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Monos (2019)
It's rough in the jungle. Just ask Lord of the Flies and now Manos.
15 October 2019
"The horror! The horror!" Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Alejandro Landes' Monos is a small stretch for a gifted writer/director who has grown up on the tour-de-force classics about jungle mayhem and survival such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now; Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God; and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Sprinkle these with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Landes is ready to display the darkest human tendencies in a jungle backdrop that cares not for civilized niceties.

The Monos are a band of eight teen and younger soldiers in the forest of Colombia doing the bidding of an unknown "Organization" and devolving into anarchy because mature leadership is in short supply. It's a nightmare peopled by out of control young people, most not nice at all.

With guerillas' names like Wolf, Dog, Rambo, Boom Boom, Bigfoot, Swede, Smurf, and Lady, no guessing is needed to feel the allegorical pull, especially with the highly figurative Lord of the Flies as an influence. The rebels are figuratively role playing, and while their names aren't always indicative of their actions, Landes' success defining the different roles is notable given how little time is allotted to all but Rambo and Bigfoot.

With an unknown cause and secret overlords somewhere else, the young folk appear to have established order, the opening montage showing a degree of fitness training heretofore unknown in the civilized world. Yet appearances belie the chaos that will ensue. The presence of an American physician prisoner, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), does little to mitigate the severe hormonal and emotional imbalances among the young folk.

Nor does the conscripted cow civilize them-it symbolically might offer some gentle milk drinking and provide softening for the hardened rebels. Not so. The mostly set pieces (there is little plot to give coherence and order to the disarray) serve to show the random lives without discernible purpose other than to survive and maybe along the way help an unknown cause. Although Doctora's multiple attempts to escape provide a hint of plot, they are actually weak at furthering the story.

Arguably the best jungle story is Aquirre, where conquistadores carry a Madonna statue down an Andean mountain only to find the devil in the natives. Director Herzog manages to include some dark humor, any humor being absent in the bleak Monos, which is no Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos craft an unnerving tale of anarchy, aided by the unsettling score of Mica Levi. Jasper Wolf's cinematography is lurid and claustrophobic, green and menacing, beautiful and dangerous.

Despite the discursive story, Monos is one of the best recent survival films. It's an effective cautionary tale supporting the need for adult supervision.

"The jungle is alive. It's dangerous as a living nightmare and brimful of hostility." Sarah Sheridan
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Learn about punks and its challenges. An informative doc and entertaining.
8 October 2019
"To me, punk rock is the freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are. It's freedom." Patti Smith

For anyone who knows my interest in classical music and tuneful pop, that I know virtually nothing about punk rock is no surprise. Moreover, I was a productive adult in those 80's but oblivious to the power and eccentricity of a music that made, and still does, an impact on our culture, like rap.

In Desolation Center, director Stuart Swezey surveys the punk scene with truncated performances in desert, city, and waterside, allowing for a variety and oddity of spectacle, from blasting guns to blazing fires, and all about the romance of rebellion. To say I knew not one song is to belabor the point that performance shows were as much the point as original, sometimes inscrutable, music.

It seems just short of odd to me that I know the names of the punk groups and not their songs: Minuteman, Savage Republic, Einstruzende Neubauten, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, et al. It's the opera of the scene more than the music, from my limited experience.

The original footage of the events and the bands alone make this documentary worth seeing. The excessive talking heads, oh well, keep us from more music.

This has been a most entertaining year with docs like Linda Ronstadt: the sound of my voice and docudramas like Rocket Man. Desolation Center introduces rubes like me to more music, creativity, and cacophony than I ever could have known on my own. For the music obsessed, see this to round out your obsession; for those like me interested in the history of music, this is required listening no matter how challenging the sound might be.
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Joker (I) (2019)
Oscar potential for actor and movie.
7 October 2019
"I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it's a comedy." Arthur Fleck aka Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) "Joker" has many faces, the two most prominent are tragedy and comedy. The tragedy is played amid murders and childhood abuse. The comedy comes intermittently, mostly as an accompaniment to the tragedy. Both modes amply identify Arthur Fleck, aka Joker, as a misfit and psycho, for whom only murder can make him feel alive.

With the exception of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, no better psychological study has come by than with Joaquin Phoenix as the troubled enemy of Batman. He may win the best-acting Oscar unless a more riveting anti-hero emerges before the end of the year.

Besides Taxi Driver, another Scorsese influence shows Robert De Niro as Murray Franklin, a talk show host, who befriends Joker, a failed stand-up comedian. As in The King of Comedy, where De Niro's Rupert Pupkin pursues comedian Jerry Lewis, Joker "befriends" De Niro as talk-show host. Both films are aces at showing a character on the fringe of society, in Joker's case a nut job from neglect as an orphan, who kills Bruce Wayne's parents and his own mother.

To see Arthur, evolve into Joker is to watch a master actor take a nerdy a-social kid to a serial killer, a fitting antagonist for Bruce Wayne, who saw Arthur murder his parents.

Beyond the physical mutation of losing a Christian Bale-like fifty pounds, Phoenix consistently uses tics and laughs to emphasize how out of the center he is. The laughing condition, occurring randomly, is an apt metaphor for his inability to tell a joke or to fit normally in society. "I just don't want to feel so bad anymore," Arthur whispers. It's hard to imagine he could ever feel well given he takes five different medications.

As Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger showed, the joker character holds multitudes within his persona, enough for more than two hours of any film. Todd Philips directs an origin story about a psychopathic murderer who devolves along with the society he hates: "Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?" Arthur

Do see one of the best performances of a male actor this year, but don't take the kids.
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Unless it's a satire, it's just silly stuff.
1 October 2019
"All these years I've kept my secrets, but the time has come to face my past. And if they come looking for me, they will welcome death. I want revenge. I want them to know that death is coming. And there's nothing they can do to stop it." John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)

After listening to that trite speech, not much more need to be known that Rambo: Last Blood is formulaic revenge stuff. It even has pretentious language now and then and violence worthy of a Vietnam vet with PTSD, a Green Beret with otherworldly destructive skills.

That Rambo from decades ago is now 74 years old and retired to an Arizona ranch, but not without challenges. His adoptive college-bound niece Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) takes off for Mexico to find loser dad. Immediately abducted by sex traffickers, she needs a hero uncle to cross the border and good taste to save her.

Not quite his old self, John allows himself to be cornered by too many bad hombres early on, get brutally beaten, and then prepares his compound for the villains to come for him. The booby traps are impressive, including virtuoso bow and arrow strategy, even if the bad boys are clueless about Rambo's potential for mayhem.

Not much makes sense here, except for Stallone's urge to stretch out another franchise but with far less nuance that in Rocky, for instance. It's not that Stallone is too old to leave the ranch; it's just that the screenplay does not allow for subtlety or smarts, even given Stallone's 165 IQ. Perhaps it's a satire? If so, I feel better although it's not obviously humorous.

When dozens of hombres descend on John's ranch, the initial blasts should have warned them that John plays for keeps. No, they are so dumb they follow him into tunnels that beg for rigging. However, they are the rapists and murderers the president identified as Mexican immigrants. Mexicans are all we see of the thugs. Even Liam Neeson's Taken has more diversity and smarter action.

Rambo: Last Blood should be that last of this sub-B thriller franchise, yet the hero's wistful look on his porch as the last shot bodes disappointingly to more mayhem. But not to Oscar.
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Judy (II) (2019)
Zellweger is Oscar-worthy, the film not so much.
24 September 2019
"I used to listen to Judy Garland all the time - I love Judy Garland and her music. But I started to realize that if you keep singing like that, singing songs of being victimized by love over and over and over again, it can't help but have a profound effect on your life." Diane Keaton

"Judy" is the saddest movie of the year, and a top contender for all time. The last year of Judy Garland's (Renee Zellweger) life before she overdosed on drugs are depicted with a surgeon's accuracy, and the days are counted in despair over her addictions and most of all the separation from her children. Nothing much is pretty, and most is desperate.

Not that I expect the docudrama should be a musical; it should at least be entertaining even in a dark way. To see this iconic entertainer holding a formidable place in the hearts of everyone who has been moved by the whimsy and hope of The Wizard of Oz is to get too much despair after almost two relentless hours of depression.

There is no wizard here, just Louis B. Mayer plying Judy with rhetoric and pills to keep her going through the many pictures she would do after her Oz triumph. She continues getting artificial help long after as she performs not for pleasure but to make enough to keep her children, ironically forcing her at the end to London, that adoring town, but without her kids.

The drama is punctuated by songs, sung expertly by Zellweger, and by her Oscar-worthy performance. But, of course, her voice is not Garland's, nor is anyone's. However, without the insight into her talent and formative years, it's just a gifted Renee imitating the tics of a diva diving to her death at 47.

Thank goodness for a subplot involving two gay fans and their evening with her. It's endearing and the best way to show how she impacted those on the margins of society. The final scene when she sings Rainbow involves the gay duo and is hokey but effectively sentimental and lyrical like the song itself.

Because most of us have grown used to idolizing Judy Garland, the film has a special mandate to show the formation of her formidable career and not just her desperate denouement so that we can enjoy her and understand her better. I propose the next Judy pic be a docudrama about the first half of her life. Now that would be only partially sad.

"I think without a doubt there will never be a voice like Judy Garland." Mickey Rooney
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Ad Astra (2019)
Coppola did it on earth with Apocalypse Now. This is a worthy successor.
20 September 2019
"In the end the son suffers the sins of the father." Roy McBride (Brad Pitt)

Astronaut Roy McBride may be traveling to Neptune in the near future to confront his scientist dad's (Tommy Lee Jones) Lima Project that may have gone rogue and may be causing serious disruptions around the solar system. Yet, it is only too clear that Roy's Heart of Darkness (Pitt as Sheen's Willard and Jones as Brando's Col. Kurtz) journey is to come to terms with his dad. Dr. Freud and Greek dramatists would agree.

While this may seem like a heavy psychological drama, it turns out to be exciting as any odyssey (they encounter dune-buggy racing pirates and carnivorous baboons) and as poignant as any thriller (how will the two react to each other after 29 years?). Director and co-author James Grey keeps the focus on McBride, whose cool (his pulse never rises above 80) keeps the film from being an exploitive space/horror B film.

The idea of searching for a parent is blended well with the simple need to save the earth from dangerous anti-matter activity on Neptune. In that way Ad Astra fulfills a sci-fi need as several have given us in the last few years like Mars, Gravity, and Interstellar. As Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury taught us, the adventure is discovering ourselves and releasing our parents from their hold on us.

