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The Power of the Dog (2021)
a brilliant psychological expose'
Greetings again from the darkness. Don't mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I'm conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps ... It's nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn't be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother "Fatso". That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.
Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter's widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil's now-deceased 'mentor', Bronco Henry.
This setting is 1925 Montana, though it's filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it's a tough life made tougher by Phil's menacing behavior - psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle - something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.
Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It's not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos - each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film's opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don't you?
Streaming on Netflix.
Citizen Ashe (2021)
an ace of a man
Greetings again from the darkness. Growing up, I loved watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe play tennis. Their talent was unmistakable and they had a certain flair for dramatic moments. But even as a kid, I was more drawn to the personalities of Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe - two champions who carried themselves with a quiet dignity and respect for the game and their opponents. They acted like grown-ups, not petulant kids. It wasn't until later that I really understood the obstacles Ashe faced, and co-directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard expertly handle this remarkable man's story.
Ashe's championship at Wimbledon in 1975 was likely the peak of his tennis career, yet not of his impact on society. It took more than a trophy for him to be labeled "the Jackie Robinson of Tennis". The film takes us back to his childhood in Richmond, Virginia, described here as 'the heart of Confederacy'. Many of those memorial statues that stood when Ashe was young have now been removed, but at the time, he accepted that his tennis playing was limited to the court at the public park next to his house. It wasn't until Althea Gibson's mentor, Dr. Johnson, brought Ashe into the fold that he began to hone his talent, as well as his demeanor.
Against the odds, Ashe was awarded a tennis scholarship to UCLA in 1966, and there is some terrific footage and photographs of him on campus. Ashe later served in the US Army, and won the 1968 US Open. Some of the archival footage stands on its own, and especially insightful are the numerous interviews where we get to hear Ashe in his own words. Of course, others also have much to say, including his brother Johnnie, and Civil Rights activists Harry Edwards, (Olympian) John Carlos, and (US diplomat) Andrew Young. Tennis players Billie Jean King and John McEnroe also offer personal memories.
This is not really a tennis documentary, but it's quite interesting to hear Ashe reveal the "why" behind his strategy against the aggressive Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. Ashe was also a dynamic supporter of the Davis Cup and believed playing for one's country was an honor. Of course, Arthur Ashe is remembered as a tennis player and Human Rights Activist. He pushed to play in South Africa while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned to show the population what a free black man could do. He and Mandela later became friends. The personality contrast is also distinct between Ashe and fellow sports activists like Muhammad Ali and Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and it's pointed out that although the approaches differed, Ashe's words carried significant weight. This is quite apparent in the clip of the roundtable discussion featuring Ashe, Harry Edwards, and Jackie Robinson, amongst others. The respect for Ashe is evident.
Genetics caused a heart attack at the early age of 36, and blood transfusions during his medical procedures led to his being HIV-positive. As you would expect, Ashe turned his attention to raising money and awareness for AIDS research, all while never losing his elegance and grace. It seems fitting that the story of Arthur Ashe is being told at the same time KING RICHARD is playing in theaters. Ashe clearly opened the door for black athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, and also inspired their activism, as well as that of athletes in other sports. The video footage and interviews allow this story to be told, and it leaves us with the message that Ashe never forgot his race ... the human race.
In theaters and On Demand beginning December 3, 2021.
exposing of 'your worst enemy'
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has long made his cinematic living on the fringes: the brutality of the Middle Ages in FLESH + BLOOD (1985), the violence and thirst for power through technology in ROBOCOP (1987), the buried dark side (and other uses of ice picks) of our personality in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), more thirst for power combined with a baffling lack of sex appeal in SHOWGIRLS (1995), and the unbridled desire for revenge in ELLE (2016). This latest displays his mastery of 'nun-on-nun' eroticism and the duplicity of religious faith. Verhoeven's usual goal is to provoke, and along with his co-writer David Birke, this 'based on true events' story (adapted from the 1986 Judith C Brown book, "Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy"), is a natural fit.
Benedetta Carlini is delivered to the convent at a young age by her well-heeled parents. The girl claims to have a direct line to God, who delivers well-aimed bird droppings when called upon. OK, that's just the first somewhat comical event in this film that seems less interested in the documented antics of the real Sister Benedetta, than in tantalizing today's viewers with the behind closed doors sins of the flesh between she and fellow nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Portraying Sister Benedetta, Viginie Elfira never shies away from the material, whether it's the stigmata, bedtime play with a specially carved Virgin Mary statuette, or channeling the voice of God during outbursts claiming blasphemy.
Felicita, the abbess of the convent, is played by the always interesting Charlotte Rampling. Sister Felicita's real talent seems unrelated to issues of God, and instead lies in matters of money. Because of this, she capitalizes on Benedetta's visions as a form of fundraising, while turning away (except during moments of voyeurism) from her other activities and claims. Our early caution comes from Benedetta being told upon arrival that, "Your body is your worst enemy". After more dreams and visions, and a possible miracle or two, we understand that nuns are to believe that suffering is the road to salvation and redemption ... a theory that leads to one of the more humorous moments as a sword-wielding Jesus saves Benedetta from a gaggle of attacking serpents.
Is there such thing as erotic religious satire played straight? We must assume that Verhoeven has his tongue planted firmly in cheek for this one, as it goes beyond skepticism of religion and directly to the morally adrift. Whether Benedetta's claims of visions are/were true or fake, Verhoeven is a filmmaker who takes pleasure in the pleasure of nuns, no matter how prohibited it might be. We can just never be certain whether his objective is to expose religion, or simply expose.
Available in theaters on December 3, 2021 and On Demand beginning December 21, 2021.
this one bugged me
Greetings again from the darkness. It's all in the terminology you opt to use. Secret rescue mission or kidnapping. Protective or paranoid. Alien invasion or mental illness. By opening on a meteor flashing across the night, and following that with National Geographic-style shots of bugs in nature, parasites attacking hosts, and news clips of violent rioters, we can't help but assume that writer-director Michael Pearce (BEAST, 2017) and co-writer Joe Barton want us to believe the end is near.
Riz Ahmed (SOUND OF METAL, 2019) stars as Malik Khan, a former Marine and paroled ex-convict who is on a mission to rescue his boys from the "non-terrestrial micro-organisms" infecting the human race and taking over the planet. His oldest, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) is observant and smart, while the younger Bobby (Aditya Geddada) is a bit quick with his outbursts. Since the boys live with Malik's ex-wife, his midnight visit awakens them for a "surprise" vacation trip.
The bulk of the movie is the father-sons road trip. Most of the best scenes - those that generate the most tension - are between these three. One exception is a terrific sequence featuring a confrontation between Malik and a cop during a 3:00am traffic stop. It's well-staged and plays right into our initial thoughts on the alien invasion, while simultaneously being our biggest clue. Soon, Malik is in touch with Hattie (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, THE HELP, 2011), his sympathetic Parole Officer, who then involves the FBI - including kidnapping expert "Shep" (Rory Cochrane), who heads the manhunt and categorizes Malik as a "family annihilator" (exactly what it sounds like).
Cinematographer Benjamin Kracum makes the film looks top end, and Riz Ahmed shows again what a powerful actor he is. The frustrating thing here is that the first half of the film is a terrific set-up for a story that doesn't happen. Instead this train changes tracks and devolves into something we've seen too many times before. If not for the included Townes Van Zandt song, this would have really "bugged" me.
In theaters Friday December 3, 2021.
like dogs and cats
Greetings again from the darkness. We all know that gender identity, and identity in general, are topics receiving a great deal of attention these days. Writer-director Nathalie Biancheri latches on to the discussion by bringing up Species Identity Disorder, also known as Otherkin. These are folks who identify as something other than human, typically a type of animal. It's easy enough to connect the dots to gender dysphoria, but it also walks a fine line between mental health and sadness (and if we are being honest, a bit of humor - at least as presented here).
The film opens on the bare butt of a male in the forest. That's a sentence I hope to never write again. George MacKay stars as Jacob, a young man who identifies as a wolf. It's his butt we first glimpse as he prowls the vegetation growing in nature. Next we see Jacob with his parents at an institution that specializes in Species Identity Disorder. The questionable curative therapies conducted by Dr. Mann (get it?) seem more like torture and humiliation than treatment. Dr. Mann (played straight-faced by Paddy Considine) is also known as 'The Zookeeper' as the patients include: a parrot, a duck, a squirrel, a horse, and a German shepherd.
It's unsettling to see the actions and mannerisms of these patients, but equally unsettling to witness Dr. Mann's methods. If you've ever seen THE SNAKE PIT (1948), then you have some idea of how disturbing institutional treatment can be. Of course, this movie is not at the level of that Anatole Litvak classic, but George MacKay's performance is quite something to appreciate. We saw his physical abilities as he performed yoga in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016), and here he expertly creates the movements (and howls) of the wolf he believes himself to be.
