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Booksmart (2019)
7/10
Olivia Wilde at the helm
23 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Every generation tends to get the high school movie (the movie about high school life) they deserve. Going back to James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and Sidney Poitier in TO SIR WITH LOVE (1967), what followed were such memorable films as CARRIE (1976), GREASE (1978), FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), most every John Hughes movie from the 80's, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986), SAY ANYTHING (1989), DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993), CLUELESS (1995), 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999), MEAN GIRLS (2004), HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL (2006), JUNO (2007), and SUPERBAD (2007). It's that last one on the list that this directorial debut from Olivia Wilde is likely to draw the most comparisons to.

Kaitlyn Dever ("Justified") and Beanie Feldstein (LADY BIRD, and sister of Jonah Hill) star as Amy and Molly, two best friends and high school seniors who have sacrificed a social life (i.e. partying) for academics in order to position themselves for the best colleges. Amy has decided to take a gap year doing charity work in Botswana, while Molly wears her intelligence and class ranking on her sleeve and sits in judgement of her less disciplined classmates. She is headed to Yale with her ultimate life goal being an appointment to the Supreme Court (she has an RBG poster up in her room).

Imagine their shock when, the day before graduation, Amy and Molly discover that many of their less-disciplined (i.e. hard partying) classmates will also be attending elite schools. The besties immediately scheme to make up for 4 years of nose-to-the-grindstone by attending the biggest party of the year ... and showing others how much fun they can be. Plus, the party affords each the opportunity to pursue their crush: skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for Amy, and athlete Nick (Mason Gooding) for Molly.

Although (full disclosure) I was never a high school girl, the one thing that stands out about the film is how the kids seem like real kids. That's not to say most every aspect isn't slightly exaggerated, because it is. The level of gayness in the Drama club is a bit difficult to take, and the teenage body is objectified in more than one shot; however, director Wilde has a knack for making high school look cinematic. Two sequences are particular standouts for the way they are filmed: the swimming pool scene with Amy underwater, and the house party as the characters weave in and out of rooms in the large house Supporting roles add depth to the comedy thanks to Jason Sudeikis as the school Principal/Lyft driver; Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, who is always popping up and stealing scenes; Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy's parents; Molly Gordon ("Animal Kingdom") as the misunderstood 'Triple A'; the aforementioned Victoria Ruesga and Mason Gooding; and star-in-the-making Diana Silvers as Hope - the aptly named rebel who clicks with Amy.

Co-written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the film presents a realistic friendship between two teenage girls, and mines some common and recognizable personalities for comedy gold. Smart and funny female characters are interesting at any age, and "no one knows me" is the anthem of most every high school student since caveman days. The inevitable comparisons to SUPERBAD will likely be favorable to this film, and it will probably be the perfect fit for this generation - even if we hope most students avoid many of the happenings. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers, you should prepare for the harsh language high school kids are known for, as well as that 'brazen, yet insecure' blend so common to the age. Of course, we can't help but find the timing of release quite interesting, given the recent college admissions scandal. It won't replace AMERICAN GRAFFITI for me, but with Olivia Wilde having been known as an actress, we now recognize her as a legitimate director.
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Aladdin (2019)
7/10
on a magic carpet ride, well
22 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Aladdin ... come on down! You are the next participant in Disney's ongoing mission for live-action remakes of their classic films. And rest easy fans, this time the mega-studio has done right by the original. Now that doesn't mean there aren't surprises. How about Guy Ritchie as director? How about a cast of mostly unknowns? How about modernized songs and even a new one sung by Jasmine? And it probably goes without asking, but how about a lot of CGI?

Mena Massoud ("Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan") stars as Aladdin, and he gets to showboat early in the film and flash some parkour skills in the familiar and high-octane chase through the village. Aladdin, of course, is labeled a 'street rat' and 'riff-raff', but he's also charming, handsome, talented as a thief, and quite warm-hearted. He and his pet monkey Abu - or more accurately, partner in crime - are streetwise and work quite well together, both for theft and love.

Naomi Scott (slated to star in the CHARLIE'S ANGELS movie coming out later this year) is a beautiful and ambitious Princess Jasmine, who wants to succeed her father as Sultan of Agrabah, but is instead forced to choose between a steady stream of suitors - each a Prince, as required by law. Ms. Scott has a terrific singing voice and really gets to cut loose on the new woman power song "Speechless".

The blue Genie is played by Will Smith, and this is what has fans of the beloved 1992 animated film so flustered. No, Will Smith is not Robin Williams, and few if any, could match the late great comedian for his energy and comedic flair. But Mr. Smith does a marvelous job of staying true to the original, while also adding his own style ... a style that works very well for comedy, music, and dramatic moments. He is not likely to disappoint anyone who has an open mind.

So let's talk about the villain. Marwan Kenzari is Jafar, the man so dissatisfied with being number 2. Personally, I would have preferred a more intimidating bad guy, but given the tone of the film (more on that below), he's a solid fit. His sidekick and smart-aleck parrot Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk (it was the distinctive Gilbert Gottfried in the 1992 version). Two other key supporting roles include Nasim Padrad ("Saturday Night Live") as Dalla, Jasmine's handmaiden; and Navid Negahban (Abu Nazir in "Homeland") as the Sultan and Jasmine's father.

It's been 27 years since Robin Williams' Genie entertained so many, and the comparisons to that version are inevitable. It's a relief that Disney opted to keep the film family friendly (Rated PG) and avoid the dark tone that had their recent projects aimed more at adults than kids, rather than the balance they've been known for more than 6 decades. Yes, this is the same director that made SNATCH (2000) and SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), neither of which any decent parent would allow their young kids to watch. But, Mr. Ritchie has delivered a film which entertained (and didn't overly frighten) kids as young as 5 in the screening I attended.

Director Ritchie co-wrote the script with John August, who is best known for his work with Tim Burton (BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE, DARK SHADOWS, FRANKENWEENIE). The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes, 38 longer than the 1992 film ... though it doesn't feel too long. Gemma Jackson's set design of Agrabah, the Palace, and the Cave of Wonders are all stunning, and then of course, there is the music. Alan Menken won an Oscar for ALADDIN (1992) and his music is back and modernized, and sounds wonderful ... especially "A Whole New World" and Jasmine's new song. With a talented cast of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian actors, there should be no cries of "foul", and there really is something special about a movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages. The Bollywood-type closing number provides a kaleidoscope of color, texture and dancing ... and is a nice twist to "You've Never Had a Friend Like Me". And I'll leave you with this final offer: you can have the monkey, if I can have the magic carpet.
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7/10
near non-stop bone-crunching action
16 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Worlds are colliding! No, no ... not in the way of "The Avengers" movies, but it's kind of hard not to smile when Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne share a scene (or two) in a mini-reunion of THE MATRIX. Mr. Reeves and director Chad Stahelski are back for a third time, and somehow they manage to raise the bar yet again on the fight sequences. And let's face it, the fighting and action are why so many are drawn to this franchise. This latest entry runs 2 hours and 10 minutes, and almost every bit is a frantic chase scene or violent fight ... or both.

The film picks up mere moments after JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 ended. If you recall, John had killed a member of the High Table inside the Continental Hotel, an unforgivable break in the treasured rules. Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the hotel, has given his friend a one hour head start prior to issuing the "excommunicado". It's that order (and the $14 million bounty) that sends every assassin on the planet on Wick's trail.