Ad Astra does that and gives us another out-of-this world performance this year by Brad Pitt. As charming as he was in Once Upon a Time this summer, here he chucks the charm to underact as an antidote to the hyper velocity of the plot. Pitt is due an Oscar nomination one of these days.

"I always wanted to be an astronaut, for the future of mankind and all." Roy McBride
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Downton Abbey (2019)
Downstairs and upstairs gleefully join forces to greet the visiting royals.
19 September 2019
For the dramedy Downton Abbey, set in 1920's Yorkshire, let me settle the question most often asked: Do you need to have seen the wildly popular TV show of the same name and origin to enjoy the film? No. It stands alone as an entertaining visit to an estate that contains the changes coming in a robustly interesting time between world wars.

The Crawleys and their relatives own Downton while the servants run it. The conflicts between the upstairs and downstairs are few, and the respect is rampant. The underclass is blissfully devoted to the aristocrats, while the blue bloods subtly realize how much they need the blue collars. The concurrent subplots pile up in a bewildering number, to the extent you might long for a commercial break to take a breath.

Especially as the visit from the royals is imminent. King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will descend for one night bringing their staff with them. Of the many struggles featured in this jam-packed character drama, the workers must stifle their humiliation that they will not be serving the royals; a parallel group of intruder commoners, who travel with the royals, will replace Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore, and Mrs. Hughes, and the rest of the domestics. How the Downton staff manages to serve the royals anyway forms a delightful pageant of deceit and tomfoolery, lightly emphasizing their playfulness and the lack thereof in the aristocrats.

Like the countless rooms in the abbey, the intrigues are many, but to the credit of director Michael Engler (he knows complicating circumstances from directing Sex and the City), each one is clearly etched and each character amply defined (at least for the large size of the cast). Fans of the TV series will delight in seeing once again the dowager countess Violet (Maggie Smith) deliver her usual barbed comments to anyone who will listen.

When a minor relative, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), becomes involved with a maid, Lucy (Tuppence Middleton), to a royal lady-in-waiting, Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the connection is complicated but genuine, actually breathing honesty while it waits for an ingenious circumstance to make the romance right.

Change is in the air as the footman-become-butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier), is revealed to be gay, experiencing the wrath that England had for such unworthy targets years ago as Oscar Wilde. However, the film suggests Britain is slowly on its way to justice just as the working class is on its way to equality.

Yet as the film so rightly shows, the aristocrats will try to hold out in the face of the winds of change. Happily for us, as we enjoy the waning days of monarchy and a bit of anarchy-a fine mix for entertainment and modernism, both to become major cultural players in the latter half of that century right to our own new century. Although inequality exists, it has a very short life to go.
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Perfect doc for a perfect singer.
17 September 2019
"I had a galvanised voice: I could sing through a 105 fever or a flu or a root canal or anything that you could throw at me." Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is a perfect documentary about a rock star: It's not the confessional like David Crosby: Remember My Name, not fanciful about Bruce Springsteen in Blinded by the Light, nor romantic like the Beatles' almost-tribute Yesterday.

It is authentic about the titular gifted lady, who could step into any genre easily, and who could win the audience's heart without falsification.

To hear her sing Different Drum is to be hurtled back to the '60's and '70's when a good folk-rock song could make you believe that women were empowered: "All I'm saying is I'm not ready/For any person, place, or thing to try and pull the reins in on me-e-e-e-e." When you see her, Dolly, and Emmy sing together, you want more, and you forget how tough it was to break through the male-dominated rock scene.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman deftly guide the audience through the small lives of friends as well as the big musical moments that define Linda's life. As she guides herself through light opera and Mexican music, we can't help but be further curious while respecting her we'll-earned privacy. That the Mexican album sold the most for Spanish-speaking albums in history is testament to her ability to do well whatever she wanted to do.

This doc is exemplary for giving some lengthy time watching Linda sing as well as just right for the biographical information and talking-head commentary. Her acceptance of Parkinson's disease later in life is another testament to a woman of courage. In fact, there are more achieving women in this doc than in Wonder Woman.

"I miss singing every day. I can't sing anymore. My voice doesn't work. I have Parkinson's disease, and it sometimes takes my words away from me." Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is all you need to know about her and her music. Enjoy.
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It's an entertaining, humorous, and poignant race.
16 September 2019
"Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint." Angela Duckworth

As self-empowerment sagas, Brittany Runs a Marathon is near the head of the line: Brittany (Jillian Bell) starts out thinking of improvement to her body, her love life, and her ambition. It's a heavy load, and Bell, together with writer/director Paul Downs Colalzzo, is up to the task of being overweight and diffident with a cache of one liners and overall sense of humor to make up for her flaws and endear herself to just about anyone else, especially us.

The film is adept at not ramming through the big transformation, which in inevitable, a part of the formula for these comedies with overweight and hung-up ladies of considerable charm and talent. The film allows Brittany to proceed at her own pace, signified by the slow release of 35 pounds and a will to improve. (Let's hear it for her bodysuit.) The virtue here is allowing her to stumble and get up again with a quiet sense of humor rarely seen in a comedy/drama.