Lily-Rose Depp plays Cecile, a long-term patient who has yet to fully kick her wildcat tendencies. She and Jacob manage to become friends, and the attraction goes deeper through Jacob's primal urges and tendencies. The two actors have one scene together that, by itself, elevates the film. Obviously the real mystery is whether Jacob's bonding with Cecile is enough to change his outlook. He much choose between what he sees as his true self, and life as a man. Director Biancheri has delivered a high-concept arthouse film that will likely find a niche audience, while others are likely to brush it off as cinematic absurdity.
Opens in theaters on December 3, 2021.
The Beatles: Get Back (2021)
they passed the audition
Greetings again from the darkness. It's a lot of Beatles. The three episodes total more than 7 hours of run time. It will be likely be too much for most folks. Not for me. In fact, I envy Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson, who got to go through every minute of 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio from the 1969 sessions that led to the "Let it Be" album and documentary, as well as the band's infamous rooftop live performance atop Apple Studios. The 1970 film won the band an Oscar for best original music, but unfortunately, that 42 minutes on the rooftop would be their final public live performance as The Beatles.
For those who have seen the 1970 documentary LET IT BE, you are aware of the discord amongst the band members during the sessions, but Peter Jackson's project shows us there was much more to the story: pressure, expectations, creative forces, doubt, friendship, young men changing, and plenty of laughter and joking. And cigarettes. An incredible number of cigarettes. Keep in mind that even though they were the biggest band in the world, these lads from Liverpool still only ranged in age from the youngest, George at 25, to the oldest, John at 28.
One thing we notice is that there was a very small group involved with the daily activities. Outside of the band members, the faces we see most are Music Producer George Martin, the band's long-time assistant Mal Evans, and renowned Sound Engineer Glyn Johns. It's not really discussed here, but despite all the work we see Mr. Johns perform over the 22 days, it was Phil Spector who ended up with the production credit on the album. The director of the LET IT BE documentary, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is seen quite a bit in the first two episodes, although he's not as funny as he seems to think he is. Film Producer Denis O'Dell initially sets the band up at Twickenham Film Studios, which he rented as the location for his upcoming zany comedy THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN starting Peter Sellers and, yes, Ringo Starr. It's this movie that has the Beatles on such a tight schedule, and it's at Twickenham where Peter Jackson's film kicks off.
PART 1 (2 hours, 34 minutes) provides a quick history of the band, dating back to 1956 when John Lennon and Paul McCartney formed The Quarrymen and invited George Harrison to join as a guitarist. There is a clip of the band performing at The Cavern, and a note on how Brian Epstein became the band's manager. It was 1963 when George Martin began producing the band and that's they year they hit #1 in Britain, kicking off Beatlemania. The following year took them to the United States for the appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was 1966 when the band faced the backlash over John's comment about "being more popular than Jesus." That was also the year when the band decided against future tours, choosing instead to focus on studio work and albums. 1968 brought the death of Brian Epstein at age 32, and the infamous trip to India, where they spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So here they are in January 1969, with the goal of writing, rehearsing, and recording 14 songs, and then performing live over about a three week period.
Director Jackson uses the 22 days as a framing structure, going day-by-day to track the progress. Day 1 is kind of a feeling-out day as the band checks out the studio. Day 2 finds Paul in business mode, as the other band members poke fun at the Fan Club publication. Day 3 delivers the familiar setting of George being "annoyed" by Paul, but it's Day 4 where "Get Back" is born, "Across the Universe" is introduced, and a terrific then-and-now montage of "Rock and Roll Music". Day 5 gives us "I Me Mine", as the band discusses ideas for the live show, and we learn code names for Ringo (Russian) and George (France). Day 6 finds Linda Eastman (not yet married to Paul) snapping photos in the studio while the band works on "The Long and Winding Road", and "Let it Be.". Day 7 is critical, as we get more "Get Back", numerous mentions of Eric Clapton, and George leaving the band with "See ya' in the clubs." This is when we are subjected to our first Yoko Ono banshee screams. She has been attached to John's hip for most every minute.
This first episode provides us our first look as the band works out songs on the fly. Ringo keeps amazing rhythm, while remaining mostly quiet. George's insecurity and annoyance with his role (and Paul's bossing) is beyond obvious (resulting in his leaving), and the band's uncertainty about the best direction for the live performance is a bit unsettling. Despite all of that, it's truly fascinating and humbling to watch and listen as they create the rough early versions of songs that we now know so well.
PART 2 (2 hours, 12 minutes) is probably my favorite episode of the three. For Day 8, with George having quit the band, Ringo is the first to show up as flowers are delivered for George from the Hare Krishnas. We eavesdrop as Paul (with Linda in tow) analyze the John and Yoko relationship, and we are privy to a secret conversation between John and Paul regarding George and the band. The rest of the day is spent rehearsing 3 songs, including Paul and John brainstorming fine-tuning "Get Back" lyrics. Day 9 has Peter Sellers stopping by - and likely wondering what the heck kind of mess he's wandered into. This is Paul's day to be irritated and stating they can't go on like this. Day 10 reports on the band's meeting at George's house, which results in his return to the band and a shift from Twickenham studios to the Apple Studios on Savile Row, This throws a delay into things, and makes Day 11 a lost day.
Day 12 has the four band members back recording, despite technological challenges and a scathing article on the band in local publications. It's this day when we hear an amazing version of "I Dig a Pony", followed by "I've Got a Feeling", "Don't Let Me Down", and "She came in through the Bathroom Window" (which would end up on Abbey Road). On Day 13, John recalls the Martin Luther King Jr speech, and the band gets a jolt of energy from keyboardist Billy Preston. Watching them perform "I've Got a Feeling" is pure musical joy. Day 14 stars strangely with more Yoko banshee screams, and Maxwell's anvil is in the middle of the room, while the band solidifies the "Get Back" single. Day 15 offers discussions of Billy Preston as the 5th Beatle, while we get a Pattie Harrison sighting, and performances of "Two of Us" and "Polythene Pam." Day 16 includes flashbacks to the trip to India, George working on "For You Blue", the band's first look at the rooftop, and early work on "Let it Be". Once again, watching the creativity in action is simply mesmerizing.
PART 3 (2 hours, 19 minutes) begins on Day 17, which is only 3 days until the rooftop performance. George is assisting Ringo with writing "Octopus's Garden", which will end up on the Abbey Road album. Linda's young daughter Heather bounces around the studio, and we can all relate to her cringing at Yoko's latest banshee scream. We see John go hard on "Dig it", while the band spends a great deal of time jamming to their favorite classics. These are musicians collaborating on the music they love - and enjoying every bit. Day 18 has George running through "Old Brown Shoe", and John and Yoko celebrate her divorce being final. With Alan Parsons in the booth, the band goes through many takes of "Get Back". On Day 19, George begins early work on "Something", which would be featured on the Abbey Road album, and they wrap up the "Don't Let Me Down" recording. With the live performance scheduled for tomorrow, Paul and John have a serious discussion about the payoff for all of this work. Is an album and one live show enough, if there is no TV special? As Paul's brother Michael watches, we can't help but think Paul was really hoping for another tour - one that would never happen.
Day 21, January 30, is when the rooftop performance actually happens. There are 10 cameras in place, 5 of which are on the roof with the band. Most of us have seen these performances, but director Jackson includes some of the 'second takes'. The band opens with two takes of "Get Back", followed by "Don't Let Me Down", "I've Got a Feeling", "One After 909", "Dig a Pony", and second takes of "I've Got a Feeling" and "Don't Let Me Down". Included here are some of the interviews from folks on the street, and we see the cops who are unsure how to handle the noise complaints. What's obvious and thrilling is that John's and Paul's voices are in prime form, and the band is truly enjoying doing what they do better than any other band ... despite the cold London weather. You can sense their pride as they head to the booth for the playback. Day 22 is the Final Day, and the band finishes the mostly acoustic recordings for the album.
Over the three episodes, we hear bits and pieces of more than 100 songs, and we witness the collaboration and tribulations of a band that reached heights of popularity previously unimaginable (remember Elvis never performed in the UK). It's quite a privilege to witness artists at work during the creative process. Tension and disagreements are to be expected, and yes, they did occur. Perhaps those tensions drove the individuals to be even more creative and better at their craft. Regardless of your thoughts on this, one thing is certain ... The Beatles "passed the audition".
Now streaming on Disney+
House of Gucci (2021)
the joys of family
Greetings again from the darkness. I've never purchased or owned anything Gucci, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying the heck out of Ridley Scott's film that brings the longest, most expensive and dangerous real life episode of 'Family Feud' to the big screen. It's co-written by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, and is based on the 2001 book, "House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed" by Sara Gay Forden. Brace yourself for a (mostly) true wild ride, and for what is likely to be one of the year's most divisive films - plenty of love and hate (just like the actual story).
