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The Mustang (2019)
7/10
man and horse figure it out
21 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. A herd of wild horses frolic and gallop and relax in the prairies that separate majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Suddenly the peace being enjoyed by the horses is interrupted by the deafening noise of a helicopter above. The purpose of the helicopter is to push the herd towards the corral and trucks that are part of the round-up. An opening title card informs us that more than 100,000 wild horses roam the U.S. countryside and the government is only able to manage a small percentage. Part of that process involves therapy for prisoners ... an obvious analogy being the two wild beings try to tame each other. When the prisoners have trained the horses, an auction is held, and many of the animals will be used in law enforcement - an irony not dwelled upon here.

Roman Coleman is a guilt-riddled man. A man of short fuse and violent ways. He readily admits to the prison psychologist (Connie Britton) that "I'm not good with people." After 12 years in isolation, he's been transferred to general population and he seems pretty indifferent about it. His guilt is the type that only a split-second violent outburst can saddle one with - though we don't hear the specifics until late in the film. The psychologist assigns him to "outdoor maintenance" which is a fancy institutional term for, well, shoveling horse manure.

As he observes the rehabilitation program, where the convicts train the wild mustangs under the tutelage of crusty old horse trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), Roman is drawn to the wildest of the wild ... a mustang kept in a dark stall and labeled untrainable. The parallels to Roman himself are obvious, and soon head trainer Myles and fellow convict Henry (Jason Mitchell, MUDBOUND) have invited Roman into the program. It's here where man and horse prove how similar their temperaments are - they both react with anger to most any situation. After a particularly cruel and unfortunate outburst, Roman is back to solitary confinement and studying up on horses.

Writer-director Laure de Claremont-Tonnerre co-wrote the story with Mona Fastvold and Brock Norman Brock (BRONSON). It's the director's first feature film and she shows a real knack for pacing ... letting the uncomfortable scenes between man and horse breathe and play out. Speaking of uncomfortable, when Roman's pregnant daughter Martha (rising star Gideon Adlon, BLOCKERS) shows up to get his signature on a form so that she can run off with her boyfriend, the history and lack of commonality between the two is palpable. Their scenes together are excruciating. Sure this is a cliché-filled concept, but the director and especially the cast keep us glued to the screen and caring about what happens.

Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Roman, and it's yet another stellar performance from the actor who exploded onto the movie screen with BULLHEAD (2011) and RUST AND BONE (2012). Since then, it's been one terrific turn after another. His physical presence and soulful eyes convey so much. He has mastered the strong silent type, but here he expertly uses body language to communicate with both the horse and the audience. The drug-dealing sub-plot appears to have been included to remind us just how dangerous a prison yard can be, but we never lose sight of the pain involved with second chances and learning to be a better person. There are some similarities to two excellent 2018 movies, LEAN ON PETE and THE RIDER, but this first time filmmaker wisely lets her talented cast do their thing, as she complements their work through cinematographer Ruben Impens' (BEAUTIFUL BOY) fabulous work up close and with expansive vistas. Robert Redford was an Executive Producer on the film, so the beauty of the area is not surprising. The film allows emotions to play out right through the final shot.
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Gloria Bell (2018)
7/10
Julianne Moore shines and sings
21 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Having previously mentioned my general annoyance at the frequency of which the 'Americanization' of World Cinema projects occur, I was initially dismayed to hear about the remake of the excellent Chilean film GLORIA. That 2013 featured a terrific performance from Paulina Garcia, and provided a grounded look at life of a single woman of a certain age. However, when it was announced that the American version would be directed by Sebastian Lelio, who also directed the earlier version, and that it would star Julianne Moore in the lead role, the idea became much more palatable.

Oscar winner (and 4 time nominee) Julianne Moore has been one of our more interesting actors since she jumped off the screen (in a supporting role) in 1992's THE HAND THAT ROCKED THE CRADLE. She's now approaching 60 years of age, and is a true master at capturing the essence of a character. She brings Gloria Bell to life in the most believable and grounded manner possible. Rather than a movie caricature, Gloria is a real woman. She plugs away at her daily work in the insurance business. She belts out the songs on the radio as she drives her car. She gets annoyed at the stray cat who sneaks into her apartment. She smokes and drinks. She tries to be part of her adult kids' lives. She tries to ignore, but ultimately reports the loud noises from her upstairs neighbor to her landlord. She loves dancing in clubs with men she doesn't know, or even alone. In conclusion, Gloria lives her life.

Much of the film focuses on the odd developing relationship Gloria has with Arnold (John Turturro). Their eyes meet across the dance floor, spend some time chit-chatting, and soon, his Velcro-back brace is being ripped off. As with many folks, Arnold's baggage is more burden than history. He seems to be in an unhealthy marriage with ultra-dependent grown daughters and a wife who can't get through a day without his help. The cell phone ring becomes a running gag ... one Gloria finds little humor in.

Supporting work is provided by Sean Astin (a Las Vegas mistake), Brad Garrett (Gloria's ex), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Garrett's new wife), and Holland Taylor (Gloria's mom). Each of these characters get a brief sub-story, as do Gloria's grown kids, played by Michael Cera and Caren Pistorius. With the son's marriage in shambles, and the daughter heading to Sweden to live with a man, Gloria experiences the trials and tribulations of life while still looking for meaning and companionship ... each a search worth pursuing.

Alice Johnson Boher adapted the screenplay for this version from the original by director Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza. She refrains from the usual American melodrama or corniness, and instead delivers something to which the actors and viewers can easily relate. The fine line between independence and loneliness is in a delicate balance, and one that's deftly handled here. And of course, there are scenes that are elevated thanks to the brilliance of Julianne Moore's performance. All in all, fans of GLORIA will not be disappointed ... just lay off the post-yoga cigarette.
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5/10
a dancing Skarsgard is not enough
21 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. More. Better. Faster. Most industries have those goals, and this story from French-Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen focuses on high-frequency stock traders ... particularly a race between two competitive firms to cut one millisecond off the processing time. We learn that one millisecond is roughly one flap of a hummingbird wing (hence the film's title).

We also learn that one millisecond can translate into hundreds of millions in profits, which is why cousins Vincent and Anton walk away from their jobs at the Eva Torres brokerage firm to pursue their dream of shaving that single millisecond. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking visionary and deal-maker, while Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the computer programming whiz. Yes, you read that correctly. Sex symbol Skarsgard ("True Blood", "Big Little Lies") plays a paunchy, balding, computer nerd with zero social skills. He also delivers the film's most enjoyable dance moves ... it's a moment to which any programmer can relate.

If any of the above (other than Anton's dance) seems the least bit exciting or enticing, you should know that the bulk of the film deals with the digging and drilling (there's even a montage) required to lay the fiber optic cable that will allow this extra-quick data delivery. Their plan is to tunnel from Kansas City to New Jersey in a perfectly straight line. Because of this, we get conversations with homeowners, conversations with Amish, conversations with drilling experts, and conversations with those who want this to happen, and those who don't. Have you ever thought about drilling through a granite mountain that is located in the middle of a park? Neither have I, and I wouldn't have thought of it again if not for writing this review.