As in life, the transformation is slow and fraught with setbacks; yet we can at that pace better experience her real-life struggles as they are entertaining and occasionally eccentric. When she comes to redemption, she's like a family member we desperately want to succeed. The big success will be the NYC Marathon, where she and 50,000 others will mostly hope just to finish.

Likewise, Brittany hopes to finish her exercise initiative without a fanfare her friends promote. Like most of us, she just wants to get it over with (both the race and the regimen). Brittany is an everyman/woman with dreams that just don't come easily.

The beauty of this comedy/drama is the lack of big payoff in any endeavor, especially NYC, where so many compete on so many levels. Brittany is a solid citizen with a sense of humor that she loses mostly in the serious part of her adventure toward the end, even though I can't correlate this attitude with my experience, in which many overweight friends don't lose that sense of humor even in the most downbeat circumstances.

Just run along with her and enjoy her humor and mood swings and her engaging set of friends, most of whom have learned how to race life's marathon.
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Unforgettable doc about an unforgettable rocker.
10 September 2019
"We don't take show business or the spotlight seriously." David Crosby

David Crosby: Remember My Name is a formidable doc about an unforgettable rocker, he of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from the late '60's and early '70's fame right up to a current tour of six concerts, through which A.J. Eaton directs our attention to his life.

It doesn't hurt one bit to have Cameron Crowe produce, he of music- criticism and Crosby-expert fame. Be careful, do not expect the buffet of songs such as in the recent Rocketman, Yesterday, or Blinded by the Light. Although snippets of glories like Teach the Children Well appear, this is Crosby's story as he reacts to the past and the present, not playing a concert for us.

Thankfully so, for he is honest about this musical success and the failures in equal number from responsibility for splitting the band up to drug-dependency that leads him to incarceration. That he recovers to the point of playing this tour and displaying an ardent love for wife, Jan, as well as being clean, is testimony to why this is such an absorbing doc, with all the failures illuminating his strength of will and enduring talent.

Eaton makes the story fluid, even with many flash backs, no doubt having learned from Crowe how to jockey headstrong rock stars into approachable cinema stars. The dominance of Crosby's narration in this doc makes the story believable, indeed almost uncontested truth. When Crosby confesses his responsibility for causing turmoil in the band's history, he is believable and dramatically compelling. When he tosses off the possibility of his making up some of the narrative, such fiction doesn't seem believable while it also rings true. Cinema verité marries fiction.

Nevertheless, no one can forget the confessions of this great rocker after seeing one of the best docs in recent times.
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Almost 3 hours of horror and allegory: challenging and entertaining.
8 September 2019
"For 27 years, I dreamt of you. I craved you... I've missed you!" Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard)

It Chapter Two, set in quaint and vulnerable Derry, Maine, is one crowded horror film. And that's saying something as it is the sequel to the already revered It by Stephen King. It has enough horror tropes such as jump scares, surprises, and toothy, reptilian monsters to keep the almost three hours humming.

However, enough is enough. After twenty-seven years from their introduction to the scary Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the Losers Club must return to face the horrific clown, and they hope, destroy It. Fortunately screenwriter Gary Dauberman and director Andy Muschietti include enough allegorical heft to keep this horror rampage from being just a visually hot mess.

That the club must individually shed its fears and weaknesses to defeat the clown is both a strength and a weakness: strong because allegorically we all have to do this purging to be mentally healthy, and weak because isolating the club members weakens understanding of their development relative to each other and their consuming past. In other words, they are better at self-reflection facing each other, and therefore their past, than going it alone.

Only too obvious is the film's attempt to show how some memories, not always favored ones, linger for decades, powerful enough to draw the initial gang back to end the reign of the ghoulish clown. At various times a magnificent seven of them crowd the screen with their long-suffering hang ups such as cowardice and guilt, all in need of purgation.

King's Carrie and Pet Sematary, two of my favs, are careful to keep the protagonists to a minimum whereas It Chapter Two weighs It down with minimal but provocative leitmotifs, e.g., Beverly's (Jessica Chastain) abusive father or Bill's (James McAvoy) relationship with his deceased brother. Any one of these concepts could be fleshed out at the expense of more trifling ones.

As in many action films, even with super heroes, the now commonplace theme of being who you are with courage gets overused as it does here. Compounding the sense of having seen it before are numerous monstrous visions, with sharp teeth and tentacled arms and legs for just a few of the stock monsters. Granted these are all manifestations of Pennywise's ability to shape shift and the writers to locate character flaws in the characters.

It Chapter Two may suffer from trying too much, but, hey, that's better than not at all. For Steven King devotees, this is nectar; for the rest, this is a long fun-house ride with allegory supplying the fuel. Of course, IT reminds that keeping and nurturing friendships is the surest way to send out the clowns.
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Ready or Not (I) (2019)
One of the best horror flicks of the year. And funny.
4 September 2019
"Till death do us part."

I could have avoided one of my failed marriage if I had never married into her family in the first place. However, at that time, I never thought to look at the family to see the warning signs.

In Ready or Not, young Grace (Samara Weaving) is ready to marry Alex (Mark O'Brien) not knowing the La Domas family, although their being super wealthy from board games might help her over the ignorance. As they are scheduled to play an initiation game of Hide and Seek for her, it becomes clear it's deadly enough to demand her life before dawn or they all die.