What happens when a brand is so closely associated with a family name? The arguments begin on who 'deserves' to be a Gucci, who is a 'real' Gucci, and who should make the decisions that impact the Gucci family and business wealth and reputation. During the extended run time (2 hours, 37 minutes), we see many of the iconic Gucci items: the Flora scarf, the moccasins, the bamboo bag, and the watches. And though high fashion is always present, director Scott has delivered a spectacle of romance, family riffs, extravagance, greed, power, betrayal, revenge, and crime.
Lady Gaga (Oscar winner, A STAR IS BORN, 2018) stars as Patrizia, the newest Gucci. Hers is not blind ambition, but rather calculated and laser-focused. That she implodes a dysfunctional family is only a portion of the story. After marrying Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), Patrizia immediately begins manipulating her husband into reconciling with his family and taking on an active role in a business for which he previously had little interest. This is simply step two (the first was marriage) in her grand scheme to control the business and the money. Maurizio's father Rodolfo (Oscar winner Jeremy Irons, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, 1990) is ailing, so it's Uncle Aldo (Oscar winner Al Pacino, SCENT OF A WOMAN, 1992) to whom Patrizia directs her attention. She plays it like a chess match - only this is more entertaining to watch unfold.
Also in the picture is Paolo Gucci (a truly unrecognizable Jared Leto, Oscar winner, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), Aldo's son, and a family outcast. Paolo is a wildly creative individual who tends to his pet pigeons and tries desperately to find his place in the family. Jack Huston plays Dominico De Sole, Rodolfo's consigliere and the family attorney. Each of the characters is given their time in the spotlight, including a terrific breakfast scene with Pacino and Irons. Of course this is mostly Patrizia's story, so it's Lady Gaga's performance that will attract much of the attention and commentary. I found her mesmerizing and twisted fun to watch as she proceeded with backstabbing and trickery. Driver's quietly intense approach makes the perfect contrast to hers.
If you are familiar with the story, you know that Maurizio does eventually run the company, and he also tires of Patrizia's family-crushing antics ... which send him back into the arms of Paola Franchi (Camile Cottin, STILLWATER, 2021). This turns the campy and juicy melodrama factor up to 11 (on the Spinal Tap scale). Patrizia's frequent trips to fortune teller and TV psychic Pina Auriemma (Salma Hayek) cause a massive tonal shift in the film, leading to the well-documented conclusion. If all this isn't strange enough, Ms. Hayek is the real-life spouse of the CEO of Gucci's present-day parent company, Kering. Reeve Carney ("Penny Dreadful") has a small, yet vital role as up-and-coming fashion designer Tom Ford.
In this movie, it's easy to describe some performances as hammy or over-the-top, but that's likely to only hold as a first reaction. Leto's characterization of Paolo sticks out so much from the others ... but he was known as eccentric, and at best, was patronized by the family. It seems highly likely that his personality and approach stood in stark contrast to the old-school style of his father Aldo, or the more staid personalities of his Uncle Rodolfo and cousin Maurizio. Lady Gaga as Patrizia is cunning and shrewd in her calculated approach to re-structure the family and the business. She plays whatever games she must to get where she wants to be. I found her first half performance to be truly outstanding. Pacino is the actor who has trademarked hammy performances over the years, yet here, he fully grasps his role and character, and is a delight to watch.
Much of this is documented by history, though the Gucci family claims not all is or was how it seems. Whether the boost in counterfeiting/knock-offs went down in the 70's and 80's as it's portrayed here, might be an area worth researching, but this is much less a case study in business principles as it is one in family dynamics. I'll certainly understand those who argue against the story structure here, but the entertainment value proved to be enough for me. As the Gucci tagline goes, "Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten", but the backstabbing and disloyalty is never forgotten - despite providing great theater (and fashion).
Opens in theaters on November 24, 2021.
C'mon C'mon (2021)
no joke, this is a good one
Greetings again from the darkness. Not all filmmakers have something to say about human beings and human nature, but writer-director Mike Mills does ... and he continues to prove it. His three previous feature films are all excellent. 20th CENTURY WOMEN (2016) was based on his experience being raised by his mother, while BEGINNERS (2010) was a tribute to his father. THUMBSUCKER (2005) focused on teen angst, and his latest is inspired by interactions with his own son and Mills' documentary projects.
From the mouths of babes. Early on, we watch and listen as radio journalist Johnny (Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, JOKER, 2019) interviews kids in Detroit to get their opinions on all aspects of life and the world, including their hopes and expectations for the future. This and additional segments and the kids' responses seem real, not staged, presenting a documentary feel - especially since everything is filmed in Black and White. In a rare phone call with his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, who will always be remembered as Ray's daughter in FIELD OF DREAMS, 1989), Johnny offers to take care of Viv's 9 year old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), while Viv assists Jesse's father, Paul (Scoot McNairy), who battles ongoing mental health issues.
Viv is reticent to leave Jesse with Uncle Johnny, an unmarried man with no kids of his own. But she's desperate for the help. Most of the film revolves around Johnny and Jesse spending time together and getting to know each other. Circumstances take the story from Detroit to New York City to Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans. It's a terrific journey that lacks any jaw-dropping cinematic elements. These two aren't mountain climbing or spelunking. They simply walk and talk. This allows Jesse to experience a father-figure that's been lacking in his life. For Johnny, he gains a perspective on parenting, which contrasts with his professional work interviewing kids. Jesse is whip smart and funny, but also manipulative and confused and downright quirky. The two of them together is quite something to watch as their relationship develops.
Viv shows up mostly in phone calls with Johnny and Jesse, but flashbacks help us understand the emotional break that occurred between she and Johnny. As the two siblings mend their relationship despite the distance, Mills and cinematographer Robbie Ryan effectively use the black and white palette to negate the excitement of big cities and travel, so that we focus on the personal interactions of the characters. The photography may be beautiful to look at, but it also reminds us that to a kid, a city is a city is a city, and what matters is an emotional bond and sense of security.
Young Woody Norman is a revelation as Jesse. He perfectly portrays a normal kid with normal issues in a grown up world. Gaby Hoffman doesn't have as many scenes as we'd like, but we certainly wish she would work more frequently. As for Joaquin Phoenix, it's a welcome change of pace and tone after JOKER. He plays a man learning to deal with his own vulnerabilities, and he really gets to show off his extraordinary acting talent. The script is filled with psychology and philosophy, but in a grounded manner - ways we recognize from our own lives. It's a reflective film that shows the balance of trying to protect kids and shield them from some adult stuff, while also allowing them to explore and find themselves. The impact of adults on kids and the impact of kids on adults is on full display, but it's also just a couple of guys getting to know each other. And that's pretty special to watch.
The film had a limited opening on November 19, and expands to more cities and theaters on November 24, 2021.
So it goes
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the work really does speak for itself. Co-director and long-time Vonnegut friend Robert B Weide even admits the renowned author told him, "anything that is any good of mine is on a printed page". The strange thing here is that by the time it's over, we aren't sure if we've watched a documentary on the life of Kurt Vonnegut or one about Weide's friendship with and respect of the man.
Vonnegut, of course, is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Born and raised in Indianapolis, he wrote novels, short stories, and plays, and his work was noted for his clever humor and detail. His big breakthrough came in 1969 when "Slaughterhouse Five" became a best-seller, and his other works include "Cat's Cradle" (1963) and "Breakfast of Champions" (1973). As we see during the film, his live talks became 'must-attend' events due to his brilliance and ability to speak directly (and with caustic wit) about a world that he didn't always maintain the greatest hope for.
Weide and co-director Don Argott address Vonnegut's shortcomings as a family man, by allowing his daughters to tell Daddy stories in their own words. What's clear is that Vonnegut being captured by Germans during WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, and subsequently held at Dresden was a driving force not just in his writing, but in his approach to life. He survived the Allied bombing by taking cover in ... you guessed it ... a freezer in a slaughterhouse.
Archival footage of Vonnegut and interviews with his daughters and biographers, give us a pretty complete looks at his life. Oddly, it's Mr. Weide who seems to spend as much time on camera as anyone, leading us to wonder about his focus in what he terms a '40 year' project. Possibly the most interesting segment involves the various drafts of Vonnegut's most popular work ("Slaughterhouse Five" was his 6th novel), and the specific comparisons of the author to lead character Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut passed away in 2007, and we have little doubt his response to that would be ... "So it goes."
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)
Dirt Farmer grandkids
Greetings again from the darkness. There is a reason musical acts like The Eagles, Jimmy Buffet, and The Rolling Stones continue to pack arenas. We love our nostalgia and prefer it familiar and easily recognizable. The fans don't show up to hear the new songs, but rather those 'oldies-but-goodies' that bring back pleasant memories. Writer-director Jason Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan fully understand this psychology as they deliver what amounts to a sequel of the original GHOSTBUSTERS movie released 37 years ago (and directed by Reitman's father Ivan).