To clarify, this is a story that seems like it could be true, but isn't. Most of the screen time is devoted to either underground drilling, computer programming, or intellectual property. And while I'm sure each of these categories have their fans, most will agree the transfer to cinema does not come off especially entertaining. In fact, it's so dry that the filmmaker felt the need to include a cancer sub-plot in hopes that we might find Vincent a bit more appealing as a character. It should be noted that since his Oscar nomination for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mr. Eisenberg has displayed a remarkable lack of variation in the roles he's chosen and characters he's played. At this point, we mostly just find him annoying, rather than brilliant or even mildly interesting.

Salma Hayek plays Eva Torres, former boss of the cousins, and now laser-focused in not letting the boys win. Ms. Hayek is given relatively little screen time, and is portrayed as the villain ... although her goals are no different than Vincent's and Anton's. Michael Mando plays Mark Vega, the partner and drilling expert the boys choose to project manage this undertaking. Mr. Mando is best known as Nacho from both "Better Call Saul" and "Breaking Bad". Ayisha Issa brings a momentary jolt to the proceedings as a mountain driller, but the film simply drags when neither Mr. Skarsgard nor Ms. Hayek are on screen.

Technology is a very difficult topic to make visually entertaining. I'm not talking about the high-tech special effects that go into making the wildly successful superhero movies that are so popular these days. No, I'm referring to actual technology ... programming and data analysis. The list of technology-focused films includes: SNEAKERS, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, OFFICE SPACE, HACKERS, WAR GAMES, SWORDFISH, and THE IMITATION GAME. The best of these understood that the story around the technology was more vital than the actual programming being done. And all of them were wise enough to avoid drilling and digging. Then again, none of the others featured a dancing Skarsgard.
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7/10
Rising star Haley Lu shines again
15 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. The all-too-familiar sick/dying teenager genre is frequently associated with Lifetime Channel movies or something of that ilk. What sets this one apart (and above) many in the slew of similarly themed movies is the script, and more so, two outstanding lead performances. Director Justin Baldoni is best known as an actor and director of TV projects, but he (mostly) handles the script from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis quite well.

Rising star Haley Lu Richardson (COLUMBUS, SPLIT) plays Stella, a teenager who has been dealing with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) her entire life. When we first meet her, she has checked back in to the hospital for a "tune-up". Despite her breathing struggles and medical issues, Stella is a shining light of optimism who is friendly with the entire hospital staff and other patients. She's also OCD and maintains a strict regimen on her meds in hopes of hanging on long enough for the holy grail - a lung transplant, or ultimately a miracle cure for this death sentence disease. Stella maintains two to-do lists: one for the day, and another for her bucket list. She also runs a YouTube channel where she educates us on what it's like living with CF.

On one of her frequent visits to the hospital nursery to watch the newborn babies, Stella crosses paths with Will (Cole Sprouse), a more cynical CF patient who has B cepacia form - so deadly that sufferers aren't included on the lung transplant list. In contrast to Stella, Will wonders if the hassle of treatment is worth the pain and inconvenience, when so little hope is present. CF patients are required to don gloves, masks, and oxygen packs. One rule that must not be broken is to maintain at least a 6 foot distance at all times between themselves and any other CF patient. The risk of passing along their specific mixture of bacteria is simply too great.

'Opposites attract' is in play here as Stella and Will share only one trait, and it's a bond where being too close could literally kill one or both of them. These are smart and interesting characters who understand there are no "happily ever afters" in their future. We are along for the ride as they learn more about each other. Will is a talented sketch artist with a wicked sense of humor in his cartoons, while Stella carries a special burden of putting others at ease while focusing on the present and looking to the future, thanks to the exploits of her beloved older sister Abby (Sophia Bernard).

Other supporting actors include Claire Forlani as Will's mother, Parminder Nagra (BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) as the doctor, Kimberly Hebert Gregory as the strict and caring Nurse Barb, and Moises Arias as Poe, a witty gay teenager and fellow CF patient, who has been friends with Stella since they were young kids. As the romance blooms for Stella and Will, there are some too-familiar moments and a couple of lame musical interludes with slow-motion ... but there are also some terrific and heartfelt scenes. In particular, a pool cue at the pool is extraordinarily tender and romantic.

The film teases us a few times with assumptions, but the theme of human touch is ever-present. For CF patients, is love selfish or is it an inherent need? 'The lights are like stars' is a nice touch that explains how this disease forces these folks to think a little differently and find joy in the moment ... yet still keep their distance. Sure, Ms. Richardson (a bona fide star in the making) and Mr. Sprouse are a bit too old to be playing teenagers, but their talent allows us to take in the layers here with the disease and the limitations on life. The film has plenty of laughs and plenty of tears (bring your tissue) as we watch a heartfelt romance while also learning some of the challenges facing the 30,000 CF patients in the U.S.
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Climax (I) (2018)
5/10
hypnotic or horrific depending on your taste
15 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. A wounded, bleeding, hysterical woman is seen crawling through the snow. She's not dressed appropriately for the weather, and it's apparent she's suffered some type of trauma. This opening shot is from a bird's eye view, and it's the way provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noe (LOVE, ENTER THE VOID) opens his latest film. This vivid visual sticks with us as we flashback to the progression of events that led to this woman's unfortunate circumstance ... her situation being the conclusion to what we are about to watch.

The initial dance sequence is shown in full and it is quite stunning in its energy and physicality and athleticism. As best I could tell, it was a single long take with dancers writhing and music thumping, both in frenetic mode. Much of each dancer's personality is depicted in their movements, and the video interviews we see as part of their audition reveal a culturally diverse group of young adults unsure of where this is headed. We are watching a troupe of mid-1990's French dancers rehearsing in a large, otherwise empty facility on a snowy night, and we too are unprepared for what's about to unfold.

After that initial performance, the dancers begin mingling as the camera takes us inside the various conversations. Lust, jealousy, and insecurities fill the air as the choreographed energy we first watched in awe slowly disintegrates into a bizarre type of hand-to-hand combat ... some psychological, some more physical/violent in nature. The dancers are slipping from sanity, unsure if it's temporary or possibly deadly. One of them traces their spinning head (not literal) and unexplained sensations to the Sangria punch - leading to some angry confrontations and outrageous behavior.

While none of the individual performances really stand out ... this is not a film about certain interesting characters ... it should be noted that Sofia Boutella (HOTEL ARTEMIS) plays Selva, the dance company's choreographer, and Kiddy Smile plays Daddy, the DJ who keeps the music pumping. Watching the movie is truly like observing a group acid trip through the eyes of someone on an acid trip. The camera is sometimes invading intimate moments, while other times hovering or wildly spinning above or below. Sometimes it felt like a GoPro was strapped to a frantic parakeet that had just been set free from its cage.

Combining the camera work with the constant thundering of music, some might describe the film as hypnotic and hallucinatory (I prefer horrific). While most of the dancers seem to lose all sense of reality, some react more violently than others. Hysterics run rampant, especially in a sequence where a young boy is locked in a utility closet by his mother. Whether the scene was for shock value or merely in keeping with the filmmaker's demented approach is unclear - either way, this came across as too much on top of too much. Simply put, the film is a relentless assault on the eyes and ears and all sense of decency ... just as Gaspar Noe likely intended.
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Mission of Honor (II) (2018)
5/10
heroes should have been in the parade
14 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. The true story of the Polish fighter pilots who helped the Royal Air Force (RAF) win the Battle of Britain in WWII is certainly fascinating and deserves telling. However, the budget constraints are a hindrance to this production, and though the story gets told, it's missing the visual flair we've come to expect. It's the first screenplay from co-writers Robert Ryan and Alastair Galbraith, and together with director David Blair, they all seem to understand the historical importance of the story and those involved.