Elements of Get Out, Clue, and Rosemary's Baby help make Ready or Not one of the best horror movies of the year with a little scare for everyone. If an audience is interested in blood and surprise, with a slight bit of the supernatural, then this macabre fest is for them.

If, however, like me, an audience looks for social and cultural commentary in addition to the scares, then this nervous experience more than fulfills that requirement. The film shows two ways a bride should be on alert: 1. Wealth has a way of making the wealthy unpredictable, self-centered, and wicked. 2. Why a fiancé has estranged himself from his family is an important piece of information that may save a bride's life.

The usual jump-scare tropes and malicious surprises make Ready or Not a delight for the normal horror fan. The cautionary-tale about knowing thy fiancé's family is universally true here. The over-the-top gore that induces laughs makes this film a joy to any filmgoer who can suspend disbelief and love this genre for its ability to teach about life's ironies and dark sides.
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Intriguing and perplexing, this doc is satisfying for those who want more intelligence from this genre.
3 September 2019
"I believe that we should die with decency so that at least decency will survive." Dag Hammarskjold

In 1961 the secretary general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, died in a plane crash on his way to negotiate peace for a nation torn apart by apartheid. Director Mads Brugger and co-investigator Goran Bjorkdahl in Cold Case Hammarskjold craft a fascinating documentary about that crazy world in which not only does he seem to prove a plot to kill Hammarskjold, he also suggests a military group, SAIMR, is responsible for spread of HIV as a way of eradicating blacks in Africa.

"Only the subject remains noble with this gallery of suspects: It is playing safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity." Dag Hammarskjold

This undeniably interesting doc seems to suggest rightly some of the blame for the death, but the virus motif was as recently as July debunked in part by the New York Times. At least the Times has scientifically cast doubt on any group's ability to spread clinically the virus in a whole population.

As Brugger deftly transitions from the plane disaster to the virus, more bad actors appear, and the Hammarskjold murder takes a back seat, albeit the death can be seen as a strategy to take out a major player in the anti-apartheid movement. Although the motives and characters seem to multiply dazzlingly, Brugger knows how to spin the facts into engaging drama.

See this challenging doc to bone up on your African history and gain some insight into how organizations like the CIA and SAIMR operate and get away with murder. Although Angel Has Fallen beats Cold Case cold in the box office races, it can't get close to beating a doc that keeps you guessing and sometimes really leaves you cold.

"Life only demands from you the strength that you possess. Only one feat is possible; not to run away." Dag Hammarskjold
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Luce (2019)
Entertaining and challenging drama, never dull.
2 September 2019
"Luce" will not give as much light as the titular character's name promises. What it does offer is a kaleidoscopic view of racism, sexism, and more than those, adult expectations for excellence in offspring that can't be met in a real world.

The film is brimming with questions about the true character of adopted and gifted son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr), or is he just a meeting ground for the wishes of his adoptive parents (Amy-Naomi Watts, Peter-Tim Roth), his teacher/accuser Harriet (Octavia Spencer), and friends and others who expect him to be the perfection of their expectations for him as an achieving minority.

Director Julius Onah, together with original playwright J.C. Lee, guides the audience through a cultural maze out of which the film really doesn't fully emerge. Besides trying to determine if this exemplary senior, Luce, is an early terrorist or the model of a student, did he do some serious stuff for which he has eluded punishment.

Harriet, however, is the avenging angel, ready to indict blacks and females in order, maybe, to toughen them up for the prejudice they will face after graduation. No answers to these vexing questions, just many possibilities and ambiguities as in life itself, especially involving those gifted enough to stand out and stand judged more harshly than those not as lucky.

This challenging film often seems like a play, as it should coming from one. The emphasis is on words trying to parse the meaning of so many conflicting cultural signals such as the place of minorities in white, not always liberal, enclaves. Additionally, is someone like Luce imprisoned by the dreams of his parents and teachers?

As for the thriller aspects of this drama, whether or not Luce is a good boy haunts the narrative in a most delightful, albeit subtle way. My kind of ambiguous film with lots to think about.
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Jawline (2019)
Learn about teens, tweens, and social media in this expert doc.
27 August 2019
"I'm my own boss, my own editor, my own shooter, my own writer, everything. This is all stuff I learned through trial and error... failing at a lot of things has taught me how to succeed at them eventually... you roll with the punches." Lily Singh, influencer

It doesn't take much to be cynical about the instant fame of broadcast influencers like the protagonist of the powerful, perceptive, and sometimes depressing documentary Jawline, directed with insight and care by Liz Mandelup. Austin Tester, a 16-year-old Tennessee social media personality, is struggling to keep the thousands of fans who connect with him online.

In the four or so years chronicled by this objective and compassionate doc, Austin goes from the high of being recognized and rushed by scores of teens and tweens whenever he appears in public to scrounging for "likes."

Handsome he is, not as articulate or charismatic as my friend Derek, whose fans get more wit than they deserve. D has got talent.

While Austyn seems to decline in hits and energy as well as high school credit, he stays dedicated to his craft of expressing positivity, as his manager, barely older, demands he do all the time. Hovering around is the distant smell of failure, if not now but inevitably, for the competition is just as fierce as in entertainment in general, and Austyn is just not that talented.

Making it here and anywhere is not a given. For Sinatra it always was, but that was a talent given by the gods.

