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Emily the Criminal (2022)
An anti-hero for our times and a superior actress.
Emily the Criminal stands next to Maverick for the best thriller of the year. That's because of Aubrey Plaza, who plays the anti-hero for our times
The eponymous bad girl of the Sundance breakout Emily the Criminal is as much a victim of society's neglect as she is of her own self-centeredness. Yet Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is self-sufficient and capable of kicking serious butt, not in a professional, martial-arts way, but in a way that mirrors her determination.
It's not difficult to see why she is easily seduced from food-delivery work to credit card scamming given the $70K in school loans, half a degree, and her permanent record of aggravated assault and DUI. The clarity and tension with which writer/director John Patton Ford unfolds Emily's arc are admirable--anyone in the audience can immediately identify with her dilemma-to remain poor or to make enough to erase debt and live comfortably.
Emily's only real friend is her old college chum, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who gets her an ad-agency interview with a mean womansplaining exec (Gina Gershon) that serves as the last testament to what Emily will suffer for every job she interviews: facing her criminal record and being offered, in this case, an internship for almost a half year without pay.
Hooking up with an enterprise that scams credit cards is almost a given; hooking up with the middle manager, Yusuf (Theo Rossi), is also a given, given that he is handsome, charming, and warm hearted. The drama actually comes alive when she begins scamming, showing a natural talent and aggressive enough, unlike other modern heroines, to escape by wit or just smarts with the help of a taser or boxcutters.
Throughout Emily the Detective, Plaza plays a decent millenial who has been buffeted by fate and her own stern affect to find salvation in accelerating crime, for which she has talent. Emily is not really the criminal that Yusuf's colleagues are; rather she's a bright woman caught in a social satire both trenchant and scary.
You'll love Plaza in this role. Just pray she can move from her deadpan characters to a variety of strong women. Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, she's impossible to ignore. She's that good.
Bullet Train (2022)
Smart, high velocity adventure for a summer that asks not much more.
At least five assassins are riding the same high-speed Japanese train, with a common purpose and a disposition to dispose of enemies by bullets and swords as is culturally appropriate. Chief murderer is "Ladybug" (Brad Pitt), whose therapeutic advice as he delivers a MacGuffin briefcase or his fists is Pulp-Fiction funny (Ladybug: "Because if you put peace out in the world, you get peace back"). He's in therapy.
Ladybug's a "snatch and grab" operative delivering that briefcase, hardly a peaceful activity that other assassins also participate in. No Peace Train this. The best rep for all of them is The Prince (Joey King), a sweety pie with a wicked MO. She's lured a father (Andrew Koji) aboard while her past activity involves shoving his son off a bridge. Not to worry, fate will allow the grandfather (Hiroyuki Sanada) to be aboard as well, and rest assured he has that old thriller staple, revenge, riding with him as well.
Bullet Train is pervaded by Asian-type philosophy and biting dialogue to mix the sublime and the ridiculous into lessons amidst pleasant chaos. "Let this be a lesson on the toxicity of anger!" (Therapist Barry). One car on the train has Kitty-themed seats, a nod to Japan 's Hello-Kitty obsession. Think Eastern Pulp Fiction seasoned with characters called White Death, The Hornet, and The Wolf. It's crazy fun.
The most pervasive motif is fate, which ironically doesn't make Ladybug lucky but provides facile answers to questions about the randomness of violence aboard the train. An assassin refers to Thomas the Tank Engine in an attempt to understand character, to the exclusion of Diesel from any survival technique.
It's overdone action and philosophy but set in high-end visuals like Dolby and IMAX theaters. Impressive sight and sound together with a $3 all-beef hot dog and temperature-controlled comfort while you watch an out-of-control adventure. It's our own little mayhem thumbing noses at COVID and inflation-for just over 2 hours only.
An artful and enjoyable mini noir for the summer from a filmmaker making his mark.
The new film, Vengeance, will avenge your empty feelings about vacuous summer blockbusters. It is neither a blockbuster nor simple. It's a bit of film noir, appropriately set in West Texas, a black comedy laced with questions about how we create our self-identity and how we deal with cultural influences that shape our images. It will stimulate you to sit on your summer patio and talk endlessly about the film's meanings while some tequila makes it all go down gently.
Vengeance, written, directed and produced by The Office's B J Novak, who played Ryan, has less to do with catching the murderer of Ben Manalowitz's (Novak) brief girlfriend, Abby (Lio Tipton), than NY-City Ben as stranger in a remote town, whose values are not his. As the outsider in an arid land where sophistication long ago adopted the good-old-boy ethic (it is not SXSW), Ben tries to find his way to truth about Abby's death and please his editor Eloise (Issa Rae), only to find that his own ignorance keeps the truth at bay.
Although Abby's brother, Ty (Boyd Holbrook), enlists Ben to help avenge her murder, Ben allows that vengeance is not in his wheelhouse. Finally agreeing to the hunt, Ben is barely aware that of his original indifference to her death and his lack of sympathy for Texans and their culture, so different from his liberal-leaning NE. Novak skillfully roams around the differences between blue and red states
Ignoring the evidence that she overdosed, Ben is lost in contemporary disinformation, part of which he's helped foster over the years. In the course of his investigation, it becomes apparent his New-York-based podcast and his writing for The New Yorker could play a part in his growing lack of objectivity. He realizes reporting on Abby's death will be a boon to his media persona, affection for her long-gone and hard to reinvent. That her death might have been from an overdose is a liability to a much juicier homicide, creating a false truth in a modern world tuned in to false news. As for the self-record that remains after we die, damn the truth and do our own existential creating.
Ben's ambitions are a block to understanding a culture that embraces guns and opioids. Abby's participation in the latter skewers Ben's investigation and affects his embracing a culture that allows overdose. His very act of reporting on a culture he does not know, even though he has barged in on it, is symptomatic of a media out of truth control.
False news, indulgence in opioids, and the selfish co-opting of a culture are not restricted to visiting West Texas. I hope B J Novak will bring us more truth wrapped in small stories both amusing and instructive.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022)
The summer's best comedy and a natural feel gooder.