No need to wait for the good stuff ... the film's first two fight sequences are extraordinary feats of stunt coordination, and consume the first 15-20 minutes. Here is what John Wick (and we viewers) are in for: Guns (many kinds), lots of knives, a hatchet, swords, a book, enough broken glass to fill a recycle center, horses, motorcycles, cars, every martial art known to man, highly trained dogs, a public library, a museum/collectibles display, a stable, and a ballet theatre complete with dancers. There is even a current NBA player, 7'3" Boban Marjonovic, who battles John Wick and ultimately learns books can be used for something other than reading.

John Wick's background is revealed, and his general level of tiredness reaches exhaustion, which actually adds an element to a character who is quite efficient with his conversation. There are a few people who are called on to help Wick, in particular we have Laurence Fishburne as the Bowery King, Anjelica Huston as the Ballet Director, and Halle Berry as Sophia, a former assassin who now runs the Continental Hotel in Morocco. See, even an underworld crime syndicate promotes from within. The segment with Sophia is one of the most fun, and it's not because of Ms. Berry. Rather her beautiful and highly-trained dogs are scene stealers who are devastating in their commitment to carry out orders.

Other characters of interest include Asia Kate Dillon ("Billions") as the Adjudicator, one who enjoys doling out punishment; Mark Dacascos (Wo Fat in "Hawaii 5-0) as Zero, the ultimate Wick fanboy who wants nothing more than to be the one who kills him; Jerome Flynn ("Game of Thrones") as Berrada, the senior official who doesn't negotiate fairly; Said Taghmaoui as The Elder from the High Table, who listens to Wick's proposal. Other supporting roles are filled admirably by Robin Lord Taylor, Jason Mantzoukas and Susan Blommaert. Of course, some of the most fun occurs again at The Continental Hotel as Reeves' Wick interacts with Lance Reddick and Ian McShane.

From the department of "Give 'em what they want", the film has a very similar look, feel and tone to the first two, but director Stahelski (a standout stunt coordinator) and writers Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mark Abrams keep it fresh with new characters, new props and some terrific set design. The early model computers are contrasted with the high tech gadgetry of the Continental, and with a body count likely higher than the first two films combined, this entry can best be described as brutally entertaining ... is that even a thing? The violence is vivid and excessive and non-stop, and if that's not your style, you should at least know that the title is taken from the Latin "Si vis pacem, para bellum" - If you want peace, prepare for war.
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6/10
a contemporary romance
16 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Taking star-crossed lovers to a new dimension, director Ry Russo-Young (BEFORE I FALL, 2017) presents Nicola Yoon's best-selling YA novel as a traditional love-at-first-sight romance augmented with contemporary twists and issues. Tracy Oliver (GIRLS TRIP, 2017) adapted the story for the screen and enhances the familiar trope with racial, cultural, economic and political aspects - resulting in a romance meant to both charm and influence. If only those enhancements had played a larger role, this little film might really have had something to say.

The film certainly succeeds with its charm. Yara Shahidi ("Black-ish") and Charles Melton ("Riverdale") star as Natasha and Daniel, respectively. These are two beautiful young people blessed with electric smiles to complement their great hair and world class cheek bones. She is a Jamaican immigrant and a scientific prodigy as a high school junior, whereas he is a first generation U.S. born Korean who writes poetry while prepping for his Dartmouth admission interview. His family long ago christened him as the one who would be doctor.

Loosely based on the courtship of author Nicola Yoon and her husband, even the meet-cute for Natasha and Daniel has a theme: Deus Ex Machina - God from the Machine, where magical powers or destiny bring the two together. Not only does Natasha wear a jacket with the Latin phrase, but the conductor on Daniel's subway even counsels the delayed passengers to "Open up your heart to destiny." OK, by now you know if this is your type of movie or not. I would offer a mild caution to naysayers with this - Natasha and Daniel are fun to watch as they get to know each other, and there are some breath-taking shots of New York City interspersed throughout the film courtesy of cinematographer Autumn Durald. These two things make the film watchable no matter how deep your allergy to cuteness runs, although the tour of NYC sometimes has the feel of (a well photographed) tourist brochure.

The political side of the story comes courtesy of Natasha's 'last hope' meeting at the immigration office to postpone her family's deportation scheduled for the next day. We only get to see quick glimpses of the process, but it's enough to understand the red tape she has tried to maneuver in order to keep her family in NYC after 9 years. More of immigration attorney John Leguizamo would have contributed a bit of substance to the film. The immigration topic is also broached in Daniel's family as his parents came to the country and started their own business. The American Dream giveth and taketh away. The immigration bits work as plot devices, but the film is most comfortable as a story of star-crossed lovers accompanied by "Crimson and Clover" in a karaoke bar. However the film's biggest mystery might be how the couple survived sleeping all night in a New York park without getting mugged or even needing to brush their teeth before their crucial meetings. The magic of love.
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The Souvenir (2019)
7/10
welcome another talented Swinton
16 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Viewers of writer-director Joanna Hogg's semi-autobiographical feature will likely be divided into two distinct groups: those who find it to be a beautifully artistic psychological study, and those who find it to be a painfully slow watch. Fortunately, most who would fall into the latter group will likely skip it altogether, and we can only hope those in the first group will seek it out and encourage similar-minded film fans to attend. Surely both groups can agree that it features a terrific breakout lead performance from Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton).

Ms. Swinton-Byrne stars as Julie, a young London film school student. She's soon drawn to Anthony (Tom Burke), an odd man who is somehow simultaneously laid back and condescending. Their relationship builds as he works some vague job at the Foreign Office, and giving every indication that something's not quite right. Many moments of normal life are shown; however we soon learn that Anthony is a master manipulator, and his off-handed requests for 'a tenner' or sticking Julie with a restaurant tab go deeper than being a simple jerk. We know heartbreak is coming for her; we just don't know how when or how hard.

Tilda Swinton (a long-time friend of director Hogg) appears in a few scenes as Julie's mom, and as you would expect, she perfectly captures the mother-daughter dynamics. Of course Julie is a film student struggling to make ends meet, but with her frequent requests for 'mom loans' coinciding with the Anthony relationship, mother knows best. Jean-Honore Fragonard's 18th century painting gives the film its title, and provides a terrific scene with Julie and Anthony.

Later, when Anthony tells Julie, "You're inviting me to do this to you", we recognize this is an abusive relationship similar to those many women have endured. Set in the 1980's, a doomed relationship looks eerily similar regardless of the era. The film serves as an example of how we sit in judgment of the love lives of others, while often remaining blind (or is it hopelessly optimistic) to our own relationship issues.

Ms. Hogg shot on film and there are some memorable shots throughout - especially within Julie's apartment. There is a recurring split-screen shot where a wall divides what we see in the kitchen with what's happening in the living area - we see characters on each side. This is the anti-Marvel movie. No special effects. No superheroes. And the only worlds in peril are those of average, flawed people like us.