The hook in this updated version is that Callie (Carrie Coon), the adult daughter of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (originally portrayed by the late Harold Ramis), has been evicted from her apartment. She packs up the car and her two kids, and heads to the dilapidated farm house she inherited from the father she never knew. Callie has lived her life bitter and hurt that her father never reached out, choosing instead to isolate himself in Summerville in the "middle of nowhere". Her kids are Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), an awkward teenager, and Phoebe (a stellar McKenna Grace), a science whiz who seems to be a near-clone of the grandfather she never met.
As they adjust to a new life, Trevor swoons over local girl Lucky (Celeste O'Connor), while Phoebe befriends another outcast self-named Podcast (Logan Kim), and Callie gets closer to Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a Seismologist "teaching" summer school with help from some age-inappropriate movies on VHS. As great as Coon and Rudd are (and both are great), the real fun comes from the youngsters exploring grandfather's workshop and the mysterious mountain at the edge of town, which is actually a long ago abandoned mine run by the town's founder.
Supporting actors include Bokeem Woodbine, JK Simmons, and Tracy Letts. Many of the elements will seem familiar as the kids begin to uncover the ghostly creatures unlocked thanks to Grandpa Egon's research and tools. As with the original, busting the ghosts is fun, but it's the one-liners and crackling dialogue that make this a joyous ride from beginning to end. A battered Ectomobile (Ecto-1) plays a key role, as do ghost traps, crossing streams, and a new generation of Stay-Puft Marshmallows.
Jason Reitman is a two-time Oscar nominee for UP IN THE AIR (2009) and JUNO (2007), but it seems clear his mission here was to provide a fitting tribute to the original film, his father, and the late Harold Ramis. He's assisted along the way with some special effects and even more special appearances, though the missing Rick Moranis is notable (and expected). The original blockbuster spawned sequels, re-boots, toys, an animated series, video games, documentaries, and now ... another sequel (one that mostly disregards everything but the original). There is a Spielberg feel as the scene is small town instead of NYC, and perhaps with this family-friendly focus on the kids, the best comparison might be THE GOONIES. It's nostalgic, yet new and fresh, and we do get a look at Hook and Ladder #8, and the familiar tune of Ray Parker Jr's iconic theme song. Hang on for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes, and just remember to take this for what it is ... a rollicking good time.
Opening in theaters on November 19, 2021.
King Richard (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. Sports parents. Band parents. Dance parents. Cheerleader parents. Drama parents. We all know THOSE parents ... and many of us, whether we admit it or not, ARE those parents. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (JOE BELL, 2020) and first time screenwriter Zach Baylin bring us the story of the unconventional, hard-driving, flawed, well-intentioned father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.
Will Smith portrays Richard Williams in a showcase role that he capitalizes on. Richard Williams is not a particularly likable man - his hustler mentality is eclipsed only by his stubbornness. But more than anything, Richard Williams was committed to giving Venus and Serena every opportunity to succeed in a tennis world that seemed like a different universe to the Compton neighborhood in which they were raised. Richard and his wife Oracene (an outstanding Aunjanue Ellis, THE HELP) coached the young girls themselves in public parks via instructional articles in Tennis magazines. Both parents balanced their jobs with this coaching, and Richard spent a significant amount of time "marketing" the girls to professional coaches, most who had no interest in taking on pupils who couldn't pay.
Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and younger sister Serena (Demi Singleton) trust whole-heartedly in "The Plan" their father has in place. It's a plan designed to place million dollar checks in their hands, and lead them to the top of the tennis world. Their first break comes in the form of John McEnroe coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus. The real fun begins when Richard cuts a deal with super coach/trainer Rick Macci (a terrific Jon Bernthal) to take on both girls and cover the families living arrangements in Florida.
What makes this film work is that so many of us can relate to just how difficult it is to be a parent, and never settle for less when it comes to the kids. Now, Richard Williams is an extreme example - and his enormously successful daughters have dealt his approach a hand of credibility. Richard and Oracene are presented as very protective of their daughters, but also obsessed with helping them excel at school, tennis, and life. Given that there are three other daughters living in the house, it's surprising that we don't get more details on the reactions from those girls to the favorable treatment of Venus and Serena. The family is presented as being very tight-knit and loving, but it's difficult to swallow that jealousy didn't rise up periodically.
This truly is the story of how Richard Williams remained focused on getting his daughters to the top, so don't expect the tennis history of Venus and Serena. The young actors playing them are excellent, but this takes us through the foundation of their careers while overcoming adversity, not the professional highlights. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) makes the tennis look legitimate, while also bringing us the family intimacy. In fact, the scene in the kitchen is one of the more intense and well-acted scenes we will see this year, and the camera work amplifies the tension. On the lighter side, we get Will Smith singing Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler", and the closing credits show actual clips of Richard, Venus and Serena, as well as a rundown of their impressive achievements. Director Green has delivered a crowd-pleaser with some poignancy and a few well-placed messages. It wouldn't surprise to see a few award nominations attached to this one.
Opens in theaters and streams on HBO Max beginning November 19, 2021.
tick, tick...BOOM! (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. Success comes in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it brings happiness, glory, and financial gain, while other times there is an emptiness or sadness. Who better than Lin-Manuel Miranda (of "Hamilton" fame) to direct the cinematic tribute to composer and playwright Jonathan Larson? You likely know Larson's name from his long-running Broadway smash hit, "Rent", but this is his autobiographical project based on his early struggles in trying to write the next great American musical. It has been adapted for the screen by Steven Levenson ("Fosse/Verdon").
Opening in January 1990, a full (i.e., long) version of Larson's "30/90" song kicks us off with singing, dancing, and choreography. It's important to note that this was the era of AIDS raging through the New York arts scene - people were dying, and friends were frightened. Andrew Garfield leaps into the role of Jon, sporting Cosmo Kramer hair, and a boundless, frenetic energy that overshadows his friends and loved ones. Jon is in full panic mode as his 30th birthday approaches and he rushes to finish his futuristic rock-musical "Superbia", which he expects will be his springboard to stardom. In the meantime, he works at the Moondance Diner while remaining committed and obsessed with his art.
Director Miranda adds a structural element with cut-aways to Jon (Garfield) performing his own musical onstage at New York Theater Workshop. However most of the run time is focused on Jon's writer's block associated with the final song he must write. His idol, the legendary Stephen Sondheim (Bradley Whitford) advised him of the importance, and we aren't sure if the block stems from this or the fact that it's the final missing piece. Garfield is exceptional as the self-absorbed, and obviously talented Jon. As his friend and roommate Michael (Robin de Jesus, THE BOYS IN THE BAND, 2020) has surrendered his dream of art for a well-paying advertising job, it's clear that Jon still believes art can change the world.
Alexandra Shipp (LOVE, SIMON 2018) plays Susan, Jon's dancer-girlfriend. She also is considering the reality of a teaching job versus the dream of performing, yet Jon is too immersed in his own work to take heed of her warnings. He is so against 'selling out' that he even cruelly debates Michael on the pursuit of creature comforts. Of course, much of this would eventually lead Larson to write "Rent", but this film doesn't cover that period. Vanessa Hudgens (HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise) and Broadway standout Joshua Henry perform much of the singing here, but Garfield holds his own on the musical and dance numbers.
Other supporting roles are filled by Judith Light as Jon's agent, Rosa Stevens, and Richard Kind as a both-sides-of-his-mouth stage critic, while director Miranda makes a cameo as a short order cook at the diner. The challenges of New York City life in the art world are clearly shown here, and mostly this is a loving tribute to Jonathan Larson by his admirer Lin-Manuel Miranda ... with an exciting performance from Andrew Garfield. It's an entertaining production that never pretends to offer up inspiration or false hope to the dreamers in the audience.
Streaming on Netflix beginning November 19, 2021.
God ony knows
Greetings again from the darkness. Renowned music producer Don Was sits at a sound board and methodically begins to deconstruct the gorgeous song, "God Only Knows". As the instruments fade, and he shuffles the isolated vocals, Was shakes his head in amazement all these years later. The man behind the song, Brian Wilson (founder of The Beach Boys), was and remains a musical genius, and in his case, one need not be concerned about applying that overused label.
If director Brent Wilson's film has a structure, it comes in the form of multiple car rides and diner lunches featuring Brian and his friend, "Rolling Stone" editor Jason Fine. Due to Brian's anxiety during sit-down interviews, car rides and chats with his friend provide more comfort and free him up to reminisce and discuss his life and music. On the drives, Brian chooses the songs he wants Jason to play, depending on the mood and the topic of conversation.