"Throwback" . . . . . . . . . . . . "Old Fashioned"
That and more "feel good" than most films of the last few years, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is as jaunty as its title and just as endearing as you could want in our parlous times. A dramedy set in 1957, it's done right by writer/director Anthony Fabian and his screenwriters; it earns respect while it entertains in full dress, so to speak.
In '50's London, widowed cleaning lady Ada (Lesley Manville) dreams of buying a haute couture gown from Dior, and by gum she gets to the Paris headquarters and maneuvers for her dream. Simple enough plot, straight out of the mid-20th century fantasy filmmaking factories. Among the many cheery working-class characters, and a few higher ups, are Ada's new Parisian friends, most from her affectionate interaction at the House of Dior.
What makes her so appealing is her humility and good cheer, to such a degree that her one kind act when she reaches Dior sets in motion the good things that happen to her, even in the inevitable presence of the bad. Her willingness to pay cash for her gown endears her to the sometimes-stuffy couture staff and converts them to her good will.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a comedy that makes no pretense of being realistic except everyone's awe, including the audience's, at the mystique a global name in a snooty profession engenders. Last year's House of Gucci, while anchored in some dicey family warfare, has the same reverence and not so much comedy.
Along the way in Paris is a Dior accountant, Andre (Lucas Bravo), who looks just like Gregory Peck in 1953's Roman Holiday (they even ride on his Vespa!). Making less of a romantic lead of Andre, Mrs Harris Goes a long way to democratize the romance (Peck played a journalist to Audrey Hepburn's royalty) and let us in on the fun. This comedy is after all about commoners having their fun. Isabelle Huppert's crusty Dior overlord, Claudine Colbert, evokes the stereotype of the uptight bureaucrat. Yes, Mrs Harris wins her over, too. About Christian Dior, our unpretentious heroine says: "'e looks like my milkman!"
That about says it all for a light-hearted summer comedy, a throwback to the days when motion pictures made us feel better.
The Gray Man (2022)
Netflix's best actioner, but that bar is low.
"Trash 'stache," as assassin Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) remarks about extreme bad guy Lloyd Hansen's (Chris Evans) look.
Nothing gray about The Gray Man with two A-list stars chasing each other for the CIA around the globe quipping and killing in some very posh, mysterious locations like Prague, Bangkok, and London. Six ("007 was taken") is colder hearted and more deadly than Bond ever was. Lloyd is just heartless and uncool.
Yet the deficiency is that Bond usually has verbal dexterity fully within hearing distance-Six (Gosling far from his memorable taciturn Drive persona), and his pursuer Lloyd (evens leagues away from his Captain America persona), are never speaking more than a sentence or two over loud explosions. You got it, this stylish Netflix thriller is all about Russo Brothers' action dexterity (They helmed such Marvel spectaculars as Avengers Endgame), which is fully in view and satisfying from a surface point of view.
Case in point: one sequence in a Prague square has Six handcuffed to a stone bench fighting off world-class murderers, who use an amount of ammo that might give even the NRA pause. Cost $40 million-- 20% of the $200 million for the whole film.
The Gray Man (Grays are elite assassins with almost license to kill) has Russo hyperactivity all over it-barely a minute or two before the next set piece that includes a hairy escape from a plummeting plane (a sequence fit for Tom Cruise). Breathless stuff that could have given more room to breaths that speak--most of the time it makes no sense, but, hey, what did you expect for 200 mil?
The heart of this action film for me is Billy Bob Thornton's Fitzroy, an elderly CIA member caught by Lloyd in a blackmail over Fitzroy's teen age niece, Claire (Julia Butters), who has a heart condition. Not only is the connection warm, but also his paternal/mentor relationship with Six is almost normal were it not for the bad guys that interfere by doing such nasty things as shooting at Six and kidnapping Suzanne. Six's banter with Claire and his colleague Dani (Ana de Armas) show that he has a light side and some verbal capabilities, but no enough to take the film to a higher dramatic level.
The Gray Man may be Netflix's best action flick so far, not a high bar, that can be seen as well in theaters, which I recommend for the full effect of Russo visual magic. Otherwise, see Mrs Harris Goes to Paris for a more coherent and relaxing Euro trip.
Where the Crawdads Sing (2022)
A dramatic thriller to be enjoyed even without the societal implications.
Southern Gothic? Where the Crawdads Sing has some of that menace, prejudice, eccentricity, sexism, and violence that Southern literature, from Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, and James Dickey through Flannery O'Connor have traded on. Crawdads also has a respect for survival and hunger for literacy that marks it as progressive fiction depicting a slowly evolving, reconstructing South.
I get lost in a swamp of Southern sentimentality sometimes with this alluring literature especially when a talented surviving girl is involved. I will be kinder than some of my peers by saying this thriller is an old-fashioned mix of To Kill a Mockingbird and Winter's Bone with just a whiff of Deliverance to keep it scary enough but still entertaining for members of the family above eight years old.
Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones), aka Swamp Girl by locals, strikes out for the North Carolina marsh and swamp to escape an abusive Pa (Garrett Dillahunt-playing in traditional Gothic mode), both of whom have been abandoned by the rest of the family. Adapted by Lucy Alibar from the Delia Owens best-selling novel and directed intelligently and gently by Olivia Newman, Crawdads draws on our prejudices about the rural South to surprise us eventually that there are softer, more considerate sides of locals who believe Kya killed her former boyfriend, Chase (Harris Dickinson).
The story doesn't let us forget her fate at trial depends on persuading this local jury of her innocence. Because the Atticus-Finch like Tom Milton (David Strathairn) defends her if she will tell him about her life, the drama enfolds with flash backs and contemporary scenes that eventually show her a young woman of substance occasionally making the wrong choices but learning quickly enough to find love and her gifts as a naturalist.
Although I'm impatient with the repetitive romantic scenes, the minimalist trial and stunning cinematography of North Carolina provide beauty and danger enough to please the pickiest cinephile with its elegant retro filmmaking. As for the drama, many luxurious shots are infused with a love of nature and a respect for human nature that marries the wilderness to Kya's sensibilities and produces volumes of her ornithological illustrations bringing the world to the swamp without compromising its balance.