There is a segment involving an analysis of Hitchcock's PSYCHO, and it's clear director Hogg learned lessons about what not to show. There is also a reference to another Hitchcock classic with the tailored grey suit Tom buys for Julie and their trip to Venice. Alfonso Cuaron scored big with ROMA, a very intimate look at his personal life, and filmmaker Hogg's film is in that same vein. It's extremely well made and beautiful to look at, and is likely to be quite challenging for viewers. The payoff comes after much patience and effort and investment into figuring out these characters. It's an arthouse film with improvised dialogue (bonus points for Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out with Him?"). This was a grand jury prize winner at Sundance, and the sequel is already in production ... good news for some of us, while inexplicable to others.
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The Professor (2018)
6/10
Depp unmasked
16 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Cancer comedies are few and far between, and that's understandable since the often deadly disease brings with it so much suffering and sadness. Writer-Director Wayne Roberts pulls no punches. The opening scene finds a doctor breaking the dreaded diagnosis to a patient ... lung cancer. The patient, a college professor named Richard, is told he has 6 months to live.

The cold opening has us questioning if this is truly a comedy - even though the opening scene professor-patient is played by Johnny Depp. The news hits him hard of course, and we can see his mind spinning as he works out his approach and acceptance. What follows are some quite awkward and uncomfortable scenes with both his class and his family - a wife Veronica (Rosemary DeWitt) and teenage daughter Olivia (Odessa Young). Both of the women in his life usurp is announcement with those of their own: Veronica is having an affair with the Chancellor of the college where Richard works, and Olivia discloses that she is a lesbian. The two dinner time announcements and Richard's still held secret are integral to every scene that follows.

Six title chapters clue us in on each subsequent phase in Richard's life, and the key is that he tosses conventions aside and tries to find meaning in life ... all while facing his own mortality. On one hand, Richard does what a professor does - he teaches. His small group of students are privy to such insight into life as "it ends in death for everyone". On the other hand, he experiments with drugs, alcohol, and sexual experiences, including a couple of episodes with students - something that should never happen.

Ron Livingston is perfectly cast as the somewhat slimy Chancellor who is sleeping with Richard's wife, but it's Zoey Deutch and Danny Huston whose characters generate a bit more substance in Richard's life. Ms. Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson and a star in the making) plays Claire, a student who seems to quickly "get" what her professor is going through. And Mr. Huston gives one of his best performances in years as Richard's long-time friend Peter who doesn't want to accept the inevitable.

With all of the fantastical characters he has played (often masked in make-up and costumes), we sometimes forget what terrific dramatic acting ability Johnny Depp possesses when he's engaged. For those who only know him as Captain Jack Sparrow (the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies), or as Grindewald (the "Fantastic Beasts" films), or as the Mad Hatter, Tonto, or Willy Wonka, you'll be pleasantly surprised with his turn here (or in BLACK MASS, FINDING NEVERLAND, or BLOW). Filmmaker Wayne Roberts offered up an excellent debut in 2017 with KATIE SAYS GOODBYE, and he follows that with this unusual look at mortality - including a "celebrate life" soliloquy.
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6/10
As much Werner as Mikhail
16 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Werner Herzog has been one of the most prolific filmmakers over the past six decades, and with so many projects, it's not surprising that his films range from very good (AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD) to fascinating (GRIZZLY MAN) to disappointing (QUEEN OF THE DESERT). With this latest documentary, co-directed with Andre Singer, Herzog sits down for interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev three times over a six month period, and yet somehow squanders this rare opportunity by ensuring his own mug gets equal screen time, and his own voice even more.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the 8th and final President of the Soviet Union and is considered to be one of the most influential political figures of the second half of the twentieth century. He is now 87 years old, and his diabetes likely contributes to his puffy, bloated look and his recent hospital stay prior to his third interview with Herzog. The film walks us through a chronological look back at Gorbachev's life and his beginnings as the son of peasants. His father became a decorated war hero, and upon returning to his war-torn country, offered this to young Mikhail: "We fought until we ran out of fight. That's how you must live."

Having joined the Communist Party at an early age, Mikhail went on to study at the prestigious Moscow State University, which soon led him into politics. He was a fast riser and a true man of the people ... unusual for the Soviet Union. We see many interesting photos and clips, including video of a senile Leonid Brezhnev presenting Gorbachev with an award. The film breezes through the 3 year period which saw funerals for Brezhnev (1982) and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. These deaths led to Gorbachev becoming the youngest leader in Soviet history as General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Union.

Herzog as an interviewer spends entirely too much time on screen and narrating. We have come to hear what Gorbachev has to say, not take Herzog's word that he's authentic, or to waste time with the presentation of a box of sugar-free chocolate. It's a bit of a fluff piece, and Herzog is certainly no Mike Wallace; however, it is quite informative to go through the timeline of Gorbachev's life.

We are reminded of Gorbachev's reform platform that included Perestroika (re-structuring) and Glasnost (transparent government), and there are clips of Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, George Shultz and James Baker offering their insight into dealings with this most unusual Soviet leader. Gorbachev does offer his thoughts on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Iron Curtain, the tearing down of the wall and reunification. His historic "breakthrough" meeting and subsequent handshake with Ronald Reagan took place at Reykjavik, Iceland, in a building that is now a tourist attraction.

Ever the optimist, Gorbachev still firmly believes the world should be rid of nuclear weapons, and this segment provides some contemporary context as this topic has reared its head again in modern politics. He bluntly offers his take: "People who don't understand cooperation and disarmament should quit politics." He serves up a hot take on America after the Cold War ended, but is given little time to discuss Helmut Kohl and the 10 Points of Light. The 1991 coup where Boris Yeltsin seized the moment is clearly still painful for Gorbachev, and Herzog offers up a soft landing by ending the film with personal and legacy topics ... what he terms the tragedy of Gorbachev. The love of his life, his wife Raisa, is ever-present even after her death, and he understands that many consider him a traitor and responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union. His idealism for a social democracy remains impressive and is likely the reason his story is more humanistic than political. Looking back, he simply states, "We tried."
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Ask for Jane (2018)
6/10
The Jane Collective
16 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the message of a movie is so much more important than the production quality that we can look past the 'how' that would normally make watching a chore, and instead focus on the 'what' and the 'why' to find enlightenment. Writer-director Rachel Carey's first feature film, co-written with Cait Cortelyou, tells the fascinating story of The Jane Collective ... also known as 'The Janes' and 'The Abortion 7'. It's yet another true life story that finds us asking ourselves, "How have I never heard of this before?"

The film opens in 1972 when abortion was still illegal. The camera focuses on women in a jail cell ... women that seem quite out of place behind bars. We then flashback 4 years to a dorm room in Chicago, and female students are discussing the predicament of one of their friends. This leads to the development and early stages of the Jane Collective, a secret organization to assist women in obtaining counseling and abortion. This was a time when not only was abortion illegal, but doctors would often speak directly to a husband about medical options for their wife, leaving the women with little information and no power to make their own decisions. The film touches on just how desperate women were. Rat poison, self-punches to the gut, razor blades, knitting needles, and even jumping off roofs were all used as 'solutions' to a situation for which they were only half responsible.