Mental Health is now treated much differently than in years past. At age 21, Brian suffered from 'auditory hallucinations' - he was hearing voices in his head. Over the course of 6 decades, he has attempted to deal with the voices in various ways: food, drugs, alcohol, therapy, etc. But his only real escape has been through music. Even today, Brian never really looks at ease unless he's performing his songs. He rides along offering commentary as his friend Jason tenderly guides him through the past, including stops at his childhood home in Hawthorne, Paradise Cove where an album cover was shot, his home on Laurel Way that featured his piano in a sandbox, and the Bellagio Road mansion in Beverly Hills. Brian is not one to dwell on the past, but he has tremendous recall for different phases of life.
As you might expect, many musicians are eager to discuss how Brian's music with The Beach Boys influenced their own songwriting. Included here are Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers and son of Bob), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Hawkins, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and even Nick Jonas. We presume the latter was included to represent the younger generation's appreciation of music past. Elton may offer the most profound comment when he states Brian deserves accolades for his music AND his life. Each phase of Brian's life is touched on, though we never dive too deeply. His demanding father (Murray Wilson) is heard through audio recordings, and the infamous "Landy years" where Dr. Eugene Landy literally controlled Brian's life (right down to a sad story of spaghetti) are briefly dealt with, allowing us some insight into Brian's many challenges over the years - including the death of two brothers, (and Beach Boys) Carl and Dennis.
But it's the music that means the most to Brian and to us. We get some clips of live performances from the early days of The Beach Boys to the more recent live performances of Brian on stage. There is a terrific montage blending Carl's and Brian's separate singing "God Only Knows", and Brian disclosing that "Good Vibrations" was recorded in pieces at 4 different studios to capture the sound he wanted. He also admits to being inspired by The Beatles and wanting to eclipse their work - which led to his writing the masterpiece Pet Sounds album, in turn inspiring The Beatles to write Sgt Pepper. There is a brief clip of Brian's cousin, and fellow Beach Boy, Al Jardine commenting on Brian's immense talent, but as expected, there is nothing from Mike Love; although Brian graciously proclaims Mike Love was "a great singer".
Brian's Beach Boys music has brought so much joy to listeners and fans over the years, and it's truly fascinating to see how he has battled through a life filled with sadness and obstacles. Watching him listen to brother Dennis's solo album, learning how he re-worked his unfinished Smile album to finally release it in 2004, or seeing clips of his live Pet Sounds performance at The Hollywood Bowl helps us understand the healing power of music. Brian has been compared to Mozart, and his fellow musicians discuss how his genius and vision shines through in song structure and texture. Brian Wilson stands as proof that for a true artist, pain and beauty are often linked and dependent on each other. The film's closing credits feature footage of Brian and Jim James recording a new song, "Right Where I Belong", showing that the music (and the man) is still a force.
In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021.
Black Friday (2021)
needed more punch with the alien goo
Greetings again from the darkness. The horror-comedy genre boasts many movies that can be described as 'a blast' or 'a wild ride'. Director Casey Tebo and writer Andy Greskoviak wisely jump on a topic that lends itself all too well to this genre: the whole mess we call Black Friday shopping. Ingeniously setting this in a toy store ("We Love Toys"), focusing on the stressed-out employees, and assembling what seems like the perfect cast, the filmmakers somehow come up short, due mostly to a paucity of effective one-liners and visual gags so necessary in a project like this.
Devon Sawa (FINAL DESTINATION, 2000) stars as Ken, the divorced father who is pained at having to drop his kids at his ex-wife's house as he heads in for his Black Friday shift at the store. We are then introduced to others on the store staff, including Ivana Baquero (Ofelia in the Guillermo del Toro instant classic PAN'S LABYRINTH, 2006) as Marnie, Ryan Lee (SUPER 8, 2011) as germophobe Chris, Michael Jai White (SPAWN, 1997) as Archie the maintenance guy, and Stephen Peck as Bryan, the power-abusing Assistant Manager. Leading this group of misfits is the always-great Bruce Campbell (the EVIL DEAD franchise) as Jonathan, the Store Manager and corporate lackey.
In an early scene we hear a TV newscast that forewarns of an upcoming meteor event, and the science fiction element involves a gooey alien creature/substance that causes even more turmoil than the shortages of this year's must-have toys. Shoppers are transformed into zombie-flesh-eating-alien-mutants, and the toy store staff teams up in an effort to stay alive. All of the actors do their part. Sawa is effective as the leader, while Baquero lends a strong female presence. White is the epitome of a nail-gun toting action hero, and Campbell delivers his comic force while donning a bow-tie and cardigan. The special effects work, and the only thing missing are searing and cutting quips and one-liners that would complete the picture.
ZOMBIELAND (2009), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016), THE DEAD DON'T DIE (2019), and READY OR NOT (2019) are all films in this genre that actually delivered what this one should have ... what it teased. One Air Supply joke and a riff on corporate greed and out-of-control entitled holiday shoppers was a tremendous idea that would have benefitted from more humorous social commentary. It's a letdown that may yet find a place the Midnight Movie slot.
Available in theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021.
The Feast (2021)
Greetings again from the darkness. It's safe to say all seven deadly sins are on display in the first feature film from director Lee Haven Jones and screenwriter Roger Williams. In fact, by the time the end credits roll, it seems likely a few more sins have been added to the list. The film definitely serves as savage commentary on the attitudes of the elite class, especially the nouveau rich, while also scratching the itch of those who prefer their horror filled with creepy atmosphere.
We first glimpse Cadi (Annes Elwy, LITTLE WOMEN, 2017) as she staggers up to the front entrance of a home in the country. Looking wet and disheveled, Cadi is late for her gig as the help for a dinner party. Rarely speaking and often staring blankly at family members through mysterious occurrences, Cadi works with Glenda (Nia Roberts), the lady of the house, to prepare the three-course meal. We know something is off with Cadi and her ominous presence, but this is no normal family she's contracted with. Glenda's husband Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) is a Member of Parliament and the kind of guy who boasts about shooting the two rabbits on that evening's menu ... despite the fact that we know he didn't. Their two sons are Guto, a guitar-playing drug addict who has recently moved back home after an overdose in London; and Gweiryydd (Sion Alun Davies), an odd young man training for a triathlon and enjoying his own spandex a bit too much.
The house itself is also a character. Stark, cold and modern, and displaying abstract art that represents the local land, it seems quite out of place on the farmland. So we have a house that doesn't belong, a dysfunctional family that's out of place, and Cadi who is the biggest outlier of all. Things get more bizarre once the guests begin to arrive. Euros (Rhodri Meilir) is a shady agent/businessman who we learn has helped Gwyn and Glenda reach a new level of financial success by leasing out their farm land to companies drilling for resources. It turns out the dinner party is a ruse to get their neighbor Mair (Lisa Palfrey) to join in the newfound riches. We quickly note that Mair's dress, demeanor, and reaction to Glenda's showing off this lifestyle, puts the two families at odds. Mair's husband's delay in joining the party is a more important detail than originally thought.
This is a rare Welsh-language folk horror tale, and though it's not lacking in blood, its best elements are the excruciatingly slow-burn beginning as suspense builds in regards to Cadi's motives/powers/intentions. This haunting pace with chilling scenes and odd characters keep us in an anxious and unaware state for the first 2/3 of the movie. This is no modern day Cleaver family, and the sons are no Wally and Beaver. The nuanced approach allows us to build disgust towards the family and how they've exploited the land and other people for their own success, while also trying to interpret Cadi.
Going against nature is becoming a more frequent topic in films these days, and the payback is often harsh and unkind. Cinematographer Bjorn Bratberg expertly captures the interior and exterior moments, while composer Samuel Sim provides eerie background accompaniment. Lee Haven Jones has not taken a traditional approach to horror, and the creativity and atmosphere will likely be appreciated by many.
In theaters and On Demand beginning November 19, 2021.
Noche de fuego (2021)
no innocence in this childhood
Greetings again from the darkness. This is Mexico's official Oscar submission for 2021 Best International Feature Film. Written and directed by Tatiana Huezo (her first narrative feature), the story is adapted from the 2014 best-selling novel by Jennifer Clement. It's an unusual film that lacks a traditional plot, and instead focuses on the daily lives within a small village in Mexico.
Young girls Ana, Paula, and Maria are good friends. They live in a poverty stricken area, and most of the males work in the quarry/mine or for the cartel, leaving women and children to make do scrounging for food and working in the poppy fields at harvest time. Rita (Mayra Batalla) is Ana's mother. She's a proud, hard-working woman who is very protective of her daughter. Why? Well the area is patrolled by the cartel, and neighbors regularly go 'missing' - especially young girls. When Ana shows up wearing lipstick, Rita doesn't find it cute. Instead she serves up a harsh reprimand to the girl too young to understand the risk.
Our view is from Ana's perspective, and there are two distinct halves. In the first, Ana and her friends are very young (likely between 7 and 9). When we flash forward, the girls are 13 or 14. As a youngster, Ana is played by Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzales, and she cries when her mother chops off her long hair and styles it like a young boy. This is not done for punishment, but rather to make her less desirable to the cartel. Her friend Paula goes through the same ordeal, while Maria's cleft palate is deemed to serve the same purpose. As a teenager, Ana is played by Marya Membreno, and the haircut no longer hides her femininity, though her friend Maria faces a tough decision when medical assistance becomes available.
