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6/10
just a bit outside
21 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. World War II. Baseball. Spies. A true story. Assemble all those pieces and you have Morris "Moe" Berg. Director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) brings the fascinating story to the big screen with Robert Rodat's (Oscar nominated for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) screenplay adapted from the 1994 biography "The Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg" written by Nicholas Dawidoff. This is neither your typical spy movie nor your typical baseball movie.

Background information is provided by pre-movie title cards: in 1938 German scientists split the atom for the first time, ushering in the nuclear age; renowned German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel Prize winner) was charged with building an atom bomb; the United States responded by sending a baseball player to assassinate him. It's 1944 Zurich and two men exchange uncomfortable glances across a dimly lit room.

We then flashback 8 years to see Moe Berg utilizing his gut instincts to survive as a veteran journeyman catcher for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. We later learn his sixth sense is not limited to the baseball diamond, and is used in situations much more important than whether a baserunner is stealing a base. Growing up Jewish, Berg had always been somewhat of an outsider, admitting, "I don't fit in." In baseball, they called him a walking enigma. Educated at Princeton, Columbia and Sorbonne in Paris, Berg spoke several languages, had a 'fake' wife, was a regular on quiz shows, and was constantly followed by insinuations of homosexuality ... though he only admitted to being good at keeping secrets.

Berg's is a truly fascinating story, but unfortunately Paul Rudd is a bit overmatched in the lead role. He just doesn't quite have the dramatic acting chops to convey the intellectual depth of the man. However, the rest of the cast is stellar: Paul Giamatti (as Samuel Goudsmit), Connie Nielsen, Mark Strong (Heisenberg), Sienna Miller, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Jeff Daniels (as William J Donovan), Tom Wilkinson (as Paul Scherrer), Giancarlo Giannini (a 50+ year career), and Shea Whigham (as Joe Cronin). Many of these are little more than cameos, and the choppy feel of the film's flow prevents us from ever really connecting to characters.

An extended battle scene volleys from intense and well-filmed to slightly comical as Mr. Giamatti is forced to run and dodge bullets. The look, tone and color palette of the film is quite similar to Spielberg's BRIDGE OF SPIES (another true story), though this current one pales in comparison, as director Lewin presents it as a "will he won't he kill the guy?" scenario. Berg's story is likely more suited to documentary treatment, as his time with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS, later the CIA), resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Freedom. Upon his death in 1972, Newsweek's headline read "3rd String Catcher, 1st String Spy".
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Distorted (I) (2018)
4/10
high tech glitches
21 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Being startled awake by a nightmare is disconcerting for all of us. When that dream is strobe-like with flashes to a personal tragedy, the horrifying images carryover into daily life, impacting one's mental stability. Such is the new-norm for Lauren (played by Christina Ricci) as she attempts to recover from a disaster of which we are only provided glimpses and hints until later in the film (although it's pretty obvious). Lauren admits to being scared to rejoin the world - she hasn't even been able to resume putting her art on canvas.

Director Rob W King (HUNGRY HILLS, 2009) teams with writer Arne Olsen (whose work in the 1990's included COP AND A ½, RED SCORPION, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE) in an attempt to deliver a high-tech psychological thriller ... a sub-genre that has yet to be successfully conquered, cinematically speaking. Lauren and her husband, played by Brendan Fletcher, decide the best move for her sanity and their marriage is to move from the city to the suburbs. They choose The Pinnacle, a luxury condo with ultra high-tech and modern amenities so extreme it's known as "the smart building".

Typically having a building be the villain doesn't work out so well from a story-telling perspective, so of course, paranoia and conspiracy theories are dwelled upon. An obvious choice of the "Beautiful Dreamer" song is repeatedly slipped into scenes to cause Lauren further queasiness. As she becomes increasingly suspicious, and convinced evil is afoot, she crosses paths with a mysterious dark web figure played by John Cusack - a character so predictable that he whispers in conversations, wears a black hoodie, and works in a secret computer lair. As others try to convince Lauren her medications for depression are either too much or too little, Cusack feeds her the age old line ... you aren't paranoid if they are watching you.

Christina Ricci has been acting since she was 10 years old, and here she performs admirably in a film that, bottom line, doesn't deliver. The movie has the vibe of a cheesy TV show, kind of a rip-off of "Westworld" or "I, Robot", though it does tease us with the possibilities of electronic hypnosis and manipulation through subliminal images. Our ever-increasingly digital world, and the dangers that come with such power, are a real world problem that, for whatever reason, just hasn't transferred well to the big screen yet.
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8/10
silent masterpiece
20 June 2018
Oak Cliff Film Festival 2018 Greetings again from the darkness. It's a rare treat to watch a 90 year old silent movie. Especially in a remastered format. Especially on the big screen. Especially at a historic theatre. Especially with a nearly packed house. And especially with a live score! The 7th annual Oak Cliff Film Festival, held at the Texas Theatre (opened 1931), afforded just such a treat with its Friday evening screening.

Most know the story of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc), a teenage heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Year War. She claimed that she received spiritual and religious guidance through voices and visions. Once she was captured by English allies, she was charged with heresy and burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431. A quarter century later, the Pope declared her a martyr and she became a symbol of France - canonized as a saint in 1920. Of course, here the story is as much about the film as it is the martyr and historical figure.

The eyes are what first grab our attention. The eyes of actress Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc. It was Falconetti's only screen appearance, and though she spent the rest of her career on stage, this role cemented her place in cinematic history. Without the benefit of sound and voice, the silent era performer had to emote through eyes, facial expression and body movement. Few ever did it better than Falconetti. It's gut-wrenching to watch the church counsel attempt to break her resolve. Our minds hear the intensity of their voices though we only read the subtitles.

Renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer directs the script from writer Joseph Delteil (taken mostly from the transcripts of the trial), and the cinematography is through the eye of 5 time Oscar nominee Rudolph Mate' (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, PRIDE OF THE YANKEES). It's impossible not to notice a style so different from modern day filmmaking. The harsh lighting and almost exclusive use of close-ups and medium shots bring an immediacy of which we aren't accustomed. The single piece set is quite unusual and provides a stage aura. Another thing that stands out is the editing style. Continuity of scene wasn't important here. What mattered was the sense of frantic pacing and over-bearing stress brought on by the rapid-fire questioning. We share the claustrophobic feeling with Joan, though of course, we know where this is all headed.

As part of this special showing, the Oak Cliff Film Festival arranged for a live score performed by composer George Sarah, a 4 piece chamber orchestra, and a vocal group accompanying the music.