Now depending on your views, you may find abortion unacceptable. This underground abortion network assisted 11,000 women between 1968 and 1973, when Roe vs. Wade legalized the procedure. This landmark legal decision put an end to the Janes, as well as the back alley con artists and dangerous methods women previously used. Co-writer Cait Cortelyou stars as Rose, a character based on the real life Heather Booth, a hero to many. Supporting roles are covered by Cody Horn, Chloe Levine, Sarah Steele, Ben Rappaport, Sophie von Hasleberg, Alison Wright, Danny Flaherty, and Michael Rabe (son of the late Oscar winning actress Jill Clayburgh). Judith Arcana, a real life Jane, has a cameo and was a consulting producer on the film.

With a budget of only $250,000 raised (fittingly) through grass roots donations, the film is not a slick Hollywood production; however, these are women from recent history who deserve to be recognized and remembered for their courage and commitment. Women were forced to look out for each other, and these women certainly stepped up. With the recent legal attention being brought back to the topic of abortion, this story is quite timely, despite having taken place 50 years ago. How sad.
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Tolkien (2019)
5/10
Middle-earth discovered
9 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. As fascinated as we are with great writers, the cinematic appeal of watching someone put pen to paper, clack away on a manual typewriter, or peck at their laptop keyboard is at best negligible, and more likely, non-existent. Still, award-winning Finnish director Dome Karukoski chose renowned writer J.R.R. Tolkien as the subject of his first English language film. Tolkien's actual writing time on screen is mostly limited to a single shot at the film's conclusion; however, the script from David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford attempts to connect the dots between his real world life to his Middle-earth characters and adventures from "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings".

Harry Gilby portrays the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and then Nicholas Hoult stars from college age forward. The film bounces between Tolkien's childhood as an orphan, his elite private school education at King Edward's School in Birmingham, matriculating at Oxford University, and soldiering in WWI. It's during his stay at Ms. Faulkner's (Pam Ferris) boarding house when he meets Edith Blatt, the love of his life. While attending prep school, he and three friends: Robert Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and (poet) Geoffrey Smith, form the TCBS (Tea Club and Borrovian Society), a club dedicated to changing the world through art. It's at Oxford where Tolkien's love of language kicks into a yet higher gear, though it's during his time in The Somme - one of the deadliest battlefields of WWI, that we see his 'trench fever' contribute to many of the visuals later associated with his books.

Lily Collins portrays Edith at the age where Tolkien must choose between her and his Oxford education, but as often happens with true love, the two later reconnect and remain married for more than 50 years (until her death). This film doesn't cover their later years, and instead focuses on the formative ones - both for his imagination and their relationship. We see his early childhood games (The Shire inspired from his time in Sarehole outside Birmingham) and the film often slaps us with an 'obvious stick' on how certain segments of life translate directly to his familiar stories in future years. In fact, there is no mention of C.S. Lewis and The Inklings - his friends who later supported his writing efforts. We do, however, get a sequence with Tolkien and Edith backstage at Wagner's "The Ring Cycle" Opera ... a dot that requires the simplest of connectors.

The film looks terrific - especially in the battle scenes which are staged dramatically and horrifically (much as we imagine the war was) by cinematographer Lasse Frank Johannesson. Unfortunately, that's the highlight. This is mostly a generic biography of an extraordinary writer. Adding to the frustration is the fact that Nicholas Hoult recently portrayed reclusive writer J.D. Salinger in REBEL IN THE RYE ... roles too similar for the same actor.

"The Hobbit" was published in 1937 and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in 1954-55, the latter being the best-selling fiction of all-time before being overtaken by JK Rowling's 'Harry Potter' series. Tolkien's key seems to have been his lifelong fascination with language. He even created his own - not just words, but complete languages. That would likely have made a better focus here. Seeing the foundation of "the fellowship" was somewhat interesting, although much of that segment came across like a poor man's DEAD POET SOCIETY. Supposedly the Tolkien family has refused to endorse the film, likely placing the script "In a hole in the ground ..."
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6/10
dancing and defecting
9 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Nijinsky. Nureyev. Bruhn. Baryshnikov. The legends of male ballet dancers starts with that list, and possibly include a handful of others. Ralph Fiennes directs a screenplay from David Hare that brings us the story of how one of these, Rudolph Nureyev, defected from Russia to the west in 1961.

Opening with Nureyev's teacher Alexander Pushkin being interrogated ("Why did he defect?") by a Russian official immediately after the defection, the film ping pongs between 3 time frames in an attempt to better explain Nureyev's reasons ... or at least the background that created such a headstrong and talented young man. We flashback to 1938 where his mother famously gave birth to him in the confines of a moving train (traveling and trains remained important to him). We then flash forward to 1961 when Nureyev arrives in Paris with the Kirov Ballet, and then back to 1955 as he arrives at the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet (established 1738) - a prestigious dance school.

It's actually this hopping from one time frame to another that is the film's weakness. The script is ambitious but ultimately flawed, as it attempts to tackle too much rather than concentrating on what's most important and interesting. We didn't need so many childhood flashbacks to grasp that Nureyev was a different kind of kid who grew up in poverty in Siberia, raised with his sisters by a mother whose husband was away at war. Julie Kavanagh's book "Rudolph Nureyev: The Life" inspired Mr. Hare's screenplay, but the multiple timelines can be more fully explored in book form.

Ralph Fiennes plays the aforementioned Pushkin, a soft-spoken man who was a father figure to Nureyev, as well as a technical instructor. He also shared his philosophy of dance (and his wife - maybe he knew, maybe he didn't) with his star pupil, and it's easy to see how this elevated Nureyev's ability. Combining that with his interest in classic art, a theme of turning ugliness into beauty was something Nureyev latched on to.

Oleg Ivenko stars as Rudolph Nureyev. Ivenko is a marvelous dancer and bears enough resemblance to the legend that we are quickly taken in. Ivenko is not a trained film actor, but as a dancer, he is accustomed to the spotlight and never wavers in his portrayal of a dancer he likely admired. He captures the emotional turmoil of a man enticed by the artistic and social freedoms of the west, while also remaining loyal to his homeland - loyal at least until he felt threatened (both physically and artistically). A tortured genius typically struggles with those in positions of authority and that's on full display here.

This is the third directorial outing for 2-time Oscar nominee (for acting) Ralph Fiennes. His previous projects were THE INVISIBLE WOMAN in 2013 which no one saw, and CORIOLANUS in 2011 which almost no one saw. It's likely his latest won't draw a huge audience either, but Ivenko's dancing is quite something to behold, and the climax at Le Bourget Airport in France is a suspenseful highlight. Nureyev was 23 at the time, and the defection decision is made almost spontaneously with a little help from his socialite friend Clara Saint (Adele Exarchapoulos, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR) and French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphael Personnaz). Rudolph Nureyev died of complications from AIDS in 1993, but he truly was a "white crow" - something extraordinary, and one who stands out.
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Charlie Says (2018)
5/10
let's hear from Lulu
9 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Author Joan Didion wrote "the 1960's ended abruptly on August 9, 1969", and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that tragic night ... actually two tragic nights (August 8 and 9) ... there is no shortage of recollections and reenactments through both print and visual media. For anyone who was alive at the time or has read the story since, the grisly murders and cult commune lorded over by Charles Manson remains nearly beyond belief. Unfortunately, it's all too real.