Where the Crawdads Sing brings a regional awareness of nature in its eternal dance with humans' awkward attempts to tame it. A story about a brilliant woman marrying the marsh to her evolving survival as a writer and woman must be seen by those who favor an aggressive modern female taming ignorance and preserving respect for marshland that refuses to be tamed.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
A total joy of character and setting. Netflix and Crackle
"Me and this fat kid / We ran we ate and read books / And it was the best." Hec's (Kiwi legend Sam Neill) Haiku
As fantasies go, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is an example of how they can be fun and meaningful if written and directed right. An old man, Hec, and a young boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison), strike out in the New Zealand bush to escape government social services seeking to send the boy to another depressing foster home or a prison known as "Juvie."
As I researched for an NPR show on the director, I discovered the incomparable Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Besides its fabulous plot, where two outsiders evade the law for months because Hec is well versed in the wild and is growing fond of the little bundle of trouble, writer-director Taika Waititi and writer Barry Crump use the wit and humanity so evident in Waititi's Jojo Rabbit to create two memorable characters and secondaries who will not be forgotten either.
Along their merry way, they learn to accept each other's eccentricities and survive without the safety nets available to the rest of regular people. Having started us out with a new aunt in a new foster home, Bella (Rima te Wiata), we can see there will be love for Ricky to counter the bureaucratic sternness, exemplified in Paula (Rachel House), that fails to see warmth and purpose are Ricky's salvation: "Yeah, and I'll never stop chasing you - I'm relentless, I'm like the Terminator." Paula
As you can tell from the opening quote, haikus became a communication between the two adventurers, remarkable because Hec is illiterate. The two bond through nature and poetry.
I remain speechless as I think of the many lyrical moments in Hunt for Wilderpeople. It's available on Netflix and Crackle. Watch with your family and friends for a sweet evening that will bond you as our protagonists do. It's good old-fashioned moviemaking with modern sensibilities-it will make you long to be a wandering "Wilderpeople" straight to a paradise called New Zealand.
"It's majestical." Hec.
The Forgiven (2021)
Exotic and Intriguing, a parable set in Morocco--Casablanca anyone?
"I don't' need to be forgiven anymore," Jo (Jessica Chastain)
In Morocco's High-Atlas mountain range of north Africa, a prosperous couple holidays at a friend's ksour in Azna only to discover their imperfections do not take a holiday. Causing a random accident that kills an Arab boy, Driss, driver David (Ralph Fiennes) and companion Jo are thrown into conflicts with Muslims and themselves.
Between the hot Sahara sands and the relentless sun, nothing but the real self can live. David, an uncompassionate, elite physician (about Driss: "The kid is a nobody"), is as cynical as he could be, and Jo, a writer of children's books, is as repressed as she could be until David leaves with Driss's father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), to attend to Driss's interment, not a required journey for David, but dad requests and David complies.
Although it might be inferred that David is going into danger willingly to expiate his sin of driving too drunk and too fast for the accident, David turns out to be more honorable than his alcoholism and misanthropy might imply. Such is the character mutation common in a parable.
The Forgiven, however, turns on identity-David burying the boy's identification at the accident is sacrilegious to the Arabs, and Jo's liberated, loose behavior while he is gone belies the virtuous behavior The Arabs expect from women.
"Civilized" Westerners are not respected-why do they even buy fossils that the Arabs deem worthless? While the discussion about why Westerners buy them is worth its attention, even more so is the trilobite fossil that contains the devil, transferable to the Europeans.
In other words, moralist writer-director John Michael McDonagh's The Forgiven is embedded with symbolism that works. Strangers in a strange land need to respect the humblest rituals such as burial and fidelity. The film doesn't paint the foreigners favorably, but then Westerners have been demonizing Arabs for decades in our films.
Unforgettable are the drone shots of their white cars navigating barely discernible roads, apt metaphor for the lost souls of the foreigners and the superiority of the natives. Equally memorable are the almost sweatless activities, helped by the Arab's growing affinity for ice. Cross cultural fertilization is a constant with the visitors not always favored recipients.
Nonetheless, a random accident has changed everyone except the oasis's European revelers, who move on without a ruffled shirt or moral code. The Forgiven is a parable exposing the frailty of mankind, regardless of color. Who's better, the aliens or the locals? A good morality tale leaves it to the viewer.
Dynamic drama about political and sociological clashes in Northeast India. On Netflix.
"Peace is a subjective hypothesis." A leader in Anek
Anek, a Netflix film from India, dramatizes the complex nature of Indian geopolitics that moves gingerly among socio politics and bloody action. It illuminates Northeast India's struggles between independence and abiding nationalism, the latter triumphant but not before blood and egos practically stomp out honor from even the most honorable citizens.
Aido (Andrea Kevichusa) is a female boxer who wants to fight for the honor of India whilst others want her to win for the Northeast in a battle for independence, or not. The region has been in conflict over its identity and its nationalism for decades. The usual jingoism of Hindi cinema such as Bollywood musicals is gone in this multifaceted thriller that plays between the factions without favoring either or painting over each's imperfections.
Unlike the extremists on either side, Aido can represent the state or the country. In the end, she represents both, a tribute to director Anubhav Sinha and several writers whose ambivalence shows in an amalgam of allegiances befitting a diverse country. Anek can get down with its gunfighting skirmishes, redolent of parochial interests and factional passions, but most of it is interested in personal motives and uninformed allegiances.
Although India as a whole is the winner for generally showing good intentions, Anek (translated as many or more than one) does a sympathetic job showing how varying patriotic interests affect the nation as a whole. Showing a smart understanding of many points of view, Anek is hidden among other worthy films on Netflix; give it a cultural try.
Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022)
Outwits every other comedy this summer. Enjoy.
"Did you just trade my future for a PET ROCK?" Gru (voice of Steve Carell)
Typical '70's allusion, of which there are too many to count in the smart, frequently side-splitting summer comedy, Minions: The Rise of Gru, the latest in the Despicable me franchise. I know, I know-it's an animation that should be just for kids, but it is so creative and sophisticated it may be better for adults.
While I always love potty-mouthed bad boys like Billy Bob Thornton's Bad Santa, Gru has a special place for me because beside his gruff exterior, he is a softie for his twinkie-like henchmen, just as I am for them. Directors, animators, and writers conspire to make us love the ambitious, almost 11-year-old Gru, in his search to become one of the notorious Vicious Six (they having chucked old man Wild Knuckles voiced by Alan Arkin) and subsequently the world's baddest supervillain.