Director Huezo and the actors do a superb job in conveying the ever-present aura of danger hovering over the village. Rita digs a grave-like hole as a hiding place for Ana, and their strategy is put to use. In one particularly tense scene in conflict with the cartel, what keeps Rita alive is that she works in the poppy field - so she is viewed as an asset. As if possible starvation or abduction aren't enough to keep everyone worried, the poppy fields are sprayed with poison in an attempt to control the crops - only the poison gets dumped on the village instead, as the helicopter pilots have been bribed and threatened by the cartel.
This is a haunting film and we connect quickly with Rita and Ana. We feel the relentless pressure of living in an environment where the cloak of danger is always worn and constant fear is a part of daily life. School provides the girls with a glimmer of hope, although it's fleeting. This is no place for childhood innocence, and the responsibilities of parenting are almost beyond anyone's ability. Cinematographer Dariela Ludlow perfectly captures the images, the acting is terrific, and director Huezo has delivered a gem.
Available on Netflix beginning November 17, 2021.
Greetings again from the darkness. Do you collect stuff? Does your stuff have meaning to you? Are you obsessed about saving your stuff? Documentarian Vincent Liota looks at the psychological aspects of how we treasure our treasures. In the montage opening, President Jimmy Carter and the Pope tell us not to put value on material items, while others tell us our saved objects represent memories that take us to our happy place. Liota even includes the "Rosebud" clip from CITIZEN KANE.
Over the course of an hour, our attention is mostly on three individuals: NPR personality Robert Krulwich, designer Rick Rawlins, and author Heidi Julavits. They each have items to which they are emotionally attached. Robert is holding on to some decades old dried grass, Rick has a 'sugar egg' from a childhood birthday party, and Heidi has a sweater once owned by the late French actress Isabella Corey. Three very different people latching on to items with very little (or zero) intrinsic value, yet generating an emotional response that is clearly very real to them.
The film touches on those who stand opposed - those who save no objects simply out of emotional attachment. Included is a brief sequence featuring "Tidy Up with Kon Mari" for those whose lives get crowded or overrun by stuff. But those folks aren't the focus here. Mr. Liota's project could easily slide into the syllabus for a university level psychology class. It is personality types that we are studying. Why do rational, intelligent people find meaning and memories in what could/should be throwaway items? In fact, these objects seem to grow in importance over the years, with each having their own personal story associated.
There is an odd 3D Printer experiment included that doesn't seem to work as a test on whether a replica worthless object can replace an actual worthless object, and still maintain the emotional appeal. In addition to Kane's 'Rosebud', the floating bag from AMERICAN BEAUTY has its moment here, seemingly symbolizing the connection between an item and an emotion or memory. We are left with the impression that regardless of where we might fall on the "objects" scale, no effort should be expended in judging others. A pleasant memory might be just what someone needs at any moment. Who could possibly object to that object?
Premiering at DOC NYC 2021.
Greetings again from the darkness. Despite Irish ancestry, during my childhood, Ireland was vaguely described as a place to avoid due to the Northern Ireland Conflict (also known as The Troubles). In contrast, the childhood of writer-director Kenneth Branagh was smack dab in the middle of this political and religious mess. This autobiographical project is a sentimental look back at his youth and the connection to his career as a filmmaker. This is very attractive and appealing filmmaking, and one that acknowledges the violent atmosphere without dwelling on it.
An opening aerial view of present day Belfast shipyards in full color abruptly transitions back to black and white 1969. A young boy plays and skips cheerfully as he makes his way through the apparently idyllic neighborhood. The pleasantries are shattered and give way to the frenzied fear and havoc created by an approaching angry mob. The native Protestants' goal is to push out all Catholics from the area. The happy young boy we first see is Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill), the stand-in for Branagh as a child. While watching, we must keep in mind that we are seeing things unfold through Buddy's eyes - which are actually the eyes of a middle-aged director looking back on his upbringing. This explains the sentimentality and nostalgia, two aspects handled exceedingly well.
Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) live with their parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe, FORD V FERRARI, "Outlander") and Pa (Jamie Dornan, "The Fall"), and are close with Granny (Oscar winner Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds, one of the finest supporting actors working today). Pa spends much of his time away in London working as a carpenter, leaving Ma parenting diligently to create normalcy for the boys during tumultuous times. An added stress is the financial woes Ma and Pa face over tax debt. Granny and Pop are an endearing elderly couple still very much in love, despite their constant needling and bickering.
As things escalate, the division over religion becomes more prevalent. Although he attempts to stay out of the fracas, Pa is faced with the "either with us or against us" decision - something he avoids as long as possible. Ma is obsessed with keeping her boys on the straight and narrow, despite their naivety and the many forces pulling them away. The family finds its emotional escape at the local cinema, which treats us to clips of bikini-clad Raquel Welch in ONE MILLION YEARS BC; Grace Kelly and Gary Cooper facing off with a similar 'stay or go' dilemma in HIGH NOON; John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE; and Dick Van Dyke in his flying car from CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG. The sense of awe and wonder is laid on a bit thick for effect, but it helps us connect young Buddy with present day Branagh.
It's quite a family dilemma. How do you decide to pack up and leave the only town you've ever called home, and when do you make that decision? When does the danger and turmoil pose too much to risk for your kids? There is a fun scene that provides young Buddy a lesson on how to answer, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" It plays comically but has a serious undertone. Speaking of Buddy, newcomer Jude Hall in his feature film debut, uses his sparkling eyes and an engaging smile to light up the screen. His adolescent pining for Catherine (Olive Tennant), the smart girl in his class, is worthy of the price of admission. All of the actors are terrific, and in addition to young Mr. Hall, it's Caitriona Balfe (as Ma) whose performance really stands out. Award considerations should be in her future.
Filmmaker Branagh has assembled a crew of frequent collaborators, including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who works wonders with the monochromatic scheme. The soundtrack is chock full of Van Morrison songs - it is Ireland, after all, and the overall feeling is that this is a film Branagh needed to make in order to deal with his childhood prior to his family relocating to England. By not avoiding The Troubles, yet not focusing on it, Branagh has told his story in a personal way that should be relatable to many. It's a terrific film.
BELFAST opens in theaters on November 12, 2021.
The Souvenir: Part II (2021)
continued exceptional filmmaking
Greetings again from the darkness. We tend to think of 'coming-of-age' movies as centered on teenagers as they face the challenges of transitioning into adulthood. The reality is that folks come of age during different phases of life (and some seemingly never do). Filmmaker Joanna Hogg continues her autobiographical look back with the follow-up to her exceptional 2019 arthouse film. Is it a sequel? Technically, yes; but it's more of a continuation, and the two parts actually function best as a single 4-hour story.
Starting off shortly after the first movie ended, part two finds Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in bed at her parents' house. They try to comfort her as she grieves the death of Anthony (played so well in the first by Tom Burke). For those who have not seen the 2019 film, I'll tread lightly as it should be seen prior to this one due to the continuing story line and numerous references. Despite her confusion and despondency, Julie heads back to film school. Using art to deal with her emotions, she starts all over with the script for her graduation film. The Film School committee of like-minded middle-aged men thrash her idea of dealing with her situation on film. Despite their harsh words, she persists.
For such a 'quiet' movie, it's astonishing how many things are going on in Ms. Hogg's film and in Julie's world. The jealousies of film school students are noted, as are the discrepancies between overly confident young filmmakers (a brilliant Richard Ayoade) and those still trying to find their voice (Julie). Ayoade's arrogant Patrick is recognizable to us as a big production filmmaker in the vein of many who have come before him. On the other hand, Julie stumbles over how best to convey the emotions for the actors in her film ... a film that is so personal she's dealing with memories even while setting up scenes.
Honor Swinton Byrne (Tilda Swinton's daughter) excels at relaying a certain sadness in Julie as she pushes onward. Anthony's ghost hovers everywhere for her. She bravely visits his parents. The confusion over Anthony's story, and her shock at not having recognized the signs, are exemplified as she presents the common façade of appearing OK while struggling inside. Julie's parents, played by (the always great) Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth walk on egg shells around her, while trying to offer support, despite their detachment - not just from the relationship, but from Julie's life in general (other than lending her money in times of need).