Director Mary Harron and screenwriter Guinevere Turner previously collaborated on AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000) and THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2015), and here, "inspired by" books from Karlene Faith ("The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult", 2001) and Ed Sanders ("The Family", 1972, also one of the film's producers), we get a glimpse of the Manson cult through the eyes of the women, especially Leslie Van Houten. And let's be honest, that's where the real mystery is. A domineering, arrogant, white supremacist is not nearly as interesting as the story of how these women became so enchanted by him that they were willing (even anxious) to murder innocent people on his behalf.

Hannah Murray ("Game of Thrones") stars as Leslie Van Houten, nicknamed "LuLu" by Manson not long after they meet for the first time. We see Van Houten, Susan "Sadie" Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia "Katie" Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) in an isolated cell block of a California Women's Prison five years after the murders. They are going through therapy sessions with Karlene Faith (Merritt Weaver, "Godless") whose goal is to remind them of who they were before meeting Manson.

During the prison therapy sessions, we get flashbacks to the Spahn Ranch where Manson ruled over his followers which also included Mary Brunner (Suki Waterhouse), Squeaky Fromme (Kayli Carter), Linda Kasabian (India Ennenga), and of course, Tex Watson (Chace Crawford), who initially comes off as quite aloof, but eventually buys in totally - in a most violent manner. It's these flashbacks that are meant to help us understand the brainwashing which stuck with these women through the crimes, through their trial, and through years of incarceration. We hear the "garbage dump" song. We hear about money and ego. We learn that 'the new rules are no rules'. We see Manson's dream of becoming a rock star shattered by music producer Terry Melcher (the son of Doris Day) after his introduction from Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys drummer), who hung around the ranch sometimes. And we hear Manson's rantings about the correlations between The Beatles' White Album and the Bible, and about how a race war is coming (and it's named Helter Skelter).

Matt Smith plays Charles Manson, and oddly enough, this comes on the heels of his playing artist Robert Mapplethorpe in MAPPLETHORPE (2018). Smith seems to have fun with the role, but it's these segments that feel underwritten. We want more of an explanation of how this could happen. On the other hand, the therapy sessions in the prison actually provide more insight to the lasting effects of the man and the cult that brainwashed them right into committing cold-blooded murder and a life behind bars. The thankless job of a prison therapist becomes clear as Ms. Faith realizes that if she breaks the Manson spell, these women will be forced to live with the unimaginable atrocities they committed. For a different perspective, track down the 1976 TV movie HELTER SKELTER that was based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's book. It starred Steve Railsback as a terrifying Charles Manson.
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Long Shot (2019)
6/10
Charlize for Prez!
2 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three - a political romantic comedy - is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN (1990).

We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He's actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he's so intent on getting the story that he's willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media ... a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It's an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.

When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers' parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career ... movies. He's willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation's highest office in the next election, and she's all in.

Charlotte's reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to "punch up" her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters - but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte's favor - to say the least.

Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance ... together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.

Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O'Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube's son) is a standout as Fred's best friend ... one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred's idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It's meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.
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Non-Fiction (2018)
7/10
oh so French, and funny
2 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Kids today (shake your head while saying it). No one reads anymore, and when they do, it's only e-books and blogs. Such is the ongoing discussion throughout this latest from writer-director Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER 2016, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA 2015). Lest you think the debate between traditional hardback books and digital literature takes up the full run time, you should know that such serious discussion is wrapped in a more traditional French sex farce ... and a quite entertaining one at that.

Guillaume Canet (the excellent TELL NO ONE, 2006) stars as publisher Alain Danielson. He has a lunch meeting with his client and friend, author Leonard Spiegel (a very funny Vincent Macaigne) where he declines to publish Leonard's latest manuscript. Alain claims it's too easy to identify the real people mentioned in the story, despite the name changes. Leonard says it's "auto-fiction", meaning his writing takes inspiration from his life. One of the ongoing gags (no pun intended) revolves around an inappropriate act in the theatre during a screening of Michael Haneke's WHITE RIBBON - or was it during STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS? Such is Leonard's sly way of disguising his characters and life.

Juliette Binoche co-stars as Alain's wife Selena, and Ms. Binoche takes full advantage of one of the few films where she can flash her comedic chops. Nora Hamzawi plays Valerie, Leonard's wife, and she is delightful as the spouse who refuses to build up Leonard's ego or provide any boost whatsoever to his confidence. Instead she spends a great deal of time reminding him of what his critics are saying. The final piece to this puzzle is Christa Theret, who plays the Head of Digital Transformation for Alain's publishing house, and is the constant instigator in the push towards digital.

Quintessentially French may be the best description for the film and these characters. At the dinner party, the conversation is stimulating and intellectual, while in their personal lives, it seems everyone is sleeping with someone else. Most every character worries about infidelities, while it's a part of their own life. Even Twitter is treated as "very French" in that it consists of '4 very witty lines'. Clever lines are spoken frequently, especially from Leonard who says he writes "feel-bad books" rather than the usual "feel good" ones. And Alain refers to Leonard's last book as "a worst seller".

Fewer readers, books vs digital, and the popularity of blogs all play into the generational debate of change/progress vs traditional ways. Whether books and libraries are a relic of the past is certainly a viable topic, but the comedy-infused relationships keep the film from ever feeling too heavy. Ms. Binoche has a recurring bit where her TV role is misidentified as a cop, and she (in character) plays along with what may be the first ever Juliette Binoche on screen joke.

Filmmaker Assayas previously tackled art appreciation, or the lack thereof in modern times, with his 2008 film SUMMER HOURS. This time he turns his attention to literature and we can't help but notice some similarities to the works of Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer with the vibrant dialogue and awkward relationships. The French title translates to "Double Lives" which is not only a better title, but also a more descriptive one. However, by the time the 'Martian Martian' song plays over the final credits, you will likely feel entertained ... in a mostly French manner.
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6/10
Secrets
2 May 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Secrets and lies become a tangled web of messiness that impacts lives and relationships in this story adapted from Fiona Shaw's 2009 novel. Annabel Jankel (known for her music videos and as a creator of Max Headroom) directs the script from sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth, and we learn that this rural community in 1952 Scotland is filled with judgmental and close-minded folks unable to accept that some don't live and love according to society's general rules of the time.

Holliday Grainger ("The Borgias") stars as Lydia, mother to young Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), and the two have recently been abandoned by husband -father Robert (Emun Elliott). Charlie is a sensitive boy - in touch with nature, and observant to his mother's emotional strains. After a schoolyard scuffle, Charlie is treated by the town's new doctor, Dr. Markham (Anna Paquin, "True Blood"), who not only treats his bruises, but also teaches him about the bees and hives in her garden. She lets him know that telling your secrets to the bees keeps them from flying away.

Dr. Markham has returned to the community where she grew up, and the rumors of her teenage years have not faded. Her father recently passed and she has returned to her roots to take his place as the local doctor. When Lydia gets sacked at the factory where she works (by Kate Dickie's Pam, her spinster sister-in-law/supervisor), Dr. Markham hires Lydia as a housekeeper and invites her and Charlie to move into the house left to her by her father.

"This town is too small for secrets" is not simply a line of dialogue, but easily could have been the title of the films. As Charlie tells his secrets to the bees, Lydia and Dr. Markham grow closer ... creating confusion for Charlie, challenges for the two women, and disgust within the community. Robert is a brut of a man, and threatens Lydia in every way a simple man might. There is also a subplot around Lydia's younger sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is pregnant from a secretive interracial relationship. What follows is a vicious response from the close-minded folks previously mentioned.