See Jawline if you want to experience teen passion in an audience that similarly adored Frank. If like me you can stand only so many wasteful words like "like," then start your own YouTube channel and see how few "like" you. It's rough out there.
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Some good filmmaking in the midst of unremitting thriller formula.
27 August 2019
"It is our moments of struggle, that define us." President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman)

Angel Has Fallen, since 2013 the third in the Fallen franchise starring Gerard Butler, is 2 hours of thriller clichés and stereotypes that manage to be entertaining and occasionally profound (See the opening quote). I liked it as I aman ardent fan of the genre, not as a discerning critic.

Saving the president is what Mike Banning (Butler) does, enlisting POTUS to save him when needed but always, as a secret service agent, protecting him more than himself. When the black SUV's and savage drums roll, I know the might of the US is on the move or that it is endangered.

Besides the considerable charm of Butler's everyman persona, I was pleased to see him suffering the aches and pains he deserved for all the combat calisthenics he has endured. I was pleased to see director and co-writer Ric Roman Waugh keep the inevitable home stress to a minimum, not emphasizing the grief and suffering of Mike's wife, Leah (Piper Perabo), in the usual thriller fashion.

The attempt to assassinate the president with a drone attack was as good a set piece as you will see in any film of this genre. The little attackers are tough to stop and capable of sending bombs that remind me of the napalm strafing in Apocalypse Now.

You do not go to these thrillers for intellectual stimulation or aesthetic satisfaction. You just go with a buddy to give you mind a vacation and see how well Americans do with remarkable CGI and stunning cinematography, Sometimes that's enough.
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The Nightingale (I) (2018)
Darkly beautiful bordering on horror.
26 August 2019
You may think Carrie the most harrowing revenge film or Kill Bill, The Revenant, Thelma and Louise or scores of other get-back films, but none is as thematically layered as The Nightingale. But then, writer-director Jennifer Kent's sophomore gothic effort has The Babadook for its predecessor, a detailed and layered thriller whose terror is more of the mind than this visceral revenge.

In 1825 Tasmania, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) witnesses the deaths of her husband and baby at the hands of a rapist officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his henchmen. With the help of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), Clare goes after the murderers. As a heroine, she towers over Wonder Woman for grit and patience.

The raping done throughout represents a reality of the brutal British colonialism and a signal of women's helplessness under nothing less than tyranny. Kent does not back away from the painful acts, which are necessary to damn the British and the men.

Put racism and genocide in that mix, and the revenge can be acceptable, welcome, but in the end ungratifying. What alleviates the grim circumstance is Franciosi's Oscar-worthy performance, no Thelma-Louise glamor, jus raw and tender as you would expect her character, a former inmate who has faced unrelenting discrimination and virtual slavery.

As buddy films go, this is one of a kind where fondness grows slowly, after a long bout of white dominating black; romance is a long way away if ever. Both refugees have purposes that do cross at one point, but otherwise The Nightingale has a hint of screwball comedy, only a hint. However, the common cause Clare and Billy find is a long time coming.

Besides coming down hard on colonialism, The Nightingale is just as unrelenting about racism and sexism. The murders of indigenous males and females is as unremitting as the rapes, both so common that they lose power in the repetition. If that sounds a bit too much, Kent and the actors make you a believer in the ability of a work of art to highlight major mankind sins.

The Nightingale is a first-rate revenge thriller that manages to keep you engaged and sympathetic through expert writing, directing, and acting, with perfectly attuned cinematography. Stop along the way to enjoy Radek Ladczuk's cinematography as it emphasizes the lovely landscape and the brutality.

Ultimately, you may agree we have one of the best movies of the year and a top contender for best revenge film of all time.
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This is an expertly and darkly real doc.
23 August 2019
"As a bookish child, I would come to see the one-child policy as one of the most fascinating and bizarre things about the land of my ancestors, equal parts Aldous Huxley and King Herod." Mei Fong, One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment

Hearing about China's 1979 one-child policy, lasting 35 years, is one thing. Listening to Asians who lived through it is another. The logic of administrators, some of whom who appear in Nanfu Wang's informative and touching documentary, One Child Nation, almost make sense.

Then you realize who is abandoned and who abducted, mostly girls, and you grimace for them and the families who were torn apart by the rule. Assuredly the females had to go first when authorities discovered families with more than one child because the Asian tradition had always favored males.

Wang having been given a man's name (Nanfu translates into "man" and pillar") shows a deft hand at directing without preaching. She does what I find lacking in too many docs-the other side. Those supporting a one-child policy appear frequently praising it as the salvation of a billion people who would have starved or resorted to cannibalism without the population restraint.

The devastating effects cannot be hidden: babies left in baskets, twins separated forever, human trafficking on a grand scale are just a few of the disorders. Propaganda is always there to reinforce the state's message. Wang presents it all, both good and bad.

But like our dark slavery past or Nazi cleansing, heinous plans to control population never seem to survive. The trail, however, is bloody and harrowing.

Wang has expertly balanced between a depressing subject and an important history lesson: "Don't fool with Mother Nature."
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An entertaining spin on Huck FInn set in contemporary Outer Banks.
21 August 2019
"Friends are the family you choose." Tyler (Shia LeBeouf)

The Peanut Butter Falcon is about as odd and endearing as the title, which refers to the alter ego of Zak (Zack Gottsagen). His dream of being a pro wrestler like The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Hayden Church) is hampered by the fact that Zak is a down-syndrome lad escaping from a nursing home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Lucky for him to meet Tyler (think Matthew McConaughey in Mud, but less flamboyant), who is himself on the run. As might be expected for those who are familiar with Hick Finn, the two encounter disreputable good old boys and caring ladies while Zak learns how to survive and maybe fulfill his dream.