The film begins in 1940 German occupied France, and this is where we first see Zumbach (played by Iwan Rheon), on his way to meet up with his fellow Polish pilots in England. Poland had only been a free standing country for about 20 years at this time, and these men were committed to salvaging their country ... even if this meant fighting with the RAF against Germany. Initially the arrogance of British commanders borders on racism, as it's assumed the Polish fighters don't compare to the elite Royal Air Force pilots. Once stationed in Northolt under Kentowski (Milo Gibson, Mel's son), Squadron 303 begins to take shape flying Hurricanes, disproving most of the preconceptions of British brass and pilots; although their success does cause some jealousy in the ranks over the prowess of the Polish pilots.

The less than stellar CGI used for the dogfights is a bit distracting, especially since there is only minimal character development. Polish fighter ace Witold Urbanowicz (played by Dorcin Morocinski) is idolized, but we learn very little about the man outside of flashbacks of his family in war torn Poland. There is a budding romance with Zumbach and Phyllis Lambert (Stephanie Martini), but quite a few assumptions must be made to take us to their final sequence. The character of Ms. Lambert is the standout female role here, and though she's given a few quality scenes, it's her shock of blonde hair that seems to stand out most.

The film concludes in 1946 London with the victory parade for King George VI. Despite Polish pilots helping immensely in the RAF victory in the Battle of Britain, no Polish pilots marched with the Allied forces. As a bitter Zumbach states, "we wouldn't want to offend %&*$ing Stalin." Squadron 303 was the highest scoring squadron of RAF during the war, and it's unforgivable how the British viewed Polish casualties as mere numbers, despite the dead being friends and countrymen to the Polish pilots. This is overall a respectful approach to a key historical story, and one in which all Polish people should take pride.
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7/10
stunning environment
14 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Some writers struggle with how to end their story. In this case, writer-director Felix Randau had his ending served up in newspaper headlines almost 30 years ago, and his challenge was to come up with an interesting beginning and middle (as well as meaning for the ending). In 1991, at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, a body was discovered. Originally thought to be a missing hiker, it was determined instead to be a 5300 year old Neolithic man. Thanks to the ice, he was well-preserved along with his clothes, tools, and supplies.

Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman since he was found in the Otztal Alps (Italy), some basic information could be derived about his existence and death. Filmmaker Randau then created a fictional account of his final days, speculating on and imagining the life he led. German actor Jurge Vogel stars as Kelab (Otzi the Iceman), and we get our first glimpse of native Neolithic life in the community of his clan. The mother of his child dies giving birth, and we see Kelab display a magical box used as a shrine of worship to pay respect. The contents of the box are not revealed until near the end of the film.

While Kelab is out hunting for food, the village is violently attacked. The invasion kills most of the inhabitants and destroys their homes and supplies. Kelab takes the surviving infant child with him as he sets off to seek revenge. As he tracks those who attacked, we see him balance his incredibly strong survival instincts with his emotional need for revenge. Another community led by the legendary Franco Nero offers Kelab a place to rest and a safe haven for the infant child that couldn't possibly make the trek that lies ahead for his father. The scenery is breathtaking and environment treacherous.

Very little dialogue is spoken, and what there is must be interpreted by the situation. The filmmakers and researchers decided on an early form of Rhaetian for the film, so unless you are a world renowned linguist, you'll likely have to join the bulk of viewers in interpreting meaning. Mr. Vogel is quite believable in his performance ... at times we forget he's an actor rather than the Neolithic man he's portraying.

The costumes and makeup are excellent and realistic, while the setting, scenery and environment (nature) are the true co-star. We feel the cold and grasp the harsh conditions. This was a violent life ... typically out of necessity, yet sometimes out of emotion. QUEST FOR FIRE (not CAVEMAN) and the brutal elements of THE REVENANT (without the bear) are recalled; however, Mr. Randau's dramatized account of Kelab's last days in pursuit of vengeance are a perfect fit for this coldest of all cold cases. Otzi the Iceman's preserved mummy can be viewed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
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Alice (II) (2019)
6/10
doing what's necessary
11 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. So much trust goes into a marriage. We try to choose someone we can imagine growing old with, and also whose morals are in line with our own ... especially if raising kids is part of the plan. Of course sometimes things don't work out as hoped, and writer-director Josephine Mackerras shows us what happens when things go horribly wrong - when the person we have trusted is so drastically different than the person we believed them to be.

Alice (Emilie Piponnier) and Francois (Martin Swabey) appear to be a normal wife and husband raising a cute little boy named Jules. Alice is a beautiful and caring person, whose goodness shines through in her smile. Francois is the charming type who recites literary passages at dinner parties before planting a passionate kiss on his wife in front of everyone at the table. One day, Alice's credit card is declined which leads her down the dark trail no one hopes to travel. Francois has maxed out the cards and emptied the bank account. Worse yet, their apartment is nearing foreclosure from lack of payments.

Further research leads Alice to Elegant Escorts and the realization that her beloved husband has been leading a secret double life - one that has left her penniless with a young child. What happens next is quite surprising. Sweet Alice proves to be much tougher than she appears. After some terrible guidance from her mother, Alice takes control of the situation in order to save her home and provide for her son. Her friend and mentor in her new vocation is Lisa (Chloe Boreham), who offers tips and emotional support. This gets her through the clumsy and awkward initial attempts at carrying out her new duties. Soon she believes the plan is working and she'll be able to save her home, but alas, Francois reappears and complicates the situation.

This is the first feature film from Ms. Mackerras and the film is a Grand Jury prize nominee at SXSW. The obvious comparison here is to Louis Bunuel's masterpiece BELLE DE JOUR (1967) starring Catherine Deneuve, with the obvious difference being one character was bored and craved attention, while another was desperate to save her home. Self-discovery plays a role for both. The tagline for this film is: "She did everything right, until it all went wrong", and it's a reminder that often we find the inner strength needed during times of crisis. The film also offers up a nice moral of the story in noting the cleansing power of nature. It's a terrific little film that flashes significant talent from filmmaker Josephine Mackerras and lead actress Emilie Piponnier.
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I'm Not Here (I) (2017)
6/10
bravura Mr. Simmons
7 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. So many are haunted by the past - unable to move beyond either having been dealt a bad hand or having created one through their own actions. The film opens on a gaunt Steve (JK Simmons), alone in his apartment, and seemingly barely functioning. He is contemplating suicide with a shiny gun he keeps on a coffee table in a home as unkempt as himself. His only breaks are to frantically search the house for another bottle of vodka, or to listen to a phone message that kicks off yet another painful memory.

The film features three timelines for Steve: the despondent, suicidal elder; the twenties and thirties version (Sebastian Stan); and the 1960's childhood Stevie (Iain Armitage, "Young Sheldon"). Those young years for Stevie recall his always-annoyed mom (Mandy Moore) and his fun-loving dad (Max Greenfield), while the young adult years show us his romance and marriage with Karen (Maika Monroe). It's not long before we recognize the common thread that binds the timelines: alcoholism. First his dad's, then his own.

Our memories tend to return in moments and flashes of events. This becomes more evident and the memories less reliable when years of alcohol abuse are in play. The flashes include the courtroom and judge of his parents' divorce, his dad drinking, his own courting of Karen and the booze that accompanied it, the dissolution of his own marriage, and an unspeakable tragedy that ruined his life without taking it ... something he is looking to remedy with that gun.