Perhaps this meant even more to me since I visited Rouen last year, and the lasting legacy (almost 600 years) of this courageous young woman is evident throughout much of France. The re-mastered film is stunning to look at, and even more historically important knowing that the film had long thought to be lost to a fire. The story and the film are quite something to experience.
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Take Rabbit (2018)
9/10
one smart cabbage
19 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated short film writer/director Peter Peake (HUMDRUM, 1999) beautifully animates the age-old riddle that asks how does a merchant with only a small row boat safely transport a fox, a rabbit and a cabbage safely across a river. You likely heard the riddle when you were young, and depending on your age, were baffled. Obviously the fox would eat the rabbit or the rabbit would eat the cabbage, so until your critical thinking improved, there seemed to be no solution.

What makes this little gem work isn't that director Peake solves the riddle, but rather the creative way he serves up life lessons on the row boat route. The voice acting is stellar. Matt Berry as the fox, Amelia Bullmore as the rabbit, and Stephen Graham as the philosophizing cabbage each chip away at the stone façade of the rower, voiced by Steve Pemberton.

The dialogue is extremely well written and cuts to the core of the complexity of relationships - doing so with quite witty humor. For example, the line Life can go quickly "from a bowl of cherries to a pile of pellets" takes on a certain poignancy when stated by a rabbit. Having each of the 'passengers' note that the rower should get a bigger boat, is spot on at making a point about unsolicited advice. It also goes directly opposite of the man's approach to mind one's own business.

Whether to get involved or keep to one's self goes right to the heart of not only choices in communication, but also choices we make in how to live our life. If you wonder why the rower named his boat Enola, the hint would be in how Oprah named her production company Harpo, or why Danny muttered 'redrum' in THE SHINING. Life is full of choices, and this terrific little 14 minute short film reminds us that every approach has consequences.
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4/10
we need more camp
15 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. An injured man is attended to by a group of females in an isolated home, and things don't go so well. You might assume this is similar to THE BEGUILED, but you'd be mistaken. Written and directed by Bruce La Bruce, a radical Canadian filmmaker known for his work in extreme Queer Cinema, the film is a cross between satire, social commentary, and proof that one can purposefully make a film far outside the mainstream.

The film begins with two schoolgirls kissing in a field "somewhere in Ger(Wo)many". It's the first of too many uses of twisted non-male vocabulary. We also get "A(Wo)men" to end a prayer, Herstory (instead of History) as a class, and (Wo)manifesto to spell out the mission of the group. The girls spot an injured man and sneak him into the basement of their all-girls home/school. We soon learn they are part of the Female Liberation Army, a group of radical female separatists whose favorite chant is "Down with the patriarchy".

You might think that hiding an injured man in the basement would be the biggest secret of the girls, but again, you'd be mistaken. We are provided with the background for each of the characters, but mostly we are pounded with the anti-male message: "male is superfluous". The girls' lessons include parthenogenesis and learning to quote philosophers such as Schopenhauer, and of course, most of it is satirical and campy ... just not quite campy enough.

Director La Bruce never strays far from shock value: a slow motion pillow fight, gay sex scenes, an unusual (and maybe fetishy) dance scene with eggs, and quite vivid video footage of a particular medical procedure involving the young man discovered in the woods. To cap it off, Big Mother (the leader of this revolutionary group) announces that they will make an all-female porno film because ... what better way to prove we don't need men? Its purpose is to serve as propaganda to spread their anti-male message, and once again, a bit more camp would have helped. Admittedly, this is one film I should have passed on reviewing, as I simply am not one to "wake up and smell the estrogen".
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7/10
something to chew on
15 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Our food supply and sources have become a deserved focal point of interest over the past few years, and director Christopher Quinn brings the 2009 best- selling book by Jonathan Safran Foer to the big screen to ensure we are paying attention. What began as a project looking at how animals were raised to fulfill the demand for edible meat, evolved into an analysis of traditional farming methods versus today's prevalent factory/big corporation farming. We learn that the growing demand for affordable and convenient food in the 1970's really kicked off the factory farming industry, and now it's roughly 99% of the market. Only 1% of farmers resisted and survived (as farmers).

"We eat meat not because of how it's produced, but in spite of it." Consumers demand delicious, affordable and convenient food, and the film looks at beef, chicken, turkey, pigs and dairy. We are told that factory farming began accidentally thanks to an overshipment of baby chicks several decades ago. Farming and our food supply haven't been the same since. There is some rare behind-the-scenes footage from factory farms that is difficult to watch. Narrator and Producer (Oscar winning actress) Natalie Portman talks us through the disgusting "pink lagoons" of hog poop, as well as how the raising of animals for food is said to be responsible for up to half of climate change, and for having a significantly negative impact on air pollution and water quality.

Of course most people, when asked, are against animal abuse and geological degradation so what goes on "inside" the barns remains confidential and secure. Going behind the doors of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, we witness conditions and actions that we would prefer not to see. We are informed that 80% of the anti-biotics being produced go towards farm factory animals, and the goal is to modify normal growth size and speed by 4 times. With this approach comes increased risk of pandemics, superbugs, and flu viruses. That's our tradeoff for the delicious, affordable and convenient demands.

The USDA comes under attack here as well. The agency is accused of silencing the whistleblowers who are doing the job the agency was created to do. They are now 'protecting the fox, not the hen house'. This is all tracked back to politics and money from the big corporations affiliated with or benefitting from factory farming. Some old clips of Col Harland Sanders (of KFC fame) proves even he was concerned about this many years ago.

Emotion comes into play here as the connection of traditional farmers to their animals is contrasted to the mass production of farm factories. Industry secrecy and protection is presented as a red flag, and the independent farmers are shown as good guys while the giant corporations remain faceless and (mostly) nameless. Only towards the end of the film do we gain some insight into the research being conducted on meat replication through plant-based systems. It's brilliantly compared to the early days of "gas light substitute" as a name for Edison's electricity. We are told that India and China now combine to total almost 3 billion people, and their diets are trending towards that of the U.S. - leading to more pressure for faster and cheaper food. Traditional farming isn't even taught in school these days, and the film barely touches on the always on-going debate between "humanely" raising animals for food vs. veganism. The film succeeds in showing us the problems, but doesn't offer much in the way of solutions or even a better way ... although it's clear one is needed.
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Incredibles 2 (2018)
8/10
Jack Jack is a star
13 June 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. In 2004 THE INCREDIBLES became the 6th Pixar film in a row to dominate the box office, and also the 6th straight to "WOW" us with a combination of animation, story, action and characters. All these years later, Brad Bird, the creative force behind the original, is back with the much anticipated sequel. Mr. Bird's career over those years has featured a blend of other animation (RATATOUILLE, 2007) and live-action (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL).

