the best or only option. Director Jackson makes it personal, and a segment where the British soldiers mix with injured and captured German soldiers proves that these young men have more in common than not. They all just want to survive and go home to their loved ones.
Jackson co-produced the film with his wife Fran Walsh, and with the involvement of the Imperial War Museum and BBC. Controversy surrounds the colorization of archival footage. I would encourage anyone who feels this way to understand this is much different than 'modernizing' It's A Wonderful Life or Casablanca, where those directors purposefully lit scenes and sets based on the black and white filming process. Jackson is dealing with war footage from100 years ago, much of it by war photographers or soldiers. The purpose is to cause the people and horrific settings to come alive for those who have never connected with WWI - preserving The Great War for personal and historical purposes. It's really something to behold.
On the Basis of Sex (2018)
a primer on young RBG
Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, the documentary RBG (co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) was a film festival and box office hit, helping turn 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a celebrity and cult icon, complete with best-selling "Notorious RBG" t-shirts and her own action figure. That documentary allowed us the rare opportunity to hear directly from a currently sitting Justice, and just about every viewer came away in awe - regardless of one's political affiliations. Now, a few months later, we get the story of her younger years in a (loving) script written by Ms. Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Steipleman.
The film opens with a lone woman in a dress engulfed by a sea of young men in conservative business suits marching up the steps on day one of Harvard Law School in 1956. Inside the oak paneled hall, the school's dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) discusses what it means to be a 'Harvard man' and how this is only the sixth year women have been admitted. As he speaks, young Ruth (Felicity Jones) glances around the room at the (only) 8 other female students. At a later reception for the females, Dean Griswold asks each to stand and explain why they are worthy of taking a man's spot in the class. It's our first (not last) example of the sexism obstacles of the time - much different than those of today, where women procure more higher education slots than men.
By this time, Ruth and Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) are both Columbia graduates, have been married for a couple of years, and are raising their first child, Jane. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth covers his classes and hers, is mother to young Jane, and also caregiver to a recovering Marty. Of course, her husband recovers and goes on to be a highly successful tax attorney on Wall Street, and their marriage continues until his death in 2010.
But this is Ruth's story, and her strength is on display. As uplifting as it is to see that Marty was an immensely supportive husband, it's deflating to see how a brilliant woman - number one in her class - is so disrespected during this era that she can't even find a job at a law firm. For one committed to doing, Ruth accepts a job teaching instead. Her time as a professor at Columbia is spent encouraging students to explore the inequities of the law when it comes to men and women. In fact, it's 1970 when Ruth and Marty work their only case together. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), is denied a tax deduction for the caregiver expenses in caring for his sick mother. By law, the deduction is only allowed for female caregivers, and this gives Ruth her first taste of 'doing'.
It's at this point, where Kathy Bates appears as civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU Legal Director. Adding spice to Ruth's and Marty's life is their teenage daughter Jane (a very good Cailee Spaeny) who is quite headstrong in her own beliefs. The scenes in the Appellate Court are the film's best, as is the Moot Court sequence - though we do wish more time had been devoted to the prep work and details for the court arguments.
Director Mimi Leder is known mostly for her TV work, and she delivers the story of an amazing woman in an easily accessible manner for mass audiences. It's an approach that will hopefully allow many young people (yes, especially women) to gain a better understanding of what this woman went through and fought for during the decades before she became the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court. Two takeaways here are that Ruth Ginsburg is a superhero and pioneer of social change, and also that a marriage of equal partners carries great power. Her cameo as the film's final shot, leaves no doubt that RBG is no longer concerned about which dress will make her look like a "Harvard man".
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it's likely director Rob Marshall's (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role ... Emily Blunt.
The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic "Underneath the Lovely London Sky". It's actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane - the Banks' home - easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom's footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he's an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father's bank shares ... something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.
It's at this point that the kids' popcorn should just about be gone, so it's fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance ... literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins' arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael's two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren't sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.
Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins' "Off we go" kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs "Turning Turtle" in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing "Trip a Little Light Fantastic".
Julie Walters appears as the Banks' housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks' canon-firing neighbor; however it's two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing "Nowhere to Go but Up", and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank - and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt's movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with 'stuff and nonsense', teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It's a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.
Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers' original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song ("Chim Chim Che-ree"), and left us singing others such as "Spoon Full of Sugar", "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and of course, "Supercalifragilistic". These new songs including "Can You Imagine That", "The Place Where Lost Things Go", "A Cover is not the Book", "Nowhere to Go but Up" all contribute to the story and to the viewer's enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.
This is a film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other - and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It's simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney's live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it's with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.
reality and doubt
Greetings again from the darkness. "This story is extraordinary - especially if it's true." This is just one of many incredulous statements from the film's narrator, Mickey Rourke. And let's face it, when trying to establish credibility for a story that's been in doubt for 30 years, who better to lean on than Mickey Rourke? In defense of filmmaker Jeremy Corbell, there is no proving or disproving the story of Bob Lazar. It's more like a Ripley's Believe it or Not entry than a forensic study with conclusive results. One either chooses to believe Mr. Lazar, or not ... and there is no way to prove which side is "right".