JK Simmons is remarkable here. His Steve is mired in loneliness, depression, guilt, and regrets - each amplified through booze. Simmons' performance offers up not a single line of dialogue. He never leaves the apartment. He never has human interaction. Yet despite all of this, he never leaves our thoughts as he pinballs through his memories. Mr. Stan and Ms. Monroe provide the most telling scene outside of Simmons' segments. Notice the difference in demeanor as he tells her he heard the shot when his dad killed himself vs how she states her mother died from cancer. This is the contrast of moving on no matter what life serves up, or being burdened with that weight forever.

The film was directed by Mr. Simmons' wife Michelle Schumacher, and she co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Cummings (son of Emmy winning actor Robert Cummings). Mr. Cummings also appears as the judge in the divorce hearing. The film was originally shown in 2017, but is only now getting released. For fans of JK Simmons, it's a must see.
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6/10
Ferrante impact
7 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. "I publish to be read." Those are the words of Elena Ferrante, an Italian writer who is committed to having her work speak for itself. She has eschewed the celebrity status that typically accompanies best-selling authors. Where previously we have been intrigued by recluses like JD Salinger, Harper Lee, or even Howard Hughes, it's rare (unprecedented?) that we are speaking of absolute anonymity. With no public face whatsoever behind the pen name of so many successful books, director Giacomo Durzi flirts with the question, is it the mystery of the author or the author's work that drives interest?

It's somewhat ironic that a film focused on an author so adamant about avoiding the spotlight opens with a quote from one of the most recognizable names and voices on the planet. Hillary Clinton describes Ferrante's writing as "hypnotic", and claims to ration her time for reading the books. Of course when one chooses not to talk about their work, it leaves others to do so. Director Durzi serves up a lineup of editors and writers, plus a researcher/scholar and the translator of Ferrante's all-Italian writing. We learn that the fuse of globalization for Ms. Ferrante's work was lit by James Wood and his review in "The New Yorker". This global literary phenomenon exploded from there. Insight from writers Jonathan Franzen, Roberto Saviano, and Elizabeth Strout help us understand how these books have been so influential, impacting so many readers. A segment on the Italian Strega Prize for literature is fascinating, as it becomes clear that even her home country doesn't know how to handle her success.

Translator Ann Goldstein is interviewed, and even jokes about how unusual it is for a translator to become part of the story ... another example of how Ferrante's anonymity changes things. Ms. Goldstein is unapologetically a fan of the work and seems anxious to continue. Ms. Ferrante's own words drawn from her letters in "Frantumaglia" hover over the film as narration, but that's as close as we get to the real person.

Time Magazine lists her as one of the 100 most influential personalities, which is kind of funny since we don't know her personality other than through her writing. Durzi's film is not a search for the person or a quest to uncover the author's identity, as it's more of an exploration of the popularity and impact of her work. We can't help but wonder if other writers are more envious of her writing ability or of her ability to remain anonymous. Typically the former destroys any hope of the latter ... but not with Ferrante.
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6/10
origin story with 90's retro
6 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT"S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It's Marvel's first solo female superhero movie, and even though it's actually a prequel to what we've previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control ... see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.

In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990's, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90's era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls - who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.

The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film - her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria's daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.

The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak's score complemented the heavy 1990's rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.

Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we've seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It's an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time - even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It's fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.
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6/10
lacking thrills
1 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. I pity the poor soul who, based on the film's title, buys a ticket assuming it must be a light-hearted romantic-comedy starring Katherine Heigl. While we do watch a slow-building romance, this is much more of a road trip through parts of the world we don't usually see on screen. Writer-Director Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, THE TRIP) has had a solid career with movies that tend to be quite watchable, though not particularly memorable. Chalk up another.

The film opens in a subdued manner with a man (Dev Patel) meticulously packing a suitcase, boarding a plane, landing in Pakistan and renting a car. These are all things any of us might do if headed to a wedding. Only this mysterious man of few words also buys 2 guns, plastic ties and duct tape. Either this is going to be a honeymoon unlike any other, or he's on a different mission altogether. We don't have to wait long, as the night before the wedding, Patel sneaks past the armed security guard and into the family compound so that he can kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), the bride-to-be.

Mr. Patel plays a British Muslim man with various names and identities, and a supply of passports. He was hired by a shifty rich guy (Jim Sarbh) who loves Samira to prevent her from going through with the arranged marriage. The meet up gets delayed as the kidnapping and fallout make national news. The story evolves into a predictable and familiar road trip, but with a delightfully different setting and backdrop than what we are accustomed to. A train to Delhi plays a role with Samira and her kidnapper on the lam - working to remain anonymous.

The film does offer up some twists and turns for us, but after an intriguing first 15 minutes, we pretty much know where things are headed. Fortunately the camera work of Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (HELL OR HIGH WATER) keeps our attention, as does the back and forth between Dev Patel and Radhika Apte, two excellent performers. So yes, the film is one we can enjoy watching, though it will likely never come up in conversation.
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Mapplethorpe (2018)
6/10
a full look
1 March 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ondi Timoner goes head on (so to speak) with the story of Robert Mapplethorpe, the immensely talented and endlessly controversial photographer whose work in the 70's and 80's was often considered scandalous, if not pornographic. Ms. Timoner and star Matt Smith (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) are unflinching in this look at the artist, his personal life, and his work ... although I personally flinched a few times.

The opening scene is quite unusual as Mapplethorpe is shown alone in his small dorm room, attired in full Pratt Institute uniform, just prior to dropping out. We next see his NYC meet with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), and watch the two oddball youngsters connect. Their relationship develops as Robert shifts from drawing to photography, stating, "I'm an artist. I would have been a painter, but the camera was invented". The couple wriggles their way into the Chelsea Hotel and soon Mapplethorpe is focused on male nudes not just as artistic models, but also as personal pleasure. His interests send Patti Smith packing ... and understandably so.

Mapplethorpe's career takes off when Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey) becomes his benefactor and lover. Sam's connections in the art world lead to gallery shows and work that Robert might never have attained. The film never shies away from Mapplethorpe's daddy issues, his promiscuity, his drug use, or his intolerance of those who didn't "get" his work. His fascination with male genitalia in both art and personal life is on full display, as many of his actual photographs are shown throughout.

Once diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, his sexual irresponsibility probably should have been emphasized, but other than that, filmmaker Timoner never tries to sugar coat the man. He seemed to crave attention, yet so many wanted love from him - Patti Smith, Sam Wagstaff, his father (Mark Moses, "Mad Men"), and his brother (who worked with him), all tried to establish that bond, but things just never quite clicked.

Other fine supporting work is provided by Hari Nef, Mickey O'Hagan (TANGERINE), Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Brandon Sklenar. Mapplethorpe's story would likely be best handled via documentary, but Mr. Smith's performance is worthy of attention. The film does a nice job of relaying the two sides to Mapplethorpe's work - the provocative and the portraits. He took some iconic photos of celebrities including the cover of Patti Smith's debut album "Horses".