An older Charlie is our narrator, and most of the story is told from his point of view. Secrets kept by children are contrasted by those of adults, and it's clear that both cause harm. The first part of the movie is beautifully filmed, though the story structure wobbles a bit in the second half. There are many fascinating close-ups of bees and hives, although a mystical/supernatural sequence is difficult to buy. Excellent acting is on display throughout, especially by young Gregor Selkirk and Ms. Grainger, whose face the camera loves. The film is quite tastefully done, and focused as much on the small-minded town folks reaction as the blossoming relationship between the two leads. A stronger third act would have elevated the film, though the first half hour is well done.
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Snare (2019)
7/10
drummers are people too
29 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. A father and son meet for dinner at the local Chinese restaurant. Both are coming straight from Jobe's gig with his punk rock band The Nose Bleeds. Steve (the dad) admits with pride that he was in the mosh pit for the show, and sports the band's t-shirt under his blazer.

The dynamics of the dinner shift quickly when it's discovered that each of these men desperately need something from the other. Director Madeleine Gottlieb co-wrote the script with James Fraser (who also plays Jobe), and we quickly understand that father (Steve Rodgers) and son are each pursuing their dreams, and it's quite interesting to compare their reactions to our own as we watch this unfold.

It's always disheartening to see a parent use the "sacrifices made" argument against their kid (at any age), and it's equally disconcerting to see an entitled grown kid still financially dependent on their parents for pursuing life dreams. The parent feels like they've earned the chance to do something for themselves, and the kid believes the parent exists to support their children no matter what.

All middle-aged men may not be ready to quit their job to concentrate on drumming, and all 20-somethings may not be ready to take their punk rock band on a tour through Japan; however, scenarios similar to this one are playing out more frequently these days, and the film does an admirable job of exploring what happens when the dynamics change over time (and over steamed dumplings).
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8/10
when over the top is just right
24 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled "Avengers: Infinity War Part 2", we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films ... specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos? What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play? Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life? Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space? Who will survive this final battle?

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it's colossal/humongous/monumental ... whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it's difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey ... and I don't offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic's classic "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by 'Infinity War', we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we've come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you've never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans' 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film - as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that's the closest thing to a negative I have to offer - and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we've gotten to know over multiple films ... and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It's quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a 'women's movement' moment that seems to be Marvel's "we hear you" statement. Much of what we see is "inevitable", but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when 'over-the-top' is 'just right'.
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6/10
Dreamlike
22 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. When watching, discussing or reviewing a movie from filmmaker Terry Gilliam, it's often best to relax one's expectations for a linear story line, and maybe even the hope for a coherent one. He's the creative force behind such diverse and divisive films as THE FISHER KING (1991), THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988), BRAZIL (1985), TIME BANDITS (1981), and of course, comedy classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975). We've seen his movies described as crazy, confusing, and messy - and also brilliant, unique, and creative. Mr. Gilliam himself would likely agree with all of those descriptions, while adding a few colorful terms of his own.

Despite the oddball career he's had, none of his movies have had the topsy-turvy, on-again/off-again path to production as THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Gilliam's first attempts at getting the movie made date back to 1989 (yes, 30 years ago), and the first round of financing was secured in 1998 with Johnny Depp in a lead role. By 2002, there was a fascinating documentary, LOST IN LA MANCHA, which chronicled the reasons the film failed to get made and would never be finished. Mr. Gilliam has proven, 17 years later, that he should never be counted out.

Gilliam co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Grisoni, and the two have previously collaborated on TIDELAND (2005) and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998). As you might guess, it's not a typical screenplay or story, and one certainly need not be an expert on the original Cervantes book or character to find value (or not) in this tale.

"I am Don Quixote de la Mancha." There is something distinctly prideful about the proclamation, but it's also used somewhat ironically at least once in this film. Adam Driver plays hotshot and cynical filmmaker Toby, and things change abruptly for him when he returns to the Spanish town where he shot his student film ten years prior. In that film, he had cast locals, including the town cobbler as Don Quixote. A bootleg DVD of the film drags Toby into the fallout that has occurred over the past decade.

Jonathan Pryce co-stars as Javier, the former cobbler who now lives his life believing he is actually Don Quixote. He then sees Toby, and "recognizes" (mistakes) him as Sancho Panza, his trusty and loyal sidekick. This kicks off a series of adventures/misadventures that is a blend of fantasy, reality and imagination. Paths are crossed with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), Angelica (Joana Ribeira), and the head of the studio (Stellan Skarsgard). At times, it's a movie within a movie, and a key is the name of the town: Suenos means dreams. Dreamlike or surreal is the best description for many of the best sequences.

Mr. Gilliam dedicates the film to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both cast in early versions and both now deceased. Somehow the film is simultaneously smart and goofy; thought-provoking and confusing. It's definitely not for everyone - more for those who enjoy digging in to philosophical meanings, and less for those who prefer to kick back and be entertained. There is a lot here about how we see ourselves, how our dreams impact us, and of course, the lost art of chivalry. Above all, we admire the outlook: "This is a marvelous day for an adventure. I feel it in my bones."
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Red Joan (2018)
5/10
side note to history
19 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Sir Trevor Nunn is a Tony Award winner best known for his stage productions, and for being director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 through 1986. The film is "inspired by a true story", and Lindsay Shapero has adapted Jennie Rooney's 2013 novel, which was a blend of history and fiction taken from the life of Melita Norwood ... the longest serving British KGB spy.

Dame Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley (the movie version of the aforementioned Ms. Norwood) whom we first meet as she is being arrested for treason by MI5 agents in May 2000. Most of the film consists of Joan being interrogated while having flashbacks to her earlier life, beginning in 1938 at Cambridge University. She was a hard-working nose-to-the grindstone Physics student who is drawn in to the fascinating world of Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes), who are supporters of the Soviet party. In the flashback scenes, young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson (who reminds of a young Faye Dunaway).

The film spends most of its time in flashback mode, and Ms. Cookson excels as the idealistic Joan first in her scenes with Sonja and Leo, and later with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Professor Max Davies. Joan is recruited to work in the lab with Davies, as the secretly work to create the Atom bomb. It's Sonja and Leo who coerce Joan into passing along secret documents that allow Stalin's Russia to keep pace on bomb development. She easily flies under the radar since, as Sonja tells her, "Nobody would suspect us. We are women."

From a historical perspective, the film kind of falls flat. It also doesn't qualify as a British spy thriller since there are really no thrills to be found. "The Americans" TV show was infinitely better at the spy genre than this one; however, if the film works on any level, it's as moral debate fodder. Joan clearly has her reasons for doing what she thought was right ... leveling the playing field between super powers, so that none had an advantage. The question is, what is right and who is to decide? During this time, alliances were quite fluid between Russia, Britain and the United States, and she believed her actions saved lives.