Here is an odyssey that doesn't pander to notions of romance and rehabilitation; rather it gently shows the sweet and sour of life that Tyler can give to Zak with mixed results.

With the exception of John Hawkes playing his usual lean and mean redneck, the cast is unusually without stereotype. Church's Clint/Salt Water is especially right for a former wrestler given to kindness. In fact, the film is best exemplified by the opening quote to this review: the search for family is even more important than a lifelong obsession with becoming a pro wrestler. With the emergence of do-gooder Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), family becomes more possible than finding that Florida wrestling camp.

"This is not 'Lord of the Flies.' There's rules. There's regulations!" Eleanor (Dakota Johnson)
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A superior doc like its superior broadcaster.
17 August 2019
"That's not an interview, that's a lecture!" Mike Wallace analyzing a Bill-O'Reilly interview as they watch a tape of it together.

Mike Wallace's entrance into a room would be announced as if he were a rock star; and indeed, he was one as a hard-boiled broadcast journalist, as well known as some of the well-known figures he toughly interviewed like Salvatore Dali, Betty Davis, and Vladimir Putin, to name only a few. He set the standard in the twentieth century for asking the questions others were afraid to ask.

Although the informative and entertaining Mike Wallace is Here could be judged a puff-piece of celebration, like its subject, the documentary regularly looks at the underside: for a high-profile interview, it was discovered a producer had provided him with most of the questions; during a severe bout of depression, he tried suicide; Morley Safer called him a "prick" at his interview with Wallace; and much more.

This documentary does a credible job of taking us through his early years as a pitchman for Parliament Cigarettes and other commercials that eventually prepared him for serious broadcasting, most of its groundbreaking honesty married to savvy production, to the point that 60 Minutes became the most-watched news magazine in the world. When he asked Larry King why he had a reputation as a patsy, no one should have been surprised at Wallace's candor. That's who he was.

Sometimes this uncompromising doc has moments of soap-opera sentimentality as when star Wallace disagrees with his legendary producer and CBS about not publishing their candid interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco whistleblower. Hero Wallace refuses to buy into the network's caving into fear of litigation.

If you are looking for a contemporary hero with Greek-tragic properties, then see this expertly-edited song of praise for a broadcaster who deserves his place next to Walter Cronkite for integrity and charisma.
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Not a standard horror film, it has seriously-satisfying thrills.
14 August 2019
"Survival can be summed up in three words - never give up. That's the heart of it really. Just keep trying." Bear Grylls, explorer

I would have given all I owned to spend as much time with one of my daughters as Dad (Casey Affleck) does with his daughter, Rag (Anna Pniowsky), dressed like a boy, on the run from a disease that strikes only females. In Light of My Life, they roam the grey Okanaga Valley of British Columbia seeking refuge as much from bands of men looking for uninfected girls as from the plague itself.

If you can endure the overly-long opening story dad lovingly tells daughter, the almost two hours will fly by as the protagonists combat daunting obstacles.

The thoughts of the decimation of the female population are horror-film good enough for the imagination, so minimalist writer/director Affleck spares us the usual terrible tropes to concentrate on the loving relationship. As he does in his Oscar-winning acting, Affleck concentrates on the slow-burning details.

That Affleck himself faced possible Oscar-negating accusations of sexual harassment makes his holy father here even more interesting than, say, Ben Foster's father character in Leave No Trace.

Survival is the operating action here, mainly slipping out of windows as men storm the house or tent. Father and daughter are adept at escape, leaving only that motif for tension, whereas if they fought with each other (a pre-teen and her dad holds multiple possibilities) there might be more interesting conflict.

As in It Comes at Night (2017), the cloaked assailants and the disease give the imagination the usual willies, but fascination with the survival of a father-daughter left to survive is the greatest conflict of all. You'll enjoy all of Affleck's indie charms and insights in a quietly effective thriller.

"To survive it is often necessary to fight and to fight you have to dirty yourself." George Orwell
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Another in the exciting musical stories inspired by a celebrated singer.
13 August 2019
"Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man/And I believe in the promised land." Bruce Springsteen

The recent memorable music films such as Yesterday, Wild Rose, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star is Born left me exhilarated but pessimistic that there could be no more competitors. Enter Blinded by the Light, adapted from Safraz Manzoor's memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, to reinforce the euphoria I continue to have about music of greats from the past set in dramatic context or original songs set to stirring stories.

Pakistani Javed (Viviek Karla) lives in small town Luton, in Thatcher's austere 1987 (the anti-immigrant National Front was prominent if you need contemporary context), a nowhere place in England miles from London that is not friendly to Pakis. He is a fledgling writer who luckily discovers Bruce Springsteen, already an irrelevant rocker for Brit teens, and his beautiful unironic music of isolation and rebellion. No one in the audience could possibly not have an affinity for music that speaks of release from boredom and suppression.

