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Chubby (2019)
8/10
a dare
4 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Is there anything more tragic or grotesque than a beloved adult manipulating an innocent child to the point of sexual abuse? Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer collaborate again as co-writers and co-directors for a film that is uncomfortable to watch, yet hits on certain ramifications of sexual abuse within a family.

In her first screen appearance (and a terrific one at that), Maya Harman stars as 10 year old Jude. We squirm in our seat as she plays a game of profanity followed by an even more disturbing game of "Dare" with an adult male (Jesse LaVercombe). Jude is exceedingly comfortable with this man, and she encourages him to attend her upcoming dance recital. Things slowly escalate between the moments of bad behavior and laughter.

Their time together flips back and forth with a family Christmas dinner (held after the encounter), where relationships are obviously affected by Jude's disclosure of what happened. The camera work from Adam Crosby keeps us close to the facial expressions, while also capturing the chaotic nature of a family gathering. Though we see none of the physical abuse, the lasting effects are quite apparent and devastating. This is a tough 22 minute film to watch, but one that drives home the importance of the topic.
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5/10
love it or hate it
4 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Very much in the same mold as the late Garry Marshall's VALENTINE'S DAY (2010), NEW YEAR'S EVE (2011), and MOTHER'S DAY (2016), this one also utilizes the multi-story approach with all characters ultimately crossing paths as a payoff. If you are familiar with those movies, then you know what to expect here. However, if you are not familiar, there is no good way to prepare you, other than you'll either love it or hate it.

Writer-director Dennis Dugan has been a frequent Adam Sandler collaborator, with movies landing in the "good" (HAPPY GILMORE, 1996), the "bad" (GROWN UPS 2, 2013), and the "ugly" (JACK & JILL, 2011). Mr. Dugan's co-writers here are married couple Eileen Conn and Larry Miller. The cast includes Oscar winners Diane Keaton (ANNIE HALL, 1977) and Jeremy Irons (REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, 1991), and many faces you'll recognize from other films.

The opening sequence will be enough to let you know where you fall on the 'love it or hate it' scale. Jessie (Maggie Grace, TAKEN) is skydiving with her local news anchor fiancé, and their mid-dive argument leads to a break-up and a crash landing into a lakeside wedding. The video (there's always a video these days) goes viral, and Jessie becomes a social media celebrity burdened with the moniker, "Wedding Trasher" ... not the best marketing for a wannabe wedding planner.

Jessie goes up against legendary wedding planner Lawrence (Mr. Irons) for the soon-to-be Mayor's wedding, which loosely ties into the Mayor's brother's participation in a TV Game Show called "Crash Couples", where mismatched folks are chained together in hopes of taking home the one million dollar prize. The show is hosted by the film's director, Dennis Dugan. Lawrence is an egomaniacal high-falutin wedding planner and all-around rude dude who gets set up on a blind date with Sara (Diane Keaton), who is, yes, actually blind. Her entrance is just one of the painfully overdone physical pratfalls dropped in throughout the film, presumably to appeal to a wider comedy audience.

Andrew Bachelor plays the charismatic laugh-a-minute guide on a Duck tour who goes searching for his "Cinderella" ... love at first sight for him. Next up we have Diego Bonita as a sensitive guitar player in the band Jessie wants to hire for the Mayor's wedding. And I've yet to mention the involvement of the mafia thanks to the Mayor's brother's partner in the "Crash Couples" game. The multitude of characters and story lines all intersect at the wedding Jessie has planned - an event with hurdles just high enough for her to conquer. Some of the characters tie in more easily than others, but it's best to just go with the flow here, no matter how cringe-inducing it might be at times.

On the bright side that surely most of us can agree on, Elle King (Rob Schneider's daughter) is superb as the singer in the park who reappears throughout. Her songs fit the story, and her voice and sound are top notch and quite welcome. Romantic comedies sometimes get a bum rap, and few slide as cleanly into the "love it or hate it" mode as this one.
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Elyse (2020)
5/10
too little of Sir Anthony
4 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. We aren't sure what to make of Elyse Bridges as we are first getting to know her. She seems a bit unstable and unpredictable, and even her husband Steven and her mother are at a loss with how to get along with her. The Bridges live in a beautiful modern mansion, and their live-in help is excellent at helping take care of their son, something Elyse seems to have minimal interest in.

Of course this is a movie, and things aren't always what they seem. Writer-director Stella Hopkins and co-writer Audrey Arkins keep us guessing for quite a while before revealing the twist. Ms. Hopkins is the wife of Sir Anthony Hopkins, and it's her directorial debut. Many filmmakers would appreciate having the advantage of a built-in Oscar winner to give their film a shot of prestige, and he does just that, elevating the film with his all-too-brief turn as a psychologist.

Surprisingly, this movie doesn't belong to Mr. Hopkins, as his role is relatively minor. Instead, it's Lisa Pepper in the titular role that has us initially grasping at straws, trying to make sense of her behavior. Ms. Pepper only rarely acts in films, as this is her fourth film spread over 13 years. Elyse's attorney husband Steven is played by Aaron Tucker, whose movie credits come even less frequently than Ms. Pepper's. This film is a bit of a reunion for Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins, as well as Ms. Pepper and Mr. Tucker, as they all previously appeared together in the 2007 film SLIPSTREAM (written and directed by Sir Anthony).

The pieces finally come together in the third act, and by that time, it's quite apparent that director Hopkins was attempting to create a stylish psychological drama that keeps the audience guessing. There are a couple of references to "The Wizard of Oz", including Dorothy's quote, "If we walk long enough, we will surely come to some place." Not much more can be said without spoiling the story and what caused the changes within Elyse. Memories are a field of study with many unanswered questions, and the unfortunate path of Elyse is spurred by a single event ... something that could happen to any of us. Anthony Hopkins is credited with writing music for the film, and it would have been nice to have him in a few more scenes.
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Mank (2020)
8/10
the bud of the rose
3 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. "Just a writer." The line made me laugh. How many times have writers not received the recognition they deserved, or were underestimated, only to have their words create a lasting impact? Hollywood often likes to portray writers as socially-awkward, loner types who rarely contribute much during conversations. Not this time. The subject is Oscar winning screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, who was as quick with a dinner table zinger as he was writing the script to CITIZEN KANE (1941) while bedridden.

More than 20 years in the works, this is director David Fincher's first film since GONE GIRL (2014), and it's based on a screenplay written by his late father, Jack Fincher. Dad receives sole writing credit here, though David and producer Eric Roth (Oscar winner for FORREST GUMP, 1994) admit to some polishing. It's a film seemingly designed for us film nerds, but likely entertaining and interesting enough for expanded appeal. CITIZEN KANE is often regarded as the "best" movie of all-time, though the origin of the film is much debated. We do know that struggling RKO Pictures gave 24 year old wunderkind Orson Welles free reign over his first film, and the result was something quite special.

Director Fincher's film offers up three distinct aspects here: a look at Mankiewicz's writing process for 'Kane', some background on Mankiewicz's career, and a somewhat fictionalized dissection of 1930s Hollywood politics. Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) stars as Herman J "Mank" Mankiewicz, an international correspondent-turned NYC cultural critic-turned playwright-turned screenwriter. Herman was the older brother of Joseph L Mankiewicz, a four time Oscar winning writer-director (ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950), and grandfather to Ben Mankiewicz, a well-known host of Turner Classic Movies. Herman was also renowned as a boozer and gambler, and in 1940 (where this movie begins), he was a bedridden mess recovering from a car accident. Herman was part of the sphere of the infamous Algonquin Round Table, and in most of this film, he talks like he's still at one of those gatherings.