Dame Judi is really not on screen much, and when she is, there's little for her to do except play innocent and dream of years gone by. She was labeled "Granny spy", and though her story is interesting, and does provide yet another aspect from WWII, the film itself never really grabs us as viewers. The early periods are well filmed with beautiful costumes and sets, but we are never as dumbstruck as Joan's son (Ben Miles) when he admits he thought his mum was merely an over-educated librarian. As a character study, there's something here ... but as entertainment, it's a bit lacking.
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7/10
a pioneer gets her due
19 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. History can easily be distorted by those who tell it. But the work and deeds of those who make history stands the test of time, and research can often right a wrong ... or at least provide credit where it's due. Such is the case with Pamela B Greene's project to uncover the truth, and finally give pioneer filmmaker Alice Guy-Blache her rightful place in the history of cinema.

Numerous familiar faces from the movie industry flash across the screen, and most admit they have never heard of Alice Guy-Blache. Even the few that recognize the name, don't know her story. This is how the movie starts ... letting off the hook those of us who pride ourselves on knowing the basics of cinema's origins. In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers presented the first short films on their newly developed Cinematographe. In the audience that day were Leon Gaumont and his assistant, Alice Guy.

Young Ms. Guy had a creative vision for this fascinating new technology. Rather than filming "real life", she would tell stories. And telling stories through moving pictures is exactly what she did more than 1000 times across two decades and two countries. In 1896, she directed THE CABBAGE FAIRY, one of the first narrative films ... and it was only the beginning for her. Director Greene explains that so many of those early films are lost, despite being described as sophisticated, emotional, and engaging works. As she moved from France to the United States (New Jersey), Alice founded Solax with her husband, and began experimenting with sound, special effects, gender roles, and story structure.

It's truly fascinating to see the clips from many of her films, along with snippets from interviews she sat for in 1964 (before passing away in 1968). Director Greene also includes interviews from Alice's daughter Simone, while I believe are from the 1980's. Simone is able to fill in some of the gaps in the historical timeline ... a timeline that includes many familiar names. It's also a timeline that results in an abrupt end to Alice's filmmaking when she relocates back to France after the war.

How did Alice Guy-Blache get lost in history? She was a contemporary of Melies, Lumiere and the Pathe brothers. She was not just the first woman director, she was also one of the first film directors, period. Though the search continues for many of her films, Oscar winning actress Jodie Foster narrates the mission of filmmaker Pamela B Greene to right a wrong ... Alice must no longer be forgotten by the industry she helped create.
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Stockholm (I) (2018)
6/10
Remember the Alamo!?
12 April 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with a title card informing us that it is "based on an absurd but true story". In 1973 the Kreditbanken of Stockholm Sweden was held up by an armed man. The ordeal was unusual for low-crime Sweden and it was broadcast live on TV. It has also been credited as being the origin for the term "Stockholm Syndrome" - a term to describe the bonding that sometimes occurs between a hostage and their captor.

Writer-director Robert Budreau wisely wastes little time with setting the stage. Lars (Ethan Hawke) dons a disguise meant to trick the police, and storms the bank lobby armed with a sub-machine gun. Wearing a cowboy hat and a leather jacket with a Texas flag, he proclaims "Remember the Alamo" as he secures some hostages and presents himself as Kaj Hansson, a well-known criminal. Of course, Mr. Hawke is certainly an American, and the actual robbery/hostage event was conducted by a Swede.

Lars is loud and boisterous to the cops, while simultaneously being sympathetic and understanding to the hostages - especially Bianca (Noomi Rapace), a married woman with two kids. Christopher Heyerdahl plays Police Chief Mattison, and he employs some unexpected psychological gamesmanship with Lars that gets even more convoluted when Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme becomes involved. Lars' real goal here is to spring his buddy Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail and have them both ride off to freedom in a mustang like the one Steve McQueen drove in BULLITT.

Yes, I should mention that although guns are fired and hostages are held, this is really an offbeat comedic bank heist. It focuses on how the hostages bond with their captors and how Bianca quickly realizes that not only is she smarter than Lars and Gunnar, but that the cops are more of a threat to her than the criminals. She strategizes better than either side, and Ms. Rapace (from the original Millennium Trilogy) is the standout performer in the film.

Filmmaker Budreau and Mr. Hawke previously collaborated on an intimate look at jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in BORN TO BE BLUE (2015), and they prove again that they work well together. The other two hostages are played by Bea Santos as Clara and Mark Rendall as Elov. When Prime Minister Palme refuses to negotiate or allow Lars to leave with hostages, we can sense the emotional tide turn as Clara, Elov and Bianca realize they are safest remaining with the hostages.

Of course there are some liberties with history taken for cinematic reasons, and since most of the filming takes place within the confines of the bank, we do get to know each of the participants pretty well. The similarities to Sidney Lumet's DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) are unmistakable, and one of the reporters covering the story even comments that it's "almost like watching an American movie." The odd ending works for the film, and thanks to Ms. Rapace, there is enough heft to the characters to prevent the humor for taking over.
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Sunset (2018)
5/10
tough to watch, fascinating to look at
12 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes mesmerized us with his first feature film, SON OF SAUL (2015), the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film. That debut was an incredibly unique viewing experience centered on the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Mr. Nemes got much of the band back together for this follow up, and their collaboration, while a bit frustrating to watch, is again quite fascinating to look at.

Mr. Nemes co-wrote the script with his SON OF SAUL writing partners Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier (also the film's editor). And for those that share my frustration in watching the film, it's the story that is likely to blame. Is there a story? Certainly not in the traditional sense - which makes it difficult to follow or try to explain. Irisz Leiter (played by Juli Jakab) is first seen being fitted for fine hats in the elegant shop that bears her family name. We soon learn her parents both died, and she has been absent from the city for many years. The new owner, Oszkar Brill (Vlad Ivanov, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, 2007) is startled to learn of Irisz's return, though we aren't sure why he is so uncomfortable around her. Irisz soon discovers she has a brother (a surprise to her) and that he is quite notorious in these parts.

Much of the film focuses on Irisz trying to track down her brother, and then track him down again. That's the closest thing to a plot we get. Mostly it's a succession of scenes where people ask questions that never get answered. In fact, there is minimal dialogue to go with the now-familiar camera work of cinematographer Matyas Erdely who utilizes his SON OF SAUL first person perspective with background fuzzed out so that we see what one person is seeing. There is an underlying theme of what is apparently a corrupt part of a mysterious sub-culture in the society - even involving the Royal family. Keep in mind this is 1913 Budapest and war is at hand.

The set design and costume design are extraordinary ... especially the lavish hats from the era. The score is from Laszlo Melis (also from SON OF SAUL), and while Ms. Jakab is pleasant to look at, the story is disorienting and unfulfilling. The approach with the camera work is designed to force us to see things through the characters' eyes, but it's not enough to offset the incoherent and aimless wanderings of Irisz as she collects scraps of information that may or may not be pertinent. Perhaps you are smarter than I am, and will be able to connect the dots ... or at least find dots to work with.
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7/10
catching up
9 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. A great many things changed on April 20, 1999. The "Columbine Massacre", a school shooting (and pipe bombs) that resulted in many deaths and injuries, and subsequent copycats, was broadcast live on television for the world to witness. Laura Farber was a freshman at Columbine High School that fateful day, and now, almost 20 years later, she's a filmmaker taking a look at the fallout from such a traumatic event.