After the Six ouster Gru, he steals their magic Zodiac stone, and this begins a world-wide hunt to find Gru and the supernatural rock. Along the way, the henchminions quip and slapstick their way to finding Gru and Knuckles to the extent that the audience can be spied texting themselves to see this estimable Looney Tune redux again in order to catch all the gags.
Re-visitation is a necessity given that the little Twinkies speak an amalgam of languages including French, Spanish, and Minionese, so as to be almost indecipherable. Except the tater-tot expressions are so individualistic and nonsensical as to make you laugh if only for the meaning that shines through eyes and mouths anyway.
The creativity is just as evident in the names for various characters: Lobster-legged Jean Clawed (J. C. Van Damme), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and baddie Blaxploitation Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), to name a few. The laugh leaders, though, are the capsule connivers whose nonchalant reaction to dire danger only endears them more. How the creators evoke sympathy and love from such homely heroes is part of the enduring charm of characters ripped right from 70's Looney Tunes.
If you have read some of my previous film criticism, you know I don't often review comedy because, well, I'm tough on it. Minions: The Rise of Gru rises above any other contemporary comedy by virtue of its relentlessly funny dialogue and mercilessly cute minions. Enjoy your summer outing inside in marvelously tricked-out theaters with big screens, big color, big sound, and big seats.
Given the millions spent to bring us high quality cinema, price of tickets is a steal, even for the best of heist cinema.
Bob: Good night Kevin: Good night Gru: Yes, yes, yes good night Sturat: GOOD NIGHT!
Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)
Smooth, light rom-com for the summer. And much to say.
"Giving your heart to somebody is the scariest, most dangerous, most perplexing thing." Domino (Dakota Johnson)
Although my experience with older women is largely with my mother, grandmother, and sister, I now feel up to date having seen Cha Cha Real Smooth. It's a rom-com with depth-Andrew's 22 (Cooper Riff), a bar Mitzvah party starter, and Domino's (Dakota Johnson) 29 with a child. He falls for her, she likes him, and her fiancé has something to think about.
It could have been a miserable mess of conflicting passions, but writer/director/star Raiff continually charms everyone, both other characters and the audience with his engaging people skills and overwhelming love of just about everything. His affection for Domino, who, waiting for her fiancé to return from Chicago, seems like a pure love devoid of entanglements, existing as if it touched no one else. Except for a little experiential gulf between them.
Parallel to the main romance is Andrew's coaching his younger brother David (Evan Assante) into his first kiss. Not only are his instructions amusing, but his ill-informed advice reinforces the central motif of Andrew clumsily wooing Domino. Not that there's anything wrong with either engagement; it's just that these enterprises are eventually seen as better ripening themselves with just a little push from hormones and adventure.
As most rom-coms work out nicely for the polar opposite lovers, it's refreshing to see one where both the romance and the disappointments co-exist with such uncertainties that even the most seasoned movie buff will be unable to predict the denouement.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is streaming on Apple TV and in theaters. It's still time to see it as an example of what low-key, quality filmgoing can be like in the summer. Real Smooth.
The Black Phone (2021)
It grabs and doesn't let go but less horrible than most standard horror films.
"Wanna see a magic trick?" The Grabber (Ethan Hawke)
The Black Phone has many of the obvious horror tropes like a magician (The Grabber), who plays to our worst fear, taking our kids from us, their youth, or plainly their lives. As in Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill, he's elusive partly because he uses his own digs to commit his crimes and partly because his brother Max (James Ransone) is a clueless surrogate for a society, including most of the audience, that sees no evil.
The true magic of this modern terror flick is that the audience remains engaged even though it spies the clues early and predicts the ending. The magic of casting has two adolescent leads who couldn't be more self-reliant and inventive. Thirteen-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) is predictably weak with the bullies, sensitive with female classmates, and loving his potty-mouthed younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).
The bullies will get their comeuppances, and Finney will make life difficult for them and The Grabber. Beyond these horror staples, The Black Phone, set in 1978, touches common fears of all parents of all ages: the safety of their children. As in Stephen King's It and elsewhere, an entertainer represents the danger inherent in media and the willingness of kids to take risks, the latter a trait that also may save their lives.
The supernatural motif, best expressed in the disconnected phone delivering messages from Grabber's former victims, hints at the fabulous nature of horror flicks, a remove enough from reality to help through even the most timid of us voyeurs.
Add to this bitter brew the kids' physically abusive father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), and The Black Phone is up to date in middle class paranoia for the 21st century. What keeps it so engrossing are the helpless but resourceful children and the feeling that Grabber may grab no more thanks to these same vulnerable kids.
A sub topic is Gwen communing with Jesus through her doll house and her dreams. At some point she questions whether Jesus is real if he allows the serial abductor to commit his crimes. While this theological puzzle is still alive today, writer Joe Hill (based on his short story), writer C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson don't deflect us from the more mundane problems such as finding Grabber and the captured Phinney.
Although The Black Phone should deter you from rehabbing your old dial phone, it should not keep you from enjoying the best of the horror tradition and seeing Ethan Hawke expand his considerable acting chops.
An exceptional summer biopic with music, drama, and history. Elvis never leaves the building.
Gladys Presley (Helen Thomson): "The way you sing is God-given, so there can't be nothin' wrong with it."
If you weren't around mid-twentieth century when Elvis Presley dominated pop culture, I can enthusiastically recommend director Baz Luhrmann's biopic, Elvis, which scintillates with the King's white and black singing and pulsates with his revolutionary moves. Not only is it accurate history (e.g., the prominent assassinations); it also captures Elvis's passion, genius, and demons such as drugs, women, and a sleazy manager, Col. Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).
Austin Butler is a dynamic Elvis; Butler doesn't try to imitate the King so much as capture his magnetic personality and surrounding forces like family, bands, and the colonel, all of which endanger his art. Butler can sing and gyrate without impersonating. The ample and sonorous music throughout has a modern techno element joined by pleasant remixing. It's a drama wrapped in a musical, reminiscent of Luhrmann's unforgettable Moulin Rouge.