Ms. Smith's 2010 memoir "Just Kids" paints a more complete picture of their relationship, and it's interesting to note that although he died in 1989, Mapplethorpe's work continues to generate emotional responses. In fact, his work inspired a national debate about whether the government should fund the arts. Ms. Timoner's film has been well received at LGBTQ festivals, and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation is devoted to protecting and promoting his work, while raising millions of dollars for AIDS research. His legacy is much more than some black and white photographs of nude models.
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Greta (2018)
6/10
don't touch that purse
28 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. "Don't touch anything on the subway." That should be a warning posted in all New York City tourist brochures. Recent NYC transplant Frances didn't get the memo. She not only picks up a "lost" handbag, but also wants to personally return it to the rightful owner - despite the counseling of her streetwise roommate. Oscar winning director Neil Jordan (THE CRYING GAME) co-wrote the screenplay with Ray Wright, and they blend in many elements ... not the least of which is making friends with someone you shouldn't.

Chloe Grace Moretz plays Frances as the good-hearted Boston-raised girl who is almost too innocent to believe, given the day and age we are in. When Frances returns the purse, she is greeted warmly and appreciatively by a kindly Greta (Isabelle Huppert). The two bond over their individual loneliness: Greta says her daughter lives abroad, and Frances' mother passed away about a year ago. It's easy to see how a friendship forms through a substitute mother-daughter gap-filling.

An accidental discovery by Frances sends her out the door, intent on cutting ties with Greta. What Frances soon learns is that Greta is a crafty psychopath of the highest order. It's at this point where filmmaker Jordan kicks in the twisted, dark humor and serves us a cheap-thrills ride via a full blown stalker movie. Greta is truly deranged and once Ms. Huppert cuts loose, we see how much fun she's having. She even plays a piano teacher, which is kind of funny since she was also the piano teacher in THE PIANO TEACHER (2001). She becomes my first and favorite Liszt loving psychopath, who likely isn't as technologically challenged as she makes out.

There are stylistic and story elements reminiscent of movies like FATAL ATTRACTION and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and Jordan's camera angles and lighting combine with Javier Navarrete's score to dish up some B-movie type comically dark moments. Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS) is terrific as Frances' roommate. She's the direct type who tells Frances that "this city will eat you alive", but is also extremely supportive and protective (and good at yoga).

Stephen Rea and Colm Feore appear in limited roles, but the fun you have here is directly related to how you buy into the Greta vs Frances web. It's rare to see an onscreen female predator, but neither Mr. Jordan nor Ms. Huppert round off any edges. We are reminded that being nice doesn't always pay off, but having friends certainly does. There is some creepy evil fun to be had, as well as a key life lesson: never trust a woman with too many purses.
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Las herederas (2018)
7/10
expertise from Paraguay
28 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It would be a tight race to determine which is rarer: a Paraguayan film with distribution, or a movie centered on a middle-aged lesbian couple together for 30 years. The first feature film from writer-director Marcelo Martinessi is remarkable in its level of quiet, as everything that matters lies beneath the surface. Neither happiness nor sadness is particularly obvious at any given time.

Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) live in the capital city of Asuncion and are both from wealthy families. They are in the process of selling off family heirlooms from their large (and well worn) house due to the debt run up by Chiquita ... a debt that has her headed soon to jail after being found guilty of fraud. Chela, the introverted artist, is embarrassed and withdrawn by their situation, whereas the more affable and gregarious Chiquita takes it all in stride. We can't help but notice that the items being sold and this couple's relationship both seem relics of the past, trapped in a time warp.

Confinement and restrictions of movement play a role for both women. Obviously Chiquita is confined to jail, while the cave-like house surrounds Chela. Early on, we see further contrasts. Chiquita flourishes in jail, while Chela struggles with the placement of her coffee cup on the silver serving tray delivered by her maid (Nilda Gonzalez). In fact, the hiring of a maid is somewhat confounding to us - who does that while selling off furnishings to make ends meet?

Although Chela refuses help from the friends she has generously assisted over the years, circumstances are such that she kind of falls into a private uber-taxi business for the local ladies (doctor appointments, card games, funerals, etc). Chela slowly begins to discover living life again. After years of not driving, she's a bit nervous at first, but driving the car is her literal vehicle to a new life approach. Her jail visits with Chiquita are a bit awkward, but things turn for Chela when she meets and becomes enamored with Angy (Ana Ivanova). Angy is a lively woman who ignites interest and hope within Chela. As an object of desire, Angy excels ... turning Chela on to designer sunglasses and cigarettes.

All three lead actresses are relatively inexperienced, cinematically speaking; yet each delivers an exceptional performance. Ms. Irun is a stage veteran, while Ms. Ivanova has a terrific screen presence. Most remarkably, this is Ms. Brun's first movie role, and she excels as a quiet listener and silent observer through doorways. As she emerges from the shadows, her transformation offers hope, while still remaining cloaked in sadness. A more experienced actress might have instinctually offered up a more showy performance, though Ms. Brun's Chela is what keeps us mesmerized.

To call this film female-centric is an understatement. The few men are mere blurs on the screen. It's no wonder the film has been so well received at festivals, as the story, performances, music and camera work offer something a bit out of the norm. It was Paraguay's submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it would have fit quite comfortably with the final nominations.
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7/10
more Farhadi storytelling
21 February 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just click with the work of a particular filmmaker, and such is the case with Iranian-born Asghar Farhadi. From ABOUT ELLY (2009) to his two Oscar wins for Foreign Language films, the instant classic A SEPARATION (2011) and THE SALESMAN (2016), Mr. Farhadi has proven himself to be a terrific and distinct story teller. As an added bonus in this latest film, he works with cinematographer (and frequent Pedro Almodovar collaborator) Jose Luis Alcaine to take his visuals to a new level.

There is a playful and warm and familiar set-up before the switch is flipped. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has been living in Argentina with her husband Alejandro, teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Ivan Chavero), and has returned to her hometown outside of Madrid for her younger sister Ana's (Inma Cuesta, THE BRIDE) wedding. Laura's husband Alejandro did not make the trip, and that plays a role deeper in the story. Hugs and kisses are exchanged amongst some of the most attractive people you'll see on screen as family and friends are reunited ... including Laura and local vineyard owner Paco (Javier Bardem), who share a romantic history from years ago. We quickly learn that Laura's daughter Irene is a bit rebellious and free-spirited as she re-establishes her connection with Paco's lovestruck nephew.

Slowly, we are introduced to other friends and family members, including Paco's wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). These introductions are vital, not for the raucous and music filled wedding reception, but for what happens after. Having put her to bed earlier, Laura comes back to find daughter Irene missing and the only clues are newspaper clippings from a local child kidnapping years past. A most festive evening has been jolted into panic and dread. Soon Laura receives an untraceable text (I guess that's how it's done these days) asking for a huge ransom. It's at this point, where secrets previously kept begin to surface.

The Farhadi trademark kicks in about this time. Although Laura is understandably distraught and disoriented, it's clear the story is less about the crime and more about the interactions of the characters - resentments, the weight of long held grudges, and more of those dark secrets that begin to find the light. Everyone is a suspect, including Laura's husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) who shows up convinced God will protect his daughter. The worst traits of human nature are on full display as quick assumptions are drawn. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle and it's dizzying fun keeping track.