Bird is not the only returnee for the sequel. Also back is the entire Parr Family: Holly Hunter as Elastigirl/Helen/Mom, Craig T Nelson as Mr. Incredible/Bob/Dad, Sarah Vowell as Violet, Huck Milner as Dash, and Eli Fucile as baby Jack Jack. The story picks up not long after the original ended. "Supers" have been outlawed, and the Parrs are in some type of Super Protection Program - similar to Witness Protection. Of course when one is a superhero, doing the right thing just comes naturally, and the opening scene finds them battling their old nemesis Underminer (voiced by Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger, who voices a character in each of the studio's films). Our heroes stop the crime, but cause significant damage to the city. This leads to our first social commentary when the powers that be scold the Parrs and inform them that the banks have insurance, and it's cheaper to let the criminals get away so that the damage is minimized.

As superheroes non-grata, the Parrs try to go "straight" and live a normal life. That is until a powerful brother and sister corporate duo offer a proposal. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (twist that pronunciation just a bit, voiced by Catherine Keener) want to generate a PR plan to help rebuild the reputation of supers. The idea is to make Elastigirl the public face of the program by having her wear a body cam to show off her heroic deeds (in this age of 'pics or it didn't happen'). She's chosen over Mr. Incredible for economic reasons, and he's relegated to stay-at-home parent (or as we called Michael Keaton in 1983, MR. MOM - an unacceptable sexist term these days). Elastigirl enjoys her time in the limelight, while Bob doesn't much like being just Bob. Plus he can't understand why they changed math, as he gets frustrated trying to help Dash with his homework. He's also challenged with Violet's teen angst over a boy, and even moreso over the discovery that Jack Jack has POWERS! In fact, Jack Jack has multiple powers, but as a baby, he has little control - though his battle with a raccoon is not a segment you'll soon forget.

Also returning is Frozone - voiced by Samuel L. Jackson (minus his trademark "MF'er), and costume designer Edna Mode - voiced by director Bird. Other new voices include (Odenkirk's fellow "Better Call Saul" castmate) Jonathan Banks as Rick Dicker, Isabella Rossellini as the Ambassador, and Sophia Bush as Voyd, one of the new generation supers (which includes Reflux - one you'll just have to experience).

The big new villain causing problems for Elastigirl is ScreenSlaver, who hypnotizes large groups of people through their screens - more social commentary on our dependence on technology and the addiction/affliction we have toward device screens. The flood of superhero movies over the years since THE INCREDIBLES exposes the not-so-complex story in this one, but it's terrific that the film keeps much of the original look and feel, and yet brings something new ... baby Jack Jack is a star!

Filled with the beautiful colors and art design we've come to take for granted from Pixar, the film also features some of the best action sequences you'll see in any movie. The train sequence with Elastigirl is simply spectacular - as is the final action sequence. It's also nice to see the flip in gender roles as Mom (Holly Hunter) takes the lead. Michael Giacchino returns as the composer and he blends in a touch of James Bond theme with his wonderful work. If the film needed extra credit (which it doesn't), certainly the inclusion of a "Jonny Quest" clip would qualify. Family films don't get much better than this, and even though it runs 2 hours, the closing credits feature the theme song for each of the superheroes, and could easily have been a short film unto itself.

Speaking of short films, a Pixar tradition is to include one before new releases. This time it's BAO, a Chinese mother/son and food-oriented story from director Domee Shi (animator on INSIDE OUT)
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Hotel Artemis (2018)
6/10
more Jodie, please
8 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film directorial debut of Drew Pearce is original and clever, while teasing with hope for a bit more than it delivers. Mr. Pearce is best known for writing the screenplay for IRON MAN 3, and now as a first time director, he shows enough promise to leave us interested in what comes next.

The film is set in dystopian Los Angeles a mere 10 years in the future. The streets are flooded with desperate rioters after a mega-corporation shuts off the clean water supply. The company is the film's real villain, and the only one that The Nurse (Jodie Foster) can't treat. See, she runs Hotel Artemis, an underground hospital for top tier criminals - the element that can't just pop into the local community clinic for treatment on the latest bullet hole or knife wound. These patients follow a subscription plan and must stay current on their dues to gain admission.

The Nurse forgoes any attempt at personal vanity and is instead an agoraphobic, booze-chugging, (mostly) stick-to-the-rules type, who pops in anti-anxiety tapes and ear buds whenever her pulse quickens. She has run the place since it opened 22 years prior and is assisted by a mountain of man named Everest (get it?) played well by Dave Bautista. He's a combination bodyguard, bouncer, handyman and assistant healthcare professional (check his badge).

The set design by Ramsey Avery deserves special mention as the Hotel Artemis is quietly housed in the shell of a former grand art deco hotel, now a victim to the city's carnage - though the neon sign remains illuminated. Its vacation spot-themed rooms are a sight to behold, despite the frustratingly low lighting. Occupants are incognito and use their room names as identifiers. Sterling K Brown is Waikiki, a philosophical bank robber who dragged his brother Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry) here for treatment after a heist went wrong. Acapulco (the always energetic Charlie Day) is a crass, motor-mouthed arms dealer, while Nice (Sofia Boutella, THE MUMMY) is a freakishly skilled assassin.

The stress level picks up when the biggest crime lord of Los Angeles shows up seriously wounded. Known as The Wolf King, an admittedly bad choice for a nickname, Jeff Goldblum brings some smooth-talking toughness, humor and twisted class to the proceedings. More than a few tentacles are attached to The Wolf King and other folks we've previously met, not the least of which is a very special ink pen stolen by Honolulu. Mix in an injured cop (Jenny Slate) with a personal link to The Nurse and her constantly alluded to tragic backstory, and the movie puts off a Graphic novel vibe ... missing only the off-the-cuff insanity. It's just a bit too grounded for its own good.

The high tech/low rent feel forces us to recall BLADE RUNNER AND ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but of course, this film isn't at the level of either, as it lacks top tier suspense. It is a terrific reminder of what a talented actress two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster is, and what a shame that we haven't seen her in such a substantial screen role since 2013's ELYSIUM. She really sinks her teeth into this odd character, and more than the action scenes, she keeps us interested the entire run time. The score is a bit too heavy on the droning electronic bass line, and while the Florida joke and nod to John Phillips (The Wolf King, "California Dreamin'") earns some bonus points, it's really the performance of Ms. Foster and the set design that saves a too-safe script.
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8/10
a legacy of nice
8 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Is it too good to be true? We often ask that question in life, but when it comes to Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", director Morgan Neville's documentary proves the answer is no ... he was good and true. Fred Rogers hosted the children's TV show on PBS for more than 30 years, starting in 1968. The terrific (and surprisingly emotional) film provides the background of the show, and more importantly, profiles a wonderful man.