Rather than document the progression of events - something that's already been done numerous times - Ms. Farber enlists four of her former classmates, plus a teacher and the school principal to discuss their memories of the day, and more importantly, the impact it has had on their lives since. Gus was the pot smoking slacker. Jaimi was an athlete whose big sister also attended the school. Amy was a cheerleader and social type, and Zach was a studious soccer player. Mr. Zeyba was a first year teacher at the time, and Mr. DeAngelis ("Mr. De") was the school principal. None are especially anxious to revisit those memories, and without the trust they have for Ms. Farber, they probably wouldn't.

With filming set up at an otherwise unoccupied Columbine High School, each of the participants walks us through where they were that day (cafeteria, classroom, etc) and how they remember things unfolding. News clips and a 911 call from that day are replayed, but filmmaker Farber wisely decides against showing the shooters or even mentioning their names. This is about the survivors and as difficult as the conversations are, we get the feeling it's a cathartic exercise for them. We are stunned to hear that they have spoken very little of that day, even to each other or other classmates. There is an "understanding".

This is a very intimate and personal look at how an unbelievably traumatic event can alter the life path of a person. Gus now expresses himself through his rap music. Jaimi is a nurse who values her time with her wife and kids. Amy is a social worker, and Zach is now a teacher at Columbine High School. Mr. Zeyba continues to teach and Mr. DeAngelis continued on as school principal ... after testing numerous fire alarm signals to prevent flashbacks. Each is giving back in their own way after experiencing something most of us can barely imagine. It may not be a traditionally informative documentary, but it's one that brings us as close as possible to what the survivors feel.
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6/10
a feel good look at a moment in history
5 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It's easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That's really the message from Robin Bissell's directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson's 1996 book "The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South". Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson's book was previously adapted for a stage production.

Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne "CP" Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as "Roughhouse Annie" can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.

A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire ... while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a "Charrette" - a blend of a committee and a civic debate - to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.

The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It's just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it's Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he's known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it's Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

As you would expect, it's a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis' wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it's right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee's 2018 film BLACKkKlansman for believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it's worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the "feel-good" and "can't we all just get along" approach, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.
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Us (2019)
8/10
Peele is 2 for 2
2 April 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Jordan Peele first got noticed on "MADtv," and then for his impersonation of Barack Obama. His career got a boost with "Key and Peele" with Keegan-Michael Key, and then it simply exploded in 2018 with GET OUT. For that film, he won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Director (his directorial debut) and for Best Picture (as a Producer). With his follow-up to that breakout film, Mr. Peele has squashed any talk of being a one-hit wonder, and has actually elevated his work with this latest.

The film opens in 1986 as a family is on vacation at Santa Cruz, California. While taking in the amusement park along the boardwalk, their young daughter Adelaide wanders off into a house of mirrors where she comes face to face with her doppelgänger - her exact lookalike. It's the film's first creepy moment, but certainly not the last. The story then jumps forward to present day where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o, Oscar winner for 12 YEARS A SLAVE), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, BLACK PANTHER), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young son Jason (Evan Alex) are on a getaway to a lake house ... one located near their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), and their in sync twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide is not thrilled when husband Gabe suggests they head over to Santa Cruz beach.

Part of the brilliance of the film is that it works as a straight-forward horror film with some very funny moments (often thanks to Mr. Duke), but its real purpose is to inspire multiple theories along with the corresponding debate. Alternate meanings, metaphors and clues are dropped in most every scene. A toy ambulance, a JAWS shirt, a "Thriller" shirt, a TV commercial for the "Hands Across America" event, and the corresponding VHS tapes next to the family TV only hint at the numerous nods Peele serves up to other films, especially some horror classics. You'll note the director chooses an aerial shot not dissimilar to that of Kubrick's THE SHINING as the family drives towards their vacation spot. Also present (in a couple of scenes) is the reference to bible verse Jeremiah 11:11, and sharp-eyed viewers will spot other references to the double 11.

While the Wilson and Tyler families are visiting on the sandy beach, young Jason wanders off sending mother Adelaide into a near-frenzy with recollections of her night on that same beach so many years ago. Later that evening, the true horror begins. A terrific shot of 4 figures all clad in red at the end of the Wilson's driveway kicks the film into high gear. More doppelgangers appear and lead us to a subterranean community living in tunnels, and sharing the space with bunnies. We learn of "the tethered"; those who are (mostly) identical to those living above. Those of identical likeness square off in the ongoing battle for survival, and that's really all you should know before seeing for yourself.

The cast is terrific, especially Ms. Nyong'o, who like the other actors seems to relish playing the dual roles. She also nails the final shot with a smile that will chill you to the marrow. Madison Curry makes a strong impression as young Adelaide, and as much fun as we have with the characters, the true joy lies in trying to "catch" all that filmmaker Peele throws at us. That final wall of folks in red is pretty easy to decipher, but some of the little clues and prods require a second viewing. It's fascinating and historic that Jordan Peele's follow up movie could possibly make this yet another horror movie contending at Oscar time. If you are up for a fun little horror movie that's also a mind-bending societal commentary on those who are born into privilege and those who aren't, then Mr. Peele has just the flick for you.
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Diane (2018)
7/10
self-imposed penance
29 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. In a film that is both grounded in realism as well as playing like an ode to underappreciated character actresses, our wonderment turns to full comprehension once we realize this is the work of Kent Jones. Mr. Jones is one of today's foremost authorities on film, having been a respected film critic, served as director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and delivered a tremendous documentary showcasing the conversations of two more publicized film experts with 2005's HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. In other words, he's a man who loves cinema and has both a trained eye and an instinct for what makes a film worth watching.

Mary Kay Place (THE BIG CHILL, 1983) is Diane. Our first reaction upon seeing her is that she has the well-worn, hangdog look of a woman burdened by life. As we follow her around, we soon learn that's very true and that there is even more to her story. Diane is the kind of person who, rather than keep a list of things to do, keeps a list of people for whom she has to do things. And there are many on her list. Chief among these are her dying cousin Donna (Diedre O'Connell) and her drug-addicted son Brian (Jake Lacy). The self-imposed penance Diane pays all day each day stems from a story referred to as "The Cape" ... a long ago act of betrayal and indiscretion that has clung to Diane ever since.

The rest of the cast is filled with faces you'll recognize (and names you can't recall), many for their work in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, including: Estelle Parsons (Best Supporting Oscar winner for BONNIE AND CLYDE, 1967), Andrea Martin (MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, 2002), Joyce Van Patten (sister of Dick, ST ELMO'S FIRE, 1985), and Glynnis O'Connor (ODE TO BILLY JOE, 1976). But don't mistake this for some nostalgic tribute - each of these women offer up exactly what's needed for their respective characters. It's a joy to behold their work - and easy to take for granted.

This little Massachusetts community is tight-knit and speaks freely on the lives of each other. There are few secrets. Everyone asks Diane about Brian - her son that lies to her face, acts perturbed when she tries to help, forces her to listen to bible-thumping, and finally comes clean on why he's treated her the way he has. Filmmaker Kent's first narrative feature is an organic character driven story about aging, carrying a burden, striving to make amends, and suppressing true feelings by constantly serving others. When Diane writes in her journal, "My loved ones are gone and I'm left to be", it takes her (and us) closer to her soul than any soup kitchen possibly could. Casserole dishes can only heal so much., and a lead role for a respected actress serves us all.
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