Trust within the family and amongst friends is at the core of the story, and Mr. Farhadi makes solving the crime secondary to the actions and reactions of these folks who have known each other for so long. Melodrama abounds (in a good way) and there are some wonderful visuals, including drone photography from the wedding reception, and an opening sequence featuring the church bell tower and clock. This is the 5th film collaboration between real life couple Cruz and Bardem (the most recent being the disappointing LOVING PABLO), and both are exceptional here. Ms. Cruz offers up a gut-wrenching performance and Mr. Bardem is a joy to watch as he struggles with emotions too complex to verbalize. This is Mr. Farhardi's first Spanish language film, but it's clear his subject matter and characters are universally recognized.
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6/10
the novel visualized, finally
21 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. No one knows for sure how many times someone in Hollywood has attempted to adapt the 1966 novel for the big screen, but we do know that director Ty Roberts is the only one to succeed. The actual author of the novel, Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt, used the pen name Tom Pendleton, as he was unsure how the book would be received and wanted to avoid embarrassment for his prominent family - a family very influential in the founding and development of Fort Worth. Also part of the Van Zandt family are the beloved singer/songwriter Townes, and the author's own son Ned, who has a supporting role in the film. Since I missed the premiere at last year's Dallas International Film Festival, I was glad to catch up with it recently.

The film tells the story of Jim McNeely, a dropout dumped by his girlfriend's parents for not being good enough for their daughter. McNeely is a fictional character, but similar stories (some better, many worse) have played out in real life many times over the years. It's 1939, and the country is trying to dig out of the depression. McNeely heads to west Texas in hopes of escaping his personal life and capitalizing on the new oil boom - a boom not unlike the gold rush of California almost 100 years prior.

Frank Pickrell's Santa Rita No. 1 spewed forth boldly (in 1923) announcing the Texas Permian Basin as oil rich. Since then, the area and work have made and broken folks, and that pretty much sums up the story of Jim McNeely - played here by native Texan Zane Garrison ("Prison Break"). His initiation to the oil field crew is not kind, as the roughnecks don't take kindly to the city boy. Of course, McNeely holds his own until he is ready to head out - and he takes the lovely wife of a local engineer with him. McNeely and Lee Montgomery (Ali Corbin) are soon setting up house and a new business.

It's McNeely's first drill and it leads to the obligatory oil gusher shot. This initial luck or success (depending on how you view it) reconnects him with a couple of buddies from his original oil field days: Dent Paxton (Austin Nichols, "Ray Donovan") and scruffy oil field veteran Ort (played by familiar face Lew Temple). Dent is the dusty road philosopher while Ort is the one who understands drilling. What follows is a case study of how a person reacts to good times and bad. When dreams come true, does corruption of self follow?

Director Roberts is himself a Midland (west Texas) boy, and the excellent opening sequence of the windswept plains proves he has a feel for the area. His black and white shots slowly fade to color as we meet McNeely. Mr. Roberts not only directs, but also co-wrote the script with Gerry De Leon, produced the film, and edited it as well. Such is the life of a low budget production, and though he accurately captures the feel of oil fields, the film would have benefitted from a lead actor who could better pull off the charisma required to accomplish the fundraising and networking of the McNeely character - a man so unlikeable that we never understand why some remain loyal to him. The film does a nice job of showing the rise and crash, as well as the life lessons that prove one is never too old to come of age. It must be stated that following in the footsteps of Jett Rink (James Dean) in GIANT (directed by George Stevens), Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) and Larry McMurtry's THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (directed by Peter Bogdanovich) is a perhaps a task too tall for even a Texan.
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Donnybrook (2018)
5/10
bleak
14 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Is it a coincidence that I'm reviewing this moving on Charles Darwin's birthday? "Survival of the fittest" could be the subtitle to writer-director Tim Sutton's bleak film adapted from the novel by Frank Bill. The film would have us believe that, once born into poverty and a hopeless existence, the only daily decisions to be made are: Do I try to survive another day? Should I kill myself? Should I kill someone else?

Is that bleak enough for you? Sutton's film provides glimpses of each of the three questions, but mostly it's an expose' on the violence that is generated from a community of poverty, addiction, abuse, and crime. It isn't clear and doesn't matter which of those things comes first ... they all lead down the same path. Jamie Bell plays "Jarhead" Earl, a military veteran looking for an escape route for his young kids and his junkie wife (Dara Tiller). Having a knack for fighting, and an apparent ability to take a beating, Earl decides the only way out is by winning the $100,000 grand prize for the Donnybrook ... a no-rules bareknuckle cage fight. Of course his only route to the entry fee is via armed robbery. Have I mentioned this is bleak?

Earl doesn't talk much, but he tries to protect his wife from the local meth dealer, a brutal savage named Angus (Frank Grillo, THE GREY) who has an awkward partnership with his younger sister Delia (Margaret Qualley, NOTIVTIATE) as they make the rounds taking care of business. Angus is the type that resorts to violence in every situation, and we witness his lack of value on human life is just about every scene he is in. Delia is a bit more complicated, as she longs for a way out, and accepts even a momentary reprieve. To top it off, we have a Detective Whalen (James Badge Dale, "The Pacific") who is "chasing" this brother-sister outlaw duo ... well at least he chases them between drug and booze fueled sidetracks.

The story takes place in the rural Midwest with towns and people those on both coasts never give much thought. When Earl finally reaches the Donnybrook, we are treated to what appears to be a redneck Burning Man festival where the revelers only stop hooting and beer guzzling long enough to sing the National Anthem while the American flag waves. We are left not knowing if this is a commentary on poverty, male aggression, or the forgotten class. It has some tonal similarities to the excellent OUT OF THE FURNACE, but isn't close to that level. None of filmmaker Sutton's first 3 movies have found much of an audience outside of festivals, and it's a safe bet this one won't either.
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7/10
artistic freedom
13 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. As much as we pride ourselves on 'artistic freedom', the reality is that politics has long played a vital role - either as inadvertent inspiration for the work, or as organized suppressor or moderator. Rarely in history has the latter been more in effect than during the Nazi regime. This film begins at an art gallery in 1937 Dresden as a loving aunt takes her young nephew to an installation of "degenerate artists". Nazi propaganda presented modern art by such artists as Picasso and Kandinsky as a blight on German culture, and proceeded to educate (or brainwash) the populace accordingly.

Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was behind the extraordinary Best Foreign Language Oscar winner THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), as well as the all-but unwatchable THE TOURIST (2010). Fortunately, this latest is much closer to the level of the first one, and it has been rewarded by also being Oscar nominated. Miss May, the loving and free-spirited aunt of the opening sequence is played by the luminescent Saskia Rosendahl. As a student, a simple gesture of handing Hitler a bouquet of flowers destroys her psyche, which leads to even more dramatic ramifications. This was an era when being a free-spirit was treated harshly, which could mean mass sterilization or even being "relieved of a meaningless existence." Miss May crosses paths with Nazi gynecologist Professor Carl Seeband (Sebastian Koch), in a gut-wrenching scene that hovers over the entire film, and especially that beloved young nephew.

Tom Schilling (and his turquoise eyes) plays Kurt Barnert (the nephew at older age), one who possesses exceptional artistic talent. As Kurt begins making a name for himself (painting as directed), he meets and falls for design student Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer, FRANTZ). Yes, she is the daughter of the Professor who determined the fate of Kurt's aunt, although Kurt is unaware. As the war escalates, Kurt and Ellie flee to West Germany, while the past haunts all involved.

Once accepted into the new art school, Kurt falls under the guidance of Professor van Verten (Oliver Masucci). It's this Professor's personal horror story that becomes a turning point for Kurt, and enables him to discover his own voice as an artist. During this time, Professor Carl Seeband has smoothly switched allegiances and become a communist to save his arrogant hide, though he is burdened with the knowledge that his war crimes past could catch up at any moment. This man is both family member and villain to Kurt and Ellie, tormenting and belittling at every opportunity. It's fascinating to see how the couple perseveres through his psychological games and even medical malpractice - as if the war, Nazism and Communism weren't enough of a daily challenge.