Mank is taken to a desolate ranch house in Victorville, California, along with his assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse (Monika Gossman) and his handler John Houseman (Sam Troughton). Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has given Mank 60 days to finish the script, and his only guidance seems to be "write what you know", and don't drink. The result was a controversial, yet brilliant script that Welles and his crew (Oscar winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland, Editor Robert Wise, a 4-time Oscar winner) turned into a classic film that still holds up 80 years later.

We immediately start seeing flashbacks, as noted by old style on-screen typing. Ten years prior, Mank was the Head Writer at Paramount, where his staff included Ben Hecht, George S Kaufman, and Charles Lederer ... writers whose work would later include NOTORIOUS (1946), multiple Marx Brothers movies, and GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), respectively. Lederer was also the nephew of starlet Marion Davies (played here by Amanda Seyfried), who was the long time mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Are you starting to see how this wicked web all fits together? Of course, Hearst was the model for Charles Foster Kane in Welles' classic movie, while Ms. Davies was supposedly the inspiration for Kane's wife, Susan. Other key players in these flashbacks are Producer David O Selznick (Toby Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, son of Oscar winner Ben), MGM founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), Mank's brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey), and Mank's wife "Poor" Sarah (Tuppence Middleton).

Director Fincher's masterful film features a couple of standout sequences. The first involves the initial meeting between Mank and Hearst, while Marion Davies is filming a scene on the grounds of San Simeon (Xanadu in CITIZEN KANE). Rapid fire dialogue, multiple characters, and terrific editing with Mank keeping pace as Hearst overlooks the filming. Much later there is a scene following Mank and Marion as they stroll through the manicured gardens with the nearby exotic animals on display. The scene is fascinating to watch, while also reinforcing the kindred spirits of Mank and Marion - both talented, yet not quite allowed in the "club". Beyond those two sequences, we also get a quite funny segment where Mank and his Paramount writers are improvising a pitch to Selznick and director Josef von Sternberg, plus a telegram sent by Mank to Lederer that states, "Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots" (a sentiment some believe still holds true today).

Quite a bit of the film is focused on Hollywood politics of the 1930s, both in the studios and nationally. In particular, the 1934 Governor's race focuses on the campaign of writer and socialist Upton Sinclair (played by Bill Nye, the Science Guy), and the concerted efforts by Hearst and studio capitalists to prevent Sinclair from being elected. The symmetry and contrasts of modern day Hollywood and politics cannot be overlooked. Also made abundantly clear is the disconnect between studio heads, directors, and writers - quite the mishmash of disrespect.

The brilliance of Fincher's movie is that it can be relished from multiple perspectives. Is Mank attempting to salvage a near-dead career or is he settling a grudge against Hearst? Did Welles intend to hold firm to Mank's contract and prevent him from receiving a screenwriting credit? And then there is the filmmaking side. Superb performances from Oldman and Seyfried highlight the terrific cast. It's filmed in black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt ("Mindhunter"), but not the razor-sharp images we are accustomed to these days, rather soft and hazy in keeping with the look of the times. The production design from Donald Graham Burt takes a couple of viewings to fully appreciate, and the music from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is spot on, as usual. Even the opening credits provide nostalgia, as does the 1942 Academy Awards ceremony, which neither Mank nor Welles attended. Netflix delivers another winner, and one likely to receive awards consideration.
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The Prom (2020)
6/10
Love Thy Neighbor
3 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series "Glee" and "American Horror Story" has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it's a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for "Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical" fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi's, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what's needed to revamp their careers is a 'cause celebre'. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren't exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg's upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep's campy "Not About Me" a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman's Fosse-esque "Zazz". Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren't many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it's likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps - complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It's a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way. Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020
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Dear Santa (2020)
7/10
santa's elves
3 December 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. In an era when being nasty to those who don't share your opinion is de rigueur, it's such a pleasant relief to watch a story centered on generous folks who want nothing more than to bring joy to others ... especially those in need. Director Dana Nachman is fast becoming a master of 'feel good' documentaries, and this one fits nicely with her recent projects, PICK OF THE LITTER (2018) and BATKID BEGINS: THE WISH HEARD AROUND THE WORLD (2015).

Bringing a smile to our face quickly is the opening where kids excitedly talk about Santa Claus and the letters they write to him. There is nothing more pure than a young child's hope and belief that someone is devoted to delivering happiness, and yes, presents! A quick history lesson explains that kids have been writing letters to Santa for more than 150 years, and in 1912, the United States Postal Service began Operation Santa - a way to process the letters being sent to Santa Claus each year. It wasn't until the 1940's that the program was opened up to the public, and only recently has gone online. These days, it's a remarkably coordinated effort involving individuals, companies, organizations, and non-profits.

We visit big cities and small ones as director Nachman shows us the impact these "North Pole elves" have on their communities. A 'Countdown to Christmas' is used to keep track of the deadline facing each and every person. We see how the USPS has digitized the letters and categorizes according to location, age, and type of request. There is even discussion about the surprising variances in gift requests based on geographic locations. It might also interest you that many adults write letters to Santa each year, although it probably wouldn't surprise you to know that many of these are folks facing tough times, and their requests tend to be necessities like mattresses for the kids or a functioning appliance.

Most of the letters to Santa are heartfelt, and many are requests for others rather than gifts for themselves. Families displaced by fire or divorce will surely strike an emotional chord, as will the reactions of the "elves" reading the letters. Delivering the many donated gifts requires a highly coordinated effort - especially when live animals are involved. Yes, sometimes pets are requested, and again, the joy on the faces of those receiving gifts may only be equaled by the smiles by the givers.

The true spirit of giving at Christmas is on display throughout, and we have director Nachman to thank for bringing this to light. There are so many generous and caring people involved with the program, and their goal is to make sure others experience joy at this time of year.
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7/10
love brings hope
26 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Van Maximilian Carlson and co-writer A. Shawn Austin touch on a wide variety of controversial topics in this one: PTSD, Veterans' Affairs, homelessness, foster care, social workers, and mental illness. At the heart of their story is the touching and strong bond between a father and daughter, even when life's obstacles become too much to overcome.

Tayler Buck delivers a career-changing performance as Alicia Willis (ANNABELLE: CREATION, 2017), the adolescent daughter of Sgt Beaumont "Bo" Willis (Edi Gathegi, "The Blacklist"), an Iraqi War veteran whose PTSD is linked to a brain injury sustained while deployed. Bo is mostly non-verbal and often disconnected, and living a tough life with the homeless on Skid Row. Alicia is devoted to her father, and worships him as the man who told her bedtime stories when she was young. Those memories not only inspire her to take care of him now, but also to write her own award winning short stories, and to view her life as a sort of Fairy Tale (rather than a tragedy).

We learn that Alicia has already been in three foster homes, including one with her mean-spirited aunt (Tabitha Brown), who likely took her in only for the money. Social Worker Magdalene (Ana Ortiz, "Ugly Betty") shows true compassion for Alicia, and understands the love she has for her father. Of course Magdalene is also pragmatic and does her best to find a stable environment for Alicia. That's where writer John Austin (Martin Sheen) comes in. He and his wife agree to take in Alicia, despite this putting her a 10 hour drive from Bo. But distance can't hold her back.

Following Alicia around is exhausting, yet fascinating. Director Carlson and cinematographer Maz Makhani do a terrific job of capturing her various adventures - each with the purpose of being with her father. Alicia understands, and we see evidence, of Bo's unpredictability and propensity for violent outbursts. Oh, but in those few fleeting moments when the father she remembers reappears, it's emotional and heart-warming. Alicia has a wonderful line that will surely touch viewers. She says, "I love it when you come back to me." And so do we ... the world seems right, even if it's only a blink.