Director Neville (BEST OF ENEMIES: BUCKLEY VS VIDAL, 2015) has produced numerous biopics on musicians ranging from Keith Richards to Muddy Waters to Johnny Cash to Brian Wilson. His subject this time out was known for his singing the show's familiar opening number, and his lyrical legacy was his substantial impact on many generations of children. Mr. Rogers was an ordained minister and, in the early days of television, recognized that violent cartoons were not appropriate programming for the formative childhood years. Even in the early years, he was an outlier with sincerity and wholesomeness in entertainment. He never shied away from tough topics - not even death - whether it was the assassination of Robert Kennedy or a dead fish in the aquarium on set. He spoke directly to children in a voice and language they understood.

There are interviews with fellow cast members, long timer crew members, and relatives, including his wife Joanne. We hear Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons on the show) discuss how Mr. Rogers addressed Clemmons' homosexuality and race, adding poignancy to the shared televised foot bath. Archival footage takes us back to the early years, and we see Lady Aberlin and Daniel Tiger in both black and white and color segments. We learn that the puppet Daniel most resembled the personality of the host himself ... a quiet, patient, compassionate being who cared about others.

We see footage of Fred Rogers testifying in front of a Senate sub-committee to prevent funding for PBS from being eliminated, and we see numerous cardigan sweaters and tennis shoes. Mostly we see the approach of a man who built a legacy on kindness and human decency ... a lifetime pursuit of uniting that led to struggles with depression. His obsession with 143 - both his weight and his code for "I love you" provides some insight into his personality, and mostly we hear others speak of his lasting impact.

Rather than comedy and pranks, Mr. Rogers was intent on making kids feel safe and secure in a scary world. Sure he educated - often subtly - but it was his innate ability to comfort that kept kids coming back. There are naysayers who say he is responsible for generations of entitled kids who grew into entitled adults, but the film addresses this by showing Roger's commencement address where he clearly explains the "special" label. His final show was in 2000 and he died in 2003. His legacy is simple yet powerful. We can each do better. We can each be better. We can each be better neighbors.
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7/10
a big man with big talent
8 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Being an expert, or even a genius, in one's chosen field doesn't necessarily translate to celebrity or a life in the public eye. Few of us can name the best structural engineer or the best commercial airline pilot, yet we regularly drive over bridges and book flights to our vacation spots. However some professions lend themselves to a bit of fame ... and that's either a burden or an opportunity depending on perspective.

Director Kate Novack (writer of PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2011) focuses her camera on one who seized the opportunity. Andre Leon Talley was raised in the Jim Crow South of North Carolina and rose up to become a literal giant in the fashion industry. It's mostly a biopic of a fascinating, larger than life figure, but also a quasi-history of the fashion industry since the 1970's. Andre crossed paths with all of the greats, and many of them are interviewed here: Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Valentino, Fran Leibowitz, Manolo Blahnik, and Isabella Rossellini - along with her pigs, a chicken and a turkey. We learn that he worked for Andy Warhol, was mentored by Diana Vreeland, and worked alongside Anna Wintour (teaching her as much as he learned).

"Fashion is fleeting, style remains." So Andre tells us as the film begins. He knows the difference between the two, and understands that beauty comes in many forms. Certainly the first, and often the only black man on the front row of runways in Paris and New York, Andre has lived quite the life. Director Novack's film is at its best when Andre is front and center. He commands attention with his size, his clothes, his voice, his charisma, and mostly his talent. Claiming his eye developed watching the Sunday fashions at the black church of his youth, we also learn young Andre preferred shopping to attending a ballgame with his taxi-driving father.

Thin until age 40, Andre now describes himself as a manatee. The racism he faced within the industry is vivid as he recalls being called "Queen Kong". Sometimes criticized for not taking a more active and vocal stance against racism, Andre simply proclaims that he was too busy with his career ... his same reason for having 'no love life'. The emotional moments of his recollections fade quickly in the segments where he discusses capes, and later veils. His expertise is on full display.

Looming over much of the film is the backdrop of the 2016 Presidential election. It's often distracting, but does lead to one of the more powerful moments. This verbose, grandiose couture figure is stunned and mostly at a loss for words as Donald Trump takes his oath. For most of the film and for most of his life, Andre has talked the talk and walked the walk - and continued talking while he walked. As one of style and influence, he has plenty to say and there's a reason for us to listen.
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6/10
two worlds exploring each other
1 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell exploded onto the scene in 2001 with his instant cult favorite HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, and in 2010 he delivered the expertly crafted and somber marital drama RABBIT HOLE. In his first feature film since the latter, Mitchell revisits the punk world in what has been described as Romeo and Juliet with punks and aliens.

Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett adapted the screenplay from a short story by Neil Gaiman ("American Gods"). It's set in 1977 Croydon (outside London) and though music plays a vital role, it's not really a musical. And even with some funny moments, it's not really a comedy. And while there are aliens, one wouldn't label this as science fiction. There is a budding romance at the core, and maybe the romance description fits best ... although, any unwitting group of film goers heading to the theatre expecting a typical romantic drama will likely walk out in the first 15 minutes.

Zan (Elle Fanning) and Enn (Alex Sharp) are star-crossed (or is it intergalactic-crossed?) lovers - she being an alien, he a young punk rocker. This is less about two worlds colliding than two worlds exploring each other: the freedom of punk vs the conformity of the alien colony. We cross paths with the local Queen of punk known as Boadicea (one of the most extreme Nicole Kidman roles of her career), the alien Stella (Ruth Wilson), and Enn's punk mates Vic (Abraham Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence).

Far and away the most interesting puzzle piece here is the connection between Enn and Zan. Mr. Sharp (a Bob Geldof lookalike) and Ms. Fanning are terrific together and the film suffers when they aren't on screen. Their live duet onstage is a true highlight and her wide-eyed curiosity combined with his zany punk persona provide most of the film's energy.

"Punk ... the best thing to happen to ugly people" is likely the best line in the film, although Zan requesting "Do some more punk to me" isn't far behind. There are messages here about parenting, diversity and globalization, but mostly it's a creative and wild ride that's not likely to please everyone ... especially those looking for a Nicholas Sparks romance or anyone who might take the title literally. The film is scheduled to show at the Texas Theatre in Dallas beginning June 1, 2018.
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7/10
soul searching
1 June 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. "A crisis of faith" is merely the tip of the theological iceberg in this gripping, thought-provoking, debate-inspiring oddity from legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader has long specialized in messed up/conflicted gents struggling in a world-gone-wrong in films like HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), AFFLICTION (1997), and AUTO FOCUS (2002). Of course he is best known for his TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980) screenplays. This latest is his best work in years, though few will likely describe it as entertaining.

Ethan Hawke digs deep in his performance as Toller, a former military Chaplain now relegated to caretaker for a small church whose historical marker informs us was organized in 1767 and built in 1802. Although Toller has a very small congregation, the church itself is now mostly a tourist stop and throwback to the days of rural community churches.