Javed, listening to tapes like Darkness at the Edge of Town and Born in the USA, identifies with having a hungry heart and being born to run. However, Paki tradition of slavish fealty to his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), keeps him from leaving to follow his dream. The film spends way too much with the conflict between controlling father and submissive son. Consequently, the Springsteen songs and the Bollywood dancing and acting out they inspire (set pieces with Born to Run, the Promised Land, and Thunder Road are outstanding) feel shortened so we can endure the constant bickering with strong-willed, directive dad.

The moments when Javed can cut loose with Bruce are among the best of the two-year buffet we have had of this sub-genre. Because the story is based on an actual experience, we can call it a biopic and rank it right alongside Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody. While Blinded is much softer than those two, Springsteen's music has such a real relationship with the world that the film connects with our everyday experience as no fantasy-filled musical story can do.

Blinded by the Light is as much about the powerful cultural impact of pop music as it is about the place of Springsteen in the collective imagination. And, it is simply a stirring story with some exceptionally-entertaining music!
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The Farewell (I) (2019)
Learn about China and about life and forget about trade wars.
5 August 2019
"Based on an actual lie." From the titles

Lulu Wang writes/directs a quietly powerful drama about a Chinese tradition of withholding disturbing news like impending death that competes with the Western tradition of openness and disclosure. The Farewell is no imitation of the frothy Crazy Rich Asians.

Gone since she was three, Billi (Awkwafina) returns to China to visit her grandma Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou), who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. However, the family refuses to tell her the grim news out of a Chinese custom to avoid that discussion. Westernized Billi believes otherwise, and the film is pervaded by the overt and subtle struggle between her desire to give grandma a chance to say goodbye and her relatives' desire to carry the emotional baggage themselves for Nai Nai.

While this may seem like a one note conflict, The Farewell is also a commentary on the strong family bonds of Asians, enviable when juxtaposed with the Western tradition of gritty individualism. For Asians, that individuals participate in the whole community is an attractive belief in times when the Western world is racked by factionalism and special interests.

Although the actors in The Farewell are not as glamorous as those in Crazy Rich Asians, their humanity and warmth are superior and their story more enriching. Whether or not to disclose a terminal condition to a sufferer touches every culture. It's just that this exceptionally entertaining and instructive treatise on family unity in China makes me even more certain that I love the Chinese despite the trade war.

Wang settles the debate-- to disclose or not to disclose--in a most satisfactory conclusion. To see The Farewell settle a thorny issue is to know you have experienced on of the best films of the year.

"You can't hide your emotions." (Billi's parents)
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Dear Comrade (2019)
Unfair to women for most of the film. Overly long.
1 August 2019
Dear Comrade is an Indian romance surrounding a headstrong comrade (one who fights for a social-justice cause, not necessarily a communist), Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda), and his paradoxically independent/ dependent love, Lilly. With touches of Bollywood's optimism, exuberant singing, and dancing, this actioner at times also could remind about West Side Story, though it lacks anything close to the nuance and artistry of that classic.

As the principals finally get together and split again, more than once, the almost three hours is fortunate to have such comely, charming actors to offset the enduring repetitions of fate. While it seems Lilly is intended to be an exemplar of the new Indian woman (she is a state cricketer, after all), who is not rushing into marriage (no sane woman would hook up with this angry cutie except in the last reel, when he, of course, is a new caring, feminist man).

Although Dear Comrade has issues like freedom of speech and rape awareness, these important themes are secondary to gang rivalry and the lovers spending too much time swooning over each other. If you're a romantic, you might enjoy this drama; if you're a realist, forget it and see Yesterday or Bohemian Rhapsody instead.
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Entertaining an educational takedown of Cambridge Analytics and Facebook. And a caution for us all.
30 July 2019
"If you run campaigns designed to undermine people's ability to make free choices and to understand what is real and not real, you are undermining democracy and treating voters in the same way as you are treating terrorists." Christopher Wylie, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower.

Don't cancel your Facebook account just yet even though The Great Hack does a credible job exposing its abuse of privacy data for each of us. This carefully thought out and smoothly presented Netflix exposition of Cambridge Analytica's effective data shenanigans during the 2016 presidential election and pre-Brexit initiative is informative and entertaining, just like a good doc should be. Harvesting information on more than 50 million Facebookers is impressive and scary.

The major player here is Brittany Kaiser, the former director of business development for Cambridge Analytics, a defunct political data outfit; she turns on the company after serious soul searching. Like many of us as well, playing with psycho data on millions of subscribers to direct them to either trump or Brexit seems beyond the pale of democratic social media that should be neutral at all times. As for Kaiser, well, she's a hired gun who worked for Clinton before Cambridge-in her I don't trust.

Although Kaiser could be held up to intense scrutiny for the Trump campaign and Brexit, her meeting with Wikileaks' Julian Assange and his subsequent disclosures about Hillary Clinton seem to damn her just as well. Yet, she is contrite here, seemingly trying to right the wrongs of the cyber terrorism Cambridge Analytics clearly fomented. Anyway, the intrigue is unusually ripe for a documentary.

Besides the narrative magnetism of Cambridge's targeted messaging and psychographic manipulating is the caution for those of us who are lucky just to be able to write a word document-watch your identity ever so carefully. Current technology can know us and our personalities with thousands of reference points just for us, some of whom are the "persuadables" who can be directed to political and social ends. The Russians are coming.
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