This performance should elevate Tayler Buck amongst young actors, and we will likely be seeing her quite often over the next few years. And as strong as she is here, we shouldn't overlook the work of Edi Gathegi and Ana Ortiz, or even Martin Sheen (now 80 years old), who always seems a natural for movies with a message. Jessica Childress sings a beautiful song, "Walk with Me", that is the exact fit for this film that puts love and hope amidst misery and hopelessness.
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Zappa (2020)
8/10
an absolute mother
26 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Frank Zappa's music was never considered mainstream. His songs were rarely played on the radio. In his entire career, he charted one Top 40 song, and that was driven by his daughter. To some, he was known as a political activist and a spokesperson first, and a musician second. At times he was an enigma and a rebel or maverick, and he's even described as trying not to write a hit song. Alex Winter may be best known as Bill in the "Bill and Ted" movies, and he's also a successful documentary filmmaker (DEEP WEB, 2015). This time out he turns his focus on the career and life of Frank Zappa.

One of the first things we see is Frank Zappa taking us on a tour of his personal vault located at his Laurel Canyon home. It's an enormous private collection that captures quite a bit of history from the 1960's forward. Zappa points out some of his favorites including his jams with Eric Clapton in the basement and music with his friend Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet). These are original masters of Zappa's work over the decades, and he was nothing if not prolific, releasing 62 albums during his career, and another 53 following his death in 1993.

Acting as bookends for the film are clips of Zappa's 1991 live show in Prague, where he is helping celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops. It's also his last guitar performance on stage. An incredible amount of footage exists of Zappa pontificating on one subject or another, sometimes on television, sometimes in front of news cameras, and even in front of a Senate committee. His music and his life was usually focused on social commentary, opinions not always popular with the establishment.

It's very interesting to hear Zappa talk about his early influences, particularly how he never outgrew his love for editing - something that began with the 8mm films at his childhood homes. He didn't begin playing music until his early teenage years, and it was orchestral before rock. He always considered himself a composer, and what a prolific writer he was. It's an unusual film in that it not only tracks the timeline of his career, but we are privileged to hear Zappa's opinions directly from him thanks to the unending recordings and archival footage available.

Mr. Winter includes much more than Zappa. We hear from musicians that made up the Mothers of Invention, including Steve Vai, Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, and an emotional Ruth Underwood. We also hear from renowned Rock n Roll groupie Pamela Des Barres, and Frank's wife Gail. It's noted that Zappa disbanded the Mothers of Invention in 1969, and there were many iterations that played afterwards. Some of the prominent names included violinist Jean Luc Ponty, and Howard Kaylan and Marc Volman of The Turtles fame. There is even a terrific clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing on stage with Zappa and his band ... shocking for anyone not familiar with Yoko's infamous primal screams.

One of the best stories included is how Zappa's biggest hit came to be. A note from his young daughter, Moon Unit, introducing herself to her frequently absent father led to a collaboration on the single "Valley Girl", which cracked the Top 40. There are also stories on his dreaded hosting of "Saturday Night Live", as well as pieces on the Kronos Quartet, London Symphony Orchestra, and Ensemble Modern performing his music. In 1979, Zappa became the first musician to go completely independent with his own label, and this is only a few years after he was seriously injured by being attacked on stage.

Some may recall Zappa's appearance in front of the Senate committee in regards to the drive to include Parental warning labels on published music. Zappa viewed this as nothing more than censorship, and he was one of the few musicians to fight the battle against the opponents led by the wife of White House Chief of Staff James Baker. Zappa was certainly a man of principles, and had no time for those who weren't. It was pancreatic cancer that took his life, but a life well lived it was. His time as a symbol of freedom in Czechoslovakia is proof that he never shied away from standing up for what he believed in. So like his music or not - he surely didn't care. But he respected those who cared for society and freedom. Filmmaker Winter does a nice job with a two hour run time, when the material exists for a 4 part series.
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Uncle Frank (2020)
6/10
Frank's memories
24 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Alan Ball has been behind such high profile projects as Best Picture Oscar winner AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), "Six Feet Under", and "True Blood". This time, he is writer-director-producer for a film that he partially based on his own father. Repressed homosexuality, alcoholism, death, and family dysfunction all play a role in a film that starts out beautifully insightful and then morphs into something totally different.

Paul Bettany stars as the titular Uncle Frank Bledsoe. When we first see Frank, he is the calm amidst the chaotic family gathering in their tiny hometown of Creekside, South Carolina. His 14 year old niece Beth (Sophia Lillis, IT) serves as our narrator, and she quickly discloses her admiration for her favorite uncle. He's a college professor at NYU, and the only adult "who looked me in the eye". He even wore after shave! The two are oddities in this family since they both love to read, have deep conversations, and can't escape Creekside soon enough.

Beth is too sheltered to realize that Frank has kept his homosexuality a secret from the family. She's shocked at how cross the family patriarch Daddy Mac (Stephen Root) acts to his son Frank, which contrasts to his affinity for his other son, and Beth's father, Mike (Steve Zahn). A terrific ensemble cast fills out the family: Margot Martindale as Mammaw Bledsoe (Frank's mother), Judy Greer as Kitty (Mike's wife), Lois Smith as Aunt Butch (Frank's stuck-in-the-past Aunt), and Jane McNeil as Neva (Frank's sister).

We flash forward 4 years and Beth is now a freshman at NYU where her favorite uncle is a professor. Of course it doesn't take long before Frank's secret is revealed, and Beth meets his longtime partner Wally (Peter Macdisi, who is director Alan Ball's real life partner) and their pet iguana named Barbara Stanwyck. When the call comes through that Daddy Mac has died, the film shifts to the road trip portion of the show, and the excellent tone set in the first half is shattered.

With a shift to Frank's perspective, we experience his flashbacks to childhood and what caused the rift with his father. The memories of his first encounter with another boy turn horrific, and explain much about why Frank and his closed-minded father don't have a relationship, and why Frank has a nasty history with booze. The road trip itself is enlivened thanks to the enthusiastic presence of Wally, a man with a good heart who tries to always be there for Frank. This is a coming of age trip for Beth, but her role goes pretty quiet until the ending.

The story has elements of small southern town contrasted to New York City, and the pent up frustrations that accompany a life of closeted homosexuality and lack of honesty with one's family. The bond of family outsiders could have been a full movie unto itself, but filmmaker Ball chose to explore numerous emotional points, rather than one. The unforgivable nature of Frank's dad provides an emotional wallop that embraces the melodrama of the film's second half. It's sure to draw out tears from more than a few viewers, and a film that connects like that, surely has something to say.
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7/10
Uncle
24 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Nearly 50 years have passed and it remains the only unsolved Air Piracy case in America. For HBO, documentarian John Dower (MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE, 2017) chronicles the investigation and four main suspects in the mystifying D.B. Cooper case. It's a case that has fascinated people and frustrated authorities for five decades.

On November 24, 1971 - Thanksgiving Eve - a man using the name Dan Cooper (a communication mix-up caused him to be later identified as D.B. Cooper) boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Portland. Once in the air, he handed Flight Attendant Tina Mucklow a note informing that he had a bomb and was hijacking the plane. His demands were simple: $200,000 in cash and 4 parachutes. In Seattle, his demands were met. He released the passengers, keeping only the crew on board. At an altitude of 10,000 feet, Cooper jumped from the Boeing 727 under the cover of darkness and rain over a heavily forested area. As far as authorities are concerned, he's never been seen again.