This movie tries valiantly to trace Elvis's teen influence from blues, country, and pop, but not conclusively enough to end the arguments about those roots. The inclusion of B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and Big Mama Thornton (Shonka Dukureh) help cross the racial divide with enthusiasm and authenticity.
In large part one can see that the lack of Elvis's education and the reluctance of those forces to curb his appetites lead to his death at 42. Doctors claim a heart attack while rumors assert drugs. Regardless, Luhrmann treats the components with the respect they deserve.
Safe to say Elvis helped engender the diversity and inclusivity movements that flourish today with a natural performance that propelled him into pop-culture lore and teen-girl fandom.
His Mephistopheles, Colonel Parker, as played by the accomplished Hanks, is the only slightly out-of-touch element in this superior musical. Hanks' fat suit, prosthetics, and makeup too often distract, and I'm not sure if it's because we know who's under it all or that Hanks is just overplaying his hand. For sure his inscrutable accent evokes German when in fact Parker was from the Netherlands.
Colin Farrell's Penguin is moderate by contrast. Anyway, Hanks sounds goofy and distracts like his makeup. Actually, this odd characterization threatens to take over the film, especially since Parker's narrator is most of it.
Maybe that's the point-Parker represents the multiple influences on the King, which give Parker a common man appearance when in fact there is nothing common about him.
The King's clothes, authentic and glamorous, are glittering and clinging enough to make you want to check Amazon for immediate delivery. One caution, few of us has the appeal or physique of Butler, which could be why he got the role in the first place.
The motion picture Elvis is a summer delight of sentiment, history, and rockin' music worth every minute of its overlong time. It kept old me awake and happy, as if I were sitting at a table in a Vegas nightclub when Elvis returned for the 7th year.
He just doesn't leave the building of our minds, ever, and thank you, Baz, for making sure of that.
Brian and Charles (2022)
Arguably the best film of summer '22, but certainly one of the best of the year.
In this dry season, I looked to some dry UK humor to accompany my dry martini. In director Jim Archer's brilliant Brian and Charles, wit and heart are the essential ingredients as small-town Welch citizen Brian (David Earl) is all beard and glasses inventing useless objects like an egg-carrying belt and a flying cuckoo clock, which he launches from a bicycle with disastrous results.
Brian's my kind of eccentric, a quirky introvert lucky to find a lady, Hazel (Louise Brealey), an equally introverted heart who loves Brian for the reasons others find him weird.
With nothing better to do, he creates robot Charles, seven feet of rubber head and box chest and the sarcastic inquisitiveness of a teen waiting for the chance to escape and see the world. Being led around town virtually on a leash, Charles is ready to bolt while retaining a loving attitude toward his maker.
It's a bit of Frankenstein mixed with Iron Giant, peppered with R2-D2 love and C-3PO attitude. The glasses give him a smart impression and the blue eye a sinister suggestion. But he, too, is all heart. As in any summer comedy worth anything, conflict finds its place in the town bully, Eddie (Jamie Michie), attacking meek Brian and his creation.
What happens is not so much a surprise as it is a satisfying resolution fitting a sleepy town enfolded in white clouds, grey days, and simplicity. Murren Tullett's crisp cinematography will convince you to book a flight to Wales, and Daniel Pemberto's energetic electronic score will make you forget Danny Elfman's musical genius but remind you of Pemberto's Spider-Verse compositions.
Daniel and Charles has a soothing, loving humanity to take you out of Top Gun, Jurassic World, and Thor and give you a walking stick to explore little UK towns that contain lo-fi conflict enough for multiverses. One of the best movies of the year and arguably the best so far this summer.
Thriller formula with sophistication and Hitchcock.
Let's say you're thinking about writing a thriller for the screen. Naturally you'll first consult Alfred Hitchcock, who can be counted on to employ all the tropes and add a few of his originals to strengthen the tension, like the MacGuffin.
Your updated paradigm is in your theaters now: Watcher. Set in Bucharest, it employs as many formulaic elements as possible in its 91 minutes, e.g., a simple one: the gun that first appears early on and then later on. More as I attend to themes and character arcs.
Julia (Maika Monroe) is an attractive blonde (think The Birds or Psycho) accompanying her husband, Francis (Karl Glusman), to Romania for his new job, won because he knows the language. She not knowing it, and he speaking it with colleagues in front of her when they know English, is an isolating touch for a lady who is lonely from her arrival. The indolent wife in these thrillers can be vulnerable with nothing to do but wander the streets.
Early on she believes a man is watching her from a window across the way (think Rear Window)and following her when she is out and about. As in so many thrillers, no one believes her, and writer/director Chloe Okuno does a smooth job setting the audience to disbelief as well. Not that this weak spot for a heroine is so unusual-think of the number of candidates like Condoleezza Rice and Amber Heard. (Nevertheless, Julia's loneliness could have been remedied by having her work but then no thriller)
The plot runs apace as Julia makes a friend, Ellen, who lives alone and is equally vulnerable. Possible stalkers appear while Julia becomes more paranoid with each encounter, until . . . . Well, I won't tell.
Yes, there's a bird's eye shot at the head of the stairs (think Vertigo) and a MacGuffin in the form of a serial killer who may or may not be Julia's watcher. And on and on with the thriller staples, yet so well done as to make you think you're seeing it all for the first time.
The lonely spouse and the over-worked husband are a breeding ground for paranoia. Women being stalked is a thriller commonplace. Watcher builds on this formula to create a sense of dislocation not just in Bucharest; it's everywhere.
Watcher is a congenial date that's not too bloody or scary but just real enough to keep the aud thinking, "It could be me."
Jurassic World Dominion (2022)
Almost as good as the original. Solid summer enjoyment.
"We're racing toward the extinction of our species. We not only lack dominion over nature, we're subordinate to it." Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum)
Jurassic World Dominion may arguably be almost as good as the original. Anyway, it's quite entertaining summer adventure fare with the CGI dinosaurs more realistic than ever, including the biggest carnivore in the world, yes more fearsome than T Rex. The real dinosaurs are the returning veterans Laura Dern, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sam Neill, and the inimitable Jeff Goldblum. You just can't put them down even with the failure of at least two other theme parks.