Thanks to Toller reading us his daily journal entries, we know that he is already dealing with doubt and grief even before Mary (whose name is no coincidence) approaches him about speaking with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Toller's teetering emotional stability is further jolted by a mesmerizing talk with Michael, whose work as an environmental activist/extremist leaves him unable to reconcile bringing a child into this doomed world ... despite his wife Mary (an excellent Amanda Seyfried) being pregnant. (Though no further proof is needed that I should never offer counseling to confused folks, I couldn't help but wonder why Toller didn't challenge Michael on why he risks having sex if he is so adamant against making a baby.)

With Michael's global and societal warnings piling on Toller's personal tragedy and disintegrated marriage, he sinks deeper into his funk and deeper into the bottle. There is also the pressure of the upcoming 250 year reconsecration ceremony and the expectations of Abundant Life's Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer in perfect casting). Abundant Life stands in for all of the mega-churches that specialize in money grabbing these days (more business than religion). Here, big money is represented by billionaire industrialist Edward Balq (played by a less than patient Michael Gaston). He is truly the higher power in this relationship.

Toller explains to us that we hold both hope and despair in our thoughts, and that these are life itself. He has an intensity towards life and his role in the church that would make most uncomfortable, if not a bit frightened of and for him. And those concerns would be quite accurate. Some people are just never comfortable in their own skin, and these are often the most intriguing movie characters. Schrader and Hawke ensure that Toller is every bit of that and more. It's a bleak story with some dark and twisted humor, and it's shot in old style ratio which adds an element of harshness to every moment. Austere might be the best one word description of the look captured by Schrader, but the story is sure to generate some colorful and intense post-viewing debate ... with an open for interpretation ending being the cherry on top. Welcome back Mr. Schrader and kudos to Mr. Hawke.
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3/10
if you enjoy arguing
31 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Hot societal topics often become fodder for new movies, and this usually results in a slew of similar stories - some good, others not so good. Currently, discussions of gender identity is second only to Trump-bashing in terms of media attention, and so we can expect Hollywood to rush-to-production in order to capitalize. This latest from director Silas Howard had a timing advantage as it was adapted by writer Daniel Pearle from his own play.

The titular Jake is a 4 year old (his 5th birthday party plays a role) who enjoys fairy tales and dressing like a princess. His stay-at-home mom (Claire Danes as Alex Wheeler) and psychologist father (Jim Parsons as Greg Wheeler) are aware of Jake's preferences, but as with most things in their marriage, what minimal conversation occurs is of the over-the-top arguing type. The "issue" is painfully and awkwardly brought to the forefront as the parenting couple subject themselves to the Private Pre-School application process.

The challenges of parenthood, including judgmental friends and relatives, and the competitive nature of comparisons, are beyond obvious in most every scene of Act 1. Even Alex's (probably not coincidental that her name is gender-neutral) mother (Ann Dowd) is passive-aggressive in her judgments of Alex quitting her job as a lawyer to stay home with her son. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Jake's teacher and counselor to the Wheelers during the application process, and even her role has a twist designed to elicit more judgment and discrimination.

There is really nothing convincing throughout the film. It's barely Lifetime Channel material, with a simplified emphasis on the difficulties of raising a non-conforming child. The incessant arguing amongst parents, family members, and friends makes each successive scene more annoying than the previous. The film should have been entitled "Parents Like Jake's" because Jake has almost no screen time, while Ms. Danes flashes her "Carrie cry-face" (for "Homeland" fans) incessantly.

Certainly the topic of gender identity and non-conformity is worthy of discussion and analysis, as it has entered mainstream conscience in less than one generation. Anxiety and confusion exists, and even well-meaning conversation can take a wrong turn quickly. We just need - and deserve - better guidance than this film provides.
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Adrift (I) (2018)
7/10
true, sweet, and salty
31 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since the "Master of Suspense" Alfred Hitchcock captured the intensity of being stranded at sea in LIFEBOAT (1944), there have been numerous films, with varying levels of success, taking advantage of this fear shared by many folks: ALL IS LOST (2013), LIFE OF PI (2012), OPEN WATER (2003), THE PERFECT STORM (2000), DEAD CALM (1989), and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972). While some of these feature elements of true events, it's this latest film, adapted from Tami Oldham's memoir "Red Sky in Mourning: The True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea", that tells the remarkable true story of Tami and her boyfriend Richard.

Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur has had a hit and miss career (EVEREST, 2 GUNS, CONTRABAND, THE SEA), and this one mostly works on many levels: romance, adventure, suspense, natural catastrophe, and survival. Beyond that, it's fantastic to look at thanks to the work of Cinematographer Robert Richardson (9 time Oscar nominee, 3 time winner: HUGO, THE AVIATOR, JFK). Even though Tami's remarkable saga occurred in 1983, it took all these years for the film to get made - further proof that it's a new day in Hollywood! The story of a woman isolated in nature, fighting the odds to live another day would have (and this one often has) previously been back-burnered or shifted to have yet another manly man in the lead. Not this time. Shailene Woodley plays Tami and it's her most physical role to date.

The opening scene shows Tami waking up on the damaged boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Raymond. It then flashes back 5 months to her arrival in Tahiti and her initial introduction to Richard (Sam Claflin), a charming solo sailor who is nearly, but not quite, her equal in free-spiritedness. The 3 co-writers, twin brothers Aaron and Jordan Kandell (MOANA) and David Branson Smith (INGRID GOES WEST) wisely opt against a first half romance followed by second half survival tale. Instead, the bits and pieces are doled out in segments that allow us to connect with the soul-bonding without losing the intensity of the stranded at sea tale. It's a delicate balancing act that works thanks to the performance of Woodley and the camera of Richardson.

For many of us, the concept of sailing from Tahiti to San Diego with someone we've known for a few months would be a bit overwhelming. But these two lovebird and adventurous spirits head off thinking of it as fun and an opportunity to fund even more fun. It's a story of the power of love and the strength of survival instincts. Rarely have a sextant, Skippy Peanut Butter and Tom Waits music combined for such vital roles in a movie, and it's nice to see Ms. Woodley gain a Producer's credit since she was a driving force in getting the film made.

The 41 day ordeal is told from Tami's view (it is, after all, based on her book), and the strength of this 23 year old gets the treatment it deserves with some absolutely terrific sequences filmed at sea. Though Tami doesn't battle sharks or have Wilson the volleyball to keep her company, her coping mechanism is even more mind-bending. It may not be the light-hearted summer fare we are accustomed to, but it's one worth watching.
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6/10
filling in some blanks
24 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo - a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 - the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty's RULES DON'T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford's version has yet to emerge.