Some presume he died on the jump, while others turned him into a folk hero. He was credited with an act of defiance during times of economic hardships for many. The "Cult of Cooper" was born, as was one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Director Dower interviews some key folks and shows clips of interviews and statements of interested parties who have since passed. The structure of the film revolves around the four main suspects ... those who have not been ruled out. Segments are devoted to each of the four: Duane Weber, Robert/Barb Dayton, LD Cooper, and Richard McCoy.

Personal testimony and recollections from relatives and associates of these four leave us with little doubt that a case can be made for each, and those going on camera absolutely believe "theirs" is the infamous DB Cooper. We hear from Duane Weber's wife who states her husband confessed, "I'm Dan Cooper" on his death bed. Robert/Barb Dayton was one of the first me to have a sex change operation, and his neighbors provide details on Dayton's own confession, "I am Dan Cooper". Marla Cooper was 8 years old when the hijacking even took place, and she recalls specifics of her Uncle LD Cooper, and being told "We hijacked the plane" and "We're rich!" Lastly, Richard McCoy was arrested 5 months later for a copycat hijacking. His pattern was quite similar and his facial features almost identical to the DB Copper sketch.

Tina Mucklow was the flight attendant on the hijacked flight and she provides details of that fateful event, as do other members of the flight crew, a passenger who observed most of what happened on the first flight, and a retired FBI agent who worked the case. Two authors, Bruce Smith ("DB Cooper and the FBI: A Case Study of America's Only Unsolved Skyjacking", 2016) and Geoffrey Gray ("Skyjack: The Hunt for DB Cooper", 2011) provide significant insight into the research they have conducted into the investigations. There seems to be plenty of criticism of the FBI in regards to lost evidence (cigarette butts from the flight, fingerprints), and a delayed ground search that gave Cooper a 40 hour head start.

Some reenactments are used here, but a significant portion is filmed interviews with those who have something to say about the investigation, or who DB Cooper might be. The 1980 discovery of 3 bundles of cash with matching serial numbers on the banks of the Columbia River is discussed, and a possible explanation is provided in one of the segments. It's likely you'll come away from this as baffled as the authorities have been for 50 years, but also loaded with some good fodder for holiday conversation (via Zoom, of course).
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Stardust (II) (2020)
5/10
commencing countdown
24 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Traditionally, an "unauthorized biopic" will contain some of the less-desirable, and often more entertaining aspects of its subject; however, writer-director Gabriel Range (with co-writer Christopher Bell) admit up front that this is mostly "fictional". Since David Bowie's son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, announced that the family was not participating in the project, we somehow miss out on both the personal "dirt" and the actual music of the icon. What remains is an odd couple road trip representing Bowie's first American tour in 1971.

Johnny Flynn stars as a young (early 20's) David Bowie. Flynn is a musician-actor recently seen as Mr. Knightley in this year's excellent EMMA. He's very talented, but certainly bears little physical resemblance to the androgynous waif of early-1970's Bowie. We first see Flynn's Bowie through his dream during an airplane flight. The riff on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is our first clue that the film will track Bowie's transformation from David Jones to David Bowie to Ziggy Stardust. It plays as a search for his identity ... though he mostly just seems to desire being hailed as a star, rather than a musical genius.

Jena Malone appears as Bowie's first wife, Angie. She's presented as quite controlling and eager to bask in the success she expects from her husband. We also see her teasing their open marriage, and pregnant with Duncan. When Bowie lands in America, he's put through the ringer with U.S. Customs and Immigrations - his flowing dress doesn't help. Bowie is disappointed that Mercury Records has sent Ron Oberman (an excellent Marc Maron) as his station-wagon driving publicist - not exactly the red carpet he envisioned.

Bowie and Oberman on the road is the highlight of the movie. Bowie is relegated to playing the worst imaginable gigs ... like a Eureka vacuum salesman conference, while Oberman preaches practicality. Beyond that, Bowie seems self-defeating at every opportunity and we never quite understand his motivation. Miming during an interview with a rock publication can't seem wise to anyone, no matter how offbeat they perceive themselves. On top of the disastrous American trip, Bowie is dealing with the "family curse", as his mother describes it. Bowie's brother Tony (Derek Moran) is shown battling a mental illness, likely schizophrenia. Of course, given his gene pool, David is concerned for his own well-being.

Recent biopics of Elton John (ROCKETMAN, 2019) and Freddie Mercury (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) are perfect examples of what this film is not. This is more of an exploration of identity before Bowie became an iconic theatrical rocker. The influences of Iggy Pop and Marc Bolan (played by James Cade) are hinted at, but mostly the birth of Ziggy Stardust just seems to happen. Commencing countdown to a biopic of a musician before he's famous, and being handicapped by not having access to his original music, is quite a challenge, and considering those things, even if it's watchable, it's likely to be crucified by Bowie devotees.
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6/10
elevation by Amy and Glenn
23 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. "We don't use that word." That is law school student JD's reaction when someone refers to those like his family as hillbillies. He's understandably defensive, despite his daily navigations between two distinct worlds. Oscar winning director Ron Howard (A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001) presents the true story of JD Vance, a young man who earns his way out of his Appalachian background to gain admittance to Yale Law School, only to get dragged back into the life he worked so hard to escape. Vanessa Taylor (Oscar nominated for THE SHAPE OF WATER, 2017) adapted the screenplay from Vance's own memoir.

The first thing noticed about this film is that it stars Amy Adams (6) and Glenn Close (7), who between them, have 13 Oscar nominations for acting. That's a pretty distinguished pedigree for a cast. Ms. Adams has been seen recently in the TV mini-series "Sharp Objects" and as Lynn Cheney in Adam McKay's VICE (2018). Ms. Close was most recently nominated for her performance in THE WIFE (2018). Other notables in the cast include Haley Bennett (excellent in SWALLOW earlier this year), Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), and Gabriel Basso (THE KINGS OF SUMMER, 2013).

As the film begins in 1997, we find a young JD (Owen Asztalos) in a tough spot, and we quickly get a feel for the chaos commonplace around his family in Jackson, Kentucky ... and also the bond that comes with being a family in the hills. The obligatory family photo ends the segment. We then skip ahead 14 years as the family has 3 houses on the same street in Middletown, after some of them find a way out of Jackson. In this blue collar town hit hard by a financial downturn, they admit to missing only "hope". The story is told from the perspective of an older JD (Basso), who struggles with the emotional turmoil that his mother Bev (Adams) constantly creates. Remarkably, it's Mamaw (Close) who provides the strength and stability in the family, and yet, she always seems one small step from exploding at the universe. There is an odd grounded nature and tough-mindedness to Mamaw that Ms. Close radiates on screen. It's an interesting performance, that some may call over-the-top ... a phrase also likely to be used for Ms. Adams as she displays the desperation of an addict, and the broken spirit of one whose shot at life disappeared early on.

For such a stereotypical "simple" family, the complexities of the story and characters are sometimes difficult to appreciate. JD's sister Lindsay (Bennett) does her best to raise her own family while also managing her mother and grandmother, so that JD can pursue law school. She understands he has possibilities, whereas she has few. And JD's law school girlfriend Usha (Pinto) truly has no concept of his childhood and family. Class differences are on full display not just with Usha, but also at the dinner where JD (a former Marine) is maneuvering to secure a summer internship that keeps him teetering in the balance of moving forward or falling back.

It's at this point where JD receives a call from Lindsay informing that mother Bev has overdosed on heroin. It's yet another example of his own mother inadvertently subverting his efforts to make a new life for himself. Addiction, relapse, financial struggles, family abuse, and untold secrets are the pieces that make up JD's family pie. When his "old" life collides with his "new" life, will it drag him back down? He periodically faces decisions that are legal and/or morality based, and given his circumstances, it's never as straightforward as it should be.