In 1989, Bob Lazar was interviewed anonymously (in shadows with altered voice), claiming that he worked at S-4, a facility adjacent to Area 51, and that his job was to reverse engineer the propulsion system on alien spacecraft - one of 9 being studied. His anonymity didn't last long, and the one fact in the film that is beyond debate is that his decision to go public with this story altered his life forever. When Mr. Corbell catches up with Mr. Lazar, we find that he doesn't come across as a crackpot, and we certainly believe that he believes his story. It's impressive that he's gone to great lengths over the years to prove his honesty - hypnosis and polygraphs included.
With input from investigative reporter George Knapp, we learn of FBI raids and numerous attempts at character assassination. There seem to be no records confirming Lazar's employment or education (Cal Tech, MIT) claims, though we do have photos of one of the raids. And we learn from his mother than he was always conducting experiments, even as a kid. Another gem from narrator Rourke, "Can we be made whole if we aren't believed?" might have made for a better focus as a (shorter) documentary. Since his story can't be proven, perhaps a more personal study of the man could be insightful.
We bounce between Nevada, California and Michigan, and director Corbell seems to buy into "The X-Files" claim that 'the truth is out there'. His choices of the electronic warbles as a score and the ridiculous script for Mr. Rourke to narrate notwithstanding, we do find Corbell and Lazar to be forthright in the presentation, even if their story is never able to "weaponize our curiosity" as initially promised. Proclaiming "reality isn't what it used to be" doesn't make it so. One must prove something so, for the doubt to be removed.
a swim through comic book mythology
Greetings again from the darkness. Were the TV series "Entourage" still on the air, they would now need a new recurring punchline. The AQUAMAN movie is real! At the helm, we are surprised to find the master of horror, James Wan, in the director's seat. Mr. Wan is known for such genre flicks as SAW, INSIDIOUS, and THE CONJURING, and his talent for visuals transfers well to the comic book style. In fact, with a run time of almost 2 ½ hours, the visual effects are both exhilarating and exhausting.
Sure, we've seen short bursts of Jason Momoa as Aquaman in a couple of previous DC movies, but this time he owns the pool. Momoa plays Arthur Curry as a hunky beer-chugging rock and roll party dude who just happens to talk to fish and breathe underwater. Since it's the first Aquaman movie, writers David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (ORPHAN) and Will Beall (GANGSTER SQUAD) provide us the backstory.
On the coast of Maine in 1985, a lighthouse attendant named Tom Curry (played by Temuera Morrison) discovers Princess Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) washed ashore. What follows is a whirlwind romance, the birth of their son Arthur, Nicole snacking on a goldfish, as well as her first kick-ass action fight scene. To protect her son, she agrees to head back to Atlantis where she faces the consequences of birthing a half-breed with a landlubber.
When we first see a grown Arthur - with a classic hair flip - he is thwarting the hijacking of a Russian submarine by Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his father (Michael Beach, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). Manta is one of the two main villains - the other being Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur's war-mongering, power-thirsty half-brother. Sharing a common enemy, Orm enlists Manta and provides a highly-advanced weapon that, for some unfathomable reason, Manta begins (via montage) to 'Iron-Man' it to another level - one much less stable. It's Orm who gets much more screen time as he plots a massive attack on surface dwellers (humans) who have been destroying the sea for years. You didn't think Hollywood would miss a chance to tell us how despicable we are, did you?
The basic story is that Orm must defeat Aquaman to claim the throne and become Master of the Sea. Of course, Arthur is reluctant to get involved and only does so at the urging of his old mentor Vulko (Willem Dafoe) and Mera (Amber Heard), both of whom wish to avoid a war with humans. The first battle of the would-be kings takes place in The Ring of Fire, a royal battleground missing only the accompaniment of Johnny Cash. The duel ends prematurely, so that an epic battle can later serve as the film's epic climax.
Although director Wan may throw a bit too much 'plot' and action at the proverbial wall, it is interesting to note the history/mythology associated with Atlantis, the ruling class, and the missing trident. The legends are fascinating and the journey takes us to all ends (and depths) of the globe ... from the deepest seas to the middle of the Sahara Desert (itself once a sea) to the incredible core of the Earth. We see the ancient ruins, as well as the high-tech futurama Atlantis ... and it's all stunning to watch.
Don't tell Marvel, but the film is somewhat a blend of BLACK PANTHER and THOR, and Momoa is every bit the Aquaman that Chris Hemsworth is Thor (quite a compliment). Yes, we find out that Atlantis, like our dry land world, is burdened with politics and power-hungry types, but the underwater world and the visual effects keep us mesmerized. We see terrific dragon-like sea horses, a drumming octopus, and a Kraken-like creature supposedly voiced by Julie Andrews (fact or fiction?). There is an early sequence that takes swimming with dolphins to a level you didn't experience on your vacation, and the lighting effects at times recall TRON and can be a bit disorienting.