Since the film's purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here): What did Han do before the Rebellion? How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game? What is the origin of his name? How did he first become linked with Chewbacca? How strong are Wookies? How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here

When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi'ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi'ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it's still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Wordy Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist - the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.

The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with Warwick Davis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 Return of the Jedi) and of course, Ron Howard's good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian - a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.

The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues - original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over "creative differences" - the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.
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5/10
should have left us hanging
24 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those movies that has the look and feel that leaves me believing I should like it more than I do. Ian McEwan (the excellent ATONEMENT) adapted the screenplay from his own novel, and it's by no means a cookie-cutter story. The feature film debut of director Dominic Cooke features one of today's most talented leading ladies, a strong supporting cast, and some stunning outdoor scenery from a very beautiful part of the globe.

The story kicks off in 1962 England with a setting that could easily be a one-Act stage play. We are in a hotel room immediately after the ceremony of a newlywed couple. Awkward movements and forced conversation are interrupted by a formal dinner being served in the room by two waiters. The expected post-dinner gawkiness leads to a bedroom scene ravaged by emotional trauma that goes far beyond inexperience. It's disastrous and leads to full disclosure along the shoreline of Chesil Beach, Dorsit.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Florence and Billy Howle is Edward. Through flashbacks we witness both their budding romance as eager youngsters, as well as pervious childhood moments that now seem to matter. We learn Florence is Mozart, while Edward is Chuck Berry. Maybe opposites do attract, however, the class differences become more obvious as we meet the respective parents. Florence's mom (Emily Watson) and dad (Samuel West) are upper crust types who don't take kindly to her infatuation with one not of their ilk. Edward's dad (Adrian Scarborough) is a school teacher and his mother (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) is an eccentric artist, "brain-damaged" in a freak train accident.

Florence and Edward are victims of their time ... a time of sexual repression, where such conversations simply did not occur. It's not so much a story of rejection as it is of being not accepted, though it's clear how childhood led each down their path. Had the film remained focused on this fascinating story line, it likely would have been better received by this particular viewer. Instead, we are subjected to an ending that crashes and burns as it attempts to provide resolution for characters that should have none. A flash forward to communal living in 1975 and a 2007 farewell concert at the beautiful and historic Wigmore Hall (opened in 1901), are little more than a show of disrespect to those viewers who invested in the unfortunate tale of Florence and Edward.
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Dark Crimes (2016)
4/10
not compelling
18 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. A neo-noir "inspired by actual events" and based on a compelling 2008 "New Yorker" article by the great David Grann (THE LOST CITY OF Z) seems to have the necessary components for a satisfying thriller. So what went wrong? Unfortunately, a messy script from Jeremy Brock (THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) prevents this one from ever having a chance at grabbing our attention, much less holding it.

This is the first English language film from director Alexandros Avranas (MISS VIOLENCE, 2013) and his cast is led by Jim Carrey as police inspector Tadek, a disgraced cop who takes care of his elderly mother while also obsessing over the now coldcase that ruined his career. Carrey sports a Polish accent through "most" of his performance ... a performance that is mostly subdued, especially given his career. Joining him as co-leads in the cast are two other excellent actors: Martin Csokas and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Csokas plays Kozlow, the main antagonist and suspect - an author with clues to the key murder highlighted in his novel. Ms. Gainsbourg is underutilized as Kasia, the former sex worker, now intimate acquaintance of Kozlow. She is the key to solving the case.

Grann's article entitled "True Crimes: A Postmodern Murder Mystery" told the story of novelist/convicted murderer Krystian Bala. It's an article worth reading and one that bears only passing resemblance to this screen adaptation. The film is purposefully drab, bleak, dark, grey and dour, with a stark, cold look to the characters and most every scene. Tadek is a man on a mission to save his reputation, even at the expense of his family life, or really any life at all. The game of cat and mouse between Tadek and Kozlow never reaches the level of tension that the film seems to think it does ... even in the one-on-one interrogation scene or the seemingly endless blabbering of the recordings Tadek listens to.

There is a terrific international cast of supporting actors including Vlad Ivanov, Robert Wieckiewicz, Piotr Glowacki and Agata Kulesza, but the cast is only able to do so much with the material. Perhaps the draw is supposed to be Jim Carrey is the darkest role of his career. On the bright side, the story is neatly wrapped up at the end thanks to one character who deserves a "win".
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7/10
hope for the future
17 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Wim Wenders has had a varied and diverse career dating back 50 years with both narrative and documentary films. He is probably best known for PARIS TEXAS (1984), WINGS OF DESIRE (1987), and PINA (2011). As a filmmaker, he seems to excel at finding a slightly different way of looking at a subject or topic, and because of this, some of his projects are better received than others. This time out he is granted remarkable one-on-one access to Pope Francis, as well as some terrific archival footage obtained from the Vatican.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, Argentina became Pope in 2013, and he chose Francis as his papal name. Director Wenders spends much of the movie making the connection and correlation to his namesake St Francis of Assisi - some 800 years ago. Wenders' artistic flair comes through in the black and white dramatization sequences, which are meant to send us back to the time of Assisi so we can grasp the parallels.

This is no sales pitch for Catholicism, but rather an introduction to the man, his vision and approach. It seems clear that this "reformer" is what was needed after the ultra-conservative Pope Benedict "retired" (an unprecedented step). Rather than harp on the prior missteps, the film focuses on this most engaging and sincere man who is devoted to the causes of poverty and immigrant rights. He believes we should follow the Law of Nature: we should all live in harmony; and that we are all responsible for the world and community in which we live. Pope Francis tells us of his 3 T's: terra (land), trabajo (work), and techo (housing), and how those are the foundation of a future named "hope".

Beyond those elements, this is no sound bite film. It is quite humbling to listen to a man so universal in thought. He has zero tolerance for pedophilia inside the church or out, and he firmly believes in the rewards of listening - yet another dot Wenders tries to connect with St Francis of Assisi. The camera (and hence, us) travels the globe with the Pope - Africa, Brazil, Greece, the United States, Israel and more. So many countries, religions and races are touched. He even symbolically washes the feet of the less fortunate.

There is a good deal of talking head interviews with the Pope himself, and he never shies away from a question ... leading us to the single criticism of the film. Wenders, acting here as narrator and facilitator, simply doesn't push hard enough on some of the difficult topics that could lead to real insight and debate. So we are left to ponder if this wonderful man can mitigate change within a Church that is not much known for it (check out the demographics of the group of Cardinals Francis addresses). Wenders delivers an affectionate glimpse of the man, and we leave with a bit more admiration and hope - not such a bad thing.
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Deadpool 2 (2018)
7/10
snarky and irreverent redux
16 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. We couldn't help but ask "why?" when the sequel was announced, even though we knew the answer was money. There was little hope in improving on the first DEADPOOL (2016), and since that film's director, Tim Miller, was tied up with upcoming projects for X-Men and Terminator, there was understandable concern that changing the recipe could result in huge disappointment. While it may not be an improvement on the first, only those with unrealistic expectations are likely to be disappointed ... the rest of us will spend most of two hours laughing and enjoying the spectacle.