Without the power of Glenn Close and Amy Adams, director Howard likely would have had the film slide into the maudlin mode so common with Hallmark or Lifetime Channel movies, and while it's not the Oscar bait Howard aims for, Netflix has yet another watchable film in their stable. Mr. Howard's decision to bounce back and forth between 1997 and 2011 does provide the history we need to understand JD's dilemma, but the see-saw approach is at times distracting. Home movies provided by JD Vance are shown over the closing credits, and it's here where we realize just how closely Ms. Close physically resembles the real Mamaw. We walk away easily seeing how the circle of this life becomes perpetual, and just how challenging it can be to break free.
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Inverno (2020)
8/10
forever young
23 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. This 15 minute short film from Italy follows young Timo as he and his family face tragedy during the winter season. Writer-director Giulio Mastromauro has been making short films since 2012, and this is co-writer Andrea Brusa's seventh short film in six years. The production level is strong, and we are drawn in quickly.

Timo and his family are part of a Greek community, and their family business is tied to the carnival rides for a traveling Funfair. Timo's mother lays deathly ill in the family's trailer, as the next opening day rapidly approaches. First time actor Christian Petaroscia plays Timo, a quiet boy who observes all and readily jumps in to help prepare the rides, as his father (Giulio Beranek) stays by the woman's bed. The boy's grandparents (Babak Karimi, Elisabetta De Vito) are concerned for Timo's well-being as things turn bleak.

The film is a testament to the strength of a community and family, but also the isolation when a loved one's time comes. Another sentiment that ties in with Mastromauro's film: when the young die, they are forever young.
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8/10
Riz nails the solo
19 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Many of us have attended concerts and experienced a ringing in our ears for a while afterwards. Have you ever thought about the musicians who are playing that music night after night? It's a risk requiring precautions ... and even then, disaster can occur. The first narrative feature from writer-director Darius Marder uses the hearing loss of a heavy metal drummer to explore what happens when the life we know is suddenly snatched away.

Riz Ahmed (TV mini-series "The Night Of") stars as Ruben, the aforementioned drummer. The film opens with Ruben drumming on stage as his lead singer/girlfriend Lou (underrated Olivia Cooke, THOROUGHBREDS, "Bates Motel") screams out the lyrics punk-style for their band, Blackgammon. We witness Ruben's euphoria in the moment, with his "Please Kill Me" tattoo visible across his chest. Afterwards, we see the couple in their RV living a happy life of veggie juice, yoga, and slow dancing between gigs. The first crack in the armor is Lou's scratching her arm from anxiety, and the next is devastating for Ruben and the couple.

Ahmed is terrific in the most important moments, and he's assisted by top notch sound design from Nicolas Becker (GRAVITY, 2013). This allows us to feel and experience the moment Ruben realizes he has a problem, and how he begins to process this. Director Marder utilizes subtitles/closed captioning throughout, both for the deaf community and to make Ruben's situation visceral for viewers. When the doctor explains hearing loss, frustration and defiance kick in for Ruben. He becomes focused on the $40-80,000 cochlear implant option, and views it as a way to maintain his normal life.

Lou becomes worried for Ruben's well-being, and we learn he's a recovering heroin addict. He reluctantly agrees to a remote deaf community/rehab facility run by Joe (Paul Raci). It's here that Ruben learns sign language and begins to adjust to his new reality. Joe is a very patient and sage advisor, and preaches that being deaf is not a handicap - it's not viewed as something to fix. Implants are considered an affront to the deaf culture, and the film neither shies away from this conflict, nor magnifies it.

The clash between Joe's patience and guidance, and Ruben's desire to get his normal life back comprise much of the film. The final scene between the two is gut-wrenching thanks to extraordinary acting from Ahmed and especially Raci. Supporting work in the film is provided by Lauren Ridloff (a hearing-impaired actor) and Matthieu Amalric as Lou's dad. The final act is quite something to watch. The director says the film is about the finality of life changes, and letting go of what we can't fix. Joe urges Ruben to appreciate the stillness, and we also see a love story that served its purpose and run its course. Will the distortion lead Ruben to find peace in the stillness? Depending on your stance in regards to the debate within the deaf community, the ending either works for you or it doesn't. Either way, it's well done and well-acted. Amazon Studios will release this in theaters November 20, 2020 and on Prime Video December 4, 2020
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7/10
Pearce is on his game
19 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Knowing the film is based on Jonathan Lopez's 2008 book, "The Man Who Made Vermeers" removes some of the mystique from the story; however Dan Friedkin's (stunt pilot on DUNKIRK) directorial debut is an enticing look at a blending of art history and world history. The screenplay was co-written by John Orloff, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby.

It's May 29, 1945, three weeks after the fall of Hitler's Reich, and the Dutch military is on a mission to reclaim valuable art and collectibles confiscated by the Nazis during the war. Some of these were hidden in Austrian salt mines by order of Hermann Goring, actions also depicted in the 2014 film, THE MONUMENTS MEN. After serving in the war, Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, "Dracula" 2020) is tasked with tracking down those who stole the art, and those who sold the art to Germans. It's a task meant to preserve his country's culture. One particular piece, "Christ with the Adulteress" held special significance, as it was billed as 'the last Vermeer', a long lost painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer ("The Girl with the Pearl Earring"), for which Goring had paid a record price.

Investigation on this painting led Piller and his assistant Minna (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD 2017) to Han Van Meegeren (played with panache by Guy Pearce and his stylish eyebrows). Piller is also helped by his friend Esper Vesser (Roland Moller, ATOMIC BLONDE 2017) who supplies a bit of muscle and brawn. Van Meegeren has a fancy manner of speech, and Piller determines he's the key to the case, and to unlocking what occurred and how. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice (August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS 2009) is after Van Meegeren for conspiracy, and the parties end up in court.

Piller and Van Meegeren existed in real life, and though some dramatic license is taken, much of what we see actually happened. Art experts and politics collided. And it's not surprising that egos ruled the day (not unlike today). The twist may or may not be a shocker to those who know the story, but it's still fascinating that folks would risk their lives in such a manner during the darkest of times. It seems opportunists exist regardless of the era. Mr. Bang and Mr. Pearce are both excellent here, and it's quite fun to watch their verbal wranglings. Director Friedkin adds an Epilogue that will surely bring a smile to most viewers. Opening in theaters November 20, 2020
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7/10
fine Aussie filmmaking
19 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. How would you feel if someone photographed the worst moment of your life, and then exhibited it for the world to see? That question is at the heart of this drama, the first narrative feature from writer-director Ben Lawrence. His co-writer is Beatrix Christian, who also wrote the screenplay for JINDABYNE, an excellent 2006 film directed by Ben's father, Ray Lawrence.

Daniel Fisher (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix" and "The Lord of the Rings" franchises) is a renowned war photographer, and we first see him on assignment in 2018 Iraq. When he returns home to the Western Sydney suburbs, his longtime partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney, THE BABADOOK 2014) surprises him with news that she's pregnant. They still struggle with the pain of losing their previous daughter, Eve. On top of that, Fisher's work is scheduled to be the centerpiece of a high profile exhibit coming soon. The stress manifests itself physically through shaking hands and fainting spells.