In order to fulfill the rigid requirements of the adventure genre, there must be a serious bad guy, and this Jurassic has Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). He runs a sanctuary lab that houses homeless dinos but really serves as a platform for world dominion.
You got it-the four heroes go through innumerable dino encounters to stop the maniac genius. But enough plot, of which there is nary a nuance, because the relationships of good people throughout are pleasantly emphasized so that we care about each one.
We saw this Jurassic in a Phoenix Theater's Dolby Atmos, a splendid screening venue that titillates with sound moving your seat ever so slightly. When the dino stomps, our seats respond with a tingle. So, our Jurassic joy is watching and feeling the best motion pictures have to offer. Together with the most comfortable seats in town, it's a pleasant safari with monstrous animals, some over 60 million years old.
The larger point writer/director Colin Trevorrow and writer Emily Carmichael make is about cooperation-be it among family and co-workers or dinos and humans, we have no choice but to work in harmony. Or otherwise, damnation it is or total annihilation. Having lived in the last three years with a microscopic monster, it's nice to see ones big as buildings with the hope that we will survive together, if only in the salutary world of Hollywood dreams.
Jurassic World Dominion is a most pleasant way to enjoy a summer night out, even when it hints of extinction:
"The doomsday clock might be out of time." Ian Malcolm.
Adam Sandler has become an accomplished actor, and this hoop drama is a winner.
"I love this game. I live this game." Stanley Sugerman (Adam Sandler)
Hustle is a commanding Netflix original that nudges the formulaic "Hoop Dreams" out of its comfort zone into an entertaining drama that emphasizes ambition, brotherly love (set in Philadelphia after all), and familial support, traits that could apply to any underdog struggling against immense forces.
Stanley Sugerman is a has-been scout for the '76ers who discovers a Madrid street champion, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), and promotes him in the states for the NBA, eventually using his own funds to bring him over. Although the usual cliches like a cocky antagonist Kermit Wilts (Minnesota Timberwolves teammate Anthony Edwards) and a dismissive owner Vince Merrick (Ben Foster) are there, Sandler, eschewing his usual over-the-top comic shtick, gives warmth and sincerity (he loves basketball anyway) to make the challenges believable and him a hero.
Just look at the sweet meet between Stanley's family and Bo's to see how deftly director Jeremiah Zugar (from South Philly) swings from a saccharine take to a modest, loving union of people who understand the unifying nature of Bo and Stanley's ambition. After seeing Sandler in his tour de force Uncut Gems (Also Netflix), I am a Sandler fan who believes Sandler has moved almost instantaneously from comic to dramatic (well, maybe that fast if you consider his performance in Punch Drunk Love).
If you're young an unimpressed with my praise, perhaps these ingredients will help you to tune it in: Multiple cameos of other NBA stars, LeBron James a producer, and gritty, electric streetball games; the use of social media to get the attention of indifferent NBA bigwigs. For me, seeing Sandler as a warm and flawed human being play beside an equally affecting Hernangomez, is worth a warm evening enjoying, as we all did with the similarly-based Rocky, seeing humans striving to be more than they are.
Crimes of the Future (2022)
Dark horror sci-fi in Cronenberg's usually entertaining take on the dynamic of humanity and technology.
"Surgery is the new sex." Caprice (Lea Seydoux)
Although I have a less sensual feeling about surgery than Caprice, David Cronenberg in his new Crimes of the Future makes the case for the tyranny of cosmetic and internal organ rehab for the human body. "Body horror" is the name of his game. He is so good at observing the close relationship between technology and the body that this horror cum philosophy disturber gets attention and doesn't let go. And sometimes it makes sense.
At a science fiction future time, humans are growing synthetic organs and messing around with plastic surgery so that the parallel with the contemporary urge for surgery is unavoidable. The blight of plastic in our environment is brought home when a boy chomps on a plastic basket.
The main performance artist, Saul (Vigo Mortenson), has become a rock star of synthetic organs reminiscent of Kafka's troubled Hunger Artist. Garbed sometimes like Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal, Saul publicly showcases the metamorphosis of his organs in performances catering to a jaded humanity.
As his assistant and surgeon, Caprice operates on and models his new organs resulting from his "designer cancer." As for the two actually having old-fashioned sex, I'm not so sure but am wary of the future population decline, as the Chinese have experienced.
Another female who works for the director's symbolic machine is Timlin (Kristen Stewart), under the employ of The National Organ Registry (ominous title with malevolent bureaucratic properties) and desirous of connecting with Saul's celebrity. Like other citizens, she is seeking sensation as a byproduct of pain deficiency and dull affect. When she unzips his stomach zipper and licks his wounds, echoes of the old oral sex intrude.
Enough said of the organ motif, for more organic to Crimes of the Future is the human evolution to dangerous surgery and questionable cosmetics, a world almost devoid of humanity and full of narcissism. While it is a world devoid of pain, it's the interior emotions that seem, like the synthetic organs, vulnerable. The "inner beauty pageant" is the one salutary oddity contrasted with the ugly organ expos.
Crimes of the Future is easier to stomach, so to speak, than would be suspected. There's almost a Zen acceptance of the evolution that stands somewhere between The Fly and Crash, highly symbolic and slightly hopeful about humanity's survival, but accepting that crimes are always in our future.
A tour-de-force of allegory and symbolism. And just darn good horror.
Men is a home horror brew, imperfect for its load of figurative tropes but pleasing to the metaphoric obsessions of an English major who loves allegory. Auteur Alex Garland has crafted a film so enjoyably horrific and thematically loaded as to please those tired of goody-two shoes super-heroes and limitless CGI.
This intense treatise on the wrong's men do to women uses the standard object of fear, a single woman, Harper (Jessie Buckley), in a secluded English Cotswold cottage mending a heart devastated by the death (or suicide) of her husband, James (Paapa Essiedu). Various men enter her life, not one redeemable and most just downright ugly even when they physical aren't.
The predominantly evil alpha male is a naked middle-aged man with scars to scare, who stalks her in a tunnel on the path and back to her house, even after the police roust him out but have to let him out. Even a seemingly benign local prelate has sexist views about her driving her husband to suicide, so she seems to have no protector except another female on a smart phone 4 hours away. Harper is alone with demented men, a perfect scenario for the horror-flick formula.