The film is loosely based on German artist Gerhard Richter, though mostly in the form of his earliest artwork. Mr. Richter is still alive today and still creating. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey) has produced a beautifully shot film, and the result is his 6th Oscar nomination. Brace yourself for a 3-plus hour run time, and the frustrations of how an artist can discover their voice despite an organized singular ideology that one is pressured to accept.
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7/10
surprisingly clever
13 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. I'm not usually the guy anyone turns to for recommendations on Romantic Comedies. Rather than dreamy and fantasy-like, I find most of them imbecilic and disrespectful to those of us living in the real world. It's because of this predisposition that I was cautiously optimistic when I heard that Rebel Wilson's new movie offered a satirical look at the genre. Well, it turns out the movie is more spoof than satire, yet I was pleasantly surprised to find it darn funny and quite clever.

The story begins with a young girl mesmerized while watching Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN. A minute later, the girl's fantasy is shattered when her mother (Jennifer Saunders) explains 'there are no happy endings for girls like us.' We then flash forward 25 years to find that little girl has grown up to become Natalie (Rebel Wilson, PITCH PERFECT), an architect whose lack of confidence and self-esteem has caused her career to stall and her daily life to be a grind (even her dog ghosts her). Additionally, Natalie is a skeptic when it comes to love, and offers up a brilliant rant on the misgivings and pain caused by Romantic Comedies. The rant is directed towards her loyal assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin, "GLOW"), who spends a significant portion of each workday streaming rom-coms at her desk.

Of course, Natalie's rant foreshadows everything we are about to see, and it all occurs after a freak subway accident leaves her concussed. It's at this point where Natalie finds herself trapped within her own Romantic Comedy ... the kind of world she so disdains. All of the familiar rom-com tropes and clichés are mixed in, and Natalie is kind enough to literally point out most of them. The obvious comparison here is to Amy Schumer's I FEEL PRETTY, but this film benefits not just from the very talented Ms. Wilson (a master of dry snark), but also a cast that is fully on board.

Liam Hemsworth (aka Mr. Miley Cyrus) appears as Blake, the picturesque, charming and of course, very rich romantic lead. Priyanka Chopra (BAYWATCH) stars as the stunning competition-in-love for Natalie, and Adam Devine (PITCH PERFECT) is Josh, Natalie's nice guy co-worker and not-so-secret admirer who can't seem to escape the friend zone. Given the times, it is a bit surprising to see Brandon Scott Jones take his stereotypical gay friend Donny so over the top. The love quadrangle plays out as expected, yet thanks to the site gags and Rebel's zingers, it's quite entertaining.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman clearly have a solid grasp on the repeatable offenses that occur during most romantic comedies, and I would have preferred they cut a bit deeper in their commentary, but understand the decision not to. They offer us a rare Prozac joke, the new phrase "extra invisible", and the best use in years of Percy Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place". Toying with the PG-13 rating is also part of the gag, and the musical interludes are funny enough, especially the finale presented in Bollywood style. Expect this one to be a favorite on ladies night out, and don't be shocked if some men on dates catch themselves laughing a few times.
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8/10
money, lives, culture
12 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It's not unusual for movies to "trick" us into embracing a drug dealer, and even kind of rooting for them - despite the near universal condemnation of such folks when we are outside of a dark theatre. Co-directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra were the producer and director behind the Oscar nominated EMBRACE OF THE SERPANT (2015) about an Amazon tribe striving to hold tight to their way of life despite outside interference. This time out, they focus on the rural Guajira territory of Columbia, with its desert conditions and villagers committed to their own traditions.

The film is based on a true story and covers the time period of 1960-1980, and is separated by chapter titles that include the year and a hint of what's to follow. We first see Zaida (Natalia Reyes) as a girl in confinement as she prepares to be introduced as a woman to the villagers. This is one of the more elaborate rituals of the village, and it leads to Rapayet (Jose Acosta) asking for Zaida's hand in marriage. Her mother Ursula, a respected village elder, sets the dowry at what she believes in an unattainable level for Rapayet: 30 goats, 20 cows, and 5 necklaces. Ursula has unwittingly set off a chain of events that eventually brings the family money, power, and tragedy. How can a few goats and cows cause this? Well, when one is poor and needs to quickly assemble a large dowry, what better way than to enter the drug trade? And that's exactly what Rapayet does.

Rapayet's friend and partner in the coffee trading business, Moises (Jhon Narvaez), joins him in the transition of careers, and while Rapayet is content to build his empire quietly and under the radar, Moises runs amok with the power and money. Ursula is respected for her abilities as a dream reader, and she's constantly dousing Rapayet's business with the cold water of her visions ... worried mostly about the safety of her daughter Zaida. By 1971, Rapayet's business of peddling marijuana to gringos is booming, and by 1979 (in a chapter entitled "Prosperity") we see the results: a mansion-fortress in the desert protected by guards with automatic weaponry (a sure sign that bad news is on the way).

What began as a look at peaceful remote villagers sticking to the traditional path of their ancestors, transforms into a drug war featuring cartel mobsters. Cinematographer David Gallego contrasts the beauty and simplicity of traditions with the danger and violence of new money and new world order. Leonardo Heiblum's score is a terrific complement as well. The infancy of the Columbian drug trade presented here conveniently places blame on the free-spirited youngsters of the Peace Corps; while the story plays out like a Greek tragedy, replete with mixed messages on revenge, capitalism, tradition, greed, and family ties. It's a rags-to-riches story that pulls no punches when it comes to the price paid for taking an illicit shortcut. It's a path that can destroy lives and culture.
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6/10
monkeys in the mirror
9 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Dan Gilroy has distinct ideas on how to make his movie stand out from the cluttered maze of Netflix: give elitists a violent comeuppance, and allow Jake Gyllenhaal the freedom to take his character over the top. Not only has Mr. Gilroy reunited with Mr. Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, his leads from the excellent NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), but he has also assembled a deep and terrific ensemble of actors who understand exactly how to present the material ... even if some viewers will be confused, startled, or unimpressed.

What begins as a parody of the highfalutin contemporary art world, slowly transforms into a satirical-supernatural-horror film that judges severely those who drive the profit train by peddling art. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the flamboyant art critic who possesses God-like abilities to make or break an artist with the words he chooses for his reviews. His work often intersects with Rhodora Haze (Ms. Russo), who runs the largest gallery in the city. She was once part of a punk rock band (from which the film takes its title), and now she lives to cash in on the work of others. As she so eloquently describes, she has moved "from anarchist to purveyor of good taste". Other players include Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) as Rhodora's competitor, Gretchen (Toni Collette) as an agent, Bryson (Billy Magnussen) as a whip smart handyman, Coco (Natalia Dyer) as a Midwestern girl trying to make it in the big city, Piers (John Malkovich) as a blocked artist who regrets quitting drinking, Damrish (Daveed Deeds) as an up and coming artist, and Josephina (Zawe Ashton) as Rhodora's ambitious assistant.