Director David Leitch exploded onto the scene with last year's surprise action hit ATOMIC BLONDE, and his stuntman experience is once again on display with even more frenzied action and fight sequences this time out. As you might expect, there is no easing into the comedy routine here. The Opening Credits are laugh out loud funny and the only thing better may be the closing credits sequence, which is an instant classic.

No punchlines will be spoiled here, and it's an obvious statement, but clearly no topic or subject, or at least very few, are off-limits. Targets of barbs include LinkedIn, YENTL, FROZEN, Fox & Friends, and well, the list goes on and on. You'll likely miss 20 percent of the dialogue whilst laughing. The "Merc with a Mouth" breaks the 4th wall in atypical fashion - blurring the line through dialogue incorporated into the story. The self-awareness is comical in its own right.

Some familiar faces are back. Wade's main squeeze Vanessa (Marina Baccarin) kicks off the "kids" discussion (Yikes!) and the couple seems to have settled into cohabitant bliss - never a good sign in a superhero movie. TJ Miller (despite his recent headlines) is back running Sister Margaret's Bar, though his minimal presence is noted. Also back is Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), and his expanded role finds him turning Deadpool into an X-Men trainee at Professor Xavier's School for the gifted. This occurs after tragedy strikes and we are introduced to some new players. Julian Dennison (so good in HUNT FOR THE WILDERBEAST) plays FireFist, and of course, the arrival of Cable (Josh Brolin) shows us what happens when a time-travelling Terminator type is out for revenge.

Snarking, mocking and irreverence remain in full force throughout, but if you happen to pay attention to the story, you'll notice a (not-so) subtle transition taking place. The renegade superhero shifts from loner to team player, and even picks up some life lessons along the way - mostly related to loss and collaboration. Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, and one of the more interesting members is Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck (yep). We do get a surprise cameo, and there's even a shot of Deadpool with no pants ... and it's markedly unsexy. The music selections are inspired, however, if you are unsure whether this movie is for you ... it probably isn't.
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Anything (2017)
7/10
a simple man is not so simple
10 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. If you've always wanted to see a movie about "Andy Griffith's sad brother", this is the one for you. That's actually the description one of the characters has for Early, the depressed widower we come to know. Houston-born writer/director Timothy McNeil's first feature film is adapted from his own stage production. It's surprisingly intimate and emotional while avoiding many of the clichés we might be braced for, given the subject matter.

John Carroll Lynch (FARGO, ZODIAC) plays Early as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered gentleman from Mississippi. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of his wife, Early is dazed. He is sleep-walking through life right up to the point of an attempted suicide. Faced with the choice of a psychiatric hospital or moving cross country to live with family, Early obviously chooses the Brentwood home of his studio executive sister Laurette (Maura Tierney). Sister Laurette means well, but her controlling persona and determination to "fix" things, leads Early to find his own place. He picks a sketchy apartment complex with 'eclectic' neighbors, one of which is Freda (Matt Bomer), a transgender sex worker. Though they appear to be from different planets, she is drawn to his inherent kindness and strength of character, while he is drawn to her vitality and courage. A bond develops.

It's fascinating to watch the friendship grow, and despite another neighbor, Brianna, (Margot Bingham) calling him "cracker" and do-gooder, it's clear there is mutual respect amongst the complex residents. When Early invites his family to a dinner party with Freda, awkward and cruel are merely the first adjectives that come to mind. It doesn't go well, and harsh judgements abound.

Early is a simple man, but Mr. Lynch's performance ensures he is never a simple character. Mr. Bomer is terrific as Freda, though some will surely protest that a transgender actor was not cast. Plenty of sharp humor accompanies the deep drama, and we are reminded that love is really about the acceptance of others, and finding meaning and connection in life. It's a small scale film that draws us into the characters, and we find ourselves grasping at hope for each of them.
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Overboard (2018)
4/10
a few sparks, but not enough
4 May 2018
SPOILER: Greetings again from the darkness. It's interesting that movies and TV sitcoms are fair game when it comes to remakes. We don't find authors re-writing Hemingway or Fitzgerald. A painter who copies Picasso is labeled a forger. Even when a pianist interprets a Chopin piece, it's still clearly Chopin. Ahh, but movie remakes are to be accepted as new art - a shiny new creation. Of course, any movie lover worth their salt (is that still an acceptable phrase?) will compare new to old - remake to original. And since first impressions aren't allowed a do-over, we typically find the remake somewhat lacking.

Director Rob Greenberg and co-writer Bob Fisher simply flip the 1987 original concept from writer Leslie Dixon, where she had Goldie Hawn as the rich heiress and Kurt Russell as the blue collar opportunist. This gender-switch differs from what typically makes headlines these days, and is meant to add a contemporary feel to the story. Anna Faris takes on the role of Kate, a single mom working multiple jobs as she raises 3 daughters while also prepping for the Nursing exam. Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez (INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED) may be best known in the U.S. for introducing COCO at this year's Oscars ceremony, and here he plays Leonardo, a do-nothing playboy heir to a corporate empire. Leo's typical day is spent on his $60 million birthday yacht enjoying the company of supermodels while mostly ignoring the crew, except when he needs mango or papaya.

Act 1 is the set up where we acknowledge that Leo is a spoiled brat representing the evil one-percenters, and Kate is the good-hearted working class hero we are supposed to root for. Their initial confrontations are poorly handled and soon both have taken the film's title to heart - she after being pushed by him, and he after conking his head and winding up washed ashore with amnesia. The gist of the story is that Kate conspires to have the concussed Leo act as her husband until he pays her back for her work and she can complete her nursing studies.

The only real interesting things to discuss here are the choices of the filmmakers. Mr. Greenberg is known mostly for TV sitcoms, and it's quite obvious with how the comedic scenes play out. Admiration and respect go out for allowing much of the film to be bi-lingual (yes, with subtitles), and for taking a risk on the crossover appeal of Mr. Derbez as a leading man. However, what doesn't work is pretty much everything else. We never buy Faris as a working class mom cold-hearted enough to pull off this scheme. Plus, she is simply not a very good actress and has poor comedic timing throughout the movie. Likeable? Yes. Effective in the role? No. There is also a weak attempt to comment on the working conditions of manual laborers, and it just falls flat.