This is probably the largest scale DC movie to date, and director Wan chooses to make a splash with every element - character, mythology, setting, and effects. We also get appearances from Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus and Randall Park as a TV talking head/oceanographer making the case that Atlantis is real and a threat. We even get Roy Orbison singing "She's a Mystery to Me", and the IMAX aspect ratio makes the first ever over-the-top underwater spectacle. And what a spectacle it is.
Schumanns Bargespräche (2017)
a quality pour
Greetings again from the darkness. Learning from those at the top of their game is always fascinating, regardless of what their game, industry, business, or talent is. We want to hear what 'the best' has to say. What was their path to the pinnacle? What was their formula for success? Director Marieke Schroeder focuses her lense on Charles Schumann, the world famous bar owner, mixologist, and author. It wouldn't be wrong to refer to him as the guru of bars.
Mr. Schumann cuts a dashing figure with his shock of long gray hair and his colorful custom suits. His reputation precedes him as he visits world class bars in Munich, New York City, Paris, Havana, Tokyo and Vienna. Schumann has disciples throughout the industry - those that have learned the bar industry from one of his publications (including "Schumann's Bar Book"), or by studying his own Munich establishment, Schumann's bar.
As we travel along on his globetrotting-bar-hopping trek, it's very interesting to see the differences and similarities in bars located thousands of miles from each other. We also get a bit of a history lesson as cocktails are tracked back to 1803, and the evolution of NYC bars from prohibition to disco to today's more intimate neighborhood bar is noted. There are interviews with barkeeps, bar owners, a cocktail historian and a journalist, and the most interesting segments are the exchanges with Schumann himself - especially with a female bar owner who seeks his respect and acceptance.
We visit Hemingway's Bar in Paris and learn of the namesake's family connection, and a trip to Havana educates us on how crucial Cuba became as a U.S. supplier during prohibition. As a bonus, we learn the purity and tradition of creating Cuban rum. The Tokyo segment is quite unusual in that the best bars might have seating for less than 10 people, and the precision ice block-cutting is a rare skill to behold. Another observation from the numerous bar stops is that each bartender has their own style when it comes to the vigorous shaking of certain cocktails.
Charles Schumann is dedicated to the industry and the craft, and is now an influential spokesperson and consultant, in addition to being a well-known bar owner and mixologist. Director Schroeder changes the music for each locale, and leaves us with a message that seems impossible to argue against: cocktails are a pleasure to drink AND create.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
holiday midnight madness
Greetings again from the darkness. It's this time of year when the slew of ultra-heavy dramatic Oscar hopefuls fill the movie-watching schedule, so this zany little flick is a welcome diversion ... despite, or perhaps due to, defying traditional movie genres. An accurate description would be 'Zombie Apocalypse Christmas Musical Comedy', though that's likely to draw in fewer viewers than it frightens off.
Beginning like many teen flicks, we meet the teenagers who each believes they are the center of the universe, and during this opening act, we only get a single fake zombie tease (but it's a good one). Anna (Ella Hunt) is a high school senior preparing to take a year and travel to Australia - against the wishes of her protective widower dad (Mark Benton). Anna constantly hangs out with her friend-zone buddy John (Malcolm Cumming), whether at school or at the bowling alley where they both work. Their friends are lovebirds Chris (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu), and Steph (Sarah Swire) the American-social activist- recently dumped lesbian who is an outsider to both her peers and the tyrannical school principal Savage (Paul Kaye).
Ms. Siu takes center stage at the school's Christmas production and beautifully performs one of the more double-entendre laden Santa songs you've likely ever heard. The other musical highlight occurs the next morning as Anna and John skip off to school blissfully unaware of the carnage occurring all around them ... a nice statement on how teenagers view the world. What follows are some gruesome and creative zombie kills, especially those featuring a snowman and the bowling alley. The jokes, pop songs and grizzly kills keep things zipping along as the teenagers try to save themselves and their loved ones, although when the school Principal veers towards maniacal psychopath, he becomes a bit of a distraction.
Ryan McHenry passed away in 2015, and his 2011 short film ZOMBIE MUSICAL has been adapted to feature length by director John McPhail and writer Alan McDonald. The songs are co-written by Tommy Reilly and Roddy Hart, and the result is a delightfully entertaining movie that will likely find a long shelf-life in the midnight slot for many holiday seasons to come. It likely would have benefited from another song or two, and remains an oddball mash-up of "Glee", HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, SWEENEY TODD, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The film certainly deserves bonus points for creativity, and just keep in mind those footsteps on the roof might not be Santa. You best be prepared to sing and swing a candy cane, as there are no Hollywood endings.