Fisher is a bit of a mess when he's tracked down by Sebastian Ahmed (the screen debut of Andrew Luri), who requests that Fisher not include photographs of the massacre which occurred in his south Sudan village 15 years prior. Sebastian says the memories are too painful, as he lost his family during that time. He's now a refugee building a new life for his pregnant wife Anishka (Bolude Watson) and their young child. Sebastian works as a taxi driver and in a commercial laundry, and when he pushes Anishka to let him buy a house for their family, she says matter-of-factly, "We work. That is our life. It's all we do." It's a frustrating dose of reality for Sebastian who sees a house as confirmation that they belong.

There is so much going on in what, on the surface, appears to be a quiet little film where two men form an unlikely friendship. PTSD is a factor for both men, as war has left its mark, as it so often does. Sebastian has kept his past life a secret from his wife, but that's only part of the story when it comes to why he doesn't want the photographs exhibited. Fisher is described as "documenting human pain and misery", while his work is labeled "misery porn". Is that fair? We get both sides of the gray area associated with that question noted in my first paragraph above.

Filmmaker Lawrence benefits from four terrific performances, and though the ending is a bit shaky, the stress and emotional turmoil that those four characters endure is extremely well handled. "Who are you?" is a question Anishka asks her husband, and by the end it can be asked of all four characters. There is little wonder why this has been so warmly received on the film festival circuit ... it's thought-provoking and emotional. In theaters and On Demand November 20, 2020
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Collective (2019)
8/10
expert investigative journalism
19 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. You likely recall seeing the horrific video. It was 2015 when a fire swept through a Bucharest club where a band was performing live. Captured on a cell phone, the video shows the crowd desperately trying to escape through the main door. 27 people died that night and more than 100 others suffered injuries and burns. It was a terrible tragedy, and yet more tragedy unfolded over the next few weeks, and that's the beginning of the story told here by director Alexander Nanau.

As recovering patients filled the burn wards and Intensive Care Units at Romania's hospitals, something horrible began to happen. 37 more people died. These were not folks that were admitted with a life-threatening status, instead it was bacterial infections that were responsible. What is the one thing we take for granted at hospitals? Yes, cleanliness. As the media began to question this death spree, Romania's Health Minister, Nicolae Banicioiu, a Social Democrat, began boasting about the country's medical facilities. It's at this same time that Catalin Tolontan, the editor of "Sports Gazette", was investigating the cause of these deaths. What we witness is investigative journalism at its best ... in the midst of despicable actions by those people we should be able to trust.

Mr. Tolontan and his team slowly peel back the layers, and discover massive fraud and corruption. A whistleblower leads the reporters down a trail towards Hexi Pharma and its owner, Dan Condrea. Protests and social upheaval follow, as the current politicians continue to spew lies. When tests prove unsterile hospitals due to diluted disinfectants, and that patients were denied or delayed transfers to proper facilities in Vienna or Germany due to pride and greed, outrage ensues ... leading to the ouster of Banicioiu and others.

Former patients' rights activist Vlad Voiculescu is named temporary Health Minister, and he permits total transparency by allowing director Nanau unfettered access to meetings and phone calls. The camera follows as reforms are instituted and Tolontan's research continues. It's stated with deep regret that, "Our healthcare system is rotten", and "We doctors are no longer human life. We only care about money." As more corruption and deception is uncovered, it's clear this was all about money, rather than healthcare.

Nanau's film would be powerful and memorable and important if he had remained focused on the work by the new Health Minister and the journalists, but it's elevated to brilliance by his inclusion of pieces on burn victims, especially Tedy Ursuleanu. Her severe burns left her head scarred and took one of her hands, yet she refused to cower or hide ... choosing instead to be photographed for all to see. It's such an affecting segment, and one that our mind won't soon forget. This is the rare documentary that also works as a political thriller. Rather than talking heads and a stream of interviews, we are invited into the world of journalists and reformists looking to right the wrongs. It's tense and emotional, and the outrage felt at the end is quite unpleasant and will stick with you. Those behind the corruption are described as "a nest of unscrupulous mobsters", and we can't help but wonder what happened to medical ethics and human morals. We witness these stories as they unfold and there may not be a better tribute to the importance of investigative journalism.
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7/10
You may begin
16 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. "And you may begin." Thanks to this documentary feature film from Michael Arlen Davis, we now know that 3.5 million high school students graduate each year, and 80% of them have taken a standardized college admission test at least once. The vast majority of those students experience anxiety and feel the pressure that comes with needing a certain score to have any chance at gaining admission to the school of their choice.

Why do these tests exist? What do they measure? How are scores used in the admissions process? How accurate are they in predicting academic success at the next level? These topics are discussed during the film through interviews with academics, tutors, parents, and students. Surprisingly, the professional tutors - or testing coaches - provide the most insight. Each has their own philosophy, but the key takeaway is that standardized tests don't evaluate what you know, but rather how you think and how well-prepared you are to take such a test.

Carl Brigham, a Princeton Professor of Psychology and member of the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society, is credited with creating the original SAT, though it's been re-designed a few times since. We hear from John Katzman, who founded the Princeton Review in 1986 as a business to teach and tutor students on how to best prepare for standardized tests. From there, many others, including private for-hire tutors have become part of this ever-expanding industry. This goes to the core of just how important test scores are viewed in the college admission process.

In 2001, Dr. Atkinson of the University of California system announced they were looking to drop the SAT from the admissions evaluation, and this year's COVID environment has pushed other systems and schools to consider alternative methods as well. It's pointed out that the tests are not dissimilar to IQ tests, yet most agree a test score is not an accurate measure of intelligence. Standardized tests are described as a "get the answer" test, and the better students hone this skill, the less anxiety or stress they feel, and the more options they'll have for advanced education ... or all of the above.
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7/10
Warren Report only
16 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Having spent much of my life in Dallas, the tragic events of November 22, 1963 have always played a role in my identity as a Texan. President Kennedy's assassination that day has carried the added burden of conspiracy theories and politicized commentary ... this in addition to the devastating emotional toll it took on the citizens of the United States. Co-directors Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman focus their attention on The Warren Report, the research conducted by the 7 appointed members of the committee, plus the affiliated attorneys and staff.

We see the archival clip of the Boston Symphony announcement of that day's assassination, and the reaction of the live audience as the conductor reveals the Funeral March from Beethoven's symphony is next up. It's effective as a reminder of the gut-punch felt by the populace, before the filmmakers' move towards a more analytical look at the findings by the commission. Vincent Bugliosi then informs us that it's the greatest murder case in world history, and also the most important and complex. Bugliosi (now deceased) was the lead prosecutor in the Charles Manson case, and he also acted as the prosecutor in a 1986 televised mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald - an event which led Bugliosi to write a detailed 2007 book entitled "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F Kennedy".

Four surviving staff members affiliated with the Warren Commission are interviewed on camera, as are other experts, authors, historians, and investigators. The "star" witnesses are Ruth Hyde Paine and Robert Blakey. Ms. Paine was a friend of Marina Oswald, and owned the house where Marina lived at the time of the assassination. Mr. Blakey was Chief Counsel and Staff Director to the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations (1977-79), which investigated Kennedy's death. Among the other key contributors included here are author Patricia Johnson McMillan ("Marina and Lee"), Kennedy expert Judge Brendan Sheehan, CIA historian David Robarge, and Sound/Acoustics investigator Steve Barber.

While acknowledging, and not shying away from, the numerous conspiracy theories that have been floated in regards to the assassination, it's important to understand that the focus here is on the report filed by the Warren Commission. It could even be categorized as having the goal of proving its accuracy. It's noted that Chief Justice Earl Warren directed everyone associated with the commission that, "your only client is the truth". We are informed that the multitude of conspiracy theories have cumulatively accused 12 groups, 82 assassins, and hundreds of co-conspirators. The commission interviewed 552 witnesses, and those involved remain adamant that their research and work was neither tainted nor politicized.