Thank goodness for the supporting cast. John Hannah as Colin, the chief of the crew, is far too talented for this production, and shines in his too-few scenes. Eva Longoria plays Kate's friend Theresa, and her relationship with husband Bobby (a terrific Mel Rodriguez) would have made a far superior movie to what is presented here. There is also a brilliant use of Mexican TV soap operas contrasted with the Norwegian yacht crew watching Leo on the closed-circuit system. Despite these sparks of hope, the film mostly lacks the charm of Kurt and Goldie, although judging from the audience response, many will disagree.
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Tully (2018)
8/10
just don't call it quirky
4 May 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody first collaborated on the filming of her debut script JUNO in 2007. Four years later they made YOUNG ADULT with Charlize Theron, and now all three reunite for this latest tip of the cap to motherhood and self-care. Simpatico is the word that comes to mind here with the perfect lineup of writer, director and actress. The biggest question is how to label it. Some will call it a comedy, while others will proclaim it a serious drama. As with much of life, there is a bit of laughter, a touch of drama, and a dash of most every emotion.

Ms. Theron stars as Marlo, mother of three. There is 8/9 year old daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland, 6 year old son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica) who lands on the autistic spectrum, and now an unplanned newborn that threatens to rock a family already barely getting through each day. Sarah is a lovely sister and daughter, but the typical adolescent insecurities are magnified by her getting lost in the shuffle due to her two more needy siblings. Jonah gets booted from mainstream kindergarten by a principal who labels him "quirky" ... an awkward description people use when they are trying to be polite (even though it's exactly the opposite).

Ron Livingston plays Marlo's husband Drew, a traveling businessman who, though a nice guy and loving father, is clueless to the stresses of running the homestead. Also in the mix is Craig (Mark Duplass), Marlo's brother who is equal parts wealthy and smug. When Craig offers the gift of a night-nanny to Marlo, she is tempted, but her pride gets in the way as she compares herself to the 'cupcake' super moms who always seem to have their act together. Ultimately, the relentless pressure and sleep deprivation, bring the young night-nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) into the home. She and Marlo hit it off immediately leading Marlo (and us) to question if Tully is too good to be true.

As Tully entrenches herself, it becomes clear that her value is to Marlo more than the baby. The two ladies become friends, and Marlo confesses her fears and insecurities as Tully acts as a life coach encouraging her through some tough moments. Despite the surreal feel to these interactions, Diablo Cody's dialogue crackles with cynicism and realism. The quips we've come to expect from her writing are delivered by her best developed character to date. There is a depth to Marlo, and her exchanges with Tully take us places a teenage JUNO couldn't possibly.

Charlize Theron proves again that she is truly an elite actress when she commits to a role. Her 50 lb weight game adds the necessary realism, but it's her emotional teetering that is most impressive. She is like a supermodel who also plays rugby - a rare blend of beauty, talent and skill. Mackenzie Davis is a revelation. She holds her own in every scene and it's quite interesting to see her free-spirited modern day Mary Poppins with tats.

If a previous movie has dealt with the challenge and stress of motherhood with this level of depth and realism, it doesn't come to mind. The movie kind of creeps up on you with a message regarding the importance of dealing with lost youth, while also never losing sight of yourself as an individual ... all with incisive humor and pulling no punches on being an overwhelmed mom. Just don't call it quirky.
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Two Balloons (2017)
7/10
Lemurs and love
27 April 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Stop-motion animation is always fascinating to me, and when it's done very well, it can be downright mesmerizing. And that's what we have here thanks to Director Mark C Smith and Producer and Visual Effects artist Adam C Sager.

Two lemurs are navigating their dirigibles across the beautiful sky to meet up at a particular spot previously agreed upon. A messenger bird helps out so much along the way, one might call it a love bird. Their plan is disrupted by an ominous storm, but whether in the sky or at sea, love finds a way.

The film contains no dialogue, no narration, and there is no storyboard giving you background or detail. Just beautiful animation and lovely accompanying music. Maps, ropes, and scopes are all provided in such detail, and the long tails of the lemurs are constant and fluid in motion.

It's a dream-like 8 minutes that could be a wonderful bedtime story or video, regardless of one's age.
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The Rider (2017)
8/10
Cowboy up
27 April 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the universe creates its own balance. Watching this little independent gem the day before watching the new Avengers movie reinforces what a diverse art form the cinema provides. Writer/director Chloe Zhao continues to make her presence felt as a filmmaker, and movie lovers are the beneficiaries.

While filming her feature film debut SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, Ms. Zhao met Brady Jandreau, a rising young star on the rodeo circuit. She knew a movie was in their future, but it wasn't until the following year when the story wrote itself. Brady suffered a severe head injury after being bucked by a bronco. He was in a coma for 3 days, and a metal plate was screwed into his skull. Doctors warned Brady that riding a horse again could kill him.

This is not a documentary, but it's pretty darn close. Brady Jandreau plays Brady Blackburn, a rodeo bronco rider and horse trainer who is recovering from a severe head injury. Mr. Landreau's real father Tim and sister Lilly also appear as themselves. In fact, most of the characters are locals rather than actors, and many (including the Jandreaus) are part of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe on the reservation. Also playing himself is Lane Scott, Brady's best friend who is now paralyzed and unable to speak - the tragic result of another rodeo ride gone wrong. These two are like brothers, and their interactions provide some of the most emotional moments in the movie.

The film is more cycle of life, than circle of life. It's about having a lifelong dream snatched from your clutches. We follow Brady as he searches for his new place in life. Campfire confessions with his rodeo buddies portray the bond created by risking life and limb. His mother is dead, and Brady's dad has spent a lifetime telling him to "cowboy up" - meaning, be a man and fight through every situation. Now dad is telling him to "let it go" and "move on". This contradicts his friends who encourage him to not give up on his dream.

Brady's moments with his sister Lilly are some of the sweetest and most poignant. Despite her autism, Lilly is precious as she sings songs and offers clear insight to her brother. This is less about acting and more about being. Guns, horses, and pot play significant roles throughout, as does the stunning South Dakota landscape as photographed by cinematographer Joshua James Richards. The intimacy of Brady's internal struggle somehow dwarfs the breathtaking sunsets. His quietly simmering intensity is masked by a stone face that only seems to brighten when around friend Lane, sister Lilly, or training yet another "unbreakable" horse.

Rather than traditional story arc, this is simply a compelling way of life for people who put up no false fronts. Brady is trying to figure out how to be a man after life has stolen his dream. One's purpose is essential to one's being, and thanks to filmmaker Zhao we witness how one tough cowboy fights through.
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7/10
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25 April 2018
Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second "half", much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it's so big, it could only be named 'Infinity'.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He's the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds - moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said "I am Spartacus", it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with "key" roles - and that's not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn't necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it's the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not ... there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn't sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two). We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the "TMZ" portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles - though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you'll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven't been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn't arrive for another year. It's very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we've grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get "Rubberband Man" from The Spinners. Now that's big!
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