The story shifts tone when Josephina discovers the artwork left behind when her reclusive elderly neighbor Mr. Dease dies suddenly. Dease is unknown as an artist and was in the process of destroying his life's work when he died ... he wanted no part of the art world, other than creating his own work. Josephina seizes on this opportunity and works with Rhodora in representing the work of this "hot" artist. As the work is monetized, the supernatural forces take over - often in quite violent ways. The players are so focused on how to capitalize on the work, it takes them an inordinate amount of time to realize evil forces are afoot. No one escapes scrutiny: artists, critics, agents, or collectors.

In cinema, if you choose to go bat**** crazy, it's best to not hold back. Gyllenhaal plays Mort full tilt and he's immensely fun to watch. The extraordinary ensemble cast benefits from some unusual and vivid imagery supported by expert cinematography from Oscar winner Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD). It's rare for so much social commentary to be included in a project that could easily be compared to a teen slasher. There is some excellent dark humor, though maybe not quite enough, and two art exhibits in particular are memorable: Hoboman, and the Sphere. There are some clear cut groups of people in the film: the hot youngsters (Josephina, Dondon, Damrish) vs. the establishment (Mort, Rhodora, Piers) vs. misguided wannabes (Gretchen, Coco, Bryson). No matter their approach, one of the messages shines through - artists invest their soul into their work and that often stands in direct conflict with the other side of money and commerce. We can be a bit forgiving the film's faults given the ambitious nature of the project; just be cautious of the monkeys in the mirror.
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5/10
family affair
8 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It doesn't happen often, so it's probably kind of fun for them when a father and daughter are able to appear in the same film. This is writer-director Adam Marino's first feature film, and he cast Paul Sorvino and Mira Sorvino not as father-daughter, but as Police Captain and Detective. The script, co-written by Marino, Naman Barsoon, Daniel Wallner, and Mark Andrew Wilson treads familiar, yet usually interesting ground ... a crime topic covered previously by numerous TV shows and movies.

The film opens with an abusive father (Don Swayze) doing despicable things to his young son and daughter, before the two of them take action against him. We then flash forward to a prison escape that occurred after a fire is set. One of the escapees is an especially demented psychopath with a trait that ties the story back into the opening sequence. What follows is a whodunit police procedural that focuses on Detective Erica Shotwell (Oscar winner Ms. Sorvino) and the four boys who survived their encounter with the twisted prison escapee some 15 years ago. Doug Jones plays James Whitley, the prison escapee returning to finish the job on the 4 that got away. Mr. Jones is best known for his fabulous "creature" work in THE SHAPE OF WATER and PAN'S LABRYNTH.

The four boys, now grown men, are played by Ser'Darius Blain, Christopher Backus, Christopher Masterson, and Kristopher Polaha, the latter of which is now Detective Shotwell's partner ... though, against his vociferous protests, is prohibited by the Chief from working the case that he is oh-so-close to. Also providing support work are Melora Walters, Jena Sims, and fingernails in general. Director Marino's film is mostly B-level material, and actually much milder than what we see on many TV shows these days. It does, however, reinforce the notion that screwed up kids quite frequently grow into screwed up adults.
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6/10
sports agent with a twist
6 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Steven Soderbergh has won an Oscar for Best Director (TRAFFIC, 2002) and is one of the filmmakers who has enjoyed both Box Office success (the "Oceans" franchise) and critical acclaim (SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, 1989). He has also been behind some quite creative TV projects ("The Knick", "Godless"), as well as many technical advancements in the industry. This latest is his second consecutive film to be shot entirely with an iPhone (UNSANE, 2018). Bluntly stated, Mr. Soderbergh beats his own drum.

Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McRaney (MOONLIGHT) wrote the script and a talented cast allowed filming to be completed in only 3 weeks ... a remarkably short production time for a feature film that is quite watchable and polished. Andre Holland (also one of the film's producers) plays Ray, a sports agent with a soul. Rarely do films portray sports agents as the smartest guy in the room, much less as one with altruistic motives. But that describes Ray - although we have our doubts at times. The film opens with Ray having a heated discussion over lunch with his newest client - hot shot rookie Erick (played by Melvyn Gregg). The NBA is in the midst of a lockout and young Erick's top pick contract has not yet been executed ... so he's in need of funds, as is Ray and the agency he works for.

Sprinkled throughout, and serving as a framing device, are talking head shots of actual NBA players Reggie Jackson, Karl Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell discussing the challenges of being a rookie. Their insight and perspective adds an element of reality to the tone of the film. Zazie Beetz (DEADPOOL 2) co-stars as Sam, Ray's assistant who constantly reminds him, "I don't work for you anymore", despite her exceptionally strategic maneuvering of others. Also appearing are the always interesting Bill Duke as Spencer, who runs a camp for up and coming youth players; Kyle MacLachlan as the owners' lead negotiator; Sonja Sohn as the Players Union Rep; and Zachary Quinto as Ray's boss.

Ray's work behind the scenes is misinterpreted by many, but his focus is on getting the two sides to negotiate so the strike can end. During this process, the film makes an interesting statement about who owns the players' image. Is it the league, the players' association, or the player himself? It's a legal and philosophical question that again crosses the line into real life. There is also a comical bit that takes aim at the business side of the league regarding selling sneakers and inspiring rap lyrics.

Reminiscent of other Soderbergh films, there is an emphasis on heavy dialogue and creative camera work, as well as some life lessons offered up along the way. "You care all the way or you don't care at all" is a philosophy preached by Spence, and clearly leading by example is an important element to the key characters. Toss in the music of Richie Havens, and it's quite obvious this isn't the typical inspirational, feel-good sports movie.
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6/10
a story worth telling
3 February 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. The story of Graham Staines certainly deserves to be told, as his impact is lasting and his kindness and devotion to the cause are quite extraordinary. In fact he paid the ultimate price ... actually even greater than that ... for his efforts, simply because he bucked tradition and offered an alternative to folks who previously had none.

Director Aneesh Daniel and writer Andrew E Matthews present Mr. Staines' story (based on true events), and even shot on location in India despite a limited budget. Sharman Joshi plays ambitious young journalist Manav Banerjee, who in the late 1990's packs up his pregnant wife Shanti (Aditi Chengappa) and heads to the remote Indian town of Orissa in hopes of securing a writing job for the local newspaper. Once there, he finds no guarantees - only an editor who assigns him the nearly impossible task of procuring evidence that a local missionary is illegally converting Hindus to Christianity.

The missionary is Australian Graham Staines who, along with his wife (Shari Rigby) and 3 kids, run a camp for locals afflicted with leprosy. Staines is played by Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of the Baldwin brothers, and best known for his turn in THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995). Baldwin and his whispered Aussie accent plays Staines as a near-Saint; one who could only be doubted by the most ferocious traditionalists (of which there are many).

Mr. Joshi plays Banerjee as a bit of creepy-stalking guy who spends a little too much time staring at others. He's conflicted with fulfilling his assignment and discovering the truth about Staines. Banerjee's own moment of self-preservation likely inspired the horrific event by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists that, combined with some insider information, set Banerjee straight with how to proceed and what to report. In the process, he exposes the corruption and self-interest of rural India driven by the many minds closed by religious traditions.

Director Daniel opens the film with actual footage and archival clips of unrest and turmoil from those times. As you would expect, these clips are more disturbing and provide more intense reaction than anything the movie could produce (except for maybe the horrific event noted above). The overblown and overly-dramatic music doesn't help the presentation, yet somehow the message of kindness and forgiven is not lost.
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