Garland has done a yeoman's job larding his tale with symbols right down to when he offers pagan imagery of green men and Sheela-Na-Gigs, which help counter the misanthropy in favor of the men, who are misogynists. In effect, Garland has spent an entire film deriding the men but finds women also with some horrific responsibility.
You're not quite sure what I mean when I characterize Garland as sated with symbols? Consider this obvious allegory: As Harper arrives at the cottage, she spies an apple tree from which she plucks and eats an apple, only to be chided by the owner, Jeff (Rory Kinnear).
As a former English major, I delighted in the figurative gymnastics and multiple themes. However, the final birth scenes are almost too graphic for most women to stomach, much less delicate English major men. But the stuff of hard-core horror the images are.
Anyway, if you're a female, you may enjoy the men in Men as stalking, walking misogynists, and if you're a male, just run and hide, but not in the Cotswolds.
Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
The top summer film abundant with human emotion. A worthy sequel.
"Thirty-plus years of service. Combat medals. Citations. Only man to shoot down three enemy planes in the last 40 years. Yet you can't get a promotion, you won't retire, and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die. You should be at least a two-star Admiral by now, yet here you are. Captain. Why is that?" Vice Admiral Chester "Hammer" Cain (Ed Harris)
Top Gun: Maverick is top of the line defining the humanistic action film that stands not far behind my favorite of the subgenre, The Magnificent Seven. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) returns to Top Gun school to teach the best navy pilots to fly an almost impossible mission and to lose their cockiness as well. The losses he has sustained because of his devotion to excellence are codified above.
Almost 30 years after his peak, when he lost a pilot and now faces the pilot's son, "Rooster (Miles Teller)," in his class, Maverick shows why he is the best teacher who was once the second-best pilot in his graduating class. That he thinks of himself as an "enabler," not a teacher, is further proof that he could be the best teacher, an element of which is humility. Indeed, this wildly fun adventure is as much about teaching and learning as it is about heroism.
It shouldn't be lost that Teller also played an upcoming student, Andrew, in Whiplash, where J. K. Simmons plays his tough teacher, Fletcher, much in the manner that Cruise plays "teacher" Maverick. Both father figures demand the best, giving no quarter until students master the drill and lose their overweening pride.
The motif most young males come to this movie for is the tough-guy aerial play, and there is plenty of that. Yet, their testosterone represents all human beings, male and female, who want to be more than they are and think battle is the key to attaining glory. This Top Gun shows the need to be humble as one pursues lofty goals, right down to the level of love, where Maverick finds another almost impossible task of wooing back his former love, Penny (Jennifer Connelly).
This humanity-rich drama also comments on the pursuit of excellence and its concomitant demand to be selfless to serve mankind. Additionally, reconciling enemies and turning enmity to kindness becomes the formula for success, right up to a rear admiral, Ice (Val Kilmer), who endangers his own reputation to support his former rival, Maverick, and defeat an unnamed enemy threating nuclear warfare from its uranium hideaway.
And so it goes-Top Gun: Maverick, while dishing out heaps of action cliches, also serves up a paradigm for success dominated by a willingness to overcome pride while also saving humanity. That's tops for any movie. Summer is now officially here with Top Gun rightfully taking top of the box office. Rarely does a seemingly superficial adventure promise the salvation of humanity and save summer at the same time.
Life and this small film prove to be beautiful.
"This moment is grace; paradise." Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong)
Having just published my review of the block-busting Downton Abbey: A New Era, I'm reviewing a minimalist treasure from South-Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, In Front of Your Face. Although the future for Downton's Crawley family is problematic but full of sumptuous promise, in Face, life has geared down for middle-aged actress Sangok in a way that lets her see life as "paradise." Because fate has firmly placed her in the present, she evaluates her life with an existential celebration of its goodness.
Although beyond her inner thoughts, nothing much happens in this short story, being a fan of Seinfeld I'm used to that minimalism. Nothing happens there, yet everything. So, too, in Face, where her coffee with director Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), who wants her to star in his next film, becomes a seduction and a musing about life that could be summed up by saying the world in front of her face is perfect and beautiful.
Writer/director Hong's camera is almost static, a fine place to concentrate on characters, their simple dialogue, and the subterranean truths that wait to surface, not at once, but distributed gently in the exposition of the story.
Given our isolation over the last few years from the global health crisis, In Front of Your Face is a film perhaps to be seen by yourself as an imitation of its anti-story makeup. It practically begs for you to think of nothing other than your own place in the cosmos. Like her, you may determine to live in the present--you'll probably determine that life is beautiful.
Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022)
The Downton mystique is alive and well. And the cinematography is superb.
High-class soap-opera-like Downton Abbey: A New Era should be called what it really is: high-class melodrama. Here is a rambling story with too many characters, but who cares? Because it's told so well with each character clearly defined and loveable.
After the binge-worthy six-sessions TV series in the early 2010's, the 2019 film, with its visit from royalty, held up well enough to spawn this sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, in which the aristocratic Crawley family is crawling into the 1930's, with The Great Depression, wars, and innovations imminent. The film creates a vitality even in a staid Brit world largely because of a robust screenplay and spot-on actors. Not to forget drone shots of the impossibly cinematic estate.
In fact, no melodramatic villain appears, if you exclude the arch-disturber, Change. Writer Julian Fellowes and director Simon Curtis have crafted a rousing fable about a new era as it approaches the third decade of the 20th century through the lens of a visiting Hollywood production to the Abbey.
Marry that modern incursion to the hidebound Brit tradition and you have a sentimental farewell to the old world, signified by the sharp-witted Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), who is ready to pass the estate and a newly-added villa in the south of France to the younger Granthams. A formidable subplot is the change the Hollywood production itself must face as sound trounces silent movies and same-sex relationships emerge, galaxies away from our modern acceptance of sexual orientations.
The most moving scene is when the production learns it has to create a sound track in order to continue filming. Watching them sync the sound (dubbing so to speak) to the actors for the first time since they saw Jolson say a few words in The Jazz Singer is just as if we were in a time machine witnessing that monumental change almost 100 years ago.