A high level history lesson is worked in between the interviews, often tying in to the portion of the report being discussed. These segments include: the assassination attempt on General Walker, Oswald's pro-Castro work in New Orleans, the 'grassy knoll', the pristine bullet, Jack Ruby (including some background on him), and of course, the Zapruder film ... where the pertinent frames are analyzed. There is an interesting segment on the Police Audio and how it was remarkably released via Gallery Magazine (a publication for adults). Discussion of Operation Mongoose, the CIA plot to overthrow communism in Cuba, including the killing of Fidel Castro may or may not be news to viewers, and there is even mention of Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, JFK.

Included among those who have been accused of orchestrating the assassination are Cuba, the Soviet Union, organized crime, the FBI, and the CIA. Those involved specifically reference the cover-ups perpetrated by those latter two federal agencies. Did these hinder the investigations and impact the final report? Whether you subscribe to one or more of the conspiracy theories, one would be hard-pressed to not at least acknowledge that the citizenry's distrust of government was amplified during this time, and nothing since has calmed the waters. Kwait's and Stegman's film is undoubtedly the best film breakdown of the Warren Report, though it's unlikely to change the minds of those who prefer a conspiracy.
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Antebellum (2020)
5/10
a twisty contrast
14 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. This is the movie for anyone unaware that racism was prevalent during the Civil War, and still continues to this day. Of course anyone fitting that description is likely enjoying their life in a cave, and is clueless that movies exist. It even goes as far to "inform" us that slaves were abused, tortured, and lynched, while today racism can take the more subtle form of a less desirable restaurant table or a concierge with an attitude. However, while the message may be unnecessary and too obvious, the originality and creative approach of filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz is commendable, especially for their first feature film.

An uninterrupted extended take kicks off the movie, and shows us the lay of the land at a cotton plantation where the slaves are controlled by confederate soldiers. When an attempted escape goes wrong, the brutality of the soldiers is on display. One of the slaves is Eden, played by Janelle Monae. She's the favorite of the General (Eric Lange, seen recently in two popular cable mini-series, "Escape at Dannemora" and "Perry Mason"), and he literally brands her as his property. Many of the sequences are difficult to watch as the cruelty and abuse is not sugar-coated.

When we next see Ms. Monae wake up from a dream, she's living in a swanky home with a perfect husband (Marque Richardson) and cute daughter. She's now Veronica, a well-known author and speaker who is living the American dream. A night on the town with her friends played by Gabourey Sidibe (Oscar nominated for PRECIOUS, 2009) and Lily Cowles purposefully comes across like it's from a different movie altogether. It's this contrast the filmmakers use to deliver their M Night Shyamalan style twist. Afterwards, it's wheels-off for the movie, but we are able to assemble the pieces of what we've seen to this point.

Jena Malone and Jack Huston also play key roles here, but it's Ms. Monae who gets the majority of the screen time, and mostly nails both Eden and Veronica. Although much of the film and story seems exaggerated and over-played, cinematographer Pedro Luque (THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB, 2018) delivers a beautifully shot film, so it always looks good, regardless of what else we might be thinking. Filmmakers Bush and Renz likely have much more nuanced and effective storytelling in their future, and we do expect Ms. Monae to take the step from supporting roles to leads. She's earned it.
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7/10
a frequent occurrence
13 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Alika Maikau effectively captures a heart-breaking and tense scene that has played out in most every community across the globe. A young man pulls up in front of a school and tells a waiting student that his mom sent him for pick-up. The boy is suspicious, but not alarmed.

It's immediately obvious from the banter between man and boy that they know each other, however it requires the full 9 minute run time before we understand the full picture. Kainoa (Holden Mandrial-Santos) is desperately trying to connect with the younger Jonathan (Austin Tucker in his first on screen appearance). Generational difference are clear through the boy's cell phone video games and the unfamiliar-to-the-other catchphrases each uses. The boy puts on a show of toughness for the man, trying his best to show independence and strength ... not an easy task when you can't fix your own broken flip-flop, and your defensive shield fades over a bag of red licorice.

When Jonathan's mother (Danielle Zalopany) arrives on the scene, the pieces come together and we fully understand the emotions. "He's my boy too" is a phrase that carries the weight of all three involved. Excellent filmmaking with touches of Hawaiian culture.
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Ammonite (2020)
7/10
a rock of hope
12 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz injected "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" (1966) with downtrodden Charlie repeating the line, "I got a rock" after each house on the trick or treat trail. It was funny because no one would rather have a rock than candy, right? Well, maybe no one except Mary Anning, the 19th century English fossil collector and paleontologist whose story is at the core of writer-director Francis Lee's (GOD'S OWN COUNTRY, 2017) new film. His latest film has received some backlash due to the fictionalized approach it takes with her personal life.

Oscar winner (plus 6 other nominations) Kate Winslet stars as Mary Anning, and we first find with her living a quiet life of near solitude in Lyme Regis, a sea side town in West Dorset, England. Having never received her deserved recognition from the scientific community for her discoveries, Mary cares for her mother (Gemma Jones, who also played Winslet's mother in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, 1995), an elderly woman burdened with having watched 8 of her 10 children die before her. They eke out a living peddling the stones Mary finds and polishes to tourists. Mary rarely speaks and her face shows the wear and tear of a mostly joyless life.

One day, Rodrick Murchison (James McArdle, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, 2018) drops into the shop. As a fellow scientist, he is aware of and interested in Mary's work. He condescendingly introduces his wife Charlotte (4 time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) as suffering from "melancholia". When Charlotte falls ill, Rodrick asks Mary to look after her while he continues his travels. Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secareneau, AMULET, 2020) examines Charlotte and recommends rest and sea air. He also takes notice of Mary, an occurrence to which she pays little mind.

The contrast between Charlotte and Mary is not limited to age and class. They aren't particularly fond of each other initially, though Mary slowly nurses her back to health. The two ladies finally connect over a heavy rock half-buried in sea wall sediment. The evolution of their relationship is slow, but thanks to the two outstanding actors, it's quite something to watch. Ms. Winslet is particularly affecting as the woman beaten down by life and reluctant to allow any glimmer of hope. We see this in her interaction with neighbor Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a woman with whom there was a previous bond. The old saying goes, "opposites attract", and here the two opposites, Mary and Charlotte, bring out the best in each other.

The skilled actors never allow the film to slide into melodrama, and instead offer two occasions where unbridled emotion jump off the screen. A passionate and liberating love scene is the first, and then a later re-connection provides the second. Mostly, Mary forces herself to conceal her rare happiness - we wonder if this is due to her belief it won't last, or if it's because she feels unworthy. Either way, it's quite something to watch Ms. Winslet allows us to sense what's she's experiencing inside.

Music from Voker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran never overpowers the moment, and the extremely talented cinematographer Stephane Fontaine works his magic. His previous work includes: JACKIE (2016), ELLE (2016), CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016), RUST AND BONE (2012), A PROPHET (2009), all beautifully filmed. Filmmaker Lee's controversial dramatic license with the relationship is apparently done to better explain Mary Anning's life, and it's likely the first film where new acquaintances connect in a deep way thanks to the unearthing of a unique rock. Filming took place in Lyme Regis, the actual town where Mary Anning collected fossils in the 1800's.
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Dreamland (I) (2019)
6/10
outlaw on the run
12 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. Outlaws on the run have been fertile ground for movies over the years, and young director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and writer Nicolas Zwart give the genre their best shot (pun intended). The easiest comparisons are probably Sam Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY (1972), Jonathan Demme's SOMETHING WILD (1986), and Arthur Penn's Oscar nominated classic BONNIE AND CLYDE (1969). However, given the style of this film, Terrence Malick's BADLANDS (1973) was likely more of an influence for the filmmakers.