Supporting work comes from Charlie Heaton, Harris Dickinson, and Ariane Labed, as student actors. In Julie's film, Ms. Labed plays the role of Julie, which in reality, is the role of Ms. Hogg as a young aspiring filmmaker. Joe Alwyn has a terrific cameo as Julie's editor in one of the most awkward and tender scenes. Ms. Hogg did not film the two parts simultaneously, but her style is so unique (as an example, songs cut off abruptly mid-scene) that it's a challenge not to rave about the look and feel. Her talented collaborators include Film Editor Helle le Fevre, who serves up some creative transitions; Production Designer Stephane Collonge, whose sets are crucial in a film with minimal dialogue; and Cinematographer David Radeker whose lensing gives the film the perfect look for its time. Tilda Swinton stars in Ms. Hogg's upcoming film, THE ETERNAL DAUGHTER; however, we will have to be patient to see if Honor Swinton Byrne continues to pursue acting, a profession to which she seems destined.
In theaters beginning November 12, 2021.
a deeper dive into treason
Greetings again from the darkness. His name has been derogatory punchline for as long as any of us can remember. Labeling someone 'a Benedict Arnold' meant they had been disloyal to their team, club, organization, or group of friends. But those of us who are not Revolutionary War historians actually know very little of his story - in fact, few know anything beyond his being a recognized traitor to the United States. Director Chris Stearns, using historian James Kirby Martin's 1997 book, "Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered", offers us a deeper and more comprehensive look at a man who was more complex than the epithet he was branded with.
When a film's opening sequence is from the year 1780, you know that rather than being a traditional documentary, it's also a blend of docudrama reenactments. And that's exactly what this, while also working in a number of insightful interviews with historians and writers. Martin Sheen adds gravitas as the narrator who walks us through Arnold's life. We go back to a childhood that featured a drunken father, whose destruction of the family's good name prevented a recovery in social standing, despite Arnold's tremendous success in business and trading.
There is little doubt that this well-researched information on Benedict Arnold will surprise those who watch. For three years, he fought the war with distinguished bravery and skilled leadership. Arnold even self-funded and led militia to fight Britain. He was an accomplished Naval officer and was a hero to the country for those early war years. So what changed him? That's the part of the story that holds modern day relevance.
Arnold became ever more frustrated. He was not only physically injured while fighting for his country, but he became disenfranchised by endless power plays, political maneuverings, and cronyism of those above him. Lacking the political savvy necessary to self-promote, Arnold became the victim of self-serving officials looking to take credit for his work. As a Patriot, this was unbearable and led to his change in allegiance.
Director Stearns is thorough in his approach, knowing full well the skeptical eye with which most will watch the film. In just over 2 hours, he makes a strong case for the actions of a man who has been vilified for more than 200 years, and concludes that Benedict Arnold has been an American war hero until systemic corruption convinced him the country would be better off under British rule. Benedict Arnold betrayed America, but it seems clear from the facts that America also betrayed Benedict Arnold.
Benedict Arnold: Hero Betrayed will premiere on TVOD/EST including iTunes and Amazon on November 9. 2021.
The Beta Test (2021)
a smiley jerk
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director-editor-actor Jim Cummings' 2018 film THUNDER ROAD was quite popular on the festival circuit, and Cummings is back with another story of a stressed out man ... at a time when the world doesn't much care about stressed out men, especially those who carry themselves with a heavy dose of self-importance. Cummings and co-writer, co-director, and co-star PJ McCabe have delivered a satire on traditional Hollywood in the shape of a whodunit with dark comedy that teeters into thriller territory.
Cummings stars as Jordan Hines, a high-octane Hollywood agent who talks as quickly and incessantly as he smiles, and neither are sincere. Jordan is an unlikable guy who belittles the support staff and mostly patronizes his fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, 2019), while kissing the proverbial tushes of prospective clients. One day a mysterious elegant purple envelope shows up in Jordan's mail. It's an invitation to meet up with an admirer for anonymous, no-strings attached sex (as if that's even possible when someone has targeted you). He initially trashes the envelope, before reconsidering.
After the encounter, Jordan's personality becomes unhinged and his world begins to crumble. He wants to know who the woman was and why he was chosen. His desperate obsession with locating the mystery woman means his work suffers, as does his relationship with Caroline. Jordan's fantasy has turned into a nightmare that causes him to see and hear things - and he's unable to discern his visions from reality. This fast-talking agent teeters between viable and obsolete, and an "I'm so excited" montage fits perfectly into the persona of a man who lacks sincerity, doesn't know himself, and is oblivious to the needs of others.
There are some comparisons here to Jeremy Piven's character in "Entourage" and Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale in AMERICAN PSYCHO, but Cummings make the character his own. The comedy is dark and satirical, but the film never seems sure of itself as it bounds between erotic thriller (with very little eroticism), a 'who is she' mystery, and commentary on how a certain type of individual is no longer welcome in a post-Harvey proper society.
The opening sequence is no slow start, as it features a brutally violent murder - an incident that doesn't find its place until near the end of the film. Also included here is cautionary tale on the dark web, and the dangers of social media and the internet, although this feels like an add-on, rather than a fully developed sub-plot. Virginia Newcomb does get to deliver the film's best line, "I'm not insulting you. I'm describing you". Also giving the story a contemporary feel is the emphasis on packaging deals, which is a relevant topic in the ongoing discussions with industry unions. There is a lot tossed in here, and some parts work better than others.
Heart of Champions (2021)
shannon keeps it afloat
Greetings again from the darkness. We've seen most of this before in a long list of inspirational sports stories where the beleaguered, tough as nails coach comes in and unites a rag-tag team while teaching life lessons. However, with (2-time Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon cast as the coach, we know there will be at least one performance worth watching. The screenplay is from Vojin Gjaja and it's directed by Michael Mailer (son of 2-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, Norman Mailer).
The film opens in May 1999 as a crew team finishes last in the Collegiate Rowing Championships. Inner-team bickering and animosity exists thanks to domineering Team Captain Alex (Alexander Ludwig, "Vikings"). The following year, the team is introduced to their new coach, Coach Murphy (Shannon). He has a different approach and he's focused on creating a team, rather than a few guys with oars. All we really learn about Murphy is that he's an alum and former rower for this same college, and an Army and Vietnam veteran who lost friends in the war, and carries that burden with him every day.
Alex (Ludwig) is back for his senior year and his goal is to be chosen for the Olympics team ... a goal his over-bearing father (David James Elliott, "JAG") reminds him of every few minutes. The other two crew members who get significant screen time are John (Alex MacNicoll, ALL ROADS TO PEARLA, 2019) and newcomer Chris (Charles Melton, THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR, 2019). John is dating Alex's ex-girlfriend Sara (Ash Santos), while transfer student Chris is dealing with a recent tragedy, and also attracted to Sara's friend Nisha (Lilly Krug, EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE, 2021). And yes, at times the melodrama of these folks is just a bit too heavy-handed and soap opera-ish. Coach Murphy is clearly the most interesting character, yet the film spends the bulk of its time on the youngsters and their daily journey.
One of the plusses here is that the sport at the center is rowing, which at least veers from the typical sports fare. But then we learn very little about the sport, other than it blisters your hands and causes your lungs to burn ... and there is "swing" which occurs when the team is in full sync. Mr. Shannon does as much with his underwritten role as possible; however, overall the movie is just a bit too generic with its final lesson of, "a loss is not the end." Should you have an interest in a true life rowing story, allow me to recommend the 2013 book, "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics" by Daniel James Brown Opened October 29, 2021.
Last Night in Soho (2021)
where the neon signs are pretty
Greetings again from the darkness. Every once in a while a movie captures that magic feeling of being swept away, and this wild film from writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer Kristy Wilson-Cairns (1917) did just that for me. This is my kind of psychological-horror-thriller and with the exception of one sequence that went a bit too "slasher" for my tastes, I had a blast watching it. I'll admit that, while also acknowledging more people will probably not enjoy this, than will. But for those who do, I feel confident they will share my enthusiasm.
Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie, JOJO RABBIT, 2019) opens the film by expressively dancing to Peter & Gordon's "A World Without Love" while sporting a self-designed dress made of perfectly creased newspaper. Her room is filled with 1960's colors and memorabilia and we soon learn she's an orphan raised by her grandmother (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, 1961). Eloise, or Ellie as she's called, dreams of following her mother's path to London, and is thrilled beyond measure when her acceptance letter arrives from the London School of Fashion. Ellie does carry the burden (and visions) of her mother's mental illness, and her grandmother warns, "London can be a lot." Small town (Cornwall) Ellie with her timidity and wide-eyed innocence arrives in London and is immediately the target of 'mean girl' and fellow student Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen). Rather than subject herself to the abuse, Ellie sublets an attic room from an old lady landlord named Mrs. Collins (the last screen appearance for the great Diana Rigg). Ellie loves the room and her independence, but her dreams act as a portal back to those swinging 60's of which she's so fond. But that's only the beginning. It's here where she follows/becomes Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the mirror effects are truly other-worldly. Sandie is everything that Ellie wishes she was herself - confident, radiant, ambitious, and beautiful. This dream state allows Ellie to live vicariously through Sandie. At least initially.