Downton Abbey is a state of mind, not a place, where our dreams of upper-class blissful isolation clash with the realities of life both for the rich and the poor. Throughout is a benign sense of humanity's essential goodness and our common bonds. Cinema has brought us together in time and sympathy-see A New Era in a theater with its glorious visuals and commanding sound-We've come a long way, Baby.
Jaddeh Khaki (2021)
A new classic family road trip with touches of Little Miss Sunshine. Brilliant.
"Warn the people, he's an idiot!" Dad (Hasan Majuni)
So it goes for six-year-old Little Brother (Rayan Sarlak, watch for him in the future) as dad prepares anyone outside the family that they have a dynamo for a child, whose older brother is quite the opposite in his quietude. The family is on a secret journey in Panah Panahi's debut Hit the Road, set in the bleak plains of Iran but full of family shenanigans, not quite as light as in Little Miss Sunshine, but having the same surprises of joy and sorrow plaguing any road journey in film, and sometimes in life itself not on the screen but in our own vans.
Reflecting the Iranian New Wave with cinematography and background worthy of Waiting for Godot (even one shot with a single tree against a barren landscape), Hit the Road is about an uncertain destination to the northern border with an uncertain fate awaiting travelers, especially in a world as chaotic as Iran. It would seem the family is not only delivering but also escaping a fate they only partially control.
The shifting tones from comedy to drama--the boy without his cell and the older brother without a future-- show a young director already in charge of his craft.
Emblematic of the riotous life of a very bright but eccentric family is the contradictory relationship between dad and Little Brother, who banter in a beautiful fantasy scene about Batman while Little can equally be chastised for being loud and provocative (he's precocious, if you couldn't tell). Also telling is the long wide shot by cinematographer Amin Jafari where something quietly tragic is happening, set on a riverbank evocative of Ingmar Bergman's iconic Seventh Seal long shots.
Oddly-placed musical numbers are a welcome respite from the growing sense of doom, and another clue to the happiness that may bless the family, if not on this journey.
As lovely Mom (Pantea Panahiha) provides the moderating influence among the warring factions of the family, she also carries the melancholy of one who knows the separation and tragedy that fate will eventually deliver along life's journey.
Hit the Road is a family-trip masterpiece from a 37-year-old director whose legendary director dad would be proud. Among the laughter and tears is a common thread for humanity: Just keep going.
Operation Mincemeat (2021)
One of the most exciting and consequential covert operations in WWII history.
Operation Mincemeat is not an animation, but a straightforward, almost romantic depiction of a WWII covert operation, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, that began the downfall of Adolph Hitler. Churchill, having chased Rommel from N. Africa, now could pick Sicily or Greece to invade, and the Germans were fooled into thinking it would be Greece. By the way, that little plot saved tens of thousands of lives along the way.
While bombs and intrigues are war's reality, this enjoyable Netflix docudrama is all about deception, mainly the Allies deceiving, through the use of a dead body, the Nazis into thinking they were invading Europe through Greece. The "hidden war" is the clandestine actions of a small British unit dedicated to the biggest case of fake news in WWII.
Operation Mincemeat, by virtue of its name, could have appeared silly to serious Nazi operatives, but it did fool them. The film avoids the German point of view while it concentrates on the challenges of faking a real body, stashing real documents on him that wouldn't decay in sea water, and dropping him in a place where it would be easily found.
These intriguing choices are equaled by the challenges facing the Brits such as who in the chain of command should know about Operation Mincemeat, besides Churchill, figuring that spies are working among them. Perhaps just as domestically dangerous is the triangle developing between top dog, Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth), and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), and new recruit, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). That soap opera bogs the film down when so many nuts and bolts of such a delicate operation could be attended to. Yet, war exists on all levels, even the personal.
Along the way, one narrator, Ian Fleming (a jaunty Johnny Flynn), has some pre-James Bond wry comments about the proceedings. He does presage Bond by calling two fellow conspirators "Q" and "M." He is one of several writers to mine the heroics for his fiction. A nice touch for those of us who revere Fleming and Bond.
Operation Mincemeat is a detailed exposition of one of history's greatest deceptions. A quiet Netflix night with cognac and chips is just the ticket to marvel at the ingenuity of the Brits and their gambling Prime Minister. Add a super cast, spot-on writing, and a director who has depicted romance and deception and you will have your own victory at home.
Petite maman (2021)
Warm mother-daughter tale brilliantly told.
Fairy tales do come true, or so Disney would have us believe. The French, as in writer/director Celine Sciamma's Petite Maman, make a whimsical tale come true by using a technique Walt would have appreciated, magical realism.
When an eight-year-old girl, Nelly (Josephine Sanz), meets her eight-year-old mother, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), not only do they make you believe, but they also give dignity to a deeply-embedded longing we have to know our parents when they were our age.
This all-too-brief 72 min fantasy reaches an imaginative high whereby the soft and precise longings of a bright adolescent girl to hold onto her mother take place in the traditional forest of fairy tales. Mom had built a hut here long ago and now emerges to greet her daughter, same age 8. They bond immediately, laugh girlie silly, and generally devour their friendship.
As in fairy tales and life itself, the romance must end, especially since mom's operation on her leg is imminent, evidenced by her using her cane. Although the timing of the events is not always linear, Sciamma has made it clear she is not interested in accuracy but rather in the honesty of the emotions and the arc of the characters.
While Sciamma crafted a far more popular, potboiling Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is like its title, a minimalist ode to the challenges of longing inherent in the mother-daughter romance. There will never be enough time, and no one will be able to know completely the most important person in their lives. Yet, Sciamma shows that small moments loom large in the memory, as when Nelly feeds mom cheese puffs from the back of the car, while Marion is driving. It's a ritual that binds.
The Sanz twins (they call themselves "sisters born on the same day) are like fantasy actors, smart but not overbearing, never too cute but abnormally insightful. They deliver the emotional heart of this low-key film that posits a child may fantastically come to know a mother as a real person. Petite Maman is a lyrical song to mother and daughters, who never know their mothers well enough until a brilliant filmmaker shows them how.
The best fantasy this year, the best mother-daughter tale ever.