Phoebe Evans (as voiced by Lola Kirke, GONE GIRL, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke) is our narrator, and from 1955 she recounts the story of her half-brother Eugene. Most of what she tells takes place twenty years earlier - 1935 Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression. Finn Cole ("Animal Kingdom") stars as Eugene, and we pick up a few years after his dad left the family behind and headed for what he expected would be an easier life in Mexico. Mother Elizabeth (Kerry Condon, "Breaking Bad") is now re-married to local Deputy George Evans (Travis Fimmel, LEAN ON PETE) and his bad haircut, and they now have a young daughter Phoebe (the magical smile of Darby Camp, THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES). Eugene reads Detective stories and mostly tries to stay out of George's way, while Phoebe is a curious little sister, easily the most intelligent of the lot.

One fateful day, Eugene's beloved detective stories come to life. After a local bank robbery turns violent, he discovers Allison Wells (two-time Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, I TONYA) hiding in his barn, with a bullet in her leg. Despite the $10,000 reward on her head, Allison sweet talks young Eugene into keeping her whereabouts secret, and helping her plot an escape. She swears she didn't kill anyone and rationalizes the bank robbery by blaming the government for letting people suffer hard times. Eugene may or may not buy her story, but he recognizes this is the most excitement he's likely to ever have in his life ... plus, he's smitten.

During the first half of the film, we follow Eugene as he helps Allison and holds the secret. When the second half kicks in, we find ourselves along for the ride as the two are on the run from the law, including Eugene's stepfather George. Along the way director Joris-Peyrafitte includes some flashbacks to the botched bank robbery giving us a look at Allison's "Clyde", Perry Montroy (played by Garrett Hedlund). There are also numerous artsy flashes of coastline, supposedly representing Allison and Eugene's landing spot should they escape. Of course, we know where this is headed - a shootout finale. Filmed in New Mexico, we do get the feel of the hard life fought by those during this era, including the powerful and devastating dust storms that require gas masks to prevent suffocation. The film is watchable thanks to the performances and atmosphere, though it's not at the level of similar type movies listed earlier.
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Lie Exposed (2019)
6/10
peep
9 November 2020
Greetings again from the darkness. The fine line of demarcation between "art" and pornography is one of society's longest-running debates. "I know it when I see it" was made official in 1964 by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a case where the subjective categorization of obscenity was on trial. Of course the obvious problem with that definition is that everyone "sees it" differently. Director Jerry Ciccoritti ("Schitt's Creek") presents a film version of Jeff Kober's stage play "Pornography". Mr. Kober, a veteran actor, also appears here as a key character.

Leslie Hope stars as Melanie, our lead character and narrator. Melanie is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and her reaction to that affects her marriage, her sobriety, her friends, and results in a controversial art exhibit. That art exhibit acts as a framing device and structure for a film that is mostly various vignettes assembled together in a somewhat related, yet haphazard manner. We initially witness Melanie's anxiety over opening night, and the reason for her trepidation is slowly revealed ... the exhibit is set up as a peep show of the tintype photographs taken of her vagina. Yep, the worst possible news from the doctor led her to expose her lady parts, while also falling into the stereotypical lustful affair with the photographer (played by writer Kober).

We watch as each of her invited friends take a glimpse at the photographs. It's not until the closing credits that we see Melanie the way they see Melanie, but the ensuing conversations tell us what we need to know. Each of the attending couples and friends gets their own dedicated segment preceded by their own tintype photograph. These cool retro photographs were the highlight to this viewer. However the focus of the film is how each person reacts to the exhibit and how it impacts their own relationship, most of which seem teetering on the brink of collapse. After each vignette, we are returned to the exhibit's opening night, and also get additional color on Melanie's search for meaning in life.

The characters we briefly get to know include Melanie's husband Frank (Bruce Greenwood), who seems impossibly patient and understanding, given the situation. A substantial portion of their conversations occur over the phone while Frank sits alone in their bedroom (or even asleep). Others we meet: Mickey (Kristin Lehman), an alcoholic middle-aged party girl, Jerry (Daniel Maslany, brother of Tatiana), the acting DJ and AA member under sponsor Frank, Diane (Megan Follows), Tom (Kris Holden-Reid), Brian (David Hewlett), and married couple Betsy (Grace Lynn Kung) and Gregg (Benjamin Ayres), who air entirely too many grievances for our comfort.

Alcoholism and AA are referenced throughout the film, and Mickey even spouts, "Alcoholism is a good idea taken too far." A misplaced debate on the best rock and roll drummer falls flat, but at least offers a momentary reprieve from the non-stop chatter on sex and vaginas. Obviously the title has dual meanings, and what the film does best is reinforce the need for art to spark conversation, debate and reflection.
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Jungleland (2019)
6/10
Dream Baby Dream
9 November 2020
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. We've rarely seen more improvement from an actor than what we've witnessed on screen from Charlie Hunnam in his nearly 25 year career. His work was particularly strong in James Gray's LOST CITY OF Z (2017), and he builds on that here as the older brother filled with dreams of a better life. Writer-director Max Winkler (FLOWER, 2017, and son of Henry) co-wrote the script with Theodore Bressman and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST, 2017), and while it has a 'seen this before' vibe, we remain engaged throughout.

Hunnam stars as Stanley, the visionary who manages the underground boxing career of his brother Lion (Jack O'Connell, UNBROKEN, 2014). Lion is quiet and reserved, while Stanley thinks talking is the key to life. We don't get the full back story on the brothers, but enough to know that Stanley has made an endless stream of bad decisions that have left the brothers squatting in a deserted foreclosed house in Massachusetts that requires them to sneak in and out of windows for access. Preaching a belief in "fate", Stanley gushes about their future, which he envisions as a beautiful house in California and tailored Italian clothes.

In a scene that we assume has occurred numerous times, Stanley finds himself unable to pay the $2000 he owes his crime boss Pepper, played by Jonathan Majors. Rather than kill Stanley, Pepper offers him the kind of deal that seems too good to be true. All the Kaminsky brothers have to do is drive Sky (Jessica Barden) across the country to Reno, where they are to deliver her to Yates (John Cullum). At this point, we only know enough about Yates to understand that he's not an upstanding citizen. If the brothers manage to execute this "simple" task, Pepper will ensure that Lion is added to the list of fighters of "Jungleland", a bare-knuckles, no-holds-barred fight in San Francisco where the Grand Prize is $100,000. Stanley sees this as a much better alternative than being killed, and Lion agrees to go along with the plan.

What follows is a road trip with the Kaminsky brothers, their Whippet dog Ash, and Sky, the mysterious young lady whose minimal dialogue masks intentions that don't necessarily mesh with the mission of trip. On the road, Stanley makes a few more less-than-brilliant decisions, while Lion and Sky bond ... or do they? Regardless, things get challenging and obstacles appear everywhere. Once Yates appears, it's a joy to behold 90 year old Jack Cullum ("Northern Exposure") as he tears into the role of tough guy.

Mr. Winkler's film actually has very little fighting in it, especially when compared to Gavin O'Connor's outstanding 2011 film, WARRIOR. Instead, this is about brotherly love and the ties that bind (although so was O'Connor's film). Surprisingly, the soundtrack features Bruce Springsteen singing "Dream Baby Dream", and we do learn how to dress a knife wound with duct tape.
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