The Ellie-Sandie sequences mess with your head in a wonderful way. Sandie seems to float across the club's dance floor, and Ellie is mesmerized at first, before turning protective. The tone shifts when Sandie meets sleazy Jack (Matt Smith), a would-be agent who promises to get Sandie the shot at stardom she desires. This leads to ATJ's amazing and breathy version of Petula Clark's "Downtown". It's a standalone highlight of the film, and a moment that shifts the story yet again. If you are struggling to keep pace, you're not alone.
Soho's glamour is matched only by its grunge. The recurring dreams turn to nightmares, so that even Ellie's waking hours are surreal. A mysterious elderly gent played by Terence Stamp may be the key to the mystery Ellie's so busy trying to solve that she is oblivious to the romantic overtures by nice guy John (Michael Ajao). The nostalgia of the 60's provides a visual treat with the Café de Paris, a massive theater marquee advertising James Bond's THUNDERBALL, and Cilla Black's "You're My World".
Filmmaker Wright gives us so much to discuss, but it's crucial that the best parts not be spoiled. Just know that Oscar winner Steven Price (GRAVITY, 2013) provides an incredible mix of music, while Chung-Hoon Chung's cinematography, Marcus Rowland's Production Design, and Odile Dicks-Mireaux's costumes all nearly steal the show. But of course, that can't possibly happen thanks to the stupendous performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and (especially) Thomasin McKenzie. These are two of the finest young actors working today, and we will be fortunate to watch their careers develop.
Edgar Wright is having quite a year. He's already delivered the terrific documentary, THE SPARKS BROTHERS, and now comes what is his best work yet. You may know his work on BABY DRIVER (2017) or the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy that kicked off with SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004). Here, he playfully bounces between genres serving up time travel, a murder mystery, the Soho history, a memorable soundtrack, surreal dream and ghost sequences, a touch of romance, and that previously mentioned 'slasher' scene. A final tip of the cap to Diana Rigg, whose career spanned her role as Emma Peel in "The Avengers" (from the 60's), her time as a Bond girl in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969), and ultimately as Olenna Tyrell in "Game of Thrones".
Opens in theaters on October 29, 2021.
The French Dispatch (2021)
the most Wes Anderson-y to date
Greetings again from the darkness. Few things in the cinematic world are more instantly recognizable than a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, historically speaking, perhaps only Jacques Tati comes as close to having a signature style easily spotted by viewers. This is Mr. Anderson's 10th feature film in 25 years, and I now rate 5 of these very highly, though all 10 have a certain appeal. This latest, co-written by Anderson with frequent collaborators Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, and Jason Schwartzman, could be considered his most ambitious to date ... and likely the most 'Wes Anderson' of all.
Billed as a love letter to journalists, it becomes crystal clear, that by this, Anderson means the esteemed stable of writers from the early days of "The New Yorker". In fact, Anderson structures the film as if it were following the path of a magazine being published. We are informed upfront that this edition features "an obituary, a travel guide, and 3 feature articles". An episodic format is not unusual for films, yet Anderson never does anything by the book. Each piece takes place in its own time period, and there appears to be little connection or crossover among key characters. Still, somehow he makes this work by ensuring each piece stands on its own and is filled with unusual characters and those patented, fabulous Anderson visuals.
The obituary is that of Arthur Howitzer Jr (a deadpan Bill Murray), the founder and publisher of "The French Dispatch" magazine, a spin-off from The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun ... a move from a small town in Midwestern United States to a charming small town in France (hilariously and fittingly) named Ennui-sur-Blasé. Howitzer adores his writers, and the only guidance he offers them is, "Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose". He also has a "No Crying" sign posted in his office, likely as much as a reminder to himself as a rule for the staff.
Our travel guide section is fortunately quite brief since it involves Owen Wilson as a bicycle tour guide showing us around the town - the "Local Color"- of Ennui-sur-Blasé. This takes us to the first feature story, and the best of the lot. Tilda Swinton excels (doesn't she always?) as a writer and art expert giving a colorful lecture entitled "The Concrete Masterpiece". She tells the story of Moses Rosenthaler (Benecio del Toro), a genius modern artist serving a life sentence for murder, and as she lectures, we see it play out. While incarcerated, Moses continues to work and his muse is a prison guard named Simone, played exceptionally well by Lea Seydoux. Her nude posing for him leads to his signature modern art piece, which attracts the attention of an ambitious art dealer played by Adrien Brody.
"Revisions to a Manifesto" is the next feature, and it involves a young activist named Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet). He's a chess expert, quite moody and has a questionable quest. He's being covered by writer Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), who is unable to maintain objectivity, and inserts herself right into the story, amongst other things. The segment pays tribute to the activism of the 1960's and is filmed mostly in black and white.
The third feature, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner" involves writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) telling his story while a guest on Liev Schreiber's Talk Show in the 1970's. Roebuck is obviously inspired by James Baldwin, and he famously recalls every line he's ever written. The story he recites involves a legendary chef played by Steve Park.
Actors mentioned so far are just the headliners, and Anderson has packed the film with his usual troupe, as well as dozens of others - some you'll recognize, and some you won't. There are at least seven Oscar winners involved: Christoph Waltz, Fisher Stevens, and Angelica Huston (as narrator), in addition to the aforementioned Swinton, McDormand, del Toro, and Brody. Numerous Oscar nominations and awards are included in the group of other familiar faces like Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler Bob Balaban, Elisabeth Moss, and Mathieu Amalric.
Other frequent Anderson collaborators who deliver standout work include Production Designer Adam Stockhausen, Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Editor Andrew Weisblum, and composer Alexandre Desplat. The film looks and sounds remarkable, and somehow it doesn't feel like it's moving fast - although we can barely keep pace. The film can be compared to ordering a flight at your local distillery. Each flavor is tasty, but they may not add up to a full drink.
Wes Anderson has delivered another stylish, fun film to watch, and one that is endlessly entertaining. It may not have as many moments of laughter as some of his previous films, yet there are still plenty of sight gags, insider references, and light-heartedness bathed in nostalgia - even if it's not quite as whimsical. Shot in the French town of Angouleme, the visuals are as impressive as any you'll find, serving up a collage of time, caricatures, color, and topics.
Opening nationwide in theaters on October 29, 2021.
legends can be real
Greetings again from the darkness. I'm sure Scott Cooper is a well-adjusted, happy guy. At least I hope so. However, if he were to be judged only by his movies, we would assume the man is humorless and focused on serious topics only. He's also extremely talented as a filmmaker, as evidenced by CRAZY HEART (2009), OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013), BLACK MASS (2015), and HOSTILES (2017). This latest is his first monster movie, and again - no happy thoughts, despite the expert craftsmanship. Mr. Cooper co-wrote the script with Henry Chiasson, and Nick Antosca's, adapting Antosca's short story, "The Quiet Boy".
There is a lot to take in with this one: Native American legend, child abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, economic woes, strained family relationships, and yes, a violent monster. Keri Russell ("The Americans") stars as Julia Meadows, who has returned to her hometown to teach school. She left 20 years ago due to an abusive father, and still carries the guilt of leaving her younger brother in that situation. Trying to mend their relationship, she has moved in with him. Paul (Jesse Plemons, I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) is the reluctant town Sheriff who doesn't say much, but carries out his thankless responsibilities in a dutiful manner.
We witness Frank Weaver (Scott Haze, OLD HENRY, 2021) in his meth lab hidden deep in a coal mine, while his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits in the truck outside. In a terrific scene, filmed brilliantly, Frank discovers what else is hiding in the mine, and it changes things forever. Julia teaches Frank's older son Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas), and immediately hones in on him as a kid with all the signs of being abused. And it turns out, Lucas does get bullied by a Scut Farkus lookalike played by Cody Davis, and Lucas' art work leaves little doubt things aren't going well in his life.
What we soon learn is that Lucas is carrying a burden that no one should have to. Julia's history plays a role in pushing a school administrator (Amy Madigan) to investigate his home life. Filmmaker Cooper has created a perfectly oppressive atmosphere, and there are some terrific elements - including the performances of Keri Russell and young Jeremy T Thomas. However, at times, it feels like the story strains to include all the messages it's trying to deliver. Proof of that comes in the form of Graham Greene (WIND RIVER, 2017) and his role as the former sheriff. His appearance is too brief and he seems to have drawn the short straw as the character having to spell things out for the audience - the Native American legend of Wendigo, and how the spirit has been awoken by man's destruction of nature.
Florian Hoffmeister's cinematography is top notch and captures small town life in rural Oregon, as well as the monster moments. Composer Javier Navarrete is to be commended. His score never overwhelms, as happens so frequently in horror films. The film is produced by horror master Guillermo Del Toro, and his fingerprints are evident. The loose mythology and heavy-handed lessons for mankind are salvaged by the terrific practical effects and gloomy atmosphere. Director Cooper has delivered again, though this may not be his natural genre.
Opens in theaters October 29, 2021.